I was very excited to be heading back to ma's Clan but I was far more excited over the trip to the Isle of Skye and the Druid Beltane festival that would take place there. I imagined so many wild and impossible things that might take place with the Druids. Though the people themselves seemed calm enough, ma and Uncle Ainmire alluded to the fact that there was a wild streak to them and I wasn't sure what they meant when they spoke of such things but I couldn't wait to find out. Because we had to travel to meet the Clan and then travel to the coastline and across to the Isle of Skye, we had to leave weeks before the Sabbat. This would be the longest journey I had ever been on yet I was instructed to pack only what I needed. “Anything we are in need of in the Isles, our cousins will provide just as we do for them when they come to us at Samhain.” Ma informed me as she put robes in a bag for both of us.
When the sun went down, we said our goodbyes to da who wished us safe travels and we headed north for the journey that felt familiar already though I had only made it once before. The first hour or so of the walk was taken in silence until ma broke through my thoughts to ask, “What is so heavy on your mind? You are only this quiet when you have something weighing on you.”
Looking over at her, I smiled. “It isn't anything bad. I'm just trying to imagine what the Druids might be about is all. Are they very different from us?”
“Not very. When we talk about them and their wild ways, we mean it in a different way than you are thinking. We mean that they are even more connected to the Earth than we are...or they are connected to the Earth in a different way...I'm not being clear but it's hard for me to explain it. With Beltane being what it is, they might seem very wild to you indeed but just know that if we held the ritual in our own land we would probably do it much the same as far as the parts you'll find strange or quite different. Beltane is not a tame Sabbat. It is a Sabbat of passion and fire, a great celebration of the most intense parts of being alive. It's a celebration of life as Samhain, its opposite, is a celebration of death. The ritual that the Druids put on and all that they do that day and through the night only reflect the Sabbat for what it is.”
I wasn't sure what she meant by what she said but I had plenty of images to fill up my mind as we traveled. We stopped twice along the way, once staying with the Clan we spent a day with during our return and again at the Clan of ma's father, staying in the house I mistook for her ancestral home during that first journey. By the time we climbed the hill with the beautiful stone house of her's at the top, I was ready for a proper rest. I assumed it would be days before we headed toward the west as I assumed the people had to ready themselves and last minute preparations would be made. I forgot that this was a journey the others had taken or at least known of all of their lives. They were more than ready for it. I can't recall there being any sick people who had to stay behind that year but there were a few old women and a few new mothers and fathers who did not want to travel. Instead they stayed behind to look after the children who were too young to go. The priestess who held the Imbolc ritual in ma's absence stayed behind as well to hold the Beltane ritual for the few who remained and all of them would be staying at ma's home while we traveled. As for the resting up before going on aspect of the trip, we arrived in the middle of the night so we had the rest of that night and the next day only before we all gathered in front of ma's house to start out. The priestess staying behind stood before all of us as we gathered in pairs of two and as we passed her, she blessed each person, that we all be safe during our travels. It was dark and we were heading into territory completely unknown to me so I found the blessing more than a little comforting. There were no candles to light our way and we had to rely on those like Ainmire who were at the front of the procession, people who had undertaken this journey many times.
“We won't travel all the way in the dark. It is a long journey. Once we are far enough from our Clan's lands, we can go by light of day until we reach the Isle. Then we must travel again by night to protect the location of the place our Druid cousins meet. There may be times when you fear we cannot navigate in the dark but I promise you, we know the way. Keep a hand on my arm. I'll help guide you.” Ma said softly and I did just that the entire time we walked, feeling confident that I would be fine so long as ma was there.
Even when we traveled during the day, it was still a strange journey for me. We walked for hours and hours and even if we passed by a Clan's village, we did not stop. We slept on the ground after eating small meals of bread, cheese, and ale or water. No one complained about hunger but I knew everyone had to feel it. Later it was explained to me that the Druids believed in fasting before big feasts but because of the travel, fasting was out of the question. So long before my birth, the Druids and the Witches made this compromise with food. It seemed such a strange thing to observe when I was told of it. I remember thinking that we could all eat until we thought we would burst and the Druids wouldn't know the damned difference. It was only when I grew up that I understood the great disrespect and the word of honor that would be broken by such a deed. At any rate, the excitement I felt for weeks leading up to our departure was soon replaced with annoyance and all of the space in my mind once occupied with my musings of what the Druids would be like in their home was soon cleared out for me to brood on how hungry, stiff, and tired I was. For three days or so I was a sullen brat to be sure. It wasn't until it was time to cross over to the Isle that my mood brightened. I was amazed to see a line of small boats on the shore, all empty, all waiting for us, put there by our Druid cousins. Getting into one of the boats with ma, I said excitedly, “I can't wait to see the place the Druids call home.”
Taking up paddles, ma corrected me. “We won't be going to their home, dearie. We're going to the place they meet for celebrations. Their home is miles north of that. You see, their situation is not like ours. The current High Priest is the Chief of the MacLeod Clan and his home is the castle that comes with that responsibility. Not so far away is an island that is overrun with Christians, the place the bastard that drove our ancestors into the Hills called home all those years ago. The Isles are a strange combination of Pagan and Christian and the truth of it is, if the Christians knew of their Pagan neighbors, if they knew that a Pagan was leading a Clan right under their noses, there would be violence and bloodshed and each century that passes brings more of them and less of us so our dear cousins would probably be wiped out. All of us are at risk for who we are but they are in a position more dangerous than ours. That's why, when we reach the mainland, we will camp until nightfall before going on to the faerie Pools.”
“The what?” I asked.
“One of the most beautiful places you'll ever see. It is there that we will set up with our cousins a temporary village, a place where we will live together these next few days and nights, a place of magic so old and so deep it was here before any of our ancestors stepped foot on the land. When we wash in the waters of the pools, you will feel it. When we walk on the grass, you'll feel it. And if you feel wee little eyes watching us as we celebrate, fear not. They don't call them the faerie Pools for nothing.”
“Aye!” Added a man sharing the boat with us. I was so lost in all ma was telling me that I almost forgot there were others in the boat but when he said that, I smiled at his confidence.
