Aisling sat staring out into the sheep pasture. She’d volunteered to stay behind while almost everyone went over to Si an Bhru’ (Newgrange) to watch the Sun return. She knew that the sun would return after her night with the Chief Druid. Her teacher was due to give birth soon and she was in no condition to walk to the barrow so a few healers and Aisling had volunteered to stay behind and have their own quiet Solstice celebration.
Aisling looked up at the stars. The night was dark and calm. The stars twinkled over head like a million tiny gems and thought of the watch taking place not so very far away. She was going to keep watch this night for all that were left here in the village.
She could hear the soft breathing of her teacher as she slept inside. She could see the candles in the windows of the healer’s cottage down the path. She knew it was very late because all was so still. The sheep were bedded down near their fold. The cattle were in their barn drowsing and it felt like she was the last person left in the world. And so she was the only who kept watch.
She vowed she would not fall asleep like last year. She was a year older now and not the baby who was always in trouble. She thought of all the interesting things that had happened this year. She put her head on her knees and wrapped the sheepskin tighter around her. It was getting cold and she wondered how much colder it was going to get before morning and whether it was time for a warm drink.
She looked in the direction of the barrow and it seemed like the there was a light coming over the ground from that direction. It lit the way as if someone had drawn a path in light. She had never seen that before and she wondered what or who was causing the lighted path. She wished she could follow the path but her duty was here tonight watching to see is the baby would come.
As she was watching the lighted path deer started to appear and walk confidently down the path and through the village. Aisling watched in awe. She had never seen so many reindeer and never in the village and she wondered where they had come from and where they were going. Following the reindeer was a woman in a dress made of the reindeer’s hides and she wore a cowl with horns from the reindeer. The woman left the herd and walked over to Aisling.
“Blessings to you this Solstice night.” The woman said to Aisling. “Come with me, Aisling.”
“Blessed Solstice to you as well.” replied Aisling, a little startled that the woman had even seen her sitting here in the dark. “Where have you journeyed from and would you like something hot to eat or drink?” Aisling offered.
“I wouldn’t mind a cup of warm cider that is on the hearth.” The woman said.
AIsling suddenly knew that this was not an ordinary meeting if the woman knew what was inside and shivered a little as she got up to get a cup for the woman. She hurried back out and handed the cup to the woman.
“I have come from far and I have farther still to go tonight but thank you for the warmth of the drink.” The woman said and drank slowly from her cup. Aisling watched her shyly and wondered if she could ask what she was doing when the woman spoke.
The woman smiled as she said. “I’m Elen of the Ways and tonight I walk the leys and you need to come with me tonight.”
“The Leys?” asked AIsling.
“Yes,” replied Elen. “The paths on which energy travels easiest on the earth. I walk to connect them so you can use them in your workings.”
Aisling thought a bit. She knew her teachers had said it was easier in some places than others to work magic or create poetry. And she knew that the village had been sited along one of those paths as was the barrow where everyone else in the village was keeping watch.
“Did you just come from the barrows?” Asked Aisling.
“Yes, and the Chief Druid said you could come with me tonight. Now please, grab a cloak and come. Nothing will happen while we are gone.”
“You’re sure?” Aisling said anxiously.
“I’m sure.” Elen said emphatically and helped Aisling get astride the reindeer that was patiently standing.
The woman started walking directly east and she walked faster that any normal human being could.
Aisling asked Elen where they were going. “Your Chief Druid thought you might like to help me open the way for the sun’s return in the east.”
“We’re opening a way for the sun?” Aisling was trying to understand but she couldn’t quite get there.
“Yes, I open the ways and that includes the paths of the sun energies to flow.”
They rode and walked until they reached the edge of the sea. It was just before dawn and the light was starting to turn a bit greenish in front of them. Elen stood with her staff on the edge of the cliff and motioned for Aisling to join her. The reindeer gathered round them keeping them warm in the chilly night.
“Stand here next to me, Aisling.” Aisling moved to stand next to Elen.
“What do we do?” Asked Aisling a little worried. Could she really have stopped the sun last year? Was the Chief Druid wrong? Aisling was getting even more worried. What happened if she did this wrong? Would the sun not return?
