I’d missed the first day because I had to work late at the big house, preparing a festive meal for Sir Danvers and his guests with the rest of the kitchen staff. If I hadn’t, I might not have come home to smashed eggs, dead chickens, and a henhouse on fire.
I’d stared from the devastation in the henyard to the stricken face of my mother sitting by the cottage door, and back again. Knowing, from many years of going hungry when the hens weren’t laying enough, or when some disease ran through the flock, that this was her livelihood gone.
I started to ask who would do such a horrible thing, to a widow no less, and why. But then I stopped, because I knew.
After I’d helped put out the fire and cleaned up the destruction as much as I could, I went off to find the Lord of Misrule and confront him.
I found Misrule, consisting of its Lord and his Followers, in a clearing in the forest just north of the village. We all know how it works. Every year, work stops for twelve days, and normal laws, customs, and rules cease to apply. Everyone could do exactly what they wanted.
And the poorest person in the village becomes the Lord of Misrule, more powerful than Sir Danvers or anyone else.
There was always a gang of hangers-on who’d follow him and do exactly what he said. We called them Misrule. The twelve days were Misrule, but so were the people who made certain anarchy and lawlessness abided during it. Because when someone, looking at the ruins of their home or livelihood, sighs “Misrule,” it really doesn’t matter whether you mean the time it happened, or the people who did it.
They’d cleared the snow, dug a roasting pit, and set up stakes, and no less than three of my mothers’ hens were on the spit. I could see others lying by the side. They wouldn’t be able to eat them all.
It was a risk even approaching him. After what had happened ten years ago, I usually stayed as far away from Misrule, and especially its Lord, as I could. But for once I was so angry I didn’t even feel a memory of fear. I walked right up to him, in his tattered, ragged velvet robes, and kicked him as hard as I could.
He yelped, and for a minute looked thunderous. But the drink and the food and the pleasure of the destruction he’d wreaked made him torpid and slow-natured, so he just chuckled with sadistic pleasure. “Ooh, that hurt,” he murmured, lasciviously.
“You’ve gone too far, Stebbins,” I said. Using his real, everyday, outside-of-Misrule, name.
“That’s Lord of Misrule, Mary Henwife’s Daughter,” he corrected.
“It’s Mary Summersby now,” I said, automatically.
“Oh, really? Why the change?” He played up to his audience. “Because you’re working in the big house now? You’re an apprentice cook with Mrs Roister, you’re too good for the village?”
The Vicar kept saying that there was no such thing as magic, but there was, and this was it. I’d attacked him by using his real name; he’d counter by mocking my new one. Yes, it hurt.
“Or maybe,” the Lord of Misrule drew out the word, “maybe, you’re not Mary Henwife’s Daughter because your mother’s got no hens.” At this, a few of his sycophants laughed.
“Cheer up, your mother’ll be fine. Someone will give her some birds and she’ll set up back in business. Or you can buy some for her, fine lady like you.” He motioned to the assembled. “Sit down. Relax. Join us.”
As well as the usual people, the beggars and odd-jobbers and taverners snuggling up in obscene embraces around the fire, I could see that a few of the neighbours had joined Misrule. Young men mostly, of course. And a couple of the stableboys from the big house, boys I’d actually liked. Until then. I could feel my lip twist. “Thanks, I won’t.”
“Maybe later?” the Lord of Misrule said meaningfully. Turning it into a threat. Now the anger was fading, the fear was starting to return.
“Maybe,” I said, trying to make it equally threatening, but failing. The Lord of Misrule had much more practice at that sort of thing than I did.
“And remember, Mary Summersby, it’s Lord of Misrule now and for the next eleven days.” The words were a command. “For these twelve days I assume my sacred office. Never forget that.”
What had I hoped to achieve, by coming out here? To hide the distress and confusion that was starting to overtake my shock-fuelled courage, I turned on my heel, wrapped my nice (if second-hand) wool cloak dramatically around me, and tried to stalk back towards the village.