The sullen mood I had for days was lifted and again I could not wait to see our cousins and this place that ma described in such a high light. Everything around us was so pretty that I felt as if I were breaking my neck to look from side to side and take it all in. When we reached land, we made camp close to the shore where the boats were docked because we were not through with those boats yet. No, when we took off that night headed toward a jagged rocky coast, we would be doing so in those small boats. If I would have known what the coastline near the faerie Pools looked like, I probably would have been terrified at the idea of trying to dock there with no light. Luckily, I did not. All I knew as we sat there on the shoreline was that there was a little food and some very cool water and everyone seemed in high spirits. We slept on the grass after we ate, having traveled for a day straight without stopping and having a few miles left to travel that night. I awoke to the sun going down and ma nudging me to come. Everyone was preparing to depart and it seemed to me as if a somber sort of mood settled over everybody as everyone was extremely quiet while getting in the boats. I wanted to ask ma about this but I didn't want to break the silence so instead I sat down where there was a place and I watched others all around me board the other small boats. It was quite a sight to see the line of wooden vessels as they pulled out carefully in the dark one by one. We were the next to last boat. I thought I heard that Ainmire was all but directing the first. It seemed to me like such a procession should have made a great noise, the paddles moving in and out of the water, four oars per boat. It seemed like the sound of that alone should have been great. Yet even the water was unusually quiet as if it, too, was determined to keep us and the Druids secret from the Christians on the Isle.
I did feel a bit nervous as the boats came close to the shore of the place I knew in that moment as our destination only because I noticed that the silent people around me seemed to be holding their breath. I could have sworn I could hear my own heart beat as the boats ahead of us carefully docked one by one until it was our turn. Ma and the man who was rowing with her kept their eyes locked on one another and I could tell by their movements that they were moving as one and it was fascinating to watch. It took me a moment to realize we stopped, so engrossed was I in what they were doing. But even as we left the boats, no one seemed to speak. As she did earlier in the journey, ma put my hand on her arm to lead me on. I didn't know what day it was anymore. I couldn't remember exactly how long we traveled and because of that, I didn't know if the Druids would be waiting for us or if they were coming later. I also wasn't sure how long it would take us to get to where we were going. So I just walked on hoping ma and the others would know the place where we were to stop when they found it.
After a hike through a forest we found ourselves outside of a bowl of sorts with the earth rising on each side of us and the sound of running water ahead. There were no bonfires lit yet but there were plenty of torches and a collection of people were sitting all over the place in small groups, talking and laughing and waiting for us. I knew they saw us come over the hill when there was a great shout that startled me after the silence we came from. My Clan gave a shout in return as Druids from all over rushed toward us in greeting. At the head of this group was a man I remembered from Samhain, the man who led the ritual with ma, apparently the Chief of the MacLeod Clan and High Priest of the Druids. Bowing to Ainmire, he kissed him thrice, once on either cheek and again on his forehead. Ainmire returned this kiss and then he stepped aside so the man could do the same with ma. “Ah, Sorcha, you are a sight for sore eyes! It's been a hell of a winter with troubles and such and I am more than ready to cast it all off and celebrate the proper end of it with you and your Clan. Welcome, Cousin!”
“Thank you, Gille Caluim. We are honored to be here with you all!”
“Come. We cannot feast just yet but we have a bit of meat and some bread waiting for you after your long journey. My wife and our boy have joined me this year. It's his first Beltane as well. If you'll remember, he was born the same year as your Kila, was my Iain Ciar.”
I followed ma as she walked alongside this man and I listened a little to the two of them discuss me and this man's son. I was interested to meet the boy because we had so much in common, things that seemed important, things other people our age might not understand. He was set to inherit the titles his father passed to him which included that of the Chief of his Clan just as I was and he was being trained to take his da's place as leader of the Druids as well as I was with the Witches. We were the same age, in the same phase of our training, both of us only beginning to come into our own. The High Priest seemed quite intent on introducing the two of us but ma seemed apprehensive, taking me first to meet his wife Martha and then introducing me to two of his nieces. She made excuses kindly, no doubt of it, so kindly I don't think he saw them for the excuses they were but I did and when we sat down to eat a bite of meat and some bread, I tried to ask her about the way she was behaving. “I don't know what you're on about. Now eat and drink up. There's much I want to show you before the camp quiets for the night.”
“What can you show me at night?” I asked with a giggle, wanting only to see the place by the light of day.
“There are things in this place you'll never see when the sun is up. Eat.”
I did as I was told and when we finished with our food, ma led me over to Gille Caluim MacLeod and she said softly to him, “I'm taking her for a walk but we'll return shortly.”
Smiling at me as if he knew something I did not, the Chief replied simply, “Mind your step, Sorcha, dear.”
“Always.” She declared, giving him a similar smile before leading me away.
“You must be quiet as we walk. And just as Caluim said, mind your step. Mind your feelings as well. If you start to feel uneasy, like you've been caught trespassing where you're not wanted, speak up. Our Wee Folk know us back home and they know us well. We have a relationship with them that's old as memory. The Wee Folk here know us not and they owe us even less. Don't piss them off and I'll try to avoid doing the same. Take my hand.” Ma said all of this with her quiet authority and when I put my hand in her's, I knew my hand was shaking. There was something exciting about what we were doing but there was much to fear in it as well.
As we walked, I saw that there was not one pool of water but rather a few and each had falls feeding them. They were not massive, these falls, no where near as big as our fall at the pool by ma's lands, but they were beautiful. There was one in particular that seemed to shock my senses as we went near it. I felt a jolt of energy go up my spine and I knew we were not alone there. I was about to remark on it to ma when I looked down at the water and I saw it glowing with hundreds of tiny purple lights below the surface. “What in hell is that?” I whispered.
