Weihnchten 2

Two years ago

Lafayette laid half buried in snow dressed in all white, placing bits of snow in his mouth to lower the rising breath vapour. It was a snowbank in the estate of one Lord Brismand. A ‘collector’, though it was more graverobbing. Lafayette had heard through the grapevine that this man had a particular bottle of wine in his collection. Taken from the rubble of Dalen. A perfect gift for Kalena this Weihnchten. A bottle from the winery Kline Lowson owned, who had been an old friend of theirs, long since dead. It should be well over a century old by now. Worth quite a bit of coin. Lafayette never cared for it, but Kalena did. If you asked him though, nothing beats Merovingian wine, which in his not unbiased opinion was the best on both continents.

Lafayette kept his head down any time a guard passed by. Studying their pattern. He needed a plan. It was far too cold out to knock them out and leave them laying in the snow. Once the coast was clear, Lafayette made a move to head back towards a small wood shed he’d found on the estate grounds. From the pockets of his parka he pulled two of his patented, hand made smoke bombs. Extra long fuses attached, they would give him just enough time to move back to his hiding spot before the plume of thick black smoke would start. Following the prints of the guards one again to prevent his own from being formed. He managed to wriggle back into his previous divot in the snow. He held his breath as he waited for the smoke to start. And once it did exactly as planned the outer guards all ran to try and put out what they expected to be a blaze. Which they would notice wasn’t the case fast. Lafayette had to move.

Getting up Lafayette took a leap from the hiding place to the well walked path, and slipped inside. Stopping a moment, stopping his breath for a moment to listen for movement. But from what he could hear it was dead, at least within ear shot.

Pulling out a crumpled paper with a poorly drawn floor plan, he’d gotten from the servant who told him about the wine. He had to turn it a few times to figure out the orientation of the map but once he found it Lafayette knew what direction the cellar stairs were.

Halfway down a long hallway Lafayette froze, pressing into an alcove when he heard the sound of bristles on a floor and the hum of a woman’s voice. A maid humming a tune as she swept. Staying still and not making a sound until she’d thoroughly passed Lafayette move, down that hall and to the left, the direction she’d originally come from. Reaching a door that was down three steps, twisting the knob. Locked. Lafayette knelt and pulled a pick set from his boot. Borrowed from Kalena. He set to work on the overly complicated lock, each time he got close the tumbler would slip and the pick would get pushed from position. Getting frustrated, Lafayette mumbled to himself. “Come on, Weihnachten miracle.” he whispered. Feeling a cold breeze against the back of his neck the lock clicked and the door opened. “Thank you.” Lafayette whispered. Slinking into the dark of the cellar.

It took some time to find where the bottle was because of the equally bad cellar map that was on a different orientation than the upper floor. He gently lifted the wine out of the rack, slipping it into his parka and slipping out a bottle of ‘five copper wine’ placing it in the fancy bottle’s place.

Lafayette was out of there like a ghost and back to his home before the smoke stopped billowing. Hiding the wine in his and Kalena’s root cellar in a crate she’d never check.

Shel walked through the town market. This time of year was always much more packed, especially now that the Weihnachten traders were set up. Every year for a few days traders from all over would show up and peddle oddities from the far reaches of the continent. Shel made her way through the crowds until she passed a small stand flanked by a cart full of cages of various sizes.

Chirps, woofs and meows caught her attention as she stopped to look. Running the stand was an older gentleman and what seemed like his granddaughter.

The old man stroked a long grey beard, “Ah hello miss. Can I interest you in an animal companion for you or a loved one? Something from parts beyond, a unique statement of exquisite taste?” he said, as he put on his salesman spiel. “A fine furry or feathered friend, loyal to the end? What would you be looking for, let me help you help yourself to find a familiar.” he smiled, though his moustache hid it.

“I don’t know.” Shel said, as she looked. Seeing odd looking dogs, and cats she’d never seen. She’d never seen most of the birds in cages either but in a way birds just seemed to be birds. She then saw a few medium sized cages that seemed to just hold chickens. “What about that?” she asked.

“Oh! That.” he said with a chuckle. “They just keep the eggs warm. For the braver buyer, something you can raise from near start to finish.” he said, “Though.” he shook his head slightly “I can’t promise what’ll come out. I can give you my best guess but it’s a ‘carnival lucky bag’ of pets.” he explained.

Shel looked at the selection again. “How much for an egg?” she asked.

“Depends on the egg.” he said, pulling open one of the cages and reaching under the chicken who seemed rather unbothered by the affair, and pulled out an egg about the size of a normal chicken egg but had a strange opal colouration. “This one.” he said, turning it over on his hand, “Thee gold.” and put it back before reaching in again. The old man pulled out an egg roughly twice the size of the last but not by much, jet black smooth and nearly mirrored looking. “This one…” he paused. “Eight.”

