It was almost time for the sacred circle in the grove.

    The festivities of Samhain night would last well into the early morning hours. Torches glittered on the hillsides like stars, while the shouts and laughter of her people filled the forest.

    Entering the hut once shared with her foster parents, Ariana ignored the murmurings of the women clearing the remains of the feast outside. Their eyes weighed heavy on her throughout the evening, missing nothing. Empty places were set at her side for Una and Rhuan, as customary, but a third place sat empty also. Gaius had not shown himself, and his absence had been noted.

    She held her head high, laughed, and feasted along with the rest. She wept as freely as any when others spoke of their lost loved ones, and in her turn, she praised her foster parents and spoke of their gentle goodness. Others offered stories of the old Druid couple’s many kindnesses, and Ariana was comforted the pair were honored and remembered.

    The shouts and laughter grew fainter as her people drifted away into the forest to gather at the grove.

    She must hurry.

    Unable to summon the courage to return to the villa, Ariana had earlier sent for the things she would need. Fresh clothing and herbal supplies were brought to her old hut, and she was able to meditate properly, without distraction, to prepare herself for the ceremony.

    Stripping naked, she bathed herself thoroughly in the scented water steaming on the hearth. Loosening her braids, a stray tendril slid silkily across a bare breast, causing her to hiss between her teeth. Her nipples seemed extremely sensitive, and without wanting to, Ariana recalled how they hardened under Gaius’s regard the day before.

    It seemed a lifetime ago.

    Resolutely, Ariana pushed thoughts of Gaius from her mind and concentrated on her preparations.

    Her gown was of white linen, gossamer fine, belted round her waist with a beautifully worked girdle once belonging to her mother. The girdle was finely linked bronze, whorled and joined in curliqued patterns of fancy. Only she knew the hidden meanings they contained. Around her neck she placed the plain torc of her father; its sturdy weight on the fine bones of her shoulders giving her comfort. Delicate bracelets of wood and bronze, carved with the fantastic patterns her people favored, graced her wrists.

    “Grant, oh Goddess, thy protection; and in protection, strength; and in strength, understanding; and in understanding, knowledge.”

    The words of preparing came easily to her lips, though Ariana’s mind was on what was to come.

    From one ear dangled a highly polished teardrop of stone, marbled in blue and green. Around her forehead she fastened an elaborately embroidered blue ribbon, leaving the ends to trail in her hair. Swinging a cloak of about her shoulders, Ariana left the hut, walking alone through the forest to the sacred grove.

    The Samhain bonfire was huge; it roared and crackled with a life of its own, filling the air with the scent of woodsmoke. Knots of people, all tribal differences forgotten, laughed and talked around the fire, but quiet spread as Ariana’s presence was noticed.

    The way before her cleared, and Ariana moved to the western side of the fire and stood, letting the warmth of the flames fan her face. Looking up, she regarded the fullness of the moon in the sky above their heads.

    Just gazing at the pregnant beauty of Nimue, Sky Mother, filled her with awe and sense of insignificance. Nimue shone with an unearthly brilliance tonight, hanging enormous and white in a cloudless sky, as though blessing them.

    It was time.

    Silent now, the crowd behind Ariana formed a circle around her and the bonfire. Hands were joined, and the circle became several rings of people, one behind another, stretching into the grove of oaks surrounding the clearing. A babe was quickly shushed, its cry turning to a contented gurgle when offered the mother’s breast.

    Ariana smiled at the sound. . . new life present in honor of the old. It was meet.

    Raising her hands to the moon, Ariana spoke the ritual words.
    “We honor thee, Nimue, keeper of the night sky. We have come forth to mark the turning of the year, and to remember those who have gone ahead to light our way to the Otherworld. Hail and well met.”     Behind and around her, the crowd answered in one voice, “Hail and well met.”     Opening her arms to encompass the forest around her, Ariana continued.

    “We honor thee, spirits of these ancient oaks. Bless us on this night, and stand with us as guardians between the living and the dead, between the new year and the old. Hail and well met.”
    And the people responded, “Hail and well met.”     This was the night when the veil between two worlds was very thin. The souls of the dead were guided home one final time by the light of the bonfires and the gaiety of feasting; only a proper blessing of the circle would keep them safe from those evil spirits who hovered near.     Ariana began the ancient words of opening. Turning so she faced east, she spoke to the elements.     “Let the winds of the air open our path to the east, and teach us to look far.”     She waited until the crowd repeated her words, then turned to face north.

