The Living Goddess Of Manastra

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Ochia snorted back a globule of divine snot as a chill mountain breeze of early Spring dried the tears of grief on her hallowed cheek.  She wondered, in a moment of resentful distraction, why the pathway to Heaven should depend on quite such a rickety bridge.  The sombre procession wobbled precariously on the ancient wooden structure.  The bridge was suspended from thick, waxed ropes of yak hair looped around two pairs of giant brass rings, green with age and weather, which had been embedded into the opposing cliffs centuries earlier.  Below them, a sheer gorge of darkly veined granite offered a cold and messy death to anyone who might fall from this level.  Above, the twin summits of Manastra and Vashaddun tapered into jagged spires lost in the thickening, streaming clouds.  Behind the castle, the far slope of Manastra was permanently glaciated, an impassable natural barrier which sheltered this little niche of paradise.  The winds at this time of year were treacherous, gusting violently up from the humid, fertile valleys hundreds of metres below.

Femak would have known that.  Better than any man Ochia had ever met, Femak had been a citizen of the sacred peaks, a navigator of thin air and crumbling snow shelves.  The last person who should have been caught in an avalanche.  For the first time since her deification, Ochia was bereft.

Two of Grimak’s men dragged him roughly over the unstable bridge, his fur-clad body lashed to a crude frame fashioned from two of their poleaxes and a blood-stained sheet of ageing leather.  Behind them, their Chieftan tottered solemnly, clinging to the arm of a stocky, muscular man whose distinctively shaven dome surrounded by a thick black pudding bowl cut marked him clearly as a fighting monk.  He exuded strength and poise, not remotely bothered by the swaying bridge or the weight of the frail warlord he supported.  Unlike the rest of the party, he looked boldly ahead and up towards the grey ramparts where Ochia knelt on her sumptuous litter.  A thick black moustache delineated his rugged face.  His square jaw framed with a thin, carefully maintained line of goatee.  

Behind Grimak and the monk, a handsome young woman in colourful, embroidered robes shuffled carefully forwards, her head bowed respectfully.  She led a line of servants and warriors, equally mournful in their attitude, but spread in sensible intervals along the length of the bridge.  Ochia peered closely at the woman.  I think I can hear your teeth grinding, cousin.  Keshima was Ochia’s predecessor as the earthly incarnation of the goddess Irimhina.  On reaching the age of 18, she had grudgingly divested her omnipotence for marriage to the most fearsome warlord in this region of the Sky Mountains.  In truth, a far more powerful position than that of a mere deity, but for Keshima, why settle for earthly power when you had also tasted what it was like to rule the heavens?

Ochia winced in disgust as Femak’s corpse was dumped unceremoniously at the threshold of Manastra’s imposing gatehouse.  Grimak hobbled over to it, steepled his bony fingers and bowed low towards the body.  He needed the handsome monk to pull him back to as near an upright position as his ageing backbone now allowed.  Keshima followed suit, her bow somewhat more cursory, then began barking instructions to her entourage as they stepped down from the rope bridge with expressions of some relief on their windswept faces.

“Take me down to the courtyard please,” Ochia said quietly.

“Eunuchs!  Convey the divine Irimhina to the western point of the outer plane of Heaven!” a loud voice intoned, completely unnecessarily.  Ochia glared in irritation at the Deputy High Priest, Parshanal, who had spent most of the morning planted at the end of the ramparts like a broken drinking fountain, his long nose dripping occasionally in the frosty wind.  Four men in matching indigo robes, their heads thoroughly exfoliated and their eyes lined with ground beetle dust, stepped up from the genuflections which they had held patiently for the last hour, lifting Ochia’s platform smoothly as they did so.  She floated cloud-like along the ramparts on her silk cushions, and then down the broad spiralling stairway without tipping from absolute level at any point.  How do they always manage to be exactly the same height?  She had never asked them directly.  In one of his more memorable lessons, Femak had explained to her what being a eunuch meant, and she had consequently felt rather uncomfortable about asking her attendants any questions of a personal or technical nature.  It was one of the tenets of her godhood that she should glide smoothly through the air above her worshippers, and her team of hairless bearers fulfilled this function to perfection.  

At the foot of the observation tower, in a dusty vestibule of pungent, carved teakwood, she signalled her bearers to pause.  A young woman crouched prostate on the ground before her, sobbing gently.  

“Ochia, Goddess, I’m so sorry,” the woman mumbled through her tears, her face still pressed firmly to the grubby floor.”

“Eshemi . . .” Ochia gasped, her tears welling up again.  Her all-powerful arms, responsible for beckoning the rising Sun and bringing life to fields of rice and herds of buffalo, strained against their desire to give her life-long, childhood playmate a simple hug.  With heavenly dignity intact, Ochia held her iconic position, slender hands resting calmly on her folded knees.  “I hear your prayers for our fallen son . . .”

“Get out of the way girl!” snapped Parshanal.  “Incur not the wrath of the almighty Irimhina who has chosen now to take from us the warrior brother Femak, lest you too be smitten in her anger.”

Ochia gritted her teeth and shot the priest a look of pure hatred.  If anyone was going to be smitten in her almighty anger it should be him, but that wasn’t how the divine Irimhina was expected to behave, and he was only doing his job after all.  Perhaps I can inspire a scripture to make it his job to be less of an asshole?  Unfortunately the earthly incarnations of Irimhina were not generally expected to contribute to her canon of commandments during their brief tenures in the role.  According to Fashal, the High Priest, Parshanal’s boss and ultimate expert on all matters pertaining to Irimhina, the expectations had been established long ago and weren’t expected to be changed.  

The old man himself stepped silently into the vestibule as Eshemi reversed away, still in her semi-prostrate position, like a confused cockroach.  Fashal inclined his head slightly and intoned, almost kindly Ochia thought, to the motionless eunuchs.  

“Bring forth the divine Irimhina that the soul of our departed brother may be conveyed to the next Heaven if she so please.”  

The bearers danced forward with a gliding motion.  It was impossible for Ochia to determine how many steps they actually took, but the pace was slow, mournful, and matched her mood.  She wiped her eyes with a silken sleeve.  Fashal raised his arms over Femak’s shrouded body.

“Does it please the divine Irimhina to convey the mortal soul of our departed brother to the eighth plane of Heaven, that he may be born once more to a life more blessed and fulfilled than his humble existence as a simple brother, and may aspire finally to admission to the ninth and ultimate Heaven at the conclusion of his next life, should it please the divine Irimhina?”

Ochia nodded through another holy snort.

“Let it be recorded that the soul of our brother Femak has been conveyed to the eighth plane of Heaven.”  Announced Fashal, looking pointedly at his deputy.  Parshanal fumbled within his robes, found a small slate tablet and scratched something into it hurriedly.  “We await the means of his return at the divine one’s pleasure.”  Fashal nodded to himself, satisfied, then turned to Eshemi, who had taken a position close to the body, her head bowed demurely.  “Healer, prepare his body and convey him to the pyre.”  Eshemi nodded and clapped her hands.  Four young male acolytes ran to the dead man and lifted him, bowing their heads as they came close to Ochia’s litter.  They ran into the sprawling courtyard with Eshemi trotting beside them.  Ochia looked after them sadly, knowing that she would never see her beloved teacher again.  

“Temple,” she whispered, knowing full well that there were expectations now to be fulfilled, there being important visitors at the gate and her father due back any minute from wherever he’d decided to go while Femak was out getting himself killed.  Parshanal barked something aggressive and unnecessary to her bearers, who were already getting her to where she needed to be.  Ochia was sure she caught a scowl from Keshima before covering her face with her sleeves as the litter turned away.  


Doronak, king of Manastra, and Ochia’s earthly father, arrived just in time to hear her faltering voice acknowledge the heartfelt, humble devotions of the Chieftan, Grimak and his wife, Keshima, Doronak’s niece.  Token offerings of dry rice and nuts were left at the permanent shrine below the four carved wooden pedestals on which Ochia’s litter rested in the temple.  Nuts?  That cow knows I’m allergic.  It wasn’t strictly within the expectations that that the living goddess would consume her offerings, but Ochia hated to see things go to waste, and there were plenty of opportunities during the late evening when neither Fashal nor Parshanal were in the temple and Eshemi could sneak in and gather up a few snacks for the girls to share in the privacy of the heavenly garden.  Besides, she was pretty sure that Keshima had always done the same thing from the look of delight on her face whenever someone left some cake at the shrine.  

