THE GOLDEN MOMENT
A Holiday Tale of the Marvelous Land of ApIt had been a hard winter in Ap. Thick snow blanketed the land. The River Surprise had frozen so solidly that a fat man could walk across it without fear of falling through the ice. The days were short, the nights were long, and both were frigid. It had been a season of raging blizzards and creeping ice-fogs. No one went outside unless it was necessary. Some people decided to take sleeping potions and snooze their way through the bitter season. Most folks remained awake, to watch the hands of the calender-clocks creep toward Spring. However, before Spring could arrive, Winter had to end, and tonight was the night of Winter’s End.
Now, Winter’s End is one of the great holidays of the marvelous Land of Ap. It’s like New Year’s Eve, Christmas and Easter all rolled up into one grand night. Great bonfires would be lit and folk would keep vigil until sunrise, to say goodbye to the old year and hello to the new. There would be parties with good things to eat and drink, music and dancing, games and snowball fights. No one would be expected to work the next day, and if it was a particularly good party, no one would be expected to work the day after that either.
At midnight, everyone across Ap would cross their fingers and squeeze their eyes tightly shut. They would count backwards from ten, open their eyes, and then rush off to hunt for the presents that Mr. Good-cheer would have left.
If you had been good, you would get something nice from that fine gentleman. However, if you had been naughty, you might get nothing but socks and underwear. And if you had been downright bad, you would get nothing at all. However, the last very rarely happened in Ap.
* * * * *
Now, this particular Winter’s End, there was a little boy named Oliver staying at the Nursery. The Nursery was a fine, brick building where the needy children from the world stayed, when they arrived in Ap. There, they were looked after by two very kind ladies, Nurse Nanny and Madame Pedagogue.
Oliver was ten years old. He had blonde hair, the color of sunlight, and brown eyes. His eyesight was very bad and he had to wear glasses most of the time. He was small and thin because, back in the world, Oliver had gotten too little to eat and too many beatings. A shy, quiet child, Oliver preferred to read instead of roughhousing with the other children. He never spoke, unless spoken to, and was the sort of person who wound up sitting quietly in a corner, overlooked by most of the people around him.
Tonight, Oliver was in a bed in the sick room. A few days ago he had caught a nasty cold, and Nurse Nanny had confined him to bed for the evening.
This was a great hardship for Oliver. The other children were dressed in costumes, gathering on the front lawn, around the bonfire. They would be sipping hot punch, playing games and having snowball fights.
True, Oliver wouldn’t have cared much for the snowball fights, and he would have been overlooked during most of the games, but he would have enjoyed the singing and quite liked a glass of hot punch. However, instead of all of that, he was tucked into bed with a hot water bottle, extra blankets and a funny book called Diary of a Wimpy Wizard. It was a bit lonely, even though Nurse Nanny or Madame Pedagogue came in every once in a while to check his temperature and dose him with cold medicine.
As the evening wore on, Oliver lay in his bed and peered at the sick room’s window where a bold frost fairy was drawing icy scenes on the glass. When the glass was completely covered, the frost fairy vanished, leaving Oliver feeling more alone than ever.
He tried to read his book but the Wimpy Wizard wasn’t as funny as he had been. Oliver stared at the clock on the wall. It was almost midnight. Outside, everyone would be gathering around the bonfire, getting ready to cross their fingers and close their eyes, waiting for Mr. Good-cheer to come and go.
Oliver thought about joining them, but knew if he left the sick room Nurse Nanny would be cross. None of the children wanted Nurse Nanny to be cross with them. She wouldn’t be cruel, but she would give you this look of disappointment that was worse than a smack on the ear. No one wanted to get that look and no one wanted to be the cause of it either.
So Oliver stayed in his bed, the hot water bottle getting cooler by the minute. He flipped through his book, looking at the pictures. From outside, he heard everyone starting to count backwards from ten. A glance at the clock confirmed that it was midnight.
Oliver, like everyone else in Ap, closed his eyes and crossed his fingers. He began to count down, along with everyone else across Ap.
"Five! Four! Three! Two!"
That was when it happened. Between the two and the one, Oliver sneezed. It was a powerful sneeze, the kind that rocks your head forward and makes you feel like your nose has just exploded. Oliver sneezed and his eyes popped open just as everyone outside shouted, "One!"
The world went utterly quiet. Oliver didn’t hear anyone moving about and everyone should have been rushing into the house to hunt for presents. There should have been cries of delight and moans of disappointment as gifts were discovered and opened. At the very least, Oliver would have thought to hear the measured tread of Madame Pedagogue or Nurse Nanny outside the sick room door, coming to tell him to hop out of bed and join the others in the search for presents.
