A Tale of Lughnasadh

 

He came to me as an infant. Washed like driftwood in the sea’s tide, from which his own grandfather, King Balor, had thrown him. O, it was a vile act! An attempt to drown the poor boy! The old king had his reasons. Years before, a Druid had prophesied: “Any grandson of Balor will cause the death of him.”

Such a warning was not to be taken lightly. Druids were the seers, the soothsayers of all things known and unknown. Yet Balor’s solution was foolish! The most foolish thing I had ever heard in my life. Imagine preventing a pregnancy by holding your daughter hostage in a tower, thus keeping her from all male contact. Even one with the brains of a sheep should know such a plan would never work!

But I get ahead of myself.

My name is Tailtiu. I served the land, the grain and the harvest. It was I who made all of Erin’s Isle green, bringing rain and wind, making the fields fertile.

It was I who ripened the wheat, sprouted the potatoes, made the apples fall and the berries go plump. I had ample work — enough tasks of my own, just to keep the land in good order so people would not starve. The last thing I needed was a baby at my breast to complicate my life.

And yet it was.

King Balor was a giant, a mighty sorcerer who was able to cast many spells and kill with his evil third eye.

Few things frightened him, but when he heard the Druid’s prophecy he was taken aback. The Druids were never wrong. And for this reason, Balor decided; it must be arranged that his grandson would simply never be born.

Balor had but one daughter, a beautiful lass by the name of Ethlin. So lovely was she that every lad for miles around offered his fortune for her hand in marriage. Yet Balor refused them all.

“Given the slightest opportunity, that girl shall get herself with child and birth an evil whelp,” he said. “One that would as soon take a dagger to me as blink an eye. O no! I shall prevent it at all costs! The fair Ethlin will be locked in a tower, where none of the male persuasion will ever get to her. There she shall live, forever barren. In doing this, I shall retain my own power and wealth.”

And so it was.

The girl Ethlin was locked in the Mor Tor, a crystal structure that one could neither climb nor descend into. Its walls were thick as a citadel, made of pure diamond, the hardest glass, which could not be broken with pick nor hammer. It had but one key for entrance which Balor  kept only to himself, hidden in the darkest depths of his castle dungeon, its location known to him alone.

There, in the tower, Ethlin lived out her days in solitude, attended only by the twelve midwives who served her. Balor had commanded that there be no talk of men, and his daughter should forget they ever existed.

She had no sunlight, no fresh air, no diversions, no pleasure. Only the steady work of needlepoint, such to make her eyes bleary and her fingers numb.  ‘Tis a wonder the lass did not go mad with boredom!  A life such as that was no life at all.

“When am I to be free?” she would ask, to which her midwives would be silent, for they feared the wrath of Balor.

Far out in the glen, in the land of dusk and faerie, where time and space cross and all things are possible, there is an Otherworld. In that Otherworld dwell the The Tuatha Dé Danann  – the Tribe of the goddess Danu.  And in that tribe there was a lad.  Brave and handsome he was, and young and strong, with a will of his own and much admiring of Ethlin. His name was Cian.

“How difficult could it be,” Cian asked me, “to climb that tower, to enter into it, to rescue the lass from her condemnation?”

“Not difficult at all,” I answered.

It was a mere sleight of the body. Balor, in his anger and scheming, had deeply underestimated the likes of me, the likes of Cian, the likes of the entire Tuatha Dé Danann. We are, you see, present in one place, and then we simply are not. This is the nature of our Otherworld.  I gave Cian a potion of magic herbs with a drop of dragon’s tears; as he drank it I uttered these words:

“Eye of thistle, heart of drake

Through this charm a lover make

A path to his desired space

Full of lust and full of grace

With this potion may you prove

Dedication and true love!”

In an instant Cian had taken to the sky; in another instant he had entered  through the walls of the crystal tower.

The very sight of him set Ethlin’s heart a-flutter, for the girl was young and ripe. She had never known the touch of a man. And such a man Cian was! Strapping and stunning, with chiseled cheekbones, dazzling eyes and locks of hair that put Samson to shame.  His manners were impeccable, and chivalry graced every bone in his body. The Mor Tor quickly became their love nest. Within weeks Ethlin was with child.

Balor, for his part, had no concern for his daughter. Foolish man! He never visited, left all dealings to her midwives. But now! The surprise that awaited him would be one most displeasing.

Nine months later the child was born. We named him ‘Lugh’ for Light. No other name could suit such a child, for he was radiant as the sun itself. As the offspring of the two most gorgeous beings in Eire, he was bound to be beautiful – but the baby Lugh far exceeded mere beauty.

When Balor got word of the birth he was furious.

In the dead of night, Balor slunk into the tower, whittling his dull key to the door and ascending the crystal staircase. He kidnapped the baby and whisked him away to the edge of the sea.

Balor stood on a monstrous cliff, overlooking the waves that crashed below like a liquid glacier. Without so much as a thought, he tossed the child in, hoping the ocean would crush him to a watery grave.

It was Manannan mac Lir, the god of the sea, who found the baby.  The infant was near death, bobbing and thrashing in the cresting waves, his lungs waterlogged and breath scarce. Manannan mac Lir knew immediately this was a very special child. He cradled the baby in his sturdy sea arms, wrapped him in a cloth of clean cambric, then brought him to me.

“You, Tailtiu, are a goddess of the earth. If anyone can suckle this child and give him renewed life, it shall be you.”

He was right of course. And even though Ethlin was his natural mother, it was not safe that she keep him, for Balor would surely track her down and attempt to kill the child again. I bid Ethlin and Cian flee the isle. They were young and could produce many more for their family. Lugh would be mine.

And so I raised him. He became my foster son, the Celtic god of the Sun, a radiant and celestial being. Prince Lugh was much loved and much revered, known for his kindness and benevolence.

He was, in fact, so loved that the Tuatha Dé Danann eventually chose him as their king. As such he was obliged to fight great battles.  It was in the Battle of Mag Tuired that the Druid’s prophecy once again came into question.

