"Deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa la la la la, la la la la!" Xande sang as he placed a golden star atop a pine tree. "'Tis the season to be jolly, fa la la la la, la la la la!"
"Don we now our gay apparel, fa la la la la la la!" Iréa smiled as she picked up the tune. "Sing the ancient Solstice carol, fa la la la la la la la!" She strung up a long line of tinsel, and placed tiny metal baubles all along its length.
Retäv came in with an armful of wood and deposited it near the large mantelpiece, then began to prepare the fire. "See the blazing hearth before us, fa la la la la, la la la la!" He turned away, and began setting candles on the round oak table. "Strike the harp and join the chorus, fa la la la, la la la!"
Xande swept down off his ladder, offering a hand to Iréa and leading her through a twirl. "Follow me in merry measure, fa la la la, la la la, while I tell of Solstice treasure…"
"Fa la la la, la la la!" Aratis and Leonidas sang in unison as they entered the salon, each bearing boxes wrapped in brightly colored paper.
Rhehia raised herself level to the large windows at one end of the room and peered in. Fast away the old year passes, hail the new ye lads and lasses, fa la la la, la la la la!
Aratis twirled around, eventually coming to rest sprawled out on the sofa. "Sing we joyous all to gether, fa la la la, la la la!"
Xande grinned as he settled himself in a large padded armchair, folding his hands in his lap. "I do so love this time of year. Do you think they'll be here soon?"
"I'm sure," Leonidas chuckled. "They arrived yesterday. Probably just getting ready."
Iréa poured herself a mug of cider, and took a long drag. "Are all your Solstices like this, Xande? I could get used to it."
"Just the winter ones, my dear," Xande replied. "Tomorrow we'll have a most splendid feast. Ah, I eat better in this one week than I do the rest of the year combined."
They all poured themselves drinks, and Retäv brought a large bowl of ale out to Rhehia on the balcony. The large white dragon eagerly lapped it up. A servant opened the door, and showed a young woman in. She hummed under her breath as she took off her large fur cloak, pushing the hood back from her golden brown hair. "On the seventh day of Solstice my true love gave to me…"
"Sixteen pairs of socks," a young man with unruly hair interrupted as he too hung his cloak. "Nice to see you again, Kim. Oh, look, mistletoe!"
Kim glanced up, and saw the young man dangling a sprig of the plant above her head and laughed. "If only because it's Solstice, Zeph." She leaned in and gave him a brief kiss.
"What, no tongue?"
Kim laughed again and slapped him. Almost gently. "I'm not drunk yet, Zephyr, and I don't plan to be. Maybe next year."
The young wind rider sank onto a couch beside Retäv. "No fun. Hey, what've you got to drink? I just flew in from Romia and boy are my arms tired."
Leonidas rolled his eyes and poured him a mug of cider. Zephyr sniffed it and raised an eyebrow. "Just cider, huh? I'd think the Lord of Aliter might at least be able to afford some spirits."
"Anna told me she would provide all the alcohol we'd need."
Zephyr shrugged and took a drink. "Well, it's a decent brew, I'll give you that."
The door opened again, and a young couple walked in, laughing. "Happy Solstice!" the man laughed, taking his coat and that of his companion. Kim noted that his coffee-colored skin had paled ever-so-slightly with the winter cold.
"Gods bless us, every one!" the golden-haired woman added. "May the new year bring you fortune!"
Seithios and Lexa came to sit with their friends, and Zephyr made room for them on the sofa. The earth crafter saw the mistletoe in Zephyr's hand and nudged him. "You try anything with Lexa and I'll toss you off the highest tower in the castle."
Zephyr smirked and slipped the plant back into his sleeve. Retäv leaned forward. "How are you all?"
Lexa smiled at the half elf. "Marvelous, I assure you. Seithios and I are so happy to see you all again. You know, I've brought a little Solstice surprise of my own. It should be here any moment. I think Lucian has it."
Ah, is he on his way? Rhehia asked. Retäv, be a dear and get me a little more ale.
While the half elf obliged, Lexa nodded. "Lucian took the coach to pick it up. He shouldn't be long."
Aratis smiled and nursed a mug of warm cider. "What about the others? Nick and Anna? Do you know what's keeping them?"
Seithios and Lexa shared a knowing smile before the earth crafter replied. "Wardrobe malfunction."