On the way back to my mother’s, I could see ours wasn’t the only house they’d hit, though she’d taken the worst of it. Gates askew, windowpanes broken, Tom Pigman and Tom Pigman’s Son trying to round up a herd of hogs that were enjoying their unexpected liberty a little too much.
Tom Blacksmith, shamefaced for not having done anything to stop Misrule, had come round with food and an invitation to have dinner with his family tomorrow night. I’d wanted to scream at him, but it was the holidays, and our positions could well have been reversed. Instead, I’d accepted on behalf of my mother, who was sitting motionless and speechless in a wooden chair by the hearth, just watching the coals.
“It’ll be all right,” I said to her, feebly. “Some neighbours will give us some chickens, and you can start up again.”
Unexpectedly, she laughed with a harsh, barking noise. “Which neighbours?” she said.
“I don’t know.” She was right. She was Mary Henwife because she was the only one farming chickens in this village, at least on a scale big enough to make money you could build a life on. Even if a couple of people gave her a spare pullet or two, it would be one of the tough, scraggly kitchen chickens some people kept for eggs and company rather than the sleek highly-bred birds she’d had. And she’d have to get a new rooster, and they were expensive.
“I’ll work hard, see if I can finish my apprenticeship early. Start making proper money.”
She didn’t even bother to laugh at that one. I could see the problems there, too. If I became a cook, I would get a decent wage, but I’d have to move to another village or to the city to get a job. I’d be spending a decent portion of my wages on lodgings and the other expenses I didn’t have here.
We wouldn’t starve, at least. People were sympathetic about Misrule; the church had a little fund. But it would be a long lean time before my mother could get back to her current level of prosperity. If ever.
The second day ended with the pair of us just sitting by the fire, hearing the shouts and cries and laughter as the sun went down and Misrule came back to the village. Staying still, like mice when the foxes come out to hunt.
“We could ask Sir Danvers to stop it,” I said to the Vicar on the third day. He had come round asking if he could do anything to help, and I’d sarcastically told him he could help rebuild the henhouse. To my surprise, he’d taken off his hat, coat, and doublet, rolled up his sleeves, and set to work.
The Vicar shook his handsome head. “He never would.”
“He would too,” I said. “Misrule costs him. Remember what happened last year? No, of course you don’t, that’s right.” The Vicar had taken over the post in the spring; his predecessor hadn’t been quite right after the incident last Misrule with the barrel of sheep manure. “Steb— the Lord of Misrule got hold of Sir Danvers’ stud stallion and ran him over rough country. Poor thing had to be put down. And he loved that horse.”
“I’ll wager he bought a new one, once he’d done mourning.” The Vicar rummaged in the box of nails, his shirt, sweat-soaked despite the midwinter chill, clinging aesthetically to his muscles. “Losing a stud horse costs him, yes. But not like your mother losing her chickens or Tom Pigman his herd.”
I glanced at the neighbours’ house, the anxiously grunting huddle of swine in the yard. “They were lucky. Only lost a sow this year.”
The Vicar rested his hammer on his shoulder and looked at me critically. “Forget Danvers. He won’t help.”
“Danvers’ son, then.”
“Yes, Sydney,” I said. “He’s no lover of Misrule. It’s why he’s usually in the city this time of year.”
“And most of the rest of the year,” the Vicar said, selecting a nail and attacking one of the boards. “He’s full of notions about there being no need for Misrule, but nobody’s going to listen to him, because he’s never around. It’s not like he’s local in anything but name.”
He had a point, though Sydney would eventually become Sir Danvers, probably, and people would have to put up with it.
But there was something else the Vicar said that was eating me. “Hang on. What do you mean, notions about there being no need for Misrule?”
The Vicar stopped hammering. “Well. That.”
“I’m talking about ending Misrule!”
“Yes. Of course you are. Because of—” he gestured vaguely with the hammer at the henhouse. “But people need Misrule. It’s part of life.”
“You’ve been here less than a year.”
“Everywhere’s the same. There’s always Misrule. It’s a way of letting go of the pain of the other fifty weeks of the year.”
