copyright by Leslie Ann Miller
"Fire will create in a forge and destroy in a forest," my master said, and I had a sudden unbidden vision of a pyre. It was not that I had always been afraid of fire. Indeed, as a small girl growing up on my father's farm, I had loved sitting near the fireplace. I was the smallest of my seven siblings, and I seemed to chill more easily. Fire had been my friend. But that was before my father recommended me to the village Priestess who brought me to the Temple to study.
Truly, to be accepted to the Temple was a great honor. The priests and priestesses of the Temple were the most respected people in the land because of their great wisdom and their powers of magic. However, though the Priests and Priestesses at the Temple never spoke of it, there was a certain dread amongst the students concerning the final initiation test, the test one had to pass before being allowed to progress on to the final years of advanced magical training.
The students who failed, it was commonly rumored, were sacrificed on burning pyres, or thrown into burning pits of oil, or had their eyes and tongues burned out before they were turned into Temple servants. The Temple, it was said, was jealous of Its secret knowledge, and those students who failed Its teachings were not allowed to leave alive.
While I could not imagine my kind master throwing me into a pit of burning oil, I had noticed that many fourth year students disappeared suddenly, and were never seen again. Their master or mistress would enter their dormitory and silently remove their few belongings, and a messenger would be sent to deliver these to their families.
This I found disturbing, as might well be imagined, especially since I was now in my fourth year.
My master cleared his throat and shifted his weight, bringing me back to the small stone room where my daily lessons were held. My master was a small, thin man; bald, and dressed in the maroon robes of a Senior Priest. His wrinkled face reminded me of a dried fruit, but his eyes were bright from the candle on the floor between us. We were sitting cross-legged, and his eyes told me that he knew my mind had wandered.
I tried to concentrate upon his words. My master never said anything that did not somehow apply to myself, or to what it meant to be a Priestess. Earthly Wisdom was what made a Priestess, and this was another lesson to lead me there. Earthly Wisdom was a path leading to the great secrets of Magic and Knowledge, or so my master often said.
Unfortunately, it was a path which I had never found, nor ever would. It was for this reason that my thoughts strayed so easily to the thought of the pyre or whatever other horrible fate awaited me as one of those students who would never find the path and would never leave the Temple alive to spread Its secrets.
"Spirit is like a flame in each of us, child, " he said. "When we are born, it is a candle illuminating the darkness of our souls. With Wisdom this flame can be nurtured to grow for the benefit of all, like the fire in the forge. Without Wisdom the fire will grow unchecked and will ultimately destroy, like the fire in the forest. Each of us is born with the fire of spirit, child. You have this fire in you. You must contain it, as in a forge, or it will destroy you, as it will the forest."
Though we spoke of fire, something in the tone of his voice made me feel a sudden chill.
"Do you understand, child?" he asked, softly.
I swallowed, trying to understand the chill I felt inside. The temperature in the room had not changed, yet I shivered. I stared at the candle, and suddenly, I was afraid. I shuddered, and looked at my master.
"Master," I breathed, finally voicing the fear that had been haunting me for so long, "I cannot see the path."
His eyes held me. "Child, soon you will be tested. You must not fail this test. Know the fire for what it is: the fire in the forest is desire, anger, jealous passion, lust, greed, the thirst for power and success. It is life without reflection, action without consideration. The fire in the forge is creativity, wonder, delight, compassion, curiosity, love. It is life with reflection, action with consideration. Earthly Wisdom tempers the fire, child."
"But how? How do I know it, master? How do I know one fire from the other if both are in me? How do I gain Earthly Wisdom?"
He smiled sadly and squinted at the candle. "When I first came to the Temple, child, I asked the same question. And, like you, I did not know the answer. It was then that my mistress told me of a legend, a legend which her master had told her..." My master trailed off, staring into the flame.
"What legend?" I prompted.
"The legend of the Crown of Wisdom. The magical Crown that grants its wearer the Wisdom of the Ancestors. It is said that the greatest of the ancient priests and priestesses wore this Crown in ages past, and that it was from them that the Temple gained its most precious secrets. All that we know, all that we teach, was first taught by the Crown of Wisdom."
"What happened to the Crown, master?" I asked.
