The golden-haired woman had the most magnificent eyes I’ve ever seen. Crystal azure harvesting the fire, reflecting some out in all directions while the rest danced around her huge pupils. I heard Sabrina suck in her breath beside me, or maybe that was my own breathing I heard. If George had seen this woman up close, no wonder he’d become totally obsessed with her.
When I could finally look away, the next thing I noticed was the triple goddess pendant hanging between her breasts, framed by long golden ringlets that cascaded down the front of her gown. Here in its natural setting, the piece was much more imposing than the photograph had been. The moonstone shone brightly—there had to be more at work here then just reflecting the fire. Without thinking, I reached out to touch it.
My finger passed right through without making any contact.
I jerked back as if the woman had suddenly transformed into a rattlesnake. She smiled gently, then reached her hand out—right through my chest. Shrugging, she removed the amulet and placed it on the ground, stepped back, and gestured to it.
I hesitated, but Sabrina did not. Fearlessly picking it up, she held it for us both to examine. Well, it was definitely real now. Except the moonstone had stopped glowing and was just another magnificent semiprecious gemstone set in a $6000 custom-made pendant from the 21st Century.
After a few moments, Sabrina gently laid the piece back on the ground. The woman replaced it around her neck, and after a short time it began to glow again.
“Nimue?” I asked.
The woman flashed that gentle smile again—not mocking, just irrepressible amusement at the uninitiated there in front of her. She then raised her head and screamed. Well, I supposed that was what she did. The other women flinched, but I heard nothing.
So we had apparently reached the limit of our communication. But for now, it was enough.
With a slight wave, the woman went back to her cauldron. It wasn’t over the bonfire, which blazed away without heat, but rather suspended above a smaller fire to the side. The three of them joined hands and swayed while encircling it for a bit. One rubbed some dried plants between her hands and let the bits fall into the brew before turning to walk toward the stone circle.
The stones. I’d been so focused on the women that I hadn’t even looked around. But there they were. About my height, mostly upright but a couple had a slight lean to them, as if they’d been there a long time and were beginning to sag a bit. And the altar as well. “Look,” I pointed them out to Sabrina. “Just like in my visions. And in George’s paintings.”
“How is this happening?” Sabrina’s voice was amazingly calm, considering how my heart was racing. I’d had months to get used to the idea of the “otherworld;” she’d had no preparation except for my brief description. Belying her calm was the death grip she had on my hand.
“Chai said that during the sabbats—particularly Samhain and Beltane but possibly during Imbolc and Lughnasadh as well, the boundaries between the real world and the otherworld become weaker. I suppose we are looking into that world, wherever it really is. Just don’t touch anything!” The joke sounded hollow, even to me. I was surprised Sabrina didn’t wince.
“But when she put the pendant down, I was able to pick it up.”
“Yeah, well. You now know as much as I do.”
“You probably should have brought the voodoo lady. How come you didn’t?”
Having this conversation standing beside a circle of stones that wasn’t really there just made the whole situation that much more surreal. I started to hum the theme from The Twilight Zone but thought better of it. Sabrina has a finely tuned wit, but there are still limits to what’s appropriate.
“I haven’t been seeing her anymore, since before you left.”
“You, sir, are a man of great faith.” Sabrina kissed me, gently but definitely not sisterly.
We moved to one of the stones and went through the charade of trying to touch it, although I already knew what the result would be. If I couldn’t feel the heat of the fire, which wasn’t going to leave any ashes behind, I certainly wasn’t going to be able to feel the stones.
So we wandered and watched, the ultimate spectators.
After awhile the woman tending the cauldron ladled out some of the liquid into a stone cup, and the three of them tasted it. You could tell from their nods and gestures that they were pleased with the result. The cup was refilled and handed to the golden-haired woman, who raised it to the sky with both hands, poured a little on the ground, and then drank it off. The other six repeated the ceremony.
The cup was refilled yet again and given back to the golden-haired woman. She walked over to where we were standing, bowed her head slightly, and set the cup on the ground in front of us.
“What do you suppose is in that?” Sabrina muttered. “Bat wings and dead toads, maybe?”
In the books from George’s living room I’d read speculations about what ancient druidic ceremonies had been like, but of course there was no archeological evidence and nobody really knew anything. “Iron Age frat party punch?”
No way was I going to pass this up. After all, how bad could it be? Well, I might not be able to drive home and maybe have to suffer through a blinding hangover in the morning, but it seemed easily worth it. So I poured a little out on the ground and took a sip.
It was pretty nasty. Like Wassail made from warm cheap beer with too much hops and some sugar added to mask something more bitter than hops. But it wasn’t undrinkable. So I chugged it and set the cup back down. The woman nodded and smiled before going back for a refill for Sabrina.
It didn’t take long for the punch to kick in. It was kind of like eating marijuana brownies. Not quite as goofy, but there was a definite hazy surreal quality to everything, which had been surreal enough before. We joined the women at the fire and spent what might have been an hour just staring at the shapes forming and dancing in the flames. I assumed they were as baked as we were, but perhaps they were seeing into the future while I was just swaying and thinking oh-wow thoughts.
People began to appear out of the woods. Perhaps a dozen and a half, both men and women. Dressed in plain brown dresses or rude trousers and tunics, unlike the white gowns the seven wore. Each person brought a clay bowl or a small basket of grain or seeds, and was given a cup from the cauldron in exchange.
Things after that are a little fuzzier. Someone started pounding out a slow beat on a log drum, and then a couple of others joined in with rattles and drums. People began to dance around the fire. It seemed rude not to join them, and so Sabrina and I did. I’m a horrible dancer, but Sabrina weaved through the others cavorting about the fire as gracefully as the women in white.
We had more to drink somewhere along the way. Seemed like a grand idea at the time. “Give me that,” Sabrina shouted as I reached for the cup. “You went first last time.” She spilled some on her pants leg as she poured her libation and laughed as if it was the funniest thing ever.
After awhile the music stopped, and the people quit dancing and drifted away. The seven gathered up the baskets and carried them to the altar. Then they formed a circle in exactly the same places as the ethereal shapes had been positioned on Midwinter Eve.
The golden-haired woman stood at the altar, hands uplifted. Her lips were moving, so I suppose she was praying or maybe singing. On three occasions she took a handful of the grain and flung it into the air. The others scarcely moved. Nor did we.
And then they were done. Leaving the baskets on the altar, the seven began to file out of the circle and toward the path. The golden-haired woman was the last to leave. Pausing in front of us, she raised both hands, palms facing us, and spoke to the heavens. Then with the now-familiar smile and the little wave, she moved to the path and was gone.
I didn’t feel the need to talk, and apparently neither did Sabrina. So we moved back to the fire and watched the flames some more. I was pretty buzzed still, and the shapes continued to amaze and delight me. The cauldron sat where they’d left it, as unreachable as if it’d been on the moon. Fortunately, I neither needed nor wanted any more.
After a while Sabrina started to hum. I didn’t recognize the tune, but her strong alto voice perfectly filled the space around us.
“Should we dance some more, Rick Whittaker?”
And so we did. Slow dancing, barely moving but just enough. Holding each other lightly, her head resting against my cheek. My eyes were mostly closed as I abandoned myself to the dance, letting go. Not worrying at all about stepping on Sabrina’s feet.
When at some point I happened to open my eyes, I discovered that we were no longer alone. Someone was walking the wheel.
It was an older man with shoulder-length gray hair and a full beard. Dressed as the others had been—he might have been one of the ones there before, even—but something was different. And he looked vaguely familiar.
And then I knew, although all I’d seen before was a fuzzy newspaper photo. I was looking at George Foster.