A Solstice Story.

A story from a few years ago. Happy Solstice. —Ty

On the night of the Solstice, the longest, darkest night of all the year, Brodny, son of Branko turned around once more to view his village in the distance.

The festival bonfire in the village commons was still visible, though no bigger than a candle’s flicker now. He listened for the music of pipes and strings and drums, but heard only the whipping winds now, the sounds of revelry at last beyond the power of his ears.

Even this tiny candle of light would soon vanish from his sight, for he was about to enter the woods. Then, he knew, for much of his journey, the torch in his hand would be his only light. The trade path to the next village, used by many including himself during the day was almost always avoided during the night, the time of the spirits.

The flat plain had for half an hour allowed him to turn and see the fire of his village’s celebrations, to hear the muffled strains of the music and allow him to feel in a way still home. Still safe. The woods would afford no such comfort, he knew.

“The chemist and medicine man have toiled to produce this special torch,” the chief elder of the village had told him earlier in the evening. “It shall burn long enough for you to reach the fire light of our brother village, if you tarry not, and the gods be with you.”

And would the gods be with him? As his journey was an act of mercy, fellowship and kindness, the elders assured him the gods would smile on his undertaking.

Brodny had volunteered to take the mistletoe and other greenery to the neighboring village beyond the woods. Word had come to his village that the powerful, magical plant had been stolen or somehow lost before the neighboring village’s solstice festivities, and the elders of his own village agreed to send some from their own stock.

Gathering and preparation of the plant, however, had lasted far into the day; they were not prepared until just before nightfall. His word having been given, however, and not wanting their brother village susceptible to bad luck for having no greenery for Solstice, Brodny insisted he proceed with his journey. (Though his wife, who liked not the night, had begged him to stay home.)

So now, Brodny, son of Branko turned to the woods, adjusted the thatched pack of mistletoe on his back, raised his torch, pulled his fur tighter around him in the increasing cold, and moved forward.

Bells of various sizes adorned his oak walking staff. Tinkling peals rang out with his every step into the frigid night. Sometimes the heavy wind, though softened by the trees around him, blew the bells about also.

The torch in his hand, lifted high over his head and in front of him, illuminated at most twice a man’s arm span in any direction. The outmost edges of the torchlight’s undulating circle appeared to be black feathers on an otherwise unseen large bird, trying to gently sweep the light into surrounding darkness. Failing this, the weakest light at the edges of his torch’s power threw rock and trunk, fallen leaf and dirt alike into a nether world of shadow and dying yellow colors.

The episodic “pitting” noise of snowflakes falling gently on endless unseen surfaces accompanied his bells and footsteps.

A chill took him after some time, and he paused to remove the goat bladder filled with mulled wine from around his neck. Though he had persevered without the drink up until that point, he could no longer do so. Torch held high, he drank a heavy drought, restoring right away some warmth to his bones and heartiness to his resolve.

The tinkle of bells from with the woods reached his ear. His staff being still, he knew the noise came not from there. He thrust his torch into nearby pockets of the night, trying to locate what made the sound. This yielded him nothing. The song of these other bells grew in volume, sometimes above him, then behind him, and then far ahead of him.

“Spare me some wine,” spoke a dry voice like twigs and rocks sliding together. At once, from the outer limits of the torch light emerged an old woman, as though birthed by the evening.

She wore long rags and the boots of a man. Disheveled hung below her waist, though whether it was gray or white Brodny could not distinguish. The fire light masked it in a hue of orange.

She carried no torch of her own.

Around her neck, indeed across her chest, the large halter of a horse or ox, decked in bells far greater in number than his walking staff.

The torch shone back at him from the shining black pupils of her eyes. She reached a twisted, palsied hand in his direction. “Spare me some wine, traveler,” she said. “For the cold and wind are bitter tonight.”

“I have a great journey before me,” Brodny said. “To the neighboring village. I require the fortification.”