The king, whose face looked grim and severe at the best of times, took on a profound despondency when informed of Femak’s loss.  For a time he had gazed sadly into the candles surrounding Ochia’s shrine while outside dull clunks and bangs indicated that Femak’s pyre was being erected.  Then he knelt in silent prayer beneath her litter, and turned to shuffle away, before an attendant reminded him to leave an offering.  He took a few pieces of dried fruit from the pocket in his robe and sprinkled them on the shrine before nodding one more time to the being that had once been his daughter (and would be again, Ochia told herself, just not at the moment, while someone needs to be Irimhina until the next girl comes along).  Throughout the devotion he’d said nothing.  Ochia felt colder than she could ever remember being.  She shuddered inwardly, but her poise never faltered.  As Doronak left, a group of men gathered round him, strange voices muttering with accents that Ochia did not recognise.  They moved away from the temple into the centre of the courtyard.  Ochia could already smell smoke from the oiled sandalwood.  

“Take me to the courtyard, quickly please.”  Perhaps it wasn’t an expectation for her to observe a cremation, but she wanted to be there.  Parshanal seemed surprised, unsure what to say, but gathered himself and strode out into the courtyard ahead of her litter.  Ahead of them a modest wooden platform had been hurriedly erected atop a permanent cairn of charred boulders.  Kindling had been stuffed between the oiled logs on which Femak rested, and already the flames largely obscured him.  Thick funnels of smoke were being sucked up over the castle walls and away into the evening air.  A few ragged crows perched on the battlements, jostling for the best position.  Ochia sagged on her litter, sinking a little into the silken cushions.  She coughed as a few specks of ash drifted into her face.  Parshanal waved furiously to her bearers, who shuffled her out of the smoke.  

From her new position, Ochia could now see the group of men who had accompanied her father.  A dozen or so, heavily armed, dressed in an array of styles and materials, all of which suggested combat of some kind.  Some wore leather, some plates of greyish or yellowing metal and some wore what must have been the skins of animals Ochia had never seen – thick, grey and scaled with wisps of hair shaking in the breeze.  Fashal shouted for them to bow their heads as Ochia’s litter approached.  Slowly, awkwardly, they adjusted their position, but one man’s gaze lingered on Ochia for longer than she was used to.  He was a plains warrior, she could tell from the shape of the bow strapped across his back.  A short, plaited beard tapered from his angular chin and his weatherworn face crinkled as he shot her the slightest smile, before averting his narrowed eyes and bowing with the others.  She found herself wanting to smile back at him through her tears, definitely not one of the expectations.  She composed herself, then jerked in surprise at the sound of one of the logs on the pyre splintering.  Whatever was left of poor Femak had collapsed into the cairn along with the smouldering ashes.  

“He is in Heaven now . . .” she said, as clearly as she could, hoping that she didn’t sound too choked.  The warriors stared at the sparkling fragments of ash as they floated over the ramparts.  “The mountains have taken him to their heart.”


After the cremation, Ochia retired briefly to her chambers.  Being the only place on earth where her divine toes were allowed to touch the ground, it was an opportunity for her to stretch her legs and exercise a little.  While being more than accustomed to her godly position on the silken litter, after several hours in the cold, her legs were inevitably cramped.  Even here there were sad reminders of Femak.  Here in the sacred tabernacle, on its floor of brightly painted, lacquered cedarwood, where he had taught her so much, she wept again, uncontained as she danced, her bare toes following his path, the rings on her ankles chiming in his memory.

The eunuchs retired to their ante-chamber, sat cross-legged and ate in silence from bowls of rice and lentils.  None for Ochia – a feast was being prepared in the King’s Hall and she would have her fill there.  But a few minutes later, Eshemi snuck into the chamber with some biscuits as she normally did at this hour.  Parshanal would be busy with Fashal and the junior acolytes, preparing their sermons and whatever supernatural levers they intended to apply to Grimak and any other wealthy guests who might be persuaded to contribute to the upkeep of the shrine (and its priests).  The girls hugged, finally free to behave like friends again.  Eshemi consoled Ochia silently, then tried to distract her a little.

“What did you think of the mercenaries?”  she asked.  “Do you think they will really be able to help the King find the hidden city?”

“The Goddess Irimhina, being omnipotent, would know the location of such a city without the requirement for hired thugs,” said Ochia in her best impersonation of Parshanal.  “That she has so far declined to reveal its whereabouts implies surely that mortal men are not yet intended to learn such a thing.”

Eshemi giggled.  “Well you can give them some clues at the feast if you want to, or maybe just draw them a map.”

“They’ll be at the feast?  So I’ll get to see if they eat as disgustingly as they smell.  And no, I can’t give them a map.  They’re probably just wasting their time.”

“Boknor’s going to be at the feast too,” said Eshemi.


“The monk who came with Grimak.  He looks like he could find his way to anything he wanted.”  Eshemi winked and blushed a little.

“Isn’t he supposed to be celibate?  And you’re an acolyte too?  Behave yourself!”

“He is celibate until the gods show him the correct path,” said Eshemi with fake formality.  “After that, where do you think the little monks and acolytes come from?”  She grinned.

“If you want this god to show him your path, you’d better bring some more biscuits after the feast.  I always feel hungry again after a plate of curried yak.”  Ochia finished the last biscuit and shooed Eshemi out of her chamber, knowing that one of the Priests would be there to summon her any minute.  She felt better now though, glad to have shared Eshemi’s company for a few minutes.  She took her place back on the litter.  Time to put my divinity back on.


It always seemed to Ochia that the general levels of devotion shown to her by the local population would gradually diminish in direct proportion to the level of fermented yak milk consumed over the course of an evening.  It wasn’t that anyone showed actual disrespect as such, but there was a certain withdrawal from the kind of behaviour which might be expected when in the presence of the divine.  Ochia usually found this was the time when other people became more interesting.  

Fashal refrained from drinking as far as she could tell.  He seemed to read the mood of the room, knowing that his opportunity to influence the King was diminishing with every small measure that Doronak consumed, and retired to pray once everyone else had forgotten he was ever there.  Parshanal, on the other hand, appeared to be fascinated with every word dispensed by the newcomer, Boknor, and vainly attempted to keep pace with him as he drank with the mercenaries.  

The foreign warriors, for the most part, bellowed and boasted in a variety of languages as Boknor regaled them with his assessments of battles, campaigns and conquests.  His in-depth analysis of different commanders’ successes and failures remained eloquent and conclusive, regardless of the volume of yaki that he had downed.  Parshanal was transfixed in his own dribbly manner, but slowly slipped beneath the table after his third cup.  Boknor carefully propped the priest in a corner, and continued his debate with the querulous mercenaries.   As this continued, Ochia observed her father scrutinising the monk through heavy, drunken eyelids as Grimak and Keshima took turns muttering into his ears.

After setting out one particularly controversial evaluation of a recent conflict between a neighbouring mountain tribe and a plains warlord, now deceased, Boknor took to his feet.  The angry jabber of the mercenaries rose in pitch as he did this.  He stood and breathed for a moment, then turned and nodded reverentially towards Ochia, before barking sharply.

“Silence infidel dogs!”  The mercenaries stopped to look at him for a moment, but Ochia could feel their previously good-natured boisterousness starting to turn distinctly sour.  “Forget not that you are in the presence of a goddess!  You breathe, drink, belch, eat and pass wind because the divine Irimhina suffers you to do so.  Enough of your boasts and ignorant opinions.  To bed and be silent, lest you be of no use to this royal quest on the morrow.”  This should be interesting. . . 

A burly warrior clad in metal and leather rose to his feet, hefted the twin-bladed battle axe in his hand for a moment, then staring at the unarmed monk with piercing, suddenly sober eyes, cast the weapon to the floor and leapt at Boknor with a roar, his arms outstretched for the monk’s throat.  Saw that one coming . . .  Boknor side-stepped easily, momentarily gripped the warrior’s elbow with both hands and sent him somersaulting over a table (and the half full cups of another group of mercenaries).  The dance begins . . .  Two of the fighters grabbed at Boknor simultaneously.  He twisted from between them and crashed their heads together sharply.  The circling salamander. . .  Another man threw his clay tankard as a precursor to a charge.  Boknor stepped sharply to one side, using the back of his hand to deflect the drinking vessel into the face of a second man who was about to grab him from behind.  The one finned salmon . . . Then suddenly the monk was inverted, standing on his hands on a bench and spinning both legs out at ninety degrees.  Both attackers were caught smartly on the backs of their necks and fell face-first to the floor.  The falling sycamore . . . 

At this display of martial prowess, the other mercenaries appeared more reticent about piling into the brawl.  They were on their feet, ringing the combative monk like excited schoolboys, but after the first five had fallen, no more were stepping forward.

“Have you learned proper humility yet dogs?” Boknor snarled.  He paced around the ring glaring at each man in turn.  Ochia peered more closely as Boknor came face to face with the plains archer who had shot her a blasphemous smile earlier.  He gave Boknor a similar warm grin.

