Aylwin thought her way was the only way—until the Goddess showed her otherwise.
All seemed well in the orchard that morning and in the woods beyond.
Walking from the Big House through the orchard, Aylwin paused on her way to breakfast to drink in the sight of a cluster of rosy-yellow apples against the pale blue sky that showed through the branches of the apple tree. She stood very still and breathed deeply, trying to fix the color and scent of the apples in her mind.
She thought her life was over—until the Goddess Thalassa called to her
That first week in Australia Stella decided that her new home was very much like her previous home in Texas. The weather was the same—boiling hot. The people were similar—tall, tanned, laid back, and friendly, although they didn’t wear cowboy boots; and everyone had two things on their minds: football, which they called “footy,” and the lack of rain.
The ‘farewell’ roses broke her heart–until the Goddess Brigid stepped in
The Imbolc ritual was to be held at Green Dragon’s house that year. She lived in an outer suburb of the city in a house whose backyard gave way to woods. Although we all grumbled at the necessity of driving so far when snow lay six inches deep on the ground, the roads, thank Goddess, were mostly clear owing to the hard work by city snow plows for the past two days. However, it was Green Dragon’s turn to play hostess, so we put on our boots, grabbed cloaks and scarves, and drove to our destination.
We—that is, Rhiannon, Gladwyn, Arielle, and I—arrived late in the afternoon at the house where Green Dragon lived and practiced with several members of her coven.
“Well, you got us here all right, TigerLily,” Rhiannon said. “Thanks for driving. I wouldn’t have liked to drive myself—I’m nervous about black ice on the roads.”
We walked up the path to the front door and knocked. Green Dragon, wearing a gold fillet that circled her forehead and disappeared into her long, crinkly brown hair, smiled a welcome as she opened the door to let us in. As I stepped over the threshold I almost reeled back—so much magic had been worked in that house that its aftermath had an almost physical impact. But it wasn’t physical, nor even emotional—like that lurch of the heart when the love of your life hoves unexpectedly into view. It was more like a sudden shock—the kind you’d feel if someone told you that you’d just won the lottery.
“Is everyone here?” Gladwyn asked as she slipped off her boots.
“No, we’re waiting for Rowan,” Green Dragon said. “She should be here any minute now, and then we’ll begin.”
Green Dragon’s living room had chairs and sofas arranged in a circle around a table in the middle, covered with a white cloth. On it were white narcissus, which scented the air with its delicate perfume, and red amaryllis. There were also unlit white candles and an empty bowl. Rosemary incense sticks, to be lit just before the ritual, stood ready in the incense holders.
Just as we’d settled ourselves, a knock sounded on the front door.
“I’ll get it,” Green Dragon said.
But before she could leave the room the door opened and Rowan stalked in, carrying an armload of long-stemmed red American Beauty roses. As she came into the living room we could almost see sparks shooting out of her eyes—normally hazel, but now looking green with rage. Her face was white and set. Silently she handed each of us a rose and placed the remaining three on the altar.
“What on earth has happened, Witch Sister?” Ceres Vegetina asked.
Rowan looked at her. “He left me! Just bugged out of town for good! I want nothing to do with him, I never want to speak to him again, and I will not keep his gift.”
“But…Witch Sis, tell us what happened,” Coventina urged.
“I’ll tell you what happened!” Rowan said furiously. “He sent me a note to say he was leaving for California right away because his first love had come back into his life and all he wants is to be with her! The roses were ‘a parting gift for all the wonderful times we had together,’ according to him.”
A universal chorus of disgust arose from all of us Circle sisters.
Green Dragon let us vent for a few minutes, then sighed and said, “Okay, sisters, we’ve all expressed our feelings. The guy is a total jerk. Since we’re all a little upset I want to calm us down with some of Brigid’s healing massage. Rhiannon, will you help me?”
Rhiannon nodded and rose to accept Green Dragon’s instructions. “Here,” Green Dragon said, producing two bottles of hand lotion. “You take this half of the circle and I’ll take the other. We’re going to rub lotion into everyone’s hands and wish her peace, love, and healing.”
It was most agreeable to have lotion, smelling deliciously of lavender and vanilla, massaged into my hands. “What’s it called, Green Dragon?” I asked.
“I made it myself last week and charged it in a ritual dedicated to Brigid,” Green Dragon said with a smile. “It’s called ‘Enchanted.’ Okay, has everyone been tended? Yes? Good. Rowan,” she said, turning to her, “are you spiritually ready for us to begin the ritual?”
Rowan nodded. She looked more at peace, although still pale.
“I’m going to turn out all the lights in the room and then light one candle,” Green Dragon continued. “Each of you will then take one of the candles on the altar and light it from mine. We’ll place a candle in every window of the house and then go outside to look at them—just for a moment, I realize it’s cold! Your coats and boots are still in the hallway.”
My gaze fell on the roses we’d laid beside our chairs during the healing massage and it gave me an idea. “I know, Circle sisters! Why don’t we gather up the roses and lay them in the snow as an offering to Brigid? Think of it—the colors of Imbolc are red and white, so red roses against white snow…”
“I like it!” Coventina said. “Rowan, would that be all right with you?”
“The roses are yours to do what you like with,” Rowan said. “But I do think offering them to Brigid is a wonderful idea.”
