Of Avalon and Mistletoe: A Solstice Carol, by Shawn MacKenzie

As you ease your belts around the Harvest table and dread the forced clamor of commercialism in the weeks ahead, be cheered by the promise of marvels to come. This is not the province of any particular tenet or faith, but the product of the season, natural as decay and rebirth, the darkness of December slipping into New Year’s light. The strange and mysterious have blizzarded about Solstice since time immemorial. Understand this or nothing miraculous will come from what I am about to tell you.

Cast your minds back to Europe of long ago when the world was hard and bitter as a manticore’s revenge. In 353 A.D. Magentius the Usurper lost his hold on the reins of Rome, a failure which sent disastrous ripples through the worlds of Celt and Pict and Faërie folk not to mention the dragons, unicorns, and other mystical beings. His successor, Constantius II, a man far less tolerant of others’ beliefs, sent his murderous proxy, Paulus “The Chain” Catena, to scour Britannia from villa to village for any who had given even a wink of support to the Usurper. Regardless of guilt or innocence, by mid-summer so many decked in woad and tartan fell to Catenan zeal that the ground beneath garrisoned feet oozed with blood-red mire.

This was the biting reality of 353.

But a Solstice tale should not be awash in blood and tears—at least not overly so—and, at heart, this is a story for mulled wine and warm hearth, for music and joy and the festive remembrance of infinite possibilities.

Samhain—All Hallows—was past, the balance of the equinox tipping towards the sun’s yearly demise. Throughout West Britain, within sight of Ynys Afallon’s—Avalon’s—misted shores, the winds were shifting with purpose. Squalls blew in off the Severn Sea, heavy with the scent of roane and rime frosting gorse and field. The bare-kneed, thin-shod legionnaires were miserable. With logic only bureaucrats understand, Paulus Catena was sent south into Egypt as punishment for his excesses. While he basked along the Nile, his former cohorts traipsed from The Wash to the River Exe, from Hadrian’s Wall to Londinium, armor stiffening in the cold, weary feet courting a lifetime of chilblains. Snow would fall before the next moon and every mile marched would feel like three. It did not help that all the good will Magentius built up had been destroyed in less than a year. Catena’s slash-and-burn policy left Britons ruled by fear and want, longing for a time when life, labor, politics, and belief could again be called one’s own. It would be a hard winter.

Though not for all.

Numinous and rare, Avalon moved in its own temporal sphere, the outer world touching her shores with all the weight of a damselfly on Stonehenge. The grass was still lush, the gardens abuzz with bees, and orchards sweet with burdened boughs. A passion of unicorns, gravid with the next generation, enjoyed the late boon of field and tree and kept the air alive with anthems of thanks given. Spiral horns tipped in sunlight, the youngest played blink tag with fox and badger—though the badgers, too slow to keep up, soon chuffled off to loll among the tree crickets in a forest of late-blooming amaranth and fairy flax.

In the cicada’s cadence, Siduri, the Lady of the Isle, felt the rhythm of scythe and flail. With harvest-calloused fingertips she brushed a shock of graying hair out of her eyes and smiled. Her land might not feel winter as deeply as the mundane world, still the course of plant and star and soil would not be denied. Oats, gleaned and threshed, topped the granaries, and ricks of hay and straw were piled high for fodder, pallet, and thatch. Now apples begged to be pressed, cheeses turned, and herbs and fish dried. Add to that the preparations for Solstice festivities and Avalon was a hive of motion and mirth, with all hands, from the Lady and her bandrui to the Faërie  tribes, pitching in.

“Siduri—Lady!” Brenna’s raven eyes flashed as she ran down from the standing stones, the urgency in her watchful voice cutting distance so clean and quick that even the unicorns stopped their play.

The Lady placed her hand on the bandrui’s arm. “You’ve become an owl amongst dormice, Brenna, rousing us with your screech! Less noise, more purpose.”

“It’s the Bard of Caer Durnac. Mahri saw his approach in the scrying pool. She said to tell you he travels like a haunted wolf, hackles up and teeth bare. And with an enchantment of dragons at his back!”

A flicker of joy played across the Lady’s face: they hadn’t had dragons on the Sacred Isle since Claudius shattered the peace of Britain’s weyrs. Yet, delightful as the prospect was, their coming could only mean something sinister was afoot. Siduri worried her brow: seductive as the comforts of home were, had they kept her too long from the outer world? Beneath the seal-dappled sky, the wind rose up, chill as a wyvern’s whisper, swirling around her with a resounding, “Yes!”

