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This is a special event so I am postponing my usual Friday DIYday post until next week, but don’t worry, it will be there 😉 Okay, so Earth Day is not exactly a pagan holiday, but it’s as close to it as modern society will probably ever get to honoring the Earth which, you know, keeps us all alive. I was going to post another episode of Wacky Weres but then I realized I have something better. So instead, I am sharing a little excerpt from my latest release The Royal Wizard, which is both pagan and a teasy. Enjoy!
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Torches were lit all at once when the sun kissed the western tree line, flooding the courtyard with blazing light. It was magic as much as fire; hundreds of hearts beating together in the same wish for children and a healthy harvest later in the year. Saeran could almost see their prayers shimmering interspersed with torchlight, floating among the sparks thrown by bonfires. It was a beautiful sight to behold.
Every house was decorated with vibrant flags and ribbons to celebrate the beginning of summer, every man woman and child dressed in their finest. The music was loud, the laughter even louder, but through it all the breeze teased him with secrets of things unseen. The Others were walking among them tonight. Saeran strained to catch a glimpse of even one, but he saw nothing.
He weaved amidst the crowds, searching for anything that was out of place. The courtyard was a melee of dancers and revelers, the great hall open to everyone on this holy night, for all were equal before the gods. Instead of formal feasts, everyone would go to the altar on the hill where offerings to the gods would be made.
Nia would lead the procession. She would weave spells around her to make sparkling lights follow in her wake and her white robes would glitter in the dying light with a magic of their own. There would be flowers in her hair and a golden mask covering her eyes and nose. She would be the embodiment of the goddess Frigga.
They come, they gather, the breeze whispered. They come to see…
“What?” Saeran asked.
See, the breeze repeated, swirling around him once and then streaming toward the castle. See…
Saeran walked in the direction of the wind. He focused his intention as Nia had taught him, willed it into a vision to See the Others among his people. It took him long moments to realize he was following a leyline, and when he saw what it was leading him to, the young king almost dropped to his knees.
In an instant, all became quiet and the crowds parted to create a passage. They bowed deeply as Nia passed, paying homage to her and the goddess of fertility she embodied. Saeran forgot to breathe. She glided along the uneven ground on bare feet, her step silent but for the tinkling of tiny bells that none could see. It was an illusion, the king told himself, but couldn’t be certain.
He kept his features calm, falling in step behind her; the first in the procession. It was his right as king. The breeze wafted over him, bringing with it the scent of her. She was summer. She was sunshine and flowers, rainstorms and life.
As they passed the outer gate, a cheer went up and the music and revelry resumed, following in their wake. Nia never faltered. She led the way to the hill, oblivious to everything else. When she reached the altar, she turned to face the crowds and raised her arms above her head, speaking to the heavens and the setting sun. She called for blessings upon the land and all who lived on it, asking for a bountiful harvest and happiness for couples young and old.
When she finished speaking, she rounded the altar and passed her hands over it. Then the villagers came forward, placing their small offerings onto the slab of stone. They brought wreaths of wild flowers, pieces of fruit, if they had any, or puppets made of hay, ribbons and cloth. They brought what they could spare to please the gods, laying it before Nia and speaking soft prayers as if she truly was the goddess who looked after them.
Nia accepted the gifts formally, thanking each person and blessing them as they passed. The offerings would be left on the altar for the gods to do with as they pleased. No one was allowed to take from them, lest they incur their wrath.
The foreigners came forward at the end, each taking part in the ceremony as they would. Sir Frederick gave a silken handkerchief, saying a prayer of thanks to both the gods and Nia herself. He bowed deeply to her as he stepped away and Nia nodded to him in acknowledgement. The rest of the knights followed suit, one bringing a piece of bread, another a carved wooden horse, the third a piece of chain mail, and the last a single red bloom. She nodded in thanks and blessed all of them as well.
Finally it was the king’s turn and, for him, Nia rounded the altar once more to face him without barrier. The king had no tribute to give. It was tradition for him to show respect to the gods by proving his humility.
Saeran stepped forward, grateful the ritual required no words. His mouth was too dry for him to speak. The fires sang out with the wind, even the sky added its voice to the chorus. He bowed his head before Nia and knelt. The crowd echoed with a prayer for the king, that he might find a wife soon and sire offspring, and their voices made the earth shudder beneath him.
