"I'm going to be Queen of the May, Queen of the May!" Merilla crowed, dancing around the kitchen holding the special white dress high above her head.
"You're just angling for a roll in the hay with young Rob Jenkins," her older sister retorted as she tried to clear the table for lunch before her father returned.
"You're just jealous, because I was chosen to lead the procession and you weren't, even though you're the oldest girl of the Wise Woman and the Blacksmith." Merilla stuck out her tongue. "The Elders must feel that that the Goddess smiles on me more than she does on you, Nessa!"
Nessa said nothing and went to fetch the butter from the dairy. Privately she thought that the Elder's choice had far more to do with the fact that Merilla fitted the dress lovingly created two years ago by Libby Proudfoot's mother than any affinity she might have with the Goddess, but she recognised that such a spiteful thought probably was tinged with jealousy and sighed. She stopped on her way to smell the blossom on the cherry tree and almost lost her balance as the heady sweetness drew her senses deep within the tree and the promise of the summer fruit to come. She put out her arm to steady herself on the tree trunk and caught her father's apprentice, Tobyn, a resounding blow to his chest as he walked past her.
"Hey, what was that for, Nessa? I ain't done nothing to you!"
Nessa felt her face turn scarlet and her throat seize up as it always did when any of the young men of the village addressed her. With wild eyes she picked up her skirts and ran to the dairy, glad of the coolness to try and regain her composure.
What was happening to her? Normally this was her favourite time of year, with all the plants growing and the leaves coming upon the trees and the new born calves in the fields with their mothers. This year she felt so strange - as if the sap rising in the trees was rising in her too, bringing a unity with all growing things. When she turned over the earth to plant the seedlings she had grown so carefully during the Spring months, she wanted to plunge her hand deep into the soil and feel the earthworms moving around her fingers. When she listened to the birdsong at dusk, she could almost hear each separate note and without thinking whistled a response as if she were another of their kind, marking out her territory.
"What's the matter, Nessa?" the soft voice of her father's oldest journeyman broke in upon her thoughts. "Tobyn said you just hit him!" Jeran stood in the doorway, his solid bulk blotting out the light and casting deep shadows upon the bowls set out for the cream to rise.
"None of your business!" Nessa shouted, "If you come here asking questions, you'll get no answers from me!" and she picked up the pat of butter wrapped in leaves and pushed past him, diving out into the sunshine and running as fast as she could back to the house. The entire household seemed to look at her with a disapproving air as they sat around the huge kitchen table while her mother ladled stew into bowls.
"It's not my fault!" she wanted to scream, but the words stuck in her throat once more and all she could do was drop the butter on the table and run.
"Nessa?" her mother called out, but the errant daughter was soon out of earshot, heading out of the village, across the green where the maypole stood with its virgin ribbons flapping in the breeze and on towards the sacred grove and its stream.
Her mother exchanged worried glances with her father, but when he rose to go after her, Jeran stopped him.
"I'll go," he said. "I know the paths of the grove and it's me she must answer to now."
The blacksmith nodded and his wife put her hand on Jeran's arm. "Go gently with her, Jeran, she's not felt the calling before and it's always hard on those who feel the earth."
Jeran bent and kissed the Wise Woman's cheek, "Don't worry, little Mother, I'll not hurt her. I've loved her far too long to harm her now. It will be as the Lord and Lady wills, if we are chosen!"
"But I'm the chosen one!" Merilla protested. "The Elders said so! I'm Queen of the May!"
"Yes, dear, " her mother soothed her ruffled feelings, " and a very beautiful Queen you'll be for the whole village! But sometimes the Goddess choses someone else to light the need fire on Beltane night and jump the flames to ensure the crops will flourish. The Lord has spoken to Jeran and we can only wait and see what happens." and with that Merilla had to be content. She grumbled into her stew but everyone else was too full of excitement for the morrow's celebration she could not stay cross for long. She was the one who would wear the crown of blossoms in her hair and lead the ribbon dancing and everyone would look at her and glory in her gift to the Maiden.
