[Note: originally published in Refuge: Tales of Myths and Magicks. Reprinted here with permission of the author.]
The dancing reaches its height, the dancers whirling in time to the rhythms produced by the battery-driven box at their feet. The table behind them – carried from their cars earlier in the evening – is spread with wine, cakes, ale, shop-bought delicacies of every kind. The prepared ritual is almost over, and it seems that she alone, again, is the only one not to be moved by the event. It seems to her to be missing something, in spite of all her work and experimentation ….
She’d moved the meetings here, amidst many protests from members of the group: they’d been happy meeting in people’s homes, where it was warm, where there were no sticks underfoot and where (she surmised but did not voice) they couldn’t bee seen; no one could come across them by accident in Muriel’s front room, after all.
But she’d persuaded and discussed, and after a few false starts (fields which housed cows by day are not good places for rituals by night – that had been a clear case of one trial learning even for the groups of city bred people that they were) everyone agreed it was better to meet outside by moonlight.
She’d introduced the use of incense in rituals (“to heighten the sensual experience”) and done her best to insist that rituals were written by a different member of the group each time, (“We’re Pagans, not cub scouts, and I am not Akela!” she’d said during one exasperated encounter).
Although younger than many in the group, she’d emerged naturally into some version of leadership. No matter how much she insisted on the value of democracy and shared decision making, she secretly was both pleased that they fell in with her suggestions (after all, everyone enjoys having people agree with them) and dismayed (because, in the end, she felt it was too easy, both for her and for them).
Whatever her misgivings, however, she was pleased at the way the evening had gone. They’d had a good turn out, the ritual had gone according to plan, and people seemed very moved by it. Everyone, that is, except herself.
As the ritual ended, people wandered in twos and threes toward the food-laden table. The happiness (and near exhaustion) on their faces was suddenly too much for her: it seemed false, hollow, too easily achieved and therefore of little value. Smiling vaguely at Anna and nodding toward the trees, she wordlessly excused herself and turned her back on the fire and the banter.
Once out of sight of the others, she ran her fingers through her hair in distraction and kicked at the ground. She still couldn’t say what was wrong, but she was entirely dissatisfied. Giving into an impulse from childhood, she began to run through the trees. As a girl, she had hoped to outrun her problems; as an adult, she merely craved the movement and the speed.
Her initial burst of energy spent, she slackened her pace to a gentle jog. As her heart slowed and was no longer pounding in her ears, she became aware of other sounds around here: night-time animals and birds, the crunch of leaves and twigs underfoot and … something else, a long way off.
Intrigued, she rested against the bole of a tree and concentrated on the sound. It was rhythmic (much more so than the music Alan had chosen for the ritual dance!) and a long way off.
But it was getting closer ….
Straining her ears and mind, she incredulously identified the sound as horses at full gallop. At night? (She suddenly realised how far into the woods she’d run, and how very dark it was, even with the full moon). Here? Surely horses being galloped like that needed a clear space? What, in fact, were horses doing here, now, at all?
Thought and action came together as one; she began to run again, this time, in earnest – not out of frustration but from fear. She knew she had no real hope of outrunning horses, but she was driven by the need to evade them for as long as possible. The ritual, the group, her dissatisfaction, were all forgotten in her headlong rush among the trees – away from the oncoming riders.
Darting among the bushes, she knew the horses were coming closer; the sound was louder with every heart beat – with every hoof beat. (It didn’t occur to her that the horses might not be pursuing her – the necessity to get away from them made such speculations unnecessary).
Risking a look back, she saw the lead horseman; he was close enough that she could pick him out among the trees!
Hoping to evade him, she ducked under an old oak, entering a thicker stand of trees. The rider followed close on her heels now, leaning down almost level with the horse’s neck to avoid the branches – nearer, ever nearer.
Already bowed over his mount, the rider reached out – and matching his speed to hers, threw an arm round her waist and pulled her up onto the horse in front of him. Writhing, kicking and biting seemed of no use to her – she was held fast over the neck of the beast by arms and wrists seemingly made of iron.
“Stop, or you’ll have us both off,” the rider hissed, in a voice oddly calm for the situation.
“That’d be fine with me!” she returned, still doing her best to escape.
“Would it?” the rider asked quietly – so quietly, in fact, that instinctively she turned to look at him – for the first time. The long, hard face looked at her, then beyond her, downwards, nodding. Her eyes followed ….
The horse had left the forest shortly after the rider had seized her – she’d been dimly aware of the lack of trees and branches around them. What she saw now was that the horse had also left the ground – she was being carried at a sedate canter over the forest.
