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A merry band of far-away strangers

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Bacchus danced over the threshold of the forest. He bowed to the oak on one side of the faint path, the yew on the other, then straightened and walked steadily. Behind him, Silenus laughed once and then even he and his donkey quieted. This forest was one of the last places in this world that carried the Deep Magic; it was a solemn occasion to come here. Bacchus could remember the creation of the Deep Magic, he could feel it humming still very gently on his skin, and it made him remember he was as old as Time.

Each maenad bowed to the trees as she crossed, and some reached out to touch a leaf and murmur something under their breath. Merry women all, but they all felt the Deep Magic too, even if they didn't know exactly what it was or what it meant. Bacchus stopped in a shaft of light, halfway down the path. A dark, weathered stone stood at the end, towering over them.

Bacchus bowed his head to the stone, to the words carved into the side too fine to be seen, too deep to be forgotten. The Great Father had inscribed them there when this world was sung, and Bacchus knew them well, as he knew the words in a thousand other worlds too. They reminded him of the first time he'd seen the words shaping themselves in living rock, in the first of all worlds, standing by the Great Father's side. He'd been filled with love for the new world, for all the new worlds, and that love drove him still.

Lirit, the oldest maenad, put her hand on his shoulder and he glanced back to meet the smile in her merry, shrewd eyes. She'd been with him a long time, as these things go, and she knew him as well as any woman could. He reached up and touched her hand in return, acknowledging her support as they prepared to leave for a new world.

"Where will we go next?" she asked.

"Where the Deep Magic wills it," Bacchus replied. "We never know where we'll be needed."

Lirit nodded and closed her eyes. She felt the magic calling them too. He saw her lips move on something that might have been a prayer, or perhaps a blessing.

Glancing past her, he saw the line of maenads stretch back, making a string of wild, joyous women, all of them taking a moment to remember where they came from, and wonder where they were going to. He wanted to kiss each one in turn and feel their bodies press against his, the human warmth of their arms cradling him close. Maenads came and went, human women who joined him for years, decades, centuries, until they found a place to call home, but they were his to love while he had them. Together, they worked the magic of every land they went to.

Silenus completed the line and Bacchus looked forward again, at the stone. He let the Deep Magic fill him, pull at him, tug him like a lover through the dark, through the space. The rushing of the not-air over his skin made him shiver, and behind him he heard Lirit take an unsteady breath and laugh, low and fierce. At last, after either no time at all, or possibly a lifetime, Bacchus stepped out into another world, and he breathed deep of the rich, sun-warm air. Lirit's hand slid over his shoulder, down his back, and she stepped forward and pressed a kiss to the back of his neck. Coming so close after the sensation of the dark, he shuddered under her touch and felt her smile into his neck. He leaned back into her and let her fingers and mouth start the sweet hum of arousal under his skin. He straightened abruptly as Aslan walked up beside him on the grassy plain they'd landed on, and Lirit let her hand fall away from him.

"It's not often our paths cross, brother," Bacchus said. "Well met." He looped his arms around Aslan's neck and kissed him, feeling the rough lick of the lion's tongue over his cheek in turn. They saw each other rarely, but there were sweet moments in their shared memory, and Bacchus would not forget them however far he roamed.

"I asked our Father to bring you here," Aslan replied. Bacchus was intrigued. Aslan rarely concerned himself with wanderers and outsiders like him and his maenads. He was more of a planner and organiser, always concerned with things being right and proper. Bacchus couldn't remember the last time Aslan had been interested in revels, but perhaps he was going to enjoy a romp with his brother this visit. Aslan smiled, and Bacchus knew that his brother had something very particular in mind. He found himself smiling too, filled with anticipation. The Deep Magic would tell him what to do.

"At your service," Bacchus said, bowing. He stood back and watched his madcap girls approach Aslan. It was always the same; there was something about him that made people by turns solemn and glad, and Bacchus knew that Aslan loved the reverence he found. Personally, Bacchus had always been happy for the people seeing him to be mad, half-drunk and lustful. He knew the worth of his epiphanies and ecstasies.

