This week we have the first chapter from one of our favorite fantasy reads: Dancer for the Goddess by Diana Rivers, author of The Hadra Series. Purchase in paperback from Goddess Ink or Kindle on Amazon.
Chapter 1: The Temple of Kernoss
By walking past the Temple at that exact moment on that particular morning,
my life was changed forever and set irrevocably on its new course. I
had been sent out on some errand or other. Later I couldn’t even remember
what it was because I never reached my intended destination. I was very
young at the time, ten perhaps, certainly no more than eleven, just barely old
enough to be out in the streets alone. My older cousin, Renairi, the one who
should have gone instead of me, was ill. I had been allowed to go in her place with the strict understanding that I was to come straight home afterward.
Of course I’d been on that street many times before with my family,
but we’d never lingered in front of the Temple of Kernoss. My mother was
so contemptuous of the Goddess and all things holy that we always passed
by quickly, often with my mother making disparaging remarks. I knew my
father had once been head gardener at the Temple, but that was long ago,
even before my parents married. Sometimes he still spoke of it with longing
and affection. My mother had no such feelings—and in our family, my
mother held the power.
Those other times, the outer courtyard had been a bustle of activity,
crowded with celebrants there for the holy days, or merchants who had
business with the Temple. Throngs of people passed in or out of the gates,
some from the city and some from the farmlands beyond. The Temple of
Kernoss was immense, almost like a town within the city of Urshameel,
with many to be fed and clothed and much sacred business being conducted
there everyday. This time, however, it was early morning. For once,
the front courtyard of the Temple was empty.
Feeling very daring and a little frightened, I stepped through the open
gates to take a quick look into this forbidden place. I had only meant to stay
for a moment or two, but I found myself lingering there, tempted by the
beauty of the flowerbeds overflowing with spring blooms. I was also tempted
by this unexpected freedom. After glancing around to make sure no one was
watching me, I craned my neck to find the source of the waterfall that started
from some high place in the polished black stones of the Temple wall. From
there I followed with my eyes as the water fell, flashing and sparkling, into
a shallow pool where gold, red and bronze fish swam in lazy circles. Past the pond the water flowed on into little streams that meandered about and
watered the gardens. Of course, I had to stop for a little while and watch the
fish. Then, humming to myself, I had to dip my fingers in the water and run
my wet fingertips lightly over the flowers.
Drawn by curiosity, fears forgotten and responsibilities as well, I began
walking further and deeper into the courtyard. At a bend in a low, curving,
brick wall, I came upon an enormous stone statue of Great Mother, The-
Mother-of-all-Things. She was surrounded by a multitude of tiny animals
and humans made of painted clay. I sucked in my breath with delight.
Wonderfully round and full of power, Her features were almost worn away
from the touch of many hands. Awed, I stopped before Her and bowed. Then,
feeling very daring but unable to resist, I scrambled up on a bench. With
tentative fingers I stroked Her face. I wanted to pluck a flower and set it on
the altar in front of Her with all the other offerings, but Temple ways were
unfamiliar to me. I was afraid I might do something forbidden.
The courtyard was paved in dark stone with an inset of lighter stones
in the shape of a spiral. Stepping with care, I followed this spiral pathway
to its center where a small, round pool reflected the sky like an unblinking
blue eye. From that center, I looked up in wonder at the pointed archway of
black polished stones leading into the inner courtyard and the Temple itself.
My eyes were instantly captured by the symbols carved around it, each one
painted in a different bright color.
Errand long forgotten, I began moving toward the archway as if in a
trance. I was reaching out my hand, intent upon touching one of those mysterious symbols, when a sudden movement caught my attention. A young woman, far back inside the archway, was bending over to fasten her sandal.
Fascinated, I stopped to watch. Just then she stood up and swung her long
dark hair back from her face with one sweep of her arm. Sighing deeply, she
took an unconsciously graceful pose and stood looking past me into the
outer courtyard as if lost in thought.
A ray of early morning light fell on her in the darkness of the archway.
It flashed on the gold links of her necklace and lit the richness of her Dancer
costume, red and purple with a blue vest and several multi-colored sashes. In one hand she held a glass tube or wand in which brilliant colors swirled and shimmered in constantly changing patterns. With the fingers of her other
hand she absently twirled some strands of her dark hair. I stood gaping at her
with my mouth open. Her beauty took my breath away—the Goddess Herself
in earthly form. Flooded with admiration, in that instant I fell in love with
my whole heart as only someone very young can fall in love. At the same
moment the Dancer glanced down and noticed this little girl, staring at her
so openly. She turned her full attention on me.
