Just before we reached the pool of torchlight spilling from between the two giant stones, Solen gently pulled back on my hand. Pulling me to face him, he paused for a moment, carefully studying my face. I was about to ask him what he was doing but there was a new look in his eyes and it stilled my tongue.
I dropped my gaze, suddenly shy, heart beating like a drum against the suddenly tight confines of my chest.
Moving closer, he lifted his hand and gently ran his fingers down the side of my face, tilting my chin so that I was once again staring up into eyes as grey as the dying ashes of a fire.
How had I never noticed those eyes before? I didn’t have time to ponder as his warm lips lowered to mine and I forgot how to breathe.
It wasn’t like I hadn’t kissed a boy before, but this was nothing like the shy stolen kisses exchanged in amongst the tall corn stalks during the harvest festival.
This kiss was a world of conflicting feelings all wrapped up into one all-consuming moment. Intense but still gentle to the point of being almost reverent. It made my heart flutter and sent sparks of pleasure dancing throughout my entire body.
A moment later it was over. He ran his fingers down the side of my face again, this time to tuck a stray lock of dark hair back behind my ear.
Still dazed, I felt his large warm fingers lace themselves again with mine. With only a slight stumble, I forced my numb feet to follow in the wake of Solen’s newly determined stride.
It wasn’t like the kiss really meant anything, I was almost certain of that. Solen had barely exchanged more than a few glances and the odd greeting with me in the whole of the time I’d known him.
It was probably just something he had picked up from all his time spent amongst the hunters. They all kissed their heart-mates before leaving on a dangerous hunt. It was an old tradition intended to bring good luck to the tribe’s warriors, but in modern times there was no longer the need to wage war so the quaint custom had been passed down to the brave hunters instead.
I was sure that’s all it had been. Goddess knew we would both need all of the luck we could get to make it through this night with our souls still residing in our bodies.
Passing through the stone portal we walked out into the middle of the clearing. The tribe were stood in a ring around the outside of the circle, within the line of towering stones but none spoke as we crossed the distance to the large flat dais in the centre, where the ritual would take place.
As Solen led me up onto the flat, weathered stone pad, I was immensely grateful for the reassuring feel of his warm hand clasped around mine. Without his presence, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t even have made it past the outer stones.
The priestess stood at the side of the carved stone shrine, an ornate gold box clasped in her long pale fingers. She was wearing a headdress that covered the whole of her head and face from view, but I wouldn’t have recognised her features anyway. I’d been just a babe when she had become priestess.
I still couldn’t see Shari, she must have been running late for some reason. I felt my guilt rise. What if she had honoured our agreement and was still waiting by the stones for me. Then again, she would still have easily been able to see Solen and me from those outer stones.
Her absence didn’t seem to matter to the priestess. Lowering the golden box onto the shrine she carefully drew back its lid, revealing the shimmering turquoise coils of the serpent.