It was a bright morning when Damien came downstairs. Glancing around, he saw the oak bannisters lined with garland. Lanara had placed strings of garland on every doorway, every entrance.
"What is going on?" Damien asked. "Are we having guests?"
Lanara was standing on a stool, pinning the garland in place. "Yes, tonight we are expecting company. It is winter solstice, we are hosting the traditional feast."
"Oh." Damien crossed his arms, leaning against the bannister. "I didn't realize you elves did this every year."
Lanara giggled at his comment. "We Lor elves are nothing without our traditions. And the best news: Lila is here to visit."
Damien froze. "She's here? Right now?"
"Yes, she got in late last night. She's still resting."
It had been five months since Lila went off to Careth. Without her, Damien was at a severe loss for someone to talk to. The thought of her returning, if only for the winter solstice, sent a good feeling through Damien's bones.
Lanara got down off her stool and went to him. "Come, I have a task for you."
"I'm pretty sure I'm needed down in the forge," Damien said.
"No, Kallus and Nihilan have gone out. Today, you'll be helping me."
Lanara placed a heavy wooden box in his hands. "Those strings need to go up around the tree."
"Tree?" Damien looked around. "Which tree?"
"The evergreen in the backyard. Go on."
"But it's freezing outside."
"And that's why you'll need your coat." Lanara disappeared for a quick moment, and when she tossed Damien his coat, he rolled his eyes.
"Alright. I'll go outside and hang up your strings."
"I'll be in here if you need anything."
Damien stood outside in the cold. His fur coat was keeping his body warm, but it did little to keep his hands from shivering. He could see his breath turn into steam before his eyes. The world was heavy with a blanket of crunchy snow that rose to his ankles.
A few paces in front of him, there was an old evergreen that Lanara prized above the other trees in her garden. It was well placed toward the center of the backyard, a true spectacle because of its stature and year-round leaves.
Plopping the box at his feet, Damien pried open the lid and pulled out tassels of orange and white. He climbed a few feet high to begin placing the tassels on the branches. After finishing the bottom layer, he began to weave upward. Once Damien weaved his way to the top, he needed a rest. His breath was rasping in and out, creating thick steam around him. He looked back at the house, peering through the dim window. He could see Lanara's figure as she worked in the kitchen.
The sound of stirring caused him to shift focus. Something in the distance was moving, too subtle for a passerby to notice, yet too noisy for Damien to ignore. He saw a white figure camouflaged against the snow. Her hooves sank as she moved.
Damien heard her voice from far away, as though it were a gust of wind.
"We must speak," Lothira said. "Come to me."
She was too far to lock eyes with, but Damien knew Lothira was looking straight at him. "Lothira," he whispered. "It's been a while. What do you need?"
"Come to me," she repeated. "I must show you."
Damien cursed to himself. He glanced back toward the house to see if Lanara was observing him through the window. She would certainly object to him leaving his tasks.
When he was certain that Lanara was too busy to notice him being gone, he climbed down the tree and strode over to where Lothira was waiting. "What is it?" he asked.
Bending low, Lothira gestured for Damien to climb on her back.
"This is crazy," he said. "Where are you taking me?"
"Are you afraid, Damien? I speak true, there is much worse for you to fear."
"If you do not come, you shall surely find out."
Rolling his eyes, Damien climbed onto Lothira's back. She was sturdy beneath him as she galloped. The crisp air was frosty against his body, though the snow-covered trees were a lovely sight.
Lothira brought him to a small cavern covered by a drooping willow tree. What Damien found odd about the willow was that it was in full bloom. The winter had not shed its leaves, only frozen them. Looking down, he noticed a small river coursing upstream, flowing into the covered nook. When Lothira stepped inside, Damien felt warmth licking his skin. Around him, little glowing bugs were floating above a rippling pond.
Lothira told him to get down, so he did. Beneath him now was a soft, green bed of grass. "What is this place?" he asked, gawking at the wondrous cavern. "It's impossible for it to exist."
"Is that what the elves teach you?" Lothira asked while shifting into her human form. "This has been my home for centuries."
"You have a beautiful home."
Lothira knelt down beside the rippling pond. With a wave of her hand, the water began to show things, colorful things. Damien saw purple images he could barely make sense of. Pure chaos was casting about the pond, angry and furious. Damien wanted to look away, but the image had him captivated. In the midst of all the chaos there was a shape, a human shape.
