Here’s a new Duke Grandfather adventure, not available anywhere else. Enjoy!
Capital City doesn’t get very cold, at least not on a regular basis. But there’s something about this time of year that makes everyone think it should. I’m not sure why, but when you’re out and about on the streets, and your breath is making clouds in the air, everyone seems to be in a better mood. They say weird things, like “excuse me”, or “Happy Holiday”, or even, “A joyous Solstina to you!”
Which is what I guess all the goodwill and smiles are about. Solstina is one of the only holidays that, while not officially sanctioned by the Crown, might as well be. Everywhere you look people have hung up festive decorations in yellow and black, and depictions of a large, bearded man, smiling down on you from his eleven foot height, are all over the place. He’s usually shown with a large bag, from which he’s been known to pull toys out for girls and boys who have behaved, (or at least not misbehaved so badly that they’re in the children’s section of the Lock-ups).
The big fellow is called by many names, although the most common is Father Solstina. Solstina is the celebration of the birth of the Spring Lord, who comes every year, showing that winter, such as it is around here, will end, and the sun will warm the land and so on. Personally, I don’t buy it, but the season is fun, and it’s getting more and more grandiose every year.
Those of us who don’t have children spend the day in other pursuits. We visit friends and family, often inside of a comfortable tavern. Or at least, that’s where I tended to do it, since that’s where I know most of my friends from. Some, and I say this with a great deal of sadness, are forced to spend the day with family. But then there are still others, who have no one to turn to, and pass the day the same way that they would any other. Even the best holiday will always pass a few poor souls by.
This year was going to be different for me. This year, I was spending it with Lilly. We were planning on waking at her place, and exchanging our gifts to each other. Now that we were adults, the fact that Father Solstina didn’t actually deliver gifts to us was made painfully clear, and we were responsible for procuring our own. I was stuck too. What do you get the powerful, beautiful necromancer who has everything? I mean, she already had me…ha ha.
And knowing Lilly as I now did, I had no doubt that her gift to me would be thoughtful, meaningful, and special. That felt like a lot to live up to, and a new blank book to jot down her spells in wasn’t going to cut it. No, I needed something more…personal, I guess.
I was watching her reactions to things as we strolled along the street, window shopping. She had a long list of people that she was planning on buying for, including her family, her coworkers, and a family that we didn’t even know, simply because they had no money themselves. That one had come from Father Magnus, who had made it his personal mission that no child in Capital City would have a bad Solstina. What could I say to that? Nothing, because, well, I thought it was a nice idea.
“What about Jessup?” Lilly asked me, startling me back to the present.
“What about him?”
“What are we going to get him?”
“Nothing,” I said, surprised at the mere thought. “Why would I?”
“He’s your best friend, Duke. You have to get him something.”
“I do? I never have. Usually, I buy him an ale or two, and then he buys me one or two, and we’re both happy. Why mess with that?”
She sighed. “Fine. If it works, whatever. But you’re going to have to do that on Solstina Eve this year. We’re going to be too busy on Solstina itself for you to spend time in a tavern getting drunk.”
“I know, I know,” I said, trying my best to keep the glumness out of my voice. We were going to go visit Lilly’s family at their estate in the country on Solstina. And while I had no problem with them, it did involve leaving Capital City, something that I truly hated doing.
“You’ll be fine,” she said, glancing into the window of a pottery maker as we passed. “Daddy is sending a coach for us. You can just relax on the way out, and since it’s Solstina, you can even bring an ale or two with you for the ride.”
Really? Well now. Things were looking up.
We walked along, but I didn’t see anything that really jumped out at me to buy for her. She looked at a lot of stuff, and sure, it was nice and I’m sure she would have liked it, but there was nothing that felt special enough. Nothing that told her how I felt about her, without, you know, actually coming out and saying it. Well, I would have to keep on thinking. Solstina was still a few days away, so I had time.
