Today is officially the shortest day of the year in the UK, and that makes it the Winter Solstice. In another Kingdom, it’s Winterfest, the hardest-drinking day of the year, where everyone dances until the sun comes up, to drive out the darkness… And there’s plenty of darkness.
So, in honour of the season, here’s a little treat. A never-before seen in public extract from the Winterfest scene in the newly revised version of Hierath. Some of you have read the old version, and this is similar, but different. I hope you enjoy it.
The long tables in the Great Hall groaned under the lavish spread. Lydia eyed the food with trepidation. Her earlier nausea was gone, but her appetite had not returned. The Winter Feast was intimidating. Throughout the year, every spare morsel of food was preserved, pickled or smoked in anticipation. Hogs and fowl were fattened, and for days now the castle huntsmen scoured the forest for any hind or boar unwise enough to stray from their den at this time of year. The legions of palace cooks were up long before dawn, paring, chopping, boiling and roasting, and now, as the sun set on the shortest day of the year, the months of preparation drew to a close, and the feast was about to begin.
Gazing around the green-garlanded hall, Lydia recalled Winterfest in Lydyce, always held on the shore of the lake, with a giant deerskin canvas on hand in case the weather turned bad. Even when famine struck, Lydyce managed to scrape together enough food to ensure everyone’s belly was filled. She thought about her mother and father dancing together in the flickering lantern light, and how she had danced all evening with a boy who had a dimpled smile and wide grey eyes, whose name she had forgotten. The boy and her parents were long since ash blown over the hills of the Estmarch, and she lived in Hierath, as mistress to the king, but she could not think of Lydyce without an ache in her heart.
‘What are you thinking of, child?’ Adele was on her third glass of wine, and the King had yet to arrive and start the festivities. ‘Have a pickled root, and be happy! It is Winterfest, after all.’
‘I was thinking of when I was a girl.’ Lydia knocked back her wine in three large gulps, and looked around for more.
‘Pfft! Who cares about the past at Winterfest? You should be thinking of the future!’
Lydia sighed. ‘The future doesn’t look all that sunny, Adele.’
‘The future,’ slurred Adele, brandishing a leg of roast fowl to emphasise her point, ‘looks much better when seen through the bottom of a wine glass. Take my advice and drink plenty tonight. Everyone else will be.’
Tables hugged the edges of the hall, while a large rectangle had been cleared in the middle for dancing. People entered the hall down a sweeping staircase. Directly opposite the entrance a raised stone dais ran the width of the room, where the royal family, and their closest friends and advisors would sit. The only people presently seated on the dais were Ammaline and Valery, heads bent together in private gossip, Lord Austover, his body servant standing at attention behind his chair, and Castle Steward Rhys. Two empty thrones sat between Ammaline and Austover, and the sight of them wrenched Lydia’s heart. She quickly poured herself another generous helping of wine.
Trumpets blared at the foot of the staircase, and throughout the hall people rose to their feet to herald the entrance of their king. Lydia hauled Adele to her feet, propping her up with the help of the girl on the opposite side of her, while Alex and Penram made their regal way across the room. She wondered if Alex would try and catch her eye, but Adele slipped from her seat again, and by the time she was righted he had passed by. Lydia swallowed a curse. No matter. Maybe she would be able to exchange words with him later, if Ammaline and Penram weren’t too near. She should apologise for storming off earlier. Maybe they could even dance. Surely no one could object to that?
As they resumed their seats, Adele made a lunge for the wine jug. Lydia twitched it out of reach. ‘Stars, Adele!” she said. ‘How much have you had?’
‘Not enough.’ She stretched for the earthenware jug. ‘Be fair, Lydia, let me drink. I only had a few glasses in my chamber before I came down. . . . ‘
Lydia shoved the dish of roots across to her friend. ‘Eat these,’ she said with authority, and turned to the girl who had helped her hold the drunken woman upright. ‘What’s the matter with her, Serine?’ she asked. ‘Apart from being roaring drunk?’
Serine glanced around and lowered her voice. The other women on the mistresses’ table leant in hungrily, scenting the whiff of scandal. ‘I heard Lady Estmarch is kindling a baby.’ She paused, to let the significance of her statement sank in.
‘Oh, Adele!’ Lydia pushed away her plate of cold meats and enfolded Adele in a sisterly embrace. Serine’s words brought back the fever of the afternoon, and her eye was drawn to where Alex sat, chatting to his future queen. Keeping her arms around Adele, she turned back to Serine. ‘I didn’t think she cared so much.’
‘I don’t think she thought she cared.” Serine leant across Lydia to speak to Adele. ‘You always tell us it’s a fine game we play, remember?’
Adele was petulant. ‘It is a fine game, but I don’t want to play today.’ She passed the wine jug to Lydia. ‘Nor do you today, I would think,’ she said, in such a low voice not even Serine could hear.
‘How did you know?’
