Dora's Yuletide - A short story
It was Himself's fault of course.
Himself With All The Apple Trees was sitting in his usual dark corner, surrounded by the latest crop of acolytes too dim or too inexperienced not to be taken in by his nonsense, and holding forth in grandiloquent fashion about Tradition, Ceremony, and The Ancient Ways. I was passing out the drinks, and listening with half an ear because Himself may talk a lot of rubbish but you never know round here when talk of Tradition will turn into some poor soul getting horribly murdered in the name of the Lord of the Fields, or The Coming Dawn, or Himself's poxy, blight-riddled trees.
So I was hanging around, not really paying attention, hoping it wasn't all going to end in something grisly, when Himself said: "Of course, in the Old Days there would have been a great feasting and celebration here, to mark the Solstice."
Which sounded so unlikely I forgot to even try to sound respectful or amusingly rustic but just said: "What?"
Well, feasting's a little thin on the ground in these parts, given most have trouble putting food on the table at all, and as for anything to celebrate: that's even scarcer than the food is -- always excepting the annual hog roast and sacrifice up on the cliff top.
I made my recovery as best I could and leant over the table trying to look intrigued: "I mean, why, whatever do you mean my lord? A feast? On our Island?"
"Indeed," he turned what was probably meant to be a benevolent eye upon me; "On this island and everywhere else. There would be a great party, with feasting and ceremonial, to celebrate the return of the sun's warmth after the long, cold winter."
Shows what you know, I thought, for the coldest part of the winter comes after the Solstice, as a rule. But it can't have shown in my face for he gestured expansively about the room and carried on.
"All the people would be gathered together in the Great Hall," he intoned; "The walls would be hung with green boughs, and torches lit at every sconce," What? Under the boughs? I wondered; "and there would be music and dancing, and tables filled with food, and rejoicing all through the long, dark night."
"And the Ancient Rituals would be observed," he added, but I wasn't really paying attention.
The thing was, it all sounded rather nice. Oh, not that Ancient Ritual rubbish, or setting the place on fire with the decorations, but the food, and the music and everything. Especially the part where none of it would be my job, for once.
He'd got the Solstice part right enough, mind, but most years all anyone managed by way of keeping it was to hang around the Inn all night, drinking and carrying on, and making even more of a ruckus than usual, when we came to kick them out because "It's Yule! You've got to have a drink at Yuletide! Let your hair down a little!" and never mind that Molly and I were far too busy keeping up with the drink orders to let down so much as a curl.
Not that our hair was ever what you might call up, mind you: we barmaids have standards you know.
So the thought of a party where I didn't have to buzz about like a bottled bluebottle was remarkably tempting.
"You should bring it back, Sir," I said.
Himself was still mid-flow, talking about rites, and riddles, and some girl called Lewd Mary but he broke off at this, his eyes lighting up.
"What was that?" he asked
"You should bring it back," I repeated; "You could," what was a good word? "Revive it. Restore the Ancient Ways, light the torches, strike up the music, and fill your halls with voices raised in song."
And feasting, I added, silently, and someone else to do the washing up.
"Ah," he observed sadly; "But have I the right, who am yet an outsider on these ancient shores?"
Which would have been a fair point except that he was born in his poxy, blight-ridden orchard, not ten miles from the Inn, and had never fretted over pushing himself forward before. But I could see he was wanting to be persuaded, so I called Molly over by way of reinforcement.
I took care not to stress the parts about the food, and not being in our Inn, and not having to do it ourselves too heavily, as I explained, but I could see she took it the same way as I had, for she clasped her hands like the winsome heroine of a particularly soppy novel and sighed: "Oh it does all sound so wonderful, Sir," in a voice so sweet I was surprised she didn't choke on it.
After that I pretty much left her to it. There are few forces in this world that can withstand Moll's making an active effort to be beguiling, and I doubted Himself was one of them.
He was not.
By the time I came by with the next round of ale, he had turned his Sinister Charisma to bending Molly to his will. Which was to say that he was staring at her cross-eyed, and speaking in a particularly slow, sonorous way, with long pauses for such things as: "Ancient...rites," and; "Other...matters."