“I am awestruck by your performance brother,” said the archer.  “It is a privilege to be entertained with such a dance after our tiring ascent.  My compliments to your majesty’s choice of diversion.”  Doronak looked up dopily at the comment.  “Tell me brother, do you know any good songs or is this it?”  Calmness, to be provoked is to be beaten . . .

Boknor’s face twisted in fury and his fist shot out towards the archer’s throat, which avoided the blow by a hair’s breadth.  What?  The archer had barely moved.  He was still face to face with the monk, his hands clasped behind his back, his shoulders relaxed.  The warm smile returned.  Doronak shook his head and sat up, his interest perked.

Boknor hurled himself at the man with whirling savagery, his four limbs combined into an interlocking onslaught of mechanistic menace.  The catapulted hedgehog . . .  The archer was down in the same instant, rolling backwards, retreating, twisting to avoid impact.  Ochia’s ears sought the thud of a blow making contact, but the swoosh of air was all she could hear.  Boknor landed a few metres from the point where the archer crouched on the stone floor.

“You wriggle like a gerbil in heat,” sneered the monk.  “I can see you will be a great asset on any expedition which involves running away and hiding as the principle objectives.”  He smiled.  “But that can be a useful skill nonetheless.”  Boknor stepped forward and put out a hand to help the archer to his feet.  The archer smiled and reached up.  Ochia noticed the monk’s right heel begin to lift.  The treacherous mule . . . no you don’t need to . . .  She winced at the inevitable crunch.  As the archer’s weight had moved to his left knee, the monk’s foot had scythed into it, shattering the joint. The man screamed in pain and rolled across the floor.

“Enough brother!”  the King’s voice gasped at a quivering authority.  Ochia looked briefly at the archer as he twisted in agony then looked away.  She couldn’t face the thought of any more food.

“Take me to my chamber please,” she said quietly.  The eunuchs glanced at the unconscious Parshanal in anticipation of the usual pompous regurgitation of the goddess’s commands, but shrugged as nothing was forthcoming.  They went to move but Doronak held up a hand to stop them.  He nodded to Grimak on his right and to his niece Keshima on his left.

“If it please the Goddess, a new protector has been identified.”  The King looked once more to Grimak for reassurance.  He gathered himself and spoke more loudly.  “Tomorrow I leave for the hidden city with those professional warriors who can still walk.”  He frowned at the fallen archer and the other recovering mercenaries.  “The loss of brother Femak would have made me worry for the safety and sanctity of the Goddess.  I cannot forget that the divine Irimhina resides in the heart of my own, sole daughter.  Her protection is my greatest responsibility, and thanks to my dear kinsman by marriage the Chief Grimak, such a protector has been found.  A fighting monk worthy of the task.”  Doronak stooped to ask Keshima something.  She whispered a reply.  “B - Boknor?”  The monk looked up, then bowed his head and took one knee in front of the King.  “Will you accept this holiest of duties?  Remain here at Manastra and see to the protection and security of the Goddess Irimhina?”

“I have lived many lives for this.  It is the reason for my existence.  I pledge every drop of blood in my veins to her.”  Boknor raised his head and gazed solemnly at Ochia.  She smiled weakly, and shuddered a little at the archer’s continuing groans.  Boknor returned the smile for a moment then quickly looked down as Fashal re-entered the chamber.  Eshemi followed him in and at a gesture from the old man, ran to tend to the injured mercenary.

“The Goddess has a new protector,” intoned Fashal.  “Convey her to her chambers,” he commanded, brutally kicking Parshanal to wakefulness as he did so.  “I will instruct the brother in the nature of his duties.”  Ochia’s litter bearers progressed from the chamber as the mercenaries muttered among themselves, their leaders clustering around the King.  Grimak and Keshima stood and bowed as the party left, but Ochia caught the sneer on her cousin’s face nonetheless.


Eshemi was with Ochia at breakfast the following morning.  As an acolyte healer she was permitted to sample the Goddess’s food before consumption, and the vigilant Boknor suffered her to approach and chat with Ochia  beneath his impassive gaze.  Ochia was hungry, her appetite having returned.

“Fashal has agreed that I can heal him,” Eshemi said between mouthfuls.

“Who?” replied the Goddess, wiping her lips daintily after swallowing a particularly juicy piece of fruit.

“That plains archer.  The man whose leg got broken.  He’s no use on the King’s expedition now.  Fashal says I can use him to learn how to repair a shattered joint.  If he walks again, then he’ll be allowed to stay here as a eunuch.”

Ochia looked at her with a frown.  “Doesn’t that mean you have to cut off his . . . ?”

“Not me silly!  They won’t let girls do that, even if we are healers.  Fashal will have to show Parshanal how its done.  Shame really, a bit of a waste, but he was stupid to tease Boknor.”  Eshemi looked up at the monk with an annoying degree of admiration.  Her elbow nudged Ochia as she did so.

“Soil not the Goddess with your mortal flesh sister,” he said coldly.  “She is not to be touched.  You know this.  Her purity is paramount.”

Eshemi looked down in embarrassment.  “He’s no fun,” she mouthed to Ochia.  Ochia looked up at her protector and studied him.  Not like Femak.  Faster, stronger perhaps, but more serious, very literal about the expectations.  Femak had understood how important it was for a teenage girl to have access to her friends, Queen of Heaven or not.    Perhaps that was what she needed.  What else stood between her and the tribes outside who could take control of Manastra on a whim.  Her father wasn’t going to achieve anything with his quest for a hidden city.  It was a distraction, something that he thought would make him look like a man of action.  Instead it made him look like a desperate old fool with no sons.  He couldn’t even recruit decent mercenaries.  Boknor had had them for dessert.  She should be thankful to Grimak and Keshima for finding him.


Woken by the early dawn of midsummer, Ochia had asked her eunuchs to convey her to the holy garden before breakfast.  At this hour, a light frost still clung to the pink and white anemones which speckled the granite walls and peppered the strands of spider silk which twinkled between the blooms like the rickety bridge to the castle.  If being divine meant anything, it was the privilege of watching the Sun appear behind Vashaddun, bathing the slopes in an orange glow and evapourating the night’s mist.

Ochia knelt in meditation for a few minutes of peace.  Her mind relaxed and soaring as Femak had taught her.  An early buzzard was hovering hundreds of metres above her.  She imagined herself through its eyes, a tiny, inconspicuous dot of less interest to the predator than a scuttling hamster.   How would the bird understand that she was a Goddess, the instrument of creation for everything below it.  

She had risen early enough to avoid Parshanal who would normally be in the latrine at this time.  Boknor would have been awake for hours, of course, but at this time he would be drilling the young male acolytes in bei-cho, archery and swordsmanship on the other side of the castle.

One of the eunuchs yawned and casually rubbed his eyes.  Ochia returned to earth and scanned the garden.  It was a modest, terraced yard surrounded by castle walls and turrets on all side, but with a clear outlook towards the southern peaks, with Vashaddun squarely in front.  At this time of the year, small flowers emerged from cracks in the stone steps while large bees shuttled between them, occasionally drawing the attention of a sparrow looking for breakfast.  In each corner grew an ancient, gnarly cedar.  Their ridged trunks were twisted and stunted, and by now the few cones that they gave forth had become bulbous among the unfriendly needles.  Ochia always felt drawn to them, as if they were wrinkly elders frowning their disapproval at the Goddess’s latest choice of human vessel.  Why is there an arrow sticking out of that one?

Ochia asked her sleepy eunchs to convey her to the tree in the north western corner of the garden.  An arrow was lodged in the venerable trunk, its flight of brown eagle feathers rippling slightly in the morning breeze.   As she approached, Ochia could see there was a small piece of parchment wrapped tightly around the shaft and secured with something very fine.  Hair?

From her litter, Ochia was unable to reach the arrow.  “Can you get it for me please?” she asked.  The eunuchs looked at each other for a moment, then shuffled around so that Ochia found herself facing away from the tree.  The eunuch behind and to her left reached over to try and pluck the arrow from the trunk.  It must have been embedded more deeply and firmly than he expected, because initially there were a few sharp jolts to the litter but nothing was achieved.  The eunuch grunted and, looking over her shoulder, Ochia could see that he was trying to get a firmer grip with his free right hand.  He strained and sweated for a few moments, but nothing happened.  In defeat he looked to the colleague on his left, who nodded.  The entire litter shuffled around again and Ochia now found herself facing the tower of priests, a tall and narrow wing of the castle which housed most of the priests and acolytes as well as Eshemi’s healing chamber.  Suddenly Ochia felt herself lurching into the middle of the garden and almost tipping out of the litter.  The two eunuchs in front had staggered forward in surprise when their fellow succeeded in withdrawing the arrow, but needed to drop their weight rapidly in order to regain balance.  Despite the morning chill, Ochia could see they were sweating, looks of horror on their faces.  She giggled, then tried to regain her composure as the arrow was passed to her.  Delicately, she plucked the hair, or whatever it was, from the arrow’s shaft and unfurled the parchment.  Someone had inked a few lines of Manastran in a shaky script.

