…and the Nine Parchments story continues! If you haven’t read the 1st part of the story yet, you can find it here.
a Nine Parchments story
by Maija Koivula
The Second Part.
V. Yule Eve. Gislan, Nim, Selius and Rudolfus go see the Yule Market in town.
To get to town from the Astral Academy, the students had first tried to hitch a ride on a cart that arrived every so often to the academy to deliver supplies. Too bad that this time it was also leaving loaded – packed up with fireworks destined for the Royal Castle. And so there was no room at all for the four of them, and Gislan, Nim, Selius and Rudolfus had to start the morning by walking in the grey weather all the way to the Red Rose Inn, where they could hope to catch an empty-enough ride headed to town.
Despite the weather teetering close-but-not-quite to freezing, Gislan was very warm. The exercise kept her blood pumping, her leather shoes were tightly packed because of the wool socks she wore. Her long, loose robes insulated her against the cold quite nicely, and her scarf kept her head and neck protected against the misty damp air.
“Why don’t you ever dress warm,” she spoke, not really asked, in annoyance, at the shuddering Selius, who wasn’t quite as well equipped against the cold. His head bare, cloak only half-length, no gloves, no scarf. He’d coughed and sneezed all the way down the road so far. It always annoyed Gislan when someone suffered from their own foolishness.
“I’m fine,” Selius said, and kept on hugging himself. He took a few quick steps to walk ahead of Gislan and Nim, joining Rudolfus’s spirited pace. They started talking about Ice and Death magic, which Gislan found a bit dull, and she tuned herself out. Instead she surveyed the surrounding brown-and-grey landscape to see if there was anything interesting in the countryside around them. Not really, since it was all long-ago harvested fields, and empty animal pastures. Temperatures were freezing at night, so all green things had given up and gone to rest in their roots for the upcoming winter.
Nim at least was sensibly dressed, Gislan thought, with the knitted wool cap snugly pulled down, and not an inch of skin to be seen anywhere. It was then that Gislan realised, she was rarely in Nim’s company outside of class, and very little even during them. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d shared Nim’s company alone.
There was a hesitating intake and outtake of breath behind Nim’s curious mask when Nim noticed Gislan’s thoughtful eyes on said mask. Gislan wasn’t sure if Nim was having a hard time breathing or something, and if they should cease their brisk pacing down the muddy road.
“I don’t think he has a warmer cloak,” Nim said. “H-his parents cut him off. They only pay for his tuition.”
Gislan raised an eyebrow. “Oh. I hadn’t realised.”
They fell into an awkwardly silent stride, punctuated every now and then by small talk about the weather and the condition of the road. Talking was a bit difficult anyway, because they needed to keep their pace up, if they wanted to get to town before the market closed.
There were wild woods and small farms on both sides of the road leading up to the inn. The leafless trees in the soggy woods with skeletal branches reaching up to the sky didn’t move, there was no wind. There were no cheerfully chirping little birds either. The only sounds were the distant noises coming from closed cattle sheds when the students were passing by farms, or even more distant calls of crows echoing in the dark woods.
Everything was muddy from a rain that had fallen two days before, and Rudolfus wasn’t particularly pleased to have parts of the wet road stain his furry cat feet.
“Damnation. Sadly, no one makes boots in my size,” Rudolfus said, lifting his poor cold paws and shaking off the mud that lingered there, only to have to step said poor paw right back on not-quite-solid dirt.
Selius couldn’t exactly commiserate with the cat, since his own boots were perfectly made to his own size by a professional. Still, they were his only pair, and he prayed they would last another year or two without starting to leak or otherwise fall apart. He kept moving briskly, because it would be warm and dry inside the inn. He coughed again.
“If I happen to dream about a pair of boots, you could bring them back here, isn’t that so?” A melodramatic, pleading look on his face, Rudolfus caught up with Selius.
“I don’t think so. But I could take the boots from one dream to another, easily.”
“What about all the dreaded wolves and things?” Rudolfus asked slyly.
“Those were” he coughed, “the work of my shadow.”
“Well, does he do boots?”
“I think he’d summon the Canute Goat wearing your boots,” Selius replied.
“Aren’t you too old to believe in the Canute Goat anyway,” Rudolfus sighed, quietly accepting that his magical Yuletide wish for boots would not come true in the hands of the young prince.
“Well I don’t.” Sneeze. “But it only takes anyone who does.”
