The hours at that time of year got really dark, not just because they got closer and closer to the winter solstice, but because the sacrifice was arriving. The ritual that took place every two years. There, the three western towns were to deliver a young woman to the beast. The villages took turns, following an order to make the sacrifice, so that each one lost a young woman every six years. Although the loss did not seem substantial, it did not make the pain any less. In a century of keeping the bargain with the forest beast, no young woman had ever returned.
That year the sacrifice was in the hands of the Oriana tribe, but her thoughts could not even come close to the implications of the ritual, she could even think that she was in the age range of the candidates. No. All Oriana could think have been that her parents were slowing dying from the plague in the last room of the house. Years before, it had taken her uncles and her only brother, who was barely five years old. Now it was claiming the life of her parents, and every hour that passed it was taking a gram of their lives, without Oriana being able to do anything about it.
At that time she knew that all she could do was to wait. Days ago the village healers left her house, admitting that nothing could be done. No one else had approached the house since. Oriana had spent every hour awake, futilely trying to lower their fever, trying not to lose herself in the hours or the pain involved in hearing both of her parents breathe with difficulty.
The first to die was her father. Oriana had to prepare the body by herself, knowing that apart from the healers, no one would dare to enter a house that the plague had claimed. She was lucky that one of her neighbors took pity on her and helped get her father out of the house and into the small family cemetery at the end of the property. Two days later, her mother followed the father’s footsteps, once her lungs completely collapsed. That night Oriana cried at the graves of her parents, afraid of re-entering the empty house full of death.
The next few days were almost as torturous as enduring the agony of her parents. She had to perform the purification rite on her own and kept locked up for the next seven days. It was the time necessary to appease the souls and allow the plague to loosen its grip on the place. Oriana had never felt so alone, so lost in the abyss that had become her own home. She did not even realize that, when she opened the doors of her house again, was going to face the hour of the collection.
The hour of the collection was the moment when the reapers, as they had been called, went from house to house, observing each of the candidates for the sacrifice. They observed her potential, in order to choose the one that would generate the least damage. Needless to say, the girls chosen were generally poor or orphans.
As soon as Oriana opened the doors of her house and met the two tall figures, she paled. She knew immediately that her fate was marked. Even so, she did her best to talk about her talents, and openly say that she was the rightful owner of that house and those lands, without knowing that she was sinking herself even more.
Oriana came from an old, very old family, from the first inhabitants of the West. And although they were not wealthy, they had rights that others did not, such as the land, such as that house that was passed down from generation to generation. The reapers saw the opportunity to take one of the oldest properties in town; it was not difficult at all when only a seventeen-year-old girl stood in the way.
Oriana’s hopes died when three days later she opened the doors of her house to meet a large retinue of women and men willing to use force to drag her into the forest if it was necessary. She could not say a word, her throat had suddenly closed and it did not allow her to let any sound pass. She stepped to one side of the door, allowing them to pass as the tears rolled down her cheeks. There was no point in begging or resisting, she would be dragged into the forest anyway, and left in the open until the beast arrived and devoured her, even if that implied that she was taken unconscious. Oriana still remembered the last girl that had been taken from her town; she could still see in her mind how they dragged the body languid of the girl through the streets. And Oriana preferred to face everything awake. Perhaps it was her hope, her absurd hope that whispered to her that if she stayed alert enough time she could face anything, even survive.
The same old women who had once been in her house to tell her that her parents could not be saved, were now in charge of purifying her for the rite. Oriana could not help thinking, sarcastically, that those healers were not even close to what their title said, on the contrary, they were just announcers of death.
The three women stripped her naked and bathed her, then they began to cover her skin with oils that a human could smell in the distance, she was sure that the beast could smell her before she set a foot in the forest. Finally, they dressed her. Oriana hated the dress they put on her body, as she had done every time she saw one of the young women walking or being dragged into the forest. It was always the same, it was so translucent that it was practically as walking naked. She hated it because it was not enough for them to bring them to a certain death, but they must also humiliate them in the process.
As soon as they finished their work they tied her hands and led her out of the house. One of her best friends approached her with tears in her eyes. She hugged her and then placed a wreath of flowers on her head. It was a show of respect and appreciation for her sacrifice. As soon as she released her she found herself in a long path of people. Many she recognized, some of them were neighbors or friends, and others were completely strangers. They all formed a corridor to the forest, which was not far from her house. At least in that, her agony would be short. As soon as she started walking, the people who formed the road to her death began to throw flowers at her bare feet. Flowers just as beautiful as her, flowers equally forced to die prematurely, in her maximum splendor.
Oriana walked keeping her forehead high, and somehow managed to not cry. She entered the forest as the sun was setting on the horizon, marking the start of the winter solstice. As soon as she set foot in the wilde the flowers stopped falling at her feet and the people dispersed silently. Three men along with the reapers were the only ones who kept pace with her. They walked until they reached a clearing in the woods where a post was fixed. They tied her already gagged wrists to the top of the post, forcing her to keep her arms extended upward. With just a nod and without a word they said goodbye to her, leaving her completely alone in the forest.
Oriana remained motionless and silent for hours. She could see in detail how the light of the short day was extinguished. Then the moon began its slow rise in the celestial vault. When impatience began to draw to her body and the position of her arms became painful, she heard noises from the other side of the clearing. She remained completely stiff as she watched as a huge wolf came out of the forest.
The beast, she thought.
But then another wolf just as huge appeared, and then another, and another. Oriana couldn’t tell if she was more scared or confused. All her life she had been told about the beast, in singular, and now, in front of her she had a dozen of beasts. She couldn’t help laughing sadly at herself, at her stupid hope. She never had a chance.
She resigned himself to dye, and thought that it was a better fate anyway, she no longer had anyone in this world, and perhaps if she died she would meet his family again. But then, the first beast that had come out of the forest shifted into a man… a slender man and… completely naked.
“I claim her” said the man.
At that three more beasts transformed and stood naked before her.
“I claim her”.
“I claim her.”
Oriana couldn’t believe what her eyes were seeing, she couldn’t believe even though the beasts continued to take human form in front of her and saying the same absurd words. In the end, there were nine men who remained standing, and they all looked at her as if she were the last prey on earth.