The high priest had locked himself in his room and was going over the roster of the inhabitants of Adai village in his head, because paper was too precious a resource to waste on this, and he could not read besides. The news of the birth had not yet reached the ears of the general public, but for six months, ever since Melia knew she was pregnant, a fog of anxiety had descended upon the village. He leaned back in his chair, sighing. Often in such cases, an elder would commit suicide in order to spare a young family from being split apart. The death was carefully concealed as natural, of course, and discreetly considered as such. It would have been blasphemy to suggest that death was preferable to being chosen for the Celestial Lands, but age tended to bring out agnosticism, or besides, it was the natural order of things. Magin didn't really care, as long as the population was kept down; it was the same either way.
But no such death had occurred, and now he was faced with the task of choosing whom among his followers would be removed from the community. There were no obvious choices; he had raised his flock to be pious, industrious, and respectful, and for once, those traits seemed to have stuck. Neither were there any elderly or infirm who were unable to work; Magin himself was probably the oldest in Adai, and the one who did the least manual labor, though he didn't know exactly how old he was. Older than he had been yesterday, Magin mused. There were no mirrors in the village, but he had seen his reflection in the small pond by the idol enough times to see the lines and grey hair on his face. Perhaps it was time to choose a successor. The younger generation was promising, and if he chose one of the right age, he would take the High Priesthood on the cusp of manhood, and keep the community with steady leadership for many years to come. He considered his choices.
In the end, he made his decision with this criterion in mind. Rossiu was about 11 years old, a hardworking boy who already commanded some respect for his intelligence and calm temperament; he would be an ideal apprentice and eventually, leader of Aida village. However, in order to take the boy fully under his wing, he would have to get rid of the mother.
The High Priest put his head in his hands. He bore the woman no ill will- while she was slightly skeptical of his control and the religion he encouraged in order to keep the village in line, she never acted on that suspicion in deference to the needs of her neighbors. She was quiet and reserved, but those traits that he admired would make it easier. Rossiu was the only kin that she had, and while the community respected her, she was not especially close to any particular person after her husband had died just before Rossiu was born. The child would grieve, of course, but his innocent faith in the High Priest and the sanctity of the ritual would make it easer for both the boy and the others.
Magin emerged from his chambers, resolute, carrying the jar of twigs in one hand, and the book of scriptures in the other. He wandered the cavern, spreading the word that there was to be an assembly later that day. At the appointed time, he mounted the podium and addressed the crowd.
"People of Adai! As many of you may be aware, with the birth of Melia and Tirun's first child, the population of the village has reached 51. In accordance with the law that limits the population to a maximum of 50 people, one must be chosen to make the journey to the Celestial Lands."
A murmur went through the crowd. No matter how many times it happened, it was still difficult. He held up his hands for silence. He tried not to look at Rossiu and his mother, standing the in front. His conscience berated him. You should at least be able to look a woman in the eyes before you kill her. He continued nevertheless. "Tomorrow we will hold the ceremony. I ask that everyone set aside some of their time tonight to pray for guidance. One must be ready at all times to look upon the face of god and not tremble." Magin opened the book and pretended to read. "For those who are pure of heart and soul will not be forced to suffer, and they shall live with the gods in paradise." With bowed head, he closed the book and intoned, "Amen."
"Amen," the crowd responded, and began to disperse as Magin came down from the platform.
He watched Rossiu part from his mother, who headed back to their own quarters, and race to the pond with a group of other boys. They gathered around a large rock, which, as Magin saw when he looked more closely, had been careful hollowed out and fitted with a trap door. Presumably, it would snap shut when a trigger was moved on the inside. It was a fish trap that Rossiu had designed himself, and gathered the other children to help him with the onerous task of carving out the main compartment.
They attached a long sturdy rope to a peg on the back, and a smaller thread with a bell on the end to the trap door, so the boys would know when it closed and their prey was caught. They picked up the rock in unison and waddled to the edge of the pond, the weight swinging between them. On Rossiu's count, they heaved it as far as they could, and it landed with a splash not far from the shore. The boys cheered, and sat down a few meters away to await the catch.
Magin was impressed. He had made the right choice. Rossiu was smart, and already a leader. He turned to go back to the priest's quarters, but his ears caught the sound of pebbles plinking in the water, and he turned to see two of the boys skipping rocks over the still, murky surface of the pond. One cocked his arm back to throw one more missile, only to turn in surprise as he felt a hand grasping his wrist. It was Rossiu.
"Please don't do that, you'll scare the fish away," Rossiu said.
"Aww, come on, a little noise won't hurt anything. It's not like they've got anywhere else to go," the stone thrower protested.
