Who knew that there were holidays in the Otherworld?
Well, I sure hadn’t known about any holidays, mainly because I had grown up in a place where one day was as banal as all the others. This was largely due to the fact that, once we Elementals had lost the Magic Wars, the new government had banned Every. Single. Holiday. Even the bank holidays! Although we did have one mandatory day off, each and every month—Tax Day. What did we do, you ask? Well, we hauled on down to our local government kiosk, and paid our taxes.
I know. Hogmanay, it was not.
Since I was still pretty young when the wars ended, I hardly remembered those special days devoted to large meals and recreational activities; the government was constantly reminding us that a good work ethic would do more for our health and happiness than any sort of observances, religious or otherwise, and that a hard day’s labor was better than any day spent lolling about. So we worked, and worked and worked until minor events like Happy Hour at The Room seemed like Christmas morning.
Therefore, Micah could hardly understand my elation when he informed me that he and I would be hosting the Whispering Dell’s Beltane celebration, right here at the manor. What’s more, we were going to play the parts of the May King and Queen.
“A real holiday?” I’d asked for the hundredth—maybe thousandth—time. “With cakes, and presents, and things?”
“There will be cakes, yes,” Micah answered, again. So far, my incessant questions hadn’t worn the bemused smile off his lips. “And those attending will bring offerings. As for these other things you desire…”
Instead of continuing, Micah grabbed me about the waist and pulled me against him. We were hiding out in the kitchens, seated on the bench beside the vast oven where the silverkin baked their breads and pies. If I could have spent every day surrounded by the aroma of baking desserts and wrapped in Micah’s arms, it would have been my version of heaven.
“Micah.” I swatted his shoulder, not that I wanted him to stop. Not that he had any intention of stopping, anyway. “By things I didn’t mean this.”
“Oh?” he murmured, while his lips caressed my neck. “I wonder if you truly understand the meaning of Beltane.”
After a bit more, um, education, we managed to get the manor outfitted for a Beltane celebration. Long tables had been erected in the field that stretched between the Clear Pool and the Great Wood, and a massive pile of wood, which would be the first of many bonfires, was neatly stacked in the center. Garlands of flowers decorated the tables and surrounding trees, along with swags of ribbon and streamers. Platters of oatcakes and jugs of sweet May wine filled every available flat surface. Besides all the decorations and a truly enormous amount of food, there would be dancing and games and, perhaps most importantly, Micah and me dressed up as the May King and Queen.
I’d had a hard time explaining to Micah why dressing up in a costume was way more fun than wearing dresses on a regular basis. It wasn’t his fault; since he was a boy, he saw a dress as a dress, no matter what day it was worn. Except for the time he’d worn a skirt, but he still didn’t want to talk about that.
In the end he just shook his head and pulled on his own costume. It consisted of buff-colored trousers topped by a white linen tunic, which was heavily edged with embroidered silver flowers. Over the tunic was a forest-green vest decorated with leaves just a shade or two lighter, cinched with a brown belt.
My costume wasn’t as heavily decorated as Micah’s, but it was still beautiful. It was a sleeveless white dress made up of many gauzy layers that floated and shimmered whenever I moved. The back was low, so low that a good portion of my mark was exposed, a first for me. Since I’d wanted to incorporate my metal in some way, now that I knew that that was what Metal Elementals did, swirling copper bands decorated my upper arms and ankles. Based on Micah’s expression, my first attempt had been a success.
The celebration began around noon, but Micah and I waited to make our grand entrance until shortly after the food had been laid out. As we stepped onto the field a hush rolled across the gathering, as the people of the Whispering Dell took in the sight of us, the May King and Queen.
Wow. That’s a lot of people. I looked down and distracted myself by wiggling my toes in the cool grass. I grabbed Micah’s hand, and murmured how glad I was that we had both chosen to go barefoot.
I looked up, and saw my mother standing before us, bearing a silver tray with two flower crowns upon it, along with two wineglasses. “For the May King, and his Queen,” she intoned, her voice rolling across the field. As Micah and I solemnly crowned each other, a dull roar replaced the respectful hush, with those around us claiming that the Seelie Queen offering the May King and Queen their wine was most auspicious, indeed.
Well, we knew she’d be recognized eventually. I glanced at Micah, but he only shrugged and reached for a wineglass; if he had any qualms about the fact that the Seelie Queen was now known to be bunking in his guestroom, he was content to let them be until tomorrow. Then the crowd parted, and I realized that my queenly mother was far from the most interesting thing in the field that day.
