When finally Toko awoke, it was to the smell of sulphur. Her eyes stung. One small lamp burned on the stand next to her. She rolled her feet off the bed. Where she was, she could not tell. This was not her tower room. This room smelled of dampness, of mold, and of the gases that poured from the earth when the mountain shook. It was warm, too, not like the coolness of her own room. She tried to stand, but her head spun.
“Give it a minute. The potion will wear off in a minute.”
Sonsee peered into the darkness. Hunched in the corner she could make out the form of a young girl. “Where am I?”
“In the caves under the Temple. You are a seeress now, one of the forgotten ones.”
“Yes, once here, nobody will see you again. Except for us.” The girl stood and took two steps toward Toko. Even in the dim light, Toko could see the girl’s yellowed skin, her patchy hair, and the sores that ran up and down her bony legs. The girl gave her a tentative smile and Toko saw her rotting teeth, just like the woman who had given her the drink. “One day soon you will even look like us. Now eat.” The girl picked up a tray from the floor and Toko wondered if it had been a bug that she had flicked off of it. Then the girl stepped on it and popped it in her mouth. “They do not give us much protein down here. Starvation makes the visions work better, they say.”
“Yes, dearie, that is what we do down here, have visions. But let me warn you. Only tell them nice visions. If you tell the truth, they will say you are a liar. Only tell them good things if you want to live.”
“What kind of place is this?”
“You will see.” With that the girl placed the tray on Toko’s cot and left the room.
Toko nibbled at the bread and drank the water, moistening her dry cracked lips. It was gone all too fast. She stood and surveyed her new room. Cave walls and a stone floor and little else. The door was open but when she looked out it was blacker than she had ever seen. She got the small lamp and carried it to the door, but it did nothing to penetrate the darkness. Fearful of getting lost if she ventured out, Toko replaced the lamp and fell into the bed crying.
Toko did not know how much time had passed when she awakened to someone shaking her shoulder.
“Get up, lazy girl. M’Lady wants to see what you can do.”
“Can I get some water and some food, maybe?”
The woman was short and all bones. Her gown was ragged and soiled. She looked like all the other women here.
“Water when you get to the pit. As for food, look for bugs, girlie.” The hunched woman laughed as she led Toko from the room.
Toko was brought to a warm water spring where she was told to bathe. “You get the royal treatment, your highness,” the woman said as Toko stepped into the spring. It felt so good to bathe again. She wondered why the other women did not use it, too. But did not ask.
When she had dried herself off, a gold cloth was draped over her body and tied under her breasts. A red velvet scarf was draped over her head and she was handed a laurel branch and a bowl of water. “Come,” the woman said, leading her down the long tunnel.
Toko tried to memorize her way, but her head was fuzzy and she could not concentrate. Finally, after what seemed to be miles, they arrived at the end of a tunnel.
“In there, sit on the gold stool.” A hunched old woman pointed the way into a misty room but did not enter. When Toko stepped in she understood why. Sulfur fumes stung her nostrils and caught in her throat. She turned but the hunched woman was gone.
“Come in, my dear. I am Meioni. It is time to start your training.” The voice came from in the sulfur-filled room.
“But I am trained. I am a weaver,” Toko replied, but with little hope that would save her now.
“No my dear, you are the strongest seeress we have yet tested. Sit on the stool.”
Toko did as she was told, trying to avoid inhaling the fumes that drifted up from the crack on the cave floor.
“She is ready, M’Lady. You may come in.”
M’Lady stepped in from the far corner, draped in white and holding a white cloth to her nose. “Toko, it seems you have taken after your mother. Your powers are strong. Let us see if you can find those tiles for me. The others have tried but failed.”
“What tiles?” Toko asked. She only hoped they would not drug her. She did not think she would be able to control her tongue if that happened.
Meioni approached and took the laurel branch from Toko. Dipping it in the water, Meioni then flicked it about the room and finally into the hole beneath the chair. “Gaze into the bowl. That is where you will find the answer to M’Lady’s question.”
Toko did as instructed and watched as the water seemed to glisten, then move. She was holding the bowl still, yet the water rippled and this surprised her, but not as much as what she saw next. Her father was in his study. He was sweeping the tiles back into the box and walking away with them. Does he know? Will he find me now?
“Answer me Toko, where are the tiles?”
The water shimmered and seemed to vibrate. The next picture gave Toko some hope. She saw the same box on the shore. It was being tucked under a fallen log and covered with driftwood. Nanna and her mother were there. They were so young, she hardly recognized them. Toko looked straight at the veiled figure in the corner. “They are hidden somewhere on the shore. A log covers them and driftwood. I saw my mother and Nanna place them there.”
“Describe the shore.”
The earth below them rumbled again as Toko peered into the bowl. The vision cleared, now rising out of the water and hovering above the bowl. She could see more detail. “There is a huge upright bolder and a fire there. Mother is wet. So is Nanna. Some men come and watch but neither Nanna nor my mother see them.”
“Impossible. We searched there.”
“They are buried under the log,” Toko quickly added, hoping they had not thought to dig there.
M’Lady turned to Meioni. “Work her every day.”
“But, M’Lady, if I work her everyday and she won’t live a year.”
“But think of what she can reveal in that one year. It is worth the price. Every day, do you understand?”
“Yes, M’Lady. Everyday.”
“You did well today, Toko. I am proud of you.” M’Lady spun on her heels and left the room just as Toko felt her stomach heave. But nothing came out.
“Now you know why we eat so little here,” Meioni said as she helped Toko off the stool and back to her room.
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons