Leena drove slowly through the massive trees, their branches were like gnarled hands, long, pointing greyed fingers reaching toward the others across the road. Light sifted through, casting web-like patches of brightness on the road. Soon leaves would fill in the spaces, blocking the light. She wanted to stop and just drink in the scene.
A few lingering titian-colored leaves were sparsely scattered along the sleeping limbs; having determinedly held on through the winter. To some it would feel eerie, or a detail they wouldn’t stop to notice, to her this was nature at her most beautiful time of awakening after the long, restful winter.
She sighed and glanced back to the road. Why was she the one to get there last, after driving through this middle-of-nothing alone? Oh right, she was the big supervisor; the one who needed to stay behind and finish up while her three friends and coworkers had piled into another car, four hours earlier. Well, at least they’d be sure to get a cabin in a good location. One close enough to everything to be easy to get to, but far enough away that private time wouldn’t be a problem.
Leena glanced in the rear-view mirror before stopping the car in the middle of the road. Of course, no one would be behind her on this scenic route, which was beginning to look more like a path through an enchanted forest. She picked up the map to study it again. Somewhere there was supposed to be a bridge and slight incline. She was pretty sure the drawing with arrows pointing down meant downhill. She grinned. Justin made this map, and unless he’d changed since last year, she knew in her gut that his description of a thing and hers were not going to be even close.
Justin and his wife, Gwen, organized several small events throughout the year and they were never in the same place twice. The places were always completely secluded, and completely appropriate, for the small gatherings. She admired them for that.
She wondered how they managed to find some of the places; most were so remote that explorers were probably the last people to have set eyes on them. Knowing this made her look forward to this first gathering after the winter months, just for the surprise.
Double checking the printout from Gwen’s email one more time, she started moving forward again. She held her breath as the car carefully crept around the corner. In this atmosphere, she almost expected a dragon or another fanciful creature from the fairy tales to jump out on the other side.
That was the bridge? It looked more like a few logs tossed in a line. She glanced in the mirror again. It had to be. There hadn’t been anywhere to turn off from this road, it seemed to get narrower with each mile she traveled. She didn’t want to think what she’d do if she met another vehicle at this point.
Driving slowly and hearing the crunching under the tires of her car did nothing to reassure her. Nor did she allow herself to look out the window and see what exactly was under this primitive bridge. She hadn’t realized she was holding her breath, until it rushed out in a whoosh as the back tires cleared the last log and were once again on the dirt path that passed for a road.
Her stomach was knotted with tension from the drive, and fluttery with excitement. The Beltane gathering was finally here. Most called this a festival, but to her, it was more. Being reunited with those she saw only a few times a year, or some she’d only ever seen at an event.
For some this would be the only time they could be who they were inside, be how they wanted to be and feel accepted.
Leena felt she was luckier than most, she had three true friends. They didn’t have the exact beliefs as one another, but in the last five years as the friendship grew stronger, they found ways to blend and merge those beliefs into something strong and unbreakable.
This was a slight incline? She almost hit the brakes but was afraid she’d slide off the road. It looked as if it dropped right off to nothing. The email said private and secluded. However, they didn’t mention that people would be too afraid to venture over the bridge, and if they did, surely this hill winding down into a dark path of overhanging trees would deter them from going any farther.
It was probably breathtaking once everything was reborn and newly grown. As it was not yet May, it was still covered with the brown and grey of winter’s slumber. She smiled, soon a thousand different shades of green would cover the ground, and life would breathe anew. Leena loved spring, loved the rebirth after long cold winters. Being of a pagan nature, she understood that winter was needed to revive the Earth, which supported so much life, but this still didn’t stop her from being as thrilled as a child seeing the first signs of spring every single year.
This path would be eerie in the darkness with the trees casting shadows, and it would scare many, she thought. Well, those who did not believe as she did. Nevertheless, she loved nature in every form, as it chose to present itself.
These next three days would be spent with many of the same heart and mind celebrating the new season; celebrating Beltane and thanking the Earth for blessing them with the bounty of the seasons to come. The excitement of the gathering brought a smile to her face. Together again with her chosen family, not the ones of her blood, but with her friends and fellow pagans, she could revel in the seasonal change.
As she pulled through a gate covered with dry vines she smirked, because it left the impression of entering a haunted space. A short distance away was the best part of her pagan family. Coralee, Rachel, and Kasey stood by a little shed waving to her. Pausing, she took a moment to just sit and be thankful for friends such as the odd trio walking toward her.
