Sunday, June 27, 2010

Story Excerpt #3 from "Cantadora": Chapter 3: "Serena, the Devoted One"

Chapter 3: Serena
The Devoted One

The Temple of the Sun Lady towered over the other buildings of Santo Tomas, white stone and polished marble with gold gilding above the doors. Devotees entered through the main gallery and were greeted by a statue of Santo Tomas. His outstretched hand pointed them towards the main Altar, draped in white silk and decorated with fresh flowers. The Altar was surrounded by the smaller Elemental Shrines. Santo Tomas’s was Fire, the fire of passion, of creativity and of healing. The Water Elemental was represented by the Lobos River, that flowed through the town. Air was the summer breezes that swept through the valley, and earth was the food brought out of its depths. The shrines fairly bulged with offerings; gifts of sea salt, candles, incense and holy soil multiplied as the morning went on.

A Cloister Sister lit the braziers of spicy incense. Another Sister rang the bells, and a third played on a wooden flute. Two drummers sat cross-legged on either side of the marble altar, their steady beat heard even above the noise of the crowd.

Most of the people enjoyed the gathering, yet some of Santo Tomas's elite preferred their own solitary devotions. Doña Serena Ferro-Rasquez knelt in front of the Sun Lady's private altar. Serena, as the wife of Santo Tomas' vice-mayor, insisted on a quieter worship.
The niche was cut into the red adobe walls, then sanded smooth and gilded with sheets of thin gold. Vases of fresh flowers adorned it, interspersed with votive candles and vials of holy water. At the center of the altar was a painting of the Lady of the Sun and her twin, the Lady of Darkness. The Righteous was clothed in brilliant garments that matched Her porcelain skin and girdle. The Terrible wore robes of black and red, her dark eyes smoldered with hate, her lips painted in ruby gloss.

Serena touched the small statue of the Sun Lady, then the smaller figure of Santo Tomas, Her faithful servant. The Blessed Man wore the homespun clothes of a simple trader, and thus was the town’s guardian.

A shadow floated at the corner of her eye. At first, she thought it was merely another penitent, but it was dressed in dark clothing, and not the bright colors of the townspeople. She turned around, but no one was there, save for the worshipers in the wooden pews, deep in their own devotions. There was Senhor Claudio the baker with his brood in the front pew, then Senhora Trupi with her perfumed hair and voluminous skirts. Serena frowned in disapproval; Trupi was a hypocrite, but the High Priestess still allowed her to pray at the altar.

Poor Trupi. May she find her enlightenment, as well as all those who walk the crooked path in the Shadows. The Sun Lady offered forgiveness for all, but some required more penitence than others. Serena’s mouth quirked as she thought about the High Priestess herself. How many secrets lay buried within the Sun Lady’s Servant? After five years of spying, Serena still had no idea, and that worried her.

Serena continued her prayers with a new fervor. Her chant rose and fell in cadence. "Lady of Light, protect my house and all who dwell within it. Lady of Light, have mercy on those who still live in disbelief and bring them to you, someday--"

She paused, as she usually did, to pray for her brother and her sister-in-law. Poor, poor Reynaldo. How had he gotten involved with a family of sorcerers? He had been brought up within the Abbey, as Serena had been in the Cloisters, but Reynaldo never quite devoted himself as completely as was proper. Then the Brothers had discovered his skill in trade and negotiation, and he had been sent to the Traders' Circle. Serena still believed it had been the correct decision. Someone who did not believe in a cause should not be forced to pursue it.

At least Mother had the intelligence to realize that, Serena thought with a wry twist of her lips. Serena chose to remain in the Cloister and devote herself to prayer for her family. Elena Razquez approved of her decision; after all, what proper mother would want less for her daughter? The family needed all the heavenly support it could get.

Serena was content in the Cloister. Its simple, repetitive routine gave structure to her life. The Words provided her with comfort and joy. she felt more alive during her Devotions than at any other time of the day. It was as if the Sun Lady herself had granted her most secret wish: to enfold Serena into Her arms and protect her forever. She had been ready to take her vows as a Sister. Reynaldo understood her zeal, if not her intentions, and encouraged her. As Serena had found purpose within the Cloister, Reynaldo had found it with the Traders.

Then the impossible happened. Doña Elena, their mother, died suddenly from a brief, but devastating, illness. Don Bianco, their father, assumed complete control. He had never been particularly religious and did not comprehend his wife's--or his daughter's--religious fervor.

"You will listen to me," he told her on the day he dragged her from the Cloister. "It is time you lived in the real world, not a world of mystical nonsense."

Before she knew it, she was married to Miguel Ferro, one of Don Bianco's dearest friends, and a rising political figure in the town. Miguel was not unkind, but he was not loving, either. Reynaldo found out about the wedding after the fact--by that time, he had married Magdalena Sampara, the town weaver. Reynaldo had chosen Magda of his free will. Serena was furious at her brother for defying all they had been taught, and listening to his heart.

That, and having the courage to do so. Serena laughed silently. The courage I lacked in the name of following my elder, like a traditional daughter should. Not everyone heeds the traditional Call. Her various spies had reported the arrival of Lady Isabel, the Senior Healer of the Southern Circle, and Isabel was sure to visit her cousin, Magdalena.

