Novel Excerpt: Mark of the Wolf: Samhain

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 31st, 1998

“So,” said Jennifer.  “You guys performed a magic ritual.  And went on a magic quest.  To find a magic book.  Which is sitting right in front of us.”

“Yeah.”

Jennifer scuttled as far from the book as she could without leaving the blanket.

Meanwhile, the ritual was progressing.  Dominic anointed Aaron and Amber with oil – upon the brow, the breast, and right above their waistbands – then handed Amber the oil so that she might do the same for Jacob and himself.  So anointed, Dominic took the knife from the altar and walked a circle around the others, blade extended, his expression somewhere between concentration and rapture.  To either side of Margaret, Alexander and Jennifer shivered.  For her own part, Margaret felt something inside her relax.  The Mark – restless here out at Gaea, but not as terribly as before – grew still.  The Circle drawn, Dominic took his place at the north.  Aaron spoke first, his voice low and reverent as he lit his candle.

“Powers and spirits of the West; guardians of the primal Water from which flows the river Styx; keepers of the dead, guides of the path between this life and the next.  We call you to our Circle to be honored on this night of Samhain.”

Margaret could hear the speakers clearly in the quiet of the woods, though she and the other non-participants sat some yards away.  While they almost certainly could not, Alexander and Jennifer grew quiet out of respect.  Dominic spoke next, lighting his own candle.

“Powers and spirits of the North; creatures of Air, intellect, and the upper realms.  We call to you to join our circle on this night of Samhain.”

It was Amber’s turn to light her candle, invoking her element with reverence and awe.

“Powers and spirits of the East; keepers of the primal Fire and the light of knowledge and the secrets of rebirth.  We call you to join our circle this night of Samhain.”

Jacob lit his candle and spoke slowly, his voice deepening.

“Powers and spirits of the South; creatures of vast Earth, of fecund life and deep time.  We call you to join our circle this night of Samhain.”

They held together in a long moment of silence, then incanted in unison.

“So the circle is cast.  So mote it be.”

Amber and Dominic stepped forward into the center of the circle, and Dominic knelt at Amber’s feet.  Both bowed their heads for a long moment, then both raised their hands to the sky.  Dominic drew breath as if to speak, but all that emerged from his mouth was a long, loud tone that he maintained as he drew his hands down from the sky and toward Amber.

The scene was vaguely erotic: a beautiful young man kneeling before a half-naked young woman, his palms mere inches from her ribs.  Margaret felt as though she ought be embarrassed on their behalf, but mostly she wished she had her camera with her, with film and a lens up to the task of capturing the image at this distance by moonlight.

A shudder ran through Amber’s body, and she reached up further toward the sky, her head tilted back in ecstacy.  She lowered her hands, stood up straighter, and seemed to grow by inches.

Amber brought a hand down to touch Dominic’s face in a regal gesture, then reached for the ground with both hands open.

“Come, O God,” she evoked, raising her hands slowly as she spoke.  “Rise from your earthly slumber of death.  Rise and join this circle.  Rise and dwell in the body of your priest.”

Then she laid her hands on his shoulders, and a shudder ran through his body.  He stood, slowly, and they faced away from one another, back to back so that Amber faced Aaron in the West and Dominic looked out to where Margaret sat with the others.

“Aaron,” Amber called, gesturing for him to step forward.   “It is you who serve the Crone.  Invite the beloved dead into the circle.”

Aaron stepped forward at her command, and nodded at her words.  He turned and faced the West again, speaking loudly but gently.

“We call upon you who have passed beyond the Gates of Life, you who have loved us and have watched over us from beyond, be welcome in our circle.  We call upon you Mighty Dead, honored of the Craft, be welcome in our circle.  We call upon you still imprisoned in the trap whence we have lately escaped, felled before your time, be welcome in our circle.”  Aaron pulled a small bottle from the pocket of his jeans and poured it out at his feet.  “Accept this offering, and those we shall lay before you.”

While Aaron was speaking Dominic had unobtrusively knelt and retrieved the chalice and athame from the altar.  When Aaron was done speaking, both he and Amber turned back toward the center of the circle, and Dominic handed the chalice to her.  Amber raised the chalice for all to see, then filled it with wine from the altar and held it out toward Dominic.  Dominic, in turn, raised the athame high, then touched it to his forehead before reversing the blade and lowering it slowly into the chalice.  They stood there, posed, his wand in her cup, then separated.

