Story by Rugaru

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In the afternoon, as the sun hung low and golden in the western sky, a traveling merchant woman named Runei walks along a dirt path cutting through wide fields of grain, their own golden-brown seeds drinking in the rich sunshine. Her dark hair is hidden by a wide straw hat, her lithe frame protected from the elements by a long blue tunic and her dainty feet shod with woven straw sandals that have seen better days. Adjusting her hat to better shade her brilliant green eyes as she tops a low hill, she takes out a map to take stock of her surroundings.

Off to her left continue the foothills of the mountain range made of grey pillars topped with moss and stunted trees, the very range the path behind her winds its way out of. To her right, a meandering river feeds the fields as far as she can see. Down the hill in front of her the path branches, continuing forward as well as going off to her right. A short way from the fork sits a thatch-topped farmhouse shaped like an overturned boat, next to a slightly shabby barn. Runei doesn’t see the house on her map, but the path does split right out of the mountain range. She nods to herself and tucks her map away. Her destination is along the right path, she’s sure of it, so she strides out down the hill.

When she’s almost to the intersection, she hears a soft tinkling noise. She turns towards it, only to blink at a glint of light off something. “What in the world. . .” When she can see again, her eyes are greeted by one of the strangest things- strangest people- She has ever encountered. The woman standing before her has rich brown hair that tumbles in curls down her shoulders and back, pale skin decorated by freckles across her suddenly blushing cheeks and ample, very bare breasts. The woman is naked, at least that’s Runei’s first impression, her creamy pale skin uncovered from throat to plump hips to delicate ankles. Then she realizes the woman is indeed wearing things; strips of brightly colored silk tied around her legs and arms seemingly at random, flowers and jeweled pins in her hair, and strangest of all a golden yoke fastened to a collar around her neck, holding each wrist in a shackle so her arms are outstretched, unable to cover herself in the slightest. From the collar rises dark, velvety fabric, perfectly cut to hug her neck, jaw, and lower face, covering her mouth and making her expression hard to discern. A thin chain, also of gold, descends from the front of the collar all the way down her front to a piercing in her- Runei quickly averts her gaze.

The woman takes a step back, and Runei realizes that the tinkling sound was from the chain as well as a bracelet of fine silver bells around one ankle. “M-mmh. . .” The bound woman lowers her gaze for a moment, then stands up a little straighter. Cheeks the color of roses, she raises her eyes and shakes her hips a little, taking a slow step as if beginning a dance.

Runei recovers from her shock and approaches the woman. “Who did this to you? Wh-” She grimaces, realizing that she won’t be getting answers to her questions. She looks over the woman’s bonds, looking for any sort of clasp or keyhole. With her dance interrupted, the woman appears to become shy, turning her body away from Runei where she can. When she notices, Runei blushes and unstraps her backpack. She sets it down on the ground and opens it. “I have a blanket in here, we could cover you up at least and-” The woman nudges her with her hip, and she looks up to see her shaking her head. She points towards the farmhouse. Runei looks at the building, then back to her. “I don’t understand. The farmer?”

The woman nods and takes a couple steps toward the house. “Hm. Mmmnnm nngh.” Runei stands up, lifting her pack and slipping her arms through the straps. “But they’ll see you. Like this.” She gestures to the woman’s exposed body. The woman blushes but nods once again. “Mnf mk’mn.” She continues to walk toward the house, her ankle jingling softly with each step. Runei follows, but when they get close to the doorstep she slips around in front of the woman and knocks on the door. She checks her dagger in its sheath, but feels another nudge from behind. “Hm’mm.” Surprised, Runei looks back to see her eyebrows are lowered. She looks almost affronted.

The door opens, and Runei turns toward it, nudging the bound woman behind her as an old, old man with a long face and a bent back opens the door. “Yes’m? Wha’ c’n I- Oh.” He catches sight of the gagged face over Runei’s shoulder, then looks Runei herself up and down. “Y’ain’t from ‘round here, r’ya?”

Runei gives him an incredulous look. “You know about this?”

He nods. “Sho’, sho’ I do. ‘S a whole big- y’should prolly c’m inside. Might take a while t’esplain.” He raises his hands when Runei narrows her eyes. “Naw, ‘ang on. I’m sho’ I c’n guess watcher thinkin’, but t’ain’t that way.”

“Then what way is it?” She asks, low and menacing.

