Once upon a time, there were two young cousins named Molly and Hudson, and their dog, a beagle named Daisy.
It was a week before Christmas and the snow was falling in think shiny flakes. The three of them had just finished a long day of playing in the snow with their two friends Stephen the gnome and Amelia the fairy who lived in the magic woods behind Molly’s house. They were all dressed warmly, wearing their favorite winter cloths and hats. They sat on the porch in thick overstuffed chairs with mugs of coco and plates of cookies as they watched the snow fall.
“That was fun,” said Hudson looking at the remnants of their broken snow forts.
“Yes it was,” said Molly looking at the finished snowman by the tree with the big tire swing.
“Woof,” said Daisy lapping warm water from her bowl.
“Quite right,” said Stephen in response to Daisy because like all gnomes he was fluent in dog.
“What a wonderful day,” said Amelia who had a large glob of whipped cream on her nose.
Suddenly, Daisy stood and flattened her ears against her head.
“What’s the matter, Daisy?” asked Stephen.
“Woof,” said Daisy.
Stephen set down his coco and dropped to the floor next her. “There’s something in the woods.” Stephen straightened his hat with the long fancy feather stuck in the brim and drew the needle sized sword from his belt. “What do you think it is?”
A dark form broke from the woods and sprinted across the yard to the porch. The creature bound around the snowman and over the broken fort. Molly gasped at the large beast and Hudson immediately recognized the wolf from his books of animals.
The wolf charged the back porch and in the last few steps its body grew and changed. Two steps from the porch, the wolf became a tall powerful man with wide shoulders and slight belly. He towered over Daisy and Stephen like a looming shadow. He wore dark clothes and a long cloak made of the same black colored fur that the wolf had been covered in.
Before anyone could react a loud cry tore through the sky. Looking up, they saw the small distant form of a large bird as it spiraled towards the ground. At the last second the bird spread its wings and turned away from the ground and flew straight towards the house. With its wings spread Molly recognized the bird as a hawk, like the ones she’d seen on school trip. The hawk flew straight towards them bringing its wing to its side to shoot through the old tire swing. After passing through the swing hawk slowed its movement and began to change like the wolf had. When the hawk stopped at the edge of the porch it had become a beautiful woman with dark hair and glasses wearing a long gown coated in white and brown feathers like the hawks plumage.
“Told you I’d find them first,” said the man.
“Only because they had a beagle with them,” said the woman.
Amelia’s wings had begun to flutter quickly and change colors through the spectrum of the rainbow. She floated forward towards the two strangers.
“Bark,” said Daisy.
The tall man turned his attention to Daisy and Stephen. “Be calm Daisy, we mean you no harm,” said the man.
Amelia was now hovering just behind Stephen and Daisy bouncing up and down slightly.
“Amelia, are you okay?” asked Molly who was worried about her friend.
“Do you know who these people are?” asked Hudson who was curious about what was happening.
Amelia giggled. “They’re Lord Wolf and Lady Hawk, and the only reason they go to visit anyone this time of year is because…because…” Amelia looked hopefully at the two and strangers her breathing coming excitedly quick.
The woman smiled down at the group. “Those are our titles. You may call us Skip and Dee Dee. We have been sent by Shawn the Elf King to invite you to join the Great Christmas Race.”
Amelia squealed in joy, her wings moving so quickly she shot straight up, higher than the house, leaving a trail of rainbow sparkles in her wake.
Hudson and Molly looked at Amelia as she shoot towards the sky.
“I guess that means yes,” said Hudson.
“When’s the race?” asked Molly.
“Woof,” said Daisy.
“The race is in three days,” said Dee Dee.
“You’ll be provided with a sleigh, but it requires two pullers, you’ll need to find another dog,” said Skip to Daisy.
“May I ask, why are we being invited?” asked Stephen, “the race is very hard to get invited too.”
“You were placed on the top of a list,” said Dee Dee. “Amber the Fairy Queen named you as one of her potential champions for the race.”
“If you will excuse us children, we have more racers to invite.” Skip bowed to the gathered friends and turned to face the woods once more.
Dee Dee bowed as well and turned to stand next to Skip. “Who’s next on the list?”
“Gron Gravelkin,” said Skip. “What’s the score again?”
“You know good and well that it’s one thousand three hundred and eighty four to one thousand three hundred eighty three, your lead,” said Dee Dee.
The two stood there for a moment before Skip turned slightly, “If you wouldn’t mind?”
“Of course,” said Stephen, “On your marks. Get set.”
“WOOF!” barked Daisy.
The two shot forward towards the magic woods and within a handful of strides had both transformed into their animal forms and were gone.
Amelia floated slowly to the ground. “Where did they go? Are we doing the race? We’re going to race right?” Amelia grabbed Stephen by the collar. “Tell me we said yes!”
