Eve of Summer Solstice ~
The assembled gathering mingled in quiet conversations as they waited. The early Sun was warm on Lahana’s shoulders as she stood beside the Queen.
“Here, hold this,” Rānae commanded as she placed the shallow bowl of rainwater into Lahana’s hands.
“Tomorrow, we shall begin our celebrations of honour to Tir-Shena, the guardian of these lands. She who has run through the vast forests and drunk of the clear rivers long before the creation of people. We have seen her – I have seen her – riding on the back of a mighty boar as easily as you or I would a well-trained horse. In her own being, she is wildness and discipline unified.”
Rānae took a deep inhale of the crisp air and smiled with satisfaction. “Tir-Shena belongs to the land, and the land belongs to her. She allows us to rest awhile in her protection. We left most of our own deities behind us. They remain in the High Vale and shall guard whatever becomes of it.” She turned her face up to the sky. “Of course, the great ones are everywhere. The Sky, the Earth, the Sun and Moon – we shall never be beyond their sight. The rivers shall always be the tributaries of the one river, Aysana the Great Mother. Today, in a small way, we invoke Asyana. As we do so on the eve and the closure of all ceremonies.”
She looked back to Lahana. “And what of your people? I am not informed of how they name themselves. Riordan only said that you had lived near on two years on the island. Who are your own people?”
Lahana hesitated, her thoughts turning over to whom she might now owe allegiance. “The Red Deer,” she finally answered. “We are the people of the Stag King. We have a story in which our people suffered through a long time of famine. They were unable to find any animals to hunt, and the land itself was parched and bare. After months like this, they saw a great antlered stag watching from the barren forest. He was strong and healthy-looking, yet despite their hunger, the people found they were afraid to slaughter him for meat. The way the stag watched them gave them a foreboding feeling, and they thought perhaps he was a sign that the land no longer had a place for them.
“Then, on a dawn, a strange man – tall and with his hair a dark flame of auburn – walked from the forest to our circle of tents. He said he could help us, and he did: showing us a wellspring of pure water and teaching us to channel it into the grasslands, to plant and harvest with the turnings of the Moon. He became the ruler of our tribe, our king. He took a wife, and together they established our noble line.
“He remained our king until he grew old and weary and lay in his bed, close to death. In the middle of a black night, a tall lady with silver hair and pale skin walked out from the forest and entered our village. The guards were so struck by her beauty and her strangeness that they allowed her to walk right past them and into the king’s tent. The lady spoke not a word to anyone, but when the king opened his eyes and saw her standing beside him, he rose to his feet. They say the lady placed the king’s unsteady arm upon hers and guided him slowly away from the village. As the two of them stood at the edge of the forest, the king turned to look back at the village. They say that the people saw him become young again. A tall, young man who bore the antlers of a stag, walking into the forest, arm in arm with a lady as silver and glowing as the Moon.”
Rānae had closed her eyes as though painting the scene in her mind. She opened them to the bright sunshine and smiled. “And is that all that it is to you, Lahana, a story?”
“I loved that story when I was a small child, but I have not thought about it since then. What was our village is now a city, and those forests have been pushed far back from our gates. I spent no time in those forests – perhaps if I had, it would mean more.”
“So true,” mused Rānae. “We must accord the feeling of a thing with the idea of it, if it is to gain the strength of a belief. Still, you tell it beautifully.”
“Sha’han’s adamant you’re the wolf.” Lahana almost flinched at the suddenness of Bear’s appearance at Rānae’s side. He curled his upper lip in a deliberate sneer. “He’s told me to keep away from you.”
“Arun,” Rānae said in vexation, “enough.”
“She’s short enough. Those white wolves are hardly bigger than a mink.” He grinned almost seductively. “How are your teeth, Lahana?”
“Arun,” Rānae levelled her sharp eyes on him. “Lahana is my guest here today. She is my guest for as long as she remains with us. I’ll have you remember that and your role on this day.”
Bear shrugged without care, “I have no trouble with my role.” He turned on a step and began to walk backwards away from the women. His plain tunic left his arms bare, and he held the strong cut of his shoulders and arms with a new tension. His smile now mocking in its similarity to the broad grin of his brother’s. “Don’t trouble yourself, Lahana – you’re not of the kind to interest me.”
Rānae swatted her hand before her as though to drive back a biting insect. “Take your place at the river, Arun. This is enough. Today of all days, talk with peace.”
Rānae’s temper held as she watched Bear walk on ahead to the riverbank. She scanned her eyes across the river currents to rest on the calm water of the circular pool that was formed into the riverside. “His prophecy is nothing, Lahana, I assure you. Or if it is of any significance, then I am sure he has confounded its meaning in his telling of it.”
