Part One: Initiation Rites
Chapter 1: Mystery and ecstasy
Wait. Wait. Wait.
Wait until the full moon is high, Vorona chanted. Wait until magic fills the night.
They waited as Vorona’s steady drumbeat pulled the full moon over the trees.
“Mysyach,” she repeated with every drum beat. No one else spoke or even moved. They waited as Mysyach, the moon goddess, slowly revealed her face. On this warm night, they felt a promise being fulfilled: “A full moon the night before the summer solstice is a very rare event,” Vorona had said one full moon ago in this same clearing. “It is the time for young men and women to worship, to celebrate their own fertility.” They had danced naked to Vorona’s beating drum and returned home, exhausted and expectant.Now, one month later, the night before the summer solstice, they gathered again in the clearing. Vorona’s moonlight ceremonies were irresistible, and open only to the unmarried young adults—no children or married people allowed. Twenty such came to the clearing just before moonrise, speaking low and fast in small groups. In the middle were the most popular couple, Mrost the bully and his girlfriend Grat; the others laughed at all their jokes and never dared interrupt them.
As always, Javor was the last to arrive and stood a little apart, wondering what to do. What if they tell me to leave? he thought. He shifted his weight from foot to foot until he spotted Hrech, his only friend. Then he saw Elli talking with her two girlfriends at the side of the clearing. She is prettier than Grat, and nicer, too, he thought as usual. Why does everyone like Grat better? He wondered whether he should go to Hrech or Elli.
No one noticed Vorona arrive; she seemed to appear in the centre of the clearing. Vorona had set herself up as the village’s witch: the woman who knew about herbs and remedies, who knew who was too closely related to marry, who dispensed potions and advice about finding a lover or getting a baby. But she was no crone. Perhaps twenty years old, she had long, rich brown hair and curves that Javor had started to notice when he had turned 13. She had big, widely-spaced eyes that she accented by painting dark outlines around them, and they flashed green in daylight and strangely silver by firelight. She had high cheekbones, a delicate face, wide lips and a delicate dimple like a tiny furrow in the end of her nose.
Tonight, she wore a metal necklace and a silvery bracelet. A single piece of amber hung in the centre of her forehead, suspended from a leather band around her head. A long robe of yellow and red, woven in a fiery pattern, hung from her shoulders. The front was cut very low and Javor took a good look at the curve of her breasts in the moonlight. As she turned he could see that the robe’s skirts parted at the side, revealing not only her leg but her whole hip. His heart started to beat faster.
The moon’s lower edge cleared the tallest tree and Vorona startled them all by crying “Worship, young people!” She lifted her hands. “Mistress of the night, Mysyach, bless us tonight as we pay homage to thee!” A pyramid of wood at her feet burst into flame all at once, quickly building into a bonfire.
How did she do that? Javor wondered.
“It is time, young worshippers! Join hands in a circle around the fire and begin the ceremony!” Vorona commanded, then bent her head down and crooned words Javor didn’t understand.
“What is she saying?” a boy whispered.
“Hush!” someone else hissed.“But she does this every time! What does she say?” the first boy insisted.“It’s the ancient language of the gods! Now be quiet!”
Javor suspected she made it up as she went along.
The young people joined hands around Vorona and the fire. And now came that familiar fear, that empty space below his ribs as Javor wondered whether the others would let him into the circle. Hrech had already taken the hand of Elli’s friend, Teshla. Teshla’s other hand held Elli’s, but Javor pulled them apart and stepped between them. Elli looked startled, but then smiled nervously as her eyes met Javor’s.
Teshla clicked her tongue—she didn’t like Javor.
But tonight, they could not exclude him. Vorona had commanded them all to dance beneath the full moon. They had to obey their village shaman, even if she was a woman.
