‘ Tonight there will be no music, songs or finely wrought prose. Tonight our Amun will express his admiration for our Amunet by the way in which he caresses her body.’
John Stanley-19th May 1355.
It was growing dark. What had seemed an easy stroll earlier in the evening now challenged them. John tripped more than once, and Piers clunked his toe.
‘Shouldn’t we go back and get a flare, John?’
‘No, we will be alright. Just follow me. I am used to the dark. Come on, we’ll miss the sunset… if we haven’t already.’
‘What’s that?’ Piers asked at hooting from the trees.
‘Doesn’t sound like the owls at home.’ Piers jumped and twisted as there was a flutter of wings. ‘And what on earth is that?’
‘A bat. No, lots of bats.’
‘I’m not sure I like this.’
‘Oh, look,’ John pointed. ‘There’s a witch.’
‘Stop it, John.’
By the time they reached the crest, the sun had sunk below the horizon. ‘I knew we’d miss it.’ John clacked his tongue in frustration.
There was some compensation. In the last glow of the sunset, the Garonne river became a golden snake, stretching all the way to the horizon.
They admired the view for quite some time and had just decided to return to the village when they became aware of the approach of a small procession. Two dozen or more people in dark cloaks and cowls carrying flares.
‘Now we really do have witches,’ John whispered.
‘Do you think so?’
‘No, not really, but perhaps we shouldn’t wait to find out. Oh, yuk.’
‘A bat just missed me by an inch. Let’s get out of here.’
John backed away, but Piers grabbed his arm. ‘Wait.’
John reluctantly dropped to lie alongside Piers, prostrate upon the dew-dampened grass.
The procession approached a small clearing surrounded by trees, just below where John and Piers were hiding. They had not noticed it previously, but as the group entered the clearing their flares highlighted a rectangular stone dais. Individuals placed their torches into holders mounted on wooden stakes forming a half-circle in front of the dais. They then busied themselves lighting dozens, possibly hundreds, of candles around the dais before gathering in rows outside of the circle of flares.
‘They’ve obviously done this before. Look how precise they are,’ said Piers.
Another two figures entered the arena. These new arrivals walked to a central position inside the flares. The taller figure reached forward and removed the cowl from the other, revealing a stunning woman, with a finely chiselled face and an elaborate coiffure. Long curls, protruding at all angles from her head, bounced in continual motion as she moved — creating the illusion of snakes instead of hair.
‘Medusa!’ muttered Piers.
In turn, the woman reached forward and removed her partner’s cowl.
John sucked in his breath. ‘That’s the Earl!’ He struggled to keep his voice to a whisper. ‘He’s wearing ram’s horns on his head.’ He shook his head and looked at Piers in confusion; his heart beat fast now. ‘We shouldn’t be here.’
‘Shush,’ Piers reprimanded. ‘We can’t leave. They’ll see us.’
‘How are those horns attached?’ John said, his eyes straining to see clearly. ‘It’s like they’ve actually grown from his temples.’
The Earl and the woman faced each other. Even at a distance, John saw genuine affection in their eyes.
Yet another figure, without a cowl this time, emerged from the gloom — an elderly woman.
She held her hands to the sky and spoke, her voice echoing in the night air. ‘Welcome to our celebration of the new moon.’
Murmurings of enthusiasm rose from the crowd.
‘We do not often get the chance to assemble here under the stars and to conduct our relationships in a rather different fashion. It is relatively easy to celebrate the gift of life represented by the sun. The sun is apparent in its full glory every day. Nevertheless, the Festival of the Sun, from time immemorial, is held on the summer solstice. Celebration of the gift of the moon, which symbolises our spiritual being, is more difficult, as it waxes and wanes. Again, from time immemorial the moon festival is held on the last new moon before the summer solstice. And so… we gather here tonight.’
‘Ow!’ John bent and rubbed his shin.
‘Shhh.’ Piers put his index finger to his lips. ‘What is it?’
‘I think something bit me,’ John whispered, rubbing vigorously at the spot.
The lady walked to the dais. She turned and spoke, addressing the Earl and his partner. ‘Approach, my children, Amun and Amunet, father and mother, the first origin of the gods. For all of us whose spirit is trapped in this material world, show us how we can experience the joy which will be attained by union with you.’
The Earl and his partner turned and moved towards the dais. At the same time, those outside of the circle of flares moved forward towards the dais, surrounding the couple.
The elderly woman’s voice cut through the silence, which had only been broken by the hooting of an owl. She bowed deeply towards the couple. ‘Tonight there will be no music, songs or finely wrought prose. Tonight our Amun will express his admiration for our Amunet by the way in which he caresses her body.’
They ascended the dais and the elderly lady kissed them both. After a moment’s silence, the lady left.
A chant commenced. ‘Her body is beautiful, respect it; his body is powerful, control it!’
