KA-THUMP-THM. Ka-Thump-thm-thm. The drums echoed Myrddin’s heartbeat. Faster and faster the drums beat, calling the college of Druids to Beltane revelries.
Myrddin Emrys stepped into the center of the Giant’s Dance. Reverence for the ceremony he was about to preside over tinged the edges of his senses. But something was missing in this time-honored ritual. He watched the revelries taking place all across the broad plain. The huge twin bonfires roared just east of the Heel Stone. The community’s livestock had been driven down the processional avenue between the fires to purify them for the coming year.
Woodsmoke, singed hide, and the earthy aroma of livestock bunched together grounded his awareness of his duties. The future and fertility of his community depended upon his proper performance of ritual tonight.
The community danced a serpentine pattern around and between the bonfires. All was in place. Myrddin bent to his task, his ritual knife poised to cut sigils into the dirt — Pridd, the living Goddess.
The four elements, Pridd, Awyr, Tanio, and Dwfr, were present. The omens indicated a season of bounty. He should begin.
Higher and higher the bonfires leaped and danced in imitation of Belenos, the sun. Naked youths broke away from the dance and jumped over the bonfire, defying the growing flames. Red and orange sparks seemed to fly from the bronze torcs encircling their necks. Ale and sacred mead flowed freely among all of the participants. The pattern of life continued in the age-old celebration.
Myrddin downed his third cup of the honey wine, barely tasting the blessing in each swallow. No one should hide from Dana, the Goddess, tonight by wearing clothing. But he was forced to wear a white robe, woven of the finest virgin wool. He must remain separated from the revelries while presiding over them. Only he among the current generation of Druids had been gifted with prophecy. Only he was commanded to remain separate from the celebration of fertility.
He returned to the solitary ritual the chief Druid must perform.
Ka-Thump-thm. Ka-Thump-thm. The drumbeats called him away from his duties. He deliberately blotted out the images of the annual drunken celebration. He needed concentration to maintain the continuity within the patterns of past, present, and future.
He cut the sigils into the Pridd. Male, female, birth, death, infinity. The same symbols snaked up his arm in vivid tattoos.
Life unfolded in unending patterns of sigils, portents, and choices. Druids interpreted for those who lost sight of their patterns in the midst of the loops and whorls of change. Tonight Myrddin had difficulty finding his own pattern within the sigils he cut into the earth.
His concentration wavered as he caught sight of the naked virgins proceeding toward the bonfire through the ritual maze cut into the turf. He needed to join them. Join with them.
To the strongest and bravest of the young men leaping over the bonfires would go the privilege of accepting the gift of virginity from the prettiest maid in the community. Myrddin had never tasted that glorious honor.
The smell of sweat and musky anticipation pulled his concentration away from the sigils.
Tonight the men of the community would scatter their seed among the women. Tomorrow they would scatter different seeds in the freshly plowed fields. Powerful symbolism to entice the blessing of the Goddess.
The wool of his ceremonial robe rasped against his skin. The drums called to him, taunted him with the knowledge his seed would never take root. His gaze lingered on Deirdre, the priestess who led tonight’s procession. Sight of her full breasts and gently rounded hips made his palms itch to touch her. A deeper itch grew within him. The mead heated his veins.
He downed another cup of the sacred wine of the Goddess, knowing it would inflame his desire. Yet he needed a degree of alcoholic numbness to proceed with this ritual. Total stupor would make his duties easier, but then the magic would desert him and the symbolism of tonight’s ceremonies.
All of Britain needed his sigils, properly and lovingly drawn, to bind together tonight’s revelry with tomorrow’s planting.
Myrddin turned his back on the sight of Deirdre dancing on the opposite side of the bonfires. Still, the heat of the flames sang in his blood.
Ka-Thump-thm-thm. Ka-Thump-thm-thm. A strong young man prepared to leap over the growing flames of the bonfire. The tempo of the drums built to a driving intensity, inciting the athlete to greater strength and agility.
The drums changed rhythm, creating a new pattern; one Myrddin couldn’t interpret. What was different about tonight? Why couldn’t he ignore Deirdre’s enticing beauty when he had resisted her for most of their adult lives?
Ka-Thump-thm-thump-thm-thm-thm. Faster and faster, the beat echoed in his heart.
His body ached for release. He closed his eyes, begging Lleu for control. Never in his thirty-two summers had the geas of celibacy pressed so hard upon him. He couldn’t see a pattern in the intensity of his temptation.
