The words wove through Essa’s dream. They were in the surge of waves against the shore, shaking down from oak tree branches in a rustle of leaves, and plinking with the rain on the roof. It was this last bit that brought Essa to full waking.
A heavy downpour was thundering against the wagon’s wooden roof. The plink plink plink from her dream resolved into the sound of the roof leaking into a ceramic basin in the corner. Rosanna, Essa’s sister, had set it out the night before for fear water might spoil the painted canvas backdrops and costumes crammed into the surrounding trunks.
Good old Rosanna, Essa thought fondly but with a touch of envy. Rosanna, one year her junior, always remembered things like ceramic basins to catch leaks. She’d never been so lost in her own thoughts that she’d kicked over the milk pail and spilled the precious milk everywhere.
Essa sighed out loud and then covered her mouth, but her sister’s even breathing did not change. She relaxed.
And then she tensed again. The words had been correct in her dream. They’d been the precise and exact words she was to say and they had been in the precise and exact order she was to say them.
Something Essa had yet to manage in the waking world.
Precise and exact Rosanna would have been the obvious choice to speak The Hallowing, the invocation that always closed the Yule Pageants. Even Christophe, thirteen-years-old and simmering with unfounded confidence in his own abilities, would have been a better choice.
Papa would be so disappointed, thought Essa, her throat tightening. The soft darkness conjured up his rich voice ringing out over the crowd at the end of the Yule Pageant as everyone held their breath for fear he might speak a discordant word and curse the year.
Of course, he never had. Thomas Wallarde had spoken The Hallowing in the Hayfold pageant for the past twenty-one years with never a word wrong. This was the Wallarde clan’s first Yule without him.
The wagon door creaked open. Essa knew even before he spoke that the little shape creeping into the interior was her youngest brother, Seb.
“Essa? Are you awake?”
Nights like this one, nights full of rage and vehemence, always sent him scurrying for the protection of the props wagon and the protection of his sisters. Unlike Christophe, they never teased him.
Essa scooted over on the pallet to make room for him. Seb crept under the blankets like a little mouse, smelling comfortably of hay and lye.
“Are you scared, Essa?” he whispered.
“What’s there to be scared of?” she replied, injecting as much bravado into her voice as she could. “It’s just a little rain.”
“Not that,” although he shivered a little. “Tomorrow. Christophe says you’ll never say it right and then we’ll have rain like this all year long and all the crops will die.”
These last few words were spoken in a trembling voice. Essa wished he hadn’t voiced her worries with such clarity.
“It’ll be all right,” she assured him without conviction.
The morning did not improve her conviction. The storm had exhausted its fury during the night. Essa tumbled out of the wagon into a freezing morning. A soft lavender-hued mist hung over the fields and houses of Hayfold, blurring the sharp edges of the world. Shivering, she joined her family in the preparations for the evening’s pageant.
In years past, Essa had sung the part of the Spring Maiden, but that had gone to Rosanna this year. Essa felt unbalanced without the comfort of her familiar role. Rosanna’s pure voice rose above the commotion as Essa wandered through camp, and she was overcome with a mingled jealousy and fear.
If only this year were the same as all the years before. Papa would be in the main wagon, silently practicing the Words. They could only be spoken aloud at the appointed time. Essa had never read the small Book of the Year scroll that had been Papa’s prized possession, but she’d heard the Words spoken every year for fifteen years and they were in her head.
When she was sitting quietly without her bubbling worries, the words slid easily through her thoughts. It was when she imagined herself on the small stage that folded from the main wagon that the words fractured, tumbling into new and terrible configurations.
If words of power were easy to say, her papa had always said, everyone would do it.
It took a force of mind.
Essa was pretty sure she didn’t have a force of mind.
To distract herself from her upcoming doom, Essa tried to help her family’s preparations. She got underfoot her uncle as he unfolded the stage on which they would perform that night.
“Essa!” he snapped, “Find somewhere else to be.”
