Advent 2021 – December 22

December 22 – Lily and Kaylee

Once the candle had been lit, Brynna stepped back, and Molly’s nieces Lily and Kaylee stepped forward together. Their faces shone with excitement: they both adored both the Snow Queen and Old Man Winter. Molly wondered how long the negotiations had been over choosing ornaments. 

Jade smiled at the two girls, and Molly realized with a start that they were nearly as tall as the Snow Queen. In fact, Lily could look her straight in the eyes, and Kaylee wasn’t far behind.

“We decided to go together on an ornament,” Kaylee said. 

Lily nodded agreement. “Because one of the best things about the Christmas season is being together,” she said, and looked at Kaylee. “Okay?”

Kaylee reached into the pocket of her coat. The grey surrounded Molly and Schrodinger before she could see the ornament. 

When it cleared, both Molly and Schrodinger recognized the Barrett household. Molly’s parents owned a large rambling house on one of the many roads that meandered around Carter’s Cove, and until recently, it had been where the Barrett clan had celebrated Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The huge living room, filled with inviting couches and chairs, held not only the large tree, decorated with several generations’ worth of ornaments, but a fieldstone mantel over the fireplace. All the stockings were hung up, and since they were full, Molly guessed it must have been after Santa had come and gone.

“Shush!” A little voice said behind her, and Molly watched as a younger Lily, perhaps eight or nine, crept into the room, followed closely by her younger sister. “If we’re too loud, Dad will send us back to bed, and we won’t be able to see if it happened.”

Kaylee screwed up her face, pantomiming zipping her lips together, and Lily giggled a bit before she caught herself. The two paused, obviously checking to see if they’d be caught. When everything stayed quiet, they moved over to the window, and Molly suddenly realized what they were looking for.

There was an older stocking that had been in the Barrett family for as long as Molly could remember. The velvet loop was worn smooth, too fragile to be hung up when filled. Instead of being full now, it was empty, laid flat on an overstuffed chair, next to where the plate of cookies and a glass of milk sat. They too were empty.

Is that the orphan stocking? Schrodinger asked. 

“Yes,” Molly said, and as Kaylee reached out to touch it, the scene dissolved, and she was back, watching Kaylee hand the worn stocking.

“We leave this out every Christmas, full of mittens and scarves, for those who might not have some,” she said. “Mom and Dad help us collect them all year long, and then Santa takes them to give to those in need. We put some candy in each mitten, too.” She glanced at her sister, and Lily finished the thought.

“This year, we’re going to do a bag instead, because the stocking is getting too small. So we thought that it would go well on the tree.” Lily grinned. “It’s not exactly traditional to hang a stocking on a tree, but since Carter’s Cove isn’t exactly traditional…”

“It’s wonderful!” Jade said, taking the stocking gently.

Advent 2021 – December 21

December 21 – Brynna

Right behind Pavel was his mother Brynna, a sea captain in her own right, although she’d retired to the Cove with her second husband. Her short iron-grey hair ruffled in the winter wind. Molly had often wondered what sailing under her had been like.

At least as exciting as with Pavel, she decided.

Hardly, Schrodinger said. She’s not a pirate.

That’s been caught, Molly said, and the CrossCat chuckled.

“There has long been a tradition in my home that Christmas is a time to be with family,” Brynna said, her voice carrying easily over the crowd. “And not just those joined to you by blood or marriage.”

The fog wrapped around Molly, and when it cleared, she and Schrodinger were back in the house where they’d first met Pavel’s family. The house looked much the same, except for the young girl seated before the fire. Her fingers twisted thread from the drop spindle she held before her.

The clock on the mantel chimed, and she looked up. This Brynna’s hair was dark and rich, held in a thick braid to her waist, with no grey in it. But her eyes were the same hazel as Pavel’s, and twinkled just as merrily.

A tall man came out from the kitchen as she rose, and he held a small wreath of greenery in his hands. “Are you ready, Brynn?” he said.

“Aye, captain!” Brynna gave her father a cheerful salute.

“Well, then, fetch the candles!”

Pavel’s grandfather went over to the window and carefully set the wreath down. Brynna, her spindle tucked safely into her basket of wool, joined him and set a simple beeswax candle in the center of the wreath.

“For those who have gone before us, and those still on their way, may we be one of the beacons in the darkness,” they said in unison, each touching a lit match to the taper. It glowed with a steady yellow gleam.

