Part 1: A Time Before Time
Once upon a time, an ancient time when there was, as yet, no time, a mighty forest was born.
The first small trees seeded and suckered, fruited and grew. Tall and tiny and in-between, the trees prospered and became a wood. And soon that wood made a forest.
From the western shores, where magical whales slept beneath grass-topped dunes, it bent its communal head inland, shaped by gusty zephyrs and buffeted by storms. Lashed by rain and sleet and snow, but soothed by summer sun.
And the forest spread wide and far. Through winding valleys it strode. Marched across moors, clambered through vales to reach the eastern shore. Where it came to a halt, fearing the cliffs which rose to the land – but tumbled down to the ocean.
This burgeoning forest was home to many a creature. Creatures who crawled and climbed, delved and slithered, leapt and hopped and flew.
Now, though this was a time of no time – as humans measure it – still the seasons would change.
The dawning sun would rise, the sun of twilight set. The lucent moon would wax and wane and the world turned, warmed by the same bright star we know.
It’s winter in that forest now. For though it is long since gone, to ships and firewood, chairs and doorways, still the great wood lives. Mysterious, unfathomable. Real, in an unreal way.
Tall trees vie with each other to snare pale light from the distant sun. Branches of oak and ash are leafless skeletons, black against frosty skies. But still there are needles and leaves and berries, trapping each struggling ray before it can reach the earth.
And at the foot of these ancient trees lie shreds of decaying branches.
Leaves, damp and rotting.
Fungi spreading their spores.
And tiny creatures beneath the ground returning the dead to life.
No mortals live in the forest, yet. But in its dark heart, in this deep, ancient winter long before time, a band of forest folk dwells.
And for these folk of the forest, the season approaches for the great winter gathering.
For four nights between sunset and sunrise, under four magical darkenings, these forest folk will harvest the gifts of the skies. Catch lights to shine in the midwinter gloom, when the sun stops and seemingly endless night sets in.
Solstice, humans name it.
On those four nights the forest folk unfurl their woodbine ropes. Hang their silken ladders from lofty branches. Climb to the treetops, where ivy shelters their comings and goings.
There, beneath heart-shaped leaves, they stow their soft grey baskets, woven of thistledown freed by the autumn winds. And they fold pale nets, spun by spiders in sharp spring light, when the nets that are now invisible to any but forest-folk eyes, could yet be seen.
And as dark night saturates spaces between the trees, light catchers climb to their tops and wait. Their task – to capture hope from the dome of the dark.
The sky arches, velvet and black. A host of celestial creatures weeps new stars, crystal tears which twinkle and burn with a brilliant light while shooting down to earth.
Casting their pale nets wide, forest folk capture those falling stars. And this they do for three long nights.
When the fourth night comes and the silent sun stops, the precious stars in their feather-soft baskets are carefully borne to the ground.
Then all the forest folk join in joyful singing. Songs without words (for words are not yet invented), but songs of many meanings, which tell many tales.
Songs of sweet water, bubbling forth from rocks.
Of the taste of nectar that only the honeybees know.
Of how the wind blows – and why the pale moon hides.
Of the exquisite song of the phoenix, dying to rise again.
And while they sing, they hang the forest’s darkling heart with their sparkling treasure.
Glittering jewels swing from each twig and thorn, shimmer from silken threads and tremble on fragile cobwebs.
And now that the sun has stopped, the jewels burn with a different light.
The nocturnal woodland is dappled with colour.
Blue as a sapphire in moonlight.
Red as a ruby in firelight.
Green as a glacier seen from the sea.
But one alone is silver.
Vivid as hoar frost on black ivy berries.
And this one, piercing white light is hung at the top of a special tree, dressed with the finest of jewels.
Tall holly, a magical tree.
Her leaves flourish through winter’s depths, darkest green, gleaming and gilded. And now the forest folk garnish her branches with crystals of blue and emerald jewels. Of rubies she has no need, for her crimson berries, juicy and lush, are bursting and bright and challenge the night.
But a star shines from her crown, this queen of the winter woodland.
And so. As the night deepens and frost dances, their task of lighting the endless night done, the little folk – they are slender and slight – may rest.
Thus it has happened, season upon season and will for many more. But a winter will come when the edge of the forest is changing.
And with it, time begins …