The old man shakes his head and steps back away from the door. “Nice try, but I’m too old t’be scared o’ a mean look. That or y’r cheese knife. Nice t'meetcha, by t'by. Name's Thellus. C’m ‘ave some soup.” He looks at the bound woman and offers her a small bow. “Pilgrim, be welcome in mah ‘ome. I ‘ssure yer safety an’ ask only to offer you shelter this night.” She inclines her head to him and squeezes her way past Runei to enter the house.

Runei follows her, looking around at the simple, rustic main living space. The packed dirt floor is covered by several mismatched rugs and mats, except around the stone fireplace, and two doors lead to the back of the house. The farmer, Thellus, pulls a pot of soup out of the fire and ladles it out into two bowls by the light of a window covered by loosely woven rushes. He crosses his legs in front of a low table, setting out the bowls with spoons. “Would’ye help the pilgrim sit? I c’n esplain wha’s goin’ on while ya eat.”

She does so, gently putting her hands around the woman’s waist to help her down to one of the cushions around the table. She tries not to dwell on how soft and smooth the woman’s skin is.

“So, I don’ imagine ye’ve heard o’ a deity called ‘She Who Listens’? ‘Course ye ain’t,” He interrupts her as she begins to respond, “She’s sort o’ a local figure, there’s a priesthood o’ hers in the big tradin’ city up north. All ‘bout love and peace, feasting on the world aroun’ ye with yer eyes, feelin’ the wind on yer face, all that. ‘S them priests what sen’ out young ladies, an’ sometimes young men, in them getups, an’ folks give ‘em the scarves, bells, an’ whatnot when they come through town. They take a long, long walk around the area, an’ come back, an’ then they’re uh. . . I don’ know the word. The priests let ‘em be priests too, is what it is.”

Runei, who had been taking bites of soup in with the old man’s words, not really tasting it, looks over at the bound woman. Her back is straight, and though she glances at Thellus with a blush she nods in confirmation of what he said. “But how can that possibly be safe? And why do it that way? What could possibly be the advantage in binding the poor women like that? All kinds of terrible things could happen to them on the road.”

“Well, tha’s just it. Bad things don’ happen t’em, ‘cept once in a long while. Them bondin’s, I don’ know how, but they keep the pilgrims safe an’ happy. Sun don' bother 'em, nor 'unger, an’ folks jes’ don’ wanna do ‘em no harm.” The pilgrim nods in confirmation as Thellus takes a spoonful of soup, and he continues. “They send out a talkin’ one every once in a while, tell folks wha’s what. Has summin teh do wi’ listenin’ t’the people, the land, an’ the wind. Trustin’ the world around them so they c’n be closer to it. I s’ppose She Who Listens protects ‘em, or them priestesses do summin. They got powerful magics, they do.”

“Powerful magics, hmm?” Runei muses. “I suppose they heal the sick, bless crops, all that? It’s the usual line with these local deity cults."

The farmer and pilgrim both shoot her a look. “It ain’t no cult, missy. Yeh, they do good works for folks, but ‘t ain’t for no power or money or none o’ that. They do it ‘cause they love the land, love the people. Always ‘ave. Their order’s a thing o’ beauty and passion. What they ‘ave, they make for themselves or accept as gifts. Ne’er a bribe or toll fer nuthin’ they do.” The pilgrim nods emphatically. Runei holds her tongue and finishes her soup, thinking.

+ + +

The next morning, after getting up from the straw pallet provided by Thellus and checking on the pilgrim to make sure she was okay – she was, laying down with her legs splayed out on a few piled blankets in another corner of the front room – Runei breaks her fast on a traveler’s biscuit from her pack. The farmer comes in from one of the back rooms, glances at the sleeping pilgrim and quickly averts his eyes. “Once she’s awake, she’ll ‘have t’be goin’. Lotta ground t’cover.”

“I’m going with her,” Runei whispers.

He shakes his head. “Can’t b’done. She ‘as to do it by ‘er lonesome. No bodyguards. She’s safe.”

“You said things do happen, if rarely. What if she’s one of those times? I don’t care what this order of hers says, she needs someone.”

“Ain’t yer call. She won’ letcha. ‘S how it is.”

Runei crosses her arms. “. . . What if we contact these priests of hers? You said they have magic, did they give her a way to contact them in an emergency?”

He shrugs. “Dunno. They’ll tell ye th’ same thing, though.”

