Yes, summer was a time of rituals, each with its natural time and place. Anthuin felt sure of this as she stood by the entrance to the circle, her robe blowing in the hot wind. And no ritual was more natural or more important than the Equinox Ritual, the final night of summer before it gave way to autumn and the rains. Anthuin clutched the dagger hanging over the front of her robe, feeling the cold ridges and patterns on the hilt under her hand. Slowly, she inhaled…and exhaled. The air was hot and dry, smelling of dust and the dried herbs that adorned the entryways to the circle. Tonight would be her Equinox Ritual. She opened her eyes, staring out across the rusty countryside. She could not let her courage fail.
Turning, she entered the stone circle, genuflecting in the habitual motion of adoration to the gods. Kneeling by the altar, the girl began meditation. Her right knee itched; she tried to ignore it. A raven croaked from the top of one of the stones of the circle; although she cringed at what she knew for a certain omen, she did not let it disturb her. The long grass tickled her arms and back to no effect. The dust that rasped softly against her face was even more ineffectual. It was omnipresent during the summer months, something everyone adjusted to naturally. Around her, the towering stones radiated the day's heat into the circle as she sank deeper into the meditation pattern, breathing slowly…steadily. The rain…she must focus on the rain…without the rain, there was nothing.
The rain was what created the village, gave it life, hope, food, everything. The rains would come. They would stay throughout autumn, leave during winter…disappear completely for the spring and summer months. The most important sacrifices, the Equinox Rituals, were dedicated to the rain. The Spring Ritual to thank it for its bounty, and the Autumn Ritual to ask for that bounty's renewal. And at these rituals…
Anthuin's breath hitched. She took another deep breath to steady herself and forced her thoughts to go on. At these rituals, a priest or priestess paid the ultimate price, sacrificing their blood to renew the rain. These were not public rituals—usually the identity of the unlucky giver was kept secret even from the priesthood itself.
Anthuin clutched the dagger again, feeling its cold, unfriendly metal. She traced the working on the hilt, the pattern of flowers and animals, then ran her finger along the edge of the blade. It was razor sharp, naturally. Sharp so that it could make a quick and clean cut, with as little pain as possible; a cut to the heart. Her hands were shaking at this point, and she nicked her thumb on the tip of the dagger. With a gasp, she tucked the stinging digit into her mouth and sucked on it. Not a drop of her blood could be spilled before the ritual at midnight, or the purity of the circle would fade. When she was certain that the tiny cut no longer bled, she placed her hand back on her lap and continued to meditate.
She didn't want to die. She knew this. She was only sixteen years old; surely there was supposed to be more to life than sixteen years? She didn't even think of herself as a woman yet. Her slender build, tiny height, and round face led many into the mistake of thinking that she was a young girl, and the more often she heard this the more she was convinced it was true. Her superiors in the priesthood considered her a woman, of course, but when she lay awake at night with her chamber-mate, Lianna, giggling and whispering, she felt far more like a girl than a woman. Her breath caught in her throat again, and she fought the urge to cry. There was no choice. The priesthood had asked her sacrifice for the rains, the rains that would keep the village together.
It—the priesthood—didn't know about her love of feeding the pigeons in the town square. It didn't know that she and Lianna had made a pact to remain friends the rest of their lives even when—come the new year after tonight—they would no longer be chamber-mates. It didn't know the way she had been looking at Camlach, one of the younger priests. Priestess and priests were allowed to marry within the priesthood, and she was of age now…she had been watching Camlach more and more lately, watching the sweat glisten off of his perfect body as he competed with the other priests in festival games. Sometimes she thought she'd caught him watching her in the same way as she danced with the priestesses later during the festival, or before the priests began to play; but she always averted her eyes when she thought she caught him staring. Later, she couldn't often be sure that he had been watching her.
The priesthood knew none of these things. It knew only that her blood was needed to restore the rain. Absolute secrecy was required—so terrified was she of the gods' wrath that she hadn't even told Lianna what she was bound to do, though she had longed for someone to weep on these last few days.
She gripped the knife, raised it to her breast, hands trembling, iron control keeping her from hyperventilating. The cold tip of the knife pricked her chest, and she dropped it, control shattered, breathing in sobs, water standing in her eyes. The knife bounced and swung on its cord as she leaned forward, trying to control herself.
Hours later, she was ready. Her long blond hair lay in unbound tresses down her back, reaching below her waist. She saw the procession—the highest priests in the priesthood—moving up the hill. She took a deep breath to steady herself as they entered the circle, a stream of white robes with hoods that held shadows instead of faces. Each made their own obeisance as they entered the circle.
As soon as each was assembled at their point in the circle, every other one holding a torch, the High Priest stepped forward. The moon, half-full, gave poor light; Anthuin could not see his face. His voice was deep and warm, like rich gravy. It gave nothing away.
"Are you ready, daughter?" he asked. She swallowed; she knew this was the customary opening to the ceremony.
"I am, father," she whispered. Next he would bless her; then would come the request; then the sacrifice itself.
"Child…" for some reason, his voice sounded uneasy, but then it reverted to its usually deep tones. "Child, you have come here tonight prepared to sacrifice yourself for the rain. But you may not have to."
Anthuin felt like she had been punched in the gut. Wordless, she could only stare at the High Priest and mouth questions. He continued as though she was doing nothing. "You have apparently…attracted the attention of Gringontos, lord of the village. And as you know, even the priesthood must bow to the wishes of nobility. Child…he has requested that you become a bond-maid in his household. If you wish to accept his offer, you would have to leave the priesthood. But we cannot stop you."