The four of them together had all the bases covered in terms of looks. Coralee was a few inches taller than Leena’s five foot ten, with long, dark red locks of “frizz,” as Cora herself liked to call her own hair. Rachel, whose pale complexion seemed even lighter than normal next to Cora’s dark skin, stood a little over five and half feet and had straight, jet black hair barely past her jaw line. Kasey was the shortest of them, and this week, wore her blindingly bright, wavy blonde hair in short spikes all over her head.
Leena glanced quickly in the mirror to make sure she didn’t look as frazzled as she felt after the adventurous drive. Her scant makeup seemed intact, and her lifeless brown hair was, as always, perfectly flat.
Many on her spiritual path would spend a lifetime trying to find a close friend with similar beliefs. She had been lucky to find three five years earlier. And she thanked whatever forces were responsible for this every day.
Cora grinned and leaned in the door as she opened it. “How’d you like that bridge?”
“It seemed like trees that fell in place. My heart still hasn’t slowed since I drove over it.”
Rachel laughed. “We debated on parking and walking over, but didn’t want to interrupt Kasey, who was praying to every goddess she could think of.”
“It didn’t help when you said if it failed, we’d be rafting instead.” Kasey mumbled quietly, as she tried not to grin.
Leena got out and stretched. “I need the bathroom. Now. Then I’ll go check in with Gwen.” She watched as the three all smirked. “There is an actual bathroom here, right?”
Cora nodded. “Yep, there’s one bathroom for the guys and one for the girls.” She grinned when Leena’s eyes widened. “It should be interesting with roughly a hundred people in attendance, according to Jean at registration.”
“Let’s hope they’re mostly men then.” Leena reached in and grabbed her purse.
“Yes! Mostly men works for me.” Rachel grinned.
The others were laughing as Leena headed in the direction Cora pointed, shaking her head. “We’ll take your stuff to the cabin and meet you at registration.”
After exiting the bathroom, which she was sure at some point had been a storage shed, Leena paused to look around. The cleared area wasn’t huge, but it was big enough to have a large open space with a few covered picnic areas in the center. There were small cabins around the outskirts of the clearing that looked much newer than the bathroom shed. They were far enough from the surrounding trees to give you a sense of privacy without having to hide in the bushes to get it.
She smirked as Charlie, the regular event handyman, walked past, carrying a shovel and mumbling to himself. Charlie was a familiar sight at the gatherings. Although in all the years she’d been coming, she never actually remembered saying more than a handful of words to him. She watched the older man attack the ground with the shovel for a moment.
Outside the clearing were trees of every size and type. It was almost as if they were holding the small area in their arms, keeping all those inside safe and protected. Perfect, as always. It would take a solid day or more to hike up out of this valley through all the trees, without getting lost; and you couldn’t hear any traffic or unnatural noise. To the east, she could hear running water and made a mental note to find the time to check out the river. It was obviously swelling with the spring thaws and rushing madly between the banks. Smiling, she headed back toward the larger building. She hoped it held a kitchen that was a bit more modern than the bathroom.
With registration taken care of, the four headed to the cabin. Leena was surprised to see it was actually larger inside than it appeared. Dark and weathered wood on the outside contained a soft cream interior, making the area seem larger. One window at the back and the glass door allowed natural light to brighten the space. She was thankful when she noticed the wooden door to shut at night and they wouldn’t have that “being watched” feeling. There was a set of bunk beds on each side of the room. Well, it wasn’t the Hilton, but it would be dry and reasonably private.
The four women allowed themselves the luxury of a cabin at events. It was easier than hauling tents and other gear, they had all agreed after their first time sharing a tent. The tent came close to going up in smoke during one silly moment, lighting candles for a ritual.
Turning again, she noticed the little folding table they always brought was sitting by the door. “Shall we cleanse and protect our little space?” She grinned, because the others were already digging in bags and cases. Mixing beliefs and magic, always proved to be interesting among the four, for you never knew who was going to do what.
Cora stepped to the table first and placed a small cloth voodoo protection doll in the center, “To protect those who dwell within.” She stood with her eyes closed.
Kasey opened her hand to sprinkle shiny dust around the table. “A touch of moon dust to see us safe during this full moon.” She joined hands with Cora and waited.
Rachel stepped up to place a light blue candle on the table, then grinned and held her hand over it. As the wick burst into flames, Rachel smiled. “Blue light to protect us and ours.”
Leena stepped into the space between Kasey and Rachel and placed an abalone shell onto the table. Smiling at Rachel, she rubbed her hands over the shell letting crushed herbs fall. They began smoking as they settled in the shell. “Lovage to cleanse, purify, and release this space of all negativity.” She clasped hands with the others and smiled.
