Chapter 1 - The Offering Begins

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You can never go home.

The warning seared itself into my brain like those words burned into the slate-gray wood of the sign. Rotting crab apple bits peppered its surface from someone practicing their aim.

It was a warning, present on all roads leading out of every town and village. I viewed what I now think of as "my sign" on the way out of Chernibden, my birthplace and the only place I have ever known.

I left for the same reason my five companions left: girls of Tel-Eile must find suitable husbands. Our duty? To enrich the gene-pool.

In only a few days, Offerings from other villages might arrive in Chernibden to marry the boys we grew up with. The Elders said the rite honored us, but I wasn't so sure. Why didn't the eighteen-year-old boys pack up their things and wander around the countryside looking for a wife? The Elders said that would cause too much confusion, too much to keep track of. Consistency kept the bloodlines clean.

My parents and sister were the only people not happy to see me leave. The townspeople never understood my penchant for questions and pushing of boundaries. I frowned at the thought, then reached back and adjusted my backpack. The weight of it pressed into my hips and shoulders, but I felt the ghost of a burden lift. Soon, I would be free.

A bedroll, food, and clothes loaded my bag. I had stuffed my backpack to the brim in preparation for many days on the road. My father had tried to discourage me from bringing my bow and arrow. What would the other villagers think? But I planned to be on the road awhile. Hunting for food would be a necessity. By the looks of it, everyone else hoped for a short trip, their bags light with an apparent void of unused space inside.

The trip began like all Offerings before. My meager amount of prized-possessions were packed, goodbyes were said, and advice was given. We left in the morning, the five other girls who had come of age and I. With tears in our eyes, we walked in silence except for the snuffling. The wailing of our mothers faded as we made our way forth. They had been through this too.

We all felt the weight of the event upon us, felt the words burnt into the sign burn themselves into our souls.

I realized as we passed our town's warning, alone in a field of scrub, that I had never felt more alone in my entire life. How odd to have a kinship with a sign.

No one said a word as we passed by the Elder Council's final reminder in single file, boots crunching on the ancient, broken pavement. The wafting smell of sage made me wonder if my new home, whenever I stopped the search, would have sagebrush near it. The thought of being able to smell it in my new life gave me comfort.

Eluena, my best friend, leaned in towards me. "Talia, do you think it's true? That we can never come back?"

"You know the law as well as I do, El." I glanced back at the sign. "We can only see our family if they visit us." Soon the scattering of olive trees and hills would block the sign from our view. Our village was already long gone from sight.

"Don't look back," Eluena whispered. She tugged on my sleeve to bring my attention back to the road ahead.

The other girls continued to walk along, boots dragging in the dirt, shoulders hunched. Little puffs of dust rose from underneath our feet.

The sun rose and fell in the sky, and the road now ran parallel to the river. The murky water tinged with green. I'd read in old books bought from the peddler that the water used to be clear down to the bottom of the riverbed. I longed to jump in as sweat trickled between my shoulder blades and beaded above my lip, but instead, I swiped the salty moisture away and adjusted the brim of my hat.

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