2. The week of Elect.

Smells assault her nose as she enters the main throng of the market. Foods, dye, feces and the unmistakable scent of body odour. If it weren't for her herb bag, there would be no doubt that Atria would have emptied her stomach right there and added her vomit to the market's stench. Thankfully, it was the week of Elect, so not many people were buying - choosing instead to make time to see loved ones -  so it was reasonably easy to get what she needed and leave as quickly as possible.


Exiting the small enclosure of stalls, she picks up her skirt and sets off at a run down the dusty track. It's Firstday today, so the town Leader will be giving a speech, reminding everyone of the importance of cooperation and respect during this small portion of the year. Atria doubts that it's started yet, the sun's still quite low in the sky, but keeps sprinting nevertheless, minute beads of sweat forming on her brow.


"Atria! Slow down!"

Surprised, she turns quickly, but catches her foot on a rock and topples down a steep bank, all in one jerky motion. Blinking against the fierce glare of the sun, she looks up and sees the laughing face of Tessi towering above her. Unsure of whether to laugh or continue frowning, Atria stands up and proceeds to pick thistle spines out of her skirt with mock annoyance, only to be joined by her friend a moment later when she skids down to her left.

"Atria" she says breathless, "I was just going to tell you that the speech is starting early today...something about storms in the afternoon..."

For a moment, Atria just continues to rid herself of thistles.

"Come on Atria! By early, I mean in about five minutes!"

With that, she takes Atria's hand in hers and yanks her back up the hill and onto the track. Atria looks up at her breathless friend and grins, "I know, I know. I was just playing with you because you startled me. Come on now, you don't want to be late right?"


Giggling, they sprint off together hand in hand towards the main square of the village, where someone has created a raised podium out of hay bales and wooden palettes. The Leader was just being helped to the top, as the two girls merge into the back of the crowd, shuffling past various anxious neighbours and friends. Silence stretches as the man begins to speak, his voice strong despite the lack of an instrument to magnify it.


"Villagers, as you all know, this week is the week of Elect. Now, since the events of last year I have had many requests made that the ritual will not be carried out again, but these have been foolish! Are you not aware of the reason why we do it? We do not enjoy sending someone to that fate, yet we still do so! It is imperative that we still do so!"


A few people, presumably the ones who made the requests, shuffle uncomfortably in their spaces.


"Just in case you have forgotten the role that Elect plays, I will reiterate for you. This village, yes the one that you sleep in, that your children sleep in. This village used to be much less safe than it is now. Do you see the walls that surround the perimeter? Yes, well our ancestors built these many years ago in an attempt to protect us from the things that lurk beyond them. Spirits. Snicker you may, but these aren't the spirits of stories, nor are they spirits from suspicion, these are real and they are here."


Atria stops laughing.


"Of course, the walls alone could not withstand the onslaught of the spirits, but the Leader in that day had an idea. The spirits' purpose was to find living people to sustain them, so he suggested that once a month, we somehow select a person at random and give them to the spirits. The next new moon, this was tried. The Given was tied to the young oak tree and the spirits took them. The villagers waited in suspense for another attack from the spirits, but none came. The Giving had worked."


Obvious relief showed on some of the surrounding faces; they had obviously expected a speech saying that the Giving had failed two months ago.


"So now we must once again choose the person to be tied to the now elderly oak tree. Bear in mind that this is in no way a punishment! The person is chosen at random, so do not be alarmed that any wrongdoings could act against you. Remember to follow the rules and etiquette of the event and hope that our village is safe for another two months. Elect will happen tomorrow, I expect everyone there!"



With the Leader's final word, the silence and tension is snapped and the crowd begins to dissolve. Tessi's face is pale, but she smiles when Atria puts an arm round her shoulders and leads her away. Her mouth is neutral, but her eyes are troubled as she reminds herself that it was Tessi's younger brother that was given last year; this "festival" brings back unwanted memories.


They walk like this in silence for a couple of minutes until they reach the outskirts of the village. From here, they circle round east until they come up to a small, rundown shack that's separated from the rest of the town by a sparse curtain of vegetation. Knocking twice, Tessi shrugs Atria off gently and pushes open the rotting door. A brief clamour ensues as the two friends greet the other teenagers inside the shack, but then they settle down in a companionable fashion, sprawled over hay and sacks. Mary, the oldest, settles down opposite them and produces a large woven basket from behind her back. The smell of freshly cooked sweet cakes fills the hut.

As she passes the basket round Tedro, a boy she'd known since she was five, leans over and whispers in her ear.

"Seems like the Elect committee has been getting a lot of trouble from people for the violence of last year..."

Atria snorted, "And so they should...Mik was only 6, the youngest sacrifice there's been since the Giving started. No one wanted to see him taken."


Tedro's next words were cut off as Mary whacks him over the head with the basket.

"You two, stop talking about such unpleasant things...we're meant to be enjoying ourselves for now!"

She rolls her eyes and throws two sweet cakes at them. Taking a bite out of the cake, Atria looks around at the others inside. There were seven of them all together: herself, Tessi, Tedro, Mary the baker's daughter, Mia the young seamstress, Faron a guard-in-training and Thos, Faron's brother. They started meeting the day before Elect when she was nine, and it's developed into a small ceremony of their own. It's seen between them as a way to treasure each others company in case one of them gets chosen one day.


The teenagers stay this way; eating, talking and dancing, long into the evening until each person decides to leave for home. Waving and hugging goodbye, they trail off into the dark back to their families, hastily lit candles lighting the way.


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