As the sun set, a cool breeze played among the grasses on the knoll above the village. Great preparation had filled the day for the May Eve celebrations heralding the season of warmth. With offerings to the gods, there were always prayers and much hope after the long winter that the next six months would reap a bountiful harvest from the fields; that the herds bred during the last warm spell would produce healthy calves and any human babies born to the world birthed during this time. Just as the men took care to see to the livestock, the women took painstaking measures to ensure they did not conceive off-time and deliver during the deathly cold of winter – the baby would be sure to die.
Caolan and Caoimhe knew the significance of this May Eve – their only daughter, Dairine, would be united with her own mate even at a mere fourteen. She was to be brought forth as their offering to the fertility gods asking only that their land bear fruit enough to carry them through the next winter and to the next Beltane. They never asked for more than they needed and always promised if there was extra, their village would share in the wealth. No one went hungry during the winter in close-knit village of Ambrose.
Dairine watched her father with pride – he had been chosen this year as one of the honored nine and he worked without a break during the festival preparations to provide enough firewood to light the biggest bonfire the people had ever seen. Her father promised her the heavens would be alight as if it were daytime, on this, her special day. She knew the significance of the Eve, as well, and was somewhat torn by the decision that was made for her. She knew there had to be more than just the tie to the schedule of the seasons, dividing the year into two six month sections – one of warmth and light and bounty, the other of dark cold, and deprivation. It would be nice to have her love, Finnian, always by her side and to provide a legacy for the clan. But she wondered, is that all there is to life?
“Dairine.” She had been daydreaming watching the sky grow darker as the sun made its way to another place, leaving them in the darkness of the night. The wind played at the flowers and braids intertwined throughout her thick, long hair. The remaining glow from the sun teased at the outline of her head, its fiery color, even more enhanced.
“Ah, Finn.” He took his hands in hers and pulled her to her feet from her posted watch along the edge of the knoll. The wooden fence stretched beyond their sight and disappeared into the thickening shadows.
“Let us away to the hill.”
“Aye. Be ye in a hurry young lad?” She teased him, knowing he would be thankful of the dimming light, for it was common that his blush matched his shocking head of hair on many occasions.
“Quiet, girl.” He laughed, practicing his stern father voice and he leaned in close to kiss her cheek. She put a hand up to stop him, laughing and teasing.
“Soon enough, a ghrá mo chroí.” They ran, hand in hand, toward the now increasing crowd that gathered on the crest of the hill.
With a rush and a roar, the timber took the flame and the fingers of heat and light and fire reached toward the heaven. The crowd cheered. It was a magnificent display. From where she stood, Dairine could see the town, abandoned in the dell, dark, its collective hearths doused in order to channel all the prayers and offerings from a single fire. The drum beats began and she danced, laughing, soon losing herself in the crowd of her people. Somewhere Finnian danced too, and she knew he would find her when their time came.
She felt him before she saw him. Her arms waved a glowing stick in the air, circling, circling… and then she stopped. He stood before her – handsome, smiling. Who was this man with such dark hair and eyes, the glow from the fire shimmering on his skin? She felt entranced and alive yet unsure.
“Allo.” Dairine was cautious but curious.
“Conas atá tú?” He was charming.
“I am well.”
“You look beautiful.”
“Thank you. Have we met?”
“No… I am from another place, far away. My name is Ciar.”
Dairine was intrigued. She dreamed of far away and now knew there had to be more. She did not feel fear although she might have if alone. Around her the festival raged with costumes of goat skins and horns; fire sticks made circles of light everywhere in the smoky darkness. She focused back on the man in front of her, feeling the heat of the fire and suddenly her knees trembled.
“Are you alright?” The man held out his hand to her, but she shook her head.
“Far away? Tell me what it is like… far away.”
“It is always light and warm and you would be treasured. I can show you faraway. You do not need to be tied to the seasons anymore if you choose to come with me. I have watched you and wanted you. You have dreamed of me.”
Dairine was intoxicated by his voice. His smile was alluring and his promises nothing she had ever heard. Her life here only offered the limitations of the land and the people, but this man was offering her the dreams she dared not disclose – the one’s she prayed for in the dark of the night in the depths of her bower.
“Come dance with me through the smoke and the fire. Take my hand. Feel cleansed and we shall go far away.” Again, he held out a hand, firm and solid – sure, she extended hers slowly.
“Dairine! Dairine.” A bounding Finnian dressed in shearling, his hair wild in the night wind came up to her with a smile, breathless and sure of himself. “It is time, Dairine.”
“But, Finn… this man…” She pointed into the darkness behind her as Finnian peered past her, laughing.
“What man, precious? I’ll beat his hide iffin he puts a hand on you.” Still laughing he looked her in the eye, and seeing her confusion, pulled her close. “You are cold, my love, come share the heat of the fire.”
As they walked away together, Dairine continued to stare into the darkness. Where once stood her means to far away and her secret dreams, there was nothing – a roar and hiss went up from the bonfire as the long timbers fell, burned through. The crowd cheered and they continued to dance through the cleansing smoke.