“We said yes,” said Hudson.
Once again Amelia shot off the ground, this time she went so quickly she forgot to release Stephen until she was five feet off the ground causing the small gnome to tumble onto the top of the porch.
* * *
It was a few days later and the friends were assembled for the race. There were eight sleighs in all, each representing a different magical kingdom. Each sleigh bore the kingdoms banner and had been made by its kingdoms craftsmen. There was the sleigh of the dwarves which was forged of heavy metals and lined with gold and jewels pulled by two great rams. The kingdom of the leprechaun’s, a deep red mahogany and pulled by two foxes. The troll kingdoms sleigh was carved from stone and bulled by two huge badgers. The sleigh of the north was built like a smaller version of Santa’s sleigh and was pulled by two reindeer. The sleigh of the forest was grown from flowers with thick vines for runners and was pulled by two great elk. The sleigh of the kingdom of tales was built of a great pumpkin shell and pulled by sterling white horses who had been changed from mice as tradition demanded. The kingdom of dreams sleigh was made of clouds and pulled by two sheep.
Most of the friends stood around the sleigh for the kingdom of the fey. It was a small sleigh made from woods and metals, covered in gears, levers, and knobs. Two empty harnesses sat in front of the sleigh. Stephen looked at the sleigh with pride.
“This is superior gnomish craftsmanship,” said Stephen.
“It’s a sleigh,” said Hudson doubt edging his voice.
“It’s shiny,” said Molly trying to be hopeful.
“Woof,” said Daisy.
“It is not a mess,” said Stephen.
Molly looked at the empty harnesses. “Where are our animals?” she asked.
“Well, for one, we have Daisy. Who I happen to know is one of the fastest animals in the magic woods,” said Stephen.
“Woof,” said Daisy.
“Okay, sure they’re bigger than you but their basically fancy mice. You are faster than a fancy mouse,” said Stephen.
“Everyone else has two animals,” said Hudson.
“Are we supposed to have two?” asked Molly.
“Woof,” said Daisy.
“Amelia said she’d take care of it,” said Stephen.
As if waiting for her name to be mentioned Amelia called out to the group from across the race lanes. She was floating towards them with a male fairy and a black Pitbull Terrier. She waved at her friends and urged her two companions to move faster.
“Hello team,” Amelia said as she reached the group. “This is our Drake.”
“Ruff,” said Drake responding to his name.
Drake and Daisy looked at one another then circled each other for a second sniffing one another occasionally before taking a step back and sitting facing each other.
“Woof,” said Daisy.
“Ruff,” said Drake.
“Excellent,” said Stephen. “We have a full team.”
Molly looked at the male fairy for a moment. He was slightly taller than Amelia with dark hair and a bit of scruff around his chin. He had a pair of wings like Amelia’s though where hers glittered with the colors of rainbows, the new fairy’s’ were swirls of dark greys and blacks. Molly being polite said, “Hello, my name is Molly.”
“Where are my manners,” cried Amelia. “Tom honey, come meet my friends.”
Tom fluttered forward, his dark wings crackling with electricity. “Hello,” said Tom. “Amelia’s told me all about you guys and your adventures.” He shook hands with Molly, Hudson, and paws with Daisy. “It’s nice to finally meet you.”
Stephen and Tom nodded to one another like Molly and Hudson’s father sometimes did when seeing each other for the first time in a long while.
A loud horn sounded signaling the race was about to begin. Tom quickly flew to Amelia and kissed her on the nose. “I have to go marshmallow. I’d like to stay but the wind pushed us along faster than expected.”
“I know. Miss you,” said Amelia as Tom flew into the sky leaving behind a soft rumble. “I’m so proud of him. He’s a thunder fairy and they just put him in charge of a big storm over Lake Michigan.” Amelia beamed with pride.
It took only a few moments to set up the race. Daisy and Drake were moved to the front of the sleigh and had the reigns attached to their collars. A small end fell over their noses that Stephen said would dispense water and treats if they needed them. Inside the sleigh was a comfortable overstuffed couch seat that the four could sit on. The sleigh had a seat near the front for the driver. Scattered around the sleigh were a series of dials, levers, and switches. Some of these were labeled radio, heater, defrost, blanket, hot chocolate, cookie, peppermint, Española, weather, and festivities.
Each of the sleighs pulled up to the starting line near a small raised stage area filled with colorful thrones. Each of the leaders of the different kingdoms sat around the half circle smiling down at their racers. The friends sleigh was in the number three position.
