Imbolc, a Tale of Hope




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Mother had died with the first cold breath of autumn. By midwinter, father had joined her, his heart broken and his will spent. Then the soldiers came to take the house, and little Snowdrop walked out into the cold gray evening, hungry and alone.

Those first weeks, she went around to every home she could find. Sometimes she would be allowed to spend the night, sometimes she would be given food. But as the winter grew darker, food became scarce, and no one had anything to to spare for a wandering child. "Go find your family," they would say. Snowdrop had no answer.

She followed the trail that left the small village that was the only place she had ever known. Perhaps somewhere over the hills, there would be other houses. In those houses would be kind people, warm beds, and bread and cream to eat.

It was afternoon, and the sky was dark and heavy with clouds. Snow came, small flakes like fairy dust at first, then larger flakes coming in thick, swirling waves. Snowdrop was cold and miserable. She knew it would be dark soon, and she had no place to sleep.

Near the path was a large hill, with a shadowy hollow near its base, under an overhang of black rock. As Snowdrop approached, she saw that the hollow opened into a cave. She went inside. It was dark and cold, but it was dry, and there was no wind inside. She settled down into a bed of moldering leaves against the cave wall, and was soon fast asleep.

When she woke there was light outside. Not the yellow light of summer that she remembered from happier days, but the somber half-light of a winter morning. She sat for awhile, staring out the cave entrance, not knowing what to do.

After some time, she heard footsteps outside. A man was walking toward the cave. "Hello," said Snowdrop. The man was startled, for he could not see her in the dark. He stepped inside and stood there for awhile, to let his eyes get used to the darkness inside the cave.

"Who are you?" he said at last, having found her small shape sitting on the leaves.

"I'm Snowdrop," she said. "Mother and father died," she added, anticipating the inevitable question.

The man sat down on the cave floor near her. "I followed the footsteps in the snow. Do you live here?"

"No," she said. "I don't live anywhere."

"I'm lost," said the man. "I was traveling to Welltown, but I must have taken the wrong way. Here," he said, "have some food." He handed her a piece of dry bread and a leather bottle with water in it. She ate the bread quickly, and took a couple swallows of the water. "I can't stay here very long," he said with a sad voice. "I need to try to find my way again, while it is still light. Let me make a fire here, so you can stay warm at least."

Snowdrop watched the man leave the cave and return with some twigs and dry grass and a small branch that must have fallen from a tree. With a tinderbox, he started a fire near the entrance to the cave, and before long the log was red with flame.

"If get to Welltown, I will send people to come look for you," he said. "You'll be safe and warm here for a little while." He opened his pack and looked inside. His face seemed strained. "Here," he said, and gave her two more pieces of bread. She guessed they were all he had.

The man left, and it became very quiet. The light faded, and Snowdrop sat looking at the glowing coals of the fire, feeling now very hungry and very alone.

In her sleep that night, she dreamed she saw a beautiful woman, like her mother, but with hair made of summer sunshine and eyes like a cloudless summer sky. The woman smiled at her and said, "Do not let the fire burn out. Keep it burning through cold and darkness, until the warm days come again. They will come, I promise. But you must do your part. You must keep the fire burning."

Snowdrop woke suddenly and looked at the fire. Nothing remained but one small coal that still had a spot or two of red glow along its edges. She crawled around the dark cave until her hands found the extra pieces of kindling and the half a branch the man had left for her to use later. Gently, with greatest care, she coaxed the fire back to life from the single coal. She drifted off to sleep again.

The next day, though she was weak from hunger and very tired, she ventured out and gathered more wood. The next day, she did the same, and melted snow for water to drink. The pains of hunger overwhelmed her, and she could hardly lift her arm to put wood on the fire. I wonder if I will die tonight, she thought.

The next morning, she woke to find herself curled up against a soft, very warm blanket of wool. Lifting her head, she gasped. The blanket was no blanket. It was a sheep - a sheep with soft white wool and a gentle black face. The sheep opened its eyes and seemed to smile.

The sheep stood up and Snowdrop saw that she was a ewe, and her belly was swelling with new life. Snowdrop had often helped her mother milk their goat, and now she drew milk from the sheep and drank it hungrily. It was delicious, warm and sweet like cream. The sheep looked into Snowdrop's eyes, and to the little girl it seemed the sheep offered her a kindness greater than anyone in the village had ever given.

Snowdrop passed the winter in that cave, living on the ewe's milk and the water from melted snow. She kept the fire burning, and she grew a little stronger each day. She never dreamed of the beautiful woman again, but she thought of her when the first warm days came and the buds swelled green on the branches of the trees again.

Seasons of the Goddess is a regular feature of Starweaver's Gems from Earth and Sky

Copyright © 2008 Tom Waters