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Evergreen


by schefflera

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cowritten with Dreagoddess

The Day of Giving was approaching, and Meridell's green grass lay under a blanket of frost, though there had not yet been a thick snow. The trees glittered with rime in the starlight.

     It might not be sunrise yet in this season, but there was too much to do to wait for the day. On her family's farm in the north of Meridell, the young Usul Sally put food out for the livestock, gently prodded her Karren awake and fed him too, and then pattered and hopped back across the frosty ground, leaving damp melted footprints. A last bound carried her to the cottage door, and she opened it up to slip through the very narrowest gap possible, squishing her fluffed-out tail-fur flat against the wood.

     The air inside was warm, aside from the breeze that had followed her, and it smelled delightfully of all sorts of baking things.

     "Sally! Wipe your feet."

     "Sorry, Mom." Having been on the verge of scurrying further inside, Sally did a small dance to halt herself and dry her feet on the thick mat just inside the front door. Her mother had given up several winters ago on actually getting people to wipe their feet first. "Mom, could I go visit Illusen please? I've got an idea to do something special for Lord Darigan."

     This was not as crazy an idea as it would have sounded a few years ago, or even as crazy as it would still sound to most of Meridell, even with the heroine and court sorceress Lisha having removed the curses from the Citadel (not that it looked much less ominous) and everyone starting to get used to the idea that this peace might actually last. During the second war, the one with Kass, Sally had adopted what she had thought was probably an overgrown and skittish Karren but had turned out to be the amnesiac (and skittish) Lord Darigan. Despite being considerably embarrassed about this once he recovered his memory, he had been reciprocally friendly, and had honored Sally and her family. At one point she had even made a surreptitious and rather harrowing visit to the Citadel to take him some new potatoes.

     All things considered, Sally's mother was not likely to be surprised by the sentiment at this point, and it was actually something of an improvement that Sally had asked permission this time -- even if that might be only because she'd definitely be missed from the celebratory preparations otherwise. So she just stirred the potato and sweetcorn soup and raised an eyebrow at her daughter. "And just what have you got in mind?"

     Sally gave a gleeful hop. "I think they ought to have a Christmas tree!"

     "Well, I suppose Illusen is the one to arrange that. Bundle up."

     "I am bundled. Anyway, Illusen's Glade is warm."

     "The woods aren't," her mother retorted, inexorably adding a scarf to her daughter's ensemble and snugging it around her ruff. "Open your mouth...."

     Sally opened up obediently, and her mother blew across a ladleful of soup and then poured it into Sally's mouth. Sally drank it eagerly, feeling the heat flow down her throat and pool comfortingly in her stomach, and then she pulled the scarf up over her mouth and was off.

     The woods were still dark, but Sally had done little errands for Illusen often enough that she knew her way. Finding Illusen was easy and quick, if she wanted to be found. Sally took to the trees before long, crackling off the thin layer of night-frost and letting the springier of the branches fling her along her way.

     She knew she'd nearly reached the Glade when she smelled flowers; a second later, gentle green faerie-light peeped out, and Sally dropped to earth that felt warm under her feet after the cold branches.

     "It's early to be out, little Usul," came the warm voice that brought up memories of spring -- fresh-turned earth and new growth.

          Sally rather thought the voice sounded amused, so she only jumped a little bit. She pulled down her scarf, which was much too warm now and would make her sound muffled. "I've got my morning chores done, though," she said, turning toward the faerie's voice. "And I had an idea I wanted to ask you about."

     What looked like bits of undergrowth and tree detached itself from the forest and moved forward, resolving into the lovely earth faerie. Illusen smiled down at Sally and said gently, "Ask, then, though I cannot promise you'll like my answer!"

     "Well, if you don't want to, I'll find something else to do," Sally said practically. "But I was wondering if you could make a Christmas tree grow on the Darigan Citadel, and then I could decorate it!"

     Illusen laughed and clasped her hands in front of her. "What a lovely idea, little one! Yes, I think the situation has improved enough to grow a tree fairly quickly. It won't be as large as the one at the castle, but I think it will do nicely. Now, have you a way to get up to the Citadel?"

     Sally bounced gleefully on her toes. "Not yet, but I'm sure I can find somebody...."

     "Then off with you!" Illusen smiled and made shooing motions. "The tree will be there when you are. Just don't dawdle too long, or everyone else will be up." The Darigani not being farmers, they didn't rise quite as early as the typical Meridellian. "But wait!" Illusen reached back into the woods and emerged with several small branches with clumps of bright red berries. "A contribution to your decorating. Now go."

     "Thank you!" Sally beamed at her and ran back off through the trees, arriving home with the tips of her ears and toes cold and everything else warm from running. She would need a bag. She might not be able to carry too many decorations, but there was nothing wrong with a simple tree, and she had been making straw garlands and collecting baubles for weeks.

     She remembered to stop and wipe her feet without being told this time. "Mummy, Illusen said yes! I have to hurry... may I take a sack?"

