Chateau Miranda, Celles, Belgium

It’s a new year. I’ve already started to do things a little differently – set up a new theme here on the blog, and added a button at the top of the page so you can follow me on Patreon if you’d like. There will be new stuff on the Patreon coming soon, as I’m planning on writing 3 new novels this year: the first Resonant Frequencies book, the first novel-length Pendragon Casefiles book, and the next Advent story for December. In addition, I’m going to start blogging regularly, both there and here, about my writing process, being a writer while having a day job, and anything else that happens to catch my fancy.

 

The goal is to blog here on Sundays and Wednesdays, and on the Patreon blog Tuesdays and Thursdays. The Patreon blogs will be set to Patrons only, so be aware that if you want to see those, it will cost you a minimum of $1 a month. But hey, that’s not a lot, and if you do, not only will you get the blog posts, but you’ll get new stories once a week! Because on Fridays, Patrons will get the next chapter of my new book.

 

I’m not abandoning this journal, so don’t worry about that. And the December Advent story will be held here as well. But it’s time for me to start expanding and taking this writing journey a bit more seriously, and that means getting organized. In fact, some of my first blog posts might be about that.

 

What are your plans for this year? Feel free to share in the comments!

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

 

Sunday, December 25

The snow was falling on the ocean outside the sitting room window as Caliban sat in one of the easy chairs and sipped a cup of steaming tea. It was late, very late, and the rest of the house was fast asleep, but he hadn’t been able to doze off. Santa’s question kept playing through his mind, and he knew that the only cure was to meet the old man himself when he came in.

So he sat in the light of the simple Christmas tree that the Captain and Mrs. Hoskins had set up in the sitting room, and waited. The tree was clad in simple white lights, with sailing ships, anchors, starfish, and other nautical items swimming through the green branches. An elegant angel stood atop the tree with a seahorse cradled in her arms.

As he waited, Caliban wondered what Santa would say when he saw him there. Would he be surprised?

Did anything surprise Santa?

In the distance, the bells of St. Michael’s tolled the hour, and as the last peal died, there was a slight pop by the fireplace, and Santa Claus himself came into the room.

“Merry Christmas, Caliban,” Santa said gravely, nodding at him as he pulled gifts out of his bag. “Or should I say, Perry?”

“Perry, if you please,” Caliban said, rising to bow to the old man. “I think it’s time that Prince Caliban followed his brother into death. I’m no longer interested in participating in that world any longer.”

Santa raised an eyebrow. “That’s a big decision,” he said. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, Santa,” Caliban said. “It’s time for a new start. There’s more to life that I need to see.”

“Then it’s time to give you this,” Santa said, and pulled a small box out of his sack. “Merry Christmas, Perry.”

Caliban accepted the box, a little surprised. He hadn’t expected anything, especially since he felt he would be on the naughty list forever.

“People can change, Perry,” Santa said kindly. “And what truly matters is your heart. Remember that.” His tasks done, he laid his finger on the side of his nose, nodded, and vanished.

Sitting back down in his chair, Caliban looked at the small, gaily wrapped box. It even said, “To Perry, from Santa and Mrs. Claus” on it in neat black letters, and there was a small golden bow on the top. He pulled the ribbon, and opened the box.

A sweet, light wind came out of the box, rich with the promise of spring flowers and magic. As it rushed over him, he felt the magic work through, changing him, molding him, and sighed happily.

And then Perry put the box aside, picked up his tea cup, and said quietly, “Thank you, Santa. Thank you.”

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They’ll make it, right? They’ll still come, even in the snow?

“They will,” Molly reassured Schrodinger. “Old Man Winter is coming, remember? He’s promised to stop and pick them up. I promise you, Gideon will be here to open the last window on the castle!”

Schrodinger stroked his head against her leg in thanks and ran back into the front parlor, where he, Lily, Kaylee, and Jack were anxiously awaiting Gideon’s arrival (and eating most of the goodies from their stockings, she suspected). The Advent castle had been moved in there, since there was no room under the Christmas tree.

“Is it just me, or do we seem to have more people here every year for Christmas Day?” she said to Drew, who was sitting next to her.

He chuckled. “Well, that’s what happens when you buy a big house. Holidays grow to fill it.”

Molly couldn’t argue with that. Besides her parents, her brother and sister-in-law, the kids, and herself and Drew, they were expecting Kiaya, Zeke, Gideon, Old Man Winter, and Drew’s cousin Doug, his husband Tim, and their two-year-old son Ryan, who was adorable and into everything.

“Besides, it’s not like we’ll really have to babysit the kids,” Drew continued, getting up to refill their tea mugs. Everyone else was in the living room or the parlour, so they were enjoying some quiet time alone. “We’ll just hand Ryan to Old Man Winter, and then leave. He’ll be thrilled.”

“Ryan or Old Man Winter?” Molly said.

“Yes,” Drew said, and she laughed.

Then they both heard the familiar reindeer bells, moments before the shrieks of joy erupted from the front parlour, followed by pounding feet as two children, a CrossCat, and a large dog ran out into the snow.

It was Kiaya and Zeke who appeared in the doorway, however, carrying presents and covered in snow. “That was quite the ride!” Zeke said, as he shook off the flakes. “I don’t think I knew reindeer could move that fast!”

“Most can’t,” Nathan said, appearing behind his sister and taking the packages from Zeke’s hands. “Old Man Winter doesn’t believe in things like the laws of physics.”

“Laws like that were meant to be broken,” Old Man Winter said, coming in behind them with Gideon in one arm, Kaylee in the other, and Lily on his shoulders. “Human constructs are just suggestions, aren’t they?”

“We have to do the calendar!” Gideon shouted happily. “It’s the last day!”

“He’s been saying that since eight this morning,” Kiaya said to Molly. “I don’t know what we’re going to do tomorrow morning.”

Old Man Winter set the two in his arms down, and then tumbled Lily over his shoulders. “Go on,” he said gruffly. “I need some tea.”

“The water’s hot,” Molly said, and guided everyone in to the kitchen.

As she passed Old Man Winter a cup, he said quietly, “Jade said to tell you everything is all set. And thank you.”

“Good,” Molly said, and felt the knot of concern start to loosen. “That’s very good.”

Drew, however, was looking strangely at Old Man Winter. “Did you forget something?” he said, and everyone turned to look at him.

Old Man Winter frowned, then brightened. “Oh, that’s right! Molly’s present!” He put his tea cup down and, to Molly’s surprise, went back outside.

“And why is Old Man Winter bringing my…” The words died as Molly saw who was coming back in with him.

“Molly, darling!” Phoebe came floating into the kitchen and enfolded Molly in her arms. “Merry Christmas!”

“But I thought you couldn’t come?” Molly said, confused. “Drew said you couldn’t make it!”

Drew’s grandmother winked at her. “Because I told him to. We wanted to make it a surprise.” She held Molly at arm’s length and looked at her. “You are happy, aren’t you?”

“I am!” Molly threw her arms around Phoebe and hugged her back. “I’m just surprised! This is the best Christmas present ever!”

“Now, where are the children?” Phoebe said, looking around.

“In the front parlour, with the Advent castle.” Molly led her down the hall and into the room where the Snow Queen’s palace sat on a low table.

“Gramma Phoebe!” Kaylee shrieked when the faery came in. “Molly, were you surprised??!”

“Molly didn’t know what to say, Kaylee-love!” Phoebe said, gathering her for a big hug. “But what is this lovely thing? Is this the castle you were telling me about, Gideon?”

“Yes! Come help us find the last number!”

Phoebe joined them in looking, and she was the one who noticed the number 25 climbing up the side of the main door. “Now what?” she said.

Touch it with your fingertip, Schrodinger said.

She did, and the front doors opened to show the grand hall of the Snow Queen.

In the center of the room stood Jade and Jack, clad in all dark green, with crowns of holly and ivy on their heads. “Thank you so much for all your help this year,” Jade said, looking out at them. “I hope you enjoyed it, and I hope you have a Merry Christmas!”

“This is the time to enjoy your families,” Jack added. “And one last gift. Take this castle outside into Molly and Drew’s back yard.”

The door closed and they all looked at Molly, who shrugged. “You heard the man. Get your coats this time, please, and we’ll bring it outside.”

Soon, everyone was out back, wearing coats and boots. Drew took the castle out with him and set it down in the snow at the edge of the woods. Then he backed up.

At first, nothing happened. Then the castle began to glow. It got brighter, and brighter, until everyone had to look away. When the light finally dimmed and they looked back…

“We have a play house!” Lily shouted in glee. “It became a play house!”

It had. The castle had grown, shifted, and now was a castle the size of a large shed. The children ran inside, and Molly could hear their happy shouts as they explored.

“Well, that’s that,” Zeke said, clapping Drew on the shoulder. “I assume we’ll see him when he’s 18 or so?”

They all laughed at that, and went back inside, leaving the children to explore this final present.

>Activity: Merry Christmas, everyone! I hope you enjoyed this year’s Advent story. Today’s activity is easy – enjoy the day! May it be as magical as one in Carter’s Cove!

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

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Saturday, December 24

 

“Where is everyone?” Molly asked, sticking her head out into the tea room. She had expected to see the children, Jack, and Schrodinger curled up in the beds next to the wood stove, but the tea room was empty except for Kiaya, who was writing, and Lucille and Stephen Dorr, who were reading to each other while she knit something.

 

Kiaya looked up and blinked. “Oh, the kids?” she said after a moment. “I don’t know, actually. They were here, and then…” She frowned. “Then they weren’t.”

 

“I’m sure they’re fine,” Molly said, trying to ignore the little thrill of fear that went down her spine. “Goldie’s not here either, so he must be with them.” She closed her eyes and thought, Schrodinger? Where are you?

 

Upstairs. His voice came back, louder than she was expecting. Why? What’s wrong?

 

Is everyone else with you?

 

Yes. His mental voice sounded confused. Do you need us to come down? Everyone was concentrating, and we didn’t want to be distracting. Goldie is with us.

 

Molly heaved a sigh of relief. “No,” she said out loud, so Kiaya could hear. “We just didn’t know where you all had gone.” Then she said to Kiaya, “They’re upstairs. I’ll go check on them now.”

 

She took a carafe of hot water with her, knowing that there were several people upstairs that might want refills on their tea. Her most popular tea bags she carried in the pocket of her sweater, but her gifts meant that if someone asked for something else, she could pull it magically to her from the pantry below.

 

Rounding the final corner into the main room, she saw that the children were all clustered around a chair in front of the fireplace. Seated in the chair was Pavel’s mother Ella, her dark hair wrapped in braids around her head, pale yarn in her lap that was rapidly becoming something lovely.

 

“Hello, Molly!” Ella said, as Molly came over to them. “Are you going to join us? The children are reading me stories.”

 

She had Schrodinger in her lap, along with the knitting, and Jack was lying on the hearthstone next to her chair. Lily was sitting in the chair next to her, with Gideon and Kaylee snuggled up on either side of Jack. It was a charming picture.

 

“I’d love to,” Molly said, sitting down next to Kaylee, who snuggled up to her. “What are we reading?”

 

After listening to “Twas the Night before Christmas,” Molly said, “Do you guys want to do the Advent castle now? It’s going to be time to close soon.”

 

As if her words had summoned her, Aunt Margie’s voice came over the loudspeakers. “Just a reminder, folks, we’re closing at noon today, which is in twenty minutes! DC and I are ready to check you out downstairs!”

 

“Let’s go. Come on, Grandma Ella!” Kaylee said, getting up and heading to the stairs, Gideon and Jack in hot pursuit.

 

Molly had left the castle out again, and so they gathered around the table, each looking for the number 24.

 

It’s on the smaller tower! Schrodinger said suddenly. Here!

 

He touched the side of the castle with one claw, where the 24 had twined around the corners of a window. The window opened to show a place that looked very much like the bookstore upstairs, except it went on forever, and in the center, with her paw holding open a large tome, was the Librarian.

 

She looked up at them, her green eyes calm and wise, and said Merry Christmas, children. I hope you have a wonderful night. Ella has your gifts for you. And then the window closed.

 

They all turned to Ella, who laughed. “I’m so happy to be part of this!” she said, opening her large knitting bag and pulling out wrapped gifts. “And this is my favorite part!”

 

Wrapping paper went everywhere as they tore into the gifts. It was, as Molly knew it would be, books.

 

Ella and Brynna had introduced them to the custom of giving books on Christmas Eve last year, and Molly had loved including it in their family traditions. Now, as she watched them exclaim over the new books, Molly realized how happy she was that the next generation clearly loved books as much as she and Aunt Margie did.

 

“Thank you!” Kaylee said, throwing her arms around Ella. “I love it!” Her book had ponies and rainbows on it, and Molly realized it was one of her favorite things: a coloring book.

 

Gideon also had a coloring book, filled with all sorts of odd creatures. Lily’s book was a leather-bound story book that she was already reading the beginning of.

 

Schrodinger’s book was one of maps, and he was thrilled beyond words. Jack’s book was detective stories, and he was settled in beside Lily, already reading.

 

>Activity: Exchange books! This is an Icelandic tradition that I love. Take this chance to give someone a copy of YOUR favorite book, and spread the love!

 

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

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Friday, December 23

 

“You,” Molly said, brandishing a wooden spoon at her husband, “are up to something.”

 

Drew gave her an innocent look. “What do you mean?”

 

She leveled a stern gaze at him. “I can just tell,” she said, taking the spoon to the quick bread batter she was mixing up. “You and Schrodinger both.”

 

You know, it could just be that we’re trying to be good for Santa, Schrodinger said. It could be.

 

“I don’t believe it,” Molly said. “You two are up to something.”

 

Drew looked over at Schrodinger and winked. “Well, you know, Christmas is coming up,” he said. “It’s the time to be up to something, if we were, which we definitely aren’t, by the way.”

 

“Uh-huh.” Her tone of voice conveyed just how much she didn’t believe him.

 

Drew decided to change the subject while he was still on safe ground. “So, what time is Aunt Margie closing tomorrow?”

 

“Noon, so we can do the Advent castle before we go home, and before Zeke and Kiaya have to leave,” Molly said.

 

Leave? Schrodinger said, dismayed. But that means Gideon won’t get to do the final day on the calendar!

 

“Why not? They’re coming over to the farmhouse for Christmas dinner,” Molly said. “Zeke couldn’t get the time off to go back to his parents’ for Christmas, so I invited them to join us, but they’re going to do their own thing Christmas Eve.”

 

Oh good! Schrodinger said. It wouldn’t be fun without him!

 

“I agree,” Drew said. “I hope they’ve had fun with it.”

 

As if on cue, Gideon himself came running into the kitchen, followed closely by Lily, Kaylee, Jack, and, to Drew’s surprise, Pavel. “Molly! Schrodinger! We have a surprise for you!” Gideon shouted.

 

Really? Schrodinger came to his feet. What kind of surprise?

 

Pavel winked at him. “A special surprise, but it has to wait,” he said. “Until we do the Advent Calendar.”

 

“Then let’s do it!” Kaylee said eagerly. “I want to share the surprise!”

 

Their enthusiasm was contagious, and Molly finished her quick bread while Drew went and got the calendar. She slipped the finished batter into the refrigerator with a layer of plastic wrap over the top, then joined the rest of them in looking for the 23.

 

Pavel found it, nestled almost in the snow on the ground of one of the outbuildings. The window opened into a darkened room, and for a moment, Drew wondered if something had gone wrong. Then candles began to glow, softly, and the darkness lifted, showing a single girl sitting at the feet of a giant nutcracker doll.

 

He heard Molly gasp as the nutcracker’s hand came up, and a silver ball of light rose from the darkness and landed in Pavel’s hand as a piece of parchment. “I hope you will join us,” he read, and looked up at Molly. “You will, won’t you?”

 

Drew turned and looked at Molly, whose eyes were wide. The Nutcracker was her favorite ballet, and even knowing what was coming, he was pleased to see the shocked look on her face. Then, as he’d known she would, she turned on him. “You knew!” she accused. “You knew! And you didn’t tell me!”

 

“All I knew was that there was something planned,” Drew said honestly, glad that she hadn’t guessed his other secret. “They didn’t actually tell me what they were doing.”

 

“They?” Molly turned and looked at Pavel. “Is that the surprise?”

 

“Come on, Molly!” Gideon said, running over and tugging on her arm. “Come on!” And he began to drag her towards the door. “Come on!”

 

They all followed him outside after pulling on their coats, where Drew was expecting to see Pavel’s sleigh.

 

Instead of the sleigh, however, there was a large carriage, and inside, the Snow Queen, dressed in shimmering white fur, was waiting, Jack Frost at her side. “Come on,” she called out. “We’re going to miss the show!”

 

It took only a few minutes for them to pile into the carriage, which was pulled by four white horses with holly braided into their manes and tails. Drew and Molly ended up next to Jade, who was grinning excitedly.

 

“Are you surprised?” she asked Molly. “Did we surprise you?”

 

“Of course!” Molly said, giving her a hug. “I had no idea!”

 

>Activity: Pop some popcorn and watch Molly’s favorite ballet, The Nutcracker! Or your own favorite Christmas movie!

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

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Thursday, December 22

 

Molly had decided to move the castle to the tea room early, so she would have some room to work in the kitchen. But also, she decided that it was too pretty to hang out in the pantry all the time. So she pulled one of the tea tables to the side of the room, and placed the castle on top of it. Schrodinger promised that he would keep an eye on it, so no one would accidentally bump it.

 

He was lying in his bed, one eye closed and the other on the castle, when a tall, slightly older man walked into the tea room. He was a stranger; not that surprising, considering how many travelers came through the Cove, especially around Christmas, but there was something about him that made Schrodinger come fully awake. Nothing threatening, but something…odd.

 

His long, greying hair was neatly combed back under a knit woolen cap, and his plain clothes marked him as a sailor, or at least someone from the dock area. His big boots were worn and old, and his jacket had seen some heavy use.

 

He paused next to the castle, looking at it with a strange mix of pleasure and pain. Schrodinger, now fully awake and intensely curious, slipped from his bed and went up to the man.

 

It’s a gift, he said quietly, when the man noticed him and looked down. From the Snow Queen and Jack Frost.

 

“It’s lovely,” the man said. “Is it her castle?”

 

Yes, Schrodinger said. Have you been there?

 

“Not in a very long time,” the man said, and then gave him a sad smile. “I’m not sure I could remember it all, but this seems very familiar.”

 

I’m Schrodinger, the CrossCat said, tilting his head as he looked up at the man. I don’t recognize you.

 

“My name is Perry, and this is my first time in the Cove,” the man said, offering him a weathered hand. “I’m doing some traveling around, seeing where my heart takes me.”

 

That sounds like what CrossCats do, Schrodinger said. But normally we are younger than you.

 

“Everyone must make that journey in their own time,” Perry said, looking back at the castle. “Some of us realize it later than others, that’s all.”

 

Very true, Schrodinger said. Would you like some tea?

 

Perry shook himself, as if the question had startled him. “I…yes, that would be nice,” he said. “If it’s not an imposition…”

 

“It’s not,” Molly said from the doorway of the kitchen and Schrodinger wondered how long she had been standing there. “Do you have a preference?”

 

“I don’t know,” Perry admitted. “I’m not very versed in tea.” He gave her a wan smile. “I’ve not had many occasions to try more than simple black tea.”

 

“There’s nothing wrong with simple black tea,” Molly told him, and smiled back at him. “I certainly have that, and if you decide you want to try something else, I can do that too.”

 

“What is your favorite tea?” he asked her.

 

“I have a black spiced tea that I enjoy,” she said. “It’s a Christmas blend. Have a seat, and I’ll bring you out a mug.” She looked at Schrodinger. “Would you like a cup of your usual?”

 

Yes, please, he said politely, and then switched to their private mental channel. I think he should have some food, too, although I don’t think he’ll ask.

 

I agree, Molly said, and then told Perry, “Please, take a seat anywhere you would like. I’ll bring some tea out to you.”

 

Schrodinger waited until Perry selected a chair, and then he said, You don’t mind if I join you, do you?

 

“No, of course not,” the man said.

 

Molly came back with a tray containing not only the two mugs of tea, but a plate of orange-cranberry scones and sugar cookies dusted with green and red sugar crystals. “Let me know if you need anything else,” she said, setting them all down.

 

Perry looked at the tray, and then looked after Molly as she went back into the kitchen. “She really does treat everyone the same, doesn’t she?” he said quietly, almost to himself, as if he’d forgotten Schrodinger was there.

 

Yes, unless they give her a reason not to, Schrodinger said, cocking his head to look at Perry closely. You’ve heard of her?

 

“Very few people can come to Carter’s Cove and not hear of the kitchen witch at the tea shop in CrossWinds Books,” Perry said, taking a sip of his tea.

 

Oh. Schrodinger hadn’t thought of that. Well, yes, I guess not.

 

Perry didn’t say much more, but he and Schrodinger shared a companionable tea and silence. Then, as he got up, Perry looked once more at the castle, and then down at the CrossCat.

 

“If you do see the Snow Queen, please tell her that Perry the Wanderer hopes her Christmas is good.”

 

Of course, Schrodinger said. I’d be happy to.

 

“What a strange man,” Lily said later, when Schrodinger was telling them what happened. “I wonder who he was.”

 

-Maybe he was someone who started the Cove with them?- Jack suggested. He looked at Schrodinger. Maybe?

 

He didn’t look that old, Schrodinger said. And I remember what he smelled like. Perry smelled – well, not like fire and anger. He shook his head. Maybe he was just a traveler who knew her from before. She’s been around a long time.

 

Gideon and Kaylee had already lost interest in the conversation and were over at the castle, looking for the next number. The other three joined them just as Gideon said, “Oh, here it is!”

 

The 22 was perched on the top of one of the towers, and the window opened to show row upon row of gleaming ice skates, hanging next to a glassy surface where a single skater was spinning. Her skate edges kicked up icy shards that flew around her, and one of them came through the window, landing in Gideon’s hands as a curl of paper.

 

“Skating is flying over ice,” he read, and looked at the others. “Are we going skating? I’ve never been skating before!”

 

“Then you’re in for a treat,” Lily said. “Indi’s is amazing!”

 

>Activity: Go skating!

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

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Wednesday, December 21

“So, what do you think the Advent castle will have us today, Mom?” Gideon asked, as they walked through downtown Carter’s Cove to CrossWinds Books. It was a clear, sunny day – not too cold, but the fresh breeze coming in from the harbor smelled of salt and promises, he thought.

Carter’s Cove had been the most magical place he’d ever lived in, he had decided. He still missed his friends and cousins but he couldn’t imagine living somewhere that didn’t have Schrodinger, and Jack, and the others he’d met.

