Not so long ago, in the deepest night of winter, there stood an ancient ruin of a long-forgotten castle, of a long-forgotten kingdom on the top of a rocky hill in the middle of an old and quiet forest. It was the longest night of the year, the winter solstice, when dark grey clouds lay heavy in the sky like a cold blanket. Quietly, thick snowflakes fell from above, not swirling in the wind, just quietly falling. Nothing moved, no branches whispered through the wind, everything was covered in a thick layer of pure white snow.
Something moved within a crack of the rocks beneath the grey castle. Out of the snow looked a little Fire Salamander still sleepy from the long period of time when he was frozen within the winter. But the magic of this night had woken him up. He had received an important message in his deep dreams, and he knew what he had to do. Without fear of darkness and cold, the little Fire Salamander crawled out of his safe winter space. With his front legs he removed the falling snowflakes off his head and made his way up the hill. His destination were the ruins of the castle. For someone so little it was a long way, but the brave Fire Salamander had a strong heart and a fierce will. Nothing could stop him.
But the little Fire Salamander did not know that he was being watched. By a tree in a tiny hollow there rested a Silver Spider. She too had a dream and had woken up thereafter. With her eight brilliant black eyes she looked at the Fire Salamander, hopped off the tree and with the support of a silver string she had woven, she landed light like a feather behind the Fire Salamander.
‘Excuse me.’ She said carefully.
She knew, due to her appearance, she often frightened other animals but she did not know why, because after all she was just a tiny Silver Spider. But maybe it was the eight eyes and eight legs that were too much for some. But she wanted to be polite and therefore be careful.
‘Yes?’ The Fire Salamander turned around surprised and saw the Spider who was half his size.
But he was not afraid. He had never heard about a Spider attacking a Fire Salamander so he just asked, ‘May I help you?’
‘I was wondering if you were heading for the castle ruin as well and if I may join you.’
‘Why not!’ The Fire Salamander said and was happy for the company.
The Silver Spider asked the Fire Salamander if he too had a dream about the ruin and when woken up by the dream, had the urge to go there.
‘I did indeed.’ He said full of wonder.
‘I expect something magical to happen tonight.’ The Silver Spider said and on they went up the hill, the Spider a little bit ahead, as her thin legs were carried by the snow and did not have to move through it. Patiently, when she had walked on a little too far, she waited for her new friend.
Finally, they reached the top of the hill, the ruin, which was once a mighty castle. And there, by one of the fallen towers, whose crumbled stones appeared black in the night, sat a hooded mysterious figure by a crackling fire and next to it sat a brown Tortoise with golden eyes.
‘Welcome! I am Grandmother Tortoise. You can wait by the fire with us.’ The Tortoise said, her voice old but as kind and sweet as honey.
The hooded figure did not move, almost like a statue it rested there completely still. The Silver Spider was glad for the offer, as her eight silver thin legs had become cold and sat down next to Grandmother Tortoise. The Fire Salamander thanked the old creature, moved some snow close to the fire so it would melt into a cool puddle and he made himself comfortable there.
‘My skin should always be wet you know.’
Grandmother Tortoise smiled with her beak-like mouth and said ‘Oh yes, I know. You are bound to the water.’
‘Excuse me but what are we waiting for?’ The Spider asked and wondered about this strange night.
‘We are waiting for the others to arrive.’ Grandmother Tortoise said and looked into the dark but silver glittering forest below.
From the darkness, they could hear footsteps. It was more than one animal. They could make out eyes, a pair of green ones and a yellow pair. Like spectres of the forest, they took form and the animals by the fire could see who approached. The pair of yellow eyes belonged to a wild Black Cat. Her face was attentive and with her big paws she easily moved through the snow like a Queen of the forest, a part of the night. Behind her was a Fox with green eyes. His face looked kind and curious, not sure what to expect. And last stepped out a Lady Doe with brown and bronze fur and big brown eyes. With elegance, she joined the others by the fire and greeted everyone kindly.
‘It is Master Fox’s first time. For the two of you as well?’ Lady Doe asked the Fire Salamander and the Silver Spider.
They nodded and greeted them.
‘I wonder what will happen.’ Master Fox said and looked around.
‘You will see soon.’ The Black Cat purred. ‘It will be a night full of magic and change.’
‘It is the darkest night of the year.’ Master Fox said. ‘Usually, I am sleeping through this shadow. But in my dream, I was told to do the opposite.’
‘You shall see.’ The Black Cat said and looked to her right.
With her yellow eyes she fixated something moving in the snow. Something was there within the night, another visitor. When the unknown animal moved into the light of the fire next to the Black Cat the others could see who it was. Dark green, yellow and black scaled an Adder raised its head and looked with its dark eyes into the Cat’s yellow eyes.
‘It is good to see you again my friend.’ She said with a hissing but cheerful voice.
‘I am glad you found your way Miss Adder.’ The Black Cat purred.
‘Why do some of you know each other and we don’t? The Silver Spider asked confused.
Miss Adder curled up next to the Black Cat and amused she looked at the newcomers, Master Fox, the Fire Salamander and the Silver Spider.
‘We are always eight. Life is followed by death and death is followed by life again. As night is followed by day and light is followed by shadow in a never-ending cycle. We are always eight. When one of us dies night and day choose a new member of the eight. Last year’s Ruby Dragonfly, Aunt Hedgehog and Lord Falcon must have passed on within nature. Grandmother Tortoise has been here the longest and for me it’s only my second year.
‘Chosen by night and day? How can that be? I don’t understand.’ Master Fox said even more confused.
‘You will understand soon when you see it.’ Said Grandmother Tortoise and looked up into the blackness of the night which was only illuminated by silver snowflakes falling.