It wasn't very effective, partly because Himself has all the sinister charisma of a wet hanky, and partly because it's hard to be darkly intense and mysterious when what you're really after is a big party with yourself in the middle of it all being very important.
Anyway he was carrying on much as usual, and Moll was nodding encouragingly as he talked about Yule logs, and Kings of the Feasts and all manner of things besides.
She jumped up as I returned: "Oh, Dora!" she enthused, just a little too rapturously to be convincing; "You must hear this! It would be such a wonderful night! Oh you must bring it back, Sir, indeed you must!"
At this his cox-riddled Lordship made another play at looking undecided, so I joined my own voice to Molly's, and was backed by a chorus of enthusiastic assent from the hangers on who, I supposed, he kept around for just this purpose.
"Very well," declared He, trying not to look like an eager puppy and succeeding only in looking constipated instead; "Your halls will once again be alight with revelry, and the Yule Fires will blaze again!" and he leapt to his feet, sweeping his cloak majestically to one side, as he did so, and knocking several empty cups of the table.
It was as I was picking them up again, that I noticed something a little odd in what he'd said.
"Our halls, Sir?"
"Indeed!" He was pacing now, in his fervour, which only added to the impression of a man desperate to find a privy; "These walls will sing of the Oldest Times and all will rejoice at the coming of a new day! All through the night we shall keep the revel and solemn ritual," at the same time? I wondered; "and at daybreak all will stand amazed at the might and majesty of the returning Sun!"
Well that was all very well, but: "You mean your halls, my Lord, surely?"
"What's that?" He looked a little annoyed at being interrupted.
"Your halls, my Lord. For the ritual and the rejoicing and so on. Not ours. What with you being the one to revive it. And being the only one with a Hall."
"No indeed!" He beamed all over his stupid saturnine face; "Is not the Inn the very centre of this community? How then could I steal away your traditional ceremonies to my own, bleak clifftop?"
I thought of mentioning the other traditional Island ceremony that took place on a bleak clifftop, but he rolled straight over me.
"No! This is a celebration for the People, and among the People it shall be held! Indeed I would not have dared to dream of such a thing had not your own eagerness, your own sincere passion for the ritual almost outdone my own," by this time his emphatic periods had drawn the attention of everyone in the taproom; "but I know with two such devoted handmaids at my side I can bring to this isle such feasting and such celebration as none shall ever forget!"
And at that, we were done for.
Well you try telling a roomful of hungry people that you've decided you don't want to hold a big party with lots of free food after all.
We did our best. We pointed out that the Inn couldn't exactly run to a massive feast for the whole Island, and suggested that perhaps, what with the food being such an important integral part of the proceedings he, as one who knew about such things, should handle that bit, but he began to look decidedly shifty, in a way that made me wonder just how much lording paid, and how regularly; and how much his latest set of ceremonial robes had cost.
I was about to suggest a compromise of some kind -- although of what kind I had no idea -- when he held up a hand for silence and, in a tone that brooked no argument declared that, this being a community festival, the food should be handled by the community.
"We shall each bring forth our best," he announced; "and the tables shall creak under the bounties of the Earth and Sea."
"It's going to be a pretty fishy feast," I muttered, and sloped off to the brewing sheds to let Tom know what he was in for.
Tom was somehow less put out at the prospect of a night-long party than I'd expected. Which may have been because he rightly assumed he could spend the night hiding out in the brewing sheds, as usual, or it may have been because he saw Himself's demand for contributions as an opportunity to try new, experimental drinks on a more or less captive audience.
It made sense, I supposed: if people were eating they were bound to want a drink as well, and nobody ever turned up their nose at free beer, no matter how exciting the recipe.
Besides, I mused, the more people drank, the more they wanted to drink. It shouldn't work that way, of course, but somehow it always did. So if we set out a decent array of alcohols to begin with, then everyone should be nicely primed to keep drinking once the free stuff ran out, and the Inn might even make some money out of this nonsense.
I wondered how many drinks I could put on Himself's slate before anybody noticed. And what sort of thing did you serve at a solstice party anyway?
