Happy Hogswatch 2011. It's late and I'm not completely satisfied with it, but I hope you all enjoy it anyway. Thanks to everyone who read anything this year, and especially thanks to anyone who commented. Happy New Year to all.
Summary: One midwinter night, Tilda gets an unexpected visitor. Or: "You don't have to believe in the Hogfather for him to pay you a visit. He's that good."
Set during the winter at the end of MR after Tonker and Lofty left.
Disclaimer: Tonker and Lofty belong to Sir Terry Pratchett. Author makes no claims of ownership in any way. No profit is being made from this work.
Sleigh-bells Ring, Are You Listening?
It was the rattle of a single coal falling through the grate that woke her. Tilda lifted her head from her folded arms and blinked around at her unfamiliar surroundings in confusion. Slowly the old and battered furniture emerged from the gloom: a tall dresser with its meagre collection of well cared for china; the patched and worn armchair beside the hearth with Magda's red jacket still slung carelessly across its back; the long high-backed bench that ran the length of the side wall on which the blanket wrapped figure of Magda lay sleeping. Tilda's memory stirred sluggishly to life. The forest. The endless cold drizzle that froze them to the bone even as the thaw turned everything into treacherous mud underfoot. The quiet lane with the remains of frost yellowed grasses between worn wheel tracks. The tumbledown cottage tucked amongst the trees. She shivered, drawing the borrowed shawl more tightly around her shoulders. Had she fallen back asleep? The fire that she had replenished, surely only a few moments ago, now gave nothing more than a faint glow.
It was the cold that had woken her earlier. She had been dreaming, good dreams for once. Dreaming of other midwinter nights so long ago. Memories of home when Papa was still there, when home had been as natural a concept as breathing and the present she found herself in had been as unimaginable then as those cherished times were now. But though she fought hard to stay there, the warm embrace of her dreams had dissolved away and Tilda had woken to the gloom of a dying fire. It seemed the damp winter chill had taken the opportunity to invade the kitchen, creeping in under the ragged bottom of the outer door. From where she lay, safely enfolded in Magda's arms, Tilda had felt the other girl shiver in her sleep, curling even more securely around her precious burden. Afraid that the cold would wake her companion Tilda had slipped from the nest of blankets and hurriedly crossed the chill flags to rebuild the fire. Magda needed this time to rest, to lay her burdens down if only for a few short hours. She was so very tired.
How long ago had that been? How long had she been asleep at this table? Moving to ease a cramp, Tilda gasped as a flare of pins and needles raced up from where she'd unwittingly squashed her own ankle . She'd remembered now, she'd drawn her feet up onto the bench to get away from the cold striking up from the stone flags.
The winter had been harsh to Borogravia, hard on all refugees but hardest perhaps on two young veterans warily working their way across the country to safer lands beyond. The relief wagons from Ankh Morpork were getting through and food distribution centres had sprung up in even the smallest villages. But for those like Magda and Tilda, for whom even the thought of queuing amongst a crowd of people was crippling, there had been no relief that long lonely winter. Scrambling across rough mountainsides, or picking their way through dense forest, they had often been hungry, always been cold, and rarely lived through a day without feeling the hobbling shackles of fear. And yet through it all, Tilda thought, Magda had been there. Magda was always there.
It was Magda who had found this place. They hadn't meant to come here, hadn't meant to meet anyone as they worked their way down to the wide river and the possibility of anonymous trade amongst the boatmen there. Last month there had been snow, a beautiful blanket hiding the sharp edges and dark bottoms of their world and they had had two weeks of peace, hidden away in a shepherd's shack, up on the edge of the tree line. But the thaw had come, bringing the shepherds with it and forcing them out into the grey to huddle on soggy leaf mould between trunks running with water. Magda's cough had worsened, obliging them to return to the world of apothecaries and places that sold coats that didn't leak, even if only for a short while. So they had come down off the hills, keeping within the safety of the woods as they had slipped and stumbled down the steep valley side. Until they had come across the scattered collection of cottages strung out along a muddy lane.
