The Sleepless One

Boy, you have Warrior’s training I hear? Excellent. Come and sit over there with me. No, I don’t need your help—I’m not as old as I look.

Can you keep a secret? Of course, you can—everyone here keeps secrets. So listen to a story.

Ten years ago, the year that Cassia was the Dona, I became a Novice in the House of Ceremonies. You can see her name inscribed with the other Donas’ names on the stone pillar in the middle of the Town. Novices are unimportant until they become Masters, and you will not find my name written anywhere. Learning the secrets and ceremonies of the Masters held no appeal for me, nor did I seem apt to anyone, but there had been sickness in the Town the two years before and several Novices had died. It was only the hope of seeing Cassia that led me to agree to become a Novice.

I was fifteen and already had three years of Warrior’s training. In fact, I had already been to battle--for what that was worth. The men of my family traditionally are Warriors, though my memory of my father and older brothers was fading. Our family owns sheep, and my father and brothers were lost when I was eight in an early winter blizzard up near the summer pastures. Most of our flock froze to death. So the next years were sad and hard for my mother and me.

Cassia’s kindness often seemed the only thing to look forward to. We saw each other almost every day, meeting at the stream that ran between our families’ landholdings and walking together into the Town in the spring and fall for the school terms. At first, she brought me little treats, a cake or some pears, probably sorry for the new poverty of my home. She also played games with me—games not usual for a girl, especially not for a girl three years older than I. We fought mock battles with tree branches for swords and dared each other to make difficult crossings on the stepping stones in the stream and sometimes caught fish. She was good at all my boys’ activities—tall for her age and sturdy with quick strong arms and legs and more courage than I had by far. When we climbed the big fir trees on the mountainside, she went faster and higher than I dared, and so she saw farther—all the way to the Town-Across-The-Valley, all the way, she claimed, to the Cities-Beyond-The-Mountains, though I thought she was teasing me about that.

As we got older, we spent less time in play and more time talking. She was more advanced in school of course and better in every way at her lessons, and she liked studying and learning in a way that puzzled me. But I liked to hear her tell our Town’s history and old stories far better than reading them in the books in school.

She also constantly asked the kind of questions that were not permitted in school. Why did the traditions forbid marrying outside the Town? Why could a Farmer’s son not become a Baker? Where did the delicate woven cloth worn in the Ceremonies and the precious metals that decorated the House of Ceremonies come from? Why could women not be Scholars or even Masters since so many of them, like her, were scholarly? I had no answers, but I did eventually learn not to think that “Because it has always been that way” was a good answer when she said over and over, “But things can change, Erno.” I wasn’t sure that was true, but she made me hope it was.

Eventually, I even asked some questions of my own, though they were never as far-reaching or surprising as Cassia’s questions. The one I remember being most proud of was, “Why do we call the Sleepless One by that name when it spends most of the year asleep?”

Cassia was silent, then admitted, “I don’t know” and then with great graciousness to an awkward young boy asked, “Do you?”

“Maybe because at the Offering, which is the time that counts for the Town, the creature is never asleep,” I ventured.

She looked troubled for a moment and said, “I suppose you’re right.”

It bothered me that she seemed troubled, and I said with pretended certainty, “Anyway, most of the year the Sleepless One is just a tale to frighten children.”

She still looked troubled. “I think it’s more than that,” she said quietly.

She was almost eighteen when she was chosen as Dona, almost too old for the Selection, though she had the prettiness and freshness expected in a Dona. The Selection was late that year, and the mountain meadows were overflowing with flowers. She looked perfect as she stood tall and still on the platform in the center of Town with the crowd cheering. She was facing the sun and frowning just a little into the glare. As they do every year, they garlanded her, adorning her with the new flowers, then carried her through the Town and around its boundaries so that all of us would enjoy health and prosperity in the coming year. The Masters in their robes mumbled their incantations, and a chorus of young girls sang the traditional songs.

Cassia looked straight forward over our heads with the seriousness and dignity that befitted the Dona, but which the girls who were chosen did not always manage. Her mother was there, pushing to the front to the place reserved for the Dona’s mother, smiling and greeting friends and receiving congratulations. The mother of the Dona is not always so prominent, you know. If she is weeping—and some of them cannot help but weep, she generally stays out of sight during the procession.

So in the traditional way, everyone was joyful—except me. And, I knew, Cassia. I wondered if anyone guessed how much Cassia did not want to be the Dona. I knew because we had talked about it three weeks earlier beside the still-frozen stream the day it was announced that Cassia was one of the candidates for the Selection. I admit that my first thought had been that at least this meant her parents would not arrange a marriage for her before the Selection. In my boyish way, I had loved Cassia as long as I could remember, and the past year every time I had seen her, I had been afraid she would tell me that she was to be married. I didn’t know how I could bear that.

