"The slender black haired girl stood quietly in the cold downpour, naked except for a loincloth and chest band. Her pale skin was covered with goosebumps, but she did not notice. One foot she held in the air behind her, arms outstretched for balance, the other foot straining against the rough pole that rose from the water below her. There were other poles, some straight, some tilted to one side or another, each serving as a possible foothold. Having fallen onto them in the past the young girl was determined not to lose her balance again.
Thunder crackled and fell upon the earth in the distance, and the girl's eyelids wavered, but she kept her eyes open. Nevertheless, the Temple mother's whip sang out from the darkness where she stood and burned a mark across the girl’s neck, chest, and stomach. The girl winced, but did not cry out. She had learned that lesson when she first arrived.
One girl, she remembered, did not. They had been brought together in the same group, and the other girl whose name she never learned, kept sobbing, even when the whippings began. She cried out at each lash, and screamed to be taken back to her parents. A few days later, her body had been carried to the funeral pyre. That taught Emillie her first lesson of the Temple.
Weakness was not tolerated. Failure was not tolerated, and in the Temple of the Goddess the only mercy meted out was the embrace of death, followed by the funereal songs. Weak girls were made to suffer more, and those who did not, or could not become stronger, were eventually broken and died from the strain.
Emillie felt a surge of pity for that first girl who was whipped to death because she had been scared, but not enough pity to show any emotion on the poles this morning. She tried to keep her emotions buried beneath the flow of the moment, concentrating on the shifting pole.
She counted herself lucky that her father had trained her since she could walk, in the art of hand fighting, because she joined the temple with more endurance and skill than the other girls. However, any thought that she was superior, or even a good fighter had been beaten out of her in training within her first month. The Order was quick to hammer down any pegs that stuck out, and the day she showed her advanced skills in the ring, the Mentors simply put her in a harder class where she was suddenly outmatched. Those earliest days had been the hardest, when she had been thrown against the wall repeatedly, or had her arms and legs broken by dour senior girls who would kill you as much as look at you.
Skill itself was nothing in the Temple. Speed and unwavering endurance took you further, and kept you alive. She lost count of how many times she almost died that first year. The days she spent under the mages care was both reassuring and embarrassing; if you showed no weakness, then the Temple mothers spared no effort in your care and recovery, but the healing was not easy, nor painless, and at first, when she lost to better students, it was a blow to her pride.
The pole shifted beneath her foot, and Emillie felt it start to fall. She leaped to another pole and caught her balance almost instantly. The first pole clacked against its neighbors and fell into the water with a splash. The humming sing-song of the whip followed the searing welt of pain that exploded across her body, but Emillie kept her calm. A lesser person might have decried the unfairness in being tasked with both staying above the water on shifting poles, and yet not being allowed to move.
Emillie recalled the Temple mothers' first lesson about the whip from that night when the crying girl had died. The Temple Mother who spoke that night was the same who stood in front of her now. Arianhad.
“The whip is not punishment,” Arianhad said in deceptively sweet tones, her face lit by torchlight. “The whip is fact, and the fact is this: sometimes you will feel pain in life, for a reason. Sometimes you will feel pain in life because you fail a task, or break an oath. Sometimes you will feel a pain for no reason what so ever. Every Temple sister bears lash marks, and all have felt the whip. Some may tell you such a thing is 'unfair,' and they may be right, but beyond these walls, life itself is unfair, as the Gods have intended.
“Life is unfair, and hard. There are things beyond these walls,” and here Arianhad gestured at the far corners of the Temple's vast prayer room, “that will shred your soul from your broken body if you show any weakness. Therefore in times of weakness, the whip is your friend. It brings pain, and pain is a gift of our goddess. It reminds you that you are still alive, and still have a choice. You will make choices in this Temple, and in this life that will bear many consequences. To that end, the whip is not punishment. It is simply consequence.”
Now Emillie believed knew the true meaning of pain, and the gift it was to the Goddess, almost as a great a gift as the skill of war. The pole under her foot began to sink, and Emillie leapt again. The whip sang out, but missed Emillie by a few inches as she landed on a pole further away.
The true gift of pain, and the whip, Emillie thought to herself, was learning to avoid getting hit.
“You're getting faster,” Arianhad said conversationally. “Not bad for a sprat of only twelve winters. You make stop now.”
“Thank you Temple Mother,” Emillie said, leaping from pole to pole and then to the stone walkway where Arianhad stood. She stood still as her body exploded with the pain of another lash, and the corner of her mouth twitched in a brief smile.
One day, she thought, I'll leave this temple and go back to my mother and father and grandparents."