November 2021 Contest Winner: The Ritual
The forest was quiet as dark approached but, if you listened, she would speak to you.
Wind whispered through boughs older than any of the songs they sing in taverns. Leaves
rustled, small animals foraged for the last scraps they could. There was no birdsong – they had all roosted safely for the coming night – but the forest, it had a music all its own.
I adjusted the harp in my hands, picking my way through the forest path while the last hours of day struggled through the thick trees.
Though the sun had yet to touch the horizon; it was already twilight in the woods. The ancient trees absorbed the light, glutting the last rays for themselves. I emerged out of the deep path into a hidden glade, where lapping water filled the space with a sleepy hush, lulling the air into a quiet serenity under the amber light. A single willow knelt at the rocky shore, surrounded by hawthorn and alder, bowed in endless, silent mourning.
To my people, willow trees were sacred. Symbols of rebirth, new emergence, vibrancy, and poetic sensibilities. They signified the release of pain, the ability to grow stronger, bolder, a broken branch that can reroot and grow anew in soft soils.
Closely tied to the triple goddess, they were also important to another group of my people, practitioners of magic. Real magic, the kind that the Christian God and his fervent followers feared. They distrusted it, though real magic was ancient, deeper in the old ways than the being they followed so blindly.
I found my well-worn footpath through the meadow grasses and wildflowers, smoothed out by my many visits to this particular spot. All of my greatest ballads were composed under this lone willow. This sentinel of the pond had witnessed all my musings, my journal scribblings. It was said that if one had a secret that could not be uttered, you could tell it to a willow tree. She will keep your secret safe among her limbs, bowed low as if for an embrace, and you would feel lighter for unburdening yourself. Many of my own furtive thoughts were trapped between these leaves. In many ways, this tree knew me just as well as I knew myself.
This willow, too, had seen many of my other conjurings. Nature had been generous with my gifts and, when I played, She liked to dance. I could strum a few notes and a bird would answer, or a bee hum a basso beneath my tune. Flowers would nod, and the wind tumbled. Grasses and shrubs hung low whenever the song was somber.
But, for all the meandering tales that I had written, none were about love. Love was a magic I had yet to know the pleasure of; the penance, I supposed, for my other talents that had come so freely to me.
To that end, I was here. I carefully laid my harp against the knobby trunk of the tree and pulled my heavy satchel forward to empty it of its contents. I had time to spare. I had time to take my time. Hurried magic was often scattered, weak. I would not waste this opportunity.
Inhaling deeply, I removed each item with quiet intention. Five candles, freshly made. A
bronze bowl, cleaned with spring water and wrapped carefully in linen. A stick of charcoal. A bundle of sage. A scrap of parchment. I laid all these on a smooth stone by the river before turning back to the tree.
"If you would allow me a few branches," I said politely to it, "I would be very grateful."
There were no ill portents in the following silence, only the quiet lapping of the water by the pond, and I nodded, thanking the tree. You did not just steal a branch without permission, much as you would not cut clothing off a stranger to wear as your own. Using a brass knife, I removed a handful of branches and bound them together with the linen cloth, creating a small broom. I cleaned the dirt from under the tree, a spot that stayed bare no matter the season, undisturbed by the thick leaves above it. Looking up at the sky, I beheld a fading rose blossom. Still, I had to wait. Using a small stone, I etched sigils into the earth, five in a large ring, with one in the middle. Each one I circled in turn.
This part of magic was not bound by rules; it was just foci, and each ring signified something important to me. I drew lines, connecting all the rings to one another, as my will connected all those principles to me. In the center, I placed the bowl, careful to not disturb my work. Around the edges went the candles. Taking up my harp, I sat on the mostly empty, flat rock under the tree.
I inhaled, and the scent of sweet flowers and green growth entered me. Playing a soft tune, I asked the spirits of fire to grant my wish for light. The Fae were always fond of music and, though I had only seen fleeting glimpses of them here, I knew they were around. They were everywhere. I plucked a string, and the note raced across the water, a clarion bell in the nearing darkness.
Solas mo choinnle, tabhair solas dom
cosain mé ón oíche atá le teacht
tine sidhe éisteacht mo ghlao
deonaigh mo thoil le do thoil sula dtitfidh oíche.
The candles flickered to life. A bright mote, barely bigger than dandelion fluff and warm
orange, wandered between them before snuffing out, presumably to the space Between. Faerieland.
Peering between the leaves of the willow, I sighed. It still was not time. Picking up the charcoal and parchment, I thrust my intent into it. My will extended into the smooth, black stick, like leafy tendrils in spring, and I drew another circle in the center of the sheet. In it, I wrote all my wishes that I wanted to be fulfilled during the month: health, prosperity, creativity, good fortune, and, in the center, a single word. Grà.
I laid the parchment in the bowl, inspecting my hard work, candles like sentinels as they waited for the stars to align. I still had a few moments, so I picked up my harp, leaning against the bark of the willow. I closed my eyes, thinking about which one of my favorites to play. Perhaps an instrumental; I would need my voice for later. My fingers found the taut, familiar strings in the candlelight and, rather than enjoying an old song, I found a new one waiting within.
