The clouds roiled and boiled, scudding around in a deathly spiral that came of no natural wind. The sky, already leaden, took on an uglier hue; dull reds and burnt orange, contrasting with the actinic shards of lightning that struck almost continuously. Nathaniel clung desperately to the wheel of the Bold Admiral, hauling with all his might, trying to get the rudder to turn, to give him some purchase against the current that bore him inexorably towards the maelstrom, a great turning current that matched the clouds. If this was not Charybdis, it was very much like it. The top-sails billowed, trying to carry the weight of the ship. Lightning struck, taking with it the top of one of the masts. Charred timbers fell to the deck, others tangled in the rigging. The ship lurched as Nathaniel leant into the wind, struggling to turn the wheel, but in vain. He could not defeat these winds and currents.
His vision blurred with the rain and he fancied he saw faces, shining figures, beckoning and calling him. Voices in the wind. “Nathaniel, Nathaniel,” they called.
“Mother?” he cried, as the figures, seemingly just phantoms in the clouds, solidified. A mass of red hair, another of lighter hair. “Faermorn?” Another figure appeared, paler in aspect and raven of hair. “Maric?”
“Nathaniel, Nathaniel, come, come,” the figures called.
He hooked one arm into the spokes of the wheel and reached out with the other. “Mother, Faermorn, Maric, where are you? Where should I come?” A sudden gust turned the ships head further into the whirlpool. The wheel spun, hurling him to the deck. He clawed at the woodwork, grasping his lifeline and hauled himself upright again.
The figures grew closer, smiling, beckoning, almost blinding in their radiance. “Come, Nathaniel, come…”
He reached towards them. “Help me, help me!”
The figures continued to smile and beckon, calling his name, but then a shadow appeared. A darker shape eclipsed the others. Skin the colour of old pewter, and an array of antlers that seemed almost one with the forks of lightning. “Yeeessss, come Nathaniel,” came a much uglier voice, sending spikes of ice down his spine. “Come to me at last, Nathaniel, you shall finally be mine…”
“NO!” shouted Nathaniel, “I killed you. I beheaded you and left your body to the crows!”
The figure laughed, loud and hollow. “So you would like to think. But soon, you will be mine again!”
“NO!” cried Nathaniel once again.
The figure laughed again, “Oh yes!” and then threw his head back and howled…
Nathaniel awoke, trembling and sweating a pink sheen of blood. The bedclothes were strewn on the floor, those that were not tangled around his legs. His heart hammered in his chest and his breath was coming in frantic gasps. He lay there for a moment, staring up at the familiar awning over the bed, forcing himself to slow his breathing and calm his heart-rate. He extricated himself from the sheets and swung his legs over the edge of the bed, forcing himself to a sitting position. Without even thinking, he gestured at the candle on the night stand, lighting it with a touch of elemental fire. He picked up his watch and glanced at it. Dawn was barely an hour away. “I have got to get me a better class of dream,” he grumbled to himself. “Maybe Dyisi or one of the fae can make me a potion.” He sighed and stood up, heading for the wash stand. “Or maybe not. Who knows what the fae might consider a pleasant dream.”
As he washed, he touched the castle sense with his mind and saw that the staff and the guards were already up and preparing for the Solstice celebrations. Except for the vampires. He chuckled as he sensed them pulling blankets over their heads with the intent of avoiding the longest day as much as possible. “I’m with you guys,” he muttered, glancing wistfully back at the bed. But, the fae blood in him was too strong. The turning of the wheel of the year called to him. He reached out his senses further, to the will-o-wisps that fluttered and dipped around the castle. His face fell as they reported that there was no word from the Queen. She was, so far as they could tell, still on her travels. “Ah well,” he sighed, “We can celebrate together whenever. I have my duties here anyway. The village is expecting me to make an appearance.”
There was a soft knock at the door and in response to his “come”, a servant entered with a tray. A pot of coffee and some bread and honey for his breakfast. “Bless you,” he said with a smile and dismissed the servant with a wave. There would be a more symbolic breaking of fast later during the solstice rituals, but for now, he just needed something to clear his head and settle his stomach. Even the aroma of the coffee was starting to ease the throbbing in his head. He threw back the first cup in a couple of mouthfuls, and then drank a second at a more leisurely pace as he finished his ablutions and got dressed. A few hunks of honeyed bread took the edge off his hunger, and soon he was ready to face the day.
He descended the stairs to the main hall, where the servants all stood ready and waiting. They bowed as one and then formed up behind him as he went further down the stairs. Outside, the guard took up positions around them as he lead the mini procession down from the castle rock to the main green where the villagers waited. He bowed to them and gave the words of greeting. They bowed in return and formed up behind the guard. He led them to the fire pit and waited as the others spread out in a loose horseshoe shape around him, the open end facing east, where the horizon showed glints of rose.
“The wheel turns,” started Nathaniel, “the night has grown short, and the day long, and now we stand on the cusp, the height of the summer…” he continued the invocation, extemporising from previous years, and memories of some of the things his mother had said at this time of year. At the appropriate moment, as the sun crested the horizon, he said the words of welcome and cast another elemental spell into the fire pit, bringing it to life. “May the blessings of the season be upon us.” He gestured to the villagers, beckoning them to come closer. Behind him, the servants brought cauldrons to warm on the fire pit and baskets of bread. He took one of the baskets, piled with fresh loaves, still warm from the bakery and a large goblet of wine. These he took around the circle, starting with the guards and servants, and then going to each of the villagers in turn, offering each a portion of bread and a sip of wine. A servant tagged along with a pitcher, ready to refill the goblet, and a basket with more bread, just in case. Once each had received this symbolic portion, Nathaniel returned to the centre and poured the last of the wine on the ground and scattered some bread. “We give life to the land, as it gives life to us. We bless it as it blesses us. So mote it be.” The villagers echoed his words. “Come,” said Nathaniel, “let us break our fast together.”
The formal part of the celebration was over, and the villagers gathered around the fire pit. The servants moved around, serving bread and honey, fruits, cold meats, hot drinks as each preferred. Nathaniel served the same to his stewards as they sat around on the benches nearest the fire pit.
Kustav looked up enquiringly at the hovering wisps. Nathaniel followed his glanced and shook his head, answering the unasked question. “I don’t think we will be seeing Her Majesty today. No doubt she has things to do with the courts, somewhere or other. She has her duties as I have mine. Such are the burdens of the crown.”
“You don’t wear one,” said Kustav. “But, there’s probably a coronet somewhere in the castle treasury.”
Nathaniel shrugged. “Maybe, but Maric never wore it, so neither shall I. I don’t like such things anyway. It’s not as if…”
He was interrupted by the sound of an eldritch howl that echoed and swirled around the village. The villagers looked up from their breakfasts, some looking curious, some looking alarmed. The guards were immediately alert, hands going to sword hilts.
Nathaniel sighed. “Can’t we have just one celebration without being interrupted,” he grumbled at his stewards. He stood up and called out to the villagers. “OK folks, don’t panic. It’s probably nothing, and if it isn’t, it’s likely the fae’s business, not ours. So, finish your breakfast and go about your business. We’ll sound the alarm if you need to get back indoors.”
He turned back to the guards “Ok lads, back to work. Vuk, Davor, secure the perimeter and get some of the lads down to ground level to secure the farms. Kustav, you’re with me. Let’s go find out what the hell that is.” He sent one of the servants scurrying back to the castle to fetch his sword. “Never a dull moment,” he said, clapping Kustav on the shoulder, “never a dull moment.”