Hethiwood was a town devoid of holidays, devoid of celebrations. It was a town dedicated to worship, not unlike Tenisom, or Kyril. Brainless, blind following of ancient, forgotten gods left no time for birthdays, for any time to look forward to in the year besides the rituals of worship Lathna was forced to go through. She knew of her age-- 9 years old in fact, yet she had never blown out birthday candles or received a gift for a holiday. To say it shortly, she had never celebrated Dragonyule. The mere concept of a day dedicated to gifting to others and spending time with family was foreign.
A tiny hand reached up the oak door, knocking as loudly as she could at the study shared by Curran and Heinwald.
The two had become somewhat of parental figures for her. After all, she had no family in Hethiwood, in Kyril, and surely none in Tenisom. It was nice to have some people who cared for her. To make her feel like she wasn’t alone.
“Come in,” called Curran, from within the study.
Lathna heaved to open the somewhat heavy door, pushing against it as much as she could.
The inquisitor and his partner-in-truth looked up simultaneously as Lathna took a few steps into the study. The walls were lined with nearly hundreds of books, with a large window allowing the frosty light into the otherwise dark room. In the center was a large desk, where Curran sat and sorted through a large stack of papers. Heinwald was leaning upon the edge of the window, reading in the sunlight.
“Lathna,” Heinwald said, with a smile. “What brings you here?”
“What’s Dragonyule?” she asked, simply, clutching onto her skirt.
Curran looked towards Hein, then set down the papers he held. “Dragonyule is a holiday, a means to exchange gifts with those you care for, and spend time with your loved runs, and give thanks to Ilia for the good parts of the ear.”
A tiny smile appeared on Lathna’s face at the mistake, then dissipated as she pondered over the response. After a moment, a long pause of silence, she asked, “Why?”
These were the parenting questions Curran wasn’t prepared for. “Ah...just because. It’s been a tradition for a long time.”
“It was a means to convert non-Ilian worshippers to the church,” Hein started, closing the book he held. “The Dragonyule tree, Saint Starfall, every figure associated with the holiday used to be symbols of pre-Ilian winter solstice traditions. When the Ilian church rose to power, it took these symbols into the celebration of Dragonyule so that the people would convert.”
“Or...we could talk about the traditions and less about the history, Hein.”
That answer only raised more and more questions about Dragonyule, its origins, its practices. Each and every answer only raised more and more questions for Lathna, her curiosity unsatiated with the unusual holiday.
Eventually, the barrage of questions stopped, and Lathna left the study.
Curran looked at Heinwald, shrugging. “I never expected explaining Dragonyule to be that difficult.”
“She is very persistent with her questions. She seeks the truth,” Hein replied, opening the book once more, “Just like a certain pair I know.”
“Oh goddess, we’re influencing her to become an investigator,” Curran said, jokingly, a small smile appearing on his face.
“As if that is an unfortunate circumstance.”
“Twas a joke, love.”
And so they returned back to their work, until the sun had set in the sky, and the light in the study diminished.
“Y’know, Hein,” Curran said, turning in their shared bed, pressing a soft kiss to Hein’s shoulder as he draped an arm around his partner’s waist. “I don’t think Lathna has ever celebrated Dragonyule before.”
Heinwald turned his head, looking over his shoulder. “I wouldn’t doubt it, considering how Hethiwood operated as a village.”
Curran began to softly rub his thumb over Heinwald’s skin. “I think we should give her a great first Dragonyule. She deserves it, with how much bullcrap she’s had to deal with.”
“How so?” Hein asked, rolling over to face Curran, reaching up to run a hand through his soft, blonde hair.
“Like...give her lots of gifts, participate in the festivities. Even decorate her own tree. Watch and play in the snow, the normal kid-on-Dragonyule sort of experiences.”
A soft smile formed on Heinwald’s lips, as he reached forward to press a light kiss onto Curran’s face. “You care about her a great deal, Curran.”
“Is that a bad thing?” He asked, an eyebrow raising in question.
