A shock ran up Arlen’s arms as the axe blade bit into the trunk of the tree. Already tender from the cold, the jolt shook him to the teeth. In the distance, the great horn sounded, calling them to the Holy House.
“Swing with your whole body Arlen, not just your arms,” Jeph said. “And don’t try to cut the whole trunk through in one go. Even Brine Broadshoulders needs to take a piece at a time.”
“He’s too young for this, Jeph.” Silvy’s breath fogged. She kept her worn wool wrap pulled close.
“Not,” Arlen said. He was nine years old. He struggled to pull the blade free, and the resistance gave lie to his words.
“Know you’re not,” Jeph said. “But Solstice Day is short. Maybe I should…”
Arlen grit his teeth and yanked the axe free, feet crunching the fresh snow as he stumbled. Before his father could reach for the axe, he went back at the tree, hacking. It was a ten foot goldwood, the most perfect on their land. Nothing less for Solstice Day.
The cold left him as he worked, cutting at angles to take the trunk a bit at a time as his father said. His arms ached, but every splinter took him closer to victory.
There was a crack at last, and Arlen gave the trunk a kick as he had seen the Cutters do. He dashed to safety as the tree fell, breathless and exhilarated. Silvy’s smile was warm, though her eyes still did not approve.
Jeph’s slap on the back nearly knocked him over. “Proud of you, boy.” He looked to his wife. “Fetch the cart, love, while Arlen and I finish up.”
As Silvy went, Jeph took the axe, handing Arlen a small saw. Jeph swept the worn axe head at the tree. “Beauty, ent she?”
Arlen nodded. They gazed at it a moment, then set to work, Arlen cutting away the branches as Jeph sectioned the trunk. Silvy returned leading their aging stallion Hardfoot and began loading the branches onto the cart.
When it was done, they went into the house and rinsed away the sweat and sap with water warmed on the fire. They put on their Seventhday clothes and took the cart to the Holy House on Boggin’s Hill. The whole town was there, carts lining the road as each family tossed the logs and branches of their Solstice Tree into the Creator’s Ring, a circle of heavy stones the townsfolk had hauled a hundred years before Arlen was born.
The Watches headed the line. They had their own observances in Southwatch and would not stay to celebrate, but they never failed to honor the Creator with a gift of goldwood trees. Ancient Jeorje Watch stood by the pile, pointing with his cane as the men of his borough built the pile atop the enormous logs the Cutters had laid the day before. By the time folk from the other boroughs began, the Watches were already on their carts heading out of town.
“Creator forbid they sing and dance a bit with their neighbors,” Jeph muttered.
There were hundreds of families in the Brook, and Jeph’s farm was far from Town Square, leaving them near the back of the line. It was cold as they waited their turn, wind cutting at the hill, but Arlen barely noticed, enjoying the rare sight of the town come together. Cobie Fisher, who tormented Arlen regularly, looked miserable with his hair spit-combed and his father keeping him well away from Willum and Gart, his usual partners in mischief.
“Happy Solstice,” Coline Trigg said, coming to the cart with her children and some of the other Brook girls in tow. They pulled a cart with a heavy clay jug, and Willum’s sister Aly poured hot cider for Arlen and his parents.
“Something to warm your bellies while you wait.” Aly looked at Arlen, a smile in her eyes. He felt his face heat as he quickly looked away.
When it came time to unload their tree, Arlen had to climb the pile to add to the top. “Careful of your clothes, Arlen,” Silvy called, but he hardly listened. The long night was coming, and the wood pile was more important than clothes that would no longer fit him by next Solstice.
The Holy House pews were packed tight as they filed in, taking seats at the back. The Tanners had the row in front of them, Harl alongside his wife and three daughters, all of them singing praise to the Creator. The eldest of the Tanner girls, Lanie, was sixteen and prettier even than Aly Fisher. Renna, the youngest at seven, turned and smiled shyly at Arlen.
“Happy Solstice,” he mouthed at her, smiling and hoping she had not seen him staring at her sister. Renna’s smile widened to show her teeth, and Arlen wondered for a moment if she wouldn’t be prettier still, when she was Lanie’s age.
When the singing was done and the candles lit, Tender Harral went to the pulpit, grasping its edges in his thick, brawny hands.
“And so another Solstice is upon us,” he said. “I see many new faces peeking from their swaddling, and that is good, but still more are the places where loved ones sat last year. Their burned bodies were carried to the Creator on the wind, but we keep their memory in our hearts to guide us to them again in Heaven.
“Winter Solstice is much like this truth,” Harral went on. “A joining of sorrowful past and hopeful future. On Summer Solstice, we rejoiced in the plenty of the day, laying in stores for the coming dark. Each day from then till now was a little shorter, a little colder, a little harder. It is the Creator, reminding us how precious those hours of light and warmth are. Those minutes. Those seconds, bleeding away each day.
“But our penance is not without limit. For as He takes light away, He does give of it, as well. Each day from now until we gather here again half a year hence will be a little longer, a little warmer, and with His blessing, a little easier.
“So long as we survive the longest night. This one last test of our faith and resolve.