Kim nearly choked on her cider. "Anna didn't set her corset on fire again, did she?" She subsided into a fit of coughing as she tried to clear her throat.
"No, no, nothing like that," Lexa said, shooting little balls of light to the ceiling from her fingertip. The baubles reflected off the little ornaments hanging on the Solstice tree, making the room glimmer with an ethereal light.
The door swung open again. "Silent night, holy night! All is calm, all is bright!"
"Nothing silent about that!" Kim cried, jumping to her feet. "Necro, you rascal! Come here and give me a hug!"
The bard swept into the room, his long cloak flying. He caught Kim up in his arms and swung her around before planting a kiss on her cheek. "How's that for a greeting?"
Xande clasped Necro's hand and led him to a comfy chair next to the as-yet unlit fire. "My friend, I'm so glad you could make it."
"Miss a Castle Aliter Solstice? Never!" Then, the bard's eyes brightened. "Lexa, my dear! You're here! Brilliant! I found this a little while ago, and I knew you could put it to use!" He tossed the light mage a barrette with an opal inlay.
"Ah, Necro, it's beautiful!" Lexa immediately clipped it into her hair.
He laughed again. "I have presents for everyone, but that must wait. I just couldn't stand to see you without it any longer! Tell me, is your brother coming?"
"Any moment now, I'm sure."
"I saw three ships come sailing in, on Solstice Day, on Solstice Day! I saw three ships come sailing in on Solstice Day in the morning!"
"And what was on those ships all three on Solstice Day in the morning?"
Leonidas jumped up and wrapped the two new entrants into a large bear hug. Aratis kissed each of them and both cheeks. Nick laughed and returned the gesture on his old mentor. Leonidas swung Anna around like she was a young child, and set her down with a laugh.
"What kept you so long?" Retäv asked, smiling. "We were told it was a wardrobe malfunction. But you don't seem to be having any problems…"
Nick took Anna's cloak and hung it beside his own. "Oh, it wasn't us who had the problem…"
A veritable bundle of energy burst into the room. "Happy Solstice!" A red coat flounced along behind it, and the bundle flew into Xande's arms.
The Lord laughed as Kita squirmed to get a good hug, and scratched her behind her fox ears. "Why, my dear, you look lovely. Where ever did you get that coat?"
"Ragnar sent it to her," Nick replied. "She loves it."
"So what was the issue?" Iréa asked.
Anna smiled. "Well, she didn't want to wear anything under it."
Kita wriggled out of Xande's arms, and darted around the room, giving everyone a hug. Then, she ran to Necro and jumped into his lap. The bard laughed, and shifted his weight to better accommodate her.
Nick ladled a mug of cider, and gave it to Kita. Then, Anna pulled a bottle from her coat pocket and poured a large quantity of the liquid within into the cider pot. "Rum. Finest in Miscoren."
They passed the spiked drink around, and settled into their chairs again. Nick glanced at the still-unlit hearth, and walked over to Xande. "No fire? Isn't that part of Solstice?"
Xande grinned and winked at Nick. "We were waiting for you to come. It's traditional that a visitor does it."
Nick smiled, and with a snap of his fingers, blood-red fires roared to life in the hearth, crackling merrily. Necro and Iréa began to sing more carols, and soon the entire group joined in.
From the doorway there arose a large clatter, and a muttered oath. Seithios smiled and nudged Lexa. "Your brother is here."
"He's your friend too, not just my brother."
Lucian tripped over the ornate leg of the coat rack, stumbling into the room. "Yes, capital idea, leaving the blind man to go run your bloody errands. Gods, if it wasn't for all that infernal racket, I would have never found you."
Nick got to his feet and helped Lucian to a chair. He felt the shadow mancer feeling the grooves of his palm, and slowly run a hand along his face. "Ah. Nick. Thank you. Happy Solstice."
Anna poured the shadow mancer a mug of spiked cider, and Lucian nearly choked on it. "Gods! How much alcohol is in this?"
Kim laughed softly. "Enough that I won't be drinking any." Zephyr scowled and slipped the mistletoe further into his suit jacket.
Lexa leaned in. "Lucian, did you pick up what I told you to?"
