🎄 Day 19 🎄
Today we have a special gift for you from the Frozenbyte writing team lead – a Nine Parchments story!
a Nine Parchments story
by Maija Koivula
It is the darkest and coldest time of the year in the Kingdom. The students of the Astral Academy prepare to spend Yuletide holidays in various ways. Gifts are given, taken, stolen, and machinated. Some dubious punch is had, as well as tea and delicious plum tarts. A legendary monster makes an appearance. No fireballs are thrown.
The First Part.
Yuletide was the darkest time of the year in the Kingdom when days would be a mere handful of hours long, and during what little daytime they had, the sun would rarely appear from behind the clouds. The long-lasting nights messed up with the sleeping patterns of every Astral Academy student, making them tired and sluggish all day long in their classes. And for some reason this time of the year never seemed to affect Professor Butternut, who yelled at the drowsy students whenever he caught them yawning or pressing their foreheads against their desks.
“How will you be able to control a Grand Fireball Spell if you can’t even keep your eyes open!” If the professor was feeling generous, he would only roll his eyes and return to the blackboard. If he were not, then the drowsee would have to stand up and revisit the last five minutes of lecture to the whole class.
“I can’t believe that just happened to me”, an utterly mortified Carabel whispered to Gislan. They were in the library. The place was festively decorated for the season, with green wreaths wrapped with red bows hanging above doorways, and smaller branches of juniper plopped in vases displayed on independent study desks hidden inside the library’s many alcoves.
Carabel looked at the tiny blue juniper berries – they had dried, and were starting to wrinkle, like raisins – and then lifted her gaze up to meet Gislan’s. Carabel had actually forgotten for a few seconds that the witch girl had followed her up to the library.
“Also I almost can’t believe you’re here, and not gloating over what happened.”
Gislan looked a little guilty as she averted her eyes.
“You just seemed upset. You were practically shaking when class ended.”
Carabel stared back at the wrinkly juniper berries again, a little ashamed after the dressing down Butternut had given her – and not just that, but she’d actually missed a part of the lecture while she had closed her eyes for a minute (if it even had been just a minute?) – unheard of!
“And so if I was.” Carabel corrected her posture, trying to make herself sit taller, and sound like none of this was affecting her. There was no helping it for it had happened. She had fallen asleep in class, and gotten reprimanded for it. It was only correct. This wouldn’t happen again. “I’m better now.”
“You know, it’s alright. It’s not like everyone else already hasn’t taken a nap in Butternut’s class at least once.”
But I’m not everyone, Carabel thought, and crossed her arms over her chest protectively.
Gislan pursed her lips for a moment, mulling over her thoughts before she spoke. “I just thought I’d make sure you don’t throw yourself over a balcony railing. It’d be a dreadful way for Nim to start the holidays, scraping you off the flagstones.”
Both girls were quiet for a while. Carabel felt her body start to calm down. Running up all the stairs from the study hall to the library in that fit, well she’d heard her panicky heartbeat in her ears so it had overpowered every other sound in the building. But now the pounding of her heart slowly receded, and her mind began to shove aside the repeated echo of the memory of her embarrassment in class that she’d obsessively re-lived over and over again.
“Howcome you fell asleep anyway? Are you ill or something?” Gislan asked.
Despite her predicament, Carabel had to smile. “No, I’ve been staying up late, working on Yuletide presents for my family. It’s so dark outside, I never realise how late the hour is, until it’s way too late. And I had to finish most of them yesterday, because I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“Ah,” Gislan responded.
Carabel took a deep breath. She felt calm and relaxed. There was an awkward pause in the conversation.
Gislan’s attention went to the dried-up juniper then. She pointed a single finger at the vase. Carabel sensed a faint tingle of magic pass through the air, and then the sad, drooping juniper twig in the vase seemed to cheer up. Wrinkles vanished from the small blue berries. For a vaguely melodramatic reason, Carabel felt a delighted skip in her heart.
“They should remember to water these,” Gislan muttered.
“So how are you going to spend this Yuletide?” Carabel asked, out of politeness. As she spoke, Carabel realised that she was actually a little curious too – they’d never approached this subject with Gislan before. Did the witches of Alcyon even have Yuletide celebrations?