Lugh was required to fight Balor.

The two met on a battlefield of mud and weaponry, a wasteland of gouged bodies, severed limbs and rotting blood.  Balor had managed to kill many a soldier with his tricks and spells and evil eye, but now his grandson confronted him.

Lugh hurled a great spear, all the while shouting, “Forgive me, Grandfather, for what must be done!”

The spear then hit Balor, smack in his third eye. Balor fell to the ground, flailing like a fish on a hook. Yet the spells of Balor were still viable, and he managed to kill more of the Tuatha Dé Danann with his magic.

Having no choice, Lugh then pulled his sword and in one swift stroke, beheaded his own grandfather. The Druid’s prophecy was complete.

It was victory for the Tuatha Dé Danann. Through this, Lugh was given sacred powers. He become the god of skill and craft, of honor, truth and law. He was granted eternal radiance and eternal youth.

As for myself, by this time I was growing old, my twilight years upon me. My endless duties had left me strained. I had cared for the boy.  I had cared for the earth. As the years passed, the land became wild and ornery. Sometimes it would not even produce a potato for me, thus leaving the people in famine. Yet I did my best. Finally, in my feebleness, I could no longer serve the greenery, the plants and grain I loved so well.

My health fell ill and I began to wither back into the land from which all living things come. I, like a crone of autumn, faded into that golden haze that marks the end of the long summer. Upon the first day of August I breathed my last.

To mark my death, my foster son called for a great celebration. He saw this fitting, as he wanted to pay homage to me and all I had meant to him.  There would be no funeral dirges, no veils of mourning, no maudlin processions.  Instead, there was sumptuous feasting, a bounty from the harvest, dancing and song, all forms of revelry and games.

From far away in the spirit world I watched. And I was most pleased. So pleased, in fact, that I wished this feasting and revelry could occur every year, on the first day of August, as a holy day, not only for myself but for the land, the harvest, and the people.

My wish was granted.

Because the festivities had been orchestrated by Lugh, it was only proper that this holy day ever after be called “Lughnasadh.”

 

 

 

 

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Igraine Speaks

 

Igraine 2

His birth came about by trickery and subterfuge, although the boy knew it not.

A birth by accident, a birth of inconsequence. Or so all the world would think. It was an arrangement of my Uncle Merlin and the plan was thus: That I, the Duchess Igraine of Tintagel should lie in the adulterous bed of King Uther Pendragon, so that I be the vessel to bear a son. His name would be Arthur.

O now, you must understand. The part about adultery scarcely vexed me; my marriage to  the Duke of Tintagel was an arranged and loveless one. The bed of Uther Pendragon was not my first straying and would not be my last.  I was fully compliant in my dalliance. Yet for the sake of my honor, Merlin thought it best that the bards which would tell this story say I had been bewitched. The official version?  Uther Pendragon appeared to me in the form of my husband the Duke. Therefore when I laid with him I was judged innocent in all wrongdoing.

O that was rich! One cannot bewitch a witch! My Uncle Merlin knew this better than anyone.

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Heretofore my husband, the Duke of Tintagel had been of stout health. Now suddenly he took ill and died promptly. As a widow with child I had no choice but to wed Uther Pedragon. I then became Queen Igraine of castle Camelot.

The birth was easy. But what I could not abide, what I could not forgive, was that the baby was wrenched from my arms the very moment he uttered breath! I barely had the chance to hold him before Merlin spirited him away, insisting I was not fit to raise him, and that his future tasks were not to be influenced by the likes of me.

merlin 2

Without conversation nor consultation, it was decided Arthur be raised by a local lord, one Sir Ector.

“Now Igraine,” Merlin bid me,  once the deed was done. “You need not worry for your son. His every want shall be provided for, as my Lord Ector leads a life of prosperity and gain. Arthur shall have an older brother named Kai and a mother of great gentleness, the Lady Ector. He shall be fed, clothed and schooled properly.  It is essential he live among common men.”

Foolish wizard! Could Merlin not see that a woman’s greatest loss was that of her own child? His was a silly scheme, for I knew my son Arthur was like no other boy!  He needed no guidance from the common man, for his true nature would allow him to encompass all.  His bloodline was mine; that of Avalon. His schooling should thus involve the magick of Avalon.

I vowed revenge upon my Uncle Merlin.  He’d pay for his injustice! My visits to Avalon would ensure this. I studied under tutelage of the Lady of the Lake, imploring the water and rocks to bring me power.

lake lady

 

Fourteen years passed, and they were fourteen years of war and devastation. The Saxon armies invaded our territory time and time again. My husband Uther, weary of the constant battle, finally took ill and passed away, leaving his kingdom up for grabs among rogue warlords and enemies.

As king’s consort I managed best as I could. The men bickered among themselves, calling privy council after privy council to determine who should be the next king. Arthur should have been immediately declared so. But because of Merlin’s harebrained scheme, he had been raised as a ward, away from his true home. If he were to return to Camelot now and claim the throne, none would believe him.

The people of Britain at that time were a superstitious lot. They believed in marvels and miracles, great quests of honor and the divine right of princes. It was for this reason that I devised a scheme which would place my son upon the throne without doubt or question.

The Bishop of Canterbury, influenced by my Uncle Merlin, deemed a joust should be held to determine the new king. It would take place on New Year’s Day, 443, the year of Our Lord.

This, in and of itself, was a most outrageous and foolish notion! Jousting was a putrid and violent sport; it brought no good to anyone. Within it, perfectly capable and healthy men were maimed and wounded, leaving them disabled and unfit for battles against our true enemies! Jousts were held so that jeering and bloodthirsty crowds could name what they thought ‘a hero’. He that could withstand a horse’s back and the jab of a lance.

“But Arthur will surely win the joust,” Merlin insisted. “It is a most excellent plan!”

“Arthur is a boy of fifteen!” I spat. “I’ll not see him crippled in a joust. It is a most preposterous plan!”

I objected vehemently. Yet as a woman, my word held no weight. Instead I used my own sorcery to produce a most ingenious scheme, one that no one would question.

