I stared in horrified fascination as first one, and then another, serpentine head appeared from within those coils. It’s shining black eyes seemed to fix on me. I felt my skin crawl beneath its unblinking gaze. It was as if the serpent could somehow see deep into the furthest reaches of my soul. Like it was coldly weighing up all my strengths and weaknesses.
Tearing my eyes away from the Amphis I glanced up at Solen. He’d released my hand once we reached the top of the dais, and my fingers felt cold and numb without his reassuring grip. His expression was blank as he too stared down at the snake. I wished that I’d been born with even a little of his skill at masking his emotions, it would have proved hugely useful in all of the endless, dull Kivva sessions, not to mention in hiding my growing terror from the gathered tribe now.
I had to keep reminding myself that I too had stood in that outer ring, and the combination of the distance to the dais and the flickering of the torchlight guaranteed that none of the gathered crowd would be able to see any of our faces clearly.
The pounding of the drums ceased. It was time. My heart jumped into my throat as I watched Solen take the final three steps up to the shrine. The priestess gestured with a hand towards the smooth stone plinth in front of the golden box.
Taking a single steadying breath, Solen placed his hand on the stone. I could see that he wanted to look away but as the coils of the serpent began to move, his eyes kept focusing back on its arrow-shaped heads. His neutral expression was still firmly in place but I could see the tension in his jaw that his teeth were clenched hard behind his tightly-pressed lips.
The moment seemed to go on for an eternity. I felt the knots in my stomach quickly forming into a tight painful ball.
The Amphis struck. It was all over in the blink of an eye. So fast in fact that it took my confused mind several long moments to process what had happened. Solen was shaking slightly now, but he was still standing. I think my mind had been focusing so hard on all the terrible possibilities, and all of the tribe members who I had seen fall to the serpent’s poison over the years, that as much as I had wished for it to be so, I couldn’t quite believe that Solen was ok. That the Amphis had spared him, even though his sister had already received the goddess’ blessing.
Solen removed his trembling hand from the stone and I watched as two crimson drops of blood fell from it to the stone platform at our feet. He saw my eyes fix on the wound and quickly covered it with his other hand. Descending the stairs, he gave me an almost imperceptible nod. Such a simple gesture, but it spoke volumes. I could do this. I would be fine, just as Solen had been and just as Shari would be. This year the bite of the Amphis would take no victims.
The priestess gestured for me to come forward and I climbed the stairs, with each step, I repeated one line in my head over and over “The Goddess will spare me. The Goddess will spare me. The Goddess will spare me!”
I was just about to place my hand down on the stone when a ruckus sounded from the crowd. Shielding my eyes from the bright torchlight on the dais, I tried to see what was happening. I could just about make out the familiar face of Kiamo, one of my father’s personal guards. He was leaning in close and whispering something into my father’s ear.
I noticed that Kiamo was holding something. It wasn’t until he held it out to my father that I realised I recognised the print on the fabric all too well. It was the same pattern I had seen on the green headscarf that Shari had been wearing out on the river this morning.
My heart froze in my chest.