"Sisters," I said, over the table laden with the bread and meat, the fruit and cheese which comprised our dinner, "You will know that tomorrow is the summer solstice, when the sun is highest in the sky. You understand that this marks the middle of the year. And tonight is the shortest night, when the sun is hidden from us for the least time."
Cissy and Diana, my two sisters in spirit, nodded and chirped their agreement. We are not related by blood at all, although we are undoubtedly close, perhaps much closer than most real sisters. Cissy I have known for a great many years, my Mother - bless her soul - having taken her in after she was widowed and homeless. Diana is a newcomer to our little group; Cissy and I having taken pity on her only a few weeks ago.
"You will also know that our craft, our very livelihood, depends on our understanding of the world around us," I went on, "On the bounty of Nature and our abilities to craft our wares."
This pronouncement was also greeted with quiet agreement. For many years, Cissy and I had labored in our garden and in the old building we still called the Dairy, even though no butter or cheese had been made therein for decades. Using herbs from our garden, and plants and fungi and minerals from the hedgerows and moors and woodlands hereabouts, we manufactured potions and elixirs with medicinal properties, which we then sold at the local market. This trade had earned us a degree of respect from our neighbors, as well as a steady income which allowed us to live comfortably well.
It was also enough to counteract our unconventional home arrangements: the strangeness of two widowed women and their maidservant living alone, with no man of the household. Diana was not really a maidservant, of course, although this was the image we carefully cultivated for the benefit of our neighbors. Out of the house, Cissy and I still affected the head-to-toe black clothing of widow’s weeds, while Diana was habitually garbed in plain grey, highlighted only by a white linen pinafore.
I paused, the other two watching me expectantly. Cissy, in particular, had a certain glint in her eyes; she knew me very well and I imagined she already knew I was going to suggest a small adventure.
"I propose that we have a small celebration on the Solstice, a commemoration to give thanks to Nature," I said looking from Cissy to Diana and back again across the table, "A vigil from sunset to sunrise, watch the sun set and the sun rise on the shortest night. And I propose that we perform this vigil upon the highest point of the fells, at the Old Tor."
This pronouncement was greeted with a gasp and then with approval from both women. Like me, both Cissy and Diana understood the need for markers in our lives, things to pace the slow cycle of the years and our place in the world, but in a fashion that did not bow to the stifling conventions of the society we were not quite a part of.
The high fells we knew well in all seasons. It was a vast area, unoccupied except for the occasional shepherd or peat-cutter. We went there frequently, baskets over our arms, to collect those plants which would not grow in our garden. Here, we sought out the summer orchids which bloom only for a single day, and whose petals are a sovereign remedy for the aches of arthritis, or the autumn mushrooms whose extract allows an adept to delve and seek amongst the dreamers and unseen spirits.
Swiftly we tidied away the dinner things and made ourselves ready for a long walk. We donned stout shoes and swept heavy dark cloaks over our shoulders - we did not really need the warmth, but I expected we would find the thick material useful later on. As we locked and bolted our house, the sun was already dipping towards the horizon in the lazy way it did at this time of year. In the quiet of the night, we set off along the half-hidden and overgrown track which would bring us to the ancient standing stone on the highest peak.
The walk was swift and easy enough for three strong women in the prime of their lives. We were of course familiar with the sounds of owls and badgers and foxes on their rounds, and we listened with enjoyment to the calls of the nightingale and the nightjar. No boar or wolf or bear had been sighted in these parts for many a year and, except in the depths of the most severe winter, they were unlikely to stray this far south, preferring the endless wildernesses to the north, well beyond the influence of mankind.
Amongst our many recipes - some handed down from Mother, some gleaned from other practitioners in the Arts - was a potion to help us see exceptionally well in the dark. This was a secret that we did not share with our customers, preferring to keep this particular medicine to ourselves. We had added drops to our eyes before we left, so as the light began to fail, the sensitivity of our eyes increased to compensate. So we needed no lamps or candles to show us our way; we could see each other and the world around us with complete clarity.