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The moon glared down like an eye, all-seeing, all-knowing, upon the naked body of Adriana di Medanzo. She stood, one of seven skyclad witches, around the altar, a circle of broken stones upon which lay the throbbing, heaving body of a hobbled lamb. They stood upon the Sangineto hill in the wilderness that overlooked the Mare Clorinda, screened from the sounds and sights of the city by the groves of laurel and cypress left to grow wild. It was important that they were hidden from the city. If they were caught, they would be executed.
Seven maghiarde, seven witches clad in sky and air, circled the altar and chanted in the language of the vie vetul’, the old religion. The words poured from Drina’s throat like honey and wildfire.
“Nostrem deductora, nostrem custodia, nostrem agora transa tenebrara.” Guide us, hold us, lead us through the darkness. A plea to Ekata, mother of magic. A plea to Kelati, mother of earth. A plea to Calua, mother of death. The old gods who had not ceased to matter just because their kingdom was usurped by the new.
Chanting, they circled the bleating lamb and danced, hands holding hands, bare feet grinding against the gravel and brush. Drina allowed the ritual to consume her mind until she scarcely felt the hand of Calindora on her right or Evario on her left. This ritual was too important not to concentrate.
The night before the anniversary of the Conquering was always an important day for spellcasting, but this year it was especially fortuitous. This year it not only fell on a full moon, but it was also the six hundredth such anniversary. Six hundred years since the Perlineri had come from their unknown places and conquered the kingdom of Etrucchia. Six hundred years of increasing decadence and squalor. All over Citerna, indeed, all over Etrucchia itself, maghiarde would be performing rituals to guard the new year and to wish the downfall of the three Perlineri, the gods who oppressed them.
Once the chanting ended, they stopped dancing. The lamb’s cries pierced Drina’s ears. It was time. Drina had been chosen by lots to perform the ritual this year. She vibrated with pride and excitement. This was the most important ritual of the year, and she was to be its champion. She tiptoed forward until she stood upon the altar stones, looming above the heaving white lamb.
“Blessed Ekata di Nurtia!” she called in the old language. “Grant us your eyes this night! Let us see what you see, know what you know!” She knelt until her knees bruised against the stones and she loomed over the lamb. She took up a rock in her hand. Solid, weighty. It was important to do it in one blow. She raised the rock above her head, then brought it cracking down against the skull of the lamb. She could feel the reverberations of the skull crunching through the rock and up her arm. The lamb gave a gagging sigh and then, with a seizure and bleat, it was dead. Drina placed the bloody rock on the ground and pressed the tips of her first two fingers to her lips, thanking Calua for allowing the sacrifice a swift and noble death, then pressed her fingertips to the lamb’s neck, thanking the lamb for its contribution.
Now was the most important part. Hamda came forward from the circle, her dark bronze skin glowing in the moonlight. Drina’s best friend handed her the ritual dagger. Drina hefted it appreciatively. It was a beautiful athame, its handle iron, its blade bronze carved with symbols as ancient as the world itself. The coven owned several such daggers, but to be able to use one was a great honor. An honor, tonight, bestowed upon Drina.
Evario and Conciatta held the lamb steady while Drina plunged the blade into the flesh at its sternum. With a sound like ripping fabric she sawed the blade down, down, scrawling a seeping red line from its sternum to its genitals. Blood oozed up from the line and sheeted down the white of the lamb’s fur. Drina set down the dagger and thrust her hands into the seam, squishing her fingers into the lamb’s entrails in search of her prize. Her fingers grasped that slick, weighty thing. The liver. She pried it out, hefting it carefully so as not to destroy it. It was a slick, brown hunk of flesh sheeting blood. She held it up over her head while the maghe around her chanted, “XXX, XXX, XXX.” Read, read, read.
First, Drina prized her fingers along the surface of the liver in search of the signs she had been trained to read since birth. There were no obvious malformations, no clear bumps or fissures other than the expected seams between the lobes. That was good. There would be luck in the new year.
Now for the most important part of the reading. Drina lifted the liver to her lips–and bit into it. It was salty, coppery and tangy, and tough. She prized up a piece of the meat with her front teeth and sawed through the sinew until a chunk separated into her mouth. The chanting increased in volume as she masticated the flesh and let its flavors, its blood, leak over her tongue and tantalize her senses.
Then she swallowed.
She was still, her knees bruising against the rocks, her throat bobbing as the mashed liver and blood trickled down her gullet. She spread her arms wide and reached out into the universe for her magic. It was a burning in her chest, a glitter in her eye, a fizzing in her fingertips. It was the metaphysical undercurrent that connected her with the center of the world and the gods beyond. She let it fill her like water flooding a crevice, let it suffuse and drown her.
This was not the shoddy guesswork of the Acolytes. It was old magic, true magic, the kind that came from gods older than the charlatans who lounged in their palace in the center of Citerna.
