Once Upon A Yule Tide

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The sound of a woman crying was a rarity in the greenwood. It drew considerable interest - though the woman, Winifred, was completely unaware of the circle of eyes, ears and noses focused upon her. She had a lot to cry about. Her situation and the situation of what was left of her village and family looked hopeless. Waves of people were sweeping west across land and sea. Many were just desperate, misplaced souls, driven from their own lands. Others were violent raiders - and the raids were becoming more and more frequent. Only a year earlier, the villagers had pulled up sticks and moved the whole village to a new clearing they had made in the forest, more than a day's walk from the coast. But now the bands of robbers were staying, settling and moving further in-land - cutting and burning the forest as they came. The new village had been attacked. The women, children and elderly had been sent to a hiding place when two boys out hunting, had spotted the approaching danger and ran back to raise the alarm. Her husband, father and the other men had taken up their axes and fought fiercely to repel the invaders. They thought their numbers would be sufficient to push them back and teach them a lesson. But they were mistaken. They were hopelessly outnumbered. Only a hand-full of the men-folk survived, battered, maimed and beaten. Her husband and father were not among them.

Winter was upon them. It was Yule Tide and food was in short supply. The able-bodied women had the children, the elderly and the injured men to care for now. They discussed the possibility of moving the village again. How could they move now? Winifred had left her other three children with her sister and walked just a little way into the forest with her baby, Owen, secured to her back, to gather sticks and look for nuts and berries. But she was oppressed by a terrible sense of gloom. She tried to project her mind into the future and get some glimmer of what was in store for her poor, fractured family and neighbours. Her mind was too cluttered with the horror of the immediate past to be able to look ahead. There seemed no light, only darkness and threats. She sat upon a log and wept softly, trying not to disturb little Owen. He was a happy wee soul, not much disturbed by anything normally, but his mother's crying did wake him. She stopped crying then and talked to him quietly and calmly, about the awful thing that had happened. He was only a few months old and was lulled back to sleep by his mother's reassuring voice, without understanding the grim thoughts the words expressed.

Other ears were able to understand her words well enough. They perceived that she feared for her children and especially this baby. Spirits of the forest were listening to her mournful tale with rapt attention, as she voiced her anxiety to the sleepy child. They felt sympathy for this mortal woman and they shared her fear for the survival of the beautiful little boy. A silent debate was held between them, quick as thought, for no words were exchanged. A few held steadfastly to the view that humans were always trouble and it was not for the forest spirits to interfere in their fights. Others differed. And they wondered how they could help.

Winifred dried her eyes and, seeing the light was fading, made her way back to the village. She had gathered a good supply of wood but had found very little food. The cold air smelled of snow to come. She shivered and tried to assume a brisker and more positives attitude as she approached the edge of the clearing. It would be selfish and irresponsible to add her own despondency to the general gloom and she didn't want to worry the children. Just then, there was a sudden, energetic rustling from behind a shrub. It sounded like a small animal.

She moved cautiously around the shrub to see if she might be able to catch something for the pot. There was no animal in sight, but a large collection of nuts, berries, apples and edible roots had been piled ostentatiously on top of a wide, flat rock - as if someone had put them there for her to find. Caution rooted her to the spot for some moments. She looked all around and thought about calling out. That seemed a bad idea when she thought about it though. None of the villagers would have left a pile of food for any passing bear, boar or rodent to make free. Somehow, she didn't think their enemies would either. After some further hesitation, she gathered the food into her basket - it was hardly big enough - and hurried home.

The whole village was hungry since the raiders had started driving all the animals away and gathering the fruits of the forest for miles around. There was considerable cheer when Winifred showed what she'd found. It wouldn't go far, but tonight at least, her family and friends would fill their bellies and the injured men would gain some strength to heal their wounds. The food was soon prepared and served. There were so few people left that they were all able to squeeze into the biggest building - a sort of large, wooden hall - to eat together.

After their hot meal, there was some further discussion about moving the village. The blazing fire, tasty food and sense of a close community - friends and neighbours depending heavily on each other - generated a more positive atmosphere than any had felt since the disastrous battle. But it soon dissipated once they started talking about the enemy behind and - sooner or later - all around them, and the dense, threatening forest and the winter ahead. It was vain to talk about moving with so few fit adults and so many frail and injured, in the depths of the winter. And yet the raiders could come again any day. They could come in the night.

