Kenna watched the blood pooling towards her, like syrup, thick and hot and shining in the candlelight.
It stretched and halted, moving around small obstacles on the tiles like a river finding the best course downhill.
It touched the white fabric of her dress, the colour spreading like ink across the cotton, spiderwebbing like veins on the surface.
Her hands were hot with it, placed either side of her knees on the cool tiles. It felt like it was humming against her fingers, or maybe that was her skin, trembling with the smell of magic in the air.
Metallic rust on the tongue. The oppressive hot dryness of the air while the bruised storm clouds roll in on the horizon. Sweat and lust and excitement fizzing against the skin.
The other girls around her were chanting. She didn’t – didn’t need to – wasn’t expected to.
The Mother stood over her, knife in hand not rusting but clean and silver and sparking the candlelight back at her. She was grinning – there was blood flecked across her pale face like freckles. Her black dress didn’t show the blood as Kenna’s did.
That was the point. The Mother didn’t absorb the essence. Kenna did.
'Do you feel it?' the Mother hissed.
The girl’s swaying in time with their chanting, as if they were all parts of the same beast, like the forest, alive, breathing as one.
'Yes, Mother,' Kenna said, feeling the warm seeping up her arms, as if the blood poisoned her, seeping within her own veins. The prickle of magic at the base of her neck was as insistent as a needle.
'Give it to me,' she breathed, sweeping around her to stand behind her kneeling form.
The body lay where the Mother had stood. The blank face staring up, the eyes colourless as the blood stained the floor. His hair was thick and tangled with the stuff, the back darker than the dirty blond streaked across his face. The red had soaked into the neck of his shirt and bled down, as if dyed intentionally. His finger twitched once. He had dirt underneath his nails.
The Mother wrapped her hands around Kenna’s neck - her fingers around the front, the heel and thumb along her spine - her nails sharp. Her hands wet with blood.
There was a gasp as the Mother felt the magic pass to her. The girls stopped chanting, eyes like moons as they watched the Mother absorbing the power.
The warmth in Kenna's veins didn’t ebb, the prickling across her skin more insistent.
The Mother moaned and her hands tightened, not enough to hurt but enough to compress her throat.
Kenna didn’t move. Breathed shallow and looked at the blood veining through the man’s shirt as it did her dress. He had a pale silver scar on his collarbone.
Once the Mother had taken enough, she pulled away, gasping. The girls around her rose to their feet, their hands in front of their chests, as if offering up their own hearts on a platter.
'Come,' the Mother breathed, sweeping from the room, her robes a soft whispering of secrets in quiet corridors.
The girls filed out behind her outside. The moon was full and hung ever watchful in the sky. The clearing was surrounded by yews, as if Mother didn’t know, and they made a circle around her in the centre, while she asked the moon to cleanse her of the sins.
No one prayed for Kenna.
She rose, her dress heavy with blood. She shrugged the straps off her shoulders and watched the fabric pool around her feet, the veining speeding up. Before she could see the whiteness consumed, she padded on bare feet out of the circle and towards the quarters.
Her feet smeared blood on the tiles and her passing blew out a few candles.
She left a trail all the way to the public bathrooms, into the shower stall, until the water washed it away. Head under the water, watching the blood expand in the water, unseen on her dark skin, she wondered what the man had done before.
He’d had dirt under his nails. Maybe a farmer. It reminded her of home – open spaces, trees, fields, laughter and sunshine and the smell of dirt and foxgloves.
One farmer, she thought, adding it to her list.