Winters in Meridell were, in Fire’s opinion, the most beautiful in all of Neopia. The snow dusted the roofs of the cottages in the village around Meridell Castle and made the Castle look like an elaborate cake with white frosting. The storefronts in the village were alight with candles and bedecked with sprigs of holly in preparation for the Day of Giving, which was a week away. A group of older children scurried to and fro in the village square holding yellowing copies of sheet music and offering slightly off-key versions of popular holiday songs.
Fire strolled along the main street, passing store after store and admiring each one’s decorations. She was supposedly doing some Christmas shopping, but she had only told Jeran that so that she could see the village up close, rather than from afar in her tower room. (The latter would have been warmer, but pyrokinesis was rather convenient.) She hadn’t lied; she had done some shopping: a new scarf for Jeran, a new book for Lisha, a few loaves of fresh bread for the servants (Fire was one of the few Neopets of rank who actually appreciated the hard work that the servants did), and a hat for herself.
She was lost in the beauty of the village décor and the snowflake that had had the audacity to land on her nose when there was a shout:
A young Wocky, hardly bigger than a Whinny, flew out of the bakery and collided with the Xweetok knight’s knees, startling her and sending himself sprawling onto his back. The loaf of rye bread he had been carrying rolled away into a snowdrift. He looked up at Fire, the snow scattering white across his yellow fur. Recognizing her, he scrambled for the contraband and was on his feet and running before Fire came to her senses.
Gritting her teeth against the cold, Fire secured the lid of the basket on her arm and took off after the thief. “Stop!”
Fire could tell, by the way the Wocky leaped over protruding cobblestones and skirted carts and wheelbarrows as he fled, that he had had a lot of practice escaping from the village.
Soon they were on the outskirts, running down what would have been a dirt road if not for the snow. The houses were becoming fewer and farther between, and they deteriorated from cottage to shack as the farmland drew closer.
“I order you to stop!” Fire yelled as her feet consumed the ground. The Wocky showed no signs of slowing. Her knight training had given her stamina and the will to follow criminals whatever the terrain and whatever the weather; however, even Fire had her limitations.
She was beginning to wheeze when the Wocky arrived at a lonely property surrounded by a rickety fence, threw open a gate, entered, and slammed it shut. Fire halted at the gate, panting, watching the Wocky race down the path toward a dilapidated hovel, waving the bread in the air.
A tiny blue Kacheek toddled out of the doorway, her threadbare tunic flapping in the unforgiving wind, and the Wocky scooped her up as he approached the dwelling. A tall, emaciated white Cybunny stood in the doorframe, watching the children for a moment before she noticed the striped Xweetok standing at her gate. She said something to the Wocky, who took the Kacheek and the bread inside, and then made her way up the path toward the gate. “Good evening, my lady. Won’t you come inside?”
Fire was taken aback at the entire scene and especially at the Cybunny’s invitation. “Ah... Yes. Yes, I think I will,” she spluttered.
“I apologize for the mess,” the Cybunny said as the two of them entered the shack.
“Oh, it’s not a problem,” said Fire. Her gaze roamed the single room, taking in the falling-down shelves above what might have been a stove, the meager fire in the hearth, the starving Babaas in a pen outside, and the old holey mattress with its worn blankets. Something stirred among the piles of blankets when Fire approached the bed, and a little Kougra head appeared on the pillow.
“Mama,” the head croaked, “I’m cold. My head hurts.”
“I know, Indi, I know.” The Cybunny’s forehead wrinkled with concern as she stroked the Kougra’s ears.
Sympathy and anxiety ballooned in Fire’s chest. “Well, I think I can forgive a single theft, given the, ah, circumstances.” The Cybunny looked at her, her eyes glowing with gratitude. “However, I think an explanation is required.” Fire considered the dying flames in the hearth. “As well as a bit of light and warmth.” She held her palm out toward the hearth, made a fist, and her fingers burst outward; a blaze roared into life, casting dancing light across the bare dirt floor and into the next room. Fire noticed two pairs of eyes glowing in the dark and knew to whom they belonged.
