(advent) December 23

Wednesday, December 23

“All right, boys, let’s go.” Paul pushed his finished breakfast plate aside and drained his tea cup, sighing a bit. Molly had noticed the coffee in the cupboard when she was exploring the night before, but no one had asked for it, and she’d breathed a soft sigh of relief. He hadn’t seemed unhappy with the pile of potatoes, eggs, bacon, and root vegetables she’d set on the table, and it was all gone.

Where are we going? Schrodinger asked, looking up at the sailor. What do we need to get?

“Well, we need a Christmas tree, for one,” Brynna said, standing up and starting to collect the plates. “And there are some gifts I need you to pick up in the town.”

“And we need you out from under our feet,” Ella added, joining her mother. “No, Molly, you sit. We can do dishes, and then we can all start cooking dinner.”

“Are you insinuating that you can’t cook with us here?” Pavel said, grinning hugely.

“There’s no insinuation,” Ella told him. “You four are not welcome while we cook – we’ll need all the room we can get, and if we’re working hard, there’s no reason you can’t be either. You can break into the rum bottle when you get back, the decorations and tree are up, and presents are wrapped.”

“Slave drivers,” Drew said to Schrodinger. “They’re all slave drivers.”

But they’re making us dinner, so it sounds like a good trade to me, the CrossCat said. And then, when we come back, I bet there will be a nice hot lunch or at least cocoa to warm us up. Molly isn’t a slave driver. I think if we’re not helping here, we should be out of the way.

“Ah, Schrodinger, you’re a wise cat,” Brynna said, winking at Molly. “I think there could be a hot lunch waiting when you get back, yes.”

See? Schrodinger said, looking at Drew, Pavel, and Paul. It’s a trade. Let’s go!

“You don’t even know where we’re going,” Drew laughed, but he and the others got to their feet.

To get a Christmas tree! The CrossCat jumped down and bounced out of the kitchen.

“Let us at least get our coats and boots on!” Drew called, and received a strangled yowl in reply. That made everyone laugh.

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“I think we’ll get the tree first,” Paul said, when the men and Schrodinger reassembled in the front yard. “That way, we can load everything on the sleigh.” He looked at the list in his hand. “Since it’s a longer list than I thought.”

What is on the list? Schrodinger asked, standing up on his hind legs to look. He put one paw on Paul’s leg to steady himself, but he couldn’t make out the words.

“MacKay’s, Piotr’s, the Candlery, and Yana’s,” Paul told him, and laughed as Schrodinger’s ears swiveled. “That means that Brynna’s been busy, and there will be packages to pick up at most of them. And I want to stop by Meri’s – she’s got a special gift for Brynna from me.”

“You said you had a sled?” Drew said. “Are we pulling it?”

“No, I think Loki needs some exercise,” Paul said, and led them around the house to the small barn Schrodinger had investigated the day before. He knew exactly who Loki was.

When Paul opened the door to the barn, a warm smell of hay and lanolin drifted out. Schrodinger bounded in happily, enjoying the feel of the animals around him. Paul and Brynna had a small farm, with three goats, several chickens, a few ducks, and two large pigs. Pavel had put his two horses in the next stalls, and they whickered as the CrossCat went by. And in the back stall was Loki.

Hello, Loki! Schrodinger called, going back to the stall where the large ram dozed on the straw. Are you ready for an adventure?

Always, the ram replied in his deep voice, opening his dark eyes and blinking sleepily. Where are we going?

To get a Christmas tree!

Loki got to his feet as Paul came up, holding his harness. “Rise and shine!” Paul said cheerily, and Loki blew a snort through his nostrils.

“That is one big ram,” Pavel said, blinking, as Schrodinger and Paul came out with Loki between them.

“Very strong,” Paul agreed. “And more easy-going than a horse.” He patted Loki fondly on the shoulder.

And smarter, Loki said, butting his head against Paul. Most horses don’t talk.

No, Schrodinger agreed. They don’t.

