Chains rattled as bare feet shuffled in the moonless night. Hard stars glittered over children staggering around a great oaken post. Nearby, the nearly grown pair chosen to honor the May huddled in the chill, earlier gropings forgotten.
"Dance 'round the pole, unwind and dance again," said Guidry the headman, secure in his rowan garland and his clothing seamside-out. He led a goat dressed in homespun, one of last year's barleycorns tucked above its ear. Like the symbols at their doors, the May dance was a ward for the entire village, painted in young flesh. "Soon the needfire will be lit and you can all go home."
The chains coiled together like iron snakes as the children slowly danced. No blessed rowan or inverted garments hid them from distant, pitiless eyes peering from hidden doors in the surrounding flinty hills.
That round of the dance ended. The children hung their heads, breathing silver fog. The boy consort stood. "Headman Guidry, finish this. Nothing comes."
"Quiet, Ad-- boy." Guidry fumed at his only son. "You don't see everything."
The children untangled their chains and began the next dance. The starlight dimmed as if a veil had been drawn across the sky. Guidry's goat bleated.
"Quick, Eleanor, the bannock cakes," Guidry whispered. The baker's wife pressed oatmeal cakes into each child's hand, then rushed to Guidry with the last. He took it and tried to feed the goat, which turned its head.
The darkness grew heavier, old wool settling over the village. Guidry squatted, shoving the cake at the goat. The goat butted him over; Guidry's rowan garland tumbled loose. A booted foot stepped on his hand.
"I see you have the unlucky cake." The newcomer was taller than any man in the village, slim as a willow whip, dressed in cloth woven of moonlight. His smile was narrower than he was, and just as sharp.
Guidry shuddered. "I was only passing it along."
The sharp man turned his smile on the goat. "Ah. Should I have been fooled by this travesty?"
"'Tis how we make the year come round," Guidry said. "Without an offering, the needfire will not light and crops will blight. But there are too few children to give away."
The boy consort approached. He picked up Guidry's bannock cake, the unlucky one with the burn across the bottom. "His Honor was holding my cake."
The sharp man laid a finger on the boy's chin, turning his head from side to side. "A much better offering than this simpering fart, though you have less meat upon you."
"I crave a boon."
"A boon?" The sharp man seemed amused.
"As I am a sacrifice freely given, let me be your last. Forever."
"Forever is overlong for such as I," said the sharp man. "For a generation, I might bargain."
"For a generation, then," said the consort.
Guidry watched Adamh follow the sharp man into the flinty hills as dawn stained the east. Women released the children while the needfire crackled to life. Men would spend the day repainting the symbols at their doors.
Efa, the May queen, came to Guidry. "Adamh left us something," she said, one hand on her belly. Guidry covered Efa's hand with his to touch the next generation by the pale light of a May morning.
Copyright © 2003 Joseph E. Lake, Jr.
Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, with his family and their books. In 2003, his work is appearing in diverse markets such as Realms of Fantasy, Writers of the Future XIX, and The Thackeray T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases. For more about him and his work, see his website. To contact him, send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.