I watch as the dawn filters through oak branches and spreads across my bare skin. Rays of light leave little patterns that dance all over my body, a kaleidoscope of the butterflies fluttering across my arms and legs. Smoothing my hands over small breasts, I smother my jealousy of my sister's blossoming form.
Siobhan stretches her lithe body, the recent growth within her just starting to show. She would be the one to represent us under the grand oak tonight, alongside mother and Aoife. I had many sisters in this place, but Siobhan and I were the closest in age and had been the best of friends since arriving on the island so many years ago.
She had been chosen as consort months earlier, during Beltane, with her counterpart, Aiden. Their sacred marriage had given us life, and the child within her would grow to do great things. Because the goddess saw fit, our island would have a bountiful harvest this year. I shouldn’t feel jealousy, this was a gift to us all, but it should have been me thick with child.
Throughout the last few years I had watched as one by one, the other young priestesses experienced their first moon flow. Mine had been stubborn and elusive. I had been approaching my fifteenth summer and was the strongest of my sisters. I was so sure this would be my year, but life wasn’t fair. When it did finally come, Beltane had passed, and it was a moon span too late.
Everything in my life seemed to come late, except my birth, of course. I had arrived premature, in the dead of winter, bursting into this world on the eve of yuletide. The wise woman of our village said my birth was an omen that would either bring my family great blessings or great destruction. No one expected me to live.
I smile and caress my sister’s cheek as I paint the blue whorls over her swollen abdomen and the moon and sun to decorate her breasts. She looks so radiant. Aiden won’t be able to resist her!
Today is Litha, the pinnacle of the triumph of light over darkness. Tomorrow darkness will again overtake the light. Tonight the veil between the worlds will be at its weakest, and the fae would come to dance with us around the fire in celebration of the light.
If I was lucky, Ciaran will be there. Each year, since we were small, he and I would spend all the great festivals together. The first year I had celebrated Litha with the others, I was nine and Ciaran ten. We had become fast friends. There was no one else in the world that I could just be me with, not even Siobhan. Often we would sneak away from the others, and pick flowers, or lay in the grass watching the clouds roll by.
There will be nine priestesses and their druid counterparts accompanying the representation of the triple goddess and the oak king tonight. Nine is a sacred number because it always comes back to itself, no matter how you multiply it. But three is the most sacred of numbers, that was the age they had gifted me to the goddess, to study and become a priestess of the craft.
Tonight, Siobhan would sit with our mother and one of the younger priestesses under the watch of the Oak God. Our community’s representation of the triple goddess. The Crone, the Mother, and the Maiden.
The woad designs painted on our bodies will set us priestesses apart from the others. I look over my body, just starting to curve and change, and wonder if Ciaran would even recognize me.
As we make our silent procession to the Oak, a hush of reverence passes over the growing crowds. Aiden is there waiting for us under the tree in all his blazing glory. He greets Siobhan with a kiss, running his hands over her swollen belly, then wraps her in a warm embrace. Mother comes next, raising her arms in a blessing over the two of them. Little Aoife trails behind them, distracted by the chains of flowers the people drape over her. She looks like a faerie princess, with daisies through her hair, and the single crescent moon on her forehead.
Next to us, Myrddin leads our druid counterparts. Their hoods are pulled tightly, obscuring their faces, and dark robes hide their painted bodies.
I join the other priestesses and druids in a circle around the three women, secretly scanning the men, hoping to see Ciaran. He is so different from my sister’s consort. Dark, where Aiden is light, quiet, where Aiden is boisterous.
For the first time since Beltane, I feel relieved that they did not choose me to represent the Mother. I don’t really like Aiden, anyway. He always seems so high and mighty, the golden boy of the order. Myrddin lights the bonfire, and as the flames grow and lick at the air, the celebration begins. Mother waves her hand, dismissing the rest of us to enjoy the festivities.
It’s not long before I find Ciaran, alone, next to a single holly tree. I think part of the reason we always got along was that we were both quiet souls. I had been born almost two months before my time, with no one expecting my survival. Everything in my life had come late to me and I didn’t find my voice until I was almost five. Even now, I speak little.
