Nobody asked me “Egle, what are you going to do?” when we was coming up on my 19th summer. It was clear as a spring on a summer day I was going to stay – to me, to the other girls in my cohort, even to Vala’s Chosen when sie came around stressing over hir choice. Sure I wasn’t no Voice and I didn’t think I would be. There was worse than that.

I liked being the rock, the one everybody depended on. I wasn’t clever or pretty, and I sure told myself I didn’t mind. I came from a long line of farmers, short and broad and muscular, and I was the practical one. The one taken for granted, I maybe said in my head, when I was alone at night. But I got to be part of something here. I liked that a lot. If it didn’t fill me up like it used to, maybe that was just on account of I was waiting for my vows. Something’d come along and take care of that dark spot in my chest, soon enough. Mara would fix it, likely.

Still and all, I had maybe more nights awake than I ought, and the night before I was out in the dark, walking the grounds. The garden was one of my favorite spots, dark soil soft under my feet. I spent maybe more time out there than others’d like, but nobody did much complaining.

I wasn’t alone, though. A ground snake darted across my bare feet, dark in the moonlight. I lost track of him in the brush, except he turned around and I’d have swore he whispered “you coming?” Who ain’t going to follow that? So I did my best to keep an eye on him as I crashed into the wild space behind the castle.

When I was near about ready to turn around, I tripped over a log and fell onto it. The thing was rotted through, so I found myself nearly inside it, bits of wood and dirt and the scrabble of insects against my skin.

There was a hand on my mouth and I couldn’t sit up any more than if there was a stone on my chest. Near panicked, I pushed and shook and fought, but it didn’t count for a damn.

“What are you afraid of?” a female voice asked. She sounded so close she had to be right in my face, but even with the moonlight I couldn’t make out much.

“Nothing,” I answered, and sure it was a lie, but it was so damn obvious a lie I can’t even count it.

“Good,” she whispered, and I could feel her breathing on me. Something shifted and I was falling, but it ain’t quite falling if you’re on the ground to start with, now is it? The moon got swallowed quick as I slid beneath the dirt.

I couldn’t breathe except for dirt. My eyes burned. My hands shot out to the side, but I couldn’t get a grip nowhere as I moved. When I stopped feeling I was moving, all there was I could feel was that dark spot in my chest I always ignored. There wasn’t anything to suck in but dirt, and finally I couldn’t hold my breath. My chest was burning until that little, dark, rotten spot started to swell up. Seemed like it was no time at all until my chest was full of noting at all but that same feeling of crawling I’d had on the log. Beetles, or maybe maggots, I thought calmly.

Mara’s gonna fix it after all, was the last thing I thought before I stopped thinking.

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