Anthuin sucked in her breath, cool night air filling her with a rush of wonder and—was it fear? When a lord requested a young woman for a bond-servant—especially a free woman from the village or priesthood—they were usually not primarily interested in their cleaning ability. Bond-servants had no options in life; although their masters could not kill them or inflict unusually cruel punishments (which, Anthuin was led to understand, meant torture) all else was allowed. Could she possibly sacrifice that much for this?
But to be alive…for the first time, Anthuin felt the full import of the cool air on her skin, of the wet grass beneath her feet. She knew that, in that moment, she could feel the grass growing. She could feel Mother Earth sighing, making the wind.
Surely a lord like Gringontos didn't keep a close eye on each bond-servant. She could sneak out at times…meet other people…her mind filled with visions of falling into Lianna's or…Camlach's…arms in some deserted place, kissing them and leaving again to return to a life of simple and effortless work in a luxurious wooden house. Her master, given the number of bond-servants he had, could not desire her presence constantly…after some time she would fall out of his favor and be able to pursue her own interests.
She wanted to live.
Steadily, she looked up at the High Priest. "I will go to Gringontos," she said. Her voice did not tremble; she was sure of her decision.
The High Priest made a discontented-sounding hum, but nodded. "Very well. If you are decided. But," he admonished, just as she had begun to relax, "a sacrifice must be made for the rains."
He gestured to someone waiting outside the light of the circle. Two huge priests moved in, holding a limp man between them. His head lolled from side to side, and he was clothed in naught but a loincloth. The priests laid him on the altar and stepped back slightly as the High Priest turned back to Anthuin.
"This will be the sacrifice, my daughter. As is fitting, we requested a bond-man of Gringontos, and he obliged us by providing this one. The sacrifice should be by your hand."
It was a rule of the ritual: the priestess always killed herself with a knife she carried the entire day before. No one killed her and had to live with the burden. To kill…obviously it happened, but only in times of extreme need. As she looked at the man on the altar, obviously drugged, she was filled with horror. He might have a family—children, a woman…
But was this not a time of extreme need?
Her jaw clenched, unclenched, clenched again. There was no way around it. Her hand almost jerked up to the dagger at her throat, and then it was off. She stepped up to the altar, staring down at the man. His eyes didn't even register her. She swallowed, positioned the dagger, swallowed again. She closed her eyes, brought her arm back, and hesitated. Then she clenched her teeth and drove the dagger home.
Something caught her arm.
She barely had time to open her eyes before something else twisted her left arm behind her back, making her cry out. The dagger was wrenched away from her hand by what she now saw was one of the priests who had brought the bond-servant into the circle. Through a haze of pain, confusion, and fear, she felt the dagger tear through the thin material of her robe and felt the priests let it drop from her. Meanwhile the prisoner, very suddenly no longer drugged, had risen and crossed to an attendant who stood waiting with a robe. The two burly priests pulled her sideways and up, and were joined by others as they lifted her onto the altar. The cold stone froze her bare back; she tried to twist away only to find that the priests had iron grips on her head, arms, and legs. Dazed, she heard the High Priest reciting a litany for sacrifice: "We commend to you now, o gods, ye who bring the rain and the wind, who are all-present and all-knowing, this virgin now polluted, one who is no longer fit…" the litany went on and on as Anthuin lay terrified on the cold stone altar, unable even to writhe. She felt helpless; unlike the prisoner, she was so small that her entire body fit onto the long altar. She heard the High Priest complete the litany as a priestess chanted softly in the background.
"O High One, the ceremony waits," she heard the High Priest say. No, not the High Priest, then. That one must have been some deputy, to take over the tedious litany and blessing before the High One himself completed…completed…
The prisoner stepped up to the altar.
Anthuin's heart nearly stopped, but she could do no more than widen her eyes. When she tried to speak, the found that the priest who was holding her head had wrapped his fingers around her jaw as well, preventing it from moving at all. She could do no more than make a muffled moan.
He smiled sadly. He was an average-looking man, all told: fair hair, but short, middling height, a creased face. He gazed down on her, shaking his head.
"You wonder why it is, don't you, Anthuin?" he asked. She felt her body stiffen in shock. He knew her name? "Yes, you wonder," he repeated, gaze unmoving. "Let me explain. There is a test before one can be initiated into the full circle of the Priesthood, the circle you must join by your twenty-first year. Each of us here passed it. The test is this: when it comes down to it, will you be willing to sacrifice your life for the community? And," he asked softly, "when given the option, would you rather sacrifice an innocent?
"You were a priestess, Anthuin. Our greatest duty is always and forever to our people. We must be willing to undergo any hardship for them. This…this is the sort of thing we must be willing to face. Had you chosen to shed your own blood, we would have asked only a few drops. Those who are killed in time of need? They are volunteers.
"But you have polluted yourself, Anthuin. You were once a lily of your school, the fairest of the sisters' pupils. They spoke highly of you; you seemed to have a connection with the gods themselves. But you chose to sacrifice the life of an innocent for your own sullied happiness.
"We cannot allow that."
As Anthuin strained, mute, against her captors, the High Priest calmly raised his hood. "I am sorry, my daughter," he said. She could see nothing but his cold eyes, frosty blue fires within his hood.
The knife flashed in the dark night.
By morning, the rain had washed the altar clean.