Paul harnessed Loki to the large sled that Pavel and Drew had pulled out. “Now, first to the tree,” he said. “Follow me.”

They followed him up the road, away from the town, and into the woods that started away from the cliffs. The morning was bright, crisp and clear, with the strong smell of the sea on the wind that rushed past them. Schrodinger bounded ahead, glorying in the feel of the snow beneath his paws, secure in the love of his chosen family. It was finally right, he realized. Pavel was happy, Molly and Drew were happy, and he had new places to explore, so he was happy. Although he’d chosen to settle down, all CrossCats possessed an innate need to explore, and Schrodinger realized that now he had yet another place to come and satisfy that need. Life was good.

“How big a tree are we looking at?” Drew asked Paul as they trudged along a narrow path in between large evergreens. The sounds of the sea had finally been eclipsed by the sound of the wind in the pines, and the sharp scent of fir and juniper all but drowned the scent of salt water. Schrodinger could smell other animals as well – animals he didn’t recognize, and some that he did. There was a bear nearby, sleeping in her den, dreaming of spring and the cubs growing in her womb. A jack rabbit bounded ahead of them, looking for something to eat and trying to avoid the hawk he knew was around. There were sharper scents, and Schrodinger paused, trying to identify them.

Wolves, Loki told him, his nostrils flaring as he scented the wind. They’re not going to bother us. We’re too big a group, and there are easier targets.

I’ve never met a wolf, Schrodinger said, deciding to stay closer to the party. But I’ve heard of them.

They’re fierce hunters, but know when to choose their battles. Loki nodded to Paul. They know he carries a gun. We’ve run into them before.

“It’s not much farther,” Paul said, turning down a side trail. “Our destination is just ahead.”

He led them down the trail, over a wooden bridge that had a small, ice-choked stream running underneath it, and into an obviously man-made field. The town had cleared a large swath of woods and planted neat rows of Christmas trees.

“We started this about fifteen years ago, when Brynna and I spent our first Christmas here, and she realized there were no trees,” Paul said, smiling proudly as they looked around. “We got seeds from one of the other islands and planted them here.” He looked at Schrodinger. “We need one about 6 feet tall. Can you find a good one?”

Of course I can! The CrossCat bounded off, running up and down the rows.

He was looking for a specific thing, as he did every year, since the first year he and Molly had looked for a Christmas tree: a nest. Lily and Jack had told him that finding a bird’s nest in the Christmas tree meant a year of luck and prosperity for everyone he cared about.

He wove in and out of the trees, looking for that scent of feathers and twigs that would signify a nest. Then he caught another scent and pulled up short. This was a scent he was familiar with.

Schrodinger had left Drew, Paul, Pavel, and Loki at the edge of the field, so he was alone in the sea of evergreens. The smell of brimstone wrapped around him, and he looked around, wondering where it came from. And if it was friendly.

Hello? He called out, hoping it was friendly. It didn’t have the signature smell of Ember, the dragon that he’d befriended who lived with Old Man Winter. But it didn’t necessarily have to be evil. Where are you?

After a long moment, he heard something crunch through the snow, and a sleepy voice said, Who’s there?

My name is Schrodinger, and I’m looking for a Christmas tree! Schrodinger said politely, sitting down under the tree he was nearest. I’m sorry if I woke you up.

Well, at least you’re polite. The trees opposite him shivered, then pulled their roots up and stepped aside, making a large opening in the field so the large silver dragon that came out of the snow could stand comfortable. I wasn’t quite asleep, luckily. I don’t sleep deeply here – too close to the town. It looked at him with deep blue eyes, not hungrily, but with interest. I haven’t seen a CrossCat in a very long time, and I stop here every year.

I’m visiting, Schrodinger said. My friend Pavel is the grandson of Captain Brynna Stromsdottir, and we’re celebrating Christmas here before we head back home.

