You think you know my story. On cold, snowy, December nights, you've crowded around fires and under blankets to listen to the tale. Hot chocolate and sugar cookies filled your stomachs while you watched the bright and cheery story of hate and redemption. Year after year it is told and retold. Details have come and gone; the truth of it scattered like snow on the mountain.
My truth is far darker than anything you've ever been told. The words of my story are more twisted and tragic than the words of any simple, children's story. Christmas spirit didn't make my heart swell with understanding, because mine is not the bright and cheerful propaganda you've been lead to believe. My story is painful, dirty, and heart-wrenching. Believe me when I tell you it is not for the faint-hearted.
Read on if you feel you must. Some details will seem familiar because the best lies contain little bits of the truth. Which bits are truth and which are lies will be up to you. Bright or Dark; only you can know which you believe.
Truth or Fiction, it always begins the same way:
Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot...
X X X
Christmas then wasn't bright and shiny. Christmas then was a little bit more.
We were connected to the earth in a way that people today long for but never can quite feel. Every moment, every tradition, every ritual was vital. We could feel the beating heart of the planet and we knew it was only at her mercy that we survived.
Christmas (though we knew it by another name then) was a time to honor Father Nickolas. The village was more alive during that time of year than it was at any other. Songs could be heard from every direction and the rich smells of cooking food filled the air. Candied almonds, fried apples, and spiced cider wafted their aromas for miles around.
The darkest night was spent feasting and singing and celebrating Father Nickolas. Bonfires burned and mead flowed freely. Every Who in Whoville celebrated to prepare Father Nickolas for the work to come. With the rising sun, Father Nickolas began his work to warm the earth. With each day, he would bring her back to life little by little so that we could live and love and prepare for the next winter.
Christmas was a time of fun, cheer, and family. It was the only time of year you could feel magic hanging, thick in the air. Even after heavy snows had scrubbed the air clean, you could feel the magic brushing against your skin as you walked through the forests.
Christmas was truly magical.
Until the year it wasn't...
X X X
The mountain rises, tall and majestic, to the north of the village. While it's peak is unreachable to climbers, I had found solace in a cave that cut into the hard stone a third of the way up. On days when the chaos of the village became too much to bare, I would take a team of dogs and head out into the wild. The cave was easy to reach if you knew where it was. There was no climbing and the dogs could pull the sled right inside.
Over the years, I had brought things with me to the cave. Several bedrolls were stacked to make a bed more comfortable than the one I had at home. There were cooking pots, jugs for water, knives, hatchets, canned food, extra clothes, anything and everything needed to survive on the mountain. I could, and would vanish for days on end.
I woke in the cave that Christmas Eve. It was cold, my fire having burnt down to embers in the early morning hours. I stoked it back to life, made a pot of strong coffee and sat at the opening of the cave with my spyglass.
From the opening, I could see every part of the village. The sun had yet to rise above the horizon and the village was already beginning to stir. Smoke curled from chimneys and the care takers had already begun to feed the livestock. Soon, the entire village would wake and preparations for the Christmas feast would begin.
I finished my coffee, picked up my pack, and went to see to the dogs. Once they were fed, I harnessed them to the sled. Stopping for a moment to check of my snares revealed several large rabbits. I put them in my game bag and stepped back onto the sled.
“Alright, Max!” I yelled to the lead dog. “Take us home.”
Max bounded forward and the other dogs followed. The cold wind on my face cleared my mind and washed away all the nervousness that had sent me up the mountain a few nights before. The sled skidded around turns as the dogs didn't slow their pace. It was Christmas Eve and the kennel master would have special treats for them this morning. I had no doubt Max could already smell them on the air as we neared the village and he quickened his stride.
The dogs pulled the sled up to the kennel and I was thanking and rubbing behind the ears of each one when the kennel master came out.
“The great hunter returns,” he exclaimed with a smile, holding both hands up in false triumph. “You think they will ever realize you go up there for more than hunting?”
“Even if they do, what does it matter,” I asked returning his smile. “So it takes me a day or two longer than it should. I come back with more meat than the other hunters, that's all that matters.”
“Are you planning on remaining a hunter after your ceremony tonight?” he asked, making a point to look more at the dogs than at me.
“Of course. You're not getting rid of me that easily,” I said with a laugh.
“Good,” he said looking up into my eyes. “I would hate to think you would stop visiting... the dogs, I mean.”
A shy smile curved his lips as a deep red moved into his cheeks.
“Of course I will still visit. The dogs, are important to me,” I said holding his eye contact and hoping he was getting the real meaning of my words. “I would stay and help like I usually do, but I can't today.”
“No. I wouldn't allow it today. You must go. The elders would never forgive me if I was the reason you were late.I will see you in the meeting hall once the dogs are taken care of.”
“Thank you, Sam,” I said clasping his hand in mine for a moment before turning and walking deeper into the village.
After leaving the rabbits with the butcher, I made my way home. Our house was the first one on the square. As chief elder, my father had claimed the house closest to the meeting hall when the last chief had died. We had lived in the house for as long as I could remember and loner than my brothers had been alive.
The house was still silent when I stepped through the door. I dropped a few logs on to the fire and began making sausage and eggs for breakfast. Plates were on the table and coffee was going into mugs when Mother came down the stairs.
“Good morning, Grin,” she said taking the mug I offered her with a sleepy smile.
“Good morning, Mother.”
“How was your hunt?”
“It went well,” I said setting a small bowl of sweet cream on the table. “I came back with six large rabbits for the butcher.”
“Rabbit stew in a few days,” she said with a bright smile before turning serious. “How are you doing? Today is a big day for you.”
“I'm fine. Today is important and all, but it's not like things are going to change all that much. It's not like I was a toddler yesterday and became an adult over night.”
“You will be surprised by how much does change,” she said, her voice carrying a dark tone that I couldn't place.
“Grin!” Richard exclaimed as he bounded down the stairs. “Did you see any reindeer on the mountain?”
“Not this time,” I said spooning eggs onto a plate for him.
“Charlie will be disappointed,” he said and shoved a large piece of sausage into his mouth.
“Why will I be disappointed,” Charlie asked taking his seat across from Richard.
“No reindeer on the mountain this morning,” I said taking an empty seat and pouring cream into my coffee. “Of course, that doesn't mean they weren't on a part of the mountain I didn't see.”
“Or down in the forest,” Richard said between bites of eggs.
“Grin,” Mother said taking the cream as I passed it to her. “You had better get going. The elders will be expecting you to represent our family in this years ceremonies.”
“Yes, Mother.” I said standing.
“Don't forget your cloak... your good cloak.”
“I will make you proud, Mother.” I said pausing to place a hand on her shoulder before pulling my good cloak from the peg by the door and heading back out into the cold.
