Cosy snowy days
Cosy snowy days
Cottage Hills : A Winter Tale, Part II
Up, Up and Away
Meanwhile, as Stu's sister, young witch-in-training Elli, watches this year's first snow fall around her, she hears her grandmother, Ellen, calling from inside their house. Probably telling her that today's magic lessons will begin soon.
"Oh there you are, Elli. There's something I've been meaning to talk to you about. It's been a few weeks now, since you started your basic training. It's time you move on to other, bigger things."
"Then, what will I be learning today?"
"I have a surprise for you! Your very own broom! Elli, its time for you to learn to fly! Come, claim your broom and it will respond to you!"
Ellen wheels aside to show Elli her very first broom hanging on the broomstand. Elli excitedly steps forward. She extends her hand and the broom jumps to attention, hovering slightly below her palm. Elli can feel its magical power quivering, as the dowdy old broom slowly blooms into a beautiful shade of blue.
"It's yours now! Take good care of it, and it'll do the same for you. I've had my broom for longer than I care to remember now..."
"Oh grandma, this is incredible! Thank you!... But... But how will you teach me to fly?"
"Oh, I won't, dear, Won will, of course! Ah, speak of the devil, here he is right now."
Won walks in through the back door just in time, and greets them both.
"Hello Ellen, I'm here, to fetch Elli, when the first snow falls, as you instructed."
"Grandma, what's going on? Where are we going?"
"Elli, the time has come now for you to complete your magical training. I've taken you as far as I can in the healing arts. There's only so much you can learn here in this tiny cottage, but Won here has travelled widely, and is knowledgeable in all manner of witchcraft. So we've spoken, and it's been agreed that for the rest of the winter, you should stay with him, away from the town, in the woods, and concentrate on finishing your training! I'm sure Won will take good care of you, won't you Won?"
"Of course, Ellen. Come Elli, there's much for me to teach you."
"Now? Into the woods? But, but what about you, grandma, who will take care of you?"
"I'll have Stu, don't you worry, and I can take care of myself. You just focus on being the best witch you can be! Now, go pack your things! Don't dawdle!"
Later that Day...
With her things packed, Elli soon goes with Won away from town and into the woods. Although she trusts Won, Elli herself has never been into the woods, and starts to wonder why she needs to come here. Soon however, she finds herself looking up at a formidable castle.
"Won! You stay here in this castle all by yourself?"
"Well, not entirely by myself. I stay with Wuya, you'll meet him soon. Shall I show you around, Elli?"
Won gestures for Elli to follow him as he leads her around the castle.
"I didn't know it at the time when I found these ruins, but this castle was first built by my ancestors, the Firethorns. Like the Elmsleys, magic ran through their veins. But unlike the Elmsleys, they weren't healers. In a lawless and troubled time, they used poisons and powerful spells to defend the fledgling town from marauders and thieves."
"And then they... Became evil, right? And had to leave?"
"Yes, I suppose they did. Such power cannot be left unchecked. It soon led them astray, and they tormented the people they were supposed to protect. An important lesson for us all. Magic allows us to do incredible things, but we must devote ourselves to serving others, or risk losing our way. Now come, let me show you where you'll be learning."
Won leads Elli up a set of stairs and shows her all the rooms he's made where she will be learning all kinds of magical skills.
"This is the Brewing Room. Here I'll teach you how to craft poisons of varying severity, as well as their antidotes. All the ingredients and tools we will need are here. Alright, follow me."
Won takes her up another set of stairs and out through a door to a large open orrery, covered partially by a dome.
"This is the Lunarium. It is the best place to crystallise moonlight, capture essence of light, and to learn and practice under the moonlight, or sunlight, depending which you prefer. I've amassed a large collection of tomes and spellbooks here as well so feel free to browse through them when you have the time. "
"And lastly this is the cauldron room. Here, you'll learn to make all kinds of potions. Potions to make people fall in love, become fat, or thin, to become smart, just to name a few. It's important for poison brews and potions to never mix, you'll soon learn why."
