After a restless night, Karai chose to rise early on Festival Day. No, not Karai, she reminded herself. Aprilis. Today I am Aprilis, Lady of Spring. The priests had burned incense and cast their runes in the presence of the community, and the title had fallen to her. It was an honor … and a curse. Still, she would not protest. Life is made up of choices, and our choices show who we are.
Shivering slightly in her thin shift, she turned to face the four corners of her shadowy chamber and whispered a short prayer to each of the turtle gods in turn: Odranoel the fearless, Olletanod the wise, Leaphar the fierce, and Olegnalechim the trickster. The temple bells began to ring as she finished. They seemed to be right above her, a dull, throbbing knell sliding through her iron-latticed windows on the last pale streak of moonlight.
The other maidens, those not selected, who still held their own names and identities, arrived within moments, unlocking the door and entering silently. Each carried an oil lamp on a stand and a pitcher of steaming hot water. Aprilis knelt in the center of the room while one maiden slowly emptied her pitcher over Arilis’s head. The water ran through her hair, down her body, soaking her shift to her skin. She gasped from the heat, then began to shiver moments later as it cooled. One by one, the maidens repeated this ritual three more times, always in silence. The water pooled around Aprilis’s knees before it found its way into the gutters in the corners. She heard it dripping into the vast chambers that led down to the sewers beneath the city. Before the day was over, she would join it.
The four priests also awoke before the sun, dressed in their ceremonial robes, and met at the temple courtyard in the morning fog, bowing to each other before climbing the stairs between the great stone pillars. The priest of Odranoel wore blue, two katanas strapped to his back. The priest of Olletanod was clad in violet and carried a straight staff. Leaphar’s priest dressed in scarlet, a pair of sais tucked into his cloth belt. The one who served Olegnalechim wore orange and carried a pair of chukka sticks, linked with a steel chain. None of them were trained in combat. Still, if the priests were armed, any spirits who may desire to interfere with their work would leave them alone.
The food offerings brought by wealthy citizens had been laid out upon four marble altars. The first bore a bowl of the best flour, sifted silk fine, a pitcher of rich golden olive oil, one small dish of yeast, and one of honey. The second held a mortar and pestle, beside which were piled firm, red tomatoes, cloves of garlic, rod-straight carrots, golden onions, green, crisp celery, sprigs of herbs, a small pouch of salt, and a goatskin of sweet red wine. Round, white cheeses adorned the third altar, their reflections glowing in the silver plate for shredding beside them. The fourth was laden with the best fruits, vegetables and meats: mangos, bananas, pineapples, mushrooms, jalapenos, squashes, oysters, sausages, and goose livers.
At the center of the temple, surrounded by the altars, rested the holy oven, an onyx giant with a bellyful of flame. A young, shaven acolyte pumped an enormous set of bellows at its side, causing sparks to belch from the oven’s gaping maw. He paused in his work to bow to the priests as they approached. “Pugiles in media testa.”
They responded in unison, each placing his right hand to his chest and raising his right fist to the air. “Testudo virtute!” With that utterance, the Festival Day officially began.
A second acolyte carrying two mallets entered the temple, bowed to the four priests, and took her position at a massive drum to the side of the room. Slowly, methodically, she began to beat out the pace for the work. Doom. Doom. Doom. Doom. The priests kneaded, ground, grated, and chopped in time. There must be no mistakes.
Aprilis heard the drum from her holding chamber, but the maidens seemed not to notice it as they dressed her in soft, bright yellow robes. They chattered among themselves about boys and babies, about houses and horseraces. They talked of the feasts that would take place in the coming evening, of the fine dresses they would wear and how they would fit into them after eating so much. Not one spoke to Aprilis. They would not even look her in the eye.
Nor did anyone mention the auspicious task Aprilis would perform that afternoon. It was enough for them to know the delivery would be made, the turtle gods would be fed, and their city would remain at peace. It was enough for them to know that crops would grow, that women would conceive, that soldiers would return victorious, that the shadow god Shre’dah and his demons would be held at bay for another year. It was enough for them to know Aprilis had been selected and they had not. It was enough.
Aprilis did not hate them for it. She did not hate them for the choosing that would exclude her from the everyday life she had come to know and would thrust new and strange responsibilities upon her, for the ending of the apprenticeship that would have led her to a position as a scribe and historian, for the severing of her betrothal. She was past hate, past dismay, floating in a strange numbness outside herself, watching herself be dressed and draped in flowers as though she were a statue.
Outside her window, under the steady throb of the drum, she heard the crowd gathering in the temple courtyard below. Some of the children would be dressed as the turtle gods, wearing masks and carrying play weapons carved from wood. The masks would be covered in colorful veils, though. It was blasphemy to look upon the faces of the gods, even in play. Even the frescoes in the temple’s most holy sanctuaries depicted the gods’ faces covered, peering out from their veils with blank white eyes through slit eyeholes.