(Looking back later, she was always amazed that her immediate reaction was one of wonder, rather than of fear … she was not to be afraid of anything for some time to come).
She turned back to the rider, whose eyes shone with amusement in the unimpeded moonlight. “You don’t really want off now, do you?”
By some silent consent, he loosed his hold enough that she could arrange herself upright and comfortable on the front of the horse – but not enough that she felt in danger of falling. The strong arms still supported her as they reached to the reigns.
The ride – the wild ride – continued for hours – or days – or seconds; she never knew which and the question never seemed important. Time was meaningless – all that mattered was the certainty of the horse, the rider – and herself.
They wheeled above the forest, and it seemed to cover far more area than she had thought it did. Diving low, they spied a family of wild boar. Running high, they disturbed an owl in her nocturnal travels. The owl’s hoot of annoyance raised a soft chuckle from the rider, and his passenger (not captive, now …) somehow knew to treasure the sound as a rare occurrence.
Eventually, after an unmeasurable time, they came back to the forest floor. The rider dismounted, and reached up, grasping her around the waist. Without hesitation, she came off the horse and into his arms.
Looking at him clearly for the first time, she was able to take stock of her … captor? No. Rescuer? But from what …?
She’d been aware of the smells of raw and tanned leather, of horseflesh, of the rider himself – but now she saw the man.
Almost matching her in height, green eyes shining in the moonlight, his face, body and hands told their story of a life lived in the open, of bread earned by sweat and toil.
“And do I pass muster, Lady?” he said gently, with a hint of a smile at her intent examination.
“I … that is … I ….” she began, and thought again. She changed the emphasis of her speech: “You”. It was enough.
She no longer looked anywhere but his eyes, as her hand reached to brush an errant lock of long, straight hair from his brow.
“And, you”, he replied.
Time again lost meaning for her, as she stood, eyes locked with the rider from the woods, hand resting lightly on the back of his neck. Yet … as her hand moved slightly to the neck of his loose white shirt, she felt … a leather collar? No, an old scar? The healed place of a horrific wound?
A scar, certainly, because as her fingers brushed it, he winced in pain. He reached for her hand, kissed it, and held it up between them.
Although she was hardly virginal, that chaste seeming kiss of her hand was one of the most sensuous moments she’d ever experienced. She knew she was blushing, and looked away from him, at the forest, at anything, in an attempt to regain some composure. And, indeed, to regain control of her breathing.
It was then that she noticed the cottage.
It was almost organic, almost a part of the forest itself. An estate agent might have called it “rustic”, a passer-by might have dubbed it “ramshackle”. Her reaction was one of immediate attraction. She wanted to see what it was like inside.
He bowed her toward the cottage, “After you.”
She stopped at the entrance. Looking in, she could see little – a rough hewn table and chair (only one chair? If the cottage was his, he lived alone – this pleased her more than she was willing to admit). In the far corner of the one room, there seemed to be a bed – or something like, covered with … animal skins?
He was behind her again, arms once more around her waist. “Go on,” he breathed, “One step – from your world to mine. You will not regret it”. He kissed the nape of her neck, gently.
She turned to him, arms round his damaged neck, looking into his eyes. The logical part of her demanded a hearing, wanting to know his name, where they were (the Park was not this big, and this cottage was not a part of it – she knew the Park well enough!), and all manner of things.
Twining her hands in his hair, she quelled the logical part of her, sinking (or rising?) into the part of her which felt, rather than thought. Still holding her hands where they were, she took a deliberate step backwards – crossing the threshold of the cottage, into “his world”.
That was enough – he swept her up into his arms, and into the dim interior.
Later, much later, they emerged from the cottage, arm in arm. The horse looked up from his feed, and was petted for his trouble.
He turned to her.
“Now, Lady, you wished for what is real. Am I real? Are you? Is this real?” and slipped a ring of leather from his finger to hers.
Without another word, he broke from her and mounted the stallion.
“Wait! Don’t go!”
He merely looked down at her, then up to the east, where the first light of dawn was breaking.
“At least tell me where I am!” she cried, aware of the distance they had covered in the night.
“Why Lady, where else would you be, but where you are?” and with a bow, he hauled the horse round – and away.
She walked back, out of the woods, to find most of the group just sitting down at the table. Slipping the ring into the bag at her waist, she moved to join them. Jeremy, his face still shining from the dance, turned to her and said, “That was wild!”
“Yes”, she replied, in a distant voice, “quite a wild … night”.