Elspeth and the Holly King: Prologue
"My lady," said the vole softly, "I believe I have caused an offence."
"My dear," she replied, quite kindly, "whatever could it be?"
Creatures of all kinds were gathered in a clearing in the wood, surrounded by sturdy oak trees and feathery bracken. The light filtered through a patchwork of leaves above, dappling the ground and making for a pleasant spot. The animals stood or sat in a circle, with Freya seated upon a throne of woven twigs and branches in the center. She came to visit them, from time to time, to hold council and hear grievances. They were her special charges, and their welfare meant everything to her.
Young and old were there, anxious not to miss a thing. Shy voles, shrews, and hedgehogs, sleepy raccoons and restless squirrels—even a few fox listened at a respectful distance, so as not to make the smaller animals nervous. The youngest of all these were curled upon Freya's lap, asleep. All asleep, that is, except one: a tiny she-mouse, who sat up on Freya's knee and listened to all the great lady said.
"I have made a home under the back steps of her cottage," continued the vole. "Only, it was so very cold this winter."
"Did she scold you or run you off?"
"No, my lady, but she called to me and told me I was a very naughty creature!"
"Indeed!" Freya laughed heartily, and many laughed with her! But the vole only looked more downcast than before, so she said, "Be careful not to damage her home, or endanger her in any way. She will keep you safe as long as you are courteous and kind."
Here she paused and looked around from one face to the next. "And what else have you to tell me, my dears?"
There was a murmur among those assembled. They all loved Freya very much, but were quite in awe of her. She was kind, generous, and the most beautiful thing they had ever seen. She was also powerful beyond their imagining.
"My lady," ventured an elder rabbit, "she does not seem to mind us as such, and in fact she often leaves us treats—any little thing she can spare, all lovely bits and tasty morsels. She even leaves water for the bees in summer, but..." Here the rabbit hesitated, then took a deep breath and forged ahead. "But some say she is a witch!"
"Why, and do you think me a witch as well?" No one dared answer, and all heads were bowed. Freya sighed and turned her head in the direction of the old woman's cottage, visible just beyond the edge of the wood. She knew the old woman's presence protected all the wildlife in the wood, and that she was nearing the end of her days. Freya looked sad for a moment, then collected herself and addressed her audience once again.
"She used to be a queen of her people, long, long ago. However, she tired of court life, and came here to live simply and quietly. True, she has chosen a solitary life, and those who live alone are often misunderstood. But she has been good to you, and you must be grateful, whatever anyone might say about her."
At this, the animals felt reassured, and saw the truth of Freya's words. Freya smiled all around, pleased with her little charges, and said, "It is time for me to go, but I will be thinking of you always. Be well, my dears, until the next time I see you. Come, gather your little ones, so they may be off to a proper bed."
The gathering trickled away, not wanting to leave their lady, and little Elspeth the mouse jumped down from Freya's knee to her waiting parents. As they started to walk home, she looked back at the lady in the flowing green gown, the long, raven hair trailing down her back, and the circlet of fresh ivy resting lightly atop her head.
And Elspeth thought, as if making a promise to herself, "I will never forget her. Never, never."
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