To celebrate the dawn of a new year, I decided to post this little short story featuring Axel and Liam from To Catch a Threeve. Enjoy! Happy New Year! Šťastný Nový Rok!
The Longest Night
by Alexis Duran
Liam struggled down the ice-slicked lane dragging his burden behind him. He ignored the stares and muffled laughter of the villagers. He’d almost become used to being the center of whispers, odd looks and gestures of magical protection. Today he honestly didn’t care, his thoughts and energies entirely focused on surprising and delighting his lover this solstice eve.
Having spent so many years apart in wildly different cultures, Liam and Axel had shared many surprises, not all of them pleasant. This tradition, however, was one of the few positive memories Liam brought back from his time with the threeves. It seemed important to salvage some wee bit of joy out of the seven years of his imprisonment.
He kicked in the heavy oak door of the narrow daub and wattle house Axel had inherited from his father. Though the great room with the hearth was small, as were the rooms above, it was a tall house, rather large for a bachelor. Now that Axel spent most of his time at the castle serving Lord Lacknor, it had lost its homey feel, the hearth unlit, the windows shuttered. With Axel coming home for the longest night, Liam had the brilliant idea to enliven the place and make it feel like home again.
He walked in but found his gift too large to fit between the door beams.
He let go of the trunk and glared at the tree in consternation. It looked much bigger lying half in the house, half in the street, than it had in the forest.
He tugged, he pulled, he cursed. In desperation, he mumbled a wee bit of the tree magic he’d learned from Begbie Darrow. The tree momentarily folded up its limbs and Liam sailed backward, landing on the wooden floorboards with the tree on top of him.
He laughed, hugging the pitchy trunk to his chest. Threeves never encountered this problem because they lived in tree houses, mostly, and so didn’t have to bring a tree inside. They usually had one or two growing straight through the middle of their great rooms.
After a rough start, Liam got the tree into a wooden bucket of water and stood it up in the corner. It filled nearly half the room and he had to push the heavy table closer to the hearth and rearrange Axel’s few chairs. The entire time, the portrait of Axel’s father glared down at him disapprovingly. For the first time, it occurred to Liam to be nervous. Would Axel be angry to have this symbol of his enemies’ religion taking over half his house?
Liam backed up and collapsed into a chair. The evergreen loomed enormous, its top bent sideways against the rafters, its limbs partially blocking the entry to the narrow stairs. The fresh forest scent soothed him somewhat, and the tree, which had offered itself up for sacrifice to the goddess Moon, emanated soothing, ancient magic.
“You’ll look better when you’re properly adorned,” Liam said, and hurried to get the sacks of sugarpine cones and larkberries he’d gathered earlier.
Axel strode wearily along the lane after tucking away his horse Sapphire in the neighboring stables. He’d given her an extra helping of oats this hallowed eve, all the while chiding himself that horses had no interest in celestial celebrations.
Living with Liam, who persisted in the threevish way of thinking every living thing had an intelligent soul, had started to affect him. Axel even avoided stepping on the iceflowers poking up through the cobblestones. Not exactly something a hardened constable should concern himself with, he thought, and wondered if love was making him soft minded.
So much time spent in the castle in the company of rough knights and tough as nails mercenaries had made him acutely aware his doting admiration of his lover put him at a disadvantage. But he wouldn’t change it for the world, not for all the gold Lord Lacknor could heap on him. True, Liam had some strange behaviors and quirks left over from his time with the threeves, but it only served to make him more lovable. The more obvious, possibly dangerous habits could be weeded out and smoothed over in time.
And tonight, at last, they had time. With his lover in his arms, Axel anticipated that the longest night of the year would pass very quickly indeed. He quickened his pace, shrugging off the weariness of what had seemed like the longest day instead of the shortest.
When he turned on to his lane, the sight of a candle beaming through his shutters and smoke curling from his chimney warmed his heart. He pushed open the door and was enveloped by the scent of burning cedar in the hearth, some sort of spicy stew simmering in the cast iron pot and rather oddly, the sharp bite of pine pitch, snow and mud.
The wide smile on his face became rigid as he blinked at what appeared to be a monstrous tree in his great room. Liam balanced precariously on a chair he’d placed on top of a trunk, leaning in to the dark green mass, a star of woven reeds and ribbons in his outstretched hand.
“You’re early!” he cried and began to topple forward into the branches of what Axel could no longer deny was indeed a tree. The tree shimmered and tinkled as all manner of shiny objects shook and knocked together.
Axel rushed forward, seized Liam around the waist and rescued him from the arms of the evergreen. He lowered him awkwardly to the floor and keeping his arms firmly around him, asked,
“What in holy hounds is that?”
