The rest of the week passes without incident. We don’t hear from Laurie about going to Planned Parenthood and I hope that she won’t wait until it’s too late or do something desperate on her own before I have a chance to talk to her again. Saturday comes faster than I want and it seems like no time at all before we’ve closed up the shop and are headed out to the Johnson’s house for the Samhain ritual.
We’re among the last to show up and everyone else is milling around in the backyard. Shelly Johnson takes the dish I have brought to share at the feast and heads to the kitchen with it. Zeke and I have put on our cloaks and we walk out to join the others. Laurie gives no sign that she even knows us, let alone wants to talk which we understand, as her father is hovering around like a bumble bee in clover. He manages to come up to each person at least once and almost seems to be herding us.
He also politely but firmly blocks Zeke from checking out the altar but I can tell from Zeke’s face that he will take any opportunity to make a closer inspection, even if he has to wait until after the ritual—or come back later when Mike is at work. I wonder why he has such an interest in it because it just looks like a stack of stones with a piece of wood across the top to me. I figure it’s a gardener thing and that Zeke wants to make one for us. I look around at the crowd. I can see all the people who came into the restaurant last month but they are only about half of those present. I catch snippets of conversation, enough to know that the coven is not really sure about all these new people but since they were invited by Lord Kiss My Ass…
The new people are talking amongst themselves as well and Zeke and I stand apart as the hum of talk rises and falls. It comes to complete silence when the large figure of the High Priest comes out of the house and makes his entrance. The crowd parts like the Red Sea for Moses and he stops in the center of them.
“Welcome, welcome. I am so glad to see so many of you here tonight. We have gathered tonight to celebrate Samhain, that night when the veil between the worlds is the thinnest. Come, let us begin.”
I have to admit that he does do the whole shtick of HP pretty well. I can tell that others are impressed by his priestly mien. He leads us in a clump to the clearing at the altar. Several of the coven members take up their positions and we begin the ritual. Out of respect for their desire for secrecy, I won’t bother to try to describe all that occurs. Most of it is basic ritual stuff and I am willing to allow as John Robert does know his Craft.
I’m not so sure about his wife. She manages to portray the Crone as a mouse. The Crone is supposed to be a very strong figure; she is depicted as an older woman, past childbearing age, filled with the wisdom and experience of her years. No one associates a mouse with this aspect of the Goddess. I still don’t know why John Robert chose her. I also can’t hear a single word she says. I have to go by whether her lips are moving or not.
Apparently no one else can hear her either because there are several uncomfortable pauses until we are all sure she is done speaking. John Robert glares at her but she seems oblivious to his anger. For what it’s worth, she has memorized her lines and seems to do them perfectly. We just can’t hear her. Everything is going along just fine until the time for the Cakes and Ale portion. As he raises his arms to hold the athame aloft, his robe falls back and I catch a glimpse of a heavy bracelet around his wrist. I look to see what it is and almost fall out. Zeke puts his arm around me as I stumble and he puts his head near mine.
“Zeke, his bracelet. It’s a black snake.” I murmur quietly into his ear. I feel him jerk against me and I can tell that he is looking intently at John Robert’s arm. He holds me tighter and I can sense him scanning the crowd. John Robert finishes the blessing and we all line up to share the food. Zeke keeps his hold on me and is standing right up behind me as John Robert offers me a bite of cake. I can tell that he wants to put it on my tongue like Catholic Communion wafers, but I hold out my hand and take it from him. Zeke takes his and leads me away. We skip the chalice and I am puzzled but start to put the morsel into my mouth. He reaches up and takes it from me.
“Don’t eat anything that man gives you.” He quietly tells me, casually dropping the hand with the cakes to his side and I realize that he has thrown them into the bushes. I put my arm around his waist and we watch the rest of the ritual. It goes without further incident but when the circle is opened, John Robert heads straight for us.
“I am so glad that you both were able to join us tonight. Rhyssa had told me that you would be here. I would like to talk to you about several things.” He gestures for us to move towards the house for the feast. Zeke reaches out to take my hand and as I hold out mine, John Robert catches it to stare at the green glow of the ring.
“Are congratulations in order?” He says it pleasantly enough, but there is a tone that I do not like in his voice. Not only that, but I cannot remove my hand from his.
Zeke puts his hand over both of ours and somehow, I am free of John Robert and Zeke has firm grip on me. “I have very particular taste in jewelry and it has taken me longer than I had hoped to find something that I felt was worthy enough for Mattie. The commitment has always been there.”
“Of course, I thought perhaps you all had—made it, you know, binding and legal.” He says it in such a way that the word “legal” sounds obscene. “It is a lovely ring.” He is also rubbing the hand that had been holding mine and I realize how Zeke managed to make him let go—he pinched John Robert’s fingers hard enough to hurt.
“We don’t need a ring to make it binding.” Zeke announces this with a finality that thrills me even as I try not to gloat at the High Priest who is looking less then serene. He turns and stalks into the house. Zeke holds me back as the rest of the group files in and we are able to slip away unnoticed.