    “Let the stones of the earth open our path to the north, and teach us of their steady strength.”
    Again, the people responded, their shadowed faces serious, their eyes intent on the Druidess.     A step left turned Ariana to the west.     “Let the flow of water open our path to the west, and teach us to find our own passage.”     The murmur of response in the otherwise silent evening was comforting, full of shared beliefs and profound emotions.     Ariana finished facing southward.     “Let the flames of fire open our path to the south, and teach us insight into ourselves.”     The final blessing was repeated in tones of awe and respect, in keeping with the occasion.     All was silent but for the crackle of the bonfire, leaping high into the night sky. Ariana closed her eyes and listened, while the people around her remained quiet.     Far away, an owl hooted. Once, twice, three times. The sound carried clearly in the stillness of the dark wood.     A good omen.     Ariana opened her eyes and smiled, and the circle of people around her visibly relaxed. Their smiles and nods confirmed the clear indication of the Mother’s favor.     “Let those who wish their loved ones to draw near come forward, and say their names aloud inside the circle.”     Men and women alike stepped forward. Children lost too young, husbands and sons fallen in battle, elderly parents to age – many names were spoken into the night air, one at a time. Ariana named Una and Rhuan in her turn.     Then once again, the circle cleared, leaving Ariana alone with the bonfire.

    Ariana faced the flames, allowing the blaze to heat her veins. Her body felt as ephemeral as the eddies of warmth that shimmered before her eyes, ascending into the dark sky. Tonight she was the fire, and the fire was she.
    Concentrating hard on the dancing shapes within the flames, Ariana stretched her hands toward the heat, palms up.     “Beloved ones who have gone before us, we would honor you one last time. Seek ye here the ones you loved in life, and bid them farewell. Come, and be welcome.”     There was silence within the clearing save the crackle of the fire. Then, a small gasp here and there within the crowd, as those who scanned the flames found the faces of the ones they sought.     Within the flickering orange-red blaze of the bonfire, grieving hearts were comforted by mere spectral glimpses of the faces they loved, clear to the viewer for but an instant, before the shimmers of heat melted away.     Ariana barely heard them, for she was almost able to see her dear Una, but the flames burned so hot and changed so quickly she could not. She concentrated harder, but to no avail.     Instead of the beloved faces of her foster parents, she saw a different face entirely. A woman, who smiled and met her eye, even as she faded away, back into the flames.     “Go to him.”     The woman’s voice was unfamiliar, but warm and gentle, rich with affection and understanding. Ariana might have been frightened, but for the love and warmth of that voice. It came from the flames, and from inside her head, and Ariana knew no one heard it but her.     Raising her eyes to the shining fullness of Nimue, Ariana felt the power of the night move into her very bones.     The Goddess had not abandoned her. Energy coursed through her body, the air in her lungs more crisp than ever before.    Never had she felt more woman, more alive.     “We are reborn into life with every death. As our circle repeats the never-ending cycle of life, so does the constant turning of the year from spring to winter. Though the living and the dead take separate paths, we know that we are all one together, connected through the bonds of our love.”     The ceremony was almost over, though the bonfire would be kept burning all night. Brands from the blaze would be taken back to individual camps and used to start the first hearth fires of the new year. When the huge fire was finally allowed to burn down, the ashes would be gathered and strewn over the fields to protect them during the coming winter and feed the spring’s new crops.     “Do not forget these gentle spirits who have come to bid us farewell, but send them on their way with rejoicing, for they go on to new lives.”     Taking from her girdle two small scraps of cloth, Ariana flung them on the fire; an old, faded ribbon Una had worn to tie back her hair, and a leather thong from one of Rhuan’s old tunics. Others about the fire joined in, tossing on a lock of hair, a small wooden toy, a scrap of cloth.     “Hail and farewell, beloved ones. Safe journey.”     The clearing was suddenly filled with sound and voices again. The people celebrated a successful ceremony, talking and laughing of what they had seen in the flames.     Ariana left the circle, wending her way through the crowd quickly, as though she had never been there.    She was not missed as she slipped away into the darkness of the forest, heading toward the villa.