“Gideon, look at that!” Kiaya had stopped and now tugged on his hand. “Over there!”

He followed her pointing finger to a small man who was walking a dog that towered over him. The dog had a dark coat, and his eyes were dead black, except for red flames that danced in place of his pupils.

“What is that?” Gideon asked her, as they watched the man and dog walk towards them.

That’s Mr. Grey! And Spot! Let’s go say hi!

Gideon jumped and let out a little cry of surprise at Schrodinger’s voice. He hadn’t even noticed the CrossCat coming up beside them, he’d been so focused on the man. Now, he watched Schrodinger hurry over to the odd couple.

“Do you want to go?” Kiaya said quietly, as Gideon considered his options. The great dog could probably eat him with little to no effort, but Schrodinger (who looked tiny next to him) was apparently talking animatedly to him. And if Schrodinger said it was a friend, it couldn’t be that bad.

“Yes,” he said, walking over slowly.

And this is my new friend Gideon! Schrodinger said, as they came up to the others. And his mom Kiaya, who’s a writer too, Mr. Grey! They’re helping us with the Advent castle this year! He turned to Gideon. This is Mr. Grey, and his puppy, Spot.

“It’s very nice to meet friends of Schrodinger’s, especially a fellow writer,” Mr. Grey said, offering a hand to first Gideon, and then Kiaya. “Are you enjoying Christmas in the Cove?”

Gideon nodded, but he couldn’t take his eyes off Spot. This close to the great dog, he could smell a faint aroma of something smoky, and there was a palpable heat coming off him. “What kind of dog are you?” he whispered.

Spot turned and looked down at him, his flaming eyes kind. I am a hell hound, young master, he said, and his voice was deep and pleasant. And I am very pleased to meet you.

“A hell hound?” Gideon said, and then remembered his manners. “Pleased to meet you.”

“A hell hound is a magical dog,” Mr. Grey explained. “Spot can do some interesting things, and as you can see, he’s pretty big.” He laughed softly. “He’s my protector.”

“I can imagine,” Kiaya said, holding out her hand to Spot, who sniffed it politely and then angled his head down.

He likes his ears scratched, Schrodinger told them.

Kiaya and Gideon complied, and Gideon found the dog’s skin warm and soft to the touch. Spot’s eyes half-closed in pleasure, and the dog rumbled happily.

“Come on, Spot, we’ve still got shopping to do,” Mr. Grey said finally, chuckling a little. “Maybe we’ll stop by the tea shop on the way home, so you can get some more attention. Not that you need it.”

I always need attention, Spot said, but obediently raised his head (after giving Gideon a playful nudge with his warm nose against his cheek, which made the boy giggle) and they started off down the street.

Aren’t they cool? Schrodinger said, watching them go. I adore Spot.

“I wonder how he got a hell hound,” Kiaya said. “That must be a story in and of itself.”

No one knows, and Mr. Grey hasn’t said, Schrodinger said, falling in beside them as they started walking again. He just showed up with him one day. That’s the way of the Cove, you know. People just show up.

Gideon thought about that on the rest of the walk to CrossWinds Books. If people just showed up here, did that mean that they were needed here? Or was it just coincidence that they ended up here?

He nearly walked into the door, he was thinking so hard, but he hadn’t come to a conclusion by the time they entered the tea room, and then Kaylee was shouting his name, and the thoughts flew from his head.

“We met Spot!” he told her eagerly. “He let me skritch him!”

“I love Spot!” she said. “He’s adorable! But Mom says I can’t have a hell hound.”

They’re a lot of work, Jack said, ambling over. Trust me, Kaylee, you don’t want one right now.

And Jack would know, Schrodinger added.

Lily was writing in her journal, but as Kiaya settled in with her computer, she shut her book and joined the others as they went into the kitchen to see Molly and do the Advent castle.

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Molly watched them look for the number 21, enjoying the momentary calm of the tea room as they did. It was now, in the last few days before Christmas, that she valued these moments of peace more and more, since they were fewer and fewer.

Even though her part in the Christmas holiday was done, now that all the gingerbread houses were delivered, there would still be frantic people calling her and asking for last minute cookies, pastries, or tea. There was already one such box in the pantry, filled with vanilla shortbread and waiting for Lisa Cohen to pick up on her way home, and Molly knew there were going to be more.

Which was why she was planning on working in the tea shop until Christmas Eve. Her shopping was done, and everything was wrapped and ready to be put in stockings and under the proper trees, so she had let Aunt Margie know that she’d be there. Aunt Margie had been thrilled, to say the least, since the store was busier than ever.

“Oh, here it is!” Lily said, pointing to the 21 that was marching along the side of one of the towers. She touched the golden letters, and the window next to it opened onto a flurry of activity.

“Is that Santa’s workshop?” Kaylee asked, as the scene showed them a virtual army of people wrapping and tying bows and writing tags. A large bag in the center of the room was being filled, and Molly had to admit it certainly LOOKED like it could be in the North Pole.

Well, it wouldn’t be that surprising if Santa had a room at the Snow Queen’s, would it? Schrodinger said, as one of the tags slipped out the window and floated towards Lily.

“No, I guess not,” Molly said. “What does it say, Lily?”

“Are you done shopping? Are you sure? Perhaps you should go and check,” Lily read, and then looked up at Molly. “But I know I’m done!”

“Me too!” Kaylee said, and Gideon nodded.

“Then you guys can help me, because I am very, very behind,” Pavel said, coming in with Drew and Goldie. The pirate was dressed in a green coat with lacy cuffs, and his big black hat had holly pinned to the brim. “Do you think you can do that?”

“Who do you have to buy for, Pavel?” Molly teased. “Don’t you just give money to your mother and have her do it?”

“Usually, yes,” Pavel said, without a trace of embarrassment. “But this year, she told me that since I was in port, I was perfectly capable of buying my own presents. Although she did promise to wrap any that weren’t for her.”

Molly laughed, knowing full well who would wrap those gifts. “So you’re going to bribe me to do that, huh?”

“Bribe is such an ugly word,” he chided her, grinning. “I prefer to think of it as trading services.”

“Uh-huh,” Molly said, chuckling. Then she looked at Drew. “And you? I thought you were done.”

“I plead the Fifth,” Drew said, winking at her. “Also, I have been tasked to make sure this reprobate buys something nice for his mother. Apparently she didn’t like the wool socks he bought her for her birthday, and he was threatening a vacuum cleaner or something.”

Since Molly knew Pavel would do no such thing, she immediately suspected something, but she let it slide. “Just make sure you don’t end up taking these children into somewhere you shouldn’t,” she said, picking up the castle.

“That’s why I’m here,” Goldie assured her. “Capt’n won’t take them anywhere they shouldn’t be with me.”

“At least I can trust one of you,” Molly said, and put the castle back into the pantry.

When she came out, they were gone, and the tea room was quiet again. She went out to find that Kiaya had decided to stay. “I’m trying to get Zeke’s present done,” she explained. “It’s almost done. I write him a Christmas story every year, and I’m almost done.”

<><>

Are we going to get it today? Schrodinger asked, as they walked back downtown. The CrossCat was full of excitement. Did you get notice that it’s coming in?

“I did,” Drew said, chuckling. “And Pavel has agreed to hide it for us until Christmas day.”

“What are you getting Molly?” Lily said. “What did you order her?”

“You’ll see.” Drew refused to say any more, but led them down to a carriage that had been waiting around the corner from the bookstore, out of view of the tea shop.

They all piled in, and the carriage whisked them off to the Gate Station. “Now, you have to promise me that you can keep a secret,” Drew said, and they all swore.

“Come on in, then,” he said, and led them inside.

>Activity: Christmas is about doing something nice for others. Why don’t you see what you can do that’s nice for someone else today?

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

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Tuesday, December 20

 

Molly and Schrodinger had been up since 6 am, and had been at the bookstore since 7. Tuesday was normally their day off, but today they were going to be delivering all the gingerbread houses that had been decorated, and that meant being very organized. The night before, Molly had made sure everything was packaged correctly, and labeled, so they wouldn’t have any issues.

 

Now, all thirty-five houses and the massive gingerbread train that was going to the Station were ready to go, and she and Schrodinger were enjoying a cup of tea while they waited for everyone else to get there. School was out this week, but it was bitterly cold, and Kiaya had decided that she was going to wait for Corrine, rather than walking to the bookstore. Molly didn’t blame her at all.

 

“I wonder if we should rethink our plans for today,” she said to Schrodinger, holding the warm mug between her hands. “It might be too cold for us to take the sled to make deliveries.”

 

But think of all the kids who are hoping for a glimpse of Old Man Winter’s reindeer, Schrodinger said. And he loves it.

 

“I know.” Molly sighed. “But is it worth getting everyone sick?”

 

Schrodinger considered that. There must be some way to keep us warm and still be able to go into the sledge, he said. Maybe Old Man Winter will have some ideas.

 

“Maybe.”

 

He did, as it turned out. By the time Corrine and Kiaya came in with the kids, he had turned up, and was enjoying his own cup of tea and a plate of Molly’s peppermint candy cane cookies.

 

“Old Man Winter, you look fabulous!” Kaylee said, running in to the kitchen to give him a hug, her cheeks bright pink from the cold. “Are you going to help us deliver the gingerbread?”

 

“Of course!” he said, beaming as he hugged her back. “Why else would I be here?”

 

“Because you like Molly’s baking?” Gideon said.

 

Old Man Winter threw back his head and laughed. “Well, okay, yes, there is that. But would I be dressed like this to just visit Molly?” And he gestured to his outfit.

 

He was dressed in a dark red coat with gold and silver snowflake designs woven into the wool, trimmed in white fur. The coat fell to mid-calf, and he had tall black boots that were similar to Pavel’s, although they weren’t quite as flashy or tight. A golden sash tied the coat shut, and his matching crimson hat (also trimmed with white fur) sat on the island.

 

“If I had a warm coat like that, I’d be wearing it today,” Kiaya confessed. “It’s bitter out!” Her cheeks were pink too. “How are we going to deliver the houses? Not the sledge, I hope!” She flushed then, and looked guiltily at Old Man Winter. “No offense, but it’s way too cold to be traveling in that.”

 

He winked at her. “Don’t you trust me?”

 

“Of course!” Lily said immediately. “Are you going to use magic to keep us warm?”

 

“Well, let’s just say it’s going to be fine,” Old Man Winter told her. “The gingerbread is all loaded and ready to go once you guys warm up.”

 

And once we do the Advent castle, Jack said. We can’t forget that!

 

“No, of course not!” Old Man Winter said. “Are you enjoying it?”

 

It’s amazing! Schrodinger said. You guys did an amazing job!

 

Old Man Winter preened a bit. “We did, didn’t we?”

 

Once everyone was warmed up, Molly brought the castle out and they all started looking, including Old Man Winter.

 

“Don’t you know where they all are?” Kaylee asked him.

 

“No, actually,” he said. “I built the castle, but Jade and Jack did the actual enchanting. So this is my first chance to see it in person.”

 

“Look, here it is!” Gideon said, his finger reaching out to touch the tiny “20” on the side of the stables. The stable window opened, and showed them a manger, with reindeer munching on hay and grain. A groom was brushing one of them, while in the background, two other grooms were working on some of the tack. One of them was affixing jingle bells to a bridle; he looked up, and tossed a bell out to them.

 

When Gideon caught it, it had a note attached. “Spreading cheer is the best present one can give,” he read out.

 

“Well, let’s go spread some cheer, then!” Old Man Winter said, taking his hat and putting it at a jaunty angle on his head.

 

When they went outside and piled into the sledge, they all exclaimed aloud. There was a perceptible bubble of warm air around the edge of the great vehicle, and instead of bitter cold, it was merely chilly.

 

“How did you do this?” Kiaya asked, as they settled in.

 

“I’m Old Man Winter!” he laughed and then flicked the reins and the reindeer took off, bells ringing.

 

>Activity: Well, I can’t give you Old Man Winter’s magical sledge, but it’s a great day to go sledding!

 

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

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Monday, December 19

“We’re sure there is a 19, right?” Lily asked doubtfully, as everyone continued to look for the number. The Advent castle was being stubborn today; they had been looking for nearly ten minutes with no luck.

It has to be there, Jack said. Why would the Snow Queen send us a calendar missing the 19th?

“Because she made a mistake, maybe?” Gideon said.

Maybe if it had been made by someone else, Schrodinger said, but there was no censure in his voice. The Snow Queen doesn’t make mistakes like that. It has to be here somewhere.

Just as they were all about to give up, Kaylee spotted the 19, creeping up the back of the main hall. She pressed it, and the window opened up to show a familiar figure sitting on a throne.

“Is that Old Man Winter?” Gideon asked, squinting.

“It looks like him, but I don’t know,” Lily said. “Why would he be sitting on a throne in the Snow Queen’s palace?”

The man was in a long dark red coat, trimmed with grey and white fur, and the hat on his head was also trimmed with fur. His long beard flowed over his chest, and there were holly leaves peeking out from within the strands. He had a kindly face, and all around him were great sacks of something. They couldn’t tell what. He waved to them, and then tossed a handful of candy canes at them.

As they landed in their hands, Kaylee found that hers had a note attached. “Good things come to those who wait,” she read.

That sounds like a fortune cookie, Schrodinger said. What does it mean?

Then his ears perked up, and he looked at Jack. Do you hear that?

The hound lifted his ears. Someone’s moving furniture upstairs.

There’s only one piece of furniture that gets moved around this time of year, Schrodinger said.

The music from WCOV stopped, and the DJ said cheerfully, “Well, folks, it’s a little later than normal, but I’m happy to report that Aunt Margie just called me from CrossWinds Books. It wouldn’t be Christmas in the Cove without a visit from Santa, and he’s going to be there this afternoon! The line opens at 3 pm!” Then another carol started.

“Santa! Woohoo!” Kaylee and Gideon whooped, and Lily pumped her fist. “That must have been what the calendar meant!”

They went tearing up the stairs to find DC and Steve moving the great wooden chair that Santa always sat in when he came to CrossWinds Books. Molly had told them that the chair had been there when she was a child, and it certainly looked that old. It was dark wood, scarred by years of use, and there were elaborate carvings on it. As always, it sat in front of the great fireplace, and the trees on either side of the fireplace framed it.

“So is it REALLY Santa, or just one of his clones?” Gideon asked. “Because you know he usually sends someone to stand in for him.”

“Maybe other places he does, but this one is really Santa,” Lily said. “He’s always come. I think he and Aunt Margie are friends.”

And everyone shows up, Jack said. He stays as long as needed, and EVERYONE gets on his lap.

“Everyone?” Gideon said skeptically. “You mean all the kids.”

“No, we mean everyone,” Kaylee said. “You’ll see.”

And he did. The line, as the others knew, stretched out the door that afternoon, and there were just as many grownups as kids. Santa saw them all, and took the time he needed. By the time Gideon got up to him, he was firmly convinced.

“Hello, Gideon,” Santa said, as he hopped up on the old man’s lap. “How are you enjoying your first Christmas in Carter’s Cove?”

“It’s awesome!” Gideon said, his eyes shining. Then he leaned in. “You’re really Santa, right?” he said quietly. “Like, really?”

Santa leaned his head down. “Really,” he assured him. “I don’t do many personal appearances any more, but I never miss a chance to come here.”

Gideon looked at him, considering, then nodded. “Schrodinger says it’s really you, and he doesn’t lie. So it’s you.”

“Schrodinger’s a smart cat,” Santa said. “Now, to the important things. What would you like for Christmas?”

“I want lots of stuff, but that’s not what I wanted to tell you,” Gideon said, and Santa looked at him. “My folks can do that. Can you make sure that no one is forgotten this Christmas? That would be too sad if they were.”

“I’ll do my best,” Santa said, smiling. “But I can always use help. So you keep your eyes open too, okay?”

Gideon nodded happily, and hopped down. Before he ran off, he turned back and said, “I’m so glad I got to see you, Santa!” Then he ran back to Kiaya and Zeke.

<><>

“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this,” Caliban said, as he and Monk stood in line.

“What? How often do you get the chance to talk to Santa?” Monk said. “It’s tradition.” He looked at his friend. “Or do they not have Santa where you come from?”

They didn’t, really, but Caliban knew who he was. He’d even seen him, at least from a distance, at least once. “No, we don’t really celebrate more than the Solistice in my home,” he said, which was true. “But I’ve heard of him.”

“Then this is your first time telling Santa what you want for Christmas! That’s awesome!” Monk’s face shone with his excitement. “Your first time is always special. This is my third.”

“And do you actually get what you ask for?” Caliban asked, and he couldn’t quite keep the skepticism from his voice.

“Not always, no,” Monk admitted. “But I always get what I wish for. They’re not the same thing, you know.”

Caliban pondered that as the line slowly moved forward. It was warm, and very crowded, but no one seemed in a bad mood. It was just another way the Cove was so very different from most places he’d been in before.

And what DID he want? It was a question he was still wrestling with. Jade and Jack hadn’t recognized him, he was fairly certain of that, and the Librarian hadn’t said anything to blow his cover. But did he want to keep tempting fate by staying here?

But if I leave, where will I go? Is there any where I really WANT to go?

The thoughts circled in his head until he found himself confronted with the old man in the chair.

“It’s his first time, Santa,” Monk said, as he came down. “Percy said his people don’t celebrate Christmas. So he’s never talked to you.”

Santa looked kindly down at him. “Come on up, Percy,” he said, gesturing. “Tell me what you would like for Christmas.”

Caliban climbed up on Santa’s lap awkwardly and said, “I’m sorry, Santa. I’m not really sure what I want.”

“It’s okay,” Santa told him, and then leaned forward and said quietly, “Are you sure there is nothing you want, Caliban?”

Caliban froze and looked at him.

“Don’t worry,” Santa continued, so quietly that only Caliban himself could hear him. “I’m not going to tell anyone. But are you sure there’s nothing you want? A fresh start, perhaps?”

A fresh start. “Is that even possible?” Caliban whispered, his lips dry.

“Anything is possible, if your heart is in it,” Santa said, and then smiled at him. “Anything.”

<><>

After Santa left, and the crowd of people had dissipated, Lily went and found Molly in the kitchen.

“What’s up, peanut?” Molly asked her, as she stirred something in a pot over the stove.

“Why didn’t we make something today?” Lily asked her. “We just talked to Santa.”

“Well, yes, but you also raised energy,” Molly said, lifting up her spoon to check the texture of the chocolate she was melting. “The Snow Queen will be gathering that, to use to charge the wards.”

“Oh, I hadn’t thought of that,” Lily said, watching her. “What are you making?”

“Brynna gave me a recipe for fudge that she got from a friend,” Molly said. “I thought I’d try it. Want to help?”

“Sure!”

Molly gestured with her chin to the pantry. “Go and get the bowl of frosting from in there, please.”

“Frosting?” Lily said, but went to get them.

“I know, I didn’t believe it either,” Molly said, when she came back. “But this is what she said.”

Lily watched as her aunt poured the molten chocolate over the frosting, and then she mixed the entire bowl together. “Oh, it looks like fudge!” she said, clapping her hands together. “It’s magic!”

“A miracle,” Molly said, laughing. “Brynna’s miracle fudge. Let’s put it into a pan, and in 20 minutes, you can try it.”

>Activity: want to make Brynna’s Miracle Fudge? (My friend Onyx gave me the recipe, and said I could change the name) It’s super easy:

-Melt a bag of chocolate chips (I use a microwave, because I’m not a kitchen witch)

-Mix in a can of frosting until smooth

-Press it into a wax-paper lined pan and put it into the refrigerator for 20 minutes.

Fudge!

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

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Sunday, December 18

“Did you guys have a good time last night?” Molly asked, as she brought the Advent castle into the tea room.

“It was the BEST,” Gideon said solemnly, nodding his head. “I can’t wait until next year!”

“Me either,” Lily said. “I hung my mask above my bed when I got home, so I can see it all year! And the Snow Queen gave me an extra one for Zoey!”

“Oh cool!” Molly said. “Jade is a good friend.”

And Caliban didn’t ruin it, Schrodinger said over their private channel. I’m glad of that.

Me too, she said quietly. Do you think he was there?

I didn’t sense him, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t. The CrossCat said. The Librarian said he’s been very quiet lately. Which isn’t really like him.

Molly shook her head, and then put thoughts of Caliban out of her head as Gideon said, “Oh, look! There it is!”

The 18 was half-obscured by a length of ivy on the left-hand side of the main hall, and if they hadn’t already found the 8, Molly would have wondered if this was that instead. The window opened, and the sweetly-spicy scent of gingerbread filled the room.

Inside, the room was dominated by a huge house, made entirely of gingerbread. Chefs in white aprons and hats swarmed around the structure, adding icing and all sorts of decorations. Candy canes sprouted from the front yard, surrounding gumdrop trees and snowmen made of marshmallows, pretzel arms outstretched. One chef was even up on the roof, gluing down bits of “snow” around the chimney.

“Wow,” Kaylee said softly. “Look at that.”

Then she gasped in delight as one of the snowmen actually turned to look at her, bright black gumdrop eyes winking. It picked up a handful of what looked like snow and tossed it at them.

“Powdered sugar!” Lily said, as it showered around them. “They’re using powdered sugar!”

Some of the sugar crystals shimmered and turned into chef’s hats, falling on their heads with a soft “plop.” A piece of paper fell into Gideon’s hand, and he read out loud, “It’s time to decorate! Are you ready?”

“I know what this means!” Lily said excitedly. “We get to decorate the houses today, right, Molly?”

“Right! So let’s get the castle put away, and then we can start working!”

Molly put the castle back in the pantry, and then she and Kiaya (who was taking the week off from writing) got everyone set up on three of the tables in the tea room.

Three tables, because what she brought out made them all exclaim excitedly.

“It’s a gingerbread TRAIN!” Gideon shouted. “You’re making a TRAIN!”

It was. There were ten cars in total, everything from the locomotive to a shiny red caboose at the end.

“Are you sure you want us to decorate it?” Lily said dubiously, looking at her aunt.

“Absolutely,” Molly said. “I trust you. And really, you guys are going to do awesome. Here’s what I want you to do.”

She’d already laid down the royal icing and put the train together. Now, she brought out all the various candies to decorate it, and explained what she wanted.

“Gideon, you and Kaylee are in charge of the gumdrops,” she said, handing them the bowls of little sugared jellies. “I’ve put marks everywhere I want one. Take this icing,” and she handed them each a small tube of royal icing, “and put a dot like this.” She put a small blob of frosting on the flat bottom of a gumdrop. “Then, stick it on.”

She put it on the side of the locomotive, where she’d put a small red “X” before.

