Well, this is the first short work of fiction I'm going to post on here. Rhani isn't really the title, it's just what I'm calling it to keep track of it in my Google Drive until I think of a real title.
I have to admit, I am not sure if I want to keep it this short or if I want to keep working on it and see where Rhani takes me. In the meantime... criticism and advice is definitely welcome.
Fair warning: it's 5470 words long, so it may take a few minutes to read.
Rhani walked a few paces behind her brother, her mother at her side. Around them every villager that could be spared from work and every member of the Awoken walked solemnly. Her father wasn’t there, his work was important enough to bar him from this even though it was his only son’s year. Around her brother were the other nine year olds from the village, seven of them all together.
Rhani remembered when she had made this same journey just four years ago. Her hands had shaken that day. After all, once every five or ten years or so a child died. When she had made the journey and been tested no child had died in six years. Now that it was her brother’s year no child had died in ten. She pushed that thought to the back of her mind.
It is far more likely, she thought, that he will be like me. One or two are every year, and they say sometimes it runs in families.
She remembered her excitement instead of thinking about the possibility of her brother’s death. If she hadn’t been awoken, then she would have most likely ended up as a housewife. Not that being a housewife had seemed like a bad thing at the time. Her mother was a housewife, and she was one of the happiest people Rhani had ever met.
Her brother on the other hand, would not be so lucky if he wasn’t like her. Boys that weren’t awoken had few choices for life in the village. They could be warriors, laborers or craftsmen. Rhani’s father was a fisherman and she was almost sure that her brother would choose the same path. That worried her. Enough of her life had been spent worrying about her father.
While the sea that the village bordered was usually calm there was an occasional storm that came on too quickly for the fishmen, and sometimes a man would never return home.
Rhani pushed that thought from her mind as well.
Today was supposed to be a day of celebration. She glanced back at the village’s large walls. She knew that in the middle of the village there would be a huge feast when they returned, celebrating the lucky one or two that were awoken.
On the day she had been awoken she had danced with almost every villager that could dance. Even the boy she liked. She fought to keep from smiling, as a member of the Awoken she was supposed to remain expressionless until they reached the well. It was tradition.
She thought about the cities far away instead, those distant cities would easily hold her village’s people a hundred times over. The people who traveled from them to try and learn her village’s secrets always called themselves “more civilized.” Those people had never learned to awaken themselves though, and that confused her. It was something she thought about often, how could a more advanced city not have figured it out?
She shook her head slightly, knowing that if she twitched about too much one of the older Awakened would chastise her later for breaking the traditional solemnity. So she bowed her head, watching her feet take one slow step after another and thinking of what a great city might look like.
Finally they reached the well. It wasn’t that far of a walk really, but the walk was lead by the oldest Awakened. He had a slow pace as it was, and seemed to think that it was necessary to slow to almost a crawl.
The well itself was made of old bricks, wide enough so that a man with a long arm span couldn’t touch opposite sides of it at the same time. The bricks at the top went up to Rhani’s shoulder, and she thought herself to be average sized for her age. Old stairs lead up to a wooden platform surrounding it and a wooden frame rose over the well itself, from the frame hung what looked like a man-sized bird cage made of wood.
The children lined up in front of the stairs, Rhani’s brother the last in line. That was also tradition, the oldest went first. Rhani’s brother had only turned nine days ago.
The nine-year olds had varying expressions, some held their heads high, others seemed to be barely holding back fearful tears. Rhani was proud that her brother was one of the ones who held their heads high, he had always been a brave boy though.
Three of the oldest Awakened climbed the stairs and stood around the well. A younger, stronger, Awakened also joined them and pulled the cage over to the edge of the platform so that the first boy would be able to climb in. At the side of the well four strong looking warriors gathered by the wheel that controlled the raising and lowering of the cage. It was a great honor to be chosen to turn the wheel, and the warriors looked proud.
Rhani had to stand with the other Awakened, behind the children, but she wished she could stand back in the crowd with her mother. At least when it had been her year her mother had been able to hold her brother’s hand. This year she would have to stand alone.
