Authors: Jen McConnel
Tags: #teen, #young adult, #magic, #curses, #paranormal, #fantasy, #witch, #witches, #spells, #science fiction
I loosened my invisibility as I came into the vineyard, just as a figure came walking over the hill. I tensed for a moment, waiting to be discovered and punished. As she came closer, I realized that the woman approaching me reminded me of my mother. I figured out who she was in the instant before she spoke.
“There you are! We’ve been waiting for you.” Demeter reached out her hands and clasped mine.
I squeezed her hands, surprised at their warmth. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s got into me today; my mind was wandering.” I had to struggle to keep my voice from quavering.
The goddess laughed, shaking her head with a smile. My eyes were drawn to the wreath of wheat and bright red poppies she wore on her head. My mother’s patron wasn’t stunning like Aphrodite, but she was a stately woman. She looked like an earthy, tribal queen. Demeter squeezed my hand again. “That’s my little one. Always thinking. What were you thinking about?”
She looped her arm through mine and we began to walk through the vineyard. I said the first thing that popped into my mind. “I was thinking how quickly the harvest has gone.”
Her face clouded for a moment, but then she smiled again. “But it is not over yet! I will have you with me until the end of the harvest. Hades will not break his promise.” Her tone was light, but there was something bitter about her words.
I felt a chill at the name of the god of the Underworld. “Has he ever broken his promise?” I didn’t plan on meeting him, but if he decided to reclaim his bride by force, I might not have a choice.
She eyed me askance, and I realized that I had somehow said the wrong thing. “Just because he has been honest does not mean I have to like the arrangement!”
I relaxed slightly. Demeter seemed bitter about her daughter’s marriage, but she hadn’t said anything about Hades regularly storming to earth to take her before the appointed time. I hoped my question hadn’t planted any suspicion in her mind, since it was clearly not something Persephone would have said. I decided then that I would need to listen before I spoke to Demeter; I didn’t want to say anything that might give me away. I couldn’t run the risk of her telling Hecate if she found out who I was. I had no desire to test Demeter’s loyalty to her daughter. What if, when push came to shove, Hecate trumped all?
We walked on in companionable silence for a time. Demeter seemed more relaxed the farther we went into the vineyard, which made sense, since it was her home turf. When Demeter finally stopped, I was startled to see that we weren’t alone anymore. We had stopped at the edge of a clearing, and it was surrounded by a rough circle of two dozen men and women. They looked perfectly ordinary to me, but it was clear that they could see the goddess—goddesses—that stood before them. Persephone had mentioned the gathering to me, and coached me on my role, but I was nervous.
Demeter raised her arms and spoke. “Friends, loyal devotees. Thank you for your work during this harvest. May your bounty be rich, may your hearts be full, and may your homes never hunger.” She lowered her arms and nodded to me in expectation.
“May your joy never fade,” I stammered out the words Persephone had taught me, “may your love only deepen, and may your winter be brief.” Demeter frowned, and I tried to straighten my shoulders and steady my voice. “We will bless your harvest.”
One by one, the people filed across the clearing, each bringing something. The first woman who knelt in front of me carried two jugs. “I ask your blessing on this wine.” Her voice was strong, and I felt a sharp pang of guilt. These people wouldn’t be blessed by their goddess this fall, but at least I could use my magic to ensure that they got something. Summoning up Red energy, I held my hands over the wine.
Keeping an image of a joyful party in my mind, I channeled the energy into the vessels, Red sparks shooting out of my hands. The woman looked at me in awe before she smiled and turned away. Beside me, Demeter was blessing the objects that people brought before her, but she looked up briefly to smile at me. I grinned back and turned to face the next person.
Persephone had told me that the farmers and vintners who sought blessing from her mother each year would bring a sample of their harvest, rather than go to the work of hauling all of it to the vineyard and back to their farms. She had explained that the blessing was symbolic and extended to the entire harvest. In ancient times, she said, the farmers would leave half of their sample at the temple of Eleusis, a place sacred to Persephone and her mother. Now, though, Demeter encouraged the farmers to leave their offering to some charitable organization, often the church in town or the orphanage on the hill. I had been surprised to learn that any Nons still remembered the old gods, but Persephone had just laughed.
“Witches are not the only ones who believe in magic, Darlena.”
With her words echoing in my mind, I watched the farmers around us, and wondered what it would be like to stand in front of a goddess every season and ask for her assistance. The very idea fascinated me, and I gradually forgot to be nervous as I stood beside Demeter.
Watching her bless the people and their goods, I felt a pang in my heart. I missed my own mother. Here I was, with her patron, and yet there was no way I could tell her. She would have been so happy to help Demeter dole out blessings and donations. Like her patron, my mom always takes care of everyone around her, strangers and family alike.
I blinked back tears and turned to bless the farmer in front of me. He was a short man whose dark skin looked like a ripe grape in the sun. I smiled at him and held out my hands to take his token. He looked at me for a long moment, then shook his head and turned away. A few people in line behind him gasped, and I felt Demeter’s sharp eyes on my back.
Had he seen through my disguise? Trying to ignore the way my stomach had started to churn, I focused on blessing the rest of the offerings, but it was impossible not to notice the cautious stares from the people in the field. And every time I looked up, Demeter was watching me, her expression unreadable.
