The Burning Time

Chapter 7: Beltaine

Robin awoke as she often did at Jana's house, with the singing of birds from their oak nests, outside of her bedroom window. It seemed the same as any other morning, as she listened to the sounds of Jana in the kitchen, merrily preparing breakfast....except....

She recalled the last evening's events. After her bath...she had sat by the fire with Amon....Bast had joined them, and they had continued talking, until....

She paused in her thoughts. What happened after that?

She had fallen asleep by the fire. Another curious thought raced through her mind: How did I get into bed?

The idea that perhaps Amon had brought her there and deposited her into bed, after she had fallen asleep, brought a faint pink stain to her cheeks; but a further realization, as she lifted the sheet and looked down at her body, caused her heart to hammer erratically in panic.

So...why am I naked? Had he undressed her?

She was aware that he knew of her sleeping habits; they had shared hotel rooms in the two-day span between their escape from Factory and their refuge in Italy. The idea that he would actually take it upon himself to do such a thing...even if he knew it meant she would sleep more comfortably....

Robin cringed and pulled the covers back over her head with a forlorn moan. She didn't know if she could bear to look at him this morning.


When she had dressed, she made it cautiously out of her room, peeking across the hallway as she did. Amon was awake; his door was ajar.

She headed quietly into the kitchen, her hands laced together in front of her, chestnut-blonde hair fanning over her shoulders. Amon and Jana looked over in her direction as she entered.

" Buon giorno, " Jana called in her standard morning greeting from the stovetop.

Amon was seated at the table, his posture uncharacteristically relaxed in his chair as he sipped from a mug of steaming coffee. He gazed over in her direction, his facial features devoid of emotion, save for a strange glinting in his otherwise unreadable eyes.

" Buon giorno , Robin," he said, fixing her with the look, and she inwardly shivered underneath his gaze.

" Buon giorno ," she answered them both hesitantly, and with docile movements made her way to the table and sat down beside Amon, keeping her eyes fixed straight ahead.

Amon was unusually talkative. Normally he said very little before afternoon, as though he were slow to fully awaken---not so, this day. "Did you sleep all right, Robin?" he asked her nonchalantly, as though it were something he asked her often.

Robin's eyes widened as she reached for the cup of coffee that had been set out for her. Her hand closing around the mug hesitated.

" Si, " she said meekly, her chestnut hair falling to hide her face from his eyes.

Jana noticed the exchange with interest out of the corner of her eye, raising her eyebrow as she continued cooking their breakfast.

"Amon," Robin whispered, trying her best to keep their conversation from Jana's ears.

"Mm." Amon seemed preoccupied with his coffee, leaning back in his chair.

"When I woke up this morning, I was...unclothed..." She paused, almost unable to ask. "Did you..."

"Isn't that how you normally wake up?" he asked quietly, his own voice barely above a whisper.

" ...Si ," she answered uncertainly.

"So what makes you think I would have anything to do with it?" he reasoned, sipping again from his mug. He decided he wouldn't tell her about having checked in on her briefly after putting her to bed the previous night, and seeing that she had shed the nightgown in her sleep and thrown it off the bed onto the floor. In his own way, he supposed, his teasing was subtle revenge for her having made him feel obligated to be so attentive to her, when part of him still did not feel comfortable doing so.

But even as he tried to deceive her, the observation of her distress caused the guilt to seep into his chest and curl there.

Robin looked down at her hands again, realizing he wasn't going to give her a straight answer. "I don't remember," she said softly. She looked up again at him with a sideways glance, her green eyes at once both fearful and suspicious.

Jana brought the skillet to the table, filling their plates before setting it back down and taking her customary seat across from them.

"Today is May Eve, night before Giornata di Diana," she informed them, smiling. "Many things happening tonight and tomorrow in the village. Are you going today?" she asked, directing her question at both of them.

"I was not planning on it," Amon responded casually, digging into his food.

" La Giornata di Diana ," Robin said, looking at Jana. " Che cos'è quello? "

Jana's eyes danced with amusement. "Tana's Day," she responded, "is the largest celebration next to Yule in this region. Tana is another name for La Matrona , Diana. Is a celebration of spring turning into summer, of the beginning of the summer harvest, and celebration of fertility and beginnings of life."

"A pagan holiday," Amon observed, and Jana nodded.

"Our village begins celebration at nightfall on May Eve, and celebrates throughout day on del primo Maggio . Is really a beautiful celebration; with dancing, music, feasting..."

"It sounds wonderful," Robin said, her lips gentling into a smile.

Jana's eyes gleamed with mirth as she looked upon her granddaughter. "I think they might have special role for you, bambina ."