"Eggnog," said Molly, when I asked her; "There was that recipe in one of your books, remember?"
I did remember. I don't know which genius decided a recipe calling for fresh cream and a dozen eggs was the perfect thing for the middle of winter when milk's in short supply and the hens are off lay, but if they ever walked into the Inn I would...
Well, I'd smile, and serve them politely, of course, but you wouldn't catch me topping off their beer. And I'd short change them, too, if I could get away with it.
No. We would not be attempting eggnog. It would be like the syllabub all over again.
In the end I settled on buttered rum as my contribution to the festivities. We had plenty of rum and butter, at least, and it was impressive, fairly straightforward, and contained no ingredients that would be hard to pronounce after downing a mug of it.
The hot poker might present a bit of a temptation, it was true, especially with Himself making even more of a fool of himself than usual, but we would just have to exercise a little self-restraint. Or arrange an alibi.
While I was pondering the propriety of singeing one's master of ceremonies, Tom disappeared back into the brewing shed, where he stayed for most of the week, producing a constant refrain of clanks and whistles, along with smells so unearthly even the cockerel looked concerned. At the end of this he emerged, beaming sunnily, and bearing a large jug of something warm, foaming, and remarkably eggnog-like, which he insisted Molly and I should try.
I poured a cup and gingerly tasted.
It wasn't eggnog. It was clearly some kind of ale, magically reduced to so much froth and lather. If I'd poured a pint like that I'd have dumped it out for being all head, but this. I tasted again. This was rich, dark, and creamy, fiery with spices, sweet with molasses, and tinged with the smoke-sweet notes of whiskey, burnt sugar, and rum.
"Reckon it'll do?" asked Tom.
I'm sure I intended to answer, but my mouth was full of warm, heavenly liquid, and all that I managed was an enthusiastic gurgle and a barrage of frantic nods. He got the idea, anyway.
"What about you Moll?" I asked, once the last miraculous droplet had disappeared; "What have you got in mind?"
Molly thought for a moment.
"Brandy," she decided.
"Brandy what?" A brandy flip would be no more achievable than the eggnog, but I supposed she could manage some kind of hot toddy with the spices we had on hand. Or punch perhaps: there was no finding Champagne on the Island, but we could probably run to a bottle or so of port, and there was that little cask of lemon juice I'd got cheap off that smuggler back in...
And she reached up a determined hand and grasped two bottles firmly by the neck.
Well, at least that was a recipe even Molly couldn't mess up.
It's said that Yuletide kindles a spark of hope in even the most despairing heart.
If this is true, then that year's spark took one look at the Island and promptly went out again.
Possibly because of the rain.
The morning of the party dawned grey, damp and grimy round the edges. There wasn't much time to be despondent, though, as we had barely rushed through the morning's work and got the chickens safely shut away in their yard before Himself appeared with a bevy of sycophants and several servants from the Hall, all weighed down with bundles, brooms and armloads of greenery.
I don't know where they got the greenery, mind you: at that time of year the best the Island'll run to is brownery, and even that's hard to come by. I suspected he'd had it shipped in from the Mainland, and mentally revised my concern for his pocketbook.
Soon the whole Inn was a bustle of activity: Himself threw a handful of some noxious herbs into the fire, and he and all his followers ran about in the smoke, flailing brooms and knocking all the dust about.
They weren't getting the place any cleaner, mind, but they seemed happy enough, and it kept them out of mischief.
For our parts, Tom slunk away to the brewing shed with a blanket and his brewing log, while Molly and I moved a couple of tables around, to show willing, then went and lurked behind them, out of the way of the thrashing brooms. We were joined, after a moment by the servants from the Hall, so I got us all a drink, and we stood there, in companionable silence, watching the celebrants leap, and twirl, and almost put a broom through the taproom window.
"Bless his little cotton socks," murmured a matronly woman who seemed to have come purely to supervise the labours of her underlings, and who was now refreshing herself from this most onerous of burdens with a particularly large mugful of Tom's best lobster stout. The rest of the staff -- the ones who'd done all the actual fetching and carrying -- kept a politic silence.
