Prologue

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The sound of a tolling bell brought them out into the gray morning. Its brassy knell cut into the endless hush and roar of the sea, signaling an end to a long and frigid night.

Some say the sound of the sea is soothing to the spirit. It was not so on the island called the Haven. There, the ancient heartbeat of the Tyrrian Sea was heard in every breaker that crashed against the rocks, every wave that whispered as it shrank back from the shore. There, where nights were spent on hard stone beds and days consumed with thankless toil, the relentless music of the sea paved a cold road to madness.

One at a time, the Daughters of Zanara passed under an arched doorway, emerging from their stone-walled convent into the early light. Upon stepping outside, each of them bowed her head and placed her hand over her heart to greet the Mother Goddess before continuing along the path toward the shore of the small isle.

Braving the damp and the cold, the Daughters went without cloak or cowl. The sleeves of their gray habits trailed behind them on the stony ground, twisted and damp. First came the abbess, a small woman who walked with the aid of a driftwood staff, the symbol of her office. In order of rank came her wards, the forgotten women of Karelin: a long line of haggard faces and empty eyes. Broad women and slight, plain women and fair, young and old, they each walked stiffly, as if still half asleep.

The women arranged themselves at the shoreline, forming a neat semicircle. Each stood still and quiet. The abbess turned to face them, leaning upon her staff, and waited for the last of them to take her place. Then she lifted her arms; the sleeves that fell to cover her hands stirred in the wind that swept in from the sea, laden with the scent of salt and fish.

The morning prayer was led by the abbess. It was a greeting to the Goddess, a request that she bless the day's work and contemplation. In most of the attendant minds, her words ran together and faded into a toneless murmur indistinguishable from the sound of the sea behind her: hush, crash ... hush, crash ...

The Daughters knew when to bow their heads, when to murmur a response. With this ritual, they began each day of their lives. Only the most pious of the women could follow closely enough to truly feel the meaning of the resonating words. Even the most devoted hearts began to grow chill at the Haven.

After the closing words had been said and the blessing given, the women began to file away, this chapter of the day opened and closed with the same grim efficiency they used to complete all of their work. Every day was the same: pray; wash the soiled garments; mend the worn shoes; copy prayer books, line by slow line; chop vegetables; knead bread; pray.

The last of the gray-clad women paused as she reached the top of the stony incline leading up and away from the shore. She hesitated, then turned her pale face back and gazed beyond the shore, beyond the short and bitter stretch of sea: beyond, to Karelin.

The Holy City gleamed like a beacon on the other side of the water, pearl white and sapphire blue and shining gold. It was a vision in every way the opposite of the tiny, barren outcropping of rock where she stood. And although her soul reached out to the city, its high white ramparts seemed to shield its heart from her. She was outcast.

Lowering her gaze, the girl turned away and followed her sisters back into the convent. As she passed through the arched stone door, she felt the thick walls close in around her, a prison.


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