Elen looked at Aisling. “Don’t worry. The sun will always come back. We just open the way for the energy to flow across the land. It’s like opening a damn so the energy will flow. It slows down in the dark times and now will speed up again and you want it to bring health to the land.”
Aisling thought and then nodded, that made sense. “So what do we do?”
“We stand right here where the sun will hit our land first and then we open our hearts to the new sun reborn. Can you do that?”
Aisling thought she could do that but wasn’t sure exactly how because the sun appeared as a tiny light in the east and Elen flung out her arms and Aisling did the same facing the sun as it peeped over the edge and started to rise. Aisling needn’t have worried. The sight of the sun filled her with joy. She felt full to bursting with love and happiness and Elen gave a loud laugh and cry and Aisling felt the energy rush away.
The sun rose and Elen turned to Aisling. “Time to go until next year”, and she touched Aisling with her staff. Aisling shook her head. She looked around and she was back on the doorway of the cottage. She looked to the East and the newborn sun was rising above the meadows. She looked to the west and saw a herd of deer and a small figure wave and she was gone.
Just then behind her, she heard her teacher give a gasp. “Aisling, go get the healers.”
Aisling ran across the way. Time for a new son or daughter to be born here. Aisling smiled. This was a good day.
Once upon a time in a place that is now called Ireland and a place we call Newgrange there was a very small Druid, well, she wasn’t a Druid yet but all the adults seemed to think one day she would be one. She wasn’t so sure. She didn’t seem to be good at anything. All she really seemed to be good at right at that moment was getting in trouble. So she sat on the bench outside the Chief Druid’s house and waited to hear how much trouble she was in. She sat kicking her heels on the stones that surrounded the hut. She gave an enormous sigh.
The Chief Druid was sitting inside with one of the littlest Druid’s teachers and they were both shaking their heads and smiling.
. “How much trouble is she in this time?” he asked. “Quite a bit,” replied her teacher.
“She’s managed to make herself unwelcome just about everywhere. She was supposed to be helping in the kitchen and she decided to stick her fingers in all the honeycakes that the cook was making for the feast. The cook sent her to help one of the healers and she somehow managed to break several jars of cough medicine the healer had just brewed. The healer sent her over to the Master Brewer and she decided to assist him with the mead for tomorrow and he ended up having to start all over again since she decided if a little mint was good, a lot was better.”
By now the Chief Druid was desperately trying not to laugh too loud and looked about to burst from holding it in.
“Anything else?” he asked, with the little Druid around he was always afraid there was more.
“Let’s see, she was helping the blacksmith with his bellows and blew ashes all over and he got a cinder in his eye and the blacksmith sat down on a hot nail he had just made. He sent her over to Chief Shepherd and she let the sheep out on the grounds in front of the Temple so she’s been picking up the stuff they left behind.”
The teacher was eyeing the Chief Druid who was now bright red and crying.
“What are we going to do with her? She doesn’t try to make trouble, most of the time she thinks she’s helping. But her help is not the kind of thing most people need especially when everyone is going to be up all night waiting for the Sun’s return. And it isn’t helped by the older students scaring her by telling her it will be her fault if the Sun doesn’t return this year. One of them told her if you make too many mistakes the Sun will get mad and not come back and would bring darkness forever more. That made her try to help even more and it’s just gotten worse and worse and I don’t think the poor thing has slept all through the night in a week.”
“I think it must be my turn then,” the Chief Druid said. “I think I’ll keep her with me tonight in the mound. I think she can’t do much harm there. You might as well call her in”
The Chief Druid motioned at the door and the teacher got up and went to get the littlest Druid. The littlest Druid walked in hanging her head and scuffing her feet on the stone floor. Now she was going to get it. It was all going to be her fault if the Sun didn’t come back. They were going to do something awful to her. They might even send her home and she really didn’t want that. She liked it here. Most of the time the teachers were kind and she loved all the animals and she liked learning the uses of the plants and what the meanings of the stars were but she knew if she stopped the Sun nothing would ever go right again and she was really afraid of what they might do to her.
The Chief Druid looked down at the littlest Druid. She was rather bedraggled looking. She had a smudge across her nose and her tunic and pants were filthy with stains and there were several rips and tears and somehow she had managed to get straw in her hair. She looked so sad. The Chief Druid was trying hard not to smile. He had a soft spot for the littlest ones. They always seemed to grow up to be the kindest of the druids.
