Argent Stag, Silver Rose

Chapter Two: The Feis

"Princess . . . this is very unusual, you know. I don't think--"

"It doesn't matter what you think." My voice is unintentionally harsh; turning away from the tiny window of this storeroom on the lowest floor of the castle. I look at the priestess with cool, calculating eyes. She's about my height, though her body's not as well-rounded as my own; her hair is a warm, rich chocolate color, and her eyes are almost the same color. "I am the Goddess's daughter. It will be this way."

She bites tentatively at her lip, then nods. "As . . . as you wish, Princess."

"Good. Now . . . I want you to remain out of sight. No one should know of this." I dismiss her with a crisp nod of my head. Closing my eyes as she shuts the door quietly behind her, I hold the image of her face steady in my mind, then begin the intricate weaving that will give me her semblance until sunrise.

The sun's already starting to spread rosy fingers across the sky to the east. The dawn of my eighteenth birthday is starting to chase away the shadows of the night. I look up at the lightening sky and swallow my fear.

It's been five years since I was crowned sovereign prince, kneeling before my twin sister as I received the blessings and regalia of the one that was destined to rule this kingdom. However, I wasn't old enough then to prove my right to rule. I am now. And the trial that awaits me fills me with dread and awe in equal measure.

I couldn't sleep, lying awake most of the night in that huge bed of mine, going over and over what I would have to do. Somewhere, out there, the King Stag roamed the verdant confines of Hartwood, and I would have to prove myself by killing him.

The ceremony is ancient, harkening to a harsher, bloodier time. Those that follow the new religion of the Church have come close to flat out condemning me for insisting on going through with such a "heathen" ritual, but they don't understand. It has to be done. The Wheel turns, but only in certain ways, and I won't be responsible for upsetting the great cycles ordained by the divine.

For the well-being of the people, the King Stag must fall. Even they of the Church hold that the Divine Son shed His blood for the good of His people. They can't deny they hold the same underlying truth . . .

When I finish the spell, there's a violent shudder that tears through me as it takes effect. It doesn't physically change me, but it does spin a powerful illusion that cloaks me in the priestess's appearance. It's strong enough that even physical contact won't break it; I just hope that it's enough to deceive Malaquin.

Oh, Malaquin. He's been so withdrawn from me since that day in the clearing, treating me as if I'm something dangerous to him. And the regents have been pressing him almost frantically to get me married off.

But I won't be married to anyone against my will. As the spell completes its veil of illusion, I smile at the altered reflection in the small mirror I've brought along. Brown hair, brown eyes, a face that's less beautiful than my true one yet holds a soft, shy prettiness.

I turn my eyes from the rising sun to glance back at the gaping maw of the gatehouse into Hart Castle. I stand on the pathway that wends its way down the grass-covered mound on which the castle sits, waiting for the men that will take me to the sacred grove to appear. At the moment, only Cathal stands with me, a grim sort of expression on his face. He might be the son of one of those that follow the Church, but he understands my position. I know he's scared for me and doing his best to not let it show.

As I look back at the palace, I can't help but think of Madule. I've been torn with guilt this last month, afraid to be near her too much, her presence a potent reminder of my sinful nature. I don't want to encourage her; she must get over this feeling she has for me and set her heart on something more appropriate. Heaven preserve me, I don't want to be the cause of my sister's corruption.

I'm sorry, Madule, to have stayed away from you. But it's got to be . . .

I hear sounds in the gatehouse, and my heart skips a beat. They're coming, at last, to escort me into the forest, to the heart of the greenwood, to my meeting with destiny . . .

I belt the simple robe of white linen around myself, then take one last look at my reflection. Perfect. Hopefully, Malaquin will be so anxious and wound up that the bond between us won't give away the secret.

As I leave the storage area, I can faintly hear the priestess praying in the storeroom that I had arranged for her to use as a retreat--I won't use the phrase "hiding place"--until the ceremony is finished.

Emerging from this little-used hallway, I make my way quietly through the corridors to the great front doors, then out into the bright sunlight. The courtyard is busy, a sense of anxiety and anticipation hovering over the whole palace.

I walk quietly across the courtyard to the gatehouse, keeping my hands folded in front of me, my eyes demurely lowered, my head bent beneath the white hood of my robe.

The nobles that still believe in the right ways, those that know the true power of divinity lies with Goddess, are my escorts as we walk across the fields to the shadowed embrace of the forest. I walk in the center of them, humbly dressed, my royalty only showing in my unconsciously regal bearing and in the glint of white gold on my hand. I wear the Royal Signet, the symbol of my marriage to the land; it will be used by the priestess of the Mother in the ordeal to come as a link to my mind and soul.

It's a solemn, silent procession as we slip into the woods and walk among the shadows of the great trees. I feel cold, as anxiety starts to gnaw at me. I've known this moment was coming ever since I turned sixteen and Duke Agricol explained the significance of the ring I wore, and I've been sure I would be ready. But now that it's here, I find myself almost dreading it.

I'm lead deeper and deeper into the wood, seemingly losing track of all direction, though I've been long trained in how to keep my bearings and find my way. At last, though, we come to the place, a small, peaceful clearing where an outcropping of earth makes a mound near the still, mirror-like surface of a pond. I can't tell whether the tree-topped mound is natural or fae-made, but I can see the open doorway into it, and I recognize it for what it is, a symbolic cave, a place considered the womb of the Mother of all . . .

With my own escort--a small group of similarly white-clad women, though these are a mix of middle-aged matrons and aged crones--I follow some distance behind Malaquin and the nobles who lead him into the greenwood. I keep my pace moderate, rather than letting my eagerness and anxiety hasten my steps; it wouldn't do to be rushing and drawing attention.

The cool green shadows of the trees make me shiver a little; the women murmur to me soothingly, evidently mistaking my nervousness over my deception as a maiden's worry over the ceremony that will take her virginity.

The clearing is larger than the one that Malaquin and I had been in a month ago. The pond is quite a bit larger, but all I can really see is the heap of earth and its entrance. That's where this will happen; that's where I will lie down with my brother and make him the sovereign in truth.

Malaquin is just ahead of us with his escort. I swallow hard, keeping my head bowed as I step out into the clearing with the women flocked around me.

They make little sound at all, these sacred women dedicated to the tri-part Goddess, as they step into this place that hums with the power of the feminine mystery. If I didn't think their fear and hatred would shatter the holiness of places like this, I would make all those that say there is no divinity in womankind to come here and feel Her power. The Church makes me ill at ease, the way it grasps at power and insists that it alone holds salvation in its grip.

I can't help but look at the white-clad maiden that would be my symbolic bride should I survive. She seems the very essence of the Virgin Huntress, innocent and athletic, and a little twinge runs through me. I feel as if I know her . . .

A low word from Agricol breaks through my reverie. "As soon as they enter the mound and make the priestess ready, we'll prepare you."

"I'm ready," I assure the duke.

He smiles at me, encouragingly. "We all have faith in you, my prince."

I know what Malaquin sees when he looks at me right now. A slender young woman with deep brown hair and doe-like eyes, her gaze lowered shyly, her soft, pretty face shadowed by her white hood and the dappled, emerald glow of the sun through the leaves.

I pass by my brother and the other men without looking up; the women shepherd me solicitously through the entrance of the earthen mound. Inside, it's not as cramped as I thought; there's a small washing stand with a jug of fresh water from the pond against one wall, a little table with a little oil lamp upon it and a pair of chairs against the other. The back wall of the cave, though, holds the bed. Its frame is dark, smooth-rubbed wood, and it's covered in furs--wolf, bear, fox. All I can do is stare mutely at that bed as the women cluster around me, unfastening the robe and drawing it off, baring my body. In the soft golden light of the lamp, they rub a fragrant oil into my skin, massage my limbs, comb my hair; one of the old women guides me to sit on a chair, thighs parted. I squeeze my eyes shut and hold my breath involuntarily as she probes between my legs with a cool finger; I only open my eyes again when she withdraws her hand, nodding to the others. "She is unbroken."

Well, of course I'm unbroken. I knew that.

Once the women retreat to the shelter of the cave, I'm told to remove my clothing. I try to be as unbothered by the request as possible, stripping out of the plain, peasant-like garb that covers my trim, muscular form. The last thing I remove is my signet ring, and I hand that to Cathal for safekeeping. Parting with that makes me feel truly nude, not the shedding of my clothes.

Cathal steps back and two of the barons that accompany me take my manservant's place. One holds an earthenware pot, which the other is dipping some sort of brush into it. I do my best to smile as I hold my arms out from my body and let Earl Bors slather my tanned skin with the greasy deer fat. With a good coating of that, I'll be waterproof even in a sudden downpour. It's an irreverent thought, but it makes me inwardly smile.

After they finish making my body smell far more like deer than man, Bors takes from Agricol a cloak made of untanned, raw deerhide and drapes it over my broad shoulders, tying the fastening in place so that it won't come free as I run through the greenwood.

I close my eyes again as they paint the markings on me: the crescent moon on my brow, points up; the full moon between and just above my breasts; the dark moon on the plane of my belly, above the soft swell of my femininity. There's a bit of ribald jesting from the women at that point; I hadn't thought to create an illusion of maiden-hair, and so the female folds there are as smooth and bare as my true body's.

One of the crones prods me lightly in the ribs with a chuckle. "Afraid the young prince won't be able to find the right spot, were you?"

"No need to worry about that!" one of the matronly women calls cheerily. "Prince or no, a man's a man, and even if the top head can't figure out the right place, the bottom one always knows!"

The women's laughter makes me relax a little. They're not suspicious, just amused, and I have to admit myself that it must have seemed quite funny for the role I'm playing.

Finished oiling and adorning me, they bring forth a long white cloak, clasping it at my throat, drawing it over me to veil my nude body. One of the women peeks out of the cave, then draws back a step. "Not yet. They're not ready with the young prince."

Another woman laughs. "Leave it up to the men to keep us a-waiting here!"

I turn my head, oddly surprised, as it sounds like laughter is coming from the cave . . .

But I don't get to wonder about it more, because Agricol's body suddenly looms up in my sight. My emerald eyes get large as I take in the impressive display of the stag's horns I am to wear. The beast to whom they had once belonged must have been a true prince of the deer, with a spread like that.

The duke notices my look of awed appreciation and smiles. "They were those of the last King Stag, the one your uncle fell to take his place as the ruler of the people of the Tribe. Now they will be yours, as you challenge the King Stag."

I feel an ancient reverence and an even sharper fear as the horns and skullcap of the fallen king are placed on the crown of my raven-haired head and tied tightly to me. As I stand there and bear the tugging and pulling, I feel the weight of the antlers like I had felt the weight of the white gold crown at my coronation--the weight of responsibility that was mine alone to bear.

Satisfied with the cinching, Agricol steps back a fair distance. "Toss your head around, and see if they're nice and tight."