“He’ll see it, right, Father?” Brynna said, looking up at the older man.

He laid a hand on her shoulder. “He’ll see it,” he told her. “If not by being here, then by knowing we lit it for him, to guide him home.”

I wonder who they are waiting for? Schrodinger said, and Molly shook her head.

She was about to answer when there was the sound of scuffing boots in the kitchen, and the back door opened. “Merry Christmas!”

“Armand!” Brynna shouted, and rushed to hug a man who must have been either a brother or a cousin. They shared the dark hair and hazel eyes that Pavel did. “You’re home!”

“Of course I am,” Armand said, and nodded towards the window. “I had the candle to navigate by.”

Molly and Schrodinger watched the images fade, bringing them back to the square where Brynna now hung the wreath with the candle set into it on the tree.

Jade leaned over and touched the tip of the wick, creating a small flame that danced merrily. “We can all use a light to guide us by, and this one will never dim,” she said.

Advent 2021 – December 20

December 20 – Pavel

After the beautiful owl had been nestled in the tree, Jade stopped to admire everything. “This is so lovely,” she said. “I can feel the joy and magic spreading out from it and covering the town.” She smiled. “This is exactly what we needed this year. Now, who’s next?”

Molly thought about that while several other townsfolk brought up their ornaments to hang on the tree. “I wonder if there’s something wrong about to happen,” she murmured, more to herself than anyone else. 

“Hmm?” Drew asked.

“Why do we need to have more magic covering the town?” Molly said. “Isn’t that what the Snow Queen’s Ball is for?”

“It’s been a hard year in this Realm, remember. Maybe there needs to be some extra joy to overcome the fear and sorrow in the world around us.”

“Maybe,” she agreed. Then she saw who was now mounting the dias and added, “Oh, this should be good.”

Dressed in his captain’s finery, even down to his polished black boots, Pavel Chekov, captain of the ship The Heart’s Desire, pulled off his black hat and swept it before him in an extravagant bow, the long white feathers in his hat nearly brushing the hem of the Snow Queen’s dress.

“Your Majesty, I too have a gift for the tree and the town that I have come to call home,” he said, his booming voice carrying easily to the very edges of the square. 

As he reached into his coat, the grey fog wrapped around her again. When it cleared, Molly and Schrodinger were standing in another forest. One neither of them recognized. Instead of conifers and snow, this forest’s trees lifted green leaves to a sunny sky, and moss coated the ground beneath their feet. Snatches of foreign bird song floated through the trees.

“Do you recognize this?” Molly asked.

Maybe? The CrossCat sounded unsure. Something smells familiar but I don’t know what.

A young man stepped into the clearing, followed by a stately young deer. It was almost pure white except for some strippling along its flanks, and it followed the boy as if on an invisible leash.

Is that…Pavel? Schrodinger asked.

I think so, Molly replied. A very yong Pavel.

The boy, dressed in mismatched clothing, paused in the clearing and then turned to the deer. “If you keep going along this path, it will bring you to the protected lands,” he said. “You’ll have to hurry, but I think I can slow them down enough to give you a good head start.” He laid one hand on the deer’s neck. “Be well,” he said. “I shall miss you.”

The deer nodded once, and then licked Pavel’s face from chin to forehead before leaping off down the path. Pavel wiped his face and watched his companion disappear into the deeper forest, then he turned back the way he’d come, and waited.

What’s he waiting for? Schrodinger asked. 

Before she could answer, something crashed in the distance. Molly could hear horns, and the thudding of horses’ hooves coming closer. The young Pavel straightened up, then leaned against a tree with studied nonchalance, as if he’d no cares at all.

The leader of the hunting party burst through the trees, pulling up sharply as he saw Pavel. A sneer crossed the man’s face.

“Well, well, well, boys, look what we have here.” The man’s voice grated against the air. Four more men entered the clearing behind the first, all clad in expensive-looking leather. Each one had a bow slung on their backs.

“Afternoon, Roman,” Pavel said. “Lovely day for a ride, although as usual, you’re pushing your horses too hard.” He squinted at the leader’s mount. “She’s going to need some extra care tonight. Good thing your grooms treat your horses better than you do.”

The leader, Roman, flushed an angry red. “Get out of my way, boy. We’re on the trail of that white doe that’s been seen. I want her head on my wall.”

