Nothing of note happened the rest of the day until the tribe had settled around a slow rising hill and Grandmother sent out the whistle that meant the traveler’s offering ceremony was about to begin after the evening meal. Rawley heard the summons and brought me to where Grandmother and Old Lily were waiting at the top of the hill. They stood in the open area between the tents for the top three people in the tribe. On the left was the tent of the tribe’s leader, Ghani. It was marked by the rough approximation of a gabbler fish as that was our tribe’s symbol. In the middle was the Pack’s large tent, marked with a cat’s paw print, apparently so they could reach the tents on either side if things went direly wrong faster, but I always thought it because no one had the patience to bicker about tent placement with Fenris all day. She was the type to think that she gained some power by being on the highest point of the hill. The tent was used as the Pack’s base of operations during travel and her living quarters throughout the whole year. It was a nice thought to think that with all the foot traffic in and out Fenris wouldn’t be getting any satisfactory sleep. On the right was Grandmother’s tent. She, like the Grandmothers before her, had earned her place by being selected and trained by the previous blood speaker of the tribe. Religious leader, storyteller, and ward caretaker all combined one, the position of Grandmother was the most influential of the tribe even if she didn’t have any say in daily affairs.
As I was technically still Grandmother’s ward even though I was staying with Rawley throughout the course of the run, I had no choice but to line up next to the other five children in front of Grandmother’s tent. We would have a prominent part to play in the ceremony.
That was exchange: Grandmother gave shelter, food, and clothing, and we provided her with blood. It was thought that she had so much death in her that she could support the tribe’s abandoned and soul bent children without becoming over imbued with life. We balanced her out so the goddess wouldn’t become jealous or affronted.
Rawley joined the other lone huntresses near the top of the hill as the rest of the tribe started to fill the hillside. I pulled out my prayer needle so that Old Lily would stop fussing and go back to her rhythm sticks, two intricately carved pale white lengths of wood. The carvings were dyed black on one stick and red on the other like the black and trim on Grandmother’s clothing that indicated her status. Old Lily was Grandmother’s Echo, a blood speaker’s chosen handmaiden. She helped Grandmother with the ceremonies and took on most of the daily menial tasks as neither blood speakers nor Echoes could marry. Each sister seemed born for their respective roles.
Grandmother wasn’t exactly tall, but the way she stood, straight backed and expectant, was still imposing. She was still in her normal clothes and was as just as travel worn as the rest of the tribe, but there was no question that she was in command at the moment. I turned my gaze to watch the crowd with her. Ghani and Fenris sat the closest, only a few feet away from Grandmother, exchanging updates about the day’s travel. The tribe leader was a short, well rounded woman with long dirty blonde hair that was braided sensibly out of the way. Fenris laughed at a joke that she made. Ghani was as quick to make a bad joke as Fenris was to suck up, so they got along well. It helped too that Ghani’s aide who sat behind them and filled in a quiet word here and there, was Fenris’s wife. The rest of the Pack filled the second row and behind them were the lone huntresses and the huntresses’ apprentices. The next section was full of the tribe members who had the greatest mastery of their craft or had high influence in the tribe. Mel was in that section and a very select few male faces among a majority of women. The rest of the upper middle of the hill was taken up by the remaining women, all of those with some privilege but whose trades and skills weren’t as highly valued by the tribe. The apprenticed children also sat in that section. The upper part of the lower half of the hill was taken up by the married men of the tribe and their younger children—there was always some jockeying based on who was married to who to decide which family got to sit closer to the ceremony. Even Father was among them, near the middle of the hill, with his and Mel’s children because he couldn’t abandon them to the crowd even though he kept sneaking glances over the heads of the unmarried men to where Levain sat at the very back of the crowd with the twins.
Grandmother brought her hands together in a sharp clap and the buzz of low conversation immediately broke off. The eyes of all two hundred or so tribe members focused on her. She spread her arms wide, the marks on the inside of her wrists clearly visible to the tribe, and Old Lily began to hit her sticks together in a slow, steady beat. Grandmother waited for the third thunk of the sticks hitting together before she pitched her low, biting voice to carry over the hill.
“The first day of our run has ended without trouble, without worry. Do you thank the goddess for Her averted gaze?”
