It was a bitterly cold night, and the longest of the year. Winding Circle Temple stood proud at the top of the hill, looking down over the city of Summersea and out to the frigid waves of the Pebbled Sea. Chill winds blew steadily across the outer wall, the poor guards on duty tonight wrapped up in layers of cloth, huddling in whatever corners they could find, whilst inside the buildings the fires had been banked high to stave off the heart of winter.
In a quiet area of the Temple away from the rest of the buildings was a small two-story cottage with light blazing from its lower windows. The extensive gardens around the cottage were battened down for the cold with tight coverings across many of the more fragile plants, and the upper windows had been sealed up with cloth. The winds plucked at the straw roof as they passed, whispering through the eaves.
Sandry shivered as she stood at the window, and she hugged herself across her torso. The sky had been dark since mid-afternoon. She had never particularly liked the turning of the season, with its short days and lack of sun, it left her feeling tired and restless. She had felt that especially this year, giving herself unexpected headaches as she tried to work fine embroidery by lamplight, chasing away memories of that tiny dark room she had spent so many hours in. At least after tonight had passed they would be moving toward spring, she told herself. Another gust of wind sent a trickle of cold through the cracks in the windowsill, and she shivered again.
“Darling,” came a chastening voice from behind her. “If you are cold, do put on a shawl. Tonight is a night for warmth, after all.”
Sandry turned, smiling ruefully at her teacher who was busy cooking dinner. “Sorry, Lark,” she apologised, moving to her room to pick up a shawl that was delicately embroidered with winter-blooming plants. “I was just keeping a lookout for Briar and Tris, they went to the temple kitchens ages ago.”
“Dedicate Gorse has probably been feeding them to within an inch of their lives, even with dinner on the way.” pointed out Lark, as she stirred the large pot of stew simmering on the stove. “It won't be long until they come home.”
The clang of the gate closing punctuated the end of her sentence, and the sound of voices bickering came drifting down the path as a group of people neared the cottage.
“Have you been taking lessons from Niko, maybe? Learning how to scry the future in the stew?” teased Sandry as she went to open the door. The cold immediately turned her nose red, and she pulled her shawl closer around her shoulders. She was just in time to let in Briar and Tris who were still sniping loudly at each other about who had eaten the last pastry Dedicate Gorse had given them. Their dog, Little Bear, bounced in after them, excited enough to bark inside where he knew he wasn't allowed to.
“Down, Little Bear,” said an older voice, firmly. Ducking in behind the chaos was Tris' teacher, Niko, and he stared down at the dog until it subsided with a little huff and went to lie down in front of the fire. Tris had disappeared upstairs to her bedroom having dumped her bags of food next to Lark, whilst Briar had slumped on a bench by the table. Sandry hurriedly shut the door.
“Niko, how lovely to see you,” said Lark. “Are you staying for dinner?”
“For dinner yes, but then I must attend Honoured Moonstream as she prepares for the dawn ritual,” Niko answered, pulling off his fine tailored winter cloak and laying it to one side. “Tris will remain with you here, and I shall join you tomorrow for breakfast.”
“Excellent, I thought you might so I made sure to get Rosie to blend your favourite morning tea blend."
“You mean she made me do it for her,” grumbled Briar, though the spark in his eyes told the room that he hadn't minded too much, really.
“And I appreciate your work, of course,” drawled Niko, raising a single eyebrow. Briar humphed and rolled his eyes.
Sandry, who had busied herself with hanging up everyone's coats, smiled to herself. Longnight didn't seem so dark somehow, now she was surrounded by most of her new family and teachers. “Will Daja and Frostpine be home soon?” she asked. She always felt better when they were all under one roof.
“Daja will be, we passed by the forges on our way back. They were just finishing up, but Frostpine said he would spend the night at the Fire Temple with the other dedicates.” Niko told her. “The team of Air dedicates had already arrived as we were leaving.”
