The Nemed (Sacred Wood)
Cascade foothills, Western Oregon
Lughnasadh, August 1st, Change Year 23 (2021 A.D.)
The five women fell silent as they climbed single-file on the narrow woodland track, higher and higher through the long summer twilight, with the soft duff of the forest floor quiet beneath their sandals—or in one case, boot-heels. They were dressed alike in black hooded robes belted with tri-colored cords. The long rowan staffs in their hands marked each as a High Priestess, and each was tipped with a symbol wrought in silver; Hecate’s threefold Moon for Juniper Mackenzie and her fellow-clanswomen Sumina and Melissa, Pythian Apollo’s wolf for BD of the Kyklos, the snarling she-tiger of the Wild Huntress for Signe Havel, the Bearkiller regent.
The air cooled, with night and with the height itself, dense with the scent of the resin the day’s heat had baked out of the trees; the place they sought was three thousand feet above the valley floor. Stars appeared, glimpsed in fleeting instants amid black boughs silhouetted against the blacker sky, and the light died in the west. Eastward it tinged the snow-peaks and glaciers of the High Cascades with crimson for a last moment, like a dream of melancholy in the mind of a god, before they turned bone-white beneath the stars.
At last they came out on a broad knee that jutted from the mountainside, perhaps three acres of nearly level ground. Juniper raised her staff, topped with a silver circle flanked by twin crescents, the Ever-Changing One’s symbol, waxing and full and waning. A sigh went through the waiting crowd as she appeared out of the darkness; a few torches caught here a bright fall of hair or there a painted face, but mostly they were a restless mass of shadows.
Then the great drums began to beat; slowly at first, but building to a steady boom... boom... boom... like the heartbeat of some great beast. The sound echoed from the mountainsides and through the forest, and somewhere far distant a wolf howled, the lonely sound threading its way through the deep pulsing bass of the Lambegs. The nemed was a circle of tall oaks amid the stretch of dense turf, thick brown trunks rising to rounded dark-green crowns that met a hundred feet above the ground, rustling with mystery. Within, the trees at the Quarters bore wrought-iron brackets where the lanterns would go, and a roughly chiseled stone block stood as an altar near the shallow central hearth.
Not far outside the trees a spring rose, bubbling quietly into its pool at this time of year and trickling off across the little plateau. The starry Belt of the Goddess was bright tonight; there was just enough light to show that the ground around the spring was matted with pink mountain laurel, with pale glacier lily further out. Looming in the dimness was the figure of the Corn King, fifteen feet of man-shaped wicker frame woven shaggy with sheaves of wheat and barley.
The drums beat on, pulsing out dread, and the crowd parted for Juniper and her companions. She was a short, slight-built woman of fifty-three, with leaf-green eyes and streaks of gray in the faded fox-red mane; the hand on the silky wood of the staff had the worn long-fingered grip of a musician who’d also worked with hoe and milking-pail and loom.
There was awe in the crowd’s reverence; she was also High Priestess and Chief and Goddess-on-Earth, the one who had made the Clan and brought their parents through the wreck of the old world and the terror-filled birth of the new. The most of them were Changelings now—those who’d been born since the Change, or who’d been too young then to really remember the world before.
The tall image of wheat-sheaves waited, its head wreathed in darkness. She paced forward, the hood of her robe thrown back and the crescent on her brow; she held out her right hand and a burning torch was passed to her. The strong almost spicy smell of it went under the crackling, and the light blinded her for an instant.
A long ahhhhhhh went through the watchers as she raised torch and staff. The throb of Power was like wine in her veins, like pleasure so extreme that it trembled on the brink of unbearable pain, like an enormous love chiseled out of terror.
“Corn King!” she called.
“Corn King!” her four companions echoed.
“It is Your flesh that we cut with the grain and eat with the good bread. It is Your blood and seed we will sow in the Mother’s earth. All hail to the King of the Ripened Grain, who dies for the Mother’s children!”
“Hail the King!”
The crowd cried hail with a thousand-fold voice, stronger than the drums for a moment as she touched the flame to the wheat-straw. It took with a swift crackling roar, reaching for the sky and driving back a circle of the darkness; she tossed the stump of the torch on it and picked up the tool that lay ready for her—a bronze sickle, its blade shaped like the waning moon.
