aster Belmos smiled at the group of Magi seated around the fire in the library. "Would anyone else care to share a tale tonight?"
Shai glanced up from where she sat in the corner, slowly spinning silken yarn. "I've got an old one I can share, Master. You might have heard it before, but I don't believe the others here tonight have..."
Belmos nodded and began to refill his pipe. The younger Magi watched Shai in anticipation as she began to tell her story...
Runa slowly trudged up the stairway to the observatory. She was alone and in a foul mood. Most of her friends were helping to decorate the Keep in preparation for the evening's All Hallow's Eve celebration while she had been chastised for missing class and sent to clean the telescopes that were kept in the highest tower. Angrily kicking at the door to the classroom, Runa grumbled to herself as she shoved her way in. "It's not fair! I only missed one class and it was because of Siobhan's stupid cat! That rotten thing hid my new tunic! It's like that cat is obsessed with me. She'd better not let it back in our room!"
Runa continued to complain as she hastily wiped down the telescopes. She took more care with the lenses though, it wouldn't do to be in more trouble for scratching or breaking one. The sun was close to setting as she peered through one, examining it for dust or fingerprints. Satisfied with her cleaning, she was about to turn away and move on when movement near the forest's edge caught her eye. Runa adjusted the telescope until she could see more clearly. A girl stood just inside the lengthening shadows the trees cast. She was slender and had red hair. Runa didn't recognize the girl from any of her classes, but she recognized the tunic the girl wore as the one she herself had recently lost. Hissing and swearing under her breath, Runa bolted for the door, determined to find the girl and reclaim her tunic.
The Keep was extraordinarily busy, people bustling and rushing around as they arranged tables and lit pumpkins. A few pumpkin wyrms could already been seen slipping around the corners of the room, their gaze fixed upon the bright orange treats they loved so much. It was easy enough for Runa to slip through the crowds and out to the gardens. She tugged her cloak tighter against the evening chill as she cut through the nearly bare gardens to the forest and headed in the direction she'd seen the girl walking. To her surprise, a small white pumpkin had been set at the foot of the path. It had been hollowed out and a tiny white candle placed inside and lit. The warm light spilled out from carvings in the shape of a paw print. Glancing around for the red haired girl, Runa saw no one, but she could just make out a spot of light further down the path. Shrugging, she walked around the pumpkin and headed down the path.
The small speck of light proved to be another pumpkin, this one a bit larger and orange in color. It too had a paw print carved on it. The forest had grown darker, the shadows uncomfortably chilly and the air promising frost before morning. Another look around showed another pumpkin lighting the path, and more seemed to flicker into life in the distance as Runa watched. She shivered, feeling a bit nervous now that she thought about how she'd run into the forest without telling anyone where she was going, not even stopping to bring any of her companion creatures with her....
"How do, miss! Will you be joinin' us for the supper?" Runa almost bit her tongue in surprise as she jerked around to see the person speaking to her.
A tall man stood behind her. His tunic was a patchwork of browns, creams, and rust, his long black coat seemed a bit tattered around the hem, and his dark blond hair fell into his eyes as he bowed from the waist. "Time's wastin', miss. Come, the feast is near to endin', and maybe give a fellow a dance tonight?" His eyes were cheerful as he held out his hand to Runa, who took it without another thought. The blond man laughed and lead her down the path, twirling her and singing nonsense words as they went. Runa couldn't quite catch the words he sang, they seemed to be familiar and yet not. She barely noticed that each of the pumpkins they passed was marked with a paw print as they raced down the path towards the glow of a bonfire.
The man spun Runa into a clearing with a flourish as he stopped his odd little song. The bonfire popped and crackled in the quiet as Runa looked around with wondering eyes. The clearing held a large gathering of people. No two were dressed alike, and most seemed to be speaking the same sort of nonsense language as the blond man's song. A massive table, large enough for twenty to a side, was set in the clearing. The dark wood seemed to groan under the weight of the dishes set on it, and people simply helped themselves to a bite here and there. Runa glanced at the blond man who grinned at her, his green eyes shimmering in the firelight as he gently nudged her towards the table. "Help yourself, dearest, and may I ask for your name?"
