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This is part of Jane's series of "Twelve Days of Stories" for Xmas 2007/2008.

Nine ladies dancing

The weaving hut was quiet except for the eternal clacking of the looms. No children in here, now, this was too important for young ears.

"It's this afternoon," old Metisa said. "We go up to the Ladies this afternoon, and make our sacrifices at dusk. And we do the dance. Nalda, you've a chicken ready?"

"Yes, gran. White this season, yes?"

"That's right, that's what Kera likes, and it's her turn to lead. Now, Grali. You're new to this clan, so you don't know about the Ladies, and your husband won't have told you. What did your mother say of them?"

"That's the stone circle on Whiteflow Hill? Not a lot. She said it's your - our - holy place, sacred to the Goddess. And she said the stones were the first clan ring, turned to stone for insulting her, though she never said what they did that was bad."

"Close enough, and misses the point completely. Listen, now. There was a year when things were going badly for our clan. The crops had not grown well, there had been rain as we harvested, the cows had been sick. We knew the winter would be hard, but if we tightened our belts, we would win through. But that winter was a long, cold one. Spring was late coming, there was little to eat and many mouths to feed. So the Earth Circle went to Whiteflow Hill, where Uralda had once poured out her milk, and asked the Goddess what they could do to help the clan. And in answer, she turned them to stone."

"She killed them for asking for help?"

"No, not at all. They didn't even ask for help, only for advice, but she gave it anyway. Think - at the end of a hard winter, what can you do to feed the clan?"

"Nothing. Well, nothing except pray."

"Exactly. All you can do is endure, and eat as little as you can so the children get more. Stones are good at enduring."

"All right, so she killed them for a good reason, but she still killed them."

"No. You'll see, tonight."

There were nine of them walking up to the hilltop: nine, with Grali the youngest, newest, and last. Nine, one for each stone: the old Earth Circle must have been one of three threes. She hadn't eaten all day, of course, and felt lightheaded by the time they reached the top. It was nearly dusk, and the shadows of the nine stones stretched out to the east, crisp on the short. sheep-cropped grass of the high hills. The older women each took their places, going to a stone each, the nearest and smallest left to her. She placed her hands on the rough surface, leaning against it as another wave of dizziness hit her. It was warm to the touch - she hadn't expected that. Friendly, almost. The chant began, and she joined in hastily, trying to remember to use the words this clan preferred, not the ones she had grown up using. A knife slashed, and the white hen died, the blood poured into a hollow in the largest stone. They circled, now, each of them round the stones, taking a mouthful of the blood, sharing with each other and with the lead stone. Back to their own places again, sick and dizzy. The shadows blurred before her eyes, even longer now as the sun sank below the horizon. Stone, woman - which was which? They each stepped sideways, into the gaps between stones, arms outstretched. The drumbeat speeded up - when had that started? They were to circle again, now, stepping sideways towards the next stone. Three steps, four... where was it? She glanced sideways, knowing she shouldn't, but too afraid and lost to do anything else. No stone, but the next woman's fingertips touched hers in support and sympathy, and she pulled her gaze back to the centre of the circle, where it belonged. Another stranger, but one of her new clan... she did a double-take as she realised that the face she had seen fleetingly really was that of a stranger to her. And yet a familiar one, she had recognised the touch. Looking across the dark circle, she saw the rest of the dancers, all touching fingertips. Eighteen women danced in honour of the goddess tonight - and all were her kin, and her friends.