Saturday, December 16, 2017

Christmas in The Realms

Every year I write a Christmas story involving some of my characters from my books. 

The last couple of years I have spent with Farloft in his fantasy world. 

This year I am taking you to The Realms where all things humans 
think are magical, mystical or fantastical
actually lives.

Christmas in The Realms

“I wish you could change into a hippogriff, or better yet, a dragon,” Pete said, as we approached the house. “It would have made this much easier to get home.”

He shifted the Christmas tree’s trunk in his hand. My best friend, Pete is a little guy, but he is a trooper even with an eight-foot load. Whereas he is human through and through, I am a shape shifter with both a human and a wolf form.

“You’re just lucky I can change into a wolf or those gnomes would have beat us to this beauty.” I grinned at him when he looked over his shoulder. Those little buggers can be real single-minded when they have their eye on a tree.

Pete chuckled. “They sure were surprised when you shifted.”

“Yeah, but that little guy in the blue overalls was really persistent.”

“Ah, but a good snarl on your part made him rethink his choice.”

“I never thought we’d have a challenger for a Christmas tree,” I had to admit. “For a little fellow he had a pretty good swing.” I rubbed my hip where the gnome struck me with his shillelagh.

“You did let out a yelp. Does it hurt much?”

“Nah, but Simone is going to wonder where I got the bruise.”

“Don’t confess. It makes you sound like a sprite if you say you were bested by a gnome.”

“I was not bested. We have the tree,” I reminded him.

As we approached the house, the area was open and the snow got a little deeper, but we managed to wade through it and up to the door. Pete went first.

“We’re back!” he announced.

Pete’s wife Lily was helping Azur, my mother-in-law, in the small kitchen. Simone was sitting at the table with our three-year-olds decorating cookies. The twins, Lizzy and Max, had more icing on them than on the cookies.

I chuckled at their faces smeared with frosting, as I came in behind Pete. “Who is up for decorating the Christmas tree?”

Both children started to jump up from the table.

“Not yet,” Simone said, as she grabbed both children by the sleeve. “Let Daddy and Uncle Pete get the tree set up.”

“I’ll go get the ornaments from the basement,” Azur offered. “Pete, the sandbags are right out back.”

I held the tree in the barrel. As Lily guided me to keep it straight, Pete poured the sand around the base into the half barrel and then wet it and stomped it down.

“Looks good,” Lily said. “Does it look straight to you, Simone?”

“It does, and it is a very pretty tree too. You men did a great job this year.”

“Oh gosh,” Lily said with a giggle, “you remember last year? It was so tall we had to cut it in half.”

Pete wrapped his arm around his wife and squeezed her close. “They always look smaller in the forest.”

“Here we go,” Azur called, as she came up the steps with a wooden crate in her arms.

“Let me help you with that.” I hurried over and took the box to sit it on the coffee table in front of the couch.

It had become a tradition that Azur, being the eldest, handed out the ornaments and we all decorated. The kids were old enough they could participate this year with some help.

A lot had changed over the past few years, but that was not one of them.

The year Simone found out I was a shifter and agreed to marry me, was also the year I came out to all my other human friends - Pete, Lily, my boss, Kelly. They all knew. Of course, Azur knew all along. She and I had worked together from the first. The unusual in The Realms gravitate toward each other, so shifter recognized fire demon, and the fire demon sensed the shifter. It’s been good for everyone. I didn’t like keeping secrets and neither did Azur. No one other than the immediate family has seen Azur in her full Fire Demon nightly blaze, but now they all knew why she disappears each night.

Simone and Lily took a wet washcloth to a kid each and tried to get as much frosting off them as they could. Azur sat down, and I took the lid off the ornament box and set it to one side. She started to unveil the tissue wrapped decorations one by one. They were all old, from when Simone was a child.

“I love this one,” Azur said, as she handed me a small, carved wooden satyr. “I remember the year Saul made this and gave it to me.” Azur’s eyes started to puddle up.

