Solstice by Maggie Shayne

Solstice

Prologue

The candles were the only light in the room. They glowed from every quarter, painting the faces of the men and women in a golden light. Incense smoke hung in the air; sandalwood and myrrh mingling with the seasonal aromas of pine boughs and cinnamon.

In the center, she stood with her arms upward and outward, head tipped back as the High Priest knelt before her, completing the fivefold kiss by pressing his lips briefly to her feet.

She opened her eyes and spoke to the gathered assembly, spoke the words of the Goddess according to Leland, who said they were given to him by an Italian Witch named Maddalena; and to Gardner, who adapted them from Leland, adding his own touches; and to Valiente, who made them beautiful and must have been truly inspired; and according to Dori, Lady Starfire, who had made them her own.

“Hear my words and know me! I shall be called by myriad names. I am the Maiden of the Moon, I am Mother Earth. And I am the Crone, who holds the keys of life and rest. I am an unknowable mystery and yet known to every being!”

She lowered her arms to her sides, moving her most penetrating gaze from one person’s face to the next, meeting their eyes so they would feel touched by the Goddess.

“Hear my words and know me. Whenever the full moon rises, come to me. Gather in some secret place, such as this... ” Not much of a secret place, though. Not really. Her penthouse apartment in Manhattan. Still, it served the purpose. “…and adore the spirit of the Goddess, who is Queen of all Witches.”

Speaking the words of the Goddess felt a little phony tonight. Something was wrong; something was off. Dori wasn’t sure what. And yet she felt that spirit wasn’t speaking through her, hadn’t in a long time. The Charge had become rote, recited from memory. And while those standing in a circle around her seemed awestruck and mesmerized when she met their eyes with her own, she didn’t feel the magic anymore.

“I shall teach you the mysteries of Nature, and the ways of Magic,” she said. Not much nature in the apartment, aside from her plants and her cat. “All that is hidden shall be revealed. Even the darkest soul shall be pierced by my light.”

She didn’t really teach anymore. The priestesses she had trained did that, ran their own covens, taught bright-eyed beginners, organized social functions and rituals and performed weddings and funerals. But in this particular branch of the Pagan community, she was queen. The ranking elder, the most honored Witch in town, and a coveted special guest at many a Pagan function. She was even respected and a bit famous in non-Pagan circles, having successfully worked with the police on several missing persons cases. The press loved that kind of crap. It was a damn good thing she saw no reason to be secretive about her beliefs. They wouldn’t have stayed secret long.

“I do not demand sacrifice, for I am the mother of all life.” She moved around the circle now, speaking to each individual.

“Create and heal!” she told one. “Be strong yet gentle,” she said, touching the cheek of another. “Be noble yet reverent,” she instructed a third. “Bring forth and replenish.”

She returned to the center. “And just as the moon moves through her cycles, waxing and waning and beginning again, and just as seasons flow from birth in the spring to life in the summer, to aging in the fall and apparent death in the winter, so shall you—in both worlds.

“And you will say these words—I will love all, and harm none. So mote it be!”

And with that, she moved to the seat of honor that had been placed in the North quarter of the circle and sat down to enjoy the rest of the Winter Solstice Ritual the priestesses had planned. She’d done her part, ensuring those gathered that the Goddess was indeed present to join in their rites. She sat and watched the elaborate procedure unfold. There were songs to celebrate the return of the light. There was a dance performed in its honor. The freestanding silver candelabras she had bought for ritual use really made it special, she thought. Each held seven candles—she’d spent a fortune on them, but it was well worth it. Some of the less-experienced priestesses still had to read their parts, so the light was extremely helpful.

The entire group began the spiral dance, which usually generated such a rush of energy that Dori tingled from head to toe. Tonight, though, it felt off.

Something was up this Winter Solstice. Once again, she’d come into the darkest season without experiencing any real darkness at all. Her life was perfect. Tonight, though, she felt the sword of Damocles dangling overhead. Every nerve in her body was tense as if expecting a blow.

She broke her train of thought long enough to wince when one enthusiastic dancer bumped into the altar. That was a Tiffany chalice, for Goddess’ sake!

Luckily it didn’t fall off, just wobbled dangerously.

The dancing grew faster and faster, until the High Priestess shouted, “Release!” Then all the dancers in the room went still, relaxing their bodies to let go of the energy they had raised, while the woman in the center lifted her hands to send the magic off to its goal. Its goal tonight was to bring back the light of the dying sun. Tomorrow the sun would be reborn, and this magic would help its light grow within each of them to guide them through their dark times, whatever they might be.

The ritual was finished, and the circle taken up as Dori rose again, lifting her arms in silence to bid farewell to the Goddess, then lowering them and crossing them over her chest, bowing her head.

As those gathered rushed into the next room, where snacks were piled high and wine was chilling, she quickly cleared her altar, lovingly wrapping each tool in silk cloth and tucking each back into the trunk in the corner. The Tiffany chalice. The crystal-tipped wand she’d had custom-made by an artisan in Greenwich Village. The statues of Pan and Diana, replicas of ancient artifacts. She’d bought them in the gift shop at the Met. The dagger, with its double-edged silver blade and onyx handle, slid neatly into its sheath. It was worth a small fortune. She was especially careful with the giant quartz crystal ball on its elaborate pewter stand. She rarely had time to use the thing, but it looked great on the altar.

