The Thorn of Sgrios
Maerista in Dark Ages
Maerista’s Journal, Spring, Deoch 6.
As I travel back to my beloved Suomi, I find myself playing over and over in my mind the trial and temptation I have just endured. My first few weeks as an Aisling and already I have nearly doomed myself and betrayed everything I hold dear. I write of course of my encounter with the seductive lies of Sgrios, the god of death and decay.
I find this all really quite painful to talk about. My first reaction is always to try to put my mistakes behind me as quickly as possible, so that I don’t succumb to self-hate or morbid introspection. In this case, however, Cail sees things differently, and has called to me to pen my experiences, so that other young Aislings might not succumb to the worship of Sgrios as I almost did.
There now, I’ve admitted it. Think badly of me if you will, but at least I’m honest. If Sgrios always appeared in his real, twisted, demonic form, his followers would be few indeed. But when Sgrios tempts the innocent, he comes as a friend, as pleasant and benevolent as you could possibly imagine. He strips away your natural revulsion and replaces it with a twisted sort of affection for himself that even if you can resist, makes it almost impossible to fully and faithfully serve any other god. I am still struggling, even now, to see him as the enemy that he is.
It began for me shortly after I first awakened as an Aisling, just a few moons ago. I had already become comfortable in the streets of Mileth, and was well known by the mundanes of the village, to whose number I had belonged until very recently. I knew that my path was to become a priestess, and almost certainly of Cail, god of Nature, to whom I had called out in wonder so often as a young girl. First, however, I needed to find a priest willing to tutor and guide me, at least until I was ready to enter the Temple of Choosing.
I wandered the streets for a whole morning. I found many who could possibly teach me what I needed to know, but none who really inspired me. I have great faith in destiny and fate. Not that everything is predetermined by some other power, but that once you have been inspired to believe that something will come to pass, it invariably does.
I firmly believed that I would meet a priest who would have a great impact on my life. And then, there she was. Sitting on the low wall of one of the bridges in Mileth, writing something on parchment – a letter perhaps. Her physical beauty was astounding enough, but it was the fire in her eyes that had me transfixed.
They say that the eyes are the window to the soul, and I always believed them. I believed I could sense the nature of a person’s character from what I saw in their eyes. I know now that one can be sorely deceived. I was naïve in the extreme. And I mourn greatly the loss of the simple unquestioning trust I was once able to place in people.
Almost without thinking, as if fate had taken control of my body and mind, I knelt before this regal priestess in her soft billowing robes and dark blue head covering. "Will you help me become a priestess?" I asked, as if the words had been written for me, in another world, another lifetime. There was a pause. A long pause. The wind blew around me and I felt a chill but I did not move. Scratch scratch – she continued to write her letter without so much as acknowledging my existence. Then, suddenly, she looked up and directly into my eyes, and her face lit up in the most wonderful smile I had ever seen. "Sure!" she said. An uncontrollable ache of happiness rose up inside me and a tear trickled slowly down my right cheek.
For the remainder of the afternoon we sat together at the side of the bridge and talked. She smiled and laughed often as she enthused about the path of the priest, which I intended to follow. I felt so comfortable in her presence, and though she was clearly a woman of great power and authority, she talked with me as though I were her friend.
When the time came, she agreed without hesitation to accompany me to the temple where I might choose my vocation. And when the voice behind the veil intoned "Who stands beside you?" I spoke her name proudly and without fear. I had been accepted!
So it’s perhaps not surprising that when this wonderful lady offered to be my mentor, to sit with me as I learned my first few prayers and the mysteries of healing, I accepted without a second thought, forever linking myself with her name, her reputation. It was only when I expressed my intense happiness and delight at this new world that was opening itself up to me that she became suddenly serious and sombre.
"Be careful," she said, suddenly.
"Why?" The smile faded rapidly from my lips.
"Not every Aisling is pleasant or easy to get along with. Indeed, many are cruel and hurtful. Some will even hate you because of your beliefs, even though they don’t understand them and have never tried to get to know you." She paused, as if debating whether to say more. Eventually, she added, "I am not a well-liked priestess."
I was stunned. "Whyever not?!"
What she said next was so shocking that my subconscious has almost erased it from my memory. Just one word remains. Sgrios! She followed Sgrios! Perhaps she even said she was his high priestess, I simply can’t remember. Sgrios! The name of that dark god tore across my soul. How could this be?
My mind reeled. How could my friend, one of the kindest people I’d ever met, be a worshipper of such evil? I tried to keep my voice neutral, without much success. "How did you come to choose that path?"
"I seek balance between the light and the dark. So many Aislings blindly choose the light. Because they do not understand us, they fear us, and that fear turns easily to hatred. They kill us without reason Maerista."
It was the first time she had spoken my name and I jumped at the way she said it – full of sadness, and friendship and hope… With that one word she had bound me to herself. I couldn’t help but trust her. I could never hate her. A thought entered my mind. Perhaps she was right about Sgrios? Perhaps he really is misunderstood?
Suddenly, she was speaking again. "Have you chosen your path yet?"
"No…" I replied, hesitantly.
She got up and walked towards the door. "Choose wisely" she said, and slipped out into the night.
The following morning, while browsing through old news items on the village bulletin board, I discovered an awful truth. Some months ago, my mentor had been responsible for summoning a demon of Sgrios into the eastern woodlands, killing over thirty Aislings in cold blood! Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew I should be feeling sorrow and anger, but instead I found myself trying to rationalise why my friend had done this thing. Is she really so different to me? I revere the cycle of life – Birth, Life, Death and Rebirth. Death is a natural part of that order. And she serves the god of death and decay, so isn’t she bringing balance to Temuair by fulfilling a necessary part of the cycle of existence?
