This one was a bit of an experiment for me on two fronts. Firstly, it's a seasonal tale. I'd never really tried to write something that intended to capture some form of holiday spirit, so this is an attempt to do so! Secondly, in an effort to be trying new things, learning new skills, or brushing off old ones to push my creative boundaries, I also decided to record it as an audio story.
So you'll find both the audio and written versions below!
The Christmas Market
So you'll find both the audio and written versions below!
The Christmas Market
Faith wound her way along the edges of the market. At first glance, she might not have looked out of place at all, but her hand-me-down clothes and tattered shoes had seen better times. At least the clothes fit, and offered some shelter from the December winds.
The market was decked out in a variety of seasonal lights and decorations. There was glitter, snowflakes, and shiny stars in abundance. Here and there Faith was reminded of some of the festivals back home. Some of the symbols familiar, triggering memories.
Back home, she sighed to herself.
It would have been a balmy warm evening back home she thought. She was still getting used to the sharp cold of the weather here.
She watched the happy people filter past the various stalls and stores. Bags overflowing with shopping bundled past her at pace. They like her, had a purpose
So through the market she glided, trying not to draw attention to herself. She had come to learn it was better that way. While her skin was fair enough to be mistaken for a local, she didn't like presenting the opportunity for people's eyes to dwell on her.
There wasn't much in her pocket, just over twenty pounds, but her mind was set on finding a present. Her uncle wasn't the warmest of characters, but he deserved at least a token of her appreciation. He looked out for her. She knew that, as well as she knew that she rarely demonstrated that appreciation.
Besides, it was the tradition of things here. It was that time of year.
The idea of a new tradition held a certain appeal to Faith. All of the traditions she knew had been left behind in the old lands. So she had set her mind upon making this one of the local traditions that they adopted. The giving of a gift. A token of one's thoughts, of appreciation.
This wasn't her holiday, but she grasped parts of the concept at least. On the surface there was something in it that appealed to her. Sharing, offering gifts to family. They hadn't been much of anything to share since they left.
The rest of it was alien to her. The city was saturated in it, but the images and decorations made little sense to her.
The iconography of deities for which she has no frame of reference. Religions that she does not comprehend, and traditions that offered her little solace.
She had wondered why her uncle had insisted she used the name Faith here. It wasn't the fact she should use another name, she understood the need to fit in, to not make waves. They were lucky, she didn't question that they did all they could to integrate. It was just that name in particular. Faith was something that she had little belief in anymore. If her uncle was trying to make some kind of a point she didn't share his optimism.
Neither did she understand these people. This society they had arrived in. A society that claimed to be communal, much as hers did, but in reality was insular and unwelcoming. Even during this holiday of theirs, where they were encouraged to be charitable and welcoming, she still felt that fear still trumped hospitality.
It wasn't that different from the old lands she thought. You had to worship the right deity, often in the right way.
Race, nationality, creed. Amazing how often you needed all three.
These lands had their own problems. Were the roles reversed she could have imagined her uncles tirades against the resources wasted on outsiders.
She wandered past a group of bright cheeked youths, decked in reds and greens, singing what she had been told were seasonal songs. Another of them stood silently in front swinging a white can for donations. She knew none of those donations would help her any. She wasn't the right type of refugee.
She wondered how many of them actually recognized the messages in these 'carols' and hymns that they sang. She had always been taught to pay attention to a people's words. Her mother taught her that.
Faith thought that her mother would have wished these people were better representations of their words. Then again, she had probably wished that of their culture too.
She had made some friends amongst the locals. Daniel was a friend. She had met him in their metalwork class. He had seemed amazed that a girl not only volunteered to do metalwork, but had excelled at it. She had wanted to explain that it was seen as a perfectly suitable endeavor for a woman where she came from, but had thought better of it. She didn’t like trying to explain where she came from. Daniel didn’t need to know. He liked her as she was. The strange, wispy, girl that he had helped after school with her engraving.