Runei crouches next to the bound woman and gently shakes her shoulder. “Hey, it’s time to wake up.”

“M-mmmh. . .” Her deep green eyes flutter open. She looks around a bit, her ankle bells tinkling as she closes her legs with a blush. Runei helps her sit up, then stand, where she bends over and stretches her legs, moaning softly.

“Listen. . . Are you able to contact your order in any way? I have something I need to discuss with them.” The woman gives her an odd look, but nods. Runei grins at Thellus while the woman walks past her and taps the door with her foot. He nods, then goes and opens the door for her. She walks outside, followed by the both of them, and begins to dance.

It begins simply, a slow step and a wiggle of her hips, then she spins on her belled leg, making her chain glimmer in the morning light. A series of sensuous, swaying steps follow, and her many colored silks flutter in a sudden breeze. She continues her walk-dance, swaying and spinning, until she’s made a full circle, then stamps on the ground. The wind dies as quickly as it begun, and abruptly there’s another person standing with them. No flash of light, no fanfare or portal ripping the air. She’s simply there.

The priestess, at least Runei assumes she is, is clad in an elegant, flowing robe of dark blue silk, bedecked all over with little beads of silver. Her arms are concealed by a long mantle, but – Runei turns her eyes aside, feeling her face heat up and beginning to sense a theme with the order – Her body, from collarbones to navel, is laid completely bare by the bizarre garment. When she speaks, her voice is low and passionate, a voice more made for gossiping and pillow talk than blessing crops. “Oh, hello Vina! You look like you’re doing quite well. Who are your friends?” The pilgrim points at Runei and the Thellus, mumbling behind her muzzle, and the priestess nods as if she spoke plainly. “I see.” She turns to the farmer and smiles softly. “Master Thellus, it’s good to see you again. How are you today? It seems you will have quite the harvest this year.”

He respectfully touches his forehead to her. Runei, keeping quiet to get a measure of the situation, notices his eyes don’t stray from her face nearly as much as they might. “All thanks t’yer ‘elp, milady. You an’ yers, that is. I don’ suppose we need t’explain what’s what?”

“No, no, Vina told me everything.” The woman turns her attention to Runei, who feels oddly small under the gaze of her big, dark eyes. Their gaze is warm and kind, yet Runei feels like she’s being laid bare, like they see every little thing about her in that small moment. “Runei, yes? I’m afraid it is prohibited for a candidate of priesthood to go with a protector.”

“How did you. . . you could understand her?"

“Quite clearly, yes. I’m afraid what you want is just not possible. It would undermine the entire point of her pilgrimage, of her learning to open herself to the beautiful world around her, if she had an armed escort. Only initiates of the order may undertake the journey.”

Runei looks from her to the pilgrim – Vina, she corrects herself – and back to the new priestess. An idea forms in her head, one she doesn’t like but can’t see any way around if she wants to protect the helpless woman. “But. . . Do initiates have to go the pilgrimage alone? Can they do it in pairs?”

One of the priestess’s fine black eyebrows rises. “It’s unusual, but not unheard of. Sometimes childhood friends or lovers take the journey together as a means to know each other more deeply. I’ve seen it done, and the results are quite touching.”

“And does one have to go to the city to be initiated? To get one of those. . . outfits?” She looks aside at Vina’s bonds again.

“No, Runei. The ritual is short, and I can summon what you will need if you intend to join us.” The priestess smiles the same soft, understanding smile she’d given Thellus. “Vina has only just begun her own pilgrimage, so you can share it from here if you wish. When it is complete, you will be given the choice of returning to your life before or becoming a Listener, one of us. Is that what you want?”

Runei thought of the dangers involved but remembered the self-defense her father had taught her as a girl. If her bonds were anything like Vina’s she wouldn’t be able to speak or use her arms, but her legs were strong from walking city to city to ply her trade, and she’d always kept up her practice. If need be, she felt confident she could protect the both of them beyond whatever protections the priestess offered. She nods. “What do you need me to do? I’m not stripping down in front of an old man, but. . .”

The priestess looks at Thellus, who bows and goes back inside. She turns back to Runei. “You’re lucky I have a personal interest in Vina. I can do everything you need to become an initiate very simply; all I need you to do is stand still.” She approaches Runei, more gliding than walking, until she’s very close.

