Monday, December 4, 2023

The Holly and the Ivy, Chapter 1

Time for a little holiday cheer!

I really enjoyed writing the Caxton Bank chapters of Worth Searching For, and it made me want to do more with the characters. I thought it would be fun to write a Christmas Giving Day story that draws less from the Victorian Christmas traditions that much of modern celebration is based on, and more from medieval British customs and folklore, as befitting the Meridell region. "The Holly and the Ivy" (the carol) is based on very old English Christmas traditions, so it seemed suitable as the inspiration for this tale.

I also wanted to follow up on what was established about Caxton Bank in Worth Searching For, and show that although the Werelupes started off on the wrong foot with their vassals, their relationship has grown and improved, and it's making everyone's lives better.

I admit I was pleasantly surprised by how little I actually had to edit this one to bring it up to speed with my newer writing. Aside from just a handful of minor prose fixes, I also slightly altered a few details to fall in line with what I later established as canon.

Have a happy and blessed holiday season, everybody!

Chapter 1 - Chapter 2

“Don’t go outside in winter,” Nan’s mother always told her. “There’s a reason most Techos are born on Mystery Island instead of the woods of Meridell.”

“But Mum!” Nan would say, tracing pictures on their fogged-up windows with her blue reptilian fingers. “All the other children get to play in the snow!”

Her yellow Uni mother would then pause from her mending and stoke the fire. “That’s because they’re warm-blooded, love. If you get too cold you’ll fall into torpor, and you won’t wake up ‘til Running.”

“Running?! But I’ll sleep right through Giving Day!” That was all the incentive Nan needed to stay in their cottage until the snows stopped. And that was how winter went in the little hamlet of Caxton Bank, nestled in the foothills of the Werelupe Woods.

Most years, anyway.

“You can forget about Giving Day, Mary,” Nan’s father grumbled as he trudged through the door one chilly morning. Frost bristled on the blue Peophin’s mane, and he slapped his tail flukes against the doorframe to shake off the muddy slush they had accumulated.

Nan let the shirt she was washing fall back into the tub. “What?!” she squeaked. Mum’s ears pinned back in confusion as they both stared at her father.

“This year’s harvest was too poor.” Dad unwrapped his scarf and set it to dry over the hearth. “Lord Isengrim and his thanes have done all they can to ensure we’ll have supplies to last through the winter—so we’re certainly not going to ask them to support something as frivolous as a holiday.”

Mum shook her head as she went back to scrubbing at a difficult stain. “Oh, Thomas. There’s nothing wrong with Giving Day. I think it’s a beautiful sentiment.”

“Waste of time and effort,” Dad grunted. “And resources.” He tossed his muzzle to their cupboard. “Mary, let me know when you’re low on flour—I’ll pick you up another bag at the mill. But let’s try to make this last as long as we can.”

Nan stood up from the washing. “But what about the pudding? The roast? The games and the singing?” Giving Day was her favorite part of winter. She loved the excitement and cheer, and best of all it was the one time her parents let her play in the snow with her furred and feathered friends. The adults would build a huge bonfire in the centre of the village, and everyone gathered round for merry-making.

“No pudding this year,” Dad snorted. “Couldn’t afford the ingredients. From what I heard, all of the Meridell region had a bad growing season.”

Mum put an arm around Nan’s shoulders and said, “We’ll roast some potatoes, love, and the three of us can sing.”

“But it won’t be the same!” Nan said. “The village always has a singing contest about holly and ivy!”

“No singing,” Dad groaned, putting his hooves over his eyes. “I’ve a headache.”

Mum sighed. “Aye, holly and ivy have always stood for the spirit of Giving Day—a spark of life and hope when the winter’s bleak and the days are at their shortest. There’s an old magic in those plants, it’s said, a bit of power tied to the season.”

“Well, it should have come sooner,” Dad said, “in time for the harvest. Could’ve used some magic then.”

Mum flapped her wings in irritation. “Thomas, make yourself useful and help us with the washing.”