Daniel had explained to her that she was lucky to have been assigned to a school that even offered the class. He told her that most schools had to cut back on those kinds of things. Expensive equipment and the like. At least that was one fortune that had smiled upon her she thought. She enjoyed crafting what she could with their metals. It was not quite the same as the fine work her mother had taught her, or had crafted in their own forge, but some were becoming close approximations.
As time went by Daniel and her had taken to staying behind after class on Wednesdays. Their teacher had agreed that if they provided their own materials they were free to use the tools. He had said it was good to see her integrating, and that he was glad to help.
Daniel never asked where she found the silver that they practiced with those evenings. It was almost as if he knew that there were questions best left unasked.
It was better that way. Faith was just glad to have a friend.
He did not need to know that he was helping her to diligently replicate some of her mothers' creations. To recover some of the things that had been lost. It took them many evenings, but he seemed a willing accomplice in her endeavors.
The local girls had started to gossip. Faith paid them no mind. After all they were not to know that, whatever it was they imagined was happening, was not the way that she had been taught to court the affections of another. Daniel didn’t seem to mind either. In fact Faith was unconvinced that he didn’t actually like the attention a little. She got the impression that he wasn't often the subject of the school hall gossip.
She didn’t pretend to understand why. What the locals found appealing and unappealing in each other mystified her. It was below her station, or at least it would have been.
Faith thought of him as she wandered past the stalls and storefronts. Daniel seemed like a genuine soul. It helped that she could sense that she thought, and tried to imagine what it would be like not knowing. Maybe that was why the local girls didn’t see Daniel for what he was.
He had been the first, aside from her uncle, to wish her a happy holiday and mean it. Daniel had parents, and traditions for this time of year. Faith had committed to turning the homesickness and, she admitted, the envy, that caused into something constructive.
When her uncle had described these holiday traditions to her she had, naively, hoped it might drawn her closer to this new home.
That's why she wanted to find a gift.
She wanted to have a tradition. But as she drifted between the shoppers and the homeless she felt a deeper homesickness than she had believed possible.
She'd taken her home for granted. Imperfections and all, it was home. Now it was gone. Her uncle had made it abundantly clear she was to consider these new streets home. They weren't. They both knew that, it just went unsaid.
This holiday had only served to have him push her further. She should enjoy it he said, even if he showed little enthusiasm for it himself.
He did however adopt their seasonal clothing, and Faith had never considered him to be all that fashion conscious in the first place. Since the start of the month he had worn only bright reds, and crisp, clean, whites. If it hadn't been for his spindly frame, his off white beard would have set him up perfectly to imitate the locals seasonal deity, the Santa Claus. All of the iconography though portrayed him as decidedly overweight. That was something she doubted her Uncle was even capable of.
Still, he did seem to be proud of himself for blending in. He praised himself on It practically daily, and chided Faith for her reluctance.
His green waistcoat with the golden gilding was the only concession her uncle made to the old ways. He said it passed as Christmas attire here. Faith did not see many others wearing gilded waistcoats, but she didn't mention it. In his own way her uncle was homesick too. She knew it.
She did like the lights and decorations. Part of these traditions at least had an immediate, more visceral appeal. They were good distractions.
There were few things in this new home that she could just lose herself in. Memories of the way that the light pooled at that spot by the coast she visited every year as a child, or the way the fading twilight would set fire to the apt named burning shore near the last place they had sheltered before fleeing the old lands. Those were places of genuine beauty. Places she could surrender herself to.
Here, they were just lights. Light's born of the local's power. She knew that, put she would try and let herself get lost in them all the same. If even for just a moment.
Then she would hear her Uncle's voice in her head. He always taught her to keep her wits about her when travelling here alone. He didn’t trust these streets.
It wasn't that he didn’t trust her he repeatedly assured her, more that he didn’t trust almost anyone else. So her senses were always on alert.
She was aware of the large form that swung around the corner towards her, almost before he was aware she was there. This form however was not a threat, for it belonged to a friend.
"Hi Tony!" Faith beamed. Tony was the name her large friend had taken when he arrived here some months before she had. Back home Tony's family had worked for her Uncle's family. Tony had been somewhat of a protégé. A talented cook of some renown. He'd never looked like cooks usually looked like in Faith's experience. He was of wider and taller stock, his hands looked more likely to excel at hurting things than they might crafting tasty morsels, but by all accounts, his baking in particular yielded mouth watering results.
