((Notes: This story was written for amusement at Christmas. It is IC in the form of visions. It is a spoof of, and inspired by A Christmas Carol‘ by Charles Dickens, and just as much by The Muppet Christmas Carol by Jerry Juhl and directed by Brian Henson .
The story contains some references to the earlier story, An All-Hallows Eve Dream
Racing down the stairs, tripping over her feet in her haste, Hild made for the kitchen and there as she both feared and hoped, lay her daughter. The air in the kitchen was cold and drafty, a window had been left open to ventilate the smoke, and Hildfrith felt the cold gnaw and bite on her skin. Brona was curled up on the stone kitchen floor, her arms wrapped limply around her knees, hugging herself to try and keep warm. She was breathing very shallowly, her face was pale and drawn, and she appeared to be in a deep state of unconsciousness; trapped in the land of sleep and dreams, and unable to wake on her own.
Kneeling down by the girl’s side, she leant over her, taking up and rubbing the frozen hands that didn’t move or clutch her own, as she had hoped for.
“Brona, Brona! Oh, I am so sorry.” she wailed and cried, as tears ran down her face. They wouldn’t turn to ice, but it was perhaps not so far away, when she felt the ice-cold draft engulf her once again.
It seemed like she was reliving moments from her earlier dream now. Only there was no ghost Yllfa standing with her, and it seemed to her these present few moments were what all the spirits had been pointing to. Her future, Brona’s future, lay in her hands alone now, and she had to do something to save her. For a moment she panicked, looking around her in distress for anything that could help, but her mind was… blank. The fear of losing her daughter took hold more and more with each passing second, before she screamed out for a moment and rose to her feet to break the spell of panic and dread.
Leaving her daughter where she lay for a moment, the woman rushed through to the tavern, unbolting the main door with a protesting screech. She had been taken up in her visions half the night. Now every moment counted.
According to a customer in her last vision she had lay in a drunken stupor for a night and half the following day, while Brona froze to death on the floor. Well, she wasn’t drunk. She was stone cold sober… and Brona was still alive, even if she was in a bad way. She had to get help.
Hild threw the door wide open, and stepped out into the pale, early morning light. Her heart and breath was quick, and her eyes even quicker as she looked around the nearby area. Was anyone out there on this Midwinter morn? Would anyone help? Could anyone help?
Raising a hand to shield her eyes from the brightness of reflected light on the recent snowfall, she looked this way and that, and back again. There was no one in sight. Her best chance lay at the Garrison, she decided. At least some guards would be on duty. She looked down at her bare feet a moment, but her mind was set immediately. She would save Brona if it was the last thing she did.
“Good morning Mistress Hildfrith!”, the voice of a child cried out.
Turning to face up the hill, Hild was both surprised and relieved to see two lads she recognised. Both dwelt with their respective families in small farms near the northern barricades. From the snowballs in their hands they had been intending a snowy game of war, but as she didn’t reply instantly, both drew closer. She didn’t know their names, or at least she couldn’t remember them.
“Boys! Boys, please, can you help me?” she then cried loudly and pleadingly, wrapping her arms now about herself as the chill wind caught her thin night gown.
Both boys tilted their heads questioningly. Then a word was exchanged between them and they both came running at a looping pace, as if their legs were too long for them. They were fast in running, and they exchanged a worried look as they came closer.
“Mistress Hildfrith?” said the first to arrive. “What’s wrong?”
There was nothing for it but to trust these young ‘strangers’ to help. Trust they were good and kindly sorts. Her voice nearly choked on the tears that still ran down from her flickering eyes.
“Please, I need help. My daughter, Brona… you may know her… is very poorly. She is on the floor, freezing cold. Could one of you help me set up the oven fire to warm her… and the other go see if the…”
She drew a deep breath, as she remembered Yllfa, the real Yllfa, was a herbalist and said to be a healer of sorts. But she was away for the night with her man and daughter. The Garrison it had to be then? They had a field surgeon. Hild almost choked again, and had to cough to clear her throat.
“I know of Brona,” said the first boy. He nodded to his more sturdily built, sandy haired companion. “Beocca, you go and help with the fire, eh? I will see about getting more help. You’re stronger. I’m the faster runner.”
