Twice Upon a Christmas
The blizzard had eased up a bit, but only a bit. Meridell was still covered in a white mantle that got thicker as the snow continued to fall, from the mountains to the currently bare forests. No village, no matter how distant, was spared.
Of course, the elderly white Blumaroo didn’t have to look out into the windows of her humble home to know that.
Wrapping her blanket more tightly about herself, she stood up and, with her trusty steel poker, nudged a few logs barely touched by the fire, which flared as it received more fuel. Her job done, she slowly walked back to her rocking chair. But just before she could sit back down with a cup of tea and her blanket, she heard a soft creaking noise, followed by the familiar pitter-patter of little footsteps.
Without turning around, she smiled to herself and called, “I may be old, but my ears are as sharp as ever. Why aren’t you in bed, Darel?”
“I can’t sleep, Grandmother,” was the simple reply.
The Blumaroo smiled even wider. Somehow, she expected this, and turned around to see a young red Kyrii emerging from the hallway. “Then come by the fire and tell me why you can’t sleep.”
Again the footsteps ensued until the Kyrii was beside the fireplace and twisting the hem of his sweater. He stared at her with wide eyes before quickly glancing down at his feet.
“I miss Father. And I can’t tell Mother ‘cause she doesn’t wake up when I poke her. She just turns over and says something I can’t hear. Maybe she’s too busy dreaming of a new story she’ll write.” As he said this, he clambered up onto his grandmother’s lap and shared the warmth of her blanket.
“Well, your father said he’ll be home on Christmas, which is tomorrow – ” Darel’s grandmother consulted an ancient pocket watch. “Oh, I mean, in less than an hour.”
“But why did he have to go?” he asked, his lower lip jutting out in a classic child’s pout. Something about it reminded the Blumaroo of his mother, who was the same color and species as he. “Why can’t he stay for Christmas?”
She sighed, bracing herself. “You know that he has to work for you and your mother, and it’s not his fault that Shenkuu’s royal family wanted him to – “
“It’s not fair! Can’t he just tell them that he wants to stay home? Doesn’t he know that we want him here instead?” The Kyrii paused. “I bet he doesn’t know. Maybe he doesn’t know that we miss him. He doesn’t know that, does he? And maybe he’s enjoying his time in Shen... Shenky... Shenkuu.” With that, he attempted to wriggle out of the blanket, but the cold and his grandmother’s arms kept him on her lap. She began to rock slowly, holding him close.
“Don’t say that,” the Blumaroo whispered, as though Darel’s father could be lurking somewhere in their living room. “Would you like some tea?”
“I don’t like tea. It tastes funny,” Darel mumbled.
She chuckled. “Oh, but you’re wrong about your father not knowing how much you and your mother miss him, dear.”
“How do you know?”
“I’m his mother, remember?” Darel winced as she ruffled his mane. “I should know. Perhaps you would like to hear a story about him?”
A look of deep thought crossed the Kyrii’s face. His expression softened, and he looked up at the white Blumaroo’s venerable face, and the equally immaculate curls that framed it.
“Tell me the story, Grandmother.”
* * *
My dear Melissa,
I regret to inform you that my comrades and I will be staying a little longer at the Brightvale-Meridell border. Though we have managed to put down the uprisings in those rogue villages, we must remain to observe them, even for a few days. We cannot take any chances.
I will be home on Christmas if there is no more trouble. I wish it would stay quiet so I could see you and our sons again. The Day of Giving is nothing but Grey Day for me without you, Reuben and Rohane.
I miss you all.
“That’s Father’s letter, isn’t it?”
Reuben narrowed his eyes at the young yellow Blumaroo staring at him before pulling the drawer open, stashing the little piece of yellowing parchment back into it and shoving it shut so hard that everything else in the drawer rattled.
“So what? What are you looking at?” He started rooting around in another drawer, and found a much older scroll of parchment, waving it about. “Aha, here it is!”
The white Blumaroo rolled his eyes as he closed the second drawer. He walked up to his little brother, who was clutching a wooden sword as though it were a shield, and stared at him before shoving him aside.
“You’ll probably tell Mother if I told you, Rohane,” said Reuben in his lowest, most dangerous voice. “And if you do, I’ll pound you till you don’t know which way is up!”
Rohane shuddered and shook his head vigorously. “I won’t tell, I promise! Just tell me what’s going on! I... I just want to know.”
Reuben looked around. The sounds of sizzling and chopping emanated from the kitchen, accompanied by the various smells of lunch. He took a deep breath, imagining what would be on their table today for a moment before glaring at the smaller Blumaroo again. In the blink of an eye, Reuben grabbed him by the wrist and sprinted for his bedroom. Rohane could only haphazardly follow and try not to trip all over his own feet, and let out a sigh of relief as the white Blumaroo bolted his door.
“You promise not to tattle?” Reuben demanded, leaning against the door.
“Swear you won’t!”
“Mother told us it’s bad to swear – ouch!” The yellow Blumaroo winced as his big brother cuffed him soundly. As soon as he had cried out, Reuben stepped on his foot.
