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Excerpt from DARK BIRTHRIGHT – from a chapter called A MAGICAL TIME
October 31, 1635
Louden Wood, Aberdeenshire, Scotland
The stone cottage was drafty. A candle illuminated the room, casting shadows. Keira stood naked in front of the fire. A bowl of water, rosemary and lavender sat on the table. She dipped a wool sponge into the water and ran it down her arm to her fingertips. “As I cleanse this body, I purify this mind so my actions may please the Goddess. So mote it be.” She placed the sponge in the bowl and picked up her robe.
“Gaze into the bowl after the purifying ritual,” Isobel whispered. “Ye may see the future.”
She took the sponge out of the bowl and waited for the ripples to subside. Candlelight danced on the surface, yet she saw it clearly. Nay, it canna be. Keira dressed in a black robe, feeling the soft wool on her skin. She smoothed the sleeves and tied her hair back with a ribbon.
“Ye look beautiful, child.”
Keira hugged herself. “I’m nervous. What will happen if I forget the words?”
Isobel smiled. “Ye won’t forget. Elspeth spoke the words many times.”
“I know. I wish Mother could see me. Sometimes I talk to her, as though she’s next to me.”
“Perhaps she is. We know that love transcends death.”
Keira picked up a black ribbon and tied it around her neck. Her fingers held the sacred charm, a pentacle within a circle. “Great Goddess. I’m not worthy of this.”
“It’s in yer blood, child.”
Keira blushed. “Michael is coming. I must go with him to prepare the sacred space.” She slipped on her brogues and felt the fur lining between her toes. “Alistair and Janet will walk with you. Will you be all right? You could stay with Regan.”
Isobel’s voice quavered. “I wouldn’t miss this for the wisdom of the old ones.”
Keira hugged her tightly. “I love you.”
There was a rap on the door. “Ho!” Michael said. “Are you there?”
Keira drew her breath in sharply. The words would not come out.
Isobel stared. “Come in Michael, she’s ready.”
Michael entered the cottage, in a long black robe that reached the floor. His eyes swept over Keira, from head to toe. “You look like a true priestess, lass. Are ye nervous?”
She clasped her hands to keep them from shaking. “Aye, a bit. Shall we go? I want you to show me one more time.”
He wrapped a cape around her shoulders, and glanced at Isobel. “Will you be all right, Mother?”
Isobel nodded. “Go on, Son. Alistair and Janet will walk with me.”
“Have ye the sacred anointing oil?”
Keira reached into her pocket and felt the bottle. “Aye.”
“Then let’s be on our way.” He opened the door and looked back. “Peace be with ye, Mother.”
They left the cottage. Michael picked up a basket and handed it to Keira. She pulled back the cover and saw a bowl, an apple, a pouch of salt, a flask, and a knife. Keira’s throat tightened. “I forgot. What do we do with the apple?”
Michael smiled. “Don’t worry. I was nervous the first time too.” He grasped her hand and sighed. “Let me tell you how I felt. When we realized that Kale wasn’t coming back, the responsibility fell to me. Oh I’d seen it done a hundred times, and Kale made it look so easy. But the words! We’d lost him, our friend, our leader, our very heart. And here I was this imposter who struggled with words. Everyone looked to me to heal the wound we’d suffered. Would my crude prayers please the Goddess?”
“Oh, dear. That’s how I feel. It comes naturally to ye now. No one would guess that ye struggled.”
“It took time and practice. People were patient, as well as the Goddess. Kale was with me in spirit. If you ask, your mother will stand with ye.”
Keira pressed his hand to her lips. “Thank ye, friend. You’re a dear man.”
Michael picked up a leather pack, slinging it over his shoulder. “The stones await us. Do ye not hear them calling?”
Wood smoke drifted in the night air as they turned south towards the old forest. Keira looked back at the village. Familiar faces emerged from the cottages, bundled in warm clothes and carrying torches.
“Don’t look back,” Michael said. “Think about your sacred duties.”
Keira took a breath and looked forward. They walked through the forest in silence. Wood smoke faded, and the smell of pine needles prevailed. Leaves crunched as they followed an overgrown path. A great owl hooted in the distance. She took his hand. “It feels like a place out of time.”
“Exactly. You’re a quick study, lass.” They passed the tree that bore the mark of a pentacle and followed a hidden trail. The standing stones were just ahead.
They entered the circle of stones and separated. Wind scattered the fallen leaves. His face was serious as he held out his hands.
