The Return of the Light
Location: Stormholm Caer, Daranau Eira, Harkania March, Cymeria
Timeline: Late Night, Yule, 12/21/3550
Alban Arthan, sometimes referred to as Yule, was the longest night and the shortest day of the year. Starting the next morning at sunrise, the sun would climb just a little higher and stay a little longer in the sky each day. It was the time to celebrate the return of Cernunnos, the Great Maker, the Light. Hirddydd Gaeaf was the solar turning of the tides, and the newborn Sun offered fresh starts and, literally, a new day. It was a time of renewal and hope.
Bonfires had been lit in the fields, and crops and trees were wassailed with toasts of spiced cider and mulled wine. Children were escorted from house to house with gifts of clove spiked apples and oranges which were laid in baskets of evergreen boughs and wheat stalks dusted with flour. The apples and oranges represented the sun. The boughs were symbolic of immortality because evergreens did not lose their needles and color with the coming of winter, they did not die. The wheat stalks portrayed the harvest, and the flour symbolized the accomplishment of triumph, light, and life. Holly and ivy not only decorated the outside but also the inside of homes in the hope that Nature Sprites would come and join the celebration. A sprig of Holly was kept near the door all year long as a constant invitation for good fortune to visit the residents. Mistletoe was also hung as decoration. It represented the seed of y Fam or Gaia.
The ceremonial Yule log was the highlight of the Solstice festival. By tradition, the log must either have been harvested from the householder's land or given as a gift. It must never have been bought. Once dragged into the house and placed in the fireplace it was decorated in seasonal greenery, doused with cider or ale, and dusted with flour before being set ablaze by a piece of last years log. The log would burn throughout the night, then smolder for twelve days before being ceremonially put out. Ash was the traditional wood of the Yule log. A herb of the Sun, Ash would bring light into the home at the Solstice, or so it was believed.
Stormholm Caer was decorated with the many symbols of the celebration. Candles scented with bayberry, frankincense, and sage burned throughout the massive keep. Blessed thistle, ropes of evergreen, sprigs of holly, laurel and mistletoe were hung over doors and wound along banisters and railings. The Yule feast in the great hall had been plentiful, and despite the deep snow, many of the local people had made the arduous trek to partake of it. It was rare the gates of the massive keep were thrown open to the public. Alban Arthan had always been an exception. This year’s repast, as in years past, consisted of various types of cookies and caraway cakes soaked in cider, fruits, nuts, pork dishes, turkey, eggnog, ginger tea, spiced cider, wassail, or lamb's wool (ale, sugar, nutmeg, roasted apples).
After the ceremonial lighting of the massive Yule log resting in the equally massive fireplace in the Great Hall, Mikhael had performed a ceremonial spellcasting, invoking peace, harmony, love, and increased happiness for the land. Then small gifts were given to everyone attending by the High Lord and Stormholm’s chatelaine, Lady Oksana D’Corwyn. When the last of the guests had finally departed, the weary Stormholm residents, including the High Lord and his sleepy son, helped the household staff clear up the leftover food, though they had given much of it away to their guests, and tidied everything away before retiring to their chambers.
The colors of Alban Arthan were red, green, gold, white, silver, yellow and orange. Mikhael had chosen to wear deep forest green for the celebration and the Heir to the Land, Vasily, was dressed similarly. A narrow band of hammered gold with a large cabochon cut bloodstone affixed to its center encircled his brow. His thick dark chestnut colored hair had been braided in the short clubbed style favored by many Highlanders and fastened with a clasp of gold set with a matching bloodstone. Oksana, Mikhael’s eldest sister and the Lady of the Hold - at least until he chose a wife - had been a spectacular vision clad in deep red trimmed with silver and gold. Her curling red-gold hair had been left to fall to her waist, held back from her face by a gold band similar to the one that Mikhael wore except its jewel was an opal, a match to the one that Oksana’s husband, Gareth D’Corwyn, wore.
In all, Yule had been a success and, despite the rumors and unrest that persisted after the events at the Ceremony of Oaths, no one had seemed put off. If anything, that year’s celebration had been better attended than in the past.
