A Merry Night
“Celebrate the winter solstice?” Mikoto echoed, looking at Wallens curiously.
From his place across the campfire from her, he nodded. “Yes. We may be travelling, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the changing of the seasons.”
“Can we, can we? It would be cool to do something like that!” Pollon exclaimed, grinning at all of them.
“It would be nice to celebrate it ourselves,” Pan agreed with a nod. “I wonder if we could pick up some ale in the next town.”
“Ale? I want apple cider!” Pollon paused, then said reflectively, “Although whatever cider we get won’t be as good as the stuff Mom makes...”
“Cider would be nice, wouldn’t it, Wallens?” Mikoto vaguely remembered her parents drinking wine at seasonal celebrations, but she had always been given cider. Even now, she preferred ale or water over wine if she was to drink something.
“I’ll see if I can pick some up when we reach the next town,” he promised, smiling at her. Since her parents died, he had always tried extra hard to make any celebration special. Even though they were far from home, she knew that Wallens would still do the same for this celebration.
“Pan, why did you drink ale instead of cider?” Pollon asked, looking eagerly over at the former knight.
Pan shrugged and said, “The common knights drank a lot of cider during the fall and winter, and mead the rest of the year. The officers got the ale most of the time, so ale at the winter solstice was a treat for us.”
“That’s pretty neat. It was backwards for our family – we drank ale most of the year and only had cider on special occasions.”
“My garrison is a lot farther north than Elua, so ale wasn’t that common.”
“Ah, yeah, good point.” Pollon rubbed the back of his head, clearly having forgotten that. Then he brightened and said, “I bet the Princess and Wallens celebrated differently from us, too.”
“Not really,” Mikoto replied, thinking back. “I was never allowed to have wine, so I always had cider. We always had a big feast on the night of the solstice, too.”
“Some things remain the same no matter where you are,” Wallens said softly, and she saw that Pan was looking at him like he knew something she didn’t.
Shrugging it off, she nodded decisively and stated, “Then lets celebrate the winter solstice on our own! If everyone helps out, I’m sure it’ll be great.”
“Awesome!” Pollon threw his hands up in the air as he cheered, and she smiled at his enthusiasm. Once Pefuu returned from hunting in the morning, they would fly to the nearest town and pick up whatever they needed.
- - -
“What’ll we do for food?” Pollon asked as they stood in market square. The town was busy due to the time of the year, and they weren’t the only travellers looking for supplies. Wallens and Pan and split off to look for drinks and side dishes, leaving Mikoto and Pollon to buy the main course.
Mikoto tapped her chin, going over their options. “It can’t be anything too big, since we’ll be cooking it over an open fire, but it has to be large enough to feed all of us.”
“Can’t we ask Pefuu to roast it for us? I mean, he can breath fire...”
“I think his fire may be too powerful to cook with,” she replied with a giggle, thinking of what might happen if they let the dragon help them with dinner.
“Haha, yeah, I guess so.” He folded his arms and frowned as he thought about their dilemma, Mikoto taking the chance to look around a little. The shops that lined the square were covered in garlands and wreaths made of pine branches, and candles burned in almost all of the windows, even though it was the middle of the day. People laden down with bags bustled between the shops, and the baker’s stand was doing a brisk business in hot buns.
“I know!” She turned back to Pollon as he smacked his cupped palm with a fist. “Why don’t we get some chickens? They’re pretty small, and they should be easy enough to cook over a campfire.”
“Yeah, those would probably work! We haven’t had chicken in a while anyway,” she agreed with a smile, and Pollon grinned at her before dashing off towards the butcher’s. She followed him, and her smile turned into a grin when she pushed into the shop. The smell of roasting meat filled her nose, and plenty of chickens hung from hooks alongside turkeys and other birds. Legs of lamb and ham were also in abundance, and slabs of assorted meats were displayed on low tables around the shop.
“Excuse me!” Pollon called as he made his way to the counter, Mikoto quickly joining him. “We’d like some chickens, please!”
Setting down his knife and wiping his hands, the butcher smiled at them as he came up to the counter. “For the solstice, eh? How many do you need?”
“Six, please!” Mikoto said before Pollon could speak, and he gave her a bashful smile. Knowing his appetite, he could easily eat a whole chicken by himself.
“Six it is.” They haggled over a price for a few minutes, then waited while he wrapped them up. Splitting them three apiece, they thanked the butcher and left the shop.
“This meal is going to be great! I hope Wallens and Pan get something tasty!” Pollon said as they walked back to the appointed meeting place.
“I’m sure they will. Wallens knows what he’s doing when it come to food.”
“Princess Mikoto! Over here!” Peering over her armful of chickens, Mikoto spotted Wallens waving at them, Pan leaning against a fountain behind him with several bags by his feet.
“Coming!” they called back, and Mikoto grinned at the thought of the delicious meal they were going to have.
- - -
The fire hissed as fat from the chicken dripped into it, and Mikoto breathed in the smell of roasting meat happily. They had made camp in a meadow part-way up the side of a mountain, high enough to get a great view but low enough to be below the snowline. The group had spent the day preparing for the celebration – gathering lots of wood for the cookfires and a bonfire later on, hunting small game for appetizers and generally relaxing as much as possible in between tasks.
Pan was slowly turning the chickens on a spit, while Mikoto and Pollon had been tasked with cutting vegetables up and keeping an eye on them as they cooked in a pot of water on a separate fire. Pollon poked at their fire with a stick, sending up a small burst of embers. The princess looked away from the fire and up at the sky, seeing that a few stars were already out. They would be eating soon, then.