The bleak, brisk trodding continued in silence. Then Rudolfus began to check over his shoulder at Nim and Gislan, who were suddenly engaged in a quiet conversation some ways behind Rudolfus and Nim.
“Interesting,” the cat said, and started walking slower, allowing Nim and Gislan to catch up with him. “What are you two lovebirds talking about, hmm?”
Nim, startled visibly, and pointed along the road with a mittened hand. “THERE’S A FIRE AT THE INN!”
Gislan looked up past the mitten, concerned. “No, wait, that’s just smoke coming from the chimney.”
“Ah, finally!” Selius picked up speed already ahead of them, and Nim hurried after him. Gislan and Rudolfus stayed at the tail-end of the group, and were the last to arrive in the warm – and busy – common room at the Red Rose, from where they could beg or barter a ride to town on the back of a cart.
It was late afternoon by the time they arrived within the walls of the heart of the kingdom. It was simply known as The Town, because there was no other place describable as a town within the realm. There were villages, hamlets, and all sorts of smaller communities with a single inn, a smithy and a postbox, but an actual town, with a library, a museum, a castle, a cathedral, town squares (more than one!), multitudes of inns, bakeries, workshops, a harbour, and solid stone walls was what The Town was made of, and where the four Yuletide orphans of the Astral Academy arrived.
A nice candlemaker returning back home from delivering his wares outside of town dropped them off at the town gates, free of charge, and they continued their adventure by walking on paved, cobblestoned streets. This was a superior luxury after their muddy trek that morning.
Another kind of luxury was getting out of the Academy for a while. Seeing streets full of strangers was a refreshing change from the daily monotonous routine of taking in the same faces inside same classrooms month after month. A kind of a giddiness started to take them over. Especially when they arrived at their destination.
The Yuletide Market on the town market square was easily comparable to an exotic faraway town in some foreign kingdom beyond the sea. The place was packed to the brim with stalls selling seasonal ornaments, gifts, candles, food, clothes, toys and the like.
There was one particular stall Gislan wanted to visit. She had found it by accident the year before, when Rudolfus had dragged her away from the Academy to keep him company (and to distract her away from the quiet and empty school.)
“I’m looking for a tea merchant,” Gislan told the others, “but there must be over a hundred stalls here.”
“Maybe they’re near the food stalls,” Selius suggested.
“Ooh, look at those goats!” Rudolfus exclaimed, and pointed at Canute Goat marionettes hanging at a toymaker’s booth. He tried to stop, but was jostled forward by the crowd moving around them along with the rest of the students.
There was an afternoon rush at the market, with late shoppers and people celebrating Yule. The town was packed full of people coming to see the yearly fireworks that night at the Royal Castle. (Astral Academy students of course saw magic sparkles so often, there was little glamour in the fireworks for them.)
Selius followed Gislan, Nim and Rudolfus towards the food stalls, but he was distracted by the castle up on the hill. The Royal Castle was there, a sight to behold. Selius had seen the fireworks three times from within the castle gates, and it was strange to be on the other side now. He wasn’t sure he missed the dull and serious politics that went on within. Neither had his parents ever been keen on the pageantry going on up there in the castle either, and only visited when they had to, having preferred to live their lives in the manor on the heath. Up until it had burnt down.
A thought occurred to Selius, and he stopped dead in his tracks. Could they be up there in the castle, even now? His stomach dropped, and for one wild and unrealistic moment, he thought he might somehow maybe catch a glimpse of them, even though the castle was so very far away.
Then he sneezed, and the moment was over.
When he looked back to follow Gislan, Nim and Rudolfus, the three of them had vanished into the sea of people.
“We lost the Nightmare Prince,” Nim muttered. He was seated at a table in the food court, next to a Rudolfus who was drinking hot spiced wine from one of the stalls. The food court was also full, like the rest of the market.
“He knows we were headed for the tea merchant, and we can see the tea merchant from here, and once he finds the tea merchant, we’ll find him,” Gislan explained her reasoning, and continued drinking her tea (freshly imported from the Far and Distant Island of Alcyon.)
“Maybe if we piss him off enough, he’ll burn down the market square.” Rudolfus shot a wickedly playful smile at Gislan, as if trying to get her in on the scheme.
“What a nice thought, after he saved you from getting trapped in a cursed dream,” Gislan retorted. The tea was restoring her inner balance, which had been slightly unhinged ever since the last of the autumn leaves had fallen.
