Authors: Vonna Harper
An Ellora’s Cave Romantica
Night of Fire
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Night of Fire Copyright © 2003 Vonna Harper
Edited by Mary Moran
Cover art by Syneca
Electronic book Publication 2003
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A fine mist drifted around the silent maiden and her
companions. Like her, the other five wore simple gray gowns that skimmed their
youthful bodies. They were all barefoot, and their hair hung to their waists.
Except for the deep charcoal color of her hair, the only thing that made this
maiden different from the other virgins was a singular brightness to her
deep-set green eyes. Someone who took the time to study her would conclude that
either this one was higher born or more intelligent than the others—they would
have been right on both accounts.
“She comes,” a slightly pudgy maiden with small hands and
feet whispered. “All night I prayed to the spring spirits and simmered dried
lavender to give The Lady strength.”
The green-eyed virgin said nothing. If Kilee needed to
believe that the spirits would heed the plea of an untested girl, so be it. As
for her, she would simply wait.
The woman who’d been chosen by her knowledge of all things
mystical to approach the Church’s angry, powerful priests, rode a white
stallion with flowing mane and tail. The Lady’s own hair was as long as the
stallion’s tail and nearly as pale. She’d draped it over her right shoulder,
perhaps so she wouldn’t risk sitting on it, perhaps because only that covered
At the sight of The Lady’s unclothed state—proof that she’d
failed at her mission—the virgins dropped to their knees on the wet,
clover-coated earth. All sobbed except for the green-eyed one. She would have
too except that her heart and head had already told her the priests would not
listen to The Lady.
With each hoofbeat, the green-eyed one felt not the
approaching horse but an earth drumbeat. The sound was as old as her
grandmother’s, grandmother’s memory. Respect and submission called for her to
drop her gaze from The Lady, but she continued to look up at the clan’s most
beautiful and revered woman.
Although she was still exquisite, the green-eyed one noted
fine lines around The Lady’s eyes and mouth and felt the sorrow and
determination that permeated every inch of her being. When The Lady locked eyes
with her, the green-eyed one returned her gaze.
“I do not wear the robes of my station,” The Lady said.
“Because my mission is incomplete.”
“The priests—they have not decided?” someone asked
“Oh, they have,” The Lady said. “They hear only their own
truth, it is beyond them to accept anything different.” She shook her head. “I
did not have to go into their cold, dark building to know what their words
would be. Even now it is being written on parchment so their decision can be
sent to each clan’s leaders.” She took a deep breath as if gathering the
strength to continue. “Our ancient rites to ensure the return of spring have
been declared heathen, the work of devils. They have been banished from the
“That cannot be!”
“Winter will never end.”
“Plants will not grow anew, there will be no crops.”
“No fertility dances? No sacred night unions? Without that
there will be no babies.”
The green-eyed one listened to her companions’ wails but
didn’t add her greatest concern, that if virgins didn’t make love in the
fields, the earth would not be made fertile. Instead she waited until the
wailing had faded away before getting to her feet and walking over to the woman
she considered her queen.
“You say that your mission is incomplete, my Lady,” she said
softly. “Why did you come to us, to virgins, when the leaders of all the clans
wait to offer their advice?”
The Lady looked down at her, seemingly oblivious to the rain
dripping from her temple down the sides of her neck. Was that a smile? “What is
your name, child?”
“My—my mother named me Heather.”
“Heather.” The Lady leaned over her horse to draw Heather’s
hair back from her face. “Green eyes,” she said softly. “The color of the wood
“That—that is what my grandfather said when he first held
me. I am the only one in my family with…”
“Tell me, child. Do you feel as if you are different from
your brothers and sisters and from these, your companions?”
“I, ah, I am impatient. I want more than to plant gardens
and tend sheep. I love to sit near the elders and listen to their wisdom. I…my
grandfather taught me to read.”
“Excellent. What do you think of our rites and ceremonies?
Perhaps you believe the priests who came great distances to teach us their ways
are right, that the setting of great fires by three times three men using wood
from the sacred trees to celebrate the triumph of light over the dark half of
the year is pagan. Perhaps you have read books that taught you it is foolish
for the villagers to bring their animals to the highest place where the sacred
fires burn so the animals can walk between them and thus be protected from
disease and sterility.”
“Hm. Have you read the great black books the priests brought
with them? Perhaps you have gone to Church to listen to them preach.”
“I have gone,” she admitted because the women in her family
had taught her to never apologize for her thirst for knowledge and because she
believed it was important to understand the newcomers’ religion. “But I do not
believe what they say.”
“Because my heart and soul believe that the way of my
ancestors is the true one,” she said, her voice strong. “The earth and sun,
which are our mother and father, must be revered, not the Church’s god who I
have never seen or heard.”
The Lady slid weightlessly to the ground. One breast poked
through the curtain of long hair. She held a strange gold, long-bladed dagger,
but Heather had no fear of it. Instead, her own hand burned with the need to
feel its weight.