I do as instructed, feeling the swing and shifting of the weight as I shake, toss and otherwise try to violently move my head. I can tell they're going to stay; it almost feels as if they're growing roots into my skull, becoming a part of me, becoming yet another appendage of my youthful, masculine body.

The woman at the cave's mouth finally nods, turning back to face the rest of us. "They're ready. And right fine does the young prince look, with that splendid set of antlers."

As they lead me out of the dim, warm golden light of the cave into the cooler, brighter space under the trees, I look nowhere but directly at Malaquin. For a breathless moment, I could believe my twin has become the stag, rearing up, that magnificent rack of antlers tearing at the air like knives of bleached bone.

The women cluster at my sides and back as I walk slowly out, farther from the cave, feeling vulnerable in the thin cloak that the only covering of my body.

One last toss and I stand still. As the men around me step away, making a watching semi-circle at the approach of the women, I keep my green gaze on the virgin priestess that is my counterpart. She will be the one that weaves the magic, the one that calls the deer to me and makes the King Stag face me when I find him.

She looks like a doe herself, wide-eyed and innocent, but the mantle of power rests around her, making her seem a true queen. I feel my breath catch in my throat as Cathal reverently approaches her and hands her the white gold ring that bears the shield of the leaping stag and three roses of the kingdom's arms.

"Into your keeping goes the wedding ring of the Goddess," I hear my manservant say to the cloaked girl. "Only to the true consort of the Goddess will it be given." Cathal then bows to her and returns to stand with the other men.

I keep watching her approach me, this vessel of the Goddess's power. She's everything Woman is and more, and I can feel the twinges of hot desire unfurl within me. I want to prove myself to her, to show that it wasn't a mistake five years ago to have had me anointed and crowned as the ruler of land and Tribe.

My women spread out, making a half-circle that joins with that of the men, ringing myself and Malaquin about with reverent, watchful faces. As I come to a halt, I find it hard to take my eyes from him in order to look to Cathal. It takes effort not to smile in recognition of my brother's cheerful, friendly manservant, who I've known ever since he came to Malaquin's service; the priestess whose role I have taken would not know him, and so I keep my face straight, looking at him meekly and nodding in acknowledgement as he lays the signet ring into my hand. I've held that ring before, slipping it onto Malaquin's finger in the coronation ceremony; it feels right to hold it again, looking forward to the moment when I can place it onto his hand once more in this ceremony.

I approach him slowly, some impulse making me slide the signet onto my own third finger; I hear a faint sigh from the women, and a thrill of relief runs through me--it wasn't a mistake, a gross error that would prove me false.

When I stop before Malaquin, he kneels gracefully at my feet; I swallow slightly, then reach out to lay my hands to either side of his head, outside the skullcap of the stag. The antlers are even more splendid up close, curving in perfect symmetry.

The weight of the antlers pulls me down, as well as the reverence I feel, and I gracefully sink to my knees to kneel humbly before this divine child-woman and receive her blessing as well as accept the mantle of magic she is to weave around me.

My muscles are taut beneath my skin, and with my body glistening with the warming deer fat and clad only with the untanned hides and the massive antlers, I feel very exposed to this priestess's gaze. Does she wish me well in this? Does she look forward to the victory of the man or the stag, and does she enjoy the idea of what is to come should I be the one that returns from the forest? I know she's dedicated to the Maiden, but I know also that she's still a person underneath, as am I.

But for me, I have always known this would be a defining moment of my life and who I am. The beat of this magic flows in the very tide of my veins. Perhaps it's the same way for her.

I had memorized the words so carefully, yet, for a moment, my mind is blank. Before I can feel the sudden fear of that blankness--how could I have forgotten?!--I hear myself beginning to speak, sounding so calm, so confident. "Go forth and conquer, run with the deer, as swift and strong as the very tides of the Spring. Forever blessed be the feet that brought you here, forever blessed be the youthful body you bear." My voice carries in the clearing, echoing from the trees, though I didn't actually think I spoke that loudly. "Feel the tides and the power of life and light and Spring. Feel the cold grip of Winter shattered. Fill yourself with that power, and the new life of the Spring will go with you and bring you to victory, the life of the Goddess, the life of the world, blood of the Earth our Mother shed for her people. Life surges in the Spring, the deer run in the forest, and our life runs with them."

I feel a hot tide of power flowing through my fingertips, draining into Malaquin. The pulse of the Mother reaches up through my feet, planted on the earth, and arcs through me into him, forging the magical web that will draw the deer to him. I feel a sudden joy; the Goddess is not angry with me, does not condemn me for what I'm doing! She understands Her lonely daughter; She gives Her blessing to us freely! My voice rings louder, stronger, as I lift one hand from the side of Malaquin's head. "The King Stag of the world shall bring them down, the King Stag, the Horned One blessed by the Mother shall triumph."

My hand touches his brow as I take a step back; the last jolt of power that leaps from me to him leaves me feeling drained, lightheaded, and I collapse to the grass.

Heat . . . That's the first sensation I'm aware of as the priestess's hands rest on my head to either side of my horns. The heat of her, of the sunlight dappling the glade, the heat of my blood as it flows through me. Sometime along the first part of her blessing, I feel a hard length pressed into my hand and I somehow know that it's the long, bronze dagger that will be my only weapon save the antlers that crown my head.

Power flows into me, filling me, making every nerve and fiber hum with an energy that is as eternal as the earth and as vibrant as the Spring. My hand tightens on the blade, the dagger, the symbol of the God as the chalice is the symbol of the Goddess and I feel myself tremble at the priestess's words as her blessing covers me.

My heart beats in my chest, a beat that is the sound of the Earth, of the world, and my blood flows with the rhythm of time and the tides. I can feel it, the energy that is life and light and Spring, the irresistible force that renews life from death and Spring from Winter.

I feel as tense as a drawn bow, waiting for the moment to burst into motion. I feel the Goddess with me, can feel her approving smile as I go to meet the King Stag that is my rival . . .

Then the touch comes to my forehead and the power takes control. I'm up and running before I even know it, the pounding of my two bare feet--or was that my four hooves?--adding yet another beat to the great drumming I hear in my head that is the heartbeat of the world.

I know only that I need to run, into the woods, into the forest. The Huntress is with me and will guide me. Driven on by something I can barely comprehend, I run on and on, as I've done since the beginning of time . . .

Even though I feel so weak that I can't raise so much as a hand, my mind seems locked to Malaquin's as he runs, fleet-footed as the deer themselves, through the forest. The weaving of power around him summons them--first one, then three more, then at least a dozen--to run with my twin, a breathtaking escort on this sacred race.

I draw the image in my mind, reach out to find the animal that matches it. I sense the presence of that creature, and call for him; the King Stag must come, to meet his human brother and join the ancient contest to see which triumphs, man or beast.

The contact is different this time, and a shock runs through me. The old stag that I had seen in the clearing a mere month ago is gone; this animal is strong and healthy, in the prime of life. A true opponent for the young prince who even now runs with the herd, his very presence a challenge to the lord of the forest.

Through the secret paths of the woods, I run, the herd of the forest joining me one by one. I'm distantly aware of them as they follow me, accepting me as the prince of the wood, the King Stag. Reality slips away with the beat of my heart, the beat of my feet on the ground, the harshness of my breathing and the energy that fills me. I can't tell what I am, man or stag, as I run to meet the King I can sense, nor can I tell if he is man or beast. Perhaps it doesn't matter, in the end . . .

He's up ahead, waiting, looking for his rival. I know he can sense me as I sense him, two members of the royal blood of the Tribe, two rulers of this land and this people . . .

I feel them both--man and animal--rushing toward their age-old conflict. I see the King Stag in my mind; he's huge, with antlers to match or rival the crown my brother wears. His coat is a deep, glossy brown, lightening to a clean, spotless white on his throat and breast and belly; his hooves are sharp and sound and black as obsidian. He's ready for the fight; I desperately hope that Malaquin is ready as well.

I break through the verdant curtain to find him standing there, a hoof pawing the ground, the swing of his antlers as he tosses them in threat to the one that dares challenge him. I can feel his contempt of me, his twin, his rival, the one that he must face in the ancient dance of the rut.

I lower my crown of antlers, bounding at him in a charge, first on two feet, then four hooves, the surge and flow of life and time and tide driving me forward to this moment.

He charges at me in return, his horns coming to bear. I swear the echo of the crash can be heard for eternity, and the impact makes us both shudder. Horns locked with horns, I wrestle with my rival, myself, our young, strong bodies struggling in the eternal contest of who was the most fit.

Distantly, I hear the murmuring of Malaquin's escort and my own, but in truth, all I can see is the blurring speed and power of the two who are joined in combat in the forest's heart. Malaquin's body seems to flow like molten wax, changing from man to stag, pitting himself against the beast that meets him with equal aggression.

Twin coronets of branching antlers lock together, removing the danger of a fatal stab, but now the two are matched in a contest of pure strength and agility. Whichever of them can gain the leverage can force his opponent back or throw him off his feet entirely.

I sway and struggle, bracing myself against the rival, and even as I fight, the King Stag and I seem to shift forms. Are we two men wearing antlers struggling for dominance and power? Are we two stags rutting, the dominance of the herd going to the victor? Time seems locked into an eternal now as the contest of will and strength and balance goes on . . .

We're evenly matched, each one fighting our own self and I feel the wonder of the mystery . . .

The King Stag and I are one and the same. Man or stag, the one that survives is triumphant over all. I know now that I'm fighting my own animal self, proving to Goddess and Tribe that I am more than just an animal driven by instinct . . .

A twist of his head and the King sends me staggering. I fall to the ground and feel the breath knocked from me, and I desperately keep tight the grip I have on the bronze knife. Mindful of the weight of my horns, I lift my head as I roll the best I can, then cry out as hot agony rips through my side. My hand lashes up and I feel the blade bite flesh. Ignoring the pain, the flush of the fight and the beat of the life energy flowing and surging through me, I scramble to my feet and turn, lowering my head to meet my rival's charge. Blood on my blade, blood on my side, blood dripping to soak the ground, a sacrifice to the Goddess for the renewal of life . . .

A warm bolt of understanding goes through me, and I know that Malaquin is realizing it too. Both of us had assumed that this was nothing more than a simple ritual, a contest of brute strength, man against animal in what amounts to little more than an elaborately staged hunt.

We were so wrong.

This is what the rite truly means. There is ultimately no difference; the primal strength of the beast lies within the man, as the nobility of a human spirit lies within the stag.

But the Tribe, the people, need a human to lead them, not a beast. Instinct alone is not enough--not since we rose above the level of the animals. The King Stag must lose, to ensure the survival of the people.

I feel Malaquin fall.

"No!" I cry out, sensing the impact of his body on the ground, then the swift slash of the King Stag's antlers across his side.

