19/06/2015 by paulinebsc
Chi ran. He enjoyed running and his little legs pumped furiously to stay ahead of Aunt Lisbet. Her legs were longer, but he was managing to keep ahead of her. This time she had made him run for a long way. He had never been this far from the village before. Chi’s rough tunic was starting to chafe around his arms and he paused to pull it to a more comfortable position.
‘No Chi, don’t stop. Keep running’ she panted from behind him. She seemed to be taking the race far more seriously than usual.
Chi paused as he heard her fall.
‘Keep going’ her voice sounded weak, as if she was hurt. Lisbet’s intensity today was scaring him. Chi didn’t know whether to stop and help or not. If he won the race it would not be a fair victory now, but he didn’t want to face her anger so he kept running until he had to stop with a stitch in his side.
He paused for a minute, bent over and trying to get his breath back. It was only then he became aware of the cloud of dust behind him which quickly solidified into Branz, one of only two ponies in the village. Branz was so valuable that he was rarely ridden far from the village.
Branz galloped closer, and Chi could see the fur-clad bulk of Shemp, a village elder, on his back. Before he had time to protest he felt himself lifted by the neck of his tunic and deposited on the back of Branz.
‘You ran well, lad’ Shemp told him ‘but now you have a job to do.’
It took a minute for this information to reach Chi’s brain as he was busy trying to work out where to put his legs on the massive beast’s back.
‘You have to help save the village. It takes a brave boy to do that.’
Shemp didn’t answer. He handed Chi a small goatskin water bottle:
‘Here, drink this to help you get your breath back. Only take a sip though’
Chi was dry from the run and took a large sip. He did not recognise the juice in the bottle, which was thick and syrupy. Then the alcohol hit the back of his throat and he found he couldn’t breathe.
‘Easy. I said a sip, didn’t I?’ Shemp clouted his back until Chi had recovered. ‘That’s strong stuff’
By now he had turned the pony and they were heading back to village at a gentle trot. Two men were standing by Lisbet. It looked like she had gone to sleep. He wanted to help, but Shemp kept the pony moving.
‘Tarl and Fey will look after Lisbet, I need to get you back for the festival’
Chi had forgotten about it being festival day. Last year he had enjoyed the feast afterwards, with all the best foods the villagers could muster. He had even tasted meat for the first time. This year he was big enough to attend the ritual which preceded it as well. He knew it was a solemn ceremony and that he would have to behave himself carefully. Shemp swept around Lisbet’s body, so Chi could not see the spear sticking up from his aunt’s back. The lad would have enough to worry about tonight.
As they plodded towards village Chi had time to take in his surroundings. There was an odd smell to the pony, and a less pleasant one coming from Shemp. Chi wasn’t sure if it was Shemp’s sweat, or the stink of the fur he was wearing. He had never ridden before, and wasn’t sure he wanted to again. The pony seemed to keep moving up when Chi was moving down and vice versa. He had plenty of time to get it right during the long ride back to the village. Chi couldn’t believe how far he had run with Lisbet.
The village looked quite different from the pony’s back, He was looking down on the tops of the huts, instead of up at their doors, and he could see over them to the stone house at the centre in which the priests lived.
The villagers watched in silence as he and Shemp rode through the village. Normally it was a bustling busy place, but now he felt intimidated by their stares. Shemp didn’t say a word. It all made Chi nervous, and he didn’t say a word as they passed his home and headed for the priest’s house.
Shemp put his hands under the boy’s armpits and lifted him down to the women waiting below who rushed into the building with Chi. Shemp handed Branz to a villager and followed them in.
Chi didn’t know the women who led him inside, but he thanked them for the beaker of drink they handed him. He sipped it very carefully at first, but this time it was pure juice and he gulped it to relieve his thirst.
Between them the two women took off his tunic and replaced it with a soft robe which reached to the floor, then did something with a cord at his waist to prevent him tripping over it. Bracelets were put on his arms. Chi didn’t know it, but they were pure gold. Long ago, longer than anyone in the village could remember, the bracelets had been traded for a fortune in goods. Chi had to hold up his hands so the bangles didn’t slip over his thin wrists.
