It was Isolde’s turn to tend the candles and provide light for the moonless harvest ceremony, one of the most important rituals of the year, but she was late and the ceremony could not begin without her. As the high priestess whispered an inaudible prayer to Gaea and the other Elven women shuffled about impatiently near the archway leading out to the sanctuary, the tardy light bearer made her rushed entrance. Isolde pardoned her way to the front of the group of holy women dressed in their finest silk robes and waited for a reaction from High Priestess Eronia.
“You are quite late. The ceremony cannot begin without the most integral participant.”
“My apologies. I had trouble starting the flame.” Isolde slightly lifted the sacred candle in her hands, gesturing to emphasize her point. The tiny light atop of the wick flickered slightly as the girl spoke.
Eronia knew that the girl always had an excuse but she had always been a distraction from the work at hand. Now was not the time for a discussion on priorities.
The women needed to focus on the task at hand.
After a curt nod from her superior and a sigh of relief from her compatriots, Isolde stepped out into the darkness, leading the way with a sacred candle in hand. As the group marched down the path, Isolde gave flame to each candelabra along the way. The courtyard took on an amber glow contrasted by deep shadows among the trees. The well maintained flower beds and topiaries surrounded the gemstone of the garden, an ornamental pond.
The priestesses each carried a small float, a square wooden plate with upturned corners, that they placed onto the water. As every woman stepped onto her float, a rhythmic hum filled the air. The priestesses were chanting, beckoning their floats to support their weight and carry them to the island in the center of the pond.
Last to arrive ashore due to her responsibilities as light bearer, Isolde gazed upon The Harvest Tree with wonder for a moment before joining the other women. The tree had always been in the courtyard but on this night it was the focus of all activity and therefore seemed more mysterious. The Harvest Tree was the only apple tree in the courtyard not in full bloom. Many of the other trees were already beginning to produce
fruit but the harvest season did not officially begin for several hours. The priestesses were chanting, dancing, singing and giving poetry in honor of the earth goddess, the goddess of harvest and various other deities that Elves knew to exist. The entire night was spent in this fashion.
As the first rays of light flooded over the distant mountains, the night’s work was completed. Perfect orbs of red, yellow and green hung heavily upon the The Harvest Tree’s branches. In a single night the tree had produced enough fruit to last the temple for weeks if properly dried and stored. Exhausted but confident that their work ensured the neighboring villages an excellent harvest this year, the women returned to their chambers for a day of rest and study.
* * *
The next sunrise saw the priestesses of Gaea making hasty preparations for their annual fall progress. This was a regional tradition. The harvest was to celebrated by all and the priestesses were scheduled to visit many venues and attend festivals. As always, Eronia had spoken at length with Isolde and had reminded her of her
responsibilities. While the remainder of the priestesses were to be touring the countryside, the young elf would be left behind in the care of the temple staff. The elder women who were unable to go on such a progressive trip were responsible for taking care of the temple during the fall. Isolde was left to wonder why she always left behind as she contemplated the High Priestess’s words.
“It is for your safety that we leave you here. Traveling with us would do you no good.”
“It cannot be so terrible out there. I am not as weak as you must think me. I want to go, ” Isolde retorted.
“It’s best if you stay here this year. You understand, ” Eronia answered flatly.
But Isolde did not understand and only longed to be included. As the caravan of white horses carried off the priestesses who wore their rugged traveling clothes and were easily identifiable by their colorful silk scarves trailing in the wind, the frustrated and confused Isolde could only wave. It was the seventy first such time that she had been abandoned by her peers for the autumn months. Isolde could hardly remember her life before her indoctrination into the cult of nature worshipers. Times such as this made her ponder what her life would be like had she grown up with in an ordinary household.
Despite the long list of chores that Isolde and the elder women were to undertake this season, there was still plenty of time for the girl to study independently. The library in the temple was an extraordinary find, a rare literary cache, that the girl was privileged enough to have access to in an otherwise rather poor and simple region of the known world. This was the one benefit Isolde cherished about her unsupervised time in the fall. The entire library was hers for the taking. Even the less than proper works were easily in her reach this time of year. Isolde had her favorite authors, ones that were normally forbidden.
Priests and Priestesses were expected to produce volumes filled with information about rituals, recipes, gardening, healing spells, nature calendars and other such topics. Isolde preferred the works of a few men and women who wrote about taking their knowledge out into the world, adventuring. These priests and priestesses were her heroes. She lived their journeys, discovered their findings, met their traveling companions – all vicariously.
* * *
As the tree leaves were torn away by the harsh early winter wind, the priestesses returned. Isolde was glad to have regained their company and looked forward to continuing her lessons about nature, magic and the gods. The lingering hunger left in her heart by the words of the courageous adventures seemed deeper and more difficult to shake than ever before.
The winter dragged on and the ceremonies, prayers and lessons seemed to go at a far slower pace for Isolde. The other priestesses each excelled in her own way.
The High Priestess took notice of Isolde’s sulky demeanor one afternoon and sought a remedy.
“You seem to be in much despair, daughter of earth. Are your duties too heavy?”
“They are not. Worry not for me. I am simply hungry.”
Mistaking the girl’s answer for a physical need, Eronia nodded and offered for the girl to work in the kitchen and perhaps eat early that day. Still the mood the priestess had been in as of late and her self-induced aloof attitude made Eronia wonder. Eronia had always known Isolde to be a bit of a problem child in the temple.
The young woman had never really fit in. She was different and there was no changing that. The High Priestess could only hope the girl did not do anything rash or foolhardy about it.