The people of Camelot were obsessed with weaponry and feats of strength. I reasoned that there must be some deed which could measure one’s power, yet bear no damage to another. A deed which would test a man’s ability over nature, over fear, over all elements. A test which would show, beyond any doubt, that the man able to perform it would indeed be the new king.

I retreated to my crystal cave for a period of deep meditation.

igraine cave

There, among the rocks and water, I called upon my ancestors to guide me. I consulted the goddess Cerridwen, the Morrigan, Viviane and the tribe of eternal Wise Women. Finally, the idea came to me. I told no one of my plan.

Outside the field where the great joust was to be held, I created a boulder. Upon that boulder I placed an anvil of pure iron.  (All this time I relied upon my own witchery, for no mortal woman could have lifted such a boulder, nor the anvil.)  I then fashioned a great silver sword, its blade sharp enough to slice the head of a boar, its handle heavy as the anvil itself. Within the anvil I inscribed the following directions:

“Whosoever can pull this sword from its stone shall be the undoubted, indisputable, indubitable King of Britain, deemed to rule for his lifetime and never questioned of his authority.”

arthur sword 2

New Years Day dawned, the morning of the joust. Spectators gathered. They stared with gaping mouths at the sword in the stone.

“Can it be?” they muttered among themselves. “The new king will be decided by pulling a sword from a stone? Such a simple task?”

“Simple task indeed!” I retorted hotly. “Go on then! Try your hand at it and see. Whoso among you dares to attempt this feat?”

One by one the men tried. There were knights and lords, men of great status as well as serfs and peasants who stood in line and attempted to lift the sword. Each effort was for naught.

Finally, Sir Ector rode up with his son Kai and Arthur in tow.

“Will you attempt the task, my Lord?” I said coyly to Ector, for – goddess help me – I could not resist a good prank.

Eagerly the man placed his grip upon the sword’s handle. Twist and tug as he might, the sword would not budge. Sweat burst from his brow until finally he gave up. “It will not move!” he yelped exasperatedly. “The thing is stuck like an oak to the soil.”

the sword in the stone

“Mayhap your son Kai shall attempt it,” I said, barely hiding my smirk.

Kai groped and toiled. The stubborn blade would not budge. He too broke a sweat before declaring, “It is an impossible task! One hundred men could not lift it!”

“And what of young Arthur?” I asked.

“If I and Kai could not lift it, all the more impossible it will be for Arthur,” said Sir Ector. “For I am a knighted lord; I have seen battle. My ward Arthur, abandoned at birth, has lead only the life of a farm hand.  He knows nothing of weaponry.”

“Oh doesn’t he?” I chided.  I could hold my anger no longer.

“For your information,” quothe I, “he was NOT abandoned at birth! Ever did you think he was taken from his mother’s arms, through no will nor decision of her own? Ever did you think he was intended for greater purposes, such that you, Sir Ector, could not possibly know?”

Ector looked at me dumbfounded, for it was unseemly for a widowed queen to speak so boldly. I cared not what they thought! I then took Arthur by the hand and helped him down from his horse. “You will try it,” I commanded.

Arthur’s eyes narrowed, then popped in recognition as he faced me. “Is it you?” he asked softly. “You are my… Mother?”

None had known of my secret visits to Ector’s farm. None had known, save Arthur and myself, that in the still of the night I had come to him. Together we’d board a small boat and I’d take him to Avalon, so that he could learn of his true bloodline and power.

Igraine 3

Perhaps before that moment, Arthur had thought those visits were mere dreams and imagination.  Now he  was to learn: imagination can lead to the making of a king.

“Of course it is me,” I said calmly. “Your Uncle Merlin had other plans for you, but it was I who knew your noble calling and prepared you for it.  Now!  Do not hesitate to do your duty!”

Within seconds Arthur had lifted the sword from the stone.

arthur stone

For the doubters among them, Arthur replaced the sword several times. Each time the anvil sealed around it like an iron prison. Many others made attempts at lifting it, each to no avail. Yet Arthur lifted it several times with ease. Finally the crowd conceded; it was  Arthur who was meant to rule as King of Britain.

Merlin cowered in a corner, hidden by the crowd. I went to him.

“Do not worry, Uncle,” I said. “While I do not forgive you, I will not torture you. I ask now that you return to Avalon for schooling. You see, your magic has always been imperfect. You have silly ideas. If Arthur is ever to rule as a worthy king, he must not be influenced by your dualistic nature. Therefore I banish you from Camelot.”

He had no choice but to leave.

From that day forward, per my request, all jousting was banned in the kingdom.

As for my son, he became the once and future king, ushering in an era of great peace and prosperity. He ruled with wisdom, kindness and grace, wedding his Queen Guinevere, and appointing twelve worthy knights to his round table.

arthur 3

 

 

 

 

Marcellus at Lupercalia

 

loin cloth

On the morning of Lupercalia we went first to the temple of Pan. It was here we paid tribute to the god of shepherds and nature, he that watched over all animals, including the beloved wolf, Lupa, for which this festival was named.

I was lucky, for I was among those of the Brotherhood, we the high priests who would be anointed with blood of the goat and dog. In the temple we raised our voices, shouted prayers to the hooved god, knelt in praise. We then passed wineskins, drank in camaraderie and offered the robes off our backs in sacrifice.

When devotions had ended, we marched down the cobbled streets wearing only our loincloths. In the village we met Calpurnia, of Juno’s temple. She held an alabaster jar and inside it, etched in parchment, were the names of every unwed maid in the city.

jar

Calpurnia shook the jar. “With the blessings of Juno and in hopes Cupid smiles upon you. May you have the maids you desire, gentlemen,” she said. She held out the jar to me. I was first to choose, for that year it was I who  represented Romulus.

I thrust my hand into the jar, twisting and extending my fingertips, all the while silently praying to Pan for a good match.

When I pulled up the parchment I saw the name: Lucretia. I knew of her, a modest girl, daughter of a widowed grain farmer. She claimed no fortune nor dowry yet her beauty had always astounded me.

