2019 Highlights!

Even though it’s February, I thought it would be fun to do a sort of mini Ishness, recapping the most exciting things of 2019, since I haven’t been very consistent about doing Ishnesses. XD

But I don’t want it to be super long, so this will be mostly in list form! (And will also include some long-overdue thoughts and pictures from Realm Makers 2019 at the end!)

Because everyone loves lists, and pictures, and highlights, right? Right. Let’s get to it!

Some of the things I wrote, watched, listened to, and did during 2019…

WRITING

In 2019, I:

  • Wrote 102,585 words
  • Finished writing KW2 (The Secret of Kedran’s Wood)
  • Wrote an entire novella: KW2.5 (Double Lives at Kedran’s Wood)
  • Got halfway into Operation Foxtail (codename for . . . something else. >.>)
  • Completed Camp NaNo in April
  • Won my 10th November NaNo — a decade of NaNoWriMos!
  • Went to Realm Makers 2019!
  • Hit one million words since I started tracking my words
  • Completed my tenth yearly writing journal

I also wrote three short stories, all of which can be read online:

READING

I read 140 things in 2019, according to Goodreads, which you can check out here. My own spreadsheet says 175 things, but anyway. XD I hesitate to say “books” instead of “things” since many of these were short — short stories, novellas, picture books, etc. About 20,000 pages read, which seems to be usual for me.

I just shared my Top 15 (ish) Favorite Reads of 2019 post on my book blog yesterday, so check that out!

WATCHING

I saw my second-ever play! It was a college production of Peter and the Starcatcher and it was a lot of fun. 🙂

I went to half a dozen movies in theaters, which is . . . rather a lot. o.o I had mixed feelings, depending on the movie, because I never totally love or totally hate everything about any single movie, but the experience is always so much fun, and I always find things to enjoy about a movie (or a book!). 🙂

  • How to Train Your Dragon 3
  • Captain Marvel
  • Endgame
  • Tolkien
  • Frozen 2
  • The Rise of Skywalker

I saw a bunch of other movies too, and some of my favorites were:

  • The Secret World of Arietty
  • The Incredibles & The Incredibles 2
  • Christopher Robin

I’ve also been enjoying old seasons of NCIS, and early in the year I binge-watched the first 4 seasons of Merlin, which was a lot of fun! (And select bits of season 5, avoiding sadness. XD)

MUSIC

This year I discovered (or re-discovered and became a super fan):

Favorite Songs From Them:

Other Favorite Songs:

AUDIOBOOKS

BLOGGING

INSTAGRAM

2019 was my first full year of Bookstagram, and I absolutely loved it!

  • 262 posts
  • Hit 500 followers
  • Successfully posted every day for five straight months (aside from skipping one week for Realm Makers) which I was kind of proud of. XD

My top 9 most popular Instagram photos of 2019

EDITING BUSINESS

So, I don’t talk about it super often, but I do freelance copyediting/proofreading. It’s kept me busy, and I’ve been loving it. 🙂

This last year, I edited (or beta-read, in a few cases) five and a half novels, seven novellas, twenty-some short stories, and two works of non-fiction, for a total of about 700K words. (Not counting reading some of them three or more times.) Y’all, I know some super talented authors. 😉

LIFE HIGHLIGHTS

  • Went to Realm Makers 2019! (More about that in a minute.)
  • Went to a couple of book events and got to meet various authors including Terry Brooks (at Realm Makers) and Douglas Gresham
  • Saw Casting Crowns in concert!
  • Was ML (municipal liaison) for my local NaNoWriMo region for the 7th time
  • Various meetups with authors, writers, and friends (ALWAYS a highlight! I may be an introvert but hanging out with friends who I know well is the best!), and going to a few writing events/write-ins/workshops

CRAFTING

Usually my creativity comes out in writing and not much else, but this last year I enjoyed branching out a little with other artsy things. I think I should do this more often.

  • Two pairs of fingerless gloves (one pair for my costume and one for a friend)
  • Some art quotes for Christmas presents
  • A gingerbread house

REALM MAKERS 2019

Books!

Okay, I know I never did an actual recap post for my 2019 conference experience, for which I apologize. I was worn out afterward, and just never did get around to sorting through all my photos and trying to craft a post about it. I was kind of discouraged about some of the business/industry/publishing side of things, which also made it hard to write about.