Now I know my true role. Not just to give the prince the blessing; I, the Huntress, must help him. I must show the King Stag that this is no waste of his life; that, in giving himself as sacrifice, the people of the land, the children of his Mother, will prosper.

I reach to the King Stag's mind. Malaquin gave as good as he received; pain etches the beast's side where the bronze knife laid open hide and flesh.

Pain adds its throbbing rhythm to the pounding of my heart and the panting of my breath, the agony of my muscles a steady burn. The King Stag and I both are equally wounded, even in this we are one and the same. The animal fights for survival, by instinct, but I am more than that. I am a man, aware of the world beyond the ever present Now of existence. I feel the cold logic of reason fill me, strengthening me, and I embrace it, this human identity of mine. This is my true strength, my true nobility . . .

I feel the animal weaken--the King Stag reflecting Malaquin's strengthening awareness of himself as Man, not beast. The great stag sets himself to charge again, but I sense that this battle is already nearly won . . .

I toss my head and the antlers scrape against one another as we separate. The King Stag lifts his head, preparing to swing again with his magnificent horns--or does he bare his neck, knowing that I have found the secret?

I strike, hard and swift and blood covers me as the sacrifice is made. Hot, coppery liquid drips to the ground, given back to the earth that made us both. The herd gives of themselves, because we have continued to be found worthy, we two-footed members of the Tribe.

The King Stag crumples to the ground as I drop the bronze blade and kneel, my breathing hard and labored, the pain of the gash across my ribs and back throbbing with the pulse of my heart. They'll be here soon to bring us back . . .

I jerk upright, gasping, sweat sheening my skin. The clearing swims before my eyes, then steadies into focus, and I find myself looking up at the men; my eyes meet that of Duke Agricol, and I nod breathlessly.

"Prince Malaquin has triumphed . . . but he's wounded. Go, then, and bring the victor home . . ."

I can sense the priestess has sent them for us, to bring home to the Mother's womb her twin sons. I look at the stag and feel an almost frightened awe as I get a good look at the fallen prince. I've never seen a stag as big or as soundly built as the one that lies here in the trampled and bloodstained glade. And he and I are one and the same . . .

My blood continues to pound in my head as I wait, and I feel the spirit of the King Stag filling me, joining me to the Wheel and the slow, stately spin of the seasons. In my triumph, I realize that there must be balance. The man has won, but the animal will have his time, one last dance with dark instinct before being forever reined in by reason and logic.

The men come at last and swiftly dress the carcass of my fallen self, and I smell the tang of hot copper around me as the blood starts to dry on my fat-smeared skin. They tie the stag's feet together, then slip a stout pole to carry his now-headless and gutted carcass form the site of his fall. I limp along just behind Agricol, who leads the party back; the duke holds the head of the King Stag, for it will be those antlers that crown my sister's son's head in the fullness of time.

The women have helped me to my feet, dusted the grass and leaves from my hair and cloak, fussed a bit more to make me ready for the return of the victorious prince and his fallen brother. I watch the forest's edge in silence, hands clasped tightly together before me, waiting.

She's waiting for me, as well as the fallen prince, and I give the Virgin Huntress a weary smile as I step back into the glade in which I'd begun. Somehow, I'm not overly surprised to see that the sun was now well on its way to setting; during the run and the fight, it had seemed as if time had had no meaning at all.

The men behind me stop a respectful distance away as I slowly make my way up to the priestess, the Goddess, the Virgin Huntress who was to be my bride as I take my place as the consort that protects my land and my people. My legs tremble with fatigue as I kneel before her, the antlers on my head feeling far heavier than any crown I've born. "I return to you, Mother of All, your son who is the Horned One, the man who is stag and human, the dark son who has lifted himself above the instincts of the animals to be a consort fitting unto you."

He needs a bath. I can see that right away. Besides the coating of deer grease, he's also got quite a bit of blood on him--his own and the fallen stag's.

I watch his approach, my eyes widening a little almost with every step. Malaquin's never seemed so tall, so strong, so wild before; in his cloak of deerskin and the crowning antlers, he might well be the Horned God Himself, rather than a mortal man filled with His spirit.

I lay my hands on his head again, a soothing caress, the words coming to me unlearned. "I bid you welcome, my son, my consort . . ."

I smile at the priestess's soft words, feel the joy of her acceptance in her touch on my head. I know I'm truly worthy of Her and my place as ruler of this realm.

"I shall take him and make him ready, Great Mother," I hear Agricol murmur. "As the others prepare for the feast."

I try to stand then, and sway dangerously, the weariness and lack of blood catching up to me. I gather that I'll be allowed to get clean and observe the rest of the ceremony as the man I truly am, though I still feel the spirit of the King Stag within and around me.

I nod to Agricol, my eyes still on Malaquin. I motion swiftly to one of the women, and she comes forward with salve and bandages, which she hands over to the duke. "See to his wounds as well."

I catch hold of Malaquin's hands, helping to steady him; I gaze into his face for a long moment, then slowly let him go, turning away. The women flock around me again, leading me back to the cave.

I feel as if I know her, that I've always known her, this doe-eyed priestess, as my emerald gaze stares into hers for a seemingly eternal moment. She's pretty, this girl chosen to sacrifice her virginity to the Horned One, this priestess who will transform me from boy to man even as I sunder her maidenhead and thereby dedicate her to the Summer Mother, but a stray thought flits through my mind.

I wish it was Madule. We've shared almost everything else.

I feel the blood drain from my face at that thought, and I wonder why I can even think it. No, I'm better than a mindless animal, better than caught in an instinct that would have me rut with anything receptive and female. The King Stag lies sacrificed to the reason of humanity, and I still conceive of lying with my sister? Why, Great Mother? Why?

Agricol leads me away then, and I meekly follow, the crown of antlers on my head as heavy as my heart. I don't understand . . .

It's fortunate for me that Malaquin is still dazed, caught up by the power and magic of the sacred hunt. Otherwise, he could no doubt see right through my disguise. I can feel him clearly through our sibling-bond; he's nervous, eager, swept up in triumph.

Then I feel a stab of emotion from him--guilt? Shame?--just as I catch the stray edges of a thought, and I suddenly understand the shift in his emotions.

He does wish that the maiden he would bed tonight was me. The realization sends a shiver of awareness through my mind.

Oh, Malaquin . . .

Off to a secluded part of the pond the old duke takes me, and I know that the men left behind will build a fire to cook some of the meat of the fallen stag for all of us to eat and await the setting of the sun. What was the solemn ritual of the new religion? To eat and drink of the body and blood of the sacrificed Son? We too will do that, though the priestess and I alone will drink some of the blood of the King Stag. Blood returned to blood, a confirmation of the royalty of myself and that part of me that was the four-footed Stag.

Though I don't feel much of anything as the skin is taken from my shoulders, I feel a bit of regret as the horns are untied and taken from me. I was getting used to the weight, and I idly wonder if they made me look somehow more regal or imposing.

It's true relief I feel when I wash away the fat and blood from my skin. As I stand in the clear, cold water and scrub at myself, I start to feel quite civilized again, and I understand why. Man has triumphed over his base instincts yet again, and all will be well with the Tribe.

As I run my hands over my slick skin, I swear I feel my sister there with me, and I can't help but wonder what she's doing right now. I know she's still angry with me--I was quite rude to her last night when I told her yet again that the feis was something that I had to face without her. She had no place in this, this time. Another, already chosen by the Goddess, would be the one to symbolically wed me to the land this time around.

I stand still as they polish and pamper me again, wrapping another white robe--this one of fine, soft silk--around me and belting it securely. They run a perfumed comb through my hair; I watch curiously over my shoulder. The priestess's hair isn't as long as my real hair, yet the old woman combs through what seems to be thin air as if she doesn't realize anything's wrong. None of them notice. This is a strong illusion, indeed, and I'm glad of it. When they're finished, a garland of white flowers adorns my head; the perfumes make me smell as sweet and fresh as Spring itself. The silk robe whispers against my skin, caressing like a lover, and I shiver at the thought. Soon, that bed, with its draping of heavy furs, will bear Malaquin and myself. Soon. I find it hard to let go of that image as they lead me out again. The scent of the roasting venison fills the air--a wild, rich tang. My mouth waters slightly as I breathe that smell, and watch for Malaquin.

I try to get rid of the thought of my sister, still wondering why my mind just won't let it go, this thought of touching her like that, of seeing her writhe with my touch. I want to taste her again . . .

I bite back my snarl of irritation. It wouldn't do to let Agricol hear me and inquire what was preying on my mind. Like she has a hundred times before over this last month, my sister and her passions intrude on my thoughts and fill my heart with lust. Disgusted with myself, I dunk myself under the cold surface of the water.

But that doesn't help much.

I'm still in a half-foul, half-anxious mood when I step from the pond. By then, Cathal's arrived with something for me to wear, and I can smell the scent of roasting venison tingeing the air. As helpful as ever, my dusky-blonde manservant dresses me in the vestments of bright white and scarlet red. A soft white tunic covers my upper body, the full sleeves gathered at my wrists, and the scarlet red tights show off my muscular legs. The white of purity and innocence and reason over the red of passion, emotion and instinct. It's a rather fitting symbolism.

Of course, I get my share of ribald statements to the effect of how well I'll perform as the Horned One . . . Jokes that are added to when I rejoin the others at the clearing.

It feels very much like a wedding now . . .

I look up quickly as Malaquin joins us. The hint of anxiety must have shown on my face; one of the middle-aged women pats my shoulder reassuringly. "There, there, dear. I've heard tell that the prince is a kind and considerate man."

"Don't mislead the poor child," one of the crones reprimands her a bit sharply. "Yes, the prince is as chivalrous as the day is long, but 'tis the Horned One who'll come to her bed tonight."

That doesn't make me feel better.

The old one lays a hand on my forearm. "Now I've gone and frightened you, girl. I merely meant that if it's a romantic lovemaking you're thinking of, you'll be disappointed. Not to say that he'll hurt you, mind--but he'll have more impulse to complete the deed than you. Understand?"

I nod, mute. I know he won't hurt me, but I'm also quite aware of the King Stag lying just beneath Malaquin's surface. That animal soul isn't banished yet; this one last night will be his.

And so will I.

The feast passes in a sort of haze; all I'm really aware of is the heat and presence of Malaquin beside me. The goblet that we share contains sweet red wine--the wine that Malaquin had given to me, after all, though this bottle's minus the narcotic he'd slipped in on that day a month ago--mingled with some of the stag's blood, warm and copper-tangy. The meat is good--firm, tender, flavorful--but it seems that I can barely taste it through my nervousness. Malaquin looks just a bit unenthused about the portion that's dished up to him first--the animal's testicles, along with the tough muscle of the heart.

