There was little food for the funeral, but much material had been gathered for the ceremonial burning of the bodies. Every villager was present, except those who had been sent to hunt. Their absence was excused, food was needed not just for today but for as long as these brutal winter days continued to exacerbate the villagers' searing, constant hunger; hunger for food, hunger for change.
The wives sang heart-wrenching, powerful songs for those who had died so suddenly during the night. Many of these wives had known the dead well, had been close friends with them, spent time with them, or watched them with fondness during the calm, quiet days. Those were days which the wives ached for with a burning longing that, apart from during this loud singing, they had to endure in silence, as much as possible.
The mysterious maidens swayed their bodies from side to side, unlike the wives, in complete silence, making a stark contrast to the intense, overwhelming sound of the wives' singing that had just happened prior. The individual maidens were so focussed on their own, mournful dancing, that they failed to notice that Silvana, exhausted after her dedicated work throughout the day, was dancing a little more slowly and less wildly than the other mysterious maidens. Very few of the other villagers noticed, either they were consumed with grief and were not paying attention to any of the mysterious maidens, or they were those villagers who didn't really notice Silvana. She faded into the background, she wasn't particularly beautiful, or outgoing, or special. People who recognised her as a real, lovely person, like Mikail, were in the minority.
As suddenly as the mysterious maidens' dancing started, it ended. The surviving husband from the collapsed hut had prepared a mournful, commemorative speech in honour of his dead companions. His speech was long, among the love and compassion for the dead, there was vehemence and anger: "If the snowfall hadn't been so severe, this would never have happened. I can remember, perhaps, one winter which lasted as long and as late as this one, but such a snowfall at this time of year is completely unexpected and unprecedented. Sure, perhaps we should have reinforced the structure of our home, as it had not been repaired for some time, but it's not really our fault that we didn't foresee such extreme conditions. Let us hope that this winter ends soon, with the help of today's sacrificial ceremony!" There were hearty cheers from many villagers at this, but many people chose to remain completely silent, feeling some worry or sorrow for whoever would be chosen for the sacrifice.
Finally, once the husband's speech had ended, select villagers were chosen to burn the bodies and bury the ashes. After prayers, small servings of food were given to everyone at the funeral. The mysterious maidens received their portions last. Out of some warped form of consideration, the leader of the mysterious maidens proclaimed to the women giving out the food:
"We see that the food you have remaining for us is, most likely, the only remaining food for any of the villagers, while we wait for the hunting party to return with more for everyone. We, as a gesture of goodwill, will have half portions compared to what the other funeral attendants ate. We are benevolent, kind maidens and we will make sure that the most needy have food before we do."
Silvana, usually so unselfish and kind, couldn't help feel a pang of anger at this "gesture of goodwill." She had worked so hard that morning without eating a single bite and now she was only going to receive a tiny morsel of food for all the work she had done, all the kindness of her actions. She wondered, a little afraid, whether this perhaps – no, it couldn't be – could it be a spiteful gesture towards herself? She knew she hadn't exactly been a favourite of the leader's, but could her flirtatious, distracted behaviour have made her look much worse in the eyes of this powerful woman? She felt very selfish thinking that it must be about her, yet the action was oddly personal.
When Silvana did receive her share of the food, she wanted to eat it more eagerly, to consume it quickly, but she maintained ladylike, obedient behaviour as much as possible by eating it gratefully, but not voraciously. Once all the maidens had finished their tiny meals, a certain air of fear and uncertainty came over the group like a wave. The funeral had finished, but a much more welcome death would soon be occurring.
The leader's voice cut through the air like a knife, "My mysterious maidens! We know it is our duty to appease the Gods, who have not found favour in us as of late. We must make a sacrifice! We must sacrifice one of our own in order to give to the Gods, so that they will give to us!" She paused, an almost menacing grin spreading over her face, sending fear into all of the mysterious maidens, a fear they had never experienced before. The very oldest mysterious maidens remembered a sacrifice from their early childhoods, but times had been so good since then that there had been no need of a sacrifice for many years. They hoped this would be the last for a long time indeed.
