The Fires of Beltane
Scared Stiff (multi-author collection)
by Ayla Ruse
Totally Bound Publishing
eBook ISBN: 978-0-85715-931-1
Natalie and William meet at an annual springtime festival, where, unknown to the participants, there is someone using the festival to exploit it’s darker history. This night will test Natalie and William’s attraction, but could it also cost them their lives?
Note: Prologue omitted.
Natalie Devonshire pulled her red cloak tight around her body and chewed her lower lip. People mingled around her, wearing red, blue, white or green cloaks. They talked loudly, animated and excited about the evening ahead. She knew a few faces in passing, but her best friend had abandoned her a few minutes ago, having said, “I have to get ready, Natalie. Listen to be called. You’ll be fine and I’ll see you inside.”
Second thoughts beat through her head, and she wondered how long it’d take her to trudge across the wide field back to the roomy farmhouse-turned B&B she’d stayed in the night before. She shook her head, knowing she couldn’t reach the B&B before nightfall. With no lights or moon to guide her way, it’d be her luck that she’d find herself lost and halfway to Canada. “Lord, I don’t know why I let Sonya talk me into this. I shouldn’t be here.”
“Why would you say a thing like that?” asked a deep voice from behind her.
Startled, Natalie turned and her eyes went wide before she schooled her features into what she hoped passed as mild curiosity. A very attractive man—somewhere around six feet to her five and a half—stood near her shoulder, watching her with open interest. He smiled and, as if on cue, a cool evening breeze blew short locks of dark brown hair across his brow.
With her momentarily speechless, he continued as she tried her best not to ogle him. “If you hadn’t come, I wouldn’t be able to tell you what a pleasure it is to meet you.” He stuck out a large, rough-worked hand. “Name’s William Zapata.”
“Hi. I’m Natalie Devonshire.”
“This your first time?” he asked, indicating with his arm the group surrounding them.
“Am I that obvious?”
He grinned. “A little. But this is my fourth time coming and I’ve never seen your face around here before. Do you go to the University of Nebraska?”
“Yes. I’m about to receive my Master’s in Classic Roman history.”
His eyes lit up. “Really? I got my Master’s last year in Greek history. Amazing we haven’t met before now.”
“It is,” she agreed. “So, do you work at the University?”
He shook his head. “No, I’m a regular Joe right now, saving up to go to Greece for a PhD programme there.”
It was Natalie’s turn to be impressed. “Wow. I hope that goes well for you.”
William’s dark green cloak fastened at each shoulder, but his confidence in wearing the garment far eclipsed hers. He stood with his arms by his sides—not crossed and worried about the small breezes catching the bottom of the cloak and flipping it open, like her. “Why did you say you didn’t want to be here?” he asked. “Wait, if you’re not a first year, you’re probably with someone, aren’t you?”
“Yes. I came with my best friend, Sonya Greene. She’s invited me for years, and this is the first time I’ve had the chance to come. She told me a little of what to expect, but I don’t know. This may not be my thing.”
“Sonya… I’m pretty sure I know who she is. She’s takes Professor Whitlock’s classes, doesn’t she?”
“Isn’t she the May Queen tonight?”
“Yes, that’s why she’s not here now, leaving me to talk myself into backing out. If she were here she’d be busy telling me why I should go in.”
He chuckled. “I can do that, and don’t worry—it’s okay to be nervous. I was, too, my first time. I think everyone who comes to one of Whitlock’s festivals is a little nervous at first. I mean, the embodiment of Beltane is a very ancient, primal and sometimes raw experience. In our current civility, we tend to shun such apparent chaos, when in reality, this is an event that calls to our buried natural tendencies.”
“Okay. Wow, Mr Zapata,” she teased. “You sound like an authority. I thought your proficiency was on Greece.”
He shrugged. “Greece is my speciality, but you could say I’m nearly as knowledgeable about Western Europe. My best friend, Jordan…over there”—he pointed him out—“is a grad student for Whitlock, so I hear more than my share of European history. As for what I said, I only speak the truth. Tonight is a remembrance of a celebration of life and unity and all that entails.” He took a step closer and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “I think they’re about to line everyone up to go in. I need to get with my group.” His voice lowered, sending delicious shivers running up and down her spine. “Stay, Natalie. For me. I look forward to being with you on the inside.”
Her eyes widened. True, they’d been flirting, but this was blunt. Something must have shown on her face because he winked and pointed over her shoulder. “I meant I’m looking forward to seeing you inside the festival area later on.” He tilted up her chin. “Maybe we can explore some of the different aspects of this primal event.” Her eyes locked with his and she held her breath. He would kiss her now. She knew it. He stroked his thumb across her cheek and lower lip, then turned and walked away. She tried not to show her disappointment.
Natalie turned around to gather her composure. What just happened? Never had a man turned her on like in the few minutes she’d spent in William’s presence. And the hinted talk about ‘inside’? Sonya had told her these festivals could turn carnal for those who wanted to participate. Natalie had made up her mind before accepting the invite that she’d tag along because Sonya had begged for ages. But Natalie’s plan had also included slipping away when the revelry got out of hand.