Long after the sun had set, Demeter and I picked our way over the fields to a small farmhouse. Persephone had told me that her mother lived simply, but I hadn’t been expecting the straw on the roof or the single lightbulb suspended from the ceiling in the large room. I guess I should have been thankful that she had electricity! Demeter flicked the switch, and the light buzzed to life. I crossed the room to the sink and began to pump water to wash my hands.
“That was a good harvest festival, I thought.” I glanced over my shoulder when she spoke, but Demeter wasn’t looking at me. She had crossed to the far wall of the cottage and was stirring the coals on the hearth.
I turned back to the sink, choosing my words carefully. “There were some lovely offerings. The children at the orphanage should eat well until spring.”
She didn’t answer, but the flames roared to life. I stopped working the pump, and the water slowed to a thin stream. The crackle of the flames and the trickle of the water filled the uncomfortable silence.
Finally, she asked, “Are you tired?” Demeter’s voice was soft and motherly, and I again felt a yearning to be at home with my own mother.
I swallowed, and then nodded, trying to get a grip on the homesickness that threatened to overwhelm me. “It’s been a long day.” I crossed to the thin mattress under the window. Persephone had told me she liked to sleep where she could watch the stars in the night sky, so at least I knew which bed was mine. I yawned and knelt down on the bed.
“Sleep well, daughter. But wake early; we do not have many more days left, and I want to get a head start on the work of the day.”
I nodded. She turned off the single light and moved quietly to her bed, next to the hearth. I thought I would fall asleep immediately, but between jet lag and my experience at the harvest festival, I was twitchy and wide-awake. I flopped around on the mattress, trying to get comfortable, but when I heard light snoring from the hearth, I rose and walked out of the cottage.
I wrapped the blanket from my bed around me and sat, shivering, on a large boulder not far from the cottage. I looked up, amazed by the dazzling display of stars. I had always lived in town, and even though we went camping every year, I’d never seen a night sky like this. There were three times as many stars as I was used to, and the sky looked like rich blue velvet. I drew a deep breath but started to cough when the cold air rushed into my lungs.
Not wanting to draw Demeter’s attention by coughing near the open window, I began to wander aimlessly. I was too wound up to sleep, and there was something peaceful about being alone in the dark. I wasn’t worried about being attacked; after all, I was staying with a goddess. She and Persephone must have protected their home with spells, so I walked around without any of the concerns I would have felt at home. Durham was a pretty cool city, but like any city, it had its issues. I would never have wandered around in a neighborhood I didn’t know after dark, but it was different here.
There was a path leading away from the house and farther down the hillside, and I followed it carefully, watching my feet to make sure I didn’t trip over any rocks or step into a thornbush. The path wound gently down the hill, past a slow stream before stopping at the mouth of a cave.
The pure darkness of the cave opening was a shock, even after being out in the dark night. The stars didn’t seem to reach the cave, and it loomed up before me like monster. Everything around me was still; even the crickets had stopped their song. As I leaned forward, I thought I could hear something from deep within the cave, but I couldn’t identify the sound. Suddenly, a hand closed on my shoulder and I squealed in surprise.
“Come back to the house.” Demeter’s voice was sharp, but her face was shadowed by her cloak and I couldn’t see her eyes. Nervously, I followed her back up the winding path. I glanced back at the cave once and paused, but Demeter kept striding ahead of me, and I rushed to keep up. What would she say about me wandering around? Had I blown my cover? I cursed my insomnia as I hurried back to the cottage in her wake.
Once we were back inside, the stillness of the night dissolved.
“How dare you taunt me like that?” Demeter flung her cloak in a heap on the floor and started to pace.
“What do you mean?” Stunned, I couldn’t stop myself from speaking. The angry goddess spun on her heel and slapped me hard across the mouth. Tears welled up in my eyes, and I glared at her in shock. My parents had never hit me, and I was surprised at how much her hand stung.
“It’s bad enough that you abandon me for half of every year. Did you ever think, just once, to pretend to want to stay here with me?”
Still reeling from her slap, I stayed silent.
“But no! Sneaking out at night to look at the cave, making me feel like a burden that you can’t wait to be rid of.”
It was slowly dawning on me what that cave was. I couldn’t ask, since Persephone would have already known, but I felt sure it must be the entrance to the Underworld. Demeter’s next words confirmed that.
“You think I don’t know that in just thirteen days you’ll walk into that cave and I won’t see you again until March? Why do you have to rush it?” Her anger gave way to tears, and she sank to her bed near the hearth, weeping. I crossed over to her and knelt by her side, even though I was still mad that she’d slapped me. Persephone wouldn’t fight with her mother, I was sure of that, and I had to keep reminding myself to act like her, not like me.
“I don’t want to rush it. I’m sorry. You aren’t a burden.” I spoke softly, trying to heal a wound that was as old as the earth. I knew that Demeter had mourned the loss of her daughter when Hades first took her to the Underworld, but I hadn’t realized that she still felt the pain, year after year, when Persephone descended to be with her husband. I tried to imagine how my mom would feel if she had to lose me again and again, and I shuddered. Pushing my anger aside, I reached out my hands and the goddess enfolded me in a tight embrace.
“I don’t have to leave yet,” I whispered, fervently praying that it would not be me who would make that journey this year.