Dad eased himself up from by the fire and clopped over to the washtub. “No more talk about Giving Day. It’s just noise, and I’m happy to see it go.”

“Dad!” Nan’s eyes welled with tears. “How could you say that?”

Mum gave him a dirty look, but Dad didn’t seem to notice as he plunged a pair of trousers into the soapy water and said, “Because it’s true! No point getting your expectations up, is there? This winter’s going to be horrible, and there’s not a dratted thing we can do about it but accept our fates!”

His words left an awful pit in Nan’s stomach as she wrung out the laundry. Dad sounded so sure of himself, but something in her didn’t want to believe him. They couldn’t just give up. There had to be some way to bring Giving Day to Caxton Bank.

They finished the washing in silence, but Mum’s telling about the magic of the holly and the ivy rattled around in Nan’s head the whole time. Mum knew lots of things passed down from their ancestors, who had worked this same land for as far back as anyone could remember. If anything could cheer up Caxton Bank, it was those two plants.

But Nan couldn’t go outside. If she fell into torpor, she would sleep the entire winter away and miss out on her most favorite time of year.

It was worth it, she decided. Even if she missed Giving Day, she wanted the village to be able to experience it.

Now she just had to bide her time until she could get going on her adventure.

She waited and waited, until the waiting became unbearable—and then she waited some more. Finally, on the eve of Giving Day, a crisp frozen morning near the end of Celebrating, Dad said, “Your mum and I have to attend the village council.”

Nan’s heart jumped. “How long will you be gone?” she asked as innocently as possible. She was sitting on her bed with a ball of yarn, pretending to practice her knitting. The needles were slippery and her loops clumsy, but she just needed to look occupied.

“All day, probably,” Mum said, wrapping her shawl around her shoulders. “We’re going to plan for next year’s growing, and draft a letter to Lord Isengrim to negotiate monthly tributes.”

“I don’t understand why he can’t just call it ‘taxes’ like Skarl and Hagan,” Dad muttered, tossing his fiery mane.

Mum whinnied a laugh. “Who can understand anything that Werelupe does? But he takes good care of his subjects, so he’s all right with me.” She went to the door and turned to Nan. “You’ll mind the house while we’re gone, won’t you, love?”

“Yes, Mum,” Nan said, staring intently at the single row of what was supposed to be a scarf.

“Remember to keep the fire going,” Mum said. Dad opened the door and stepped out, but Mum lingered in the doorway, watching Nan worriedly. “You absolutely must stay warm, remember that. I’ll send someone to check on you at lunch.”

 “Yes, Mum.” Nan was now genuinely occupied trying to untangle a knot. That felt a little cold, so she glanced up at her mother and smiled. “I’ll be all right.” How could she not? She was going to bring back Giving Day, and then everything would be well again.

Mum returned the smile. “Good girl. We’ll be back in time for supper.” She closed the door, and Nan sat for a while, listening to the crackle of the fire and hooves crunching through snow.

When they faded, it was time to put her plan into action.

Casting aside her knitting, she leaped from the bed and pulled on her hooded shawl and mittens before wrapping her scarf around her neck. This was going to be fun. She had never ventured outside in the snow by herself before. It would be a grand adventure.

Going to the door, she paused, looking at the fire. Mum’s words sunk in. Nan knew she could not dally—that the colder she got, the more likely she would fall into torpor. She squared her shoulders. She would not let that happen.

Taking a deep breath, she opened the door and stepped outside.

The world was blindingly dazzling. A layer of freshly fallen snow coated everything, and thin clouds scattered the sunlight until it filled the whole heavens. Silence pricked at the air and brooded over white hills. Down the lane, smoke puffed merrily from the chimney of the neighbor’s house, but that was the only thing that moved in this frozen picture, besides the clouds of vapor that appeared every time Nan exhaled.

And her feet were cold. She looked down and wiggled her blue Techo toes, watching them slap into the half-frozen mud at the doorstep. She would have to make this fast. Holly and ivy, and then back home before lunch.