A couple of days later, I was still thinking. I had thrown out a lot of ideas that had occurred to me. After I’d thought of it the other day, I did consider a new spell book, but a really nice one, with honest to gods snow cat leather bindings and paper made from the bark of tropical ironwood trees. Maybe a new feathered quill and inkwell to go with it.
But no, as nice as that sounded, I didn’t want to get her something for her work. So, back to the drawing board. Which led me to another idea. Maybe an actual drawing board! One of those fancy ones that I’ve seen people use that tilt up so that it’s more comfortable to draw or paint. And some nice supplies to go with it! Yeah!
Only…I had never once seen Lilly draw, sketch, paint or even doodle. It could be that her talent for that sort of activity was right up there with her talent for song. A thought that made me shudder, regardless of how much I loved…er, cared for…her.
So it was that I stopped into a tavern, the Fife and Fiddle, for a quick ale, just to warm me up a bit, and fortify myself for more aimless wandering, waiting for inspiration to strike.
While I sat and sipped my ale, I gazed around me. It appeared that either the Fife and Fiddle was a tavern that catered heavily to couples, or maybe it was simply the time of year. All around me, lovers sat at tables together, talking, laughing, or simply looking into each other’s eyes, without saying a word. Not that I’m against such places, but when you’re on your own, it’s a little disconcerting.
I was finishing up and getting set to go back to the hunt, when I saw the small man walking through the place, winding his way among the tables and chairs. When I say small, I mean small. He stood no more than two feet high, at most, and was wearing one of the most ridiculous outfits I had seen to date.
He was dressed in a tight fitting suit, entirely in yellow and black, the colors often associated with Solstina, and a long, pointed hat in the same colors, that trailed along behind him. One of his boots was black, the other yellow, and they curled up at the toes. His face had a weathered look that made it hard to tell his age, but the dark hair and beard made me think he was at least old enough to imbibe if he chose to.
And it looked like he did. Rather than taking a seat at a table, which admittedly, would have involved a climb, he walked up to the counter from which the serving girls pulled their drinks, and stood there, glaring up at it, like a mountaineer about to assail a sheer cliff-face.
After a moment, when no one had noticed him, he sighed, walked to a table and pulled a chair away. With a slight effort, he got the chair positioned in front of the counter and scrambled up onto it.
I had paused with my mug halfway to my mouth to watch all this, with some amusement. There was no end to the variety of types you could see in Capital City, but something about this guy’s determination and persistence tickled me.
“Toots!” he said to the serving girl currently behind the counter. “Who do I have to know to get an ale around here?”
His voice was rough, telling me that he was indeed on the older side, or had already done some hard living.
The girl turned around, saw the small head barely poking above the level of the counter and started to laugh. Now, I’m not sure I could blame her entirely, although it was kind of rude of her. But I’m sure the rough voice coming from that tiny frame startled her. Regardless of the reason, the little guy didn’t take kindly to it.
“Something funny there, honey?”
She tried to bring herself under control, but this new statement set her off again. Her laughter exploded out through her clenched teeth with a snort, and that was it. She leaned back against the wall as the peals of merriment escaped her.
“That’s it,” I heard the little man say, and his fingers started moving in a way that reminded me of Lilly.
“Whoa!” I said loudly, climbing to my feet and hurrying over, ignoring the stares of the couples around me. “No need for that. Hey, get my friend here an ale, would you?”
“I don’t need your help,” he said, glancing at me, but I did notice that his fingers had stopped moving.
“No, I imagine not,” I replied. “But if you kept going the way you were, you were going to get kicked out of here, at the very least. At most, it may have ended up with me, or someone like me, looking for you.”
“Oh, yeah? Is that supposed to scare me?”
“Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Duke Grandfather.”
“Sorry for you,” he grumped, and turned to his mug of ale. “Now you can piss off.”
“Ok, so you haven’t heard of me. That’s fine. But you must have heard of Nuisance Men, right? Well, I’m one of them.”
