It was well past noon when they noticed Ann's absence. Everyone was busy with preparation for the Yuletide feast.
The huge Yule log had been dragged in from woodland three fields away. Now it lay in the Great Hall hearth to be lit tonight from the remains of last year's ember which had been safely stored on a special shelf in the chimney. Every nook and cranny was decorated with garlands of holly and other evergreens. Sunlight pouring in through high windows shone on waxy green leaves making the dark red berries glisten.
Donald made his way through the mud to the warband's winter barracks next to the cattle sheds. He was sure he would find his sister treating the never-ending toll of cuts, bruises and hacking coughs brought on by the bitter weather and the need to search further afield for fresh fodder and fuel for both livestock and people. As the only remaining unmarried daughter of the chieftain, Ann was responsible for the health and welfare of their tribe now her mother slept with the ancestors.
Brian, the warband leader, was busy showing young lads from the settlement how to hack an enemy to death using a straw filled dummy. He wasn't happy to be disturbed.
“No, she isn't here." Brian grumbled at Donald. "Check with Michael, she was heading for the kitchens the last time I saw her."
Donald let flow a string of newly acquired curses, "She's not in the kitchens, she's not in the solar, she's not in the cellars and she's not down in the infirmary!" He was angry his younger sister was taking up so much of his time when he wanted to be making his own preparations for tonight's feast. "Dan says she's not been in the stables either."
Brian sheathed his sword and sighed. This wasn't the first time Ann had gone missing. As a child he was always retrieving her from various hiding places, but it was a long time since she'd disappeared without telling someone where she was going.
"It's not like Ann to go running off when there's things to do," Donald admitted, worry edging his words.
"Get on with your duties, lad," Brian told him, "She's not gone far in this weather. I'll find her" He pulled on his sheepskin boots and wrapped a great cloak of furs around his broad shoulders. The cloak was warn in places and spattered with mud from recent forays, but as he strode out into the yard, his long, bronze hair looked like a great ball of fire moving amongst the buildings.
He climbed up the watchtower, thinking he might see her if she'd made her way outside the settlement. His keen eyes gazed out over meadows and fields then he caught sight of something blue fluttering in the cruel wind by the wall on top of the far hill. The huge winter sun was just beginning to touch the horizon, bringing with it the longest night of the year. Brian had already seen the full moon risen high over the hills behind him, the pale silver circle foretelling the power of the Goddess in the night sky.
Brian left the settlement quickly, passing bondsmen feeding sheep in the near pasture and went up the hill to the high stone wall. On the other side was a ploughed field, dark brown clods stiff with frost. The wall was sheltered on his left by a patch of woodland. To his right stood a single line of fir trees, beyond which lay the small stone circle high on the cliffs overlooking the sea.
Ann was sitting on a flat stone on top of the stile, wrapped in her new blue cloak, watching the sunset. She seemed totally mesmerised by the scene, hardly noticing when Brian climbed up and sat beside her.
"You've set them all searching for you!"
Ann did not reply, but he caught sight of two fat tears trickling down her cheeks to join the dark stain on the collar of her cloak.
"What's wrong, lass?" His deep voice was gentle as he wiped away the tears.
"It's so beautiful," she whispered at last, "and it's leaving us!" Brian covered her small hand with his and felt how cold she was. He drew her towards him, wrapping his cloak around both of them.
"It will be back tomorrow," he soothed her. "Didn't we welcome the birth of the child this morning in the fougou beside the outer wall?"
Ann continued to stare at the setting sun. "I saw them fighting, Brian!" She shivered. "There was so much blood spilled. You wouldn't think an old man had so much blood in him!"
For a moment Brian wondered what she was talking about. There had been no battles on this land for several years now and certainly none where old men had fought and died. Then he realised what she had come here to see - the battle between the Holly King, God of the waning year and the victorious Oak King, who would rule over the waxing year and bring in summer.
Brian rubbed her cold arms and hands. "Come back, Annie, that's not a good vision for a feast day like this. We should be celebrating. They'll be lighting the Yule log soon and starting the feast."
"But the Oak King had to win," Ann might have been talking to herself, "otherwise the wheel won't turn and the sun will set and not rise again; but it was so hard, with the Mother here in her fullness, both of them wanted to stay with her! Who would have thought the old man would have fought so hard!"
Brian wrapped Ann up with his arms and held her tightly. The sky was crystal clear in the freezing air with hardly a wisp of cloud to reflect the pale pinks and blues around the sun.
Brian nestled her head against his shoulder and rocked her as he would have done a child. "He wasn't always an old man, love,"
"I know." Ann's voice was tinged with sadness, "How could he have grown so old over just half a turn of the wheel?