     Her mother pointed toward a bag hanging on Sally's own chair. "You may. I've put hooked candies in it, too, though I don't suppose they'll last any longer than the ones you keep snitching off our tree!"

     "Mummy, you're wonderful." Sally hugged her mother hard, fetched her own collection, and was off again, her breath trailing her in soft white puffs.

     She knew exactly whom to ask for her flight to the Citadel. Her friend Jerry (really Jeran, as he was one of the eldest children to have been named for Sir Jeran Borodere when the Champion had begun to be famous, but nobody called him Jeran) had taken her up last time, and as nothing bad had happened then, he would probably do it again.

     The young purple Eyrie was just finishing his own chores when Sally darted around his family's barn with a sack on her shoulder. "Jeeeeerrrry, would you help me please?"

     He looked over at her and said reasonably, "Depends on what you want me to help with, I guess."

     Sally grinned at him. "Could you fly me up to the Darigan Citadel? I asked Illusen to grow them a Christmas tree, and I need to decorate it."

     "You're going to decorate a Christmas tree on the Citadel?" Jerry looked at her like she'd gone crazy, but when she just kept grinning, he shrugged in resignation. "Just let me tell my dad."

     "Thanks!" Sally waited patiently through the explanation to Jerry's incredulous father, helped extract a half-grown Dragoyle (hatched out of season and not yet ready to fly) from a hole in a tree trunk, and bounced gleefully when the older Eyrie began showing signs of giving in.

     "Do you really think you're going to get away with sneaking onto the Citadel -- when you think they're sleeping, mind -- and not get in trouble with their guards?" Jerry's father demanded.

     "It's all right," Sally piped up. "I've been up before. And it's allowed. They come down here all the time!"

     "Well... so they do...."

     "And she says Illusen already agreed to grow her the tree," Jerry said, indicating Sally with a taloned thumb.

     "My mother said yes, too," Sally said virtuously. "I asked her."

     "Go on with you, then." Jerry's father fluffed his feathers over the shivering Dragoyle and started toward the house, shaking his head.

     Sally shrieked in glee. "Let's go!"

     "Climb on. Watch the wings." Jerry crouched down a little; Sally took the neck of her sack in her teeth and climbed on, Snorkleback-fashion, with her arms around his neck. "Ready?"

     "Un-hnn!" ...Well, she'd meant "Uh-huh!" but it was difficult to articulate with her teeth clenched. "Yehsh."

     Jerry twisted his head around. "What -- oh, give me the sack." He reached up and took it out of her mouth. "That's better. Hold on tight!"

     Flying was fun, and Jerry was good at it even with a substantial load. He showed off a little bit, looping and diving a couple of times. Sally squealed softly with the excitement when a steep swoop left her stomach behind, then pointed out in his ear, "This is fun, but we kind of need to hurry -- they sleep later up there, but the sun's coming up!"

     There was indeed a pink glow around the horizon, and without further games Jerry switched to a rapid climb, angling toward the Citadel. Its rocky underside loomed nearer and nearer, and he skimmed across underneath it for a little distance before popping up over the edge.

     A much larger Eyrie in military uniform blinked red eyes at the pair, looking surprised.

     Jerry squawked and backwinged frantically.

     "Um," said Sally, "hi!"

     "...Oh, it's you." The large Eyrie just sounded resigned. "Don't think he's up yet."

     "That's all right, Mr. Kass!" Sally said cheerfully. "I came up with a surprise. I didn't think anyone would really be up. You won't tell him, will you?"

     "Somehow I doubt you're planning the sort of surprise I'd be expected to warn him about, so no, I don't think I'll go and wake Lord Darigan to tell him we're being invaded by a couple of Meridellian children. --You'd better land before you strain something."

     This last was, of course, directed to Jerry. Eyries were a versatile sort of Neopet, as locomotion went, but they did not hover well. Jerry gave up on bobbing in the air and made a lunge at the rocks of the Citadel, swinging Sally off, handing her the bag, and then stepping back to the very edge without quite getting out of arm's reach. Sally suspected that he was prepared to snatch her away and dive. "'Oh, it's you'?!" she heard him mutter under his breath.

     To be fair, Sally was rather unnerved herself. She knew Kass on sight -- who didn't? -- but had never really talked to him before, even on previous visits. It rather rattled her that he recognized her. But she was determined not to show it. "Thank you," she chirped. "Don't worry. It's a good surprise!" She looked left and right, seeing no one else who might be a guard, and curiosity overcame her. "How come you're up already, though?"

     "Guarding the Citadel against errant Meridellian children," Kass replied dryly. "Clearly, I was just in time."

     "We can go," Jerry said warily, reaching for Sally's arm.

     "I have a tree to decorate," Sally insisted.

     Kass stared at her. "There are no trees on the Citadel. We've barely managed a few straggly bushes. And whyever would you decorate one?"

     "For the Day of Giving! And there's one now, Illusen said."

     Kass looked over his shoulder as if he were expecting the tree to be sneaking up on them. "...I don't see the connection, but...go. Do what you like. You always do anyway."