“We got it,” Gideon said, and Kaylee nodded.

“Good! Schrodinger, you and Jack are in charge of making sure they don’t miss an X, okay?”

We got it, Schrodinger said, and he jumped up next to Gideon, as Jack joined Kaylee at the other end.

“What about me?” Lily said.

“You get to help me in the kitchen, since Kiaya’s going to watch these guys,” Molly said, leading her older niece back with her. “We’ve got other houses to decorate, and I know you have a pretty steady hand.”

The afternoon flew by as they decorated, and by the time Corrine came to pick Lily, Jack, and Kaylee up, they had made amazing headway. There were more that Molly had to do, but she knew she’d be fine finishing it.

>Activity: Make a gingerbread house, of course!

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

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Saturday, December 17

 

“You look nervous.”

 

Jade looked at herself in the mirror again, and her eyes met Jack’s as he came up behind her. “Hopefully only you notice,” she said, smoothing back one shining silver strand of hair. “Do you really think he’ll show up?”

 

“If he’s in the Cove, it will be odd if he doesn’t,” Jack said. He laid a hand on her shoulder and she leaned into his arm, loving the cool warmth of his love, like an autumn sun glowing through early morning fog. “Unless he’s pretending to be ill, or something.”

 

“And we’re sure he’s in the Cove?” Another strand of her hair was escaping her elaborate braid, a sign that she was distracted. She smoothed it back with an impatient hand.

 

“Ember is,” Jack said, squeezing her shoulder gently. “He won’t spoil the day, Jade. I promise you.”

 

“I hope now.”

 

But there was nothing she could do now. The wards had come down, and although they were being rebuilt, if Caliban was going to do anything tonight, there was little that she and Jack could do.

 

Well, that wasn’t exactly true. Between herself, Jack, Old Man Winter, Ember, and the Librarian, they could probably take care of Caliban. But it would require all the energy the Ball would raise, and that would mean they’d have to do something else to power the wards on Christmas Eve.

 

Taking a deep breath, Jade raised her chin and placed her coronet on top of the piled braids. “Let’s do this,” she said, getting up.

 

“That’s the spirit,” Jack said, as she turned to him. “Besides, this will be fun.”

 

<><>

 

“Is everyone ready?” Molly looked around at all the eager faces. Everyone looked amazing, which given how much they all loved to play was a miracle. Gideon and his father had matching dark grey suits with green vests and bow ties, and Kiaya had traded in the purple streaks in her hair for green, to match her green flapper dress. Corrine was in dark blue, with a fur stole wrapped around her shoulders, and Nathan’s vest matched her dress, although his suit was a light grey wool that looked very stylish on him, especially with the trilby on his head.

 

Lily had a dress in purple that reminded Molly how much her niece was growing up – she looked more like a teenager than a child now, and her long hair had been twisted up into a sophisticated chignon. There were purple snowflake earrings in her ears, and a matching snowflake necklace glittered around her neck.

 

Kaylee had similar earrings and a necklace in pink, but in typical Kaylee style, her dress was short and she had pink leggings that were covered in snowflakes as well. There was pink glitter in her hair, and as Molly looked over, she realized that Jack was covered in it as well. The hound looked dapper in his pink and purple bow tie, an homage to both his favorite girls.

 

Schrodinger had picked out a new vest and bow tie for this year, rather than going for his normal black tie. His vest was dark blue, with silver and white snowflakes all over it, and the bow tie matched. In addition, the middle of the bow tie was a shining silver snowflake. He had found the outfit in a catalog and had begged until Molly had bought it for him. She had to admit he looked amazing in it.

 

Drew had decided to go classic: a black tuxedo with black bow tie, and Molly thought he looked like an old Hollywood movie star at a premiere. He made her feel glamorous just standing next to him.

 

Her own dress was reminiscent of a Hollywood starlet’s, now that she thought about it. It was a classical evening gown in a dark golden satin that clung to every curve and slunk its way down to the floor. Her shoulders were bare, and earlier in the day, her hairdresser had added dark golden lowlights to her hair, then twisted it into an elegant updo. Her mother had donated topaz drops for her ears and throat, and Drew’s grandmother Phoebe had sent her a golden wrap imbued with summer warmth. She felt like a princess.

 

“Yes!” Lily said, shifting from foot to foot eagerly. “Let’s find the next window, before Pavel gets here with the sleigh!”

 

As the children looked for the number 17 on the castle, Kiaya leaned over and murmured to Molly, “How is Pavel going to find a sleigh big enough for all of us?”

 

“He’s got help,” Molly murmured back. “But I wanted to surprise the children.”

 

Kiaya looked at her, and Molly winked.

 

“Here it is!” Lily shouted. “Over the gate!”

 

She pressed her finger to the golden 17 that floated above the carved gate, and the gates opened, showing them the interior, not of the castle, but of the ballroom that the Snow Queen held her ball in every year. Molly wasn’t surprised.

 

Snowflakes danced in the air, and the ancient oak trees that had replaced the icy pillars were wrapped in lights. On one end of the room, on a slightly raised dais, was the familiar string quartet that the Snow Queen engage to provide the music every year. There were buffet tables full of food, and tables scattered around the edge of the room, waiting for the guests that were even now on their way.

 

A tall butler in black turned to them, winked, and said, “You’re in for a surprise when you get here, children.” And then the gates closed.

 

“That’s it?” Lily said, dismayed. They all turned to Molly with questions in their eyes.

 

“Not exactly,” Molly said. “I have it on very good authority that there’s a surprise waiting for you at the ball itself.”

 

That perked them up, and she added, “Now, get your coats! I hear Pavel’s sleigh!”

 

That’s not his sleigh bells, Jack said, his ears perking up.  Those are…

 

“Old Man Winter!” Kaylee shrieked in joy, running out the door with her coat in her hand, despite her father’s attempt to grab her. At least she had her shoes on still, Molly realized, as Jack and Schrodinger hurried out after her.

 

The rest of them dressed quickly and joined her outside, where Old Man Winter’s massive sledge had just pulled up to the bookstore. Molly locked the door behind her, and then let Drew help her into the sledge. Kaylee (her jacket finally on), stood next to Old Man Winter, with Gideon on his other side, each of them holding a rein. Since the reindeer that pulled the sledge were guided by the Old Man’s voice alone, there was no harm in it.

 

“Everyone in and warm?” Old Man Winter said. When he received an assent, he said, “Then let’s go!”

 

Traveling by the sledge had turned into one of Molly’s favorite ways to get around the Cove in the winter. The reindeer didn’t really worry about other vehicles, or roads – they just went, and the world passed them by. It was soothing, especially since she was nestled in Drew’s arms, with Schrodinger on her lap.

 

And then they were at the clearing where the Snow Queen’s Ball was held every year. There was a line of cars, but the sledge simply went around them, bringing them directly to the front door. There were perks to being friends with the people throwing the party.

 

“Look at that!” Lily said, as they walked down the path to the main ballroom. “It’s him!”

 

It was. The same butler that had been in the hall in the Advent calendar was waiting for them at the door, and as they approached, he bowed and handed each of them a bag with the words, “From the Snow Queen and Jack. Enjoy the ball!”

 

“This is new,” Molly said, accepting her bag. “They’ve never given out favors before.” She peeked in the bag. “I wonder what it is.”

 

The butler winked at her. “You’ll see when you go in!”

 

Molly had no time to respond, as the children ran ahead of them, and she had to catch up. And then, as she stepped into the ballroom, she understood.

 

They weren’t the first ones there, but it was hard to tell who was who.

 

“Look, Molly! We got masks! It’s a masked ball!” Lily said, holding up the stylized snowflake mask from her bag. “How cool!”

 

Not all the masks were snowflakes. Some were feathered, some beaded – all were different. She slipped hers on (golden feathers and beads – how had the Snow Queen known?), and looked over at Drew. His was dark green, and looked a little like pictures of the Green Man that she’d seen in books.

 

Jade and Jack were up on their thrones, wearing matching masks of ice-encrusted leaves, and nearby, lounging on her customary throne of pillows, was Ember.

 

“Gideon, look! Ember! Come on, you have to meet her!” Kaylee grabbed Gideon’s hand and nearly dragged him over to the ice dragon, who was watching the festivities with an amused look.

 

“Oh, this might not be good,” Kiaya said, hurrying after them. “Gideon’s not really big on dragons.”

 

“He’s not?” Molly said, following her. “Why not?”

 

“He’s worried that they might cause destruction. It’s kind of weird.”

 

Ember, however, had already put the young man to ease by the time they got over there. She wore no mask, but there was a collar of snowflakes around her neck, and she invited them to join her on her pillows.

 

Kiaya, her fears assuaged, took the time to look around the room. “This is amazing,” she said. “And it happens every year?”

 

“Yes,” Molly said, and nudged her. “Want to meet the Snow Queen?”

 

“Want to? Yes. Feel I should? I don’t know.”

 

Molly chuckled and took her hand, dragging her over to the thrones. “Jade, Jack, this is Kiaya, and her husband, Zeke,” she said, since Zeke and Drew had joined them. “Gideon is their son.”

 

Jade got up and, to Kiaya’s surprise, came down and gave her a warm hug. “It is good to meet you!” she said. “Thank you for letting your son help us!”

 

“It’s my pleasure,” Kiaya stammered out. “Your Majesty.”

 

Jade laughed. “Please, don’t. It’s just Jade to my friends, and any friend of Molly’s is a friend of mine.” She then embraced Molly. “You look amazing.”

 

“So do you, as always,” Molly said. She leaned in and murmured, “Do you think he’s here?”

 

“I don’t know,” Jade whispered back. “I hope if he is, he doesn’t disrupt anything.”

 

<><>

 

“But you have to go!”

 

Monk’s face was crestfallen as he looked at Caliban.

 

“I’m not a member of the Cove, though,” Caliban said, shifting uncomfortably. “I’m not really sure I’m welcome.”

 

“Everyone is welcome,” Monk said. “Even travelers. Please, Percy, please. You should come.”

 

“I don’t have anything to wear,” Caliban hedged. “I’m just a simple traveler.”

 

“That’s easy enough,” Mrs. Hoskins said from her chair in the corner, where she was knitting. Her everyday clothing had been exchanged for an elegant dress of cranberry red, which brought out the pink of her cheeks. “You’re about the same size as my son, and he’s left a few suits. Please come with us, Percy. We’d feel terrible if you were here alone while we were out at a party. That’s not right at Christmas.”

 

And how could he argue with that? So he had acquiesced, and was now standing in the ballroom, dressed in a soft wool suit that was oddly comfortable, a snowflake mask on his face, looking around at the swirling mass of humanity. Monk stood next to him, a solid reassuring presence.

 

“Do you dance?” Monk asked him.

 

“I know how,” Caliban said. “I’m not sure anyone will want to dance with me, though.” He looked around, marveling at the masks. It was the perfect way for him to feel more comfortable, and he blessed Jade for thinking of it.

 

She was gorgeous as she sat on her throne, with Jack at her side. Caliban looked up at her, not worrying that she would recognize him, although he made himself a silent promise not to go near her. He found himself not wanting to disrupt the party.

 

That could have been you up there,  his father’s voice whispered in his mind, as he watched Jack lean over and murmur something in Jade’s ear. Whatever it had been made her laugh, a light-hearted peal of sound that rivaled the musicians in the corner. But you screwed it up. Now you have nothing.

 

But that wasn’t true either. He looked up as Monk came back, carrying two plates of food from the buffet, and handed one to him. When he had been Caliban, he’d had all sorts of hangers-on, and toadies, and no one he could really trust.

 

Now, as Percy, he had actual friends. He and Monk had forged the beginning of a friendship over games of chess at night in the boarding house, and Mrs. Hoskins was more of a mother than his mother had ever been. As Percy, Caliban realized he was actually enjoying life.

 

So it that it, then? he thought, letting chilled apple cider slide down his throat. He’d refused the champagne, not wanting to lose his grip on himself by getting even a little drunk. Have I really given up being Caliban?

 

Do I have to decide now, though?

 

“Percy?”

 

He looked up, realizing that he hadn’t heard his name being called at first. Mrs. Hoskins was looking at him.

 

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I was a little overwhelmed.”

 

She smiled at him. “That’s understandable,” she said. “I asked if you would like to dance. I love to waltz, but the Captain’s leg doesn’t always like it.”

 

“I would be honored,” Caliban said, getting up and leading her out onto the dance floor.

 

One dance turned into several – Mrs. Hoskins was an accomplished dancer, and Caliban found himself enjoying both the exercise, and her running commentary on the people around her. And then others came up, and he found that he couldn’t refuse.

 

And then, suddenly, it was the last dance. Caliban returned to his table, and watched as every woman took off a single shoe and put it in the center of the dance floor.

 

“You all know the tradition,” Jade said, adding her crystalline slipper to the pile. “Gentlemen, come and choose a lady’s shoe. When you find her, you can take your mask off. I hope you all enjoyed this change!”

 

Caliban ended up with a dark green slipper, and he eventually found the young woman who had the other shoe. To his amusement, she had streaks of green in her hair. “Hello,” he said, as he removed his mask. “My name is Percy.”

 

“Kiaya,” she said, accepting his hand as she removed her mask as well. “And I’m new to the Cove, so I’m sorry that I don’t know you.”

 

“I’m new as well,” he said, leading her out on to the floor. “So don’t feel bad.”

 

As they danced, Caliban found her easy to talk to. They discussed writing, and he admitted that he was an avid reader, but not much of a writer, and the fun of the Advent season, especially in the Cove. He found he was rather disappointed when the dance ended.

 

“Thank you,” he said, bowing over her hand. “I enjoyed this.”

 

Kiaya dimpled. “I did too! If you want to talk books again, I’m usually at CrossWinds Books, writing. I’d love to continue our conversation.”

 

“I would like that too,” Caliban said, and realized he meant it.

 

“Mom! Look what Dad got!” Her son rushed up, interrupting them, and as she turned to him, Caliban gracefully faded into the crowd.

 

<><>

 

“What?” Kiaya asked, turning to Gideon.

 

“He danced with the Snow Queen! And she gave him a star! For a tree!” Gideon was so excited he could barely get the words out, and she looked in awe at the glistening silver star in Zeke’s hands.

 

“Wow,” she said. “That’s beautiful.”

 

“It’s MAGIC,” Gideon said, his eyes wide. “Isn’t that COOL?”

 

“It is,” Kiaya agreed, and then looked around for Percy, to show him. But he had gone, swallowed up by the people around them.

 

“Who did you dance with?” Gideon asked, reclaiming her attention.

 

“A traveler,” she said. “His name was Percy, and this was his first time in the Cove. It was neat.”

 

>Activity: Have your own masked ball! Make a mask, and dress up, and put on music!

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

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Friday, December 16

 

“Just a hint?” Drew teased, and Molly laughed at him.

 

“No,” she said, starting to roll small balls of dough and setting them out on the baking sheet in front of her. “You know the rules. You don’t get to know about my dress, except for the fact that it’s gold this year. That’s it.”

 

“Which is a change,” he noted, stealing a bit of dough from the bowl. Molly slapped at his hand. “You don’t usually do gold.”

 

“No, but I’m in love with Phoebe’s lights, and this reminded of them,” she said, and then mock-glared at him. “Stop trying to find out more about it!”

 

He chuckled. They both knew that if he’d been really serious about trying to figure out what she was wearing, he’d have simply looked in her closet. But they’d been playing this game since the first year he’d been in the Cove, and they both still enjoyed it. She told him the color, so he could buy her a corsage that would match it, and that was it.

 

“Of course, I could just recycle one,” she said, considering. “I guess I really don’t HAVE to buy a new dress every year.”

 

“Why not? It’s not like you buy very many anyways,” Drew said.

 

Molly shrugged. “I don’t know. It just seems…wasteful?” She paused. “I’ve been thinking lately about things like that.”

 

“What kind of things?”

 

She was quiet while she rolled several more balls of dough out. The sweet rolls were studded with bits of candied orange peel, and there was cinnamon and cardamon in the dough. “I’m realizing how lucky we are,” she said finally. “And how maybe we don’t really appreciate that. Think of how different any of us could have turned out if we didn’t have the supportive friends and family we have. It’s not even the money. It’s just the people.”

 

“You’re thinking about Caliban,” Drew said, looking at her shrewdly. “And wondering what could have been done to help him.”

 

Molly nodded. “I keep thinking back to when I was talking to him, the last time,” she said, finishing the last of the dough balls. “And the more I remember, the more I realize how incredibly lonely he must have been.”

 

“You can only help those that are willing to be helped, Molly,” Drew said. “And at that point, the only help Caliban wanted was to take over the Snow Queen and her realm. You know that.”

 

“Do I?” She sighed. “Maybe. But maybe not.” Then Molly shook her head. “It’s in the past now. But I’m still going to wonder.”

 

“Just don’t let it get you down,” he said. Then he looked at his watch. “Time to head back. Save me some of those rolls?”

 

“Considering I made six dozen? I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.” Molly kissed him and sent him back to the Gate Station with a basket full of ham and cheese scones, fudge brownies, and shortbread cookies. With the Snow Queen’s ball the following night, the Gate Station was busy as ever, and all the techs and engineers were on standby. There were replacements coming in from Boston to cover for them tomorrow night, but tonight, it was all hands on deck. Molly didn’t envy them at all.

 

Then, as she saw him out the front door, she looked over at the pile of children and animals next to the wood stove. Kaylee, Gideon, Jack, and Schrodinger were asleep after playing in the park across the street earlier in the day, but Lily was sitting at one of the tables, writing in her notebook, while Goldie sat with her and read another one of his books. Kiaya sat at the table next to them, busily typing on her keyboard, a contemplative look on her face. Molly had always considered him more of a scholar than a pirate, and wondered again how or why he’d come to sail with Pavel.

 

Then again, Pavel’s not really your typical pirate captain, come to think about it, she reminded herself. Not that you have that much experience with pirates, Molly.

 

Pavel had offered to take them out with him one time. Molly wondered what it would be like.

 

As if her thoughts had conjured him, Pavel himself came into the bookstore. “Hello, CrossWinds Books!” he said heartily, waking up the kids, who blinked sleepily.

 

“Pavel!” Lily said eagerly, putting down her pen and running over to him while her sister and Gideon were still rubbing the sleep from their eyes. “You’re back!”

 

“I haven’t been gone,” he said, laughing a little as she launched herself at him. “Have I?”

 

“Well, I haven’t seen you,” she said.

 

“Very good point. You’ve been at school, and I doubt your teachers would appreciate me coming in to disrupt their classes,” Pavel told her, smiling down. Goldie had stood up when his captain came in, and Pavel waved him back to his chair and his book.

 

We saw him earlier this week, Schrodinger said, yawning and stretching elegantly.

 

“Pavel, did you come to take us on an adventure?” Gideon asked. “We haven’t had an adventure yet today.”

 

“Every day should have an adventure,” Pavel agreed. “But are you sure you haven’t had one yet? I hear you went and built a snow village.”

 

“That’s not an adventure,” Gideon said dismissively.

 

“Says you,” Molly heard Kiaya say quietly, and the kitchen witch hid a smile behind her hand. Having helped herd the children through the snow earlier, Molly had to admit that she agreed with her.

 

“Besides, it’s getting rather late for an adventure,” Pavel continued. “Don’t you know that adventures have a bedtime on the night before the Snow Queen’s Ball?”

 

“They do?” Kaylee gave him a skeptical look. “Really?”

 

“Really,” he said, nodding. “But let’s go see what the Advent calendar says. Perhaps I’ll be proven wrong.”

 

“I’ll go get it,” Molly said, and went back to the pantry where the Advent castle lived.

 

Kiaya was the one who managed to find the 16 where it floated above the main entrance. The doors opened with a flourish and, to their surprise, the Snow Queen herself was seated on her throne.

 

She smiled up at them from the expanded room. “Hello, my lovelies! I hope you’re enjoying the Advent calendar from Jack, Old Man Winter, and myself. We’ve had so much fun putting this together for you!” She paused, and then continued, “It’s hard, though, looking into the future. Harder than you might think. And you’ve been so good, I thought I should give you another present.”

 

The Snow Queen held out her hand and blew gently across her palm. Glittery snow flew up and out into the kitchen, turning into white envelopes.

 

“Invitations!” Lily squealed, as one landed in her hands. She tore it open and gasped. “To the Snow Queen’s Ball!”

 

“I hope I’ll see you all there,” the Snow Queen said. “Now, tonight you’ll probably want to go to bed early. I’ve got something very special planned for tomorrow night.”

 

>Activity: Tonight, it’s a good night to stay in. Molly’s got some special hot chocolate for the kids, and maybe you should make some too. You want to be fresh for the Snow Queen’s Ball!

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

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Thursday, December 15

 

Can you believe that it’s Christmas in only ten days? Schrodinger asked, as he and Molly walked down the street towards St. Michael’s Church. It’s really snuck up on me this year!

 

“Really? How?” Molly teased him. She was moving slowly to avoid any icy patches, as she was carrying the precious Advent calendar in her arms. The snow from the day before had finally stopped, but the temperatures had plunged, and the last thing she wanted to do was fall on the Snow Queen’s castle.

 

I don’t know, but it feels like it has, Schrodinger said, and Molly was struck again by how literal he could be when he felt like it. Even with the Advent calendar. I don’t even have my shopping done yet!

 

“You and me both,” she said, as they stepped onto the walkway. Molly relaxed a little – Father Christopher was very good at making sure the walks were shoveled and de-iced, which was comforting.

 

The good father himself answered the door to the rectory once Schrodinger had rung the bell, holding it open so they could come inside. “You’re the first ones here!” he said, as they went into his big kitchen. “Although Kiaya called to say she and Gideon were on their way.”

 

“Corrine said she was picking up Lily at school and then coming over,” Molly said. “She left the bookstore when we did.”

 

“So they’ll be here soon too. Excellent.” Father Christopher rubbed his hands together, pleased. “With so many hands, this should go quickly.”

 

Are we doing the baskets for the needy again, Father? Schrodinger asked, looking around. The kitchen table was empty except for a cup of tea and the castle, and the CrossCat tilted his ears at the priest.

 

“Not exactly,” Father Christopher said, going over to his stove, where a large pot of fresh tomato sauce was bubbling gently. “Once everyone is here, I’ll explain.” He looked at Molly. “Did you bring bread?”

 

She nodded, pulling off her backpack. “Do you think two loaves will be enough? I made big ones.”

 

“It will be plenty.” Father Christopher took the two big loaves of Italian bread Molly had made earlier in the day and laid them on the counter beside the stove. “We’ll make the garlic bread in a bit, before we eat.”

