Christmas With...Grace Draven!
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When Karina first asked me if I’d like to participate in her Christmas-themed blog event, I thought I’d revisit a winter festival I’d written about in my book ENTREAT ME. Modranicht was an Anglo-Saxon celebration that predated the arrival of Christianity. It venerated goddesses and paid homage to mothers—basically a Mother’s Day that took place in winter. I loved writing about it when I worked on ENTREAT ME so considered revisiting that holiday with those characters in their future. I changed my mind once I completed SUNDAY’S CHILD. That is a true Christmas-themed story with Saint Nicholas playing the role of international gift giver but accompanied by a troublesome, exiled elf who is neither cute nor diminutive and very much in love with a human woman who hasn’t believed in jolly Saint Nick for a long time.
During my research for both books, I quickly realized that history is fat with accounts of winter festivals grounded in every recorded religion and culture. It seems humans like to party during the cold, dark months. Instead of revisiting festivals I’d already researched, I went with a new one and revisited old characters close to my heart. In THE LIGHT WITHIN the mage Silhara of Neith and his wife Martise attend a winter festival in the Dramorin mountains. I’ve loosely based the festival off of an ancient Zoroastrian holy day that is still observed called Sadeh. Sadeh is celebrated during mid winter. It made for fascinating reading, and I encourage anyone curious to learn more to check out Zoroastrian festivals, fire temples, Chak Chak and Sadeh.
A Winter’s Tale in the World of Master of Crows
by Grace Draven
Copyright 2014 by Grace Draven
All rights reserved
* * *
Silhara guided Gnat along the path that wound high into the Dramorins, one hand on the reins, the other on Martise’s back as she rode reverse in the saddle, huddled against him for warmth. A line of shaggy, sure-footed Kurman ponies clopped ahead of them and behind them, their riders bright splashes of color in the snowy terrain.
The great firs hemming either side of the pass towered above them like dark sentinels, their branches bowed in shrouds of snow. They creaked and swayed in the wind that sent flurries spinning and dancing through the air before landing on horses and riders. The trees blocked the worst of the wind, but a few stray gusts broke through the shield of foliage and whistled down the pass, straight as an arrow and just as piercing.
Martise lifted her head from the shelter offered by Silhara’s heavy winter cloak and his embrace. “I thought the plains winds were harsh. These cut like knives.” She formed the words around chattering teeth. The tip of her nose was bright red, and she shivered hard in his arms.
Silhara braced for the inevitable cold shock of her gloved hands as they skittered up his sides to burrow under his arms. He joined her in the shivering. “Those hands of yours are icier than a wraith’s touch.”
“That’s because I’m nearly frozen to death.” She abandoned his underarms to map paths down his sides towards his breeches lacings.
He seized one of her wrists. “Don’t even consider it,” he warned. “I don’t want to be pissing ice chips later.” The thought of his wife’s cold fingers wrapping around his genitals for warmth made his bollocks draw up tight.
Martise tugged, still trying to tuck her hands into his breeches. “I can’t get my fingers warm.”
Silhara lifted her captured hand to his mouth, tugged aside the glove and blew into the space between palm and covering. Martise slumped in his arms and moaned her approval. He did the same for her other hand before nestling them back under his arms and giving her a stern warning not to go anywhere near his groin.
Swathed in layers of wool, fur and a hooded cloak, Martise hid her face in Silhara’s chest and laughed. The sound sent pleasant vibrations through his torso. “Better?” he asked.
“Much. You have a soft heart.”
He frowned. “No need to be insulting.” He felt her laughter once more, followed by a muffled question. “What did you say?”
She raised her head and frowned back at him. A tiny snowflake blew into her eyelashes, and she blinked it away. “How much farther to the avastra?”
He looked beyond her shoulder to the head of the line as it wound through a col between two of the Dramorin peaks. “Not far. There’s a wind gap coming up that opens onto a ruin and the fire temple itself. You’ll know we’re there when you hear the gate bell ring.”
