This is a short story written as a sequel to The Black Swans.
Copyright 2015 by N.W. Moors
All rights reserved. Excerpt for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying, and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the written permission of the author: N.W. Moors, Portland, Maine
The snow in the parking lot was turning a gritty brown from the sand and rock salt that Martha Bean had spread to keep ice from forming. The ice made walking there dangerous. Nola enjoyed watching the birds hop among the trees lining the back lot and she had hung a feeder for them on the edge near where Martha parked her truck. She walked back there every day to fill the feeder again, so she appreciated Martha’s efforts. Right now there were chickadees and nuthatches at the feeder and in the snow beneath it looking for fallen seeds.
Nola rinsed her coffee mug and put it in the drainer. Owen would be home to retrieve her soon. It was the Winter Solstice and they were going out to find a tree to decorate for Christmas.
Wiping her hands Nola turned to check the small kitchen. Living in the apartment on Main Street in Antrim was enjoyable. Nola loved that she and Owen finally had a place they could call their own. It was small, one of two apartments that Martha rented on the second floor over her yarn store, Sheep Knits For Ewe. But the apartment was comfortable and it was easy for Nola to walk to the middle school where she did some part-time music teaching. The school also allowed her the use of a room where she could give private violin lessons.
She would miss this apartment, but she was also excited about her new home. She and Owen had bought a house just a block away. It needed some work and Owen was completing that with the help of her brothers, Finn and Conn. It also had a small barn that they were soundproofing and building into a studio for her violin students.
Nola heard Owen stamping his boots downstairs in the foyer, trying to get the snow off. He would leave them down there and come upstairs in his thick wool socks as quietly as he could in an effort to surprise her. She grinned and wedged herself between the doorway and a cupboard.
The doorknob turned slowly and the door pushed open gradually. Owen peeked his head in, surveying the kitchen, convinced that had finally fooled her. He stepped into the room and Nola jumped out screaming, “Boo!”
Owen clutched at his chest as he spun around to catch her in his arms. She was laughing like a maniac, her black hair falling around her face, and he bent his head to catch her lips in a kiss. That stopped her laughing very quickly and Nola kissed him back, warming his cold lips with her own warm ones.
She pulled her head back. “Gotcha again!”
“You did,” Owen agreed, pulling her tighter against him. “That won’t happen in the new house. I can come inside in too many ways and you won’t be able to guard them all.”
“Not long now.” Nola smiled at her fiance, enjoying his warmth.
“Yes, just a little over a week. The kitchen remodel is almost complete and so is the upstairs bathroom. I wish we didn’t need to take the time to go to Canada.”
Nola slapped at his chest and he released her. “You don’t mean that. You want to visit your family. We haven’t seen them in a while.”
Owen took off his coat and hung it on the back of a kitchen chair, then sat down. “I know. I want to see them, but I could get so much done if we spent the time here.” He sighed and Nola rubbed his shoulders.
“You’re working too hard. We’ll get it all done. But today we’re going to celebrate the Solstice. After that we’ll worry about Christmas, the trip to Canada, and moving into the house.”
“I know.” Owen took Nola’s hand and kissed the back of it. “You’re right. We’ll have fun today.” He pulled her down onto his lap.
“What do we do for Solstice anyway? I don’t remember celebrating that with you before.”
Nola did not mention that the previous year she and her brothers had been trapped in the land of the Fae, caught in a spell by Queen Maeb. Owen, his now wife, Taisie, and their friend, Gilly Flowers, had traveled to the Other Worlds to break the curse and free them. There had been no chance to celebrate Solstice even if they had wanted to last year. Before that they were usually on the road somewhere, traveling as the Celtic band, The Black Swans.
“First we’ll go into the woods around Gilly’s place and find the perfect Christmas tree.” Nola counted off on her fingers, remembering the plans and how they had celebrated in long years past.
Owen laughed. “It’ll have to be pretty small to fit in here.”
“Yes, but it’ll be our first tree together. I have decorations and lights. Gilly gave me some cunning dried herb chains that are woven so we can drape them on the tree and they’ll augment the pine scent. And Taisie and Gran McDonnell knit little stockings and stars to hang on branches.”
“All right, that sounds like fun,” Owen gave her a kiss on her forehead, unable to resist her enthusiasm.
“Then we’ll cut holly and evergreen branches to decorate with. I have candles for the windows. It will be lovely, Owen, really.”
“It will,” Owen agreed.
“My brothers will build a big bonfire and we can tell stories and sing songs. We’ll welcome the Holly King and drink hot chocolate. You’ll love it.”
“Wait, who’s the Holly King? The rest sounds familiar, but I’ve never heard of a Holly King.”