Ciaran smiles, motioning for me to join him. His fingers brush my cheek as I lay back, and we watch the moon rise in the night sky. When I turn to face him, there is a sadness in his eyes that I had not seen before. I want to ask him about it, but when I open my mouth, he just touches my lips, silencing me.
We spent the night sitting together, no words passing between us. I can feel our souls intertwining as the glow from the fires below witness our bond. After a while, he clasps my hand. His skin is cool to the touch, yet I feel a surge of warmth run through my body. One minute I am sitting on a hill, next to him, the next we are dancing under the moonlight, blossoms raining down on us, his lips as red as the holly berries, and dark hair framing his face. He pulls me closer, and I shut my eyes, feeling his mouth on mine.
When I open my eyes again, we are back on the hill. The fires have burned low, and most of the crowds below are sleeping, or somewhere off in the woods celebrating in their own way. My mother and sisters are still keeping vigil, and I am sure Aiden is not far away.
I turn and look deeply into Ciaran’s eyes, only to see a single tear trailing its way down his cheek.
“I wish I could stay here with you, forever,” he whispers.
I take both of his hands in mine and kiss his forehead lightly. He traces the crescent moon on my forehead, letting his fingers trail down my face to the swirls below. Then he rises to his feet and starts making his way towards the great oak.
“Where are you going?” But he just shakes his head. I follow him, my bare feet padding down the mossy hill, and he does not turn around. When he reaches the tree, my mother stands, bowing to Ciaran in reverence, and I know what will soon happen. How could I have been so blind!
Aoife is resting at mothers’ feet, and after a gentle nudge, rises, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. Siobhan and Aiden are wrapped in an embrace, soaking in the last few moments of time together. Eventually, he pulls away and turns to face Ciaran.
The other sisters and their druid counterparts have all made their way back to the magnificent tree, forming a circle around Ciaran and Aiden. They lock eyes. Dark and light. Fire and ice. Their embrace is fierce, and not one of lovers. For they had fought this fight since the beginning of time.
The sun is just peeking over the horizon as Aiden draws his sword. Ciaran takes a step back, drawing his own. A crack sounds as the weapons meet and I want to turn away, but I can’t. That is not the way, and I must bear witness.
For hours upon hours, the two men clash. Aiden’s skin glistens in the sunlight, muscles taut as he pauses. His statuesque body draws stares from everyone except me. I have eyes only for Ciaran.
As the day reaches its zenith, Aiden looks as though he will triumph. Pushing Ciaran’s thin frame to the ground, Aiden’s sword rises above, ready to make its death blow. We all wait for Ciaran to roll away, breaking Aiden’s advantage and becoming the victor. But he doesn’t move. Aiden hesitates, confusion clear.
Ciaran turns to look at me, tears in his eyes.
“I don’t want to do this.” His voice is barely audible.
Aiden looks towards Myrddin, questioning.
“We all play our parts,” Myrddin says.
Ciaran grits his teeth and his eyes flash with determination. “It will be done.”
Giving his head a shake, Aiden shrugs and looks towards Siobhan. Her body is rigid, eyes revealing nothing. He raises his sword once again, time slowing as plunges towards Ciaran’s chest.
“No!” I shout, diving between the sword and Ciaran. I can hear the collective gasp of the priestesses and druids around me as Aiden falters, trying to stop the momentum behind the blow. But it is too late.
The cool metal slips between my ribs, piercing my heart, and I fall to the ground in a heap. There is no pain, but I can feel my life slipping away. Each beat pumps out my life’s fluid.
“Niamh!” Ciaran cries, dropping his sword and pulling me into his arms. “Why? You knew it wouldn’t be me!”
“I know,” I choke out, “but you were going to let him win.”
Ciaran sighs, tears streaming down his face. “I wouldn’t have, couldn’t have, that’s never been the way.”
The world around me is fading, and I see Aiden drop his sword, baring his throat. “It is time brother.”
Ciaran gives me one last tender kiss before pulling himself to his feet. Retrieving a dagger from his belt, he pulls it across Aiden’s neck, watching as the man falls to the ground next to me, our lifeblood intertwining in the soft moss underneath.