The leader and priestess of the Wolfena performs an initiation ritual for five new members of the village, but things don't play out as Saelyn expects them to.
The world was black and cold, no different than it had been yesterday or the thousand days before. Summer was no more than an ancestral memory in Saelyn’s mind. She didn’t need its warmth. She could create her own flame at will and there was plenty of heat inside the domais of her village, round-topped homes with hearths that burned and burned and never went out. She always made sure that her treasures were taken care of.
On that day, Saelyn would be taking in more treasures. She tore her eyes away from the bleak landscape of white dunes to look out over the small settlement called Wolfea. Her glance passed over Jimian, who had joined her a little while ago to begin her guard-shift.
The first prickles of anticipation worked their way into Saelyn’s rib cage. “You’re sure you don’t want to join the festivities tonight?” she asked with a glint of mischief.
Jimian shook her head. Only her eyes were visible beneath the headwrap. “I’m all set. You know dancing isn’t really my thing. I’m just as happy to keep watch.”
Saelyn nodded. Other figures swathed in black were posted along the walls in pairs, ever alert for unwanted visitors. “As long as you’re content.”
“I am,” Jimian said, leaning back against a spire. “Don’t scare the girls too bad tonight.”
Saelyn climbed down from the metal skeleton, using tarnished bolts for foot and handholds as she went. Her movements were eager underneath layers of black wool.
There were dozens of women out and about on that clear Solstice day. Each and every one of them had been born and reborn to the cold. Some were so used to it they didn’t need the thick hide parkas and fur-lined headwraps which were common throughout the nation of Carema. The citizens of Wolfea were busy in most part tending to their huge flock of tanabucks. The massive, antlered, triple-cloved beasts were the women’s greatest livelihood, providing everything from meat to warmth to candles to weapons. Their coats alternated between black and reddish, sensing a seasonal pull the humans could not quite detect, and were woven into the wraps that allowed them to survive the ice age climate.
Saelyn’s mind buzzed with energy as she descended into the village. She could feel her god with her that day, Ehtu lingering close, breathing hot hair down her neck. Ceremonies were few and far between in a place where each day was a struggle and a skipped chore could mean a frozen death.
She walked to the outermost domai on the eastern side of the village and pushed through a weighted flap of patchwork animal skins. The inside was well lit by candles, revealing a brown partitioned interior with a kitchen area to the left and a dining room to the right, occupied by five young women. The initiates looked up at her, reverence, awe, and comfort ascending their faces. A couple of them smiled. They were all in different stages of going about their morning, some fully dressed while others were slipping into their warm day clothes.
Saelyn found her eyes lingering upon Rennai, seated at the dining table. She was the most promising of the five, a powerful young sorceress. Her azure fire was as incredible to behold as her form was. Her blue eyes shone in sharp contrast to dark ochre skin like ice in the crags of rocks. The lighter colored scars upon her arms and cheeks didn’t remove from her beauty. She was one of the ones to smile at Saelyn, while Ama braided locks of her brown-black hair away from her face.
“How are you this morning?” Saelyn asked, glancing over all of them, though her gaze lingered on Rennai. “Are you all ready for the ceremony tonight?”
“We’re ready,” Rennai dipped her head as the matriarch approached, “more than ready.”
Saelyn smiled and stepped forward, reaching out to touch Rennai’s cheek. She caressed the soft skin, feeling the bump of scar, the warm glow of her aura, her magic, her longing for touch and heat. It put a longing in Saelyn, too, one that she would suppress until later in the night.
“I’m glad to hear it,” said Saelyn. Reluctantly, she let her hand fall away. “But do not forget that tonight, I make a promise to you as well. You are not offering yourselves in service to me; we offer our love, tolerance, and protection to each other.” She took another glance at Rennai, prospects of the future drifting easily through her mind. “Irahna will be along shortly to help you apply your decorations. Take your time getting ready.”
Saelyn returned to her own quarters to spend the remainder of her day with the Deis. She followed an ancient religion nearly extinct from the land of Carema, the Deis serving as a term to encompass the thousands of goddesses and gods worshipped in the days of old.
The spikes of her boots echoed in the hallway, her breath puffing misty clouds as she walked past vents and pipes hung with icicles formed long ago. Her home was not a domai, but the abandoned corpse of an old warehouse, built into the metal wall which guarded the village. The warehouse and wall both had been constructed by long dead generations and then modified by the ones who came after.