***********

“Have you ever heard of anything so ridiculous? Harboring dragons to use as weapons! It’s absurd!” Caelan the Bard paced the chamber, the iron ferrule on his staff ringing against the polished flagstones. “Outlander mentality, obviously.”

“Obviously.” Siduri studied the slope of his shoulder, the slow bend in his knee. “Bard, I am a woman of the mists, you, a man of the world. Yet we both know this is no more about dragons than high summer is about gooseberries. Stop pounding holes in my floor and tell me what you need of me.”

No one crossed the Lady, not in her own hall. Caelan sat, the tension he’d held since leaving Caer Durnac draining from his body like the mead he drained from his cup. He hated it when she was right. Wiping the sweet brew from his beard, he rubbed his brow and loosed a growl that bore the weight of the world. “Oh, Siduri, it is madness out there. That monster Paulus is gone, but the soldiers left behind are bored and armed. Goddess save us from idle Romans! They see enemies everywhere—demons of guilt behind every tree. Their lies about dragons and uprisings are just the latest excuse to pillage and destroy.”

“Our unusual friends make them uncomfortable, especially those who breathe fire.”

Caelan snorted. “Shows how little they know.” His eyes narrowed as visions of flaming aerial assaults danced in his head complete with cohorts running for their lives. Oh, if only the dragons were as fierce as feared; but at the end of the day, they were like everyone else and just wanted to be left alone. Shaking the revelry loose, he refilled his cup and drank deep. “Of course the tribes are harboring dragons. Even Avalon has given enchantments sanctuary in the past.”

“And will gladly do so again. As well they know. Your loyalty is admirable, Caelan, but they do not need your voice here. To the point, Bard.”

Mead-bold, the druid gripped his staff and stood: never ask the Lady’s aid sitting on your ass. “True,” he pitched his words with care. “The dragons can speak loud enough for themselves. But the people of coomb and croft, they need my voice. Out there, Lady, beyond your golden groves, the cold has turned soil to stone. Without fuel or fare, human and beast will starve. Rick and cote have been burned, stores have been stolen. Solstice will be dark and bring slow death, not clean and quick as blade or wyvern’s claw.”

“What do you seek?”

“Justice. Taking back what is ours. Setting things right.”

“Spoils for spoils, life for life.”

“It is within the power of the Sacred Isle, Lady. Within your power.”

“Ask hedgehogs for blood before me, Bard. You want vengeance, not justice,” the Lady chided. “It is an uncut Roman wine, heady, briefly satisfying, perhaps, but in the morning—”

“I should have known better than to appeal to a woman who drinks only sweet water,” he snarled. “I was wrong to come, Lady.” With a stiff half-bow, he turned towards the door, regret nipping at his heels. He and the Lady had danced this dance before, his bearish temper threatening to destroy the delicate balance between Druid and Isle. Now his foolish, uncivil words hung in the air, words he could not bring himself to retract. With each step, he prayed Siduri—wiser, more generous than he—would call him back.

The Lady also knew the dance and was not above letting Caelan sweat, just a bit. Then, as he toed the threshold, she gave him the way back he needed. “All or nothing, Bard? Surely you have not travelled all this way to leave empty handed.”

“No, Lady. I have not.” He returned to her table, accepting a proffered cup of sweet Avalon water, cold and bright as a thousand stars, a gentle chastisement. “Fine. Retaliation is out. The enchantments are fuming, though, especially those with queens hounded from the nesting grounds. I can’t promise they will follow your lead.”

“I will talk to them. We’ll see. Violence breeds violence, no more. The outlanders will not last here. Our ways are too wild, our climate too bleak. But that will take care of itself. We can only hope not to make things worse.”

“You would do nothing?”

“I would do what you asked: find a way to help the land that her children might survive. That is my word to you, the justice of Avalon. Now go. I must think.”

***********

Siduri took the long spiral trail to the standing stones, each step measured by failure. Since her meeting with Caelan, she’d walked the Isle from end to end, negotiating with dragons, brainstorming with human and Faërie until dusk darkened to night and exhaustion was all she had left. Despite the Isle’s abundance, Avalon alone could not replace all that had been lost.

