It’s been ages since I’ve participated in one of Chuck Wendig‘s flash prompts, but this week tossed a baited hook into the ol’ brain pond and trapped a rabid plot bunny. Last week Chuck asked his readers to give him titles. This week, he chose ten that struck his fancy, posted them up, and asked that we choose one and take it for a spin. This title hooked me hard and it was difficult not to go into a lot more detail than I did. This was a mean, vicious, evil plot bunny that I intend to nurture…er, no, no, I mean, lock away forever and ever. After this short. Yeah. That’s it.
So, if you’re interested in the challenge, HERE is the link. I chose The Blood Lottery (submitted by Marion). Normal flash rules applied though I flaunted those rules and went slightly over the word limit at 1110 words. I tried but just couldn’t shave off the other 110. Hope you enjoy!
The Blood Lottery
The bells tolled across the valley. Celebratory. Funerary. One by one, the villagers stumbled from their homes. Infants wailed while children scrubbed sleep from their eyes. Maidens clutched at their cloaks. Warriors gripped their weapons. Even the aged and infirm answered the call, bundled into carts and rolling chairs. Their aches and pains secondary to their duty.
’Twas the dawn of the Blood Lottery. Time to pay their dues.
Before the first note faded into the morning mists, flames rose on the horizon. Siobhán scowled. His Grace moved swiftly this year.
She swiftly plaited her unruly curls and joined her family on the trade road. Families huddled together in small clusters. Mothers clutched their children to their breasts. Fathers stomped behind them, furious at their inability to protect their loved ones and ashamed of their ancestors’ contract. A contract no one dared defy.
Dust roiled through the village, heralding the arrival of the Anauša, the Duke’s elite guard. The morning light fought with the mist and dust surrounding the five men. One wished to illuminate, the other to conceal. Neither gained the upper hand and resulted in shadowy creatures limned in light.
Siobhán scanned the crowd. Where was the Elder? She rose on the tips of her toes, adding inches to her unimpressive height. She saw nothing but the bowed heads and hunched shoulders of her neighbors, and the shadowy form of the Raiz, chief of the Anauša.
Oh, this was bad. This was so very bad. You didn’t leave the Raiz waiting to be acknowledged. You just didn’t. Ever. Especially on the dawn of the Blood Lottery.
She weaved between the tightly-pressed bodies to the well. Perhaps the Elder was having trouble with the crowd? Perhaps he’d fallen ill and lay dying in his home? Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. She climbed onto the stone rim and clutched at the wooden post supporting the protective roof.
Nothing. It was like he’d disappeared. She frowned. Or was hiding.
A horse stomped its hoof and the villagers cringed. The Anauša were growing impatient. She could sympathize. The Lottery was bad enough without drawing it out.
There were rules in place, a hierarchy to follow, and everyone was failing in their roles. The Elder was either dead or soon would be—the Anauša wouldn’t tolerate such blatant disrespect—which meant the next ranking Elder should step forward. Siobhán found a pebble, took aim, and threw.
The stone flew true, bouncing off the smithy’s bald head. He spun around, his beady black eyes searching for his assailant. She motioned toward the Raiz with a frantic wave of her hand. His eyes widened. He swallowed, and she swore she heard it from a score of yards away. He shook his head and turned his back to her.
The clop of hooves bounced between the small huts like a child’s ball. With each step, the villagers cringed lower, clutched at their wives or husbands or children tighter. Still, the Elders stayed quiet and hidden. Siobhán gripped the post until her knuckles turned white and splinters burrowed into her palm.
Where were they?
She rose on her toes again. The smithy, the wainwright, even the apothecary wrapped themselves in their oldest clothes and hid behind their families. The Elder, who reveled in the luxury of his position, now refused the responsibility of it. And they all would pay for his cowardice.
I don’t think so.
Siobhán jumped down from the well and fought her way to the front. Her heart pounded. Her hands were sweaty. Courage leaked out her pores like smoke between her fingers. She was about to break the cardinal rules drilled into her since birth. No one approached the Anauša but the Chosen. No one addressed the Raiz except the Elder. She licked her lips, her mouth as dry as a midsummer dust storm, and executed her best bow.
“The village of Gullseed Plain welcomes the Raiz of His Grace’s Anauša.” Behind her, all sounds ceased—no shuffling of feet, no weeping babes, not even a goat bleated. Her trembling fingers twisted the hem of her tunic until the cloth creaked. She wished she’d listened closer to the Elder’s welcoming words in years past. “The fires call us toward our destiny and we go with honor. May blessings and good fortunes fall upon the Lottery’s chosen.”
There. That sounded good. They weren’t the exact words, but they were close. She held the bow another heartbeat, as much to steady the knocking of her knees as to show respect. Straightening, she darted a peek at the Raiz and froze. The Duke of Bloodmarch, not his Raiz, rode at the head of the Anauša.
I am so dead.
Siobhán shivered. Just because she detected amusement in his voice didn’t mean she wasn’t about to die a painful death. Her legs shook, the bones as limp as boiled cabbage. The distance between them, a mere handful of yards, felt like miles. By the time she reached his mount, she greatly feared she’d be ill.
“Y-your Grace.” Her voice whispered through a throat parched with terror.
Should I bow again? No, too close to the horse. A curtsey then? Gods above, no. A faint rip betrayed the work of her nervous fingers. A small strip of cloth fluttered to the ground.
“Where is the Elder?” He’d pitched his voice too low for anyone else to hear. She shivered again. It was a double-edged blade of beauty and danger.
“I don’t kn—”
She winced. “H-hiding…Your Grace. Among the others.”
“And the others?” He tilted her chin up with a gloved finger and forced her to meet his eyes. “Those who will rule when he is gone.”
“Those I saw stand with their families.”
He held her gaze for a long moment before looking away. She didn’t dare look back, but heard the reaction behind her. Weeping resumed in earnest. He was displeased, but she wasn’t sure who’d earned his wrath more: the Elder, his contemporaries, or her.
“The fires were lit, Your Grace,” she whispered. “Someone had to greet the Anauša to begin the Lottery. I have a mother…a sister…”
“I see. Come.” He held out his hand. “Fear not for your family. Your courage does them honor.”
He pulled her up behind him as if she weighed no more than a handful of goose down. His skin was cold, so cold she shivered in the summer heat. Were the rumors true? Did the duke really drink the blood of the Chosen? In the end, it mattered little. She sought her mother and offered her a watery smile. They were safe for another year.