“Can you hold onto something for me and I can come back later with some the coin?” Shel asked.

“We’ll be leaving town tomorrow morning so you’ve got till tonight.” he said, “But I’ll hold it for ya till then.” he said putting the egg back under the chicken and out of the colder air. “Just don’t take too long, you’ll never forgive yourself for missing out on this wonderful gift.” he smiled again before going back to his other work.

“Where am I going to get eight gold?” Shel mumbled.

Shel continued walking until she passed the tavern she’d met Lafayette in. “Hmmm….” she thought. “I could fleece some people.” she thought, giving her arm a flex. “Our I could see if there’s a fight pit going on in the slums. Though that’s much less safe.”

Just as she was trying to decide, a tipsy Asher stumbled out of the tavern. “Shel!” slurred Asher. “What’re you doing here?” he asked.

Shel took a quick deep breath to prepare for the interaction. “Asher.” she said, putting on a smile. “I see you are starting early today.”

“I never stopped, but don’t avoid the question.” Asher swayed a bit. “I’m drunk, not stupid.” he chuckled to himself. “Drunk.” he said again like it was a silly word.

“Trying to figure out how to get the money to get Lafayette a gift.” Shel said, “I’d considered…” she began but Asher cut in.

“Oh oh oooooh,” he said with a stifled chuckle “You could arm wrestle the manly men and humiliate them,” he said “I can help.”

Shel nodded. “Sounds as good a plan as any.”

Shel and Asher started a fake conversation, one in which he made the bold claim that because he was drunker than her he could clearly win an arm wrestle against her.

“Ok string bean,” she slammed an elbow on the table, “Put your coin where your mouth is and prove it.” she said.

Asher put five silver on the table. “Okay.” he said in the most arrogant tone he could muster.
The two made a big show of it. Shel pretending to almost lose until she slammed Asher’s hand the other way. Making a spectacle of the affair. Asher rubbed his wrist.

“I don’t think anyone could beat you.” he commented loudly “I never stood a chance.” he pushed the silver Shel’s way, before making for the bar.

“I could.” a large man approached. “Five silver says I can.” he put the coin on the table.

“Ready?” she asked.

“Ready.” he replied.

Shel pushed the man’s hand down slowly, letting him strain against her force. Finally tapping his knuckles on the table.

“Anyone else. I’m sure I just got lucky.” Shel said putting the coins away.

This went on for several more rounds of people trying their luck. Bets were raised, and she was two gold away from her goal when a man large enough to looked like he could lift an ox over his head.

“I am next.” he said, putting two gold on the table to match Shel’s coin.

“Why don’t we sweeten the deal.” the man smiled, a mouth half filled with gold teeth. “If I win, You keep your gold, and we go on a date.” he turned to what must have been his friends. “It’s a sure thing, boys.” he laughed.

“Okay.” she responded, gripping his hand for the match.

Shel asked if he was ‘ready’ and he nodded, when Shel started she felt a slight cold breeze on the back of her neck and before the man could even attempt to move her arm he found himself sprawling to the floor.

“You should be less arrogant next time.” she said, pocketing the gold and walking out with Asher. To the laughs of the man’s friends.

Shel returned to the man selling the pets and paid for the egg.

“Keep it warm now,” he told her. “It’s gonna hatch soon and it’d be a shame to have it’s little life snuffed out because of this cold.” he said.

“I will.” Shel assured him and with that she headed home to hide the egg.

Kalena leaned on a fence watching one of her fellow stable hands breaking a horse, ready to jump in if they needed help. Racking her brain for a gift to get Shel for Weihnachten. Shel never really asked for anything, and never seemed to want to put anyone out on her account. So it was a challenging endeavour. “Art supplies?” Kalena wondered to herself, “But she can get those anywhere any time.” she answered herself.

One of the men she worked with approached her. “Lost in thought?” he asked, pulling on his gloves.

“Trying to decide what to get a friend for Weihnachten, coming up empty.” Kalena answered.

“Red or the tall en’?” he asked.

“Tall one, Shel.” she replied.

“You could get her a dress, but it might be hard not knowing her size and this close to the holiday.” he rubbed his chin. “Couldn’t tell you, but I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”

Kalena gave a small sigh and she continued to look at the horses, or at least the direction of the horses.

A few moments later a voice Kalena didn’t recognize interrupted her daydreaming.

“Excuse me, are you Miss Kalena Valade?” The voice belonged to a man, well dressed, too much for a place so muddy, The man introduced himself as Tomas Ekkerman with the air that she should know the name. “I would like to inquire you for help with a matter in which my sources tell me you are very skilled.”

“I don’t do that kind of work anymore.” Kalena said, sizing the man up

But the man responded with only a befuddled look. “I..um..” he looked around. “You no longer break horses?” he seemed genuinely lost as to what he should actually say.

