– A Short Story for Samhain (Halloween)
by Adam Frosh
Bahadur was transfixed by the flames. The amber tongues danced, and the embers rose skyward. The elders had ordered the largest pyre to be built for a generation, and the whole clan was gathered for the ceremony. The sombre chanting from the mourning crowd was befitting of the glory of his father’s life – for the once strong chieftain was now being consumed by the fire.
His gaze turned towards the woodland. The pyre was not the only source of light in the forest that evening, for the mighty terrannian warrior had died on the third night of Samhain. A series of festival balefires in the clearings beyond eerily illuminated the gnarled branches and the giant trunks of the surrounding ancient trees.
For Bahadur, this sacred festival had always meant dancing, feasting and music. The radiance of the fires imbibed a magic into the underbelly of the leafy canopy. Normally hidden from the light of the giant sun, Ghrian, and Vost’s two moons, Arianrhod and Cerridwen, the forest was a place of mystical darkness, a place of Ancestors, and the Otherworld. On festival nights, the flames would reveal an expanse of arboreal beauty, so magnificent, that even his mighty father had always taken time to sit and admire the spectacle with his children. He choked at the thought that his father would not be present at his coming of age ceremony, set to take place at the winter solstice.
This was no time to reminisce, however. A death on Samhain was truly auspicious for a warrior’s descendants, and Bahadur, the eldest of the warrior’s children, was expected to deliver a eulogy at dawn.
Perhaps there was a meaning to his father’s death at this time. He died at the peak of Samhain. At this harvest festival, his people would give a fiery welcome to the souls of the ancestors, as the doors of the Otherworld open for a just a few hours. In life, his father was not only among the most physically able of his terrannian kind, but also wielded the power of flame. Bahadur always listened with pride when the clan’s storyteller recounted how his father had once protected the community, single-handedly stopping a troop of invading un-roir who had cast envious eyes on the plentiful haul of the day’s hunting. Using his arcane powers, he had encircled the settlement within a wall of flames, forcing the raiders to confront him directly. A few of the bolder un-roir launched a fierce attack with their sharp blades. His response was as fast as the licks of his conjured flames, as he wielded his spear with a supernatural skill. Utterly beaten, the wounded un-roir retreated, and since that day, had never returned.
Bahadur turned again to watch as his father’s mortal body was consumed by the very forces he held to his command in his lifetime. Never again would he lead the hunt across the plains and through the forests. His majestic antlers, a proud symbol of his great strength, were now transforming into ash. Before long, he would be taken by the invisible forces within Vost’s soil that claimed all living things.
He touched his own antlers. They were the expected size for his age, but fairly rudimentary, and he winced when he remembered how Roisin had mocked them with her bewitching eyes. His mother reassured him his antlers would grow with time, and that young females would often behave in a cruel way at their age.
The young terrannian felt for the pouch hanging from his hide belt. He checked that no-one was watching. Its softness was reassuring.
Bahadur’s thoughts were interrupted by the presence of his mother. He could always tell she was near. Usually he felt only love and warmth radiating from her, but today he sensed her grief as well as he did his own. As she approached, his eyes overflowed. He turned and fled, his slender legs transporting him as far away as possible from the Samhain fires. As he ran, the trees bowed and swayed, as if to clear a path for him. “Athair!” He shouted into the cool night’s stillness. “Why did you have to leave me?”
The dense undergrowth on the woodland floor made running difficult, but Bahadur, despite his light frame, was fleet of foot. He found the enclosing darkness of the woodland comforting, as if he were swaddled within its wooded crib of vines and leaves. The whispers of wraiths, spirits and the souls of his forebears called to him from openings to the Otherworld. He wanted solitude yet craved the loving embrace of his mother. Unable to reconcile his thoughts, his raw instincts spurred him to run deeper into the narrowing spaces between the mossy trunks and lichen-clad branches that absorbed Cerridwen’s blue haze.
Tiring, he slowed his pace to a walk and found a moonlit glade created by an upended tree that had reached the end of its thousand-year life on Vost. Numerous saplings had sprouted where the demise of the great tree had given new light to the ground.