“Do you like it?” Liam grinned over his shoulder at Axel.
“I, uh—” Axel’s gaze travelled over the dark green mass that filled the corner and stretched out to nearly the middle of the room. He took in the strands of red ribbons, sprays of dried cranberries, rows of tiny tin bells, sugarpine cones coated with crystalline pitch, what looked to be pieces of Axel’s family silverware, all wrapped around the tree in a confusing mass of colors, shapes and sizes. Most alarming were the candles stuck to the branches with wax and twine.
“What is it?”
“It’s a Solstice Tree, our offering to the goddess Moon on the night she rules the sky.”
Axel released Liam and stepped back. A cold shiver ran up his spine.
“A threeve tradition, is it?”
Liam’s smile faded. “Lots of folks celebrate the solstice this way. Not just threeves. In the northern lands no household would dream of celebrating solstice without one.”
Axel’s mind raced. In the morning, a stream of friends, family and neighbors would drop by as they made The Blessings round, making sure everyone survived the longest night and celebrating the dawn of the new season. What would they think of this bizarre symbol of the threeve religion planted squarely in the middle of Axel’s house? He and Liam had gone through great pains to hide Liam’s half-threeve nature. Something like this, well, it declared it to the world.
“You hate it,” Liam said glumly.
“I’m worried about what it represents. How people might take it.”
“It represents our respect and gratitude for the gifts of the forest. It honors the beauty of nature, the light the moon provides in the dark of winter, the bounty of the earth. It’s a symbol of beauty and peace.”
“Doesn’t sound like a threeve way of thinking to me,” Axel said.
Liam turned away and went to poke at the fire. Axel could tell by the hunch of his shoulders he was upset. He always curled in on himself, his fine lean body returning to its threevish posture whenever he felt threatened.
Axel strode over to him and turned him around. “I’m sorry. It’s a lovely tree. It’s just that, I thought we agreed to leave all things threeve behind us.”
“I’m half-threeve, Axel. I can’t leave half of me behind, can I?” Liam’s emerald eyes glittered in the firelight. “Do you hate that half of me? Do you fear it?”
“Goddess, no! I adore every bit of you.” Axel wanted to kiss Liam, but could tell by the firm line of his lips he wasn’t ready to let the matter go. And with the tree looming in the corner, how could they?
“I know we agreed I should do my best to hide my threeve nature, but I can’t go on that way.” Liam met Axel’s gaze. “Threeves aren’t all bad. They’re not all like Begbie Darrow.”
A bitter bile rose into Axel’s throat. He’d fought and hated threeves for so long. They’d taken Liam from him. How could he forgive that?
But they’d also made Liam the person he was today. Liam’s mother was a threeve. Her blood ran thick in his veins. For the first time Axel imagined Liam’s mother as a woman, an individual, an expectant mother decorating her solstice tree and dreaming of the future solstices she’d spend with her child, a future she didn’t live to see, a child she never met.
Axel reached up and plucked a pine needle from Liam’s golden hair.
“If you can forgive them, I guess I can too.” He stroked Liam’s cheek and pressed his lips to Liam’s. Liam’s mouth parted and they kissed long and deep. As he pressed his body against Liam’s something poked Axel in the chest. Liam still held the reed and ribbon star and it was squished between them. Axel took it from him.
“Let me put that on the tree. Goes on the top, does it?”
Liam nodded. Axel noticed the top of the tree was bent sideways against the rafters.
“I’ll get a knife and trim the top a bit. Is that all right?”
“I was hoping we could cut a hole in the roof instead,” Liam said. Axel looked at him in alarm and was relieved to see him grinning again. “Of course it’s all right.”
Axel crossed his arms over his chest and observed the tree with fresh eyes. The mass of confusion resolved into a beautiful evergreen, lovingly decorated with the spare offerings of the winter forest and Axel’s meager collection of baubles and whatnot.
“They should have one of these in the castle!” he declared, imaging an enormous tree festooned with jewels, lit by a hundred candles.
“What will we tell our Blessings visitors?” Liam asked, posture still a bit stooped.
Axel put his arm around him and drew him close.
“Exactly what you told me. It’s a symbol of peace.”
Liam relaxed and leaned in to him. “It is a tad large, isn’t it?”
“Nonsense. It’s perfect. I predict someday everyone will have one and on solstice, at least, the rift between threeves and men might heal a tiny bit.”
“Axel, the smell of pitch has gone to your head,” Liam chuckled.
“No, you’ve gone to my head. My head and my heart and I thank the goddess for that.”
They pressed together, Axel’s arm still around Liam, and admired the tree in silence. Axel tried not to worry about the conflagration that was sure to happen when they lit all those candles.