Won then leads Elli up to the top of the battlements on the North Tower. They're surrounded by mist and the very tips of the trees of the forest, with nothing around them but cliffs and mountains.
"And here is where you'll learn to fly. Now, do you have any questions?"
"No, thank you Won. This place is amazing... And don't take this the wrong way but I wonder why grandma wants me to come all the way here instead of train with her at home."
"Well... What she said is true. The Elmsleys have never left the town, and there's much about the world that you don't know. The Elmsley's skills in herbology, midwifery and healing are impressive, and Ellen has served the community well, but she acknowledged to me that you will need to go beyond even that if you are to better protect this town."
"Protect the town from what?"
"Who can say? Maybe someone else out there like I was? This has always been the duty of the witch of the realm, a role which you will soon inherit... Ellen won't be around forever, Elli. She wants you to come here and learn to spread your wings and to fly higher than she can take you. Will you make her proud here? "
"... I will! I'll do my best!"
Am I spending too much time in bed? It's become a reading nook, study corner, bedside table, sleeping zone, and chilling spot. Multifunctional for sure. Bed equals life at this point since outside is a *danger zone* again. Also, I'm living in a huge city but I'm really close to the villages and the mountains. So the house is looking like a cottage cabin, which is why I'm such a home bird lately and only go to the nearby villages during the weekends. But I do wish to visit the forests more and maybe write poetry over there on one of my trips.
Mistletoe and wine? How about Weihnachtsmarkt und Glühwein 🥾
(The other bits and pieces of these stories can be found on AO3 here)
Serenity had never been one for holidays. Her aunt had tried to instill her with a spirit of cheer around the winter holidays, but it was only just the two of them. And when her aunt passed away when she was sixteen, she didn’t see much point in continuing the practice alone. She did observe the witches’ holidays, the summer and winter solstice, but all she did was the traditional midnight candle lighting and ritual thanking of the Great Soul of All Living Things that gave witches their magical abilities. She didn’t make a spectacle of it, and she had always done the ritual alone.
Granny Thomas, on the other hand, had been overtaken by “the spirit of winter,” as she liked to put it. There were many winter holidays, and she seemed determined to celebrate all of them.
“Granny, you can’t celebrate every winter holiday. There’s a dozen!” Serenity said when she found Granny standing on a wobbly chair, hanging a string of dried oranges and various sprigs of greenery from her ceiling.
“But it’s so festive and fun!” Granny objected. “Besides, I have to celebrate at least three of them. My family has always celebrated Storytelling Night, since we all come from a farm town and it’s family tradition. And I have to celebrate the city festival, because that’s what my neighbors celebrate. And I have to celebrate the winter solstice because I’m a witch.”
“Retired witch,” Serenity corrected. “You don’t even live with your familiar anymore, why do you need to celebrate that?”
“I’m still a witch, Serenity,” Granny said seriously. “I may have given up my familiar to my daughter when my daughter’s familiar passed away, but I’m still a witch.”
Serenity winced. Though incredibly rare, sometimes a familiar passed away before their time was up in the physical realm. Dragon might be a tiny troublemaker, but the thought of losing him was desperately heartbreaking. She couldn’t imagine ever giving up her bond with him for someone else.
“I can’t imagine giving Dragon up,” she told Granny.
“Well, that’s understandable. Dragon is all you have. But when my daughter’s Jax passed away, I decided I could give up my best friend, if it meant my daughter didn’t have to be alone.” Granny looked very far away and alone for a moment. Then she shook her head and resumed pinning her orange garland up. “Nevermind about that. What are you doing for the solstice?”
“Same thing I always do,” Serenity replied, “have a regular day and light the candle at midnight.”
“You will do no such thing!” Granny said in offended tones. “A regular day? You’re a witch! It’s the solstice!”
“Okay, what are you going to do for the solstice?”
“I’m going across town to celebrate with my daughter! And my great niece Josephine. She’s a witch too, a little older than you, and she comes into the city to celebrate with us.”
