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Winter Solstice

As part of my 10 for December posts in 2013, I wrote three short stories about the characters. Each one stands alone, and takes place outside the timeline of story, so there aren't any spoilers.

Flashback: A Winter Solstice with Jarlen

"Now we light a candle
Against dark Winter's storms.
Now we light a candle,
'Til bright Spring brings us warmth.

May this candle warm us,
Through stormy winter days.
And may it remind us,
That Spring returns always.

Though the Winter is long,
This truth is in our hearts.
The candle always burns,
The brightest in the dark.

So we keep on hoping,
That Spring will come again.
The sun will be shining,
And end dark Winter's reign.

Now we light a candle,
Against dark Winter's storms.
Now we light a candle,
'Til bright Spring brings us warmth."

"aaaaarmth." Jarlen's deep baritone held out the final note a moment longer than necessary, making his sisters giggle and his mother roll her eyes while she hid her grin behind a napkin. Suddenly...

"WAAAAARMTH!" Jarlen's father belted out the last note again, his voice almost a full octave lower than his son's. His mother laughed too this time, though her laughter dissolved into a fit of coughing. She waved away the concerned looks of her family as she brought herself back under control.

"Go, go!" She waved her napkin towards her oldest daughter, Haylin. "The roast!"

"Oh!" Haylin jumped up so quickly, her chair would have toppled back if Jarlen hadn't caught it. The younger sister, Lexia, dashed after the older to help her bring out the food.

Jarlen's mother placed her hand on top of his, squeezing it. "I'm glad you're here." She said softly. "We missed you last year."

His father nodded in agreement. "I don't see what's so important at that school of yours you couldn't leave to be with your family."

"I know. I'm sorry." He didn't say what he was thinking. That it was because of his family that he was at school. That he was hoping against hope he could find a way to succeed where the healers could not.

"But you're here now." His mother gave his hand a final pat before moving her hand away. "That's what's important."

Jarlen smiled, and rose as Haylin came in carrying a tray with a large turkey on it. He took the heavy platter from his sister and set it on the table.

"Thanks!" She smiled and went back to help Lexia bring out the rest of the food. Jarlen joined his sisters as they set the table for the Solstice feast, keeping a close eye on Lexia. He was worried about her.

After supper, his mother retired to her room to rest, while the girls, laughing and teasing one another, began the work of cleaning up after the meal. Like many wealthy households, Jarlen's gave their servants a few days off so they could spend Winter Solstice with their own families.

Jarlen followed his father into his study, where he poured a glass of wine for each of them. The older man watched as his son twirled the cup in his hands, staring at the wine as if studying it.

"It's Lexia, isn't it?"

Jarlen glanced up. "You've noticed?"

His father raised his eyebrows. "You think I can't see in months what you've noticed in few days?"

"Sometimes, proximity can make one...blind. To certain situations."

"I'm not one of those first years at that school of yours, son. Don't act as if I am."

"Sorry." They lapsed into silence. Finally, his father spoke.

"You think it's the same thing that your mother has?"

Jarlen nodded. "Such diseases, they're rare, but studies suggest they run in families."

"Is there any point in sending for a Healer?"

Jarlen didn't answer. He just shook his head no.

 His father sighed and closed his eyes. "So, there's nothing?"

"I didn't say that." Jarlen paused, trying to choose his next words carefully. "There's something I want to try. There are these new lenses from Sanjel with spells on them that can let you see... well, there are these things. Tiny little things. You can see them in blood, and...."

"Absolutely not!" The voices chattering in the kitchen fell silent, then slowly began again. The man stared at his son in disbelief.   "You want to take some of her blood? My daughter's blood?" He struggled to keep his voice down.

"Not just her's. Mother's too. I think--"

"I said no." His father's voice was dangerously low. "This discussion is over." He stood up. "I'm going to go check on your mother."

The door closed, and Jarlen was left alone in the study. He continued to stare at the glass of wine, contemplating. He could hear his sisters laughing as they washed dishes. He hadn't really expected his father to say yes. Not when he couldn't even make the Professors and Healers at the University understand his interest in the little things the new lenses showed. 

Suddenly, he stood and drained the glass of wine in what was, in his mind, a decisive gesture. Maybe he couldn't convince his father. Very well. He would just have to convince his mother. But first, he would go help his sisters clean up the kitchen.

