A Solstice Tale - The Heart Within
Updated: Jun 21, 2021
“It’s such a shame you have to go tonight.” Sammy helped lift her friend’s case down to the car. “There are some great parties on for the Summer Solstice.”
“I know.” Poppy sighed. “It just didn’t click when I was booking the flight home that it was anything other than a regular Saturday night.” Poppy stamped her foot in mock disappointment. “It would have made the perfect ending too, a Solstice party in San Francisco. One of those things you remember.”
“Might not be that good.” Sammy said sympathetically. “You know, sometimes the imagining is better than the actual.”
“It’s going to be better than my night, whatever it is like. I’m heading into the winter solstice and my absolute longest night; the flight might be only fourteen hours, but the reality is I leave here Saturday night and arrive in Sydney, Monday morning.”
“Messes your mind, doesn’t it? Our very own form of time travel. Still, you got an extra day on the way here,” Sammy said as she started the engine ticking over.
“Leaving summer and arriving in winter. And my holiday is over and I don’t want that. It just went so fast.”
The next few hours were the usual blur of airport bureaucracy, customs, security, and finally the departure lounge. Poppy looked at the darkening sky tinged with violet hues and sighed a goodbye. Soon the plane was above San Francisco, twinkling lights on hilly contours of black, before veering to the west and the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. For close to fourteen hours, all that would be beneath her would be water. Poppy settled into her chair, accepting a light supper, some wine, and flicked through the movies on offer.
Maybe I’ll even manage to sleep, she thought as she tied back her unruly black hair and settled under the soft blanket that had been provided. Time went by; the cabin lights dimmed; the only sound, the constant vibrating hum of the engine and the shuffling of a few hundred people trying to get comfortable.
Poppy closed her eyes and tried to sleep: somewhere between her body’s complaining and her mind running like a movie reel through her holiday images, she did manage to doze and then woke abruptly to a gripping cramp in her left calf muscle. Since she was in an aisle seat, she decided a little stroll might help her leg unclench. She walked to the back of the plane and leaned over to look out the window into the nothingness of night flying.
“Excuse me.” A melodious voice interrupted her thoughts.
She turned and looked into the face of a very tall man. His fair hair hung to his shoulders and there was an unusual silvery sheen to it. His face was stern but striking, and there was something very familiar about him. She smiled.
“I need to escort you to my sister.” He gently took her elbow.
“Do I know your sister?”
“You are Melangell Finlay?”
She nodded, surprised at hearing the name she so rarely used. He ushered her up the aisle past her seat and towards the front of the aircraft.
“Who is your sister?” She half turned around.
He remained silent, just smiled that enigmatic half smile, and motioned her to continue.
She racked her memories trying to recall anyone who had a brother that might resemble the man behind her; he did seem familiar, but she couldn’t think of anyone, and besides, ever since she was a baby, she had always been known as Poppy. Even her passport had that name on it. Perplexed she continued: at least it might make the flight more interesting to meet his sister.
They were now about to enter the Business Class section; he gestured to her to go through. It was quite surreal in the dim lights; there was something not quite concrete about everyone, as though, they were all cardboard cut-outs, imaginary somehow.
Must be the subdued lighting, she thought.
“What’s your name?” she asked. They were standing in front of the First Class section; beyond, a sliding door defined the perimeter.
She noticed he was rather unusually dressed: a longish cloak hung from his shoulders, his trousers had the sheen of expensive chamois, and his long boots looked more suitable for riding then sitting on a long haul flight.
It probably doesn’t matter what you wear in first class, she thought. She could almost hear Sammy’s whisper, it’s a different world when you’re up in that stratosphere, Sammy had accompanied a few rising actors on publicity tours.
Taliesin reached for the door and slid it opened, and into a different world they went, so unlike anything Poppy could have imagined only a few seconds ago. I know First Class is vastly different from economy, but not this dissimilar, she thought.