Male, female, birth, death, infinity. With the tip of his bronze athame, his ritual knife, he traced the lines of the sacred sigils. He concentrated on the embellishments that tied them to Pridd, Awyr, Tanio, and Dwfr. After each straight line, loop, and spiral, he chanted a prayer. The beaten earth surrounding the altar stone of the Giant’s Dance became a living tattoo, writhing in the flickering light of bonfires and torches. The living tissue of Dana, the Goddess, parted easily under his sharp blade.
A blast of horns announced the winner of the contest. The last young man to leap the bonfire had bested all other competitors in a triumphant feat. The sleek muscles of his long thighs rippled with power. He raised his arms in victory. His penis rose proudly to meet the challenge before him. He alone would accept the gift of virginity offered by the Queen of the May.
She stepped forward from the array of maiden attendants to meet her champion. Her firm, high breasts brushed against his chest as she stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek in acceptance of him as her consort tonight.
Myrddin’s chest burned beneath his robe as if the virgin pressed her body against him and not the local champion. The Queen of the May trembled in excitement. Moisture slicked her brow and the pale hair between her thighs. The throb in Myrddin’s groin intensified. The last rays of the setting sun gave the girl’s smooth, dewy skin a lovely blush. Myrddin held his breath lest he gasp aloud at her perfect, ripe beauty.
The fertility of the fields was too important to risk a less than perfect couple performing the symbolic joining of Pridd and Sun, Dana and Belenos.
The serpentine dance of naked couples wound past the bonfires toward the thirty standing stones for the ritual offering. Myrddin completed the sigil for infinity and enclosed them all in three entwined circles of sacrifice, blessing, and continuity.
Ka-Thump-thm-thump-thm. The drums preceded the naked celebrants into the sacred circle of standing stones just as the sun touched the horizon. Myrddin’s erection pounded in tempo with the drums. Heat built within him. He couldn’t watch. He had to watch. ’Twas his duty to preside over the ceremony.
The processional dance led by Deirdre, lovely Deirdre, entered the circle of standing stones. Myrddin stood beside the altar stone, waiting. He smelled the musk of anticipation on each of the celebrants. Honeysuckle and wild rose perfume drifted around the Queen of the May from her crown of fresh flowers, now slightly askew from her first enthusiastic embrace of her lover. She scooted onto the altar stone with little assistance from her attendants. Eagerly she spread her legs, Pridd ready for the first plowing.
Her mate, now wearing the sun-face mask of Belenos, joined her. Cheers and encouragement from the eager audience drowned out the driving rhythm of the drums.
Deirdre stood beside Myrddin now, living embodiment of the Goddess, blessing this union.
Myrddin closed his eyes in a desperate attempt to keep from pushing the priestess onto the altar stone and driving into her as the drums set the rhythm. Ka-Thump-thump-thump-thmmmmmmm.
“Lleu give me strength and understanding,” he prayed. He couldn’t leave until the couple finished. A bath in the cold waters of the River Avon might help him enforce self-control. But he couldn’t leave yet, when he most needed to leave. The chief Druid had to preside and bless the ritual, lest he break the pattern.
Ka-thump-thump-thump. Drums beat. For near an eternity. Horns blared in strident completion.
Myrddin opened his eyes and blinked hard. Sun collapsed upon Pridd, man upon woman, spent and replete. The scent of sex permeated the ever-present smell of woodsmoke and mead. The remaining worshipers of Belenos and Dana paired off into couples ready to complete their own ceremonies of fertility.
One solitary woman remained within the circle of standing stones. Deirdre. The very image of Dana. Lush breasts bursting with life. The dusky nipples tightened from emotions Myrddin didn’t need to interpret. She opened her arms in invitation. Her full rounded hips strained forward, eager for his thrust. A dark cloud of hair haloed the delicate features of her face. Another thatch shadowed the secrets between her thighs. A hint of her unique musky scent mingled with the flowers, the smoke, and the heat, whispering to him of joy.
Myrddin gulped and stared at the forbidden treasures that teased his senses. His blood boiled, demanding an escape from too small vessels. “I can’t,” he said through dry lips.
“On Beltane, the Goddess presides. The Goddess must be obeyed,” she said huskily. A slightly drunken giggle followed her pronouncement.
She danced a serpentine pattern around him, winding ever closer. Her hand brushed against his sleeve, exposing the twisting tattoos on his arms. Another circle, closer yet. The tips of her ripe breasts rippled against his back. And then she was in front of him, hips thrust forward, almost touching the proud bulge of his penis, separated by only his thin robe. The scent of spring flowers and freshly plowed Pridd followed her seductive spiral dance.