Lirit broke away from the Lion first and slid into place against Bacchus's side. His arm wrapped around her waist and she stroked his chest and belly teasingly. Her eyes were measuring.

"I've met him before," she said. "He's his father's son, isn't he?"

Bacchus laughed, feeling the quiet of the Deep Magic fading from his body, feeling the joy and darkness of revelry fill him instead. He swept Lirit up in his arms and kissed her soundly. She giggled as he swung her round, hair streaming out behind her and hands holding tight to his shoulders, and she kissed him once before she picked up her skirts and lifted her voice in a song made for walking. They would cover the ground without tiredness: one of the gifts of Bacchus and his maenads.

Bacchus raised his staff to his brother and trusted in Lirit's instincts for where to go; he followed her over the grass towards the horizon, to find what they needed to do in Narnia. He knew they would get there.

>>>>

The woods were calm and still in the moonlight, and Lirit stopped on the edge with her walking song fading on her lips. They'd walked all day, dancing and drinking and kissing, with the song smoothing the earth under their feet. It was the first magic she'd learned in Bacchus's service, and still one she loved to use. Walking was delightful when the world slipped by you and you never got tired, and the song itself led them to the place they needed to be. Lifting her arms up to the moonlight, Lirit breathed the night air deeply and saluted the stars above.

She'd been in this world before, in these very woods, even, though she couldn't be sure when. Time passed oddly in the service of Bacchus; it might have been a season, it might have been several lifetimes. She remembered the woods clearly, though. They were wild, bright places then, filled with voices, and she was sure she'd seen a lamp or lantern growing at one point.

She touched the closest tree and frowned at the dead texture under her fingers. She pressed her palm over the bark and stepped closer, leaning her whole body against the trunk and desperately hoping she could find just a spark of life somewhere underneath. She felt fear start to build, terrified that she might not be able to find anything at all buried in there.

"Not here," said Bacchus, touching her shoulder gently. She pulled back and turned to face him. "I know where to go."

He led the way through the woods, and the maenads followed with Silenus bringing up the rear with his donkey. The women clustered together behind Lirit. They could all feel the muffled quiet of the trees and were unsettled by it. She reached out and took the hand of the youngest, who had joined them only a few worlds ago. On the other side of her, the next oldest maenad herded two others together and urged them on. They followed Bacchus faithfully through the silvery night, shivering together in the deathly stillness.

It was close to dawn before they stopped. The clearing was small and filled with grass and the huge stump of an ancient tree, only just visible under the springing green. In the distance, a small light flickered that Lirit was sure wasn't a star. There was no time to think about it, because it seemed they had reached the centre of the deathly silence.

Bacchus closed his eyes after his first sweeping look round the clearing, and Lirit was sure he was seeing it as it had once been. She wished she could see the world as he did, with all those long ages of love and madness. She'd seen hundreds of worlds herself, and perhaps long lifetimes had passed as she tarried in revelry, but she was still a child next to Bacchus and the things he'd seen.

Silenus clumsily slid down from his perch and took a long mouthful of wine. He staggered forward, arm looped around the donkey's neck, and two maenads steadied him. He put the wineskin away and pulled out his flute. Bacchus pulled out his pipes and they began to play. Lirit listened, following the melody that would tell them how to fix the problem. She stamped and clapped to catch the rhythm, followed by her sisters.

Softly at first, she moved around the clearing, letting the music sink into the earth with each footfall. As the intoxication of the music built in her, one of the maenads brought her the wineskin. The wine ran into her mouth, a little trickling down her chin as she swallowed, and she clapped and stamped harder. The blinding ecstasy was building, connecting them all like a net of stars.

Lirit could feel her sisters, Bacchus, Silenus, all of them, connected inside her. She could feel the softest echo of some old music deep in the earth, catching on the threads of the music they were making now. She spun around the clearing, waiting for the deep-set song to grow. The euphoria was growing stronger with each step, and she caught the melody in a sudden burst of inspiration. Lifting her voice, she sang as wild and jubilant as the land itself, hearing the song slowly growing under her feet.

