Friday, 6 December 2019

Yule, The Arkhamas Way


Part, The First

   Coarse voices were sharpened by the frozen air while frigid projectiles streaked through the branches, pummelling target and trunk with dull, powerful thuds. Screams deafened tiny ears, while oversized eyes watched the onslaught carelessly from higher in the boughs, chipped teeth crunching through seeds and nuts as the cackles renewed with every strike.
   One of the child-like Arkhamas hung upside down from his branch, numb to the chaos beneath him as he chewed and stared in thought through the snow-smothered forest. Until a stray snowball hit him in the face.
   "So I saw the hoomans gettin' ready for Yule," he said slowly, roused from his daydream as he wiped chunks of ice and hidden stones from his pale forehead. "Draggin' great big logs about, killin' their cattle, bakin', bakin', bakin'..."
   "Ooh!" Seppy chirped below him as she stumbled out of the way of another icy attack, her hair deliberately knotted around sticks and acorn caps each as frosted as the trees. "What was they baking?"
   "Pies, sweetbuns, cider bread..."
   The snowballs stopped as a collective yearning dribbled amongst the ten of them.
   "We should pinch some."
   "That we should," Dag declared from behind a thick tree, winding up another powerful throw and knocking the twig-antlers tied into his hair with each exaggerated pass.
   The upside-down Arkhamas pursed his lips, his huge, silver-green eyes narrowing once again in thought as the snowball hurtled past him. "We should try their Yule."
   "You mean kill their cows?"
   "No - the rest of it."
   "Why are they killing their cows?"
   "To eat 'em, right, so they don't have to feed 'em," replied Angk.
   "Monsters."
   "Why d'you wanna do what they do, Puck?" Dag challenged him, diving quickly behind his tree to avoid the throws of three others. "They're stupid, they just argue about things, get loud and set fire to things, and they don't even enjoy doing it! Every year I hear 'em whinging about having to talk to people they don't like, too! I don't even get why they 'have' to talk to 'em!"
   "Yeah but," Puck, the first Arkhamas, swung himself back on top of the branch, matted hair falling back into a mess around him and opening the small birds nest tangled into it, "we won't be doin' any o' that! And we haven't done it their way before, either!"
   "We did," replied Seppy, "but they was still sacrificing things back then."
   "Yeah but that wasn't us that tried that, that was...flippin'...more-than-I-can-count-ago!" He looked imploringly across the others as a small bird settled into his hair-nest, until Erra, with a particular yet haphazard arrangement of moss and lichen in her hair and across her skin, finally grunted in agreement.
   "Not a bad idea," she said at last, striking Dag from the rear.
   "I wanna do it," declared Angk.
   "Me too," Seppy chirped.
   A chorus of other voices inside their heads agreed - the opinions of far more than the ten present.
   Puck beamed a chipped grin from his place in the branches and absently reached up to stroke the bird on his head. It tried irritably to peck at his fingers. "That's settled, then."
   "What d'we need?"
   "Erm...food. Lots of food. And a ham - smoke, a smoking ham. A big log we gotta burn, and more wood; a big circle of twigs, that stuff they drink they make from honey, presents, and food."
   "You said food."
   "Yeah, we need a lot of it."
   "I don't wanna do presents," said Dag, wrinkling his nose and adjusting his twig-antlers. "It just makes the hoomans angry."
   "Yeah there's no fun in that."
   "Where d'we get it all?"
   Another chorus of voices clamoured, and the eyes of all ten glazed. A moment later, Puck nodded and jumped down from the tree. "Let's go."
   The snowball fight was promptly abandoned.
 