“It’s not just that,” I said. “It’s gone beyond that. We’ve all been counting the cost for far too long.” I left the litany unsaid. The cripplings, the blindings, the rapes, those children that had been playing in the hayrick that was set alight.
What had happened to my father, a decade ago now. When that fat taverner who wasn’t to be trusted around children dragged me off into the forest. My father came after me. Alone. And took a wound that went green and killed him before the snowdrops were in bloom.
Oh, the laws of Misrule had applied there, too. Everyone helped my mother take over doing the hens on her own. I had a suspicion my apprenticeship had in part come about because the big house liked to look after the widows and orphans of Misrule. The fat taverner had himself turned up drowned in a ditch the next year, just enough inside of the Misrule period that no one needed to take any blame for it.
My father was still dead, though.
“Don’t you get on your high horse about it. I heard you were part of the mob that stoned Tom Farmer’s dog.”
I felt a wave of guilt. “It was a horrible dog, though,” I said. “And he kept setting it on people. My cousin nearly lost a finger.” And it had been the year after my father died, and I needed to do something.
“But still, it was Tom Farmer’s dog.”
“And I was little then. Didn’t know better.”
“Before you went up to the big house.”
A pang of guilt. “It’s not like that. I’m still the same person, even if I did get apprenticed.”
The Vicar shook his head, putting away the remaining nails. “And you don’t think it changes you? Do you think we’d be talking like this if you hadn’t?”
“I still wouldn’t think it was right.”
The Vicar sighed, retrieving his doublet and coat and buttoning them against the cold. “The people who try to stop it are usually people like me, who come from outside, or people like you, who are getting an education. The same people who usually wind up leaving the village, in the end.”
“I wouldn’t!” But I remembered my own thoughts, just the day before, about leaving to get a proper place as a cook in the city.
The Vicar had found his hat and was checking the snow-flecked ground for any dropped or bent nails. Wherever he’d come from, it was plain he hadn’t started out as a Vicar. I wondered what his original name had been. “Anyway,” he said, “it’s not going to stop. Not for Sir Danvers, or Sydney. Or for you.”
The fourth day I had to go back up to the house to help with the cooking. Young Master Sydney was getting engaged to the daughter of a wealthy man from the city, and had brought her to meet his parents.
I’d suggested to my mother that she come to the big house with me, but she’d been worried that Misrule might come back, and Mary Pigwife and Tom Blacksmith both said they’d take turns sitting with her.
If I was unusually quiet, quiet enough that Mrs Roister at one point commented approvingly on how well-behaved I was, nobody read anything into it. All of the other household staff were also keeping the noise down, straining their ears to try and make out the gist of the various arguments breaking out around the house all day, or passing on what they’d heard in hasty whispers in corners and corridors.
Perhaps because I was being so quiet, Mrs Roister put me to work on the household accounts once the roasts were on. Which was lucky on two counts. First, it gave me time to think, and second, it gave me information.
Adding up the costs and gains from last year. The profit on the farms. The rents from the farmers and craftspeople. Taxes. Seeds. The repairs on the stables, the damage after Misrule. A tenth of all profits to the church. Charity.
Which mostly meant Stebbins.
We all knew his story. He’d been a Shepherd’s Son, but had shown enough promise at school that he’d been offered an apprenticeship as a groom at the big house. Which had gone all right at first, until the head groom began to notice the patterns of injuries and neglect among the horses that Stebbins had charge of. Although nobody said so, this might have explained why the Shepherds wouldn’t have him back when he left the big house.
They’d left Stebbins his big house name at least. I suppose he couldn’t go back to his old name if he hadn’t gone back to his family.
After leaving the big house, he’d tried to pick up the sort of work the poor people did, cleaning or odd-jobbing or washing up in the tavern. But he never stayed at anything long.
Eventually he’d wound up at his lowest ebb, no family to support him, no trade to live off of, living off charity and scraps. The poorest person in the Village.
Which meant that, automatically, on the first day, he became the Lord of Misrule.
He’d found his calling.