The oldest Awakened looked over the seven waiting to climb the stairs. “Do not be afraid children,” he said. His strong voice always startled Rhani a little, he was such a frail looking man, yet he hardly had to raise it at all for the entire gathered crowd to hear.
“The Gods will watch over you,” he continued. “And they will reward the worthy.” With that he waved the first child forward, a strong looking boy. Rhani knew the boy, and that his father was one of the warriors that had lowered and raised the children her year. This year she knew he would be in the crowd, praying for the Gods to spare his boy and leave him unawakened. It was rare for parents to wish for their children not to be awakened but some families had strong lines of warriors or gifted craftsmen that were almost as important to the village as the Awakened.
The boy moved up the stairs and into the cage quickly. He faced the crowd in it, and Rhani saw that he was frowning slightly. The Awakened holding the cage let go and it swung out over the middle of the well. The oldest Awakened nodded and the cage began it’s descent.
“Gods,” all three of the old Awakened on the platform said together, “Send back our son, and if you find him worthy, awaken in him your greatest secrets.”
Rhani remembered this part from her year, as soon as the three oldest had finished those words she had been submerged completely in the well’s cold water. She knew that the warriors only left the cage submerged for ten seconds before they began to bring it up, but to her it had felt like days. In that cold water something strange had seemed to seep into her skin in through pores and any other opening it could find. She had begun to burn from the inside out and it was only when she was lifted up and out of the water that the fire had become a comfortable warmth. A warmth that never left her. She smiled softly.
She saw that the warriors were turning the wheel, and slowly the cage rose back into view. The boy in the cage was alive, and held his head high. His eyes were bright, but she could tell that he didn’t feel the burning. He would be a warrior, he would make his father proud.
The younger Awakened on the stage pulled the cage over and opened it, letting the triumphant boy step onto the platform. “May the Gods bless whichever path you choose son,” the oldest Awakened said.
The boy nodded gratefully and practically ran down the steps. Rhani didn’t have to look to know that the boy would be joining his father in the crowd behind her.
Next up was a girl, she barely looked nine she was so frail. Rhani knew this girl too, her father had been a fisherman like Rhani’s but had been taken years ago by a sudden storm. The poor girl’s mother had tried her best to go on without him but had eventually killed herself. Orphans in the village were taken in by the Awakened, so Rhani actually had seen the girl quite often since her Awakening.
The girl climbed up the stair slowly, and had to be helped into the cage. Once she was facing the crowd she started trembling, but managed to hold back tears though her eyes were puffy. If Rhani hoped that anyone besides her brother was awakened this year it was this girl.
The little girl gasped sharply as the cage lowered. Rhani found herself holding her breath.
“Gods,” all three of the old Awakened on the platform said together once again, “Send back our daughter, and if you find her worthy, awaken in her your greatest secrets.”
Gods, Rhani found herself praying silently, she deserves to be Awakened, she is stronger than most think. Have mercy. She hoped she wasn’t the only one praying for the girl.
The cage began to rise and Rhani exhaled. Once she could see the girls face as she rose out of the well she knew, this one had been awakened. It wasn’t something that you could see unless you had been Awakened, but the girl had a sort of breathlessness about her, as if all the wonders of the world had set her soul on fire.
Thank you, Rhani said silently to the Gods as the girl was helped out of the cage. The oldest Awakened smiled at the girl.
“Welcome sister,” he said warmly, “the Gods have found you worthy of their greatest gift.” It was the traditional phrase to let the unawakened in the crowd know that a child had been awakened. The crowd cheered, and the Awakened around Rhani, herself included, cheered loudest of all.
The girl flushed and bowed to the oldest, shivering despite the desert heat, then left the stage to stand by one of the Awakened who waved her over. He was a teacher, and Rhani knew that he would waste no time getting the girl to trust him so that he could help her understand what she had become.
Rhani glanced at the remaining five children. Their expressions were varied between afraid and apprehensive now. She realized what they had already realized, the odds of two being awakened in such a small group were not very good.
Her brother was frowning slightly and had one hand balled into a tight fist. She recognized that look, it meant he wasn’t giving up. She smiled.