Otherwise it was absolutely hands-down my most highlight-ish highlight (shh, I promise I’m a writer) of 2019! Getting to see SO MANY of my dear writer friends, some of whom I’ve only known on the internet (even from as far away as Canada!), and meeting and hanging out with amazing authors (including Jill Williamson and Terry Brooks) and being surrounded by books . . . It was a dream and was even better than the first time in many ways!

While the industry side of it may have been discouraging, I was SO encouraged, on a personal level, by the writers, authors, and friends who I had the privilege and joy to talk with. I’d even go so far as to say that the success of my NaNo was due in part to encouraging conversations I had there. And just the life and atmosphere and joy of being surrounded by authors and books and friends, all of which “got me” is unparalleled. Plus, it was just fun. 😉

I’m not going to do an entire recap here, but I will share a few pictures, which are long overdue, and seem fitting in this highlights post, since Realm Makers was the brightest star in the sky of my year!

(I’m not heading back this year, sadly, but two years of getting to go has been an absolute dream!)

This looked so cool

In a class at Realm Makers

Wayne Thomas Batson taught about balancing life and writing. His was my favorite class! Helpful, but also funny!

I also loved C.J. Redwine’s class about fairy tale retellings

I cosplayed as Lady Selene from Mark of the Raven by Morgan Busse — and so did the author! Dreamwalker twins. 😉

We’d be here all day if I shared all the AMAZING costumes at the costume banquet, and all of the amazing friends and authors I got to hang out with! (Which is one of the reasons I never got around to posting a whole recap. What if I leave someone out??) But I have to post this one, because it’s Christine Smith, my “Lauri,” who is an amazing writer and also keeps me on track with my own writing — and she’s dressed as Kuzko from The Emperor’s New Groove! XD Partners in uncrime forever!

I got to have lunch with three members of the Phoenix Fiction Writers: Hannah Heath, K. L. + Pierce, and Beth Wangler! Here we’re admiring the gorgeous copies of a book which had just arrived, by another PFW member (E.B. Dawson)!

Hanging out in the lobby at the hotel

Roadtrip! Traveling to and from Realm Makers with fantasy authors Claire Banschbach and Kendra E. Ardnek was a blast — and sometimes I got to sit with the pretty Oath of the Outcast things! Also, note all the buttons on my bag. XD

How gorgeous is this hotel??

I adore the clock tower. I want to live in it.

Overall, an amazing event, my second Realm Makers!


*awards cupcakes to anyone who made it this far* Thanks so much for reading!

Ren: The Girl With the Mark – Season 2 Kickstarter! #FantasyMonth

Hey, friends!

As some of you may know, it’s February #FantasyMonth, and what better time than now to share about one of my favorite fantasy shows?

Namely Ren: The Girl With the Mark, an Indie-made show which can be viewed for free online on YouTube (or on Amazon Prime)!

I feel like there aren’t enough fantasy shows out there, and I absolutely loved this amazing production from Mythica Entertainment — all the more so because it’s short (the first season features five 10-minute episodes) and because it’s an independent production, which just makes it more awesome!

I adore the characters (Karn and Hunter, y’all!), the fantasy world setting which looks so cool (filmed in the UK!), the music (I bought the soundtrack and listen to it all the time!), and of course the excitement and accents and the fact that it’s made by the people who did the Lord of the Rings fan film Born of Hope!

(Check out my post Ten Reasons Why Ren the Series is Awesome if you need more reasons to watch it, because honestly, what are you waiting for? You need it in your life!)


Well, I’m SUPER EXCITED to get to share about the Kickstarter that just launched to provide crowdfunding for new episodes of Ren, so that we fans will hopefully finally get a second season! I’ve been wanting more ever since that epic cliffhanger at the end of the first season, and now it’s up to us fans to help get more of the story onto the screen.

Do check it out! Watch the first season if you haven’t yet (it’s less than an hour in total!), and consider supporting the Kickstarter if you can! (It runs through February 29 and new episodes only happen if it gets fully funded.)

Here is more about it from a recent press release:


Produced and filmed in Cambridgeshire, UK, Ren is a short-form fantasy-adventure series about a young woman marked by an ancient spirit. It’s the brainchild of Kate Madison, also known for her phenomenally popular Lord of the Rings fan film Born of Hope.