"Yes, yes," the young man said. "Should be along any moment now." He waved his hands in what he thought was the direction of the door, though in fact he was pointing at Rhehia.
Someone on the threshold cleared their throat. "Gods!" Kim laughed. "To think you'd be here!"
Leonidas stood. "Come in, please, have a seat, your majesty!"
Sei the Elvin Prince stepped over the threshold, shaking snow out of his hair. "Please, no formalities. It's Solstice. Though… I'd be much obliged to your chair. It looks quite comfortable."
Retäv vaulted over the sofa and wrapped Sei in a tight embrace. "Brother! You're here! I thought you would have duties…"
"Nothing could come between me spending Solstice with my brother."
Retäv pulled away, and beamed at Lexa. "You… you're an angel. This has to be the best Solstice present ever!"
Seithios leaned in, laughing. "Hey, she's already been spoken for."
Xande clapped his hands. "I think we're all here now? No more Solstice miracles?"
"Not as far as I know," Zephyr chortled. "Are we going to eat any time soon, or should I go raid the kitchen myself?"
Nick placed a hand on his abdomen. "Want backup? I'm starving."
Aratis smiled and laid a hand on her pupil's shoulder. "Easy there. I'm sure Lord Xande has it under control."
The Aliterian Lord sent a servant down to the kitchen, and she soon returned, reporting that the meal would be served momentarily. Xande then sent her out again to his wine cellar, with instructions to bring one of his finest vintages.
The assembled group then moved to a large circular table in the center of the salon, and three servants entered in a flurry, setting out places and chairs. Then, as soon as all were seated, the food arrived.
As soon as it was laid out on the table, Xande dismissed all his servants, ordering them to 'go out and enjoy their Solstice.' Xande cut roast turkey, and served everyone himself. Along with the delectable meat, there were generous portions of mashed potatoes, and assorted green vegetables. Retäv poured everyone a glass of the fine, dark wine.
When he got to Kim, the mana manipulator placed a hand over her glass. "I don't drink anymore, dear. Dulls the mind, you know."
"Oh, come on," Necro chuckled. "Kim, it's Solstice. One drink couldn't hurt. If you don't, how can you expect to fully enjoy the season?"
After a little more jostling, Kim finally relented, and allowed Retäv to pour her a little of the deep red liquid. The half elf tactfully passed over Kita and brought her a glass of grape juice. When everyone had sat down again, Xande lifted his goblet. "To all of us!"
Everyone raised their glasses. "To us!
The toasts continued throughout the meal until the wine ran dry. The food was delicious, and Nick ate with free abandon. It took a little coaxing to get Kita to eat the vegetables, but that was easily overlooked with all the meat-based delicacies set before them. On the balcony, Rhehia devoured an entire roasted calf, bones and all. Then, once it was finished, something appeared to catch her eye in the courtyard below, and she slithered away.
Leonidas and Aratis cleared away the plates, and Iréa carried a large fruit pie. This was devoured in moments, and Nick barely had time to register the vast medley of flavors before all that was left on his plate was crumbs. Seithios grabbed the last piece before Nick could get a second, but as the earth crafter lifted his fork, Nick picked up apples, cherries, and preserved blueberries.
The Seven and their friends then returned to the sitting area, but not before stopping under the pine tree first, and picking up the presents they had brought for each other. Nick rummaged in his coat pocket for a small, wrapped parcel, and passed it to Kim.
"I found this a little while ago, I thought you might like it." Kim eagerly unwrapped it, and drew out a wrapped scroll. Nick smiled. "It's an old Crinsharlanese legend, transcribed by one of the monks. The original parchment we found it on was decaying. Of course, it's in Crinsharlanese…"
Kim poured over it. "I've picked up a little of it. Anything I don't get, I'll have Seth translate."
Zephyr gave Lucian a new black headscarf, as he was now taken to wearing to cover his blindness. "Finest silk in Jinford, or so the man told me. Of course, he was also next to an apothecary, and warned me some of his stock might have gotten poisoned…"
Lucian wrenched the cloth from his damaged eyes and held it away at arm's length, his face a mask of horror. Zephyr cackled. "Oh, you gullible ninny!" The shadow mancer scowled, and retied the scarf.
