It was the middle of the night when the rooster crowed. The sun had disappeared hours ago into a mass of clouds over the western hills. From the wind buffeting the walls of the house, Jack knew a storm had rolled off the North Sea. The sky would be black as a lead mine, and even the earth, covered with snow as it was, would be invisible. The sun when it rose -- if it rose -- would be masked in gloom.
The rooster crowed again. Jack heard his claws scratching the bottom of his basket as if he was wondering where his soft nest had gone. And where his warm companions had hidden themselves. The rooster was alone in his little pen.
"It's only for a while," Jack told the bird, who grumbled briefly and settled down. He would crow again later, and again, until the sun really appeared. That was how roosters were. They made noise all night, to be certain of getting it right.
Jack threw back the heap of sheepskins covering him. The coals in the hearth still gleamed, but not for long, Jack thought with a twinge of fear. It was the Little Yule, the longest night of the year, and the Bard had commanded they put out all the fires in the village. The past year had been too dangerous. Berserkers had appeared from across the water, and only merest chance had kept them from slaughtering the villagers.
The Northmen had destroyed the Holy Isle. Those who had not been drowned or burned or chopped to bits had been hauled off into slavery.
It was time for new beginnings, the Bard said. Not one spark of fire was to remain in the little gathering of farms Jack knew as home. New fire had to be kindled from the earth. The Bard called it a "need-fire." Without it, the evils of the past would linger into the new year.
If the flame did not kindle, if the earth refused to give up its fire, the frost giants would know their time had come. They would descend from their icy fortresses in the far north. The great wolf of winter would devour the sun and light would never return.
Of course, that was the belief in the old days, Jack thought as he pulled on his calfskin boots. Now, with Brother Aiden in the village, people knew that the old beliefs should be cast away. The little monk sat outside his beehive-shaped hut and spoke to anyone who would listen. He gently corrected people's errors and spoke to them of the goodness of God. He was an excellent storyteller, almost as fine as the Bard. People were willing to listen to him.
Still, in the dark of the longest night of the year, it was hard to believe in such goodness. God had not protected the Holy Isle. The wolf of winter was abroad. You could hear his voice on the wind, and the very air rang with the shouts of frost giants. Surely it was wise to follow the old ways.
Jack climbed the ladder to the loft. "Mother, Father," he called. "Lucy."
"We're awake," his father replied. He was already bundled up for the long walk. Mother was ready too, but Lucy stubbornly clung to her covers.
"Leave me alone!" she wailed.
"It's St. Lucy's Day," Father coaxed. "You'll be the most important person in the village."
"I'm already the most important person in the village."
"The very idea!" Mother said. "More important than the Bard or Brother Aiden or the chief? You need a lesson in humility."
"Ah, but she's really a lost princess," Father said fondly. "She'll look so pretty in her new dress."
"I will, won't I?" said Lucy, condescending to rise.
Jack went back down the ladder. It was an argument Mother never won. She tried to teach Lucy manners, but Father always undermined her efforts.
To Giles Crookleg, his daughter was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to him. He was forever cursed with lameness. Both he and his wife, Alditha, were sturdy rather than handsome, with faces browned by working in the fields. No one would ever mistake them for nobility.
Jack knew he would be just like them when he grew up. But Lucy's hair was as golden as afternoon sunlight and her eyes were the violet blue of an evening sky. She moved with a bright grace that seemed barely to touch the earth. Giles, with his lumbering, shambling gait, could only admire her.
Jack had to admit, as he stirred up the hearth for one last burst of heat, that Lucy had been through much in the past year. She had seen murder and endured slavery in the Northland. He had too, but he was thirteen and she was only seven. He was willing to overlook most of her annoying habits.
He heated cider and warmed oatcakes on the stones next to the fire. Mother was busy dressing Lucy in her finery, and Jack heard complaints as the little girl's hair was combed. Father came down to drink his cider.
The cock crowed again. Both Jack and Father paused.
It was said in the old days that a golden rooster lived in the branches of Yggdrassil. On the darkest night of the year he crowed. If he was answered by the black rooster that lived under the roots of the Great Tree, the End of Days had come.
No cry shook the heavens or echoed in the earth. Only the north wind blustered against the walls of the house, and Jack and Father relaxed. They continued to sip their drinks. "I wish we had a mirror," came Lucy's petulant voice. "I don't see why we can't buy one from the Pictish peddlers. We've got all that silver Jack brought home."
"It's for hard times," Mother said patiently.
"Oh, pooh! I want to see myself! I'm sure I'm beautiful."
"You'll do," Mother said.
In fact, Jack had more silver than his parents knew. The Bard had advised him to bury half of it under the floor of the ancient Roman house, where the old man lived. "Your mother has good sense," the Bard had said, "but Giles Crookleg -- excuse me, lad -- has the brain of an owl."
Father had spent some of his share on Brother Aiden's altar and a donkey for Lucy. The rest was reserved for that glorious day when she would marry a knight or even -- Father's hopes rose ever higher -- a prince. How Lucy would meet a prince in a tiny village tucked away from any major road was a mystery.
The little girl climbed down the ladder and twirled to show off her finery. She wore a long, white dress of the finest wool. Mother had woven the yellow sash herself, dying it with the pollen-colored washings from her beehives. The dress, however, had been imported from Edwin's Town in the far north. Such cloth was beyond Mother's ability, for her sheep produced only a coarse, gray wool.