For over forty years now, that was what he did. People offered him work, training, chances to go stay with some relative or other in town. He hadn’t even made a token effort, just turned it all down with a gleam in his eye. Living on scraps and charity, sleeping in stables and fields, just so that he could have those twelve shining days, when he was king, and could make anyone do anything he wanted. Have the people who spat on him the rest of the year as his sycophants and lackeys. Prey on the rest of us.
I put aside my feelings, thought about what he’d done. It made a strange kind of sense. Showed a lot of intelligence and what Mrs Roister called “lateral thinking.” You could see why he’d been thought a good prospect for the big house.
And people need a Lord of Misrule, particularly one who’s creative, and driven, and knows which targets to hit.
Then again. Stebbins on his own was nothing. Eleven months of the year nobody cared about him. The Lord isn’t a Lord if he doesn’t have followers.
But it seemed like every hike in the rents, every fall in the price of wool, every year more of the taxes went to support war down south than schools up north, every young person who went off in search of adventure but came back old and missing parts, every family who counted the cost and realised they could afford to help themselves but not the neighbours, more and more people joined Misrule.
By the time I’d finished the accounts and the family and their guests for the evening had withdrawn in tight-lipped sullenness from the dinner table, everyone else was in the kitchen, piecing together the story in front of the fire. That Mrs Danvers had objected to her son’s choice of bride; that Sir Danvers had also, but for different reasons, and was alternately taking sides with his wife and his son; that the bride herself was discovering that the idea of being a landowner in a remote country village was more to her taste than the reality; that the Vicar, invited to dinner more out of custom than because the Danverses liked him, had attempted to play negotiator and had wound up making things worse.
The drama out front made for an interesting distraction, and also gave me some thoughts about what to do about Stebbins.
Because I also had to help with the cleaning and the washing up and the storing of the leftovers for the next day, I was also on hand when Sydney’s bride went missing, when search parties went out through the village, and when the news came back, early on the fifth day, that she’d been found dancing round a bonfire in the stubble field with the Lord of Misrule.
I spent the fifth day thinking.
On the sixth day, I recruited The Vicar.
I found him cutting botanical specimens out of the hedgerows after doing the rounds of the poor households of the parish.
The poor households always had it worst at Misrule. Even though most of the people who joined Misrule came from poor households. Grudges between neighbours had a way of festering.
“Ah, Mary Summersby!” The Vicar saw me and waved cheerfully with the hand that wasn’t full of green twigs and scissors. “How’s your mother? I’ve got the perfect thing to cheer you up. The telescope I ordered three months ago finally arrived. Let’s see if Jupiter really does have moons.”
Any other young man who suggested we meet after dark for an activity involving moons, I’d know exactly where I stood. With the Vicar, though, I wasn’t sure if it was a double-entendre, or just an innocent invitation. I’d been dropping hints since he’d arrived that I wouldn’t mind him being my dancing partner at Midsummer, but he either didn’t know what I meant (maybe they didn’t have Midsummer in his village? But if Misrule was everywhere, Midsummer must be too), or he wasn’t interested.
In any case, there were more important considerations right now. “I’d love to,” I said. We fell into step with each other, walking slowly back towards the church. “But I’ve had an idea for what to do about Misrule.”
“I told you—”
“I’m not talking about abolishing it. That’s what the problem’s been. Everyone either puts up with it, or wants to abolish it. They’re not thinking laterally.”
“So you have a better idea?” A sceptical smile.
“I do. And I need your help with it.”
The Vicar listened, a slight frown on his handsome brow, as I outlined my plan. When I finished, he said, “It’s a good idea.”
I hadn’t expected him to jump for joy, but I’d expected more enthusiasm. “This is the point where you say ‘but.’”
“It is.” The Vicar smiled wryly. “The ‘but’ here is, how do you propose to keep it going? More money to help the poor of the parish would certainly reduce the anger, and envy, and spite that drives Misrule. But you’d need money, and you’d need money every year. Not just once.”
“Do you know what’s going to happen about Sydney’s fiancée?”
