Midwinter Comfort: A Cursed Cocktails Holiday Special

Here’s a little story I wrote for the holiday season. You can find the permalink HERE.

“You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.” Rhoren grinned as he ushered the last of the patrons out of the front door.

“Is this how you treat your loyal customers?” Helena stopped by the door, crossing her arms.

Her brow was raised as she stared at the umbral elf. Though the bartender was a foot taller than her, the massive headpiece she wore swayed in front of him with her every movement. Another one of her elaborate creations, this one was a beautiful lilac and studded with pearls, with sheer fabric that draped out of the back to cover her shoulders. 

Rhoren pointed to the parchment posted on the door, and then to the other displayed prominently at the bar.

Notice! Cursed Cocktails will be closing early on Midwinter Night for a private event.

“I posted this a week ago and you’ve been in here at least three times since then.” Rhoren’s deep red eyes twinkled with playful mischief. “I’ve reminded you twice myself.”

“I see how it is.” Helena scoffed but Rhoren knew she wasn’t really mad. She just liked to complain. “Kicking a poor old woman out into the cold on Midwinter Eve. You should be ashamed of yourself, Rhoren Balsalor.”

Rhoren laughed. “I’ve seen cold, Helena, and let me assure you, this is not it.”

She wouldn’t succumb to frostbite in the time it took to walk to her shop next door, as much as she might argue otherwise.

In the Northern Guard, Rhoren had experienced cold that chilled him to the bone. A cold so intense that frost tipped his lashes and his words froze on his tongue. It had been so frigid on occasion that the dwarves in his company had to chip away the ice from their beards after a long trek.

They didn’t know cold in the coastal city of Eastborne. Up north, it was the dead of winter but down here he could still go sleeveless for most of the day if he wished.

Helena’s frown faded, and she offered the umbral elf a smile as she patted him on the arm. “I’ll see you tomorrow, and I expect to hear all about it.”

He grinned. “I’ll leave the details to Kallum. You know how he loves to gossip.”

Rhoren shut the door and flipped the sign to closed. Since Kallum had moved in, it wasn’t often that he found himself alone at the bar. He still remembered the first day after he’d bought the place when the building was a hollow vessel aside from a few remnants of the spice shop that had occupied it previously.

Now, it was whole, and welcoming. He’d built a life within its wall—from the hearth to his left, surrounded by comfortable chairs and a couch, to the bar full of the finest ingredients in the city, if not the kingdom. People came here to talk, to relax, to listen to wonderful music, and to enjoy delicious drinks. The property that many feared was cursed had proven to be anything but.

The flicker of the candles in the chandelier gave the room a warm glow. Rhoren wiped the tables and gathered the few remaining glasses until Jinx drew his attention. The cat stood on one of the stools, pawing at a lemon on the bar.

“Don’t you dare.” Rhoren wagged his finger at the massive cat reaching an imposing golden-brown paw across the counter.

The lemon rolled off the bar and thunked against the floor. Jinx stared at Rhoren without a hint of remorse in his emerald eyes.

“You really are a pain in the ass, sometimes.” Rhoren chuckled.

Jinx meowed before leaping from the stool to play with his new toy.

“I’ve got an hour before everyone arrives.” Rhoren talked to the cat while he gathered ingredients behind the bar. “That should give me plenty of time to get everything in order.”

He’d sent Kallum on an errand to pick up food for the evening. Flatbread from The Copper Wheel. His partner knew Rhoren had something planned but he didn’t know any of the details, only that all of the employees of Cursed Cocktails were to meet at the bar at the first bell after sundown.

Rhoren had been researching the ingredients for a special cocktail just for tonight. He wanted to surprise them all with a creation he’d made—this one without his father’s recipe book. Over the past year, he’d come into his own as a bartender, with a great deal of help from Kallum, learning about the various ingredients and combinations and how they could be used to accentuate different flavors and aromatics.

The ingredients for the drink were relatively simple—jin, honey syrup, lemon juice, and fireweed tea. Rhoren sat them on the bar, taking a moment to appreciate the notes of mint and citrus from the tea as he opened the pouch. Fireweed tea wasn’t common in the south, since the fireweed plant only grew in colder climates, but he’d managed to track some down. One of the perks of owning what had become one of the most successful bars in the city meant that he had a wealth of connections for obscure ingredients.