Rossiu looked thoughtful, but still concerned. "You don't know that for certain," he said authoritatively. "There could be all sorts of hidden pathways underwater. And besides, even if they just move to the other side of the lake, it's a lot of work to move the trap again. Please?"
"Oh, all right," his friend relented. "Spoilsport," he muttered under his breath, but Rossiu still looked pleased. The boys went back to chattering quietly among themselves.
Magin smiled wryly. The boy had discipline, and didn't seem to mind the unpopularity that it brought. That was good.
Early the next morning, as the daytime fire was being lit, Rossiu led his bleary-eyed crew and checked the trap. Straining their muscles, they barely managed to lift the contraption onto the shore, but their efforts had paid off, for there were four fish inside. Each boy took one, to bring home to his family. Such a treat would be a small respite, at least, from the sense of doom hanging over Aida. Rossiu carried his own, the smallest, back to his mother, and then surprised her by announcing his intention to give it to Melia and Tiruk in celebration of their newborn daughter. She laughed and told him what a thoughtful boy he was, and Rossiu ran off happily to deliver the present. Of all the things in his meager life, being helpful to others gave him the most pleasure, even if he had to deprive himself. He knocked on the old door that separated the young couple's rooms from the corridor of family lodgings, and was welcomed in by an exhausted-looking woman with a red-faced baby in her arms. She smiled wearily at Rossiu's entrance, and thanked him profusely for the gift. He spent the whole morning helping her tidy up, and prepared the fish raw for lunch, to preserve precious fuel. As Melia ate her portion, he lay on the floor and played with the baby. It never occurred to him to resent this new life that would soon change his own forever.
The ritual was held shortly after what passed for noon in Adai, when all the fires had been lit and the cavern glowed with flickering lights. Magin's face was illuminated by a lamp as he clutched the urn firmly and faced the crowd in the great hall. The marked stick hidden in his sleeve itched, and he wanted to let it fall into the rest, to wash his hands of the choice and leave it to fate. But that was no way to be a leader; sometimes, you had to do things you didn't want to do. One by one the villagers filed through. He made sure to call Rossiu and his mother last, and kept his face placid as he deftly switched the final unmarked lot. He was sure that people would eventually notice the trend- that those who drew last were always chosen. But then again, fear was a great motivation, and those who escaped the first time were not willing to protest and put their lives on the line again. He paused for a few seconds anyway, as everyone stood with their hands clasped in front of them, to let anxiety overcome any attention someone may have been paying to the order. It seemed an eternity until he finally gave the order to reveal the results.
Rossiu was still staring at the stick in his hands when he felt his mother's arms around him. His heart sank immediately in fear, expecting the worst, and he tried to look at the lot she was holding, trying to convince himself that she was reacting out of relief, but his innate pragmatism told him otherwise. She let him go, and Rossiu glimpsed a flash of red in her hand.
"I have the mark," she announced to the crowd.
Magin nodded. It was rare for someone to declare themselves chosen; usually a neighbor, eager to be safe and done with the ceremony, pointed out the fate of that unlucky soul.
Rossiu looked at his mother in disbelief. He trusted the High Priest, he trusted that the chosen would find a better life, but… what about him? How could he be left alone? No, he told himself. I'm being selfish. I must have faith, the gods are testing me… I should be happy for her… but… He fought back tears and walked away calmly with the dispersing crowd. He must not appear before his mother and the High Priest like this; he could not let them see his weakness. As the other villagers returned to their own quarters, Rossiu continued down the winding corridors, losing track of time until he reached the end of the hewn cavern that held Adai, where the excavation turned into rough tunnels barely large enough for one person to crawl through. Moving solely by touch this far away from the fires of the settlement, he went as far as he could until he reached a dead end, and finally allowed himself to sob into the darkness.
After an hour, maybe two, Rossiu had managed to turn the sobs that racked his body into a steady hiccup, but his mind was no more at ease. The sharp pebbles that dug into his back and the creeping cold did nothing to distract him; he was too used to physical hardship to be bothered. In the end, it was Father Magin who eventually came searching in the farthest reaches of the village for the boy.
"Rossiu!" His voice echoed. "Rossiu? Are you here?"
For a moment, a plan flashed before Rossiu's eyes. He would not respond to the High Priest's call, he would stay here, and everyone would think he had been lost. That would bring the total number of people in the village back to 50, and no one would have to leave. He could steal food at night, when they put out the lights, and his mother could keep his presence a secret. The boyish imaginings took over his mind for a few more moments until his sobriety returned and put the idea out of his mind. He could never burden his friends and neighbors like that, taking things they worked hard to make, and besides, it was only delaying the inevitable. He dried his eyes on his sleeve and took a deep breath. He crawled out of the tunnel, and was momentarily blinded by the light of the candles that Father Magin carried.