Nola jumped up. “I’ll tell the story of the Oak King and the Holly King tonight. I get to do that as the oldest child in my family.”
Owen rubbed his chin. “I’m actually older than you in age-years.”
“But I’m hundreds of years older than you technically. I’ve only started to age again since the curse was lifted.” Nola danced across the kitchen and Owen laughed at her antics. He wondered one more time if they could not move the wedding to a closer date. Right now it was planned for April, but he could not wait to have Nola for his wife.
“I think I have everything.” Owen broke off from his musing to see that Nola had a pile of tote bags with a folded blanket on top near the door. “You have tools in your trunk, right?”
“Yes, and Gilly and the others will have anything we might have forgotten. We’re only going out for one evening,” Owen teased.
He put his coat back on and picked up the blanket. He was relieved that there were only two tote bags hidden under it and he slung them over one arm. Nola was back in a cherry-red jacket and hat to match which set off her black hair and bright cheeks perfectly. She gave him a quick kiss, then smacked him on his arse to start him out the door. He was chuckling as he went down the stairs while she locked the door.
Nola clattered down the stairs and took the bags while Owen put his boots back on, then they loaded up his truck. He was proud of his old Chevy. Conn was using the van that the band had purchased for touring, so he had found this vehicle in pretty good condition and was using it for his fledging carpentry business. They pulled out onto Main Street and headed up the road towards Gilly’s house.
Owen pulled up her long driveway and parked next to the old band van. Conn and Taisie must have already arrived. Gathering their bags, they headed to the front door which swung open before Owen had a chance to knock. Finn stepped out and swooped up his sister, eliciting shrieks and laughter from Nola.
“Put me down, you lummox!” Owen edged by with his burdens and headed for the kitchen where the rest of the group waited. Gilly was working at her counter while Taisie and Jane, her cousin, sat at the table with hot mugs of tea. Conn and Henry, Jane’s boyfriend, were leaning on another counter while they chatted. Owen plopped the bags on the floor out of the way and greeted the others.
Taisie popped up to give him a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “What is Finn doing with Nola?” she asked.
Owen shrugged. “High spirits for the Solstice, I believe.” His words were proved as the two siblings, the oldest and the second-to-youngest of the four McLaren siblings, entered the kitchen chattering and teasing each other. “Where is Aobh?”
Taisie smiled. “My parents are watching her for us this evening.” Conn walked over and put an arm around his wife. Their daughter, Aobh, was nearly a year old, a replica of her red-headed mother and with her father’s gentleness. Owen looked over at Nola talking with Gilly and Jane while Finn stood with his arm around his older sister. Finn was a little lost these days. His twin, Conn, had married Taisie and they had Aobh to focus most of their attention. His older brother, Hugh and Nola’s twin, was living in the Other Worlds with his new bride, Malwine. That left Nola as the only one left to still cosset her brother. Finn may have been hundreds of years old, but he had some growing up to do.
Gilly clapped her hands for attention. “It will be dark in about an hour. You’d best be about your gathering for the Solstice celebrations. I’ll make sure that the fire is ready when you get back.”
There was a general bustle as people gathered coats and gloves and the men went out to their vehicles for saws and clippers. Nola, Taisie, and Jane were all given large baskets to carry their yule branches and holly berries. Then the group scattered out the back to head for the nearby woods.
Nola swung her basket, loving the snow crunching under her feet. Her past winters under the curse meant that she had headed south for the cold season and did not get to see much snow. Owen loved the way her cheeks and the tip of her nose got red to match her hat.
“Gilly said that we could find some nice pine trees, small ones, up this hill a short way.” Nola smiled as Owen held a branch back for her to climb past some low-lying trees. She stopped and pointed. “Owen, look at those. One of those would be perfect.”
They circle a small group of pines growing in a clump in a clearing. “Which one, Nola?” Owen asked.
“I think this one is perfect.” Nola clapped her mittens together, then began to clear the branches of snow. “Yes, this is the one.”
Owen had to admit that the small tree was perfect for them. He readied his saw, but stopped when Nola’s face fell. “What’s the matter, love?” he asked.
“Owen, do you think we could dig it up? We could replant it at our house. Then we’d always have our first Christmas tree.” Owen hesitated, but he gave into the plea in Nola’s blue eyes. He kicked at the dirt around the bottom of the tree.
“It doesn’t seem too frozen. Let me borrow a shovel from Gilly and see what I can do. It still might not live, Nola,” he warned, “just so you know.”
“I know, and thank you.” Her smile warmed Owen right to the bones. “I love you.”
“I love you, too. I’ll be right back.”
By the time he got back with Gilly’s shovel, it was almost dark. Nola had been busy and her basket was full of pine clippings and holly berries. Gilly had a section of bushes just past the pines and Nola had been busy. Owen noticed that she also had some branches from an oak tree, the leaves brown and dry and barely hanging on.