Instead, there was a strange silence. It made Oliver very uneasy.
"Nurse Nanny?" he called.
His voice echoed weirdly in the small room, as it had never done before.
There was a plaintive edge to Oliver’s voice now, as his unease began to turn to fear.
Sniffling, he threw back the covers and climbed out of bed. The wood floor of the sick room was chilly beneath his feet. Oliver pulled on his slippers and robe then crept toward the door.
He opened it and cautiously stuck his head into the hallway. It looked perfectly ordinary.
No one answered.
Oliver crept down the hallway, shivering in his robe. In the great hall, he noticed that the candles in their sconces were frozen in mid-flicker. Trembling, Oliver walked to the front door and pulled it open.
Outside, it was a cold, clear night. The moon hung, white and fat, above the world. Stars twinkled like diamond chips against a black, velvet sky. On the front lawn, everyone was still gathered around the bonfire.
The fire was frozen, just like the candles. It looked like a solid thing. Oliver wondered. If he reached out, would he be able to pick up a bit of flame as if it were a stone?
The other children stood in a circle around the fire, along with Nurse Nanny and Madame Pedagogue. Everyone had their eyes shut and their fingers crossed. Under other circumstances, Oliver would have thought they all looked very funny, with their faces all screwed up in anticipation. However, right then and there, Oliver just wanted someone - anyone! - to move, to speak, to react.
No one did. Not even when he tugged on their arms or shouted in their faces. Everyone was as still and stiff as statues.
Oliver had been very brave until this point, but now his courage evaporated. He knelt in the snow and sobbed, afraid that the world would never move again, that all of his friends would be frozen forever!
You can imagine his surprise when someone spoke.
"Are you all right, boy?"
Startled, Oliver looked up and found himself staring into a pair of bright, green eyes.
The eyes belonged to the biggest cat that Oliver had ever seen. It was as tall as he was, with a coat of grey and white fur. As if size and speech were not curious enough, a pair of shining white wings grew from the cat’s shoulders.
The strange cat stared right back at him.
"Are you a mute?" The cat asked.
"No," said Oliver, wiping his eyes. "I’m not a mute."
"Excellent," said the cat. "Then you can tell me what you’re doing running about when everyone else is frozen."
"I don’t know," said Oliver. "Who are you?"
The cat fluttered its white wings. "Can it be you don’t know me? The fastest thing in the world?"
"No," said Oliver. Then added, "I’m sorry." Because it seemed the right sort of thing to say.
"Hmpf!" The cat raised his head and preened. "I am Rumor."
"Never heard of you," said Rumor.
"Do you know what’s happened to everyone?" asked Oliver.
"Of course," said Rumor. "But I am more interested in what has happened to you, boy. You should not be up and about. You should be playing statues like everyone else. What did you do?"
"I don’t know," said Oliver. He sniffed and wiped his eyes. "It was midnight and everybody was counting down and then everything went strange."
"Hmm." Rumor peered at Oliver. "Tell me exactly what happened during the countdown."
Puzzled, Oliver told the winged cat what had happened. How he had been in the sick room, confined with a cold and excluded from the festivities because of it.
Rumor sniffed. "That wasn’t very nice of them. Then what happened?"
So Oliver continued his tale. He told Rumor about counting down with the others and the big sneeze he had given just as everyone reached one.
"Ah!" said Rumor. "Did you open your eyes after the sneeze?"
"Yes," said Oliver.
"That explains it then," said Rumor. "You opened your eyes just as the Golden Moment began."
"The Golden Moment? What’s that?"
"A very powerful magic," explained Rumor. "It was entrusted to Mister Good-cheer so that he can make his rounds on Winter’s End. How do you think he manages to visit everyone in Ap in the blink of an eye?"
"I never thought about it," admitted Oliver.
"No one ever does," said the cat. "The Golden Moment is a magic moment that Mr. Good-cheer can make last for as long as he needs, to do his duty."
"So the others won’t be frozen forever?"
"Not at all," said Rumor, chuckling. "Just until Mr. Good-cheer finishes his work."
"Oh! Good! I don’t know what I would have done if everything had been frozen forever."
"Well, you needn’t worry about that," said Rumor.
"How come you’re not frozen?" asked Oliver.
Rumor chuckled. "Why, I would have thought it was obvious! I work for Mr. Good-cheer!"
"You do?" Oliver’s eyes widened in wonderment.
