Okren crested the granite cliff face with a last, shuddering heave. His muscles — though honed through labor — felt new and untried. Perhaps that was the purpose of the pilgrimage, he pondered as he knelt before the stone altar and fought to catch his breath. Not just holy sacrifice, but humble penitence as well.
He shook his sweat-slickened head. Such thoughts were beyond him. The prelates dealt with those matters, learned the secrets of plants and animals, told the stories of the skies, and predicted the coming of the blood moons. Their old throats sang the songs of the great wars and spurred the Chosen onward with righteous fury and the ghost of vengeful justice.
Okren scanned the twilit sky for the pale sister-lover of Great Herune. There, in the east, she waited, full-bellied with child. The blood sacrifice of labor had yet to mar her features. Soon, but not yet.
The icy winds shifted and bore to him the acrid scent of campfire. Okren stood, the leather of his armor creaking with the motion. There, across the clearing, tucked into an alcove in the mountain, firelight flickered. He drew his spear.
The weed-choked flagstones shushed his approach as he circled the altar towards the light. Only when he neared did he make out the figure sitting behind the flames.
“What are you doing here, female?” he barked. Okren’s grip tightened about the haft of his weapon, though he would not shame himself by bringing it to bear on a woman. Not unless he had to.
The stranger shifted, the ochre blaze of the fire casting her exotic features into the realm of daydream. She rose with care, the threadbare quilt about her shoulders parting enough to expose the mound of her belly.
“Dovik-ken,” the honorary slipped off her tongue with practiced care.
Okren inclined his head. “Wyrm-ken,” he accused, lip curling over the phrase. If she noted the insult, her dawn-rosy eyes did not tell him. “What are you doing here? You should leave before my mood sours.”
“I cannot return,” she stated, easing back to the ground. “And nor can you. Not without performing the ritual first.”
Okren shook his head. “What do you know of such things?”
“I know what all my kind know, that we must send one of our own here to die for the oaths of old souls long passed over.”
“But you are no warrior. How do you expect to fight?”
She shrugged. “I do not. I expect to die.”
Okren paced before the fire. This was not as he’d been told. He’d been sent to test his warrior’s mettle; to sanctify his people’s pact as the gods ordained. And so he’d set his feet to this journey, to preserve the balance between betrayer and betrayed.
He sat, legs suddenly heavy. “I will not kill a woman, especially one with child.”
“Why not?” she asked. “Your people have murdered countless of my male kin, turning their wives into widows. Do you think they did not suffer because they weren’t here to spill their blood upon this blasphemous ground?”
“Do not seek to cloud my judgment, belly-crawler. My people know of your wicked ways.”
The female spat into the fire. “What do you know of us beyond what lies your leaders have fed you?”
Okren turned his eyes to the sky. Above him, the grace of Herune’s sister had grown tainted with the rust of birthing blood. It was time.
He rose and made his way around the fire. The female eyed him from her nest amid the blankets, coal-black hair tinged purple in the coming night. To the Wyrm-ken’s credit, she did not flinch when he pointed his spear towards her.
“There is another way,” she whispered, eyes staring past the weapon’s tip. Okren paused, willing her to continue. “There are many ways to defeat a foe. Death is one, union is the other.”
“Union?” Okren tested the word.
“Marriage,” the female supplied.
Okren took a step back. “What foul rite do you propose?”
She scoffed. “Only a Dovik-ken would consider companionship foul.”
Okren eyed her a moment. “This is not our way.”
She shrugged, jarring her quilt. A pale stretch of unblemished skin peeked out from the succor of her sanguine dress.
“Ways change. What good is death when it serves no purpose? Too long have our peoples been apart. Would it not serve our Creators to live together as one family?”
“But the Great Betrayal…” Okren ventured. Even to his ears, the protest rang hollow.
She leaned towards him, the spear’s tip dangerously close to her neck. “An event so long past to be ancient history.” They shared a silent moment, the only sound that of the fire as it fought against the wind, casting sparks into the sky.
Okren lowered his weapon. What glory would the death of two innocents give his name? More appealing a question, what glory would bonding with a Wyrm-ken wife give his line? With their magicks, and his people’s hardiness, old rifts could be mended. The two halves of this land made whole.
“You are not…” Okren searched for the word, “…bound to another?”
The woman shook her head. “His light was diminished seasons ago.”
“And your heart?” he pressed, suddenly worried.
She smiled. “Ready to bloom amid the peace of our nations.”
Okren brandished his spear once more. With a swift motion, he passed his palm across the razor-sharp head. He squeezed his hand; let the blood drip into the dry, hungry earth.
“Then let this be the last blood shed between our kind.” He held out his hand.
The woman approached and grasped the spear, drawing her hand across the blood-kissed tip. She clasped his outstretched hand. Fingers intertwined, they stood beneath the light of the goddess moon as she bore her transformation into motherhood.
“What shall I call you?” Okren asked in a whisper.
“Nealla,” she said. “In the language of my people, it means: beloved of the enemy.”
Stephanie Bissette-Roark holds a BA from Pacific Lutheran University with a major in History and a minor in English. She judiciously ignores this education when writing and reading speculative fiction. Two close encounters with death in childhood lead to a life-long fascination with the macabre; because of this, she is a writer of horror, fantasy, paranormal romance, and poetry. She also works as the associate submissions editor for Evil Girlfriend Media LLC. Stephanie lives in Tacoma, Washington, with her husband, Matthew, and their two wrasslin’ cats.