Pavel shook his head. “Why do you insist on doing that? You know it’s just creepy and wasteful, right? Besides, don’t you already have two deer heads on your wall?”

“I’ve no white one,” Roman snarled. “I’ve been hunting her since before you were born. Now, which way did she go?”

Pavel sighed. “Did you ever stop to thing why you haven’t ever caught her?”

“Besides stupid pups like yourself slowing me down?” Roman said. “Which way?”

“Maybe she’s not meant to be caught,” Pavel said. “Maybe you’re chasing something that doesn’t really exist on this plane of existence except as a dream.”

Roman pushed his horse right up to Pavel, leaned down, and grabbed the boy’s ear. “Which….way??” He asked, jerking Pavel’s head back and forth. “Answer me, or it’ll be your head on my wall!”

Pavel didn’t yelp or scream, although the vicious yanking on his ear must have been painful. He kept silent for another minute, then pointed to another trail. “She went that way,” he said.

Roman twisted his ear a final time and then used his booted foot to shove Pavel bavkwards into the tree he’d been leaning against. “Come on, boys!” He shouted, and the entire company thundered off in completely the wrong direction.

The grey fog whisked them back to the Cove just as Pavel handed a white deer, a wreath of holly and ivy around her neck, to Jade. “In memory of those who escaped,” he said. “May their memories be a blessing.”

Advent 2021 – December 19

December 19 – Aunt Margie and Uncle Art

As Ember moved to the back of the dias, no doubt to discuss something with Old Man Winter, Molly saw her Aunt Margie and Uncle Art were stepping up to the tree. Aunt Margie had run CrossWind Books since before Molly and her brother Nathan were born, while Uncle Art had run the farm he’d inherited from his father. Now, Molly wondered which of the numerous ornaments Aunt Margie had brought.

“I’ve lived here all my adult life,” Aunt Margie said, looking out over the crowd of her friends and neighbors. “I came as a young wife, and I was adopted by all of you, and I am so proud to be a part of this community.” She carefully pulled out a small bundle and began to unwrap it.

What is it? Schrodinger asked, but the grey fog was wrapping around he and Molly again. When the fog cleared, they were standing alone in the midst of white birches and evergreens during one of those picture-perfect snow storms that came once or twice every winter.

Or so it seemed at first. There were snowflakes falling, and that deadened both noise and made it hard to see.

Then Schrodinger nudged her leg. Look to your left.

Molly turned, and there was her Aunt Margie and Uncle Art. They were standing together, dressed in warm clothes, with mugs of something steaming in their hands, on the deck that her uncles and grandfather and cousins had built one summer before she was born. The deck looked very new, and there weren’t any streaks of white in her aunt’s hair, or laugh lines on her face. In fact, she looked hardly older than Molly.

“Do you think we’ll see them today?” Aunt Margie asked.

“We should,” Uncle Art said. “The boys and I heard them when we were taking the cows back to the shed last night, and the night before.” He slipped his free hand around her waist. “And once they do show…”

“If they show,” she said.

“When they show, it will be time to get the decorations out and start the holiday,” Uncle Art finished. 

What are they talking about? Schrodinger asked. What are they waiting for?

“Just watch,” Molly said. “You’ll see.”

And then, through the gently falling snow, there was movement. The snowy owl that winged its way out of the trees hooted gently as it swooped between the flakes, circling the house three times before it ghosted away. 

“They still wait for her,” Molly said, as the scene started to fade. “The decorations at their farm don’t come out until the Christmas owl is seen.”

Aunt Margie finished unwrapping the beautifully carved snowy owl and handed it to Jade. “This owl has greeted us every Christmas season,” she said. “When we see her after Thanksgiving, we know it’s time to celebrate. It’s one of our signs that everything is right with the world.”

Advent 2021 – December 18

December 18 – Ember

The next person to bring up an ornament made their entrance by air. Molly, Drew, and Schrodinger joined in the general applause as the elegant blue-scaled dragon they all knew as Ember landed lightly in front of the tree.

I know I’m not an actual resident of the Cove, the dragon said. But I did want to give an ornament as well.

“You are most certainly a resident!” Gideon said stoutly, pushing back through the crowd. Zoey, and Molly’s own two nieces Lily and Kaylee stood beside him, all nodding their heads. “Just because you don’t live right on Main Street doesn’t mean anything.”

“Which is good, because nobody lives on Main Street,” Lily said to Zoey.

“Do we HAVE a Main Street?” Zoey asked.

