Two gates the silent house of Sleep adorn:
Of polished ivory this, that of transparent horn:
True visions through transparent horn arise;
Through polished ivory pass deluding lies.
John Dryden, Aeneid, Book VI, 894
PROLOGUE: THE GATE OF IVORY
Although he knew many songs, he was famed for only one. Once that song had been his alone; now many sang it, but that did not matter to him. The song only he could sing truly remained his. No matter what else he sang, no matter how late the night grew, never would men or women -- and as he grew older, he preferred to sing to the women -- release him until he had sung that tale.
Always different, suited to the hearts and minds of his audience. Always the same, in the end.
And as the stars burned overhead, he would yield to those who listened; Hebrew or Philistine or strangers upon the endless road.
"Listen and hear of the deeds of Samson, strong and bold. A man who slew many men, a man whom many women desired. A man who loved a woman named Delilah, a woman who brought him low. A woman who gave Samson into the hands of his enemies -- "
And men or women, Hebrew or Philistine or stranger, they listened. For everyone had heard tales of Samson, and many knew that only Orev could offer them the truth. Had he not walked beside Samson, and seen with his own eyes the wonders he now sang to them?
Sometimes, as he sang, Orev marveled at his own tales. That golden time seemed long ago and far away, now, and truth elusive as a ghost. . . .
PART ONE: NEW MOON
Long ago and in another land lived a maiden dark as night. Night she was named and night she was. And this maiden served a goddess bright and burning as the sun, a goddess soft as shadows and midnight….
Once I blamed the gods for the pain I endured. Later I blamed Samson himself. Only now, too late, did I lay the blame for what came to pass at the feet of the one whose fault it truly was.
Oh, it was the gods who began it. A game, to them - what are men and women to those whose breath is the wind and whose eyes are stars, whose blood is Time itself? A jest drew them to my birth, urged them to bestow upon me their double-edged gifts. Jest and play to them, to lay such a boon upon a girl new-born, god-begotten daughter of chance.
I was named for that boon: Delilah. Night-hair.
But that name never seemed to fit me well, despite my gleaming midnight hair. For always, from the moment I drew breath, I, night-born, was drawn to the day's light. To the sun.
That, then, is what began it, set my feet upon the path that led me to where I now stood. After all that had passed, all that I had paid in tears and in desire, I now stood alone - alone before a silver mirror, a keen-honed knife close to my waiting hand.
I was a child of the Grove, begotten on a Full Moon by a stranger upon the first and last night my mother ever spent in the Lady's Grove. To be conceived beneath the Full Moon was a blessing, a sign of Our Lady's favor. Not until I was a woman grown did it occur to me to wonder why a Full Moon child had been named instead for moonless Night Herself. The Temple did not encourage such unruly thoughts; those of us who dwelt within its peace were meant to serve, not to question. And from the day I took my first steps, I dwelt in the Great House of Atargatis in Ascalon, pearl of the Five Cities.
The Five Cities of Philistia ruled the rich land of Canaan, their laws governed all from the eastern hills to the sea that stretched beyond the sunset. Although a man or a woman governed each of the Five Cities, it was the city itself that was Lord or Lady. Decrees were made, laws proclaimed, and justice rendered in the name of Lord Gath or Lady Ascalon, Lord Ekron or Lady Ashdod, or Lord Gaza. By tradition, the highest ranking priestess wed the Lordly cities, and the highest ranking priest became the consort of the Ladies.
It was the mortal consort of the city who sat in judgment, who listened to the arguments and pleas of the council of nobles and merchants. Sometimes I dreamed of becoming Priestess-Queen to one of the Cities - but then I would have to leave Ascalon to dwell in Gath, or in Ekron, or in Gaza. I could not imagine ever abandoning Lady Ascalon; no, not even for another of the Five. I remembered no other home than Ascalon's Great Temple of Atargatis, for my mother had given me into the Lady's hands at Her own bidding.
"When I was fourteen, Delilah, I went to Our Lady's House, and the oracle asked the sacred fish to look upon my future. I was told that Our Lady would grant me long life and many children in return for a jewel of great price. 'But I own no such jewel,' I said, and the oracle looked again into the pool and watched as the fish swam, and said 'The Lady will provide the prize she wishes you to surrender to her. When you hold it in your arms, you then must choose.'"
