Beyond the Deep Ridge
Niamhronin “Knifedancer” Falavathar
Relatively tall for a woman/tall side of average for an elf; lithe; mostly legs; hip-length, thick auburn hair; dark blue eyes; pale skin, sweet, but not gorgeous, face with memorable cupid's bow mouth
Naimh (sounds like ‘Nev’, rhyming with first syllable of 7) is a young woman motivated equally by resentment, possibly hatred, of her oppressive, unimaginative parents and her adventurous personality, reckless, curious, and tactile. Having trained as a dancer and edged-weapon user between the ages of 10 and 15, she is a lithe, though somewhat short, young woman with a thick, hip-length auburn braid and eyes of an unusual deep blue, almost but not quite purple, hue. Her face is not lovely, it is actually a bit plain, but her mouth is a cupid’s bow and tends to be what people of both genders recall of her when asked what her face looks like.
Her training the last four years has been augmented by the erotic arts so she moves with fluidity and an inherent allure but she generally does not allow clients/audiences to see more of her nature, interests, or strengths than absolutely necessary.
Suffocated by my father’s devotion to duty, obligation, and patronage of the temples of Arnhine and Robu and oppressed by my mother’s slavish dedication to Father, I left my family’s rigid upper middle class home at the age of 15 after several years of troublemaking. While fond of my older siblings, I felt the need to find a different way of life as I watched them follow our father into prestigious civil service, straying neither right nor left into variations of their own. In order to avoid the drudgery I saw in my older twin brothers’ lives and the routines of my older sister, I began to sneak out of the house at night several times a week at the age of ten. I wandered the streets of Morvena, hiding in shadows and watching the clandestine goings on in the areas around La Antiq Palacio and La Nueva Manor.
One summer night, in the early hours of the morning as the scents of jasmine, cereus and dragon fruit flowers from the city botanical gardens were at their most potent, a few months after I began escaping the house, I followed a tall thin woman a little too closely and, a few moments after the woman rounded a corner, I ran smack into her. Although I whipped a tiny dirk from my sleeve, the woman showed no hesitation in gripping my ear between thumb and forefinger and hauling me along with her, fortunately no more than a few minutes’ walk to a dimly lit three-storied building on a narrow winding side street.
Quickly letting us into a sparse yet tasteful foyer, the woman steered me to a settee, yanked the little knife from my grip, and stepped back, watching me. I watched back, warily. Incense crept into the room from the direction of the far door, opposite where we’d entered. I could tell the woman was intrigued by my thick, waist-length auburn braid, my angry flashing dark blue eyes and the obstinate expression on my face, which was slowly changing to suspicious inquisition, by the way her eyes roved over my features. As my gaze flicked nervously but inevitably back and forth from the woman’s speculative face to various points in the room, she realized I had potential, which she confided to me much later. A burst of laughter from the lady startled me and I backed up to stand on the settee, my rigid back pressed against the wall and my fists clenched in fury at being frightened and dragged away by the unfamiliar woman.
“And whose child are you?” the woman asked, leaning her face into mine, her clean soap scent a strangely masculine smell, like a sandalwood or pine. I could also smell the waxy cosmetic smell of her lipstick.
“Not yours!” I responded emphatically.
“Not very cherished by whoever is your master, are you?” The woman needled, watching my blue eyes glitter at the insult.
“I’ve no master! My parents will…my parents…” I blustered, running out of steam.
“Hmm, ‘your parents’ what? These parents who don’t even know you’re out—not many girls your age in the streets this time of night, not from nice homes anyway,” the woman observed maliciously. I simply listened. “Decided to guard your tongue, eh? That’s a good choice. Maybe you’d like me to show you a thing or two, eh? Would you like that, little stray?” The woman asked, a genuine offer in her voice.
“What things?” I asked, my curiosity overpowering my initial anger and fear as the woman spoke to me as an equal.