“No, not at all,” Hein said, chuckling between his words. “I’ll assist you in giving Lathna a great first Dragonyule.”
Curran combed his hand through Heinwald’s long hair, pressing a soft kiss to his forehead. “Thanks, love. I appreciate it.”
“No need for thanks. As much as I’d love to continue talking about this, it’s late.”
“Get some rest. I love you.”
The days were drawing nearer and nearer to the holiday. She had watched the Halidom’s children grow antsier and more excited for Dragonyule with each passing day. They had chittered and chattered about what they wanted from Saint Starfall (who, Lathna would come to understand, supposedly delivered these gifts to the children), about the traditions of opening gifts under the Yuletree.
So Lathna listened, as Pia and Lowen chatted about Dragonyule, the children sitting in the kitchen, a plate of freshly baked cookies from Cleo in front of them.
“What do you want from Saint Starfall, Lathna?” Lowen had asked, sweetly, pushing the plate towards Lathna slightly. Lathna didn’t talk much, but he and Pia always tried to include her in the conversation when they could.
“Ah...I…don’t know,” She whispered, gripping onto her skirt, nervously.
Pia gave her a reassuring smile, reaching for a cookie. “It’s okay! It’s a lot to think about.”
“Yeah! You don’t have to decide right now,” Lowen added. “I spend all year thinking about what I want from Saint Starfall, and even then it’s hard for me to decide!”
Lathna nodded. It absolutely was much to think about, for a small girl who never celebrated such a holiday.
After a moment, she spoke again. “How does... Saint Starfall know what you want?”
“You’re supposed to write a letter to him, and he’ll get it in the mail, and then bring you what you wish for,” Lowen explained, “I give the letter to Louise for her to mail it.”
Pia nodded as Lowen spoke. “Mariti would take all of the letters to Saint Starfall from the kids in the choir and mail them for us.”
“Oh…” Lathna’s voice was soft, timid. “I’ve never written a letter to Saint Starfall.”
Pia and Lowen’s eyes looked like they were about to bug out of their heads.
“We need to change that right now!” Pia exclaimed, standing quickly, nearly falling from the stool she sat on.
“I have some paper!” Lowen said, almost bouncing off the chair. “C’mon, Lathna, let’s write our letter to Saint Starfall right now!”
Lowen reached for Lathna’s hand, tugging on it, imploring her to come with them.
“O-Okay,” she stuttered, letting herself be pulled by Lowen, all the way to his room, where the trio sat and wrote about everything they wished for from Saint Starfall.
It took Lathna quite a while to think. She stared at a blank piece of paper, void other than the “Dear Saint Starfall” at the top of the page.
Pia looked up from her scribbling. Perched upon her head was one of her mouse friends, cosied up on her hat. “Do you want some help with your letter, Lathna?”
She nodded, slowly. “I...never got gifts in Hethiwood…”
“Some kids wish for toys. What kind of toys do you like?” Lowen set his pen down, finished with his own letter.
“Plushies,” Lathna enthusiastically said, gripping onto her pen, a small smile on her face.
“Then there you go! What kind of plushie do you want?” Pia added, tapping her own pen on her knee to a beat of her own creation.
“A bear,” Lathna responded, looking down at her paper. “I want a stuffed bear.”
She then began to write and write about the stuffed bear she wished for, with fur soft as mink and ears of velvet, with a bow made of purple satin.
The letter was placed into an envelope, sealed with stickers that Lowen had stashed away, and addressed to Saint Starfall in the best lettering the children could manage, to be sent off to him to get their presents ready.
And Lathna smiled, as she held her letter, a small spark of excitement within her.
“Is Saint Starfall real?” She had asked Curran, later that day, as she, Curran, and Heinwald walked through the Halidom.
“Yes,” Curran said, without hesitation.
Yet at the same time Heinwald spoke as well, not even lifting his eyes from the book his nose was stuck in. “Of course not.”
Curran shot a glance at Heinwald, squinting. “She’s a kid, Hein,” He scolded, then turned back towards Lathna, who gripped onto his hand. “Of course he is. He brings everyone gifts, doesn’t he?”