The four children before her brother were lowered into the well and raised back up without incident. Some of them looked disappointed when they were raised without having been awakened but Rhani knew that they would find whatever paths they were meant for now that the uncertainty of possibly being awakened was gone.
Finally it was her brother’s turn. He walked up the stairs slowly, and climbed into the cage. She could hardly bear to watch, but she knew that it would hurt him if he found her in the crowd and saw she wasn’t looking.
His hands might have been trembling slightly, she couldn’t really tell, but his head was held high and he was even smiling. That was her brother, always the one to put people at ease.
Gods, she prayed silently as the cage swung out over the well, if ever anyone has been worthy it’s him. Gods, she repeated as the cage began to lower, don’t take him away from me.
The Awakened on the platform repeated the traditional words, Rhani barely heard them. It seemed like an eternity before the warriors began to turn the wheel to bring the cage up. The tip of the cage rose into view. Rhani realized she was holding her breath, it didn’t matter she didn’t care. She just need to see her brother’s face, to know he was alright, it didn’t even matter if he was awakened.
The cage seemed to be coming up so slowly, she wondered if the warriors were tired. Finally she could see him. Her heart beat fast, why was he kneeling?
Then she realized he wasn’t moving.
The cage stopped moving.
And then someone screamed, at first Rhani thought it was some horrible animal sound and turned in confusion. She realized it was her mother and gasped. She turned back to the well, pushing her way through the Awakened in front of her.
He had to move.
Nearing the stairs she realized that he wasn’t actually even kneeling, he was just slumped against the side of the cage.
She had to get to him.
“The Gods,” the oldest Awakened was saying solemnly, “have demanded a price for years of awakenings with no sacrifice. We have humbly offered our son, and thank the Gods for their mercy.”
Rhani screamed, it startled her at first, raw noise erupting from her. She couldn’t not scream though, before the oldest had said those words there was still hope, now he had stolen that from her. Her screams turned into her brothers name and realized that a warrior had blocked her path up the stairs. He was trying to say something but she didn’t care.
“Dax,” she screamed as if it would bring him back to life.
The young awakened on the platform was taking her brother’s body out of the cage, she couldn’t handle it anymore. She snapped.
The warmth in her didn’t feel warm anymore, it felt like burning again for the first time since she had been in the well.
She pulled on it, pulling it into her hands and making them burn like fire. She put her palms on the warrior’s shoulders and pushed, physically and with the fire. His eyes rolled back in his head and he fell.
She didn’t even look at him as she stepped over him. She had broken the most important rule of the Awakened. An Awakened was never to use their gift against one who was not awakened unless there was an imminent threat to their life. Help, don’t hurt.
Rhani didn’t care.
She was up the stairs, across the platform and pulling her brother from the arms of the young Awakener. The man barely resisted, a brief look of shock crossing his face.
Rhani pulled her brother onto her lap. She leaned down to listen for any breathing. “Dax,” she whispered desperately, “come back to me.”
He didn’t move at all, his body was cold and wet and felt horribly wrong.
She began to sob, strong arms were suddenly around her, pulling her away from her brother. She could barely see she was so full of rage and pain, but she flailed anyway, trying to escape the strong arms. She couldn’t. She screamed again.
And then she felt something she hadn’t felt since she was ten. Something she had never forgotten though, the feeling of her awakening being taken. She screamed angrily, the only person who could do that was her teacher, she had given him that power so that he could protect her and others if she were to make a mistake so great in her training that it threatened someone’s life. She screamed defiantly as the last of it slipped away from her, knowing what would come next. There it was, the familiar blackness slipping over her.
Rhani awoke slowly. For some reason she hadn’t expected the warmth to be there, but it was. Then she remembered. At first she was angry but the anger quickly faded to grief.
She opened her eyes to see where she was. She wanted to curl up in a ball and cry, but first she had to see how her mother was doing and if her father had come home yet.
She wasn’t at home though, she was in the room she had slept in when she had been training after being awakened. She hadn’t slept in this room in over a year.
She sat up and noticed her old teacher sitting by the door. He stood when he saw Rhani sit up. He crossed the room slowly.
“Rhani,” he said quietly, “do you know why we brought you here?”
