From the author: An important member of the village, whose well-being is vital to the economic health of many townsfolk, is dying. Magic can be used to save him -- perhaps. But magic has a cost: if someone is to live, another must die. One with a lot of potential living still to come. A child. Tanner has to cast a vote.
Tanner stepped into the short hallway and waited until the door closed behind him. The daylight disappeared, but there was a flickering candle on the long shelf above the bowl, among the carved masks. Tanner reached into the bowl with stubby fingers and took one of the wooden chips.
A circle. He traced the shape burned into the wood with a thumb. A circle. There were three doors in front of him, each marked with a shape – a line, a triangle, a circle. The line and the triangle were for those not chosen. Tanner took a mask from the shelf, tied the string to hold it in place, and entered the door marked with the circle.
Small windows high up on the east wall let light into the room. Everyone looked up as he entered, but although some surely recognized his clothes, his gait, his scarred hand, of course no one greeted him. Tanner found a chair at the long table and seated himself.
He could hear the other doors open and close – the triangle, the line. Three more people eventually came through the circle door, and then there were nine masked men in the room. They could start.
Someone coughed – Toothless, guessed Tanner. No one else in the village was as stooped, as thin. The old man must have served several times in his long life; it comforted Tanner to know that someone with experience with this kind of thing was there.
Finally the door opened again, and an unmasked man came in – Olious, carrying another bowl filled with chips. The wizard was young, younger than Tanner, and walked with uncertain eyes cast on the ground. All stood as he entered.
Olious came to sit at the head of the table. He set the bowl down in front of him, a reminder of the cost that would have to be paid.
"Thank you. You serve the village."
"We serve the village." Tanner had been taught the words upon reaching manhood, but he had never before felt the weight of speaking them.
"Wendray the Seller is very ill."
There were murmurs around the table.
"I believe he will die if we do not act." The wizard looked around the table. "You now have time to talk. The village will abide by your decision." The young man dropped his gaze.
"Is there nothing else that can be done?" the man to Tanner's left asked.
"Fool!" Toothless said. "He can't answer you! His role is not to tell us what to do!"
"I only wondered—"
"Would they have us here, if there was another way?"
"If Wendray dies," came a voice, "perhaps his brother –"
Tanner found himself saying, "His brother is a drunk. We need Wendray. His sons are too young, untrained. If Wendray dies, who will sell our goods in town?"
Another spoke. "Surely another could trade for us?"
"Do you know how, boy?" Toothless said. The old man reached up to scratch his nose, but his fingers hit wood. "Do you know who to talk to, where to get the best prices? You don't remember what it was like before Wendray, but I do. Townspeople can take a man apart. Wendray knows people, he knows places and times."
"I know his value to us,” someone said. “But will anyone die if he is no longer our trader?"
"Die?" someone asked.
"I mean, how serious is this?"
"Wendray will die," one man said.
"And I would be very sorry if he did. But if it is indeed his time—"
"His time?" Tanner said. "That's what we are here to decide. We must remember that Wendray is not just a man. He brings prosperity to us all. If he dies, we all suffer. We all lose. Some may go hungry this winter."
"Yes, they may," said another, "but are we willing to give up so much to save Wendray? That cost is certain, not a guess at the future."
"We must be bold, to make sure our future, and our children's futures, are as good as we can make them," Tanner said. “It’s for the good of the village. It’s no different than a war. Some die in every war.”
"But they’re our children!" someone blurted.
A man turned his mask towards the speaker. "Before we decide to let the Seller die, bringing ruin to the village, remember that some voices can be recognized."
There was an outcry around the table. "Here, now!" said Toothless. "No threats! This is against all the rules!"
The man who had spoken leaned back in his chair. Tanner knew who it was. Folbim. The Weaver would lose more than anyone if trade dried up. Of course, Tanner would lose trade, also.
"If only Wendray hadn't been so secretive," one man said.
"That's custom!" said Toothless. "How else can a man prove his worth to the world, if he can't keep his business secrets? We wouldn't even be talking about saving him, if he didn't have his secret contacts and ways! It’s what we all have to do, if we have anything worth keeping."
"We must all agree," Folbim said. "Are we ready to vote? Shall Wendray live, for the good of the entire village, or shall we let him die?" He turned to the man on his left.
"Live," the man said.
"Live," the next man said.
When it came to him, Tanner swallowed. But it was not just for his own trade. He had a duty. It really was no different than a war; some would have to suffer so the village could prosper.
Also, Tanner had no children of his own.
"Live," he said.
The voting continued, and finally Olious stood. "It is agreed," he said. "Now it falls to us to choose the child who will assist in the spell." Olious put his hand into the bowl in front of him, and slowly stirred the chips within. He withdrew his hand and closed his eyes. Then he took a chip from the bowl.
He opened his eyes and looked at the chip. "The mark is that of the child Hadler."
Tanner gripped the edge of the table with numb fingers. His nephew. "No!" he whispered. Those near him looked away.