Back home, he fixes us our own meal while saying the Kwan Yin mantra the entire time. I put our cloaks into the cedar chest that holds all of our ritual clothes and sit at the counter, watching him. Finally I break the silence.
“Zeke. My dreams…I guess we know who the snake is, don’t we?”
He nods but doesn’t stop chanting. He also looks very grim.
It’s now blatantly clear that the snake in my nightmares is none other than Lord Kiss My Ass Almighty, John Robert Schmidt. Now that I’ve seen the bracelet and made the connection, the clues drop into place. The sexual appetites, the misuse of power…even the black snake itself is a strong symbol. Snakes are most often associated with female power and the Goddess. That’s a major reason that the Christians use the snake to represent the evil and the fall in the Garden of Eden. It is not usual for such a feminine symbol to represent a man and I have this feeling that it’s connected his use of sex to control women.
In other words, if all the stories are true, he uses the women’s own power against them. That’s probably why it’s black, a color that absorbs other energies. Some of the other clues are not so obvious. I still don’t know who the doe is. I suppose it’s some woman that John Robert is…playing with, but I don’t know who it actually is. Since Zeke pointed it out, I can agree that the badger is the Green Man, but I don’t know why he’s there with the doe. If I could say that he was protecting her, I would think that the doe is Laurie, but I just can’t picture her with John Robert. She’s the only one we’ve got that’s pregnant and she does have blue eyes. Neither of us can figure out how Lord Kiss My Ass would have managed it—or why. We do agree that the animals probably represent members of the coven, but we don’t know them well enough to make the connections.
“So if he is the snake, do you think John Robert is going to die?” I ask him.
“That is what your dream seems to indicate. I have to admit that I can’t get too worked up about it. He’s an asshole who deserves it.”
“Zeke! No one ‘deserves’ to die.”
“I know, but somehow I have a feeling that if he does die, there won’t be a big crowd of mourners. Well, except for the women he’s charmed. Like the snake he is.”
We talk about the dreams and the card reading, trying to match symbols and images with John Robert and his crowd. Zeke brings out his notebook and he scribbles notes as we keep trying to work it out. I take over the meal preparation duties by setting the table as he finishes writing.
“I think that’s all we’ve managed to come up with. We’re talking in circles now, babe. Let’s eat.” He closes the binder and caps his pen. I am very willing to let go of this. As I put the food out on the table, the ring on my hand glints at me.
He is startled by my intensity and looks at me questioningly.
“I know what the green dagger is. It’s this ring.”
“I didn’t have a dagger in the first dream. I had the dagger and I could fight the snake with it in the dream on Sunday.” I lean back and look at him.
“I think you’re right—both about the dagger being your ring and about him being the snake. I want you to think about this: we should do a protection ritual for us, but especially for you. I think he is trying to get at you.”
“I don’t think he’s got that much real power.”
“It doesn’t have to be focused on you. He has only to have strong desire for you and think about you for it to work. You know that.”
I hadn’t thought about it that way. I hate the idea that such a sleaze is having erotic thoughts about me but it’s just plain scary to think that he was trying to get at me sexually and causing me harm by those thoughts.
“Why would he want to have sex with me? I’ve never—“
“I know.” Zeke interrupts me. “I think he just wants what he wants and to hell with the rest of the world. Isn’t that part of your reading? Voracious appetite with no measure of control. It’s never occurred to him that anyone would say no.”
Well, I had but apparently John Robert didn’t realize that it meant “NO” and it meant him. “When do you want to do the ritual?”
“Not tonight. I think we can manage it tomorrow evening after closing time. I want a little bit of time to prepare the garden since we will do it outside.”
“What do I need to do?”
“Take a bath. I’ll give you some herbs to use and I think we will wear the new cloaks.”
“Just the new cloaks? Isn’t it a little chilly for that?” I tease him.
He smiles at me, but his answer is firm. “Oh we’ll manage all right.”
He won’t talk about it anymore, but changes the subject to what movie we want to watch this evening. I do note that he only offers comedies as suggestions so I take the hint and we pick something frothy and light.
The next day seems to drag. I wake early and can’t fall back to sleep so I get up quietly, trying not to disturb Zeke or Vader. The dog lifts his head to watch me leave, but stays on the bed. I go down into the store and inventory the herbs. Zeke has indeed used up a lot of the ones associated with banishment and protection. I make a list to give him so that he can order more.
Once I’ve done that, I clean up the few dishes he left in the kitchen sink in the shop. Whatever he has concocted, all indications point to a large amount of it being produced. When I am done, I go back upstairs to find them both awake and prowling in the refrigerator. I volunteer to make us a hearty breakfast and this offer is met with great enthusiasm. Zeke eats all of his and some of mine. Vader enjoys his piece of bacon and then it’s time to open up.
We only have a few customers and by three o’clock, there’s no one in the shop but me and the boys. I am idly moving stock around when the door opens and the chimes on it jingle. I look up to see Rhyssa stride towards me with a look on her face that makes me take a step back.
“There you are! Where did you go last night? I looked around and you were gone!” She hurls at me.