"I do. I’m one of his scouts, who makes sure the way ahead is safe for the gentleman."
"You must be very important," said Oliver.
The cat preened, stood a little taller, his furry chest puffed up with pride. "Well, I do have an important job, I suppose."
"Not that he does it alone or anything," said a new voice.
Oliver turned, startled, and saw another winged cat sitting in the snow. It was just as big as Rumor, but this cat’s fur was black as ink and its eyes were crystal blue. The gleaming white wings, growing from its shoulders, were identical to Rumor’s.
Rumor sighed. "I never said that I did, sister-dear."
"You never said that you didn’t either," said the black winged cat. "Now, tell me. Who is this child? What is he doing up and about, and why are you sitting here chatting with him when there’s work to be done?"
"Oliver," said Rumor, "allow me to introduce my sister, Gossip."
"Pleased to meet you," said Oliver, politely.
Gossip inclined her head. "Likewise, child. Now, brother, explain yourself."
"The boy got caught up in the moment," said Rumor. "And I couldn’t very well leave him here all alone. Now could I? What would our gentleman think of such behavior?"
"He wouldn’t approve at all," admitted Gossip. "Still, brother-dear, there’s no need to sit around here. Mount up, Oliver. We will take you with us."
Oliver blinked at this unexpected command. "Take me where?"
"Why, to see Mr. Good-cheer," said Gossip.
"But. . . ."
"No time for buts," scolded Gossip. "Brother-dear, I will go ahead to let our gentleman know to expect company." Her ebon whiskers twitched with mischief. "Try not to dawdle."
Then, with a flick of her tail, Gossip was gone.
Oliver turned back to Rumor. "Was she serious? Am I really going to meet Mr. Good-cheer?"
"Yes," said Rumor.
The gray-white cat knelt in the snow.
"Hurry now! Climb on my back and hold on tight!"
Dazedly, Oliver obeyed. He sat astride Rumor’s back and grabbed handfuls of the winged cat’s thick fur.
"Mind my wings," warned Rumor, and then leapt into the air.
For as long as he lived, Oliver would remember that ride on Rumor’s back. He would recall how the world fell away beneath them, becoming a black and white blur, the rush of cold air through his hair, the humming of Rumor’s wings as they beat, fast and furious.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, their journey came to an end. The world snapped back into sharp focus and Oliver found himself thrust forward, his face buried in the soft fur between Rumor’s shoulders.
"Sorry about that," said Rumor.
He stretched out on the ground and Oliver slid off his back. Looking around, Oliver found himself standing outside a large, old tree-house. Candlelight gleamed through shuttered windows and warm light poured from the open door, illuminating a curious scene: three large bears seated outside the tree-house playing cards.
The bears were large, fierce-looking creatures. They had silver coats and on their heads they wore golden helmets especially made for them. Between them was a large, golden box that they were using as a card table.
Suddenly, one of the bears shouted, "Snap!" and lunged for the cards in the middle of the table.
Rumor cleared his throat. The card-playing bears froze. The one who had shouted "Snap!" turned to look at the winged cat, then sighed in relief.
"It’s just Rumor," said the bear, gruffly.
"Rumor and a boy," said another bear, squinting at Oliver.
"That’s the one Gossip told us about," said the third bear. "Remember?"
"I never pay attention to gossip," said the first bear, who also happened to be the biggest.
"Good advice in most instances," said the second bear. "However not this one. Introduce us, Rumor."
The bears, as it turned out, were brothers. They were named Stor, Storre and Storst. Stor was the oldest and the smallest, which wasn’t saying much as, sitting, he was at least ten feet tall. Storst was the youngest and the largest of the bear brothers, being a whopping twelve feet tall. Storre, the middle brother, was eleven feet tall.
"We are the personal guards of Mr. Good-cheer," said Stor.
Oliver frowned. "Why does Mr. Good-cheer need guards?"
"Because, despite all the good he does, there are still folk who would wish him harm," said Storre.
Storst snarled, exposing fierce white teeth. "I’d like to see them try!"
"Don’t get overexcited, little brother," chided Stor. "Our gentleman is doing his duty at the moment, young Oliver. Care to join us in a game of Snap?"
"No time for that, I think," said Storre. "Here he comes."
"Quick!" said Storst. "Look busy!"
Immediately, the bears scrambled to put away their cards and to assume solemn, watchful expressions. Oliver turned to the tree-house just as Mr. Good-cheer stepped outside.