Passage here had shifted the relationships between many of their kind. Tony's talents had landed him a good job at one of the more up-market local eateries. The type of place that angled for richer customers than actually usually lived close by. There was a local word for it she couldn't quite bring to mind.
Now, Tony often found odd jobs for her Uncle through the man who employed him. Tony said that the old man prided himself of giving back to the community.
They stepped aside from the flow of people and settled under one of the bridge arches that flanked the entrance to the market.
Tony smiled, but looked a little concerned. Apparently her Uncle had been looking for her.
"Your Uncle was looking for you. He was fairly steaming when I saw him too. What did you do?"
Faith knew it was pointless keeping an untruth from Tony. He'd know before she finished the words. "I might have used a little magic." She confessed.
Tony straightened up, looking down on her severely
"You know the dangers of that. You should know better."
"It was harmless."
"There is no such thing …"
"Yes, there is," she interrupted, "it was harmless. I was just trying to help. He got one of those trees you see. The Christmas ones that the locals decorate with all their fake flashing."
"What did you do?"
"He's been complaining about the bills that the locals charge us for their mag … sorry, for their, power"
"Well, I thought if I just used a little of my magic to imbue the star he had for the top of the tree, that it might shine without costing him any more of their power."
Tony chuckled, "one more light on the tree was not going to ruin him."
"It was a gesture." Faith argued.
"A dangerous one."
"No one would have noticed one more light would they?"
"I suppose not."
"Exactly, but you know how my Uncle is."
Tony nodded. "I thought you couldn’t enchant anything here anyway? How did a local thing accept the magic?"
"I think I'm adapting," she shrugged, "our line is strong. I've found that I can get some local things to accept a little magic. Basic stuff, glows and the like, you know, minor enchants and such. I won’t have any of the local things talking or serving in thrall any time soon."
"Probably just as well," Tony waved his hands at her, "this lot would freak the hell out if they saw you walking around with a book in thrall or something. They would fear you."
"Do you really have to ask?"
Faith shrugged. She knew he was right. The locals feared different. She disliked that about them. Fear replaced curiosity here. Some even seemed to actively fear even the thought of learning. Just another part of her new here that baffled her.
"They would think you were going to thrall them." Tony added, making a gesture with his hands towards here, fingers outstretched.
Faith giggled, "don’t be silly. You might not have magic, but you know no-one can thrall anything with a mind."
"They don't." He reminded her, pointing out into the market.
"There is much they don’t know." Faith sighed.
"Quite, but it's our here now. You have to be careful."
"I will." Faith smiled, "I promise."
"and you have to head home. If your uncle finds out I saw you, and failed to impress upon you his desire to see you home, I'll be toast next time he sees me."
"I'm on a mission." Faith explained, "Don't tell him, but I'm looking for a gift for him. A Christmas gift."
Tony's eyes lit up. "A Christmas gift no less? Glad you're finding your ways to the local customs. I feel like this holiday has the best intentions at least."
"That's what I was thinking." She smiled.
Tony sighed a little, but smiled back warmly. "Ok, I'll trust you. Just don't delay too long. I best go back too. The old man will be wondering where I wandered off to."
"I'll come around tomorrow Tony," she assured him, "maybe have a pie. Here and Now, until There and Then."
"That would be nice." He nodded, "Until there and then."
With that Faith waved goodbye to her large friend, and turned back towards the next row of shops.
Shopping for her Uncle was never easy. He was a simple man of simple habits, and put little stock in things. He didn’t seem to have many belongings. He had even fewer things that were local. While he lectured her frequently on the need to fit in, his only keepsakes were those that fit in whatever bag he brought with him from home.
He had a tall bookcase that was home to several volumes of their historical tales, and one, the tall book with the embossed red leather cover, that was, as best as she could tell, the collected works of one of the ancient storytellers. Below them a single statue, hewn rough from what she thought to be Irdon bone.