 

Molly had time to take off her coat and they all had a cup of tea before the doorbell rang again. When Lily, Kaylee, Jack, Gideon, Corrine, and Kiaya had all come in and shed their coats, Father Christmas filled tea cups (and hot chocolate cups for Kaylee and Gideon, who had requested it) and then explained what they were going to do.

 

“I was going to do the baskets for the poor again this year, and I have,” he said, taking a sip of his own tea. “But then I was talking to Mrs. Hoskins, who has the boarding house down at the harbor.”

 

“The one for the visiting sailors?” Molly said. “She’s a sweetheart.”

 

“Indeed, she is,” Father Christopher agreed. “She stopped in a few days ago with some more presents for the orphanage in Portland, and was talking about how she had some new folks in the boarding house now. Folks who don’t seem to have anywhere to go, and she was looking for some ideas for Christmas presents for them. And that got me thinking.”

 

That maybe we should be making some baskets for them, too? Schrodinger asked.

 

“Yes, exactly,” Father Christopher said. “These folks aren’t homeless, but they’re far from home, and Christmas can be very lonely if you’re spending it alone.”

 

“That’s a wonderful idea!” Kiaya said. She smiled. “I’m so glad we moved here. This is a town that takes care of everyone, doesn’t it?”

 

“We certainly try,” Father Christopher agreed. He looked at the castle in the middle of the kitchen table. “So, how does this magical creation work?”

 

“We have to find the day’s number,” Lily said. “It’s hidden somewhere on the castle itself.”

 

“And when we find it, we press it, with our fingers,” Kaylee added, not to be outdone.

 

“And a window opens!” Gideon finished. “And it shows us a scene from the Snow Queen’s house, and then we get to do something!”

 

It’s pretty amazing, Jack said. They did a great job with it.

 

“So let’s look.”

 

Molly moved the castle so they could all look at it, and for a few minutes, there was silence as the ten of them looked.

 

There it is, Kaylee! Jack said suddenly. On the bottom right side of the main hall!

 

Her little finger touched the small “15” that hovered near a window that had a little window box attached to it, with some flowering plants in it. The window opened, and for a moment, the smell of tomato sauce was overwhelmed by the smell of fresh bread and roasting meats. The room inside was obviously a kitchen (and Molly had to wonder how many kitchens the Snow Queen had in her palace, really), and there were people busily making what looked to be a huge feast. There was an intricate dance of cooks and servers and helpers all moving at once, under the watchful eye of a tall woman in a stained apron, who didn’t let anything out of the kitchen without touching it at least once. She looked up at them, and tossed a napkin towards them.

 

It fell in Kaylee’s hand, and she read slowly, “Christmas is a time for sharing. Especially with those who have very little of their own.”

 

“Good sentiments,” Father Christopher said. “Are we ready to start our preparations?”

 

They were, and so they followed him into the large dining room in the rectory. For most of the time, the dining room was used as a secondary office for Father Christopher, who preferred to entertain guests in either the kitchen or the large living room. But right now, it was covered with an array of items to be put into the gift bags that were piled at one end.

 

“Mrs. Hoskins was nice enough to give me the names of all her guests, and I called the Seaman’s Hostel as well,” Father Christopher said. “Then I went around to the various shops around here, and tried to get things I thought they would like.”

 

Molly looked over the supplies. There were practical things, like warm woolen socks and handkerchiefs, and a pile of the plaid lumberjack shirts many of the sailors seemed to prefer. But there were other things too – gift certificates to the bookstore and other shops, blank books, chocolates and other goodies that would brighten anyone’s day.

 

“This is a great idea,” she said, moving to the end with the gift bags. “When do we start?”

 

>Activity: Donate something today. It can be something as small as 15 minutes to help someone with chores, or buying a gift for someone who might not have one.

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

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Wednesday, December 14

“I love snow days,” Gideon announced, leaning back against Jack’s side in the pile of children, dog, and CrossCat. They were in Schrodinger’s extra-large cat bed, cuddled up next to the wood stove, in the snug tea room at CrossWinds Books. Outside, there was a steady snowfall going on, and school had been canceled, which is why there was a Lily with them, currently reading a book on sharks. Kaylee was watching a video on her tablet, her eyes half-closed and her favorite doll held close. Gideon had been watching with her, but now he looked around the room.

In the three months since they had moved to Carter’s Cove from Austin, Texas, Gideon had been by terms enchanted, excited, and homesick. The snowy Maine coast was about as far from the desert town he’d been born in, but it was a new adventure. He missed his cousins, but his mother had promised they could come up in the spring, maybe for their school break. And in Austin, there hadn’t been a CrossCat to hang around with.

Or a magic Advent castle.

“Let’s see if you’re still saying that in March,” Lily said, without looking up. “It’s pretty now, but you’ll be sick of it.”

I don’t know. I was pretty excited all winter my first winter here, Schrodinger said, shifting just a little to put his paws under his chin. And there’s something cool about snow in Carter’s Cove.

I think part of it is the fact that there are more sleighs than cars in the winter, Jack added. Because there’s just something cool about sleigh rides.

“I never had a sleigh ride before here,” Gideon agreed. “But I got to ride in a wagon! We had a friend who had a ranch, and he had a pony cart that we could use.”

“That’s cool!” Kaylee said, looking up. “Maybe Pavel will take us out again in his sleigh.”

“I really liked the ram,” Gideon said. He looked over at the rest of them. “Hey, do you think that we could do the Advent calendar now? Molly said we could after it quieted down, and we’re the only ones here right now.”

It was true. The tea room was uncharacteristically empty, especially since it was only a week until Christmas Eve. Earlier in the day, there had been people in and out, but now, it was just them, and Molly making gingerbread in the kitchen.

They’d offered to help, but Molly had told them that this was the boring part. “I’m just mixing and baking,” she’d said, shooing them out into the tea room. “I promise you can help me decorate, though. Right now, I just have to make all the pieces.”

Lily looked up from her book and then checked her watch. “Yes, I think so,” she said, putting a bookmark in her place before stowing the book in her bag. She always had at least three books plus her tablet with her. Gideon was awed by the amount Lily read. Then again, her aunt DID own a bookstore, so he supposed that reading was in her blood.

They trooped into the kitchen, where Molly was leaning back against the island, a cup of tea in her hand. There were piles and piles of neatly stacked gingerbread on the far counter, and Gideon’s eyes widened. “What are you going to do with all those?” he asked.

“Make gingerbread houses,” Molly said, smiling at them. “They’re all due to be delivered early next week, so I need to put them together tomorrow and Friday. We’ll decorate them Sunday.”

“What about Saturday?” he said. “Are we doing that too?”

“No, Saturday all the grownups are busy getting ready to go to the Snow Queen’s Ball,” Kaylee told him. “We’ll probably be babysat.”

“I don’t know,” Lily said. “Remember the last calendar? We got to go.”

“No, I was a baby, and I didn’t get to go,” Kaylee said, pouting a little.

But now you aren’t, Schrodinger said, and nosed her. I’ll bet that even if you don’t get to go to the Ball, the calendar will have something cool for us to do.

That cheered her up, but Gideon frowned. “The Snow Queen’s Ball?”

“Oh yeah, you don’t know!” Lily said. “The Snow Queen and Jack throw a ball the last Saturday before Christmas! Everyone in the Cove gets dressed in fancy outfits and goes to the magical grove outside of town and dances all night!”

“Mom and Molly always look like princesses,” Kaylee added. “I hope we get to go!”

“Wow. A magic grove?” Gideon said. “I’d love to see that.”

“Molly got married there,” Lily said. “It’s outside, but it’s warm, and you can see the sky! And there are trees!” She turned to Molly. “Maybe if we aren’t going to the ball, we could go out there one day and show him?”

“I don’t think that would be a problem,” Molly said. “We can definitely ask, if you aren’t at the Ball. But let’s see.” She put her tea mug down. “Did you want to do the Advent calendar now?”

Please! Schrodinger said. Since it’s quiet!

Molly went and got the castle, and they all clustered around it, looking for the number 14. Gideon was looking at it, and then he realized that there was a smaller building that he hadn’t seen before. It was tucked up beside the inner wall, a round building that looked as if it had once been the top of a tower, but some giant hand had cut it off and then placed it on the ground.

And then he leaned in further. “Hey, guys, I found it!”

The 14 was almost hidden by the overhanging eaves but it was there. He reached out and touched it, and instead of a window, the front door opened.

The room expanded, and they saw a group of people with instruments, practicing. There was someone playing the clarinet, someone with a flute, someone with a viola, and, in the center, a man playing an immense floor harp. There were snowflakes in the air, dancing around in time to the Christmas carols the quartet was playing.

One of them whirled out of the front door and into the kitchen, spinning madly and shedding, not sparkles, but musical notes.

“Ooh!” Gideon said, watching the snowflake. “What does it mean?”

The snowflake gave one final spin and then drifted down to him. As it touched his outstretched palm, it turned into a piece of paper. “Music is important, as it binds us together,” he read out loud. “And it’s written weird. Look!”

He showed them how the words were on a kind of grid.

“That’s a musical score,” Molly said. “Pretty neat, huh?”

“Yeah,” Gideon said, staring at it. “So are we playing music?”

“Not exactly.”

This was a new voice, and Gideon turned to see a tall, slender man with a plaid shirt and blue jeans coming in. The tips of his pointed ears peeked through his braided hair, and his hazel eyes were kind. Behind him stood the lovely Mareesh girl Starsha.

“Are you playing, Darien?” Lily asked.

“I am, and I was hoping you guys would come with me,” Darien said. “Pavel has been nice enough to offer to bring us to the harbor, and we were going to play at the Seaman’s Hall.”

“What’s that?” Kaylee said. “I’ve never heard of that!”

“That’s because you aren’t a seaman, Kaylee,” Molly said, laughing a little at the indignation in the little girl’s voice. “There’s no reason for you to have heard of it.”

“The Seaman’s Hall is where the older sailors congregate,” Starsha said kindly. “Last year, Master Darien and I went there and sang for them at Christmas, and we’ve been invited back. We thought you might like to join us.”

“Can we?” Lily asked, turning to Molly. “Please?”

Molly nodded. “I know Pavel’s going, and so yes, you can. Go get your coats and hats, and I’ll pack up a basket of goodies for you.”

Pavel had his big sleigh, and there were two sheep hitched to it. “I like these two,” he said, when Gideon asked him why. “They’re much steadier than the horses. I think I might ask my friend Whitebeard if I can have them.”

They were different from the ram he had used the other day. These were all white, except for their noses and their knees, which were black as coal. One had curling horns nestled close to his head, and they reached out eagerly to the children who clustered around them.

“Oh, their noses are so soft!” Lily said, stroking the right one’s face. “Like velvet! Pavel, what are their names?”

“That one is Corsica, and his sister is Adelaide,” he told her, and handed each of them a small block of what looked like pressed grass. “Hold out your hand like you would for a horse, and they’ll take these.”

Indeed, as soon as they held out their hands, Corsica and Adelaide gobbled the treats up as if they were candy.

“Can I help you drive?” Gideon asked, as they climbed in. “Please?”

“Sure!” Pavel gave him a hand up to the driver’s seat, and said, “Let me get them started, and once we’re moving, you can drive, okay?”

“Okay!”

Once everyone else was settled in the back (and Gideon saw with delight that his mother had joined them, rather than writing) and Goldie had said, “We’re all good, capt’n!” Pavel slapped the reins lightly on the sheep’s backs and they were off.

True to his word, Pavel handed over the reins and Gideon felt the thrill of actually driving the sleigh. “Nice and slow, lad,” Pavel said, leaning back. “No joyrides today, or Master Darien will have our heads.”

“Only if you break my harp,” the minstrel called from the back. “That’s the important thing. It’s impossible to replace.”

“I’ll be careful!” Gideon promised. “No joyriding!”

The street was wide and smooth; with the snow falling, there weren’t very many people out, and most of them were in either sleighs or on snowmobiles, although there were a few Jeeps and trucks around. The sheep plodded steadily through the snow, and once they had crested the hill and started down to the harbor, Pavel took the reins back.

Gideon at that point was happy to let him. He’d never been down to the harbor before, and he was too busy looking around him to pay attention to driving.

Carter’s Cove was situated on the Atlantic Ocean, and the harbor had been an important part of its development. In addition to the regular trade from around the world that had come in, there was a Sea Road that came through, so there were all kinds of ships that docked at its piers. As they went down along the docks, Gideon saw everything from ships with massive sails to what looked like tugboats and fishing boats, to a big ship that might have been an ocean liner. There were more people on the streets as well, because the shipping season didn’t stop for snow. The air was full of salt and the babble of hundreds of languages. It was intoxicating, and slightly overwhelming.

“Are we going by the Desire, Pavel?” Lily asked.

“Not today, love,” he replied. “The Seaman’s Hall is over on the other side of the cove, in the shelter of the cliffs, and Desire is too big to berth there. But perhaps after Christmas, I’ll be able to take you all for a ride.”

“On a REAL PIRATE SHIP?” The sheer awesomeness of that idea made Gideon’s heart sing. Wouldn’t that be something to tell his cousins?

The sleigh turned and stopped in front of a long, low building that looked like it might have been carved from the stone cliffs that towered above it. It was solid, with large windows and a big front door of iron and oak. Two massive anchors were on either side of the door, and someone had twined colored lights around them. A big wooden sign above the door said “Seaman’s Hall” in golden letters, and there were more Christmas lights twined around it.

Pavel pulled the sheep to a stop, and they all tumbled out of the sleigh. From a special compartment in the back, Darien pulled out a large wrapped package, and led them into the Hall.

Warmth pooled out from the open doorway, coming not only from the massive fireplaces at both ends of the hall (which had logs in them that must have been whole trees, they were so big), but from all the people that were gathered inside the great room. It was one big room, with a bunch of round tables, that reminded him a little of the big room they’d gone to at the nursing home. Instead of a soft carpet and a large piano in one corner, though, there was a hard wooden floor and a long bar set up against one wall, with two men standing behind it polishing glasses and wearing white aprons. Older men and women sat around with large mugs of coffee, tea, and what he suspected was beer, talking and working on small projects. Some were knitting, some were carving wood or stones, and some were playing checkers, chess, or other board games that he didn’t recognize.

It was an amazing place.

“Ho, Captain Chekhov!” A loud voice cut through the hubbub and a man wearing faded jeans and a striped shirt pushed his way towards them. He had a Santa hat perched rakishly atop his white hair. “Did you bring us some new recruits, then?”

“Hardly, Smitty,” Pavel said, laughing and slapping the man on the back. “These fine souls are Molly’s nieces and friends, and if I were to come back without them…” He let the words trail off, and held up the basket Molly had given him. “Let’s just say that you’ll probably never see any of this again.”

“Molly’s nieces? Bless my soul! We are honored!” Smitty said, sweeping off his hat and bowing to Lily, who was trying not to giggle, and Kaylee, who was staring wide-eyed at him. “And who is this handsome young fellow?” he said, turning to Gideon.

“I’m Gideon, and I’m Molly’s friend,” he said, shrinking back a little against his mother. “So you can’t take me either. Right, Mom?”

“Right,” Kiaya said. “We have things that we still have to do.”

“Welcome to the Seaman’s Hall, Gideon!” Smitty said, bowing to him as well. “And to Mother, as well!”

Then he looked at Jack and Schrodinger. “And you fine gentlemen are back! Did you have a good time last time?”

Always, Schrodinger said. Then again, I’m always up for beating you at backgammon.

Smitty winked at him before turning to Darien. “And Master Darien! Mistress Starsha!”

“Not Mistress yet,” Starsha corrected him. “I’m still an apprentice.”

Smitty waved an airy hand. “Technically, yes, I suppose, but is there any doubt that you will be given the title?”

“Until I have earned it, I do not assume anything,” she said, smiling to take the sting from her words. “But you are most kind.”

“Are you here to sing for us, then?” Smitty asked, looking at the package in Darien’s arms.

“We are indeed,” the minstrel replied, and his words sparked a cheer from the assembled crowd.

“Then follow me!”

Smitty led them all through the crowd of sailors, who parted for them eagerly. There was a small raised stage by one of the fireplaces, and a table that Smitty pointed to them.

Darien and Starsha got up on the stage, and while Starsha took off her coat, he unwrapped the package he was carrying. The harp he took out from its protective coatings and set on his lap glowed in the light from the lanterns that hung from the ceilings, its strings bright silver against the dark wood.

The notes that he coaxed from the harp meshed with Starsha’s voice, rising above the dying murmurs of the crowd. Gideon listened, spellbound, as the two musicians began to sing.

>Activity: Caroling is fun! Share some carols with your family and friends!

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

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Tuesday, December 13

They usually slept late on Tuesdays, since Molly and Schrodinger had the day off. It had been harder than normal to get out of bed this morning, though, since Drew wasn’t going in until the late afternoon to the Station, and it had snowed the night before. The entire world was cold and crisp, but the bedclothes were warm and soft, and with Schrodinger curled up at her feet, Molly had no inclination to move.

Until her bladder realized she was awake, and demanded attention. Once that had been take care of, Molly decided that she needed tea more than another hour’s worth of sleep.

She left the boys still slumbering and made her way down the stairs quietly, her fingers lightly dancing over the pine garland they had wrapped around the banisters, enjoying the smell wafting around her. There were pale golden lights intertwined with the boughs, and they came on at the touch of her fingertips, pooling the hall with weak sunlight, just enough for her to see without turning on the main lights.

The kitchen lights came on as Molly stepped inside, and she paused long enough to start her kettle before stepping out into the cold morning air. The back yard was coated with snow, and Molly watched three deer pick their way through the piles at the edge of the trees at the back of the yard, their dark coats glowing in the fresh air.

It wasn’t as late as she’d thought – the clock above the stove said 9 a.m., and the sun was still low on the horizon. But the farm was wreathed in silence, and Molly decided she was going to enjoy it.

For her, that meant taking her first cup of tea into the living room, turning on the Christmas tree lights, and settling in to the sofa to slowly wake up. Once she’d finished her first cup, she went back into the kitchen and began to make muffins.

Drew and Schrodinger joined her after the scent of cranberry orange muffins started to waft through the house, as she’d known they would. “Do you ever sleep in?” Drew asked, accepting the cup of tea she handed him.

“I did,” Molly said, putting Schrodinger’s first cup of Earl Grey in front of him before going and putting the cast iron skillet on the stove to heat up. “It was nearly 9 o’clock when I came downstairs.”

Which, when you normally get up at 5, does count as sleeping in, Schrodinger agreed. He squinted up at Molly. What time are the kids coming?

“Not until this afternoon,” Molly said, putting bacon on the cast iron. “Lily’s still in school until the 19th, remember? And Kiaya and Corinne are taking the two younger ones out to Freeport for the day for something or other. I’m sure they told me, but I’ve forgotten.” She shook her head. “So we’ve got most of the day to ourselves.”

Drew got up and started chopping up some peppers and onions as she scrambled eggs. “The day to ourselves,” he repeated. “How weird is that.”

“I know, right?” Molly laughed a bit, flipping the bacon and then going to the fridge for cheese. “I wonder…”

Her words trailed off as someone knocked on the front door. They all looked at each other for a moment.

We aren’t expecting anyone now, are we? Schrodinger asked. Not waiting for an answer, he went out to answer the door.

“No,” Molly said, and looked over at Drew. “At least, I wasn’t.”

“Me either,” he said. “I wonder who it is.”

That was answered when Pavel came into the kitchen behind Schrodinger, his normally jovial face unusually serious. “What is your plans today, Molly?” he asked abruptly.

“We were just discussing that,” she said, blinking a bit at his brusqueness. “We’re taking the kids to get our tree later, but we didn’t really have anything planned for today. Why?”

“Because I need to borrow you three,” Pavel said. “The Snow Queen wants to meet with you.”

Molly looked at the stove, where the bacon was almost done. “Do we have time for breakfast?”

Pavel seemed to realize what he’d come into, and he shook himself, almost casting away the grim look he’d come in carrying. “Of course,” he said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to worry you. The Snow Queen,” and then he corrected himself firmly, “Jade, rather, wants to meet about some things that have come up.”

“Then let us finish the omelettes, and we can eat,” she said, pulling the bacon off the skillet and sliding in the vegetables Drew had chopped. “You’ll join us?”

“And miss a chance for Molly’s cooking? I’m not stupid.” Pavel sat down next to Schrodinger, and accepted a mug of tea from Drew. “This isn’t that urgent.”

Urgent enough that you came out here to get us, Schrodinger observed.

“Well, yes,” Pavel admitted. “We’ve gotten some news about Caliban.”

With that in mind, breakfast was a little more rushed than normal, but Molly noticed that it didn’t stop Pavel from taking seconds of the muffins that had come out of the oven. Then while she changed, Drew washed up and they all piled into Pavel’s sleigh.

Molly noticed that instead of a horse, there was a huge woolly ram with massive curling horns hitched to the sleigh. Pavel himself climbed up and took the reins, and Schrodinger hopped up beside him. “Where is your driver?” she asked, settling into the furs.

“I decided we didn’t need one,” Pavel said, and whistled sharply to the ram. “Keep it in the family, so to speak.”

“And the ram?” Drew asked.

“Steadier than a horse, and it’s too cold for the horses,” Pavel told him. “I borrowed him from the mines – the foreman and I are friends.”

Is there anywhere you don’t have friends? Schrodinger teased him, and the pirate captain winked at him.

“It’s easier when you have friends,” he said.

And then they were off, the ram pulling them faster than Molly had thought possible, out into the woods rather than through the town. Pavel’s sleigh, like most of his transportation, didn’t usually need to go through a Gate to get to the Roads, and it appeared that today, he didn’t want to deal with the Station.

Which means this might be an unsanctioned trip, she thought privately. I wonder what Jade wants to talk about.

Pavel didn’t take them to the Snow Queen’s official castle, which reinforced Molly’s suspicions about the officialness of the meeting. Instead, he brought them to Old Man Winter’s cottage, which was nestled in a hollow of snowy pine trees. The cottage (well, small mansion really, but in comparison to her actual castle, it really was a cottage) had smoke curling from the stone chimney, and there were lit candles in every window, with holly and ivy twined around them.The front door had a holly and ivy wreath on it, with tiny twinkling snowflakes on it.

Drew shook his head. “You know, this place changes every time I come here,” he said, looking over to the stables. “I swear they’ve gotten bigger.”

“They have,” Old Man Winter rumbled, coming out into the yard from the front door. “Decided that the dragon needed more than just a stall, so we did some modifications.”

Schrodinger’s ears perked up. Ember’s here? Really?

“Yep. Figured since we were meeting, we might as well do it here, so she can join us.” Old Man Winter gestured them to the door on the side of the stables. “More comfortable to her, anyways.”

