adapted by Christine Morgan
from a tale by Charles Dickens
featuring the cast of Curse of the Shadow Beasts
A Wintersfest Carol
Bostitch was dead, to begin with. There is
no doubt whatever about that.
Solarrin knew he was dead? Of course
he did! But this must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can
come of the story.
Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at
the grindstone, Solarrin! A cruel, sadistic, pompous, avaricious, villainous
old sinner. No warmth could warm him. Nobody ever stopped him in the street
with gladsome looks.
But what did Solarrin care? It was the
very thing he liked.
Once upon a time, on Wintersfest Eve,
Solarrin sat busy in his mage’s house. The door between his study and the
smaller chamber was open, that he might make stingily sure that his clerk
didn’t use more than the single powerstone allotted him.
The outer door flung open, admitting
a swirl of snow and the shaggy shape of a wardog, his saddle adorned with
jingling silver bells and his collar tied with a wide red ribbon for the
The wardog’s rider cried in a cheerful
voice, “A happy Wintersfest, uncle! The gods be with you!”
“Bah,” said Solarrin. “Humbug. Happy
Wintersfest, indeed; what right have you to be happy? You have no magic
“What right have you to be dismal?”
his nephew replied cheekily. “You have more magic than you know what to
do with. Come, dine with Elsanni and me tomorrow!”
“When Haarkon goes dancing at the Lord’s
Retreat,” Solarrin said sourly. “Be off with you. Some of us have work
to do. It’s the price we pay for having superior minds. The ignorant can
afford to be idle. In my mind, every mindless slacker who goes about with
Happy Wintersfest on his lips should be boiled in his own cider and buried
with a stake of evergreen through his heart.”
“Ah, well, I tried. Be as you will,
uncle; I’ll keep my Wintersfest humor to the last. And a very happy holiday
to you as well, Master Donnell.” He doffed his jaunty cap as Solarrin’s
clerk rose to get the door for him.
“Happy Wintersfest, Greyquin,” Donnell
“Hmph, there’s another,” Solarrin grumbled
to himself. “My fool of an assistant. Fifteen marks a week, a wife and
family, talking about a happy Wintersfest. They’d drive me to madness if
Donnell, letting Greyquin and Bear out,
let two gentlemen in. Lord Taron and Lord Marl. Solarrin knew them both,
and was pleased to see neither, and pleased even less when they told him
of their mission of charity, charged by the Highlord himself to collect
for the poor.
Solarrin set down his powerstone. “Are
there no prisons? No poorhouses? What of the slave markets of Tradersport?
Are these places no longer in operation? If the poor are in such misery,
let them go to the places I’ve mentioned.”
“Many would rather die,” Taron said.
“If they would rather die, then they
had better do it. You humans breed too rapidly anyhow. Good afternoon to
Solarrin watched with satisfaction as
the two lords departed into the gathering fog and snow. His mood was bittered
by the knowledge that across all of Thanis, and throughout the Northlands,
the irksome humans were celebrating.
Something scratched at the door, and
when Solarrin opened it, he found a black drake perched on his stoop. The
creature turned jewel-tone eyes up to him and began to croon a holiday
*Gods rest ye, merry magelord sir —*
Solarrin snatched up his staff but the
drake fled before he could deliver it a well-deserved smiting.
At last, the hour of closing arrived.
Donnell eagerly shuttered his magically-lit lamp and took his cloak from
the back of the door.
“And you ... you worthless wretch of
an elf,” Solarrin growled. “You expect the day off tomorrow.”
“It is customary ...” Donnell began.
“And only once a year ...”
“A poor excuse for cutting a body’s
purse every winter.” He drew his fur-trimmed outer robe around himself,
then pulled the hood down to the top of his bristly eyebrows. “Be here
all the earlier the next day!”
Donnell so promised, and dashed off.
Solarrin grunted in displeasure. He locked the door behind him, pulled
his hood down even further and his scarf up until only his bulbous nose
and the tuft of white and black beard at his chin were revealed.
Limping, his gnarled leg and club foot
dragging in the snow, leaning heavily on his staff, Solarrin made his way
through the streets of Thanis to his house. The building was as dark and
gloomy as he himself. He lurched up the front steps and extended a frost-numbed
Now, it is a fact that there was nothing
at all particular about the knocker on the door, except that it was very
large. But tonight, just as the lock opened, Solarrin happened to glance
at it, and saw Bostitch’s face.