She was standing on the crest of a hill. Above her a scimitar moon hung, eerily white in the night’s blackness. The shadowy forms of huge standing stones circled them. She moved back, straight into Taliesin who was behind her.
“What? Where am I?”
His cloak blew around her, and it was then she became conscious of the cold. It was very cold. Beneath her bare feet swirled white dust; not dust though, powdery snow that was beginning to melt from the warmth of her body. She shivered in her light clothes. Taliesin looked concerned. He muttered a few words, took something out of a pocket, and sprinkled it over her. It was golden glitter, and as it cascaded over her, the coldness dissolved, and all she felt was sweet toasty warmth.
“What was that?” She stared at him. “Where are we? And who are you?”
A woman's voice spoke from behind her. “You are in the realm of the Tylwyth Teg. And that was Faerie dust; ill used, Taliesin; we owe her no favours; none whatsoever.”
Poppy turned and looked into the face of a woman, regally beautiful and most certainly unfriendly. Poppy had not ever seen such a cold expression. She was tall like her brother, and her hair, the same silvery shade, was woven into intricate braiding that circled her head like a crown.
“It is usual to bow before royalty,” the woman said disdainfully.
“I don’t know who you are. Why should I?” Poppy retorted, deciding if this was just a dream, she didn’t have anything to lose.
A figure came from behind and roughly pushed her to the ground; she looked up to see the gleaming silver edge of a sword that looked incredibly sharp. “She is Arianwen, mortal, and you will show our Queen respect.”
Then Taliesin was beside her, helping her to her feet. “Sister, there is no need for such discourtesy. She is a guest in our realm; an invited guest what’s more; we owe her the least of our hospitality.”
“I really don’t understand what’s going on,” Poppy muttered, feeling vulnerable and a long way from home.
Arianwen stared at Poppy. “We have been waiting for the right time, an equinox or solstice when the elements of air and water create the correct mix of conditions to bring you here. It was so very fortunate that you chose to be where you were on a night like this. No earth to magnetise you, to hold you, to bind you. Very, very fortunate for us.” There was a glittering menace in her eyes.
“You have been summoned because you have something of ours which we want back. Something that was stolen from us.”
“I think you have the wrong person.”
“No, we do not.” Arianwen shook her head. “You are Melangell, great-granddaughter of the treacherous Eirran.”
“Melangell is my name. But I know nothing of my real parents or grandparents. I was left......” Poppy stopped, trying desperately to remember to breathe. She always found this story hard to tell, rarely did. She preferred to think of her adoptive parents as her real ones; they were the anchor of her life: kind, loving, patient, and more importantly, there. “I was left in a basket in front of a church. Apart from my name that was written and tied around the basket's handle, I know nothing of my ancestors, their names, nothing.”
Arianwen looked into her face discerning whether she told the truth or not.
“I think you have the wrong Melangell,” Poppy repeated, wondering how many other Melangells were likely to exist.
“No. You are she.” Arianwen walked slowly around Poppy, looking her up and down.
Poppy caught a glimpse of Taliesin’s face; stern though he looked, she knew he was friendlier than his sibling. “Who is this Eirran? What did she do?”
Taliesin glanced at his sister; Arianwen nodded.
“Eirran came to us at Samhain when the gates between the worlds are open and the faerie paths can be found under moonlight. She came to our realm with her laughter and her voice that was said to be more beautiful than the angels. She enchanted us, and we, the Tylwyth Teg, found the magic of this human woman irresistible. We invited her to stay, for a year only. One year.”
“Witch. She was a witch. She seduced my brother and stole the one thing that could out sing her. Stole it like the gypsy thief she was.” Arianwen spat the words out.
Poppy looked over at Taliesin. Brother, was this the brother?
He shook his head. “Meilyr is still disgraced. Until what was stolen is retrieved, he is and will remain exiled on the isle of Llyn Y Fan Fawr.”
Poppy breathed out.