“Well, you enjoy your celebration and I’ll enjoy mine.”
“Serenity, dear, that simply won’t do.”
“I live alone! I don’t have anyone to celebrate with, and celebrating alone just makes me miss my aunt,” Serenity admitted.
Granny sighed. “Have it your way, my dear. Hand me the next section of garland, would you?”
Serenity went about her business over the next few days, preparing the last of her winter gifts. There were several religious holidays around this time, including profession based religious holidays like the winter solstice. Being a witch wasn’t exactly a religion, but honing your magical abilities was a very spiritual process, and all witches drew their power from the Great Soul of All Living Things. A witch could train to see the web between all things, which was the Great Soul in all its indefinable glory.
There were also secular celebration traditions. Storytelling Night was more common in rural areas. Family and friends would gather together and tell each other stories from the course of the year, and whoever told the best story was crowned Monarch of Storytellers and got to wear a funny hat for the rest of the night. There were also oral histories passed down in families that got repeated during these celebrations.
The greatest event of the winter holidays, however, was the city festival. Each large city in the country had their own city festival. The date and duration varied by city, as did the local traditions. In Rodgate, where Serenity and Granny lived, the city festival was held from the fifteenth of the last month of the year to the nineteenth. There were special markets open, and each market had its own theme. There were ice carving contests, and each neighborhood had its own winner. On the last day of the festival, the ice sculptures were all displayed at the huge park at the center of the city. Giving gifts was traditional, as was preparing fried food and sweets. Winters were long in Rodgate, and people needed an outlet for their pent up energy.
Many of Serenity’s neighbors were older, retired folks living on a fixed income, who went to visit their families during the holidays. She couldn’t help but feel a little desolate when her neighbor’s lights didn’t come on in the evening. Sometimes you don’t realize something is comforting until it’s gone, and then you feel its absence more painfully because you know you didn’t properly appreciate it when you had it.
Sales picked up, and Serenity became too busy knitting inventory replacements to feel her loneliness too harshly. She and Dragon spent many quiet evenings, the occasional clack of her needles the only sound that passed between them. For her friends and neighbors, winter was a time of rest. But for Serenity, the holiday rush was a welcome distraction.
The day of the solstice came. Granny Thomas had left the day before, with a promise to exchange gifts when she got back. Serenity went to the market as usual. She sold quite a bit, and was in a good mood on her way home, so she decided to get some candied nuts from one of the vendors before she went home.
Her mood darkened a little when she walked down her street. Many of the houses were dark. Mr and Mrs Roberts seemed to be home. Serenity had already given them her gift, a pair of hand knit socks with warming enchantments for each of them. She smiled to herself as she thought of the gift they had given her in return, a mug that had its own tea strainer. “For when you only want one cup of tea,” Mrs Roberts had said. As if there ever was such a time.
Serenity sat in her rocking chair, thinking about Granny. She really was a sweet old lady, even if she was a bit of a gossip. She had to entertain herself somehow, after all. Serenity imagined Granny in a warm home, surrounded by her family and fellow witches. While she felt a little lonely thinking about it, she was happy that Granny had such a loving family that she could share special days with.
At exactly 7 o'clock, a knock came at the door. It was Liz, the neighbor from two doors down.
“Serenity, you better come quick. The Robertses have a leak, and it's too late to call a plumber. They need a little holiday magic.”
Serenity grabbed her ambient warmth shawl and hurried across the street to the Roberts household, leaving Dragon to fend for himself. This was an emergency, after all. So she was not at all prepared for the chorus of shouts of “Surprise!” that rang out at her when she opened the door.
Serenity stood there, in shock. The room was decorated from floor to ceiling. There was a large table in the middle of the room, surrounded by people, and there, sitting at that table, was Granny Thomas!
“I. Granny… What?” Was all she managed to get out.
“We came to celebrate with you!” Granny said cheerfully.