Sharp, curving horns sprouted from a
sloped, dull-witted brow. There was the befuddled expression so familiar
to Solarrin. Breath like steam plumed from the wide nostrils.
And then it was a knocker again.
Solarrin shook his head, remonstrated himself for even letting
himself think he saw what he thought he’d seen, and let himself in.
His rooms were sparse, plainly furnished.
He hobbled about in his dressing gown, not needing to worry himself over
dinner for a foul-smelling elixir in a silver flask was all that he needed
to sustain him. Later, he sat by the fire with a book of sinister spells,
and was utterly engrossed when his ear was disturbed by the sound of clanking.
A figure passed like smoke through the
door. Bostitch in his loincloth and thick belt of studded leather, his
horns tipped with bronze, bearing a chain made of swords and axes, helms
and shields, bits of battered armor.
A necromancer himself, Solarrin wasn’t
perturbed at all by the notion of spirits. He wasted no time debating with
himself, trying to blame this odd vision on any gastrointestinal cause.
But this spirit in particular chilled him, and moreso when it began to
“Little man!” Bostitch wailed. “Little
man is bad! Make big chain for self of bad things little man do! Not nice
to people. Now is in big trouble. Three ghosts come. One when clock goes
bong once tomorrow, others after.”
“Humbug. Ridiculous,” Solarrin said.
“I’m not planning to summon any spirits tomorrow.”
“Little man better watch out,” Bostitch
warned dolorously as he floated backwards toward the wall. “Still time
to be little nice man instead of little mean man.”
Solarrin sniffed scornfully. As the
spirit disappeared through the wall, he closed his book and laughed bitterly.
“Ghosts, indeed! They’ll find that my
powers are more than a match for any pitiful earthbound spirits!”
On that note, he went to bed.
He awakened much later to the chiming
of a single hour, and a spill of light through the shutters of his bedroom
window. Solarrin irritably swept aside the curtains, readying a spell,
and found himself face to face with his unearthly visitor.
His hair, which floated around his head
and prominently pointed ears, was the color of truesilver. The eyes were
a shade or two darker. He wore a tunic of the purest white bound with a
lustrous belt. He held evergreen boughs, winter flowers crowned his elegant
brow, and a shifting radiance emanated from him like the glow of the moon.
“So you’re the first of Bostitch’s ghosts,”
Solarrin said, unimpressed.
“I am the Spirit of Wintersfest Past,”
the elf-visaged specter said in a velvety, nobly-accented voice. “I am
come for your welfare and reclamation.”
“Imagine how enthralled I am.” Solarrin
jerked his bedcurtains shut.
A pale hand whipped them aside and closed
insubstantially but firmly on Solarrin’s arm. “I’m afraid I must insist.”
Solarrin laughed. “You think to order
me? Me? I am Solarrin, Archmage of the Universe, master of dark magics!”
“This night, you are but Solarrin,”
the elf-spirit said. A faint smile touched his lips. “You have no power
Before he could do more than begin to
sputter in outrage and protest, Solarrin found himself lifted by an unseen
force and borne out the window. He sailed along in the grip of his ghostly
guide, his dressing gown billowing around his misshapen legs.
Mere moments later, they touched down
in a field near a rearing plateau of stone pockmarked with caves and tunnels.
Solarrin’s eyes grew very large.
“Gnome Keep,” he whispered. “I was a
A group of thick-furred dogs swept past,
not wardogs these but standard beasts of conveyance, and to his deep shock,
Solarrin was able to name every young gnome astride them. They were riding
away from a long, low, sod-roofed dugout of a building, shouting Wintersfest
well-wishes to one another.
“The school is not quite deserted,”
the elf-spirit said, pulling Solarrin inexorably onward. “A solitary child,
neglected by his friends, is left there still.”
“Spare me the sentimentality,” Solarrin
said. “They were never friends to neglect me. They loathed me for my brilliance.
Even before I discovered my magic, they knew I was above them.”
The spirit shook his head sadly, and
the world whirled around Solarrin. Now he found himself staring at a house,
and the spirit asked him if he knew this place.
“Know it? I was apprenticed here!”
They went in. There at the desk was
a human man whose youthful appearance could not conceal an aura of age
“Why, it’s Talus Yor!” Solarrin said.
The man called out, and two apprentices
hurried in. The one at the rear was Solarrin, barely out of adolescence
but still unhandsome, ungainly.