I understood their confusion: I found it hard to imagine anyone wishing blessings on My Lord Of The Orchard, least of all anyone who had to spend more than the usual amount of time in his presence. Still, I followed their example and kept quiet.
Besides, the acolytes had got to the indecipherable chanting part of the proceedings: it was always possible she was just trying to translate.
Once the dust had been thoroughly agitated and the whole place reeked with uncertain incense, the celebrants stopped their chanting and got to work properly, pinning up wreaths and the like, whatever ritual they'd been performing apparently finished.
I took the opportunity to nip back behind the bar and wash our mugs, assisted by a few of the Hall staff, who shifted awkwardly from foot to foot as though unsure whether they were supposed to stay or go.
"I should get off home while you can," I advised a portly man who had every bit as much dignity as had the doting woman, but had done more than his share of carrying, and was now cheerfully lending a hand with the pots; "you don't want to be hanging about when that lot start up again.
He still looked conflicted.
I was struck with a sudden inspiration: "The Island rites are a matter for Island people," I declared, and never mind that Himself had cobbled it all together out of a lot of old pamphlets; "they must not be profaned by outside eyes'.
He visibly relaxed: "Well we wouldn't want to give offence, Miss, I'm sure." And with a relieved smile he went to round up his companions and they all, even the doting matron, trooped off back to the Hall.
I watched them go, feeling rather pleased with myself: it's always hard finding Solstice presents for people you don't know, but a whole night without Himself to bother them seemed the very best gift that anyone could receive.
I could always send the doting woman some bath salts, later on.
With that thought I headed out to give a hand with the greenery: the Hall staff might have got the day off for once, but I had a whole night of this ahead. And not just any night: tonight, the longest and darkest night of all the year, I would have a full sixteen hours in Himself's blessed, ruddy, cotton-socked presence.
I turned back to the bar: I was going to need another drink.
Unfortunately, even Tom's beer was not enough to entirely dispel the sense of dread niggling about at the back of my mind. As I laid to with the hammer, nailing a wreath of prickly branches to the mantlepiece, I suddenly realised why: Himself had hatched the perfect scheme.
I doubted he'd done it on purpose. There'd have been a lot more sinister glances, if he had; and evil chuckling; and he'd probably have given at least one gloating soliloquy by now. Still, the fact remained: by holding his "traditional celebration" here he had, in his own, oblivious, egotistical fashion, stitched us up beautifully. Never mind that it was his plan and his execution: if the night went badly all anyone would remember would be a miserable night at the Inn. If, on the other hand, Molly and I did everything in our power to make the thing a success, well then there he'd be, the Master of Ceremonies in his silly robe, taking all the credit and patting us on the head like the good little handmaids he imagined we were.
I scowled at the greenery, and only partly because I'd just hit my thumb with the hammer.
We'd just have to make the best of it. It wasn't so much that I was afraid a bad night would lose us custom: being the only Inn on the Island had its advantages, and it would take more than a damp squib of a party to make our regulars give up drink -- but it was the principle of the thing. We owed it to the Inn, to Tom, to ourselves, to make sure that this night was remembered forever as a great highpoint of Island history. It was a matter of honour.
Besides, if it went badly no one would ever let us hear the end of it.
At least Himself had abandoned the usual brooding menace act in favour of casting himself as a genial host full of high spirits and bonhomie. Unfortunately this new guise was more successfully unnerving than the menace had ever been. I hoped once he'd had a drink or two he'd forget he was supposed to be a warm and welcoming presence and go back to failing at being a dark and terrifying one.
There was no time to get him started on the drinking now, though, for the sun was almost setting and a crowd of Islanders -- never backward at coming forward, at least when free food was in the offing -- was already pressing through the inn yard to our door.
Right, I told myself, firmly; just one night of this nonsense and then it'll all be over and you can go and scream quietly somewhere where nobody can hear.
I'm sure Himself had some grand plan for the night, probably all laid out on fancy paper, with headings like "Lead the People in Ancient Ritual through the power of my Charisma and Personal Magnetism" but if he had he didn't show us, so I made my own version in my head, just to help me keep track.
