Henry finished hanging the last strand of garland at the same time as the bell rang to show that the cookies were finished. “Alright kids,” he called. “You’ve all worked hard. I think we deserve a break. Who wants fresh-baked cookies and milk?”

With a cheer, the children came from all around and settled into the sitting room for cookies and milk. The new children, Carol and Chris, were the last to arrive. Both looked a little sad and Henry could understand why.

“It doesn’t feel like Christmas when you’re away from home, huh?” he said softly.

“Not without Mama and Daddy,” Carol agreed.

“Not without presents,” Chris said softly, clutching his plush bear to his chest.

“Now, who says you aren’t getting presents?” Henry said. “Every year the kids here get a gift from me and Miss Maggie and, of course, you’ve all been making gifts for each other, right?”

“The boys at school say since we’re poor now we won’t get gifts,” Chris said. “Because we don’t have a Mama and a Daddy to buy us a toy for Christmas this year.”

“See, what they don’t know is that when you have no Mama or Daddy is when the snow elves and Master Nicholas work extra hard to make sure you have exactly what you want,” Henry said. He looked up at the group of children and asked, “Who wants to hear about the story of Master Nicholas?”

There was another cheer as the children began to settle into chairs or on the floor around him. Henry smiled and drew out his wand. He waved it like he was painting a picture and an image began to form as he spoke.

“Once long, long ago, before Shynia was put back together, before Shynia was broken up, before the Bear Clan even formed a nation, there was a master magician who dreamed of having children. He wandered far and wide, searching for something that he couldn’t define.”

Nicholas had no idea how long he’d been walking. It seemed like days, but that would be impossible. Old tales aside, people couldn’t walk for days without rest. He felt numb; like he was walking through a dream.

The wilderness he walked through was beautiful. Trees were coated with snow. Ice coated logs and covered streams. Everything seemed frozen, even the sky. He saw what appeared to be a statue ahead and paused to admire it. Suddenly, it moved. It was no statue, but a woman of unearthly beauty. She was so pale, even her hair was almost white, that she seemed made of stone.

But her smiled was kind and when she beckoned to him, Nicholas found that he followed almost against his will. Soon their trek through the frozen woods ended at a small beautifully decorated house. “It’s like a candy house,” he murmured.

“What’s that?” the woman asked.

“Well,” Nicholas said as he paused to think. “There’s a baker in the village I was in up until a short while ago who made them for festivals. He took a heavy, spicy bread or cookie and formed a little house from sheets of it. Then he decorated it with frosting and sweets.” He stepped forward and took her hand. “Did you summon me here?” he asked.

“I did,” she replied as she led him toward the back of the house. Though everything else around was frozen, the garden behind the house was full of flowers of all shapes and colors. She led him to a fountain and as she brushed the water, the little village he’d left behind appeared. There the baker stood before his window, showing off his latest creation.

“It does look like my house,” she said, smiling. “My name is Crystal Kringa. This is my home and my garden – my whole world. I summoned you here because I am lonely. I could sense that you longed for a companion as much as I did.

Nicholas nodded and smiled, then blinked, remembering his manners. “I am Nicholas of Eldatorn. You are right when you say I’ve long for a companion. I have no family and no home to call my own. If you wish it, Lady Crystal, I will stay by your side.”

Crystal smiled and led him inside the house. Within, there were more treasures to be found. The panty was always stocked with all sorts of wonderful foods, even fruits from far away lands. There was a closet that was always supplied with firewood. There was a cabinet that could endlessly duplicate any item placed inside. Outside, still more wonders waited. Beside the fountain and beautiful flowers, wonderous creatures filled the garden. Most amazing of all were the sweet friendly deer that could fly magically where ever they wished.

The greatest secret of all, Crystal held for last. “Do you think that you’ll stay with me, Nicholas? Do you think you can be happy here? Have you found a home for your wandering heart at last?”

“Yes,” Nicholas said. “Where ever you are is my home, dear Crystal. I will stay with you for all eternity, if you wish it.”