‘Shhh!’ Adele beckoned her closer, and Lydia caught a blast of alcoholic breath. ‘You can’t keep anything from a sharp-eared mistress!’ She hiccupped. ‘I can find out anything, you just ask me!” She giggled inanely. Lydia was tiring of Adele, and of the vapid conversation of the mistresses. She decided to do the only reasonable thing she could under the circumstances, and get drunk.
Lydia wasn’t the only one seeking solace in the bottom of a wine flagon. Alex was struggling to blot out the afternoon with ale, but Penram was a constant distraction. She sat silent, picking listlessly at her food, and refused to join in the festivities. Well-bred Telesian women, she explained to Alex, did not drink wine, nor did they attend this kind of gathering. The only women in attendance at Telesian feasts were dancers, and although she knew the Kingdom had a different outlook, she couldn’t escape the feeling that this was wrong.
‘But this is how we do things here!’ Even to his own ears, Alex’s voice was wine-loudened. “We eat, we drink, and we dance. If you won’t eat or drink, will you at least join me in the dancing?’
“I don’t –” Penram broke off as a clamour arose from one of the lower tables. Lydia had knocked her full wineglass flying into Adele’s lap, and the princess looked at the commotion in irritation. ‘Who are those noisy girls down there with Lady Westmoorland?’ she asked.
‘Those? They’re just the mistresses, don’t worry about them.” Alex made an effort to sound careless.
‘Mistresses? Mistresses of what?’
Her tone warned Alex that he walked on loose snow. He felt a surge of annoyance, with her, with the feast, with himself for needing Lydia so much. ‘Of men, obviously!’
Penram’s face was blank, guarded. “Tell me more. I don’t think I understand.”
‘They take a wife’s place in a man’s bed, when a man grows tired of his bride. Most of the Lords have a mistress. Some even have two, although it’s not–,’ he broke off. Penram stared at him in horror.
‘Men in this land have wives, yet they lie with other women? Is that what you say to me? You speak of this barbarism as if sacred vows mean nothing in this country!” She spoke loudly, and people at the lower tables looked up at the fuss. Alex raised his hands to quiet her.
‘Of course they do. What of it?’
Penram scowled, but spoke more softly. ‘In Telesia, once you are married, to lie with someone else is the greatest insult. To be caught in infidelity is punishable by death. Great houses have fought for generations over past betrayals. But here you parade your harlots before the king as if there was no crime in how they act! Even Lady Westmoorland, who has been so good and kind to me, even she is one of these women!’
“Why does that matter?” His face was hot with indignation. On the far side of Penram, Ammaline smirked behind her goblet. “You said you liked Lydia, so why worry what she does in bed?”
“Or who she does it with?” Ammaline added. “Tell me, Alex, do you know who her chosen Lord is?”
He glared at her, eyes narrowed. “Maybe I do. That’s her affair. Tell me, Ammaline, did you know about this Telesian tradition?”
She raised her goblet in mocking salute. “Maybe I did,” she mimicked. “That’s my affair. This is all quite delicious, isn’t it, Valery?”
Alex caught his friend’s eye. Valery winked. “I think I can reveal the secret,” he said, ripping a hank of meat from the bone and taking his time over chewing it.
Ammaline raised her eyebrows. “Don’t keep us in suspense then, Lord Northpoint! Who is Lady Westmoorland’s mysterious lover?”
He swallowed. “It’s me. She looks innocent enough, but Lady Westmoorland is wild between the bedfurs!” Penram’s face darkened. “Sorry if that offends you, Princess, but at least I’m not married already!”
“Tell me, Princess,” Ammaline sounded genuinely curious. “Not that he ever would, but if Alex took a mistress, according to our traditions, how would your father react?”
Penram flustered, clearly uncomfortable with the turn the conversation was taking. “I know my Lord would never –”
“But if he did,” Ammaline persisted. “If he was in his cups and some harlot threw herself at him. What then? Surely that would be too much insult to bear for a fine woman such as you?”
“Of course it would be.” Penram offered Alex an apologetic smile. “My father – I am ashamed to say it – my father would take his head and decorate a pike outside the city gate with it, and I would be forced into the seclusion of a widow. I have no doubt he would do this, I have seen it happen to great lords in my own land.”
“Head on a pike, tasty!” Valery shuddered dramatically, and sank his teeth into a fresh helping of chicken. “I guess you have to keep your cock in your trews to keep your head on your shoulders, my friend!”
Ammaline leant across the princess, and gripped Alex by the wrist. ‘The last thing we want to do,’ she stressed, ‘is offend the princess or upset King Fassad.”
“Not if you want to stay alive!” Valery chuckled. Alex stared into the lilac depths of his wine goblet, absently rubbing the bruise on his jaw, and said nothing.
Valery pushed his plate away, and rose. “Well, this talk has taken a gloomy turn. I want to take my mistress for a spin around the floor, if one of you fine ladies would like to call for the dancing to start?’
