For midwinter, 2021, this excerpt from Empire’s Daughter
Tonight, there would be some merriment at the junior commons, Midwinter’s Eve being a traditional time of fun and feasting. I thought about the games and song and food I would miss tonight in the meeting hall at Tirvan. Even the littlest babies came, and toddlers fell asleep on benches or the floor as the night progressed. Traditionally we stayed awake long into the night, sleeping late the next day.
Finally, I went back to my tent to nap. I slept fitfully and lightly, disturbed by dreams. When I awoke, it was dark. I washed my face and brushed my hair, then walked through the rows of tents. Already the camp seemed noisier than usual with voices raised in song and laughter. Inside, the junior commons smelled wonderfully of food. Gulian, seeing me come in, poured a cup of something and handed it to me. It steamed, smelling of spices. I sipped carefully, tasting cider.
We ate roast pig and goose with winter vegetables, followed by nuts and dried fruits. Spirits ran high. “I’d rather be me than the Emperor, tonight,” Finn shouted in my ear at one point. “He has to entertain the governor of Leste. It’ll be all protocol and politeness, there.”
After we had eaten, the stewards and some of the officers moved the tables back, leaving a clear space in the centre of the tent. Instruments—an elbow pipe among them—squeaked and moaned in discord while their players tuned them, and then a lively, irresistible jig began.
I let myself be pulled onto the dance floor. The dance had steps, and I worked them out after a minute or two—a pattern of back and forth, meetings and partings. No one minded my missteps, and when that dance ended and another began, I kept dancing.
Later, hot and sweaty and thirsty, I stood beside Finn when the pipes changed their tone to something low and mournful. The tent fell silent. One man stood alone on the floor. When the drummer began a low, slow beat, he began to dance, slowly and formally, his hands raised, his fingers gesturing. I did not understand what I saw, but my throat tightened.
“What is it?” I whispered to Finn.
“The Breccaith,” he whispered back. “It is always danced this night, and at Midsummer, to remember those who will never feast with us again.”
I watched the dance, and the faces of the men I could see in the firelight. Some shed unabashed tears. The stewards moved silently among us with trays bearing filled cups. Finn handed me one, indicating with his fingers not to drink. The music slowed, and the drumbeats ended. On a last wail of the pipes, the dancer sank to the ground.
In the silence that followed, Finn raised his cup. “To our fallen brothers.”
“To our brothers,” the tent echoed.
“And sisters,” I said quietly, drinking the toast. The dancer stood to join his friends, and the music began again, now softer, less insistent. The men danced in pairs or small groups. Finn touched my shoulder.
“Will you dance with me?”
We moved onto the dance floor. He took my hands, showing me the steps.
“You dance well.”
“I was taught by a woman from Karst,” I said, remembering the lessons on the playing field at Tirvan, all those long months ago.
“The one who was killed?”
“We’re trained to,” he said simply. “Every man, every officer. And not just to send the messages back to the women’s villages or to brothers or sons in other regiments, but so their lives and deaths are not without meaning. It is what an officer must do. We live our lives to honour those who died.”
I wanted to point out that I wasn’t an officer, but I stopped myself. I had been one when Tice died, and Finn thought of me as such.
The dance ended and another began. Finn guided me through the first steps again, his hands warm around mine. We had just repeated the steps again when another man, one I did not know, came up behind Finn.
“Don’t keep her all to yourself. My turn, now.”
“Josan, you’re drunk,” Finn said shortly.
“No matter. She’s the only woman here. You don’t get her all night.”
“I am not dancing with you,” I said. “I don’t know you, and I don’t want to. I’m dancing with Finn.”
“More’n dancing, too, I’ll bet,” Josan said. He lunged forward, grabbing at my breasts. I took a step back. Finn took Josan by the arm.
“Leave us be.” Others had stopped dancing now to watch.
“I outrank you,” Josan growled, pulling free of Finn’s grip. He lunged at me again. Without thinking, I pivoted, ducked, and came up under his outstretched arm to punch him hard in the stomach. He doubled over. I shoved him hard. He fell and lay groaning.
A round of applause made me look up. “Well done!” Galdor called. I stood panting a minute. Josan moaned again, pushing himself up. Suddenly he vomited, to the groans of the men nearest.
“Come,” Finn said, pulling me away, back to the tables. He found me wine, and I sat on the bench.
“I think,” Finn said, looking at me with respect, “Josan is lucky you did not have a knife.”
I took a mouthful of the wine. “He is lucky. I didn’t even stop to think.”
Finn nodded. “He isn’t a bad officer except when he’s been drinking, and then, well, you saw what he’s like. Are you all right?”
I nodded. “I am. But, Finn, do others think that you and I—?”
He shrugged. “I doubt it.” He hesitated. “I’m not a man for women, Lena, and most here know that. Even Josan knows that when he’s sober enough to think.”
“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t realize—”
“Why would you?” The music had started again, but this time without the elbow pipes, just the drum and stringed instruments. Someone began to sing. “Shall we join the singing? It’s good fun.”
“Yes,” I said, “let’s.”
The commons still rang with song—somewhat off-key—when I excused myself and left. The watch had changed an hour ago. The newly off-duty junior officers had appeared at the commons, wanting food and drink, determined to make up for the four hours they had missed. We had all eaten again and joined them in more toasts. I was beyond satiated, and more than somewhat drunk. At my tent, I stripped off my outer clothes, falling onto my camp bed, my head spinning. I heard a voice coming from the camp, young and true, raised in solo song:
The swallows gather, summer passes,
The grapes hang dark and sweet;
Heavy are the vines
Heavy is my heart
Endless is the road beneath my feet.