Everyone seemed to approve, so I gathered all the roses and laid them on the altar until we were ready to go outside.
It was rather nice, lighting candles in the semigloom and putting one in each window of the house. Afterwards we put on coats, cloaks, and boots again and went outside to look at our handiwork. At the last minute I took up the roses and Green Dragon took the empty bowl from the altar. Our boots sank into the snow, still soft from the most recent snowfall, and the cold wind stung our eyes with its sharpness.
But the sight of the lighted candles flickering in the blue-grey twilight reminded us that spring was just weeks away.
At a nod from Green Dragon, I took the armload of roses I was carrying and laid them in the snow beneath the oak tree in the front yard. “O Brigid, born with the dawn, known in Scotland as Bride and in England as Brigantia, please accept our offering to you. Goddess of magic and healing, help us to lift up our Circle sister Rowan. So mote it be.”
“So mote it be,” the Circle sisters echoed.
Smiling now despite the cold, we trooped back into the house. Green Dragon, the last to come inside, bent down and scooped up some snow into the empty bowl she’d taken from the altar before we went out. “This will symbolize the element of water for our altar,” she said.
Back in the living room, she used a cinnamon broom to sweep away the old energies in the room and make way for the new. “Imbolc is a time for Witches to clean the house, repair or mend whatever needs attention, pay bills, and file tax returns,” she said as she lit the rosemary incense. We all breathed in the aromatic scent.
Then she cast the circle, with Rhiannon, Gladwyn, Ceres Vegetina, and Jaguar Priestess calling the quarters. We stood in a circle expectantly as Green Dragon invoked the Goddess Brigid, whose festival this was.
“Brigid, triple goddess, be with us now during this, your fire festival of Imbolc. Brigid, presiding over the fire of healing, the fire of the forge, and the fire of inspiration for creative work, watch over us as we dedicate our rites to you tonight. So mote it be.”
“So mote it be,” we murmured.
“Let’s sit down,” Green Dragon said. “We’ve just been outside to see the blanket of snow covering the earth, but beneath the snow life is stirring anew. The candles we lit a little while ago symbolize the lengthening days and the approach of spring. Have you seen any signs of spring, Circle sisters?”
“Snowdrops in my garden,” Jaguar Priestess said.
“I’ve started my herb seedlings in pots,” I said. “I’m adding a few new herbs this year.”
Gladwyn smiled. “I saw a robin this morning. Well, really, I’m told, our American robin is a kind of thrush.”
“And I’ve been receiving all kinds of exciting gardening catalogues in the mail,” Ceres Vegetina said.
“Let’s all think about Brigid,” Green Dragon said, looking round the circle. “We know that Brigid is the only goddess that was assimilated completely into the Christian religion—and that was because her followers refused to give her up.”
“Interesting,” Passionata observed. “She must have meant a lot to the Irish.”
“She sounds as if she had a lot to do,” Arielle said. “Goddess of healing, and of the forge, and of poetry?”
Green Dragon nodded. “She sounds like one of us, don’t you think? Multitasking. Can’t you just picture Her racing from the smithy, where She’s been beating out ploughshares and shepherds’ crooks all morning, to the hospital in the afternoon, where She goes from ward to ward healing the sick? And as if that weren’t enough for a day’s work, after dinner in the Great Hall She sits down by Her harp and makes up songs as She plucks the strings.”
Green Dragon lowered her voice. “Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Now breathe in again and breathe out…ahhh! Concentrate on Brigid. Are you as ‘fulfilled’ as She is, or is there a ‘you’ that’s submerged by your usual life roles, that you’d like to flower into full being? If you spend your days as an auto mechanic or computer jock, is there a part of you that longs to be a healer–whether of people, animals, or Gaia Herself?
“If you spend your day ministering to others as mother, healer, or teacher, is there a part of you that longs to express yourself as freely and joyously as you did when you were a child? Is there a lost self in you somewhere that wants to dance, sing, paint, act, or write?
“If you spend your days in creative endeavors, is there a part of you that longs to show how practical you can be by building your own garage, laying out a labyrinth in your backyard, or repairing old bicycles to donate to charity? This is a time of new beginnings and growth, so think of the goals and dreams that you will ‘plant’ for this coming year.”
Green Dragon’s voice trailed off and for a few minutes there was no sound except the soft breathing of the Circle sisters.
“Now open your eyes,” Green Dragon said quietly. “Come back to yourself. Let your thoughts about the near future flourish quietly in the seedbed of your mind. By the time the Wheel turns to Ostara your hopes and wishes will be well on their way to fruition.”
All the Circle sisters opened their eyes, sat up in their chairs, and looked around at each other.
“Now,” Green Dragon said, “how can we help our Witch sister Rowan, who needs comfort?”
“Brigid rewards those who offer gifts to her,” I said. “So She may be disposed to lend a little of Her magic to us tonight.”
We all thought hard, then Gladwyn suddenly sat forward in her chair. “I know! Let’s do a metaphorical ‘stone soup’ for her—we’ll go around the circle, each of us contributing an idea to lift her up. Would you be okay with that, Rowan?”
“Not only would I be okay with it, I’d greatly appreciate it,” Rowan said.
“Excellent,” Gladwyn said. “Coventina, why don’t you begin?”
