Snow crunched beneath the heavy boots of Captain Zale “the Gale” Murdoch. His breath escaped as white clouds of steam in the cold nighttime air, and the moon and rings of Eliorin glowed brightly in the great beyond above. It was a clear night, and the nightglow made the snowflakes twinkle like diamond dust.
Zale was captain of the famous square-rigged, single-masted ship known as the Queenie, one of the stealthiest vessels to ever cut the ocean waves. As seafaring merchants, his crew of Murdoch’s Mates was one of the best in the business, specializing in high-value cargo retrieved from throughout the lands of the Great Crescent.
His wife, Lola walked beside him, her arm locked with his. They were bound for a humble dwelling ahead. The snowdrifts upon its roof, the icicles draping its corners, and the welcoming glow from its windows made it appear like a holiday model displayed in one of Warvonia’s many storefronts. Their grandchildren lived here, the children of Lola’s daughter, Haly, and her husband, Dane.
It was Candletide, and a special one at that. Zale had spent far too many holidays away on voyages. This year was different. This year he would spend it with family.
Or at least part of his family.
His teenage daughter, Starlina, had never liked her father’s occupation. She resented it for keeping him away for such long periods of time, causing him to miss much of her childhood.
It was ever an internal struggle for Zale. He loved his daughter, but his line of work left him little choice but to be away. And, when he did get to see her, he understood why she was often upset. No one can fault a daughter for wanting to spend time with her father.
Never was absence more painful than during holidays.
Zale had made every effort to return to Warvonia early. He made it in time for Candletide, but he still managed to miss Starlina’s sixteenth birthday several days before. He was sure she begrudged him for it.
Still, hoping against hope, he had sent an invitation to Starlina to join them tonight. There had not been much time—not enough time to get a response. He could only hope she’d received it, and he dearly hoped that she would actually accept. Deep inside, he doubted she would.
He burst through the door, not bothering to knock. A gust of snow and wind followed him in, but he felt as though he had passed through a wall of warmth. As he shut the door and turned, several faces looked his direction.
“Ah ha ha ha!” he roared, opening his arms wide. “Come give chilly ol’ Pop-Pop a holiday hug!”
Three little girls sprinted toward him, squealing. Three-year-old Nova slammed into his reconstructed leg, hugging it tight. Five-year-old Sage leapt and clung to his waist like a raccoon. Seven-year-old Fawn nearly toppled him to the ground with her embrace. One-year-old Hazel just stared at them from Haly’s arms.
Inside, the house was arrayed in holiday splendor. Crystal-powered lamps glowed in shades of blue, purple, red, and green. Tinsels glittered from shelves and bookcases and cabinets. A beautiful tree glistened in a corner of the living room—a perfect clingman’s fir, a
favorite variety of Candletide tree for its firm, tiny cones and flowers bursting with the colors of the season. Ornaments dangled from its branches, many of them clearly made by the children. The sight brought a wide grin to Zale’s broad, whiskery face.
Upon the table stood a gorgeous golden centerpiece of the Candletide gateway, its twelve candles aglow. No doubt the twelfth candle had been lit just earlier today, as per custom. This was traditionally a holiday celebrating times of great change in one’s life, with the gateway representing the change from unbelief to belief, from worldly life to eternal life by the grace of Eloh. It was his favorite decoration.
Zale hung his long, heavy coat and his feathered tricorn hat upon hooks and ventured
into the living room. His eyes drank in the décor as he walked. Pangs of sadness weighed upon him as he considered all the Candletides he’d missed—all those opportunities for memories and merriment with those he loved.
“We weren’t sure you’d make it,” said Dane, extending his hand to Zale.
Zale accepted the greeting and returned a firm, friendly handshake. “Fortune favored us, good sir.”
Dane glanced at the bundle under Zale’s arm. “What’s that, a gift?”
Zale shifted his arm, keeping the pages mostly concealed. “Lola’s got our gift. This is a little something extra.”
“What is it, Pop-Pop?” asked Fawn, her eyes alight.
“Well, I’ll tell you…but first I have to know something.” He gave her a stern eye. “Have you been elfish or laudable? And remember, Kinklekrish knows if you’re being honest!”
“Laudable!” shouted Fawn.
“Laudable!” shouted Sage.
“Wadable!” shouted Nova while bouncing up and down.
“Well, alright then!” Zale answered. “You must have lots of zesty gifts and blessings to enjoy this year, being so laudable.”
Sage flashed a brilliant, gap-toothed smile. “What do you want for Candletide, Pop-Pop?”
“Oh, I have most of what I need right here,” he replied.
“There must be something you want,” Fawn pressed.
