The sun sank lower and lower in the sky, finally disappearing altogether. Over on the mainland, if you were outside at this time of day, you’d better have on a liberal application of insect repellant. But mosquitoes were just another of those species of wildlife that didn’t live on Avalon. The thought crossed my mind: I wonder if the island is for sale? How cool would it be to have a home here? Knowing as soon as I thought it that a 21st century McMansion would surely destroy the link between here and wherever.
The wine was gone, as well as the grapes and cheese I’d brought. Sabrina left to walk the wheel. It was getting darker by the minute. Adeline and I sat in a comfortable near silence. JD was silent as well; I guess he took Sabrina’s threat seriously. I sure as hell would have.
Then a tiny flame appeared over where the fire would be, catching a handful of kindling and flaring up. In the sudden light I could see the stacked logs of the laid bonfire where a moment before there had been nothing.
Apparently the lighting of the fire triggered the passageway, for as its illumination grew I could see the seven tending it or bending over the cauldron. And the stones, now catching the light, now dancing in flickering shadows.
The fire grew rapidly, the flames now twice my height. I felt the heat on my face, less welcome than it would have been in February. Confirming what George had written in his journal: on Beltane, we were not to be detached observers.
One of the women noticed us and pointed us out to the others. Nimue stopped supervising the brew and glided over to us. I noted again how gracefully she moved, how totally in harmony with the spirit of the place.
She took both my hands in hers and spoke in a clear, melodic voice in a language so full of consonants that only she could make it pleasant.
“It is good for us to be here.” It sounded pretty lame, but I didn’t figure it mattered all that much what I said. “Thank you for hosting us, Nimue.” She reacted slightly at my use of her name, narrowing her eyes just a touch and staring at me.
Nimue repeated her greeting to Adeline, who responded with a simple, “Thank you.”
Sabrina was coming back from the wheel. With her long skirt and light top, in the firelight she looked a lot like the seven did. I wondered if that had been intentional. I also noted that she had some of the same flowing grace that Nimue did. Could that merely be from years of waiting tables, or had she perhaps taken dance lessons as a girl? Even after the preceding months of investigative chastity, I still had much to learn.
Nimue greeted Sabrina, then slipped her arms around her and hugged her long enough that there had to be something more there than mere womanly friendship. Then they held hands and walked over to where JD was sitting, talking as though they could understand each other.
“Looks like we’re not going to need those writing pads tonight.”
“My God, you’re right. Sometime in the not too distant future, I’m going to be able to ask him right to his face, ‘Why the hell did you run off and leave me.” She must have seen the . . . what, dismay? Disapproval? . . . in my face, because she added, “No, you’re right. What would that gain me? A cheap thrill at best. The kind of daughter who would ask that after all these years is exactly the kind of daughter he should leave.”
“Seems I’m not the only one who’s changed since we first met. Would you like to go walk the wheel while we’re waiting?”
“I’ve only done it that one time at your place. Do you think I’m ready for this? What the hell, let’s do it.”
And so we did. I moved slowly and mindfully, but still finished quite a bit before she did. Afterwards we just stood there in the center, gazing at the altar and the stones standing guard behind it.
We turned and there he was, standing right behind us.
“Addy? Praise the goddess, it is you!” George threw his arms around his daughter.
“Daddy.” With Adeline’s face buried in her father’s neck, it was a little hard to make out her words. “Daddy, I’ve missed you so.” Words much more precious than recriminations.
“I love you, Addy.”
I left them there and walked back to the fire.
Two of the priestesses, as I now assumed the seven to be, were picking through a basket of mushrooms, one sorting them into two piles, the other slicing one of the piles into the cauldron. Aha. ‘Shrooms. There was the little psychoactive culprit, or at least one of them. One of the women offered me a slice, but I took the prudent path for once and declined.
The prep work was completed and the brew bubbling away long before the five of us got back together. Nimue tasted the spoon and nodded before leading us to a spot away from the fire, gesturing for us to sit in a little circle. Adeline and George sat holding hands, making no attempt to hide that they’d both been crying. Whatever else happened tonight, Adeline would be leaving with her catharsis.