“I suggest travel,” Coventina said, turning to look at Rowan. “Once I experienced the same situation you’re in, Witch Sis. So I went to the bank, withdrew some savings, and went to Paris for two weeks. Believe me,” she said, looking around at us, “Being in another country, having to speak French and think in French, not to mention all the different experiences, got me over the worst part.”
There were murmurs of approval. “Great idea.”
“Would you like to go away for a while, Rowan?” Green Dragon asked. “Is there any country that appeals to you?”
Rowan looked thoughtful. “Yes, I’ve always yearned to go to Australia.”
“Australia! Great Goddess, I’m going there next month!” Eyes wide, Jaguar Priestess turned to look at Rowan.
“Really, Jaguar? How long have you been planning this?” Ceres Vegetina inquired.
“Not long.” Jaguar Priestess cleared her throat. “The thing is, I sent Yule greetings to an old flame in Sydney. She e-mailed back and we’ve been having quite an exchange for the past month. The upshot is that she’s invited me to visit her and I’m going.”
“Are you sure she’s an old flame, Jag?” Arielle asked, with interest.
Passionata said, “Oh, stop talking about old flames! You’re reminding me of everything I’ve been missing since Yule.”
“Never tell me you’ve been celibate all this time, Pash,” Arielle said. “So, um, different for you.”
Passionata tossed her long red hair. “I said I’d do it and I’m doing it! Just wait till Beltane, though.”
Coventina chuckled. “That’ll be something to see, I bet.”
“Anyway,” Jaguar Priestess said, “My friend Windsong will be happy for you to stay with her, Rowan. She lives in a nice apartment not far from The Rocks, and she’d be glad to put you up.”
“Rowan, my cousin Star Crone lives right outside Melbourne,” Gladwyn said. “You could stay with her too. She’s got a fabulous temple right in her back garden.”
“You know,” Green Dragon, frowning as she thought, “I have a friend who works for the airlines. He could get you a reduced-fare ticket, provided you meet certain conditions.”
Rowan was sitting on the edge of her chair, looking alert and interested. “You’re all so kind! I can’t believe it!”
“I can stop by your place a couple of times a week to water your plants,” I said.
“And I’ll be glad to look after your kitties,” Arielle offered.
“You can borrow my iPad for the trip,” Rhiannon said. “You’ll need a lightweight computer of some kind.”
Rowan glowed. “You all are the best Circle sisters ever! This might just happen if I can get the time off. I’ll talk to my manager about a leave of absence.”
“Absolutely,” Ceres Vegetina agreed. “No point in going if you’re only going to stay a week or two. Go for a month! You could cycle around the Outback and stay at youth hostels or with friends of friends.”
“This is a marvelous ‘stone soup,’ Circle sisters,” Green Dragon said approvingly. “All right, let’s have dinner before we devoke and open the circle. As most of you know, ‘Imbolc’ is a Celtic word deriving from “ewe’s milk,” because this is the time of year that lambs are born.”
“And the colors of Imbolc are red and white, as TigerLily reminded us,” Coventina said. “Red for the blood of birth and white for milk.”
“Exactly,” Gladwyn agreed. “So for dinner we’re having a milky main dish, which is macaroni and cheese, with white cauliflower and red pepper on the side.”
“I’ve made the vegan equivalent of mac and cheese,” Ceres said. “And there’s vegan cherry pie to follow.”
Rhiannon looked at Ceres in surprise. “I thought you’d gone back to vegetarianism at Yule, Ceres.”
“Oh, darling, I tried it for about a week, but all that dairy didn’t agree with me,” Ceres said. “Besides—it only takes half an acre to feed a vegan! So veganism is better for the environment and for me.”
After the last vestige of cherry pie, hot chocolate, and herb tea had disappeared, all of us sat back in our chairs, replete. From the living room came the soft sound of Celtic music playing in the CD player.
“The magic is working,” Rowan said. Her eyes were bright with unshed tears but from her expression, it was plain they were tears of joy. “Thank you, blessed Circle Sisters, and thank you, blessed Brigid. Just think—the next time the Wheel turns in the heavens, I might be celebrating Ostara Down Under!”
Jaguar Priestess shook her head. “Um, it’ll be Mabon, actually. Our March is their September. Still, we know what you mean.”
We rose from the table as Green Dragon beckoned us into the living room, where we devoked and Green Dragon opened the circle. “A blessed Imbolc to you all, my sisters!”
“And to you,” we said as we shrugged into coats or fastened cloaks. “See you at Ostara!”
Goddess women invoke a male deity–and get a Yule surprise!
In ones and twos the Circle sisters arrived at the house on the evening of Winter Solstice. They swept through the door, bringing gusts of cold air with them, and amid laughter and greetings divested themselves of coats and cloaks.
The mission of the International Tarts Society is to prevent world leaders from declaring war by distracting them with the delights of sex. Although they work as office assistants during the day, at night the Tarts’ assistance becomes quite personal. Carmela Sandoval, twenty-two, accepts the most important mission of all: that of distracting the president of the Deeply Divided States of Vespuccia. Will she succeed?
At first dismayed that the president hardly seems to notice her, Carmela finds ways to dazzle him with her feminine wiles. As time goes on, the president’s increasingly erratic behavior convinces Carmela that he will soon involve the country in a world war. Her decision to employ the ultimate Tarty Technique to stop him results in a shattering climax that changes world history.