A start had been made on reinforcing their defences and rigging up contraptions in the forest to the East to give them warning of any attack. But there was so little time and energy for such work in the bitter cold and with food so short. Winifred left the hall when all the folk had had their say and, again, no solution could be found. Her oldest son, Arthwr, walked by her side. He was almost a man and his frown made him look even more like his father. She blinked back tears and turned her face away so that he wouldn't see. The twins, Arian and Rhian fussed over Owen. Being twins, they managed to be more self-contained when they were together and were able to keep the sense of doom that hung over all the village, at bay.

It was cold and crisp. Between the clouds, the stars shone hard and white on the frosty dead leaves and skeletal black trees. An owl hooted in the forest. Winifred drew her cloak about her and shivered. The future was hidden from her still and she couldn't see a way through to better times from where they stood right now. As soon as they got inside their little home, they barred the door and built up the fire. When all the children had settled down to sleep, Winifred laid herself down beside the baby's cot and tried to push every thought from her mind. Before long the combination of heat and exhaustion made her sleep too.

She woke with a start when Rhian shook her urgently, shouting something about Owen. Where's Owen? Owen was not in his cot. Everyone was in a stir of panic. Owen was hardly old enough to support his own head, let alone climb out of his cot. But he was nowhere to be found within their home and the door was still barred. It was early in the morning and dark. They roused the rest of the village and a thorough search of every corner of the village and the surrounding area was executed. All to no avail. The baby had disappeared without trace. Winifred and her children were in turmoil.

Gweneth, Winifred's sister, hugged and comforted and tried to bring calm and reason to the awful chaos, but they were inconsolable. And no-one could wonder at that. Another attack would not have been a great surprise. That one of the infants might be stolen, had not occurred to anyone.

All the daylight hours were spent in searching for little Owen - time they couldn't really afford; that would otherwise have been spent strengthening their defences and hunting for food. However, food was all they did find: two more heaps, like the one Winifred had found the previous day on the flat rock.

There was a sombre mood. Disturbing things were happening. The baby had been taken without the door being unbarred. And who was leaving food for them to find? Something evil and something good. They sensed some unfathomable purpose at work, but to what end they could hardly guess. A better fed and more unhappy community returned reluctantly to their homes that night. The general sense of unease caused several of the mothers to decide to remain in the big hall with their children, together with the injured men and their carers. The wind rose and it started to snow.

Back at their own hearth, Winifred, Arthwr, Arian and Rhian sat around the fire as Gweneth bustled about tidying. Every now and then she would say something just to break the gloomy silence, but every attempt to raise spirits just seemed to make the gloom deeper. She gave up. As she finished all the chores she could invent, and sat in the silent circle, there came a knock at the door. There was a little gasp from Winifred and she jumped up to answer it. Could someone have found her baby? Gweneth caught her arm and stopped her with a frown.

Arthwr took down his father's great axe and went to the door. He asked the caller or callers to identify themselves. A man's voice answered. He sounded old and weak. The boy looked at his mother and she nodded to him to unbar the door.

The fire danced madly as the door opened and the wind rushed in with a flurry of snow, buffeting the old fellow into the room in a of swirl of tattered cloak and hood. The boy closed and barred the door quickly. The man steadied himself then threw back his hood, but his face was still hidden by the brim of his hat. His head was bowed and he leaned heavily on his staff, looking exhausted to the point of collapse. Arthwr replaced the axe - convinced that such a frail old fellow could do his family no harm. Gweneth helped the guest to a seat by the fire, then hung a cauldron over it to heat. She was glad to have something to do - something to break the mood.

While the broth was heating, the man was persuaded to swap his cold wet cloak - from which the melting snow was dripping around its ragged bottom and steaming at the shoulders - for a warm blanket. He removed his hat, looked up with a weak smile and thanked his hosts for their kindness. Then they saw that the poor man had only one eye. At last the cauldron began to steam and bubble. Gweneth ladled some broth into a bowl and handed it to the guest. He cupped his hands round it as tightly as the stiff, knobbly joints would allow, to warm them. After a few mouth-fulls of the hot broth, his colour began to improve.