     "I did ask my mother this time," Sally pointed out, somewhat discomfitted.

     "Well, now, that makes everything better." Kass snorted softly, then shook his head. "If you're trying for a surprise, best go now before everyone wakes." He spread his wings and walked to the edge of the Citadel. "I'll be...around, if you need anything."

     "Thank you," Sally said politely. "Jerry, do you want to help decorate or are you going home?"

     Jerry glanced at Kass. "I'll come with you. Where's this tree?"

     "Er...." She hadn't actually specified a place, and neither had Illusen. Well, it was probably outside, and an Usul ought to be able to find a tree. Sally put her nose up and sniffed the cold air. There was... a faint scent of evergreen... Aha. "That way," she announced, pointing inward. And then squeaked, as Jerry picked her up again. "Hey! What are you doing?"

     Jerry picked up speed. "Thought you were in a hurry."

     "Oh. Right. Thanks." Skimming across would be much easier than trying to navigate the Citadel's streets.

     She kept Jerry in the right direction with occasional calls of "THAT way!" until both of them saw a fir tree growing bravely in the middle of a square set in front of the palace. Jerry backwinged to a landing close enough to make its branches sway in the breeze. "It's perfect!" Sally cried happily, jumping down and looking up at the tree in delight.

     "You're going to wake everybody up," Jerry said. "I'm surprised you haven't already." He looked around. "I guess those are the bushes.... I cannot believe you were talking to Lord -- General -- whatever he is now -- Kass like that. Even if Sir Borodere did help get him back." The story of Meridell's Champion and Illusen going on some strange rescue quest with one old enemy to rescue another had gotten around, although it had probably also grown rather muddled.

     "I was polite!" Sally dug into her sack and came out with the garlands. "I don't know what else I could have done. Here, once we get this on the tree will look decorated even if we can't finish everything."

     "I'll do the top!" Jerry laughed, grabbing hold of one end of the garland.

     "Hmph. I could do that," Sally huffed as Jerry took to the air. But she shrugged and took more of the garland, then dove into the tree and scurried around the branches to distribute the garland.

     The decorations had to be spread a little more sparsely than Sally was used to; she had expected the tree to be smaller. But it still looked nice, even before they put the candy ornaments on -- which was good, as people were supposed to take those off and eat them.

     By the time they finished, the sun was fully up and they were drawing an audience.

     There were whispers and murmurs, and one bold child outright shouting, "What's THAT, Daddy?" His father quickly shushed him, looking at the tree in trepidation.

     Jerry was sitting at the bottom of the trunk, his wings moving restlessly as he eyed the crowd. Sally popped out of the tree and beamed at everyone. "Happy Day of Giving!"

     There was a resounding silence.

     "Happy Day of Giving," Sally repeated. "We've, um, decorated a tree for you. Illusen grew it."

     The silence this time was not so much resounding as confused.

     Finally a whisper broke it. "Why'd they decorate a tree?"

     "It's how we celebrate," Jerry said. Sally shot him a grateful look. "Don't you, er, didn't you ever...?"

     "For the Day of Giving," came a very solemn voice, "we hang stockings by the fire. And burn a yule log." The crowd parted for Lord Darigan to walk through, examining the tree with an amused air. "Sir Jeran mentioned something about decorating trees, but I thought he was joking."

     Sally jumped to her feet; Jerry scrambled up and gave a sort of nervous bow. "We do decorate trees," Sally said. "I thought you might like one. ...I never heard of decorating with stockings."

     Darigan smiled at her. "Well, then, we'll have to get you one this year, in repayment for your fine gift of Meridellian decoration." He looked up at the tree and shook his head. "You said Illusen grew it? It's amazing."

     Sally beamed. Kass's odd behavior and the puzzled crowd had had her worried, but as long as Lord Darigan liked it.... "She liked the idea."

     "I can see why. It's a very pretty custom. But do you do anything with it after it's decorated? We have gifts left in our stockings."

     "We usually put them under the tree. Or hang them on it." She waved at the tree. "The ones that aren't shiny -- or straw -- are candies."

     "CANDY!" the same brave young Darigani who'd spoken earlier cried out gleefully, squirming under his father's restraint.

     "My mother made it," Sally called to him helpfully. "She always does... of course, nobody ever really leaves it on the tree until the Day of Giving actually gets here...."

     The boy tugged toward the tree, then paused to look plaintively up at his father.

     "Hey," Jerry said, and plucked one of the candies off a branch. When the young Darigani looked his way, Jerry tossed it accurately into the other boy's paws.

     In turn, their hosts assured Jerry and Sally that no, as a matter of fact, it was not at all common for the custom of hanging stockings by the fire to end in a lot of scorched stockings.

     The visit had to end eventually, as everyone went about the day's work. The Day of Giving itself came and went, with trees and stockings and logs and all other due ceremony.

     Illusen's fir continued to stand proudly in the square.

     And across the Citadel, now that they knew it would work... here and there, people planted saplings.

The End

 
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