"Now," the leader continued, "We will all perform our most sacred, elegant dance, which we have practised many times in prayer and in times of worship. If anyone falls out of line of this dance, or otherwise appears to not be completely engaged in the dance, the other maidens may deem her worthy of sacrifice. For we dance like this to serve the Gods, to honour them as only we can honour them, so a failure to keep the dance perfect shows a weakness, a lack of strength, that is not deserving of further life. Such a life can be taken by the Gods, for they will appreciate the energy of this life, and that unworthy life, becomes worthy. Whoever is chosen, feel shame as you dance to death for the Gods! But know that the moment you leave this earth, the Gods will consume you with such eagerness that they will show how grateful they are by brining the spring we so desperately need! Everybody, positions!"
Hurriedly, the mysterious maidens assumed their positions in a circle, a holy circle, that conveyed a strong sense of piety and worship. The leader began a countdown for the start of the dance. At the end of the countdown, the dance, which would determine a sacrifice for the Gods, began.
Meanwhile, deep in the forest, Mikail, with the rest of the hunting party, had spotted a lone yak. The yak was a male, large, proud and aggressive, but also aged, having seen better days with his herd. The yak had weak bones in the legs, meaning he could barely walk, so he must have been left behind from the rest of the herd, hence why he was on his own.
Mikail was a skilled hunter, he knew how best to handle such a large, aggressive beast, but he still needed the help of the rest of the hunting party to make sure they brought the animal down without any of them becoming hurt. He signalled to the others to surround the animal properly, so that they could attack and shoot arrows at the animal from multiple sides.
It took some time, but eventually, they killed the yak, the once mighty animal reduced to a much-needed meal for the villagers. The elation of killing such a beast gave extra strength to the hunters, who, having made a special sled just for such an occasion, started to pull back the carcass towards the village. In order to drag the animal through the forest, the hunters had to take a long way round, on wider paths, so that the carcass was not stuck anywhere between trees or in ditches. Mikail, while pleased that they had finally found such a good kill which would provide much-needed nourishment for the villagers, couldn't help thinking about Silvana. He suspected the funeral would have either happened by now, or would soon. The moment the funeral was over, he suspected the sacrificial ceremony would begin. Due to the deaths of last night, he knew that many of the villagers would be even keener for a sacrifice to occur, and while the thought of being an onlooker at a sacrifice made his stomach turn, he knew that if, by some horrible misfortune, Silvana was chosen, that he had to be there for her final moments, to give as good a goodbye as possible. Spurred on, he dragged and dragged the rope attached to the sled, hoping to bring the kill back to the village as soon as possible.
The holy dance was a beautiful one, well-coordinated, precisely timed and demonstrating the devotion that the mysterious maidens had for the earth, the sky and the Gods. The maidens started by holding their hands against their faces, symbolically showing their expectation and wonder to the Gods. So far, every maiden seemed to be timed perfectly in movements, and each one of them made sure that they kept the holy circle intact. The next set of dances involved breaking apart the circle, but still keeping a strict rhythm and timing, while the maidens lifted their arms and titled their heads back, continuing to show appreciation and awe at the sky, the earth and the Gods. Suddenly, in a timed, precise manner, the maidens made two circles. This included a smaller circle with fewer women on the inside and more women in a larger circle on the outside. In a rhythmic, beautiful motion, the maidens bowed and looked up to the sky, somehow together, spiritually, in the harmony of their movements, yet becoming a little concerned that they could not yet see a worthy sacrifice. Even the leader, involved in the dance with the other maidens, was somewhat surprised that no-one had yet failed the dance, things were going almost too perfectly. The dance continued, with repeated movements and similar motions. If someone had been watching closely, impatience and slight hurriedness could have been spotted in the dances of some of the individual maidens. Understandably, tension could not help but affect the minds of these 'perfect' dancers, but slight impatience, fear and hurriedness could not determine a sacrifice, for sure. During the most coordinated part of the dance so far, when maidens were 'swapping' between each other in places within the circle, Silvana tripped on a patch of loose earth. Like eagles watching from a tree for an easy meal, the other maidens stopped their dancing and glared towards Silvana. Silvana's look changed from one of exhaustion and hope to one of despair and worry, she could not meet the glaring eyes of the other maidens. Mercifully, despite Silvana's break of the dance, the other maidens kindly deemed her not to have ruined the dance completely, she had not severely broken the holy circle, nor had she collapsed, she had merely tripped over a piece of loose earth, which they themselves had been consciously noticing so as not to trip themselves. The dance could continue as before. However, they had only gone a few more steps before Silvana, yet again, broke the rhythm and stopped the other dancers. While moments before, she had merely tripped and recovered quickly, this time – Gods forbid – she had fallen over completely, stretching across the ground in such a way that she was breaking the holy circle! The ground was flat there, surely there was nothing to trip over! She was not immediately trying to stand up, she was lying there, as if she was barely making an effort to correct her terrible mistake. The maidens, wordlessly, made a decision. Silvana could not get away with this mistake. She would be the sacrifice.