It was only a few steps from our door to the door of the great meeting house, but the fires hadn't been lit. They would be left dark until the dead of night when they would be lit to burn bright all of Christmas day. The elders were gathered in a close circle with a representative from every family in the village. Everyone had their best cloaks drawn close around them to trap what little warmth they could.
“Now that we are all here,” Father said, a hard edge to his voice. “It is time to begin.”
He pulled a large, leather pouch from inside his cloak and held it out to one of the other elders before turning his eyes back to me.
“As our youngest representative and newest to come of age, you draw first,” he said as the other elder held the pouch toward me. “Take a stone and hold it in your hand. Once everyone has taken one, we will hold them out for everyone to see.”
I reached in and removed the first smooth, round stone I touched. It was small enough to fit in the palm of my hand and be completely hidden by my closed fingers. One by one, each of the other representatives reached into the bag and pulled out a stone. I couldn't help but notice how tightly some of them gripped the small rocks. The skin on their knuckles was stretched tight and the muscles of their forearms were ridged. Once the pouch was empty, I followed suit as they all held their fists out toward the center of the circle and waited for the chief elder to speak.
“As always, we thank Father Nickolas for his guidance and protection through last winter. May our deeds and celebrations in the days to come sustain him so that he might see fit to protect us and guide us through this one as well,” he said walking around the center of the circle in the opposite direction the pouch had gone and dropping a single drop of water on the back of each hand. With each drop, the hand it landed on turned over so that the closed fingers were facing upward.
He paused when he stood in front of me.
“Welcome to adulthood, my only daughter. Someday, you will stand in my place. For now, I know you will make me proud in leading our ceremonies tonight, and every night to come until another should come of age and take your place.”
“Thank you, Father,” I whispered as he dipped the end of his finger into the chalice he was holding and let a single drop of water fall onto the back of my hand.
He stepped back to the center of the circle as I turned over my hand.
“Reveal the will of Father Nickolas,” he said holding his arms wide.
Around the circle relieved sighs burst from the representatives as fingers opened to reveal smooth black stones in every palm but one. The man standing to my right took in a sharp breath and then seemed to stop breathing all together as he gazed down at the brilliant white stone in his hand.
“Congratulations, Sam,” Father said drawing my attention to the kennel master's face for the first time since entering the hall. “Your son will have the honor and responsibility of residing with Father Nickolas and asking for his help and guidance.”
“He is only five,” Sam said in a defeated tone. “and he is all I have.”
“All the more honor to your family,” Father said taking the pouch and holding it out so that the stones could be returned.
Sam closed his fingers tightly around the stone when the bag was held out to him. For a moment, I thought he would hold onto it forever. His fingers grew white with the force with which he held it, his eyes never leaving the eyes of my father. Finally, he released the stone and it fell with a cold clunk against the black stones beneath it.
X X X
“I thought Father Nickolas chose the child,” I said to my father later as we left the meeting hall together.
“Father Nickolas cannot do everything, my child,” he said placing a hand on my shoulder. “We draw lots every year and the oldest child from that family has the honor of going to live with Father Nickolas.”
“Sam did not seem happy about the outcome,” I said voicing my concern for my friend in the only way I could.
“His wife died giving birth to the boy. They had been bonded for less than a year when the tragedy happened. It was a wonder the boy survived at all. Since then, the child and the dogs have been all Sam has had. It will be difficult for him. He will need a friend.”
I looked down at the stone path as we walked. Mother had been right. The day had just begun and already so much was changing. I thought about going to comfort Sam, but Father stopped and turned to face me.
“Sam will be okay. He will need his friend tomorrow. For today, go and see if your mother needs any help with her preparations. Tonight, you will help me prepare the boy for Father Nickolas.”
“Yes, Father,” I said and headed through the door to our house.
My mother and brothers were sill sitting at the table when I walked into the kitchen. Had the ceremony really taken so little time?
“Back already?” She asked standing.
“We are finished for now,” I said, eyes turning to Charlie and Richard. “Father sent me to see if you needed any help.”
“You could help your brothers pick a tree,” she said with a warm smile.
Richard and Charlie jumped from the table and rushed to pull on cloaks, boots, and gloves.
“Go get properly dressed,” I said pulling Charlie back out of his cloak. “Meet me at the stables. I'm going to go have a horse prepared.”
Both boys groaned but kicked back out of their boots and went to dress in warmer clothes.
“Don't let Richard pick the largest tree he can find this year,” Mother said handing me a wrapped loaf of bread. “Last years almost didn't fit in the house. Deliver this to the stable master for me, please.”
“Yes, Mother,” I said and headed back out into the cold.
The stable master was excited to receive the bread and worked quickly to ready his best horse. Before I knew it, Richard and Charlie had joined me and we were slogging through snow-blanketed trees.
Charlie ran ahead of us stopping at each green tree he came to. With his head cocked to one side, he would inspect the tree for flaws before ultimately declaring it terrible and moving on to the next tree.
“How was the ceremony?” Richard asked as he walked beside me.
“You know I'm not allowed to tell you what happened,” I said pausing to look down at him.
“I know, I'm just nervous for when it's me,” Richard said looking down and kicking a clump of snow away from his feet.
“You still have two years before you need to worry about it,” I said in, what I hoped was a reassuring voice.
“Is it terrible being an adult?”
“I don't feel any different than I did yesterday or the day before or the day before. Nothing in me has changed. I have more responsibility to the village now. I must pick a roll to fill. That's all.”
“Will you continue to hunt?”
“I think I will,” I said smiling down at him. “Would you like to come with me sometime?”
“I would love to!” he said hugging me in excitement.
“I FOUND IT!” Charlie yelled. He had gotten farther ahead than I had realized.
Richard and I rushed to catch up with him and get a look at the tree he had chosen.
“It's not as big as the one I found last year,” Richard said causing Charlie to deflate a little.
“I think it's perfect,” I said giving Charlie a smile. “Besides, we had to cut the bottom four feet off the tree you picked last year just to get it in the house. Mother will love this one, Charlie.”
I detached the saw from where it hung on Midnight's saddle. Richard took one end while I held the other and we quickly worked it through the trunk of the tree leaving nothing but a small stump sticking out from the ground. We tied it to the sled and Charlie rode with one leg to each side of the trunk as Richard and I lead the horse back into the village.
X X X
By the time darkness settled on the village, preparations for the next days activities had been made. Trees were decorated with strings of berries, colorful ribbons, and small brass bells. Children were cleansed with the smoke of burning cedar to offer them protection in the year to come. Then every Who in Whoville gathered in the square for the lighting of the village fire.
Drums pounded as everyone sang songs to Father Nickolas. Those not playing drums clasped hands in a giant circle that reached comfortably around the small square. I stood in the center with the Elders while my father prepared a torch.
Once finished, he stood and looked around at everyone singing. When the song was over, everyone but the drummers fell silent. Father held the torch out to me and I took it with shaking hands. Gripping it tighter to steady my arms, I lowered the end to a small candle one of the other elders held. The tip of the torch burst instantly into bright flames and the pace of the drumming quickened as I held it to the sky.
