It was autumn, and the sap had risen.
Mistress Jewell walked amongst her coven, saying little. Master Del was leading the procession, capably guiding the apprentices along the path to the orchard. Jewell let him take charge in this, watching instead the world in which they moved, the greater sphere of coven and nature together, magics halfway between intertwining and pulling away. This was hers to oversee.
The night was not quiet in the manner that nonetheless felt quiet, filled with a sussuration of leaves and insect songs, the intermittent slithering of a snail beast. Once, a flock of barnacle geese pushed upwards from distant water into a honking vee that passed overhead and then was gone.
It was a fine night for a harvest.
They smelled the orchard before it came into view – the sticky-acrid waft that spoke of burgeoning fruit. A few of the newest and most eager apprentices skipped ahead; Del allowed it, though he kept a weather eye on them. Good, Jewell thought. Not too harsh.
Her own first harvest still felt fresh in her memory, tinged only a little with sepia. Mistress Margarethe had been Priestess then, wise and kind and seemingly all-knowing. It was what Jewell herself had aspired to be.
Under the fruit trees, the smell was even stronger, and Jewell felt the beginnings of a buzz of arousal. The fruits had bloomed, thick and heavy, drooping the boughs with their weight. Nectar gathered at the bulbous tips of each fruit, forming thick threads which caught at each other and intertwined. In the moonlight, the droplets were dark, damp like fresh pearls.
Jewell loved the harvest, not just for the power it brought the coven but for what it gave her, for the sensuousness and the pleasure. All of them here felt more than the magic – those who could not participate held watch at home – and she could see that some had sensed it already.
A handful of apprentices had picked the largest fruits already and were playing at swordfighting with them, their giggles ringing out through the silver-lit leaves. Jewell watched them with a faint uptick in the corners of her mouth. She could see hints of that special excitement within them, even though it came out in giddiness. Let them have their fun.
The more studious apprentices had already begun gathering into baskets, examining fruits for heft and quality of nectar; they each had a focused interest, a foreknowledge of what they were to expect. It made them more careful, although no less attuned to the atmosphere of burgeoning desire.
It was only when the harvest was nearly finished that Jewell redirected the silliest into helping pick. Mostly they flushed and went to it with a will, but there were a few who were more stubborn and required the application of a stern look.
Still, soon enough it was done, and they walked back to the conjuratory while the moon was still high. Each carried a basket, even Jewell herself. The group hadn't gone far when her fruits began to squirm a little, so she hooked it over her shoulder with a shrug, leaving just enough space to reach down and soothe their fevered eagerness into a more subtle anticipation. They were warm despite the chill of the night, as they always were, and she kept her hand there, feeling the slow thrum of their growth against her palm. Others watched her and did the same.
By the time they reached the conjuratory, Jewell was beginning to feel her own heart beat faster. She knew what was to come, the filling up of magic and body, the taking and being taken. The fruit and its acrid sweetness, all contradiction just as a witch was meant to embrace. She wanted to taste, to touch – and despite her years it took discipline to keep from pulling a fruit from the basket before they had even passed out of the woods. The basket was writhing again, and this time she didn't stop it.
Inside, the ritual room was cool and dimly lit, its torches flickering to create an air of desire. There was no reason to delay and so each apprentice chose a fruit – Del moved among them, redistributing a few according to size and skill – and then Jewell led them in the long-familiar dance.
Widdershins first, in and out, using their fruit to lay down the weave in arcs, lacy circles of white. Then turning deasil, the weft, sharp slashed lines that cut across the curves. Dance and dance and dance, contradiction, to choose, not to choose, each apprentice or mistress or master of their own, forming themselves. Skin hot and prickled with sweat, bodies trembling with desire.
Then the dance was done and wordlessly they held the fruits between their thighs, stripped off their shifts, tossing them away into dark corners. Then fruits to bodies, tracing over breasts, nipples, the line of the neck to the mouth, down the stomach to press against cocks and clits, to caress or to slip inside where bodies opened, to demand, to coax.
Some lay down, some stood. Some spoke in the language of ancient gardeners – ab intra, ab extra or capax infiniti or mors tua, vita mea – while others gave only shuddering breaths. Some joined in groups of two or three, kissing, sharing fruits and rocking together, filled up so tightly that they could only moan. The scent of nectar misted the room and Jewell breathed it in from her place at the north wall. The spell was forming itself in her mouth, not quite ready.
Liquid dripped from her cunt, her own and the nectar of the fruit blended into something new. She gathered it on her palms and clenched the fruit inside her to hold it there, slipped her hands up to her breasts and drew her nipples to peaks that made her give a deep, shivering gasp. Then up again to her mouth, licking at her palms and her fingers, tasting herself, tasting it, tasting the alchemy that she and it made together. She pressed her thighs more tightly together and rolled over, using the ground to press the fruit deeper and deeper into herself, twisted until she could shiver it over her clit with each movement of her hips. The stone floor of the ritual chamber was warm from so many ecstatic bodies.
Take, she thought, take and give and share, yes— The fruit had grown huge with its excitement, almost too much but not quite, and so had the spell, her heart and her breath stuttering in her chest. Then there— there—
"Vitae ad portas," she said, gasping, life is at the gates, "vitae, vitae," life, life, and then she was raising her voice amongst the others, all sharing the chant, "vitae, vitae ad portas," and the spell burst from within them, crashing free and upwards like a plume of fire and then scattering down in an invisible dome over the conjuratory.
Jewell's body throbbed as her release passed. She breathed for long, aching moments before rolling over and pulling the fruit from inside herself. She wondered – as she always did – how it must experience these rituals, if indeed it experienced them at all. Perhaps it was only a tool to facilitate the ritual, a conduit to release the magic. Perhaps it was only fruit.
Somehow she thought not. The orchard received magic's protection just as the conjuratory did, a shared making. The trees must feel that, on a collective level, but she hoped that each fruit knew it, too.
She gave her fruit an affectionate caress, laying it carefully aside even as it softened and began to shrink. Mistress Emer and Master Une began to come around with wet cloths, warm pieces of bread for those who were pale. Jewell accepted her cloth with a smile and stood.
"A well-worked spell," she told the group, noting expressions: pride, satisfaction, relief. "Well-worked indeed. Rest now, the remainder of the night and the day; you have certainly earned it." Now most of the expressions had become relief. "And of course," Jewell added, smiling gently, "the following day we shall begin learning the winter ritual."