“They are the Wee Folk of this pool, water faeries I suppose though I've never talked to one to know for sure what part of the faerie realms they came from. All year long they are invisible until the week before Beltane. It is during this time of year only that you can see them and the night after Beltane is done, they disappear again, the lights. No one knows why. No one knows if these particular faeries are only here so long or if they live between the worlds all the time and they are just closer to our world on this week. But they are beautiful and they always fill me with such peace. I always come to see them when I arrive. This journey is full of uncertainty and that uncertainty grows as Skye becomes more and more a Christian place. I fear for our MacLeod cousins. I fear for us when we come. I fear for the spirits of this land, for the faeries and the Dryads and all others here. But when I sit beside of this pool and I see the Wee Folk claiming it as they do, I know that no matter how many Bishops come here, no matter how our numbers drop in Alba with each passing year, the magic here is eternal. The spirit of the Mother that is in every rock and tree in Scotland is eternal. They may kill us and drive us into the shadows. We are but humans. But they cannot kill what we worship, what we work with, the power we know exists.” She paused a moment, leaving me in stunned silence. I never heard ma talk like that before. With a sigh, she went on. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to go on. I just wanted you to see the pools and their faeries.”
“Thank you for showing me. I've never seen such beauty in my life. It does fill you with peace to watch them, to know that they are right there the way we always know they are and that even someone who didn't believe couldn't deny that they exist. They are eternal but, ma, so are we. Not you and me but people like us. As long as there is magic in the earth and the Mother watching over us all and the faeries and Dryads and all the others, there will be people who feel them and know they are there. They might drive us into the shadows, aye, and a damned fine job they've done of that already. But they'll never kill us all no matter how hard they try.”
“Well, Kila MacGregor, what a grown up thing to say.” Ma replied with a grin.
We sat there for a while, mostly in silence, and when we decided it was time to go, ma left behind a crystal as if paying the Wee Folk for our time spent at their pool. Back at the camp, I fell asleep on the ground with the clear sky overhead and a thin blanket of animal skins covering me from the slight nip in the nighttime air. I would have only a couple of hours to sleep before the festivities of the day began and I should have been too excited to drift off to my dreams but instead I found myself exhausted, falling asleep as soon as I lay down my head.
I was woken up by a young man of about fifteen with the most piercing blue eyes I had ever seen and hair as black as a raven's wings. “Who are you and where is my ma?” I questioned, sitting up quickly.
“I am the oldest son of Caluim and your ma is with my da and the others getting the Maypole. It's a sight to see when they come over the hill with it. That's why I woke you. I heard it was your first year and I didn't think you'd want to miss it.”
“So you are Iain Ciar then?” I questioned, accepting the wooden cup of water he offered silently.
“No, that's my brother. I am the only child of my father's with his first wife. She was a Campbell and my name is Colin after someone who was supposed to be greatly important in her Clan's history. Do you know any Campbells? You are from the Hills as are they.”
“Oh, aye, we're from the same place but I'm MacGregor, you see.” To a Highlander, at least one in our area, that would have explained everything but this young man was no Highlander.
Smiling a charming smile, he shook his head. “No, I don't.”
“Oh. Well. It's just that there's been a fight between our Clans since before I was born. My da tries to keep our part of the Clan out of it though the Campbells that started the fight are our neighbors but we still don't have anything to do with one another. They don't come to us, we don't go to them. My ma is related to them, though, through her ma if I remember it right. In the Hills, everyone is related to everyone else whether they want to say as much or no.”
“I think it's the same everywhere north of Stirling. You and I are probably cousins four or five times over, truth be known. If you want to see them bringing the pole, we should go toward the hill. They'll be coming soon.”
He offered me his hand to help me off the ground and I gave him my thanks as I walked beside of him talking easily about the day ahead. It was he and not his younger brother who would inherit his father's titles one day and because of that, his da started training him when he was eight years old as was the Druid way with their future leaders. He came to my Clan's Samhain celebration the first year of his training and he was the youngest person of our generation to join one of our circles just as he was the youngest person in his own Clan to do the same. He was rather used to all of the Sabbats after six years of training but he still loved Beltane and all of the festivities that went with it, including watching the people bring the pole. As I stood there waiting with him, I was sure that this was something I would feel less excitement for than he seemed to but I didn't want to be rude. He was being so kind to me, after all. However, when he nudged me and he pointed to the spot where about thirty people carried a massive log of wood over a hill with streamers already attached to it, I had to admit that it was one hell of an impressive sight. “Why would they put the ribbons on before they got the pole to where it would stand? It seems like that would make more work while carrying it.”
“Only members of the Clans that have some sort of authority put the ribbons on, and what ribbons they are! Just look at them! As long as you or I, they are!” Grinning at me, he chuckled. “Sorry. The important members of the Clans gather in secret in the forest at the place where the year's pole has fallen and been found a head of time and they alone know what the ribbons are charged for. They alone know what we're bringing toward us as we dance. Is it done differently with your Clan or does your Gregor Clan no longer dance the Maypole? I've heard most don't in the Hills anymore.”
“MacGregors do because of ma. But the ribbons are put on in plain sight of everyone. There's no magic to it.”
Looking me in the eye, he said in a serious tone, “There's always magic to it.”
We stood there as the line of people carrying the pole passed by us, ribbons tied around the wood to keep them from getting in the way. When they were close to us it was easy to see just how big that fallen tree was and how long those incredible ribbons were. Our own poles at home had never been as grand, that was certain. Once the procession was passed, Colin led me away, taking me around the camp to where the pole was heading, and we talked more of his life and his relationship with his younger sibling, Iain. He seemed exasperated with the boy, explaining that he always tried to be a good brother to him but his brother always kept himself at a distance from everyone, even his own mother. “There has always been a part of him, something that he was born with I reckon, that sets people on edge. I don't know what it is. Da is determined the two of you meet while you are here because we are all very fond of your ma so maybe you'll see what others have. Or maybe you won't. There's only one way to tell.”
I thought of ma's reaction the night before when Caluim mentioned introducing us, the way that she made excuses to keep me from the boy, and I wondered what it was about someone as young as me that could possibly make her, and apparently others, react in such a way. Still I didn't remark on his words. I just listened as he told me more about the celebration of the day. When we got to the place where our families were raising the pole already, he offered one last piece of advice. “In case your ma hasn't mentioned it yet, the first dance on the pole when the maidens alone dance through, you'll want to sit it out. You are too young yet for that.”
“Why? If it's for maidens...”
“It's for maidens old enough to play the part of the May Queen today and tonight. I'll leave the rest for Sorcha to tell you.”