The symbolism is there, of course. The animal's heart, to give him the strength and courage of the beast; the generative organs, to lend him the virile nature and male potency of his fallen brother. I'm rather proud of the way Malaquin manages to consume that plateful before accepting a serving of more ordinary meat.

All too soon, the feast ends, everyone having eaten their fill; the remainder of the flesh will be taken back to the castle and dried into jerky, then distributed to as many of the people as ask for it. Many will; the meat brought down in this ritual is said to hold a variety of mystical powers, and despite the encroachment of the Church, the old beliefs are still very strong in Aleona.

The sun's hovering just above the western horizon, staining the sky with scarlet, gold, and orange. I clasp my hands tightly in my lap, watching it with an expression that might well look as hunted as any animal's.

As the feast begins, I once again am confronted by the nearly graphic symbolism of the ceremony's rites, as the first thing I have to eat all day long is the roasted heart and testicles of the King Stag, to give to me, his human half, the strength, courage, potency, virility and stamina of my conquered animal half. Nothing is done in this ancient, mystic ceremony without reason and wisdom. I manage to eat all that was offered to me, and there's a soft murmur of approval. I take it to mean that it's a good sign, that I will always be man enough to contain my animalistic, instinctual side and that my people will have a leader that is truly the best of the Tribe.

I share the sweet wine mixed with the coppery-tasting blood of my fallen half with the Virgin Huntress that ran with me and guided my hand--and think of my sister. I haven't tasted any of the wine of this pressing since that day in the woods. The memory sends a thrill of lust and shame through me, and I stare at the fire instead as the feast progresses.

The wine flows rather liberally, and the conversation around me becomes more and more ribald, though I start to feel detached and distant as the time slips past. My emerald eyes scan over the knot of men and priestesses, and I suddenly know that they too will pair up and celebrate the mystic joining of male and female this night . . .

I don't eat much more after my ritual portion is consumed. Nervousness makes the thought of eating more something faintly distasteful. I sip at the wine instead, a little at a time, and feel myself becoming more and more dissociated with the world around me, though I don't feel actually drunk.

They drugged the wine, part of me realizes, feeling my inhibitions falling away one by one. The King Stag has fallen for his people, and the King Stag and I are one. Balance demands to be kept, and as the light of day begins to slip away, the darkness of night comes. This night belongs to the King Stag, to the four-footed part of me . . .

I feel flushed, starting to feel the ebb and flow again of the life around me. I look to the Huntress and see that she looks as anxious as I feel. I'd like to reassure her, but I can't. The force of all nature will soon be flowing through me, and there's nothing I can do about it . . .

I wonder idly if Malaquin will recognize the wine. After all, he'd only given a bottle to me, and I'd been the one to provide the drink for the ceremony . . .

I glance at the others, and can't help but notice that there's some rather obvious glancing going on between the matronly women and the nobles who'd escorted my brother here. There's only a couple of really old women, dedicated to the Crone, their wombs gone barren from years; there's a belief that when the life-giving quality of the body fades, the wisdom of the mind takes precedence.

The sun touches the edge of the horizon, sinks down just enough. Sunset--the time is now, and I feel suddenly cold. Still, when the old women come to help me up and lead me to the cave, I don't show any reluctance.

Inside, they gently remove the white robe and most of the flower garland; a few tiny blooms still remain in my hair as they lead me over to the bed and help me into it.

When the others leave, one old woman--the same one that had spoken up before--lays a cool palm against my cheek. "Don't be afraid, girl. He won't hurt you, though he may seem intimidating and wild. He will be the Horned One, and you will be his mate. Stags never truly harm their mates, you know." She bends down to press a light kiss to my brow with her lips--wrinkled and soft as silk with age. "The Mother is with you, and She gives Her blessing to you, Princess."

I go rigid. The shock must show clearly on my face, but there's no condemnation in the old woman's eyes--only calm understanding and a twinkle that says she holds my secret safe, that she won't tell.

Still, I can't help but look after her as she leaves. When I'm alone, the oil lamp the only light, I stare at the ceiling and try not to breathe too fast.

I watch silently as they come and lead her away, into the cave, into the womb of the Mother that bore us all. Soon, I'll join her there, and part of me feels a deep sadness. Someone else, someone I don't know, will be in there with me . . .

Madule . . . I'm sorry . . .

It could have been an eternity, or it could have been only a second or two before the sacred women emerge from the cave without the Virgin Huntress, the maiden priestess, and the mate of the Horned One. As they emerge, they gather to either side, a watchful escort through which I must pass. As I entered the world a naked, powerless babe, so I must return with nothing on and no temporal power to mark me as something of this world. I step forward, and it's the hands of the oldest priestess there who helps me divest myself of what I wear, the spirit of the King Stag surging within me, taking control. Once again, I can't tell whether I'm stag or man or both as I face the doorway into the Mother's sacred womb, my young body and my lust both exposed for all to see.

I'm vaguely aware of soft murmurs of approval again as I stand there, the flickering firelight reflected off tanned skin and raven hair. Feeling the drumming of my blood in chest and loins, the roar of the tide of life and new beginnings ebbing and flowing within me, I can feel the potency and the virility of the Horned One in me, holding within it the seeds of new life.

Then I step into the cave, shutting the door behind me, and the veneer of civilization falls away. I am the King Stag, the Horned One, the dominant male that spreads his seed among the herd so that the next generation will be born of the best.

She lies on a bed on the far side, the light of a single lamp illuminating the scene. I stare at her, feeling the pounding of the life-force within me. She needs to accept me, to place the ring back on my finger and complete the ties that will bind me forever as the true consort of the Goddess.

I sit up as the doorway opens, and fight the urge to cover myself with the furs. The white-gold signet feels so heavy on my hand suddenly as I gaze at Malaquin, and I feel a sharp shock course through me.

He's naked, completely and totally naked. And he's . . . magnificent.

Just as he has wanted to look at me to see what changes had been wrought on me by growing up, so I had wanted to see him. I'd seen bits and pieces, of course, but never all of him all at once, and it's almost overwhelming. Broad shoulders, a deep chest, narrow hips, lithe limbs--all perfectly muscled, showing clearly beneath smooth, flawless skin. His erect manhood lies almost flat against his belly, looking as hard and smooth as marble, and almost disconcertingly large to my innocent eyes.

I rise from the bed, feeling weak-kneed, but still possessed of enough fortitude to stay on my feet instead of keeling over. I have to give him the ring before we can complete this . . .

She starts to get up, and that part of me still the civilized man tucked away back there somewhere in my mind registers that she seems awed and overwhelmed. I stride over there, swift and sure, then drop to a knee before her so that I'm at eye level with her. Lust and desire and the rapid beat of my heart fill my awareness as I look her over with eyes I know have gone smoky green from the intense emotions. I can't find the voice to ask her if she accepts; I just stare at her, this doe-eyed girl-woman who is the Goddess before me.

The Horned One has come, to take you and mate with you to bring about the start of the next cycle of Spring and life. Do you accept me, the King Stag, and all that I am, for now and ever?

I can hear him in my mind--the same voice that I've heard before when Malaquin speaks to me, but somehow different. Stronger, more primal, and so incredibly male.

As he looks at me, I feel a sudden twist of resentful anger. He's looking at the semblance of the priestess with such heady desire; I wish furiously for a moment that I could shed the illusion and make him look at me, truly.

I hold back the impulse, reaching down to take his left hand with my own left, sliding the ring off my third finger with my right hand. Looking into his smoldering emerald eyes, swallowing against a dry throat, I simply nod, wordlessly, and slip the signet back onto his hand where it belongs.

I'm scared. This isn't just my brother; this is a wild thing, the avatar of a god, the embodiment of the forest. It's a struggle to contain that fear; I know he won't hurt me. I know that there's going to be an inevitable spark of pain when he breaches me, but beyond that, he won't hurt me . . .

I feel a shudder as the white gold band is returned to my hand, potent and throbbing with magic. I want to shove her down on the bed and cover her, to lose myself in the heat of her, but I can see her nervousness, and I make myself hold back. The animal side of myself may be in control, but I am still a man as well.

I lift my hand to press it against her cheek, letting her feel the warmth of me and the ring there against her face. Then I lean forward and slant my mouth against hers, coaxing her into opening to me.

The moment his lips touch mine, the fear dissolves like magic. I shut my eyes and kiss him back eagerly, opening my mouth to him; with my eyes closed, not seeing the feral glint in his gaze, I can feel my beloved twin there again.

This is why I staged this elaborate ruse; this is why I'm here now, feeling a dampness already between my legs as I respond instinctively to his male power.

Malaquin, you're mine and I'm yours, and nobody will come between us. This ceremony is for both of us, my dearest brother . . .

I lean forward, pressing her downward to the fur-covered bed, my tongue darting into the heat of her mouth, savoring the taste of her, claiming her as my due. She feels soft and supple against me, her breasts pressing against my bare chest, and I'm reminded of how my sister's had felt under my touch. That alone makes the force within me surge higher, makes my kiss become more intense. Ah, Madule . . .

I swing my legs back up onto the bed, stretching out, feeling dazed as his tongue plunders my mouth. Where did he learn to kiss like this? It's like a drug, and I can't get enough of it. Wrapping my arms around his shoulders, I press myself close, one hand clenching gently in his unbound hair. I know I'm getting damper yet, responding to his passion so quickly . . .

I stretch out over her, my weight resting against her, one hand reaching down to grab and squeeze at the rounded swell of a breast, my plundering of her mouth continuing. The Horned One guides me in this show of lust-driven dominance; I've never really done this before, but the beat of the timeless dance sounds in my veins. I want to leave her gasping and begging, frantic to find the release only I can give, knowing that only she can take me to the climax I so desperately seek.

I gasp into that hot kiss, feeling his bare skin against my own, the aggressive press of his shaft against my thigh. His hand on my breast is maddening, reminding me almost of the clearing--but more confident now, using just enough force to be exciting without hurting.

I bury both hands in the fall of his raven hair, caught between the soft furs of the bed and the hard, smooth warmth of his body. He's so fierce and demanding and dominant--but not frightening. Not any more.

I want to hear her gasps and cries. I break the kiss to lightly bite at her neck, suckling the tender skin. A wisdom beyond my own guides me, makes me take my hand from her breast to press it against the center of her between her thighs. I rub her there, firm and demanding, wanting her to feel the same frantic roar of life and power and lust. Do you feel it, my virgin mate, the pounding of your fertility within you as I feel my potency throbbing within me?

I toss my head on the pillow as he nips at the tender skin of my throat; when his hand finds the heat at the center of me, I arch up with a cry. It feels just like it had when he touched me in that clearing, when he thought I slept; I can feel the slide of his fingers on that soft flesh, and I know that I'm almost embarrassingly ready for him.

Goddess help me . . . I can't take much more. I need this, so much that I hear my voice wrung from me in broken gasps, begging for him to finish it, to bring us both to the peak.