Nessa didn't look where she was going. until she came across the maypole on the village green. She wished she were going to be one of the ribbon dancers the next day, but she was too old now. Things had been so simple when she was a child, but now - she didn't understand the bands of energy coursing through her, making each part of her body feel more alive than she had ever felt and the only thing she could do was to run, run, run away. Away from the looks of her family, away from the idle chatter of her sister and the footsteps she heard running after her.
The trees! The trees would hide her, no-one would find her in the glade. She stopped for a moment and whispered words of petition to the Elder mother guarding the entrance. When her leaves shivered in the still air, she ventured further towards the Oak father, placing her hands on his trunk and feeling the energy rising towards her, leaving patches of warmth on the bark where her hands had been.
Again she heard the footsteps and recognised Jeran's shadow on the grass. He would not take her back! Quickly she glanced around and darted towards the maze, deep in the heart of the glade, seeking to lose him in the twists and turns of the hedgerows.
Once inside, she slowed to a walk, the still air warm on her face. She noticed how the hedges were grown from different trees, the bright green of the hazel, the white blossom of the blackthorn and the glossy evergreen holly that pricked her hand as she leant against it.
Then, as she turned a corner, there was Jeran, standing in front of her, the branches of the willow rising up behind him like the antlers of a young stag!
"Why have you followed me here?" she challenged him.
"Because I love you, " his voice was young and deep in the still air.
"How can you love me? " she teased him, "when you can't even catch me!" and she ran off again, darting along the paths as if she had always known their secrets.
"No matter how long you run, I will always find you!" Jeran's voice rang in her ears. "Though the moon shall wax and wane o'er the ocean and the sun rise and set amongst the mountains, still I will follow you, for my love is endless and together we shall encompass the earth!"
The blood pounded in her ears as still she ran, twisting and turning until she came to the centre of the maze, the sacred place, the grass covered mound from whose depths a tiny spring rose. A place honoured by the ancients with a single monolith, cup marks gouged from its side, and there, leaning against it stood Jeran.
He stood quite still as if a living part of the stone. She went towards him, as if drawn by the stone's power, her chest rising and falling from the chase, but the need to run in her finally sated.
He held out his hand and when she took it, his palm was cool and dry but so large that it engulfed her tiny hand. They looked at each other for long moments.
"I have come to thee, my love, because the Lord has bid me find thee, his Lady. Will you have me to join you, now and for enternity as the wheel of the year and of life itself, turns?"
"Yes, beloved, for the Earth has called me to her, to be kissed by the sun and washed by the rain and infused by the sweet air we breathe. I am your Lady, now and for all time as the wheel turns."
Then he took her in his arms and laid her upon the sweet grass and together they honoured the earth and the air and the sun and the stream, that all things might prosper in the time ahead.
When they awoke, the sky was dark and a million stars twinkled above them. They heard the sounds of the villagers coming towards the grove to set up the need fire, that every household could light their torch and so rekindle their hearths.
Jeran led his love from the maze and they stood before the people.
"Is it done?" the blacksmith asked, his voice echoing off the trees.
"It is done," Jeran replied, "The Lord has found his Lady and together they have ensured the land will prosper!
A huge roar went up from the crowd, marking their approval.
"It is your place then to light the needfire, " the blacksmith said, handing him the flint and box of tinder. Jeran knelt and struck the flint until sparks began to rain upon the tinder. Then Nessa blew upon the sparks as the tinder began to curl and flame and they pushed the tiny fire under the need fire, watching it catch the fronds of dried bracken and then the twigs and then the kindling until the fire was strong and bright.
One by one the women of the village brought their cauldrons to take the flame back to their hearth and then the men lit their torches and when everyone had what they needed, they went back to the village singing and rejoicing that summer had come!
"I shall still be Queen of the May tomorrow, " Merilla objected when Nessa brushed out her long black hair that night before she slept.
"Of course you will, dearest, " Nessa assured her, "You are the Maiden and it is Her we honour."
"Can I still honour the Maiden," Jeran asked as Nessa slipped into bed beside him.
"As many times as you like, my love, " she replied. "How else will I pass from Maiden to Mother if you don't?" and she laughed as she blew out the light.