Fur-clad men guided Naltu to the hut. The structure was large enough to dance in, made from layers of leather hide stitched together in panels and hung from poles to make walls and a roof. The layers were buckled with leather straps so that wind could not pass through. The hut was constructed with a second, smaller hut inside, providing warmth. The outer area was covered in dried needles harvested from trees. The smaller hut inside sat on a floor of deer pelt. Naltu removed his boots outside and stepped on the fur with bare feet.

They piled old manure in a small stone pit in the center. A burning branch was carried in from a fire outside. Naltu dropped his furs to the ground. The girls, dressed in furs tied with beads, brought plates of frozen meat and fat before Naltu. The naked man ate until his belly swelled, and ate still. The hunt exhausted him, and the food could not satisfy the hunger within his bones.

The Gods always took their fill. Such was the price of that sort of help, such was the price he always paid. He closed his eyes and let new-found strength work through his body, healing the cuts and bruises and sore muscles. The girls came again with water and linen, and Naltu washed himself.

Naltu waved the girls out of the tent when he could eat no more. He would feast when the sun rose again. The village would ignite the fires for roasting meat. Cooking wasted food, and so was avoided, but the ice lizard he hunted could be sacrificed only during a revel, and the Gods would grant the village bounty. The Gods would grant all men bounty for such a sacrifice, Naltu was certain. He stared down at his leg, at the remnant of a scar there, and remembered his father. Hisimtu's leg was horrible, covered in mottled leather. After healing the injuries from the lizard, most of the skin was perfect. He would leave the rest intact, a reminder to others that he did not fear pain.

Naltu's father - Kertu's father - Hisimtu had been a tall man, like Naltu, and strong. He was a skilled wanderer and trader, hunting the herbs and stones that could be sold for wealth. Hisimtu taught Naltu some of that trade, then left when Naltu was seven years of age. Naltu doubted that his father had earned that scar on his leg the same way he earned his. Hisimtu was a coward, running from the tribes when the Gods demanded a sacrifice. Hisimtu had failed as a warrior, failed as a chieftain, failed in war and peace, failed in the hunt. Hisimtu had left many women's bellies bloated, Naltu's mother, Kertu's mother. Hisimtu had simply left.

Kertu earned his name in combat. The tribes, scattered across the southmost continent called Ghidiun, fought to assert dominance. Men fought each other in open single combat, fighting for honor, property and family. A defeated warrior lost his wives to the victor, and his children became orphans, even though he lived. Such battles happened yearly, and so many children were raised as orphans, fed by the tribe of the victor, owned and kept by the women who bore them. Those women were expected to follow the men who were victors. There was little love among the honest people of the South. Those who refused the tradition were ostracized. Hisimtu had lost, Hisimtu had left alone.

Kertu had many wives, women bound to him, but he lay with only one in his hut. Such things were permitted, and the other women were left alone, having claimed to lay with Kertu during some fertility festival or such event, then failing to bear his seed to fruition. These women could free themselves by lying with another, by bringing another's seed to life, by bringing the child's father to challenge Kertu's ownership of the child. But this could be done only once each year honorably, during the Chokimu, the winter's fertility festival.

Mellosin told Naltu of Urung. The ritual was brutal, a means for stripping a warrior of his wives and possessions when he grew too old or crippled, veiled by the whims of the spirits. Mellosin insisted the ritual was necessary, that weak men couldn't raise strong sons. Naltu traveled and traded in his youth, sold pelts to the poor, crippled men whose families had left. Most of the men were broken in Urung, and not before.

So Kertu watched his wives, watched the men who stared at his women, and sharpened his axe and his steel. Such a challenge, like all others, could be met with death at the chieftain's pleasure, and few could match Kertu.

Naltu was not long alone in his hut with the frozen meat. Warmth filled his bones, and the air stank of shit and burned flesh. The bloat in his stomach quickly left, and he finished the remaining food. Four women came and tossed fragrant bundles on the fire and sat, wrapped in furs, in the corners of the room. Naltu stood and sat in front of the fire, waving to the others that they were welcome to join him. They did, allowing the furs to fall from shoulders, and Naltu recognized all. He remembered these women as infants, though he was but a child when they were born, and wondered if any would come to his hut on the following night.