As Niko was finishing explaining, Tris poked her head back into the room. She seemed on edge, walking stiffly over to the stove and coughing into the one hand; in the other she held a small package of paper. She took a breath, raised her head, and looked Lark straight in the eye, seemingly confident but to Sandry it looked like she was waiting to be told no.
“Lark,” she asked, “Would it be alright if I made us all something to drink, for after dinner? I asked Dedicate Gorse for some apple juice, I have a fa-, um, a recipe that I know. I asked Rosethorn for spices.” She showed Lark the parcel she was holding.
Lark looked a little taken aback. Tris and Rosethorn still found themselves wary of each other at times, and they were definitely not at ease holding a conversation. She was surprised but happy that Tris had felt comfortable enough to go to the other Earth Dedicate without using Lark or Niko as a go between. “You... asked Rosie? I mean, of course you can.”
Tris nodded tightly, and went over to dig about in the bags that she and Briar had carried back with them. She pulled out jars of juice, mostly apple but a smaller one marked 'lemon' as well. Lark found her a saucepan, and she started to pour various liquids into it.
Sandry sat down next to Briar, and watched Tris interestedly. After a few minutes, she asked her friend - “Is it a traditional drink for Longnight in Capchen?”
Capchen was the country that Tris was from, on the other side of Anderran from Emelan. She didn't know much about it or its customs, only small things that Tris had divulged in conversation. The red-haired girl was clearly uncomfortable talking about her upbringing, and though Sandry itched to know more about her friend she would never push her to talk more than she wanted to. She was surprised, then, when Tris nodded, though she didn't turn to face the rest of the room.
“We didn't do much,” she said, “Aunt Uraelle preferred for us to spend the night in private contemplation. We would sit in our rooms until the sun rose.”
Lark looked surprised. “You didn't celebrate together?”
Tris shook her head, her ginger curls bouncing about. “No, she didn't approve of 'unnecessary frivolity'. But at midnight the servants would bring us all this to drink to keep us warm.”
Sandry was pretty sure she meant that literally, as other stories of Tris' Aunt had not painted her in the best light.
“It was usually just me and Pirisi,” she confessed, “My parents would go out to the festivals and the two of us would spend the night together. She'd tell me stories of the Longnights she'd seen when she was still travelling with Fourth Caravan Yadeda. She'd seen so many places, and they all celebrate differently. My favourite stories were about Karang in the North, and their Festival of Lights. They line the streets with brightly coloured lanterns, and everyone spends the night visiting their neighbours, with parties that spill outside and hot food vendors everywhere. In the city of Ipthung they all go skating out on the massive frozen lake by the city when the sun rises, and they take the lanterns with them, tied to their backs.”
“That sounds a bit cold for my tastes,” Niko remarked. “I'm sure Tris would enjoy the snowfall they get that far north, though.”
Tris shrugged, trying not to look too interested. “Maybe. I've heard they have lights that dance in the sky over the ice fields. That might be interesting to see.”
“Maybe some day you will,” replied Lark, looking over her shoulder at Niko, who nodded back. Certainly someday if they travelled together he would take the weather witch to see one of the most singular phenomenons he knew of.
Rosethorn came through from her workshop, nodding at the new arrivals and stopping by Lark, who rapped her on the wrist with a wooden spoon when she tried to get a taste of the stew. “Kindly wait until we're all here,” she said primly. Rosethorn glared at her, but it was soft, and everyone could clearly see she didn't mean it. “If we eat without everyone it's their own fault, it's time for dinner,” she pointed out waspishly, seating herself beside Briar and poking his side until he sat up straighter. He scowled at her, and she scowled right back. Seeing an argument in the offing Sandry spoke up. “Briar, how did you celebrate Longnight?”
He scoffed at her, and crossed his arms. “Ain't no parties down in the sewers, princess. Thief Lord had us hoppin' all night, stealing from empty shops and such, there's always some idiot leaves a window open and everyone's distracted having fun. One of the best nights of the year, for a gang like mine.”
Sandry wasn't sure what to say to that. Rosethorn clearly had something to, though, but thankfully the door opened letting in the cold and a well wrapped up Daja.