“No more work tonight!” Talus Yor announced
merrily, clapping his hands. “Wintersfest Eve! Clear away, my lads, and
make ready! Tonight we feast and dance until Helia shows her rosy blushing
The other apprentice fell to with a
right good effort, while Solarrin stomped about and did as little as possible.
Soon the room was filling with people, lights, music, food, and jolliment.
There were dances, forfeits, stolen kisses, sweets, wine, and riddling.
Talus Yor was much at the center of the festivities, flirting with every
lady and joking with every man.
“Why are you showing me this?” the elder
Solarrin asked. “He would put us through this nonsense every year, squandering
his money and his magic just to make these dolts happy.”
The spirit sighed. “My time grows short.
Quickly, now.” He laid hold of Solarrin again, and now they saw yet another
version of his younger self, this one black of beard and sinister of aspect,
sitting beside yet worlds apart from a comely gnomish lass.
“Ranni.” The observing Solarrin spat
the name as if it tasted bad in his mouth.
“You loved her once,” the spirit said
“I wanted her,” Solarrin corrected.
“She tormented me, mocked me, played her maiden’s games of sweet smiles
and cruel words. It was a relief to be quit of her. I had my magic. I still
fail to see why you must dredge up these wretched Wintersfests. Leave me!
Take me back! Haunt me no more!”
“For all your cunning,” the elf-spirit
said sorrowfully, “you have learned nothing.”
Solarrin’s retort went unheard as the
air rushed around him. When his senses cleared, he was back in his bedroom,
exhausted and irritated. He crawled into bed, muttered a few vile oaths,
and went back to sleep.
The clock woke him again, once more
chiming one o’clock.
“Cursed thing,” he groaned. And to think,
Montennor craftsmanship was supposed to be the best. He hadn’t paid good
coin for a clock that chimed the wrong hours. Either that, or he’d slept
the whole turn of the day and night through, which he strenuously doubted.
His various infirmities of body made that an impossibility.
Speaking of which ... he rose from the
bed, tended to various matters, and was on his way back to the comfort
of his blankets when he became aware of a golden-orange glow spreading
along the floor. It seemed to be coming from under the door to his small
He opened it, and stood agape. It was
his room, but it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and
ceilings were hung with swaths of vivid silk and flowered vines. Many little
mirrors had been scattered about, reflecting back the light of the mighty
blaze that roared in the fireplace. A bounty of decadent treats were heaped
about, forming a couch upon which a vision reclined.
“Come in!” she purred invitingly, “Come
in, and know me better, man!”
Solarrin was unable to take a single
step, and his jaw was so far fallen that his white beard brushed the tips
of his slippers.
“I am the Spirit of Wintersfest Present,”
this sumptuously beautiful human-looking female said. “Look upon me!”
She was clothed in one simple deep green
robe bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on her figure
that her shape was nearly bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed
by any artifice. On her head, she wore no other covering than a holly wreath
set here and there with shining icicles. Her blonde curls were long and
free, free as her luscious face, sparkling eyes, open hand, silken voice,
unconstrained demeanor, and joyful air.
“You have never seen the like of me
before,” this spirit laughed throatily.
“And there is nothing I wish to learn
from you!” Solarrin said, averting his eyes with a shudder as she trailed
lazy fingers along her lush, abundant limbs.
“Poor thing. You have no choice.” She
rose from her couch, hips swaying, and reached for him.
Solarrin bleated, a shameful sound akin
to terror, and recoiled from her touch. To no avail. She clutched his arm
just as her predecessor had done, and whisked him through the ceiling of
There below him, Thanis lay in a wonderland
of sun-bedazzled fresh snow. Wintersfest morning, all the bells in every
temple ringing joyfully, the streets abuzz with delighted people rushing
hither and yon with armsful of packages, to greet and smile and generally
carry on in a manner that Solarrin found exceedingly sickening.
The woman-spirit led him straight to
a humble home, stopping on the threshold to bless it with a kiss from her
“Whose house is this?” Solarrin demanded
“Why, that of your overworked, underpleasured
clerk, Donnell,” she replied.
And lo, it was true! There was Donnell’s
wife, adorned in colorful but inexpensive ribbons. There his children,
boys and girls tumbling over themselves like puppies in their excitement,
yammering about how splendid the goose smelled, how grand a feast they
were to have. A huge brood for an elven family, all of them thin but squealingly
“They call that a feast?” Solarrin snorted
at the sight of a goose that must have been the scrawniest and most beleaguered
creature in the barnyard.