“Are you afraid?” I asked.

“Of what?” She sounded distracted.

“The Sleepless One.”

“Erno, they’ll never choose me. I’m too old.” She laughed, “Besides I’d drive the Masters crazy with my curiosity, with all my questions. They know better than to choose me.”

After a moment, she said, more to herself than to me, “They can’t choose me. There’s so much I want to do in life and so much I want to learn. I want to be the first woman Scholar, even if I’m married, and write books, and travel to the Town-Across-The-Valley—and maybe beyond.” Her voice trailed off.

I was surprised, even scandalized. I said, “Most girls are honored to be chosen as the Dona. It’s very important for the Town.”

“Most girls think only of the year between the Selection and the Offering. For the kind of girl who expects the high point of her life to be her wedding day, it’s like being a bride every day for a year. She spends the year beautifully dressed, admired and the center of attention, leading the dance at every party, in the seat of honor at every Town Ceremony. It’s a wonderful year. It may even seem worth it to some girls.”

As usual, I didn’t have any answers for Cassia’s thoughts. I was silent.

“Would you want to be the Dona?” Her voice was irritated, challenging.

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “I’m not a girl.”

On the day of the Selection, I did not let myself think of the whole situation or I would have burst into tears. But there was enough to make me sad, even desperate, because I realized that now she would never return to her parents’ house, and we would be separated even earlier than if she married. She would go live in the Dona’s beautiful stone house in the Town, and she would sit, richly dressed, in rooms full of flowers and eat delicacies and in the late winter the townspeople would visit her for the Disemburdening. And when would I ever see her except in a crowd at a great distance?

So the week after the Selection when one of the Masters came to ask my mother if I would like to become a Novice, I agreed eagerly, thinking I might have a chance to see Cassia. I went into the Town to live in the Novices’ dormitory in the House of Ceremonies with the other boys and young men who were going through the ten-year preparation to become Masters. The younger boys were all right, loud and full of laughter and awkwardness as boys are. I liked the older ones less. They were becoming stiff and formal and full of their own importance, like the Masters themselves. I felt guilty sometimes to have such an attitude because we are told how important the Masters and their Ceremonies are for making our crops grow and the wool on our sheep thick and for keeping sickness and all ill and evil away from the Town.

For Novices, there is a great deal of study of the angle to hold a cup at the Lambing Ceremony or the exact position of the sun when the Selection for the year is announced. Until almost summer, I did not see Cassia except when she attended Town Ceremonies, walking among the Masters and receiving the reverent bows of the townspeople. I volunteered for everything I thought might bring me in contact with her, but first-year Novices are not considered ready to take part in the Great Ceremonies of Spring—the Offering and the Selection.

I did hear gossip among the Novices about Cassia, older boys’ voices in the dark in the dormitory. “She said she was bored,” I heard.

“Bored? How can the Dona be bored? The Town Musicians and Actors will come entertain her every day if she asks.”

“I don’t know, but she said she wants to be admitted to the House of Ceremonies Library.”

“Are they going to let her? She’s a girl.” The voice sounded aghast.

“I think they are. She argued she wanted to learn about the history and philosophy of the Offering to help her prepare.”

“What is the Town coming to?” There was a deep sigh.

In the late spring, there was sickness in the Town. The Masters and older Novices were busy with healing ceremonies and ceremonies to ward off illness, and some of them fell sick themselves. As a result, I was sent with food and supplies to the Dona’s house.

Cassia was alone in the big front room with its fine carved furniture and soft woolen carpets. A pile of books, old big volumes, were stacked up on the table where she was sitting, and one was open in front of her.

I opened the door, then stopped and made a deep bow on the threshold as I had been instructed. “Dona,” I said, “may I enter?”

She looked up puzzled a moment before almost shouting, “Erno” and running across the room to hug me.

“I don’t know whether you should do that now,” I said.

“Yes—I should,” she said in Cassia’s voice, not some strange new Dona’s voice as I had feared.

She helped me put away the supplies in the well-stocked kitchen and larder, then insisted that we have tea together. “There’s no one to talk to here,” she said.

Eagerly, she began talking very fast about what she had been learning from the books. The early records showed it was only in the last century that the Dona had gone alone up the mountain for the Offering. Earlier a young woman and a young man had been chosen at the Selection—she to be in the Dona’s role much as it was now, but the man had Warrior’s training and was called the Champion. Usually, neither returned, but sometimes they both came back, the Champion having vanquished the Sleepless One. “And in those years,” Cassia said, her eyes full of light, “the old stories say there was great rejoicing in the Town and they were years of special prosperity and health.”