She felt his energy as he spiraled it through his body and released it through his fingertips. Did he know that she felt it too? “Mother help me,” she whispered. She looked around the circle at her place of sanctuary and placed the basket on a stone bench. The earth beneath her feet vibrated like the wings of a thousand birds. “Great Goddess. I belong here, as my mother before me.” She faced him. The moon was rising, illuminating his face.
Michael smiled. “You feel it too.”
“Aye. I’m not afraid anymore.”
“Excellent. Our friends are gathering outside the circle. We must prepare ourselves.” Michael led her to the stone bench, where they sat on either side of the basket. “Start with me, lass.”
Keira opened the basket and took out the bowl. She added sea salt and filled it with water from the flask. Together, they dipped their hands in the bowl.
Michael prayed. “As rain washes the mountains, as oceans wash the beaches, I cleanse this body with water and salt. May it please the Goddess.”
“So mote it be.” His fingers brushed hers, and she felt the heat rise in her. For a moment, she forgot what came next.
“The oil, lass.”
Keira reached in her pocket and took out a bottle. She opened it, dabbed oil on her forefingers, and drew the sign of the pentacle on his forehead. “How do ye enter this circle, Brother?”
“In perfect love and perfect trust.” His eyes searched her face as he dabbed the oil and drew the sacred sign on her forehead. “How do ye enter this circle, Sister?”
“In perfect love and perfect trust.” Her heart pounded with anticipation.
“They’ve arrived,” he whispered. “You’re my priestess. Anoint them and welcome them in.”
Keira looked behind her. Kevin and Morgaine stood with young Robbie, his arm in a sling. John put wee Angus down and tried to fasten Nessia’s coat around her pregnant belly. Behind them, the McFay children stamped their feet against the cold. She saw the torches of others entering the clearing.
Michael pressed the bottle into her hand and led her outside the circle. “Your flock awaits ye.”
The others had arrived. The Wests, Cummings, Rosses, and Davies stood with their children. Cawley and Florag leaned on each other and Alistair and Janet supported Isobel.
Michael spoke. “Behold your new priestess! Come so that she may anoint ye. You can begin, lass.”
Keira waited as her friends gathered. She anointed Kevin and Morgaine and young Robbie.
Morgaine touched the lad’s shoulder. “My son has something to tell ye.”
Robbie looked up. “Thank ye, priestess, for fixing my arm.”
Keira reached out and tousled his hair. “You’re welcome, lad.”
“I will be calling East,” Kevin said. He led his family into the circle, taking a position to the east.
John and Nessia stood before her, holding young Angus. She anointed them and watched them enter the circle. Torry and George and Aileana grinned as she drew the symbol on their foreheads.
“I’m South,” Torry said. “I’m so nervous. I hope I remember the words.” He grabbed Keira and kissed her cheek. “I can’t believe you’re priestess.”
Aileana slapped him. “Clot head! You’re not supposed to kiss the priestess.”
Michael’s voice was stern. “You’re on sacred ground. Enter the circle, young ones.” He took her arm and led them to the south end.
Keira anointed the families along with their many children. She was gentle with Cawley and Florag, whose wrinkled faces studied her. “Welcome, old ones.”
“I’ll be calling West,” Florag said, in a shaky voice. Cawley took her arm and they shuffled to the western end of the circle.
At last, Alistair and Janet Murray stood before her, supporting a tired Isobel. “Are ye all right, Grandmother?”
“Thank the Goddess I lived to see this day.”
Keira drew the sacred sign on their foreheads.
Janet whispered. “I’ll be calling North. May my actions please the Goddess.” They took the northern position.
The ritual was about to begin. Michael and Keira entered the center. His voice was strong and clear. “Blessed are those who witness this ancient rite. Within these stones, I cast sacred space. We stand in a world between worlds.”
Keira smiled. “What is between the worlds can change the worlds.”
“So mote it be.”
“Friends,” Michael said. “We gather to celebrate the harvest. The year ends, fields lay fallow, and beasts sleep. Hearken, for the darkness of winter comes.”
“It’s a time to honor the wheel of life, the cycle of rebirth,” Keira said. “The Goddess opens the gates of Summerland to departed souls.”
“The veil between worlds is thinnest,” Michael said. “We honor our dead and ancestors by remembering them. Though it is a time of darkness, rejoice! ‘Tis one turn upon the wheel, to be followed by rebirth.”
“May the shining ones join us in the light,” Keira said.
Everyone faced east and held out their hands. “Spirits of the East,” Kevin said. “Element Air. Source of light, wisdom and thought. Winged creatures! Sparrow, eagle, and hawk. Hail and Welcome!”