Go Great-Grandma, she thought, she must have been one intrepid traveller to have travelled across the borders of Faerie, sung her way into their court, and stolen the heart of a prince. Some woman! Poppy wished she could have met this relative; she would have certainly been an inspiration at Grandparents day. Then she reminded herself that her family had abandoned her with nothing but her name and a locket. Her hand involuntarily went to her neck. The locket, was that what they were after? She looked up to see Arianwen watching her intently.
“So you were abandoned as a babe?” Arianwen smiled, her face glowed even more beautiful in the moonlight, but the smile was as alarming as a treacherous waterfall falling into a dangerous ravine. “What was left with you?”
She came closer, reached over, and clasped Poppy’s hand. “This?”
The golden locket sparkled in Arianwen’s hand. She yanked it over Poppy’s head, and it dangled free, spinning like an autumn leaf.
“It’s just a heart pendant.” Poppy gasped and tried to grab it back. She felt two arms restrain her.
Arianwen rolled the locket in her palm. “What’s inside it?”
“Nothing. It doesn’t open.”
She laughed, a tinkling laugh like a brook running through a verdant forest of oak and foxglove. Poppy found herself imagining it, and alongside ran the white stag, its antlers silvery and majestic. Poppy pulled herself back from this the vision. Where had that come from?
“If you have the correct key, anything will open.” Arianwen called out something in a lyrical language, and a small elfish man appeared. He rummaged around in his case and handed Arianwen what looked like a strand of golden hair.
“What is it you think you’ll find?” Poppy asked.
“A heart. A heart within a heart.”
She inserted the tiny thread into a filigree of gold and the locket clicked opened. Arianwen smiled.
“The heart of the nightingale.”
There was an audible moan from those gathered who seemed to have grown in number since Poppy and Taliesin had arrived.
“It is returned. At last.”
Arianwen lifted the tiny, shrivelled, mummified heart out of the locket. Music and singing seemed to percolate in the air around them, whispers of songs, currents of melody, a tiny chorus of melancholy evening flitted between the stones, and flowers opened their petals and bloomed like moths against the harsh rock face.
“Yes, it is home at last.” She smiled triumphantly. “Once more, the nightingale will sing and the rose will bloom. Once more, our lands will be a place where magic will thrive and prosper.”
Poppy looked around at the gathered.
There was awe and hope on their faces. Poppy wondered what legacy her grandmother had left when she had stolen this thing, Poppy could hardly believe that this woman, who she had only just discovered the existence of, could have been as cruel and savage that she would have yanked the heart out of a living breathing bird, surely not? There must be another explanation.
“Kill the mortal.”
Poppy gasped and almost fell over.
“No, sister. Surely we can be above such petty vengeance.” Taliesin had stepped beside her.
She stared at him. He really was taking the role of protector knight quite literally, and she was more than glad of it.
Arianwen sneered at him, for once her face became almost ugly.
“Why do you bother? She is mortal. She will die soon anyway. Their lives are like our leaves: one short sweet summer before they fall into the cold embrace of the earth. Why not now? What is there to be gained by prolonging her life?” Arianwen stared at her brother. “You men are all the same. A pretty face is a pretty face. There are many, many flowers in the field, Taliesin, why is this one, more or less than any other? Why pluck this one and say let it live when tomorrow it will wilt and fade?”
Taliesin stood firm. For the first time, Poppy noticed he had a sword sheathed to his waist, and in a weird moment, she wondered how he had managed to get on the plane with it. But then none of it made any sense, not if she really thought hard about it. She concentrated on what he was saying: her life depended on it.
“We invited her here. We have what we want. We should now return her to her realm. It is the honourable thing to do.”
“Yes,” said Poppy, “please just send me home.”
Or at least let me wake up, she whispered to herself.
Arianwen smiled her treacherous smile. “I think not. Justice must be served.”
“You can’t punish someone for a deed that their ancestor did.”
Taliesin had removed the sword from its sheath and stood defiantly next to Poppy.
