Sunday, December 11, 2016

BONUS STORY: "Herne's Four Hundredth Christmas" Part 1

As a little thank you to our fans, and a way to kill time before the release of the second book, we're putting out a mini-installment for you. It'll be in three parts, leading up to Christmas. Here's part one. Look forward to part two next week!
* * *
"I'm sorry your parents had to cancel their trip this Christmas."
"I'm not," Iris muttered. At Herne's shocked look from the other side of the bed, she hurriedly explained: "No, I love seeing them... It's just it's a lot of work to get the house cleaned to their standards, and I'm just not feeling up for it this year. I can Skype with them on the day."
Iris shrugged. "It's a thing. I'll teach you." She ruffled his hair. "Besides, this gives us more time to focus on making your first Christmas extra special."
"Well, it's not my first..." He grinned awkwardly. "It's my four-hundred and-"
"I mean your first time celebrating. You know." Iris looked up from her book inquisitively. "Or is it?"
Herne shook his head. "I know what it is. And I know it's a thing that people like. But I've never really..." He rolled a hand a bit, looking for the words. "... kept up with the Middle Eastern deities. Not enough to know how they celebrate their birthdays."
"Oh." The wording threw Iris a bit. "Well, it's... I mean, that is a thing, but most people just sort of do the seasonal gift-giving and decorating part."
"While forgetting about whose birthday it is?"
Iris winced. "That's a... touchy subject."
At Herne's confused expression, Iris shrugged the conversation off, closing her book and sliding down to put her head on her pillow. "I'll explain later. For now, just... don't think too hard about it. We'll give you a nice, basic Christmas to start. Just to see how it goes."
Herne screwed up his mouth thoughtfully as he slid down next to Iris, putting an arm around her. "Right. If you say so."
"It's a holiday. You're not getting a flu shot."
"A what?"
"Good night."
* * *
“Where are we going?” he asked, looking out the passenger-side window expectantly as the neighborhood rolled past them.
“We’re getting a tree.”
Herne scratched his cheek. “I have a tree.”
“A Christmas tree, silly.” Iris reached a hand across to poke him lightly on the arm.
“What’s the difference?”
“Ahh… Christmas trees are usually fir trees of some sort. And you cut them down and bring them inside and put them in your living room and decorate them.” She nodded toward her phone, which was charging on a cable leading from the cigarette lighter. “Look them up if you like.”
Herne was versed enough in smart phones by now to poke out an image search for Christmas trees. “Oh. I’ve seen these before, I think.”
“Well, they’re sort of a staple.”
“Why are there boxes underneath?”
“Oh, that’s where you put your Christmas presents.” A light bulb went off in her mind. “You know, like how people leave you things at your tree, except they’re presents instead of offerings. And we wrap the presents up and open them on Christmas morning instead of just having them sitting out.”
Iris couldn’t tell what sort of “hmm” that was meant to be, so she looked over and smiled encouragingly. “It’ll be fun.”
“All right.”
“It will.”
“I believe you.” Herne returned the smile and settled back in to watch the scenery go by.
Before long, they were at the farmer’s market that – at least last Iris had checked – always had the nicest trees. Iris hopped out as Herne unfolded himself from his seat and ducked out of the car, looking at the small parade of fir trees stretched out in front of them. A few strings of lights crisscrossed overhead between poles, and a handful of families milled about between the trees as Christmas music played faintly from a radio somewhere nearby.
Iris shivered.
“You all right?”
She nodded, noting that Herne seemed unaffected. Here she was, bundled up from head to foot with hat and scarf and gloves and heavy coat, and Herne’s idea of cold-weather prep had been a light jacket over his usual T-shirt and finding a pair of jeans with no holes in them. She knew he was generally unaffected by the elements – nature deities wouldn’t get far if they succumbed to a chill, granted – but it made her feel even colder just to see him that way.
“C'mere.” He unzipped his jacket and wrapped it and his arms around her, rubbing his hands over her back to generate some heat. She leaned against him gratefully.
“My portable space heater,” she mumbled into his shirt. He snorted, but continued to hold her. “Wings would be warmer.”
