Daughter of Midwinter

 

Sairead watched the snow lightly drift down over the rolling waves lapping at the beach. A soft white blanket of fresh snow covered the rocky shore and Sairead felt the cold wind blow off the water. Sairead didn’t mind the cold, it refreshed her, made her, made her feel more awake, more alive.

Ciaran barked and jumped through the freezing water, the old white wolf playing like a pup. Sairead was fifteen this day, but Ciaran had many years on her, the old wolf had been grown when she had come into the world, and he was as defensive as her own parents.  She knelt down and called him to her, the wolf sped to her but not before rolling in the snows like a great puppy.

“Come on, you!” she laughed brushing the fur from his white fur. “Your a wolf older than I am, not some Vinland pup.”

Ciaran merely panted and followed her into up the rocky slope into the forest. The snowfall had been late this year, and many of the leaves still stubbornly clung to the branches, though frost had taken them and turned them into a deep shade of brown. Sairead slowly walked along the trail to her castle home hoping that the Midwinter ceremonies and feast had not yet begin.

“You’re right, Ciaran,” Sairead smiled. “We still have plenty of time. We won’t start the celebrations until sunset.”

Ciaran looked at her with his ice blue eyes and gave a gruff snort, signalling his disapproval of thirteen year old Sairead’s whims.

“Ach! You’re just a dog. I just want to check on the snow owls’ nest. We’ll have plenty of time.”

Sairead walked further into the forest to find a massive wayward pine  standing admist the smaller pines and close to barren birches and oaks. She tip-toed in the snow conscious of the crunching beneath her boots. She hoped to not scare away the mother snow owl. It was cold and she wasn’t sure if the mother would flee, leaving her eggs to freeze if frightened. She pushed back a bough heavy with dark green needles to find the white owls nestled together, their eyes closed, perhaps sleeping for the day. The two had been nesting for perhaps about a week. Maybe the snow owls eggs would hatch soon.

“Aren’t they the most beautiful creatures you’ve seen?”  she whispered delicately.

Ciaran again snorted. “Aside from you of course.”

Before the massive owls could wake Sairead brushed back the heavy bough and turned to walk away. She walked slowly as to not scare the nocturnal creatures. Snow owls were mysterious creatures Sairead and her sisters had always marveled in. The appeared always with the first snow fall into the forest and nested for their newborns. On the night of midwinter many of the owls would migrate back to where ever they came from, leaving only a few mother owls to look after the brood of fledgelings. Once the first crocuses and other early spring blooms began to sprout the snow owls would vanish as quickly as they appeared. Sairead thought once to take an egg and raise a snow owl of her own, but it just didn’t seem right.

Ciaran began growling as she walked along the path to her home. His features contorted as he bared his teeth, his blue eyes fixed between two large white trees. Sairead had never seen this side of Ciaran before, and frankly, it frightened her.  “W–What is it, Cia–”

Before Sairead could finish she her sentence a flurry of snow fell from the sky blowing all around her. She lost sight of all that was around her and she could hear Ciaran’s pained howls over the screaming wind and flurries. She tried to scream, call out for help, but the swirling snows and wind silenced her. The last thing Sairead recalled was a slender from walking calming through the snows before everything went black.

“Awaken, child,”  she heard someone speak.

Sairead slowly opened her eyes to see an a very small pale woman with long white hair and silver eyes. Ciaran still slept huddled closely to Sairead, they were on a pallet inside a cave. She could hear the dripping of water from the stalagmites and in the distance the sounds of the ocean far below the honeycomb caves.

“What…Who are you?” she coughed.

The woman smiled and knelt beside her. “I am a friend. I walk among the snows and in the water. I have come along way to see you. I was away from this place a very long time, healing on the isle of Abhelainn.”

“Abhelainn? But–”

“I have a message for you, your highness,” she smiled lightly stroking the sleeping wolf’s head. Ciaran surprisingly didn’t immediately wake to snap at her.

“A message? So you don’t want to harm me?”