“Hey, where’s Wallens?” Pollon asked suddenly.
“He said he had something to take care of, and would be back by dinner,” Pan said calmly, and Mikoto looked back down to see that he was focused entirely on turning the chickens.
“Oh...Heh, I wonder if he’s giving Pefuu a treat?”
“That would be nice. He certainly deserves one,” Mikoto replied, thinking back to everything the dragon had done for them. Then a thought struck her and she asked, “Hey, where should we go next?”
“Somewhere warm sure would be nice...Pan, isn’t the water warmer down south?”
“So I’ve been told,” Pan said, glancing over at them for a moment.
“Let’s go there then! Maybe we’ll even find some pirate treasure!”
Mikoto clapped her hands together and nodded eagerly. “That sounds like fun!”
“It might be fun, Princess Mikoto, but are you prepared to deal with the strange monsters who dwell there?” She turned at Wallens’ question, seeing him standing at the edge of camp with a covered bucket in each hand.
“Of course,” she confirmed, smiling at him. After all they had been through, she could handle a few unknown monsters.
“Ooo, what’s in the buckets?” Pollon asked, eyes wide with curiosity.
“A surprise,” Wallens replied, then added with a stern look at the pair, “So don’t you dare peek.”
Mikoto giggled as Pollon pouted and returned his attention to the bubbling soup, giving it a sullen stir as Wallens walked past them and into the trees bordering one side of the camp.
The sun set in a blaze of colour as they finished preparing dinner, Wallens expertly carving the chickens by firelight while the rest looked on in admiration. A low, flat boulder served as their table and thick logs of firewood as their chairs, and Mikoto smiled at the spread of food in front of them. “This was a wonderful idea,” she murmured to Wallens as he settled down beside her.
“Thank you for suggesting it,” he whispered in return, both of them straightening up as Pan and Pollon sat down with their bowls of soup.
“Let’s eat!” Pollon exclaimed, and they echoed his words and began their meal. The second course was small game that had been caught and roasted that morning, and the third and main course was the chickens. As predicted, Pollon ate two of the chickens himself even as Mikoto and Pan teased him about it, and Wallens kept everyone’s mugs filled with either ale or cider.
“I’m stuffed...” Mikoto mumbled, handing her plate of chicken bones to Wallens. “Shall I help you?”
He smiled and shook his head. “No, I’ll handle this. Relax for a while, Princess Mikoto.”
“I can’t eat any more either,” Pollon agreed with a groan as Wallens took his plate, and they smiled at each other.
“I suppose that means Wallens and I will have to eat all of the dessert,” Pan said, giving them a smug look.
“What dessert? We don’t have any dessert,” Pollon said, narrowing his eyes at the knight.
“Mm, I suppose you’re right...” Pan smiled and sipped on his ale as Pollon glared at him, clearly too full to press the point.
Wallens sat back down with a fresh bottle of cider, and Mikoto refilled her mug as she asked, “When should we start the bonfire?”
“Hm...” He looked up at the sky for a few moments, then answered, “I think it would be best to wait an hour or so, if that’s agreeable with everyone.”
“That works for me.”
Pollon simply groaned, and they all laughed at the contented expression on his face.
- - -
“So pretty!” Pollon breathed as he stared at the flickering flames. Mikoto nodded in silent agreement as she watched the fire consume the pile of stacked logs, eventually edging backwards once the heat got too intense. The bonfire brought back memories of celebrating the winter solstice as a child, from the music that was played to the way her mother - and later Wallens - helped her fold the paper her wish was written on before she tossed it into the flames.
“Is everyone ready for dessert?” She looked over at Wallens, surprised to see that he was carrying the two buckets from before.
“Wait, we do have dessert?! Pan wasn’t just joking?” Pollon asked eagerly, looking between the two men.
“Of course we do. When have I ever joked about food?” Pan replied smugly, and Mikoto giggled at the low growl Pollon made in return.
“Yes, we have dessert,” Wallens said, walking over to the bolder they had used earlier as Mikoto and Pollon both followed him, leaving Pan by the fire.
“Is this the surprise you mentioned earlier?” she asked as he placed the buckets on the bolder and gathered some bowls and spoons.
“It is,” he confirmed with a nod.
Pollon ducked under his arm to peer into the buckets and said with a grin, “This is ice! And this smells like jam! Where did you get this?!”
“That’s correct,” Wallens said as he nudged Pollon out of the way. “I got up early this morning to start the jam, and I went up the mountain this afternoon to gather the ice.”
“But how did you keep it cold?”
“Ah, I know!” You put the buckets in the stream nearby!” Mikoto said before he could answer, and was rewarded with smile.
“Very good, Princess Mikoto. The stream is fed by snow runoff from farther up the mountain, so it’s perfect for keeping things cold.”
She waited eagerly while he spooned some ice into a bowl and poured some of the jam on top, then grinned when he handed her the bowl. “Thanks, Wallens!”
“Yeah, thank you!” Pollon echoed as he received his dessert, quickly scooping a big spoonful of it into his mouth. Mikoto giggled as he grimaced and mumbled something about it being cold, but his smile soon returned.
The princess took her time eating her dessert, savouring the sweet treat. There was enough for everyone to have seconds, and as she enjoyed her second bowl, Mikoto looked around and realized just how happy she was to know Wallens, Pollon and Pan. Because of them, this night was truly special.