“Once around the circle, then light the fire,” Father whispered leaning close behind me.
I made my slow way around the circle, looking into every face as I went. I couldn't help but notice Sam's red eyes and the smile that didn't quite reach them. The drumming grew faster and more erratic the farther I walked reaching an apex as I approached the unlit fire and touched the torch to a log at its base. The wood had been generously soaked in oil so that as soon as I touched it, the fire spread quickly. The drumming stopped and cheers erupted as the fire lit up the whole center of the village.
I tossed the burning torch into the fire and joined the circle of people; firmly grasping Sam's hand in an attempt to lend him some of my strength. He squeezed back just as tight and a real smile brightened his eyes for a second as he looked down into mine. He mouthed a silent, “Thank you,” before the smile disappeared and his eyes went back to the fire.
A single voice began to sing the song of Father Nickolas. One by one, the voices of those around the circle began to join her until everyone in the village was singing the song; everyone but Sam. He stood, hand still tightly clutching mine while he gazed silently into the dancing flames.
When the song was over, every Who in the circle turned their backs to the fire and walked to their homes leaving Sam and I (still holding hands) standing alone with the elders.
“Please,” Sam said to Father once everyone else was too far away to hear. “There has to be another way.”
“I cannot change the will of Father Nickolas,” Father said eyeing our clasped hands before meeting Sam's eyes.
“But is it really the will of Father Nickolas,” Sam snapped, anger coloring his face.
Father's open hand met Sam's cheek in a slap that sounded over the roaring of the fire.
“Do not question the will of Father Nickolas,” Father said forcefully as he stepped forward and ripped our hands apart. “and do not involve my daughter in your blasphemy! The boy must be taken and offered to Father Nickolas if we are to survive the hardest part of winter. Would you damn the rest of the village to starvation for the sake of one child?”
Sam didn't answer right away as he held father's angry gaze with one that matched it. Then he dropped his eyes, and his hand found mine again but father was to intent on Sam's face to notice.
“No, Chief Elder, “ he said bowing his head. “Please forgive my foolishness. I know the importance of our ceremonies, it is just difficult to lose your only child. Please forgive the slight against your daughter. I care about her more dearly than I do myself and would never wish to taint her honor.”
The anger drained from Father's face as his gaze dropped, again, to our clasped hands. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as his eyes flicked up to mine. I straightened my back and stood a little taller as I marveled over the words Sam had just spoken.
“All is forgiven,” Father said. “Go. See your boy off to bed and try to relax with a cup of tea. The elders and I will come when it is time for the cleansing ceremony.”
“Thank you, Chief Elder.” Sam said with a small bow as he released my hand and then turned to walk away.
“Wait,” Father said making him stop. “Grin, go with your...” he looked at me with questioning eyes. “...friend. Join him for tea and offer him the comfort of your company. I will help your mother with the boys.”
“Thank you, Father.” I said before placing my hand firmly back into Sam's as we walked away.
We walked in silence through the village. Sam's home was built into the back of the kennels. As we made our way through them, we stopped to offer an ear scratch and a peanut butter biscuit to each of the dogs. Max showed his excitement with several affectionate licks that left my arm shiny with dog slobber. Once finished with the dogs, Sam lead me through a door at the far end of the kennels and into his home.
It was small, warm, and inviting. A fireplace filled one wall while his bed rested against the one opposite with a small table in the middle. A large shelf next to a narrow set of steps held cups, plates, cooking pots, and a few food items that wouldn't spoil in the warmth of the fire.
“Father?” a small voice called from the second floor.
“Go,” I said to him. “I'll make the tea.”
“Thank you,” Sam said only releasing my hand after placing a light kiss on my knuckles.
He took the narrow stairs two at a time and I could hear him talking to the boy in quite tones as I placed the kettle over the fire. While the water heated, I searched the shelf and found tea, cups, sugar, and spoons. By the time Sam's feet reappeared on the steps, I was pouring hot water into the cups.
“He fell asleep,” Sam said and took a deep, steadying breath before gesturing toward the table and saying, “Thank you.”
He pulled out a chair for me and waited until I sat before pulling the other around the table to sit closer to me.
“Are you going to be okay?” I asked.
“I... I don't know,” he said looking into his cup as he poured in sugar.
“It could be worse,” I said placing my hand on his arm in an attempt to comfort him. “He's going to be with Father Nickolas.”
His eyes snapped up to mine.
“Not everyone is as comfortable with the idea of offering the village's children to Father Nickolas as your father is,” he said slowly and quietly.
“I'm sorry, I didn't,” I said before he cut me off.
“It's okay. It's what is done,” he said bitterly.
He looked at the fire and his face gave away no emotion. I was afraid to speak so we sat in silence for several, long moments.
“Grin...” he said my name but didn't continue speaking.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I...” he started but stopped again. He seemed to find it difficult to look away from the fire. “Every big moment in my life seems be a mix of great joy and terrible sadness.”
I didn't know what to say so I took a small sip of the hot tea.
“At first light, I will lose my only son,” he said, reaching for my hand. “It will be one of the worst days of my life. The other was the day of his birth. I felt happiness greater than I knew was possible when your mother placed Zin in my arms. She told me he was healthy and as strong as any baby she had ever delivered. Then she me told his mother had not survived the birth. Great joy was followed quickly by great sorrow.”
“I'm so sorry, Sam.”
His hand grew tighter around mine.
“Then there's today...”
He paused again and used his free hand to lift his cup of tea to his lips with a quick glace back toward the fire.
“You know, no one else thanks the dogs. To everyone else, they are nothing more than tools. They are livestock meant for nothing more than tracking and pulling sleds. Yet every time you take them out, when you return, I find you petting and thanking each dog before I can even make it out the door. Then you stay and help me care for them before taking care of yourself.”
“I can see how much they mean to you,” I said giving his hand a quick squeeze. “They have become my friends as well.”
“This morning, I stood back from the door a little watching you for a moment. You had fresh snow in your hair and your cheeks were red from the cold. It was standing there, watching you rub Max's head that I finally found the nerve to approach your father.”
My hand stiffened in his as his eyes came back to mine.
“When you arrived at the meeting house, your father had just given his blessing for me to pursue you as my wife,” he paused for half a second as his eyes flicked from mine to the fire and back. “Again, great joy was followed quickly by great sorrow.”
My heart pounded so forcefully I thought Sam must be able to hear it and I found it difficult to speak past the emotion that seemed to close my throat.
“Sam, I,” I started but he cut me off with a light kiss against my lips.
“It's okay,” he whispered resting his forehead against mine. “You don't have to say anything.”
“Sam,” I started again but was cut off by a knock on the door.
Sam pulled away as he looked toward the stairs and tears began to work their way from his eyes.
The door opened and Father stepped through it.