Runei’s cheeks turn a bit pink again as she looks up into the priestess’s eyes, very carefully avoiding looking at her exposed bosom. “I. . . couldn’t help but notice your robe doesn't have sleeves. Your arms, are they-?”

“Bound? They are, but I don’t need them. The gifts and blessings I have been bestowed more than make up for what little discomfort I experience.” She pauses, her gaze far away for a moment. “I have duties I must see to back in the city. Are you ready, my dear?”

“I suppose so.” Runei feels herself tense up a little, but takes a deep breath to find her center. The priestess looks into her eyes, and suddenly Runei can’t seem to pull herself away from that deep, liquid gaze, transfixed as a sudden upwelling of emotion fills her up.

“Runei, you who walk the world to find herself, I pray you will find blessing and purpose in the arms of She Who Listens. Know what I say is true, and comes from the bottom of my heart. We will take your voice away, to show you the value of quiet contemplation. We will take your grasp of the world away, that you may learn the value of letting the world go on as it will. We will take your modesty, to bring you closer to the beautiful world around you.” Her voice fills Runei’s mind, crowding out her own thoughts and making all else fade into the background. She bends down slightly to kiss Runei’s left cheek. Her lips are soft and warm, and they send a tingle through Runei’s entire body. “By taking this journey, you will learn that the world is not harsh and cruel, not to be fought away, but a wonderful place that responds to an open heart and sings to open ears.” She kisses her right cheek, and Runei feels a breeze circling around her. She thinks she feels something else as well, a faint sensation of lifting and decompression, a feeling she can only associate with a butterfly freeing itself from a chrysalis. “I am truly sorry for the discomfort and shame you will endure on your pilgrimage. I myself undertook it, and it was one of the most difficult things I have ever done, but I learned to let go. I learned to open my ears, eyes, and heart to this beautiful world, and it gave me peace such as few have ever known. Close your eyes, dear Runei. When you open them, you will be ready to take your journey.”

Runei obeys, and when the priestess kisses her forehead light blooms around her, turning the black behind her eyelids to bright, living red. She feels herself move, her arms reaching up and then behind her, an energizing pulse of raw sensation making her throw her head back and stretch up on her toes. She thinks she cries out but can’t be sure. There’s a howling wind, a sudden sensation of heat all over her, and then both are gone just as quickly. When she opens her eyes, everything is tinted for a moment, slightly more blue then it should be. The priestess is gone, it’s only her and Vina. She feels oddly peaceful, empty in an oddly content sort of way. Then she blinks and the moment is gone. She turns to Vina and tries to speak. “V’mm- mmph?!” It’s then that she feels the muzzle hugging her throat and jaw, holding her mouth shut inside. She tries to move her arms and finds that they are held in place, elbows up by her ears and hands held in cool metal cuffs at the nape of her neck. She tests the cuffs, beginning to panic slightly, and feels a tug at her throat. She realizes there must be a collar around her neck much like the one around Vina’s. Vina herself walks close to Runei, bells jingling and green eyes shining with emotion. Runei can only guess what. “Hmmn mh’rghn,” She tries to speak again and pulls at her chains. There’s a different jingling, and she looks down to discover that her nipples have been pierced with small golden rings, and a fine chain supporting five tiny bells hangs between them. She didn’t even feel it. She looks back up at Vina, tears beginning to fill her eyes as the sudden, utter loss of control over her world sets in, but Vina only leans closer, closing her eyes and touching her forehead to Runei’s. This causes their breasts to press together, plump and freckled meeting small and pierced, but the simple act of gentle understanding renders it insignificant. The priestess’s words echo in Runei’s mind, her admonitions to listen and open herself. I know, the gesture says. I know how you feel. I’m here, it’s okay.

After a moment, she nods slightly and pulls away. Vina opens her eyes and takes a deep breath, her cheeks rising in a way that suggests a smile. Runei does what she can to smile back, then shivers as a breeze jingles the bells strung between her breasts. The same breeze tugs at Vina’s scarves and the chain running down her front, causing her to close her legs and let out a soft sound. Runei looks aside, still embarrassed to see her like that, and catches sight of the road. She nods toward it and then looks at Vina, who nods in return. Runei follows her as she goes to the road and begins walking where her journey left off the day before, very deliberately not looking back at the farmhouse. The two of them, helpless and naked to the world, walk along the road, jingling softly with the early morning sunlight glittering off their bonds.

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