The darkness was almost solid. Only a handful of stars peeked through the leave in the trees above her. Shifka almost dared not breathe, listening to the rustles and scrabbles of animals in the forest around her as they hunted and were hunted. An owl hooted nearby and something fluttered past her face.
Shifka almost dared not to move either, each time she shifted positon the chain holding her to the tree clinked and rattled, loud in the darkness.
They had left her here at dusk, the sun low and dark orange on the horizon.
She had pleaded and begged, but none of the villagers had looked back, except one and he didn’t have the tears in his eyes that she had in hers.
They had found them Shifka and Benth, in the barn together. He’d told her he loved her as he pulled her skirts up and the sharp straw scratched against her bare thighs.
But there was a shout.
Strong arms holding them both for the arrival of the village elders. Frenk still holding his tongs with a cooling roof spike between them as his other hand held tight to Shifka’s upper arm.
Now Shifka was alone here, chained to the tree in the centre of the clearing.
Tomorrow Benth would enter the service of the Warrior Priests, no doubt to die alone and lost in some far country that knew little and cared less about the gods of the Warrior Priests.
And Shifka, she was here, waiting.
She’d heard the stories about the young girls would gone before her. Taken and chained to the tree and left.
In the morning, they were gone.
She shifted, the chain clinked, and something small rustled in the undergrowth. Shifka shivered in her thin cotton sacrificial robe.
There were stories that the robes were the only things found the next morning, torn and bloodstained.
Something new was there somewhere in the darkness around her.
A bigger beast.
Shifka could feel its presence at the edge of the stone circle that surrounded the ancient oak tree.
Her chain rattled as she drew back against the wide trunk behind her, knees up, her jaw trembling.
Something emerged out of the darkness, a darker shadow against the dark of the night.
It was big, towering above her. It wore antlers outlined against the lighter sky above the tree. It growled.
Shifka cowered back against the tree.
There was something. It looked like a man.
A man god… not a beast?
One arm reached out for her.
It grabbed her arm.
Shifka cowered back making herself as small as possible.
‘Stand.’ A deep low voice. The beast gently pulled her to her feet.
‘Wait,’ the beast said. It reached up and pulled the antlers from its head, laying them down at the foot of the tree. ‘I do not need those,’ the beast said. Its voice was a low growl, but gentle, not harsh. ‘The villagers fled long ago.’
His hand reached and tore her shift from her. ‘A dead rabbit,’ he said, holding up the object in his other hand.
Shifka shivered in her nakedness as she watched him wipe the blood from the rabbit corpse over the thin white dress.
He grabbed her chain and tore it apart in his hands.
He reached for her. ‘Come,’ he said.
‘Wh…? Wha…?’ Shifka had no choice as his strong hand pulled her to his side.
‘I’m taking you home with me,’ the rough voice said. ‘You are mine now.’