by K. R. Foster
Mariam had shed all the tears she could muster before the Rojin crossed the border into the desert of the Ankari. If only I had lain with a man. If only I had been born with less beautiful features. I would have escaped such a cruel demand of the God-King. But there was no comfort for her in these thoughts, and as the wagon pitched among loose sands she let go of these childish notions. Memory served instead as comfort, her long days under the sun spent recalling the past in the way only one condemned to die had the ability to see it. Mistakes were forgotten, experiences illumined, and happiness knew no bounds within the confines of her mind as she was borne to her demise somewhere at the end of the desert road.
She remembered all aspects of her life with breath-taking clarity. Her baptism into womanhood, her first kiss of passion in her father’s date orchard with Sarinja, brought a sense of wonderment. Cruel regret sought to dampen her reveries, whispering against her resistance to Sarinja’s seduction which surely would have exempted her from the Choosing. She would not succumb: she had preserved her honor like any good woman of Eslaria. Yet it would seem the price of honor is death, regret whispered again. If that is the price, then I must be willing to pay it. What, then, would honor mean if it should diminish in the face of death?
The Rojin came to a halt and Mariam rocked inside the large, iron cage. Would she run, she wondered, if there were no bars to her freedom? No, I must not have fear. To run is to accept cowardice. I am no coward. The warriors dismounted their camels, set up tents, and started a cooking fire with smooth efficiency. Mariam couldn’t imagine the suffering of the men of the Rojin as she shaded her eyes with her hand against the desert sun. Their lamellar armor must have been stifling in this heat. She was glad for her nakedness as the breeze caressed her tanned, sweat-glistened flesh. At first she had known embarrassment when she was stripped at the beginning of her journey, but it proved to be a blessing now that they wandered into the unforgiving desert. Even with the awning overtop the cage the heat of the Ankari was fearsome.
The men spitted a lamb, carving chunks off as it cooked. One of the warriors scooped sauce from a cooking pot over a plate of meat and walked over to her. Mariam still retained the modesty to cover herself as the soldier neared and extended the plate and a waterskin through the iron bars, all while averting his eyes as she exposed herself to take the items. She sat against her cage and enjoyed the fine meal, the lamb spicy and delicious. Whether it was her impending death or her hunger, she did not know, but the meals on the journey of the Rojin were the best she ever tasted. The soldiers lounged under their tents and Mariam watched the sun lazily traverse the sky through the white linen awning. They would wait for the sun to pass into the horizon before starting again.
The Rojin traveled under many moons, and upon the seventh day after entering the desert the caravan came to a stop. A large rock formation jutted darkly from the sand in the distance. The Kimorali; the end of the road. Miriam drew an anxious breath at the sight as the camel-mounted warriors spread out in front of the wagon. The Rojin began to move again and as they came closer Mariam could see the mouth of a large cave under the massive rock overhang. Figures crept from the cave, casting long, moon-lit shadows against the sand. The Defenders of Kimorali formed themselves in a line mirroring the warriors of the Rojin.
Mariam watched, in a mix of horror and fascination, as the two groups approached one another. If the warriors of the Rojin lost the Proving she would be spared and sent back to her village. If they won, her death would be assured. The warriors converged in the depression below a sand dune and sounds of battle echoed through the night. Ringing steel and wounded shouts rang out under the stars as Miriam stood in her cage, alone, naked and cold, awaiting the decision of her fate. The figures danced around each other and, one by one, collapsed. From her vantage she could not tell who was who, and found herself forcing away the desperate wish that the men of the Rojin would be defeated.
After several minutes, a lone figure hobbled back to her wagon. Mariam strained her eyes to identify the man as he neared. She let out a sob as she collapsed in the cage to her knees; the Rojin had won. A single warrior limped across the sand: his armor was scored with many slashes and an arrow had struck into his knee, but his face held grim resolve as he mounted the wagon and goaded the camels onward.
Mariam stifled her cries. I must not be weak, I must not be frail.… She repeated the mantra in her mind. She wiped the tears from her face as the wagon passed the still bodies, bloodied and broken amidst the sand. She stood to meet her fate like an honorable woman of Eslaria. She was the sacrifice, she told herself, and her life-blood would please the God-King. The wagon slowed to a stop just outside the cave; the last of the Rojin struggled down from the wagon.
