Well, no time like the present.
I tipped back the last of the ambrosia, the sweetness lingering on my tongue as I rinsed the chalice with more snowmelt and dried it carefully before putting it away.
I unbarred the door and took a deep breath as I set the huge piece of wood down, shivering with a sudden chill that had nothing to do with cold air. It had been a long, long time since I had needed to bar that door – why did I feel the need to do it today?
Ah, to hell with it; I never was gifted with foresight. I carefully packed away the vials in specially-chosen boxes and scrawled a quick note to Dinlas.
Dinlas, give these to your girls directly – don’t mix it with anything, but they can eat and drink as normal afterwards. It needs to be given to them in the next 48 hours, ideally at sunset on Yule. They may get a bit…energetic…for a little while. That’s a good sign. Love, Aunt H.
“Bruna,” I called, “can you arrange a delivery here in the building for me? Moderately urgent, but no one needs to die for it.”
“Yes, my lady,” came from the foyer of Hearthfire, and I heard her come back towards my sanctum. I put the wolf-head vials in a box of charred olive wood, and the others in a plain velvet-lined box that had once held cigars, if I remember correctly.
“The black box goes to Lord Dinlas, to his hands directly, and the other box to Miss Nike, whenever you see her.”
“Of course, my lady.” Bruna carried the boxes quickly back to the foyer and I heard the door close behind her.
She was such a good person to work with, calm and easygoing, but not afraid to ask questions. I was lucky to have her.
It was the night of Yule, and I had traveled back to the satyrs’ grove to keep the night with them. I had a basket over my arm, full of delicious smelling things, and that flame-topped vial tucked safely away, wrapped in a bit of linen.
The evening’s fire was already blazing in the heart of the grove, the nymphs and satyrs sitting or standing around, some playing music, some looking after the wee ones, and all of them dressed in their finery.
I kissed the babies that had been born since I left, spoke blessings over betrothed couples, and drank deeply for those that had gone on to their reward. The pack was doing well, even without me here, and I saw Hector nod his heavy horns in my direction while keeping up a flirtation with his much-beloved wife, Molly.
“Connor’s up on the ridge top, your ladyship, getting everything ready for the ceremonies,” he called, over the music and voices.
I waved at him, and set down my basket next to the elderly nannies, pulling out an orange that was studded with whole cloves along with the wrapped bundle.
The nannies saw the orange and nudged each other in the ribs, knowing looks and soft laughter being exchanged as they began to unwrap the treats I had brought from Hearthfire.
“There’s a dozen more in there, ladies – go share them round with the bucks and show them what they’re missing,” I said, trying and failing to keep from blushing.
I should know better than to tease old nanny satyrs – but then again, there are some privileges to being old, and one of those privileges is to be outrageous when it suits you, and what better time than when the darkness stretches longest before you?
The path to the ridge top was lit with beautifully carved luminaria, curved shapes of wood and horn and bone cradling candles from the fitful breeze. The small pools of light cast the surrounding trees into even deeper shadows. The sun had been down for hours, and we were just waiting for the moon to rise. I followed the path, noting that someone, probably one of the young bridegrooms, had raked the path clean of loose rocks and snow. The carpet of moss and dead pine needles was soft underfoot, the moss radiantly emerald in the candlelight.
I had walked this path every Yule for a thousand years and more, but this was the only time my steps hesitated.
I stopped and smiled. I knew exactly what was happening.
Each Yule, I presided over handfastings and betrothals and weddings at the top of the ridge, in the view of the moon and stars, on top of the world. I had seen countless brides hesitate here – from shy young things climbing the ridge to marry their mate in front of the world, the gods, and the pack; to handfasted women heavy with their first baby, supported by their sisters and friends; to widows walking the path for the second or third time, the same hope in their eyes each time.
I wasn’t walking to my marriage ceremony – I was never destined to marry – but I was walking the path, just the same, and not only as the priestess tonight.
I rounded the corner and the bonfire’s glow was hidden behind the trees. I followed the trail of tiny stars cradled under the spreading branches of conifers, the candlelight reflecting onto the snow and creating puddles of golden light. The music was lost in the rising wind and I was alone. This part of the path was intended to be walked alone by both parties, because it made you so very aware of your solitude. The trees closed in and the luminaria were further apart while the path narrowed and twisted upwards, passable only by one person at a time.
More than one betrothal had broken on this path. One party or the other daunted by the climb and the darkness. As if they didn’t spend long spring evenings playing catch-me-if-you-can among the trees.
I gripped the vial in my right hand and grinned at the path. In the heart of the darkness, the flame shines brightest.
I made it the rest of the way up the ridge, stopping at the last switchback. There was a small bench and shelter against the snow for the elders and the pregnant ones to rest before the last fifty feet or so. I didn’t need to stop, but I did anyway, to look at the sky and judge my moment. The aurora was glimmering, green and purple with the occasional streak of scarlet, the Milky Way brilliant against Nyx’s cloak, and I could almost hear the year turning over.
The Pack always celebrated marriages on Yule, because it was the longest night of the year, and the longest night meant the longest wedding night, and let us just say there were a LOT of babies born in September.
