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Moon Chosen, Page 3

P. C. Cast

  Mari’s gaze drifted around the semicircle of Clansmen and women who surrounded her, counting them and consigning to memory the twenty-two women, ten children, and seven men who were present so that she could help her mama make the proper annotation in her journal when they returned to their burrow.

  Mari frowned as her eyes paused on Sora. Unbelievable! She fumed silently. Everyone else is praying and readying themselves with Mama, but not that girl. Instead of praying or studying Leda, as any other candidate for Moon Woman was expected to do, Sora was smiling at one of the young men kneeling before Leda. Mari craned her neck and saw that the young man she recognized as Jaxom kept glancing surreptitiously at Sora, a heat in his eyes that seemed to have little to do with Night Fever.

  Mari felt a stab of jealously. It was so easy for Sora! She was bold and confident and beautiful. What would it be like to be her—just for one day, or even one hour? What would it be like to have a young man look at her with such heat and longing? It would be wonderful, Mari thought. It would be unimaginably wonderful.

  Then into the Clan’s silence her mother, her magickal, loving Moon Woman mother, began to speak in a voice sweet and strong and sure, and Clan Weaver lifted their heads to face Leda.

  “Moon Woman I proclaim myself to be

  Greatly gifted I bare myself to thee.

  Earth Mother aid me with your magick sight

  Lend me strength on this full moon night.

  Come, silver light—fill me to overflow

  So those in my care, your healing will know.”

  As Leda spoke the invocation, her body began to glow. Not the sickly gray glow of Night Fever, but the sublime silver illumination of the pure, icy power of the moon. Mari had watched her mama call down the moon more times than she could begin to count, but it never ceased to thrill her. And though Leda’s Earth Mother had never, ever, so much as whispered one word to Mari, she imagined that if the Goddess were to truly rise from the earth, she would look exactly like her mama.

  “By right of blood and birth channel through me

  the Goddess gift that is my destiny!”

  Leda spoke the final words that drew from the sky the invisible threads of power that only answered a Moon Woman’s call, and as she did so she began to move from man to man, touching each upturned head. Mari thought Leda was a living paintbrush whose touch stroked moonlight and magick into the tableau of the Clan, so that in turn each man glowed silver for an instant. Even from where Mari sat, she could hear the relieved sighs of the Clansmen as their Moon Woman Washed the pain and madness of Night Fever from their bodies.

  Beside her, Mari felt the tremor that went through Jenna’s slight form, reminding her of the public role she must play. Mari drained the last of her tea and then wrapped her arms more tightly around herself, pretending a pain she had never felt.

  “It’s okay, Mari. She’s almost done with the men,” Jenna said.

  Mari opened her mouth to say something distracting to Jenna, but the sight of Sora moving beside Leda, smiling flirtatiously at each of the newly Washed Clansmen before they drifted back to their watch places surrounding the Gathering, had her gritting her teeth in irritation.

  Jenna followed her gaze and snorted indelicately. “She’s so bold! I’m surprised Leda doesn’t put a stop to that.”

  Mari said nothing. She was afraid she knew why her mama didn’t put a stop to Sora’s shamelessness. The Clan needs their Moon Woman to name an heir and choose her as a formal apprentice—and that apprentice can’t have mutant skin that glows in sunlight. Yes, Sora was arrogant and annoying, but she was also popular with the Clan and obviously determined to be Moon Woman after Leda.

  Leda paused before them, smiling lovingly down at Jenna and Mari. With the rest of the Clan, Jenna lifted her head and Leda pressed her hands over the delicately wrought Moon Crown. Her words were for the Clan, but her eyes met her daughter’s.

  “I Wash you free of all sadness and gift you with the love of our Great Earth Mother.”

  With the rest of the Clan, Mari murmured, “Thank you, Moon Woman.” She shared a secret smile with her mother. Leda touched her daughter’s head, bent quickly, and kissed her forehead before moving on to the next group of waiting women.

  Mari longed to join her mama—to show the Clan that she wasn’t sickly and she could be a help to their Moon Woman and, possibly, someday be their Moon Woman.

