Storytime with Stidmama

Chapter Sixty Three

After supper that evening, Polly, Meg, Doris and Nan sat in the front room with the sewing basket and the sack of fabric, piecing together squares for the quilt.

Gilly, Paul and the boys worked on preparing the meats from the butcher for the traditional mid-winter feast.

Gilly made a marinade with fruit vinegar she saved from the first harvest in the summer and spices Tor had brought home from his journeys. Paul cut long thin strips of meat and set them in layers with spicebush leaves the girls and Andy had picked at mid-summer.

Andy grated root vegetables while Otto and Owain ground the tough legmeat for their mother's sweet sausages.

The sausages would sit overnight in the cool pantry, then cure for several days in the smokehouse.

The dog lay quietly under the table, sniffing the air appreciatively. Every so often, a scrap of meat would "accidentally" fall to the floor.

Yes, everyone loved this time of year.

Gilly and Paul were silent, but each was thinking of their many blessings -- which far outweighed the worries -- and how fortunate they were that Nan and Grampy were recovering from their accident at the harvest.

Grampy came through the back door, carrying a box, followed by Tor carrying a bigger box, and Grammy and Cathy who were bundled up against the snow.

Grampy set his box on the table, Tor walked through to the front room and set the box in the middle of the room. Then, with a wink at Nan, he returned to the kitchen, leaving a trail of melting slush through the house.

Doris snorted, and popped up to grab a broom and rag. "Uncle Tor is as bad as the twins!" she exclaimed under her breath. Nan giggled and snagged the rag, sopping up the water which Doris swept the chunks of caked up snow.

Riotous laughter erupted from the kitchen, then hushed as Andy closed the door to the front room. The girls looked at each other and shrugged.

Gilly finally emerged with a large platter in her hands, piled high with fancy decorated cookies, followed by Cathy with the tea tray that was generally reserved for special occasions.

The girls moved closer to the brightest lamp in the room, leaving plenty of space for everyone else.

Grammy and Grampy were soon ensconced in the comfortable chairs nearest the fire. Cathy pulled up a chair and picked up some fabric bits for the quilt, while the twins draped themselves inelegantly over a couple of armchairs near their grandparents. Gilly and Paul sat with Andy on the sofa under the window. Tor sat on the box.

And tapped the box. "Any guesses?" he joked.

Nan squinted her eyes and thought moment. "A present for Mother -- her anniversary?"

Tor laughed -- "So much for surprises!" He leaped off the box and pulled a prybar from his back pocket.

"Might as well get it over with then," he grumbled, levering up the edge of the lid.

The box was lined with shavings of wood, scraps of fabric, crumpled up sheets of paper. Inside, was another box, painted in gay colors with silhouettes of people and animals and plants. It shone in the firelight, and Tor set it on the floor in front of his sister with a flourish.

Gilly grinned at him, and reached for the lid to open it. It wouldn't budge.

Andy hopped down and tried to open it from the opposite direction.

Then from the other directions. No good. Gilly and Paul and the other adults watched him with amusement.

He got down on his knees and looked around the edges. Finally, he sat back on his heels and looked quizzically at his uncle.

Nan had stopped sewing and was looking intently at her brother and the box. She stood up stiffly and walked around it, inspecting it carefully. Finally she pointed at a flower on the side. "There!" she announced, "That flower is for mother's name, and it's the only one in that color. It has something to do with the latch."

Andy pressed the brightly colored flower and sure enough, the lid cracked open in the center. Hidden hinges on both long sides swung the lids back, creating a tea table that looked as if it had sat in the room forever.

Gilly lifted the tray that was flush with the lids and inside were linens, beautiful spoons and some ceramic pots with gillyflowers painted on the sides. One held jelly, one held honey, one held jam. Another held small cubes of crystal sweetening, a rarity in the village. "Oh Tor!" she exclaimed, "This is exquisite!" and reached in to pull the items out, one by one. Paul grinned at his brother-in-law. Everyone knew how Gilly loved to serve tea to visitors.