Mikhael sat in the window embrasure of the antechamber outside his private apartments. He was not yet ready to retire for the night. In fact, he was almost too tired to think of sleeping. He had divested himself of most of his formal raiment and was clad only in tunic, breeches and soft, short boots suitable for indoor wear. The gold band had been removed from his brow and was being idly held in his hands as the long fingers rubbed the beaten gold, enjoying the warm feel of the fine metal.
The small chamber was a secret room set between the stairwell of the eastern tower and the tower’s outer wall. The curve of the tower walls, along with the small Yule log burning in the fireplace, made the room seem far cozier than most of the great keep’s rooms. Accesses to the upper floors of the east tower were carefully guarded secrets, ensuring the privacy and safety of the High Lord. The majority of residents and staff within Stormholm Caer’s walls were unaware of the cleverly hidden doors from the lower two floors that gave access to the third-floor level and above. As far as they knew, the only way to reach the upper levels of the east tower were through the private living quarters of the land’s ruler.
Exterior access to the chamber was via a door inset into the tower’s stairwell, and one had to know where the lever was that would allow a section of the wall to slide back and reveal the doorway. An interior access gave onto the state bed chamber’s sitting area making the room a nice hideaway for the High Lord.
The room was sparsely but comfortably furnished, another indication of the owner’s preference for a more casual private life. There were two large, deep leather chairs flanking the fireplace with a small stone-topped table between them. The fireplace itself was set into the wall to the right of the window embrasure, and a desk and chair occupied the wall to the left. The remaining curved wall was lined with dark, highly polished wooden bookshelves. The rich dark wood of the shelves lent the room an atmosphere of warmth. Unlike a majority of the rest of the keep, the flagstone floors had been covered with dark wood flooring that matched the shelving. Scattered about were thick woolen rugs of a warm cream color that had been woven from the wool of a local Highland camelid called a suri. Its wool was much thicker and richer than the alpaca and llamas of other regions, as well as being naturally water repellent.
Few knew of this sanctuary, fewer still were ever invited to share it.
Icy blue eyes were focused on the world beyond the glass window where snow fell in thick sheets. Occasionally, the wind would sweep up and around the keep, rattling the panes and driving the snow against it. The High Lord’s sharp ears picked up the sound of thunder and knew it had nothing to do with Cymry magic. The blizzard was settling in and bringing with it that which Stormholm’s mountain was named, Daranau Eira, Thunder Snow. Following the sound of the thunder was a flash of lightning which brought a smile to Mikhael’s lips. He had always imagined, even as a small child, that the thunder and lightning were Cernunnos and Gaia arguing with one another.
As the wind drove snow hard against the windows, Mikhael’s thoughts turned elsewhere, though still on the weather. In Cymry lore, the waning of the rings of Marnwr, the larger of Gaia's two moons, coincided with periods of chaos and unrest in Aereth and, if the history texts could be believed, that seemed to hold true. The waxing of the rings allegedly heralded change, but also stability. That did not seem to apply to the weather. From his reading, and experience in his lifetime, it appeared that the waxing of the rings of Marnwr brought with it weather extremes; harsher winters, hotter summers, rainier springs.
Mikhael was not going to complain. Cymeria was prosperous and, besides, winter was the time of rest. It was the period when blacksmiths were kept busy honing and repairing farm equipment, tools, and weapons. People remained indoors, snug and warm, venturing out only to gather firewood and do a bit of hunting, although the hardier souls might go skiing or fishing in the frigid rivers and lakes. Wealthier Cymerians often retired to the southern marches for the winter, returning in the spring when it was time for planting.
Thinking of the coming months that would be spent mainly in the keep, safe and warm with his son made Mikhael smile. There was nothing wrong with winter, he decided. A knock on the door dragged Mikhael’s mind back to the present.
“Enter,” Mikhael called out as the soft rap sounded on the door.
