The Gunslinger sat there, rolling the cylinder of his revolver, the only thing that seems to work like it was supposed to in these dreadful times.*click, click, click.* The Gunslinger looks around the tavern, where the rest of the occupants seem as downtrodden as he felt. Usually, during this festive season, the walls of the establishment echo with the sound of merriment, the piano blasting forth a cheerful revelry, decorations and lights adorning the halls, and drink flowing like a great river. Now, the only light are the flames from the hearth, dancing against the now darkened walls, the shadows swallow any sound that the somber remnant might make . *Click, click, click.*
Usually, The Gunslinger would occupy this corner of the tavern surrounded, shoulder to shoulder with his friends, exchanging stories of great battles, heroic deeds, and beard care tricks that made men envious and women want. Now, he sat alone, chair leaned up against the wall, his friends distanced across the room.
The beginning of the year started out promising enough, but then some of the legendary heroes began to pass. The Black Serpent, a legendary sportsman (some may consider him the greatest sportsman), died in a tragic accident. A young actor who portrayed epic heroes who were simple men doing extraordinary deeds perished after a long fight with a lingering disease. Even one of The Gunslingers heroes, The Gambler, broke even in this difficult year. *Click, click, click.*
There was also civil unrest. Citizens took sides in the politics of the rulers and began to become divided against each other. Day after day, news of disturbances within the rulers spread throughout the villages. This division caused villagers to fight and quarrel among each other, becoming suspicious of one another.
Then came the plague. It was an odd sickness. You could either be sick enough to be at death’s door, or you could not even know you have it. It affected the victim's breathing, but also could have symptoms that would take away their sense of smell and taste. At first, residents of the realms believed that the grip the plague held would be diminished soon, but ten months later the plague continued to ravage citizens, both rich and poor.
The rulers of the realms sought to find ways to minimize the effects of the plague. Some rulers closed the shops in their realms, in an attempt to keep villagers at home. While some thought this wise, it enraged some as well.
The Barkeep looks over at The Gunslinger. The two exchange a glance and without another word The Barkeep walks over with another pint of mead. The Gunslinger typically would have forgone the second pint, but with a night where he felt as hollow as this, more mead was welcome, not to mention it helped out the Barkeep.
The Barkeeps’ face showed more than a few sleepless nights of worry. The Barkeep had struggled through the terrible season, his tavern being closed down by the Crown. This tavern, his livelihood had been closed down, even despite the precautions the Barkeep took. The Wizard had created a cleansing tonic that the Barkeep used repetitively. Alas, the tavern had seen some dark times and the Barkeep wondered if he would be able to keep this town staple alive. Thankfully, the rulers’ orders had been relaxed so the tavern could bring in more coin, however, business had not caught up yet to the hole the tavern had fallen into and the threat of another decree ordering its closure loomed heavily over the establishment. It was hard for a local establishment like the tavern to continue to operate at this time. Honestly, the tavern probably wasn’t the safest place to be, but on this night but the patrons had nowhere else to go, and being lonely on Christmas could be as scary as the plague itself. *Click, click, click.*
The Gunslingers thoughts strayed to the Wizard, as he wondered where he was. The Wizard’s absence was another difficulty the town had faced this year. While the Wizard had always been there for whatever beard care, or other magical need someone needed, the Wizard had disappeared, leaving only a note explaining that he was searching for something to fix the ills the people were struggling with. He had not been seen or heard from in months.
The Gunslinger’s gaze wanders over to The Marksman, who is whittling a stick next to the fire. If anyone could look any more bored than The Gunslinger did, it had to be the Marksman. The Marksman had made a name for himself as the bearded hunter. Any beast, natural or unnatural could not escape the piercing arrow from the Marksman (or so it was said). So, the Marksman travelled the realms, hunting beasts that prayed upon the villages (for a price of course). This year, however, villages had varying rules of who could come and go, and quite frankly, the Marksman wasn’t keen on traveling and risking exposure or risking exposing someone else to the plague, as there isn’t a cure for it yet.
The Gunslinger hears a sigh and looks over at The Scribe, who looks as if he’s staring off into the void. The Scribe had always been one of the more festive patrons at the tavern, but it seems his spirit has been crushed this year. The Scribe came from a huge family with aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, and even great grandparents. Even close friends were treated like family by the kind Scribe. He spent the holidays going from family party to family party sharing in the Christmas cheer he shared with his family members. Unfortunately this year, his family members would be unable to gather together. The Scribe’s aunt had caught the plague and is still fighting it hard, his uncle’s realm has enacted restrictions limiting travel to and from the realm, and his loving grandmother who always doted on the Scribe was in the monastery, being attended to, for her body was withering away. Even his children could not return from University due to the advice of the Headmaster. The Scribe wouldn’t even be able to spend Christmas with his beloved grandmother because of the increased precautions the monks were taking. *Click, click, click.”
The Gunslinger while gruff on the outside, felt for the Scribe, for he understands part of what the Scribe is feeling. “I too was hoping to see my family for Christmas,” whispered The Gunslinger. The Gunslinger, despite how badly he wanted to see his wife and kid again, feared what possibly introducing the plague to the past could do to both his family and the timeline. With the Wizard’s disappearance and the possibility of introducing the plague to the past, The Gunslinger felt stuck in the present.
Then, in through the silence, a chair scrapes across the floor. The Hero stands, pint in hand, “This year has taken a lot from us. It has challenged us and changed us, some for the worse, but also some for the better. Tonight I see many sorrowful souls. I see men who have given up hope, so much so they’ve even let their pride from their beard slip. I haven’t smelt a drop of oil among you all tonight. It’s a shame I tell you. We have so much to be proud of and thankful for.”