Shawn the Elf King walked out to the edge of the stage and the crowd grew quiet. Shawn’s voice boomed through the clearing. “My friends,” said Shawn. “Welcome to the Great Christmas Race.” The crowd cheered. “Before we begin, I will explain the rules. There are eight legs to the race, each leg passes through one of the great kingdoms. There are four crewmembers in each sleigh, each member of the team must control the sleigh for two of the legs. The paths are marked and all you need to do is follow the bright banners. They will show you the way. There are challenges in the different legs that will require courage, control, speed, or some special gifts. If you fail to complete a challenge, your time will be adjusted as you pass into the next leg. The first sleigh to cross the finish line, here at this stage, will be crowned the winner.”
Shawn paused for a moment and waited as the crown cheered some more. “Prepare yourselves the race begins shortly
“I’ll drive first so,” said Stephen. “That way, I can show the rest of you how to control the sleigh.”
“After that we can decide as we go who is next,” said Hudson.
Shawn raised his hands again and the crowd grew quiet again. “Ready your teams.” Cries rose from the different sleighs as the members stirred the various animals. Daisy and Drake bounced in place before settling down ready for the command to go. Shawn removed a small green bundle from his pocket and threw it into the race way in front of the sleighs. After a moment the bundle burst open and a group of vines sprouted up from the snow. As they grew taller the buds formed on the ends of the vines and in seconds they began bursting into bright colorful flowers. The first were bright red poinsettias, followed by yellow daffodils, then yellow daisies, then bright full sunflowers, and finally with the opening of the last flowers on the vines, huge green hydrangea, the race was underway.
The friends sleigh moved ahead bustling across the snowy path into the woods. Each of the sleighs jockeyed for position. The dwarves pulled out to an early lead with the trolls right behind them. The dream sleigh bounced along as the sheep leapt forward in short quick hops. Stephen kept Daisy and Drake back staying as close to the middle of the pack.
“We need to go faster,” cried Amelia.
“No,” said Hudson, “this is a long race and we need to save our strength until the end.”
“Yeah,” said Molly, “let everyone else wear themselves out fighting over an early lead and we can pull ahead later during the challenges.”
Stephen flipped a switch on the dashboard of the sleigh and a paper map slid out of a drawer near the back seat. “Can someone check the map and tell us how close we are to the first kingdom change?” asked Stephen.
“I can do it,” said Molly grabbing the map and neatly unfolding it. The map was large and spread across all of their laps. The three in the back quickly traced their fingers across the map and found the start of the race.
“Look at that,” said Hudson. He was pointing to small pictures of each of the kingdoms flags. They were moving slowly across the paper map showing each of the sleighs locations in the race.
“Oh my,” said Amelia, “The Kingdom of the Trolls is first and the dreams and forest sleighs are already there.”
“But we’re not far behind,” said Molly. “We should almost be there.”
The three looked up just in time to see the path suddenly covered with thick fog. For a piece of a heartbeat they couldn’t see any farther than the end of their arms. Then as quickly as it had appeared the fog was gone. The sleigh was now charging across a huge cavern. The cave was dark, lit with small braziers filled with coals marking the race route. As they charged forward they approached a small staging area filled with trolls sitting in bleachers.
One of them stood up and held a long megaphone to his mouth. “Welcome to the Kingdom of the Trolls.” His rocky voice boomed through the cavern. “You’ll be passing a marker soon. Follow the instructions.”
As they passed the stands a rock sailed over their heads.
“None of that,” said the troll with the megaphone.
“Sorry,” cried a lone voice from the crowd.
“Why did they throw a rock at us?” asked Molly.
“That’s how trolls say hello to one another,” said Stephen. “Someone must have gotten excited.”
As they rounded a corner in the cavern the braziers moved closer in leaving very little room to move side to side. Suddenly a large boulder crashed next to the braziers. On its side was painted the word MARKER in rough red paint.
Hudson looked around. “Where are the…”
Another boulder slammed to the ground near them, this one was painted with GO in bright yellow paint.
“…instructions,” finished Hudson.
A third boulder slammed into the ground with the Word FASTER painted in green.
As one all of the friends looked up to the ceiling at several boulders hanging from chains. The first one detached and began to fall.
“Daisy! Drake!” cried Stephen. “Now’s the time to run.”
“Woof,” said Daisy.
“Ruff,” said Drake.
The sleigh jumped forward as the two dogs began moving their legs faster. The first boulder slammed into the ground behind them.
“Seven more,” cried Hudson who had immediately began counting the boulders as soon as he’d seen them.
“Can we dodge them?” yelled Molly.
BOOM. Another boulder slammed into the ground behind them.
“Six!” yelled Hudson.
“No,” cried Amelia, “the markers are too close together, there’s nowhere to go without leaving the path and being disqualified.”
BOOM. “Five!” yelled Hudson. The sleigh rocked from how close the boulder hit behind them.
“Woof,” said Daisy.
“Ruff,” said Drake.
The sleigh burst forward quickly as Daisy and Drake redoubled their efforts.