Mister Good-cheer did not look like Oliver had imagined. Oliver had though he would look like Santa Clause, a jolly fat man in a red velvet suit with a thick white beard.
Instead, Mister Good-cheer was a tall, slim man in a hooded white cloak. When he pushed back the cloak’s hood, Oliver saw that Mr. Good-cheer had long silver hair and a neatly trimmed beard. His eyes were a sparkling blue and he had a pleasant smile. Despite his silver hair and beard, he had the pinkish, unblemished skin of a baby. Beneath his white cloak, he wore a long white robe, cinched tight around his waist with a sky-blue sash.
Oliver had been secretly worried about meeting Mr. Good-cheer. He had not always been a good boy, back in the world. However, all of his doubts and fears vanished as soon as that famous gentleman smiled at him.
"Hello, Oliver," said Mr. Good-cheer. "Happy Winter’s End."
"Happy Winter’s End to you to, sir," said Oliver, very politely.
"So, you’ve been caught up in the Golden Moment, eh?" said Mr. Good-cheer. "My goodness! It’s been a long time since that’s happened to anyone!"
"I’m sorry about that, sir," said Oliver. "I didn’t mean for it to happen."
"Of course you didn’t," said Mr. Good-cheer. "However, since you have been caught in our moment, you’ll have to come with us on the rounds."
Oliver blinked. "Really, sir?"
"Well, we can’t leave you alone, to fend for yourself," said Mr. Good-cheer. "That wouldn’t be right."
"Or safe," chimed in Storst.
"True," said Gossip, appearing out of thin air. "Small boys often have misadventures when left to their own devices."
"Ah. Gossip." Mr. Good-cheer smiled at the winged, black cat. "How do things look to the south?"
"Fine and clear, sir," said Gossip.
"And to the east?" asked Mr. Good-cheer.
"That," said Gossip, pointedly, "was Rumor’s job to check."
"Ah," said Rumor, hanging his head a little in embarrassment. "Things are fine from Door Way as far as the Nursery, sir. I didn’t get past that, though, as I saw the boy."
Mr. Good-cheer nodded. "And, of course, you couldn’t leave him alone. Well done, Rumor. However, now that Oliver is with us, we will look after him and you may continue your duty."
"Of course, sir," said Rumor.
The grey-white cat turned to Oliver and playfully pushed his head against the boy’s cheek.
"Take care, young Oliver. I shall see you before the moment ends."
Then, in a flurry of snow, Rumor was gone.
"Well, now!" said Mr. Good-cheer. "Things are finished here and we must be off to the next house!"
He walked over to the golden box and the bears stood. They shuffled into position, forming a fierce triangle of protection around Mr. Good-cheer and his golden box.
Mr. Good-cheer gestured Oliver over to him. "Come along, Oliver. Stand close."
Oliver obeyed, coming to stand next to Mr. Good-cheer, wondering what was going to happen. As soon as he was within the bears’ triangle, Mr. Good-cheer touched the sky-blue sash around his waist.
The ends of the sash evaporated, transforming into a blue mist that whirled around the little group. It flowed around them, over their heads and under their feet until they were surrounded by spinning blue clouds.
Oliver’s ears popped and he looked down, saw the forest falling away beneath his feet, between the sash’s streaming blue clouds. He gasped, more surprised than frightened, then the clouds obscured the distant ground.
As quickly as the clouds had enveloped them, they dissipated, flowing back into Mr. Good-cheer’s sky-blue sash. Oliver looked around, saw that they were on the ground, standing in the middle of a path, by a large tree-house. Lanterns hung on wooden poles, shining on the snow-covered path that led to the tree-house’s bright red door.
"That was amazing!" said the boy.
Mr. Good-cheer chuckled and patted his sash. "Sky-sash is the best way to travel as far as I’m concerned."
He reached into his robe, then, and produced a small leather book. Opening it, Mr. Good-cheer skimmed the contents for a moment before nodding to himself. He turned to the golden box and tapped on its top.
"Open up, please. We’ve arrived at the home of the Threads."
Oliver watched, his mouth hanging open, as the golden box opened. It had appeared completely solid before, but now parts of the top and sides folded back, creating openings through which dozens of small clockwork figures streamed. They were made out of bright metal, adorned with shining jewels, and they carried gaily wrapped packages.
Mister Good-cheer led the way to the tree-house’s door and pushed it open. Warm light spilt through the door and the small clockworks marched inside the house. Mr. Good-cheer went in after them and, curious, Oliver followed.
