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Two ruddy fires light the pre-dawn outskirts of Bend like a pair of earrings a drink-crossed lass has forgotten to remove before sleep. Both are housed inside a yawning barndoor set against their own particular curl of the river antics for which the town is named. There are carts lined up by the fist - empty now - which will head to the silos come morning. Current like, the menfolk are working through the night processing that latest patch of harvest. Rye and rape at the still; corn and wheat at the mill. Work is steady through the hours - it's all a crude cut and prep for winter stores, the fine cut will be for the last fields they clear - might be racing the weather with touch of rain scenting the wind lately. The fire at the still dims, four men walk outside to a fence and sit facing east, looking forward to enjoying the last moments of the evening and last year's vintage. The sky stretches, and the wave of stars begin to meld into a muted white-grey foreground in prelude to the sun's advance over the horizon. The men at the still clink their hammered cups, mouth some jovial verbal atrocities in the general direction of the mill, and head inside to finish preparations for the day shift.
Tendrils of smoke begin to sprout like mushrooms from village chimneys. Families will be warming their homes and breakfasts before sending the fittest out to the fields. The littles and womenfolk have jobs less strenuous but equally tiring; prepping feasts, weaving grass baskets to dry on porches, tracking inventory and stores and sketching out the rough draft of a winter season production schedule. The whole village has been at it sunup to sunup going on two weeks now, they're all showing signs of weariness. The Maidens are tired too. They've also completed a harvest. After a fashion.
The harvest is a wonderment and windfall to Bend, a village nearly dense enough to be called a town (during harvest, at least, when all four inns are open and full instead of storing kegs and casks for curing). All the plains folk come. Sometimes the southern riverfolk come, normally after a fresh bout of typhoid hits them, and the survivors are looking for hope. Now and then they might even get an old traveler, coming from the low hills a few horizons west, holding onto their legacy and a few more winters. They typically leave disappointed, but hardened for having made the trip. Once there was even a Hero - an honest-to-goodness Mountain Clan Warrior - provisioned for a month's journey to reach us, and two months's worth to swing by who knows where next. The Maidens gave him ten strands, that harvest.
It were the thatcher's boy who found him at the river bank the very next day. Boots off, hat over his head, and the timber snake still nuzzling the warm soup of his carotid.
The Eldest Maiden had leaned forward into the news, eyes darting about faces of the anxious porch audience with a smear of incredulity lighting her own. "What do you expect?" she had asked. "I can't predict stupid."
They don't see many more Heroes here. Not after that.
Morning floors suck the sleep straight out of everyone's heels. There are no slow jaunts to the field carts - everyone breaks their fast with utilitarian efficiency, fills a canteen, and lopes to the waiting line of horse drawn labor vans. Movement will be what keeps them going throughout the harvest: cart dancing is equal parts entertainment, hangover cure, and muscle warmup for the threshing work ahead. The bright sun doesn't provide much lasting heat, as mere clouds send sleeves scurrying back towards wrists. Back in town the teenagers are all weaving baskets until their eyes are numb, and those not quite yet responsible are teaching littles to braid their hair into sweeping crowns and circlets. Young boys ventured as far as the old lightning orchard and busy themselves learning that hard apples are easier to throw, but the mush ones are easier to embarrass the target with. A day passes, then another. There's an electricity to the greetings and salutations between the villagers. They know the harvest is almost complete.
The day comes - the cock crows itself bored; the town sleeps in. Once the mist burns off the river, everyone seems to burst out of doors all at once - heading for the center of town, like a human maelstrom. Everyone is happy, commiserating. Staying away from any those who are sick. Neighbors peel back the cloth from their picnic baskets and trade fruited breads with friends and strangers. Moms adjust flowers in braids. Dads scruffle carefully coiffed tangles of their boys.
