Bethia’s father climbed out of the coach and turned to give her a hand down as Brother Howell pointed out their bags to the coachman. She was glad of his steadying hand as she stepped down onto the path, as sudden nerves had overcome her and her legs felt like jelly.
‘Good luck, dear,’ the kind lady called as the coach began to pull away.
Bethia smiled and waved, before turning towards the great doors to the Abbey. They must have been at least 8 feet tall, and made Bethia feel every bit as small as her 5 feet 2 inches. She watched as Brother Howell grasped the wrought iron handles and turned it, putting his weight against the heavy wooden door to push it open. It creaked slightly as it opened, and at once she caught the scent of incense burning somewhere within. The smell was strong, yet perfectly balanced to welcome and calm the nerves of any visitors and she found herself taking deep breaths as another Brother approached them.
‘Howell, how are you dear Brother?’ the newcomer asked, grasping Howell’s hand in his and placing his other hand over his own heart.
‘Good, thank you, Devin’, Brother Howell replied, returning the greeting.
‘How was your journey?’
‘It went well, and we made good progress. Although we had hoped to arrive a little bit earlier today. I had forgotten just how busy the city gets at Midsummer, it’s been so long since I’ve been here at this time of year.’
‘Indeed it has, too long in fact. I hope we’ll get chance to catch up before you leave again?’ Brother Devin asked hesitantly.
‘I hope so too,’ Brother Howell replied with a smile, ‘although we must leave shortly after lunch if we are to make it to the Way House again by sunset.’
‘Then I shall catch you straight after the Dedication Ceremony.’ With that, Brother Devin turned his attention towards Bethia and extended his hand in greeting.
‘Welcome, Entrant Bethia,’ he said, smiling warmly at her. She noted that he seemed much older than Brother Howell, who she knew was in his late forties. Brother Devin’s grey hair was growing thin in places, and he had a slight stoop to his stature. But the most intriguing part of his appearance were the laughter lines deeply etched around his eyes and mouth. They creased even more deeply as he smiled at her when she took his hand.
‘Thank you, Brother Devin,’ she said quietly, still feeling nervous at the enormity of finally being here.
Suddenly Brother Devin beckoned a passing student, ‘Finn, please could you take Entrant Bethia’s bag to her room. Sister Fenella will show you which is hers.’
Finn, a tall boy with dark blond hair, nodded as he took Bethia’s bag from her and turned to walk in the opposite direction to where he had been originally heading. Bethia hoped that he wasn’t too put out by the detour.
‘I would have suggested you visit your rooms first,’ Brother Devin continued, ‘but it is almost time for the Dedication Ceremony to start. I shall take these other bags,’ at this he pointed to those belonging to Brother Howell and Bethia’s father, ‘to my own room for you to collect later. You do remember the way to the Chapel, don’t you?’
Brother Howell guffawed with laughter, ‘It hasn’t been quite so long since I’ve been here that I’ve forgotten that.’
Brother Devin chuckled along with him and then turned to leave them. Bethia wondered just how often Brother Howell had visited this place. She had rarely known him to leave Terran and the surrounding villages that he watched over for more than a few days at a time, and yet a round trip to the Capital would take almost a week, more than that were he to stay for longer than a day.
Correctly interpreting the confusion on her face, Brother Howell said, ‘I spent several years after my training was complete here at Straith Abbey before moving into rural care. I come back whenever I can, but it has been quite some time. You must have been very young the last time I visited. But I remember it well enough not to forget where everything is. Come on, the Chapel is this way.’
Brother Howell led them along a corridor to the left and pointed out rooms as he went. ‘This is the main entrance for visitors to the Abbey. Both the Chapel and the Healing Wing are easy to reach from here. You’ll also find rooms for all the Heads of Departments. Brother Abban, the Head of the Abbey, Brother Devin, the Head of Entrants and their Guardians, Sister Ginette, the Head of the Healers, and Brother Cass, who oversees the guest rooms for visitors. Ah, here we are,’ he said, as they approached a large set of open doors – The Chapel.’
Bethia gasped as she took in the view ahead of her. As she had guessed from the outside view, the large windows gleamed with a multitude of colours, with the panes of glass showing scenes from nature throughout the seasons and the God and Goddess in their various guises. The Chapel itself was huge and airy, with high vaulted ceilings and rows of wooden benches reaching all the way to the front where a platform stood, with a lectern and several chairs placed upon it. The room was fairly full with people chatting amongst themselves.
‘Why are there so many people here?’ Bethia asked quietly.
Brother Howell chuckled, ‘Some are the families and friends of your fellow Entrants, some are members of the Abbey here to welcome you all, and some are citizens eager to find out who is joining us this year. They’ll be gossipnig about you all down the market in no time.’ He looked at her aghast face and laughed even harder. ‘Don’t worry so much Bethia, you’ll be fine.’
‘But…’ she stuttered, unable to find the right words to express how she felt. She had expected there to be the other Entrants and Brethren to meet, but having this many people watch her Dedication when she knew none of them felt terrifying.