My mother sighed, then; she always did when she spoke those words to me. For she was permitted to visit me once each season, and each time she did, she retold the tale of my begetting, as if I might have forgotten it, or her. I always sat quiet, and let her talk - although my mother was little more to me than a half-remembered dream. She was a married woman now, wed to a wealthy, indulgent merchant who had fathered half-a-dozen hearty sons upon her. When she came to visit me, she always wore a gown of gold-fringed linen fine and soft as water, and gems glowed like small bright fires against her skin.
But despite all she had been granted, my mother still looked upon me with hungry eyes. For she had traded her first-born daughter for her own future; never again did she bear a girl child. The bloodline of her mothers would die with her. Now that it was too late, she mourned that eternal loss.
"Still," my mother said, "you seem happy here, my daughter."
"I am not your daughter. I am Our Lady's daughter," I reminded her, prim and pious as a temple cat, and my mother's eyes glinted bright with unspilled tears. But her grief did not move my heart; not then. My mother had made her choice, and must live with the life she had created for herself. I wish, now, that I had been kinder to her. "Of course," she said, and managed to smile. "And you are already grown so tall - and so graceful. You will dance well before Her, Delilah."
"That will be as Our Lady wills." Although love of the Dance sang in my blood, and already my body swayed easily to music, young priestesses were not encouraged to flaunt their beauties or their talents. Not until we were fourteen were we permitted to look upon our faces in a mirror. I would not be given that privilege for another four years. My studies consisted of learning how to read and to write, to know the uses of herbs and flowers, how to create scented oils, how to choose a true gem from a false. How to please Our Lady in greater things would be taught later, when I passed at last through the Women's Gate.
I yearned for that far-off day - in that I was no different from all the other girls dedicated to the Temple. To walk through the Women's Gate into the Lady's Courtyard, to wear Her scarlet girdle clasped about my waist, to paint my face into Her image, these things would prove my status as one of the Lady's Beloveds, whom all the world desired….
"Delilah?" My mother's voice held an odd mixture of timidity and rebuke. Clearly I had not heard whatever words she had spoken to me. But it was not her place to chastise me -- a fledgling priestess -- for error, and we both knew it.
I did not look at her, and I did not speak. Instead, I gazed down at my hands as I twined the end of my long braid about my fingers, over and through, as if I played at cats-cradle with my hair. The scarlet cord that bound my dark, tight-plaited hair gleamed bright as blood in the sunlight. After a moment, I broke the silence between us with a question, one I suddenly knew I must ask, even if my mother did not answer. I lifted my head and stared into her eyes.
"If you had known you must give me away, would you still have asked Our Lady for the same boon?" For the span of forty heartbeats, my mother did not speak. Then she said, "That is a hard question, Delilah." She slid her eyes away from mine, and I knew her next words would be lies. "How could I have given you up, had I known?"
You should have known. What else would be a jewel of great price that you would hold in your arms? I looked at my mother; she had turned her face away, staring at the painted flowers upon the courtyard wall so that I could not look into her eyes. But that told me what she never would admit in words. You did not want to know.
Pain clutched my heart for a moment, only to be swept away by anger. My mother had tricked herself, and now blamed everyone but herself for the price she had paid. I will never do that, I swore silently. I will never deceive myself and then blame the gods for what I myself have done.
"Yes," I said. "How?" And I rose to my feet, smoothing my skirt so I need not look upon my mother's face. That was cruel, but I was very young, and the young are very cruel, especially to those who have hurt their hearts. Still refusing to meet her eyes, I said, "It is time for me to help carry in the offerings. I must go."
"Of course," my mother said. She hesitated, and then set her hands upon my shoulders and kissed me upon the forehead. Another pause, and then she added, "I am glad you are happy here."
"Yes," I said in a voice cool as the moon, "I am happy here."
Of course, I knew nothing else but Temple life, and no one here was unkind to me. No one here would bargain me away for her own gain -- or so I believed then, when I was a child, and still trusting.
My mother slowly walked away, to the gat