There is a statistically significant tidal force around one family in particular. Mom, dad, two girls (they look to be 15 and 4 or so). The younger has a beautiful lace-spun dress complete with a bow, she's grown enough that the hem is mid shin already. She had been sick, at the last harvest. Wasn't even given a new strand - a half a strand. A strand stood on end and spliced by the younger Maiden while the entire village sucked in it's breath and fought back tears. Her hair is braided now, her smile broad, and her necklace of harvest silk sure to bloom. She runs up to the Maidens, fearless and bright eyed, hugging their knees. Shocked laughter titters from the nearest onlookers. A genuine, closed-eye smile from the oldest Maiden, basking in the warmth of the toddler's embrace. She looks down at the scrap - then looks over at the parents and smugly nods; she knows exactly how tough the winter must have been for the family, to have ensured such a complete recovery. The mother beams with pride. The Maiden reaches back for a new strand. The younger Maiden passes a gloriously intact silver strand to her - her senior looks down and frowns... still frowning she inspects the lass more closely - pulls back the corner of an eyelid, whispers for her to smile, to say 'ah'. Satisfied, the frown becomes neutral and she snaps her fingers three times. That many new strands - whole, intact, and glimmering - are pushed into her outstretched palm. She reaches around the neck and doubles the girth of the lass's necklace. The hoots and hollers echo across the square as 4 becomes 10 becomes 20 and the outermost fringes are swearing to each other the Goddess Herself was just crowned at the Square of ol' Bend.
The crowd is so busy tellin' tales out of school that they miss this next bit. It's important, so we'll leave the crowd, for just this minute. We'll let the murmur and buzz of a hundred smiling faces linger in the air like burnt citrus.
The older sister is nearly as proud as her folks. She's smiling and watching her little sister skip along the front edge of the crowd, practicing her curtsy and issuing peals of laughter as neighbors and strangers pick her up high into the air, give her hugs, or offer high fives. While the elder is watching her sister, the Eldest is watching her. There's a silence, and a stillness; there's a moment of close regard. Then the Eldest Maiden nods, to herself more than anyone else. She turns to the spinning wheel and whispers to the sister. Then the Eldest turns and rearranges some items on her preparation table, finally clearing enough space to reach for a solid box engraved by a skinny number 8. The younger Maiden leaves the wheel still spinning and steps forward. She grasps a handful of the older sister's hair and nonchalantly shears away the entire necklace with a single schnick.
The girl whips her head to stare at the shears, her necklace, the eyes of the Maiden. Her eyes well up with tears and she howls a single "No!" while dropping to her knees to fish for the scraps of her discarded necklace. Her parents stop looking after their younger to see what's happened - father's face falls into his stomach, mother's face falls into the dirt at her feet. The Eldest Maiden looks reproachfully at her sister, who shrugs, smiles, and spins away on her heel to seat herself at the loom again. The Eldest Maiden squats, and grabs the girl's chin - guiding it up... and up... and up... until she is finally looking at the Maiden's other hand - the one holding the wrist-thick braid of black silk strands. The Maiden tugs her own collar aside - to reveal its twin. Comprehension spreads slower than butter on a frosty morning, but it finally tugs at the corners of the girl's eyes. Her mother is recovered enough to be up on her knees; her father drops down to his. The Maiden holds up the rope necklace, like a spade-dispatched snake, and the square falls to its knees silently, one row after another, like a pre-sow afternoon game of bones. The crowd is silent, excepting for the occasional "What's happening?" or meaty smack of an open palm on the back of a head. The Maiden reaches down, and twists the magnificent strand of the Maidens into a necklace around the neck of their newest recruit.
The girl tries to cover her toothy smile and tear-sodden cheeks. Failing both, her shoulders convulse with the sobbing laugh of one who has survived a near-death experience.
"Go. Spend the rest of the day with your family," her new, older sister tells her over her shoulder and the whistling of the loom pedals.
"Be ready come dawn," her new, oldest sister warns her. "Tomorrow - our work begins."
SciFiQuest 3018: A Dystopia for the Rest of Us