Beocca nodded, and smiled grimly at Hild, even as he dropped his collected snow weapons. They would be of no use here, in this time of need.
“Show me what you want me to do, Mistress Hildfrith, and I’ll set to.” He kicked his boots together so he would not trample snow in the tavern, and went inside.
“You are wanting a healer to see her, Mistress?” the first boy remained calm. “She has no broken bones or anything?”
Hild shook her head and wiped the now frozen tears from her cheek. “She is frozen cold. She is barely breathing. That is all I know. I need to warm her fast, but the oven needs relighting.”
There was a flash of green eyes, as the lad took in what he was being told. “Not too fast I think. I remember papa saying that when we had some goats caught out in bad weather. I shall go to the Garrison first, then on to Mistress Northgyth’s. She knows something about healing herbs, I am sure she helped my mama when she was poorly.” With a nod at Hild, he was off on young legs worthy of a spring deer, nearly jumping over the fence and heading downhill towards the main barracks, where help was waiting, though unknowingly.
Hurrying back into the tavern, Hild found Beocca had already covered Brona with his cloak, and was now busy splitting wood and building a fire in the oven. Within moments the fire was going, and he kept feeding the wood to the few flames now dancing in the oven. There was a slightly warmer feeling already, as the fire worked its magic. She shivered, feeling so cold herself, but she would not indulge herself. She slammed the window closed again to keep the heat in, and then she suddenly remembered that she had more blankets upstairs. A mind in panic does not always see things clearly, even when they are right in front of you.
“Thank you,” was all she could whisper as she raced up to her room again, to collect and drag all the blankets and a pillow down the stairs with her. She strove to make Brona as comfortable and as warm as she could, then got under the blanket herself to wrap the girl in her arms. Why had she not done this before? Why had she always found it hard to comfort her daughter? Brona’s breathing was a little stronger perhaps, but each breath seemed to be drawn at the cost of a rattling sound in her chest or throat, and her pulse was still weak.
“I’m sure she will be alright.” Beocca spoke his hope aloud, as he swung the small wood axe again to make smaller pieces to feed the growing flames. Then he stopped a moment to fan the flames with his hands. “Your daughter is a good sort we all think. If me and Wigthegn can help at all, we will.”
‘Wigthegn?’ thought Hild for a fleeting second. That was the other boy’s name.
There was a sound of heavier rushing boots as Captain Denholm, of all people, ran through the open door, pushing it almost closed after him. “What’s going on here, Hildfrith? That lad of Wigelm’s came running in the Garrison saying Brona was almost dead. What’s wrong…?”
The tall captain crossed the tavern floor, halting as he entered the kitchen to see the mother, clinging desperately to her daughter.
“Hild, what happened to her?” He crouched down beside the pair, his voice calming now, but still requiring an answer. He shook Hild’s shoulder gently to make sure he had her attention.
“I left her alone down here last night to clear up, and she must have collapsed. The fire went out, and the window was left open. She is frozen cold. I can’t warm her up.” Hild sobbed and choked on her words.
With a grunt, Denholm gently pushed Hild away, so he could take a better look at Brona.
“I am no healer, but I have seen many men and animals in this state before. If they haven’t been in the cold too long, and can be brought to warmth slowly, they almost all recover. Don’t worry so.” He unfastened his own cloak and added it to the pile.
“Beocca,” he called over to the watching boy. “You are to keep the fire hot and steady there, and to make sure there is enough wood to keep the place warm for some days. Quick now, check the supplies, and if you find it lacking, get more.”
The boy jumped to alert, as if he was already a guard. “Aye, sir!”
“Now Hild,” he spoke to the mother, though his eyes were fixed on the shallow breathing of the girl, and the almost blue tinge of her face and lips. “We need to get Brona to her bed. This floor of stone is doing her no favours. Is her room above the kitchen? We will still need the warmth of the oven, or any good fire.”
“No, no… my room is above… but she can have that… of course she can. I have a fireplace there.” Hild was already disentangling herself from the cloaks, and rising to her feet. She was shivering.
