Every year on Midsummer’s eve, we light a bonfire and worship the stag-horned god.
I know, they do it in the cities too. Huge roaring fires in the squares, with the biggest in front of the palace itself. They sing and dance, feast and make merry. Everyone drapes their houses in banners and ribbons and even — if they can afford it — flowers. All the merchants set up stalls in the street, and they have horse fairs and sporting contests with real prizes and everything. That part I’ve seen for myself — the festival goes on for a whole week before and after the holiday, so Da took me once when he had a horse to sell.
They do it in the cities, ’cause enough of us woodland folk have moved out there. But it isn’t the same.
Out there, they think the stag-horned god is a god of plenty, like the Harvest Maiden, and the Midsummer fire a way to ask for good hunting in the next year. But he isn’t. The fires are to thank him for sending the game, but there’s more to it than that.
If you ask the oldest granny you can find about the stories her granny told her, and if you’re lucky, you might hear about the Wild Hunt. It’s not a tale that gets told anymore, you’ll see why. But they used to say it like a prayer: On Midsummer Night, the Wild Hunt rides.
That, you see, was the bargain.
The stag-horned god has two aspects — deer and man. Hunted, and Hunter. For a whole year he sent us stags and other game to hunt. But for one night — Midsummer Night — he hunted us.
City-folk would say it’s unnatural, but it’s the most natural thing there is. Everything in balance. Give and Take. Still, it’s not that we like losing our people to the hunt…but this is an old story, you understand. The arrangement is different now.
That’s another old story, the story of the Pact. And you’re even less likely to hear a granny tell it, if you’re not of the woods. Here we grow up on it, though. Girls and boys both, so we all understand what might be expected of a son or daughter or betrothed. Or of us.
You didn’t grow up here. I can’t expect you to know…it doesn’t matter how much you love me.
Once upon a time, there was an widowed woodsman with three daughters. The eldest had just turned fifteen when she was taken by the Wild Hunt. And the next summer, the hunt chased the girl of twelve. And the third Midsummer, though he locked the doors and barred the windows, the little one ran from the house and was caught by the hounds.
The woodsman was heartbroken in his grief, and the next Midsummer he stood out in the woods and cursed the stag-horned god.
“How can you cause us this grief? Take our children? How can you inflict this pain?”
The hunt took him that night, but the stag-horned god found himself moved to pity, and he appeared to the priests of the wood-folk and proposed a different arrangement. Well, as I said, the people didn’t like the deaths, it was just how the woods worked. Needless to say they agreed to the new arrangement.
The Pact…well. The stag-horned god was lonely, roaming the woods all year without company. And so he chose from among the girls of the woods a bride to call his own. And he transformed her, and she roamed with him. She lived a great many years, but not forever, and the god was alone again. So this is the arrangement: when his consort dies, he chooses a new one.
Every year on Midsummer’s eve we light fires and worship the stag-horned god. And on Midsummer Night, those years when he needs to…he chooses his bride.
The sun is setting. I must go to the woods. I don’t think I’ll come back.