A Ranger’s Holiday
Razor glided over naked trees in the dormant winter chill of the Wildewoode Forest. His half-elf master Galadin Trudeaux waited below, shrouded to near-invisibility under his concealment spell. The hunting hawk made his silent dive on an unsuspecting rabbit. Talons and beak ensured a quick, efficient death. The little thing didn’t even have a chance to squeal.
“Nice one, old boy.” Galadin dropped concealment and hurried to the carcass before Razor tore into it too much.
Bending down with his hunting knife, he cut off a nice morsel of warm meat. Razor, eyeing his prize, climbed onto his master’s sturdy leather arm wrap. Galadin stood with the catch in one hand and offered the meat with the other. The hawk wasted no time gobbling it down.
The sun sat lower than Galadin expected in the white winter sky. “We better get home. Cali’s been anxious enough about dinner tonight. She’ll probably skin us both.”
Razor nipped his shoulder.
“Ow! Are you never going to forgive me for being gone? You try being a slave.”
Razor opened his beak.
Galadin ducked away. Readjusting his eye-patch, he said, “You’re hardly a slave, you spoiled bird.”
He weaved his way down the narrow footpath toward the main forest road. Rounding a bend that cut along an eroded hillside, he dodged to avoid a jagged rock that jutted into his blind spot. But, his foot hit a patch of mud, and down he went like a felled tree. Razor, needing neither leash nor hood, hopped away gracefully to a nearby bush. His master, on the other hand, took a full mud bath in a much-deeper-than-it-looked hole.
Rising from the muck like some earthen monster, Galadin sat up and swiped mud from his one good eye. He did a quick inspection of himself. Brown, gooey globs dripped from both arms and ran beneath his shirt.
He shook his head and grimaced. “Cali’s going to kill me.”
Hands sticky with dough and coated with flour, Caliphany slid the loaf pan in the oven. “Oh, I forgot to preheat. Better fix that.” She opened the fire box and searched the kitchen for the striker. “Where is that thing?”
Sighing in frustration, she held her hand a few inches from the wood. Her palm tingled, burning with familiar pinpricks as a compact puff of blue fire shot into the tinder, setting it ablaze. Being a ranger and fire mage had its advantages.
“There,” she said with a self-satisfied grin. “My first loaf of bread.”
Mollie skipped through the front door, leaving it open to the chilly wind. “Mama, why are you cooking?”
Caliphany, fearing for her bread’s life, ran for the door and let out a squeal. A chicken flapped in her daughter’s arms. Feathers floated onto her unruly curls, through the air, and all over the floor.
Snatching the bird, who clucked indignantly, Caliphany tossed it out onto the porch.
Door secured once more against the elements, she turned to her daughter. “Mollie, where is your father? I thought he’d be back by now.”
“He’s hunting,” Mollie said, arms crossed and pouting. “My chicken was cold.”
Caliphany smiled. “I know, my darling, but I’ve cleaned the cottage from top to bottom. Our guests will arrive soon. I want our Year’s End dinner to be perfect.”
“But, Mama, you never cook.”
“Well, today, I am. Now, clean up and put on your new dress.”
“All right, Mama.” Mollie dragged her feet and hung her head all the way to her room.
Caliphany found the broom and swept up brown feathers until the floor was spotless.
She glanced at the clock. “Where is Galadin?”
He was supposed to be here helping watch Mollie. Her mother, Ellawen, had offered to come early and babysit, but Caliphany wanted to handle the holiday on her own this year. Not once had she celebrated away from the Aranea manor or the palace in Leogard, where servants prepared everything. Since becoming a wife and mother with her own household, Caliphany had tried hard to master domestic life. Most high elves couldn’t understand why one of their kind, especially the king’s niece, wanted to get her hands dirty. Even her mother remained skeptical.
She put away the broom and checked on the bread. Besides being a little lopsided, it was rising nicely. Outside the kitchen window, smoke plumed from the smokehouse, where Galadin had venison curing for their feast. He’d already prepared a nice selection of side dishes. Why he needed rabbits, too, she had no idea, but if this bread came out a success, she could brag about contributing something to dinner, too.
Mollie’s voice rang out from the pantry. “Uh-oh.”
Never certain what her precocious daughter might be into next, Caliphany’s muscles tensed as she rushed to the scene. Mollie, with a few rogue feathers still stuck in her hair, now had a thick coating of honey gluing them down. The honey jar wobbled on its side, and a viscous stream meandered onto Mollie’s new red satin dress with the fur-lined collar.
Caliphany clapped a hand to her forehead. “Mollie…why?”
“I was trying to reach the honey for your bread, Mama. I was trying to help.”
“I didn’t ask you to help! Today is supposed to be perfect, and now look!”
Under the sticky mask of honey, Mollie’s bottom lip trembled.
Caliphany righted the jar and took one of her daughter’s messy hands. “I know you were trying to help, sweetheart. Let’s get you a quick bath.”
Galadin released Razor into his warm hutch and covered it to keep out drafts. He opened the door, expecting to be greeted by his wife and daughter, but all he got was a face full of smoke.
“Cali! Mollie!” He ran through the black cloud into the kitchen. Ducking beneath the smoke layer, he honed in on its source—the oven. He grabbed a mitt, opened the door, and coughed as a thicker cloud of smoke billowed out.
Cali, with a towel-wrapped Mollie in her arms, ran from the bedroom. “Oh no!”