She calls the lazy Sun to sprinkle glittering diamonds over snow-capped peaks

And sends the silver moon to rest in her purple silks

The heartless ground can never soil her infallible toes

But behind her holy veil a beating warrior’s heart to fortune speaks

Ochia smiled to herself.  This wasn’t the kind of devotion she was used to, but it was nice to know that someone else appreciated the beauty of their surroundings in the same way that she had learned to.  And appreciated that there was more to the Goddess than just a girl on a silk litter.  

“Take me to the practice yard please,” she told the eunuchs.  


The sight of two dozen teenage boys pointing their tonsures at her always made Ochia smirk.  She was always tempted to paint little black spots in the middle of their bald patches so it would look like a giant nest of tadpoles or some kind of multi-eyed creature.  As soon as her entourage had emerged onto the steps leading into the training yard, the boys had dropped to the floor in a fluid movement and now held themselves prostrate before her sacred presence.  Boknor, a wooden staff in his hands, turned and bowed to her.

“Eternal Irimhina, we offer our humble practice to you as we do our lifeblood, our beating hearts, the very air we breathe.  

Where is that fool Parshanal?  Does he not know that it is dangerous for the Goddess to enter the training grounds unannounced?”

“Apparently its also a bit risky in my garden,” said Ochia.  “I found an arrow in one of the trees this morning.”  She looked at him pointedly.  Boknor looked back blankly.

“Some fool acolyte practising his bowcraft in the wrong place.  I will have them all beaten.”

“There’s no need for that surely, just ask everyone to be a bit more careful.  Those Cedars are very old, I don’t want to see them damaged.”

“As it please the Goddess,” Boknor bowed again.  Ochia shrugged to herself.  I know damn well you’re the only person in this yard with the skill to hit that tree from the other side of the castle.  But fine, you can’t say anything in front of the boys.  Lets see how you are when they’re not here.

“What is going on?”  Parshanal had emerged in a fluster from the small door at the foot of the priests’ tower.  Boknor glared at him.

“The holy Irimhina sought to observe her acolytes at practice, that she be reassured of their martial prowess no doubt and in their capacity to protect the heavenly citadel.  Sadly she attended some years before they have reached readiness and we have but a pitiful display to offer her.  Perhaps it would be preferable for the Deputy High Priest to guide her to more pious pursuits at this hour?”  The fighting monk looked again at Parshanal and nodded towards the temple.  

“Yes, yes of course.  Eunuchs convey the Goddess to the temple that she may enrich herself through our unending worship.”  Parshanal composed himself and marched off towards the temple’s outer arch.  

“Bye then,” said Ochia with a smile.  Boknor nodded back to her serenely and bowed again.  As she entered the temple she could hear him barking at the acolytes.  The eunuchs placed her litter carefully on its platform above the shrine, and Ochia drifted into blank neutrality as Parshanal began to intone the morning’s devotions with a small group of female acolytes at prayer around him.  That’s today’s highlights over and done with.


It was the first time that Ochia had spent the entire Summer away from her father.  For at least three months of the year, the mountain passes were effectively sealed, so the King had seized the moment in early Spring to lead his ragged party of mercenaries on their hunt, allowing as much time as possible to return before the weather closed in again in late Autumn.  Ochia, accustomed to her celestial status, had rather underestimated the tedium which faced her, not least in the absence of Femak as well.  Had it not been for Eshemi’s regular breakfast-time gossip, at least on days when Boknor was busy training, she might have been tempted to test her immortality by jumping off the rickety bridge into the chasm below.

“As far as Parshanal is concerned, I can’t be a healer because, being a woman, I’m intrinsically unclean and therefore bring taint and dilapidation to everything or everyone I touch.  And Fashal knows he’s talking rubbish but won’t say anything because he knows how close Parshanal is with Boknor and he’s getting old and he’s not as strong as he used to be and he thinks the acolytes won’t respect him if he doesn’t look strong in front of Boknor but he’s forgetting that there are other girls in the temple and some boys who don’t like the way Boknor shouts at them all the time and he knows that I’m the best healer we’ve got so he just lets me get on with it but Parshanal . . . ”

“. . . wouldn’t look strong in front of a gerbil.”  Ochia interrupted.  “Meanwhile you’ve spent the last two months quietly fixing that mercenary’s knee.  How’s that going?”

“I got all of the bits back in the right position.  The bone’s healed I think, but I haven’t asked him to put any weight on it yet.”

“You talk to him?”

“Yes he can speak Manastran quite well.  He’s sad that he missed out on the expedition.  He said he went to a city once that was full of people who could do magic, or something that sounded like magic.  He thinks they’re related to the ones in the hidden city.”

“So maybe my father wasn’t crazy when he said he could find weapons there that would make him the most powerful King in the mountains.  Or maybe this guy’s crazy too.  Did you tell him what’s going to happen to him when he’s better?”

“No way - the mind rules the body.  You can’t heal a body when you’re making the mind sick like that.  From the stories he tells, I don’t think he’d want to manage without those for the rest of his life.”

“What stories?”

“The ones you should know anyway because you’re omnipotent.”

Ochia wrinkled her nose and most of her face, and then stuck out her divine tongue at her friend.  Eshima was two years older, technically an adult, and savvy enough to know that corrupting the earthly manifestation of Irimhina was not a great career move for a young acolyte.  

“Well at least you’ve got someone interesting to talk to.  This has to be the most boring Summer I can remember.  What’s this mercenary’s name anyway?”

“Ajeb,” said Eshemi.  “And I should get him to tell you some of his stories, the suitable ones.  He’s been to places that make this place . . . “

“This place is the purest reflection of Heaven within the earthly plain girl!” snapped Parshanal who had strode into the chamber several paces ahead of the eunuch who was supposed to be announcing him.  “If there is any corruption within these walls it results from an infestation of females, one which in time we in the priesthood would do well to expunge.  Get back to your duties and leave the Goddess to her divine reflections.”

Ochia swallowed the last pickle on her plate and burped.  Eshemi bowed, sniggered and scuttled out of the room.

“I bring news divine one,” said Parshanal with a flourish.  “The great chieftain Grimak was concerned for the safety of your shrine and your godhead, and intends to visit tomorrow with his wife and a small contingent of troops.  They will wish to pay their respects.  I can suggest some prayers and rituals in preparation.”

Oh goody . . .


Boknor was attentive during the following morning as the castle and temple residents prepared for the visit.  Ochia was flagging under Parshanal’s relentless incantations and recitations which had continued through the previous evening and for an hour either side of an Eshemi-less breakfast, until Boknor muttered something to the deputy high priest, who then bowed and left, mumbling about having other duties to attend to.

“Is it ordained that the Goddess may join her humble protector in the garden for some meditation?”  His voice was smooth, calming, the antithesis to Parshanal’s plaintive shrieking.”

“It’s ordained a lot,” said Ochia, shuffling into position on her litter.  “Let’s go.”  

When they arrived, the garden was bathed in light.  Having checked that there were no marauding hordes climbing up the castle walls, Boknor adopted an elegant, cross-legged pose on a shiny stone pedestal.  Ochia settled into her litter and relaxed, the Sun warming her face.  The breeze touched her gently.  She absorbed the sounds, the distant clatter of servants at work in the kitchens, buckets of water poured over flagstones in the courtyards below, animals disturbed, air on the buzzard’s wings soaring above them.  She felt her heart slowing, her breath deepening, her divinity caressing her sense of self with a delightful fuzziness.  After a moment of tranquil eternity, she opened her eyes.  Boknor was gazing at her.

“Thank you for that,” she said.  His expression did not change.  “You are keeping me safe, I know.  And you know what I need.  I am grateful.”

“A man could ask for no blessing greater than the one I have been given.”  His eyes met hers, his gaze becoming more sharply focussed.  “To be able to express my devotion to you directly is a treasure greater than any kingdom or empire or hidden city.  The perfection of the Goddess is utter and without end.  But sadly I must now leave you.  I fear the incompetent young acolytes will present a laughing stock to Grimak’s men when they arrive.  There are only three hours left to drill them and I doubt it will be sufficient.”  He bowed, and reversed fluidly from the garden.

Ochia smiled to herself and took some more breaths.  She looked up and absorbed the dizzying beauty of Manastra and Vashaddun.  Allowed her eyes to follow their steep slopes to the upper turrets and storeys of the castle, past the shuttered and open windows, the wafts of smoke from the kitchen chimneys and down to her private paradise, the garden with its wrinkled trees.  The arrow sticking out of the one in the north eastern corner.