Prunella Parsons was having a bad—no, a really horrible—morning at The Mansion. Not only had Blackie Hart, her ex-boss and the current Mansion Chief Policy Strategist, told her sharply to do a better job of entertaining foreign dignitaries, but Dooby McManus, the Mansion Chief of Staff, had cut her budget.
It would be simply impossible to bring off the state dinners, not to mention the numerous minor functions she was expected to mastermind as the official Mansion hostess, on such a reduced budget. As the niece of the recently elected president of the DDSV she was serving as Mansion Social Secretary and hostess because Venetia, the wife of President Eric Tayshun, refused to leave the luxurious family-owned apartment building two hundred miles away. Her excuse was that Goldie, the couple’s teenaged daughter, could not be torn from her friends and fellow students at the expensive private academy where she’d just begun her freshman year of high school.
Not only did she have problems with Blackie Hart and Dooby McManus, but Prunella also had issues with the president himself. Although she was married to his nephew, Zebulon Parsons, who served as Special Adviser to the President, Eric Tayshun apparently saw nothing wrong with harboring incestuous longings for his female relatives. Whenever he hove into view he leered at Prunella, and when he wanted to emphasize a statement, he patted her derrière. Only yesterday, when he’d encountered her in the hallway, he’d kissed her on the lips. She knew the fact she was married meant nothing at all to him, but now she wondered uneasily if he had a thing about nieces. Rumors in the corridors of western history whispered that both Adolf Hitler and General Patton had had a thing about nieces, even going so far as to actually—no! She refused to go there, even in her mind.
Prunella shook herself impatiently. There was work to do, although she couldn’t help sighing when she thought of how simple her workdays had been before the election. Three months ago she’d been working for Blackie, who obliged her to spend her days thinking up ad copy for the campaign: “Save the nation/Vote Eric Tayshun!” “Keep the DDSV free/Vote for Eric T.!” and other such asinine slogans.
The Mansion intercom buzzed. “Yes?” she said.
“Ms. Parsons, an applicant is here to interview for the position of your assistant. It’s Miss Sandoval.”
“Send her in,” Prunella said. How tedious: now, instead of working on the state dinner slated for next month, she’d have to lose an hour talking to this applicant. On the other hand, perhaps the applicant would turn out to be the perfect person for the job. Heaven knew she needed help. She looked up as the door of her office clicked open and the receptionist ushered Miss Sandoval in.
Prunella stood up, came around her desk, and shook hands. Too pretty, she thought immediately, then checked herself. The applicant was evidently trying to tone down her appearance by wearing a prim brown tweed suit with a high-necked ecru blouse, and a severe hair style that pulled her dark tresses into a French twist. However, Prunella’s sharp eyes detected the lissom figure inside the suit, the luster of the luxuriant hair, the long-lashed eyes that even dark-rimmed glasses couldn’t disguise. She wore only enough makeup to conform to societal norms.
“Do sit down, Miss…Sandoval, is it?”
“Yes. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me this morning. I realize how busy you must be,” the applicant said. “Oh, in case you haven’t had a chance to review my resume, I have a copy here.” She pulled a sheet of paper out of her bag and handed it to Prunella.
“Think nothing of it. H’mm, I see you have a degree in world geography and you speak five languages, correct?”
“Yes, English, Spanish, French, Italian, and German.”
“That’s impressive,” Prunella said. And potentially very useful, she thought.
Aloud she said, “You graduated from a university in Germany. Why did you go to school in a foreign country?”
Miss Sandoval opened her eyes very wide and smiled. “It was free. That’s why I learned German. I hoped I’d be good enough to get into a college over there, and of course, attending that particular university really helped my major in geography and my minor in languages. I traveled extensively during vacations.”
“Impressive,” Prunella said again. Quickly she made up her mind. This applicant would do. With her background she’d be able to deal with almost anything, including excitable foreigners. “Miss Sandoval, I’d like to offer you the position, which, of course, is contingent on your reference check. I see you already have a security clearance.”
“Yes, that’s right. I’d really like to work for you, Mrs. Parsons. This is an exciting opportunity and I’d love to help lighten your workload.”
That settled it. The Latina background was a little awkward, considering the president’s attitude toward people of that ethnicity, but fortunately, he was unlikely to bump into Ms. Sandoval in the ordinary course of business.
In the weeks that followed, Prunella’s hopes were fulfilled. The first week, of course, was spent showing Carmela the routine of the office and how the communications system worked. Carmela learned quickly, came to work on time, and volunteered for even the most tedious tasks, such as filling out the Acceptances spreadsheet for the state dinner. By Friday afternoon Prunella was sharing her frustrations concerning the menu, the decorations, and the music for that occasion.
“President Tayshun has invited the president of Mexico to the Mansion. Of course they absolutely loathe—that is to say, they’re barely able to be polite to each other. But with the severe budget cuts, I don’t know what on earth to put on the menu for dinner!” Prunella raised her eyes to the ceiling. “The budget simply won’t run to the usual Mansion fare for a state dinner, and as for flowers, I have no idea what we’re going to do. We can’t even go out and pick them from the All-White Garden, considering it’s late February.”