Through the haze of driving lust and drugged wine, I hear her gasping, begging words. She feels hot and slick against my hand, and my throbbing member aches to be sheathed in her. I move then, covering her, my legs pushing apart hers as I grab myself and rub the head of my hard, hard manhood against the slick, hot cleft of her. I find her gateway and sink partly in, her heat making me shudder.

The sensations are too much, and the animal part of me takes control, feeling only the need for blessed release. I thrust forward, hard into her, tearing my way through the resistance of her maidenhead, then thrust into her again and again and again. We are man and woman locked together in passion, stag and doe joined in the dance of the rutting season. Once again, I feel the weight of the antlers on my head as I dominate the feminine form under me, driving into her with the force of my youth and male potency. Ah Goddess, she feels so hot and slick and tight around me; I never thought it could be this good . . .

I shudder and gasp again as he covers me, his body pressing me down into the bed, my legs parting at his insistence and sliding instinctively up to cradle his hips; the sensation of him pushing partly into me pulls another gasp of shock out of me. I can feel myself stretch to accommodate him, but I'm made very aware of his size.

He pauses, and I start to relax, to let myself adjust--but he doesn't give me the time. I'm caught entirely off-guard as he plunges deep, and the pain of that hard thrust, breaking the barrier of my chastity, is enough to make me scream. I knew it would hurt, but not that much, torn so suddenly--and he keeps moving, instead of letting my inner folds expand to fit him.

I slam my fists against his shoulders, crying out, begging him to stop just as I'd foolishly begged him to start. Yet he's not stopping; the women had warned me that he wouldn't seem entirely human, nor entirely gentle, but this is something I hadn't expected.

Surely, though, it was what I deserved. I'd brought this on myself, and it's entirely my fault that my pretty little romantic dreams and fantasies have been broken just as my maidenhead has been torn asunder.

Twisting my head to the side, I squeeze my eyes shut and press my fist against my mouth to stifle myself. My teeth cut into my knuckles, the cries reduced to thin whimpers; it's fortunate that I was so slick already, or this would be intolerable. As it is, there's a little pleasure from it, despite the pain; when his body contacts mine with every deep thrust, I feel him rub against the little nubbin there among my female folds. It's a small compensation, at least.

Ah, little one, I wish I could have stopped, but I can't, I can't, the force that drives me is too much to control. I feel the beginning of the end for me, the unbearable tightness as my deep, hard, lust-driven movements continue to drive me into her tight, tight sheath. I hear myself panting and grunting as I continue to plunge into her until, at last, I find release.

I toss my head back and arch against her, pumping my hot seed into her with a series of quick, short strokes. Ah Goddess, I've never felt a release so satisfying before in my short life.

Yet, even as I collapse on top of her, panting and sweaty, I know, in my heart, that she's not found the same pleasure I have. And for that, I'm truly sorry . . .

His movements grow shorter, sharper, and I know the end's close; when he throws his head back with a shout, spilling himself into me, I feel relief--if not release. Done--and done.

His weight drops onto me again, his chest heaving with his exhausted pants; I feel the dampness of his skin against mine. And I feel the tears trickling from my eyes, staining my cheeks.

Malaquin . . . it wasn't supposed to be like this. I didn't know . . .

Somehow, I know she's crying, but trying her best to not let it show. I'm not sure what I can do to make it better, feeling her sadness in the midst of my pleasurable lassitude. I lift myself up enough to slip my hand between us, my semi-hard manhood still within her. I faintly recall how my sister had reacted to this, and I hope, perhaps, it can make up for my roughness. I find the hard nub of her just above where I'm joined, and I rub against it, gently, with the pad of my middle finger.

I hear myself whimper--it's so embarrassing--as I push weakly at his shoulders, my voice thin and barely audible. "Please, Your Highness. No more, I beg you. I . . ." Hot tears prickle behind my eyes again, and I close them quickly to prevent another spate of weeping. A chill touch of fear spiders up my back as I wait fatalistically for his decision--or for him to notice that the "priestess" is as bereft of maiden hair as his sister.

"I'm sorry . . ." It's all I can say as I hear her plea and feel her push against my weight. Was this the last thing I need to learn, that no matter the situation--even one as primal as the joining of the sexes--letting unbridled instinct take control will lead to harm? If so, how I wish this frail flower hadn't needed to be sacrificed for me to learn, that I didn't have to trample this delicate bloom under the hooves of the argent stag.

I lean over her and give her as tender a kiss as I can on her moon-painted forehead, forcing myself to rise from her, from the bed, and walk over to the water. My back starts to ache under the bandage as the anesthetic goop Agricol had put on it starts to wear off.

I sit up slowly, my groin protesting the movement, and manage to get to my feet. I feel like I've had a long, hard ride, my thighs aching and my knees quivering, but I gamely follow after him toward the washstand with its large jug of clear water and the cloths that have obviously been provided for this purpose.

I gasp, seeing the redness dotting the bandaging of his back; even though he's just drawn blood from me--it marks my inner thighs and no doubt his manhood as well--I just can't ignore my brother's injury. The women left salve and extra linen strips on the table; I stop behind Malaquin, touching the red-spotted wrapping gently. "Are you in pain?"

Her touch lances through me, though her touch is careful; shallow, tearing wounds always feel worse than sharp-edged, deep ones. But I'm a squire, trained in the ways of war, and how to deal with wounds and the like. The sharp stab dies back down to a dull throbbing when I take a step forward and get her hand from my back. Turning my head slightly, my voice is a low growl, "It's nothing, little mother, and of no consequence."

She doesn't need to bother with it. It's what I deserve anyway. I still feel strange from the drugged wine, and I wonder what exactly they gave me. The sweet wine had covered any aftertaste.

The wine . . . There was something about it . . . I know it's the same pressing as what I used when I . . .

I shake my head and reach for one of the cloths, pouring water onto it. The priestess's maiden blood stains me, a graphic reminder of what just passed between us and I shiver faintly at the evidence of the wound I gave her. Glad to have something to concentrate on, the silence accusing me by its very existence, I start to wash myself, to rinse away her blood from me.

I wince at the growl, drawing my hand back. "So you say. I spoke because there's blood coming through the bandage, Your Highness."

I step around beside him. Perhaps the real priestess would have hovered meekly in the background, waiting for him to finish his ablutions, but I refuse to stand there with blood and fluids--mine and his--drying on my skin. Taking up another cloth, I soak it in the water, then carefully wipe away the wetness on my thighs; when I reach the place between, I suck in a short breath and close my eyes, dabbing carefully.

Let it bleed. It's only fair, I tell myself, feeling the throbbing of the wound and the tug of skin adhered to the soft cloth of the bandage. From what I can tell, I have a gash starting from just above my left kidney that rips upward and ends almost at the top of my right shoulder. I know I'll carry that scar forever, marked by the Horned One as His own.

When she steps next to me, I become so very aware of her presence, and the accusing silence that fills the cave. I hasten my own clensing, though I'm usually rather fastidious--one of the things that marks me as being different than most. Then I hear her suck in her breath and brace herself, and I just have to look. She's only dabbing there, between her legs, and I can't help but fear having really harmed her. An insane thought slips into my mind: Was I too big for her? Goddess, why this one, then? I don't understand . . . And I see that she's bare there, a confirmation to a detail that I was too lust-driven to actually notice. Another that likes to get rid of the hair?

Of course, that makes me think of my twin and the shameful touching I did to her, and my mood swiftly worsens, a thread of anger uncurling in me. Just ask anyone that knows me. I have a terrible temper when it's aroused.

It doesn't hurt as much as I'd thought it would. The contact only wakens a slight soreness, not some screaming agony. The cool water feels good there, and I stop the silly patting with the cloth and just concentrate on washing myself, cleaning away the traces of blood. It's not some great gory stain, but just a little spotting, like during the first day or so of my moon-time.

That eases my mind.

Glancing over, I see that Malaquin is watching, and I feel my face heat in a slight blush. Managing a smile, I hold up the cloth. "See, Your Highness? Not a fatal wound at all. A mere scratch, in fact."

Putting the cloth aside, I step back around him and wince at the sight of his back again; the wound is definitely oozing more blood. "Rather unlike your own badge of the day. Please, sit, and I'll make better work of the binding than His Grace did."

I'm reasonably sure that I'm discreet when I mutter, "That ham-handed dunderhead is better suited to crude battlefield surgery than proper healcrafting anyway . . ."

For a moment, I contemplate growling at her for rubbing my nose in the fact that I was no better with her than a stag at rut with a hind, but her display mollifies me somewhat as she seems to make light of her wound. I start to reach out to her and take the wrist of her hand that holds the bloodstained cloth, but she moves behind me before I can. I sigh, then tell her one of the things on my mind. "Please, little one, don't bother calling me "Your Highness". Here in this place, I'm just a man like any other man . . . and a very young one at that."

I start to walk over to one of the chairs to sit as she asked--all of the Mother's priestesses were well-trained in healingcraft--but her mutter makes me stop in my tracks.

That sounds like something Madule would say . . .

But that's impossible. She's back at the castle, waiting for me. I frown and close my eyes, willing the growing pain to lessen. She should at least know, through the bond we have, that I still live, that it wasn't the two-legged stag but rather the four-legged one that fell. Though I'm beginning to have my doubts that the two-legged stag had won after all . . .

"As you wish, Your--young man." I can't help but grin behind him as I say it, then give him a gentle--and insistent--nudge over to the chair before stepping around to pick up the small basket resting on the table. Inside, I find the salve; it's smooth and creamy white, with a fresh herbal scent. It's good not only for dulling pain, but for preventing a wound from becoming infected. Along with the salve is a small jar of pine tar; the brown stuff smells very strongly of its origins, but it can seal a wound well to prevent blood loss. And, of course, there are the bandages.

I get a hand on Malaquin's shoulder and all but shove him down into the chair, sitting crosswise so I can get at his back and side easily. Unwrapping the bandages that Agricol had applied, I can't help but snort in disapproval; I knew what I was talking about, obviously. The work he did would have been better suited to a hasty, emergency treatment in the midst of combat.

Retrieving the jar of water and soaking another cloth in it, I gently wipe down Malaquin's exposed skin, skirting the edges of the wounds. It looks like a clean set of slashes, up his back and along his side, with no ragged flesh or visible debris. Finishing with the cloth, I set it aside, then begin gently applying the salve with light, patient strokes to cover the bleeding surfaces without putting pressure on the tender flesh. "This could have been much worse . . ."

She's pretty forceful when she has something in mind. That's an interesting revelation as I find myself pushed along, then shoved down. Not exactly an easy feat, since I stand head and shoulders over her delicate form. But she is a priestess of the Goddess, and there's a regal sense of command that even I can't ignore.

