The three weeks before the Awakening were a blur. I felt as I did when I was running on the hunting ropes. I could see only what I was hunting while everything around me became swirls of colors. My target had become Daegan. I had not wanted to like him, but his willingness to know everything about myself and my life, to try everything, slowly changed my heart. I taught him to walk as we did, though his feet were clumsy on the ropes, and it took him several days to become passable at climbing ladders and rope bridges.
He spoke of his land, of how they lived on the ground because it was not dangerous there. Of the homes that were made of wood and grasses and dirt. How the sunlight was never hidden by trees, and of a large body of water they called a 'river' that was so wide it took nearly half a day to cross it. I could not imagine that much water contained in the earth. He spoke of horses, and of the large amounts of land they used to plant so many different foods that it made my head spin. He told me of how his parents died when that great river flooded their village. They had been putting people high up into the branches of trees and used the last of their strength to put him into the arms of a waiting aunt when they were swept away. He says they died as a warrior should. Because of them many of the villagers were saved, and when a new village was made, it was far away from the reaches of the large river. He understood my sadness, and he understood why my brother was so precious to me.
When we did not speak of things he made me things. A small garland of flowers for my hair, a twine bracelet that he had learned to make from one of our weavers. But what I cherished most was a tiny figure he carved of soft, sweet smelling wood. It was of a woman, hands on her hips and her hair curling. She looked proud. Powerful. Daegan said it was how he saw me. I think that is the moment I realized the Great Star-Maker truly had fated us together. Every minute I spent with him I could feel the threads pulling tighter around us, binding us together. I no longer fought it. Aunt Reya and Aunt Simi smiled at me with their strange smiles when they saw us together, and then laughed like small children if I caught them staring.
Not all my time was with Daegan. I had many lessons to learn before my Awakening. I was with well over eighty other girls, some only eighteen, others twenty one. When Daegan saw us all gathered in the Great Center he walked to us, which caused several girls to shout at him to go away. Aunt Reya and several other elderly women laughed and had to explain that men were not permitted, as the girls were learning. In the evening he pulled me aside.
“What's this 'Awakening' everyone is on about?”
“It is a ritual to become a woman.”
“Some o' them 'girls' are old enough to be women.”
I laughed when I saw how confused he was. He did not like it, but I did not care. He smiled then and grabbed a fistful of my thick hair, pulling me closer to him, wrapping his other arm around my waist. More and more I liked his touch. More and more I wanted him to.
“Explain it tae mae. In my village girls become women when they've....when they are able tae bare children.”
“The Awakening can only happen once every three years, when the moon is correctly positioned in the sky. Some girls are too young when it happens, and must wait. But it is a special night for all of the village. Then there is feasting and dancing.”
“And wha' o' the men?”
“They have The Hunt. All boys become men when they are eighteen. They go on a dangerous hunt on the first day of summer. Some do not live. Trigri will one day take it. But he will be one of the great warriors. He is faster and smarter than most boys.”
“Tha' I believe.”
Thinking of my brother hurt my heart. I had been so busy with lessons for the Awakening, learning medicine from Aunt Reya, and spending much of my free time with Daegan, that I had only minutes before bed to spend with Trigri. My heart had changed so much to thoughts of Daegan that I had almost forgotten I would soon no longer see my brother, and I had pushed the pain down. I did not wish to think of it. Daegan tugged gently on my hair.
“You've gone sad again.”
“I am not sad.”
Daegan's green eyes bore into mine, as if he was trying to see my very soul, then smiled before kissing me. I liked when he kissed me.
Through the haze in my mind I heard Trigri's voice in my head. He sounded terrified. I jumped back from Daegan, my body tense as I searched the balconies. Trigri was near, I could sense it. I spun around a moment before he came running to my arms. Against my chest I could hear his heart hammering as fast as a birds wing.
“Trigri, what has happened?”
“Marlia, the elders...they did not realize! And...and--”
“And what? You are not making sense!”
Trigri squirmed from my arms and took in a large gulp of air. Daegan stepped forward, trying to put a steadying hand on him, but Trigri swatted it away. His eyes did not leave mine.
“The Picking, Marlia. It is to happen after the Awakening. The elders said so! Come, come!”
He grabbed my hand and began to run. I went with him because he looked so scared, because people around us looked scared. Every one, no matter what village they were from, had a Picking. The choosing of a human sacrifice to the God Tsitsi and his children, that they would not destroy us. Trigri had not been old enough to remember the last Picking. But I was. He had a right to be afraid. All around me I could see the news spreading fast. People were soon running along side us, chattering away like an agitated hive of bees.