“I'm so sorry I'm late,” she gasped, breathing heavily, having obviously run at least some of the way home. “Some idiot dedicate at the Air Temple nearly dropped the whole thing as they were floating it to the Fire Temple. Frostpine was less than pleased, and let the whole team know it. He was still berating them when I left.” She leaned her staff against the wall and peeled herself out of her layers, shaking her braids free as she pulled off a knitted hat. “That smells really good, Lark. What's everyone talking about?”
“Longnight traditions,” Briar told her. “Are you going to tell us what you and Frostpine have been up to, then?”
“You'll see it tomorrow morning, with everyone else. It was repairs, really, just on a larger and more delicate scale than I'd seen Frostpine do before. It was fascinating.”
“No one ever tells me anything,” complained Briar, slumping forward with his elbows on the table.
“Well it's a good thing that it's time for dinner, and we'll all be eating too much to talk then, isn't it?” said Lark, bringing over bowls of stew. “Now, here's a loaf of bread and a knife, make yourself useful.”
Dinner itself was a quieter affair, once they had all settled in their seats with Little Bear at the feet under the table. The clink of cutlery against plates and occasional murmur to pass a dish was all that disturbed the peace, and Sandry felt that she could almost fall into her meditation breathing given half a chance. The fire in the grate was left to slowly burn down, and once dishes had been cleared away Lark asked Briar and Daja to move the table to one side, clearing the maximum space in the shared room. Little Bear curled up as close to the fireplace as he could get.
“I'll take my leave now, then,” Niko announced, grabbing up his cloak and wrapping it round his shoulders. “I will see you in the morning.”
“Still trying to avoid chores I see,” laughed Lark as he fled into the night. Rosethorn shrugged, Niko was Niko.
“Sit, please,” Lark asked of everyone, flicking a hand at Sandry as she disappeared into her workroom. Sandry obediently followed after, smiling beatifically at Briar as he made a questioning noise. He huffed as he sat down on the floor, as he always did when Sandry knew something he didn't. Daja raised an eyebrow, and whispered 'uvumi' towards him, lifting her nose and pretending to be more aloof than she actually felt. On the other side of him Tris rolled her eyes. “Fat chance of him learning patience, if Rosethorn threatening to hang him in the well all season didn't manage it.”
“But I'm bored waiting for the spring,” complained Briar, “and Dedicate Crane still won't let me into his greenhouse.”
Rosethorn glared at him. “None of that, now, lad, we've been over this. The garden needs time to rest and Mila grants us that, so come the turning of year we can start anew. There's no rushing Our Lady's wishes, and the plants won't thank you for it either. And if I find you've been bothering Dedicate Crane I'll-”
“Hang me in the well, yeah, I know.”
“Oh no, my buck. I'm sure I can find something much worse and far more boring, just for you.” She grinned, and Briar absolutely believed that she could do just that.
Across the table Tris was struggling to hold in a giggle, hand pressed against her mouth, and Daja's eyes were twinkling with suppressed mirth. Briar stuck out his tongue at both of them.
Lark and Sandry bustled back into the room, carrying bundles of fabric. “Come along everyone, take a cushion and sit on the floor,” called Lark, handing out the cushions she was carrying and gesturing to Sandry to hand out the blankets that she had piled in her arms. “Get comfy, we'll be here a while. It won't be long before the bell rings.”
As the blankets and cushions were spread about it was clear that Lark and Sandry had created them especially for that evening. They were covered in embroidery of winter-blooming plants, like the ones on Sandry's shawl, and the blankets were made of a thick and soft wool. Lark gave Rosethorn's to her last, spreading it out and draping it over her lap for her. Rosethorn ran a hand over the vivid red Amaryllis that was knitted into the centre of it, and looked up, giving Lark a rare smile.
It's a Longnight miracle, Tris gasped in Briar's head, and he couldn't help but agree.
