The rooster crowed but he did not sound enthusiastic about his job. Matilda stirred in the still warm straw, reluctant to get up, but rise she did and went to see if the hens had laid.
Just a few small eggs for her to collect. This had been the case for for many long and weary months. Not many eggs to gather and the milk from the goats and cows was hardly enough to feed the family. The rest of the villagers fared no better and people were getting hungry and despondent , worried about their crops. The youths and maidens were listless and many were too ill to help in the fields or look after the young ones. Matilda's friends were wasting away. No women were with child.
The streams around the village where once the young ones would play all day had dwindled to a trickle.
The children were too scared to go out with their friends as big black crows swooped down on them, leaving many with scratches on their arms and faces. Their laughter and shouts no longer rang through the village.
No-one gathered after sunset to sing or tell stories of the day , women returned from the market with wares unsold and the pedlars and bards had long stopped their visits.
The future looked bleak for the villagers.
It was full moon and that night Matilda asked her ancestors for a healing dream.
An old woman with deep grey eyes, long white braids and dark green linen cloak came to her, joined by a bright eyed hare with a silky coat.
'You must go on a journey to the Ancient Tree and bring back stories for your people before they pine away and the village is no more' she said.
Matilda was willing to whatever she could to lift the murky pall that lay around the village and rose before dawn.
She gathered some bread and cheese from the paltry store her weary mother had tucked away and crept out of the hut, trusting the ancestors to guide her way.
No one saw her leave. She passed the ever dwindling stream at the edge of the forlorn village and felt guided to walk through the woods, on and on she went until she came to a fork in the path.
Should she turn left or right or go straight ahead. She heard a rustle off to her right and caught a glimpse of the twitching ears of a hare..surely that must be the way.
She walked and walked and came to a cold hearted marsh. How could she cross it?
She felt a shadow by her ankles..it was the hare..'just take a step' it whispered.'.all will be well.'
Matilda put her foot out and flat white stones appeared in the marsh providing her safe foothold.
And on she walked for miles and miles.
She found a cool and friendly stream and stopped to drink and rest then just as she was about to take a bite of bread a large black crow flew at her, claws outstretched. A hare appeared out of nowhere and threw a net over it, stopping it in mid flight and bringing it to the ground, too stunned to fight.
Relieved and replenished Matilda continued her seemingly endless walk until she came to a huge gnarled old tree in the middle of a cool clearing.
At the centre of this Queen of the Woods was an entrance into the solid trunk, filled with rough stones, dead wood and piles of dried mud.
Matilda set about clearing it all away until she could step inside.
Hare with fur of silk joined her and showed her how she could climb up the inside of this magnificent tree. She climbed and climbed, pushing through a band of opaque resistance that yielded and allowed her up and out into a whole brightly new world.
The old woman was waiting there at the entrance to this luminous new world.
Matilda offered her some bread and cheese as a gift and the old woman and the hare guided her to a circle of people.
She walked around the outside of the circle passing the story holders of many nations until she came to a young man holding a lute.
He invited her inside the circle and took her to its centre where there was a golden ball of twine.
'Here are all the stories' he told her.
'Take hold of the end of the twine and pull'
Matilda did so, then the young man took her to each of the people in the circle.
Each one told her a story and asked for one in return.
When she had shared stories with each one the young man took her back to the ball of golden twine and cut a length of twine for her then wrapped it around her waist.
'Here are the stories spoken here today. Take them back to your village and speak them to all.
Ask all the elders to share stories from their youth.
Ask all the maidens and young men to imagine stories of their own.
Matilda was guided back to the entrance to this world, where she climbed back down the centre of the tree.
Hare was waiting for her.
She made her way back through the woods , and at long last arrived at the stream, now burbling and full of children playing.
She heard the men at work in the fields , she passed her friends with a smile on their lips.
She asked the children to gather wood to make a fire to burn in the centre of the village that night.
That night she shared a new story and asked the elders to share a story.
Each night from new moon to new moon she shared a new story and each night she asked the villagers to share theirs, old and new.
As the days passed the women came back from the market where they had sold all their wares and returned home with bread and vegetables aplenty. The men began to make things from wood to sell .
The hens began to lay , the cows yielded more milk than ever before and the rooster woke everyone with his loud enthusiastic crowing at dawn.
No one minded.
The following year many babies were born, and the pedlar visited the village once more- sure of a happy reception with the maidens wanting his ribbons and trinkets and the grandmothers wanting his cloth to make new clothes for the little ones born from the gathering of stories.