Xande gave Anna a new, custom-made brass spyglass, and water shifter couldn't stop complimenting the workmanship and visibility range. Lexa nudged Nick under the coffee table. "If she gets this excited over a little brass, think how thrilled she'll be with a diamond ring! Ah, maybe next year, huh?"
Nick scoffed, nearly spilling his cider. Then, he laughed in earnest as the light mage turned to Seithios. "You hear that, honey? A diamond ring. Next year?"
"Gods, woman, you're going to bankrupt me!"
"Speaking of rings…" Aratis said. She waved her hand, letting the glowing band catch in the firelight.
The women in the room all started talking at once. Kim was able to raise her voice the loudest, and managed to ask. "When? Who?"
"A few weeks ago. I think it should be easy to figure out who," the fire mage replied with a smile. She looped her arm through Leonidas's.
Nick jumped up and clasped the burly water shifter's hand. "Congratulations!"
"It was a small ceremony," Leonidas confessed. "It's a shame you all couldn't be here, but…"
"Duty called," Sei finished. "We understand. In times like these, it's best not to wait."
Xande waved his hand. "Now, none of that! I won't have any gloomy talk on my favorite holiday. And it's my castle, so I'll make the bloody rules."
This garnered a general laugh. More gifts changed hands; the most notable was a new hat for Necro. His old signature, wide brimmed cap had been lost, and Kim had gotten for him a new tri-cornered hat, still with a jaunty bird plume.
By the end of the evening, Nick found himself to be the proud owner of three new books, one on Ureonen legends, one on geography and history, and the last on cooking. He also received from Retäv three new cooking pots of various sizes. Lexa had gotten new bridles for both him and Sei, along with a matching one for herself, to give to their unicorn partners. The bridles had little jangling bells all along the leather that made a pleasing tinkling sound when jostled.
Xande gave Kita a cloth doll, which the little girl simply adored. Anna got a new pair of matching knives, and Kim a longbow made from the finest yew in Aliter, along with a quiver made of expertly worked leather. Seithios gave everyone a piece of jewelry made from a precious stone or alloy, though Lexa did not get her desired engagement ring. Zephyr gave their host a bottle of vodka captured in a raid against a smuggler's chain in the Northern Lands.
After all the gifts had been given, Xande stood and leaned against the hearth. "What do you say we all go outside for a time?"
Necro sank further back into his armchair with a groan. "It's so nice and warm… Do we have to?"
"Yes," Kim laughed. "It's such a lovely night."
Iréa and Retäv stood up, and bustled out of the salon, assuring Xande they would take care of matters. Several others of the company stood as well, more to stretch their legs than anything. Sei nudged Nick as the Elf Prince walked past. "Does Lucian know he's talking to the coat rack?"
Nick laughed. "I doubt it! But I'm not going to be the one to tell him!"
He went to talk to Leonidas about his newly found marital bliss, but was stopped by Kim, pointing up at the ceiling. "Hang on, mistletoe." Nick colored, and tried to slip by. "Oh, come on," Kim said with a smile. "It's traditional. Anna can't begrudge you that."
"Oh, fine," Nick said, and leaned in for a quick kiss. He had to admit, it wasn't unpleasant. But before he got the chance to talk to Leonidas, Iréa reentered.
"They're ready, Xande."
The High Lord clapped his hands, and instructed everyone to get their coats. The guests complied, and followed him down and out through the main hall of Castle Aliter. In the courtyard stood three sleighs, all hitched to large, shaggy draft horses. Three smaller equine forms danced around the sleighs, the coats reflecting in the moonlight.
"Treyu!" Lexa cried. The leader of the unicorns, a male whose coat matched the pristine snow, capered over. The light mage started laughing as she drew the jingle bells out from her coat. "Look what we got you!"
Treyu tried to get away, but Lexa grabbed his harness. "It's an indignity, and indignity I say! I won't submit, I won't… Ooh, those do sound pretty."
Sei and Nick's unicorn partners, Evara and Halcyo, darted over. "What've you got?" Evara asked, nudging Nick's hand. "Did you bring me anything?"
Nick laughed and fixed the bells to her harness, and Sei did the same for Halcyo. There was another clop of hooves, and a large form detached itself from the shadows along the wall. Rhehia's long, sinuous body followed just behind it.
"My lord," Signalés the centaur Herdmaster said with a bow. "It is my honor to accept your invitation to Solstice. Skralsvon had to decline, I'm afraid. He and his pack have Solstice rituals of their own."
