D’ara stood, staring intently toward the watery horizon as the last traces of red faded behind her. There she was! Dal started her climb heavenward, glowing brightly, and D’ara lit the first candle. “Tonight,” she said to her priestesses, “the rebellious sisters will be put in their place!”
Tonight was Dal’s festival, her strongest night of the entire year. Already the sea was casting its waves upon the base of the cliff. From up here they could see the whole isle — the fields waiting to drink deeply before planting, the other high places in the distance, the neighboring isles. Some of those would soon disappear, and D’ara hoped the fishermen had all returned this time. Last month’s tragedy was still fresh in her mind, but Dal will do what Dal will do.
Elish hid behind one of the outer pillars, peering at her mother. She wasn’t supposed to be here, but she had to know what would happen tonight, what would happen to Rufi.
* * *
“Got you!” Rufi called out as he reached for Elish. His intended tap was more of a push, sending both of them tumbling to the grass. “Tag”, he said while gulping in air, “you’re it — and fast!” After another gasp he added, “I’m sorry; that was harder than I meant.”
Elish giggled. Rufi was struggling with a growth spurt, unusually clumsy and awkward. She dusted grass from her tunic. “It’s fine — nothing broken!”
Rufi sat up. “Elish,” he said, “I know Dal rises tonight. Please, if there’s anything you can do…”
“I wish,” she sighed. “Why do they need to fight? Why does it have to affect us? Can’t you, you know, apologize for Sav or something?”
Rufi chortled. “As if that would help. Do you think the gods even notice us when they fight?”
“It’s just stupid,” Elish whined. “Stupid that they fight. Stupid that it hurts us. Stupid that they divide us up like this.”
Rufi looked up. The first waves of the orange glow bathed the field. “You should go. I don’t want you getting in trouble.”
“I guess. Dal hasn’t called me yet, but it could be any cycle now. Mother will want to check.” She rose and offered Rufi a hand up.
“Just remember,” he said, “tomorrow you chase first!” He winked at her as she turned toward home. She hoped there would be a tomorrow.
* * *
Dal rose high in the sky, gathering stormclouds around her. The wind had picked up, and waves now crashed against the cliff. D’ara stood on the center stone, eyes skyward, chanting, ringed by the others. The candles were burning low now, miraculously unaffected by the wind.
Elish drew her cloak tight. She regretted sneaking up here; at home a warm, or at least not too cold, bed awaited her in a dry room. Soon enough she would have to be up here — had no choice, as D’ara’s first daughter. It was supposed to be an honored position. Honored, that is, if you didn’t mind what Dal did to those bound to her sisters.
A flash of lightning raced through the sky. The thunderclap jolted her and she let out a cry. The nearest priestess stirred.
* * *
“Dal will call you soon, daughter.”
“But not tonight.” Elish tried not to smile, but D’ara noticed.
“Serving Dal is a great honor! You should be looking forward to it, not sulking about it!” The lecture had begun again, and Elish half-listened. She wondered if there were places in the world safe from the gods. She fantasized about setting sail and never returning, about slipping away with Rufi.
“…Rufi! How can you spend so much time with a follower of Sav? You’re putting your future in danger!” Elish snapped back to the present, to her mother’s now-aggravated chewing-out.
“They didn’t choose it! You didn’t choose Dal and I sure didn’t! It’s not their fault. It’s not my fau — !” D’ara’s slap ended her protest.
Elish silently contemplated the floor. She’d lost, as she knew she would. After a moment her mother sighed, picked up her bag, and walked out, slamming the door behind her.
* * *
Elish opened her eyes. Her head was pounding, and she felt the cold, wet stones beneath her. She started to sit up, but a kick to the chest sent her back to the floor. She lay still.
D’ara had told her about an intruder once. A man serving Sav, she’d said, there to disrupt the ceremony on Dal’s night. They’d thrown him into the sea from the top of the cliff. Elish wondered what had saved her — had D’ara protected her, or was D’ara not yet aware of her presence and she’d be crashing on those rocks soon?
Dal was overhead now, in the only clear patch in the midnight sky. Waves crashed, and lightning bolts shot to the ground below. She knew that other places ringing the sea were under attack, and that some farms would be washed away by morning. The farms of Dal’s followers, on the other hand, would survive and get the nourishment they needed. That was Dal’s promise, her mother had always said: unquestioning obedience in exchange for survival.
Without moving, Elish tried to look up at the priestesses near her. The two nearest her looked worried. That was unusual; Dal’s servants were known for being confident, fearless, even cocky.
She listened to the chanting. It seemed more frenetic, more urgent, than what her mother had described to her. Something was wrong.
* * *
Something was wrong. D’ara had prepared meticulously. She’d done everything right, she was sure. Dal had flung bolts of fire at other targets. But the waves were not as high as they should be, the seas not as turbulent, the winds not as fierce. It was Dal’s night, and her force was being hindered.
D’ara implored Dal. Her chanting rose to a shout, her increased fervor coarsing through her whole body. But — nothing. It was almost as if, the more she tried, the worse it got. She gritted her teeth and continued on.
Hours passed. Dal began to sink in the western sky, and D’ara collapsed, exhausted. Dal had been fierce, to be sure, but she had not triumphed over her sisters overwhelmingly as she should have.
Two of the priestesses broke from the circle to help D’ara to her feet. D’ara exchanged a silent look with one of them — what had gone wrong? The priestess dropped her head. D’ara followed her gaze, and for the first time saw the body sprawled on the stones.
D’ara strode the few steps to her daughter. “You! What are you doing here? You just ruined everything! How could you?” Elish whimpered, then flinched from D’ara’s kick.
“Priestess,” one of the others whispered softly, “you have been through much tonight. There is nothing more we can do, and acting against the child will not restore Dal.” D’ara stood over Elish, seething, and considered throwing her off the cliff single-handedly. Then suddenly she crumpled, falling into the arms of the nearest priestess, sobbing.
They stood silent for a time. Elish tried moving, met no resistance, and sat up. She rubbed her head where she’d been hit, felt the now-dried blood on her face. She looked skyward, pleading — “Dal, I’m sorry. Please don’t hurt my mother.”
Elish’s eyes swept the now-clearing sky. Sav was just rising, a faint, smaller moon. The waves were falling back from their high crest. Smoke rose in the distance.
Elish bolted upright, staring at a faintly-glowing half-sphere. Pointing, she stammered: “who… is that?”