Suddenly I realised that she had made complete sense. By attacking Sgrios’ children wherever they may be found, the children of light are in essence trying in all ignorance to destroy death itself, a part of the natural order of things. For the first time in my life, I understood how someone could come to serve the hated god of death.
I staggered over to a nearby tree and collapsed, holding my head between my knees, blocking out the world. Everything had been so simple on my parents’ farm in Suomi. Right and wrong were so clearly defined back then.
Confused thoughts flashed through my mind. I wanted to believe in the priestess who had acted with such kindness towards me. I wanted to be with her, be her friend when everyone else hated her. But she’d caused the deaths of so many! A demon! How could that be a natural death?
Then, finally, I became aware of the pain that those whose friends and lovers had been so brutally murdered must have felt. Finally, the tears came.
It was Luata, the wise and kind-hearted priestess of Cail, who found me there: - distraught, guilty, angry, disbelieving, aching with friendship for someone who could kill so easily. She dried my tears as I tried to explain the struggle going on inside me. For her there was no struggle. It was all quite simple.
"You mustn’t be deceived into thinking that Sgrios represents balance!" she explained patiently. "It’s a lie his followers use to trap young Aislings into his service. Sgrios wishes to destroy all life, permanently. He wants to break the circle and destroy the wonder of rebirth!"
I sighed deeply. So now I had a simple choice. Whom did I believe? Was Sgrios necessary for balance, or did he in fact seek to destroy it? Oh Cail, give me wisdom.
Luata spoke again. "Answer me this, then. Cail is the god of nature – of the cycle of life." I nodded. "So if Sgrios really were a part of that cycle, would Cail have such enmity for him?"
I looked up and smiled at her as a darkness lifted from my soul. "You’re right. You’re absolutely right."
A few days later I gave myself into the service of Cail at his temple outside Undine. Perhaps it would be nice to think that that was the end of my confusion – that from that moment on I never suffered doubts or temptations. Hah! If only life were that simple. No, Sgrios’ thorn remains firmly wedged in my heart. I still cannot bring myself to hate him, no more than I can hate his priestess. Yesterday, she summoned three more demons into the east woodlands. Three! She watched with glee from the shadows as the high priests of Glioca engaged her "children" in a battle that lasted several hours, all the while boasting of her evil.
Some part of me is still entwined with my former mentor. Even as I watched helplessly with revulsion as the succubi stole life from the children of light, I confess I felt a dark thrill of admiration and affection for them.
This is my thorn, my pain and my shame, that I cannot serve my god without reservation as I so desire. Oh how I wish I could shine everso brightly, like the priestess Lady Cliona and the other great Aislings!
~ –– ~
Crouching in the centre of the forest clearing, patterns of sunlight created by the gentle movement of the branches playing across her youthful features, the woman returned her journal to her pack, placed her hands deliberately onto the soil, palms down, and shivered with pleasure at the memories that came to her. It had been too long since she had paid her respects to the spirits in this place, and instinctively she knew they had something to tell her now.
Maerista took off her long cloak and lay down her staff at her side. It was late afternoon and she had hoped to reach Suomi Village by nightfall, but there was no rushing the ritual she was about to perform – it would take just as long as it needed to take. Eagerly she removed her stiff boots and felt the soft loam between her toes. ‘Has it really been a whole year?’ Mae murmured to the five great oaks surrounding her, recalling the frequency with which, as an adolescent, she had sought solace from their unchanging, benign majesty.
Moving to each of the trees surrounding the clearing in turn, she pressed her forehead against their rough bark, thanking them for their beauty and their protection – both for now and for ages past. At the last tree she paused a moment longer to smile and say, ‘Anahk Te Mene. You were always my favourite,’ before returning to the centre of the clearing and sitting cross-legged, resting her hands on her ankles.
Gradually she began to draw her perception inwards, away from the physical form of the forest. The ancient forests did not speak to humans directly. It was debatable whether they were actually aware of humanity at all. She had learned early in her life that if one was to hear the spirits of the trees, one almost needed to have the spirit of a tree. Mae focussed on the sensation of becoming part of the earth – Joined – One. From her spine she sent down roots into the rich soil and felt the surge of energy as she became part of the very substance of the land. She paused a moment to restore her strength after her long journey, and then lifted her arms aloft, shouting aloud to Cail, a cry of ecstasy and joy. Her body seemed to begin to stretch and toughen as she let her mind rise upward towards the sky. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to send out branches to catch the glorious sunlight, and she did so, unfurling her leaves with the sheer delight of existence.
As Mae felt the breeze waft coolly across her bark, she began to be aware of a low murmuring - the sounds of many voices fading in and out, just beyond her hearing. ‘Ancient forest…’ she began, hesitantly, not knowing what to say or expect. In the past she had merely rested in the peace she had found in this state of being, and taken inspiration from it. This time she felt urgency, and a need to communicate. ‘I am here,’ she concluded eventually. And waited. Anyone who passed this way and chanced upon the clearing would simply have observed a young woman sitting on the ground in the semi-gloom with her eyes closed, her face a picture of intense concentration.
It was dark when Maerista, mystic and priestess of Cail the god of Nature, finally opened her dark brown eyes. There was something new about them – a touch of fear, maybe, or excitement, or both. Something Mae had heard had changed her, and she knew she would never be the same again. She had glimpsed something of the trial that lay ahead for herself and for those she counted as friends. Her first time home to Suomi since becoming an Aisling, and she had to return bearing such news as this! Quickly, she took up her cloak and wrapped it around her – it had become much colder since the sun went down, even though it was now well into Spring – and, picking up her staff, she moved back on to the trail that led out of the woodland and across the farmland to the village of Suomi, her birthplace.
Maerista, Priestess of Cail, 2nd Circle