The Holly and the Ivy
A powerful smell, acrid and rich, filled Nan’s sinuses. She sneezed—and her eyes flew open.
The world around her was bright and unfocused, but pungent aromas filled the air and something crackled and popped nearby. And she was warm, positively hot, wrapped in an enormous fur blanket.
The blanket removed a pawful of leaves from under Nan’s nose. “Ah, there you are,” it said in a deep, husky voice.
Nan blinked and looked up into the green eyes of the female Werelupe that held her. Nearby sat a male, inspecting the chunk of meat that roasted over their fire in a forest clearing. At the sound of the female’s voice, he glanced over and grinned toothily. “It is good that we found you, little one.”
Anyone else in Nan’s situation would have likely jumped to unsettling conclusions. But the Techo knew these two creatures well. After their king had saved her village from a Monocerous the previous year, he had dubbed Kirven and Nusa the stewards of Caxton Bank.
Nan broke into a grin. Monsters had indeed found her, much to her advantage. “I’m glad, too. But—“ She looked at them in confusion. “I’m supposed to be asleep.”
Nusa nodded, tucking the herbs into a pouch on her belt. “Aye, we found you in torpor. But Icky Fruit leaves, when bruised, release a scent that wakes reptilians, so long as they’re in a warm place.”
Nan’s eyes widened and she laughed, clapping her hands. “I’m glad there’s a real use for that awful fruit! I needn’t sleep ‘til Running, after all! What day is it?”
“The eve of Giving Day,” Kirven replied. He sniffed at the meat and his pink tongue lolled out of his jaw. “Breakfast is ready.”
Nan sat up and pushed herself off Nusa’s lap. “That means it hasn’t been long at all! There’s still time!”
“Time for what?” Nusa asked as she accepted a hunk of meat from Kirven and tossed it behind her onto a snowdrift, where it sizzled itself into a dent.
“The harvest was poor this year,” Nan said, “and Dad said that’s why we won’t have Giving Day! But I want Giving Day to come, and so does Mum, and everyone’s going to be so sad if it doesn’t!” She reached into her pocket and pulled out the ivy. “Mum said holly and ivy have the magic of the season, and I thought perhaps if I gathered them, they would bring Giving Day to Caxton Bank!”
Her shoulders slumped and she sniffled a bit. “But I c-can’t find holly, and I’ve looked everywhere! Please, Lord Kirven and Lady Nusa, you’ve got to help me!” She looked up at them pleadingly. “Dad says I ought’nt to trouble you, but I went round the house withershins—and here you are—and it’s got to work out, it’s just got to!”
The two Werelupes looked at each other and smiled. Nusa plucked the meat from the snow and handed it to Nan—while still warm, the food did not scorch the girl’s sensitive finger-pads as it would have fresh from the fire. As the Techo greedily snapped it up, Nusa said, “You were brave to come out here by yourself, little one. And to keep trying when others gave up.”
Nan shook her head. “I wasn’t brave, I was rather foolish. I knew the risk I was taking.”
Kirven put a large paw on her head. “No. Courage is knowing the risk and doing what you feel is right anyway. Fear not—Giving Day shall come to Caxton Bank because of your efforts.”
“Aye,” said Nusa, “but first let’s worry about breakfast.”
The three ate together. Kirven and Nusa told Nan stories of their greatest hunts and the time Lord Isengrim attended the Chocolate Ball in far-away Neopia Central, and Nan related tales of the biggest marrow she’d ever seen and the time she nursed a Ukali back to health with the help of her parents.
When the Werelupes finished crunching the bones, Kirven put out the fire and Nusa handed Nan her now-dried clothes. “Now then,” the female said, “about that holly.”
“I can’t find any,” Nan protested as she pulled her mittens back on. “Anywhere. I looked.”
Kirven grinned. “But have you smelled?” He lifted his snout, nostrils flaring. For a moment he stood still, analyzing a spectrum of scents that Nan’s Techo nose was only dimly aware of. Then his ears perked and he looked back down at his companions. “Under the crooked oak. The one on which the Hoovles rub the velvet off their horns.”
In response, Nusa picked up Nan, enveloping the Techo in warm fur once more. “Let’s go,” the Werelupe said.
The two beasts bounded away through the snow. Kirven scampered on all fours while Nusa kept to her hind paws in order to hold Nan and shield her from the cold air. They leaped over streams, scaled boulders, and sent up sprays of snow, and Nan let out a laugh of delight as the forest flew by. Already she felt her courage had been aptly rewarded.
Finally the Werelupes slowed in front of a gnarled old oak tree. And there, nestled in the roots, was a clump of green, decorated with round red berries.
Nan let out a gasp. “You found it! Oh, thank you so much!” Kirven plucked a sprig from the holly bush and gave it to the Techo, who tucked it into her pocket next to the ivy. “Now Giving Day will come for certain!”
“Aye, that it will,” Nusa said with a hearty laugh. “But for now, let us get you home.”
“What can I ever do to repay you?” Nan asked as the three set off through the woods again.
