By Jan S. Gephardt

I hope you’ll enjoy something a little different for today’s blog post, Berwyn’s Solstice Story. This post goes live on the exact day of the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere where this blog, Artdog Studio, and Weird Sisters Publishing are based. So it seemed an appropriate time to share it.

This excerpt comes near the end of A Bone to Pick, the second novel of my science fiction mystery XK9 “Bones” Trilogy. It is ©2021-22 by Jan S. Gephardt (aka: Me), so please don’t borrow it without attribution or claim it as your own work! Fair warning: I have edited it slightly from the book version in a few places. I did it to make a few references clearer and take out a couple of spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read the book yet.

The viewpoint character is the Trilogy’s protagonist, Rex Dieter-Nell. He is an XK9, an uplifted (human-level intelligence) police dog. He, his Pack of nine other XK9s, and their human (detective) partners live on a large space station in another star system from ours, several hundred years in the future. It’s their job to track down the mass murderers who blew up a ship that had been docked in their jurisdiction’s part of the Rana Station space docks.

XK9 Pack portrait “Head Shot” illustrations for Razor, Shady, and Rex – the three XK9s in this story. Artwork ©2020 by Lucy A. Synk.
I don’t (yet) have appropriate portraits to share of the three humans who play a part in this scene. The three XK9s in this sequence are (L-R): Razor, Shady, and Rex. Artwork ©2020 by Lucy A. Synk.

Setting the Scene

This excerpt takes place in the specialized clinic that fulfills the Pack members’ health care needs. At this point in the story, we’ve had some wounded in action. I can’t say more without giving spoilers, but I hope you’ll enjoy Berwyn’s Solstice Story:

The retreat room was small, narrow, and pretty much maxed out, once three humans and three XK9s had squeezed themselves inside. Humans Berwyn, Shiv, and Liz all smiled a greeting, while Razor wagged his tail.

“Rex. Shady. Wow,” Berwyn said. “Would you like to observe the Solstice with us?”

“We came to wait with you,” Rex said.

“Then please join us. I was explaining to the others . . . What do you know about Solstice?”

“It is an astronomical phenomenon observable on many planets,” Rex said. “If there are seasonal variations in the length of daylight and darkness, then the longest and shortest days are solstices, and the days which are divided equally between darkness and light are equinoxes.”

Berwyn’s smile held a trace of sadness. “You sound like Cinnamon, when I first explained it to her.”

“We all attended the same planetary astronomy class,” Shady said.

“Well, let me tell you about the way my Family observes the Solstice.” He gestured toward a low table in the center of the room. Someone had placed a lighted, mostly-burned candle on it, next to a tall, new, unburned one.

Both appeared to be the same brownish-dark-gray tone to Rex. Humans probably saw them as one of the colors XK9s couldn’t distinguish, such as red or green. Between them, a small case pad ticked a silent countdown.

“The shortest day—the longest darkness—takes place in a cold season when everything lies fallow. In the earliest ages, it was a time of privation, often of hunger, of death. A sort of nadir for the year.” – From “Berwyn’s Solstice Story,” in “A Bone to Pick” ©2021 by Jan S. Gephardt. The words appear against a black background. At lower left, a single red candle burns in a darkened environment sprinkled with small red holiday lights  among a drift of sparkly red confetti.
Candle image is courtesy of Paula Onysko’s blog post “Light a Candle Ritual for Winter Solstice.” Words & design are ©2021-2022 by Jan S. Gephardt.

Berwyn’s Solstice Story

“My Family follows an ancient tradition that observed these variations on Mother Earth and found spiritual meaning in them. The shortest day—the longest darkness—takes place in a cold season there, when everything lies fallow. In the earliest ages, it was a time of privation, often of hunger, of death. A sort of nadir for the year.” Berwyn stared at the flickering candle flame for a moment. “This year, I’ve been able to very personally relate.”

“Oh, man, I hear you!” Liz’s eyes brimmed with tears. She reached over to squeeze Berwyn’s shoulder. Shiv clasped Berwyn’s hand. He did not speak, but he looked almost as haggard as Berwyn and Liz.

Rex’s throat tightened. Having almost lost his partner Charlie just a few weeks ago, he thought he understood some of what they must feel. Shady nuzzled him.

“But at the end of every ‘longest dark,’ the light begins to return,” Berwyn said. “It starts at that very moment when darkness and cold seem to conquer the world. The light comes back. The warmth begins to grow. New hope rises up, and the faith that things will get better.”

He looked at Liz, Razor and Rex. “We will heal and grow stronger.”

He met Shady’s eyes. “We will rise again to new heights.”

He turned to Shiv. “Unexpected new things may . . . may dare to take root.” The fearful hope in both men’s faces and scent factors filled Rex’s heart with empathic, joyful yearning and set Shady’s tail to thumping.

Berwyn drew in a breath. “Oh. It’s already later than I thought. In my Family, it’s our tradition to extinguish the old year’s candle at 23:50, which is .… now.” He blew out the candle.

