This takes place before the events of ELIXIR BOUND. Siblings Katora, Kylene, and Bhar Kase are performing their annual celebration of the Winter Solstice.
“Do you have the acorns and your offering for the sacrifice?” Bhar asked with an impish grin and a glint in his blue eyes.
“Sacrifice?” Katora raised her right eyebrow and thumped her younger brother on the shoulder. “You know the Great Mother doesn’t approve of sacrifices. I do have all but one of the offerings, and Kylene should be getting it right now.”
Bhar laughed as he ran deeper into the trees of Faway Forest. Katora shook her head in annoyance and wondered if Bhar would ever be serious about anything. She shifted her backpack and followed his indelicate footsteps. The trees were completely bare, their fallen leaves crunchy under her boots.
She stopped in a small clearing. Bhar stood in the center, a series of stacked rocks interspersed at regular intervals around him. She dropped her pack outside the rocks and sat inside the circle, legs crossed.
Katora had been coming to this place on the Winter Solstice for as long as she could remember. Her two older sisters used to participate in the ceremony, but they had recently moved out of the family home. They now held their own traditions. This was the first year they wouldn’t be there, and Katora wasn’t sure she wanted to be there either. Maybe she was getting too old for such traditions.
Still, Katora would honor the Great Mother with Bhar and her younger sister, Kylene. As Katora thought of her, Kylene loped into the clearing, cheeks rosy and long blond hair wild. Quick puffs of breath escaped her mouth in the crisp air.
“I’ve got it.” From her pocket, Kylene pulled a small nut ending in woody cap. “It wasn't easy, but I found a late hold-out from a young oak.”
Katora help up her hand, and Kylene tossed the acorn. Katora caught it easily and set it on the ground next to three others, each one collected during a different season. A hearty vine with withered essenberries also lay on the cold dirt. As Kylene sat, her gray cloak, the same color as the cloud covered sky, fanned out behind her and touched Katora’s cloak at the corner.
“Let’s begin.” Katora rubbed her chapped hands together, souvenirs from years of farming. “Bhar, you did bring the trowel, didn’t you?”
Bhar produced the tool from his pants pocket. “Of course. Do you even have to ask?”
She grinned and glanced at Kylene, who failed to hide a smile. They both knew Bhar needed to be asked. He took his place next to his sisters. Behind him, his cloak touched each of theirs and completed the circle.
“Please present your items,” Katora said, tapping her offering of the vine.
A playing card—the queen of hearts—appeared in Bhar’s hand, seemingly from nowhere. With a flick of the wrist, he tossed it among the acorn, the withered offerings from past seasons, and the essenberry vine. Kylene kissed a worn leather-bound book and gently placed it on the ground. The three siblings grasped hands and closed their eyes.
Katora chanted, “Mother Nature, we gather and return the fruit of the seasons. Take these and our personal offerings from our hearts to yours. As the cold of winter takes hold, offer in return safe passage to spring.”
A moment of silence passed before Bhar forced the shovel into the hard dirt and began to dig a small hole. Except for the scrape of the trowel, he worked in complete silence, the forest quiet as it fell into the sleep of winter. Katora and Kylene deposited the offerings into the hole. All three scooped the soil back over the hole and patted it down.
They grasped hands again, fingernails caked with dirt, and hummed. Katora’s alto was slightly out of tune, but Kylene’s soprano rang in perfect pitch. Bhar’s solid bass completed the trio. Their melody pierced the silent forest and rose to the top of the trees and beyond. A gust of wind swirled through the clearing, lifting their cloaks in the air behind them.
Katora’s eyes widened as Kylene’s hand gripped hers tight. Bhar turned his face to the sky. Katora felt her hair fly about her face as she watched Kylene’s locks do the same. Still, they kept humming. When their tune finally ended, the wind abruptly stopped.
A long sigh escaped Katora, deflating the pressure in her chest. Nothing like that had ever happened during the ceremony.
“What was that?” Kylene asked in a whisper.
“A coincidence,” Bhar said with no trace of his playful smile.
Katora pounded her fist on the ground. “That was no coincidence. I’ve always been a bit skeptical that the Great Mother paid any attention to our little ceremony. But now…I believe she does.”
“Yes.” Kylene nodded her head repeatedly. “I always believed she did, but this is a nice confirmation of our faith.”
Bhar blew into his hands. “I’m cold. Let’s go home and heat up some milk and chocolate.”
Kylene’s brow wrinkled as she said, “It is cold. And we must be home before dark.”
“I’ll catch up with you two.” Katora gathered up the pack and waited as her siblings left the clearing.
Kylene's soft teasing of Bhar about his offering could be heard through the trees. “What is Mother Nature going to do with a playing card?”
“More than she’s going to do with a book,” Bhar said. “Definitely more than she’ll do with an essenberry vine. Katora’s offering was the worst.” Kylene laughed at the joke as their voices faded away.
Even with no one there to hear her, Katora was compelled to defend her choice. Every essenberry vine on Kase Farm was a gift from Mother Nature. The vines provided a means of wealth, and therefore survival, for the family. She said a silent prayer to the Great Mother, thanking her for all that she did to take care of them.
Just as she stepped back into the trees, Katora spotted a small bluebird perched high up on a leafless branch. Its beady eyes stared down at her. The bird opened its beak wide and let out one sharp chirp.
She glanced back up at the oak tree, but the bird had vanished. As she jogged to catch up, Katora felt Mother Nature’s presence. It wasn’t only in the physical bounty of the forest, but also deep inside Katora’s own heart. She breathed deep and the winter air felt fresh instead of cold.
Want to read more about the Kase siblings and their adventures in Faway Forest? Check out Katie's YA fantasy ELIXIR BOUND.
Katie L. Carroll is a mother, writer, editor, and speaker. She began writing at a very sad time in her life after her 16-year-old sister, Kylene, unexpectedly passed away. Since then writing has taken her to many wonderful places, real and imagined. She wrote her YA fantasy ELIXIR BOUND so Kylene could live on in the pages of a book. Katie is also the author of the picture app THE BEDTIME KNIGHT and a contributor to THE GREAT CT CAPER, a serialized mystery for young readers. She lives not too far from the beach in a small Connecticut city with her husband and sons. For more about Katie, visit her website at www.katielcarroll.com.