After what seemed like a lifetime, Silvana stood up, the maidens stopped the holy dance and began shouting at her, saying things like, "You will be sacrificed!" "How dare you break the circle!" "Get in the middle!" "Behave yourself!" "You're going to do as you're told!" Poor Silvana was so exhausted, so undernourished, that she could barely process what was going on, let alone process what the other mysterious maidens were saying. She was pushed and shoved by multiple women into the centre of the circle, desperate for her to assume the correct position within the holy circle so she could be sacrificed, not them. Within moments, the other mysterious maidens began a frenetic, much more powerful dance, a dance for sacrifice. Much of this added power came from the feelings of elation and relief of these women, I won't be sacrificed! They all thought. Secretly, the leader thought, Serves her right for not displaying the proper conduct of a true, devoted mysterious maiden. While the other mysterious maidens were punching the air, waving their arms and jumping about in a much less organised but still rhythmic display, Silvana barely took everything in, everything felt more like a distant dream than her sacrificial ceremony. Her eyes glazed over like a doll as her surroundings, the dancing, the gazes of the onlookers, become a blur. The mysterious maidens now danced again in a circle, but in a much more wild, powerful manner. Silvana vaguely watched them collapse in front of her, bowing and prostrating themselves on the earth, thankful that they had someone to sacrifice to bring the spring. The women stepped further back, waved their arms and again collapsed on the ground, before lifting themselves up to sit down nearby, exhausted but relieved.
It helped that Silvana had never truly related to or been friends with any of the other mysterious maidens. Her inclusion in their group gave her a purpose, a role, but she was more of a puppet than a participant. She had never made an effort to avoid the other maidens' conversations or to distance herself from them, but on the other hand she had not made an effort to be particularly friendly with them, just assuming a more subservient, quiet role within the group. However, now she had a reason to not be completely subservient and obedient. She had Mikail. And while she had implied to Mikail that she would not mind being a sacrifice, now that she had effectively been forced into this position by the leader of the mysterious maidens, she couldn't help but feel a little resentment. She had been overworked with very little food throughout the day and then been forced to have a meagre amount of food during the funeral. She thought it deeply, deeply unfair that her love for Mikail angered the leader so much, there had been no promise, when she joined the mysterious maidens, that she would stay with them forever, unmarried. But, perhaps, undying devotion was exactly what the leader had wanted. She realised now that the other members were pious in a very different manner from her. They were self-righteous and self-sacrificing, displaying a huge sense of pride that Silvana had never possessed. They believed that being a mysterious maiden was their whole life, that they should never leave, should never be married or bear children. Silvana vaguely noticed some men in the village walk around her, almost as if to make sure she didn't run away. She started to wish that she had never joined the mysterious maidens. The sudden death of her parents from separate severe illnesses had encouraged Silvana to change her life. She believed that joining the mysterious maidens would make her more devout, more involved in the village community. Now, her only value was as a thing to die and, despite Silvana's belief that her sacrifice would encourage the Gods to bring the spring, she still felt very upset and angry, with a desire to, instead, live. To live with Mikail. As she watched men in the village, who she had known all her life, creeping around her and watching her like a prisoner, she wished she could see Mikail one last time. Perhaps he was already on his way back from the hunting trip? Perhaps he'd have food for the other villagers? She very much hoped so.