“Lucretia.” Calpurnia smiled, ruby lips etching her white teeth. She raised a hand, beckoned to the girl who stood, arms crossed, her rain colored garments flowing in the February wind. She was lovely. But would she have me?

Lucretia glanced at her father who nodded and motioned her forward. The girl smiled, moved with an awkward grace and stood before me. “It seems, my lord, I am yours for the duration of this festival,” she said. She gave a stiff curtsey and I bowed before her. “I shall unite with you after the anointing,” she added. Before she moved to Calpurnia’s side her gray eyes caught mine. There was a teasing glint, a passing smile. She tossed her hair. “Be aware, Sir, I am of the cult of Diana.”

lucretia-2

It was an odd custom, the drawing of names from a jar. All matches were left to the Fates and the Gods. Yet in the case of Lucretia, I knew Pan had favored me.

When the Brotherhood had finished selection all the men of the village moved forward. Calpurnia dispensed names. Some were pleased and some appalled. “Take heart,” Brother Julian counseled Cicero, who had received the name of the plainest girl in all of Rome. “It’s only for a fortnight.” He winked. “And you, Brother Marcellus. You have been given a great gift. Lucretia is a beauty among beauties and the purest in the land.”

“Too pure for words,” Cicero added. “But also wild. It has been said no man will ever tame her.”

“Tame her?” I answered. “It is not my desire to tame her. Is it not said, the wilder they are the better they shall breed?” It was a bold claim on my part, and somewhat vulgar.  I should be so lucky as to bed her.  The cult of Diana were sworn virgins, every last one of them.

With the other high priests I proceeded to the cave of Lupercal. It was there that Lupa the she wolf had once nursed Remus and Romulus. They were, the legend says, abandoned by their natural mother and then suckled to health from Lupa’s teat. Later they founded our great state of Rome, and indeed it was only one fierce as a wolf that could be worthy of such a founding.

The sacrificial animals were brought to the cave. Two young goats and a dog. With my blade I sliced their throats.

Brother Julian took my knife. He cleaned it with a cloth of wool that had been soaked in milk. He then drained the animals’ blood and anointed the forehead of each priest. “The blood of life,” he said solemnly. “May your women prove fertile as the earth.”

Once anointed, we proceeded to skin the hides off the animals. We soaked the hides in lukewarm salt water and vinegar, toughening them into the februa strands, those that would be used to strike the women.

“Remember to hit softly,” Julian cautioned. “So  they not be afraid. We want them eager for more. Their loins will then spill with their own milk to bring you sons and daughters.”

The next morning, armed with our februa strands, all the men of the village lined up for the run. The women laughed and gossiped, whispering in each other’s ears. They leaned like soft willows along the buildings and aqueducts. They were quarry, waiting to be caught by we the hunters.

Lucretia was nowhere to be seen.

Calpurnia chimed the bell and the februa run began. Swift on my feet, I softly struck as many maids as I could reach.  “To make you fertile, to make you bountiful, to ease your pain in childbirth,” I chanted along with the other men. The women, although feigning pain, deliberately stood in our way. Only those that were touched by our goat hides, so said the legend, would be able to bear children.

lupercalia-large

After the run Calpurnia led us to the great dining hall. Before we entered she took hold of my shoulder. “Marcellus,” she said, “Have you not seen your young maid?”

“No Madame,” I answered, “and of it I am quite disappointed.”

“Remember she is a child of Diana and therefore not easily moved.” Calpurnia tilted her head, smiled broadly and rested her gaze across the dining hall. “There she is. Not too proud to attend the feast. Go to her, boy!”

I bowed to Calpurnia, made my way across the hall. At the end of a long oak table sat Lucretia, a goblet of wine in her hands.

“Brother Marcellus,” she greeted me. “Please accompany me.” She patted her long, sun brown hand on the bench I quickly sat beside her.

“I missed you at the run of februa,” I said, stammering slightly.

“The hide of goat to insure fertility?” She scowled, popped her gray eyes at me. “Surely you do not believe such a lame custom?”

“We of the Brotherhood, my lady, are instructed to believe in such.”

“The Brotherhood is falsity!”

“My lady?”

“You heard me. Falsity I say!”

“I beg pardon my lady, but the fertility of goat hide is our custom and our belief. In this I have been trained and in this hold the title of Romulus Luperci.”

“Luperci!” she sneered. “When he meal is finished, I shall take you to the wood.”

Although the venison and goat’s meat were tasty I barely noticed them. My thoughts were only upon Lucretia. When the feast was finished the mummers aligned for the evening’s entertainment. Lucretia took my hand. “Now,” she said.

“What of the pageantry my lady?”

“Rot the pageantry!” she nearly screamed, gray eyes blazing. “Would you not rather see the vast pageantry of Diana’s wood?”

I could not refuse her. Together we slipped from the dining hall. She led me through the streets of Rome, past the coliseum and the temples, past the merchant’s square and the emperor’s palace. She led me far into the forest. The grass was stiff with winter’s frost.  Night had fallen and the Quickening Moon shone bright and full. In the distance stags and deer pranced freely, pausing to watch us as we passed. Finally she reached a myrtle tree, its enormous branches full with tiny buds.

myrtle-tree-2

“Here,” she declared. “Remove your loincloth.”

Her lovemaking was passionate and strong, with the timing and precision of one who has never in her life been a virgin. No blood spilled beneath her. She smiled, arched an eyebrow, stretched a finger across my cheek. I dared not question her.

“Not all the women of Diana are virgins,” she offered. “Do not let it perplex you, Marcellus.”  She breathed in my ear, climbed atop me again. I was young, virile and not yet spent.

We made love four times before the yellow sun poured its rays through the trees. I fell asleep in her arms.

When I awoke she was gone. The myrtle tree stood, now towering and ripe with flower.

myrtle-tree

The air was hot, steamy as the bath houses in summer.  The grass had grown thick around me.  I stood up, my legs stiff and depleted. In the far distance I saw a new wheat field, golden with stalk. On wobbly legs I walked.

