Published in Darklaw
Copyright © Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Epic fantasy | 2017
Avestine left Hadred and found a spot at the edge of the clearing, where she sat alone drinking and trying to forget the image of Kami’s tongue in Serene’s mouth. After a shadow passed and then returned, Avestine looked up, squinting to see who was disturbing her solitude.
A man squatted in front of her. He was attractive, with thick arms and a flat stomach. He wore only a pair of torn tan trousers too tight for him to button, but when she noticed the bulge in his pants, she dismissed the peculiar thought that the trousers belonged to someone else.
The man said, “This is my first Harvest Festival.”
Arousal began to ease her somber mood. “Do you know the rules?”
“I think I’ve figured them out.”
The man smiled. A white agate stone took the place of one canine. She wondered briefly how it stayed secure before she said, “Are you sure, because I could show you.”
“Maybe you could show me over there?” He nodded toward the trees.
Avestine didn’t feel like standing. “Here.”
“There.” He pulled on her arm, and Avestine pulled back. He said, “Aren’t I everything you desire?”
Since she found it difficult to look away from his trousers, she thought he had a point, but she wasn’t about to get naked in the trees–a place choking with an anarchy of insects. She peered up into his eyes, and they turned sly. He pulled on her again, and she pulled back. He didn’t give up until she left for the dancers.
The beat and the bodies confused her. That was what she craved about Harvest Festival, what everyone craved. She searched the jungle of bodies for Kami, but didn’t find her. She skirted the outreaches of the celebration and noticed Rook following her at a distance. The residents of Riverside had allowed him to stay, but Avestine insisted he make his own camp apart from the compound.
She had known him since they were children. In the years apart, she had missed his companionship, his protection, his obedience. Still, she felt it would have been best for both of them if he had died. She had left him in the Ice Quarter with orders not to follow her, but he had shown the resolve and resourcefulness of any Essanti. She realized that only sheer desperation had allowed her to believe she could be free.
Now, as she contemplated the desire thundering through her with each beat of the drum, she wondered if the ice desert had robbed Rook of his manhood, as it had his stunning face. She began to walk into the woods, expecting him to rendezvous, but she paused when the drums stopped.
Dancers left the clearing as the splash of orange horizon against the dark purple sky heralded sunfall. Avestine joined the vacating dancers and found herself beside Hadred, who had both arms wrapped around Serene.
Enormous bonfires crackled to life, their growing flames like monsters stalking the black forest. Two naked men pulled a heavy board from the ground. Seven other men settled a hewn tree trunk into the hole underneath. Around the top, a leather wreath held streamers of woven flowers that reached to the ground. The men hammered wedges all around the base of the pole until it stood secure.
As the drums began a slow rhythm, a row of young women dressed in white skirts and straw hats took hold of the flowered streamers and solemnly wrapped their garlands about the pole. Musicians playing pipes joined the drums, blending the anticipatory beat with melodic pipes, while a more ominous chant arose from a chorus of men. The dressing of the Harvest Pole was a thanksgiving to Sula for the first reaping and a supplication for the second sowing to come.
Women in animal costumes arrived, their clothing consisting of beads and fur at their hips and hair, with their chests bare. Avestine appraised each woman as she entered the clearing, imagining how the lovely young breasts might feel in her hands. The pounding of the drums shook the ground, stirring Avestine’s blood more.
Kami was the eighth “animal” to enter the circle. As each small foot hit the dirt, strips of blue feathers and leather strung with glass and silver beads flung up from bands around her thighs and upper arms.
Avestine roamed Kami with possessive eyes. Her teeth clenched and her nostrils flared. If Kami had understood her power, the passion licking at Avestine would quickly have consumed her with anger, but with eyes closed and head thrown back, Kami remained oblivious to her effect. She danced only for her god.
