HEARTHSIDE STORIES: Bûche de Noël at the Fenfoss Inn, by Brianna Sugalski
Brittany—December 24th, 1531
Garin pressed his knuckles against the wormwood bar top, the dull edges of the coins digging deeper into his clenched palms. He leaned protectively over the till before him, fighting the urge to chuck the tin box at the pair of brawling korrigans on the opposite side of the counter. For the umpteenth time he swept a black lock of hair from his forehead, set the gold medallions down, and began counting over again.
The pile of coins was deceptively sizeable, consisting mostly of gros. Each piece amounted to a portion of a livre at best. It would barely be enough to cover the end-of-month market run, he could already tell. At least Meriam never made him go; the ride to Paimpont was Lorietta’s job. The witch knew how to make up for her shortcomings in the small town.
Plus, it was a daytime market.
A thump against the wood jarred him and sent a few of the gros rolling across the counter. Unthinkingly, Garin shot an arm over the bar. His fingers brushed against the coarse fibers of a wool cap. He grabbed ahold of it, along with the tufts of hair beneath.
With a yelp of shock, the forest troll dangling from his hand opened his mouth and released a string of protests. Garin set him down upon the bar top, bringing him eye level with the barkeep.
He allowed the korrigan—this one was called Fritzrik, if he remembered correctly—to catch his breath while he waited for the violent thoughts to pass. They normally faded with his adrenaline, but tonight he especially wanted to wring the trolls’ necks.
Garin forced his gaze past the fuming creature. The rest of the tavern appeared less lively than usual. On another night, they wouldn’t have batted an eye at the commotion. Now, every pair of curious eyes rested upon him.
Tonight’s bar-goers included korrigans, shifters, a dozen witches and warlocks, and a group of younger vampires he did not recognize. They all clutched pieces of dry wood to later add to the blazing fire, along with the Bûche de Noël Lorietta had procured from the Lake of Mirrors.
Ironically, there wasn’t a single fairy in sight. Solstice seemed to chase them back into the Low Forest; Yule was a witch’s celebration, after all. Speaking of, he could've used his friend’s quick wit. She was nowhere in sight.
A flash of pink appeared in his peripheral. Meriam in her frilled bonnet watched warily through the stairwell banister. The innkeeper preferred to keep her distance from the bar, especially after learning just what sort of abomination her then-adolescent niece had hired all those winters ago. Each time the hag discovered Garin doing something alarming—aside from merely existing—she’d run to inform Lorietta.
He straightened, and the bonnet melted into the upstairs shadows once more.
“You’ve the gall, Monsieur Trevail.”
He blinked; the creature had spoken. Its white mustache quivered with reproach.
Garin gave a short bow. “I apologize, I lost my temper. But you two have no business troubling this lot. Not tonight. It’s Christmas, after all,” he added for effect, though this had nothing to do with his momentary agitation.
Fritzrik nodded soberly, shoulders slumped. “We’re sorry.”
Fritzrik’s dueling partner clambered halfway onto a stool to plop his bulbous nose onto the counter. “Extremely sorry,” he stammered.
Garin groaned inwardly, his eyes flickering from one pathetic korrigan to the other. They brought most of the business, after all. Drunkards as they were, the pint-sized nuisances were natural musicians, often performing their haunting bard songs at the hearth. Guilt twisted with the hunger at his core, and he turned away. The creatures exchanged nervous glances just before Garin reappeared with two foaming tankards.
“Save the trouble for after the holiday,” he murmured, circling the bar and shoving the mead into Fritzrik’s arms before helping him down. Garin nearly laughed at himself, watching the pair scurry into the crowd without more than a grateful parting glance.
If Laurent and Bastion saw him now.
He spun to spot Lorietta descending the steps carefully, her greying hair more wild than usual. She clutched the largest wreath he’d ever seen. He rushed over, scooping the entire ornament before throwing her a questioning look. Every other branch lit aglow, and the whole thing seemed to hum.
“I was upstairs, enchanting the bloody thing,” she snapped from behind her smile. “These lucioles have agreed to remain perched until tomorrow evening.”
“What'll happen then?” He imagined her aunt’s fury when the fireflies escaped into the bowels of the tavern-inn. The thought alone made him grin. Perhaps it would be enough to make her collapse.
“You’ll release them at the start of your shift. Outside,” she specified sharply.
The crowd giddily parted for them. Garin hooked the wreath above the hearth, while Lorietta followed with the sacrificial log—a chunk of beech adorned with cedar sprigs, sage, and Hawthorne berries.
She handed him a branch while placing the log into the crackling flames. “I knew you’d ignore our traditions.”
“Does... this surprise you?”
She ignored his remark. “I got you one, anyway.”
They scooted to the side while everyone began to toss their brambles into the fire. Meanwhile, Garin stared distantly into the flames.
“Well?” the witch pressed. “Throw it in. Make a wish.”
But he barely heard. His mind drifted, as it often had when the customers were scant and the nights were slow. Holidays brought the warmth of sentiment seeping into his cold bones, as if trying to force the life back into him.
He tossed the branch unceremoniously and squeezed past Lorietta. Past the onlooking creatures, out into the biting cold of night. For the first time in decades, his lack of true breath was suffocating. The trees seemed to pulse while pinprick stars winked knowingly above him.
Beneath the same sky and leagues away, a nervous princess leaned against her tower balcony, twirling her own Yule branch.
She knew precisely what to wish for.
This short is based on the world of Disenchanted by Brianna Sugalski. Disenchanted is slated to release with The Parliament Press on March 10th, 2020, and is available for pre-order on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and soon on The Parliament Press website! Get lost in Brocéliande, and add it to your TBR here on Goodreads!