There was only one thing that could stop her now, Illana thought as she leaned wearily against the cool grey stone wall of the Temple atrium. A bead of sweat dripped off her nose, and she wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. Her plain brown tunic stuck damply to her back as she looked around at the other nineteen hopefuls waiting in the atrium.
She sized them up: large, bearded men with huge hands, thick middles, and broad shoulders clothed in the same simple brown tunic as herself. If they passed the final test they would be training together. She could tell by their averted glances that they were sizing her up as well.
The Bear Temple wanted only the strongest and most skilled warriors to train to be their Priests and Guards, and all those waiting in the atrium had passed the early trials of physical endurance, wrestling, games of strength, and weapons fighting. But Illana knew that it surprised many of them to find her waiting at the end.
Illana had everything it took: the body size, the strength and skill, the courage and the boldness. She had everything except one thing... But she put that thought aside.
There was a way. As her father always said: there was always a way. True Bears always found a way to succeed. And so she would. Especially now that she had come so far.
The solid oak door at the end of the atrium opened and the Commander of the Guard stepped forward, a frown darkening the long braids of his golden beard. He was dressed in a black tunic and wore a bear-claw necklace around his neck to denote his rank. "Illana Bjornhelm's daughter," he growled.
Illana's heart caught in her throat, but she stepped away from the wall and walked past the staring faces to the Guard Commander. She bowed, and when she straightened again she looked him in the eye. She was often mistaken for a man because of her height and broad shoulders. Even while wearing her best dress she would sometimes be "m'Lord'ed" by merchants and strangers. The Guard Commander was a tall, imposing man, but Illana proudly matched his height.
He caught her defiant glare, and she saw his bushy eyebrows furrow. "Illana," he said gently, "you have proven yourself well today, but I beg of you to go no further."
"I will go until I am turned away," she said carefully, keeping her husky voice low and steady.
"You know you cannot pass the requirements written in the Sacred Book," he said sternly. "Do you want to humiliate your father in front of the entire council?"
"I love my father," Illana said truthfully. "I do this for him as well as for myself. I will be a Bear, Rol. You know he has no son to carry on the line."
"Yet he loves his daughter no less for it. You are a fine soldier, Illana. You have done many great deeds to make your father proud. Who in this city, indeed, has NOT heard of you? And yet, this will only put him in an awkward position. He could be criticized for your actions. Stop now, while he can still boast of your courage - before he needs to be embarrassed by your foolishness."
Illana clenched her fists. "I will face the High Bear Priest, Commander Rol. Will you deny me the interview I have earned?"
"No," he answered shortly. "I cannot, as you well know. But still I would wish it otherwise."
Illana did not answer.
Commander Rol saw that she would not be deterred, and turned on his heal to lead her to the council chamber.
The oak door shut behind them with a hollow thud, and Illana's heartbeat raced as their footsteps echoed down the long stone corridor. At the end of the hall Rol stopped before two large, well muscled Bear Guards armed with two-handed battle axes standing in front of a huge brass door. The Guards saluted their Commander and pulled open the heavy door.
The door opened into a huge, round room with a high, arched ceiling. In the center, seated on large oaken chairs arranged in a semi-circle, were the fur-clad high priests and ranking officers of the Bear Temple and Guards. Standing in front of them at a carved oaken pedestal was the High Priest dressed in his ceremonial bearskins.
Commander Rol stepped forward. "Illana Bjornhelm's daughter," he announced.
Illana walked proudly into the room as a low, gruff rumble passed between the councillors. She stopped before the pedestal, but did not bow. Commander Rol came up beside her.
The High Priest opened the thick book on the pedestal. "Illana Bjornhelm's daughter, why do you stand before us here today?" he asked in a booming voice, and Illana wondered if the flush on his face was caused by embarrassment or fury.
"I come to become a Bear!" she boomed back.
"Are you worthy?" he asked.
"Name then the five sacred Fathers."
Illana knew their names by heart. Her father had taught them to her as a small child. Every evening she said her prayers to them. She loved them as her family. "Brazius the ancient, the Bear in the sky who protects us from the sickle; Rokmol the Black, who guards the gates below; Gormus the Gold, who first gave us honey; Barkone the Wise, who wanders the forest; and Tandbar the Shifter, who founded the Temple."
"Sing then the sacred Song."
Illana sang it, just as her father had sung it to her as a lullaby so many years ago.
"Recite then the five sacred Attributes."
"Boldness, Courage, Strength, Endurance, and Wisdom."
The High Priest turned to his Commander. "Commander Rol, has this woman passed the early trials to your satisfaction?"
"She has, your Grace."
The High Priest slowly closed the book, and with one large hand stroked the greying hair of his braided beard. "There is, then, only one reason why you, Illana Bjornhelm's daughter, cannot be accepted into this Order. All members of the Order of the Bear must wear beards. Our law on this matter is well known."
"Read me the law," Illana demanded, ignoring the furious glance which Rol gave her.
The High Priest's jaw clenched, but he opened the book and turned several pages, searching. "It is the will of Tandbar, founder of the Temple of the Bear, that all members of the Order shall be known by their beards... All inductees shall have beards, and after taking their sacred vows, all members shall be prohibited from shaving their beards. Any member who willfully shaves their beard shall forever thereafter cease to be a Bear, and shall lose all rights, privileges and recognition thereto appertaining... Need I continue, Illana?" he asked.
Illana shook her head. Smiling, she turned as if to leave and slipped a small razor from where it had been concealed in one boot. Before he could react, she grabbed Rol's long, golden braids in one hand and sliced them off with the razor. He grabbed his chin, eyes watering, as she turned back to the Council.
"See here then," she said holding the beard up high. "I now have a beard. The law says nothing about growing a beard. I shall keep this beard with me always. And I shall never need to shave it."
There was silence in the room.
Finally, the High Priest cleared his throat. "Is there any one here who doubts this candidate's boldness?"
The hall was silent.
"Is there any one here who doubts this candidate's courage?"
No one spoke.
"Is there any one here who doubts this candidate's strength?"
Illana held her breath. Strength was her weakest of the sacred attributes, but the councillors remained silent.
"Is there any on here who doubts this candidate's endurance?"
Again, there was silence.
"Is there any one here who doubts this candidate's wisdom?"
Rol cleared his throat, audibly, stroking the stubble on the point of his chin as if it pained him, but said nothing.
"Is there any one here who opposes this candidate's induction into our Order?"
The silence in the hall was tangible.
After several moments the High Priest finally sighed. Only Illana could see the pride and laughter in her father's eyes. "Then do I, Brandon Bjornhelm, High Priest of the Temple of the Bear, induct you, my daughter Illana, into our Order of the Bear, to be a Bear so long as you keep your beard upon your person, displayed openly, so that all may see you are proud to be one of us, and so long as you possess the sacred attributes and worship the sacred Fathers of our Temple. Thus have I spoken, with the council as my witness."
Illana bowed deeply, and Rol grabbed her arm firmly when she was done.
"I'll show you to your quarters," he growled, tightening his grip.
She ignored the pain and grinned at him, tucking the braids of his beard firmly into her belt.
He shook his head. "You'll pay for this."
Illana smiled. "Threats mean nothing to a Bear," she answered smugly.
"And a bolder Bear was never seen," he said, his face finally cracking into an affectionate grin.
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