He stripped down to his waist, one of a dozen other men all standing in a glen, the sweat starting to bead on the back of his neck already. The seasons turned swiftly toward summer in the lowlands, and cicadas filled the late afternoon air with their unbroken, pulsing thrum. Shoulders set back and spine straightening, it was his turn. Three women approached him–one carried two weapons, a feathered spear and a blade, another carried a bowl of thick, dark liquid, and the third carried nothing but a heavy air around her. Her dark hair ran waves down part her waist, held back from her face in the heat that she did not seem to notice.
She spoke words to him, old words, words that had not been spoken in the halls of his father for generations. Words in a tongue his father’s father had taught him, years ago. She dipped her hands into the bowl, fingers dark and dripping as she placed them on his skin and drew whorls and spirals that followed the curves of his muscles, the shadows that fell from the trees. When she finished, she stepped back and the woman holding the weapons handed them to him, smiling at him as he gave her a bow of respect. The women moved on from him, repeating the same ritual with the remaining men, save without the dagger, until the women were finished, and returned to face all of them. Some held themselves unnaturally still, some shifted anxiously.
A horn sounded. His breath sank to the bottom of his lungs, and the muscles in his forearms flexed. The dagger he slipped through his belt. He’d need two hands to start.
She glided, bare feet whispering across fur skins and beneath long skirts, around the room, lighting candles as she went.
His heart roared like thunder in his chest, sweat coating the lines of his back and neck, feet pounding over the rocky ground in chase. There was no need to track hoof prints over the ground once he caught sight of antlers in the golden light.
The stag was swift, but so was he, and he could hear the whooping calls and shouts of the other men trailing behind him. Air burned from his throat to his lungs, as if he breathed fire, and he felt the shock of each lope against the hard earth in his hips. He did not slow his speed, yet still those behind him drew nearer. Blood rushed through his ears, down into the arm, the hand holding the spear.
It was now, it had to be now. His whole being focused on the stag racing before him, trying to lose those that hunted it, but he trusted the power coiled in his own shoulders, and threw the spear in tandem with his stride.
She raised her chin and closed her eyes as ancient lines and curves were painted dark against her skin.
It struck the back muscle of the stag, faltering it, and he surged forward, drawing the sacred dagger to complete the circle. Sweat streaked the dark circles on his skin.
She waited, heart racing at the sound of a second horn. It was done. The woman who had held the dagger and spear came to her, asked if she consented to admit the Consort.
She answered yes, and he filled up the doorway, the woman bowing out past him and sweat running down the trench of his spine.