“We extinguish the old year’s candle . . . Our tradition is to banish distractions, sit in silence, and let our minds find a centering peace.” – From “Berwyn’s Solstice Story,” in “A Bone to Pick” ©2021 by Jan S. Gephardt. Smoke from a blown-out red candle at lower left drifts upward and to the right on a black background.
Candle photo by Vit Krajicek/123rf. Words & design are ©2021-2022 by Jan S. Gephardt.

Darkness

The Retreat room went pitch dark.

“Our tradition is to banish distractions, sit in silence, and let our minds find a centering peace.”

No one answered. Six hearts beat quietly, although at different rhythms. Six presences breathed in and out. Rex noted that more than one ran a breathing pattern of the sort he’d learned from Charlie. Liz shifted in her seat. An itch prickled along his right shoulder blade. He lifted a hind paw to scratch it, then refrained. Stilled himself. The itch burned a moment or two longer, then died.

They abided in silence.

Gradually, their breathing fell into a common rhythm. Their heartbeats slowly synchronized, too. The humans couldn’t consciously hear it, but somehow they also attuned.

A deep calmness and peace fell over Rex. A sense of oneness with his companions, and of resting after strife. He abided in the moment, content.

Soft bells chimed. They grew louder, a building carillon. They crescendoed into joyous, triumphant peals. The bells seemed to say, Darkness is banished. Light will prevail. Things will get better! Rejoice!

The sound broke over him, balm for his heart. Light and hope for his mind and spirit.

A scratch and a flare of flame. Sharp bite of burning struck his nose. Berwyn lit the new candle, then touched his case pad. The bells faded out. “Nadir has passed. The light is returning.”

On a black background, the words read: “It starts at that very moment when darkness and cold seem to conquer the world. The light comes back. The warmth begins to grow. New hope rises up, and the faith that things will get better.” – From “Berwyn’s Solstice Story,” in A Bone to Pick ©2021 by Jan S. Gephardt. At right, a tall new red taper candle burns in darkness.
The taper candle image is courtesy of Stone Candles. The words & design are ©2021-2022 by Jan S. Gephardt.

Nadir has Passed

“The light is returning,” Shiv murmured.

Berwyn straightened. “The light is returning, indeed.” He sat back with a sigh and a smile. “Thank you. Thank you, all of you. I thought I’d be doing this alone.” His dark eyes glistened with excess moisture.

Shiv shook his head. Gave Berwyn’s hand a gentle squeeze. “Not alone. Not tonight.”

“I know I needed to be here,” Liz said. “Thank you. Thank you for sharing this with us.”

Razor dipped his head. “Very much. That was amazing.”

Berwyn’s gaze swept the room. “Solstice blessings abound.”

I sincerely hope you enjoyed Berwyn’s Solstice Story. If it has sparked your interest in learning more about the series, click this link. For more about A Bone to Pick, click the link in the title.

If you’d like to read more short fiction about the XK9s and their people, you might enjoy a FREE subscription to my monthly Newsletter. Signing up for the Newsletter also scores you a FREE ebook copy of my prequel novella, The Other Side of Fear. In case you’re wondering – no, the Trilogy’s not done yet, and yes – I’m writing as fast as I can! Bone of Contention is scheduled for publication in September 2023.

Two visualizations of “A Bone to Pick” by Jan S. Gephardt: at left the ebook cover is shown on a tablet. At right “A Bone to Pick” is visualized as a fat trade paperback. Below the two pictures a line of type reads: “Cover art ©2020 by Jody A. Lee.
This story is an excerpt ©2021-2022 by Jan S. Gephardt from her novel A Bone to Pick. It’s the second book of the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy. The cover artwork is ©2020 by Jody A. Lee.

IMAGE CREDITS

I have a lot of people to thank for the images in this post. First of all to my dear friend and frequent illustration source, Lucy A. Synk, I want to lift up a hearty “thank you!” If you’d like to see more of her amazing artwork, check out her website and her Facebook page!

Likewise, I want to thank another longtime friend, Jody A. Lee, who does such a stellar job on the cover art for the “Bones” Trilogy. That’s her work on A Bone to Pick. You also might enjoy her website, Facebook page, and (while there’s still a Twitter) her Twitter feed.

The other sources are considerably more varied. I’ve credited them in the cutlines under the pictures, but here’s a rundown, for the record. Much gratitude to Paula Onysko’s blog post “Light a Candle Ritual for Winter Solstice,” for the candle photo used in the first candle picture with the opening quote from Berwyn’s Solstice Story. You also might enjoy reading Paula’s suggestions for a different kind of solstice candle ritual.

Deepest thanks to Vit Krajicek and 123rf for the evocative photo of the smoke from the blown-out candle in the second from that sequence. And I also thank Stone Candles for their photo of one of their beautiful red taper candles, used in the third candle-with-quote image. I deeply appreciate all!