Thankfully, she already knew where to find ivy. Grinning, she bounded around the corner of her cottage, to the back wall where a trail of ivy had grown ever since she could remember. And there it was, just as green as in summer, reaching up to the thatched roof and spreading over the window.

Nan reached out and brushed the snow from a sprig of leaves before plucking it and putting it in the pocket of her dress. That was easy, but holly would be harder, for no holly grew in the village. It could only be found in the woods, where Nan had never gone.

She rubbed her nose and looked over the fields. The forest rose up behind them, dark and grey and ancient. Without their leaves, the trees looked like an immense thicket of briers, ready to ensnare anyone foolish enough to breach them.

But in there, somewhere, was holly.

Nan’s feet and tail felt a little numb, but her head, body, and hands were well-protected by her thick woollen clothes. She could make it, she decided. It wouldn’t do to try to bring about Giving Day with ivy alone. The magic wouldn’t be enough.

She moved to leave and a pang of fear sliced through her. If she fell into torpor in the woods, she would sleep until spring. Things lurked in the forest, things the Werelupes kept at bay, but suppose the monsters from the stories found her while she was asleep?

The breath-cloud in front of her vanished, and for a moment no breath came to take its place. Then Nan breathed again and set out for the trees. She wanted to do this. For Giving Day. For the village. Her courage would keep her warm.

As she crested the rise behind her family’s cottage, she glanced over her shoulder and realised she’d gone round the house withershins, counter-clockwise. The direction of magic.

The village children told stories of those who went round a building withershins. It was said they simply disappeared, spirited away by malicious Faeries—or other beings of powerful magic that roamed Neopia.

Nan decided to take it as a good omen. The magic of Giving Day was her companion, and she did not fear it. Besides, she had not disappeared, so there.

Her grin widened and she slogged through the snow, into the woods.

The forest was just as unnaturally still as the village, although occasional sounds echoed in the distance—the groans and cracks of shifting ice, the chirp of an avian Petpet, and the heavy whisper of snow sloughing off a branch. The trees towered above Nan, bare and prickly against the sky.

And everywhere, she saw the white of snow and the black of wet rocks and bark. But no green, no red. Nan frowned and kept walking.

Her clumsy footsteps aroused a family of Albats nesting in the hollow of a tree. Their big yellow eyes stared out at her as they ruffled their tawny feathers, irritated at the interloper. Nan trudged on. She hadn’t a moment to spare.

As she let herself down a ridge, the fatigue hit her all at once. It had crept up on her so subtly that she hadn’t even noticed it until her body felt like lead and she had trouble keeping her eyes open.

And she was cold. So, so cold.

Panic surged through her. She couldn’t torpor, not now. She had to get back home—and where was that holly?

Perhaps Dad was right. She’d gone chasing after a wild dream and would regret it.

But something in her refused to give up. Nan felt she would regret it even more if she’d sat at home, resigning herself to whatever life threw at her, instead of fighting for good things, for herself and for the village.

Her stumbling steps became more frantic as she scrambled over rocks and fell into snowdrifts. Desperately she swept snow away from bushes, hoping to see pointed leaves and red berries. The holly had to be around somewhere. She would snatch it and then run all the way home, back to warmth and waking.

A wide, dark stream barred her path. Nan clenched her jaw and splashed into the freezing water. Numbness shot through her body. Crying out, she fell to her hands and knees and dragged herself to the other side, where she collapsed in the snow.

She wanted so badly to lay there and close her eyes, but she knew what would happen if she did. So with a determined frown she pushed herself to her feet—and fell again. Her limbs and tail were heavy and her head swam. She tried to will herself to move, but her body refused to cooperate.

As Nan’s eyes drifted shut, she summoned the last of her strength to reach into her pocket for her sprig of ivy. Please, Ivy Queen, she begged, bring the Holly King and Giving Day to Caxton Bank.

And then she fell asleep.

Chapter 1 Chapter 2

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