I'm working on a short story, and this is a tiny piece of it.
It was probably dangerous for so many of the villagers to be gathered together. And many constantly snuck glances over their shoulders as if they thought the king's soldiers would materialize right behind them.
Treason would likely be shouted if they were caught congregating, but the villagers needed to meet. They were blueberry farmers most of them, but every blueberry bush in Forsythe had been ravaged by disease, and even when a message had been sent their Lord was still demanding tithes in support of the King's foreign war.
Soldiers had entered Forsythe on behalf of the king to seize property, and already much of what the peasants had once had was lost.
Everything that could have possibly gone wrong had indeed gone wrong, and most agreed the cockatrice they'd chased from their village a few months prior had something to with it. The stories of past monstrosities of the same ilk had eyes that turned flesh to stone, and venom that made the very earth melt.
"The creature spat poison at the ground!"
"Enough Linvar!" Hissed the voice of Voral, "Or we'll all be caught."
"Settle down all of you," Aegris commanded in the dim light of a lantern he held aloft in a large wrinkly hand. Everyone grew quiet. "Our time here must be as brief as possible, or we will eventually be found." He set the lantern on the ground, and adjusted the height of the cloth wick within until the flame illuminated only the faces of those closest to it.
"We're not doing anything wrong. Why would they-"
"Hush Maebren!" Aegris snapped at a the fourteen year old boy. "They would think we were plotting something if they found us. Existence on the edge of the Fenwood has always been perilous, and now the evils of the swamp forest have invaded our home. It is clear to me and Inrez," He placed his hand on an older woman's shoulder, "that this cockatrice was but a small part of a far larger evil. Our offerings of our dead and wards of magic and prayer that have kept the monsters at bay no longer do so-"
There was clatter, like that of small stones against tin, and Inrez reached suddenly let the light of the lantern flare up briefly. "This week, every time, I have casted the bones, the message is the same." Grim faced she raised a frying pan with tiny little bones in it for those near her to see, though few of the villagers would be able to glean anything from them.
"A sacrifice must be made."
A murmur broke out among the crowd.
"We have nothing left to give-"
"Anything we could have offered was taken by the soldiers-"
"Those bones are lying-"
"Yeah! Recast them!" Several voices proposed. To appease the crowd Inrez scooped the bones into her hand, muttering "Please be different," under her breath, though she had little hope in the spirits heeding her wishes. They clattered into the pan.
She looked over the spirit letters. They were little shapes that various spirits had manipulated her hands into carving upon them. To her surprise, they were different, but their message wasn't better.
She bit her lip, trying to think of a way to read them. Slowly she held before the nearest faces.
"Allina, you like me are a Speaker. What do the bones say?"
A young woman maneuvered through the crowd, until she stood before Forsythe's elders. Uncertainly, she looked into the frying pan, uttering horrified gasp. Wide eyed she met Inrez's gaze.
"Th-they-they," she looked back down at the bones, making sure she hadn't misread them. In the back of her mind she could feel them, on the vague edges of her perception watching her as she shuddered with sudden cold and raised her gaze to Inrez's face once more.
"They demand a sacrifice-"
"That will be all." Inrez cut her off with a wave of her hand. She leaned in so only Allina could hear. "Come with me afterwards for some tea."
Allina nodded, relieved that she would not have to say more, and quickly returned to the crowd.
"But we have nothing to give them-" A stern look from Aeris as he bent over to stifle the lantern's flame was enough to silence Maebren once more.
"We have two options- we give the messengers from the Fenwood what they have asked and hope our lot improves enough that we can survive the coming winter. Or we refuse them, and suffer far greater than what has already occurred." Inrez hesitated. There was no good way to say what had to be said.
"We could give them one of our own."
"A living person? A family member or a friend? That would appease them-"
Several loud voices clamored in protest. Sending a loved one into the Fenwood to be a monster's dinner was unthinkable.
"Silence!" Aegris' voice was firm. "Live offerings have been made in the past, and Forsythe has been saved from disaster many times by such offerings."
Inrez frowned and closed her eyes as a multitude of voices whispered from the shadows around her. The voices from the Fenwood grew louder in her ears as she relinquished her sight.
"This sacrifice, must be a true sacrifice. It must be the hardest thing we could ever give up." She sighed and opened her eyes. "Any adult in here could weigh the survival of their family against the world and choose to brave the perils of the Fenwood. This will not be enough."
She looked to Aegris with desperation before looking down at the bones, unable to meet the eyes of the crowd. "They want a child."
A horrified silence filled Jarin's barn as the crowd soaked that in.
"How?" Ellet pointed a finger at the elders. "How could they demand that? How could you ask any parent to send their children into Hell?!"
Aegris shook his head. "It would be wrong to place this burden upon anyone's shoulders, especially those of our children. But we can do this, or face the wrath of the Fenwood and the approaching winter. Forsythe will not survive."
"This burden should not be placed upon those who are not here to speak for themselves-"
"Why? It seems they ought to pay for being too cowardly to show up." Inrez scowled as Varna, a mother whose two oldest children were present cut her off. "Swords and spears are the worst Lord Huidemar's men will give us. What the monsters out there can do...." She trailed off, unable to finish. No one wanted to imagine what the monsters out there could do.
It was clear not all the Forsythens shared Varna's sentiment, and quite possibly there were several villagers in the room who did not. At any other time Inrez would have pointed that out, but now wasn't the time.
"There are children here. We'll let them speak if they wish," Aegris said. He watched the silent crowd of silhouettes around him hoping a voice would pipe up, and at the same time hoping none would. His chest burned, and his heart hammered, as cold crept through his veins. How could they ask this of a child? His own grandchildren were present and he silently hoped it was not one them who spoke. But he hated his own selfish protectiveness and wished it would be one of his that did, so that he could pay for asking the children to make such a horrible choice. He almost wished his voice strong enough to say 'the sacrifice must come from my own family' but he couldn't. He wouldn't.
Next to him Inrez dropped her head into her hands.
They should have kept mum, and let the Fenwood's evil snuff out their existence. But their duty was to serve the village as a whole. They could have never justified one life being worth the entire village's survival.
He grabbed Inrez's shoulder when he saw it shake in the corner of his eye. Grim and feeling older than he ever had, he gazed upon the crowd wishing that he would wake up at any moment to find that this was nothing more than a nightmare.
The silence was deafening, as everyone stood hoping and praying that it was not one of their children, siblings, or friends that offered themselves up.
There were twelve children in the crowd ranging from sixteen to eleven. None of them wanted to raise their hand, but looking upon friends and siblings, none of them wanted the others raise their hands either.
Very quietly, discreetly, but staring at Aegris and Inrez with a firm gaze, one girl raised her hand a tiny bit. Her eyes darted sideways, at someone Aegris couldn't see behind a man standing nearby.
"I'll do it."
Her mother pulled her into her arms, and next to them the girl's father glared at the elders with something akin to murder in his eyes.
"Take it back Era, take it back-" Era's mother cried trying to shield the girl from the Elder's gazes.
"How can you our daughter out there? This isn't going to happen. It can't-"
The lantern's light was strengthened, and bones clattered across the metal of the frying pan. Inrez shook her head, wiping at her eyes. "It's done," she uttered a broken whisper.
"This is not done. Tell those spirits or monsters or whoever it is you talk that we will not allow this."
Inrez shook her head. "We have three days to get her ready."