The Reaper had called. She was the sacrifice. For her family, her homestead, to be safe, she had to offer what the Reaper asked. She wasn’t afraid. Death was only a doorway, she knew. And death might not be her path. But an unnamed sadness swelled in her with a fierceness she had not expected. She grieved. Grieved for a life that might have been hers. One of hearth and flickering candle light and love and the sound of children and summer days filled with ripening and wonder. Her hand crept to her belly. Empty. Always to be so, if the Reaper let her live.
She thought of the path that had led her here. Every five years, on the eve of solstice, the Reaper called. And one amongst them answered. Life was hard in the shadow of the mountain. The Reaper offered the surety of survival, bounty even, in exchange for what the village called a winter bride. Each calling, a woman from the village was chosen to walk the path to the ridge and wait for the eagle, which would carry her over the furthest peaks. If she returned, she returned barren. Changed.
The choosing was simple. At the calling, each female of the village still marked by the lunar blood, gathered on the green. A bag of stones was brought amongst them and she who pulled the garnet was the one. The chosen was given a cloak, a waterskin and food for the journey, and immediately set on the path to the ridge.
Evelyn had been chosen. The only daughter of the chief, she was a favourite child of the valley. Bright, strong and quick to laugh, she had grown to womanhood amongst a brace of brothers who thought nothing of including her in the same sword play and rough and tumble that they were encouraged in. She was more likely to be found listening to the old tales of the elders or seeking shiny pebbles in the stream than sitting at her needle work or helping the women with the chores of the home.
And so, the face of more than one person gathered on the green fell at the choosing. Her father was enraged. Pleaded with the village sage to send the stones around again. But the sage only shook his sadly and held his chief’s shoulders in sympathy.
Evelyn was not scared. Did not fall to the ground and weep as some of the other brides had done. Instead she took a deep breath, hugged her father and her brothers, winking at the youngest one, and promised bravely to bring back tales of the Reaper.
Wrapped in the cloak and armed with nothing but hard bread and some winter apples, she turned toward the mountain and began her journey north.