She smelled of salt and leather and horses, dusty and sweat-streaked and tired from several days of travel. Fear and excitement warred in the pit of her stomach as she finally slid from the horse’s back, safe in her father’s custody – but not for much longer. The Abbey was an imposing building of sandstone, so much larger than her home, made bigger by the expectation which accompanied it.
The weight of his hand on her shoulder was like an anchor, and she reached, impulsive, to grip his fingers. She was nine years old, and on the verge of leaving home forever.
“I don’t want to go, dad – I miss mom, I don’t want to be a priest!”
Her father paused, looking down at his daughter. He smiled at her, teeth white against the steel bristles of his beard, and his hand tightened on her shoulder, eyes misty. “Don’t let your fear hold you back, Dolly. There’s never been a Keates with the aptitude before. This is your chance – make the most of it, girl!”
His voice was gruff, but still warm, full of love and admiration. She closed her eyes, swallowing hard past the fear that lodged in her throat, and let her hand slide from his to curl to a fist at her side.
It took a few moments before she was ready to keep walking. Opening her eyes, she looked toward the Abbey again, studying its walls anxiously for some sign, some -something- which would tell her this was the right thing to do.
Her father’s broad-tipped fingers squeezed her shoulder again, and he followed her gaze. “You’ll get the best training there is here. You’ll learn how to heal the sick; you’ll bring hope to the downtrodden. A priest is important, Dolly; maybe not as flashy as a soldier or a king, but without hope there is nothing.”
She nodded quietly, and squared her shoulders, lifting her hand to take the bridle of her pony. “Without hope, there is nothing.” She repeated the words stubbornly, and glanced up at him. “Alright.”
She was thirteen years old, and she no longer needed her father’s hand on her shoulder to protect her. They sat in a circle by candlelight, casting wary glances over their shoulders and smothering giggles with their hands.
“Truth or dare, Dolly!” The girl who asked was pale and blonde, her eyes a striking amber which seemed even prettier in the firelight. She smiled, and her her teeth were crooked, lending character to her thin features.
Dolores felt her face flush pink, and her heart beat a little faster, though she wasn’t sure why. “D-dare!” She sputtered, flashing her own easy smile in turn. The girl’s eyes widened in delight, and she squiggled closer to the fire, extending a hand over the candle’s flame.
“I dare you – to heal me! For real, this time!”
There was a gasp from the circle, and another girl hissed – “But you’re not even hurt, how can-”
“Listen, look – it’ll only hurt a little, but I want to see how it feels, you know? I want Dolly to do it.”
Her heart beat faster and Dolores shook her head quickly, but the protest turned to a squeal on her lips as Charlotte squinched her eyes closed and thrust her palm into the flame; the girl sitting next to her yanked her arm away, but too late. Already, the skin was red, a small, angry blister rising.
Dolores gasped. “Light, Lottie, why!” She seized Lottie’s hand, and it was warm and soft to the touch. Clenching her teeth, she closed her eyes tightly and bowed her head, hissing a prayer more fervent than any she’d uttered before, cupping Lottie’s hand with both of hers.
She heard the other girls gasp and opened one eye, a little surprised to see the intensity of the Light she’d called. But it was Lottie’s face which startled her most.
Lottie was smiling at her, and in the glow of her Light, Dolores was suddenly strike by how beautiful she was, crooked teeth and all. She was radiant, and she was smiling, right at Dolly. Her skin suddenly felt too warm, and abruptly, she let the other girl’s hand go.
The moment passed, and no one else seemed aware of it. They crowded around Lottie, begging to see.
The blister was gone, as if it had never been. But something still burned.
Charlotte and Dolores sat side by side on the dormitory floor, the blonde’s head resting atop her knees and her arms circled tightly about her legs. “I feel like I’m losing it, Dolly! When the Shadows come over me, I don’t feel like myself anymore, I – I don’t like it. It makes me afraid; afraid of who I am, of what I can do!”