“Well… I guess.” Disappointed to not have a witch join in on his plans, Rudolfus wrapped his tail around himself slightly closer, and concentrated on savouring his rather weak, but very warm mug full of wine. “Technically,” he added, muttering it into his mug. “I wasn’t feeling very cursed.”
“Should we get him a warmer cloak for Yule?” Gislan asked, Nim more so than Rudolfus. “He’ll catch his death by the time we’re back at the Astral Academy.”
“I’m not sure we can afford anything fancy enough,” Nim replied warily.
“Does it matter if his cloak has a silver lining or not if he’s at death’s door?” Gislan sipped her tea.
“He’s a bit too proud to accept gifts, I’d reckon,” Rudolfus mused, “he never wants any help with anything either. It’s always ‘I’m fine’ with that one.” The cat wizard yawned, showing his sharp canine teeth in all their splendour. Then his ears perked, and Rudolfus sat up straighter, for a cunning plan was starting to brew in the insides of his brain, and it was delighting him utterly.
“I have a plan! A plan of fun, mischief, and revelry. And a cloak. How much money do we have? I need enough for a goat mask, and a cloak.”
The three of them started piling up the pennies and larger coins they could spare.
“Where did you get all that money?” Nim asked Rudolfus.
Rudolfus merely grinned and winked, as he emptied the tiny pile of coins from the table into his purse, and ran off into the market.
“Be back later!” He hollered.
Nim and Gislan were alone, as alone as two people can be during a busy market afternoon. They kept quiet, staring at the tea vendor’s stall.
Gislan was the first to speak. “It’s dark very soon, I hope Selius turns up, or it’ll be hard to make him out in the crowd.”
“He might show up at the party later. If remembers the name of the road.” Nim was a little concerned as well.
“Maybe he should find some work at the Academy, like you do,” Gislan said, “if he’s that penniless. I bet he’s never worked a day in his life though.”
“And I don’t think they need more people in the cleaning staff.”
A thought occurred to Gislan, piecing together the conversation with something she’d noticed earlier. “I was in the library the other day, and I noticed they are hiring. Shelving books, stamping date cards, and hounding students with overdue check-outs.”
Nim bristled. Customer service. Brrh.
Twilight was already setting in, and magic lanterns as well as coal braziers were getting lit around the marketplace for warm and light, by the time Selius finally showed up at the tea stalls. Nim hurried off to fetch him, while Gislan fended for their table – people were hovering over her forebodingly, some making pointed comments that her mug was empty. Rudolfus’s abandoned tin mug had already been cleared away.
“Finally!” Gislan exclaimed as Selius took the seat Rudolfus had previously occupied.
“Hey! He’s not even eating anything!” A random hoverer from the food crowd hollered. The same person who had given Gislan a hard time about the nearly-empty table.
“Well not right now, just give him a bloody minute!” Gislan shouted back. There went her internal balance again, she thought bitterly, and left Nim and Selius at the table while she went to get a refill of hot water.
The next mugful of hot water wasn’t for her, but for Selius. Gislan prepared the tea and then pushed it at the now-obviously-quite-miserable prince, who was suppressing a cough.
“No thanks, I’m fine,” Selius said, giving the mug back to Gislan, but Gislan persisted.
“It’s just hot water and leaves.” She gave the mug back.
“Are you all done?” The overbearing hoverer with a tin mug full of hot wine asked.
“Where’s Rudolfus?” Selius asked Nim, while Gislan interacted with their audience.
“Uh, last minute shopping?” Nim scanned the crowds for a half-man, half-cat, and found none.
“He’ll drink his tea and then we’ll let you get the table!”
It seemed likely that Gislan might throw a poison flower at the crowd so their little group could keep the table for a while longer, Selius took the hot tea and drank it almost in one big gulp. It was one large gulp, and two smaller sips. The tea was hot and warmed him upside, and for a brief moment, he had a vision of an enormous tree rising straight from a wide ocean. Strange, but nice.
“There!” Gislan left in a huff, pursued by a quiet Nim and a sombre looking Selius. Yuletide mood seemed to have been drained out of them both.
They were all put in a very different sort of Yuletide mood when a dark figure with a Canute Goat mask – horns included – approached them, and did a BOO HOO HOO HOO right behind Gislan.
“By the groves of Alcyon, what is this nonsense!”
“It’s the Canute Goat!” Rudolfus’s voice came from behind the mask. He lifted the thing off his face, and did a flourish with the dark blue cloak as he removed it off his shoulder. “I thought we should do the thing.”