“Halfway there!” Yelled Stephen his hat flying from his head as they raced forward.
“That was really close!” yelled Molly.
BOOM. “One left and it’s a big one!” shouted Hudson.
“Everybody think fast thoughts!” yelled Amelia.
KRACK-A-BOOM the final boulder slammed into the ground behind them so hard the sleigh bounced. Stephen jerked at the controls to keep them on the track. As the sleigh righted they passed by two large cylinders that suddenly exploded with bright multi colored streamers.
A boulder suddenly slammed down next to the track causing everyone to jump. On its side was painted the word CONGRATULATIONS.
The friends cheered.
“We did it!” yelled Molly.
“Hooray!” yelled Hudson.
“Fantastic!” yelled Amelia.
“Good show!” yelled Stephen reaching up to wave his hat and finding it gone.
“Oh no,” said Molly, “you lost your hat.”
“Not to worry,” said Stephen twisting a dial. A small drawer near the driver’s seat opened and Stephen reached in and pulled out another hat with a long fancy feather tucked in the brim. “Emergency hat,” said Stephen placing it on his head. “Who wants to drive the next leg of the race?”
“What is the next leg?” asked Hudson.
Everyone quickly looked at the map.
“The Forest Kingdom,” said Molly.
“I’m pretty familiar with forests,” said Amelia. “Why don’t I drive?”
Everyone agreed and Amelia took Stephen’s place at the controls.
As soon as Amelia was comfortable the cave ahead was blanketed in fog. Emerging from the fog they found themselves racing down a snow-covered trail through a forest filled with Christmas trees. All of the trees had been decorated with holly vines and poinsettias. Bundles of acorns and pine cones were tied together and hung over the top of each tree like a crown.
“So pretty,” said Molly.
A raccoon in a red wool cap with a fluffy white bobble dropped into the sleigh. The raccoon removed his hat and bowed deeply to the friends in the back seat. “Welcome to the Forest Kingdom,” said the raccoon.
“Thank you,” said Hudson.
“Ahead is a great tree,” said the raccoon. “After you pass through it the path becomes quite, let’s say erratic. To continue the race you must make your turns without leaving the trail.” The raccoon replaced his hat and ran to the edge of the sleigh. He leapt off and grabbed a loose vine nearby and swung into the woods. “Good luck.” They heard the raccoon cry as they sped away.
“I wonder what he means by erratic?” said Stephen.
“How big a tree is it if we’re going to pass through it?” asked Molly.
As if in answer to her question, the forest opened up revealing a towering Christmas tree standing higher than anything Molly or Hudson had ever seen. It towered so high up that small clouds hung around its pine needles half way to the top. The tree itself was dotted and decorated with lights and ornaments. Wait, not ornaments, small homes hung from the branches, each one brightly lit with people standing on porches and hanging from windows cheering them on.
“The home of the elves,” said Amelia. “Very few people get to see this.”
Ahead of them the path converged into a great cave into the side of the tree. The cave passed into the trunk and they could just make out some light on the far side. As they entered the tree the tunnel began to glow as different colors of moss began to brighten at their passing. At first the moss was red. Then deeper in it slowly changed to yellow. As they approached the exit the moss turned green.
As they left the tree they saw the path ahead of them bank sharply up a tree root to the left. Amelia quickly guided the sleigh up the root. Everyone in back jerked to the side slamming against one another. The root dipped down jerking quickly to the right. Amelia spun the controls and brought he sleigh around the corner. The root curved to the left but a large knot in the middle caused the sleigh to rise up on one of its runners.
“Everyone get to the side,” yelled Amelia. “Weigh it back down.”
“Eek!” yelled Molly.
The friends moved to get the sleigh under control. The side slammed down with a heavy thud.
Hudson yelled something he’d once heard his dad say and it caused Amelia’s wings to blush a bright crimson.
The root began to climb again dipping left and right in a zig zag pattern. Amelia kept the sleigh on track with Daisy and Drake pulling with all of their might. At the top of the rise the root dropped down suddenly at a sharp angle.
“Flower petals,” cried Amelia.
Everyone looked to see what was ahead of them. The root traveled straight towards the earth for several feet then sharply turned up and stopped in a long ramp. In front of the ramp was a deep cavern with no bottom. In the middle of the air over the cavern was a thick blanket of fog.
“”Run Daisy!” Cried Amelia. “Run Drake!”
“Woof,” said Daisy.
“Ruff,” said Drake.
The two dogs began running and the sleigh picked up even more speed.as they reached the bottom of the ramp and the path rose the friends in back began to cry out. At the end of the ramp Daisy and Drake jumped forward pulling the sleigh for all they were worth. Everything rose slowly into the air headed straight for the fog. At the last minute a small parcel suspended by a parachute landed in the sleigh and they entered the fog.