Robin's expression turned into surprise. " Per me? "


Robin walked alone into the via de Mezzo . Amon had chosen to stay behind at Jana's; he had told her he wished to read through the journal of Toudou's colleague to find out what was special about it, if anything. She was still uncomfortable with the idea of Amon having seen her undressed, even though he hadn't actually confessed to she decided it was best that she let him have his time alone. If he changed his mind, he would know where to find her.

She hadn't gotten far into the downtown area of Sovana before she saw the old woman, Giovanna, waving to her from a distance.

" Pellegrina! " the woman called to her. Robin waved back politely, approaching Giovanna, who looked as though she were directing a group of villagers in setting up some sort of decoration in the middle of the village square.

" Buon giorno, Giovanna," Robin said amicably, once she was at the old woman's side. She watched as Giovanna directed four twenty-something young men to erect the ten-foot pole in the center of the square, settling it into a pre-made hole in the cobblestone walkway, burying the end of it in the earth. It was secured with supporting beams of wood on all four sides, as one of the men held the pole steady.

" A cose serve questo? " she asked the old woman, staring interestedly up at the pole as the men secured it.

Giovanna turned to her and grinned. " E' palo di fiori, " she responded. "Maypole."

Robin remembered Jana's words. "This is to celebrate La Giornata di Diana?" she asked.

Giovanna nodded. " Si, si. Today, we decorate. Tomorrow, the young ones dance around it." Her eyes shone with mischief as she looked at the chestnut-haired witch. "Including tu, bambina. "

" Io? " she asked, surprised. "But I don't---"

"One other thing you must do for us," Giovanna was saying, having ignored Robin's protests. "Tomorrow we need to make a large fire here in square. We would like you to do the honor of lighting it with your flame."

Again, Robin was taken aback. After a pause, she asked, "Are you sure that it's what everyone wants?"

" Si, bambina, " Giovanna said, laughing lightly. " Il fuoco is part of ritual of celebration, of purifying." She smiled gently into the girl's green eyes. "Is a magical flame....who better to provide us with it... si? "

Robin let her face relax into a smile. " Si. "


Amon began leafing through the pages of the journal.

It appeared to have been written by a SOLOMON researcher who was Italian, possibly someone Toudou had worked with or perhaps met while working on the Witch Genome project in Europe. The scientist's name was Mario Benedetto. The dates of the hastily scribbled journal entries, most of them surprisingly written in English, coincided with approximately ten to eleven years before Robin's birth, seven years before Toudou himself would begin working on "Project Devil's Child". Amon doubted that Toudou had begun working on genomes at the same time as Benedetto; he couldn't have possibly been more than ten years older than Maria, in the picture he had seen at Toudou's mother's house in Japan. He would have been her age when Benedetto started his research.

Most of the writings in the first half of the journal contained various complex equations and mathematical notes, many of which escaped Amon's understanding. He supposed it would have been helpful to have someone familiar with SOLOMON's scientific research to decode the formulas in both Benedetto's and Toudou's journals. Even though they had gleaned some notes of interest from Toudou's written words, much of his journal was still indecipherable to both Robin and Amon.

One phrase seemed to stand out as being consistent with what he had read phrased over and over again in Toudou's journal: several sentences contained a figure that looked like the Greek letter "pi".

" ...Pi's value corresponds to genetic frequency of alteration.... " he read to himself softly. He frowned, his fingers pausing over the page. He folded a corner of the page, turning to pick up Toudou's book, and flipped to the page Nagira had previously marked:

" ...The analysis of pi's genome has been completed...pi becomes a gene...thus, the way to control the abilities has been opened, " he read.

Pi's genome. What did the value have to do with abilities? Was "pi" referencing a value of genetic changes related to Witchcraft?....or was it a code name of some sort, actually referencing a person?

He switched back to Benedetto's journal and continued reading, flipping back to earlier pages that he might have missed.

" Egyptian relics confirm presence of pi in architecture, as well as art and mathematical formulas... " he read. " ...Study of genealogy leading back to first known ancestor reveals pi-like values inherent in makeup of exon-intron splicing. Suggest this may be a common theme in enabling translation of differentially truncated proteins, leading to abilities relating to modification of external environments... "

Amon rubbed his eyes. Exon-intron splicing? He had the distinct feeling he was out of his league in reading these books.

He impatiently flipped forward again in the journal, nearing the end of the small book. He opened it to a page that caught his eye, and read again:

" Day 112....Seed subject has not encountered any problems thus far with pregnancy. Fetal progression is normal; however there is no detection of pi-related protein production in amniocentesis fluid. Genes may possibly be dormant until birth or may activate in utero if the maternal Seed is awakened. Side-note: Matoko has complained of a piercing pain in her lower-left abdominal quadrant; seems to not be noticeable lying down. Suggest she try.... "

Amon lifted his eyes from the book. Matoko...

He put the book aside, distractedly, as he got up from the desk and slowly went to the window of the small bedroom he occupied in Jana's house.

