Around the glades near the shire of Sruth Uaine not even the wind shifted the last leaf clinging to the ironwood branch. In the dwindling light I sat atop the ode-stone watching the perked ears of my fellow Slan as they wound silently through the deer paths. Every moment the sun journeyed closer to the horizon. Every moment hope died a little more.
I longed for that sensation beneath my paw pressed against the stone. Please, let some other Traveler sing to the stones. Let some Slan succeed, somewhere.
I spread out the toes of each footpaw. I was fleet. Perhaps if I joined in the pursuit? But no. Today, the shortest day of the year, did not belong to me nor any other of the bardic order. This day we were but witness to a ritual that belonged to the uninitiated youth. Who was I, a Traveler beyond her first life-span, to steal the honor from the fleet-pawed who had spent their seasons in practice sprints over hill and dale. My fingers caressed the stubborn stone. The magic thrummed against my pads, willing me to evoke the images of the past rituals. I nearly did before letting my ears fall. No, for I might miss the subtle song from another shire.
“Traveler?” A whisper stole my attention.
I leaned forward and stared down into the eyes of an adolescent stoat clutching a pouch on her belt. Stretched to her full height, she turned her gaze out to the filtering trees. I recalled her name from back in the shire, Dochas was a daughter of one of the druids not yet initiated into the order. She was not known for her grace. In fact her footpaws seemed to have minds of their own.
Her tail bristled and twitched as she went on. “Traveler, how … how do you know for sure today is the Solstice? I mean, could we … could we be wrong?”
“The sun speaks its truth. The path has stalled as only the eyes of those who measure know.” I smiled. “You fear that the search is for nothing.”
A tremble swept through her. “What if it was yesterday? What if we missed the opportunity? What if it is today and no one succeeds? Has that happened before?”
“Indeed, it has.” It took all my will-power not to summon the images of those pawful of harsh times. She already shook, no need to mire her fears. “Not in any age that I have born witness to, but in the distant past there have been winters where no beast of any shire has managed to locate the mighty Soitheach. And in some cases they found her in the dusk and failed to catch the wily beast.”
Her eyes searched with greater urgency.
“Without the touch of a paw and the connection to the legendary mother-boar, the harvest that followed was indeed meager. The forest ungenerous. Every shire in the land shed weight in the turn of the seasons. But don’t fret. Look to the sky. The sun’s rays still blush the horizon. So long as light remains, so too does hope.”
“Then … no one has found Soitheach?” She nearly climbed the stone pillar.
Silence reached out of the surface. No new song broke forth. I shook my head.
Dochas heaved a sigh. “How can no one find a boar that large?”
“The whole of our island is immense.” I shrugged. After all, ancient dragons filled the mountain caverns without a trace. Soitheach was indeed more massive than a normal boar, but she was no mountain.
Dochas’s ears drooped. A moment later they crept back up. A paw to rose to her lips.
I held my breath. Silence, for by now all of the young Slan had pressed away from us toward the distant stream.
We both turned and gazed into the fiery rays piercing the wood from the distant hill. A mound moved through the bracken. A snorting shuffle carried through the forest. Dochas clung to the shadow of the stone, crouching low she slunk under a fallen truck of a tree and braced herself.
I narrowed my eyes against the blaze of the setting sun. The final fingers stretched into the sky. I sniffed, but no wind carried the scent. The stagnant air denied any hint as to the creature that came our way. Was it Soitheach’s hooves breaking a trail? Or some other immense beast?
Hold still, young one. Let this be your year. Soitheach, give this one the honor.
Yes, I am too old to believe in such a notion as to her hearing me. Or even my will calling forth a creature of legend. I know better than to assume they gave a damn about the lure of my insubstantial voice. A Traveler holds powerful magic, but the elements of nature hold to their own whims.
From the pouch on her belt, Dochas snatched out a mushroom the size of her splayed paw. Gently she blew on the cap toward the creature. Branches snapped and cracked. The ragged outline of the lumbering mound of flesh grew out of the forest. Tusks longer than a Slan’s arm arched toward the sky. Two beady eyes the color of a rippling stream glimmered beneath shaggy brows. A ridge of coarse frost-gray hair stretched along her back. In her wake the forest shivered, frost cracked the ground in her hoof prints.
Soitheach’s breath curled out of her mouth and rose into an icy fog. She turned her focus toward the tree. Dochas’s paw held the offering out like the wooden limb.
I cocked my head. What a clever little mite.
Step by frostbitten step, Soitheach wandered toward her with nostrils wide sucking in the scent. I clung to my perch. A faint finger of light speared the sky. If Dochas moved, the fleet hooves of the beast would carry her well out of range. All it would take was a flinch and the year would be of fallow fields.
Hold! Chasing now would be folly. Patience, young one!
A paw-width away. Every breath of the mighty boar stirred the fur on Dochas’s paw. Still as the steadfast oak she remained, not even blinking as Soitheach’s flanks twitched. Saliva dripped from her open mouth leaving behind a killing frost.
Soitheach lifted her head and engulfed the mushroom. A string of fluid connected paw and beast.
My heart thrummed. It wasn’t enough. Reach, slow… but reach!
Soitheach ground the fungus between her teeth, grunting with obvious pleasure. Her eyes hooded over.
Swift as lightning Dochas’s paw caressed down the muzzle.
Louder than thunder Soitheach squealed her displeasure. She reared her bulk up onto her hunches and nearly tumbled onto her bristly backside. That fate Dochas did not escape. She toppled tail over muzzle behind the tree. She narrowly missed being crushed by the hooves of the bucking boar.
The forest shattered as Soitheach plowed up the hillside leaving a breathless young stoat in her wake bathed in the final blush of the evening sun. Alarmed voices called from all around, ears bobbed in the distance. Dochas lay there gasping for breath, rooted to the spot as she stared where the legend has once stood in four frosted hoof prints.
My heart raced, the song this year … was mine to sing! I bore witness. From my neck I grasped my kenaz and willed the pendant into a fiddle. Already the prose formed in my mind.
Dochas of the shire of Sruth Uaine, you shall be ever-remembered. You, and you alone by your cleverness, have blessed the new year. Tomorrow, when the day grows longer, we may rejoice and sing your name.
A blessed holidays to you and yours, with a happy new year!