The Scourge (A.G. Henley) - By A.G. Henley Page 0,1

startled birds.

I wash my face and hands with the water from our basin and sit on my bed, a low wooden pallet along the wall. I work my fingers through my hair—the same color as the fertile soil of the gardens, I’m told—and a thrill runs through me. I wonder if I’ll be asked to dance tonight.

When a boy asks a girl my age, seventeen years, to dance at the Summer Solstice celebration, it usually means he’s singled her out as his partner—for life, not just for the dance. My best friend, Callistemon, is convinced Bear will ask me. I’m not so sure. We’ve all been friends since childhood, and I haven’t noticed any change in how he treats me. Calli says she can tell by the way he looks at me now. I laugh, but it bothers me that I can’t see what she means for myself.

I don’t know if Bear will ask me, and I’m even less sure what I’ll say if he does. He’s courageous and loyal, and there’s no boy I like better. But . . . maybe I’m just not ready to partner. Aloe didn’t until she was a few years older. I don’t really remember her partner, Eland’s father, but people say they were happy.

I take special care with my hair all the same, twisting it into thin braids here and there, and tucking in the fresh wild flowers Aloe left by the basin. It can’t hurt to look my best.

Eland crashes back through the door to fetch me, and I follow him out. The bonfire blazes now. The heat isn’t necessary on such a warm evening, but a fire makes everything more festive. A group across the clearing from our shelter howls with laughter. Hearing the musicians warming up sends another jolt of anticipation through my body. Calli calls to me as Eland scampers off. She’s talking before I even sit down.

“You look so pretty, Fenn. I love how you fixed your hair! I’m so nervous . . . do you think anyone will ask us to dance? Well, I already know who’s going to ask you.”

I cringe. “Shh, he might hear you.”

“Relax. He’s way over by the roasting pit. Oh, who do you think will ask me? What if no one does? I’d be so embarrassed . . . but I hope it’s not Cricket. He’s so serious. And short.”

“There are worse things than being short and serious . . . like being chronically unwashed.” We both snicker. Hare, one of the boys our age, never picked up the habit of bathing regularly.

“No danger there. I heard Hare’s asking Clover,” Calli says.

“Clover? Really?” She’s been saying she won’t partner with anyone since we were about seven.

“That’s what I heard,” she says, and I don’t doubt her. Gossip is rampant.

More people enter the clearing now, greeting each other with high spirits. Calli and I stand when Rose stops to say hello. Her tinkly voice reminds me of the wind chimes we made as children using pebbles and bits of shell dredged up from the water hole. We touch her tidy round belly, which is as firm and warm as a healthy newborn’s cheek. Not long ago, Rose and Jackal exchanged bonding bands, the leather strips partners wear around their arms as a physical sign of their commitment to each other. Soon after, they announced she was expecting and due when the trees finally shed their leaves. It’s a good time of year to give birth. The baby will be too young to be taken up in the Exchange, this winter at least.

“She’s so lucky,” Calli says as Jack leads Rose off. “They seem so happy.”

“For now,” I say.

“I can’t stand the suspense! I want someone to ask me to dance and get it over with!”

“Why? It’s not like you have your heart set on partnering with someone in particular.”

“I don’t want to be the only one not asked, you know?”

I do know, although I think I’m more willing to suffer the humiliation of not being asked than to agree to partner for life with whoever might feel like asking me today.

“Here comes Beaarr,” Calli says, wickedness in her voice, “looks like he’s bringing you an offering.” I elbow her.

“I snuck a few slices of boar for you both. Be careful; it’s still hot,” Bear says, his voice a low and familiar rumble.

I blow on the meat and then test it out with a nibble. Delicious. Not many large animals are left on the Copyright 2016 - 2022