This was the most important day of Chala’s life. She followed her classmates through the doors of the Aula.
The circular hall was vast; the walls made out of huge, clay bricks, each one engraved with the motif of one of the Guilds. Chala’s breathing quickened, like the candles flickering on the walls, as she looked at the most sacred place in Oscura Land.
‘Go and sit in the front two rows,’ said Wordwright Tarbi, pointing at the seating stones which rose in tiers to the domed roof.
Chala shivered as she sat down; the seat felt cold through her tunic. Immediately in front of her was the Whirlstone. Her mouth felt dry on seeing it for the first and possibly only time in her life. She leant forward to have a closer look at the slab of circular stone, embedded in the rock floor. The names of the three Guilds were embossed on the outer rim. The top third was the Keepers Guild, subdivided into Firemakers, Pathfinders and Spellcasters. To the left was the Cultivators Guild, split into Healers, Treeherders and Wordwrights. Chala hardly glanced at the third segment; no way would she become an Artisan.
‘Sit up straight,’ said Tarbi and he poked her in the back with his willow cane.
Chala turned to scowl at him, but smiled instead as she saw her mother enter the Aula with the other members of the Aulic Court. They sat down in the seats behind them.
‘It’s alright for them,’ Chala whispered to Rosa, her best friend from Guildschool, ‘they’ve got their Guild cloaks; it’s freezing in here.’
‘I warned you not to talk.’
Wordwright Tarbi hit her on the shoulder with his cane. Chala gasped and clamped her hand over her mouth to stop herself from crying out in pain.
I hate you Tarbi, she thought. You just wait; when I’m a Keeper, I’ll pay you back.
‘Spellcaster Yanna, Head of the Aulic Court,’ announced Wordwright Sofia.
‘Welcome to the Whirlstone Ceremony. On this day, as ordained by the Ancestors, all Oscurans, aged eleven, will push the Whirlrod and find their pathway in life.’
Chala smiled as she heard her mother’s voice and half turned her head to look at her, but she felt Tarbi’s cane poking the back of her neck.
‘Keep facing the front,’ he hissed in his waspish voice.
She wanted to grab it from his hand and see how he liked being poked. He’s just a Wordwright, a Cultivator, she thought. Mother says that the Keeper’s Guild deserves more respect and power than the Cultivators or Artisans.
That morning, her mother had hugged her before she set off for Guildschool for the last time.
‘By this evening, you’ll be a Keeper,’ her mother had whispered. ‘I wonder whether you’ll be a Spellcaster like me, a Firemaker like your father or a Pathfinder like your sister. I’ll be so proud to see you wearing your red cloak.’
Immediately in front of where they were sitting, set into the rock floor, was the silver plaque engraved with the Chant of Fate:
‘In the Whirlpool of life, the Whirlstone sets our destinies.
Without the Whirlstone, life would be as in a Whirlwind.’
This was the first time Chala had seen the words written down, even though she knew them by heart. How many times had they had to repeat this chant during the last few weeks? And how many times had Tarbi hit her with the willow cane for talking in class or not paying attention?
‘Stand up,’ whispered Rosa.
Chala realised she’d been daydreaming and scrambled to her feet; the ceremony was almost over.
‘Remember to say the words clearly,’ Tarbi hissed in a whisper.
As they recited the Guildsong, Wordwright Sofia opened the doors of the Aula. It was time for each initiate to turn the Whirlrod.
Chala held her breath each time one of her classmates pushed the handle, waiting in suspense for it to stop. This was serious; the segment it landed on would be their occupation for life.
When little Manni pushed it, the pointer landed on the divide between Healers and Treeherders. There was a quiet gasp in the hall because this was unusual.
‘He’ll choose to be a Healer,’ Chala whispered to Rosa.
‘Be quiet,’ hissed Tarbi, prodding her in the back with the cane. Then in a louder voice he said, ‘Manni, you need to choose your pathway.’
There was silence. Wordwright Sofia went to him and after a few moments she called out that he had chosen to be a Treeherder. She took him to the open doors of the Aula where the crowd was waiting outside.
What an idiot, thought Chala; I’d rather be a Healer any day.
Now, Rosa stepped carefully down the huge steps and approached the Whirlstone.
Please let her become a Keeper, Chala thought. The Whirlrod rotated slowly around the circular stone and stopped at Wordwright. Chala sighed. We won’t be friends any more, she thought. Keepers don’t mix with Cultivators. Still, it’s better than being an Artisan.
When it was her turn, Chala jumped down the stone steps. Already, she was taller by a head than any of the other initiates. She rested her right hand on the Whirlrod and read the tiny inscription that was written on the handle in silver:
‘Push the Whirlrod once. Where it comes to rest is your Pathway in life. Your Destiny waits.’
Smiling, Chala flicked her long, dark hair back from her face and pushed the handle with her right hand. The Whirlrod rotated and stopped in the Artisan’s section at the segment named Wallbuilder.
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