It was customary for the supplicants to walk the path alone of their own volition, as a sign of their unwavering devotion to the Goddess.
My father turned to lead the procession, and I found my eyes fixed on his strong back right up to the moment he passed out of sight into the growing darkness. Watching in silence as the rest of the tribe passed by me, I felt the urge to run rising within me far stronger than it had ever been before.
I stood frozen to the spot as the last member disappeared into the forest.
I could have probably stayed there for years, fixed in place by the sheer weight of my fear.
Then I felt a warm hand settle on my shoulder. I looked up into Solen’s soft grey eyes and saw a deep understanding there, as well as a mirror image of my own fears and doubts. There was something more in his gaze as well though, it took me a moment to recognise it as strength. He was afraid too, just as I was, but he knew that the safety of the clan, and of his own father and sister was on the line. He would do what was right, no matter the outcome.
I wished that I could reach up and take some of that inner strength as my own. Instead, I settled for his hand in mine as he led me into the forest.
I was halfway down the path when I finally remembered my promise to wait for Shari at the first set of torches. I thought about heading back but the drumbeat had increased in tempo signalling that the rites were about to commence, and I honestly couldn’t guarantee that, if I let go of Solen’s hand right now, I wouldn’t give in to my impulse to keep on running.
Shari would understand, I was sure of it, besides she was the strong one out of the two of us. Shari never let her heart rule her head like I often did. If anything, I was the one who had needed her hand to hold and not the other way around. She may even have forgotten my words and slipped past Solen and I without me noticing and already be in the clearing, steeling herself for the ordeal to come.
We were almost to the large standing stones that marked the entrance to the ceremonial circle now and the torchlight flickered eerily on their scarred surfaces. No one ever came to the circle, except for when the solstice ceremony was happening.
Every sixteen years a new priestess of Ziuni was chosen from one of the supplicants. They were gifted with the power to hear and understand the goddess, their skin marked with Ziuni’s twin golden serpents in the place where the Amphis’ fangs penetrated their skin. The one chosen was always a woman. From that day forward, she would leave the village and move into the old temple, behind the standing stones. There, she would communicate with the Goddess and use her ravens to send messages back to the tribe for whatever herbs and supplies couldn’t be readily found in the temple’s garden. These supplies were left outside of the standing stones for her to collect. Once chosen, the priestess would sever all ties with family and friends up until the point that the next priestess was chosen. Like the ceremony itself, this custom had been going on for as long as anyone could remember.