The First Hour: Welcoming Ceremonies
Himself disappeared for a minute and reappeared wearing a long, green, velvet robe and insisting on standing at the door, behaving as though he owned the place, and flicking everyone in the face with a soggy feather duster. This took some time as everyone had to be greeted individually, and no one quite knew what to make of the flicking, which was new and unexpected, not to mention wet.
Still, nobody said anything, either because they were all too polite or, more likely, because they were too surprised to react. Besides, most of them had their hands full, which would have made flicking him back a little difficult.
I sent Molly to fetch a couple of towels and we stood by to dry off the soggier people as they came on in.
Everyone seemed to think a nice, strong drink was in order after all that wetting, but I had my hands full sopping up the ceremonial soaking so I pretended not to notice and waved them off to the tables to put down their food, ready for
The Second Hour: Feasting
Everything had to be admired, which was helpful, really, as that took up a good half hour all by itself.
Despite my fears, the feast did not consist entirely of fish: in fact, besides Mree Hopkins' geographically inaccurate ocean pie, and Bob Maester's slightly disquieting rollmops, fish didn't feature much at all.
There were a great many pies of all sorts, large and small, loaves of bread of various competencies of baking, three great hunks of Cheshire cheese that had clearly all been sliced from the same round at the same time, a number of smaller less impersonal cheeses, stews of all kinds, fruits preserved in spirits and in honey, sweet cakes and biscuits, and innumerable roasted, toasted, fiddly bits.
Eiluned Perry had brought a full dozen bottles of her birch wine, which we all agreed was just the thing for a party. At an Inn. With a landlord known for his ale. Which he sold. To make a living. And, might I add, to pay the wages of his hard-working, under-appreciated barmaids.
Anyway, it was clear that everyone who could afford to really had brought their best, while those who couldn't had made do somehow -- likely by becoming yet more beholden to those who could.
Finally, once the tables were heaving with the weight of good things, Himself unveiled his own offering, which turned out to be a dish of frumenty.
I have to say that when I imagined a huge celebratory party full of riotous dissipation, the last thing that came to mind was a big bowl of runny porridge with bits in, but he seemed very pleased with himself, so it was probably one of those things that meant something. Or something. I poked it away out of sight at the back of the table, just in case. Next to the wine.
Once everything had been duly appreciated, and the obligatory call and response of "Looks too pretty to cut, doesn't it?" "Oh go on now, someone's got to," had been intoned over every pie, cake and platter on the table, we all put down our plates again and moved on to
The Third Hour: Lighting The Yule Log
It wouldn't light.
Anyone with even a morsel of intelligence should have known that it couldn't possibly light.
It was a massive great thing, bigger around than I could reach and four times as long again, its bark thick, and rough, and dark with damp where it had been stored away out of the sun.
Himself clearly hadn't made even an attempt at drying it out, and now stood, looking rather silly, as the combined forces of the Island tried and failed to get the wretched log aflame.
We tried kindling. We tried pine resin. One enterprising soul nipped back to the taproom for half a bottle of whisky, which flamed up very prettily for the twenty seconds before it burned itself out. But the truth was clear: no power on Earth would convince the thing to burn.
In the end we gave up and just built a bonfire next to the log instead. It was the thought that mattered, after all, everyone said, and maybe the log would light eventually, once the fire'd dried it out a bit.
Besides, if there's one thing the Island's good at, it's bonfires.
Himself stood by, not helping with the fire but being enigmatic and trying to look as though the whole thing had been some sort of a test.
The Fourth Hour: Music And Dancing
Was much more successful.
About a dozen people owned a drum of some kind, and nearly as many had a penny whistle. It seemed Himself had even remembered to warn them that these would be needed -- or more likely his acolytes had -- as they were now produced and, along with a number of bells and other such instruments, struck up something that, if not tuneful, was at least suitably merry.
If nothing else, as Molly said; it had a beat.
Several, in fact.
After a bit the musicians sorted themselves out and produced a series of songs that everyone more or less recognised, even if they couldn't agree on the words. Benches were pushed back, hands were clasped, various sweethearts squealed as they were pulled into the throng -- hopefully by the appropriate swains, and a good time was had by all.