“Great. Go make a nuisance of yourself somewhere else, man.”
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
“What gave it away? My warm, out of towner personality?”
“No, the fact that you don’t know anything. Not even that you’re going to end up in a lot of trouble if you keep up the attitude.”
That got his attention.
“Ok, Mr. Nuisance. Why don’t you tell me all about it?”
So I did. I explained about the system and how it worked with the Board and all the rest. I also made sure I explained about my recent conversion to making sure only the truly guilty were eliminated. He was less than impressed.
“Wow,” he said. “You’re a friggin’ humanitarian, you are. I can’t for the life of me figure out why he…”
He trailed off, muttering, until he picked up his mug and drained it. I signaled for two more from the serving girl. “What?” I asked. “Who did what?”
“Nothing,” he said, taking the second mug, and putting a good dent in it. I matched him, just to show him how sociable I could be.
“I’ve got to go,” he finally said, and the rest of his ale disappeared like magic. “I’ve got a lot to do, and only a couple of days to get it done. Thanks for the ale.”
With that, he hopped down, wound his way through the tables and out the door. I watched him go, still amused by the attitude. Then the serving girl came back, and my amusement vanished as I realized that he had just stuck me with the tab.
I left the Fife and Fiddle shortly after and began my trek through the streets once more. Everywhere I looked, signs were posted in windows announcing big, last minute, Solstina sales. Anything you could want, or thought that you would ever need was available for purchase. It was overwhelming, and still, I couldn’t find that single perfect gift for Lilly.
I was still involved in my quest, although starting to burn out on it a bit, when I heard the noise coming from a nearby alley. It sounded like a scuffle, which isn’t uncommon in Capital City. There was a time that I would have walked right on by, without so much as glancing in to see what was going on. Sometimes, ignoring your fellow man is the best way to stay healthy in this town.
But my feeling for things like that had changed recently too. If it turned out to be two rival factions of goblins going at it, fine, have at thee. Two drunks brawling in the filth before collapsing and swearing eternal brotherly love to each other? Go at it, fellas. Can’t be worse than the hangover you’ve got coming.
But, if it were some innocent being shaken down by the strong arm of a criminal orc family? Or, a woman fending off the unwanted interests of some shlub who can’t take no for an answer? Well, now we’ve got a problem. I guess my new sense of injustice extended beyond what I did for a living.
None of that was what I saw when I looked however. Instead, I saw my diminutive friend from the bar, apparently being confronted by three others, all around the same size. As I watched, one of the newcomers stepped forward and slammed his fist into my drinking companion’s stomach. The blow didn’t look all that mighty, but maybe it was all in proportion, because it dropped him to his knees. I yelled just as one of the others was stepping up, fist cocked and ready to clock him in the jaw.
“Hey! What’s going on! Knock it off!”
The three little men looked at me, then back to their victim. Before I could take another step, the one who was ready with the punch let go, his fist crashing into the side of my acquaintance’s head. He pitched over to the side and lay still on the floor of the alley.
“Sell out,” I heard one of them mumble, and then another spit on him as they turned to leave.
I noticed that although they were all the same size, and all sported the same type of heavy beard, they were dressed much differently. These three were all decked out in earthen colors of browns, greens and oranges. Their boots were brown and sturdy looking, and their hats were much more non-descript, simple cones of material perched on their heads.
“Hold on there!” I yelled as I hurried up. On my way past, I glanced down at the brightly dressed fellow and saw that he was groaning and beginning to stir, so I figured he was going to be okay, just a little sore when he woke all the way up.
I reached out and grabbed the shoulder of one of the three walking away, which turned out to be a rather large mistake on my part. It was a repeat of the scene I had just witnessed, only this time, I was the punching bag, and the little guy had to jump to catch me in the belly.
