Our Lady's Prayer
Great Mother, fountain of love,
Hear this, your daughter's prayer,
while your light shines in heaven's vault,
turn your gaze upon the world,
and help us preserve your domain.
Grant us the wisdom,
that we may do thy will,
in the pain of birth,
in the terror of death,
in every part of the cycle,
let us be the hands that ease the burden.
Grant us strength,
that we may be thy sword,
to guard your peace and sanctity,
from the knife that penetrates.
Let us gather up your threads and bind,
all the sins of the world,
to make it whole again.
Anastasia spoke the prayer almost vehemently, its meaning catching on her tongue like thorns. Her vows thus reaffirmed, she retired to her bare room where she lay down on a pile of furs bathed in Luna's light.
Sleep stole upon her and she drifted back through the strata of the past, the rage in her heart throbbing all the while.
She dreamed of a youth spend amidst the iron fastness of the steppe; of Anya, the little girl she had been. She dreamed of the grey, nameless village where she had passed her days in soulless drudgery: mending, cooking, cleaning and a thousand other maddening tasks. She remembered the catcalls and greedy eyes of the village men upon her as she approached the cusp of womanhood. She became angry as she contemplated the future that had been marked out for her from birth: the dullard husband, the idiot children clinging to her skirts as she grew ever more spent and doughty.
But fate had intervened.
She drifted deeper into the dream, saw with relief the convent, those warm stones at the high frozen edge of the world. She saw the high spring meadows, carpetted with red flowers. Saw bright flags waving in the clear mountain air. She saw the shrines in the high passes, stones gleaming in the moonlight and her breath rising before her as she climbed up towards them.
The Great Mother wore many aspects: Maiden, Mother, Crone. Huntress, Priestess, Queen.
You were a maiden when they recieved you at the convent, chaste and unsullied by male touch. The abbess made certain of this. It was a grevious sin to present the Great Mother an offering that had been defiled, after all.
Luna had been blood-red the night she'd taken her first vows, hanging heavy and swollen above the altar before which Anastasia knelt. It was an auspice heavily laden with significance. A sign of the Great Mother's displeasure? Perhaps Anya had too much that was masculine about her after all? Too much of the destroyer. Too much of the Logos.
The sisters and the abbess had merely bowed their heads, saying nothing.
For a long time after the intitiation her thoughts had dwelt upon that blood-red moon. All through her training, there was much to remind her of it: she saw it in the flickering candles by which she prayed late at night, sensed it in the slack redness of a severed umbilical cord. She saw it in the shimmering of the sun on the glaciers at dusk and the delicate flowers that carpeted the high meadows. She saw it in the colours that streamed through her own aura, felt its presence in the elk's entrails, hot and dripping, as they coated her hands and filled her belly. After a time, she realised that it was not her conscience that was troubled, but rather some deeper understanding of herself, of the order of things. She knew her dedication to the Great Mother was beyond question, knew that she could not be judged impure.
The blood moon had not been a sign of the Great Mother's displeasure, but rather an omen.
A bitter smile passed across her face where she lay dreaming; only now did she understand the Great Mother's sign of favour.
Far more troubling than Luna's omen was the image of the Emperor Kastor that had been present at the temple altar that night, its masculine features completely at odds with the sacred feminity of that space.
For a year she'd remained in the role of maiden: thirteen passings of the moon, the period of learning and dedication required before one could ascend to full sisterhood; before one could assume one's ordained role.
Her training progressed quickly. She was among the best. At the convent, still barely more than a girl, she discovered a deeper reality. She knew peace in her heart for the first time.
Luna, Great Mother, Eros. The Feminine Principle. Primal Force Of Creation.
The Sisterhood of Luna were the Great Mother's handmaidens and principal servants. Their souls were the divine sparks of her flame, sent down into the world of matter. Anya's understanding grew. She was to number amongst the nurturers and caretakers of creation. She and her sisters would care for the land, dispense wisdom to the small-folk, assist in childbirth and intervene in all the small difficulties of life. All this she accepted readily, for she did not yet understand her own nature.
There were many lunar aspects.
Always the forces of destruction threatened Luna's domain. The male principle showed its hand in the hordes of wolves that coursed through the valleys each winter, in the raiding and warring of the steppe tribes, in the fires, pollutions and disasters that men wrought upon the natural world, in the perversion of magic by crazed apostates.