“Have you never seen a Dancer, Child?” I blushed and stammered, “Yes, often, at festival times but always Dancing, never just standing still like a real person.”
The Dancer threw back her head and laughed. “Oh, I’m real enough.
Watch…” She did some quick intricate Dance steps ending with a slight bow
in front of me. “You see, I’m very real,” she said again, reaching out and
touching me on the wrist. “I’m a Dancer for the Goddess and I’m training
right here in this Temple.”
I trembled at her touch and went on staring up at her, my eyes wide and
unblinking. Words came tumbling thoughtlessly out of my mouth: “What’s
your name? Mine is Zaia. How old were you when you started Dancing? Can
someone my age do those steps? Are they very hard to learn?” Then I glanced away, going suddenly shy and silent.
I think the longing and intensity in my questions must have touched
her heart. It was certainly not my manners. “My name is Kendrin,” she said
with a smile. “I started when I was nine. Come, I’ll show you where the
girls your age practice. Melanthia is the Dance Mistress and she’s very strict
so we have to be quiet and not let anyone see us there.” Kendrin slipped her
wand into her sash. Then she reached out her hand and I took it without
thought or question.
Together, hand in hand, we made our way through the Temple. To my
young eyes it was a place of wonders, a vast jumble of vivid impressions. I could see now that the Temple was not just one massive black-stone building, as it appeared to be from the street but many interconnected buildings of different shapes and sizes. Kendrin led me through courtyards, gardens, archways, halls.
I could hear bells and chimes in the distance and, from another place, the swell of music. Peacocks and other brightly colored birds strolled about like walking jewels. There was a constant flow of people moving purposefully, as if to some important task. They nodded to Kendrin and looked curiously at me, but no one blocked our way or stopped us to question my presence.
Off to the side I saw a long processional walkway. It was made of colorfully
patterned tiles and lined on both sides by a row of carved columns.
Beyond that loomed a huge ceremonial chamber hung with bright tapestries.
Soon we turned from the main way and entered a series of twisting narrow
passageways. “This is a way that few outsiders ever see,” Kendrin told me.
We passed shops where weavers, carvers or potters were bent over their work. From around a corner came a loud rush of sound, much clanging and bustling and the clamor of raised voices. In passing I caught a glimpse through a wide doorway of a huge, steamy kitchen.
Soon we were out again, hurrying past terraced kitchen gardens. Chickens and geese were running loose. There were pens of sheep and pigs. What I remember best were the flowering fruit trees growing flat against red brick walls in the shape of giant harps. Next we came to an especially beautiful flower garden. Because of my father I knew much about gardens. I was tempted to linger at this one, but Kendrin urged me on, saying: “They’ve
already started. You’ll miss it all if you wait. The young ones are going to do
The Dance for First Harvest here in the Temple Dance Court. It’s for this they
practice. You must get your parents to bring you at mid-summer.”
I nodded, but even as I did a shiver went through me. My parents in the
Temple? Not much hope of that! I pictured my mother’s face contorted in
anger and saw my father cringing at her bitter words. Then, with a will, I shut
out all thoughts of my parents, shut out everything but what was happening
right at that moment. I knew there might be trouble later but I told myself
that no matter what happened after, this would be worth it.
At some point the way grew narrow and Kendrin stepped in front of
me. It was then I noticed the woven knot of thick silken cord she wore in her
hair. Intricately shaped and bright red in color, it was nestled at the back of
her head in a cluster of small tight braids. I was just going to ask her about it
when her hand went up to touch it. As if she had read my mind, she turned
back and answered my unasked question: “That is my Dancer’s Knot. We
wear it any time we’re not sleeping. It is one sure way to recognize a Dancer
no matter what else she may be wearing. We earn it when we graduate from
Novice to Apprentice.”
With an odd little tremor, I touched the back of my own head as if I felt
a weight there. My mother had always kept my hair cut short. She said it
was too unruly and she didn’t want the bother of untangling it. Looking at
Kendrin’s fall of long shiny black hair, I vowed to let mine grow. Of course
it would not be quite the same since mine had red mixed in with the dark.