Rhoren stoked the fire across the room and set a kettle to boil while he prepped the rest of the ingredients, slicing lemons for juice and oranges to garnish the drink. A lemon rolled across the floor followed a moment later by Jinx as he darted under the couch in pursuit.

Once the water was boiling, Rhoren poured it into a pot and steeped a healthy amount of fireweed tea. A minty citrus aroma filled the room, transporting Rhoren back to his childhood.

For the longest time, the scent had reminded him of the night he’d lost his parents and the first time he’d ever used his blood magic. He’d buried those memories for most of his life. Now, though, he learned to appreciate the good times without dwelling on the bad. The smell of fireweed tea brought back memories of stories read by the fire and his father carving trinkets from wood to give to him on Midwinter Eve.

Rhoren had gained more than relief from the effects of blood magic thanks to this city. Kallum and the others had shown him that being a blood mage was part of who he was, but it wasn’t what defined him. He could still think fondly of the past without being consumed by parts of it.

The bell above the entrance jingled as Kallum peeked his head in, eyes closed. “Is it safe to enter?”

“I’m just finishing up. Come on in.”

Kallum carried two large flat boxes, each one marked with the circular logo of The Copper Wheel restaurant. He set them on the bar and Jinx turned his attention from the lemon to the food, hopping on the stool and sniffing at the boxes. The savory aroma of melted cheese and cured meat wafted in Rhoren’s direction and his mouth began to water.

“That smells delicious,” Rhoren and Kallum said at the same time.

Rhoren laughed. “Fireweed tea. I’m working on a little something special for tonight.”

Kallum stroked his silver beard. “I’m intrigued, Rhor.”

Rhoren grabbed two glass mugs from behind the bar and placed them on the counter. “Why don’t we do a test run while we wait for the others.”

“Let’s see what you’ve got.” Kallum rubbed his hands together.

Rhoren added the jin, honey syrup, and fresh lemon juice to the mugs first, then added the fireweed tea. He’d made the tea extra concentrated so that the drink could be topped off with hot water for a warm delight. After pouring steaming water into the mug, he finished the drink with a garnish of an orange slice and a stick of cinnamon.

He slid a mug to Kallum and raised his own. “Cheers.”

They toasted one another, and carefully sipped the warm beverage. It was a beautiful mixture of citrus and sweet, with the herbaceous notes from the jin accentuating the mintiness of the fireweed tea.

“Wow.” Kallum licked his lips and took another sip. “Looks like you don’t need my help anymore.”

Rhoren leaned forward, pressing his lips to Kallum’s. When they parted, he wore a wide smile. “No, but I still want it.”

The bell from the temple down the street tolled, and a moment later, the doorbell jingled as the blonde-haired trio of James, Cindy, and their father Tomas entered.

“Right on time.” Kallum squeezed Rhoren’s hand.

Cindy immediately ran to Jinx, lifting him off the stool much to the cat’s displeasure. Held against her yellow dress with his back feet dangling to the floor, the cat was nearly as tall as the young girl.

“Good to see you, Tomas.” Rhoren nodded to their father. “Drink?”

Tomas wore a simple blue tunic. His arms were tanned and freckled from his days at sea, and though the man was thin, he was built from hard work. He squeezed James on the shoulder. “I’m not one to turn down a good drink.”

“What about you, James? Enjoying your day off?”

“Yes, sir.” The boy nodded. He’d grown about a foot over the past year and was looking more like his father by the day.

Rhoren placed the parchment with the recipe in front of Kallum. “You want to make one for Tomas? I’ll make James’s without the jin.”

Kallum nodded approvingly as he inspected the recipe. “Well done.”

Midwinter Comfort


1.5 oz jin

.5 oz honey syrup

.25 oz lemon juice

4-6 oz of fireweed tea

Garnish: Orange slice and cinnamon stick

The two got to work, and the bell jingled for a third time as Jesper entered, followed by Ametrine. Rhoren furrowed his brow at the gnome’s appearance. She was a regular, and Rhoren considered the magenta-haired tinkerer a friend, but she wasn’t an employee.

Jesper met Rhoren’s gaze and then laced his fingers with the gnomes. Ametrine’s cheeks flushed and she looked up at the broad-shouldered bard.

“I knew it!” Kallum shouted. “I bloody knew it!”

