‘There it is!’ Magpie pointed ahead.
Billy, who was alongside her, stared up into the mass of twisting branches that largely hid the little hill just to the right of the path.
‘I can’t see it …’ he stared harder, scrunching his eyes up and holding one hand over his eyes despite the gloom of approaching night.
‘There …’ Owen put one hand on Billy’s shoulder and immediately the little troll found he could see, quite differently from normal.
‘Coo-ool …’ he breathed.
Owen chuckled. ‘With all that snow it will certainly be cool, if not bloody freezing!’ he grinned down at Billy.
The troll’s vision showed him a conical hill with an apparently flat top all covered in snow like a huge Yule Cake covered in sweet frosting. Silvery birch trees marched up its sides, their bare winter branches filigreed with fresh snow, a delicate fairy land. Across the top of the hill he noticed white balls flying from each side, crossing as they passed over the middle, making wonderful patterns against the night sky. After a moment Billy realised the white balls were flying to the throbbing rhythm that seemed to be pulsing out of the very ground. His flesh prickled with excitement.
Owen slid off his horse, Magpie followed him and the others all dismounted too., he led the way up a path that turned off the main track right at their feet. The rest of the group followed him. They could feel the throbbing sound right through their boots.
As they came to the top Billy ducked under Owen’s arm, excited to see what was going on. Eyes agog, he never saw the white ball that caught him in the mouth and knocked him back into Magpie’s arms.
‘Hey!’ she caught him, steadied him back onto his feet. ‘You OK?’
‘Ummphhuggle glug,’ he replied disjointedly, spitting snow out of his mouth.
She helped him get rid of the snow, even for a troll his mouth looked blue with cold. They all peered carefully over the top.
The top of the hill was dipped like a cup, about ten feet deep. The sides were steep but the bottom was flat, the whole covered in snow that glimmered in the starlight and the beginnings of the rising moon that just managed to tangle with the topmost branches.
Down in the dip stood a circle of entwives, their tall, slender forms lightly wrapped in gossamer silk that clung to them and swirled out when they moved. In the centre sat a group of nine gnomes. They were drumming. Each gnome had a drum of a different size held between his black-breeched knees, and each played a different rhythm that blended and harmonised into a complex whole. Their hands flashed over the drum skins, the sleeves of their white shirts rolled up to show hairy, muscular arms adorned with complicated tattoos. Long beards twitched rhythmically. Their red hoods were decorated with holly, ivy and mistletoe, and strung with hawk-bells that rang sweetly as they moved their heads in time with the drumming.
The entwives dipped and swayed in time with the drumming as they bent to pick up a new handful of snow, roll it into a ball. They stretched and arched as they tossed the snowball across the circle, over the heads of the gnomes. The balls fell just over the head of the entwife opposite. The patterns they made were like shooting stars.
Owen and the rest of the group stood transfixed, hardly breathing.
A sudden roll of the drums and the whole dance stopped. The silence was electric. A swoop of wings and a wild cry over Magpie’s head broke the spell as a barn owl swooped over the circle. The gnomes put down their drums and the eldest turned to the strangers. The elder entwife followed his gaze.
‘Welcome, strangers,’ the gnome called. ‘Will you come down and join us?’
Owen raised a hand. ‘We will indeed, thanking you kindly for the invitation.’ He led his mount carefully down the hill, the others followed.
Magpie and Billy both stared around them. Iolo and Kefn looked at each other.
‘The snow dance …’ Kefn breathed.
Iolo nodded. ‘I never expected to see this,’ he whispered back.
‘What’s the snow dance?’ Billy asked them.
The elder gnome had reached them now, he looked kindly at Billy. ‘At Twelfth Night we gather here at the Tump to celebrate the snow and the new moon, when they come together as they do this year. We dance and feast in honour of the Goddess Olwen, the Lady of the Moon. You have seen the dance – swallowed some of it,’ he chuckled and patted Billy on the head. ‘Now … will you feast with us and tell us how you come to be here so propitiously?’
‘The kelpies sent us,’ Billy blurted out.
‘Aha!’ the elder gnome looked round them all.
Magpie felt the threads move again, twining, weaving around and through her. It tickled her mind and made her blink. She’d really not expected to feel it like this although her tutors at The School had told her she would … if only she would allow herself to do so. She grimaced. Damn it! And she certainly wasn’t consciously allowing anything of the sort, not intentionally! It was just creeping up on her, grabbing her when she wasn’t looking. The gnome was smiling at her, his eyes twinkling. Damn it again! He was reading her thoughts!
They followed the gnome into the circle. Other gnomes came to take their mounts, offering them food, while the entwives took each of the travellers and sat them in them comfortably circle, giving them rugs and furs to wrap around them. Soon food appeared, delicious soup, roast meats, new-made sourdough bread and fresh cheeses. Warm fruit pie followed, with stem-ginger and custard, and there was plenty to drink.
Magpie was sharing a rug and a couple of furs with Owen, feeling replete and satisfied. The entwives sang, the gnomes provided bass harmonies. She was nodding off when the singing stopped and the elder gnome turned to them.
‘You are well fed … would you now entertain us with a story? I sense the lady there,’ he looked pointedly at Magpie, ‘has a story to tell. Would you give it to us?’