Scarlet Shadow: Carols in the Desert
The chilling gusts of wind caused Crystal to draw her cloak tighter about her shoulders. The forest up ahead seemed out of reach as she struggled to keep moving. Ahead of her, Lord Kelland of Altador, her uncle, pushed forward, unwittingly tugging at the rope that connected them in the storm. She quickened her pace, not willing to hold him back. As she did, her mind drifted back – to happier times and warmer memories...
"Duck!" The red Lupess barely dodged the thrust her mentor had thrown at her. The white Aisha shook his head. "Scarlet, when I say 'duck', I mean I want you to drop, not move back."
"Moving back was easier," Crystal, then known as Scarlet, protested.
"The easiest path is not always the best," the Aisha replied. "Now, let's try that again."
"Cenoal, it's Christmas. Can't we skip training?" she asked.
The Aisha sighed and crossed his arms. "Fine, I suppose you do deserve a break."
"Thank you," she replied, relieved. The Lupess threw her butterfly swords back into their scabbard and Cenoal sheathed his saber. Scarlet then walked back to where she had left her bag. She reached in and pulled out a small package, wrapped in canvas. Throwing it to the Captain, she smiled. "Merry Christmas, Cenoal."
She left without another word.
Kelland and Crystal were under the fir trees now, sheltered somewhat from the tossing winds. The blizzard still raged around them as Kelland began searching for dry wood to start a fire with. Crystal joined him, and as she searched, her memories once more began to surface.
Shade, a shadow Uni, was struggling to open the package the Lupess had given him. Scarlet shook her head at her mount and took the canvas-covered present, untying the ropes that held it together. The two were out in the chilly night air of the Lost Desert, strolling through the desert dunes. "A brand new set of steel Unishoes," Shade stated, smiling as Scarlet showed him the four hoof-shaped shoes. "That was really thoughtful of you, Princess."
"Shade!" Scarlet exclaimed, looking around to make sure no one heard. Scarlet's identity as the Princess of Meridell was a secret she dared not let out.
"No one can hear, Scarlet," the Uni replied, rolling his eyes.
"Best be on your guard nonetheless," another voice stated. The two turned to see Cenoal. "There are others strolling about the dunes."
Shade snorted. "Besides yourself? Because, to be honest, you're kind of odd..." The Uni laughed at Cenoal's irritated expression.
Crystal stared as Kelland attempted to start the fire with flint and steel. She wanted to offer lighting the fire with her magic, but she knew it would be of no use. Her uncle hated her power and there was nothing she could do about it. Her eyes half closed as she reminisced even more.
The three were still wandering about, talking for the sake of filling the silence, when they spotted the warm glow of a fire. It was a dune or so away and they all looked at each other. Reminded of warmth, they simultaneously felt chilled to the bone from the cold of the desert night. "You think we can take the risk?" Cenoal questioned. "Any number of unpleasant people may be sitting by that fire."
"Well, while those unpleasant people are feeling nice and warm, the three of us 'honest folk' are freezing to death," Shade retorted with a snort. "I don't know about you two worrywarts, but I'm going to go see what's over there."
Neither the Aisha nor the Lupess could stop him before the swift Uni was away and over the hill. Seconds turned into minutes as they waited. A shrill whiney was heard and the two sped after him. Shade was on the ground... laughing. "Y-you two should see your faces!" he exclaimed between fits of laughter. "That was a good idea, old Gelert!"
An ancient Gelert smiled at them from beside the large fire. About five feet in diameter, the flame lit the surroundings nicely. Another fire, much smaller than the first, was set beside the Gelert. A large pot full of a delicious-smelling stew was cooking on top of it. A wagon was parked a few feet away from the fire pit and a muscular Uni, probably a head taller than Shade, sat beside it.
"Come, dear children," he said fondly.
"We aren't children," Cenoal corrected. Scarlet elbowed him in the ribs. He winced, but said nothing.
Scarlet rolled her eyes. "Forgive my imprudent friend. He is usually more respectful."
"Oh, I'm sure he is, my dear girl," the Gelert stated. "After all, the masters of thieves often require it of their Captains." The three stared at the Gelert in surprise. He chuckled. "No one else would dare wander aimlessly through the desert, children. Now come, sit by the fire."