“What are you doing with the oak leaves?”
“I told you. It’s part of Solstice, the Oak King and the Holly King.”
“Oh, right.” Owen really did not understand, but he needed to get the tree dug up before it got too dark. Fortunately, Finn came along and between them the two men got the tree out and wrapped in some burlap that Gilly had found for them to use to gather dirt around the roots of the tree. The frost had not yet sunk so low.
Owen found that it was not as heavy as he thought so he let Finn carry the tools and Nola had her basket as they started back down the hill to Gilly’s house. In the back there was a roaring fire with chairs set nearby. The snow had been cleared away and Gilly had set out a table filled with food and drink, aided by Taisie and Jane.
There was hot stew in hollowed-out loafs of fresh bread and beer and wine to drink. Jane had brought a plate of brownies and Taisie and Nola had made a variety of cookies. Gilly slapped at Finn’s hand as he tried to sneak a brownie with his stew. Owen helped Nola gather her food and utensils and got them seated, then he went back to get them something to drink. He grabbed a beer for himself, then paused. He should probably ask Nola which she preferred. He’d have guessed the wine, but every once in a while she would have a beer.
“Sweetheart, what did you want to drink?” he called over to her.
“I’ll just have water for now.”
“Okay,” Owen answered, but he was surprised. Nola was not a heavy drinker, but it was a party after all. Fortunately, Gilly had a pitcher with ice cubes so he poured it into a cup for Nola.
“Are you feeling all right?” he asked as he handed to the cup and sat down.
“Sure, just saving my voice for the story. This is delicious. Eat while it’s hot.”
Owen shrugged and dug in. It was delicious, filling and flavorful. He ate all his stew and then the rest of the bread, licking his fingers when he was done. There was not much conversation as everyone was too busy eating. Nola passed him her half-eaten bread bowl.
“Here, you can finish mine.”
“Nola, are you sure you feel okay?” he asked, concerned now.
She nodded. “I’m fine. The food is delicious, but it’s filled me up.”
Owen studied her and then finished off her portion. He could feel eyes on him and looked up to see Finn watching every bite he took. Gilly was sitting next to him and she gave him a push.
“There is more in the house and you can have some if you want. But I thought you might be ready for dessert.”
Finn was out of his chair so fast that he almost tipped it over. Everyone laughed, but the rest of the men were right behind him to fill up their plates with brownies and cookies. They were smart men though and made sure that they brought back enough to share with their women.
Nola thanked him and nibbled at a cookie. Owen was starting to get concerned. Nola always had a healthy appetite for such a petite girl. He hoped that she was not getting sick with since they had such a busy week coming up. She had been pushing pretty hard the last week or so.
Finally everyone was done eating. Finn sat back, his hands crossed across his stomach, apparently full at last. “Come on, Nola. It’s time to start the stories.”
The talk quietened down as Nola sat up in her chair. She glanced at Gilly as if she suddenly realized that the older woman had seniority, but Gilly motioned her to go on.
“We are here to celebrate the Winter Solstice, or Alban Arthan as we knew it in ancient times. For this purpose, we will set the Yule Log to burn. It will be lit by the remains of last year’s log.” Nola waited, her face glowing in the fire light while her brothers got up and brought a log to the fire. It was not very big, but heavy enough that Conn stumbled and Henry jumped up to help him carry it. Gilly muttered some words in Gaelic and they placed the end of the log into the fire.
Nola gave a sweet smile. “Here it will burn and the remains will be saved for next year.”
She turned to the basket that was sitting next to her chair and pulled out some greenery and holly berries. “We will decorate our houses to celebrate the season. The boughs will protect our homes and remind us that even in the dead of winter, Albun Hefin, the Summer Solstice, will be celebrated again in the warm months and bring back the growing plants.” She looked at the circle of people around the fire. They were listening to her closely, even her brothers and Gilly who knew the story well. Jane and Henry were huddled together under a blanket yet paying close attention. And Owen had his arm on the back of her chair, his knuckles brushing against her collar as if he could not bear to let her be any further away from him.
“It is the time of the eternal battle between the Oak King and his twin, the Holly King. They are twins like Hugh and I, or like Finn and Conn, but two sides of the same coin, light and dark. The Oak King reigns throughout the summer while his brother lays weak, nursing his wounds. But his strength wanes as the days grow shorter until the Winter Solstice occurs.”
