(Note:This tale is part of the fictional Stories of the Third Brother, an ancient book of folktales about Alaren in Ari Ara’s world. Each folktale teaches a lesson in waging peace using true stories as a spark of inspiration for the tales of courageous nonviolent action. They have been serialized into a 30-week online series that comes with a free print or ebook when we publish the full collection. Read another story and learn more here.)
Winter Solstice. The longest night of the year hung over the armies like a tomb shroud. The last glimmer of the pale sun had set behind the snow-capped peaks hours ago. The warriors huddled behind the crests and shoulders of snowy hills, trying to stay warm, despairing of seeing sunrise. No one dared light a fire for fear that the enemy would rain a cloud of arrows upon them.
“What I wouldn’t give for a pint of hot cider,” one grizzled warrior muttered on the east side of the hill, his blue tunic of Marin black with blood and grime.
“What I wouldn’t give to hold my wife, warm and close,” shivered a battle-scarred man in the red jacket of Shirar on the west side of the hill.
Their breaths turned white and rose on the air like incense ribbons burning in a temple. Alaren stood on the edge of the hill’s crest, suspecting what the murmurs of voices were saying.
They could have everything their cold, weary, aching, embittered hearts longed for, thought Alaren, if only they were willing to give up this war.
He settled his peaked and crooked hat firmly on his head, looked up to the breathless sparkle of stars above, and stepped out onto the crest of the hill that rose like a dragon’s spine between the two freezing armies. The crunch of his footsteps over the hard snow fired like drumbeats into the still night.
“Who’s that?” a sentry whispered, peering at the figure slowly walking up the ridgeline, dark against the blacker ink of the moonless night.
“Alaren,” his companion breathed, pointing at the crooked hat that caught the faint glimmer of starlight.
“What’s he doing, for ancestors’ sake?”
“Getting himself killed, like as not,” the other sentry swore. “I’m going to pass word to the men to stand down before some dim-witted, near-sighted, bare-chinned boy shoots an arrow through the fool’s heart.”
He shook his head at folly of their king’s youngest brother. The tall fellow had been trailing the armies for weeks, trying to talk sense into his warring brothers and their warriors. An order had gone out to leave Alaren alone; no one was to harm him, no one was to help him.
Across the hill, Shirar’s warriors blinked the frost out of their eyelashes. Gloved hands rose to stop their companions from taking action, heads shook as some reached for bows. The name of Alaren leapt from one to the next and the tired warriors sat back.
The lean figure on the crest of the hill pulled something out of the folds of his long cloak. He lifted it to his chin and in the clear, frigid air, the first strokes of an old fiddle’s lament sang out.
In the hills on the either side of Alaren, faces grew stony with sorrow. The bodies of their friends lay strewn throughout these hills, buried in hasty graves, their funeral songs unsung.
“He’s playing for their souls tonight, laying them to rest proper,” said a warrior in a blue tunic.
“He’s playing for our hearts tonight, knowing our losses,” said a warrior in a red jacket.
Alaren’s lament walked the hills. The sound crouched down beside each man and rested a hand upon his shoulder. Eyes grew tight with unshed tears. The youngest boys wept openly, the tears freezing on scarves and collars.
The sound ended. The last, lingering note faded away. Silence fell and the eternity of night deepened.
The voice rang out across the snow. The warriors on the opposite side jolted at the sound of their enemy’s voice.
“I must, friends,” Alaren said, casting his words left and right to include them all, holding up his bow and fiddle. “My fingers will freeze without a fire.”
A disappointed silence fell. Then the sound of footsteps running across snow crunched loudly. The shape of a boy crested the ridge. The clunk of firewood and rustle of kindling sounded.
The grizzled old men among his enemies hung their heads, recognizing the cracking voices of their young sons in the youth’s pleading words. They could hear his nightmares and his fears crowding up against his throat. They could sense his longing for the end of fighting spilling into those two simple words.
“Does anyone have a flint stone?” Alaren called quietly down to the warriors.
“Aye,” a gruff voice replied.
The sound of his slow, weighted steps climbed the side of the hill. A spark flared against the night. Another. A crackle erupted. A blaze grew.
Two hundred longing eyes leapt to the hope of that fire, shining like a candle under the unbearable black cold of the longest night of the year. Alaren stood alone. The boy and man had backed warily away as the light illuminated their faces. Alaren played a second song, an old tune, known to all of them. At the third refrain, a second fiddle joined his from the encampment to his left. By the fifth verse, a voice on his right rose upon the night air, cracked and strong at the same time.
Alaren bowed the tune into another, gliding seamlessly from one song to the next. A dozen voices picked up the verses. It was as if the hills on one side of Alaren sang out to the other.
Midway through, the first singer stepped out of hiding and walked up the hill toward the fire. He came without weapons and held his hands out as he sang to show he would do no harm that night. His comrades watched him breathlessly, certain he would be struck down in the next heartbeat.
A face popped over the ridge, a lad, singing, carrying nothing more than another log of firewood, which he fed to the blaze.
Alaren’s eyes stung with emotion as the two singers’ eyes met and the fear of the enemy gave way to the recognition of their shared humanity. As he licked the salt off his lips, another warrior joined them, holding out his weaponless hands to the warmth of the fire. The next man brought a loaf of bread and broke it with the next youth who crept out of the darkness.
Alaren played until his bowstrings frayed and his fiddle shuddered out of tune in the cold. He played until his arms ached and his eyes dropped with weariness. He played every song he knew twice over, and when he faltered, another man stepped up. This bearded man took the fiddle from Alaren’s cold fingers and tuned it true, lifting the body under his beard and playing the songs of his homeland.
The truce lasted three days and three nights, and we now call these the Feast Days of the Three Brothers . . . one for Marin, one for Shirar, and the third night for the peace of Alaren. No fighting. No warring. No attacks happen during this time.
And though, on the fourth day, the commanders rode through the ranks of their mutinying men and threatened to hang any traitor who refused to fight, the war ended a month later. And while the history books give other reasons to explain the ending of the war, the truth is that Alaren won peace on the longest night of the year by inviting them all to join him. For people who sing and break bread around the fire together can no longer fight as enemies, instead, they strive for peace together as friends.
A Note from Rivera Sun
This story is inspired by the true story of the Christmas Day Ceasefire during World War I where nearly 100,000 French, British, and German soldiers participated in an unofficial ceasefire around the Christmas holidays of 1914. Wikipedia reports, “In the week leading up to the 25th, French, German, and British soldiers crossed trenches to exchange seasonal greetings and talk. In some areas, men from both sides ventured into
no man’s land on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to mingle and exchange food and souvenirs. There were joint burial ceremonies and prisoner swaps, while several meetings ended in carol-singing. Men played games of football with one another, giving one of the most memorable images of the truce.” The following year, the commanders issued strongly worded orders to keep the soldiers from joining into an unofficial ceasefire, fearing that it would undermine the willingness to keep fighting. Alaren’s fictional story also draws from the folktale, Stone Soup, in which bitterly divided townspeople realize that they have enough to take care of each other, if only they will share their resources as a whole.
This tale is part of the fictional Stories of the Third Brother, an ancient book of folktales about Alaren in Ari Ara’s world. Each folktale teaches a lesson in waging peace using true stories as a spark of inspiration for the tales of courageous nonviolent action. They have been serialized into a 30-week online series that comes with a free print or ebook when we publish the full collection. Read another story and learn more here.
If you enjoyed this, you will also appreciate Wim Laven’s piece on The Lasting Lessons from the Christmas Day Ceasefire.