(advent) December 21

Monday, December 21

“Are you sure you’re okay with this?” Molly asked her sister-in-law again, a worried look on her face. “I mean, it’s a big imposition.”

“Huge,” Corrine agreed wryly, rolling her eyes at her. “I mean, you spent all yesterday cooking, so all we have to do is warm everything up on Friday, so you don’t have to worry about hosting. The house needs to be cleaned, and Nathan is taking the girls for the week so I can do that. I get to be by myself for three days, until they join me, in a house that is stocked with amazing food and a great wine cellar. However will I survive?” She gave Molly a hug. “Trust me, I’ll be fine. The girls will be fine. You need to get going, or Pavel will think you aren’t coming.”

It will be okay, Molly, Jack added. I’m staying here, and really, what could happen that you being here could stop? The big hound licked her hand. I’ll make sure everything is safe!

“I know, I know,” Molly said, surrendering. “I just hate to impose.”

“I can finish wrapping all my gifts without interference,” Corrine said. “That’s worth having to vacuum your house alone.”

Come on, Molly! We don’t want them to leave without us! Schrodinger was already in the Jeep, leaning out of the window, his tail whipping against the seat.

“I’m coming, I’m coming!” Molly said, giving Corrine one last hug, and ruffling the fur on Jack’s head. Then she ran down the steps and hopped into the Jeep before she could think of anything else she might have forgotten.

“Ready for an adventure, Cat?” she said, making sure Schrodinger was fully in the car before she rolled up the window. It was bitterly cold out, and Molly cranked the heat, trying not to shiver.

I wonder how cold it will be at Pavel’s grandmother’s house? Schrodinger said, wrapping his tail around his paws. He was wearing his heaviest coat, as well as the hat Mrs. Barrett had made for him, and was shivering a little too. That’s how Molly knew it was really cold.

“I don’t know,” she said, flexing her fingers inside her mittens. She had small gloves on under the mittens, so her fingers would be protected if she needed to take the mittens off for any reason. “I guess it depends on where she lives. Did Pavel say anything to you about it?”

No, and I forgot to ask, Schrodinger admitted sheepishly. I was too excited about going.

“Me too,” Molly agreed, laughing a little. “Well, we’ll find out soon enough!”
Pavel had his sleigh around the back of the Gate Station when they pulled into the employee parking lot, and he and Drew were busy loading boxes and bags onto the back of it. “What is all this?” Molly asked, as she and Schrodinger joined Ella, who was supervising the two men.

“We were asked to bring some supplies through for the town my mother lives in,” Ella said. Her voice issued from the depths of the knitted hood she was wearing, and Molly could barely see the glint of her blue eyes. “When they heard we were coming, they asked if we could bring some things.”

What are we bringing? Schrodinger asked.

“Cloth, and some foods, mostly meat and fruits, that they cannot normally get,” Ella said. “It’s a rather small town, my mother says, even with the Gate there, so she asked if we could bring some things to make Christmas even brighter for them.”

“Will we have enough room for everything?” Molly said, looking at the pile.

“Oh yes,” Pavel assured her, stopping for a moment to look over at them. “It’s not as much as it appears, and we’ve got plenty of room.”

“That’s because you got this sleigh set up to smuggle things, Pavel.” Drew chuckled. “How much did that spell on the cargo box cost you?”

“It’s made me far more money than I spent, so what does it matter?” Pavel countered, winking at Molly and Schrodinger. “Besides, it means I don’t have to leave your clothes behind.”

“Well, that’s good, because I don’t intend to leave without my clothing,” Molly said, laughing at the pirate. “It’s too cold here to be walking around naked, and since we’re taking the sleigh, I’m assuming it will be too cold there too.”

“Very true,” Pavel said. “The town we are heading to is right on the ocean, and is quite cold in the Yule season. I hope you packed warmly.”

We did, Schrodinger assured him. And Molly even brought extra blankets!

“Just in case,” Molly said, shrugging. “I don’t like being cold.”

The wind whistled around them, cutting through Molly’s heavy layers and making her shiver. Drew saw that and said, “Molly, why don’t you, Ella and Schrodinger go into the Station? We’re almost done here, and you can warm up while we finish. Just leave your bags here.”

“Sounds good to me.” Molly hastily added their personal luggage to the pile, snagging the box of scones she had made for Mal as she did so, and led Ella into the mansion that housed Carter’s Cove Land Gate. As they hit the warm air, she pulled her hat off and fluffed out her hair, trying to get her ears to warm up. “Ella, if it’s an ocean town, why aren’t we taking the ship?”

“Because my son knows how much I loathe sea travel,” Ella said, pulling her hood down. Her silver streaked hair was braided back again in her customary coronet, which Molly saw covered her ears. “I get sea-sick.”

Molly looked at her. “Really?”