"It is decided," Olious said. "The ceremony will take place tonight, at sundown."
Once Rew, Tanner’s brother, had allowed his young son to come with them on a trip to town. Rew shouldered a pack, and Tanner pulled the cart. He had an additional burden, as well; Hadler had quickly tired of running along beside, and had climbed his uncle’s back to sit on his shoulders. His delightfully terrified hands had become painfully twisted in Tanner’s hair. Both hands pulling the cart, Tanner had to endure it.
Rew had tried to get Hadler to climb down.
“No, that’s all right,” Tanner had said. He pretended to trip, making the boy squeal. “I’ll be his horse.”
“Go, uncle Horse!” Hadler had said.
Tanner stood with Rew, and Rew’s wife Lofild. The two stood unsteadily, red-eyed and gray-faced. Lofild leaned heavily on their older son. But their youngest, little Hadler, tottered along with Olious as the wizard circled Wendray. The Seller lie outspread on the ground in the sacred triangle, the carved white stones at his head, hands and feet. He blinked as the sweat ran into his eyes, and he trembled in spasms at times, but otherwise was still.
Olious murmured and sang. He spat into his bowl of ashes, and then flug dabs of wet ash onto Wendray as he and the boy circled the prone fat man. Wendray closed his eyes when the ash spattered his forehead.
Although Olious walked slowly, it was hard for Hadler to keep up. He waddled, looking at the crowd gathered around, and then noticed Olious getting too far ahead, and flung himself forward, his little legs pumping. He snatched Olious' shirt where it hung almost down to the wizard's knees.
Tanner looked, stone faced. He'd seen similar sights before, and had sorrowed for the children, but it had never been this sharp and deep. He felt as if he were watching all this as a bird might, from high in the cool air.
Olious completed the last circle, and brought Hadler to stand at Wendray's side. He sang one short phrase, and grabbed the boy’s soft hair. Then he drew his bronze knife and slit the boy's throat.
Wendray did not recover. Such things occasionally happened.
Tanner was back at the table, the inside of his wooden mask slick with his perspiration. His hands were numb, his tongue thick.
"What went wrong?" a man asked. "Was there a problem with the spell?"
Olious looked down. "That is always possible," he said. "But I don't believe that there were any mistakes this time."
"Then why didn't it work?"
"We can guess. A spell obtains its power from that which is lost – the life given is sent into the one who is endangered. In this case, I suppose that the boy chosen –"
"Hadler was a good boy," Tanner said. He had not known he was going to speak.
"Then where was his power?" said Toothless. “He would have turned out useless, a lackwit or cripple. Or worse. Thief or—“
Tanner started to rise from his seat, but the firm hand of a man next to him reminded him of his place.
“That may be true," said Olious. "But it is just as likely that the boy was fated to die young, or perhaps in some other way his worth was reduced. In any case, the power the spell could take from his life was less than we had hoped."
"And now we vote again," said Folbim. "This won't take long. Having decided once, we must decide the same way again, or admit that our first vote was a mistake."
"We decided Wendray was worth one life," someone said. "Not two."
"Not two," said Folbim. "The boy this morning, as Olious has told us, was of no value to the community."
Tanner clenched his teeth.
"I didn't say--" Olious said.
"So it is still up to us whether to decide if Wendray is worth a full life."
“Yes," a man said. "Still, there are those who were more closely touched by our last vote than you were. How can we ask them to vote for such pain again?"
“No one knows who it will be this time,” someone else said.
“If only we still had orphans,” said Toothless, “this would all go easier. Since nothing has changed, let’s just vote. We can’t change our minds now. How would that look?”
Tanner voted again for the sacrifice.
As the little girl’s blood soaked into the dust, Wendray twisted to his side and coughed up something yellow. He coughed again and again, his body shaking. Finally he lay back and took in long, shuddering breaths. He wiped the sweat off his face; he wiped his mouth, and then sat up. Tears ran down his face. They collected in the folds of his cheeks and chin, and then dripped down.
“Wendray will live,” Olious said. “For the good of the village.”
The parents of the child rushed forward to clutch at the body of their daughter, and Olious put a comforting hand on each of their shoulders.
Tanner did not meet the eyes of Rew and Lofild as he left the circle. Rew raised a hand, as if to catch him as he passed, but Lofild clutched her husband and looked at Tanner with hard eyes.
Folbrim stood with his appentice, an ashen-faced boy of eleven.
“It’s hard, yes, of course,” Folbrim was saying to the boy. “But it’s for the good of the village. And your own – think about it. The reason we get such good—“
As Tanner approached them, something in his eye silenced Folbrim. The weaver’s eye flicked down to Tanner’s hand.
Tanner unclenched his fist and walked away.
“Anyway, you’d better get back to work now,” Folbrim said to his apprentice. “Make yourself useful.”
This story originally appeared in Bards and Sages Quarterly.