By Kathy Bryson
“Whadda I miss?”
Startled by the thump of his boss’s sudden appearance, Robert glared at him, but clenched his teeth to keep from saying what he thought. There was a reason the man was called Trog, short for Troglodyte. A former football player, now going to seed, Trog was not a small man and not known for his quiet grace. He was much better remembered for leaving the field littered with groaning opponents. Still he was a nice guy and a good boss, so telling him off wasn’t a smart idea.
Instead, Robert lifted one finger to his pursed lips and nodded, indicating the clearing in front of him. The woods behind the Old Jennings’ Place Bed & Breakfast were largely untouched though the owners had cleared out brush from the road to the gorge, both to prevent wildfires and to gather firewood for the house. The small bare space then, ringed by white pines and the odd fir, was naturally occurring. In the pale moonlight, it was spooky, even the evergreens skeletal and feeble in the cool of twilight.
Another thump made Robert jump again. Leaning around his boss’ bulk, he glared at the skinny, young man who plopped down next to the two already crouched on the forest floor.
“Hey Thumbs,” Trog greeted the newcomer.
“Have they started yet?” Thumbs pulled out a bag of candy and offered it to Robert who shook his head and tried not to wince visibly at the sound of paper crackling.
“Look,” he whispered. “We have to be quiet if we’re going to be here.”
“I thought you said they didn’t mind if we watched.” Trog frowned at the candy bar he’d pulled from Thumb’s bag and pulled the bag closer to rummage around in it.
Thumbs grinned at his friend and stuck a lollypop in his mouth. “She said she didn’t mind if Robert watched, but she couldn’t speak for the rest of the coven.”
Trog’s eyes opened nearly as wide as his mouth, but Robert clamped a hand quickly over it. Then he grimaced and quickly removed his hand. Trog might have been a laid-back boss, but he wasn’t that relaxed. “I checked,” he muttered. “The High Priestess said it would be okay if no one saw me, and I let her read my paper first. I’m interviewing her tomorrow.”
Trog quirked an eyebrow as he examined a bright-red cinnamon drop. “Seems like a lot of trouble for a term paper. Couldn’t you just look something up?”
“Good anthropology pulls from primary sources first.” Robert pulled a sucker out of the candy bag. “Now please, we have to be quiet.”
Trog started to retort but broke off as a high-pitched fluting and drumming wafted through the frozen landscape. A small parade of cloaked and hooded figures wound in and out of the trees from the direction of the parking lot. They cast shadows that leaped suddenly to monstrous heights as the coven entered the clearing and took up positions in a semi-circle. Robert ignored the frantic shushing beside him and picked up a pair of binoculars neatly arranged on top of a stack of notebooks.
The fluting died away as flames from the newly-lit fire flicked higher. The drumming continued, a slow steady pounding that almost drowned out the figure who stepped forward into the firelight with uplifted arms. The figure waited a moment, then turned abruptly and snatched at the drummer’s sticks. Her hood fell back to reveal a tumbled mass of white hair. Behind him in the bushes, Robert heard Trog choke back a snort of laughter.
Stepping forward once again, the woman in the lead lifted her hands and cried out, “We come this night to celebrate Beltane, to welcome the Spring. We invoke the Goddess. We invoke the Green Man. Welcome Brigit! Welcome Cernunnos!”
“Now this is interesting,” a new voice murmured in Robert’s ear. Looking over his shoulder, he wasn’t surprised to see his other boss, Professor Smith, settling cross-legged into the underbrush.
“Imbolc was originally the Gaelic festival for celebrating Spring. Beltane was celebrated in early summer when cattle were let out into the fields.”
Robert groaned, but inwardly. He was pretty sure that Professor Smith was well-read on all things Gaelic, just as he was pretty sure that the man had never actually met a cow. But it really wouldn’t do to correct the owner of the bed and breakfast where he lived and worked. Dropping his head into his hands, Robert winced as he banged it on the binoculars. Thumbs snorted but peered interestedly over at the campfire when Robert glared at him.
The woman leading the procession still chanted.
“Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands:
Courtsied when you have and kiss’d
The wild waves whist,
Foot it featly here and there;
And, sweet sprites, the burthen bear.
A dozen voices joined in the last barking command, shouts ranging from ululating cries to whoops of huzzah. As the sound exploded across the clearing, echoes bounced among the barren branches, and the drummer pounded his drums with his his hands in lieu of drumsticks to create a driving beat that chased the high tweedle of flutes and pipes through the dell. Leaping and twirling, the figures danced and cavorted in abandon, throwing off their robes in echo of the priestess’ shout.
Robert lifted the binoculars to his eyes and nearly poked his eye out. He hadn’t quite expected what he now saw.
Beside him, Trog choked. He’d swallowed the cinnamon drop and seemed to regret it. Wiping his eyes, he rasped, “You never said they were gonna get naked!”
“I believe it’s call sky-clad,” the professor behind them murmured. He sounded at least as taken-aback if slightly more grammatical.
Thumbs stared wide-eyed at the frenzied dancers around the bonfire, then lowered his gaze to where his lollypop had fallen from his slack jaw. “Oh man, my candy’s all dirty.”
“Who cares about that?” Trog bounced on his feet, still crouched, panic in his voice. “My wife is gonna kill me.”
“I’m sure it won’t be that bad,” the professor started, but Thumbs interrupted.
“No, no, it’ll be fine. It’s science.” He nodded towards the shadowy figures that whirled in the distance. “We should stay and watch. You know, for research.”
“Will you guys shut up!”
“Your wife is gonna kill you!” Trog’s voice hit a new and urgent squeak.
“It’ll be fine,” the professor started, but his voice died away.
A dark shadow loomed over the group. Huddled at the edge of the clearing, they should have been invisible to the dancers. But this shadow rose up from behind, a sinister menace, and hung over the four men in ominous portent. Even in the gloom of twilight, it was a solid black.
Robert gulped as his gaze traveled up the outline of the figure. It was a man’s broad torso, but topped with an animal’s head, a narrow muzzle crowned with the great spreading branches of a buck’s antlers at season’s end. But it’s only spring, he thought wildly and felt a sharp grab at his shoulder.
“Time to go!” the professor called, already running, pulling Robert along. He could see Thumbs dashing ahead, Trog close behind.
In the clearing, the priestess looked up at the sound of crashes through the undergrowth. She smiled as the sight of the men fleeing and still more at the sight of the tall horned, figure on the edge of the clearing, the shape of spring from man’s earliest days. She didn’t worry about strangers disrupting the sacred ceremony. She could handle them easily enough. Still, it was nice to have friends in high places.
About the author –
Kathy Bryson’s award-winning trilogy about The Fayetteville Fairies takes place a small town in the Midwest where all the legends – the fairytales and the folklore – live next door! Perfectly ordinary, right? At least until the civil war breaks out!
For more info, see –
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