She sat down on the bed beside the ill Kougra, who regarded her with weary curiosity. Fire patted the space beside her lap. “Come, child. I will not harm you.” The Kougra, Indi, crawled over and snuggled close to Fire.
“Mama, she’s warm,” Indi whispered.
“Yes.” Fire smiled, rubbing the little girl’s forehead. “Indi, do you know my name?”
The child looked up at her. “Lady Fire?” she asked after a moment.
“That’s right.” Indi gazed up at her in awe. “Sleep now; you might feel better then.” Indi closed her eyes, and instantly fell asleep. The Wocky and Kacheek emerged from the darkness and seated themselves on the two wooden stools beside the bare table. Fire turned her attention to the Cybunny. “Now let us talk.”
“My name is Rose,” the Cybunny began. “You have already met Indi, the youngest, and you have encountered Caspar—he is the oldest. Matilda is the middle child.”
“They are all yours?” Fire inquired.
Rose nodded. Her eyes became hooded with sadness. “My husband died in the middle of the drought this summer.”
“My condolences,” Fire murmured.
Rose nodded. “I was left to care for them alone. I make blankets and scarves out of the wool from our Babaa flock and sell them to the clothiers in the village, and that sustained us for a while, but then Indi came down with Neomonia around All Hallows’ Eve and I had to stop working so I could take care of her. Eventually we had no food and no money to buy it. Caspar and Matilda wanted to find work, but they’re both too young, and nobody’s hiring anyhow. They’ve been taking turns stealing.”
Fire sat in silence for several moments, musing on the family’s plight. She, who lived in the luxury of Meridell Castle, did not have these kinds of struggles. There was never a shortage of food at the Castle—King Skarl saw to that. The Castle had its own healers, access to potions and magic, connections to Illusen. The Castle was rich. Fire only now realized how lucky she was compared to Rose and her children and, no doubt, the majority of the citizens of Meridell. Poverty was something she had seen regularly, but she had never come in close contact with it. Until now. She contemplated the family, the ramshackle dwelling, the ill child. Determination ignited within her, and she looked at Rose. “Let me help you.”
Rose’s eyes widened. “But Lady Fire—”
Fire raised a hand to stop her. “It’s almost Christmas; I insist.”
Rose started to protest, but then she saw the sincerity in Fire’s expression and sighed. “Our deepest thanks.”
“For now, the fire is all I can provide; I must return to the Castle. But I will be back.” Fire stroked Indi’s forehead one last time and rose slowly so as not to disturb her. She paused at the door. “Oh, and the fire won’t go out unless you want it to go out. It won’t spread either.”
Then she was on the road back to Meridell Castle, fighting the wind’s sting.
It was two days before the Day of Giving. On her birthday, Fire stood on the top of the Castle wall, gazing at the landscape spread out below like a sparkling holiday card, contemplating the little huts on the outskirts of the village. She was on duty, but her mind was elsewhere. The door through which she had entered earlier that morning opened; she didn’t have to turn to know who was crunching across the snow toward her.
“There you are,” Jeran said, joining her at the wall.
“Here I am.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask you something.”
Fire turned to him. “Yes?”
“Where have you been going lately?” Fire raised an eyebrow, and Jeran added, “I’ve hardly seen you when you were off duty.”
She simply smiled and turned back to the wall. “Tomorrow afternoon, I will show you; words cannot explain.”
The next day, Jeran met Fire in the entrance hall, wrapped up in their warmest winter wear, she with a heavy rucksack slung over one shoulder.
“Where are we going?” Jeran inquired.
Fire took his hand. “You’ll see.”
They trekked through the newly fallen snow to the village. Shopkeepers called out to them, and were delighted when the knights returned their salutations.
After they had left the village behind and were plowing through snowdrifts that reached their knees as they headed down the dirt road, Jeran looked at Fire, whose hand seemed frozen to his. “How much farther are we going to walk?” he asked, his teeth chattering.
“Not much farther now. It’s just around this bend,” Fire replied, her breath forming a cloud in front of her.
On they trudged, until they arrived at a timeworn property with a snow-covered dirt track and an old, decrepit house. Fire released Jeran’s hand, entered the gate, and waited for a few seconds.