“It’s unclear,” he admitted. “Sydney is holding his father to the point about how what happens at Misrule has no criminal consequences. His father says that this is true, but it doesn’t speak well for the character of the lady or her long-term stability. The lady in question has locked herself in the guest room and isn’t speaking to anyone, or possibly one Danvers or other locked her in there, it’s a little unclear. Everyone’s at daggers drawn.”
“This is giving me another idea,” I said.
“A lottery?” Sydney looked deeply sceptical. The seventh day happened to be Sunday, and we’d cornered him after the service.
“We were thinking that you might want something to cheer the villagers up.” The Vicar said. “Make them happy. Give them a festive occasion.” He meant, of course, to distract the village from what had happened the other day, but the main reason we’d agreed he should be spokesman was that he didn’t say things like that out loud.
“But what about the ones who don’t win the lottery?”
“Here’s the idea. We make the season about pleasure, not fear. You throw a huge party. Food and gifts for all—”
“I don’t have time to—”
“Just let them go through that back storeroom where we all know your father keeps the things he’s too busy to use and too thrifty to throw away. Slaughter that lame ox that no one in the big house wants to eat because it’s tough and stringy. Slow roasting will turn it out fine. Then, at the climax, draw a lottery winner from among the parish households.”
“Oh, I see. Excluding the ones participating in Misrule?” That was interesting. If that was where his mind went, then Sydney had been thinking about how to end Misrule.
“No, no. Include the ones participating in Misrule. Especially them. In fact, it might not be a bad idea if one of them won. Obviously, no, I don’t mean Gin-Sling Tom or anyone else whose name has recently been mentioned in connection with— no, never mind— but one of the others. Mary Taverner, for instance.”
“Do you trust me?”
Sydney thrust out his lower lip slightly. “If you give that lot free money, they’ll just quit their jobs and spend it all on useless things. Look at Stebbins.”
I didn’t blame Sydney. The Vicar and I had also had an argument about that one. He’d won, and I’d left with the uncomfortable feeling that maybe Sir Danvers had another reason not to oppose Stebbins’ presence in town. He provided a useful reason to refuse to give the poor more than the occasional handout.
“She might. But it’s not like one less server at the tavern is going to harm their business, and she’ll be spending it on useless things other villagers have made. And if she does turn out to be the next Stebbins, she couldn’t be worse as the Lady of Misrule.”
“Well, all right. How much should the prize be?” We were clearly winning Sydney over, but he still wasn’t totally on side.
“A year’s wages.”
Sydney stumbled. “What?”
“Think about how little a tavern-girl or a pot-boy makes in a year,” The Vicar said.
I told him. Sydney looked startled, not sure if it was from the number or because he’d forgotten I was there.
“You could easily bury that in the kitchen accounts if there’s likely to be a problem with your father,” I said, driving the point home.
“Yes,” he said thoughtfully. “It’s far less than we lose just from Misrule, in an average year.”
Which was the point, but I was glad he got to it.
“In fact, we could do a lottery every night for twelve nights and—”
“—Next year,” The Vicar said hastily. “This year we’ll just do the one. Get people used to the idea.” Meaning the Danverses, but also the villagers.
“But you could announce that, after the feast.” I said, encouragingly.
“Excellent! Then we can start making the arrangements.” Sydney rubbed his hands together, and I reflected that he didn’t look quite so stupid when he had a decent plan to occupy him.
“We’ve got some plans drawn up back at the vicarage, if you’d like to join us.” The Vicar put his arm through Sydney’s, steered him back towards the church, flashing me a quick conspiratorial grin.
We were there. Well, almost.
We started the preparations the very next day. Setting up tables and a platform in the square. Getting the maypole out and up and covered in holly and ivy. Arranging the menu and the entertainment. At first it was just The Vicar and myself, with the occasional presence of Sydney. In the afternoon I was able to persuade my mother to join us, listlessly at first but looking happier and happier as she directed the construction. As we went on, people got interested, and came along to watch, or to help, or to agree to play music or sing or do their party pieces.
