Twelve Names of the Lady of Everlasting Night, Etched into Bone
It only took about two hours for Taeva to decide that pledging her oaths in bone had been a mistake.
Reasonable devotioners chose stone or metal. Reasonable devotioners chose materials that were soft enough to carve, but firm enough not to worry about shattering them with your chisel. Reasonable devotioners chose materials that were used for pledging every year, with entire workshops full of specialized tools to lend to new initiates and experienced carvers to guide their hands.
In Taeva’s defense, bone had seemed like a good idea at a time.
She hunched over the altar that was serving as a makeshift medical-table-cum-workbench in the fading sunlight – among other decisions she had failed to think all the way through, she had neglected to bring a candle – and scowled at the rabbit skull clutched between her fingers, muttering obscenities towards the god she intended to pledge herself to that night. Assuming she actually finished the damned thing.
Taeva paused and set down her chisel. She shook the tension out of her hand, hoping to ward off any cramps before they had a chance to set in. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, and then another, in and out. She picked up the chisel again and pressed it gently but firmly against the surface of the rabbit’s skull, gathering her focus, squinting in the low light. Another slow, steady breath—
A sonorous bell broke the silence and Taeva nearly fell off of her stool, just barely remembering to catch herself with the hand that wasn’t holding the rabbit skull as the workshop door groaned open somewhere behind her.
“Godsdamn it, Tenric, Lady take you, I can’t afford to break another skull, I already crushed the mouse skull I started with and Khotet’s going to be so pissed if I waste their last rabbit too, and then my first task as a new pledge is going to be godsdamned rabbit hunting—”
“Oh, Khotet is going to be angry, are they?” interrupted a voice, low and smooth and definitely not Tenric’s.
Taeva slumped low on her stool. “Sorry,” she muttered without looking behind her. “I thought you were—”
“I didn’t say you were going to be angry now,” Taeva said, hearing the plaintive note in her voice and hating that she couldn’t do anything to steel it. “Just that you would be if I broke the rabbit skull. Which I didn’t. Yet. Thankfully.”
“You said you broke a mouse skull?” Khotet’s voice sounded closer now than it had before, but Taeva still refused to turn and meet their eyes.
“Mice should have better skulls. Those flimsy things can’t be doing a very good job of protecting their brains.”
An expectant silence settled heavy in the air.
“Okay, fine, I was stupid, I pressed too hard with the chisel and it shattered almost immediately, but also the Lady should have given mice better skulls, those things are useless.”
Taeva half-started when she felt Khotet’s arm wrap around her shoulders, but she forced herself to relax and allowed them to pull her in close against their chest. They always ran cool to the touch, but their embrace was still warm compared to the chill of the workshop, and comforting. Their clothes carried the familiar scent of lavender and medicinal herbs.
“You were not stupid,” Khotet said, slow and steady. “I still break mouse skulls from time to time. They are fragile, in our clumsy human hands. Though they are surely sufficient in the realm of mice. The gods—”
“The gods in their infinite wisdom are not known to err, yeah, yeah, I know,” Taeva said, but her voice had lost its vitriol. She suddenly felt very tired. “I was stupid though. This whole pledging in bone idea was stupid. I should have just gone with limestone or soapstone like a normal person. Maybe soapstone. I bet the Lady would prefer it, cloaked in night and adorned by stars and all that. Limestone’s more of a Whisperer sort of rock.”
Taeva felt Khotet’s chuckle all around her, gently shaking against her body. “I am told the Whisperer’s pledges are often in gold, actually.”
Taeva couldn’t help rolling her eyes, even knowing that Khotet couldn’t see her expression. “Of course they are. Mostly gold and the rest are marble, probably.”
“You were not stupid,” Khotet said again, pulling her even tighter against their slender frame. “I think it was a wonderful idea. The Lady will be honored, that you chose to make your pledge in a medium that is meaningful to her. Few devotioners are so thoughtful.”
The bell at the workshop door sounded again and Khotet stepped back to face it, leaving one hand pressed warm and reassuring against Taeva’s back.
“Oh, Master, good evening,” said a voice, and that one was Tenric, finally. “I wasn’t expecting you to be here, yet. I went to fetch some candles for Taeva. It was getting dark. Everything going swell, Tae?”