Nimue spoke to George, who in turn spoke to us. “Let us introduce ourselves. As you’ve obviously figured out, I’m George Foster, Adeline’s long-lost father. This is my mate Nimue, the present day Lady of the Lake.” Nimue began to speak, pausing between sentences while George translated. “I welcome you to Avalon for the holy feast of Beltane. Here we renew the fertility of the land, the plants, and the creatures that live on it, fly above it, or swim in the seas that surround it. We do not get many visitors from other times.” George changed his voice to indicate that he wasn’t translating and told us that he had been the first in recorded times, and that we were only the second.
I blurted out the question most burning in my mind. “Is this then the Avalon of legend? Does Arthur still reign?”
George didn’t wait for Nimue to answer. “Arthur is indeed the High King of Wales, Cornwall, and the western portions of England as far as the Salisbury plains. But troubled times are upon us, the very same strife that has survived the intervening centuries in stories. There is open warfare between Arthur and his nephew Mordred. Arthur offered Mordred rule over all the lands east of Wales, but he spurned the offer and demanded Guinevere as his queen. She is dead by her own hand, and the land mourns her passing. There is drought and blight; calves are born dead, and the people are hungry.”
He turned to Nimue and spoke to her, probably recapping what he’d told us. They exchanged some words before he turned back to us. “The old gods have demanded the blood of the king to restore the land. But it is a fool’s bargain, for if the king is dead, the land will be torn apart by war.”
Nimue spoke again, and George again translated. “But that is our problem for another time. Perhaps we can appease the gods for a little while longer with our rituals and our sacrifices. You didn’t finish the introductions.”
Adeline spoke. “I am George’s daughter, Adeline Foster. This is Rick Whittaker, the clever young journalist who tracked you down.”
“Ah.” George acknowledged the accomplishment with a bow of his head before translating for Nimue. “You have my deepest appreciation, Mr. Whittaker. Once I discovered that I was indeed alive in a different time and place, I had no way of getting word back to my daughter that I’d arrived safely.”
“You left plenty of clues, although we might have gotten here quicker had you been a little less cryptic. All in all, however, I suppose I didn’t start looking soon enough to get here last Samhain. So we got here as quickly as we could. This woman is Sabrina Jenkins, a dear friend from White Sands, who came out with me on Imbolc.”
George spoke with Nimue, and then turned to us again. “We have only a few more minutes before the villagers start to arrive. I know you have hours’ worth of questions to cram into those few minutes. We will answer whatever we can.”
A few minutes? I could have easily spent the entire month of May asking questions before my curiosity was satisfied. What did I want to know most?
“Is the little girl in the picture Merlin’s daughter? Doesn’t seem to fit with the Nimue from the stories that have survived.”
George spoke briefly with Nimue and they both laughed. “Yes, Merlin was Nimue’s mate before me. The Lady of the Lake must remain chaste except on Beltane, and is free to decide whether or not to conceive from her sacred coupling. Once Nimue discovered that Merlin was dying, probably of cancer from the sounds of it, she chose to bear his daughter, even though the timing required that she stretch her vows to do so. She also attempted to save him by holding his essence is stasis, but even sharing his knowledge, she was not powerful enough to defeat the disease.” George looked a little embarrassed. “Since the Lady of the Lake must stay celibate the rest of the year, this is kind of a big day for us. I know you’ve come a long way to see us, but you’re going to have to give us a little time to ourselves.”
Adeline looked down, and then back at her father with a big smile. “You got it, Daddy.”
I was deciding what to ask next when Adeline spoke back up. “Here’s what I want to know. That passage from your journal, where you saw each other the first time. It was such a life changing experience for both of you. Do you know what happened? Was it magic?”
Nimue and George shared some words and a little laugh. “As you say, I was clearly smitten and my life was never the same afterward. Of course, there’s always magic when love is involved. What else can explain it? As for the Lady of the Lake, it is said that her consorts are summoned by the old gods and paraded for her to choose. But the other explanation is a little more mundane.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “It seems that I happen to look a lot like Merlin.”
The babble of voices moving toward the clearing intruded on our conversation. “Ah, they have arrived. Adeline, come meet your sister.”