She didn’t relax until every item was safely tucked in the trunk and she had turned the key.

“Thanks so much for letting us use your flat, Lady Starfire.” The voice was Sara’s—could be no one else’s, with that beautiful accent. She was new in town, but highly regarded in the community. Had come straight from England with the equivalent of a Witch’s pedigree—a long and distinguished lineage.

When Dori turned to face her, it was to see her dropping into a curtsy, her head bent low.

“We’re not so formal, here, Sara. Ritual’s over. It’s okay to call me Dori. And I’ve never been all that comfortable with the genuflecting.” She glanced into the next room, where there had to be at least forty people eating, talking, laughing. Someone had put John Denver and the Muppets on the stereo—which was sure to start an earnest debate about playing Christmas music at a Solstice party among those not yet far enough along their path to realize they were all celebrating the same thing.

Dori almost cried when she thought of the potential crumbs and spills on her carpet.

“I simply couldn’t believe we had so many who wished to attend!” Sara went on. “Our open circles have only brought in eighteen to twenty people, up to now.”

“I know.”

“There just wasn’t room in the back of my shop,” she went on. “And I couldn’t bear to turn anyone away.”

“I know,” Dori said again, fixing the beautiful blond Witch with a serious look. “It’s okay. Really, Sara.”

The other woman sighed in relief. A little too much relief. So Dori quickly added, “And next time, you’ll know in advance that you need a bigger place, so you’ll have time to make other arrangements.”

“Right.” She nodded hard. “Absolutely. And we’ll leave the place spotless, I swear.”

“The cleaning service will take care of that.”

Sara smiled. “Will you join us for the refreshments?” Dori glanced into the dining room, at the smiling faces, young and old, dark and light, round and narrow. She didn’t want to join them. They tended to fawn and fuss and treat her like a celebrity and she wasn’t up to it tonight. Something was terribly wrong. But if she didn’t take part, they’d be disappointed, so she lifted her chin and walked into the dining room.

Several of those present bowed in her direction when she did. One quickly vacated a chair, and another brought her a glass of wine.

Dori sighed, sipped her wine, smiled a little. Every High Priestess in this room had been taught by her. Every coven had sprung from the little one that had begun around her coffee table when she’d first come to Manhattan from tiny Crescent Cove, Vermont, ten years ago. She’d really done a good thing here, she thought. Her Witches were busy, politically active supporting progressive causes, constantly working to educate the public about the Craft and debunk the widespread misconceptions that caused so many Wiccans so many problems. They provided services for the Pagan community, raised money for the homeless, organized Pagan Pride events and voter-registration drives.

Yes. She’d done a good thing. And the Goddess had rewarded her. Her life was perfect. And she was sitting here in her penthouse apartment, petrified, waiting for the ax to fall.

In the morning, it did.

* * *

She showered and dressed for success in a burgundy Pierre Atonia suit—slender skirt, a little on the short side, tailored jacket that accentuated her narrow waist, matching designer pumps. She left a brief note for the cleaning service, asking them to spend extra time on the dining room carpet, and she took a taxi to work just as she always did.

But when she stepped out of the elevator into the reception area of Mason-Walcott Publishing, a grim-faced man was waiting for her.

“Ms. Stewart?” he asked. He didn’t smile.

He was tall and dressed all in black. His face was pale and bony, his eyes deep set. He could have been the pop-culture version of the Grim Reaper, she thought, and a shiver went up her spine. Everything in her told her this was it, the thing she’d been feeling in the air.

“Yes?”

“I’m Martin Black, VP in charge of personnel.”

She lifted her eyebrows. “Of Mason-Walcott?”

“Of Beckenridge.”

Beckenridge. One of the largest publishers in the biz—and notoriously right-wing conservative.

“And you’re here because...?”

“Because Beckenridge just took over Mason-Walcott.”

She looked past him to see if co-workers were lurking, ready to laugh at her falling for such a lame joke. But her stomach had clenched into a knot that told her this was for real.

“I’m afraid we’re not going to be needing you.”

She blinked twice, and for the first time she noticed the big cardboard box on the counter that separated the receptionist’s desk from the rest of the area. It held her belongings.

She shifted her gaze back to Mr. Black’s. “You’re firing me?”

“Technically, we’re laying you off. We took the liberty of clearing out your office. Everything’s right here.”

She nearly gaped. “May I ask the reason?”

He shrugged. “Does it matter?”

“Of course it matters. I’m not even convinced it’s legal!”

“Oh, it’s legal. The position of editorial executive director is being eliminated, to be sure it’s legal.”

“But that’s not the real reason, is it?”

He shrugged. “Would you really want to stay, Ms. Stewart? Our titles fly in the face of everything you so openly believe in and practice.” He handed her an envelope. “A month’s severance. It’s more than generous. Good luck, Ms. Stewart.” He scooped her box of belongings off the counter and shoved it into her chest, leaving her no choice but to take it or let it fall to the floor. Then he clasped her elbow, turning her toward the elevator, and reached past her to push the button.

“You can’t do this,” she said. Useless, but all she could come up with.

“I just did.” The doors opened. He nudged her inside and stood there until they closed again. “Goodbye, Ms. Stewart. Have a nice life.”