They started an awkward, slow dance around the fire as Vorona continued her keening chant. Suddenly, she threw her hands skyward. “Dance, young lovers, dance! Tonight Mysyach, goddess of the moon is full and ripe! This night is filled with power, with the energy of youth, of life, of strength!” She beat on her small drum, crooning wordlessly. The beat went on and on, faster and faster. The dancers moved frantically to keep up but Vorona was relentless, beating and singing faster and faster.
With a final beat, she stopped. The dancers stopped, too, puffing. “Sit, my children,” said Vorona. So now we’re her children, are we? The dancers dropped onto the grass. Javor made certain he was lying on his elbows close to Elli. He noticed she didn’t move away.
“Tonight, the moon goddess reaches the height of her power. Tonight is a night for youth, for new lives to begin. Tonight the moon goddess breathes life into our crops, begins transforming flowers into fruit. Tonight babies are conceived.” The girls giggled nervously.
It’s been a long time since a baby was born alive in our village, Javor thought.
“Tonight, my children, the moon goddess’s power reaches into our bodies and souls and kindles a fire, an irresistible hunger that can only be satisfied in one way … ”
“How’s that, Vorona?” It was Mrost, leering from across the fire.
Vorona glared at Mrost until he lost his smile and looked down. She passed around two wineskins. Javor had drunk sweet, thick undiluted wine before, but this stuff was different. One sip made every sense hard-edged. Javor could hear Elli whispering to Teshla: “… kiss him …” He could see the fire bright and hot against the black night, could see each of the young people in the ring around it. But the forest beyond vanished, the stars faded. Even the crickets and owls fell silent.
Vorona sang again in her weird language, and Javor thought he could understand her in some roundabout way. All the young people understood. They rose to their feet, joined hands and danced again. Vorona’s drum drove them. She threw her head back and sang, voice rising and falling. The dance went on and on, around and around the fire until there was nothing else but the motion and the fire and Vorona’s voice.
All at once, the dancers pulled off their rough tunics. Javor felt a moment’s panic when Elli let go of his hand to pull her tunic off, and he gasped at the sight of her long neck, her breasts, her belly and hips and thighs in the firelight. He pulled off his own tunic and dropped his trousers, stumbling over them. He and Elli grasped hands again and Elli looked at him with wide eyes, her mouth slightly open, hair over her face as they danced.
He breathed fast and could feel sweat coming between his hand and Elli’s. On and on they went, naked before the fire that jumped higher and higher. How does it keep growing if no one is adding fuel? Javor wondered once, and then the beat of the drum and Vorona’s voice and the motion of dancing filled his mind and Javor didn’t think anymore.
And then Elli’s hands were on his shoulders and her mouth was pressing on his. Javor’s knees buckled and Elli came down on him. He felt a thrilling shock as her naked belly touched his own. He fell softly onto damp, cold earth, weeds scratching his naked skin. He kissed her, hands roving over her skin. He was afraid when he touched her breasts, but Elli kissed him hard again, open-mouthed, then moved her mouth onto his neck. I should try to make this last,Javor thought, but then he was on top of Elli. She pulled him close and then he was inside her. He moved, awkwardly at first, and Elli gasped once in pain, then pulled him closer. Javor pushed his body up, and some small part of him was still amazed at what was happening. His eyes could see only Elli’s, and his body was not under his control. He thrust his hips harder and quickly felt himself flowing into her as Vorona’s drum drove them on. He fell to the side, looking at the bonfire, conscious of other couples in the grass around him.
Slowly, reality returned. Javor looked over at Elli, who stared, panting, at the sky. Vorona’s drum was slowing, her voice falling. He gradually heard other voices, low and embarrassed.
Javor rose up on one elbow. “Elli …” But he didn’t know what to say, so he kissed her cheek gently. She didn’t seem to notice, so he kissed her again, breathing in her scent. His thigh felt wet. He kissed her neck, her shoulder, then her breast, hoping to pull the nipple between his lips. Why didn’t I do that before? he wondered, but Elli sat up and pulled away, looking at him with wide eyes. Javor smiled sheepishly. He looked at her, carefully, taking the moment to look at her naked body. She was thin, too thin, really, as they all were. But her breasts were round and high and they made his mouth water. She had almost flawless skin. Her lips were wide and thin but her eyes were large. Those eyes were what Javor had first noticed about Elli.