Every year the nine principal tribes that made up the loosely knitted Kurman confederation gathered for three days to honor their god Damaza, Light of the Spirit in a ritual known as Sehad. For those three days, the tribes put aside their clan squabbles and territorial disputes and celebrated the winter fire ritual together in relatively peaceful camaraderie. If one didn’t count the occasional drunken brawl or impromptu wrestling challenges in the snow.
Silhara had attended five sehads since he united with his father’s people and had been eager to bring Martise to one so she might witness the lighting of the great bonfire and join him in the festivities afterwards. They had much to celebrate, he and his wife. She was a free woman, complete and independent in body and soul. Silhara couldn’t think of a more befitting way to recognize her emancipation than to attend a ritual for a god known as Light of the Spirit.
He heard the first peal of the gate bell before he saw the wind gap. He steered Gnat off the main path and brought him to a halt. The big draught horse snorted his disapproval and tossed his head, eager to rejoin the much smaller ponies in their procession toward the avastra.
“Patience, you overgrown dog.” Silhara patted him on the neck. “This will take only a moment.”
Martise emerged from her woolen cocoon. “What are you doing?”
Silhara untangled her from around him and slid out of the saddle. He motioned to her to dismount. “Turning you around. We’re about to enter the wind gap. It opens to the avastra; you don’t want to miss that first sight.”
They were remounted and back in the procession in moments, Martise still in front of Silhara in the saddle but facing forward so she might have a clear view of her surroundings. They passed through a narrow wind gap carved out of the mountain by an ancient stream that left its memory in the rock’s rippled face. Snow flurries faded to the occasional lazy drift of flakes that found their way into the opening. The peal of the bell grew louder as they rode further into the gap.
The gap widened and sheared away, opening onto a semicircular space, protected from the wind on all sides by sheer rock walls but open to the sky. A bell mounted on an iron pole driven into the ground hung at the edge of the wind gap. A young boy stood next to it with a clapper. Each time a rider emerged from the gap, he’d strike the bell, announcing the arrival of another sehad participant.
Silhara’s mouth curved up into a satisfied smile at Martise’s gasp when they entered the avastra’s open space. He had experienced the same wonder when he first saw it years earlier. Like the dry stream that had cleaved both path and memory into the mountain, those who lived here long ago had left their mark.
A ruin as old as Neith, if not older, the only things remaining were those bits of architecture carved directly into the mountain. The stream was the water source, the gap an easily defended access point. What wooden buildings might have existed had rotted away, leaving only dust. The Kurmans had appropriated the ruin as their fire temple generations before Silhara was born and left clues of their occupation in the scorch patterns that blacked the hard packed earth from the annual sehad bonfires.
The avastra teemed with people—Kurmans of all nine tribes in their colorful garb. New arrivals called out to friends and relatives. Embraces were exchanged, cups of arkii passed around, invitations extended to share the smaller camp fires built away from the colossal heap of wood and silver thorn kindling set in the center of the avastra. Nine spirit torches, each representing a tribe, ringed the avastra’s inner circle, waiting to be lit with the bonfire’s sacred flame and carried home to share amongst the tribe’s hearth fires. Silhara’s stomach rumbled at the scents steaming from the various cooking pots tended by the women, and the alluring perfume of matal tobacco drifting from long-stemmed pipes teased his nostrils.
Martise ignored all of it. She squirmed in the saddle, excitement obvious in her voice when she half turned to him. “Guide Gnat to that column.” She pointed to one of the pillars hewn out of the rock. Tendrils of dead silver thorn covered most of its face, obscuring the symbols carved from its capital to its base.
Silhara steered Gnat to where she pointed. Martise scraped away the brittle vines with a gloved hand and leaned out of the saddle for a closer look. Her lips moved silently as she deciphered the symbols.
“What do they say?” Silhara was virtually unequaled in his ability to invoke and wield magic, but he was no translator. Such expertise fell to his wife whose gift for languages never failed to amaze him.