"It's Runa," she replied, daintily picking up a small dark chocolate truffle candy. "Who are you? And who are all these people? I don't recognize them from the Keep." She bit into the candy and smiled at the burst of chocolate and pumpkin on her tongue. She reached for another and glanced around, looking for the red haired girl.
"Oh, it's just a gatherin' of friends. Many of us are from around the Keep or have lived here in the past. And I'm Finn. You're a bit younger so you wouldn't know us yet. But we're around if you look." Finn smiled and chose a small meat pie from among the dishes on the table. "It's a rare thing to be at our bonfire tonight. Mingle and chatter, but save me a turn in the spiral, eh?" With a last grin for Runa, Finn turned and slipped into the crowd, his coat swishing out of view as the crowd closed behind him.
Runa sighed as she turned to watch the people around the bonfire. There was no sign of the girl from earlier in the boisterous crowd. She watched as a few people began to pair up and dance, their footsteps slowly following an invisible spiral around the fire. The couples slowly twirled closer to the fire, danced a turn around it, then slipped away again. It was hypnotic to watch their slow, paced steps as the firelight glinted on hair and jewels and skin. Almost without noticing, Runa began to walk towards the dancers.
"Well, well, well. What are you doing here?" Runa jerked, her thoughts crashing together as she shook off the trance. She gaped at the young woman standing next to her. "Siobhan! What are you doing here? Never mind that, who's the girl who stole my tunic? I thought it was that cat of yours but I saw her come this way wearing it!"
Siobhan tossed her light brown hair back and glared at Runa. "Don't know who you're talking about, Runa dear, nor do I know anything about your tunic. Why would Trinket take it in the first place? Besides, I was invited to the spiral tonight." Siobhan shoved past Runa, leaving the smaller girl staring after her in shock. Siobhan wasn't the friendliest of people but it wasn't like her to be this rude. What did she mean by invited, anyway? Runa shook her head and walked away from the fire. It didn't matter, just so long as she found that red haired girl.
"Welcome, friends of old and friends to be!" A voice boomed from near the table. Startled again and slightly irritated from it, Runa turned to stare as a dark haired man smiled at the crowds from his place near the massive table. "We have feasted and gossiped these last few hours of the old year, now let us dance to welcome the new!" At his words a roar of applause rose from the crowd. Hands grasped hands as people sought a partner, and Runa found herself caught between a woman with sapphire eyes and man in a ruffled lace neckerchief as the line of dancers began to curve, snake like, across the dead grass of the clearing.
"I don't recall seeing you before" The sapphire eyed woman studied Runa with a bit of a confused expression on her pretty face. "Is it your first time attending the Feast of the New Year?"
Runa blinked and almost missed a step. "I'm sorry, I don't know what that means. I was trying to find a girl and then I met Finn on the path..." The man on her right gave a sharp bark of laughter.
"Oh, met Finn on the path, eh?" He glanced slyly at Runa. "And that damnable boy probably swept you along before you could say yea or nay, didn't he, pretty girl that you are?"
Runa leaned away from the leering man. "What if he did?"
He smirked at her. "Well, then he's broken the rules, eh, Mya? And I'll wager Burchard won't be too happy as he was the one to invite this year's-"
"That's enough, Liam." Mya glared him. "Don't give out our secrets to those who don't even know of their existence!"
Scared and feeling very alone, Runa decided it was time to take her leave. "Um, thank you for the evening, but I must go and find Siobhan!" She broke away, ignoring Liam's shout as she slipped through the wavering lines of dancers. Ahead of her she could see the edge of the clearing and the small pumpkin that lit the path that lead to the Keep. Hurrying towards it, she looked for Siobhan in the lines of dancers, but they were moving faster now, laughing and singing as they danced to music she couldn't hear. Runa blinked away tears as the dancers called to her and the fire roared louder, she couldn't find Siobhan or Finn or the red haired girl but most of all she wanted to go home!
Small hands on her shoulders pulled her away, turning her and shoving her towards the shadows under the trees. Runa sobbed as she leaned against the massive trunk of an oak tree. The hands patted her back and rubbed her shoulders, slowly soothing her and giving her time to calm down. When the last of the sobs finally left her, Runa looked to see who was helping her.