So she went and hovered around her mama, who was frowning over Rosanna’s costume which had gone and gotten itself chewed by moths. She suffered Essa’s sighing misery for a few minutes.
“Goodness gracious, Essa, you’ll be fine. Go and practice.”
Rosanna told Essa that she couldn’t sit and watch her practice because it was making her nervous.
Christophe rolled his eyes at her and threatened to drop the juggling balls on her foot. The balls were supposed to represent the planets in their ponderous circle through the year, but he kept dropping the planet Milcuus, and the planet Gladiuria wouldn’t light up the way it was supposed to.
Seb, as always, was perfectly happy for his big sister to spend time with him. He held forth at great length upon such distracting topics as what the Guardians might look like and whether they would curse her specifically if she couldn’t get The Hallowing correct and would people be mad at all of them if it was wrong. Essa found somewhere else to be of her own volition.
As if this had been her destination all along, Essa took refuge in the wagon where her papa had always sat the day of the pageant.
She’d been avoiding it. They all had, as if by ignoring the wagon, they could ignore his absence. They’d been doing it all year, since the short quick illness in February that had carried him off - going through the motions of the same dance they did every year. Only this year they were missing a dancer.
I’m sorry, papa, Essa thought, drawing her knees up to her chest and wrapping her arms around them.
I’m going to curse everyone.
To Essa, in the makeshift wings, the crowd was nothing more than a medley of gasps and cheers as Christophe’s celestial orbs whirled and spun, hardly seeming to touch his hands at all. He’d managed to fix Gladiuria and the luminous light fell on his face.
The crowd roared with laughter and echoed with boos and hisses as the Summer Youth battled and tricked the Wyrm at the End of World. Then a hush fell like muffling velvet as Rosanna’s voice rose with the high clear Spring Maiden verses.
She is good, Essa thought with a twinge of jealousy. No audience had ever been quite as spellbound for Essa as this one was now.
Then worry swept away the jealousy. As soon as the last pure note faded away, Essa would step onto the stage and speak The Hallowing.
But … she couldn’t. There was an iron band around her lungs so that every breath she took hurt. Her knees were locked in place.
“Celestia,” her mama hissed from the wing on the other side of the stage.
Essa stared at her. A murmuring rose from the crowd. Light and shadow played across her mama’s face and Essa’s vision narrowed to her mama’s hand frantically flapping towards the front of the stage.
Someone gave her a sharp shove between her shoulder blades and Essa stumbled forward. Forward and out…out onto the stage.
The mournful hum of her uncle’s organistrum greeted Essa, welcoming her in to do her part and close the pageant.
The audience appeared before her as a blur of brown and pink and white with the night creeping in around the edges of the lamplight. It was cold on stage in her ceremonial blue robe - not her robe, her papa’s robe. It was much too big for her, the sleeves flapping past her balled up hands. Someone stifled a chuckle.
Lamplight flickered over her. Essa was acutely aware of how ridiculous she must look - a child playing pretend. Shame blazed her cheeks. Her legs were numb as she shuffled forward, at last reaching the very centre of the stage.
She opened her mouth to speak the first word. It sparked fire on her tongue and a deep powerful hush fell over the crowd.
This was the moment. The audience strained towards Essa as one mind, hanging on her words, praying she would speak them true. She pressed her fingernails into her palms. Her wits felt slowed as if she’d gotten into her uncle’s honey-wine.
Essa knew she was going to fail.
As this thought swept through her, Essa saw shapes emerging out of the shadows cast by the lamps. They had a vaguely human appearance with long arms and legs, but they could never be mistaken for human.
The Guardians were here.
The Corn Mother with her half skeletal deer’s face and antlers, her edges blurring like the mist-shrouded fields of autumn. The Spring Maiden, flowers bursting through her mantle of green lawn and the Summer Youth, whose eyes blazed like the midsummer sun, so bright, the rest of his body was only shadow.
