The lanterns were already lit – carved pumpkins strung up on trees, the candle flames flashing through the hollow spaces like glittering eyes. The celebrations had lasted for a few days now, everything in preparation for the festival later today.
The choosing of Samhein.
Sima sat in front of her mother’s long, dirty mirror. She could just barely see herself in it around all the grime. Laughter from outside, at the hazelnut fire, surely, drifted into the room and echoed loudly against the stone walls. They had nothing to worry about. Wee girls, flirting with boys by the fire.
But Sima was kissed by fire; the only redhead in the whole village. People talked: A blonde girl was picked for Imbolic, a brown-haired for Beltane. That only meant one thing for Samhein – and it wasn’t going to be just one of the many black-haired, blue-eyed kids from the clan, that was for sure.
The one chosen for Samhein was different. They had to open and close the gates to Hell and somehow – by some impossible work of magic – control the devilish faeries that came out.
“Are you thinking about that wee legend again?”
“It’s not a wee legend,” Sima said. “It’s truth…”
“Is it now?” her mother continued in a soft voice.
“Or so some say,” Sima amended, and made to turn away, only Tara had her hair in her hands and yanked her back. She consented and put her arms over her chest instead. She was putting it up; decorating it into an elaborate bun with braids and autumn flowers.
“Well I can tell you those legends are simply that: Legends.”
“I know,” she sighed, but really only because her mother was no one to argue with. She was Taibhsear; the village Seer and all-knower of everything. Or some might say…
“There were no legends about Blair before she was chosen for Beltane, and everyone thought Callum, of all people, was going to get picked for Imbolic -”
“Aye, because he has green eyes,” Sima snapped. “Not because of a real legend outside the clan…”
“Donnae worry, love,” she said as she made her finishing touches. “You’re not gonna get chosen.”
“Why?” she asked grumpily. “Because you didn’t see it?”
She leaned down so her face was at Sima’s level and kissed the side of her head. “No. Because I know it.”
The bear horn blared long and loud against the walls of their house, and Sima had to cover her ears. Tara clapped her hands to her daughter’s shoulders. “It’s time!”
“Really? I had no idea,” she muttered between her teeth.
But her mother had already gone; running through the dark wooden door without a backwards glance. Sima had no choice but to follow. She stood up and glanced once more at herself in the mirror. At the pale, freckled face. At the sad, blue eyes. At the pinned up, bright red hair. She looked and saw the legend – the one everyone spoke about. Of the red-haired witch who roamed the highland lochs, drowning herself in tears, and her unfulfilled duty to rescue those stolen.
The horned blared again and Sima ran from the room out into the dark yard. Everyone from the clan had already gathered, the few males kilted and lingering awkwardly in the back. She spotted Callum immediately – tall, black-haired, and lean – and sidled over to him.
Her sister stood up at the front with her mother (they always stood at the front) and the two chosen girls were already on stage. It was hard to tell who-was-who otherwise; darkness engulfed them like a wave, apart from the flickering of the jack-o-lanterns erect on stage. Wooden and old, it had seen better days – but it was only used for this purpose.
The only difference now was a wide cauldron sat in the centre, waiting for something to boil. It gave Sima the shivers. The old shaman joined them on stage, her body feeble and wilting, her hair stark and white, and raised her hands. Everyone fell silent immediately; even the damn broads by the hazelnut fire pit.
“Tonight, we choose our final girl to complete the Celtic trio. A champion, rather, to defend us from the dark faeries who escape from Hell every year on this night,” she said. “The Goddess has chosen one of you,” she hesitated for effect, her blue eyes staring at each person in turn, “to take on this heroic task.”
“What a pot of rubbish,” Callum whispered into Sima’s ear. “The Goddess doesn’t give a shit about us; why else would she let one of us get kidnapped every year?”
“Well it’s mainly the boys anyway. Perhaps she’s trying to unite the women together.”
He rolled his unusual green eyes. “Oh shut it. You wouldn’t be saying that if I were kidnapped, now would you?”
“Are you kidding? I would revel in that miracle. Finally out of my hair.”
He scoffed and pushed her lightly. The girls next to them gave them glowering looks, but the pair hardly noticed.
“Let me reintroduce the two you know so well: Isla of Imbolic and Blair of Beltane!”
First to step forward was a very beautiful, tall, blonde girl with bright green eyes and fair skin. She waved a small, slow wave, one that didn’t make any sense to Sima, and then stepped back when the applause died down. She wore a bright green dress, too, to match the coming of spring, and her hair in a long braid down her shoulder. Blair stomped up next in her purposely tattered skirt made of dead leaves, her hip cocked out and her tongue hanging out her mouth. She wolf-howled to the boys in the back and winked her lusty blue eyes, her curly brown hair wild atop her head. Sima figured she had tousled it like that on purpose to better fit her part as fertility advent. She stepped back.
“And now, the choosing!”
Tangible silence fell over everyone like a cloud as the old woman bent over the cauldron. Her body began to convulse; to shiver and quake. She sank then jumped up, her eyes rolled back into her head, her fingers tight around the cauldron. The flames flickered in the lanterns and the fire cracked.
“Sima!” she called.
A fire immediately erupted in the cauldron, great and burning and bright, and Sima wasn’t the only one who gasped.
“It is Sima of Samhein!”
She felt her body collapsing into her as the entire crowd parted for her with a gasp and a relieved sigh. No one wanted to be Samhein. Even Callum moved away from her, a hint of betrayal in his eyes.
“No…It’s not…It’s not me.”
“Sima! Sima of Samhein!”
“Sima of Samhein,” everyone echoed in a chant, and she felt a push from behind. She stumbled, and tried to catch herself on a person nearby, but they jumped away with a hiss.
She couldn’t remember making it to the stage, but once she realized, she was drawn onto it, the cold, wrinkly hands of the old woman the least of her worries now. The two other girls spun her around and forced her to look into the cauldron, and Sima wondered if they were going to burn her.
“You’re one of us now,” Blair said, and smirked. Sima felt like she was going to be sick.
“Sima of Samhein, Sima of Samhein, Sima of Samhein.”
Just as she was cursing the legends and her mother’s false words, the lanterns went out, dark apart from the crackling cauldron fire. Then, a great roar and a long, drawn-out cackle.
The faeries were already loose.