A Bard for Bramblemas
Crunch, crunch. Crunch, crunch. The sound of heavy footsteps trudging through knee-deep snow echoes through the night’s silence.
A thick white blanket covers the wide slopes of the band of hills known as the Razorback Downs. Moonlight dances over it, glinting here and there in drifts of sparkles, as if someone has sprinkled the whole scene with diamond dust.
It is perfect—untouched except for one spidery line of tracks leading down from the hills toward the frosted woodland beneath.
Crunch, crunch. Crunch, crunch go the footsteps of the track maker. He is hunched and weary, using a tall staff to help him through the snow. He might have been an old man if it hadn’t been many hundreds of moons since men trod these lands. Move closer, and instead you will see he is a rabbit, walking upright in the way people once did, his ears hidden beneath the hood of a heavy leather cloak, fierce eyes peering out at the wintry midnight world.
The thick fur on his face and arms is dyed with blue swirls and patterns, which marks him as a bard. A traveling, storytelling rabbit. A wanderer with nothing on his back but a set of travel-worn clothes and a head stuffed full of tales and yarns: old, new, broken, and mended. Just about every story you ever heard, and many more yet to be told.
Don’t worry about him being out in the cold on such a wintry night. His trade will see him welcomed in any warren. That is the tradition and the law throughout the Five Realms of Lanica, and woe betide anyone who doesn’t keep it.
Crunch, crunch. Crunch, crunch. His breath steams out behind him as he forces his way through the snow. Listen closer and you can hear him mumbling curses with each hard-fought step. Closer still and you can hear the strings of wooden beads around his neck clicking and clacking, the bone trinkets and pouches around his belt knocking and niggling.
He marches with a purpose, as if he has someplace to be and he is already late. But where is there for him to go? There is nothing but snow and trees from here all the way to the horizon. Until, of course, you remember that he’s a rabbit. Rabbits live underground, in warrens and burrows: warm and safe, out of the winter ice and frost.
And that is indeed where he is heading. Into the woods and through the trees until he stops before a pair of huge entrance doors set into the side of a little hill. Behind them is Thornwood Warren, and there had better be a warm welcome for him, or there will be serious trouble.
Boom, boom, boom! He smacks the end of his staff against the oak and waits for an answer.
Back when rabbits were small, twitchy, terrified things, warrens were little more than a collection of holes and tunnels in the ground. Now, in this new age, they are something different altogether: there are entire villages and cities built under the earth, completely out of sight.
The bard knows that behind those wooden doors will be nest burrows and market burrows, workshops, temples, libraries, larders, pantries, and a dozen kitchens to feed them all. There will be soldiers and healers, servants, cooks, smiths, weavers, tailors, potters, and painters. Old rabbits, young rabbits, poor rabbits, and noble rabbits. All walks of life hidden away in cozy, torch-lit underground houses; all arranged around every warren’s hub: the longburrow, a great feasting hall with a huge fireplace, rows of tables, and nearly always music. Music, noise, and merriness—that is what rabbits love. Especially tonight, for this is Bramblemas Eve: the night on which the winter solstice is celebrated with a special feast and the promise of presents in the morning, left behind by the mysterious Midwinter Rabbit.
And stories, of course. Special stories, told by a visiting bard—that is, if he ever got inside the place. Boom, boom, boom! He smacks the doors again and is about to do so a third time when he hears a muffled voice on the other side.
“All right, all right, keep your ears on, I’m coming!” There are more words about stupid people being outside on this kind of night, but luckily the heavy wood absorbs most of those. Finally, the doors creak open, spilling golden torch light onto the snow, and the face of a burly soldier rabbit pokes out.
“Who in the Goddess’s name are you?” he says, glaring at the stranger. Underneath the hood, pale green eyes glare back.
“Is that any way to treat a bard come to tell tales on the Eve of Bramblemas? Is that how the old ways are kept here at Thornwood?”
Even though the soldier rabbit is the size of a small armor-clad mountain, something about the bard makes him tremble a little. “Sorry, sir,” he says, and pushes the door open farther with his shoulder. “Come in and share our hearth on this Middlewinter night . . .”
“Midwinter, turnip head,” corrects the bard, stepping into the torch light and the warmth. The warren doors close behind him, and he shakes the snow from his cloak with a shudder. “Now. Which way to the fireside?” And he strides off down the paved entrance hall as if he has been here a hundred times before.
“What’s a Midwinter turnip head?” mumbles the puzzled guard before turning to trot after him.
Just as every warren is carefully built around the longburrow at its center, the rabbits inside are organized around their chieftain. He is the leader of the tribe, just as his father was before him, and his son will be after. All the warren decisions are made between him and his wife, all the arguments settled, and all the feasts and festivals organized.
In Thornwood, the chieftain is Hubert the Broad. A great, big-bellied lop rabbit, with brown-and-white-patched fur, ears down to his knees, and a stomach you could build a house on. He is currently sitting on his throne in its place of honor at the feasting table, a bramble crown on his head and his great piebald stomach bursting the seams of his tunic. He is singing a merry song about the Midwinter Rabbit getting stuck in his burrow, while all the little rabbits sit laughing at his feet. When he sees the bard enter, he stops, stands, and raises his drinking horn in salute.
“Welcome, bard!” he shouts in a voice that shakes earth from the ceiling. “Welcome, on Bramblemas Eve!”
“That’s more like it,” mutters the bard, shrugging off his leather cloak. He keeps his hood on, but the light from the fire still shows off the swirls and whorls of blue patterns dyed into the fur on his bare arms.
“We thought you weren’t coming,” says Hubert. “But Bramblemas Eve is full of surprises. Will you sing for your supper?”
The bard chuckles. “My voice is too old and cracked for singing.” He takes a seat by the fireside and warms his hands. “But I might be persua...