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
“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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.