Writer's retreat

Writer's retreat

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

The Holly and the Ivy Part 5

Colin sat on his bed turning the horn dagger over and over in his hands. Outside his window, snow fell in thick white clumps, adding to the blanket already covering hills and valley.

Granny’s words reverberated in his head.

“Take this knife, Colin. You will need it to make your offering when snow comes. Go back to the King Holly behind the chapel and make a single cut so the blood drips down on the snow. Red on white.

“It’s our way, you see. Our way to show our life connects to our land. Our lifeblood, vibrant while the earth sleeps.

“The King’s chosen you this year. Don’t be scared. Means he has something for you, something special. You’ll know what it is once you’ve offered your gift.

“Don’t forget the knife. It’s very old. Some say it came from the antler of the first white stag. Take good care of it.

“When you’re done, go to the chapel. Angie will be waiting for you.

Colin examined the dagger more closely. It was a single piece of yellow bone, with a carved hilt and finely tapering blade. He knew it would be sharp enough when the time came. He wondered how many others had done this, sitting alone with the dagger, waiting for the right time to begin.

When he looked up at the window, the snow had stopped. Shafts of sunlight were making ice crystals dance on the hilltop. Better go now, before it got dark; before he lost his nerve.

He pushed the dagger into his trouser pocket, blade first. Then he flung open his bedroom door and thundered down the stairs. His green jacket was hanging on its peg in the porch. He pulled it on, grabbing his hat and gloves from the wire basket by the back door. His boots were nowhere to be seen.

Sighing, he sorted through the heap of footwear left by his brothers and sisters until he found his own. They were all off sledging with the other village kids, but Colin hadn’t felt like joining them. Maybe he would tomorrow when this was all over.

As he knelt on the step to lace up his boots, he noticed a dried leaf beside his foot. It must have blown in from the back garden where the oak tree stood.

“Ackerleys must live near oak trees.” Colin heard his grandfather’s voice. “That’s what Ackerley means – oak meadow. We’re all oaks in our own way.”

Colin picked up the leaf and slipped it into the pocket with the dagger. Five minutes later he was trudging up the field behind his house towards the path which led to the chapel.

“Colin’s gone. I saw him leave.” Maggie rushed into the vicarage with her news. She stopped short when she saw Granny and Emily standing either side of Anthea as the vicar’s wife breathed through a painful contraction.

“Go and get Zeb,” Granny told her. “Tell him to take the Landrover up to the chapel in an hour’s time. Don’t want to spook the lad. You get up there now and start the fire going. Heat up some water. He’ll need a hot drink when it’s all over.”

“Isn’t that what you should be doing?” Maggie grinned at the three women. “Where’s the vicar?”

“Out playing in the snow, where he should be. Henry will fetch him when the time comes. He’d only be in the way.” Granny rubbed Andrea’s back as she began to walk around the kitchen.

“Good luck, love.” Maggie kissed the young woman then quietly made her exit.

It was sheltered in the hollow where the chapel stood. It was as if the snow absorbed all sound. No wind, no birdsong, only the soft flow of water from the holy spring into the well house.

Colin trudged through the drift by the side of the chapel towards the King Holly, brushing the powder snow off his brown trousers. Same colour as the oak leaf, he thought idly as the leaf drifted from his pocket onto the ground. His jacket was green like the holly tree bark, a vivid vibrancy in the snowy landscape.

He pulled off his gloves and stuffed them inside his jacket. He’d need them later and he didn’t want to lose them. His hand shook as he pulled out the dagger. He didn’t like knives, ever since he’d picked up his father’s penknife as a small child and sliced his hand open.

He remembered how easy it had been. How the blood flowed from his palm onto the ground beside the oak tree. How his mother screamed, making him drop the knife, so the cut hurt and his own frightened cries filled the air. There was still a small white scar on his right palm.

“So you offered yourself to the oak and now you come to me to take my place, eh, young Allon?”

“What!” Colin staggered backwards, dropping the dagger on the ground.

An old man, dressed in rich garments woven with holly leaves and berries leaned heavily against the trunk of the holly tree. Though his words were stern, his eyes shone with mischief.

“Who are you?” Colin’s eyes were fixed on the man, hardly noticing the blood dripping from his left middle finger, caught by the dagger as it fell.

“Don’t you recognise me, Allon? I admit the tables were turned when we met at mid-summer, I was the young man then and you looked as if a breath of wind would carry you away. Now the wheel has moved and it is my turn to offer you the crown.”

