It’s the winter solstice today, and in my world of Tremontane, solstice is celebrated as Wintersmeet–a time for gathering with family and friends and feeling your family bond come alive. Whether dancing the night away in the palace or sharing a quiet meal, Wintersmeet is a joyous time. Here’s an excerpt from Agent of the Crown in which Telaine North Hunter, disguised as an ordinary Deviser in the mountain village of Longbourne, learns about Wintersmeet from her Aunt Weaver.
Aunt Weaver sent the apprentices home early on the day before Wintersmeet Eve. “Happen you don’t know our Wintersmeet customs,” she said.
“Don’t see how I could know, Aunt Weaver,” Telaine said, rolling her eyes.
“No need to be disrespectful. Thought you wanted to be told things now ’stead of working ’em out for yourself.”
“I’m sorry, Aunt Weaver. Please continue.”
“Uppity girl. Well. Tomorrow we clean house. Gets us ready to start a new year, see.”
“I do. That’s…interesting. I like it.”
“Well, I don’t so much like cleaning, but it’s good and symbolic. Wintersmeet Eve is for families. We eat together and think about the ones who ain’t with us.”
Telaine thought of Ben, alone in his house. “That would be sad if you didn’t have any other family around.”
“That’s up to you. Then Wintersmeet day you visit with all your friends and exchange gifts. I take it you have gifts?” Aunt Weaver sounded as if she questioned Telaine’s Wintersmeet spirit.
“I’ve made gifts for everyone. Aunt Weaver, what if someone gives me a gift and I don’t have one for them?”
“They won’t take offense. Wintersmeet gifts is like a thank you for doing something that mattered to the person giving the gift. Sometimes you do more for a person than they do for you. Sometimes it’s the other way around. But mostly you know who’s giving to you.”
“Wintersmeet night is for big gatherings. Your young man leads the chorals down at the tavern. Figure you’ll want to be there. Lots of parties and people goin’ from one to the other.”
The next day they cleaned more thoroughly than Telaine had thought possible. Sweeping and mopping the weaving room, dusting the sitting room and creating great pale clouds that merely settled back on the furniture. Aunt Weaver made Telaine go outside and wave the broom around the rafters of the outhouse, sweeping out cobwebs that drifted around her like strands of gray, sticky clouds.
It left Telaine feeling exhausted, but Aunt Weaver seemed unaffected as she moved around the kitchen making supper. The smell of hot pork roast and buttery mashed potatoes filled the air. “Happen you’d like to get that candle off the high shelf,” Aunt Weaver said, and Telaine climbed the step stool and reached up for a fat silver candle in an iron casing. It had been lit many times before, the wax melting down the sides and over the metal holder, smooth and shiny.
Aunt Weaver produced fine china place settings and silverware and a couple of wine glasses, then, even more surprisingly, a bottle of good wine. She served them both, sat down, poured the wine, and picked up her knife and fork. “Happy Wintersmeet, niece,” she said.
“Happy Wintersmeet, aunt,” Telaine replied.
They ate in silence, and then Telaine cleared the dishes while Aunt Weaver lit the candle. “Family joins us,” she said when Telaine sat down again. It sounded like ritual, one Telaine didn’t know. “Family binds us. We leave one family to join another. However far we go, family draws us back.” She put her hand around the candle, below the dripping wax. “You put your hand over mine,” Aunt Weaver said. Telaine did so.
Aunt Weaver closed her eyes. “You never knew your grandpapa,” she said in a quiet voice. “He died before you were born, died too young. I’d grieved for him already when I left, because Zara North died and left him behind, but I didn’t know I still had it in me to miss my little brother when he died.”
She smiled, her eyes still closed. “He was a brilliant, joyful man. When he was young he cared too much for what other people thought and didn’t have the sense to know whose opinions he ought care for. But brilliant and joyful. No question what your grandmama saw in him, though they had a rocky road to travel. Wish I’d been there to see them reach the end.”
She fell silent, and Telaine sensed it was her turn. “I never knew my mother,” she said. She gazed at the candle flame, trying to see images from the past. “She died of lung fever when I was not quite three. But my father was my whole world when I was a child. When she died, he took me to live in the forest he loved so much. I grew up wild and unschooled, without knowing anything but surviving through winter and summer.
“He taught me a lot of things I forgot, later, growing up in the palace. It was like losing a piece of him every time I tried to remember how to tickle fish, or find my way by the stars—I was so young to learn any of that, and maybe he was denying me my mother’s heritage, but I think he loved her so much he couldn’t bear the places where she’d been. And then he got sick, and I think he knew he was dying, because he brought me back to the palace before the end. I…” She broke off, cleared her throat. “I’ve never quite forgiven him for leaving me.”
They sat in silence, hand over hand, watching the warm silver wax slide and drip over their fingers to the table, waiting for midnight. There was no clock in the kitchen, but there was no mistaking the moment when the lines of power shifted their alignment in response to the solstice, filling Telaine with a rush of energy.
She could feel her connections to Aunt Weaver and Uncle Jeffrey and Aunt Imogen and her cousins for three seconds, and she knew they could feel her presence too. This was how Uncle Jeffrey felt, all the time. She tightened her hand over Aunt Weaver’s. She must have been so lonely, all those years…
Aunt Weaver moved her hand away and Telaine pulled back as well. “That’s for our dead,” she said. “Now for our living.”
“I don’t understand.”
Aunt Weaver sat back in her chair. “Been gone a long time,” she said. “Young Jeffrey was no more than two when I left. I resent this magic that keeps me young because I ain’t seen you all grow up. Same magic makes it so I can’t have children of my own. Certain sure I couldn’t have stayed, but if I could… I want to know my family. Tell me.”