Rhani shrugged and laid back down, putting her arm over her eyes. She fought the urge to cry but it overcame her.
For a long while she laid on her back sobbing harder than she had ever sobbed before. She cried until she ran out of tears, and then she just laid for a good time longer, feeling numb and shaking slightly.
Finally her teacher touched her shoulder gently. “Rhani,” he said. “Can we talk?”
She shrugged again, not moving her arm.
She heard him sigh, “Alright,” he said. “When you are ready.”
Rhani sighed and lowered her arm, blinking against the light and feeling drained. “Fine,” she said sitting up. “Don’t touch me.”
Her teacher withdrew his hand and studied her for a moment. She stared at him angrily.
“Do you know why you are here?” He repeated finally.
Rhani frowned, “Because the Gods took my brother,” she said “and you took my awakening.” She almost spat the second part.
Even though he had been her teacher and she had given him the ability to take her awakening like that it still upset her. He hadn’t been her teacher for over a year, and the silent understanding between a student and teacher was that once the student had learned enough the teacher would never use that ability again.
To his credit her teacher did seem to be having a hard time meeting her eyes. He knew he had broken her trust.
“I took it,” he said slowly and evenly, “because you were becoming a danger to yourself and the people who were trying to calm you down. You hurt one warrior greatly, he will be scarred for the rest of his life.”
Rhani closed her eyes again. He was right, she remembered burning the first warrior now. She had broken the rules. The Gods were probably angry enough with her that they would forgive him easily for breaking her trust.
“Once your family has mourned,” her teacher said after a moment of silence, “you will meet with the five oldest. They will help you find a way to find the God’s forgiveness.”
Rhani didn’t really care. She knew that they would probably ask her to perform a great deal of service for the man she had hurt and the village as well.
“Where is my mother?” she asked.
“At your home. She is with her sisters, waiting for your father to return. I can let you go home to her, as long as you promise you won’t lash out again.”
Rhani opened her eyes just to frown at her old teacher. “I’m calm. Sad, but calm.” It was a lie but he couldn’t know that. She wasn’t sure she could ever be calm again, anger boiled in her alongside the familiar warmth.
Her teacher nodded and stood offering a hand to help her up. She ignored him and stood up on her own. She knew it was childish but hardly cared.
“Rhani,” he said softly, “I am sorry. For what I did, and that the Gods chose your brother.”
Rhani almost lost her calm, she fought back her tears and nodded. She brushed past him. She needed to see her parents.
Two weeks later Rhani sat in a large room. Across from her were seven empty chairs. She wondered idly why there were seven. She was waiting for her meeting with the five oldest Awakened. She thought that maybe a chair was for her teacher but the seventh was beyond her.
She sighed and stopped caring, she would find out soon enough. She yawned, the last two weeks had been draining. She had spent her days crying with her parents and her nights in restless sleep always dreaming of Dax. They had burned his body two days after the awakening and sometimes she dreamed that he came back to life while his body was burning. His screams haunted her.
She shook her head to distract herself from him. What was taking the oldest so long? She wanted to get this over with. She had a burning feeling deep in her stomach whenever she thought of them, she knew she blamed them for letting the Gods take Dax.
She still felt so much anger about that day. Anger mixed with sadness, but still a deep burning anger. She had always been quick tempered, but this was beginning to worry her.
Finally they filed into the room. She had been right, one chair was for her teacher. The seventh man confused her at first, he was clearly one of the village’s warriors. Then she cringed, realizing that under his shirt there were lumps around his shoulders. Bandages. This was the man she had burned.
The seven sat in the chairs across from hers. They were only a few feet away from her and despite the room’s size it felt intimate.
The five eldest were three men and two women, she knew all their names but had rarely spoken with any of them. Not one of them smiled as they sat, not that she had been expecting them to.
Once they were settled they all studied her for a moment. Her teacher only briefly, before looking at his feet. The warrior seemed to be looking for something in her expression and leaned forward slightly.
“Rhani.” The oldest finally said. “We can not know the God’s will, but we have no doubt that they are ashamed of what you have done to this man.”
Rhani cringed guiltily and looked down, she wasn’t proud of what she had done, she had barely even been conscious of it at the time.