“And so we come together in song, each with the gift of a tree. When our service is ended we’ll go to Town Square and break casks of Boggin’s and Marsh ale, sharing in the stores we set aside in the days of plenty. Those with a bit of music in them will play. The children will dance and young men and women will Promise to one another. Debts will be paid and trespasses forgiven.
“And tonight, when night falls and you are all nestled safe in your beds, I will light the pile and blow the great horn to mark the hours, luring the darkness from our town.”
With that, the Tender stepped down from the pulpit and went to the back of the altar, drawing deep breath before putting his lips to the mouthpiece of the great horn. His cheeks inflated, and the very floor seemed to shake with wind reverberating through the wooden pipes in the Holy House walls. From the warded tower atop the peaked roof of the House, a clear note rang out, one Arlen knew could reach for miles, all the way to his father’s farm and beyond.
* * * * *
In Town Square, it was as the Tender predicted. The cobbles had been swept clear of snow and fires burned all around, warding off the worst of the winter chill. Keven Marsh and Fernan Boggin argued as they did every year over whose ale was the best, and invited all to try and decide for themselves. Jeph happily let them push cup after cup into his hands while Silvy, standing with Coline Trigg and Meada Boggin, cast a disapproving glare.
Lanie Tanner and some of the older girls were surrounded by a knot of boys with picked flowers and spit combed hair. The rest of the children were in the center of the square, dancing a reel that had them changing partners continually.
“Light’s wasting, boy. Get in there.” Arlen glanced back to see Selia Barren, the stern Speaker for Tibbet’s Brook. She had a wry smile on her face as she shoved him into the churning crowd.
Beni Tanner caught him and he found his feet in time to grab her waist and spin her laughing into the arms of one of the Marsh boys. Arlen knew the steps as well as any, and found he was laughing too as they went. The girls had pretty smiles and flowers in their hair, and the sun was still high in the sky.
He saw Aly Fisher coming, and caught a lump in his throat at the thought of holding her hand, even if just for a few moments. But as they reached for one another, something heavy thumped his shoulder, knocking him to the cobbles and blowing the breath from his lungs. Arlen looked up and saw Cobie Fisher laughing as he led Aly in the next round. She looked at Arlen sadly, but did not break the dance.
“That was mean.” Arlen turned to see Renna Tanner holding a hand out to him. “You all right?”
“Fine,” Arlen said, taking the hand and letting her pull him to his feet. Renna was small, but stronger than she looked. “Cobie’s always beatin’ on me. Gonna fix him for it one day. Swear by the sun.”
Renna nodded, a smirk on her face. “Da says boys need a good kickin’ now and then to remind ‘em to act right.”
She kept hold of his hand, and Arlen found he didn’t mind, letting her lead him to the food tables to steal butter cookies.
“Those are for after supper,” Rusco Hog, owner of the General Store warned, but he winked as he said it, purposefully turning his back as Arlen and Renna each pocketed one and ran off.
* * * * *
Jeph was still singing “O, the Long, Long Night” as they rode the cart home that evening. Jeph was a poor singer even when not in his cups, but Arlen’s belly was full and his face had the ache of a day spent smiling. He sang along as they went.
Silvy had her shawl pulled tight around her, her eye on the lavender sky. “Best hurry a bit. Cuttin’ close.”
Jeph nodded, cracking the reins a bit too sharply. Hardfoot gave a great whinny and took off at such a sudden pace they were all thrown back. Jeph yanked the reins, more for balance than steering, and they veered wildly.
“Look out!” Silvy cried as they ran off the road, but it was too late. There was a jolt as they struck a thick tree root and the whole cart jumped, coming down with a crack as the back end collapsed. Arlen was thrown clear and landed heavily in the snow. The world spun for a moment, then came back into focus as he watched one of the cart wheels rolling slowly on its own, back the way they had come.
“Arlen!” Jeph called as he pulled Silvy upright, both still up on the driver’s seat. “You all right?”
“Ay,” Arlen said, pushing himself to his feet and wiping the snow and mud from his Seventhday clothes. “I’m all right. I’ll get the wheel…”
Jeph hopped down, wobbling slightly before he found his footing. “No time,” he said, inspecting under the cart. “Axle’s broke. Ent gonna be able to fix it before dark. Best leave the cart and ride home quick as we can. Hardfoot can carry three that far.”
“Had to drink every cup they put in your hand,” Silvy said. “And look where it’s left us.”
“Holler at me when we’re safe behind the wards,” Jeph said, undoing the hitching. He climbed atop Hardfoot and reached down to lend his wife a hand when the stallion whinnied again, this time in pain, and began to prance around. Arlen could see he was favoring one foot.
“Don’t think he’s going to carry anyone,” Arlen said.
Jeph spat. “We leave cart and horse both, then. We can still make it back to the farm before dark if we hurry.”
“Demonshit,” Silvy said. She and her brother Cholie had run the farrier’s shop in Town Square before she married Jeph, and she inspected the injured leg with a practiced eye. “Not losing my favorite horse because you can’t hold your ale. Just a sprain. We can wrap it and walk him the rest of the way.”
Jeph looked up at the sky and opened his mouth, but Silvy raised a finger and checked him. “Creator help me if you say one more word, Jeph Bales.”