Gero opened the door and entered the room, ducking slightly under the doorframe. He handled the door with the left hand, for he carried a small glass jar with a flickering light inside in the other hand. The glass was made of the silvery material the Wyr often used for the making of their lanterns, and on this day as the rule of the Lord of Winter became supreme, they often were the gift of a new light among friends.
Maybe it was the many memories the recent months had stirred up or the memory of meeting Mathias on a day like this, that had brought him here. Though if Gero was honest, it was more the unrest he felt. It would be ill luck to leave a friend’s house without a new light, it would bring disaster. Like the Cymry, the Wyr had their rites and beliefs about the time of Midwinter, though they often shared the customs of their brethren. “The Four Winds are singing with the Frost, and the Lord of Winter returns from the North, my friend,” Gero said, long ago the words had felt strange when he said them in the tongue of the Cymry, by now they had become deeply familiar. “may the lights never wane in your hall.”
Mikhael had risen to his feet as Gero entered and a smile lit his tired features. He tossed the gold circlet aside and took the beautiful, delicate looking jar, his eyes briefly entranced by the flickering light within. He set it gently on the mantel over the stone fireplace and turned his eyes to his friend, “Gero, thank you! Blessed be and welcome to my sanctuary on this most frigid of nights. Will you share a cup of hot spiced tea with me? I was awaiting an excuse to brew a fresh cup.”
Gero inclined his head slightly, in thanks to Mikhael for the invitation. “Gladly, Misha, how could I refuse your tea? It is one of those secrets of your house that cannot be taught.” His eyes strayed to the window as it was rattling slightly when the wind tossed fresh snow and icy pellets of sleet against the glass. He wondered if Mika could feel the storm, the rage of the wind howling out in the winter night.
Moving to his desk where a tea service made of a rare pale blue quartz shot with silvery colored veins rested, awaiting his pleasure, he picked up the teapot and poured its contents into two mugs. The spout of the teapot had a fine linen mesh over the opening to prevent the tea leaves and grounds from escaping into the cups. The quartz had a natural insulating property, so the tea was steaming hot. The fragrance of the carefully selected black teas and subtle spices wafted through the room, adding to its cozy and warm feeling.
Mikhael carried the cup back to Gero and indicated one of the chairs in front of the fire. Before settling in the other, he reached for a package tucked onto the mantle. He handed the package to Gero as he stretched his booted feet toward the hearth, allowing the sounds of the blizzard and the presence of a dear friend to relax him completely.
“From Vasya and me, Ewythr Hen Gath,” Mikhael said, allowing his Highland burr a bit more reign and using the Old Tongue for Uncle Old Cat, his childhood name for Gero. “Blessed Yule...one gift wraps another.” He chuckled softly, “Leave it to Oksana to be frugal.” His tone was wry, but affectionate, as he spoke of his eldest sister.
Mikhael took a sip of his tea, enjoying the spices and hint of local honey added to alleviate any bitterness. He watched the older man carefully unfold the outer layer of wrapping which turned out to be a new heavy Sidan silk undershirt. The Sidan Silk was highly prized for its unusual strength and durability. There were several species of the large spiders that spun the silk, but the best were found in K’harsten March. The undershirt was designed to be worn beneath leathers or chainmail and had the ability to entangle the tips of arrows or spear points. The material was also amazingly cool and lightweight. This one was of a rippling deep black, cleverly woven to shimmer and reflect the light. Carefully embossed and embroidered around the collar and cuffs were tiny, very detailed dire wolves and black jaguars chasing one another’s tails. Mikhael smiled. The embroidery had been a touch of humor from Oksana as she remembered the games Gero and Kimber had played when the old High Lord had, on rare occasion, let down his guard and romped through the hold and the surrounding highlands in his Wyr form.
Inside the shirt was Mikhael’s gift. He had not done woodworking for many years, so the piece had been a challenge. He had spent most of the year carving it and another similar to it as gifts for Gero and Hawke. This one was a heavy lintel piece made of hard red oak. He had first sanded it smooth to bring out the grain and natural red and cream colors. Then Mikhael had set to working with the wood to bring out its character.