“But what about the townspeople who had Disemburdened?” I asked.

Cassia frowned. “I don’t quite understand that myself, but it says they were still cleansed. Can you imagine—in those years the townspeople forgave each other?”

I couldn’t imagine it. “But if that’s so,” I said doubtfully, “why don’t we learn about it?”

She shook her head. “There’s more,” she said. “How does the Sleepless One look?”

“Isn’t it green and reptilian—and some people say it breathes fire and smoke?”

“I don’t think so.” Cassia gestured toward the books. “I don’t think anyone alive actually knows what it looks like.”

I was silent. All this was contrary to what I had heard, what I had been taught all my life.

Finally, she said, “Erno, I don’t want to walk up the mountain next spring, passive and defenseless, and die up there the way the Dona does year after year."

I said softly, almost in a whisper, “But you do it for the Town. If you don’t go, who knows what terrors will descend, beginning with the Sleepless One coming down to find other food after its winter’s sleep. You are the Offering. You do it for the Town.”

She said deliberately, “Perhaps something else could happen for the Town. The Champion sometimes used to vanquish the monster, so it can happen. But you must help me. You’re the only one I can trust.”

An idea began to form in my mind, an idea that horrified me. “Cassia,” I said, “I can’t be your Champion if that’s what you’re thinking. I have Warrior’s training, but I’ve told you what happens in battle—I just cannot do it.”

I had in fact told her a secret that only Warriors know. You haven’t yet been in battle? Then you won’t know, but, if you’re to be a Warrior, you will soon enough.

You know, while boys and men train as Warriors, as I had from the age of twelve, we rarely go to battle. We are told that our only enemy, the Town-Across-The-Valley, fears the prowess of our Warriors so that they dare not break the truce between us, and we are proud of being a superior, peaceful people. Most of the time all is peaceful, and a few townspeople even trade with the Town-Across-the-Valley, our wool and wood carvings for herbs and medicines, fine woven cloth, and precious metals to be used by the Masters.

Every eight or ten years, a dispute arises—a cow disappears and is thought to be stolen or a townsman insults or is insulted by someone from across the valley. There had been a battle when I was six, and I remember my father and brothers and the other Warriors returning that evening. As had been the case in every battle anyone could remember, no one from the Town was killed or wounded, and we honored the skill and bravery of our Warriors with a feast. Four sheep were roasted in the Town center, there was music and dancing. I remember how proud I was to sit with the men of my family, but they did not talk much. They said that the Town, as always, had won, and they repeated what Warriors traditionally said, “We raised our weapons, and the valley turned red.” When I tried to ask questions, my father warned me that Warriors were always silent about battle and that it was forbidden to question them.

I went to the next battle myself, two years after I started Warrior’s training, when I was fourteen. I was no better than middling in my training, and I feared that I might be the first Warrior from the Town in anyone’s memory to die in battle. I was surprised that they took along boys who had started training only a few months before as well as old men, including one who could barely see. We left on a sunny day, armed with our swords and spears, but no shields or bows and arrows. I knew battles were always on sunny days.

We walked down the mountain until we got almost to the river that runs along the floor of the valley and marks the boundary between the Town’s territory and the land of the Town-Across-The-Valley. The land flattens out there some distance from the river and becomes sandy and rocky. It looked to me like a difficult place to cross the river, but the Commander called a halt and we took out bread and meat to eat our midday meal. The older men were passing around a jug of wine as well.

While we were eating, the opposing army came in sight across the river. I could see at once that they outnumbered us, and I felt a wave of nausea. But I rose to my feet in case a charge was ordered. A couple of the older men nearby, watching me, laughed. Everyone continued eating.

The warriors across the river also settled down at some distance from the river and began to eat. This went on for a good hour or more. I felt I couldn’t stand it anymore and that, if I were ordered to charge the enemy single-handed, I would do it eagerly, grateful to be doing something other than waiting.

There must have been some signal, though I didn’t see it, because the Town’s Warriors began lining up in a row closer to the river than the place where we had eaten, but still at a long distance from the enemy. Of course, I joined them, standing toward the middle of the line between two large, powerful men. The enemy also formed a line across from us.

Then the brandishing of swords and spears and the shouting started. And after that the shouting of boasts and defiance. I thought this must be part of building up our courage, and I waved my sword in the air, and even ventured to shout, “We’re going to win, you’ll see—but you won’t see because you’ll all be dead.”