“The what-now goat? The thing? What are you talking about? What is this goat?” Gislan asked.
———– PLEASE READ EARLIER IMPORTANT INFORMATION ———–
———————– REGARDING THE CANUTE GOAT ———————–
“Well,” said Gislan, after hearing the story, “that sounds entirely bizarre. And explains all the strange solstice goat figurines. I thought they were just sacrificial effigies portraying slaughtered animals.”
“Ooohhhh do they do animal sacrifice for Yule on Alcyon?!” Rudolfus asked, and almost dropped the festive goat mask – horns and all. Now he suddenly wanted to go to Alcyon for the rest of the holiday.
“No! But it’s not an unheard of practice. And doesn’t Yule turkey or ham signify the same thing?”
Rudolfus, understanding that there were no ritual sacrifices to be had, lost interest, and looked at Nim and Selius instead. “Are you in for the thing?” Rudolfus asked. “There’s going to be tiny humans at the party.”
Gislan shook her head, confused. “What thing?”
At which point, both Rudolfus and Selius explained the thing. Nim was silent, because while this was completely not how Yuletide was supposed to be celebrated, there was Rudolfus’s mysterious and far-fetched plot to think about. Nim was also relieved, because it sounded like there was not a lot of work involved.
Gislan listened, paying attention to each detail as described by the giddy Rudolfus, and the aloof Selius. She actually rather found herself thinking this might be an agreeably fun thing to do, and nodded. “I’ll give it a try. So, who is on top?”
“Me, obviously!” Rudolfus exclaimed proudly. “The goat can’t have two cat legs and two human legs, because that would be weird.”
Selius eyed the cat darkly. “Because everything else about it is perfectly normal.”
It was dark in the city, the sun had set a while ago. Street lamps were lit (magic ones courtesy of wizard graduates of the Astral Academy.) Houses that couldn’t afford or source magic lighting had firelight instead.
There seemed to be Yule parties going on in every part of town. Where the students headed was not terribly far away from the market square, in mid-town. Up on the hill was the Royal Castle of course – now wonderfully lit for the festival with coloured magic lights – and surrounding the castle were the poshest, grandest houses in town. The size and quality of housing gradually lessened, the down the further towards the outskirts of town you’d go.
All the way to the party, Nim and Gislan were having an entirely bizarre conversation about a recent job opening at the Astral Academy library – someone to help stack books, and sit at the desk to make notes on books getting checked out, and what a great job that would be for someone, just let that sink in, huh. You’d get paid and everything! Rudolfus ignored them, and Selius wondered if they were having some kind of a shared brain seizure, because obviously Nim was already doing a different job, and Gislan had no reason at all to take up a library job. When she didn’t get her allowance from Alcyon, she compensated by assisting the academy gardeners with her mystical green thumb.
But the position at the library sounded fine. Perhaps he ought to try out for it.
And at last they made it to the site of the party, as per the vague directions they’d gotten from a baker who sold strange fish pastries at the market.
The house was an average house in an average district, surrounded by other average houses. While they weren’t miniature castles with massive inner courtyards like the ones near the royal quarters, the students were in an obviously respectable enough neighbourhood, where it didn’t seem like rain leaked straight in through the roof, and people could afford real glass for their windows.
Nim had led them there. The front of the house was decorated with Yuletide ornaments hanging on both sides of the door, and one from a nail in the middle of it. They could hear singing and laughter inside.
“Wait, how big is this party?” Selius asked, suddenly worried.
“Too late to back out now!” Rudolfus gestured at Gislan and Selius. “My seat, please.”
Gislan looked up and down at Selius. “This is the weirdest thing I’ve ever done. Including hitting rabid half-bears with a duck staff.”
Gislan and Selius wove their hands and arms together, making a platform on which Rudolfus climbed on, the Canute Goat mask on his face. Nim covered all the three of them with the new midnight-blue cloak, which did absolutely very little to hide the fact that there were two very different pairs of legs, wearing two different sets of clothes, carrying a masked third person propped up between them. But in the darkness, if you paid no notice to what was going on in the bottom half, they made actually quite a striking chimeric monster.
“Alright, we’re ready!” Rudolfus announced, and Nim went to the door, going over the lines given earlier, before knocking. And knocking loudly, to make sure that the party inside heard them.
Warmth and light tumbled out to the street when the door opened, and it was Marvek himself.