“I’m doing a winter solstice ritual to re-centre my power and attune it with the forces of Alcyon. And maybe if someone joins me, I’ll walk to the Red Rose and get a cart ride to town to see the big Yuletide Market there. I did that last year with Rudolfus.”
Carabel lifted an eyebrow. It didn’t sound like much of a celebration. No singing around the fire, no sleigh rides, no gifts, no fireworks, no games, no feast. No family?
“I suppose it’s much too long way to go to Alcyon,” Carabel said.
“Absolutely, there’s so much sailing, and then just looking for the island.” Right, Carabel thought, Alcyon wasn’t just an island, it was a mystical, magical, vanishing island that came and went within the cover of clouds and fog. “And then there’s no knowing how fast I can get back, once I get there, because I doubt ships are lining up to fight winter storms.”
“Well, you’ll get back after you graduate, I’m sure.” Carabel gave Gislan a hopeful, brave smile. “Anyhow, don’t worry about me falling down stairs or balconies. I’m fine. Although, I do need to ask you a favour – can you walk me to my room? There’s something I need your help with before I go.”
Gislan seemed only slightly peeved, but acquiesced to Carabel’s strange request. “What is it?”
“You’ll see when we get there,” Carabel replied firmly.
“If you need help, then it must be something very odd.”
As they made it through the Academy hallways, the young ladies saw Yuletide preparations everywhere. Since it was the very last day of classes and exams, there were still people hurrying around to deal with the final tasks of the year: students and staff leaving the Academy that very day or evening were delivering their final Yuletide farewells and exchanges or gifts, in order to get out to the road while it was still light out. A full day later, the halls would be eerily quiet, with only a few students and faculty members left on all the campus.
Gislan didn’t enter Carabel’s room. Instead she hung out at the doorway on the side of the corridor, seeming ready to run as soon as was politely possible. And it didn’t take Carabel long to fish out a wrapped box from her packed travel trunk. It was about the size of her fist, a perfect cube.
“Here, please take this, and have a happy Yuletide,” Carabel said, pushing the box into Gislan’s hands.”
Gislan seemed more than a little flustered. This was new – Carabel and her had never exchanged more than a few homework notes.
“Carabel! This is unfair, I wasn’t prepared for any gifts. I have nothing in return. Wait – did you just pull this out of your trunk?”
Carabel waved at her travel trunk dismissively. “It’s fine, I’ve still one more evening to go before I’m out of here. I can build another one. Speaking of which, I guess I should get started on it.” Although Carabel knew she wasn’t going to make another one like that on a single night: this had been her extra project in Artifacts shop class, and it had taken her three months to make one. But Carabel had a hunch that Gislan might find it more interesting than Carabel’s eight-year-old cousin would.
“Well. Thank you. Have a nice holiday, Carabel the Glacial.” Gislan hovered anxiously at the doorway, seeming uncertain if there was more to this Yuletide ritual.
“And you, Gislan of Alcyon.” Carabel smiled happily, her heart much lighter than it had been a moment ago in the library, as she saw the witch off. “See you next year.”
The door closed, Carabel turned around, took stock of her surroundings, and started to devise a new gift.
“The study group of reprobates”, as Professor Butternut liked to call them, often shared a table in the dining hall, ever since their chaotic adventure of looking for the Astral Academy’s missing spell parchments in the wilderness. As a team building exercise, hunting for powerful and deadly spells and then accidentally using them on yourself and your fellow students all the while frenzied mutant wildlife attacked you was an experience of the kind of deep end that few had mental stamina for, and yet all of eight of them had pulled through without severe mental breakdowns, and more miraculously, still alive.
At their usual table, Marvek and Nim often remained alone after everyone else had already eaten and left. Marvek was slow because of his advanced age and a more laid back attitude towards timetables. Nim remained in the dining hall because of all the juggling of various cleaning chores, on top of which there was a pile of homework, usually.
“I’m still a bit sad I didn’t sign up for the autumn play,” Marvek said conversationally, while mixing honey into his tea. He was getting on in years, and he found that hot beverages and honey helped him keep his sunny disposition at this dark time of the year.