Zale’s heart fluttered. “If I’m being truly honest with you, girls,” he said somberly, “I was hoping very much that my daughter would also be here. I’ve spent many Candletides away from her over the years. That’s my own fault. What you kids remember is this: you’re very lucky to have your parents and family here with you for the holiday. There’s nothing better than that.”
The kids nodded.
“So, what is that, Pop-Pop?” Fawn asked, pointing to the papers in Zale’s arm.
“Ah! What I have for you here is one of my favorite Candletide tales, from one of my very own journeys.”
“Did you write that?” asked Fawn, peering at the sheets in his arm.
Zale held the stack of papers in full view. The slightly browned flaxsheets were tightly bound using small lengths of rope. “Yes, I did. I bet you didn’t know ol’ Pop-Pop fancies himself a bit of a writer, did you?”
“What?” piped Nova. “You’s a sailor!”
“Aww…. I can be both, can’t I? A sailor who writes for fun?”
Nova’s smile disappeared as she thought it over. A moment later, she nodded vigorously. “Okay!”
“Oh, good!” Zale replied in his gruff, grumbly voice. He made for a padded armchair in the living room and sat with a groan.
“A tale, you say?” said Dane with folded arms. “This I’ve got to hear.”
“Yeah!” said Haly. “Candletide story time might have to be a new tradition, Zale.”
“I think we’d all like to hear it,” added Lola.
Zale peered around at everyone in the room. “Oh, I figured we’d wait until after dinner, at least. It smells delicious!”
“It’s not quite ready yet,” said Haly. “Go ahead!”
Zale shifted his girth in the cushy chair, readying the makeshift storybook upon his lap. “If half the stories of our voyages were recorded, as I someday hope them to be, the pages would fill this house to the brim. This special tale of a Candletide past happened not so many years ago. And, to get the full effect of the holiday, I wrote it in the form of a Candletide rhyme. Do you girls remember the gents who are part of Murdoch’s Mates?”
“I think so,” replied Fawn. “There’s your first mate, Dippy, right?”
“That’s right—very good!”
“And Jigglegut!” piped Sage.
Zale chuckled. “That would be Wigglebelly, our cook and a senior deckhand.”
“Beep!” chirped Nova.
“Ah, yes,” said Zale. “Ol’ Beep, our boatswain. Then there’s quartermaster Fump, master of arms Chim-Chum, deckhand Hookknee—”
“Are those their real names?” asked Sage.
“Nope. Those are their Murdoch’s Mate Monikers. On our ship, that’s as good as their birth names. Oh!—and there’s Jensen, a greenhorn. That means…he’s still got much to learn.”
Zale paused. The name of Jensen made him think of Starlina. Jensen and Starlina had become very close throughout their youth, a relationship that anyone could see was going well beyond just friendship.
These thoughts brought once again a longing to see Starlina.
“Is that all of your crew, Pop-Pop?” asked Fawn, pulling Zale from his reverie.
“By the Light, no! We’re nearly three dozen strong…but I think that’s all you’ll need to know for this tale.” He cleared his throat. “So, without further ado, I give you ‘The Gift of Candletide.’”
He flipped to the first page and began to read.
On the trusty old Queenie one Candletide night,
I emerged from my cabin to a wondrous sight.
From the prow to stern to the rigging below,
All the decks of my ship were covered in snow.
Deckhands threw snowballs and the officers gawked,
The ship’s wheel was glittery, frozen, and locked.
And then I saw Jensen slide down one of the rails,
As both Beep and Chim struggled to steady the sail.
Not a day earlier saw the decks swabbed by Fump,
And the ice on the planks took me down with a bump.
How my legs gave way as I fell to my butt,
And Wigglebelly’s sugar-hams danced in my gut.
I looked to the sky and gasped with a shiver,
And realized we’d sailed right into a blizzard.
When what to my old captain’s eyes did appear,
But a miniature ship throwing hooks at our rear.
“Grimkins!” cried my crew of those black-feathered fiends,
“Keep them off this ship,” I yelled, “whatever the means!”
But we didn’t stop them from coming; they came!
Somehow or other, those foes came just the same!
I marched ‘cross the deck with a stomp of my boot,
For I knew in that moment they were after our loot.
And in moments like these there is no time to be tame,
So I looked to my crew, and I called them by name.
“Now, Chim, to the weapons—the staves and the swords!
Now, Fump, to the crossbows, to fight off the horde!
On, Wigglebelly, ward them off with your girth!
On, Beep and on, Dippy, make them regret their birth!”
And then came a jostle, a most unsettling sound,
As our ships unexpectedly both ran aground.
On an island we’d landed, as best we could look,
We’d drifted into the western coast of Holbrook.
