It was almost Yule and the Long Dark had eaten half their waking hours. There was barely enough light to do chores, care for the animals and bring in firewood for the long night.
The family had gathered to prepare for the feast and butcher the steer before it ate up any more hay. All day the men had spent at the heavy, bloody business of cutting up the carcass while the women and children bundled up and dealt with the innards. It was cold work cleaning the guts for sausage making. For the next week they’d be chopping and spicing the meat, blending it with barley and kidney fat and stuffing it neatly into the clean intestines. Since the women were tirelessly chopping and pounding, the children’s small hands were set to work stuffing the casing. Finally the ropes of sausage were carried out to the smoke house to dry.
They’d each had a slice of grilled liver for supper with roasted onions and turnips from the cellar. The elders craved the strong flavor more than the children did, but all the small helpers got a dribble of honey on their barley cakes as a treat.
The littles had been given over to Granny at bedtime. She sat before the center hearth, a basin on her knees, dealing with grubby hands and faces one at a time, then shooing them towards the bench along the wall. There were only five weans for her to wash up, the childer could settle themselves.
Top and tail, the bigs bolstered the edge of the bench, and the cold wall side. The littlest snuggled warm in the center. There was a certain amount of scuffling in the outer ranks. Granny tugged the sheepskin coverlets straight and swatted at a medium sized boy who was kicking his brother/cousin. Their mothers were sisters, they’d been raised in the same household, so were closer than cousins. Even though they didn’t look anything alike, they were close. Where one was, there was the other – and also a third; who bolted upright at this point and tweaked the nose of the miscreant. “Quit! The littles are tired and want to hear their story, so do I.”
Granny had gotten her lap robe and her stool, and had fussed until everything was arranged to her satisfaction. Sipping at a small cup of warm and lively mead to help her voice and limber her memories, she began to recite:
On the mountain’s shoulder
the Lady’s heart and shield.
Rested undisturbed. In slumber,
secure in the honor of their defender.
Whilst unencumbered the Sword of the clan roved,
hunting, seeking the fleeting life force of fleeing prey.
Taking joy in thrumming pulse, thudding heart.
Swiftly skimming the flanks of mountains
reaving river valleys, reaping fear.
By the second line the bigger children had chimed in and the littlest tried to get their tongues around some of the longer words.
“Lady’s comin’ soon”, declared (a voice from?)the center of the child huddle.
“Yes, dearie, for Yule. She always comes at Yule.”
“‘An we will have blood,”up piped the other side of the bench.
“Of course we will, we will have the Blood Fest.”
“Granny? When will we be old enough to recite for the Lady?”asked the slender brother/cousin.
“Well, fledgling, I know you and your age-group’ve got some of the stanzas by heart; I’ll have to hear you all the way through to be sure.”
“Granny, Granny, Gran! We’re big enough. Really!” Little heads popped up from the center of the pile.
“Imma sheild, imma sheild,”chanted the littlest
“Tomorrow, littles, tomorrow, you can show me how well you do the refrain.”
A soft babble rose from the middle:
Now succor for pained and ailing elders,
Now winter’s tale of fell deeds passed the nights.
Their weal. Her death consumes their life, their life
sups her death. This is their mead, eternal feast.
With whispered corrections from the bigs.
“Well, that has gotten you more stirred up than sleepy; maybe I should tell you the story of First Cat?”
“Once Upon a Time, there was a Cat who walked by himself…………..”