Shamans, bound to the Gods, could not wed. There was a practical reason, Naltu understood, but he told the story Mellosin had shared with him, of obligation and faith. These, were they to lie with Naltu, to become full of his life, would bear orphans. They knew this. Still, his children would be blood of the chieftain, and would be strong, and so these would dare. Naltu did not care. He had seen enough women, he enjoyed the touch, but he would spill his seed on the pelts.

The furs draped lower, and a girl, the most daring, kissed Naltu on his mouth before beginning to dance in front of the fire. The others joined her, clapping and humming a solemn melody, respectful, giving thanks to the Gods. These were good women, Naltu knew, they would give a good son to any man, and Naltu was pleased with the generosity of the Tlictal. The hums raised to sighs, and Naltu reclined against the furs on the floor and fell asleep. When he woke, the sun peeked through the roof of the hut, nearly overhead. The women were awake, covering him with their bodies and furs, waiting with respect for Naltu to dismiss them. He did.

Naltu dressed and found the center of the village, where the men where stacking twigs and then logs, preparing for the night's fire. The sky was gray and the air froze in Naltu's nostrils. The women crept out of his hut, hiding faces from the sideways glances of those already awake in the village. The lizard's hide had been removed and splayed on a lattice of wood, now a statue. The bones lay in a pile. The meat was cut and sorted. He remembered the hunt, the blue of the lizard, but the blood had been drained into clay pots, and so the meat was pink. Naltu's hunger rose. The viscera, the Shaman's share for use in ritual, had been collected in a sack and buried in the snow to freeze. Naltu would eat his fill of both before the night ended.

He smelled fragrant smoke and sought out the source. A small fire made by some women, where dirt was mixed with water, forming clay, baked, and then frozen into earthenware. Wooden barrels lay stacked nearby. Kertu had traded with the Northerners, exchanging the local cider for rich liquors, but Naltu appreciated the taste of summer apples more. Naltu longed for the heat on his tongue, even as he remembered the effect. A small chest lay on top of the barrels, and Naltu wondered what Kertu had traded for the Opal flowers the tribe would burn. The Northerners would have wanted the stones the green men dug from the hills.

Naltu sat and watched the preparations, searching for a familiar figure. Hunters returned carrying steaming boars. The scent entered his nostrils and he flared with hunger. The women from his hut the night before brought more wax-covered bits. They broke the yellow flecks away and fed him as he walked. They had seen his fleshy body when he left, and he was glad they recognized the wiry shape of his form as he returned. Naltu was pleased these girls were kind as they stroked his fur-clad shoulders and poured sips of sweet water into his mouth.

The sun set slowly and the preparations were completed. Naltu found the black-furred shape at last as his mentor approached, and told the women to leave him alone.

Naltu prostrated himself on the cold dust. "Mellosin. It is my honor to be allowed to serve the Gods."

Mellosin gestured. "Naltu. I serve the Gods."

Naltu stood. "I have done as I have been bid."

A smile full of rotten teeth. "I see. The Gods are pleased with the folk. You'll paint your face tonight."

Naltu agreed and took a pouch from the old man. "Yes-"

"And yet the sun is gone and you are not ready. Go."

Naltu knew he had time for the sky was still full of the last light, but Mellosin was impatient, and so he returned to the hut. One of the women, the one who had kissed him, followed him inside. He ignored her as he found two small berries, one white, one black, from the padded pouch. She came close, daring again. He grinned at her and dropped the white berry into a small clay bowl, and then presented it before her face.

"Give me your water."

She blinked twice and then complied, spitting. "Again," he ordered.

She did, and then he followed with his own, and crushed the berry and spittle in the bowl until a pigment formed. He rubbed the paste over his face in a thin layer, then repeated the process with the black fruit. With this, he marked his face with contrasting whorls in an intricate pattern. The girl watched.