Across the river, the men and boys were doing the same thing, displaying their weapons and, I could see, opening their mouths and saying something to us. The wind blew between us and carried their words away, and I knew they also couldn’t hear us. This went on a long time, and I wondered when the actual battle would start.

As we began to get hoarse, the Commander told some of us to rest for periods, and we drew back to the rocks where we had eaten. When I went back to the line, a new stage had started. The boasts were fewer, now the shouts were mostly insults, many of them obscene, punctuated with various obscene gestures and with laughter. The wind was still blowing, and the two sides still couldn’t hear each other.

And so it went—yelling, boasts, insults, obscenities—all afternoon. It became very repetitive, and I would have found it almost boring, except that I was still afraid of what would happen when the real battle started. Warriors came and went from the two lines, but there were always some there facing each other. Back of our line, more wine had come out, and some cakes sent by someone’s wife, and the gathering had the atmosphere of a summer picnic.

Toward sunset, the Commander called us back to form the complete line again. The shouting had stopped, and the men in the line were silent and expectant. Across the river, they were also still.

We stood there, and I saw everyone’s eyes turning to the west. The sky was red and purple, ablaze with the setting sun, and the red light from the sunset flooded down into the valley, tinting the river and the light-colored sand and rocks. The Commander shouted, “Now,” and every Warrior raised his sword or spear, but slowly as if in some sort of dance, so of course I did, too. When I looked nervously across at the enemy, they, too, had their weapons raised and motionless and were watching the valley turn red.

When the color faded, one or two Warriors at a time lowered their weapons and left the line to pick up their possessions. As we started up the mountain in the dusk, I asked the Sergeant who sometimes instructed us trainees where we were going. “Home,” he said and pointed across the river, “like them.” The army from the Town-Across-The-Valley was withdrawing.

“But there was no battle,” I said.

“There was a battle,” he said in a tone that stopped any argument.

“But what will we tell the townspeople?”

“You know the tradition—‘We raised our weapons, and the valley turned red.’”

“And will we also say we won?”

“It’s tradition, isn’t it?” His frown stifled anything more I might have asked, but he answered what would have been my next question. “Peace and security are better than truth sometimes,” he said.

That evening, I was miserable in the midst of all the celebration. When my mother rushed to me and told me how happy she was that I was safe, I felt like a fraud. But, of course, no one asked me specific questions. The silence of Warriors was respected.

I felt even more miserable when Cassia, meeting me the next day by the stream, complimented me, saying I was a man now. And so I did what was forbidden and told her the whole story. When I ended with “I feel like a liar,” she said, “I don’t know, Erno—maybe the Sergeant was right. Peace and security are important, and these things are complicated.”

We had not mentioned it again until now when I thought she was asking me to be the Champion. “I told you,” I said, “mostly we just yelled at each other—from a safe distance.”

She reached over and took my hand. “Silly boy, I didn’t mean that. They wouldn’t let you go up the mountain with me anyway. But you do have Warrior’s training, and you can show me how to use a sword and spear. Then I will see what I can do against that thing on the mountain.”

It seemed wrong, and I felt guilty, but I also loved Cassia so I agreed.

After that, I saw Cassia regularly. She demanded my presence of the Masters, and it was customary to grant the Dona whatever she asked. She told them she had known me all my life and trusted me, and I suppose, skinny and awkward as I was, they couldn’t imagine a young woman like Cassia getting into mischief with a boy like me.

I brought food and flowers to her house, and she told me what she was reading. She was learning about the Disemburdening in the winter. However she might be willing to disrupt the Offering, she took her part in the Disemburdening with traditional seriousness. While she was not expected to say anything to the people who came to talk to her, she thought that in some cases she might offer a word of comfort or even of challenge. Of course, each person’s Disemburdening would end with her reciting, “I will carry your burden to the Sleepless One. Be at peace.”

As the summer went on, I also accompanied her on walks in the forest. There I had hidden swords and spears. I showed her what I could about their use, and she found books on individual combat to supplement what I showed her. I was a mediocre Warrior, but I could tell her what my instructors had told me. As it turned out, she was the more talented fighter, quick and surprisingly strong with great calm presence of mind. Before the end of the summer, she was beating me in our sparring—though we both knew that whatever the Sleepless One was, I was not a comparable foe.

The harvest was good that year, and there were plentiful stores to put in for the winter. People said last year’s Offering must have been a good one, and they hoped that Cassia would provide equal bounty.

