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Hexennacht

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Eliza had been clinging to Jack Shaftoe's hand, not entirely comfortable amidst this surging crowd of German peasants. She didn't know how they'd become separated, but found that she didn't really mind that much. Jack was pleasant enough company, but prone to flights of phant'sy and far too fond of the sound of his own, boisterously English voice. Eliza was sure she could learn a great deal more by paying careful attention to those around her.

But it was hard to listen when her senses were playing tricks on her: when a gigantic demon reared over the gathering, and the smoke from the bonfires formed itself into skeletal figures that strode over the top of the Brocken. A ghastly carolling (perhaps some traditional German ditty, though it sounded more like the torments of the damned) echoed from the rocks. And surely those were people in the air above her, rushing to and fro on hobby-horses made from green boughs?

Eliza blamed the stew they'd been given, down in the valley. Foreign cuisine was so seldom palatable.

"Bist Du bereit für den Gang zum Stein?" enquired a buxom matron. (Ordinarily, German fashion tended to bestow a mono-bosom upon the wearer, but this woman had cast aside her everyday apparel for a rather fetching shift of sheer linen, leaving no doubt whatsoever as to the amplitude of her figure.)

"Ja, bitte," hazarded Eliza.

The woman beamed at her. Out of nowhere (she certainly couldn't have been hiding it in that garment) she produced a garland of spring flowers, which she draped around Eliza's neck.

"Das hübsche Kleid brauchst Du hier nicht," she encouraged Eliza. Now, Eliza's grasp of the German tongue was generally adequate, but the sheer oddness of her situation -- and perhaps that howling chant, which'd send anyone mad -- seemed to have driven most of her vocabulary from her mind. Besides, it would be rude to demur. She began, with the enthusiastic aid of her companion, to disrobe.

It was cold up here on the mountain, and goose-bumps rose on Eliza's arms, on her breasts (ha, where was Jack Shaftoe now with his transparently self-serving offers of warmth and comfort?) and on her thighs. Yet the cold did not seem quite real, and her skin was flushed where the woman touched her. Which seemed to be rather a lot. Her fingers left a tingling heat behind them: some bracing ointment or physick, perhaps.

"Gehen wir zum Stein," said the woman, stroking Eliza's cheek affectionately. "Er wartet."

With some vague notion that she was being reunited with Jack Shaftoe, Eliza followed the woman. Everybody she passed seemed to be smiling at her, and greeting her warmly. What friendly folk these were!

Their destination seemed to be a circle of stones at the summit of the mountain. Some of the stones loomed tall, but others lay where they had fallen. Eliza was surprised, but not dismayed, to see that the tall man waiting for her in the centre of the circle was not Jack Shaftoe after all. This fellow had dark hair peppered with grey, and he wore an eyepatch over his left eye. He was as naked as Eliza herself -- more naked, for she still wore her garland -- and his prick was quiveringly erect.

"Du bist die Schale," he intoned, eyeing her up, "und ich bin das Schwert."

This was not quite what she had been led to expect by her education in the harem, but Eliza prided herself on her adaptability. Besides, it quickly became clear that this was some manner of ritual: that there was nothing personal about the way that the man laid her out on the mossy stone, pulling her forward (the moss was smooth and sleek and she could feel the greenness slide against her spine) so that she was at a convenient angle to be fucked. Her skin was still tingling as if sparks from the bonfire were fluttering down onto her bare body.

When he pushed into her, it was cold and old and huge and hard like the stone beneath her. There had been others before her, other nights -- centuries of them -- before tonight. She was somehow all those women, being fucked by all those one-eyed men. She was the stone itself, soaking up the seed and sweat and sometimes the blood of years and years of … whatever this was.

Since the fucking was clearly more ceremonial than indulgent, Eliza felt it best not to object when her partner sighed, spent and pulled out of her. She was tense and shivery with lust, or coldness, or fear: with years and years of it all. Above her, moonlight shimmered and clouds raced. Below her, the stone waited for more.

The rest of the night made no sense. There was another man, and then a woman. Maybe two women. Maybe two women at the same time. There was a flask of something strong and spiced that warmed her through and through, though the stone leached it out of her. There was some commotion, and a hunting-cry.

And later there was morning, and a bed, and an inn. There was a man who looked at Eliza and looked away, and a woman who smiled at her as if at a dear friend, but who did not speak. There was a posset for her headache, and a jug of warm water to wash away the night: there were wilted flowers on her pillow, but she threw them on the fire.

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