He looked out into the light of the afternoon sun, at the trees surrounding the east end of Jana's home. The branches and leaves swayed gently in the breeze, and he felt the cool air enter the room through the window, tousling his hair as it passed in.

It was a had to be. There was no other explanation for it.

There was no family name mentioned.....

...but Matoko had been his mother's name.


The remainder of the morning and most of the afternoon passed by quickly for Robin, as she helped Giovanna and several men, women and children from the village gather flowers from a nearby meadow in large baskets, to be taken back to town and made into decorations for the next day's festivities. She smiled and laughed as she watched the children, boys and girls, collecting daisies of all colors, marigolds, bluebells and roses from the field. Many of the girl children followed behind her long dark skirts, attempting to hold her hand, or brought her the flowers they'd picked for her baskets; the boys, mischievous and shy, focused less on picking the flowers and more on cutting paths for the Beautiful Pilgrim through the flora and fauna in front of her. Upon their return to the village, the stems of the wildflowers were cut and the ends kept in bowls of sugared water, to keep the beautiful spring flowers alive and radiant until the next day.

As she finished having helped with the flowers, she returned to the center of the village square, where she observed men standing on stools and ladders, fastening long, wide red and white ribbons to the top of the Maypole.

Giovanna came up to her. " Grazie for all of your effort today, Pellegrina," she said earnestly, taking Robin's arm. "We should be able to finish up by dusk. Go," she said, her dark eyes shining, "go home to sua consorte ."

Robin looked slightly perplexed by her comment, but recovered and asked, "Are you certain that there is no more to do?"

Giovanna shook her head. "We can finish. Don't forget to come early tomorrow; la festa comincia alle nove ." Her eyes lit up as she remembered something. "Ah...also, be sure to put out home fire tonight, in honor of tomorrow's lighting." She nodded and patted Robin on the back, sending her on her way. " A domani! "


After having helped Jana to prepare dinner, which was a pork roast with a delicate fettucini alfredo , Robin got up after the meal and cleared dishes. She was surprised, as she did, to hear the sound of another chair backing away from the table, and heavy footsteps on the tiled floor. Amon appeared behind her shoulder as she stood at the sink, carrying the remainder of the dinner plates. Robin looked up at him, her mouth agape.

His expression was neutral. "I will dry them, if you wash," he said, and found that he liked the reappearance of her trademark half-smile, the one that was more evident in her eyes than on her lips.

" Grazie ," she said softly, and took the dirty dishes from him, offering him a clean one. His behavior mystified her at times, but she decided it was not worth overanalyzing. She would accept the moments of kindness he offered her, unquestioningly.

They finished cleaning the dishes in silence, Jana having moved off to her bedroom, and when the kitchen was cleaned to their satisfaction, they turned to each other.

"Should we..." Amon began hesitantly, "light a fire?"

Robin was about to nod; suddenly she caught herself, and said quickly, "Oh, Giovanna said we are to extinguish fires tonight in honor of the festival tomorrow."

"Festival?" he asked, and then he remembered from the morning. "Ah...that thing."

"I would like to take a walk tonight, though, if it's all right," Robin said softly, and he nodded.

"I'll get our coats."

The moon was nearly full again, and generated enough light for them to see their way along the path leading up the hill to the via de Mezzo . They walked side by side in amiable silence, occasionally glancing at one another in the thin darkness, until they had reached the top of the hill where they had a view of the downtown of the village below, and other homes scattered among the hillsides beyond that. Behind them was a dense forest of oak and pine.

They sat upon the grass on the hilltop, talking softly to each other in low voices and watching the fires in the village being extinguished one by one, like stars blinking and fading out into the darkness.

"Did you find anything of interest in the journal Nonna gave you?" Robin asked after they had talked for a bit.

Amon shook his head slowly. "Nothing yet...a strange reference, but not much else." Robin stopped herself from pressing him for more information; he would share it when he felt necessary.

"We will make sense of it," she said softly, with a quiet certainty, and he looked at her in the semi-darkness before he nodded.

Realization dawned within him. After having found the disturbing reference to his mother's name in the journal, Amon became aware of the fact that he had thought of nothing else for the remainder of the afternoon other being in Robin's presence again. It was as though he gained some reassurance from being with though he needed to know that she was going to stay near him, and not leave him....

He tried his best to brush the thoughts aside. It was so unlike him to think about depending on anyone else other than himself...he had not done so since he was a young child.....since....

"Ready to go back?" she asked him after a while, and he nodded distractedly.

It was best not to think about such things.

It would be difficult to sleep if he did.


The morning of May first was a hectic one.

Robin bolted upright in bed, awakened by some inner alarm, and checked the small travel clock she kept by her bedside. Eight-thirty. She leapt out of bed, clothing herself hurriedly in her pilgrim dress, and rushed out of the bedroom and into the bathroom to fix her hair.

