Garik was long-accustomed to rising before the Sun – as apprentice to the old shaman Temen, he needed to be ready to greet the new day if he was to practise his art. But this night saw him rising early even for him, shaken out of his cot by the keen-eyed spearman Relin, watching over the camp for the night as he so often did; and to Garik, it felt as though he’d gotten scarcely any sleep at all.

Of course, it had been difficult to find sleep in the first place, with anticipation and anxiety for his role in the day’s ritual warring in him. Perhaps what sleep he’d got hadn’t been very restful.

Well, it would have to suffice, one way or another. This was a very important day – the Turning Sun rite only came once a year, as winter began to give way to spring, and to be the junior celebrant in that rite was a once-in-a-lifetime happening in all but the leanest and grimmest times; any youth would only be chosen twice if there were no others suitable to choose from.

The tiger murmured muzzy thanks for his awakening and plodded out of his tent, down to the stream. With winter’s chill still in the water, it was bracing enough to sweep most of the cobwebs out of his mind through the course of his hurried ablutions, but that in turn meant that by the time he was done weaving the beads and owl feathers into his mane, he was awake enough to view the day ahead with that same stomach-churning tumult of emotion.

In that state, the thought of trying to keep food down was daunting, but he more than anyone else would need his strength. He swung by the cook-fires for a bowl from last night’s stewpot, kept warm by the fire for the night watchers and early risers such as himself, taking it back to his tent next to the old shaman’s. That was close enough to Temen’s stock of herbs that he could acquire a selection of things to help soothe his unruly stomach. It was tempting to add something else, for vigour – it was usually a very active youth, a hunter like Garik’s agemate Kor, who was the focus of this ceremony, and Garik wasn’t nearly so athletic. It would not do to succumb to fatigue before the day’s events were done.

But there was another brew he had to prepare, and while he knew the herbs he’d chosen could work harmoniously with it, he didn’t know that to be the case for others of a more fortifying sort.

He ate with measured haste – there was much to do, but he’d do nobody favours by rushing, even with his meal. Then he turned his attention to the stimulating brew that would be used early in the rite.

There were two carved goblets waiting for it, resting on an inlaid wooden platter. Temen had taught him how to prepare it, in careful detail – but that was just for its typical use, for people already comfortable with its effects. Would that be enough for him, nervous as he was?

Probably, he told himself. He hadn’t experienced the stuff for himself yet, and he didn’t know enough about how the brewing worked. He’d have to trust in it; the recipe had been handed down for generations, after all, and surely he wasn’t the first youth to be anxious going into this rite.

He measured out the portions just like Temen had told him, in a single pot that he laid over the brazier once he was confident that he could count with proper care. With his breaths forced into a steady pace, he counted them away as he gathered up the accoutrements he would need. When the brew was done, he decanted it as he’d been taught, and filled both goblets, larger and smaller, from the same vessel with no further alterations.

To the platter he added a jar of dye, a brush, and a small flask of gently-scented, mild oil, prepared the night before; his ears flushed and pinned back, thinking of the use that was to see. The rest of his accoutrements had already been set in a neat bundle, but he checked it once more to be sure everything was there – headdress, shawl, jerkin, and a loincloth that seemed entirely inappropriate to the season.

Oh, well. He’d be sheltered and near a brazier, not going about a day’s usual tasks out amidst the elements. He took up the lot under one arm, carefully took up the platter, and left his tent, carrying his burdens instead to the colourful one that had been pitched at the eastern edge of camp, first to meet the dawn.

The decorations flanking the flap spoke of this being, however temporary, a sacred place, hung with beads and owl feathers and shining crystals; he paused at the threshold to murmur thanks to the spirits before entering. The brazier was set, but not lit; that was his first task on arriving.

Then all that remained for his preparations was to actually get into the ceremonial garb.

He’d fashioned it all himself, over the last few days, made to his own fit and none other’s. Making it had not been a surprise; only that it was to be for him instead of another like Kor. The abbreviated garb showed off at least as much as it concealed, and he still fretted that he might not do it justice as would others; but he’d put his all into the cutting and stitching, and it fit him well, snug but not restrictive in spite of the dangling ornaments.

He was ready in good time. All that remained now was for the rite’s secondary celebrant to arrive .

