Kara had wanted to be a watcher ever since she had first been allowed to attend the meets. She remembered frolicing around the great fire with the other children, caught up in the revelry, but she also remembered standing on the outskirts of the gathering. She had been enthralled by the sight of the watchfires lit around the rim of the valley, and by the eerie cries that seemed to float on the wind from them. The sight and sound seemed magical to her young eyes.
The priest Boru had found her there, and with a knowing smile explained the watchfires. One was lit on every hilltop, one to each of the deities protecting the villages of the tribe, each guarded by a carefully chosen watcher to ensure the flames burned all night long to ward off evil and to warn the tribe below of any impending danger. Kara had turned a slow circle, thinking of all the brave men and women who had accepted the role, not only forgoing participation in the meet but also potentially putting themselves in grave danger for the sake of the tribe. The ring of fires still seemed magical, and yet now was imbued with more than just a mystical sense of protection. There gods were watching over them, but so too were people. A small fire was lit in her heart that day. She knew that, more than anything, she wanted to one day become a watcher.
She had confessed this desire to Boru, as soon as she could pull him aside after completion of her coming of age ceremony. Eyes still watering from the scented smoke, she didn’t need to try to hide her tears as she expressed her heartfelt desire to join the watchers. She let the fire that she had carefully tended inside of her pour out through her eyes and lips as she made her request. She remembered the calculating look Boru had given her. “We shall see,” he had replied, saying nothing else to her that day.
Kara had been crushed. While not an outright refusal, his words held no hint of promise, kicking ash over the flames in her heart until they were no more than glowing embers. She should have known better, she cursed herself. She was hardly the strongest, quickest, or even the smartest of her village. Why would they put their trust in her hands?
Kara had been startled awake by the messenger that came to her from the temple the next freeday. He delivered a simple order that she was to spend the day gathering kindling for the priests. Kara had groaned as she rose, cursing herself again for the audacity of asking to become a watcher. Surely that must be what had earned her this penance.
Kara went about her work, trying to ignore the squeals of laughter emanating from the village center where the rest of her kin were enjoying the day free from work. It seemed so unfair; she had done nothing wrong And yet, she held onto a slight ray of hope; Boru had not said no. She tried to search his face as she delivered each load of dry twigs. Was he relenting? But his expression remained impassive as he received each bundle. When he dismissed her from her labour as the sun began to set, he gave no hint that he had reconsidered. Deflated, Kara returned to the village.
The next freeday, the messenger returned again. This time he directed her to report to the temple, where she was set to work mending robes.
The pattern continued for nearly two seasons. Each freeday Kara was given a task to perform for the temple. While at first she thought that she had somehow angered the priests, as she searched her heart she could not find any reason to incur wrath sufficient to warrant this extensive a punishment. The small flame of hope began to grow.
It’s warmth sustained her through the tasks, some as menial as washing the temple walls, some requiring more exotic journeys to gather coloured stones from mountains nearly half a day’s walk away.
When the messenger roused her with an order to slaughter a paka, she had to chase after him to ask him to repeat the message, sure that she had misunderstood in her early-morning grogginess. When he delivered the order again, she was left aghast. She had often sent off parties to hunt for paka, but knew nothing about how such a feat was performed. Only the hunters did such things; she didn’t even know where to begin.
She had feigned a mild curiosity as she asked Lari about the hunt over their morning meal, but hung onto his every word as he explained his role with great relish. Kara had been dismayed to learn that paka were hunted by groups of four men. As she prodded Lari for more detail, pretending- with no great difficulty- to be caught up in his story, she began to formulate a plan for how she might accomplish the task on her own. Filled with hope, she bid Lari farewell when the horn blew for the midday meal, and instead of joining the crowds heading for the village center, she slinked off into the forest to begin her private hunt, gathering a few large stones on the way.
It was well after dusk when she returned to the temple. She could barely meet Boru’s eyes as he greeted her at the threshold. She knelt to offer up the handful of marow grass as a penance offering before scampering away in shame.
The next freeday, no messenger came. Kara joined the village for the morning meal, wondering what she would do with her day. She had grown used to a lack of free time, and the prospect of an entire day of talk and relaxation oddly frightened her. As she rinsed her bowl in the stream, she turned back to face the village and steeled herself to face this new kind of ordeal. She stole one last glance over her shoulder into the depths of the forest. It was a lingering glance. A glance that turned into a few tentative steps, that in turn became purposeful strides carrying her into the forest, pausing only briefly to gather a few large, jagged stones.
It was again well after dusk when she returned to the temple, stumbling under the weight of the paka across her shoulders. It wasn’t the triumphant return of the hunters, with the animal hanging proudly displayed, dead but still dignified and presentable, the cause of much celebration. Kara’s return with her paka was much quieter. Both it’s coat and her clothing were soaked in blood that continued to seep from both her and it. She deposited the load at Boru’s feet at the temple threshold before wavering and kneeling. It was a clumsy offering, but one of which she was incredibly proud.
“You know why you were asked to do this?” Boru’s voice came from above her.
Kara thought carefully. “No,” she replied. She had her suspicions, but voicing them might crumple her fragile hope.
No further instruction came, and as the silence stretched, Kara looked up to meet Boru’s eyes. She saw a small smile there, that fed her fire of hope more than anything she could ever do on her own. “There will be no more freeday tasks for you until shortly before the meet. Get some rest; you will need it,” Boru told her before retreating back into the temple.
Eyes alight, Kara had all but ran back to the village, barely remembering to pause and wash herself in the stream.
