Longest Night

A Fantasy Short Story by Jane Jago

Longest Night

by Jane Jago
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It was the longest night, and the cold was such that standing still would be a death sentence. There was no snow, but the frost was so deep that the world shone coldly white in the moonlight.

A procession of dark-clad figures marched through the forest, moving in and out of patches of moonlight so they seemed to appear and disappear like demons or frikii. Nothing could be seen of the figures except their silhouettes, as each was clad from head to foot in dark coloured fur, and had a deeply cowled hood obscuring his or her face, and they kept their hands tucked inside the wide sleeves of their robes. Their pace was a measured one, taking into consideration, one has to assume, the smallness of some of the party and the consequent shortness of their legs.

Nobody spoke, and it wasn’t until a dog fox coughed somewhere in the undergrowth that the solemn processional progress of the group was interrupted. A small figure in the centre of the line jumped, and gave voice to an undignified squeak. The figure behind her, reached out a hand and briefly touched her shoulder, for this was surely a young girl by the voice,.

“‘Twas naught but a fox,” the voice was deeply masculine and amused, though not unkindly so.

They fell silent again, and the only sound was the crunching of booted feet on frozen loam. As they came out of the shadow of the trees, the air behind them was rent by a scream. It was the sort of a sound one might associate with an animal in a trap so desolate and fearful was the sound. Only this was not an animal in torment, this voice was human. Each figure in the procession bowed his or her head a little lower, and the leader made a sound of disgust deep in his chest.

If only we had time…”

But we do not.” The voice was female and authoritative. “We must keep moving. The lady is almost at her time and she must be somewhere warm.”

The leader shrugged his heavy shoulders and the column moved on.

Far ahead of them, a light appeared on the edge of the next patch of forest. It blinked twice, then was extinguished. The leader of the column looked and his shoulders dropped.

We have to leave the path. There are soldiers in the forest.”

The lady will never make it over rough ground.”

I will make whatever I have to. Lead and I will follow.” The voice was low, and cultured and beautiful.

There being no proper response to such courage except to carry on, the column left the relative smoothness of the forest path and struck out uphill.

It was bad going, and steep, and even the strongest had all they could do not to founder. However, the smallest figure of all remained ramrod straight and even though all her companions felt the effort each step cost her, she gave no sign of her travail. The bulky-shouldered leader, who had been reluctant to set out on such a mission on such a night began to admit in the darkest recesses of his soul that this woman might just be worth the effort.

There was movement in the undergrowth and for a second he thought them betrayed, then the face resolved itself in the brutal moonlight. It was a wide, plain face with strangely green eyes and a bedraggled beard, and it belonged to the hermit whose forest chapel they were aiming for.

This way,” the man hissed, “the chapel is surrounded”.

The column turned wearily and the hermit led them down a scree-littered slope and along the margins of a frozen river to where a goat track wound its way up the valley. The leader’s heart sunk to his boots at the thought of leading his weary folk up that black thread of track, but their guide made no attempt to climb, turning instead up a steeply cut valley that led, if memory served, to what was a crashing waterfall in most weathers.

Now, of course, the forest was silent save for the laboured breathing of the column of weary walkers.

Just as the leader of the column was beginning to fear at least one of their number would soon founder and have to be left to perish in the cold, the hermit stopped and indicated a narrow crack in the rock wall. Too cold to do anything but trust the big man bent his head and wriggled through. As he popped out of the short narrow passage he felt hands guiding him, passing him from one person to another in the darkness. He seemed to be heading for a patch of less blackness, but not by any direct route. It was not quite so cold in the vowels of the earth, and the air was fresh and sweet. The feeling of guiding hands was reassuring so he just went where they directed. He might have been moving through the dark for ten minutes when a voice spoke quietly.

Head down seigneur.”

He ducked obligingly and when he could stand again found himself on a dimly lit sandy walkway with rocks on his left and a wall of solid ice on his right. It came to him with a sense of wonder that he was behind the great waterfall and that perhaps his party was even safe.

He came out of the ice passage onto a ledge where a skin-clad figure awaited the figure lifted a perfect curtain of mossy frondy vegetation, and pointed to an arched opening in the hill through which he could dimly discern the glow of firelight.

He went inside, but instead of following the siren call of the warmth he waited for his people to file in. Next to last came the lady, almost being carried by the young man who had insisted on accompanying her from the castle. Her hood had been thrown back and the bones in her face were standing out against the skin as she struggled for breath.

How long have you been in labour, my lady?”

Since just before we branched off the forest path.”

As that had been more than two hours by his estimation the leader bent and picked her up in his great arms.

Come then, let us take you where there is warmth and light.”

In the end there was more than warmth and light, there was food and safety as well.

But as the lady’s pains came swifter, the forest dwellers withdrew leaving only his column around the silently suffering woman. The one other adult female wrung her hands together.

I know naught of birthing, save that women die of it daily,” she sounded on the very edge of panic.

The young girl who had jumped and squeaked at the bark of a fox stepped forward.

Don’t be silly. The reason we are here is to make sure nobody dies.”

The older woman was about to round on her when the lady spoke.

The pains are coming thick and fast now.”

After that the young girl took charge with a calm competence that inspired both admiration and trust, and there, beside a charcoal brazier and on a bed of straw the king’s leman gave birth to the child his lady wife had sworn would never be born. It was a lusty boy, and both mother and child bore the birth well.

Once they were comfortable with the babe asleep in his mother’s arms, the young midwife stepped back.

How do you come to know so much about childbirth?” the column leader’s question was idle but still demanded an answer.

I don’t really sir. But the way I saw it it couldn’t be much different from lambing. And nobody else was going to take responsibility.”

The stunned silence was broken by the sound of laughter from the makeshift pallet where the lady lay.

Perhaps,” she said carefully, “we should call him lamb”.

Forty years later, when the babe born on the longest night ascended to his father’s throne and the priest called out his names to those who would swear fealty the assembled lords and ladies learned that their royal master was to be known as King Rollo Antonius Lamb the First.

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