“Their pleasure in the day makes it
so,” the spirit said.
Donnell came in then, his face red and
chapped from the cold but his eyes bright. Upon his shoulder, he carried
a tiny elf-boy, whose legs were shriveled and encased in braces.
Solarrin rubbed his own leg absently,
his gaze fixed on the child. Donnell raved to his wife about what a perfect
child their crippled youngster was, and soon all of them were sitting down
to devour their scant meal.
“A happy Wintersfest to us all, my dears,”
Donnell said. “May the gods bless us!”
“Gods bless us, every one,” the tiny
“Tell me, spirit,” Solarrin asked, “if
the child will live.”
“I see a vacant seat in the poor chimney
corner,” she said, distressed at having to relate such unpleasant tidings.
“And a crutch without an owner. If these shadows remain unaltered, yes,
the child will die.”
“Hmph,” Solarrin said, scratching his
“But what then?” Now there was a biting
edge to the spirit’s voice. “If he is to die, he had better do it —”
“Do not throw my own words back in my
face,” Solarrin snarled. “Others have overcome frail bodies and crippled
legs to achieve greatness. If the boy can, fine; if he cannot, he has no
reason to live. It’s not as if he had any strong magics to speak of.”
Within, unaware, Donnell raised his
glass in a toast to his employer, Solarrin, Founder of the Feast. His wife
had many choice things to say on the subject, and Solarrin noted that much
of the merriment went out of their meal after his name was mentioned.
The spirit escorted Solarrin on, past
numerous other houses where Wintersfest was being enjoyed. Even by the
poorest of the poor, the lowest of the low. Every hearth had at least a
sprig of evergreen, every hovel had some good cheer.
She brought them to a halt in a cozy,
gleaming room, where Solarrin’s nephew Greyquin and his bride Elsanni were
jesting and gaming with a group of friends. So many gnomes, all smiling
so broadly their faces seemed wont to split, all laughing so gaily the
tears shone in their eyes. They laughed hardest of all when, in a riddling
game, Greyquin got them to guess the identity of a certain loathsome, unwanted
creature. Not a rat, not a roach, not even a goblin ... no, none other
than his own uncle Solarrin!
“I have had my fill of this and more!”
Solarrin said. “Take me home, spirit!”
She nodded in agreement, and it was
then that he noticed something odd about the folds of her robe. How they
partly concealed what seemed to be two small, abject, frightened and starving
children. He regarded them for a moment, then looked up into the spirit’s
hazel eyes as a lonely bell began to toll from the clocktower atop the
Temple of Blackmoon.
“They are the world’s children,” she
said by way of explanation. “Ignorance and Want. Doom is written upon their
“You should rid yourself of them,” he
said in distaste.
“To where? The prisons, the poorhouses,
the slave markets of Tradersport?”
His sharp retort froze on his lips,
for the bell struck twelve. Midnight. The glorious spirit vanished and
the miserable children with her, and Solarrin stood alone in a deserted,
No, not alone. A figure waited in the
mouth of an alley where shadows were deepest. Tall and broadly built, shrouded
in cloth of dusty and ancient black. A weapon, a five-headed flail, swung
from its belt.
The hand that emerged from the draped
sleeve was the size of a grown man’s head, scarred and callused. It beckoned.
“What’s this, no stopping back home
first?” Solarrin muttered. He lurched toward the figure. During his travels
with the previous two spirits, he had not noticed any chill or dampness;
now, those things seemed to burrow into him and nest there.
“Oh, very well, let’s be done with it,
shall we? I take it you’re the Spirit of Wintersfest Yet To Come. One needn’t
be a Magelord to determine that. What fun-filled frolic have you to show
The dread phantom moved, and Solarrin
had no choice but to follow although his bad leg was howling with pain
and he had no staff to support himself.
Soon they came to a group of men. Solarrin
knew them, petty nobles all. They were chortling in mean spirits over the
death of an unliked acquaintance, debating whether or not a provided meal
would make attending his funeral worthwhile. They found each others’ remarks
to be of the highest humor, then went their separate ways with vindictive
Solarrin glanced up at the spirit, catching
a glimpse of the hardened orckin warrior face beneath the cowl. No sooner
had he done so that the spirit turned and led him onward. Onward and downward,
through the Rings of Thanis to a disreputable tavern called the Empty Mug.