‘Now you sit there and behave yourself. We have work to do’
Chi had obeyed that command (with varying degrees of success) for Aunt Lisbet many times. He was handed a pastry, which he ate hungrily. It was delicious. He did not refuse the second one.
Standing behind him, Flava looked down at him, her eyes brimming with tears she knew she couldn’t let Chi see. He was such a sweet, polite little boy.
Chi was just beginning to get restless when Shemp came into the room. Gone was the rough fur coat. Now Shemp was wearing a beautiful blue cloak swirled with red and yellow rainbows. Chi’s draw dropped at the beauty of it.
Shemp grinned at his expression:
‘Look nice as a lady don’t I?’
Chi grinned back.
‘It’s nicer than anything Lisbet’s got’
Shemp flapped his hands at the two women, and they left the room hurriedly . His voice was serious as he knelt down so his head was level with Chi’s.
‘You have learnt about the ritual, haven’t you?’
‘Of course. The priests told us all about it. And Lisbet’ Chi looked excited ‘I’m old enough to see it this year’
‘Yes, lad, you are’ There was a sour look on Shemp’s face. ‘Do you know what happens?’
Chi recited the ritual details, just as he had been taught:
‘On the fourth full moon of the year a male of the village is chosen. He is clothed in splendour, taken to the village square and slain with the sacred knife’ Chi’s eyes widened in realisation and his voice wobbled ‘to keep the village safe for the year, and ensure the harvest is good.’
‘Word perfect’ Shemp praised.
‘It’s me, isn’t it? I’m the sacrifice.’
‘I’m afraid so, son. Your name was chosen this year’ with difficulty Shemp kept his voice calm and even.
‘Oh.’ In spite of his attempts to hide it, Chi’s distress was obvious. ‘Aunt Lisbet wanted to save me from this?’
‘Yes lad. She thought she was doing the right thing.’
‘She was being selfish. She wanted me to grow up and work for the family rather than save the whole village.’
‘I think it was more because she wanted to save your life.’
‘Perhaps.’ Chi didn’t sound too sure. ‘It was still wrong.’
Outside they could hear the priests chanting, preparing for the sacrifice.
‘I’ll try to do it quickly, so it doesn’t hurt too much. Do you want me to blindfold you?’
Chi shook his head emphatically.
‘No. I’m big enough to be a man now. I will do it as it should be done.’
Shemp took hold of the innocent-looking ornate knife waiting for him on a bench. He took a deep breath.
‘Yes’ Chi’s voice was firm and resolute. He knew what he had to do now.
Chi took the offered hand and the pair walked out of the building and into the village square. He felt Shemp take hold of his chest. The knife dug into his throat, and he felt a sharp pain and blood running down. He was unconscious before he hit the stone platform beneath him, and dead minutes later.
Shemp managed to walk back to the priest house, carrying the bloody knife without showing the emotion he was feeling. Outside he could hear the festivities beginning.
As he sat inside cleaning the knife he felt a hand on his shoulder. Kart the chief priest sat beside him, sympathetic.
‘I hate doing the little ones’ Shemp groused.
‘I know. We all hate it when it happens that way. But he was the one the gods wanted’
‘Hmp. With a bit of luck it’ll be me next time. Then I won’t have to do this anymore.’ He looked up at Kart ‘I went with his mother, he could have been mine.’
‘Many men in the village could make the same claim. Ronna wasn’t shy.’ Kart scoffed.
‘What’re you going to do with the woman?’
‘We’ll bury her, and keep quiet about her treason.’
‘Good, Chi understood what she did, and condemned it. He was as brave as any I’ve known’
‘Perhaps he was too young to understand what was going to happen’
Shemp shook his head.
‘No. He understood perfectly well and did his duty willingly.’
Kart helped Shemp out of the robes and back into his furs.
‘Pooh. Those really need a good clean!’
‘Mm. One of these days I’ll get round to it.’
The two priests headed into a back room, away from the villagers to drown the memory of the night.
There is very little description of people in this story deliberately. It could have taken place in many villages in many parts of the world over many centuries. I did not want to pin it down to any one continent.