Because he mastered fire and warmth, Marvek’s tea was always hot in a perfect way: it never scalded the insides of his mouth, and the temperature never dropped into that lukewarm, slightly unpleasant grade of almost-hot that was the kind of temperature that one might agree was still warm enough to consider it a hot beverage, but you’d drink it regretting you let it go too cold. Marvek’s tea never just cooled down, no matter for how long he forgot it while he was reading or tinkering with his homework, or being sociable.
“I’m not.” Nim was writing down a schedule of maintenance work to be done in the Astral Academy during the holidays. Such as sweeping stairs and corridors, wiping the tables after meals, and cleaning the floors after dinner. The enchanted brooms usually managed the floor all on their own, but animated objects usually needed a little supervising, because they had a somewhat limited understanding of spatial reasoning when some first-year-idiots would build oh-so-amusing traps and obstacle courses for them if someone wasn’t keeping an eye on things.
After-dinner cleaning was usually the time when Nim ate and did homework while keeping an eye on a magic broom or two, sometimes he’d have Marvek for company, if the old man couldn’t be bothered to go find somewhere warmer to sit than the chilly dining hall, so Nim usually expected Marvek’s company on warm and sunny spring and autumn days; rarely so in winter.
Now there was no extra work for the holidays, so Marvek was politely sitting and waiting for Nim to finish, doing nothing himself, before they’d move to a warmer common room with a fireplace and possibly some spirited singing (literally – it was rumoured that Rudolfus and Owl and concocted some seasoned holiday “wine” in the alchemy lab in the dead of night.)
“I wonder what kind of dream Melody would have come up for me!” Marvek said wistfully. “Probably something warm and cosy, like a dream about doing a good crossword puzzle by the fire. Or a senior guided museum adventure tour.”
“What about you, what kind of dream do you think you’d had?”
“Don’t really know,” Nim replied, scratching dates and Xs on the sheet on the table.
“Don’t forget to come and visit us, if you drop by in town!” Marvek was due to leave the following morning, when his family would come to get him with a horse-and-cart. “We’re on Elderberry Lane. Just follow the scent of caramel and cinnamon.”
Nim nodded, but the nod didn’t promise Marvek that there would be a Nim arriving at his townhouse doorstep come Yule Night, but simply an acknowledgement of the invitation.
“Of course if you don’t come, then I’ll have to wish you happy holidays now then, I suppose, and see you next year.” Marvek’s teaspoon clinked against the edge of his mug.
“And you. It has been a nice year.” Nim looked up and smiled from beyond the mysterious mask, not that Marvek could know that, but maybe the smile would be heard in the words spoken out.
“So I hear this year it’ll be just you and… Rudolfus, and Selius and… Gislan back here in school.”
Nim’s writing paused at the last word for half a second. There was a nod, and the list of chores continued. It was not any simple letter, but a large sheet of paper with rows and columns, chores and dates, names and places.
“Why don’t you do yourself a favour and let her know how much you like her!” Marvek said, and laughed a bit at the immediate sputtering behind Nim’s mask. The pencil in Nim’s hand dropped on the table.
“What!” Nim asked, incredulous.
“Isn’t Yule the absolute best time to do something like that? Imagine, snow falling, hot beverages, stars twinkling, and a little mistletoe.”
Nim’s head shook violently. “No.”
“Is this because you’re shy? If I understood Rudolfus right, you’ll only need a little bit of his Solstice Wine to gather your courage.”
Nim’s head seemed to be stuck in a constant, nervous, shake that simply wouldn’t stop, and Marvek could hear deep breaths being taken.
“Calm down,” Marvek said, very slowly, very calmly, and when Nim calmed down, Marvek put an apologetic hand on Nim’s gloved fingers. “Didn’t mean to upset you. Sorry.”
Nim nodded curtly. “It’s…” It sounded like Nim was going to say it was alright, but it wasn’t. Instead the phrase restarted itself again and came out as “It’s been bothering me.”
“So why not do something about it? I might be old and senile, but I’m not stupid. There’s been something building up.”
