PROLOGUE:

It was cool and misty on the night before the last day in May and Father Liam was awake in his study, peering over an ancient text. Tomorrow night, the villagers would be celebrating the final day in May. For some, it was Walapurgisnacht, for others it was Beltane, for still others it was simply the night before May Day. For Father Liam, the lean, red-haired village priest, it was the night he would celebrate with the villagers, then go quietly home and read his favorite parts of the Scripture. After a few more moments of trying to translate Hebrew (which was very different from Latin), he gave up, and stretched his back. Out of his window shone the nearly full moon. The full moon tomorrow was propitious, for it meant a long, fertile summer growing season. At least, it did to the villagers. But Father Liam wasn't all too sure it didn't mean that for everyone, nor was he positive that what he believed was absolute truth. All he knew was that it worked for him, and that was all he needed. So, he directed his tired eyes toward the soothing mists on the fields and closed them, just for a little while.

He awoke with a start to a blood-curdling scream. He jerked himself stiffly out of the chair and out into the sanctuary. He threw open the main doors and there, on the step, was a pregnant woman deep in the throws of birth. It was a local villager girl who had been disowned by her very pious parents for getting with child out of wedlock. Father Liam had no idea where she had gone, he'd assumed to a relative or friend, but from the looks of her, she had been living in the wood. Now, Father Liam was not a superstitious man, but when he'd first come to the village, he'd felt something. Something that made him think there was more to that wood than just trees.

His wife Gwyneth came up behind him and touched his shoulder. He quickly moved out of the way so she could get a good look at the girl.

"It's too late to send for the midwife," Gwyneth said softly, for the only trained midwife in the area was the next village over. "I'll have to do it alone. Quickly, get her inside."

"No!" gasped the girl, grabbing Father Liam's arm. "The wood... the shrine" she whispered, then slumped in fatigue, the contractions momentarily over. Without question, Father Liam picked her up and headed down the well-beaten path toward the road, which ran through the wood.

"Liam!" Gwyneth called softly, "that way!" and pointed toward a faint track through a meadow. "I will bring Thane." Liam merely nodded and headed toward the meadow. Once he reached the forest, a path seemed to open up before him. Whenever he tried to stray, the very trees and bushes themselves seemed to resist him. Soon, the girl had another set of contractions, and they had to pause.

"Please," she whispered again. "The shrine..." Father Liam picked her up again, and she gritted her teeth, fighting the pain, before she sank again into the realm of dreamless sleep. He was going as fast as he could without jarring her awake. Soon the bushes became fewer and farther in between until they gave way entirely to huge, towering trees. The silence was deafening.

Suddenly, a moonlit glade loomed up in the darkness and at its center, Liam saw a tiny stone shrine where a statue of the Virgin Mary stood, enshrouded in mist and light. He lay the girl down softly on the grassy ground, but she whispered, "No, the step," so he obligingly picked her up again and laid her gently on the worn stone step of the shrine. Just moments later, after trying to make the girl comfortable, Liam heard the soundless step of his wife. She hadn't been running, but she had gotten there quickly just the same. Gwyneth's black hair shone in the moonlight and she had their son Thane on one hip, a basket full of towels and soap and water and other things needed for a birthing. At this point, Liam knew there was nothing more to do, but help his wife lay out her materials, put three-year old Thane to sleep in the basket, and then pray.

He knelt in front of the statue, whispering whatever prayers of protection and safety he could think of in Latin. His head had been bowed, but something made him look up at the statue. She was posed looking down with one hand out, as if to pat the head of something. Her smile was benign, Her milk-white face peaceful, but then he noticed Her clothing. She was dressed in traditional blue, but the cloth seemed to cling to Her body, showing the curves instead of piously hiding them. Her veil looked as if the wind was blowing it back, revealing long lengths of unbound chestnut hair. Then he noticed that Her right hand held something - a black bowl. He had forgotten entirely his prayers and instead inched in for a closer look. The bowl held water, which reflected the moon. He gazed into it, admiring the beauty, when the water suddenly rippled, and he Saw.

He was standing outside the rectory and a tall man dressed in a severe black cassock with the gold chains of office stood on his doorstep. He pointed toward the street, and a very sad Gwyneth led Thane out of the house, meager belongings strapped to her back, while all of the villagers crowded and jeered.

Ripple.

It was midwinter and an impoverished Gwyneth and gaunt, young Thane were begging at a doorstep. It was Christmas. Inside was bright and warm with plenty of food, but the woman at the door was pinched and mean. She mouthed one word, "Whore!" then slammed the door in Gwyneth's face.

The Sight faded and when Liam once again looked at the moon in the bowl of water, there were tears in his eyes. He was bewildered and more than a little frightened. He looked in awe at the statue, then noticed with a start that one of Her green eyes, which had previously been open, was closed, as if She were winking. The other was wise and sad, looking beyond him.

He turned in the direction of Her gaze, just in time to see his lovely wife hold up a silent, bloody baby and see the girl flop back in exhaustion.

"It's a girl," Gwyneth said quietly as she cleaned off the babe and tied off the umbilical cord. Then she said to Liam, "I didn't think she was alive at first because she didn't make a sound, but then she coughed once and started to breathe just as healthy as anything." The girl's face broke into a beatific smile and when Gwyneth had swaddled the baby and put it in its mother's arms, the mother started to whisper some foreign language into its ear, then began to hum a melancholy melody.