   Giant eyes squinted low over a frosted drystack wall. None of the villagers had noticed them, nor the twigs rising a good foot higher than the tops of their heads. The humans carried on with their business, moving things around the open streets to make way for their evening's celebration. The enormous log that would be at the centre of those festivities waited just outside the village beside a number of empty carpentry stools.
   The squinting eyes sank slowly below the top of the wall. The antlers didn't.
   "We can't cut one ourselfs," Dag whispered to the three other Arkhamas, each crouching as low as he in the snow, "but we can hardly lift theirs, neither. We need an alternatiff."
   The four of them looked around in silence, until one of them snapped back and grinned. "Don't worry - I got an idea."
   There was no argument. As he rose and hurried away from the wall at a crouch, the others immediately followed, then broke off into the trees until they had looped around to the far side of the village. There, Dag and the others stopped behind their companion, who pointed back towards the river. Then, when the villagers' attention was stolen away by the cry of either a child or a dying cat, they made a dash for the log.
   "Shove it shove it shove it!"
   They did just that. With the stubborn strength of the four of them, the Arkhamas forced the log off from its stand in the very same moment that another cry of alarm rose from much nearer in the village. None of them looked back.
   Grinning and cackling, they chased the rolling tree trunk down the slope that wasn't really steep enough for it to be any fun, kicking and steering it when they were able towards the water some way below. They could hear the crunch of snow and the shouts as the villagers gave chase behind them, but all that did was stretch their grins even wider and tug whoops of enthusiasm from their chests.
   The river rushed ahead of them; they heard it before they saw it, and the moment the unstoppable log crashed into the water, they leapt, straddling the wood and howling in glee while the fastest of the humans stumbled and swore at the splash thrown back across them.
   "It's ff-freezing!" One of the Arkhamas shivered as they rode along the river on their prize, leaving the hollering, fist-shaking, cursing villagers behind them.
   "What, you esspected it to be like landing in a freshly baked pie?"
   "Lady's branches, I'm so hungry..."
   They howled and hooted as they were carried deeper into the wild tangles of the forest, and jeered at the hiss of a disgruntled n├Ącken they passed in the water beside them. The vengeful water sprite sent a wave along behind them, which promptly caught up and threw both them and their log out of the river to land hard on the frozen bank.
   They stayed there, wide-eyed, dripping and still for a long moment in shock, until they burst out laughing. They picked themselves up, shook themselves off, wrung the water from their matted hair, and rolled their log onwards through the trees.