“Very well. Now you are going to have to move because I am not carrying you as well as her. I take it you can walk?” Denholm looked up. He could see Hildfrith was not in a good way herself, but for the moment Brona had to take priority.
Hild nodded. Her eyes widened just a little at the kindness and swift action being shown to her. The captain had not rebuked her, nor even questioned her. Someone was in need, and he was responding. Just as Beocca and Wigtheign had. And this was a man she would have been happy to see in the fight club? Someone she would have only looked to make profit from? The woman sighed, and mentally adjusted the way she saw him. Taking up his cloak from the pile, she said ”Let me be of help, please...”
Denholm prepared himself to carry Brona in his arms, blankets and all, as well he could. “Beocca, get as much wood as you can carry upstairs and start the fireplace in Hild’s room too. Brona will need it.”
The boy did as commanded, and filled his arms with everything he could carry, and rushed upstairs. He struck his toes upon the leg of a chair as he ran. “Blast!” he shouted as he dropped a couple of logs, but he kept going, only with a light limp on his foot.
As the boy hurried upstairs, a rush of air came through the tavern door as Northgyth entered, shaking a light dusting of snow from her shawl and cloak. She also pushed the door almost closed behind her.
“Captain; Hildfrith,” she crossed the floor to the kitchen, then nodded her head to each in turn. “I am told Brona needs rescuing, and Wigthegn says he cannot manage to do it alone?”
“Ah, Northgyth! I am just about to take Brona up to her mother’s room. Follow, if you will, and take a good look at her? I think it’s just that the cold has got to her, but she does have a bump on her head that needs tending.”
‘A bump on her head?’ Hild hadn’t noticed that. For a moment she swayed on her feet. Her head was spinning so that she nearly dropped Denholm’s cloak. Had Brona collapsed and hit her head somehow? Is that why she was so far gone?
Northgyth was beside her in an instant, steadying her. “Lean on me, Hildfrith. We do not need you with a bump on your head as well.”
The silver haired woman leaned forward, as Denholm lifted Brona in his arms, still embraced by the thick blankets. “Let me see her head.”
The captain turned carefully, so Brona’s pale face was close, and Northgyth could see what she needed to. She wrinkled her nose slightly and the man nodded once.
“Well that is discolored enough to see.” Northgyth lightly ran her fingers over Brona’s forehead. “A small bump, there on her temple. And I think she has bruised her cheek too. She has probably hit the floor, or the table, if she collapsed. It could have been worse.”
With a nod of satisfaction, Northgyth stood back to make way to the staircase, then followed up after Denholm, still steadying Hild and now taking charge of the cloak… There was another voice at the door, though this time the person did not fully enter. The people streaming in to help was in itself a good sign, but with too many, nothing would get done.
“Not now, Sergeant. We don't need the surgeon, so tell him he can go back to sleep for an hour or two.”
“The girl is alright, sir?”
“Brona will be fine, Sergeant.”
Thilwend sighed with relief and left again, though her worry was not yet settled.
The rest of the morning passed a whirr to Hild’s mind. Brona was well and duly settled in her bed, and the covers and cloaks were piled over her to keep her warm and safe from any drafts. The fireplace sparkled and burned, and Beocca ran up and down between the kitchen and the chambers to keep both fires going. Thilwend came in every now and then with more firewood, that she and Heartha had chopped up. Everyone did their part, no matter how small a contribution it may be. Northgyth checked the girl carefully for any other injuries, and declared the bump was unlikely to cause more than a slight headache at the worst. Her skull was intact, and so was her teeth and jaw. It was just a bruise, but a hit like that to the temple could’ve been enough to send most people unconscious.
“She may yet have a black eye from that, but it wasn’t too bad a blow, thankfully. I am more concerned that we warm her well, and that she takes some hot broth as soon as she is able to sit up without support.”
“It’s a good job you found her when you did,” Northgyth said to Hild, as she finally tucked Brona in. “Another few hours in the cold and we may not have managed to bring her round. As cold settles deeper, the heart struggles to keep the blood warm and flowing.”
