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Kiki just wanted a glimpse.

Everyone, from the tiniest child to the oldest graybeard, knew that only the elder priestess was allowed to go to the Grove, where SHE lived, without invitation. It wasn't that the Goddess was hostile, on the contrary, the Goddess protected the Tribes, provided food and clothing for them, healed their sickness and injury, and all She asked of the People was that they obeyed the Laws.

1. Respect the Green, Growing things of the world. Take only what you need. Waste nothing.
2. Fight to survive, but never raise a fist against another in anger.
3. All are equal.
4. The Grove is sacred. Never go unless invited.

Most of the People had never seen the Goddess, or even glimpsed her from afar. There were certain mouthy members of the Tribe who claimed she didn't exist--that the Priestesses made her up to retain control over the Tribes. Kiki didn't believe that. She wanted to BE a Priestess someday, and in a few years, when she'd seen fourteen winters, she'd be eligible to take the trials and then journey to the Grove, to meet the Goddess, and then maybe she could wear the beautiful green sarongs and the crowns of flowers. A Priestess made everyone that saw her happy, because her words could reach the Goddess, and the Goddess made the world livable, made the horrors of the wastes beyond the Valley of the Two Cities by the Sea seem like a distant, almost laughable thing.

Kiki wanted to see her. She couldn't wait. The elders told stories about the Goddess leaving the Grove, disguising herself and walking among the People. It was one of the reasons they taught everyone to treat a stranger like family. It was known, too, she sometimes left the Grove when some sort of horror from the wastes tried to make it past the forest wall, and she could do with a wave of her hands what an army of Hunters couldn't.

She also left the grove every year, at this time of year, the height of midwinter, right around the solstice, even though the snow sometimes piled man high in the low valley near the field of stones. Kiki had visited the field before, in high summer, when beautiful green grass and lush wildflowers blanketed everything and the whole field smelled of honeysuckle, roses, the peculiar red and black diamond lilies, and purple cat orchids. According to the elders, the old, faded stones were places where The People That Came Before buried their dead, in boxes, rather than returning them to the Earth, as the Goddess had taught Kiki's people.

That night, the traditional night the Goddess made her walk, Kiki snuck out after her family's fires had died down, her brother Rathan insisting that he follow her, for safety, and so the little boy brought along his little spear, rubbing his eyes and cranky, and the two of them had crept through the darkness to the field of stones. Kiki needed to keep Rathan quiet, because if her plan was discovered her parents would probably have grounded her for the rest of her life. What she planned was dangerous, and maybe even borderline sacrilegious, but she had to see Her.

A light dusting of snow had fallen, but the path to the field of stones was relatively clear. She and Rathan arrived as the full moon was rising, casting silver light over the pure, white snow, so she found a good spot to hide in the leafless bushes and she and Rathan wrapped up in a bear fur and settled down to wait.

Rathan was dozing, and her mind was wandering, her breath steaming in the air, when she noticed the first signs that the Goddess was approaching. The bushes around her began to wave in an unseen and unfelt breeze, new leaves springing to life on the branch. Kiki's breath caught, and she sat up, a shiver that had nothing to do with the cold running through her.

A path was forming. New, fresh, green grass was growing and literally shoveling snow out of the way. It formed a carpet of mossy green that led up to the old willow tree on the hill, which was suddenly waving in that same unfelt breeze, growing bright with new life. Kiki could see two stones under the tree, and she could see vines forming, circling around them.

She came then, strolling lazily, head held high, and She was the most beautiful thing Kiki had ever seen. She heard the elders tell stories of those who had accidentally seen the Goddess. Hunters, whose curiosity had gotten the better of them, snuck into the Grove, seen the Goddess, and fallen so in love with Her they stopped eating, stopped sleeping, and did nothing but waste away. She could believe it.

She was pale, Her skin only a shade lighter than the snow, but shot through with lines of green. She wore only a network of vines and leaves, flowers and thorns, and Her body was slender and strong, lithely muscled, but with feminine curves. Her hair was long--thick red curls that tumbled in a mass down Her back well past Her bottom. A large, purplish blossom above Her right ear drew Kiki's eyes--it was nothing like anything that grew in the Valley.

She was beautiful, but not unkind. For an insane moment Kiki wanted to come out of the bushes and talk to Her, talk to the Goddess. Before she could gather the courage, the Goddess was past her. She walked to the tree, and She knelt near the two stones. Kiki slowly crept close, close enough that she could hear some of what the Goddess was saying.

Many of the words She said made no sense to Kiki, they were the language of the People That Came Before, but she could hear the pain in Her voice. When she stood to go, She turned, and Kiki froze when the Goddess looked right at her, beautiful and sad, and Kiki felt tears prick her own eyes, because the Goddess's perfect face was wet with tears, and Her green eyes were full of them. She smiled at Kiki, and then She turned and left, slowly strolling back the way She came.

Once She was gone, Kiki staggered out onto the path and crept up to the stones. The little clearing under the tree felt sacred to her, the entire circle now clear and festooned with those same two flowers, the diamond lily and the cat orchid. According to the elders, the rocks in the Field of Stones had once been markers, markers with the names of the dead their loved ones had buried there, but those names had long since faded during the hundreds and thousands of winters that had passed. Now, the vines had formed over those two stones. Spelling out names. The marks meant little to Kiki, but they said,


Kiki knew they had to be names, and she ran her fingertips over the vines, the stones, and remembered what the Goddess had been saying, even if it meant little to her.

She'd brushed the stone on the left with slender fingers and then kissed it. Then She'd gripped the stone on the right with Her hand.

"Merry Christmas, girls. There's no place like home."