Keira became aware of Haven’s labored breath. “Slow down, Keira,” she panted. “You know I can’t go that fast. Besides, we’re here.” Keira skidded to a stop. Haven was right. The green grass of the yard stretched before them, its sweet scent floating up to them on the breeze. The whole population was gathered into the auditorium and people spilled up the steps into the park. Her stomach felt like she had eaten a rock. It had to be about the marriage games. She felt Haven’s hand in hers and her stomach lightened a little. “That’s right,” she said more to herself than to Haven. “I’m just here as a formality.” Haven gave her hand a squeeze then slipped off to a group of friends nearby. So much for the calming presence thought Keira. She moved through the crowds of people slowly, staying hidden among the throng. The urgent push was gone now. Her mother and Shamus knew she was here and that was enough. Keira preferred to observe unnoticed.
Shamus stood up on the stage and a wave of quiet washed over the yard. “My friends, my family – well met on this day.”
“Well met,” the crowd chorused back. It was the traditional greeting among them.
“As you all know, the spring is here. A time of new beginnings for all of nature, including us,” began Shamus. It was the marriage games speech. All of them had heard it many times. Keira let Shamus’ voice trail away as she moved from group to group. Her eyes settled on one particular group wh were plainly more excited than the rest. The 18-year-olds. These were girls and boys from her class. Keira had no desire to stand with them now as they giggled and jostled each other, and sent blushing glances between them. “But this year is different, because this year we are reminded not only of beginnings but of ends as well. My niece’s birthday has just passed,” he said.
The crowd returned his statement with absolute attentiveness. Keira’s attention returned full-fold to the stage. She drew back and took a few steps to the left, then paused helplessly. She wanted to melt into the crowd but was afraid to move. “A very special birthday it is. The first year she is eligible for the marriage games,” Shamus continued. The crowd was silent. There was none of the customary applause. “But of course, she ws never meant for the games, not truly. My niece has a differetn path laid before her. One, though it has assumed twists and turns unforseen, has remained hers. And soon that path will take her to unfamiliar territory.”
The words ‘unfamiliar territory’ repeated in Keira’s mind. What was Shamus talking about? This was the part he was supposed to announce her exemption from the games.
“Keira,” he said. Shamus looked directly at her when he said her name. So much for her attempted invisibility. She had thought herself unnoticed by the crowd, but at Shamus’ summons a path opened for her to the stage as though they had all known just where she was. Of course they hadn’t. It was just the present connection with Shamus that allowed them to work together so well. Even so, no one in the crowd expected what Shamus said next.
“My dear Keira,” he said, extending a hand himself to help her to the stage. “For so long we throught your beginning was taken from us. But I have seen the next leg of your path, child.” He turned away from her and back to the crowd. Keira looked at her mother standing on the right of the platform, but there was nothing to read there. She looked out over the crowd, her face a complacent mask.
“Connor,” Shamus’s voice boomed out. “Killian.” “Brynn.” He continued on as the three approaced the stage. “Keira will not travel her path alone,” he said and paused. Then in a matter-of-fact tone that seemed to knock all the dramatics he’d worked up to this point flat on the ground he delivered his real announcement.
“Two sunrises,” he said holding up two fingers. “You three will accompany Keira to meet her cousin and negotiate for Collin’s return.”
A gasp came from the crowd. Even the three in front widened their eyes in surprise. Keira could feel her mouth hanging open. Shamus turned back t oher. He placed his hand under her chin. It was gentle as he lifted her her chin and left his hand to rest on her cheek. His eyes burned with light as he spoke, the amber color glowing bright.
“And when you return he will be at your side. This I have seen, child.” Shamus turned again to the crowd. “As it is written, we shall see the great beginning of a mighty pairing and reap prosperity and power for our people.”
His voice had resen during the last and the crowd went up in shouts and celebration. Finally Shamus lifted his arm and the people quieted again. Keira’s eyes strayed to her group of classmates. It was clear from their expectant faces they were waiting to hear how this would affect their own immediate future and the marriage games. But Shamus only iterated the parting, “Well met and well met again,” before turning and leaving the stage. As soon as his feet were fully on the first step a thunder of voices rose up from the crowd.
The sound was deafening. Keira stood in the same spot. Some part of her brain realized that the voices had turned into applause. Did they not realize what this meant? Had they not heard Shamus? What were they applauding? It was a death sentence.