Listening to the older woman, Hild realised there was no judgement in her words. She was matter-of-fact. No judgement, yet surely Northgyth knew, as did others, it was her own ill treatment of her daughter in the past few weeks that had caused this to happen.
Seeing as there was not much left for him to do here, Denholm excused himself and turned to leave. Hild managed to get to her feet, aiming to walk with him to the door. But he waved a hand, it was not necessary. “This is my village now, Hildfrith. Nothing happens without me hearing about it. And by Bema’s grace, no one DIES here if I can help it.”
“Thank you anyway, Captain. I could not have managed by myself.”
“Thank the lads,” was the reply. “It was they who were so desperate to fetch help that Wigtheign tore me away from my breakfast.”
The heat from the oven downstairs, and the flaming fires in the chamber hearth, told Hild that Beocca was still taking his task very seriously. There had been plenty of wood brought in by Thilwend, which should be enough to keep the fires going for several days now. There was also a growing smell of…. venison stew wafting up the stairs, strangely enough. Hild glanced towards Northgyth for a moment.
“Ymma is here. She thought that she would cook for today’s clients, Hildfrith, with you being needed by your daughter and Saldis away. You should rest too. This has been a bit of a shock for you, I suspect.”
At first Hild made to object, but after a moment she just nodded. This was what kindness was about, what working as one was about. She choked for an instant as the realisation of what her misdeeds and failures could lead to, had things been different. Had she not… dreamed, or whatever it had been.
“Aye, Northgyth. It has been quite a… night for me. I am a bit shocked by what has happened.”
With a nod and a methodical taking up of her cloak and gloves, Northgyth left Hild to her own devices. “I believe all will be well now, but you will need to keep a close eye on Brona for several days. No work, mind. And if it seems she grows worse then send for me straight away.”
The day rolled on, as did the burning fires, but it was not like other days. Hild found herself worrying less and daring to hope that all really would be well. Brona’s breathing gradually eased, her colouring improved, she moved a little from time to time, and was warmer again to the touch.
Now she gave thought to her strange night of visitations again, but it felt, for the first time in ages, that something was changing for the better. Or perhaps it was she who was changing?
She threw another log on the fire, and sat down in the chair, close to the bed, and wrapped herself up in a cloak as well. Sometimes she held her daughter’s hand, others she stroked her brow or her cheek. And she wondered at the time when she had believed that making profit was more important than her daughter? She hadn’t wanted Brona to have the sort of life she had led. Oh, that was near the start. And when she realised Paega was never going to be a reliable sort, that’s when her keenness on work had taken over.
And yet now… a strange calmness was flooding through her. She wanted to share that.
Wigthegn popped his head around the door. He must have taken great care to walk on his toes, as Hild hadn’t heard a sound of anyone approaching, or perhaps her attention was just focused elsewhere.
“How is Brona doing?” he asked with concern. “How are you doing, Mistress Hildfrith?”
Hild turned to smile warmly at the green-eyed boy. “You remind me of someone, you know.”
“Someone honourable, I hope, Mistress?”
“Aye. Maybe not to start with. But he did become someone very honourable.” She was momentarily lost in her childhood again. She had grown quite fond of that Wigthegn eventually, when he finally saw what Saeunn was like. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the arrival of Paega in her life, she may have made a match with Wigthegn … or with the Farmer’s lad. Who knows what paths she would’ve ventured on, if she hadn’t chosen another.
“If you will allow me to take your seat, and keep an eye on Brona for a little while, it may be good for you to take a short walk about, and maybe get yourself some of the stew?” the young Wigtheign broke her train of thought. “You need to look after yourself too, if you will forgive me for saying so.”
Hild thought for a moment and nodded. She could do with a short walk around, if only just to stretch her legs before she returned to her vigil. And there was something she wanted to do as well.
“Keep a very close eye on her, please. If she moves, if she wakes, call for me.”
The boy smiled. “I’ve kept watch on my papa’s mares when they were about to foal. I will keep close watch.”
Hild raised a brow at that. “Brona better not be about to do that, or I will have some questions!” Then she laughed, seeing the boy turn suddenly pale himself. The laugh felt good, honest and merry, all at once.