Lothira pointed to it. "Do you see?"
"Y-yes," Damien stammered, bending closer to look. "Is that...me?"
Lothira nodded. "The figure I see in the darkness is you changing form. One moment, you are human. The next, you are not."
"That's why I can't remember?"
Lothira touched his arm as if to examine it. "What I do not understand is how the bazjur turned you into a formless being. Surely such power would have destroyed you."
"I was hoping you could tell me," he said. "That's why I came to you."
"I have seen all there is to see of your mind," she said. "Perhaps Ashlyn can find the answers that we seek."
"I thought you were more powerful than Ashlyn."
"Oh, no. Ashlyn is far more powerful than I."
"But Ash is always at school. She only comes for the summer."
"Then let us wait until she returns."
Damien held his chin. "I don't understand. If she has the power to find answers, why does she hold back?"
"Ashlyn exercises great caution," Lothira said. "I have coached her to not be careless in channeling the Sepheras."
"I've heard this name before. The elves worship it as their deity?"
"The elves understand the Sepheras from afar," Lothira nodded. "Ashlyn is one of the few beings who commune with it."
"I suppose that makes sense. Kallus warned me about her, but I've never seen her actually use magic."
"If she holds back, it is to protect you. She entrusted me with your mind, but I am not all-seeing as Ashlyn is."
"I see," Damien said. "So, you've found all the answers you can?"
Lothira nodded again. "If we ask it of her, she will help." After straightening herself, Lothira shifted back into her horse form. "I shall return you to your people."
"But it's so warm in here."
His words caused her to smile. "Do not fear the cold, Damien. It is a beautiful reminder of how the seasons turn, how one form changes to another."
Damien blinked. "Is everything you say so...eloquent?"
Lothira shook her head. "Come along, now."
When Damien returned to the village, it was already dark outside. The shortest day of the year brought long shadows over Gumber. The village was lit by hanging lamps and candles sitting in the windows.
Damien took care to enter through the same door he had left so as to avoid panic. When he got inside, the house was filled with people. It was a warm gathering, and not just because of the fully-lit hearth.
Lila was the first to notice Damien coming in from outside. His cheeks and nose were red as he warmed himself by the fire. She went up behind him and tapped his shoulder. "You like to keep me waiting, don't you?" she giggled. "Where have you been all day?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," he said. "Welcome back, Lil, I've missed you. Do you like it over there?"
"I do." Her blond hair bounced as she nodded. "Oh, and that reminds me. I've brought a present for you. Wait right there." She disappeared for a moment, and when she returned, she held a sword behind her back. Though it was not cleverly wrapped, the blade was cased in a leather sheath. "I want you to have this," she blushed while handing it to him.
Damien took hold of the sword, admiring its craftmanship. "Whoa, this is a fine weapon." Then he looked at her, growing confused. "But why are you giving this to me? I don't use swords, I just help your father make them."
"If you're going to be a member of this house, you might as well take up the sword."
"I'll think on it," he chuckled. "I hear that Naelen is looking to get into the Academy, too."
"He didn't tell you?"
"Come to think of it, I haven't seen my brother all day," Lila said, peeking her head around.
"Last I heard, he and Kallus were out doing errands," Damien said. "Perhaps they haven't returned yet."
"Hmm...it normally doesn't take this long. Have you seen them today?"
"No, they were gone by the time I got up."
Worry washed over Lila's eyes. "Hang on a moment." She dismissed herself, finding her mother in the kitchen. Lanara was working to prepare the festive meal. "Mom," Lila tugged at her mother, "are Dad and Naelen back yet?"
"If they are, I haven't seen them," Lanara answered.
"Do you know how long they've been out?"
Lanara fell quiet when the answer occurred to her. She turned to Lila, wiping her apron down. "You should go check on them, and be quick about it."
Lila agreed with a nod. "Way ahead of you, Mom."
Lila went back to Damien and pulled him along. "I need you to come with me," she said.
Damien was still clutching the small sword in his hand. "I don't want to go back outside," he objected. "What are you up to, Lil?"
"Just come with me, will you? I know something is wrong, I have an ill feeling in my gut."
"Huh?" Damien puzzled. "And how am I supposed to help? You're the one with all the practical skills."
"Then I suggest you learn some of your own fast."