Holly is an integral part of an English winter. Its deep green leaves and bright red berries add colour when most things are grey and drab. It survives well inside, and it is – of course – often used for wreaths and table decorations. But holly has arcane credentials too, and some of these go back to the Middle Ages. Back then, unmarried women were urged to tie holly to their beds for protection against ghosts, demons, and other unholy forces who were at the height of their powers during the darkest days of the year.
And if someone forgot to buy holly? Well, then something like this might happen…
The Price of Holly
“There is not a sprig of holly left in the whole of the market, Mistress, I promise you!”
Ava nodded in acceptance and turned away from the flower seller’s stall. She’d been to every greengrocer and flower merchant in town. She’d even talked to the farmers in from the surrounding villages. And not a stray holly leaf between all of them.
It was all superstition, anyway, and she’d never allowed superstitions to play too large a part in her life. She was a tea merchant, a very successful one, and she’d barely left her workshop these last weeks, busy blending her sought-after winter teas along with much needed tisanes and remedies for winter ailments. Only to find herself at the beginning of the darkest part of the year without a leaf of holly in the house.
None of her servants had remembered that their mistress, the only single female in the street, would need holly for protection. It wasn’t unexpected. All her servants were married and their concerns lay elsewhere. And it wasn’t their task to care for her. Not as much as it was her task to care for the welfare of her household.
Ava pulled her cloak tighter around herself, huddled into the warmth of the thick felt and took pleasure from the way the fur edging caressed her cheeks. It rarely bothered her that she’d chosen a successful business over a marriage, though sometimes she wondered what it might be like to come home to someone every evening or share her bed each night.
She pushed the thoughts aside as she had many times before. It was what it was. And she had her tea to keep her content. It was more than many other women could say.
The first week of the dark month was particularly busy. A winter ague was sweeping the town and teas, medicinal as well as soothing ones, were in high demand. Ava worked late blending teas and consulting with the local apothecary and the healers about the most suitable ingredients to use. She’d long since learned that no two seasons were alike, and she blended her teas according to what was needed. Not every tea merchant did, but it gave her pleasure knowing that her teas didn’t just cheer and comfort, but actually helped those who drank them.
It was exacting work, though, and tiring, and Ava gave no thought to the season as she made her way to her bedroom that night. She’d long since dismissed her servants, was the only one left awake in the house, and on her way upstairs she carefully checked each room, making sure all candles had been put out and the fires banked.
As always, her bedroom lay silent, and the familiar scents of lavender and rose wrapped around her, while the sweet smell of hops tempted her to bed. The fire burnt in the grate and she blew out the candle she carried, not needing its light. She undressed and hung up her bodice and skirt for brushing, and sat down in her shift before her mirror to brush and tie up her hair for the night.
The hint of a chill on her bared neck, and the sudden scent of leather and sandalwood were her only warning. Then the brush was taken from her hand and skilled fingers pulled the pins from her long hair and unravelled the braid.
Ava submitted to the touch. A blissful sigh escaped her when the hands massaged her scalp, easing tension she’d not known she carried.
“I thought you weren’t coming this year,” she whispered when the man she dreamed of for eleven months of the year drew the brush through her hair. He leaned over her as he did it, and soft silky strands brushed her face until she opened her eyes. His hair was almost as long as hers, and the most stunning silver colour. His eyes were a shade darker, and his smile was unexpectedly sweet.
“Truly? Was that why you were so desperate to buy holly? Because you thought I wasn’t coming?”
Ava flushed. When he stood in her bedroom and brushed her hair, it was hard to think. And why had she wanted to ward her bedroom? Wasn’t she looking forward to his visits? “It becomes harder every year to believe that this is real,” she admitted eventually. “If you didn’t come one year, I could blame it on the holly.”
His chuckle sent ripples of pleasure down her spine. “Not likely, my dear. And holly, even if you were to festoon your bedroom with it, wouldn’t keep me out.” He drew her to her feet and into his arms and Ava melted against him. Their meeting was against all the rules she lived by for eleven months of the year. But during the twelfth month, during those dark weeks when the sun rose late and set early, when clouds added an extra layer of gloom, and sickness plagued the town, during those weeks when she worked and worked and worked until her vision blurred and her hands shook with exhaustion… during those weeks she was grateful for his presence.
She had no idea who or even what he was.
She only knew he was gorgeous, attentive, and compelled to leave her when the bells rang in the new year.
Seasons of Cheer is my blogging challenge for this year. Every day during December I’m aiming to post a story, snippet or outtake. A moment to stop and draw breath during a month that’s usually crazy busy.
And here’s an extra treat for everyone who subscribes to my newsletter:
Midnight Tracks, a collection of shorts, snips, and outtakes from the first five Power of Zero books, including an exclusive Christmas short story you won’t find anywhere else – delivered to your inbox on Christmas Eve. 🙂