“Nope,” Lily said. “Which is why no one lives there.”

Jade smiled at all of them as the crowd, even Gideon, laughed. “Even still, he’s right,” the Snow Queen said. “I couldn’t imagine the tree without something from you.”

Thank you, Ember said, inclining her head. Dragons do not normally celebrate Christmas as you do, but we do celebrate.

As the fog wrapped about them, Molly wondered what they would see. The grey cleared from her eyes, and she gasped.

She’d half-expected to see Ember’s snug cavern in the hills near the Snow Queen’s castle, or perhaps the stables of the mansion Drew had stayed in when they first met Old Man Winter. Instead, she and Schrodinger stood in a large hall, the ceiling lost into the gloom high above them. The floor was rock, worn smooth by hundreds of footsteps over who knew how many millennia. A large fireplace was off to their left, where flames danced over a pile of logs that might as well have been whole trees. Molly looked a bit closer, and realized that instead of actual flames, what were dancing on the wood were beings made entirely of flame, small creatures that whirled and leapt with joyous abandon. She turned back to the center of the room to see what else was there.

There were dragons, of course, but Molly had never dreamed that she would see so many in the same place. Dragons of every size and color congregated together in groups of two to twenty, and even still, the cavern seemed immense and endless. Some held cups in their hands and talked, while others lounged on piles of whatever they appeared to want. While Molly wasn’t quite sure she’d want to wrap herself around a spiky outcropping of what looked like quartz crystal, the red dragon who had claimed that spot was obviously comfortable, as its eyes were closed to slits, and something that sounded like a faint snore accompanied the wisps of smoke coming from its nostrils.

Look! There’s Ember!

Schrodinger’s voice pulled her attention from the dragon and she turned. It was indeed Ember, although she was larger than Molly had ever seen her. And there’s another mystery solved, she thought. I always wondered why she was so small. It was because she wanted to be, not because she was young.

You mean you didn’t know that? Schrodinger sounded surprised. I’ve known that since the beginning. Dragons would never let a young dragon of that size out on their own.

You clearly have more experience with dragons than I do, Molly told him. 

Ember had dropped from the ceiling, just as she’d dropped from the sky into the square, landing near one of the clusters of topaz and golden dragons that were busy doing something that their wings hid from Molly.

What’s the status? One of the dragons looked up at Ember, their brown eyes bright.

They’re coming in now, Ember said. You’ve got about two more minutes before that needs to be ready.

Luckily, we’re ready now, the other dragon said, bobbing its head in satisfaction. Is it still magnificent?

Of course it is, Ember said. He wouldn’t let it fail.

Then everyone’s attention was caught by movement in the back of the room. Six dragons, three green and three red, flew in, carrying something massive in a harness between them. The dragons on the ground stepped away from the area Ember stood near, and Molly saw the ground looked churned up, making a huge hole in the ground.

Be careful! The golden dragon that had spoken to Ember now reared up, using its wings to keep its balance. Don’t break it!

We’ve done this before, Kallix, one of the red dragons said. Believe it or not.

Molly and Schrodinger watched as the two foremost dragons dropped the edges of the harness down to just above the hole. A huge ball of roots and dirt slid out, and then, with just a bit of guidance from the dragons, a massive evergreen tree settled into the ground. Kallix raised its front legs and gestured, and the dirt around the tree packed itself in gently to steady the tree. 

Ember raised her head. This tree has stood at this spot for the Yule celebration since the Elders first declared the Accords, she said. Every winter solstice, the Caretaker brings it back here, so it can record the celebrations for all who have left, and all who will come. The cycle begins again.

The cycle begins, the other dragons repeated. 
Then Molly and Schrodinger were back in the Cove, watching Ember hand a small scroll ornament to Jade. This is a symbol of the Accords that govern the Realms, the dragon said. It is tradition that every tree set for the Yule celebration have a copy of it hung upon it, so that the joy and luck of the Accords may flow out for another year. It is only fitting that the Cove have their own copy now.

Advent 2021 – December 17

December 17 – The Fables

The sun had tipped the zenith, and the golden rays brought the memory of warmer days to the crowd as they moved along, each person or family going up in turn. And then one family stepped up and Molly smiled.

Kiaya, Zeke, and Gideon Fable had moved the Cove a few years ago, and the boy had fallen naturally into Lily and Kaylee and Zoey’s circle. Molly remembered his first year when there was an Advent calendar full of magic from the Snow Queen.

