A knock on the tent door caught my attention. The person I had been waiting for had a presence like a swirling cloud. I could pick out her ethereal feel blindfolded. It fit how she always seemed to be only half focused on the present yet tracking everything going on. I’d often wondered how she managed to keep up with her present surroundings and the other plane she experienced.
“Enter Noor,” I said, concentrating on the screen in front of me.
Noor and several others slipped in quietly and waited for me to finish my business. Nairi, standing behind me, pointed to the screen. “Just read these three paragraphs when you have a chance. They explain the intent behind the wildlife preserve. I’ll be back this afternoon to discuss your thoughts on making that happen without destroying what is already in place. After that, a contract can be drawn up,” my executive assistant for the wildlife reconstruction company instructed. She was far better at diplomacy than I was, so was the face of the company.
“I will,” I said as I stood. Nairi greeted the waiting group and exited the tent. As she walked by, the group parted to make way for her. Everyone except Noor, who looked more dazed than she typically did.
“Noor?” I said to get her attention.
She looked up quickly as she took a step forward and staggered. Commander Siva and Azita caught her arms. Noor waved her hands and stuttered, “Wait. I…uh…” We gave her a moment to steady herself. “I was lightheaded. Can we go outside? The air in here is thick.”
“Of course,” I said and gestured for the others to take her out.
They walked with her a few steps outside the tent, and she lifted her face toward the sun with her eyes closed, leaning into its warmth. I had seen her do this before. She used the bright bands of sunlight to help her focus. Looking at the yellow and orange streaks of light bordered with pink and purple light bands through the veil of her eyelids helped clear her mind in a meditative way. Doing this helped her recover quickly.
“Artemis, what do you have in there?” she asked accusingly.
I laughed to myself. Noor was a tiny woman standing between two tall, well-built warriors, yet she commanded everyone’s attention. Her long braids were rough and harshly dyed unnatural shades of white and black. They were a stark contrast to her delicate features. She managed to look her God in the eyes, expecting an answer, and yet did not have the air of command. Noor had always been a creature of contrasts and managed to blend them appealingly. My Maidens generally came off as fierce, and people to be avoided. Most were experts at melting into the background. Noor stood out, but it was never obvious why to those not sensitive to the magic the world had to offer. Many mortals were uncomfortable around her, but we knew her strengths and protected her.
“It is what I have called you here to examine. Can you?” I asked.
She looked through me toward the tent and nodded her head. “Let’s try.”
I ducked into the tent and brought out the enchanted chest that held the minotaur’s key. Noor sighed in relief. “Good. The dense energy in the tent was residual. I don’t feel it now.”
“Does the tent need to be cleared out?” I asked.
“That won’t be necessary. It should dissipate and is not the kind of thing you are sensitive to,” Noor explained. She took another breath and nodded. “Open it.”
Her eyes closed again, and I could see that she had braced herself for another wave of whatever had affected her earlier. I opened the intricately carved chest, revealing the key, and waited. Noor’s head tilted as she studied it, a wisp of light flowing from her to the chest. I could see a push and pull as Noor reached out to the key, and the key reached out to Noor. The incandescent light was not solid and looked weak, but it felt purposeful, as if it would go around any obstacle until it found what it sought. I could also feel the boundary Noor had erected to keep it from taking control of her. It was good that she had chosen to encircle herself rather than put up a wall. This thing prodded, looking for a way around.
As instructed, Azita had brought our newest recruit to witness this exchange. We all waited patiently, letting Noor do her Noor thing, but Esmerelda looked around, wondering what was happening. That wisp of light and feeling would be indictable to the mortal child. I signaled to Azita to keep Esmerelda still, and I kept moving until she complied, hoping to distract it if its attention was pulled from Noor. My boundary was solid, and Esmerelda’s was non-existent. The push and pull dance in front of us reminded me of the first time I met the enigmatic Noor.
It had to be the grimy girl at the corner of the stall that caught my attention, but why? What was it about her that triggered my curiosity? There was no chance that the proprietor would allow me to browse in peace in the cramped booth. This was the reason I held his attention with inane chatter about the weather and crops. I edged myself to the opposite corner, feigning interest in a jar of some sort, keeping an eye on the peasant girl.
She took the opportunity to slip a small bottle into her belt. Narrowing my eyes, I breathed in her essence and placed my hunter’s mark upon her. I knew she would run and did not want to chase her through the crowded marketplace. I took my leave only after she slipped away.
The hunter’s mark allowed me to track my prey when they had moved further than my other senses could detect. It was good to be a goddess. The girl had slipped away silently and sped through the streets. She took shortcuts and used her size to go under or through obstacles others would have had to move around. It was how the street children moved in cities to avoid being caught or accused of anything the authorities could dream up.