Could she willingly participate in open sex, with people she didn’t know? An hour ago she would have given a staunch ‘no’ as the answer. But glancing over her shoulder to see William, who was in an animated conversation with Jordan, her thoughts ran along the lines of ‘maybe’… She might stay a little longer.
The crackle from a set of hidden speakers grabbed everyone’s attention, then a thin, male voice came across the air. “Okay everyone, make sure your cloaks are in position and you have your masks. Please form four lines according to your colour cloak and proceed towards the entrance of the festival for purification. Our celebration is about to begin.”
A woosh sound hit her ears and bright flames engulfed the large, arched, gated entrance. Everyone cheered, causing Natalie’s brow to rise. She had hoped there was another entrance, but apparently not.
Looking around, it seemed that each group had a head person in a white cloak. As the particpants moved forward, the next person in line opened their cloak to the white robes, then passed through the flaming gates and into the high, chain-linked fence enclosure.
When Natalie moved to the front of her line, she was relieved to see Sonya before her as her group’s leader.
“Hi, Natalie. I’m glad you didn’t chicken out. You’ll have fun tonight. I promise.”
“Have you set your sights on anyone yet?”
“See. I told you it wouldn’t be so bad. Now open your cloak.”
“Do I have to? I don’t know if I’ll participate.”
“Doesn’t matter. It’s part of the purification process.” Turning serious, Sonya dipped her hand into a bucket she held.
“Fine.” Natalie didn’t undo the buttons at her shoulders but pulled the edges of the cloak apart enough for Sonya to see a glimmer of skin.
“More, Natalie. I have to apply the nictenchia. No one can enter the gates without this.”
Natalie made a face but didn’t argue. She’d promised Sonya that she’d give this festival a try, and besides, Sonya was a stickler for rules, even when they were playing at being real.
Natalie spread her cloak to reveal a red satin bra and matching thong.
“You’re not supposed to have anything on, Natalie,” Sonya reprimanded lightly.
“I didn’t think you were serious.”
“You know I’m always serious about the rules.” Sonya stared at Natalie as if considering her. “I’ll let you go. You don’t have much on and it is pretty. Red is a good colour on you.” Then Sonya stepped very close, pulled her hand out of the bucket and smeared a thin, red paste in a line from Natalie’s collarbone to her crotch.
“This feels almost dry, and a little warm,” Natalie said.
Sonya nodded. “It’s supposed to be. It’ll dry completely in a few minutes, then it’ll feel more like a powder. A hot, sexy powder. It’s infused with special herbs that’ll work to get your libido going, but don’t tell anyone I told you.” As she spoke, Sonya spread the red paste in another line across Natalie’s body, this time going left to right below her navel. “All done. All you have to do now is go through the archway behind me, but be careful to only step on the orange line. Your journey through the fire will complete your purification and solidify your right to take part in these festivities tonight.”
Natalie caught her snicker before it escaped. Sonya was taking this seriously and Natalie didn’t want to hurt her friend’s feelings. She ducked her head and tucked her cloak back around her body, then waited for her turn to go through the fiery archway and into an area of cleared land that was maybe an acre in size. Bonfires were already burning brightly at either end of the crooked chain link fence and Natalie knew the fires would look overwhelming when the sun had completely set.
“This is it,” she said, initiating a self-pep talk. “Once I go through those gates, according to Sonya, there’s no turning back until the festival ends tomorrow.” Nervousness peaked again when she thought about the implications.
When Natalie had finally agreed to come here, Sonya had explained that many people had a free-for-all sex fest inside. Natalie couldn’t understand the urge to do this when she’d first been told. Now, she thought she was beginning to understand. It’d only been a minute or two since Sonya had smeared the paste on her, but it was already soaking into her skin, spreading the warmth to other areas of her body and pulling a desirous need to the forefront.
Someone nudged her back and she realised with embarrassment she’d been lost in thought and had missed taking her turn through the gates. She apologised, stepped forward and noticed William ahead of her.
Her nipples tightened, and she entertained thoughts of brushing against him. Maybe they would hook up later in the evening.
Natalie blinked as she was nudged a second time. Damn, what was wrong with her tonight? In the past few minutes she’d lost focus more than once and was daydreaming about having sex with a total stranger.
Squaring her shoulders, Natalie moved ahead and followed the orange line, straight through the heat of the burning archway and into the wide expanse of the inner yard.
Once through, the groups remained together by colour, so Natalie followed suit. Each group stood across from the other, making a square around the obvious May Pole. The pole had to be at least twelve feet tall, if not higher, and was painted stark white. The bulbous knob at the top made the pole appear as phallic as the object it was supposed to symbolise.
While she waited for whatever would happen next, she looked at the people filing in. There had to be at least forty people here, and she wouldn’t have thought open-air sex would appeal to so many. Hell, what was she saying? She was here. As much as she’d thought, I won’t do it, a little tiny piece of her was begging to participate.
Once everyone had come into the area, the tall gates were closed and the fire at the gates put out.
“Celebrants, welcome.” A man’s voice boomed over the crowd. Turning to locate the source, she saw a tall man cloaked in green and white walk towards the group from behind the bonfire to the right. His voice carried over the crowd again. “I am Professor Whitlock, your host for this evening’s festival.”