The old man walked towards him, holding out a woven wreath of leaves which he placed on Colin’s head. Though the shape of the leaves had been holly-like in the old King’s hands, as soon as they touched the boy, they transformed into oak leaves with a light green hue as if newly unfurled from leaf-buds.

“Rule wisely, Allon. We shall meet again soon.”

The old man turned, as if to walk back towards the holly tree, but with each step he took, the colours of his clothes faded until he became transparent, disappearing into the tree; leaving Colin alone.

The boy blinked, suddenly noticing his bleeding finger and sucking it furiously. He reached out a hand to retrieve the dagger and put it safely away in his pocket, but the sight which met his eyes made him stagger backwards until he reached the safety of the chapel wall. He felt the solid stone against his back and let his breathing return to normal.

Where the horn dagger fell, a white stag now stood, his four pronged antlers almost brushing the lower branches of the holly tree. His coat shone against the green of the tree; against the bank of snow, he was invisible except for his deep brown eyes and black, curling lashes. He turned his head towards Colin then began to walk through the snows in the direction of the wood.

Colin stood mesmerised for several long moments, but when the stag stopped again on the edge of the trees, he quickly got to his feet and followed.

The stag’s gait was slow and steady, walking along the ancient woodland rides as if he knew them. The broad canopy above captured most of the fallen snow; leaving the leaf mould floor brown and crisp. Colin imagined all the creatures living in this place, from tiny dormice to burly badger, turning in their sleeping chambers, unconsciously aware of the white stag passing through his ancient domain.

The stag led Colin deeper into the wood than he’d ever been before. Lime trees, oaks, hazel and ash stood in regimented lines as if planted here for a reason. Holly bushes were everywhere, long thin tendrils hanging almost to the ground like a huge festive curtain. They climbed up a small rise, then the stag leaped across a ditch, leaving Colin to slither downwards and then clamber back up again.

When he reached the top, he could see the remains of a robbed out wall, trees pushing from underneath like the remains of an ancient hedge – hawthorn, black thorn, spindle trees, elder; all dark and leafless. A flash of white caught his eye.

When he turned, the stag was standing in the midst of row upon row of gnarled tree trunks. Some were toppled, covered with ivy and lichen, but most were still erect, their thickness proclaiming their great age. Snow covered everything like a soft white cloak on the upper portion of each branch.

“Where am I?” Colin wondered to himself. This wasn’t part of the wood, there was too much light. All the tall trees were behind them. This section was deliberately kept clear. Why.

As he watched, he felt a gentle breeze on his face and saw the grass underneath the trees turn the bright green of springtime. Suddenly, the tree were bursting into blossom – pink, blushing apple, huge white snowflakes of pear and the delicate white of cherry.

“It’s an orchard!” Colin cried. “An orchard inside the wood!”

In the blink of an eye, the light changed again. Now the trees were covered with fruit, all different shapes, sizes and colours. Colin thought he saw brown, cowled figures walking between the trees, gathering fruit into baskets, then taking it to a huge press in the corner of the orchard to turn into juice, which was poured into barrels. The barrels were then loaded onto a cart and driven away with much singing until the music died away and the orchard returned to its winter slumber.

“You need someone to take care of the trees,” Colin said to the stag. “I could do that. Even if I only worked until mid-summer when my time is up, I could prune and clear away the brambles and make the orchard wall secure again.

“Is that what you want of me?”

The white stag walked towards him until his nose was so close he could feel warm puffs of breath on his face. The boy reached out to touch the white brow but his fingers felt nothing. He toppled forward into the snow and lay still.

As the moon rose in a cloudless, frosty sky, a frantic search party from the village finally found him. The warmth from his body had melted the snow around him and his clothes were covered with different sized oak leaves.

“Is he breathing?”

Maggie’s terrified words slipped from her as Anvil and Zeb gently rolled the boy onto his back.

“He’s alive. Bring the blankets. Let’s get him on the stretcher and back home.”

An hour later, a dazed Colin was sitting by a blazing fire in the vicarage parlour sipping hot broth; guarded by his mother who refused to let anyone ask him any questions.

“He’ll speak when he’s good and ready, not before.”

One by one, she shooed everyone out, all except Anvil, who sat in the opposite chair staring into the fire.

“I have to say, I’m grateful to you, Anvil, you and Zeb, for finding my boy.”

“It weren’t so bad, once we found the trail. He followed the white stag into the Abbot’s Orchard. I saw it standing over him until we arrived. He wasn’t harmed, but he will be changed. He’s Allon now.”