The Hero looked at the Gunslinger, “Gunslinger, with all the extra time you’ve had, you’ve tinkered with your pistols and improved your marksmanship, you might even give the Marksman a run for his money. Here, here!”
The patrons awkwardly whisper a “here.”
“Not a chance,” the Marksman sneered with a playful growl.
“I believe I could,” the Gunslinger said to himself, “No need to argue it here though, maybe a competition might be in order. I can’t believe that the Hero noticed all that extra work.”
“And you, Barkeep,” said the Hero, “you found that your new ‘mead-cart’ idea is a way to keep the tavern a float during the hard times we face. Your innovation, ingenuity, and hard-work have kept the lights in our beloved tavern burning. Like the children chase after the culinary-mage’s flavored icicle cart, men and women of all ages chase after your mead cart. Here, here!”
The spirit began to take hold as a corresponding “here, here” rang out, although still kind of weak.
“Marksman, you’ve started writing down descriptions of all the beasts you’ve hunted over the years. Your writings will be a valuable resource for other hunters, farmers, academics, and a wide range of other readers. Not to mention, your stories of valiant struggles with wild beasts are legendary, HERE HERE,” the Hero’s voice thundered through the tavern.
“HERE, HERE,” cried the patrons, now on their feet, pint in hand.
“And you Scribe, I see your spirit is downcast,” says the Hero gently, “You long to see your family whole and merry. While we cannot bring them together, you always have our friendship and our brotherhood. That makes you richer than most. HERE, HERE,” said the Hero.
With a tear in his eye, the Scribe looks at the Hero, and with a nod of the head says, “Here, Here.”
The crowd breaks into a cheer as the patrons turn their pints bottoms up. Everyone is clapping and a smile creeps across the Gunslinger’s face. That’s when he notices on the edge of the table a bottle of beard oil. The Gunslinger picks up the bottle gently, twists the top, and raises it to his nose. The smell of fresh Christmas cookies and warm milk made the Gunslinger think back to Christmas’ past, with all of his loved ones gathered around, and a warmth grew in his chest. “It almost seems that the tavern is brighter. No, it IS brighter, although I cannot determine why,” said the Gunslinger. He pours a little into his hands and rubs it through his beard. Instantly the beard begins to take shape, no longer ragged, but uniform and tighty. All the long errant hairs now in line, and his face no longer itchy. The spirit that the Gunslinger felt first from the words of the Hero, and then again from the whiff of the oil grew.
The Gunslinger raised his oil bottle in the air.
“Thank you, Hero, for the rousing word and for reminding us to be thankful for what we do have in this season. Also, thank you for the beard oil, it is a magnificent blend.”
The room buzzed with excitement as the other patrons found the oil on there table too but the excited buzzing was interrupted by the Hero's stuttering,
“While I do appreciate the kind words, the oil is not from me.”
The tavern grew quiet again, the patrons gazing around the room in wonder, trying to determine the source of the gift. That’s when they began to notice the decorations and festive candles lining the walls. Those hadn’t been there when the night began.
Suddenly, there was a bellowing laugh, the sound of thundering hooves, and the sound of scraping runners on the rooftop. Then out of the hearth, erupted a flash of light, and standing there in the midst of the room was a large man. His cloak draped across his massive, but muscular frame. His black boots were as dark as coal, and a pair of flying goggles rested on his forehead. Beneath the forehead was a glowing face with bright eye and a jolly grin, casting whatever shadows were left in the tavern away.
For a second everyone froze, they couldn’t believe their eyes. Then another gigantic laugh resounds from the huge man’s throat.
“Santa...?” said the Barkeep.
“The Claus,” replied the man. The smell of the mystery oil lingers around the man, surely he was the origin of the gift.
“I saw that you all lacked some Christmas cheer and I wanted to bring something to light up your Christmas, and the oil the Wizard made for me is pure Christmas cheer, but I believe you found a much greater gift: kindness, thanksgiving, and the fellowship of one another. I’m sorry this year has been tough, it has for many. But through the kindness, thanksgiving, and love for one another you will find hope as well.”
The Gunslinger, not one for sentimental conversation, is touched by the conversation. Everyone goes to raise a glass, but now instead of mead its peppermint hot chocolate.
“How does he do that?!” exclaimed the Scribe. The Gunslinger spots a handsome bearded elf scurrying through the rafters. “Santa’s helpers,” laughs The Gunslinger.
Everyone begins drinking the cocoa and when they reach the end of the cup, it is full once again! The conversation became light and joyful and Claus answered many questions late into the next morning.
It’s time to go Claus says, while they aren’t ready for him to go, the Patrons aren’t sad. No one could be sad after a night like that.
“I do, however, have one more gift,” said Claus. The bearded elf carries in a box many times his own size. He struggles with the girth of the box, but is able to sit it down in front of the hearth.
Like a child, the Marksman cries out, “What is it Claus?”
“His wish was to spend Christmas with his friends,” said Claus.
With a flourish he pulls the top off the box and out of the box springs none other than the Wizard himself, with a joyful look spread across his face.
“Merry Christmas to you all, and a happy new year,” The Wizard yelled. The tavern explodes into welcome, greeting the Wizard. “Even though things are different, many have to stay at a distance and nothing is as it was, the Tavern still feels warm and welcoming,” thinks the Gunslinger.
As Claus streaks off into the atmosphere, the Gunslinger whispers under his breath, “Thank you and Merry Christmas mister Claus.”