A clatter of booted feet echoed throughout the hall as dozens of people simultaneously scrambled to dance. Lydia sat isolated, Serine had gone with Adele to change out of her soaked dress and sober up, and although one girl tugged her arm to encourage her to join the dance, she declined, worried that she might be unsteady on her feet with so much wine sloshing inside her. She watched, light-headed, as the dancers twirled in a stately waltz, a blur of faces whirling past with sickening giddiness. She saw Alex, leading a stiff, awkward Penram, Ammaline’s triumphant glare over the shoulder of Lord Estmarch, heard the stamp and shuffle of hundreds of booted feet on the wooden floor, a flowing mass of humanity in harmony for the longest night of the year. Lydia leaned back on her chair; feeling detached from the scene. She found it hard to drag her eyes away from Alex, whirling his disapproving betrothed around the dance floor. Wondering if he would be allowed to dance with her, she sighed, and reached for the wine once more.
‘Let me get that for you. Don’t you feel like dancing, Lydia?’ Valery slipped into the seat beside her, poured her a larger measure of wine than she had intended, and pressed it into her hand.
‘Nobody’s asked me.’ She felt maudlin. ‘I don’t want to dance with anyone but Alex, but we fought this afternoon.” She shrugged, and sipped her glass. “Besides, who would dance with me?’
‘Only a fool wouldn’t want to dance with you. I’m not saying Alex is a fool, but sometimes he’s less than bright. How about dancing with me?” Valery leaned in close to her ear. “I told Penram you were my mistress, to throw her off the trail she was sniffing down. Might as well make it look convincing!”
He lifted the glass from her loose fingers and guided her to her feet. “Let’s give them a show!” As she swayed, he gripped her elbow with one hand and slipped the other round her waist. “Not that sort of show! I can see I’ll have to keep you upright.”
“I’m all right.” He kept his arm tight around her as he guided her on to the floor, blue eyes full of mischief. Yes, let Alex see her dancing with Valery. She was feigning to be his mistress after all, so she could dance a little closer than she needed to, hold his gaze a fraction longer, allow his hands to linger on her hips. Let Alex see what it felt like on the sharp end of the blade.
She peeped up at him flirtatiously through her eyelashes. ‘Why not show me how good a dancer you are? ‘
“With pleasure.” As he steered her into the throng of dancers, she glanced back over his shoulder. Adele had returned to the table, and the older woman smiled, and offered a gesture of encouragement. Oh yes, this was going to be fun…
The dance Valery drew her into was a slow one, rising and falling like breathing. The music wafted from the minstrel’s gallery above, down to the gently swaying mass of bodies. He pulled her close and spun her slowly, one hand on her shoulder; the other pressed into the small of her back. Lydia, head on his shoulder, watched the faces of the other dancers spin slowly past, eyes hunting for her lover.
The music changed, speeding into a pulsing, sensual rhythm, a tune Lydia didn’t know. Valery’s grip tightened against her waist, and she startled at the unexpected, increasing pressure against her hip. Glancing down, she stifled a giggle at the bulge in his breeches. She looked up at him, and he grinned.
“You’re my mistress tonight, of course you make me hard!” He spoke in a low voice shifting his hips against hers suggestively as the music became faster, drum-led, more urgent. The dancing mass spun, stamped, and spun again. The floor was crowded, and it was hard to breathe, the air heavy with the scent of perfume and tightly packed bodies. A ripple of sickness churned in the pit of Lydia’s stomach. She tried to force it down, but it came back in a rush, stronger this time. She felt hot and dizzy. If she stayed much longer in this heat and pressure, she knew she would be sick. Desperately pushing herself away from Valery, she tried to flee, but the thick press of people around her formed a bulwark. She fought her way through, scratching and kicking like a wild animal in a trap. Faces loomed at her, grotesquely distorted by the tears blurring her vision. Hands reached for her, but she shook them off, struggling towards the fluttering torchlight at the fringes of the crowd.
Valery caught up with her in the corridor outside the hall, where the music was muted and the air was fresher. She leaned against the wall, gasping, eyes closed, as the wave of nausea passed. ‘Are you alright?’ he asked. ‘Were you sick?’
She shook her head. ‘No, luckily. It’s so hot in there, and all the spinning made me ill.’
‘It was all the wine!’ he scoffed.
‘It was probably the wine,’ she conceded, with a smile. ‘I’ll stay out here for a while. I don’t want to go back yet.’
‘You can’t stay here in this chilly corridor. Look at you, you’re shivering!’
She was unaware of the cold until he mentioned it, but now she hugged herself as the goose pimples formed on her arms. Her gown was thin, low-cut and sleeveless. It offered no protection against the biting cold of a midwinter night that seeped through the stones of the castle. ‘Where can we go?’ she asked.
Happy Winterfest to all of you, wherever you are, and whatever you’re up to!