The watch dragon was about twelve inches long and sixteen inches high. The wood had not been stained but varnished and polished to a high shine. The dragon itself was standing on its four powerful legs, one front forefoot raised with claws extended. The head curved around and down so that the eyes could watch either an indoor room or if placed above a door outside, the dragon would watch visitors arriving. The eyes themselves were Mikhael’s bit of humor. They were very pale blue diamonds, reminiscent of the color of his own silvery gray flecked blue orbs.
Gero gently traced his fingers over the fine embroidery of the shirt, the wolves and cats were a humorous reminder of days past - but a warm and friendly reminder of a good memory. The gift echoed much care and friendship - Oksana would find her own winter gift, a Moonstone orb, by next morning. Moonstone being of Light and Water and of the Moons, it was a gift for a Lady. With her, Gero had chosen to leave the gift the Wyr way, while with Mika… Thunderchild, it was different. He would convey his thanks to Oksana in person, though.
The second gift, Mika’s gift proved to be a surprise. The wooden dragon with the bright blue eyes reminded Gero at once of so many legends that the Wyr and the Cymry shared, and in a way, of Mika himself. Gently he traced his fingers over the warm wood, knowing that he saw Mika’s own work. With only a little imagination one might expect the dragon to move, or jump the unwary visitor from the doorframe. Carefully he set both aside, the dragon perched watchfully on the table. “Thank you, Thunderchild,” he said, letting the old childhood name slip into his words at this moment. “I think I know the place this watchful friend is going to guard.”
Mikhael’s eyes warmed, and he grinned his pleasure at Gero’s reception of the gifts. “In Cymry lore, dragons were the guardians and Bringers of Light to Menfolk. They nurtured the world and gave freely of their knowledge. But in some lands, Menfolk turned against the Old Ones, decrying them as enemies and monsters and slaughtering them for their hides and eyes which, if extracted from a living dragon, turned into precious gems. The Cymry, who had created the dragons...ddraig in our ancient language...turned a blind eye to the slaughter. After thousands of years, the dragons were few, and they sadly withdrew to lands far beyond the Westering Seas.”
“Watch dragons used to be common in Cymry households. It was believed that if mounted on the inside of a home, they watched the backs of the residents, warning if guests proved untrustworthy. If mounted on the outside of a home, they watched the door to make sure no one of low intent entered. I wanted my two friends to have something to watch their backs as you have guarded mine.” Mikhael had carved one more watch dragon, a mantel-piece for Hawke and Stasya. It was quite different from the door dragon he had done for Gero, long and sinuous and made to rest above a fireplace.
Pausing, Mikhael lowered his voice a bit, “Vasya turns six shortly after the turn of the year, Gero,” his voice was warm with love and pride. He loved his son as fiercely as any parent could love their child. “He has started to ask about his mother more and more, and there is so little I can tell him. Morgelyn was a fiercely independent woman, strong and very private.”
Mikhael’s blue eyes were shadowed, an old sorrow evident in the strong lines of his face, “I should have protected her, Gero. I should have insisted she take up residence here even if I could not force her to wed me.” His voice lost some of its fierceness, “Oksana has joined with those admonishing me to choose a wife, to fulfill my dynastic duties. I am sick of hearing the words whispered...an heir and a spare! As if Vasily has no value by himself!”
As fast as it had risen the anger died down again, “They are right,” Mikhael said with a sigh, his voice almost lost in the wind and storm that raged outside the walls of Stormholm Caer. “I should marry. I need to marry. I want to marry and sire more children. I loved my father, but I will not have Vasily grow up in the same isolation that my sisters and I did. He should have brothers and sisters to be his friends, to watch his back, to be playmates and confidantes. I do not doubt Aeonar’s devotion, and I love the cub like a son, but dynasties aside, I want a family of my own!”
