With one sweep of a golden scepter, the sentence and punishment was entered into the record books. Nods were exchanged around the Royal Court and stern looks given. There would be no going back and no reverse of the decision. Time was short, lessons needed to be learned. Some of them would be harsh.
He only hoped he'd be able to survive the ridicule and isolation among the humans.
A gust of wind slammed against the side of the boarding house, stirring white, lacy curtains as the cold air seeped beneath the windowsill. Bethany Cundiff shivered. Stuffing the folded length of a tattered blanket along the seam, she hoped it would be enough to keep the room warm throughout the night. She looked at the bed where the two children were tucked; quilt to their chins, their big eyes staring back.
"You two are thinking about mischief. I can feel it." She sat on the side of the bed and brushed a mop of blond curls from the little boy's forehead. Her five-year-old nephew, John, nodded and grinned.
"Tell us a story."
From beside him, Sarah, his sister, nodded as well. "Yes, Aunt Bethany. We simply cannot sleep until you tell us a story." At eight years old, her blue eyes and honey colored curls had already proclaimed her a great beauty.
"Just this once." Bethany chuckled to herself. They indulged in this same routine every night. She'd put the two in bed, they begged for another story and she gave in every time. How could she not? Without the children, her life would be empty--and less complicated, but they were her reason for living and she wanted to make them happy. Stretching to the bedside table, she turned the oil lamp down until thick shadows crept into the corners of the room and across the ceiling.
"One night, almost like this one, while the cold wind howled across the land, a lonely man stole through the driving snow. He had a job to do and if he did not, children all over the world would be disappointed. The man carried a big leather bag with countless gifts inside, but how would he visit every child in the world before sunrise?"
John, his eyes wide and sparkling, sat up. "Magic."
"You are a very smart boy." Bethany patted his curls then pulled a knitted shawl tighter about her shoulders. "Yet how could this man in red velvet robes possibly accomplish this feat?"
This time Sarah shrugged out of the nest of blankets. "He whistled for his flying reindeer and that is how he did it."
"No! One of his elves helped him.” John quivered in the bed. “They have their own special magic."
"Ah, perhaps you are right or you have heard me tell this story too many times this Christmas season." Bethany smiled. "The man reached into a small pouch on his belt and withdrew dust from a thousand pixies. Taking the glittery substance in his palm, he blew it into the wind and that wind carried the magical dust through the air. All the children breathed it in and they grew very sleepy until they dropped off into dreamland."
"What if they refused to sleep? Sometimes I do not want to." Sarah's bottom lip stuck out in a pout.
"Then you would not get any presents." Her brother assumed a serious expression. "And if Santa did not visit because of you, I would not talk to you ever again."
"Now, now." Bethany swallowed down a laugh. "Suffice it to say, they did indeed want to sleep because it was enchanted dust. Only then was the man allowed enough time to visit each and every child around the world." She stood and pressed a kiss onto both warm, round cheeks. "He mounted his magical reindeer and delivered all the toys, once again making Christmas a happy time for everyone."
"I wonder what Santa will bring us this year." Excitement tinged Sarah's voice.
John grinned. "I hope it is toy soldiers."
"Anything you get will be a blessing. Do not be greedy." Bethany's stomach clenched with worry as she turned the oil lamp down until no more light shone from behind the glass. "Sleep well, my little angels. Tomorrow is another day."
"But what about the elf, Aunt Bethany?" John wanted to know.
She frowned. "Which elf? I would imagine there are quite a lot."
"The one who is Santa's assistant. The head elf. He writes the list every year and makes sure Santa is on time. Maybe he knows where all the toys come from."
"I do not know, John. Perhaps he has his own story to tell and if you ever see him, you can ask him yourself."
That seemed to satisfy the boy, for he remained quiet.
"Aunt Bethany?" This time Sarah called out and her voice shook with uncertainty.
"What is it, Sarah? You must sleep sometime tonight."
"Do you think Mama and Daddy remember us since it is Christmas?"
A wave of sadness washed over her as she considered her next words. "I think your parents think about you, no matter what time of year it is. As long as we keep them in our hearts, they will be with us always." Leaning over, she hugged the slender girl then gave the same attention to John, who squirmed, saying it wasn't proper for men to hug.
"Goodnight, Aunt Bethany. I love you." Sarah lay down and snuggled beneath the bedclothes.
John blinked. "I like you, Aunt Bethany. I love chocolate cake. Maybe there will be some for us tomorrow?"
As she swallowed sudden tears, Bethany nodded. "Perhaps. If you are good." Swiftly standing, a few strides took her across the room to the door. She left it open a crack and padded down a short hall to a cozy living area.
A dying fire flickered in the hearth. She moved to the rocking chair, sat down and covered herself with a worn quilt handed down from her grandmother. Only then did she give into the tears she held back. Her sister and brother-in-law had died two years before in a carriage accident. Something had spooked their horse and he bolted, eventually dumping the conveyance into a ditch.
Their premature deaths left her with an instant family and no means to care for them, especially since her own parents had perished several years earlier in a hotel fire. Never well off to begin with, her brother-in-law hadn't owned property of his own and the rent on his house was too high for her to move into. The choice between keeping the children, her own flesh and blood, or begging distant relatives to take them in had been hard. In the end, Bethany moved the kids into two rooms at a boardinghouse near the heart of Indianapolis.
She gave them her bed and she slept on the lumpy sofa in the front room. Not an ideal arrangement by any stretch and eventually, she'd need to consider the future, but working in the dining room at a local hotel didn't lend itself to many options. She'd been fortunate to make ends meet to this point; however, she'd heard rumors around the hotel that the owner was considering massive staff changes.
That meant reduced hours or even a loss of the job. She needed to conserve every penny she had now.
Sarah went to school during the day while Bethany's landlady looked after John. By the time she dragged herself home by eight in the evenings, there were the children to pay attention to and no time for proper mourning.
Now, ten days before Christmas, she was no farther ahead than she'd been when she'd first taken the children in. Even worse, the rent was late since she'd gotten less hours and Mrs. Hall began grousing about the money every time Bethany retrieved the kids in the evening. The cupboards were bare. Any chance of John getting that chocolate cake, let alone dinner the next evening, were slim. Not to mention gifts for Christmas.