Jenna was thrown to the floor of the empty classroom by the force of Thomias's blow to her face.
'How could you have been so careless?' he screamed at her. She could taste the blood welling in her mouth, and she spat it at him.
'Have you any idea what it has been to keep constant attention to the stupid creature day after day for these two full seasons?' she hissed. 'No, I think not. You consider it a chore even to take food to your charge, and manage that hardly often enough to keep him alive. But I must be with Kelle for every heartbeat?'
'Perhaps I consider it would serve our purposes if Cabirius did starve.'
'Oh, very clever. I am sure that the God would not consider that murder. Sorry, Your Holiness, I just forgot to feed him. Well, I think He is not quite so stupid as you, Thomias.'
'And what of you letting Kelle wander, then? You know she has not sense enough to take heed of any danger. She could have stumbled off a cliff a dozen times in her lone wanderings.'
'But she has done no such thing.'
'Then where is she now?' he demanded. She had no answer, and wiped the blood from her mouth as she climbed to her feet.
'I will find her. She cannot have disappeared completely off the face of the Isle.'
'She may easily have fallen into the hands of our enemies.'
'It is possible, but they would have nothing from her. She has taken the medicine for so long now, it would take days for her mind to clear enough to speak.'
'And what if they keep her for days?' he challenged.
'Why would they try to do so? All believe her stupour to be a permanent affliction. They will try at first to coax her speech, then they will give up and return her to us by nightfall.'
'Are you so sure that they are fooled by our charade? There are many saying openly of late that Kelle's mind should have returned by now, that the shock of the rape should be by now subsiding,' said Thomias.
'Well, what did you do to the poor girl before you brought her to me in the first place?' Jenna asked him bitterly.
'What mean you? I brought her directly to her after I had caught her leaving Cabirius. All I did was to give her a little wine with poppy to make her biddable enough to lead her to you.'
'How managed you that? I have always wondered.' Jenna asked sarcastically.
'Simple blackmail, I am sure I could teach you nothing of that subject. I called her into the small reading hut and told her that Cabirius could lose his position as Teacher if I spoke out that he was bedding a Novice. I offered her some wine, and then when she was docile enough, I led her to your hut and suggested to you the plan.'
'You did not take the opportunity to couple with her yourself? Or beat her? I know your own tastes are more extreme than my own, and she was certainly convincingly marked for an accusation of rape.'
'What would you know of my tastes, woman? You, who fear so much Priapus that you turn to the new God who needs no coupling to beget his spawn.'
'He is your God also,' she observed.
'A God that is subservient to no Goddess is of obvious appeal to we Priests, but you have no such reason. Priestesses to the new God will be closeted away as eternal virgins, with no lover but the unphallused God.'
'Perhaps that suits me well, Thomias.'
'No doubt of it. But your preferences are of no concern to me, and we will have no success if our scheming is uncovered. We would lose much support if Kelle and Cabirius bore witness against us. Methinks in retrospect it was an ill-conceived plan,' he said.
'Yes, it was a foolish plan, too hurriedly set through eagerness to be rid of the meddling Cabirius. I had not fully considered the consequences - least of all, the guardianship of two mindless dolts until the day of the God's last judgement.'
'But if we had not acted, it was only a matter of time before our cause was altogether crushed by that alliance. Between them, they were coming far too close to our intentions. And when I found Kelle in such a ravaged state and knew that Cabirius could be implicated, it seemed an opportunity too good to miss.'
'But you must admit now, we acted too rashly. What we started cannot now be undone,' Jenna said with resignation.
'If only we could have just killed all three, Attis, Cabirius and Cybele, the God's ascendance would have been assured,' he complained.
'No, you fool. The God's destruction would have been assured. By breaking his most fundamental rule, you think to benefit his cause? I wonder sometimes at my own wisdom, when this God has so very many fools as followers.' Thomias lifted his hand to strike her again, but she froze him with a withering glance. 'I am going now to seek the girl. If you so wish, you could make a separate search in the other direction,' Jenna said, climbing to her feet from the floor of the classroom.
'Which direction do you take?' he asked.
'I intend to go directly to Cybele's hut and see for myself whether Kelle is there. I believed not the sham Cybele made when she came to my hut casually seeking her minion Annia. It was the most unconvincing deception I have ever seen. Her creature has not once visited my Kelle in these whole six moons, so it was clearly a device to make me think she had no knowledge of Kelle's absence - which of course proves the exact opposite.'
'How long has she been missing?' Thomias asked her accusingly.
'Since early this morning. I have no doubt that something is amiss, her wanderings have never lasted more than an hour or two. I have searched all through the settlement, the grove and the sand beach.'
'Then I shall search the wood. I have seen her wandering there myself on occasion,' he said.
'Think you that she may have stumbled upon the followers of Cerridwen there? Perhaps she has come to harm in their wood?' she asked.
'That would solve us one problem, anyways. I have once before left her to their mercy, in their very stone circle in a storm,' Thomias said.
'And you were a fool. She was found there by the very people from whom she should have been hidden. If Cybele or Attis had seen you, then they would never have brought her to me, and they may have stayed with her until she had returned to her senses.'