“Wings would also rip up this nice jacket and get people staring.”
Herne kissed the top of her head. The top of her hat, rather. “Later. What are we looking for?”
Iris closed her eyes, wrapping her arms around his middle under the jacket. “Mmm. No brown needles, just under eight feet tall since that’s how high our ceiling is, not leaning too much in any one direction, kinda full. As few gaps between the branches as possible.”
“Trust me, it makes a difference.” She pulled away, pulling her scarf back up over her face and clapping her gloved hands together. “Okay. I’m good.”
“Right.” He rubbed her shoulders, then strode off purposefully between the trees. She took off after him at a jog, but lost sight of him amidst the fragrant branches after a few moments.
“Over here.”
From her left. She pushed between two short, especially wide trees and moved toward the sound of Herne’s voice. He was standing next to a tree, hands clasped behind his back expectantly, as though waiting proudly to have his choice evaluated.
“This one?”
“This one.”
Iris circled the tree, prodding at the branches. No needles fell out. It wasn’t leaning. No huge gaps. She looked up. It was even the right height, best she could tell.
“Advantages of going tree-shopping with a literal forest god.” She giggled.
“Is it good?”
“Yes. It’s… well, it’s the fastest I’ve ever gotten done picking one.”
She couldn’t help noticing how pleased Herne looked on hearing this. “Now what?”
“Now we tie it up and take it home and decorate it.”
* * *
Technically, the first thing they did upon getting the tree home was go inside and warm up. Or, rather, get Iris warmed up. Herne pulled off his jacket before they were even all the way inside, but Iris hesitated to remove her outerwear as she could still feel the cold clinging to her.
“It’s all right,” she heard Herne say behind her as she finally began taking off her coat and scarf and the rest. “Come here, I’ll get you warmed up.”
She turned around to respond, catching him in the middle of pulling his shirt off over his head. She blushed, choking a bit.
“Ah… no, you just-”
A moment later he’d unfurled his wings and sat on the couch.
"Oh, that’s what you meant.”
Herne blinked, then blushed, then narrowed his eyes, all in quick succession. “Get over here, you.”
“Right.” She rushed over to huddle up in his lap, and he wrapped his wings around the two of them tightly. She closed her eyes, resting her head against his bare shoulder.
“So decorating that thing.” His voice rumbled close to her ear.
“What with?”
Iris would much have preferred just snuggling against him wordlessly, but there was the matter at hand. “Strings of lights. Some decorations my family gave me when I moved out. Usually every family’s tree is a little different because it has things from everyone’s own lives that they’ve collected over the years.”
She felt Herne shift a bit. “What if… you don’t have anything?”
“Well, ah…” Iris suddenly felt extremely uncomfortable. “I mean, you must have something. Under that big tree of yours. Something that could be an ornament.”
Herne went quiet for a few moments. “I don’t think so.”
Iris raised her head. Herne’s brows were furrowed as he stared straight ahead. He didn’t look sad so much as unsure whether he ought to be sad.
“Hey.” Iris reached up and ran her fingers through his hair gently. “Hey, then we start this year. You know? Everyone has to start somewhere.”
“Really.” She grinned, tugging gently on one of his antlers to turn his face down toward hers. “Come on. You bring the tree in, and I’ll bring down the lights and ornaments from the attic.”
* * *
Iris was stringing lights carefully as Herne sat on the living room floor unboxing ornaments. He’d lifted her up to reach the top branches at first, but she was now contentedly wrapping them around the lower branches of the tree.
“Nearly done. Then we start with the ornaments.” She looked over her shoulder to see Herne – once again shirtless and winged and antlered after having brought the tree in incognito – inspecting his reflection in a large red bauble her parents had brought her back from a theme park.
“Like what you see?” Iris teased.
Herne looked up suddenly. “What?”
She laughed. “Come here with that.”
“Actually, I was thinking…” He put down the ornament as he walked up to the tree. Iris tucked the last bit of light cord out of the way, then stepped aside.
“Yes, it happens sometimes.” He threw her a wink and turned back to to the tree, touching a finger to one branch. Almost immediately, a small vine wrapped itself around the branch, budding and bursting into a red and white flower at one end.
