There is a bridge between the finite and the Infinite. This Bridge is the Meri, the Spirit of the Spirit of the Universe, which men call God. Nothing may cross that Bridge: neither day nor night, nor old age, nor death nor sorrow nor evil nor sin.
Only the pure of heart may cross that Bridge, because the world of the Spirit is pure. In the crossing of this Bridge, the eyes of the blind will see, the wounds of the ailing will be healed, and the sick Man will become whole.
To the crosser of the Bridge, the night becomes day, because in the world of Spirit there is everlasting Light.
— The Book of the Meri, Chapter I, Verses 34-36
It was not lost on Meredydd-a-Lagan that she was the only girl at Halig-liath. It was brought home to her every morning at Assemblage where she stood, front and center in the huge cobbled yard, Surrounded by the other Prentices—boys, all of them.
It hadn’t been so bad when she was younger; she had been almost indistinguishable then—cropped chestnut hair, tunic hung loosely on a slender, angular frame. But she was fifteen now, and in the last year, many things had grown apace with height and hair.
This morning was particularly bad; she felt completely alien, awkward and unwelcome. In the warmth of a fine spring morning, she stood out from the others like a briar among roses—her bare arms hairless, her light tunic betraying mounds and bends and curves no other Prentice possessed. She sensed eyes on her as they murmured their congregational prayers and prepared for a day of lessons.
She dared to glance up at the Osraed in their gallery high up on the imposing stone wall of the Academy. They were looking at her too—Ealad-hach, Calach and her guardian, Osraed Bevol. She got Osraed Bevol to meet her eyes and he smiled. She forgot her awkwardness in an instant and filed away with the others for classwork.
“She’s gotten to be such a tall girl,” said Osraed Calach. “Taller than some of the boys.”
“She’s still a girl,” Ealad-hach reminded him, and glanced at the silent, smiling Bevol. “She will always be a girl. She should be training in the domestic arts. Training to be the wife of an Osraed and the mother of Prentices.”
“And why,” asked Bevol, “should she do that when she could become Osraed, herself? She has absolutely no talent for the domestic arts, Ealad. None. But she is already practicing the Divine Arts with some skill.”
“You should not let her practice.”
“Why not? You let your personal favorite practice and Meredydd has shown far more natural talent and inclination than he has.”
Ealad-hach wrinkled his knife-blade nose.
“Ah?” Bevol pressed, pointing a finger at that oversized feature. “Ah now, admit what you cannot deny. Meredydd is second to none in her class.”
“And it goes to her head. A bad condition for a girl.”
“If it went to her head and if she were an ordinary child—of either sex—I would agree, but neither is true.”
“The Meri will not accept a female Prentice, you know that.”
“I know nothing of the sort. There is nothing in the Books that denies Prentice-ship to girls.”
“There is tradition—”
“Pah! Old folk tales, hearsay—”
Osraed Calach cleared his throat. “Do you intend to abandon your students in favor of this ancient argument?”
Osraed Bevol smiled and wagged his head. Snow-streaked copper, his hair and beard rippled with the motion, cascading over the azure of his robe. “I will never abandon my student,” he said pointedly, and led the way from the gallery into the Academy.
Meredydd was not watching Aelder Prentice Wyth scratching illustrations of aislinn symbology on the whitewall. She was watching a spider apply warp and woof to the corner of an open window. The web had been taking shape for the entire morning and was nearly complete. Sunlight ran like blazing golden liquid down its pristine fibers—more delicate, more gleaming, more glorious than the finest silk. Meredydd imaged herself in a robe of the stuff—so fine and light.
She could see herself upon the sill, the size of a butterfly, lying back in the sleek, shining hammock, where bees would bring her nectar and ambrosia and the spider would play duans for her upon a harp of his own design. She could almost hear its song—light as down, shimmering, whispers of melody.
It was a shame, she thought, that the Arts didn’t run to miniaturization. Then again, maybe they did and it just wasn’t something the Prentices were permitted to know. After all, it wouldn’t do to have them practicing Shrinkweaves on each other. The thought made her grin.
“Prentice Meredydd. Could you tell me what you are studying that you find my lesson beneath your notice?”
She jumped quite nearly from her skin and blinked up into the Aelder’s stern face. “Why—aislinn symbols, Aelder.”
“Aye, that is what the rest of us were studying, cailin. But you, I think, were not.” He straightened and turned toward the whitewall, and Meredydd thought how spiteful he was to remind her (and everyone else) that she was a girl.
Cailin, he called her—but only when Osraed Bevol was out of earshot. He had used the word once in the Osraed’s presence and Bevol had referred to him as “boy” for a fortnight, refusing to dignify him by using either his name or his title.
At the whitewall, now, stood Aelder Prentice Wyth and lifted a bony, linen-clad arm to point at the group of symbols rendered there in blue oilstick. They were very well drawn, Meredydd had to allow. “Meaning, Prentice Meredydd. Give this aislinn meaning.”
That was easy. “The horse,” she said, “is life, events. Strong emotions. The rearing horse especially connotes difficulty in maintaining control of one’s destiny.”
Wyth’s lips pursed. “And this?” His finger tapped a set of wavy lines.
“Water in motion,” she replied. “Emotions, such as love or great passion are symbolized thusly. A stormy sea would indicate violent emotions or a fear of them—especially, a fear of passion.”
“At least you studied.”
“I always study, Aelder Wyth.”
He peered at her, narrow-eyed. “A man dreamed,” he said, “that he went upon Pilgrimage. And when he reached the shore of the Western Sea, he lay upon the sand and slept. When he awoke, a beautiful cailin urged him to rise up and follow her into the sea. He rose and walked after her and entered the water and did not get wet.” He emphasized the last words with a smile and folded his arms across his chest. “Interpret this aislinn.”
Meredydd glanced quickly about the semi-circle of Prentices and wriggled uncomfortably on her bench—not because she couldn’t interpret the dream, but because she could interpret it and suspected it was the Aelder’s own.
“Are you certain, Aelder Wyth, that you wish me to interpret this dream?”
“Why else would I have directed you to do so?” he asked sarcastically and drew a snicker from the other Prentices.
Meredydd set her shoulders and sat stiffly upright, steeling herself. “Pilgrimage—”
Wyth held out the bluestick. “Come to the wall and illustrate your Tell for the class.”
She swallowed and gave the teasing spider web a last, longing glance, then rose and went forward. She took the bluestick, erased the existing symbols with the blotter and began her illustration.