Besides, it was wild and curly instead of straight.
Finally we came to a large Dance Court, a circle of short, well-tended,
bright green grass. The Dance Court itself was sunken, with a few tiers of
seats rising around it. At the very center it was open to the sky and surrounded y two sets of wooden pillars that supported the curved roof, each
pillar carved with a representation of the Goddess. Three musicians were
seated on a low stone bench at the edge of the court. Twenty or more girls of
near my age were Dancing, while a stern-looking Dance Mistress put them
through an intricate set of steps, using a wand like Kendrin’s for emphasis.
“It’s so big,” I whispered to Kendrin, gazing in awe at the court.
“This is just the practice court. The formal one is much larger,” she
answered. Then she released my hand and whispered in my ear: “We can only go a little closer, just by that pillar there. Then we must stand very still.”
I did as I was told and watched in silence as the other girls moved through their steps under Melanthia’s direction. She was indeed an imposing-
looking figure, tall and spare with a lean, well-muscled body. Her silver
hair, pulled back tight, was in stark contrast to her dark skin. I found myself
listening so intently to her words that my ears ached with them. Soon I could
feel the music moving in my body. Though I was standing still, the Dance
began flowing through me like an irresistible force, pulling and pulling at my
core. I could do those steps; I knew I could. It was as if I already knew them,
as if I had Danced them in my sleep.
Suddenly, with no thought and no intention on my part, I found myself
walking or rather floating down to the Dance Court. I suppose Kendrin had
been absorbed watching the Dance. Too late she must have realized that her
charge had slipped away. To call me back or try to grab me would only have
caused more disruption. I slipped in to join the others. Moving like someone
in a dream, I began doing the steps as if my body had suddenly been freed to be itself. Some of the others girls saw me and hesitated with a look of shock on their faces.
“Please continue,” Melanthia said sternly. “This class is not yet finished.”
Then she walked over until she was standing directly in front of me.
I was concentrating so intently on following the steps of the other girls that
I was hardly aware of her presence until she tapped me sharply with her
Dancewand and asked in a loud voice: “Who are you, Child, and what made
you think to intrude this way? Has no one taught you any manners?” The
voice was severe, but there was an appraising look on her face. Most of the
other girls moved away quickly, all except one whose name I later learned
was Thesali. This Thesali looked to be a year or so older than I was. She
stepped up right next to me as if to offer protection.
Startled, I looked up at Melanthia then quickly glanced away again,
blushing deeply. At that moment I was aware of everyone’s eyes on me. My
tongue glued itself to the roof of my mouth and my stomach curled into a
knot. I was frozen in place, unable to move or speak.
“Answer me!” Melanthia snapped. “I am not used to my students keeping
me waiting in this way.”
“Zaia, of the House of Anzor,” I mumbled, glancing down at the floor.
Then I took a deep breath and with a burst of courage looked up into that
stern visage. “I didn’t mean to cause trouble, but I couldn’t help myself.
Something came over me. The music called me.”
At the mention of my name a strange expression passed over Melanthia’s
face and she muttered, as if to herself, “The House of Anzor? Goddess, how is that possible?” Then to me she said in a gentler tone: “The Dance called you, Zaia, that is what drew you here. Never forget that.”
Kendrin had come forward and was looking back and forth between us,
flushed and confused, twisting her hands in distress. “It was all my fault. She
asked if girls her age could Dance. She seemed so eager I thought to show
her. I imagined we could stand quietly behind a pillar and not be noticed. I
had no idea she would…”
Melanthia put a hand on the girl’s arm. “It’s alright, Kendrin. You did
well to bring her here. The Goddess moves Her will through us in mysterious
ways. This was meant to happen—but don’t think to ever do it again.” After
that Melanthia signaled, by a nod of her head, that I was to continue Dancing
with the other girls. I shivered with excitement, very conscious of her shrewd,
appraising eyes watching my every step.
Fortunately for me it was my father who came to look for me—or, more
likely, he was the one who was sent. If my mother had come she would probably have made a dreadful scene. Likely she would have thought there was some intentional insult there, that her daughter had been lured on purpose by the Temple. Even my father sounded unusually gruff. “What are you thinking of, Zaia? The whole house is in an uproar. You were supposed to come right home. Everyone is out looking for you. If a little boy playing ball
by the garden wall hadn’t seen you go through the gates I would never have
known you were here.” He looked distraught and his hands were shaking.
