The Twelve Courts of Midnight

1. Summoned

The pig's heart hasn't done it. Nor the scattering of blood on the bones of our dead. The prayers carved from pine haven't been heard, and those tied to the thousand-year thorn have struggled free to no avail. My father still lies tongue-dead — his eyes rolled back, his body shaking and his spirit all but lost to us. This I know, just as I know my mother's fretting and the medicine-man dredging his bag of cures will change nothing. The summons will arrive and someone other than the Lord of this Court will have to battle darkness for the gift of light.

I sit as I have sat for twelve nights now on a stone bench to the West of our Hall. I am wrapped in a black woollen cape, not quite thick enough to keep out the cold. Each afternoon I come and watch the sun succumb to the hungry horizon. And each afternoon, I wonder if he'll have the force to rise up again. He is weak now, his light pale, and night falls upon him quicker each day. And when it comes, it is infused with the heady scent of Honeysuckle it has stolen from the hothouse. It is not natural for such flowers to bloom in the middle of winter. But here, where Honeysuckle is sacred to the Court, we have found ways to cultivate it in unnatural times. We are rewarded with its intricate blend of fragrance and colour, and the subtle gifts such qualities bring to our words.

I close my eyes and breathe it in, feel Honeysuckle rushing through me, tingling in my icy fingers and toes. It coats my tongue, numbing it, like strong medicine. There is something it would have me say, say softly and well, but as I fumble to find the words, they slip beyond my reach. When I open my eyes, the shadows are long. Leaning, the way they leant twelve nights ago when I sat in the snow listening to laughter in the wind and hearing in its midst the snap of the metal trap that caught my father's inquisitive soul. Curiosity is not a bad trait for a storyteller, but a dangerous one during the dark of the year.

We know that. It's in the stories, and stories are our business. But perhaps we haven't listened as carefully as we should. The stories warn of times when bards of the Dark Lord, anxious for favour, will bind the tongues of their companions, their competitors, and sometimes, even friends. And this we understand in terms of the madness unleashed as the darkest night approaches. The time when the unspeakable pronounces itself in the minds of those people who harbour the slightest feeling of ill-will toward another. And many do, for it is impossible to love everyone. To like everyone is hard enough. I know, for I have tried with the people of the Court, and though I manage with most, I still can not stomach Laff. For he is part of a story that I would rather not tell.

But this is a different tale. This is the time of the winter solstice, the most difficult of times when the year turns to face the longest night, and the Dark Lord, ruler of these lands, calls for his Twelve Courts. Every year they must gather in his great black hall and tell stories until the sun is born from the belly of Night. They say the Night is a savage Goddess who will eat her sun-child at birth, if she is not correctly honoured. Or distracted, as the priests prefer us to believe.

We cannot live without the Sun. No food will grow, no warmth will come, and life as we know it will be dead before the moon has turned but once in the skies. So the Dark Lord's duty is distraction, and it would seem he excels in such work. Some say in the early days, he tried all manner of ways to divert the Goddess' attention — some ingenious, some cruel — but none worked as well as a story told on the night of the birthing. It is why, they say, the Dark Lord divided his kingdom between twelve of his finest storytellers, and let them rule as they wished. Their only tithe, to go to him when he calls and not fail him with their art.

Of course, the Dark Lord is the judge of who fails, for by law, one must fail each year, even if that one has trekked the length of the country in the snow and wind to be there. Even if his story has a beginning, a middle and an end, and the other Tellers are spellbound from its opening to its closing. There is always one who fails, for that is the nature of competitions held on the darkest night. This year it is clear, my father, being tongue-dead, will fail. And failure brings death to the teller and his family for this is the way the Dark Lord ensures he has only the best Storytellers at his table. The rules are clear. They have always been very clear.