As the cheer ended a man sprang out of the crowd. He was naked, save for the vermillion paint on his face and streaking his sweat-slick muscled limbs and torso; stalks of wheat were wound in his shaggy white-gold hair.
“I am Her lover, since first I wed the Maiden,” he called, his voice a bugling challenge, hoarse and male and powerful like a bull elk; in his right hand was a flint knife, its pressure-flaked surface glittering in the light with an almost metallic luster. “Surely the Mother shall aid Me, as I fight for My throne!”
“I am become the Crone, and the Crone carries Harvest’s Child,” Juniper called, her voice as impersonal as bronze. “So must it be. So mote it be.”
She crossed her wrists and turned the point of the sickle towards him; the High Priestesses raised their staffs. Another man stepped forward. He was a little older but in his full strength, slender and wiry. His hair was dark and bound with holly, red berries glistening among the spiny dark-green leaves; black paint covered his face save for a rim around his eyes. The knife he held was obsidian, sharp enough to cut a dream.
“I am the King who will be,” he said. “For the Wise One cleaves to the Keeper-of-Laws.”
The Corn King gave a long roar and closed with him. The stone blades flashed in the light of the straw man’s burning, until the tall figure collapsed in a shower of sparks. Hands grasped wrists as the men of flesh and blood swayed together, striving chest-to-chest. Then the Corn King staggered back, a long shallow cut across his breast. Blood runneled down from it, and dropped onto the ground. A sound halfway between a sigh and a moan came from the crowd, and the former King toppled gracefully to the dirt in a mime of death.
“The King is dead!” the four priestesses cried.
Women with unbound hair came forward and lifted the limp form of the Corn King, amid more who wailed grief and beat their breasts. Kilted warriors with their faces painted as if for battle surrounded the new King, circling and leaping, dancing as the razor-edged steel of their spearheads flashed in the firelight.
“Long live the King!” they shouted, and an ululating cheer spread through the crowd.
Pipers struck up, and bohdráns; the hoarse bellow of the long wooden radongs and the wild chill wailing of flutes. Behind the weeping pallbearers who carried his predecessor the new King walked towards the path that led downward to Dun Juniper. The crowd followed, singing:
“I sleep in the kernel and I dance in the rain;
I dance in the wind and in the waving grain;
And when you cut me down I care nothing for the pain;
In spring I’m the Lord of the Dance once again!”
Juniper smiled as they left and the tension ebbed; the young man who took the part of the new King was going to be very popular with the girls until next Beltane; it was one of the perks of the ceremonial role. Then the smile died and she shivered. The Initiates and the High Priestesses remained, and tonight was no ordinary Sabbat; not even an ordinary Lughnasadh Eve. Tonight she planned to ask a question of the Powers.
Water and salt cleansed, fire and incense purified, and chanting had sealed the Circle. Around it stood the other High Priestesses at the Quarters, for this was a greater rite; Signe in the South for her tiger-sign, grape-mistress Sumina in the West, Melissa in the North for the hearth-home, and BD in the East, for Helios of the Clear Speech. Between them the shapes of the Initiates in their dark cowled robes were lost in shadow.
Fire crackled and snapped in the shallow hearth in the center of the circle, sending sparks upward to join the starry Belt of the Goddess and the new-risen waning Moon; the clean hot-sweet smell of the burning applewood joined the strong musk from the thurible and the sap of the dew-cool forest. Red flickers underlit the shifting leaves above, turning them into rustling strangeness. The night-black woods seemed to wait, as if the forest itself held its breath.
Juniper stood before the hewn-boulder altar that bore the bowls and the Chalice, sword and athame, the Lamp of Art and Book of Shadows. She raised her arms and cried:
“Ye Guardians of the Watchtowers of the North! Oh, Lady of Earth, Gaia! Boreas, North Wind and Khione of the Snows, Guardians of the Northern Portals, you powerful God, you Goddess gentle and strong...”
Then the Calling. She had felt that as a oneness with all that was, or a blessing like a hand upon her head. This time it was as if she rode the storm, amid a darkness where lightning flickered and winds beat at her with clubs of hail-ice.
“We ask You for the wisdom to understand the storm that breaks upon the world and the troubles that beset Your folk,” she said softly. “Show us Your will for Your earth, and our place in it.”
And then she gasped in astonishment and shock, as the Guardians at the Quarters stiffened and called out in a shivering unison like bells of crystal and brass. The earth seemed to whirl, and she wavered as nerves and muscles clenched in nausea and pain.