Lizzie Ackerley gasped. “There’s not been an Allon in the village…

“…since Granny Blackwell’s great-great-grandmother’s grandmother was a child.” Granny completed the sentence as she pushed the parlour door shut with a quiet click. “That’s when Earl William forsook the orchard. Refused to tend it after his son was killed by an oak tree. Promised to transport anyone who so much as picked an apple. Elders thought it best to leave it hid. No point in causing more misery. Things were bad enough back then.”

“Now the stag thinks otherwise and who are we to gainsay him.”

“That’s not all,” Granny said, resting her hand lightly on Anvil’s shoulder. “Didn’t you hear the baby cry? I think you’d better come upstairs to meet our future.”

Twelve months later, the Abbot’s Orchard was host to a very different scene. Stone walls topped with hedges lined the perimeter. Two huge oak gates secured the entrance and a roaring bonfire warmed the pressing corner where most of the village were gathered drinking mulled cider from the orchard’s first harvest for over two hundred years.

It was Colin, now employed as the orchard’s official Keeper, who led the others in the ancient Wassail.

The winter sun’s arising
The deer are running free
With holly berries red as blood
A- wassailing go we.

The king he is a hunting gone
To catch the spotted deer
He rode amongst the forest trees
That stood both tall and bare
The winter sun’s arising etc.

The king he spied a milk white stag
Mid holly hanging low
“Stay here,” he said, “and hold my horse,”
“I hunt this stag alone.
The winter sun’s arising etc.

The king approached the noble beast
His knife held in his hand
To take the stag’s own life he sought
Spill blood upon the ground
The winter sun’s arising etc.

“Come close, come close, O worthy King”
The stag began to cry
“My life I give this Solstice Eve
“My eyes will close this day”
The winter sun’s arising etc.

“For in green holly’s warm embrace
“My blood alone is red
“And ever more my life will run
“Like holly berries shed.”
The winter sun’s arising etc.

“Now tell your churchmen, tell them true
This land is sacred now
“A forester must tend the trees
And cut the holly boughs”
The winter sun’s arising etc.

The king he slew the milk white stag
Red blood upon the snow
They bore him home to feast and dance
Mid holly hanging low
The winter sun’s arising etc.

The king he told the Holy Man
The forest should be shriven
The Abbot had the holding now
Of lands so freely given
The winter sun’s arising etc.

The Abbot called his treasurer
“Count up my gold, “said he
“For I would build a forest fence
“Around the trees so green.”
The winter sun’s arising etc.

Then came the men with stones and picks
The boundary walls to build
A forest wild to tame and tend
Wherein the stag was killed
The winter sun’s arising etc.

The Abbot built a garden
Within the forest walls
With apples, pears and hazelnuts
To bring us all good cheer.
The winter sun’s arising etc.

Here’s health unto the Abbot
Our king we toast all round
A toast unto the milk white stag
With blood upon the ground.
The winter sun’s arising etc.

Monday, 3 January 2011

The Holly and the Ivy Part 4

“He’s very young,” Granny said, clutching Colin’s handkerchief with both hands.

“No younger than I was the first year I was chosen.”

Anvil picked an apple from Granny’s fruit bowl and took a large bite.

“Yes, but you’d been working at the forge for two years by then. You had muscle and bone twice his size. Granny Blackwell never had a moment’s concern about you. She said you could lose two armfuls of blood and never notice.”

Anvil chuckled. “She did, did she, the old bat.” Then his face softened. “She lost sight of some things in her later years, did Granny. It’s not about how much you lose, but what you see that matters.”

Granny let the handkerchief slip onto the table in a crumpled heap.

“What did you see, then, Greg?”

“I never told no-one, not even Granny. She didn’t like not knowing. Nearly cost me Anvil when she told Blake I wasn’t fit to lead, but he must have seen something in me when he took me as apprentice.”

“I’m sorry,” Granny got up to clear away the dinner plates. “I shouldn’t pry into what isn’t my business.”

“Oh, but it is, Amy. What I saw was the Crone, the Calliech herself. She was wearing a pure white woollen cloak, her face almost hidden by the deep hood. There was so much snow up by the chapel that winter she was completely camouflaged.

“I didn’t notice her until after I made my offering. The wind blew one of the ivy tendrils away from the chapel wall and suddenly I could see her. I swear I was so terrified, I could hardly raise my eyes to look on her.

“She said nothing, but her smile… Oh her smile warmed me more than any day spent at my forge. I knew then, whatever happened, it would be as they willed. I knew it would all come right – the circle, the village. She gave me hope again.”

Granny stood very still, her voice hardly more than a whisper. “What has that to do with me?”