The sleigh exited the fog in a bounce of fluffy clouds and soft earth.
Molly and Stephen pulled out the map and began to look for their location. Hudson looked at the parcel. The package was a small basket with a note that said congratulations. Inside the basket were warm chocolate chip cookies.
Hudson held them up. “It’s full of cookies,” he said.
“Eleven cookies,” said Stephen reaching over the map to grab one.
“We’re in the Kingdom of Dreams,” said Molly. “The Leprechauns and Tales sleighs aren’t very far ahead. The North is way up front in first.”
“Who should take over for me?” asked Amelia.
“Why don’t you Molly,” said Hudson. “You’ve got the best imagination.”
“Yes,” said Stephen. “That would be excellent. Then Hudson can take over in the next kingdom.” Stephen quickly checked the map. “The Dwarf Kingdom.”
“Okay,” said Molly moving to take over for Amelia.
“Take a cookie,” said Hudson, crumbs dribbling from his mouth. “They’re amazing.”
As they traveled along a loud rumble filled the air. Out from behind a large billboard for pillows appeared a plump man with a beard wearing long golden pajamas riding a motorcycle. Stephen instantly recognized his old friend the Sandman.
“Hello Kevin,” said Stephen, waving.
“Hello Stephen,” said Kevin. “Welcome to the Kingdom of Dreams. The road ahead of you is nonexistent. You should stop now.”
Molly quickly yanked on the controls and brought the sleigh to a halt at the edge of a long rip in the cloudscape. The tear was so long they couldn’t see the ends. Looking down, the bottom disappeared beneath dark storm clouds.
“How do we get across?” asked Hudson.
“Are we supposed to fly?” asked Amelia.
Kevin let forth a deep chuckle. “I’m afraid not,” said Kevin. “I can’t tell you how to cross this way. Only your driver can tell you how to get to the other side.” He waved at Molly.
“Me?” asked Molly. “How am I supposed to know?”
“I can give you only one hint,” said Kevin. “Are you ready?”
“Yes,” said Molly.
“Sweet dreams,” said Kevin. He then reached into a large pillow case he kept attached to his motorcycle. It was a large ornate hourglass filled with multicolored sands. He placed it on the ground and started his motorcycle. “Good luck,” said Kevin as he sped away.
The sand in the hourglass slowly spilled down into the bottom. First red sand, then yellow, and finally green sand began to fall. The three in back turned to Molly.
“What do you think we have to do?” asked Hudson.
“I don’t understand the clue,” said Amelia.
“What do you think it means, Molly?” asked Stephen.
“Maybe I have to pick a way across and we have to find it,” said Molly looking around as if some clue or answer would appear from the clouds. “Like if I asked for wings the sleigh could fly.”
Suddenly, large white goose wings unfurled from the sides of the sleigh.
“Or if I thought we could jump over from a ramp like the last kingdom,” said Molly.
The wings disappeared and the road ahead of them sprouted a great vine ramp like the one they’d just used.
Molly turned to look at the group. “I’d even like a bridge over the hole.”
The root sank into the clouds and a great wooden bridge unrolled from the far side of the chasm and dropped neatly onto their side.
“Molly look!” cried Hudson pointing at the bridge.
Molly quickly turned but as she did the bridge fell away into the darkness.
“What?” asked Molly. “What am I looking at?”
“There was a bridge,” said Stephen.
“And wings,” said Amelia. “And a ramp.”
“Where did they go?” asked Molly.
“They went away,” said Hudson. “Right when you started talking about something else.”
Molly sat down in the driver’s seat and stared at the chasm. After a moment a bright rainbow stretched out connecting both sides. After a few seconds stiff rails appeared on the sides and heavy boards blocked up under the bottom holding it in place.
The friends all cheered and the bridge disappeared. Faded away as if it had never been there. They stopped cheering.
“What happened?” asked Hudson.
“I think I have to concentrate on it,” said Molly. “As long as I’m thinking about it the bridge stays.”
Molly sat down on the seat and began to concentrate. The bridge reformed much quicker this time. “Be very quiet,” said Molly. Even as she did this small amount of distraction the bridge wavered and pieces fell away into the darkness.
Molly took the controls and gently guided the sleigh forward. She stared intently at the bridge and guided the sleigh forward over the expanse. As they moved farther out she tapped the controls and Drake and Daisy began to move a little faster. Soon they were moving across the bridge at a steady trot.
Ahchoo! Stephen sneezed. Suddenly the bridge rumbled and sections of railing fell away. It tilted to one side and pieces of colored ribbon began to fall into the darkness.
“Go!” Molly yelled.