When he did though, it was like I had been hit by a dwarven hammer. His fist sank into my gut and all of my air whooshed out of me in a rush. The pain was so intense that when I unfolded from around his fist, I found myself on my knees, watching through a haze as another one walked up to me. Another hammer blow landed on the side of my face, and I barely remember thinking “what the hell…” before the other side of my head contacted the hard ground, and everything went black.
I’m sure I was only out for a few minutes, but when I came around, the three little guys were long gone. Not that I was in any huge hurry to go after them. Sure, I had the gun, and could probably have done some damage to them without knowing what they even were, but not every problem has to end up being solved by a pile of dead bodies.
My head was still spinning when I sat up, so it was with some surprise that I felt the hands helping me.
“Easy there, Nuisance Man,” a voice growled.
I looked around and saw the little man from the bar, his hands wrapped around my right bicep, helping me to sit up. Even in my daze, I could feel the strength in those hands.
“What the…” I muttered, stopped, spit out blood and tried again. “Who were those guys?”
He sighed. “Sprites. Like me. Only not like me. They don’t like what I do for a living.”
Now that I was sitting up, more or less on my own, he backed off, leaning against the wall behind him. Despite the blow he had taken, he looked to be in much better shape than I felt like.
“Sprites. Good to know. Now I know what to set my gun for if I see them again.”
Pure bravado on my part. I had no intention of searching for those little monsters.
“Come on,” he told me, pushing off from the wall. “I owe you an ale.”
He walked away from me, letting me shamble to my feet on my own and follow him. Moments later, we were in another tavern, where he got a few dirty looks, but no one said anything as we took a table. I, sitting, him standing on the chair so that he would be above the level of the table top.
The ale was good, cold and fizzy, with a good head on it, which did wonders to quiet the ringing in mine. After a few sips, and a longer quaff, I set my mug down and looked at my drinking buddy.
“Want to tell me what that was all about?”
He glanced at me, took another drink, which gave me time to do the same, looked around to make sure no one was leaning in to hear us, and started.
“What do you know about Father Solstina? I mean, really know?”
I almost started laughing, but then remembered his reaction to that in the Fife and Fiddle and clamped it down.
“You’re joking, right? Okay, well the first thing I can tell you is that he’s not real. He’s a made up story to get kids to behave this time of year. Why? Are you going to tell me that you work for him?”
“As a matter of fact, yes. I do. Why do you think I wear this goofy outfit? You wear colors like this out in the forest, you’re the precursor to bear poop. I’m here to scout out the city’s fitness for an official visit.”
This time, I did start to laugh, but he didn’t seem to get offended by it.
“That’s okay. Laugh it up, knucklehead. But you’ll see. In spite of everything, I’m going to recommend it.”
“Oh, so Father Solstina, the magical gift-giving giant is going to appear and give all the good little girls and boys toys from his bag? Pull the other one.”
“No, nothing like that. But there will be some sightings. Just enough to keep the feeling real, and the ideals alive for the rest of the year. For a couple of days, the whole city will seem more peaceful, and full of goodwill.”
“Uh huh. Sure. And those guys in the alley? They don’t want that, huh?”
“Pfft. They couldn’t care less about it. They think it’s beneath the dignity of Sprites to wear these costumes and serve Father Solstina. They think we should all stay in the forest, guarding nature and playing the occasional prank on hunters, or doing the odd good deed for a cobbler.”
“I see. Really piling all the old legends on at once, aren’t you?”
“Think what you want, friend. But you’ll see.”
“If nothing else, the story was almost worth the sock in the jaw. Which is still smarting, by the way. Guy had a vicious hook.”
“You’ll be fine,” he said. “In the meantime, go on about your shopping.” He climbed down from the chair and started for the door. “You’ll find something for Lilly.”
“Hey, how do you know…” But he was gone before I could finish the question, or realize that he had once again stuck me with the tab.
Despite his words, I did not, in fact, find anything that I wanted to get for Lilly. Nothing special anyway. I bought a few baubles, things that I thought she would like, but simply couldn’t find that one-of-a-kind item that I was looking for.
