A Tale for Wintertide

We’re getting close to the opening act of the next Roy Harper adventure and as we do it’s time to take another look at his world. I’ve written several short stories in the Columbian West since the end of Fire and Gold. While several of these are built around Roy himself one or two place the focus on other characters including today’s. For those curious about the chronology, A Tale for Wintertide takes place after Fire and Gold. It fills out a little world building and lets us take another look at a character I had no plans for after Firespinner but who really endeared himself to me over the course of that story.

Today we spend a little time with Hezekiah Oldfathers.

Hezekiah slammed the cabin door behind him, stomping the snow off his boot and shaking it off his tattered coat. “Dust and ashes,” he muttered, unwinding the scarf from his neck. “I will never get used to how cold it gets in the mountains.”

“It’s barely even cold yet, Mr. Oldfathers.” Thomas Blythe popped out of the kitchen and helped him balance on his peg leg as he pulled his boot off. He was a grinning, cherub faced boy who looked like he should still be missing teeth. The child was small for his age, barely four feet tall, and rather ashamed of it. Hezekiah tried to be understanding but he hadn’t been eleven for a very long time and often did a poor job of it.

His brother Andrew had been sitting by the hearth when Hezekiah arrived, whittling. He took a moment to tuck his knife in its sheath before coming over as well, although by that point Hezekiah was pretty much settled. He handed the second brother his wooden cane and the package he’d brought with him. Not for the first time he marveled at the similarities between the two children. Identical twins weren’t the most common thing, overall, and druids generally discouraged them from joining the order so Hezekiah had never really interacted with a pair of them before.

Now, he knew two.

“Are Reeds and Marshall here?” Even as he asked Hezekiah was looking around the small main room of the house, checking for the two Sanna men himself. But if they’d arrived there were no signs of them in the Blythe household.

“They’re coming back from the lake and said not to wait for them.” Nora Blythe bustled out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. Her long black hair was pinned up in a braid but the kerchief she usually wore over it was missing today. Her simple cotton dress was a dull red. “Hello, General.”

“Hello, Nora. How are things here?”

“Oh, the same as always. Dinner will be ready in an hour, so we have a little time.” She gestured towards the fire crackling on the hearth. “Come in, have a seat by the fire.”

Hezekiah stepped onto the worn wooden boards of the cabin, raising his hand in the Sign of the Hearth, and said, “May our Lady watch over this house and all within.”

“And our Lord give us clear skies without,” the other three replied.

As he moved towards the fire Andrew tugged on his sleeve and Hezekiah leaned down to hear what he had to say. “You know,” the boy whispered with complete sincerity, “You don’t have to say the Blessing. She won’t mind.”

Nora stifled a chuckle at that. Hezekiah also smiled but whispered back, “Your mother may not and the Lady in Burning Stone certainly wouldn’t. But don’t you think it’s rude to the women who do so much not to bless them when there’s a chance?”

The twins rolled there eyes but didn’t respond. Hezekiah took his things back from Andrew then straightened to examine the hearth itself. He knew Nora had been a Hearth Keeper, one of the Lady’s clergywomen, during the long past years of her youth. That’s how she’d met her late husband and ultimately left the order. However she’d taken the lessons of the Keepers to heart and done a fine job building a welcoming and homely hearth. Moreover she’d learned the knack of decorating for Wintertide.

Patches of red drift roses covered the top and sides of the stone hearth, not quite the same as the traditional mistletoe but readily available in the region where mistletoe was not. Hezekiah settled into the wooden chair beside the window and smiled as the warmth washed over him. “Now that’s a pleasant fire. Well done, Nora.”

“Thank you,” she said, settling into the chair opposite his. Andrew returned to his whittling while Thomas flopped on his belly in front of the fire.

“I can’t believe he thinks it’s cold outside, ma!” Thomas said, resting his chin in his hands and staring at the flames.

“We can’t all be as hardy as you, Tom,” she replied.

“Do you enjoy the cold?” Hezekiah asked.

“Do I!” Thomas rolled over and threw his arms out wide to the ceiling. “Snow is the best!”

“Well you can’t go out in it,” Andrew retorted, “dinner is soon and we can’t miss it. The River brothers are going to be here!”

“But it’s so boring sitting here waiting.”

“Perhaps we could sing a few cants to pass the time,” Nora suggested, reaching for a worn book sitting on the sideboard behind her. She paused when both boys let out dramatic groans of disapproval. Hezekiah wasn’t sure if it was a dislike for music in general or the Hearth Keeper’s cants specifically.

“It’s Wintertide,” he said, thinking a change of subject might be warranted. “Traditionally in Palmyra we tell stories to pass the long nights.”

“It’s a bit early for Wintertide stories,” Nora said, doubtfully. “The solstice is still two weeks away and the Winter Cycle is meant to be told over ten days.”

“Well, there’s plenty of stories outside the Cycle to tell, isn’t there?”