Gwyneth took Liam aside, "She's bleeding badly," she whispered to her husband. "If it doesn't stop soon, I don't know if I can save her." Liam looked at his wife and was about to say something, when the girl's melody was interrupted by the grunts of the afterbirth. Gwyneth rushed back over to help and Liam was left looking at the Virgin Mary, who was most certainly not all that she seemed.

Once the afterbirth had been taken care of, Gwyneth tired to staunch the bleeding, and Liam tried to make the girl as comfortable as possible, but it was clear she was bleeding to death. Liam tried to pray once more, but he couldn't concentrate. Then, he noticed that the moon was shining full on the girl's face.

"My Lord," she whispered, staring off into space. "You've come!" Then, with a smile on her face, her spirit passed from the world of the living. The baby girl then made her first sound in the form of an unearthly shriek that surely followed her mother to the Other Side.

Gwyneth tried to comfort the poor babe, but nothing would console her, until little Thane, surely unknowing of what he did, toddled up and gave her a kiss on the cheek. Her screams faded to whimpers, and finally, she slept.

As Liam finished the girl's Last Rites, Gwyneth rocked the babe slowly, comforting both the child and herself. Then, she deposited the babe into Liam's arms whilst she repacked her things.

"They won't let her be buried on Church ground," she said softly as she finished.

"I know," he replied just as quietly. Thane was yawning mightily. "I'll bury her here. She seemed to love it, and no one needs to know." Gwyneth merely nodded, took back the sleeping babe, and slung the basket over her arm, nodding for Liam to take Thane. Before they left, however, he made sure the girl's body was safely beneath the shrine in hopes that the animals would not desecrate it. Then, he scooped up Thane, and they walked back to town.

Once Thane was safe in bed and Gwyneth rocking the small babe, Liam took a shovel and walked back to the shrine.

This time, the woods seemed as strange as he had imagined, for they were silent except for the wind rustling in the trees. The full moon illuminated most of the path, but off to the sides, the shadows grew deep. He was not a superstitious man, but the silence made him walk faster, hymns streaming through his mind and whispered under his breath. Finally, he made it to the clearing and his relief was so great that he did not at first realize what was wrong. Then, he noticed - the girl's body was gone. He walked slowly up to the shrine where the Virgin Mary still stood. There was no trace of blood on the step, and when Liam looked up, he saw that the statue's eyes were closed. He was even more astonished when he saw small droplets of water slide down the cold stone cheek. But She was smiling still.

Liam, feeling something behind him, slowly turned. There, bathed in moonlight, he saw the pregnant girl, now young and fresh and dressed all in white, her light brown hair waving behind her in a non-existent breeze. Beside her stood a man dressed all in green with a red cap, a longbow on his back. They both seemed to attract the light, and with a small wave from the girl and a smile from each, they turned and faded into the surrounding wood. Liam turned again, half-fearful that he would see some other strange marvel with the statue in the shrine. But the Virgin had returned to the position he had first seen her in.

Then everything went dark. Liam's head snapped up, but it was just a cloud covering the moon, a huge bulwark of clouds behind it. He knew that if he did not get home soon, the heavens would let down a torrent. He dismissed the night's oddities as hallucinations from stress and lack of sleep and headed quickly home.

The heavens opened just as he reached the fields and he made a run for the house, shovel half-forgotten in his hand. He was completely drenched when he reached the house and as he entered he thought he saw dark figures leap down from the trees, but dismissed it as another hallucination.

Gwyneth was sitting in the kitchen, wrapped in a shawl with a hot cup of tea. She rose when he came in, looking slightly puzzled. "Did you leave her unburied?" she queried.

"No," Liam replied. "There was nothing to bury."

Gwyneth's face fell, "Then the animals took her."

"No," Liam said again, and at her look, told her the whole story of the night.

Gwyneth, far from being surprised, gave him a wise look and said, "You have met the Greenman and the Goddess." Liam looked at her in half shock, for she had uttered what accounted for blasphemy in the Church. When she continued, his shock turned to incredulity. "I am not who you think I am, Liam," she sighed. "When I was younger, I participated in the Beltane rites, danced the fires for Walapurgisnacht, and was a follower of the Old Religion." She smiled slightly at the look on his face, "Oh, do not act so surprised, did you honestly think after our wedding night that I was some untried virgin?" He had the grace to look chagrined, and she continued, "I did not give up my heritage or my religion, Liam. I loved you, not what you taught. Besides, Christianity offered the same elements as my religion, but in a different way. The "Virgin Mary" at the shrine should've taught you much, as She has taught me about the melding of our two faiths. She has shown me that I must either meld, or be destroyed. And She has shown you what our future will be if we stay here."

Liam recalled with displeasure the things he had Seen in the Virgin's black bowl. "Surely you cannot think that this will come to pass!" Gwyneth wisely said nothing and he continued," Besides, we cannot just leave!" he sputtered. "It is unheard of! What will my superiors think? Or the villagers?"

"What will you think when they have banned marriage for priests?" she retorted gently, then laughed grimly at his surprise. "Yes, husband, you did See true, and it is coming. For now celibacy is voluntary, but I have Seen, as have you, what will soon come to pass. You have a choice, my love: either remain and lose Thane and I, or retreat to the wood and care for the shrine in peace. It is your decision." Then, she stood up and herded him toward the bedroom, "Come to bed, you have had a long and trying night, and tomorrow is Beltane." She smiled and closed the door to begin her attempt to melt away his fears and doubts. He obligingly submitted to her ministrations.