Tuuli was looking after a score of younger children of the village. They were doing their part in preparation of the celebration. She had actually been surprised when Talvikki had given her so much responsibility. She definitely wasn’t the model of good behavior herself, but she had just told her it was about time to learn.
It had actually worked. Even though the stuff the children were supposed to do wasn’t terribly important, she was determined to get it done well and impress her big sister. There just was something about Talvikki that made you want to do her bidding. As they headed for the river where boatmen had left some firewood, she wondered if Talvikki did it with some kind of spell.
The river flowed in from the north and to the lake Starpath several hundreds of meters east of the village. When the children reached it, a delegation from another tribe was just crossing the ford. She recognized them immediately by their dark blue vests with red runes. These were from one of the villages of the Icewind tribe, many days’ journey to north and east from here. It must be one of the last groups, Tuuli thought.
People from other tribes had been arriving day and night during the last week. There had to be a hundred visitors in Starpole by now. Most of the families with larger houses had taken in another family so that there would be houses for the guests to stay in. In the old days each family had taken one or two guests to stay with them, but they had discovered that this new arrangement was better for everyone. There was little love lost between the tribes during these scarce days. The festival had become less about joy or friendship and more about having to tolerate each other in order to honor the traditions.
This was a larger group than most. There were nine young muscular warriors with long spears. Why were they all men? Tuuli wondered. Behind them came two others, who wore long ornamental bands of algaweave on their robes. Shamans, Tuuli thought. Two shamans from the same tribe. That’s strange. There was an old hunchbacked woman and a younger haughty-looking man with short cut black hair and sharp blue eyes. She realized she had stopped and the children were excitedly whispering behind her. They had noticed the same thing.
“The young one must be her apprentice,” said a blonde older girl whose name was Helka.
“She looks like Adoteriel, but even older than him. And look how crooked she is. Perhaps she is a bear,” giggled a little boy named Max.
There was no way she could have heard. The children were more than fifty meters upstream from the incoming party. And yet at the exact moment Max had said that, the old woman had turned her head and looked directly at him with cold, black eyes. Max cried out.
Tuuli turned to the children and said, “Hey. Let’s focus here. Stop that. It’s not polite to stare at others.”
“But she’s staring at me,” Max moaned and sounded he was about to start crying.
“There, there now,” Tuuli said and caressed his messy brown hair. “Don’t let nasty old women scare you, young warrior.” Then she continued, “Helka, I, Tom and Ulf will take big ones. All others, grab as much as you can carry from that pile of twigs. Let’s head back.”
The village boatmen had brought in firewood earlier from the forests upriver. As they gathered up the logs, Tuuli looked again at the group of Icewinders. They had gone through the eastern gate and were inside the fence now. Near the gate there was a small striped kitten trying to catch a black bird. It didn’t seem to have much success.
Tuuli didn’t like these people. Somehow the forest dwellers looked always as if they were angry. Was it because it was colder there or something? she wondered. She liked even the Sea People better, although she would never admit it to her big sister. She always spoke how the Starborn peoples should hold together. The sailors were very strange with their square beards and bizarre tools, but at least they smelled nice and spicy. Not at all like the wet dog stench the Icies had.
Bathing it the lake had taken her longer than she had expected. After almost a week in the wild, she had been so soaked in dirt it had been next to impossible to get it off quickly. It wasn’t until she gave in and tried the soap Ahiram had given her as an apology, she managed to get her hair clean. Staring at the green, sweet smelling brick she felt sullen and childish at the same time.
After her swim, Talvikki had returned home and switched into her ceremonial robe. The long vestment was covered with finely braided colorful runes, small glittering scales and bright uncut gemstones. She had mixed feelings about getting so dressed up. It was the tradition and yet somehow it didn’t seem entirely proper. The Midsummer was not about her, but about celebrating life. She would prefer to approach the higher powers humbly in plain clothing, but then again perhaps they saw all the prettiness as a show of respect. Either way, now was not the time to ruminate on it.
She hastily grabbed her blue jeweled Waterword necklace and headed out. It was getting dark and the celebration was about to begin. She could see hundreds of torches glowing and could hear jubilation coming from the direction of the square. “Everyone must already be there,” she thought. She picked up her pace as she approached the middle of the village. It would not do to be late, when the elders and all the guests from other tribes were waiting for her.
She was pretty much the last person to arrive. Almost four hundred happy revelers had already started with the mead stored in huge barrels lining one side of the square. Now they were waiting to dig into the totally inappropriate and unsanctifiable menu Ahiram had provided. At least the tahini sauce went pretty well along with grilled meat. What did I just think? Am I starting to soften up?” she wondered. Then she realized she was smiling to herself. Perhaps I am. And perhaps it’s all right. Tuuli would say it’s party time, after all.