So I sigh and put up with her fussing over me, closing my eyes. I can tell she's not thrilled with Agricol's work, but then again, what did she expect from someone trained only in staunching wounds on a battlefield? I grit my teeth and bear the pain in silence, telling myself over and over that I need to be strong, even in this. But it's blessed relief when her gentle dabbing of the salve deadens the pain. "Yes. I could have been dead."

Exhaustion hits me all at once, hard. Sitting there with her tending to me, my eyes closed, I feel a sense of wellness and peace, a sensation that lulls me into sleep's embrace, and I catch myself nodding off.

I jerk my head up and open my eyes, shaking my head and trying to rouse myself. I hope that didn't get my hair in her way.

I hesitate for a moment as his words fall bluntly into the quiet of the cave, and it's a struggle to keep my voice from quivering. "I'm very glad that wasn't the case."

I brush his hair gently forward, over one shoulder, as his head begins to sag a bit. My poor brother--he's so tired. I can sense it, and I know that I'm just as tired, but I can't leave his wound unattended.

I'm actually finished with the salving and applying the pine tar, gently pulling the edges of the wounds closed and sealing them smooth, when his head jerks sharply. I stifle a giggle and finish wiping the brown stuff onto his skin, then reach over for the bandages. "Only a few moments longer. Then we can fall asleep. I promise."

"Sorry . . . Hard to stay awake . . . So tired," I mumble to her by way of explanation. I wonder if Madule will be waiting for me when I get home, and I wonder what she's going to say about the ceremony. She wasn't happy about the fact that I was going to maybe be killed and certainly lying with a woman if I survived.

I feel like I owe her some sort of an apology. "Maybe . . . if I were more experienced, I could have done better. I'm sorry . . ."

Goddess, I need to get to sleep.

My voice is soft, quiet, as I take up the bandages to begin a more deft-handed job of binding the wounds. "It's of no moment. I knew what I should expect. I suppose that I just didn't expect quite that much. If anyone should apologize, perhaps it should be me."

I finish padding the wounds with folded gauze, then patiently wrap the pads in place. The side and lower part of the long wound are easiest, covered with a winding of linen around his waist; the rest of the slash up across his back requires a diagonal binding, and when I'm done, it looks almost like Malaquin's wearing a girdle and shoulder-strap of white cloth. The waist wrapping had to be rather wide to help secure the layering that runs up across his back, over his right shoulder, and down across his chest to loop again.

"There. Done." I stand up, dusting my hands off with a sense of accomplishment; then I turn and virtually flounce back to the bed, climbing in. I wince at the small dark stain on the furs, and shuffle them around so that neither of us has to lie in the damp spot.

I admit, it feels better now that she's rebound the wound. But I'm so groggy now that I really don't pay much attention at all to anything as I make myself stand. A couple of steps and I practically fall onto the bed, too exhausted to do anything or to care about anything. I really don't remember anything more after that . . .

I wind up rising again to go blow out the lamp. When I return to the bed, I lie down beside Malaquin, feeling his comforting, familiar weight next to me as I gaze into the darkness, hearing his soft, even breathing.

It's as though the man-beast that had taken me so roughly is finally gone, leaving only my beloved brother sleeping there with me. I shift around in the bed, the soft furs caressing my bare body; it's a rather delicious sensation, one that I hadn't noticed before when Malaquin had pinned me under him.

The pain is more or less gone, remaining as little more than a memory, and even that is fading. As I grow quiet and still in the darkness, I become slowly aware of the soothing power and warmth that flows through the cave, reaching out to the two of us. Healing power, loving warmth.

The Goddess infuses this place--unseen, but always there. Now, as the emotional tide in me ebbs, I can feel Her presence, and I know Her sorrow for the pain and fear--but it's as though I hear a whisper, telling me that even as it was necessary for Malaquin to suffer pain as he faced his animal nature, it was necessary for me to endure it as well. Nothing new can be born without pain, each new beginning requires an ending; here, in this place, a girl has given way to a woman, as boy has given way to man. Her warmth reaches into me, and I know that I will feel no more pain or even soreness when next I waken.

I reach over and tug gently at Malaquin's arm, a gesture that goes back all the way to our childhood. Immediately, he shifts to wrap that arm around me, holding me against his chest. Tucking my head under his chin, cuddling against his hard, strong body, I let myself drift into sleep.

It's dark. That's the first thing I'm aware of. Oddly enough, I feel disoriented and unusually clear-minded all at once, though I have to wonder how that can even be possible. I'm lying in bed--the huge bed, the bed that seems to swallow me up--with my sister pressed against me, her warmth mingling with mine, her arms around me as my arms are around her . . .

No, wait . . . I'm older than that . . . I'm not eight, but eighteen . . .

It comes back in a rush, the ancient ceremony, and I blink in surprise at the almost dream-like quality to the memory I have of it. Then I realize that I feel completely refreshed and it seems as if the wounds on my back are healed. I marvel at that, then realize that it must have been the Mother, restoring me as I slept. I smile at that, then lift a hand.

I don't want to disturb her, so I decide to not get up to light the oil lamp. Instead, I concentrate and form a small ball of glimmering silver radiance, setting it to shine its gentle light down on the priestess and myself. I want to look at her without being similarly observed.

I feel Malaquin stir, but I don't open my eyes; I'm still holding onto the wonderful dream of being tucked into the same familiar bed that we shared as children, sharing each other's warmth. I had been afraid of the dark when I was little, but Malaquin always was there to keep me safe from any of the monsters that might be lurking in the shadows. In return, whenever he had nightmares--usually brought on by the thought of having to rule, a daunting prospect indeed for a young child--I was always there to soothe him.

Faint light touches my eyelids, but I don't open them. I can still feel the cool tingle of the illusion over my skin; it isn't dawn quite yet--soon, though. I know that he can only see the priestess's semblance right now.

She still seems very much a delicate flower to me as I look to the side to see her as best I can without rousing her. It's not yet dawn--I can feel the rhythms of day and night and the Wheel of the year still, and I have a feeling I always shall from this point out--so I have time before we must go our separate ways, man and woman now.

Gently slipping from her grasp--how very much like my sister's hold, those long-ago nights when I would awaken to find her clinging to me; I smile at the image--I raise myself up on an elbow to better look upon her, my hair sipping over a shoulder to rest against my chest.

She seems very much an ordinary, very young woman now as I scan over her willowy form with my emerald gaze. She'd seemed somehow just a bit more, with the spirit of the Goddess in her--but not enough of that spirit to allow her to lose herself in the same spiritual rapport I had had. I feel sorry for her in that regard.

I yawn softly, shifting as Malaquin moves, burrowing against him in the instinctual habit that I still hadn't lost, even after years of sleeping apart from him. I have the feeling that he's looking at me, even though I have no idea why. A slight chill goes through me; what's he thinking now?

I find I don't want her walking away thinking that I'm some sort of a brute. Heavens forfend! I'm not one of these followers of this new way that seems to think women are only good for being servants and childbearers and nothing more. I follow the true way, and I'm more than my instincts would make me.

"Little mother . . . Little mother?" I gently call to her. I wouldn't feel right acting on what I wish to act on without her approval.

Strange . . . I like that title. It feels right, somehow, even though I know I don't truly deserve it.

Opening one eye slightly, I peer up at him, gauging his expression. He looks . . . hopeful, a bit anxious. It's certainly not an unfamiliar expression--he used to have that same look whenever he was giving me a gift or showing me something that he wasn't completely sure I'd like.

I always did, though.

"Yes, Your Highness?" I manage, then yawn again softly, rolling onto my back.

"Dawn will be here soon, and we shall have to part ways." There's a great opening, Mal . . . State the obvious. I wryly smile, but forge on ahead, the mere thought of perhaps joining with her again making my morning condition get just a bit more urgent.

"I . . ." I don't believe this. I'm blushing! I can feel the heat radiating from my cheeks. My low voice drops to a whisper, "Please, I don't want you thinking I'm a brute or something like that. Unskilled and unpracticed, yes, but . . ."

I suddenly find it very hard to ignore the fact that my brother's an adult male. This is almost entirely due to the fact that he's very, very obviously interested again.

I peek up at him, then can't help but smile a bit at the blush on his face. He's so cute when he does that. Then his words get through the dream-fog in my mind, and I shake my head. "I don't think that. Truly, I don't."

I'm astonished at my own boldness when I reach down and brazenly touch his manhood, curious to see what it feels like. Smooth, velvet-soft skin, but stretched taut over sleek hardness. I sound breathless for some reason. "Do . . . do you wish to . . . practice a little, before the dawn?"

Her touch on me feels like I'm on fire, though it's a gentle, hesitant one. I shiver in reaction to the tingling and close my eyes, my heart beating a bit faster. She seems to perhaps want this as much as I do after all, and here I was, fearful that she wouldn't wish to suffer a man's touch after being so disappointed.

My voice sounds breathless even to myself when I answer her, "Is that what you wish, little mother?"

The night spent here, soothed by the Mother's loving presence, was good for us both; that's easy enough to tell. No more fear, no more hesitation, no more pain. Malaquin is Malaquin again, not some overwhelmingly virile man-beast; he's my trusted, beloved brother once more.

My touch on him grows a little bolder, my fingers exploring slowly, as I watch his face. "Yes . . . I do wish it . . ."

I lower myself to lie on my back on the bed--again, I get the sensation that there's no wound there, but rather the scars left behind to mark me as having faced my four-legged self--letting her run her hands over me as she wished. I can stand her touch for a bit of a while, and her unskilled but talented caressing feels very, very good to me. That last coupling had been frantic, driven by instinctual lust and the primal magic. Here and now, we are just one man and one woman, each new to the mysteries of the other.

"Tell me . . . how had you hoped it would be?" I softly ask her, wondering what was lacking to have disappointed her so.

As he lies down, I feel a thrill of excitement; he's going to let me touch him. He had touched me last month; now it was my turn. It was only fair, perhaps, that I was deceiving him in order to do so--for hadn't he done the same to me, in a slightly different way?

Sitting up, I let my hands run over him. Goddess, how he's grown, his muscles firm and healthy, making clearly-defined ripples under sleek skin. I lightly run a finger around his flat, male nipples; are his as sensitive as mine?

His question is interesting. I consider it carefully, tilting my head to one side. "I . . . well, I'm not sure how I really hoped it would be. Gentler . . . with more play, I think--more caressing, at least. How did you wish it would be?"

It feels very nice indeed to have her hands on me, stroking my tanned skin, exploring the textures of this body I've come to know so well. I feel the desire burning hotter in me, sense the quickening of my breath. I like her touching me, and I give voice to my approval with a soft moan. I find there's something intriguing about a maiden discovering how sleek my skin is, how hard my muscles are, how--

I shiver as a forceful twinge of pleasure jolts through me, making the heat and tension in my groin become increased. My nipple tightens in reaction to her, stiffening just as I know hers would do were I the one touching her. "I wish you'd found pleasure in the act as well," I answer, reveling in her caresses.