The snows are heavy in our mountains, and Cassia and I knew that our forest walks would need to stop when the snow started. As it became gray and cold and the trees dripped from days of rain, Cassia told me that we should go up the mountain to the Offering ground. She wanted to see it before doing battle there. Besides, there was the practical matter of leaving weapons hidden there.

I was afraid of that walk even though everyone said that the Sleepless One awakened only for the Offering and then went back for another year’s sleep, satisfied not only with the Dona’s flesh but with the faults and failings of the whole town from the Disemburdening, which she brought with her for the creature to devour. In fact, I knew the Masters sometimes went up there just before the Offering to make sure the path was clear and to do other secret business I knew nothing of. I had seen the special masks they wore for those trips.

The path was steep and narrow, and it was muddy the day we climbed to the Offering ground, but we were mountain people and used to rough trails. Almost all the leaves were gone from the trees, so we could see the Town growing smaller below us and looking vulnerable. I carried two swords and two spears to hide near the entrance to the Offering ground.

We saw the plumes of vapor rising from the place before we passed the ruined stone gate that marked the entrance. They hung near the ground, some of them almost transparent, others looking as solid as a body. I remembered the stories of the Sleepless One breathing smoke and fire, but the place was empty. It was rocky with cracks in the ground from which the vapor rose and no vegetation or birds or small animals. If it had not been for the vapor, it would not have looked frightening or sinister, but simply bleak and barren.

There was also the odd sweet smell—cloyingly sweet, but I found it neither overwhelming nor sickening. Cassia took the weapons from me and said she would find hiding places. She had been the one who wanted to come, but now she said, “I won’t be long. I don’t want to stay here. That stink is like something rotting.”

I did not manage to stay on my feet more than a few moments once she was gone as a great weariness came over me. She found me sound asleep and already dreaming of a world of brilliant colors merging into one another with no confining forms, a world that made my real world seem dull and monotonous and regimented.

I awakened reluctantly when Cassia shook me. “Let’s go,” she said. “I think the vapors are making you sleep.” I didn’t want to leave. The dreams were so wonderful, and I wanted more, but I followed her.

When we were outside the old gate, she turned and asked, “How could you have gone to sleep up there?”

“How could you not have gone to sleep?” I asked honestly.

She shook her head as if my question puzzled her, or as if it didn’t deserve a reply.

“Where did you put the weapons?” I asked.

“It’s best if I’m the only one who knows,” she said sternly.

We walked back to the Town in silence. I wondered if she did not trust me after all. I also wondered if the fate of the Dona was not as terrible as we thought. If she went to sleep to a world of wonderful dreams before the Sleepless One came, perhaps that was her experience of the Offering and not the fear and violence and pain we imagined.

Soon after that, the time of Disemburdening began. I saw less of Cassia then because every day she waited in her house for townspeople to come to tell her the wrongs they had done, their failings, their nagging disappointments, their terrors, and their hatreds. Soon the word in the marketplace was that there had never been a Dona like this one. I heard one old man say to another, “You feel cleansed this year, even before the Offering.”

Cassia was sworn to secrecy about the Disemburdening, and she kept her oath. In fact, she did not speak to me at all about it, except for the time when I brought her some food and found her crying. I had never seen Cassia, who was so energetic, so strong, so intrepid, crying. She shook her head slowly and said, “Oh, Erno, there’s so much pain. I didn’t know there was so much pain.”

I wanted to comfort her, but I had nothing to answer. This was a part of life that was beyond me.

The day of the Offering, at Cassia’s request, I joined the party who accompanied her partway up the mountain. The Chief Master went first with his traditional wooden staff, which he didn’t need to help him in the climb since he was a large, powerfully-built man. He looked at me suspiciously as we started, but he often looked at Novices that way as if he was unsure of our worth. There were also two younger Masters and two girls who were among the candidates for the next Selection, which would take place in two days. Cassia came last. She did not seem fearful, she looked determined.

The ground was still patchy with snow, and at places ice was melting on the rocks along the path. But the earliest spring flowers, yellow and white, were blooming in sheltered places. The girls who attended Cassia carried baskets. As we walked, they collected flowers to take back to decorate the Town’s streets for the Selection and to adorn the new Dona when she was chosen.

We stopped at a hut halfway to the Offering ground. The girls went into the hut with Cassia to help her dress in the fine white wool dress and the heavier white wool cloak the Dona wore for the Offering. They painted her face in the ritual patterns, purple and black on one side and red and white on the other.

The girls came out without Cassia, saying the Dona wanted to speak with me alone. The Chief Master frowned, but it was not a moment when he could refuse anything to the Dona. The windowless hut was lighted by candles. Cassia would have been very beautiful in the white clothes, except for the grotesque face painting.

