Days of snow and grey clouds passed in a haze, as the nights grew impossibly longer. Despite Azrael’s dearest wish to grow stronger, deep snow, biting cold and chilling winds made it a fruitless endeavour. The sound of knuckles rapping on wood drew him from his thoughts.
“Shall we go?” Alena asked.
He straightened himself and nodded. Today wasn’t about getting stronger. Today was the celebration of the midwinter festival. As lord of the village he had naturally been invited. Opening the door for Alena he grabbed the sack containing his own gifts. Then, using the path he’d shovelled out in the days prior, they made their way to the village.
Despite the cold, the village was bustling with life. The entire village square had been completely cleared of snow, and tables and chairs set up in a ring around the stone stele. In the center of the village a massive bonfire was stacked in the log cabin style. At the moment it was unlit, but in the darkening light of the shortest day of the year tens of torches cast a warm glow on the proceedings. Cairn greeted Azrael, guiding him to a large wooden chair on a raised dais. It was a simple design, but adorned with many pelts, particularly the midnight coats of misfortunate shadow wolves. Black against snowy white it certainly drew the eye. Alena was shown to a smaller seat by his side. Sitting down he noticed Alena was immediately whirled off by the ladies, tasked with helping. He could only watch as she vanished into one of the cabins. It didn’t sit right with him to let everyone else prepare everything, but he wasn’t sure what he could do, or even who to ask. So, with nothing to do he reclined in his ‘throne’, trying to act like a proper lord. This mostly just resembled him nodding to the villagers, as they bowed to him while scurrying by. He sighed. When was the last time he’d had someone prepare a meal for him, without him having to do anything? Probably four or more years ago, back… back when his mother had been alive. He blinked back the tears. It wouldn’t do him any good getting emotional over it now. He couldn’t change the past.
Seeing Bartlos approach he straightened himself. Durkov and Darj trailed behind him uncertainly. Azrael waved them closer. He didn’t bite and a little company would be appreciated.
Carrying an earthen cup in each hand Bartlos carefully stepped up on the dais and handed one to him. Azrael gave it a cautionary sip and nearly coughed it out.
“Alcohol?” He spluttered.
Bartlos just laughed, while the two dwarves simply looked uncomfortable.
“Indeed” he said “A little surprise of our own” He took another sip from his own cup and jerked a hand towards Darj. “Mighty handy fellow, mighty handy” he said as Azrael remembered that Darj had the [Brewer] class, Darj seemed to shrink into himself under Azrael’s gaze, while Durkov simply looked proud for his friend. Azrael took another sip.
“Potatoes?” he asked, causing Bartlos to nod.
“With you buying all my supplies and leaving a lot of it for Cairn, they gave me some of their winter reserves.” Bartlos sighed. And Azrael imagined the pain that the man must have felt from losing all of his wares, even if he technically had sold it.
Luckily, Azrael was saved from having to console the [Merchant], as Cairn arrived, along with the rest of the villager carrying trays of steaming food. Placing the trays on the tables all the villagers found seats around the circle, rugged up against the ever cooling air. Cairn bowed to Azrael, before addressing the gathered people.
“We gather once more” he began “at the beginning of the longest night in the year, to keep our vigil against the dark and to celebrate the end of another cycle. Like our forefathers, we gather to share the warmth of food, fire, hearths and hearts. To share tales of the year that has been and to welcome the year that is yet to come. This year we welcome our Lord, Lord Azrael, to partake in the festivities and also welcome Bartlos, Durkov and Darj to our fire.” With that he bowed to Azrael and held out a flint and steel to Azrael. “Would you do the honours?” He asked.
Azrael nodded and silently took the flint and steel from Cairn, but instead of carrying them to the fire he placed them on his seat. With a wave of his hands he summoned two balls of fire above them, letting them hover above his hands. Then, carefully he straightened his arms into the sky, letting the fireballs drift upwards like sky lanterns. [Dramatic Flair] took hold and the two lanterns began dancing around each other, golden sparks falling away beneath them like glitter, while smaller spots of fire mana clustered around them in the air, igniting like small luminescent fireflies. Then, when they reached the apex of his range the two lanterns changed course, drifting downwards once more, to gently alight on the stacked wood. A second later the wood caught fire and tongues of fire darted out between the logs.
