Offerings

Midwinter’s eve, and the fire burned high. Food had been shared, and beer, and for once the sheep were unguarded, the fire and songs thought to be enough to dissuade the wolves. We sat with Fél and Kaisa and Aetyl, and beside me Audo and his three dogs. His brindle bitch, who had taken a liking to me, lay with her head on my feet.

Kaisa had instructed me in the expectations for tonight: come newly washed and in clean clothes, and bring something to give to the fire. The more precious, the better. The sun must be honoured, she said.

I had struggled to find something to bring. Audo sat with an ermine skin on his lap, his gift to the sun. My most precious possession was Colm’s history of the Empire, and I certainly wasn’t sacrificing that. Cillian had devised a solution for himself: a poem, written on a small piece of his carefully rationed paper. In the end, I gave an arrow, one of the small ones from the bird bow that had kept us fed on our journey across the mountains.

One by one, people rose to throw their offering to the fire, the men first. When they were finished, the women gave their gifts, and finally, me. Drumbeats had sounded throughout, and now the men began to sing. Audo, on one side of me, growled the words, not keeping time, but Cillian sang true. When did he learn the words? His singing voice was light, but clearly trained: Dagney’s hand there, I thought.

Aivar rose as the song ended. Everyone quieted. The two boys who became men tonight stepped forward. They both looked tired and a little disoriented: I guessed they had fasted for at least a day. There had been rituals earlier for them, attended only by the village men.

In any other year they would now just be presented to the village as men, but I had something to do, first. Aivar, leaning on his stick, called my name. He and I had spoken a few days earlier about what I should do.

“This village has never had a devanī,” he told me, “but others have. I remember what their vēsturni told me. A blessing from you is all I ask. Will you do that?”

I told him what Cillian and I had discussed. “Very good,” he said.

I rose, the two arrows in my hand, walking to where the two boys waited. At a word from Aivar they both knelt. I kissed each boy on his forehead and placed an arrow in each waiting hand. “The huntress guides your hand,” I told them as I did. Aivar had chosen those words.

The devanī should give her blessing to us all for the new year,” Ivor shouted, as I turned to leave. Other voices joined his. I thought I heard Gret’s among them. Aivar raised his hand.

“We…” He began to cough, a deep, racking cough. He tried again. “We do not ask for what we do not need,” he rasped. “Our men hunt well. If we need the devanī to give luck to a hunt, she will give it at the time. Do not waste the gift.”

Aivar’s edicts could not be disputed. Ivor and his friends quieted. The drumbeats began again, and this time women began to sing, and a few to dance. More beer made the rounds, Cillian, as usual, refusing. In the northern sky, green lights flickered; shadows rose and fell in the firelight. Fél wrapped a fur around himself and Kaisa, holding her against him. “Keep Lena warm,” he told Cillian, “or she’ll have to cuddle Audo, or his dog.” I glanced at Cillian. We had never touched in public.

“Then I better,” he said. I moved close, tucking the fur around us, leaning into him. We listened to the drums.

Ivor walked by, dressed only in a light tunic, spurning the cold. The empty mug in his hand told me what he searched for. He gave us a scornful look. “Devanī,” he said. “Why waste yourself on this man?” One of Audo’s dogs snarled. “Incapable vēsturni and idiots,” Ivor spat. “I will show you what a real man is one day.” He kept walking.

“Be careful of him, Lena,” Fél warned.

“I am,” I assured him. The drumbeats continued, faster; the dancing grew wilder. Under the fur, Cillian’s hand began a gentle caress.

“Shall we go to our bed?” he murmured.

We rose. Fél looked up. “Sleep well,” he said, “when you finally remember to sleep, that is.” Kaisa laughed. “Can we send Aetyl to sleep with her cousins?” I heard him say to her, as we left.

In our hut the fire had burned to coals. Cillian added wood. “Do you need to make tea?”

“I did, earlier.” My mouth was dry. I dropped the fur on the bed. We regarded each other across the space, in the light of the newly blazing fire. “It is a new year,” I said softly. “Don’t you have a fancy to fulfill?”

He crossed the room to me, beginning to smile; not his usual, quickly-gone smile, but one slow and genuine, lighting his whole face. My breath caught. He looks so much younger, I thought, and so beautiful. I saw tenderness in this smile, and vulnerability. He took me in his arms. I raised a hand to his face.