Only now did Serenity notice the other people in the room. Next to Granny was a middle aged woman who was the spitting image of her. And next to Granny’s younger self was a woman closer to Serenity’s age, who had the same brown eyes as the other two but blonde hair. Mr and Mrs Roberts stood together behind the table, grinning from ear to ear, and Liz had come in behind her and reunited with her daughter, Lucy, who was sitting at the table.
“We?” Serenity looked around in amazement.
“Well, I just couldn’t bear the thought of you being all alone on the winter solstice,” Granny said. “It’s just not right. So we brought our celebration to you!”
“Granny!” Said Serenity, her voice cracking.
“Oh, there there,” Granny said, getting up to hug her. “You are family too, you hear.” She patted Serenity, who was trying and failing not to cry. “You should have a proper winter solstice. With other witches. And your friends.”
Serenity shed a few more tears, then took a deep breath. “It’s… It’s wonderful. Thank you, Granny.”
“Don’t thank me! Or, well, don’t thank just me. The Robertses lent me their house, since it’s bigger than mine. And Liz and Lucy helped make the decorations.” Granny informed her.
Serenity looked around, her heart full. “Thank you, everyone,” she said from the bottom of her heart.
“Come, sit down, and I’ll introduce you to my daughter! She’s been wanting to meet you.” Granny took her by the hand and led her to the table.
“This is my daughter, Heather, and my niece, Josephine. We’ll be doing the ritual together.”
“I haven’t celebrated the solstice with anyone since I graduated from my apprenticeship,” Serenity confessed.
“Oh dear,” said Heather, sounding remarkably like her mother. “Well, it’s a good thing we came, then! No witch should be alone on the winter solstice.”
Serenity smiled, relaxing after her sudden surprise and surge of emotions.
“Now then,” said Granny, “I made desserts, so let’s eat!”
The evening was festive and warm. The newcomers fit in well with the neighbors, and everyone had an excellent time, the spirit of celebration bringing them together. Hot cocoa and hot apple cider flowed like water, and Granny had prepared an extremely appetizing array of scrumptious treats.
Finally, the evening started to slow down. Lucy ate a truly impressive amount of cookies, then fell asleep at the table, so Liz took her home. Mr and Mrs Roberts stayed up late with them. Mr Roberts eventually was coaxed into bringing out his fiddle so they could sing folk songs together. Serenity and Josephine danced, and Granny tapped her foot and clapped along to the beat.
Then, at ten minutes to midnight, the witches headed to Granny’s cottage to do their ritual. Serenity was a little nervous. The ritual was simple, just a candle lighting and a chant. But what if she didn’t chant in the right cadence? What if her candle wouldn’t light?
The four of them sat at Granny’s table in the dark, a candle in front of each of them. Granny’s grandfather clock rang out at midnight, the sound ringing out clear and loud. Serenity felt solemnness come over her. At midnight on the solstice, the illusion of separateness disappeared, and all witches, no matter what their skill level, could see it. The web of all things.
The web of all things appeared differently to each witch. The Great Soul of All Living Things showed itself to the individual witch in a way that they could understand. For Serenity, this looked like strings of light connecting everything, living and inanimate. And she could feel these strings, the exchange of energy between her and Granny, and even the energy between living and inanimate things. For example, she could feel the connection between Granny and her favorite chair. There were so many connections, so much light going in all different directions. And this web, this connection between things, was the Great Soul.
Serenity could suddenly sense the witches in the room with her in a new way. She felt the energy flowing through their veins. She felt their life force. She felt their connections to everyone they loved. She felt the weight of their hopes and fears. For a brief moment, they were not separate. They were a part of her, and she a part of them.
Together, they snapped their fingers over the candles, summoning flame. In one voice they chanted
“Great Soul of All Things
The witches head your call
To witness the web of all things
We will remember
And we thank you
On the solstice
Hail the Great Soul”
Magical energy flared from each candle, filling up the room. The pressure built, until Serenity felt like she could barely breathe. A feeling of recognition filled her. The Great Soul was both sentient and not. It spoke to her without speaking, reminding her of all her own connections. It showed her the places within herself where the people she missed lived on in her heart. Then the energy turned warm, and reminded her that she wasn’t alone. Images of her friends flashed in her mind.