We all knew the ornament represented Brela, Simone’s nanny, and the family’s housekeeper, as well as extended member of the Bouchard’s family. We had all heard the story of how the tiny satyr had been so against Azur and Simone’s father marrying, but how Azur eventually won her over. I took the ornament and passed it on to Simone to hang it on the tree.

Simone found a place of honor for it toward the top. “She made the best gremlin cookies, full of raisins, oats, chocolate, and cinnamon. They made the whole house smell luscious.”

“I still use her recipe, but they just don’t seem to taste the same,” Azur confessed.

The two women smiled at each other over the shared memory.

After that, there were several dozen other hand carved decorations to hang. Saul, Simone’s Father’s best friend, was a brilliant carver. He was injured in a hunting accident one year when my wife was just a child. He spent a lot of time in bed and recovering afterward. Saul carved many of these during that time.

Our children still played with toys he made for my wife when she was a child. Some of the ornaments were varnished, some lacquered and others crudely painted. Simone took responsibility for those. She loved painting Saul’s bunnies, horses, fairies, trolls, and hippogriffs.

Saul was a Baretti, a kind of humanoid cat. I hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting him. To our knowledge, he was still alive and well. He left once Simone got old enough to handle the task of locking Azur safely away at night. Being a fire demon, Azur was restricted to the fireproof basement during her nightly ‘blaze,’ as decreed by Raven, the vampire ruler of The Realms. Saul took off on an adventure years ago. On occasion, he sent word, via someone passing Azur and Simone’s direction, but Azur said he was never really the same after Charles, Simone’s Dad, died.

I helped Max and Lizzy hang some more ornaments. Lizzy liked the dragon and wanted to keep it rather than hang it.

“I got to ride that dragon,” Simone said. “Your Grandpa took me on him at a circus we went to one year. I wasn’t much older than you. I got to touch a cloud.” She reached out and tapped Lizzy’s nose. “It was one of the most exciting experiences of my life.”

Knowing what Simone had been through in her short life, I thought that spoke very highly of the dragon ride. I took note and decided to make sure Lizzy and Max were able to ride on one before they got too old. Heck, I wanted to ride one too!

“Saul used to love to tell that story about the dragons in the grasslands,” Azur commented, as she passed another ornament to Lily and one to Pete. “You remember it?” she asked Simone.

“Of course, I thought it was so frightening until he would get to the end.”

“Tell us.” Lily sat down to listen. She loved a good story as much as the kids.

“Well, Papa and Saul were headed to the Land of the Fire Demons to see mom,” she looked at the children, “Grandma,” she clarified for them. “They had to go through several strange lands in order to get there and one was covered with tall red grass.” Simone raised her hand up over her head to illustrate the height. “Saul and Grandpa couldn’t see over the grass to make out which way to go from the map Remy drew for them.”

“Remy helped them?” Pete asked. He had settled down on the arm of the chair next to Lily. Decorating was forgotten for the moment.

“Yes, Remy and Dad were old friends.” Simone smiled.

We all had a special place in our hearts for the vampire gatekeeper who refused to drink from humans. He had helped me, and the Bouchard family, many times over the years.

“Well, Saul said he suggested your Grandpa get up on his back while he was down on all fours. That would have made him tall enough to see over the top of the grass.”

Simone told me that Saul could run upright like a human and fall to all fours to run like the cat he resembled. I really hoped I would get a chance to meet him one day. Simone said he used to give her ‘horsey’ rides like I did my kids in my wolf form. I could imagine me with Max on my back and Saul with Lizzy, having a race around the yard.

Simone’s audience was listening intently. Lizzy had crawled up beside Azur and under her arm on the couch. I folded up my long legs and sat down on the rug. Max curled up in my lap.

“Grandpa was just looking around when Saul heard something. He yelled, ‘DUCK!’” Simone ducked. The kids both squealed. “Saul had excellent hearing. His ears would swivel around and could hear a mouse in the grass fifty feet away.” She put her hands up by her ears imitating a cat’s ears. “I used to try and sneak up on him when I was a little girl. He would always turn around at the last minute and scare me.”