In the center of the field was a maypole.
I vaguely remembered dancing around a maypole when I was very young, during the Beltane celebrations held at the Raven Compound. Back then, Mom and Dad had dressed up as the May Queen and King, overseeing the bonfires and collecting dew, ensuring that all were happy and content. I remember lying under the fairy tree, exhausted, and wondering how my parents could keep up with the endless revelry.
Now that Micah and I were filling the roles of the May King and Queen, I understood. The flower crown upon my head filled me with an elated energy, so much so that I wanted to dance and leap around the field. Micah had laughed, and we danced for a time, but he stayed me when I tried to grab one of the long ribbons dangling from the maypole.
“That dance is for those seeking to find a mate,” Micah murmured, his breath warm against my ear. “You, love, are well and truly attached.”
I looked longingly at the pole. “We don’t get to dance?”
“Ours will be later,” he promised.
I smiled at that, and leaned against Micah, his arms sliding around my waist as we oversaw the revelers. My eyes could hardly track all the multicolored ribbons as they were plaited together by the unattached, skipping in circles but somehow never knotting the ribbons. Sadie clutched a blue ribbon, and as the dance ended found herself blushing, face-to-face with an equally embarrassed faun. I watched as the two of them wandered off for refreshments. After they’d disappeared, I saw Max skulking around the edge of the festivities.
“Why didn’t he dance at the maypole?” I wondered. It was like he hadn’t even noticed that the area around the maypole was teeming with available females, most of whom were looking for mates, if only for the evening.
“Perhaps his heart lives elsewhere,” Micah offered. “I know that, when you are nearby, I see no other woman.”
Before I had time to blush at the compliment, Micah and I were called to take our places at the head table. We were seated in two enormous wooden chairs, reminiscent of thrones, bedecked with so many swags of flowers that you could hardly see the high backs. No sooner were we settled than the other revelers lined up before us, each of them bearing packages.
“What are they holding?” I whispered to Micah.
“They bring offerings for the May King and his Queen,” Micah replied.
“I like presents,” I murmured. “Will there be more copper gifts?”
Micah shrugged. “We shall soon learn.”
I watched, somewhat amused, as the revelers went about organizing themselves into an orderly mess; the fact that Micah's wine had flowed freely for the better part of the day made this look like an Otherworldly slapstick routine. In the midst of the semi-drunken chaos, a woman stepped forward.
She was tall, with flowering vines twisted throughout her long hair, their softness in stark contrast to her clothing of bark bound with straw. Her limbs were long and spindly, like dried-up twigs, as was her nose. She looked to be very old, yet her face and hands bore no wrinkles, and her hair was a vibrant blonde underneath the lush vines. Micah leaned toward me, probably to make an introduction, but I already knew who she was.
She was the Lady of the Great Wood.
“For the May King,” she said, her voice as clear as a bell. She reached forward, graceful despite her gawky limbs, and placed a single perfect lily before Micah. It was a deep orange, tipped with red, the perfect complement to his silvery hair. Micah affixed the lily to his shirt with a bit of silver, and murmured his thanks.
“And for his Queen,” the Lady continued, now placing a spray of yellow orchids before me. Following Micah's lead, I pinned the spray to my bodice, though my pins were copper.
“Your gifts are as lovely as your Wood,” I said, “Thank you for joining us today.”
With that, the Lady of the Wood gracefully bowed her head and melted away into the crowd. “I thought you two didn't get along,” I whispered to Micah.
“It seems that things have changed for the better,” Micah replied. He squeezed my fingers, and we looked toward the next person in line, who happened to be one of Micah’s magistrates from the village. He carried a crystal decanter filled with golden wine, a sprig of fresh woodruff poking out of it. It was a lovely gift, and Micah and I both said as much.
The next gift involved a basket containing a few bundles of herbs, namely ginseng, sarsaparilla, and something I didn’t recognize.
“What’s this?” I asked the giver, a youthful man who would pass as human if not for his glowing yellow eyes.
“Horny goat weed,” he replied, his knowing glance explaining exactly what the herbs were used for. Hot blood spilled up my neck as I murmured my thanks, and turned my attention to those behind him.