“Really.” Ella nodded. “It’s a shame, and I know it. I’m the first in a long line of sailors to hate the sea.” She laughed a little. “It’s probably why Pavel’s father didn’t take me with him when he left. Can you imagine, sea sickness AND morning sickness?”

“That would be awful,” Molly agreed, shivering as much from the image as the residual chill in her bones. “Come on, we’re going this way.”

They stopped in Mal’s crowded office, and he gave Molly a mock-scowl. “What do you want?” he growled, but Molly and Schrodinger both saw the twinkle in his eyes.

“To thank you personally for letting Drew come with us,” Molly said, picking her way through the mess to his desk. “Two dozen turkey cranberry scones, AND a tin of my chocolate orange fudge. For you and you alone.”

Mal’s eyes lit up, and the scowl dropped away. “Fudge too?”

“Fudge too,” she assured him, handing him the box. “And you don’t have to share.”

“Maybe next time I’ll raise my prices,” he said, switching the ever-present cigarette in his mouth to the other side so she could plant a kiss on his cheek.

“Maybe next time I won’t pay,” she countered, and he laughed. “Merry Christmas, Mal.”

“Merry Christmas, Molly. Now go, so I can get some work done.”

The Gate room was warm and green-smelling, as always, and Molly saw Steve manning the terminal. He raised his hand in greeting, but then turned as the bay doors opened at the end of the room. Pavel and Drew came through, Pavel guiding his horses expertly along the path.

“Ready to go?” he shouted, as he pulled up beside them. “Snuggle in!”

Schrodinger hopped up, not into the sleigh itself, but up on to the driver’s seat with Pavel. Please, can I ride here? He asked, looking up at the pirate. I want to see everything!

“Of course you can!” Pavel said, grinning. He turned to make sure his mother and Molly were safely in the back of the sleigh, wrapped up with Drew in the veritable pile of furs and blankets, then moved the sleigh up to the Gate terminal. He handed Steve a piece of paper with the coordinates on it, and Molly settled back into Drew’s arms to wait.

She loved watching the Gate open up. Normally, it was a deceptively-simple looking stone arch, with symbols carved into it. It wasn’t actually all stone – there were portions that were actual metallic and housed the mixture of technology and magic that allowed the Gate technicians and engineers to manipulate the Roads.

“So how did the Gates work before we had the technology to program them?” she asked Drew quietly, as the Gate began to glow in front of them.

“It took a lot more magic,” he said. “The people who used them basically forced the Roads to go through the Gates with magical force. Now, we understand the equations that make it easier for us to move them. Not all the equations, but enough of them to let the computers do most of the work.”

“I trust you,” Molly told him. “I’m glad it works. But I don’t think I want to try and figure out any more.”

He laughed.

The Road from Carter’s Cove to Hfrafell, the town where Captain Brynna Stromsdottir was now living, was a calm one, and the trip took less than an hour. The Gate at the other end of the Road was housed in a large barn, and in addition to green grass, the scent of animals hit Molly’s nose. On either side of the Road track were large sheep that grazed on the grass generated by the Gate’s heat. The animals seemed not to be bothered by the sleigh – indeed, they barely looked up from their grazing.

“Oh, how cute,” Molly said, catching sight of one of their faces. It was black, and with its shaggy grey wool all over, it looked almost like a stuffed animal. “They look so warm!”

“They’re bred for this climate,” Ella told her. “They probably only allow them in the Gate room for a bit every day, so they don’t overheat.” She pointed to the open doors at the end. “Look, they don’t have them blocked off. I’ll bet the temperature is just warm enough in here to keep the grass alive.”

“That’s true,” said one of the large men that came over to the sleigh. Unlike the Gate technicians at Carter’s Cove, he was in what looked like woolen leggings, tucked into high leather boots, and a heavy tunic of more wool. He reminded Molly of the Vikings in some of the books Schrodinger had been enjoying lately. “There are doors, though. We keep them in here when the weather gets bad, or once we start shearing, if it’s still too cold.” He smiled, white teeth gleaming in his dark beard. “Welcome to Hfrafell. Where are you from, and where are you heading?”

Pavel leaned over and handed him a piece of paper. “We’re from Carter’s Cove, and we’re heading to the General Store with some supplies we were asked to bring, and then to Captain Brynna Stromsdottir’s,” he said, and the tech’s face lit up.

“Ah, you must be Pavel, her grandson! She said you’d be coming through!” He reached up and offered Pavel his hand. “I’m Argus, one of the main Gate engineers here, and I’m pleased to meet you, Pavel!” Argus then turned to Ella and doffed his head. “Ma’am, Miss.”

Drew untangled his hand from the blankets and held it out. “Drew McIntyre, Gate engineer at Carter’s Cove,” he said, and Argus shook his hand heartily.

“You’re all very welcome!” the engineer said, grinning. “General Store’ll be happy to see you – that’s a straight shot out of the doors here. Just follow the road, until you see MacKay’s. Old Man MacKay is expecting you. He’ll give you directions to Brynna’s.”