  “Better stay seated. Wouldn’t want your stomach pains to return.”

  Mari looked up to meet Sora’s gaze. There was nothing wrong with what the girl said, but Mari felt the mockery hidden in the polite facade. She wanted to leap up and yell that she didn’t really have stomach pains! She was just different! But Mari wouldn’t, couldn’t say anything without jeopardizing her safety and, more importantly, her mother’s. So, all Mari said was, “Better hurry and catch my mama. Wouldn’t want one of the other gray-eyed girls to take your place.”

  Sora’s frown marred her smooth forehead as she turned her back on Mari and rushed after Leda.

  “She’s not much fun,” Jenna said.

  “That’s not what the Clansmen say,” Mari quipped.

  Jenna put her hand over her mouth, stifling a giggle. Mari grinned at her friend and leaned closer, ready to talk about how birdlike the feathers in Sora’s Moon Crown made her look, when she felt her mother’s gaze. She met her eyes and, over the heads of the Clan, Leda mouthed one word, kindness.

  Mari sent her mama a quick, apologetic smile. As Leda moved from the maidens and children to the mothers and elders, Mari sighed. Her mama was right, of course. A Moon Woman was the Clan’s matriarch, and as such was Healer, counselor, leader, and mother to them all. Leda didn’t just act kind—she was truly kind.

  But was Mari truly kind? She didn’t know. She tried her best to make her mama proud. She tried to do the right things, but no matter how hard she tried she still felt as if she was lacking—or maybe lacking wasn’t entirely right. Maybe it was just that she was so unlike any of the Clan, even her mama, that she never felt as if she belonged. Mari watched Leda with bittersweet longing. If only she could be as easy in her skin as was her mama and Sora and the rest of the Clan.

  Automatically, Mari checked the sleeves of her cloak even though the sun had left the sky. She realized what she was doing and stilled her restless hands as sadness washed over her, making her feel suddenly short of breath.

  What am I doing here? I don’t belong and I’m only causing Mama to look weak and indecisive. I shouldn’t have come.

  “Mari? Are you okay?” Jenna asked, and Mari realized the girl had been chattering a nonstop commentary about how she had helped the women from the nearby burrows ready the Gathering Site for tonight’s celebration.

  “Sorry, Jenna. No, I’m still not feeling well. I’m going to head back to the burrow before it’s fully dark. Would you tell Mama that my stomach pains made me tired and that I left because I needed to rest?”

  “Of course! Hey, I found a whole grove of blooming purple irises. Didn’t you say they make great dye?”

  “Yeah, they do,” Mari said.

  “Want to harvest them with me tomorrow?”

  Mari wanted to say yes. She wanted to laugh and talk and gossip with her friend and not constantly be on guard, worrying about what the sunlight might reveal.

  But she had to worry. She couldn’t predict or control if her skin would begin to glow in the sun, but glow it did, more often than not. And the recent days had been too bright and clear for her to chance disaster.

  “I don’t know if I’ll feel well enough tomorrow, Jenna. But I’d like to—I really would.”

  “Hey, don’t worry, Mari. It’s no big deal. I’ll be here at midday. If you feel better meet me here, okay?”

  Mari nodded. “I’ll try.” She hugged Jenna, and silently prayed that the morrow would be overcast before adding, “Jenna, thank you for being my friend, even though we don’t spend as much time together as I wish we did.”

hugged Mari tightly before stepping back and grinning impishly. “It’s not about how much time we spend together. It’s about how much fun we have when we do, and we have lots of fun! We’re Clan, Mari. That’s all that really matters. I’ll always be your friend.”

  Mari smiled through tears. “I really will try to make it tomorrow,” she said. She snuck a quick glance at Leda before she hurried away. Surrounded by Earth Walkers, her magickal mother bathed the Clan in the healing power of the moon, not noticing that her daughter had slipped silently into the darkening forest, alone once more.