Rānae took a breath and appeared to pull herself back into awareness of where she was and who she was speaking with. “I hope we do not appear too odd to you. Try to remember that a ruling family is a family still, and we have the same silly foibles as any other might. But I must listen to my own words now and remember what brings us here today.”
“Do you wait for a sign?” Lahana asked.
“Mmm,” Rānae mused, distracted. She pointed ahead to the rock pool. “Shonnat, my consort, saw this pool as a mirror offered by the forest itself to his Sky Goddess. All mirrors are sacred to her.” She toyed a moment with the silver bracelets at her wrists, “Beauty itself is sacred to her.” Then she pulled her shoulders back and smoothed out the wrappings of her fine shawl. “Now, the Sun is at the marker. It is time to begin the ceremony. Thank you,” she said, taking the bowl and its shallow holding of water from Lahana. “It carries a piece of you now, to Asyana.”
Rānae walked to her place at the rock pool, holding the bowl out before her. Tarishan and Madene, followed by Bear, joined her and arranged themselves into a half-circle at her back. Rānae held the bowl up to the direction of the swift current of the river, then held it over the spinning eddies of the pool. “Asyana, you are carried in our hands,” Rānae called out, “from the rainfall to the river, and we are honoured in carrying you. From the body of Asyana, all things flow back to the body of Asyana.”
The resonant tone of a horn sounded above them all. Lahana looked across to the higher bank of rock upriver from where Rānae and the others stood. She had not noticed before, but there Sha’han stood. His lean body arching to the sky, clad in trousers of blue linen, with his long torso and arms bare. He held a large conch shell to his lips, and once more invoked its rich, echoing call.
“Our thoughts, Great Mother, turn to Tir-Shena.” Lahana became aware of Rānae’s continued speech. “To her grace and generosity, to the shelter she has allowed us to thrive within. We speak Tir-Shena’s name to you, Asyana, so that you may know of the honour we give to her.”
Rānae tipped the bowl forward, spilling the water like a thin waterfall into the pool. “From the rainfall to the river,” she repeated. “From the body of Asyana, all things flow back to the body of Asyana.”
Lahana saw Sha’han disappear in a quick movement behind the rocks. She glanced to the river and its swift current, wondering what his next role in the ceremony could be.
Rānae and then the Seers retreated from the pool. Lahana noticed Kaj make a quick move from his post to step in at Rānae’s side, ahead of Tarishan and Madene. Bear lingered at the riverbank, watching the water flow down to the curve that at once hid it within dense forest. He looked back over to the crowd and gestured to Riva to approach his side. She broke away from the others and placed her hand in a light touch upon his forearm. They spoke a few words between them, then Riva looked over at Lahana. Riva’s sudden stare compelling Lahana to avert her own gaze from them and back to the water.
They walked towards her, arm in arm. Pushing past her with deliberate aim.
“He takes the steps, Lahana,” Riva smirked at her. “Cut into the rocks. They’ll take him back to the settlement.”
Lahana glanced over her shoulder to watch them go from her. She took note of the scattering departure, casual and slow, of the small crowd.
The true events would begin tomorrow, Lahana had been told that morning by the priestess who had escorted her. She was invited today on the Queen’s request but should not expect any great fanfare. “You’ll have to wait until tomorrow for your dancing,” the young priestess had winked at her as they headed out.
Lahana saw that same priestess now, engaged in animated chatter as she walked with another who also wore the vivid blue hooded robes of the order. She saw Bear and Riva overtaking that pair and marching on before most of the gathering.
Lahana watched them go on, waiting until the voices had drifted from earshot before she approached the edge of the pool. The land hummed with the joyous sound of the water and with chattering birdsong. The pool was a changeable play of gleaming reflections and obscure depths.
Movement caught her eye, and she turned to her right to see Sha’han walking along the lower bank towards her. He carried the shell easily at his side and stopped directly below her.
“That was quite an entrance.” Lahana looked down at him, hoping she spoke with ease.
Sha’han’s broad smile flashed up at her. “It’s meant to be.” He climbed in two long strides up to the higher bank beside her.
“I was told there are steps, cut all the way back to your settlement. Is that really so?”
“Not quite,” he replied. “There are steps that go from a natural cave up to that rock I stood on. You go through the cave for perhaps forty paces, then out onto a path that does lead back to the gates.”
“Aren’t you supposed to take that way?” she asked.
“Yes,” Sha’han admitted, “but I wanted a moment by the river. I’m always struck by how pure the air is. It always clears my head.”
