Hala heard the bell in the village square, and she knew why it must be ringing. Her mother, Reda, had told her three days before that the procession, with the covered wagon pulling the cart that bore the Lord’s Horse, had been sighted at daybreak, making its way down the hill path from Castle Jey. That meant that they would be in Horseford by noon of that day, and Highhill by noon of the next. Another day’s journey would bring them here, to Thornwall, where Hala had spent all of her eighteen years.
“If you are taken in the wagon, Hala,” her mother had said severely, when she told Hala that the covered wagon was on its way, “you must accept it gratefully. The spirits allowed the demons’ wickedness, and those lustful thoughts, to dwell inside you, and if you can be cured of your lust no other way, you will be cured at the castle.” Reda had seemed to be trying very hard to sound stern, and Hala knew why her mother tried. Both mother and daughter had little doubt that Hala would be taken. Reda tried to make it easier on both of them, by pretending that she had given up on Hala learning to be good, and had accepted that she must leave it to the lords of the castle, and their knights, to punish her.
Hala and her mother had feared the fate that awaited her on Horseday for four terrible months, now: since the day soon after Hala’s eighteenth birthday when her mother had whipped her for breaking a pitcher, and then found her on her pallet, face down and whipped bottom up, with one hand in front and the other in back, desperately pleasuring herself.
Her mother came to see, because the walls were shaking.
“What are you doing, girl?” her mother had yelled.
Hala ripped her hands away from her body, turned upon the pallet, and sat up, looking wild-eyed at Reda. “N-nothing, m-mother,” she said, pleadingly.
“Hala, have I not told you that you mustn’t touch yourself there?” Reda shouted, fear and anger mingling in her usually kindly eyes. Yes, Hala did get whipped, like almost every eighteen-year-old she knew, but Reda seemed to try to make Hala’s whippings as gentle as she could. “Haven’t I told you that the spirits forbid it?” Now she began to weep as well; it was the most awful thing that had ever happened to Hala, to see her mother thus.
“Get your gown and shift up again, and lie back down over your pallet, girl—I must whip you afresh, and…” Reda hesitated, then seemed to grow resolute. “And I must truly punish you, I see.”
Trembling and crying in shame and fear, Hala obeyed, turning back over.
“Push that bottom up, Hala,” Reda said. “If you could push it up for that shameful wickedness of yours, you can push it up for the strap!”
Shaking like a leaf, Hala arched her back, to present her already lightly-punished backside. Without delay, her mother began to whip her—much, much harder than she ever had before.
“How could you do this to me?” Reda shouted, as Hala whimpered and cried out in pain. “Over and over I have told you—just as you have heard so many times in the house of the spirits every Seventhday—you know that the spirits appoint a husband for a girl, to take charge of those wicked places, and a girl who has no husband must wait until she does, and keep herself pure!”
Hala screamed in agony at the way the punishment-strap found, over and over, the same marks she had already received. All thought of touching herself, as she had known she mustn’t but had been unable to resist, seemed banished forever.
“After this,” Reda said grimly, when she had finished, and told Hala to lower her skirts again, “you shall stay with me so that you may not fall prey to demons. And from now on you must sleep with your hands bound to your pallet. It is the only way, the sisters of the spirits say, to keep you from being taken to the castle on Horseday.”
“The castle?” Fear rose up in Hala’s heart. The girls who went to the castle never returned.
“Yes—the castle. Touching yourself down there is the surest path into the covered wagon, and the whips of the castle! Just you think about that!”
Then Reda had told her about how it really was with the Lord’s Horse, on Horseday, and about how girls who touched themselves were the ones who rode it shamefully, and were taken away to have their lustful thoughts driven out, through stern chastisement.
“It is a terrible dishonor,” Reda said, through angry tears that made Hala feel even worse. “The girls at the castle… well, some say that they live in luxury.” Reda seemed to spit the word. “But if they do, it is a kind of luxury that the spirits find terrible in their sight: shameful luxury.”
Hala had cried, too. “And I would never see you and father, and Joran and Togan.”
“Indeed. So just you try to think about that when the demons make your naughty little cunny feel wicked.”
Hala vaguely remembered Horsedays in the past—it had never seemed a very special kind of day to her, but she supposed that was because she had never known anyone who had to go to the castle, as this terrible new thing her mother had just described without really telling anything. Reda had not even given the thing—the punishment?—a name, but only spoken of “the girls at the castle.” Now it seemed very important that she make sure it never, ever happened to her.