“I journey to the gorge, near three times the length of your travels, and I am but an old woman now. I shall freeze. Rely on your youth and strength, and spare me your wine.” She reached her hand into his torch light.

Brodny looked down at the bladder, running his hand along it. He then observed his torch.

“Very well,” he said. He removed the bladder from his shoulder and placed it into the skeletal hand. “Travel in good health. But truly I must not tarry. May you reach your destination. Good Solstice to you.”

The old woman replied in kind, but in a language rarely spoken in that day in areas so far north. Her bells rang out into the night, growing more faint behind him as he made his way down the path toward the brother village. He was glad to have taken such a heavy draught before relinquishing  the wine.

On he walked. Several times, as the snow fell faster around him, he reached for the wine he no longer carried. He and his bells, and torch, and the mistletoe on his back pressed forward with all the more vigor after each time he made this mistake.

More than once, upon hearing unsavory sounds that may or may not have been the increasing wind through the trees, or a distant animal, Brodny shook his staff of bells with rigorous abandon. This kept him confident, until, when he reached the deepest bend in the path, a glow from above him caught his attention through the corner of his eye.

He looked up, and saw  a flame in the trees the size and intensity of his own torch. These flames dove from the tree tops down a few feet and vanished, like a large spark from a bonfire. Nearly as soon as this flame vanished did another materialize, this time nearer to the ground, some distance in front of him. Brody shook his staff in the air. The second ball of flame melted as silently into nothingness as did the first. However, also like the first, another soft irregular sphere of orange appeared right away. Now it was the height of a man’s shoulder, off into the woods to the left. This one came toward Brodny.

He dared not step off of the beaten both, even as the ball of flame drew closer to him. Just in front of him it burned out whatever magical fuel that fed it, and it to passed out of sight before reaching him, only to give way to another such orb just above him, which in its turn passed away, leaving room for another, and yet another, each time the replacement arriving sooner and sooner after the extinguishment of its predecessor. Within moments not one, but several bursts of flame arrived upon the passing of another, all moving gradually closer to each other from all over the surrounding woods.

Brodny was dizzy with fear and wonder. The pace with which portions of the woods were lit and then unlit only to be lit again by these orbs produced flashed unlike anything he’d seen.

At length all of the balls of fire coalesced into one form, several paces in front of him. The form of a man, yet faceless, and constituted entirely of flame that rippled and licked the air, yet set nothing else aflame. Even the now heavy snow seemed unaffected by its proximity to the fire-being. 

Realizing his shaking of the bells was fruitless, Brodny stopped. His insides, however, continued involuntarily to quake. 

“Brodny, son of Branko,” said the figure, but without the aid of a mouth. It spoke in a powerful but sleepy whisper. “Spare me your staff of bells.”

Brodny looked at the staff, and its now silent bells. “If it please you,” he said to the figure, “Would you have me unprotected from the night and its spirits?”

“I too am a citizen of the night, Brody, son of Branko,” said the figure, “I travel far and wide and yet am not impervious to the dangers. Yon magic plant on your back protects you, surely. I have none, nay not even a sprig. Let me not travel further without protection into this night of spirits. Spare me your staff, I say.”

Though every word the creature whispered made him drowsier and long for his cot, Brodny knew what vulnerable state he would be in without the bells of the elders. Yet what greater danger could there be but to refuse a spirit its request in the middle of the night? And if this were a good spirit?

Brodny acquiesced. 

“Lay it down upon the path,” said the fire-being. Brodny did so, and stepped away from it. The figure leaped first into the air, and came falling down on top of the staff, which rattled and rung flatly, but did not burn for the flames. In the same moment, the figure grabbed the staff and leaped so high into the night sky that Brodny, looking upward, saw but for a moment no more than an orange comet that streaked into the heavens and burned out, to be seen no more.

