Elle stood on the edge of the cliff while the Demon Storm raged around her and as Hell Fire ripped the night sky to shreds, she knew her life was forfeit. Unasked and unwanted, the Councils words over took the screaming winds. She hadn’t meant to over hear the meeting but Bear’s voice, full of desperation, found her ears while she carried water to the fire.
“How could we ask our daughters to do such a thing?” He had pleaded. Never before has she heard her father so beyond hope, and it froze her.
“We may not have a choice. If the Gods demand, we must obey or risk the death of all.” Hawk sounded as hopeless as her father but his words rang with a determination to outshine the seeds need to push through the earth and seek the sun.
“Would you ask your daughter to leap to her death then?”
“If I may,” replied Su, her mother with a kind and firm music, “I don’t believe we should ask or choose ourselves. The choice must be untainted and pure. We should announce after the Joining next night and let those old enough make the choice for themselves.”
“And if Elle took the burden?”
“I’ll stand like the oak and owl, strong, proud and wise that my daughter would give herself to save the rest and I’d suggest you remember that self is nothing if not honored by all.”
As her mother’s words penetrated Elle’s mind a stiff gust pulled the flaps of the Elders hut open a fraction and Su’s gray eyes, full of fire, met Elle’s. That ember within loosened Elle’s feet and she fled.
Now, with arms spread wide she took those final steps to where earth met air. She closed her eyes as a flood of sadness washed over her and tears burned trails down her ash coated cheeks.
She would miss her mother, with her smoky eyes filled with laughter and her father’s playful smile. Her sisters and brothers, her aunts and uncles, her entire people, she would miss them all. Yet, she knew they would be proud of her. Their children’s children would tell her story around the night fire, as she had told the tales of others before her. She would live on forever in the memories of her people, though that wasn’t why she stood at the mouth of Hell.
Her people needed her. There might have been some other young girl who would have gladly taken Elle’s place, but she had the most to lose, and the most to offer up. Of those old enough to make the choice, she was the youngest. She had never been with a man; her Joining with Mear would have taken place in the morning. Her father was the Chief and she stood next in line. Hers would be the greatest sacrifice.
Demon’s Breath whipped around her, tearing her ebony hair from its braid and yanking her towards the flaming maw. For the first time since she made the choice, fear gripped her heart. She didn’t want to die. Not yet, not with her whole life ahead of her. Mear’s loving face played before her eyes. She loved him, as he loved her.
“Elle,” he had begged when she told him of her intentions. “Let another go. Salla’s just taken Mel from the breast, she’d make an acceptable offering.”
“No,” she replied though it broke her heart. “I must go. I have the most to offer up.”
Mear had seen the truth in her words and left her with a parting kiss. She’d told no one else, she couldn’t have an audience. Now, as her heart beat towards its end and her lungs took in their last air, she wished she’d told her mother. But if her mother stood with her on that cliff, Elle doubted she would have the strength to do what she must do.
She allowed herself to feel the loss of her mother’s last embrace and regret that she’d never know a man’s touch. Then she took her last breath, wept her last tear and gathered herself to leap into the darkness.
Su watched from just inside the tree line as Ella, her first-born, prepared to give herself to the Demon. She knew her daughter had over heard the council as they discussed their options for soothing the angry Gods. Never in her wildest dreams would she have thought her daughter capable of such a selfless act.
Her heart had swelled with pride the moment she knew her daughters intentions. Though she wished Ella had told her, instead the word had come from Mear. He’d hoped she could talk her daughter out of it, but she wouldn’t dare. Her daughter knew what she must do and Su wouldn’t stand in the way of the God’s will.
As her little Elle, only sixteen winters old, threw herself from the cliff, Su’s heart broke like brittle clay, crumbling to dust and bitter edged shards.
Try as she might, Su couldn’t bring her words to the Elders into reality. Unlike the tall oak and its wise owl heart, she felt weak and shamed and as lost as a fallen fledgling. Bitterness and anger filled her hollow chest and burned her soul.
“What kind of God’s would demand an innocent child’s life?” she asked the oak. “What kind of mother would allow her child to die to appease the Demon?” she asked the owl. She got no answer.
As Su froze out her Gods she turned her back on the cliff and her people. The Demon Storm raged on, unsatisfied with her daughter’s great sacrifice.