The twins both sat up straight and turned to look at him intently. “That sounds good!” Andrew announced. “But what kind of stories do you tell? We really only know the Cycle itself.”

“Well the Cycle is about the tragedy of winter and the hope of spring so usually you tell something scary or sad,” Hezekiah mused. He saw Nora’s eyes get wide and suddenly realized this might not be the best idea after all. It had only been four months since their father died. He backpedaled quickly. “You don’t have to, though! My own grandmother had this hilarious yarn she spun every Wintertide about berry preserves and how you couldn’t always tell if they’d fermented…”

Nora cleared her throat. “Maybe we can think of something else to try.”

“Aw…” Thomas flopped flat on the floor again. “I wanted to hear something scary!”

“Yeah!” Andrew piped in.

Their mother sighed. “Well, perhaps. But don’t blame me if you have difficulty sleeping tonight, understand?”

“Okay!” The twins swing their full attention back to Hezekiah. “What kind of scary stories do you know, Mr. Oldfathers?”

“Uh…” Now that he was thinking about it, he didn’t actually know that many he could tell. When he was not that much older than the two of them he’d joined the Knights of the Stone Circle and been initiated into the secrets of the druidic order as established by Arthur the Phoenixborne. A lot of the things he’d learned since then were terrifying but bound by his oath of secrecy. All the supposedly frightening things he’d heard outside of that context hadn’t really bothered him so, while he knew he had heard such stories, he couldn’t remember them. “Actually, I can’t think of a good one.”

The twins sagged in disappointment. Nora glanced at her boys then over at the old general. “Do you know any tragedies?”

“You lived through the Lakeshire war, Nora,” Hezekiah said softly. “What do you think?”

The boys snapped upright again. “Oooh,” they said in perfect unison, “tell a story about the War, Mr. Oldfathers!”

He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. The late Harvey Blythe had fought in Columbian blue during the war. Hezekiah Oldfathers was the seniormost druid from the Stone Circle to don Lakeshire green. As far as he knew he’d never fought in an action against the Blythes directly but he wasn’t sure Nora would appreciate being reminded of their old animosity either. Then a thought occurred to him.

Hezekiah took his package and pulled the twine holding the paper around it together. Inside was a block of silver about the size and thickness of the palm of his hand. A single sulfurite crystal sat in the middle of it, glowing with the dull red light of the fires trapped within. Once it was a silver sword his father gave him on joining the Stone Circle. Now… well, sometimes it was still a sword. Sometimes it was a cane. With the properties of silver it could be whatever he wished with a little time and magic.

He put a thumb on the crystal, holding the block in the palm of his other hand. Closing his eyes, Hezekiah pictured a long gone collection of standing stones and willed the magic out of the crystal and into the silver. The metal came to life and shaped itself into a replica of Morainehenge, one of the five Great Henges built by Arthur and his followers over the last thousand years.

And the only one destroyed in all that time.

“All right, boys, I suppose I can tell you about the Siege of Trenton Southwick.” Hezekiah nudged a footstool out from under the sideboard and put the small replica of his home Henge down on it. “Have you ever heard his name?”

Both of the twins shook their head in mute silence.

“I’m not surprised, few people outside the Order pay attention to the leaders of the druids. Master Southwick lead our fellowship, when the Henge still stood.” Hezekiah sat back, his gaze drifting up to the roof and back through the mists of time. “In the last days of the Palmyra campaign, after the city proper was in Columbian hands, the last stop on the long march North was Morainehenge itself. Once it was clear the troops remaining in Palmyra could not hold the city with the Five Ridges in enemy hands, Master Southwick called together those druids who still remained. There were a surprising number of us.”

“Did a lot of druids die in the war?” Thomas asked it with the guileless innocence of the young and naïve.

“Some,” Hezekiah admitted. “Of the five knights promoted to a seat on the Founder’s Council, the Knight of Retribution was replaced most frequently during the war. Our vengeance burned hot in those days, but rarely lasted long. That chair was empty when the Master called us in. Jesse Jackson, the Knight of Justice, was out on campaign at the time, so he was also missing. However the other three in the Founder’s seats were present.”

“Which one were you?” Andrew asked.

“I was the assistant master, not a member of the Council. Along with Master Southwick, we seven were charged with the safekeeping of every druid in Columbia along with maintaining the principles of Avaloni Chivalry as laid out by Arthur Phoenixborne. Two of us were missing, and that’s about the proportion of druids overall absent from our ranks. Most were away from the Circle, some were dead.” Hezekiah sighed and passed his hand over his eyes, wiping away memories of faces long gone. “But most of us were there. Nearly three thousand of the best and brightest druids the nation of Columbia ever produced, ready to fulfill our oaths to defend the Circle against all dangers until our very last breath. Master Southwick had emptied the reliquary and brought every weapon, every piece of armor, every charm and talisman and ring we possessed with him in a trunk.”

“What kinds of weapons were there?” Thomas demanded, eyes aglow with wonder.