I like feeling him shiver under my hands; it's not too hard to tell that he's enjoying my caresses. I feel myself growing heated as well, excited by my own feminine power over him. Is this how it is for the Goddess and Her consort--domination based solely in the giving and receiving of pleasure?

My fingers move over his flat, taut belly, then comb delicately through the tight, glossy raven curls at the juncture of his thighs, where his manhood lies proudly erect against his belly. Curiously, I brush my fingers over the male sac at the base of his shaft, being very careful indeed; I want to know what those actually feel like to the touch, but I know that being careless will hurt, not please.

I very much want to please my brother.

"I know. But I . . . I cannot say that I didn't receive fair warning. The other women told me that I should not expect much in the way of gentleness."

"The stag knows only to mount a receptive female and plant his seed in her," I whisper back as her hand leaves my nipple and travels down. I can feel my muscles quivering at her caress, but her oh so gentle fondling of me makes my breath catch in my throat. I'm sure she feels the same things I do, the wiry hair, the soft and somewhat wrinkled skin covering the smooth, round masses within.

My breath is exhaled in another moan and the drum of my heartbeat is getting quite noticeable within my erect manhood. "Tenderness and gentleness are human things, and I assure you, I'm quite human."

"I know that quite well, yes." I know I sound distracted, for the very good reason that I am distracted. The skin there is so soft, and seems to be tightening over the organs within, no longer feeling slightly crumpled--like old silk.

His moan sends a chill of sensual awareness up my back; I trail a finger up over the shaft itself, feeling the throb of his pulse running through it. Smooth skin, laid over a marble-like hardness; the rounded tip has a light, velvety texture that I rather like. "Yes . . . I noticed that . . ."

I become quite suddenly aware of the fact that I'm almost as aroused as he is, though in a less obvious way; my nipples are tight and hard as little pebbles, and as I shift my weight during my explorations, I can feel wetness between my legs. I have to wonder suddenly if he can actually smell my arousal; the feminine scent's faint, but definitely present.

I can't stand just lying there passively anymore. I'm getting aroused to the point it aches, but I don't dare do something to scare her yet again--nor do I want to frighten her. I want her to quiver in anticipation as I am. I want her to sigh and moan and shiver at my touch. I want her to react as my beloved twin had reacted when I gave in to lust and touched her in ways no brother should.

I reach out with a hand, letting my fingertips glide over the soft surface of her skin. I didn't get a chance to savor her last time, and I want to do so now. She seems excited by her explorations; there's a scent to the air that's yet another enticement and yet another embellishment to the erotic atmosphere of this peaceful, safe haven blessed by the Goddess.

I gently slip my hand between her thighs, caressing the skin of her inner legs before shifting my own exploring touch to the apex of her thighs. As I make contact with her feminine folds, I lift myself up on my free arm's elbow and stare at her face. I know my own is flushed in arousal, my eyes most likely a smoky green with desire.

I can't help but shudder and gasp as he slides a hand between my legs, finding the wet, soft flesh there. I feel heat rush to my cheeks, my exploration of his body slackening as the sensations of my own grow more intense. Goddess, it feels almost exactly as it had when he fondled me last month--except that he hasn't found the nub just yet.

My head falls back, hair spilling over my shoulders--I know the silky strands look deep brown to him, and not much longer than shoulder-length--but I feel the feathery slide of my long raven locks down my back, over the curve of my rear. I hear myself moan softly, shivering in delight.

She's wet--hot and slick--but she'd been that way last time as well, practically begging me until I was in her and lost what little control I did have. But as I gently fondle her there, I remember . . .

And I'm suddenly curious . . .

I sit up, moving, kneeling next to her now, my hands on her shoulders. My voice sounds gruff with desire as I murmur to her, "Lie back, little one. I want to taste you."

I really don't want to take "no" for an answer, but I will if I must. Still, I gently push on her shoulders, coaxing her to lie on her back.

How am I supposed to say "no" to him? I remember how his mouth had felt on me before, and I want to feel that again. Letting go of his staff, I yield to the gentle coaxing, lying down again among the thick, plushy furs of the bed. My skin tingles with the flush of blood to the surface, releasing the building heat; I twist my hands lightly in a wolf-fur, feeling the soft undercoat beneath the longer, coarser hairs, and shiver as I watch his face. "Yes . . . please . . ."

As she accepts my suggestion and stretches out over the surface of the bed, I let my hands run down her front, pausing for a moment to fondle her breasts, feeling her hard nipples against my palms. Then I extend my caress down over her flat stomach, down a bit farther, finally pressing against either thigh to open her to me. As I caress her, I can feel she's well-toned under her silky skin, and my eyes gaze down at her bare, feminine petals.

My sister is like that, I had discovered. I find that I rather like the concept. I suppose it's much nicer to do what I'm about to do without getting a tightly curled hair insisting its new place of habitation is being lodged in your throat. It's annoying enough when I get my own hair in my mouth when I'm trying to speak in a wind.

She's very nice to look at, but I catch myself comparing her to my twin--and that puts something of a damper on my enjoyment. Why must my mind continue to turn back to my sister and that day in the woods? It was wrong, wrong, but it continues to haunt me . . .

Her scent is stronger here, and one I find arousing. Ignoring the insistent throb in my own member, I lower my head and lick her right there, where that hard, little organ lies in the midst of damp softness.

My hips arch up in sharp reaction as his tongue flicks against the tight bud, and I let out a short gasp, clenching my fists in the wolf fur. I can't believe how acutely tuned my nerves seem to be, relaying every sensation with such stunning power and clarity.

As he continues, I shudder, then start to writhe slightly beneath his ministrations. I can feel the peak creeping up with such delicious slowness, winding me tighter and tighter.

I wonder if he recognizes my taste? . . .

Goddess, she tastes so good, just as my sister had. I'm convinced that all women must taste this way, though I have to admit I have little experience in the matter to be an expert at judging.

And her sounds . . . They're enough to send me into a frenzy all by themselves if I wasn't holding back and concentrating on getting pleasure by giving it.

She sounds like my sister . . .

That little thought stays there, doesn't go away, reminding me even in this blissful moment of my shameful fall to temptation.

But the priestess isn't my sister. I only have to look at her and know that.

Yet . . . I feel like my beloved twin has been with me throughout all this. Then again, she's always been there in spirit, even when we've been physically apart.

Shoving the thoughts aside, I let myself get lost in the moment, licking and suckling on that one spot that seems to indeed be the center of a woman's pleasure.

I let him continue until I feel as though I'm about to shatter from the coiling tension within; Malaquin's got a natural talent for giving this sort of intense pleasure, it seems. One fist is still clenched on the fur, but the other hand finds its way down to twine in his raven hair, gripping gently as my hips rock instinctively against his mouth.

"Oh . . . oh, please . . ." My voice surges into a sudden cry as the tension breaks, whipping loose in a flood of pleasure that overwhelms me, reduces me to a panting, moaning mindlessness as the waves crash through me.

The priestess's climactic release nearly undoes me right then and there, but I bear down on it through my will and manage to stay in control with a shudder. I suckle on her as she bucks under me, though it takes a bit of concentration to move with her instead of getting my mouth slammed by her movements.

When she starts to still, I raise myself up and then cover her with my body, my aching manhood pressing insistently against her tender, damp flesh. My voice is a passion-rough whisper right next to her ear. "Goddess, how I need you, little mother . . ."

His weight comes down on me, covering me with protective, impassioned heat; I draw my legs up along his, cradling his hips with my thighs, wrapping my arms tightly around his ribs. Arching invitingly beneath him, I let out another soft moan, still shivering from my release, wanting to feel him sheathed within me.

It feels so right to have her press herself against me, holding me in her arms. On a whim, I gently nibble on that earlobe near my mouth and I slip a hand between us and guide myself into her. Not being overly experienced in this, I fumble around a moment before my sword finds the waiting sheath, but once found, I press against her.

This time, I can hold back. I can slip slowly into her and give her a chance to get used to having me in there. I do so, groaning softly in bliss as I feel her tight, wet heat slowly surrounding me. Goddess, it's as good as I remembered, and her willowy form seems to have been made just for me, to fit my long, lean body perfectly.

I quiver at that little nibble--that feels interesting--and then moan as he guides himself to me and slides gently into me. This is so different from the raw, primal force of the mating before; this feels so much better. So right . . .

This time, my body adjusts to him, inner folds expanding to clasp him snugly, my softness yielding to his hardness. Burying my face in his shoulder, I moan again in bliss, then nip lightly at his skin.

"Mmm," I faintly protest at the nip, but it's not a true objection. I found the sensation more erotic than painful; I was merely not expecting it. As I start to move in her, oh so slowly at first, the delicious feelings tingling up my spine, I give her a bit of what she gave me by suckling on the salty skin of her shoulder.

Each slow, smooth movement is a font of rapture that makes the growing tightness in me spiral to almost unbearable heights. As the tension gathers and becomes more intense, I quicken my pace, driven on faster and faster to the end I know awaits me. Ah, Goddess . . . So good, so good . . .

"Mmm," I respond to his sucking little kiss on my shoulder. Turning my head just right, I suckle on the tender skin of his neck, pulling a bit between my teeth to worry it gently--not putting pressure on it, but scraping my teeth lightly over the satiny surface.

His pace is perfect, building up speed slowly, gradually, rather than raging out of control immediately. Once again, to my astonishment, I feel myself growing tense, a heavy anticipation building low in my belly.

Yes, Malaquin . . . this is how it should be . . . yes . . .

Even as the peak approaches us--us, for I can sense that he's near the end of this dance as well--I feel a strong, prickling sensation over every inch of my skin. The glamour is dissolving; the sun must be starting to rise!

It's still dark in the cave, for Malaquin's silvery light has faded away to nothing more intense than a distant star, and I pray that the dimness will be enough to conceal me a little while yet--and that this sensual passion distracts him as well. If we don't reach the summit of this mountain, I think I may have to die . . .

With the feel of her teeth on my neck, I toss my head up, giving her a better angle to continue as she's doing, the caress of her teeth only adding to the swelling ecstasy of the moment. My breathing's coming in short, soft moans, and my eyes are closed to better savor the sensations that flood through me.

With every thrust forward and pull back, with every beat of my pounding heart, the inevitable end gets closer and closer. I feel like I'm on fire, every nerve tingling, and ready to explode . . .

Just as the final scrap of illusion fades with the rising sun, I arch against him, releasing his neck and screaming out loud, breathlessly. So fast, so much--not quite as powerful as the last climax, but still dazzlingly strong. And so good . . .

