The wind whispers in her ear, calling her to play. "Not today," Peaches says. She smiles, leaning out the window to catch the wind in her face. It blows her wispy blond hair. That one strand of hair that often annoys her brushes across her face and tickles her nose. She pushes it back behind her hair. "Today is my name day. I had my first blood moon, you know."
"I'm thirteen now." Which makes her all grown up. So she shouldn't play with the wind anymore when it comes to call. "Don't worry," she whispers. "Tomorrow, I will be a kid again. Tomorrow, I will play."
"Peaches!" someone calls. "Are you dressed yet?"
Peaches looks down at her cotton underdress. Oh no, she has forgotten. How has the time slipped by? Brushing her hair, she'd been thinking about the dance. And then she just had to dance about the room. To practice. This would be her first year to dance with the older girls. She didn't want to stumble in front of everybody and ruin the dance.
"Dance with me?" A prince had stepped from the corner. His eyes were dark and stormy and so intense that she couldn't take her eyes from his. He swept her onto a cloud, and the two flew through the sky as the wind whistled—
"Peaches? Did you hear me?"
"Almost ready!" she calls as she pulls the dress over her head and runs out the door with the material still covering her face. She knocks into something and thumps back onto the floor. Pulling the dress down, she peaks out. The Mother is standing over her, her hands on her hips.
"Peaches, what have I told you—"
"I'm ready. Honest."
"You are putting your dress on backwards."
Her cheeks burn as she tries to move the dress around. Instead, she just gets all tangled up. "Let me help you, little girl," the Mother says gently, a bit of amusement in her voice. The Mother adjusts the dress, and Peaches pulls her arms into the sleeves.
"See? I'm ready." She twirls about. "Do you like the way I look? Do you think someone dashing—"
Pulling Peaches' hair out of her dress and straightening her collar, the Mother purses her lips. "As beautiful as a treasure. And someday, you will find someone dashing. But not today. Now you remember what I told you?"
Peaches nods. Today, she will be presented to Elias, god of the heavens, as a priestess of Araphia. There she will receive her new name. She's a woman now, the Mother told her. So now she must have a woman's name.
"I don't know if I want to be a woman. I don't want a new name." Peaches looks up at the Mother, searching her eyes, hoping that she will change her mind. "I like myself just the way I am."
"Not everything new is pleasant, Peaches." The Mother cocks an eyebrow at her. "But just because it is unpleasant does not mean you should not face it. Tomorrow, it will be over and not seem nearly as bad as it does now."
"Yes, Mother." Peaches looks up into the Mother's dark eyes. They are soft and kind and stern. She sighs. The Mother loves her, but no arguing or begging ever changes her mind.
"Now come along, Peaches. Your sisters are waiting for you." The Mother takes her hand and leads her to the room where all the other girls are. The girls are giggling, hugging each other, and dancing about, and when they see Peaches, they throw their arms around her and laugh some more.
"Come and see." Her friend Maris takes her hand and pulls her across the room. "Lily has a gift for you." Now standing in front of Lily, Peaches studies the older girl's face. Lily is tall and willowy and graceful. Every girl at the temple wants to be just like her. To be that beautiful.
"Your sisters and I made you something special for your first dance," she says, holding something behind her back. "So close your eyes and turn around." Peaches turns around and closes her eyes, a smile stretching across her face. She can feel hands place a circle about the crown of her head.
"All right," says Lily. "You can look now." Peaches reaches up to feel the ring of silky flowers on her head.
"We used purple flowers for your hair," Maris says. "It'll look better on your white hair, and all the boys will think you are the most beautiful angel they have ever seen." Peaches feels the heat in her cheeks again and looks down at her sandaled feet in embarrassment. There are gold rings on her toes with little bells. So different from the little dirty toes she had when she first came here.
Maris snatches her friend's hand again and pulls her toward the fountain. "Come on," she says. "See what you look like."
In the fountain, Peaches sees her reflection. Startling blue eyes stare back at her, and the long, white-blond hair falls forward as she leans toward the pool. It tickles her nose, and she pushes it back behind her ear, almost making the crown fall into the water. She laughs. "I'm a princess pirate on the raging seas," she says, jumping onto the pool's edge and brandishing an invisible sword.
"You will be a wet princess with no beautiful dress for the dance if you do not get down, little lady," the Mother says from behind her.
Peaches jumps down and chews her lip in embarrassment. "I'm sorry, Mother. I was just—"
"Playing. Yes, I know." The Mother sighs. "You are always playing. But now it is time to find your place in line. The town is waiting for the priestesses to begin the ceremony."