Mikhael had spoken as strongly and eloquently as ever, if somewhat in more of a rush than was his usual style. These were feelings and sentiments that had grown within him since officiating at the wedding of his sister and dearest friend, Hawke Windwalker. He had rejoiced in what they shared, but it had left him restless and missing that same companionship in his life. Oksana had served in the role of chatelaine with dedication since the Crossing of High Lady Sonja. She tended the needs of Vasily and oversaw Mika’s household. Sanya provided a sounding board when asked, but none of that was the same as having a companion, a soulmate, to walk at one’s side. He wanted what Hawke and Stasya had, what Oksana shared with her handsome Gareth, what he knew his parents had shared with one another.
Gero could see the changing expressions in Mikhael’s eyes, the sorrow for the loss of Morgelyn and the joy and excitement he felt for Vasya. There was a warmth, almost like a glow around him, that bespoke the love and commitment to his family. Gero felt privileged that Mikhael would share it with him. He well understood Mikhael’s pain where it came to Morgelyn, the pain of having a child to whom he could only tell stories about their mother. Vasya was lucky to have such a warm and open father. As he looked at Mikhael, the firelight reflecting in the fierce, stormy blue eyes, Thunderchild reminded him of Mathias more than ever before, even if the words echoed the memory of his father. “They may be right,” he replied eventually. “In suggesting you marry, in the assumption that marriage will be good for you. But they cannot make the right person find you. Your father was in a similar situation for a long time of his reign, having no heir and being beset by many to finally marry. Twice he came close to marrying whoever was chosen for him…”
A fond smile flitted over Gero’s features, remembering that discussion. Back then he had been less amused, today it was the fond memory of a friend’s antics. “He insisted someone else choose for him, which of course came to nothing. It was a happy day when he met your mother, the Lady Sonja.” Looking up, Gero met Mikha’s eyes, the fondness very much extending to Thunderchild. “And I very much hope that you too will find such love, such a partner as the years pass.”
“Of course you are right,” Mikhael answered although he flopped back into his chair in uncharacteristic frustration. “I was aware that mother and father met through an arrangement so I know that sincere attachments can still form whether I choose and court my future bride or someone else does the choosing.”
Thunder pealed in the distance as the blizzard once again intensified. Mikhael extended his senses to connect with the raging storm, and his eyes lightened a bit. “This snow will be with us for at least three more days,” he predicted, knowing Gero would follow his sudden shift in topic. It was the fourth blizzard since Samhain, and the snow was piled several feet deep in places with drifts even higher. He waved a hand signaling he was done with the topic of his future wife and deftly turned the subject, “Is all well in Caer Draenár? Is there anything needed once the weather abates enough?” It was remotely possible that Mikhael could deflect the storm briefly if Gero knew of anything the Wyr needed. It was not something he could do lightly as the storm would likely return to treble its current strength as the Threefold Law held true in all things.
Sometimes Gero marveled at the sense, the accuracy and affinity Mikhael had with the winds, with the storms, and especially with thunder and lightning. Thunderchild, the name expressed something that had no other expression, except in moments like this when a part of Mikhael seemed to be out there, flying with the winds. “Caer Draenár is well,” Gero replied, turning to the question. “Teclador came down the other day, and he was one ruffled Raven for the journey in the wind. Oréas and some others who are here might make the journey up, to be there for the Finding Home festival.” The feast celebrated and remembered their arrival in Cymeria which had been in the depths of winter. It was a young tradition, but nothing any of them would miss if they could help it. “To be honest, a run through the storm might quench his itchiness a bit, he hates being indoors so much and certainly annoys Scyrane when he is working on his scrolls.” It did not need saying that both of them were here so much because of their Raven duties.
“Perhaps, if all is well here, I can attend this year? Maybe travel up with Oréas,” Mikhael replied. “I was laid up with that leg injury last year.” Near to Yule, Mikhael had taken a nasty fall while skiing down a treacherous slope on Daranau Eira’s lower flanks. Mikhael considered it a duty to show how much having the Wyr settled in Harkania meant to House Stormdanovich, but far more than that, he considered it a privilege. He also loved any opportunity to travel to the high mountain valley and spend time with other Chimera, even if bearding his grandmother in her domain was a tad intimidating.