* * * * *
It was nearly full dark when they reached the farm. Arlen could feel the tingle in the air as the corelings sent tendrils to the surface, testing.
“Just a little further,” Silvy murmured to the horse, tugging at the reins. All of them were tired and cold, but seeing succor at hand gave them new strength.
“Run and open the barn, Arlen,” Jeph said. “Silvy, you go on into the house.”
“I’ve got it,” Silvy said.
“Ent got time to baby the animal,” Jeph said. “Rising’s about to start.” He grabbed the reins and pulled, causing Hardfoot to rear up and kick.
“Corespawn it, Jeph Bales!” Silvy shouted.
Arlen was halfway to the barn, but he stopped and stared as his parents fought to calm the stallion. All around them in the yard, tendrils of mist began to rise.
“Demons!” he cried.
Jeph let go the reins instantly and grabbed Silvy’s arm. “Inside, NOW!” He pulled her hard toward the house, veering to scoop Arlen up and throw him over his shoulder without breaking stride.
They were almost at the safety of the porch steps when the first coreling materialized in their path. It was a wind demon, its heavy leathern wings blocking the way though it had not yet seen them. They skidded to a stop.
“The barn!” Jeph whispered harshly, but as they turned, they saw the way there was closed as well. Two field demons had formed, long and low, with liquid scales and talons that could rend steel. It was said no animal alive could outrun one.
All around the yard, demons were taking form. Flame demons with their glowing eyes, leaving steaming footprints in the snow, and a wood demon nearly as big as their Solstice tree, with long arms to catch and tear.
Jeph pulled up short, and all of them held their breath. Hardfoot still stomped and kicked, whinnying in fear as he caught the demons’ scent.
With a shriek, the two field demons launched themselves at the horse, one leaping atop its back, claws raking, as the other bit through one of his legs. Hardfoot’s scream was almost human as he was pulled down. From all over the yard, demons charged to join in the carnage.
There was no way to get to the barn door or the porch steps without being seen, but Jeph began to back slowly away toward the barn wall.
“Easy goes,” he whispered. “No sudden moves.” At last they had their backs to the wall, and slid around the building as quietly as they could, masked by the horse’s screams as the demons ate him alive. Arlen wriggled down off Jeph’s shoulder, and Silvy clutched him tightly. Arlen could feel her heart pounding, and her short, shallow breaths.
“Do we run for the house?” Arlen whispered.
“Quiet and stay still!” Jeph whispered harshly. He clutched Arlen’s arm painfully, as if fearing the boy would ignore him and run off.
Hardfoot’s cries soon silenced, and the gleeful shrieks of the demons with it. Arlen could hear the snow crunching as they prowled the yard. Could they smell the humans? The graybeards said corelings could smell fear a mile off.
A snuffling sound came from around the corner of the barn, accompanied by a low growl. Jeph edged them the other way, but they came to the far corner, and there were corelings around that bend as well. There was nowhere to go, no clear path to succor. In moments, they would be as dead as their horse.
But then, the great horn sounded, resonating from atop the Holy House miles away. A light sprang up on Boggin’s Hill, bright enough to draw the eye of every demon in the yard. Their gaze snapped to the bonfire in unison, and they shrieked as they ran toward the sight and sound.
“Now!” Jeph said. “Run to the porch and don’t stop for anything!”
The three of them broke from cover and ran, and there was a cry from a flame demon still gnawing on the scattered remains of the horse. It leapt at them, spitting a line of flame that burned even in the snow, but Arlen dodged aside and ran on. Silvy’s dress caught fire, but she ignored it, running faster than Arlen would have believed possible in her wide skirts.
In moments, they were on the porch steps, secure behind the wards. Jeph pulled off his coat to smother Silvy’s blazing skirt. The flame demon spat fire again, but it scattered as it struck the wardnet, its heat never reaching them. The coreling shrieked and clawed at them, talons trailing sparks of magic in the air as the wards held it at bay.
The light and sound drew other corelings, but whatever his faults, Jeph Bales was one of the best Warders in Tibbet’s Brook, and the corespawn could not reach them as they entered the house and closed the door.
* * * * *
It was late in the night, and Arlen could still hear his parents shouting in the other room. His mother yelled at him often enough, but he had never heard her shout so at his father.
At last they fell quiet, but that was worse. The shouts and banging were a reminder that they were alive and safe. The darkness seemed to close in on him with the quiet, suffocating.
But then the great horn sounded again. In the day it was a sound that could fill one with dread, a signal that demons had struck in the night, and folk were in need of aid, or burial. But in the silent night, it was a comfort beyond words.
He slipped from the bed with his thin blanket clutched around him, feet cold on the wooden floor as he padded into the common room. The fire had burned low, but the embers still glowed enough to cast a bit of warmth and light as he made his way to the window.
His parents would have shouted to see him open the shutter, but he knew the wards on the lintel were strong enough to turn even a rock demon, and there were no corelings left in the yard. In the distance, he could see the great bonfire atop Boggin’s Hill, drawing them away.
Arlen curled in his blanket by the window and watched it burn throughout the long night.