Friday, December 30, 2011

And now, amid the biting cold of this longest of nights, comes the sound of bells, the thunder of hoofbeats. The horse seems to scatter the snow before it, as if provided with a wind all its own. The figure that sat it was massive, draped in a deep green mantle or robe bordered with white fur. The face was in shadow, but we knew him by the antlers that sprang from the crown of his head. A wreath of crisp green holly spangled with bright red berries girdled his brow.

"Hail, folk of Exton!" The voice is deep and it echoes throughout the forest, reverberating from every leaf and tree, animal and man and others. "I am the Lord of the Greenwood and the Master of the Hunt. Men have called me the Green Knight, Lord of the Dance, the Holly King and many other names beside. Come, gather round the Yule fire and receive my blessings." We move to obey - some eagerly, some warily - and listen as the Holly King speaks. "In a time so long ago that man lived in rude stone dwellings and the Children of Danu had not been driven Underhill - in such a time, I say, there came a time when the cold winds came and the blossoms withered and the fruits of the earth perished; the nights also were dark and long, and each day was shorter than the day before; and the sons of men feared greatly that the Sun had been dealt a mortal wound and soon would perish utterly. In their desperation the sons of men built great fires to strengthen the Sun, and they decked their dwellings with such plants that still bore up under the Winter's blast, as ivy, holly and mistletoe; for they wished to remind themselves - and perhaps the Sun as well - that life was not utterly extinct, that these things yet endured. And it happened that there came a night longer and darker than all that had come before, and then did the sons of man come together to light their fires and tend them all through the night, and they spoke to the gods, each in his own fashion, and besought them not to let the Sun perish. And it came to pass that the Sun rose again the next morn, and from that day on each day was a little longer, each night a little shorter; and for full twelve days did man make merry, eating and drinking and giving thanks to the gods, and gifts to their fellow men."

Now a light seems to grow among the shadows that shroud the face beneath the antlers, so that his face is visible for the first time. He seems to blur, and for a moment he is gray and grim, with but one eye, the other hidden by a patch, his horse now a tremendous thing with eight legs. I recoil, but recover and quickly count, and this time there can be no mistake. Then he blurs again, and settles again into his previous form. His eye is stern but merry, as though he can barely refrain from laughing; he wears a smile that proves to be contagious, especially among the little ones; and his hair and beard are luxuriant, flowing and pure white.

"Come, children of Exton!" His voice booms across the space between. "Come to me, receive a gift and the blessing of the Holly King."

One by one they come, to sit in his lap and hear his whispered words; and as they return to their parents, they each receive a gaily wrapped gift and a candy cane. Only twice do his words become audible to those around him - once, when Ruarc comes to gaze steadily into his eyes: "So young for so heavy a burden...." - and again, when Kaltero joins him. "The Daemon blood is strong in you, young man. I give you the gift of forbearance." He smiles as Teri looks a question. "Ah, that is a word you do not know. It means to know when your strength should be used - and when it should not - and to use it only when it is truly needed."

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