Sure enough, when the pole was raised, ma came over to us, embracing Colin with warmth and love before sending him to his father and once he had gone, she put an arm around me saying softly, “The first dance on the pole calls for maidens only to join. A maiden you may be but you are a maiden too young to play the May Queen. Don't join the dance. There will be another after it for the King and then you may join the third. Remember when you do dance to think on something you want for the season and focus on bringing it toward you as you wrap your ribbon 'round that pole.”
“I know that. Da's always said as much. But what does the May Queen do that I cannot?”
“Tonight, after the Wild Hunt, she couples with the King. The girl who plays this part is giving herself entirely for it. Not all maidens dance the dance and because you are the future leader of our Clan, it's most likely you never will. It will be your choice when you are older, of course. But for now you are too young for such a choice. Now let's join the others. Everyone is coming over for the first circle now that dawn has fully broken.”
It was a circle unlike ours as everyone stood holding hands with one another and Caluim declared, “Let our energy combine and form the circle where we stand. We ask that the faeries, the Dryads, the spirits of these sacred waters and the sacred trees of the forest join us here, adding what energy they will.” Everyone closed their eyes and I assumed they were imagining the energy flowing between us all. In the stillness and the silence, it felt as if a great deal of power blew in all at once spreading out around us and when I opened my eyes I saw ma and Caluim smiling as if they felt it too. “Direction of the North, element of Earth, the direction of manifestation, lend your earthy energy to us here the whole day through. Direction of East, element of Air, the direction of thought, lend your airy energy to us here the whole day through. Direction of the South, element of Fire, the direction of passion bright, lend your fiery energy to us the whole day through. Direction of the West, element of Water, the direction of the soul's purpose, lend us your watery energy here the whole day through. By these powers and the others of those kind enough to join us, all we do here today shall be blessed. The May Queen and her King shall be chosen by the hands of the Goddess and God Themselves. The animals will be blessed by the fires of the Gods and those fires will burn the whole night through as tribute to the Gods and the protection and love They offer us. This is the way of things on this Beltane! Let the celebrations begin!”
“Blessed be!” Cried everyone around me.
Both ma and Caluim gathered around the Maypole to bless the pole, that it decide wisely who was best to play the roles of King and Queen. Once the pole was blessed, the young men who would dance for the role of King were told to gather back at the camp until it was their turn and only when they were gone did the maidens gather around the pole. Ma and Caluim went down the line blessing each girl with liquid from a wooden bowl, though I couldn't hear what they were saying from my place a few rows back. Once the blessing was finished, the maidens went forward, each taking a ribbon in her hand. Men gathered with drums and flutes, playing a tune that sounded light and airy for the girls to dance to. As I watched them I was mesmerized by the movements and the colors, the laughter that erupted each time the girls found themselves tangled up in one another, and when the last girl wrapped her ribbon completely around the pole a cheer went up from the crowd. My mother went into the circle where everyone stopped at once as the music stopped and she took the hand of the girl that was last to wrap her ribbon, leading her away from the others to face us. “By the will of the Goddess, this fair maiden shall act in Her stead for this Mayday. Blessed be our May Queen!”
“Blessed be the Queen of May!” The crowd cried in return.
With a gesture of her hand, ma beckoned me to follow her and a few other women as she led the girl toward the pools. “What are we doing?” I asked a woman walking at my side.
“We are transforming this maiden into the Queen of May, dearie.” The woman replied.
At the pool, ma stripped the girl of her clothes and she led her into the water, leaving her own robes on. I could tell by the girl's expression that the water was freezing but ma took her time washing the girl from head to toe chanting a blessing of some kind to aid in the cleansing. Once this was done, ma offered her a hand out of the water, putting a robe of skins around her and leading her toward the woods. On and on we walked until we came to a place where a tent was set up, a tent much larger than any I had seen before. Ma led us all into the tent where robes of red and white were waiting for the May Queen along with a crown of flowers. These robes were not like the ones I saw ma wear but were instead far more low cut in the front and far more form fitting. As soft and nice as the material of ma's Clan robes were, it was nothing compared with the material of this strange looking gown. It was the first time I had ever seen silk and I wanted only to run my fingers over it but I could not. I could only watch as ma and the other women dressed the maiden in these clothes and used berries to stain her lips and oils to scent her skin. She looked beautiful when they were finished, like a Queen indeed, and then ma kissed her forehead and declared, “May you be the vessel by which the Goddess of Summer joins us this Beltane.” With that she put a strange mask made of vines and flowers on the girl's face, tying it around her head with the ribbons on either side of it.
Leading us out of the tent, we went through the woods once more, back to where the others were waiting, many dancing around the Maypole with the drums and the whistles playing another upbeat tune. “You haven't missed it. See? That group there is waiting to go next. Join them, Kila. Dance your wish around that pole.” Ma instructed.
As with the Spring ritual, all I could think of when I searched my heart was destiny. When the music stopped and the people disbursed, I joined the group around me, picking a ribbon that was gold. The music started and we all began our dance, the one aspect of the entire day that was completely familiar to me. While dancing in the circle, trying not to trample those around me as we got nearer to the end of the pole, I thought only of the word 'Destiny' because I wasn't sure what such a thing would look like in my case. I loved the dance, the feel of it, and I knew that Colin was right when he said that there is always magic in the dancing of the Maypole.
When the last ribbon was wrapped around the pole, the music stopped and we all left the circle just as ma and Caluim came toward the pole from opposite sides with the May Queen at ma's side and the May King walking beside of the MacLeod priest. The King was wearing a great mask that looked animal-like and upon his head sat the antlers of a stag though I wasn't sure how they stayed because I could see no string tying them. He was wearing nothing but a skin that covered the most male part of his body as well as his buttocks and his skin had been painted green. He looked like a wild thing, God of the Hunt, a creature of the forest. I wasn't really surprised by that. But when I listened to ma and Caluim perform a very real marriage rite between these two strangers I couldn't believe my ears! “You look like you're about to be sick. What's the matter?”
Looking over at Colin, I whispered in astonishment, “This isn't real, surely.”
