Leena is a woman that is gentle in everything, her personality and moods. She always feels maternal with her closest friends and would go out of their way to look after any one of them. Her ability of controlling the elements and knowledge of plants make her magic abilities strong and unbreakable. She is a leader at work and in life, always working hard to keep those around her close, but never allowing anyone to get too close. To the outside world she is just Leena Duncan, a quiet woman who works a normal job and lived a quiet life. A few times a year she can openly use her magical gifts at celebrations within a small community of people she calls friends. Having lived through the horrors that can come from the hands of someone you thought loved you; she decided never loving again would prevent more emotional scarring. It takes one man at a rainy Beltane celebration to change everything she is comfortable with and one killer to change her safe world. Owen is a man that reflects humor and cavalier vibrations to others, he is gentle and caring as is his ability to draw negative and heal others. If you didn’t know him, you would never realize he came from violence. Knowing how the real world can be, he has vowed to never put himself into the position, or allow anyone else that could open up the world he has carefully sealed shut forever. He creates worlds and puts them on paper to entertain others. After years of using his imagination he finds out his friends can do things he thought only his mind created. For his entire adult life Owen Grey has always played it safe and kept to his own world of writing, never getting too close to anyone. Having lived a nightmare growing up he would never take the chance of repeating history. He may write about happily-ever-after, but knows it is pure fantasy and doesn’t exist. Until her . . .
Leena drove slowly through the massive trees. The almost-gray branches were like gnarled hands, long, pointing fingers reaching to the other branches across the road. The light from the sky sifted through the branches, casting webs on the road. Soon leaves would fill in the space and block the light from reaching the ground. She wanted to stop and just look.
A few lingering titian-colored leaves hung scattered sparsely along the sleeping limbs having held on determinedly through the winter elements. To some it would feel eerie, and to others it would be a detail they wouldn’t stop to notice, but to her it was nature at her most beautiful time of awakening, after the long, restful winter.
She sighed and glanced back at the road. How was she the one to get there later after driving through this middle-of-nothing alone? Oh right, she was the big supervisor. She was the one who needed to stay behind and finish up while her three coworkers and friends had piled into another car four hours earlier. Well, at least they’d be sure to get a cabin in a good location. This of course meant one close enough to everything to be easy to get back to, but far enough that if they wanted some private time, it wouldn’t be a problem.
Leena glanced again in her mirror before stopping the car in the middle of the road. Of course no one would be behind her on this scenic route, which was actually beginning to look more like a path through the enchanted forest at this point. She picked up the map and studied it again. Somewhere there was supposed to be a bridge and slight incline? At least she was pretty sure the drawing with the arrows pointing down meant downhill in some sort of manner. She grinned at that. Justin made this map, and unless he’d changed since last year, she didn’t doubt it was somewhat understated.
Justin and his wife, Gwen, organized several smaller events throughout the year and they were never in the same place. The places were always completely secluded and completely appropriate for the small gathering. She admired them for that very reason.
She wondered how they managed to find some of the places, as most were usually so remote, explorers were probably the last people to have sighted them. This alone made her look forward to this first one after the winter months, just for the surprise.
Double checking the printout from Gwen’s email one more time, she started moving forward again. She held her breath as the car carefully crept around the corner. With the atmosphere, she almost expected a dragon or some other fanciful creature of fairy tales to jump out on the other side.
That was the bridge? It looked more like a few logs tossed in a line. She glanced in the mirror again. It had to be. There hadn’t been anywhere to possibly turn off from this road it only seemed to get narrower with each foot she traveled. She didn’t want to stop and think what she’d do if she met another vehicle at this point.
Driving slowly and hearing logs crunching under the tires of her car did nothing to assure her she was going to make it to the other side. Nor did she allow herself to look out the window and see what exactly was under this primitive bridge. She hadn’t realized she was holding her breath until she let it out as the back tires cleared the last log and were once again on the dirt path of a road.