Summer was the time for ripe, juicy fruit harvested in the valleys and lush, green foothills.  Plumped by warm seasonal rains and ferried in large whicker baskets on the backs of eager pilgrims as they made their tortuous way to the castle-shrine of the Goddess.  Keshima and Grimak, it appeared, had commandeered a great many of those baskets for their customary offerings, although it was clear the produce had been left in the sun for too long.  Using a wafer-thin paper fan, Ochia did her best to deflect the flies which kept trying to land on her nose as they circled the pile of mouldering plums and peaches which had been dumped on the plinth below her litter.  When one landed on her knee, she quickly snapped the fan shut and smote it heavily in a moment of divine retribution.  The eunuchs in front of her startled for a second, sending a shudder through the litter.  Keshima, who had been deep in lunchtime conversation with Parshanal and Boknor, looked up for a moment, the irritation clear on her face.

“The offerings were generous my lady,” said Boknor, “but alas the fruit has drawn flies from the yak shed.  The acolytes have doubtless been tardy in their cleaning duties.  I will arrange for beatings.”

“Its because we don’t have enough girls mucking them out,” snorted Parshanal.  “We allow them to get grand ideas of being healers and the like.  They’ll say we should have women priests next.”

“A horrific thought,” said Keshima.  “Women were created to serve their husbands, to obey them and be held in awe by their power and strength.”  She glanced at the elderly Grimak who had dozed off in a big chair hours earlier.  He snuffled and let out a particularly vibrant snore.

“I thought you said that women were unclean Parshanal,” said Ochia.  “How can they be cleaners if they’re unclean themselves?”

The deputy high priest bowed and mumbled into his lentils.

“The Goddess is no earthly woman,” said Boknor.  “Her illustrious purity dazzles all the grubby shortcomings of mundane mortal existence.  She is beauty in an astral sense, as far above us as are the stars above the mud in the bottom of a mountain stream.  To her we are mere animals, digging for scraps in the dirt.  Physical needs and laws are no concern of hers.”

“Really?” said Ochia.  “You don’t believe a goddess might have some emerging wanton desire?”  Try and stone face your way out of this one.

Boknor’s eyes met Keshima’s for a moment.  Ochia could sense her cousin’s evil grin.  Why did I say that in front of her?  Boknor remained expressionless.

“I don’t believe that.  The divine Irimhina is testing me.  And rightly so.  If her protector cannot maintain his faith in the face of temptation, what kind of protector is he?”

“The strong, handsome kind,” said Keshima.  “She is very lucky to have him around.”  She shot a stern look at Ochia before bowing again deferentially.  “The mountain tribes are restless.  It is all that my husband can do to keep them pacified while the King is away.  He thought it best to keep a full garrison here until the King returns.”

Ochia looked around the temple walls.  Every few metres, one of Grimak’s men stood on guard, heavily armed, stern-faced.  She had noticed the acolytes keeping clear of them.  So you can just decide that can you?  I thought this was my temple.  Ochia said nothing.  She hugged herself, her hand closing around a piece of parchment in the sleeve of her robe.  Another fly tried to land on her face.  Reflexively she batted it away and the crumpled document fluttered onto the ground in front of her.  

“Remove the garbage!” Parshanal screeched at the nearest acolyte server.  “That which has been defiled by contact with the ground must not infest the Goddess’s purity.”  A boy scurried over, prostrating himself as deeply as his could while simultaneously sweeping the parchment into a pan.  As he left the temple, Boknor’s gaze followed him.  The monk rose.

“If you will excuse me my lady, I have beatings to attend to among the acolytes.”  He turned and bowed deeply towards Ochia before striding out towards the kitchens.

Ochia felt slightly panicked.  Inwardly she looked for reassurance.  If he wrote it himself, its fine if he sees it.  In fact he can’t risk anyone else seeing it.  Its fine.  Either the boys will burn it or he’ll get rid of it himself.  I need to tell Eshemi about this.  She opened her mouth to instruct the eunuchs to carry her out, but was interrupted by Fashal hobbling into the temple.  Parshanal stood to acknowledge him.

“Forgive me, a little indigestion,” said the old priest.  “With such a generous offering, it befits us to observe the ritual of bounteous thankfulness, if the Goddess permits it.”  He looked up at Ochia.  Expectations.

“The Goddess permits it,” said Ochia.  “Let us observe the ritual . . . rapidly.”  

Keshima smiled, bowed again and tapped her husband on the shoulder.  After some snorting and confusion he was roused enough to participate in the ritual.  Fashal intoned prayers while Parshanal sprinkled mountain spring water over the heap of rancid fruit.  It did nothing to improve the smell as Ochia squatted patiently on her litter.  As the droning incantations continued, Ochia closed her eyes and in her mind recited her own little verse, lovingly memorised since the morning’s expedition to the garden:

She calls the fiercest assassins to lie prostrate beneath her gaze

And sends the bravest men to lose themselves in vain

No lovers dare to catch her heavenly eyes

But within her cupola breast an emerging wanton desire plays.


Back in her chamber, Ochia had complained to her eunuchs of a headache.  One was dispatched to fetch Eshemi while the others retired to their anteroom.  He was gone for a while.  In the meantime, Boknor came to her chamber, his bow slung over his back and a fighting staff in his hands.  She looked at him, startled.

“Why are you bringing weapons to my chamber?”

“There are too many of Grimak’s men in the castle.  I don’t believe that he can vouch for all of them.  I fear for your safety.  It may be nothing, but it is a precaution.”

“Thank you,” she said.  “Thank you for your consideration.”  She looked at him.  His face betrayed little, but he returned her gaze and did not look away.  She was aware of the eunuchs murmuring quietly in their room.  She could her the sound of rice spoons clinking against bowls.  A warm breeze flowed through her open windows.  Boknor was smiling.

“Beauty in an astral sense?” she said.  “Is that what you think when you look at me?”

“I didn’t say you weren’t physically beautiful as well,” he stepped closer, rested his fighting staff against the wall.  Ochia shuffled backwards on her litter.  He was smiling hungrily now.

“What’s a cupola?” she asked.  He frowned for a moment, and then his powerful hands held her upper arms,  she was pulled into his embrace and his lips were on hers.  She stiffened then felt herself begin to relax.

“Blasphemy!” Fashal’s voice croaked as he strode into the room.  “Take your filthy hands from the Goddess!”  The old man held himself up as best he could, shaking with fury.  Boknor released Ochia slowly, turned and smiled coolly at the priest.  He slowly retrieved his fighting staff and twirled it to his shoulder.  He looked back at Ochia, grinned, nodded, and swaggered from the room.  Fashal deflated in front of her, clutched his chest for a moment then sank to his knees.  He was sobbing, his breathing laboured.  Ochia froze, alone with the priest but unused to rising from her litter in front of a mortal.  Or has that all just gone out of the window now?

Eshemi came in with the eunuch.  They bowed for a moment, before noticing that Fashal was in distress.  The eunuch ran to the priest, crouched and put a hand delicately on his shoulder.

“Help him,” said Ochia.  

Eshemi squatted on the other side.  The eunuch shouted for his colleagues.  Fashal lifted his head to meet Eshemi’s eyes, his face a mask of fear and confusion.  His lips tried to form words, but he was gasping for air at the same time.  One eye looked bloodshot.

“I think he’s having a stroke,” said Eshemi.  “Quickly, carry him to the priest’s tower.  I think I can help him.”

“But the Goddess’s headache?” said the eunuch who had fetched her.

“The Goddess is fine,” said Ochia.  “Quickly help him, please . . .”  The eunuchs lifted Fashal in unison and marched from the chamber.  Eshemi gave a cursory nod to Ochia and followed them.  Trapped on her litter, the Goddess buried her face in the silk and wept.


Ochia couldn’t sleep all night.  Her sumptuous silks were hot and damp and stuck to her.  Her arms and legs were tense and coiled.  Her back ached.  Her head really ached this time.  She was alternatingly sorry for and furious with herself.  She couldn’t bear the thought of her father knowing what had happened.  She couldn’t face Fashal or Parshanal or even Eshemi.  She couldn’t decide what to think about Boknor.  And then she kept remembering that Keshima and Grimak were basically running the castle now.  

In the small hours, in utter darkness and shivering cold, Ochia did something she had not done since her deification two years earlier.  On her own soft, bare feet she crept from her chamber to the private garden.  