It began to look as though the night might not be an utter failure after all. And so we came to
The Fifth Hour: Ceremonial Combat
I spoke too soon. This was one of Himself's Ancient Ways and he obviously had his own idea of how it was supposed to go. He pointed out a big, blanket-draped chair that he called a throne, with an uncomfortable-looking crown of prickly holly on its seat. This, he explained, would go to the victor, who would be crowned King for the Night, and should hold that title, and all the respect due to it, until the sunrise.
Having put the matter plainly, he made several dramatic passes over the throne and crown, by way of emphasising their importance and general desirability, then uttered a short exhortation in a language nobody understood, least of all Himself. And then he stood back and waited for the first contenders to come forward.
Come forward they did not.
There was some jostling and murmuring as a few brave spirits tried to persuade their friends to try, but nobody stepped up.
I heard several people muttering that King for the Night was unreasonable: was there going to be a Queen for the Night as well? Or some kind of non-specific title? Ruler for the Night it should be, or Regent maybe. That'd work. Or Monarch. And what did he mean by Until the sunrise? Sounded a bit final, that did, and you could never be too careful. A body could get into a lot of trouble with that sort of thing, if they didn't ask the right questions beforehand.
Eventually Himself tried to start his own fight with one of his followers, who just stood there uncomfortably, looking as though he were desperately re-thinking his choices in life, and the whole thing sort of fizzled out before being interrupted by
The Sixth Hour: The Hunting Of The Wren
Wren Tovey, to be exact, aged six and a half and thoroughly over-excited at being up so long after her bedtime.
She'd got hold of Himself's feather-duster, and the bucket he'd used to dip it in, and now ran merrily hither and yon, splashing people, overturning benches, and generally leaving chaos in her wake.
She was finally cornered by the feast table, where she completely drenched several pies before being caught and bodily borne away by her mortified parents.
Which was a shame, really, because it meant she missed
The Seventh Hour: Party Games
While I was putting the drowned pies down by the fire to dry out, Molly dumped the last of her brandy into a tray and set it on fire.
This proved a useful distraction, as everyone immediately forgot the unrepentant Wren and crowded round trying to snatch a raisin from the blaze. Neither of us exactly remembered putting any raisins in, mind you, but the flames were a pretty, spectral blue, and at least a few people claimed to have got one, so that was all right.
Once the snapdragon had burned down, we pushed the benches back up against the wall, the musicians struck up again, someone found an old scarf for a blindfold, and everyone had a wonderful time blundering about, knocking into one another, and almost flattening the poor pies.
After a few rounds of Blindman's Buff, Fox In The Hole, and Barley Break, we were ready for
The Eighth Hour: More Feasting
My buttered rum made an appearance and disappeared again with flattering speed.
Everyone tried bits of everyone else's dishes and decided they were good, but not as good as what they'd brought theirselves. This produced a warm glow of self-satisfaction in all concerned, which is probably the point of such events.
I noticed that more than a few faces seemed to be making mental notes of everyone who'd snubbed their food, presumably planning the sort of vengeance that would add a cheerful note of terror to the coming year. So I went round and had seconds of everything I could manage, then, when the largesse proved more than I could bear, loaded up a plate from the rest and crept out to give it to Tom.
Tom, as it turned out, had left the brewing shed and was now lurking in the doorway, watching the reactions to his beer-nog with an expression of deep, scientific inquiry. He accepted the plate with a distracted air, but ate some of it at least, so hopefully the spite and loathing of a dozen proud householders would not descend upon the Inn that year.
We exchanged a few words, mostly about the beer, then I girded my loins -- or at least hitched up my petticoats -- and waded back into the noise and bustle of
The Ninth Hour: Ceremonial Combat Again
Jethro Palmer spilled Aoife Ransome's pint; Luke McCawley accused George Leys of looking at him funny; Lilibet Coffing punched Janey Morris, who probably deserved it; and anyone who wasn't part of the fray retired behind the tables where they could cheer on the combatants from the safety of the Yuletide food.
Old Man Morris eventually won the night by ambling out while everyone was groaning and pulling themselves up off the floor, and declaring himself the victor.