And she knew Sumina saw:
Squat slant-eyed amber-skinned men in furs and leather rode shaggy ponies across a plain whose bare yellow-brown vastness showed the ruins of a long-dead city on the horizon. Its tall steel buildings stood scorched by fires a generation dead, some leaning drunkenly, their windows empty as the eyes of a skull picked bare by ravens as they looked down on the horde. Black pillars showed behind the riders, where villages burned; their mounts trampled the stubble where millet had grown.
Ochre dust smoked beneath the hooves, and the breath of men and beasts showed in the chill air. They rode armed for war, curved swords at their sides and the thick horn-and-sinew bows of mounted archers in the cases at their knees; lances nodded and rippled as their column advanced. A standard went before them, of seven yak-tails on a tall pole. Then they halted, where a man stood in their path. Despite the cold he wore only a long wrapped garment of yellow cloth that left one shoulder bare.
Alone and unarmed, he lifted one hand in a gesture of blessing and smiled. When he did his face showed the wrinkles of age, but the narrow black eyes were calm and shrewd... and Juniper knew they were smiling too, even when his face turned grave again.
One of the riders made as if to unsheathe his sword. The leader in the peaked conical helm who rode by the standard put out a hand to halt the motion.
“Don’t draw your blade just yet, Toktamish,” he said in a barking guttural language she did not know but somehow understood. “If the Han armies could not stop us, one old bonze can’t either. Let’s listen for a moment.”
Juniper gasped again, the cool smoke-tinged air of the nemed filling her lungs. Her eyes blinked, as if their focus was suddenly adjusting from distances beyond what they were made to see. Less than a second had passed, though it had seemed many minutes. The hearth crackled again, and vision struck. Melissa saw—
A man lay dying, in a great four-poster bed of carved wood, each breath faint and dragging as if it would be the last; he was very old, his face pale as bleached ivory, the sparse hair on his head snow-white. The room around was darkened save for a bedside lantern, but she could sense tall walls bearing paintings, and a ceiling of moulded plaster; a physician in a gray nun’s habit stepped back, folding her stethoscope and shaking her head.
Juniper could see men standing about—younger ones in dark cassocks, others grave with years in robes and skull-caps of crimson. Among them was a middle-aged warrior in breastplate and crested morion helmet, a tall broad-shouldered man with a battered dark-brown face and strong scarred hands.
“The Holy Father will not live until dawn,” the doctor said, in Italian—which Juniper recognized, but had never learned. “Heroic measures could only delay the end slightly, and it would be no favor to him to regain consciousness.”
The men signed themselves in the fashion of Roman Christians and bowed their heads; some of them wept silently, and one covered his face with his hands as his shoulders heaved with the quiet sobs he labored to suppress.
“He has guided us so long!” a young man whose face showed tears whispered. “Since the world was Changed!”
“God said the years of a man are three-score and ten,” another said tenderly. “Our Holy Father has lived many more than that, and those years have been a painful burden he bore willingly for us all. Let him go to the reward he has earned, the greatest of all those who have worn the shoes of the Fisherman. The College will be summoned; everything is in readiness.”
The warrior in armor removed his helmet and knelt by the bedside, gently kissing a ring on the wasted hand that lay motionless on the coverlet. Then he rose and looked at the robed men.
“And in the meantime, holy sirs, I need orders,” he said... and though he spoke in Italian, she recognized his accent as old-fashioned American. Texan, in fact. “The tribes are stirring beyond the shotts in South Sicily while the cities of the League argue and Queen Serafina shuts herself in Enna and delays. Decisions cannot wait, even for a great man’s passing.”
Another instant, and Juniper breathed. A spark drifted upward, the same she had seen two eyeblinks before, but it was as if it crawled skyward as a glacier descended a mountainside, with a strength behind it that could grind rock to meal. BD’s eyes went wide—
“I smell them!” the little wizened man who capered and danced cried shrilly as the drums throbbed out their message. “I smell them! Witchmen! Wizards!”
Beyond the fires the night lay heavy, the eyes and teeth of the crowd showing white against yellow firelight, and behind them the thatch of dome-shaped huts. They surged away as the grotesque figure capered and crawled along their ranks, looking half-human in his headdress of leopard skins and cow-horns, tails dangling from his wrists and rattles on his ankles.