She was tiny and fair skinned, with brilliant emerald green eyes and fiery red hair. She was wearing Runa's dark brown tunic and a long white skirt with bare feet. She would have been the loveliest girl Runa had ever seen were it not for the look of sadness and anger on her face.
"Oh, Runa! Oh, I'm so sorry, darling, I shouldn't have taken your tunic! You followed me here because of it and now it's all my fault!" Tears glimmered in her green eyes as the girl hugged Runa tightly. Runa felt her tremble as she hugged her back. "Did you eat anything? Tell me now."
"Uh, I ate a couple of truffle candies, why? Who are you, and what is going on?" Runa felt the tears trying to start again as she looked at the smaller girl.
She sniffled a little and wiped away a tear. "I'm so sorry darling..."
Runa stared. "What's wrong? I don't know any of you, all I know is you stole my tunic and Siobhan was invited and Finn broke some rule and nothing makes sense!"
The red haired girl took Runa by the hand and began to lead her back to the bonfire and the dancers who swirled around it. Runa stumbled and began to follow, her heart pounding like a drum in her ears.
"This is our Feast and our Dance. We welcome the turning of the year, the death of the old and the birth of the new. The doorway will open at midnight, and that's when we will welcome our newborns." Runa blinked, dazed, as Finn took her other hand and danced along the spiral with her. She swayed softly, her heart beating louder, faster. Runa started into green eyes and realized it wasn't her heartbeat she was hearing, it really was a drum. A flute and a fiddle played an old, old tune in broken whispers, the true lyrics entangling with the nonsense song the dancers sang.
"Not nonsense, miss. Just words you didn't know how to hear." Finn smiled at her. "Trinket here loves you more than her own mistress, so we've allowed Siobhan to return to your Keep. She'll remember naught in the mornin' besides a party and havin' a bit much to drink."
"Trinket?" Runa's tongue was heavy against her lips. "Siobhan has a Trinket. She's got...green eyes. Ca-calico k'tty cat..."
The girl, Trinket, smiled. Runa absently noticed Finn given her other hand to Trinket as they reached the inner circle of the spiral. "Not a cat, darling. A Tienko."
Finn watched as they drew closer and closer to the bonfire, wondering if Runa noticed it radiated no heat at all. Probably not, he decided as he nodded to the dancers on either side of them.
Midnight struck, and the fire reached for Runa.
Siobhan awoke late the next day and groaned. She'd never had a hangover quite this bad before. "Must've been some party, huh, Runa?" Rubbing her eyes, she glance over at Runa's bed. Runa's empty bed.
"Mrroowwww." Siobhan blearily glared at the calico Tienko curled at the foot of her own bed. Trinket looked remarkably smug, even for a cat. Then Siobhan saw what was resting at Trinket's side.
"Ooooh, you silly thing! Where'd you go and get a black Tienko egg? Hmm?" Trinket nuzzled the egg as Siobhan reached out to touch it. "Fine, keep your secrets! Wonder what Runa will think when she sees this?"
Later in the evening, as the fire burned lower and the students began leaving for their beds, Master Belmos turned to Shai. "It's interesting, the story you told tonight."
"Oh, and why is that, Master?" Shai slowly wound a ball from the yarn she'd spun throughout the evening.
"When I was younger, I taught a young woman by the name of Siobhan, and if I am correct in my memories she had two Tienkos. One a calico and one solid black, and I believe they were named Trinket and Runa...."
Shai gathered her spindles and unspun wool, carefully packing them into her bag along with the wound ball of yarn. "Really..." She stood and started walking towards the library door.
"Indeed." Belmos watched as Shai opened the door and paused, looking back at him.
"Are you implying something, Master?" Shai grinned.
"No, my dear, nothing at all. Just recalling old memories." He smiled at the dark haired woman. "Good night, and safe dreams." Shai wished him the same and quietly closed the door behind her.
Belmos leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. "Funny though. I also seem to recall that Siobhan's room mate vanished one Halloween night...and that Shai's grandmother is named Siobhan...."
The fire flickered and Belmos almost smiled.