The landscape of the forest had changed. Orange and lemon trees towered above me, fruit falling off their limbs. Flowers of every genus sprouted from the ground. Tangled vines extended before me like tentacles of octopi, heavy with purple grapes. I trudged on.

In all seriousness, I knew I must get back to the temple of Pan.  My duties as Luperci were not yet complete. But Lucretia? What had happened to her? Surely she had returned to the village, to her father. I decided, right then and there, I would ask her father for her hand in marriage. It was only fitting. Such a wife she would make — beautiful, ravishing, unstoppable! I wondered if she was already with child.

At the edge of the forest I tripped over a mass of gray fur, a curled body, soft and warm against my sandals. Clumsily I fell to the ground. Lucretia had exhausted me and I felt very sleepy and dazed.  In my stupor I rubbed my eyes, not believing the blurred sight before me.

It was a wolf stretched out on the grass. Five tiny pups suckled her teats. The wolf lifted her head, gray eyes glinting.  She bared her teeth, white and pearly against her jowls, but not unkind.

wolf-and-pups

The wolf sat up, lapped her tongue against my cheek. “Your intentions are well, but you need not marry me, Marcellus,” she said. “I have no dowry and besides, my duty is forever to Diana’s land. Rest assured you have served your role well. Now we shall part forever.”

I crouched down beside her. “I will have you,” I said quietly.  “You are a shifter, a child of Diana. I see that now. But nonetheless I will have you.”

The wolf stood upon sturdy legs. She tilted her head, perked her ears as if she meant to say more, but then in a flash she bolted into the forest. The five tiny pups scurried after her.

There was a rustle in the trees and I looked above me.  There in the branches, the god Cupid stood, half naked, holding his bow and arrow. He winked at me and in one swift movement he shot his arrow, hitting the wolf straight in the back.

eros

She then transformed. She was Lucretia, gray eyes, hair in disarray, her simple dress the color of rain, clinging to her sweaty body. She walked toward me.

“Brother Marcellus,” Cupid called from the tree.  I looked up. He hung like a sloth, sultry smile on his face. “You will love her, and she will love you. But there will always be a wildness in her and you will never completely tame her. Do not try.” He then vanished.

Cupid was right. My wife was a night prowler, forever chasing the moon, quick of temper, insatiable for sex. My daughters, all five, and the sons that followed would never be completely tamed either.  We had grandchildren, great grandchildren, and more after that, generations that lasted long after the Feast of Lupercalia was forgotten. Our ancient festival was swallowed up in the more ‘civilized’ traditions of Valentines and chocolates.

And yet.

Ever after that all descendants of Lucretia and myself were thought to have bit of the wolf-blood within them. Our descendants scattered to all corners of the world.

If you, dear reader, have been drawn into this story, or if you have gone giddy under a Quickening Moon, or if you have ever fallen truly, madly and inexplicably in love by the shot of Cupid’s arrow — well then, you just may be one of those descendants!

red-riding-hood-amanda-seyfried-shiloh-fernandez-photo

 

 

Return to the Underworld

 

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Demeter:

Autumn is, by my own hand and bidding, the bleakest of seasons. It is then I make the world wither and die.  Would you expect less of me? My beloved daughter Persephone is taken from me once again. She must return to the abode of the dead, forever at the mercy of her husband Hades.  And I, the great grain goddess, go into a state of grief, near madness. I make no secret of this.  As I suffer, the world around me suffers as well.

Leaves drop from their branches, fruit rots on its vines.  Fields go barren, animals grow lean with starvation. The sun, once vibrant and gold, flickers intermittently, its warmth sporadic.  The days grow shorter, the nights eerie and long.  Dank cold sets in, gales of rough winds churning.  Soon all the rivers and ponds will freeze with black ice, fish trapped beneath.  All things must die. This is my only revenge, to cut sunlight from the world of the living.

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I blame Hades, of course.  It was he, the dark lord, who kidnapped my daughter, making her his child bride. Though he may be ruler of the Underworld, he is not fit for a wife such as she!

I still remember that day in the Sicilian fields. My daughter Persephone had been gathering grapes, sweet and purple as heather. How she loved to pluck them! It was her utmost joy. The innocence of childhood still bubbled within her. She knew nothing of the world. She was, as I recall, quite young.

Then suddenly, the land gaped open in a hideous crack.  I heard a blood curdling shriek as Sir Hades galloped up on his horse, a black stallion. In one fell sweep he scooped up my baby.

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Down, down, they rode, into the abyss of the earth, mud sputtering.  I chased them but Hades’ stallion outran me. Tar lurched as they entered the bowels of hell. I watched, powerless and bereft. The gap of land sealed, trapping them beneath. My beloved Persephone was gone, leaving only the sun dappled fields behind, her basket of grapes tipped over and spilled on the grass.  

I sunk to my knees and wept.

What Hades did to my child in the Underworld, I dare not imagine!  The gory details are too hideous for a mother to ponder.  I only know that somehow he bribed my girl with pomegranate seeds. Yes bribery!  Leave it to a rogue like Hades to concoct a shrewd scheme. Somehow he convinced Persephone to eat a full six seeds, thus binding her to the darkness.

Six seeds, ripe and perfect, all ingested by my child. And each of those seeds insured that she could never be fully released from the wretched prison of the Underworld. Yet there were also six seeds left uneaten. Thank the heavens for that.  Therefore we reached a compromise, Hades and I.  It was agreed that for six months out of the year my child would reside with the dark lord, but for the six remaining months she’d return home to me.   To be clear, it was NOT a generous compromise. I objected adamantly. However, my brother Zeus insisted it was the best that could be arranged.

And so, it is for this reason I wreak  winter’s havoc upon the earth, depriving all living things of food and sustenance. As I suffer, so all must suffer!

Today is the autumn equinox and Hades has come to claim her.   Thus we are parted, my daughter and I, until springtime.

I  curse this land.