"There you are!" Magin exclaimed. "You've made everyone worry," he added, his voice relieved but reproachful.
"I.. I'm sorry," Rossiu said.
Magin's expression softened and he shook his head. "Never mind. Com along, let's go back home. Your mother is asking for you." He turned and started walking back, but Rossiu remained still.
"I.. don't want to see her," Rossiu said defiantly, but he couldn't stop himself from trembling.
Magin came back and knelt beside the boy. "She would be sorry to hear that. Is there something wrong? Did you have a fight?" Magin asked, although he felt like a hypocrite. Of course there was something wrong, and he knew that better than anyone else.
"No…" Rossiu said, "It's just that I'm afraid."
"Afraid of what?"
"I'm afraid of what will happen to her. Of what will happen to me without her. I know she's going to live with the gods, but… I don't know for certain. Father, forgive my unbelief!" Rossiu's eyes glistened, but showed a resolve that he was committed to figure things out, eventually. Magin was sure that he would, but it would not be a day of celebration for the boy when he did. "I don't want to frighten her as well…" Rossiu added firmly.
Magin studied the boy, impressed by his selflessness, however oddly it had manifested. "Your mother is a strong woman, Rossiu. You do well to be concerned, but you mustn't let the sin of pride allow you to underestimate the strengths of others."
Rossiu looked ashamed, and lowered his head.
"What's more," Magin continued, "she loves you, and that sort of feeling can't be erased by distance. All the righteous will come eventually to the Celestial Lands. You'll see her again."
Rossiu nodded, and walked to the High Priest's side. Magin led him back to the main chamber in silence, where the villagers had gathered once again, this time to give their parting gifts to the chosen one, and to say goodbye. As soon as she saw her son, Rossiu's mother ran and embraced him, and kissed him on the forehead. "Rossiu…" she whispered.
"Mother…" Rossiu pushed her back a little, and held her at arm's length. "I promise I'll pray for your safe journey," he smiled, but a tear trickled down his face.
She nodded. "I'll pray for you too, my son. I love you."
"I love you too."
Magin moved behind the boy. Rossiu's mother met his eyes and nodded. She hugged her son once more, and stood up. She lifted the pack of food and gifts, and followed the High Priest to the locked door that led to the long stairwell of which no one save Magin knew the end. He held up his hands and addressed the crowd.
"Let us all bless our daughter as she leaves for the world above."
The soft murmur of prayer filled the cavern, and a few of the bolder children shouted, "Goodbye!" and "We'll miss you!"
She bowed in farewell. "Goodbye."
Magin took the key from his robe and unlocked the door. The two went in.
Three hours later, one came out. As Magin reentered the cavern, he nearly ran into Rossiu, who was still standing right in front of the door, arm extended as if to push it open. Neither said a word to each other as the High priest relocked the door and put the key away. Suddenly, Rossiu turned and walked towards the grey, misty pond. The boys who had helped him with the fish trap the day before were out again, resetting the catch and replacing the bait.
"Rossiu, look, we got three more, just today!"
"It's because of my mother's intervention," Rossiu said, and the other looked at each other uneasily, not knowing what to say. One scooped up a handful of rocks and started skipping them.
"Please don't do that," Rossiu repeated, and his friend protested once more. "Look at all we've gotten so far, they clearly don't mind."
"It's better to be safe," Rossiu said brusquely. "And besides, you'll disturb the god."
With that, Rossiu went to the shrine on the edge of the pond near the giant idol and dropped to his knees in silence. The three boys whispered amongst themselves, and then ran off to find another diversion.
Magin approached the boy. "Do you mind if I pray with you?"
He took the silence as consent.
AN: I really do like Rossiu, even if I don't agree with all of his decisions. At least, I feel a great deal of pity for his younger self, and Simon's reflections on the poverty of Adai really struck me for some reason. The relationship between Rossiu and the High Priest, especially at the end, is also endlessly fascinating to me. They reunite almost cordially at the end of the book, despite the fact that Rossiu has exposed everything the old man ever said as a fraud, and the fact that we know Rossiu's mother was chosen (in a rigged vote, most likely) by the high priest to die. His statement that he had no regrets suggests to me that there is even something more going on, but I chose to look more at Rossiu's role and POV.
eh, well, that's my reasoning. Please critique and comment. I know there are pacing problems, and it's not always very clear exactly what I mean, so if you have suggestions please share!