'Well, they did not see me. I could not outrun such a fit young stag, so I used a charm to melt into the very fabric of the wood.'
'Hmph. A spell of a dabbling young maid, Thomias,' she sneered.
'Well, such a spell saved me from detection. What would you have done with her? Left her lying in the settlement? I had thought she would not be found for many days in that wood, unless it was by one of Cerridwen's bloodthirsty followers. And by the time she had been found, her mind would have been truly gone and her body suffering from considerable exposure. It would have made our task far simpler.'
'Look you to the outcome, then, before you brag of success. She was found before you had even dropped her body. And by our most sworn enemies.'
'How was I to know that they would be in the wood? Of all people to tread in Cerridwen's Ring, they were the ones least expected.'
'Remember that Cerridwen's followers are enemy to the Chosen One and her Consort. They would have been there to spy on the Ring. They are soft and fear the Third Face of their very own Goddess. That is why we need have no fear that the Goddess will live - she is being torn apart by her own followers. Our God need only step in when the altar is bare,' Jenna explained.
'That may not been soon enough for my lifetime, though, Jenna, and I grow impatient.'
'Impatience causes mistakes, Thomias, and we can afford no more mistakes. We should go now and find Kelle. If you have had no success, meet me at sunset at Cabirius's hut. We should check that there has been no interference there, since it appears someone may have guessed of our plan. How fares Cabirius?'
'He is improving a little, I think. For weeks, he would touch not his meals. That is why he grew so thin, not because I forgot to feed him, but rather that he refused the food,' Thomias explained.
'Perhaps he realised it affected his mind.' Jenna suggested.
'Well, he would have had little choice but to starve. And it seems finally, he has decided against that. He now sits quiet as a Winter hedgehog when I visit, and eats all his meal by the next day. The potion is working well.'
'Well, I shall see for myself.' She went to the door. 'I will see you at sundown, then. God's luck in your search.'
'And to you,' he replied as she left with a nod. He set off himself in the direction of the wood. A light summer rain had started to fall. It was just as well that all the crops were safely taken in. He should have known something was afoot last night at the Cerealia Feast. Attis had acted very strangely. He had not worn the wooden antlers, and they had remained fully clad during the coupling. He had even kissed the Chosen One, like a common bedfellow. It had been most undignified. But then, it was time that all this ceremonial coupling was over anyway. The new God had no need for earthly coupling. He could bring bounty forth without primitive grinning Herms. Perhaps this Chosen One would truly be the last. The new God's time was near, he could sense it. If only it would be soon, so that he, Thomias, could see the fruit of his own long labours.
Of course, he still had earthly desires, like any man. He longed for the young boys who were not yet Priest, but mostly, they were not available to him, and kept close to the Hall of Eire. The young Priests also had their appeal, particularly those biddable enough to bend to his most vigorous desires. He had tried to get Attis to his bed when he had first arrived on the Isle, but he was a most rebellious and difficult boy. Men aroused some interest for Thomias, although they had to be particularly submissive. He was well used to other Priests doing his bidding, but when it came to fulfilling his sexual needs, a full-grown hairy rough adult had little appeal. On the whole, females of any age had little appeal either. He did not know what had come over him when Kelle had lain drugged and helpless in his hut after he had plied her with poppy-laced wine.
Her face had already been a little bruised from her rough horse-play with Cabirius. Perhaps that was what had triggered it. He had long lusted for his young fellow Teacher. Such a smooth lithe young body. As a youngster, he had been amenable enough to Thomias's touch. It was then that Thomias had taken him to the classroom to train as teacher. But something had happened when Cabirius reached adolescence. He had met Attis at about that same time, and suddenly become more resistant to Thomias's will. He had announced to Thomias - in fact, to everyone - that he had taken a Vow to the Goddess to avoid coupling.
When Kelle had lain at Thomias's feet that day, still leaking Cabirius's seed and bleeding from wounds the young Priest had inflicted in his passion, Thomias had been aroused with a fire he had never before felt for a woman. She had struggled a little, but the drink in her veins had made her slow and weak. He had beaten her about the head as he mounted her from behind, forcing himself into her reluctant body, then finally he had held open her mouth and released into it while she gagged and writhed and choked. Jenna had known that Kelle was a little the worse for Thomias's own touch, but had still been keen to make the most of the possibility to implicate Cabirius in some foul deed.
They had expected that Cabirius would plead his innocence, in which case, one of them was to claim to have been direct witness to the rape. To their surprise, however, he had made no such denial, and their task had been easier that they had expected. But that was so long ago, and it now seemed that they had accomplished little by their complicated intrigue.
Thomias set out finally to find the errant wanderer. He was sure that Jenna was worried needlessly, that the girl had just wandered too far from the settlement, and forgotten her way back. After all, she could barely be expected to have a clear mind considering that she was still being given a poppy draught each morning. He headed for the forbidden wood, where he had dragged and dumped her limp body that half-year ago. There had been a wild Winter's storm then, but now the wood was quiet and still in the late afternoon of Midsummer. As he pushed his way through the overgrown path, a raven landed on a branch ahead of him. It looked at him with obvious intelligence, and let out a harsh accusing cry.