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Persephone:

Gentle human, lend me your ear.  Has my mother Demeter been bending it with her tales of woe?  Has she told you of how, for six long months she will be separated from me, her baby daughter?  How today, at autumn’s equinox, I am banished to the Underworld where I must reside with my evil husband until my joyous return in the spring?   Oh, I can just hear her, voice whining like a sad violin!  Spare me of it!  The story she tells could not be further from the truth.

The day my lord Hades rescued me from the drab labor of the Sicilian fields was the happiest day of my life. Do you know what I did in those fields? My uncle Zeus forced me to pick grapes. Grapes! To be made into wine for his vast banquets. I toiled for hours in the blazing sun, my hands raw under the vines, my back burnt red-brown.  I was no better than a common slave.  Oh, how I wished that fruit would wither upon its vine!  And then, in further humiliation, I was made to crush the grapes with my own feet, slithering peels wrapped between my toes. When Hades finally rescued me I was nothing but a sad waif, smelling of concord and sugar, purple stains etched in my hands and heels.

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I still remember, clear as crystal, the day my dark lord came for me. Riding upon his black steed, he emerged like a knight from the red caverns of the earth. Never had I seen a man more stunning, more virile or more handsome!  I abandoned my work, craning my neck to get a closer look. My heart raced.  I was by then a woman, having reached my eighteenth name day, though my mother still thought me a child.   Hades said nothing to me, all communication smoldered within his eyes.  I understood.  When he extended his hand I knew my life would be changed in that instant.

My lord Hades was the kindest, gentlest of all the gods, and when he asked me to become his bride I did not hesitate for one moment. He offered me a pomegranate which I eagerly bit into, pink succulence twirling on my tongue.  Hades then cautioned me about eating the seeds. He advised I leave some behind on the table, so that I could still be permitted to return to earth if I chose.

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Return to earth? However could he think such a thing? I had no interest in earth! I wanted only to live in his world, far away from my prying mother and my tedious uncle. But alas, the dark lord insisted:

“Leave six seeds uneaten,” he said. “Do this not for yourself but as an act of kindness toward your mother.  She misses you tremendously and grieves each day you are gone.  Do it also as a generosity to humankind, for Demeter has made the earth barren in your absence.  If you agree to visit with her for even a part of the year she will replenish the grain and fruit.  Humankind and their animals will therefore never starve.”

His manner was so humble, his voice so true.  I could not refuse him. Nor could I be responsible for the starvation of humankind and their beloved animals!  And so I spat out six pomegranate seeds, lining them up neatly upon Hades’ table. He nodded solemnly.  “An agreement will be reached,” he assured me.

My dark lord and I were married that day on the shores of the River Styx, Charon and Cerberus presiding.  With no reservations I pledged myself to Hades, his eternal bride.

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Because of the agreement, every year at the vernal equinox I  must return to the land of the living. I visit Demeter for six months. During this time she makes the earth rich with wheat and barley, apples, grapes, even pomegranates, and all manner of fruits and vegetables. The sun beats down upon us and the rivers run cool.

By summer’s end the fields are tired, overwrought from their busy production. The land needs a rest, and I too need a rest from my mother’s over-protection and my uncle’s stern hand.

When the autumn equinox arrives it is the most glorious of all days!  The earth brandishes its jewels, landscape scattered with ruby leaves.  The sun lowers  to golden haze and the temperature grows cool. It is then the cavern of the Underworld opens and Hades greets me once again.

 

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I then return to my true home, where I rule in splendor for six months.

In the Underworld servants dote on me and Orpheus serenades with his lyre.  Charon brings his passengers, the newly dead, to the shores of our river. There I greet them with joy, welcoming them to our abode. I am respected and loved. Best of all, my uncle Zeus can never make me crush grapes again!

However, I am unhappy with this bothersome six month contract.  I vow to dismantle it!

And I will.

Sometime in the 21st century I  plan to present my case to the Council of Olympus. The weather upon planet earth will  then became chaotic. Winter will seem as summer and vice versa. Tornadoes and hurricanes will  wreak havoc upon the land. There will be tsunamis, earthquakes and blizzards, causing much destruction.

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I must warn you, gentle human, do not to be alarmed. There is no warming of your globe, nor have you brought this inclement weather upon yourselves.  It is only me and my lord Hades, attempting to bargain with Demeter.  Hot tempered, she shall take her vengeance out on the earth.

But fear not. When I renegotiate my contract all will be well.  The earth shall be restored, replenished and free of chaos. It is then my mother Demeter and my Uncle Zeus will finally release their hold upon me. It is then I’ll take my true and rightful place where I will live in bliss, year long, by my husband’s side.

As above, so below. The world shall be at peace and so shall I.

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Forbidden

 

EVE temptation

“Don’t you dare eat the fruit of that tree,” my husband Adam commanded me. “It is forbidden.”  Oh, but the apples looked so delicious!  Scarlet and gold, so ripe they practically fell off the branches. My mouth watered at the very sight of them.

Before then I had known only one way of life.  Speak when spoken to.  Answer to my husband, attend  his every need and (worst of all!)  listen with feigned amusement to his dull jokes and long winded stories.  I had no ideas, no discourse, no opinions of my own. My husband insisted  this must be so, for I — lowly creature that I was —  had been created from a rib.  A rib!  Bone-cold and useless, pulled from Adam’s very belly.  I had no sensibilities, no sensitivities, no reasoning powers of my own.

“Eve,” Adam told me, “your brain is pulp.” He picked an apple from the tree, sliced it in half with his carving knife. “Your mind is no better than these seeds.” He dug his fingers in the crevasses of the fruit, picked out the brown seeds, and, in disgust, flicked them like bugs off his fingers.  He then smashed the apple in the palm of his hand and flung it far across the garden where it fell among the droppings of my pet unicorns and pterodactyls. “Go to bed  now Eve,” he ordered me, finality in his voice.

But sleep would not come on a night such as this!  The black sky twinkled with stars and the moon shone bright as a silver jewel.  I wandered back to the orchard, grass wet against my bare feet.