"Yes, that too is what I asked," he smiled, nodding. "My mistress told me that the Crown was hidden in the Catacombs years ago, during a great war when those of the North threatened to invade us. After the war, the Crown could not be found, and it remains hidden to this day. I spent many days searching for that Crown, child, in my days as a student."
I looked at my master in wonder. I had never thought of him as a student before. Certainly, I could not picture him hunting the damp, musty labyrinths below the Temple for a Crown, no matter how precious the Crown might be. He was so wise! "Did you find the Crown, master?"
His eyes glittered in the candlelight, but I could not read his expression. "What do you think, child?"
"I...I do not know, master," I answered truthfully.
"Do you think I am wise, child?" he asked.
"Yes, master," I replied.
"Do you think that you are wise, child?"
If I was wise, then I would know the answer to his question, but I did not! The candle flared in front of my eyes...Fire, fire, fire, I would burn! I closed my eyes in anguish. "Oh master," I somehow managed to say, "I am frightened because I am not."
His eyes softened, and I felt his pity for me. He loved me and did not want to see me burn. Suddenly, I realized quite keenly that I did not want to fail, not for my sake alone, but for his as well.
"Look at the candle, child," he said. "Look at it inside you. Earthly Wisdom controls the fire. There are spells that will consume your soul if you do not have its temperance. You will be tested soon. Will you control the fire, or be consumed? Remember my words, remember my teachings, and remember the Crown if you fear you have not found the path."
With two fingers he leaned forward and snuffed the candle. I sat in darkness, pondering his words. I heard the rustle of his robes as he stood to leave, and light from the torches outside flooded the room as he opened the door. I could see from his silhouette that he did not look back at me as he left, and it occurred to me that I might never see him again.
"You are free to go, child," he said, and was gone.
I held my breath. The darkness in the room mirrored the darkness I felt in my soul.
What was I to do? The test was soon to come, of that I was certain. But what would it be? I fought the lump of fear that rose in the pit of my stomach by seeking the empty spot inside, the spot that was always at peace, that felt no fear, no grief, no anger, no love. Only peace. I breathed deeply, and melted with the darkness.
The answer, of course, was simple and obvious. I had to find the Crown. My master's meaning had been clear. He and I both knew that I could not pass the test on my own. Thus, my only hope was to find the Crown, to gain the Wisdom that I lacked. I uncrossed my legs, stood, and felt my way blindly towards the door.
The next morning I finished my chores as usual, and, after making certain that my master was not going to arrive at the normal time for my lessons, I snatched food enough to last me four days, slipped a torch from a sconce on the lowest level of the Temple, and passed under the engraved arch leading to the Catacombs.
The Catacombs were a labyrinth of passages beneath the Temple, and no one knew how far the tunnels wound their way beneath the Temple mountain. A rockfall might close one passage and open another which had been sealed for ages.
I had never entered the Catacombs before because they were damp, cold and smelled of rotting corpses. The passage floors were covered with a thin layer of slippery black moss and in places my leather sandals splashed in puddles. At each bend and turning I marked my way on the stone wall with a piece of chalk.
In all, it took me two days to find the rotted wooden door that crumbled at my touch to reveal a small crawl space through the tumbled stones and dirt of a collapsed wall. It was deep in the heart of the Catacombs and well away from any of the main passages.
There are some advantages to being short and small, one of which is being able to crawl through narrow spaces with ease. Pushing my hissing torch in front of me, I emerged quite safely on the other side, and stepped down into a large semi-circular room. Torches along the walls ignited when my sandal touched the dusty floor. The sudden light almost made me lose my balance in surprise.
When my heart calmed enough for me to think clearly, I realized with awed joy that I had found what I had been seeking. On a pedestal across the room sat a gem encrusted crown. The red rubies on its sides sparkled in the torchlight, and I marveled at their wondrous gold settings. Never had I seen a sight more beautiful or dear.
I left my torch in a sconce by the door and approached with reverence. I tread carefully, almost fearfully, but my sandals kicked up a fine cloud of black dust about my ankles. No one had been in this room for ages. I was the first. The Crown was mine. Its Wisdom was mine. Life was mine.
I kneeled in front of the pedestal and said a prayer of thanks to my Goddess. Then I stood, and lifted the Crown from its dusty resting place. It was light in my hands, but I was certain that its burden of Wisdom would be heavy. The gems burned with fire in front of my eyes.
