“There are times in a woman’s life when only the company of other women can suffice,” Patience had explained to me when she had summarily moved in with us at Withywoods five years previously. “Girls need an older woman in the house as they become women, to explain those changes to them. And when that other change comes early to women, especially women who hoped to bear more children, it is good to have the guidance of a woman who has also known that disappointment. Men are simply not helpful at this time.” And while I had known trepidation about the arrangement when Patience first arrived with her baggage train of animals, seeds, and plants, she had proven the wisdom of her words. I knew it was rare for two women to exist so contentedly under one roof and blessed my good fortune.
When we reached her favorite chair by the hearth, I deposited her there, fetched her a cup of mulled cider, and then confided to her, “The last of your musicians arrived just as I came down the stairs. I haven’t seen them come in yet, but I thought you’d want to know that they are here.”
She raised her brows at me and then turned to peer the length of the room. The third set of musicians were moving to take over the dais there. She looked back at me, “No, they’re all here. I was most careful in my selection this year. For Winterfest, I thought to myself, we must have some warm-tempered folk to keep the chill away. And so, if you look, there is a redhead in every group that I’ve invited. There, see the woman warming her voice? Look at that cascade of auburn hair. Don’t tell me that she won’t warm this fest with her spirit alone.” She did indeed appear to be a very warm-natured woman. She let the dancers rest by launching into a long story song, more fit for listening than dancing, sung in a rich and throaty voice. Her audience, old and young, drew closer to her as she sang the old tale of the maiden seduced by the Old Man of winter and carried off to his distant ice fortress in the far south.
All were rapt by the tale, and so it was that my eye caught the motion as two men and a woman entered the hall. They looked around as if dazzled, and perhaps they were after their long hike through an evening of falling snow. It was obvious they had come on foot, for their rough leather trousers were soaked to the knee. Their garb was odd, as minstrels were wont to wear, but unlike any that I had ever seen. Their knee-boots were yellow mottled brown from the wet, their leather trousers short, barely hanging past the tops of their boots. Their jackets were of the same leather, tanned to the same pale brown, with shirts of heavy-knit wool beneath them. They looked uncomfortable, as if the wool were too snug a fit under the leathers. “There they are now,” I told her.
Patience stared at them from across the room. “I did not hire them,” she declared with an offended sniff. “Look at that woman, pale as a ghost. There’s no heat to her at all. And the men are just as wintry, with hair the color of an ice bear’s hide. Brr. They chill me just looking at them.” Then the lines smoothed from her brow. “So. I shall not allow them to sing tonight. But let’s invite them back for high summer, when a chilly tale or a cool wind would be welcome on a muggy evening.”
But before I could move to her bidding, I heard a roar of “Tom! There you are! So good to see you, old friend!”
I turned with that mixture of elation and dismay that surprise visits from unconventional and loving friends stir in one. Web was crossing the room in long strides, with Swift but a step or two behind. I lifted my arms wide and went to greet them. The burly Witmaster had grown in girth these last few years. As always, his cheeks were as red as if he had just stepped in from the wind. Molly’s son Swift was a couple of steps behind him, but as I watched, Nettle emerged from the crowd of guests and ambushed her brother in a hug. He stopped to lift her and whirl her in a joyous circle. Then Web engulfed me in a spine-cracking hug, followed by several solid thumps to my back. “You’re looking well!” he told me as I tried to catch my breath. “Almost whole again, aren’t you? Ah, and Lady Patience!” Having released me from his exuberant greeting, he bowed gracefully over the hand that Patience extended to him. “Such a rich blue gown! You put me in mind of a jay’s bright feathers! But please tell me the feathers in your hair did not come from a live bird!”
“Of course not!” Patience looked properly horrified at the thought. “I found him dead on the garden path last summer. And I thought, now here is a time for me to see just what is beneath those lovely blue feathers. But I saved his feathers, of course, plucking them carefully before I boiled him down to bones. And then, once I had discarded the jay broth, my task was before me: to assemble his little bones into a skeleton. Did you know that a bird’s wing is as close to a man’s hand as is a frog’s flipper? All those tiny bones! Well, doubtless you know the task is somewhere on my workbench, half-done as are so many of my projects. But yesterday, when I was thinking of feathers to take flight from our troubles, I remembered that I had a whole box full! And luckily for me, the beetles had not found and eaten them down to the quill, as they did when I tried to save the gull feathers. Oh! Gull! Have I been thoughtless? I beg pardon!”