Suddenly, Silvana heard a shriek coming from what felt like another, distant world, "SILVANA! DANCE!" Silvana blinked. She felt like she was being dragged back into the reality that she couldn't bear. "You must DANCE to die for the Gods, Silvana!" Her leader was reminding her to perform her duties as a sacrifice. She must dance until she could no longer move, until she died. While she did so, the Gods would sap all her energy away from her and would take her body once all her energy had gone. Yes… She did need to die now. She had been chosen. After standing completely still for many minutes while the mysterious maidens and village men had crept and danced around her, completing their part of the ceremony, Silvana sprung up like a shoot from the ground, an arm raised, as if to say, "Hey, I'm here! I'm doing this." She also thought to herself, Mikail! Please come. Mikail!
Her movements weren't really so much of a dance as powerful jumping and waving. She also held her hands out in a devoted, pious manner, thinking about how every ounce of strength she had was being taken by the Gods as she moved. After some powerful jumps and waves, she turned around and looked about, at all of the villagers watching her, she could not see Mikail. She ran towards the edge of the circle in which she was basically trapped, then to the other side. Suddenly a wave of fear rushed over her, what if she died without being able to see her loved one again? The only one who loved her. She shivered, crouching, beginning to go into a panic attack and her eyes glazed over again. A large crowd was continuing to gather outside of the circle and, as if they were coming from far, far away, Silvana heard chants and cries, such as, "Start dancing again!" "You're not getting out of this so easily," "Just accept your fate!" She turned around again, looking, still no sign of him. She considered, very briefly, leaving the circle, but then she became afraid of what the villagers would do to her if she tried to escape, there was a chance that she would suffer a worse fate at their hands than at the hands of the Gods. Suddenly, feeling like she was lacking faith, she bowed to the Gods, one arm raised above her head. "Please, let my strength remain until he arrives. Please do not let the villagers touch me. I do accept my fate, just please at least give me the mercy of seeing him and saying goodbye," she whispered, in a very daring prayer. Silvana had not felt this desperate since her parents had died, she hoped that the Gods would show some mercy, at least.
Mikail and his fellow hunters were struggling with the yak, some of the hunters had less energy than they had realised and so were no longer able to pull the sled, they just followed alongside the stronger hunters who tugged and tugged towards the village.
"About time our crops start growing again, so we wouldn't need to rely so much on big kills like this," one of the hunters moaned, hungry for food and hungry for improvement.
"I hope the funeral went well," another said a few moments later. "I wonder if the sacrifice has happened yet."
It took a great deal for Mikail not to show his true emotions. He definitely did not want to miss the ceremony. He couldn't wait for the relief he would feel when he would see one of the other maidens dancing to her death, with Silvana safely off to the side. Obviously, while he would feel sad for whoever was sacrificed, nothing would compare to his sadness for Silvana were she to be chosen. He and the hunters were so close to the village, but the fact that he was one of the few men now pulling on the sled made things quite difficult, especially with the thick snow. He was thankful that today was a little warmer. Maybe they don't need a sacrifice after all, he thought bitterly, if it's warming up this much already.
Silvana had reached such a state by this point that her dancing, like the dancing of the mysterious maidens when they had chosen her, had become frenetic, with large, wide movements. Her desperation came out through her terrified facial expressions and she had realised that she had been shaking like a leaf pretty much since she had started dancing. Mikail! Please come! she thought, as she paused for breath, she knew she shouldn't, but she couldn't help it. She knew that, the moment she saw him, she could dance enough to die. She already felt her feet throbbing, her legs wobbling, her arms aching, her head felt so heavy she had let it tilt side to side so much her neck was strained and sore.