“Mmm, many things, things you could be quite good at. But first, let us ask the gods,” the woman hedged, her eyes flicking to an expensive clock on the wall across the room. “Come with me, little stray.” The woman held out her hand with the confiscated dirk, hilt towards me and I snatched back my little weapon, tucking it into my sleeve holster, and took the woman’s hand.
We strode purposefully through the building, a myriad of scents assailing me, incense strongest of all, then an herbal scent, not medicinal yet not floral, from a hallway on the right, then the tang of wine from under a door where music wafted as well. We stopped first in a small wardrobe storage room, smelling of cedar, where the lady rummaged through chests of thick cloaks and coats sending their wooly essence to my nose, finally selecting a small, dark green cloak with a deep hood and passed it wordlessly to me. Bundling herself in a hooded black cloak, she next escorted me to a small, windowless office where, withdrawing a small iron key from the folds of her dress, she withdrew from the desk and unlocked a small chest and carefully counted out ten gold coins, mumbling about ‘the dual one.’ I could almost taste the rusty metallic bands of the casket as she snapped it shut, and imagined flakes of iron and rust falling from the clashing metal.
Finally, we moved to the back of the building to a well-appointed kitchen and larder and the woman rifled through a cabinet and cool box, producing a crusty hunk of chewy bread and several small cubes of cheese as well as a small apple. The room was oddly devoid of any smell but of fresh water, over in the corner, the spotlessly clean areas preventing food and dirt from scenting the air. She handed all this to me and I tucked it away in my cloak.
“It’s the first hour of the morning, the sun will be up in three hours, we must be quick if we are to see all four tonight, which we must,” the lady stated, pulling me after her.
We exited the building and hurried through the streets. I quickly found myself in unfamiliar territory, the towers and turrets of La Antiq Palacio visible only in the distance. The night dew had settled already and its cool clean scent filled my nose, damping down the scents of dust and ordure from the street. After nearly half an hour of determined striding, the woman stopped before a small stone temple, its façade carved all over with eyed quills. She lifted and banged the small door-knocker on the wrought iron-bound door and a tiny portal in it was opened by a sleepy looking priest, his face peering from within, revealing only his eyes and a fresh ink stain gracing his brow, only partially obscured by a long, swinging, ink-stained blond lock of hair. I could smell him even through the tiny opening, pungent from several days without washing. He lifted an eyebrow and waited.
“We must ask the god’s blessing, Senor,” the woman murmured hurriedly, slipping one gold coin through the opening. The man nodded succinctly and closed the portal, thunks and snicks on the other side indicating his intention to permit us entry.
We proceeded inside and he led us through to an atrium, lit primarily by starlight shining down through the many skylights in the ceiling and also by two torches in the center of the room, flanking a small bench and altar. Before the altar, a row of six thick, sturdy cushions lay on the polished stone floor. On the altar lay several sheets of the finest parchment, a crystal ink well, and several eagle and swan feathers trimmed into neat quills. Immediately, hints of tannery assailed me, drifting from the parchment, and I wrinkled my nose in mild distaste. Atop the stack of parchment sat a small silver bowl containing several coins of varying denominations. The priest gestured to the cushions and took our cloaks, hanging them on hooks by the door, and retreated, pulling the chamber door to as he left. The woman pushed me ahead of her and down to kneel onto one of the cushions directly in front of the altar, then took another cushion beside me, a small grunt escaping her lips as she settled into position. Miniscule cinders from the torches drifted down, their charred smell a familiar touchstone in this unfamiliar environment.
Presently, an older priest entered. His finely spun linen robe trailed about his body as if it merely hung from his shoulders without touching his flesh elsewhere. His hair was startlingly black and long, draped over his back and chest and as he passed in front of me, I could smell a light soapy smell coming from his locks as well as a mild medicinal herbal smell from his body. In his hand he carried a simple glass ink well. My eyes followed him avidly. He said nothing but strode to the bench and placed the ink well in the center, then went around to the far side of the altar, facing us. He began to mutter to himself, his hands flowing in motions over the altar and golden sparkles flashed sparsely after his fingers’ movement.