“The Oak King is fair and wears an oak crown. He is sometimes called the Green Man and represents fertility and the growth of living things. The Holly King has dark hair and a stern mien. The two brothers meet and fight a fearsome battle to determine the ruler for the next six months. Every year the Holly King proves the stronger and the Oak King must depart to rest in Caer Arianrhod and gather his strength until Midsummer comes and the battle is fought anew. The Wheel of Life turns. This is how we celebrate new life at the seasons of the year.”
Nola took the branch of dead oak leaves that she had collected earlier and tossed it into the fire. As the branch was consumed Conn pulled out a tin whistle and played a plaintive tune. The stars were out and Nola could see her breath, but she was not cold. She had her family and friends with her, though she sent a thought wafting through the air to her twin, Hugh, away in the Other Worlds with his new wife. It was time for Owen’s surprise.
She leaned over to Owen and whispered into his ear. For just a moment he was still, then he jumped up, pulling her up into an embrace.
“When?” he asked. By now the others were standing, questioning the couple’s behavior.
“May,” Nola answered and placed a hand on her stomach. The women understood before the men, although Gilly probably knew anyway and had not spoken until Nola announced it. They gathered around Nola, pushing Owen aside. Finn and Henry thumped him on his back and elfin Conn just beamed at him.
“It appears that my Aobh will soon have a cousin to grow up with,” he said with a grin, then gave Owen a hug.
“I’m going to be a father,” Owen gasped and abruptly sat. Nola came over and he grasped her hands. “We need to get married right away. I don’t want to wait.”
Nola laughed. “We can talk about it. We have time.” She ran her hand through his hair. He had lost his hat somewhere in the confusion of her announcement. “Are you happy, love?”
“So happy I can’t believe it.” Owen pulled her down onto his lap. “Sorry, I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
“Of course not. I’m fine. I have an appointment for tomorrow morning to be checked at the doctors, but I’ve been feeling great. He’s sneaking me in before we leave for Canada.”
“My family is going to be so excited.” Owen shook his head still trying to absorb the news. He looked up as Gilly came over and sat in the chair next to them.
“Congratulations,” she said. “I am very pleased for you both.”
“I think you knew all along, Gilly.” Nola grinned at Gilly. “You probably already know the sex of the baby.”
The small wrinkles at the corner of Gilly’s eyes crinkled as she smiled back. “Do you want to know the sex of the babies?”
“No, we haven’t…wait, what did you say?” Nola leaned forward and Owen grabbed her around the waist, afraid she would fall off his lap. Then he realized what Gilly had said also.
“Did you think that with you and Hugh as twins and Finn and Conn twins also that the chances of you having twin babes would be low?” Gilly was laughing now.
Nola’s mouth hung open and Owen was sure that his must be the same. Gilly patted Nola’s hand. “The doctor would tell you this tomorrow, but I thought it fitting that you know tonight. It is the night of the Oak King and the Holly King after all.”
Everyone else had stopped talking and looked just as shocked as Owen felt. Then they all started talking at once. Nola was pulled off his lap to hugs and kisses from Taisie and Jane. The men were pounding him on the back again and Finn was pumping his hand up and down. He responded as best he could, but all he felt was overwhelming happiness.
He noticed that Gilly had moved away from the fire and was looking up the hill towards the dark woods. Owen moved over to stand next to her.
“Do you see?” she said quietly. “Up there where the path starts over to Applegate Farm?”
Owen looked up to see sparks flying like a cascade of fireflies set loose in the area. “What is that?”
“It is the echo of the battle between the Oak King and the Holly King reflected through the portal. The divisions between the worlds thin on nights such as this.”
Her hand reached out and slipped into his. “You are blessed, Owen Campbell. I am happy for you.”
“Thank you, Gilly. We could not have made it here without your help.”
He looked over to where Nola was sitting back down in her chair laughing at something Finn said to her. She hid a yawn behind her hand, but continued to listen to her brother.
“Take her home, Owen. She must get her rest now.” Gilly let go of his hand.
She watched as he walked down and put out a hand to help Nola out of her chair. There were happy tears in her eyes. “Brighid, watch over them and bless them.”
It was starting to snow. The Holly King had won the battle once more and it was time for the Oak King to rest until Midsummer came again. By then there were be two more babies to love in Antrim, but for now it was Yuletide and a time for celebration and family.
N.W. Moors lives in Portland, Maine, the land of lobster and pine trees. She grew up in Connecticut and retired north (it’s nice along the coast in winter). She’s a voracious reader and avid traveler – she loves to visit Great Britain and Ireland. Researching trips meant that she tries to learn as much about the area as possible and listen to great Celtic music. She’s also a knitter and hiker/walker with two cats (the cats don’t walk).
She truly appreciates you sharing this adventure with her. She will continue to write about magic, love, and the small town of Antrim, Maine. Please leave reviews and like her Facebook page or follow her blog or twitter feed for further updates.