“Wouldn’t it...mean more, if it’s from friends?”
“Precisely,” Heinwald interjected. “Why should a fictional man gain all of the credit for those who pay for the gifts that are given?”
“Because it’s tradition, and also fun for kids to believe in.”
Oh, the bickering was about to begin.
Heinwald finally looked up from his book. “All children eventually grow out of the belief. If anything, it is a waste to believe such a thing in the first place.”
“Woke up on the wrong side of the bread now, didn’t you?” Curran quipped, unaware of his spoken flub-up.
A small giggle escaped Lathna, growing with intensity as the two men continued. A wide smile covered her face, a strange sight for many in the Halidom to see.
Curran and Heinwald completely stopped their bickering over the belief in Saint Starfall to look at her, the argument dropped as they heard her soft laughter. Curran’s lips turned into a smile as well, as he glanced towards Hein.
Hein had a similar, warm smile on his face.
It was almost comical to Lathna, to watch the Halidom burst at the seams with garlands of strung popcorn, with wreaths placed on nearly every door, brilliant strings of light mana glowing within glass bulbs illuminating the arches and stairwells. A large tree had been set up in the foyer, reaching high into the tall room, with lights and garlands and holly and whatnot hanging among the branches. Lathna’s neck craned to look at the top of the tree, where the fairy Notte was struggling to place a star tree-topper amongst the highest peak.
“Entranced with the Yuletree, hm?” came a familiar voice, as Heinwald looked towards the girl with a small smile.
Lathna nodded, looking up towards Hein. “It’s really pretty,” she said, voice soft with wonder.
Hein looked up, giving a small hum of agreement. “I’ve never been one for Dragonyule festivities, but I do agree that the tree has its charms,” he paused, taking in the massive tree. “How would you like a tree of your own, Lathna?”
Her eyes widened with surprise, then she nodded enthusiastically. “I’d like that. Could you and Curran help me decorate it?”
“I’m sure that can be arranged.”
Lathna had a sparkle in her eye that Hein had rarely seen before. She had a tiny grin on her face, and bounced on her toes excitedly. “When can we get it?” She asked, grabbing Heinwald’s hand and tugging on it a few times.
Hein’s eyes widened with surprise. Lathna wasn’t very affectionate with him, she tended to cling to Curran more than himself. Yet, it was nice, Hein thought, that she was starting to become more accustomed to being around him. His expression softened after a moment. “We should ask Curran. With the holidays comes a dam in the flow of mysteries, so work for both of us has been slower than usual. Therefore, it would be safe to say that we could get the tree soon.”
Lathna beamed at the answer, taking a few steps and tugging on Hein’s hand again. “Let’s go ask!” she said, in a jubilant tone, nearly dragging the man through the Halidom halls.
Her nose pressed excitedly against the glass, as the first few snowflakes began to fall. The Halidom had already been covered in a sheet of snow, but it hadn’t snowed again for quite some time since then. Lathna’s breath fogged up the window, clouding her view of the world outside. She pulled her face away, watching the fog slowly dissipate as the window equalized in temperature.
After a moment, she breathed against the window again, then with a gloved finger quickly drew a little smiley face in the fog where hers was in the reflection, before it disappeared once more. She giggled at the sight.
It was Dragonyule Eve, and Latha couldn’t wait to get her Yuletree.
A few quick knocks against her door alerted her, and she whirled her head around at the sound. Standing there was Curran and Heinwald, both bundled to go out in the snow, as she was.
“Ready to get that tree?” Curran asked, repositioning the axe on his shoulder, and ensuring the coil of rope was still looped on the handle.
Lathna nodded exuberantly, nearly running over to the door where the two men stood. She grabbed Curran’s free hand, and one of Heinwald’s, looking at the two of them with an excited grin.
And so they took off, into the light snow, Lathna’s eyes filled with wonder at the sight of the snowfall. Large, fluffy snowflakes drifted down from gray clouds above, swirling in the breeze before landing upon the ground in soft mounds. The trio’s boots crunched in the snow, leaving behind crisp footprints to be covered in downy snowflakes later. They remained in sight of the Halidom, so there was no fear of getting lost.