  Far to the northwest, just beyond the boundary of the ruins of the City, Dead Eye made a decision that would alter the fabric of the world. Recently the restlessness that had punctuated his entire life had grown to an almost unbearable level. He knew why. He was well and truly disgusted by pretending that his God, the People’s Reaper, was alive. Dead Eye had known the God was dead from the day the Caretaker had presented him to Her.

  The day of his presentation he had been as excited as the rest of the younglings who had survived the sixteen winters it took to be proclaimed one of the People. Dead Eye had fasted and prayed and brought his living sacrifice. Naked, he and the other younglings had entered Her Temple in the heart of the City and climbed the stairway up and up to the Watchers’ Chamber.

  The chamber had been filled with the sweetly pungent smoke of cedar wood. The bones of the Others who had been sacrificed for the People were stacked against the walls of the large room, forming intricate decorations to show the People’s pleasure in their God’s bounty. Sleeping pallets were interspersed between metal pots filled with fragrant, always burning wood, curtained by walls of vines that had been coaxed to grow from cracks in the Temple’s ceiling.

  Then the Watchers had included young women, as well as the crones who chose to end their days in service to the Reaper. Dead Eye remembered that the day he had been presented to the God many of the pallets had held young Watchers, their bodies actively accepting the Reaper’s tribute from young, virile men.

  “Best concentrate on the God. If She accepts your sacrifice and answers your question, there will be time for pleasure later.” Dead Eye’s Caretaker had reminded him when his attention had strayed too long to one of the more vocal couples.

  “Yes, Caretaker,” he’d replied, instantly averting his gaze and refocusing his thoughts inward.

  Even then—even when Dead Eye had barely known more than sixteen winters—he’d believed the God had a plan for him. Believed it. Known it. Never doubted it. Yes, the People were suffering. No, Dead Eye did not understand why. He didn’t understand why the Reaper, the beautiful, ferocious God of the People, allowed death and disease among them. He didn’t understand why their God told them to flay the skin from the living Others so that the People might heal their own shedding skin and absorb the Others’ power, and yet the People still sickened, shed their skin, and died.

  But Dead Eye had planned on understanding that very day.

  The God would accept his sacrifice, and then She would answer him, and he would be eternally in Her service.

  A youngling ran past him, clutching a tiny gutted creature to his naked chest as he wept brokenly.

  “His sacrifice was not accepted! The God is not pleased!” The lead Watcher’s high, reedy voice came from the balcony.

  With a jolt, Dead Eye had realized he was the only youngling left in the chamber. His gaze flew to the balcony as he cradled his sacrifice close to him, praying his instincts had served him well—that he had chosen wisely when he’d spent days trapping and then rejecting all except the pure white pigeon that rested in his hands.

  “Caretaker, present the next youngling!” The lead Watcher stepped into the chamber, standing before the huge glassless windows that separated the room from the balcony on which the enormous statue of the Reaper perched, looking out from Her Temple and beckoning Her People to come to Her.

  “I present Dead Eye,” his Caretaker said. Then she stepped aside, allowing him to walk the rest of the length of the chamber alone.

  When he reached the lead Watcher, she turned and together they walked out to the sacred balcony.

  Though he now knew the statue was just dead metal, and the God an empty shell, Dead Eye would never forget the first time he approached the Reaper. As always, metal pots arranged in a semicircle around Her were filled with fire, illuminating Her, warming Her. Dead Eye had stared up at Her, taking in the magnificence of Her presence.

  She was everything a God should be—strong, terrifying, beautiful. Her immortal skin was made of metal that glistened seductively in the firelight. She was taller than ten men and more magnificent than any woman Dead Eye had ever beheld. She knelt above the entrance to Her Temple. With one hand She reached down, calling Her People to Her. With the other hand She held aloft the trident—the deadly three-pronged flaying knife with which She gifted Her people after the Time of Fire.

  “What sacrifice have you brought our God?” the Watcher had asked him.

  Just as Dead Eye had practiced, he said, “I offer this creature’s spirit to our God, the Reaper, and its body to our God’s chosen servants, Her Watchers.” Ritualistically, Dead Eye offered the pure white pigeon to the old woman as he bowed deeply.