“Melanthia, my apologies,” he said with a quick bow. “What a strange way for
us to meet again.”
“Do not be too harsh with her, Tomaire. I think she is drawn to movement
the same way you are drawn to making things grow and with the same
passion. She’s a born Dancer. You must send her to the Temple soon for
training. I see the hand of the Goddess in this, that Zaia came to us here in
spite of all the…” Then she stopped in confusion and they both looked at each other strangely, almost as if they each wanted to reach out and touch, though neither moved to do so.
“Please Father, please. You must let me come.” I reached up and tugged
on his arm.
“Later,” he said almost harshly. “We will speak of this later, Zaia. Now we
must go home quickly. Everyone is worried about you.” Turning to the Dance
Mistress he made a slight bow again. “Melanthia, please forgive this intrusion. I’m sure the child meant no harm. She’s young and impulsive. It was a mistake to let her out on her own this way.”
Melanthia shook her head. “It was no mistake Tomaire, it was meant to
happen. Remember what I said. Bring her here for training. Such a talent
should not be wasted. There are not that many natural Dancers in the world.”
Impulsively, I reached out and touched the older girl’s hand. “Thank you,
Kendrin. I’m sorry for the trouble I caused you. I didn’t mean you any harm.”
Then, gathering my courage, I said to Melanthia: “I’d like to come back to the
Temple and Dance. I’d like that more than anything in the world.”
She shook her head again. “Be very sure. Don’t think it will be easy, Child. It
will be very hard, I promise you. It will take everything you have, mind and body and soul. Look deep into your heart before you make that choice. Goddess bless you. Now go home quickly. You have frightened your people.”
“Yes, quickly, the whole house is in turmoil,” my father said urgently as
he took my hand and hurried me out of the circle. I gazed back filled with
longing, stumbled and would have fallen if my father had not grabbed my
arm. “Look where you’re going, Zaia,” he said gruffly. “You’ve already caused
more than enough trouble.” But as soon as we were out in the gardens his
whole manner softened. “So, Melanthia thinks you have a natural talent for
the Dance. She’s not known for being generous with her praise, in fact quite
“Can I do it, Father? Can I come here to Dance?”
“Not now. We’ll talk later.” As he said that, he seemed more shaken than
angry. Then he turned to look at the gardens and his manner changed again, a smile spreading across his face, a smile that had some sadness in it. “Did you ever see such beautiful flowers? It’s a joy just to stand here among them.”
“Father, did you plant these gardens?”
“I designed most of them. I even planted some with my own hands. I’m
glad to see them still thriving. These trees were no more than little dry twigs
and look at them now, spreading out over our heads and giving shade.”
There was such a tone of longing in his voice it made my heart ache.
“Did you plant this garden?” I asked, eagerly drawing him over to my
favorite part of the gardens that Kendrin had just rushed me through, a place
with several fountains and many little stone-paved paths that wound through
the shrubs and flowers.
“Everything. From the very beginning. I still have the drawings for it
rolled up somewhere.”
And so, instead of rushing home, we wandered through the gardens on
our way out of the Temple, with me asking endless questions about everything that grew there and my father answering patiently. At that moment I was trying not to think about home and what waited for me there. It was well
worth it, I told myself again, No matter what happens, it was well worth it.
Finally, we reached the street. On sudden impulse I grabbed my father’s
arm, wanting to stop him. “Do I have to go back? Why can’t I just stay here
and learn to Dance? They want me. You heard Melanthia. I want to be just
like Kendrin. I don’t want to go into the family business. I have no head for it.
He looked away and shook his head. “You can’t always do what you want
in this world, Zaia. There are other people involved. You mother would never
allow it. You know how she feels about the Temple.”
“No more! Not another word! Come with me right now, Daughter! Right now! We have tarried here long enough. You have worried everyone with your thoughtlessness. Now we must hurry.” With that he took hold of my arm and rushed me down the street. Before we went around the corner I turned back for one last glance at the Temple gates. Kendrin was standing there watching us. She raised her hand in a farewell gesture and then disappeared inside.