Part, The Second

   Seppy returned from her scouting to pensive faces. The ham was too heavily guarded. It was as if the butcher knew they were coming! Their plan was foiled.
   "Unless..."
   She and the others looked towards another Arkhamas - Onnie, who they swore had gotten smarter since she'd lost her eye.
   "Unless we pinch a different ham."
   "The butcher has the biggest," Seppy reminded her, shaking a wad of sawdust from her stick-tangled, acorn cap-woven hair. "We want that 'un."
   "Well yeah, but, that's prolly going to the mayor or whatsit, innit. We'll 'ave a better chance if we pinch it from a house."
   "Or two 'ouses," another supplied.
   Seppy's pale lips pursed in thought, then loosened a moment later as a silent agreement passed through the group.
   They turned as one towards the overgrown, snow-padded juniper bushes and followed them at a running crouch, hopping into any and every nook and hole they could find, moving as quiet and adept as delicious little forest mice. No one in the town noticed them, not even as they stopped and snickered, pulling faces behind the backs of oblivious people, nor slipped and froze their feet through a puddle whose ice had been shattered by some other clumsy sod before them.
   The town was big, but not unfamiliar; Arkhamas made frequent incursions into this and others, and knew where all the best food was - information they shared with the rest of them, in part so they wouldn't always have to be the ones to go and get it all themselves.
   Today, though, they followed their noses. Humans had a tendency to break habits on Yule, Midsummer, Evigskurd - most of their special occasions, actually. It made stealing that much harder, but it also presented new opportunities.
   Onnie was the first to stop. It took Seppy two more steps before she noticed the smell on the numb air. Meat. Salt. Alder.
   The four of them made a beeline right towards it, and stopped just across from an inn.
   Yep. Broken habits. Inns never made anything that smelled that good.
   "Distraction," said Seppy; the others were already nodding. They moved around between crates being unloaded from wagons, unnoticed thanks to musicians playing some racket on their noisy wheel-string-things, and slipped through an alley to a window.
   Seppy climbed onto another's shoulders, and Onnie followed beside her. The pair peered through the frost-clouded glass, sharing the image silently with the other two.
   People. Ale barrels. Fire place. Tables and legs. Lots of noise - a general tavern.
   And a kiln blazing in the back.
   Her giant eyes narrowed, and she turned them back towards the town and the forest looming beyond it. There were raghorns close by.
   Then they drifted towards the rot-crates at the other end of the alley.
   Jobs were assigned, all in eager agreement, and the two clambered back down before the others could carry them away in their enthusiasm. While they dashed off, Seppy and Onnie made for the back door of the inn. It was open despite the cold - clearly an invitation to make up for the butcher's tightness!
   They slipped inside, stifling their grins, and darted between the storage in the back, evading the eyes of the scullion boys. From their spot between a sack of onions and another of weird, white carrots, they noted every person, every hand-hold on the wall, every open crate; anyone and anything they could hide behind.
   And, of course, the most direct and the most covert routes to the kiln.
   But they didn't move yet.
   Almost ten minutes passed, in which time several of the onions had made it into the pockets of their stitched hides and furs - though only Onnie had pinched any of the weird, white and not-very-carroty carrots - before the most distant of their troupe announced his position.
   But it wasn't their turn yet. So they continued to wait for a few more minutes until the closer of the four gave his assurance.
   The smell of burning rot - both vegetables and meat that not even the dogs had scavenged - flooded into the tavern like a wave of foetid farts. The pair covered their noses and held their breath even as they giggled, their eyes watering both at the sour sting and the pressure in their cheeks. But it worked: the tavern emptied as quick as if they'd actually...well, released a wave of foetid farts.
   They moved only when the door swung shut behind the last staggering person, and began wrestling the kiln door open. A waft of smoke barrelled out over them, forcing them to breathe and choke while their eyes stung with tears all over again.
   But too much was at stake to give in, and the mouth-watering smell that followed the smoke out was enough to shut out any hesitation.
   The heat, however, was another matter.
   While Seppy backed away, Onnie was already on the move, and returned a moment later with an empty onion sack. Using some long metal sticks nearby, they hooked and tugged the ham out, a chunk of meat almost the size of Seppy herself, and dragged it into the sack.
   They turned and ran immediately, carrying it between the two of them as best they could. It was burning hot in their hands, but they knew they'd be grateful for it outside.
   But they didn't go out just yet.
   Dropping the sack to their feet, they stopped beside the back door even despite the lingering stink, a stink which mixed with the ham to create a confusing but ultimately sickening smell which Seppy felt was even more likely to empty her stomach.
   Fortunately, it didn't take long for the disgruntled voices outside to rise in alarm, and another to begin shrieking and whooping, punctuated by bestial roars.
   That was their cue.
   With their own excitement stifled down to involuntary splutters, they hoisted the ham between them and dashed out into the alley, down its length, and back along the winding route they'd taken in the first place. There was no time to marvel at the raghorn rampaging through the streets, charging at the panicking people, jutting its crescent antlers, swiping its taloned paws while another Arkhamas stood on its back, shouting and swearing and firing his slingshot, which was a shame, because it was always a good show.
   But they had what they needed, and the others would get away - Arkhamas always got away.