“Maybe. And I’ve been thinking about it.” Nim sighed and adjusted the mask. It had been slightly askew for eating earlier. “Because it makes no sense.”
“Hah! Feelings don’t need to make sense. That’s why they’re feelings, and not senselings.”
“But I… I do think everything happens for a purpose. A reason.” Nim sighed again and started drying up the ink on the Cleaning Chart, so it could be put away into the big satchel sitting on the bench. “Actually, I do think I understand now, the reason.”
Marvek was a bit dubious, that Nim could pinpoint a reason for those obvious Gislan-related feelings, but encouraged Nim to go on with it anyway.
“This mask, it’s what all wizards wear where I come from. Because you sort of owe your power to the community. We’re really very few. Actually, most magicians run away from there, so they can live normal lives without masks. But I have decided to wear it. The Mask of the Wise.”
“So I remember,” Marvek said thoughtfully. He’d heard tidbits about this before.
“I wear it even more than is necessary, because…” Nim heaved a sigh. “Well. Anyhow. It’s kind of lonely. And before I came here, I didn’t really know I was lonely, because I’d always thought I was fine alone.”
Nim took some time to find the next words, while Marvek hugged his tea mug with both his hands, frowning as he did so, not being a fan of the way Nim had been raised, putting up a false face (and quite the tangible one.)
“The first day of class, Gislan stood up and introduced herself, and told about Alcyon, and the coven there. And how she was just given to them, and she doesn’t even have a real family. And… I think I thought, she is so alone, she would understand how alone I am, better than anyone else.” Nim managed the quiet words with relative calm.
Marvek stopped frowning, and nodded slowly instead, repeatedly, gauging the meaning from within Nim’s unusual statement. After all, it had been at least a month’s worth of small talk from the quiet and strange cleaner. So it was quite a lot to take in.
“The green witch does seem homesick,” Marvek said thoughtfully. And he supposed he should admit Nim was right: there was a pattern to this attraction. Nim and Gislan shared an experience of isolation. “Doesn’t mean you can’t love her.”
“I hardly think it can be called that. I don’t even know her very well – I avoid her so much. Everything I know about Gislan is really my imagination.”
Marvek felt a little frustrated at Nim’s detachedly despondent declarations. “Still, you know, follow the path into the unknown. Can’t win unless you try. I fully endorse love! I’ve been in a happy marriage most of my life. Ask Poppy!”
Even with the mask, Marvek could sense Nim’s disapproving face.
“I have a destiny and a duty. So does Gislan. I wouldn’t run away from mine, or steer Gislan away from hers.”
It was a very frustrating situation for Marvek now to be in: he wanted best for his friends, but they seemed to be having ideas of their lives that involved Grand Destinies and nonsensical inevitabilities. Marvek had never lived his life like that, thinking it was all written down somewhere, not even before that one surprising and fateful day, so very late in his life, when he’d burnt down his and Poppy’s house quite by accident as a late bloomer in acquiring his magical talents.
“Fine, fine. Spend your holidays with some more moping around then.”
“I don’t mope”, said Nim, detachedly civil, while folding the now-dried-up Cleaning Chart. “I focus on my work.”
It was just then that both Marek and Nim realised that while they’d been talking, the unsupervised enchanted brooms had gone a bit wild in the dining hall…
Cornelius hadn’t been feeling too good after trying the mysterious punch at the students’ Yuletide party in the common room, so he’d excused himself to go breath some fresh air outside.
It was supposed to be winter already, but they were still waiting for first snow in the unseasonably warm weather. With snow, the Astral Academy’s gardens would have been slightly more cheerful to walk in this late in the evening, but now it was just faintly dark hedges set against stone columns throwing shadows of another shade of darkness in a dark evening. There was no way of seeing the garden paths clearly.
The Academy did light the walkways in the dark with the occasional magic bauble, but only in a businesslike manner, to illuminate the tidily paved main road from the distant vegetable patches to the main buildings, and these lights only served to deepen the shadows further in the garden, so for Cornelius it was actually better to go off on his own down a smaller path and let his eyes get used to the dark, so he could find a quiet place of his own.