Jesper looked sheepish as he placed his lute on a table. He brushed a strand of raven hair behind his ear. “The cat’s out of the bag, I guess.”

Ametrine waved at the group before her. “Hey, everyone. I hope I’m not intruding.”

“Nonsense!” Rhoren poured the hot water into the mug and handed it to James. “On Midwinter Eve, the more, the merrier. Want a drink?”

Ametrine’s face brightened. “Of course!”

“What’s Midwinter Eve?” Cindy wore a curious expression as she stroked Jinx’s fur.

“Gather around and I’ll tell you all about it.” Rhoren retrieved two more mugs and placed them on the bar. 

Kallum gave Tomas his drink and immediately began work on another for Jesper.

While he spoke, Rhoren crafted a cocktail for Ametrine. “Up north, the Midwinter Festival is a holiday that originated with the mountain dwarves. The festival honors the solstice and the knowledge that even though we are in the midst of winter, that it will be coming to an end. Midwinter Eve, or Midwinter Night in some places, is the shortest day of the year, marking the mid-point of the season. Afterward, each day grows a little longer all the way until Midsummer, which is the longest day of the year and the days begin to shorten again.”

Rhoren poured the tea into the mug, topping it with hot water, an orange slice, and a cinnamon stick. “While the holiday started among the snow-covered peaks of Mount Tor, it was adopted by the umbral elves when they settled the frigid plains of Cascus. Even some of the human cities like Silverpeak are said to honor Midwinter. It’s a symbol of death and rebirth, and in those harsher climates, it bodes well to remember that even the coldest nights will eventually end.”

“To honor the holiday and where I come from, I created this cocktail. Fireweed tea has a special place among the umbral elves, and I hope you enjoy its taste as much as I do. Another tradition of the Midwinter Festival is that on Midwinter Eve, families would exchange gifts with one another in celebration of the days growing longer again. My father carved me a wooden toy every year.” Rhoren smiled at the memory. “So, to fully celebrate the holiday, I have gotten you all a special gift.” He winked at Ametrine as a thought came to him. “Yes, even you, Ametrine.”

The normally chatty gnome opened her mouth but she seemed rendered speechless for once.

“Kallum picked up some flatbread from The Copper Wheel. Grab a slice and gather around the fire. I need to run upstairs and then I’ll be right over.”

“You are full of surprises, aren’t you?” Kallum smiled devilishly before returning his attention to the others. “I bought a cheese flatbread for the picky eaters and a supreme for the more civilized. Help yourselves.”

While everyone filled their plates, Rhoren went upstairs to retrieve the box of gifts. On the way back, he pulled a bottle of wine from behind the bar and nestled it in the box before finally joining the others by the fire.

He’d just set the box on a table when Jinx bolted across the room. There was a click as the secret entrance by the stairwell activated and the door swung inward. The black, three-tailed spirit fox stepped into the tavern. The tips of her tail had a faint blue aura as she exited the hidden stairwell to the catacombs beneath the city.

The spirit fox was a regular fixture around the bar but she usually waited until the crowds left for the night before making an entrance. She and Jinx nuzzled one another affectionately before she plopped down in front of the fire.

“Is that…” Tomas’s words faded as he stared at the spirit fox with awe.

“This is Twy.” Rhoren scratched her behind the ears. “She roams the catacombs beneath the city but she stops by here often enough.”

Tomas laughed. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. You’re a blood mage running a tavern after all. Why wouldn’t you have a magical creature?” He turned to his children. “You both knew about this?”

James and Cindy both nodded.

Cindy scooted across the floor toward the spirit fox and petted her. “She’s nice but she doesn’t let me hold her like Jinx.”

“That’s because Jinx is a menace.” Kallum narrowed his eyes at the cat. “Being held is his penance for all of the trouble he causes.”

Jinx flicked his tail in response, showing Kallum his backside.

Rhoren held in his laughter as he stood before the group. “Just as the Midwinter Festival is a tradition among Mount Tor and Cascus, I hope that Midwinter Eve can become a tradition where we celebrate the employees of Cursed Cocktails for years to come. I wouldn’t be able to do this without you all.” He tapped the wooden box. “What do you say we get started?”

“Let’s see what you’ve got.” Kallum squeezed Rhoren on the leg before taking a seat in one of the comfortable chairs.