Since no one seemed inclined to hit an old man, and everyone's heads hurt far too much to argue, he was crowned with due ceremony and permitted to sit down in the blanket covered "throne" which was most likely all he'd been after in the first place.
Well he's getting on a bit, these days, and his knees aren't what they were.
Anyway, he immediately ordered another round of drinks, by royal decree, so nobody minded too much. I put them on Himself's slate and added a couple more out of respect for the occasion.
During the coronation Molly nipped out to the inn yard with John Anders to "put some wood on the fire," which was just as well because it meant she was there for
The Tenth Hour: Animal Sacrifice
Or very nearly.
That blessed cockerel woke up and, mistaking the bonfire for the rising sun, did his level best to immolate himself. Fortunately his salute to the sunrise involved a fair bit of flapping and doodle-doing, and between that and Molly's shrieks I was out of the door and half way across the yard before he'd so much as singed his tail feathers.
I wrestled the stupid fowl out of the flames, and was severely pecked for my efforts, before he finally remembered he was a bird, not a moth, and flapped off to roost in the elm tree for the rest of the night.
I sighed and headed back inside, then immediately regretted it, as I ran slap bang into Himself.
His Ruddy Lordship was looking distracted and poking into all the odd spaces and corners, which might have been because there was a peculiar smell in the air, just then, but was more likely because the smell was coming from the bundle of whips and masks wrapped in a smelly goatskin that he'd hidden behind the door, and that I had found and relocated to the middle of the bonfire.
Perhaps it wasn't very kind to dispose of his toys like that but, well: I don't know what they were intended for - and if I'm very good, and very careful, then I may never find out - but I do know that handing out whips and disguises to a lot of excitably tipsy people in a confined space would have been far more trouble than it was worth. Even if I hadn't had to tidy up afterwards.
Himself looked none too happy about his vanished paraphernalia, but I distracted him with a few carefully admiring questions and a mug of Tom's best. Which turned out to be a good idea in more ways than one, as not only did I manage to add another four mugs to his impressively growing slate, but I also, apparently, reminded him of another terribly ancient and important rite, so he stopped prying into the limitations of my housekeeping and rushed on to
The Eleventh Hour: Wassailing
Only Himself and his hangers-on had any idea how it went.
Once the singing had finished we all clapped politely whereupon Himself demanded a bit of toast soaked in cider. This he proposed to stick in one of his forsaken apple trees which, he explained would next be serenaded and then shot, all of which would apparently encourage a good harvest next year.
Nobody had any cider, since there were never any apples, and he'd got the wrong date for it anyway, but better to sacrifice a bit of bread than a human being, so I dunked the heel of yesterday's loaf in the end of the beer-froth and sent him on his way.
I would have been at least a little concerned at the thought of a loaded weapon in the hands of Johnny Appleseed and his dim-witted followers, but I was distracted by
The Twelfth Hour: Ghost Stories
While Himself was off causing an identity crisis in innocent fruit trees, Old Man Morris remembered that he was King and demanded that everyone come and dance attendance on him.
Attendance, in this case, meant listening to his old stories, which were pretty good, really, so long as you could stand tales of grim foreboding where everyone dies.
He included a few happy endings too, mind you, or happy endings by Island standards at least, which is to say that the ending was usually on the lines of "Too late they saw the fate which awaited them! Alas, poor souls, struggle though they might they could not escape their doom. And so the God was fed and the people of the Island flourished.
For some reason most parents present seemed to take this as the signal to collect their wide-eyed offspring and haul them home to bed. I suppose it was pretty late, by then.
Those children who remained were mostly the older ones, who hung around looking nervously defiant and sneaking sips out of the tray of brandy when they thought no-one was looking.
Anyway, it was nice and peaceful for a bit, and made a pleasant lull in the festivities before
The Thirteenth Hour: Riddles
Himself turned up again, dressed in a sheet, with a sheep's skull on his head, and asking everyone riddles in a silly, sing-song, squeaky sort of a voice.
Nobody was interested in answering them, so we just let him get on with it, and shoved a mug of ale in his direction once he looked like running out of steam. He received this like an accolade, and seemed to think he had just done something terribly important, which kept him happy and stopped him from bothering the rest of us while we got on with
The Fourteenth Hour: Feasting Again
Or less feasting, really, than wrapping up the leftovers.