As he caught his breath, Bahadur climbed to rest upon the upturned trunk where it was dry. In the distance he could hear the calming melody of pipes. The tune was surprising familiar, yet he could not place it. A series of five notes followed by a slight change in the sequence, but always a set of five.
Bahadur woke with a start, realising he had been asleep on the great log. A wave of guilt swept over him as he remembered his responsibilities at the ceremony he had run from. He sat up and brushed the lichen off the downy fur on his face. As he gazed at the forest, illuminated by Cerridwen’s blue glow, he thought for a moment of the loss that had befallen his family. Thinking of the many duties that awaited him, he realised that it was not just his father that had been taken from him.
His thoughts were disturbed by a scurrying sound nearby. To his surprise, the head of a small iora popped out from underneath the matt of leaves surrounding the log, seemingly unaware that a wrinkled leaf had stayed on its head as if it were a well-fitting hat. The iora’s large, black eyes blinked as it looked around to check the safety of the area. Satisfied at the absence of predators, it jumped up onto the fallen log and sat upright on its haunches, coming face to face with Bahadur whilst its bushy tail swished from side to side. To the young terrannian’s amusement, the wrinkled leaf hat clung stubbornly to the creature’s head.
The iora blinked again and looked at him, quizzically. Why do you cry, terrannian? The eyes said to him.
“I am grieving, for my father,” Bahadur replied.
I grieved many years ago for mine, the eyes replied. The iora dropped down on all fours and took careful steps towards him. What is in your pouch?
“It’s personal,” the young terrannian replied, protecting the pouch with his hands.
So personal that you won’t even show it to an insignificant iora?
Bahadur tried to ignore the logic, but when he saw how adept the little creature was at pleading irresistibly with its widened eyes, he softened his resolve. “Why are you so interested in this, iora?”
The furry creature rolled over on the log and wriggled around playfully, trying to catch its own brown, bushy tail. It ended up reclining on its back, a paw held behind its head. Because you hold it so closely to you, came the eventual reply.
The young terrannian untied the pouch from his belt and loosened the leather string. The irritable chatter of nearby avians made him pause for a moment. He placed his hand inside and pulled out its contents.
The iora came closer to inspect it, with a series of sniffs. Why do you keep an effigy of my people?
“I don’t know,” Bahadur replied, his voice grumpy. “I guess I like your kind. It gives me comfort when I’m stressed.”
The furry creature placed a small paw on the figure, stroking the sacking material it was made from. It is made from bark strings. How soft it feels. Well, it certainly has a close likeness to my people. Look, it is even the same size as me. Did you make this?
“No. It was given to me when I was a small child. I don’t know who made it. Now give that back here!” Bahadur jumped up to stand on the log and gave chase to the iora, who had grabbed the stuffed version of itself with its mouth and scurried off with it high up within the trees. The terrannian, a capable climber, shimmied up the tree with swift steps, jumping and swinging on its sturdier branches. On several occasions he caught a glimpse of the iora with its plunder hanging from its mouth higher up within the leafy canopy, and each time he would redouble his efforts to catch it. “Come back here, you shameless iora!”
I don’t think so! came the reply from the canopy. My people would honour it, care for it and not hide it away as you do.
Bahadur found a branch, ideal for a series of steps up towards the canopy. He was now higher than he felt comfortable to be, but he cast his worries aside and launched himself upward even though the branches were rapidly thinning out. Pausing for breath, he scanned the moonlit canopy.
From out of nowhere, a pantar beast sprang upon him, its furry weight threatening to push him off the tree to his death. His quick reactions allowed him to grasp the beast’s neck and hold it at arm’s length with his left hand. The beast growled, while it swiped its claws in fury at him, slashing his arm with a deep and painful cut. The terrannian used his free right hand to search for anything that could be used as a weapon – firm branches, even a twig. The pantar lunged at him, its bared teeth skimming the skin of his neck. Bahadur knew his own strength was fading, and soon the beast would be able to fatally wound him, piercing his neck with its razor-sharp teeth. With his free hand, he managed to grapple onto a vine. He yanked hard and a length of vine yielded to his strength. With a swift movement, looped the vine over the pantar’s head and looped it once again for good measure. His left hand now utterly drained of strength, he let go of the beast’s neck and jumped off the branch, pulling the beast down with him.
