This is an excerpt from my story “Love at Dawn,” which first appeared in the anthology Crazy Little Spring Called Love. This is from the beginning of the story.
Leora kept her back rigid, her limbs still, as Elder Meiri, Priestess of the Dawn, tied the mask into position over her face. Her left foot wanted to wiggle, but she held it motionless. The other elders would be unhappy if she fidgeted, even though the weight of the ceremonial robe was just as cumbersome and uncomfortable as they’d warned.
Someone else combed through Leora’s hair, arranging it over the ties of the mask. They’d discussed the style ahead of time, so it wasn’t a surprise to have only half of her dark hair pinned up into soft swirls, the rest left to curl wildly down her back and over her shoulders. The mask was so large one of its spokes caught in a ringlet as the tress was tossed into position. A gentle hand released the wayward tendril, but Leora couldn’t tell whose hand. She could see things directly in front of her with the mask on, but she no longer had any peripheral vision.
Panic thrilled down her spine and curdled in her belly. Her hands shook. She buried them in the massive folds of the gown so no one would notice. The avatar for the sacred marriage was not supposed to be afraid. Or nervous. Or anything except serene and happy: a perfect bride on her wedding day.
Oh, why was she so unlucky to be born at exactly the right time to be eligible for the quarter-century incarnation of the goddess?
There were only four other young women aged twenty-three in the village who were not yet married or bound to the beam, a promise to cohabitate with a lover as long as a ceremonial ribbon was tied to the main support beam of the house. Two of the unattached women had remained so in the hopes that they would be chosen to perform the role of the goddess in the sacred marriage ceremony this year. But none of them could have predicted that their town, out of hundreds performing similar rites across the country, would be chosen to host the incarnation.
Leora, who had avoided attachments for very different reasons, would not have minded acting out the usual ceremonial role, chanting along with their local priest and priestess and a masked man from town dressed up as the Harvest God. But she was in no way prepared to discover that, instead of pretending, her flesh would actually act as the avatar for the Dawn Goddess.
What rotten luck she had. And it didn’t help at all to know that her body was just a vessel, and that she would not remember anything that happened during the ceremony. She would wake up tomorrow morning and it would be like nothing had ever happened.
Except that something was going to happen.
And it was going to happen using her body.
The worst thing was, she could have said no. When the lots were cast, and her name came up, she was given the option to refuse. The god and goddess wanted only willing hosts. But she’d stood there, dumbfounded and in shock, and then nodded and said yes, of course she would be the avatar.
What had she been thinking? She hadn’t been thinking, and that was the problem. She’d acted out of an instinct honed by years of service to her community; she loved her town and her country, and it was second nature to agree to anything that would benefit everyone she loved. Even as late as this morning, when she’d been woken by the elders in the darkness of predawn, they’d given her one last chance to refuse. They’d said she would have no shame—that there were others who would willingly take her place.
But she’d remained steadfast. Because the truth was, she would be ashamed of herself for giving up just because she was afraid. She’d been chosen. There were some who said that the goddess herself nudged the hand of the one drawing the lots, making sure that the candidate she wanted was chosen. If that was true, then the goddess must see something in Leora that she did not recognize in herself. And she wanted to live up to whatever that was.
If only she knew who had been chosen to be the god’s avatar. She wasn’t meant to know, and neither was he. In fact, all men and women of the correct age—twenty-three for women, twenty-seven for men—as well as the elders who prepared the ceremony were sworn to secrecy regarding the choice of avatars. No one would ever confirm or deny any speculation about who had played the roles. To do so was to risk offending the god and goddess and have them withdraw their blessing over the land for the next twenty-five years.
Who stood on the dais in front of the crowd wasn’t important—what was important was that the god of the harvest and the goddess of the dawn took human flesh, recreating their marriage, and blessing the land with fertile fields and livestock for another year.
Except that sometimes—once or twice a century—a child was born of the union. And if that happened, everyone would know Leora had been the goddess avatar. The child would be loved by everyone in the nation, raised by the entire town and considered a good-luck charm for everyone they met, but unless the father chose to reveal himself, Leora and the babe would make a permanent family of two. It was considered an unbreakable taboo for a goddess avatar who had carried a god’s child to marry and have children by someone else.
Although why she worried about pregnancy now, Leora didn’t know. It was very unlikely. She’d just finished her courses and wouldn’t be fertile for a while yet.
She was more worried about the unlikely child’s likely father.
Because, out of the two unmarried men of the right age who might have been chosen, one of them was the man she’d been secretly infatuated with for years. And the other was her nemesis: her brother’s best friend and her father’s apprentice. Former apprentice, she should say, since he now had the job that she’d always wanted.
Either she was about to be ceremonially wed to and bedded by a man she’d loved since she was thirteen, or the man who’d taken her place with her father and driven her mad both as a child and as recently as yesterday, when they’d fought over something so trivial she couldn’t even remember it. Neither option pleased her.
Reed settled onto the stool as Elder Bay, Priest of the Harvest, arranged the stiff and heavy ceremonial robes around him. He hadn’t felt nervous when he was chosen. From the moment that their town was announced as the location of the next ceremony, he’d known he was one of only two options to act as the Harvest God Cheyn’s avatar. And if the god had any sense at all, he would not choose Linden, who was good-natured and stolid, but too rigid in his thoughts and beliefs to be a pleasing host for a complicated earth god.
Few of the men of Reed’s acquaintance who worked the soil and spent their lives tied to the earth lacked sense, so he had never truly expected the god to nudge the elder’s hand toward Linden’s lot.
As the mask settled over Reed’s face, though, he had his first moments of doubt. Not about acting this part—he was honored to represent the god—but about who was going to act as avatar for Saura, the Dawn Goddess.
There were five possible women, but only one he wanted. He couldn’t decide whether having her beside him would be the best outcome, or the worst. Because as much as he wanted to be with her, to touch her and taste her and take her to his bed, she’d never given him a single sign that she would welcome his attentions. In fact, she spent most of her time mooning over Linden, although he knew she believed no one else had noticed.
So in some ways, any of the four other women would be preferable, because when it was done he would never have to see or think about them again. Although he would admit that if a child resulted from the union, he would want to play a role in the child’s life.
But if it was Leora—he couldn’t finish the thought.
He’d been promised that the avatars would retain no memories of the ceremony and their actions while imbued with the spirits of the gods. He hoped that was true, because if it was Leora beside him on the dais in the gloaming, he didn’t want to remember anything of what happened. It would be far too painful to have to go back to his regular life knowing he’d been inside her body—even her body transformed into the goddess—and would never, ever have that experience again.
“Love at Dawn” © 2017 Cara McKinnon
If you enjoyed that, you can read the rest of the story in Crazy Little Spring Called Love, along with seven other stories of fantasy romance by some truly amazing writers!