With the children, parents would be carrying baskets of ingredients, awaiting the priests’ blessing so they could return home and prepare the food of the gods for their families. Of course, the gods would need to be fed first.
Doom. Doom. Doom. Doom.
The first priest made the dough, kneading it on the cold stone table, waiting for it to rise, then spinning it in the air to stretch it round and flat. The second priest made the sauce, grinding vegetables in the marble pestle until they were reduced to a thick paste, stirring in quantities of wine and salt and herbs. The third priest sliced the cheese, shaving it carefully into thin shreds with a razor-sharp knife. The fourth priest chopped fruit, meat, and vegetables and set them aside in neat piles.
When the separate components were ready, the acolyte increased her pace.
She shut her eyes, swaying with the beat. Sweat poured from her bald head.
The priests combined their work, saying the appropriate prayers as they spread the blood-red sauce onto the dough and layered cheese over it. They cast runes for the fourth altar’s offering: orange slices, beef tongue, green onions, and ground mint leaves. Once these were sprinkled atop the cheese, an acolyte slid the flatbread into the oven with a large wooden paddle.
The drumming ceased. A hush fell over the crowd outside. This next step was crucial. The gods’ meal must not be burned, nor may it be underdone. To ruin it would mean a year of bad luck, disease, drought, and defeat. It would mean a year under the reign of Shre’dah rather than under the protection of the turtles. Shre’dah brought chaos. The turtles brought order.
The priests stood at the oven’s mouth, watching. The cheese melted and bubbled. The crust darkened. Out in the courtyard, the people waited in silence. Families huddled together, eyes on the temple entrance. For generations, the four had protected their city, but gods were known to be fickle. It would not do to anger them or their envoy.
At last, the priests gave the signal, and the acolyte pulled the paddle from the oven. The four priests gathered around it … and breathed a sigh of relief. Before them sat a perfect, round flatbread covered with the very best cheeses, fruits, vegetables, and meats. A meal fit for gods.
The priests placed the food offering onto a silver tray and carried it to the temple steps. They shouted in unison, raising it high for all to see. The people cheered.
Aprilis listened to the jubilation below, and her breath caught in her throat. She should have felt glad. She should have felt honored. She should have felt. The maidens stepped away, but she didn’t move. She would have stood there forever, frozen, had not two of the maidens grabbed her by each arm and led her down the stairs, through the door, and into the courtyard.
Immediately, the shouting ceased and the crowd parted. Men and women turned their faces away from her. Mothers shielded their children’s eyes, commanding them not to look. Aprilis scanned the crowd, searching for her parents, her brothers, her betrothed. She saw none of them.
The maidens brought Aprilis to the priests, who chanted the appropriate incantations over her, passing her the tray bearing the gods’ offering. It was still so hot it burned her fingers through the metal. She nearly dropped it. What would happen if she did? Would there be earthquakes? Would fire rain down? Would the gods themselves emerge from their subterranean home, hungry for revenge? Did she care at this point?
The priest of Odranoel drew his katanas and held them high in the air. “Pugiles in media testa!” he shouted. The other three priests drew their weapons as well. “Testudo virtute,” they said, and the crowd echoed the statement. Then they departed, each to his own home. Tonight, they would feast on the food of the gods. Around their fires, as the meal baked, they would tell the story of the four turtles, of the mystical glowing green wine that had raised them to immortality and divinity, of their eternal battle against Shre’dah.
Aprilis was left with the priests. She turned to look for her maidens behind her, but they were gone with the rest of the crowd. She felt suddenly alone, exposed. She had expected her maidens to accompany her at least to the tunnel’s entrance.
The drumming acolyte began again, slowly, methodically. The temple bells began ringing in the same rhythm. The air shuddered with sound. Without speaking, the priests took positions around Aprilis, boxing her in. Then, to the beat of the drum and the bells, they marched out of the temple and into the street.
They led her to the edge of town, to a steep flight of stairs that was so narrow they had to descend in single file. Down they went to the beach below. During the wet season, the beach was deep under water and high waves slammed against the seawall. It was not uncommon, at those times, to hear rivers rushing through the chambers below the city, carrying waste and refuse out to sea. Now, the ocean was low and calm. The round opening to the sewer gaped wide and dark like a hungry mouth. A trickle of brown water dribbled like drool from the hole.
The priests formed a semicircle around Aprilis. Each reached out to stroke her hair and muttered blessings under his breath. Aprilis flinched away from their touch, gazing into the dark tunnel. The great walls of stone seemed to expand, filling her whole vision.
A light flickered from deep in the tunnel. A fire. From around a bend, a figure emerged, dressed in red robes with a hood that obscured its face. It carried a torch aloft. This must be the turtle gods’ envoy, the one Aprilis was to follow.