Rhoren’s gaze fell upon James. “I believe running into you and your sister down by the pier was one of my greatest blessings since moving to Eastborne. Having James running drinks and bussing tables has saved my butt more times than I can count. In a few years, I have no doubt that you’ll be crafting drinks with the best of them if you choose.”

He reached into the box and pulled out a piece of folded canvas. The fabric unfolded as he shook it, revealing a charcoal-colored apron with James’s name embroidered over the breast. In the center, the silhouette of a cat was embroidered beneath two Cs.

“This should help keep your clothes a little cleaner.”

James was grinning from ear to ear as he took the apron, immediately placing it over his head and tying the straps around his waist. It fell just below his knees but the material was durable and he would grow into it in time.

“It even has pockets.” He shoved his hands inside the two large pockets on the front of the apron. “This is great! Thank you.” He wrapped his arms around Rhoren’s waist and squeezed. 

Rhoren patted him on the back before turning to his sister.

“And for you, Miss Cindy,” The girl squirmed in anticipation. “James tells me that you’ve been learning to write.” Rhoren removed a quill and ink set from the box. “And I believe that a brilliant young mind such as yours should have the finest tools for the task so that you can write your father letters when he’s out to sea. The feather for this quill was plucked from a griffin, and will last you all your days if you keep it safe.”

“Wow.” Cindy’s eyes were wide as she took the silver quill and held it in the light of the fire. She waved it through the air for everyone to see. “Thank you, Rhoren.”

“You’re most welcome.” Rhoren reached into the box again. “Tomas, you have raised two wonderful children, and I want to thank you for allowing them to be a part of our lives. I know you’ve often put your own needs secondary to make sure that they had what they needed.” His mind drifted momentarily to his first meeting with the children, where he learned that the coin set aside for food didn’t always last between voyages. To work a back-breaking job and still find yourself wanting was a struggle Rhoren had never experienced. “It’s your turn to be treated for a change.” He held up a pair of polished black boots. “James told me your size and I had these made for you. They’re crafted from the hide of a direhog, so they’ll hold up to the elements.”

The boots Tomas wore currently were aged from salt and sun, and the leather had begun to flake in places. The soles were probably just as worn, and Rhoren was sure the man would wear them until they crumbled into dust.

Tomas held the boots reverently, tracing his finger over the metal eyelets and laces. When he finally met Rhoren’s gaze, his eyes were misty. “Rhoren, this is—this is too much.”

“Nonsense.” Rhoren said nothing more, holding Tomas’s gaze until the man nodded his acceptance.

He took a sip of his Midwinter Comfort, letting the warm blend of citrus, mint, and cinnamon trail down his throat. The fire crackled, and smiling faces waited expectantly for his next gift. Kallum waggled his eyebrows as Rhoren reached into the box.

Jesper and Ametrine sat together on the couch, their fingers intertwined.

Rhoren smiled at the gnome. “In life, I believe it’s not our circumstances that define us but how we respond to the unexpected. Ametrine, you have been a source of the unexpected since we first met, so why should tonight be any different?” She laughed, and the others joined in. “I know how much you love gnomish icewine, so here is a bottle that came in from Cogwall last week. I trust the two of you can make good use of it.”

Ametrine’s cheeks flushed, eliciting more laughter from Kallum and Tomas.

Rhoren’s gaze fell upon Jesper and the broad-shouldered young man sat forward. “I met Jesper on my second day in the city. I never would have imagined that a man with the muscled shoulders and powerful legs of a farmhand would have the voice of a siren, and more than that, that he would spend his free time at the library reading the histories of mages and adventurers. So for you, dear friend, I have a book I think you’d enjoy.”

He lifted a thick tome from the box. It was bound in red leather and Written in Blood: A History of Blood Mages was etched in gilded letters on the cover.

Jesper’s mouth hung open, and Ametrine leaned in to get a better view. “This is amazing. How did you find this?”

“I’ve got my ways.” Rhoren grinned. “It was sent all the way from the Northern Guard library. It will need to be returned but I imagine you can milk a few good songs out of it.”

“Or a few stories,” added Kallum with a mischievous smile.

Jesper held the book to his chest. “You know I will.”

The box jingled as Rhoren removed a small bell in the shape of a ball from the box. It chimed as he rolled it around his palm.

Jinx jumped out of Cindy’s lap and ran over, extending to his full height and resting his paws on Rhoren’s hip as he tried to discover the source of the sound.