After he had doubled down and removed some of Rudolfus and Owl’s fantastic wine concoction over some wintering plants from his insides right back the way it had entered in the first place, Cornelius wiped his lips on a handkerchief (beautifully embroidered with his initials as well as the Crownsteed crest, handiwork by his own mother) while steadying himself.
“Death magic,” he muttered, laughed to himself for thinking something so clever (or so he thought presently, in the way how in a certain stage of liquid happiness, everything is so amusing). With a couple of long, controlled breaths of the chilly night air, Cornelius started to feel a little better. Right. Water. Something to eat also, to soak up whatever was left. And time to head back inside to the party.
Not in a hurry to get back there to be goaded into drinking more by Rudolfus, or to be potentially singled out as worst drinker of the party, Cornelius meandered through the garden paths, taking a detour. All the students mostly spent their times indoors at this time of year, since before snowfall, outside was only wet and dark and unpleasant. Cornelius didn’t mind any of it right then, though. Not the slippery wet leaves under his boots, or the chilly mist in the air, or the coldness of the magic lanterns casting stark shadows everywhere. The cold air outside was fresh.
On this carefree outing, Cornelius found a dark figure doubled over and gagging what was presumably the mystery punch into another part of the Astral Academy’s garden.
“I never saw you,” Cornelius said politely and did a complete 180-degree and headed the other way. Pretty much every noble family reared their children so that if someone outside your was seen doing something embarrassing, you declared you never saw it (and later on at an opportune moment you could let them know that you’d been so super kind that one time so how about they now return the favour, the sooner the better. It was just good manners.)
“Thanks,” a voice in the darkness said, and Cornelius was a bit surprised to recognize Selius’s voice. There were a few coughs. Cornelius thought it’d probably be better to hurry off, after all, he wouldn’t have wanted an audience for himself, but on the other hand, he wouldn’t have wanted to be left alone in the dark either. And there was that thing to take care of…
“I threw up over some roses back there,” Cornelius said, turning back. “I think Rudolfus used actual Death Spells making it.”
“It tasted fine going down. Gross coming up.”
There was an awkward pause in the darkness of narrow pathways between floral patches. They smelled of the decay of moist earth in late autumn.
“So… want to get back to the party?” Cornelius asked.
“Might as well. Nothing exciting going on here anyway.”
They sauntered back towards the Astral Academy’s magical lights uneasily, since looking at the lights blinded their eyes a bit, and having enjoyed the mystery punch, their steps on the pitch-black gravel path were not the steadiest of all.
Cornelius had a question to ask of Selius, but it was a convoluted one, because it wasn’t really his question to ask, since he was going to ask if on behalf of his own grandmother of all people. And he had kept waiting to do it, because there had never seemed to be a good chance to start a conversation with “hello my grandmother would like to let you know you’re in her thoughts.”
But it was one of these things he simply had to do because it was good manners. And it wasn’t like he didn’t mind, but it was bothering Cornelius that he was having to do the asking because of his family’s social arrangements, that he couldn’t ask Selius as a friend but it had to come down to awkward politics.
“I have to ask you – it’s about Yule. My parents and my grandmother invited you to come to Crownsteed manor with me for the holidays.”
Cornelius bumped straight into Selius because he’d been ahead on the path, and now Selius had stopped without warning, and there was confusion and stepping on toes, and an ouch, his toes, and Cornelius jumping back and trying to get a hold of something, losing his balance, and reaching nothing, but yet managing to stay upright throughout the incident, because Selius was steadying him.
It was so dark and quiet, until Selius coughed.
“Maybe you should light the way back to the study hall with some fireballs,” Selius said.
Cornelius laughed. “No I couldn’t, I’d set the garden on fire.”
“I think the garden would be fine. It’s too damp to catch a real fire.”
“No, the fireball would scorch the doors or the walls or something, and I don’t want to make a mess so close to the holidays… Can you summon light?” Cornelius asked, and he could see Selius’s silhouette against the less dark night, considering the question, the way his head was cocked one side.
“Not at the moment.”