‘He is coming.’ She said and the others looked up too.
First, they believed to see a giant snowflake circling the ruin above. But then they could make out a pair of big yellow eyes in the darkness above. A snow-white Owl landed next to Grandmother Tortoise and screeched a welcoming hello to the other animals.
‘I am the last one?’ The White Owl asked with a deep voice.
‘The bird is always the last one to arrive. It is the way of things.’ Grandmother Tortoise said.
‘Now we are all here except for one.’ Lady Doe said and looked behind her into the dark forest.
‘Who else is missing? I thought all the animals are here?’ Master Fox asked.
‘My sister has yet to arrive.’ The hooded figure had spoken, the one, the newcomers had thought to be a statue, a remnant of the ruin.
But she removed her grey hood and an ancient woman revealed herself, a hag, scarred by decades of long life with only strings of white hair running down her otherwise grey- pink scalp. Her cloudy eyes looked at the animals and with her toothless mouth she formed a smile that was surprisingly heart-warming, as if the sun would rise.
‘But I sense her as I sense the coming day. The darkest and longest of nights will soon be over. And then you shall witness. This is why you are here.’ She said exhausted and the Fire Salamander looked at the Silver Spider in doubt, and she too expressed wonder with her eight eyes, not sure if the old lady would make it till morning.
‘I am surprised to meet a strange walker, a human, who speaks our tongue.’ Master Fox said. ‘Usually, I prefer to stay out of your way. Some of you hunt me for sport.’
The ancient lady threw her head back and cackled. She appeared like a skeleton laughing in the firelight.
‘I am no human. No strange walker as you call them. I am one of mother nature’s cousins. I am day and light. My name is Aurora. And my sister, who we are waiting for, is Nyx. I only see her twice a year though. At the end of the longest night and at the end of the longest day.’
‘And we are here, the chosen ones, to witness the transition from darkness into light in winter and in six months’ time the transition from light into darkness.’ Grandmother Tortoise explained.
Now Master Fox, the Spider and the Salamander understood. They had been summoned as mortals to witness the magic of the immortals, to see the wonders of this world.
Then they all turned around. They had heard a sharp sound, a twig breaking on the ground. Someone was moving within the night and out of the trees stepped night herself. It was a woman of divine beauty. Her skin was white as snow, a glittering glow, an alien light like the moon. Her lips were blood red, her dress as black as the night behind her and the night sky above, as if she was the source of everything dark. Her dark red hair fell in curls down along her back and hips. Her eyes were as black as her gown but there was a sparkle within them, like a fading star. She moved with such grace towards the fireplace, it looked like the snow would carry her. And the falling flakes around her disappeared within her darkness and although she looked frightening, she smiled with kindness at the animals who bowed to her.
‘You are just in time sister.’
‘You know me.’ She said but it was almost a whisper, like a passing shadow, quick but clear.
‘I am in time as you will be six months from now.’
Without a warning, the old sister jumped up and drew a sword out of her rags which glistened like fire. Her sister Nyx drew a sword out of the darkness surrounding her and light and night met by the fire, starlight sparked where the blades crossed. Master Fox, the Fire Salamander and the Silver Spider looked alert but the other five just watched them fight. Light and darkness moved around the circle of animals, striking their swords at each other, each blow quicker than the last one. It was a wonder to behold, like a dance. How could the old woman move so fast? But she was no woman. She was the coming day.
The animals did not know how much time passed while they were watching Nyx and Aurora battle. They danced on an on, a light in the dark fighting a shadow, round and round in circles when suddenly both sisters froze. The old one held her sword at her sister’s neck. Nyx had her sword raised in mid-air. Behind Aurora, far behind the ruins of the castle, far to the east beyond the forest, a golden light rose, and the blackness of the night faded.
‘This time, I win again.’ Aurora said and her voice was suddenly clear and young.
All animals gazed at her in wonder as the light of the morning sun grew stronger. They could all see her change. Her deathly grey skin turned into a warm copper skin, glowing like honey. Her hair grew golden and all her wrinkles faded. Her old cloak vanished in the wind and the sunlight dressed her youthful body in a radiant white and golden glittering gown. While Aurora was the expression of life in front of the animals, Nyx crumbled in front of them, her dark red hair turned grey, her black dress fell apart and she was now only covered in grey rags. Bent and defeated she walked to the fire and sat down next to Grandmother Tortoise.
‘Your time will come again.’ She said consolingly and Nyx agreed but looked with a tired gaze at her honey golden glowing sister.
‘Well fought my dear. It was a wonderful fight. Until our next dance.’ She said and smiled with cracked lips.
Within minutes she had aged a hundred years. In awe, the Fire Salamander, Master Fox and the Silver Spider wondered at the magic they had just witnessed.
‘Do you confirm the change of the earth, the cycle of night and day for the coming six moons?’ Aurora asked and looked at the eight animals with her bright green eyes. All animals looked at each other and nodded.
‘We confirm.’ The White Owl said and bowed to the Lady of the Morning.
The others bowed to her as well and the next moment Aurora had vanished within a warm breeze coming from the east and Nyx did not move anymore. Her grey figure appeared to have transformed into a long-forgotten statue of the old castle behind.
The animals said their farewells as the sun climbed higher, breaking through the clouds. Grandmother Tortoise slowly walked towards the great ruin, Lady Doe headed back into the forest, Miss Adder slithered back into the snow, the White Owl took flight and vanished in the North and the Black Cat purred a friendly goodbye and then disappeared within the shadows of the trees.
Master Fox, the Fire Salamander and the Silver Spider walked down the hill together, lost for words at the wonders which had just unfolded in front of them. Then they parted ways for now, knowing they would see each other again as friends enjoying every morning and sunshine to come.