In unison, the tribe lifted their arms over their heads, wrists crossed facing outward, and said, “We thank Her.”
“The goddess does not accept empty platitudes. What do you offer Her?”
The sound of a slap rang through the air, loud and harsh, as the tribe’s hands dropped to hit their knees in unison. “Blood.”
“What do you humble travelers offer Her?”
The answer and repetitive slap of hands hitting knees swelled into a chant in time with Old Lily’s sticks. “Blood. Blood. Blood.”
Grandmother drew out a hand sized bowl made of the same pale pine wood as the rhythm sticks and shaped like the top of a pitcher from her robes with a flourish. “Then She shall have blood!”
A few people yelled out in fierce acknowledgment while the rest continued the chant and Old Lily began to sing. Her song was wordless, but the keening cry of it always set my teeth on edge. Grandmother turned on her heel and strode to Raya at the other end of our line.
Raya held her left wrist over Grandmother’s bowl and spoke the ritual words. “I gift this blood to the Goddess so that She does not have to take in the coming days. May it grant Her strength.”
Then she placed her prayer needle against her skin and sliced a two inch cut down her wrist, through her mark, and didn’t flinch as the blood welled and dripped into the bowl. Grandmother kept the bowl there for at least half a minute, if not longer, before moving on to the next ward in line. Raya was left to clutch her wrist while keeping the bloody scratch away from her child’s dress. Bandaging the cuts wouldn’t be allowed until the ceremony was complete. Gran repeated the ritual as did the next one and the next and the next, all while the crowd chanted and Old Lily sang and the beat struck, until it was my turn.
The crowd faltered a bit when Grandmother stepped in front of me with her bloody bowl, though whether that was because of my blessed mark or my healer’s lineage was up for grabs. Both were more than unusual to see in the offering line, but if I could I would have bet it was because of the latter. My life-tainted blood had a higher chance of being rejected by the goddess—though most of the tribe were probably reasoning to themselves that my blessed mark and the connection it had to goddess would balance that out it still gave them pause. But Grandmother ignored the crowd’s misstep so I ignored it too and held up my skirt so that I could reach my mark. Grandmother pressed the bowl against my thigh.
I had heard the words so many times I didn’t have to think when I said them. “I gift this blood to the Goddess so that She does not have to take in the coming days. May it grant Her strength.”
The cut burned as I dragged my prayer needle across the diamond closest to my knee. The wood of the bowl was cool and smooth, but not as cold as the evening air. It felt like an eternity passed before Grandmother removed the bowl and strode back to her place in front of the crowd. I let my skirt drop, caring less about the blood than keeping the cold air out.
Grandmother held the bowl up and silence clamped down onto the hillside. Then she brought the bowl’s spout to her lips and drank the blood in two quick swallows. When she lowered the bowl her upper lip was coated with dark crimson.
“Heliquat!” The majority of the tribe flinched when she called out the goddess’s name. “This lowly blood speaker drinks this blood in your stead. Do you accept the Gabbler Tribe’s offering?”
The air grew thick with anxiety as the whole crowd craned to see her lips. One heartbeat, two. And then the blood on Grandmother’s lip flaked away and the whole tribe breathed out a sigh of relief.
Grandmother announced, “The goddess accepts our thanks! Go, rest, and prepare for tomorrow’s journey.”
The tribe began to rise and break up, going back to family tents or do last minute tasks before the very last of the sunlight slipped away. Old Lily hurried into Grandmother’s tent and came out again with bandages. Rawley waited until I had secured my bandage around my leg before collecting me. We would sleep within the camp at night, where it was safer, while the Pack took shifts on watch. Rawley had claimed a spot on the outskirts of the camp, only a short distance from the top of hill, but I had to hold back a hiss of pain as we walked and the movement repeatedly tugged on my cut. I would have to get used to it. A smaller ceremony would be held every night during the run to appease the goddess and hold ill happenings at bay. Only two wards would be needed to supply blood for it, but even with the rotation of that duty, I would have many more cuts by the end of the run.
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Bio: I'm a typical writer who loves reading and writing fantasy stories. Romance often gets mixed in as well, but we'll see if that happens with my current work in progress. I decided to post what I'm working on here to help me keep writing consistently.