Rhoren jingled the bell again, and Jinxed meowed loudly as he extended a paw to the elf’s hand. “Though I may live to regret it, I would be remiss if I didn’t include our two furry compatriots in tonight’s festivities. For our little menace, Jinx, I have a bell for him to play with.”

He tossed the bell and it chimed emphatically as it rolled across the hardwood floors. Jinx set off in pursuit, nearly slipping as he darted through the maze of tables.

“And for our guardian of the night, boar jerky all the way from the Arenian forest.” Rhoren opened a waxed paper package and handed the piece of jerky to Twy. She took it and pranced up the stairs to eat in peace.

Rhoren pressed his hands together and brought them to his lips. “It warms my heart to share this tradition with you all tonight. For a long time, I blocked out the holiday in an attempt to ebb the hurt from a lifetime ago. But in doing so, I also eclipsed many wonderful memories. My hope is that this tradition takes hold and we are able to make even more memories in the years to come, surrounded by friends and family. Because Cursed Cocktails is more than just a business to me, it’s a home, and you all are part of what makes it so special.”

Jesper rested a hand on the cover of his book. “This has been wonderful. I’m just sorry we didn’t have a chance to get you anything.”

Rhoren grinned. “You have a whole year to figure something out.”

“Wait.” Cindy jumped to her feet, scowling as she perched her hands on her hips. “Why didn’t Kallum get a present?”

“Yeah,” echoed James, his brow furrowed. “Just because you live together doesn’t mean he shouldn’t get a present, too.”

“They do make a good point.” Mischief played behind Kallum’s blue eyes as he feigned innocence.

“I was saving his for later.” Rhoren laughed. “But I guess I could give it to him now. What do you think?”

Cindy nodded fiercely.

“Alright.” Rhoren reached into his pocket and removed a sheet of parchment. His fingers shook slightly as he felt nerves for the first time in a while. He locked eyes with Kallum, whose blue eyes were radiant with intrigue. “I’m not much of a poet, but I tried to put some words to paper.”

He handed Kallum the parchment but the man shook his head. “Read it to me. Assuming it’s safe for children’s ears.”

“Of course it is.” Rhoren felt his cheeks go hot, and then he cleared his throat. “Oh, gods.”

“With glasses raised, reflections shimmered,

Hearts intoxicated, love’s sweet glimmer.

A sip of courage, a taste of desire,

Flames ignited, two souls on fire.

Wine whispers secrets, the wuiskey, a tale,

Of love and its journey, of hearts setting sail.

Intoxicating kisses, like a fine dwarven wine,

Aged emotions, both complex and kind.

Yet, in the haze of spirits’s warm embrace,

Caution whispered, a delicate trace.

For love, like wuiskey, can blur the lines,

An elegant balance, where the heart inclines.

So let love flow like dwarven wine,

May the intoxication be sweet, and the yearning divine.

In the dance of passion, in the spirits’s embrace,

Find harmony, find balance, find love and grace.

In the tavern of hearts, where emotions pour,

A cocktail of passion, forevermore.

A sip of desire, a taste of bliss,

Intoxicated souls, sealed with a kiss.”

Rhoren’s hands continued to shake as he folded the parchment. The room was quiet aside from the crackle of the fire and the far-away jingle of Jinx’s bell. After hearing the songs that Jesper had sung on their stage many times, Rhoren felt grossly inadequate.

Kallum stood, cradling Rhoren’s cheeks in his palms. His warm hands were nothing compared to the fire of the kiss that followed.

“That was beautiful,” Kallum whispered.

“Is there nothing you can’t do?” Jesper wiped a single tear from his cheek. “That was truly special.”

Rhoren chuckled. “I don’t know how you do it. My heart is pounding in my chest.”

“You get used to it.” Jesper looked around. “What now?”

“Now, we eat, drink, and be merry.”

“Excellent!” Kallum clapped his hands together. “Who wants another round?”

There were several shouts for refills, followed by a strum of a lute as Jesper sat on the edge of the table. “I know the perfect song.”

Rhoren joined Kallum behind the bar, and music filled the tavern. The flatbread disappeared and drinks flowed until the wee hours of the night as they sang and danced and enjoyed one another’s company.

Midwinter had arrived in Eastborne, not cold nor isolating, but warm and full of life.

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