Daisy and Drake jumped forward pulling the sleigh behind them as chunks of bridge crumbled around them. The back of the sleigh began to dip down as the bridge crumbled underneath them. Daisy and Drake jumped over bits of cracking colors and holes in the surface as they pulled the sleigh to the other side. The bridge let out a great creaking groan and began to detach from the opposite side as Daisy and Drake jumped up onto the cloud path. For a brief moment the sleigh was in midair and the friends cried out in fear as they sailed to the road. Landing with a springy bump they arrived safely on the other side.
After a moment everyone turned to look at Stephen.
“Sorry,” said Stephen.
“Bless you,” said Molly.
A sudden burst of light and color surrounded them and a bright cloud reading congratulations floated overhead.
“I guess it’s my turn,” said Hudson moving to take Molly’s place.
Hudson urged the sleigh forward and Drake and Daisy began trotting along. They quickly moved through the cloudy landscape watching the scenery around them. The once plain clouds began forming into various creatures and people. They were being cheered by cowboys, aliens, knights, astronauts, and one energetic T-Rex whose arms were too short to clap but he waved them just the same. Near the end Kevin the Sandman appeared and waved to them as they passed into the fog.
When they left the fog the sleigh was moving down the middle of a great hall carved deep into the side of a mountain. They were surrounded by stone arches and pillars. At regular intervals there were huge four story statues of dwarven kings and warriors. Sconces the size of tables hung from the walls holding great bon fires that lit the hall. In the distance they could hear the constant sound of thunder rolling towards them. As they neared the end of the hall they saw a large set of empty bleachers near a giant vault door. Before it, in the middle of the road, stood a dwarf with its hand up signaling them to stop.
Daisy and Drake slowed and stopped just before the barrel-chested dwarf. A long flowing beard was nicely braided with lovely red and green ribbons. Long red hair cascaded from beneath a metal helmet with great rams horns mounted to the front. The dwarf stepped forward and in a lithe feminine voice spoke. “I fear,” she said, “that the race route is slightly under siege.”
“Does that mean the race is cancelled?” asked Hudson, “Um…ma’am?”
“Nay at all,” said the lady dwarf. “It means that we have been given special dispensation to offer you an alternate route. Should ye chose to take it.”
“What do you mean should?” asked Molly.
“The new route is significantly longer than the original,” said the dwarf. “However, if ye’d rather, ye can use the set route.”
“You said it was under siege,” said Stephen.
“Aye,” said the dwarf. “Ogres have decided to head into our mines. They’re currently roaring about shaft ten. Which was lightly defended as it was being used for the route.”
“There are ogres on the race route?” asked Amelia.
“Aye,” said the dwarf.
Molly quickly scanned the map. “There are five kingdoms ahead of us.”
“You’re driving Hudson,” said Stephen. “It’s up to you which way we go.”
Hudson thought for a second. “We’ll take the race route.”
“Your funeral,” said the dwarf. She then waved to someone up high on a balcony. “Before ye go may I ask yer names?”
As the great vault door slowly rolled to one side everyone quickly gave their names and even told her the names of Daisy and Drake. When they we’re done Amelia asked, “How come you want to know our names?”
“So we may remember yer brave deeds in song, after yer dead,” said the dwarf. “Goodbye, ye seem very brave.”
“Don’t worry about us,” said Hudson. “We’ll be fine.”
“That’s right,” said Stephen as the sleigh moved towards the vault. “We’re amazing.” Though Molly noticed that Stephen had drawn his sword.
The tunnel beyond the vault door was steep and dark. The distant sound of thunder could now be heard in full roar. They had been wrong it wasn’t thunder; it was war. There was no snow in the mine, but the sleigh fit neatly into the tracks laid down for the various mine carts and slid along them quite nicely. The mines were chiseled from stone and yet the attention to detail was still impressive. There were no deep gouges in the stone walls, only precise cuts and grooves dug to remove what was needed without damaging the earth around it. Large timbers were cut and placed at regular intervals for support. Each one was itself carved with intricate scenes of miners and craftsmen. The mine itself would have been beautiful if not for the approaching sound of battle.
“The tunnels are so small,” said Amelia. “How could those big ogres fit in here?”
They rounded a corner and entered the main mine shaft. It was bigger than any sports stadium that Molly and Hudson had visited with their families. A small army of dwarves with battle axes and war hammers were rallying on one side of the cave. They held barricades, fired crossbows, and launched catapults at the other side of the hall. The far end of the room was filled with fifteen foot tall ogres armed with tree stumps they used as clubs and crude stone axes carved from stalactites. Right up the middle of the warring factions went the tracks the sleigh was now locked on to.