Without answering Cornelius’s original question, Selius turned away and headed back to the magically lit walkway in the middle of the garden, Cornelius a few more steps behind him. Once they made it to the blue lights, Cornelius noticed that Selius seemed a bit wobbly and paler than usual. He had to wonder if the same was true of himself.
Selius coughed again, a dry raspy cough from the back of his throat. Then he spoke. “Why’d your family invite me over?”
Cornelius could have done the superficially polite thing and said that his parents were just concerned of him spending the holiday alone, but there were parts of the letter that had revealed Matron Crownsteed’s true intentions.
“My cousins will be there, and Petunia is your age and my grandmother wrote how she would like me to introduce you to her.” This was of course nothing out of the ordinary, and Cornelius didn’t doubt that Selius’s parents had also scoured the earth at one point, looking for dozens of petunias for him. There were petunias for Cornelius as well, waiting in the wings until Cornelius would graduate. These faceless, shadowy figures were sometimes hinted at in letters or over dinners when he visited during holidays, sometimes regretfully when it would turn out that a Petunia had found another suitor, or had left their family fortunes to become a knight, or a shopkeeper, or some other tragic thing.
“A thrilling prospect,” Selius said, the slightest tipsy tilt to his consonants. Do you know if your cousin has night terrors?”
“Nah, we’re not that close. But when she was six, she had a dream that our manor turned into a giant pumpkin house, and she drew a picture of that and gave it to my father. He kept it around for a while on his desk.”
“It must have been a very big pumpkin.”
They both took a moment to imagine what would happen if some morning they woke up to find Crownsteed manor replaced by the most enormous pumpkin imaginable.
Like getting rid of mystery punch, getting rid of the question had also been a relief. There, his awkward job of assisting his grandmother’s matchmaking was done.
“Obviously, you don’t need to come, if you don’t want to.” It would have been kind of cool if he had though.
“I don’t object to the idea of spending the holidays away from our wonderful academy. But I guess there will be a lot of people there, if your cousins are coming?”
“I guess we’ll be at least a few dozen,” Cornelius replied, not really knowing how big the party would be. Crownsteed manor was very cosy during winter, and it was nicer to spend Yule there than in close quarters in town – and it was the biggest estate of the immediate family, so there was room for everyone.
“It’s a little much. I’d ‘hear’ everyone’s dreams. Unless you have a nice enchanted dungeon to put me into.”
Understandable. “I get it. But come visit next summer instead. I can be an awful grandson and not even tell them that you’re coming, so gran can’t even arrange any surprise visits from relatives of marriageable age.”
“Sounds good. Let’s break all the rules of social engagements.” Selius sneezed. “The weather is shit, let’s get back inside.”
And they returned to the party, both one friend richer just in time for the holidays.
It was night. When most students of the Astral Academy were asleep.
Owl only slept if it was bored. And now it wasn’t bored. It was presently emptying the rest of the mystery punch, by drinking it. When the magic punch interacted with the magic inside Owl’s metallic body, there were interesting flashes of purple lightning shooting out of Owl’s copper beak, which fascinated the construct to no end, even if this had already happened after each and every gulp so far.
Rudolfus had been dozing in a worn old armchair near the fire, his legs thrown over the armrest, watching the purple lightning show with half-lidded eyes. All the other students had gone to bed, with many of them due to leave early in the morning. The autumn semester was now officially over, and they’d all meet again in a few weeks, in the New Year.
There was a clank as the empty punch bowl met the surface of the table.
“Cat wizard!” Owl declared. “Is there to be an afterparty, or should Owl turn itself off now?”
“I’m afraid this is the afterparty,” Rudolfus said, sat up, and stretched his arms and legs and, of course, his tail.
“But, gifts! Wrapped boxes, large and small, for Owl!” Owl looked around the common room, as if searching for the Yuletide gifts that should have magically appeared by request.
“Looks like The Canute Goat has stolen all your gifts this year,” Rudolfus commented, as he pried himself off his warm and comfortable seat with the slow, languid movements of a cat.