“She wore your face.”

Granny almost dropped the plates on the table and sank down on a chair. “She wore my face?”

“Not as you were then. It was just before you became Madron. Henry was about six months old. She looked as you look, well not quite now, maybe twenty years from now, but I knew it was you.”

“So you knew I would be Crone.”

“Yes. I didn’t dare tell you in case the telling would undo the truth. Now I can.”

“Thank you.” Granny leaned over and dropped a soft kiss on his cheek. “And now the whelp goes to seek the Holly King. “

“Let’s hope the Crone is as kind to him as she was to me.”


“He can’t be chosen, he just can’t!” Jack bellowed, his arms gripped firmly by Zeb and Andy as he attempted to launch himself at Anvil in the small kitchen of the village hall.

“It’s not my decision, Jack.”

“You’re our Anvil. You can change things. Let Peter go, you saw the holly prick him. There was blood on his finger.”

“He wasn’t the first, Jack. You know the lore. It has to be first blood. Colin’s handkerchief was covered this morning. You saw it the same time as I did. If that weren’t enough, he went to the King Holly by instinct and the King chose him.

“If we didn’t believe it, he’s bled three times this afternoon just from attaching the leaves to the wreaths he’s been working on. Madron’s confirmed it as well as Granny. He has to go.”

Jack sagged against the two other men. “He’s not ready. He’s not even made his knife yet. He doesn’t like cutting things. I’ve seen him faint at the sight of blood.”

“So why hasn’t he fainted today?” Zeb asked quietly. “He’s not worried. You heard him; he’s been singing to himself and whistling all afternoon as if he hasn’t a care in the world. I’ve never seen him so happy other than when he’s planting saplings in the wood. You have to let him go.”

“It’s not as if he’ll do it today. There’s time until snow falls. You never know, maybe we won’t have snow this year.” Andy tried to reassure the anxious father but Anvil shook his head.

“Snow’s coming soon. I’ve seen it. It’ll be deep too. “

“What about Andrea? If it snows along Borough’s Pike she might not be able to get to the hospital in time. Do you think we should send her to stay with Zeb’s Emily in town?”

“You worry worse than my husband, Uncle Andrew.” The young woman in question eased herself onto a stool next to the sink. “We’ve got it all planned. Simon’s offered to stockpile supplies at the Manor for the entire village and there’ll be plenty of milk from his herd. If it snows that badly, the milk tanker won’t be able to get through, so we can have it. No point in wasting anything.”

“But what if you go into labour? I heard Granny say you’ll likely be on time. What do we do then? Call the helicopter? “

“I hope it doesn’t come to that, Uncle Andrew, really I don’t. Emily will be here for the solstice anyway and I’m sure she’ll look after me if anything does happen. How many babies has she delivered now, Zeb?”

Zeb smiled, he was very proud of his elder daughter who managed one of the delivery suites in the local hospital. “Three hundred and sixty it was, last time she told me; that’s not including her two.”

“Well then,“ Andrea beamed at them all. “I’m sure I couldn’t be in safer hands, so stop worrying!”

Sunday, 2 January 2011

The Holly and the Ivy Part 3

When Saturday arrived the village was shrouded in a blanket of fog. The holly gatherers met at Anvil’s forge, relishing the warmth of the fire before they set out. Some seemed subdued as if the fog pressed down on them, while others laughed and joked as if nothing were amiss.

“Everyone got their basket?” Anvil asked before they set off. There was a general chorus of agreement, so he ushered them outside, pulling the main door to the workshop closed behind them to deter visitors.

As they set off along the road, their boots rang against the hard surface; a welcome sound when the group leaders could not be seen by those at the back.

“Keep together now, lads. We’re going to take the track to the west copse from Bowsen Lane once we get up to the water trough. I don’t want anyone getting lost.”

“You think you’re the only one who knows their way around the woodland?” called a voice from the middle of the group.

“No, Jack Ackerley, I don’t, but I don’t relish explaining to your Lizzie why you or Colin aren’t home for dinner on time because you mistook Lawsons Oak for the Laurel Tree down on Hollowbarn Rise.”

Jack laughed loudly. “You tell that to our Lizzie and you’ll likely get the dinner thrown at you, Anvil or no. “

“Seems a terrible waste of good stew.”

“How’d you know we’re having stew for dinner?” Colin asked, fighting with his basket straps which threatened to strangle him rather than hang neatly from his neck.

“I gave your Ma the rabbits, that’s why.” Anvil came up beside the young lad, taking the basket from him and untwisted the straps so they could pass easily over his head and lie as they should.

