It was no use. Brienda couldn’t remember the Prayer of the Sparrow. Never mind she’d said it fifty times every morning since she’d arrived here five years ago; never mind she’d said it twenty times already this morning. Her fingers rubbed the twenty-first wooden bead on her string of fifty, and her mind drew a complete blank.
"Like the sparrow . . . on the wings of the sparrow, I fly to the light of the sun—to the light of the moon?—wherein lies the spirit of the Great Mother . . . ."
Was that right? It didn’t sound right. What was wrong with her, that she suddenly couldn’t remember a prayer she’d said a thousand times? Something was wrong . . . . No, surely not. The Temple of the Mother was the safest place in all Grammale, made so by long-ago arrangements with the Lord of the Land. Arrangements that let the Mother rule here unchallenged, while men ruled the country itself. Nothing could be wrong here. Perhaps her forgetfulness was due only to excitement—anticipation of the ceremonies starting in two days, during which she would take her vows and be promoted from an Initiate to a Sparrow Mother.
"Not if you can’t remember your prayers," she muttered. She clenched the small wooden bead and squeezed her eyes shut.
"On the wings of the sparrow—"
Then it struck her.
She should have been hearing birdsong, insects chirping, perhaps a sound from the fox’s den she knew lay hidden in the outcroppings to her right. But there was nothing.
Then, suddenly, an explosion of sound. Shouting, men’s voices, sacrilege. Brienda never saw them, even as they pushed her hard to the ground from behind. Mouth full of loam, she choked out, "On the wings of the sparrow, I fly to the light of the sun wherein lies the spirit of the Great Mother; in the breast of the wren—"
Brienda hadn’t heard a man’s voice in five years, much less the voice of a soldier. Even without seeing them, she knew that was what these men were. But why were they here, and why would they dare lay hands on her in this holy place? Unless they were raiders from Callista—
This flash of thought overwhelmed her with fear; she jerked once in her captor’s arms, and he lifted her half off the ground, twisting one arm behind her.
"Be still!" His voice was loud and hot against her ear. "Don’t struggle, and perhaps it won’t be so hard for you."
"Mother protect me—" she started. Then one of the men stepped in front of her. Not a large man, but compact and built for combat. He wore a chain shirt, and the gold band around his head was nearly lost in the gold of his hair. His beard and his scarred face looked strange to her, alien after spending so much time among only women. But she knew him.
His hand rested on the pommel of his sword, and his gaze rose from Brienda’s face as he addressed the man who held her. "Hurt her, and I’ll kill you where you stand."
The hands on Brienda’s arms loosened. The man behind her spoke, his voice shaking a little. "Milord."
Brienda swallowed, staring at the all-too-familiar figure in front of her. "What are you doing here?"
The golden man regarded her coolly. "You used to have more respect for your betters."
"That was when I thought you were my better." The words leapt out before she could swallow them. But the man only smiled.
"I was afraid the Bird Mothers might turn you into a shrew. I see I was right. No matter—you’ll have to do." He jerked a thumb toward the darker woods beyond the border of the sacred grounds. "Take her. We’re wasting time."
"And you’ll waste more of it."
Brienda’s heart leapt at this voice—a woman’s voice and a familiar one. The Owl Mother stepped out from the trees. Smaller than the golden man, infinitely older, wearing homespun robes, and a crown of her own hair braided and wound about her head, she seemed nevertheless his equal.
"You’ll not take her," the Owl Mother said, matter-of-factly.
"I will," said the golden man. Brienda stared at him, her mind still unwilling to admit he was truly here.
The Owl Mother smiled. "I would think you would have learned, Baradan. It’s your choice, of course, but, if you take your daughter from this holy place, you and your men will die before you reach the borders."
Baradan swallowed, regarding the Owl Mother. Finally, he raised one hand.
"Let her go," he said. "Go with the priestess."
The hands, which had tightened at the Owl Mother’s arrival, now released her. Rubbing the bruises they left behind, Brienda went to the Owl Mother’s side.
"Make them leave," she whispered.
The Owl Mother shook her head. Her amber eyes regarded Brienda briefly. "They will speak to me," she said. "We will see."
The simple words sent a wash of fear down Brienda’s spine. She clutched her beads. For whatever good it would do her, she could remember the prayers now.