The ice dragon normally preferred to keep her abode cold, so Molly was very glad that she had remembered both her gloves and her warm hat, especially if they were going to meet in her new home. “So she’s finally moved out of her cave?” she asked, as they followed Old Man Winter across the snow-packed courtyard. “I thought she was fighting that.”

“She is,” he grunted, opening the small side door (small only in relation to the main door, which was massive). “This is a second home.”

Everyone needs a change of scenery once in a while, Ember said, as they came in. And sometimes I like to not be near you, Old Man.

“Wow,” Drew said, blinking. “You have changed things.”

The stable had been originally built for horses, Molly assumed, and there had been large box stalls in there before. Now the stalls had been ripped out, making the interior one huge room. The wooden walls were reinforced, and there was a nest of pillows over in the corner. Curled up on the pillows was Ember, her sapphire blue scales shimmering in the lights from the lanterns that were suspended from the high ceiling.

It was warm too in the room, which surprised Molly. “Doesn’t this bother you?” she asked, stripping off her coat and gloves.

What do you mean? Ember asked, stretching out her long neck to greet them.

“It’s warm in here, and you’re an ice dragon,” Molly said. She indicated the wood stove in the opposite corner from the nest, which was giving off a cheery glow, the kettle on top steaming away. “I thought you preferred the cold.”

I do, Ember said. Come over here, and you’ll see.

Curious, Molly went over to her, and realized that the pillows the dragon lay on were not of fabric, but of snow. Magical snow, keeping the temperature in that corner of the room a very chilly one.

“Oh, neat!” Molly said, reaching out to touch one edge of the nest. “So you can be cool, and we can still be warm!”

Indeed, Ember agreed. This is much the way my cave works as well, although that is not as comfortable to mortals. There are chairs here.

There were: Jade and Jack were sitting in two of them, leaving the ones nearest to the wood stove for Molly, Drew, Pavel, and Schrodinger. Old Man Winter had claimed a large overstuffed chair near to Ember’s nest, and as she seated herself, Molly realized that the room, although it seemed large, was small enough so that everyone would be able to talk normally.

“Thank you for coming out,” Jade said, offering Molly a cup of strongly scented tea. “We’ve received news that Caliban has come to the Cove, and, well…” She glanced at Jack.

“We wanted you to be aware,” Jack said smoothly, picking up the current of the conversation. “Especially since we will be beefing up our protections of you and the children.”

“Do you think he’ll come after them?” Molly asked, a frisson of fear coming through her. Visions of what could happen to any of the children flashed through her mind.

“No, actually, I don’t,” Jack said, reaching out to put a comforting hand on her knee. His cool touch was soothing. “I think, given everything we’ve discovered, that Caliban is on his own journey. That being said, I don’t want to not be cautious.”

So what does that mean for us? Schrodinger said, looking around the room.

“It means more of my crew will be out and about,” Pavel said. “And we’d prefer it if you didn’t make any side trips that we don’t know about. Remember, he has kidnapped people before.” He looked directly at Molly. “And before you say anything, yes, I know. He was working with others. We don’t know that he isn’t now.”

He hasn’t connected with any of his known associates, though, Ember said. From what I can tell, he’s traveling alone.

“Which is very odd,” Jade said. “Caliban has always loved being the center of attention. That’s why I’m so worried about what he may do. He’s never been one to be this quiet.” She shook her head. “And yes, I know. People change.”

“We also don’t know if this is him that was seen,” Old Man Winter said. “He’s not traveling as Caliban.”

“He’s not?” Molly frowned. “Who is he traveling as?”

If we’re right, he’s traveling as a simple footman, Ember said. I caught a whiff of his magic two Realms over, and the people there didn’t recognize his picture, but they did see someone walking on his own. It might be him, but it might not. We don’t know.

“It was definitely him,” Jack said. “I went through, and even though he’s shielding himself, I could sense him. He’s around.” He frowned. “But we don’t know what he wants.”

“It could be that he wants to be alone,” Jade said, and Molly sensed this was the continuation of a discussion they had been having. “That’s what his cousin said.”

“I wouldn’t trust that salamander as far as I could throw her,” Jack said, and then subsided as Jade glared at him. “Okay, fine, I’m sorry. But seriously, she’s completely untrustworthy.”

Drew was frowning down at the floor. “Why would he come to the Cove, though? There’s nothing here for him, is there?”

“Not really,” Jade admitted. “We’ve taken the old wards down, so he can’t use them.”

Could he set up his own? Schrodinger asked.

“Technically, yes, I suppose he could,” Jade said. “It would take him a while, but he could do it.”

Perhaps that’s it? the CrossCat said. Perhaps he wants to make his own place.

<><>

Caliban pushed open the door to The Chocolate Coffee Bean and then inhaled deeply. The rich scent of coffee and chocolate wrapped around him, a warm, delicious blanket that sank into his skin as he stepped further into the shop.

The small cafe held about 16 little tables, mostly filled with chattering folks, and there was a glass case at the back. Caliban made his way towards it, looking hungrily at the delicate cakes and pies that were there.

Molly may be a kitchen witch, but whomever was running this is a mage in their own right, he thought, leaning over to look at a Linzer torte. There was more chocolate than he’d seen in a long time right in front of him, and Caliban found a decision hard to make.

“Help you, mate?” the man behind the counter said, as Caliban finally looked up. He was tall, with a beard and mustache that didn’t hide either the friendly grin or his Scottish accent.

“A cup of coffee, please, and a slice of the Linzer torte,” Caliban asked, reaching into his pocket for his pouch. “It’s cold out there.”

“Indeed it is,” the man agreed. “Would you like a splash of something stronger in the coffee?”

Caliban considered it, then shook his head. “No, just coffee, I think.”

“Will do.” The man rang him up and gestured to the room. “Take a seat, and we’ll bring it out to you.”

When it came out, the Linzer torte was as delicious as it looked, with a thick layer of bright raspberry jam and the snap of lemon. The coffee was thick and dark, with cream swirled into it. Caliban enjoyed it, and when he looked up, the coffee shop was nearly empty.

The man from behind the counter came and refilled his coffee cup, and then asked, “Mind if I join you?”

“Not at all,” Caliban said, and found it to be true, surprising himself. The man settled in, and Caliban noticed that even in the bitter cold, he wore a kilt rather than pants.

“Name’s Mick,” the man said, offering his hand. “My wife and I run this place.”

“Perry,” Caliban said, shaking Mick’s hand. “Just passing through.”

“I figured,” Mick said. “Haven’t seen you here before.”

“Surely you don’t know everyone in town, do you?” Caliban asked. “I mean, the Cove seems pretty big.”

“It is,” Mick agreed. “And no, I don’t know everyone. But there’s a certain look to travelers versus townies.” He sighed deeply, contentedly. “Besides, I was a traveler once.”

“But not any more?” Caliban said.

“Nah, I’ve found my spot,” Mick said, taking a sip of his coffee. “The Cove suits us, Katarina and I. We’ve friends here now, and, well, it’s hard to be unhappy in the Cove.”

The man’s rollicking accent, so different from others Caliban had heard, gave a musical sound to his speech. “I’ve seen unhappiness everywhere,” Caliban said, but there was no censure in his voice. “If the Cove doesn’t have it, I’ll be surprised.”

“I’m sure it does,” Mick said. “But, well…” He paused, obviously trying to come up with the right words. “It’s not easy to be unhappy here,” he said finally. “There’s too much of people who want to help. People who care. Does that make sense?”

“Yes, I think so,” Caliban said. “I’ve only been through the Cove once, and it was briefly, so I don’t know much about it.”

“Are you just passing through? Or thinking about staying?”

“Not really sure yet,” Caliban said. “I’m at some loose ends at the moment.” He shrugged. “I’ve been away from people for a while, and I’m not sure what I want to do, now that I’m back.”

Mick surprised him by simply nodding. “That can happen. The Cove’s a good place to find oneself.” He got to his feet. “The coffee’s always fresh here, Perry. Hope you find what you’re looking for.”

Caliban finished his coffee, got one more to go, and then went back out into the cold. It wasn’t as windy as it had been, but it was still bitter, and the shops along the main square in Carter’s Cove were scattered havens of warmth in the chill. He wandered, looking at the shops and wares, noticing how many of them held people not just shopping, but talking. It was so very different from the castle he’d been raised in. But he remembered other days, days long ago, when the Cove was young, and he and the others had mingled with the common folk.

He’d been aloof then, content to let Herse and Jade talk to the people, there really only to remind Captain Carter of who had helped him with his conquering. But even then, even when he was trying to ignore it, people had been nice to him, he remembered now. Even then, the Cove had reached out to him.

Was that what Jade and Jack had been trying to tell him? That despite everything, this was a home he could have?

Is it a home I deserve?

<><>

“Are you sure you’re going the right way?” Kaylee asked, straining against her seatbelt, trying to see around the seat in front of her.

What, don’t you trust me? Schrodinger asked her, a teasing note in his voice.

“No! Well, I mean, yes, of course I do, but…” She turned to Gideon. “Help me!”

“Do what?” Gideon asked. “We can’t change anything here. Schrodinger says the compass says to go this way.” He shrugged. “So we go this way.”

“That’s a very wise attitude, Gideon,” Molly said, as they continued on through the evening.

He shrugged again. “Well, we can’t do anything. No sense making waves.”

Turn left, Schrodinger said, and Molly obligingly turned down a dirt road that she had been expecting to turn down. They may not know where they were going, but she did.

The window in the castle had opened into a basement room, from what they could tell, and it was filled to bursting with people. They were all dressed in various shades of green and brown, and they held axes in their hands. At the front of the room was a giant of a man, dressed in what looked like bark, holding not an axe, but a large compass. He looked out the window and, to their amazement, tossed the compass to them.

It had landed in Gideon’s hands, and then spun merrily, stopping pointing out the door, where the Jeep was waiting for them. It was a massive gold device, and the magnetic needle was cut in the shape of a fir tree. There were snowflakes carved into the face of the compass, sparkling even in the dimness of the car.

Now, Schrodinger pointed out the passenger-side window. Look! I think that’s where we’re going!

Molly hid a grin as the Jeep lurched as Lily, Gideon, Kaylee, and Jack all tried to push over to see what he was looking at. The Cohen Tree Farm was aglow in the darkness, starting with the twin bonfires at the front of the parking lot. There were strings of colored Christmas lights twined around the small cabin that people were stopping in front of to get tags and hot apple cider. And as they got out of the car, Molly heard the familiar sounds of a harpist playing “Silent Night.”

Gideon had taken back the compass when they’d piled out of the car, and now he set off across the snow, followed by Schrodinger, Lily, Kaylee, Jack, Molly, and Kiaya, who was looking around her in bemusement.

“Don’t we have to stop at the cabin?” she asked, as Gideon led them off into the trees.

“No, I’ve got the tickets in my pocket,” Molly told her quietly. “Drew grabbed them yesterday on his way home.”

“Tickets?” Kiaya looked at her. “Don’t you mean ticket?”

“What, you guys don’t want a tree?” Molly said, winking at her.

“Well, yes, but I thought…” Kiaya’s voice trailed off, and then she laughed and held up her hands. “I should stop thinking.”

“I feel that way most days.”

They wandered along behind the kids, who were plowing through the rows of trees, all of them intent on the magnetic needle of the compass in Gideon’s hand. The glowing snowflakes cast just enough light that they could follow where it was going.

And then Gideon stopped, confused. “It’s just spinning,” he said, looking at his friends. “Did I break it?”

No, I don’t think so, Schrodinger said. He looked around them. I think we’re here.

“But why here?” Gideon said. He looked around too. “There’s nothing here.”

“Are you sure?” Kiaya said, coming up and kneeling next to her son. She pointed into the clearing in front of them. “What’s that?”

In the middle of the clearing were two fir trees, very close to one another, with snow dusting their dark green branches. The sky above them was clear and full of stars, and Molly watched as two stars fell from the darkness and seemed to perch on the tops of the trees before falling into the snow.

“Those are our trees!” Kaylee said, tugging on Molly’s arm. “Did you get tags?”

“Our trees?” Gideon said. “Are we going to cut them down?”

“Not now,” Lily said, as she took one tag from Molly and knelt down to tie it on a branch. “We have our names on these, see?” And she showed the other tag to him. “When we’re closer to Christmas Eve, we’ll come back and the Cohens will have cut it and put it into the webbing for us.”

“Wow!” Gideon said.

And are they the perfect tree? Schrodinger asked. Do you see the nest?

It was Kiaya who found the nest, snuggled high up in the right-hand tree. Gideon was a little sad, until Molly pointed out that she and Schrodinger had one, and so did Lily, Kaylee, and Jack. “So this nest will be yours,” she said, and the others nodded.

“What do we do with it?” he asked.

“You save it!” Kaylee said. “It’s good luck.”

“We put ours in the tree, and fill it with candy,” Lily added. “And then we put it away carefully for the next year.”

>Activity: time to find your tree! If you already have one, take a walk in the woods and find look at the trees.

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

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Monday, December 12

When Lily pushed open the front door of CrossWinds Books after she, Jack, and Schrodinger had walked from school, she could almost taste the citrus in the air. They hadn’t made all the fruit into pomanders, and Molly had obviously used some of them to bake with. The sweet smell of orange mixed with the tartness of cranberries (another one of Molly’s favorites) and wrapped them in a warm hug, welcome after the cold walk.

Schrodinger and Jack had gone to meet Lily after school, since Gideon and Kaylee were already at the bookstore. Her school wasn’t that far from the downtown, but even at 3:30 in the afternoon, the feeble winter sun was already low in the sky, and the darkness lurked at the edges of the horizon. Even in a safe place like Carter’s Cove, Corrine preferred to have her daughter have some company.

If Zoey were here, it wouldn’t matter, Lily thought, sighing.

Schrodinger butted her gently on the arm with his head. What, don’t you like it when Jack and I come and get you? he asked as they went into the tea room.

“You know I do,” she said, taking her coat off and hanging off the back of her chair. She let her backpack slide underneath the table. “And it was nice to walk with you. But I miss Zoey.”

I know you do, Schrodinger said. Maybe we can try the scrying crystal again today, if you want.

She paused and considered it, then shook her head. “No, I don’t think so,” she said, and he looked up at her, surprised. Lily smiled down at him. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate it, Schrodinger, but I realized that while seeing her would be neat, I’d rather talk to her. Mom said I could call her tonight. So that would be good. And that way, I don’t give you or me a headache.”

You’re growing wise, as the Librarian would say, Schrodinger said, and butted against her again. Promise me that you won’t grow so wise that we don’t talk anymore, okay?

Lily leaned down and hugged him.”I promise I will never grow that foolish,” she said, and he purred happily.

Don’t forget me! Jack said, and she hugged him too.

“Never.”

Once she let them go, Lily looked around. The tea room was surprisingly quiet, and she finally figured out why. Gideon and Kaylee were not in sight. The only person in the tea room was actually Steve from the Gate Station, who was reading a magazine and chewing on some of Molly’s scones. Even Goldie wasn’t around, and the pirate had been in the tea room most days.

“I wonder where everyone is?” Lily said, looking at Schrodinger and Jack. “I don’t even see Kiaya or Goldie.”

Or Molly, Schrodinger said, after trotting over and sticking his head into the kitchen. Maybe they’re upstairs?

You don’t think they did the castle without us, do you? Jack said, as the three of them climbed the staircase to the second floor.

“Molly wouldn’t let them,” Lily said confidently, and Schrodinger agreed. “But I wonder where they went?”

They weren’t upstairs either, but Aunt Margie was, in her office, and supplied the answer.

“They went out to the market to get some more sugar,” Aunt Margie said. “Molly said she needed to get some air.”

Did they go alone? Schrodinger asked, and Lily heard the note of concern in his mental voice.

“No, actually. Goldie and Kiaya went with them.” Aunt Margie looked more amused than anything at the question. “Besides, who in their right mind would attack Kaylee? They’d come out on the short end of the encounter every time.”

But Lily knew that Schrodinger was worried about Caliban, and she had to admit that she wondered if even her little sister, as fierce as she was, could take on a spirit like that.

When did they leave? Schrodinger said.

Aunt Margie looked at her watch. “Just after you did, if I remember correctly,” she said. “So they should be back soon.”

“So we can wait downstairs,” Lily said. “Come on, guys. I know how to get the tea.”

“Be careful,” Aunt Margie warned her. “You know your aunt is very specific about her kitchen.”

“I will be,” Lily assured her.

It turned out not to be necessary, though. When they got back downstairs, Molly wasn’t back yet, but Drew was in the kitchen, making himself a sandwich.

“Drew!” Lily said, throwing herself at him. “I missed you!”

“I saw you two days ago!” he laughed, accepting the hug. “Did you miss me that much?”

“Always,” she told him. “You are my favorite uncle.”

Drew grinned at her. “And you are my favorite niece, although if you tell your sister that, I’ll deny every word.”

“Would I do that?” she asked innocently, her eyes wide.

Yes, Jack said. Every chance you got.

Lily was going to reply, but then the front door opened, and in ran Kaylee and Gideon, shattering the quiet of the store. Behind them were Molly, Kiaya, and Goldie, all looking cold and more than a little frazzled.

“Lily! Jack! Schrodinger! You’re back! Now we can do the Advent calendar, yay!” Gideon shouted, pumping his fist in the air.

“Yay!” Kaylee echoed.

“Not until after we warm up, though,” Molly said, putting her bag on the island and folding herself gratefully into her husband’s welcoming arms. “It’s getting bitter outside!”

“You could have taken the Jeep,” Drew said. “Did you have to walk?”

Molly said something too quietly for Lily to hear over Gideon and Kaylee’s excited babbling, but it was apparently funny, because Drew chuckled and handed his wife a steaming mug.

“Is that tea?” Goldie said plaintively. “Can you spare some for a poor, parched sailor?”

“I think we can manage that,” Drew said, letting go of Molly to go into the pantry and get mugs for everyone. He brought them out, poured hot water into all of them, and then brought out Molly’s tea chest, so folks could pick out what they wanted.

Although Molly had a large collection of loose teas in the pantry in tins of all shapes and sizes, Pavel had given her a large chest last year for her birthday that she kept the most popular teas in. Her special Christmas blend was in there, along with a white tea that the Snow Queen loved, and Schrodinger’s favorite Earl Grey. Drew’s favorite peppermint tea was one Lily liked too, but today, she was in the mood for the white hot chocolate she knew her aunt kept in the pantry.

“May I get the hot chocolate instead?” she asked, and Molly nodded.

After everyone had warmed up, Molly cleaned up the dishes and brought out the castle. Drew joined them to help look for that day’s window, and so did Goldie, although Kiaya had gone out to the tea room to work on her book.

“Ah-ha! I do believe these old eyes have found it!” Goldie said, touching a tiny golden “12” high up on the main castle tower.

The window opened on a room with a desk, where a young person (Lily couldn’t tell the gender, as they were bent over their work) was writing busily. As they worked, their elbow knocked the envelope down from the desk. As it fell, the label detached itself and flew out the window. It landed in Goldie’s open hand.

“What does it say?” Kaylee demanded eagerly. “What are we doing?”

The pirate adjusted his glasses and peered at the scrap of paper. “Hmm, well, would you look at that?”

“What???” Gideon begged, and Lily wondered if he and her sister realized that Goldie was teasing them. “What does it say???”

Please, Schrodinger added, giving the two younger children a look. Don’t forget your manners. Even if you’re excited.

“Please?” Kaylee wheedled, tugging on Goldie’s arm. “Please read it to us?”

Goldie relented. “It says, ‘Have you figured out what you want to ask Santa for this year? No? Why not?'”

Lily realized with a start that they hadn’t written their letters yet. Usually by now, they’d be sent out via the magic mailbox upstairs in the main room of CrossWinds Books. “We need to get on that,” she said. “But how odd.”

“What?” Gideon said.

“We’re not making anything today,” Lily said, and then bit her lip, looking guiltily at her aunt.

“Sure we are,” Kaylee said, waving a hand at her sister airily. “We’re making letters! Come on!”

But as Lily followed them up the stairs to the second floor, she wondered how writing letters to Santa would help protect the Cove.

<><>

Molly sighed thankfully as quiet descended on the kitchen again. “I have no idea how Corrine and Nathan do it,” she said, looking at Drew and Goldie. “I love them dearly, but lord, they are loud sometimes!”

“Earplugs,” Drew said sagely, then ducked as Molly threw a tea bag at him. “What? Nathan told me that.”

“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” Molly said dryly. “Trust my brother to tell you that.” She shook her head. “I wouldn’t put it past him either.”

Goldie chuckled and picked up his tea. “You get used to it as you grow up with them,” he said. “My sister says she couldn’t understand it either, then she had two of her own. Now, she says she worries when it gets too quiet.”

“That’s when they’re getting into trouble,” Molly said. She looked at Goldie and asked, “Has Pavel heard anything lately?”

“Not about Caliban, other than the fact that his cousin has announced he’s no longer there,” Goldie said. “There’s been nothing about his movements, but we know his cousin isn’t lying. King Mendron himself went there. The Lady Nadine said he’d left, and there were a bunch of his things there.” He frowned. “If he’s traveling, he’s traveling alone and light.”

“Which could be good,” she said, picking up her tea mug. “When he was looking to make trouble, would he really do it alone? He didn’t strike me as the type to do lone wolf stuff.”

“I don’t know,” the pirate said. “From every word we’ve gotten, he changed in prison.”

“Most people do,” Drew said. “That’s kind of the point, isn’t it?”

“Yes, but no one knows if it’s for good or ill,” Goldie said. He picked his mug up and said, “I think I’ll go upstairs and make sure the children are doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”

Once they were alone in the kitchen, though, Molly looked at Drew, one eyebrow raised. “So, what are you doing here?”

“Do I need a reason to come and see my lovely wife?” he teased her, pulling her back into his arms.

“When you’re supposed to be working? Yes,” she said, but didn’t resist his embrace. “And don’t think I didn’t see Steve out there as well. Why are you here instead of the Station?”

“Actually, we’re on a lunch break,” he said. “Mal told us to go find something for lunch and not come back for an hour.” Drew glanced at the kitchen clock. “Which means we have about twenty minutes before we have to be back.”

“Mal threw you out? Why?” Molly pulled back a little to look at him. “Is he okay?”

“He seemed fine. Grumpy as always. But he told Steve and I to go find something to do, and not be back for an hour.” Drew shrugged. “He does that every so often. I think he likes to have the controls to himself every once in a while. And Tom and Luke are still there.”

“But it’s the Christmas season,” Molly said. She pulled away and went to the fridge. “I’ll send back some stuff with you, just in case.”