As everyone settled on the floor in a loose circle and made themselves comfortable on the furnishings, Sandry turned to Daja and asked her about her family's traditions on Longnight. “Was it different because you were on a ship, rather than a caravan?”
“All Traders celebrate the same way,” Daja answered. “We remember the dead. We tell tales of those lost to us, so that they may find their way back home. We eat tiny cakes filled with honey and nuts in their sweet memory, and we drink bitter tea for the grief. That way we can start the year with light hearts and balanced books with Trader Koma and Bookkeeper Oti.” Her voice faded at the end, and her eyes were looking at something not in the room. The faces of her family, perhaps, or those of Tenth Caraven Idaram that she had not been able to save. Sandry reached across to clasp her hand, and Briar clapped her on the shoulder, startling her into looking at him. He nodded gravely at her. They'd had a hard few months, and now was a good time to remember those they'd lost. Tris caught her gaze from across the room. We can remember them together, she offered, through their shared magic. They shared a moment together, where their magic met, knowing that in this way they would not be alone again. Daja pushed a wave of thankfulness at them, feeling it wrap like warm embers around them all.
Lark clapped her hands to gain back their attention. “Next year,” she promised, “When Tenth Caravan Idaram comes to Summersea I'll ask Polyam to share the recipe of the cakes with me, and we'll drink more spiced apple juice and tell each other stories and remember those who have gone before us. I'm just sorry that I won't be able to organise a night-time raid on a bakery for you, Briar,” she said, laughing at his expression when he wrinkled his nose.
“I'd rather the pastries came from Dedicate Gorse and I could spend the night inside, thanks,” he replied.
The conversation was cut short by the sonorous voice of the Temple Hub bell, cutting through the still, frozen night. Midnight. The midway point of Longnight, as here in Emelan it was counted from midday to midday. Everyone sat on the floor in the room in Discipline made the gods' circle on their chest, and then closed their eyes as Lark began to speak a prayer, naming each of the gods venerated by the Living Circle, asking for their care at the darkest time of the year, and for a blessed year to come.
Rosethorn lit a large candle and placed it on a stand in the centre of their circle. Briar breathed in as the thin smoke from its flame began to drift about the room. He could smell pine, hellebore and yew, all protective plants that would grow through winter, and something faintly underneath it that he couldn't identify. He turned to Rosethorn.
“Snowdrops,” she told him, with a wry smile on her face at his curiosity. “The first flower of Spring. I make a tincture each year to save just for this.”
Lark clapped her hands together gently again, to bring everyone's attention back.
“We will now start the Longnight vigil, which will continue until the bell sounds again, one hour before dawn. As is the Living Circle custom, we sit with our teachers, our friends and our loved ones, inviting in the quiet at the end of the year. If you feel that you have a story to share, or maybe a hope for the new year, speak your thoughts and we shall share in them with you. Daja, if you wouldn't mind, I entrust the keeping of the fire to you.”
Daja nodded, and moved to that side of the room, leaning her Trader staff against the mantelpiece. She settled herself, shut her eyes, and breathed. The other three kids felt the slow warmth of her magic as she focused on the fireplace, layering magic through the embers at the base of the fire that would let her know how far down the fire was burning. She paused for a moment, considering, and then added another small log to the flames.
Lark continued. “The fire must burn slowly down to its lowest, and when the bell rings again we will extinguish it. Then we will go outside and celebrate the coming of the new year with the Dedicates of the Fire Temple. Any questions?”
Nobody objected, so Tris handed out mugs of hot spiced apple juice, and as they sipped, a hush came over the room.
The night wound itself around them as the hours passed. They lapsed into quiet conversation at times, with long stretches of silence inbetween; that cold, cold wind whistling around the corners of the roof reminding them of the fading warmth of the fireplace. As the fire and the candle burned down, the dark gathered in, and the spaces between words became longer.
They had been silent for over an hour, each person feeling the weight of the last year upon them, but comforted by the presence of the others, when once again the tolling of the Hub bell broke through the night.
“It is time,” said Lark, standing up and folding her blanket. “Go get changed, and meet me down here in ten minutes.”