Like Season One, the new episodes will be funded by the general public through the popular crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. With this system the filmmakers set the target they need to fund their series, then fans pledge their support, and the money only changes hands if the target is hit by the deadline, in this case February 29th.

“Crowdfunding is great because it cuts out the gatekeepers,” Madison explains. “Our loyal community of fans made Season One such a rewarding experience, and through Kickstarter they have the chance to say, ‘Yes, I want this show to be renewed!’”

You can find out more about Ren: The Girl with the Mark and support the show by visiting kickstarter.com/projects/mythica/ren2


Also, fantasy fans, be sure to check out the fifth annual February is Fantasy Month, hosted by Jenelle Schmidt, to celebrate all things fantasy, as well as a blog tag, Instagram challenge, and giveaway! (I’m hoping to return with more posts throughout the month.)


Who’s excited about hopefully a new season of Ren? 😀 *fangirling*

January 2020 Ishness!

It’s only been FOREVER since I posted one of these, but I want to get back into the habit of writing Ishnesses, so here’s a recap of January!

Today I’ve got an update on my writing/reading/watching/listening, as well as some photos I took, and other thoughts. So let’s get to it!

(I plan to have a 2019 recap post soon too, but I got this one done first. XD)

WRITING

I took a writing hiatus in January, and it was so refreshing! After writing 50,000 words in November for NaNoWriMo, and another 7K (finishing my WIP novella!) in the midst of Christmas craziness in December (which is when I usually take a writing break), I was ready to recharge.

I did start a new writing journal, though—a gorgeous Christmas present that I’m in love with! It’s my 11th in a series of yearly writing journals I start every New Year.

I also popped out of writing hiatus to write the second installment of my Urban Fantasy serial Girls, Spies, and Other Things the Faeries Stole, which I posted last week!

(Images via Unsplash)

That was the first writing I did this year (decade??), and it felt marvelous to dive into after a three-week break following finishing Double Lives at Kedran’s Wood in the final days of December. Also, I wrote it on my “Writing Day” (January 20th), on which I’ve written at least something every year since 2010. (Bonus: that’s also my character Tare’s birthday.)

I’m not sure what my writing goals are this year, but after taking a month off to refill my creative tank, I’m looking forward to dipping back into writing again now that it’s February. 🙂

READING

I read fifteen books in January! (I use the term “book” loosely. XD)

Seven novels (ish?), four short stories (one on audio), two anthologies, and two nonfiction works about writing.

Some of these I beta-read or copyedited (I edited 400,000 words in January, so . . . that took up some time. XD), and there were a couple of review books, and the rest I just slipped in for fun.

I’ll post a complete list on my book blog with brief thoughts on each, later, hopefully. 🙂

Highlights were Winter Spell by Claire M. Banschbach and The New Emperor’s Concerto by Hazel B. West! Both are releasing this month (I can’t wait to see their covers!) and y’all need them in your life!

(The physical books I read in January.)

WATCHING

My watching this month has been rather assorted. A couple of random action movies, re-watching the first Thor movie (I forgot how much fun that one is!), finishing the first season of Trollhunters, finishing the sixth season of NCIS, a couple of random fantasy movies (Dragonheart and Earthsea, both . . . strange but with good parts), and Arthur Christmas—which was hilarious and so much fun. XD

LISTENING

I’m still obsessed with Burn the Ships by For King and Country. *grinning*

I planned to get back into audiobooks this year, and I did! Albeit in a small way. I listened to a short story, Elapse by Sarah Holman, and quite enjoyed this Kingdom Adventure tale, which made me excited to read the next book in the Tales of Taelis series.

BLOGGING

(Most of these were on my book blog.)

Cover reveals

Other posts

LIFE / PHOTOS

I got a nasty flu a week into January and spent most of the month sick and trying to stay on top of work and commitments. But it was a good month, regardless. 🙂

I went to a writer event and got to see authors and talk with friends new and old, which was fun.

Those are the main things not represented by pictures. XD So here are some photos from this last month!

It’s the little things. Drinking lots of tea from this new mug I got. Setting up my new journals for the year. Getting back into using calligraphy pens, to spice up my journals.

Nature pics from rain and sunshine! My cat and a good book helping me beat the flu. Sparklers on New Year’s Eve and watching the decade turn at midnight. Going to a horse farm event where I got to see an old friend and watch talented people train and ride gorgeous horses.