She stood up as I came in. “Erno,” she said, “wish me well. If I succeed, it will change everything—for me, for you, for the whole Town.”

I looked away. Confusion rose in me like a great shadow. I was silent.

She waited a moment until it was clear I was not going to answer. Then she spoke softly, touching my hand with her fingertips. “Dear boy, it will be all right.”

Still, I was silent.

Her voice became louder, more formal, “I thank you—for your friendship and for the help you have given me in preparing for today.”

Perhaps because she sounded so distant, I started to cry. She put her arm around me. “Not now,” she said firmly. “I need your strength.”

She started toward the door, but I held onto her hand. Not sure what I was going to say, I found myself reciting the ritual formula, “Dona, I wish to tell you my burden.”

She seemed surprised, but said, “Yes?”

“By helping you, I have betrayed the beliefs and traditions of our people and exposed the Town to danger and terror.”

She drew back, looking shocked, but she made the ritual reply, “I will carry your burden to the Sleepless One. Be at peace.”

She left the hut without saying anything more. By the time I went outside, she was disappearing up the steep path alone.

The girls went back to the Town, carrying their flowers. The rest of us waited there. By tradition, the Masters determine when the Offering is complete. I had no idea—and still have no idea—how they determine that. Always before I had learned of the completion of the Offering with everyone else in the Town by the loud pealing of bells and raucous clanging of cymbals and by the sound of horns, and we had all looked forward to the Selection a day or two afterwards.

We waited. The Masters stayed away from me, passing a jug of wine among themselves. I did not expect an invitation to join them. I found a little rocky outcropping where I could see the Town below. I had never thought much about loving the Town, but I loved it that day.

In mid-afternoon, Cassia returned, limping as she walked down the path. Her white dress was torn and dirty. She was not wearing her cloak, and the left sleeve of her dress was torn away, showing mottled bruises, streaked with dried blood. The paint on her face had run together. She was evidently in pain, moving like an old woman, but her eyes shone clear and steady from the muddy blur of colors on her face. She was carrying something wrapped in her cloak, which was dirtier and bloodier than her dress, and it bounced against her left leg as she walked. In her right hand, she still carried a sword.

We all stood up, but no one said a word as she came to stand in front of the Chief Master and placed the object wrapped in the cloak at his feet. She spoke loudly and clearly, “Master, I have slain the Sleepless One. Rejoice with me.”

She used the tip of the sword to pull the cloak away from what I knew must be the monster’s head. I was afraid I would be sick if I saw it. I turned away thinking that there were things it was better not to see and realizing how different Cassia and I were from each other. When I looked back, one of the younger Masters had the bundle. He looked afraid.

Usually, the Chief Master spoke in a voice for the Ceremonies, loud, even booming, but he said quietly, “Dona, you must rest now.” He gestured toward the hut, and Cassia went inside.

The rest of the afternoon was more waiting. Cassia stayed in the hut. The rest of us were mostly silent. I thought the younger Masters looked frightened while the Chief Master, who so often seemed angry, instead looked sad. For me, the confusion of the day continued. I thought I should feel happy that Cassia had survived, but I did not understand or trust the day’s events. Cassia had told me that in the old times in the years when the Sleepless One was defeated, there was great rejoicing in the Town, but I did not think that would be true for us now.

At one point, the Chief Master came over to my place with the view of the Town. Without introduction, he said, “Boy, these are secret things.”

I nodded.

“You will not speak of them. Swear that.”

“I swear, Master,” I said obediently.

About sunset, one of the Masters sent me into the hut with a jug of water. It was very dark inside, lit by a single candle. Cassia was lying on the floor with a rough blanket over her, but she was awake. She sat up and took the water jug. She moved painfully, but she also smiled at me. “I did it, you know. What we talked about. It should change everything.”

I wanted to be happy with her, but instead I was honest. “I don’t know,” I said. “I think we’re in unknown territory now—all of us.” She did not answer.

“When we get back to the Town, the Master Healers will see to your injuries,” I said.

She sighed. “I’m all right, Erno.”

She drank some of the water, then said, “You always have been a good boy, Erno. You should leave now.”

As I was going out, she said one more thing. “It’s strange. I think the Sleepless One was very old and tired. He fought me, but when he saw he was losing, I think he was relieved, perhaps even happy.”

We returned to the Town after dark. Cassia was limping so badly that the younger Masters had to support her, almost carrying her down the mountain. It was a moonless night, and the streets were dark and empty. We entered the House of Ceremonies through a back door, which was almost overgrown with vines and which I had never noticed.