“Oh, you mean that. Yes.” she said.

“What did you mean?” Thomas laughed a bit nervously.

“Don’t worry about that. Where is the horse?” she asked.

“Oh at my home, He’s even too wild to try to bring through town.” the man responded.

The two eventually came to an agreement of price and when Kalena would arrive.

Arriving at his house that afternoon she was led through his manor, and the name finally clicked. He was a semi-famous painter. Shel had mentioned him a time or two. Kalena stopped to admire a painting for a moment.

“Oh, that is some of my earlier work.” Thomas said, “Do you like it?”

“I don’t know much about paintings but my friend would love it. She’s quite the artist herself.” Kalena said, making small talk. As she said this she felt a small tickly of a winter’s breeze on her neck.

“Someone I’ve heard of?” Thomas asked, hoping for a bit of gossip.

“Not likely she’s just a hobby artist, though frankly I think she could sell her work for quite a bit of coin if she had the right supplies.” she said.

“Well, either way I’d like to see some of her work. Names carry weight.” he said, leading her on.

Kalena was taken out to Thomas’ stables “I will leave you to your work,” he said, “Some of my stable hand will be here to help if you need.” he left to return inside.

Kalena worked with the horse for several hours, knowing it would take a lot of time with how this horse was acting but she knew she could tame the beast. But it was getting too cold and the sun was setting and she needed to call it a day.

Before leaving however she was stopped by Thomas. “Miss Valade.” he said, approaching with a slat wood crate. “I would like to commission a piece from your friend.” He sat down the box so that Kalena could now see it was full of several types and colours of paints and a small canvas. “The rest is for her to keep as payment.” he said, “It is no rush, but if your friend is as skilled as you say I’d like to have the first piece that made them famous.” The man snapped his fingers, “And your payment, for your work today.” he said putting it on the crate as well.

Heading out the door Kalena laughed to herself a bit. She’d not intended for an off hand comment to solve her issues of getting Shel a gift.

Weihnachten finally came, and the three gathered to exchange gifts. Shel presented Lafayette with the strange black egg first. “It’s not to cook with, it's a pet.” she explained. “I know Kalena’s got her horse, and figured you should have something too.”

“Do you know what’s gonna come out of this?” he asked, holding the jet black egg.

“I think a bird?” Shel replied “The old man who sold it to me didn’t say, but a chicken was keeping it warm so probably.”

“Thank you, Shel.” Lafayette said.

Kalena was next. “Shel. I got this for you.” she plopped the heavy case on the table.

“What is it?” Shel asked standing to open the box.

“It's a surprise.” Kalena responded.

When Shel opened the box her face lit up. “You…how did you get these?” She asked, pulling a bottle from the crate. “These are rare, and I don’t mean like a four leaf clover, I mean only a few people on the continent have some of these.

“I’ll tell you later.” Kalena said.

Last to go was Lafayette, “Kalena, close your eyes.” he instructed.

Through her closed eyes she heard a clink of glass on wood. “Okay, open them,” he said.
Kalena was met with a bottle of wine. At first she seemed unimpressed.

“Lafayette, you know the assignment was to get something from the heart right? You can’t just get a bottle of wine at the last minute.” Kalena said, not harshly but unsure of what she was looking at.

“Look closer.” he said with a wide eyed smile. “It’s not just any wine…”

While Lafayette spoke Kalena read the label and looked at him then back to the bottle. “How did you get this?” She asked mouth agape “How if the world did you get this. This is nearly 150 years old. Where did you get the coin for something like this. This wine would be worth more than my old collection of wine.” Kalena still couldn’t believe it.

“Well…” Lafayette looked at the ceiling, “Someone had it and wasn’t using it. So I decided to give it to someone who’d enjoy it more, don’t worry I did leave him something in return.” he said. “But let’s not mention this bottle to anyone not in this room.” he offered.

“Maybe now I can finally prove our wine is better than yours.” Kalena took a verbal jab at Lafayette’s wine tastes.

“Maybe it will.” he responded.

The three eventually sat down for a meal together to celebrate. After the meal everyone was sitting around nursing full bellies. “Kras Krunkle is really you know.” Shel said apropo of nothing. “I’ve seen him.” she added pulling out a rather old looking sketch book that’s seen better days flipping to a page with the little gnome drawn on its pages. Not on the level of her current work but you could clearly see the fabled fellow on the page.

“You sure you didn’t dream it?” Lafayette asked.

“Oh how little faith you have, stay up tonight and see for yourself.” she said.

“I think I’d rather sleep.” Kalena offered in response. “If he is real and wanted people to see him he’d do this during the day.”

Eventually the everyone fell asleep in various places. Lafayette on the sofa, Kalena and Shel in their own beds.

The next morning when Shel went to get wood for the fire she noticed small footprints in the snow.

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