The earth froze. Far away where ice had not yet grasped the air in its fiery breath, rain fell upon rivers so they swelled in darkness and burst their banks. Men and animals fled to high ground to escape the floods, but the hills were covered with snow. Sheep and oxen scraped in vain for frozen grass.
Pale light filled the sky and the men knew day had broken. They looked to the sky for signs of the dreadful conditions easing, but all they saw were black, hanging clouds above the hilltops that spoke of more snow and bitter weather.
Those who laughed and sang when the sun was high and warm grew silent. Harps were stilled. Those lucky enough to have shelter from the elements drew their furs around them and huddled together, only venturing into the icy wind when animals needed feeding or there was water to be drawn from the one well still unfrozen.
They tried not to think of the travellers, making their way along the Ridgeway track for the winter solstice. It was bleak along the top of the hills even on the mildest days, but now the beaten path would be hidden and treacherous under the snow. The old women shuddered and hushed children who were too young to hide their questions.
Would the sun rise again? This was the question on everyone's lips. Would the child of the Triple Goddess be born to bring life and hope to this ice bound world, or would winter hold sway for ever, snow and frost eking their way into carefully hoarded food until even the strongest perished alone under the shadow of the hills?
"Will the priestess come, Granda?" asked a small child. "You said she'd be here to celebrate Yule with us this year?"
"I don't know, little one." The old man shook his head and pulled back the wooden shutter to peer out into the flurries of white. "I don't think there's much hope. We'll just have to pray they found shelter somewhere before the storm struck."
The child seemed about to speak again, but he saw the fear on his grandfather's face and kept his peace, slipping his small hand inside the larger one for comfort and reassurance.
At least they still had food, although no-one felt like eating when they thought of the small party stuck somewhere along the ridge. They gathered around the fire and spoke in low voices, eating their stew quickly and seeking their beds, as if trying to escape from their fears in sleep.
Some time in the middle of the night, the boy awoke. Bright moonlight was shining on his face through a crack in the wattle. The wind had dropped and an eerie calm enveloped the round house, broken only by heavy snores of those still sleeping.
The boy got up and shook his grandfather. "We must go and find the priestess, Granda, or the sun won't rise in the morning."
The old man muttered in his sleep, but the boy persisted, bringing him his fur lined boots and his warmest cloak. Together they went out into the still white world, marvelling at the fullness of the moon shining as bright as day.
"This way." The boy tugged at the old man's arm, leading him down the hill and into a gully where an exposed rock lay half buried under the snow.
"How do you know?" the old man grumbled, but deep in his heart he'd heard the call as well, faint at first, but stronger as they neared the stones. There under the rock they found them, the small group of travellers huddled together for warmth and still alive. The priestess' eyes glittered with the power she had called to herself, but she greeted them with a smile and helped the others as they made their way slowly up to the roundhouse.
The priestess looked up to the sky and urged them to hurry, to wake everyone in the small community so the ritual was not delayed. Bleary eyed, men, women and children stumbled from their furs, holding birch torches in the snow as the priestess led them up to the burial mound at the top of the hill in a dance of welcome to the son of the Triple Goddess.
As they finished the dance and stood watching the moon fade in the darkness, the sky began to lighten above the hills. A sudden brightness shone from behind the highest peak. A beam of gold struck the huge capstan on the sacred stones, lighting the inner chamber for all to see. A great roar rose from the people as they greeted the sun returning to them for another year.
The roar masked groans from the priestess, caught in her own birth pangs, brought on by the journey and the hardship she had suffered. The women took her inside the birthing hut, tending her for many hours until another shout was heard and the healthy cry of a new born babe rang out for all to hear.
"You see, Granda, everything was all right," the boy said solemnly as they sipped a Yule cup together beside the fire. "The sun has returned and we have our own child from the Goddess to care for."
"Aye, lad." The old man's eyes misted over as he ruffled the boy's hair.
Once again, the Goddess shared her greatest gifts amongst them. Spring would come again to the land.