Meanwhile, Mikail and the other hunters were just entering the village. A few of the other villagers rushed up to greet them, looking very excited. They first commented on the yak, tremendously pleased that the hunters had brought back so much meat,
"We're certainly going to calm down our hunger today! Thank you, everyone, it'll be a good way to celebrate the sacrificial ceremony! It's started already."
Mikail's eyes burned with worry, stress and anger the moment he heard this. Completely disregarding the villagers beside him, no longer worried about what everyone else would think of him, he ran, headlong, like an angry bear, towards the centre of the village, where he knew the sacrifice would be taking place. He could just about tell, as he ran, that the other villagers were surprised, shocked, or even scared by his terrifying running. They began to think that he really wasn't pious at all, that he perhaps disapproved of what was going on. Well, they knew that the men keeping the circle would stop Mikail if need be, the sacrifice had to happen.
Mikail's eyes met Silvana almost instantly, as she was spinning in a circle like a sycamore seed in the wind. This is exactly what he had feared, his gut and fists clenched, his eyes widened, he roared as he came closer to the circle. Silvana stopped, surprised and concerned to see Mikail so angry. She still continued moving, but only her arms, her gaze was relieved and surprisingly happy, Mikail noticed, she must have been waiting for him. He felt the vice-like grip of two village-men on each of his arms, trying to hold him down, but only just managing to succeed holding him away from the circle.
"NO! NO!" he shouted, desperately, tears starting to stream down his face. He couldn't stop looking towards Silvana, feeling so unbearably upset, angry, enraged, at the unfairness of it all. She looked so emaciated, already like a corpse, her face almost as white as the clothes she wore. "Silvana! Let me save you!" While the villagers were already shocked by his behaviour, they gasped at this statement. How dare he try to interfere with the plan of the Gods, did he want to curse this village?
Silvana replied, "I love you, Mikail! Thank you! Please, I have accepted my fate. I'm just so happy that you're here, but please try not be upset or angry…" She paused, then, with tears in her eyes and with a broken voice, she finished, "Goodbye, Mikail." The villagers quietly breathed collective sighs of relief, at least she was behaving.
Mikail began sobbing, replying, "Goodbye – Silvana. I love you too. I really do. I wish this wasn't happening – but – I will accept what you will do. I will not… Try to fight…" The unwillingness was clear in his voice, but the last thing Mikail wanted to do was to go against Silvana's wishes. She was so good, so kind, so forgiving, of course she would want to go through with it, of course she truly believed that she was doing the right thing. The villagers now seemed very forgiving and accepting of the interruptions, apart from the leader, who was glaring at Mikail as if he had just murdered an entire family. He knew he would not stand in good favour after this, at least, not for some time, but that was not the most important thing for him right now. People seemed very forgiving of Silvana's reaction and paus in the dance, but, of course, she was being sacrificed, she said she was willing to be sacrificed.
Heartbroken and powerless, Mikail watched as Silvana danced and danced, with such purpose that unnerved him to his core. She was making herself suffer more, she was making herself die from sheer exhaustion and all he could do was watch.
Silvana herself was simply elated that Mikail had made it back on time. Her whole body felt like it was on fire, immense pressure from a searing headache meant that she could no longer concentrate on what was around her, even Mikail. She knew that this was for the best. She would give this brutal, wild dance everything she had. Literally, everything.
She felt the beginning of the end of her life come on surprisingly suddenly, the decrease in adrenaline initially caused by her happiness at seeing Mikail made her more aware of just how acute her pain and exhaustion was. She suddenly collapsed and was ready to stand up again to dance, but all she could do was lift her body up, slightly, towards the sky. She knew that the moment of death was very, very near, but she wanted to say something before she died,
"Gods, please make sure the warmth and spring comes, now that I die. Please let Mikail be happy. Please let all the villagers be well. I leave my soul and body to you. Farewell!"