Jana was awake already, and Robin could smell coffee brewing.

" Bambina? " She heard Jana calling her from the kitchen through the bathroom door. " Avanti , is almost quarter til. Amon, svegliati! "

A half-smile quirked Robin's lips, as she attempted to fix her hair. Amon had surely heard that, even through his bedroom door.

Sure enough, she could hear rustling noises coming from the direction of his bedroom, and a softly muffled " Hai....hai... " She felt her face grow warm as she tried to recall exactly how he looked while sleeping. She had always fallen asleep before him, and usually had risen after him....what did he sleep in, anyhow?

The answer to her question came unexpectedly, as she opened the door of the bathroom to head out. At the same moment, Amon's bedroom door opened, to reveal him standing in the doorway shirtless and barefoot, wearing only pajama pants, his dark hair sufficiently rumpled, suggesting his sleep was uneasy. Bast sauntered casually out of his room, her tail curling around his ankles as she departed.

Both of them momentarily gawked at each other---Amon feeling awkward that she had caught him in such a way---until Robin modestly averted her eyes and headed down the hallway, more quickly than she had intended, throwing back a meek " Buon giorno " as she passed.

" Buon giorno, " he answered neutrally, feeling a flush of something he didn't understand. He decided he knew now how she had felt waking up the previous morning.

Robin went directly to the kitchen, greeting Jana and taking an offered cup of coffee. Jana looked closely at her granddaughter. "Robin?" she asked, concerned, and attempted to reach to touch the girl's face. "Do you have a fever, bambina ?"

Robin shook her head hurriedly and turned away, sipping carefully from the steaming mug. Jana shrugged and went back to the stove.

"I hope Amon is hurrying...the lighting of the Belfire is soon," she said. "People will be gathering in village, awaiting our arrival..."

Amon appeared, completely dressed and having managed to tame his unruly dark locks. He glanced at Robin, who turned away, before directing his attention to Jana.

" Andiamo, " he said, and both Jana and even Robin smiled at his Japanese-accented Italian.


The three of them made it to the entrance of the via de Mezzo , and from there they could hear the music and the sound of the crowd. Jana looked positively delighted by the prospect, clasping her hands togther in anticipation; Amon and Robin looked less ecstatic, and more curious.

They entered the main square of the village, to find the Sovanan townsfolk in full celebratory swing.

There was a large musical band playing off to the right of the square, with instruments that looked old and archaic, but were nevertheless merrily playing tunes to which many of the townsfolk, men and women, were dancing to. There were opulent spreads of food already laid out on tables along the street, and Robin could smell the lingering scents of fruit, dairy items, and cakes. Off to the left of the square, off the road where grass began, there looked to be several activities going on: Robin noticed an archery setup, as well as two men off to another side fencing with swords, to the delight of onlookers. Flowers were everywhere, adorning trees and shops and women and children, and the Maypole stood proudly in the center of the festivity, white and red ribbons hanging enticingly down from the top of the pole, and flowers tied all the way down the length of it in spiraling patterns of blue, red, white, and yellow.

It took Robin's breath away, and she could tell it had the same effect on Amon.

Giovanna managed to see the three of them through the chaos of the crowd. "Ah, buon giorno! " she cried, and they went to meet her, Jana greeting her the most warmly of the three, with a hug and a kiss on both cheeks.

"I see you made it here, just in time, bambina ," Giovanna said to Robin. " Avanti ...let's begin." Robin nodded graciously and allowed the old woman to lead her away by the hand.

Amon's eyes followed her departure, and Jana took his arm with gentleness. "She will be all right," she reassured him, her eyes twinkling in the sunlight, and he looked down at her and nodded.

Giovanna led Robin up to a large pit at the south end of the square, where twigs and logs had been piled level with the ground, and a large concentration of the townsfolk had gathered to await the lighting of the fire. Constant chatter and mumbling ceased with their approach, and as they stood before the pit, Giovanna turned and addressed the crowd. Even the musicians in the corner of the square had stopped.

" Buon giorno, tutti, " she called out, to the crowd of smiling and anxious faces. " Grazie for coming, and for being so patient. We are now ready to light the Belfire, which will begin today's festivities." The crowd of townsfolk clapped and cheered in appreciation.

Giovanna continued, "On May Eve, we put out all other fires in our homes, to be re-lit from this one, our Belfire, the fire burning at the center, the hearth of our community. This sacred hearth represents the mystic divine fire at center of all things, whose spark of life is carried by each of us."

She then did something that amazed Robin; she directed her next words at the sky.

"Mother Goddess, Queen of the night and of the Earth;
Father God, King of the day and of the forest;
We celebrate your union as nature rejoices in a riotous blaze of color and life.
Accept our gifts,
Mother Goddess and Father God, in honor of Your union.
From Your mating shall spring forth life anew;
A profusion of living creatures shall cover the lands,
And the winds will blow pure and sweet.
Ancient Ones,
We celebrate with You!"

