By nightfall, the Yakima tribe had gathered. Several bonfires blazed, fighting the darkness of night, and countless women danced and sang and played upon wooden instruments. The atmosphere was one of ecstasy as everyone, servants even, feasted in rejoice of the month's fortune. When the moon had reached its apex, quiet settled over them like death. It was time.
The crowd lithely parted way. The music gradually became less upbeat, more insistent, as the tribe's chief processed forward. When he had reached the center of their circle, he calmly surveyed the people formed around him with cold, heartless eyes. He hunted for a victim.
Around her, people fidgeted nervously, children hid behind their mothers, but not Aiyana. Her face blank, she eyed the feathers adorning the chief's hair with contempt. Every colorful, intricate feather represented one of her fellow Yakimas, one sacrifice. Perhaps a new feather was to be wound in tonight. With a preemptive shiver, Aiyana banished a terrifying thought to the back of her mind: Perhaps it would be hers.
The silence was deafening; the only accompanying noise was the spit and crackle of the roaring fire. The chief continued to meet the eyes of each and every person in the crowd, lingering for a few tense moments on a selection of servants. Keeping her eyes trained directly forward, Aiyana struggled to keep composure as he gazed into hers. The seconds ticked by and Aiyana's heart raced as realization hit her. Why hadn't he moved on yet?
Finally, the chief's lips twisted up in a wry smile and he turned entirely around, kneeling before a trembling woman. A toddling boy, perhaps nearing six years, shyly peeked out from behind her skirts. The chief continued smiling, a tad bitterly now, and the woman shook her head vehemently. "Please, not my child." Gasps from the onlookers penetrated the forlorn silence.
"Not the child," he near inaudibly confirmed, and stood. "There will be no offering on this night." And with his words came a collective sigh of relief. With minute hesitation, the night's festivities carried on. The Chief retreated within the blink of an eye.
Before the dragging night was over, Sarya pulled aside Aiyana for the second time that day. "Ana, go gather more berries from the forest."
Outrage consumed Aiyana as she protested, steel in her voice. Did Sarya wish to test her foolishness? Aiyana would prove how wrong Sarya's presumptions were. "It's nightfall, Sarya! I will not."
Sarya's plain and unattractive features abruptly turned quite hideous. "You love the forest so much, don't you? Go now, servant, unless you want the sacrifice to happen after all? Catori, maybe…” Aiyana tasted blood as she furiously bit her cheek, swallowing not only her words, but her pride. After all, Sarya was an able-bodied servant herself. The only thing holding Aiyana back was the risk of Sarya's threat. Catori was her sister.
Soon enough, Aiyana was storming through the woods, leaving behind the laughter and bustle of her village. The further she trekked, the ongoing silence and cold swarmed her. Viciously kicking aside fallen branches, crunching broken twigs, and ripping hanging vines, Aiyana hurried toward the nearest berry bush. Only when she had plucked a couple berries free did her surroundings set in. With the sparse moonlight her only guide, the wilds had lost their usual appeal. The Cayuse weren't her only enemy, when there were dangerous, primal things out here – things that stalked the woods and ripped humans to bloody shreds. Body tensed, she gathered berries just a tad faster.
To calm herself, Aiyana softly hummed a song she had learnt from her father when she was Catori’s age. One parent death in childbirth, the other a fallen warrior…She mused over the unlikelihood.
Aiyana pictured her mother. She liked to believe she was her mother’s doppelganger, considering she hadn’t shared many features with her father. Regardless, she had loved both of them greatly. Although her tribe scorned love, Aiyana chose to believe her parents didn’t, for she didn’t see love as trivial; she believed it made life worth living.
Her small smile slipped as she heard the slightest crunch of leaves. Slowly rising, berries safely tucked in a cloth, Aiyana stood hunched over, peering nervously around her. Another crunch broke the eerie silence. With deliberate movements, she crept backwards, continuously scanning for movement in the impenetrable darkness. Her heart thundered. One. Aiyana’s muscles tightened, her stomach clenched, and her body screamed for her to flee. A menacing growl reverberated in the thicket of woods. A fang glinted in the moonlight. Two. Ignoring her brain’s protests, Aiyana carefully took a mere step further, sucked in air, and abruptly twisted. Three.
In that moment, Aiyana pumped her legs faster than ever before. Her breath came ragged as the animal took off in obvious pursuit, a creature capable of twice her speed. Aiyana ignored the protest of her muscles, raggedly shrieking “Help! Help me!” as she neared her tribe. There! Just within distance, she spotted a flicker of light, a flame burning. So close.
“Please!” she wildly sobbed, gasping for precious air. “Hel-” Her last cry was cut off as she tripped over a discreet tree root, scrabbling to her feet just to be knocked down again. Struggling wildly, she bucked and twisted as the animal tore into her back with a fierceness she could never imagine. Sharp stabs of pain paralyzed her, pushing her in and out of consciousness until she found herself flat on her back. The animal exhaled warmly on her face; its inexplicably beautiful green eyes eyed her victoriously. In that moment, Aiyana begged to die. “Please…” she whimpered incomprehensibly. Then the darkness overtook her.
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