Dayen wasn't sure why he had been chosen as the high shaman for the clan on the day of the winter solstice. He was the youngest shaman in the clan, but old Wored had been too tired to perform the rite and had pointed silently to Dayen as his replacement. It was even more worrying that the signs hadn't been good. And now this.
He dressed carefully on the morning of the equinox ceremony, putting on the golden shaman's torque with reverence, and wondered again what the chiefs were thinking to demand a virgin sacrifice. It was true that the winter had been hard, colder than normal, and the clan's food stores were low with a bad augury for the coming season, but they'd been in worse places before within Dayen's own memory, and the chiefs hadn't demanded the rite. Wored had said nothing at the meeting, merely staring into the fire with his heaviest brat around his shoulders. Cord had looked Dayen in the eye when he had pronounced the virgin to be given: Mala.
Mala was outclan and different from the blonde men and women of High Stag. Her hair was reddish brown and wavy where theirs was straight, she was tall where the women of High Stag were petite. And she had no father or brothers to deny the chiefs, having been raised as a ward of the shaman school after her mother, a refugee from Great Bull, had taken fever when she was ten summers old. Over the last eight summers, she had grown to womanly curves, and the sight of her body made Dayen want her with the deep need of new manhood even now when he was ten summers beyond it. It was probably that, more than the need for a sacrifice, that truly motivated the chiefs, desire to make this unprotected woman a clan whore so they could enjoy her without recrimination from their women.
No one had consulted Mala to know her will in the matter, which made Dayen angry, but he could not outwill the clan chiefs in spite of the knowledge that what they planned was wrong and would bring about exactly what they claimed they wished to prevent. Nor could he be certain that the vision of poisoned seed sown into the fields had been true, because it fell in with his own wish to take Mala as his wife, and a wish was not true-seeing.
He knew that, as high shaman, he could lie with any woman at the new moon, a custom he ignored, and had to take one at midsummer, though he had noted that the clan chiefs had waited until after the last new moon to choose Mala for sacrifice. He had planned to take Mala as his at midsummer, in the high bower and with faerie blessings. He could almost vow in blood that it was her desire as well. For the last year and more, she had favored him with shy glances when she tended his fire or brought meals to his room. The rest of the unwed women did as well, save that their looks had begun only after Wored had pointed to him at Midwinter while Mala had looked at him that way long before. Tonight, he would have to take her on the altar in the deep grove, the first to pierce that veil before being forced to watch every other male elder fuck her deep and hard until each came inside her. Just the thought of it made him feel ill with foreboding. Poisoned seed.
Abruptly, he shot to his feet and left the shaman's house without putting on his leine, almost running into Mala, who was bringing his breakfast. "Where is Wored?" he asked her without preamble. She ducked her head from the sight of his naked chest and pointed, wordlessly to the warm bathhouse. Of course, he should have known without asking, since Wored had sought warmth more than any other thing over the past three winters. Dayen made for the bathhouse without another word to her.
Wored sat alone next to the fire that always burned under the hot cauldron, staring listlessly into the flames.
"Wise one, a word," Dayen said to him.
Wored didn't even bother to look at him. "Yes, I know," he sighed. "It is bad for the clan to make her a whore when she is fated to be with you, Dayen." He inched his toes closer to the fire. "Cord knows this, and he does not care. He wants her. They all want her."
"You've seen the vision?" Dayen demanded.
Wored nodded. "Poisonous seed, tearing the clan asunder. I saw it before midwinter. I saw the evil among us and saw you repel it, but I could not see how." He sighed again, deeply tired. "He knows you want her, he knows she wants you, he knows it would strengthen the blood for you to wed her, and he does not care. The high chief does not care more for the good of his clan than the clamor of his loins. It is a dark and evil season, and I am cold and tired."
Dayen squatted next to his teacher in the heat of the fire. "How can I stop it?" he asked.
"I don't know," Wored replied, bowing his head and shaking it from side to side. "I don't know. The rite has been set; it cannot be canceled. The virgin has been chosen; she cannot be unchosen. The only way . . . ." Wored's head came up and his eyes narrowed. "Yes. Yes, I was right. Blood of the Great Tree, Dayen, I chose well when I could not even see the danger clearly."
"What?" Dayen demanded. "What do you see, Wise One?"
"The binding ceremony only requires one male clan elder as witness," Wored replied, suddenly pulling energy from somewhere. "The equinox rite requires the attendance of all clan elders."
"Yes. So?" Dayen prodded, still not seeing it.
"Bring the wives of all clan chiefs to the great hall at midday," Wored said. "Perform the ceremony of binding with them – and me – as witness. You are high shaman. You part the veil."
"And if the parting of the veil is the first taking of a marriage binding," Dayen continued, now excited.
"None other may take her and live," Wored finished, his seamed face breaking into a smile for the first time in months. "Yes. Go now, tell Ydru, and let her gather the women."