By the ninth day, a few of the usual crowd had become curious enough to stay away from Misrule, or to creep back into the Village from Misrule. A few of them stayed to help with the carpentry and the cooking.
On the tenth day, Misrule staged a raid on the proceedings. Tables smashed, boards torn up, holly ripped from the maypole, pots upended. But we’d assumed they’d do something like that.
We repaired the damage on the eleventh day. It didn’t take long, and we had time to finish the rest of the preparations.
The celebrations started before dawn on the twelfth day, with a parade and a song before the people with animals and birds had to go do the morning chores. The snow had fallen overnight, hiding the mud and the drabness and turning all the houses into magical dwellings, festooned in crystal and covered in white silk.
Then the first dishes were brought out, while Tom Pigman and Mary Shepherd took their place with fiddle and drum for the first shift of music.
After a couple of hours, Sir Danvers came down. We let Sydney handle him. Evidently he succeeded, because a while later I saw Sir Danvers sampling the jam tarts and making slightly awkward conversation with Mary Ploughwife.
And not long after that, Mrs Roister turned up, saying that the Danverses had sent word they’d be dining in the village, so she may as well roll up her sleeves and help with the feast.
And not long after that, I saw that she’d roped Sir and Mrs Danvers in. Mrs Danvers enthusiastically turning the spit to keep the roast going, Sir Danvers washing the dishes. Which everyone seemed to enjoy, including the Danverses.
I’d admit, that was an interpretation of the day’s theme that I hadn’t considered.
There was a cessation in the music and a brief service at noon, because the Vicar insisted there be some sacred content. But he had the sense to keep it short and generally amicable. And, with the nature of the enterprise in mind, focusing heavily on reversals: mighty God incarnate as a helpless child. Jesus disguising himself as a beggar. Good King Wenceslas.
Turning the spirit of Misrule around. The last would be first, the poorest would be most powerful— but in a different way.
Some of Misrule were there by that point, sniggering loudly at the sermon and shouting rude things. But everyone was in a good enough mood, and eventually the catcalls petered out.
When the sun began to approach the horizon, we held the lottery. Mary Taverner won, of course, and ran off into the crowd crowing with delight.
“She’s going to spend it all on drinks,” Tom predicted glumly.
“Most of them for her friends. She can’t drink it all herself,” I said.
At which point the Lord of Misrule arrived.
It was clear we’d already gained an advantage. He was on foot, not riding a stolen goat or sheep or horse. He was bare-headed, without a crown of antlers or ivy or pine. A retinue of stray pot-boys were trailing after him, but at a shamefaced distance and casting side glances at each other, as if they were thinking they might melt into the crowd at any minute.
But he was adaptable. “Well!” he announced in a voice that carried over the musicians (four of the Blacksmith children, Big Tom, Squinty Tom, Small Mary, and Blonde Mary, the last of whom faltered a bit on the fife but recovered). “All this? For me?”
The Vicar, Tom Pigman’s Son, and Sydney all looked like they were about to step forward, but I anticipated them. “Of course, Lord of Misrule,” I said, in my most polite-but-loud voice. “We’ve been waiting for you to join us. Please. Sit.”
“If it’s mine,” he said, “then I’ll do what I like with it.” He nodded to a couple of his followers, who had automatically joined him on his arrival. “Smash it, boys.”
The men began setting about the food table with staves, throwing the pastry into the snowy dirt, and heaving the vegetables at each other. Villagers scattered.
The Lord of Misrule took a couple of disturbingly swift steps forward. Before I could do anything, he’d grabbed hold of me. First my cloak, and then his hands went under it.
“No!” The Vicar tried to intervene, but someone swung a chair-leg into his stomach and he went down, gasping and retching.
I held my breath and turned my face away. Awful memories of the fat taverner in my mind, awful memories of the price my father had paid for helping me. I could see the leathery seams of the Lord of Misrule’s thin, hairy face, his reddened eyes, the awful smell of alcohol mixed with animal fat and unwashed man.
I’d known he would attack. Known he would probably attack me. But all the plans I’d made in my head for how I could turn it round seemed impossible in light of it actually happening.