As if a dam had been burst the villagers immediately started chatting. It seemed that the fire symbolised the start of the festival. Walking back to his seat Azrael handed the flint and steel back to Cairn, before joining Alena with loading up a plate from the buffet. Here the villagers had truly outdone themselves. From their impossibly meagre supplies they had somehow conjured a feast. Roast meat sat carved on wooden platters, while potatoes and bread lay roasted and toasted alongside. Berry compotes and nut spreads sat in small earther jars near the bread. There was even cheese, butter and smoked fish. The villagers had somehow found an abundance of food where Azrael considered it to be impossible to survive. He shook his head in wonder, while loading up his plate.
Taking his food to his seat he watched the villagers converse, listening to their laughter, before letting the general chatter fade away in order to enjoy his meal. Across the soul-link he could feel Alena’s contentment and excitement clearly. And it truly was a wonderous scene. Azrael realised that for them it was Christmas and New year’s wrapped up in one. These villagers, who had lost so much in the last year and had toiled to start anew were laughing, the deep line on their faces vanishing. The serious and pragmatic folks were letting their worries and burdens slip away and taking the occasion to just enjoy the evening.
The fire crackled with warmth, filling the village square with a lively light. Even the stone spire that towered above everything was not immune to the effects of the fire, being painted in warm tones that stood out against the dark sky.
Darj’s Alcohol flowed into cups and mugs and soon many of the villagers were red faced from more than just the cold. A drum beat was started up by one of the villagers and was soon accompanied by a cheery tune from Hugh on the panpipes. A squeal and a laugh later one of the men pulled one of the ladies towards the center of the square and began dancing with her to the joyful melody.
One by the villagers found themselves in a ring around their fire, either getting up by their own volition, or pulled up by somebody else. Soon enough everyone had their arms linked around the others and were dancing around the fire. Azrael himself was no exception, as Alena dragged him from his seat into the circle. By now the drum and pan pipes had been taken over by loud and joyful voices, some more in tune than others. Azrael felt more than happy simply to dance along. It went on like that for a while, before Azrael noticed people trailing off from the circle. They returned minutes later and Azrael suddenly found everyone giving each other gifts. Quietly he retrieved his sack and drew out his own gifts. For Alena he had two iron daggers, her stone ones chipping frequently. She hugged him for a good minute before letting go, leaving him standing there awkwardly while she did so. He couldn’t even begin to piece together what she was thinking, as her emotions came across as a jumble over the soul-link. To Cairn he gifted the horn, the dragon seemingly brought to life under the flickering flames of the bonfire. Cairn simply stared at it with wide eyes for a while, before thanking Azrael. His final gifts were actually for the two other children in the village. Undecided what to make for them he made two magic spinning tops, which one you placed them on their point would start to spin all by themselves. His present left the two siblings enamoured, and quite a few adults too. He also received quite a few gifts in return from the villagers, though his favourite by far was a small wooden figurine of a wolf, made by Hugh. Smaller than the flat of his palm the creature was carved with exquisite detail that spoke of painstaking hours of concentration. He thanked Hugh, feeling bad that he hadn’t gotten the man anything, but Hugh didn’t seem to mind.
Eventually though, the fire died down, as did the excitement. When a few people started to say good night to the other Azrael decided to end the evening with something special. Wrapping his mana in an impossibly complex shape he fired it up into the sky, before igniting it The firework exploded, with a deafening roar. He fired a second one, ignoring startled cries of surprise and shock. Very soon though they turned into cries of awe, as each firework burst into a flaming star. [Dramatic Flair] kicked in again and his fireworks soon took on a life of their own. Sparks, like golden glitter rained down, after the fireworks faded, or else he would feel his mana twist out of his grasp at the last moment, detonating into stars and circles. One firework even sent out smaller streamers from the first detonation, which exploded again into golden sparks. He marvelled at the system, just as eager to see what the next firework would bring, as everyone else.
Eventually though his mana ran low, forcing him to stop, and people filtered off to their own homes. [Dramatic Flair] though had levelled up once. A few stragglers stayed by the dying fire, keeping their vigil, but they were only a handful. Finding Alena asleep on a bench he used the furs from his throne to blanket her with, before joining Cairn by the fireside.
The two sat in companionable silence, as others slowly began filtering back to their homes and eventually it was just the two of them keeping watch by the low light of the fire. They didn’t say anything. There was no need to. Then, as the first rays of dawn crossed the sky from the east Cairn raised the dragon horn to his lips and blew.
In the cold air of dawn, a low note quivered through the frosty forest, heralding a new day.