It was a strange-looking little procession that led itself down the path from Discipline to the spiral temple road, under the lightening sky of morning. Lark and Rosethorn were in their green Earth Temple habits, with thick, practical cloaks over the top. Daja followed, striding out across the frosty ground with confidence, using her staff to balance her. She was wearing a dark knee-length coat over her usual shirt and trousers, and had wrapped her head and neck in a red scarf. Her thoughts were on her family, and she gripped her newly given Trader staff tightly. In the new year she hoped to add to the carvings and inlays on it, to display her love of her old family and the new.
Behind Daja came Sandry, with Little Bear on a lead. The dog tugged at her, eager to get moving after the night spent sleeping at her feet. She had to put one hand up to stop her veil from puffing away, and huffed, her breath misting in the air. She had braided her hair into a formal style, and was wearing a high-necked prim dress with a dark green cloak. She looked pale and drawn after the long hours awake, but her eyes were clear and she laughed as Little Bear tugged her forward again .
Tris and Briar brought up the rear, Briar in a too-large coat and newly knitted thick socks, thanks to Lark's patient attempts to teach him how to knit with plant based fibres. Tris may have had a coat on but it was unbuttoned and she was walking along with her head turned towards the sky. It was completely clear of clouds, and the stars were scattered across it in a dazzling display.
They made their way down the spiral road towards the Fire Temple, and found themselves surrounded by more and more people as they got closer. Dedicates and students alike were stepping up to the entrance to the temple, and the kids could see as they neared that they were greeted at the entrance by First Dedicate Skyfire, exchanging bows, and then collecting something out of a box that he held before walking back onto the spiral road and off towards the centre of Winding Circle.
“Bright morning, young friends,” Skyfire boomed as they came up to him. “And blessed new year!”
They bowed in turn, and were each given a candle in a holder. “Hold tight to them,” Skyfire warned, “I won't give you a replacement. Now, find a place where you can see the temple clearly, and you will see what great works your friends Daja and Frostpine have been up to, hmm?” He pointed upwards, and there was a wondrous sight that the kids hadn't seen before. Between the usually empty upraised hands of the huge stone statues of Shurri Firesword and Hakkoi the Smith that dominated the Fire Temple was a gleaming disc of glass held in a copper ring. It was at least 5 metres across, and even from here they could see the silvery gleam of magic moving across its surface.
“Daja, it's beautiful,” gasped Sandry.
“Yeah, that's pretty impressive, for a Trader girl,” said Briar, sticking his hands in his pockets and leaning back on his heels. “You said you had to repair it?”
Daja ignored the jab and nodded. “The rim was cracked during the earthquake, and someone only noticed it when they brought it out of storage earlier this week. We had to strengthen it whilst it was still attached to the glass, without making any cracks. Frostpine mostly had me keeping the forge at a steady temperature and handing him tools. I did get to re-draw some of the runes though. I didn't mind, I can't imagine what they would do if it broke, if the rim got too tight or too hot. It's fragile.”
“Is that what you needed the Air Dedicates for, to bring the disc here?” asked Tris, squinting up at the disc through her glasses. “It's a long way up to the top of the statue, and I can't see any stairs.”
“They created this cushion of air between them, and floated it along the road and then up. One of them lost concentration near the end and it wobbled all over the place, that's why Frostpine got so angry at them,” she told them.
Tris got a look of inspiration on her face at the description of the magic. “Maybe I should talk to the dedicates about how they did that, or maybe they have something written about it in their library,” she mused. “Lark, do you think Niko could get me in there?”
“I'm sure that won't be a problem,” the dedicate reassured her. “But it's time for us to join those on the temple road. You can see the disc from there as well.” She chided them into place between some Dedicates from the Water temple on one side, and a gaggle of students on the other.
The sky was showing streaks of red and orange clouds against a purple sky. The winds had died down, and it felt as if the whole world had stilled, to take one final breath at the end of Longnight.