Arianwen shrugged. “She will not leave here alive.”
Poppy looked around. The guards of the Queen circled them. Their swords shone brightly in the moonlight, a metal unlike anything she had ever seen before. Although, really, how many drawn swords had she seen in reality? she thought to herself, her heart beating so wildly she didn’t know how her body could contain it.
“I beg to differ, my Queen.” A new voice spoke, deep and with an authority that caused Arianwen to turn abruptly.
“Rhydian,” She acknowledged the older man who joined them. His companion was cloaked in a dark crimson robe that seemed to flicker like flame.
“To kill her is to kill one of our kin.”
Arianwen laughed. “You jest surely.”
“Haven’t you guessed yet, sister?”
The other man threw back his hood.
“Meilyr.” Both Taliesin and Arianwen gasped. Taliesin strode over and clasped his brother to him, while their sister looked coolly on.
“Don’t you know who she is?” Rhydian stood beside Poppy.
Meilyr approached them, took one of Poppy’s hands in his, lifted up one of her long black curls, and smiled. “You look so much like her. It’s as though she were back again. And yet you are not she. You are you.” He lifted her hand and kissed it reverently.
Poppy looked into his face, a face so very familiar and so very similar to his brother, Taliesin: the same silvery fair hair, the same stern look, but there were lines and sadness written on his brow and in his eyes, as though he had lost something truly precious.
“She is Eirran’s daughter,” Meilyr whispered. “And she is my daughter as well.”
“No.” Arianwen shook her head. “That I won’t accept.”
“Whether you accept or not doesn’t change it from being the truth, Arianwen.”
Meilyr held Poppy’s hand tightly.
“If she were of faerie blood to that degree, she would know. She would have been searching for us; we would have felt her presence amongst our sacred pools and rivers. But she has displayed no interest in our existence at all.” Arianwen stared at her brother coldly. “Mortals with one tenth the blood of the Tylwyth Teg haunt our sacred places, aspire to observe the ancient festivals. If she were your daughter, it would be more pronounced, more manifest.”
Meilyr smiled kindly at his sister. “I know she is my daughter. While in exile, I have had much time to devote to studying our realm and that of the mortals. Time flows differently here, just as their lives burn brightly and then fade like a firefly that is born, mates, and dies within the space of one night, so does the running of their days and years. Fast like water cascading through a gorge, fast and furious their time goes. Eirran stayed with us for one year, one of our years. But when she returned to her realm, it wasn’t one year that had passed but decades, a century perhaps. Rhydian has also researched this through manuscripts, ancient papyrus, and scrolls that survived the drowning of Atlantis. it has been described, this divergence of time.”
“She was with child when she left here, she told me. She had no intention of staying in her realm; she was always going to return. But I think when she arrived, everything was so dissimilar, so disorientating, that she was unable to find the way to return.”
Meilyr was looking at Poppy intently, his grey eyes kind and compassionate, and she realised something then: his eyes and hers were the same shade and colour. She felt like she might collapse with happiness, with shock, that she was here holding hands with her father, her biological father. A Prince no less, of this magical place.
“To your claim that she has not frequented our sacred grove, she lives very far from our influences. So far, to the ends of the earth almost are her lands. The southern latitudes where other Gods guard their dominion, claim their sovereignty, rule over their spirits. Is it any wonder that she has not felt the stirring of her blood? But she does, has done these past few weeks, and even in her very brief time here, she has resonated with our kingdom, felt the running of the Royal Stag, sensed the dryads and the naiads.”
Poppy looked at Meilyr and wondered how to address him: Prince, King, father?
As though he sensed her thoughts, he whispered. “Call me Meilyr. And you want to know about Eirran, I can see. The questions are bubbling to come out of you.”
“Yes, I do. What she was like? And maybe more importantly.” Poppy hesitated. “How she came to take the heart of such a sweet and innocent creature like a nightingale?”