   The last sack tumbled out from the window, caught clumsily in short little arms with an 'oof' muffled beneath it, but Erra didn't follow it down. She lingered in the opening, scratching thoughtfully at the lichen on her cheek. When the boy below dropped the bundle of sweetbreads to the ground, he was already grinning. They all were.
   Within moments they'd clambered back in through the window and stood once again in the middle of the looted bakery.
   "Flour," Erra decided, making immediately for the duly labelled sacks against the far wall, "they always go for that first!"
   Another followed her while the others began climbing the shelves, kicking over utensils and taking small bites out of things as though they were oversized rats.
   "What d'they go for next?" The boy asked beside her, then his giant eyes widened further with his grin. "Eggs! Eggs eggs eggs - put the eggs where the flour ought t'be! In sacks!"
   "And crack 'em," she cackled joyously, "then, when they reach in, they'll get gooey fingers!"
   "And put the broom in the butter churn!"
   "I can't see no butter churn," another said from the shelves.
   "There's gotta be one! They use butter, and thass where butter comes from, right? They have--ppbbpbfff!"
   The others coughed and snickered from somewhere in the thick cloud of flour.
   Erra looked down at her hides as the puff settled, mud-coloured a moment ago, now white as bone.
   White as snow.
   Her huge, silver-green eyes brightened, and the others saw the same thing. Another burst of flour filled the air, then another, and another, until all five of them were completely white, and the bakery a delightful mess that someone else would have to clean up.
   They hurried back out, satisfied, and vanished with their plunder, catching not a single eye even as they ran openly beside snow-laden bushes.


Part, The Third

   The gathered Arkhamas spun from the light of the fungus glowing at the mouth of their setts as the rough, moaning voice cut through the dying light of the evening, and stared with wide eyes for the source of the terrible sound.
   "Weeee are the ghoooosts of Yuuuuule," it called.
   "Yer," another followed, far more coarsely, "we're 'ere to 'aunt you 'cause you're all naughty little theefs, every one o' you!"
   Five white Arkhamas stumbled through the trees, heavy with bags, and dumped them down with the rest while their companions laughed and clapped. A few, however, called names, their fright far too obvious in the shake of their voices.
   "Awwh come on," Erra grinned, plonking herself down next to a boy who had already reached for his spear, "put that cutter away, we was only messin'!" She frowned as her gaze dropped to the small box in the hands of another they had all gathered around. "Wassat?"
   "A tindy box," the boy replied, lowering his spear warily. "Onnie brought it back. Can't get it to work, though."
   "Yeah - been shakin' it, talkin' to it, throwin' it at wood," Puck shook his head vigorously, provoking a chirp of irritation from the bird nesting in his hair. "No good."
   "Tried opening it yet?" Onnie asked from her position as look-out in the tree.
   "There's no lid."
   "Push the side."
   "Ah!"
   "'Ere," Puck looked up towards the one-eyed sentry. "Why didn't you s'gest that before?"
   "You never said you was stuck."
   "...S'pose we didn't, at that."
   "There's just a rock and a chunk of metal in 'ere!"
   "Whack 'em together."
   "Not working."
   "Keep whackin' 'em together."
   After four more clicks, a flurry of sparks flew out in all directions, sending the group diving backwards for cover.
   Onnie nodded to herself in the tree while giddy laughter rippled below.
   Puck managed to find his feet and flap the snow from his clothes, then chuckled his way over to where six others sat at the huge log Dag and his group had rolled in. He drew a huge talon from his pocket as Seppy came over behind him, and joined the others in cutting into the bark.
   Seppy pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes over his shoulder, even as splinters of wood flicked about haphazardly. "Whatcha carving?"
   "Things. Important things."
   Her lips pursed tighter. "Why? What's the point if we're just gonna set it on fire?"
   Puck shrugged and continued cutting the shape of a pie into the wood. "Who knows, hoomans waste a lot of time on useless things."
   "Like complainin'," a girl said from beside him, rolling her huge eyes. "And worryin'. They don't even get any food outta any o' that!"
   "Hoomans are so stupid."
   The Arkhamas' cackles drowned out the screeching of nearby moon hawks. The clatter and yelp of pain behind them quickly shut them all up.
   Erra looked up from her rifling through the sweetbuns sack to frown at the boy clutching his foot on top of a pile of rocks. "What're you doing?"
   "Well we gotta set the twig-circle-sun-wheel on fire, right?" He winced, lifting the stone he'd just dropped on his toe and muttering an insult at it. "Well, if we roll it through the fire, we ain't gotta faff with that tindy box thing again. And it'll go faster if we roll it down a hill. So we're makin' a hill."
   "Yeah, one problem, right," Angk turned from another group and held up an oval of twigs rather than a circle, "this ain't gonna roll nowhere."
   He shuddered with a stifled yelp as another jumped up suddenly from beside him. "Leave it to me."
   They all blinked after her as she ran off into the night.
   Angk carelessly tossed the oval away. "Why d'we have to set fire to a circle anyway?"
   "Hoomans reckon it'll bring the sun back," Puck replied with another cackle.
   "Idiots," Angk grinned, lying back onto the frozen ground in his thickly-furred cloak. "They'd be better off using the twigs for fires and burning it at home. Or, not bothering at all, right, and just waiting for the sun to come back on its own." He waved his hand towards the dimming sky.
   Erra looked back towards them, the note of disbelief in her eyes caught by the fungus light. "They don't still believe that, do they?"
   "Nah, they just like setting fire to things. Any excuse, right. Even in summer! It's too hot for fire, but they still do it! And throw it around!"
   "Oooh I've always wanted to try that!" Onnie declared from her place in the tree.
   "Well it makes more sense to try it now than Midsummer..."