He found himself in a large, round room. It was brightly lit by several lamps. Good, thick rugs covered the floor and the walls were decorated with needlework samplers. A spiral wooden staircase led to a second floor. On this floor, a brick fireplace had been carefully built into one wall, and comfy furniture arranged around it; there was a couch, flanked by two chairs, and a coffee table covered with plates of cookies, small sandwiches, iced cakes and slices of cheese.
The people sitting around the fire had been frozen in a moment of gaiety. They appeared to be rocking with laughter, even though their eyes were shut and their fingers crossed.
As Oliver watched, the bright clockworks scurried up the stairs with the presents. Mister Good-cheer went to the little gathering and smiled at the frozen residents. There were an older man and woman and a youth. The old couple wore crowns of golden paper.
"King and queen for the night," said Mr. Good-cheer, approvingly. "I can think of no one who deserves it better."
"Who are they?" asked Oliver.
"Mister Thread and his wife. The lad is called Thimble, Mr. Thread’s apprentice."
"They look very happy," said Oliver.
"They are," said Mr. Good-cheer. "They’ve become a family and care about each other very much."
The clockwork men reappeared, tumbling merrily down the staircase.
"You hid the presents?" Mister Good-cheer asked them.
Tiny bejeweled heads nodded.
"But not too well, I hope," said Mr. Good-cheer. "You’ve put them where they can be found. Yes?"
"Well done!" said Mr. Good-cheer. "Let’s be off."
And so the night went, Mr. Good-cheer and his magical clockwork men distributing gifts while the three bears stood watch. Rumor and Gossip appeared frequently to report that the way ahead was clear.
The sky-sash swept them from one side of Ap to the other. One house might be near the River Surprise, while the next was on the shore of Looking-glass Lake, far to the south, or in the Uncanny Mountains that stood along Ap’s northern border. Oliver could not see any pattern to the way their destinations were chosen and, to be honest, he did not think very much about it. He was too busy, helping the clockwork men hide the presents, asking Mr. Good-cheer questions about the people they visited or playing Snap with the bears.
Then, after they had spent some time delivering presents to the hermits at Hermit’s Rock, and were preparing to leave, Gossip appeared.
"Trouble ahead!" she gasped, her white wings vibrating with agitation.
The bears immediately put away their cards. They showed their teeth, twisting their heads this way and that, sniffing the air.
"What sort of trouble?" asked Oliver, as the last clockwork man scurried back into the golden box.
Before Gossip could answer, a fierce crimson light appeared in the sky. Looking up, Oliver saw what he thought must be a shooting star, only it was red as blood and zigzagged crazily across the sky. The bears growled.
"What is it?" whispered Oliver.
"Hush," said Gossip. "She may not have seen us."
Oliver wanted to ask who Gossip was talking about, when the red comet suddenly zigged toward them.
"No such luck," growled Stor.
"Oh crumbs," muttered Gossip, her white wings twitching.
Mister Good-cheer emerged from the last hermit’s hut and took in the scene. Swiftly, he moved to Oliver and placed his hands on the boy’s shoulders.
"Whatever happens, Oliver, don’t be afraid."
"Why?" asked Oliver. "What’s going to happen?"
At that moment, the red comet struck the snowy earth in front of them. Oliver had squeezed his eyes shut, expecting a terrible explosion, but that did not happen. Instead, there was just the hiss of melting snow and a gust of hot wind. He opened his eyes and stared.
Standing in front of the party, in a patch of melted snow, was a curious creature. She looked like a little girl, but with skin made of brass. Her eyes were green emeralds that glowed with a weird light of their own. The brass girl wore a fancy dress that was made of golden cloth and on her head she wore a gold crown, the sharp points adorned with flashing red rubies. Her long hair was redder than blood and fell in a wild tangle around her shoulders. In her right hand, the strange girl clasped a long wand made of twisting green glass and topped by a black star that spat violet and green sparks.
"I’ve caught you!" crowed the brass girl.
Her voice was ordinary enough, but full of smugness. Oliver found himself taking an immediate dislike to this strange creature.
She walked toward the little group and the snow hissed and melted beneath her feet. The bear brothers growled and loomed out of the dark, golden helmets gleaming, long claws unsheathed and flashing silver in the moonlight.
"Keep your distance," growled Stor.
"Still traveling with your little zoo, Good-cheer?" said the brass girl. Her voice dripped with contempt, but she came no closer.
"But what is this?" Leaning forward, the brass girl peered at Oliver. "Have you started taking in stray children as well as animals?"
The way she said ‘animals’ made it very clear that it was intended as an insult.