The conifers of the forest came into sight, dusted in the snow. Their evergreen needle leaves contrasted with pure white snow beautifully.
“Alright,” Curran began, “Let’s find that tree. You pick out whichever one you like, Lathna.”
Lathna nodded, squeezing Curran’s hand as her eyes began to scan the trees. They passed tree after tree, stopping for a moment at each to allow Lathna to deliberate over them. She would look over them, squint a little, thinking hard about each tree. And then, with a head shake, the three would continue.
A tree rose out of the snowfield in front of them, somewhat isolated from the rest. It was smaller, a little thinner than the rest in the field. Its branches were beginning to droop from the snow on top of them, as the flakes continued to fall, and fall. A tiny gasp passed from Lathna’s lips, as she let go of Curran and Heinwald’s hands and started towards the tree. Her eyes came to about the peak of the conifer. A wide smile formed upon her face.
As Curran and Hein approached, she turned to them. “This one!” she said, excitedly.
“Seems quite small,” Hein commented. “But that makes it all the easier to carry, I suppose.”
Curran lowered the axe from on his shoulder. “Stand back, Lath,” he said, then began to chop at the tree’s base.
Lathna bounced on her toes, as best as she could in snow boots, while Curran began to bind the tree in rope. When he finished, he hoisted the tree and axe over his shoulder.
“Ready to head back?”
She nodded, stepping through the snow, back in the direction of the Halidom.
Curran repositioned the tree on his shoulder, falling into step behind her, Hein beside him.
And they watched as Lathna remained a few steps ahead, kicking around and playing in the snow. Her soft giggles of happiness carried in the still air, warming enough for both of the men.
Hein’s hand moved to hold Curran’s free one. “I’m glad to see her so happy,” he murmured, softly.
“She deserves it,” Curran said. “She’s dealt with enough in her life already.”
Heinwald smiled, looking over at his partner with fondness. “I know. You’ve changed her life for the better, Curran. Anyone could deduce that.”
Curran chuckled. “Couldn’t of done it alone, Partner. We make a pretty good team.”
Crimson eyes shifted to look at the girl, giddy with delight in the snow, beginning to roll a snowball around in the puffy mounds on the ground. “I’m inclined to agree.”
“And…” she said, placing the last bauble on the branch, “It’s done!”
There were excess decorations from the Halidom’s Yuletree, which were brought into Lathna’s room so she could decorate her own. Red baubles hung from wire hooks on the branches, and a string of lights wrapped around the tree from the base to the peak. All that remained was the tree topper, a five-pointed star of gold and silver.
Curran picked up the ornament, handing it over to Lathna. “What about the star?”
Lathna gasped in surprise, and held her hands out for it. “I’ll put it on, then it’ll be done!”
Gently, carefully, she lifted the star to place on the tip of the tree. She repositioned it a few times, ensuring its safety, then took a few steps back. A bright smile was upon her face, as she gazed upon the tree she worked so hard to decorate. Her hands clasped together in front of her chest. She felt warm, jubilant. Lathna could rarely think of a time where she felt this happy.
The room flickered from the lamp, placed beside the tree. It caught the shimmer and shine of the ornaments, lighting up the room with a cozy light.
The door slowly pushed open. Hein had returned from changing out of snow gear, carrying a silver tray with three mugs upon it. Steam rose from the brims, dissipating into the air, and fogging up Heinwald’s glasses.
“It’s a marvel that I didn’t bump into anyone or any walls,” He commented, precariously making his way over to the two in the corner of the room. As he gently set the tray down, he removed his glasses, beginning to clean them off with his robe. “Should I have done so, it would’ve resulted in quite the tragedy.”
“There was already one, Hein,” Curran said, picking up one of the mugs and handing it to Lathna. “You missed decorating the tree.”
