The pub was loud and busy, and while she had become very comfortable with the modern languages spoken outside of her homeland, Ausrine still found herself overwhelmed by noise when she had nothing in particular to listen to. She was waiting for Darja to stop talking to some young man on the other side of the room, but they were much too far away for her to hope to make out their conversation.
Her thoughts drifted back to what was troubling her. Ausrine had thought, somehow, that she would have made more progress by now. Here it was the last harvest festival and she was still sleeping in Darja's guest room. It wasn't that she disliked Darja's company; the two had become lovers recently, and Ausrine did not regret it in the slightest. She only wished she had a bit more direction.
"Well that was interesting," Darja said as she sat down. "You're getting a reputation, my dear. That gentleman just invited us to another harvest festival."
Ausrine sighed. The harvest festivals seemed so dry and perfunctory to her, despite Darja's assurances that continuing to make contacts would only help.
"Oh, don't make that face," Darja interrupted her thoughts. "Besides which, he said it's a more pastoral tradition, so perhaps you'll like this one."
Still dubious, Ausrine nonetheless followed Darja out of the pub. The man was waiting outside and gestured for them to get into a simple wagon that could have been from twenty years before or two hundred. Ausrine let Darja sit up on the bench and instead she scrambled into the back of the wagon and perched on a dry bale of hay. A procession from town? She felt more at home already.
As they left the city behind, the back of the wagon began to fill with others headed to the same destination. Some carried lanterns, others grains or root vegetables, the last offerings their land would give up for the year.
When the wagon stopped, everyone climbed out. Their host helped Darja down and explained to both her and Ausrine that they would start by circling the field, making sure nothing had been left unintentionally, no gift unreceived, and then the procession would start. Darja looked unsure but Ausrine smiled at her.
The last two weeks had been dry, and the dusty ground seemed to work its way up into the air as they walked. By the time the field was circled, Ausrine thought she must be covered in a thin layer of dirt. The sky was dotted with stars on one side and still red with the last of sunset on the other as they finished the procession. It fascinated her still, how different the stars were now than from the ones she grew up with.
More reds and oranges flared up, a bonfire at the edge of the field. Offerings were laid out on a long table at the edge of the bare earth. A large stone stood next to it. A middle-aged woman and the gentleman who had brought them in the wagon walked naked up to the stone and there was a long song, though the words and the melody felt like they might be distantly related to something Ausrine had heard. The ice witch was asked for mercy, for protection, for a dozen more things, but they all came down to the same request. Spare us. Let us make it through the winter.
The man laid down on the stone. The woman stood over him, and suddenly glinting in the firelight was a sharp knife. The energy of the crowd shifted, and Ausrine thought she could feel the dirt on her skin joining in the anticipation. Darja's nails dug into Ausrine's arm, but the younger woman didn't move.
The knife came down across the man's chest, and blood flowed freely down the rock. The crowd around them called out again, praising the ice witch.
Ausrine waited, her breath still.
It was difficult to tell in the firelight, but she thought the man was still breathing. The woman stalked through the crowd until she found Ausrine.
"You the priestess he said he was bringing?"
She answered, "I am the one he brought."
"The folk in the city, they forgot what winter's like. Maybe it don't get cold enough in there. But we give the ice witch her due still." The woman looked Ausrine up and down. "That who you calling Mara?"
This time Ausrine did not hesitate. "Yes, that's the Winter's Mara." Darja looked uncomfortable.
"You gonna bleed for her then?" She offered Ausrine the handle of the blade.
This was not the way it had played out at home, but the shape of it felt familiar enough that Ausrine didn't hesitate. She had scars from the year she had been chosen for the sacrifice, where she'd gotten infected and almost died. You put your life in Mara's hands when you bled for her.
The acolytes of the temple always performed the same ritual after the sacrifice. Following her instinct, Ausrine did her best to imitate what she remembered. She didn't clean the knife. She bowed to the man on the rock, and his eyelids fluttered. Not giving herself a chance to hesitate, she slid the blade along her palm with as much force as she could bear.
For a moment, she thought she had failed to pierce the skin, but finally blood appeared, and she let it drip onto the ground, mixing with the man's blood and the dirt. Reaching down, she drew up a handful of the resulting mud and painted the corpse-lines on the man's face and chest.
"Know your sacrifice has been given and pass by with your cats," she said, in her own dialect. "Do what you must, as will we. Good hunting."
The men and women behind her seemed satisfied; the middle-aged woman began yet another song and it was quickly picked up. Ausrine held her hand in a fist as she stepped away and handed the knife back. Fortunately, there was very little remaining of the ritual, and soon she and Darja were seated at a long table covered in the traditional feast.
"I thought they were-" Darja began and stopped. "I thought he was-"
"I've told you about the Winter's Mara before," Ausrine said, gently encouraging her lover to actually eat the bread she was staring at.
Darja chewed slowly. "It's different."
"It is," Ausrine agreed. "Now you know why the city festivals feel so hollow." Darja didn't answer, but she did finally eat, and eventually she even joined in the dancing. Some of the storytellers took a shine to her when they realized she was listening and recording, not trying to correct them.
"Was a good show," the ritual leader said when she was setting Ausrine and Darja on their way in a different wagon, with a different driver. "Your Mara, you tell her we ain't forgotten."
"She knows. I'm sure she knows," Ausrine said. "May I ask you a question?"
"The offerings. What do you do with them?"
The woman smiled. "They go in storage. Any folks end up needing them, we've got them. It ain't enough if there's real trouble, but it's been enough plenty of times."
Ausrine nodded. "That's different, but it's good. It feels right. I'll remember. Thank you for letting me come." Then they were shooed out the door and into the dawn light.