"This," Mia said as the sun broke the sky in the east with an arrow of fire, "is for us. The Midsummer sabbat, the celebration of the earth's coming bounty, the warmth of the air, and the full power of the sun. We are the Three. "
"Yeah, yeah. " Ripley yawned hugely. "And if we can get on with this, I might be able to get home and catch another hour's sleep. "
"Your reverence is, as always, inspiring. "
"You'll remember, I voted against standing around up here at dawn. Since it's Sunday, both of you can go back to bed. I'm on duty all day. "
"Ripley" - Nell managed to make her voice mild and patient - "it's the solstice. Celebrating the longest day should begin when the day begins. "
"I'm here, aren't I?" Ripley scowled at Nell. "You're awfully bright and chipper for a pregnant woman. Why aren't you flat out with morning sickness?"
"I've never felt better in my life. "
"Or looked happier," Mia said. "We'll celebrate fertility today. The earth's and yours. The first balefire has burned since sunset. The dawn fire is for you to light. "
She lifted a circlet she'd woven from lavender and set it on Nell's head. "You're the first of us to carry life, and to take what we are to the next generation. Blessed be, little sister. "
She kissed Nell's cheeks, then stepped back.
"Okay, that gets me misty. " Ripley moved up, kissed Nell in turn, then linked her hand with Mia's. Nell lifted her arms and let the power ripple into her. "From dawn until the day is done, this fire we make glows bright as the sun. As light grows strong across the sky, I call the flames from air to fly. Burn no flesh, no feather nor tree. As I will, so mote it be. "
Fire spewed up from the ground, bright as gold.
Mia lifted another circlet from the white cloth on the ground. Set it on Ripley's head. Though she rolled her eyes for form, Ripley lifted her arms. The power was warm, and welcome.
"In the earth we sow our seed that she may grant us what we need. Across her breast the dawn brings light, all through this day to shortest night. We celebrate her fertility. As I will, so mote it be. "
Wildflowers sprang up through the earth to ring the circle.
Before Mia could reach for the third circlet, Ripley picked it up, and kissed her. "Just to make it official,"
she said and settled the flowers on Mia's hair.
"Thanks. " She, in turn, lifted her arms. Power was like breath. "Today the sun holds its full power. Its strength and light grow hour by hour. Its bright fire warms the air and earth. Its cycle sustains us birth to death to birth. I celebrate the fire in me. As I will, so mote it be. "
From her fingertips beams shot, to the sun, and from the sun to her. Until the circle in the clearing shimmered with the birth of the day.
She lowered her arms, joined hands with Nell, with Ripley. "He watches," she told them. "And he waits. "
"Why don't we do something about it?" Ripley demanded. "The three of us are here, and like both of you keep hammering home, it's the solstice. That's a lot of punch. "
"It isn't the time to - " Mia broke off when Nell squeezed her hand.
"Mia. A show of force, of solidarity and strength. Why not make a point? Our circle is whole. "
A point, Mia thought. Perhaps the unbroken circle was the point. At least for the moment. She could feel, through the link, Nell's determination, Ripley's passion.
"Well, then, let's not be subtle. "
She gathered herself, and the pooled strength of her sisters.
"We are the Three and of the blood," Ripley began, moving like her sisters in a ring within the ring.
"From us the force and light will flood. "
"With might that strikes the waiting dark. " Nell's voice rose to echo on the air. "An arrow of light toward what bears our mark. "
"Here we stand so you can see. " With hands still joined, Mia lifted her arms. "And beware the wrath of the sisters three. "
Light spewed up from the center of the circle like a funnel, whirling, roaring as it geysered up. Like the arrow Nell had called, it shot out of the circle, out of the clearing, and into the shadows of the summer trees.
From those shadows came a single furious howl.
Then there was only the quiet breeze and the musical call of crystals hanging from branches.
"So he slinks away," Mia remarked.
"That felt good. " Ripley rolled her shoulders.
"It did. It felt positive. " Letting out a long breath, Nell looked around the clearing. "It felt right. "
"Then it was right. Today, he can't touch us or ours. " Whatever came after, Mia thought, they had made a stand.
They had made their point. She lifted her face to the sun.
"It's a beautiful day. "
She intended to spend it in her garden, away from the crowds that would pack into the village and the traffic that would stream along the roads. She intended to spend it on simple things, the tasks that gave her pleasure.
A day without worry, she thought. A clean and clear day with all shadows brushed away like dust with a broom.
She gathered the herbs and flowers she'd selected for her midsummer harvest with a bolline, the curved white-handled knife she saved for that purpose alone. The scents and shapes and textures never failed to delight her, the variety of their uses never failed to satisfy.
Some she would dry by hanging them in her kitchen, some in her tower room. She would make charms from some, potions from others. From soaps to creams to healing balms and divination aids. And some would simply be sprinkled into sauces and salads for flavor, or mixed into a potpourri to scent the air.
Just before twelve she stopped to light the noon balefire. She set it on her cliffs, like a beacon. And stood for a time watching the sea and the pleasure boats that skimmed over it. Now and then she saw the glint of binoculars and knew she was watched as she watched. There! the summer people would say. Up on the cliffs. She's supposed to be a witch. Such attention would once have caused her to be hunted and hanged. Now, Mia thought, the possibility of magic brought people to the island and into her store.
So the wheel ran, she mused. A circle spinning.
She went back to her garden. When her herbs were tied and hung, she used the sun to brew a small pot of chamomile tea. She had it iced with a hint of fresh mint when Sam stepped onto her path.
"Traffic's a bitch," he said.
"Midsummer and Mabon draw the most tourists. " She poured the tea into a glass. "Tourists who are interested in such things," she added. "Did you light your balefire?"
"This morning, near your circle in my woods. Your woods," he corrected when she arched her eyebrows. Absently, he reached down to pet Isis, who had come to rub against his legs. He noted the new collar and the charm hanging from it, a pentagram carved on one side, a sun wheel on the other.
"For the Midsummer blessing. " She cut a slice of bread from a fresh loaf, drizzled it with honey, and offered it to him. "I made more than the faeries need. "
He took a bite, but she noticed that his restless gaze roamed her garden. It was rich and ripe with summer, the tall spires dancing in the breeze, the mobs of color tumbling over the ground. He watched a hummingbird flash by, then drink from the long purple bells of foxglove. Roses, red as passion, climbed up the trellis to her old bedroom window as he had once climbed, risking flesh and bone to reach her.
The scent of summer roses could still make his heart ache.
Now he sat with her, in the sun and dappled shade of her garden. Adults with more weighing on them than the girl and boy could have imagined.
She wore a sleeveless dress, green as the lush leaves that surrounded them. And her face, beautiful and calm, told him nothing.
"Where are we, Mia?"
"In my midsummer garden, having tea with bread and honey. It's a lovely day for it. " She lifted her cup.
"But judging from your moo
d, perhaps I should have served wine. "
He rose, paced away. He would, she knew, tell her what was on his mind soon enough. Whether or not she wanted to hear it. Only a few nights before, he'd been lighthearted and playful enough to coax her into a swim. But today there was a cloud around him.