Part, The Thir--no, no wait, Fourth

   The forest had become black. Stars peeked through the bare branches, but they offered little light, and the moon didn't track through the sky as the sun did. But the Arkhamas, dozens of them, stared up at it anyway, waiting, until finally a trill pierced through the night from a short distance away.
   "How does that thing know when it's midnight?" Onnie muttered quietly.
   "Prob'ly hears the worms stop movin' and go to sleep. So..." Puck stepped forwards, rock and steel in his hands, and began striking them above the enormous carven log. It caught light easily enough.
   And died just as quickly.
   He blinked at it, then tried again. The flame was pitiful, but it survived. He stood watching it for a time, waiting for it to spread, and the others peered around quietly from behind him.
   He muttered a curse, then clashed the pieces together again. More sparks fell upon the log and another little flame soon flickered into life, but it sputtered where it was, just like the first.
   Puck turned and looked towards the others. "...Help."
   Four leapt forwards eagerly, fire rocks already in their hands, and began frantically clapping them together, starting countless little blazes until the log and all its carvings were alight, a few others standing to the side and using their cloaks to fan the flames.
   Soon, the rest were whooping and cheering behind them.
   The snow was already receding from the clearing when Puck clambered up onto the pile of rocks beside it. "Sun!" He bellowed, throwing his head back and arms open, silencing them all. "Oh sun! We light this tree so you'll come back to us, in a couple of moons when you usually would, but we're hoomans and are too stupid to compr'end the 'nevitable, and think you'll forget about us if we don't ask!" Then he raised his chin and howled into the night like a wolf, and while the dozens of Arkhamas around the fire howled in their own tradition, he turned and shoved the sunwheel - a huge, stolen wagon wheel - down the rickety slope and into the flames.
   Cheers erupted again, and louder as the wheel loosed a sputter of burning bark, then louder still as it crashed back out of the fire, fully alight, and barrelled through them all. One didn't dive out of the way quick enough, and they laughed as she leapt back to her feet, her furs and twiggy antlers catching quickly, and ran off after it in the direction of the river.
   "She got on fire faster than the logs," Puck cackled.
   He turned back to the others and beamed. "Let's eat!"
   They dug into the pilfered pies and snatched sweetbuns before he'd finished speaking, and he was only a second behind them.
   "Where's the ham?" He asked once he'd stuffed three rolls into his mouth at once.
   Seppy wiped the crumbs from her face and leapt to her feet, grabbed her spear, then turned and dashed towards a large bundle wrapped in two sacks on the ground. "It has to be smoking."
   "Oh, yeah! Smokin' ham."
   She pulled the burlap aside and stabbed her spear into the meat, hoisting it with some effort, and spun around to hold it directly in the fire.
   Puck grinned and dashed off to find something to fan the smoke with, while the rest began roasting things on the smaller fires left in the wheel's path.
   One of them soon rolled out a wooden barrel while Erra clattered behind with wooden cups. The food was abandoned by curiosity alone.
   They sniffed cautiously at their cups of golden liquid and passed each other uncertain glances. Puck raised his above his head and declared a count. They drank as one, and spat as one.
   "It tastes burny," Onnie rasped while the others coughed, wretched and dribbled. "On the dangly bit at the back!"
   "Why do hoomans drink this?!"
   "It's what they have to do," Puck said around his tongue, hanging it out of his mouth and wringing the last of the mead back off of it, "before they can start singin' and hittin' each other."
   "Why do they hit each other?"
   "Prob'ly 'cause they made each other drink this!" Puck turned and tossed his cup on the fire, the flames bursting briefly on contact. The rest of them blinked at it, then the rest of the cups followed.
   Again, the charred Arkhamas's furs caught alight, and she turned and rushed back to the river ahead of a chorus of laughter.