Tonker didn't like roads. Tilda herself could understand that there was another side to them, could see the potential for hiding in plain sight. But not Tonker. Tonker didn't like people, didn't like the imminent presence of people that roads implied and really, really, didn't like houses. Standing there amongst the thinning trees, Tilda had reached out and taken Magda's hand. No one would look twice at them, two bedraggled refugees in a country filled with displaced families. She had heard the girl beside her repeating this statement under her breath over and over as they watched the raindrops fall into the puddles along the road. But Magda hadn't moved and it was with a desperately tight grip that she had clung onto Tilda's hand. In the end it had been Tilda who had stepped forward, Tilda who had squeezed that cold hand reassuringly as they stood there in the middle of the track, nervously looking about them as the wisps of fog swirled round their ankles. Magda had insisted that they went up rather than down, hoping to find an empty place amongst the poorer dwellings at the edge of the village. As they walked up the road, the patter of the dripping trees forming a constant accompaniment to the squelch of their footsteps, Magda had kept hold of Tilda's hand.
They hadn't been walking for long when the fog had thinned to reveal a small dwelling. Pausing in the road they had watched it for a while. There had been a light in the window and Tilda had fully expected a tug of her hand drawing her away up the lane. But night had been falling and they were wet to the skin. Truly Tilda hadn't meant to shiver, but once she'd started she simply hadn't been able to stop. Magda had glanced at her and then without a word had lifted open the dilapidated gate and walked up the overgrown path, pulling Tilda after her. The old woman who had answered the door to Magda's tentative knock had asked no questions and they in turn had gratefully told her no lies. They had sat at this table, the three of them, eating soup. Saying nothing and needing to say nothing while the clock ticked on the mantle piece and Magda's red jacket hung over the back of the the solid upholstered chair beside the hearth.
The mantle piece clock struck three, bringing Tilda back from her reverie. It had only been one in the morning when she had sat down at the kitchen table for a moment to make sure that the fire had caught. Where had those two hours gone? The smouldering embers that remained in the grate could do little to illuminate the cramped kitchen, but non-the-less gave enough light to outline a bulky figure kneeling on the hearth.
Where had they come from? There had been no-one there when Tilda had sat down at the battered kitchen table wrestle with her thoughts, the kind of thoughts that always seemed to rise up strongest in the middle of the night.
Thinking had been becoming easier over the last month or so as the fog in her mind had begun to lift. Thoughts that had previously had to be hauled and shoved into place with massive effort were now sliding more easily into their interlocking positions, slowly perhaps at times, but still, she could think again. And despite the fact that with returning clarity had come all the memories she had buried when she first had closed the door on the world, Tilda couldn't find it in her heart to be sorry. The pain was still at times as unbearable as it had been that year and a half ago when she had retreated into her stone prison, withdrawing from the world and everything it demanded of her. But she knew now that this thing, this heavy burden of loss would continue to wait patiently outside her walls until she came out and invited it in and Tilda had had enough of hiding.
So, at night, when she woke from dreams both good and bad, she lay quiet in Magda's safe encircling arms and allowed the thoughts to come. Thoughts about Magda, thoughts about the parts of their past that she dared to let live, thoughts about their future. And more recently, thoughts that wrestled with the greatest conundrum of all: how to take the step forward from being a Tilda Tewt who didn't speak, at all, ever, to being a Tilda Tewt who did. Sometimes. When, as it were, she might have something she wanted to say.
There had been times, increasing in frequency over the recent weeks when words had risen in her mind. Nothing amazing or world shattering, just something innocuous, informative or, as happened one terrible time, something simple that would tether Magda to the present and keep Tonker calm. Suddenly after over a year of silence, there were words that she had wanted to say. Words that had run like quicksilver down to her throat, only to be stopped at the last minute by the barrier across her vocal chords. Words that had dissolved away without ever being said, leaving her halting and frustrated in grieving silence. And so she lay in the darkness, night after night and thought, wondering whether she would ever speak again.
Tilda was brought back to the present by the clanking of metal. The bulky figure crouched on the hearth was shaking the scuttle over the fire, scattering coals with a careless hand.
"Hey! What do you think you're doing? You can't do that!"
Two days worth of coal had been thrown onto the fire in as many seconds. Tilda leapt to her feet, her voice rising in outrage and then stopped short. Her voice. That had been her voice. Her hands flew to cover her mouth. The figure paused, almost as though he could feel the weight of her her gaze on his shoulders. Then he shrugged without turning around, blowing on the coals to brighten them before adding a couple of split logs from his sack.