“It's real, aye. In a year and a day they will decide whether or not to stay together and if they choose to part ways, they'll be no worse for it. Even if their union brings a child, anyone in the Clan would accept either of them for a husband or a wife. It's been our way for as long as the Druids have walked the earth. It is the way of the Witches as well. They dance the pole just as we do. And this won't be the only Beltane marriage before the night is through. All through the day and during the night while the fires of Beltane are burning, people will come together, going into the woods to couple and sealing their marriage for a year and a day. Should they decide to remain together, my da and your ma will perform their lasting rites before your ma and your Clan goes home the day after Beltane. If they choose to part, there is a rite performed for that as well and it's done. Your father's Clan is nothing like the Clan of your ma's, is it?”
“No, not at all. In da's Clan, once you've married it's forever and there's no taking it back.”
“That's the way of Christians. Pagans are different. We stay married because we wish it and we know that you must live as husband and wife to know if it's the right thing for you and the person whose hand you're taking. The Christians all around this Isle would never understand that but I think you will. If not now, in the future.”
Part of me could see the wisdom in this arrangement but it was still too new and strange a concept for me to accept completely. “Is that why ma said I would probably never dance the pole to be May Queen, being the future leader of the Clan and all?”
“Aye. My da has said the same to me. But I do know that if your Clan or mine sees some great hardship, the two future leaders can decide to be the King and Queen of May to lift the negativity. We don't have to dance the pole but we do have to remain married for that year and a day which is why it's only done if it must be done.”
“And has it been done?” I asked, again surprised by what I was learning.
“In our lifetime or the lifetime of our parents? Nay. At some time in the past? It must have been, aye. How else would they know it works to drive the negative away?”
All of this gave me much to consider as I walked with Colin toward the area where meat was being roasted on an open fire and ale was already flowing freely. Feasting, it seemed, would be part of the entire day which was the Druid's custom after the fast leading up to the Sabbat. The men from earlier were playing their drums and their flutes and people were dancing in pairs, in groups, and even all alone. The King and Queen of May were cheered by those eating and drinking as they approached the party much as they would have been at any wedding celebration. Together they sat on one of the logs that made up the huge circle around the fire and they were waited on by younger boys and girls. If I hadn't known better, I would have believed the two were in love and newly married the way that they laughed together and pointed out dancers that amused them. It was all surreal for me.
Ma found Colin and I as we sat eating on a log. Beside of her was a small boy who put me off at first glance. I was actually surprised by the feeling I had when I looked into his cold eyes. He was introduced to me as Iain Ciar, the boy of my own age that ma was trying to keep me from. I understood at once what his brother told me of him. There was something about him...like one could see a ruthless bastard already hiding behind the eyes of that child. When ma asked me to join her, I was only too happy to leave Colin with his brother. While I enjoyed Colin's company, the unease I felt from Iain was enough reason to go.
After ma got her some meat, bread, cheese, and ale, we sat together and we talked of the day so far. When we discussed the Great Marriage and my reaction to it, she smiled. “You see now why you'll probably never dance that pole? Unless you happen to fall in love with the King or you go on to marry a Pagan man later, it would bring ruin to your future if it's a husband and children you want later. The Church long ago made their way seem so much better to ours that you, my own daughter, and, aye, me as well when first I came here, felt so much horror at watching two strangers marry for just a year. You would be shunned by any man raised outside our Clan or this one if you did not stay with the man that won as King and that's no choice at all.”
Debating a moment on whether to tell her what was on my mind, I finally decided to come out with it. “Colin told me that if my Clan or his is ever in great trouble, we can be the King and Queen of May and it will take care of what ails us. He wouldn't be such a bad husband to have, I don't think. He'll understand better than anyone in the Hills the duty I have to your Clan. And he's kind. I'm not after being a wife soon, mind. It's just that, if we needed to do it, it wouldn't be so bad.”
Ma looked at me with an odd expression on her face and for a moment she carried on eating in silence. I had almost forgotten our conversation when she drained her cup of ale and replied, “When the time comes for you to take a husband, you must be careful who you marry. Colin will be expected to stay here to lead his own Clan and to lead the Druids as well and he would expect you to give up our position in our Clan to aid him since you will already be a Priestess in your own right. I was fortunate with your da as my ma was fortunate with my own father. Both were chieftains but they kept their word when they promised us we wouldn't be expected to sacrifice our own positions. Not all of the women in our family have been so lucky. You have your da's claim to offer a husband as well. For you, a husband with no claims of his own would be best, someone who is no leader on his own but who will make a good leader none the less for your father's Clan.”
“I could choose to leave the MacGregor affairs to another member of da's blood as you did with your rightful claim to your father's Clan seat.” I replied softly. This was no longer about Colin MacLeod at all. It was more like sorting things out for the future for my own sake.
“Aye you could, and I did, but my da had a younger brother who also had sons. Your da was the only one of twelve children born to his ma and da to survive. The MacGregors love each other fiercely but when the Clan seat is up for dispute, when there's no certainty of a rightful heir, Clans erupt into chaos and violence no matter how much love is between them. It's happened before, many times the whole world over.”
“I could always choose not to stay with him at the end of the year and a day unless there were children but if we couple as you're meant to, especially for a year, there will always be children.”
Grinning from ear to ear, ma stood and she gestured for me to do the same, leading me to a stack of dirty wooden plates and bowls by the fire that meat was still roasting on. Keeping her cup, she sat her plate down and I did the same. We refilled our cups with ale and then I walked with her away from the party as she said, “I guess I shouldn't be surprised that you've figured out the ways of nature where babes are concerned. There's no greater place to learn nature's secrets than a farm. All your life you've seen the animals couple in the fields and babes come soon after. But we are not animals nor are we people who have forgotten the ways of magic. For us, there are ways to keep from becoming with child no matter how many times we couple with men. Should a woman decide that she's sure she wants no more children ever, there are things to be done about that as well. Have you never noticed the difference in my Clan and the children each woman has compared with your da's? Some of the MacGregor women have sought me out in secret to ask my help with this but most are too afraid of their husbands or their God or whatever man they feel some obligation to bear more than they should for.”
“What sort of ways are you on about?” I asked, dumbfounded for the second time in as many hours.