Lucy wore a feathery green crown of yew on her golden hair. Jack thought it was as nice as a real crown, and only he understood its true meaning. The Bard said the yew tree guarded the door between this world and the next. On the longest night of the year this door stood open. Lucy's role was to close it during the need-fire ceremony, and she needed protection from whatever lay on the other side.
"I know what would go with this dress -- my silver necklace," Lucy said.
"You are not to wear metal," Mother said sharply. "The Bard said it was forbidden."
"He's a pagan," Lucy said. She had only just learned the word.
"He's a wise man, and I'll have no disrespect from you!"
"A pagan, a pagan, a pagan!" Lucy sang in her maddening way. "He's going to be dragged down to Hell by demons with long claws."
"Get your cloak on, you rude child. We've got to go."
Lucy darted past Mother and grabbed Father's arm. "You'll let me wear the necklace, Da. Please? Please-please-please-please-please?" She cocked her head like a bright little sparrow, and Jack's heart sank. She was so adorable, all golden hair and smiles.
"You can't wear the necklace," Jack said. Lucy's smile instantly turned upside down.
"It's mine!" she spat.
"Not yet," Jack said. "It was given into my keeping. I decide when you get it."
"Lucy!" cried Mother.
"What harm can it do, Alditha?" said Father, entering into the argument for the first time. He put his arm around the little girl, and she rubbed her cheek against his coat. "Brother Aiden says this is St. Lucy's Day. Surely we honor the saint by dressing her namesake in the finest we have."
"Giles -- ," began Mother.
"Be still. I say she wears the necklace."
"It's dangerous," Jack said. "The Bard says metal can poison the need-fire because you can't tell where it's been. If it's been used as a weapon or for some other evil, it perverts the life force."
Father had treated Jack with more respect since his return from the land of the Northmen, but he was not going to be lectured by his son. "This is my house. I am the master," Giles Crookleg said. He went to the treasure chest with Lucy dancing at his side.
Father took the iron key from the thong around his neck and unlocked the chest. Inside were some of the things Mother had brought to the marriage: lengths of cloth, embroidery, and a few items of jewelry. Underneath were a heap of silver coins and a gold coin with the face of a Roman king that Father had found in the garden. Wrapped in a cloth was the necklace of silver leaves.
It gleamed with a brightness that was strangely compelling. Jack could understand Lucy's desire for it. It had been looted in a Northman raid, claimed by Frith Half-Troll, and had come to Thorgil the shield maiden. Thorgil fell in love with it, and this was most unusual because she scorned feminine weaknesses such as jewelry and baths. Then Thorgil, who valued suffering even more than silver, had given her beloved necklace to Lucy.
From the very beginning, the little girl had reacted badly to this generous gift. She claimed it came from Frith, who -- Lucy insisted -- had treated her like a real princess. And she became hysterical when Jack reminded her of the truth, that the evil half-troll had kept her in a cage and planned to sacrifice her. Jack had taken charge of the necklace then.
"Ooh!" cried Lucy, putting it on.
"Now we really have to go," said Father, locking the chest. He had lit two horn lanterns for the journey. Mother had packed several of her precious beeswax candles in a carrying bag. Jack poured water over the hearth, and smoke and steam billowed up. The light in the room shrank down to two brownish dots behind the panels of the horn lanterns.
"Be sure it's out," whispered Mother. Jack broke up the coals with the poker and poured on more water until he could feel only a fading heat in the hearthstones.
Father opened the door, and a blast of icy wind swept in. The rooster groaned in his pen, and a cup rolled along the floor. "Don't dawdle!" Father commanded, as though Jack and Mother had been responsible for the delay. Snow lay everywhere, and they could see only a few feet ahead by the dim lantern light. The sky was shrouded with clouds.
Father fetched the donkey for Lucy. Bluebell was an obedient, patient beast, chosen by Brother Aiden for her good character, but she had to be dragged from her pen on this night. She fought until Father smacked her hard and seated Lucy on her back. The donkey stood there, shivering and blowing steam from her nostrils.
"Good old Bluebell," crooned Lucy, hugging the animal's neck. The little girl was covered in a heavy woolen robe with a hood, and the robe hung down over Bluebell's sides. It must have given the donkey some warmth because she stopped resisting and followed Father's lead.
Jack went ahead with a lantern. It was slow going, for the road was icy where it wasn't covered with snow. Jack had to keep trudging to the side to find the posts that marked the way. Once, they wandered off course and knew they were wrong only when Jack bumped into a tree.
The wind gusted and the snowflakes danced. Jack heard a rooster crow, but it wasn't the golden bird sitting on the branches of Yggdrassil. It was only John the Fletcher's fighting cock that threatened anyone who passed by. They came to a cluster of buildings and turned at the blacksmith's house. "There's no fire," Mother murmured. The forge where iron bars were heated was as black as the anvil under the oak tree.
Jack felt a cold even deeper than the winter night. Never, in all his days, had he ever seen that fire out. It was like the heart of the village, where people gathered to talk and where you could warm your toes after a walk. Now it was dead. Soon every fire would be dead, including the two brown spots of light they carried.
More would have to be called up, using wood that had drawn its strength from the earth. For the need-fire had to be alive to turn the wheel of the year. Only then would the frost giants return to their mountains and the door be closed between this world and the next.
Text copyright © 2007 by Nancy Farmer