His hands stilled, he whispered, “On what do you wish the blessing of Rek, the Sacred One?”
“Oh holy representative of Rek, shall this girl child enter into my tutelage?” The woman asked softly, her eyes fixed on the crystal ink well, as she slipped her second designated gold coin into the bowl on the altar.
The priest ‘hmm’ed’ in answer and his eyes closed as his hands began to move again. A moment passed and his eyes opened again, clouded with the presence of the god. He moved around the altar as if in a trance and, extending a hand to me, lifting me from my cushion and led me to the bench, indicating for me to sit straddling the narrow wooden seat. Unseeing he grasped the back hem of my shirt and lifted it over my head, my arms rising too slowly to prevent the garment being taken from me. He carelessly discarded the chemise off to the side, on the floor. With a finger on my back, the priest nudged me to lean forward and lay along the bench, my braid swinging down to barely brush the floor. As I protested, the woman rose and pressed a hand on my nape, quelling my resistance with a steely grip. The priest turned and selected a swan quill, dipping it into the ink well he had brought, and bent over my naked back. His eyes looked down upon my spine but he could have seen nothing. I detected the pungent scent of walnut hull ink with metallic and chemical overtones I could not name. In a few swift strokes, he had inscribed, in an undulating wave down my spine from the middle of my back to just between the dimples above my buttocks, an inverted peacock feather, its eye barely stylized to a somewhat more seeing human organ. The ink, unremarkable as it seemed, began to itch and I squirmed as the priest lifted the quill, small welts beginning to rise under the drying liquid. My skin underneath the ink and close to it began to pinken as well and I reached backwards, but the woman quickly stayed my seeking hand.
Wordlessly, the priest capped his ink well, held the swan quill to one of the torches and dropped the stinking, smoldering vane into the bowl atop the coins.
“It shall be as it shall be,” he whispered, the cloud fading from his eyes, which were a clear, liquid brown when the god left him, and he silently exited the room.
The woman watched him go and as the door he’d entered originally closed behind him, she pulled me off the bench and imperiously pointed at the shirt on the floor. While I grabbed and donned it, the woman plucked our cloaks from the wall and yanked the chamber door open. She thrust the small green cloak at me and wrapped herself. The vegetable dye from the cloak finally insinuated itself in my nose over that of the wool and I pulled the fabric tightly around me. Unsure of myself, I glanced at the lady’s face and was taken aback to see the look of calculating pleasure on the woman’s countenance.
The same blond priest that had admitted us escorted us out and the woman hurried back out to a main street without a glance at me, knowing I would follow. We moved through the streets again, this time only a few minutes, coming to a halt outside another temple, this one airy and light on the outside due to the many windows in the front. The doors stood open and soft music trailed from within. Entering, the woman walked swiftly to an inner room, obviously familiar with the place. A female priest greeted her softly, her musical voice bouncing from the walls despite her low tones and I could smell her just as I had the last several clerics, a subtle honeyed scent swaddling her; I wanted to sit next to her and bury my face in her neck. The woman pressed a third coin into her hand and whispered into her ear. The priestess nodded and the woman placed my hand into the priestess’ and hung back.
The priestess led me into an open inner room and helped me up to stand on a small stool in the center of the room. I snorted my breath out through my nostrils several times, wanting to clear the uric acid scent from them. She looked at me askance and unfastened my cloak then left the room, a momentary quiet descending. In mere moments, four women entered and circled me, still standing on the stool. They swayed back and forth, not moving more than a sway yet still managing to crunch small millet seeds beneath their sandals, which I smelled even up on the stool, and they began to hum softly, their hands joined, and then lifted their hands high. After a few moments, I heard the rustle of feathers and several small birds flew from the recesses of the room to perch on the upraised hands. A brown and white bird perched on my left and two completely white birds on the hands to my right. Behind me, a bird lighted as well, but I did not turn to see. As soon as the last bird landed, it began to sing, a rising melody of six or eight bars, then repeated. As its highest tone sounded, it harmonized with the humming from the women and the other three birds disappeared instantly, replaced by small, single flashes of light which then moved randomly about the room. As the lights drifted away from the circle of women, they ceased their humming and lowered their arms, the one supporting the singing bird cradling it in her palms. Though I found the presence of mind to turn and look at it, the bird was almost totally obscured by the woman’s shoulder as she turned away and I caught only a glimpse of pale blue and grey feathers and a long, curving tail poking from under the woman’s elbow. The priestesses exited and the original hostess returned, holding out her hand to help me down from the stool.