Solstina was only two days away, and I was running out of time. But, I still had tomorrow and I was doing okay money-wise, so I didn’t have to go to the Watch House and take a Nuisance off of the Board. I could spend the day hunting for the elusive gift, still have time to meet up with Jessup in the late afternoon for a little holiday cheer, and then spend Solstina day with Lilly.
But the next day was a repeat, without running into my friend, Ragey, the Solstina Sprite. I did chuckle a couple of times however, as I remembered how he had managed to stick me with the tab for the ales, not just once, but twice. Pretty slick.
It was while I was thinking about this, and not minding where I was going, that I suddenly realized I was back in the same alley where I had encountered the gang of sprites the day before. I looked around, not expecting to see them, but a little nervous nonetheless. They may have only been two feet tall, but they had a punch that would have made a troll flinch.
And as my life always turns out, I rounded the corner, and there they were. Almost the same scenario as before, only this time my drinking companion wasn’t getting pummeled, although it looked like it might be headed in that direction. They were all arguing, my acquaintance moving down the street, talking as he went, the other three surrounding and haranguing him. I hung back, reluctant to interfere again if I didn’t need to. Already, my stomach muscles were tensed in anticipation of another gut punch.
I followed as they made their way along the street, and turned down another alley. What was he thinking? Why would you turn off of a crowded street, where there was safety in numbers, into an abandoned alley where the bullies were going to feel free to attack? I sighed heavily as I followed along, drawing my gun. I didn’t want to kill these guys, but if it looked like I had no choice, I would do it.
About halfway down the alley, my friend turned and shouted at his tormentors.
“Enough! I get it! I’m a sellout and a corporate shill! Fine! Go back to your forest and make shoes or something! Leave me alone!”
The effect wasn’t what he was hoping, I’m sure. They all laughed, and moved forward.
“Sprite,” I said to my gun, and then, louder to the alley in general. “I see one punch thrown, and I’ll blow the head off of the guy who throws it!”
Four small heads turned in my direction, all with surprised looks on their faces. Quickly, three of those looks were replaced by sneers.
“Oh, look,” one of them said. “It’s that Nuisance Man guy. Run away, Nuisance Man. You don’t have anything on us. No one has put us up on your stupid Board, so you can’t do anything.”
The others laughed, although I thought a bit nervously, since they were still staring down the barrel of my Ultimate Weapon.
“Maybe so,” I said, “but that doesn’t mean I can’t take pieces off.”
I raised the gun a bit, so that the little, metal ball would fly over their heads, and pulled the trigger. There was a loud bang and a shower of stone splinters from the wall above the sprites. They jumped as one and looked around wildly.
“Take off fellas, before I have to get serious,” I growled at them, hoping that between the gun and the scary voice, I’d intimidate them.
“You’re a fool,” one of them laughed. “Do you really think it’s just us?”
Which was when I heard the noise behind me, and turned to find five more of the angry looking little fellows heading my way, murder in their eyes.
I raised my gun, hoping that I could limit this to damage only, and not be forced to actually kill any of them. But as I looked, I felt a strange reluctance to pull the trigger, even to shoot over their heads. I mean, why? What was the point really? All we had was a difference of opinion, other than that, we weren’t so far apart. Why, they looked like smaller versions of me, if I had a beard and wore clothes that were suited to a woodland environment.
I lowered my gun, and the light of battle faded from the eyes of the eight sprites who were my enemies, and from those of my drinking buddy. All of us stood and looked at one another, a smile breaking out on a face here and there, quickly smothered, but then struggling free again.
These guys were alright. They were simply trying to voice their opinion, which everyone should be able to do! And we were all brothers, really, in the overall family of sentient species. Fighting sucked, let peace be the watchword of the day!
A cold spot touched my face. Then another, and another. Soon, there were soft white flakes drifting through the air, falling toward the ground. It was snowing, on a fairly warm day, in the middle of Capital City. How odd.