“Thank you!” Pavel said, and Schrodinger stuck his head around to echo, Yes, thank you!

Argus looked as if someone had hit him with a two-by-four to the forehead, then his grin returned. “What…a CrossCat? Here? It IS a big day!” He shook his head. “We’ve not had a CrossCat here in years!”

Then I’ll have to make it memorable, Schrodinger said.

“Not necessary,” Molly told him, knowing that “memorable” could mean a lot of different things, depending on the CrossCat’s frame of mind that moment. “Let’s just go.”

Pavel shook his reins, and the horses jumped forward, causing the sheep to move away from the track. They burst out into icy sunshine, and clattered down the road towards MacKay’s General Store.

Everyone looked around in interest. Pavel had said the town was built on the side of the ocean, but Molly hadn’t realized that this meant it was a cliff-side town. Hfrafell clung to the side of a large mountain, layers of terraces that were arranged with houses and gardens, all shrouded in snow. There were no lights on the houses, but there were candles set in bundles of evergreens in the windows, and wreaths on the doors. MacKay’s General Store, a large building with a generous porch that held several large rocking chairs, was three terraces down from the Gate station, and there were several people waiting for them when Pavel’s sleigh pulled up.

“Ho, are you Brynna’s boy?” One of them shouted to Pavel, stepping out into the street near the sleigh. “We’ve been waiting for you!”

“I am,” Pavel affirmed, bringing the horses to a stop. If he was bothered at all by the fact that everyone seemed to know him as his grandmother’s grandson, he didn’t show it, at least to Molly’s eyes. He tossed the reins to the man on the street and hopped down, Schrodinger after him. “And we come with supplies!”

A cheer went up from the men, and they joined in, helping him and Drew carry the boxes and sacks inside, while Molly and Ella waited in the sleigh. It didn’t take very long, but Schrodinger, in his excitement, managed to get in the way more than he helped. Finally, all the supplies were unloaded, Schrodinger had been coaxed into the sleigh by Molly, and Pavel had gotten directions from Old Man MacKay about how to get to Brynna’s.

“It’s pretty easy,” the old man, his long beard braided into two neat braids and tied with red ribbons (the sight reminded Molly of Zoey’s braids, oddly enough). “Just take the next road to the right, and then follow it almost to the edge of town, on the final upper terrace. Brynna’s house is blue, and it’s got a large widow’s walk at the top. She likes to keep an eye on her ship when she’s in port, and that house looks right down on the piers.”

“When she’s in port?” Pavel blinked, surprised. “She still sails?”

“As if you could keep her off the sea,” Old Man MacKay snorted. “Although sometimes I think Paul urges her to go. She gets cranky if she’s on the land for too long.”

“Sounds familiar,” Molly said, looking innocently at Pavel. “I wondered where you got it from.”

Pavel snorted, and climbed back up on the driver’s seat of the sleigh.

“Thank you again,” Old Man MacKay told him. “You’ve made this a better Christmas, since the ships have been delayed. A lot of folks will be thanking you.”

“Our pleasure,” Pavel said, and shook the reins to start the horses up again.
The town wasn’t that large, and after a few minutes, they climbed onto the final terrace and Molly could see the blue house that Old Man MacKay had directed them to. It was larger than some of them, but not overly so, and part of the roof was flat, with a railing around it.

“The widow’s walk,” she said quietly, and Ella nodded. The spot where countless captains’ wives had stood, waiting for a glimpse of their husband’s ships on the horizons. Molly had always wanted to stand and look out over the ocean from one.

As the horses drew up in front of the gate (the house was set back a little from the road, with a front yard that may have had some beds in it, but it was covered in so much snow that Molly couldn’t tell), the front door opened, and a woman came out.

She was tall, like Pavel, but she had Ella’s blue eyes, and her long grey hair hung in two braids, one over either shoulder. Her face was weathered from years at sea, but it looked like both Ella and Pavel’s, and Molly could see the hesitation in every part of her body.

Pavel swung himself down from the driver’s seat, but it was Ella who made it to the woman first, moving faster than Molly would have thought possible.

“Mother!” she said, and burst into tears as she threw herself in Brynna’s arms. “I’ve missed you!”

“Oh, I’ve missed you too,” Brynna replied, enfolding her daughter in her strong arms, tears leaking down her face as well. “I’ve missed you too.”

Then she looked up at her tall grandson, and with only a little hesitation, she held out one of her arms. “Pavel?”

Molly held her breath, hoping that he wouldn’t step away, that he’d join the embrace. After a long moment, he did, putting his arms around both women, and buried his face in his grandmother’s hair.

They stood for a while like that, just embracing, and then Brynna stepped back, trying to compose herself. “It’s too cold to continue this out here,” she said briskly. “Put the horses in the barn in back, Pavel, and bring everyone inside. Welcome to my home.”

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