It was a clear night, which in the mountains meant very cold, Summer or not.  The moon was a fat, grinning face which made the frozen dew sparkle under her toes.  The stunted trees were dark, featureless masses in the corners, but in the unusual silence, she could hear the breeze disturbing a flight of eagle feathers.  Ochia felt her way along the garden wall to the furrowed bark, moving her hands gently across the surface until they closed around an arrow shaft embedded in the wood.  There was another message wrapped around it.  Angrily she tore the parchment from the arrow without trying to dislodge it.  She held it up to the light, tried to make out the words.  It was impossible.  She crept to the foot of the priest’s tower.  A row of thick orange acolyte’s robes hung from pegs close to the entrance.  She wrapped one around herself and headed down to the kitchens.  Two of Grimak’s men sat by the fireplace warming themselves.  Ochia quickly took up a broom and began sweeping the floor behind them, her face concealed by the robe’s hood.  The men looked back at her.

“Best get outside and do another turn,” said one.  “Don’t want her ladyship hearing we were inside warming our feet.”  With a grumble, the other man stood, picked up his poleaxe and shambled out, ignoring Ochia as he passed.  The other spat into the fire, stood, farted loudly, took up his weapon and left by the opposite entrance.  Ochia continued her aimless sweeping for a moment then ran to the fire.  In its dim amber glow she could read the Manastran script well enough.

She calls the reckless storms to blast the ancient stone from the mountain’s face

And sends the tumbling water to rend the crumbling hills

Impudent rain shall never touch her sacred brow

But beneath her shining hair a chieftan’s mind determines her own fate.

Ochia crumpled the parchment in her fist and threw it angrily into the fire.  There were cake crumbs on the ground.  The guards had obviously been hungry.  Now she needed cake more than anything in the world, or in Heaven for that matter.  Not knowing where to start, Ochia rooted through cupboards and containers in the spacious kitchen.  She could smell that something had been baked in here the day before.  In her mind she commanded it to reveal itself.  Above the fire, made darker by the surrounding glow, hard to focus on, she noticed that the stone oven door was hanging open.  The smell of something warm and sugary was stronger from there.  She put her hand inside.

The pain hit the side of Ochia’s hand like nothing she could remember having experienced before.  As she pulled her hand swiftly back, a metal tray clattered noisily to the kitchen floor.  Ochia squealed then tried to stifle her own distress, tears returning in rivers.  For one raised as a Princess until her ascension to godhood, discomfort was generally something which happened to other people.  She curled around her hand for a moment, then dropped to her knees and scrabbled across the shadowed floor, eventually finding the bucket of water that she needed to soothe her burnt skin.

“What was that?” One of the guards shouted from the direction of the practice yard.  

“Over here!” came a voice from the opposite side of the castle.

In panic, Ochia leapt to her feet, tipping over the bucket in the process and soaking the hem of her robe.  She ran back to her chamber, shrugging off the robe as she went along.  She could hear more shouting behind her.  Men running along the passageway in her direction.  She ducked into an alcove as a group of soldiers ran past her, back towards the kitchen.  One of them stumbled over her discarded robe.

“What’s this?”

“Leave it, come on.”  The men continued towards the shouting voices.

Ochia let out a breath and ran as quickly as she could back to her chamber.  There was no movement from the eunuchs.  She hurled herself onto the litter and curled up just as Boknor strode into the chamber.

“My Goddess?” he asked quietly into the darkness.

“Go away,” she said, choking on the throbbing pain in her hand.

“You are safe, I am sorry to have disturbed you.  Something has happened in the garden.  I will see to it.”  He left quietly.  By now the eunuchs were stirring, muttering amongst themselves.  Ochia’s hand still pulsed with pain, but fatigue began to take hold of her.  She realised suddenly how tired she was, and closed her eyes.


The pain was still there as Ochia woke to the dawn and noise and disturbance seeping through the walls of her chamber from every direction.  My feet are dirty!

A cold sweat took her as she clambered into her kneeling position.

“Some water please,” she called.  A eunuch swiftly brought a wooden bowl.  Ochia took it onto her litter.

“Thank you, please fetch Eshemi for me.”  As the eunuch turned, Ochia plunged her hand into the water, along with the sleeve of her tunic.  The pain eased a little, although there were now pink blisters rising along the side of her hand.  Surreptitiously she rubbed the damp fabric over the soles of her feet.  She waited.  The other eunuchs prepared breakfast.  Eventually the first one returned.

“Where is Eshemi?” asked Ochia.  The eunuch prostrated himself.

“She is being held by Grimak’s men.  There has been a murder.  The high priest . . . “

Ochia shook herself.  “Take me to them.”


A cacophony of angry voices was silenced as Ochia was conveyed into the temple hall.  Parshanal had been screaming with rage at Eshemi who knelt weeping on the ground, a soldier’s boot pressing firmly on her back.  At the same time Keshima had been barking angrily at her husband’s men.  Grimak sat at her side, his expression sour.  Boknor was an island of calmness, his expression blank.  As the others bowed in deference to the Goddess, Boknor looked up and smiled.  

“What are you doing?  Let her go!” Ochia shouted.  The soldier glanced towards Grimak, who nodded.  The soldier removed his boot from Eshemi’s back but the young acolyte remained frozen on her knees, forehead on the flagstones.  Parshanal turned towards Ochia and bowed slightly.

“Our beloved high priest has passed from this world.  Drowned in a basin of water.  Cast from a window in the priest’s tower by this wretched apostate witch.  Murdered by the one whose duty it was to heal.  She was seen by guards creeping around the kitchen in the dead of night, her soaking discarded cassock found in the corridors just as Fashal lay crushed and mangled in the sacred garden.  Oh the folly of encouraging such ambition in a woman!  As the new high priest I will put a stop to such recklessness even as this murderess is set aflame and cast from the bridge of Heaven into the gorge of damnation.”

“No, she couldn’t have. . . It wasn’t her robe . . . “ Ochia tried to compose herself.  “I am your Goddess and I know she didn’t kill him!”  

Parshanal spluttered.  Keshima spoke for him.

“Of course the Goddess knows everything does she not?  We would be in deep peril if we were to disregard her wisdom at such a time.  Perhaps Boknor can remind us of why the wishes of the Immortal Irimhina must be observed?”

“Irimhina is purity, sanctity and perfection above all that is unclean, base, animalistic.  In the visions of priests she chooses the body of a mortal girl as her earthly vessel.  Once that vessel was our lady Keshima, whose virtue and wisdom has returned to protect us.  Now that vessel is the Princess Ochia, or so believed our dearly departed Fashal.  I wonder if he would have been so sure of his convictions had he known of the corruption which surrounds our Princess?”

“Corruption Boknor?” said Keshima.  “Do you know something we don’t?”

Boknor reached into his tunic and produced a crumpled piece of parchment.  Ochia’s heart sank.  He stretched it out in his hands and read aloud.

“‘No lovers dare to catch her heavenly eyes, but within her cupola breast an emerging wanton desire plays’ . . . It seems our Princess has caught the eye of a lover.  One whose honeyed words have awakened passions in her youthful heart.”

Parshanal choked.  Keshima made a show of looking shocked.  

“Show me that poem.  Surely just the ramblings of a misguided admirer.  Nobody can get close to the Goddess, when she is carried everywhere on a silken litter.”

“A litter which could do with a good clean it seems,” said Boknor.  Ochia tried to squeeze her bare soles under her bottom.  “One that looks as if it has been trampled by dirty feet.  And I should say, that’s rather a nasty burn on your hand Princess.  How did you get that?  I’m sure the eunuchs know not to let you have lighted candles on your very flammable silken pillows.”

“You wrote that yourself you sleazy bastard!” screamed Ochia.  “And then you tried to . . .”

“I can assure you cousin, this is not Boknor’s handwriting,” said Keshima coolly.  “Husband, you have still the many prayers and dedications that Boknor scripted for us on our last journey here?”

“Of course,” snarled Grimak.  He snapped his fingers and one of the guards opened a leather bag full of scrolls.  Keshima took one and unfurled it.  She showed it to Parshanal along with the crumpled parchment.

“High priest,” she said.  “Do these look like the work of the same hand to you?”

“No indeed,” said Parshanal.  “Your scrolls are the work of a devout scholar.  The poem is a barely literate scrawl.  Eunuchs, convey the Princess to her garden that she may reflect on her sinfulness.  I will seek the guidance of the astral Irimhina that we may identify her true earthly vessel.”

“What about this one?” asked the guard, tapping Eshemi with his boot.

“To the dungeons.  She is guilty of murder, blasphemy and witchcraft.  She will be executed in the morning.”

The eunuchs turned to leave at Parshanal’s instruction.  Ochia jumped off the litter to the sound of gasps from some of those in the temple.  She ran to her friend, clutching Eshima protectively.  

“You can’t do this.  I’m the Princess!  My father will not allow this.  I know she didn’t kill him.”

Ochia felt strong hands grip her arms and drag her away from Eshemi.  