“I cannot say.” He smiled sadly. “It’s a secret I promised to take to the grave. Though some would say the oath means little now, it’s not a pledge I will quickly break. If the Lord and Lady favor you, perhaps you’ll see some part of it, one day.”

“So he called you there to make a stand?” Nora asked. “That’s impossible. A battle like that would have ripped the Moraines asunder and wiped out dozens of army divisions. Everyone knows Five Ridges was the end of the war!”

“You’re right twice, but wrong at the end. There was one battle after the Ridges. The Siege of Trenton Southwick, as I said, but it wasn’t the thing you’re picturing. You see, once we were all together, Master Southwick addressed us one last time. He stripped us all of rank-”

Nora gasped quietly.

“-and expelled us from the Circle. Every last druid was relieved of his duties and oaths and sent away, from the rawest initiates all the way up to the seated Knights of the Founder’s Council. Then he put that trunk full of relics in my hands.” Hezekiah held out his hands, remembering the size and weight of the terrible thing. “And he said, ‘Hezekiah, there’s not a knight here worthy of carrying these but somewhere out there, men who will be worthy of that responsibility are waiting to be discovered. You must go and find them.’ Then he expelled me too.”

“Even you!” Andrew threw his hands in the air in a comical display of fury. “Even you! I don’t believe it! Why?”

“He knew, boy.” Hezekiah took a deep breath and shook his head. “We all knew that the Circle was doomed. Most of us would have happily fought and died there, since it was our duty, and the rest were bound by oath. Things sworn on those Stones are not so easy to escape, after all. But Master Southwick wasn’t willing to let the legacy of the Circle die out and he expelled us so we wouldn’t have to go that far. Maybe that was good of him. And maybe not.”

“So you all left?” Andrew asked.

“He had the right to be there and we didn’t. The Stone Circle wasn’t exactly what the Columbians thought it was but there was a lot of power there and Master Southwick had access to it in ways we didn’t after that. He could move us out by force if he wanted and we didn’t have the heart to fight him. But I stayed in the hills just outside it to watch. I thought I owed him that much.”

“What happened?” Nora asked.

“Master Southwick cultivated the yew – the plant was grafted to his body when he was just a boy, as it is for all those with that gift. But, with enough magic, the process can be done in reverse exactly once. The Master grafted himself into a yew tree he’d planted near the Circle when he was promoted to the Founder’s Council and grew it to towering size.” Hezekiah pointed a finger at the model of the Stone Circle and a small tree grew there, its branches stretching upwards until they towered over the dolmen and waving threateningly at anyone who might invade. “Not a single Columbian soldier made it within the stones while he still lived in that tree.

“They sent companies of soldiers with fire and ax and he broke them. They brought powerful magics and trained hedge mages of their own but none of them could hold a candle to the Master’s skill. In the end, they dug in around the Circle and waited, because once the man cleaves to the tree, sooner or later, the wood claims the man. For Master Southwick it took forty days and forty nights, longer than any other druid I have heard of, but in the end it still claimed him. On the morning of the forty first day the leaves of the Master’s yew turned yellow and I knew he was gone. That was his last breath – and the end of the Stone Circle.”

For a long moment there was silence in the cabin then Nora said, “I’m sorry.”

Hezekiah grunted and waved the words away. He’d long since made his peace with those days and to his surprise sharing them had been much easier than he’d expected. “The Master of the Stone Circle stands in place of Arthur Phoenixborne himself. He had the right to spare his subordinates the full cost of their oaths. But who can take the load from the Master? Only Arthur stands above him and the King of Avalon has not been seen since he began to Walk with the Storm.”

He leaned forward and picked up the model of the Henge, staring at it for a long moment. “They say Arthur still defends his people to this day, watching over them from every drop of rain and every bolt of lightning that falls on the earth. Some say he shows himself to the worthy, saving them at their moment of greatest need. Yet over the course of forty days not one cloud darkened the skies above Morainehenge. Perhaps we were not meant to keep the Circle.” He pressed the model between his hands and shaped it back into its normal form as a walking cane then rested it against the wall beside him. “Wintertide comes after the leaves turn yellow and fall from the branches. In time, they will bud once again. All mourning is followed by joy. I have seen it myself, time and again, in the years since I left the Stone Circle. Master Southwick didn’t just take my old duties from me, he gave me new ones. I’ve done my best to carry them out.”

He gave Nora a meaningful glance. “After all, we cannot dress in mourning forever. That’s the lesson of Wintertide.”

Nora smoothed her hands over her red dress and smiled. “True enough. Now, boys, I think its time to set the table before the River brothers get here.” She clapped her hands twice and the boys scrambled into motion. As she got up to head back to the kitchen she paused to say, “General, I haven’t forgotten the part I’ve played in your own days of mourning. But I am glad they’ve passed now.”

Hezekiah leaned back in his chair and listened to the sounds of a healthy home and he smiled, too. “So am I,” he murmured under his breath. “So am I.”