Thankfully, no one else was carrying a basket of weeds, horny goat or otherwise. The next few offerings were mostly benign, ranging from loaves of still-warm bread to a lovely tapestry that rivaled anything on the manor’s walls. Then there was a carved bone decanter of powdered rhino horn, then a basket of melons, which was followed by a platter of chocolate and the reddest strawberries I’d ever seen. When a bucket of raw oysters was presented to us, I finally asked Micah what the heck was going on.
“Like, half of these offerings are aphrodisiacs,” I explained, when he’d responded by peaking those silver brows of his. As if he was in any way innocent. “You can’t tell me you didn’t notice.”
“Of course I did,” he replied, reaching so his long fingers could graze my belly. “The purpose of Beltane is fertility.”
Babies. Do we really need to talk about babies during a holiday? I mean, come on. “That’s all?”
“Well,” Micah added, scooping me from my chair and settling me on his knee, “there is also the bit that comes before.”
Micah’s blatant affection for me was a hit with the crowd of onlookers, and a great whoop issued forth. I laughed, since a crowd of partiers cheering while Micah nibbled my neck was about as hilarious as you can get, and tried to wriggle free from his grasp. My May King was undeterred. Instead, he drew me tightly against him, his nibbling giving way to unabashed nuzzling.
“Silverstrand,” boomed a voice. I tore my eyes away from Micah, and found that Old Stoney was at the head of the offering line. Just when I thought baby talk was the true buzzkill, the rocky king of buzzkills stepped up.
“Greymalkin,” Micah returned, with a polite nod. “Have you come to join our celebration?”
“And further disturb the queen? Not I,” he said with a sneer.
“Pray tell, Farthing, how is this gathering disturbing Oriana?”
“Look.” Old Stoney spread his palms, gesturing to encompass the whole of the field. “You’ve set up a silver court, bright enough to cast hers in shadow.”
I followed Old Stoney’s gaze across the field. Was this a court? I suppose it was, what with the food and drink, and that gifts were being offered to the king and queen. But Micah and I were only ruling for this one day, and only in this one field. Besides that, didn’t the Lord of Silver deserve a court of his own?
“Farthing.” Micah nudged me off his lap as he stood, but he kept his arm around my waist. “If you have come here only to make trouble for me and mine, I will remove you without a second thought.” Old Stoney opened his mouth, but Micah didn’t miss a beat. “You know as well as I that I harbor no desire for the throne,” Micah continued, stepping around to the front of the table. I followed him, taking my place at his side. “But don’t take my word for it. Stay, mingle amongst my people, and when you return to Oriana’s side you can tell her beyond a shadow of a doubt that Lord Silverstrand remains true to his queen.” With an ease that belied the tension crackling around him, Micah selected a loaf of bread from among the offerings. He tore off a generous portion, and held it out to Stoney. “What will it be, friend?”
The field had gone deathly quiet, and every set of eyes and ears were trained on Micah and the rock. Old Stoney was so incensed that it looked like lava would leak out his ears, but Micah had well and truly trapped him. The Otherworld didn’t have many enforceable rules, but hospitality was one of them. Once an invitation was given it must be accepted, or at the very least acknowledged. In short, as Micah stood there, smiling at Old Stoney, exuding nothing but good faith as he offered him a hunk of fresh bread, he had the rock over a barrel.
Gods, how I loved him.
Old Stoney grumbled as he accepted the bread, then he turned and stalked away. It seemed that he didn’t enjoy our company any more than we enjoyed his. Good.
Things settled down after that, and the offerings resumed; things settled down even further when a few attendees produced instruments. Nearly everyone was softly swaying to the music, but even though I’d been so eager to dance earlier, I made no move to join them. I’d resumed my place on Micah’s knee, and was perfectly content to watch the rest spin and twirl about the still-unlit bonfire. Micah was murmuring about how he couldn’t wait to see the flames against the night sky, when suddenly the crone from the apothecary was standing in front of us. I was so shocked I nearly fell off Micah’s lap, but he was as composed as ever.
“Good woman, why have you come before us?” Micah asked. His tone was respectful, but I saw a muscle twitch in his jaw.
“To present my offering, of course,” she replied, spreading her hands wide. “Is an old woman like me not welcome at your feast?”
“All of my people are welcome,” Micah said, in such a way that had me wondering if he counted her as his. “An offering, you say?”
