• “Call me crazy, Ais, but I really don’t think there are “ancient zombie singers” anywhere in that song,” Adair said hesitantly. “Or any other Mid Winter carols, for that matter.”

    Aislinn shrugged and continued humming softly to herself as she sauntered away, her hoofs echoing off the icy cobbles. Brom shot Adair a questioning look, and she shrugged in response. “We don’t have many centaur bards for a good reason. They have great ears, just not for music so you get things like zombies and the like quite often.”

    Snow had been falling steadily all day, gentle flurries of fat flakes. It was the perfect sort of winter day, the wind light and the sun peering through the clouds from time to time to glitter on the snow covered landscape. Heavy woollens and furs were still needed, especially now as the sun began to slip toward the western horizon, but it was unnecessary to bundle. The press of bodies and the constant movement had turned most of the snow in the courtyard to slush, and helped to warm the surrounding bodies. Brom kicked at a near-by mound of the slush as he watched the loading of the sledge, the gnomes darting nimbly amid the sea of centaur legs. Thus far, he hadn’t heard the yelp or squeal of pain he had expected which was certainly a bonus; he just didn’t know how it was possible. Adair was no help on the matter, saying the gnomes had worked out a system that seemed to work, since it was hard for eyes eight to ten feet above the ground to see them.

    The activity had kept him mildly perplexed all day: sacks and packages where being loaded on to a sledge, and some of the centaurs were drinking more than usual. The Mid Winter spirit appeared to have hit Storm Hold in a big way, but Brom couldn’t, for the life of him, figure out why. Mid Winter was usually a time to be thankful, and while Storm Hold was wealthy and prosperous, they had been in constant skirmishes to protect their borders for ten years. They were good natured enough, but wary of outsiders – any human that was not Adair was immediately classified as a hostile until proven otherwise. Brom had passed beyond that and was considered not one of them, but enough like them to come and go as he wished, which was a rare privilege indeed.

    “Adair, what exactly is happening, any way? It looks like someone’s leaving,” Brom asked, unable to take the suspense any longer.

    “We are, but we’ll be back by dawn. It’s tradition! The gnomes work hard all year to make these things, and we send a group out every year on Mid Winter’s Night to deliver them.”

    “So you spend all night playing Holly King, bringing presents to all the good little children?”

    “Something like that,” Adair smiled. “But I somehow doubt that the legends have quite the colourful band that we do. We’ll wait until dusk, then suit up and head out. We avoid the towns or major settlements, but there are enough on the fringes, little farms mostly, to keep us busy for the night. The gods know, these are the only toys some of these little ones see and we try to leave some tools that their parents can use to keep themselves going. Farm implements usually, but we have a loom in pieces in there for one family.”

    The rational was simple: by keeping the neighbours happy, those few scattered settlers were unlikely to cause problems in the future. The poor farmers didn’t cause problems, it was the soldiers from established cities who oversaw the farms. Scouts from Storm Hold, patrolling with their falcons, kept their eye on the families through the course of the year, watching for births, deaths, or damages to equipment. New settlements were also watched, and on Mid Winter’s Night, they loaded up a sledge and a large party of volunteers would set out in belled harnesses and distribute the gifts. Most of the adults knew what happened, the hoof prints in the snow in the yard serving as ample proof, but the children and some of the more naive adults swore that the Holly King himself delivered the gifts as thanks, before submitting to the Oak King and the light half of the year.

    The Council had laughed at the idea nine years ago when Adair first proposed it, but she and the Darkmane clan had set out at dusk with half a dozen eager gnomes to visit the four closest farms. For many months afterwards, nothing seemed to happen and the Council felt justified in its decision to discourage a larger venture. When the harvest began, however, those farmer began to arrive at the gates of Storm Hold with baskets of apples, jars of preserves, spun wool, or other small gifts. It wasn’t much, only what they themselves could afford to spare, but the message was a clear thank you. There were even willing human hands to aid in Storm Hold’s grain harvest, something never before seen. That Mid Winter, the Darkmane clan was joined by a dozen volunteers and they visited eight of the outlying farms and settlements. The numbers had only increased since then, and now multiple parties were sent out.

    The bells came later, the result of the drunken antics of brothers Kendrin and Dak Darkmane.

    The air seemed to palpitate with excitement as the lanterns were lit; two hung from the front posts of the sledge and every other gnome seemed to carry one. Kendrin stood up after fastening the last strap around his left ankle and gave all four legs a shake. The brass sleigh bells jingled merrily and he flashed a grin to Brom. He then began to fasten himself into a belled harness at the front of the sledge, being one of four large centaurs chosen to pull it. His sister, Akiva, stood beside him, fastening her own harness. While she was not pulling the sledge, being too delicate and more given to speed than strength, she was accompanying the group. As Brom watched, she knelt down while a lantern bearing gnome climbed up onto her snow-white back.