Lahana watched his mouth as he spoke, his chin firm and angular, clean-shaven in the Ashtar way. His eyes mirrored the pool, darkness catching bright patterns of sunlight.
Lahana looked back to the water. “Your mother looks here and sees a Goddess,” she said, “your father saw a mirror. Which one do you see?”
Sha’han’s lips curled into an impish grin, and he glanced sideways at Lahana before laughing almost to himself.
“What?” Lahana spoke on a laugh despite herself.
Sha’han grinned again. He held his hand out to the glassy surface of the water. “I can happily say that from here, I see both.”
Lahana looked at the water and saw that he pointed to her own reflection. She crinkled the bridge of her nose, incredulous at his comment. And he looked to his feet, embarrassed but still laughing.
Lahana rolled her eyes and joined his laughter until it trailed into an awkward silence.
“Where did that shell come from?” Lahana spoke first. “It is from the ocean, not a river.”
Sha’han held the spiralling and ridged shell up before him. “It was my father’s. He said that shells such as this were used in rituals on the island of Atlan itself. He had travelled once to the Star-Cut Sea, to an island where they still use these shells in their call to the Goddess. They stand on rocks out from the shore, surrounded by the crashing of indigo waves and pale seafoam, and they call just as I did today. They gave this shell to my father.”
Sha’han paused again, seemingly lost in thought. “I have travelled to the northern coast, but I did not take this with me. I regretted it as soon as I saw what the ocean is. I will go there again and sound the call to Asyana in her greatest aspect.”
“I grew up next to the sea,” Lahana said.
“And you lived on Kyna,” Sha’han continued for her. “Do they have similar ways?”
“On Kyna, they name the pull of the waves and the currents as ‘the arms of the dead.’ They speak of the ocean as the passageway to the Next World. But also as the provider of life. So yes, in a way, it is very much the same. They hold a celebration on each equinox and solstice, where they set baskets full of fruit and bread alight and cast them upon the water from their boats. But Kyna is often buffeted by cool winds and is not so warm. So we all tended to remain well covered.” She gave him an amused grin. “I’m sure the Goddess approves, though.”
Sha’han’s brow creased in slight confusion, then he placed a hand to his bare chest, “Oh,” was all the comment he gave.
Lahana turned back to the water. “Every place I have lived in, they see and feel different things. To feel the arms of a Goddess must be better than the jealous grasp of the long-since drowned.”
“Asyana has her fearsome moments,” Sha’han said. “In her storm, she does not always understand our human fears.”
“Why is it not your elder brother who takes the ceremonial role?”
Sha’han’s smile escaped him. “Bear will always have other duties. You will see him lead the prayers of feast. Tir-Shena’s hunt. He is at home with the idea of sacrifice. My father gave me this shell, and he told me that the ancient memories are strong within me. I would listen for hours as he described the people on the island and their temples. It was my idea to recreate the ocean rite here. I know it is only a river, but is that not the point of our prayer.”
“From the rainfall to the river,” Lahana answered, “from the river to the sea.”
“And on to the great ocean that holds us,” Sha’han said quietly. He reached across and held onto her hand as he pressed the shell against his chest.
Lahana felt her breath catch and became aware of the weight of her body pressing into the Earth. She looked at him from the corner of her eyes. He seemed to stare into the forest over the river, lost in his thoughts. Lahana looked down to their hands, wondering if she could begin to breathe again without beginning also to cry like a fool.
“Lahana,” Sha’han said quietly, and then his warm mouth was pressed to her cheek, and his fingers linked intertwining with hers. She felt his breath heat her face and neck for a moment. He drew back, still holding her hand before him. He met her eyes, waiting for her smile before he held her palm up to his mouth and pressed his lips to its centre, then to the pulse at her wrist. He placed her hand to rest on his chest, then enfolded his own arms around the circle of her hips. She felt ridges of the conch shell he still held pressing into her flesh.
Sha’han grazed his free hand up along the sway of her back to the base of her neck and lifted the weight of her hair between his fingers. He leaned into her, and their mouths opened to one another. A fierce heat carrying from one to the other on the flow of their breath and the meeting of their tongues.
Lahana’s sense of her weight shifted from the Earth to Sha’han’s body against hers, then back into her own feet. She pulled herself out of the heat of their entanglement, back into the chill of the morning air. She looked over to the way the gathering had left, hearing only the heaviness of her own breath.
Sha’han’s hand touched her hair. She turned back to him.
“In your time,” he said. “If you choose me. In your time, Lahana.”
The mysticism of ancient Pagans and Druids brought to life within a vibrant world of suspense, passion and danger. A woman’s life told with depth of character and unique mythology.