Year of the Stone 840
~ Choices ~
The warrior stepped toward the stone. Outwardly, he remained calm and confident. Inwardly, his mind screamed, arguing against the action he was taking.
This was worse than dying, he thought. This was death without dying, yet it was the only way possible to save his clan from disgrace.
Ancient words, now uttered by new lips, echoed throughout the circle. The stones, freshly hewed and sung into place, stood silent?waiting. Older stones loomed in the shadows, their presence a silent reminder of what he would soon become. Their cold, blue-gray exteriors taunted him. Beyond the edge of the circle, pieces of broken stones littered the ground, their voices long silenced. He envied them their freedom.
Eleven other men stood spread out within the circle, each in turn facing a newly-carved stone that was easily as tall as a man's height and half again.
All twelve men were there by Council order, all reluctant volunteers to this blending of flesh with stone. Eleven were guilty of crimes against the clans and each had been offered a choice: volunteer to serve the stone, or die. All?except him. His only crime was to have been named chosen. For that, he'd been given no choice.
The corners of his mouth curved upward to form a cynical grin. No, I'm no volunteer.
The Spirit Priests began to walk the circle. As they chanted the blessings, twelve young chilons, boys apprenticed to the priests, left the dusky shadows and made their way toward the waiting men.
Gold bowls bobbed through the air as the chilons balanced them upon palms extended before them. Draped in robes of white, the boys seemed nothing more than apparitions aglow against the night sky. One by one, each chilon took up a silent position between one of the twelve waiting men and the tall, silent stones.
The warrior's stomach lurched and bile rose to coat the back of his throat. He swallowed it down and remained silent, refusing to look away from the young chilon standing before him. He wished to see the face of the one who would help send him to the realm of nothingness, but a hood cloaked the boy in shadow.
Just as well.
The chilon motioned the warrior to open his mouth. When he complied, the boy dipped his slender fingers into the bowl and withdrew one golden berry no larger than the tip of his finger.
The warrior watched as the berry rose slowly in the air and came to rest against his lips. His mind screamed at him to refuse the fruit, to turn away, yet he knew he would not. There was no other choice left to him. He must go through with this or forfeit his sister's life.
He parted his lips and allowed the chilon to stuff the berry deep into his mouth. Resisting the urge to spit it out, the warrior rolled the sour fruit from cheek to cheek but didn't bite down. After several passes over his tongue, he spat it into the bowl, and the chilons withdrew to the circle's edge.
As the Spirit Priests droned on and on, their voices mingled to produce a rhythmic hum that vibrated off the stones. The warrior hummed in response while his traitorous body swayed to the rhythm of the stone's call. His eyelids grew heavy. He closed his eyes and let his thoughts drift. He sensed the dream that lurked on the edge of his awareness?could almost touch it.
The hollow echo of drums sounded in the distance. Within the recesses of his foggy mind, he realized that the twelve clans were threading a path toward the circle, following sacred trails that wound up the hillside. The same trails he himself had threaded many times.
The sound of singing wafted on the breeze, its beauty calling to him. He opened his eyes and felt the ground pitch beneath him. He struggled to remain standing as he stared at the halo of torchlight cresting the horizon on the edge of the mound. Soon, its flickering glow would join others to fill the circle with willowy flame. Behind each torchbearer came the clans of the Skye. His father and sister would be among those approaching the stone of Clan Waite.
Hazy shapes filtered past him, their forms nothing more than shadowy outlines that blurred against the darkness beyond. Sweat beaded his forehead and forced his lighter locks to hang dark and lifeless before his eyes. His tunic stuck to his back, its coarse material chafing against his skin. He grew uncomfortable within his own body and wished to set his spirit free of its earthly burden to soar skyward. The air shimmered before him. He blinked and stepped back. Had the stones moved forward? He wished to close his eyes, only for a moment, to feel the stability of darkness, but was afraid that if he did, he'd never open them again.
The chilons re-entered the circle and again took up positions in front of each man. The drumming changed; the beat grew faster, drew closer. The stones glowed, casting auras that pulsed to the rhythm of the pounding drums?each beat louder than the last?each pulse of light brighter. The warrior wanted nothing more than to merge with its glow.
"Open your mouth, please. You must hear me before it's too late," the chilon before him whispered.
He heard the voice but couldn't seem to obey. His fevered mind wondered why it sounded so familiar, yet he failed to understand why anyone would wish to take him from this torturous rapture.