Chatter and laughter echoed all around her. It seemed people were having a good time. She looked around and after a little while found her sister. She was sitting at the end of one of the outer tables where the children were eating. Her drinking horn was so large it looked silly in the girl’s small hands.
Talvikki sneaked behind her and suddenly asked loudly, “Have you watered that mead down?”
She jumped up splashing the drink all over her face. Still startled, the dark haired girl started to answer, “No. I mean yes. Lots of water. Um… What? It’s Midsummer. You can’t do that today.”
“Just kidding,” Talvikki smiled, “but since you’re using a horn that big, it’s no refills for you, young lady. And only milk for the young ones, mind you.”
Tuuli relaxed seeing the unusually good mood her sister was in. Quite a surprise actually considering how angry she had been with the captain earlier.
“But now I need you to help me a little. Make sure all the kids are ready for the dance when I call for you. I’ll have to find the ceremonial torch. It’s time to light up the bonfire. Have you seen the elders?”
“Yippee! I mean right away. We’ll be ready when you need us, high shaman,” she answered and almost managed to sound seriously respectful. “And the old guys are at the big table over in the middle. Where else, Tee?”
Talvikki raised an eyebrow at the excited bunch of young hunters and huntresses. “All right then. I’ll give you a sign when it’s time. And keep your hands off the mead barrels.”
She headed for the middle of the square where the long table for the elders and most prestigious guests sat near the gargantuan bonfire.
“Are you trying to say it is not a punishment from the gods then? Don’t you think we deserve to be punished for our sins, elder?” the old woman demanded Adoteriel.
Talvikki was now sitting at the table of the elders and really wished she were at one of the children’s tables instead. It had been several hours since she had lit the bonfire and started the celebration proper. The crowd had been excited for the grandest summer fire most had ever seen. Somewhat annoyingly they had been even more excited about the food. People kept coming by the table and praising captain Ahiram for his generosity and the great cooking of his homeland. Of course, after having paid back the food price to Adoteriel, Ahiram had told everyone how he had donated the delicacies for the feast. And every time someone came to thank him, he gave her a meaningful grin across the table. Well… At least there seems to be joy in the celebration, Talvikki thought, less than thrilled.
That was except for Rika, the ancient and equally wrinkled Icewind shamaness. While others tried to enjoy the celebration, she ate or drank nothing. Instead she insisted on talking about all the dark events she had witnessed recently. She spoke about birds vanishing, people falling ill and no children being born. It was now the second consecutive hour she had been pestering the old Adoteriel about these things. Shamans from several other tribes were also sitting at the same table with all the Starpole tribe leaders. There was Anna, a younger blonde healer from Wingblade tribe and Jorgen, a greying but strong war-shaman of the Treedancers along with several others. Behind them of the far end of the table sat some of the Starpole councilmen, Juuvel, Swana and Ulrick. After some initial agreement, the consensus was that this was not a proper time to address such dark matters. It was after all the greatest celebration of the year where people should be happy and thankful.
This did not keep the unpleasant old woman from harassing everyone, especially the Starpole eldest. Adoteriel was a short clean-shaven man in his seventies. With the support of the council of elders, he managed to run the village adequately, but no-one would have called him a strong or decisive leader. He was clearly in discomfort under the barrage of questions and demands coming from the Icewinder.
Ahiram tried to interject politely, “Respected madam of Icewind. Perhaps it is not for us mortals to question the will of God. In Baalqan we have this proverb that …”
“Speak not of your heathen god!” the old shamaness burst out. Standing up she screamed, “You infidels should not even be here.”
Talvikki stood up as well and shouted at her, “Shut up, old woman! That is quite enough!”
Rika looked as if Talvikki had physically struck her. She fell back on her seat. It was obvious she had not expected such furious response. Silence fell upon the table and some people sitting close by turned to look at them.
After giving the old woman a long, harsh look Talvikki sat back down and continued in a softer voice, “I don’t care who you think you are. You will not come to this table and insult our guests. This is a sacred festival of joy and I won’t have you spoil it with your dismal blathering. Now, either join in the celebration or leave us.”
The old woman grumbled and threw a murderous glance at her, but said no more. Talvikki ignored her.
She stood up again raising her drinking horn, “It’s soon time for the Dance of the Summer Fire. Let us toast for our good fortune and the blessings of the summer.”
“Hear, hear!“ everyone but one rose and joined her toast, “Skål!”