Drew watched as she quickly assembled a basket full of cranberry orange scones, ham and cheese scones, and an assortment of her cookies. “You know, he might do it just because he wanted us to bring him back some of your cooking.”

“And how would he know where you were going?” Molly said.

“Where else would I go with an hour off, on a weekday when my wife is working?”

She laughed. “Point taken.”

After Drew and Steve had left, Molly went upstairs to check on Goldie, collect any random tea cups or plates, and makes sure that everyone was set. She carried a tray with her for her aunt, who had been busy in her office most of the day.

“When is Santa coming?” she asked, after knocking on the closed office door and coming in.

Aunt Margie sighed. “I’m not sure he is this year,” she admitted. “I’ve been talking to his wife, and, well, it’s been hard to schedule it.”

“It won’t be Christmas without Santa here,” Molly said. For years, Aunt Margie had had the Jolly Old Elf in to hear the wishes of the Cove’s residents. Molly had very little doubt it was Santa Claus himself that came – although there were impersonators, the Cove’s Santa had always seemed to have knowledge that no one else did. Although how Aunt Margie had managed it had always puzzled Molly.

“I know, but he’s very busy this time of year,” Aunt Margie said. “I’m still working on it, though.” She accepted the tray thankfully. “Keep your fingers crossed.”

“Will do.”

<><>

It was colder in the Cove than Caliban had been expecting. He lay in his bed listening to the wind whistle in the eaves, and wondered what he should do now.

Not that he was currently cold. While the air outside seemed sharp enough to cut his skin to ribbons, his room in the stoutly built boarding house was snug and warm, and the bed he lay in was soft and cozy. It was a plain room, with just a bed, a small foot locker at the end of the bed to store his belongings in, and a wash basin under the single window, but it was clean, and the bed smelled sweetly of lavender and just a hint of the laundry detergent Mrs. Hoskins used. The Gate technician who had suggested the place had been right about it.

It wasn’t fancy, and the old Caliban would have sooner died on the street than ever stay here, one more stranger among a group of assorted sailors, travelers, and long-term residents that assembled in the morning and evening to eat at the table in the dining room. “Perry,” however, seemed to fit in easily the night before, eating the plain beef and vegetable stew and dark brown bread that Mrs. Hoskins dished out, and enjoyed every minute of it. Now, as he lay on top of the blankets on his bed, he smelled more bread baking, and found himself hoping it was for dinner that night as well.

He should go out, he thought to himself, but moving seemed to be hard. He’d made it downstairs for breakfast, but every time the door opened, the cold had seeped in, and Caliban shivered even now, remembering the bite of the air. That feeling brought back the memories of the dungeon, and that reminded him of his father. He wondered what Nadine had told Mendron. He’d heard, through the grapevine, that the king had gone to inspect the city after he’d left.

Maybe he does care, Caliban thought, watching an industrious spider building a web in a corner of the ceiling. The strands glistened in the sun as she wove. Then again, maybe he was just making the effort for publicity’s sake. Either way, it really doesn’t matter.

The leaf that had brought him here lay in its envelope, tucked safely in a corner of his pack in the footlocker, but he found that his inclination to find out about it was fading with every new gust of wind that rattled the window panes.

Although I think I should do something here, and not just lay abed, he thought. Mrs. Hoskins had told him when she accepted his funds that the kitchen was always open to him, if he should need a cup of tea or coffee, or a snack.

“We’re more of a family here,” she’d said, handing him three keys. “Monk says you were a good companion, and I trust him. One key for the front door, one for the door to your room, and one for your footlocker. I’ll ask for all three back when you leave, Mr. Wandell, of course. But while you’re here, please feel free to treat the house as your own. The only rooms off-limits are the family rooms, of course, but you wouldn’t need to be there anyways. There’s a front parlor that you can use, with a television and a radio, and you’re welcome to bring your own if you would like. The library books are free as well, and the Cove library does allow you to get a temporary card if you use the house address. Mrs. Henderson, the librarian, is a good friend.”

It seemed to Caliban that everyone in the Cove, or at least the dock area, was a good friend to the Hoskins. Monk, upon hearing where Caliban was going, had raved about the innkeepers, and had insisted that Caliban join him for the ride down. “Mother Hoskins is a dear soul, and the Old Cap’n is one of the best,” the giant had said. “My dad served with him for a bit, and I’ve always stayed there. They’ll treat you right, my word upon it.”

Monk had provided other information too, telling him on the ride to the docks all about the Cove and where to find work, if he was interested (which he wasn’t, not yet, anyways), where the best tea was (Molly’s tea shop, which Caliban already knew), where to buy warm clothes, and other things. Now, as he listened to the wind, Caliban realized that he needed to decide what he was going to do in the Cove.

Do I want to see Jade and Jack? Or do I want to just float for a bit? If I do go and see them, what do I want from it?

Once, he’d thought he wanted her. Wanted the Cove. Wanted a place to rule as he had never been able to rule anything, to show his father that he could be a man and do that. To show his father that he could be just as good as his brother had been.

To show him that his brother’s death hadn’t been his fault.

>Activity: Write your own letter to Santa!

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

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Sunday, December 11

Normally, the bookstore smelled like cookies, tea, and the wonderful smell of books, combined with woodsmoke from the stove, and the subtle fragrances that Molly and Aunt Margie wore. But today, when Lily came into the store with her mother, her sister, and Jack, there were new smells that hit her nose: sharp citrus, bright and sweet, and the spicy smell of cloves. “I wonder what Molly is baking,” she said, taking a deep breath. “It doesn’t smell like her normal cooking.”

I smell oranges, Jack agreed. And maybe lemons.

“Maybe she’s making more cookies!” Kaylee said, running ahead and into the tea room. Lily shook her head, but followed her. Kaylee really had only two speeds: running, and running faster. It exasperated Lily sometimes, but she had to admit that a lot of it was because she wished she could just run ahead too.

Sometimes growing up was not as fun as it was made out to be.

“Hey, guys! We beat you!” Gideon said, waving to them madly from where he and Kiaya were sitting. He had a crayon in one hand, and there was a coloring book in front of him. Kiaya, instead of writing, was actually sitting with a cup of tea and a book. There was a half-eaten sandwich on a plate next to her.

“You did!” Corrine agreed, smiling. “We had to go see folks before we could come over.”

“We saw my grandma!” Kaylee said. “She’s making us scarves and mittens!”

“Wow, really?” Gideon said. “That’s cool!”

Lily went and snuggled up next to Schrodinger, who was napping in his bed but made room for her. Then she pulled out her notebook and began to write.

Today we saw Grandma and Grampa, she wrote. Grandma has new yarn that she’s making stuff for us with. My yarn is purple, with bits of blue and red in it, and she’s going to make me a scarf with pockets on the ends. And mittens, if she has enough. Kaylee asked for new mittens for her yarn, because she was playing with Jack and ripped one of hers. Mom was not happy about that.

She has yarn for you too, Zoey! And she said she’ll make you a scarf that matches mine! Your yarn is blue, with bits of green and yellow in it, and it’s really pretty! I think you’ll like it.

She paused and looked out over the tea room. For a Sunday, it was quiet: Kiaya and Corrine were talking while Gideon and Kaylee colored, and Jack supervised. At one of the other tables, Mr. and Mrs. Dorr were sitting. She was knitting something little, not the normal blankets she worked on, and Lily wondered if it was something for a baby. He was reading out loud to her, and there was a pot of tea on the table in between them.

The only other person in the tea room (and that was odd, because it was usually full on Sunday afternoons, after church got out) was an older woman that Lily had never seen in the Cove before, sitting with a cup of tea and a plate of Molly’s cranberry-nut bread. Her long, dark hair was intricately braided into two plaits that hung down on either side of her head, held back with an embroidered headpiece or scarf (Lily couldn’t decide which it was, but it was gorgeous), and the embroidery was echoed in the long coat she wore. There was another, plainer coat on the chair next to her, obviously her overcoat, but the embroidered coat was a riot of orange, red, green, and blue, with beads and what looked to be pearls worked into the stitching. Underneath the coat was a white shirt with long, flowing sleeves – almost like Pavel’s sleeves on his pirate shirts, although these did not end in lace cuffs. The bottom edges of the coat brushed her knees, and Lily could see that her dark green pants were loose and also embroidered up the sides. Her feet were enclosed in stout black boots.

She was bent over a book, her dark lips moving silently as she read to herself. Lily knew she was staring, but she couldn’t look away. The woman was more exotic than she’d seen in a long time, and for someone living in Carter’s Cove, that was saying a lot.

She was just about to say something to Schrodinger when a more familiar figure came rushing into the room, and headed straight for the woman. “Mama!” Starsha cried, her vibrant voice filling the entire room with its music. The Mareesh girl was dressed in similar robes to her mother, something Lily hadn’t seen her wear before but now realized must be traditional garb from the village she was originally from.

The older woman looked up, the star-shaped irises in her dark eyes unmistakably Mareesh. “Starsha!” Then she said something in a different, more liquid language, and embraced her daughter.

The noise had awoken Schrodinger, and he nosed Lily. Still writing?

“Yes. It helps me remember things.” Lily turned the page and put her pen away in her bag, exchanging it for a pencil. Then she began to sketch the two women as they bent over the book the older woman had been reading. The book itself was large, and brightly colored; Lily wondered what it was.

That’s really good, Schrodinger said, looking at the drawing as she finished it. I had no idea you liked to draw like that!

“Thank you,” Lily said, putting the pencil away as Molly came out of the kitchen, carrying the advent castle. They got up and joined the others to look for that day’s number.

“Why do we smell oranges?” Lily asked Molly, as they looked for the 11 on the castle.

Molly indicated the two Mareesh women. “Starsha’s mother Pallavi brought me oranges and lemons from her home as a thank-you gift for the friendship I’ve shown Starsha over the past few years. Don’t they smell amazing?”

“They do!” Lily agreed.

There it is! Jack said suddenly. Look, it’s there, on the right side of the castle!

Kaylee pressed the 11 next to the window, which was surrounded by a flowering vine. The window opened and showed them a room piled high with citrus fruits in baskets, surrounding a couple of young women who were seated in a circle. There were wooden trays of what looked like twigs next to them, and they were busy poking holes into the fruit, and sticking twigs in them.

As one of them reached in for another twig, she knocked the tray, and they went flying everywhere. One flew out the window, transforming as it landed in Kaylee’s outstretched hand into a note that she handed to her sister to read.

“Spice and citrus keep things safe, as well as enjoyable,” Lily read. “Why don’t you make some pomanders too?” She looked up at Molly. “What’s a pomander?”

But it wasn’t Molly who answered her. Starsha and her mother had joined them, and now the Mareesh girl said, “Pomanders are special ornaments that my people hang up every Advent season, to keep the good spirits happy, and the bad spirits away. That is part of the reason we have so much citrus.” She handed a small jar to Lily, which had more of the twigs in it. “These are cloves,” she said, as Lily opened the jar and a heady spicy scent wafted out. “We put them into the citrus.”

“You can also chew them,” Pallavi said, her voice a richer version of her daughter’s. “They make your breath fresh, and can dull tooth pain if you have it. Cloves are a special spice, and one we cherish.”

Lily shook out one of the little cloves and put it in her mouth. The taste, sharp and spicy and warm, exploded on her tongue, which then went a little numb. “Wow, that’s weird!” she said, chewing the little bud. “But good!”

The others tried it as well, even Jack, and all of them agreed with her. Weird, but good.

“So we are making pomanders?” Kaylee said eagerly. “Will we hang them here?”

“Actually, I thought it might be nice to hang them downtown at the shops down there,” Molly said, picking up the castle. “Why don’t you guys settle in here, and I’ll bring out the oranges after I put this away.”

Lily followed her into the kitchen. “Molly, can I ask you a question?”

“Of course you can,” Molly said, bringing the castle into the pantry. When she came back out, she said, “What’s up, peanut?”

The affectionate diminutive made Lily smile, but it didn’t dissuade her from the question she had to ask. “Why are we decorating the Cove?”

Molly stopped and looked at her, blinking.  “What do you mean?”

“I know something’s up,” Lily said seriously. “The other Advent calendar had us doing stuff in the area, but this seems to be pushing us to do something every day to make something, and it leaves things around the Cove. Why?”

“Does there have to be a reason?” Molly asked her in return.

Lily thought about that as Molly piled oranges and lemons on a tray, and then said, “Yes, I think it does. You seem to know everything we’re doing ahead of time. There’s got to be a reason, and I think Schrodinger knows it. But you don’t want us know – maybe because you think we’re too young?”

“Well, if you’re asking the question, I don’t know if you’re too young,” Molly admitted. “But I think maybe you shouldn’t tell Kaylee and Gideon.” She turned and faced her niece. “Do you remember Caliban?”

“The spirit that was courting the Snow Queen at the same time that Jack was? Sure. He didn’t seem to be a very nice man,” Lily said. “But didn’t he go to jail?”

“Yes, but he broke out,” Molly said. “And because he originally helped make the protections on the Cove, the Snow Queen and Jack were worried that he might come back here and make more trouble.”

“So they’re having us redo the protections? Is that it?” Lily said, putting everything together.

Molly nodded. “Jade thought it might be better to have you guys do it, since the Cove really belongs to you, not to them,” she explained.

“Do you really think he might come back?” Lily asked her.

“I don’t know,” Molly said honestly, looking down at her niece. “But I think we’re better off being safe, rather than sorry.” She picked the tray up. “Come on. Let’s go and make some pomanders.” Then she stopped, before they went out the door. “And let’s not talk about Caliban in front of the others. I don’t think they need to worry about something that may not happen, okay?”

“Okay,” Lily agreed, following her aunt back out to the table, where Gideon, Kaylee, Jack, and Schrodinger were waiting for them.

Pallavi and Starsha joined them to put the pomanders together, pricking the tender skins of the oranges with pins before inserting the cloves into the holes. Then Pallavi showed them how to wrap ribbons around the oranges and pinning them down, creating a strip to hang them from.

“We hang them in all the windows of our homes,” Pallavi told them in her rich voice. “And once the citrus dries out in the sunlight, we move them to the closets, and they stay for years.”

“These will go down to the Tin Shop, and the other stores down in Market Square,” Molly said, as they continued to work through the pile of citrus. “So let’s keep going!”

As she pricked oranges, Lily’s mind went back to Caliban. The last time she had seen him was at the Snow Queen’s Ball, where he had seemed to be more sad than anything else. I wonder if he’s just lonely, she thought. Loneliness is bad. Especially at Christmas.

<><>

Before he’d made the last Gate transfer, Caliban had stopped on the outskirts of the village to make his preparations. After his meeting with the Librarian, he had decided that his ultimate goal did need to be Carter’s Cove, but he didn’t want to be discovered. Luckily, he had a solution.

It took some time, but he had time. All the time in the world, if he was truly honest with himself. He carefully pulled all his magic to his core, and then layered shield after shield around it. Then, once he was satisfied that no one could detect his essence, he began to shift his face and body.

When he was done, he leaned over the clear stream that ran alongside the road and inspected himself. Caliban the prince had had long, dark hair, dark eyes, and a pale, haughty face. This new Caliban (and he needed another name, because Caliban would be too recognizable) was still pale, but his face was covered with a dark, scruffy beard, trending a little to grey at the edges, and his face was square-jawed, rather than long and narrow. His eyes were hazel and larger than they had been, and his ears were hidden by more long, greying hair. The clothing he wore was serviceable and bland,  nothing like the silks and satins he’d worn as a prince, but he found the soft cotton more pleasing to wear against his skin.

Standing back up, he settled his pack on his shoulders, picked up the walking stick he’d cut from a large branch he’d found on the side of the road, and walked into the village.

“Where to, my friend?” the Station technician asked affably.

“Carter’s Cove,” Caliban said, and his voice sounded different – deeper, older, and more tired. It matched how he felt, he realized.

“Busy place,” the Station tech said, typing the destination in on his console. “Name?”

“Perry,” Caliban said after a moment of consideration. “Perry Wandell.”

The tech typed that in as well, and after a moment, said, “If you don’t mind waiting a few minutes, Mr. Wandell, there’s a cart coming through, heading to the Cove. You could probably ride in with them, depending on where in the Cove you’re going.”

He hadn’t thought that far in advance, actually. “I’m not sure,” he admitted. “I’m assuming there’s an inn or something?”

“Yes, several,” the tech said. “What are you looking for?”

“Just a place to lay my head for a few days, maybe longer,” Caliban said. He hitched his pack up. “But nothing very fancy.”

The old Caliban would have never have allowed those words to come from his mouth. The new Caliban realized how true it was.

“Then I would suggest the boarding house run by old Captain Hoskins and his wife,” the tech said. “It’s down by the harbor, but close enough to walk into Market Square and Town Square. You’ll have plenty to do, and Mrs. Hoskins is a good cook. Plain food, but plenty of it, and a clean room.”

“Thank you,” Caliban said politely. “It sounds perfect.”

When the cart rolled through a few minutes later, the tech stopped the driver, a giant of a man with a surprising light voice, and asked if Caliban could ride along.

“Of course!” the giant said. “I would love company! Come on up!”

Caliban climbed up next to him, and the giant offered a friendly handshake. “I am called Monk,” he said. “How may I call you?”

“I’m called Perry,” Caliban said, accepting the handshake. “Just traveling.”

Monk nodded, and shook the reins. The large draft horse stirred and began placidly walking through the arch, onto the Road and off to Carter’s Cove.

Caliban wondered just what would be waiting there for him.

>Activity: make pomanders like the others did! (http://www.simplebites.net/how-to-make-spiced-orange-pomander-balls/)

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

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Saturday, December 10

“Molly, Schrodinger, are you here?” Gideon called out as soon as he pushed open the door to CrossWinds Books. “You didn’t leave without us, did you?”

“We’re not that late, Gideon, I promise!” Kiaya said, sharing a rueful look with DC as they passed the counter. “They won’t have left!”

As if to prove those words, both Jack and Schrodinger came bounding out of the kitchen. You’re here! The CrossCat said, his tail whipping excitedly. We were waiting so we could do the castle before we left with you!

“See, I told you!” Kiaya said. “Go on!”

Gideon ran into the kitchen, where Molly had the castle out on the island, and hopped up on to one of the stools. Lily and Kaylee were already looking hard for the 10, and he joined them.

“Here it is!” Kaylee said excitedly, poking her finger at the 10, which was floating next to a window on the west side of the main castle. The window opened, and they saw the kitchen again, with more cookies being made. This time, instead of stars, there were all sorts of sugar cookies, with jeweled cutouts of spun sugar that gleamed in the lights. Cooks in white aprons and tall white hats were busy painting the cookies with bright colors, and others were placing them on bright silver trays.

“They’re doing a bake sale too?” Lily whispered, awed.

I doubt it, Jack said. I’ll bet it’s for a party the Snow Queen and Jack are throwing.

One of the bakers looked up, waved at them, and then tossed up a cookie towards them. As it came through the window, it shimmered, and when it fell into Kaylee’s open hand, it was still a cookie, but now it said, “There’s lots of things that are sweet today! Make sure you share the wealth!”

“What does that mean?” Gideon asked them, and they all looked at each other, puzzled. “I mean, aren’t we selling cookies today?”

“Yes,” Lily said. “Today’s the bake sale at the school. Of course, there will be more there than just cookies – it’s more like a craft fair. And everyone loves to buy Christmas presents there.”

Kaylee broke the cookie into five pieces and handed them out. “Maybe there will be someone there that we can share with, just like we shared this cookie?” she said.

That could be, Schrodinger said thoughtfully. Or perhaps there is something else the castle has planned for us.

“Did you find it?” Molly asked, coming back in from the alley behind the bookstore, where her Jeep was currently parked. “We’re almost ready to go!”

“We did, and it was a cookie!” Kaylee said. “It said we were going to share the wealth. So I shared the cookie with everyone!”

“Share the wealth, huh?” Molly smiled at her. “Good! That’s part of what Christmas is about, after all! Now, are you guys ready to go?”

What about the castle? Schrodinger asked, as she hustled them out the back door. Are we just leaving it there?

“DC said she’d put it away for us,” Molly told him, as she held open the door to the Jeep. “Sue and Lai are already setting up at the school, and we just need to bring these last boxes over.”

They all piled in, careful not to jostle anything, and Molly set off towards the Daughter of Stars Middle School, which hosted the annual Carter’s Cove Christmas Bake Sale. The school got a portion of the proceeds, and it was now a traditional place to get many of the goodies that would be served on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Molly’s cookies, scones, and candies were big hits, of course, but there were all sorts of things available, from all sorts of people.

“Molly, what did you do for a centerpiece this year?” Lily asked, looking at her aunt. She had scrambled into the front seat before anyone else, and as a prize, she got to hold the basket containing sandwiches, tea, and hot chocolate for them during the day.

“Do you remember the skating pond I had a few years ago?” Molly said. “I decided to bring that back out.”

Ooh, I loved that! Schrodinger said from the back seat. Did you bring the lights too?

“Of course!” Molly said. “And I have the figurines too.”

“Too bad you missed last year,” Kaylee told Gideon. “Molly built a pirate ship out of gingerbread.”

His eyes got wide. “A real pirate ship?”

“Yep. It looked exactly like Pavel’s ship.”

“What happened to it?” Gideon asked. “Why aren’t you using it this year, Molly?”

“Because I gave it to Pavel,” Molly told him. “He keeps it aboard his ship – he says it’s a good luck charm.”

“But won’t it rot?” he said, a worried frown on his face.

“No, that’s part of my magic,” Molly said, grinning as they turned into the school’s parking lot. “It won’t ever decay.”

The inside of the gymnasium was controlled chaos. Molly led them to the corner tables she had been given, where Sue and Lai were busy setting up the trays, vases, and boxes of various goodies she’d made. There were snowflake cookies, elegantly decorated with silver balls and icing that had a subtle glittering effect, that Molly had made into lollipops and were clustered into a tall vase. Another vase held her peppermint candy cane cookies, tied with bright red and green ribbons. Silver trays along the front of the tables held an assortment of scones in plastic bags, perfect for a snack as someone was walking around.

And then, in the corner, up on a box, was the spot for the centerpiece that Molly was carrying. As they watched, she walked around the tables and opened the box in her hands.

Out first came the base, which was a painted piece of wood that looked like the small cove that Indi hosted the skating in. The paint for the ice shimmered, just like the real thing, and Gideon wondered how Molly had gotten it like that. There were a great many things about the kitchen witch and her magic that he wondered about, but hadn’t been bold enough to ask her. Maybe Schrodinger would be willing to tell him at some point.