I took to the land to assess what I could,
And pursued the grimkin captain into the wood.
It seemed for an hour I ran and gave chase,
Till the ground ‘neath vanished, and I fell on my face.
And then, in a moment, I heard within reach
The shuffle of talons and a horrific screech.
The grimkin captain and I, we were trapped there together,
In the woods, snow, ice, and extremely bad weather.
I drew my saber, for I was prepared to fight,
And grimkins look meaner in the dark of the night.
Then up we both looked at the sound of a bark,
Facing large clothed foxes, a beaver, an aardvark.
Anthropods! We had fallen right into their trap,
To protect their village, they had heard that trap snap.
Then they hoisted us up, that grimkin and I,
And took us to shelter in a cave that was nigh.
And there in that cave I saw my entire crew!
Across the cavern stood the grimkin crew, too!
As I stared at them all, confused and befuddled,
My mind felt foggy and especially muddled.
Then came a grayed badger looking older than grief,
I knew in a moment he must be the chief.
And I glared at that beast, my temper quite sour,
For we’d all been made captive in just the last hour.
But that badger chief, being wiser than wise,
Smacked down his staff and he fixed me with his eyes.
And he spoke with a voice that was raspy and torn,
Like one who gargles sharpish rocks every morn.
“Enough!” he shouted, so that everyone turned.
“Your fighting is futile, and your pride be burned!
You know-it-all human, have you any notion,
The reason these grimkins caused all this commotion?”
“Of course,” I replied, “they were after our bounty.
And for it they would have happily drowned me!”
The old chief grunted, to his troops gave a whistle,
And up came his staff just as fast as a missile.
His staff pointed straight at my grimkin foe’s head.
“Well, human, you’re wrong,” that old chief badger said.
“Your crews were both fighting in that icy breeze,
And I tell you now, you’re both dumber than fleas!
“These grimkins never cared to steal your great prize.
Their ship was sinking; they were saving their lives!
In the heart of that storm they had sprung a bad leak,
To be home for Candletide is all that they seek.”
“But hate makes you humans and grimkins quite blind,
You fight when you meet and you all lose your minds!
We are all creatures blessed by Light from above.
We can all be at peace, and we can all of us love.”
And there in that cave, because of this wizened beast,
Grimkins, humans, anthropods all had a great feast.
We shared tales of great battles, tales of far places.
We shared tales of triumph, treasures, and new faces.
Oh, how we all laughed; Fump sprayed food through his teeth,
And the table we shared was round like a wreath.
Wigglebelly danced until he lost his footing.
His girth shook when he fell, like a bowl full of pudding.
And some hours later the storm finally ended,
We took time to thank the creatures befriended.
And of course these grimkins we could not leave alone,
So we loaded their stuff and helped them sail home.
Ne’er would we forget how that night the tides turned,
Nor the friends that we’d made and the lessons we’d learned.
And from the decks of our ship was heard clear as a bell,
Happy Candletide, all, and may the winds fare ye well!
Zale closed the pages on his lap. His family burst into joyous applause.
“Yay!” cheered the kids. Even Baby Hazel babbled approval.
“That was wonderful!” said Dane. Haly and Lola voiced their agreement.
“I’m glad you all enjoyed it,” said Zale. “This really is a special day…when we can all be together.”
Lola walked to a front window of the house and peered behind a curtain, passing a quick wink at Haly. “Maybe not everyone quite yet.”
Zale arched an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
“The food should be just about ready,” said Haly, and she moved toward the kitchen.
A moment later, Lola opened the front door.
There was Starlina, standing in a light-blue coat, a pretty match with the braids of her brown and blue hair.
Starlina gave her father a coy smile. “Happy Candletide, Father.”
Zale sprang from his chair, bubbling with glee. “Starlina!” He embraced her and brushed a tear from his eye.
She handed him a small box wrapped with glossy paper and a bow. “This is for you.”
“Thank you, darling,” Zale replied. “But just having you here is the greatest gift I could’ve received.”
Then he looked over her shoulder, just beyond the house, where stood three others: Jensen, Wigglebelly, and Fump, all dressed in holiday suits.
“Happy Candletide, Captain Murdoch!” they all shouted.
“Ah ha ha ha!” Zale roared. “What are you three doing here?”
“I figured,” Jensen replied, “it’s a great day to be with those closest to you.”
Fump shrugged. “We were passing through.”
“Huhuhuhuhu!” chuckled Wigglebelly. “I heard there was good food here, man!”
Zale shook his head. “Well, don’t just stand there freezing. Come on in here!”
And with family and friends all together, Zale decided that this was his best Candletide yet.