He reached to grab her, pull her closer yet. She danced away, elusive, demanding, mysterious, exotic.
Ka-Thump-thm-thm-thump-thm-thm. His heart raced faster than the drums.
Too much. The temptation gnawed at his willpower. His golden torc seemed to squeeze the breath from his throat. “Dana, forgive me. I can’t!”
The gods had declared him a celibate prophet. All Britons needed his gift to guide them through the turbulent years to come.
He closed his eyes to block out the lusty images that plagued him. Behind his eyelids, Dana/Deirdre continued to dance. Her presence banished all thoughts except his need for her.
“Come with me, Myrddin Emrys. Come,” she whispered as she twined her fingers with his own. “I rule tonight, not Lleu. Come, Myrddin Emrys.”
“Ah, Deirdre,” he murmured. He had pledged obedience to her when she became The Morrigan, high priestess of all Druids. He wanted nothing more than to plunge himself deeply inside her, pounding into her in the same rhythm as the drums, and spilling his seed into her receptive body.
“Come into the faery ring. The faeries will bless us,” she whispered huskily, then claimed his mouth in a searing kiss. She smelled of Pridd, clean and fertile. Her mouth tasted of honey mead and yearning.
No man, least of all Myrddin Emrys, could deny The Morrigan, living symbol of the Goddess on Beltane. ’Twas every man’s sacred duty to honor her with fertility tonight. He followed her outside the circle of standing stones to the edge of the grassy plateau. Just beyond them, the Great Ditch and Bank marked the perimeter of the sacred site and the boundary of tonight’s celebration.
His robe fell to the ground as he stepped into the perfect circle of mushrooms. The faery ring mimicked the huge Giant’s Dance in smaller dimensions. Ka-thump-thump-thm-thm. Thump-thump-thm. The pulsing intensity built within his erection. Ka-thump-thump-thump. The drums guided his hands as he worshiped her body. The intense rhythm drove his thrusts.
So sweet, nearly painful. Deirdre cried out in ecstasy. Myrddin plunged onward, circling, spiraling into harmony with sun, moon, stars, and Life….
The Great Wheel of stars and moon showed the hour almost midnight when Myrddin withdrew from the damp sweetness of Deirdre’s body for the third time, exhausted and replete.
“Ye’ll not leave me yet?” Deirdre stroked him with knowing fingers.
His flesh responded to her ministrations with a slight quiver. She smiled and continued coaxing him with hands and mouth.
“Later, Deirdre, love. I need a rest.” He disengaged himself from her and stepped outside the faery ring of mushrooms. “My priestly duties call. I’ll come to your bed when I can, before dawn.” He bent over the unbroken faery circle to kiss her one more time.
Ka-Thump. Ka-Thump. The drum slowed as did his heartbeat.
Perhaps the gods, Lleu in particular, had not noticed his lapse. Dana and Belenos reigned during this festival of Life and Tanio.
Deirdre pouted, her big dark eyes luminous with continued desire. She lifted herself onto one elbow. With shoulders thrust back, her full, round breasts rose sharply, nipples erect, enticing. Droplets glimmered in the firelight against the dark thatch between her thighs. Thick, lustrous curls to match the curly mane of hair that fell nearly to her hips.
“Don’t leave me yet, Myrddin Emrys!” The Morrigan commanded, clinging to the folds of his robes. “We’ve barely begun.”
Her face blurred and re-formed into the laughing image of Belenos. The sun god had used her to trap Myrddin, a favorite of Lleu, the god of art and music.
“You promised to return ’ere dawn,” Deirdre reminded him. “May the gods curse you if you break a promise made inside a faery ring.”
Fear overrode Myrddin’s lust and carried him away from the faery ring. He strained his long legs beyond comfort, running across the boulder-strewn field toward the ring of standing stones.
“Dana preserve me,” he pleaded with every harsh breath. Rough stones bruised his bare feet as he raced over the broken ground. The Giant’s Dance loomed ahead. Almost within reach. Wavering flames and shifting shadows masked and blurred directions.
“Belenos tempted me away from my destined path. He is the strongest on this night of his festival. Let him guide me back.” With this last prayer, Myrddin leaped through the nearest archway and fell….
“Welcome, Myrddin Emrys. Welcome to the Underworld.” The disembodied eagle face of Lleu rose up in the blackness surrounding Myrddin. The predatory gleam of a raptor on the hunt brightened his dark eyes. Behind the god, the roots of the Worldtree tangled in the abyss, reminding Myrddin that the punishment for breaking his geas of celibacy was hanging nine days upon the Tree. Nine days without water or companionship to ease the pain.
