I have just come back from a Fire. Sitting in the Dark around a Fire. With friends. A Community Fire. A Sacred Fire. I want to write about it more. I also want to write about the night before and how the Hollydog took us on an adventure into the Dark. I want to write more about the value of the Dark.
But it is very late. And I am very tired.
So, instead, I am just going to give you today’s gift. It’s a story that I have been working on for some time. At some point, I hope it will be a book. This is the opening chapter:
The people gathered.
Tell us a story.
Once there was a girl…
No, that’s not the story. Tell us the story.
Once there was a boy.
No. Tell us the story.
Once there was a prince.
Once there was a prince. He was handsome and brave and true. He lived in a castle and slew all the dragons so that nobody was afraid anymore. He married a beautiful princess. She was gentle and kind and true. They were very happy. They had two beautiful healthy children. Everyone was happy. No-one was afraid. There were no more dragons. Everyone was happy. Everyone was safe. Everyone was happy.
Everyone was happy.
Except for the girl.
And the boy.
We don’t want to hear about them. Tell us about the prince and his family.
Once there was a prince called Dragonslayer and everyone was happy.
Then, one day, a stranger came to the castle.
The stranger was tall. Taller than the prince. Taller than any of the prince’s men.
He wore no armour but a coat of curious dark fur that shimmered and bristled with a life of its own. And a long cloak of iridescent feathers that were at once all colours and no colours, changing with the wind that seemed to forever rustle through them.
He carried no sword or shield but in his left hand he held a simple wooden staff. The prince noticed that where the staff touched the ground the earth itself seemed to rise up to greet it, bursting with the dance of worms and beetles.
Then the stranger spoke. His voice was the sound of tree limbs breaking in a storm.
“Monstrous change is coming to this kingdom. Change as cold as the bottom of the deep well. Change as hot as the heart of the furnace. Change that will make the seas boil. Turn your meadows into deserts. Winds will tear your forests from their roots. Rains will wash away your homes. Even your castle will fall.”
Now, the prince was no fool. He knew that it was dangerous for the people to hear the stranger’s words.
“Come, stranger,” he said. “Come into my castle. Warm yourself by my fire. You must be hungry. My tables bear the finest meats. You must be thirsty. My cellars hold the finest wines. Come inside.”
“The fruit of the trees is meat tasty enough for me,” said the stranger. “The dew on the morning grass is sweeter to me than any wine. And no fire will warm me like the sun on my back. Castle walls hold no comfort for me. Outside is my place.”
The prince smiled. “ But you have clearly travelled a long way. You must be tired. My beds hold the softest feathers. My sheets are made of the softest cloth. Come inside.”
“No bed is softer than the bosom of Mother Earth.” sighed the stranger. “No covering gentler than the breath of the Wind. Outside is my place.”
The prince responded quickly. “But it will soon be dark and the woods are full of danger at night. If you are out alone, the wolves will hunt you down. They will eat your flesh and leave your eyes for the crows to peck come the morning. Come inside.”
This time it was the stranger who smiled. “Sister Wolf lies by my side as I sleep and whispers news of the troubles of men. Brother Crow flies to my shoulder at dawn and cries warnings of the troubles of men. Dark Night is The Holder of Truth. My place is Outside.”
At this, the prince lost his patience. “If Outside is your place, so be it.” and he ordered his guards to drag the stranger into the forest. The stranger, despite his greater size and strength, made no effort to resist. The prince smiled to himself, happy that none of his subjects had heard the stranger and his foolish prophecies of Change.
And none had heard. Save one. For the girl was employed by the prince to sweep and clean some of the less important rooms of the palace. And on this particular evening she had been working later than usual. She had been late to begin as her mother was ill and there was no-one else to look after her. But she had to finish the cleaning. The prince became angry if things were not just so. And so it was that she was sweeping the room directly above the castle gate at the exact time that the prince met the stranger there. She heard it all. The prophecy, the meat, the wine, the feathers, the sheets, the wolf and the crow. The inside and the outside.
Wait a minute. This sounds like the girl’s story.
