all the fields and gardens had been harvested, the food stored in root cellars or preserved so that they would survive the winter. earlier that week, the people had brought the livestock in from the high summer pastures, herding the animals as they ambled down from the hills and into the fenced off land closer to their homes. that morning, groups of men all over the countryside had corralled some of the livestock and slaughtered them for the lean months ahead.
the hedgewitch sat cross-legged on the dirt floor in her sparse cabin where she spent the spring, summer, and autumn months. after tonight, she would head north.
second only to solstice, tonight was imperative in keeping the seasons aligned. and unlike solstice, where she was sure someone could do her job, tonight she was the intermediary and the only intermediary.
the sun was almost below the horizon, the days growing shorter more quickly. it was halfway between the equinox and solstice, and tonight was her big night.
after another five minutes of meditating, she opened her eyes just as someone knocked at the door.
“mariah, we’re ready!”
mariah took stock of her surroundings – shelves loaded with hearty fruits and vegetables, braided onions and garlic hanging from the beams. while she was gone, the people in her village used her cabin as a storeroom. her eyes settled on her workbench, and she rolled forward to come to her feet and open the door. her neighbor’s daughter stood there, and she bounded inside to watch while mariah grabbed what she needed: the silver knife into her boot for sure; peppermints in a pocket, absolutely. then she grabbed a few apples and nuts, sage. matches. she smiled at the girl who watched. “let’s go.”
the bonfires were already lit, and she saw several of her villagers already had put on masks and different clothes, some as their dead loved ones, some as the real monsters that tonight might bring. their guises did nothing to help anything, but mariah never said anything because she enjoyed watching them. tables had been brought out around the fire, loaded with beloved family heirlooms, special meals, and assortments of just-harvested crops and livestock.
tonight, at the halfway point, the hedge lowered between the living and otherworld. people all over the country were ready to greet their loved ones who’d passed on, bribing them here with their favorite foods and items.
mariah, on the other hand, was ready to greet the other creatures that skulked along the hedge. no one else could see these creatures except the hedgewitch, but the she knew that if they weren’t held back, the yearly harvests and livestock could be wiped out. it had been many centuries since that had happened, unlike the year she didn’t make the winter solstice. losing the yearly foodstores was many times worse.
she strolled the perimeter, scanning the edges of the woods, the pastures, for any signs of the werewolves or firebreathers. one year she had had to hold off fomarians before they brought chaos to the living world. like every year, torches were lit to light the path for loved ones and keep the evil at bay. gourds had been emptied and carved with candles lit inside in hopes to ward off the creatures; just like the costumes did nothing, mariah let this one slide as well because she liked seeing what new carvings people came up with.
she also knew that this night the Other could travel easily, as well as the vampires. just thinking about the Other had mariah digging in her pocket for a peppermint; she popped it in her mouth. she rarely saw a vampire in these parts, but after her last encounter with the Other, she wasn’t taking any chances.
she lit some sage and let it smolder as she walked, setting the stage. she hoped that some families would see their loved ones, but she never expected any to. it was a rare occurrence.
at midnight, the hedge would thin. time slipped quickly, and suddenly it was time. her villagers still danced around the bonfires and chatted with each other across the bounty piled on the tables. but mariah found a quiet corner near a bonfire and sat on the ground, still holding her smoking sage. she pulled out the apples and nuts from her pocket and tossed them on the ground in front of her, along with a peppermint for good measure. she took a deep breath, stared into the fire, and closed her eyes so she could look for the hedge.
at first it was hazy, like always, but soon the sky cleared and the stars were bright points in the sky. even though there was no moon, the land in front of her was lit up like it was a full moon, and she easily saw the hedge, where darkness smoothed into black and nothingness. she heard rustling and the creatures’ noises and howls from afar, but she knew that a lot of it was just grandstanding. generally, just her presence at the hedge on the otherplain kept everyone on their own side.
she was about halfway through the night when something at one end of the hedge caught her eye, and she slowly made her way over to the white mist that was spreading onto the living side. before she could do anything, she had to know what she was working with. werewolves responded to something entirely differently than firebreathers, and they both were a lot less work than the fomarians. but she’d never seen anything ooze between the hedge in a mist before.
as she got closer, the mist started to take shape and suddenly there was a very large skeleton of a horse in front of her, steam coming out of its mouth, frothing and stomping and generally making a fuss. then it paused and started wailing at mariah. mariah wracked her brain for what this could be. was it some sort of banshee? there was no way it could be a firebreather, and it was definitely a horse, not a wolf. it was too transparent to be a fomarian.
the horse started wailing and keening, taking slow steps away from the hedge, closer to the living world. mariah knew that if it got past her, it would wend its way to the living and wreak as much havoc as possible. once one got out, the others grew a little bolder.
her knife wouldn’t work on the horse, so that was out. she patted her pockets. her sage was in there, so she pulled it out and wafted it in the direction of the horse. the horse kept wailing. mariah spit her peppermint out at it, hoping it may be of the same stuff as the Other, but no suck luck.
as she dug in her pockets, she stopped suddenly and listened to the noise the horse was making. she noticed a rhythm, a lilt. it dawned on her: the horse was keening one of the songs the elves sang. mariah frowned and looked at the horse. it was an odd place for mari lwyd to be, but not entirely impossible…
mariah folded her hands in front of her and stared at mari, or one of mari’s projections. after a few seconds, she heard where the song was headed, and she joined in, humming where she didn’t know the words (the elves tended to load the song with elf profanities, so mariah really didn’t know a lot of the words). as she picked out the words, mari lwyd slowed down, and the two sang a strange duet at the edge of the hedge, heading back to the otherworld. slowly, mariah led mari to the hedge, and mari lwyd bent a knee, almost bowing, and dissipated into the darkness, and wisps of ghost slowly sucked back to the other side.
the rest of the night was calm.
mariah nodded to consciousness at dawn, her eyes blurry at first but then focusing on the embers of the bonfire. someone had put a large blanket over her in the night, and as mariah moved it aside to sit up, snow fell off and to the ground in front of her. people were huddled under furs and blankets around the remains of the fires, waiting out the night. others were standing at the tables, eating the food that they had set out the night before. the sky was a dark grey, and light snow fell to the ground, sticking here and there where it could. mariah squinted at the sky. winter was coming.
it was time for the hedgewitch to head north.