"What is it you want?" Naltu asked.

"Your brother asked that I attend, ensure your needs..."

"I see. You desire nothing?"

"Only what you desire, Shaman."

Naltu smeared the last stripes of paint on his face while the girl watched politely. "You are a beautiful girl," he offered.

"I enjoy your praise," she responded.

"Do you wish to spend the night with some warrior or hunter out there, who comes from the far tribes to celebrate with us, and would return home with you? Or would you rather attend to this man who will leave you alone?"

"Shaman, I follow the will of the Gods, and so I am here."

"A poor answer, insolent and not what I asked."

The girl's red face paled and she dropped to her knees. "I did not mean to displease you."

Naltu patted the top of her head. "Then be honest. Answer my question."

She looked up. "I don't want to be pregnant tomorrow. Next winter, perhaps, but not this one."

Naltu laughed and the girl cowered. "Do the other girls know you are not ready for a child yet?"

She nodded.

"Yet you take the risk by attending me. How many summers has it been?"

"Eighteen, come this next."

"Old enough to find your husband, and yet my brother told you to be bold with me. He's cruel, but I can sense his attempts. Though I obey the chieftain's will, I'll spare you. Spend the night in this hut, and you'll wake up tomorrow as you are today. Stand. I remember you from last year's festival. You were... Do you remember how?"

The girl stood and stared into Naltu's eyes. He was certain his brother plotted against some rival from afar who had become infatuated with this girl.

"Yes," she responded, shivering.

"Tell me."

"Last winter, I picked the gonads out of the sack, and roasted them on a stick, and you ate that. And then the brain."

Naltu was pleased with the response, and remembered. "Yes. Cook them both well over the fire. I do not enjoy the taste, and would prefer ash."

"And then you copulated before the pyre. With me. You were careful and strong and so I came to your tent without hesitation, and without coaxing."

"My brother will take that part, and not with you. He'll make a child with his wife before us all, then the revel will begin."

"And this one?"

Her face had thinned with maturity, and her cheeks were strong and firm. She had the long gaze of a hunter, focused on only one thing, patient and distant. He knew her wish to join the hunt, too, for the smell that soaked her skin, one that he did not enjoy. She dipped her furs and leathers in the urine made by the captive foxes. She was not allowed to hunt the large animals with the men, and so she resorted to the common prey of the foxes. There were men who might not tolerate such a thing, for he knew she had washed before coming to him, and the lingering scent spoke of her dedication.

"And you can come back to this hut and sleep, or do whatever you wish outside. Your name is Sijhi?"

She nodded as drums beat outside. Naltu clapped his hands. "We are ready, then."

The sun had set, but the fire burned as brightly as daylight. The women painted the men's faces with soot from burnt sticks, marking the warriors and hunters with long streaks. Naltu's paint glowed against the fire, a light of a different color, brought from inside the markings, and the white shone, and the black pigment was green against the darkness.

Naltu hefted the pole on which the skin of the lizard had been displayed. He dug the sharp tip into the soil in a spot that had been loosened for his use. He circled the fire twice, clapping and yipping, gathering the attention of the men and women.

"The Gods have granted this gift to the earth. I bring the earth to the folk."

Two warriors approached Naltu and received the pole.

"We, the folk, accept this gift from the Gods. We shall return the flesh to the earth."

Each took a knife and cut a small bit of the reptile hide from the totem. They chewed the tough skin and choked at the bitter taste. The rest was tossed onto the blaze, and burst into blue smoke.

"Sijhi! I call you! The Gods must have the share that belongs to them!"

The girl walked into the light, pleased to hear her name, and dropped her furs around her waist and shivered through her leather in the cold breeze. "Shaman, I come as ordered. I am yours by claim for this night."

Naltu nodded. "We are here, the folk led by the Gods. We celebrate that which gives life. Tell me! What gives life?"