“I regret, my lord, that I have only a gift for the May Queen.” With that, the crone reached into her colorless robes and set before me the reddest, shiniest apple I’d ever seen. It was beautiful, as tempting as the first fruit itself, and I coughed to hide my annoyance. What, did she think I was stupid? Like I would fall for that? My mother was the Seelie frickin’ Queen, and she’d warned me off of spelled fruit before she had taught me to read.
“Thank you,” I said, my voice hardly more than a whisper. “Your offering does much to ensure the land’s fecundity for the coming year,” I added, a bit more forcefully. Well, I was louder, anyway.
The crone said nothing, but bowed respectfully, her gray eyes never leaving mine. After she’d shuffled away, Micah grabbed my hands.
“You mustn’t touch it,” Micah warned.
“Don’t worry. I won’t.” After staring at the apple for another heartbeat, I looked at his hands, his long fingers that were tightly wrapped around my wrists. “Is she dangerous?”
“She is powerful,” Micah replied, “and arrogant. She swears allegiance to no one. While she is not what I’d call evil, she certainly isn’t trustworthy.”
I shuddered, remembering the tiny blue vial that sat on my dressing table, and the dubious bargain I’d struck with her. Misinterpreting my quivering shoulders, Micah called for a silverkin to take the apple and toss it into the center of the firewood.
“Worry not, love,” he said, rubbing my arms as if he could rub away the crone’s visit.
“I’m—I know you wouldn’t let anything hurt me,” I amended, mid-speak. I would never outright lie to Micah, not even to tell him I wasn’t worried. My omissions about the birth control didn’t count; yeah, I was still trying to convince myself of that one.
Micah smiled at that, and leaned forward to kiss my hair. “The sun goes to rest,” he said, gently turning my chin toward the west. “Come, let us light the bonfire.”
We watched the sun paint the sky in oranges and purples for another moment, then we rose and wound our way around the tables and revelers toward the massive pyramid of wood. As we stood before the intimidatingly large heap, I suddenly found myself wishing for a pair of flip-flops. A splinter in the May Queen’s toe would certainly not bode well for the coming harvest. Micah had somehow obtained a candle, and we both held it as we guided its tiny flame toward the kindling.
“This won’t work,” I whispered. “The flame’s too small.”
“Is it?” Micah had no sooner said the words than the firewood caught, and the entire mound was ablaze. We stepped back as others stepped forward, lighting their own sticks so they could create their own fire.
While there had been no shortage of libations earlier in the evening, once the bonfire raged, Micah’s wine flowed like a river after the spring thaw. Revelers wandered off among the orchards, either to dance or sing, or maybe begin more private celebrations. Throughout it all Micah and I walked among his people, ensuring that all had eaten and drunk their fill. Eventually, we happened upon our least-liked guest.
“Farthing,” Micah said, with a polite nod. As Old Stoney turned to reply, the pixie he’d been talking to took the opportunity to flee. I was beginning to think that pixies were the smartest creatures in the Otherworld. “Enjoying yourself, I trust?”
“Always, Silverstrand.” He turned back to the pixie, found that she was gone, and settled his gaze on me instead. “I could ask the same of you. I’d have given the lady a green dress by now.”
I looked down at my dress, wondering what was wrong with white. Was I supposed to change after the bonfire was lit? Then, I heard a breathy moan from beyond the trees, and my toes twitched in the grass.
“Watch yourself, Farthing,” Micah said, pausing to take a sip from his wine. “And watch your mouth around my consort. You may be my guest, but I’ve no qualms about tipping you into the Clear Pool and leaving you there to be taken over by so much pond scum.” Old Stoney’s eyes flamed and his neck bulged, but Micah ignored him as he took my arm and led me away from him.
“I hate him,” I grumbled. “Why does he have to be here, today of all days? He’s going to ruin—”
Micah silenced me the best way he knew how, by grabbing my shoulders and kissing me hard. When he came up for air, he said, “Only if you let him.”
I opened my mouth to protest the many ways Old Stoney’s presence had me less than pleased, when I caught sight of a line of dancers. In the Mundane world they would have been called a conga line, but here they were just happy. Carefree. Enjoying themselves.
Micah was right. Who cared if that stupid rock wanted to be a jerk? I kissed Micah’s chin, and asked, “Are we done being the May King and Queen?”
“Almost,” he murmured, drawing me into the darkness beyond the firelight. “There is but one more matter to see to.” And see to it we did.
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