"Aren’t you going to introduce me, old man?"
"Reluctantly," said Mr. Good-cheer. His hands remained firmly on the boy’s shoulders. "Oliver, this is Spite. Spite, this is Oliver."
"You’re a scrawny little thing, aren’t you?" said Spite. She sniffed and waived her wand, instantly dismissing the little boy. She turned her glowing, green eyes back on Mr. Good-cheer. "I’ve caught you, Good-cheer. Fair and square! Give me the Golden Moment."
"You haven’t caught me yet," said Mr. Good-cheer. "Not until you lay hands on me."
Spite’s eyes narrowed. "Do you really want me to lay hands on you, old man?" She asked in a low, dangerous voice.
"You’ll have to get past me to do that, lady," growled Storst. The big bear lumbered forward and placed himself squarely between Spite and Mr. Good-cheer.
"Don’t think that I can’t," said Spite and raised her wand. Its black star throbbed and burst into purple flame.
Stor and Storre moved forward, to stand beside their younger brother. The three bears showed their teeth and unsheathed silver claws.
"Us as well," said Stor, grimly.
Behind the three bears, the golden box opened and the bright clockwork men marched out. Only this time they did not carry presents, but swords and shields and tiny rifles. They formed themselves into neat ranks before the three bears, and still more of the little figures poured out of the box until Spite found herself hemmed in on three sides by a small, shining army.
Where the bears had not seemed to disturb her overmuch, the presence of the clockwork army, standing bright and grim around her, seemed to give Spite pause. She frowned and tightened her grip on her wand.
"Are you going to let your little friends fight for you, Good-cheer?" sneered Spite. "Or aren’t you man enough to fight your own battles?"
"There is no need for fighting at all," said Mr. Good-cheer. "All you have to do is leave, Spite. Give up this ridiculous obsession."
She smiled, revealing a mouth full of steel teeth. "Never! I’ll have the Golden Moment, even if I have to burn my way through every one of your creatures!"
Oliver leaned close to Gossip and asked, in a soft voice, "Why does she want the Golden Moment?"
"Because she’s evil," said Gossip. "She wants to use it to spread her malicious poison across Ap, so that everyone will be unhappy."
"Why?" asked Oliver.
"Because it’s fun," said Spite, who had heard their entire conversation. She grinned, her perfect, steel teeth flashing like an assassin’s knife. "Don’t you know, silly boy? It’s more fun being wicked than good."
"That is a matter of opinion," said Rumor.
Spite turned, scowled at the grey-white cat. He had appeared behind her, and sat in the snow, watching her.
"So, all of Good-cheer’s creatures are here," said Spite, grinning. She waved her wand above her head and it left a trail of green flame behind it. "Fine! I can destroy you all at the same time!"
"You will do no such thing," said Mr. Good-cheer in a loud, firm voice.
He stepped forward, pushing past Gossip and the three bears, despite their protests. The clockwork army parted, reluctantly, to let Mr. Good-cheer approach Spite. Behind her, Rumor narrowed his bright green eyes and gathered himself to jump if Mr. Good-cheer needed help.
Spite laughed and tossed her blood-red hair. The rubies in her crown glinted in the moonlight.
She lunged forward, thrusting her wand at Mr. Good-cheer as if it were a sword. Deftly, the silver-haired man spun to the side, then reached out and plucked the emerald wand from Spite’s grip. Spite was so startled by this maneuver that she could do nothing but gape as Mr. Good-cheer stepped back and gazed, balefully, at her.
Her shock did not last long. She lunged forward, brass fingers curled into savage claws.
"Give that back!"
"Gladly," said Mister Good-cheer and thrust the black-starred wand at Spite’s face.
She backpedaled madly to avoid coming into contact with the black star. Crying out, she spun her arms like a windmill, but could not keep her balance, and fell in the slush at her feet.
"You! You!" Spite sputtered, sprawled on the wet ground, her crown sitting askew on her head.
Mr. Good-cheer loomed over the brass girl. His blue eyes blazed with anger.
"Hush," he snapped, and Spite’s mouth clamped shut.
He peered at her, a grave expression on his face.
"I am not a vindictive man, Spite," said Mr. Good-cheer, "but for too long you have plagued this world." He looked at her wand. It seemed restive in his hand, the black star spitting green and purple sparks. "I could end you now."
"You wouldn’t dare!" sneered Spite.
"Wouldn’t I?" challenged Mr. Good-cheer. "Eliminating you would be a great gift to the whole world. Would it not?"
Spite frowned, but said nothing.