Everyone else was staring at us. Nobody so much as saying anything to stop him.
I swallowed down any feelings of anger. Of course they were scared, and I couldn’t expect anything from them. I’d have to show them he wasn’t invulnerable, at least.
I struggled and kicked. Scored a hit.
He let go, staggered back.
He motioned, and two of his men came forward. One brandishing the chair leg.
“I’m going to make you regret that,” he said.
I braced myself. I couldn’t win against three of them. But I could certainly give a good account of myself.
Someone, finally, grabbed the Lord of Misrule.
“I wouldn’t do that,” said Mary Blacksmith, stepping forward.
Two of her larger children, having put down their fiddles, held him fast. The others stood behind their mother, folding their muscular arms.
The men froze. The ones behind him stood, confused. The others breaking up the tables and pots stopped what they were doing. Looked to their Lord for guidance, then looked to Mary Blacksmith and her family, then to me, then back to him.
“Lot of people are enjoying the food,” Tom Blacksmith commented, tapping his drumstick into the palm of her hand. “Why don’t you sit down and join us?”
Realising what was going on, some of the other villagers began forming up around the Blacksmiths. Tom Taverner. Redhaired Mary Shepherd’s Daughter. Gin-Sling Tom, keen to save face, filled up a plate and sat down, smiling as if this had been his own idea.
The Vicar, finally recovered, scrambled to his feet, lurched forward, seized my hand. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“Fine,” I gasped back, wobbly but triumphant. “How about you?”
“Smash it!” the Lord of Misrule ordered again, but his remaining followers hesitated. With a glance at their father, the Blacksmith children began playing again, choosing something suitably loud. Someone else drew Mary Taverner into the dance ring, and the dancing began again.
The Lord of Misrule grabbed a handful of brush, thrust it into the bonfire. Began whirling round, setting light to the decorations, the wood pile, the thatch of nearby roofs.
Meeting my eye and smiling cruelly, he flung the brush into the half-built henhouse in my mother’s yard.
Without thinking, I snatched up an empty bucket, filled it with snow, dashed it at the fire.
The Pigman family did the same.
Someone else started making snowballs, throwing them. Sometimes missing, hitting neighbours. Before long, the fire was out, and everyone was hurling snow and snowballs.
“We should do this every year!” I heard Redhaired Mary Shepherd’s Daughter saying to Tom Pigman’s Son, covered with glittering crystals and laughing. “Now this, this is Misrule!”
“We’re getting everything wet, though…” Tom replied, as they went to warm themselves up by a bonfire.
“That’s Misrule too!”
The snow-fight had moved to the periphery, but kept going on, with a steady drift of participants to and from the bonfires.
The Lord of Misrule rounded, fixed his eyes on me.
And was immediately pelted with snowballs.
“Come on, Stebbins!” someone shouted. “Join in!”
The Lord of Misrule screamed, wordless with anger.
The magic had faded.
Names were magic, and he’d lost the name of the Lord of Misrule.
He was only Stebbins now.
And the music played louder, and the snowballs flew, and the dancers kicked their legs wildly, and Sydney appeared from somewhere with a bottle in one hand and his fiancée hanging off his other shoulder, and someone dragged the Vicar, protesting but smiling, onto the dance floor, and Mary Taverner was sitting on a bag of bran telling everyone about the new dress she was going to buy and the trip to her sister’s she was going to make. Sir Danvers had taken my mother aside and quietly asked her how much she would need to buy new hens, was talking about perhaps going into partnership, starting a bigger poultry farm.
And Stebbins crept off, muttering direly, to the edge of the village. He looked smaller, bent, like a goblin or a troll.
And in the years to come, he’d get smaller and smaller. Become something silly, a joke, a game. Eventually a clown, something to make the children laugh.
Someday, the Lord of Misrule, the leader of the festivities, would not be the poorest person in the Village, but the youngest, or the weakest.
The Vicar bounced back from the dance, breathless, eyes sparkling.
“Would you like to—”
Without my even thinking about it, my lips met his.
The season was over.