Then I do, the force of the orgasm washing over me, taking control. I give voice to my bliss with a long, low moan while my body pumps my seed into her. It feels better, more right this time, more like what I imagined it always should feel like, especially with the woman under me finding pleasure yet again . . .

With her scream still ringing in my ears, I finally come to a halt, bracing my weight over her with quivering arms. Lowering my head, my raven hair spilling forward, I open my eyes to look at the priestess . . .

Only to find myself gazing upon the very familiar face of my own twin.

I just stare in the very faint illumination of what remains of my light spell, no thought, no nothing registering within me as I look down at Madule.

Panting softly, relaxing underneath him, I let my eyes fall closed for a moment. Then, as he lifts himself up, I manage to open my eyes again, wanting to see his face in the afterglow of this wondrous pleasure . . .

But he doesn't look the way I would have imagined he would look. No dreamy gaze, no sensual smile. His face is blank--shocked, his eyes wide and seeming so empty.

I hear my own voice, even though I would have sworn that I was too afraid, suddenly, to speak. But I sense the Mother around us again, feel Her blessing, and Her warmth soothes the ice in my throat as I whisper. "I love you, Malaquin."

You call this love? I want to scream at her, the first thing that comes to me is rage. Not a blinding, furious, white-hot rage, but one that is ice-cold, quiet . . . too quiet. I suddenly feel so brittle inside, like a single touch would shatter me into a million little fragments, beyond all repair.

"Oh, Goddess, how could you? How could you let her deceive me like this?" I thought I kept that in my head, though in reality it comes out in a very soft whisper.

His words pierce me through, more cruelly and surely than any blade, and I close my eyes at the pain. Tears well hot and thick behind my eyelids, but all I can do is answer--words that I don't even realize are true until I hear myself speak them.

"I had to, Malaquin. I . . . I thought at first that it was all my own idea, that I wanted to do this because of my own reasons, but--but I was wrong. I had to. She left me no choice--and I don't think I would have wanted another choice."

My voice sounds so fragile, so lifeless in my own ears; my soul feels like lead, my heart pulsing in anguish at the wound he'd dealt with that whisper.

I see the pain in her eyes, eyes just like my own, before she closes them, and some of the cold fury slips away. I lower myself to lie on her, my strong, well-muscled arms wrapping around my twin's slender form as I slide down enough to rest my head on the soft padding of her chest. "Why? Dear Goddess, why?"

I want to understand, to make some sense out of this. It's not supposed to be this way; I'm her brother. In the eyes of those that follow his new religion, we've just committed one of the worst sins, and my sister is forever ruined--ruined--by my own actions. Even those that follow the true faith will wonder, though the ceremony gives it a blessing of its own, since here we are only man and woman, avatars of God and Goddess.

But if it continues beyond, we'll both be sinners, no matter our royal blood . . .

Malaquin's arms encircle me, and some of the leaden pain eases. For the first time in my life, I'd been afraid he might strike me; his anger is a frigid blue flame in my mind, but it dims now. His head settles upon my breast, silken hair flowing over my skin, and I put my arms around his shoulders. Slowly, as if he might spook and struggle loose at any moment.

My voice comes slowly, softly; it's hard to actually find the words for what I feel and think, for what I felt and thought when I first envisioned this plan. "Because I . . . I wanted to share this with you. Because I could never find the joy we share with anyone else. Because the idea of you risking your life against the King Stag terrified me!" My voice cracks with the last sentence, coming out so hard and rasping. "How could I let you put your life in the hands of a woman you'd never met before--someone who didn't care about you or know you as I do? I knew what had to be done, and I did it, knowing that if I joined my mind to yours to help you fight, I would be committing myself to join my body with yours as well." The fear that had seized me, turned me on this path, is a dark, seething shadow in the back of my mind as I rush on, words tumbling out now. "I . . . I don't care if it's a horrible thing, but I wanted you! I wanted to be the first woman you shared yourself with, and I wanted you to be the first man that I shared my own body with!"

At first, all I can feel still is the cold, cold rage. I'm still in her, our bodies joined together, and her last words make that icy fire flare up. I suddenly want to give her what she wanted, but in a way that punishes her for what she's done; I want to use my manhood and my strength as a weapon and slam into her over and over until she begs me to stop . . .

I violently shudder as I realize what I'm thinking and I shove it away. Goddess! No matter how angry I am, I can't hurt my beloved sister, especially not in that manner.

I don't know what to do . . .

I feel horrible, terrible, tainted . . .

And it's because . . . I'm not sorry, not really, not deep down inside.

Because I wanted her too. Because I love her, both in a filial way and a carnal way.

And I hate myself for wanting her like that.

My voice is thin as I remember the way it had been that first time, with the Stag so powerful in him. "It . . . hurt, when you took me before. It hurt so much, it was so frightening . . . I thought that it was over, that I'd never feel like that about you again, that I'd gotten what I deserved for thinking that way about you. But . . . when we cleaned up, when I tended your wounds, and then when you woke me--oh, Malaquin, the pain didn't matter. I still love you, more than anything . . ."

I'm crying. I didn't realize that until I hear my voice sounding so thick, feel the wetness on my cheeks and the burning sensation in my nose as the overflow tries to drain normally.

I'm so afraid he'll hate me.

She's crying again . . .

I lift myself up enough to look down at her, seeing the tears that stain her beautiful face . . . and I remember how it was only moments ago, how perfect it felt, as if we were made for one another . . .

Is this why? Because we were, even though we are siblings and thus too close in blood to have a union blessed by the divine?

"Madule . . . Please, don't cry. You know I could never stand it, especially when I'm the reason why you're crying," I murmur to her as I reach up with a hand and gently wipe her tears away.

I turn my face against his gentle hand, looking up at him from tear-drowned emerald eyes. One of my hands catches at his wrist, a sudden desperate fear clawing at me.

I had heard the regents discussing it, saying that it wasn't wise for us to remain so close . . .

"Please don't send me away. Please! Malaquin, if I can't be near you, I'll die!" The panic struggles like a live thing--a bird frantically beating its wings inside my chest until it feels like my heart might explode. "Don't let them do it, please!"

I can feel her fear clutching at me as tightly as her hand, and the last of my rage slips away. She needs me to protect her, no matter the cost.

And I need her. I love her. Yes, even like this. Especially like this.

We can never have a wedding ceremony, but we don't exactly need one. We're already wed, in the way that counts the most: the ruler of the land married to the avatar of the land.

"Shh . . . Madule, Madule . . . We've been together this long. Do you really think I'll allow them to do anything to you? I rule in my own right from this moment on, and they are no longer regents, only advisors.

"I need you, Madule. I need you at my side . . ."

I lower my head and brush my lips against hers. Let me be damned, then, if that's what people will judge. If this is damnation, I embrace it freely. "I love you, Madule," I whisper to her.

As always, his soothing voice and the feel of his concern and love through the bond between us calms me as nothing else can; the terrible panic fades, and I can feel his anger is gone as well.

Yes--he is the sovereign now. Complain as they might, the noblemen who had controlled our lives since our parents' deaths no longer have the power to force our compliance. We're free, and I feel a surge of exhilaration as that knowledge sinks in.

Then his words--his admission of need for me--awakens a shimmering happiness; his whisper of love fans the happiness into surging joy. Wrapping my arms around his neck, I kiss him back with all that joy, holding him tightly. "I'll always be with you, Malaquin. I promise."

"I know," I reply, tightening my arms around her in a hug. "But we'll have to be very discreet. We . . . can't be open about this, not if you feel as I do, that we were meant for one another beyond being twin siblings. The scandal would hurt all of the realm, and give the Church ammunition to try to take control.

"Madule . . . You know they'll blame you, call you a witch, say that you've ensorcelled me, if we . . . continue as lovers and it becomes known. My sweet silver rose, my beloved twin, I don't want to see you so exposed to hatred and anger."

I can sense that the dawn is lightening the sky, and I know they'll soon come to take me back, and I fear for my sister at that moment. "Can you take back on the semblance of the priestess? What are you going to do? They'll be coming for me sometime soon to take me back to Hart Castle."

"That's exactly how I feel, Malaquin." I bury my face against his shoulder, joy tingling like sunlight in my veins. He feels just as I do, and that's so precious to me.

Still, his next words send a shiver through me. "Yes, I know it would have terrible effects, that the Church would try to capitalize on it. But I am a priestess of the Goddess. They'll be forced to acknowledge that, at least, once I let it become known that I've received the proper training. I don't care if they hate me--but I know that it would make you more vulnerable as well.

"No . . . I can't resume it this soon." I stiffen a little, then relax. "It's all right, Malaquin. I'll put on the robe that I wore out here, and keep the hood up and my face lowered. No one will bother me, and I . . . I think the priestesses all know already. One old woman called me 'princess' before she left last night."

"She did?" I wonder at that, then realize that Madule probably spoke the truth, that she had had no choice, that She had chosen my sister as the worthiest vessel for her power for this rite. "Then they will probably help keep what happened here a secret, inasmuch as you were the priestess."

I kiss her again, tenderly, letting my love for her be felt in that caress of lips against lips. "When we get home, tell me how you managed to get the training proper for your station? The regents didn't want you to know, and I couldn't get around them on that." In times past, the Princess Royal was always a priestess, for she was considered the avatar of the Goddess since her children would bear the royal blood. But this group, influenced by the Church, had sought to break that chain of divine power and duty.

I sigh contentedly under that sweet kiss, feeling the past month and more of pent-up frustration and tension between us fading away. "Of course I'll tell you. I didn't dare let it slip before, not to anybody--it was just between myself and my teacher." I tilt my head haughtily--he probably recognizes the gesture. "Who cares what the regents wanted? I knew my duty, and I wasn't going to let a bunch of stuffy idiots who let the Church pull their strings get in my way."

I have to laugh at that; she always looks so beautiful in high dudgeon. "I commend you. You always did know how to get what you wanted."

I lift myself off her and stand up, stretching my body in a simple pleasure of just stretching. "We should be preparing to return." I pause, then look back at her. "Perhaps I shall look into hiring a very discreet mason and carpenter. A not so obvious door between our chambers would cut down on people knowing of us sharing a bed." I already know she'll return to sleeping with me, as she had done as a child.

And I look forward to having the woman I love share my bed with me.

Even if she's my twin.

Chapter One silver rose bullet Chapter Three

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"The Silverlands", "The Obsidian Tower", "A Character's Chronicle: Zoey's Story", "Alpha Psi", "Argent Stag, Silver Rose" and the "Rose Realm" all © 1997 - 2002 by Dianna Silver. Some material also © 1998-2002 by Krissy Ryan. "Shoujo Kakumei Utena", also known as "Revolutionary Girl Utena" and "La Fillette Revolutionnaire" all © 1997-2002 by Chiho Saito/Shogakukan, Be-Papas, Shokaku Iinkai, TV Tokyo, and Central Park Media

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