A gap in the stone wall on the roadside loomed to their right. The leaders turned onto the Bowsen Path and started to walk uphill. Their boots squelched in mud and several of the men nearly slipped as their feet slid from under them.

As they reached the brow of the hill, a smaller path took them left into the woodland. At first they passed large bramble bushes covered in frost damaged leaves, a few young elders and holly lining the route, before taller trees –hawthorn, crabapple and hazel appeared out of the mist.

“Not far now,” Anvil said to Colin. “When we reach the first lime trunks we turn left and start down to the clearing where the best holly berries grow.”

Colin made no answer. The fog seemed to have entered his brain and he couldn’t think clearly. He knew every inch of the wood. His father was gamekeeper for the Earl of Landreich, who owned most of the village and thousands of acres nearby. Colin had been coming here ever since he could walk, but he wasn’t interested in the birds they bred for shooting or keeping the vermin down. Colin loved the trees.

When he was very young, he told his siblings the trees talked to him, but when they laughed at him, he learned to keep his thoughts to himself. It didn’t stop him from spending time in the woods and learning woodland skills along with all the other village children. It was these skills which had enabled him to join the Anvil’s Wood Folk at such an early age. His nineteenth birthday wasn’t for another two months. Most men were twenty one or older before they were accepted. Some never joined at all, moving away from the village or preferring the mental challenges of the Bridge Club.

Suddenly, Colin’s foot caught in a low-growing briar and he sprawled onto the damp carpet of dead brown leaves. When he picked himself up, there was no sign of the other men. Colin knew he should follow them to the clearing by the six-trunked lime tree, but something turned his footsteps to the right instead of the left and he found himself going back up the hill and over into the hidden fold where the sacred well and the chapel nestled.

Behind the chapel stood an ancient holly tree, covered in bright red berries.

“I don’t know why Anvil’s taken everyone to gather holly down in the copse, there are more than enough here,” he murmured holding his hand out to touch the smooth bark of the trunk. “You don’t mind, do you?” he said, looking up through the branches to the mist laden sky.

An hour later, Anvil’s group were gathering together at the edge of the wood.

“Anyone seen Colin?” his father asked. The men all shook their heads. Each man had only thoughts of gathering the holly leaves and berries once they reached the clearing, wondering if this were the year they would be chosen. Only Colin’s father finally realised his son was nowhere to be seen.

“Don’t panic, Jack. He’ll be somewhere close by. It’s not as if he can come to any harm.” Anvil laid a reassuring hand on the other man’s arm. “Let’s walk on and see if we come across him on the way back.”

Sure enough, as they reached the Bowsen Path, Colin was walking down the hill towards them, whistling cheerfully.

“Where have you been?”

“Look at all the holly I’ve got!” the boy exclaimed, holding his basket out for his father and the other men to admire.

“Where did you get this?” Anvil’s question was quietly asked, but suddenly the whole group was silent, waiting for Colin’s answer.

“I fell over soon after we entered the wood and when I got up, you’d all gone. I remembered the holly tree behind the chapel was laden with berries this year, so I went there.”

“You cut leaves from the chapel tree?”

The boy stepped back, hugging his basket to him defensively. “I didn’t cut them, I broke them off with my hands. I don’t have a knife, remember? I did ask and the tree didn’t seem to mind.”

Anvil caught sight of a blood smeared handkerchief poking out from Colin’s trouser pocket. He pulled it out and presented it to the boy.

“Is this yours?”


“It’s stained with blood.”

Colin sighed. “I know. Ma’s going to be cross. She gave it me clean this morning. She always says blood stains are the devil to get out once it’s set. I was going to wash it in the well, but I thought I’d better not. The holly prickles were something fierce on the lower branches. They weren’t so bad once I’d climbed up higher.”

“This is your blood?”

“Yes.” Colin tried to retrieve his handkerchief, but Anvil tucked it away inside his coat.

“I’ll keep it for now. We’ll see how you get on this afternoon.”

Anvil turned and walked briskly after the rest of the group, most of whom were already on the road back to the village.

“Why didn’t you stay with us,” Jack hissed .

“I told you. I picked some beautiful holly. I don’t see what all the fuss is about.”

“You shouldn’t have picked from that tree. It’s the King Tree. It’s where you go if you’re chosen.”

“Not now, Jack.” Anvil’s voice cut through the fog like an arrow through butter.

“See what happens this afternoon.”

Colin frowned. He opened his mouth to ask a question, then shut it again as he could see from the look on his father’s face he’d get no answers.

Why did old people have to make everything so complicated!