Someone took his arm and urged him forward. At the same time, fingers invaded his mouth and forced a new fruit within, this one sweet’sensual. He blinked as the juices washed over his tongue and down his throat. He took a step back and fell to his knees, shaking as the rapture left him.
The light danced before him, its call a soft whisper within his mind, yet he could no longer hear its song. He stretched his hand toward it, but could no longer feel its warmth.
The chilon clasped the warrior's arm and pulled him to his feet. "Here, you must take this."
Something hard pressed into his palm. His fingers curled around the familiar hilt to stroke the smooth leather. He smiled. The blade called to him. Its voice, pure and clear, pulled him free of the fog that held his mind prisoner.
He met the chilon's worried stare and saw the girl who hid within the shadow of the hood. "Petra? How can you? You cannot be?"
She placed a finger across his lips. "I'm here."
"I recall," the warrior whispered, his voice a mere croak. "I recall."
Petra squeezed his arm. "I give back what was stolen. I can do no more. The rest is up to you." Then, as the last beat of the drums sounded and the drone of the Spirit Priests ended, she, along with the other eleven chilons, withdrew for the last time from the circle.
The eerie aura surrounding the stones expanded and stretched fine wisps of paler light outward to caress the condemned men. The airy glow trailed over their bodies, its movements slow and seductive. As it withdrew, its willowy form grew brighter, its glow mantling the men in golden hues. The stones shimmered in response.
As one, the men leaned forward into the light and vanished within the stones.
The light came for the warrior, its touch frigid against his skin. He grew cold. He fought against the panic that threatened to topple his faith as fog oozed from the ground to mingle with the aura of the stone. Merged, the haze pooled at his feet to wash in waves against him.
He sought his sister Bethia's gaze where she stood huddled within their father's arms. He saw the tears upon her cheeks and how her tiny shoulders shook. He raised a hand toward her, then let it fall limp at his side. What he did this day was for her. In time, he hoped she would understand.
His father, Avarod, met his stare. The sorrow upon his face was clear, though he remained in the shadows beyond the torchlight. The warrior knew that this image of his father would remain firmly etched in his mind to forever haunt his dreams?if he were allowed to dream.
Beside his family stood the Spirit Priest known as Pallard, his sniveling slave Motz at his side. The priest looked toward the warrior. When their eyes met, Pallard tipped his chin toward Bethia and smirked. The warrior tensed. He knew the priest wouldn't fail to order her death should he refuse to step within the stone. The warrior nodded. The priest laughed and turned away. He patted Bethia on the head as he walked past.
The warrior's grip tightened on the sword's hilt. Petra had given him time, time to change the odds of the game, though he would no longer be there to play. He lifted his sword, the One's sword, and drew its sharp edge across the inside of his hand. Blood dripped from his fingers as he placed his palm flat against the stone's cool surface. Raising his eyes skyward, he shouted toward the priest's retreating form, "I invoke the ancient code of the One."
His voice thundered within the now-barren circle.
"What? What's this?" Pallard pointed toward the warrior. "Take that sword from his hand, you fools. Quickly!"
"No, Pallard," the warrior screamed over the roar of a rising wind. "I claim the right to carry this sword, the One's sword, as he who is truly named chosen. The gift has been shared."
"Impossible," Pallard screamed. "You were never? You cannot?"
"But I was, and I have. I hold the power of the blood bond; it is mine to command. From this night onward, all those offered to the circle will serve the stone through me, as I serve only the Shroud. I am a rightful One, and the power goes with me to the stone." The glow about him intensified. The warrior leveled the blade at the priest and sighted down its shimmering length. "Be warned. By the blood of my blood, and the blood on the stone, this I swear: No Shroud shall serve you and those of your blood. Seek to harm or belie my words, and we will come. We will all come. This I promise."
The wisps of light coiled up his legs and over his chest to finally caress his face with a billowy stroke before completely enveloping him. The light sang to him, its voice coaxed, Come, be one with us. The warrior could no longer resist its call. Petra's aid hadn't been enough to free him of the claims the stone now held. Turning spectral eyes upon the priest, he warned, "Harm this sacred circle of stone at your own peril. My pact with the spirits is complete."
The warrior looked out upon the clans.
Raising the blade to his lips, he whispered, "I give you my word. When your need is truly great, the stone shall not forsake." Lowering the sword, he stepped forward and disappeared into the blue-gray surface of the waiting stone.