And so she had slept with her hands tied to the sides of her pallet for a month, but her cunny had seemed to burn all the more, especially when she thought about the whipping her mother had given her to punish her for touching herself. After that whipping—it seemed like mere moments afterward—the warmth in her cunny had made Hala feel even more that she must somehow soothe the burning ache between her legs, and the feeling confused her even more than she had been before.
Then, the night before the covered wagon was seen, she’d had a strange dream. She dreamed that the three sages stood by the side of her bed. They—Fedan, Hazeran, and Gader—had written the Book of the Sages that Hala had learned passages from, by heart, in spirit-school under the tutelage of her spirit-school sister, Sister Margra. Now she saw upon their faces that they had an urgent message, for Hala and Hala alone.
“Hala,” said Sage Fedan, called the kindly sage, “you will go in the covered wagon, to the castle. The spirits have lit a fire inside you that cannot be quenched by an ordinary man.” He reached his hands out, and took her little breasts in them, working his fingers inside her thin woolen shift so that she whimpered softly and sighed at the forbidden pleasure.
“You are lusftul, Hala,” said Sage Hazeran, called the stern sage, “and you will be punished, and mastered. Your fire will be used to light the land as befits a wanton slut like you.” He took hold of her knees, and bent them back to her chest, and began to spank the bottom he had rendered bare, the hem of her shift falling to her belly. Hala cried out as the sage’s firm hand went from cheek to cheek, sternly teaching her to be a good girl.
“But Hala, child of Thornwall,” said Sage Gader, the mysterious sage, “you are blessed by the spirits in that fire, and when a great trial comes to the realm your fire alone in union shall save the folk.” He reached his hand down, and though Sage Hazeran did not stop spanking Hala, Sage Gader put a rough but somehow kindly hand upon her cunny, and began to caress her, so that the terrible wanton wetness came, and she moaned with the lewd, marvelous sensation.
In her dream, she came close—so very close—to her release. But then, suddenly, that was all: the sages vanished, and it was morning. When she had told her mother the dream, and then it turned out that the covered wagon was sighted that very day, Reda hugged Hala very tightly, and wept upon her shoulder. She said, “It is the will of the spirits. I know you can be a good girl, Hala. We must take what the spirits give us.”
“But what did it mean? What did Sage Gader mean—‘your fire alone in union?’”
“It is too hard for me, child,” her mother said. “And we mustn’t tell the sisters, for perhaps it is an idle vision, and you won’t have to go in the covered wagon after all.”
Now, as Hala walked, along with the other girls who had turned eighteen in the past year, to the house of the spirits, where Reda said a special spirit-service would now take place, just for the girls who would ride the horse and their mothers, she wondered if any of her agemates—Hala’s best friend Kera, and the miller’s daughters Norin, and Norin’s twin sister Larin—knew what Horseday was about, even to the extent that Hala’s mother had haltingly explained to Hala. None of them had shown any sign that they might be subject to the same shameful feelings that had made Hala pleasure herself after her whipping, but then of course neither had Hala.
Only the girls and their mothers attended the spirit-service or the Horseday ceremony afterward. Hala had never known why this was until Reda had told her that it all concerned the wicked private places between Hala’s thighs: the same places Hala had been touching, helpless to stop herself, when Reda found her, with the walls shaking about her but Hala completely oblivious to the little tremors that sent dirt from the daubing down onto the very pallet where she lay lewdly playing with her cunny and even with her tiny bottom-hole.
In the little house of the spirits, the funny round building with the highest ceiling of any structure in Thornwall, Sister Margra waited for them, sitting in the sister’s chair. The brother’s chair, occupied on Seventhday by Brother Harnom from the hall of the brothers of the spirits, stood empty.
Hala loved the house of the spirits, and the Seventhday services with their songs, and the special holy day services in Lighttide when the snow was deep and on Risingday when the wheat stood tall. She had even loved spirit-school, when she was thirteen, when she had learned about the sages, and how the Rising had saved the realm, when first Sage Fedan, and then Sage Hazeran, and then Sage Gader, had taught the folk how to bless the land, and then how to defend themselves against the terrible foe who still waited on the other side of the thornwall.
Hala shivered every time she thought of the foe, but that only made the house of the spirits dearer to her, for Sister Margra had promised them time and time again that if they were good girls, the spirits would protect them, and keep the thornwall high and thick. Now, as Hala entered with her mother, and went to their bench half-way back on the left side, Sister Margra gave her the same elderly, kind smile she had always given Hala in spirit-school.
When all four girls and all three mothers had taken their places, Sister Margra said, without getting up from the sister’s chair, “Girls, this is a very special day for you. Today you will ride the Lord’s Horse. I do not know whether any of you have been wicked…”
Hala shot a nervous glance at Reda, but Reda stared resolutely ahead.