A shout came up from a guard on the wall, and just after came the deep ringing of the Hub bell again. This time it rang out twelve times, and on the twelfth note the glass disk held between the two statues began to shine.
Daja, it's wonderful. You should be proud, whispered Sandry into their magic. Tris and Briar nodded in agreement, this was yet another masterwork of metal crafted by Daja and Frostpine. A beam of light shot down onto the centre of the Fire temple, igniting the bonfire that had been laid out, and the dedicates surrounding it began to sing. The kids could feel the notes of the ancient hymn that they sang in their bones, it was something old and powerful, like the changing of the seasons. It spoke of the dark night, the sunrise, and the hope of new life in the returning spring. It thanked the gods for winter, and welcomed in the new year.
As the song continued the kids could see Skyfire, as First Dedicate of the Fire Temple, step forward to the blaze, a candle outstretched. He called to the fire, as did the dedicates around him, and after a moment the fire spun up, up into a thinner and thinner twist and then it bent gracefully over and lit the candle. Skyfire bowed as the fire sank back to its smaller state, and then he walked over to the Frostpine, the first person standing on the circle road. He touched his candle to Frostpine's, and just like that, a dancing flame leapt from one candle to the other. Frostpine turned to the First Water Dedicate who was stood next to him, and the flame leapt again, over and over, candle to candle, following the road to the centre of Winding Circle.
As the little fire came closer along the curving line of people Daja reached out with her powers, not trying to impede it but to feel it as it moved past her. She felt a gentle warmth on the surface, and then suddenly deeper, a fierce, massive blaze at the centre. It shook her, the feeling of immense power contained in such a small parcel. She wanted to reach out and touch it, see if she could handle it bare-handed, and work wonders on its heat.
Don't mess with the power of the gods, warned Tris, through their connected magic. Daja paled and hurriedly used her free hand to sign the gods circle on her chest. I would never, she swore, it's just so...beautiful. The other agreed. She sighed, and then there it was, dancing in front of her. She could swear it paused, gave an extra bounce on her candle, and then it was away again, round and round the spiral temple road. They lost sight of it through the buildings, but it was moving fast, and it wasn't long before it reached the spire in the centre of Winding Temple. The long line of candles stretched all the way around the spiral road, lighting up the faces of those holding the candles, and another song started up, gentler this time, with all the dedicates and those students who knew enough to join in singing together.
Lark leaned across to the kids and told them - “Honoured Moonstream receives the fire at the door to the spire, and then walks her candle down to the cavern underneath, the one that Niko showed you. This year's flame is added to the the fire that always burns there. We'll start our first fire with our candles when we get back.”
The bell rang out one final time, and the song came to an end. The people on the road started to break off into smaller groups, shouting out to others as they went past, cheerfully greeting them for the first time in this new year. Lark gathered their group up and they all started to walk back to Discipline together.
“Wait up!” came a shout behind them, and Frostpine shouldered his way though the crowd to catch up with them. “First greeting to you all! Are you ready for breakfast?” For once his hair was brushed and pulled back, his beard neatly combed, and his habit was free from singes around the hem.
“You clean up so well, Frostpine,” teased Lark, and he lifted his chin, looking down his nose at her and striking a pose.
“I'll have you know I always look good,” he replied, and Rosethorn snorted.
“Careful, we don't have room for everyone, the dog and your ego at the table.”
Frostpine reeled back, hand to his broad chest and faking a swoon. “Rosethorn, it's too early in the year to prick my feelings,” he exclaimed.
“Just starting as I mean to go on,” she retorted. The kids and Lark sniggered at Frostpine's wounded expression. “Come on, lets go find Niko and get the first fire started. I can't feel my toes any more and Lark promised to make pancakes. Everyone ready?”
Tris, Briar, Daja and Sandry all looked at each other. It was a new year, and this time they would start it together, knowing that whatever may come they could rely on each other to be there through it all.
Ready? asked Sandry, and she felt the others' determination come together in her mind.
“Ready.” Daja said firmly, answering them both. “Lets go home.”