“Not so loud!”
“Sorry,” said Rohane. “But really, I won’t say anything! What’s wrong with you?”
Reuben gritted his teeth. He unrolled the scroll and shoved it into his sibling’s face. “Do you know what this is?”
“It’s a map of Meridell. There’s the castle... and there’s Trestin, where we live... what’s it for?”
Stepping away from the door, Reuben rolled the map again and tossed it unceremoniously onto his bed. Without further ado, he finally began to answer all the questions Rohane had been asking.
“Listen, I’m sneaking out tonight to the border of Meridell and Brightvale, where Father said he was. I’m gonna see him, and tell him to come home. He’s always gone; I want him to stay with us for Christmas, which is already tomorrow, and I’m also gonna surprise Mother. She really misses Father too, you know.”
“But you can’t just sneak out!” the yellow Blumaroo whined. “It’s dangerous, and you’ll be in trouble if Mother finds out...”
“Don’t be silly,” Reuben reassured him. “Since you promised me you’re not telling...” At this, he glared at Rohane again, who cowered under his gaze.
“I won’t! What?”
“You’ll cover for me. Now that I think about it, I need someone to stay and make sure Mother doesn’t find out I’m gone. Make up any excuse you want, just make sure she doesn’t know about it, all right?”
Rohane was silent, tracing the grooves in his wooden sword as he wondered what a real warrior would do in his stead. It wasn’t a good idea for Reuben to leave alone, and it would take a long while to get to where their father was if his older brother was walking the entire way. Then again, it would be nice to have everyone home for Christmas...
He decided to ask more questions. “But isn’t it far? You could get tired of walking, and then you’d have to rest... ”
“It’s not that far; didn’t you see the map?” Reuben interrupted. He held two fingers up, an inch of space between them. “Does this look far to you? And I’m just going to keep on walking so we can all be home in time, all right? You worry too much. Besides, I’ve already decided to leave and nothing you could say will change that. I even packed up my stuff – it’s all under my bed. Of course it’s under my bed; what if Mother saw what I was up to? She would never let me leave.”
“What about all the nasty things outside Trestin?” Rohane pressed on. “What if... you meet a wild Bearog or something?”
At this, the white Blumaroo actually dithered before answering. “I’ll sneak a knife out of the kitchen. Mother will never know, she has a lot of those. One of the smaller ones will do. I bet those Bearogs and other things you’re talking about will run away when they see that I have a weapon. I mean, even if it’s not exactly a sword, it’s still sharp. Or, they will be too busy sleeping in their caves or wherever they stay while it’s snowing. There, are you happy now? Remember – if Mother finds out... ”
“You’ll pound me till I don’t know which way is up, I know.” Rohane tried to sound complacent, but still had a note of fear in his voice – fear for Reuben, and fear of being beaten up. “But please, be careful out there, Reuben! You don’t know what could happen!”
“I’m big enough to be on my own now. Don’t worry so much.” Reuben grinned, patting his younger brother on the head – a little too hard for Rohane's liking. “Now come on, I bet lunch is ready. And maybe I can grab something from the kitchen I can take with me in case I get hungry.”
They were quiet for a moment, his hand not straying from the yellow Blumaroo's head.
“But... aren't you scared, Reuben?”
“Aren't you scared of being out there alone with the cold and the Bearogs?”
Reuben turned away, closing his eyes for a few seconds as he imagined what awaited him beyond the safety of Trestin. It took him another couple of seconds to say, “No.”
But whether or not Rohane detected that inflection of fear in his older brother's voice, he said nothing more, but opened his arms and embraced Reuben tightly until the latter wriggled away, scowling and muttering under his breath.
* * *
Night fell, bringing with it a particularly angry blizzard. Vagrant winds blew outside, creating wide ripples in the snow. Everyone holed themselves up in their houses, not coming out for anything. Through their windows, they could see almost nothing but a blur of gray and white as the storm raged on.
But nothing was going to stop Reuben.
He took one last look at the dark fireplace and clutched his bag close to himself. Now that the fire had long been extinguished, it was quite cold in the living room. He quickly put down his bag and rummaged around for a second cloak to place over the one he already wore. Just as he had fastened its clasps and stared at the front door as if he were about to take back his decision, he heard the soft creak of a door being opened. He quickly began forming several alibis in his head, but frowned and instantly forgot about them when he whipped around and saw who had made that noise.
Rohane, his white blanket wrapped tightly around himself, looked almost like a ghostly apparition who had come to warn against a bad omen, and warn he did.
“Reuben, it’s really snowing out there!” he cried. “You can’t just go out, even if it’s for Father... ”
“Keep your voice down!” the white Blumaroo reminded him. “What if Mother hears us?”
“Don’t go! What if... what if...”
“Stop thinking like that, you idiot! Why do you think I’m wearing two cloaks? Why did I take the knife from the table when we had dinner? I’m ready for whatever the stupid storm throws at me, all right?” He took a deep breath, thinking of anything and everything the storm could throw at him. “At least I won’t worry about wild Bearogs or anything now – they won’t come out in this blizzard!” Reuben sincerely hoped with all his heart that this was true. “Do you want Father home or not?”