They entered not the tavern but the
small, dingy shop next door. A low-browed, beetling place presided over
by a grey-haired rascal with a black patch concealing one eye.
A woman slipped quietly into the shop.
More girl than woman, on closer inspection, a creature of striking exotic
beauty and quick, clever hands. A crossling by the look of her, elfkin.
She was laden with a large bundle, which she set before the one-eyed man.
“Open it,” she offered, “and let me
know the value of it!”
He did so, sifting through various small
items such as an ink pot, a brooch of no great expense, some silver teaspoons,
gloves and other articles of apparel. At the bottom of the bundle was a
large drift of linens; the one-eyed man lifted them to see what they were
and then grinned fiendishly.
“You don’t mean to tell me, kitten,
that you took down his very bed curtains! With him lying there cold as
“And his blankets too,” the young thief
replied with an answering grin that brought sparkling light to her sapphire
eyes. “It’s not as if he could catch much more of a chill!”
“Well, now,” chortled the one-eyed man.
“He’s gone and given someone a profit, at any rate! Never did in life,
that I’ll warrant, but at least you and I will have some good of him!”
“Villains!” Solarrin’s lip curled.
The orckin spirit motioned him away
from that festering and unclean place. Solarrin looked around hopefully
for his own chamber, wishing that this ghastly night would come to an end,
but it seemed the spirits were not yet done with him.
The morgue was still and silent as befitted
the antechamber to the tomb. A sheet-draped form lay upon a table, waiting
the undertaker. Solarrin had no desire to look closely at it, so the spirit
continued their journey until they were once more in front of Donnell’s
Solarrin knew what he was going to see,
and was not wrong in his guess. The wife, trying to hide her weeping. The
children, hushed for once, their faces stunned and hurting. And Donnell
himself, coming home with slow, lifeless steps, his arms empty. Tears flowed
like rain as the family recalled their youngest, now lost and never to
grow any older.
Just when Solarrin could bear no more,
the spirit took him to another place. A graveyard. Here, he knew, he would
learn the name of the unmourned man whose life could have been a mirror
of his own.
“Before I near that stone to which you
point,” Solarrin said, “Answer me this. Are these the things that will
be, or that may be only?”
The spirit extended its brawny arm at
the grave. Its bare earth was only lightly frosted with snow; the earth
was yet raw from the spade. The letters carved into the headstone were
so fresh they might have just come from the chisel an hour ago.
And of course, the name was his own.
“I see,” he said. “Your lessons have
shown me what you wished me to learn. Now take me home, spirit.”
He no sooner uttered the words than
found himself on his own bed, surrounded by the curtains that had not yet
been torn down. He pulled them apart and saw clean white light streaming
through the shutters. The temple bells were all ringing, a chorus of peals
and chimes such as might wake the dead.
He limped to the window and opened it.
Bright morning greeted him, brisk wind stirred his beard and caressed his
A drake was perched on the windowbox
below, and cringed away in alarm as it caught sight of Solarrin leaning
out the window.
“You there, drake,” he called. “What’s
*Today?* the drake warbled in surprise.
*Why, ’tis Wintersfest Day!*
“Wintersfest Day,” Solarrin said to
himself. “I haven’t missed it. The spirits did it all in one night.” In
a louder voice, he said, “Hello, drake?”
*Hello?* the drake said in all curiosity.
“Do you know the poulterer’s in the
next block? The one with the prize turkey in the window?”
*What, the one twice as big as me?*
“What a delightful creature,” Solarrin
said. “Yes, that’s the one!”
*I know it,* the drake said, rising
eagerly in anticipation.
“Then go and perch there, you unkempt
reptile, and quit dirtying my window!” He swatted the drake hard as he
could with the whisk-broom he kept by the fireplace.
The drake squawked and tumbled, landing
with a puff of granules in a snowbank.
“What a revolting night I’ve spent,”
Solarrin said to himself as he closed and latched the window. “What would
they have had of me? Change my ways? Repent my evil deeds? Wax generous
to that idiot Donnell and his unwashed, runny-nosed brood? I suppose they
would have me become as a second father to that pathetic sickly boychild.
Give of my magic to help others. Did the spirits think to drive me mad?
And so Solarrin dressed, and went about
his business ...
... but before he left the house, he
took down the door knocker and threw it in a rubbish bin.
Happy Holidays from
Tim, Christine, and Becca