“This is something I haven’t seen before,” I murmured. “Why have you kept such a beautiful smile hidden?”

He turned his head to kiss my fingers. “My one legacy from my mother, I am told,” he said. “As to why, it is just reticence, Lena, like much else about me, long habit.” He bent to kiss me, a long, exploratory kiss. “Perhaps I will have more reason to let it show after tonight.”

I didn’t need to damp down desire now. My hands, low on his back, found his skin. I pulled him closer. Part of my mind noted the ridges of a scar under my fingers, but it wasn’t important. Nothing was, except his lips on mine and his hands, under my tunic now, making me gasp.

“You are very sure?” he asked, his voice low and barely controlled. “Tell me now, if you are not.”

“Yes.” I fought to speak. “Are you?”

“I am.” His mouth came down again, demanding now, insistent. How long has it been for him? I wondered, before I gave myself up to my need, and his. He hesitated once, just for a moment, and then there were only lips and hands and cresting pleasure, and unexpectedly, tears that were not mine.

(c) 2018 Marian L Thorpe

Image: geralt / 23743 images

Lena’s World: MidWinter Celebrations (Empire’s Daughter Backgrounder 3)

The Empire is a northern nation, analogous to Britain or northern Europe.  In common with its real-world cultures, Midwinter is a time of celebration.

“…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.”

While religion is a background element in Empire’s Daughter, not a component of the plot, its world would not have felt real to me without including some acknowledgements of how its culture marked the turning points of the year, especially Midwinter.  The darkest days of the year and the rebirth of the sun – far enough north, that’s literally true, as the sun disappears for several weeks – have been marked by cultures around the world: by Jul, or Yule in pre-Christian Germany and Scandinavia; by Saturnalia in Roman culture, and in the cult of the Roman ‘soldier’s god’, Mithras, as the birth of the Unconquered Sun. It is this god that the Emperor Callan addresses when he says “The god of soldiers receive you, my brother, or I will know the reason why when I stand before him myself.”

So, both the women’s villages and the military celebrate Midwinter, although the women’s celebrations have more in common with Jul, and the military’s with Mithraic ritual.  The Empire’s tradition of making major proclamations at Midwinter, however, is based on the later Christmas Courts of the monarchs of England, when many political decisions (including coronations, notably of William the Conqueror) occurred (but not necessarily so formally as at the Emperor’s Winter Camp proclamations).

And here it is December 21st….at home in Tirvan, Lena would be partying at the Meeting Hall, eating and drinking, dancing and singing.  The Jul log, a massive root, would be burning in the hearth, the fire started with a piece of last year’s log.  Some of the women would stay awake until dawn, to greet the newly-born sun.

The military too has its Saturnalia: food and drink, dance and song, which Lena is happy to participate in, but somewhere outside the camp, a more secret ritual is taking place, acknowledging the birth of the soldier’s god. (This is neither mentioned nor described in the book, by the way, as it had no place in the story. But likely both Casyn and Callan are there.  Turlo?  Probably not.  I think he’s out on the hills with Pan, personally.)

Of course, Midwinter is a plot device, in that it is a turning point in the year, and a turning point in the story, for both the Empire and for Lena. The book begins roughly on May 1, May Day, Beltane, traditionally the day when young women can see their future husbands by various divinations (or, in the book, meet the man who will change their lives) and ends at Midwinter and the dawning of a new year.

The land has its rhythms and pacings, its periods of calm and its periods of change, reflected and acknowledged in the rituals and celebrations of pre-Christian northern Europe, which in turn provides the background structure to the action in Empire’s Daughter. Did I set out to do this, consciously?  No.  It seems that my own internal rhythms, which are set far more by the natural world than by the artificial calendar we have imposed upon it, simply insinuated themselves into the writing.  That doesn’t surprise me: so much of what we write comes from places inside us we barely know.

Blessed Yule, Happy Solstice, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyous Kwanzaa.  (If I’ve left your celebration out, it’s due to me not knowing about it, not a deliberate oversight, and I wish you joy.)

Sunrise photo: By Fabolu (selbst aufgenommen von Fabolu) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons