The seven days before my death went too quickly—and too slowly. It took hours to calm Trigri down, and two days to turn away the many villagers who begged that another go in my place. I was to be their next shaman, they said, I should not be sacrificed.
“The Old Ones have their reasons for who they pick. We must trust in their wisdom.”
Over and over Aunt Reya repeated this to the villagers, but I could see in her eyes that even she was trying to understand their logic. It does not help to try to understand. I had once questioned why the Great Star-Maker would ever make me be with a man only to take me from him. But now I knew why. To love and have love is a precious gift that to receive even for a few moments is worth death. Daegan cried only once after I had been chosen, and he did not think I could see him. Every day he spent his hours with me, making me show him all of my favorite places in the village, always keeping his hand in mine. I lived only for the now, I thought only for the now.
Trigri would not leave my side or mind. He was always talking to me in my mind about everything he saw, heard, and tasted. I did not find it as annoying as I had only a few days ago. I welcomed his distractions and spent many hours telling him stories and holding him. The day before I was to be sacrificed the villagers came to say their goodbyes and offer food and other such things to my father and brother. When night fell and the lanterns were lit, my family was left alone. Trigri was asleep in my arms, and my father was speaking with Aunt Reya and Simi in a corner. Daegan had gone to get water for us.
I had been staring into the fire, lost in thought, when Aunt Asai's voice pulled me away from them. Her dark eyes looked troubled, and her full lips were parted as if she wanted to say something but was holding back. I smiled and she returned the gesture, sitting next to me. She was silent for several moments before she spoke, and when she did, it was in a low voice so that only I heard.
“I knew something such as this was to happen.”
“Yes.” She glanced at my hand that was resting on Trigri's head. “Your line foretold that you would go through a great and terrible trial.”
Something in my heart fluttered. It beat against my ribs like a butterflies wing.
“Were you lying then, that I was to bear many strong children and have a long and happy life?”
“But then...” I stole a look to my father and aunts. They were busy talking. I lowered my voice anyway. “How am I to die if I am to live a long life?”
“I...do not know.” Aunt Asai passed a slender hand over my brother's hair. “Marlia, we do not always know why the gods do such things, but I think...I think the gods have a much bigger plan for you. One that even your Aunt Reya or myself cannot understand. It is hard to see a whole forest if you are busy looking only at the leaves.”
I nodded my head. I wanted to believe her words. That perhaps I would not need to be sacrificed. Perhaps a god or goddess would intervene on my behalf. I would not need to leave Trigri or my family. Daegan came back with a bucket of water, and after my father took Trigri from my arms he placed a kiss upon my head.
“You are strong and brave Marlia. You are my fierce little bird.”
Tears slipped down my cheeks and he rested his forehead on mine, and I could smell the smoke and earthy scent of his clothes. My father was stronger and braver than me. He had lived on after my mother's death, and now must watch me go to mine. Aunt Simi led both Aunt Reya and Asai away. Daegan took my hand, lacing our fingers together as he tugged me up the stairs to my room. When we entered I heard the front door shut. Frowning I peered out the window. My father was leaving with Trigri.
Daegan's voice was by my ear, his breath warm on my neck. When I turned I was standing only inches away from him. His green eyes were bright even in the dim lighting. His hands were on my shoulders and suddenly the world became very small. It became only the two of us. My heart began to beat hard, and I was sure he could hear it.
“You are mine, Marlia. I am yours.”
His lips were on mine then, his hands were on me, and I was dizzy and breathless all at the same time. When he lowered me to my bed, I saw tears in his eyes. I wiped them away as I cupped his face with my hands.
“You are mine, Daegan. I am yours.”
We did not speak again to each other with words, we did not need to.
When I awoke the next morning it was with Daegan holding me in his arms, his green eyes on me. I smiled then sat up. My aunts had left me a simple white tunic and doe skin breeches folded neatly on a chair for me. I blushed as I dressed, realizing that my aunts and father had known what Daegan had done. What we had done. Daegan swatted my hands away when I started to braid my hair, doing the job himself. When we walked downstairs my father, aunts, and brother were sitting around the center fire, dressed in their finest clothes.
Aunt Reya looked up at me, her eyes red from crying. The wrinkles on her face were deeper than ever, making her appear older than she already was. She stood slowly, her lips twisted up as if to smile, or perhaps to cry. I was not sure.
“Marlia, it is time.”
As I walked out onto my balcony and saw all of the villagers staring back at me, I was sure that one of the gods would intervene. They would come down from the trees and place their hands upon my shoulders and say that this was not to happen. But no gods came. My father, chief of our village, spoke the words of thanks that are always spoken to the sacrifice, and then I was given a small bag of provisions. Trigri was nowhere to be seen, and I was thankful. I did not want his crying eyes to be the last thing I saw.
My father took me in his arms and hugged me with all the strength he had left. Over his shoulder I saw Aunt Reya sobbing into Aunt Simi. But Aunt Asai, my tall, slender, strong aunt who I so looked like, stared at me with hope in her eyes. Willing me to remember her words. I nodded my head, feeling that strange fluttering in my ribs again. It was hope. Aunt Asai could not be wrong, and I had to believe that.
“Father,” I said softly, “I will be back.”
He pulled away from me, searching my face as if he, too, could read my thoughts. He closed his eyes then puts his forehead to mine.
“I will wait for you.”
Beside me Daegan also had a pack on. I frowned, confused. He did not smile at me, nor speak. Father spoke for him.
“The home of the God Tsitsi and his children is two days journey from here. Daegan will take you to the forest edge, and from there you are to go by yourself. If you do not arrive when the moon and Eastern Star are aligned, the God Tsitsi and his children will devour us. Walk quickly, walk safely, and may the gods watch over you.”
I turned to face the rope that had been dyed red. It was the only rope that led straight out of the forest, should there be a need to escape. It also led to the home of the God Tsitsi. With Daegan standing beside me I took one last look at my family. At my village. I glanced down at the lines in my palm then to the dark and vast forest that would lead me closer to my death. Everyone in the village was staring at leaves. But me? I was staring at the whole forest.