Mr. Good-cheer raised the wand. The black star on its tip throbbed with malevolent power. At his feet, Spite cringed.
"Wait!" shouted Oliver. "Stop, Mr. Good-cheer! Stop! You mustn’t!"
He threw himself between Mr. Good-cheer and Spite.
Mr. Good-cheer jerked as if a bucket of cold water had been thrown in his face. He blinked and the anger poured out of his blue eyes.
"My goodness," murmured the gentleman. "I don’t know what came over me!"
He looked at the wand and frowned. "Or perhaps I do."
Shaking his head, as if to banish a bad dream, the silver-haired gentleman smiled at Oliver. "Thank you for stopping me. That was very brave."
"I couldn’t let you do it," gasped the boy. "I just couldn’t!"
Spite climbed to her feet, fluffing out her golden dress and straightening her crown. She held out her hand. "I’ll have my wand now, old man."
"No, sir!" cried Storst. "Break it in two!"
"I wouldn’t dare," said Mr. Good-cheer. He let the wand hang between two fingers, holding it as if it were something rotten and foul. "Who knows what dreadful calamities that would release?"
"I can provide you with a list of the possibilities, if you’d like," said Spite, happily. She thrust her brass hand forward again. "Give it here, old man. I’m the only one who can wield that wand, just like you’re the only one who can use that blasted sash. Give it!"
"Not without a promise first," said Mr. Good-cheer. "That you’ll do no harm to anyone here."
"Fine," said Spite. "I promise."
Storre growled. "What good is the promise of a villain like her, sir? As soon as she’s got the wand, she’ll try to blast us all to smithereens!"
"You make a good point," said Mr. Good-cheer. "A promise won’t be enough, Spite. I want you to swear by your Secret Name that you’ll keep your promise. Then I’ll give you your wand."
Spite scowled. "Fine! I swear by my Secret Name that I’ll keep my promise to do no harm to anyone here! Satisfied?"
Mister Good-cheer nodded and handed Spite her wand. The minute she had it, her eyes blazed with green light and she smiled a wicked smile.
"Remember your promise," said Mr. Good-cheer.
Spite’s smile faded, replaced by a petulant scowl. "I remember. I’ll do no harm to anyone here, old man." Her smile returned. "But once you’ve left this place, well, that’s a different story altogether."
"Oh blast," muttered Rumor.
"Promises are all in the wording," said Gossip with a sigh. Seeing Oliver’s puzzled look, she explained. "Spite promised to do no harm to anyone here. Here. As in this place. So the minute we leave this charming patch of land she can attack us without breaking her promise."
"Clever," admitted Rumor.
"It doesn’t matter," said Mr. Good-cheer, smiling.
"What is it?" Spite demanded. "Why do you have that ridiculous smile on your face, old man?"
"Because the Golden Moment has come to an end," said Mr. Good-cheer. He gestured at the hut behind them. "This was the last house we needed to visit within it."
"What?" screamed Spite. "No! No! The moment can’t be over!"
"But it is," said Mr. Good-cheer.
Still smiling, he reached into a pocket of his robe and pulled out a small, bright object. It was a sandglass, its bulbs filled with golden, glowing sand.
Spite’s eyes widened. "The Golden Moment," she breathed.
Mister Good-cheer nodded. Gripping the sandglass’s bulbs, he twisted them.
"Wait!" shouted Spite.
She lunged for the Golden Moment, however, she was too late. With a bright flash, the Golden Moment ended. The sandglass was empty and Spite had vanished.
"Where did she go?" asked Oliver, spinning this way and that, trying to look all around him at the same time.
"Far away," purred Gossip.
"Outside the Golden Moment," explained Mr. Good-cheer, "Spite can’t remain in Ap. If she tried, the land itself would destroy her."
"Really?" asked Oliver.
"Really," said Rumor.
"We should be leaving," said Mr. Good-cheer, turning to the hermits’ huts.
Time was moving again and they could all hear the shouts of pleasure as the first presents were found. Swiftly, the clockwork men marched back into the golden box. The three bears took their places around it. Mister Good-cheer lay a hand on Oliver’s shoulder and smiled at the boy.
"Thank you again for stopping me, Oliver. I wasn’t even aware I’d fallen under the influence of Spite’s wand until you stepped between me and her." He looked away, embarrassed and frowning. "I think I truly would have destroyed her."
Oliver blushed and lowered his head. "One of the others would have stopped you, sir."
"Perhaps," said Mr. Good-cheer.