Her stomach was knotted in a mix of tension from the drive and excitement. The Beltane gathering was finally here! Most, she supposed, called this a festival, but to her it was a gathering. Being reunited with those she saw at each gathering or some she’d only ever seen at an event. For some this would be the only time they could be who they were inside. And they could be how they wanted to be and still feel accepted for it.
Leena felt luckier than most, she had three friends. They didn’t each have the exact beliefs as one another, but in the last five years as the friendship grew stronger, they had found ways to blend and merge those beliefs into something strong, something unbreakable.
This was a slight incline? She almost hit the brakes but was afraid she’d slide off the road of mud. It looked as if it dropped right off to nothing. The email said private and secluded. However, they didn’t mention it was because anyone would be too afraid to venture over the bridge and if they did, surely this hill winding down into a dark path of overhanging trees would deter them from going any farther.
It was probably breathtaking once everything was reborn and newly grown. As it was not yet May, it was still mostly covered with the brown of winter death. She smiled. Soon a thousand different greens would cover the ground, and new life would breathe its reviving breath again. Leena loved spring, loved the rebirth after long cold winters. Being of a pagan nature, she understood that winter was needed to revive the Earth, which supported so much life, but it still didn’t stop her from being as thrilled as a child seeing their first spring every single year.
This path would be amazing in the darkness of fall-casting shadows, and it would scare most, she thought. Well, those who did not believe as she did. Nevertheless, she loved nature in any form it chose to share.
These next three days would be spent with many of the same heart and mind celebrating the new season; celebrating Beltane and thanking the Earth for blessing them with the warmth of the seasons to come. The excitement of the gathering brought a smile to her face. Together with her chosen family, not the ones she had to listen to because blood said she had to but with her friends and fellow pagans, she could revel in the seasonal change.
As she pulled through the gate covered with dry vines and smirked, because it gave the impression of entering a haunted space. A short distance away was the best part of her pagan family. Coralee, Rachel, and Kasey stood by a little shed and waved to her. Pausing, she took a moment to just sit and be thankful for friends such as the odd trio walking toward her.
Coralee was a few inches taller than Leena’s five foot ten, with those long, dark red locks of “frizz,” as Cora herself liked to call it. Beside her was Rachel, whose pale complexion seemed even lighter than normal next to Cora’s dark skin. Rachel looked smaller standing beside her as well, being a little over five and a half feet, with her straight black hair barely past her jaw line. Add Kasey into the mix, and the four together had all the bases covered in the variety of looks. Kasey with her even shorter height than Rachel’s and blindingly bright, wavy blonde hair, which she kept short enough these days to make it stand out in spikes all over her head, completed their group of opposites.
Leena glanced quickly in the mirror to make sure she didn’t look as frazzled as she felt after the last part of the adventurous drive. Her scant makeup seemed intact, and her lifeless brown hair was, as always, perfectly flat.
Many others of her spiritual path would spend a lifetime trying to find a close friend with similar beliefs. She had been lucky to find three at her place of employment five years earlier. And she thanked whatever forces were responsible for this every day.
Cora grinned and leaned in the door as she opened it. “How’d you like that bridge?”
“It seemed more like some trees that just sort of fell in place. My heart still hasn’t beat properly since I drove over it.”
Rachel laughed. “We debated on parking and walking over it, but we didn’t want to interrupt Kasey, who was praying to any goddess she could think of.”
“It didn’t help that you said if it failed, we’d be rafting instead.” Kasey mumbled quietly, as she tried not to grin.
Leena got out and stretched. “I need the bathroom. Now. Then I’ll go check in with Gwen.” She watched the three all smirk. “There is an actual bathroom here, right?”
Cora nodded. “Yep, there’s one bathroom for the guys and one for the girls.” She grinned when Leena’s eyes widened. “It should be interesting with roughly a hundred people in attendance, according to Jean at registration.”
“Let’s hope they’re mostly men then.” Leena reached in and grabbed her purse.
“Yes! Mostly men work for me.” Rachel grinned.