Now, he was carrying a rather large bag as his parents followed him up the steps. “Hi Jade!” Gideon said cheerfully. “Are you doing an Advent calendar too?”

Jade winked at him. “We’ll see,” she said. “What do you have there? It looks like a very large ornament! Will we have enough room on the tree for it?”

“Well, it’s not quite an ornament. I mean, I guess you could use magic to make it smaller and hang it on the tree, but that’s not what I was thinking. Because there will be lots of ornaments on the branches, but there won’t be any presents, and so the trunk might be lonely and that’s not really a good thing, and who knows who might come by, and maybe steal things, so…” He ran out of breath.

“You’re right,” Jade said thoughtfully. “We didn’t consider that. What did you think to fix it?”

“Dad, can you help me?” Gideon turned to his father, who helped by holding the bag open.

“This is Steward,” Gideon told Jade, as he pulled the large gnome from the bag. Steward wore a green cap trimmed with white fur that matched his long white beard, and his clothing was a green tunic, green leggings, and black boots. “He’s a protector. A steward, you know, so I thought he’d like to keep these ornaments safe. And this is his friend, Lantern-Keeper.”

Lantern-Keeper was also dressed in green, but while Steward’s hands were cupped together in front of him, Lantern-Keeper held up a bright silver lantern.

“Hello, Steward, hello, Lantern-Keeper,” Jade said, bowing her head to the garden gnomes. Molly half-expected the statues to return the gesture.

Then the fog wrapped around her, and when it cleared, they were at the Fables house, in the living room, where Gideon had lined up an amazing number of garden gnomes in neat rows. He was walking up and down the rows like a general inspecting his troops.

“So I’m looking for a few volunteers,” he was saying. “We need to make sure the Christmas tree is protected, because there are going to be lots of precious ornaments on there. At the same time, the tree will need some company, especially at night, which is why I’m thinking you all are the best folks for the job. Any objections?”

There were none. 

“Excellent. So, who wants to volunteer?”

To Molly’s utter surprise and Schrodinger’s delight, two of the statues moved out of line. “Steward, reporting for day duty, Gideon,” said the first one, doffing his green cap.

“Lantern-Keeper, reporting for night duty, Gideon,” said his companion, who did not remove his cap but gestured with his lantern.

“You’re sure? You won’t be able to see your families until after Christmas, you know.” Gideon was very serious.

“It will be an honor to protect the Cove’s ornaments,” the two gnomes said in unison. “And then we can have Christmas when we return.”

“They talk. And move.” Molly blinked and when she did, she was back at the tree, where Gideon was placing Steward and Lantern-Keeper in front of the tree.
This is Carter’s Cove, Molly, Schrodinger reminded her. Did you really think they’d be just ordinary gnomes?

Advent 2021 – December 16

December 16 – Starsha

As the Bard stepped back, his student stepped forward. Starsha had come to the Cove the same year Drew had, looking to study with Damien. She was tall, her dark skin marked all over with the white tattoos of her people. Her dark curly hair was haloed around her, and Molly saw that she had sprinkled silver and gold stars within the curls, so she sparkled. “My people do not celebrate Christmas either,” Starsha said, turning her beautiful face to the crowd. Her dark eyes with the star-shaped pupils were bright. “But we do celebrate the Winter Solstice, and we decorate trees, although ours are not cut down, so the animals that are our brothers and sisters in nature can share in our bounty.” She held out her hands to the Snow Queen. “As such, there is very little that is passed on year to year, other than the concepts, as we take each other. So I have brought this.”

The clouds wrapped around Molly and when she could see, she was in a cool forest clearing. A younger Starsha, dressed in the tooled leather vest and soft dress that she’d worn the first time Molly and Schrodinger had seen her, was sitting with several other young people dressed similarly. They were stringing what looked to be cranberries and small balls of something coated with seeds onto thread. Nearby, others were using more thread to make silvery fish and chunks of meat into garlands. The trees that ringed the clearing were already sporting several other garlands, and there was an older man and woman chanting something that neither Molly nor Schrodinger understood. Everyone in the clearing was laughing and smiling. Then the clearing blurred again, and they were outside of Damien’s house in the Cove.

This must be the first year after she came to the Cove, Schrodinger said.

