Arbitratus Short Fiction

The Third Day of Fic-mas …

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Ghosts of Yuletide Past

Aife made her way silently down the stone path leading to her family home. She couldn’t stop smiling. It felt like she’d been away forever. The chance to see them all again was such a precious gift. She could hardly credit the peace and contentment that had settled into her chest the moment she’d started recognizing the landmarks that said she was on the road home. She’d never dared hope to feel this way again.

Her breath caught in her throat when the squat little grey field stone dwelling came into view as she crested the final hill. A lazy tendril of smoke curled up from the chimney. She imagined she could smell the mulling spices in the kettle on the hearth. She could almost hear the crackle of the warming stones at its edge that would sizzle when they were dropped into full mugs to warm hands when everyone came inside.

She paused to watch her grandchildren for a moment. They were playing in the light snow that had collected in front of the house, darting in and out of the nearby woods, engaged in some sort of game. She wasn’t sure exactly what it was they were playing. It involved a lot of running, flinging bits of snow at each other. They screamed like it might be the end of the world, then laughed themselves into tumbling, breathless, onto the ground. She laughed, too, but, of course, they paid her no mind. The smallest of them seemed to meet her eyes for a moment, but then she squealed and ran back into the trees after one of the boys.

Aife hugged her elbows with a fond sigh. Being lost in play, why do we lose that as we age, I wonder.  She knew at least one soul who seemed to have kept that irreverent sense of finding fun wherever he went, but then again, she supposed he was quite young, too, in his own way. Humming softly to herself, a tune she couldn’t quite place, Aife went inside, leaving the children to their games.

She took a deep breath of the heavy warm air inside the cozy little home. A pot of what was likely cider bubbled merrily, hissing and spitting as steam condensed and droplets hit the logs below. It sounded like home. It smelled as good as she’d imagined, too, maybe even better, with the added savory aroma of a nicely roasting rabbit over the flames.

Her eldest daughter, Rowan, chided one of the younger siblings, about how she was turning the spit. “Ye want te keep it even, don’t ye, now?” When the turning didn’t improve, she huffed a little in frustration, and stopped what she was doing to demonstrate the proper way to turn the spit. “Like this, Morag, before you burn the back an’ leave the belly raw!”

Aife laughed quietly, feeling no small amount of pride at how Rowan was handling overseeing the Yule feast preparations for the first time, like the captain of a well-run ship. All those years at Aife’s elbow. She’d clearly attended to every lesson. She’d be a right terror in battle if she was ever called to it, Aife thought. But like her mother, and her mother before her, she commanded her household troops with warmth and a light amusement dancing in her green eyes. Aife’s admiration for Rowan’s skill didn’t stop her from wanting to help.

Instead, Aife took a seat next to the holiday fire, stretching her hands out to warm them in the comforting blaze. The Yule log burned merrily, the coals dancing in their familiar ashy red glow that never ceased it’s mesmerizing movement. She felt the flames warming her face pleasantly as soon as she sat down. A moment later she was almost startled as a shawl brushed her arm and a thin hand patted her shoulder.

She glanced at her new companion. “Hello,” she greeted softly.

“Ah, Aife, mo leanbh, I hoped you’d be able to come. It’s good to see you, child.”

“It’s good to see you too, Mama. I hope you’ve been well.”

“Passably well, child. How’s it with you?”

Aife swallowed. “It hasn’t been easy …” She swallowed again. She was not going to talk about that now, not here. “But just look at our family … growing, thriving. Strong and happy.” She sniffed a bit, but she was smiling again.

“They are that,” her mother agreed. An’ yer Liam did such a fine job with the Yule log. ‘Tis the finest fire I’ve seen in many a year. It’s so lovely to come here and be warmed by it, enjoying my family. I’ll bless this fire that it brought you here for a chat, too, lovie.”

Aife gazed into the fire. It was a good one, and the log looked to burn for days. She’d never been much of an enthusiast. She’d always been more of a practical cook-fire sort of woman (and flaming arrows certainly had their place) but today she appreciated the Yule fire, more than she could ever have known. She felt the same sort of pride she had seeing how Rowan was handling her role as matriarch when she looked at the fire her boy had kindled. She’d probably never admit it out loud to anyone, but Liam and Rowan had always been her favorites among her large and well-loved family.

A crackling pop from the log brought Aife back to the present. “Where’s Da?”

“Ach, you know how he is. Has to pop in on everyone’s fire today. I expect he’s at Diarmuid’s hearth just now. You know how he always was about his baby brother.”

“Mmm. Do you think he’ll be by soon?”

“Ye have other plans, do ye?” her mother asked gently.

“I …” Aife began, but was interrupted by the loud crash of shattering pottery. Rowan let loose with a string of words that Aife was quite certain she had not learned from her mother (since she’d never had to follow her into battle). “Rowan! Such language!” she snapped, not really thinking.