“Ah, I understand.” He nodded. “You have not heard the tale of the nightingale and the rose?”
He began speaking, his voice melodious and soothing. “Eirran knew the tale, but I suspect the stories and folklore of your people are easily blown away; part of the detritus that is lost as you seek and exchange what was for what is to come.”
“First, you must understand that the animals and plants in our world are the quintessence of their kind; an archetype if you like. They embody the physical as well as, the symbolic. The nightingale and the rose both symbolise love. The nightingale is the active, passionate aspect. The song it sings fills the night sky with such clarity and beauty. The rose is the passive facet, the sensuality of its form, colour and scent.”
“One night of every year, love must sacrifice itself so it understands what it is to surrender all. The active, passionate songbird must find stillness, and the passive sensual nature of the rose must attain boldness and courage. So the nightingale impales itself on the thorn of the rose, and as it sings, its blood flows into the veins of the rose and creates a flower of such a crimson hue it is almost black. The rose becomes for a moment a powerful, vigorous player in this tragedy of sacrifice, accepting this profound gift into itself. In the morning, all that remains is the heart of the bird still pierced to the rose bush. Eirran would have found it, that misty morning when she left. I’m sure she planned to return with it, perhaps she thought it would be the link she needed to bring her back to us.”
He smiled a poignant smile. Poppy nodded and realised that tears had flooded her cheeks without her realising it.
“The nightingale does not die; it will be reborn again; the heart will be placed into the centre of a rose bloom on the eve of a new moon, and come morning, a new bird will fly forth to sing its song. Unfortunately, Eirran disrupted this, so that particular magic was halted in our lands, and many of our flowers refused to bloom, became dormant, buried themselves within the earth. As well, birds and butterflies also retreated, cocooning themselves away until the nightingale’s heart could be restored. One small event can have quite big repercussions.”
He smiled as he said. “Your mother was no thief. Impetuous, headstrong, and reckless, yes. She would not have found our lands without those qualities. But she was also intelligent, kind, and compassionate. Her father was an earl, an educated man with a strong sense of fairness and a belief in equality; unusual in the times he lived. Her mother was a gypsy girl, true enough. She brought intuition, vibrant, passionate earth magic into his life, and their daughter, Eirran, combined all those qualities within her.”
“Is she still alive?”
Meilyr was very still, his voice much sadder. “I think, if she was, she would have found her way here with you. I think she may have been close to death when she left you and the locket in that basket, because she wouldn’t have done that unless she was dying, unless she had no other option. Your name means, ‘dear angel’, did you know that?”
Poppy shook her head. He traced her face with his hand, very gently and with such love.
“And now, my dear, you must return. Although you haven’t been here very long, time is literally flying where you come from. To stay longer would not be advisable.”
Meilyr hugged his daughter, and Poppy felt like she had never been so happy and so sad all at the same time.
He whispered. “You can always return for a brief time. Solstice or equinoxes are times of power, find a spring or a waterfall, a forest, a cave, some place away from people, the more natural the place the greater the magic it contains. Wait and call my name. I will come.”
Taliesin took Poppy’s hand and led her away. She was looking at Meilyr when it happened: suddenly, she was standing in the airplane in front of First Class, and for a brief moment, she felt Taliesin’s hand in hers, heard his whisper, “Farewell daughter of Meilyr,” and then he faded.
The smell of breakfast bacon invaded her nostrils.
“You right there, miss?” A familiar accent called.
Poppy turned around; the galley was a jumble of heavily laden trolleys.
“Best get to your seat. We’re serving breakfast, and we’re due to land in just over two hours. Ahead of schedule thanks to some helpful jet streams on our tail.”
She stumbled back to her seat and sat down. Sunshine was streaming in through the window. She opened her palm to find a tiny, silver rose pendant in it, a gift from Meilyr, a gift from her father.
originally published in the magazine Emerald Tales: Winter Solstice edition, December 2009 USA