As they raced into the cavern the dwarves cheered and the ogres roared. Suddenly everyone charged. Both sides began slamming into one another on all sides of the sleigh and the tracks ahead and behind them. An ogre stomped onto the tracks and bellowed at the approaching sleigh. Two dwarves slammed into the beast shoving it off the tracks. A second later the sleigh passed through where the ogre had stood. Off to one side an ogre hit a dwarf warrior with a vicious kick sending him flying. The airborne dwarf careened into the side of the sleigh causing it to rock briefly. They hurtled down the tracks. Hudson’s head moved back and forth watching for anything that might get in their way. He made quick little adjustments to the speed of the sleigh to jump ahead of something moving towards them or slowing down to avoid a collision.
As they neared the end of the mine and approached the exit a great cry went out and an ogre, standing so much taller than the rest, stomped out of the cave in front of them. The ogre planted his legs on either side of the track and raised a small tree he used as a club. Daisy and Drake ducked their heads and started moving faster. The sleigh jumped forward as Hudson flipped a switch opening up the brakes and letting the sleigh go as quick as it could.
The ogres club came down in a fast arc straight for them as they hurtled right for him. The club slammed into the ground just behind the sleigh as it passed between the ogres legs and into the cave beyond. The echoes of combat faded behind them. Leaving only the cheering of the dwarves to be heard. As they rounded another curve in the mine tunnel they saw a great banner, now ripped and torn with an axe stuck in its middle. It said congratulations. Just beyond it was the swirling fog they were all now familiar with.
When the fog parted they found themselves dashing across rolling green hills covered in mossy grass. A trail of snow set across the fields pointing them in the direction they needed to go. Molly began checking the map to see where they were.
“No need for that,” said Stephen. “This is the Kingdom of the Leprechauns. You can tell from all of the shamrocks.” Stephen pointed at the ground as they raced by.
Everyone else looked and saw that the grass was actually made up of dozens and dozens of four leaf clovers.
“Who wants to drive this leg?” asked Hudson.
“I can,” said Amelia. Moving to take over from Hudson. “It looks peaceful here.”
Off to one side a herd of sheep bleated and chewed peacefully on grass. A beautiful shepherdess walked among them wearing a pretty green dress and carrying a long staff with a crook on the end. She waved at the passing sleigh and pulled a rams horn from her belt. She blew on the horn and it let out a great loud trumpet of noise that echoed across the hills.
Soon after that a leprechaun riding on a little ram trotted up next to the sleigh. The leprechaun worn a dapper green suit with a matching top hat. He tipped his hat to the riders in the sleigh. “Welcome to the Kingdom of the Leprechauns,” he said bowing his head towards them.
“Hello,” said Molly.
“Hi,” said Hudson.
“This leg of the race is designed to test your speed,” said the leprechaun.
“What do we need to do?” asked Amelia.
“Is a simple task,” said the leprechaun. “You just need to outrun our ram.”
Molly looked at the cute little ram the leprechaun was riding. “He’s awful small isn’t he?” she asked.
The leprechaun laughed and patted his ram on its flank. “Not this we laddie. He’s too young for the races. You need to outrun that one.” The leprechaun pointed up the trail behind the sleigh.
As one everyone turned to look behind them. A short distance away, and gaining fast, was a large ram the size of a school bus. It let out a loud bleat bathing the sleigh with warm breath that smelled like a fresh mowed lawn. The ram lowered its horns and started moving much faster towards the back of the sleigh.
“Good luck and may the good lord take a shine to your fortunes,” cried the leprechaun as he veered off to one side out of the way of the charging ram.
“Run!” cried Amelia adjusting the controls to help Daisy and Drake go.
Daisy and Drake’s ears folded against the sides of their heads and they sprung forward at top speed. The sleigh bounced slightly at the new increase of speed. Amelia followed the path of snow through the hills occasionally making small changes to the controls.
“It’s getting closer,” cried Molly.
“We need more speed,” cried Hudson.
“I’m giving her all she’s got,” yelled Amelia. “There’s no dogpower left.”
“There’s got to be something you can do,” yelled Stephen.
“I can’t rewrite the laws of physics,” yelled Amelia.
The ram’s horns bumped the back of the sleigh sending it forward a few feet. Daisy and Drake and to work hard to keep their balance on the snow as they shunted forward.
They crested a large hill and Hudson looked forward on the path. “We’re almost to the fog,” he yelled. “It’s a straight shot over the next hill.”
The ram once again closed in on the sleigh. Its horns leveled against the back as it quickly approached.
Molly stood up and hurled a chocolate chip cookie at the rams head bouncing the cookie off its nose. For a second the ram looked confused and its speed slowed. After a moment it began to move forward, its gaze now focused on Molly.
“I think you made it mad dear,” said Stephen.
“Why are you so calm!” shouted Hudson.
“It’s not like they used one of the big ones,” said Stephen.
“Were almost there,” shouted Amelia as they crested the last hill. “We’ll pick up some speed on the way down.”