Only one group showed no fear; young men near-naked save for their weapons, their muscled bodies glistening with sweat in the hot darkness, ostrich-plumes making their proud long-limbed height even greater. Like the rest they were of that glossy dark-brown that outsiders had misnamed black, their features broad-nosed and thick-lipped. The man at their head leaned on a tall elliptical shield of mottled cowhide, a broad-bladed stabbing spear held negligently in his right hand, his pose insolently confident, as lithe and dangerous as a great dark cat.
The dancer halted before him and pointed with his beaded gourd rattle. “I smell them! Kill! Kill the wizards!”
A long shuddering sigh came from the crowd.
“Kill the wizards,” the young man echoed, and his smile grew broader...
“Please,” Juniper cried into the storm of power, in a shout that was half a sob. “Please, show us our trial, here in these lands and this time.”
And Signe’s gaze narrowed like her totem-beast on the prowl for prey or snarling at a rival as she saw—
A young man stood looking down on a burning city from a high window. His head was shaven, and there was blood on his naked body, on belly and loins and hands; and there was something beyond humanity in his eyes. He raised his clotted hands to the crowd below, warriors in spiked steel helmets and armor of overlapping lacquered-leather plates.
“The Church is United and Triumphant indeed!” he shouted. “And I am its Prophet!”
They flourished swords and lances whose points bore gruesome trophies and chanted:
“Sethaz! Sethaz! Prophet! Prophet!”
The man’s voice rose to a tearing shriek:
“I am the Scourge of God!”
“Enough,” Juniper Mackenzie whispered. “Enough...”
She staggered. A friend’s arm supported her; she blinked her way back to awareness, and saw it was Judy Barstow. Her man Chuck was by her side, concern behind the elk-mask of a High Priest. BD was on one knee, leaning on her staff and wheezing in shock, and Melissa’s face had gone milk-white under its ruddy tan. Other Initiates rushed to help them; only Signe stood alone, bristling and barring her teeth, hand closing on a sword-hilt that wasn’t there.
“Ground and center, ground and center,” Judy said softly. “I’ll take it from here.”
Juniper struggled back towards calm, forcing each breath in and out, feeling the drumbeat pounding of her heart slow. The other woman’s voice came to her in snatches:
“...go if you will, stay if you must... take our grateful thanks.”
The rite made its way to its end, with the Circle opened. The Initiates filed out, and silence fell in the sacred wood. Juniper tucked the sacrificial sickle through her belt as they left the nemed.
Then she leaned on her staff, feeling her legs tremble, suddenly conscious of everything around about her, from the sweat-itch in her hair to the soft touch of the sandal-straps on her toes. And that she was ravenous, and craved sleep almost as much...
The others were as shock-pale as she; Sumina’s merry wrinkled-pippin face clenched like a fist, BD’s as fierce as her wolf. Melissa was steady, with the stolid patience of the hearth-mistress and farm-wife she’d been these two decades past but with awe and terror beneath, and Signe’s valkyr beauty stood hawk-harsh, her bright blue eyes probing. She and Juniper weren’t enemies now, but they had weren’t friends either.
“Does that happen often here?” she said sharply, with fear trembling on the brink of anger.
“No,” Juniper said flatly. “I’ve had visions granted... not often. And never shared like that. Not even since the Change. It was always possible, I suppose, in theory, but—“
They looked at each other and nodded, acknowledging that they had seen.
“But even Christians don’t expect to have the sun stopped overhead often,” Sumina said, taking a long breath.
The skin between Juniper’s shoulderblades crawled, and she shuddered as her mouth went dry as milkweed silk in autumn. Yes, she loved the Lord and Lady in Their many forms... but those forms spanned the universe of space and time that sprang from Them, and They could be as terrible as the fiery death of suns, as inexorable as Time. A mother’s kiss on her child’s face came from Them, but so also the glaciers that grind continents to dust.
“I thought... I thought They might tell us something of the Prophet, this madman out in Montana,” she said.
Signe nodded sharply. “I saw him. It couldn’t have been anyone else.” She grimaced. “And he was as nasty as... well, as nasty as the rumors, which is an accomplishment.”
“We all did,” BD said. “But more than that.”
Juniper took a deep breath, another, inhaling until her lungs creaked and then slowly releasing it, and all the tension in muscle and nerve with it. Ground and center... strength flowed back into her body, and firmness to mind and thought. She saw the others win to calm in their different ways; walking the paths they did gave you that.