Molly'd come back in by then, grinning to herself, with smuts on her petticoats and bits of twig caught in her hair, so I tidied her up a bit, then pressed her into service to parcel out the food.
We did our best to make sure the biggest parcels went to those with the smallest larders, but it was a bit hit-or-miss, to be honest, and, as Molly said, you can never be too sure.
Still, I made sure to give a good bit of all the best pies, one of Missus Perry's bottles of wine, and a jar of crystallised fruits to old Saul Over who was raising six grandchildren all by himself; and saw to it that the wealthiest landowners got the sort of token packet that wouldn't cause offence by being either too big or too shoddy.
Himself got a parcel of his own frumenty, which was somewhat difficult to wrap.
So did Missus Perry.
Once the food had all been safely distributed Himself happened to glance out of the window and we moved hastily on to
The Fifteenth Hour: Sunrise
Except it wasn't.
I could have told him that and so, no doubt could most of our island of farmers, fisherfolk and associated People Who Are Up Before The Dawn.
Personally I consider it a point of honour to never get up before the sun does, no matter what that cockerel says, but even I know that just because the sky's getting light, it doesn't mean the sun is anywhere near up.
Himself didn't know that, though, and we were all flagging a little at this point, so nobody bothered to tell him. We all stood in polite silence while he made several flourishes in entirely the wrong direction, declaimed something or other in an impressive but rather indistinct bass rumble, and declared the Sun to have risen.
With that the celebration ended, the party was over, and nobody had been sacrificed to anything, not even Old Man Morris. Which was nice, I thought, though clearly a disappointment to some.
Everyone took their parcels and their dishes and began the slow, shuffling yawning walk home, in the first light of a new year. Even Molly headed up to bed, this being her usual time for it anyway, and Tom shuffled up the stairs with bleary eyes and a book full of notes.
I stayed where I was, not quite knowing why, but wanting to see things through to the end. Perhaps it was just stubbornness, or the knowledge that I'd already come this far, or just the odd sense of peace that remained when the last of the celebrants were gone. Whatever it was, I stood there, by the last embers of the dying fire, waiting for
The Sixteenth Hour: Sunrise Again.
It was cold there, and all the colder for the crowded heat of the taproom so short a while ago. Cold as the first frost, or as the dark impenetrable depths that never see the sun. Cold as death, and yet somehow it didn't touch me.
Perhaps it was some ghost of warmth lingering where the fire had burned, or the excitement and weariness of the night before, but I remember when I look back on that moment only an odd, light, floating sensation, like a feather, hovering in the air; or caught in a tide pool, in that long moment of stillness before the water overwhelms it and it sinks inexorably to the bottom.
It was as if the whole world held its breath.
I stood, watching the slow crawl of dull crimson creeping across the last scraps of firewood, and the pale, grey-white ashes crumbling in its wake.
I stood, beside the great dark log that still bore at the last only a few black scars where the blaze had touched it.
I stood, in the thin light of morning, in the fragile silence of a waiting world.
And then I saw it. Slow, oh slow the climb, as the little ball of amber rose moment by moment over the brink of the Earth. So small a thing, yet as I watched I felt the promise of all the light and warmth it could not yet give, of longer days and better, of growing things even now below the ground, of life in all its glorious uncertainty.
I thought of the people walking sleepily home. Of their struggles and their laughter. Of petty quarrels, and kisses in the corner, and all the whirl and wonder of a hundred dull, desperate, ordinary lives. And I felt an unbearable kind of joy: a hope so fierce and undefined it brought me almost to tears, as the little golden sun kept clambering steadily on into the sky.
And then, just when I felt I could bear no more of it, when the beauty, and the pain, and the strangeness of it all threatened to shake me to my very core, there came a great hurtling cry of triumph, echoing from tree to tree and wall to wall around me, as the cockerel swooped down and pecked me on the foot.
"A happy Yule to you, you daft bird," I muttered, pouring out the chickenfeed; "I'm going to bed."