Carmela considered for a few minutes. “I have an idea. What do you think of this? Why not honor the Aztec history of Mexico by using the ‘Three Sisters’ theme for the dinner? You know, base the menu on squash, corn, and beans. It would be a subtle compliment to the Mexican president, and dishes based on the Three Sisters would cost a lot less than filet mignon, truffles, and caviar.”
Prunella’s face lit up. “Brilliant! Will you do the research and give me suggestions for a menu? Then we can hammer it out with the Mansion executive chef and start thinking about decorations.”
“I’ll have it for you by Monday morning,” Carmela promised.
At the beginning of the next week Prunella ran her eyes over the menu Carmela handed her. “Okay, we begin with Corn Soup with Chipotle Sour Cream—there’s our soup. For fish, Lemon Garlic Shrimp Tostada, good. For the entrée, Chile-Rubbed Roast Turkey, Stuffed Peppers with Quinoa and Black Beans, and Cuernavaca-style Cucumber Salad, good. And two desserts, Pumpkin Cheesecake and Mexican Chocolate Torte. Why two, Carmela?”
“To give the impression of opulence,” Carmela said. “Also, it will make the guests feel spoiled, having two to choose from. And don’t forget, both chocolate and pumpkin are New World foods. The Aztecs definitely used them.”
“And they don’t look too expensive, either,” Prunella said, flipping through the sheaf of recipe printouts Carmela handed to her. “Oh, what a load off my mind! This will be a small dinner as state dinners go. We’ll have no more than fifty people in all, including the Mexicans and the president’s own staff.”
“Does the president like this kind of food?”
“Good heavens, no,” Prunella said. “He’ll eat the occasional taco salad, but basically he prefers hamburgers and fries. Well, he’ll like the cheesecake. His home town is famous for it.”
“This particular cheesecake has caramel sauce and rum-infused whipped cream with it,” Caramel said. She smiled as she thought of the pun on her new nickname.
“Sounds good, but leave the rum out of the whipped cream. He doesn’t do alcohol.”
For the next hour they discussed the wines and other drinks that would accompany each course and the Mexican-accented coffee that would end the meal.
“You’re a godsend, Carmela,” Prunella said. “Thank heavens you walked through my door! I think I might actually get some sleep tonight. Oh, who’s in the hallway? Why, I believe it’s—”
The president of the DDSV strolled through the door accompanied by several of his staff: Dooby McManus, a dapper little man who looked as if he’d just climbed out of a bandbox, Blackie Hart, who resembled a lumbering bear in an ill-fitting suit, and two agents from the Nervous Service. “Good morning, sweetie, how are ya?” he asked, bending over Prunella’s desk.
“Good morning, Mr. President,” Prunella said. “Sir, may I introduce my new assistant? This is Ms. Carmela Sandoval.”
The president turned his head to look at Carmela. “Pleased to meetcha. Now, Prunie, I need you to do me a favor.” He bent down to whisper into Prunella’s ear. “Can ya do that for me?”
“Why, certainly, Mr. President, I’ll take care of it right away.”
Dooby McManus fidgeted from his position near the doorway. “Not to rush you, Mr. President, but we’re due at a meeting of the Joint Chiefs in the Crisis Room in exactly two minutes!”
The president nodded. “Yeah, sure, I hear ya. Okay, guys, let’s march! ’Bye, Prunie, see ya later.”
The president and his entourage surged out of the room, leaving Prunella frustrated yet again.
“Carmela, the president just asked me to make sure that Zeb and I will be seated at his right hand so he doesn’t get bored during the dinner. So that means you will have to act as hostess in my place.”
Celibate since Yule, red-haired Passionata breaks out on May Eve!
Oh, do not tell the priests of our art
For they would call it sin
But we shall be in the woods all night
A-conjuring summer in.
Gerald Gardner’s version of a Rudyard Kipling poem.
Emerging from the shower with the towel wrapped round her like a sarong, Passionata entered her bedroom and looked at herself in the long mirror.
Her reflection showed a young woman with eyes as green and shining as spring leaves. The gleaming auburn hair secured in a knot on top of her head would soon be loosened to tumble past her shoulders.
And as she looked, her lips curved in a smile of triumph. She’d done it!
Unbelievably, she had lived a celibate life from Yule until now. At Yule her Circle sister Arielle had fallen off her chair laughing at the idea of Passionata’s being celibate for so long, but she had defied everyone’s expectations, including her own.
Tonight the tri-state Beltane ritual would take place in Briarcliff Park. Covens from Maryland, Washington, DC, and even staid old Virginia would meet to celebrate the point on the Wheel of the Year that marked the beginning of summer.
She dropped the towel and reached for the dress hanging in the closet. Made of green velvet and Spandex, it had a deeply cut V-neck, three-quarter-length sleeves, and a fitted bodice. Past the hips the skirt flared into gores, ending at mid-calf. Passionata dropped the dress over her head, slid her arms into the sleeves, and tugged the rest of the dress over her bare skin. No need for underwear.
The woods in Briarcliff Park were full of Witches: Witches sitting on tree limbs, dancing in a glade, laughing as they chased each other through the greenery. It was still daylight when Passionata arrived and began looking for people she knew.
Behind a large oak tree she saw a tall, dark-haired young man with a neat Van Dyke beard locked in a passionate embrace with a slightly shorter man with chestnut hair.