The others were laughing as Leena headed in the direction Cora pointed, shaking her head. “We’ll take your stuff to the cabin and meet you at registration.”
~ * ~
After exiting the bathroom, which she was sure at some point had been a storage shed, Leena paused to look around. The cleared area wasn’t huge, but it was big enough to have a large open space with a few picnic covers built in the center. There were small cabins around the outskirts of the area that looked much newer than the bathroom shed. They were far enough from the surrounding trees to give you a sense of privacy without having to hide in the bushes to get it.
She smirked as Charlie, the usual event handyman, walked by her carrying a shovel and mumbling to himself. Charlie was a familiar sight at a gathering. Although in all the years she’d been coming to them, she never actually remembered saying more than a handful of words to him. She watched the intriguing older man attack the ground with the shovel for a moment before turning to look around again.
Outside the cleared area of the site were trees of every size. It was almost as if they were holding the small clearing in their “arms,” keeping all those inside it safe and protected.
Perfect, as always. It would take a good day or more to hike up out of this valley through all the trees, without getting lost; and you couldn’t hear anything, no traffic and no unnatural noise. To the east, she could hear running water and made a mental note that she’d have to find the time to check out the river. It was obviously swelling with the spring thaws and rushing madly between the banks. Smiling, she headed back toward the larger building. She hoped it held a kitchen that was a bit more modern than the bathroom.
~ * ~
With registration taken care of, the four headed to the cabin. Leena was surprised when she went in to see it was actually larger inside than it appeared. Although it was a dark wood on the outside, the inside had been painted a cream shade, making the area seem larger. It held one window at the back in addition to the glass door. She was thankful when she noticed it had a wooden door to shut at night and there wouldn’t be that “being watched” feeling. There was a set of bunk beds on each side. Well, it wasn’t the Hilton, but it would be dry and sheltered.
The four women allowed themselves the luxury of a cabin at events. Other than it being easier than hauling tents and other gear, they agreed on it after their first time of sharing a tent. The tent came close to going up in smoke during one silly moment lighting candles for a light-hearted ritual of sorts.
Turning again, she noticed the little folding table they always brought sitting by the door. “Shall we cleanse and protect our little space?” She grinned, because the others were already digging in bags or cases. Mixing beliefs and magic, always proved to be interesting among the four, for you never knew who was going to do what.
Cora stepped to the table first and placed a small cloth doll on the center of the table, a voodoo protection doll. “To protect those who dwell within.” She continued to stand with her eyes closed.
Kasey opened her hand to sprinkle a shiny dust around the table. “A touch of moon dust to see us safe during this full moon.” She joined hands with Cora and waited.
Rachel stepped up and placed a light blue candle on the table, then grinned and held her hand over it. As the wick burst into flames, Rachel smiled. “Blue light to protect us and ours.”
Leena stepped up to fill the space between Kasey and Rachel and placed an abalone shell onto the table. Smiling at Rachel, she rubbed her hand over the shell and opened it to let the herb fall, and it began smoking as it settled in the shell. “Lovage to cleanse, purify, and release this space of all negativity.” She clasped hands with the others and smiled with a quiet peace.
The air in the small cabin stirred and swirled lightly, taking the scent of the herb throughout. From one hand to the other, through the four a tingle could be felt.
Leena dropped her hands and smiled. “At least you kept the snakes and critters at home this time, Cora. I was ready to hold Kasey still again.”
Cora laughed in her deep husky way. “I promised not to bring living things after that first time. It’s tempting, but I save the fun of that for other times.” She bundled her jacket up. “I’m heading to see if they need any help in the kitchen before the opening circle. Anyone coming?”
Rachel picked up her poncho. “I’ll head that way with you. I want to see if they expect any children this time around and if I can help with the kids’ programs.”
Kasey flopped down on a bunk with her notebook. “I’ll be here trying to write down how that drive through the stalking forest was.”