Then those thoughts vanished from his mind as he watched her set up the rest of the centerpiece. There was a tower of what looked like rocks and twigs that had bits and pieces of red sticking out of it, and when she sat it on the center of the ice, it flared to life, the red becoming fabric flames that danced and swayed. Around the edge of the ice, Molly set trees, made of gingerbread and iced dark green, and a little hut that was an almost perfect rendition of Indi’s skate shop, where she sold hot drinks, snacks, and rented ice skates if you’d forgotten them. Gideon hadn’t been out to the skate shop yet, but his mother had promised that they would go out soon.

He and the others watched Molly string some tiny lights along the tops of the trees, and then she lifted out the skaters. The little figurines weren’t in gingerbread, although he assumed everything else was: they looked almost like porcelain, painted in subtle colors to look human. Well, mostly human; as she continued to pull them out, Gideon saw there were others too, including a CrossCat and a dog that looked like Jack in a little sled. Then Molly looked out at them. “Are you ready?” she asked.

“For what?” Gideon whispered to Kaylee.

“Watch!” she told him.

Molly had arranged all the figurines, and now, she leaned over and blew gently across the entire scene. Gideon’s eyes widened as the lights came on, twinkling even in the brightly-lit gymnasium, and the figures began to move across the ice.

“Wow,” he breathed, taking a step towards it. “That’s awesome.”

Isn’t it? Schrodinger said proudly. I’m so glad she brought it out again.

Tearing his gaze away from the skaters, Gideon looked up at Molly. “So what are we doing?” he asked. “Are we selling stuff?”

“Not exactly,” Molly said. “Are you guys ready to walk around for a bit?”

“Do we have samples, Molly?” Lily guessed. “Like Zoey and I did?”

“Yes, actually!” Molly pulled out two trays, put an assortment of cookies on each one, and said, “Gideon, why don’t you and Kaylee take Schrodinger with you, and Lily, you take Jack. Come back when you run out!”

“Can we taste them first?” Kaylee asked, already reaching for a cookie. “We have to make sure they’re really good!”

As if they wouldn’t be! Schrodinger said, but Gideon noticed he also snagged a cookie from the tray. There was a loud bell that rang out from above, and then the doors opened and a wave of people flooded in.

They set off, Gideon carrying the tray and Kaylee and Schrodinger on either side of him. The tray itself had straps that went around his neck, helping to steady the tray. He was half-afraid they’d be crushed, there were so many people, but to his surprise, it wasn’t crowded. People wandered around, talking to their friends and the vendors, buying gifts and catching up.

“Hey, guys, look over there.” Kaylee said, tugging on Gideon’s sleeve. “Who’s that?”

“That” was a younger man, standing in one of the little alcoves formed by all the tables, looking a little lost.

I don’t know, Schrodinger said, also looking at him. I’ve never seen him before.

Gideon, who was still getting used to everyone at the Cove, wasn’t surprised that he didn’t recognize him. The man was dressed in jeans and a parka that had definitely seen better days. And there was some dirt smudged on his face, although he’d obviously tried to wash it off. His beard was long and braided, and so was the hair that escaped from under the knit cap he wore.

“Let’s go find out,” Gideon said, and suited action to words.

The man watched them come over, and Gideon held up his tray. “Hi! I’m Gideon, and this is Kaylee, and this is Schrodinger! Would you like a cookie?”

“Thank you, but I don’t have any money to pay for them.” The man’s voice was low, and Gideon had to strain a bit to hear him. “I just wanted to warm up for a bit before I went on.”

“They’re free, so you don’t have to pay,” Kaylee said, and picked a few off the tray. “Please take them.”

Where are you going? Schrodinger asked, as the man accepted the cookies.

“I don’t know,” the man said. “Wherever will accept me.” He smiled at them. “Thank you.”

“What’s your name?” Gideon said, fascinated by the man.

“Robert,” he said, around a mouthful of cookie. “These are very good.”

Molly makes the best cookies, Schrodinger agreed, and looked around. Wait here, guys.

He vanished into the crowd, and Gideon and Kaylee turned back to Robert, who was finishing the cookies.

“Have some more,” Kaylee said encouragingly. “You look hungry.”

“I am,” he admitted. “I haven’t had much to eat since yesterday.”

“That’s so sad,” Gideon said. “Why don’t you just go home?”

“Because I don’t have one,” Robert said. He sat down with his back against the wall, to be closer to their height, and they joined him. Molly had said to share the samples, and Gideon was sure that she would want them to go to someone who truly needed them. “I’ve been on the road for so long that I don’t even remember where my home was.”

“That sounds lonely,” Kaylee told him. “I would miss my family and friends. Don’t you miss them?”

“Sometimes,” Robert said. “But I carry them here with me.” And he touched his hand to his heart.

Schrodinger came back, carrying a brown paper bag that he gave to Robert. This is from Molly, he said. It has some sandwiches and a thermos of tea, and she said to tell you that any time you come through the Cove, you’re welcome to a hot meal at CrossWinds Books.

Robert took the bag, and Gideon saw there were tears in his eyes. “But why would she do that?” he asked.

Because you need help, and she likes to help, the CrossCat said. Would you like to meet her?

“I wouldn’t want to embarrass her,” Robert said. “Most folks don’t want to be seen with a tramp.”

“Molly won’t mind,” Kaylee assured him. “She loves everyone.”

The tramp smiled down at her. “I’ll bet she does. But I won’t go over now. She’s got people wanting to buy from her.” He tucked the bag Schrodinger gave him into his knapsack and stood up. “Please tell her thank you, for everything. I’ll remember you all.”

They watched him go out the door and back into the cold, his woolen cap pulled down around his ears. “Schrodinger,” Gideon said, when the door had closed, “do you think that’s what the castle meant? That we were to share with someone like Robert?”

Maybe, the CrossCat said quietly. Sadly, there are always people like Robert, who have nowhere to go.

“That’s sad,” Kaylee said. “I can’t imagine having nowhere to go.”

>Activity: Bake and share cookies with someone you like!

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

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Friday, December 9

Lily normally enjoyed school, but today, the clock seemed to move at half-speed all day. She spent most of her afternoon staring out the window, watching the wind blow the swings and hearing the whisper of the promise of freedom. The weekend seemed so far away.

Finally, however, the last bell rang, releasing her from the school for two whole days, and Lily raced out to meet Jack, Schrodinger, Kaylee, and Gideon, who were waiting with Pavel to take them all to his house.

And his grandmother.

Even though they had only met Brynna last year, when she and her daughter were reunited with her grandson after his grandfather’s death, Kaylee and Lily had come to adore the feisty sea captain, who still traveled with her own ship when she wasn’t out with Pavel. Her husband Paul lived in the Cove now; he and Ella, Pavel’s mother, kept the large house the two captains had bought while Pavel and Brynna wandered the Realms using the Sea Roads. To hear that she’d come home in time for Christmas had been a wonderful gift, especially since Brynna had promised that perhaps in the summer, Lily and Zoey could travel with her. Without Kaylee.

“Pavel, did you get the castle?” she asked as she joined them.

“Of course I did,” the pirate responded, not looking offended at her question. “How could I forget it, since Molly and Schrodinger had it waiting for me?” He waved his hand at the sleigh, which had a large box lashed tightly to the back. The reinforced black box was more than big enough to keep the castle safe. “Mother and Brynna can’t wait to see it.”

They all piled into the sleigh, and his driver shook the reins, sending the horses off with a smart slap on their withers. The house that Pavel had bought was down by the waterfront, of course, and this was Gideon’s first trip to the harbor portion of Carter’s Cove. Kaylee, Jack, and Schrodinger were telling him all about the ships, and Pavel’s ship, and Lily couldn’t help but remember the first advent calendar, when they were introducing Zoey to the Cove. That seems to be the theme, she thought. Someone new comes to the Cove, and we show them the magic. I just wish Zoey was here to help us.

Then again, next year, think of the fun we will have! And I can tell her that tonight, when I write in my journal. She touched the spot in her bag where her little notebook sat. She and Zoey had decided to do a second Christmas Day in February, when they were reunited, and Lily knew what she was going to give her friend. The notebook, of course. That way, Zoey will still have a Carter’s Cove Christmas.

She caught Schrodinger looking at her strangely, and smiled at him.

Are you okay? He nosed her a little. You’re thinking very hard.

I’m good, she assured him. Just trying to remember it all for Zoey.

Is she having fun in Pennsylvania?

Yes, but she misses everyone. Lily sighed. She says there’s not really magic there.

Tell her to look harder. There’s magic everywhere.

And then they were pulling into the driveway in front of Pavel’s grand house. It was one of the old captain’s houses that had survived nearly two centuries of winter storms on the Maine coast: built of solid stone, complete with a widow’s walk at the top, where countless captain’s wives had waited for their husbands to return from their voyages. This particular house had a large front porch, where Ella and Paul had put out rocking chairs and several small tables. This past summer, Lily, Kaylee, and Zoey had spent countless days there, playing checkers with Paul and helping Ella string peas from the garden behind the house. Next to her own grandparents’ house, it was one of Lily’s favorite places.

Now, there was a light dusting of snow on the front porch, and no one was sitting in the rocking chairs. But as they all piled out of the sled, the front door opened, and there was Ella, all smiles in her green and yellow striped apron, her dark hair (streaked with silver strands that glistened in the sunlight) wrapped in braids around her head. “My darlings!” she cried, opening her arms wide as they piled out. “I’m so happy to see you!”

“Grandma Ella!” Kaylee shouted gleefully as she ran over to her. “I missed you!”

“I missed you too, Kaylee!” Ella told her, snuggling the little girl close. “Are you ready to help us decorate today?”

“Yes!” Kaylee said, and then reached out and grabbed Gideon’s hand. “This is my friend Gideon! It’s his first Christmas in the Cove, and he’s helping us with the Advent calendar!”

“Hello, Gideon, nice to meet you,” Ella said, offering him a hand. He shook it solemnly, and then smiled at her when she smiled at him. “Are you having fun this year?”

“Oh yes!” he said, nodding. “This has been the best Christmas, and it isn’t even Christmas Eve yet!”

Ella started to answer, and then she caught sight of the castle as Pavel lifted it out of the locked box at the back of the sleigh.

Isn’t it amazing? Schrodinger said, sitting on the porch. His mental voice was just a bit smug.

“Yes,” Ella said. “The Snow Queen’s magic never fails to amaze me.” She stood up and moved everyone to the side, so that her son could take the castle into the house. The others followed him, shedding their coats in the hallway before they joined him in the living room.

He set the structure on the low table in the middle of the room, and they all clustered around it. “There are windows, and the numbers are by the windows,” Lily said, as they started looking for the little number 9. “When we find the right one, the window opens and shows us a scene.”

“How wonderful,” Ella said, and looked up as her mother and stepfather came in from the kitchen. Lily had smelled something spicy and sweet as she’d come in, and more of the same smells came wafting in with Brynna and Paul.

It was easy to see that Ella was Brynna’s daughter, even though Brynna’s hair was now solid grey, and the weather lines on her face were deeper. But they shared the same smile (Pavel’s smile, Lily realized, although it was one of the few physical features he had inherited from the women in his family), and radiated the same calm certainty. If ever there were people who were rocks in her world, Lily thought, these women were two of them.

Paul was taller than Brynna, but just as weather-worn; fitting, since he had been her first mate for years before he’d decided to retire. Now, he was happiest keeping house, and since he and Brynna had sold their cottage and moved to Carter’s Cove, he had fit into the community well, using the skills he’d mastered on board the ship as a carpenter to make some of the finest furniture Lily had ever seen.

“Brynna! Paul! Come help us find the 9!” Kaylee said, waving them over.

“Wow, look at this!” Brynna said, coming and kneeling down next to Lily, who moved to make room for her. “Did this truly come from the Snow Queen?”

“And Jack Frost,” Lily said, nodding. “It’s their castle.”

And there’s the nine! Schrodinger said triumphantly, stabbing a paw out. Right here!

It had been hiding on the very front of the castle gate, in a small window above the gate. He touched one claw to it, and the window opened.

It was a small, narrow room, as befitting a small, narrow window. Inside, there was piles and piles of greenery, and Lily could almost smell the piney aroma rising from them. In the midst of the greens were two small people, gnomes perhaps, who were busy braiding the boughs together into a long, massive plait. The braid was being fed out of another window, and through the open window, they could see others hanging the completed garland around the inner courtyard.

There were pine needles everywhere as the gnomes worked, and one of them sailed out of the window and into Pavel’s living room. It transformed into a long curl of ribbon with green writing on it and landed on the table next to the castle.

Decorations are the spice of life. Make someone smile today! Schrodinger read.

“Well, having you here and letting me spoil you all makes me smile,” Ella said. “And the fact that you’re going to help make this house decorated for Christmas is even better!”

“What are we doing?” Lily asked her. “Did you bring ornaments from your old home?”

“Some,” Ella said, and sighed. Then she brightened. “But Paul and Mother brought some too, and we’ve gotten more here. So we have plenty!”

“Indeed,” Paul said. “Pavel and I are going to bring them down now, and you guys can help the ladies decide where everything is going.” He winked at them. “There’s even a garland, although not quite as elaborate as the Snow Queen’s.”

“Not yet, anyways,” Brynna said. “Wait until we’re done.” She looked at her husband. “Bring that box down first, and we can get working on that, while you bring the other ones down.”

“It’s going on the porch, right?” he said. “Why don’t I bring it out there, and you can be decorating it while it’s up?”

She gave him a smile. “And this is why you made such a good first mate. Are you sure you won’t come back out on the ship with me next time?”

“Sorry, dearest, but if I did that, who would make the furniture I’ve been commissioned to do?” He kissed her lightly on the cheek and then he and Pavel went out of the room.

Brynna laughed and looked at the rest of them. “Okay, if we’re decorating outside first, we’ll need to stay warm! Let’s get our coats and everything back on, and we can decide how this garland will go.”

The box that Paul and Pavel brought out was huge, and Lily’s eyes weren’t the only ones that widened. It was actually a massive sea chest, and as Brynna threw the lid back, the combined smells of pine and salt wafted up into the cold air. Inside, coiled like a giant snake of green, was a braided garland.

“What is it?” Gideon asked.

“It’s the garland that Paul and I put together when we were first married,” Brynna told them. “There was a wise woman on our ship who married us, and she cast a spell that as long as we were together, the garland would never fade. It’s an integral part of our decorations. I’m happy that it will finally have a home here.”

“What do you mean?” Lily asked her. “Didn’t it have a home before?”

She saw Brynna start to say something, and then the older woman paused, looked at Schrodinger, and then smiled down at Lily.  “Of course it did,” she said. “But now, it’s a permanent home. Paul and I aren’t going to live anywhere but the Cove.”

Somehow, Lily knew that wasn’t what she had been going to say, and wondered what Brynna had been about to tell her. She looked at Schrodinger, her eyes narrowing thoughtfully. What aren’t you telling us?

He didn’t answer her, which meant he was keeping secrets. Again. But what kind of secrets was he keeping around Christmas? That was a mystery that she found herself really wanting to figure out.

“So how do you want to do this, Mother?” Ella asked, pulling Lily’s attention back to the present.

Brynna was surveying the porch, looking at the area and then back to the garland, chewing her lower lip thoughtfully. “Well, I think honestly, I want to wrap it around the railings,” she said finally. “We can run it from one end to the other, and have Pavel and Paul help up put it up around the entrance. And that way, we can show off the bows that I have to go on it.”

So that’s what they did. The garland was not as heavy as Lily had originally suspected – most of the weight was in the trunk itself, which Brynna told them was enchanted as well, to protect the garland from the sea when it was on the ship. Paul came out with a short ladder, and carefully hung the greenery up and over the entrance.

Underneath the garland was a small sailcloth bag. Brynna opened it and pulled out some stunning bows that she handed to the children to attach at intervals along the garland. Lily fingered the one she was handed, feeling the silky softness of the ribbon and marveling at the colors. The bows were in watercolor shades of blue and green and white, shot through with silver and gold threads. “Where did you get these?” she asked Brynna, as she used the small copper wire on the back to affix the bow to the railing.

“The wise woman who married us gave me the ribbons, and my cook made the bows,” Brynna told her. “Aren’t they lovely?”

Stunning, Schrodinger agreed. But there’s more needed. He backed up and looked at the front porch. Lights, I think.

“Lights? Like these?” Paul asked, coming out with an armful of what looked like ship’s lanterns. These particular lanterns, however, had blue and green glass in them, instead of clear ones, and were small, barely the size of a can of soda.

Perfect! The CrossCat agreed.

Once the lights had been set at intervals along the edge of the porch, and Paul had showed them how to turn them on (they were an ingenious little magical gadget, with a crystal inside that glowed when you blew on it), Lily had to agree that the unorthodox decorations made the front of the house look amazing in the setting sun. Once the front yard was dark, it would look spectacular.

“The rest of the decorations are in the living room,” Paul said, ushering them back inside. “But first, I think the stew is ready!”

Is that what I’m smelling? Jack asked eagerly. Stew?

“Indeed,” Paul said, beaming. “It’s a fish stew from my native lands. I hope you like it!”

<><>

May I join you?

The voice was low, not threatening, but Caliban recognized it immediately, even before he looked up and saw the emerald green eyes of the Librarian looking calmly at him. The great CrossCat stood in front of him as he sat on a bench, not moving to jump up next to him until he nodded.

You’ve been doing some walking, she noted, picking up one paw and washing it delicately. And some thinking?

“Yes,” he said, not bothering to reply mentally. The park was empty except for them, not surprising, considering it was snowing rather heavily at the moment. He still had no idea what Realm he was in, and found he didn’t much care. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.”

About?

“What I want,” he said, stretching out his legs and looking at his boots. “And where I want to go.” He pulled the little brown leaf with its edging of silver frost on it from his coat pocket and regarded it. “And if I want to deal with this.”

What do you mean?

“Well, it’s obvious who sent it,” Caliban said, tracing the edge of the leaf with one gloved fingertip. Even after several days in his pocket, it hadn’t crumbled or melted, proof of its magical origin. “But I can’t figure out why he or she would want to see me. Unless it’s to hand me back to my father.”

The Librarian stopped her washing and looked squarely at him. And is that the only reason you can think of?

“At the moment,” he said, returning the leaf to his pocket. “I might think of more later.”

What if I told you I knew who sent it?

Caliban considered that for a moment, watching the snow fall through the trees that surrounded the park, falling in and melting in the little stream that still burbled merrily over ice-coated rocks. “Who else would, though?” he asked her. “What point would there be?”

Perhaps someone wanted to point out to you that there are other things in life other than power, she said. Things like friendship, love, happiness. She paused, and added, Change.

He pulled the leaf out again and looked at it, wondering how much Jack Frost had had to change in order to win the Snow Queen’s heart.

He thought he would have to give up everything he was, the Librarian said, also looking at the leaf. And yet, in the end, he found that having her there made him whole again. Isn’t that what you’ve been looking for? Something to make you whole?

“I don’t know,” he said honestly, looking over at her for the first time. “I thought I did, and when I left Nadine’s, I was sure that I wanted to go and find them, ask them why they were tormenting me by sending this. But then I got out on the Roads, traveling as someone ordinary, and you know, I rather enjoy it.”

Oh?

“No one knows who I am,” he said, leaning back and putting the leaf into his pocket again. “I’ve never really been anywhere where no one knows who I am. It’s always been pomp and ceremony, and people bowing and scraping and plotting against me.” He waved a hand at the empty park. “Caliban the prince could have never stolen a moment like this, with no one in sight, and knowing that there is no one hovering in the background, watching and waiting for me to need something. It’s so…” he paused, looking for the right word.

Refreshing? She suggested, and he nodded.

“Yes. I’m dependent on myself, and the small bit of money in my purse. When that is gone, I shall have to think of something else, but that’s okay.” Caliban shook his head. “You’re the first person who has recognized me since I left Nadine’s.”

She gave him a feline smile. In all honesty, Caliban, I have been watching you since you broke out of your father’s prison.

He wasn’t all that surprised. “Why?”

Because prison wasn’t the right place for you anymore, she said. I realize your father may not agree with me, but that is because he is not objective enough. You’ve been punishing yourself for your brother’s death for years, even if you didn’t let anyone else see. I have seen. She jumped down from the bench and started off, pausing only to look back at him and say, Perhaps whoever sent you that leaf meant for you to start looking forward, instead of back. To look to the future, and what you want to do with your life, rather than living it in the shadow of past misdeeds.

“Can misdeeds like that ever be forgiven, though?” Caliban said wistfully. “Ever?”

Almost everything can be forgiven, the Librarian said. Then she walked off and vanished into the falling snow.

Caliban sat there for a long time, looking out into his past and wondering if that were true.

And what he was going to do next.

>Activity: Put up a garland or wreath and decorate it. Greenery takes all sorts of lovely decorations well!

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

Thursday, December 8

Normally, Thursdays were their days off, but Molly had decided that she wanted to go into the store to finish her cookies for the bake sale on Saturday. Also, it was easier to pack everything up there, since most of her supplies were at the tea shop. Schrodinger was happy to join her, as he loved seeing folks come in.

The snow had finally stopped, and it was a bright sunny day outside, the sunshine glimmering off the piles of snow that surrounded and surmounted everything. The air was crisp, clean, and sharp enough to cut glass. Schrodinger had worn both his hat and his coat, but he was still refusing to wear boots, since the fur between his toes was nice and thick and protected his paw pads. Molly had finally attached her Yaktrax to her boots, since there was a thin glaze of ice that coated the new snow.

Now, Schrodinger was drowsing in his bed next to the wood stove, and Molly was sitting in the kitchen, nursing a cup of tea and enjoying the quiet bustle before starting the decorations. All the candy cane cookies were packaged up and tied with red ribbons, and the tea cakes were wrapped in red and green cellophane. Sue had dropped off the labels she made every year the other day, so everything that was wrapped was labeled and in boxes, ready to go. All she had left to do was decorate the gingerbread men and women, and the snowflake cookies, and package the shortbread.

“That’s a very serious face,” Aunt Margie said, coming in and sitting opposite her. “What deep thoughts are you thinking?”

“Honestly, nothing that deep,” Molly admitted, grinning at her aunt. “I’m just wondering if dipping the vanilla shortbread I made in dark chocolate would be over the top or not.” She got up and poured her aunt a cup of hot water. “What kind of tea would you like?”

“Some of the peppermint herbal, I think, actually,” Aunt Margie said. “My stomach hasn’t been the best this week for some reason.”

Molly took down the peppermint and asked, “Do you want me to add a bit of honey as well? That might help.”

“No, just the peppermint, thank you.” Aunt Margie accepted the cup of tea and then said, “What if you dipped half in the chocolate and left some plain? That way, people could have a choice.”