His eyebrows shot up when Martise held up a finger in silent command to wait. She climbed off Gnat to crouch at the column’s base and read the remaining symbols. She glanced up at Silhara, her copper colored eyes glinting in the winter half light. “This is what remains of the fortress known as High Salure, an outpost of the Beladine kingdom.”
Silhara glanced at his surroundings. His first impression of the avastra was that it had been a fortress of some type. The ancient kingdom of Belawat had vanished a long time ago, but Conclave kept records of its existence, recorded by the priests during Conclave’s inaugural days. Belawat had lain on the other side of the Dramorins. This far outpost must have guarded an important border, overseen by a border warden. Destroyed, abandoned or both, it now served as a makeshift temple for the nomadic Kurman who gathered once a year to honor Damaza with fire.
“Martise! Martise!” A chorus of feminine voices called out over the pealing bell, the bleat of livestock and shouts of people.
Silhara caught sight of a group of Kurman women hurrying toward them and promptly backed Gnat away from Martise. She grinned at Silhara. “Fleeing?”
He bowed to her from his high perch on Gnat. “I have an acute instinct for survival. I’ll leave you to them.” He did as she accused and fled for the safety of the makeshift paddock built for the ponies in a far corner of the avastra.
He hardly had Gnat unsaddled before he was swarmed by a horde of tribesmen. Those who knew him clapped him on the back or joked with him. Those who knew him only by title and reputation hung back, gawking at him with wondering expressions. Silhara didn’t think he’d ever grow used to those looks.
After several promises to visit the individual camps and stay for a smoke or a cup of arkii, the Kurmans left him to finish with Gnat and gather the packs he and Martise had brought for their trip to the sehad ritual.
“You look no more impressive to me now than when I saw you during the summer. The way everyone has been speaking your name, I’d at least expect a pair of wings or maybe glowing eyes. You’re still the ragged crow mage I’ve always known.”
Bent to hobble Gnat, Silhara grinned at the familiar voice and rose. He found his acerbic aunt behind him, bundled in layered skirts and robes of scarlet, violet and lapis. The tiny bells sewn into her head wrap sang a faint tintinnabulation as she leaned on one of the paddock rails and motioned him outside to join her.
Dercima was his anchor to his father’s people. She was fourth consort to her tribe’s sarsen but ruled her chieftain husband and her sister wives as if she wasn’t only first consort but the sarsena. Silhara kissed both of her cheeks and accepted the long-stemmed pipe she handed him. She lit the pipe from a tiny coal in her own pipe bowl, and soon the scent of matal swirled around them, fading into the light snow flurries that dusted the air.
Her next words reminded him again that not everyone was in awe of him. “Don’t embarrass me by drinking so much arkii that you can’t walk straight and end up stumbling into the sacred fire.”
Silhara huffed a stream of smoke out of his nose. “Your concern over my possible death by drunken immolation is touching.”
They exchanged smiles and spent several quiet moments sharing the smoke and watching the Kurmans ready for the evening bonfire. Silhara found Martise still amidst a pack of Kurman women, chatting as easily in Kurmanji as if she’d been born to the language.
“It was good of you to come.” The light jingle of the bells on her headdress emphasized Dercima’s nod of approval.
Silhara shrugged. When the sarsen Karduk invited him as guest of honor to the festival, he never considered refusing. “These are my people.”
“They think it a great honor that the god-smiter will light the sacred fire and the nine torches.”
He rolled his eyes at her teasing tone. “Remind me after this to hunt down whoever dreams up these ridiculous titles so that I may eviscerate them. Slowly.” He drew another long inhalation of spicy smoke and exhaled a procession of smoke rings. “I’m still Silhara. Orange grower, crow mage, houri’s bastard get.”
Dercima gazed at him from the corner of one eye. “Let’s not forget thief, heretic, and defrocked Conclave priest.”
“Novitiate,” he corrected. “And are you reciting my failures or successes?”
She chuckled before her gaze sought and found Martise. Her features sobered. “And what is she, this new wife of yours?”