“Nim, you came! I’m so glad to see you, what about-”
Nim had to interrupt Marvek to get on with the lines.
“The Canute Goat is come here tonight, to see if any children have misbehaved or stolen any food or gifts.”
Marvek looked up at the goat behind Nim, and started laughing, a warm, wonderful, delighted laughter deep from his belly. Then he popped inside the house, yelling at everyone.
“Oh no! Children! The Canute Goat is here! What shall we do!”
A minute later, a wave of children ran outside into a circle around the wicked goat monster, except a five-year-old who was very upset, and was crying into their father’s arms, because The Newt Goat had come to take their gifts away, that child was hysterically bawling their eyes out. The other children ignored it, and started singing a song to banish the gift thief amidst them. Rudolfus did a wonderful display of being an evil, cackling monster from the woods, waving his arms about, while the children – with the adults joining in – sang a simple little song about how good and kind they’d all been this year, and how good and kind they would be next year too. No one even noticed that one third of the Goat was coughing up quite a bit towards the end.
Then the song ended, and the children ran back inside, apparently there were plum tarts to be shared around the fire next. Adults thanked the goat for visiting, and followed the children inside, and at last there was only Marvek at the door, watching Nim help unveil the identity of the goat.
“That was marvellous! You should have done some spellwork to make it even more exciting!” Marvek declared.
Rudolfus, now unmasked, and having hopped down back to the ground, swished his tail around. “Now that is an idea. Trying some of my lesser Death spells on children…”
“Now now! I meant, something more sparkly and less deadly.” Marvek replied with stern good humour.
“Do we know even any sparkly spells?” Gislan asked, casually dumping the dark blue cloak from her shoulder to Selius’s arms. “I’m hungry, I heard there were plum tarts.”
“Come in, come in, Poppy will be so happy to meet you all!” Marvek herded them all inside, into the warmth, towards the food, to the drinks, and whatever the night would bring next.
As the hour grew late, it was time to go back outside for the midnight fireworks. The closest clear space to catch the fireworks from was a park not far from there.
The tired four students, having trekked all day, weren’t in the mood for getting squeezed and pulled and pushed through another tightly packed event to see fireworks that they’d see almost any day at the Academy. Also, they were barely awake at midnight, so they excused themselves and decided to stay in, while Marvek’s whole family poured out of the house, children and their parents chaotically trying to discern whose shoes were whose, and what boots were what.
Suddenly it was very quiet.
Gislan was drinking more tea, and eating a plum tart by the fire, reminiscing the events of their odd day together. It had been nice. She’d even decided to take part in the strange children’s goat ritual. The daily life on Alcyon was pretty much made of rituals, and encountering new ones intrigued her, although she’d expected it to be a more solemn event than that, in all honesty. But it had ended up being warm. And fun.
Then a forgotten thought popped up.
“Oh right,” Gislan remembered, and surveyed her surroundings. They had all ended up camping around by the fireplace in Poppy and Marvek’s sitting room. Rudolfus and Selius were fast asleep – the latter curled up tight inside the cloak Rudolfus had bought at the market, their Goat Disguise. Nim was still awake, tidying up the remains of the party.
Gislan started to go through her bag. There was a wrapped box inside, and she was supposed to open it tomorrow morning. But it was almost midnight now, so it was Yule, and technically might as well do it then.
“What’s that?” Nim asked her, while Gislan undid the bow and removed the paper from around the box.
“I don’t know,” Gislan replied, “I got it from Carabel.”
On the inside of the wrapping paper was Carabel’s neat and concise handwriting: use only outdoors.
“Seems I need to pull my boots on again.”
Nim, curious, followed Gislan outside.
Once they were outside, Gislan showed Nim the small box that had been inside the wrapping. It was a plain cube, made of copper, with a button on one side. There was a beautifully etched snowflake pattern on the button. Gislan displayed it to Nim wordlessly, and then pushed the button.
They both stared down at the box, expecting it to open, or unfold, or perhaps make some music, but the box did absolutely nothing at all. Gislan pressed the button again, and still nothing.
The fireworks at the castle started then, and there were pops and sparkles, and explosions in the distance. Colourful lights glimmered in the air, briefly reflected in glass windows here and there, one explosion and one colour pattern after another.
“Oh,” Nim noticed it first. “Look up.”
And Gislan did. And saw that inside a small circle around the two of them, it was now snowing.