She raised the cup to his lips and he drank.  He took the cup from her and she drank from his hand in turn before reclaiming the chalice and offering wine to Aaron and Jacob as well.

“Speak, Aaron,” Amber said, “of my descent to the dark realms.”

Aaron bowed his head, then stood tall and spoke.

“In the early days of the world, there was only life and death, creation and destruction.  The Goddess walked the earth, making mortal things, and when they died they were claimed by the God and taken to the realms of death.  The Goddess lived in the light and the God lived in shadow, never taking the last breath of a living thing while the goddess watched.  All the Mysteries of light and life were hers to create and control, but death and darkness were unknown to her.  A time came when she could no longer abide this.  She knew where the border lay between life and death, and searched that border until she found the passage by which things moved from one into the other.”

As he spoke, Aaron paced clockwise around the circle, gesturing dramatically with his hands.

“The God sensed that his borders were being probed, and he was waiting at the gate when the Goddess approached.  He hid his face behind his helm and barred her way with his spear, but he could not help but be moved by her beauty and her splendor.  Thus his indifference was feigned when he demanded that she explain why she sought to move beyond the borders of her own kingdom.

“The Goddess explained to him that she loved dearly all that she had created, and that she wished to see where her creatures went when they left her, and that they were well cared for.  The God nodded his great head, but warned her that the realms of death were governed by their own laws, and that the Goddess could not bring anything but herself beyond the brazen gate.

“The Goddess nodded in turn, and stripped off her crown and robes and all her precious jewels.  The God was overawed by the Goddess standing naked before him, and bowed himself down and laid his spear and helm at her feet, swearing to serve her always.  The Goddess laid her hand upon his shaggy head and demanded that the God lead her down into death.”

Aaron paused, staring off into the West.

“The way to death is crooked, but swift, and beyond the River Styx the Goddess found the shades of all the things she had created but which had left her.  She knelt among them and wept for joy, and the God stood at her shoulder.  She thanked him for caring for her creatures, and bid him lead her back up to the realm of life lest her other creations worry.  This he could not do.

“If you are to return to the realms of life, he told her, you must first descend the entire way.  And so he led her further down, past the other great rivers and his guardian Cerberus, beyond the Elysian fields – yet empty for there had been no heroes – unto the very throne.

“There, the Goddess discovered the greatest mystery of all: for she, herself, already sat upon the throne.  She had already been there since the dawn of time, which was why she could not leave.”

All stood in silence.  Then Amber spoke again.

“Thus ended the earliest age of the world, for the revelations of that first descent changed the nature of life and death forever.  Then as now, it is the Mother who tends to the garden of life, and it is the Crone who tends to the dead with the Grey God at her side.  Every season since that first the Mother descends to the underworld in search of her children.  It is autumn now, and passing into winter, and we know the absence of the Goddess.  Yet we know that spring has come before and will come again.  The Mother descends and becomes the Crone, but in her wake she leaves a promise: that she will return as the Maiden with the Green God at her side, and she will tend to the garden of life and be the Mother once more.”

Dominic raised his hands above his head.

“Let us pour out blood-red wine in memory of the Mother, who has left us.  Let us pour out blood-red wine to the Crone who awaits us.  Let us pour out blood-red wine to those who have died before, because their fate awaits us all.”

Amber, Aaron, Dominic, and Jacob each poured out a measure of wine, then passed the bottle back around, drinking until it was empty.  When they were done, Dominic pulled a tray of honey cakes and another bottle of wine from beneath the altar, and with Amber’s aid they opened the bottle and repeated the blade-and-chalice ritual.

“Finally,” said Dominic, kneeling at the altar, setting aside a cake and pouring out a last measure of wine.  “Let us thank the gods and spirits that have aided us in our quest to find the Liber Caecissima.  By your aid, we shall aid another, and undo a great wrong.”

“Now,” Amber cried loudly enough that even Alexander and Jennifer could hear, “in honor of life and death alike, let us feast on cakes and ale!”

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