“However,” the oldest continued, his expression softening somewhat. “We have all felt grief and know how it can change a person, and so we are hopeful that the Gods are as eager to see you forgiven as we are.”
Rhani looked up at the seven before her, hopeful.
“We will work together today,” the oldest said almost kindly, “to find an acceptable amount of service for you to find the God’s forgiveness. But I will warn you, the Gods themselves may not forgive even when man does.”
Rhani nodded, she understood that the Gods had reasons for their judgments that she could never begin to understand. After all, they had chosen to take innocent Dax.
She noticed the warrior lean back in his chair, his expression unreadable. The oldest turned to him. “You are the person wronged Hasmil, do you have anything to say?”
Hasmil, Rhani thought, I didn’t even know his name before today.
Hasmil nodded but was silent for a moment. The five oldest Awakened waited, watching him with interest. Finally Hasmil shook his head.
The fourth oldest, one of the two women, nodded. “That is alright.” She turned to look at Rhani once more, “I propose we find suitable service then.”
The other four nodded. Rhani shrank back in her chair a bit, she knew what the common acts of service were. She would most likely end up serving Hasmil in whatever ways he required until his injuries were healed and then she would spend her time in prayer and helping any other injured or needy people in the village until the Gods forgave her.
The second oldest cleared his throat, “Well I think that the first step would be for her to help Hasmil out in anything he feels may strain the wounds.”
The others nodded in agreement, except for Hasmil who was looking at his feet with a deepening frown, his whole body tense.
“Also,” the third oldest began. He was interrupted however by Hasmil standing abruptly.
Rhani looked up at him in confusion, he was scrunching up his face as if he wanted to say something but wasn’t sure if he could make the words come out.
“I forgive her,” he said finally and with an air of finality that surprised Rhani, and apparently everyone else from the amount of slack jawed expressions in the room.
“What?” She asked finally.
Hasmil sighed “Ten years ago my little sister turned nine. She was the last to be taken by the Gods on the awakening day, before Dax. That day was the worst day of my life, and yet I had almost forgotten how much I loved my sister until Rhani reminded me. I will wear the scars of the burns she gave me proudly.”
There was silence in the room. Rhani felt empty for a moment, and then relief flowed over her. “Thank you,” she said softly enough that she wasn’t sure Hasmil heard her.
Hasmil smiled, “So, I will not need her service. I have a wife and a strong son who are happy to help me until I am fully recovered, and there is not much to help with anyway.”
The five oldest started frowning at this,forgiveness was one thing but turning down service after such a great wrongdoing was unheard of.
Hasmil wasn’t done yet though, “And it is my hope that you will not ask her to serve the village.” He said this firmly, he clearly was used to giving orders. “Instead I will pray everyday for the Gods to forgive her, as long as she does the same.”
The five oldest looked downright offended by this. Hasmil smiled at Rhani and sat back down.
“Thank you,” Rhani repeated.
“No.” The oldest Awakened said. His voice was calm but his eyes were angry. Rhani shrank back in her chair. “It is ridiculous to think that the Gods would ever forgive her without any acts of service. She could have killed you Hasmil.”
Rhani’s heart sank at first, but then slowly she started to get angry. How did this man know what the Gods wanted from her? They had already taken Dax.
Hasmil frowned, “I have been taught,” he said calmly, “that the Gods are very forgiving. If I can forgive her why can’t they?”
The fifth oldest hissed through a clenched jaw, “The Gods are merciful and forgiving indeed, but only if forgiveness is earned.”
The oldest nodded in agreement, “We appreciate your forgiveness Hasmil, but if she dies before the Gods are willing to forgive her she will be cast into the unending dark. We are looking out for the well being of her soul, one can not know when the Gods have forgiven, so one must always try to go above and beyond what men might think the Gods would demand.”
Rhani clenched her hands into fists at her sides. The Gods had wronged her, while she had only wronged one man. Why couldn’t the oldest see that? The Gods knew she was sorry, and they knew Hasmil had forgiven her. That seemed like enough for her.
“Thank you for your concern,” she said icily, “but I agree with Hasmil. And since it is my soul I will not need your help finding forgiveness after...”