Again the townsfolk began to cheer and clap, and Giovanna in the midst of it turned to Robin.

"Pellegrina," she said, and nodded meaningfully.

Robin inclined her head in response, feeling partly embarrassed by the spectacle and partly giddy with the joy that had diffused into the air with the townsfolk's excitement and Giovanna's words, and she turned her eyes onto the pit. A spark appeared in the emerald depths, and not a split-second later, the pit erupted into a brilliant red-gold flame that reached as high as the Maypole itself before settling to a comfortable burn.

More cheers came up from the townsfolk and from Giovanna, and Robin watched in fascination as men and women in the crowd reached to kiss one another, irregardless of marital status.

Jana was suddenly at her side again, and took Robin into her arms in a sweeping hug. Over her grandmother's shoulder, Robin could see Amon standing off in the distance behind her, his dark eyes watching her intently.

The music spontaneously started up again, and the celebration commenced.


Robin was sampling some of the numerous sugary cakes and breads out on display. She had been led over to the table by one of the daughters of the merchant Gennaro, a young dark-haired child named Andria, who had insisted that "Pellega" accompany her to try the delicious sweets.

" Questo qui! Questo qui! " the girl chanted, pointing to a cinnamon bread, and Robin hesitated before cutting a piece for herself and the child.

" Tua padre va bene se? " She didn't want to anger Gennaro by indulging his daughter on a sugar spree---the child seemed hyperactive enough as she was---but Robin could not refuse the trusting, childlike eyes.

Andria nodded solemnly, before hopping up and down again as she watched the Pilgrim slice a small piece of bread for her.

Robin looked briefly out into the crowd, her eyes searching.

Jana appeared at her shoulder, holding a glass of what looked to be wine. " Bambina , I wanted to let you know; there will be many people today offering you gifts and...acting a bit unusual," she spoke near her granddaughter's ear, placing the glass in Robin's free hand. "Don't be startled by it---just accept good graces of Sovana townsfolk, and indulge them." She motioned towards the wine. "Drink this; it is a special sweet wine made from delicate fruit."

"Nonna---" Robin had already begun to protest that it was not yet ten in the morning, and too early to drink wine, but her grandmother leaned in closer and whispered:

"He is looking for you, too, bambina ."

She looked out into the crowd in the direction Jana had been facing, assuming her grandmother had meant her partner; but she did not see Amon anywhere in the crowd. She turned to where Jana had been standing, already asking " Dove...? ", but found the older woman had disappeared, already moving back into the festive gathering.

Andria clamored for her attention again, and Robin distractedly resumed sampling the sweet cakes on display.

A while later, she was moving easily through the crowd, past dancing couples and merry makers. The wine she had sipped had been sweet and tasted of fruit such as melon or cantaloupe, and the lingering effects of it seemed to warm her entire body pleasantly. Between the wine and the sun overhead, she felt as though warmth were permeating through her veins. Men and women alike from the village had been approaching her all morning, some offering flowers, some simply greeting her and demonstrating affection; she had decided that the attention was flattering, and certainly not as overwhelming as Jana had initially made it sound. She had come to know many of the townsfolk already from her near-daily visits into the village, and the affection they lavished upon her made her feel even more at ease with them.

She had not seen Amon for about an hour, and was contemplating searching for him when she heard a whistle blowing off to the right, coming from the open meadow near the square. She went to investigate, drawn on by curiosity, and discovered that it was an archery tournament. Men from the village had lined up to shoot at round targets on the opposite end of the field. The competition had drawn quite a crowd, but they parted, smiling widely when she approached, to allow her to view the scene. What she saw made her gasp in surprise, as the tournament leader blew his whistle again and shouted, " Arciere! "

Amon stepped to the front of the line, holding a wooden bow, a quiver of arrows slung across the shoulder of his dark overcoat. He placed his feet carefully, one on either side of the shooting line, his body facing the onlookers but his angular profile fixed on the target off in the distance. Robin watched, transfixed by the intensity of his gaze, and her eyes widened as the leader blew his whistle once more.

" Spara! "

With fluid and precise movements, Amon effortlessly removed an arrow from the quiver, nocked it, and drew the bow, loosing it towards the target. Murmurs of appreciation went up from the crowd as one, then two, then three arrows hit the target at the end of the field, nearly dead-center.

The crowd applauded, as did Robin, as he finally lowered his bow and surveyed the target. Villagers on the sidelines began shouting out to him, calling him il cacciatore , the huntsman. He turned to face the onlookers, and instantly met Robin's gaze, holding it for moments as people milled around them.

He stepped off to the side of the tournament area, leaving the bow behind, and Robin met him on the grass.

"Where did you learn archery, Amon?" she asked curiously, her expression revealing the half-smile that he had made a habit of searching for on her face.