“Aidan and Kieran!” Passionata said, delighted. She stopped, arms akimbo, and surveyed them. “Look at you—married six months and you still can’t keep your eyes or your hands off each other!”
Aidan disentangled himself from the blushing Kieran and smiled back at her. “Just getting into the spirit of Beltane, you know.”
“It’s great to see you guys again,” Passionata said. “Haven’t seen much of you at all since you got married and moved to Maryland.”
“Marry-land,” Kieran said, and chuckled.
“You’ll be seeing a lot more of us from now on,” Aidan said, pretending to pull off his shirt.
“Oh, get along with you! Talk to you later!”
She lifted a hand in farewell and continued on her way. Fairwynd and Robin Elfsong, strolling toward her hand in hand, were evidently more than friends nowadays, she noticed. Her new Circle sister, Brianna Hestia, was talking to some of the drummers just taking their places at one side of the fire circle.
Passionata made her way toward Brianna, admiring her from a distance. What courage it took for Brianna Hestia to assume her rightful persona and go out to face the world every day–a world that would tolerate her at best, mock her or subject her to violence at worst, simply because she was transgender. This afternoon Brianna, in a yellow caftan embroidered with blue and green flowers, looked even more striking than usual.
But as she drew near two of the drummers engaged Brianna in animated conversation, so Passionata retreated. She’d catch up with her later. Who else was here?
In the picnic area of the clearing Lochdru of the Silver Tongue stood arm in arm with Oakwyse, his partner. The two were chatting with Cajun Papa, already sweating profusely as he stirred the Cajun Boil he was tending. Tantalizing aromas of coriander, allspice, cloves, and garlic sailed upward on wisps of steam from the cauldrons.
The drums began to beat, slowly at first, then faster as the dancers picked up the tempo. Passionata gave a happy skip; she loved dancing to the drums. Looking around she could see people beginning to circle around the balefire, already laid with nine different kinds of wood, waiting to be lighted by the high priestess and high priest.
Looking at the dancers to see if she knew any of them, she noticed with a quickening of her pulse that Sylvan was dancing with Elspeth Winterborn.
‘Two tall blond Vikings,” Passionata thought crossly, regretting her own five feet four inches. Elspeth was wearing her hair loose tonight so it flowed in a flaxen sheet down her back. Sylvan’s shoulder-length blond hair was drawn back from his face into a queue tied with a green ribbon.
She knew it was pointless to be jealous of Elspeth, whose romantic inclinations did not lie with men. Sylvan, however, aroused Passionata’s interest. She’d heard through the Pagan grapevine about the breakup with Ariane right after Yule. After five years together, they’d apparently gone their separate ways—Ariane to pursue a life of beauty, balance, and delight in Vermont, Sylvan to his previous bachelor existence.
The drums beat faster, infusing the dancers with excitement. As the drumbeat echoed the beat of her heart, Passionata felt the power of Aphrodite flowing though her. Faster and faster she whirled to the changing rhythm, noticing vaguely the interested look in the eyes of her fellow dancers as they watched her progress around the fire circle.
And then, above the throbbing of the drumbeat, Passionata heard the high, thin, inhuman voices of the drums themselves as they began to sing. They sang of Earth power and sex magick; of moist, fertile soil that received sun, seed, and rain and transformed them into new life; of passion that burned through blood and bone, skin and muscle, to fuse the Two into the One.
Sylvan, she saw, was still dancing near Elspeth. It was time to stop that nonsense.
Passionata approached him with her arms raised gracefully above her head as she performed the side-to-side chest slides she’d learned in belly dancing class, followed by a choo-choo shimmy. He looked surprised at first, but then she saw the gleam in his eyes as the corners of his mouth quirked upward. As Passionata danced closer she saw that his eyes were gray–not the cold gray of a storm-tossed lake under a winter sky, but the warm gray of summer rain clouds.
She was excited that he was noticing her. Could he read the message in her eyes? He certainly seemed to be responding, dancing closer to her, holding her eyes with his gaze, lips parted as if he were about to speak. The other dancers swirled around them, their bright robes fluttering in the breeze. Somewhere sandalwood incense was burning, adding its scent to the air that carried the aroma of freshly mown grass.
The sound of the drums slowed, then stopped altogether. People stood, waiting and watching expectantly as Oakwyse, the officiating High Priestess and Lochdru, the High Priest, walked up to Passionata and Sylvan.
“Behold, Queen of the May,” Oakwyse intoned in her thrilling voice as she placed a circlet of colorful fresh flowers on Passionata’s head.
“Behold, King of the Forest,” Lochdru said in his deeper tones as he carefully set a headdress of antlers on Sylvan’s head.
As Passionata and Sylvan looked at each other in delight, Lochdru put a hand on Sylvan’s elbow. “Come with me.”
He led Sylvan to the other side of the fire circle so they were standing opposite Passionata and Oakwyse.
“My queen, you must let him chase you,” Oakwyse whispered. “Remember, you want to be caught, you want to make love with the King of the Forest more than anything! Only by making love with him will you ensure the success of the harvest. You just want him to work a bit, first.”
“Understood,” Passionata said, hardly able to breathe for excitement. To be chosen Queen of the May was a great honor.
“He’ll chase you three times deosil around the fire circle,” Oakwyse said in a low voice, “and the third time you must let him catch you.”
Turning to face the others around the circle, she said, “All hail the Queen of the May!”