“You would be most welcome,” Gero replied, knowing how much the Wyr would love having Mikhael there on that day of celebration. He might ask Rakaris to join Oréas for the journey, though the bear Wyr would be an asset if they had to make their way through the snowy mountains.
“I will warn Hawke so he will have time to henpeck and squawk,” Mikhael said, humor lacing his deep voice.
“What have you heard of the world since the Gathering?” Mikhael then asked. “Taliesin roamed the Yule Gathering in the Great Hall tonight but reported little in the way of fallout from the events in D’hassa.”
Gero leaned back in the chair, his eyes straying to the fire. “The dwarven Princes made it home safe and sound, word got back from Rockrunner that they arrived well in time for the Dwarven Winter celebrations. There seems to be some persistent unrest still, which was at the root of the attempt on the King last spring, though it seems to calm down a bit. Some other issues there may cause some small upheavals, matters of clan feuds and clan debts mainly.”
So much for the easy news, the things that were not threatening. “Aquitaine is more of a worry,” Gero went on. “Shortly after the ceremonies in D’hassa, one of my people there sent a hurried message that King Aedan might be dead or dying - the word he used in his message is such an old-fashioned term, it might well mean murder. Only days after he sent that message he was injured in a squabble. Whispertail got away alive, as the squabble was not aimed at exposing him, he was mainly caught in the backwash of some of his contacts in Aquitaine. He is now hiding out in the wilds, healing and watching from afar. Spitfire let me know about him, she also let on that Phoenix has a message he needs to get out, but is moving in too strongly guarded areas to risk our usual messengers. Iris of Coldstorm Dawn said she will take that one herself and is already on her way North. I hope she will make it back safely.”
“That is grave news, my friend,” Mikhael said solemnly. “King Aedan is not a friend of Cymeria, in the deeper sense as are the Dwarrow, but he is not an outright enemy either. That was proved at the Ceremony of Oaths. If he is lost and Galahed ascends to the throne, things will change little. If another, more fanatical person manages to take the throne…” His voice trailed off as he considered the various ramifications. “If another takes the throne, we will have to add more security to any Cymeri traveling in or near Aquitaine. We should make sure we have a few elite escort units prepared, perhaps make sure they are free of our unholy arcane taint.” An eyebrow lifted in amusement.
“Having the escorts ready just in case is a good idea. It might also be helpful to send word to King Darghain in Tynar-Dazûr for he certainly has more diplomatic influence in Aquitaine than any other ruler I could name. In case there truly is a new King - or civil unrest, not to mention a true war of succession - we might need such influence.” Gero suggested. He wished Iris was already back, but even if the Raven-Wyr strained herself to the limit, it would be at least another week for her to return and likely more. Phoenix moved in dangerous areas, places where a Wyr risked discovery almost at once. Picking his message up and getting it out without exposing him would take the skill of all people involved and Spitfire would have her hands full.
“Good point, Gero,” Mikhael agreed about King Darghain. “When you are ready to send your missive, I will add my own as well. It will not carry more weight, but it will show courtesy and Cymeria’s true friendship to the Dwarrow. It might be coming the time again, shortly, to consider an emissary mission to Tynar-Dazûr. Hawke will hate it, but we can use the portals thus cutting down travel time and exposure.”
“With Aquilone being what it is, and Aquitaine becoming restless, using the portal to travel to Tynar-Dazûr would be the wiser option.” Gero agreed wholeheartedly. He sometimes wondered about the risks the Dwarven Royal took with their sons. But then… no one in his right mind wanted to fight a dwarven blood feud which would come out of any murder of them. “I have nothing else, excepting a few amusing rumors about the Vanir, a Sea-Serpent and some other oddities.”
Mikhael chuckled and rose to refresh their mugs of tea before settling back in his chair and once again stretching his feet to the fire. “I cannot wait to hear Vanir rumors. It will lighten the atmosphere as we were getting far too serious on Yule night.”
As the storm continued to rage, the two men talked of the Vanir, sea-serpents and other matters closer to home. In the High Lord’s mind, there was no better way to welcome the Return of the Light.
~*~ FINIS ~*~