The clearing exploded with noise; the shrill of the pipes and the flute, the sharp percussion of hands and feet, and the exultation of their voices over everything. Dimly, she heard a roar, like the wild crashing of a wave against a rock, and she paused for just a second as it tore through them all, through the earth, through the trees, and the silence of the trees ripped apart.

Around them, spirits sprang from the trees and joined in the dance, adding their own wild voices to the song. Lirit felt like she was being swept away as she stamped and clapped, and it wasn't until she abruptly stopped, feet landing firmly on quite another type of soil, that she realised that she had actually been moving. Before her stood the Lion and two girls, and the trees surged past her to reach Aslan. Silenus put his pipe away and let out a great belch.

"All this music makes a man thirsty," he said, unhooking his wineskin and drinking deeply. Lirit laughed and twirled, calling out to the other maenads, to Bacchus, touching hands with the girls by Aslan, running her hand over the donkey's back. She was filled with love and joy, making wild magic in the deep morning stillness.

They all paused in the first light of the morning, taking deep breaths of the chilly air. The romp quietened, and all around Lirit people stretched out on the smooth grass and spoke quietly or slept. Lirit was not tired, not yet. She looked towards the east as the sky turned lighter and raised her arms to it, singing softly.

Next to her, a voice joined in, deep and certain. Lirit kept her eyes on the horizon and let their voices blend. They sang the sun into the sky together and then Lirit turned her head to see her companion.

"Well sung, maenad," said Aslan.

"I am not without practice," said Lirit. She wondered what the Lion wanted from her. She'd seen him before, of course, here and in other worlds, but he wasn't much interested in the wandering magic of Bacchus. He must have a reason for seeking her out. She couldn't help but love him, but she felt the need to be cautious.

"You have been in the service of Bacchus for a long time," he continued.

"In truth, I have no idea how long," she said.

"This land was made to be wild," he said.

"I can feel it, in the earth and the air and the water," Lirit replied.

"Wild magic is strong in you."

Lirit made no reply. She met his eyes, and found him waiting for her to answer. She felt the last of the sunrise song in her veins and used it to see clearly.

"You would like me to stay here," she said, a note of surprise clear in her voice.

"Indeed, Narnia has need of you," he said.

The temptation to say yes immediately was strong. He looked solemn and noble, like he had asked her only from the greatest care for his country. She felt almost compelled to agree, and only the prick of a thistle into her foot saved her from opening her mouth and asking how best she could help. She looked down to see the sharp spines digging into her, where there had certainly been none before, and Aslan's persuasion was lost.

"I will think on your request," she said, and turned away from him before he could speak again. She picked three prickles from the side of her foot and walked away over the dewy grass. Bacchus waited for her under a tree, pulling her into his arms and kissing her.

"Thistles?" she asked, laughing softly and twining her fingers in her hair. She kissed him back, grateful that he'd given her time to consider her own heart and mind, not be trapped by a promise.

"Effective," he said. "My brother is not always as scrupulous as me. Come, sleep with me, for we have more work once the sun is high."

Lirit laughed and kissed him again, knowing that Bacchus was just as unprincipled as Aslan, when it came to something he thought was needed. She drew him down next to her on the soft grass and listened to his breathing, turning Aslan's request over in her mind until she fell asleep.

>>>>

Bacchus stood back from the fire and drank deeply. The wine was dark and strong, perfect for the gathering night. Around the fire, people were singing and laughing and dancing; humans mixed with talking animals, dwarves, dryads and the occasional solemn centaur. He looked around carefully. He had the feeling there was something more he needed to be doing.

Drinking again, he spotted the young prince Caspian standing awkwardly just on the edge of the firelight with three other young humans. The glow of Aslan was about the boy, but the other three… Bacchus wasn't so sure about. He drifted closer, pausing to kiss a maenad here, a faun taking a break from his flute there, and all around him the party swirled. He was an eye of stillness and clarity, of steady joy in the seething pleasure.

