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Innocence Lost

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It begins in the marketplace: noise and clatter, people and chatter, beast and barter.

Hawkers ring their bells and clash their chimes, trying to attract customers, and the appetising scent of the food sellers rises over the reek of beast and human.

Teyla’s gaze is caught by a chain of blue beads hanging in a stall across the street. The beads are marbled like the colour of the sky, and gleam with a polished shine.

A tug at her mother’s coat prompts only a soft chiding. Teyla sighs as she steps back and leaves her mother to the bargaining. Four families need new cloth for the coming winter. Hamyn wants the greenseed for planting in the wheeled boxes that will travel with them through to their winter site. Charin went seeking the spices with which to make tuttleroot soup.

She knows should not interrupt the important business of the adults.

Still, a longing lingers in her chest. Coming here seemed much more exciting when she was back in the woods, proudly telling the other children that she would be going on an adult trip to Jancie’s Markets.

The beads catch her eye again, glistening as they swing lightly in the midmorning breeze. Come to us, they seem to say, like a friendly twinkle in a deep blue eye.

With a glance up at her mother and the man with whom she bargains, Teyla skips across the crowded market street and pauses by the table at the seller’s stall. Her hands are kept carefully behind her back, but the seller eyes her with tolerant amusement, looking her over from top to toe as his eye rests briefly on the pendant at her throat - a gift from her father, and beyond precious.

“I do not believe you have the asking price for that pendant, child.”

“I am no child,” Teyla tells him with offended dignity. “I am old enough to come here with the adults!”

An eyebrow raises, but his lips curve in a smile. “And I saw you come over here while your mother bartered and bargained. She’s lucky I don’t do trade in little girls.”

Teyla regards him for a moment, eyes narrowed. “I would scream. There are many people outside.”

“So there are,” says the owner cheerfully. “But perhaps I would be fast enough to cover your mouth with my hand.” He lifts one hand that seems as big as the hand of Oresh the blacksmith and suddenly there is a screaming in Teyla’s head.

It is not the hand he has lifted, but something else - a faint itching behind her eyes, a steady, wailing noise in the middle of her head where she cannot scratch.

“Teyla!” Fingers close hard about her wrist, dragging her attention away from the sudden hunger that springs up in her belly. “Come! We must go.”

She has never heard that tone from her mother before. The edge cuts like the grip of adult fingers in a childish hand.

“Your daughter was doing no harm.” The shopkeeper indicates his wares. “She was just looking at the beads.”

Her mother looks at the seller, not at the beads. And her voice resonates with fear. “The Wraith are coming. I suggest you leave this place now.”

The Wraith are coming. The phrase resonates in her mind as her mother drags her through the crowds. Thought is a struggle as the itching-screaming grows stronger, but her mother’s hand urges her on, out of the maze of streets.

They are at the edge of the town when the Wraith dart screeches down out of the sky and the screaming begins. The Ring of the Ancestors is already in use, and her mother curses and crouches down beside Teyla.

“Listen to me. If we are separated, then we meet back here when it is over. Do you understand me, Teyla?”

Eyes wide, with the itch in her head nearly unbearable, she nods. “Mama...my head hurts.”

Her own eyes - wide and dark - look back at her. “I know, Teyla. But it still not stop until the Wraith are gone. You must be strong.”

There’s a thready fear in her mother’s voice that makes Teyla grip the warm hand just a little harder. Then they’re running again, as human screams ring in Teyla’s ears, and the inhuman screeching rings in her head.

Back on Athos, the parents would tell grim stories of the Wraith. But these pointed wedges that trail a deadly curtain of light in their wak are faster and more terrible than Teyla ever imagined. She is young, but she knows of jealousy and greed and hatred and anger.

This is none of these.

The people who run and push and shove and gasp are nothing to the Wraith, coldly collected up like forest nuts, just another meal.

She does not want to think what kind of meal. She cannot think through the pounding in her head, and the soreness of her legs. But her mother’s grip is warm and fierce on her arm and her encouragements never stop as they run through the terror all around them, evading the Wraith.

Teyla remembers that first culling as a hazy blur of trampling bodies and sweaty fear. She remembers the dizzy feeling of not being quite herself, of faces that she’s never seen, of sensations she’s never felt.

The end of the culling does not come too soon.

Hours later, she sits, trembling at home, wrapped in several blankets with her mother feeding her tuttleroot soup. Her friends have all peeped their faces in at the tent flap, brought by their parents to check on her, or merely slipping away to find her.

Today was a blessing for Athos: none of theirs were lost in the culling.

“She has it, too, Torren,” her mother says softly as her father kneels beside her, his skin shining ebony in the light of the brazier by which they warm themselves. “She felt them come.”

“Ah,” says Torren Emmagan, brushing one warm finger across his daughter’s face as he sits down beside her. “Then the Ancestors have given you a gift, Teyla.”

“People died.” She was told the stories; something in her didn’t believe them - couldn’t believe them, not until she and her mother made their way back through the marketplace amidst the dried and drained bodies and the cowering grief of those left behind.

“That is what the Wraith do, Teyla.”

“Take our people.” No Athosians were taken today; but tomorrow? Next moon? Next season? Next cycle?

“Yes.”

She flings her arm around her father’s neck, clutching hard for the security she once believed in and cannot, not anymore.

“Oh, my daughter,” he rocks her as she sobs - dry sobs - wanting back what she has lost.

That is the day Teyla realises she is different.

The next morning, she goes to Karlen and asks for lessons in the stick-fighting for which he is famed. While the other children watch and whisper and try their hand at it, only to give up, Teyla trains herself in this discipline.

Every day thereafter, Teyla trains herself for something she does not know, something she cannot describe, something that does not exist anywhere she has seen - not yet.

She lost her innocence that day; but it is not until many years have passed that realisation dawns. That day, she gained the desire for a future without the Wraith.