The House was asleep. Torches burned at the ends of the long hallways, but everywhere else was darkness and shadow. We saw no one as we went to the Great Court where some of the most important Ceremonies take place.

The Masters helped Cassia to a bench at the side of the huge court. Then they sent me to the kitchen for bread and cheese. None of us had eaten since morning. The Chief Master called after me as I went out of the court, “Remember your promise. Secret things.” As I left, I saw Cassia leaning against the wall, a vague form in the shadows.

When I returned, the Chief Master was sitting alone at a small table beside the entrance to the Great Court. They had lit only three or four of the court’s many torches and lamps, but I could see the other Masters who had been with us that day in the shadows heaping up wood in the big ceremonial fire pit. Cassia had disappeared, and I thought that they must have taken her to the Healers.

The Chief Master smiled at me. I stared at him—I had seen him laugh, but never simply smile. “You did well today, Erno.” I was surprised he knew my name. “You are a good boy—a good son of the Town.”

He pulled a piece of bread off one of the loaves I had brought and broke off a piece of cheese for me, telling me to go to bed. As he pushed the food toward me across the table, he knocked something off onto the floor. I leaned over to retrieve it, but he bent with greater speed and snatched it up to put in a pocket of his robe. But I saw what it was—a butcher’s knife, with nothing ceremonial about it, no ornament or precious metal. Just a butcher’s knife. I knew better than to say anything.

As I left, I glanced at the bench where I had last seen Cassia. Resting on it was a head on a crumpled white cloth. It was not green or scaly or reptilian. It looked gray as a sick person is said to look gray. Under a tangle of matted hair, the features were coarse and blunt, but they were human features, those of an old man. His eyes were closed, and his expression was one of composure and peace. Considering the darkness and shadows, I should be uncertain what I saw, but I am not. I can close my eyes and see the image as vividly as I saw it ten years ago.

I stumbled through the dark hallways to a bench outside the door to the Novices’ dormitory where I sank down, leaning heavily against the wall. I was exhausted and I felt ill, but I had not eaten since morning. I began slowly putting bread and cheese into my mouth as I stared blankly into one of the building’s many courtyards. Soon a reflected light began to dance on a small area of the courtyard’s wall. It was opposite the Great Court, and I knew that I must be seeing a reflection of a fire burning there. They must be burning the Sleeping One’s head, I thought, and that seemed a good thing to me as I fell asleep.

I started awake as I fell over onto the bench. I had been dreaming that the Town was on fire. Now the whole courtyard wall blazed with reflected red light as if the wall was actually aflame. I wondered why so large a fire was needed to burn the head. I stayed awake then, watching, until the flames burned out and the wall was again blank.

When all was dark, I felt my way to my bed in the dormitory. I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep and didn’t awaken even when the Novices got up the next morning. It was the last time in my life that I have slept soundly.

At mid-morning, I awakened to sunshine streaming through a window that overlooked the marketplace and to the sounds of bells, cymbals, and horns. Joyful townspeople called to one another, “The Offering is complete,” and the traditional responses, “Be at peace” and “We are cleansed.”

I wondered if Cassia might now become a kind of permanent Dona—someone to go to for listening and advice and comfort. But the ringing and clashing and greetings sounded as they always had every year of my life.

I splashed some water on my face and went toward the Great Court. The Masters and Novices were out leading the celebration, so I met no one. The Great Court also seemed perfectly empty. I walked over to the fire pit. It was clean, swept of all ashes, though I thought the stones of the floor under my feet felt warm.

Then I saw the Chief Master, sitting on one side of the court. He stared at me without seeming to see me. My first thought was that he would know what had happened, and that gave me the courage to approach him.

“Master,” I said, “is Cassia. . . .” I corrected myself, “Is the Dona all right?”

He frowned, still looking through me, then seemed to come back to himself. “What are you saying, boy?” he said harshly. “There is no Dona—not until one is chosen at the Selection.”

“But . . . ,” I started.

“Don’t you hear them outside? The Offering is complete. We will have peace another year.”

I felt as if I was going crazy, but before I could speak, he cut me off again, his eyes narrowing. “You’re not a child. You know what it means for the Offering to be complete. The Dona went up the mountain and was killed by the Sleepless One. That must be the truth. That is the truth.”

He waved me away, reminding me that these were secret things and I was sworn to secrecy.

And so I learned that I would not see Cassia again. The next days were confused, nightmarish for me. The new Dona, a short blonde girl with pink cheeks, was paraded through the streets as the townspeople showered her with white and yellow flowers. Sick and feverish, I collapsed during one of the processions.

