The King sent his Lady on the Thirteenth day
Three stalks of corn.
Two maids a-merry dancing.
Three hinds a-merry dancing
An Arabian baboon.
Three swans a-merry swimming
Three ducks a-merry laying.
A bull that was brown.
Three gold spinks
A goose that was grey.
Two partridges, and a papaingo-aye.
Who learns my carol and carries it away.
(trad. Old Scottish carol to tune 12 Days of Christmas)
A story for the Winter Solstice
Thirteenth Day – Jan Edwards
‘The second day,’ said the Holly-Man. He was rugged. Fragile. A woodsman in a shabby green duster and heavy boots. Behind him stood a boy in an Acorn-hat, waiting in silence.
Kat tweaked a tight smile and went on hacking at the ice-bound soil, hoping they would take a hint and leave. They didn’t.
With a flourish, The Holly-Man offered his hat, its iridescent starling-feather brim, and Holly-sprigged band oddly vivid. ‘My favour to you, dear lady.’
Stabbing her fork into the hard soil she squared up to him. ‘If you’re collecting…’
Uphill, toward the wood, a horn sounded. Kat turned to see a single rider on a white horse disturbing a pair of partridges from the heather before melting into the trees,
When she looked back the strangers were gone. ‘Weirdo’. Kat continued her assault on frozen parsnips until screeching from the barn reminded her late aunt’s bequest of cottage and land had included a small menagerie. Three ducks, two goats, one evil tempered goose and, for some obscure reason, a particularly savage peacock, all of which needed tending before dark
She went to bed that night exhausted, her dreams permeated by dark and beautiful terrors.
When she woke a spiked unease drove her into the village, not only for supplies but to rub shoulders with humanity and slough away her jitters.
Kat was returning with her few purchases when she noted the ornate bird cage perched on the front step. Three goldfinches fluttered against the bars, panicking at her proximity. On impulse she bent, and flicked the cage open, and watched them flit toward the woodland.
Another gift. Was someone stalking her? Should she report it? What could she say? That she, a newcomer, who knew no one, was receiving gifts from unseen neighbours? As crimes went it was unlikely to bring the constabulary running. She sighed. It was late and there was stock to feed. Tomorrow she would go back to the village to ask around.
Another morning and an unease sent Kat to the village to see who might be able to identify her visitor, and returned at dusk, none the wiser.
She almost stepped on a package left squarely on the doormat. Picking it up she scanned the surrounding garden and open hillside. There was nobody in sight. Kat took the parcel inside to unwrap its folds of blue gauze. Whatever she expected it was not this small bronze bull.
She acknowledged a certain frisson at these unexpected gifts, but placed the bull outside and bolted the door against its cold stare.
It snowed all night, and all of the next day and night. Her thoughts skirled, dwelling on her predicament, cut off from civilisation. She drifted often to the doors, always anticipating a gift. She was often disappointed.
Finally, there on the step, propped back to back, was a pair of Christmas tree fairies; glittering and perfect.
She scooped them up eagerly, turning them this way and that, looking for something to identity what they could mean. They represented something familiar, that she should know well enough, but what?
After another dream-wrecked night she could barely summon the energy for surprise at a squat stone ape on her garden path. She eyed it warily, careful to avoid contact, and careful to lock the door against her stalkers once her chores were done.
It was close to midnight when her imprisonment finally got to her and she ventured out into the eeriness of a snow-lit garden. After the cottage’s stuffy confines the breeze smelled of snow, crisp, almost spicy. Her footfalls possessed that deadened quality, where sound froze a single pace from origin. Yet others carried sharp into the silence. Bells, for example, and the chinking of harness, or snow-deadened clumping of horses hooves.
Hunters, horses and hounds, emerged from the wood, their outlines blurred and shifting and indistinct. Kat held her breath, drawing into the cover of the apple trees to watch. The lead rider signalled a halt, whirling her mount around to face her followers.
Behind her rode the Holly-hatted Man, and beside him the Acorn-hatted Boy who shouted excitedly, pointing across the fields. The hunt took off after three fat hinds and within a few moments had moved out of sight.
By morning snow that last night had resembled a ploughed field was tabletop smooth.