Rowan continued to mumble random curses and wishes for the feast to be on someone else’s shoulders as she drafted another one of the younger girls to pick up the shards little Donal had scattered, running through the house, in through the front and out the back.

“I bet you’d like to jump in and sort that all out for yer girl,” Aife’s mother smiled knowingly. “It’s hard, love. Believe me I understand. Letting go is the most difficult part of sitting at the fire each year, but … She’s rising to the occasion. She is. And she’ll continue to do so. She’s her mother’s child through and through.”

“I know … I just wish …”

A large warm hand settled on her other shoulder. “Hey, Aife. I let myself in.” She glanced up and bit her lip. “I’m sorry, but we’ve got to be getting back.”

“And who might this handsome and strapping lad be,” her mother asked, raising one of her grey brows.

“Not now, Mama,” Aife mumbled. She protested, “You said … The feast hasn’t started, Ben … And my da’ …”

He squeezed her shoulder. “I know and I’m sorry. But we’ve got to leave. Like five minutes ago. Gareth can only keep up appearances for us for so long and … We need to go.”

She sighed. “Alright. At least let me say goodbye.”

He hesitated, but then he nodded. “Of course. But be as quick as you can.” He nodded at the old woman by the fire. “A blessed Yule to you, ma’am.” She smiled at him. He touched Aife’s arm. “I’ll be outside.” He left the house to give her the moment free from the demands his presence implied.

Aife squeezed her mother’s hand. Then she moved around the house to each of her children in turn, uttering promises to return whenever she could, patting the heads of the grandchildren who were starting to crowd into the house to warm up and try to sneak bites of food. She stood in the doorway for a moment, giving a last smile and a fond wave, taking one last look at the frantic, but homey, pace of her family.

She stepped outside into the cold that no longer touched her, wiping absently at a tear and suppressing the others that were trying to fall, not that it mattered. She turned to Ben, torn between gratitude that he’d given her this opportunity and fury that he was now snatching it away before she’d seen everyone. “Why?” she asked, her unshed tears constricting her voice. “Why give me this and then cut it so short?”

“I said I’m sorry,” he began. He put an arm around her shoulders and started leading her away. “I thought it would help, seeing them, I mean. Knowing they’re well and your family is … still here and still growing. Carrying on for you.” His voice sounded momentarily tight, too, but though he’d released her shoulders and was now just walking next to her, she detected no change in his face or posture.

“I appreciate it, Ben. I do … I don’t mean to seem ungrateful, it’s just … I would have liked more time.”

“Wouldn’t we all?” he said so quietly she almost didn’t hear it. “And I wish I could have given it to you. I meant to … But we’ve been summoned. As annoying and incompetent as the King of Hell is, he’s still the king.” He held out his hands like he’d try to explain more. This was all still new for her, still a fresh wound. Unable to think of anything adequate, he shrugged.

“Why Yule though? Of all the times, Ben …” She trailed off, near tears again. “I didn’t get to see all of them,” she finished after a minute.

Another shrug. “I knew we couldn’t be away for long, even at the best of times, and I just thought more of them would be here for you. Especially the kids. I know that’s important to you.”

He sounded so bleak. He’d tried to do something so truly wonderful for her, she wanted him to know that even in her disappointment, she was still grateful. “Seeing my mother was such a lovely surprise. I didn’t expect it. It’s been so long.”

“The Yule fire is a funny place,” Ben mused.

“It … I felt so strange, Ben. Every sensation, every smell. I felt I could have picked up a cup and tasted the cider. We’re not really totally even on this plain of existence. I shouldn’t have been able …”

“Did you not think our own traditions and stories had at least a kernel of truth, Aife?” he asked, smiling a little. “It’s half of why our people light the Yule log every year; so our ancestors can come and warm themselves by that fire, if they like.”

“Always seemed made up to me,” she said managing a small chuckle.

“I always believed, or at least, I wanted to. I had a bit of a mind for the magical side of things though. I have Daira to thank for that. She was the wise woman in my village. Took quite a shine to me,” he smiled. “And then, you know, demon, so … I’ve definitely embraced my more whimsical side.”

As he hoped, she chuckled again and her smile stayed in place. “It was wonderful to see them. It does help. It does.” She stopped walking and turned toward him. “Have you ever visited your family?”

Pain sparked briefly in his eyes, but he just gave the barest shake of his head. “Nah, never managed it.”

Aife realized too late why that might be. Oh, the poor boy. All of them. No wonder he struck her as such a lonely soul. “Thank you, Ben. For everything.”

He nodded, his jaw tightening for a moment, before flashing one of his dazzling distracting smiles at her. “Happy Yule, Aife,” he said simply.

Quite unable to stop herself, she pulled him into a hug. “Happy Yule, Ben.”

 

 

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