With an effort, he pushed his worries away. Winter had enough darkness of its own. No need to add to them, at least not today. His long legs carried him quickly through the house, and he burst into the kitchen with a roar, grabbing Lexia around the waist and spinning her around, just missing getting splashed in the face with the soapy water Haylin flung at him. He set his laughing sister down, and the three of them set about their tasks, laughing and chatting, as if Jarlen had never left.


Flashback: A Winter Solstice with Silay

Silay felt her stomach grumble as she carefully pushed the strawberry-laden cart towards the rows of tables in the town square. She always fasted on the Winter Solstice so she'd be able eat more at the Feast. The feasts in Dagrosa were famous for being the best in all of Ohicink, or even the world, said some. Silay had nothing to compare them to, but she did know they were wonderful. Though not all destines in Dagrosa were great, they still produced some of the best cooks, entertainers, and, she thought proudly, strawberry-growers.

Joining the bustle around the table, Silay began to place baskets of strawberries next to the bowls of sweet cream someone had already set down. While the cooks and their helpers continue to lay out the Feast, quiet strains of music floated down from the school house where the choir was practicing. 

Indeed, everyone had something to do to contribute to the celebration. And everyone in Dagrosa was the best at what they did.

Finally, the sun showed signs of setting. There was one last flourish of activity as everyone rushed to finish their preparations, and then silence. Everyone who wasn't participating in the next part of the Feast stood quietly behind their chairs, each family standing together. Once all was still, the choir filed out of the schoolhouse and made their way towards the tables, each member holding a lit candle and softly humming the simple melody of the Winter Solstice Song. Once they were in position, forming a semi-circle of light around the tables, they began sing.

"Now we light a candle
Against dark Winter's storms.
Now we light a candle,
'Til bright Spring brings us warmth.

May this candle warm us,
Through stormy winter days.
And may it remind us,
That Spring returns always.

Though the Winter is long,
This truth is in our hearts.
The candle always burns,
The brightest in the dark.

So we keep on hoping,
That Spring will come again.
The sun will be shining,
And end dark Winter's reign."

There were candles set out along the length of each table, and as the choir sang, the town's two magicians lit the candles from where they stood with their own families. The rows of light moved down the tables as if following the course of the setting sun, until all was dark but for the burning candles.
The choir reached the last verse, and whole town joined in, voices harmonizing together they way they only do in large groups.

"Now we light a candle
Against dark Winter's storms.
Now we light a candle,
'Til bright Spring brings us warmth."

Though she had sung the words many times, Silay felt a keen sense of lost as the final note vanished into silence. There was hope in the song, yes, but for the first time, she realized there was fear too. What if the Spring didn't come again? She shuddered, and wasn't certain it was just from the cold. Perhaps this was what growing up was about: realizing that the world was not a perfect, safe place.
The silence changed as everyone's attention shifted. The Seer, standing at the head of the center table, had raised her hands.

"As time flows away, so does it come again. As darkness comes, so does light. As life fades, so does it return anew. So it has been."

"So may it always be." Replied the gathered crowd.

The Seer smiled and dropped her hands. "The harvest was good this year. Let us feast!"

The words were barely out of her mouth before everyone began pulling back their chairs to sit down. The choir extinguished their candles and rushed to join their families as if afraid all the food might be eaten before they reached the tables. The magicians lit the lanterns that had been set up earlier, and suddenly what had been dark and silent was noisy and bright.

Just like Spring after the Winter, Silay thought to herself. She reached out instinctively and grabbed a platter of food as went by, serving herself from it before passing it on to her father. Next year, she would have her own part to prepare for the Feast, not just helping her mother. Next year, she would know her Destiny, know where she fit into this busy, noisy world. It was a comforting thought.

Like most of the children, Silay dreamed of being a Hero. It had been so long since the last one! Surely Dagrosa was overdue. And she had read all the stories about past Heros, studied every subject that she thought would help her. But, of course there was no way to know, or even prepare for your Destiny. Not until the Seer told you what it was. Silay reached across the table a grabbed a strawberry, catching her mother's eye as she did so. They shared a smiled. Silay studied the bright red strawberry before taking a bite. She grinned. It was delicious. Destinies often ran in families. Perhaps, if she wasn't a Hero, she would grow strawberries like her mother. It was something to look forward to.