I got to trek through some rainy woods and while I was looking at a HUGE tree my brother snapped this picture of me. (Sometimes I forget my hair is that long because I don’t see it!)

MUSINGS

I absolutely love this quote from Winter Spell (by Claire M. Banschbach)—a book that I copyedited this last month. I loved this so much I had to write it out in calligraphy and prop it on my nightstand as a reminder. It’s been so inspiring. ^_^

Other musings and things I’m learning include that I’m afraid of change (I’m Baggins-ish and don’t always have that Tookish adventurous spirit!), but that even when things are scary it’s still probably going to be okay and I need to stop worrying so much.

Breathe. I’ve been thinking a lot about this word. I don’t really choose a word for the year like some people do, but if I did, I might pick this one. Breathing is literally the number one thing that keeps us alive, physically, and this might be a hint about needing to metaphorically breathe—to rest and take time between things. I spend a lot of time feeling stressed or behind or trying to conquer the never-ending to-do list. But slowing down and taking time out for resting and recharging is so important. I’m trying to remember to stop and breathe in this way. Last week I took a whole day with the internet turned off and my to-do list cleared, and I rested up—I read some short books, napped, watched a movie, sat in the sun for a few minutes, and just breathed and de-stressed, and it was fabulous. Just a reminder (mostly to myself!) that we are not machines and we can’t keep going every minute, nor should we.

FEBRUARY PLANS

I’m hoping to make some writing goals and get back to that, as well as catch up on review books, keep up with editing jobs, and finish up some other life projects. We’ll see how the month goes . . .

It’s February Fantasy Month, hosted (for the fifth time!) by the fabulous Jenelle Schmidt! So be sure to check that out for giveaways and fantasy awesomeness! Not sure if I’ll have a chance to do much for that, but I hear there’s a tag, and an Instagram challenge, and I might post some reviews . . . We’ll see!

Also . . . we get a leap day. How cool is that? 😀


That’s all I have for you today. I hope you enjoyed this little glimpse into my January! If you read this far, you deserve a cupcake. *offers virtual cupcakes*

What have you been up to so far this year, and what are your February plans?

Thanks for reading!

Girls, Spies, and Other Things the Faeries Stole (Part 2)

I’m back with a continuation of that urban fantasy flash fiction I posted back in October! I had a blast writing it for a prompt, and now that I’ve survived NaNo, Christmas, and a bit of a writing/blogging hiatus (yes, hello, I’m back!), I wanted to write the next part of the story — and there was a perfect new prompt which pushed me into doing it!

It’s Snow Queen month over at the Fairy Tale Central, and this prompt is part of that on the fabulous Arielle Bailey’s writing blog, Intuitive Writing Guide.

So today’s short story/serial chapter/whatever it is, is inspired by the Snow Queen, but also continues the story I wrote for the Twelve Dancing Princesses prompt. (This will make the most sense if you read that first, but it’s not 100% necessary. XD)

I had so much fun writing this (it’s about a thousand words, like the first one) and I hope y’all enjoy it!

  • Part 1: featuring The Twelve Dancing Princesses. Read it HERE.
  • Part 2: featuring The Snow Queen. Today’s post! Read on…

Girls, Spies, and Other Things the Faeries Stole

Part 2

by Deborah O’Carroll


I nearly turned around when I saw the river. Lights from a palace of some kind on the opposite bank gleamed gold on its surface in the darkness. One by one, the twelve girls stepped into twelve small elegant boats which began crossing the river—soundlessly, fae, not propelled by anything I could see.

I could leave. I should leave. Going near the water wasn’t worth it—not for the half-million reward or to solve the mystery of where these girls went at night. I knew already. I could go back. I glanced back up the path lined with trees that looked like they were made of jewels, silver, and gold—fake. Fae illusions.

The foot of the winding staircase was just visible through the trees, waiting for me to dash back up it and get out of there.

But the symbol I’d seen etched at the top was burned in my brain. It meant he needed help and that he was expecting me. Finding him was the real mission anyway, and now I knew he was here—or had been.

And much as I wanted to, I couldn’t just leave him.

Not even to save my hide from those important selkie shifters.

“Kelpies take you, Riel,” I muttered, and jogged to the end of the dock, where I managed to slip into the back of the last tiny boat, just as the final girl sat down in it.

It rocked slightly and she glanced over her shoulder—straight through me.