“I didn’t mean it like...”
Waving a hand, still chuckling at her own words, Hild pulled a thicker overdress on, and looked briefly in the mirror to tidy her hair. Then she descended the stairs, and walked out into the tavern again.
Right enough, Ymma was indeed busy in the kitchen, with several pots of steaming food boiling over the fires. The woman turned and smiled kindly at Hild.
“I hope you and young Brona are doing better now. And this!“ Ymma waved an almost paw-like hand at the cooking, “Is just some straightforward winter fare. A venison and a mutton casserole, and some honey-roll puddings. Nothing fancy. But it should fill your customers, and your belly just as well.”
Hild had always considered Ymma a strange woman, given to eating oversweet foods. But now she saw a kindly ‘mother figure’, helping her young in their time of need. She smiled at the woman, then, despite her being hot from her work, she gave her a close hug, by wrapping her arms around Ymma with a tender touch. For a moment she was back in her mama’s arms again, and she could feel tears swelling up again, but only enough to water her eyes. These were tears of joy and thanks, and not of despair - and she drew a deep breath as she almost melted in the care of Ymma’s motherly arms.
Ymma kissed her hair. “There there, Hildy. All you have to do is let us help you now. Soon everything will be right as rain.”
“I will have some of the mutton broth, if there is enough?” Reluctantly Hild pulled away and looked hungrily at the boiling pot.
“Aye, of course. But my version isn’t as good as yours.”
“Any version made with kindness will do me just fine. But I have something I need to do first.”
Hild was aware of Ymma’s eyes following her as she made her way through to the tavern. There must have been a dozen folk in the room. Mostly guards, but also a cloaked traveller (she assumed) at the back, and a couple she had not seen before. To see the tavern filled with people always made her glad. Before it was for the profits streaming in, but now… perhaps there was also something more. She coughed to clear her throat.
“A good midwinter to you all, good folks. I thank you for coming, and hope you are all enjoying the food.”
A couple looked up, a couple more lay down their knives or spoons to turn to her. The woman smiled and raised her mug in a quiet toast, and those who saw, and held a drink in their hands followed herein doing so.
“Brona is doing well, we hear. That must have been a nasty shock for you Hild,” one of the guards spoke up.
Lowering her head, Hild sighed. “It was that! But she will recover, and so will I.”
There was a murmur among a few men.
“Seeing my daughter like that has helped bring me to my senses. Well, that and a few other things. The Roaring Dragon is going to change. Mark my words.”
Now all but the traveller and the couple had put their eating utensils down, and they listened intently to the owner’s words.
“Aye. From now on Mutton and Mead will be on the menu every day. And for every meal bought, there will be free pudding.”
The men looked at her as if she was mad. She wasn’t. She felt good, and she wanted to give more.
“And… every week there will be a day when folk can eat for half price, I will make it known around Bancross.”
A chorus of ‘What did she say, what day?’ went round the room. The couple stopped eating in surprise and looked at each other with a smile and a chuckle.
“And, there will also be a free meal every midday, for residents in Bancross that can’t afford it. The older folk up in the small cabins. Old Agnes and her neighbours, and anyone else on hard times. No one in true need will go hungry.”
There was a moment’s silence… then a moment more. Then the men were on their feet clapping for her. Hild drew another deep breath and continued, for she wasn’t quite finished yet.
“And the uhmmm… fortnightly club… for those of you who frequent it. It will cost less, and be far better serviced. No one leaves my Tavern unhappy again.”
The men sat down again, but there were mutters of ‘what does that mean’, and some of approval from those who could guess.
“And now I will leave you to your meals, save to say any meal has two drinks on the house with it today… oh… and there will be an extra drink on top of that for anyone who volunteers to take a parcel up to Old Agnes later today.” Hild closed her eyes and turned around. She had finally said everything she wanted, and she hoped that people had understood.
Hild turned to the kitchen again. She saw Ymma beaming at her, and she heard the men chuckling and talking over what she had said. She heard the woman say to her companion, “I like it here.”
