From the overlord’s house came a quiet but vicious argument. The other houses circling the town square stood quiet: my sister’s red wooden house built up on stilts after that last flood; the iron workers’ blue housing complex and their adjoining workshop also built on stilts; the dark-brown community building, windows tightly shuttered.
The fountain in the square bubbled behind me. A mouse scurried around its stone base. The door of the overlord’s house slid upwards. He appeared on the step of the stately, tiered structure decorated with ornate wooden carvings. A woman’s sobs came from inside the house. He raised his nose to the sky and sniffed at the air, his wiry hair standing on end. He approached me by the fountain.
“The weather has changed,” the overlord said. His heavy black cape fluttered behind him.
“You notice such things, Master? Today is the Turn of the Season. Coupled with the full moon,” I said.
“Oh, that’s why you tie those wreaths of herbs. Silly old traditions,” he said.
“We will burn them at sunset on the Field of Fruition. These old traditions give the people comfort.”
“This year we will initiate my new ritual,” he said. “Your traditions have no power. A deity is not appeased with burning herbs.”
“With what then, Master? Burning flesh?”
I heard a door slide open and turned suddenly. My sister appeared in her doorway, carrying a spray of reeds. Her two daughters, one head redder than the other, followed behind her. They carried baskets overloaded with sage and wormwood. Their door slid shut.
“Good day, Master,” she said, dropping her reeds at my feet.
I gathered three in my hands and began to braid their stalks. Her daughters set the baskets down on the stone steps of the fountain. My sister pulled both girls to her side.
“Why is the workshop so still?” I asked her.
“The men have crossed the ford to the settlement beyond the Never-Dying Forest. They’ve taken our surplus of food and hope to trade. Years ago the forest villagers made fabrics.”
The overlord chuckled. “Those foolish men. No one lives beyond the water and the forest but barbarians. They don’t trade, they take.”
“Then that will be our petition tonight at the bonfire,” I said. “The safety of all villagers involved, whether they come from Forest Village or Field Village.”
“There will be no bonfire tonight.”
By silent command, the double doors on the community building slid upwards. A group of leather-clad men, heavily armed with glinting steel, took two steps forward. Five young woman draped with dirty white shifts, hands and mouths bound, knelt behind their ranks.
“My new Turn of the Season tradition starts today.” The overlord nodded to the troop. The men grabbed each of the young women under the arms and dragged them into the square. They were forced to kneel on the stone steps by the fountain. The overlord’s daughter was among them.
“These women will be taken against their will on the Field of Fruition. The Mighty Deity will come and take the eggs as soon as they are fertilized. They belong to him. I will summon him. He will raise them in his glorious mountain realm.”
I threw my reeds aside. “Our traditions and petitions are based on protecting our villagers, not sacrificing them.”
“These women are ripe. We have prodded them all. The One True Deity will have his sacrifice.”
“Men cannot enter the Field of Fruition at the Turn of the Season. It could bring us harm so close to the coming winter.”
“Your foolish traditions cannot keep the furies of winter at bay. Harm will only come if one of these women becomes pregnant. She will be executed.”
The midwife let out a shriek behind her gag. The barrel maker’s wife sniffed. The overlord stroked his daughter’s matted hair.
“If she becomes pregnant,” he said, “we will know she enjoyed the act. She will have defied the Mighty Deity. Women cannot become pregnant when taken against their will.”
He took two steps forward, his face a breath away from mine. “These women can be saved. You give me the names of four others to take their places. You will be the fifth.”
He turned with a swish of his cape and, followed by his armed mob, disappeared into the community house.
My sister and I gathered our wreaths and we walked out of the square towards the fields. The sky was overcast and the rains threatened. Two women and their children bundled straw and had piled it neatly on a cart. Two other women whacked the lazy ox and the cart jerked into movement.
In the middle of the Field of Fruition, wooden planks leaned on each other like an inverted cone. They came from the old demolished barn. In its place stood a new one. Since the great flood, our village had prospered. Mice scurried under my feet. We had enough grain that even the mice could multiply.
“The moon is coming up over the trees. We will start the fire now.” I said.
My sister scraped her knife on her stone and sparks flew into a pile of straw. She convinced the fire to burn and we fed the flames until the dried planks ignited as well. I raised my wreath of braided reeds over my head. Mice scurried out from under the burning planks.
My peaceful but protective petition rang silent in my thoughts. I threw the reeds on the fire. Sparks flew into the low storm clouds. Mice scurried over my feet. I looked down and the Field of Fruition was no longer autumn-green, but mouse-grey. A layer of mice had formed, completely covering the Field. Well, this was not what I had in mind, but it would do. No one would enter this field tonight.