I opened my eyes, growing confident with each new note, feeling my magic moving through the strings. A gentle melody floated over the meadow grass, the flowers turning to face me, a captive audience. They bobbed and waved slowly, and the wind whistled through the grass behind them. One by one, fireflies trickled into the glade out of the protection of the trees, swirling ropes of light that landed in the willow tree, giving it an ethereal glow my candles could never have managed on their own. The bright creatures blinked in and out with the tune, and many others chose to float in the air around the tree. The fire Fae were back, staying out over the water so their dancing would not disturb the greenery. A smile played across my lips, and the tree above creaked softly, as the boughs moved almost imperceptibly to the music. In the grass, a procession of glowing colors snaked through the stalks, hidden by the flowers and the seed heads and the coming dark, but softly aglow. More of the Fae, come to listen to my concert.
I was so entranced by the Fair Folk that, when the branches of the willow brushed my face, I was so surprised I stopped playing. Immediately, the wind died down and the visiting Fae faded back into the darkness, leaving me lit in just my candlelight.
I checked to see if my wait was yet over, and instead met with the brightest, largest eyes, verdant pools, that glimmered in the fire. Her hair was the same brown as the willow's trunk, her skin a lovely tan, visage frozen between fresh-faced youth and age-lined ancient. She was draped in a dress of wildflowers, belted with willow fronds, and smelled of earth and nectar.
"Please, do not stop, my bard. I have so longed to hear you play from down here." Her voice was soft, so soft that it was like the wind sighing through the forest.
"Which Fae are you?" I asked her, somewhat incredulously. She was far too fair to be human, but I had never before seen such a mortal-looking creature. My heart pounded in my breast, captivated by her ethereal beauty. She laughed, and it sounded more beautiful than any song I had ever created or heard before.
"I am Neillis. I have watched over you for quite some time now."
I looked up, into the tree. Neillis must have been amused by my look of surprise as I realized what my magic had done this night, because her earnest laugh echoed in the meadow.
"Yes, my bard," she whispered in that thin voice of hers. "It is said by you mortals that the
dreams of trees become dryads. After so many years of keeping your secrets, knowing your heart, and feeling your music in her roots, and your magic in her boughs, the willow has long dreamed of meeting you. I have hoped to meet you."
I met her gaze again, and she smiled shyly while she sat beside me. "You have been waiting for something. You are working magic here I have not seen before. Is it important?" Her hand touched mine as it rested on my harp, curiously probing.
"It...it is to me," I replied. Her touch was strangely cool on my skin, like shade on a warm day. It was not uncomfortable, and I smiled as Neillis plucked a string and made a soft noise of awe.
"Would you like me to play for you?" I did not know what else to say. A dryad was so strange a creature!
"Yes, please." She nodded, and the excitement in her eyes rivaled the flames dancing on the wicks in front of us. I realized that part of the long hair by her ears had been shorn off and, without thinking, I touched the tuft sticking out. She smiled, and it was bittersweet.
"The broom," she offered, "but I willed you to have it. It will regrow. A willow always regrows."
I swallowed. She really was born of the tree. She really was a dryad, born of dreams and magic and songs that lingered in the night's sweetness.
"A song for your sacrifice, then, lady Neillis." I took my harp back up, and she knelt, hands in her lap, pitched forward slightly, just as an intently listening child would.
"Can you play the one about the Wintertide? I always liked that one." She closed her eyes, as if remembering some far-off time. I obliged her, pulling the music from memory, fingers bringing the tune to life. Never before had I felt I had a more captive audience, even when playing in taverns and at festivals, and the only one here was this Fae.
To my ever-growing surprise, she began to sing the lyrics, and I suddenly felt a presence like I never had before. Her words created the perfect image of what the ballad of the Wintertide was about within my mind. I felt the chill in my bones, snowflakes on my skin, heat from a roaring fire warming me. I felt all of these things, and it was magic like nothing I had heard tell of. It was Fae magic. Raw, wild, beautiful. Just like her. A tear coursed its way down my cheek as the song ended, and the echoes died out in the silvery light that surrounded us.
"Why do you weep, my bard?"
I smiled at her, finding her hand with mine. She clasped it gently, caressing my face with the back of her other hand, brushing away my tears. "Did I do something wrong?"
I laughed. "Oh, no, that was so divinely, enthrallingly, right that all the rest of the world would feel wrong if I were to never experience it again."
Neillis turned her head, brow furrowed. "I do not understand."
Rising behind her, framing her in a circlet of silver, the full moon glowed softly. The glade was thrown into a pool of greys and soft purples.
"It is finally time," I murmured, and she looked behind her.
"The willow moon? That is what you were waiting for?”
“It was.” My eyes fell on the parchment and the bowl in which it lay. Grà. In the language of
my people, it meant love. Such a simple word, one which I thought I understood. But I was wrong; it was far, far more than I could ever have imagined. As I reached up to touch the hand still poised by my cheek, I knew, as our eyes met, that I finally understood what all those others had sung about. "I thought it would guide me to what I most wanted. But, it turns out, I didn't know what that was. Not until I found it."
Malise, the winner of WriterVana's November 2021 writing contest, is a fantasy, contemporary romance, general fiction, paranormal, sci-fi, and horror writer.