Howell was singing loudly in the front-room as Rufus stepped into the house, the snow clinging to his raven hair.
“Sweet boughs of Holly
to make the lord jolly,
And ivy all over the ’ouse!
Spiced mead and wine
And roast ’oney-swine
And a kiss when the sun goes down!
Season of ends, is just the beginning
And in spring will rise up the sun
So, sew your seeds now,
while you all be merry,
And at harvest a baby will come!”
“What are you singing?” Rufus demanded, stamping his feet as he unfastened his sodden cloak. Howell looked over his shoulder with a large smile. He was decorating the threshold with wreaths of holy, mistletoe and ivy.
“Tis an ol’ spell, Love,” Howell said, “for a warm Winter Festival.”
“Sounds more like a sex song in disguise.”
“Aye, well, you would think that.” Howell leant forward and accepted a quick kiss from Rufus, brushing the snow out of his hair. “But the Winter Festival means more to us down ‘ere than it does to you fancy folk from the Capital.”
“Is that right?”
“Tis. Our traditions are old and sacred.”
“And dirty songs are part of that?”
“Nothin’ dirty about love-makin’. Well,” Howell pulled off, “success?”
“Success.” Rufus held up his bag, pulling it open to let Howell expect the contents. “I managed to get all the ingredients. And I deserve high praise, because it was no easy feat.”
Howell picked through the food, running his hand over the packages of meat and game. “Aye,” he said, softly. “This’ll be a feast.”
“You know there are only going to be three of us, don’t you?” Rufus let Howell take the bag. “This is a ludicrous amount of food.”
“Tis a week of celebration, and the season of uninvited guests—the food won’t last, I promise.” Howell patted Rufus’s stomach. “Maybe we can fatten you up for the colder months to come.”
Rufus huffed, but didn’t say anything as something small and fast came shooting down the stairs toward him.
Joshua flung himself from half-way up, and Rufus almost had a small heart-attack as he dove to catch the six year old. “Oof!”
Joshua squealed with delight, wrapping small, strong arms around Rufus’s neck. “Papa!” he gabbled. “There’s a troop passing—can we go? I want to see them!”
“Actors,” Howell clarified. “Puttin’ on the Seven Days.”
“They’re performing here?”
“Nay—down the valley, in Tromoth.”
“Can we go?” Joshua begged, and Rufus tensed, hesitating. Joshua sensed his uncertainty immediately. “Please!” He wrapped his fingers into Rufus’s collar and looked him deeply in the eye. “Please!”
Rufus felt something unnatural tugging inside of him. Joshua had reached into his head and was forcefully trying to shove his uncertainty away, and draw out Rufus’s never-ending desire to please his brother. Rufus frowned. “Joshua,” he scolded, “I’ve told you not to use your powers like that.”
Joshua’s presence in his head snapped back out, and his brother blinked rapidly. “Sorry,” he said, and Rufus wondered whether he’d done it intentionally or not.
“I told him we’d talk about it with you,” Howell said gently, still holding the bag of food.
“I suppose you want to go?” Rufus didn’t intend it to come out as snappish as it did.
“Tis the season of story-tellin’, and the lad’s not seen any of the Seven Nights.”
“I’m not sure those performances are appropriate for a six year old.”
“He won’t pay mind to the parts which don’t mean anythin’ to him. An’ I only propose we go to see the first one—they’re performin’ one each for every day of the festival, startin’ tomorrow.”
Rufus slowly put Joshua down. “Take my bag to the pantry,” he said.
Joshua obeyed without a word, apparently keen to show what a well-behaved a good boy he was. Rufus waited until he’d left the room.
“Tromoth is a proper town,” he said.
“Aye, ’tis—but not so big I imagine there’ll be Magi frequentin’ the ol’ harbour theatre, especially not to see drunkards in costumes tryin’ to remember their lines.” Howell crossed the room and pulled Rufus’s hands clear from where he’d started to run them up through his hair. “Tis a fishin’ town, Love. Not fancy enough for your types.”
“They’re not my types.”
“Nay,” Howell chuckled, “I suppose not.” He cupped Rufus’s face. “The lad’s got a real longin’ for it.”
“He deserves to go,” Rufus agreed. “Perhaps you can take him. Alone.”
“I’m loath to leave you, Love.”
Rufus groaned. “Is it worth the risk?”
“The performance, no? But to be free for a night, Rufus—to unshackle you from ’idin’, I’d like that.”
“I’d like it too. But—”
“I know.” Howell pulled Rufus’s hand up his mouth and kissed it. “I’d rather you safe.”
