>“Glad Yule” first appeared in An Armory of Swords, an anthology edited by Fred Saberhagen and set in his Swords universe. Fred was a kind and gentle human being and is greatly missed. His invitation to write a Swords story meant a great deal to me. As today is Yule, I’m inclined to curl up by the fire with a cup of mead and drink to Fred’s memory. Here’s a snippet in his honor.
“Glad Yule” Copyright © 1995, 2008 by Pati Nagle. All rights reserved.
Trent opened the door to a cozy chamber where a fire crackled on the hearth. Heavy curtains had been thrown back from tall windows to give the ladies of the house, seated around a table, light to work by. Elian and Mari were stitching golden trim to a half-cape of dark green, while Sylva fashioned a wreath out of sprigs of holly. They looked up at Trent, who smiled and swept them a bow. He knelt beside Elian’s chair and kissed her hand. “Fair lady,” he said, “your father sent me to tell you that the Midsummer mead is palatable.”
She smiled down at him in amusement. “Oh, I’m so relieved,” she said. “How much is left?”
“Plenty,” said Trent. “Shall I bring you some?”
“Thanks, I’ll wait till tonight.”
Trent shrugged, smiling, and wandered over to sit beside Sylva. “What are you making? A crown?”
“Yes, for the Holly King,” said Sylva with a sly glance at him.
“Who’s that?” asked Trent.
“The Holly King,” repeated Mari, opening her brown eyes wide. “Don’t you know?”
Trent shook his head, his face all innocent puzzlement.
“It’s one of our customs,” said Elian. “Every Yule the young girls all share a cake with a bean baked into it. Whoever finds the bean gets to choose the Holly King, and he presides over the Yule festival.”
“And he has to dance with all the girls, and be merry all night long,” added Sylva.
“Ah,” said Trent. “Sounds like hard work.”
“Not for you, my Lord.” Elian smiled.”
Trent glanced up at her inquiringly.
“If King Nigel requires you to dance, you’ve had good training.”
Trent laughed. “True. Do you think I would make a good Holly King, Sylva?”
“I don’t know,” said Sylva. “Let’s see.” She placed the wreath on his head, dark green leaves glinting against his soft brown hair. “Not bad,” she said. “What do you think, Mari?”
“I think he’s perfect,” said Mari, then she blushed and looked down at her stitching.
Trent laughed again. “Thank you, kind lady,” he said, coming around the table to kiss her hand. “If you find the bean and choose me, I’ll dance with you all night long.”
Mari giggled and smiled at him shyly.
“You would be a fine Holly King,” said Elian, regarding him with her calm green eyes. “You can make anyone laugh, and you are always merry yourself.”
“Not like Lord Paethor,” said Sylva. “He never smiles.”
“Oh, he does,” said Trent. “You just have to be watching.”
“Why is he so glum?” asked Sylva.
“Why? Well—it’s because he’s heartbroken, lady. All his life he has wished he had red hair.”
The girls laughed.
“No,” protested Trent. “It’s true. And now he comes and meets you, Sylva, with the prettiest, reddest hair in all the world.” Trent sat beside her again and picked up a strand of her hair, stroking it with his fingers. “Redder than sunset, and softer than a rabbit’s fur. No wonder he’s mad with grief.
Sylva laughed again and punched his arm. “Be serious!”
“No, I mean tell me! Why is he so sad? What’s the truth?”
“Don’t pry, Sylva,” said Elian.
“The truth? The truth, dear lady, is that I don’t know. I’m not in his confidence.” Trent sighed. “He isn’t always this gloomy. At King Nigel’s court I’ve seen him dance through the night. The ladies there are all mad for him, but not one of them has ever touched his heart. Not that I know of, anyway.” He looked up and found the girls watching him, even Elian, whose needle lay forgotten in her lap. He broke into a foolish grin. “You shouldn’t listen to me, though,” he said. “I never tell a tale the same way twice.”
Sylva frowned, laughing, and took the wreath from his head.
“Have I displeased you?” said Trent in mock alarm. He knelt beside her chair. “Tell me how to make amends. I want to be worthy of the holly crown!”
“Help me finish it, then,” said Sylva. “Hand me that ribbon. “
“I hear and obey,” said Trent, jumping to his feet and snatching up a ribbon from the table, then presenting it to Sylva with an exaggerated bow. She laughed and took it from him.
“Now a piece of holly,” she demanded, enjoying the game.
Trent scooped up a sprig and yelped as a thorn pricked his thumb. He squeezed it and a bright red drop appeared.
“You’re supposed to take the thorns off first!” said Sylva.
“Are you all right, my Lord?” asked Elian.
Trent smiled sheepishly, sucking at the wound. “Fine,” he said. “It’s nothing but my own carelessness. My own stupid folly, for playing with holly—”
Sylva giggled, taking the sprig from him and snipping off the thorns with a little pair of scissors.
“Folly, lolly, lolly—” sang Trent, picking up two more sprigs by their stems and making them dance on the tabletop.
The girls laughed, and Trent kept them laughing until they’d finished their regalia. Then Sylva made him try it on, and he struck a royal pose, the cape lightly draping his shoulders, holly forming a halo around his head.
“I hereby decree that mistletoe shall hang in every doorway, and anyone who doesn’t smile shall be sent to the kitchens to wash the dishes,” he pronounced.
“Paethor, be warned!” said Elian, taking back the cape. “Come, Sylva. It’s late, and we still have your dress to trim.”
Sylva reached for the crown and Trent gave it to her, lifting her hand to his lips. She smiled coyly at him, picked up a leftover sprig of holly and stood on tiptoe to tuck it behind his ear. Then she and Mari tossed all their odds and ends into a large basket and ran to the door where Elian waited.
“Thank you for your help, my Lord,” she said. “We’ll see you this evening.”
Trent bowed and watched them go, then grinned to himself and made his way back to his chamber.
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