You see, the Great Soul told her, no one is truly alone. We are all connected. Even at our loneliest, someone is thinking of us. People you barely know think of you fondly. People you think have forgotten you still laugh when thinking of a joke you told them, or enjoy the recipe you gave them. There is no such thing as someone who is not important. We are all connected, and when one of us is removed, everyone around us feels the loss, even people you wouldn’t expect. Especially people you wouldn’t expect.
As her vision of the web faded, Serenity found herself in tears. The witches around her were in tears too. The Great Soul had a knack for showing you exactly what you needed to see. She didn’t know what these women had seen, and she would not ask. Just as they would not ask her.
They sat in silence for a while, each digesting their own message. Granny was the first to speak.
“I’ve celebrated many solstices,” she said. “But this one was something special. Thank you girls for celebrating with me.”
“Yes, thank you,” Serenity said quietly.
“Yes,” replied Heather. “Sometimes you don’t realize what you need until the Great Soul gives it to you.”
Josephine only nodded.
“Well, I don’t think I can sleep after that,” Granny got up as she spoke. “What do you girls think of a pot of tea? And we’ll talk about our craft and learn about each other, and just have a good time.”
“I would love that,” Serenity said wholeheartedly.
The women talked until the wee hours of the morning. Many subjects came up. Serenity explained some of the mechanisms for her knitted and crocheted magical items. Granny reminisced about her apprenticeship years, and about meeting her husband and how deeply she loved her family. The night was warm, the tea was good, and the company was better.
Eventually, dawn started to break. Regretfully, Serenity got up to leave.
“Oh, Granny!” She exclaimed, suddenly remembering. “I was so distracted by the surprise that I forgot to give you your gift! I’ll be right back!”
Serenity practically ran the ten steps between her front door and Granny’s. Luckily, she had left Granny’s gift on the counter, wrapped in some pretty paper. She grabbed it and ran the ten steps back.
“Here,” Serenity handed her the gift. “I made it myself.”
Granny took the gift and opened it gingerly. Inside was a jar, and in the jar was tea. Granny lit up, and immediately opened the lid and smelled the contents.
“Is this tea?” She asked excitedly.
“It is. I made a tea that makes me think of you!”
Granny sniffed the jar again. “This smells like the fancy darjeeling tea the herb shop carries,” she said suspiciously. “How much did you spend on this?”
“They had a sale,” Serenity lied. “It’s got darjeeling, crushed cinnamon sticks, and chestnuts. Because you are warm and hearty.”
“I love it!” Granny exclaimed. “I can’t wait to drink it! Oh, here’s what I got you!” She handed Serenity a package, also wrapped in pretty paper.
Serenity opened it to slowly reveal a white lace shawl. She could feel a hum of magical energy from it. She unfolded the shawl and gasped. The lace work was intensely intricate. She noted that it was made with several traditional lace patterns. It was absolutely beautiful, like something out of a fairytale.
“Granny, what is this?” She breathed.
“I took a page out of your book,” Granny replied. “These old hands may be a little stiff, but I can still find my way around some knitting needles and wool. It’s got a spell on it to increase your luck. It should last a while. Heather helped me with the spell.”
“It’s absolutely beautiful.” Serenity was touched.
“Yes, well, just promise me you won’t decide it’s too pretty to wear and lock it away in a drawer somewhere.”
“I would never!” Serenity knew firsthand how frustrating it was to make something that the recipient refused to use. Things that are made with love and care deserve to be used!
“Good. Now, it’s time to go home and rest. But first you promise me you’ll spend the next solstice with us,” Granny demanded.
“I promise,” Serenity smiled before being overtaken by a particularly strenuous yawn.