Once home it was even worse than I had imagined. My mother’s relief at
seeing me safe quickly turned to anger and then rage when she realized the
extent of my betrayal. “The Temple of all places!” she shouted. “You know
how I feel about the Temple! You see what comes of all your stories about the Temple gardens, Tomaire? Or have you been secretly influencing her behind my back?” She was pacing up and down, spewing out furious words and then stopping suddenly to glare at my father or me, first one and then the other.
“All our neighbors have been out looking for you, you little monster! And
there you were lolling around the Temple, making fools of us all. You have no
heart and care for no one but yourself.” Quickly, she resumed her pacing, as if all that anger could not be contained in a still body. Then she whirled on my
father again, shouting, “Do those witches have nothing better to do than lure
our children in off the street? I’ll bet Melanthia was behind all this. She can’t
have you so she wants my child, my eldest daughter at that, the one who is
destined to take my place in the family business.”
With the courage of desperation I burst out, “But Mother, I’m no good
at it. I have no head for numbers. Let Yanin take my place. I yield it to her
willingly. She can be the eldest daughter. All I want is to go to the Temple and
Dance. Melanthia says I’m a born Dancer.”
That, of course, was the wrong thing to say. My mother whirled on me
with her hand raised. She was so angry she would have struck me if my
father had not stepped between us. “Thea, think what you’re doing. She’s
only a child.”
My mother lowered her hand and said with barely suppressed fury,
“Never! I will never give my consent. Put such ideas out of your head right
now, Zaia! You will take your place in this family as you are supposed to.
Melanthia cannot have you. I won’t allow it. Now go to your room and shut
the door. You can spend the day there thinking on all the trouble you’ve
caused with your selfishness. As for you, Tomaire, you have undermined me
in this family and made a fool of me in the Temple world. You know I won’t
forget it—and I will never forgive you.”
I crossed the garden court with a heavy heart, tears filling my eyes so
that all the flowers ran together in a blur of colors. As I was about to close
the door to my room I heard my father say, “Thea, I want you to know there
was no intention to hurt you in this. She’s only a child. The sight of a young
Dancer standing in the archway caught her fancy, nothing more. Pay it no
mind. She’ll forget this notion soon enough.”
But he was wrong. I didn’t forget. I could think of nothing else. And now,
of course, I was not sent on any more errands. In truth I was seldom allowed
out, even with the family. And, if I did go with them, it was never by way
of the Temple. My mother barely spoke to me and then only in the coldest
tones; my father seemed awkward and embarrassed around me; and my
little sister, Yanin, mocked me with sly looks and cruel words. I was a virtual
prisoner in my own home, expected to study diligently to make up for my
betrayal. But I had a hard time studying. Where before the work had bored
me, now I loathed it. It seemed like part of the punishment.
All I could think of was the Temple: the beauty of the courtyards, Kendrin standing in the archway caught by that ray of sunlight, the Dance Court, the other girls my age being allowed to Dance, and Melanthia saying that I, Zaia, was a born Dancer. Even when I tried, the numbers swam before my eyes and sometimes in my tears. Then I would lay my head down on the table and let the visions come and of course there would be more trouble. My only comfort and my only confidant at that time was my cousin Renairi, the only person I could talk to. Though my mother had warned her to keep away from me, she managed to find ways to sneak into my room. Or we would meet in secret in the far corner of the garden under a tree whose drooping branches hid us from sight. There I would pour out my heart—all my grief and longing and my anger at the unfairness of things.
Whenever my father came to encourage me in my work, I would beg him
to intercede for me. Then he would shake his head and look sad. “You know
your mother will never agree. She has already told you so. Now you must
accept that in your heart and make the best of it. There is a long-standing
feud between your mother’s family and the Temple. Thea is a proud woman.
If nothing else, her pride would not allow it.”
All that trouble with the Temple had happened so long ago it seemed like a myth to me. It was well before I was born, when my mother was a very young woman or perhaps still a girl. Her parents, who were also merchants, had had some dealings with the Temple. They felt they had been treated unfairly cheated actually. When they went to the Temple for redress of grievances, they found themselves met with arrogance and contempt, or at least that was how they perceived it. Anyhow, in their eyes, the matter was never made right. That was the story I was told, the source of all that anger.