Silhara didn’t hesitate. “My humanity.”
Dercima kept her eyes on Martise. “I once told her she embraced shadow.”
“If she remains with me, she always will.” The notion she might not sent an icy splinter of unease down Silhara’s spine. He’d almost lost Martise once. Never again. Not if he had a say in it.
The tiny bells chimed once more as Dercima gave him a farewell nod. “I’m off to welcome Martise to the avastra. Don’t just stand there like some fat prince waiting to be served. Even god-smiters have to set up their own tents here.” She winked and abandoned him at the paddock.
Silhara laughed and shook his head. He finished the bowl of tobacco, found a clear spot not yet claimed by another Kurman family and set up camp. Martise joined him, built their camp fire and heated water in her cook pot while he unpacked their gear and stored it in and beside their tent. By the time he finished, she had a cup of hot tea waiting for him.
He sat down beside her on a pile of straw overlaid by a small rug to keep them dry. Martise edged closer to him until her hip pressed to his. Silhara took advantage of their relative privacy to stroke her back while he admired the way firelight highlighted her profile. A plain woman to most eyes, she stole his breath every time he looked at her. “Are you ready to dance and drink tonight until you can’t stand up?”
Martise grinned. “I promise to step all over your feet.”
Silhara adopted a wolfish smile in return. “I promise to have my hands up your skirt at least a dozen times. And they’ll be a lot warmer than your hands.”
They shared a small supper and more tea between them, saving the powerful, fermented arkii for later. As night fell, the sky cleared and the snow stopped falling. The unroofed avastra lay domed beneath an indigo sky blanketed in stars.
An expectant hush settled over the crowd of Kurmans as the chiefs from each of the nine tribes gathered and approached the pyre. All but one carried a small urn in gloved hands. In each urn a flame flickered and danced in its bed of coals. The ninth chief held a staff and raised it to the sky. Silhara helped Martise to her feet as the crowd rose in response.
The chief spoke. “Our young men have brought the silver thorn from the hallowed places along with the four yazata fires: temple, hearth, lightning, and cremation. We bring them together so they may become the divine light of Damaza that resides in the hearts of all creatures and brings blessing to our homes.”
He turned to Silhara and bowed. “You honor us with your presence, Silhara of Neith, child of our lost brother. The fires await you.”
During the previous sehads he’d attended, the guest of honor used a pitch-soaked torch to gather each of the four yazata flames from the urns and set the pyre alight. The same was done when it was time to light the nine torches representing each tribe. It was a somber ritual, eagerly awaited by the attending crowd who knew once the fires were lit, the true celebration started.
This year, Silhara planned to give them a spectacle they wouldn’t soon forget.
He approached the chiefs holding the fire urns and gestured. A chorus of gasps and surprised yelps echoed throughout the avastra as he drew a line of flame from the first urn. It undulated in the air before Silhara, charmed like a serpent by the movement of his hands. The flame curled in on itself, transforming into a distinct shape—the familiar mountain pony and symbol of the Hursunga tribe. Whistles and yips of approval carried through the crowd as the fiery pony galloped across an aerial landscape to plunge into the heap of wood and silver thorn.
Flames burst across the surface of the pyre, shooting sparks into the black. The roar of the crowd grew as Silhara coaxed flames from their carry urns and shaped them into each tribe’s totem: hawk and wolf, deer and fox, rabbit and dog. From the last urn, he drew the final two symbols—griffin and raven. They flew, hopped, bounded and loped into the fiery pyre.
Conclave would sneer at his antics. Undignified, cheap tricks performed by a vile crow mage to entertain ignorant nomads. Silhara grinned at the thought. He drew fire from the brightly burning pyre. Sacred flame made up of the now combined yazata fires. At the direction of his hands, the fire spun itself into a glowing orb of heat until it hovered above his palms. Silhara invoked a two-word spell and blew on the orb. It shot across the avastra, above the crowd, toward the nine tall torches. The orb split into smaller orbs, each one bursting against a torch and setting it ablaze.