The sight of those elegant creatures was just another thing she missed. This local holiday had Reindeer, a most peculiar name she thought, but their form reminded her of the herd of wild Irdon that used to graze by the crook in the river that bordered her family lands as a child. She had spent many an hour on the crest of the hill counting their number or watching the males joust.
She was however, not going to find anything carved of Irdon bone around here.
She had been wracking her brain about what to try to find for him. He was a hard man to please.
He did however like old books. She knew there was an old second hand bookstore close by. It was filled with row upon row of old, tattered books every time she passed. She might find something there. She wound her way through the shoppers until she found her way to it's door.
A sign outside declared the shop to be open, which was just as well, since the lighting was dim, and you could have been forgiven for thinking otherwise.
There was a thin sickly looking man behind the counter. His balding head glinted even in the low light of the store. There were no Christmas decorations here.
He kept a constant eye on her as she browsed the shelves.
The shelves were tall and stacked high with books of every size, shape, and form. There were some older looking books locked in a glass case behind the counter, but by and large the books on these shelves had already shared their words. These were books that had been well read, they had been handled, tossed, and torn.
The words on many of them meant little to her. A lack of context for the stories they told.
Then she saw it, a tall green leather bound book that was sticking out from it's shelf ever so slightly. At first she thought herself mistaken, it couldn’t be. She looked again. The words along the spine of the book changed as she stared at it. They faded from a local title into words she hadn't seen for a while. The words of her home.
She moved to the shelf and pulled the book out. Opening a page at random.
The local words drifted away in front of her eyes and revealed the words of her home. As best as she could tell the book chronicled an ancient campaign of some kind. A military volume. Something her Uncle would no doubt appreciate.
She scanned the pages right to left, column by column as she was used to back home. She still struggled to read local books the way they were written. Her eye still struggled to follow the path of their words, but she hid it well.
There were illustrations too, she stopped on one of a particularly noble looking Irdon, mounted by an impressive looking soldier, bedecked in the regalia of the Old Family. The text noted that the beats came from a wild herd in a province she had not heard of.
As she continued to scan the pages she was suddenly aware that the old man had come around from behind the counter and was watching her intently from a few feet away.
"Are you interested in the book little girl?" He said. While Faith wanted to protest at being called 'little' she bit her tongue and turned to him.
"Yes, I think so. How much is it?"
"What do you think is a fair price?" The man asked.
"I don't know. Isn't this your shop?" Faith was fairly sure that she was not expected to haggle here.
"It is," he nodded, "but how badly do you want it?" He asked leaning in towards her.
"I've said that I want it." Faith replied, "So please, tell me what you think a fair price may be?"
"Hmmm." He stopped for a moment and looked her up and down, "To you." He proclaimed, "Three hundred pounds."
Faith knew enough to know that was an awful lot of money. Far more than she could hope to acquire. "That seems very expensive."
"Old things are expensive here." The man grunted. "Besides," he paused, looking her up and down again. "you know what it is."
"You do. Don't deny it. You weren't reading the local words now were you?" The man sneered. Faith looked up at him and raised an eyebrow.
"You're not from these lands, are you?" She asked.
"From these lands? No, I'm not." He chuckled, more to himself than her, "Not from yours either, but I knew your shores well enough." He paused, " I know what's worth what there. That book, to you, worth more than you might have let on if I thought you a local. You thought to trick me" he accused her sharply. "To get the local price."
"I didn’t know," Faith argued, "I wasn't trying to trick anyone."
"Really? You know what I am don't you?"
"I do now. I think. I didn’t when I came in." She tried to explain, "You are, I presume, a Jusstaf ."
The man nodded slowly, "and what do you know of my kind little girl?"
"You are traders of great renown. Famous across many worlds. Even this one I'd wager if they knew what faces you took." At this the man smiled, a crooked, gaunt, smile, but a smile none the less. "You are nameless, so as not to breed familiarity, or invite bias into a negotiation. I know you honor the deal above all else, and that both sides must feel the deal is fair in the moment a trade is made." Faith paused, "The deal is final." She intoned a little more severely. She knew that the phrase carried weight.
