Hare goes a-leaping
It didn’t matter that they’d been dancing the night before, every soul in the Wildwood rose well before dawn, wrapped themselves against the cold and lit lanterns and torches to light their way. Soon a procession was winding through the trees, following the path to the eastern entrance of the Wood. The Witch was waiting for them under the last of the trees, holding the oak log from the tree on the Village green that Father Langben had given to her at the Yule Ball. There were no villagers present, save for their love and respect represented by the gift of the log. This Midwinter rite was for the wildwooders alone.
They emerged from the Wood onto a wide expanse of ground that led on to rolling hills running down slowly to the sea. In summer the slopes were good picnicking spots, now they were covered in snow and being scoured by a brisk north easterly. But it was not the view they had come for, though. It was the stones. Ten tall standing stones, the whorls carved into them almost invisible under the lichen; eight known as the Maidens making a circle, the two known as the Lords standing as a gate that opened the circle to the horizon. The wildwooders split and flowed around them, making a circle of their own outside them, leaving only the gate stones free of bodies. The Witch and Hare walked with them, entering the stone circle through the Lord stones and stood together at its centre, the log still in the Witch’s arms, the Hare empty pawed but wearing a sprig of holly at his breast.
The first hint of light was now bruising the sky and, once again, Wolf began proceedings by whistling loudly before beginning a song on his pipes. This was not a reel or a jig but something slower, more soulful; it was a lament for the lost light and all those lost in the previous twelve months. For long minutes it was the only sound bar the wind, which seemed to join in, the melody shivering its way through the air and those listening to it.
Then, just when those listening thought they might break into tears, the song changed, shifting from sorrow to hope and Bear picked up the new beat on the bodhran. The Witch walked forward, keeping time with the music, to lay the oak log down in between the gate stones before stepping to one side and joining the circle. Hare stayed where he was but began stamping one long foot in time to the music and the rest of the wildwooders followed suit.
The sky lightened further, the purpling lifting as the horizon line turned a pinkish yellow, and the song shifted once again, from hope to joy. Blackbird was the first to raise his voice in song, beginning The Song to Sing Up the Sun; a song that all the wildwooders felt they’d been born knowing, all joining in with gusto. As the rhythm picked up so did the anticipation and all eyes became fixed on the log.
All except Hare. He was neither singing nor looking at the log. His eyes were staring through the gate stones, focused intently on the point in the horizon they framed. He no longer heard the song or the stamping of the feet, although his very soul thrilled to it, but readied himself, muscles tense, for the sacred act it was his duty to perform.
The song swelled, the beat picked up still further and then it happened. With a whoosh the log burst into flame though there was no source of ignition. And still Hare did not move, did not let the flickering, rising fire distract him. The horizon was now a line of gold but still the sun remained invisible, like a recalcitrant child hiding beneath the blankets. Hold, an invisible whisperer said into his, hold. Every one of his muscles quivered at the inaction but hold he did until his instincts took over and he knew that this was it, he must go now or all would be lost.
Hare appeared, to the wildwooders, to almost fly across the snow towards the gate stones and the burning log, whose flames were now the same height as the stones. He did not hesitate for a moment, merely crouching slightly at the last second and then …
He soared into the flames, over the log, between the gate stones and into a new day for as his feet hit the ground on the other side the sun finally appeared on the horizon. At once the air was full of cheering and laughter rather than song; the sun was risen on Solstice Day and all would be well for another year.
The wildwooders headed back toward the heart of the wood, chattering happily about the delicious breakfast they would now indulge in. The Witch and Hare, as was custom, were the last to leave the hilltop. As Hare stepped onto the path he felt a sudden chill on the back of his neck. Turning sharply back toward the stones and still burning log he saw the Cailleach standing beyond the gate stones, hands lifted to the flames. She was watching him and when their eyes met she gave a nod, as one craftsman gives another in acknowledgement of a job well done, and then she was gone.
This story is the tenth of a twelve part series that was written at the start of December 2022 in response to daily prompt emails from Writer’s HQ for their 12 Days of Flashmas challenge. It is presented here pretty much just as it was originally written on the tenth day of the challenge. If you’d like to know more my explanatory post can be found here.
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