“…but the Lord’s Horse will find it out.” Hala thought Sister Margra seemed a little troubled by the need to deliver this news, but she supposed it was because wickedness was hateful to her. She felt like she wanted to shrivel up like a dry stalk and be burnt the way stubble was burnt, right there on the bench in the house of the spirits.
“Sage Hazeran,” Sister Margra continued, “invented the Lord’s Horse. As you know, he found the means to defeat the foe. What you learn today is that the foe had been made mighty and vicious by the wickedness of young women. Young women of your age—girls who gave into their shameful lusts—empowered the enemy of the folk with their lewd thoughts and made them fearfully strong. Sage Hazeran, in his wisdom, discovered that if he took all such wicked girls to the castles, and kept them under proper discipline, with regular chastisement and rigorous instruction in the ways of service, the lords and their knights could make the thornwall grow so high and broad that the foe would never reach the realm again.”
Hala felt her eyes grow wide. They had learned in spirit-school that Sage Hazeran believed that young women must try as hard as they could to remain pure, but that had been all. Now it seemed that brief lesson had concealed a long, and dreadful—though somehow also a fascinating—story.
“And so each spring, the procession of the Lord’s Horse and the covered wagon makes its way through the villages. All the maidens of eighteen years ride the horse, and the wicked ones are discovered thereby, and taken to the castle for the protection of the folk and the curing of the girls’ wickedness. Now, let us rise.”
She stood, and the girls and their mothers did likewise.
“Spirits bless these girls,” Sister Margra said simply. “Let their rides be pure and shameless. May it be pleasing.”
“May it be pleasing,” the assembly replied.
The little platform used for Horsedays had been brought out and set at the far end of the green, by the thornwall itself. Hala, disquieted greatly by the spirit-service, felt better when she saw the enormous hedge that guarded the whole realm and gave to the village its name. Upon the platform stood a man in fine clothes: a beautiful red tunic and purple hose, belted with a jewelled cincture. Around his neck he wore a chain that Hala could tell even at twenty paces was intricate and precious.
Behind the man wearing the chain, at either side, stood knights, similarly dressed, but holding unsheathed longswords before them, with the point upward. Hala could see that the man with the chain had taken his place in front of a wooden structure that must be the Lord’s Horse, so that she couldn’t make out the features concerning which she now so longed to satisfy her curiosity. It certainly seemed innocent enough, at least at first, just a sort of trestle, such as her father might use two of when sawing a log, or planing it afterward, with what seemed some kind of handle rising from one side. The wood, to be sure, was polished, and dark with age, so that it did seem to possess a kind of solemn air, but Hala was sure that part of that came from her knowledge of the horse’s importance—even if she still did not know its use.
The man in the chain turned to one knight, and then the other, apparently to see whether they were ready for the ceremony to begin, and exchanged a few words with them that appeared to make them grin.
“That’s the lord steward,” Reda whispered. “Lord Kesin. He runs Castle Jey for Lord Jetal, and he is in charge of the castle girls, though if you are taken, you will also be under the care of a mistress. The mistress stays at the castle, though.”
“Mother,” Hala whispered back, “are you blushing?”
“No, child… well, perhaps a bit.” Reda had been kind to Hala for the past month, since her daughter had clearly been trying very hard to keep herself away from the wickedness for which she had received the terrible whipping, and submitted readily to having her hands bound every night, so that she might not touch herself. “I… well I suppose now that we are come to it I should tell you that I was nearly as wicked as you, when I was eighteen, and… well, I was almost taken away in the covered wagon myself. Though the spirits sent me your father, and he took charge of me, I still tried to find out as much as I could about the castle girls. It was shameful, but I longed to know about their lives, and sometimes I questioned the sisters of the spirit who came back, just to set my mind at ease a bit. I was wrong to do it, but perhaps the spirits ordained it thus so that I could keep you from the lewdness that the demons have put in you.”
Hala looked over at Kera, and tried to give her an encouraging smile. Kera smiled back, but rather blankly. It made Hala quite certain that her friend, the blacksmith’s daughter, didn’t know anything about Horseday.
Norin and Larin were giggling with one another, as they always seemed to be—like many twins, they seemed to have been one another’s best friends from the womb. Hala couldn’t imagine being so lighthearted, knowing what she knew.
But then, no girl from Thornwall had been taken in the memory of these girls. Hala and her agemates had never lost an older sister, or a wiser girl they had looked up to, on Horseday. The only girls who had come back as sisters, when they had grown too old for castle-service, had been her mother’s age. Two girls had had to go to the castle in two years, her mother had said, one of them Reda’s best friend, and Hala saw that it couldn’t but have had a strong effect on a woman’s life to lose friends that way to a mysterious, shameful, fate.
