Click hereJaran walked through the brazier-lit streets of the kingdom, all but oblivious to the light flakes spinning down into his golden hair. Around him there was celebration. People danced and sang, children played games and crafted fanciful sculptures from the snow. Lovers kissed beneath the fire light. The walls and arches of the streets were strung with silver ribbons. Colorful tents dotted the courtyards where vendors peddled smoked foods and unusual gifts. The sound of bells rang through the kingdom. Jaran knew these sights well, it was the festival of the Winter Solstice.
There was no such joy in Jaran's heart this year. He was tired. This kingdom had spent the last year under siege. He had helped defend it, raising his sword against the invaders, and finally repelling them to the hills. The kingdom had lost much, and yet these people still celebrated.
He walked, without purpose, down passageways haunted by the echoes of recent battles. He watched the pageantry played out around him with such abandon, and found it disturbing. How could these people carouse and make merry? How could they give in so completely to such revelry? How could his soul feel so empty?
"What troubles you, good knight?"
There was an oracle's tent on the side of the street. Jaran had not seen it there a moment before, and no one seemed to take notice of it, or the old woman who stood in its entrance. He had heard stories of the oracles, and how their divination's always had a price.
"What makes you think I'm troubled?"
"If your face was any longer I'd mistake you for a horse. You have been wandering around the festival like a ghost."
"Perhaps I'm not in the mood to celebrate."
"Or perhaps your mind is occupied with other matters?"
Jaran looked back at the people in the throes of jubilation, "Yes, perhaps it is."
"So I ask again, what troubles you?"
He waved his arms at the whole of the festival, "This troubles me! We fought like dogs for a year, and for what? So we can play the snow and drink? Our dead are not even cold in the ground we dance upon. We spill wine where we spilled our blood all year. How can they treat such frivolity as sacred?"
"Well, that's a big question, isn't it?" the woman said, "The solstice has been celebrated in one way or another throughout history. We ignite the lights and sing our songs to welcome back the sun, to bring us longer days to help us through the winter. Traditions have a habit of enduring."
"But it's all so damned foolish! Why would we waste our time on such things?"
"I cannot answer that, but I can do better. I can give you a quest."
"Yes. Your war is over, you have nothing better to do. I thought a knight like you would love a good quest, especially one that would answer your question."
"How can a quest answer my question?"
"It is said that there is a place at the end of the world called the Citadel of the Solstice, a magnificent edifice where lost souls like you go to recover their spirits from dispair. If you wish to understand the meaning of this exhaltation, you must find the Citadel. If you don't, then such happiness shall remain meaningless to you."
Jaran cast his gaze at the festival. Voices were rising in unison as the children began singing. The woman was right about one thing, his tired heart longed for a good quest. Anything to take him from this place.
"Tell me, oracle..." he said, turning back to the woman.
But she, and the tent, were gone.
Jaran could not recall how many years had passed. He often tried reaching back through the veil of memory, to call up the name of the distant land where his steed was buried, or in which river's reflection he'd noticed the whitening of his beard. Time had ticked away with each storm he weathered, with each obstacle he overcame, and with each mile he traveled.
His quest had led him thrice across the world, seeking out priests, warlocks, sages, shamans and sorcerers. From each he learned the sagas of old, the timeworn legends upon which the world was built, the gods and heroes and monsters that dwelled in the misty recesses of fable and parable. From each he asked for knowledge of the Citadel. From each he was told it was a fool's quest, that the Citadel was a fabulous myth and nothing more. But Jaran was insistent, and in the end each recollected a fragment from some old story, produced a tattered map or lost relic, or ascribed some arcane invocation to the success of his search. Jaran did not know which were true and which were apocrypha, so he followed them all.
It was a voyage of wonders, through a desert of thorns, across a burning ocean, over mountains that sang. He saw cities carved from gold, fortresses of stained glass, and labyrinths of jade. The whole of civilization was unfolded to him page by ancient page, but his destination continued to elude him.
Onward he traveled, weary, yet sworn to complete the task he had undertaken. Year after year he found the strength and will to continue, to search, until he had lost or bartered all he carried, save his sword and the horn of ale slung from his belt.
In the ruins of a long dead empire he found a stone tablet. It told him to go to the Gates of Ice at the world's edge, that one winter day each year the wheels of heaven aligned, the gates opened, and one could pass beyond the world to the Citadel of the Solstice. So he went, and he waited.
He had arrived.
Jaran fell to his knees in awe, his overwhelmed heart pounding with fear and joy. The Citadel rose from the windblown landscape like a mountain with a thousand spires. Its buttresses spanned acres. There were pillars of marble and wood, lattices of stone and bronze, vast arrays of iron beams and granite arches fixed at incomprehensible angles. The colossal walls were etched with symbols, some he knew from his voyage. Icons, glyphs, emblems, runes, and crests, numbering in the thousands. The badges and signets of the world were stamped upon this towering structure, bearing witness to the wasteland at the world's end.
Jaran knelt there, unblinking, for a long time.
"You'll catch your death out there!"
The voice rang through the wind and shook him from his trance.
He saw that a small door had opened in the Citadel's facade, the woman standing there was frantically whipping the contents of a large bowl under her arm with an equally large spoon.
"Stop gawking and come in!" she said, blowing a sprig of unruly gray hair from her face.
