Pale moonbeams danced across the tranquil river's silvery surface, rippling around the trailing fronds of the willows that stood like watchful sentries along the grassy banks. Among the waving water reeds a heron raised his banded head, trailing glittering moon-lit water from his bright beak, then took off, lending his distinctive silhouette to the star-studded sky that was the backdrop to the ritual being conducted in the secluded clearing.

Thirteen figures sat in a circle around a small bonfire. Their faces were serene, their bodies relaxed as they focused both on the dancing shadows cast by the flickering flames and the distinctive tone of the drum that was being played by one of the women. It almost seemed to the group that the flames were actually leaping and dancing along to the drum's repetitive rhythm, as if the elemental spirits of fire had decided to join their ritual. Even the night sounds of creaking branches, burbling river and the calls of animals seemed to fit in with the simple but powerfully spiritual music.

Slowly the notes of the drum faded into silence and the hands of the woman who had played it fell motionless. In the moments of silence that followed, the expectation of the group became palpable.

Eventually another woman rose to her feet and moved to the centre of the circle, where the lively firelight caught her silver hair and endowed it once more with the russet hue that time had stripped away. She was easily the oldest member of the coven, but her slim figure and the easy grace with which she moved gave the impression of a much younger woman - even as the conformation of her face told of great wisdom and experience. In both hands, she raised a chalice of wine to the moon.

"Mother," she started, "Samhain marks the death of one year to make way for the birth of the next. Tonight we acknowledge the seasons of life and death, honour those who have passed from this world in the seasons behind us, and hope for better times in the seasons yet to come."

She tipped the chalice, spilling blood-red wine on the ground at her feet.

"Like the blood of the God, Thy consort," the priestess continued, "Spilt to bless the spent land and give promise of new life, we return this wine to You in perfect trust that new life will come to replace the old."

A dark haired man rose from the circle and came to stand at the priestess's side, holding a sword in his hands. He was somewhat younger than she was, just entering his third decade, but already he showed promise of great power and wisdom. His face was solemn, but the lines just beginning to show around his eyes were compassionate.

Wisdom was a necessity to the High Priest of one of Salem's last surviving covens. The priest held the sword aloft, so that the blade caught and reflected the light of the full moon, then plunged it into the earth.

"The scythe that cuts down the stalk also harvests the grain that will seed the next season's crop," his voice, like the priestess's, was clear and powerful, "And so, when You in Your wisdom cut our lives down, You prepare our souls to live again." His words were having a powerful effect on the rest of the group, who struggled to find composure against the weight of threatening tears.

"Mother," the priest continued, a slight change in the tone of his voice betraying his own painful memories, "You who have been known in many places and by many names, may You bless those of Your children returned to You unjustly. I, Solan, Your son and priest.."

".. And I, Selena, Your daughter and priestess," the priestess with the chalice added, then the two continued in perfect unison;

"We two, representatives of the twin pillars of humanity - male and female forces in balance - do declare that we gather on this night in perfect love and perfect trust to honour You. From You all things proceed and unto You all things must return. Lady, we know that You will find the souls of the loved ones we have lost and bless them. May it be!"

"May it be!" chorused the rest of the coven, then many of them broke down into tears as Selena and Solan resumed their places in the circle, each still holding the sword and chalice.

"Hundreds of people," one girl sobbed, "Dead, dead because of the cruelty of the Christian God!"

"No," Selena responded, "The Christian God is but another face of our God - like light refracting through a prism, everyone sees a different part of the spectrum. However we see Him - or the Goddess - we're all seeking the same thing; identification with Spirit, which is the source of us all."

No one argued with her. No one doubted that she was right.

"The hour draws late," Solan said, "Or rather, it draws early; the sun will soon be rising. We should return before we are missed."

Selena nodded, "May the circle be uncast, but never broken. Until we meet again, blessed be."

The coven echoed the last two words, then one by one rose to their feet and departed.

Selena closed her eyes, partly against the tears that threatened to spill, partly so that she wouldn't have to imagine the image of writhing bodies amidst the flames.

"I miss them too, mother," Solan said quietly, brushing her face with his hand, "More than words can express."

"I know," Selena cupped the hand still gently touching her face, then embraced her only living child.

/"Gone, but not forgotten, my daughters,"/ she thought, /"Like the Goddess, whose knowledge shall soon pass into darkness if we don't do something about it. The children of the Goddess remain strong, but who will sing to Her in praise when we're all gone? Unless people can learn to cast aside prejudice and discrimination, the rest is silence!"/