Speak through me, Drina prayed. Ati Ekata, Ekata di Nurtia, speak through me.
A stiffness overtook Drina’s limbs as something else filled her body, something shoving her own spirit aside. A fullness invaded her throat like the burn of swallowed smoke. Without her leave, her lips moved and a husky voice purred out, threaded through with a second voice, a third. The spirits were speaking through her.
“Thunder gods kill a century. The anointed lose a wolf. A raven cries alone.” And more, whispered phrases about the harvest, the weather, none of them told but in riddles that would be deciphered later by the diviners. Their last pronouncement was, “The old sleeps, slumbers, wakes.”
Then with a final croak, the voices broke off and Drina smacked back into her own body. All her limbs tingled and her vision swam and she crashed to her side onto the rocks, her whole body seizing. No one did anything as she shook on the rocks–until at last her body stilled and she slumped against the ground, utterly spent.
Hamda and Evario hooked hands under her armpits and slumped her to her feet. Drina swayed but was able to stand. Their work wasn’t done yet. Drina stood in the center of the circle, the bloody dagger in her hand, the gutted lamb at her feet, while the other maghiarde walked a slow circle around her. She dipped the dagger in the lamb’s blood and swiped her thumb across it, then went to Hamda. Hamda Efarim, her best friend, her confidante and champion. Beautiful and strong and sedate. She swiped the blood across Hamda’s forehead, anointing her with the symbol of Ekata.
“Zichor can,” she said. Let it be written.
Then she faced Evario, Black and tall and muscular. Her friend, her light. She swiped the symbol in blood across his forehead. “Zichor can.”
Next was Conciatta, pale and blond, waifish and reedy, lovely and stoic. Her friend, her partner in crime. She made the symbol. “Zichor can.”
She went through the circle, painting symbols on the foreheads of her fellow coven members, Giovo and Astia, and then she stood before Calindora. Calindora, plump and beautiful. Drina’s lips curled into a smile and Calindora smiled back, her perfect lips curling over her teeth. Stunning, vibrant Calindora, olive-skinned and dark-haired, short and curvy. Her Calindora. Hers only for four months now, but some of the happiest four months in her life. With extra tenderness, Drina pressed her bloody thumb to Calindora’s hot forehead and sketched out Ekata’s symbol, slowly, slowly. She paused, just a moment, before returning to the center of the circle.
It was time to close the circle and seal the ritual.
In the old tongue, she said, “By earth, I seal this circle.” She faced the north and cut out Ekata’s symbol into the air with her athame. Lines of light sketched the air, glowing brightly. She turned to the east. “By air, I seal this circle.” Again, she sketched the symbol. Again for fire in the south and water in the west. At last, she flung out her arms and threw back her head and announced to the dark starry bowl of the sky, “By the power of Ekata, I seal this circle! So mote it be!”
The fiery symbols in the air flared bright and a circle of fire cast itself through the air around the witches. It burned up and down, a wall of solid fire. Then, with a hiss, all the fire extinguished, leaving the clearing drenched in smoke.
With the circle closed and cleared, Drina loosened. Everybody else did too, alive with the success of a ritual done without interference from the Turbi, the witch-hunters. Another ritual completed beneath the noses of the three gods who ruled Etrucchia with gilded fists.
Calindora took Drina’s hands. She was shorter than Drina and when she pulled Drina close, Drina melted against her paramour’s soft curves like every part of her was a half of the same whole. In full view of the rest of the circle, Calindora tipped onto her toes and pressed a fierce kiss against Drina’s lips. There was a whoop unmistakably from Evario, who followed it up with, “Please, ladies, let a man don some knickers before you go about offering up such a show.”
Drina pulled away snorting and laughing. She raised her eyebrows at his half-erect genitals. “Nothing terribly impressive to hide, I’m afraid.”
Scoffing, Evario made muscles with his arms and theatrically kissed his bicep. “You wouldn’t know what to do with it.”
A loud laugh erupted from Conciatta. “As though you do.”
Of course, in the end it was Hamda who sidled up, eyes rolling and tongue clicking, to remind them, “Still your merriment for now. We’ve need to clear the evidence. Unless you want to wait here for the Turbi.” But with a smirk, she glanced at Evario’s genitals. “They wouldn’t be impressed either.”
Evario feigned a pout. “Oh, you’re all no fun! Evariotto and I will enjoy our night without you.”
“All by yourselves,” Drina joked as she helped scuff out the circle traced into the ground around the old altar. Giovo and Astia had already cut the lamb into several pieces, which would be strewn throughout the forest for the wolves to eat. The altar would stay, but it was rubble. Washed of blood, no one would know that it had been revived for this evening’s festivities.
As Drina pulled on her rough homespun dress, she grinned. Even under the thumb of a despotic regime, one occasionally had to smile. She licked the blood off her lips, took Calindora’s hand, and followed her friends through the wilderness back towards the city.