The Changing Tide
by Leanne Fitzpatrick
Find the village where the Oracle Empress sleeps.
It was the age old command of his office, passed down through the lineage of his order and the duty his predecessors had thrust upon him.
The ancient village of Athapaegia, where the Oracle Empress had built her home, ‘’twixt land and sea, where she had taken deities as her consorts, ruled over her people with benevolence and had led any and all charges against enemies that threatened her borders.
Her tale was legendary, her victories passed down in story and song. That she had existed was never in doubt. That she had transcended mortality and become a Goddess in her own right was never refuted. She lived in a time of magic, when the gods walked amongst the people and granted the boon of deity upon their favourites.
With her godhood she had blessed the land, brought greatness to her people- jewels from their mines, craftsmanship to her artisans, and strength to her warriors. For a time, Athapaegia was the jewel of the ocean, rich in trade and culture.
It was always at this time of year, when the first harvest came and the first feast began, that old men turned misty eyed, remembering the tales their grandfathers had told them.
Come the evenings the young would gather around the old and listen again to the tales of the Oracle Empress- of her beauty and gentleness, her wrath and her rage, until, the night of the ceremony, the bards would bring out their lutes and lyres and sing the mournful ballad of the Oracle Empress’ demise at the hands of another god.
So now Bren stood, not as a humble supplicant as once was, but in the finery of his office, laughing stock though it was.
The chain around his throat hung heavy, and he felt it’s crushing weight stifling him, tethering him to this farce as only the weight of a thousand witnesses could.
Every year the university board brought up the question of disbanding his department. No one cared about old gods any more. The magic of the world was now tamed, studied, dissected and understood. Where miracles had once happened, logic and reason now explained and held sway. The sun would always rise, no sleeping dragon rocked the earth with its snores, and there was no need for gods to bless the people… Still his office persisted. The rumbling of peasants that clung to their traditions kept the department open and so they elevated it to a ritual- a spectacle of gross exhibition and not the private supplication it had once been… And now no one remembered the time when there hadn’t been a great chain of office, or a pompous speech to and from the goddess.
Time corrupted all things, Bren thought.
Outside the bells counted out the eleventh hour. He stepped away from the mirror, disgusted by the sight of his finery, even as faded as it had become.
He stood before the painting that hung over his desk- an artists rendition of a goddess leading the charge to battle. The colours were faded, the pigments rare and no longer available for restoration, but still she glowed- naked and proud, roaring her rage out at them as her hair flowed behind and around her, one hand holding her spear aloft, the other guiding the wild eyed horse she rode.
With the sun rising behind her, bathing her in golden light, and her eyes so blue they were almost black glaring down at him, Bren fancied he could hear her battle cry, smell the sweat of her horse and feel the fury that drove her.
She was every inch a goddess, and he had loved her from the moment he first laid eyes on her. He knew, had known, from the moment he had been ushered into the room, that he had been lost.
Her gaze had skewered him, pierced right through him, diminished and rejuvenated him and claimed him, in no uncertain terms, as hers. He had fallen in love with her- with the idea of her, the essence of her, and in the privacy of that room he had knelt to her, pledging his heart, soul and body to her.
She had haunted his dreams ever since, teasing him, sometimes staying just out of reach, other times whispering in his ear. They had fought battled together, with each other. He had pledged himself to her over and over, and she had been gentle with him. They’d danced, fought, made love. She was his inspiration and his curse, challenging him, cursing him and absolving him, but always he returned to her, kneeling at her feet, craving her attention.
Even now, standing in a small and dusty room in front of a painting that did no justice to the woman in his dreams, his heart swelled with love for her. Even as he wondered at the spell she had wrought around him, he gave into it, craving always the touch of a hand that no longer existed in the world he inhabited.
He knelt now. How his peers would laugh at him. There’s was not a world of Gods and magic, but of science and logic. Their respect for the old ways extended only as far as it was useful to them. He didn’t care. For months there had been a pressure building within him, a purpose. It would come to a head tonight- somehow he knew it.
He bowed his head, whispering his prayer, and worshipped at her effigy. The banging on his door, marking the time to begin the farce was unwelcome.
The Tower Bell struck the half hour as he stepped outside. A path had been laid across the grounds, following the old route through the city to the small stone circle once outside the city limits they had designated her alter. Twin columns of candles flickered in the night air, their flames blue and casting little light. It was the one night of the year when all lights within the city were turned off- and that too was tradition, for when she had fallen at the hands of another god, her faithful had sneaked in secrecy, their faces painted back with tar to hide their identities, to continue their worship and their vigil.
Bren set forth on the bath. There was a tightness to his step and a churning in his stomach. Behind him more fell into line, some with their faces inked, some without. Whether they made a sound outside the path was irrelevant. As soon as they stepped within its bounds, there was quiet and reverence as they followed his lead.
