Ritsa watched the witches gather.
The yew forest behind the hills bordered an absurd shade of green and were scattered with wildflower growths from the spring, which trilled with laughter in the warm dusk breeze. In a small valley within it there was dirt—a great brown clearing of soft decay that felt the absence of roots. The witches trod in all manners down to this nothing-patch, where a great yellow bonfire was stoked by the diligence of the dryad crones. Most of the women, age notwithstanding, pranced in unrestricted nudity down the hills. Some adorned their nakedness with a purple mud. Some kept the golden jewelry on their arms and ankles. Some simply sported antlers, tails, teeth. Cloaks and capes lined the forest like flags as the crowd grew. No witch need worry about her possessions, her enemies or alliances, her lineage. Tonight was Beltane.
The ash drifted over on the wind, the warm musk of dead branches casting a great cloud of heady perfume that settled on Ritsa’s wool skirt as she stood in a dense copse of pines upwind. She tugged at the neck of her dress, a dark pink shift coloured by the red berries that grew on the outskirts of town. She was nearly sweating, as if she could feel the growing heat of the fire beneath her. She swept her hair, a heavy curtain of wet straw, up into a bundle with a brown cloth ribbon she had tucked inside her bodice earlier that morning. She’d probably be in great trouble if Mam knew she’d left the Old Weaver’s house, and stolen ribbons at that. But she’d seen the specks in the sky—little black dots, hiding behind clouds in the distance like inverted stars. It was the Old Weaver’s fault, really. She’d spun enough tales, and now Ritsa believed them.
The incoming flurry of women dwindled, the surrounding forest left a spiderweb of abandoned clothing that seemed to make the bonfire brighter. Even naked, it was obvious who were sisters. Though dispersed, a taller bunch all had wild raven hair, decorated with sprigs of crimson berries that looked alarmingly familiar. They seemed strong as tree trunks, wise as old willows, regal and flexible as they stood unabashed. Ritsa felt she could see the glint of their luminous onyx eyes, searching for her. The older ones who stoked the fire were a merry, sinister bunch, a microcosm of mischievery composed of the oldest hags from each clan. Their skin hung like carpets of rotting leaves from frail branches, and yet they hefted logs from various piles in some chaotic dance, occasionally stopping for a brief bout of bickering over whether the next sacrifice should be Oak, Birch, or Holly. Another few were bulbous; all soft, spilling bellies and swinging breasts. Ritsa could almost hear them despite the distance, their words popping like sonorous croaks, laughter like muffled brooks bubbling over smooth boulders. These ones all wore streaks of brown dirt—the one closest to the fire had two long trails of mud, a sister’s palms dragged down her back, and close to Ritsa garbled one with brown hand prints pressed onto her chest, as if some sooty moth hand perched in her grand cleavage.
Ritsa watched the witches make rounds, a great circle of fire-tinted flesh joining and pulling apart. They had a peculiar way of greeting; one would take the palm of the other, face up, and the other would respond similarly, until both had one arm stretched out, one hand cradling the other’s palm, and with perfect synchronicity they bent to press their lips into them as a brief kiss. Ritsa’s skin grew flushed with jealous admiration from watching the women move around each other so fluidly, imbued with such enviable elegance. The sun had begun to drift below the line of trees behind her, soon to dip all the way under the ridge of hills where her village lay just outside the forest’s western edge—and still she felt smoldering, as if a million little embers had lit under her skin until her neck and cheeks and thighs felt aflame. It must be the magic, she thought, blinking hard, stumbling in a moment of dizziness. She couldn’t think, not when she was inhaling all the heat of their Beltane fire, letting the smoky sweet yew fill her lungs and flood her brain. She’d already rolled up her sleeves, feeling sweat collect in the creases of her elbows. The witches began the ceremony. The crones, each with a different branch, exotic boughs from their home forests, held them aflame in front of them and gave a yip, shriek, chatter, as the witches began to surge forward. Each stopped in front of their older sister, cupped her hands, took a bit of the Witch’s flame, which seemed to alight in her hands like a flickering sparrow, and douse herself, letting the fire roll like water over her neck, shoulders, breasts and bottom, until it slipped over the tips of her feet and disappeared into the brown soil, leaving her glowing.
At this, Ritsa was scorched. The wool was determined to suffocate her until she was gray, her bodice scratching heavily against the delicate skin of her shoulders. With a startled cry, she lifted the dampened cloth up over her knees, hips, back, until it was merely a dusky rose flag, caught on a branch, blending into the night.
—Alagia Cirolia, BFR Editorial Staff