Dolores let her hand linger on Lottie’s shoulder, shaking her head as she squeezed. “You’re scared ‘cause it’s all new to you, but it’s like Mother Anita said – there can’t be Light without Shadow. It’s just two sides of the same coin. Anything’s scary, first time you do it.”
They were seventeen, and Charlotte lifted her head from her knees long enough to shoot Dolly a watery smirk, eyes red and features blotchy from crying. “Some things aren’t.”
Dolores felt her face flush bright red, and leaned over to plant a kiss on Charlotte’s cheek to hide her embarassment. “That’s different and you know it. Be serious for a minute.”
She reached for Charlotte’s hands, and the other priestess allowed her arms to be drawn away from her legs, twining her fingers with Dolly’s.
“This – these shadows? They’re still part of you, whether you use ’em or not. You’re still you, and don’t let any magic convince you otherwise. It’s just different, and you’re not used to it. Don’t let being afraid hold you back; you’re the only one of us that’s got this power.”
Charlotte’s smirk faded, and she looked aside. “But I didn’t want it. Ever since I first met you, all I wanted was…”
Her voice seemed to catch, her gaze suddenly drawn to the floor boards of the dormitory. Dolly let the silence linger, patient, and studied their fingers, clasping together. Charlotte was so pale, her fingers long and thin. Her own hands were broader, the color of tea with cream. They looked right together, even if they were different.
“All I wanted was to be – with you. Around you, just near you. I wanted us to work together. I wanted to be able to tend the sick and the dying, right by your side, even before we ever – … But if I’m this – this shadow-caster… if I have this power, then they’re going to want me to use it. They’re going to take me away from you, and what’s going to happen then, Dolly?”
Dolores felt her heart sink, but kept her face quiet. She pulled a hand away from Charlotte’s, and carefully tucked a strand of pale hair behind her ear, leaning to press her forehead against the side of her lover’s head.
“Nothing’s going to happen to us, that’s what. Wherever you go, I’ll go too. I love you, Charlotte – and nothing’s gonna change that.”
The day Charlotte left the Abbey was grey and miserable. It came sooner rather than later, and Dolores barely even spoke her intention to follow Lottie before it was shut down.
“You haven’t an ounce of shadow magic in you, Dolores Keates. This is where you belong, and where you will stay – you will complete your training in a year’s time, and take your vows, and follow your assigned roles in the world. The Light of Creation calls us where it will; there is no place for you alongside Charlotte. Not now.”
She’d promised herself she wouldn’t cry; not while Lottie was looking. She promised herself she’d be strong enough for the both of them. Lottie’s life was the one changing, and the best she could do was support her, encourage her… and let her go.
Charlotte was destined to be something greater than all of them. She knew it in her heart, had known since the day Charlotte had unflinchingly burnt her hand. She was brave and she was good, and the shadows which had so frightened her all those months ago were far more powerful than any initiate priestess had ever wielded in Crestfall’s abbey.
So Dolly didn’t cry. The girl she loved more than anything in the world was going to embrace her power, was going to become much more than a priestess. The best thing she could do was to help her move forward, to encourage her to become the best she could be.
At first, Lottie tried to refuse, said she wouldn’t, couldn’t leave… but really, it wasn’t her choice. Dolores pointed out all the positives, painted glowing stories of her beautiful lover’s future, of all the ways she could help people – already, Charlotte had shown an aptitude for telepathy. She could change the world. She could save lives, and help heal those whose minds had shattered in battle.
And no matter how much she wanted to cry, Dolores wouldn’t let herself, just kept talking more and more about how wonderful things would be.
Charlotte didn’t like it. She wanted to live in the moment, but – the moments they had were so fleeting, so bittersweet, so overshadowed by the future that loomed before them.
When they finally took her away, Charlotte didn’t look back. It was a good thing, too. Dolly broke her promise. She couldn’t keep the tears from streaming down her face, as she watched the sails furl and the boat pull away from the dock. She felt her heart tremble, felt herself break down and sob.
Mother Anita’s hand moved to rest on her shoulder, heavy. There was little comfort to it.