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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A Beltane Tale (Part One)

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On Beltane eve Marion goes to bed early. She places sprigs of heather and mint  beneath her pillow. Her room in the priory is sparse, with a lone straw bed and one window where the beloved moon shines its silver light.  Marion, an orphan, has been raised here by the good Prioress. She has been well  cared for. But she longs for more, she longs to be free of the confines of the walls, the trap she never asked for.

If Marion wakes in this night surely it will be the fairies come to take her away to their underground home. Each year she prays for this; each year it does not happen.

On Beltane morning she rises at dawn. She goes with the other girls to the gardens  where they collect hawthorne and wild flowers. They weave  garlands to wear on their heads.   They return to the village where the men have built a maypole. Large and mighty, the pole towers, decorated with ribbons, every color of the rainbow. At noontide the matrons serve a great feast; mutton, spring greens, porridge and violet cakes.

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There is a legend that on Beltane the Green Man comes to the forest to claim his lover, the May Queen.  She is wife of the Winter King, and he is lack to give her up. But the Green Man persists and eventually wins the lady. The Winter King is defeated until Samhain when all things of summer will die.  The mummers in the town square reenact the story and Marion watches as the lovely May Queen is taken by the Green Man.  He sweeps her in his strong arms, her long hair cascading against his bare chest. Marion is jealous. When will such a love come for her? Surely now she is of age, having reached her eighteenth name day.  The Green Man and his lady then retire to the forest, for nuptials of their own.

There is dancing. The revelers braid strands of the maypole together and step to the music. Lass, lad. Lass, lad.   Even the Sheriff and the Friar and Prioress join in.   Great fires are lit as the sun sets low. Those brave of heart and long of leg dare jump over the Beltane fires. Not Marion, for she has been raised to be cautious.

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After the maypole dancing, when the embers of the fire grow low, many a couple traverse to the wood. There, they too will bless the land in their own way, making it fertile for the summer.  Although Marion has no man to claim as her own, she follows.   Alan of Dale and his girl Eleanor hide in the bushes, as do Will Scarlet and Lucy Sprint.  Marion knows what they do and she dares not look. Instead, alone she walks deeper into the forest, her flickering rushlight guiding her way. Orion’s constellation twinkles above her.  It is then she comes upon the ring of mushrooms.

Oh, she knows the legend well.  Were she to stand in the middle of that circle for long enough — so goes the tale — the fae folk will come for her.  And never will she see the mortal world again.  She has been warned, all her life she has been warned of this.  And yet, it is what she has longed for.  But is this tale true?

Marion stands, still as rock till the sky swirls purple around her. And then, like a fall down a well, a sweep of wind and soft landing, she is there, in the underworld.   They surround her, these peculiar people, bent of ear and wide of eye.  It is then Marion sees him, a man in green robes with a hood. He is handsome. Dark eyed  with thick hair that brushes his shoulders.  “Milady,” he bows, “I am called Robin, and your escort I shall be.”

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What follows is much merry making and drinking of elder flower wine.  The fairies play fiddles, music loud and jaunty. There is Dancing. Dancing in a circle, faster, much faster than ever at the maypole in the village.  And Robin. He takes Marion’s hand, spins her in a reel and she twirls beneath his arm.  Then he leads her away to a place of seclusion, a place in the meadow where the ground around is soft.  There, he removes her kirtle and skivvies  and she lies mother-naked before him.

He plays her body like a harp, plucking its strings and secret places, a thousand butterflies released as his seed spills inside her.  One time is not enough to satisfy either of them and they repeat the act, again and again until at last they fall to each other’s arms exhausted.

Oh, how she loves him! Truly and deeply. She loves him as she has loved  the moon and her dreams, for he is the forest itself. He is animal and outlaw, dangerous and forbidden. He is all of life and all she desires.

Finally the sky splinters pink daybreak and the sun peeks its gold rays.  She sleeps in Robin’s arms.

In the morning of May 2nd  she awakens in her priory bed. The sprigs of heather and mint still reside beneath her pillow. But there is more. A lone lock of hair, and a note stitched on a green cambric swatch. “To my May Queen ,” it reads. “From Robin, with love.”

She sighs.

It will be a long wait until the next Beltane.

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Want to read more Marion?  Continued here: A Beltane Tale: Part Two