Amun stretched out a hand. John could see glistening in the light from the torches a gold band on his wrist. It was difficult at this distance to see the detail but it seemed to be carved or even woven into an intricate pattern. The Earl pulled at the neck of Amunet’s robe and it fell to the ground.
She smiled, thrust a foot forward and placed her weight on the ball of that foot, taking care at the same time to lift her heel. By this action, she defined the muscles in the whole of her body.
‘What a superb body,’ Piers said.
John could only nod.
Suddenly, for John, influenced by the impressive array of candles, torches and gowned mysterious figures, the Earl became Amun and his partner became Amunet.
Amunet shook her head, emphasising the illusion that her head was covered with writhing snakes.
‘Is that a serpent, on her body?’ Piers asked.
A streak of turquoise edged with silver ran from her left cheek, dropped across her neck and over her right breast. The streak then wound around her waist and across her back before crossing her stomach and terminating on her right thigh. As she moved a snake did indeed seem to writhe over her body.
The effect was further enhanced by silken scarves, in every shade of blue, some of which reached the ground and others which stopped at her waist. The scarves hung from a golden necklet which resembled widely spaced chain mail. The necklet reached as far as her shoulders but stopped short of covering her breasts. The scarves were not tied below the necklet. They were so delicate that they lifted in the lightest breeze. They concealed nothing, but again simulated snakes writhing around her body. She pushed her leg forward and threw her head back, mouth open as if waiting for nectar to fall from the sky.
Amun made no attempt to touch her. He was still covered by his own cloak, which only served to emphasise her nakedness. He bowed low before her, kneeled and slowly but deliberately kissed her extended foot. He slowly moved the contact of his lips to every point of her foot and up to her ankle. As he did this he supported her ankle with his hand and then allowed himself to massage the back of her calf. He eventually reached his hand as far as the back of her knee. There he stopped and glanced briefly upwards to gauge her reaction.
Amunet pushed his head downwards, but then, slowly but deliberately, removed all the longer scarves suspended from her necklet. Amun made no attempt to look at her until she grasped his hair and pulled his head upwards. The lower part of her body was now completely exposed. Amun slowly raised his head until he was kissing her knees. Amunet quivered with pleasure. She stretched out her hands and lifted Amun to his feet. He caressed her arms, running his hand from her shoulder to the tips of her fingers over and over again.
There was an audible sigh from the audience and even a ripple of applause as Amunet again shuddered with pleasure and, reaching forward, undid Amun’s cloak.
His body had also received the benefit of cosmetic art. Every muscle had been emphasised with the skilful use of applied colour, making him look extremely powerful. He stood feet apart, still looking intently into her eyes.
Amunet then commenced the removal of the smaller scarves, allowing them to drift gently to the ground. She was now completely naked apart from the necklet. She writhed slowly on the spot, making sure that Amun’s eyes were fixed on her. The snake on her body seemed to take on a life of its own.
Amun made a great show of expressing his admiration for her body. He reached out as if to touch her several times, withdrawing his hand at the critical instant. Eventually, Amunet herself moved forward, pressing herself against him and wrapping her arms around him.
Amun then caressed her back, concentrating initially just below her neck, but then running the tips of his fingers up and down the valley of her back. He moved his hand lower to massage the back of her thighs. At the same time, he lifted his other hand into the base of her neck and up into her hair. He massaged her scalp whilst drawing her still closer to him. She did not resist. He continued the massage for more than a minute and then grasped a fistful of hair. He tugged gently on her hair, but sufficiently strongly to jerk her head backwards. He then repeated this action several times, running his fingers gently through her hair, then tugging with increasing vigour.
Amunet could no longer control herself. Again there was a muted burst of applause from the audience as she reached down, firmly grasped his other hand, and placed it on her breast.
Suddenly her legs shuddered and as a couple, Amun and Amunet sank decorously until they lay entwined on the dais. Amun once again caressed her legs. The snake analogy was complete. It became impossible to distinguish one body from another. It was if a nest of snakes moved in unison.
John returned to reality. This was the Earl he was watching. Piers grabbed John’s arm and signalled him to withdraw.
Taking care not to make any noise, the two squires slowly retreated and then, in the end, slid down the hill and ran the remaining distance to the village. As they stopped, puffing for breath at the entrance to the village, Piers broke the silence.
‘Well, it is obviously shared knowledge and so we can discuss it. Strange, but once I saw it was the Earl I felt like a voyeur, watching something private.’
He paused for breath. John broke in. ‘But what on earth is he up to? Rams Horns? Amun? Amunet? A head full of snakes?’
Piers looked at John firmly in the eyes. ‘You obviously know something about the ancient gods; in your homily at Aiguillon you mentioned Aphrodite?
‘No, I know nothing, that was only based on a chance comment from Lord James about who might be responsible for the rivers rising.’
‘Very well, you know nothing. Shall I tell you?’