It hadn’t been at all surprising to learn that Aken – tall, strong, handsome, and one of the village’s most successful hunters – had been chosen for the role of the Elder today, though that pick had made it all the more shocking that his keenest pupil wasn’t the Junior. Before that revelation, Garik hadn’t even been all that surprised that the Elder had sought him; Temen was starting to rely on him more and more as the old tiger began to slow with age, so he’d half-expected that this would be his first chance to assist with a major rite. Instead, he’d handled all the preparations himself, barring the instruction given to the Elder – and here he was, their primary focus as well as their executor.

Oh, Aken had given good reasons for choosing him over Kor. The celebrant ought to be someone who would live close to the land, the better to honour it – and while hunters certainly prospered or foundered based on the land’s bounty, it was the shaman who ministered to it and learned to read its moods, to know when was a good time for a rich hunt or when it might be better to move on to a new place.

There were other, personal aspects as well. Kor was already very popular – and while neither Garik nor Aken had actually talked to him about the matter, there was every reason to believe he’d already been introduced to the pleasures that girls could offer him. Garik, despite his fifteen summers, had not; he’d always been a serious, introspective child, and by the time the changes to manhood had begun, he’d already been intent on his studies. Other people could see shaman as mysterious, almost otherworldly, and difficult to approach – even a shaman’s apprentice had some of that mystique and distant respect – so that might be a large part of why the girls hadn’t sought him out in turn.

At leas, Aken had assured him it wasn’t because he was physically unappealing – and it was no secret among the tribe that Aken preferred the company of other men, however many children he’d helped sire. He would know if any man could. But whatever the reason, it was fortuitous – while a youth who’d bedded others wouldn’t spoil the rite, a young man’s first experience with a lover was sacred, and that it be given to the rite was a powerful thing.

And he’d seen how Garik’s eyes had drifted over his body, right down to the promising swell in his trousers, for an instant after he’d told Garik what was to come. Kor, he’d said, had never looked at him like that.

So perhaps he was the more harmonious choice. That didn’t keep him from fretting that he wasn’t the usual sort of celebrant, that he might do something terribly wrong or even just be inadequate to the demands of the day.

Footsteps outside the tent sent his heart leaping into his throat; then the butt of a spear thumped the dirt, four times at a steady pace, and the rite was on; Garik had things to do other than wait and worry. He strode over to the tent flap and parted it with one hand.

Aken was garbed in a similar style to him, though less elaborate and more functional; he wouldn’t have gone hunting in such an outfit, for it’d likely not survive the experience unscathed, but at the least he could hunt in it if need be. He smiled down at Garik, the hawk feathers in his own headdress bobbing slightly as he tipped his head. “The Sun is coming,” he murmured formally, “turning back towards us after its long retreat.”

“I stand ready to greet it,” Garik replied in kind. “Come in, join me, and share with me the blessings of the earth, that I might bless it in turn.” He stepped back from the threshold.

Aken ducked into the tent. “Sun and stars, Garik,” he sighed, now that the formal words had been spoken, at least those ones needed for the time being. “Though I can see you’re fretful, let me assure you that you don’t need to be. You’re a wonderful sight, and you look as ready for this as any I’ve met.” Already he was starting to unlace his jerkin.

“I suppose you would know,” Garik laughed. “This is how many times you’ve been Elder?”

“My fifth so far,” the hunter replied proudly. In his role, experience was no impediment; it was the Junior who ought to be someone who had yet to receive a share of that experience.

Garik brought the platter nearer to the colourfully-draped cot. Aken had already worked out of his jerkin, the stripes on his back shifting in an almost hypnotic fashion as he tugged off his boots and trousers. All that remained was his headdress and an assortment of bone and horn ornaments when he turned back to Garik, plain for the youth to see.

And was he ever a sight – tall, broad-shouldered, muscular, with a clear, steady gaze of bright green, his tail coiled almost lazily behind him. Already the ebon length of his manhood, draped over his pouch, seemed weighty and imposing; Garik swallowed.

The hunter’s strong hand cupped under his jaw. “You’ll be fine, Garik,” he soothed. “Be fine, and do fine. I’m sure of it.”

“Best I get started, then,” Garik replied, and managed a grin. When Aken released him, he looked down at the platter, gripping the dye pot and wiggling the stopper free.

Aken stood stock-still before him, shifting only between brush-strokes as Garik painted the dye onto his fur. The pattern didn’t need to be just so – it wasn’t usually a shaman doing this, after all. There were a few important symbols that another celebrant would have been taught; the mark for strength that went on Aken’s shoulder, resilience over his heart, keenness carefully drawn on his brow; and, with even more care, fertility, gingerly drawn right on his pouch. He did let out a soft groan as that one was applied, his hand spreading out, then tightening on Garik’s shoulder, his flesh stirring and starting to rise.

