(Prompted by a request for a story about Druids in the time of King Arthur)
It is so very cold these nights, and I wonder whether it will snow. Snow is the last thing I want, when we have so much to do and a journey ahead of us. Last winter there was much snow, and some people lost toes to frostbite. My old shoes will barely last another season, and I don’t know how I will get more. Perhaps my teacher will help me. He seems kind at heart, though he punishes me harshly if I have not learned my lessons well enough. Still my shoes, however tattered, are the least of my worries.
We have been making preparations for weeks, as well as attending lessons and we are all tired. My teacher grows short-tempered and shouts, but I bear it. This is all I have ever wanted. At first I wondered whether to become a Bard, keeping history alive with poetry and song. In the end I decided that the blue robe was not to be mine. I have always enjoyed the natural world around me, and it was but a short step to the role of Ovate.
I will serve as natural philosopher and perhaps as a healer. My teacher tells me I have an affinity with the life force. When life is out of balance I will be able to show the way back to wholeness, which is at the heart of everything. When I have much more learning that is, for many years of diligent study await me.
My teacher wears the white robe of the Druid. Sometimes, he leaves me while he consults with noblemen. He has been known to prevent battles by walking between the warring sides and persuading them to find a peaceful solution. I can’t imagine being so brave, but then he is old and wise. When I left my mother to come and study with him she wept, but she took great comfort from his words, that I would one day serve the world of men with my sacred knowledge.
The wagons are loaded and we start the journey in darkness. After a while the sun rises in a clear sky. I draw my travelling cloak tight, my breath clouding the still air before me. But there is a sense of building excitement as we make our way over ground frosted hard, and the wagon wheels turn easily. Last year it snowed and the journey was drawn out misery. We put our shoulders to bogged down wheels over and over, wet snow freezing inside our clothes.
Today I barely feel the cold as I walk alongside the wagon, my hands warmly wrapped in mittens. The two white bulls are at the back, led by young novices in brown robes. They have only a small cloak each, and I feel sorry for them. But I also know that next year they will have moved on, and a new novice will shiver with the rope held in his freezing hand.
The days have shortened and now the sun pauses in its travels across the sky. This much at least I have learned about the heavenly bodies, and how they define our calendar, and I am proud to have been chosen to assist the elder Druids as they perform the rites. Of course, I soon make out the oak in the distance, standing alone and silhouetted by the morning light. The horizon is dressed in gentle stripes of pink and yellow and orange. I love sunrise, that quiet time with the promise of a new day, but now there is work to be done.
We novices unload the wagons, being careful not to damage anything. We have food for the feasting later; vegetables for broth, fruits that will taste so much sweeter after the recent frosts, bread and milk. We have nuts and berries gathered from the hedgerows. Finally there is the mead, both to assist in visions and to loosen the spirit once the work is over. Someone makes a fire, but I have other things to attend. I take the carved oak box that holds the golden sickle. I dare not look inside. I also take the folded white linen cloth and place them both near to the white robed senior Druids, already standing in a circle and praying.
I go to the sacred oak and touch its massive trunk. I know that oak trees give a hard wood, one of the finest for building, but this tree is one of only a dozen in the whole of England. Each of them is venerated above all, as the place where we make our holiest of rites, that of oak and mistletoe. The ball of green looks out of place, hanging amongst brown branches yet bursting with life and the precious white berries.
The gold glitters in the sun as the Chief Druid climbs the oak and we chant the Awen. Then, the flint blade flashes and branches of mistletoe are caught in the linen cloth. The Bards lead the singing while the bulls are sacrificed. Their blood flows away to the earth and we pray she hears our prayers at the solstice, for the gift of the one spirit to flow through us, uniting the three orders in one knowledge, one earth, and one life from each body to the next.
My heart slows and I feel the earth’s pulse, deeper and older than any of us. My skin thins, and it seems that all creation touches me. For a moment I am lost in time. Then someone calls my name, and I return to myself. It is time for the feasting.
After the feast is over, some withdraw to honour the joy of creation. I am not sure what that means. Maybe I’ll learn later in my studies. I steal away in the dark and sit on a fallen bough, wrapping my cloak around me. Broth warms my stomach and the stars wheel above. I am content.