He couldn’t allow his dread and awe to halt his progress. Already the torch burned dimmer than it should have been at that part in his travels, and he had still some distance to go. He expelled one heavy sigh into the air, and by the time the steam floated away, Brodny was moving again.

By now the snow came down in in a steady stream of thick flakes, the ground already covered enough to crunch under his boots as he moved down the path. He quickened his pace now, hoping to make up for lost time.

The black chill of the snowy night froze him, and he would reach still for his missing bladder of wine. So too would he move to shake the bells on the missing staff when confronted by a strange noise in the deepness of the forest. Still, for some time nothing impeded him further, and once he heard the rush of the river ahead of him in the distance, he felt he would be on safe ground again soon, free of obstacles.

The river was not treacherous. Nonetheless it moved swiftly over several pointed rocks on which more than one traveler had injured himself before the bridge had been constructed of stout wood and stone. Once across the bridge, he had just under a mile until the brother village…even less distance until the glow of their own solstice bonfire would greet him in the distance.

When he stepped onto the first plank of the bridge, the winter wind, already formidable for most of his journey, grew to a paralyzing gust, into which he bowed to keep his balance and to protect his eyes from the icy air. The bridge itself shimmied underneath his feet.

With labored steps Brodny reached the middle of the bridge. Tucked within the whistle of the gale, a voice spoke as from the bottom of a well, “Brodny, son of Branko.”

He turned, seeking the one who called to him. As he did so, the wind blasted with such force as to rip the torch from his hand. He watched its small amount of light arc into the air, and dive straight into the river, wherein it went out with a splash.

Brodny heard no more voices, though he stopped himself from cursing the wind, fearful that the obvious spirit that had deprived him of his remaining light was still nearby. In any case, he was far more concerned with the whipping wind, the stinging snow flakes and the now total darkness in which he found himself. No torch drove him forward in haste now, but rather a need to seek refuge from this night, and safely find fire again.

Blind as he was, he took to his knees and knocked on the bridge. The wet snow seeped into his pants at the knees and ankles and stung at his knuckles, but he continued, altering his path slightly at intervals so as to determine the length of the bridge without tumbling over himself into the frigid swirl that howled beneath him.

At last he thumped his fist not against a plank, but into solid dirt, and then again and then once more. The opposite bank! 

Certain that he crawled forward enough to get to his feet away from the bridge, Brodny stood. Through the snow, his eyes having adjusted somewhat to the dark by now, he could just make out the hill ahead of him, beyond which the brother village ought to be visible. The woods, he knew, thinned here, and to continue to climb the hill, even off of the path would lead him in the right direction.

Several times on his climb up the hill, Brodny slipped on and then into the snow, each time more and more of it soaking his feet, his hair, his clothing. Each time he stood, oriented himself in the dark, gathered strength and pressed onward through the wintry onslaught. When at last he reached the top of the hill, exhausted, put off by the dark, and chilled to his bones, he squinted though the snow at flat ground, and in the distance the candle sized flicker that was the bonfire of the brother village.

He had some ways to go, he knew. But with a beacon now to guide him and encourage him onward toward warmth and safety and light, his resolve strengthened. He adjusted the thatched pack of mistletoe boughs on his back and took his first step toward the end of his journey.

“Brodny, son of Branko, hear me.”

A soft glow seeped into the accumulated snow in front of him. It was such that instead of white, the snow appeared almost as blue gemstone, or pure river ice. This blue illuminated his surroundings.

A bulge formed in the silver-colored puddle of light. This bulge grew to a mound, and the mound grew to a heap, and the heap silently shaped, molded and smoothed itself into a tall human form, faceless, as the fire-creature had been. “Stay, Brodny son of Branko,” said the snow-being, in voice like an ordinary man speaking as in conversation. “Stay, and give to me your mistletoe.”

Brodny reached his hand around to his back and felt some of the greenery. “I cannot. It is not mine to give.”