They faced south. “Spirits of the South!” Torry cried, his voice shaking. “Element Fire. Source of energy, will, and blood. Um… Creatures! Horse and Leaping Salamandar!” He drew a breath. “Um, I forgot. Hail and Welcome!”
They faced west and held out their hands. “Spirits of the West,” Florag said, in a faltering voice. “Element Water. Source of purification, emotions, and love. Creatures of the sea. Fish, Seals, and Mermaids. Hail and Welcome!”
They faced north. “Spirits of the North,” Janet said. “Element Earth. Source of knowledge, speech, and silence. Creatures of nature great and small. Hail and Welcome.”
They turned and faced the center. “Dear Friends,” Michael said. “We welcome Spirit, universal energy. Source of life, death, and rebirth. Creatures Raven and Owl. Hail and Welcome! We thank our ancestors, who built this stone circle with their magic. Ancestors and deceased, stand with us tonight.”
Keira smiled. “As we go around the circle, each can name a soul who has gone before us. Torry, you can start.”
“Me Father, Alan McFay.”
“Mother dearest, Jean McFay,” Aileana said.
“Aunt Beathas,” George said. “Bring us your gooseberry pie.”
And so it went around the circle. “Sean”, “Uncle Hamish”, “Fia”, “Grandmother Bonnie”, “Silly Mary”, “Little Bryan”, “Old John the Tanner”, “Father Brodie” …
Keira reached into her pocket and closed her fingers around a sprig of rosemary. “Father… Mother… Hail and Welcome.” For a moment, the voices of the dead whispered around them. Gooseflesh rose on her arms.
“Call the Goddess, lass.”
She took a breath and held her hands to the sky. “Great Goddess! Mother of all. Help the souls pass into the Summerland. Stir the cauldron of life. Comfort those waiting to be reborn. Grace our circle and witness our rite. Hail and Welcome!”
Michael kneeled and placed his hands on the ground. They joined him. “Children of the stones, we send healing energy to the earth to benefit all people.”
“So mote it be.” They all stood.
Michael took the apple out of the basket and held it up in the moonlight. “Behold, the fruit of death!” He handed it to his priestess.
Keira cut the apple crosswise so the seeds formed a pentacle and showed the sacred symbol. “Which is also life! See how it forms the star of rebirth.” She sliced the apple and placed a piece on Michael’s tongue. “Taste the fruit of rebirth, Brother. Dear friends, share in the miracle of rebirth.” They passed the apple around the circle until each tasted a small piece.
Michael looked up at the full moon. “Friends, the wheel has turned. Return to your homes and light the fires.”
Keira smiled. “We thank the shining ones who joined our circle. Goddess! Our Lady. Be with us always.”
“Ancestors, beloved deceased,” Michael said. “Lend us your strength. Powers of Spirit, Earth, Water, Fire, and Air. We rejoice with you! Hail and Farewell! Friends,” Michael said. “May the circle be open but never unbroken.”
Keira smiled. “May the peace of the Goddess be ever in our hearts.”
“Good night, all.”
Keira breathed a sigh of relief. She’d served as priestess and hadn’t made a mistake. She watched as parents gathered their children and left the circle, flanked by the old ones. The young lass walked to Alistair and Janet, who stood with a tired Isobel. “Oh, Grandmother. You stayed the whole time.”
Isobel hugged her. “I’m so proud of ye.”
“I’ll be home soon. Michael and I must pack up.”
“Take as much time as ye want. He’s yer intended, after all. Alistair will help me light the fire.” She clasped Janet’s hand and left the circle.
At last, it was quiet. Only the sound of the leaves rustling in the trees remained. It was so cold they could see their breath. Michael held her hands, rubbing them to warm them up. He was so close that she felt the brush of his wool robe. She wondered if he could hear her heart beat.
He brought her hand to his lips and kissed her fingers. “You did well, lass. I knew ye would.”
He pressed his lips against the hollow of her wrist, and lingered there. “You’re beautiful.”
A fire burned deep inside of her. Great Goddess! Is this happening or am I delirious?
I hope that you enjoyed this excerpt. The story continues in DARK BIRTHRIGHT, book one of the Dark Birthright Saga:
History of the Jack-o-Lantern – who knew?