“It is time,” he said quietly but in a tone that left no room for argument.
Sam sat, his hands tightly gripping the edges of the table as one of the elders went up the stairs.
“You've been chosen by Father Nickolas, my boy,” the elder was saying as he came back down the stairs with the young boy in his arms.
Sam's son had his fathers dark hair, broad nose, and rich brown eyes. A smile lit his face at the elders words causing his eyes to sparkle in the same way Sam's did when he was happy.
Sam stood from the table and went to his son. He placed a firm kiss on Zin's head before pulling back and speaking to the boy.
“I love you more than anything in life and I always will.”
“I love you too, Father,” the boy said still smiling.
Great pain filled Sam's face as the elder turned and carried his son through the door.
“Grin, you must come with us,” Father said motioning me toward the door. “Cleansing the boy falls to you this year.”
“Yes, Father,” I said and started toward the door, but Sam pulled me back around and into his arms.
His hug was desperate and crushing as he whispered so only I could hear.
“Just because it's always been done, doesn't make it right. You don't have to go through with this, but I will try to forgive you if you do.”
He released me as my father reached for my hand and pulled me from the room.
X X X
The fires were burning when we entered the meeting hall. A large basin had been placed in the center and filled with water; fragrant oil pooled in small disks on it's surface. Other elders waited holding a brass water pitcher, bundles of dry cedar, soft cloths, small candles, and a set of red robes.
Sam's son was placed on his feet next to the basin.
“Undress the boy and stand him in the water,” Father said.
As gently as I could, I helped Zin out of his clothes and lifted him into the steaming water. He flinched for a second when his toes broke the surface but didn't say anything.
The elder with the water pitcher stepped forward and held it out to me.
“Pour water over him. Every inch must be rinsed,” Father said. “Hold out your arms, my child.”
Slowly, I dipped the pitcher into the water and poured it over one out-stretched arm and then the other. Carefully, I made sure the water touched every part of his skin, saving his head for last.
“Now he must be dried and cleansed with the cedar,” Father continued.
I pulled Zin from the basin and used the soft cloths I was offered to dry every drop of water from his body and hair. Then the elder holding the bundle of cedar used the candle held by another elder to light it. When it was issuing thick streams of smoke, it was handed to me. I moved the smoking bundle so that the smoke could reach every inch of the boy's skin.
Once they were satisfied that Zin had been properly cleansed, I was given the red robes and instructed to put them on him. The robes were a little large on the boy but it didn't seem to matter to the elders. They smiled and each, in turn, placed an open palm to the boys forehead and offered a blessing before leaving the meeting house.
“Follow me,” Father said and started walking toward the large table that dominated the end of the room farthest from the door.
Behind the center of the table and blocked from sight to the rest of the room by the large, high back of Father's chair was a small door. Father opened it and gestured inside.
“You will wait here for Father Nickolas, my boy,” Father said, a bright smile on his face.
Zin entered the room with a smile and sat down on the small bed that was pushed against the far wall.
“Get some more sleep,” Father said before closing the door and turning to me. “Have a seat in my chair. You must stay here until first light. Do not let anyone enter that room. Even if it is the boy's father. Do you understand me, Grin?”
A smile brightened his face.
“You are doing well. You make me proud to be your father.”
“Thank you, Father.”
“I will see you just before first light, my daughter,” he said placing a soft kiss on my forehead before leaving me alone in the meeting house.
The silence that fell once the room was empty of others was dense and uncomfortable. I sat in Father's chair like he asked and watched the flames dancing in the large fireplaces as I waited. Minutes passed as I sat there, becoming longer and longer with every one until time seemed to speed up and the last few hours past in a blur of seconds.
The door to the meeting house opened and the elders walked in.
“It is time,” Father said as he entered. Drums began to play form the square as he opened the door to the small room and woke Zin from a deep sleep.
Confused, I followed them out into the square. All the adults of the village formed a circle around the edge of the square. Drummers stood here and there among them, beating the drums in unison so they sounded like the beating heart of some huge and fearsome beast.
Father lead us into the center of the circle where two large, equal length boards had been nailed together to form a large X next to the fire. A large cauldron had been placed to either side.
The drums beat slightly faster as Father removed the robes from the boy and lifted him so another elder could tie his arms and legs to the cross with leather straps.
The Drums beat slightly faster.
Wider leather straps were secured around Zin's chest, stomach, and knees.
The drums beat faster and harder so that I couldn't tell what was my own heart beat and what was the drums.
Fear filled Zin's face as the cross was turned upside down and leaned against a tall, upright poll so that it stood with the boards of the cross that held his arms placed securely in the cauldrons.
I don't know which elder placed the knife in my hand, but suddenly it was there, cold and hard against my skin.
Father stepped close and bent to speak into my ear.
“When the first light appears over the horizon and the singing starts, you must use the knife to open the boys wrists.”
I turned to face him, shock making my heart pound stronger than the drums.
“I cannot do that,” I said offering him the knife. “I won't do that.”
“You must!” he snapped as the singing began. “It is what is done! Do it! Now!”
“No,” I said throwing the knife into the dirt at his feet.
His hand collided sharply with my cheek. Anger colored his face as he retrieved the knife from the ground, shoved me aside and stepped forward himself.
The drums beat harder and faster as the voices rose louder in song. Two quick, clean cuts and it was done. Zin's face contorted in pain and fear and he screamed screams that could not be heard over the drums and singing. I dropped to my knees screaming along with him.
After what felt like an eternity, Zin's body went limp, the blood slowed to a drip, and the drumming stopped.
I stood and quietly walked out of the square before my father realized I had gone. I couldn't stay and I wouldn't give him the chance to stop me. Sam flashed in my mind when I realized I was headed to the kennels and I stopped. I wasn't planning on returning this time, I couldn't take the only companions he had left. Instead, I turned and headed to the stables, saddled Midnight, and rode quickly out of the village.
X X X
I hobbled the horse in a clearing on the mountain near my cave so he could graze while I went into the cave and pulled out my spy glass. At first, as I looked down at the village, it was difficult to reconcile the familiar sight with the horrors I had witnessed that morning. However, looking closer, terrifying details stood out sharply against the happy backdrop of celebration.
Children ran and played with new toys in the square. Adults were using smaller cook fires to prepare the feast while the traditional beast roasted over the central fire. Everything was as it had been every year before; except I now saw it for what it really was. His head, hands, and feet had been removed. His body had been split up the middle to clean his insides. They had removed his skin before placing him on the spit over the fire. I wished I could force myself to believe it wasn't so, but the “beast” now roasting in the village square was clearly the body of 5-year-old Zin.
My heart pounded forcefully, I dropped the spyglass in the snow and fell to my knees as I fought to draw breath through my tears. A scream erupted from my throat with a force that terrified me even more but I couldn't stop.
“Grin!” a voice shouted as a hand grabbed my shoulder.
