Balan’s mind drifts as the chant lulls him into sleep on this, the final night. His eyelids flicker, seeing the willowy shape of his heart’s ease imprinted through the dark in glowing colours. Melindra, my lovely girl. He sighs and turns his head towards the light, fires burning bright now the short day is over.
But it is the summer scents that waft through his memories. A burnished evening in the cornfield beyond the standing stones. The dark-haired girl, tall and strong, wielding the scythe and laughing as the butter-coloured stalks fly from the blade. Melindra, gilded by the rays, then taking fire and radiating copper, bright as the sun itself, laughing at the flames as they consume the day. She is her mother’s image; his tears glisten unshed.
Half awake, Balan sees his younger self with Melindra, new born, sleeping in his arms as her mother’s life ebbs on a remorseless tide of red. Every day, a part of him has yearned to follow, but Melindra has been his solace and his joy.
“Daddy, Daddy.” Through his dreams, Balan hears her childish voice flow across the years between. Weightless with joy, she flies to him and tucks herself against his chest, and he holds her lightly, knowing that love means never holding on.
Half sleeping still, his mind drifts, the years pass flickering in a panorama that only he can see, and here she is again, the daughter, the girl he loves more than life itself, a child no longer, sixteen years and more, a woman grown, steadfast and proud.
Each year at the Harvest Moot he has murmured the responses and watched as Melindra’s imagination flew with tales of nature’s bounty in olden times. And year on year, the trailing star has brightened in the night sky, cattle have weakened and the crops have dwindled in the growing cold. Fifty generations have grown and died since the last Blessed One was chosen.
On the day she tells him the news, Balan’s chest is fit to break, revealing his swelling, beating heart to any who care to see. She shares her joy, her excitement, holds him in her wonder as he once held her in his love.
Melindra is revealed — the Blessed One. Her name will live forever in their histories, her perfect dedication will protect them all. She is gently detached from his embrace. Balan watches, his tears falling as she is led away. She belongs to them now, the Holy Ones. Melindra does not look back.
But Melindra does not know the price. Obedience is her only choice if everlasting night is not to fall. She must not be distracted, and the gods, the jealous gods, must have their sacrifice.
Balan watches, sharing for the first and only time the blessings of the High Priest and the Holy Ones as they perform the sacred rites according to their shrouded laws, and acolytes form the circle inside a circle. At the centre, every eye upon her and every voice chanting her glory, stands pale Melindra. At her feet a cup of stone, old as mountains, cold as snow, waiting to be warmed, waiting for rebirth. In her hands an ancient blade, sharp as winter wind.
The chanting rises, falls, rises again, urgent and flowing, faster and fast it swirls; voices clamouring, calling for renewal, for summer once again. The words are vanished, spiralled away, a whirlwind of ululation yearning for protection.
Silence. Stillness. A heartbeat passes. Melindra knows now the sacrifice that must be made. She hesitates.
In the shadows, the High Priest grips a knife held hidden in his robes. The Blessed must be free of earthly ties to commune with Gods and, one way or another, the blood rite will be completed.
Balan covers his daughter’s trembling hand with his own, holds hers steady and true, and brings the ancient blade down swift and clean, the final gift.
Like a stream into an ocean, the blood pumps into an ever deepening pool inside the cup. The blade falls from her fingers, Melindra stares wide-eyed into her father’s face.
He understands the jealous gods, who demand her heart be theirs and theirs alone. She will be exalted, even as he is obscured. The High Priest will protect and guide her now; she will be safe.
Now he hears a voice calling his name softly as if from far beyond. The shadows darken. He smiles at their beloved child and falls into her mother’s waiting arms.
Wendy Turbin teaches English and Maths in a small holiday town on the East Coast of England and has been writing all her life. She currently has a completed novel in a slushpile in the big blue yonder, and another in work-in-progress mode, and she writes short stories in a variety of genres because she can explore characters and situations as the fancy takes her, and still have (limited) time for a life! She says: “Hope you enjoy it and I’d love some feedback.”
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