The creature took a large step toward him. Chunks of snow rolled off of its body and into the snow on the ground. It would then reverse course and roll back up onto the body, being absorbed by same. This process repeated several times.

“Yours is not to argue,” said the snow-being, “Do you think I don’t know you freely gave away your wine, and your staff and your torch? Yon mistletoe is powerful, and of greater significance by far than your other objects.” The snow-being stretched an arm toward Brodny, and what would pass as a fingerless hand unfolded before him. “Give me thy mistletoe, for its powers are not for you.”

Brodny did not argue that his torch had been taken from him by the wind a spirit that commanded. Instead he replied, “Those objects were my own, for me to freely give as I chose. This mistletoe is for yon village, for the solstice celebration, and for protection. It is not mine to bestow, forgive me.”

Brodny took a step. The snow-being slid sideways on the snow to block his path. “Incur not my wrath. Your obedience to the inhabitants of the woods has heretofore kept you safe. If you will not give me your mistletoe, I will take it.”

He thought of his young wife, his aged parents, his village, and all the things to which he would bid farewell tonight, without them ever understanding. Cold, wet, very tired and frightened, Brodny son of Branko said to the snow-being, “I will not give, nor will you take.” Brodny took another step away.

At this, the snow-being growled softly. Chunks of snow from the ground previously at rest collected themselves into balls that rolled their way toward the snow-being. They buried themselves into its form, and the creature swelled to a larger, thicker form. 

“Then,” said the snow-being, “Know pain that only insolence can bring.”

Brodny stepped once more, and the snow-being slid in front of him. With both of its thickening arms, it reached for Brodny’s head and squeezed it.

Every inch of skin, every tendon, muscle, bone and organ within Brodny now knew the cold of every block of ice and every flake of snow from every winter since the dawn of time. A chill so all encompassing to his very being that he lacked enough warmth and power to even scream through the agony.

Sheets of snow and ice and mist passed over his eyes, drying them in polar air. Wintry gusts blew without abatement into his ears, all but drowning out even his thoughts.

“Release the mistletoe, Brodny son of Branko.”

The voice was now a hiss that came from everywhere. Brodny, unable to move any muscle in his body so much as a hair width could not speak an answer. But through his agony and the power that now enveloped him, from his heart he made a resounding, unmitigated, unequivocal answer to the being.

“Never.”

And now Brodny fell away. Through a darkness deeper than the woods through which he had tread, he tumbled-insensible to where he was, but aware of a release from the petrifying cold.

He no longer fell, having slammed into something. The sound of a woman’s voice. His eyes opened to stars in the blackness above him. Cold again, but not as before. His vision blurred.

A figure in rags and cascading, unkempt hair looked down upon him as she poured something onto his face. Onto his mouth. Into his mouth. Mulled wine, its spiced warmth cascading down his throat into his body.

Nearby a large fire moved toward him. Then away. Then toward him again, and at last expanding, reaching into the sky, shaking with vigor. The sound of bells.

And Brodny slept.

And he woke, on a cot. In a hut. He looked about. It was not his own. Someone sat nearby, near a hearth fire.

Instead of the speech he had intended, Brodny coughed.

“Slowly,” said the companion nearby. A man. The man drew near, holding a torch. A familiar man to Brodny. Not one of his elders. But yes, one of the elders of the brother village. “Stay under the furs, you must thaw from the bitterness of the night.”

“How did I get here?” Brodny asked. He was too weak to sit up, and instead faced the nearby hearth fire that burned brightly in the hut.

“We heard your bells,” said the elder. “And when you didn’t come, we sent a scout who found you lying in the snow, in deep slumber. You were brought here and revived. Your staff and wine bladder are safe. As is the mistletoe, which we have hung all throughout the village as we celebrate this solstice, thanks to your efforts and your village’s generosity. The gods be praised.”

And from that time, Brodny, son of Branko was better known in many villages as “Brodny the Faithful” and “Brodny the Selfless.”

He spoke to no one of his journey.

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