Just a one-shot, not really related to Blood Magic. Hope you enjoy.

Evan was a man of the Plains – solid, responsible, rational. Sensible. He didn't approve of the unsteadiness of the Desert People, didn't understand the streak of blind mysticism that ran through their blood and their deepest beliefs. But then he didn't need to understand or even approve of them – he was a trader. He only had to tolerate them.

And that was why he was in the City on this day and at this time – on the Midwinter Solstice, the day the Desert People called the Ladysfeast. In talking with other traders who ventured into the Desert, he had learned that Ladysfeast was the best time to sell goods, because for this one night, the People abandoned their mutual reserve and gave in to their more primitive instincts. From what he had heard, it was one of the major festivals of the year, starting at sundown and continuing until dawn, where the normal restraints of morality and common sense were abandoned, or forgotten in an orgy of blood and sex and wine.

One night every year the City went wild.

However, it was still daytime and there was time to spare before the madness began. He had business to conduct, and after it was finished he asked his customer, a Desert aristocrat named Taahn, to tell him about the Ladysfeast.

Taahn looked surprised. "You don't know?" He shook his head. "No, of course you don't…you're a Plainsman, after all." He said it so matter-of-factly.

"What do you mean?" Evan was growing rather tired of being dismissed as only a Plainsman.

"I mean," Taahn said with maddening conviction, "you're sensible. Rational. You can't feel the world's heartbeat, can't feel it's…it's soul…"

Evan scowled. "I still don't know what you're talking about."

Taahn grinned. "I know. So I'll show you."

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They went out into the streets, already beginning to fill with people as the sun dropped lower and lower on the horizon. Picking their way through the crowds they came to a square in the very middle of the City. It was curiously empty, but the streets around it were packed with people, all waiting in eerie silence for the sun to go down.

Taahn led him into a crowd of men and women, all of whom wore jet black, with an embroidered design over their hearts. Evan blinked – he had traded in the Desert long enough to recognize who these people were.

They were Companions – the bodyguards to the Shan'ri, the Lord of the Dancers, the elite organization that was the closest thing to a military priesthood the Desert had…

There was no official priesthood in the Desert, but rather four organizations comprised of people who, for some reason or another, dedicated their lives to the service of the Goddess in her three incarnations – the Maiden, the Mother and the Lady of Ravens.

The Dancers, despite the incongruous name, were elite warriors who dedicated their lives, and their deaths, to the Lady. Their symbol was a wreath of red poppies, symbolizing death and rebirth, and the sacrifice of life for the health and fertility of the land…

All of this Taahn explained, and some of it Evan already knew, but it still didn't make sense to him at all. Taahn looked at him, weighing and evaluating. "Watch," he murmured, for the sun was almost below the horizon. "Watch and find out. You'll understand."

He doubted that, but he shrugged and turned his eyes towards the square, where it seemed that the main action was finally beginning.

*******************************************

A man, bare-chested and clad in black flowing pants and knee boots, with a silver sash circling his waist appeared. He bore a sword on his left hip and a dagger on the other, and his shoulder length black hair was restrained in an elegant queue. He was not tall, not overly muscular, but he radiated such a force of presence that his personality seemed to dominate the crowd, and all eyes were fixed, unblinking, on his form.

A wreath of red poppies – heartsblood, they called them here in the Desert – was tattooed over his heart; this, then, was the Shan'ri, the earthly representative of the Lady of Ravens, the darkest incarnation of the Goddess.

The Shan'ri paced to the very centre of the square and knelt just as the sun disappeared fully below the horizon, and in a breathtaking natural effect he was bathed in the last glow of sunlight, turning his body the dull red of fresh blood.

The crowd was deathly silent, and even Evan was caught up in the atmosphere. This was the beginning of an ancient ritual from the very dawn of time, and the aura of sanctity and the weight of mysticism and blind instinctive belief closed in on him, so that for the first time he thought he understood something of the wildness in the souls of the People.

Then the Shan'ri began to dance. He surged to his feet and whipped his sword out, spinning around to face and unseen and invisible foe that existed only in his imagination, or on the mental plane upon which his unseeing eyes were gazing.

It was the Midwinter Solstice and the veils between this world and the Other were at their thinnest. The Shan'ri stood between the Land and the Otherworld, and he fought to ensure his safety and the continuance of the cycle of death and rebirth, of the coming of Spring to replace the Winter.

To Evan, who was fast losing his cynicism and his practicality, it seemed as though the whole world held its breath while the Shan'ri fought. If he prevailed, Spring would come in all its glory and the crops would grow strong and healthy – but if he failed…

He quite forgot the fact that the Shan'ri was fighting what seemed to be an imaginary opponent, because to him and every other person in the crowd, it was real.

Finally, after an age of tension and bated breath, the frenzied dance in the square reached a crescendo, and the Shan'ri, streaked with blood from wounds that had appeared from nowhere, thrust his sword (red for nearly half its length) into the sky and howled in exultant victory. The crowd, for so long eerily silent, sent up their cry in response.

Evan found himself shouting with them, caught up in the exultation, in the sheer relief. The religion of the Plains was safe, practical, and rational. One did not find oneself swept away by the drama of the moment, by the very primitive emotions evoked by what had happened in the square. Had he not just seen it he would never have believed that the normally sophisticated Desert people could be so…primal. But now people were crowding in on the square from all sides, pressing into the middle and trying to get through to touch the Shan'ri, to gain his blessing that would ensure fertility and good health, and even to, as Evan saw with detached horror, to take his blood, and give him their own in return.

Taahn saw his horror, took pity and explained. "The Shan'ri swears to give his life for the People. He does this by defending them, by standing between them and the darkness, by giving everything of himself. That's what heartsblood means – the Chosen One dies for the People. In days gone past, they used to sacrifice the Shan'ri every year. Now he only gives of his own blood – on this night, it cures everything short of death, and to taste it is to know what life really is…"

Taahn looked up, saw one of the Companions he knew, and drew Evan with him into the crowd surrounding the Shan'ri. Evan looked into the other man's eyes and saw infinite sadness, compassion, strength, implacable will and a vast, all-encompassing love. It was too much for him and he gasped, falling to his knees. He felt the Shan'ri touch his forehead in benediction, felt a trickle of blood run past his lips and into his mouth. He swallowed, and it was like the finest wine – rich, full glorious, and it tasted of Spring and of life and of everything good in the world.

For the first time in his life Evan of the Plains, merchant trader, knew what it was to be alive. He knew now that he could never go back to his native religion with its shallow rituals and soulless trappings. Now that he had seen the Shan'ri dance at Ladysfeast, he knew what was important, and what traditions would carry on because they had always been carried out, because they had to be carried out.

Now that he knew what passions lay beneath the deceptively impassive soul of the Desert, he would come back to the City for the Ladysfeast next year, and every year after that, to experience life in all its truth and stark reality once again.