    Brom’s jaw fell slack.

    “It’s just for one night,” Adair explained before climbing up onto the seat of the sledge. “None of them will permit themselves to be ridden again until next Mid Winter, and only then it will be to carry one of the lantern bearer.” She pulled a fur over her lap and took the reigns in hand. Hesitatingly, Brom pulled himself up beside her as more of the gnomes piled into the back.

    “We’re ready to go, Adair,” Aislinn announced, cantering up to the side of the sledge. “Everything is loaded, and everyone who’s coming is hitched, harnessed and waiting for you.”

    Adair grinned at her adoptive mother and nodded. With a light flick of the reins she called out, “Merrily, we go!” and the party started out into the setting sun. Their jovial demeanour continued as the freely moving centaurs raced and chased one another in the fresh powder. The gentle flurry seemed to grow stronger as snow was kicked up or thrown alongside the steadily moving sledge, and the laugher and songs of the party filled the darkening air. Piercing through the merriment and revelry, rang out the clear, delicate jingling of the bells.

    Night fell quickly, and before long Adair and Brom were huddled into their heavy cloaks and happy for the warm furs across their laps. The centaurs steamed in the lantern light, sweat glistening on their coats, but the two humans did not have the benefit of constant motion to keep them warm. They were stopped for the moment, the team pulling the sledge taking a moment to enjoy long pulls from frosty flasks while gifts were unloaded. The loom was being carried to the porch of the house, gently laid on the bleached wooden planks beside the door. It was in large pieces, and a diagram showing how they were to be attached, as well as a bag containing the necessary bolts, were left tacked to the frame. Some of the centaurs laughed softly as they returned to the sledge, claiming to have heard furtive movements from inside. This family had been visited before, and no doubt had been awakened by the bells as they approached. A doll and hobby horse were left beside the loom and the merry party set out once again. The lights from their lanterns glimmered in the darkness, forming an undulating serpent of light as the family emerged.

    The boy and girl squealed and cried out in delight as they ran forward in the sleeping garments to scoop up their toys and run back to the warmth of the house. Their mother gasped and sagged against her husband for support, her hands pressed firmly over her mouth. Tears glittered in her eyes, and her husband could only shake his head and stare in disbelief at the loom. It was an unexpected blessing, but Mid Winter Night had long ago become a time of miracles. The loom promised goods that they could sell at market, which would in turn buy food stuffs to help them through the winter. The bag of ground flour, hiding in the shadow of the loom, would help see them through this one. He hugged his wife and prayed quietly, blessings the hands and hearts whose generosity had once again provided for his family, before walking back into the house.

    All night, it was the same everywhere they went. The sledge would stop, be quickly unloaded, and the party would set out again. The houses were all still and quiet when they approached, but often lights would spring to life in windows before the party ever made the road. They never saw the faces of the people they left their gifts for, but it somehow mattered less and less as the night wore on. It added to the excitement, not being seen. The sudden flair of a light was enough to send the heart racing. By dawn, the sledge was empty, the pace was a crawl, but the party was elated. “Nothing brightens the darkness of a long winter like an at of kindness,” Kendrin had once panted from the head of the team.

    As they slide through the gates of Storm Hold into the wide market square at dawn, Brom saw the wisdom in the words. They were all exhausted, both in body and mind, and the singing had long ago ceased, but every face wore the same soft smile. They would never be thanked, never receive a gift or reward in turn for their work, but they didn’t care. The harnesses fell to the ground in a thundering ringing and were left for others to collect while the party staggered to their beds. Adair wrapped an arm around Brom’s waist and leaned in to kiss him gently.

    “Well?” she murmured against his ear. “What do you think?”

    “I think I’ve never been so happy to be so tired. You do something incredible here, Adair.”

    Adair simply smiled and waved his comment away. To her, he realized, it really was nothing incredible. She had grown up among the centaur slaves, grown up to hold a far different set of morals and beliefs than any other royal or noble Brom had ever known. In her mind, this was not incredible but the right thing to do. It was the only thing to do, in fact. Brom pulled her close as they wended their way along the quiet snowy streets towards the palace. Dawn’s rosy glow made the buildings along the way seem soft, dream-like. And somewhere far above them, though he could not see the source, Brom would have sworn he heard the faintest, sweetest voices raised in song to greet the reborn sun.