Thursday, 3 November 2011

A Breath of Fire

The City was the centre of everything, the fount of all that was good, the very heart of civilisation. Behind its high earthen walls, in its streets and markets, thousands of people went about their lives secure in the knowledge that they were the most fortunate in the world, and that the savage tribes of the desert could only look on from the distance, in helpless envy.

The City sat on the edge of the great plain of the desert, backed by the walls of rock of the mountains, where nothing lived except scrub vegetation and wild goats, and where ancient ruins slowly crumbled away under the weight of the years. It was a lovely city, prosperous and fair, and the centre of the known universe.

In the very heart of the City, towering high above the hovels of the poor and the great halls of the nobility, stood the Temple of the Sacred Flame. In its maze of passages and courtyards the orders of the priests vied with each other to show their devotion to the Holy Fire, and struggled, silently, for control. Sometimes one order was on the ascendant, sometimes another, but all of them stood together, united as the Guardians of the Sacred Flame.

The Flame had burned, so legend had it, since the First Men had received it from the hands of the Sun God Himself, the Giver of All Light, and had installed it in a place of honour and built the Temple around it. It was never allowed to go out, and day and night priests and novices from all of the Six Orders were present to keep it going.

So important was the Temple and the Faith of the Sacred Flame that even the King himself would come, before any important decision, to seek the Priesthood’s advice and the blessing of the Holy Fire. Not even the King’s own palace, vast as it was, could compare with the Temple, neither in architectural splendour or the treasure it contained within its walls.

For the Temple was as rich as it was powerful, and greedy eyes could only stare at its spires in longing from the sandy wastes beyond the walls, where only the peasants ventured to tend their fields and the caravans brought the goods of the world in tribute to the greatest City that had ever been or would ever be.

So things had been as long as the City had endured, since, the legends said, the beginning of Time. And the people and the Priests did not doubt that it would so endure so long as the sun shone each day in the sky.

But no belief, no faith, can withstand forever the chill winds of change.


By the time Ashadi was six years old, she already knew what she wanted to be in life, and had told her parents. And though her parents, poor and honest labouring folk, had recoiled in horror, Ashadi had made up her mind, and would not be denied.

Each year, she had watched as on the night of the ritual Feast of the Fire, the Priests of the Sacred Flame come out in their finery to go on procession, order by order, down the streets. And before and between the priests would be the novices, dancing; their bodies, otherwise almost naked, painted with gold dust, breathing fire in great bursts into the evening air. The fire would shine on the gold until the novices would look as though they were made of fire themselves, part of the Sacred Flame to which they had dedicated their lives.

Ashadi was determined to be a novice of the Flame, and then to be a Priestess. This was what so horrified her parents and distressed them, for indeed they had envisaged quite a different future for their only daughter. And, besides, there were no Priestesses, only Priests.

There was no actual bar to girls becoming novices and then aspiring to the ranks of the Priesthood. At least one of the orders had even had a Priestess as its head long ago – but that was in a time so long gone that nobody knew how long ago it had been. It was just that there had been no women in the ranks of the acolytes of the Sacred Flame in living memory, and there seemed no reason why there should be one now.

But Ashadi was nothing if not persistent. Step by step, over the course of the next years, she wore down the resistance of all who tried to persuade her otherwise, starting with her parents, until they agreed to take her to the local council, which would have to propose her candidature. And there, too, she talked and refused to be persuaded otherwise, returning again and again, often on her own, until the council chief finally gave in and decided to forward her name to the Temple for consideration. Both he and her parents obviously hoped and expected that she would be rejected by the priests during her Test, and this was why they finally gave in.

They were wrong.

Ashadi never forgot the day she was finally inducted as a novice. She had wanted one of the great Orders, perhaps the Black or even the Red, but could only find a place in the least of them, the Yellow. But it was still a Temple order, and she would be a full Priestess when the time came. And perhaps the Yellow Order would one day be great again.

She stood with the other candidates in front of the gates of the Temple, waiting for her name to be called. All around her the other candidates milled, talking amongst themselves with elaborate unconcern in order to show that they were in no way afraid of the ordeals to come. Only Ashadi was truly calm, for she had prepared herself for years for precisely this moment, and she knew she would not fail. She said nothing to anyone, just leaned against the wall and watched the gate, waiting for her turn.

It was a long time coming. Because the Yellow Order was the least of all the orders, its candidates were called last of all, and her name was the last of these. When she entered the room where she would be questioned for the purity of her intentions, the day had rolled on into the evening, and she was hungry and tired, but her mind was still untroubled and calm.

“Why do you want to serve the Sacred Flame?” The questioner was robed as the Fire Demon, and shook a burning torch in her face, trying to make her flinch. She didn’t even blink.

“I have always wanted to serve the Holy Fire,” she intoned. “Ever since I was a child, I have considered no other role for myself. There can be no higher calling, for me, than a life devoted to the Temple.”