Jaran obeyed, for surely the mistress of such a place could not be disobeyed. He followed her through the door and down winding corridors. They emerged in an immense kitchen of cauldrons and ovens. Jaran was staggered by the overpowering variety of smells that enveloped him. The woman continued stirring silently.
"My lady, I have traveled..."
"I know, I know, you've come a long way. You're tired and hungry. It certainly took you long enough to get here."
The woman was stopping at a series of cauldrons, sniffing the vapors rising from each.
"But I was sent to..."
She slammed down the bowl and began stoking one of the ovens.
"Yes, I know, good knight."
Jaran watched her work, and in that instant the veil of memory parted. He knew this woman, she had sent him on this quest so long ago.
"You," was all he could mutter, as his mind tried to grasp the presence of the oracle after all these decades.
The woman approached him with a large bowl of fruits and thrust it into his arms, "Here, help me."
"What do I-"
The woman spun him around and pushed him through a large door. Blackness swallowed him. For a moment he felt fear. Then his eyes adjusted, and he found himself in a large, dark room. Jaran could make out rows of tables set for a meal. The woman entered the room behind him carrying a sizable tray of spiced cheeses and greens. She placed it carefully on a nearby table.
"There," she said, "Those are finished." She turned and took the bowl from Jaran.
"But, my lady, who are you who lives and toils within the Citadel of the Solstice?"
Her eyes locked on his, and even in the darkness he could see them shine with wisdom.
"Good knight," she said, "I am the Solstice."
Before he could comprehend these words, a faint light began to rise in the room. Jaran could see the banquet set out on the tables.
"I am the end and the beginning, the turning of the world and the lengthening of the days."
All around the room, doors swung open, and warm light poured in. Jaran took in the splendor of the dining hall. There was garland meticulously hung everywhere, elegant centerpieces adorned each table, as well as platters holding magnificent arrangements of strange and exotic dishes.
"Since humanity discovered fire and crafted the first wheel," the woman continued, "they needed to tell time. They charted the migrations of the herds, measured the days between planting and harvest, and understood the passing of the year. They built their clocks and calendars, and learned to fathom the great cycle of world's path around the sun. That was when I was born, commemorating the day the darkness fades and the light reclaims the winter sky."
A bell sounded somewhere in the Citadel, resonating in the hall like a choir. From beyond the doors, Jaran could hear footsteps approaching.
"You asked me long ago what the meaning of the solstice was, why we celebrate this over all other days. Here is your answer."
The woman gestured, and guests began streaming through the entranceways. They carried plates of food and gifts. They sang, greeted each other with embraces, and gathered around the tables. Although Jaran recognized some of the clothing from distant lands, he could see that these were not people. Some had animal heads, some flew into the room on all manner of wings, some radiated a serene glow. He knew these beings, he had heard of them on his travel, seen their images on cave walls, and passed statues of them at the gates of cities.
They were changelings, and djinn, and mermaids. There were giants and dwarves, sprites and tricksters, trolls and kachinas. He looked closer as the room filled. He saw Polyphemus the cyclops, Kali the protector and destroyer, Xochippi the patron of fire, and Dana who spawned a hundred clans. Moving among them were chimeras, golems, dragons, creatures of air, water, and the fiery depths of the earth. There were axe-bearing warriors laughing with ogres, a sky god opening a wine cask for a manitou, and a lycanthrope and a valkyrie comparing plates of meat. A pair of goblins played keep-away with a nine-headed devourer of souls. A sasquatch raised a glass with a titan, a gryphon playfully chased a bespectacled old woman astride a giant swan. There were trees that walked, and beings of stone, and spirits that moved about as thin as mist. He saw Daedalus, Ganesha, Horus, and Gilgamesh. He saw banshees and basilisks, wraiths and wendigos, saytrs and seraphim. He saw them all in the throes of joy, here in the now radiant dining hall.
"My guests," whispered the woman.
Jaran looked at her, stunned and confused.
"The infinite guises of human myth," she said, spreading her arms to the room, "the incarnations of wonder. The Olmecs, the Syrians, the Minoans, and the Druids all gave faces to the struggles of the light and the dark. The Bantu, the Sumerians, and the Inuit birthed their pantheons on the cycle that begins and ends with the solstice. From around primeval campfires to the torch-lined avenues of their great cities, they raised beacons against the night, and rendered the heavens ablaze with fantastic creatures who came and went with the turning of the seasons. They are the embodiment of the best and worst within humanity."
Jaran watched the glorious, hallowed congregation celebrate before him. These were the creatures and creations that held sway over the imagination, that had inspired so many to create, explore, and discover. He felt the fires of history burning in this room, and understood.
"That is why you sent me on the quest," he said, tears welling in his eyes, "to learn the legends, to hear the timeless yarns that drove those who listened forward towards destiny. They are the wellsprings of culture and tradition. We name our tribes and nations and languages after them. In their memory we ascend to a greatness beyond our heroes and myths."
The woman gripped his shoulders, "It is what makes you noble, the ambition that urged you on your journey, the passion that fuels the light within, the light we celebrate each solstice. When I saw you at the festival all those winters ago, I realized you had forgotten."
Jaran smiled, "Thank you, my lady."
"Now," she said, "get in there and eat. I've got work to do."
"But I fear I've brought nothing to your table."
"The ale will do, good knight."
He pulled the horn from his belt and gave it to her. In return she handed him a mug of wine. He bowed, and took a long sweet drink. The dining hall cheered him. He wiped his beard and headed for the food. After a lifetime, he was ready to celebrate.