“What did he hear?” Lily asked, impatient for the story to continue.

Simone’s eyes got big. “He said he thought it was a DRAGON! But before Grandpa could duck, he was ripped off of Saul’s back and carried into the air.”

Lily inhaled sharply. She was really getting into the story. Pete smiled at me and nodded his head toward Lizzy who had hidden her face in her grandmother’s side. I could just imagine Simone doing the same thing when Saul told this story.

“Luckily,” Simone sighed, relieving the tension, “the dragon was a youngling and he dropped Grandpa. But for hours the young dragon tried to get Grandpa and Saul as he sailed over the grass, diving and swooping.” Simone made motions with her arms. She was a great storyteller.

“Finally, Grandpa and Saul got to the edge of the grasslands and there was a large open area they had to cross in order to get to the mountains where the next gate was located.”

I just couldn’t help myself, I blurted out, “and the dragon was waiting!” Max shifted in my lap and wrapped his arms around one of mine. I stroked his head to comfort him.

“Not just one dragon,” my wife said, “but two – the youngling and its mother.”

Lizzy looked up at this point. “A mama dragon?” Maybe she had never thought of a dragon as having a mother.

“Yes, and you know what happened then?” Simone asked.

Both children shook their heads, and Lily and Pete both waited for the big reveal at the end. We all knew Charles and Saul had not died on that adventure, Azur being here was proof of that.

“The mother dragon made her young son apologize to Grandpa and Saul for teasing them and then they all sat down for a nice chat.”

Lizzy clapped, and we all joined in. Simone took a blushing bow.

“That must have been some adventure,” Pete said, as he rose to hang the ornament in his hand. “I’d like to do some traveling someday.” He studied the wooden Minotaur in his hand before placing it on the tree.

“Many of the worlds between here and my ancestor’s lands are very dangerous,” Azur said, as she handed Lily an ornament of a fairy dragging a small wagon. “I would not advise you to go that way.”

I was handed an ornament of a wizard with a long flowing robe. I wondered if he was the same wizard who still treated folks in the village when they were ill. I handed it to Lizzy and then lifted her up so she could hang it close to the top.

The last ornament hung was always the one Saul carved after Charles’ death of the two of them dressed as though they were off on a hunt, or maybe one of those adventures Pete wanted to go on so badly. Azur always took a moment to caress it and gave it a little kiss before placing it on the tree.

Strings of popcorn and cranberries were fetched from the bowls where they had been waiting for the last couple of days. Pete and I were stringing them around the tree when there was a knock on the door. No… not a knock, more like a pounding.

I went to see who it might be. Everyone we were expecting were already here. I think my mouth fell open when I saw who was standing on the threshold. It was a goblin all bundled up in furs, leading a yak with so many boxes and bags attached to its back that I honestly couldn’t see how it remained standing upright.

“I have a delivery,” the goblin announced in the gravely voice they all have.

“Are you sure you have the right house?” I asked, with a tilt of my head. Goblins didn’t usually ‘give’ things. They were known for their ‘taking’ ways.

“This is the Bouchard residence. The vamp was very specific as to where it was to be delivered,” the little green gober sneered as if questioning his delivery was a major insult.

“Vamp?” I asked.

Azur had come up behind me and she stepped past. “Remy?” she asked.

“Indeed,” the goblin sneered even more, if that was possible.

He definitely did not like the idea of doing a delivery for the vampire gatekeeper. I wondered what Remy had done to persuade the gober to do his bidding.

“Please, come in.” Azur motioned me to one side and the goblin entered dragging his yak in behind him, even though the animal had a devil of a time getting through the door due to its load.

Simone pulled the children to one side. Pete and Lily moved back a pace or two too. Goblins were frequent sights on Barter Street, but regular humans rarely dealt with them. They did not have the best reputation in The Realms.

Unceremoniously, the goblin started to loosen straps and unbuckle belts letting boxes and bags slide and fall to the floor with heavy thuds, clanks and bangs. Once the animal was free of its burden the goblin shooed it out the door and turned back to Azur. He removed a roll of paper and smoothed it out flat on the coffee table.