Bacchus slipped into place right behind Caspian and the other humans, none of whom seemed to have noticed him yet. He thought he might be interrupting a fight, odd though it seemed to have dispute during revelry. Still, humans were unusual creatures and Bacchus didn't always understand them, for all that he travelled amongst them and had done for a thousand or more lifetimes.

"My Lord," said one of the humans, "you will be King. Is not your word enough to keep some things as they always have been?"

"My cousin is right," said the second. He glanced over his shoulder as a Talking Boar lumbered past and shuddered with barely concealed disgust. "Some rights, of course, but surely not equals."

The third human remained silent, looking uncomfortable, and Bacchus gazed at him thoughtfully as the first human spoke again, urging Caspian in low tones to remember his true friends, his true human friends, and not be swayed by magic. Bacchus could hear the falseness in their persuasive voices. Caspian had his back to him, so he couldn't be sure what the prince was thinking. He hoped Aslan had chosen correctly; Bacchus had seen royalty fall in other worlds. The third human listened like he found their words painful, like he liked not the crooked path their arguments danced down.

Finally, the third human spoke. The other two glared at him in polite disdain, but Bacchus could see Caspian's body twist slightly to give him all his attention.

"Prince Caspian, you know how I came to be here," he said.

"Yes," said Caspian. "You sailed here."

"We all know the Telmarines are not seafarers, yet there is endless joy to be had in the sea, yes, and fear and danger and boredom and all the other things it means to be alive. I have seen it, with my own eyes. These two have never seen treachery from an animal, or experienced trees trying to take over their land, yet they use these arguments against your judgement." He took a deep breath, looking half defiant, half terrified, to be speaking so freely in front of his future King.

One of the other humans opened his mouth to cut in. Bacchus snapped his fingers and froze both the speakers in place. He wanted to hear what this young man had to say, and wanted Caspian to hear it too. He sang quietly, eyes fixed on the two men, letting their hearts open to each other, the better to hear what they each meant. The noise of the revel around them faded; they might have been alone.

"You're Drinian, aren't you?" asked Caspian. "I remember you from court, when I was young."

"Yes, before my family fell from favour," Drinian agreed.

"Tell me more, of the sea, and the land, and what this land might be like," Caspian said.

Bacchus listened as Drinian told halting stories of the things he'd seen, the things he'd half-dreamed and wished for. His family had fallen on hard times after their disgrace, and Drinian had lived in the Old Narnia, surviving and learning from them. Bacchus watched Caspian as he drank it all in, lips parted and eyes wide. It was like Drinian's short, practical stories were telling the other half of Caspian's vague heroic dreams.

There was a pause and both Caspian and Drinian looked at each other silently, almost shyly. Bacchus knew that look; one of longing, and fear that what was desired was not permitted. This was a revel, though, and Bacchus was the god of epiphanies. He snapped his fingers again and the party returned at full volume. It had shifted, and they were now on the very edge of the festivities. Both looked up in surprise, like they'd forgotten there was a crowd of dancing, singing, laughing people. Bacchus allowed himself a satisfied smile; of course they'd been too wrapped up in one another to notice the noise.

He didn't allow them a chance to drift apart. Stepping forward, he pressed a bottle into Caspian's hand and wrapped his arm around Drinian's shoulders.

"A drink for the prince and his friend," he said. Caspian took a cautious swallow that turned into a longer gulp. His eyes were shining as he lowered it and passed it to Drinian. As Drinian drank, Bacchus wrapped his fingers around Caspian's wrist and pulled him slightly closer. He slid his fingers up his forearm, round his elbow, and then Drinian passed the bottle back and Caspian drank again.

"I've heard about you," said Drinian. Bacchus angled his head to look at him, seeing the same light in his eyes. He curled his hand up, around the back of Drinian's neck.

"What do they say about me?" he asked. This young man really had travelled far and learned much, if he'd heard of Bacchus. He'd not been in this land for many years of men.

"You bring good wine, first, but also insight."

"You've not been talking to centaurs, then," Bacchus said. "They're a bit pompous that way. Think they're a bit above all this epiphany thing."