“What was that about?” I asked, confused.
“The goddess answered your request, young one,” the priestess said, providing no answer.
“But what did she say?” I persisted.
“She gave you birdsong and magic, what do you think she said?” the priestess rejoined, cryptically. “Ah, here’s your escort, good night little one.” She turned and disappeared back the way she came.
“But,” I began.
“Hush, you don’t need to know now,” the woman quieted me. “We have two visits yet, we must go.”
Back out in the streets, again wrapped in my cloak, I trotted along behind the woman, curious. By now, the evening was beginning to carry the scent of horses as folk began to move throughout the city, their warm flesh steaming in the early morning. This time, the lady hailed a passing hansom and we rode briefly to our next destination, a third temple. Built of wood, this one was far less impressive or imposing than the previous two. We alighted from the carriage and the woman led me down a side alley beside the wooden building to a subtle back door with no knocker. She scratched quietly on the wood, her nails scritching softly. The door popped open and we squeezed inside.
In the dim foyer, a black-cloaked priest took our cloaks and hung them on a rack. I noticed with relief that he hardly had any scent.
“What can we help you with, Senoritas?” He asked us.
“We seek the Silent One’s blessing,” the woman stated, slipping a gold coin into the priest’s hand.
“Yes, wait but a moment.” He turned and strode away, leaving we two standing quietly.
“What are we doing?” I asked the woman.
“Just do what they tell you to do, everything is fine.”
The priest returned and took my hand, leading me down a corridor to a doorway. He opened the door and gave me a gentle shove into the room, stepped inside, then pulled the door closed behind us. He sidled a few steps away from me and closed the cloak he wore, his hood sliding further down over his eyes as he minimally tossed his head. I could no longer smell even the un-scent of him.
Captivated by the dark room, I peered upwards at the only light source, an anemic candle on a platter suspended a dozen feet above my head. Beeswax, I thought, canting my head back in an attempt to catch its scent. I walked forward, to the center of the room, eyeing the candle for a long moment, then turned my face away from it, seeking the priest.
“Priest?” I called out tentatively. He made no answer, but I felt he watched me.
“Senor?” I questioned again, keeping a small quaver from my voice through effort. Retracing my steps, I reached my hands, fingers splayed, ahead of me, seeking the door through which we’d entered. My fingers touched rough wood, unvarnished cherry, and I turned a quarter turn to my left, happening to turn away from the direction the priest had sidled, though I did not know that at the time, then slowly began to walk around the room. As I trailed my fingertips along the wall, I encountered a gentle curve, no corners, indicating a circular room which was quite large by city standards. Soon, my eyes adjusted to the dimness and I walked faster. I had nearly circumscribed the room when I stopped, detecting the merest glint on the floor ahead of me. Bending, I stretched out a hand and plucked a small glass vial from the floor, rolling it gently in my fingers, careful not to drop the delicate container, and lifted it to my nose—essence of lilac. Straightening, I continued around, but stopped just before reaching the priest, who had stood in the same spot the entire time.
“Why did you not speak to me when I called to you?” I asked him, puzzled.
He said nothing, but I saw him withdraw a hand from his robe, his palm cupped. I placed the vial into his palm and took a small step back, my eyes seeking his face within his hood, the blackness at the edge of the room and that of his cloak overpowering my ability to find his countenance. His garment rustled as he withdrew his other hand and held it out to me. I reached for it and clasped his fingers. Wordlessly, he turned and pulled me along behind him, to the door and we left the dark chamber, me still without my answer.