"This is a dream, right?"
The figure shrugged. It had to be a dream. She had spoken hadn't she? Those were her words, wandering off into the world on a flowing stream of freedom. Tilda settled back onto her narrow bench.
"Definitely a dream. I only ever get to speak in my dreams."
The leaping flames in the grate brightened, throwing a flickering light on the figure as he got to his feet, satisfied with his efforts. Tilda could make out the colour of his robes now, a deep red with a paler, perhaps once white trim. She gasped again and as he turned around to face her, she heard a deep voice tiptoe across her mind.
The Hogfather has no voice.
Of course. She could see his face now, or snout to be more accurate. As she knew, pigs, for all they could produce an impressive grunt, were not known for having the ability of speech. Tilda nodded in understanding, one hand drifting up to massage the invisible band around her throat. They gazed at each other, two voiceless people in the quiet kitchen. Then The Hogfather turned, his attention seemingly to be caught by the two iconographs on the mantle shelf. Though yellowed with age, the faces were still clear behind lovingly polished glass. Two serious faces, one much younger than the other but with enough similarities to indicate close kinship, stared out into the room.
It wasn't a grand room, this dusty kitchen filled with the familiar shadows of culinary furniture. But it had been a home once. Their home. A small two-roomed cottage tucked amongst the trees with a once tidy garden at the front and small essentials at the rear. And then the war had come and well meaning men had gone off to "do their duty", never to come home. The young widow had continued on, raising her son as best she could, keeping back the advances of the forest by the sweat of her brow and the strength of her arm. And the once tidy garden had become less tidy, but had still managed to produce enough food for the boy as he grew. Until the day the Sergeant had come drumming through the village once again and the boy, fired by patriotism, had gone off to follow in his father's footsteps, kissing his mother gaily on the cheek as he left. He hadn't come back and while his mother had waited for the letter that all mothers feared, the garden had faded into weeds, the cottage melting back into the forest that surrounded it. But then the ceasefire had been declared and sons had started to come home: some of them openly swinging along the backroads and through the villages, others sneaking home in the dead of night, their uniform jackets covered by whatever they could find. But there had been no knock at her door. Until tonight. Tonight when Magda had stood on the doorstep in her red jacket and the woman had let two bedraggled strangers in out of the fog. And here they were. Warm and sheltered and fed on Hogswatch night because one old woman insisted on holding onto hope.
Tilda wondered how you did that. How you kept on believing even when everything had been taken from you. How you could bear the pain of hoping that your child was alive, that they were safe and warm and even happy, when you could never have any certainty about the matter at all.
She looked again at the gentleman in red robes standing on the hearth.
"I don't believe in the Hogfather," Tilda admitted softly. "We were never supposed to believe in you. They said you didn't exist."
Her voice took on the drone like repetition: 'Nuggan provides all that is required, to look for gifts is to show ingratitude.'
Tilda grimaced, the taste of words sour in her mouth. The Hogfather had turned away as she spoke and in the firelight Tilda thought she could see the sorrow in his eyes that such things should be so. He indicated the sleeping figure of Magda, curled up against the seat back.
"Magda believes in The Hogfather?" Even in a dream, Tilda thought, that was pretty unlikely.
No. He shook his head. That little girl who believed in The Hogfather died in Magda Tonks a long time ago. But Someone once said that humans have to start with believing in the little lies, so that you can believe in the big ones. Justice. Mercy.
Tilda shot a glance to where Magda lay, tightly wrapped in blankets, and then back at The Hogfather standing by the hearth. He shrugged.
If she didn't believe, would it all hurt quite so much?
And in that cold moment of clarity, as Tilda looked back over the years, she saw again those moments, Magda's explosions of rage and pain at the unrelenting unfairness of the universe. Behind the hard outer shell that she showed to the world, Magda had never been able to understand the why. Of any thing.
"What did she ask for?"
He just looked at her and Tilda nodded. Magda wouldn't ask. Magda knew better than that. In The Grey House since she was four, she knew better even than Tilda did of the vindictive nature of the universe with regard to the hopes of little girls.
