So on the seventh moon of her fifteenth year, Iben was led to the grove to hold the maiden’s vigil. Her parents left without word, as was custom, and without looking back, as was superstition, and Iben looked after them for long minutes, wishing they would come back and take her away before the beast appeared or did not.
The rock Iben sat upon was warm, which she was thankful for, since the girls in the village whispered that the beast never appeared save at sunset or sunrise, and so Iben might have to wait all night on the slab...and then when the beast did not appear, her life as she knew it would be over. Iben had seen it happen to other girls, who had come back alone.
Sometimes their parents turned them out, and they worked the streets for money, and cemented what everyone thought of them. Others became prey for the boys, who thought nothing of a girl obviously already sullied, if the beast rejected them. The lucky few were forced into marriages far too young, and often looked out at the world with sad eyes.
Yet Iben had no name to give to her parents, no boy to single out. There had been games in the dark, as children of a certain age play, and one night that had been that. Now the beast would not come for her, and the last Iben would see was the disappointment in her mother’s eyes, and the scorn of the village for wasting seven year’s luck.
As the evening drew on to dusk and no beast appeared, Iben lay against the stone and thought of how far it would be to walk away from all this. They would know still, she knew, but then Iben would not have to face them with the stark truth of it. She might starve or worse on the way, but perhaps that was not so bad.
The undergrowth at the edge of the grove rustled, and Iben sat bolt upright, hoping beyond hope to catch a glimpse of white horn and black cloven hoof. Yet it was only a witch who emerged from the gloaming forest. Iben knew her for a witch because she wore the grey and the black, and her red hair fell down uncovered, and there was a smile in her eyes that went all the way to the bottom of the soul and the devils laughing there.
Not unkindly, the woman and a girl exchanged their greetings. Then Iben noticed the witch carried a shallow basket with bread and cheese and fish, and her stomach rumbled, for it had been some hours since they had eaten. So the witch laid it on the stone beside Iben, and took a seat, and they shared the repast. In between bites of the meal, Iben confessed herself to the witch, and those smiling eyes only glittered more brightly in the dying light.
When Iben had finished, the witch put the basket away, and sat closer to the girl, spreading out her cloak, and Iben laid her head on the witch’s shoulder.
“Am I a slut?” Iben asked.
“Only if that is what you wish to be.” said the witch.
“I do wish it, I think.” The girl spoke with lightened heart and sleepy voice. “I wish to be the best slut in the world. I want to love people and have them love me, and heal those who are hurt of heart and give relief to those who are lonely and in need. I do not wish to live in fear of my neighbor’s eyes or my mother’s frown, nor see papa take to the drink angry and sad and fearful at himself for my sake. Nevermore would I look down on those others who failed the virgin’s vigil, but we would all be friends again as we had been before, and nevermore would I hide my eyes when I saw them stand stained with crimson light beneath the red lantern, or the next day when I saw the bruises and the bites, or hear the foul names that their visitors would call them and the fouler things the old whispered of them.”
“That is a very good wish.” said the witch.
So they sat and waited for what dawn might bring.