  “Yes, this might do. Come to the pit.” The lead Watcher had gestured for Dead Eye to follow her to the largest of the metal fire pits. It was directly in front of the God. Around it, other Watchers, all ancient crones, hovered greedily, licking their lips and whispering among themselves.

  Dead Eye shivered in remembrance of the stale smell that had wafted from them and of their rheumy, restless eyes.

  The old woman had lifted the ceremonial trident and slit the struggling bird’s belly, from crotch to chin so that it had looked like a beautiful scarlet flower had blossomed from its body. Blood had spewed so high and fierce that a few drops had actually touched the skin of the statue.

  “Ah! It is a sign of the God’s pleasure with this youngling!” the old woman had croaked, holding the bleeding, twitching bird aloft. “What role would you take among the People?”

  “I would carry Her mark, and be a Harvester,” Dead Eye had said. He remembered with pride that his voice hadn’t broken and that he had stood proud and tall before the old women and the statue that dwarfed them all.

  “So be it!” The Watcher had nodded to the other women. They’d surged forward, grabbing Dead Eye’s arms. With surprising strength, they’d pulled him off his feet and pinned him to the floor of the balcony, arms spread. Then the crone had pulled a small trident from the God’s fire pit. The deadly metal of its triple-edged blade had glowed like fresh blood. With a flourish, the Watcher lifted the weapon, asked for their God’s blessing, and then knelt beside him. “From great pain comes great knowledge. As you are accepted into the service of the Reaper, you may ask Her one question—and the God will answer.” Then she pressed the burning blades against the skin of Dead Eye’s forearm.

  He hadn’t flinched. He hadn’t cried out. He’d stared eagerly up at the face of the God and asked his one question.

  “What must I do to make the People strong again?”

  Dead Eye’s fingers found the raised, trident-shaped scar. He stroked it as what happened next replayed through his memory.


  The God had not spoken.

  Dead Eye lay there, ignoring the blazing pain in his arm, waiting for the God’s mighty voice to fill his mind.

  “She answers Dead Eye!” the crone had suddenly shouted as she stood, holding up the trident that was covered with his blood and seared skin. “She accepts him!”

  “I heard Her speak! She accepts him!” cried another of the old women.

  “She spoke! She accepted him!” cried another.

  “Behold!” the lead Watcher shouted, still brandishing the smoking trident. “He is no longer a youngling! He is Dead Eye, one of the God’s Harvesters!”

  The women tried to help Dead Ey
e to his feet, but he shook off their skeletal hands. Swaying only a very little, he stood before the God, staring up and into Her face, searching for any sign at all that She had spoken.

  All he saw was a lifeless statue surrounded by dying old women.

  He’d looked at the leader of the Watchers, asking, “The God spoke to you?”

  “As She did to the rest of her Watchers and to you, though She is difficult to hear if you do not have the ears of a Watcher,” said the old woman. “Did you hear nothing, young Harvester?”

  “Nothing,” Dead Eye had said.

  “Do not fear, She will always speak through her Watchers, and we will always be here to guide the People to act according to Her will.”

  Dead Eye had looked from the lead Watcher to the other crones, who were taking sharpened sticks and picking through the body of the pigeon, plucking out steaming entrails and sucking them into their greedy mouths as they laughed and whispered to one another.

  Then he’d looked up at the God once more—really seeing the statue for the first time. And that was the moment it had happened. He had met the God’s metal gaze with his own, and with all the force of his mind, shouted at the Reaper.

  If you were alive you could not tolerate these vile old women. If you were alive you would make your People strong again. There is no Reaper. There is no God. You are dead.

  Dead Eye remembered how he’d stood there, wishing he was wrong, even if it meant that the God chose that moment to strike him down for his blasphemy.

  But She did not.

  Dead Eye had turned his back to the statue, drawing cries of shock and anger from the Watchers, who were not too busy sucking the bones of the sacrifice or pleasuring the men to notice. He had ignored them all and strode from the balcony, the chamber, and the Temple, promising himself that he would only return when he had an answer—and as his God was dead, he was determined to find the answer himself.