‘Just breathe,’ Brother Howell told her, as her father placed his hand on her shoulder to offer his support. ‘You can do this.’
They had reached the front of the Chapel by this point, with Brother Howell selecting a space on the third row back for them to sit. She looked around at the others, trying to figure out if anyone else was as nervous as she was. Several of those sitting near the front were also glancing around, and she spotted a couple of girls sitting close together catch her eye and frown. They both wore expensive silk dresses and had their hair perfectly pinned up, making Bethia feel terribly underdressed. She had chosen her best clothes for today, a cornflower blue cotton dress with a delicate white trim around the neck and waist, but it seemed so plain in comparison. She had made it herself with the best cloth she could afford and had chosen the colour to complement her pale blonde hair and blue eyes. Compared to her usual work clothes for days on the land she had felt positively radiant, especially as she had chosen to wear her hair down for once, letting it frame her face.
She didn’t have any more time to reflect on this however, as Brother Devin walked down the central aisle with another, slightly younger man who Brother Howell told her was Brother Abban, the Head of Straith Abbey. Climbing onto the platform at the front of the Chapel, Brother Devin raised his hands and the chatter died down.
‘Good morning everyone. It is my pleasure today to welcome this year’s Entrants to Straith Abbery and lead them in their Ceremony of Dedication. As you all know, this is the first step any member of the Brethren must take and marks their Dedication to serving the people of Inness. This is then followed by their Initiation at Midwinter, when the power of the God and Goddess will be bestowed upon them to help in such service. Such a decision is not taken lightly, and each one of our newest Entrants here today have spent time with a Brother or Sister who knows them well, ensuring they are ready for such a commitment.’ At this, Brother Howell reached over and grasped Bethia’s hand in his, squeezing it encouragingly.
‘Today these Entrants begin their three year training, at the end of which they will become full members of the Brethren. They will have lessons from a range of teachers, all of whom are specialists in their respective fields. However, we are well aware of the challenges they will face, as well as their own natural interests, and so each one will be matched with a Guardian who will oversee their training in a more personal manner. A Guardian’s role is a sacred one, and the bond between an Entrant and their Guardian often lasts for life, long after the training is complete, and I hope that this becomes true for each one of you here today.’
Bethia knew all of this, having talked to Brother Howell for many hours before deciding if this was truly the right path for her. But hearing it in this formal setting somehow made it all feel so much more powerful.
‘Now,’ Brother Devin continued, ‘could I please ask the Entrants and the Brethren sponsoring them to come up onto the stage.’
There was a quiet scuffle of sound as several pairs of feet moved and five boys and six girls including Bethia made their way onto the platform.
Brother Devin directed them into place, and then said, ‘I shall invite each Entrant in turn to make their Oath and introduce them to their Guardians.’
Bethia watched and listened as Brother Devin moved along the line, telling the audience a little bit about each Entrant and why they had been paired with their Guardian. As she had worried, most of her fellow Entrants came from either the capital city itself or towns and cities far larger than Terran. Would she be the only one here from such a rural background?
‘And this is Entrant Bethia, from a small village called Terran,’ Brother Devin said, standing beside Bethia. ‘Brother Howell, who has known her since childhood, tells me that she is highly dedicated to whatever she does, but that she has a particular interest in healing. Which is why we have chosen Brother Carew to be her Guardian.’
At that, there were a few gasps and some quiet murmuring in the audience. Bethia felt herself frown, as she looked at the man walking towards her. She guessed he was probably in his mid-twenties, with long dark hair and skin much paler than her own sun-kissed and freckled face. He looked at her cautiously and gave her the slightest nod of acknowledgement, a far less enthusiastic greeting than she had seen some of the other Guardians give to their new charges. She smiled at him tentatively as he moved to stand behind her, replacing Brother Howell who went to sit back down with her father.
Brother Devin looked at them both and then said, ‘Brother Carew is one of our most accomplished healers here at Straith Abbey, and we are confident that under his guidance you will learn how to deal with more complex cases than you will cover in your general studies.’ He paused for a moment, as if to give her chance to acknowledge this, before moving onto the most important part of the ceremony.
‘And now, Bethia, I invite you to say The Entrants’ Oath.’
Bethia took a breath to calm her nerves at having to speak in front of so many people, and then began. ‘I, Bethia Ros of Terran, choose to dedicate my life to serve the people of the land of Inness. I will devote my life to meditation and study, so that I may know and honour the Great Mother and Father, who will bless me with their power. Never shall I use this power to harm another, unless in defence of the land and its people. My life shall be in service to others from this moment until I return to the hands of the Gods.’
Her heart pounded with a mixture of relief and excitement as Brother Carew placed a pale green robe around her shoulders. This, like the darker green robes that full members of the Brethren wore, signalled to all who saw her that she was in Service to the Gods. She barely heard anything else that was said as Brother Devin carried along the line of Entrants, instead focusing on her father’s beaming face in the audience and realising that she had finally done it. She was now a member of The Brethren.