“I shouldn’t be here. This isn’t my time!” The absolute wrongness stabbed into Myrddin’s mind and heart. His body seemed to have dissipated in the endless blackness of the abyss. He couldn’t find his hands to make emphatic gestures or tear his hair. Only his mind and soul remained, drifting endlessly in — nothing.
The acrid smell of sulfur and the musty smell of rotting wood leaves told him that some of his senses still lived. He wasn’t dead yet. He had a chance to live and return to Deirdre before dawn, as he had promised.
“The gift of prophecy denies you the privilege of laying with a woman. A fair exchange. You broke that geas. You belong to me now.” Lleu’s melodic voice resounded through the nothingness as he transformed into his manlike form. His long nose and shifting eyes reminded Myrddin of the eagle persona the god assumed at will. Like the Goddess who was Dana, mother of all, as well as Andraste, the warrior queen, Lleu took several forms. Nothing showed of Lleu’s other guise, a meek hare that foretold the future. Myrddin knew how and where to stand to divert a running hare. But no man could keep an eagle from relinquishing its focus while its prey remained within sight.
A space of light spread around the god to include Myrddin. Solid ground supported them. Myrddin’s body became a wisp of shadows, clothed in his white Druid robe. The tattoos on his arm glowed through the robe, a grim reminder of his priesthood and duty to the gods. He’d not solidify or dissipate fully until judged.
The Worldtree stood at the very edge of this temporary reality, half in the light and half in the abyss. Cernunnos, horned god of the Underworld, waited for him within the tangled branches of the Tree.
The smell of sulfur ceased biting his senses but lingered.
“He belongs to me as well,” Belenos stepped into the light. “’Tis my night. I claim a piece of his soul.” His radiant visage dripped sheep’s blood from the sacrifices offered to him this night. His black eyes opened into a passage into the abyss. He carried the acrid scent of burning blood and rotten wood with him. The smells of death.
A round judgment table and four high-backed chairs appeared in the center of the circle of light. Belenos took a seat in the chair representing East — the position of his rising power. Lleu sat to the West. The Worldtree hovered between them. Cernunnos peeked out from the shadowy branches, patient, knowing that eventually all life passed through his realm.
The Goddess appeared as Dana, draped in flowing robes that outlined Her femininity in maddening secrets, the persona of love and life perpetual. “He also belongs to me. ’Twas at my behest he made himself vulnerable.” The voice of all women wove into the tapestry of sound and blinding light emanating from Her.
If She had chosen to be Andraste, the warrior queen clad in golden armor and carrying a flaming sword, Myrddin would have known doom. Dana gave him hope. She chose the position of North for Her throne.
South remained empty. Myrddin wouldn’t sit there unless they found him innocent. Only then did he realize his golden torc, the symbol of his manhood and priestly office, didn’t encircle his neck.
“I have duties to fulfill and promises to keep,” Myrddin protested. “You chose me to make Arthur a king worthy of Britain and the gods. I, and I alone, must provide him with a warband ready to follow his lead. You entrusted his education and training to me. He is still too young to abandon. I must fulfill your tasks.”
“Arthur’s identity remains secret, as we chose,” Belenos said. “Lord Ector and his family protect him and train him as appropriate to his age and status. The other Beltane sons you have placed into similar foster homes thrive as well. Arthur will rise to greatness of his own accord without your interference.” The light radiating from Belenos’ sun-face nearly blinded Myrddin.
“You can teach him many things,” Myrddin challenged the god. “But can you show him how to give many factions common ground? Can you give him the sense of continuity that will insure those rival factions agree on his leadership? You chose me for that task. No other can complete it as I can.” He swallowed his fear as the fervor of his mission overtook him. “And what of the college of Druids? Our numbers decrease every year as the Christians grow more numerous. The magic and the prophecy you gave me diminishes as well. The followers of the White Christ will not honor you. I must help fill the empty places in the circle, or the rituals will mean nothing and you will fade into nothingness,” Myrddin stated.
“You should have thought of that before you broke your vow of celibacy,” Lleu answered. “Celibacy is required of those who are gifted with visions of the future.” The South chair began to fade into the mist and shadow of the Underworld.
“A gift imposed upon me before I was old enough to know what it meant or use it properly. Most people don’t learn to use their gift until they are adults, have lived a full life, sired or borne children. My gift was imposed upon me before the age of five.”
“We have our reasons for keeping you separate from women. Now you must face the consequences of your disobedience,” Belenos chortled.