The crowd screamed its approval. Silhara bowed before the nine wide-eyed chiefs who bowed back. The ritual was finished. Time to celebrate.
Silhara caught a laughing Martise in his embrace and whirled her into the dancing, leaping throng that encircled the bonfire. “What do you think?” he shouted above the noise.
She laughed. “Lightning would have been more impressive.” She laughed even harder at his scowl.
“You are difficult to please.” He twirled her across the ground, her skirts snapping across his shins.
Martise danced into his embrace. “For you, it is effortless. You please me just by being.” She squeaked a protest when he nearly broke her ribs in a hard embrace.
She kept her promise to step on his feet during the dancing, and he kept his, hands dipping and diving under her skirts to stroke her slender thighs when he thought no one watched. He managed not to embarrass his aunt by falling into the bonfire, but he did drink enough arkii that the short walk to their tent at dawn was more a slow stumble.
He couldn’t quite recall if he took Martise that night or if she took him, or if it even mattered. The only thing that mattered was he woke to her wrapped around him, warm and naked beneath their layers of furs and blankets.
The sacred fire burned for two more days with more celebrating, feasting and drinking. Bets were laid as to size of the crop of newborn children each tribe would welcome in nine month’s time. By the morning of the last day, the bonfire had burned down to cooling ash, and Silhara thought he might lose his stomach if he caught so much as a whiff of arkii. His bones ached from the cold and sleeping several nights on hard ground. He missed the ramshackle sanctuary of Neith and the comfortable warmth of Gurn’s kitchen.
Martise didn’t look any better than he felt. She gave him a tired smile. “I miss home.”
Her words sent a rush of heat through Silhara’s veins. He forgot his aches and pains and loaded Gnat so quickly that more than a few tribesmen stopped to inquire about his haste to leave.
Dercima embraced them both before they left, her ever-present pipe clamped between her teeth. She spoke around the pipe stem. “You’ve doomed yourself, you know. They’ll clamor for you each year now, wanting you to make fire horses and hawks and set the torches alight with glowing balls of flame.”
Silhara scowled. He hadn’t considered such repercussions when he unleashed a touch of sorcery into the ritual. “We’ll see,” he said in his dourest voice. He ignored the knowing smiles Dercima exchanged with Martise.
The Kurmans offered him a small torch lit by the sacred fire to carry home to his hearth. Silhara politely refused.
They were halfway home when Martise put to the words the question he’d been waiting for her to ask. “Why did you refuse a sacred flame? Don’t you want Damaza’s blessing at Neith?”
She shared the saddle with him once more, riding in front so that she faced him, her legs draped over his thighs, his body acting as shelter for hers. Her eyes burned bright in a face made pale by the cold. Silhara traced the graceful line of her neck with a gloved finger.
“I nearly killed us both trying to throw one god out of Neith, Martise. Why would I invite another one across my threshold after all that effort?”
She tilted her head, puzzled. “Damaza isn’t Corruption. He is a benevolent god to your people.”
“Benevolent or not, I haven’t met one yet who isn’t a boil on the butt of humanity.”
Martise sputtered, caught between laughter and a horrified gasp. “You are the most blasphemous man I’ve ever known.”
Silhara’s free hand wandered over her shoulder to gently cup her breast. He wiggled his eyebrows at her. “You would seduce me with flattery?”
She chuckled and placed her hand over his, pressing more firmly against her breast. “Is it working?”
His nostrils flared. He wanted his wife, but in their comfortable bed. He’d have to coax Gnat to move a little faster. Silhara contented himself with planting light kisses across Martise’s chilly face, warming her until a becoming flush suffused her skin. He caught her mouth under his, tugging gently on her lower lip before sweeping his tongue inside to tangle with hers.
They broke apart on shallow breaths. Silhara ran a thumb along the slope of Martise’s jawline. I need no god-fire at Neith to bless my days. You are the blessing of my house, Martise. The light within me.”* * *
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