Like an extension of the hypnotic rhythm, Kami’s rigid body loosened, her limbs spreading like a series of dancers unified by the beat. Her body became a cascade of feet sliding, hips tilting, torso undulating like waves breaking across a shore. Beads and feathers swung from her hair, impressing onlookers with the illusion of an elegant bird, layered in multi-colored down.
Everything about Kami was soft: parted lips, delirious eyes, naked breasts cupped by wreaths of blue feathers. Red splotches from exertion marked the dark skin on her chest, and her brown nipples puffed slightly atop her swaying breasts. When Kami turned her back to the audience, the shine of her bare skin, glistening in the firelight, stole Avestine’s breath away.
In step to the rhythm, Kami tossed her arms wide like wings and stomped, flinging the feathers and beads backward as other women in gold, black, and green costumes moved in line before and behind her. She drew the length of another woman against her. Kami slid her arms under the woman’s, spreading them high with her own so that the two merged as if in flight. The costumed women moved as one, their oiled hips and limbs like a sea of flesh churned by a storm.
When the drums stopped again, Avestine’s neck prickled and a shiver raced along her spine. A short silence descended before the audience joined the dancers and the rhythm returned.
A hand grasped Avestine, and she felt as if she were falling until she ran into Hadred. His rough cheek sparked an image of her father. A memory warm, then painful.
Hadred was stronger than she expected. Yet, even the strongest men had weaknesses. Even the bulls among them were controllable. She could snap his knee, destroy what manhood he possessed, or pluck out an eye. Such calculations were always part of her unshared thoughts. She decided to let him hold her because she knew she didn’t have to. Hadred kissed her before he turned and took Serene in his arms.
Avestine found herself facing Kami, who stood sweating, but chilled from the sudden loss of Serene’s body heat. Drenched in blue and silver, Kami clutched herself. Lust engulfed Avestine as she stared at the oil-slicked ribbon of Kami’s cleavage. She drew Kami close and kissed her.
“Oh, my sweet girl,” she muttered into Kami’s mouth and began to maul her with fingers frantic to find a hold on the slippery skin.
The crowd writhed with its own sexual ecstasies. Dancers bumped them, clung, and dropped away, occasionally stealing Avestine’s attention as sweat stung her eyes and the heady aroma of body oil intoxicated her. She dug her fingers into Kami’s cheek and forced her tongue into the docile mouth. Kami had grown weak with pleasure, and her passive compliance only aroused Avestine more.
Avestine shoved one hand into the feather-ringed skirt. She pushed through the small pile of tangled hair, but when Kami’s knees weakened, she pulled Avestine off balance. They both fell.
After peeling away the loincloth, Avestine held Kami’s legs apart and gazed with blissful eyes at the young body. Avestine was sure she had never seen anything so beautiful. She pressed her thumb into the sensitive slit.
Avestine relished the vision of the saturated flesh beneath her, but Kami’s needy body was open and trusting, taunting with its youth. A chaotic mingling of carnal images both tender and vicious filled her heart like a sail until a movement caught her attention.
In the forest beyond, the shadows rolled with an eerie stealth, rippling, like a beast with many heads.
The instinct Avestine had ignored earlier filled her now with barely-restrained panic. She had not seen it. She had refused to see it.
She backed away from the throng of dancers, dragging a protesting Kami with her.
Naked and stumbling along behind, Kami fought her kidnapper, and when Avestine forced her to run, Kami started screaming. As other screams erupted behind them, Kami turned and fell. Avestine pulled her to her feet and continued.
Avestine drove on relentlessly, heading for the stockpile of weapons beyond the sacred plain. The forest ignited almost at once. Heat hit them in a suffocating wave.
Kami tumbled head-over-heels, and Avestine fell hard to her knees. After the heat rolled past, it seemed to turn and surround them in an ocean of flames. The conflagration spread through treetops ahead of a rush of soldiers. Black like the charred remains they would leave behind, the soldiers of Darklaw spilled into the clearing, and scores of villagers fell under their flashing silver blades.
Avestine refused to look back. That Kami looked back was only her inexperience and the beginning of memories Avestine knew she would one day do anything to forget.