“There are special herbs and spells as well. Some of the herbs are not grown in Scotland so they are used only when spells have failed but those are the herbs for the brew to make sure a woman never has a child again. Rare it is that a spell doesn't fix this on its own.”
“And have you used these things?” I asked, astonished at the possibility though the truth of it was staring me right in the face.
She sighed a great sigh, as if the truth weighed heavy on her. “I don't know that you are old enough just yet for the truth in all of this.” She replied.
Since I came to her Clan with her, ma had never kept a secret from me outright and it pained me that she felt she had to in this case. Taking her hand, I said sincerely, “Ma, I have more faith in you than in anyone. Whatever you tell me, I'll accept it knowing you did what you thought was best.”
I followed her to the pool where we sat and watched the faeries the night before, still hand in hand, and I waited until she made up her mind to tell me something that no one save she and da knew. “When I married your father, I knew my mother's own secret, that she brewed the herbs to make sure she wouldn't bear my father a second child. I knew that if I had too many children or if I bore an heir to the MacGregor seat, your father's best intentions wouldn't be enough to allow me the time I needed with my own Clan and that I would have to make a choice between the man I love and the family we made or my duties to my Clan. I also knew that I would choose my Clan if it came to that. It is the way of things when you marry those who lead their Clans, you see. So the night before your da and I took our vows in front of our families and our Gods, I went to him and I told him the truth. I told him that I would bear him only one child, a girl, someone to be my heir but not his own. I told him there was no negotiating on this and if he couldn't marry someone who wouldn't give him an heir of his own, I understood. Your da, the gentle giant he is, hugged me in the most chaste of ways and he told me that he didn't care if we had twelve babes or none. He loved me and that was enough. Any doubts I might have had about wedding myself to him disappeared then. He's such a good man, is our Ceallach.”
“That first winter as husband and wife, when the MacGregors failed to heed my warning about the Highland Hag and everyone got sick and so many died...when I thought my medicine and my magic wouldn't be enough to save the man I love and then he recovered at last...I didn't want to wait anymore to have our only babe. When the moon was full as a ma with child, on Monday, the day of the moon and of mothers, I cast a spell to conceive you. It was a girl child I needed and it was that I asked for. I thought of the features of your da and me and I knew I wanted you to have my eyes and his smile, my foresight and his adventurous nature, his bravery and my strength...all of these things I put into the spell to make you. I sought control only over the things that chance would've decided anyway. I did not try to sway your fate or anything of that sort as that would have been going against the will of the Gods and the destiny of your soul. But I cast that spell knowing you would be the only child I ever had because I knew already that I would take the herbs and cast the spell to make it so as soon as my womb was healed from your birth. When you were born, you were perfect in every way and I cherished every moment with you knowing there would be no more. Then, when we went up to spend the Winter with my Clan, during the waning moon on a Saturday night, I drank the brew to close my womb forever and I cast a spell to do the same. For three nights after I bled in a way that I had never bled before and it wasn't my time to shed my monthly blood so I knew it was my womb closing against any man's seed. When it was done, I felt such an emptiness. I could never forget that feeling all my life through. I held you under the moon though it was cold and there was barely a moon to see and I wept for all the babes I might have had if I would have been given a choice besides my Clan or my husband. Though I knew it was the best thing for me to do in the end, I still wonder sometimes what a boy of your father's might have been like.”
Her words made me remember something that made much more sense with this truth out between us. “On Imbolc, when you came back from delivering that baby boy and you looked so sad, it was the boy that might have been that you were thinking of, wasn't it?”
“I suppose it was. It happens sometimes when I'm helping to bring a new life into the world that I think of what might have been. But, as I said, this way was the best way. It was the only way to have your da, you, and my life as High Priestess of my Clan. As I said then, I regret nothing. Should you ever face such a choice, do what is best to accomplish all you wish and don't think you are making a mistake because you believe that's how I see it in my own life. I do not. But that doesn't mean I don't sometimes think of all the children my heart would have liked to have.”
When we returned to the party, there were still many people dancing and feasting but there were also those taking naps in the afternoon sunlight. Ma told me then that she hadn't slept yet and I decided to nap with her a while feeling drained from all that I had seen and heard already. As I lay next to her in the grass, the sounds of the festivities going on around us seemed far away compared with my thoughts on the secret she shared with me. I didn't judge her for what she had done. If anything, I felt like the secrets that she and those like her had concerning the ability to limit the children born to a woman shouldn't be secrets at all but that all women should know of their existence and should be free to use them. I also knew that if I needed to, I would have done the same as ma. But knowing she cast a spell to make me and another to make sure I was her only child caused me a bit of unease none the less. I fell asleep trying to understand my own mind on this to no avail.
When I awoke a couple of hours had passed. Ma was already gone and when I approached the place where meat was still being cooked, I noticed that cakes and pies had joined the bread, cheese, wine, and ale on the makeshift table. I didn't know where these sweets came from but I helped myself to one of the cakes as I went toward the sound of a bard loudly reciting a tale about the love affair of the God and the Goddess. The man was good, no doubt of it, saying his bit with just the right amount of dramatic flair. Nearby, I saw young men competing with one another in games I knew well, things like the throwing of logs and tugging rope. Young ladies gathered around to watch, perhaps looking over the men that they might wed for Beltane. As I had no interest in such things, I walked on, stopping only when I saw a group of girls dancing to music and I heard ma's voice singing an old song about rowan on the ledge for May Day morning and the hope that love would grace the woman's doorstep by the first light of the May Day fires. It was only in that moment that I understood that this tune sung by many Christians I knew to mark the season was actually completely Pagan and I smiled as I heard ma's sweet voice singing it. “She's truly wonderful, is your ma.” Colin announced from my side.
“Aye, she's that.” Looking over at him, I wondered if it would be wrong to ask him about his own mother. Deciding he was the sort to say as much if he didn't want to talk of something, I took the chance, asking, “What of your ma? Do you have any memories of her?”