“What about motherhood and a family? That is every woman’s birthright.” This questioner was dressed as Death, in bone-white, and carried a skull. “It is also a woman’s duty to bear children for the City.”

“There are other women, and they can bear children for the City.” Ashadi spoke slowly and distinctly, so that she was clearly understood. “There is a higher duty than family and motherhood, and that is to serve the Fire.”

And so it went on. Ashadi had rehearsed all the possible questions that they might ask her, and she answered all of them without stumbling. She knew that they would forgive not a single hesitation, not one error – they might have, if she were a boy, but not for her.

She did not even flinch afterwards, in the final Ordeal, when they held the underside of her forearm to the Fire. It was quite a nasty burn, and took weeks to heal, but it was worth it.

At last the High Priest of her order had nodded, grudgingly, and handed her a novice’s crumpled yellow habit. She was through.

She was then ten years old.

Over the course of the next year, Ashadi learnt the discipline of being a novice. She went to sleep at midnight and rose before the dawn, and scrubbed and cleaned in between her other duties, which included taking turns at tending the Sacred Flame.

The Flame burned in a chamber deep within the Temple, a chamber with six walls and six doors, each for a particular Order, through which members of other orders were forbidden to pass. High above, in the vaulted roof, a crystal window let the sun look down at the Flame at high noon. It was a simple chamber, devoid of decoration. It had no need of decoration, for it had the Flame.

The Flame burned on a small altar of black stone, and was watched at all hours by novices and priests from the orders, from near their respective doors. Ashadi grew used to keeping her eyes unwaveringly on the flickering yellow tongue of fire, and soon grew to be able to anticipate in advance the moment she would have to replenish it. Then she would fetch fuel from the bucket and feed the fire, waiting for her turn amongst the other novices. While waiting, she was supposed to keep her mind blank and try to absorb the essence of the fire, to unite herself with it, but she always found her mind wandering to other things. Most of the time she imagined herself on the night of the feast, walking alongside the priests of her order, painted in gold and breathing fire. She yearned for it with a physical longing.

Apart from her duties, she was appallingly lonely. She lived alone, in a tiny cell so small she could hardly turn around, and owned nothing but her yellow habit and the old dress she had worn to her Test on the day she was inducted into the Order. She had only the plainest food to eat, for only the priests got the best of the kitchen’s cuisine, and drank nothing but water.

She had no friends, of course. The priests and novices of one order were forbidden to converse with their counterparts from the other orders except for the most formal necessities, and her own fellow novices treated her with deep suspicion. As a novice, they and she were sworn to celibacy, but they didn’t in any case think of her in sexual terms. They thought of her as a threat, and looked out of the corners of their eyes at her when in her presence.

From the moment she entered the Temple, she lost all contact with her parents. Officially, she now had no other family but her Yellow Order and the Sacred Flame.  The world outside was of no importance; only the Holy Fire mattered. And she had known of this, that this would happen, but it made it none the easier for all that.

One day, when Ashadi was in the Chamber of the Holy Fire, the King came, through the door of the Red Order, and prostrated himself before the Sacred Flame. The High Priests of the six orders entered after him, each through his respective door, and the lesser priests and novices were ordered from the room. So Ashadi knew nothing of what transpired afterwards in the Chamber. But, later, the word went out among the denizens of the Temple that the King had taken the army and gone off to war.

So the days and the months rolled past, and the night of the Feast grew closer, when she would take her place in the street, at one with the Flame. She had practised for it, along with the other novices, learning how to hold the volatile spirit in her mouth and blow it out in a plume of fire, and how to avoid hurting anyone, including herself.

The time was coming that she had longed for, all these years, when she could be what she had always wanted to be.


It began as a rumour that went around the city and finally found its way up to the Temple via the servants in the kitchens – a rumour of an army shambling across the desert towards the city, an army of savage men from the wastes, well-armed and inflamed with the thirst for revenge. Hard on that came other news, news which by its very nature carried the stamp of truth, for only good news needs confirmation. It was that the King had been defeated and killed, his army routed and dispersed, and that the City was defenceless except for its walls and barred gates.

But the walls and the gates were supposed to be impregnable, and the approaching host just savages, so the City paused a moment to mourn its dead and went about its business. It was the centre of the Universe, after all. Nobody had ever conquered it, and nobody ever would.

Ashadi was preparing for the Feast, due on the following night, when she heard the shouting. It was as though the entire City was screaming aloud at once, a despairing shriek. She was still wondering what was going on when there was a terrific crash and the very walls of the Temple trembled.

Ashadi was in her cell at the time. The Yellow Order had the smallest area of the Temple, and the furthest from the gates. Leaving her cell, she went to see what was going on.

The sight of a bloodstained corpse in the middle of a courtyard brought home to her exactly what was going on. She shrank back into a corridor, only just in time – two large men in leather came into the yard, swords in their hands. The bright bronze of the sword blades was stained with blood, and more blood spattered the men’s hands and leggings. They glared around, talking to each other in an unknown, guttural language, and for one moment she was sure they had seen her, but then they turned away and disappeared into another of the corridors that opened into the yard.