Granny ushered her out the door and she went home. Dragon was asleep in his bed by the fire. She doubted he had stirred during the night. The little guy slept like the dead. She sat on her bed, running her hands over the soft wool of her new shawl. Maybe, just maybe, holidays would be less lonely from now on.
Cottage Hills : A Winter Tale, Part I
A Boy, a Girl and the Tower
As the square begins to get covered in the first snow of winter, a young boy hears some soft crying from up above, in the old clocktower. But no one goes up there, and the tower hasn't chimed, not since he's moved here anyway.
He slowly pries open the cold rusty iron gates, and runs up to take a look and sees a little girl crying alone in the snow.
"Hey! You're May right? So you're here! The whole town's been looking for you! Geez, so you've been up here in the old clocktower all this while? Come on, let's go tell your grandpa!"
"Stu! Wait! I... Wanna stay here a while more.. Will you stay with me?"
"Huh?! But it's cold here.... Hmm ughh fine!"
Stu sits down next to her awkwardly. The two of them are the only kids in town, but they don't really have much else in common, at least not that they know of.
"Aw it's so cold! You're crazy, May...why are you up here crying anyway?"
"I'm not crazy! I...just... I just like it up here, it's quiet."
"This whole town is quiet. Its always so boring. I wish I didn't have to move here... Everyone is too busy to play....no wonder so many people have been leaving... If only my parents never died and left me here... I hate it here!"
"Your parents died?... Do...do you remember your mum and dad?.... Do you think its bad that I don't remember mine?"
"I don't think it's bad... I don't remember that much... Grandma says it's cos I'm too young. I guess it must be the same thing for you, did your parents die too?"
"I don't know... Grandpa won't talk about my mum. He just says that 8 years ago today... She had to go somewhere, and just left me here with him. I wonder why she didn't take me with her. I wonder if she felt sad about it..."
"She just didn't want to stay in this boring old town. She left like everyone else! Maybe she's like a movie star or something now! One day, this dumb town will disappear, and I'll go to the city, and be a boxer! You can come with me I guess, and maybe you can find your mum in the city too!"
"You? A boxer? Haha, but you're so skinny Stu, you'll get hurt!"
"I won't always be this size! One day I'll be pretty big. Like Mr. Gotz, or something, he's big. You'll see! Come on, I wanna climb up there! Do you think we can see the city from up there?"
They climb up the ladder and sit on the front of the clock's face. They don't manage to see the city, of course, but Stu manages to cheer May up, just by being himself. They soon become true friends, and over the years, stayed close. And the clocktower became their secret little spot for all that time.
Eight Years Later...
Stu and May are in their teens now, May is 16, and Stu is 17. They climb up the tower to their private spot, like they've been doing for the past eight years.
"Winter's here. So....it'll soon be that time of year again for you huh?"
"Mmhmm...it's today, actually. But it's ok. It was long ago. I don't even remember her. And I've got grandpa... And you."
"Yea, that's right, May. You have me now. And we have this old tower. Haha!"
"Hey, remember when you first found me up here, and you said you wanted to go to Cobbleton, and be a boxer?"
"Haha....did I really say that?.... I can't go even if I wanted to anyway. What with grandma the way she is now, and my sis still learning to be a witch..."
"Hmm yea... I'd go with you, you know. Stay in the city! But... Grandpa needs me too. How's Elli's training, by the way?"
"I dunno... Good I guess? She'll soon be learning how to fly with that funny wizard guy...she's learning so fast..."
Stu trails off and looks down a little glumly. May nudges him with her shoulder.
"You're special too, Stu. You don't need magic to be special to me, anyway."
"....But I'm nothing... I'm not big, or strong, or smart... Everyone says the Elmsleys are all this and that, cornerstones of the community and all... but I'm not gifted like they are. I wish I were like Elli. And could just fly away on a broom."
"Well, you know, everyone is gifted at something. I'm still trying to figure out what I'm gifted at.. So we can figure it out together... So don't you go flying off without me!"
"I won't, May. You know I won't."