Despite the frigid temperatures outside, when she stepped into her temple the air was hot, almost stiflingly so. The fire at the far left of the room crackled with preternatural energy. Saelyn knelt in front of it and reached out to take some of the flame up in her palm. She transferred it to a smaller fire pit a few paces in front of the hearth. She put water into a cast iron saucer to make steam, filling it with strong oils, introducing a tangy, heady scent into the air.
She sat upon a cushion, facing her mirror. After a few moments of breathing Saelyn saw the smoke on her shoulders appear to her, the demon she had long ago named Daseil. She greeted the three red eyes which shone out from it with a smile and the entity whispered to the back of her mind. The cloying smoke of incense wrapped her up, blurring her thoughts and she shed her woven layers when sweat prickled beneath the wool.
Pieces of her long black hair clung to russet skin, streaming down back and breasts like dripping oil. Her head swayed slowly from side to side, neurons firing in overtime as the muscles in her neck loosened and her shoulders drooped. The visions were vague at first, flashing, violent colors, a thousand pairs of eyes gazing at her within a few heartbeats. Then, the pictures slowed, and she saw Rennai, facing slightly away from her as she dipped her feet into an oasis. There was steam rising from the pool of red rocks, though everywhere else around her the landscape was filled with snow. Saelyn’s stomach warmed as Rennai unwrapped scarves from her body.
When she was bare, Rennai glanced back, turning so that Saelyn could see the round of her shoulders, the curve of her small breasts, the dipping muscles of her hips and thighs. Those crystalline blue eyes beckoned her and the fire which crackled calmly on Rennai’s hands were of the same color. As Saelyn stepped forward, the vision dissipated around her.
She was left with an endless lifetime of undulating colors and sensations of soaring. She returned to the real world only when she felt the cold seeping in from the outside. Saelyn gave herself a few moments to recover before standing up to feed her hearth the waxy rocks she had designed long ago, which kept their fires burning longer than any type of wood was able to.
She heard the raucous outside and smiled at the thought of Jimian watching from her rampart, sipping on harsh spirits to keep herself warm.
Saelyn’s Firsts had begun without her, as asked. Heavy tones thumped through their village, an undulating music preserved from the time when true society still existed. The sounds tugged at Saelyn’s chest. Her treasures would be wearing their ceremonial shoulder coverings and fringes on their hips. On this night, when both moons were gone from the sky, they would not allow themselves feel the cold. They would dance and celebrate until the Child returned to the sky with its radiant light. The bonfire burning at the center would melt the snow away from the ground and let them feel earth and grass beneath their feet, even if it was dead grass. They would be at the mercy of the music for a long while.
Saelyn returned to her mirror to apply the greasepaint around her eyes and the red ochre upon her upper arms. She contemplated the vision of Rennai and entertained thoughts of making the young woman one of her Firsts—a priestess she would share all of her secrets with, one who would hold and carry knowledge that ensured the Wolfena’s survival long after Saelyn’s death.
She left her chest bare, the same as the women dancing outside, while long fringes of their finest fabric trailed from her hips. Necklaces and bracelets of beaded bone decorated her frame. When Saelyn finally stepped out into the night, she inhaled sharply at the iciness that assaulted her.
There is no heat without the cold, she reminded herself, walking past the fire to the dais, the place where she could watch everything from above. She loved to see her treasures dancing and drinking of the dreamtea, freeing their minds and bodies in a way that women throughout the rest of Carema could not. Soon, the ceremony would be performed, and the initiates would become part of the Wolfena. After, there would be more celebration, more drinking, and at the end of the evening Saelyn would pick someone to return with her to her chambers, to dance together in the heavy incense smoke and upon her furs.
Unbeknownst to the rest of them, Saelyn had already made her choice. She drank in the magic which swirled around the hearth fire, resisting the urge to let her body move along with the rest of them. For the safety of her new treasures she would have to conserve every molecule of energy.
When the time came, she stood up from her eclectic throne—a fusion of wooden and metal plates rubbed with coal that left smudges of black amongst the ochre on her skin. At her movement, the rumbling music faded out and the women’s wild dancing ceased. They gathered near the dais, eyes of many colors wide and vivacious, their hair tangled, shining lustrous in the firelight. Saelyn sighed deeply, a contented breath full of love and passion and satisfaction misting its way over the crowd. It had taken her so many years to build this following. She had given so much blood, so much energy, but had received so much more in return.