   The snow had melted from the clearing by the end of the hour. The fire was roaring, many Arkhamas had abandoned their thickest layers, especially for the evident fire hazard, and though a handful had eaten so much that they'd been sick, they continued to do so while others braved the mead again. A couple even found a liking for it.
   Erra picked herself up from the floor, wiping her mouth from vomit - neither from mead nor food, but for spinning around with two flaming sticks like a fire whirlwind - and saw the black stains on her hands in the fire light. Her giant eyes narrowed.
   She screamed in fright as Dag leapt up from the ground in front of her.
   "Wassat? Mud?"
   "Ash," she giggled as her heart settled, cleaning her hands off on his clothes. "Hoomans keep it after the log's burnt, I think."
   "They do, I think. Why?"
   "'Cause," she picked up a charred fragment of wood from close to the fire, then dropped it immediately with a clumsy curse, "they dust stuff when they clean their houses."
   "What do they dust?"
   "Shelfs and stuff. Puts some of the healthy dirt back, I think."
   Now Dag's eyes narrowed, and she grinned up at him. "Good idea!"
   The pair sat on the ground and Erra dragged over some more charcoal, hissing and peeping at the heat. Then she bashed them up on the ground in front of her and poked at it tentatively with a finger. Once it was sufficiently blackened, she grinned at him again. "Brace yourself."
   "I am ready."
   Dag fell as still as stone while she drew her finger over his face. Frozen in suppressed pain, he stayed perfectly still as she worked.
   "Guys, look!"
   Dag gritted his teeth while Erra's burning finger remained on his forehead, and turned his eyes in their sockets along everyone else's attention. Onnie threw five burning sticks in the air and started to juggle them. Cheers rose again, and a few threw their remaining mead at her. The sticks popped and flared, but she didn't stop juggling. Nor beaming - even as one stick got away from her when it was clipped by a flying cup and struck the twice-charred Arkhamas, setting her alight again.
   She groaned and ran back to the river.
   "You might be better off staying by the river tonight, Maz!" Angk hiccuped helpfully after her.