————————– IMPORTANT INFORMATION ————————–
———————– REGARDING THE CANUTE GOAT ———————–
Lord Canuteus of Dalemark was a baron who lived a long, long, long time ago. His cousin, Lady Magenta Holmwoodenburg, hired a wizard to assassinate him with poison, but somehow Lord Canuteus turned into a goat instead. One take on the story says that the wizard wasn’t cruel enough to poison an innocent man, and turned him into a goat instead to save him. According to another version of the story, the wizard was quite incompetent and turned Lord Canuteus into a goat only by accident.
Running away from his would-be assassins, Lord Canuteus the Goat, a speaking goat, then made friends with two travellers: Gerdara, a thief masquerading as a census collector, who went from town to town knocking on people’s doors and asking them questions about their family and income; and Bistephonus, Gerdara’s strongman companion was also a part of the party. Gerdara was cunning enough to realize that helping a baron in his time of need would eventually give her a leg up in the world as well.
All three of them went to the woods to find a witch who could help them in various ways: to turn Lord Canuteus back into his human form; to help Gerdara change her face so she could continue her fraudulent schemes under a new name; and Bistephonus wished for a love potion that would finally make Gerdara see him as more than a very strong handyman.
After a series of trials and tribulations in the haunted woods, the three finally made it to the witch’s cabin, and it just so happened to be Yule Night. Unfortunately for them, the witch wasn’t very impressed with what she saw: a greedy and selfish scam-artist; a man who wanted to rely on magic to make someone fall in love with them; and a very bad-tempered Canuteus, who was imperiously demanding the witch that she should immediately turn him back into a lord, or he would have the witch’s head chopped off and put up on the spiky rails above his castle gates.
The witch smiled to her guests, and begged them to sit and wait while she brewed a mysterious potion in her giant black cauldron. She whispered a few magic words, to make it look and smell like the most delicious stew ever cooked. She took out her finest white linen and set the table, the monogrammed silver cutlery, and the nicest gold-rimmed white porcelain bowls, in which she poured the stew.
Suddenly there was such noise and hubbub outside: seven crows had landed on the witch’s snow-blanketed roof, and were cawing all at once.
“Oh I better go see what that is about, please wait here patiently and don’t touch anything,” the witch said, looking like a kindly old lady. She went out, and the noise from the crows died soon after. But the witch didn’t return.
In the meantime, the unhappy and impatient guests were getting restless. The witch had promised them help with all the problems that ailed them, but now she’d vanished. It was already dark outside, and they could see nothing through the windows: no crows, no witch. Not even the sinister haunted woods surrounding them.
Canuteus, Gerdara and Bistephonus all agreed that it was a shame to watch good dinner go cold while they waited. So they seated themselves at the witch’s finely laid table with its pressed white linen cloth. They took the monogrammed silver spoons in their hands (apart from Canuteus, who pushed his aside with his nose). And they took deep breaths, inhaling delicious smells coming from the gold-rimmed bowls, before digging in.
They ate all the stew.
After that, all of them started to feel sleepy. It was warm inside the cottage, with the fire burning in the oven, and all their tummies filled.
In the morning, there was no Canuteus, no Gerdara, and no Bistephonus left in the world. Instead there was a creature with a goat’s head, a strongman’s tall and imposing body, and a thief’s cunning. It could walk on four legs, or two, if it chose to. The witch eyed her creation with a critical eye.
“It doesn’t do to be a rude guest on Yuletide Eve. Make demands of your host and take food from their table without permission. You go out there, and remind people not to come seek me out this night, and to mind their manners.”
And ever since then, if anyone misbehaved on Yuletide Eve, the Canute Goat would come from the woods, make itself a rude and uninvited guest, steal food and gifts, and then vanish back into the darkest night of the year.
————————– AND THAT’S THAT ————————–
Owl, having heard the Canute Goat tale quite a few times now, nodded sagely. “The evil magic goat must be behind this. Poor Owl, poor Owls’ beautiful, wrapped gifts.”
Rudolfus hadn’t gotten any sentimental last-minute gifts from the other students either. And he wasn’t the type to give any, either.
“Did you give anyone anything?” The cat asked, merely conversationally, planning to retire himself as soon as this conversation was over.
Owl looked at Rudolfus, then at the wall. Then back at Rudolfus.
