They are close, I could hear them. My heart slammed against my chest, beating like a war drum in preparation of war. I stumbled as I ran through the forest, stumbling but never falling because I knew deep within me, my feet knew that the moment they stop running, my life was over.
I knew I was dead long before my race started, I was the maiden selected from my tribe, for the maiden hunt, a gory event practiced by the Dariths, our lords and masters, the race that controls seven tribes for as long as time.
I was selected because I was the last of my family, my father died less than a fortnight ago. He died a disgrace, all because he could not stomach one of his people being given over to the Dariths for the maiden hunt, he stepped down and how was he repaid? His only daughter was sent as the maiden representing my tribe the very cycle he died.
A tortured scream rose from my left which served as motivation for me to run faster. That was the scream of a maiden as she is caught and being raped to death and if the warriors of Dar got tired of her before her death, she is taken to the other side of the forest where she is be being burnt alive along with the bodies of her fellow maidens that participated in the hunt.
If any maiden reached that field without being caught is granted clemency and a place to live among the Dariths, our salvation or demise happens in the same field, it just depends on how we reach there.
That is the hope of all of us, the maidens. To achieve the impossible goal. Impossible because for more than 400 years, a maiden has never outrun the warriors of Dar. The closest they let us get to, was the middle of the forest before they start picking us one by one like flies.
I heard the heavy breathing of a man behind me and I released a sharp scream but unlike the rest, I am not screaming out of fear. I have accepted my fate, it had been sealed for some time now, and my scream was one of warning. Warning any maiden close to me to get far away as possible since a group of warriors will soon join the one behind me to enjoy the spoils of the hunt and I was the spoils.
I used the last of my energy to run and when I focused in front of me, I saw the clearing … I am almost at my freedom when my legs got entangled and I fell. The warrior landed on top of me like he had to jump to catch me and my breathing halted.
The real torture is about to begin. I closed my eyes and braced myself for the tearing of my clothing and the mauling to begin, when the warrior placed his hand underneath my clothing and shove a finger in me, my eyes flew open as I tried to buckle the warrior off me but I was pinned down by his heavyweight on top of me, I wasn’t as ready to give up as I originally thought I was. I yanked as hard as I could on the warrior’s head only for him to chuckle at my efforts.
“A virgin.” He muttered. He hauled me up and hung me from his shoulder like a sack of potatoes as he walked briskly to the clearing, I struggled as much as I could but it didn’t make any difference.
I was going to be burnt without being ravaged, a virgin sacrifice, maybe they will task my village to be providing only virgins for the hunt. The Idroms were tasked to provide their weakest female fighters for the hunt and nobody knows why. I refused to be the reason why untouched girls from my tribe suffer.
As soon as we reached the clearing, he dropped me to the ground where I stared wide-eyed at him, he was bigger than every other man I have seen.
“Orel, what is the meaning of this?” an old man in dirty robes asks as gasps rented the air when they realized that I was not dead or raped.
“My bride.” My captor replied tautly.
“Don’t be ridiculous Orel, you cannot choose a Maiden Of The Hunt as your bride.” A woman dressed fancily replies, her manner of clothing meant she was of noble birth.
“My lady, he can.” The dirty dressed man said as the field went silent, so silent you could hear the screams of the maidens coming from the forest. “The warriors of the hunt can choose a bride from the hunt only when he is satisfied with everything that she is. Are you Orel, son of Bryman satisfied with the maiden before you?”
“I am.” Orel, my captor replied.
*Satisfied with me?* my mind rebelled against that thought, *who does he think he is to be satisfied with me?*
“There is nothing she has to offer you, how can you be satisfied with her? You must be jesting.” The noblewoman shrieked in anger.
Orel spared her a look then turned back to me and speared me with the full force of his gaze, dismissing her as unimportant of his gaze. “If I was not satisfied, I would not have chosen her.”
I stared into his eyes completely absorbed, he said those words again but I was not feeling the anger that should accompany them. When he said them, it made me feel giddy inside which is strange because I am not sure that I even want his attentions on me.
“How can he do this? He is trying to get out of the marriage, can you not see? He cannot tell she is his by one glance.” She shrieked again, jerking my mind back to the present. This was a very wrong place to be lost in my thoughts.
“Actually, he can.” The dirty man said again as the murmuring swells.
The old man raised his voice high above the dim of the crowd and continued “Many things are expected of the warlord, great things. It has been 500 years since a warlord picked a bride from the hunt. Terrible but great things happened. Today, another maiden was picked. Let us hope that the fates are with them. I bless your union.”
“I bless your union.” People repeated in the crowd, some hesitant, others confused, I was even more confused than them. Does this mean that I am now married?
“You can leave with your bride.” The dirty man said as Orel gave a quick jerk of his chin and picked me up, my stomach landing on his shoulder as he walked off with me hanging off him, I wanted to badly hit him or scream at him but my self-preservation kicked in.
This man had just saved me. I only know of one way which a maiden gets to leave this hunt unscathed and this was another way and nobody was telling him he is wrong to save me. I do not want to offend him to change his mind about saving my life.
I raised my head as best as I could, only for me to see the noblewoman glaring at me in hatred and other warriors as they pile maidens on the pyre in the clearing, some of these maidens begging and crying, I hid my face in Orel’s cloth as the old man took a torch and set the pyre on fire as the people started chanting.
I shook as I heard the screams as the distance between me and the pyre grew larger with every stride that Orel took. I just narrowly escape death clutches but I am still in harm’s way and saddled with a husband it seems.
A deep feeling of dread engulfed me. Something told me that this is just the beginning.