I reacted without thinking and before I knew it I was on my feet with my hunting knife pressed firmly against Sam's throat.
“It's okay. It's me. It's Sam.” he repeated several times with his hands held out to each side before my brain calmed enough to recognize his face.
When I finally registered who he was, I dropped the knife next to the spyglass and fell into his arms. We stood there together until our feet were numb with cold and I reluctantly let him pull away. He bent to pick up my knife and spyglass, took my hand and pulled me into the cave.
Warmth washed over me and it was only then that I realized a fire was burning.
“How long have you been here,” I asked looking around to find several bags I didn't recognize against one wall.
“I packed and left right after the elders took him last night,” he said wrapping a blanket around my shoulders. “There was nothing I could do for him and I couldn't stay in the village after...”
He trailed off and looked back toward the entrance to the cave.
“How did you find this place?” I asked not really caring about the answer but unable to stand the silence.
“I didn't,” he said looking back at me. “I just headed out of the village and let Max take the lead. He brought me here and refused to go any farther. I knew this must be where you come on your 'hunting' trips when I saw the kennels for the dogs.”
“I guess it's not just a trip this time...”
Sam looked at me sadly for a moment before speaking.
“Grin, I have to know, did you... did you...” He couldn't finish the question.
“I refused,” I said, unable to look at his face. “So Father did it.” Sam dropped to his knees but I couldn't stop talking through the tears. “I screamed with him until the blood stopped. Then I walked away and left the village before anyone had time to realize I was gone. Why? Why do they do this? Why tell children the best behaved child gets to go live with Father Nickolas and then... and then this?”
Sam didn't answer. He remained on his knees, head bowed, and staring at the floor.
I knelt in front of him, wrapping the blanket around his shoulders along with my arms as I hugged him tightly.
“I'm sorry, Sam,” I said tears running into his hair as I spoke. “If I had known... they left me alone with him after the cleansing. If I had known, I could have...”
“That's why they don't tell you,” he said, his voice rough as his arms wound around me and pulled me tighter against him. “If they told the youngest adult what they would have to do from the beginning, it wouldn't work. Most go through with it out of fear of what will happen if they don't. 'It is what is done,' as your father likes to say.”
His words triggered the recent memory and I pulled back to look into his eyes.
“You tried to refuse?” I asked
“Yes,” he said gravely. “The year I was born was a difficult one and I was the youngest adult for a year and half. I got the 'honor' two years in a row. Let's just say, yesterday wasn't the first time I felt the sting of your father's hand.”
He reached up and touched my face where Father's hand had collided with my own cheek.
“Unlike you, I did not have the courage to refuse twice.”
Pain filled his eyes and his head dropped to my shoulder. Sam gave into the grief and all I could do was hold him through the sobs until we feel asleep in each other's arms on the floor of the cave.
X X X
I woke, alone, in the bed the next morning. Confused at how I got there, I glanced around looking for Sam. I was just climbing out of the bed to go look from him when he walked in from outside.
“Good morning,” he said holding his hands over the fire to warm them. “I brought the horse in with the dogs last night after I moved you to the bed.”
“Thank you,” I said pulling the blanket with me as I moved to join him by the fire. “Do you think they will come looking for us today?”
“Probably, but they won't find us,” he said with a smile. “It snowed last night, I brought all the dogs with me, and you're the only hunter willing to brave the mountain. They won't find us.”
He picked up the kettle from near the fire and poured two cups of tea and offered one to me.
“You slept like the dead last night,” he said, his face going pale when he realized what he had said.
“Are you hungry?” I asked to distract him. “I don't bring all my kills back to the village. There's some smoked meat, fruit and vegetables, and a few things I've brought up from the village in a little room back behind where the dogs are. It's cool in there so things keep pretty well.”
Sam smiled and shook his head with a small laugh before taking a sip of his tea.
“What,” I asked.
“You never fail to surprise me,” he said stepping closer. “Why don't we share that blanket and finish our tea first.”
I sat down next to the fire and held one side of the blanket out for him to wrap around himself as he sat next to me.
“How did you sleep?” I asked.
“Better than I expected once we were off the ground,” he said scooting a little closer and pulling the blanket farther around his shoulders.
He was quiet for a moment but I could tell he was deep in thought so I sipped my tea and watched the fire.
“I just keep thinking I need to go home and take care of Zin,” he said after a few moments. “and I remember he's not there. Then, instead of feeling sad or angry, I feel nothing and my brain tells me I need a cup of tea.”
“I dreamed about him last night,” I said letting my head drop onto his shoulder while I attempted to distract him from the bad memories.
“A good dream, I hope,” Sam said, his voice dark as he wrapped his arm around my back and pulled me tight against him.
“It was, but it was more of a memory really,” I took a sip of the hot tea before continuing. “It was a month ago. I was leaving for a hunt and I had come to get the dogs. You were off doing something with Father so I was harnessing them myself when he came out into the kennels. He smiled this... this brilliant smile and offered me a cookie. I sat with him for a few minutes eating cookies and talking about the dogs. When I told him I had to leave, he asked me to wait and ran back inside. When he came out, he was holding my hunting knife and said, 'Father told me to give this to the pretty lady if she came for the dogs today,' and handed it to me.”
“I also told him not to tell you I said that,” he said
“That's not all he told me that day.”
“What else did he say?”
“He told me he didn't like when I came and took the dogs because you spent the next few days sad and worried. When I apologized, he told me he didn't want me to stop taking the dogs because when I returned with them you were happy and he liked seeing you happy.”
Sam relaxed a little and took another sip of his tea.
“When I told him I always take good care of the dogs,” I continued. “he smiled this shy little smile and said, 'it's not the dogs he was worried for.' Then he asked me if I would come live with him 'so Father can be happy all the time' and offered to share his bed with me.”
Sam choked on his tea as a red flush worked its way into his cheeks.
“You okay?” I asked smacking him on the back with a laugh.
“So,” he said after wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “What did you tell him.”
“I told him that was up to his father,” I said and paused for a moment before continuing because I wasn't sure that I should. “That was the day I got hope that you would actually ask my father and the day realized that I didn't care what his answer was.”
Sam looked into my eyes. His own were a tangled mess of happiness and guilt. Tears welled in the corners of his eyes and a bitter-sweet smile pulled at his mouth as his hand came up to press lightly against the cheek my father had slapped. He leaned in and placed his lips softly on mine. I deepened the kiss as I moved to his lap, sitting with one leg on each side of him, my fingers twisting into his hair.
We lost ourselves in each other and let the rest of the world melt away for a little while. We knew no pain or sadness. We knew no happiness or guilt. We knew only the warmth and comfort of each other's bodies and in the moment, that was all that mattered.
X X X
Life on the mountain wasn't easy. We spent the first few months working day and night to survive and making weekly raids into the village for supplies while we waited for spring. A fence was put up around half of the clearing near the cave for the horse to graze in and the other half was readied for a large garden once spring arrived. Sam closed off the front of the cave with a stone wall that doubled as a large fireplace on the inside.