At least the invisibility cloak, slung over my battered leather jacket, was doing its job. She had no idea there was a guy crouching behind her in the boat—the last place I wanted to be.

I wiped my palms on my torn jeans, resisting the urge to check that my gun was still tucked behind me, and avoided looking at the water as we crossed. Maybe they wouldn’t sense that I was near the water if I didn’t touch it.

When we reached the shore, if I’d had my motorbike with me, I’d have roared up the winding path to the palace, away from that river faster than a faerie flying from iron, but I had to content myself with stalking quietly behind the twelve dancers to the double doors flung wide.

They were ice. The doors, not the girls. Well, as far as I knew; I hadn’t had time to assess their personalities. The whole palace was ice—or looked it. I slipped inside after the young women, past the fae guards who didn’t see me—although one was busy muttering into a cell phone pressed to his ear (yes, faeries have technology too; they just magic it), so it wasn’t like he was paying much attention anyway.

Once inside, I took in the scene from the shadows. A habit of mine, hard to break even while wearing a cloak that made shadows redundant.

A vast, cold, vaulted hall. A ballroom of ice, filled with dancers—faeries and at least a few other species I didn’t have time to study, and the girls I’d followed, who immediately swept into the dance. Elegant icy pillars ringed the room, carved with wolves and roses, moons and ravens, snowflakes and reindeer and mountains and vines of ice. Music filled the air, as cold and beautiful as the palace. The lighting overhead resembled the northern lights and I wasn’t sure how it was done. Faeries. Typical.

The floor was like a frozen lake—I hoped it wasn’t actually a lake—and in the center was a throne, like frozen blocks of ice with the back tipped with icicles pointing the wrong way.

It didn’t look terribly comfortable, but the woman sitting on it didn’t appear to care. And neither did the young man next to her on a smaller seat of ice, sprawling comfortably with his legs crossed and his arm thrown across the back of his chair.

Gabriel Kenworth. Right in the middle of everything, like he always had to be.

I shoved down the rush of relief at seeing him alive. On the one hand, at least I didn’t have to go looking for a dungeon somewhere to find him. On the other hand, it was almost annoying how easy it looked. And I didn’t trust that one bit.

Pulling the invisibility cloak tighter, I reluctantly left the shadows. I crossed to the center dais with the throne, quickly, avoiding the dancers sweeping this way and that. Hopefully my reflection, which stared furtively up at me in the mirror-like floor, was only visible to myself.

I stopped on the steps to one side of the dais, planning my next move.

Close up, the queen on the throne was as perfect and stunning as you’d expect a fae queen to be, and almost carved of ice, she seemed. She wore a gown that looked like it was made of a million snowflakes, with a white fur wrap around her shoulders. She was young but ageless, despite the white hair twisted elegantly on her head. A silver-white crown coiled around that. Her eyes were silver starlight, but sheer cold, directed at Riel sitting next to her.

She laughed. “Go on, Kay.”

Kay.

At least he had the brains to use a false name.

Not that being here in the first place showed that he had any brains at all.

Then again, I was here too.

“Oh, I was finished,” he said pleasantly. “That was the end.”

“Mm. A fine story,” the queen said. She fell silent and watched him.

He watched her back, raising his eyebrows ever so slightly under the wave of blond hair over his forehead, as if in question.

“Well, are you going to kiss me or not?” she said finally.

Riel flashed a smile which didn’t reach his eyes, but it was all charm. “We’ve been over this, Your Majesty. Kissing you would kill me, and I happen to value my life right now.”

I snorted.

The queen looked up and glanced around. She shouldn’t have heard that over the music. Riel didn’t react much but a very slight smirk grew in the corner of his mouth. Come on. He couldn’t have heard either.

But the queen didn’t see me, and looked back at him after a moment. She stood quite suddenly. “I’m going for a drink. Care to join me?”

Riel straightened the cuffs of his nice charcoal suit-coat. “If it’s all the same to you, I’ll wait here.”

She awarded him a dazzling smile, gorgeous and deadly, and swept off down the steps and through the dancers, who parted before her.

Riel sat like an ice statue. I climbed the steps and stopped by his chair, still invisible.

“Ah, Sean. How are you?” he said, not looking toward me.

“Better than you, Gabe,” I said, “by the looks of things.”

He frowned almost imperceptibly at my barb and the nickname he disliked. “It’s good to see you too, old boy.”

