Long ago in the Clan of Leo, there was an old house-carl. He had served his house well, guarding its gates against all its foes. Bravely he fought against all their foes. Now, he sat by the fire, half-blind and crippled by time. Yet honored still by the grey-haired Matriarch and few old servants that remembered his deeds.
In the Fall of the year, change came. Golden and Red were the leaves and slowly they had started to fall. With the fall of the leaves came sadness. For the grey-haired lady of the hall sickened and died. Wails and weeping filled the hall as all mourned the loss of their Matriarch. The old man silently wept as well. She had always been kind to him. Well, he remembered the lady from olden days. When he was a young guardsman and she a little girl, he carried her on his shoulders. He had played her horse, galloping about as she rode his shoulders. Running with her, laughing with her and bandaging her scraps when she fell. And after Father Time had taken his strength, she had given him a place by the firepit all his own.
The funeral was the following day. The old man left his seat at the fire to limp down to the sea. A Witness for the Dead, he spoke of her kindness and loyalty. There he stood and watched as they gave his old friend to the sea. Then he returned to his seat by the fire.
A year passed and the old man remained by the fire. For the Matriarch’s son, the new Earl still remembered his mother’s promise, and the stories of the old man’s service. With the new Fall came new sounds to the hall. Laughter and song, the rings of bells and clash of gongs. With the pounding of drums and the thrill of flutes, the Earl brought his new wife to the hall. There was much singing and dancing that night as the people welcomed their new Matriarch. The feast went on til the wee hours of the morn. Only the old man sat silent. He heard the new voice in the hall and he liked it not. T’was a hard, demanding voice, with little hint of kindness or courtesy. Ill would come from such a voice. Great ill, the old man thought.
So he sat quiet by the fire. Once the feast was over and the hall had emptied, the old man sadly sung of yesteryear and all that was gone.
Thus a new matriarch came to the hall.
The Winter Solstice drew near,
bringing with it Yuletide and holiday cheer.
The old man banished from the hall.
He walks out into the snow.
His body found and given to the sea in the Spring.
And when Winter comes. At the first snowfall during Yuletide, his ghost comes to the hall. A frozen ghost seeking the fire. Each year after, on the Solstice, the old man’s ghost came to the hall to huddle by the fire, trying to find warmth.
Since an insult to the pride of the Earl and Lady could not be borne, that the ghost of an old man should deny them their own hall. Every year just before the yuletide, they would promise a great reward to whoever would rid the hall of its unwanted guest. Many tried. Warriors fought the ghost, only for their blows to fall on wisps of air. Their struggling fingers slipping through his scraggly form. Bards attempted to charm the ghost out with song. Their harp strings snapped from the cold and the reeds of their pipes froze to their lips. Healer tried to repair his ghostly form with potions. Witches tried burning herbs and magic spells. All failed to drive the ghost from the hall or cut the bonds that held him there.
So each year the Earl and his Lady abandon the hall, leaving the ghost to huddle by the dying fire. They fled to the friends and relatives and celebrated the yuletide in another’s hall.
Three years passed and the Lady has a daughter. And still the ghost troubled their hall.
Seven years pass and yuletide came again. And still the ghost came to trouble their hall. The Earl and Lady fled the hall once again. But the little girl forgot her favorite toy, a small stuffed bear. None saw when she turned back. None saw as she ran up the hill. None saw as she entered the hall.
The hall was dark and cold. An old man huddled close to the embers of the dying fire. The girl paused.
“Who are you?” She asked. “Why are you here?”
“So cold.” He murmured shivering next to the fire. His hands stretched out to the blaze. “So cold. So cold.”
The girl looked round the empty hall. She smiled. That made her the host, in charge of all the hall.
“Then warm yourself by the fire.” She commanded. “I will bring wood.”
So through the long night, the girl walked from the firepit to the woodpile and back, bring armfuls of fuel to feed the fire. And through the night, the ghost slowly took on a rosy glow. His white, frozen skin taking on the signs of health again. As dawn breaks, the ghost smiled at the girl.
“I am finally warm.” He said. A gentle breeze blows through the hall and the old man faded away. “Thank you.” He whispered to her, raising a hand in farewell. “Thank you.” And he vanished, never to be seen again.
By this time, the Earl and Lady realized their daughter was not with them. Rushing back to the empty hall, they found only the frozen form of an old man. Their daughter was gone. It is said there is a new wanderer in the storms of winter. A small laughing girl dancing among snowflakes. She visits campfires and halls round the yuletide. They say she is not real, just a shadow from the fire.
Yet, wherever the girl was, fires seemed to burn just a little bit brighter and the flames flickered just a little more cheerfully. Some say the ghost watching over her. Others say she is magic. And some say it is only the wind. I say we will never know. Yet just to be sure, throw a little more wood on the fire, in case the ghost or wanderer need a little warmth.
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© 2019 H.A. Austin