Peaches hurries to find her place in line. The order is oldest to youngest. Although she is the last girl to have her first blood moon, she's not the last in line. Unlike the other girls, her first bleed came late. The nurse says it is because she is so small and frail. "But it is not a concern," the old woman had said in her cracked voice. "You grow stronger every day, and your woman's cycle will come when you are ready."
At seventeen, Lily—the oldest, unmarried girl, other than the Mother—stands at the front of the line. Peaches hopes she will be given a name as beautiful as a flower, like Lily. Maybe Rose or Heather. Ah, she is a wildflower, growing in a field, raising its head to the sun on the side of a mountain.
The wind plays in her hair and whispers to her. That's not your name. You are not a flower.
She sighs. But I'd like to be a flower. Elias, if you love me, give me a flower name. Please.
Lily steps through the gate, and the crowd cheers. The wind blows about the girls, whipping hair and dresses in tumultuous glee. A tingle of excitement flushes through Peaches. Even the trees are singing on this day. The line steps forward in time to the beat of the music out in the town square. She hears flutes and drums. And the pipes made from bags, her favorite.
Her feet move to the beat just as she had practiced. Watching the older girls, she finds her rhythm and sets her movements with theirs. She glances at the crowd. Will they laugh at her? What if she stumbles? Hundreds of eyes, watching. Some people are clapping. Some are laughing. Her heart jumps into her throat.
She's supposed to turn left, into the circle. Instead, she turns right. A cheer rises from the crowd, jeering at her. Her heart jumps into her throat. Turning back to the center of the ring of girls, she wishes the earth would open up and eat her. Swallow her. Hide her.
Her friend Maris squeezes her hand and smiles at her. "'Don'tcha be a-paying attention to the crowd. Just ye have fun,'" she quotes Mistress Howl. "Remember?"
Just have fun. Peaches nods and smiles. She takes a deep breath and then lets it out quickly. She looks around at her friends, their faces full of smiles and laughter. These are her sisters. These are the people who protect her and love her. With them beside her, she will never be alone.
She throws her head back and laughs. The wind in her hair. The music calls to her. Sings to her. Come and play. Dance with me. Together they twirl and dance and beat their feet to the rhythm and come in and out and duck through arms and then twirl about again. Joy spreads up her belly and into her chest and erupts from her mouth in a wild cry. Like fire bursting forth.
The crowd fades away as the world whirls about in dancing colors. A forest surrounds her. She is a wood nymph, dancing to the song of the wind. Cherry blossoms shower upon them with blessings from the gods, and the song of the river entices them to wild abandon.
With one final whirlwind, Lily brings the girls to a halt. The crowd cheers. The girls curtsy.
Her heart beats wildly in her chest, and her breath comes in short gasps. She brushes her hair back from her face and tucks it behind her ears. Her crown of purple flowers is lopsided—she can feel it about to fall off—but she grins at the townspeople, unconcerned about how silly she must look.
Families separate from the crowd to embrace daughters that they've given to the goddess. Peaches stands alone, watching all the other girls being greeted with warm hugs and kisses. She smiles at them wistfully. Being happy for her sisters isn't enough to erase the hollow emptiness in her heart.
"Ah, there ye be," a warm, familiar voice says behind her. She turns to see Mistress Howl, beaming at her. Her face is more wrinkled now, and her hair has more white than brown. But it is still that same pleasant face, and those eyes still sparkle with joy and laughter.
"Mum!" she cries and throws her arms about the woman's neck. Arms surround her, comforting her like a warm blanket.
"My word, you have grown, Peaches."
"But you saw me just yesterday!"
"Aye, but that is often what is said on such occasions. I wouldn't want ye be a-missing anything now."
"Oh, Mum, all I need is your hugs to be happy."
"And perhaps some biscuits and honey?" Mum asks. "I'll be a-waiting ye in the kitchen for yer midnight snack."
Peaches laughs. "Yes, and biscuits and honey."
The Mother claps her hands to call the girls back together. "Ladies, back in line. It is time to visit the temple of Elias."
Peaches quickly hugs Mum and then follows the other girls back toward the Mother. A tap on her shoulder interrupts her, and she turns to say good-bye to Mum one last time. But instead, a shriveled old woman, her eyes white with blindness, stands behind her.
An icy prickle runs across her shoulders and down her back. The world seems to stop. Everything falls away from around her. The voices of the crowd hush. The people stop milling about. Time stands still.
In a crackly voice, the woman says to her, "Daughter of the goddess, you have been called as an oracle to Elias, god of the heavens and of the earth. To you has been given the gift of visions. You are the one who walks in dreams by day. Do not be frightened. But you must tell others what you see."
"Yes, I will," she answers.