I was brought back to the House of Ceremonies where the Master Healers took charge of me They gave me herbal potions and put me in a room by myself with my uncertainties and regrets and guilt.

When I recovered, it seemed that I was to be kept away from the High and Secret Ceremonies, especially the Offering and the Selection. I was sent back to the Master Healers to study with them, and I liked them. They were gentle, mostly old men, down-to-earth and humble, as Masters go. I began to learn symptoms of diseases, properties of herbs, and the healing incantations.

The Healers noticed that my face was changing, already beginning to show the lines and pouches that gradually have made me look so much older than I am. I admitted that I was not sleeping, and they had me moved from the Novices’ dormitory to a solitary bed in the herbarium where I have spent every night since. I still did not sleep as I lay in the dark breathing the rich, mysterious scents, but I was glad to be alone.

As that year went on, I watched the new Dona, the soft-looking blonde girl, from afar. She seemed to be enjoying herself, always smiling and laughing, and I remembered what Cassia had said about being a bride—the center of attention, the admired one—for a whole year. I wondered what would happen at the next Offering. Perhaps, another creature was waiting on the mountain, asleep among those sweet mists. But I doubted that.

The morning of the next Offering, I saw the Dona and her party outside the House of Ceremonies before they started up the mountain. I was going to the forest with one of the Healing Masters to search for medicinal plants now that the snows were gone. The Healing Master hurried past, averting his eyes respectfully, but I looked at the Dona. For a moment, I thought they had already painted her face, but then I realized it was blotched red and white with weeping.

They returned that evening without the Dona, and the next morning there were bells and cymbals and horns and happy people in the Town. And so it has been every year since.

I have never talked about these matters, but I think about them constantly—especially as I lie awake at night. The first years were the hardest--when I was tormented by questions. Did I fail Cassia? But what could I have done? Cassia had the courage and imagination that heroes are made of. I did not.

And did Cassia succeed or fail? She did what she planned, but it was not the right time to change everything for the Town.

Or did I fail the Town, by helping spoil the truth of my people’s traditions, and forcing the Masters—at least some of them—into lies and deeds I don’t want to know?

The Healers teach the importance of time in healing. With the years, I think less about those painful questions. As I lie awake now, I tell myself stories about Cassia and her fate. Some are happy stories: She recovered from her wounds, but was sent away because the Masters did not know what else to do. Cassia lives in the Cities-Beyond-The-Mountains where she is loved and respected as a Scholar and where people come to her to seek comfort and advice and new ideas about life.

Some stories are sad, but still comforting: Brave Cassia died of her wounds the night of the Offering, and so the Chief Master was not lying when he said that the Sleepless One killed her. But that story ends with Cassia’s gallantry and does not explain all the other Offerings since.

Then there is the story I try to avoid—the horror story: It includes the Chief Master’s butcher knife and the big fire in the Great Court, and it tells of all the Offerings the last ten years.

I have kept the secrets I promised to keep. So why do I tell them to you now, boy, you with your Warrior’s training?

This spring, I am to be initiated as a Master, but first I must go up the mountain and take part in the Offering. I don’t know how the Masters have managed the Offering these ten years. I don’t want to know. And so, like Cassia, I am making my own destiny, though I don’t know what that destiny will be.

I am going to the Offering ground, leaving the Masters a message that the Sleepless One has returned. On the mountain, I will find the sweet vapors that brought such wonderful dreams, and I will lie down among them in that barren place. It has been so long since I slept.

And after I have slept? A light footstep on the path will awaken me. Perhaps, I will be a different kind of Sleepless One. The Dona and I will talk about new possibilities and distant places until the mist sends us bright dreams. And so it will be each year for several years until we have a party to travel to new places and see new things, the Donas and I. We’ll go together to the Cities-Beyond-The-Mountains, and perhaps we will meet Cassia there.

Or there is another possibility, I know. When the light footstep awakens me, I will arise from those strange dreams and fulfill the traditions of my people, and the Masters will once again have integrity, and the vapors will put me back to sleep for another year.

If that last story comes true, boy, nonetheless, there will come a year—and I have seen candidates for the next Selection and know it will not be this year. But there will come a year when the Dona is tall and strong and clear-eyed. You will know her. Then you must tell her Cassia’s story, and, if she dares, teach her to use the sword and spear. Tell her that the Sleepless One waits—to fight a little and then gratefully accept release. And tell her that the townspeople and their ways may have changed by then. Cassia was right that people can change—consider me. And that young woman’s story will be the final chapter of Cassia’s story.

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