Back in the better lit corridor, he bent to me and gave me back the little vial, which I saw contained a tiny amount of clear liquid sliding inside.
“You did well, girl.” He told me simply, and walked down the hallway, expecting me to follow, which I did. As we neared the end of the hallway, which opened into the foyer I recognized, the woman leaned, peering around the priest’s cloaked form, her face piqued with curiosity.
“She has the vial,” the priest answered her unspoken question, and an expression of satisfaction spread across her features.
“Shaz be praised, she can walk the night,” the woman exclaimed softly, “my thanks, Priest.”
Once again, the woman bundled me into my now-familiar cloak and we hurried out the way we’d come. The rising sun not far off, the city skyline began to be picked out in a blue that was just a bit paler than that of the sky above. We trotted once more through winding streets and the noxious fumes of night effluvia trickling through the gutters made me gag. The turrets of La Nueva Manor stood out against the waning stars. Onwards we went, my feet beginning to tire seriously until again we approached La Antiq Palacio from a different, yet familiar angle.
I was dismayed when we ducked into the portico of a fantastical marble building rather than returning to the woman’s home. This last building was well lit, despite the very early or very late hour, with warm candle and torchlight falling from several of the windows on both stories and the ground floor. Odors of incense and several fake floral scents fairly streamed from the open casements, minding me of the woman’s home, but less subtle. She knocked and a lovely young woman threw the door wide and I was assaulted by her musky, unusual tang. They whispered together for several moments and we were ushered in and through, down a long, lushly carpeted hallway. The building quieted as we passed, sounds growing muffled rather than stopping, and at length we exited onto a wide verandah, covered in a tall pergola, its supporting ribs and trellises liberally covered in flowering, creeping vines, some of which opened their blooms’ faces to the setting moon. Their scent, despite the profusion of blooms, was pleasant and light, not cloying. A low, cushioned platform stood off to one side with a chair next to it, the soft light of several lanterns fixed to the trellises by overhanging iron arms illuminated the soft cushions.
“Strip her,” the priestess instructed the woman and before I could protest, my cloak was gone, my shirt had once again been pulled over my head and the woman’s fingers were sliding the bands of my trousers and small clothes down my legs. This time, she also unfastened the small knife holster from my forearm and took it as well. I shivered in the cool night air and attempted to both hug some body warmth to me and cover my nakedness, the heat of a blush rising into my neck and cheeks. The one relief was the chill breeze sending its cool fingers over the livid lines of the inked drawing on my back, which had ceased itching and now just ached.
The priestess imperiously pointed to the platform and said only “Face down.” The woman led me over and steadied me as I climbed onto the platform and lay down on my stomach, glad to block the view of me from imagined watching eyes. I folded my arms under my forehead and allowed my eyes to drift closed, worn out from my zig-zagging trek across the city. The scent of fine linen filled my nose and I could smell the light sweat coating my arms, generated by our journey through the city streets. I heard no one approach but suddenly felt a warm and tall presence at my side, opposite the chair, and caught the scent of salt, mint, and neroli. Warm fingers traced the inked lines on my spine and I expected it to feel uncomfortable, just as the cool air had succored the angry nerve endings, but the light touch was oddly soothing. I must have murmured in relief as the finger traced its way over every line because I heard a soft chuckle.
With a brief start, I realized the person beside me was a man, but just as the realization hit me, I felt my foot taken between a pair of large, warm, gentle hands, the thumbs rubbing firmly into the arch of my foot and pressing the ball of my foot beneath each toe, then rolling each toe between strong fingers. He rotated my foot on the ankle joint, manipulating it in exploration. Involuntarily, I sighed, and rolled over, exhaustion and relaxation dictating my movements and not the modesty that had overpowered me when I’d arrived.