"The deal is final." The man repeated, almost solemnly, "at least you've been taught properly. Even if you tried to trick me."
"if I had known, I would not have presumed to trick you."
"So you'd have tricked a local?"
"This book is worthless to a local," Faith shrugged, holding the tome up towards him, "so surely I’d have been paying exactly what it is worth. Maybe even a little more." She explained confidently.
"Clever little girl. Perhaps. So this all begs the question what have you got to trade. I am going to presume that you don’t have three hundred pounds?"
"I do not," Faith admitted, "would you be willing to trade?"
"That depends entirely on what is on offer." The man replied
Faith thought for a moment, and reached into her bag. "I have this." She offered, producing a small silver coin. "You know where this came from I trust?"
The man leaned forward and snatched the coin from her palm. He held it up to the light and turned it around slowly between his fingers. He looked back at her, "May I?" He asked, gesturing towards his mouth.
Faith nodded, and the man bit into the coin slowly.
"From the royal mint no less." He muttered, "imbued at some stage I imagine?"
Faith nodded again.
"Worthless to me I am afraid," he said finally, shaking his head firmly, "magic has wore off hasn't it. Too far away from the source of it's power. I mean, it's worth it's weight in local silver and all, but that's far from what you are looking for. Far from three hundred pounds."
"The magic would return," Faith protested, "when back on the shores."
"Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn't." The man mused, "but what it is now is what matters to me most, and besides, not like any of us going back there anytime soon now is it?"
The truth of his words stung. Faith tried to hide it.
"It will be worth even more when people do. Think of it as an investment."
"Don't want to hurt your feelings little girl, but if I see any of you return in my lifetime I'll be surprised. I have no inclination to invest in my children's future, on account of not having any."
He flicked his thumb, tossing the coin back to her.
"So tell me little girl. What else do you have?" He asked, "you have that coin, which while worthless to me in the here and now, indicates that you come from a family. Family had power where you came from. Family had things that would have survived the trip. Things not bound to those old shores. So tell me, what things do you have?"
At the mention of her Family there was a light in Faith's eyes. The man did not miss it.
"I'm right aren't I?"
Faith nodded. "My mother's cousin was of the Third Family." With that she had the man's attention, even if it was only half a truth. Anyone who had travelled the shores knew of the Third Family and their famed fortune, and their even more famous artisans. Faith knew she had him.
She fumbled around in her bag. "I might have something that holds your interest."
"What is it?" The man asked impatiently, leaning forward.
"Wait a second," Faith said firmly, "I have to get it out carefully." She continued to scrummage around in her bag deliberately.
Slowly she produced an ornate silver pendant from her bag. It hung on a necklace of cheap looking black leather, but the pendant itself was something else altogether. Intricately carved silver filigree weaved in and out of circular bands to create a delicate globe of silver branches.
"More Silver?" The man asked, peering at it, "nice craftsmanship, but is it …?"
"Enchanted?" Faith interrupted, "yes, see for yourself." With that she glided her hand across the pendant and it glowed with a soft yellow light. "See, not just imbued, but enchanted. Warded actually." She explained.
"A ward?" The man drew breadth, trying, and failing, to hide his interest. He pulled a pair of glasses from his pocket and put them on quickly. They had finely carved silver frames, with lens of red glass. He muttered to himself a little, but remained intent upon it. "You would part with this?"
"Well, as you say, I won’t be travelling anytime soon, so the protection this was supposed to provide is not useful to me in the here and now," she paused, "buuuut, to someone who travelled between many other shores on any kind of regular basis it would be, I would say, invaluable, no?" She smiled at the man confidently.
"Well," he exhaled, "let's not get ahead of ourselves. I'd say it was worth .. hmmm … shall we say the original three hundred for the book?"
"I think we both know it would be worth more than that."
"What do you want?" The man snapped impatiently.
Faith looked pensive for a moment, enjoying the reversal, yet cautious about pushing her luck.
"Let's say the book," she paused, "and two hundred pounds."
"Done," the man snapped. Faith immediately aware she probably could have asked for more. She handed him the pendant carefully. "Wait!" He exclaimed, "how do I know you're Third Family. That you're telling the truth. That this isn’t a trick?"