Trotting through the snow, tail held high like a sable banner, Kirven shook his head. “It is not a matter of payment. You are our subject and we, your lord and lady. We are happy to see you happy. Never doubt that, despite what the cynics may say.”
Nan was warm from the inside out, and she couldn’t stop smiling, not even when they arrived home to find her Ixi neighbor distraught at the girl’s disappearance—and then bewildered at her arriving in the company of two Werelupes who told him to keep this a secret. She was still smiling when her parents returned home none the wiser to her escapades. And her cheeks positively ached by the time her mum and dad had settled down to sleep, and Nan snuck out of bed to hang the holly and ivy above the hearth.
Nan was awakened by a rapping on the window and a “Happy Giving Day!” It was one of her playmates, a Fire Kacheek from down the lane who Nan sort of envied for never having any problems with winter.
The Techo scrambled out of bed and flung open the door. “Has it come?!”
“Nan, you’re letting in all the cold air!” her father groaned.
The Kacheek child outside jumped up and down, her flaming tail melting a puddle in the crusty snow along the road. “It has! It has!” she squeaked. “Oh, Nan, you’ve got to come to the village square and see—it’s lovely!”
“I’ll be right there!” Nan said, reaching for her scarf. “Mum, Dad—hurry!”
Mum’s ear flicked quizzically. “Whatever’s going on?”
Dad squeezed his pillow over his head. “Noise, that’s what. Dreadful business.”
The Kacheek pointed down the road. “It’s Giving Day, ma’am! Hurry or you’ll miss it!” And with that, she turned and scampered off.
By that point Nan had on her scarf and shawl and was pulling on her mittens. “It worked—it really did!” She grabbed Mum’s hoof and tugged her toward the door.
Her mother looked over her shoulder with a teasing smirk. “Thomas, you can’t tell me you’re not the least bit curious.”
The Peophin opened one eye to look at her. For a moment they stared at each other, and then with a “harrumph” Dad pulled himself out of bed. “Someone might as well go knock some sense into them,” he muttered under his breath as he grabbed his scarf.
Outside, Nan hoisted herself onto her mother’s back, and the Uni and Peophin set off through the slush. With their long legs and strong hooves tromping through snow and mud, the ride into the centre of Caxton Bank was swift.
And there, Nan’s wish was granted.
In the middle of the road, an enormous bonfire blazed up toward the sky. Around it were laid out tables full of food—roasts and puddings, carrots and pears, and even dishes that Nan didn’t recognise, that must have been brought in from outside Meridell. Neopets mulled around the tables, eating, talking, and laughing while their children played. To one side, a group practiced for a singing contest.
Standing near the fire were two Werelupes, regally bedecked in furs and bones. One wore a wreath of ivy on her head, while the other had a crown of holly perched between his ears. Their tails wagged as Nan and her parents approached.
As the Techo alighted from her mother’s back, to the astonishment of her parents the Werelupes bowed deeply.
Dad tried to look annoyed, but his wide eyes and flaring nostrils betrayed his astonishment. “Wh-what’s all this, then?”
The male Werelupe looked to Nan and said, “The Holly King and Ivy Queen have heard your request, and have brought Giving Day to this most deserving place.”
“Nan?” Mum nudged her with her nose. “What are they talking about?”
Nan grinned at her. “I wanted Giving Day, and I was brave, and it came!”
The female Werelupe smiled. “The Lord of the Solstices sends his regards. We informed him of your plight and he sent us with these provisions for a bountiful Giving Day feast.”
Nan couldn’t help herself. She rushed over and gave the Ivy Queen a big hug around the knees. “You’re the greatest!”
The king and queen of the season laughed, and the queen crouched down to pat Nan’s head. “This was your doing, young one,” she whispered, her whiskers tickling Nan’s ear. “Your spirit is brave and true. That is what allowed the magic to work.”
The Holly King folded his arms and nodded. “Now, what is this I hear about a singing contest? I am of a mind to join, for Werelupe song is legendary!” To demonstrate, he lifted his muzzle and let out a long, piercing howl.
Everyone flinched and froze for a moment, except for Nan, who laughed. “I can do that, too!” She pursed her lips and gave her best howl. “Awoooooooh!”
“Let’s have a trio!” the Ivy Queen said, arching her back and baying her own howl into the morning air. As the last cutting notes echoed off the hills, the howlers collapsed in laughter, which spread to the rest of the villagers. Soon all the children were getting howling lessons from the spirits of Giving Day, and with their help soundly defeated the adults in the singing contest.
Afterward, when everyone had gone back to eating – and even Dad looked like he was enjoying himself – the Ivy Queen knelt down and presented Nan with a necklace, a string of wooden beads with a single sharp tooth in the middle. As the Werelupe put it around the Techo’s neck, she said, “The Lord of the Solstices wishes to recognise your strength and courage. I am sure you will earn many more fangs before the sun of your life sets.”
Nan thumbed the fang and smiled up at her. “This is the best Giving Day I’ll ever have.”
The Ivy Queen grinned. “Do not discount the others so easily. Let this be but the beginning of your joys, young one. And do not ever give up the hunt.”
“I won’t,” Nan said, and looked forward to even brighter days ahead.