No. It’s still the prince’s story. It just involves the girl a little at this point.
Ok. That’s alright then. Carry on with the story.
So, the girl finished her sweeping as quickly and as quietly as possible. Then she carefully left the spotless room, taking great care to lock the heavy door ever so silently behind her. Without a sound, she swiftly crossed the darkening courtyard and left the castle’s confines behind her.
She and her mother lived in a tiny cottage right at the edge of the village, close to the forest. It still fell within the village boundary. Still benefited from the protection of the village. But from it they could smell the damp breath of the forest. Feel its fertile pulse as they sat by its fire. It sat with feet in two worlds. At the edge that divides Inside from Outside.
The girl and her mother liked living there. But many of the villagers looked upon them with suspicion. Witch. Changeling. They had learned to live with such words.
The mother was indeed a Wise Woman. Though she was ill, she would have been dead long ago, had she not known of the particular herbs to eat, roots to pound, leaves to infuse. She had the Knowledge. She knew about the Old Ways. Practised them in secret since the prince had made them wrong-doings. Kept herself living so that her daughter would not be alone.
And she was wise enough to know when her daughter was keeping a secret to herself.
“It is some time since you saw the boy,” said the mother, the following morning. “why don’t you go and see how he is? You know that I worry about him.” For she was wise enough to know that her daughter needed to share the secret. And wise enough to know that she would not burden her mother with the secret but might share it with the boy. “Go along now. Find him. He will be in his place. He always is.”
And so, the girl set off to find the boy.
Wait. Is this the boy’s story now? What about the prince?
It is still the prince’s story. The boy is merely a part of it. Please be patient.
And the princess?
Carry on then.
The boy was not of the village. He did not belong. Everyone knew that. He was odd. He walked with a limp. His right hand was withered. He spoke unusually slowly and quietly. Almost a whisper. They said that his father had been a blacksmith in another village on the far side of the forest. One day his son had stolen a ride on a horse waiting to be shod. A snake had frightened the horse. It had bolted into the forest. The boy had fallen and struck his head against a rock. His foot caught in a stirrup, the boy had been dragged deep into the forest. He was missing for a month and a week until he emerged on the other side of the forest. Filthy, confused, barely able to speak. It was the house of the girl and the mother that he came to first. Lucky for him, as they felt sorry for him, showed him nothing but kindness. He would not venture inside the house, so they left food, water and blankets outside for him. He took them and built himself a small camp just inside the forest. Far enough in so that the villagers (who were afraid of the forest) would not bother him. Close enough for them not to forget about him. To know that he was there. Watching. Waiting. Holding his space. A part of them. Even though he did not belong.
It was to this camp that the girl went, desperate to share what she had heard with someone. The boy was there as her mother had said he would be. Sitting on the trunk of a fallen tree. Enjoying the warmth of the morning sun in the rays that shone through the space left by the tree’s fall. The light seemed to dance around the boy. The gentle hum of insects spreading life hung like a caring blanket about his small body. There was a gentle smile playing around his lips that made the girl immediately feel lighter, less troubled. He always had this effect upon her. His presence somehow reassured her that everything, in the end, was alright. She too smiled and stepped towards him. But, as she did so, she noticed a figure hidden in the shade of the trees behind the boy. Tall. Taller than any man in the village. And in his left hand carrying a staff.
The girl flinched instinctively.
“Do not be afraid,” said the boy. “He is a friend. He has come to tell us where to find dragons.”
No. Stop. We don’t want to hear this story. This is not the right story. Tell us about the prince.
But the girl and the boy are important. What they do changes everything.
No. We don’t want to hear about them. Tell us about the prince. Tell us that story.
The prince. Tell us about the prince.
Once there was a prince. He killed all the dragons. He married a beautiful princess. They had beautiful children. Who grew up to be princes and princesses. Nothing changed. All the dragons were dead. Everyone was safe. Everyone was happy.
Yes. Everyone is safe. Everyone is happy. Nothing changes. This is the story. We like this story. Tell it to us again.
After hearing the story again, the people went to their beds and slept well.
Except for a few.