“Cousin,” said Keshima.  “Have you not shamed your beloved father enough already?  The guards will take you, protect you from yourself.  We will see to the safety of the castle and allow the high priest time to meditate on selection of the next Goddess.  Ochia flexed her arms in the grip of the guards.  Not here, not now.  Waves of helplessness and futility crashed over her embarrassment which itself had smothered her anger.  In its wake she stared into a still pool of terror.  At her feet Eshemi trembled silently.  Keshima stood there haughtily pointing in the direction of the garden as Parshanal had suggested.  Boknor grinned at her.  The eunuchs stood motionless, confusion in their eyes.  She wilted and the guards dragged her from the temple hall.


Although Manastra castle shrine was a relatively small edifice, it nonetheless possessed a wealth of convenient alcoves large enough for the effective concealment of unconscious guards.  When Ochia was far enough from the temple hall to be out of effective earshot, she had allowed herself to twist free and render the startled heavies insensible with a delicate application of the striking mantis to the side of the neck.  It was quick work to drag them out of sight and run barefoot down the cold corridors to the garden.  

Sure enough, another arrow protruded from the stumpy tree in the North East corner.  Ochia rapidly unfurled the message from its shaft.  It better not be another stupid love poem.  Five words only.  ‘Boknor killed the old man.’

Ochia looked up at the priest’s tower.  The high windows overlooked the castle on three sides at five levels.  At the highest level, the high priest’s private chamber where Eshemi would have taken Fashal to treat his sudden illness.  Directly below, the flagstones were still darkened by the old man’s blood.  On the level below, the rooms where Eshemi had done most of her work and training as a healer.  Another window gave out over the garden, a little to the left of the spot where Fashal must have hit the ground.  It was dark inside, she could not see anyone.  Ochia wrenched the arrow from the trunk and threw it into the foliage.  She stuffed the parchment into her sleeve and turned to leave.  Boknor stood in front of her.

“Did you come for another kiss?” she sneered at him.  

“I can wait until you want to give me another.”

“You’ll have a long wait.  In a few weeks my father will return - you can wait that long?”

“Of course.”

“Then you can also wait for however long it takes you to plummet to the bottom of the gorge when he finds out what you’ve done.”

“Oh I’ve no doubt he’ll have plenty to be angry about when he returns, but perhaps at least he can come home to a happy Princess.”


“A happy Princess and former Goddess whose best friend hasn’t been executed after all because she agreed to marry the former fighting monk who’s now the favoured heir of Lord Grimak.  The same fighting monk (retired) who physically humiliated your father’s mercenary rabble and now commands all of the soldiers who guard this castle.”

“Very convenient.  Have you told Grimak this?”

“His wife informs me that he is not in the best of health.  He has little room in his tired mind for such trivialities.”  Another of Boknor’s hateful smiles.

“So you get to marry the Princess and become the next King while Keshima gets to be Goddess again.  It worked out very well for you didn’t it?  And how very convenient that Femak died when he did.  And Fashal.  Convenient deaths follow you around don’t they?”  Ochia was almost dancing as she spoke, her body rocking to the rhythm of her musings.  Her weight moving forward from one side to another, her heels lifting in turn.

“You’re emotional, and ashamed, and a very foolish little girl.  But you have a chance to save your friend at least.  If you make that decision now.”  

Ochia’s foot struck his left leg sharply just below the knee.  Boknor staggered forward.“The treacherous mule!” he gasped, fighting to regain his balance.  The palm of her hand arced under his nose and flipped his entire body backwards.  Boknor’s head hit the flagstones with a sharp crack.

“The swooping buzzard!” she yelled in delight, then turned tail and ran towards the priest’s tower.  Two dazed guards emerged from the temple corridor into the garden.

“Stop her!” yelled Boknor.  Ochia flipped onto her hands, stretched out her legs and span.  The falling sycamore connected with both of their jaws simultaneously, sending them sprawling.  In a smooth motion, Ochia flipped back and darted into the tower’s antechamber, slamming the heavy door behind her and bolting it.  Looking around in the gloom she could see winter robes on pegs, a few broomsticks, some heavy buckets and a wooden bench where acolytes might sit to put on their boots.  She dragged the bench in front of the door and piled anything else she could find on top of it.  As she did so, two confused looking boys reached the foot of the tower’s winding stairs and gawped at her.  She shot them an impatient look.

“Goddess!” said one, prostrating himself.

“No Emak, she’s not the Goddess anymore,” said the other.  “She’s just the Princess now.”

“Just the Princess?” said Ochia.  “Just the only person who can stop Boknor taking over the castle.  Give me a hand will you?”

The boys lifted another bench and pushed it to another door.  There was a sharp bang from the other side of the wood.  The door rattled in its frame and one of the broomhandles clattered to the ground.

“Open this door or I’ll throw you and every snivelling acolyte in this castle into the gorge!” came Boknor’s voice.

“We don’t like Boknor very much,” said Emak.  

“He beats us,” said the other.  

“Femak wasn’t like that,” continued Emak.  “We learned Bei-cho from Femak.”

“We can’t learn anything from Boknor, its too scary.”

Ochia smiled.  “Femak was a good teacher wasn’t he?”  He knew that even a Goddess needed to practice Bei-cho, even if it meant covering the practice yard in silk in the middle of the night.

“So you’re Emak,” she said to the boy who had prostrated himself.  “What’s your name?” she asked the other.

“Fazbalagak,” he replied in a mumble.  “You can call me Faz.”  He smiled at her.

“Faz, Emak, its been a couple of years since I was allowed to play in the tunnels.  Are they still open?”

“Full of junk, but yes, you can still get down there.”

“Good, Grimak’s men probably don’t know about them.  Can you get round the castle without being seen and get word to the other acolytes?  We need to meet in the main courtyard near the bridge, somewhere we can’t get cut off.”

“That should be easy,” said Emak.  “Most of them are down there already building a pyre for Fashal.”

“Leave it to us,” said Faz, still smiling at Ochia intensely.  

“Come on then,” said Emak, slapping his shoulder.  The boys went into a side-chamber, lifted a metal grate in the floor and jumped into the darkness beyond a narrow, square aperture.  Ochia ran up the stairs, winding around and around, past the empty chambers where the acolytes slept, past Parshanal’s private room, also empty, up to the chamber of healing where Eshemi had worked.  She crept inside.  

“You got my message then?  Although I don’t remember asking you to come up a tower with only one entrance and get yourself trapped like a cat up a tree.”  He was sat up in bed, his left leg stretched out and still heavily bandaged.  The curved bow rested on his lap.  His beard had been trimmed and his eyes were bright.

“She’s been looking after you well.”

“She is very good at what she does.  She might have even saved the old man.  She was up there last night, caring for him.  But she came down here to see to my bandages.  Left him alone.  Except Boknor got up there while she was checking on me.  She didn’t see him, but I don’t miss creepy fighting monks sneaking up an ancient staircase when they don’t want people to know they’re there.  First thing they teach you in mercenary school.”

“Did they teach you how to write bad poetry too . . . Ajeb is that your name?”

“Self taught.  Well I didn’t have much else to do being stuck up here.  Anyway, next thing we know there’s a lot of splashing around upstairs and then a high priest goes past the window at high speed.  Eshemi went up to see what had happened, looked out of the window as you do and the guards spotted her.  Boknor snuck back down when she was up there.  Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to warn her.”

“We need to help Eshemi now.  They’re going to kill her in the morning if I don’t agree to marry Boknor so he can be the next King.  So he’ll probably kill my father too.  And I’m sure he killed Femak.  I need your help.  What can we do?”

Ajeb looked at his bandaged leg.

“I have to say I’m not great with stairs at the moment.  If you can get Boknor to stand outside that window I can probably get him with an arrow.  Or you could tell him you’re going to marry him.  That might buy you a bit of time.”

Ochia wrinkled her nose at him.  The sound of banging and crashing from the doors below became more intense.

“I’m wasting time here.”  She turned to leave.

“Don’t suppose you brought any food up with you?” said Ajeb.  “I haven’t had any breakfast.”

Ochia ignored him and skipped back down the stairs.  At ground level she met the guards as they finished the job of hacking the heavy old door into splinters.

“Take me to Boknor quickly!” she commanded.  They looked at each other.  One of them rubbed his bruised jaw then gave her an evil grin.  He stepped forward to grab her.  She allowed his thick hand to connect with her slender wrist, then locked it into place with her other hand and turned a quick somersault, upending the first guard and kicking the other in the face as she landed.

“Fine, I’ll find him myself.”


In the main temple hall, acolytes scurried to and fro from the pyre where Femak had burned only a few months ago.  Ochia had managed to evade the remaining guards who appeared to be searching for her everywhere other than in the temple hall and had hidden behind the shrine, beneath the empty pedestal where she used to perch on her litter.  She could see Emak and Faz among the acolytes.  They were keeping busy, but lots of them were there.  Several dozen now, male and female.

Parshanal was engaged in intense discussions with Keshima as Grimak sat by, staring at them with apparently only partial interest.  