The young bucks were there when I climbed the granite stairs to the ridge top. Six of them, with Connor in the middle – he was going to act as the priest to my priestess. They were all dressed in their finest traditional garb, each with a basket at their feet, covered with a fur, their eyes hungry for the sight of their beloveds.
Connor smiled when he saw me and left the bucks arranged as they were. Three on either side of the stone altar that balanced the moon at the turning of the year, flanked by low-burning braziers.
“There’s my girl,” he said, leaning down to give me a kiss. I let him kiss my cheek, then handed him the orange with its pattern of cloves.
He took it from me, looking a little puzzled. “What’s this then?”
“It’s an old game. I hand you a cloven fruit. You pick a clove from it, and that tells me where I can kiss you. If you pick it with your fingers, I can kiss your hand. If you pick it with your teeth, I can kiss your lips. If you swallow it, well…you get the idea. And if you take the last clove from the fruit, you’re inviting me to spend the night with you.”
He turned his head, looking at the fruit, then at me. “What are you playin’ at, Hes?”
“Just a fun little game for a special evening,” I said, and smiled.
“If you won’t play, Connor, I will!” one of the bucks called. “Hand it here, Ladyship, gi’e us a kiss before we’re wedded and bedded!”
Connor turned around and flung the orange straight at the mouthy young man, a cheeky lad by the name of James who was always popular with the girls. His young lady, Maisri, had been one of my favorites in the herd of dryad girls. I had presided over their handfasting last year, and she had already had a beautiful baby girl that had her father completely wrapped around her little finger.
James caught the orange neatly and pulled out a clove with his teeth. I walked over to him and gave him the kiss he had chosen, laughing all the time. He pretended to faint, his mates catching him as I turned back to Connor, the orange back in my hand.
“Care to go again?”
He walked over to me, took the orange from my hand, and meticulously picked out every single clove, flicking them into the braziers by the altar. When he reached the last one, he raised the orange to his mouth and took a huge bite out of it, rind and clove and all, meeting my eyes the entire time. He threw the mangled remains of the orange off the side of the mountain and kissed me, hard enough to make me see stars, not of Nyx’s domain.
“Aye, love, I’ll go as many times as you’ll have me,” he purred when he finally released me.
I was breathless, my heart was pounding, and I was dizzy.
“Lads, go kick rocks, aye? I think the lady has something to say,” he said, talking over my head to our stunned audience. “Give us five minutes.”
When they had stumbled down the path, he led me over to the altar and had me sit down between the braziers while he knelt in front of me so we were on the same eye-level.
“Hes, darlin’ love, you’re no the flirtatious type, so what was that all about? You’re usually so regal and serene on nights like this.”
“I don’t want to make the same mistake twice,” I blurted out, completely off balance. This was not going as I had planned, at all. “Here.”
I shoved the bundle of linen at him, and he took it from me, unwrapping the flame-topped vial.
“You don’t have to take it, if you don’t want to, but I don’t want to risk you dying before I had a chance to give it to you.”
“Is this what I think it is, love? That ambrosia stuff you’ve been working on since before I was born?”
“Yes. If you drink it, you’ll become immortal – not a god, but not susceptible to old age or disease or death from physical violence unless you are completely dismembered and bleed out.” I was babbling and I hated myself for it, but the words wouldn’t stop.
“Are you sure? How do you know I won’t just take it and head off into the wilds without you? Start a harem of dryads like Great-Grandda Hector and make myself god-king of the Highlands?”
“You might do that, but then again, you might not. I’m not asking you to stay with me forever, I’m just…you don’t have to take it right now, but it’s only good for a few days, and I understand if you don’t want to -”
NOW the words stop, I thought to myself. I could feel tiny bits of wind-driven snow melting against my blazing cheeks.
“Hes, look at me,” he said, and I forced myself to look up from the grooves in the granite, worn there by countless generations of breathless couples entering their lives together, to where he held my hands in his. “Do you remember the words you have the handfasting couples speak?”
“I take you, my heart, at the rising of the moon,” I began, and he continued, “and the setting of the stars, to love and to honor through all that may come,” we finished together.
“I may not always be with you, Lady of Flames, but I will love and honor you all the days of my life.” He let go of my hands, pulled the stopper from the vial, and drank the ambrosia in three long swallows. He leaned forward and kissed me again, to the wild cheering and applause of the six young couples who were waiting for us to quit being soppy and get on with the important business of marrying them.
“Come on, Ladyship, it’s time to do your duty. The moon’s nearly up,” Connor said, extending a hand to help me stand. The ambrosia was already starting to work. I could see the glimmers of it under his skin and there was an ever so slight golden glow to his eyes. We turned to face the couples and he took my hand as we began the ceremony.
“Do you all come to this place of your own free will?” he began, reciting the words I had heard Chiron say so many times.
“Do you all swear your vows to be true and witnessed before the gods, the heavens, and the earth?” I continued. In a matter of moments, the Pack had six new mated pairs, recognized by the Divine, the Eternal, and the Heavens themselves.
They headed down the path to the celebration below, no longer having to face the darkness and the perils alone, and leaving us alone under the vault of the heavens.
We stood there and watched the stars for a while, being quiet together, until we could feel the world turning towards the light.
A special Yule Blessing from all of us here at the Pantheon – may your hearts be joyful, may your hearths be warm, and may you find peace with those you love during the season of rebirth.