It was clear that the Great Mother had need of warriors as well as handmaidens. Without them, her creation would soon fall to death and madness.
There was little time given over to to martial training at the convent, however- a scant few hours of archery here and there, some wilderness survival and martial arts peppered in amidst the months of herbalism, astrology and meditative reflection. It was, after all, but a tiny portion of what it meant to be a Sister of Luna. Still, violent efforts were occasionally necessary. The winnowing of an elk herd that had grown too large and threatened to destroy the valley soil, for example. The destruction of a wolf that had acquired a talent for taking village children at play. A battle line of Sisters quickly deployed to check the spread of a raging forest fire. It was in these exercises that Anastasia shone. From her commanding presence to her calm under pressure and the sure flight of her arrows, it was in these moments that her true nature shone through.
It was the warrior's role for which she was destined.
All this was noted with concern by the convent sisters. Ravens came and went from the highest of the convent towers. And on the last day of her novitiate, some thirteen passings of the moon since she had taken her first vow, she was called forth from amongst the ranks by the abbess.
The preistess was waiting for them in the abbess' private quarters.
Anastasia had been immediately struck by the woman: her calm martial bearing, strong body and eyes that blazed with righteous zeal. Anastasia had answered her questions while the abbess listened with an attitude of quiet defeat. Afterwards she'd shed tears of joy and relief. Finally, her life made total sense.
Not for her the dusty reflections of the chantry; not as handmaiden or midwife would she serve. Her skills marked her for a Valkyrie.
Little did she suspect what the word truly meant.
Her novitiate over, she was transferred to Krepost Luny, a lakeside fortress high in the fastness of Old Siberia. Here, under the watchful eyes of the priestesses, aspirants were moulded into instruments of Luna's wrath.
It was a far cry from the quiet, cloistered life of the convent. The regime was punishing.
Each morning the recruits were dragged from bed before dawn to be harried gasping into the frozen lake or driven at hellacious speed on a weighted march.
Intense and unforgiving training followed; at first martial, later magical.
She remembered with a smile her puzzlement the first time she saw a firearm. The dull metal of the rifle barrel, so strange at first that she had hefted it as a club. Soon the weapon became an extension of herself; cold justice incarnate. Marksmanship was followed by wilderness survival and hunting; later, the stalking and capture of human quarry. Next came combat tactics and rigourous training exercises. Finally, they mastered spellcasting and magical combat, the pace of the training so relentless that three initiates were killed.
Unquestioning obedience was demanded. Those who questioned, those who could not push beyond their own boundaries, were obliterated by their own lack of faith. Those who were able to obey without question; those who demonstrated true faith were rewarded with the dissolution of their weakness.
At first, Anastasia had felt herself drowning, dissolving. Panicked, she would wake at odd hours, knowing that the torture would soon begin anew, knowing that she could not possibly bear it. But she knew what happened to those who thought too much, what happend to those who questioned themselves. She was strong. She ceased to think. She ceased to question. Gradually, her fear subsided.Gradually she was purified. Her weakness sloughed away, leaving only strength and hard-tipped zeal. She gave herself to Luna. Fear of death and suffering passed into meaninglessness. She was clear and cold and dedicated.
Finally, after an excrutiating final exercise, she was found worthy. Her final vow was taken before a statue of the huntress in a desolate mountain pass, her words almost lost in the howling gale. It was Anya who knelt, a peasant from some nameless village. It was Anastasia who rose, Sister of Luna and a Valkyrie.
A maiden warrior bound in service to the Great Mother.
A cruelty then, that the seeds of doubt were to be planted within her so quickly.
The posting came as something of a shock. Little explanation of a Valkyrie's duties had been made at
Krepost Luny. No loyal Sister would have presumed to ask for one. All of her training, all of her dreams had prepared her for a life routing Luna's enemies; for desperate struggle against diabolists and apostates. Against those who thought to upset the natural order, those whose hubris threatened all of creation.
And yet it was not the service of the Great Mother that she had entered, but rather that of a man.
The Emperor Kastor, to be precise.
The anger pulsed hard at her core and she woke suddenly, her eyes unsheathing their fury in the darkness.