“But it is unprecedented for a married woman to attain or indeed resume the godhood,” he pleaded.

“So set a new precedent.  At least I would have some experience in the role.”

“But how would your husband feel about you being beyond his reach?”

Grimak snorted and rolled his eyes.

“My husband will obey the wishes of his Goddess,” said Keshima.

Grimak nodded pointedly at Parshanal.

“Quite,” said the high priest, wiping his nose on his sleeve.  “And the King, on his return, what will I say to him?”

“If my uncle returns at all, do you think he’ll be in any position to say anything about anything?  I’m sure he’ll be happy to see his shameful daughter married off as quickly as possible and will follow the wisdom of his high priest to quietly and completely hand over control of the castle to my husband.  Because that is the advice his high priest will give him isn’t it?”

“I will meditate on it,” said Parshanal.  

“Do,” said Keshima.  “And if there’s anything that will assist your meditations, please don’t hesitate to ask.”  She nodded to a guard, who opened a large box containing something heavy and shiny which rattled.  “We brought fruit as an offering for the Goddess.  But fruit won’t help to maintain this sacred shrine, or indeed its worthy priesthood, in the way that hard cash can.”

Parshanal grinned.

“I feel my meditations are close to conclusion.  Once Fashal has been cremated and that murderess is disposed of, I am sure I will feel inspired to make the holy choice.”

“Let’s not wait until the morning then.  Fetch the healer!”

“Boknor has already gone to fetch her,” said a guard.  “He is taking her to the bridge now.”

“No!” Ochia stepped out from her hiding place.  The acolytes stopped their work and looked at her.  Keshima turned to her in fury.  

“This is not your castle cousin!” said Ochia.  “This is not your temple or shrine.  It belongs to those who care for it most.”  She looked at the boys and girls in their robes, many of them carrying heavy pieces of firewood.  “They are sick of being bullied by jumped up bandits.  They are sick of being made to feel trapped.”

“Guards, take her!” screamed Keshima.

As the soldiers began to move, so too did the acolytes.  Hefty pieces of wood cracked against helmeted scalps, in many cases knocking the men face down to the temple floor.  Those who tried to fight were quickly schooled in their ignorance of Bei-cho, beaten down and disarmed in moments.  Ochia ran past the scuffle, ignoring her seething cousin and the shell-shocked Parshanal.  

At the front of the castle, Boknor stood patiently on the rickety bridge, Eshemi kneeling at his feet, trembling, her hair clutched in his left hand.  Ochia rushed to the threshold of the bridge.

“That’s close enough Princess,” said Boknor.  “I assume you’ve come to accept my proposal.  Or did you just want to watch your friend die?”  There were tears in Eshemi’s eyes.

“Don’t,” she gasped.  “Don’t let him win.”

Ochia stared at them for a moment.

“I accept,” she said.  “Let her go.  You’ve won.  I will marry you.”  

“Let’s finish that kiss,” smiled Boknor.  He looked down at Eshemi.  “Excuse me, we don’t need you now.”  He dragged her to her feet and pushed her to the right, leaning over the side of the bridge, staring into the depths.  Eshemi screamed.

A blast of trumpets carried across the gorge, echoing off the mountains and the castle walls.  Boknor looked around in surprise.  Eshemi twisted in his grip, her nails raking bloody lines across his face.  She staggered free, Ochia yanking her back to solid ground as strode towards the monk.  She leapt at him feet first.  Boknor must have been ready this time.  He stepped aside and connected a glancing fist, enough to redirect Ochia to the bridge’s unconvincing handrail.  Ochia caught the rail with one hand but her body swung over the precipice.  Boknor laughed, gripped the opposite rail and hacked with a broad iron cleaver through the yak hair rope holding the castle-side of the bridge to the land.  The bridge tipped suddenly to one side.  Ochia felt her centre of gravity drop sharply by a couple of metres.  Her legs dangled over the gorge.  Boknor swung apelike to the one remaining anchor point.  

Above her Ochia heard the shouts of acolytes.  Eshemi calling her name, calling them to help.  Faz was leaning over, trying to grab at Boknor’s arm as he hacked.

“Get back!” she called.  “He will just pull you over.”

“But you’ll be stuck there with him!” said Eshemi.  

With a final slash, Boknor cut the bridge rope and the entire structure swung down across the gorge towards Vashaddun’s cliffs on the castle’s southern side.  As it arced through the thin air, Ochia swung herself into an inverted position, her toes clinging to the handrail.  She flexed as the wooden planks crashed into the mountainside.  Several sections of footway shattered and bounced down into the void.  Boknor dodged them as he climbed back towards Ochia and the other end of the bridge.  She hung poised, waiting, glaring down at him.  He smiled as he approached.

“Don’t go anywhere my dear.  It seems your father is back a little early.  I must go and greet him.”

Ochia loosened her grip on the flaking handrail.  This had better hold.  She pivoted around her fingers and brought both feet down to the back of Boknor’s neck.  He ducked to one side, grazing his face against stone as he did so.  One of Ochia’s feet slammed into the cliff and an excruciating pain shot through the burnt patch on her hand.  At the same time Boknor hit out at her one good hand.  In an instant Ochia was falling.  In another second she was clinging to a thin rope which had suddenly appeared, stretched taut across the gorge, one end attached to an arrow which was embedded in an exposed tree root which jutted from the cliff just below the extent of the half collapsed bridge.  Ochia stared in horror as her weight started to dislodge the shaft.  A second arrow hit the tree, another thin cord attached to it.  She grabbed the second rope.  Two more appeared.  She began to feel slightly more secure.  Over on the castle side, acolytes were working quickly to make the ropes fast to the brass rings which had supported the original bridge.

Above her, Boknor shrugged and scuttled up the patchy woodwork, the evil blade at his belt glinting in the sunlight.  Ochia gripped the ropes tightly with her agonised fingers and toes, and began worming her way back across the gorge, hanging beneath the ropes and swinging in the cool mountain breeze.  

Boknor reached the top of the bridge.  He hacked away at the ropes securing it to the brass rings in the cliff.  The yak hair frayed rapidly then the entire edifice slipped into the gorge, dislodging all of the arrows.  Once more Ochia arced across the gorge and slammed into the cliffs of Manastra.  This time there was no woodwork to protect her, and her side took to the impact painfully, fingers and toes still clinging to the biting ropes.  

“That’s the spirit!” called Boknor.  “Look after my Princess boys.  I’ll be back soon once I’ve seen to the King and his mercenary rabble.”  Brandishing his cleaver, Boknor bounded along the curving mountain path towards the sound of another blaring trumpet blast.  The King’s party must be very close.  A single arrow flew in a languid parabola across the gorge and hit him cleanly in the throat.  Gracefully, Boknor tumbled into the gorge, a spray of blood spattering the bare rock as he spun.  

Ochia closed her eyes and squeezed her bleeding fingers around the ropes as she felt herself being slowly lifted back to the castle. 


Ochia lay exhausted on the pathway that led to the castle, throbbing pain coursing through every part of her body.  This must be the same spot where they dumped Femak’s body when they brought him back.

Eshemi knelt at her side, tending the blisters and burns on her fingers and toes. The eunuchs gathered around and carefully lifted her onto the rather tatty silken litter.  Acolytes were busy around her assembling materials to build another bridge with.   Most of them also carried weapons now she noticed.

“Where are the soldiers, Keshima, Grimak?”

“Dungeon,” said Eshemi as she worked.

“Must be a bit of a squeeze.  Not very appropriate for a Goddess.  Has Parshanal made her a Goddess yet?”

“Maybe, he’s in there too.”

Ochia smiled.

“The arrows?”

“Who do you think?” said Ajeb hobbling over, his weight supported between Emak and Faz.  Carefully he lowered himself to her side.  He smiled warmly, his weatherworn face crinkled as he did so.  Ochia pulled herself up and kissed him on the lips with as much vim as she could muster.

“Oh, I wasn’t expecting that,” he said.  “I know I wrote all those poems about you, you are very pretty, but you’re a bit young.  And I was getting really bored.”

“Did Eshemi tell you what would happen when you recover?  When my father returns?”

“Ah no, she neglected to mention . . .”

Eshemi leaned over and muttered into Ajeb’s ear.  He went pale.

“Looks as if your father might be delayed somewhat while they build another bridge,” said Ajeb.  “Is there another way off this rock?  What’s on the other side of the mountain?”

“Ice,” said Ochia.  “All the way down to the next valley.”

“Steep?” said Ajeb.

“Too steep to climb up.”

“Too steep to slide down?”

“With your leg, yes.”

“Anything you could brace it to, help me stay in one piece on the way down?”

Faz looked over to the other acolytes who were busy hammering planks together.

“I think we can help with that,” he said.