They will tell you it was a snake that tempted me.  A snake!  Do you know any woman in her right mind who would get within a stone’s throw of a boa constrictor?

Oh no.  My tempter was a man, full fleshed and handsome, with a body rippled as the waves on the sea and a voice full of velvet and earth.

 

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He never promised me knowledge. He never actually promised me anything.  He only made one claim. “You, Eve,” he said, “shall be the mother of all humanity.”

He reached a long arm in the darkness and picked an apple from the tree.  With perfect white teeth  he bit into it,  twirling the fruit on his tongue.  I watched as he swallowed, the bulge in his throat bobbing.

 

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He licked his lips, brushed juice from his mouth with the back of his hand then studied me with wide lustful eyes.  Never, in the history of all the world, has there been a gesture so tempting.

“This apple,” he said, “is of no consequence.” He threw the bare core in the grass.  “What you need you have always had.”  He moved closer, his breath hot against my neck.   “It is hidden here,” he whispered, gently tapping his  fingers to my temples. “Inside your mind. Therein lies all wisdom,  all intuition, all femaleness. You are  powerful as the ever-changing  moon.” He pointed to the sky and the moon illuminated his face in the darkness. “But you must learn to trust your own thoughts,” he added.

Trust my own thoughts?  Such a thing had never been suggested to me!  Not by Adam, not by the other one, he who had claimed to be my father.

They will tell you I was banished from that garden. Oh no! Not I. The truth is  I left of my own volition, for how could I stay?  That very night I rounded up my unicorns, whistled for my pterodactyls. Hand in hand with the apple man I exited. My birds spun in a feathery stream, their chirping sweet as the pipes of Pan. My unicorns glided behind me in a white trail.

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The apple? I never bothered eating it.

apple public domain

 

This story is in response to the Daily Prompt: Forbidden

Pandora’s Box

 

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They told me not to open it. Well now.  If Zeus did want me to open it, he should not have given it to me in the first place.   A women’s curiosity?  Bah!  They always need someone to blame, don’t they?  But don’t believe everything you hear.

Come closer. I will tell you the TRUE story.

It was Zeus, my uncle, who gave me the box. All the while he ordered me to leave it clamped shut. “Do not touch it, Pandora,” he commanded, his voice full of curmudgeon contempt. “If you dare open it, the consequences will be great.”

I paid him no heed.  Zeus!  I owed him no favors!  Had he not raped and pillaged and punished? There was Leda the swan, his own wife Hera, my mother Demeter.  He had sent many a plague upon my kin.  He deserved no obedience from me, nor anyone else!

I sat in silence for awhile, mesmerized as I examined the  box.

Oh, such a beautiful thing it was!  A clear glass full of sparkling liquid crystal.  Every color of the rainbow exuded from it. Such joy lie within it!  Miracles were contained beneath its very walls. That I knew somehow, without being told.  And all of this wonder was at my tingling fingertips!

I fondled the  box, pressed my hands upon it, felt its warmth. I smelled its great smells of honeysuckle and lavender, felt the stirrings inside myself as my heartbeat quickened.  Inside that box, I thought, must be love itself.

Finally, I could stand it no longer!  I jiggled the  lid. The stubborn box remained shut but I jiggled again, prying the top. At last  it opened and nearly exploded, its rainbow of colors cascading across the sky. Oh, what a marvelous sight it was!  I watched, dumbfounded and speechless.

 

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It was then my mother Demeter found me.

“Pandora!” she shouted. “Foolish girl.  The contents of that box are all my  sacredness, all my secrets! And you have let them go.”

In a fluster Demeter reached to the sky, attempting to gather up the spilled rainbow. But alas, it was too much to contain!  Such a thing it was, seeping  through the clouds, spilling into rocks and water and plants, into the steam of hot springs and the forgings of fire. Into the trees and the wind itself.

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“Oh daughter,” Demeter scolded me.  “You have made a chaos! Such knowledge,  acquired by the wrong factions…”  She hesitated and scowled.

My mother put her hands on her hips, watched as the colors dissipated far into the earth’s hidden places. She shook her head and thought a long time. Finally she looked upon me, held up one finger and said, “I know a solution.”

By then I was ashamed of my brash actions. I had succumbed to the temptation of beauty, of that bright and shiny thing within my reach.  “What solution will it be, mother?” I asked sheepishly.

Demeter smiled. “I will create covens of women. They will be of a special blood, and they alone will be privy to the  box’s magick. They will find it in rocks and plants and fire and sky as it has dispersed itself over the world.   They will  create potions and use my sacred knowledge. Only they shall have the power to save humankind.”

I gasped. Such a race? It seemed unimaginable.  But Demeter only looked at me, her eyes glittering and rich.

“These women,” she said, “shall be called Witches.”

 

The_Three_Witches_from_Shakespeares_Macbeth_by_Daniel_Gardner,_1775

 

This post is in response to The Daily Prompt ‘open’  pingback

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/open/

A Beltane Tale (Part Two)

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** Please read Part One first 🙂  A Beltane Tale: Part One

After Beltane the days grow bright, the summer sun golden as shadows stretch long in the early evening. There is more time for chores and tedious tasks. Marion does as she has been taught in the Priory; washes laundry in the river, sheers the sheep, brings the cows back for milking from their lazy afternoons at pasture.

But Marion is changed and now she grows restless, She thinks often of the green-hooded man she met in the forest. Was he real or merely a dream? She wonders this only to herself, sharing the story with no one, for on Beltane all manner of illusions and trickery are like to happen.  And yet, there is the lock of hair she found beneath her pillow, along with the note etched in green cambric. Surely they must be his,  and surely he is real. Real as the flesh she has touched, real as his seed that spilled within her. She has taken that lock of hair and that swatch of green cambric and placed them in a locket that she wears beneath her kirtle, keeping them always close to her heart.

She knows only that she loves him. She longs to see him again.

The Prioress seems to read her mind. “What irks you, my child?” she asks one morning as they break the night’s fast. The matrons have brought fresh honey, cheese and pannam, but Marion can eat none of it. Instead, she stares at the Prioress. She longs to tell everything! But how could such a woman understand?