Galadin took the pan from the oven, opened the kitchen window, and dumped the charred remains outside. He sped through the cottage, opening every window to let the smoke escape. He’d
He knelt at her side. “Cali, don’t cry. It’s fine. But, what happened?”
“I made bread.”
“Then Mollie brought her chicken in the house, and then she spilled honey all over herself. I had to give her a bath and forgot the br-e-a-a-a-d.” She melted into more tears, while Galadin rubbed her back and looked at Mollie. The little girl shrugged and retreated to her room.
“Cali, it’ll be all right. We can make more bread.”
She raised her head and started to say something, then grimaced. “Why are you all…?” The sobbing resumed with a vengeance.
He’d almost forgotten about his mud bath. “Long story. I’ll clean up. Don’t worry.”
There was nothing he wanted more than to give Cali and Mollie a wonderful Year’s End. After their long separation and dangerous work as scouts, they deserved some peace and quiet. He knew how much this holiday meant to Cali and loved her more than ever for wanting to make it special.
Cali gave him a half-hearted smile when he kissed her cheek.
Bang, bang, bang!
They both gasped, “They’re here!”
Galadin hurried to the door and opened it to find a stack of colorful boxes.
“A little help, please!” his mother-in-law, Ellawen, called out from behind them.
Shyler, Galadin’s former first mate, now blind, stood beside her. “I told ya I could get those, me lady. Or you could have let the driver do it instead of sending ‘im off so soon.”
“Button up,” Ellawen admonished playfully. “Galadin’s our host, so it’s his job.”
“Right.” He took the packages from her arms and set them on a side table.
Ellawen removed her gloves and looked from her daughter to her son-in-law. “We stopped to pick up Shyler, but it appears we may be early. You said five-o-clock, did you not?”
“Yes, Mother,” Cali whimpered.
“And Galadin—you’re…” Ellwen’s face broke into a smile, which evolved into laughter. “My goodness, this reminds me so much of when Sirius and I were newly married.”
“It does?” Cali asked.
Galadin didn’t fail to notice how his wife perked up at stories of her late father.
“Oh, yes.” Ellawen hung her scarf and cloak on the coat rack. “I tried so hard to make things perfect. Sirius did too. And the harder we tried, the messier things were.”
Mollie came running, wearing a plainer green, but clean, dress. Ellawen caught her granddaughter in a happy hug. The two giggled, and so did Cali, just a little.
Mollie kissed Ellawen’s cheek. “Did you bring presents, Grandmama?”
“What do you think?”
“We have presents for you, too!”
The two of them burst into giggles. Cali flashed a smile at Galadin. Tonight would be even better, he thought, once everyone was sound asleep and he had Cali all to himself.
Cali hugged her mother. “I’m sorry. I burned the bread, and Mollie ruined the dress you got her. The whole evening’s a shambles.”
“Nonsense.” Ellawen waved a dismissive hand. “I think another carriage just arrived.”
Galadin assumed his usher duties and opened the door again. Jayden and Serenya Ravenwing had arrived, each holding one of their twin girls.
Once the wood-elf family of four was all inside, Cali whispered, “Oh no, you’re still covered in…”
“Mud!” Jayden exclaimed. “Why didn’t you tell us this was a costume party? Let me guess, Trudeaux, you’re a one-eyed pig.”
“And you’re still short. Welcome to the sty!”
Caliphany glanced from her ex-husband to her current one and rolled her eyes.
Serenya tiptoed to give Cali a one-armed hug. “The venison smells wonderful. Thanks for inviting us. Would you like to hold Fallon?”
“I would,” Cali said. She took the chubby baby, who immediately fisted her pearls and drooled on them. “My, how they’ve grown! I’m so sorry everything’s…” She gave Galadin a pointed look. “…a mess. Nothing turned out quite right, I’m afraid.”
Serenya pulled out a doll from her shoulder bag and presented it to Mollie. The toddler threw her arms around Serenya’s neck. “Thank you, Renny! I love it!”
“I made it especially for you, sweetheart.” Serenya sat cross-legged on the floor, Mollie settled on her lap. “On the contrary, Cali, I’d say today is just perfect. We’re all together, everyone’s healthy and happy. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
“Hear, hear!” Jayden said, nuzzling baby Alina’s cheek. “Let’s eat! I’m famished.”
They feasted until their bellies begged for mercy. Galadin refused their offers of help while he cleaned up and enjoyed the happy chatter of a full cottage. Theirs was an unconventional family, but it worked, nonetheless. The horrors they’d shared seemed like nothing more than a bad dream tonight. Jayden played the violin while Serenya sang. Shyler regaled everyone with tales from their sailing days. Caliphany and Ellawen sat on a quilt and played with the twins. Mollie danced and giggled until she wore herself out, soon falling sound asleep on Jayden’s shoulder.
He whispered to Cali, “Mind if I tuck her in?”
Cali smiled. “Sure, go ahead.”
All their guests bedded down in the den in sleeping bags and on the sofa, even though Cali offered their bedrooms. Galadin peeked in on sound-asleep Mollie and kissed her cheek. He’d almost forgotten about his much-needed bath, so he eased into his bedroom and closed the door quietly, thinking Cali might be asleep already.
Instead, she stood there wearing nothing but a towel. “Ready for your bath, Captain?”
He couldn’t get out of his clothes fast enough.