The sound of flute and pipes died away. The rhythmic thumping of hands and feet continued for a moment as the dancers spun and stepped through the final moves of the dance. The whole collected village sighed as the revelry faded.
There was a moment of uneasy silence, as no one wanted the Solstice Dance’s merriment to fade. Then, one of the older women clapped her hands, twice. The sharp report echoed over the village green.
Other women began to flock closer to her, pulling scarves out of their dresses and binding up their hair. Young girls and children came also, rolling up their sleeves and experimentally cracking their knuckles.
Aden gazed at them with wonder. Then, as if on some silent signal, all of the village women turned and walked off through the lantern-lit streets toward the forest. Aden started to follow, curious, but a restraining hand fell on his shoulder.
“It’s not for us to see, son,” his uncle Tomlyn said, his mouth clamped firmly around the carved stem of his pipe. He stood close to Aden, so close the young man could smell the spicy, dry scent of the unlit pipe-leaf. He turned to face his uncle.
Tomlyn frowned, his bushy eyebrows drawing together. His eyes took on a distant quality. “Look at ’em, boy,” he said, taking his pipe from his mouth and pointing it at the retreating women.
“Yeah, they’re girls,” Aden said, exasperation coating his voice.
“So you’ve noticed,” Tomlyn grinned, giving his nephew an affectionate slap on the shoulder. “Do you know why we dance on the solstice night, Aden?”
“Yeah… it’s a celebration,” Aden replied.
“It’s more than that, for sure,” Tomlyn said, steering Aden away from the green toward the village inn. “Since the old days, we have danced to placate the gods. It brings us a bountiful harvest, strong children, and all those things simple villagers long for.”
“You make it sound like magic,” Aden laughed, gazing at his uncle.
“Oh, it is magic,” Tomlyn replied, his tone a solemn whisper. “It is old magic, earthy magic. The dance and the celebrations, they’re all part of our magic.”
“So why do the women go off to the forest?”
“Because that’s women’s magic, boy.” Tomlyn looked levelly at his nephew. “It’s not for men.”
“But why?” Aden’s whined.
“Men’s magic is different. We’ve got the hunt, and keeping track of the stars, and forecasting the weather. Ours is farmer’s magic, simple and practical.” The two of them reached the inn, and Tomlyn pushed open the door. They sat down at a low table tucked away in a corner, and the innkeeper plunked down two foaming mugs of beer.
Aden gazed at the mug. “You’re old enough for this now,” Tomlyn said, reaching for the striker in the middle of the table.
Aden sipped experimentally at the beer. “It’s good,” he said, wiping foam from his upper lip.
Tomlyn nodded, then continued with his explanation. “Women’s magic is different, Aden. They’ve got a deeper connection to the earth.
“Like mother earth, women give birth. They bring forth life, and it’s that which nourishes us and sustains us. Their lives are bound to tide and moon. They share our mother’s rhythm, and they share her magic.”
“Magic like when we danced for the gods?” Aden asked, drinking more of the amber liquid.
“Close,” his uncle said, taking a long drag on his now-lit pipe. “But different in many ways. I don’t know what it is they do, but it’s old, and secret, and powerful.”
“But not for us.”
“Nay, son,” another man said, scratching as his close-cropped beard. “That’s what the inn is for: strong drinks, strong friends, and good stories.”
Several of the other men gathered in the inn shouted their robust approval. One old man, his eyes alight with humor, said, “Yar, this be the only time I can get my wife and daughters to leave me alone to enjoy my drink!” One of the men standing near him thumped him on the shoulder.
“But it’s good that they do this,” Tomlyn continued sagely. “Their magic, the women’s magic, is what sustains and protects the village. What they do is every bit as important as what we do when there’s fire or wolves in the sheepfold. They deserve our thanks and respect for that. Never forget it.”
Several of the other men echoed him.
Aden was now slightly drunk from his first glass of beer. He hiccupped. “Still, I wouldn’t mind seeing what they get up to out there.”
The common room fell silent, hushed. Several of the men glanced around, embarrassed.
“Nay, lad,” Tomlyn said, his voice barely audible even in the silence. “It is old, and it is strange, and most assuredly, it is not for us.”
“But surely someone has snuck out to see!” Aden exclaimed. “You mean to tell me that none of you have ever been the slightest bit curious?”
Some of the men shuffled their feet. Others stared into their beer.
“Oh, we’ve thought about it,” the innkeeper said, taking Aden’s glass away from him.
Several of the others murmured their agreement.
“But none of us have ever gone to look,” Tomlyn said at last, tapping out the ash from his pipe and stowing it in his vest pocket.
“Some day I will,” Aden vowed. “I’ll be a great wizard. I’ll go study with the masters in the south, and I’ll come back, and tell you all… tell you all ab…” Abruptly, his head drooped and fell against the table. Aden began to snore softly.
Tomlyn laughed, and the assembled village men took up the cheerful sound. “First drink’s the hardest,” he said, rubbing his nephew’s hair with affection. Leaning close, he said, “Aye, boy. You may be a great sorcerer one day, but some mysteries are better left unplumbed. Woe to any man that thinks he’s cornered the secret of women.”
Lane Haygood is struggling through his final year of law school, kept sane by his wonderful girlfriend, two cats, and his love of reading.