Xande laughed and patted the centaur's chestnut flank. "I understand, my friend. Come, ride with us. There is no greater pleasure to be had."
The humans (and elf) all got into one of the sleighs. Nick, Anna and Kita piled into the third in line, sitting behind Kim, Seithios, Lexa, and Sei. The unicorns danced through the snow as Signalés shouted a command to the horses, who seemed to understand the centaur better than any human handler.
"On Dasher, on Dancer, on Prancer!"
Xande jumped up onto Nick's sleigh, and slid in next to him. "Such a lovely night, eh?"
Nick leaned his head back and stared up at the glittering stars. Then, he caught a glimpse of Castle Aliter fading in the background; it's watchtowers all ablaze with firelight, and towering pine trees growing under each rampart. Wreaths hung over each window and door. Torches were stationed at intervals along the wall lit the marble edifice up like a beacon. "Surely. It's easy to forget this is the coldest, darkest night of the year when you're with friends."
"Why do you think the holiday was invented in the first place?"
In another sleigh, Necro drew out his harp, and tried to match the staccato jangling of the unicorn's bells, eventually giving up. He then played an entirely different chord and raised his voice in a song.
"Dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh! O'er the fields we go, laughing all the way! Bells on bobtail ring making spirits bright! What fun it is to ride and sing a sleighing song tonight…"
Signalés soon joined in, picking up the tune with his booming baritone "Oh, jingle bells, jingle bells…"
Nick sat back and let the cheerful, jaunty tune wash over him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Kita leaning her doll up against the edge of the sled, "showing" the cloth creation the rapidly passing Aliterian countryside.
"Thanks for giving Kita that. I don't know if she's ever had a proper toy."
Xande chuckled. "Better be careful. Between that coat from Ragnar, and a doll from me, pretty soon she'll be expecting Stefán to get her a pony."
"I don't think Kita of all people needs a pony."
Xande laughed louder. "True, true, you have a point there!" He rolled a seed in his hand, and grew a small plant that he clipped with his thumb and forefinger. "For you. Happy Solstice!"
Nick took the sprig in his hand and glanced at it. "Mistletoe?" Xande flicked his eyes silently at Anna, and then winked. The Aliterian High Lord then cleared his throat and tactfully looked away, gazing out at the frolicking unicorns, who looked like ephemeral ghosts in the moonlight.
Nick stared at the mistletoe in his left hand for some time, rather unsure what Xande meant him to do with it. Anna looked over and saw what he held. "When did you get that?"
Anna never needed to clarify. She leaned in and kissed Nick. When she finally broke away, she leaned in close to his ear and whispered, "You didn't need the mistletoe."
Nick smiled and wrapped his arm around her shoulder. Together, they stared up at the beautiful night sky, warm and happy in the company of their friends. Anna rested her head against his collarbone, and continued. "All the presents and food are nice, and the holiday is beautiful. But I don't need all of that." She nestled in closer.
"All I want for Solstice is you."
They sat together in silence, smiling, though they if someone had asked them why, they wouldn't have been able to give a good answer. Rhehia whirled through the sky above, dancing amongst the stars and moonbeams. The unicorns played in her shadow, chasing it across the snowy earth. Signalés galloped along, his long mane of dark brown hair flowing in a slight crosswind.
Necro had finished his song about sleigh rides and jingling bells and had started on another. Many members of the group had already picked it up, and were singing in unison. Nick and Anna added their voices at the crescendo, swelling with the melody.
"We wish you a merry Solstice, we wish you a merry Solstice, we wish you a merry Solstice! And a happy… new… year!"
A/N: I hope you enjoyed the Blazing Heart Holiday Special. I would just like to take a moment to offer a special thanks to a friend of mine helping me track down a few of the song lyrics.
In terms of relative placement in the saga, this happens in a year-long interlude between Scattered Sparks and Fire Eternal. I would also like to remind everyone that this special is not relevant to the established story canon, at all. In fact, for the sake of continuity, it could not have happened. However, all the same, I hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
So, from my writing desk to your home, I wish you and your families a blessed holiday, whatever you celebrate, and happy, prosperous New Year. May 2012 be a time of growth and accomplishment for all of us. Cheers, and happy holidays!