It was times perfectly. Ahead of them the candles opened out, hundreds of them surrounding the circle. At the centre, illuminated by flaming torches a slight figure sat on the throne. She was beautiful, of that there was no doubt. She had been chosen as the Spring Queen at the beginning of the planting season and now she fulfilled her contract as the Oracle Empress with the beginning of the harvest. Next year there would be another, and this farce would continue until it was forgotten, or changed.
Time corrupted all things.
He stepped into the circle. Behind him the followers filtered out, following the line of candles until he was alone with nothing but empty space at his back. On the throne the girl watched him. He swallowed hard, trying to force himself to step forward.
He couldn’t move. It was wrong. Everything was wrong, but more than anything, he couldn’t face her. Even as a representation it soured his gut to step up to her and ask for gifts when he was dressed in brocade and spun gold.
In a flurry he tore the chain of office from his throat, dropping it to the ground. It’s heavy thud was muffled by his tunic, the ridiculous hat and finally his boots.
He sucked in a deep breath and for a moment was sure he tasted the tang of sea salt. It didn’t matter. Barefoot in only a cotton shirt and breeched he felt light and free. The air filled his lungs and if there was any muttering in the crowd he didn’t hear it.
He stepped forward with a lightness to his step he hadn’t felt in a long time, and came to the base of the throne.
The air around him became heavy with expectation. Even children- up long past their bed times, were quiet. The essence of ritual, of tradition was a small truth in the hearts and minds of the many and they were quiet as they bore witness.
Bren sank to one knee, gazing at the goddess. She was stunning, face still round with youth but already forming the leanness of womanhood. Her long blond hair was pinned up in a complicated design, thick curls left to drape over her shoulder. When she stood the lace and gossamer of her dress accentuated her slender figure, showing the promise of a maiden growing into her own as the mother.
Bren bowed his head. As beautiful as she was, it was brittle, half formed. She would come into her own of that he had no doubt, but she was no comparison to the goddess that owned his heart.
“Who are you, who come before me,” she asked. What should have been a booming voice filled with confidence and self assurance sounded weak to him, tiny in the vast openness.
“A humble supplicant asking only your blessing for his people.”
“A humble supplicant indeed with such finery as you wear.”
It felt flat, off pace, but it was the scripts they had practised. He couldn’t bring himself to carry on. The words were acid in his throat.
“A humble man,” he said quietly, “trapped in finery that does no justice to myself or the people on whose behalf I speak… And which insults you with its immodesty.”
Silence filled the space between then.
“And so you cast them off before coming to me in the hope I will overlook it?”
The heat of her words burned into him, an accusation that seared against is soul.
“No,” he gasped, forgetting himself enough to glance up at her.
He gaped, transfixed. Gone was the willowy figure in gossamer. Before him, naked and glorious was the goddess of his dreams, solid, thighs thick with muscle, shoulders back, gaze haughty and piercing.
He couldn’t help but stare, from the fire of her hair to the inky depths of her eyes she judged him and his soul withered at the thought that she’d find him lacking.
“I cast away fine clothes because they are insult and injustice to you. The ways of the past have been warped and denigrated over the centuries.”
“Centuries,” she murmured… “Has it been so long?”
He watched in mounting awe and dread as she came down the steps, hips swaying, breasts bobbing. She was more than he had ever dreamed possible- the embodiment of life and fertility, death and carnage. The idea that she would touch him thrilled and terrified him.
He couldn’t tear his eyes away from her even as he knew she had the power to burn them from his skull.
Wen she leaned down her hair tickled his face and he smelled the earth, the sea and the cloying petrichor of rain and lightning. When she gripped his chin, gently forcing him to his feet, she felt the softness of flesh that sheathed strength and iron will. She was the warrior that led her army, and she was the queen that tended her people.
“And what request would you make of me?” she demanded, holding his gaze, refusing to let him look away.
The words lined up on his tongue, practised, perfectly scripted and unchanged for centuries, and they died on his tongue.
“Come back to us,” he whispered.
She blinked, sapphire eyes turning curious for the first time.
“You do not wish for fair weather and bountiful harvest?”
“There is no point when machines and science ensure there is enough food to waste.”
She smiled. “Ah, to live in such a time of such excess.”
“It’s rotten,” he murmured. “There is no care, no love, no appreciation. We exist in a world of comfort where everything we desire is a click away.”
“Yet you wish for me to return to you when there is no need of me.”
“There is a need. So much need. We are not happy people, there is little meaning to our lives. We worship false gods of commerce, trade on the opinions of others. There is no merit to anyone any more.”
“And you think I can change that.”
“Not for all, certainly not for many… but for the few of us that long for something meaningful, perhaps.”
He licked his lips.
“For me,” he whispered. “I’ve worshipped you since the moment I saw your painting.”
“I know. You have endured much ridicule from those you call friends. Do you expect me to lay retribution at their heels?”
“I expect nothing,” he gasped. “I wouldn’t presume to impose… You are… You are a goddess. I’m only a mortal man. I wouldn’t presume to expect anything from you.”