“You can’t see me,” I growled. “And you’re older than I am.”

“Figure of speech. Both of them,” he said, unfazed. “I knew you’d come.”

I snorted. “Oh, did you?”

“I figured I’d be missed.”

“Nobody missed you,” I lied.

“And yet here you are.”

I folded my arms, even though he couldn’t see me. “You think you deserve to have everyone running to the end of the world to find you?”

He smirked. “Not everyone. Just you.”

“When we get out of here, I swear I’m going to punch you.”

“Yes. Well. There might be some difficulty with that,” Riel said, his expression strained for the first time.

“I don’t see why. You have a face. I have a fist.”

“I meant the getting out of here part.”

I huffed a breath, frosty on the frigid air. “I knew it. Well, out with it. Tell me what you’ve gotten yourself into this time, so I can get you out of it, as usual.”

Riel gave a tense smile. “I think it’s out of your league.”

“It can’t be worse than the selkies,” I muttered.

His shifty look told me more than I wanted to know. It was worse.

“Oh, come on,” I said.

To be continued . . .

A Kedran’s Wood Christmas

Hey guys! I have a couple announcements and then I want to share a snippet of a Tare and Chess Club Christmas scene with y’all!

NaNo Post

Firstly, if you missed it, I talked about how my 10th NaNo went in this post!

(It didn’t go out to inboxes because I accidentally scheduled it to post November 9th instead of December 9th… while it was December. Further proof of how dead I was after NaNo. *headdesk* Anywayyy…)

Blogging Hiatus

Secondly, I’ll be taking a blogging break for the next couple of weeks to enjoy the holidays, so this will probably be my last post of the year . . . and decade. :O

I will (hopefully) see y’all in 2020 with some recaps or something.

About this Snippet

Okay, on to the story behind this post!

This spring, I finished my Kedran’s Wood story set at Christmas-time (like I’m hoping to finish my Kedran’s Wood novella set in the spring . . . sometime this month if I can . . . which is Christmas-time. The irony).

But since it’s 145K words and book 2 in the (contemporary fantasy) series, and rather a mess, it’s going to be . . . awhile until such things as publishing or whatever is going to happen with it, happens. XD

However! Since I did finish it, that means I have actual Christmas scenes! With my characters!

(Not just a blog tag interview with my characters like I did last year for my Other Half of Everything peeps. Which was tons of fun and you should go read if you missed it. XD *I just re-read it myself and honestly had a BLAST* *cough*)

I wanted to share something Christmas-y with you guys here on my blog, and thought that a bit of Chess Club and Tare Christmas-spirit would be a fun thing to share. ^_^

Disclaimer: This is from a first draft. It’s also near the end of the book, and more happens before and after it. I also redacted a couple of spoilers. But it stands alone pretty well as an adorable Christmas scene with some of my favorite characters, and I hope y’all enjoy it. 🙂

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, my dear blog readers!


Excerpt from the end of The Secret of Kedran’s Wood (KW2), work-in-progress by Deborah O’Carroll

They followed Tare and found themselves suddenly in a clearing surrounded by pines and firs, snow covering the ground, and in the very center grew a tall fir tree, decked out in glowing splendor—literally.

Soft white and yellow lights sparkled all over it, with a few garlands and red or gold or white globe decorations and other minor items hanging here and there, tastefully, with a white angel at the very top, and still some snow on it from the light dusting earlier that evening.

It was just the right time of night when it was not fully dark and the sky was velvet-midnight-blue and scattered with a few beginning stars, but it was dark enough to appreciate the radiant tree lighting up the clearing and bathing their upturned faces in golden light.

“So remember what I told you about being too busy to decorate?” Tare said. “And how I didn’t have a Christmas tree?”

“Trees live outside,” Lavender whisper-laughed.

He glanced at her. “Exactly.”

“It’s beautiful,” Robin breathed in awe.

“It’s perfect,” Marie said.

And several others murmured something along those lines.

“I figured it wasn’t much good for one person . . .” Tare said, folding his arms and looking up at it. “It kind of needs a few. So. That’s what I wanted to show you guys.”

“It’s like your gift to the Chess Club, huh?” Baz said.

Tare got a shifty look. “Maybe,” he said, and added, “[redacted] helped. A little.”

“Where is [redacted]?” Adrian asked.

“Off doing mysterious [redacted] or something.”