Flashback: A Winter Solstice with Riya 

Riya watched as house after house lit their Solstice candle, the flames flickering to life in each window. She could see nearly every house on the street from the tree she was perched in. She stayed put for another half-hour or so after the candles were lit, watching. Waiting. It was cold enough that frost was visible on the ground, but she held her place curled up where the branches of the tree formed a 'Y'. But nothing happened. No doors opened to invite her in. Perhaps the tradition was different here in Semaro. Or perhaps the people here just cared less. She couldn't remember very many Solstice celebrations with her family, but she did remember that they would always open their door after lighting the candle, and invite in anybody out in the street to join them for the Feast.

The cold finally got to be too much. Riya quietly climbed down from the tree and set off down the street. It felt odd to be walking out in the open through the neighborhood, but everyone was inside and too engaged with their celebrations to notice her. For once, she was safe.

There were a few vendors still out when  Riya reached the town square. She had meant to go straight to her bolt hole, a small gap between the walls of two businesses, but now she hesitated. Her hand moved to the leather pouch around her neck where she kept the few coins she had saved up. She had used to keep her money hidden in her shoes, but their soles had long since been reduced to a thin lattice of leather. Riya considered her options, fingering the coins. It was Winter Solstice. A proper celebration helped insure a prosperous year to come. But coins where hard to come by. But, but, but.

Riya strode confidently down the street. One vendor was selling Solstice candles to those who had waited until the last minute. Riya ducked behind a nearby stall and pulled out two coppers before concealing her pouch back under shirt. Coppers in hand, she approached the vendor and purchased a candle, ignoring his disparaging glance at her clothes. Clutching the candle in her left hand,  Riya trotted back towards the two buildings that contained her hiding place. Glancing around to make sure no one was watching, she ducked into the gap.

She had leaned some old boards against one of the walls, covering them with oilskin to form a sort of shelter. Once inside, she dug a small hole in the dirt floor and set the candle in it. She didn't have matches, but that was all right. She didn't need them. Taking a deep breath,  Riya glared at the candle wick until it flickered to life. Having magic could make street life easier, but it had its own dangers. Magic used the body's energy to fuel it. For a healthy, well-fed adult, this generally wasn't a problem. But Riya knew kids who had died in the streets, their magic burning up what little strength they had. So she was always very careful about how much she used.

Once the candle was lit, Riya rummaged through her small box of possessions before finding a flask of wine she kept for emergencies. This wasn't an emergency, but she could certainly do with some luck next year. She raised the flask in an imaginary toast, then took a mouthful, closing her eyes as she felt the false warmth of the alcohol run through her body. Another danger of the streets, she knew. Thinking you were warm when you were actually just drunk. The city guards often found frozen bodies in the snow this time of year.

Riya put the stopper back in the flask, and replaced it in the chest. There was one more thing to do. Quietly, voice barely above a whisper, she began to sing. You were supposed to leave the candle lit until in burned out, but even for Winter Solstice Riya couldn't justify that kind of waste. When the song was over, she blew out the candle, then curled up in the dark under a rag of a blanket. She wished she could stay asleep until Spring returned. All signs pointed to a long, cold,  winter. As she drifted off to sleep, the words of the song repeated in her mind.

"Now we light a candle
Against dark Winter's storms.
Now we light a candle,
'Til bright Spring brings us warmth.

May this candle warm us,
Through stormy winter days.
And may it remind us,
That Spring returns always.

Though the Winter is long,
This truth is in our hearts.
The candle always burns,
The brightest in the dark.

So we keep on hoping,
That Spring will come again.
The sun will be shining,
And end dark Winter's reign.

Now we light a candle,
Against dark Winter's storms.
Now we light a candle,
'Til bright Spring brings us warmth."


A Simple Melody

When I wrote the Winter Solstice song, I did so with a melody in mind. After writing it, I thought it would be nice if I could share the melody with you, my readers, and considered writing out the music. But not everyone can read music. But then I remembered... I may be writing a story, but I'm not writing a book. This is blog. And blogs can have videos! So here it is. The Winter Solstice song, as played on my friend's keyboard, recorded on my mac, and with my friend's fish tank gurgling in the background. Nothing great, poor sound quality, and I'm not planning to give up my day job to become a composer, but for what it's worth, take a listen.




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