The Starsha before them was standing on the porch, dressed in jeans and a sweater, with leather boots on her feet, and she was cradling a steaming mug of tea in her hands. “It will be the Solstice soon,” she said to Damien, who was sitting in a rocking chair to the left of her. “And I am not ready.”

“Not ready?” he said. “To go back, you mean?”

“Not exactly,” Starsha said. She turned to him, and Molly caught a glimpse of the uncertainty on her face. “I won’t be going back this year.”

“Not even for the Solstice? Well, that’s your decision, but may I ask why?”

“I don’t belong there anymore,” Starsha admitted sadly. “I don’t know that I should participate in the ceremonies that I haven’t contributed to.”

“Because you haven’t been there?” Damien got up from his rocker and came to join her at the porch railing. 

“That’s part of it.” Starsha looked down. “I…I don’t feel like a Mareesh anymore.”

“What do you feel like?” Damien asked her.

“I don’t know.” A tear dripped from her eyes. “I just don’t know.”

He took the mug from her, set it down on the railing, and held her why she cried. When the tears had slowed, he said, “May I tell you what I think you are?”

She mumbled yes into his shoulder.

“I think you are an explorer, an ambassador for the Mareesh, and that even though you didn’t gather the fruits of the forest and the sea, you have carried your people in everything you do. No, your Solstice may not be the one that you remember, but isn’t that part of growing? To learn who and what we are?”

Starsha said softly, “I…I did not think of it that way.” She stepped back from him. “And while it won’t be the same, I can still do the Solstice ceremony on my own.”

When Molly’s eyes cleared, she watched Starsha hand the wreath of cranberries to Jade, who sent in floating up to the top of the tree, where it settled like a necklace. Then Jade turned back to Starsha. “Thank you for bringing your customs to our tree. This is one of the ways we strengthen our bond as a town.”

Advent 2021 – December 15

December 15 – Damien

The next person to step up was someone Molly loved seeing around the town all year. Damien was a Bard, an elven entertainer who had chosen to semi-retire to the Cove after traveling the Realms had begun to pale. He never seemed to age, as most elves didn’t, but even with the blue jeans and flannel shirts he wore, it was easy to see the magic that flowed around him like a pet. If he was in town, he was usually in Molly’s tea-shop or Katarina’s coffee shop, often accompanied by his only student, Starsha. She stood several steps behind him, waiting to offer the ornament she carried as well.

“One of the most wonderful things about moving to a human realm is Christmas, in my opinion.” Damien’s deep, fluid baritone floated around them. “We don’t celebrate Christmas where I come from, but from the first time I stepped into Carter’s Cove, I realized what a wonderful season it is. You’re very lucky to live here, all of you.” He turned and smiled at the crowd. “And I am lucky to live here now as well. So while I don’t have a lot of Christmas memories to place on my tree yet, I’m hoping to have many, many more years here to gather them. So I chose to bring this.”

He unwrapped a cloth bundle and blew across it. “My apologies for the dust,” he said. “It’s been hidden away so I didn’t break it.”

When her eyes cleared, Molly was standing, not in the Cove, but in a lovely green meadow, edged on one side by a rushing brook, and by the other three sides by gently rolling hills. Trees covered one such hill, and Molly could almost smell the sweet green of new grass and icy water.

In front of them was a simple arch of stone and wood that she and Schrodinger recognized instantly. The Gate was in ready mode, although she couldn’t see where the control panel was. 

There isn’t a physical control panel here, Schrodinger told her. It’s one of the Old Gates, and is completely magical. There aren’t many in the Realms you’ve probably visited. Wherever we are, it’s one of the Old Places.

“The Old Places?” Molly asked him, as she watched a small crowd of elves in long robes of leaf green and sky blue come out of the copse of trees down towards the Gate.

That’s what the Librarian calls them, he said. Places that have been alive for many, many millennia before humans found them. Places where Old Magic hides. It’s like the Snow Queen’s realm, that’s an Old Place.

“Gotcha.”

The elves marched slowly down the hill and separated into two lines, one on either side of the Gate. They carried different flowering branches in their hands, and held them, not like swords, but like pennants. Once they were in place, they raised their branches and began to sing.

It was no song Molly had ever heard in her life, and there weren’t exactly words, as far as she could tell. It was a song of the world around her, with various voices conjuring the sound of the river, the smell of the grass, the taste of an apple, the chill of a breeze, and so much more that Molly felt herself almost carried away by it. 