"Solomon," he responded after a pause, and her eyes widened appreciatively. "One of the many hunting skills we were trained with." He noted with a twinge of guilt that her smile had faded.

She folded her hands in front of her with an imperceptible bow of her head. "I is part of the reason then that you are one of their most talented Hunters." She looked slightly forlorn as she said it.

" Was, " he corrected softly, and she looked up into his eyes with a sudden, new understanding.

Before either of them could say more, they were interrupted by a cacophony of voices; Sovanan townspeople were approaching them, chanting in Italian phrases that Robin vaguely recognized as "God of the Hunt" and "maiden". Two girls, both of them appearing to be close to, if not the same age as Robin, approached her, both of them smiling and giggling as though they knew a secret. "Pellegrina," they entreated her, both of them taking her arms and leading her away, " avanti! "

Robin was too stunned to resist, but upon hearing Amon call her name, an uncertain tone in his voice, she cast a glance back at him in confusion. She saw the worry on his face, and sought to reassure him. " Daijoubou, " she said in Japanese.

"Robin," he called out again in protest, and moved to follow her, but found his path blocked by several other villagers. They spoke to him calmly in Italian, pressing him away in the opposite direction, and when he didn't discern any harm to her, he followed them reluctantly.


She was led to a covered tent, where young women began undoing the ribbons binding her hair, brushing loose the ginger strands of silk, as well as encouraging her to change clothes into a sleeveless, flowing white gown; all the while whispering Italian charms of praise to her.

Robin felt vaguely nervous---especially when she spied the thin spaghetti-straps of the dress and realized the expanse of flesh that would be revealed---but she recalled Jana's gentle plea to indulge the townsfolk in their antics, and she obliged the girls. After changing into the gossamer white gown and given sandals for shoes in lieu of her boots, she allowed them to adorn her loose hair with a garland of multicolored daisies. Giggling and marveling at their work, the girls led Robin out of the tent to greet the awaiting audience.

As she exited the tent, she had to almost stifle a laugh behind a slim hand at the vision before her.

Amon had been similarly kidnapped, and while he had apparently conceded to wearing a crown of green ivy on his dark head, he was sternly pushing away offers of trading his overcoat for a medieval-looking dark brown cloak. It was obvious---but perhaps not to the Italians---that he had already reached the limits of his patience with the game.

He turned abruptly, seeing her emerge from the tent, and the sight of her made him stop short, catching his breath. The villagers delighted at his reaction, and laughed and shouted merrily as they pushed him towards her, some of them bursting into spontaneous Italian song.

Amon seemed at a loss, and even less comfortable once he was closer in proximity to her. " Daijoubou? " he asked her, and when she nodded, he asked, "what are they saying?"

Robin listened in for a moment to the crowd's song, hearing bits and pieces of the phrases, before she could translate for him.

"They cut me down....but I leap....leap up high," she translated softly, watching the villagers sing in the afternoon sun. "...I am....the light that will never go out.....will never die...I will live in you....if you live in me."

Unnoticed by Robin, his eyes changed as she spoke the translated verses, shifting in the light at her words and as he watched her.

She looked back up at him. "It's a happy song," she noted, and her face wore the wistful smile again. "Full of joy." He had felt it too, despite the language barrier; it was as though the townsfolk rejoiced in their awkward reunion, as if it had some hidden or important meaning to them.

Hours went by as the celebration wore on. Robin and Amon, still humoring the villagers in the attire they had been dressed in, mingled about in the crowds at their leisure. Amon noticed as the day wore on to dusk that he felt more relaxed and at ease, even among the eccentric Italians---but he made sure to not leave her side, lest she be pulled away again by some unruly crowd.

Consistently bombarded by the friendly villagers, they surveyed the outdoor games, observed men and women dancing and feasting, and every now and then obliged the participants and partook of the food and drink themselves. Amon noticed with slight concern that Robin was perhaps partaking a bit too much...he saw her more often than not with a wineglass in her hand, which seemed to be constantly being refilled by passing villagers. He attempted several times to mention it, but stopped himself each time before he could.

You are her warden, he reminded himself. So why are you having difficulty acting like one?

A new activity was beginning as the afternoon light had begun to fade, and it was soon determined that the dancing around the Maypole would begin.

Young men and women from the village gathered around the pole that had been fashioned to stand in the center of the village, before the still-blazing Belfire, and each one took one of the brightly-colored ribbons that hung down from the top of the pole. Women took white; men took red.

The musicians, having taken advantage of the brief lull in activity to drink more wine, began to play again, this time a slow, waltzing tune. The dancers around the Maypole took their ribbons in hand and began to do a slow circle, men going one direction and women going the opposite, slowly wrapping the colored ribbons around the length of the pole. As the music slowly began to gain in speed and momentum, so did the dancers with their ribbons, moving faster in time to the music and laughing as they passed each other.