She gave a little cry, and tears started down her cheeks. Javor hugged her close, caressing her smooth back. Vorona’s drum made three final, slow beats, and Javor could now hear Elli sobbing into his neck. “Sshh, shh,” he said. Why is she crying?
Vorona’s song ended. Slowly, the night sounds returned, the crickets and frogs and night birds, the sound of the stream and the breeze, the gentle roar of the fire. Javor felt the breeze stirring the hair on his neck, and was conscious of the silky feel of Elli’s skin under his hands and pressing against his chest, side and legs, of the slight tickle—did he imagine it?—of her nipples against his ribs.
“Mysyach is sinking into the night, my children,” said Vorona. Her voice brought them all back to the present. Now Javor was also conscious of the grass prickling his leg, of the scratches on his back and how cool the night breeze felt. “We have all done well. We have worshipped the goddess. You felt her power in your genitals, her fertility in your wetness. Now dress yourselves and go. The celebration is ended.” Elli moved away from him and pulled her tunic over herself. Javor looked for his. What difference does it make which one we each put on? They’re all the same.
He looked up, but Elli was already with her friends, talking fast and low. They left the clearing, heading toward the village.
“Go back, my children. Go back to your homes. Sleep while you can. When the sun rises, it will be the solstice, the celebration of the sun.”
The fire was dying. Vorona gathered her belongings into a cloth bag, shouldered it and started back to the village. Javor wanted to speak with her, but didn’t know what to say.
“Come on, Javor, your parents will be up soon.” It was Hrech. Without answering, Javor followed him along the stream. The moon was setting. How long had they danced? “I hope we can get a little sleep before dawn,” said Hrech.
“Yah.” Without talking any more, they walked back to the village of low, round clay-and-twig huts, half-sunk into the ground, arranged in a flattened circle at the foot of a low hill.
Javor’s hut was at one narrow end of the oval, nestled against a small ridge of the hill. Javor’s father, Swat, liked to say that the slight rise protected them against the north wind, but Javor could never understand how a rise as high as his waist could provide any shelter.
It was only as he crept through the doorway and fell onto his straw mat that Javor realized how tired he was. He fell asleep immediately. And he dreamed a terrible dream.
He was flying over a wide plain where tall grass browned in the sun. On top of a small hill, a palisade guarded a village. Smoke drifted over the palisade—the village was burning. Bodies lay in front of the huts, and children huddled against the walls, crying for their murdered parents.
Across the plain, horsemen chased people on foot. He wanted to warn the running people about the horsemen, but he could not bring his mouth to open, nor make the smallest noise.
One horseman closed on two men and a woman. The horseman raised a curved shape—a sword. He brought it down sharply, once, twice—the running men fell, twisting, arms flailing, then still. Now, only the woman was left. The horse ran in front of her. The woman darted to one side, then the other, but the horse blocked her. The rider tired of the game quickly, and struck her, too, and she fell.
Javor rose higher, and he could see across the plain. Everywhere, groups of mounted men in dark armour chased terrified villagers on foot. Villages burned. Armoured men raped women. Finally, he descended, watching a group of grinning men taking their turns raping two girls while a village burned behind them. The smoke billowed and concentrated into an enormous man shape.
He forced his lungs to contract as the smoke grew darker and the shape it formed grew more distinct. He could see two great arms, thick as trees, ending in great curved cruel claws.
Javor strained. He pushed and then the scream climbed out of his throat, and he was sitting upright in his bed. The watery dawn light filtered in. He was sweating. To one side, he could hear his parents shifting.
“A dream,” he whispered to himself, falling back onto the heather that made up his bed. He gradually slowed his breath, but he could not go back to sleep.
His father got up and smiled. “Time for the ceremony,” he said.
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