And where is home? The silver dragon asked, settling himself in the snow. His long tail wrapped around him, and as he did so, Schrodinger noticed the trees sliding back into their spots. He was fascinated by that, and realized that he was staring when the silver dragon chuckled. The trees are kind, and don’t mind me coming through, as long as I warn them, so their branches don’t break.

I didn’t know dragons could talk to trees! Ember never told me that!

Not all can, the silver dragon said. It depends on what we learn as fledglings. My grand-dam was very interested in herbs and trees, and she taught me how to talk to plants, to find out what they can do. We’re a race of healers.

That’s amazing, Schrodinger said. Then he realized the dragon had asked him a question. I’m originally from the Den, but now I live in Carter’s Cove.

Ah, a lovely place. I had wondered. The dragon laid his head on his front paws and regarded the CrossCat. I haven’t been back there in a very long time.

It’s my home now, so I think I’m biased, but I think it’s the best place, Schrodinger said.

Of course. It’s where your people are. The dragon smiled, a large, toothy grin. That’s the best place to be, where your people are.

And where are your people? Schrodinger asked.

I’m heading there now, the dragon told him. This is my last stopping point before I get back to the island where I hatched from. We’ll be celebrating the Yule season there in two days. He smiled again. I cannot wait to see my siblings.

The image of a large warm cavern, with many great silver wings, popped into Schrodinger’s mind. He nodded, noticing how similar to the Den the dragon’s cave was. It looks lovely, he said.

It is. The dragon sighed, and rose. And I should be going. Good luck on your tree hunt, young Schrodinger. Have a merry Yule season to you and yours.

And to you!

Schrodinger watched the trees move aside again, and the dragon leapt into the air. Just before the large silver beast vanished into the sky, a thought drifted back. And if you get a chance, please tell Ember that Grismouth the Wanderer sends his greetings, and hopes he will see her again someday.

I shall! Schrodinger waited until the trees moved back into their spots, and then turned aside, looking for that elusive tree.

<><>

“So, what are we making?” Molly asked, once the menfolk had left and they’d enjoyed a leisurely second cup of tea around the table. Ella had made quick work of the dishes, and while they sat, Brynna had pulled out a large book of recipes.

“I thought we’d do a traditional dinner,” Brynna said. “I haven’t made one in a very long time, but since we’ll all be here.” She flipped through the pages of the cookbook, and then said, “Of course, we need to make the bread.”

“I can do that,” Molly said. “Bread is a specialty of mine.”

Brynna nodded. “Here’s the recipe,” she said, pulling the sheet out of the sleeve it was in, and Molly realized that the book was actually more like a binder. The recipe itself was written in a lovely hand, clear and strong. It contained raisins, brown sugar, and honey in a braided loaf. “I think we’ll want to make three – two for us, and one for the Church,” she said. “I always send a loaf down.”

Molly studied the recipe. “I think it will actually be best if we make 4,” she said. “If we do that, I can use it to make French toast the next morning.”

“Oh, that sounds lovely!” Brynna agreed. “Meanwhile, Ella, you and I can make the lamb. I’ve got a lovely roast that we got in last week.

“What do you do with it?” Molly asked her.

“I think we’ll go simple this year,” Brynna told her. “I’m going to wrap it in bacon, with herbs stuffed in it. And then we pair it with winter greens and cranberries. You didn’t use all my potatoes, did you?”

“No,” Molly said. “There’s still plenty. Mashed potatoes, then?”

“Yes, with some of the milk from the goats,” Brynna said. She looked around at them. “Ready, ladies?”

They got busy, and by the time the boys came back with their load, the kitchen smelled of roasting meat, bacon, and the sweet smell of Molly’s bread. She went to help them decorate the tree with the box of ornaments Brynna had brought down from the attic, and then they all gathered around the table for dinner.

“This is amazing,” Paul said, looking at the laden table. He kissed his wife. “You ladies have outdone yourself.”

“Agreed,” Drew said, and Pavel nodded.

This is the best, Schrodinger said. Until we get home, that is.

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