It snowed all through the night, covering the ground in a thick, perfect blanket. Rufus cut a path from the door through with magic, so that Howell and Joshua could get the horse to the road. Joshua’s hair—dyed freshly black—peeked out from under layers and layers of clothing. They were always wary of winter colds and fevers, with his lungs.
“Have you got money for an inn?” Rufus asked. “Just in case the snow starts up again and you can’t make it back by tonight?”
“Aye—your Papa’s a worrier, isn’t he?” Howell kissed Joshua’s temple as the boy giggled. “Yes, Love, we’ve everythin’ we need and more. I’ll be spoilin’ the lad rotten.”
Rufus’s heart swelled, and he leaned up and squeezed Joshua’s arm. “You behave now. And have a good time.”
Joshua nodded. “I will, Papa.”
Rufus stood and watched them ride away, until the white landscape swallowed them up.
He spent the majority of the afternoon preparing the food for the next few days. He’d bought several books for both Joshua and Howell—as ‘story exchanges’ was one of the key traditions of the season—and bound them together with ribbon.
Howell had already seen to most of the decorations, but Rufus quickly found himself outside, gathering more material, until it felt like there was more of the garden indoors than out.
When he was finished, he practised his fiddle, read, attempted to take a nap, read a little more, played more fiddle, and finally abandoned all hope of distracting himself and went outside.
Darkness had descended quickly, the day hours shortening, as Athea’s reign won over the sky. It was bitingly cold; as Rufus trudged through the snow, his magic gathered to him, fighting off the worst of the chill. He walked down the path along the back of the house, toward the sparse woodland. Perhaps he could make snow sculptures. With a little magic he was sure he could crystalize them into ice, as clean and beautiful as diamond. There had always been ice sculptures at the Winter Festival in Harmatia—huge displays, each more intricate and wonderful than the last.
Don’t think about Harmatia! He forced the thought from his mind, but it was wistfully replaced by another…The smell of spiced soup rising from the kitchen to his small, crooked bedroom in their house above the tailor’s shop. Was there snow in the capital? Were his parents clearing the streets today, as he had cleared the path? How would they be celebrating the first day of the Festival? Would they go to one of dozen theatres in the city? Would they go to an ale-house, or tavern to hear a story-teller? What books would they exchange?
The longing for home struck him so hard he almost doubled over. Rufus gasped, arms clenching tight around his chest. Home. He could see it so clearly. The shop. His bedroom. His parents sat together in the kitchen.
And that wasn’t it, because he couldn’t stop the images of castle either—bedecked in light, hundreds of candles filling the feasting hall, decorated in green and red and white with huge wreaths. And his friends—Zachary, Marcel, Emeric…
The spell was immediately broken. The longing for home gave way to something sharper, and more familiar.
What did it matter if the castle was dressed and beautiful? It was an empty promise. His ‘friends’ had betrayed him, he’d been divided from his parents and Jionat was gone. Forever. Not home. Not anymore. Never again.
Something cold and wet touched his cheek, pulling him from his thoughts. He blinked, and looked up. It was snowing again. Rufus sighed and glanced back up the path he’d come. Distantly he could see the house, a dark speck against a royal blue sky. He didn’t want to return yet, and so he slowly lowered himself to the ground and watched the silent descent of snow across an untouched world.
He wasn’t expecting to see fire-light as he approached the house, an hour later, soaked and cold to the bone. The back door opened and Joshua came charging out. Howell followed with a lantern in his hand.
“There you are, Love! You ‘ad us worried!”
Rufus was thrown off as Joshua caught him around the legs, almost sending him toppling back into the snow. “What are you two doing back so early? I thought you wouldn’t be home for another few hours or so.”
Joshua didn’t reply, his face buried in Rufus’s waist.
“Oh well,” Howell said, shrugging, “we got ‘alf-way through the first performance, and this one suddenly announced it was time to go.”
“Didn’t you enjoy it, Joshua?”
Joshua pulled away only so far as to be able to look up at Rufus. There was something shrewd about his expression, an intelligence beyond his age. “I wanted to go home,” he said, simply, and he hugged Rufus again.
Oh. Rufus felt a lump forming in his throat, and had to swallow down the wash of emotion that welled up inside. Oh. That’s right.
It was stupid, how his little brother could come to the answer before Rufus did—how he could solve the problem so simply. Rufus had longed for home, and Joshua had brought it. Rufus felt that cold, hard sadness in him melt away just a little more.
“Come on now,” Howell said, smiling knowingly, “’ow’s about you two get inside before we let the whole winter in. I think I might have a good story to share instead, fit for weather!”
“That sounds perfect,” Rufus said, and stooping down he picked Joshua up, and stepped into the threshold, into Howell’s waiting arms.
Wishing you all a beautiful Winter Festival of your own. May the holidays be full of friendship, love and beautiful stories.