“Now, these things we saw are signs, and a wonder,” she said, in the County Mayo lilt she’d learned at her mother’s knee and all her Clan had imitated. “But it is not the first I have seen here, in this place.”
They all glanced at the altar. Juniper had prophesied when she held her son over it at his Wiccanning; and Raven had appeared to the boy ten years later, twelve years ago now. Juniper’s voice gained strength as she went on:
“I am thinking that it is Their way of telling us that the storm breaking on us is one that troubles all the world. Not in words, but—”
“Even so, that was more... obscure than They usually are, wasn’t it?” Signe said thoughtfully.
“Not necessarily, my dear,” Juniper said; Signe had a warrior’s fierce directness.
BD nodded. “An oracle’s voice speaks like the wind in a forest, turning and twisting like Time Herself. They don’t show us more than we can bear.”
“We’re all mothers,” Melissa said in agreement. “You know you can’t speak all your mind to a child. How then could the Divine to us?”
They paused, listening to the creaks and buzzes of the summer night, letting the cool scented air flow through them, winning to steadiness once more. The lonely sobbing of the wolf’s howl sounded, far and faint.
Juniper added softly: “And also we are told that unimaginable Powers are at strife in the worlds beyond the world. Our struggle is Theirs as well.”
“As above, so below,” Sumina murmured, one of the maxims of their faith.
“How not?” BD said. “The Powers are many; and They are one.”
Juniper signed agreement; both at once were true, and you couldn’t begin to understand Them until you grasped it—not just with your mind, but with heart and gut and bone.
Melissa chuckled. “And sure, we’re forgetting something. You have to be careful what you ask, for They have more answers than we can swallow. We should have asked as mothers, not just as... as politicians in fancy dress.”
Juniper smiled ruefully. “My Rudi’s east of the mountains; with your girls Ritva and Mary, Signe, and your Edain, Melissa. We should ask about them.”
“Sumina and I will stand as Guardians,” BD said. “But... you don’t necessarily get what you ask for; They may give you what you need, not what you want. For if that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you will never find it without—”
Signe smiled agreement, and completed the line: “—for behold: I have been with you from the Beginning, and I am that which is attained at the end of desire.”
Then she shook her shoulders; it was a getting-ready-for-a-tough-job gesture that she’d picked up from Mike Havel. Who had been her husband... and who had also fathered Rudi Mackenzie. It gave Juniper a moment’s pang to see it.
“We should try,” Signe said. “Though... I wish scrying were as reliable as turning on a TV in the old days.”
“Well, yes, that would be convenient,” Melissa Aylward said, a stout cheerfulness in her tone. “But on the other hand there was never anything worth watching, anyway, even with a hundred channels on cable.”
“There was always CNN.”
“If you wanted a long story about a farmer in North Dakota who’d taught his duck to sing.”
“Come,” Juniper said, her momentary smile dying.
She walked from the circle of oaks to the pool that lay outside it and went down on one knee, leaning on her staff. The others did likewise. The water flowed quietly, dark and clear, reflecting only the stars and Moon. Juniper raised the sickle towards the silver light in the sky with the point up, then turned it down over the water, as if pouring the contents of a cup.
“Ground and center,” she said, laying down the bronze and passing her hand over the pool. “Ground and center. Be at one with each other and the world beyond.”
They knelt around the still surface of the spring-fed pond. After moments that might have been hours or only minutes the focus lifted. Then each drew the wand of blessed Rowan-wood from their girdles and touched the surface of the water. Signe sprinkled it with mugwort, picked at the full of the moon.
“We ask aid of You,” Juniper said. “Lugh of the many skills, God whose vision dispels ignorance; Brigid, Goddess of high places and the knowledge that carries the self beyond the self. From the longing of our hearts, we ask that You gift us in this holy place with the dara sealladh, the sight which pierces to the hidden truth.”
“Show me my child. Show me Edain,” Melissa asked, and closed her eyes.
“Show me my daughters,” Signe said, and did likewise. “Show me Mary and Ritva.”
“I ask as Your priestess, and as a mother to the Mother,” Juniper said. “Show me my son. Show me Rudi.” She hesitated, and then used his Craft name: “Show me Artos.”
Copyright © 2007-2008 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>