She turned and reached into a sack at her side. She produced two greasy blobs. Naltu winced as she pierced the misshapen globes with a narrow metal rod, long and covered in soot. She twisted away as she tried to burn the flesh against the fire. The fire was hot, and the stick was too short. Her skin was dry, red and tender when she presented the globes to his mouth. He swallowed and let his fingers graze her hand, and the tender skin was soothed.

"The Gods provide the elements of life to the folk through the Shaman. Let this year's harvest be bountiful."

She found the brain and a longer staff. She roasted the flesh until it was aflame, and then presented the cooked flesh to Naltu. He breathed onto it, exhausting the fire with cooling wind.

"I accept the Wisdom of the Gods. Let all war end in victory for the Tlictal."

He bit the charred fat and swallowed quickly, eating until the brain was gone. Sijhi's face was more pale than he remembered the night before.

"Now, I bring about the blessing of the Gods. Who is most worthy to receive that blessing?"

Kertu stepped forward, naked and erect, with his wife's hand in his. She was healthy, with round hips and a thick body that promised children. She knelt and he entered her as the wolves do, and the women cheered with shrill voices. Naltu glanced at Mellosin. The old man shrugged and drank deeply from a glass bottle.

The cider flowed, and the women tossed bundles of Opal flowers onto the fire, filling the air with intoxication. Drummers began to play, and others stripped furs and leather from bodies as sweat began to stream from the heat.

Plates of food were laid before the fire, roasted boars and birds, freshly killed and free of the grittiness of the winter. Other plates were laid out, taken from stores buried in the earth before the ground froze. These were eggs wrapped in ash, served beside the summer roots soaked in vinegar and buried in clay jars. The tribe feasted and celebrated. Many danced around the fire naked, many danced in other ways, on the ground, and in huts. Women politely approached the men and were rebuked, and the spirits flowed, until the rebukes ceased. Naltu watched, certain that the tribe would be larger.

Kertu placed his hand on Naltu's shoulder. "Will you give a child this year, half-brother? Will you gift a woman while you are still a man?"

Naltu laughed confidently, white teeth flashing against the flames. "Surely the Gods will gift you with a child before I, chieftain."

Kertu was pleased with the response and turned away, finding his wives. Finding strength in his role, in the feast, and in the Gods, Kertu returned to his hut and lingered with all his women.

Naltu lifted Sijhi's hand and led her to his hut. The stink of the Opal flowers diminished, but his head swam. He tired of the shouts and screams.

She entered while he remained outside. He returned swollen with lust and not alone. The other girl dropped her clothes beside the small fire. Sijhi glared, her eyes full of recognition, as the other girl kissed Naltu. Sijhi found blankets and gently placed herself between Naltu and the other girl, and her touch was tender, and Naltu was confused. Sijhi pressed her mouth to Naltu's, and her breast to his, and fed him liquor until he slept.

The morning came, and the women dressed and left Naltu alone. Kertu remained in his hut, even after the sun had risen. Naltu packed his belongings and found Sijhi squatting outside, flaying frozen hares for preservation, and asked her to bring him wax and food. She heated a clay pot of beeswax over the embers and dropped bits of food left from the festival into the pot, and then gave him a bundle heavy enough that she struggled to carry it.

Naltu was well-pleased and his pack was full when he left the village. Sijhi trembled as he left, begging him to promise that she would not be with child, and said that if she did swell, the child was not his. She cried, and Naltu understood, and touched her stomach with his fingers. She asked him to visit in the spring and the summer. She watched him walk away, not turning until the tears had frozen on her face.

Mellosin was waiting beyond sight of the village.

"You did well."

"Thank you, Master."

Mellosin bowed. "One more year, and you'll be prepared. We shall go to the mountains now?"

Naltu let a steamy breath fill the air. He would miss the women and the pleasure of the festival. Such things happened regularly enough for the hunters and warriors, but the life of the Shaman was solitary. "Yes."

"Did you leave a child behind?"

"No, Master. As you commanded, I spill my seed only on the frozen soil."

Mellosin bowed again. "Very well. We'll go."

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