“Sign here, to accept delivery,” the goblin said, as he handed a magically glowing quill to my mother-in-law.

Azur perused the document and then set her signature to the bottom. She blew on it, rolled it back up and handed it to the goblin. “Thank you.”

The goblin huffed indignantly, turned and left.

I followed him to the door and threw the bolt home to make sure he didn’t turn around.

“Do you think it is safe to open them,” Simone asked her mother, as we all stood around the pile in the middle of the living room floor.

“Let me think…” Azur set down on the couch and my kids crawled up on either side of her. “You were three when we received the last delivery,” she mused.

“A delivery from Remy?” I asked.

“Yes…” Azur looked up and smiled. “Remy’s mind does move in mysterious ways. I bet he somehow made the connection of Simone being three and the twins being three. And I also bet you will find oranges in one of those bags.”

Simone grinned at her mom. She loved oranges and we didn’t get them in The Realms very often. The days were too short for enough sun to ripen them. She fell to her knees, felt several of the bags and then opened the sack furthest from her. Sure enough, she pulled out an orange the size of a softball.

“The year you were three, was a very harsh winter. The winter before I arrived in The Realms. Your father told me he asked Remy to get the goblins to bring in some produce from the mundane world. Remy got them to do it by telling them they couldn’t use the gate unless they made the delivery.” Azur shook her head in wonder. “There were oranges then too.”

Simone started to peel the fruit and passed a slice out to each of the children, and then to each of us. She bit into it with a euphoric look on her face. “It’s so juicy.”

“Can we have another mama?” Max asked, as he licked the juice off his fingers.

“We’ll have another after dinner. Let’s see what else Remy sent.”

There were apples, pears, chocolates, candy canes, and a fruitcake in several smaller sacks. There was cheese and sausages, loaves of garlic smelling bread, and jars of pickles and olives. It was a veritable feast.

Azur turned to Simone and me. “I am all for spreading this out on the table and eating it with the soup Lily and I made.”

My mouth was watering at the smell of the cheese and sausage. My wolfy self was ready to dig in. “Sounds good to me.”

“Me too,” Simone agreed.

We all started to scoop up the items and place them on the table. Plates and bowls came out of the cupboard along with napkins and silverware. I filled up mugs with the apple juice from one of the jugs delivered. Remy had thought of everything, or scared the goblin into being very thorough.

The early dinner hit the spot after traipsing through the snow with the tree, decorating and storytelling. Pete brought his guitar. He played and we all sang carols until it was time for Azur and the kids to be put to bed. Azur sprinkled kisses all around and headed downstairs. I tucked her in and locked the trapdoor while Lily and Simone put the kids to bed. They were both anxious to stay up and watch for Santa, but neither one of them could keep their eyes open.

After they were settled, Pete and Lily said their goodbyes to Simone.

“It was really a lovely day, Simone,” Lily said, as she donned her coat. “I love that we have started this tradition.”

Simone leaned over and gave Lily a peck on the cheek. “Me too. It will be even more fun next year when you have your own little one to tuck in.”

Pete and Lily had told us just last week that Lily was finally pregnant and would have the baby in June.

“It will, won’t it?” Lily beamed and hugged her friend.

I kissed Simone. “I’ll be back in about an hour.”

“An hour?” She raised her brow in question.

“I have a short errand to run.” I pulled her close and gave her another kiss on the top of her head. She was more than a foot shorter than me.

I left to walk Pete and Lily home. It was still twilight, but you could never be too safe in The Realms. Vamps still roamed our neck of the woods. After a thankfully uneventful delivery of my friend and his wife to their doorstep, I shifted into my wolfy self and made a beeline for the woods.

I easily nabbed a rabbit on the way to my destination. I wanted to thank Remy for his kind gift. Providing him with a warm drink seemed like the best idea.

When I arrived, Remy was sitting in his usual position on his boulder under the willow at his post.

“Evening, Cody,” he said, as I approached. The only thing with hearing better than a shifter in The Realms was a vamp.

