I was the chieftain in the settlement then.
A killing winter it had been and a grasping one, reaching with frost crackling fingers to catch the young ones and the old ones and freeze the yet unknown ones in the womb.
Not a child under three years old survived that winter. And that winter dragged and bore down on the land so that at the turning of the year, when night balances day, the signs of spring were few, and those often rimed with frost.
Since the loss of our daughter, my wife had turned me only for warmth. The long dried tears had cut her deeper than any knife and severed, it seemed, the affection between us.
‘No,’ she’s say. ‘I couldn’t bear to catch with child again only to lose it.’
In vain I said that it was not to make a child that I wanted her, that I loved her and in that release we might find comfort together and heal, even though we couldn’t speak of the empty place under the covers where our little girl had once lain or the one under her heart where our son should had found haven.
But she would not agree and I am not a man who would not force his wife.
So there we lay, night after shortening night. And though the finest blade could not have separated us as we lay close for warmth, the longest bridge could not have spanned the gap between our spirits. And in the end as the nights grew a little warmer, I stopped turning towards her and dreamed of the days when we’d made love with all consuming passion and joy. And her face in my dreams stopped looking like hers and became wondrously strange and I tried to catch her but she was as elusive as a patch of light on the river wave and my longing burned.
And in the day, my wife was somehow even further away. When she’d finished listlessly grinding what little grain we had, or made my food, she’d curl back into the bed, her back turned to me, her face to the wall of the round house, curled like a babe in the womb, or a corpse in its grave.
Then when it came to the turning of the year, someone forgot to do what needed to be done, just as they had at Winter solstice. And though the winter had taken the old man who used to guard the gateway facing the stones had died, no one thought to find another to take his place.
On that day when promise of spring whispered in the chilly sunshine, the things that should have been done were left undone. The fires were not stirred up to ensure that fiery smoke filled the holes in our houses’ roofs, doors were left open, thresholds welcomed.
That day, I took my bow and went hunting alone. And in the woods, I looked into the mossy stone circle and saw nothing and no one and turned away, then turned back to see the woman from my dreams there, sitting astride a beautiful horse. And I knew that woman as if I’d known her my whole life.
Her hair was as dark and rich as Midwinter night and yet shimmered like water in the full sun, it flowed down her back as far as her waist, in thick curls and her waist was slim and her breasts were high under her linen dress. Her face was…. I can not describe it. Whenever I looked at her eyes I found mine straying to consider the angle of her cheekbones and then the berry fullness of her mouth.
She slipped from her horse, the horse whose hooves I had not heard. It was sixteen hands at least that horse, and stood tossing its mane at her side, standing without bridle or saddle, as loyal as a dog yet as independent as a cat. Powerful yet slender, all its strength a potential in the muscles shifting under the chestnut skin.
Will you help me? said the woman. Or I thought she said. I knew her so well that I knew what she was thinking.
‘What ails you lady?’ I made to step in towards her.
May I come to you instead? she said, or thought.
I beckoned. ‘Of course.’
And then… she stepped out of the circle towards me and smiled.
I am lonely, she said or thought. Will you walk with me? And we walked, side by side, and her hand slipped into mine and the warmth from her body warmed me and the horse followed behind without a sound, not even the crack of twigs underfoot or the swishing of young bracken as we passed.
I cannot say how long we walked till we found a grove where soft green leaves lay fresh and inviting under the curving bough of a silver birch and no, I never once wondered why there were green leaves lain down like a cloak, nor why when she asked me to sit down with her, they were warm as a blanket held by a fire. The scent of her filled my head. It was like spiced mead and rich berry wine – heady and sweet – driving out all other thought but the need to taste her mouth and curve my hand round her breast and her waist and every secret of her body until I had given her the joy she demanded and deserved. And I don’t know how long we rolled in those leaves, only that when she pulled away, she smiled.
I never wondered how at the turning of the year, on a day when the morning had started with frost, we could lay there naked and feel warm. My back was raked with her nails, and my own blood was salty on my lip, yet I only wanted her again and again until I died from the desire for her.
But she smiled and dressed and stood and wordlessly, climbed onto her horse’s back and without a backward glance, they galloped soundlessly away.
Night was falling and now she was gone, the leaves looked like ones that had lain there since Autumn, and the sweat on my skin started to chill me. I dressed, shivering, and made my way home. I made some excuse for bringing no food with me and turned from my wife’s sad eyes. And that night, I rolled myself in my cloak and lay on the other side of the fire so that I could not touch her even by accident and wondered how I could feel so empty and lost and if I would ever see the woman again.
The days drew out. The promise of green became rich foliage, the hunting was good once more and my wife now turned her face to the sky, and she bathed in the river and sat on the threshold shelling peas, the sun drying her lovely hair into waves of brown. She smiled a little. Shyly, she waited for me in our bed with the covers turned back, but though I joined her, I did not touch her. My longing for the woman was a sickness and I could feel the ribs through my skin as plain as the wheals on my back that her nails had left.
At Summer solstice someone remembered. Thresholds were closed, smoke holes filled.
But I was the one who offered to face the stones. And I took my bow and I walked towards them and waited. And there she came, riding once more from nowhere into the centre of them. Her horse was as wild as ever, its eyes flashing and green and the woman was petulant.
It did not work, she said, or thought. Your seed did not grow. I need you to try again. Or maybe I need a man whose children live.
‘All our children died the winter just gone,’ I said. ‘It was too bitter for them.’
The woman pursed her lips. It was too bitter for ours too.
I stared at her then, remembering my little girl fade in my arms. She had become strange in those last days of her life. And she was not the only child who changed in their final moments. Going to sleep like one person and waking as another, only to die a few days later.
Call me out of the circle, she said, or thought. I need you to… I want you. Her petulance changed into desire. The horse stamped its silent hooves. The air shimmered.
‘Did you exchange your children for ours at midwinter?’ I said at last, bile in my throat. ‘Did you take my girl?’
Your children are stronger than ours. Ours are weak, but our powers are great. Give me another child, mix your blood with mine then…
‘Wait!’ I said. ‘Where is my little girl. Is she alive?’
If you won’t call me out of the circle, then come with me and find out. She coaxed with her mouth but her eyes were cold. She patted the horse’s neck. See what wonders could be yours.
And for a moment I stood there, the burning of desire strong in my gut, the scent of her filling my head, but it was a cold scent and a cold desire a.
‘If you can bring back our children alive, maybe I’ll come with you. Maybe I’ll do as I ask.’
The desire dropped from her face and her teeth snarled. I cannot.
‘Then go back to where you came from,’ I said. ‘I have betrayed my wife enough.’
She hesitated for only a second, then wheeled the horse round and galloped into nowhere.
And since then, I have faded in strength, though the scars on my back have not. I yearn for the woman every night though the desire is nauseating and cold.
For I remembered who it was who was responsible for making sure we kept the gateway protected and the thresholds sealed at Winter solstice and turn of year in the Spring.
It was the chieftain. It was I. And I lost more than my daughter with my negligence.
I lost everything.
A song called ‘Ride On‘ by Christy Moore inspired this story. One day, I might expand on it.
Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image: https://pixabay.com/illustrations/vintage-arthur-rackham-victorian-1722369/