The night was quiet.
Too quiet, Naveera thought. It was an eerie calm that made the hairs on the back of one’s neck stand up and pay attention. Other than that, the only sounds around her were that of the crackling fire, and the hushed whispers of the villagers gathered.
She stood in the middle of the ring of fire, along with nine other girls who looked just as frightened as she felt. All of them had been selected as the best and brightest of all the girls in the village who had recently come of age. Amongst them were the fastest runners, the most skilled hunters, the best swimmers, and the most accomplished outdoors-women of their group. A group of over a hundred girls that had gradually shrunk with each task, and with every new skill they had been tested on until only ten of them remained.
None of them knew what to expect even though they had all been preparing for this night. The ceremony took place once every half-century, her mother had said, as an offering to the ones who kept their little village safe from outside threats. The girls who were strong and triumphant never returned, only the weak ones did, and they would be shunned, considered a disgrace to their families who would be relegated to the lowest ranks, and forced to seek menial jobs from other families as whatever titles and lands they held were stripped from them. The families of the girls who didn't return would be held with the greatest esteem and the lands and titles that had been stripped from the families of the shunned ones distributed amongst them, adding to their wealth, power, and influence.
Only a few families in the village held such power, and they did so for many decades until the next offering season arrived. The family of the girl who won the ultimate prize would claim their place as the ruling family, it was why the participating girls were encouraged by their loved ones to win.
A hush ran across the clearing as a figure emerged from the forest and approached the villagers who were gathered. The figure was bent over and moved slowly, the cane it held appearing to aid its advance.
Mémè Akilah she was called. The oldest member of their village. She lived alone in a shack in the forest and served as the Adjoa, the bridge between their village and the ones who protected it. It was rumored that it was only she who knew what happened to the girls who never returned.
Naveera turned her gaze to the night sky as the moon peeked out. It was time.