I shifted back to human and handed him the rabbit. It didn’t seem unnatural to us, me handing him a dead rabbit to suck on. Things are pretty wonky in The Realms, but we all get by.

I leaned up against the boulder he was sitting on. It was always summer below this willow. Something magical about the gate kept a ringed berm of snow just beyond the willow’s branches as they lowered to almost touch the ground in places. Under the tree, the grass was still green and though nippy, it was not near as cold as beyond the influence of the tree.

“I wanted to thank you for the delicious feast you provided us.”

“Did Simone and the twins like the oranges?” Remy tossed the drained rabbit over his shoulder out beyond the berm into the snow.

“They did indeed. It was good of you to remember us. I didn’t really think vamps celebrated Christmas.”

“We weren’t always vampires,” he said simply.

I had heard rumors that Remy was an older vampire than our current leader, even though he was a subordinate.

“What were you, Remy… before.” I was curious, and I couldn’t help but ask.

“Greek,” he said simply.

I could see it in his features once he told me. He had a very angular face with a prominent nose.

“My father was the ruler of a city-state. We had great feasts that lasted for days at a time.” Remy always looked a bit disconnected from his surroundings, but as he spoke, he looked even further away than usual. I could see he was remembering a time long ago. “I fought with Alexander.”

“Alexander the Great?” I asked with interest. Jeez, if I remembered my history right that would make Remy thousands of years old.

“He wasn’t so great,” Remy said with a deep sigh. His thoughts were broken by the sound of Sleigh Bells. He lifted his head and we both watched the arrival of Santa through the branches of the willow.

My wonder over Remy’s age and story were instantly forgotten. When I was a kid in the mundane world, I used to think like all children that there was a Santa, but as I grew, I discovered, like all kids do, that Santa was really mom and dad. However, here in The Realms, the jolly old guy was a reality like all the other creatures humans thought were mythical. The Tooth Fairy really did show up to collect my children’s teeth and in certain areas of The Realms the Easter Bunny arrived each spring with his basket of eggs. That was what made our world worth living in, even if it was currently ruled by a vampire.

Remy watched as the sleigh flew over and then started to descend off in the distance. “What did the children ask for?”

“A sled,” I answered. “Pete and I made a harness I can wear in my wolf form to pull them.”

Remy didn’t smile often, but I saw the corner of his lip lift slightly as he said, “Sled dog.”

“Yep.” I pushed off the boulder. “I better be going. Simone will wonder where I got off to.” I didn’t extend my hand, like I might have had Remy not been a vampire. It was too tempting to a vamp that had sworn off to shake hands with a warm-blooded creature. Instead, I patted his leg where he had them crossed up on his boulder perch. “Thanks again, Remy, and Merry Christmas.”

He nodded in that sage way he had of acknowledging a comment.

I shifted into my wolfy self and beat it for home.

I missed Santa’s delivery, but saw the results. The kids got their sled. I went to bed with a grin on my face imagining the sound of their laughter tomorrow morning when they got their first ride.

Christmas morning was filled with the smell of pancakes, bacon and eggs. The kids opened the presents Uncle Pete and Aunt Lily left for them, and their stockings that Simone, Azur and I filled. By the time we were ready for a sled ride, they were wildly high on the anticipation of the outing, and way too much sugar from the candy in their stockings.

Simone and Azur bundled them all up. We intended to take them to see Pete and Lily so they could thank them for their gifts. Max got a windup train, which was magically enhanced. It tooted every time it hit a wall, then backed up, turned around and belched smoke out of its stack. Lizzy received a stuffed lavender unicorn. She spent the morning talking to it and trying to feed it syrup covered pancakes. Simone had to wipe the toy down with a damp rag before she let Lizzy down from the table.

Just as we were about to leave, there was a knock at the door.

“Who could that be?” Azur asked.

“Not another delivery,” Simone added.