“I might. I’ll see how long it takes me to decorate everything.” Molly took her seat again and picked up her mug

“Have you decided what your showpiece is for the gingerbread?” Aunt Margie asked her.

“Sort of. I’m still working on the details, but I think so.” Molly did a sculpture in gingerbread every year as her centerpiece for the bake sale, and she hated to repeat (although the magical lake with the skating children had shown up several years in a row before she retired it).

“You do realize that the bake sale is Saturday, right? Will you have time?”

“Yes, of course I will,” Molly said. “I’m not planning on doing something like the castle or the pirate ship.”

“Thank heaven for small favors,” Aunt Margie said dryly, and then laughed and got up. “I suppose I should go and make sure the store is still running. I assume that the children will be here after school?”

“Yes. Zeke was going to bring them in, since Kiaya’s already here writing, and Corrine’s working today.” Molly sighed. “And no, before you ask, nothing on Caliban.”

“I wasn’t going to ask, actually,” Aunt Margie said. “I don’t think he’s going to come here, Molly. I think you need to stop worrying, and enjoy the Christmas season.” She reached out a warm hand and laid it on her niece’s cheek. “There’s not always an underlying cloud, you know. Sometimes, people really do just move on, and I think that’s what Caliban has done.”

“I wish I could be sure of that,” Molly said, leaning against the warm touch.

She was working on the gingerbread men and women when she heard the children come in. Gideon and Kaylee were talking excitedly about something they had discovered, and she could hear Jack woofing quietly to Schrodinger. But she didn’t hear Lily, and had to actually look out to make sure her other niece had actually come in with them.

Lily had already taken a seat near the wood stove and was writing in her little notebook. Goldie was sitting near her, reading from his book, and watching her when he thought she wasn’t looking. Her aunt may think that Caliban wasn’t a big deal, but it was obvious that Pavel still did.

“Molly, can we do the castle now?” Kaylee had caught sight of her and came running over, Gideon right behind her.

She smiled down at them. “We can, if Lily’s ready. Let me go and get it. I’m decorating in the kitchen, so you’ll have to stay out here today, okay?”

Kaylee pouted a little at that, but Gideon nodded. “Because you have all the cookies out, right, Molly? Are we helping decorate cookies today?”

“Maybe,” Molly said, and went to go get the castle.

Lily had finished writing by the time she came back out with the advent castle, and the six of them looked for the little number 8. After a few moments, Goldie came over to join them.

“Isn’t that it?” he said, pointing to one of the windows on the main building.

Leaning over, Lily nodded. “It is, Goldie! Press it!”

The pirate’s finger touched the golden number, floating next to a large window. The window opened up and they all saw a room full of people sitting at desks, busily writing on small pieces of paper.

“It’s an assembly line of cards!” Lily said, awed, and Molly saw she was right. The cards started at one end, where the design on the front was drawn on. Then it was passed to the next person, who inked the design in. The third person then took the card and colored in the design. The fourth person wrote inside, and then it went to the last person, who stuck it in an envelope, wrote a name on the front, and placed it in a basket. There were two other people who were collecting the baskets and pouring the completed cards into a large mailing bag.

“Is that Santa’s assembly line?” Gideon wondered.

“It kind of looks like it,” Molly agreed. “I had no idea the Snow Queen did so many Christmas cards!”

One of the cards, instead of landing in the mail bag, sailed up and out the window, and landed in Lily’s hand. She opened the envelope, and read out loud, “I happen to know that the post office is in need of a special decoration this year. Do you think you can help them? Talk to Molly – she’s got the goods!” She looked up at her aunt. “What are we doing for the post office, Molly?”

“Well, what kind of decorations do you think they should have?” Molly asked.

“Christmas cards!” Gideon said promptly. “Because they do so many!”

“I thought you might say that,” Molly agreed. “Wait here. Goldie, can you help me and bring the castle back?”

Once the castle had been stowed in the pantry, Goldie and Molly brought out several large boxes of Christmas cards, glue , and scissors, as well as a large bundle of ribbon. “Aunt Margie found a whole box of these from last year that we thought we’d lost,” Molly explained, as they set everything in front of the kids. “So we thought that it would be fun for you to use them to make decorations for the post office. What do you think?”

“Oh yes!” The kids began to pull out the cards, and sorting through them. Goldie settled down with his book again, and Molly went back to her cookies, half-listening to them plan as she decorated.

<><>

“These are amazing,” Lily said, pulling the cards out. “Look at them all.”

“What can we do with them?” Kaylee asked, running her fingers over one card that had penguins and a Christmas tree on it, all dusted with glitter.

Gideon pointed to the Christmas tree. “What if we made sculptures with them?” he said. “Like trees, and houses?”

I like that idea! We can make a village, and then they can keep it year after year, Schrodinger said. That would be cool!

Yes, we can make the Cove! Jack added.

In the end, that proved a little harder than they had realized. While it was easy to make trees from the cards, using the glue Molly had provided, their houses didn’t really hold together.

Well, how about this? What if we made the skating cove instead? Schrodinger said, as Kaylee and Gideon finally gave up on the house they were trying to put together. We have a lot of blue that we can use to make the ice, and we can do trees! And then maybe Molly will give us some lights to string through the trees.

“Oh, I like that idea, Schrodinger!” Lily gave him a hug. “You’re a genius!”

Once they had figured it out, the skating cove came together quickly, with lots of trees lining the shore. They had even managed to figure out how to make the rocks in the center, with flames leaping from the bonfire.

As they were finishing up, Molly came out with cups of hot cocoa (and tea for Schrodinger and Jack), and cookies. “Wow, guys, that looks awesome!” she said admiringly.

“Schrodinger said you might have lights we could use,” Lily said. “And we have lots of cards left over.”

“I do have lights, yes,”  Molly agreed. “And we’ll keep the cards for later. Unless you want to send some?”

They looked at each other. “That would be fun,” Gideon said. “I can send one to Grammie!”

“I can send one to Zoey!” Lily said.

“And we can send one to Brynna too!” Kaylee added. “And Grandma and Grandpa!”

By the time that Zette stopped by on her way home from the post office to pick everything up, they had a stack of envelopes for her, and Kaylee and Gideon were reading to Jack and Schrodinger while Lily worked on homework. The mail carrier exclaimed over the scene they had set up, and promised to send Molly a picture of it set up in the post office window.

<><>

It had been a while since Caliban had walked among people, just walked, not flaunting his power, but moving like a ghost through their masses. He was dressed in regular pants, boots, and a jacket that he had seen pictures of in a window at one of the towns he’d passed through after he left Nadine’s palace, courtesy of his magic, but other than that and disguising his face so that he wasn’t recognized, he didn’t use any of his gifts. He was on foot, walking the Roads aimlessly, waiting to see where he was actually pulled.

He’d thought of going to see Jack, see why he’d sent him the brown leaf, but after leaving Nadine’s, that thought had drifted away, blown by the winds on the Roads. Caliban simply wandered, leaning on a slender oaken staff that he’d found one night, all his worldly goods in a simple backpack. It was soothing, in a way nothing had been in a very long time.

Now, he wandered through a small town, not really sure where he was, and not caring. Wherever he was, it was early spring: there were still small piles of snow here and there, mostly under eaves and tree branches, but the air held the promise of warmth, and he could feel the sun’s rays caressing his cheeks, even under the beard he’d let grow. There were light green buds on the trees, and it was mud, not snow, under his feet.

The village itself was busy, as if waking up from a long winter slumber. Windows were open and people called to one another in happy, cheerful voices, haggling over services and gossip as if they hadn’t seen each other in months. He accepted a small bun from a child selling them, and gave her a silver coin; she smiled at him and ran off to sell more. The bun was warm, full of raisins and cinnamon, and Caliban chewed on it contentedly as he walked down the main street.

Contentment. It had been a very long time since he’d felt anything like this, and Caliban almost fell over when he realized what it was. For so long, he’d been striving towards…what? Power? A kingdom of his own? He wasn’t even sure anymore.

Perhaps I shall find it on the road, he thought, the last of the bun melting on his tongue. Perhaps the road is what I’m looking for.

>Activity: Everyone likes to receive a Christmas card! Send one to someone you haven’t seen in a while.

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

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( Dec. 7th, 2016 05:58 pm)

Wednesday, December 7

It was, Molly realized, going to be one of those days.

Having realized that, she felt much better about the chaos going on around her. Normally, she and Schrodinger were at CrossWinds Books by 7 a.m., getting everything ready for the day. The bookstore opened at 9, but getting there by 7 meant that she had time to bake, and get herself together.

However, the snow had been bad enough by the time they had returned from the animal shelter the night before that the kids had all stayed over. School had been canceled, and Drew had to be back at the Gate Station at 5 am to take the next shift, so she had left a message at the store letting DC and Aunt Margie know they’d be in later. But that had thrown everything off.

It had given her the opportunity to bake at home while the kids slept, which was a good thing. There were six loaves of cranberry-nut bread in her basket for the shop, and the last loaf had been soaked in vanilla-scented custard and made into french toast. That, along with fresh bacon and orange juice, had fed everyone when they finally woke up. Since they didn’t have school (and it was still snowing, although not as heavily as before), Molly had let them sleep. So by the time they were all ready to go into the Cove, it was nearly 10 a.m.

Will we all fit in the Jeep? Jack asked, looking up at Molly. I can stay home, if needed.

“Not needed,” she told him, grinning. “I hate driving in the snow, so we aren’t taking the Jeep.”

“We aren’t?” Lily said, pausing as she was pulling her boots on. “Then how are we getting there?”

Molly winked at her. “While you sleepy heads were still getting up, I made a couple of calls. Our ride should be here soon.”

As she said that, she heard, very faintly, the sound of bells. All the kids heard it too, and with a joyous cry, Lily and Kaylee finished throwing on their coats and boots and ran out the front door, Jack right behind them, baying excitedly.

“You have time to finish getting dressed,” Molly told Gideon, who was staring after his friends with a look of surprise on his face. “It will take him a bit to get here.”

Not that much time, Schrodinger said, bringing Gideon’s coat on. Those reindeer go fast!

“Reindeer?” Gideon’s eyes got wide. “Is Santa coming?”

Better, Schrodinger told him. Much better.

“Better than Santa?” Gideon said. “Is that possible?”

Yes. Santa comes only once a year. If we’re lucky, we get to see Old Man Winter all winter long!

Gideon hustled into his coat and then he and Schrodinger ran outside as well. Molly pulled her coat and gloves on, grabbed her basket, and went outside as well. Drew had taken the castle with him when he left that morning, and she knew he had stopped and dropped it off at the bookstore for them.

It was an amazingly snowy morning, the kind that Currier and Ives memorialized in their paintings. The farm’s front yard held the sleigh with its selection of CrossCats and packages, pulled by the polar bear, and several snowmen that she and Drew and Schrodinger had built over the past few weeks. In addition, Phoebe’s golden lights danced around the edges of the sleigh and around the evergreens. The faery lights were some of Molly’s favorite decorations now, and she blessed the fact that their wedding had brought Drew’s faery godmother back into their lives. Maybe she’ll come out for Christmas one year, she thought, joining the pack of children as they waited by the side of the driveway. That would be amazing.

Chaotic, but amazing, Schrodinger said privately. I can tell you how to get her out here, if you want.

Oh?

Sure. Get pregnant.

Molly choked on her laughter as the sledge came into view. Old Man Winter had been thrilled when she had called him at the cottage that morning, and had promised that he would be there to get them all safely to CrossWinds Books. His great sledge was piled high with woolen blankets and furs, and the reindeer were all wearing evergreen boughs woven into their harnesses. Jingle bells rang out through falling snow.

“Hello, my friends!” His voice boomed out through the snow as the reindeer galloped up to them. “I hear you need a ride!”

“Are you SURE he’s not Santa?” Gideon whispered to Molly, who laughed again.

“He’s very close,” she agreed. “I think they’re related.”

Old Man Winter was dressed in what she thought of as his Father Christmas outfit: the long red coat, trimmed with white fur, a large Russian fur hat on his head. Ivy wrapped around the brim of his hat, and there were holly berries peeking out from his long white beard. His grey-blue eyes were bright with cheer.

They all climbed into the sledge and snuggled under the blankets, and Old Man Winter stored Molly’s basket under the seat. “To the bookstore, then?” he asked.

“Yes,” Molly told him.

The ground flew under the runners of the sledge, and Old Man Winter’s magical reindeer made short work of the distance between Molly’s farm and CrossWinds Books. There weren’t many people out on the roads, due to the snow, so the magical sledge didn’t even need to hop onto the Roads to go into the town.

“Are you coming in with us?” Kaylee demanded, as they pulled up in front of the store. “Molly made cranberry-nut bread!”

“Did she?” Old Man Winter winked at Molly. “Did she make cookies too?”

“She did!” Kaylee nodded, her hat pompoms bouncing wildly. “She made lemon shortbread! And candy cane cookies!”

“Which are for Saturday’s bake sale,” Lily reminded her sister.

Kaylee waved a hand airily. “She can make more! We can share some!” Then she seemed to remember her manners and turned to Molly. “Can’t we?”

Molly laughed, unable to be mad at the little girl. “I think we can probably spare some cookies to pay for our ride in, yes,” she said, removing the blankets from her lap. “And you’ll at least come in to have a cup of tea? Pavel brought me some new spice teas when he came in last week.”

“I would love a cup of tea,” Old Man Winter said, stepping off the sledge.

“But what about your reindeer?” Gideon asked, a little worried. “Aren’t you afraid they’ll wander off without you here?”

Old Man Winter laughed. “They might, but they’ll come back when I call. They like to wander, but they like being fed more!”

“Oh, good.” Gideon nodded and followed the rest of them inside.

DC was at the front counter and grinned at all of them when they came in. “We were wondering if you were going to sleep all day!” she teased. “Isn’t that what you do when there’s no school?”

“Well, the bed was awful warm,” Gideon said seriously. “But Kaylee kicked a bit.”

“Did not!” she said instantly.

Actually, you both kicked, Jack said mildly. I know, because I was in between you. He nosed them along. Come on, let’s get some tea, and then we can do the Advent calendar!

Molly wondered privately how many times a day Jack had to divert or calm Kaylee down. She loved the little girl, but Kaylee was a bit of a force of nature sometimes. The big hound, however, seemed to be well-suited to keep her in check. Molly didn’t envy him that task at all.

Drew had left the castle on the island in the kitchen, and the kids immediately clustered around it, trying to see the next number. Old Man Winter made it easier by picking the castle up and bringing it out into the tea room, so they could all look. Molly could hear the excited murmurs as they looked. She smiled to herself, knowing what was coming next.

“That is the cat that ate the canary smile,” Old Man Winter observed, coming back in.

She winked at him as she handed him a cup of tea. “Pavel found this tea on his travels, and I thought you would like it,” she said instead. “It should warm you up quickly, since I have a feeling it’s going to be a long, cold day for you.”

“My favorite kind.”

<><>

Gideon found the number 7, hidden on a wall halfway up the north tower, and touched a finger to it. The window opened with a rush of snowflakes and cold air, and inside, they could see a very strange scene indeed.

“They’re OUTSIDE! INSIDE!” Kaylee said, awed.

The room was coated in a fine layer of snow, and three small creatures (they might be elves – Schrodinger wasn’t sure, but they certainly LOOKED like the elves from all the Christmas movies he and Molly had watched) were busy at work, rolling various balls of snow of various sizes. Around them were snowmen in all sorts of positions: some were busy shoveling more snow for the elves, it seemed; others were dressing themselves in hats, scarves, and mittens; and even more were decorating the trees around them.

One of the elves turned towards them, grinned, and waved. As they waved back, he laughed and tossed a snowball right at them.

It came out the window, and swirled around them before bursting into glittering snowflakes. Gideon caught the note out of the air and read out loud, “I hope you have good mittens! There are lots of snowmen to be made, and we need help!”

“Snowmen! I love making snowmen!” he crowed, pumping his fist in the air.

“But where are we making them?” Lily wondered. “That could be anywhere!” She looked at Gideon. “Does it say where?”

“No,” he said, turning the note over in his hand and then giving it to her. “There’s nothing else.”

Maybe Molly knows? Schrodinger said, and they all turned to look at the kitchen witch as she and Old Man Winter came out with a tray of steaming mugs and cookies.

“Maybe Molly knows what?” Molly asked, as she set the tray down on another table, away from the castle.

Lily showed her the note. “Do you know where we’re going to be making snowmen?”

Schrodinger saw the merry twinkle in her hazel eyes, but Molly frowned at the note. “Hmm, snowmen, huh?” She turned to Old Man Winter. “Do you know a place that might need snowmen?”

“You know, I think I do,” the old spirit said, after considering it for a few minutes. “It seems to me that when I came through the Gate Station the other day, Mal was telling me that their decorations seemed a little flat, and did I think some snowmen might be what they needed?”

“I LOVE the Gate Station!” Gideon said. “Let’s go there and make snowmen!”

“Why don’t you warm up first?” Molly suggested, indicating the tray. “If you’re going to make snowmen at the Gate Station, you’re going to be outside for a long time. And I’ve got some things that need to go over there anyways, so let me pack those up.”

By the time the hot tea and hot chocolate was gone, Molly had packaged up a loaf of cranberry-nut bread, along with scones and some of the candy cane cookies, and a package of assorted teas, and Kiaya had made it in to the store, brushing snowflakes from her hair.

“Mom, we’re going to the Gate Station to make snowmen!” Gideon announced as she joined them. “Do you want to come?”

“What?” Kiaya said, blinking a bit. “When?”

“As soon as we get warmed up,” he said. “You are coming with us, right?”

“Why don’t you let her have a cup of tea first,” Molly said, bringing Kiaya a mug of Earl Grey with cream in it. Kiaya took it gratefully, holding the mug in both hands to warm her fingers up. “The snow isn’t going anywhere.”

Schrodinger watched Kiaya take a sip, then suddenly realize who was sitting next to her son. Old Man Winter smiled at her genially and took another cookie from the tray.

“Mom, this is Old Man Winter! He brought us into the store on a sleigh pulled by reindeer, and he knows Santa! And he’s going to take us to the Gate Station! And I kick in my sleep!” Gideon bounced. “But Jack said I stopped after a while!”

“Whoa, hold on, buddy,” Kiaya said, laughing a little despite herself. “Slow down.”

He looked at her critically. “Did you sleep okay, Mom? You look a little tired.”

“I’m okay, just a little confused.” She took a sip of her tea. “Let me warm up and catch up with you.”

“But I’m not moving.”

Well, you are, but that’s not what she meant, Schrodinger said kindly. She needs to mentally catch up.

Gideon frowned, and sat thinking about that for a bit. While he did, Kiaya nodded gratefully to Schrodinger and drank her tea. Once it was gone, she said, “Okay, so you’re going to the Gate Station?”

“Yes, I was going to take them,” Old Man Winter said. “We would be happy if you joined us.”

You can always write in one of the rooms there if you need, Schrodinger added, as she hesitated. He knew she was on deadline. But it would be fun if you came!

Kiaya looked at the faces of the children around her, all looking hopeful, and surrendered. “I’m actually a little ahead of where I need to be, and I could use a break. Why not?”

“Yay!” Gideon cheered, and launched himself into her arms.

The ride to the Station was fast, although Old Man Winter kept to the streets of the town. The snow was still falling, and with the Christmas lights twinkling through the flakes, it seemed to Schrodinger that they were caught in a magical snow globe. Kiaya had been properly awed by the sledge and the reindeer, and she and Gideon were busy teaching Lily and Kaylee a new Christmas carol about Vikings as the landscape went by them.

Which gave him time to speak to Old Man Winter privately.

He had managed to sit next to Kiaya on the big seat in front of where Old Man Winter was nominally guiding the reindeer, and now he turned around and said quietly, Have you heard any more about Caliban?

No, Old Man Winter replied. I figured Molly told you. He hasn’t been seen reliably.

Schrodinger noticed that he hadn’t said the spirit hadn’t been seen. Where are the unreliable sightings?

Here and there, mostly through older Gates that are unmanned, Old Man Winter said. We know he was with the cousin that we think broke him out, but he left her a few days ago. We’re not sure where he is now, or who he’s with. He might be traveling alone, for all we know.

And that makes him dangerous, Schrodinger said.

Old Man Winter hesitated.

You don’t think so? Schrodinger asked. Why not?

I don’t know, but it’s entirely possible that Caliban wants something other than the Cove, Old Man Winter said finally. I know he wanted to take the Cove when he came and courted Jade, and it consumed him. But now? I don’t know. He might want to just go somewhere else.

Schrodinger pondered that as the sledge pulled up the driveway to the Gate Station.

Heidi and Porter, her immense grey cat, met them at the doorway. “Molly telephoned after you left,” the receptionist said, pushing her glasses back up her nose and smiling. “She said you were here to help with snowmen!”

“Yes!” Lily said, nodding. “The advent calendar said you needed snowmen!”

“We do indeed! Let me tell Mal you’re here!” Heidi picked up the phone on her desk and spoke into it.

Mal came out a few minutes later, Drew and Tom Alward Jr. with him. The boys were armed with shovels, and Mal grinned at all of them. “I hear you’ve come to help us with snowmen!” he said. “I’m so glad! These two have been telling me that they don’t know how to make the snowmen I want! Can you imagine?”

“What kind of snowmen do you need?” Kaylee asked. “We can do anything.”

“Well, this year, I was thinking that we needed a new theme,” Mal told her, crouching down so that he was at their level. Schrodinger noticed that he’d removed the cigarette that normally lived in his mouth before they’d come in. “We’ve done a few different ones in the past few years, but this year, I wanted something really special. Do you guys think you can do some snowmen enjoying winter sports? Things like sledding, and skiing, and things like that?”

The three children looked at each other for a long time, obviously thinking this through. “We could have some of them decorating trees,” Gideon said finally.

“And maybe some feeding the birds?” Lily added. “We could even put a feeder made of snow out.”

“And skating!” Kaylee said, her eyes lighting up. “Because skating is fun!”

“I don’t know,” Drew said, and Schrodinger noticed he had the same mischievous twinkle in his eyes that Molly had had earlier. “Those sound pretty hard to make.”

Gideon waved a hand. “We’ll show you. We’re professionals.”

“I knew we had the right people for the job!” Mal said. “Heidi, do you still have that basket of supplies?”

“Right here, boss,” she said, and handed over the big basket to Kiaya. “This should have everything you need.”

“Right! Let’s go!” Old Man Winter said. “We have snowmen to make!”

>Activity: make a snowman out front or out back of your house!

Originally published at The words of Valerie Griswold-Ford. You can comment here or there.

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