Hala looked at the mothers of the other girls; Mistress Ana, the blacksmith’s wife, with her apple cheeks and the warmth she seemed to exude from her plump belly, into which she had gathered Hala herself many a time, when crying over a skinned knee or a sharp word from her father. And Mistress Yorin, the miller’s wife, and just as haughty as the finest miller’s wife of Horseford, where rumor said they had three mills, and the millers’ wives didn’t speak to anyone but one another.
“I have here,” said Lord Kesin, in a loud voice that silenced the girls’ whispers immediately, “the roll of the girls who have turned eighteen in the past year, as reconciled with the birth records sent eighteen Horsedays since, supplied me by Mistress Yorin, from her husband’s hand.”
Yorin nodded solemnly and, Hala thought, a little pridefully. The miller was one of the very few men in the village who could read and write, as he had to be for the keeping of the mill’s accounts, and so he served also as the village clerk, sending copies of his records back to the castle with the Horseday procession every year.
“The whole of the cohort has lived, it appears?”
“Yes, my lord,” said Yorin. “My Larin took sick when she was six, but we nursed her back to health, good as new.” The pride of a miller’s wife truly shone forth, now. Hala’s own older sister had died of the same illness that had almost taken Larin, and Hala had always wondered whether if her father had been the miller, rather than a farmer, there might have been a poultice to save her, as one seemed to have saved Larin.
Once, she had confessed this speculation to Reda. Her mother had told her that such illnesses had no judgment, and that no poultice could have saved Hala’s beloved older sister, for the spirits had wanted the girl with them. It was hard not to dwell on it, though, in the current circumstances. Now it seemed the castle might take away Reda’s only remaining daughter if the shameful desires that Hala seemed unable to stop feeling offended the spirits too much, and they let the demons continue to dwell inside her aching cunny.
At least her mother and father had the boys—strong farm-lads who would sew too, and even cook, when Reda asked them. Soon they would have wives—one of Hala’s brothers was already sweet on Kera, and those girls would take care of Reda. But Hala loved her mother very much, and she knew that her love was returned manyfold, despite Reda’s occasional severity, and her readiness to try to whip wickedness out of her daughter. At that thought, Hala found that a part of her, despite knowing that she must fight against her wanton nature, felt a strange curiosity about what the castle girls did, and had done to them.
“Very well,” said Lord Kesin. “When I speak your name, you will step forward, and remove your clothing. Once you are naked, you will form a queue, in the order I called your names, to the side of the platform at my left hand.”
Murmuring began between Kera and Ana, and the twins and Yorin, which was quickly hushed. Hala, having expected something of the kind, remained silent.
“Norin, miller’s daughter.” Norin stepped forward uncertainly.
“Go ahead girl,” Yorin hissed behind her. “We have all been through it. It is only for a few minutes.”
“Larin, miller’s daughter,” read Lord Kesin, before Norin had even touched the laces of her finely woven gown, whose fabric must have come all the way from Horseford.
“Kera, smith’s daughter.” Kera gave Hala a little smile, and stepped forward. Perhaps her mother had warned her at least a little about what to expect, for her hands were at her laces immediately—indeed, she had her gown down around her feet and was standing in shift alone before Norin and Larin had even untied their laces at all.
“Hala, farmer’s daughter,” intoned Lord Kesin.
Hala stepped forward, and succeeded in taking her mind off her apprehensions by seeing if she could take both her gown and shift off before the twins had even got their gowns off. She managed it, and she and Kera stood naked and blushing in the warm spring air. They hadn’t seen each other’s bodies unclothed since they were small, and Hala found that she couldn’t stop looking at the pretty roundnesses of Kera—the brown-tipped breasts that were so much bigger than Hala’s own, and the pert bottom-cheeks that Hala found to her distress that she had the urge to spank—just in fun. The dark hair between Kera’s legs made Hala want to keep her eyes away from the special spot, and to keep looking. Finally she had to turn away, when she realized Kera would notice Hala’s fascination.
Through Kera’s eyes, then, Hala saw herself: golden hair, but fair skin—much fairer than Kera’s. Little breasts, with tiny pink nipples. Fewer curls between her thighs: Hala knew that if Kera, or anyone, looked closely, she—or he, Hala thought with a blush, realizing that men were indeed present—could see the little cleft of her cunny. When Hala craned her neck to try to get a look at herself down there, it always seemed that the rosy secret lips had decided to peep out saucily, as if to say, “Play with us! The spirits won’t mind, this once!”