“Gods and spirits, no!” the woman removed a small glowing silver orb from under her white and silver fringed mantle. “This is the Star of Aillundale. Long ago several sidhe and the Great Dragon plucked a star from the heavens and used their magic to encase it in this glass orb. The star is delicate and can only be handled very few. It was said that the when placed on the sacred Crann Na Knellblain it would lead us to the last of the Cara Sidhe. It is said that the lost descendant of the last druid king.”

Sairead blinked at the woman with suspicious eyes , uncertain why she was taken by this strange woman. “Why do you think I can handle it?”

The woman turned away for a moment to look out the mouth of the cave watching the mists roll over the winter sea. The wind tossed her silver hair behind with her cloak dancing in the breeze. Sairead took to her feet and walked to the cave mouth with Ciaran padding behind her. The wolf nudged his great white head against the pale woman’s hand comforting her. He let out a small whining sound as the woman scratched behind his ear.

“I once knew your family, so many years ago. It was a hard time, and war broke out. They were hard times. Things are much better now, but I have had visions signalling the coming of a great darkness that only the direct descendant of the Druid King can bring to a stop. I believe you’re able to bear the light of the Star of Aillundale because he was your great uncle. At sunset tonight place the orb on the tree and look for the signs. They will lead you to the queen who will bring fight back the darkness and bring forth a new age of peace and prosperity. ”

“If you knew my uncle and grandfather, you must be at least..” Sairead thought for a moment eyeing the wolf who had suddenly taken so kindly to her.  Ciaran hated strangers, all his life he only took to members of the family, even servants could not go near him. This woman was somehow different…it was as if he knew her. “You must be a sidhe?”

The silver lady smiled and turned back to Sairead. “Blessed by the fey, maybe, but I am no sidhe.”

“Then who…”

Before Sairead could finish her sentence the snows began to began to blow into the cave spiraling  around the woman’s form. The wind howled, echoing in the tunnels of the cave before she vanished. With the vanishing of the woman Ciaran let out a mournful howl. Sairead looked downward but only saw the waves rolling far below them.

***

“What is it Sairead?”  asked her sister Sorcha as the family filed out into the forest holding silver lanterns. “You seem troubled.”

“Yes,” her sister Saille interjected coming up behind them. “You look as though you’ve seen a ghost!”

Sairead cringed at her sister’s idea. The pale woman might have been some strange apparition, she had appeared so suddenly through the flurries and disappeared just as quickly.  She tightened her cloak around her holding the Yule lantern high, and hiding the star beneath her mantle, Ciaran and her older sisters following close behind her.

It was a long and winding path through the forest, but Sairead’s clan found their way to the towering wayward that Sairead had seen so much earlier.

“Friends!” called out their mother, who was clad in a white robe with holly upon her brow. Since the king died their mother had taken to leading the clan ceremonies. “We have gathered here today to recognize the passing of the long winter’s nights. The King of Oak grows stronger as the King of Holly wanes in strength, sacrificing his life for the his growing counterpart.We recognize the King of Holly’s sacrifice and the passing of the Druid Kings. To commemorate the Holly King’s sacrifice and the rebirth of the Oak King we shall hang our lanterns from the bows of the Crann Na Knellblaine.”

 The people of the clan gathered before the tree forming a circle as the sky turned into a deep orange. Sairead watched the bright red sun sink below the sea of conifer tops. This was the moment that she was waited for, if she was going to place the star on the tree, she had to do it now. Taking in a deep breath Sairead took the small silver orb from her green mantle and gently placed it on the tree bough.

“Sairead!” Saille gasped grabbing her arm.

Sairead turned her head to where her sister had pointed. The Star of Aillandale was growing in intensity, the silver light filtered through the darkening sky in waves reaching skyward, giving the giant conifer an other worldly glow.  The other clan members jumped back and stared at Sairead, Sorcha and Saille, gaping. Sairead turned to her sisters and saw the silver light of the star cast down on Saille, and a diadem of stars appeared in her dark red hair, her emerald eyes staring at her hands shocked at the glow.

“What..what’s…?”

Sairead suddenly knew what this meant and knelt in the snow before the cousin she thought was her sister. “Clan Dunbroil! The Star of Aillandale had crowned the next Queen of the West. Long live Queen Saille!”

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