The axeman sat on the stump, sharpening his axe with a whetstone. He drew the polished stone along the blade’s edge in long, gentle sweeps, striking sparks off the steel that fizzled in the chill winter air. The season being what it was, the branches of the trees that rose around the clearing were bare, none more so than those of the tallest tree, a gnarled and blackened thing. The axeman sat in its shade, while elsewhere the morning sun slid across the snow that lay in a fresh covering across the clearing.
At length, he ceased his polishing and examined the axehead. He nodded in satisfaction at the smooth, keen edge, having no need to test it with his thumb. He knew his business well enough to know when a blade was ready for its work. Instead, he laid the axe across his lap and reached into his pack, which lay on the ground beside him, and drew out some dried meat, bread and cheese. The day was cold, after all, and it might be that he would be waiting for some time yet.
After a while, the sound of footsteps crunching in the snow announced an arrival, and minutes later, the stranger arrived in the clearing, dressed finely under his warm cloak and leading a pack horse. He was evidently surprised by the axeman’s presence, for he stopped dead when he saw him.
“Good day to you,” the stranger said at last, maintaining a careful distance between the two of them. The axeman was a large man, even sitting down, and his thick black beard gave him no friendly appearance.
“And to you,” said the axeman agreeably, still sitting, still chewing on a strip of dried meat.
“It’s a cold day to be sitting out here alone.”
“It is that.” Despite the wool and leather that wrapped his heavy frame, the axeman couldn’t help but agree with that one.
“So what brings you out here then?”
“I was waiting for yourself.”
“For me?” the stranger asked, taking a step backward and almost bumping into his pack horse.
“Aye. You’re the first person to come this way since midwinter.”
There was a pause as the stranger took this strange statement in. “The solstice was two days ago,” he said at last. “I was in Ashvale for the feast.”
“So it was.”
“Have you been waiting here for two days?” The tone of the stranger’s voice suggested that although he didn’t believe it, the fact that the axeman was here at all was strange enough.
The axeman shrugged, the first real movement of any kind that he’d made since the stranger arrived. “Tradition.”
“I don’t know of any villages round here.”
“It lies about a mile yonder,” said the axeman, indicating a direction away from the trail that the stranger had arrived by. “We get few enough of your kind in the village.” For by his dress and the bags on his pack horse, the stranger was a travelling merchant.
The stranger nodded, seemingly a little more at ease. “So what’s the nature of this tradition then?”
“It’s simple enough,” the axeman answered as he stood up from the stump. He took the axe in his right hand and held its long haft like a walking stick. “The first traveller to pass by after midwinter must give a gift to the Mother.”
“Aye,” said the axeman as he moved to the side of the gnarled black tree that had lately sheltered him. Bending beside its trunk, he swept away the snow from its roots, revealing a deep cleft in the earth. “This is the Mother, and this is where her gifts are left.”
Intrigued, the stranger came a little closer, peering at the cleft. “And what manner of gift does the Mother prefer?”
“What do you have?”
“I have all manner of things in my packs. But this is a strange circumstance, and I have never known its like. Is there a purpose to this tradition, or is it something that you blindly follow?”
“The Mother sends us good harvests and good fortune for the year ahead,” rumbled the axeman, speaking as if reciting a well-remembered verse. “And all that she asks is a gift to comfort her in the darkest part of the year.”
“I see,” said the stranger, not entirely able to keep the laughter in his eyes away from his voice. He glanced up at the axeman, as if struck by a new thought. “What would you have done if I had not happened by?”
“I would have waited.”
“Yes, but for how long?”
“As long as it took.”
“That seems somewhat dangerous at this time of year.”
The axeman shrugged again. “I am well prepared. Sometimes the weather is bad and those who wait are caught by the cold. Those are bad years. But most years, someone comes along.”
The stranger nodded thoughtfully, his laughter restrained by the axeman’s seriousness. He was standing by the tree now, looking down into the dark cleft. “So what should I give, then?”
“I cannot tell you. But you may look in the cleft and see the gifts that others have given if you wish.”
The stranger thought about it for a moment, and then bent down for a closer inspection. “It is too dark,” he muttered.
The axeman stooped down beside him. “Look closer,” he advised.
The stranger got down upon his hands and knees, bringing his head closer to the cleft. Within, he thought he could espy strange shapes, but they were too shadowed as yet to make out details.
“I think I see something,” he said as he stretched forward, his head within the lips of the cleft. His eyes became accustomed to the gloom, and a pile of rounded objects slowly resolved before him.
He was on the verge of realising that they were skulls when the axe fell.
While he waited for the blood to stop flowing, the axeman cleaned his blade with handfuls of snow, which he then tossed into the cleft. It was important not to take anything that was the Mother’s from this place. At length he dragged the body away to the far side of the clearing. There he stripped it of its fine clothes, leaving it naked on the ground. The stranger’s head was the Mother’s gift, his blood would water her roots and his body would feed her children. The axeman took the nervous pack horse in hand and led it from the clearing. The horse, the clothes and the goods: those were the Mother’s rewards for faithful service.
It would be a good year.