In Aberdeenshire, being snowed with communications cut to nil lacked novelty, but when the door bell chimed she jumped. Who could reach her here? She wrestled the door free of its latest drift, and found a silver medallion looped from the porch
eaves. She tugged it free to examine it. An ornate silver medallion depicted three enamelled swans and three tiny corn sheaves.
She almost dropped in at the sudden noise in the lane – A horse sidling impatiently in the snow, its rider, swathed in a fur-lined cape, oblivious to driving winds that blew her hood back and revealed her silver hair.
‘When you learn our song take care not to be carried on its dream,’ the woman called. ‘The days grow longer, and that will not change.’ She smiled sadly. ‘Many others have been drawn into the Wheel before you – and failed. Your aunt knew all this and did her duty well and was well rewarded. I offer you the same protection, and a word of advice. Keep you to your hearth this night.’ She kicked her heels and her mount lurched into a loping stride through a gap in the hedge and away toward the h
Kat went to retreat indoors, but there, tucked into her Christmas wreath, was the cap she had first seen in the hands of Holly-man. Plainly the Lady had not left it, her warnings against involvement had been very clear, but this could be the reason for the warning. She plucked the hat down and smoothed its feathered brim, glancing curiously after her visitor.
On the rise two riders looked on, and she did not need them any closer to know them. As the Lady passed them the younger man turned to follow, but the other lingered, staring down at Kat. His horse started a few tentative steps downhill when the Lady stopped on the edge of the trees and called out. Holly-man looked down at the cottage one last time before he too followed her into the wood.
Glancing down at the brooch in one hand and cap in the other Kat wondered what madness had decided her to spend the festive season here alone. She slammed the door and fumbled the chain across with trembling hands, and, leaning her back against its solidity, wrapped her arms round herself.
Her aunt had held some odd views. Eccentric, mad some said, fixated on times past. Kat dredged her memory for anything that could fit all of this.
She had gained a favour and a warning in one day. What was it she was supposed to know? Was she expected to take sides? With no idea what was at stake, for her or anyone else how could she possibly know. Tonight was obviously the denouement for whatever, and she was fairly certain locking herself indoors would be no protection from whatever it would entail.
That night was calm. Its clear sky plunged temperatures low enough to freeze the snow into meringue-crust mounds and troughs that almost took Kat’s weight as she ploughed her way across to a vantage point at the edge of her property. She had not long to wait before the hunt appeared.
The Lady led them onto the white arena, but tonight hunting was clearly not their game. Riders and hounds alike spread out into a wide circle, facing inward and waiting, silent, patient.
The Lady stared toward Kat for a long moment and raised a hand briefly, palm out; her only acknowledgement of Kat’s presence.
The meaning was clear. Kat could hear the warnings the Lady had given earlier chiming clear in her head.
The Lady turned to raise her hand again, this time to gather her troop’s attention.
Kat looked on, hardly breathing.
The Holly-Man and Acorn-Boy had dismounted now and waded through the snow to the centre of the arena. Each carried a broadsword that glinted silver-moonlight in their hands.
They bowed first to their Lady and then to each other.
The Holly-man gazed toward Kat.
She stretched out her arms, with palms up in an exaggerated shrug; there was nothing she could do.
The Lady nodded toward her, and barked out a command that Kat did not quite catch, but understood emphatically.
Holly-man shrank a little, defeated in that moment though whether by the order or by Kat’s gesture she would never know.
The two men began trading blows in curiously sedate fashion until Holly-Man halted.
He looked toward Kat and raised his sword.
He kissed it.
Bowed to Kat and to his opponent and to his Lady.
He knelt, with head bowed, resting on the sword hilt with blade buried deep though the snow into the sleeping turf beneath.
His adversary’s two-handed blow took him full in the neck.
Kat closed her eyes, steadying against the blood-horror echoing in her skull. This was no fight. This was an execution.
She opened her eyes.
The hillside was pristine.
This is an abridged version of the first publication in Estronomicon Christmas Special 2011, Screaming Dreams, 2011. Story was reprinted in Fables & Fabrications, Penkhull Press 2016. (C) Jan Edwards