Before I could lift the Crown to my head, the air behind me stirred, and I became aware of other presences in the room. I turned slowly, fearful of what I might see.
In a semi-circle behind me stood the Senior Priests and Priestesses. In their center was the High Priestess, and beside her was my master. His face betrayed no emotion, nor did the faces of the others. They merely watched and waited.
This, then, I thought in amazement, was the test. Suddenly, I was uncertain. If the Crown bestowed Wisdom, it made sense that to become a Priestess one would have to first put on the Crown. But what then about all those years of training? The fire in the forest and the fire in the forge...what had my master meant? Action with reflection. Temperance. I looked at my master in desperation. If only I had the wisdom to know what to do!
The Crown granted ultimate wisdom and knowledge. But looking in my master's eyes I realized that I had been led here by following a path of youthful foolishness, driven by fear. Such a path should not lead to Earthly Wisdom.
I looked at the Crown in my hands and then at my master. "I do not deserve this," I heard myself whisper. "I did not find Wisdom by the paths you tried to teach me," I said, and felt the tears stinging my eyes. "I do not know whether to put it on or not! I am certain that I should know, but I do not!"
He said nothing, but I could see his pain in the lines around his mouth. The other Priests and Priestesses watched without judgement. I would get no help from them.
With a quick obeisance to the High Priestess I crossed the room and skidded to my knees in front of my master, still holding the Crown in my hands. "Master, I have no Wisdom of my own, but I trust in yours. Please, take the Crown. If you believe I am worthy, then do what you will...or...or if I am not...then, then I will accept your judgement...and your punishment."
He stared at me in surprise, then glanced at the High Priestess beside him. Several of the other Priests and Priestesses exchanged glances.
The High Priestess frowned. "It is most unusual," she said slowly.
"Relanna has been a most unusual student," my master said with a slight bow. "She has taught me much in our time together."
"The choice is between ignorance and wisdom," another Priest objected. "She avoids the choice."
The High Priestess pursed her lips. "And yet her love and trust for Master Yolin do her credit. She has found a unique path." She turned to me. "Stand up, child."
I stood awkwardly and noticed with shame the black stains on my short white robes.
The High Priestess put her hand under my chin and tilted my head up so she could stare into my eyes. I felt her look into my soul, and was ashamed at what she saw -- an uncontrolled, unworthy spirit, unfit to tame the fires of magic.
"Why do you hesitate to put on the Crown?" she asked quietly, removing her hand.
I hung my head. "Because I am afraid," I answered truthfully.
"Why are you afraid?" she asked.
"Because this is a test, and the Crown seems too simple an answer... Oh Priestess, perhaps I am afraid that whatever I do will be wrong, no matter how simple the wise choice appears... Perhaps because I know I have not found the path my master has tried to teach, and therefore all my choices will be unwise... I am not wise, Priestess."
She smiled, and took the Crown from my hands. With measured steps that stirred no dust she returned it to its pedestal. "I would that I had answered so when I faced the Seniors in this room," she said, turning back to me. She spread her arms and indicated the floor in front of us. "Here are the ashes of some who Crowned themselves with Wisdom, child. The uncontrolled fire of their spirits consumed them where they stood. Greed, lust, jealousy, hatred (as well as others) burned in their souls. Those are the passions that are most destructive, the ones that would be most dangerous in a soul wielding the powers of magic. The Crown released these fires - and they burned. We have no use for them here."
She held out her hand, palm up, and a fire sprang from her cupped fingers. "Only fools believe they are wise, child. True wisdom is found only in Death. Earthly wisdom is self knowledge -- knowledge that you know nothing. To learn the secrets of magic, you must begin by unlearning everything you thought you knew. You must begin again from the darkness, and discover the world anew from a perspective of complete ignorance."
She made a fist, and the flame went out with a puff of smoke that rose from between her fingers. "You, Relanna, will find this process easier than most. Would you allow me to be your teacher in your advanced studies?"
I was astonished by her offer and looked at my master in surprise. He smiled and nodded, and I could see that he was pleased and proud. I smiled back knowing that he would understand my gratitude and love.
"Mistress," I said bowing to the High Priestess, "I would be most honored."
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