“The spirits told me I would find you this morning,” The
“Me?” Her wet clothes should have had her shaking with cold,
shouldn’t they? Instead, she felt hot.
“Maia, it is not for us to question or fully understand the
earthborn forces that rule us. Our duty is to believe.”
“I do believe,” she whispered. “From the time I was old
enough to know what it meant to be a girl, I knew it was my duty to surrender
my virginity on Bel-fire night so the seed spilled will nourish the land.”
“And nourish you, Maia. Fill you with a child.”
“If it is so willed.”
“You are right. Not all girls and women become pregnant on
Bel-fire night. Only those whose fruit is ripe.”
Heather—or should she now call herself Maia?—felt no
hesitancy in talking about her fertility. How could she when her entire life
had been about that one thing—or it would have been if the dour priests and
their soldiers who’d arrived in deepest winter hadn’t forbidden that most holy
“What do you want of me, My Lady?” she asked.
Another soft smile touched The Lady’s lips. “Good. I did not
have to tell you why we are speaking, you knew.”
“Am I now Maia?”
“You are. The first Maia was once a mountain nymph, but she
became a goddess.”
Maia had to struggle against the impulse to admit she had no
desire to become a goddess. “Some say the first Maia was wife of Zeus,” she
said. “Mother of Hermes who is the god of magic, and that her parents were
Atlas and the sea nymph Pleione.”
“You are well-read.”
“I am only a simple village maiden.”
“Are you?” The Lady extended the dagger toward her and
turned it so she could see a red jewel imbedded in the hilt just above where
the blade began. There was another jewel, this one black, at the base of the
hilt, but it didn’t interest her. “What is in there?” The Lady asked.
Maia wiped off the rain clinging to the irregular, polished
red stone. Doing so heated her fingers, but she wasn’t afraid. The dagger and
predominant jewel were beautiful, a combination of deadly strength and mystery.
Although she knew the other virgins had gotten to their feet and were crowding
around, she paid them no mind.
The more she concentrated on the exquisite jewel, the more
she became aware of a heat between her legs, in the place where a man would
place his seed-bearer.
“Fire,” she whispered. She blinked and leaned closer. “I see
fire. And people dancing. I hear drums. Drums that seem to come from the roots
of the deepest tree, perhaps deeper. There is…a hill with a strange unfinished
structure, and a woman who…”
“What about the woman?” The Lady pressed.
“She looks like you, only she wears a garment of many colors
that flutters about her like butterflies. Flowers hang from her hair and
clothes, they are everywhere on her. She is not alone.”
“What?” one of the other virgins asked. “I see nothing. What
a strange dagger. The workmanship is the finest I have ever seen.”
Ignoring them, The Lady wrapped her arm around Maia and drew
her to her side. Maia felt her warm nakedness. “Who is with her?” The Lady
“Handmaidens. They are all dressed in white, and there is a
man in green and other men who are red even on their faces.”
“Do you know where this place is?”
The Lady’s somber tone caught her attention, and she looked
up at her. “No. My Queen, it does not seem to be of our time.”
“No, it is not.” The Lady squeezed Maia’s shoulder. “Look.
Tell me everything.”
For the first time since The Lady approached, Maia felt
fear. Still, she did as she was ordered. “There is great activity and movement.
So much drumming that I can hear nothing else. Now—now I am no longer looking
at the flower woman. Many, many people are standing and watching. I see…”
“What do you see, Maia?”
Maia shivered, and yet she felt even hotter. She couldn’t
get enough air into her lungs, and the fire between her legs threatened to
Determined to answer her queen as fully as possible, Maia
brought her face even closer to the stone and waited for the fine mist to
clear. There were many, many men, women, even children standing near the top of
the hill where the dancers and fires were, but although she’d never seen
clothes like they were wearing, it didn’t matter. Only that one man did.
“He is dark,” she said. “Large. He stands alone.”
Maia’s breasts felt heavy, and it was all she could do not
to press her hands between her legs to try to silence the energy there.
“Black hair. Eyes of the same color. He watches what is
“Sometimes I see him, the man. Sometimes he is a bull.”
Alerted by the awe in The Lady’s voice, Maia continued to
stare. “Who is he?”
“The man who must come to us. Taurus.”
Maia didn’t know whether to turn and run or try to climb
into the scene the jewel had revealed. If it wasn’t for The Lady’s body next to
hers, she might not have been strong enough to stand.
“The bull Taurus,” The Lady whispered. She stepped away from
Maia and extended the dagger toward her. “Take this gift. It came to me, for me
to pass on to you. Go home. Tell your family that you must leave. You do not
know when you will return.”
Without hesitation, Maia closed her fingers around the
dagger. It felt heavy, warm, alive. “Where am I going?”
“To where the red stone has shown. To reach Taurus. Trust,
Maia. Believe. Be true to who and what you are.