Iris had seen him do this before – both intentionally and unintentionally – but it hadn’t even remotely lost its novelty. She giggled. Herne turned back toward her again, smiling: a small, shy smile, a boy who’d just impressed his crush. “What do you think?”
“I love it. It won’t hurt the tree, will it?”
“Iris, I’m hurt.” Only mock hurt, though, judging from the look on his face. “They’re not parasites. They’re just pretty.”
“Yes. Yes, they are.” Iris hopped up on her toes to kiss him on the cheek. “How about you do a few of those while I handle the ornaments?”
Between them, with Iris hanging glass baubles and Herne scattering flowering vines here and there, they finished the tree before dark. (It would have been sooner were it not for a coffee break and a brief derailing when Herne began weaving flowers into Iris’s hair.)
At the end of it all, Herne dug a large angel out of the box of ornaments. “And where does she go?”
“Oh.” Iris pointed to the top of the tree, combing flowers out of her hair and letting them fall to the floor. “Up top. I can’t reach. Could you-”
Before she’d even finished speaking…
Stumbling out of his clothes, the little screech owl that Iris still couldn’t quite remind herself was her boyfriend grabbed the angel in his beak and flapped to the top of the tree. The upper branches quivered a bit as he landed, dropping the angel safely in its place.
“I was going to say you could probably reach up there on your own,” Iris said, folding her arms. “But I suppose this works, too.”
The owl burbled, flapping his wings crossly, and settled himself down in the upper branches.
“Don’t get comfortable up there. That’s for ornaments, not for owls.”
She didn’t even need to speak owl to translate the hoot and narrowed eyes. I’m not an owl, I’m a forest king.
“And it’s not for forest kings, either. Come down and put your pants on.”
An even more cross burble.
“Right, well, I was going to suggest we light the fireplace and have a cuddle, but you enjoy yourself up there.” She picked up Herne’s clothes and folded them over her arm, making to leave.
The owl rocketed down, and a moment later Herne was grabbing his clothes off Iris’s arm and pulling them back on.
* * *
The living room was lit only by the tree and the (artificial) fireplace. Back on the couch, Herne pressed a lazy kiss against Iris’s temple.
“It’s pretty.”
“Hm?” Iris looked up at Herne, then at the tree. “Oh. Um. I think it was a German thing. And then Queen Victoria did it because her husband was German and then everyone else did it because she did.”
Herne’s gold eyes shone in the dim light of the Christmas tree. “Queen Victoria. So I’ve only been missing out on this for a couple hundred years instead of my entire life.”
“If you like,” Iris giggled.
“And presents go under it?”
Herne slipped into a thoughtful silence. Iris propped herself up on his chest to look at him. “What do you want for Christmas?”
“Who, me?” Herne’s eyes darted around the room, as though she’d asked him something genuinely uncomfortable. “I… I get presents all the time. People just sort of give me things. I don’t need anything.”
“Those are offerings, not presents. I told you, it’s different. What do you want for an actual Christmas present?”
Herne still looked baffled. “I don’t… know. I’ve never actually gotten a Christmas present before, I don’t think.”
Iris’s heart sank a little at hearing this, but she did her best not to let it show. He didn’t understand. He wouldn’t understand why it made her sad.
“Mm. Well, think about it, because I’m getting you something.”
“I… all right.” Herne plucked a stray flower from Iris’s hair. “Does that mean I get you something, too?”
“You don’t have to. I don’t need anything.”
Herne raised an eyebrow. “Aha.”
“It’s different,” Iris protested, tapping him on the nose. “You don’t have much by way of money. And it’s your first real Christmas. I don’t want you stressing out over finding me something.”
The two lapsed back into silence. Iris eventually scooted up a bit and traced her fingers gently over Herne’s cheek. He moved in for a kiss, and she twined her arms around his neck, cocooned by his wings.
“So,” Herne whispered between kisses, “what’s next after putting up the tree?”
“Ugh… so impatient.”
“This was your idea.”
Iris silenced him with her tongue. "Tomorrow,” she said at last. “Just enjoy what we have so far tonight.”


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