When Trigri and I made it to the Great Center there was already a mass of people. The village was gathering fast. My little brother's hand clung tightly to mine, sweaty. Around me I heard shouting, anger, fear. Aunt Reya stood upon a chair, high above others. She waved her hands, and though I saw her mouth open, I could not hear the words she said. The other voices were too loud. After many minutes Aunt Reya was able to silence the people, and her voice was strong when she spoke.
“I know you are all angered. But there is nothing we can do. We must have The Picking.”
“But my daughter is twenty one! She must be made a woman!” Shouted a mother from the crowd. Several other women echoed the same words.
“I understand your concerns.” Aunt Reya's lips were set in a grim line. “The elders and I have spoken at length on this. The Awakening will still commence. After, there will be The Picking.”
All the voices started at once, talking to each other. It took several more minutes for Aunt Reya to calm them.
“Standing around here will do no good. Take your families and be with them. In five days time many of you will gain new women, and many will need to mourn. Be happy with your families now. Go to your homes.”
Slowly, the crowd did, though they were not happy. I could not see Daegan in the throng of people, though I looked. Ria, my friend, walked home with Trigri and I. She looked scared.
“I fear that having The Picking after our Awakening is a bad omen, Marlia.”
“It is not a bad omen. It has happened before.”
“Not when we were alive. My mother said the last time The Awakening and The Picking were held on the same night a great storm came and much of the village was destroyed. She was a child and remembers well the many people that died because of it.”
I stopped walking, anger rising. Beside me I could feel Trigri's hand tremble in mine with each word that flew out of Ria's loosened tongue.
“Ria, nothing bad will happen, other than the loss of the person who will be a sacrifice. Go home now, I am sure your family will wish to be with you.”
“Marlia,” She must have seen my anger, for she put her hands up in apology. “I am sorry. You are right, I am sure. Nothing bad will happen. I was only afraid. I will see you at lessons tomorrow, yes?”
I nodded my head, still angered that she had caused my brother to feel even more afraid, but I would forgive her in the morning. It was always our way. I spoke to Trigri with my mind—I knew how much he liked it—and offered him words of comfort. He did not reply back to me. When we arrived home he went to his room without speaking to anyone. Daegan was with my father, sitting next to the fire and talking quietly. Seriously. I hesitated for a moment before joining them. Father looked weaker than usual. I sat next to him and when he breathed I could hear a rattling in his chest.
“Marlia, Daegan tells me that The Picking is to happen after The Awakening.”
“This is so, father.”
“I do not like this. I am thinking of not letting you participate in The Awakening.”
“Father, you are being as superstitious as Ria. Nothing will happen, and besides, I am almost done with my lessons.”
I looked to Daegan, who would not look at me. He stared only at the fire. My father sighed heavily then coughed. It was wet sounding.
“Very well. I cannot stop you. And I do not think Daegan would like to wait another three years before marriage.” Father's eyes were downcast and he said gently, “I do not think I will live the three years to see it. I wish to see you happy and safe in marriage before I go.”
Never had father spoken of death. Never. I could feel my hands shake as they curled into fists at my side. Anger coursed through me and tears burned the backs of my eyes.
“You will not die father. Not in a week, not in three years. Not in twenty years.”
“Every one has their time Marlia. Mine is almost up. The Great Shadow will take me soon.”
“Marlia.” His voice was low but strong. “Every one dies. If not now, later. You are strong, daughter. Stronger than me. Stronger than your mother. You will bear this. Daegan, take my daughter and go, I am tired.”
I was so stunned that I did not fight when Daegan lifted me up and walked me out of the room. It was only when a cold wind blew on my face that I came to my senses. I tried to pull away from Daegan, but he was stronger than me, and was expecting it. He grabbed my shoulders to hold me in place. He took my punches and kicks as if they did not hurt. I knew they did. I was strong. When I had tired myself out he hugged me to him, as if he were a great tree with arms. I would not cry, though my eyes wanted to. I breathed deeply. I breathed again. I could smell Daegan.
“I've got you.” His voice vibrated into my ears from his chest. “I'll keep you safe.”
He did not need to say those words. I already knew it. When I turned my face to his he did not show any sympathy. I did not want any. I would have hit him again if I had seen it. He knew.
“I had no' wanted tae tell you until after your Awakenin'. T'was gunna be a surprise, bu'.....” He lowered his head, until our breath was one. “I'm stayin' here Marlia, when we marry. I'll no' take you away from your family. You are my family.”
It was too much. There were too many things happening at once to grasp. Too many emotions to try to understand. Tears slid down my cheeks though I did not wish them to. Daegan wiped them away. Truly the Great Star-Maker must love me to give me such a person. To make such a person. I do not know how long the tears fell, or how long Daegan held me, but it seemed a life time. When I went to my bed Trigri was asleep in it. I held him close to me and even in his sleep his arms wrapped around me. I would not be parted from him. I would not be parted from my father or my family. I had thought I could not cry any more tears. It seemed I could.