They joined the bears at the box and Mr. Good-cheer touched his sash. It swirled around them and whisked them away, across the midnight sky.
This time, however, when the whirling blue clouds parted, Oliver recognized their destination. They had arrived on the front lawn of the Nursery, where the bonfire was blazing merrily and the other children, dressed in their costumes, were rushing toward the house to search for presents. Madame Pedagogue was the first to see the visitors and she cried out in shock.
Immediately, all the children rushed back toward the bonfire, to stare with wide eyes at Mister Good-cheer and his companions. Startled gasps erupted from the assembly when Rumor and Gossip arrived, seeming to appear out of thin air.
Nurse Nanny spotted Oliver, who had shrunk behind the three bears.
"Oliver! What are you doing out of bed?"
She marched forward, pushed past the bears, who wisely gave way before her. Tutting and fussing, Nurse Nanny scolded Oliver for running around in the snow wearing only slippers and a robe.
"My apologies, ma’am," interjected Mr. Good-cheer. "I’m afraid I’m responsible for Oliver’s condition."
"You, sir?" Madame Pedagogue had recovered from her shock. She gave Mr. Good-cheer an incredulous look. "How so?"
"Ah," said Mr. Good-cheer. "Please, allow me to explain."
Everyone gathered around and the tale of the night’s adventure was told. The children listened with wide-eyed amazement, while Nurse Nanny and Madame Pedagogue heard the tale with open-mouthed shock. When it was finished, there was a moment of silence as everyone absorbed the details. Then, one of the boys raised his voice.
"Three cheers for Oliver! For saving Mr. Good-cheer!"
The cry was quickly taken up by the others and a blushing Oliver was subjected to a chorus of "Hip-hip-hoorays!" Immediately afterward, the golden box opened and the clockwork men scurried out, carrying brightly-wrapped presents. Everyone got something and not a single person there got anything as drab as new underwear. Oliver was the last to get a present and when he unwrapped it, it was not a toy or game or book. Instead, it was a circular golden medal with a bright red ribbon attached to it. Engraved on the medal were the words, "Our Hero."
At that moment, Nurse Nanny, who had gone inside to fetch the hero a coat and some proper boots, returned. She had quite forgotten the coat and boots. Instead, she carried a box wrapped in lavender foil paper, tied up with a big yellow bow.
A hush fell over everyone assembled on the lawn as they all realized this was not a Winter’s End present. This was a welcome gift for one of the Nursery children, a sign from Ap that the recipient could stay in that marvelous land forever.
Everyone waited with bated breath as Nurse Nanny walked forward and solemnly handed the welcome gift to Oliver. The boy stared in surprise at the box, then at Nurse Nanny and Madame Pedagogue.
"Should I open it now?" he asked, in a small voice.
"Yes!" shouted all the children.
Carefully, Oliver undid the bow and peeled back the paper. He opened the box. It was not a very big box but it did not need to be, because nestled inside, resting on a black cushion, were a silver knife, a silver fork and a silver spoon.
"Oh my," murmured Nurse Nanny.
"Silver for a welcome gift," breathed Madame Pedagogue. She shook her head in wonder. "He won’t even have to make the trek to Silverleaf."
"Well, that’s a relief," said Nurse Nanny, "because there’s no one to take him there."
"But, doesn’t this mean that I have to leave the Nursery?" asked Oliver, with wide eyes. "Where will I go? What will I do?"
"We will think of something," said Madame Pedagogue.
"He can come with us," said Mr. Good-cheer.
Madame Pedagogue and Nurse Nanny gaped at this suggestion. The other children stared, envirously, at Oliver.
"Yes," said Stor.
"What a fine idea, sir!" said Storre.
"He can join the guard!" said Storst. "Even if he isn’t a bear!"
"I think we can find him something else to do," said Mr. Good-cheer, grinning at the bear brothers. "At least until he’s bigger. What do you say, Oliver? Would you like to come with us?"
"Oh yes!" said Oliver, leaping to his feet. "Please!"
There was a buzz of activity then, as Oliver’s few possessions were packed. He didn’t have much, just a few books and a change of clothes. His new silverware was strung on a chain and formally presented to him by Madame Pedagogue, and then it was time for Oliver to leave.
He stood next to Mr. Good-cheer, smiling so widely that he felt like his face would crack. Smiling just as widely, Mr. Good-cheer lay one hand on Oliver’s shoulder and touched his sky-sash with the other.
The magic cloth unwound. Blue clouds whirled around the little group and spun them away, carrying Oliver into a new life, one more wonderful than any he could have imagined.