The Song of Remembrance, Schrodinger said reverently. To remind a traveler of the home they carry with them wherever they go.

“How do you know this?” Molly said, as Damien appeared at the edge of the hill, carrying his harp and a backpack. This Damien looked exactly the same age as the Damien she knew, but instead of jeans and flannel shirts, he was wearing soft pants of dark brown, tucked into boots that came up to his knees. His tunic was the same material, and there was a wide belt of leather around his waist, adorned with several pouches.

He reached the edge of the party and paused, obviously waiting for someone. The song grew quieter, not dying out, but moving into the background, and the Gate shimmered into life. Out of the Gate came two people. One of them was an elf dressed in the same outfit as Damien, although his showed more wear and tear than Damien’s did.

The other was someone who made Molly think immediately for Phoebe, Drew’s godmother. This woman shown with an inner light, as if magic rather than blood ran through her veins. 

The Troubadour, Schrodinger said. The Spirit of Music, patron of all Bards.

She was tall, almost more fluid light than flesh, her voice encompassing all the singers as she said, “Are you ready, Damien?”

“I am.” He knelt before her, bowing his head. “May I take your blessing with me?”

“Always.” The Troubadour laid her glowing hands on the top of his head, and sang something. It spoke of traveling and safely and home and adventure and things Molly didn’t understand. As she sang, the others lifted their branches again, and joined in her song. Various pieces of flowers and leaves detached themselves and swirled together above the Troubadour’s head. The air itself hardened around the bits and pieces, and then floated down into Damien’s outstretched hand.

“Take this, and remember where you come from,” the Troubadour said. “We shall always be with you.”

The scene ended, and Molly and Schrodinger were back. “Christmas is memories,” Damien was saying. “And connection with your family.” And he handed the ball to Jade. “This is my family now.”

Advent 2021 – December 14

December 14 – Luke

After the Station Master retreated, another one of Molly and Drew’s friends stepped up. Luke Travers worked at the Gate Station with Drew and Mal, and they were waiting for he and Sue to finally set a date to tie the knot. Now, Molly wondered what he would bring to put on the tree.

Do you have any thoughts about WHY the Snow Queen is doing this? Besides the fact that it’s cool? Schrodinger asked her.

“I’m starting to possibly understand,” Molly said, and the others looked at her. “You all know how the Ball fuels the protections around the Cove every year, right?”

Drew and Schrodinger nodded, while Tim and Doug looked puzzled. “What protections?” Doug asked. “And why?”

“Because we have two Gates here,” Molly said. “And because there’s something about the Cove that’s different from any other Gate town I’ve been in. You said it yourself – Carter’s Cove is unique.”

“So maybe the wards need an extra boost this coming year?” Drew scratched his chin. “If that’s the case, I wonder what’s coming down the pike.”

Maybe it’s something that can be deflected by something like this. Schrodinger said. So this is just a precaution. The world hasn’t been as happy as it should be lately.

As if that isn’t the understatement of the year. Molly made sure to keep that thought very private. Out loud, she said, “What do you think Luke has?”

“A snowmobile,” Drew said, and Molly laughed. Luke adored his snowmobile only slightly less than he adored Sue, and Molly had taken many a ride through the snow on the back of the machine.

“Probably,” she agreed.

What Luke pulled out, though, was a guitar, with what looked like holly berries and ivy leaves wrapped around the neck of the instrument. As he handed it to Jade, the scene went grey.

When the clouds cleared, Molly and Schrodinger were in a house that she remembered from years ago. Past-Molly and the Terrible Trio sat in a circle around a woman strumming a guitar, along with Past-Luke and Past-Tom, another gate tech that had been part of their group. There was a Christmas tree decorated with brilliantly blinking colored lights illuminating the room.

“Please, Mom, play Silent Night!” Past-Luke said, clasping his hands together. “It’s my favorite!”

Mrs. Travers smiled and her fingers danced along the strings. Her voice wasn’t professional, but it was warm, and it wrapped around them as the children sang with her.

“I’d almost forgotten this,” Molly said. “Luke lived two streets over from us when we were all little, and we’d go over every year to have Mrs. Travers sing carols with us. Sometimes, we’d go over the nursing home where she worked to sing for them.”

Like we did last year?  Schrodinger said.

“Yes, like last year.” Molly smiled. “You guys were much more in tune than we were. But I see why this ornament would mean so much.”