For the first time since the choosing of Mala, Dayen felt hope. Then, "What about Mala?" he questioned. "She cannot know." The rite required that the sacrifice be innocent of her fate.
Wored stood, his back straight for the first time in moons. "I will take care of Mala," he said decisively. "Go."
Dayen went, and did as Wored bid him. Ydru, Cord's wife, was suspicious when the high shaman asked to speak with her, but her wary eyes brightened as he told her of Wored's plan.
"It will be done," she said when he finished. "I have seen the way he looks at Mala, and I know it is not right. The poor girl came to me when her moon days began, you know. She thought she was dying, and had no mother to teach her what it meant." Ydru shook her head sadly, then fixed him with a forceful stare. "You will be a good mate to her, Dayen, or you will answer to me. As the high chief's wife, I stand for her mother."
"How could I do anything else, lady, when my actions reflect the spirit of the clan?" he replied with a relieved smile. "Your threats are little incentive compared to that."
Dayen entered the hall shortly before the sun stood highest in the sky that day, dressed in his finest leine and the new braes Mala had shyly presented to him as a midwinter gift, and saw the women of the clan chiefs already assembled. They all smiled at him with approval and Ydru came forward to take his arm and lead him to the granite step where the binding would be performed.
"Since your own mother is with us no longer, I shall tie the cord in her stead," she told him. "Clayva will act for Mala's mother." Clayva held the twisted linen rope before her face, showing that she was ready with it.
"I still say I should act for Mala," Yglyn put in from the group of women, her hands planted on her hips. "I am more senior than Clayva."
"Yes, but you didn't have a marriage cord prepared," Ydru shot back, "and you should have, given the way your daughter dallies with Kirt. She'll be quick and unwed by midsummer if you don't move, Yglyn." Yglyn blushed, and the group erupted in soft laughter as Wored led a wobbly Mala into the hall.
"Cider and poppy juice," he murmured soothingly as Clayva hurried forward to lead Mala to the step. The binding was quickly done, with only Mala's giggle during her assent and her uncharacteristically bold gaze into Dayen's eyes marking anything unusual. Clayva cut the cord with her knife and quickly tucked it back up inside Mala's leine sleeve, while Ydru came forward to do the same to Dayen, hiding the binding without untying the knots, when they would normally have been displayed proudly for the next moon. Then everyone dispersed, with Ydru walking Mala back to her own room in the shaman hall.
Dayen looked down at Mala, clad only in a rough woolen shift that barely covered her hips and drugged enough that she would not fight. She lay supine on the furs he had piled onto the altar to make it less uncomfortable and less cold, but she was lost in the dreams of the poppy juice and wouldn't have noticed if she lay on a bed of nails. He winced under the stag mask. Her face was the face of a child, as soft and innocent as she had been when they had both sat at Wored's knees, learning the rites and discovering how to listen to the spirits of the land and the clan, but her body was that of a woman. Her breasts were full, pressing mounds into the rough, thick linen, her waist narrow, her belly softly rounded, and her hips were curved and wide over strong thighs. He felt the familiar ache as he looked at her.
Mala moved in her dream, sighed something that might have been his name and tried to turn over. Dayen pressed her shoulders back down to the altar as he stood by her head and murmured an instruction to be still. Her lips curved into a soft smile at the sound of his voice, though he pitched it low enough that no one else could hear. He raised his hands when she was still again and began the chant that would call the attention of the spirits of the grove, bringing them back down to her shoulders when he had finished the first repetition. It took another repeat to smooth his hands down her right leg and pull her ankle to the leather thong and fasten it securely. So sensual, to put his hands on her thigh, skin to skin, and slide them down to pull her ankle into position. He had deliberately chosen the softest hide he could find for the bindings, because he didn't want to hurt her more than he would have to in taking her maidenhead. And he reveled in the touch of her skin, so soft, softer than the ears of a puppy, softer than the oldest, finest linen cloths belonging to the clan, and warm. He had not touched her skin, even accidentally, since he had been moved from the creche of shamanic students and wards at the end of his sixteenth summer.
A third repeat for her left arm, her breasts so tantalizingly close, a fourth for her right arm, and he could feel the throbbing begin between his legs as he tied her there. The sacred fifth repetition for her left leg – it would be so easy to slide his hands up instead of down and touch the secret places of her body, but it was not yet time – and then she was spread-eagled before him. And he was ready to plunge into her, plow the new field and sow a husband's seed in her womb, but there was more of the rite to be accomplished first in order to prepare her. He raised the iron knife and invoked the mother spirit, then sliced open the shift from neck to hem before dipping it in the water from the artesian well and setting it back on the tray with the other implements of magic.