“No one has asked me about my mother in so long. Everyone here knew her, you see, most better than I, so no one asks me such things. I was a wee lad when she died, five or six, but I do remember that she was quite beautiful. She had hair of gold and eyes like mine and when she walked into a room it always felt to me like everything was right with the world. I remember that she used to tell me stories and that she sang to me often. She seemed a happy woman in my memories. No one talks of her death but I was spared any memories of her ill if that's the way she met her end. No, I remember her only as a beautiful woman who loved me and made everything right.”
“It's sad that you lost her so young. I couldn't dream of a life without ma.” I said softly, watching my mother laugh over words to a tune that she messed up on as the music began again so she could try it a second time. Even when she made mistakes, she was wonderful.
“All things must end at some time. It's the way of life. Would you like to dance with me? I think your ma has the words sorted now.”
We both giggled as we danced together and we spent the rest of the afternoon in such a carefree way, dancing, eating, and talking. When his younger brother tried to follow us, he sternly sent him on his way, apologizing for the interruption. Aside from that, there were no bad times to be had that day with Colin and me. I wasn't attracted to him or anything of that sort. Despite my words to ma earlier, there was no fantasy of love or marriage running through my head. I was still at an age where everyone I met who was young like myself, be they boy or girl, could either be my friend or they couldn't and I liked him enough to consider him a friend. When the light in the sky started to fade and evening was upon us, Colin and I parted ways so he could help with the great gathering of wood for the bonfires.
As I watched him walk away, I caught sight of my small framed mother carrying a bundle of wood that weighed as much as she as if it were nothing and I was again reminded of how amazing she was. She never saw me looking and I never shared with her how many times that day she made my heart swell with love for her but during that celebration of the Goddess entering Her transition into Motherhood, the passion was lost on my girlish self while the bond between mother and daughter seemed to come to the forefront again and again.
After the wood was stacked for the many bonfires that would soon be lit, as the sun began to sink in the sky, we all gathered again as we had that morning, hand in hand, asking the Fay and all other spirits of the land to lend us energy and asking the assistance of the Directions. “On this night of Beltane, we come together to ask the spirits of the land and the Lord and Lady of May to bless the animals we've brought with us, that they be healthy and that those of breeding age be fertile. We ask that the marriages made of passion on this night be happy ones, even if they last but one year and one day. We ask that any babes conceived this night be healthy and blessed as the mothers who bear them. We ask for plenty for the Clan of MacLeod and the Clan of the Wise, two halves of the same circle come together for this night to celebrate just as our ancestors did one thousand years ago. Bless the wine in the cup, Our Beloved Mother, and the cakes of the land, Our Brave Father, that neither Clan know thirst nor hunger the whole year through!” With that, a cup of wine unlike any I had ever tasted was passed around the circle and we each took a sip. Cakes of oats soon followed. Once that was done, the remainder was given to the ground in offering.
“Blessed are we all on this Beltane night!” Ma declared and everyone replied in kind. Unlike the morning's circle, this one was taken down with the energy of it grounded and the Directions were asked to stay or go as they saw fit. In groups of three, members of each Clan disbursed, headed toward the stacks of wood with torches freshly lit. Among those lighting bonfires was Uncle Ainmire. It was only when I saw him that I realized I hadn't spotted him at all since we arrived and while this seemed strange to me, I knew that he had many friends within the Clan of MacLeod so it wasn't as odd as all that.
It seemed like all of the fires were started at once and it was a sight that filled me with awe. There were more piles than I first believed and from the light of it I saw a line of cattle waiting to be driven between two fires near where the Maypole stood. Where the beasts came from or when they were brought over, I wasn't sure. I hadn't seen them at all during the day. But it was interesting to watch as men led each animal between the fires to purify and protect them. It was the calm way that the animals walked that amazed me most. Never had I seen beasts of the fields react in such a way to fire. It was as if they knew that the blazes around them were meant to protect them, not harm them. At other fires people gathered to dance around the circle of flames while again music played, though this time the beat was mostly drum and it was completely primal. It was the sound of a heart beating, of blood pumping through the veins, the sound of passion and conception, and it was eerie in the night. Even the sight of men dressed much like the May King twirling lit torches couldn't completely take away the small whisper of fear I felt listening to those drums. “What's the matter with you, dearie?”
Looking over at ma, I couldn't stop myself from hugging her. The fear combined with stories of dead mothers and the knowledge I faced for the first time that my mother could die and when she did, it would crush me, it all made it impossible not to wrap my arms around her. “What's all this? What's happened?” She asked, sounding a little startled.
“I love you, ma. Thank you for making me with your magic and thank you for all you've taught me so far but, most of all, thank you for being healthy and strong. Do you know Colin's ma died when he was just a wee boy? She just...died. I could never face a world without you in it!” I cried out.
I knew I would cry if I didn't think of something else and ma's reaction gave me that. “Died, did she? What else has he told you of his mother?” She asked, taking my hand and leading me away from the fires and music toward a spot that was quieter.
“Just that she was a Campbell, that he's named for someone important in her Clan.”
“A Campbell?” She sounded astonished but even more than that, she sounded a wee bit angry.
“Aye but you must have known her for as long as you've come here. Surely you knew what Clan she came from.” I replied, confused.
Instead of answering that question, she asked another of her own. “Did he say anything of the faerie flag hanging in the Hall of his da's castle?”
“What faerie flag?”
She sighed as if she were exasperated. “It's a flag given to Clan MacLeod by the Fay, a flag that may be used three times to aid the Clan when they are in distress. He said nothing of it?”
“No and what has that to do with Colin's ma?”
Shaking her head, she was silent a moment. When she did speak, it was only to announce that we needed to go and eat and that, once we finished, I should dance around the fire for protection and good health the rest of the year. We ate together and though she was pleasant enough, I could tell something was weighing on her mind. When we finished, she told me again to go dance, that she and Caluim needed to speak on something alone. I could smell a secret and I wanted very much to know what I was missing. So I pretended to go off my own way and then I followed her, careful to stay just far enough behind that she wouldn't see me. Sure enough, she did go to Caluim and she did lead him into the woods to talk to him. It was easy to go unnoticed here, especially with people coming into the woods for their Beltane coupling, the start to their marriage of a year. But I paid them no mind. I was focused completely on the conversation before me. “You told the boy his mother was a fecking Campbell that died when he was a child? What were you thinking, Caluim MacLeod?” Ma chastised.