Now, these many years later, those involved were likely all dead, my grandparents as well as the High Priestess and others at the Temple, but because of what had happened back in that misty past, I was not allowed to go there and Dance. I raged against the injustice of it and often cried myself to sleep.
Finally, in tears, I begged, “Please, Father, ask her again for me.” I knew
my father loved me, but he was under my mother’s power. He had come into
the marriage as a poor man and he was never allowed to forget it.
“Are you very sure, Zaia? Your mother is a strong-willed woman. She
does not forgive those who go against her. You may make an irreparable
separation with this insistence.”
“I’m very sure. It’s all I want in my life.”
“But you’re so young. You can’t know all the consequences. How do you
really know if…?”
I grabbed his hand. “Please do this for me. I know what will happen if I
stay here much longer. I’ll die!”
He must have gathered his courage to ask because an hour or so later my
mother stormed into my room. “So now you have taken to threatening your
father with your own death. What kind of heartlessness is that? You know the
man loves you and you abuse his love that way. Unnatural child! Understand,
Zaia, I will never give my consent. Never! Get that into your head!” Then
she left, slamming the door behind her so hard things fell off the shelves
and crashed to the floor. I was in despair. Later my cousin Renairi found me
asleep at the desk in a puddle of tears. She shook me awake. When I finally
raised my face it was all crisscrossed with a design of wet ink marks. She
showed me in the mirror before gently washing them away.
I had not planned it as an act of resistance or a last resort. It was simply
what happened. I lost my appetite and stopped eating. I stopped studying. I
no longer cared what was happening around me. My father’s pleading and
my mother’s threats could not reach me. My cousin’s worry had no effect.
My aunt tried to scold me back to life and got no response. Nothing seemed
to touch me. I had disappeared inside myself into a semi-dream state where
I wandered freely in the Temple gardens, which seemed far more real to me
than the rooms of my family home. Night and day began to blend together. I
was sunk so deep into my stupor that I was hardly aware of anything until a
loud shouting argument broke out. My aunt, alerted by my cousin, had come
to confront my mother. “You will let your daughter die in your house just to
satisfy your cursed pride, and then what will people say? Where will your
pride be then, Thea? Have you thought of that? Let her go! She’s not yours to hold. She has her own life. Let her go quickly before it’s too late.”
My mother shouted back, “You always thought you could tell me what to
do, Veraine, but this is my family and none of your business.” “She is my business! She’s my niece and my Goddess-child, the one I’m honor bound to guide and watch over and keep safe. I have no choice but to intervene. You’re killing her with your stubbornness.”
“No! She’s killing herself with her own stubbornness.”
“What does it matter, Thea? It will all come to the same thing very soon
and then it will be too late!”
I felt myself slipping into a sort of dark pool and didn’t hear any more
until suddenly my mother and aunt and father all burst into my room. “Get
up, Girl and get yourself dressed,” my aunt Veraine said urgently. “You’re
going to the Temple to learn the Dance. Anyone who wants something so
much they are willing to die for it should have it.”
I saw the look of implacable hatred on my mother’s face. “You will go to
the Temple to live there like one of the country girls. I won’t have you in my
house anymore. The Temple can have you and good riddance. I won’t pay
them a single coin for your keep there. You are not my daughter anymore.
Your sister Yanin will take your place in this house.” I could see my sister and
cousin crowding in the doorway, their eyes big and round. My father reached
out his hands for me. “It has been decided, Zaia. Come, it is time to go.” My
heart was pounding wildly in my chest. I took his hands, struggled to my feet
and instantly fainted dead away into total darkness.
I remembered nothing of my trip to the Temple. When I came to myself
again I was lying on a bed. I was in a little white room I had never seen
before, with colorful hangings on the wall and a blue vase of bright flowers at
the window. Kendrin was sitting next to the bed, leaning over me. In back of
her I saw Thesali, the girl who had stepped up next to me in the Dance Court.
Her eyes were wide and she was looking anxiously over Kendrin’s shoulder.
Kendrin was smiling down at me. “If you are going to Dance, Zaia, first you
must eat,” she said firmly. Then she held out a bowl of food to me. And that is how I came to the Temple of Kernoss to be a Dancer.
Author Diana Rivers is a Lambda Literary Awards finalist and a winner of the Golden Crown Literary Award for Speculative Fiction. Find something inspiring to read this summer–see all of our books in our store.