I kept my snares set and still ventured out once a week for larger game in order to keep us and the dogs fed through the winter. Rabbit furs and reindeer hides soon covered the cold, stone floors of the cave and provided extra warmth to our bed at night.
Spring was a welcome relief and summer was a magical time of warmth, fresh berries, green grass, and long sunny days. We tended the garden, hunted together, played with the dogs, swam in mountain streams, and managed to almost forget about the horrors of winter.
But the wheel of the year keeps turning, hot summer days give way to cold autumn nights and my mind was soon brought back to Father Nickolas.
“We can't do nothing,” I said over evening tea one night in November.
“Grin, they kill and eat children because they believe it is vital for their survival,” Sam said irritated that we were having the conversation again. “What do you think they will do to the two of us if we try to stop them?”
He came around the table and knelt in front of me.
“We have to think about more than ourselves now,” he said placing a hand on each side of the swell of my stomach.
“I am thinking about more than us,” I said. “I'm thinking about all those children down there who don't have a clue what is really going on. I'm thinking about my brothers and cousins and friends. Any one of them could be next. I cannot sit up here, listen to the drums, and do nothing.”
“You must,” he said placing a hand on each side of my face. “Grin, you must do nothing because there is nothing in your power to do.”
Eventually, he convinced me that attempting to stop the ceremonies would cause more harm than good. After all, this was nothing new to our people. It was the way it had been done for generations and it would likely be the way it would happen for generations to come.
The cave grew more sad and quiet the closer we got to Christmas. Soon most of our days were spent in silence as we worked. Not a word was said between us all day Christmas Eve until he found me standing outside the cave with the spyglass.
“You'll freeze out here,” he said as he draped a cloak made from reindeer hide over my shoulders.
“The elders will be taking the child for cleansing soon,” I said in response.
“Don't watch, Grin. It will only make it worse.”
“I have to know,” I said lowering the spyglass for a moment to look into his eyes.
“Okay,” he said with a sigh. “I'll stay with you then.”
I gave him a quick kiss before raising the spyglass back to my eye.
A group of elders were gathered around the fire in the village square. Father stood tall among them. They stood, arms out-stretched for a moment before gathering around my father and walking to the first house on the square.
“No!” I shouted as Father opened the door and Mother lead Richard outside.
She bent and kissed him on the forehead before touching his cheek and then going back inside.
“Grin?' Sam said loudly and I realized it hadn't been the first time he had said my name. “Who is it?”
I turned to look at him and couldn't speak.
“Who is it,” he asked again.
“It's Richard,” I answered and his face fell in defeat.
“I can't do nothing,” I said walking back toward the cave. “He's my brother. I cannot do nothing.”
“What are you going to do?” Sam demanded grabbing my shoulder and spinning me back around.
“They will cleanse him and then leave him alone in the meeting hall with only the youngest adult as a guard.”
“And you think taking him will stop this? They will just take another child.”
“Then I'll take everything else as well. You can't have a feast to Father Nickolas without the things needed for a feast.”
“This won't work!”
“I HAVE TO TRY!” I screamed and attempted to pull away but he pulled me into his arms and held tight while I cried.
“Okay,” he said finally. “Okay, but you're not going alone. Get whatever supplies you think you will need and I will get the dogs ready.”
“And the horse,” I said, a plan already forming in my mind.
A look of confusion crossed his face but he agreed and headed to the kennels.
I ran into the cave and gathered all the baskets and bags I could find and piled them next to the door. I grabbed my hunting bag from its peg by the door and packed several lengths of rope, a small glass jar, and an extra knife into it before slinging it over my shoulder, strapping on my heavy cloak, and heading back outside. Midnight was waiting for me by the door and Sam was putting the last of the baskets on the sled.
“I'll lead,” I said mounting Midnight.
Sam walked over and placed a hand on my stomach.
“Be careful,” he said looking into my eyes with desperation in his.
“I will,” I said placing my hand over his. “Everything for the feast will still be in the storehouse.”
“I'll meet you there.”
The ride down the mountain seemed to take forever but I forced myself to maintain a pace that would get us there only after the elders had retired to their homes. I stopped and tied Midnight to a tree in the forest outside of the village. I didn't want to risk someone seeing the big horse. The dogs were going to be hard enough to keep out of sight.
Sam slowed the dogs as he passed and I stepped onto the sled behind him.
“Take us around behind the buildings,” I whispered into his ear, the hardness of my belly pressed between us as a reminder of the risks we were taking. The dogs moved silently on the snow and the light from the village fire didn't reach any farther than the front of the buildings.
The storehouse was a long, narrow building with a door at both ends. It was set between two houses on the square, opposite of the meeting house. The door opened easily and silently. Food was stacked along each wall. Barrels of potatoes, baskets of apples, sacks of flower and sugar, dried meat, jars of pickled vegetables, cans of Who hash. Even without the hunters, it was enough to feed the entire village through most of the winter but most of it wouldn't last much longer than tomorrow night's feast. It never did. The hunters would keep the village fed with meat and fish through the winter.
“Take everything,” I whispered to Sam as I grabbed a basket of apples and went to place it on the sled.
Packing all of the food onto the sled seemed to take hours. Sam moved barrels and large sacks while I bagged up the smaller things. I grew more and more nervous of being caught with each jar I shoved into a bag. But no one came and soon, the storehouse was empty and the sled was mounded high and secured with ropes. Sam stood at the front, holding his hand out to me.
“Go,” I said quietly. “I'll be right behind you.”
“Grin,” he pleaded as I turned toward the square. “Grin!”
“Go!” I said as loud as I dared. “I promise, I will be right behind you.”
Anger colored his face and, for a moment, I though he was going to step off the sled and come after me. Instead, he said, “Be careful. I love you,” and clicked at Max. Max stepped forward, slowly at first, but soon had the other dogs pulling the sled swiftly and silently away from Whoville.
“I love you too,” I whispered as I pulled the hood of my cloak low over my face and turned back toward the square.
All was still quiet. Clearing out the storehouse hadn't taken as long as I had thought. I stuck to the shadows between buildings and made my way to the meeting house.
The door swung open silently but I had the attention of the young girl sitting in Father's chair as soon as it opened. She stood and walked slowly around the table. I recognized her curly jungle of red hair instantly. She was the butcher's oldest daughter, Cindy.
“I wasn't expecting anyone for a few hours still,” she said.
“Father Nickolas does things in his own time,” I said without thinking it through first.
Her head tipped to the side slightly in confusion and recognition.
“Grin,” she said questioningly. “Is that you? They said you ran away.”
“Not at all,” I said, thinking quickly as I lowered my hood. “Sometimes Father Nickolas sees fit to take two children.”
“But you were an adult?”