As he fell, seemingly in slow motion, the trees seemed to revolve around him whilst he thumped into branches and leaves. As he heard the panicked growl of the pantar, he felt his bones fracturing with every impact, until finally his broken body hit the ground, and the world turned completely black.
The cold night air gave way to a pervasive warmth as piped notes resonated through the forest. Bahadur lay still on the mossy ground. Blood poured from the deep cuts of his flesh. Within his subconscious mind, he knew that a final sleep would soon carry him to another plane of being.
The notes became louder as the musician drew nearer. Each group of five sweet sounds carrying with them the warm caress that the Vost Goddess sings to all her children. Bahadur’s eyes opened to behold the mighty antlered Cernunnos, whose song could be felt rising from the dewy scrub of the woodland floor to pervade his shattered body. From within the haze, the creator of all living things, Ghrian, the giant sun, peeped over the horizon, her light scattering between the trees of the ancient forest. As Ghrian’s rays warmed him, Bahadur could feel their healing energy, the pain dispersing from his wounds. He could no longer keep his eyes open, and drifted into a sleep, deeper and more tranquil than any he had known in his lifetime. In his slumber, he could sense Cernunnos smile. The notes, with their group of five, each time slightly different, each time soft and resonant, became quieter as they piped further into the forest depths.
“Bahadur, it is time to wake.” The young terrannian opened his eyes to see the radiant glow of his mother. Her big dark eyes wept with joy as she held him in her arms. It was now light.
“How did you find me?”
“I can always sense you, my son. I am your mother.”
He could see her eyes were moist with tears. He looked around to see a pantar lying dead on the forest floor, its neck broken from the fall. He inspected his own wounds. The skin breaks were now wrapped in bark fibres, his bones no longer broken. His mother helped him to his feet. She looked at the nearby fallen tree. On its upended trunk sat the toy iora with its fibrous bushy tail and body made of sacking material. “Bahadur, did you fall from that tree? Who has bound your wounds so expertly? What has happened to you?”
“Máthair, something strange happened here this evening.”
“Look, we must return home. The festivities will end soon, and our people await your father’s eulogy. Tell me along the way”
“I miss Athair.”
“I miss him too, my son.”
“Why was he taken from us so soon?”
“The sages say that his illness was sent by the Great Goddess to claim him for a greater purpose.”
“I’m sorry I ran, Máthair.”
“I understand, Bahadur. I wanted to run too.”
“Máthair, I have never thought to ever ask you, but who made my iora?”
Through her tears, his mother smiled at him. “I don’t know who originally made it, but it belonged to your father when he was a child. I think it may have belonged to his father, before that. I know what you are thinking, Bahadur. Your father loved and cherished it, too. He was also worried that such sentimentality would appear weak to our people. He grew to be strong and wise but always cherished it. When you were born, he felt proud to be able to hand it down to you. You see, my son, what gives us strength in adult life is what we carry with us from our childhood.” She looked around at the twisted remains of the pantar. “Athair would be proud to see what a fine warrior you have become. Let us take the iora back with us. It is time to recite your eulogy.”
“I am ready, Máthair.”
Spirits of the Flame – A Short Story for Samhain (Halloween) – an historical note
Samhain is an ancient Celtic festival that marks the end of the Summer and the beginning of Winter. The warm Summer was considered a time for the living and the cold, dark Winter associated with death. Samhain, which falls on the 1st November, represents the interface between these times. The blurring of this transition into Winter meant that the spirits of the dead would, for a brief time, be visible to the living through portals that open to the Otherworld. This would give the druids the ability to not only to communicate with the dead but to see into the future. This way, the Celtic people would be able to see their fortunes for the coming harsh months of Winter. The night before Samhain would be celebrated with costumes made from animal heads and hides and huge sacred bonfires.
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The beautiful cover picture is courtesy of the highly talented Valerie Herron