Faith hesitated, almost intentionally, and then slowly rolled up her right sleeve. "Your glasses provide you sight through my glamour I imagine?"
The man nodded, and leaned in to look at her arm. Happy with what he saw, he turned around and went back to his desk. He turned the pendant over in his hands.
"Hmm, not the best example I've seen, but it's from a talented hand all the same. Some fine work there. Whoever made this studied from one of the masters. Do you know the apprentice?"
"No," Faith lied, "it was just given to me by my mother." This man did not need to know from which Family she actually came, or that the pendant was of her mother's design, and her own hand. That her mother had been silversmith to the First Family themselves.
The man shrugged, "she had good taste, and a fine eye. I suspect you know the ward is weak, probably the work of an aspiring apprentice, but still, a ward is a ward."
"The deal is final?" Faith asked.
"The deal is final," the man replied.
He produced a stack of crisp twenty pounds notes and counted out two hundred pounds in front of her. He placed them neatly on top of the book and slid it across the counter towards her.
"Thank you," she said.
The man nodded and returned his attention to the pendant. Faith turned and went to leave the shop.
"Merry Christmas," she said, reminding herself.
The man looked up. "Thank you young one. Merry Christmas to you too."
As she reached the door he called out to her.
"Wait, may I offer an insight? Let's call it a value added service? We have struck a fair deal, and this local season calls for some altruism.
Faith stopped and turned around, "some insight?"
"Advice of sorts," he offered.
"No fee," he assured her with a shake of his head. "This here may not have magic as you knew it, but it does have a magic all it's own. You just need to know where to look."
"The locals. Their magic is in creating beauty to behold. They may do so rarely, but not so rarely to render it invisible. They seek beauty above all else, and I do not mean the fake beauty that the small minded among them chase. No, I mean deep beauty as you would know it. The true beauty. The words in all these books. Many of them hold deep beauty. The things they create are capable of inspiring deep beauty, if only for fleeting moments."
"I don’t think I have seen it yet." Faith admitted, "I wish I had."
"Oh, I am sure you have seen it," the old man laughed, "you just weren't looking at it. In time you shall see."
"I hope so," Faith smiled, "but I am not sure that is advice."
The old man shrugged, "perhaps, perhaps not. What I would say to you, is that if one was to know a talented silversmith, for example." He smiled, "They could do worse than crafting things imbued with the magic that the locals understand. The magic of beauty. It might not be as powerful as a ward or an enchant, but to the locals, it is still desirable, especially at this time of year." He paused, "if you knew a silversmith of course."
Faith smiled back, she thought for a second before replying, "if I meet one, a silversmith that is, I shall pass along the advice. It sounds like good advice."
The old man seemed content and waved her away. "Merry Christmas to you. Until there and then."
"Until there and then."
Faith could scarcely believe it had been a year. She weaved her way through the market with the two steaming cups of hot chocolate in hand. She smiled at the carolers and the shoppers, and remembered how heavier her shoulders had felt only a year ago.
These lands were still not hers, but they slowly felt less and less alien.
Turning the corner she saw Daniel at their little stall and smiled. He had been watching for her and smiled back.
"Here you are," she beamed, handing him one of the cups, "freshly made. Tony sends his regards."
"Thanks," Daniel replied, "It's not letting up. We might even run out."
"Really? That's wonderful. Are these all that are left?"
Daniel nodded, "yup! I just put out the last of the spares from the box in the back. I'm so proud of you."
"Proud of us," she chided him playfully. "I'd never have managed this on my own."
"A team effort."
"A team effort." Faith repeated. She had insisted that they split everything equally. He was the one doing all the selling. She just made the things. To her, what he was doing was by far the hardest part, to him, the opposite seemed true.
The pretty silver necklaces were hung neatly from some trimmed tree branches that they had turned into an ad-hoc display case. Each showed a unique scene, carved in silver, that formed a small, intricate globe.
To the locals they looked like finely carved reindeer dashing through a forest. To Faith they were a herd of majestic Irdon in full charge under the silver moon.
In the here and now, they could be both.