Maybe Pete and Lily got tired of waiting and came our way. I went to answer the door. When I opened it, I knew immediately who it was even though I had never met him. Simone and Azur had described him perfectly. Saul stood on the threshold. He was clothed in nothing more than a long loincloth. His green eyes twinkled with mischief out of an otherwise ginger striped cat face. He was a little taller than Pete, but a little under a foot shorter than me. His furry shoulders were sprinkled with a light dusting of snow, and his lip was curled up in a smile where it caught on a fang. He inhaled. I recognized in him the look that he had caught a scent. He said with conviction, “Where are my girls? Poppet? Azur?”

Simone plopped Lizzy down on the couch and ran for the door. Azur practically tripped over Max’s train in her haste to beat her daughter to greet the catman. I saw the wave of eager women heading my direction and had the sense to step to one side. They ran out in the snow to throw themselves into Saul’s outstretched arms.

“Saul,” Azur whispered his name with a combination of relief and joy. “I can’t believe you are home.”

Saul kissed Azur on the top of the head. All of us were taller than my mother-in-law, and my wife was not much taller than her step-mom. The catman was strong, when Azur stepped back to let Simone in for her hug, he picked her up and swung her around. My wife giggled like a child.

“Poppet!” He sat her back on her feet. “You have grown up to be a fine woman.” He smoothed her blonde hair out of her eyes with a big fluffy paw. He was in his winter coat. It looked almost as dense as mine. “You look just like your mother.”

Simone beamed under his praise. “Here,” she grabbed me by the arm. “Let me introduce my husband. Cody, this is Saul. Saul, this is my husband, Cody Everett.”

We hardly had time to shake hands because at this point, the kids mustered the courage to come out and see what was happening on the stoop.

“What’s this?” Saul said. “Baby Brouchard/Everett mixes?”

We all smiled at his description of our children.

“Max…” Azur coaxed with a hand, “Lizzy… This is your Uncle Saul.”

Saul looked a bit put out. “Oh, come on. Don’t I get to be a Great Uncle? I have been waiting to be a ‘Great’ something all my life.”

Azur encircled his waist with her arm. “Of course.” She looked to the children. “This is your Great Uncle Saul.”

Saul stooped down to the children’s level. Lizzy moved to hide behind her mother, but Max boldly stepped forward. He reached out and stroked Saul’s furry cheek. When Saul smiled, my son went ahead and inspected the catman’s series of five earrings in his left ear. One had a long feather dangling from it that Max found fascinating.

Saul moved to all fours. “Want a ride?” he offered.

Max looked to me for approval. I nodded and Max didn’t lose any time climbing aboard. I surprised Saul by shifting into my wolfy self.

Lizzy immediately squealed, “Horsey!” Simone lifted her up to set her on my back.

“Damn… a shifter,” Saul exclaimed.

“Saul… Language!” Azur chastised. “The children.”

The cat’s ears laid back in shame. “Sorry, I haven’t been around little ones in a long time.” He looked at me and smiled. “And you are one handsome wolf,” he said with a hint of awe.

I pricked my ears forward, yelped a thank you, and leaned down in a play-stance.

Saul looked over his shoulder at Max and gave him that grin that curled his lip up over his fang. “Ready?”

My son was beside himself with anticipation. I saw his hands grip tighter on Saul’s belt and he nodded.

Saul reached out and bopped me on the nose with a snow-covered paw. “Tag, you’re it.” He whipped around so fast Max squealed with excitement. My son laid down over Saul’s shoulders to grasp him tightly around the neck.

“Giddey-up,” Max challenged.

Saul flipped his tail in my face and took off with a bound, peppering Lizzy and I with fluffy new-fallen snow.

I felt Lizzy spread her weight along my back and sink her hands deep in the fur of the rough around my neck to get a good strong grip. My little sweetie was ready for the challenge. “Run daddy,” she begged.

I let out a deep wolf howl of joy. This was going to be the Best Christmas Ever!

Happy Holidays to Everyone!

There won't be a post next week, but I will start the new Fantasy Serial Story on January 6th.

If you enjoyed this holiday story,
you might think about joining Cody and his family for their adventures in The Realms.

For under $10 you can have the whole series of The Shifting Books.

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