Part, The Last

   "'He fell off the box, and down came his socks, and he tumbled head over--'"
   "What's them bobbing lights?" Puck asked, squinting through the fire light to the far side of the forest where six small, orange smudges drifted through the trees.
   "Fireflies!"
   But he shook his head and strained his giant eyes even further. "Wrong time o' year..."
   "Wait, wassat? Listen!"
   They all fell silent at Onnie's warning, and discovered a voice slurring through the darkness. "--want fire, we'll give you fire!"
   Panic blazed through the Arkhamas. "Hoomans!"
   All thirty eight scattered from the fire. Several climbed up into trees as easily as squirrels, others dove into their setts, and more still started howling and finding protection behind tree trunks, seizing handfuls of nuts as they went.
   As those who had run to their holes returned with long bone spears, those clambering through the boughs above were advancing on the approaching humans.
   "They got arrows!" One of them shouted back to the rest. "Flippin' flamin' arrows!"
   "They want fire, eh?" Dag, face painted in a ferocious mask of ash, hissed viciously as he danced his huge weapon between his hands. "We'll give 'em fire, too!"
   Puck pulled his slingshot free from his broken pocket and loaded another with his own nuts, a chipped-tooth grin spreading across his own face. "And give it, we will!"
   The Arkhamas in the trees began whooping and bellowing around the humans as they drew back to release their fire arrows, startling them for a ridiculously long moment. It was enough for those with spears on the ground to charge forwards while others threw a volley of javelins from behind, set alight by the Yule fire. But the slingshots were even faster. The humans' bows lowered in surprise while nuts struck their faces, the Arkhamas's aim near perfect even in the darkness.
   Then the speared warband was upon them, stabbing and waving their bone blades around, cutting skin and fabric while the humans stupidly lifted their arms to protect themselves rather than take distance. A few arrows were clumsily loosed in the confusion, grazing tree trunks with hopeless thunks. One slicked past Onnie's ear in the boughs, nicking the top of it off. She bellowed in anger, then a new cry rose from her throat - a roaring, salivating, bleating cry.
   The others continued their onslaught below, pushing the six humans back with jabbing spears, shrill howling and strikes from all sides with iron-hard nuts. Arrows were knocked from bows to fizzle out on the snowy ground, and though the humans resorted in their shock to whatever other weapons they had on them, including a hammer for one fellow, their ideas of attack were broken for good when two raghorn burst in through the trees. Answering Onnie's call, the tawny beasts pounced in on silent paws, their crescent antlers lowered in attack, and it was nothing short of sheer luck that the humans stumbled out of the way in time to avoid being skewered.
   The six of them turned and bolted, two breaking their bows in an attempt to ward off those antlers in the process.
   The Arkhamas cheered and whooped behind them, throwing clumsy curses after their shadows.
   "They stank!" Dag observed once they were safe enough to turn their backs.
   "Like the drink, yeah," Seppy agreed. She popped her lips. "Poor guys. How'd they find us, anyways?"
   Dag scratched at the ties of his twiggy antlers as he and the others wandered back towards their festivities. "Followed us with the log, I reckon. We were chased to the river. Wouldn't've taken much to find us; follow the river and look for fire."
   Seppy nodded to herself, then shrugged. "We'll move off if we have to. But we won tonight. Come on - I wanna sing some more stupid songs! I know one about a bucket!"

   The sky was brightening. It was obvious while the fire died.
   The night had fallen quiet; only a few Arkhamas were still awake, and most of the noise came from their snoring.
   Puck smiled sleepily and handed another scrap of no-longer-smoking ham to the raghorns and ermines that had gathered. Erra pulled open a sack of sweetbuns and let the foxes at it, while birds and snow squirrels worked their way through a bag of nuts.
   Another poured the last of the mead on the dying fire.
   Puck watched it flare and frowned to himself. "Why would they ruin honey?"
   Erra settled down against the log beside him, resting her head on his shoulder. "This was fun."
   "It was. We should do it again next year!"
   She laughed and shook her head. "No. You always say that, and you're always disappointed. It won't be the same."
   "Oh." He slumped, disappointed anyway while his lip hung in a pout. "I guess."
   "Well it never is, is it? Just clutchin' at memories. Why don't we leave it and see what happens when Yule comes next year? I bet you get another great idea."
   He straightened at that. "Yeah. Maybe I will... It's more fun that way, ain't it? Less can go wrong when it ain't planned!"
   "You know what they say about the plans of mice and men."
   "...That hoomans should do things more quietly?"
   Erra grinned. "Ezzacly."
   She raised her chin, and Puck followed. The pair howled like weary wolves, tired, happy and full.