From History.com ~
Every October, carved pumpkins peer out from porches and doorsteps in the United States and other parts of the world. Gourd-like orange fruits inscribed with ghoulish faces and illuminated by candles are a sure sign of the Halloween season. The practice of decorating “jack-o’-lanterns”—the name comes from an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack—originated in Ireland, where large turnips and potatoes served as an early canvas. Irish immigrants brought the tradition to America, home of the pumpkin, and it became an integral part of Halloween festivities… Read more at: http://www.history.com/topics/jack-olantern-history
Throughout the Dark Birthright Saga, I mention Cock a Leekie Soup. Here is a recipe:
Cock a Leekie Soup is a Scottish peasant-style dish with many regional variations – some of which go back as far as the 16th century. This easy recipe from the late Ronnie Clydesdale of the Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow is a winner.
Prep Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 2 hours
•1 x 2lb 12oz/ 1.25k fresh, whole chicken
•12 medium sized leeks, well washed and chopped to ¾”/2cm lengths
•4 oz/ 100g long grain rice, washed
•3 – 4 medium sized carrots, peeled and grated
•Salt and crushed black pepper
•Put the chicken in a pot with enough water to more than cover. Add ½ of the leeks
•Cover the pot and simmer gently for 1 hour or until the chicken is falling off the bone Remove the chicken and reserve.
•Strain the stock into a fresh pot, add the rice and cook in a covered pot for 10 minutes Add the grated carrots and the remainder of the chopped leeks and continue cooking for 20 minutes.
•Taste for intensity of flavor and, if desired, reduce further to increase the taste. Season with salt and pepper.
•Chop a little of the reserved chicken and add to the finished soup.
“In the name of God – Implementing Religious Tolerance” – a post by author Anna Belfrage
This is an excerpt taken from a chapter In DARK BIRTHRIGHT
“A MAGICAL TIME”
WHINNYFOLD, SCOTLAND ~ OCTOBER 31, 1635
The bay of Whinnyfold glistened in the moonlight. Waves swelled and pounded the sandy shore. Dughall threw a bundle of heather on the fire and watched purple sparks float into the air.
Ian pointed. “Look. The bonfires stretch clear to Collieston.”
Dughall warmed his hands in his pockets. “Aye. I love the day of the dead. Aunt Maggie says it’s the day when the veil between the living and dead is thinnest.”
Ian snorted. “Hmmphhh… We don’t know anyone who’s dead.”
Dughall shivered. “Good thing.”
“I liked it better when we went guising, begging for apples and causing mischief.”
“Father didn’t like it.”
The wind whipped hair around their faces. “The fire’s dying. Let’s place the stones.” Dughall was solemn as he took out three flat stones. He crouched and planted one in the ashes. “Father’s stone is the largest.” He moved around the circle and placed another. “Mother’s is the bonny pink one.” The third stone was lovingly buried in ashes. “Aunt Maggie’s. May we have her with us another year.”
“That stone will be gone tomorrow.”
“Well, she’s awfully old. She could die.”
“Let’s hope not.”
Ian crouched and planted two red stones next to each other. “You and I. Brothers always.”
Dughall brushed sand from his breeks. “Let’s ask Aunt Maggie to tell the story.”
“About the well of the dead?”
“Father won’t like it.”
“We turned sixteen today. We’re grown men. I can tell a story from the truth.”
Ian snickered. “Well, it’s about time.”
They stood at Maggie’s door and knocked. There was a sound inside, and the door opened slowly. The old woman stood with a basket of apples in her hand. “Ach! I thought ye were rascals come guising to do mischief.”
Dughall smiled. “Nay, Aunt Maggie. We’ve had the bonfire and placed the stones.”
“Ye put one out for me?”
“I guess I can live another year.”
Maggie stared. “Don’t pout, lad. It’s the day of the dead. Ye should be haunting the moors. What do ye want with an old woman?”
Ian took an apple from her basket. “Dughall wants to hear the story again.”
“About the well of the dead?”
Maggie grinned. She put down the basket, took her shawl from a peg, and pulled it around her shoulders. She stepped outside and closed the door.
Dughall’s eyes shone with anticipation.
Maggie drew the end of her shawl across her face and pointed at the moon. “The night was as black as a raven. It was late October and the moon was full. I don’t remember what woke me. It could have been a voice in my head.”
“Are ye afraid, lad?”
“Ye should be.”
Dughall’s eyes widened. “Tell us, Aunt Maggie.”
“I slipped out of bed quietly, leaving James alone, and dressed warm. Somehow I knew I’d go far that night.”
“How old were ye?”
“Seventeen I think, and just married. Let’s walk to the point.”
