THE RED CLOAK
(The theme for December was Midwinter Solstice, and the elements were fear and not here, not now)
Warmth spread to his horn-nailed fingertips with the first gulp and he drank again greedily. Wonderful. Wonderful! Between the firebox walls, even the delicate web of flame flickering overhead, this excellent drink, and the cloak slung around his shoulders, he, who had thought warmth and life lost forever, was alive again. He fingered the cloak wonderingly. It was soft, fine, red, the most magnificent thing he had ever seen. As they brought him in, half-dead with the cold and fear, a young Galan in the startled crowd had pulled it off his own shoulders, and, at a nod from an older man, rushed over to fling it round him. The same youngster stood by him now, attentively waiting to top up his drink, beaming at him as though he were the most wonderful sight in the world. It wasn’t a look the traveller was used to, and he wondered uneasily whether he was being wooed. These primitive Northern folk, one heard strange tales—but on the other hand, one couldn’t be a traveller and turn down new experiences, and the lad was, for a Northerner, very taking. He looked back to the glossy-furred Elders smilingly watching him.
‘The cloak,’ he asked haltingly in Galan, ‘how make?’
‘As our Lady returns, we comb ourselves every day.’ The woman picked words he could understand. ‘The combings are spun, then dyed and woven into cloaks. There is only ever one red cloak, it is sacred to us.’
‘We have no thing like this.’ He marvelled. ‘But our fleece are short.’ By Southern standards he was shaggy, with a winter mane of which he was secretly proud, but he felt positively svelte among these hirsute people. His people thought the Northerners wild, with their flowing pelts, but the cloak was superb. He wondered what he could trade for it. Sacred wasn’t a word he knew, maybe it meant friendly, in which case they might even give it to him. ‘You said your—Lady?’
‘Our Lady of Summer. While she reigns, we grow our food, hunt, and raise our young. As the Winter Lord’s dark shadow grows we turn to learning and inventing. Every year, a day comes when there is no daylight at all, and on that day we light the fires, because fire is their link. We spend this day in worship, we sacrifice to him, and he lets the Lady take us back, day by day, to the summer. We do this also on the day there is no dark, because we crave the knowledge the Lord brings us.’
‘We had hear you superstitious!’ He was delighted to get the stories confirmed.
‘What else do Shorthairs—Southerners—say of us?’ one of the men asked with interest, and he felt a warm rush of affection for these friendly, lovely people.
‘We say,’ he confided, ‘that you primitive. Hostile. Must not to visit in winter.’ He shivered. ‘Now I know why. So cold!’
The Galan looked puzzled. ‘Are you cold?’
‘No, no, not now! I ready to die for cold when you find me. Now warm. I not ever see fire like this.’ He pointed a claw at the delicate tracery of flame above. ‘Beautiful. This drink, you call moonshine? I never taste drink like this. Make me warm, happy. Is good.’
‘We learn much during the reign of the Winter Lord,’ the old woman repeated. ‘Fire is precious, for two days a year only, for the rest of the cold time we use the heat that we stored during the months of the Lady.’
He was puzzled, but his Galan wasn’t up to pursuing an explanation and he returned to an earlier comment. ‘You say sac-ri-fice,’ he used the barely familiar word carefully. ‘That is to kill a beast, yes?’
‘No, for the Lord we draw lots. One must burn so the rest can live. This time, it was to be Gered.’ She gestured at the handsome lad who was so attentively caring for him, and he felt a shock of protest. This promising and charming young man? Barbaric!
‘Was to be, not now?’ He looked up and Gered bent forward eagerly, tilting the jug invitingly. Flame reflected, dancing, in his eyes.