And now she was a watcher, she expected to feel elated, to be strengthened by the knowledge that her tribe had confidence in her as their protector. But she didn’t. She felt exhausted. She had been summoned to the temple twelve days previously, and had worked harder than she ever had in her life, catching only a scant few hours of sleep, in the preparations for the meet. She was sustained by giddy excitement and the satisfaction of being so close to achieving a goal she had held for years.
Kara bounced on her toes to keep herself awake as she scanned the forest around the fire, pausing to look longingly over at a large, smooth rock several paces away. Perhaps she could sit down for just a moment? She know that was courting disaster in her current state, and instead turned her attention to the bonfire below. She could barely make out the outlines of the people below, faint, flickering shadows in the bright firelight. She watched with jealousy as a few left the ring of light to catch a bit of sleep before the sunrise ritual. She tore her gaze away and took in the ring of watchfires. The sight was even more magical from her hilltop vantage point. She gazed across the valley to the tiny pinpricks of light on the far side, growing steadily larger and brighter as they approached her perch. She sat down to admire the flickering flames, dancing before her eyes, flying up to the sky like glowing insects as they danced among the stars.
“Kara!” the shout jolted her awake, and she sprang to her feet searching for the source of the sound. She didn’t have to search for long. Boru emerged from the forest, bearing down on her with an expression she had seen trom him only once before, years ago when he had been forced to banish a member of the tribe. Kar’s stomach flipped. Was that he fate that awaited her for her failure?
“What are you doing?” he asked brusquely.
“I- I fell asleep,” she all but mumbled. “I know I wasn’t supposed to. I tried so hard, I’m so sorry.”
“You were entrusted with a responsibility, were you not?” Boru asked. Flushed with shame, Kara could only nod. “You know the danger you might have caused to the tribe.”
Kara was silent, crushed with disappointment.
“Go out into the forest,” Boru instructed. Her heart froze. Was this how he would banish her? Without even allowing her to say goodbye to her kin? She felt her knees begin to quake. Bour reached out to grab her shoulder, steadying her. “Go out into the forest,” he began again, “and bring back three green branches as long as your arm, as thick as a finger, and a straight as you can find. Peel the bark before you return.”
Kara ran off in relief, a relief that lasted nearly until she had peeled the second branch. Looking down at the instruments in her hands she shuddered. This was better than banishment, though perhaps only barely.
Returning to her fire, she found Boru keeping watch in her place, his posture erect as he scanned the forest around him. From his stance she knew that he had seen her approaching, but had not yet deemed fit to greet her. As she neared the firelight, she glanced around to see that he had placed a large log on top of the flat rock. Guessing his intention, she placed the switches alongside the log and stretched herself over it, raising her tunic out of the way.
The bark bit into her flesh as she lowered her hips onto the log. She did not flinch away; she deserved this. She had failed, failed in a role that she had so desperately desired. She had disappointed her tribe. She had disappointed Boru. She had disappointed herself. She felt her tears begin to flow before the lashing began.
Their flow grew stronger as the first line of fire was lit across her bottom. Boru added to it in silence, setting her behind alight until she could have sworn those below would see a second light coming from her hilltop. Kara had tried to remain silent through her punishment, knowing that it was deserved, but even before the first switch was cast aside she could hear the yelps coming from her throat. At first she was ashamed of her inability to take her punishment, but as the switches continued to bit into her her cries only grew louder. “At least I might be warding off some evil,” Kara thought as she cried.
Her expressions of pain grew more and more frantic as the next two switches were used. In her effort to keep herself still, she allowed the screeches to carry her pain off into the night, an offering to the gods and tribe she had offended with her inattention. Boru remained silent throughout, delivering none of his usual lecturing that typically accompanied the punishments he meted out to those in violation of tribal law. Kara noted this absence of speech in a corner of her mind. Why was he so quiet? Was she considered an outcast already? If so, could she just leave and stop this torment? THe switching continued, banishing all such thoughts as the pain continued to build and take over her entire consciousness.
When at last the switching stopped, Kara was left panting as she lay over the log. Boru drew her to her feet, examining her at arms length as she attempted to pull herself together.
“Do- do I have to go now? Can I at least say goodbye first?” she asked through her tears before breaking down in sobs.
Boru drew her into a hug as she cried. “We’re not sending you away,” he assured her. “Especially after you’ve shown yourself willing and able to accept responsibility for watching over the tribe.”
Kara blinked in confusion. “But I wasn’t able. I fell asleep.”
“All first time watchers do,” Boru assured her. “It’s only expected after what you’ve been through these last twelve days.”
Kara drew back, her confusion still evident as she searched Boru’s face. “You expected. . .? But why?”
“There is more to being a watcher than simply keeping watch. Dira smiles upon those willing to pay the price for their wrongs, and frowns upon those unwilling to take a risk in his name.” Boru smiled down on her. “You have pleased him tonight, though he is not the only one.” With a final pat on her head, Boru left her to her vigil and returned to the celebrations.
Kara turned back to the flames of her fire, heaving a few more logs into the inferno. Standing back to watch them catch, Boru’s words continued to roll through her mind. No longer in fear of falling back to sleep, she tried to settle back down as she had before, only to spring back up with a yelp of discomfort. She leaned against a tree as she looked over the valley to see the faint tinge of sunrise, no longer in any danger of falling asleep.
The sunrise was magical, and through the years she never failed to be caught up in its power as it rose over the meet. Some nights the arrival of the sun was heralded by high-pitched shrieks from a neighbouring hilltop, distorted by pain and distance to sound animalistic and wild. Kara smiled to herself as she heard the sounds, knowing that a new watcher was about to pass the final test.