Aprilis’s legs seemed to sprout roots deep into the sandy earth. She had always thought the guide was a previous Aprilis, a maiden who had once herself carried the offering, but even from such a distance, she could tell it was no woman. She was not even certain it was human. Something was wrong with the way it stood and the way it held its arms, as if they were shorter than normal, although its wide sleeves made it hard to tell.
What if I ran away? What if I fought back? What if I—The priests took her arms again, attempting to gently push her toward the tunnel opening. One of them was shaking, and somehow his apparent fear served to steel her nerves. Disgusted, she shook him off. No. There will be no running. I am Aprilis. I will see the gods. Clutching the tray more firmly, she stepped forward and entered the tunnel. Muck squished between her toes with each step. She could hear the priests chanting behind her, the bong bong of the distant bell, and the swishing of the tide. She never looked back.
When she was within ten feet of the guide, it turned and began shuffling away with an awkward, waddling motion. Aprilis followed. When she turned the first corner, she left the last of the sunlight behind. She was now entirely dependent on this stranger, this hunched thing, and its torch.
Down, down, Aprilis traveled, deeper into the sewers, her guide always five to ten feet ahead. The air grew thick and foul with the fetid stench of decay and human waste. The garlands Aprilis wore did nothing to mask the odor, and she gagged and coughed. The water was knee deep and littered with floating objects that were best not to think about. The darkness enveloped them, swallowed them whole. The torch provided little more than a feeble glow, revealing nothing besides stone walls that were slick and black with slimy mold. The guide never spoke to her, nor did it pause in its march. Occasionally, it beckoned to her with a deformed hand that ended, not in fingers, but in curved, black claws more than six inches long.
Still she followed, wading through filthy water, careful not to slip or to drop the food offering; she hated to think what would happen if she did. She also dared not slow down. To do so would mean to be left behind in the darkness, and surely, in that pitch-dark labyrinth, she would be lost.
At last, they came to a chamber with a ceiling so high Aprilis could not see it. In the middle was a flat altar of black stone. The guide placed the sputtering torch into a stand and pointed to the altar with an extended claw. She obeyed, laying the now-cool offering upon its surface. Then she stepped back and knelt as she had been instructed.
Her guide bent over the altar, inhaling deeply. It apparently was pleased. Raising its arms above its head, it began to chant in a high-pitched voice that was somewhere between a squeak and a croak. “Iuvenes deformes bellator testudines, iuvenes deformes bellator testudines, iuvenes deformes bellator testudines! Pugiles in media testa! Testudo virtute!” The words echoed off the walls, seeming to repeat themselves over and over. From a tunnel far in the darkness in front of her, Aprilis heard a splash, then another from behind her. Then one came from her right, then one from her left.
The creature in red robes repeated its chant, waving clawed hands in the air. There was more splashing, followed by a low rumble of response. It resembled human speech, but in a tongue Aprilis had never heard. Four voices called out in wheezing syllables from the four tunnels at the edges of the room. “Cah… Weh…” drifted from her left, then her right. “Buhn… Gah…” echoed from before and behind her.
The chamber began to fill with unnatural green light, which poured from the tunnels. The splashing grew louder and more frantic as the gods approached. They were hungry. They must feed.
“Iuvenes deformes bellator testudines, iuvenes deformes bellator testudines, iuvenes deformes bellator testudines!” chanted the envoy. Then it threw its head back and shouted, “Pugiles in media testa! Testudo virtute!” The hood fell away, and Aprilis saw its face for the first time: matted gray fur, beady black eyes, a rodent-like snout and a mouth lined with sharp, yellowed teeth. Now the strange green light was bright enough that Aprilis could make out shapes of things mounded around the room. Human bones.
She rose to her feet. Her fate was certain, but she still had a choice how she would accept it. Life was made of choices. She would not weep, nor would she scream, nor would she beg for mercy.
They were closer now, almost to her. “Cah … Weh … Buhn … Gah…” Aprilis looked out past the rat thing who was now flailing its arms, screeching at the ceiling. From the tunnels at each side of the room, in a froth of filthy water, she could make out the forms of giant turtles. They glowed so brightly she had to squint, but she did not shield her eyes. She stood firm. Life is made up of choices, she told herself, and our choices show who we are.
I am Aprilis, Daughter of Spring. I am the thread that stands between my people and disaster. I bring the offering. I feed the turtles.
So she did not shrink back; she did not cower or grovel. She did not weep or scream or beg for mercy, even as the monstrous reptiles closed upon her, ignoring the food that had been so carefully prepared for them. In her final moments, as she stood her ground, she would do what not even the priests had done. She would behold the faces of the gods.
© 2022 by Josh Strnad
Josh Strnad hails from Southwest Florida, where he works as a Youth Services librarian. Recently having completed his second(!) Masters degree, he is excited to at last be free from the constant demands of homework and able to begin tinkering with writing fiction again. Check him out at www.joshstrnad.com.