"Are you coming, Peaches?" the Mother calls to her. She glances at the Mother and then back at the woman. But the woman is gone. Everyone is line, waiting for her. The crowd has begun dancing. Some people stand by the side, eating and drinking. No one is watching her. No one is paying any attention, as though nothing has happened.
That icy prickle moves down her back again and sits heavily in her stomach like a bag of rocks. "Yes, Mother," she says. She hurries into line, her hands shaking, and then follows the girls in front of her. One foot in front of the other. Nothing feels real. As though she was in a dream.
They file back into the temple and enter the throne room. Peaches puts her face to the floor just like all the other girls. She has never been allowed here before. Priests only, the Mother had scolded her when she tried to peek in. She was little then. Now she knows that this is a sacred place. The place where the god Elias resides. Where the goddess Araphia worships.
"Let the young priestesses step forward to receive their new names," the priest says. His voice is stern and harsh and echoes through the marble room.
She stands, her head bowed, and steps forward with the younger girls. Through her lashes, she peeks about. The room is large with a grand marble throne sitting in the middle. Upon that throne sits a figure. Bright like the noonday sun. She could see his feet but didn't dare look any higher. What happens to someone who looks at the face of a god? She would melt for sure. Or burst into flame and then her ashes would blow to the far reaches of the world. Her sisters would mourn her. "Here lies one who dared to look upon the face of Elias," they would cry.
Oh, that wouldn't work. If she is nothing but ashes, they couldn't say, "Here lies…"
Just the feet were awesome to behold. They glowed like fiery embers, and she could not take her eyes from them. The words from her early days, learning at the temple, come back to her.
Mount Andalynoran is his throne.
Demaria his footstool.
The dragons bend in homage.
May we learn to do the same.
It was just words then. Now it rings so true. No jewel would be lovely enough to grace his foot. To touch it would be magic.
The priest steps in front of her, blocking her view. "Keep your eyes down, child. It is not proper for one as lowly as you to look at the throne of Elias."
She turns her face down as instructed, but once he passed her by, she looks up again. There is nothing she could do to stop herself. Maris pulls on her sleeve and hisses in her ear, "Stop it. You'll get in trouble. It's just an empty chair."
Empty? Couldn't she see the man who sat there? He is so large that his foot is as tall as Peaches. How could Maris miss that?
"Make your prayers to Elias," the priest commands. "When he is ready to give you your name, I will call you forward."
Peaches puts her head down to the ground. What do I say to one with a foot like yours? All the jewels upon the earth could not be as beautiful. She is just a humble girl. What does she have to say to the god who created heaven and earth? He created the goddess. He created her.
"Say that you want to see my face."
Oh, anything but that. To see his face would mean her death. Could she withstand it?
"I will show you my face. I want you to know me."
No. Please don't ask that of me.
"Little Peaches, I was there when you were born. I was the wind that whispered in your ear. I was the trees that sang you to sleep. I was the water that played with you. I was the one who loved you when no one else would. I was the one who brought you to this place of peace. Please come to me. Come to see my face."
You love me? Me? Even me?
"Even you. My daughter. See, I give you a new name. Your name is Nephecia. You are my soul. You are born of my breath. My life. My heart."
"I—I want to see your face," Nephecia answers out loud. She rises from the floor, trembling.
Maris grabs the hem of her dress. "They haven't called you yet, Peaches," Maris whispers. But Nephecia doesn't answer. She must go to the one who has called her. If she doesn't, her heart will break. For then she will disappoint him, and then she will whither and die.
She steps forward. The priest gasps and rushes to stop her. But she is already there, at those feet. "I am here. Please take me into your hand." He reaches down and lifts her up. He sets her on his lap. He is smaller now. She is like a baby in his hands.
His eyes are fierce and wild. Like the wind on a stormy day. She can feel lightning and thunder rumble through him. And yet they twinkle merrily, like the laughter of the brook when the sun glints on the water's surface. His cheeks are rosy, and his smile made her know she is safe. She is always safe.
A beard as white as snow fell down his chest. Not like the soft, downy snow of Father Winter, but rather like an avalanche bursting upon you in the mountains, swallowing you in its fervor. It wasn't the beard of a sweet old man. It was the mane of a lion, strong and ready to pounce.
"Can I—can I touch your beard?"
Nephecia reaches her hand forward, hesitantly. She stops and then starts again. Finally, her fingers slip into the hair. Tingles of magic run up her arm in delightful pangs of pleasure. She buries her face in it. She feels the magic flow over her like water splashing across her face and running down her hair.
"Can I stay here with you? I never want to leave."
Part 5 of the Daughter of the Goddess series is coming soon.