Witchy Winter – Snippet 01

“Pax vobiscum!”

Chapter Eight

“I hear the Irish girls dance naked,” Landon said, shooting a sidelong grin in George’s direction.

~Dance with me!~

“What, all the time? Stop dreaming,” Charles said.

“They dance naked when I tell them to, by the Hammer,” George said.

“That’s not because they’re Irish,” Charles said. “They do idiotic things, even things that they know are stupid, to please you. That’s because they’re poor, and you’re rich and their master, and you’re a bastard.”

“Figuratively,” George said.

“Thank you for reminding us.” Charles looked away from the others, at the dark forest around them. The moon was in its dark phase, which left the stars brilliant, but the trail hard to follow, especially here where it picked its way through thick trees.

“At their druidic ceremonies, they dance naked,” George said by way of clarification. “Those dirty old druids, they like to see everyone naked. Before they drown them in bogs or burn them in wicker men.”

“I suppose they have that in common with the godar,” Charles said. “And the Earls of Johnsland. And the earls’ sons.”

“You don’t have to come along,” George snorted.

“I rather think I do,” Charles said. “You’ve picked the darkest night you could to run around in the woods looking for young women. I expect you’re much more likely to find a hungry highwayman, or a rabid beastwife, or just a big hole in the ground you’ll fall into because you can’t see it. If I let you go unaccompanied, the earl might not forgive me.”

“He might not forgive you anyway,” George said slyly. “Just for being Charles Lee.”

“I know it.” Charles sighed and patted the two horse pistol holsters alongside his saddle, confirming in the near-darkness they were still there and full.

“Hands away from your pistols, Lee,” George growled.

“Do the druids dance in the dark to avoid being seen?” Nathaniel asked. The sound of his own voice rang with the aural halo of the background whine he always heard, and he cringed, hunkering down inside his coat.

“They use torches,” Landon assured him. “You’ll be able to see all the naked flesh you want.”

“I don’t want to see naked flesh. I’m curious. To understand, I mean.” And he wanted to distract George and Charles from the argument that seemed to be perpetually building between them.

~Grow up, grow down, seek waters deep.~

“Seek,” Nathaniel whimpered.

“Poor mad bastard,” George muttered.

“They dance by the dark of the moon because they worship the moon,” Landon said.

“Wouldn’t they dance by the full moon instead, then?” Nathaniel was puzzled. “Or maybe they dance when the moon is new to summon it back?”

“Haven’t you read your Caesar?” By the sound of his voice, George was probably sneering. “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres?”

Nathaniel didn’t know what he was talking about.

“Have you ever seen these druids?” Charles asked. “Or their dancers, the famed nubile young ladies’ druidic dancing troop?”

“You’ll regret the scorn you show me.” Landon sniffed.

“So, you haven’t.”

“I haven’t. But George has.”

“George?” Charles said.

“I have indeed seen druidic dances,” George said. “But that’s not why we’re out here.”

Charles stopped his horse. Nathaniel, who’d been following behind him, barely avoided a collision. “You’d better explain why we’re out here, then. I don’t know this trail, but I’d have sworn based on the positions of Orion and the Bear relative to that hill, that we’ve nearly come in a circle. And with all due respect to whatever it is you might have seen somewhere and sometime, no Irish girls will be dancing naked in the woods tonight. It’s November, for God’s sake, and freezing.”

“Say by Woden, rather,” George said. “Or by Ing or Thunor, if you prefer. You’re in Johnsland, after all.”

“Are you allowed to curse by Woden?” Charles asked. “Without Old One Eye’s permission, anyway?”

“He means the Yule log,” Landon said. “And the Ride.”

“I know what he means,” George ground out through clenched teeth. “The Earl of Johnsland will be burning a Yule log at midwinter.”

“Will he?” Nathaniel asked.

The darkness of the evening couldn’t hide the look of wrath that leaped into George’s face.

“Hmm. The dancing girls,” Charles reminded the earl’s son.

“Very well.” From the shifting shadows ahead of him, Nathaniel guessed that George was leaning forward from his saddle. His voice dropped, as if he were sharing a secret. “There are dancing girls out here, but we’ve come out for something even better.”

Charles sighed heavily.

~Help me, I’m buried here beside the road.~

“Help me,” Nathaniel whispered.

Charles gripped him by the shoulder, and it helped. He straightened his back. The whining faded, slightly.

“Go on,” Landon said.

“Whatever it is,” Charles suggested. “Let’s forget it. Let’s go home and drink instead.”

“The druids,” George said, “these druid-chasing Irish we invite into our homes –”

“Plenty of them are Christian,” Charles said.

“Yes, and plenty aren’t. Plenty, especially the ones who pull plows and pick cotton, the ones on the fringes, follow the faith of their ancestors, a disgusting and immoral cult. None of them, of course, rides with Herne the Hunter on All Hallows’ Eve, like the true men of Johnsland. None of them burns the Yule log. None knows the harmony of the Furrow and the Weald.”

“Dancing girls.” Landon’s breath was shallow.

“Dancing girls are only the start of it. They have special priestesses they call moon-women.”

“It stinks here,” Nathaniel murmured. “Something smells really bad.”

No one paid him any mind.

“Moon-women?” Charles snorted. “I have read my Caesar. Enough to know there are no moon-women. What in hell are you talking about, George?”

“Caesar didn’t know everything. The druids have moon-women, whose role is not to worship the moon, but to be it.”

Charles laughed out loud.

~Don’t slaughter me!~

“Slaughter!” Nathaniel slapped at his ear, causing the others to turn and look at him, but only for a moment.

“What does a moon-woman do?” Landon asked.

“It’s not what she does, it’s what she is.” George pointed at the sky, his arm a darker patch of black, silvered at the edges. “On the new moon, she goes to the moon-woman hut and waits there for men to come help her fulfill her destiny.”

A short silence.

“What do you mean?” Landon asked. “Like . . . ?”

“She is empty,” George said. “She needs you to fill her.”

Landon’s shuddering intake of breath was loud. “With my . . . ?”

“With a baby. With the baby of the waxing crescent moon, who will be born tomorrow night.”

“Yes.” Landon breathed out, still shaking.

“Stop this nonsense, George,” Charles said. “You’re making it hard for Landon to sit straight in his saddle. Look at him, the poor clod is turned nearly sideways, trying not to snap off his yard.”

“It’s not nonsense,” George insisted. “The moon-hut is just beyond that tree.”

“Moon-hut!” Charles hawked phlegm from deep in his throat and spat.

“And here’s the best part of it. I’ve told old Murphy, he’s a sort of connection to the moon-women, he organizes them . . . .”

“Murphy is the imaginary pimp of your imaginary brothel,” Charles suggested. “Poor Murphy. I’d have expected better things of him.”

“You do them dishonor!” Landon snapped. “Just because the ladies aren’t Christian, doesn’t mean their faith deserves no respect.”

“I can practically hear the respect your erection is trying to give these legendary moon-women,” Charles said.

“I told Murphy I had two young men here who had never called upon the moon-women before. He agreed he’d keep others away tonight, keep away the Irishmen and the secret druids of our own people, so Landon and Nathaniel could –”

“Could rut with a stranger in the fields,” Charles said.

“– have a special experience,” George finished.

“I’m first,” Landon said quickly.

“I don’t want to,” Nathaniel said.

“Well, he can’t go alone,” George said. “If Landon is to have his special experience, he has to have a witness.”