“Goodness knows you know nothing about going off and being all mysterious,” Ivy said.

“Exactly.” Tare either missed the point, or missed it on purpose.

Small Occasion was straining at his leash in Mr. Larch’s grip, trying to get closer to the tree—all the sparklies and hanging things that might be chewable! (There had been some small wars between Small and the tree in Mr. Larch’s house, which had resulted in it being blocked off where Small couldn’t get at it to attack it with his joy and love.)

“Well. Go look at it if you want. It’s not fragile,” Tare said, making shooing motions with one hand.

They laughed and moved forward, away from where they’d been clustered at the very edge of the clearing, to look at Tare’s Christmas tree. It was even more beautiful up close, simple but so elegant, and so perfect in this setting. Tare had brought Christmas into Kedran’s Wood.

“Oh, there are chess piece ornaments! How absolutely perfect!” Robin said.

Tare coughed. “Those are actually . . . for you guys.”

Everyone looked at him and blinked.

Tare crossed his arms tighter and went on, “They’re not ornaments, they’re necklaces, and I made them for you.”

All eyes blinked at him for a moment and he looked more uncomfortable than Lavender had ever seen him.

“Oh—!” She and Ivy apparently had the same idea and both spontaneously lunged toward him.

His awkward look vanished, replaced with alarm, and he staved them off by hastily raising both hands defensively. “Ah, no. I don’t do hugs. That’s too much like—you know—getting attacked. I might kill you or something. You never know.”

Ivy snorted. “Sure.” But she and Lavender respected his distance and reversed course.

“This one has your name on it, Adrian!” Jake called excitedly, looking around on the branches.

“Coming,” Adrian said, and walked past Tare, giving him a friendly slap on the shoulder, grinning.

Tare half-dodged it but didn’t seem to mind terribly, and stood by, watching with arms folded again.

There was something of a fun treasure hunt scramble as everyone searched the branches of the Christmas tree for the little natural-wood-colored chess pieces hanging on silver chains, with names carved around their bases, and everyone matched up everyone else with the proper names.

Small got loose and happily galloped around and around the base of the tree, yapping and joining in the noises of laughter. Finally everyone had their chess necklace and tilted them toward the Christmas tree light to examine them.

They were all the chess pieces except the pawns: Mr. Larch’s was a king piece, Robin’s a queen. Adrian and Ivy had knight pieces, Baz and Lavender bishops—“because I’m a saint and/or my head-slash-mind is so sharp,” Baz said, nodding wisely and causing much eye-rolling—and the Valerian siblings each had rook pieces.

“There have got to be some lonely pawns back at your place to complete the set,” Mr. Larch said with a grin.

“Nooo,” Tare said, “because I carved these which means they are the set.”

Everyone blinked at him again.

“You carved these?” Baz yelped.

“What?” Tare shrugged. “I had to have something to do all those sleepless nights to avoid nightmares. I do have some skills besides killing monsters and freaking you guys out whenever I use technology. So. Those are my gift to the Chess Club,” Tare clarified.

“They’re perfect—thank you!” Everyone said their thanks and Tare looked at his feet and muttered something—and it was a little too dark to be sure but he might have been smiling.

Lavender clutched hers and thought she was probably glowing as much as the tree. She hung the chess piece necklace around her neck and the others began to as well.

“You don’t have one, though,” Adrian said, once everyone was wearing theirs.

Tare held up his hands. “Fine with me. I’m not the Chess Club.”

“Yeah, but you’re like an honorary member,” Ivy said.

“Maybe,” Baz said, “but we’re ‘the Chess Club and Tare,’ and if Tare was one of us it would just be ‘the Chess Club’ and that’s not quite as cool.”

“It is really bothering me that I keep agreeing with him,” Tare muttered. “Got one thing wrong, though. It’s Tare and the Chess Club, not the other way around.”

They laughed and agreed, even Baz.

A peaceful quiet settled over the snowy glade and they wandered slowly around, just looking contentedly at the tree together in silence. Even Small had gone silent, since Robin had picked him up.

It was almost Christmas Eve. Despite the cold, the tree’s glow lit their faces and their hearts. The wood sighed in the breeze around them and the stars shone.

Someone started singing Silent Night. Slowly, everyone else picked it up and joined in—except Tare, who seemed a little distracted—standing in a ring around the Christmas tree and filling the glade with their soft voices.