And more importantly, Hild felt a kind of warm glow rush through her, much like a warm summer’s wind in the icy cold of midwinter. It might come and go, or it may stay. She may have a fight on her hands with herself, but she was a changed woman at heart.
The door creaked open again, just as she reached the kitchen. Ymma handed her a bowl of broth, as she had asked, and then a voice she knew was again in her ears. A girl’s voice, it was.
“Is Brona alright? Where is she, can I see her? No one tells me anything. I am not a child you know, I have a right to know what happened!”
‘Ethel’, thought Hild.
“Mama, papa, come on in. It’s warm. I am going to ask if I can see Brona, and we can have something to eat maybe before we go home. Do they have roast chicken?”
Recently, Hild would have raised a hand to her face at the thought of that family in the Roaring Dragon. But today, it was different.
“Yllfa, Waelden, Ethel… so good to see you. Please, come in. Dinner is on the house. Brona is still weak, but she’ll get well soon.” she called out, opening her arms wide to give them all a hug in turn. In her mind she was also thinking she must soon have a word with Yllfa about bandages and pain relieving herbs.
And later still, she sat beside a weak but wakened Brona, and fed her the warm, smooth broth, which was all she would take, but she did so heartily and as well she could.
“I am so so sorry, Brona.” Hild repeated. “I have been a very poor mama to you. Things are going to change here you know. No work for you until the late spring. I will hire more help instead.”
“No no. I am going to make up for lost time. We will be a family again.”
And so all seemed well.
When Hild went to fetch Ethel for a short visit, she didn’t stay to hear Brona’s confession to her best friend.
“So what happened?” Ethel asked. “Tell me.”
Brona looked guilty and squeezed Ethel’s hand. “Mama thinks I froze from overwork… but actually… I was so upset at the way she treated Agnes last night that I drank from her own hidden bottle of mead. The strong stuff. On an empty stomach. I tried to get myself some bread and cheese, but I was falling all over the place when she went to bed. I didn’t manage to eat much. And then I slipped, and apparently hit my head. I don’t remember much more until I woke up now.”
Ethel made a face at her, the kind of judging but also well-knowing face, who could probably see herself doing the same thing, if it had happened so. Ethel let out a little chuckle and squeezed Brona’s hand in turn. “Brona, you little drunk!” she whispered and leaned in to hug her dear friend.
“Should I tell her? I think I should.”
Ethel looked at her, and just winked.
Down in the tavern again, Hild found Ymma had tidied everything up. She would be back again tomorrow, to give Hild another day’s rest, she said. And no, she would take no payment.
Then she went to thank the lads, and to give each a large bottle of wine and mead for their parents, as thanks for letting them stay and help. “And here is 500 silver each for you.“ But neither Wigtheign nor Beocca would take any money, and so they kindly refused the offer, even though the need for money was always dire.
“We are a community here. We look out for each other.” Wigtheign said wisely and sagely, despite his young appearance. “All that matters is that Brona is all right.”
Hild curtsied to each in turn. “You cannot know what you both have done for me. My thanks to you.”
She turned back to the now empty Roaring Dragon. Her heart was light, her thoughts merrier than she could remember for some time. All she had to do was smoore down the fires, put out a few candles, and take herself up to bed. She planned on sleeping alongside Brona that night, and hold her daughter close. Something she hadn’t done properly since she was a small child.
Then she noticed. The hooded stranger was still in the corner, and he sat there quietly in his solitude.
“I am sorry sir. We are closed for the night now. If you need lodging I can offer you a bed in the barn...”
The man pushed his hood back, so she could see his features in the candlelight.
He nodded. “Well met, Hild. It’s been some time. But I had to come back to see you, and our daughter. You see… last night I had this… visitation…? I can’t explain it… but I just had to come home to you both.”
And it was said thereafter by many in Bancross that Hild did indeed change that day. In the past she could be hard of heart, a gossip, a spreader of rumours. Though not without some jollity, she was not the most popular inhabitant. After, she became a warm and open hostess… a business woman still, no doubt, but also a friend in need, and the first to help others. She became a stalwart of the community, loved and respected. Better still, she finally rescued her Brona, and she became the mother she should have been all along… and the wife.