“Hail, Queen of the May!” the Witches responded.
Across the balefire Lochdru announced in ringing tones, “All hail the King of the Forest!”
“Hail, King of the Forest!”
Oakwyse began to speak. “Belenos the Shining God has blessed the Earth with his presence once more. We celebrate His return by lighting the bel-fire, or balefire, which contains the nine sacred woods. Now the Earth has awakened to her powers; the fertile fields wait for us to plant the seeds that will ripen into the harvest, just as our foremothers and forefathers planted in ages past. Tonight we celebrate the season of lusty life, of love and passion, as the fire of Beltane burns in our veins!”
Lochdru stepped forward to light the balefire. As the first thin gray spirals of smoke rose from the stack of birch, oak, hazel, rowan, fir, hawthorne, willow, apple, and vine, he spoke in his sonorous voice.
“The fire of passion grows within us even as the fire grows stronger. We know that we, Earth’s children are fertile, even as She is. Tonight we salute the King of the Forest, He who is known as Herne, the Green Man, or as Pan or Cernunnos. Tonight he will chase and capture the Queen of the May, She who is called also Cerridwen, Aphrodite, or Venus. She is the Goddess, She is the Earth.”
By this time Sylvan was trying to break free of Aidan and Kieran, who were restraining him on either side, while on the other side of the balefire Passionata was trying to shake off the restraining hands of Elspeth and Brianna Hestia.
“Let the chase begin! Bring fertility to the fields!” Lochdru boomed.
The drums began again as Passionata broke free to begin circling the balefire, weaving in and out of the Witches ranged around the fire circle. Three times she circled as the drums beat faster and faster, until finally, breathless and laughing, she allowed herself to be captured by the King of the Forest. They stood side by side near the fire circle. The drums stopped immediately and the air was still, almost silent except for the crackle and hiss of the flames.
Sylvan faced Passionata, speaking in a resonant voice:
“I am the stag who roars at dusk and ruts at dawn
I am the king oak who carries the seeds of growth
In perfect love and perfect trust we will create new life.”
Passionata answered, letting her words ring out through the glade:
“I am the Earth, I am the womb, in whom life grows each season
The sun is my Bel-fire, the rain my blood, the wind my breath,
In perfect love and perfect trust we will create new life.”
Lochdru handed Sylvan the athame; Oakwyse handed Passionata the chalice full of water.
No sound was heard except the crackling of the balefire and the faint, sleepy calls of the birds.
Lochdru of the Silver Tongue intoned,
“Chalice to athame as Goddess to God
Behold the magick as Two become One!”
Cheers broke out as slowly, Sylvan lowered the athame into the chalice, and as slowly, raised it again.
“The land has been blessed! Good harvest, all!” Oakwyse called out.
“Good harvest, good harvest!” the others responded.
Under cover of the cheering, Sylvan spoke in Passionata’s ear. “Will you do the real Great Rite with me, later?”
“Yes,” she breathed, “yes, I will.”
The gray eyes looking into hers lit up like sunlight shining through rain.
The sound of a gong being struck with deliberate slowness rang through the drumming, which had begun again, softly.
Cajun Papa, standing just outside the fire circle, bawled, “Are you Witches ready to eat mah food?” Under the bandanna tied round his head his ruddy face gleamed with moisture; even his beard held drops of sweat.
Cheers went up again. “Hail, Cajun Papa! Let’s eat! Hail, the feasting!”
The drummers rose to their feet, stretched, and followed the others out to the long trestle tables. Walking hand in hand, Passionata and Sylvan made their way toward the picnic area. Cajun Papa stood by the steaming cauldrons, plunging a trident—no, now that she looked more closely, Passionata saw that it was more like a garden rake—into the cauldron and flinging rakefuls of Cajun shrimp, corn on the cob, and potatoes onto the newspaper-covered tables.
Lochdru, standing nearby, beckoned to Sylvan.
“I’d better see what he wants,” Sylvan said. “Why don’t you find a place for us to sit, and then I’ll get the drinks.”
“Okay,” Passionata said. She wandered past the table of Cajun Shrimp Boil to see what was on the other tables and saw Ceres Vegetina presiding over one of them.
“Hail, Queen of the May!” she said. “Look what Cajun Papa has provided for us vegans!” She pointed to the various items. “Beltane sorrel soup, oatcakes, springtime quiche, strawberry and spinach salad. And if you’re still hungry after that, we have vegan chocolate cupcakes, tricolor grapes, and glazed pecans. What’s your fancy?”
“It looks delicious,” Passionata said vaguely. “I’ll have an oatcake, thanks.”
Ceres handed her one, then turned to serve someone else.
Half in trance, Passionata passed on to the next table. She wanted only one thing and it wasn’t food. One of Cajun Papa’s helpers had labeled all the dishes neatly: Jambalaya; Dirty Rice; Spring Lettuce Salad; Beltane Marigold Custard; Tante Linda’s Fig Cake.
Sylvan suddenly appeared at her side. “What do you think, there was a May bowl, so I’ve brought back a glass for each of us. Shall we sit here?”
The table seemed rather crowded, but people were willing to move down to accommodate the royal couple. Passionata took the glasses of May wine and sat down while Sylvan went off to get the food.
It was still light when he returned with the plates although the sky had turned pale green as the sun began to sink behind the trees.