The other designs were up to whatever the Junior found most pleasing. Some left it at just the essential marks; others painted the Elder in broad, largely-random strokes. Garik knew the language of the paints, and though the lines he laid on the white of Aken’s front were still thick, there was a careful precision to them, worked into the contours of the older man’s body.

By the time he was done, Aken was panting, his manhood rigid, jutting proudly in front of him, pointed slightly skyward. Garik couldn’t help but grin at him as he rose upright from his crouch, not the brush and dye but the larger of the goblets in hand – no longer steaming, but the carved wood was still warm against his palms. “I can’t help but wonder if you truly need this,” he chuckled.

“For my part with you? Perhaps not,” Aken confessed, “though it’s best to give it as much as I can. But you know full well my ministrations won’t end with you, even if the rest isn’t part of the rite for me.”

There was that; the Elder would not lack for partners among the womenfolk, and maybe even a few of the men who sought a measure of his blessing, even though none of it was a formal part of the ritual. So Garik smiled, and lifted the cup of thornroot tea. “Drink of this,” he intoned, “that your blessing be strong and plentiful.”

Aken’s reply was very much to the point; he accepted the cup and drank it down in one swallow.

From there, there were no words needed. He cupped Garik’s cheeks in his hands, giving the youth a soft kiss – his first lover’s kiss; with the man’s body so ready, so close to his, that kiss made Garik tremble with answering need. Then Aken helped him up and onto the cot, and took up the brush and pot in turn, applying the same marks to Garik as he’d received, and in the same order. Strength, resilience, keenness…

Garik wasn’t prepared for the thrill that raced through him when the warm dampness of the brush stirred the fur on his balls; he arched up off the hammock, fingers digging into the weave, a soft cry slipping free of him. But that was only the beginning; Aken kept him in place with one strong hand on his hip, while the other painted the rest of the mark.

Then he set the brush down and pushed the stopper into place; no further markings from him. “I need you,” he growled, disdaining the cot and instead pulling Garik up against him. His manhood was so very warm against Garik’s own, hard as stone.

And for the first time, Garik felt a murmur of reassurance. Imposing as the hunter’s manhood had seemed when he was applying the dye, his own was actually of a size with it – maybe a bit greater. He had no inadequacies on that score, it seemed.

“I’m yours,” Garik breathed, his shivers finally ceasing.

They parted for only a brief time, so Garik could anoint Aken’s rigid flesh with the oil, his ears tilting to catch every grunt and groan the hunter made. When he set down the flask and stood upright, strong arms lifted him off his feet again, and he wrapped his own arms around Aken’s shoulders, trying to bear some of his weight. Deft hands guided his body to where it needed to be, curled inwards somewhat, always propping him up. And then Aken’s manhood slid under his balls.

Nobody had told him about anything like the surge of bliss that raced through him when the broad head nudged under his tail. He gasped, clutching at the hunter with a sudden need to be close to him; and Aken obliged, sliding smoothly into him, their moans of delight slipping free in wonderful harmony.

It was not a lengthy process; with his need inflamed by the tea, it was only a few dozen breaths later, a few score shallow but indescribably lovely thrusts, that Aken shuddered against the young shaman and slid in deep, muffling a loud cry against his shoulder, his manhood jerking and filling the youth with a wet heat that could only be his seed.

It was Aken’s turn to shiver, still panting hard, but wrapping one arm snugly under Garik’s shoulders so he could reach down for the second goblet with the other. “Drink of this,” he croaked, “and may your own bounties be plentiful and potent, now and always.” He set the goblet to Garik’s muzzle.

The tea was fragrant, but somewhat bitter to the tongue; still, he’d have gulped down ten times worse, for a moment such as this.

Aken crouched, easing Garik onto his feet, sliding out of him in the process and leaving an aching emptiness; then he leaned around, keeping an arm about the youth, his hand curling around Garik’s shaft. “Now,” he breathed, starting to stroke, “give the first of this day’s blessing to the land that bears us.”

Pleasure exploded through Garik almost before the last words reached his ears.

Sometime later, he opened his eyes. Could that splatter over the grass all be his? It just didn’t seem like his balls could have held that much.

“The girls have much to look forward to today, I think,” said Aken, grinning up at him, and leaning in to steal one last kiss, muffling the youth’s incipient giggle in the process.

It certainly did seem like an auspicious start to what was to be a very busy day for the young man. But with his blood singing, at least he no longer felt like the thornroot tea wouldn’t suffice.