"All Gods can do as they wish," Brian told her gently, "It’s just an illusion for our eyes."
"But I was standing here watching them fight; they called me to witness! Others came too. They bore the body away and crowned the Oak King with his crown!"
"Others?" Brian wondered who else amongst their people might have been called to view such an ancient battle.
"Colin was here," Ann named a young man who was part of the warband, "but I didn't know any of the others."
"The king dies and is reborn again," Brian said, trying to find the words to bring his charge back from her terrible grief. "It’s the same every year."
"That doesn't make it any easier, knowing events will repeat themselves."
Ann gave a deep sigh and pointed towards the horizon, "Look, it's gone now!" and as he turned, the last reflected rays slid away leaving only the azure sky above.
Ann turned her attention once again to the ploughed field where she had watched the battle such a short time before. "We should mark the spot where he fell."
"How?" Brian squeezed her hand. "Plant a tree? Plant another stone?”
"I don't know. I've not been a witness before to such an event." She turned and searched his face, hoping to find a solution to her continuing confusion. "Father will be angry if we mark his ploughed land."
Brian cleared his throat, "Your father doesn't plough up here amongst the stone circle."
"They didn't fight amongst the stones, it was there in the field" She pointed to a spot about ten feet in front of them. "They came out of the wood; the other witnesses came with them and that's the way they went back, through the trees." She wriggled free from his hold and climbed down the other side of the stile into the field. Holding up her cloak and skirts, she began to search amongst the clods.
Brian followed her. "What are you looking for?"
"But . . . Ann!"
"The night you were left for dead by the raiders and I found you, the soil was coated with your blood. It was sticky. I kept slipping in it."
Brian closed his eyes for a brief moment remembering that time so many years ago. Raiders from the sea had lured them into an ambush. A hastily thrown axe pierced his body armour and he’d been left for dead. Then it was Ann who’d come searching for him, insisting his broken body could be healed. It was months before he could fight again, but she’d saved his life.
"Yes," Brian agreed, "but I'm not a God."
"But I saw it! He bled! There were great gashes in his front!"
"He's a God, Ann!"
She looked at him, her eyes glittering, "I don't understand. What does the old man being a God have to do with him not leaving any blood? I saw it, I bore witness!"
Brian thought. "First of all, he's not really an old man, he's just . . . he's everywhere, not just here. You saw an image of him here and thousands of others saw him in other places."
Ann's expression was distraught, "I held his head in my arm as his spirit left. I wiped the blood from his face with my skirt. I wept for him!"
"Look at your skirt, lass."
Ann pointed to a small dark patch on the material. "It's still there, look! Do you still doubt me?"
Brian knelt down and inspected the dark stain. "It's dry, Annie, blood doesn't dry so quickly, even in this wind. I don't doubt you at all, lass. I'm sure you saw what you think you saw. You've been given a great gift by the Gods. However, the nature of what you saw is not of this world."
"It doesn't feel like you believe me," Ann retorted, "it feels like it used to be when I saw pictures in the fire and Mother beat me, or I saw faces in the water barrel and everyone laughed at me. I was so sure it was real but now I have no proof! How can I bear witness if I have no proof?"
Brian stood up and grasped her firmly by the shoulders, his sea-green eyes boring into hers. "I'm neither laughing at you nor beating you. You have proof for yourself, lass!"
"But isn't a witness supposed to tell other people?"
"Tell what you saw if you think it is necessary. You saw it; you experienced it, that should be enough. Those who want to believe will, those who don't won't, whether you have evidence or not."
Ann thought about this for a few moments then she said, "It's not up to us to give others faith, is it? They have to find it for themselves."
"So this was for me.
"It seems likely."
Ann digested this and then nodded, "For Colin, it was different and would be different. He hailed the new king and beat his drum and laughed and sang as he followed the procession down through the wood."
"So my grief at the old king's passing was my grief at a time of change."
"Or just your grief for the old king."
Ann looked at Brian and smiled for the first time. "I didn't want to let go but I had to." She ran her hand down the side of her skirt, "I was afraid of change, but it's all right, I understand that now. It took the Old King's blood to draw me out of myself, to grow."
"Yes, I see you do understand." Brian took her hand in his and squeezed it. Here was his Master’s daughter, his charge, a girl no longer, but a woman born to live her life as best she could.
"You have found the secret of Yuletide," he said as he wrapped his arms around her in a fond embrace. "You must let go of the past and reawaken the joys of hope and possibility,"
As he finished speaking and bent to kiss her cheek, a huge flock of birds rose from the field and circled above them, calling loudly as if in agreement.