Suddenly, they heard a glad cry, and a yellow Wocky and a blue Kacheek scampered from the house. Fire knelt in the snow and opened her arms; the children rushed into them.
Jeran stood rooted to the spot, just outside the gate. The children were clad in ragged coats and thick scarves, their fur dull but showing signs of improved health. The Kacheek wore a patched hat, and the Wocky sported a pair of old boots, whose right boot had a hole near the toe. A thin white Cybunny appeared in the doorway and strode through the snow toward Fire, her long skirt leaving a trail behind her. Fire stood and embraced the Cybunny, and then turned toward Jeran. “Jeran, come!” He obeyed.
“Jeran, this is Rose,” said Fire, indicating the Cybunny.
Jeran bowed. “A pleasure to meet you.”
Rose nodded, accepting his bow. “These are my children, Caspar and Matilda.” The two children gaped at Jeran, awed and speechless at finding the Champion of Meridell standing in their yard. Rose smiled her beautiful smile, and bade the knights come in out of the cold.
They entered the house, and Fire noted with satisfaction the roaring flames in the fireplace, the food on the shelves, the clean wooden table, the thick blankets piled on the new, large bed, the plugged cracks in the doorframe and window frames. All of a sudden, a little red bundle of fur bounded into Fire’s arms with an elated squeal. “Fire!”
Fire held the toddler close. Indi’s fever had long since broken, her cough had vanished, and the light had returned to her eyes. “Indi! How are you feeling?”
“I’m not sick anymore!” the Kougra cried, her childish lisp making it impossible not to smile. Then she noticed Jeran. “Is that him?”
Fire nodded. “It sure is.” Indi squirmed, and Fire set her down.
Indi lifted one foot and took a wobbly step toward Jeran, then another and another. Jeran knelt before her, and she completed her yard-long journey. She tripped on her last step, but the Lupe steadied her. Indi considered him for a moment, and then wrapped her skinny arms around his neck.
Tears welled in Rose’s eyes as she watched her youngest daughter. “We thought she would never be well enough to take her first steps,” she choked. Fire laid a hand on her shoulder.
Jeran looked up at Fire. “This is what you’ve been doing.” A statement, not a question.
“Well, I had some help,” Fire admitted. “Lisha and her friends sent some of their old clothes, the ones they had outgrown. Lisha herself came out and used magic to clean the place.” She nodded at the gleaming surfaces of the table and shelves. “Kayla supplied the potion that cured Indi, and Illusen treated the Babaas.”
“Everything’s going to be all right now,” Matilda piped up.
“It’s going to be even better after this!” Fire opened the basket and, with a wink, spread out its contents on the dining table.
“PRESENTS!” Indi bounded out of Jeran’s arms and joined her siblings; all three of the children crowded around the brightly wrapped boxes, seizing them and tearing into the paper. Matilda tied a ribbon around Indi’s tail.
Fire pulled a smaller box, topped with a simple red bow, out of the basket and passed it to Rose. “This one is for you.”
Rose lifted the lid off the box and stared at the simple silver leaf-shaped pin inside, her eyes swimming with unshed tears. She sank onto the chair beside the table, and spoke not a word; when she looked at Fire, her face said everything.
While Matilda and Indi played with the toys and modeled their new clothes, and while Rose was trying to disentangle Caspar from the ribbons in which his sisters had wrapped him, Fire poked at the flames in the hearth. Jeran watched her for a minute, and then commented, quietly, “You’re probably the most generous Neopian I’ve ever met.”
Fire stood and pulled a little brown package out of her tunic pocket. She handed it to him. “Open it.”
Jeran undid the string, opened the box, and carefully removed a layer of tissue paper. His eyebrows shot up in surprise as he held up a silver chain from which a pendant in the shape of a Gallion. “Fire...”
“Merry Christmas, Jeran,” she said.
Before the two knights turned back to watch the once-struggling family as they reveled in the joy of Christmas Eve, Jeran answered, “Merry Christmas, Fire.”
Her only response was a smile as warm as her name.