Taeva straightened and turned to meet Tenric’s gaze. He was as infuriatingly put-together as always, every fold of his habit in precisely the correct place, hair raked back just so. It was exhausting having a brother who was so perfect all the time. But something on his face bespoke genuine concern; and, seeing the bundle of candles clutched against his chest, Taeva couldn’t find it in herself to be mad at him.
“It’s a good thing you weren’t here five minutes ago,” she conceded with a wry smile. “I was yelling at you a lot. Well, I was yelling at Master Khotet. But I thought they were you. Thank you for the candles.”
“Rabbit still giving you trouble, huh?” Tenric came closer and leaned over her shoulder to take a look at the single line she’d managed to painstakingly etch into the skull so far. It was High Devotional for something like in the name of our Most Honored Lady, except the chisel hadn’t caught right for one of the glyphs, so it might have read on the day of our Most Honored Lady. Which was close. It could have been worse. It could have said in the name of our Great Lord, which was only one diacritic different; and then the Lady would have been offended, and also the Sunwalker would have been very confused to have his pledge carved into a rabbit skull.
Taeva sighed. “I’ll figure it out. I hope. At least this one’s thick enough to actually take the etchings without cracking. I was getting nervous about the mouse skull even before I totally destroyed it.”
Tenric ruffled her hair affectionately, and that was almost enough to make her wish she’d decided to be angry with him after all. Just because he was eighteen months older than her didn’t mean he’d get to treat her as his kid sister forever. “I’m sure you will,” he said fondly. Or patronizingly. Sometimes it made Taeva want to scream. “Always an overachiever, aren’t you! I still think you should have gone with soapstone. You would have been done by now. And it would have been an excuse for you to spend the afternoon with that apprentice carver you fancy.” Tenric gave an exaggerated wink, and Taeva couldn’t miss Khotet cocking an eyebrow in curiosity. “His hand on yours, guiding the chisel… Plenty of romances have started that way, I tell you!”
“You should decide whether or not you’re actually serious about that devotioner of the Sunwalker before you start worrying about who I fancy,” Taeva muttered, resenting the heat she could feel creeping across her cheeks. “Anyway, I want to do this on my own. Even if it’s not perfect.”
“That’s my Tae,” Tenric said, and leaned in dramatically to plant a kiss on the crown of her head. “Like I said: always overachieving. Will you be here for the rest of the evening, Master? Shall I bring you some dinner?”
“Let’s give your sister some peace and quiet to finish her pledge,” Khotet said. Taeva liked to imagine that she could hear some slight reprobation in their voice, but it was probably just her imagination. Probably. “There will be plenty of time to set up the rites when we come back.”
“Right you are, then!” Tenric extended an arm for Khotet to lean on, as if they were an invalid. He was always trying to be so gallant. “Off to the dining commons with us, and we’ll be back soon enough to see what fine work my sister hath wrought.”
“May the stars always follow in your footsteps, Master,” Taeva said, nodding a distracted half-bow in their direction. “Bye, Tenric.” And then, with begrudging sincerity: “Thank you for the candles.”
She lit two of them as the door groaned open and shut again. Their flickering light wasn’t ideal for carving by – it cast shadows that jumped across the surface of the skull at odd angles – but it was still a significant improvement over the dusk that had fallen since Tenric had first left. As the clang of the bell faded into echoing chimes and then silence, she picked up her chisel again and set to work.
The work was easier now than it had been, somehow. The texture of bone beneath her fingers was familiar, almost comforting; other devotioners might find it unsettling, but those who pledged themselves to the Lady quickly became accustomed to handling bone. Even the most basic rites involved a couple of metacarpals. Tonight’s would call for a raven’s spine, in addition to the standard array of femurs and ribs.
Taeva found herself settling into a quiet rhythm, pressing the fine point of the chisel into the bone at just the right angle for the twining curves of a glyph or the crisp slash of a diacritic. As she neared the end, she paused to run a thumb over the grooves she had carved deep into the once-smooth surface of the occipital bone, lines she had practiced countless times on paper in the weeks leading up to this day:
In the name of She who strengthens our bones and guides our spirits;
in the name of She who heralds darkness and ushers peace;
in the name of She who takes our hands and walks with us into the Everlasting Night.
The bone grew warm where Taeva held it cupped in her palm, as if the Lady had deigned to grace it with a tiny facet of her infinite presence. As if she knew her hopeful devotioner was waiting; as if she meant to reach out, and grasp her hand, and reassure her that one day, she too would be adorned by stars.