Voiceless beneath a waning lick of moon, the stones gave cold comfort. The Lady leaned against them, longing to fade into their stronger existence, to feel their wisdom wrap around her like gryphon wings. Instead, defeat laughed in the wind, and she felt winter’s bitter promise leeching warmth and life from the earth.

With the stealth of a good deed in an evil world, Myddrn, matriarch of the Avalon passions, stepped out of the shadows, moonlight magnified like elfin fire as it danced along her spiraled horn. Only the subtle whiff of unicorn oil auguring her arrival kept the Lady from shying out of her skin. [1]

It is said, “When things go from bad to wretched, trust the touch of a unicorn.” And Siduri did just that. Draping her arm across the hind’s neck, she tangled fingers in mane, holding on for dear life. Power spoke to power and, in the language of the senses, her mind streamed through sounds, tastes, sights, and smells: fresh-turned earth, the whisper of greening and passion song, mulled cider, oat cakes, the blush of dragonfire, the thunder of hooves, the explosive lightning of mistletoe’s golden bough.

This was Solstice Magic, older than memory, savory with life’s blood and wonder no legion could diminish. Siduri laughed the dread from her soul. Hand on Myddrn’s horn, the two blinked out of the night and into the crowded meeting hall. (Note: do not try this yourselves. Blinking with a unicorn through the other-where/other-when of the universe requires mystical powers few of us in the modern—or ancient—world possess.)

“Impressive,” the Bard said.

“I know.” Siduri straightened her robe. “A real crowd pleaser.” She surveyed the assembled humans, Faëries, even new-come gnomes and elves before her. “Well, I see nothing travels like trouble….Friends—friends! Caelan brought us the pain of the outland and asked us not to share, but to ease it. There is no wave of the hand—not even mine—that can put the world right. The damage runs too deep. But Solstice is fast upon us. The whole worldw is begging for renewal and that runs even deeper. Together, four-legs and two, we can raise a little Solstice magic not even the Romans will expect. Now, who fancies a ride on a dragon?”….

For the next two days, a divine method infused the madness swirling about Avalon. With precision that would put air-traffic controllers to shame, dragons came and went with riders and sacks of mistletoe fresh-gleaned from every sacred oak between Stonehenge and Lyn Tegid. Meanwhile, on the ground, unicorns from across Britain were massing with a blink and a song, eager for their task to come. To the rhythm of a monocere symphony, gnomes and other land-lovers bound the golden boughs into garlands and kept the hearths warm, the cauldrons full.

By the grace of the Goddess and tireless labors, come Solstice Eve, all was prepared.

In the fading light of day, Siduri stood at the center of the stone circle surrounded by beings both mystical and mundane. Every unicorn was wreathed in mistletoe, every dragon fire-ready; the wee folk pranced among the shadows and perched on human shoulders, the better to see over taller heads. All eyes turned to the Lady, willing her to manifest the grandeur of the enterprise, to channel the spirit of the healing to come.

This was her test; she could not fail.

In wordless benediction, Siduri struck staff to soil, plunging into the heart of the Isle. Like a lightning rod, she collected the energy of life and land, the power of world and sky, of dark moon and coming light. Then, with open arms, she cast it back in a wave that could only be called blessed.

On the back of the Lady’s gift, the passions and enchantments departed. Two unicorns and one dragon together, they went forth. At every legion-parched field and hamlet patch, every paddock, cote, and sty, they stopped. The unicorns crushed the sacred juice of the mistletoe beneath their hooves and blessed the land with their horns—two of the most potent draws on nature’s fertile ways in the known universe. Alone, they were seasonally strong; combined and augmented by the Lady’s blessing, they carried the green quick of Avalon even through the frozen wastes of winter. But extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures: a temperate whoosh of dragon’s breath annealed the mix. In a matter of hours, the snows melted, soil warmed and healed. Crops, grass, and gardens sprouted out of season, and litters came preternaturally early, abundant and hale.

“Drink this, Lady,” Caelan pressed a cup of honeyed wine into the Lady’s magic-paled hand as she studied their progress in the scrying pool.

“You would ply me with strong drink, sir?”

“Ha! I know better. Your healer sent it, wheat cakes, too. She said something about you not knowing what’s good for you.”

“You all worry too much. I am fine.” But she nibbled on a cake, just the same.

