The echo of raised, merry voices draws you through the trees and twilight towards the village square. A massive, crackling bonfire and scattered, smoking torches cast warm light throughout the bustling crowd. Young people frolic around the fires while elders smash tankards together in toast after toast, celebrating food, family, and the bountiful harvests of fall.
A stranger to these lands, you linger in the shadow, uncertain you will be welcomed in this obviously close knit community. The aromas of roasted game, baking pies, and tantalizing spices mingle with the smoke from the fire and scent of the dried leaves upon the forest floor. You step forward and these leaves crackle underfoot.
Somehow hearing this above the boisterous celebration, an elderly woman’s eyes snap from the pot she stirs to where you lurk. You flinch back, fearing you will be told to leave, but instead she picks up a pitcher and stomps towards you. Deep red wine splashes from the vessel as she thrusts it towards you. She points behind herself towards the crowded table of revelers.
Though she uses no words, her meaning is clear. If you are here, you are going to work.
Simply glad not to be forced away from the jubilant scene, you approach the main table. At the sight of you, a burly warrior, his auburn locks plaited into complicated braids that intertwine with his bushy beard, raises his drinking horn with a cry of delight and triumph. You circle the table, filling the celebrants’ vessels with frothing, swirling fragrant mulled wine. Spices waft from the bubbling liquid. In mere moments, your pitcher is drained.
Before you can decide what to do next, the same commanding woman snatches the empty vessel from your hands and motions towards a tray laden high with tankards. You stagger under the weight of the tray. Filled to the brim, the tankards splash their contents. The woman shoots you a warning glance, and you do not wish to risk her wrath by toppling the tray. Carefully, you again make your rounds.
Every time your burden is relieved by the diners and drinkers, the woman sets you to work again. Your stomach growls as you carry a platter of roasted fowl. Your mouth waters at a tray of fruit and cheese.
As you set down another empty tray, your eyes bulge. The woman waves to a table laden with a half dozen steaming pies. You open your mouth to protest this unfair burden, only to have her load you up anyway, a pie in each hand and two up each arm. You stagger forward, step after hesitant step, praying the wobbling pies won’t fall. Sweat beads on the back of your neck. You’ve almost made it. A few more steps.
Your foot catches upon a stone, and you yelp as you stumble. A pie launches into the air. With unnatural quickness you spin and jerk, and as if by a miracle, the pie lands lightly upon your head, spins for a moment, then steadies.
A cheer erupts from the table before you. The diners surge forward, patting you on the back and relieving you of your pies. The old woman gives you an approving nod. A moment later a tankard is thrust into your hand and a platter of food pushed before you. You grin and tuck in, your place at the table fully earned.
As the moon climbs high in the sky and the fires begin to die down, your eyelids grow heavy. The once rowdy crowd has grown solemn and pensive as one of their number strums a harp and sings a song, low and sweet. Just as your head nods upon your chest, a hand grasps your shoulder. The old woman beckons you to follow her to a hut lit by a single candle. A bed of animal skins awaits you.
You lie upon it and stare at the flickering candle flame. It seems to carry the memories of the night’s feast, of spiced wine and peaty whiskey, of crackling fires and butter melting on savory dishes and glistening on the crusts of sweet pies. You drift away, knowing you will always have friends here among these jolly folk and in his homey place.
Light the candle and be taken back to that night, to the scent of mulled wine, sweet pies and the sound of laughter...