Crystal smiled and handed him a glass. “This holds an elixir that grants immortality. Think before you drink it. If you ever change your mind, you will have to wander endlessly so that none will realize that you are unaging.”

“Until I met you, Crystal, I had no one in the entire world. I will drink this and stay by your side forever.” He drained the cup and took her hand. “I don’t feel any different, but I will take your word for it. Shall we eat?”

They ate and talked late into the night. For centuries they spent happy days learning from each other and laughing with each others. Neither was lonely ever again.

The days passed unchanging until one day when Crystal was out gathering spell ingredients. Nicholas sat on the porch, whittling. He looked up as a small perfect face emerged from the wood and found himself surrounded by children. They looked alike enough to be related. All had the same dark hair and pale skin.

“Are you a wood carver?” one child asked.

“Not by profession,” Nicholas replied with a soft chuckle. “I was just whittling to pass the time. Where did you children come from?”

“We’re not children,” one boy said.

“We’re snow elves,” a girl said. She smoothed her skirts and added, “Though we do look like children and the other elves say we act like children. We’ve been trying to find a nice place to make our home. Someplace where we can make our toys and carve our wood without being bothered or bothering anyone.”

“Who do you make toys for?” Nicholas asked.

“Well, we use them,” the boy who’d spoken first said. “We also give them away whenever we meet a child who has no family. Everyone should have a chance to play and have fun, especially children.”

“That’s a wonderful idea,” Nicholas said. “I’ll bet you could find so many deserving children if you used the fountain in the garden. It shows whatever, where ever you wish it to.”

The spokesman smiled and said, “So, can we build our village in the little valley there, big guy?” He pointed over his shoulder and added, “Maybe we’ll be in touch about that fountain. Though I expect we’d have to make a lot of toys to full all the children’s wishlists we could find with something like that.”

“I think it would be great to have neighbors,” Nicholas said. “I’ll talk to Crystal about the fountain. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind though.”

It wasn’t long before there was a bustling complex of buildings in the valley below the home. The little elves visited Nicholas and Crystal often. Many times they brought gifts of food or beautifully carved furniture or ornaments. They spent an enormous amount of time watching the outside world through the fountain. Nicholas took to helping them make lists of children who were poor or orphaned, where the children lived and what they most wanted.

After a few months of this, Nicholas and Crystal went down to the village to visit. They found the elves busily getting ready for a festival. It didn’t take long for Nicholas to recognize the Winter Festival decorations or treats.

He chuckled as Frosty, the male elf who’d spoken to him on the first day, bounded over to him. “Living up here where it’s always winter, I’m afraid I forgot the time of year.”

“Yeah, figured on that, big guy,” Frosty said with a grin. “We have a tradition of exchanging gifts for the last day of the Winter Festival. The humans do too.”

“I remember that,” Nicholas said. “Children always got a toy to play with. Birthdays they might get a book or a new outfit. For Harvest Festival, they always get a new outfit. Winter Festival gifts were always toys.”

“Yeah, we got a request.” Frosty said with a grin. “Thanks to looking into your fountain, we figured out that we have a lot of work to do. We’ve been working on making a lot of toys for all the boys and girls we’ve seen in that fountain that don’t have someone to give them a toy for the Winter Festival.” He shot Nicholas a sidelong glance. “Any chance you could help us with that?”

“I’ll see what I can do?” Nicholas promised.

“From that day to this Master Nicholas has been doing his very best to make the wishes of all the good little boys and girls on Ekudo come true,” Henry said. “The deer in the garden pull a sleigh full of toys through the night sky on Christmas Eve. The elves work all year to make sure that there is one special toy for each boy and girl. Master Nicholas delivers the toys and Mistress Crystal packs the sacks of fruit and nuts the children get.”

Chris smiled and hugged his bear closer. “So we get a toy this year, no matter what the big boys say?”

“You do,” Henry said, as he ruffled the boy’s hair. “Let’s sing some carols, shall we?”

The children cheered and bounded over to the piano. Henry was pleased to note that the twins seemed a touch less sad. They would be alright, he was sure.