What was meant to be powerful shouting turned out to be barely anything at all, Silvana's voice was now only croaking and breathless, but Mikail heard every word. He watched the circle break up as many of the men rushed forward to lift her up, into the air. As they did so, her eyes were closed and her limbs hung limp below her body. The mysterious maidens crouched around the men who held up Silvana's body to the Gods, as they shouted, "Here! Behold our sacrifice to you, Gods who give us everything! We hope and pray that you will give us what we need! To the Gods! To the Gods! TO THE GODS!"
A year later and Mikail still couldn't help but miss Silvana. She was such a beautiful person in a sea of gossiping, petty villagers, but, despite this, her presence was not missed by any of the other villagers. They had practically forgotten about the day when they told an innocent woman to die, when they watched her to make sure she did not run away from the holy circle, when they watched her dance to the point of utter exhaustion and death. The mysterious maidens continued on almost as if nothing had ever happened.
Had the sacrifice worked? Had the spring come once Silvana had danced to death for the Gods that she had, perhaps foolishly, worshipped so dearly? Well, yes and no. While the day after her sacrifice was, like the day she died, warmer than it had been, there were many days following where cold and small snowfalls were just, again, part of daily life. Luckily, however, no-one died of hunger or starvation before the spring properly set in. No other huts collapsed due to heavy snowfall on the roof. Hunting parties, including Mikail's, were successful enough at obtaining meat for the villagers. It was clear to Mikail, even if it was not clear to anyone else, that the sacrifice did nothing to change the weather and temperature that the village experienced. Whether the sacrifice had been forced to happen or not, the villagers had some warm days, intermingled with cold days.
Only a few months after Silvana's death, Mikail began to notice a young woman who lived in the hut next to his. She was very young, in fact, much younger than Silvana when he had first started talking to her. However, like Silvana, she was practical, hard-working and very sweet and kind. She was also old enough to be courted, so Mikail, slowly at first, began to talk to her, with a singular purpose forming in his mind. It had been his most costly mistake so far that he hadn't asked for Silvana's hand in marriage before becoming so close to her, before kissing her. If only she had been betrothed to her, she would have left the mysterious maidens before the leader became annoyed at her, she would have never been 'eligible' for sacrifice. He would do things safely and traditionally this time around, as long as he knew the woman he was interested in was also happy with the arrangement.
Luckily for Mikail, the new woman in his life, Rosa, was very happy to be betrothed to Mikail and they were married in a month. Many villagers still had some ill-feelings and suspicions towards Mikail, so they were extremely glad to see him married, they knew that would settle down such a wild bachelor. Now, exactly a year after the death of Silvana, Mikail gently held Rosa's belly, excited about the birth of the baby inside of her, his son or daughter. He looked forward to the arrival of a child immensely, he hoped he could be as good a father as he could. If it was a daughter, he knew for sure, he would definitely teach her to stay away from the mysterious maidens. He still didn't trust them. He probably never would. But, he would trust a woman with good thoughts and kindness, he was going to be there to make sure he would allow the child's kindness to grow, like the early buds at the beginning of spring.
Phew…. This chapter has been a long time coming! For those people who have been so unbelievably kind as to wait with baited breath for the final chapter/s in this story – thank you for sticking with me for so long! This is a story I was very motivated to write when I first started it, but I procrastinated (rather a lot!) about writing the final instalment as I knew it would be very difficult to write. After thinking over and making final decisions about how I would end the story, I wrote it all today, just for all of you! And honestly, it feels good to finish this story and to conclude everything as I wished to conclude it. Please let me know if you would perhaps be interested in further stories surrounding the characters, but I have done my best to make it a very complete story to make things more finalised and wrapped up.
Again, sorry for not doing this sooner! My life has taken many twists and turns since I started this fanfiction but it's lovely to finish it for my fellow Rite of Spring ballet fans. I hope you have enjoyed this final chapter, despite the heartbreak… Ta ta for now!