Dayen picked up the clay jar of perfumed fat and rubbed it into her skin, paying careful attention to her nipples, already hard from the cold. She moaned softly, and he told himself to concentrate; she would not hurt as much if he did this correctly. He smeared more of the fat between her legs and found she was already wet there, swollen, ready. He found himself slowing to touch her and tease her a little when her limbs twitched, his eyes trying to drift closed as he gave her pleasure, trying to block out the faces intruding on what should have been private. Especially Cord's face, his eyes beady in the flickering torchlight, his features twisted with animal lust, and his hand already rubbing the crotch of his braes where he was no doubt hardening with the thought that he was next. Little did he know he would never have Mala as his whore.
Finally, he couldn't put it off any longer, because other shamans had taken up the chant. Dayen carefully pulled off the stag mask and hands took it from him, he didn't know whose, then he climbed onto the altar in between Mala's legs.
"I'm sorry it has to be like this," he murmured into her ear. Her face turned toward him.
"Oh Dayen, now, please now," she mumbled. He kissed her lips softly, lingeringly, all he was allowed by the rite, and positioned himself, then drove into her. Mala screamed as the pain seared through her poppy-dreams, and her body arched as she fought against her bonds in agony. Dayen shut his eyes against that horrible sound and held still against her, pushing her down into the furs, his hands on her shoulders, his member sheathed in her tight, wet heat.
"Give your pain to the gods," he told her, hissing the words through clenched teeth as horror fought with lust for control of his being. "Release it to them as your sacrifice. For the clan, Mala, for the clan."
She stilled, but every muscle was vibrating with tension. "I give you my pain," she got out in a gasping whisper, "for my clan. I give you this, mighty spirits, that you may look upon my clan with favor." By the spirit of the oak, she knew what was happening. "Please accept this poor sacrifice for the clan of High Stag, my clan, clan of my husband, the High Shaman Dayen Mergonborn." She'd known it all and hadn't run; Mala had understood what was happening behind her back, probably as long ago as midwinter – she must have a stronger gift than anyone in the clan. Dayen felt his throat close on childish tears as she took a deep, ragged breath and slowly let it out. The trembling eased, and he felt her body begin to relax. All of her curves went soft; he could practically feel himself sinking into her. It was glorious. It made him want to mindlessly thrust into her, deeper, ever deeper, but something was . . . odd.
Mala opened her eyes and looked up at him with a stare that might have focused on the stars. "The spirit of the grove is pleased with this sacrifice," she said in a voice that was not her own, serving as the vessel of the spirits. "You have broken the new field, high shaman. Sow the seed for the good of the clan, but take care to pleasure your lady wife, for I am watching." Her eyes closed and her face fell to the side. She moaned, but not from pain.
"Mala?" he questioned, suddenly aware that his manhood was still buried in her.
"I am all right," she said, her voice hoarse from the screaming. "The gods took the pain. Love me, Dayen, as the first man loved the first woman. Show me you love me as I love you."
His body began to move without conscious thought. "I love you, Mala," he whispered as he kissed her neck. "I never want to cause you pain again." She was so soft beneath him, so tightly sheathing him, the thought of being with her, being in her was so erotic – it began to wear through his shaman's discipline rapidly. He concentrated on the chant as she began to moan, sparing one thought to reach down between them and slide his thumb over the secret bud of woman's pleasure. Soon she was thrashing in her bonds again, her head rolling from side to side as she shoved her hips up to meet his deep thrusts. Faster, harder, on and on they drove each other into the hot darkness of spiraling passion and exquisite pleasure, each thrust a sweeter torture than the last. Sweat coated their bodies and made them slide against each other more easily as he pushed himself into her, pounding her, feeling her reaching, reaching for that unknown height, stretched taut against all the heavens.
Finally, she broke, tumbling down from the stars with a hard jerk and waves of deep shudders that pulled him into the darkness with her in a last desperate, savage thrust to get even deeper into her. Their bodies, forgotten, were locked in rictus, melded to one being by the connection of man to woman as his seed poured into her ripe womb. Their souls, free of the bonds of earth, mingled one with the other until that briefest of instants when it was impossible to tell where Dayen ended and Mala began. And when they came back to their flesh, Dayen could sense Cord already stepping forward from the circle of observers, ready to cross the spiritual shield of the ring of five torches planted in the wet spring soil of the grove.
He raised his left arm and pulled back the sleeve to show the binding just as Ydru pronounced "It is done. They are wed."
"It is done," Wored echoed, and Dayen watched Cord's face turn purple with impotent rage as he tried to cross the line between two torches and was stopped, foot in mid-air, by the spirits of the grove. What the gods of the grove had blessed, not even he could gainsay. Then all Dayen's strength was sucked away and he collapsed onto Mala, covering her from the cold, with his face buried in the sweet hollow where her neck met her shoulder. He heard laughter, he heard clan elders clapping their hands together in delight, he heard the movement of people leaving the clearing in the undergrowth to go back to their homes, but mostly he heard his own ragged breathing mixed with Mala's. He rested, sure in the knowledge that when he could move again, he would untie her and carry her back to the hall of spirits, and she would sleep away her remaining poppy dreams in his arms, safe at last. Safe as the clan was safe – there had been no poisoned seed.