Ashadi rushed back to her cell then, and gathered up her old dress, her bottle of spirit, and the little food she had – some dried millet cake and a leather pouch of water. The passages were deserted when she emerged, but the air was full of drifting smoke and distant cries.

She went straight to the Chamber of the Holy Flame. It seemed, for the moment, to be a place of refuge, but even before she reached it she knew it would be nothing of the sort. The further parts of the temple were now full of noise and confusion, the shadows full of movement. Once or twice bearded invaders rushed past her, but they had no eyes for a skinny little novice girl, and they let her go.

The Chamber lay untouched, its stone floor and the altar as she had left them hours earlier. But there was no one on duty, not a single monk or novice at any of the six doors – she did not know whether they had been taken away or had fled of their own accord. For a moment she stood, looking up at the crystal window high overhead, through which the sun would shine in a few hours. She had loved to look up at it when she had been in the chamber at noon.

Footsteps were sounding behind her, coming steadily closer, and voices were raised in the language she had heard the enemy warriors speaking. She could not tarry any longer.  For the first time ever, Ashadi ran through the opposite doorway, that of the Red Order, the mightiest of the orders. She was in passages she had never seen before, but for once fortune was with her, and she met no one. She passed through chambers of such luxury as were unknown to the Yellow Order, with decorated tapestries hanging on the walls, and piles of sacks filled with gold dust. One of these she picked up and hid under her robes. She would have taken more, but it was very heavy.

The great door of the Temple, through which she had entered over a year earlier, hung shattered from its hinges. She stopped with an involuntary gasp of horror as she looked out on the City.

It was in flames. Great gouts of fire flared up from the shattered roofs, and the streets were crowded with scurrying figures. She watched horrified as armed men chased down people and hacked them down, one by one, laughing exultantly. Then, suddenly, the street before her was clear except for the corpses, and she took the opportunity to run.

It was a long way to her parents’ house, and all the way there was not a street that was not devastated, not a house which had not been smashed and looted. She ran, and wept, and her tears mixed with her sweat and poured down her face.

Her parents’ house, where she had been born and had grown up, no longer existed. She stood staring at what was left of it, at the shattered walls and the collapsed roof, and had no strength left even to wail her grief. When she heard noises in the next lane, she ran away, and kept running.

When she next realised where she was, she found herself running through the streets back towards the Temple. She had dropped her bag of food and water somewhere, but she had no thought of going back for it. All that mattered was going back to the temple, though she had no idea of what she would do when she got there.

The fire had receded a little when she returned to the broken remains of the Temple gate.  Without pausing, she ran in, back to the only place now familiar – but it was familiar no longer.

Everything she saw was shattered, furniture overturned, the great tapestries slashed to ribbons, the sacks of gold dust were gone, part of their contents spilt on the floor. Pools of blood were sticky under her feet, and distant screams echoed through the passages.

Back in the Chamber, she paused. It was still undamaged, perhaps because it had nothing worth stealing, but all around her she could now hear movement and the noises of destruction. And now, the shock and grief combined to ignite a great anger in her soul.

They had destroyed her world, all she had ever known. They had destroyed her dreams. There was only one thing she could do.

Stripping off her clothes, she took up the small bag of gold dust and rubbed it over herself. She still had the bottle of spirit, and she poured some into her mouth. Taking one of the torches that stood in the niches in the wall, she thrust it into the Holy Fire to light it, and rushed into the nearest of the passages.

A huge man stepped out of the shadows, yammering a challenge, and swung a heavy sword at her head. She ducked easily under the blow, the mouthful of spirit roaring out in an arc of fire, and the man stepped back with a cry of fear and surprise. Ashadi ran past him, swiping at his arm with the torch, drawing forth another yell of pain. And then she was inside a room, bearded warriors turning to her, stupid astonishment in their faces, and she was breathing flame at them and striking out with the torch, and running on.

She began to lose a sense of where she was running. The fire that shone from the torch, the fire she breathed out, all of it combined in her mind, and she felt as though she was made of fire, almost a part of the Sacred Flame. The Temple was her preserve, and anyone who had dared invade it was her enemy, for he was the enemy of the Flame. She was far beyond fear or grief now – all she had in her mind was pure, elemental revenge.

She didn’t know at what point she realised that she was alone. The spirit was gone, the torch burned out, her naked torso heaving and soaked with sweat. She leaned her forehead against the stone wall, and little by little slid down it until she was sitting with her back to it. And it was there that the people found her, some hours later.

She did not really understand when they told her that the invaders had fled the Temple in superstitious terror, that she had chased them through the shattered streets of the town, and returned to the Temple again. She did not understand, either, that she was all that was left of the Temple, the sole survivor, and that she was the High Priestess from this moment on.

But she lived, and the Temple had survived, and the Sacred Flame still burned. And, in time, the City would live again.

In the end, that mattered, more than anything else.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2011

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