The air in the small cabin stirred and swirled lightly, taking the scent of the Lovage throughout. From one hand to the other, through the four, a tingle could be felt.
Leena dropped her hands and smiled. “At least you kept the snakes and critters at home this time, Cora. I wasn’t ready to hold Kasey still again.”
Cora laughed in her deep husky way. “I promised not to bring living things after that first time. It’s tempting, but I’ll save you from that fun.” She bundled her jacket up. “I’m heading to see if they need any help in the kitchen before the opening circle. Anyone coming?”
Rachel picked up her poncho. “I’ll head that way with you. I want to see if they expect any children this time around and if I can help with the kids’ program.”
Kasey flopped down on a bunk with her notebook. “I’ll be here trying to describe that drive through the stalking forest.”
Smiling, Leena found her warm cape and headed back to the door. “I’m going to wander. Don’t forget to show up for dinner, Kase.” She grinned when the blonde head didn’t even lift in acknowledgment as the pen in her hand was already flying.
Ambling around the site, Leena was lost in her own thoughts and almost walked past someone talking to her.
“You don’t say hello anymore?”
Leena turned to look up into deep green eyes. “Chris! Sorry, I was in my own little world.” She accepted the hug from the tall, dark-haired man. “I haven’t seen you since Kasey dragged me to your Wiccan church. How long have you been here?” He grinned down at her as she quickly stepped back from him.
“Got in an hour ago. Wasn’t sure we’d make it over that bridge with the van. But we survived.”
She followed his gesture to see his usual group of festival buddies. Tall, dark-haired, dark-eyed, brooding Dade. “Dade. Great to see you.” She almost hesitated as he stepped forward for a brief hug.
“Let her go so she doesn’t forget me!”
Grinning, she turned to see Steven, with his friendly smile and his chaotic, dark red hair. “Of course, I won’t forget you. How are you?” She hugged him a little longer than the others, because he always felt safe. He was just as big as other two men, but he felt harmless.
“Do I get hugged, too, or do I have to know you forever and a day?”
Startled, she turned towards the unknown voice.
Dade laughed. “Well, you knew her about twelve years ago. If you hadn’t been running around the planet, you might get hugged.”
She studied the large man. He had to be well over six feet, probably by at least two or more inches. He had a build like a bodybuilder—a very nice build. His blond hair was neat, although with it that short, did it have a choice really? When she stopped at the pale blue eyes, she knew exactly who she was looking at. “Well, Owen Grey, it has been a long time.” She offered a hand.
He smiled at her and took her hand. “I haven’t seen you since you started high school.” He studied her. “How have you been, Aileena?”
She wasn’t sure she was comfortable with the way he was looking at her and tried twice to pull her hand free. “I’ve been good. Get tired of the rest of the world? Did Dade drag you here?” She offered a slight smile.
“Oh, he didn’t drag me. I all but begged to come with him. I’m doing some research for a new book, and this is where I need to be.”
He unknowingly found her weakness. Books. “Really? I’ve read most of your work, Owen. It always surprises me what comes out of your mind. What are you researching here?” She knew his work was mainly fantasy fiction, but she was uncomfortable knowing that he would be looking for ideas in one of the few places she felt safe.
“I’ve been toying with the idea of adding some mythology into a book or two. Dade is the one that convinced me that mythology and the many practices of the occult are very misunderstood... so I’m hoping to mix fact with fantasy and come up with a good story.” He watched her relax.
“Well, I’m sure you’ll make it work.” Giving him a polite smile, she turned back to Steven. “See you at the opening circle?” At his nod, she started to walk away.
“Leena.” Dade put a hand on her arm to stop her. He lowered his head and voice. “He won’t expose anyone.”
She stopped and sighed. “No, I guess he wouldn’t, having been friends with you and your family for so long.” She felt guilty at her first impression. “I’ll see you later, Dade.”
Owen stood with his hands in his pockets and looked at the woman walking away as Dade stepped back over to him. “You didn’t tell me she went from cute to mysteriously sexy, Dade.”
Dade laughed. “You didn’t ask, bro.” Dade slapped him on the back, “but I’ll tell you, there’s no chance with that one. No one gets close enough to get a chance. She went through a bad marriage and has never been the same since.”
Owen grinned. “Good thing I came back then. A woman like that shouldn’t be alone.”
Steven and Chris started laughing from behind them.
Chris, still chuckling, walked over and patted him on the arm. “Good luck to you then, Owen. You’ll need it. Even more when she has her women swarming around her. Those four together will boil your blood, in every way known to man.” He grinned. “This is why we spend as much time with them as possible.”
Dade and Steven nodded as they headed back to the van to get the rest of the supplies.