She slipped through one of the several small doors in an unmarked building and down a narrow alley. The hallway was grimy, but the smells coming from her apartment were welcoming. Through her door, I could hear, “Noor, you should not have risked stealing. You know what they would do to you if you were caught,” scolded an older woman.
“Grandmother, he cannot be moved in this condition, and we cannot stay here. You know I have a sense of when I’m being watched, and I don’t go too far. If I’d felt anything, I would have walked away,” the girl said and then cut off Grandmother as a protest started. “It’s done now. Shall we get to work?”
I heard bottles clinking, a long sigh, and the scraping of a chair. The sweet, spicy scent of frankincense made its way through the door crack as the two women softly chanted. I opened the door slowly to keep them from hearing and slipped into the room. It was dark, small, and spotlessly clean. The medicine women had their backs to me. They were bent over an unconscious man, and smoke rose from a bowl in the older woman’s hand. The slight effects of the resin would be enhanced by the wisp of light I could see coming from the women and floating through the smoke to the man.
I remained quiet until they finished and turned around. The older woman froze in panic, but Noor looked into me. My eyebrow rose, and I said, “Witches.” This caused further panic in the woman, but Noor did not flinch. Instead, she took her grandmother’s hand and pulled her to the floor, and they knelt before me. There was no fear, awe, or worship coming from Noor. She simply recognized that I was something other. It was why I had been drawn to her. The respect and confidence in the child told me she belonged with me.
“Why is this one important enough to risk the gallows?” I raised my chin toward the unconscious man.
“He is our leader and horse tamer. We all rely on him,” Noor replied.
I walked over to him and looked at the style of his clothing. “It is not safe for your people here. Travelers have been banned. Why did you come here?” I asked.
The woman, still kneeling, found the courage to say, “It is not safe for my people anywhere. People like you call us witches for trying to save one of our own kind. Others call us thieves but do not allow us to own anything. There is nowhere that’s safe, so why not be here?”
I smiled at the fight in her and laid a hand on the man. The woman stood, ready to protect him. She dropped back down when she saw the light passing from my hand to his chest. After a moment, his breathing steadied. Noor stepped over to listen to his chest. “Grandmother, come listen. He breathes easy, and his color is back,” she said with excitement.
I let the two women examine their leader before saying, “Noor, you do not need this man to lead you. You are a leader.”
The woman inhaled again. “Why would you say such things to this child? She might think something like that is possible. You know that is not a girl’s place. What do you want from us?”
I picked up the bottle of frankincense and placed it in the grandmother’s hand. “It is time to anoint her and let her go, old woman.” I looked at Noor’s curious face and said, “Or do you want her to end up cowering in a corner in fear of man’s mood or in fear that someone will find out what you really are?”
“No, but they need me,” Noor said with hesitation.
I pulled a tulip bulb out of my pocket and placed it on the table. Their shocked faces told me they understood how valuable it could be. “This will take care of your family. Be ready when I come for you tomorrow,” I said and left them to decide her future.
Noor was one of the only maidens who had chosen to follow me because she was drawn to what I am rather than because she needed a different life.
Even now, I could smell the faintest hint of frankincense on her. Noor’s dance with the magic continued for several minutes. Her hand reached out for the key, but she stopped short of touching the thing. When she nodded, I closed the chest. Her shoulders slumped in relief from the struggle, and she spread her legs out so she would not stumble.
“I understand why you say it is familiar but not recognizable,” she said.
Frustrated, I paced as Noor put the pieces together.
“The energy coming from it is much older than the key itself, which is very old. I can see where the energy was cut off. It was tied off on one end by whoever placed the spell upon it and severed on the other end when the minotaur was killed. Since the key is no longer connected on either end, it is looking for a new host,” she explained.
I stopped moving. “Wait. Host? Are you saying this a parasite?” I asked with outrage. That is the worst kind of magic.
Noor laughed at my outrage, which I did not appreciate. “Precisely. I can also tell you the key is what blocked your ability to track, not the potion.”
“Where does this leave us, Noor?” I snapped.
She took the chest from my hand and said, “I wonder…” She opened it again, and this time, the boundary she erected was solid rather than opaque. I got the sense she was looking at the key rather than through it. She worked her energy around and underneath. “Very interesting. The word Hearth keeps floating through my head.” She looked up at me, waiting for something to click.
I let her words sink in. “That’s it.” I snapped my fingers. “That is why it is familiar but not familiar. The magic placed on the key was not the first magic to imbue it.” I started pacing again. “I haven’t seen her in centuries. It looks like I have no choice but to go deal with the family.”