The Holly Bears The Crown
It is midwinter and the night lingers, luxuriating in its own smothering weight, its absolute darkness. It is the longest night, the very heart of winter; the year stands, trembling, on the brink of dissolution and the world holds its breath for the dawn.
The Winter King walks in absolute silence. His bare feet do not leave so much as a mark on the virgin snow; his breath does not steam in the frigid air, nor does he shiver. He is crowned with holly, the points wickedly sharp, the berries red as blood, and he wears a robe of white and silver fur, the pelts of all who have died beneath the harshness of his touch. He is beautiful, as winter is often beautiful: remote, forbidding and terrible, and yet edged in delicacy and vulnerability, the pristine perfection of an ice sculpture, liable to shatter at the slightest fault.
Ice runs through his veins and his heart is frozen: he is winter incarnate and this is his kingdom.
It is midwinter, and all across the ice-locked lands the mortals are celebrating, sacrificing, lighting great bonfires and feasting and carousing in a desperate orgy of life and light and fire. They call on the sun to return, for the Summer King to be born again, and when the festivities are over they cower in their small, petty houses, and whisper sad soft prayers that the winter will not take too much this year.
He is winter incarnate and this is his kingdom, this night the height of his power, and yet it is not to him the mortals pray. None love the master of snow and ice and bitter cold; he has no mercy and to know him is to fall forever into the dreamless sleep of death, to become food for his wolves and ravens, a splash of red amidst the endless white.
The Winter King cares not. It is midwinter and he has an appointment to keep.
This, the night of the solstice, the longest night, is the height of his power, and yet it is no victory for him. Though the winter will deepen and the cold bite harder, as of this dawn and every dawn hereafter, the sun will rise a little higher, cling on a little longer. Winter will have its dominion, but as of this dawn, his power is waning, his ice melting, drip by tiny drip. Summer is born again this dawn, weak and feeble though it be now, and though he be mighty in his power and reach for a while yet, the countdown has begun to the equinox, to the balance of days when he must strive with his brother for mastery of the year; strive and be thrown down, and retreat to lick his wounds as winter turns to spring and the Summer King rules again.
It is midwinter, the dawn after the longest night, and the Winter King stands before a great oak tree, the pale and feeble sunlight shattered into a thousand glittering rainbows by the filigree tracery of ice encasing its branches. He steps forward and lays a cold, cold hand against the tree’s gnarled bark; he feels the great, slow beat of the tree’s heart, the all but frozen sap stirring sluggishly to life.
“Brother,” he says, voice sharp with the crack of a breaking glacier.
“Brother,” comes the faint reply, a soft sighing breeze, and the Winter King steps back, watches avidly as the shimmering brilliance of daylight flickers and coalesces, picking out the shadow and shape of the Summer King.
The Summer King is gold and crimson and crowned with oak leaves; he burns with the heat of the midday sun and his eyes are as blue as the cloudless skies of midsummer, when the days are warm and sweet and the nights heavy with promise and the scent of summer flowers. He is glorious and beautiful and none can wonder why the mortals adore him so; why they not only celebrate his strength at midsummer, but welcome in the spring and lament the autumn, re-enacting the great battles the brother-kings must fight and singing great songs of his glory and goodness.
But the Winter King cares not. He cares only for their battles at the turning of the year, when he and his brother are both fully present, one waning weak and the other waxing strong; when they claw and bite and wrestle, blood streaming, hearts pounding, until one is thrown down and the other victorious, when victory can be claimed and found in each other’s bodies and the breath that mingles between their lips.
It is not yet that time. Winter still has his dominion, and Summer has no place here, not yet. But is the dawn after the longest night, and so Summer is born again this day, and can stand here, a chimera of the thin and watery sunlight, crowned with oak and with eyes the blue of summer skies, and he smiles and all his care is for his brother.
The Winter King raises his own hand to his own face and rests it on his cheek, thumb skimming over his cheekbone, before sliding his palm around to the back of his neck, and they both pretend that he can feel the ghostly golden hand of summer upon his skin.
“It is good to see you again,” the Summer King says, and if the Winter King cannot feel the warmth of his skin, he can at least bask in the warmth saturating his voice. “I have missed you so.”
“And I you,” the Winter King replies, smiling as gently as he can, and they talk of little things, of the small still spaces between the raindrops, of the taste of the hurricane and the scent of falling stars, and a thousand other things beyond what mere mortals can know. On this, the first day of the rising year, Winter still has his dominion, and Summer can be only a flicker, a moment of sunshine amidst the darkness of the storm, and all too soon the golden shape of his brother begins to fade and those brilliant eyes to flutter shut as the sleep of the earth reclaims her brightest child.
The Winter King cares not. It is midwinter, and the dawn after the longest night; his brother is born again and so he is alone no more. The old year has died and the new is born. Each day, the Summer King will grow a little stronger, will awaken for a little longer, and soon, oh, as soon as he can, he will be able to feel the sizzling touch of summer on his chilled skin and taste the sweetness of summer wines on his black lips. They will walk hand in hand through the frozen land, and their passion will call the storm, scour the earth with bitter winds and terrible frost, and the mortals will cower and weep and pray for spring.
Spring will come. Where they walk, the earth will sigh and the ice will weep, and as the summer grows stronger, fed fat on winter’s love, the snow and ice and frost will melt away and all the green and growing things will burst forth and it will be the Winter King who falters and falls, down, deep into the earth and the furthermost corners of the world, there to sleep and dream the dreams of ice until midsummer, when his brother will call his shade just as he does now.
Spring will come, and Summer will have his dominion. But here and now, in the shadow of the solstice, Winter still reigns supreme, and in the kingdom of Winter there is no mercy and no care for little things.
The Winter King stands tall, terrible and alone, his beauty as frozen and fragile as the frost. But as the pale sunlight strikes the ice a riot of rainbows explodes over the silent snow and he laughs, a sound like silver bells and howling winds, and he dances between the reflections, heart and hands and feet light and lovely in the wild, white wilderness.
It is midwinter and the Winter King is dancing, for Summer has returned to him again.