And the Winterking. His face was a bear’s skull and his body the merciless winter’s night that spirited away the weak and the young. Massive, twining black antlers rose from his brow as if they were pillars holding up the sky.
Essa reeled beneath their regard. The makeshift stage seemed to fall away beneath her, the audience and her family disappearing in the background until she faced the Guardians of the Year alone. She was too small and insignificant for such a task.
The Guardians waited, implacable. Harm and help were all the same to them. The Hallowing directed their energies in their proper place. Without it, they were undirected, destructive.
She had to do it.
Essa opened her mouth, a hot coal word spilling from her tongue. It blazed so painfully that she almost cried out. She couldn’t continue. The rest of the words filled her mouth like stones until she couldn’t swallow, but still she couldn’t speak.
Then she heard it.
Her sister, Rosanna, speaking the next line. Essa joined in almost as if the words were being dragged out of her.
They were ancient words, words far removed from any language Essa had ever heard. They were the first words, the words that brought the year into being. Words like caverns beneath the mountains, alien and old beyond imagining.
As she spoke, she heard her mama, and her uncle, and Christophe, and Seb all speaking the words with her, their voices weaving through hers, Rosanna high and clear as her singing, Christophe grumbling along in his changing voice, her mama sure and resolute.
Behind them, as if from far away, she heard her papa. He spoke as he had always spoken, merrily as if speaking The Hallowing was something joyful, a river leaping happily down a hill in the sunshine.
The words tasted bitter and sweet, the first berries of summer and the last wrinkled apple of autumn, cooking-fire smoke and the lung-piercing cold of midwinter.
The last word left Essa’s lips like a bird taking wing.
The Guardians faded gradually. The Winterking’s night antlers blended into the sky until all that was left were the Summer Youth’s blazing eyes. A moment later, they were nothing more than stars in the sky.
Essa looked out over the audience. Now she could make out individual people smiling and nodding at her. The tension that had held the audience had dispersed and people were turning to their neighbors with a comment or laugh or to companionably grasp a shoulder.
Rosanna’s hand was suddenly in Essa’s and her family was all around her. They took their bows, accepting cheers (and coin) from the audience and then just like that, it was over.
“I was terrified when you froze like that,” Christophe told Essa later, once they’d taken down the makeshift stage and removed costumes and washed faces.
Essa grimaced into her spiced pork tart. Trust Christophe to bring up her almost failure.
“But then you said it so well,” Rosanna assured her, quelling Christophe with a look.
“I couldn’t have done it properly if you hadn’t helped,” Essa said, who had been trying to decide how to acknowledge her family’s aid.
Her sister frowned. “But we didn’t help, Essa. We’re not allowed to. You know that.”
Essa did know that. She’d forgotten in the moment on stage with the gaze of the Guardians on her. Even so, she had to protest.
“I heard you. All of you, even … even,” she dropped into a whisper, “even papa.”
Silence followed this statement. Rosanna and the two boys eyed Essa with some discomfort. And then a plate of steaming Solstice Cakes was born into their circle by their mama and everyone scrambled for one, hoping to be lucky enough to find the hidden shilling.
Later, after everyone else had tottered off to bed, adrenaline from the pageant performance finally fading, Essa’s mama came to her. She hadn’t tucked Essa in since she was Seb’s age, but Essa suffered her mama to pull up her coverlet and smooth her hair, secretly enjoying the attention.
“Your papa didn’t talk about it much,” she told Essa. “But I know he looked forward to saying The Hallowing every year because his mama would be there. You know your grandmother died when he was very young, so it was the only time he heard her voice as a grown man. He’ll be there, Essa, every Solstice. We all will.”
She kissed Essa’s forehead and went away.
Essa lay awake for some time after that with Rosanna curled up like a cat at her side. She smiled. Her ears were still ringing with her papa’s voice.
Suddenly, she couldn’t wait for next year’s pageant.