And damned another young woman who had done no wrong.
And to be fair, Avia had done wrong.
Just as I had done.
Over and over.
Year after year.
If I took the coward's route and took my life, who would take my place?
Maeve, whose biggest misstep in life was once falling asleep during an all-night moon circle?
I couldn't force my fate on her.
So I stayed in my bed.
I let my thoughts swirl.
I waited for the rituals to start.
Hands grabbed my covers, drawing them down my body, exposing my white muslin nightdress, allowing the early morning chill to penetrate through the thin fabric, causing gooseflesh to prickle up over my skin.
"It's time," Marianne, our High Priestess, told me, sensing my alertness even though I kept my eyes shut.
Taking a deep breath, I made my eyelids flutter open, finding Marianne standing above me with a candle glowing in a glass jar in her hand, setting her face in light and shadows—her sharp cheekbones, her square jaw, her moss-green eyes. Her silver-streaked red hair was pulled into the elaborate braided style that was standard for our coven, both for beauty and for practicality.
They ushered me out of bed and the house, into the common circle in the yard where we would sit at night and talk, where we would perform rituals, where we would celebrate the solstices.
A tub had been pulled into the center, the water full of herbs and flowers, smelling earthy and comforting as my nightdress was stripped away and I was pressed into the water.
The warmth of the scented water eased the tight muscles in my neck and back as the women walked in a clockwise circle around the tub, chanting.
They chanted for my safety.
For my protection.
For my peace.
My eyelids fluttered closed as I started following their chants inside my own head, feeling a calm start to wash over me.
It wouldn't last, of course.
Because, too soon, I was pulled out of the tub, the chilly morning air whipping my wet body as two sets of hands set to drying my skin and hair.
A small twinge of insecurity made my belly swirl. Nudity was something natural in our community of all women. Full moon rituals involved stripping off our clothes to bathe our bodies in moonlight.
But the last time hands were all over my body was when I had my first blood cycle at thirteen. I remembered feeling this same insecurity as they bathed me, dressed me, and welcomed me into womanhood.
Dried, they wrapped me in the pure white gown and cloak, both embroidered with a pentagram between the shoulder blades, that were saved for The Sacrifice.
Finally, I was pressed down into a seat as my mother moved out of the crowd, giving me a sad smile as she moved behind me, combing out my hair then working to plait it into ornate braids as the other women started a new chant.
Not for my peace.
Not for my protection.
But a chant about the gift of the Sacrifice, about her holy place in our coven.
My jaw tightened as I cast my eyes down, not wanting to show them my resentment.
It was easy for them to chant about the gift of the Sacrifice, about my holy place. When they weren't the ones going off to some unknown, horrible fate.
My mother's hands kept moving from my hair to my shoulders, giving them a reassuring squeeze. Each time, tears swam in my eyes, making me squeeze my eyelids tight, fighting them back.
I didn't want to cry.
I didn't want to beg to stay.
If I was the Chosen One, I wanted to go with some dignity intact.
I imagined there would be plenty of time for crying and begging for mercy in my future.
And, I reminded myself, my place was important.
If not for the Sacrifice, the treaty would be voided. And that meant the women of my coven would be free game to the whims of their evil souls.
I wasn't sure how accurate the tales were, if the truth could survive thousands of years, but the story we were told was that in the time before the Sacrifice, the coven had been constantly under attack. Women and girls had gone missing, never to be seen again, fates unknown, and there was very little that could be done by the coven to protect themselves.
When dark times came, witches were always targets for small men who were afraid of our power.
The Sacrifice gave us peace to practice, to live free of the ill intentions at the hands of men.
And, I guess, if you looked at the situation as a whole, it was a fair trade.
To save dozens more.
I would be doing this to save my mother, to save the little girls with their bright smiles and carefree laughter, even to save my peers who had always been better community members than I had been.
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