“What is this to you, Sorcha? Friends and blood we are and always will be. I love you as I loved my own sister, Goddess rest her. But this is not your concern. He's my boy, isn't he? What would you have me tell him at his age? He has enough on his head already with my name and titles. You want me to burden him further by telling him that his mother was a faerie, that she lives still somewhere neither he nor I can touch, and she may one day come back for him to take him to this land so far away and there won't be a thing I can do to stop her? It was she who left us! It was she who decided she couldn't live among the humans anymore, no matter how much she loved me and the boy. A fecking flag to aid the Clan was all she left us. He is my boy and, if I am to be honest here where only you and the Dryads may hear, I love him as I love no one else, even his brothers. I will keep him protected for as long as I can and I care not what you think of me for it!”
“It's a story! There's no truth in it! It's just some damned fanciful tale you made up to deny the truth of what may be one day!”
“There you are wrong. It is the truth to him and that makes it so and unless his mother returns, and she won't after so long a time, it will remain the truth! Now please leave it. I am begging you! Leave it and leave us to it!”
She stormed away without another word and after taking a moment to compose himself, he did the same. I had to think on all I just heard, the big secret I learned, and how fantastical it was. Colin's ma was a faerie. That made him half Fay himself. I knew this and he did not, which was bad enough, but it made it worse that he would never know unless she came to drag him away from the only life he knew. What a terrible thing to consider! It was that possibility which made me think of telling him what I learned. I sat there thinking it over for a long time until a man and woman came to couple close to where I sat. I left my hiding place immediately and went away feeling so conflicted.
To clear my mind more than anything, I did dance around the first fire I came to. Unlike the Maypole, which I danced with intent, this had no purpose for me. It was meant only to distract me from all of the secrets I learned in such a short time. It seemed they would never end, these secrets, like I would learn something new about the people around me right alongside each piece of knowledge concerning the Craft. I didn't want the secrets, not really, though I often felt as if I did in the moment. I did not want to challenge what I knew of others, especially those I loved most like ma. But some part of me knew that there was no escaping that. So I danced and I kept my eyes on the flames clearing my mind completely for just a moment, making room for just a bit of peace. I thought I saw something in those flames, something important meant for me to make out and understand. For a second, I knew what it was and what it meant and I was filled with something like relief but that second was fleeting. Though I didn't remember laying down, it seemed I did, and I slept until morning dawned on the faerie Pools once more.
“Wake up, my sleepy girl!” Ma prodded gently as she shook me awake. I opened my eyes to see her smiling before a sun that was still rising above my head. “There you are! I think that wine and the ale was all a bit much for you last night. I thought I would find you dancing when I came looking and here I found you sleeping like the dead. Colin said he saw you dancing and he tried to call to you but you walked away from the fire and came here to sleep. He wanted to tell you goodbye before he went off so I said I would say it for him.”
“Where's he gone?” I asked, sitting up.
“To help get the cattle back to MacLeod land. It's a big job as you can imagine. They drive those beasts through the waters from land to land, up over hills and down through valleys. It takes some time to do it and many hands as well. He was sorry he missed you but he said he'll see you at Samhain. He's a good boy, our Colin. We are getting ready to perform the marriage rites of those wed last Beltane who wish to remain so and the parting rites of those who wish to break their union and I thought you might like to see it. It's the last thing we have to do for this Sabbat. After it's done, we'll say goodbye to our cousins and head back toward the shore where our boats are waiting and as soon as the sun goes down, we'll make our way back home.”
“I would like to see the weddings, aye.” I replied.
Into the woods I followed her and I saw about thirteen couples standing on one side of Caluim and three standing on the other. There was nothing to distinguish them from one another, no way of knowing who would stay together and who would part ways, but I assumed that the shorter group contained those who would be wed for good, given the nature of the Marriage for a year and a day. Before I could find out for sure, we all joined hands, casting the circle and calling on the Directions in the way of the Druids. Once this was done, Caluim announced, “We gather in the morning glow of this day to join these people,” To my surprise, he gestured toward the thirteen couples, “in marriage, a marriage that will last as long as their love shall last, in this life and the next if they so wish it.”
Standing on the opposite side of the circle, ma announced, “We also gather here to help these people part as friends, remembering fondly their time together while they go forward with their lives on separate paths.”
In awe I stood there as each couple went up to my mother and Caluim and pledged their love to one another for a certain amount of time. For most, however, the answer was the same. They would remain married so long as the love lasted. If something were to happen to their love, I could only assume they would return to Caluim to have him direct a ceremony for their parting, though I heard no mention of any such ceremony except as it applied to the Year and Day Marriages. I just assumed, however, from the nature of the vows that there would be some ceremony to allow them to part if they felt the marriage was no longer best for them. Once all of those coming together were out of the way, the three couples who would be parting waited their turn. A new circle was formed, new candles were lit, and a more somber mood settled over us all as ma and Caluim began the parting ritual. Weddings I had seen before, though maybe not quite the way the Pagans had them. But this parting of ways was completely unfamiliar to me. Listening to the couples make vows to one another to always honor the time they spent as husband and wife, wishing one another the best in love, health, and good fortune...it was all strange but also beautiful in its way. When it was over, the three former couples literally went their separate ways out of the circle and through the forest as the circle was grounded and the Directions were dismissed.
The Clans of MacLeod and the Wise also went their separate ways, all of us saying goodbye to one another and wishing each other a bountiful harvest in the autumn and the best of luck and health in the meantime. They went back toward the Pools while we went deeper into the woods starting our long journey back home. For some reason, the trip home did not seem as long as the journey to the Isle of Skye. There was much to occupy my mind during those times when we traveled silently in the dark and when we reached ma's lands, it was nice to sleep in a bed and spend some time with Uncle Ainmire before ma and I went on toward MacGregor land. Even when it was just the two of us, we talked little of the Beltane celebration. She asked what I thought of it and all that but the things I wanted to discuss, I kept to myself. Da was glad to see us when we returned and I was happy to see him as well though I felt as if he and I were growing apart with each new side of ma I saw, each new thing she taught me.