She stared at him and his breath caught in his throat. She was glorious. Her hair was the colour of the setting sun on copper, of burning embers and golden thread. He longed to run is fingers through the curling mass, to feel it wrapped around his fists.
Unbidden memories of his dreams came to his mind, of sweating, panting gasps of worship as they moved against each other- the taste of her flesh, the tang of her scent.
He swallowed heavily as she smiled.
“Ah yes,” she murmured. “I remember you. So you see me at last. Am I everything you dreamed I’d be?”
“All that and more,” he whispered.
“And if I commanded you to kneel in the dirt and lick the dust from my feet you’d do it?”
He swallowed, hesitated.
“Is that what you command?” he asked.
She threw her head back and laughed. Her whole body shook with mirth and it was glorious to behold.
“So there is hope for you yet,” she smiled. “I am glad. I have no desire to be resurrected by a simpering fool.” Her expression turned sober. “Do you know where the City resides?”
“City. She is the key to my resting place.”
“I don’t understand.”
“So few ever do, but perhaps you will in time. There is another cycle to go before your time runs out.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s been so long since I was human… Were you always such literal creatures? How much magic in this world have you lost?”
“Most of it.”
She laughed again.
“Where there is a spark there is hope. Not all gods were bade through belief alone. Some were deities before humans had words with which to describe them. The City is one such being- changed now, as all human perception changes beings like us. Learn about this place you call home. Understand it, the rhythm and flow, the beauty and the dark. Once you know everything you can know you’ll begin to see the world beneath your world, and after that will come understanding. You’ll know the writing on the wall for what it is, and when you are ready you will see her, and she will guide the way to me.”
“I still don’t understand,” he said quietly, heart breaking at the thought of disappointing her.
She looked at him them, her gaze devouring his face, his thoughts.
“You are old before your time, heartsick with longing and fear. Your books cannot help you with this, nor would I answer you if books were all you had to you. Go outside and be amongst the people. Listen to their stories and find the grain that connects them all.”
She pulled him close, cupping his face between her palms.
“Gods and deities walk amongst you, created by humans and abandoned when convenience comes knocking. Go out into the world and find them if you ever want to find me. It’s the only way you will ever find out who you are and what matters to you.”
“She leaned in close and pressed her lips to his. The kiss was light and chaste and it set his emotions reeling, his lust boiling. His hands found their way into her hair, curling the soft strands around his fists as he groaned against her.
He pulled her into him, and her body moulded against his as he tasted the ocean, felt the heat of the sun beating down on him and felt the quiet satisfaction of a mind without doubt.
When she pulled away he was ashamed of the desperate whimper that escaped him.
“You are a good man,” she murmured, pressing her finger to his lips when he tried to speak, “but time is already moving and the window grows smaller. Find the City. She will guide you to the village that once was. You will find me there.”
She stroked a finger down his cheek and he sank down to his knee once more.
“I swear it,” he murmured, fist over his heart as he glared at the ground. “I swear it with every fibre of my being. I will find you.”
“I believe you,” she said quietly.
He felt the tension around his heart loosen a touch and he closed his eyes, filled with purpose.
“Supplicant!” a small voice hissed.
His eyes flew open and his head jerked up. Around him the people watched and the girl glared at him, quietly panicking as he faltered in his words.
“A boon,” he stammered at last, forcing the memorised words out despite the bitterness they left on his tongue. “By your graciousness I ask for fair weather, a bountiful harvest and winter mild enough to keep us warm and safe. I ask for your protection on our ships and shores that friends may be permitted to enter while foes are repelled, and for we your humble subjects to birth strong and healthy young of our own so that that they may grow tall and strong, to better serve you.”
“You ask for much. What would you sacrifice in my honour?”
He rose unsteadily to his feet. When he met her gaze she was worried, questioning.
“A feast in your honour, great lady, if you would permit me to escort you to the head table where we will dine, dance and drink in your honour.”
He offered his arm, which she took without hesitation and, though inside his stomach cramped and churned, he smiled and led the way to the prepared feast. The witnesses within the circle turned to follow them, snuffing the candles out one by one until the throne in the stone circle was shrouded in darkness.
Bren walked in silence, escorting his lady to the seat of honour. They would drink and dance. The logical, modern minded academics of the university would indulge in the folkloric for a might before they returned to their cold studies, but Bren had already made up his mind. Tomorrow he would request a sabbatical from his duties. If one was not granted his resignation was already drafted in his mind and would be a small thing to type up.
The sickness that had threatened during the ceremony had fallen away to be replaced by burning desire and duty. He knew his life’s purpose now, and he was set upon it’s course.
For a moment he smelled the ocean and his lips tingled in a remembered kiss. For a moment he had existed outside of time, in a place where the gods of the past were still real, and come what may, he would find his goddess. He would bring her back into the world. He knew it as surely as he still felt the press of her body against him and the sound of her voice in his head.
She was real. There was a grain of truth in every story, and he would collect those stories until he found the City, and through her, the goddess in his dreams.