Sleep never came, neither did rest. Zoar’s body still quivered from the poison, and when sleep did draw near the memories of the nights events or fears of the upcoming one dashed them. The last two days were a blur, or repeating themselves. She stood from her makeshift bed and didn’t bother trying to stretch in case of opening her wound up. She hesitated before leaving, taking a deep breath and deciding to drink to try and flush her body.
Today was surprisingly different than the others. People began to stop her and ask for her blessing, claim praises for her; as if she had already taken the mantle of High Priestess. Zoar was sure all the other girls had their followers as well, with how many Seers there were in the tribe there were no doubt rumors going around of visions of the next High Priestess.
She pushed through them just wanting to wash a bit and drink as much water what she could.
They had camped right on a spring this time, rather than have people trek the water from some far off creek. This meant she could bathe there as well as refresh herself. Zoar found herself a deserted river coming off the spring and stripped the filthy animal skins off.
She set off to wash as much dirt out of her clothes as was possible when you’re a Velna. After, she hung them on a withering tree to dry and approached the frigid waters. She inched in, waiting to become numb before continuing. Her breaths came in great gasps as her shoulders went under. She forced her head under the water, and erupted back up gasping. She headed back for the shore, only stopping at waist level to try and scrub off any excess of dirt with her rigid arms.
As she shook off the water she noticed she wasn’t alone. Three boys stood next to her clothes on the tree. The middle one, Tek was a few years older and took every chance to harass her, and the others just his minions. Zoar prepared herself, slowing her breathing and squaring with them.
“It’s a bit cold to be bathing isn’t it?” the ringleader said.
“I am undressed, leave me,” Zoar said with uninterested in her voice.
“Leave you? I came to have you, to celebrate your success in the trials,” the other snickered.
“I am not yours to have, and it is against the High Priestess’ law to interfere with those involved in the Trails.”
He took a step forward, “Why so hostile?”
“I’m warning you Teck, I will have nothing to do with you, and I will do worse than I did to the girl in combat to you if you do not leave,” feeling was returning to her limbs as her blood started rushing.
“I suppose I will have to teach you a lesson then,” Teck approached her casually.
He grabbed her arm and opened his mouth to say something, but Zoar thrust her knee into his groin as hard as she could and stuck him in the face. He lurched forward and they rolled towards the water. Zoar knew what the water would feel like, but to Teck it would take the breath out of his lungs.
His hands fought wildly to try and stop her from striking him again. Zoar slipped and they rolled again and Teck was on top of her, while she was fully submerged. She focused, held her breath and dug her thumb into his side. While he was distracted by her left hand, her right found a smooth rock in the river bed and pulled it out. In one full motion she blindsided him as the rock collided with the side of his head. It didn’t have as much force as she would’ve like having been half submerged, but his body went entirely limp and fell next to her.
Zoar stood with the rock in her hand facing the others. Their was shock and fear on their faces, eyes darting between Zoar, the rock, and Teck’s body that was beginning to drift down river.
“Get him!” she ordered.
It took a moment for the order to sink in, then they bolted towards the water. By the time they pulled him out Zoar had gotten her clothes and left.
She found herself a niche fifteen minutes later in the dying bramble and trees. She sat on a log and wept into her pelts. She cried long and hard for quite some time. The emotions of the last few days, and now the attempt made by Teck, it broke through her facade. Alone and afraid.
No, not alone. Zoar clung to her pelts trying to cover herself as she scanned the dead forest around herself. Through the brush she could see across the river something bright was moving. It was the man she’d seen during last night’s trial. Again self contained in his bright light, she could see there was sadness in his face. But, she couldn’t make out his face at all.
Zoar looked around, then whispered, “Who are you?”
The man stopped in his trek and gazed over at her with full attention now. Myself, came the voice again. Zoar jumped by the proximity of the voice, it was much nearer than he was.
“That’s no kind of answer!” she yelled.
The man simply continued on his path downriver, and disappeared from sight altogether.
Zoar dressed herself now in complete privacy. Myself, she scoffed. She rubbed her sore elbow.
Before Zoar could return to her tent, an Elder of the tribe intercepted her. A tall wiry woman, gaunt in the face and patterned with white chalk.
Zoar bowed, “To what do I owe the honor Elder Coff?”
“There is a young man being treated for a head wound, and two others claim you attacked him.”
“Who is he?” she asked.
“I haven’t seen them today, though I expect no less from them. They have pursued making my life miserable as long as I can remember,” she was calm and unassuming
“How do you explain them knowing you were bathing today?”
It didn’t strike the Elder, “It makes me very uncomfortable. Considering I’m apparently not safe to even bathe anymore,” Zoar crossed her arms with a perturbed expression on her face.
The Elder looked away with a twinge of embarrassment.
“I do not doubt your story, but I doubt theirs. Knowing how dense they can be Teck may have tripped and struck his own head while watching be bathe. The others were simply opportunist, thinking on their feet of how to bring me trouble I didn’t ask for,” Zoar finished.
“Given the circumstance, there’s nothing more that can be done,” she looked away with a hint of irritation for the whole situation. “Especially with the Trials coming to a close. Steer clear of those boys Zoar.”
“Thank you Elder Coff,” the Elder turned and left through the maze of people and tents.
Zoar swore to kill Teck and threaten the others with the same demise if they ever tried anything like that again. That seemed like the only solution to the problems they were.
The Miasma was bright under the midday sun, and the third trail would begin soon. She traveled to the gathering with much less heavy heart than she did the night before. In the center of the gathering, where the altar was now stood a large tent enveloping it. It didn’t quite fill the circle, but was only five or so paces short of doing so. Devouts stood outside the tents entrance awaiting the girls arrival. Black smoke billowed out of the peaked roof of the tent and those standing outside the circle buzzed with excitement. This was the most exciting thing, other than war which they hand not seen since before Zoar was born, in the last three generations; the pinnacle of their lives. To witness the Reckoning of the new High Priestess.
Zoar wasted no time entering the tent. Just inside was a small antechamber where the other girls waited as well. Everyone was there except one Zoar counted.
Noticing her expression another girl spoke somber, “Deserter, she was captured, then killed by the High Priestess herself.”
Her eyes immediately returned downward after she spoke, in fear of causing any more attention her way. How many girls would be left after the Reckoning was over? Nearly an entire generation of girls coming of age killed or shamed forever. Though, the ones who survived but were not chosen never lasted long anyway. They seemed to disappear or die mysteriously.
Either way Zoar intended to survive and live a long life.
The curtains in front of them, blocking their view, billowed as if a wind were stirring inside the tent. Plumes of smoke poured out into the antechamber causing the tickling of a cough amongst the girls.
A Devout pulled the curtain back exposing a a whirling room of smoke and darkness, “Enter one at a time, stand in a row before the altar,” he said in a monotone.
Zoar was last again to enter the main chamber of the circular tent. There was no visible source of the cyclone inside. Two fires were licking the winds on each side of the tent, their smoke a thick aroma that threatened to choke the girls with its sickly sweet fragrance.
The High Priestess stood behind her stone altar with her face down against its surface, hair covering her whole visage. She rocked back and forth slightly with her hands stretched out along its length. Suddenly Zoar realized the outer wall was full of Devouts, all cross legged and facing the tent wall. She avoided looking at them and instead inspected the altar.
She couldn’t remember a time when she had ever been so close to it, nor had the interest of inspecting the stonework. The altar had only troubling memories for her; usually of a human sacrifice or the worship of the High Priestess and goddess Vald. Neither events brought the fondest feelings with them.