The bloodied warrior opened her cage and offered her his hand. She took it and stepped out of the cage for the first time since the Choosing, wiggling her toes in the sand as she had when a child. Together, they entered the dark cave. Mariam kept her chin held high as they passed through dark corridors lit with strange, green-flame torches along the walls. She hefted the soldier’s arm around her shoulder as the two descended into the cavern. After several minutes, they rounded a natural rock corner and entered a large chamber. The ceiling rose high; the chamber was empty save for a single stone altar in the center, cast starkly in the glow of green flames. A lone, hooded man stood silently by the sacrificial rock.
Mariam shouldered the wounded man’s weight with strain as they continued forward, fear snaking its way through her soul. The hooded man stood still as the rock around him, his face covered in the same dark material that flowed formlessly around his body. The two stopped three paces away from the altar.
“What has come is mine,” the hooded man intoned.
“What has been brought is freely given,” the warrior responded with a deep bow, before shuffling back whence they had come. The agony of his wounded pace became an agony of drawn-out waiting, silent save for the scrape of his limp, until this too at last faded and was gone.
Mariam was alone with the man, who clasped his hands together and waited expectantly. She took a deep breath before speaking. “I come as an offering to the God-King, a humble gift from the people of Eslaria,” Mariam said as she knelt before the man, head bowed. “My fate is given freely, my life a gift to you. My death, the price of the life.” Do not cry, Mariam. You are strong. Do not cry.…
The hooded men held his hands out, motioning her to lie down upon the stone altar. She straightened herself with pride and moved towards the bloodied stone with as much confidence as she could muster. She laid herself upon the cold rock and kept her arms at her side as the hooded man loomed over her.
“You show no fear,” the man said as another robed figure appeared beside him. The newcomer held a dagger in both hands atop upturned palms.
Mariam swallowed despite her dry mouth. “I have fear, but it is not yours to see.”
“You are strong; this pleases the God-King. Your life is an unfurling rose amidst the desert sun, delicate yet robust,” the robed man said as the newcomer shifted his hands to grasp the dagger’s hilt. “Many have come; few have shown courage in the end. Take pride in this. What is your name?”
“Mariam; daughter of Marik, son of Detrus of Nuvalan.”
The robed man edged aside as the man with the dagger placed its wavy steel tip between her breasts. The blade was razor sharp and her blood beaded around it from the slightest pressure.
The robed man spoke again: “You have shown honor upon your clan, Mariam, daughter of Marik, son of Detrus of Nuvalan. Do you accept your death as payment for life?”
“Yes.” This was it, the end. Mariam straightened her body atop the rock as the dagger bit deeper. She would not cry. She took a breath and eased her racing mind. Part of her wanted to run into the desert and live for however long she could. Cowardice and regret, weakness all. I am strong.
The newcomer lifted the dagger high above her and paused.
“Let your life, then, be taken,” the hooded man recited. The dagger came down.
Mariam thought of many things as the dagger descended. She remembered laughter with her cousins as they caught fish by the river that snaked its way along the edges of her village. She remembered the way her mother taught her to roll scisni with just the right amount of flour that coated everything when she was done. She remembered her father’s gaze when she first earned her gown of womanhood. Pride, joy, happiness: so much love and life Mariam couldn’t keep a tear from forming upon her eye as the blade came slashing down.
The robed man’s hand shot out and grasped the wrist of the other. The dagger’s plunge was arrested so precisely the tip tickled her chest, as though it were a feather instead. Mariam blinked away the joyous tear in confusion.
“Mariam, daughter of Marik, son of Detrus of Nuvalan. Do you know how queens are made?” the man asked, merriment in his voice.
She tried to think, thrusting away the onslaught of emotions.
“Queens are forged as blades, first in fire, then in ice,” she said hesitantly, barely remembering the verse from her childhood.
“Yes, that is quite right. Few deserve such power, and those who do rarely seek it. Stand, Mariam.” As the robed man spoke, an array of other robed figures appeared from unseen crevices in the chamber. One came bearing a heavy silk gown, which he draped across her shoulders. Another stepped forward, crowning her with a circlet of gold and rubies, while yet another shod her feet in sandals.
The hooded man bowed along with the rest of the robed figures. “Few show honor, Mariam. Fewer still embrace it before death. And among those who do, very rarely do those who face the ultimate mystery find happiness in the past at the moment of their fate.” The hooded man moved forward, taking her hand in his. “Those that have are forged in fire and tempered in ice. Those who do, Mariam, daughter of Marik, son of Detrus of Nuvalan, are queens.”