“What am I going to do with you, Aisling?”
The Chief Druid asked kindly. The littlest Druid just kept looking at her feet. They seemed to be very interesting to her. It was almost worse that he was being nice to her. She kind of wished he would just yell and get it over with.
“I guess it’s my turn to deal with you.” The Chief Druid said. “So tonight, you are going with me behind the spiraled stone and we will wait for the Sun’s return. I think if you stay with me until sunrise we can make sure the Sun does return, no matter what you’ve done.”
The Chief Druid looked down at Aisling very seriously. “You need to go get cleaned up and meet me at the stone in a candlemark. Do you think you can do that?”
Aisling looked terrified but nodded and ran out the door. She was going to sit with the Chief Druid! If the Sun didn’t come back in the morning every one would know it was her fault and the Chief Druid would know first of all!
She was so scared but she didn’t see anyway to get out of her predicament so she got all cleaned up and went to meet her doom at the Temple of the Spirals.
The Chief Druid was standing with his staff waiting for her. “Now we go inside and wait.”
Someone had lit a small lantern and put a couple of sheep skins down inside the room behind the spiral stone.
“We need to get cozy. We are going to be here quite awhile. Do you think you can stay awake to sunrise? We need to catch sight of the sun’s first rays.”
The littlest Druid was terrified. She knew the Sun would never return. The older boys had said so and they were always right and here she was trapped with the Chief Druid. She was shivering with fear.
“Here, sit down by me and we’ll wait. Wrap up in the sheep skin and I’ll tell you about Elen and the reindeer. Your teacher may drop by in a bit with some tea and you can tell her the story later.”
He wrapped the littlest Druid up in her sheepskin and started to tell her all about Elen of the Ways and how she followed the reindeer. About halfway through his story the teacher came in and joined them in their vigil. She’d brought some chamomile tea and they all sat and sipped slowly and they listened to the Chief Druid’s tale of another Winter Solstice night long, long ago.
The littlest Druid’s eyes kept closing and she’d shake herself awake. She had to see the Sun return, she had to, it was important! But she fell asleep anyway and the Chief Druid and her teacher smiled. The teacher reached over and smoothed the littlest Druid’s hair.
“When she’s like this you’d never know she caused any trouble at all.”
And the two of them laughed quietly and kept the vigil as they did every year. The night passed as the longest of nights eventually does and it was almost time for the first light to enter the stone room.
The Chief Druid gently shook Aisling’s shoulder. “Wake up or you’ll miss it.” He whispered.
The littlest Druid started awake. Oh no! She’d fallen asleep! Now the Sun would never return. It was her final failing. She couldn’t meet the Chief Druid’s eyes as he blew the lantern out.
“Oh! Don’t do that! We’re going to need it. The Sun won’t ever return now. I fell asleep and I promised I wouldn’t.”
The littlest Druid started to sob.
“Hey there, none of that. Why don’t we see if the Sun rises before we start our crying. If it doesn’t rise I promise I’ll cry with you.”
Aisling was so confused. This crazy grownup must not have heard everything that had happened or he wouldn’t have said that.
“Come here with us.”
The Chief Druid commanded as he stood up and waited. And something wonderful began to happen. It was just a spark at first and then a small line and then suddenly the room was full of beautiful orange light. The room positively glowed and then it started to fade away and it was gone for another year.
She’d been wrong. The light had returned even though she had done bad things. It had come anyway. She felt like she could breathe again.
The Chief Druid and her teacher took her hands and led her from the small room. Everyone outside was cheering and hugging each other and blessing each other saying. “Blessings of the Sun’s return!”
Someone handed her a small cup of mead and she looked up at the Chief Druid.
“It came back. The Sun came back even though I did bad things?”
The Chief Druid looked at her. “Why do you think that was?”
The littlest Druid thought a bit. “Because I had nothing to do with it? That the Sun was always going to return anyway and I shouldn’t believe everything I hear.” She said uncertainly.
“All anyone can ever do is try their best and just because you make mistakes the world isn’t going to stop turning and the Sun and the Moon will always stay on their courses. Now I think it’s time for a feast! Who’s hungry?”
And the three of them moved off towards the tables that were full of all kinds of good things to eat and stood watching the new born winter sun shine down on all their friends.