"Are you bringing us good advice?" Drinian asked, not distracted.

"I'm not an advisor," said Bacchus. He knew exactly what his gifts were, and counselling wasn't one of them. "I'm a drunkard and a fornicator, I sing and dance and drink and fuck, and I only make you see more clearly what you already know."

He turned his head again and Caspian leaned forward and kissed him. It was clumsy and landed off centre, but Bacchus opened his mouth and kissed him back, and felt the wine working in his veins. This was why the boy would be king; he was foolhardy and noble, but not lacking in the courage to try things. Then Caspian broke away, but Bacchus pulled him closer as he turned his head and let Drinian kiss him too. This kiss was different. Drinian kissed like a wily old satyr with an eye for the most practical plan, and Bacchus could have laughed out loud, if he wasn't sandwiched between two beautiful young men, kissing each other half over his shoulder. Aslan wouldn't want to muddy his paws, but this was what Bacchus was made for: waking people to the possibilities of the magic that surrounds them.

He ran his fingers up Caspian's back, sliding away his tunic and getting his hands on beautiful smooth skin. Drinian found the hem of Bacchus's shirt and shoved his own hands up it, running over his belly and chest. Bacchus smiled and ground his hips between them.

Forgetting modesty in a flurry of kisses, they wrestled each other out of their clothes. Bacchus was happy to stand naked in the faint firelight and stroke his cock as Caspian and Drinian pressed together, kissing, naked and too shy to look. He stepped forward and pressed against Caspian's back. As Caspian gasped, Bacchus kissed his neck and ran his hand down between Caspian and Drinian, touching his belly and circling his cock with soft fingers.

Drinian stepped back slightly and stared. Bacchus smiled at his look of awe and lust. He liked this young man; loved his practical common sense and deep earthiness, and this young king was perfectly noble in his ideals. Softly, he sang of love to them, in gasps and groans as all three tumbled to the ground and exchanged kisses and caresses. He didn't sing of forever; they could decide that for themselves, but he sang of shared purpose and clarity of understanding, and he could feel the very Narnian earth underneath them hum along.

The song built as Caspian and Drinian both added their murmurs of lust and want, the things they needed and could offer given in inarticulate little moans as the three men stroked hands over chests and backs and groins. Bacchus ground his cock into Drinian's hand as he bent over Caspian and sucked him slowly, listening to him groan. Then Drinian copied him and Bacchus stroked his own cock again. They worked each other harder and faster, and Bacchus pulled back to let Caspian and Drinian twine together on the grass, dicks rubbing together in their combined grip. Bacchus set a quick pace on his own cock, watching them spill half-formed words into each other's mouths, their come over their hands and their bellies. Then he spent, eyes screwing shut for long moments as he added his come to the mess in front of him.

Caspian and Drinian kissed slow and lazy and Bacchus grinned and handed them a shirt to clean up with. Shaking a leaf, he turned it into a blanket as they curled up together. Caspian drew him down for a kiss that was languid and turning towards sleep. Bacchus responded sweetly, smoothing his hand over Caspian's hair. Curled up behind him, Drinian was even closer to sleep, eyes closed and lips curved slightly.

"Where do you come from?" asked Caspian, obviously trying to fight the sleepiness he felt.

"I always come from far away," said Bacchus. He found his discarded wineskin and drank more. "Each arrival is another destination's departure, but never you mind about my restless feet and my winding path. You sleep, little Prince. You have a land and a lover, and mayhap I'll arrive one day to see you have more still."

Caspian let his eyes sink closed and Bacchus drank again. The revel was winding down, slowing to the sleepy wild of the deep night, and the sky above was beautiful. Bacchus saluted the sky with his wine and let the night air cool the last of the lust in his blood.

He sang softly as he found his clothes and piled up the rest next to the sleeping lovers. He sang of a peaceful morning, one that comes from having found something one needs. Drinian hummed something that might have been a harmony in his sleep and Bacchus smiled one last time before turning away to find his maenads and drunk old Silenus and the donkey, and make their way to another arrival.