They walked the path through a row of cottages and followed a narrow stream. Dried heather and wildflowers rattled in the wind. When they reached the point overlooking the Skares, Maggie gathered her skirts and sat, patting the ground. “Sit down, lads.” They sat on either side of her. “I sat in this place feeling the wind lift my hair, and wondered about the souls of the dead. So many had perished on the rocks that year. Young Ewan Quinlan had been tossed in the drink, only to swim to shore. His father Andrew jumped in after him and was bashed on a rock, leaving his arm useless. He disappeared under the waves. Then six men from Peterhead tried to put ashore in a storm and drowned when their scaffie hit the Skares.”
“What about that young mother?”
“I almost forgot. Mary Cormoch threw herself off the point after she lost a baby. I thought of those eight as I stared out to sea.” A cloud drifted across the moon, darkening the night sky. The old woman paused to admire it.
“What happened, Aunt Maggie?”
“The sea grass and clover was soft underneath me, and I nearly fell asleep. I closed my eyes, and opened them to a wondrous scene.” The cloud drifted past, allowing yellow moonlight to flood the beach. She pointed at the shore. “Near the Caudman I saw a figure crawl out of the water. At first I thought it was a seal, so I stood to get a better look. What looked like fur became a dress, soaked with seaweed. A hand reached out and steadied itself, and a head lifted. It was Mary Cormoch, or at least her spirit. She reached into the water and picked up a bundle, the baby she’d lost. My bones chilled as she stared, her eyes as vacant as a dead man’s.”
Ian snorted. “Well, she was dead!”
“Aye. Behind her, a man crawled out of the sea and rested on the beach. His long red hair and seaman’s coat told me it was Andrew Quinlan. Seaweed and water pooled beneath him as he stood and turned to the sea, calling for Ewan. My heart ached.”
Dughall stared. “Did ye tell Ewan this?”
“I never told a soul. Things like this get ye flogged as a witch.”
“Now where were we? The six from Peterhead walked out of the sea, pulling a ghostly scaffie onto the beach. Their blue stockings and jerseys glowed in the moonlight. They scratched their heads and looked up at me.”
“Were ye scared?”
“My heart nearly stopped when they started up the path.”
Ian stared. “I would have run.”
“I wanted to run, but I was frozen. I drew my shawl around me as Mary’s head appeared. I was riveted to the sight as she stood on the point, pulling down her dress to nurse the spirit child. Seven ghostly men appeared behind her, water squishing out of their sea boots.”
“They came towards me, chilling my soul to the bone. I cried out, beseeching them to stop, but they didn’t hear. I could have been a tree for all they cared. The procession passed right through me and walked along this very stream, heading north.”
“Why didn’t they just float?” Ian asked.
Maggie smiled. “’Haps they didn’t know they were dead, so they followed a path that men made!” She sniffled. “Soon they reached the footpath to the sands of Cruden. I thought that Mary might seek her cottage. She gazed in that direction, smoothed the baby’s hair, and kissed his forehead. The fishermen from Peterhead started down the path. Andrew lifted her chin and pointed to the beach. She covered the child and they followed the men on the sandy footpath.”
“What did the ghosts look like?” Ian asked.
“They looked like people, but when the moonlight was strong you could see through them. Their eyes were vacant and ringed with dark circles.”
“What about the well?”
“Ach! Be patient, lads. I followed as they tramped across swirling sands until they reached the Hawklaw and turned inward toward the sand hills.”
“To Saint Olaf’s well,” Dughall said, ominously.
“Aye. A haze hung over the land as we neared the well. I heard a thousand ghostly voices whispering around us.”
Dughall leaned forward. “I love this part.”
“The fishermen went first. They walked widdershins around the well and bowed their heads in prayer. One by one, they lifted their leg over the edge and slipped into the well. Andrew was last. Mary stayed, gazing all around. She passed her baby down the well, grasped my shoulders, and looked in my eyes.”
“My heart pounded until her eyes cleared, and I saw a look of gratitude. Her spirit child cried and she loosened her grip. She turned away, walked around the well, and passed down into the afterlife.”
Ian snorted. “She went to hell? The baby too?”
“Nay, lad. They went to the Summerland. That’s what the Celts called the afterlife.”
“They didn’t believe in heaven and hell?”
Maggie looked wistful. “Nay. They believed in a magical and loving Goddess, the mother of all living things. The Summerland is where we go to see old friends, rest, and be reborn.”
“Into a new body, to experience life again.”
“We’ve been here before?”
“Aye. Many times.”
Dughall smiled. “I like that idea better.”
Maggie nodded. “So do I, lad. Don’t tell your father.”
The story continues in DARK BIRTHRIGHT.
About the Author: Jeanne Treat is the author of the Dark Birthright Saga.
Between the Squire and the Devil