Smiling, Leena picked up her warm cape and headed back to the door. “I’m going to wander. Don’t forget to show up for dinner, Kase.” She grinned when the blonde head didn’t even lift in acknowledgment and the pen in hand was already flying.
~ * ~
Ambling around the site, Leena was lost in her own thoughts and almost walked past someone talking to her.
“You don’t say hello anymore?”
Leena turned to look up into deep green eyes. “Chris! Sorry, I was in my own little world.” She accepted the hug from the tall, dark-haired man. “I haven’t seen you since Kasey dragged me to your Wiccan church. How long have you been here?” He grinned down at her as she quickly stepped back from him.
“Got in an hour ago. Wasn’t sure we’d make it over that bridge with the van. But we survived.”
She followed his gesture to see his usual group of fest buddies. Tall, dark-haired, dark-eyed, brooding Dade. “Dade. Great to see you.” She almost hesitated as he stepped forward and wrapped her in too-strong arms.
“Let her go so she doesn’t forget me!”
Grinning, she turned to see Steven, with his friendly smile and his chaotic, dark red hair. “Of course I won’t forget you. How are you?” She hugged him longer than she did most others, because he always felt safe. He was just as big as other two men, but he still felt safe to be near.
“Do I get hugged, too, or do I have to know you forever and a day?”
Startled, she turned towards the unknown voice.
Dade laughed. “Well, you knew her about twelve years ago. If you hadn’t been running around the planet, you might get hugged.”
She studied the large man. He had to be well over six feet, probably by at least two or more inches. He had a build like a bodybuilder—a very nice build. His blond hair was neat, although with it that short, did it have a choice really? When she stopped at the pale blue eyes, she knew exactly who she was looking at. “Well, Owen Grey, it has been a long time.” She offered a hand.
He smiled at her and took her hand. “I haven’t seen you since you started high school.” He studied her. “How have you been, Aileena?”
She wasn’t sure she was comfortable with the way he was looking at her and tried twice to pull her hand free. “I’ve been good. Get tired of the rest of the world? Did Dade drag you here?” She offered a slight smile.
“Oh, he didn’t drag me. I all but begged to come with him. I’m doing some research for a new book, and this is where I need to be.”
He unknowingly found her one weakness. Books. “Really? I’ve read most of your work, Owen. It always surprises me what comes out of your mind. What are you researching here?” She knew his work was mainly fantasy fiction but somehow felt uncomfortable that he would be looking for ideas among one of the few places she felt safe.
“I’ve been toying with the idea of adding some mythology into a book or two. Dade is the one that convinced me that mythology and the many veins of the occult are very misunderstood... so I’m hoping to mix some fact with some fantasy and come up with a good story.” He watched her relax.
“Well, I’m sure you’ll make it work.” Giving him a polite smile, she turned back to Steven. “See you at the opening circle?” At his nod, she started to walk away.
“Leena.” Dade put a hand on her arm to stop her. He lowered his head and voice. “He won’t expose anything about anyone.”
She stopped and sighed. “No, I guess he wouldn’t, having been friends with you and your family for so long.” She felt guilty at her first impression. “I’ll see you later, Dade.”
~ * ~
Owen stood with his hands in his pockets and looked at the woman walking away as Dade stepped back over to him. “You didn’t tell me she went from cute to mysteriously sexy, Dade.”
Dade laughed. “You didn’t ask, bro.” Dade slapped him on the back. “But I’ll tell you, there’s no chance with that one. No man gets close enough to get a chance. She went through a bad marriage and has never been the same since.”
Owen grinned. “Good thing I came back then. A woman like that shouldn’t be alone.”
Steven and Chris started laughing from behind them. Chris, still chuckling, walked over and patted him on the arm. “Good luck to you then, Owen. You’ll need it. Even more so when she has her women swarmed around her. The four together will boil your blood. In every way known to man.” He grinned. “This is why we spend as much time with them as possible.”
Dade and Steven nodded as they headed back to the van to get the rest of the supplies.