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.