The Healers. A bunch of stiff-necked vultures who would have died out long ago, had she not intervened. A wry smile tugged at her lips at the memory.

She came to the end of her formal prayers. then she raised her eyes to the twin images on the altar. Her mind groped for the words to say; she was never good at speaking from the barriers within her heart.

"Lady of the Sun, I come to you in great need. I wish your guidance. I ask for your mercy on the child. I fear for it, Lady, with Isabel as godmother. Mystical talent runs in that family, and I sense dark power within Magda's womb."

Serena stole a furtive glance at the Lady of Darkness. Was it her imagination, or did lightning flash within the cobalt eyes? The flames of the candles flared once, as if in agreement. Serena felt a surge of self-righteous indignation. If it had been her child, she would send the little one to the Cloister and the Curandera. They knew how to handle those born with the potential of wild, uncontrollable Talents. Serena wished for a chance to do so--perhaps there might still be a way.

She linked her hands around her prayer stones and raised them, straightening her back and gazing deep within the Sun Lady's eyes. Tears streaked down her cheeks. "I implore you, as a humble supplicant, to give me the courage to defy the grand plans of my brother and his wife, for the child's sake. I followed my father's will as meekly as a lamb and discovered how much of a coward I really was. It pulled me off the path to You and now I must rediscover my way. Speak to me Your will; tell me, show me what I must do. For my salvation, and the family's, please guide me."

The stones grew warm within her hands. Again, her gaze strayed to the Lady of Darkness. No, she thought fiercely,I will not let You destroy my family, not this time. Your curse will stop here and now. You took my mother in death and my brother in disbelief. I will not stand idle any longer.

But the gaze held her in its thrall. Serena's arms trembled, then sank back to her sides. The voice was as sweet as precious sugar, just as rich, and full of warm love, just as she imagined it would.

My daughter, I will never leave. I will give you the aid you so richly deserve. Never fear for the souls of your beloved niece or of your brother. I will save them. I reward deep devotion such as yours, especially after the trials you have been through. You deserve such reward.

The Lady had answered her prayer. But why was she so frightened? Had she made a mistake? Had she--? Serena tried to sob, but her vocal cords were paralyzed and the Lady spoke to her again.

Listen now, My daughter, and I will tell you what to do. My will to yours, My heart to yours. Do you fear Me?

"Yes, but I don’t know why. I have never been afraid of You—“

I will never lead you astray, you know that. Will you trust Me?

Serena's mouth moved of its own accord. "Yes."

Will you follow Me?

Yes. Yes, of course.”

Good. Very good.

Serena knelt in front of the Lady's altar and listened attentively. She never noticed that she was staring at the Lady of Darkness, not at the Sun Lady, as she had thought. The painting's rosy lips curled into a slight, slight smile.

When she came back to herself, the Lady’s voice had died down to a mere whisper in her mind, but she still felt Her love and guidance. Serena stood up from the kneeler with renewed determination. She would save her brother’s child and the rest of Santo Tomas from the darkness. The Lady had told her how to do so, but she needed time to prepare.

Serena quickly left the Sanctuary, drawing her veil over her face as a proper noblewoman did in public. Despite her veil, most of the townspeople recognized her and asked for her blessing. She smiled and laid her hands on theirs and spoke the traditional words: “May the Sun Lady herself bless your house and those who live within it.” A warm current spread out from her fingers and seeped into the skin of the petitioner.

She hurried into the courtyard of her husband’s house, giving a nod to the servants bustling about the estate. Serena climbed a set of polished granite steps to the main audience chamber, where the festa was being held.

She circled the banquet hall, adjusting a setting here, pinning a drape there. Her expert eye found many flaws in the servants' costumes. Serena admonished them with quiet words as she corrected them. "Everything must be perfect for the banquet," she said. "We must display Santo Tomas in all its glory."

None of the servants noticed the slight electric thrill of her touch and they went about their assigned tasks. The tingle buried its way into the ceramic plates, the silver wine goblets and the table settings. It wormed into the cakes and vegetables, the fruit and roast beef, all without the cooks' knowledge.

Serena knew. A part of her cried out in dread and terror, but it never reached her ears. The Lady had promised their deliverance; She would do so. She had heard the prayers and answer them in Her own way; Serena was only an instrument of Her mercy.

Mercy or wrath? Then the words skittered across her mind and were lost in the numbing ether.

"A beautiful room, Carissima," boomed Don Miguel Ferro. The vice-mayor of Santo Tomas surveyed the festival hall and beamed with pride. His balding head reflected the sunight, and the gray mustache quivered in genuine delight. He wore an orange festival shirt embroidered in gold and silver thread, and pants hemmed in the same fashion. The red sash emphasized Miguel’s considerable girth.

Magda’s quiet joke, when she designed it for him. She always had a sense of dark humor under the graciousness.The thought of Magdalena worried her for a brief moment, but then, it too was gone.

"Te de Gracio, my dear," Serena answered with her most disarming smile. Miguel straightened and extended his hand to his wife. The tingle crawled up her fingers and buried itself into Miguel’s blood. Her husband didn’t notice as she brought her to the door to greet their adoring guests.

Forward to Chapter Four
Back to Chapter Two

excerpt from "Cantadora" by A. Dameron 2011. All rights reserved.tadora" by A. Dameron 2010. All rights reserved.

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