I sensed the man move around to my other side and take that hand into his, just as he’d touched my foot. Behind him, I heard the rustle of a robe as the priestess who’d brought us here shifted her weight, watching as he worked. His fingers moved briskly in a business-like fashion, squeezing and rolling the muscles and flesh of my hand, checking the dexterity and range of motion of my joint as he massaged. Finishing, he moved to my head and I felt him pick up my braid, heard him untying the ribbon at the end and deftly unbraid the thick locks. He brushed the hair away from him, over my shoulder and off the side of the platform. I had nearly sunk into sleep when I felt a yank on my scalp, the priest having grabbed a handful of my hair and roughly jerked it. My eyes flew open, staring up at his face and he watched me. He purposefully yanked it again and tears spurted into my eyes, which narrowed, ready for me to jump up and shove him away if it seemed he would do it again. He watched me for a long moment, then quirked an eyebrow.
“Return her clothes,” he said quietly to the priestess behind him and turned away, striding from the verandah.
“But what does Rywiyd the Exalted say?” I heard the woman implore the departing priest.
“Come, I will tell you, it may be more than you wish to hear, Senora,” the priest answered, fading as they walked away. I felt a niggle of concern, but the pain in my scalp was retreating and the dark and relaxation was claiming me again. The priestess roused me enough to work my clothes back onto me and I laid back down, curling onto my side. In moments I was asleep.
That was my initiation into the world of physical sensation—a world at first limited only to exercises intended to give my body the flexibility and knowledge demanded of a dancer and the lithe strength and grace of a physical performer and wielder of elegant edged weapons. For several years, the woman hosted me in her home, also her business, with instructors who taught me knife work and to use a dagger as well as how to use my weight and range of motion to my advantage to entice, entrap and imprison a person in my power. Occasionally, we would visit one or other of the four temples we saw that night, but it was not until I was 15 that I regularly began to visit the temple of Rywiyd, or its neighboring temple, dedicated to Sexalad. At that time my lessons also changed. I still received dance lessons and instruction on fighting with single-handed edged weapons, though the latter was more infrequent, but now my time was increasingly spent in learning the arts of love and its many facets. The woman, her name is Daeris, asked me for my consent in learning this secret knowledge and we went back to the temple of Rek, and that of Sexalad, for my first visit, that day. Once given, my advanced training began and it was not until a few weeks later, when I escaped my parents’ home but did not visit Daeris, that my full and true consent was given.
Prowling the streets of Morvena one night, near the Le Cas Blanco, a district I rarely wandered, lured by the aroma of brewing coffee, I came upon a pleasure house and, happening to have coin in my pocket, entered, curious where the path I had just selected had led others, further along. I paid the lady of the house to send me a succession of her people, not to touch but to look and watch, and I purchased from her several doses of rivenleaf, a mild hallucinogen popular at the time, then settled in to watch. My training has taught me to value and savor new sensory experiences, always looking for the sensual and sublime and besides which, the sensation of being alive when a drug’s effects noticeably begin are worth the uncertainty and risk.
While I saw many acts that evening, some of which I found intriguing and potentially pleasurable—or useful, it was the seductive belly dancers twining around and amongst one another that had me both tingling and alert, my mind, even hampered by the drug, churning with possibility and excitement. Though I touched no one that evening, and no one touched me, 16 being the age of majority here, the memories of what I saw and thought remain today, as well as the impression my determination to dance that way made. Since then, Daeris hired me a belly dance teacher who visits twice a week, along with my arms master, and those two lessons are the only ones I pursue outside the courtesan’s arts, on a routine basis. Less than a year later, I broke with my family and left home permanently, taking up residence with Daeris, in an upper bedroom overlooking the city. My training apprenticeship in the erotic arts ended two years ago and my time has since then been occupied primarily with engagements for belly dance, however, Daeris does allow me, or should I say, encourage me, to choose the odd customer to have as a guest overnight, when the fancy takes me—it’s prudent to remain savvy and in practice in those matters. And to learn to read a person’s movements.
In the intervening years since leaving home, I have seen my siblings several times at social events where I was to perform but they have never once recognized me, seeing only what they wish to see, slaves to their cultural conditioning. My father, I have not seen him since the day I left.