They did as they were told and sat at the other side of the large blaze. "Thank you very much for your hospitality, kind sir," Scarlet said. "We greatly appreciate your kindness."
"But of course, you will be helping an old Gelert out as well, won't you?" he said as he struggled to stand and hobble toward the pot.
"We have plenty of coins to pay you with, sir," Scarlet said. She stood and made her way to the pot. "Allow me," she said, picking up the bowls that sat by it. The old Gelert smiled at her and sat back down.
"I do not want your coins," he replied. "I want your carols."
"Carols?" Cenoal questioned. "You mean Christmas carols?"
"Go inside the wagon and fetch the flute and harp that sit inside," he said simply.
Cenoal shrugged and made his way into the cart. "You are a curious old Gelert," Shade stated, and the Gelert chuckled. Cenoal came back out, dragging a large harp after him. As he made his way down the steps, the harp proved heavier than the Aisha had anticipated. It slipped from his grasp and dragged on the last step. The harp scratched the beautifully painted wood and Cenoal winced.
"I'm sorry," he apologized as he set the harp down beside the steps.
"It is no trouble, dear boy," the Gelert responded with a small smile. Cenoal nodded, slightly puzzled, and went back in for the flute.
Scarlet served the bowls of stew just as he emerged, bearing a beautiful bamboo flute, carved with expert hands to have representations of the glorious Sky Ships of Shenkuu. The Gelert indicated the harp. "You two must play for your Christmas dinners, I'm afraid," he said, chuckling. "Unfortunately, your Uni friend has no knowledge of such things, and your performance will have to be just that much grander."
Shade held back a laugh as the two threw him withering glances. Scarlet sat by the steps and took hold of the harp. She began with a simple tune, just to give Cenoal an idea of what she was aiming for. The Aisha nodded to her and put the flute to his lips. The notes that played from the Aisha were hesitant, as though he had not played in very long. But then they seemed to grow confident and the song began.
Scarlet shut her eyes as she played the wonderful instrument in her hands. The tune was merry and lively. The music resonated joy. But then that faded. The music grew dim and upsetting, as though the sun was taken away and the grey of night filled its space. Fear and anticipation mingled in somehow and Scarlet wanted to stop, to tell Cenoal to play a less depressing piece, but she couldn't. Her fingers kept plucking at the strings as though the sound of the flute led them.
Then she found that the notes of the flute receded and began following the tune from the harp. No matter what she tried, though, it remained downcast, as though a great weight was upon her shoulders. Then it lightened, slowly but surely. There was excitement once more and happiness. Scarlet found tears springing unbidden to her eyes. This was her story, taking form in song. There was happiness mingled with doubt and worry as she remembered the day she returned to the kingdom. More worry when she knew Jeran was ill. Then happiness once more, quickly followed by the anguish at having to leave her home...
Then the melody shifted and neither was leading. The notes were like one, yet so different. The harp played determination and the flute doubt: hope and hopelessness, courage and fear... Acceptance. Acceptance of what was; acceptance that some things could not be changed at the moment; acceptance that they were no longer in their own worlds. Yet no acceptance of what they were now - thieves.
The cold night winds swept over the desert and the spell lifted. Scarlet's eyes opened and there was Cenoal, clutching the flute tightly in his hand, his head turned away. Scarlet looked at her hands, still a bit sore from the long carol. But the harp – the harp was nowhere to be seen. The cart had gone as well, as had the Old Gelert, the fire, the tall Uni... All that remained were three cold bowls of soup and the flute clutched in Cenoal's hand.
Crystal stared a moment at the blazing fire and sighed. Acceptance. This was for sure the worst Christmas she had ever had to endure, and yet... "Acceptance," she repeated slowly. The wind had died down and the blizzard was long gone. Her uncle had gone off without her noticing. She stood silently and followed the tracks he had left.
The woods ended and there he stood, staring at the valley before them. There, hidden for thousands of years by the thick forests that surrounded it, stood the once-great kingdom of Areshen. Creeping vines had enveloped the cottages and the wells and there was a layer of snow over everything. The great castle stood near the mountains to the north, a mere shadow of its former self. Despite that fact, it was still magnificent as the sun rose at its right, casting wonderful yellow light upon the scene.
"Merry Christmas, Uncle," Crystal said softly.
Author's note: Merry Christmas, one and all. =)