“Is Owl supposed to… give wrapped-up gifts? Why? When cat-wizard never does?”
“Well, I’m me, but I don’t expect any gifts in return. You do understand that this whole gift-giving rigmarole requires give and take, right?” Rudolfus caught on that Owl hadn’t of course thought of that, in the years they’d spent together at the Academy so far.
Owl’s brain started to whirr, with cogs actually turning, and making laborious sounds. Owl was thinking deep. Rudolfus wondered how long it would take, and if he had time to slip out of the common room before the mechanic brain would be quite done.
“Owl has decided to give gifts this year!”
So, not that long at all then.
“Investments shall return with dividends!” The Owl added, whatever that meant.
Rudolfus was already toeing towards the door. “Good luck finding everyone gifts at two in the morning,” he threw the wish over his shoulder, and in an instant, the Owl was barreling after him, past him, and blocking the door.
“The cat wizard must help Owl.”
“Why?” Rudolfus asked with false kindness, not pleased to have his way out blocked. His smile showed his teeth.
“The time is two in the morning. Owl has no hope to make gifts alone,” Owl stated the obvious.
The feline death artist mentally gave himself a kick in the backside for having nudged Owl’s thoughts into this direction. But on the other hand, he’d had a nice nap by the fire, and something interesting might happen, so off the two scurried, into the night-time Astral Academy, to hunt for last-minute gifts.
It was still dark outside when morning came, and students were getting up and getting dressed and getting their breakfast before getting ready to leave. Some students found strange parcels just outside their doors, lying on the flagstones, or hanging by a string from their doorknobs.
The haphazardly thrown-together gifts included a variety of items: a hastily written poem for Gislan (Red has a long wavelength. Violet less so. Sugar in your tea is made of Beta vulgaris vulgaris. You are a witch.); water in a cracked soup bowl for Carabel (for making snowballs out of.) Nim got some twigs wrapped up in plain parchment (to be turned into broom material at a later date), and Marvek some tea bags stolen from the school dining hall. Cornelius’s gift was a lump of coal (to be turned into a diamond once Owl could master a spell of such magnitude), and for Selius a sock belonging to Professor Butternut, with the professor’s initials knitted on the cuff. The sock was wet, having been taken from the washing line. There was a ginger biscuit inside, in the process of disintegrating.
While everyone else was down for breakfast, Owl was very pleased with itself, after pulling an all-nighter with Rudolfus, who’d ended up not minding their holiday-spirited gift-hunting night together.
“And now the gifts start coming, yes? The Canute Goat returns all the shiny, wrapped Owl-gifts?” the Owl asked, the moment the duo returned to the common room. Owl peered around the room, into the corners, and even up at the ceiling, as if a rain of beautifully wrapped gifts with bright coloured paper and red and golden bows would start at any moment.
“Might have to wait another year for that magic to happen, dear friend. So, are you coming to town with Gislan and me for the Yule Market?” Rudolfus settled back into the comfortable armchair near the fireplace, although now there was no merry fire. The morning light was dim, the sky overcast and bleak with grey clouds. Rudolfus pulled a quilted blanket over himself. Time for another nap.
“Owl is going to visit the head of the bird watching society! And Owl really needs to go now. Good Yule! Owl wishes to see everyone again next year! Cat wizard included!”
The mechanical owl picked up a ginger biscuit from the table, ate it promptly, and stomped off in a hurry.
“Right then.” Rudolfus pulled his hat snug over his ears, and closed his eyes, a happy little smile playing on his lips until he fell quite asleep.
And so the Yuletide preparations were over. Some students left the Astral Academy. Others remained. There was nothing else to do except wait for the year to end.
Gislan had hopes to visit the town to go see the Yule Market on the day of the festivities. She had thought to go with Rudolfus, but the party would end up consisting of all the left-behind students: Gislan, Nim, Selius as well as Rudolfus
And whether or not the road was short or long, would they walk or get a ride, was there a horrible monster goat walking on two feet in the woods, and if they could get anything to eat, or what was inside Carabel’s box… well, some of these questions might get answers on The Darkest Night.
To be continued…