Your breath fogs before you as your booted feet crunch through the snow. Soft flakes drift from a silver gray sky. The path through the forest is unblemished by human prints, though marked occasionally with the three clawed toes of birds. In fact, the snow cover is so pristine and deep that if not for the thick pines and spruces lining the way, you would not be certain of where the path lies at all.
With a croaking cry, a raven flies from a bough ahead. Its launch shakes the branches of the spruce, sending a shower of fine snow to the ground. You shiver. You had intended to reach the inn in the next village by nightfall, but the weather has slowed your pace. With the clouds over the sun, you aren’t certain how late it is or how far you are from your destination. Will you make it before it becomes too dark and cold?
The trees part, and a cheery splash of red comes into view against the white landscape. A farm house! Smoke curls from the chimney above a roof insulated with cushions of thick snow. Snug outbuildings suggest there are animals, cozily housed. Perhaps the inhabitants will know how far you are from the village. Picking up speed, you tramp to the cottage door and knock.
An older apple-cheeked woman opens the door and greets you with a friendly smile. “My dear! You must be freezing! Please, come in out of the cold.”
You try to explain you don’t wish to be a bother. You’re just looking for directions to the nearest village, but she shushes your objections and somehow draws you in.
Melted snow immediately pools beneath your boots as you step into her warm home. A massive, fluffy brown cat looks up from its nap to consider you before closing its amber eyes and drowsing once more.
“You are almost to your destination, but if you are going to the village anyway. Perhaps you can do me a favor for me and deliver a gift,” the woman says.
You shed your heavy coat as your fingers begin to thaw. The woman leads you into the kitchen. Bowls and plates are set out on a table before a brick oven. The fragrance of cinnamon and baking bread rises around you, and you sway on your feet.
“The loaf in the oven should be done soon. Why don’t you sit and wait?”
As you watch, the woman takes ingredients out of the cupboard: fine flour, golden honey, creamy yellow butter, and eggs still warm from being beneath the hens. The smell of sweet almonds and exotic cinnamon entrance you, and you can’t help but watch as her worn but strong hands knead a new batch of springy dough for another baked treat.
She forms the dough into three long ropes and begins to braid it into a simple but pleasing form. When this is done she stops and winks at you. “One last ingredient, dear.”
You blink. Another ingredient? With the dough already formed?
“What ingredient?” you ask.
From a pocket in her apron she produces a tall, white candle which she sets beside the unbaked loaf. She lights the candles and faint voices and dream-like images swirl around you.
Bees hum as they gather fragrant flowers for their honey. The farmers toil beneath the sun, bringing in their harvest in preparation for a long winter. A family huddles around the hearth, laughing and telling tales, as the days grow steadily darker and colder. Folk sing songs of hope, steeped in the cold beauty of Winter but sparkling with the light of the stars and the knowledge that life will bloom again.
You inhale deeply of the scents of sweet almond and cinnamon.
A short while later, she hands you a loaf fresh from the oven, wrapped in clean cloth.
“The gift,” she explains.
You ask who it is for, who you must deliver it to, only for her to smile a mysterious smile.
“To someone who needs cheer and warmth in these dark days. You will know them when you see them.”
Somehow you understand your quest, and you know you will find this person when you reach the village square. With a word of thanks, you exit the home, disappearing into the still falling snow.
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