“I didn’t feel good and Mattie was kind enough to leave the ritual to bring me home.” Zeke steps into her line of sight while he tells this whopper. I am smart enough to keep my mouth shut. Vader has sat down on my feet.
“Oh.” The impression is that of a schooner suddenly losing the wind in its sails. She comes to a complete stop and her face changes. I breathe a little easier. “Oh. Sorry to hear that. Lord Candeur especially wanted to talk to you all after the feast and he was pi— I mean he was surprised that he couldn’t find you.”
John Robert was angry that we had left? I am so glad that Zeke gotten us out of there.
“He had mentioned something about that right after the ritual. Do you know what he wanted?” He asks casually, reaching down to pet the dog as if the answer didn’t mean a thing. I try to copy his lack of concern but I am frightened of the response she’s going to give.
“I don’t know. He was already so angry. That stupid cow! He told her that she will not be part of any ritual again.” It’s not hard to figure out that John Robert had publicly chastised his wife for her lack of volume.
Rhyssa’s next words distract me from that topic. “I figured with all the uproar about Apollo, it might have something to do with supplies for the ritual.”
“Is he going to promote Eric after all?” I can hardly wait to hear the answer to this one.
“Lord Candeur has announced Apollo will portray the Oak King at Yule. Everyone seems to think that this means he will also be doing the ritual of initiation around that time as well. He mentioned mistletoe oil, I guess for the anointing and you all are the only ones in this area who carry that.” Rhyssa looks at us expectantly.
Zeke answers her. “We can special order it if he requests it. We don’t keep it in stock.”
Again I wonder why he’s lying and again I keep my mouth shut. Besides, I am trying frantically to remember mistletoe’s magickal use. I know he’s got a good reason for the prevarications but I will have to wait to find out what they are since I can’t recall my herbal lore.
Rhyssa accepts what he tells her. “I’ll tell him that. It just got crazy last night, between him fussing at Lady Eleanor, announcing the Oak King and Artemis getting sick all over the place. Mike is taking her to the doctor’s tomorrow even though she kept insisting that she was all right. He wanted to take her to the emergency room last night but she just refused and got almost hysterical about it. I guess she hates going to the doctor…” She shrugs and Zeke and I glance at each other. “So are you feeling better today? There must have been some bad food at the feast if you and Artemis were both sick.”
We don’t correct her assumption that we had been there long enough to actually consume food.
“Actually I had the beginnings of a migraine. The minute that I feel it start, I know I have to get into a darkened room. We got home early enough last night that I was able to short circuit a full-blown headache. I feel much better today, thanks.” He says this without a flicker. I remind myself never to play poker against him.
She looks sympathetic. “I get them too, so I know what you mean. Wonder why Artemis threw up? Oh well. Anyway, I’ll let Lord Candeur know that we’ve got to order the oil. Will you all come to Yule?”
“We haven’t made it that far. We usually stay home for that particular ritual.” I get to answer this time. Zeke nods and reaches out to take my hand. The implication of Great Rite for our Yule celebration is clear and Rhyssa picks it up immediately.
“Ah, yes. Of course.” She clears her throat and then looks at her watch. “I need to head out, I’m meeting Daniel and Gerald for an early dinner. Sorry you had to leave so early last night. Maybe next time?”
We make noises of agreement and she leaves, with the door chimes tinkling after her. Once I am sure that she is clear of the shop, I turn to Zeke.
“Want to tell me what that was all about? Migraine? I would have certainly blown out some of those candles last night if I had known that I was supposed to be relieving the ache in your head. And since when do we special order mistletoe oil?”
He grins at me and I can’t help but smile back even as I raise my eyebrows at him for an answer. The smile fades from his lips as he tells me exactly why.
“I know that Rhyssa is an excellent source of information about that coven.” He pauses. “But you know if she tells us all about them, she tells them all about us.” I nod. “We were not eating with them if I had had to carry you out. I do appreciate your not making any fuss but going with me so nicely.”
I take a bow. “And the whole mistletoe thing?”
“Mistletoe is used for several things, but unless I misunderstood what Rhyssa said, anointing a new High Priest is not one of them. I know because I was just reading about it while I was making our protection spell.”
“So what is it used for?”
“It’s used for warding against evil witches and it has power over life and death. It bestows fertility, it will extinguish fire, it can be used for all types of healing and it is also considered to be an aphrodisiac. The other use I found that will be most helpful for us is as protection for the Spirit when performing an exorcism of Evil.”
“But not to mark the new HP. So why does John Robert want to use it?”
“I have no idea. Perhaps for one of those other uses, but he doesn’t want to tell Rhyssa that. Or maybe he just didn’t tell her why, letting her come up with her own explanation. She didn’t seem very sure.”
I have to agree with him. I would go check our supply to see if Zeke has managed to use almost all of that up as well but since he’s been my shadow all day, I figure it’s not worth the effort to be subtle so I just ask outright.
“Well, yes, we do need to order more. I used it. Once we close up shop today, you’ll see why.”
He refuses to say more than that and we spend the rest of the time waiting for customers that never show. I clean out the area behind the register, so once again I have a productive time without any profit. I don’t mind it much today as I have too much to think about.