Shan and Bella knelt on the soft furs, facing each other, her hands clasped in his. To his left was a low table of rude split wood, set on two short posts. Two small cups of equal size, carved out of solid wood, sat on the table. Each was filled with a brownish liquid, a light tan foam floating on top. On this, their Pairing Day, they would drink the potion for the first time.
On the other side of the table, the Shaman sat, his legs crossed beneath him. He was dressed in the finest of furs, lovingly made for him by the women of the tribe. He was ancient, having already counted off more than six hands of winters, and his face was deeply lined, his eyes watering slightly from the smoke of the tent. Behind him knelt his two young assistants, one male and one female, each hoping to succeed him when he passed to the next world. Only one of them would.
The other adult members of the tribe, twelve in all, crowded around, kneeling on the reindeer skins that covered the floor, watching intently. Most were arrayed on the other side of the central hearth that warmed the tent on this cold autumn night, its fire casting a dim, flickering light that was further attenuated by the smoky air.
Shan looked into Bella’s eyes and she smiled shyly back at him. They had waited so long for this, their Pairing Day; seventeen winters for him, and one more than that for her. They had grown up together, playing their child-games by the lakeshore, walking together with the tribe as they followed the seasonal migrations of the herds. They had both learned by following their elders, absorbing the skills and knowledge necessary to survive in the harsh but beautiful land. They had long known that they would be paired, but years had passed as Bella had to help look after her ailing mother. She was gone now, had not survived the cold and wet of the spring. Bella missed her; the whole tribe did. But now she could move on, assume her proper place as a full member of the tribe.
When Shan looked at Bella, he saw his childhood friend smiling back at him. But now there was so much more. She had changed so greatly in the last few years; the skinny, gangling girl he had known had grown into a strong, muscular woman. She was the tallest and strongest woman in the tribe, easily able to keep pace with the best of the men. When she first started following the men out on the hunt, they had laughed at her. No one laughed now. She was fast becoming one of the tribe’s best hunters, travelling long distances away from the encampment to track and run down reindeer, moose, bison, even the mighty mammoth. Skilled with bow and spear, and so attuned to her prey that she could follow an animal even when no one else could see the signs, knowing, somehow, where the animal was going, when it would pause, and how best to approach. Bella was unique among the women of the tribe, the only one to have become such a skilled and powerful hunter. And still so young.
Shan saw this, but he also saw the sheer power of her body, and it had a profound effect on him. When her breasts had begun to fill out and soft fur began to grow between her legs, she had been shy at first, uncharacteristically covering herself as they waded at the beach. But she had quickly become more confident in herself as she realized her new strength and power. Shan began to see her in a whole new way, and she stirred something in him he had never felt before. He hungered for her, to touch her smooth skin, held so taut by the hard rippling muscles beneath; to feel her body against his. He longed to know her as his mate, as only a Pair could.
Of course they both knew all about the ways of men and women and sex, had known for as long as they could remember. There was little privacy in the family tents. From an early age they had been witness to the dark-time couplings of the other Pairs: the rhythmic body movements, the moans and sighs of delightful pleasure, the pungent smells of sex. Of course it was considered impolite to watch too openly, but it was also understood to be just another way that the young would learn by watching the adults of the tribe. That was how everyone learned. The younger Shan had watched without much interest, sometimes with mild amusement at the strange ways of the adults. But lately he could not help becoming aroused, and would often bring himself to relief under the furs, while watching the couplings of the other Pairs.
Shan had known for most of his life that he and Bella would eventually become a Pair. It seemed inevitable; they were the only two of similar age in the tribe, and exchanges with other tribes were infrequent and often tense affairs. When the Elders had informed them, through the voice of the Shaman, that their Pairing Day would come at the next full moon, they had both been overjoyed. Shan was ready, and he knew Bella was too.
Shan admired Bella, and was proud of the respect she inspired in the tribe. Proud that he had been chosen as her mate. He understood that she would always be the stronger of their Pair. Already there was talk, among the elders, that she would one day lead the tribe. But that didn’t bother him; everyone had their place, and he understood his. He would never be a great hunter, in fact his skills in the hunt were mediocre at best. But he was becoming skilled at crafting wood, and the bows, spears, sleds and canoes that he made were already among the best of the tribe. He knew that his skill and hard work would earn him a place among the elders beside Bella, and he was happy with that.
Now, he would move to the tent of Bella, her father and brothers and sisters. Share sleeping furs with her every night. He would help her skin, butcher and share out the produce of her hunt, as she would help him with his work. Someday, they would make babies together. Someday they would have their own tent.
But tonight was special, their first together as a Pair. They both knew what was in the cups, had known it their entire lives. It was ala-ta, the elixir of life and love made by the Shaman for Pairings. It was known to be a mixture made from the extracts of three plants, but each had to be prepared in a special way and brewed in the right proportions for the mixture to work. Only the Shaman and his acolytes had this knowledge.
The ala-ta was a powerful potion, an elixir that made a man and a woman crave one another’s touch above all else. It made every nerve ending tingle with a want that could only be satisfied by the fingers, lips or tongue of another. It made the excitement of a lover’s touch all-consuming, enhanced every sight, sound and smell. Made giving pleasure the greatest thing of all. A man became rock-hard, but the drug gave him the stamina to last and last, revelling in the pleasure he shared with his lover. For a woman the drug was a longing. She would long to feel a man’s tongue, his fingers caressing her body, his skin on hers as she rubbed herself against him. Feel the pulsing in her womb as she opened herself to engulf him, so deeply.
Tonight they would share the sabuuna, the tent of purification and lovemaking. One half of the tent was walled off with a curtain of furs and used as a sweat lodge, with a large beehive rock hearth to hold and radiate the heat. The other half of the tent had a smaller hearth, and the entire floor was covered with several layers of the finest furs; a sensual feast for naked skin.
The Shaman chanted the holy words and stamped his staff three times on the floor. Shan and Bella picked up the cups and, without hesitation, drank the bitter potion in just a few swallows. The Shaman tapped each of them lightly on the head with his staff, then let out a deep, guttural sigh. It was done: they were a Pair now. And the sabunaa was theirs for the night.
As they rose, hand in hand, and began to walk slowly out of the tent to the accompaniment of the rhythmic chanting of the tribe, they both knew they were leaving the ways of youth behind. Tonight they would, at last, fully know the ways of man and woman—fully know one another.