“What of Arthur? You chose him as you chose me for special destinies.”
“Your destiny can no longer be fulfilled by you. We must find another.” Lleu stood, his eagle’s wings grew and his fingers became talons, ready to rip out Myrddin’s throat.
Myrddin refused to believe that this was the end of this life. He could still complete any task the gods set for him. Arthur was too important to Britain’s future to abandon. One night of passion in honor of the Goddess shouldn’t negate a lifetime of faithful work for the gods.
“We must train another to insure the continuance of our kind.” Dana bowed her head sadly. “The faeries will help us. If your successor fails, we, the gods, will be forced to abandon your world for another dimension, and so will the faeries. As we speak, the portals between worlds dim and grow weak. Other portals open wider. A balance must be maintained.”
“Isn’t the propagation of children the way to insure that our way of life, our beliefs, our unity with all life continues through the ages?” Myrddin pleaded with her.
“Our people must face the Christians first.” Lleu stood, fists clenched against the table of judgment. “’Twill take a special child with intense training to survive the strength of their missionaries.”
“The Romans massacred all but a handful of us. Can the followers of the White Christ do worse? They are meek. They carry no weapons. They shout peace and love from the hilltops. We should join them, show them the beauty of our ways. Together we would become invincible,” Myrddin said, his voice falling into the pattern of song and story.
“Had you honored your geas, protected your gift of prophecy with celibacy, you could have been the bridge between two faiths.” Lleu sat down again, once more fully a man.
“I still can — with or without my gift. It is only a tool, not a necessity to my life.”
“The Christians respect marriage and fidelity. They do not understand our reverence for the Beltane Festival, and so you have been kept separate from it. They cannot and will not respect and listen to you, an active participant in a ritual they abhor.”
“One lapse, in honor of Dana, the one who is all of you and all mortal life combined, need not establish a pattern for the rest of my life. For centuries The Merlin and The Morrigan have shared the guidance of Britain, as a couple, joined in purpose in rituals more binding than marriage. I have always considered Deirdre my spouse though I have not lain with her until tonight.”
He paused to gather his wits. The gods remained silent, listening, waiting for a better argument.
“I am a bard and a magician. I can help blend the best of our ways with the best of Christianity. Is not their Mary, the mother of Jesus, another manifestation of the Goddess? Is not the respect for all life as their god’s creation similar to ours, as well as the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth? Do they not invoke Pridd, Awyr, Tanio, and Dwfr in their rituals as do we? The pattern of our joint effort is clear. United, with Arthur leading us, we can drive back the Saxons who threaten Britain and you,” he sang as if retelling a great epic. His voice swelled and filled the void with the majesty of his destiny.
Images of glorious battle and victory flitted around the circle of light. Bright banners among the ranks of soldiers depicted all of the gods marching with them.
Dana watched the future unfolding before them and nodded.
“You have the silver tongue of a bard,” Belenos laughed, banishing the images.
“And the wisdom of a magician to find and interpret the patterns of life beyond the restriction of time,” Lleu added, bringing the visions back.
“ And the charm of a diplomat,” the Goddess smiled. She plucked the banner bearing her image from the visions flickering about them, gathering it to her breast.
Light filtered into the abyss.
“You chose my destiny before I was born. You chose me to make Arthur Ardh Rhi, the High King who will save Britain and both religions,” Myrddin pleaded one last time.
“Your arguments have been heard.” Lleu’s presence grew stronger as the others receded. “For the well-being of Arthur and our people, I forgive this one lapse. We mark your body as a perpetual reminder of your geas against women. We charge you to continue your tutelage of Arthur and those who will form his warband, to raise your successor, and keep your pledge to Deirdre. You promised to return to her before dawn. In your heart you offered love and protection. That oath continues to her child. You must protect the child who will maintain the balance of open and closed portals between dimensions.”
“Child? We conceived a child this night?” Myrddin sat heavily in the South chair at the stunning news. “A child to carry my heart and knowledge into the next generation, and the next.”
“A child you must protect at all costs. Deirdre cannot survive the birthing.” The image of Lleu faded along with the judgment table and the other gods. “On the day the child is born and Deirdre leaves her earthly body, you and your child must go into exile from your college of Druids. But remember…” The booming voice that had moments ago filled the abyss receded as the tide. “Next time, we will not forgive. Next time…” Lleu’s words faded into a breath of wind.
Myrddin fingered the suddenly heavy torc returned to his neck.
“I need the child,” Dana whispered into his mind. “The child is why I tempted you. Your descendants form an important part of the pattern of life. Remember your promise in the faery ring.”