By morning all had returned, their wondrous work done, as such things are, all in one night. The Isle was filled with music and joy and extra apples and sweet grass for the passions. The dragons were too many and too hungry for Avalon’s means and so flew off to the Severn Sea, though I have it on good authority that many returned later to party.

In the outland, hardship was lessoned, tragedy forestalled. Briton and Roman woke with the returning sun to what could only be called a miracle. Life pulsed through the good earth, cheering peasant, noble, and shivering conscript, even giving the most cynical centurion pause. As the marrow of their bones warmed, so did tempers, and for a while, at least, the land knew a peace as much needed as air.

In the years to come, Caelan of Caer Durnac became a frequent visitor to Ynys Afallon, treasuring tranquil days learning to speak unicorn and conversing with the Lady. But even druids cannot outrun time. As his beard paled and his bard’s voice rasped with age, his outland duties became more burden than pleasure. Each step abroad pounded his joints and even the intrigue he’d once so relished tasted stale as week-old bread. When he was confident his successor was properly trained up, he accepted Siduri’s invitation and leant his staff beside Avalon’s hearth for good.

What happened to Siduri, no one knows for sure. That is the way with the Ladies of the Sacred Isle. But her work, especially on that one winter’s night, lived after her.

As long as horns are sharp and dragons fly, Bards sing this carol of Solstice wonder, of joyful embrace and gratitude shared beneath the golden bough. And, though much is past remembering, mistletoe—modest mistletoe—is honored still.

______________________

[1] For those of you new to the mystical, a word of explanation: Unicorn oil flows from the horns of both hart and hind and is indicative of emotional wellbeing: unhappy unicorns do not produce unicorn oil. It conjures butterflies from the ether and memories from minds as individual as the pasts that formed them. No one is sure how this is possible, though human perfumers have been trying to duplicate the effect for years. Dragons, with their highly evolved sniffers, suggest it is a rich blend of orange blossoms, cloves, and newborn kittens, laced together with high notes of frankincense, honey, and midnight.

To Whomever
These village fires
Still have meaning
O may your own most secret
& beautiful Animal of Light
Come safely to you.
…-Kenneth Patchen

On certain mornings, as we turn a corner, an exquisite dew falls on our heart and then vanishes. But the freshness lingers, and this, always, is what the heart needs. The Earth must have risen in just such a light the morning the world was born.
-Albert Camus

There must be more to life than having everything. -Maurice Sendak

***

Shawn MacKenzie had her first Dragon encounter when she was four years old and happened upon a copy of The Dragon Green by J. Bissell-Thomas. That was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. A graduate of Bennington College, she’s a writer of sci-fi/fantasy and an editor of crossword puzzles. Her stories have been published in Southshire Pepper-Pot, 2010 Skyline Review, and as a winner of the 2010 Shires Press Award for Short Stories. Shawn is an avid student of myth, religion, philosophy, and animals, real and imaginary, great and small. Thoughts, writings, and ramblings can be found at: http://mackenziesdragonsnest.com.

MacKenzie’s The Dragon Keeper’s Handbook

Find Shawn’s new book The Dragon Keeper’s Handbook on Amazon here (you can look inside!) or find her book at Llewellyn.

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10 Comments

Filed under Guest Writers & Bloggers, Special Events

10 responses to “Of Avalon and Mistletoe: A Solstice Carol, by Shawn MacKenzie

  1. Pingback: A Boxing Day Surprise « MacKENZIE's Dragonsnest

  2. Thanks, Karen–Happy Boxing Day!

  3. theobblog

    Such fabulous writing. You have soul, Shawn! Karen, I am sure you are very proud to feature this special writer here.

  4. karenselliott

    Shawn has a gift. And she works hard. She deserves to be noticed. Love her blog, too!

  5. What a wonderful writing! Shawn, you do have a marvelous talent. Thanks so much for taking the time to share. May your New Year be filled with joy and peace. ~Janet~

  6. Pingback: I thought I was a freaky-good editor…until I met Shawn | Karen S. Elliott's Blog

  7. Elizabeth Cottrell

    What amazing imagery! I am grabbing my dictionary for this one, but what a lesson in the power of unique combinations of words. The hedgehogs “chuffled off to loil…” So much more vivid than “ambled off to laze…” Wonderful writing.

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