Chapter 1: The Debt
When Riva opened her eyes she could see that Pa’s hand shivered as he held the iron key that usually hung round his neck. His voice shivered, too, when he said, “She died. I pulled her back.”
Riva shut her eyes tightly again. She could barely breathe, they hugged her so hard. Ma was crying. “Oh, girl. Oh, girl. Are you sure she’s alive, Jon? Are you sure?”
“She died. I pulled her back.”
Riva clutched at them as she started crying, too. Ma's kisses were hot all over her face. Ma murmured something in between kisses.
“Are you all right, girl?” Pa asked, louder this time.
Her voice was squeaky when she answered through the sobs. “I’m all right.” She opened her eyes. The big tree and the sky above them looked the same as before, except maybe brighter.
Pa asked, “What happened, Riva?”
She started to talk, but her breath caught in her throat. She coughed with a sob then managed to say, “I fell out of the tree. I’m sorry. I won’t climb it any more. I won’t.”
“You knew better, Riva!” Ma said, still scared.
“Do you remember anything after you fell?” Pa asked.
Riva said, “I had a dream. There was a man in a white room.”
Ma said, “It was just a bad dream. We’re here now, girl. You’re all right. Oh, I should have been watching you.”
“What did the man look like?” Pa asked.
Riva was shaking. “I’m cold.”
Ma said, “Let’s wrap her up. She’s cold. Take her inside, Jon.”
Pa’s strong arms reassured Riva as he carried her into the house and put her in her own bed. Ma covered her with the bear fur blanket and said, “I’ll get you some water,” gave her a powerful hug, and then hurried outside to the well.
Pa sat by her side and held both her hands in his. “You saw a man?”
“He was big, Pa. Bigger than you. He was a priest like you with a sword and the armor.”
“Did you see anything else?”
“Just the man in the room. The door—it was iron.”
“And that’s all?”
“He knew my name. He said I was his.” She let go of Pa’s hands, grabbed his neck, and hugged him close, starting to cry again. “I’m yours. I’m not his.”
Pa whispered in her ear. “You’re mine, girl. Mine and Ma’s. But we’re all His.”
“Jared’s. We all go to the Spirit World someday, through that iron door.”
“I don’t want to go back. Please.”
They stayed that way until Ma brought the water.
Riva must have gone to sleep after that. When she woke up she lay still, listening to Ma and Pa talking quietly. She snuck a peek and saw they were at the table. She moved her hand slowly up to her neck and felt the soft leather necklace, then trailed her hand along it until she found her doll. She had been lying on it. She slowly brought her doll to her cheek and nuzzled against her, barely whispering, “It’s all right, little sister. It’s all right.”
Pa said, “I don’t know how, Claire. I shouldn’t have been able to.”
“Jared gave her back to you because you’re his priest, Jon. That’s all.”
“No. He didn’t give her. I took her. Riva told me that He said she belonged to Him. I shouldn’t have done it, Claire.”
“Well it’s too late now. She’s back where she should be.”
Nobody said anything for a while. Finally Pa said, “We have to give her back.”
Riva crawled on hands and knees, looking for a little hole in the ground, even too small for her finger. She was near the big tree when she saw Pa leave the tanning shed and go into the house to eat. She crept around the yard until she found a hole near the house. She looked over her thin stalk of hangweed, and then spit on the end. She put the wet end into the dirt and rolled it around until the stalk had a nice mud coating. She slid the muddy end of the stalk into the little hole and rolled the other end in her fingers. When she pulled the stalk out she saw the small white worm clinging to the muddy end. She lowered the worm to the ground. When he began to creep away, she jousted with him with the stalk.
She knew Ma would call her inside to eat soon. She heard Ma and Pa talking inside as he washed up from his morning’s work. Ma said, “I know what we have to do.”
“About the elk skins? I’m sending them to Pargamont. He’s paying well for them now.”
Ma said so quietly Riva could barely hear, “About Riva.”
Riva peeked up into the window at them, careful that they could not see her.
“I dreamed that she was a priest, Jon. She wore the mail and sword. I dreamed it for a week.”
Pa propped his elbow in the table and put his face in his hand. “Every night since she fell?”
“Every night. It won’t stop.”
“What do you think it means, Claire?”
“She should be taught as a priest, same as you. She should be educated.”
Pa smiled, but then Riva saw that it was not a real smile. “Just like you want to be educated?”
Ma took the bread off the fire and then sat opposite Pa. “Just like I want to be. Her husband should not be better than she is.”
Pa didn’t try to argue this time about how learning was not important for tanners and wives. He just stayed quiet.
“Is this a true sign, Jon? You know it is.”
“You want it to be.”
Ma said, “When you said that we’d have to give her back, I didn’t know what that meant. I was afraid . . .” Riva didn’t hear the last part, Ma had said it so weakly.
“The God is not so cruel to ask that. I was almost certain of that. But if she became a priestess—that would be hard.”
“It’s hard to pay debts. She would be one week buried if you hadn’t done saved her.” She reached over for his hand and drew it to her, squeezing it to her lips. “Jared’s priests will take her, won’t they?”
Pa sounded so tired. “They have had priestesses before. Not many, though.”
“It will settle the debt, won’t it?”
Pa said, “Maybe. I’ll think on it.”
But Ma didn’t give him time to think on it. She said, “She’s ten years old, Jon. We may not have her with us for long anyway. She could be married in four years.”
“I want her to marry. She would live in the village. We could play with our grandchildren. If she becomes a priestess, though . . . . life in the Order of Jared is not a good life for a child. She would have friends in the order. She wants friends. But there is no love, like you have for Riva.”
“It’s what’s best for her.”
Pa’s chin had been resting on his palm; now he hid his face in his hand. “Best for her? In the Order she would have a priest’s life—the God’s life—the way of the guardian—she would learn to kill.”
“Jon, you have told me yourself that Riva should not have a life with us now. That she has a debt to pay to Jared.”
Pa groaned, “I know, Claire. I know.”
“And a woman needs to learn to protect herself against men.”
“It won’t be that way for her.”
“You don’t know that. It is that way.”
He sighed heavily. “I won’t argue. I really can’t argue. I’ve had the same dreams that you did. I hoped they weren’t true.”
“You did?” Ma looked like someone had hit her.
Riva slumped down by the window. She looked at the white worm crawling around blindly. She herded him back into his hole with her muddy stalk. She crossed her legs and took hold of her doll with both hands, holding her out in front of her on the necklace. Pa had made her sister and the necklace, too. That way Riva could always keep her close by, even when she was working with Ma or Pa or playing.
Riva was pretty sure Ma and Pa were saying that she would have to go away—that they would make her a priest like Pa was. She thought about how Pa looked with his armor and sword. It was like he was a different person—like a hero from the stories he told her about Jared. Ma and Pa had those dreams about her wearing that armor, but Riva could not picture herself in it.