The Prioress  takes Marion’s hand and nods knowingly. “You traveled alone to the Greenwood on Beltane, did you not, my child?” Marion nods timidly. “And stood you in the ring of mushrooms as well?”  Marion nods again. She cannot lie to the Prioress.

“Ah well. You had been warned against THAT.” The Prioress cocks her head. “THAT is a thing which brings trouble and mischief.” The Prioress purses tight lips. Marion expects a reprimand, but instead the Prioress softens. “The Greenwood,” she sighs.  “I know it well. You are of an age, daughter, and such things of the flesh beckon you. I understand.” She clasps her hands together. “Although you may find it hard to believe. I too was once young.”  Marion blinks wide eyes. She feels her cheeks grow hot. She thinks of the touch of the man who called himself Robin.  How could the Prioress, so gentle and proper, in her stiffly starched robes, ever possibly understand?

“I was not always living in this nunnery.” The Prioress smiles. “I know something of desire, my girl.”

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She winks a sly wink and Marion is near come undone!  The Prioress has raised her since childhood. She is indeed the only mother Marion has ever known.  Yet to speak of this, to speak of these intimacies, it is more than shame!

“What keep you in the locket, child?” the Prioress asks. “The one you wear beneath your kirtle since the Beltane.”  Still embarrassed, Marion pulls out the locket, revealing the lock of Robin’s hair and the stitched note. “Well, it is settled then,” the Prioress says.  She runs her fingers over the cambric swatch. “You must go to the Greenwood and find him.”

Just then comes a knock at the door. Sister Jude-Thomas leaps to answer it. Behind the heavy oak lurks the Sheriff Nottingham.

“Reverend Mother.” He approaches and gives a bow of greeting to the Prioress. “Forgive me for disrupting your break of fast, but I have urgent news. I fear there is trouble in the village.”

“Trouble?” the Prioress asks coolly. She hides Marion’s locket in her lap.

“Aye, Madame,” the Sheriff continues. “It seems a band of hoodlums have been caught poaching game upon Lord Weatherly’s manor grounds. Two deer have gone missing and quiver of stray arrows found on the land. I seek only to warn you, Madame, and alert you of the danger, for this band of outlaws are most despicable. One wears a cloak of green. All are armed with bow and arrow.”

“Thank you Sheriff,” the Prioress answers. She gives him a tight lipped smile, one that suggests the visit has ended. Sister Jude-Thomas leads him to the door and he exits politely.

“Quick now, Marion,” the Prioress whispers. “You must go to the Greenwood.  He waits for you there.” Marion is taken aback. She almost refuses, but the Prioress presses the locket to her hand. Marion feels  Robin’s hair, thick and smooth on her fingers.  Yes, yes! She must go.

Marion runs through the forest, May grass soft against her slippered feet. In the bramble she spies him, a flash of green cloak, the hood that covers his face. “Robin!” she dares call his name and he turns. “My lady.” He smiles and runs toward her, pack of arrows jiggling on his back. She falls to his chest, his long, strong arms circling around her.

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Just then there is a rustle of leaves, the clap of horse hooves upon the dirt road. It is Constable Sloane, the Sheriff’s man, come to capture him!

“Robin, you must flee!” Marion whispers desperately in his ear. “They accuse you of poachery. They will lock you in a cell!”  He should fear for his life, but he only smiles flippantly. “The Sheriff’s men have no claim to me,” he says.  “But you, Marion…” He runs a finger across her cheek. “There is a possibility, my fair maid, that you may have many a claim upon me.”

The Constable Sloane then spies them in the thicket. He rides closer, halting his horse and pulling a sword from his sheath. “Outlaw!” he yells. “Outlaw and poacher! Make not a move or I’ll slice you in two!”  He points the blade to Robin’s neck. Marion’s heart beats fast as a rabbit’s, but Robin only smiles. He gently pushes Marion away. “Run now, run quickly,” he commands but she cannot move, her feet firmly on the earth. Oh no.  She will not leave his side, that she knows.

“Girl, move away from that villain!” the Constable shouts, but Marion does not budge.

“Lay down your arms, Sloane,” Robin says calmly. “Lest you injure this maid.”

“If she be one of yourn I’ll not lack to kill her too!” the Constable retorts.

“She is of the Priory,” Robin says.  “An innocent.” That should be of some status, surely. Yet the Constable keeps the blade firmly pointed under Robin’s chin.  Just then Will Scarlet and Alan of Dale emerge from the bushes, their brown garments blending like extensions of the trees.  In one swift move they aim arrows, surrounding the Constable.

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“Lay down your rapier, Sloane!” Will Scarlet commands, but instead the Constable pierces the blade closer to Robin’s neck, drawing a pinch of blood.  Marion winces, then throws herself in front of him. “Take me first!” she shrieks.  “Stand down, Marion!” Robin commands.  In that very moment Will Scarlet shoots his arrow. The Constable, struck, tumbles from his horse like a sack of lumpy flour.

“Quick now Marion!” Robin shouts. He grabs her hand and the two run through the forest till they come to the place where the mushrooms grow wild in a ring.

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Robin holds her close. The purple sky swirls around them like a fierce tornado. In minutes they fall through, down the hole of the earth to a soft landing, the place where on Beltane the fairy folk danced and played fiddles.  Even now Marion hears strains of their music in the distance.

“’Twas a narrow escape,” Robin says. “But Nottingham’s men, they’ve got nothing upon me. Not a stitch.” Marion looks into his eyes. Dark as kohl, they seem to swallow her as the earth itself has swallowed her. “Who are you?” she asks, her mouth dry as dust.

Robin only smiles, pulls her closer and runs splayed fingers through her hair.  He kisses her, his lips warm satin against her cheek.  It is as though the earth has stopped in its orbit and time itself stands still. He kisses her again, full and wet on the mouth. In that moment she forgets her question, forgets her very self and falls deep into his arms.

She knows only that she is loved and safe, here in the underworld with this man they call ‘outlaw’.

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