There were still unclaimed ribbons clinging to the top of the pole, and before he knew it two young villagers, a man and a woman, had reached over to grab Robin's arms, effectively pulling her into the circle of dancers. She yelped in surprise; but Amon could see the pleasure written on her face at being included in the dance, and he made no move to hinder her. He watched, fascinated, as she picked up one of the white ribbons as if by instinct, and began to follow in the direction of the other women, pulling her white ribbon along against her shoulder, clasping the end of it to her chest, her green eyes sparkling in the dimming light.

Around she danced, counter-clockwise to the men dancing with their red ribbons, interspersed male-female, became a bright blur of activity in the glooming onset of dusk, against the backdrop of the roaring Belfire.

There was something eerily familiar about it, something that struck a chord within him as he watched the dancing, heard the laughter, felt the thrum of the music playing behind him. It was as if he had witnessed this before...a long time ago....the memory buried beneath years of repression and anger, doubt and remorse.

They cut me down...but I leap up high.

He felt a stirring within him, the memory opening him up, laying waste to the life he'd led previous to this---this was much more ancient, this recognizable feeling. It was at the same time as raw as an open wound, and as purifying as a clean burning fire.

I am the light....that will never, ever die.

Robin was laughing, her chestnut hair flying back behind her as she danced around the Maypole. She looked like a bird about to take flight, her delicate feet barely touching the earth....he had never before seen her so vibrant, so carefree, so alive. She caught his eyes as she passed, and through them she seemed to transmit to him all of her joy, all of her hope and faith, all at once as if she had a direct connection to his soul.

He realized then, with a force that was almost gravitational in its power, the true meaning of his conflicted and confused feelings. It was a crushing moment of pure illumination.

I will live in you....if you will live in me.

The whirling group dancing around the Maypole had reached a fever pitch, their dancing having gotten closer and closer together as they neared the ends of their ribbons, and they finally let go, flinging themselves out into the awaiting crowd, whose arms were open to receive them in flight.

He saw her flying towards him, propelled by the centrifugal force of the group, and reached to catch her in his arms, holding onto her securely.

She was still laughing, breathless, her hair disheveled all around her and green eyes gleaming in the fading light, and before he could stop himself he had pulled her body taut against him, his face tilting downwards into hers, her breath warm and sweet on his face---

---when at once they were separated, pulled apart by laughing villagers on each side. His temper flared momentarily, before he recovered his composure and realized what he'd almost done.

Guilt momentarily plagued him...but it wasn't enough to stem the sudden flood of desire that he'd felt coursing through his veins.


Dusk had fallen, and the celebration continued by the light of the Belfire, still burning brightly from the south end of the square. After having been pulled apart by the townsfolk by their strange works of mischief, he and Robin were reunited again with explicit instructions for the proper code of conduct of "ending ceremonies"....namely, dessert.

Dizzy with the consumption of the wine she'd had throughout the day, and exhilarated from dancing, Robin agreed to the terms of the next activity, translating for Amon's benefit.

"You have to feed me....and I have to feed you," she sloppily translated, the corners of her mouth quirking upwards despite all efforts to squelch her own smile. "The man feeds the woman red fruits, symbolizing the sun, and the woman feeds the man dairy products, white creams and custards...symbolizing the moon," she explained. She gestured as she spoke to a bowl of ripe red fruit, raspberries and strawberries and cherries; as well as bowls of creamy-white marigold custard and chilled cream pies.

He wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it all; that he should find any kind of enjoyment in such a ridiculous display of sentimentality and tradition; yet he did none of that, and instead took a handful of fruit from the bowls that were offered, as the other men did in the circle that had been formed, seated on the cobblestone in front of the Belfire.

In his hands he held raspberries, and he picked them out of the bunch and fed them to her, one by one. She ate them playfully as they dropped from his fingers, her inhibitions loosened from the wine and the comfort of his presence. It seemed to him as though she thought it a game, something fun and exciting.

He selected strawberries of the deepest red from the bowl and fed those to her as well, gleaning a certain satisfaction from seeing her lips adjust according to his will, moving forward to capture the strawberry as he held it just out of her reach.

Then it was the women's turn, each woman in the circle spooning marigold custard or cream pie to feed to her male companion. Robin, in lieu of searching for a spoon, settled on scooping the marigold custard up out of the bowl with her fingers and offering it to him.

Amon moved forward, his eyes never leaving hers, and took her proffered fingers into his mouth, tasting the custard and simultaneously gloating at the astonished expression on her face from the contact with his warm mouth.

She definitely wasn't expecting that , he thought to himself with some satisfaction.