People burned. The sky burned. Then the sky fell with flames brighter than the sun itself.
Exploding ballistics bounced and ignited the tables. Like an injured animal, Kami struggled with an irrational desire against the one who could save her. Avestine turned on her savagely, her nails cutting into Kami’s skin as she shook her.
“We have to get to the weapons!” A hot rock hit Avestine’s right shoulder with a crackling halt, spinning her with its force. Brushing off the embers and ash, Avestine took hold of Kami and tried to keep low under the black smoke.
They finally reached the cache that every villager had added to, since weapons were forbidden in the sacred area. Knocking over a table, Avestine touched several pommels before finding her sword.
It was too late. Two horses rushed them, their riders shouting with a victory they had yet to win.
Kami escaped into the trees. Avestine sensed the riders’ distance and speed. As one soldier rode toward her, he raised his sword, preparing to cut her down. In one fluid motion, Avestine drew her sword from its scabbard and swung low, shattering the horse’s knee. The horse tumbled forward, dumping the soldier. As he tried to rise, she hammered his neck, cracking it.
The other soldier had already passed Avestine in his pursuit of Kami.
Avestine sprung onto a table and leapt across several more before dropping onto the hard ground and entering the forest. Although she had lost sight of Kami, Avestine kept on the soldier’s trail, gliding effortlessly along the path, her feet avoiding rocks and sticks as if she flowed with the air around them.
When the soldier lost track of his quarry, he turned his horse around. Avestine was there and knocked him to the ground. With her heavy sword, she bashed his face until he was still.
From the nearby brush, Kami’s frail voice called out, and Avestine searched until she found her.
“We have to go,” said Avestine.
“We have to go back.” As tears streamed into her mouth, Kami sputtered, “Didn’t you see them?”
“Did you think you only had to face your own death? Did you think that was the hardest part? In war, you have to let others die. That’s the hardest part.”
Avestine pushed Kami to where a soldier lay dead. The soldier wore a loose black tunic belted over black trousers. Rusty chainmail covered most of his torso. Avestine unbuckled the dented helmet, revealing the torn face of a boy Kami’s age, maybe younger. His vacant eyes gazed past her. His mouth hung open revealing shattered teeth.
“You’ve probably never seen beneath the black metal and leather, have you?” said Avestine. “They all look like this, and they die like this. And the people back there?” She peered through the trees. Behind a ridge, the sky glowed red under a swelling plume of smoke. “They die, too.” She thought of the people Kami was closest to, but didn’t say their names.
After taking a dagger from the boy’s belt, Avestine put Kami on the soldier’s horse, just as two more soldiers saw them. With practiced urgency, Avestine stepped through the forest, her sword moving with her as if it were merely another arm, while from atop the horse, Kami watched the skill that had spawned a legend.
The low canopy had forced the soldiers to descend and fight on foot. One soldier managed to drive Avestine to her knees. Instead of resisting his strength, she rolled and returned to her feet as the soldier fell to the ground.
Her blade arched upward and fell like an avalanche, cracking his neck beneath the scarred iron helmet.
Rook appeared, pursued by two soldiers on foot. He dove as a melee of flashing swords and grunts ended with Avestine standing alone, braced for more.
Despite the wound in her shoulder, Avestine had shown not a moment of hesitation. She butchered the young men with the thoughtlessness of a river in its course.
Two more soldiers broke from the trees. Avestine set one knee on the ground as she prepared to swing at a horse’s leg, but before she swung, the two soldiers went limp and dropped like heavy sacks from their mounts. Their horses raced on by. Avestine nodded at Rook.
Rook kicked the bodies to be sure they were dead. Avestine stripped one of the soldiers and told Kami to wear the black uniform, but Kami stared at her as if she were a stranger.
“Do what I tell you,” said Avestine.
Kami didn’t respond, so Avestine threw the tunic over her. Rook took the lead of several horses, and they rode iceward.