“Not in his eyes,” I said making sure to keep steady eye contact as I slipped a heavy, brass goblet from the table nearest to me.
“Did Father Nickolas send you for the boy,” she asked stepping closer.
“He did,” I said with a large smile as I stepped closer to her. “Father Nickolas is excited for Richard to join him as soon as possible. Could you help me with the door, Cindy?”
“Of course,” she said, turning back toward the back wall.
I slammed the goblet into the back of her head and felt a second of regret as she crumpled to the floor at my feet. A second was all I had. Time meant everything now. I lifted her from the floor and placed her back in Father's chair. I pulled a strip of cloth from my hunting bag and tied it in a gag to keep her from calling out before I pulled out the lengths of rope and tied her to the chair. I didn't need her raising the alarm before we were far enough up the mountain.
Richard was still awake when I opened the door behind the chair. He was dressed in the red robes and sitting on the bed with a book in his hands.
“Grin?” he said confused.
“I don't have time to explain,” I said. “You have to come with me now!”
“But I'm waiting for Father Nickolas.”
“Richard, there is no Father Nickolas coming for you. If you stay here, you will die.”
“But Father said,”
“Father says a lot of things. Please believe me. If you stay, at first light the elders will come. They will take you into the square, strip off your clothes, bind you to a cross, and open your wrists so your blood pours into the the offering cauldrons while you are still alive.”
The blood drained from his face and he shook his head in disbelief, but I could tell I had his attention.
“All of the adults will stand to watch and do nothing. Then, they will clean and skin you like a winter reindeer before roasting you over the village fire and serving you to the adults as the main course of tonight's feast.”
He looked down shaking his head.
“Please believe me,” I said dropping to my knees in front of him. “It's why I left last year. I refused to kill Sam's son and Father did it himself. Richard, he will not hesitate to do it to you unless you come with me right now!”
He was still for a moment before nodding and looking up into my eyes.
“If I say no?” he asked.
“I will knock you out and drag you out of here myself but I do not want to do that.”
“Then lead the way,” he said standing.
We rushed back into the main room of the meeting hall where I made Richard put his clothes and shoes back on before leading him out into the snow. We pulled our hoods low over our faces and stuck to the shadows as I lead him to where Midnight was tied just outside of the village. I boosted him into the saddle before climbing up behind him and urging the horse away from the village as quickly as I dared without making a sound.
Once away from the village, we rode as quickly as the horse could safely carry us and reached the cave as the sun had begun to lighten the horizon. Sam waited with the sled near the entrance to the cave. He held my spyglass in his hands as he looked down into the village.
“Your father just entered the meeting hall,” he said darkly. “and left a few minutes later.”
“Where did he go?” I asked as I helped Richard down from the horse.
“Into your house,”
“What will they do now that they know I'm gone,” Richard asked reaching out to take the spyglass from Sam and holding it to his own eye.
“I don't know,” I answered as Sam came to hug me. “Hopefully nothing.”
We stood there in silence for a moment as the eastern sky grew lighter and lighter. Sam's arms were a welcome relief from the anxiety of the village and our flight up the mountain. I had started to breath at a normal pace when the drums started.
“Um... Grin,” Richard said his face going pale as he continued to look through the spyglass. “Father just drug Charlie into the square.”
My heart stopped. I couldn't breathe. The world began to go dark around the edges.
“Richard,” Sam said placing a hand on the boy's shoulder as the singing began. “Perhaps you shouldn't watch what comes next.”
Richard didn't listen. He stood, tall and resolute while he watched the gruesome scene taking place in the village below. The muscles in his jaw tightened as he clenched his teeth and his fingers gripped the spyglass so tightly I feared it would brake in his hand.
When the singing and drumming slowed to a stop, he continued to watch. It was only after Charlie's body had been placed over the fire that Richard turned toward me. Rage burned fiercely in his eyes.
“What do we do?” he asked.
“There's nothing we can do for Charlie now,” Sam said letting go of me and stepping forward with his arms out-stretched between us like he thought he needed to prevent Richard from doing me harm.
Richard stepped quickly forward until he was inches away from Sam.
“Obviously,” he said in a tone that clearly said he thought Sam was an idiot. “But Charlie wasn't the only child in the village was he? What happens this time next year? Do we sit here and watch as they strap down some other child? Do we sit here and watch as the child screams and do nothing? That would make us no better than the rest of them!”
“Richard,” I said as calmly as I could.
“SHE IS THE ONLY REASON IT WASN'T ME!” he pointed in my directions as he shouted in Sam's face.
“RICHARD!” I yelled and finally drew his attention. “The adults will never stop, but there was always another plan.”
Sam spun around to look at me questioningly.
“What other plan?” he demanded.
X X X
Richard took the reins once the dogs had been swapped out for the horse. The weight of the sled made the ride down the mountain quicker and easier than the ride up and we reached the village in just over an hour. He steered the horse into the center of the square where most of the village were still gathered preparing what little they had been able to find in their homes for the feast. Father stood near the fire, staring at us as the hunters leveled arrows at my chest.
Slowly and deliberately, I unfastened my cloak and let it drop to the ground so that everyone could see the distinct swell of my stomach before stepping toward my father.
“That's far enough,” one of the hunters said coldly just before I was in reaching distance.
I stood, silently holding Father's gaze with my own for a moment before dropping to my knees with my arms out-stretched.
“Richard has shown me the error of my ways,” I said loud and clear enough for everyone to hear. “I give myself over to your mercy, Father.”
The silence stretched into eternity before he spoke.
“What of your...” his eyes traveled down to my stomach and back to my face before he continued. “...husband?”
Sam had not been happy to be left behind and it took everything I had in me to convince him it was the only way. I could feel his eyes on me and knew he was standing in front of our cave watching my every move with the spyglass.
“He has not seen the error of his ways,” I said hoping it would be enough.
“And you are okay leaving him behind?” Father asked a tone of disbelief in his voice.
“I will miss him dearly, “ I said quietly. “but the village and making amends to Father Nickolas are more important to me.”
“What of the child?”
“The child will be...” I almost couldn't bring myself to say the words. “The child will be better off raised in the love and protection of Father Nickolas.”
Father stood thinking for several moments.
“You will make amends by helping prepare the feast,” he said, voice raising so everyone in the village square could hear clearly. “and you, yourself, will carve the roast beast.”
I swallowed hard past the lump in my throat before I could speak.
“Arise, my daughter,” he said holding a hand out to me. “and welcome home.”
X X X
By evening time, the village was alive with preparations for the feast. Cooking fires burned all around the square and the smells of fried apples and roasting vegetables hung thick in the air. I had spent the majority of the day stirring pots, peeling potatoes, and chasing small children away from the cook fires.
I was preparing the glaze for the roast beast when my mother approached me for the first time.
“Your father tells me you are expecting a child,” she said jumping immediately to the point for her visit.
“Yes, Mother,” I answered.
