by Alyssa Jordan
Darcy brushed her little sister’s hair until it shone like copper. She dressed Ella in their nicest clothes before letting her retrieve three cloaks from the closet.
Twice a year, Darcy unfolded the cloaks, smoothed out their wrinkles, and dabbed them with perfume. It was a ritual she couldn’t avoid.
The first time Ella had donned one, some pervert challenged their brother and watched her with a hungry look in his eye. Darcy hadn’t been able to hide her satisfaction when Rob put the man down.
She shouldn’t have ever doubted him. Rob was young and slight—especially so for his age—but he was ruthless when it came to his family. And he was so very fast. That night, he won Ella’s first challenge with blood hot on his hands and a winter moon crowning his head.
Darcy smiled as she led Ella to the door.
A pit had been dug at the heart of their village.
On a winding trail, they passed blue-grey cottages with sloping roofs. The air smelled of straw and piney smoke. Other villagers trickled from their homes. Darcy greeted most of them as they crossed the knuckle joint of the trail. Once a main road, this pathway now fanned through the village in five directions.
The third finger led to the pit.
It dominated their town square, a barren place that drank the morning light. Darcy took Ella’s hand. Nora, their other sister, stood near the pit. She stared at the pack of Others across from them.
All the village women slipped on their cloaks. They used rope to lower village men into the pit. With each one, The Others would issue challenges.
Their neighbor was called first. A large Other followed him into the pit. Afterward, two men had to carry him away.
Ella bit her lip. Darcy threaded their fingers together.
Men came clean and left bloody. Some lost sisters, mothers, or wives; some managed to keep them a little longer. Grunts and bitten-off cries rose from the pit, and Ella knew every time blood was spilt by how the villagers would surge forward, no longer silent in their own unmaking.
Rob didn’t answer a challenge till midday. By then, heat slicked their backs and marbled his hair. He emerged with only a few cuts. The next four challenges—three for Nora, one for Darcy—mapped a constellation of bruises.
Then, a sickening crunch rent the air. Someone screamed.
Ella gaped in horror. Beside her, Darcy’s face had drained of all color. She looked small in a way that Ella didn’t recognize.
“It’s an honor,” one of The Others said at the sight of their grief. “To be a bride for the old gods.”
For years, Nora had wished Rob would lose a challenge. She made no secret of this.
But not for Darcy.
No one knew if the old gods reigned in the skies or the land or the sea. Although the Others looked like men, they closely guarded these secrets. The old gods lived beyond the village, though. That had always been enough for Nora.
Now, she didn’t know how to console Ella, who cried through the night. She didn’t know how to help Rob, either. He often stared at nothing and wore rage like a shield. His broken leg should have kept him bedbound. One day, she caught him crawling toward the pit.
A strong but foggy man offered to carry Rob home. He smiled at their copper hair and dimpled cheeks, noting how Ella resembled her “mother.”
Nora shuddered at the idea of her stomach swelling with life. Darcy wouldn’t have shuddered. Darcy wanted a family.
For the next six months, Nora stockpiled wood in secret. Her hands cracked and bled from so many missteps but, eventually, she fashioned a sled that could bear weight. A portion of food was saved from each meal. At night, Ella took to filling jugs with well water.
These old gods must have been pleased with their offering, for crops browned later in the season, and water ran plentiful.
The idea made Nora ill.
Before the winter solstice, she and Ella packed the sled. It took all of their strength to help Rob climb inside. His leg hadn’t healed right, but that no longer mattered.
Nora stole several dogs and tethered them to the sled. Under starlight, they fled their cottage for the wide unknown.
About the Author:
Alyssa Jordan is a writer living in the United States. She pens literary horoscopes for F(r)iction Series. Her stories can be found or are forthcoming in The Sunlight Press, X–R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Reflex Fiction, and more. When she’s not writing, she’s hanging out with her partner or watching too many movies. You can find her on Twitter @ajordan901 and Instagram @ajordanwriter. Find her at https://www.alyssa-jordan.com/