“Was my procuring of the ornaments not enough?” Hein rebutted, making his way to sit on the floor beside Curran. “I even went and made you hot chocolate. I very well could’ve come back without risking a burn or some other injury, but I did so anyway.”
Curran rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah. Tell it to the fudge,” he said, gesturing towards Lathna, who was blowing over the hot chocolate in her mug.
She looked up from over it, smiling. “It’s okay, Heinwald,” she said, softly, hardly a breath above a whisper. “I appreciate all you’ve done. Thank you, both of you.”
“There is no need for thanks,” Curran said. “It was our pleasure to help you out with the tree.”
“Precisely. I do not go into the snow willingly very often. But…it was fun to do so.” Hein reached for his own mug, blowing on the drink himself, before taking a sip.
Lathna nodded in response. “I thought so too.”
She grasped her mug, feeling the warmth of the drink seep through the ceramic and onto her normally chilly hands. Lathna stared into the cup, her reflection muddled in the chocolate and milk swirled together. And as she stared, she saw herself-- She hadn’t been scared of herself since she came to the Halidom, months ago. She no longer saw the dragon within, saw herself as a key to the gate of the Ancient One. She was Lathna. And she was here, with Curran and Heinwald, on Dragonyule Eve, and she was happy. She felt tears well in the corner of her eyes. Happy tears.
She set her mug down, nearly running to catch both Curran and Heinwald into a big hug, as the happy tears began to run down her cheeks in fluid streams. “Thank you,” She mumbled, muffled from stuffing her face into Curran’s shoulder, pulling both of the men closer. “This is the happiest I’ve ever been.”
At first, Curran was surprised, but after hearing Lathna, he pulled her and Heinwald closer. “You’re welcome, Lath. I’m happy we could do that for you.”
He kissed the top of her head, softly, then reached over to kiss Heinwald’s cheek. “I’ve gotta say, this has been one great Dragonyule.”
And as Heinwald nodded in agreement, the three stayed, holding each other as the night fell, and the tree glistened on.
Curran pulled the blanket aside, cradling Lathna against him where she had fallen asleep. Her breaths were soft, deep in slumber, exhausted from the day’s activities and the emotions she felt.
He gently set her in her bed, then pulled the blanket up to her chin, tucking her in. “Do you have the bear?” he whispered, looking over at Heinwald, standing by the door.
In Hein’s hands was a stuffed bear, soft as mink, with velvety ears and a purple bow. Around the bear’s paw was a tag, addressed to Lathna, from Curran and Heinwald. He approached the bed, softly setting the bear next to the sleeping girl, ensuring he would not wake her. When he was satisfied with the bear’s position, leaning against the pillows, he took a few steps back. “If this one starts to fall apart,” Hein began, voice soft like Curran’s, “You best fix it, and not leave its head split open for the stuffing to fall out.”
Curran walked over by the tree, picking the lamp up, and dimming it. “It was a mistake, Hein. I kept forgetting.”
“And I will remind you every single day until you fix it.”
A small chuckle escaped Curran. “Bah humbug, huh?”
Hein rolled his eyes. “My concerns over Lathna’s state of her toys has nothing to do with my perception of Dragonyule and its festivities, Curran.”
“Twas a joke, once again.”
“You’re insufferable. Now, hurry, lest we risk her waking up too soon.” Hein began towards the door, opening it slowly, and gesturing for Curran to walk out first.
And before Curran stepped through the doorway, he turned back towards Lathna. One last check before they left. She was still sound asleep, cozy in her bed.
“Happy Dragonyule, Lathna,” he whispered, fully stepping out of the room.
“Happy Dragonyule as well,” Hein whispered towards her too, softly closing the door.
The girl would sleep soundly that night, no frightening dreams would wake her from her slumber. As long as that bear remained in her presence, the sigil Heinwald incorporated into its stuffing would continue to work.
Hein smiled to himself, reaching over to grab Curran’s hand. And as their steps echoed through the halls of the Halidom, the noise bouncing around the walls, they found themselves in a space of comfortable peace; for in a few hours time, the halls would be bustling once more, in preparation for the Dragonyule festivities in the morning.