She stepped around the bench I had been working on and placed a hand on each side of my stomach.
“Your father also says that Sam did not return to the village with you.”
“I am sorry,” she said looking up into my eyes. “Your father will find you a suitable husband and I will make sure you deliver safely.”
“Thank you, Mother,” I said hoping I was successful at hiding the cringe that washed through me at the thought of Father finding a replacement for Sam.
“That glaze smells amazing,” she said looking down into the pot.
“Thank you. I brought some fresh, winter berries down from the mountain. I thought we could have something extra special this year.”
“That was very thoughtful,” she said, glancing down at her hands as the baby kicked one of them. “Of course, in your state you won't be eating any roast beast.”
“I had forgotten,” I lied with what I hoped was a rueful smile.
“Children don't eat from the beast, darling,” she said with a smile. “Even the unborn children.”
“Stand back!” a loud voice called and mother stepped back from the bench.
Several of the hunters were carrying a large wooden platter that they placed on the table in front of me. It took all the strength I had not to vomit at the smell of roasted meat. Charlie's body was barely recognizable as human any more. If I didn't know exactly what it was, I wouldn't have been able to put a name to the meat. Carefully, I used a rag brush to coat the roast in the berry glaze while the rest of the village watched.
A long line formed and, one by one, plates were filled. Every Who in Whoville piled their plates high with roasted vegetables, fried apples, breads, sweet and succulent pies, and rivers of gravy. The children were given large helpings of Who Hash and the adults lined up to get their slices of roast beast.
I cut slice after slice, and placed them onto plates as the glaze dripped from the meat and coated the other food as well. Smiling face after smiling face thanked me before walking away to take their seats in the meeting house.
“Come, Daughter,” Father said once the last slice of roast beast had been served.
He held a plate out to me that was filled with all the sides and a large helping of Who Hash.
“You and your brother will dine at the the high table with me tonight,” he said leading me toward the meeting hall.
“Thank you for the honor, Father,” I said letting him hold the door open for me.
My eyes met Richard's for a moment as I followed Father to the front of the hall. I nodded slightly in answer to the question in his eyes.
Father placed his plate on the table and pulled out a chair for me to sit before turning to address the rest of the village.
“We have faced many challenges this year,” he began. “My beloved daughter left us shortly before last year's feast. She has returned to us and brings with her the precious gift of a baby in the spring.”
He paused and cheers rose up from the tables in front of us.
“The reindeer did not come down from the mountain in the same numbers they have in the past,” he continued. “but our hunters and farmers have managed to keep us well fed.”
Again, those in the meeting house cheered.
“Tonight,” he said raising a goblet. “we feast to Father Nickolas in hopes that he will see us, safely, through the rest of winter and the year to come. We offer him thanks for his guidance and protection in the past and ask that he join in the sustenance of our tables. May this year be better than the one that came before it. To Father Nickolas!” He shouted the last three words before draining the content of his goblet. Everyone in the room followed suit.
The feasting that followed was chaotic and happy. Goblets of mead were filled as soon as they were emptied and second servings of everything were passed around as plates were emptied. The young children were sent home to bed as their plates were emptied but the adults stayed late into the night.
When the first body hit the floor, no one seemed to notice. The mead was strong and it wasn't unusual for a few people to spend the night sleeping it off on the floor of the meeting house. When they started dropping faster, panic set in.
“What have you done?” Father demanded clutching the table in an attempt to steady himself.
I raised my goblet to him, said “To Father Nickolas,” and took a large swallow as his arms gave out and he collapsed onto the table.
I looked around the room and took in chaos that was no longer happy. The older children who had stayed desperately shook their parents and cried out for help that wouldn't come. I felt numb. Their shouts didn't reach my ears and I found myself unable to move and offer any comfort.
“THIS WAS YOU!” one of them shouted and pointed at me before continuing to attempt to shake his mother awake.
“We should go back to Sam,” Richard said pulling me to my feet.
“No,” I said, my mind finally catching up with what I had done. “I have to go back to Sam. They are going to need a leader.”
“I'm going with you,” he said forcefully as he pulled me outside.
“Richard, Father is dead. You are chief elder now. They have lost all of their parents tonight and will have no idea why. You must stay to guide them.”
“I cannot lose you too,” he said, desperation causing his voice to break.
“Richard... my sweet brother. This is the sacrifice we must make for them to be safe. Stay and tell them a story. Make me the villain if you must, but give them something better to believe in.”
“Grin, you can't go.”
“I cannot stay after all of this,” I said pulling him into a hug. “You have to be brave now. You have to be their strength because you are the only one who knows the truth. They must survive; there must be no more child sacrifices in Whoville or all of this was for nothing.”
“I love you,” he said through heavy tears.
“I love you too, Richard,” I said pulling away. “and I'll be up there keeping an eye on you... Always, dear brother.”
I turned and headed to the stables without a second glance back.
X X X
Fresh snow sparkled in the light of a full moon. A deep, contented silence blanketed the village as Max lead a team of dogs quietly through the night. Sam clicked for Max to stop once the sled was hidden in the shadows behind the buildings on the edge of the village.
I winked at five-year-old David as he grabbed a bag of his father's handmade toys from the sled and followed Sam into the first house on the square.
I stood alone with my memories for a moment. Memories of a childhood spent playing with my brothers and friends. Memories of magical winter nights when my belly was so full of fried apples I thought I would explode. The good memories soon gave way to the terrifying ones. Ghost images of blood and screaming faces danced over the sparkling snow. I closed my eyes in an attempt to force them back into a locked box in my mind. My heart raced, I couldn't breathe, and for a moment, I thought I would pass out.
“Are you okay,” a deep, male voice asked as a hand dropped onto my shoulder.
I spun around quickly, but Richard pulled me into his arms before I could pull my knife.
“It's okay, sister,” he whispered into my ear as he petted my hair. “It's only me.”
He held me for a moment before leading me to a bench next to the village fire.
“I trust everything on the mountain is going well,” he said sitting next to me.
“As well as it can on the mountain,” I said with a smile. “How is your wife?”
“Cindy is well. We are expecting our third child sometime in early spring.”
“Congratulations, Brother,” I said with a smile.
“It looks like I'm not the only one owed a congratulations,” he said placing his hand firmly on my belly. “You look like you are ready to birth this one any day now.”
“Yes. In a few years, Sam will have another little helper to help sneak all these toys into the village.”
“I wish you could stay,” he said sadly.
“You know I can't. The memories are...” I took several deep breaths as tears began to fall. “The memories are too much to handle when I'm here.”
A log in the fire popped violently making me jump.
“Besides, your story still needs a villain,” I said standing. “You're doing an amazing job here, Richard. No one could have made a better chief elder. I need to go help Sam if we are going to deliver all of his toys before people start waking up.”
“You never stay long enough.”
“I'll see you again next year, little brother,” I said with a wink and went to grab a bag of toys from the sled.