Nia touched a hand to his chin, urging him to look up. When he did, she leaned down and kissed him, as was custom. Saeran balled his hands into fits, fighting the urge to pull her to him and kiss her the way he wanted to. He was drunk with the scent of her, the feel of her lips so chaste against his.
Too soon, she withdrew. In the darkness, only he could see the hesitation in her movements as she straightened and he wished the others would disappear. “Rise, King Saeran,” she said, her voice ringing out over the hill. “May your reign be prosperous for all the years to come.”
He obeyed, but he couldn’t make his feet move him from the spot. For a moment they merely stared at each other, caught in an instant of pure magic. It pulsated in the air around them like a heartbeat, making it difficult to breathe.
Another cheer went up, startling them both, and Saeran forced himself to walk away. The bonfire would burn all through the night, and few would leave before the sun rose again to light their way home.
Nia faced the altar and once more raised her arms above her head, her own tribute and offering. She removed the flowers from her hair and placed them on the altar, saying a soft prayer. Then she turned in a circle thrice and dissolved into mist, disappearing from sight.
When she reappeared next to Saeran, her golden mask was gone. Instead of white robes, she wore the blue ones she’d received at her presentation and the wolf skin over it. She watched the celebrations with a smile on her face, though it seemed a disguise for something else lurking beneath her carefully composed mask of calm.
Only those too young or too old stayed to the side; the rest danced around the fire in celebration. The foreigners, Saeran noted, did not dance either. But while four of them watched the revelers, the fifth’s eyes searched through the crowd until they settled on Nia. It was the selfsame knight who had gazed at her in the great hall, the same one who’d presented her with a red bloom and placed it so close to her hand. Arnaud was infatuated with the wizard, and he’d scarce seen her once since he’d arrived.
Lady Brigit spun out of the circle and caught Saeran’s hands. “A dance for the fire spirits, your Majesty?” She pulled him into the throng before he could answer, obliging him to dance. She held him so close he was tripping over her skirts, but Brigit only laughed. Saeran suspected the lady had sampled the mead one too many times. It loosened her tongue enough to say, “A finer king Wilderheim has never had! Maidens are praying for you tonight, that you will choose a wife and make her queen, but each of them wants you for herself.”
It was nothing he hadn’t heard before, but tonight the flattery only served to remind him that he’d already chosen.
Brigit grabbed his waist and spun them around. She leaned in and said, “If you choose me—”
Saeran didn’t hear the end of it because the seamstress sisters, Finna and Maeve, pulled him away, chattering one over the other. He danced around the fire thrice, and each time he thought he was free someone pulled him back into the jig. Saeran heard Nia squeal. The woodsman, Dahl, had picked her up one-armed to dance her around. Like Saeran, she was passed from one to the next, but unlike him, she seemed to enjoy it. The fire illuminated her laughing face as she spun and hopped directly across from him.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, Saeran saw the knight Arnaud step into the fray, following Nia. She was in Hundr’s arms now, but before Arnaud could join them, Hundr passed Nia to Geir and away from the knight. Geir lifted Nia by her waist to spin her around while Saeran found himself with the shy Dagmar in his arms. He smiled at her briefly, but his attention was on Nia and the knight following after her from Geir to Konall, to old Sigmarr, and back to Geir.
“Your Majesty!” Brigit called, but Hundr pulled her away as Elsa replaced Dagmar. Maeve caught the knight’s hand, but he shook her off and continued around the circle after Nia like a bloodhound after a scent. Saeran turned Svana around to go the opposite way. Hundr with Brigit danced quicker than the rest, past him and halfway around the circle in a few steps. And just as Nia spun away from Tannir, as Saeran was preparing to switch partners yet again, Brigit stuck her foot out and tripped Nia in the direction of the blazing bonfire. Saeran let go of Svana with gasp and made a grab for Nia as she tipped forward, arms flailing to stop herself.
He caught hold of her sleeve and pulled her upright into his arms just in time, and when her gaze met his, Saeran went deaf and blind to the world. Nia.
She shivered as if she’d heard him speak her name. She couldn’t have. Only in the deepest, most secret corner of his heart would he ever dare to say it that way, with the whole of his soul calling out in anguished longing to the mate it could not reach.
“Lady Nia,” Arnaud said close enough to startle him.
Saeran felt his mouth pull into a snarl. With Nia in his arms, he spun out of the circle of dancers. Darkness pulled around them and a facsimile of them broke off to continue in the current of dancers. The darkness was his; the illusion Nia’s. Taking her hand in his, he pulled her into the woods, far from prying eyes.