The sound of the horn pierces the apeiron, shattering the stillness of that realm. Its clarion call creates ripples, substance, something more. It is a summons, a command. There is will. There is need.
And so, in reply, there is a woman.
She comes into existence atop a flat, rough slab of stone. In the first few instants, as the sound of the horn fades, that stone consumes all her attention: its pitted, weathered surface, shedding grit against her knuckles where her fist is braced. It is ancient, that stone, and full of memory.
As she herself is not.
She lifts her head to find she is not alone. Nine people stand in a loose arc in front of where she kneels, six men, three women, with torches all around throwing their features into shifting, untrustworthy relief. Pale, all of them, much paler than her. The torchlight lends their skin a false warmth, brightens their hair to gold or fire’s orange. Every last one of them, she thinks, is holding their breath. Watching her.
On the ground before her lies the corpse of a bull, its throat neatly slit. Some of the blood fills a silver bowl set at the foot of the stone, while the rest soaks quietly into the grass. At the sight of it, her muscles tense abruptly, as if lightning has shot through her veins.
They’re still watching her. They carry knives, the men and women alike, and when her free hand moves, it finds nothing at her own side. There should be a weapon, but there isn’t. Which means these people have the advantage.
It isn’t a good way to start.
She licks her lips, finds everything moves as it should. Tests her voice.
“Who the hell are you?”
The words come out like a whip-crack, breaking the quiet of the night. The man at the center of the arc straightens. He grips a curved horn in one hand, a bloodstained knife in the other; he is the one who sounded the call, the one who slit the bull’s throat. Drawing in a deep breath, he gives the horn to the woman at his side and steps forward. He is older than the others, his hair and beard grey beneath the fire’s false color, and the pin that holds his draped garment at his shoulder is richly worked gold. A leader of some kind. She focuses on him, almost as intensely as she had upon the stone.
In the tone of one speaking with ritual intent, he says, “I am Ectain cul Simnann, Cruais of my people, and I bind you to this task: to bring us blood from the cauldron of the Lhian.”
The weight of it has been there all this time, lost beneath the sights and sounds, the scent of blood in the air. At his declaration, she feels that weight solidify around her, binding with a strength beyond any rope or chain. She is caught: has been since the first instant, with no hope of escape.
About the Author: Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors’ hard work to The Night Parade of 100 Demons and the short novel Driftwood, and together with Alyc Helms as M.A. Carrick, she is the author of the Rook and Rose epic fantasy trilogy, beginning with The Mask of Mirrors. The first book of her Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent, A Natural History of Dragons, was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. Her other works include the Doppelganger duology, the urban fantasy Wilders series, the Onyx Court historical fantasies, the Varekai novellas, and over seventy short stories, as well as the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.