She blinked and they were back in time for Luke to say, “I can’t imagine a tree without one of Mom’s instrument ornaments on it. This one always reminds me of her, because her guitar was similar.” He handed it to Jade. “She shared so much with the Cove, I couldn’t choose any other ornament.”

“Thank you,” Jade said. “We will take good care of it.”

Advent 2021 – December 13

December 13 – Mal

As Doug, Ryan, and Tim made their way back to them, Molly noticed there were tear tracks down Doug’s face as well. She reached out and pulled her cousin-in-law into her arms, squeezing him tight. “I’m so glad you moved out here,” she murmured.

“Same,” he mumbled into her shoulder. “It was one of the best decisions we made, outside of getting married and having Ryan.”

As they stepped apart, Drew grabbed him and nearly crushed him in a hug, while Molly embraced Tim and Ryan.

“Family. Love family.” Ryan announced, and planted a wet kiss on Molly’s cheek.

I feel left out! Schrodinger cried in mock-anger. No one loves me!

“Down.” Ryan demanded, and when Tim set him on his feet, he put both his chubby arms around the CrossCat and gave him a kiss. “Family,” he said firmly. “Family.” Then he turned back to his fathers. “Up, please.”

Once he was settled back on Tim’s shoulders, they all turned their attention towards the tree, where a very familiar figure was making his way up the steps. Mal, his ever-present cigarette dangling from his mouth, his flannel jacket dusted with snow and ash, stumped up the stairs and smiled down at the Snow Queen, who barely came up to his chin.

“You know, Mal, I don’t think I’ve seen you outside of the Gate Station in years,” she teased him gently.

“Not true, Your Highness. I come to the Ball every year,” he said, and she laughed.

Isn’t she a Queen? Schrodinger asked. Shouldn’t that be Your Majesty?

“For anyone else, yes,” Drew said. “However, he’s always called her Your Highness and she’s never corrected him. I wonder if we’re ever going to find out why.”

Mal unwrapped the small package in his hands, and Molly saw the glint of golden glass. Jade apparently recognized it, as her eyes went wide and one hand came up to her mouth. “Are you sure?” she said, looking up at the Station Master in surprise.

“Couldn’t think of anything better,” he said, and to Molly and Drew’s shock, there was a glimmer of tears in his eyes as well. “She always loved to celebrate Christmas.” He held up a glass hard candy, swirled with gold and green, that flashed in the sun.

When Molly’s eyes cleared, the crowd around her was moving, and the Christmas tree in the center of the square had its traditional decorations on it. It was snowing lightly, and all the windows in the shops had brilliant window displays. 

Is that MAL? Schrodinger brought her attention to a tall young man, still in the same flannel jacket that the Station Master always wore in winter, a cigarette in his mouth. But he was walking with someone Molly vaguely remembered: a slender older woman, her hair perfectly white and coiffed, carrying two bags. Mal was carrying several more, and Molly half-wondered how he was going to deal with the cigarette when it was done without dropping anything.

“One last stop, Malcolm, and we can go home,” she said. “I just need the last gift.”

“Why do you even bother, Mother? We both know he doesn’t give a damn if you give him a gift.” Mal’s eyes were angry. “He’ll just smash it like he does every year.”

“One year he won’t,” she said. “Stay here. I’ll just run across the square and then we’ll head out.”

“Fine, I’ll wait here.” Mal watched her dash across the square, shaking his head. “Damn fool. One of these days, she won’t be here anymore, and he’ll have no one to bully.”

Who is he talking about? Schrodinger asked.

“Probably his father. They never really got along.”

So that’s his mother?

“Yes, I think so.”

The woman was as good as her word, and before they knew it, she was hurrying back to Mal. “All done! Now we can go home.”

“What did you get him?” Mal asked, more out of habit than out of any need to know.

She smiled up at him. “An empty box.”

“What?” That shook him up a bit.

“Okay, maybe not empty. There’s a piece of paper in it.” Her smile got even larger.

A fast stream of emotion ran across Mal’s face, starting with surprise and ending with wary hope. “Will he like it?”

She laughed. “He’ll hate it. Shall we go?”

As they walked off, the scene dissolved, and Molly and Schrodinger were back, watching Mal hang the golden candy ornament on the tree. “Mom would have loved this, you know,” he said to Jade. “After the divorce, she was able to truly celebrate Christmas the way my father never let her. It’s only fitting that the last ornament she made go on this tree.”