He told them his name was Cade and he had been journeying to visit his foster son for Yule Tide when he was attacked by robbers and then, when he regained consciousness, he had lost his orientation and become lost in the forest. Two days he'd searched for a path. If he had not come upon this cottage when he did, he could not have survived another night. When they told him their own sad tale, he was very moved and resolved to help them in any way he could. Winifred reached for his hand, smiling kindly at him. She thought there was little chance that this poor old man would be able to help any more than their own old folk had - but she was surprised at the strength of his hand as he returned her comforting grip.

A couch was prepared for him beside the fire. Everybody slept soundly as if under a spell, all through the night, in spite of the wind and snow howling round the thatch and roaring through the trees. Winifred was astonished when she woke, that she had slept at all. Even so, she and Gweneth were up and busy long before the pale winter daylight crept across the cloudy sky. They built up the fire and filled the cauldron with water and crushed grains and berries for their breakfast, then roused the sleepers.

The old man, Cade, when he emerged from his pile of covers, looked much younger and considerably bigger and stronger than he had the previous evening. The women and children stared at him in wonder. He laughed and assured them that he was the same man, just warm, fed and rested. He acknowledged that he must have looked close to death when he arrived. The family were still doubtful. His skin looked smoother, his hands had lost their arthritic knobbles - even his hair looked thicker and darker. But he still had just the one eye. Winifred felt a sense of familiarity - that she should recognise this man. Her suspicion, that seemed too fantastic to credit, deepened the feeling of wonder at his obvious transformation.

When they had broken their fast, they took their guest to the hall and introduced him to their folk. At first they were suspicious of this stranger, who seemed unnaturally strong and masterful to them. But it didn't take very long for him to win their confidence. His intentions seemed entirely honourable. And as he pointed out to them, they had very little left to steal, so why should he attempt to trick them? Before he left to find his foster son, he meant to do what ever he could to repay the hospitality he had received. He suggested some measures the villagers might take to improve their defences and left them working hard while he strode into the forest to see what he could find.

Winifred watched him disappear among the tree trunks. A couple of ravens were cawing noisily, as if scalding or greeting him as he approached the trees. She wondered how she had ever mistaken him for a frail old man. He was no longer carrying a staff, but had a spear in his hand. The ravens fell silent as he passed beneath them, then followed him, hopping through the branches.

He returned in the afternoon carrying a huge boar on his shoulder. Arian and Rhian saw him first and shouted the news. He was quickly surrounded by excited faces and eager hands relieved him of his burden. Winifred looked up at him, placing a hesitant hand on his arm. He knew, of course, what she wanted and smiled at her. Yes, he might have heard a whisper of her babe and he'd had the good fortune to find his foster son's village. It was just half a morning's walk away.

That village had also been raided in the summer. The men had been away hunting when the attack came. All that was left when they returned, were burned huts and dead bodies. Most of the young women and children had been taken. They had carried out their own raid to rescue the prisoners but found few remained alive and several of the men were killed in the attempt. Their village was in almost as pitiful a state as this one, but instead of grieving women it was full of sad and angry men, plotting revenge against an ever-increasing enemy.

Cade wondered if he might ask his foster son, Cadel, and the other survivors of that village to join Winifred's village for the Yule Tide feast tomorrow night. They might, together, be a less forlorn gathering than they would each be separately, at their small, sad feasts. They might help each other and cheer each other.

Winifred wasn't sure. All of her family and friends would have to decide together. She searched Cade's face for honesty, compassion - and answers. The look he returned was open and unflinching. He understood her doubts and knew that her dearest wish was to have Owen safe in her arm again. He gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze and told her he was confident that Owen was safe and that he would be able to return him very soon. Satisfied with this, she went to deliver the news of the other village to her neighbours.

After a surprisingly short debate, they agreed to the joint feast. Cade was very pleased. He took a little food with Winifred and her children. The family planned to spend the remaining daylight gathering holly and ivy to decorate all the hearths. Cade suggested that they should also gather plenty of mistletoe. When they'd refreshed themselves, they all went into the forest together and then split up to carry out their various tasks.