“Initiates, please come forward,” she said. Though her voice was quiet, it reached every ear.
The five women worked their way through the small crowd, lining up in front of the platform. Saelyn called Ama to her first. She had tears in her dark eyes as she stepped up onto the platform. Ama went to her knees and Saelyn cupped her face in her hands.
The spell in and of itself was a simple one, but it took great amounts of power. It had been used in the ancient times to stop the heart of a person possessed, killing the demon inside quickly enough for the human to be resurrected with a second shock of electric energy.
Sharp intakes of breath rang out when Ama went limp. Saelyn eased her gently to the ground. Ama’s heart ceased to beat, her chest stilled. Saelyn pressed her palm to Ama’s bare sternum, letting the tension build for a few moments. The initiate then gasped awake, looking confused until her eyes met Saelyn’s.
“Rise, my treasure—you are reborn a princess to smoke and blood and cold, and will always have a home amongst the Wolfena, and the protection of a thousand Deis.”
Ama let her tears flood forth as she held tight to Saelyn’s arms, and she was pulled again to her feet. Saelyn held her close, stroking and kissing her hair before the women gathered to help her down from the platform.
She performed the initiation on the next three in order of age, youngest to oldest. With the greatest care and control of her abilities, she stopped the hearts of Raelis, Tinya, and Leese, and restarted them again with a jolt. Each of them had a different reaction upon waking, but relief and elation were the strongest emotions Saelyn could feel pouring from them. Her heart was full to bursting and the eternal wish resided within her that she had had the Wolfena when she was their age… when she’d been brutalized, sold, used like an animal. The old fury burst up in her as Rennai came on the stage, the fury that led her to save, protect, and redeem these women who had been tortured at the hands of slavers and traffickers.
Rennai had been the survivor of a gruesome raid upon the small city she was confined to. Saelyn had found her half alive in a pile of rubble that had once been the brothel she served. The Rennai before her was now flourishing with vibrant life and though the scars from the incident remained, they were worn with pride rather than shame.
“Before our world fell into the Cold Night,” Saelyn said softly as Rennai approached, “this land was called Carram. It was a nation of peace and beauty, and people of all kinds were regarded with respect and reverence. Queens and Kings served as equals. That time has fallen away, but in Wolfea, all of us are equal, and all of us are revered.”
Rennai’s energy was calmer, more controlled than the others. Their eyes were locked together as she went to her knees before Saelyn, looking deeply into one another, communicating without words.
She will be at my side, always, from this night on, Saelyn thought. She touched Rennai’s face, their eye contact finally breaking as her heart was stopped and heavy-lashed lids fluttered shut. She gathered the woman in her arms, laying her down with grace. Daseil stirred upon her shoulders.
When she pressed upon Rennai’s sternum, her heart did not kickstart back to life. Saelyn went stiff, her mind sputtering to a halt. She tried again, pouring more energy and magic into the spell this time; she felt Rennai’s heart clench beneath her grasp. Still nothing. The women below stirred, glancing to one another.
No, Saelyn screamed inside as icy water flooded her veins, no, I have never lost one. I cannot lose her. Daseil, help me.
For the first time in thirteen years, the demon’s weight lifted from her shoulders. She was the only one who could see the smoke trail its way into Rennai’s eyelids. In the next moment the woman’s eyes flicked open and she inhaled sharply, her chest rising in a gorgeous gasp. Blue fire flared from her palms, and then quieted to a low burn.
Saelyn helped her to sit up, not allowing the relief to show on her face. The Wolfena cheered around her, some falling to their knees, some so taken with emotion that they held each other as they cried.
“Rennai, how do you feel?” Saelyn asked, quiet enough so the others would not hear the petrification in her voice. She held onto her, afraid that if she let go Rennai would collapse again. Saelyn searched her eyes for any sign of the Daseil’s presence and found none. The curse who had lived on her shoulders was gone.
Rennai looked at her hands as the last plume of fire went out, and touched her bare chest, then her neck, then her face, breathing deeply as she smiled up at the woman she considered something of a goddess.
“Free,” she said, reaching up to run her fingers through Saelyn’s long hair, her touch coming to rest on her jaw. “I feel free.”