She attempted to pull her hand away, her eyes already wide, when he caught her wrist and prevented it, drawing with his mouth on her delicate fingers as if to get every last taste. Her pupils dilated in the glow of the fire, and her mouth opened in a surprised "o" as she felt the softness of his tongue, and the grazing of his teeth.

They repeated the game two more times, each one's turn taking longer than the last, when finally it was interrupted and the group dispersed. Men and women from the circle went off in pairs, and Amon took advantage of the hiatus as a moment to attempt to clear his head, which felt jumbled with incoherent thoughts.

Jana approached them both, kneeling down to their level on the cobblestone.

"I'm heading back," she told them softly, and then directed her next words at Robin. "But before I left, I wanted to tell you something, bambina ..." She paused, and took her granddaughter into a gentle embrace, whispering fiercely. " Buon compleanno! "

Robin's eyes widened in shock as she hugged her grandmother in return. " did you..."

"I tell you before, bambina ...I knew about you from the time you were born," the older woman said, the fire making her dark green eyes glint in the light, "from the very moment you were born." Jana's eyes glistened. "You are a gift from the Goddess Herself."

Amon sat in silence as he absorbed Robin's reaction to Jana's was her birthday? She had not ever told him when it was; she had never mentioned it.

Realization dawned on him. Sixteen. She was officially no longer a child, at least by Japanese standards.

Jana patted him on the shoulder as she stood, murmuring in his ear, her voice carrying just a hint of an undertone of warning. "Be sure and get her home safely, cacciatore ." With that, she was gone.


He found himself half-supporting her, half-carrying her back to the farmhouse by the end of the evening, not long after Jana had made her departure. Exhausted from the activities and from the wine, Robin dragged her feet as he attempted to pull her along on the walk home; and finally frustrated, he gave up, scooping her up against her protestations and carrying her the rest of the way. By the time they had reached the farmhouse, she was snoring softly against his shoulder.

He entered the house, locking the door behind him while balancing her in his arms, and continued to her room, where he deposited her gently on her own bed. Bast, having missed her master and mistress, leapt onto the bed and gently head-butted Robin into consciousness.

"Mmm, Bast," she whispered softly, her eyes half-closed, to his inner amusement. She managed to produce a hand to half-heartedly pet the cat, even as Amon removed her sandals as she lay lengthwise across the bed.

She finally realized that someone was removing her shoes, and turned over onto her back to look up at him. Half-aware, her chestnut-blonde hair fanned out around her, she reached up for him. "Amon..."

Unable to resist the softness of her voice, he leaned down to her, standing over her on the bed...

She grabbed onto one of his arms, turning over again onto her stomach on the bed, and pulling his arm along with her. He started as he felt himself being tugged down onto the bed next to her. "O-oi!" he whispered sharply.

"Amon," she whispered, her eyes closed as her lips moved, and his ears keened to listen. "Don't leave me."

She said nothing else the entire night, falling back into a deep sleep instantly.

Amon stayed awake for a long time, watching her sleep, his dark thoughts plaguing his mind. It was a while before he finally succumbed to slumber himself, his arm still captive underneath her, his hand clutched tightly in her own.

He could feel the pulse of her heartbeat against his hand, felt her gentle intakes and exhales of breath...and decided that whatever sleep he missed would be worth it in the end.


Next chapter:

Serpent's stone....Of gods and men....A simple mistake. The blinders have been removed as the beacon reveals its divine light. Chapter 8.

Italian translations:

Buon giorno: Good morning
Si: yes
Che cos'è quello?: what is that?
del primo Maggio: the first day of May
bambina: child
per me: for me
A cose serve questo?: what is this for?
E' palo di fiori: It is the flower pole
Tu, bambina: you, child
Io?: I?
Il fuoco: the fire
Grazie: thank you
sua consorte: your consort
la festa comincia alle nove: the festival begins at nine o'clock
a domani: see you tomorrow
avanti: come
svegliati!: wake up!
hai: [Japanese] yes
andiamo: let's go
tutti: all, everybody
Questo qui: this one
Tua padre va bene se: Is it okay with your father?
Dove?: where?
Arciere: Archer
Spara!: Fire!
Daijoubou: [Japanese] I'm all right (also can be a question)
Buon compleanno!: happy birthday!

The folk song with the words "They cut me down..." is actually a pagan folk song called "Lord of the Dance" (thankfully no relation to Michael Flannery's 'Riverdance') and is a traditional song of the Beltaine festival. ^^

Okay, and for you fig lovers out there (that's you, Tsukinoko-san ^^ ), here's a funny website to check out : http: // www. godhatesfigs .com/ . Be sure to take out the spaces when copying it into your browser. I found it on the web and couldn't stop laughing---hopefully no one gets offended and sees it for the silly humor it is. ^^;,

I would love to respond to each and everyone's reviews, since they're all great and really flattering; but I think that would take up too much room! ^^; so I'm just going to say thank you again to everyone, and I hope you keep reading!