A soft light filled the alley, and we all turned toward it. It was hazy, and I couldn’t see very well, but there was a giant figure there, taller than any troll or ogre I had ever seen. He was speaking, saying something to the sprites, including those who had come into the alley behind me. I couldn’t make it out, but the voice was deep, rich, and soothing. Whatever it was he was saying, I was absolutely sure it was reasonable.
I stood in a daze, perfectly content to let that voice wash over me and watch the snowflakes drift past. When I came around, the sprites were gone, except for my friend. He stood, leaning against the wall, watching me come out of it.
“He’s like that,” he said. “At least until you get used to it. All around, he’s a good guy.”
“What happened,” I muttered, looking around the alley. There was no sign of the giant figure, the snow, or the other sprites. “Who was that?”
“I think you know. And here, he left this for you. He said to give it to Lilly.”
The sprite handed me a small box, wrapped in brightly colored paper.
“What is it?”
“It’s a present, moron. The thing you’ve been out here moping around about for the past three days. Take it home, give it to her. That’s what presents are for. Now, I’ve got things to do. I’d say I’ll see you around…but I don’t think that’s true. So, have a Merry Solstina.”
He walked out of the alley, but turned around at the entrance and looked at me again.
“Oh, one more thing. Be a little less yourself for once, huh? Don’t just hand it to her. Show a little class.” And with that, he was gone.
My Solstina Eve was pleasant. I sat and had a few ales with Jessup, enjoying the glow of the fire that was lit in the taverns hearth, sipping an excellent ale brewed especially for the holiday. But the tradition changed a bit this year. Rather than staying out late, I wished Jessup a Happy Holiday, and headed to Lilly’s.
I found her enjoying a cup of tea near our own fire. She looked lovely with the firelight reflected in her hair.
“Hey,” she said. “You’re home earlier than I expected.”
“Yeah,” I replied, moving toward her. “I decided I’d rather be here. Jessup says Merry Solstina, by the way.”
She smiled and turned back to her reading, leaving me to look at her. I don’t know if it was leftover effects from Father Solstina, which I was now convinced I had seen, or if I was really falling into it, but my heart seemed to swell as I regarded her. It almost felt like it grew three sizes that day.
“I, umm, I got you this,” and I held out the package that the sprite had given me.
“It’s not Solstina yet!” she protested.
“I know, but…I just wanted you to have it now.”
She smiled, stood, and took the package, carefully unwrapping it and exposing a wooden, hinged box, with a small hasp on the front.
“What is it?” she said.
Inside, was a small locket, on a gold chain. Pretty, but nothing that I would have jumped at had I seen it first myself.
“Oh, Duke, it’s beautiful,” she said, and took it out, letting it hang down and shine in the glow of the fire.
“Here,” I said, remembering what the sprite had told me. “Let me.”
I took the chain, undid the clasp, and put it around her neck, which caused me to move very close to her. She reached up and touched the locket as I was clasping it…
And the world tilted and went blurry. When I could see again, I was looking at myself…only not myself. Not quite the same face that I shaved in the mirror every morning. It was me, but more than me. There was something more…noble? More…worthy? Or maybe simply better somehow, than I knew that I really looked. This Duke Grandfather was someone to know, and be glad that you did.
It lasted only a second or two, then the world tilted again, and I was looking at my beautiful Lilly once more. From the stunned expression on her face, I knew she had had the same thing happen to her.
“I don’t…” she began.
“I’m not…” I said, at the same time.
We stopped and simply looked into each other’s eyes.
“Well, you are to me,” I said.
“You too,” and then she kissed me. Me, Duke Grandfather.
It’s a strange and wonderful gift that Father Solstina gave us, the ability to see ourselves as the other person sees us. It only happened the one time, but Lilly still has the locket, and every Solstina, I put it around her neck, look into her eyes, and kiss her again. And it’s always just as magical as the first time.