>>>>

Lirit waited beside Silenus. It wasn't often that he was first to leave a party, but he'd merely shaken his head and fallen off his donkey when Lirit asked him why. She bundled him back on briskly, laughing as he huffed and puffed and scrambled while his donkey waited patiently, shaking its head slightly as if in disapproval.

The other maenads approached in a group. As they neared, they parted, and two walked ahead to meet her. She stepped forward, leaving Silenus to his wine bottle. One of the approaching women was Idonn, a maenad Lirit knew well, but she didn't recognise the other. They stopped in front of her and the others formed a circle around them.

"Lirit, eldest of the maenads," said Idonn, "I have felt the call to stay in this land."

Lirit bowed her head and let an unfamiliar solemnity wash over her as the others gathered round. She pushed aside the thought that perhaps Aslan had tried his tricks on another and she had failed in her duty to them. She would not think of that yet. To farewell a sister was an important occasion. She looked inquiringly at the other woman.

"I would have my last act in the service of Bacchus be to sponsor a new sister," Idonn said. She tugged her forward gently and Lirit looked at her keenly. It took her a long moment to recognise her; with her hair down and the loss of the most restrictive of her clothes, she was totally different from the tired and harried school teacher of the day before.

"Be welcome, child," Lirit said to her. Turning to Idonn, she held out her hand. "Let us first confirm your new sister, before we turn to your farewell. I am delighted to receive your sponsorship of this woman. Speak for her."

"Her name is Claire," said Idonn. "She wishes to travel, to sing, to dance, and to bring love and light wherever her feet take her."

Lirit asked the traditional questions of both maenad and woman, listening closely to the answers, letting the other maenads start the slow dance and chant around them that would bind Claire to them. She felt the touch of Claire's magic join them and took her in her arms and kissed her. She drew back and Claire laughed with joy as she felt herself transform; still a woman, but now a maenad also. Idonn kissed her next, and then Claire was gone, tugged from one woman to another, dancing with light feet and exchanging kisses and laughter.

Lirit turned to Idonn and touched her hand. Idonn looked at her with no trace of sadness in her eyes, but Lirit had to check.

"How did the call come to you?" she asked.

"I sat by the fire with two children and sang songs with them till they slept snug and safe. Their parents locked themselves in their house and refused to come out, but the magic was so strong and the children heard the call and came anyway. There will be many such, and they are too young to be alone."

Relieved, Lirit kissed her sister on the cheek and was thankful that Aslan hadn't compelled this decision. Of course Idonn would see the need to foster these Telmarine children, to raise them just the right kind of wild. She would be good at it too; Lirit knew these children would grow into strong, passionate adults, and Narnia would stay beautiful and full of magic.

"I shall miss you," she said.

"I shall miss you too," said Idonn.

The other maenads clustered around now, close together, and Lirit started the soft music that would transform Idonn. This was slow, sharp music, like a thousand cracks in glass. Idonn stood at the centre and waited for the magic to release her. It came at last, a final gentle click, and she was free. Tears streaming down her face, Idonn kissed each of her sisters one last time and walked away, back to where her new life waited. Lirit watched her until she disappeared behind some trees, on her way back to the children who had called her to stay.

"I see you're not leaving me then," said Bacchus, in her ear. She leaned back against him and his arms cradled her comfortably.

"You would be lost without me," Lirit replied.

"Indeed. And what made you decide to resist the commands of my brother?"

"You don't command me, and neither does this magic we feel and follow. We find ways to help. I am not yet ready to give that up." She could admit she'd been tempted. Aslan had spoken the truth; the land was in need. Lirit wasn't the one to give it, though, and she'd realised that in the night, as she danced and sang and loved with many. She didn't feel the call to stay, and in the end, it wasn't even a question.

"Thank you for saving me," she said.

"Ah, you are too stubborn to give in to my wicked brother's wiles," said Bacchus. "I just helped you. Now, where shall we go today?"

"Where we are needed, of course," Lirit replied. Bacchus pressed a smile into her soft skin and Lirit called to the maenads. The sun was rising, and they were needed elsewhere.