“Of course I do!” Rohane whined. “But...”
Reuben buried his face in his gloved paws and raised his voice. “This is why you’ll never grow up to be a great warrior! You hear me? Ugh, I’m wasting time here...” He picked up his bag and strode toward the door, and the sound of footsteps behind him told him that the yellow Blumaroo was close behind.
“Look, you can go back to bed.” His heart began to beat faster as he knew the moment of his departure would come soon, no matter how long he spent arguing with his little brother. “You have all night to make up excuses in case Mother wakes up and doesn’t fall for the old pillow-under-my-blankets trick.”
“I’m not making excuses ‘cause you’re not going!”
“What do you mean, I’m not going?” The white Blumaroo gasped as Rohane latched onto his free arm. “Hey – “
“Reuben, don’t go!”
“You’re making a racket! Go back to bed, let go of me!” Reuben took a few steps forward, but Rohane held on stubbornly. “The sooner I leave...” He reached out for the door handle with fingers that trembled ever so slightly, managed to push it down, and was rewarded by a click.
The door swung open, and a sudden gust of wind blew straight into their house, carrying several flakes of snow with it. They tumbled head over tail as they lost their balance, no match for the blustery weather that made them thankful for cloaks and blankets...
And as soon as it began, it was all over.
The wind died down, and the snow that managed to find its way into the house started to melt, creating a few little puddles. A shadow fell over the Blumaroos, who could only gaze up at the cloaked stranger who had taken advantage of their open door – but this stranger was no stranger, and he proved it by throwing back his hood. At the sight of Reuben and Rohane on the floor, his eyes grew wide, and his jaw dropped.
“I thought you two would be asleep!” he exclaimed with a large grin as the two launched themselves onto him.
“Father! Father, we missed you!”
“What’s going on in here?” A fourth voice chimed in, and the three turned to see a white Blumaroo in her nightgown and a sweater, rubbing her eyes as she stared back at them.
“Reynold!” She strode forward, and the moment her sons let go of him, she embraced him, beaming as she gushed, “Oh, Reynold, Reynold, I’m so glad you’re back! I hope the blizzard wasn’t too much for you... I know it’s late, but perhaps I can boil some soup, cook up a late dinner...”
“Were these scamps staying up past their bedtime again, Melissa?” the sturdy yellow Blumaroo chortled, his eyes sweeping over the scamps in question. “Looks like they’ve been playing a game...”
“It’s a long story, Father,” was all Reuben could say, shrugging as he discreetly tried to hide his bag. “A really, really long story... that could wait until morning!”
“Actually... it’s already early morning,” said Sir Reynold, breaking away from Melissa and glancing at a pocket watch. “Today’s Christmas, the Day of Giving. Looks like I’m just in time.” The family hugged each other, laughing and cheering in a heap on the floor as his sons bowled him over again until Melissa stood up, daintily brushing a bit of dust off her nightgown.
“And that means it’s morning... and time for Reuben and Rohane to start talking. First of all, what have you two been up to?”
The young Blumaroos traded a quick look.
All alibis flew right out the window.
* * *
“When your father and uncle finally told us their story, neither Reynold nor I had the heart to punish them. After all, it was Christmas. It was the least I could give them. Plus, I suppose I was so worried... I mean, what if – ”
She stared down at her grandson, who was sound asleep, and couldn’t help laughing softly to herself. Before she could think of what to do with the sleeping Kyrii, there was a series of loud knocks on the door that managed to rise over the din of the blizzard. She gently eased herself up, depositing Darel onto the rocking chair and wrapping him warmly in the blanket. He continued to doze as the aged white Blumaroo went to answer the door, flinching as the cold rushed in.
When the door closed, she found herself staring at a younger male version of herself, all bundled up in a great fur coat. As he divested himself of the bulky coat, she stepped forward and hugged him, noticing his Shenkese garb.
“Ugh, that thing actually gets too warm... I’m glad to see you too, Mother.” He returned the embrace. “And I told you and Andrea I’d be home on time... I’ve even got a few minutes to spare – is that Darel in your rocking chair?”
Melissa smiled. “He wanted a story, Reuben. I told him about that fateful Christmas years ago, when you came clean and admitted that you tried to sneak out and find your father. Darel’s always been looking for you, and now that you’re here, I could wake him...”
Reuben laughed, trying to keep it down. “That won’t be necessary. I’ll take him to his bedroom where he can sleep, and I’ll just surprise him and Andrea in the morning.”
“It’s already morning, which means it’s time for you to start talking. What have you been up to?” Though she kept a straight face, the female Blumaroo’s eyes twinkled as she watched her son scoop up his son from the chair, keeping him wrapped in the blanket.
“You still remember that?” Reuben stifled a snicker in time; Darel stirred in his arms, but carried on sleeping.
“I may be getting on in years, but my memory remains as sharp as those blades you’ve forged for the Shenkese royals, Reuben.”