Passionata took a sip of the May wine. It tasted of the dried woodruff that had steeped in it all night, a sweet vanilla taste.
Sylvan, seated opposite her, reached across the table, neatly abstracting her wineglass from her hand. Looking into her eyes, he sang one line of an old song:
“I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink your sweet wine…”
With two fingers he lifted one of the strawberries out of the glass by its stem and licked it, never taking his eyes from hers. Then he opened his mouth and poured a few drops of May wine on his tongue.
So transfixed was Passionata that all the love songs she’d ever heard fled from her brain, but Shakespeare was still her friend. After all, she didn’t teach high school English for nothing. She leaned across the table toward him and said,
“One half of me is yours, the other half yours Mine own, I would say; but if mine, then yours And so, all yours.”
She saw his eyes widen in recognition of the quote, saw a smile of appreciation forming on his well-shaped mouth.
Passionata took one bite of Jambalaya, one bite of custard, and laid her spoon down. Sylvan, she saw, had left half his food untasted. His eyes searched her face and he lifted one eyebrow.
She nodded, stood up. Sylvan rose to his feet, came around the end of the table to take her hand and began steering her around the picnic tables, past the balefire, toward a grove of trees. In the gathering dusk they almost bumped into Elspeth and Brianna Hestia, who stood with their arms wrapped around each other, lips locked.
As they neared the grove Passionata could just make out a large white cardboard sign affixed to a stake in the ground. The sign read, “Reserved for the Queen of the May and the King of the Forest.”
Lochdru was standing just outside the grove, his white Druid robes barely visible in the dusk. He bowed as they approached.
“Thank you,” Sylvan said. Lochdru moved some distance away as Sylvan led Passionata into the grove.
In the dim light Passionata saw a clearing, almost like a sacred circle of grass surrounded by trees and bushes.
I, who am the beauty of the green earth, and the white Moon among the stars…
While Sylvan removed his cloak and spread it on the grass, Passionata removed her circlet of flowers, laying it down carefully. She tugged her dress over her head, dropped it beside the circlet, and heeled off her shoes.
Sylvan took off his antler headdress, removed the tie from his hair, discarded his tunic, stepped out of his trousers and moccasins.
He dropped to his knees, looked up at her, and said, “Blessed are thy feet, which have brought Thee in these ways.” He crouched, kissed her left foot, then her right.
Looking up at her again, he said, “Blessed are thy knees, which shall kneel at the sacred altar.”
When he kissed her left knee, then her right, Passionata shuddered with delight and longing.
“Blessed be thy womb, without which we would not be,” Sylvan said, and Passionata closed her eyes as desire burned through her.
Sylvan rose to his feet. “Blessed be thy breasts, formed in beauty and in strength.” He kissed each breast while Passionata held her breath.
“Blessed be thy lips, that shall utter the Sacred Names.”
Lightly he touched her lips with his own. Then they drew apart a little so that Passionata in her turn could kneel to give him the five-fold kiss.
After that their lips met briefly again and they held each other close as the spring night cooled rapidly around their hot skin. The woods were alive with the small sounds of nature—the twitters of the birds preparing to sleep, the rustling of small mammals scurrying through the undergrowth.
Passionata heard Sylvan’s voice in her ear, husky with emotion. “Thou art Goddess.”
Her reply was heartfelt. “Thou art God.”
When their lips met again in a deeper kiss, Sylvan gently lowered her to the ground.
Even through the woolen cloak the grass felt cool and springy against the bare skin of her back. Sylvan’s hair swung forward softly, brushing against her face.
“All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals…”
Now there was no time to breathe, no time to think, nothing existed but this, the Great Rite, the scents of woodsmoke, grass, and wild honeysuckle, the sensations of warm lips, hot skin, magickal hands, the fusion of hot seed and hungry earth, waiting to transform seed into life and fruit. No sounds but those of laughter in the woods, the throbbing of the nearby drums, the soft cries of The Two as they became The One.
Flung back in time to the Minoan Crete of 1450 BC, can Fiona adjust to such a different world?
“Put your arms around me and hold on as tightly as you can,” Jolyon said. He stepped closer until just a breath separated us. I did as he instructed. A vast shudder rippled through us, after which utter blackness descended and I knew nothing more.
When I regained consciousness, very slowly, I became aware through closed eyelids that it was daylight. Gradually the realization dawned that I was lying down, covered by a warm blanket, and that I could hear voices. Two of the voices were male, speaking English. A third voice sounded feminine and the language was not English.
After graduation a visit to Knossos beckoned Fiona—but little did she guess where it would lead!
I noticed him because he was always alone.
And in a country where most people are dark-haired and dark-eyed, he stood out because of his blond ponytail and gray eyes. Only the shape of his eyes belonged to Crete—large, almond-shaped, compelling.
The girl was snatched before their eyes—why didn’t the police respond to the women’s calls?
It all happened so fast.
One minute the young girl in the pale pink track suit, eyes cast down as she texted on her cellphone, was walking down the opposite side of the street from where Charmiele sat on her front porch working on her laptop; the next minute, a young man jumped out of a black SUV with darkened windows that rolled to a stop behind the girl, and grabbed her phone. Thirty seconds later another man jumped out of the SUV and helped him bundle the girl into the vehicle.