Ava immediately poured out the tea, and Doris handed around the lovely linen cloths. Nan and Andy helped serve the cookies, happily helping themselves to an extra one each... a family tradition.

Once everyone was ready, Paul sat back and resumed his tale.
The old man was more nimble than I expected. Still, I managed to keep up with him as he ran along the narrow track and scrambled up slopes like a goat.

The tassels on his cap danced cheerily, as if waving me on, and his soft shoes, which seemed more suited to a reading room, never once slipped on either gravel or moss.

Toward mid-afternoon, I think it must have been, he stopped climbing and waited for me to catch up to him on a ledge behind a boulder. A metal door led into the side of the mountain, and it fell back with a clang when he touched it.

I could see this was a natural cleft in the side of the mountain, that had been carefully constructed so as to be concealed from anyone who didn't know which boulder to check behind. The rafters were high above my head, and the walls, though still rugged, had been whitewashed, and here and there a tapestry hung behind a piece of furniture.

It was a home more elegant than we have here in the village, though not as fine as some I had seen on my journeys, still it was very large and well-appointed. The inside was brightly lit from a hole set high in the ceiling, and fresh water rippled in the pool underneath.

The man turned to me, his eyes twinkling. "Welcome to my castle. There is a room off to the side where you may refresh yourself. Please join me in the library (and he gestured to the furthest end of the chamber) when you are ready."

It was most peculiar, but I didn't feel threatened. Yet.

In no time, I had washed and cleaned up a bit, though my finest clothes seemed rude and unkempt in this cavern. I folded my gear and placed it near the door, in case I was not invited to stay long.

As I walked to the end of the cavern, I admired the many objects: graceful statues on elaborate plinths, ornate sculptures on plain pillars, a richly carved chest, a chair of wood as dark as night, inlaid with mother of pearl, tapestries depicting scenes from legends I had not yet heard.

A fish (I assumed) jumped as I passed the pool, and I paused to look into its depths. I coudn't tell if the pool was a few inches deep, or many lengths of a man's arm. The water was as black as the light coming in was bright. I stepped back cautiously and continued on.

The farther I got from the entrance, the quieter my footsteps fell, and I realized that I was walking on a carpet of moss that grew thickly over the hard floors. A set of steps that went all the way across the cavern nearly tripped me in the dimming light, but torches now burning on the walls caught the treads enough that I could ascend without injury.

The man looked up from a large bookstand as I approached. He smiled generously and motioned to a chair nearby. "Have a seat while I finish writing this down. Won't take long."

And indeed, scarcely had I sat down when he scattered sand on the pages, dusted it off with a breath and closed the large tome.

"So. You are trying to find your family, and you think this mountain may hold a clue."

It was a statement, not a question. I didn't know how to reply, so I kept silent and listened.

"You were gone a long time, exiled, you know. They didn't expect you to return. And things have changed."

He paused and looked at me severely. "Better you had stayed home, young one."

Something in the tone of his voice caught me off guard. Though older than our parents, he spoke as if he had an eternity of experience.

He leaned in toward me, his sparkling eyes catching the light and turning deep green, "Tell me what you remember."

His voice was commanding, his gaze compelling. I hesitated, then memories long forgotten burst forth.
Paul looked around the room. Grampy was nodding, his eyes closed, and Nan was leaning against Polly, who yawned behind her hand.

"I think it's another good stopping point. Since you kids don't have school tomorrow, we'll have another go at midday, shall we?"

Gilly carefully closed her new table, and they carried the remains of dessert into the kitchen. Gilly kissed her parents and siblings goodbye and turned to wash up, only to be shooed out of the kitchen by the twins. She turned to help Nan and Andy get ready for bed, only to find her way laughingly blocked by Paul. It was her night off.

So Gilly sat near the good light in the front room, sewing quilt bits together with Doris and Meg and Polly while the clouds slowly covered the mountain top and sent snow dancing down its sides.