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The Gathering

The Gathering

Queen Ariane feels it in her heart but knows not why.

Inspired by the work of Anne Stokes, 'Solstice Gathering'

Ariane stood atop the castle battlements and looked out across the heavily wooded landscape that stretched far into the distance as far as she could see.

It was the twenty-first day of December in the year of our Lord fourteen hundred and twenty-three.

All along the castle walls, torches flared, casting an eerie flickering light but still she stood, watching, waiting.

“My lady, you will catch your death of cold out here.”

The words, gentle and soothing, were those of her Lady-in-waiting, Madeleine, who placed a heavy, pale blue velvet cloak about her shoulders, fastening the golden chain at her neck and pulling the hood up over her long brown hair.

“What are you looking for, if I may be so bold as to ask, My lady?”

“I don't know, Madeleine but don't you feel it? I know something is happening and it has to be tonight.”

Lady Madeleine stood silently beside her mistress, staring out into the darkness and straining to hear something, anything but there was nothing unusual she could pick out. She heard the hissing of the torches, and the quiet fluttering of snow falling from unseen branches and she could see shadows but other than that, nothing.

She turned and looked at her beautiful mistress, the Queen.

Madeleine had not seen her like this before. She was usually so strong and confident but, for the last few days, she had been somewhat withdrawn. Oh, not in court, of course, there she was as compelling and imposing as she always had been but, in private ...

“I can see and hear nothing unusual, My Lady,” she said eventually, without turning to face her mistress.

“Neither can I, Madeleine,” Queen Ariane answered, “But I can feel it, deep inside of me.”

She pressed her fist against her heart,

“Out there, something, tonight...”

“ My Lady, please. Come back inside. Sit by the fire and be warm. The cooks are preparing dinner.”

“I am not hungry, Madeleine, I cannot eat.”

Madeleine sighed but was relieved when the Queen turned from the battlements and descended the stairs back into the main hall and returned to the royal apartments.

For the next hours, Ariane would not settle but paced the rooms, constantly returning to the windows and peering out into the darkness.

In the huge grate, the fire roared up the chimney and spread its flickering warmth throughout the chamber.

Madeleine looked around startled, as her mistress, the Queen suddenly walked quickly towards the door without a single word.

“My Lady, where are you going?” she called.

When there was no reply and Ariane appeared not to hear, she quickly grabbed their cloaks and, holding up the hem of her dress, ran quickly after her.

“My Lady, wait, please. At least, put on your cloak...”

At the castle entrance, Ariane stopped and turned.

“I must go,” she said, standing whilst Madeleine fastened the cloak around her shoulders, “It is time!”

“Time for what, My Lady?” she pleaded, “and where are you going to?”

Queen Ariane looked through the archway.

“I don't know,” she whispered.

“Then let me come with you, you cannot go alone. Who knows what lurks in those woods at night!”

“No,” the Queen replied, “Stay here. I will return before the sun appears.”

Then she turned away and walked quickly through the gate, over the drawbridge and, turning from the road, disappeared into the woods.

With an exasperated sigh, Madeleine pursed her lips and followed.

She saw that Queen Ariane had taken a little-used path that was almost invisible but her footprints were quite clear in the snow and the hem of her long cloak dragging along behind her had left a wide trail.

After what seemed like miles, Madeleine followed the trail her Queen had left until, through the trees, she thought she saw the flickering of a lamp but almost as soon as she saw it, it was gone. She was afraid now.

“Oh, Mistress, where are you?” she breathed.

Moments later she stepped out into a large clearing, barren save for a tall fir tree in the centre and, as she watched, a small light appeared on the tree, then another and another until the whole tree was covered from top to bottom in tiny flickering lights.

Madeleine looked on in awe as she became aware that she was no longer alone but surrounded by the most beautiful creatures she had ever seen.

“Faeries!” she gasped and stared around her.

Her mistress the Queen was standing alone and had, in her hand, a sprig of mistletoe that she appeared to be feeding to a young white Dragon.

“You see, Madeleine?” she said, looking up at her lady-in-waiting, “I knew something special would happen tonight. It is the winter solstice. The one night of the year when all creatures celebrate nature.”

As she spoke, from behind the big fir a beautiful woman appeared adorned in a gossamer dress of pure white. In her hand, she carried a sceptre that gave off a faint glow at its tip and around her head a crown of interwoven willow twigs.

Ariane turned to face her and curtsied.

“Your Majesty,” she said, bowing her head.

The beautiful Faerie Queen, mirrored Ariane and also curtsied and bowed, repeating her greeting,

“Your Majesty.”

Standing straight once more, the Faerie Queen looked at Madeleine.

“Who is this?” she asked.

“My Lady Madeleine,” Ariane replied and Madeleine immediately flushed red as she curtsied and bowed low. “I did tell her not to follow...”

"Do not chastise her, Your Majesty,” The Fae smiled, “That she did so, shows her devotion to you and that her heart is true.”

Suddenly, the Faerie Queen drew herself up and raised her sceptre that glowed brightly.

 "Let it be known that from this day,” she said with great power and majesty, “The kingdoms of the Faerie Realm will be allied to Queen Ariane. I name her 'Faerie Friend'!”

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