“Nonsense,” the third oldest interrupted her. “It is our responsibility as our villages leaders to keep our people safe, even their souls. We can not overlook the chance that the Gods are still angry with you.”
“Why,” Rhani asked a bit louder than she meant to, “would the Gods not forgive me for breaking one of your rules when the person I hurt has?”
“Rhani,” her teacher said, “please listen to them.”
“You are upset,” the second oldest said holding out his hands to her, “you should head your teacher and believe that we do want to help you.”
“No,” Rhani almost shouted, “you are just trying to punish me, not save me.”
The five oldest were silent for a long moment. Rhani sat back in her chair, she hadn’t even realized that she had moved to sit on the edge while she was speaking. She took a deep breath to calm herself a bit and tried to read the expressions of the five, but they all sat motionless staring at her. Her teacher had his eyes closed and his hands clasped in his lap.
Finally the oldest shook his head, “I am sorry Rhani, but this is the way of things. If you do not wish to listen to your elders then you become a problem. We need to take care of this whole village. We will deal with you as necessary to ensure that your soul is safe. Sincere service is always preferable, but there are alternatives.”
Rhani frowned, that was the most threatening she had ever heard the oldest be. She looked over at Hasmil, he had his arms crossed over his chest and was frowning, but evidently he had given up.
Rhani looked around at the rest, her anger starting to get the best of her.
“Fine,” she said impulsively. “I’ll leave then. My soul will no longer be your problem.”
The five oldest looked at each other, frowning. “What do you mean child?” the third oldest asked.
“I mean I will leave this village,” Rhani said resolutely. She placed her hands on her lap to hide that they were shaking. She wasn’t sure she really how serious she was but she didn’t really see any other way and she definitely wouldn't back down now.
The fourth oldest opened her mouth to argue but the oldest raised his hand for silence. He studied Rhani for a long moment. “Where would you go child?” he asked her. “There are few places in this world that will be kind to a girl.”
Rhani tensed, she wasn’t a child anymore and she took offense to being called one. “I am not a child,” she responded, trying to control her temper, “I am an Awakened.”
The oldest nodded, “If that is your wish.” He stood slowly, “Leave. Do not come back. We will not welcome one who refuses to seek the forgiveness of the Gods.”
With that he left. Rhani sat in silence as the four other oldest followed him out. Her hands were really shaking now, she had never been more than two days travel outside of the village. Where would she go?
Oh Gods, she thought, what have I gotten myself into?
What would her parents think? They had just lost their son, and now their daughter was throwing away her life. Why do I always let my anger get so out of hand? They would never forgive her. She would never see them again.
Suddenly Hasmil was kneeling in front of her, looking into her eyes. She hadn’t even noticed his move in her worry.
“I’m sorry,” he said, putting a warm hand on her shoulder. “I did not mean for this. I meant what I said though, I will pray for you everyday until the day I join the Gods.”
Rhani nodded, “Thank you, really.” Somehow her voice managed to sound strong even though she was falling apart inside.
The warrior nodded and stood, leaving the room.
Rhani noticed her teacher was still there. He was studying her. She recognized his expression, his eyebrows furrowed and his mouth a tight line. He was worried about her.
“I messed up,” she said quietly.
Her teacher nodded, “I know. You have never been one to back down in an argument. This time it went too far.”
“What do I do now?” she asked, feeling like she was nine again.
He shook his head, “You have to leave Rhani, I’m sorry. There won’t be any changing things now that the oldest has chosen a path.”
Rhani bowed her head in defeat as her stomach sank.
Her teacher stood, “Goodbye Rhani,” he said quietly. “May the Gods watch over you.” With that he left.
Rhani had never felt so alone in her life. Her brother was gone, her leaders had exiled her, and as far as she knew her Gods hated her.
She fought the urge to cry, standing. She stood staring straight ahead for a long while, willing her body to find the strength to move. To go home, to tell her parents that she had to leave them forever.
She straightened her back finally and strode out of the room. She would find the strength. She would show the oldest that she could survive. She would go to one of the great cities, she would use her awakened abilities to make herself a new and better life.