"What is it then, that she didn't ask for?"
The Hogfather smiled. Reaching out a cupped hand, he opened it as though releasing some tiny living thing to fly away into freedom.
The gift of words do I give back to you, that Nuggan took away.
There was a warmth in her throat, a gentle touch at her jawline that hovered only a moment and when it left, took with it the heaviness that had locked her muscles there and bound her tongue. Even as she gasped, golden heat spread down her neck, dissolving the hated band that had seemed to tighten whenever she had wanted to speak.
And just like that, it was done. She could speak. She had spoken. And her voice wasn't rusty any more. Wasn't forced, as it had been the times she'd previously tried to produce anything above a whisper. Her words came out smoothly, flowing as though there had never been any obstruction.
He nodded approvingly.
Tilda couldn't help but glance towards the huddled figure of Magda who had slept through all this. She wanted to fly across the room, wake her from her slumber, wrap warm arms around her and let the words tumble forth. The overwhelming relief of having her voice back again was so great she could hardly bear to sit still but she held her tongue. Magda was exhausted. She should sleep while she had the chance. There would be time enough.
Turning her grateful gaze back to the hearth Tilda took a surprised note of the changes that had been brought about while she was distracted. The coal scuttle was full and there was a heap of kindling beside the hearth that hadn't been there before. The Hogfather straightened, reaching out a stubby finger to rest it on the frame of the picture of the youngest soldier for a moment and then raised his hand in a half salute to Tilda before bending to pick up his sack.
He turned back. Tilda almost didn't continue but even if this was a dream, she had to know. He had given her back her voice, and there was only one thing she wanted to use it to ask for.
"You're an anthropomorphic representation." She paused as the memory unfurled. "Papa explained it to me once. The Hogfather visits all the children in potentia."
"There's a little girl, my..."
Her lips struggled to shape the next words but even now she couldn't articulate that awful truth.
The Hogfather waited.
"I don't know where she is, I don't even know..."
Tilda stopped, drawing in an trembling breath. The not knowing, that ever-present nothingness that held her heart in a suffocating vice, swelled up, closing her throat and taking away her words. Between her hands the scratched wood of the table-top gained a warm salty droplet but she brushed it away quickly, hoping he hadn't seen. The fear of asking of anything in a world that had proved it took great pleasure in destroying any of her hopes or desires was almost overpowering but Tilda swallowed it down. Come what may, knowing had to be better than the pain. Taking her courage in both hands, Tilda raised her eyes to where The Hogfather was still patiently waiting and spoke her request.
"If you see her, if on one of these years it is she that receives the visit, will you tell her..."
The Hogfather grimaced, gesturing to his snout and, remembering that he couldn't speak, Tilda rephrased her question.
"When you see her, whichever Hogswatch that may be, however you manage it, please, I need her to know that she is beautiful, that I love her and that I will never forget her."
He nodded and his eyes held hers in solemn promise. Tilda wiped wet cheeks with a trembling hand.
He ducked his head under the mantle piece, stepping into the chimney. But before he began to climb he paused for a moment and turned back. Later, as she eased herself back into the nest of blankets Tilda could still hear his parting words echoing in her mind.
Happy Hogswatch, Ho Ho Ho.
She had draped Magda's arm round her waist where it had settled comfortably into its usual position. Tilda reached down now and, interlacing their fingers, lifted that rough hand and pressed a soft kiss to the back of it.
"Happy Hogswatch, Magda," she whispered, returning the hand to its original position.
Magda sighed and murmured something against her hair, the arm across her waist tightening for a moment and then relaxing in an unconscious embrace. Tilda pulled the blanket more securely in around them and closed her eyes.
Somewhere else, some-time close, The Hogfather bent silently over a small cot where a young toddler lay covered in a quilted blanket made of embroidered squares sewn carefully together. The child's movements had dislodged the blanket a little and he drew it back up and tucked it in tenderly before dropping a light kiss into the unruly dark hair that fell over her smooth forehead. As his lips touched, they were no longer those of a snout, rough and whiskery, but instead the soft lips of a young woman, blessing her first-born in love.
In the depths of her sleep, Tilda's daughter smiled.