It was freezing cold. Darkness had fallen. Winifred, her sister and children were preparing the evening meal and trying to keep their minds, as well as their hands, busy. The holly, ivy and mistletoe had been draped in every home. The boar had been cleaned and prepared for tomorrow's feast. Waiting was hard. Would their new friend bring good news? A couple of wolves started baying a short distance away. Doors opened and people peered towards the sound. It was too dark to be able to see more than vague outlines. Wolves were a worry but had never attacked before. Still, they were concerned. Just then the man emerged from the deeper black between the trees, cradling a small bundle to his breast.

Winifred, Gweneth and the children ran towards him and he held out the little bundle laughing. Owen cooed and gurgled happily. Crying and laughing, Winifred took the child and hugged him. Soon the whole village was gathering round the happy knot of reunited family in front of Winifred's door. The atmosphere of joy was overwhelming. It was the first good and happy event since the dreadful battle - the first time since all the great weight of sorrow and hardship had borne down upon them, that they felt there was something to celebrate. After many hugs, kisses, congratulations and questions, the neighbours reluctantly departed to allow the family to feed and settle the baby. Because they felt so elated and sociable, most of the people gathered up their evening meals to eat together in the hall.

Cade stayed with the family. Winifred was so ecstatic at being reunited with little Owen that she could hardly speak. Gweneth and the children made up for that by showering Cade with thanks and questions. He put up his hands laughing. His story was spellbinding. Two friends had helped him. Who? The ravens! Yes, truly. They had spoken to the spirits of the forest. These mysterious denizens of the greenwood had taken pity on Winifred when they heard her lament. They had taken the beautiful baby to keep him safe. And they meant to hold on to him too. It was no easy task to persuade them that he would be safe now, to go back to the broken village of sad, vulnerable people. They loved him and they wanted to teach him the ways of the forest. At length, he'd managed to persuade them, but they warned that they would be watching the village and if they perceived any danger to the child, they would remove him again.

At this Winifred looked up with an expression of anxiety, but Cade soothed her fears. They must put some of the mistletoe over and around Owen's cot to ward him. But there was no immediate danger of losing him again, in any event. He told her to use her gift of foresight that had failed her in her time of anguish. Had it returned? She looked at him doubtfully for a moment, wondering how he knew, then closed her eyes and reached out with her mind. They all watched her face and after only a few moments, it relaxed into a smile. When she opened her eyes again, she confirmed that her heart told her the tide of their fortunes was beginning to turn and with the Yule Tide celebration the direction of flow would strengthen. All would be well.

Arthwr jumped up and said this news was too important to confine to one family's hearth and ran off to spread the word around the village. He found almost everyone in the hall. Their good cheer increased and Arthwr was able to answer many of the questions that had gone unanswered earlier. That night people slept a more peaceful and restful sleep than they had known of late.

Next day, just before mid-morning, Cadel and his folk arrived. They brought with them another large boar for the feast. Cade made all the formal introductions. Everybody was very courteous and considerate. They sat down together to take refreshment and talk politely for a while. Then everyone set about preparing the feast. Before long, people who had only just met were talking and laughing like old friends. Cade cast a satisfied eye over the company. He had wisdom - dearly bought - and he also had the gift of foresight.

The feast was more and better than anyone could have dared to hope or imagine only a day ago. The two groups celebrated as one community. Friendships were growing between men and women, boys and girls - and Winifred could see faint images in the smoke from the fire pit. She saw a new, strong people, growing from these two fractured villages. She didn't look too far into the future though. The future would still be full of hardships but, united, they would have the strength to face whatever might come.

After the feast, Cade took his leave. The whole community begged him to stay - all but Cadel, who knew his real name and identity. They tried to reason with him, that he might at least stay until morning. But night in the forest held no fear for him. Now that these children were safe, his duties lay elsewhere. They watched as he strode into the forest. Some said later that they were sure they saw two shadowy forms - wolves - trot out to greet him.

In the ages that followed, the tale of the poor old man with only one eye, who had called upon the hospitality of a desperate, hungry folk at Yule Tide, and been welcomed and cared for, and had repaid their generosity ten-fold, grew into a legend.

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