Concentrate. Be still.
Camilla shifted on her feet. She tried to swallow, but her mouth was too dry.
Leaving. She was leaving the temple. Leaving Roma. Flying off through the sky into the out there ….
Biting the inside of her lip, she focused on the Maxima, who stood on the far side of the hearth directly across from her. The other ten Vestals — young Aemilia and Portia and Ruolan and ancient Nashira, crooked with age, and all the rest — circled evenly around them.
Beyond the pillars of the Aedes Vestae, dozens and dozens of lictores stood at attention, facing outward in a protective barrier. Their titan-metal armor and white bodysuits and plumed helmets gleamed in the moonlight.
The Vestals’ chant was low and quiet, at first.
Vesta, fire at the heart of creation
Vesta, flame of the cosmos
Over and over again, rising slowly.
Then Maxima Lucia spoke. Hands laid flat over the flames, she called out, “Vesta, eldest child of heaven. Vesta, hearth of blessings. Vesta, we are one with your flame and carry it within our hearts.”
The fire twisted, tips reaching towards the dome.
The Vestals’ chant rose higher and louder as they fell deeper into trance.
Camilla’s mouth was still dry. She tried to lick her lips and failed. Her voice cracked as she laid her hands flat over the fire, mirroring the Maxima’s position, and continued the invocation. “Vesta, first and last in all things. Vesta, beloved virgin. Vesta, I am one with your flame and I carry it within my heart.”
Behind her veil, the Maxima’s eyes widened.
The Vestals’ chant reached its crescendo.
Camilla plunged her hands into the fire.
For a brief, agonizing moment, she thought that her doubt and fear had driven the Goddess away. There was heat and a flash of pain and then —
— and then warmth and acceptance and love and kindness and safety.
Safe. She was safe here, in this light, in this fire, in this flame that was a part of herself.
Smiling, tears stinging her eyes, Camilla lifted her cupped hands from the hearth. She lifted them high, the fire trembling and dancing around her fingers. And then she brought them close, closer, pressed them to her chest.
The fire filled her, spread through her whole body, and then settled quietly, a gentle heat in the center of her chest, right where her heart beat.
There was a collective breath, an inhalation and an exhalation and a shuffling as the Vestals emerged from their chant-induced trance. Veils rippled.
From across the hearth, the Maxima smiled at her, blue eyes gleaming, and pressed a hand to her breast.
[End Part Three. Continue to Part Four]
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published works can be found there.]