The ram rose over the top of the hill and suddenly stopped. It let out one last disappointed bleat and reared up on its hind legs. When it brought them down the ground shook and the sleigh wobbled on the path. As they approached the fog a large rainbow arched up over the trail. Shimmering in gold across its front was the word congratulations.
They entered the fog.
When they appeared they were moving through a large farm in a snowy wonderland. The farm was a special one that the friends had all seen before. It was a cookie farm where late night cookies grew on chocolate chip vines, oatmeal raisin trees, and peanut-butter bushes. Just past the farm stood a peppermint tree forest filled with bright trees with candy canes hanging from the branches waiting to be picked. Beyond that, high on a hill, stood Santa’s workshop. Bright colored smoke in blues, greens, reds, and purples poured from smoke stacks showing that the factory was well underway with the final preparations for the big day.
“Can I do this leg?” asked Molly.
“Sure,” said Hudson.
Amelia and Molly quickly switched place.
As the friends sleigh neared the edge of the farm they saw a large pavilion filled with elves waving banners, pennants, and even a few giant foam fingers. The elves cheered as they passed and several threw streamers and confetti. Just past the pavilion was a large sign that read…
North Pole Skiing
Black Diamond Slaloms
Enter at Own Risk
“What’s a Bumble?” asked Hudson.
Suddenly the ground dropped out beneath them and the group were rocketing down a ski slope. Amelia shrieked as the trail suddenly jerked to the left. Molly quickly moved to keep up with the turn. After passing through a set of bright Christmas colored flags the path took a sharp right almost completely doubling back on itself. Molly’s hands moved quickly across the controls keeping the sleigh on the track and threading between the pairs of flags that dotted the hill. Every time they passed through one set of flags Molly had to quickly move to reverse course to aim for the next set. Even Drake and Daisy were having a hard time keeping up with the turns and staying ahead of the sleigh as it barreled down the steep slope that more pushed the two dogs forward instead of letting them pull the sleigh. As they traveled farther and farther down the hill the slope began to be littered with small pine trees that Molly also had to move to avoid.
Soon Molly’s hands were beginning to ache from constantly jerking the controls back and forth. Trees seemed to spring up from the snow as if jumping from a jack-in-the-box. The back of the sleigh was skidding out of the trail smacking flags and hurling up huge waves of snow.
In the back of the sleigh the friends were hurled back and forth with each turn. Stephen was pushed out of the sleigh and had to grab on the side. Hudson grabbed is arm and as the sleigh whipped around the next turn Hudson yanked and pulled Stephen back into the sleigh.
Then, as quickly as it had all begun, the ride was over. The hill leveled off and the path straightened. A large banner hung over the trail said congratulations. Amelia picked herself off the floor of the sleigh. Everyone cleaned themselves up and straightened their clothes.
“Well,” said Stephen, “that was exciting.”
“Can someone take over?” asked Molly. “My hands hurt.”
“Sure.” Stephen moved forward and let Molly go sit in the back.
“Are you okay Molly?” asked Hudson.
“I caught my hand on one of the levers and bent my fingers,” said Molly.
Amelia quickly flipped some switches and took a steaming mug of coco as it slid from behind a panel. “Here Molly,” said Amelia handing Molly the coco. “Drink this, it will make you feel better.”
Molly took the coco and sipped it gently getting whipped cream on her nose.
The friends rode along in silence until they entered the fog.
The sleigh left the fog and rode out on top of a hill overlooking a large expansive kingdom. A small village with snowcapped thatch roofs sat nuzzled near a happy forest. A series of farm fields stretched off to one side. The crops in the square fields were grown to make a checker board pattern of red and white. In the distance a tall castle with long slender spires rose up on top of a frost coated mountain. An ice covered lake with a gazeebo resting on a small island in the center sat off to one side with large swan shaped boats sitting near a small fishing dock. Children skated across the ice laughing and shouting with joy.
As the sleigh passed the lake the children all stopped to wave at the riders. When they neared the village they heard people singing about their working day. The forest was filled with birds and animals that hopped in time to the song being sung in the village. A small sparrow left the forest and flew to the sleigh. As the bird approached Molly held out her hand and the sparrow landed ever so lightly on her finger.
The sparrows belly was bright yellow and he had black back and wings. He wore a red hat with a white bobble and a matching scarf was wrapped around his neck. He chirped at the riders for a moment and then said, “Hello, and welcome to the Kingdom of Tales.”
“Hello,” said Molly.
“I must speak quickly because you have a choice coming soon,” said the sparrow. “Ahead the path forks. To the left, the path travels into the mountain under the castle. To the right, the path takes the much longer path around the mountain.”
“Why would we take the longer path?” asked Hudson.
“There are several reasons. The longer path goes through the singing valley where you will hear the chorus of the wind for the extent of your journey. Many people travel great distance to hear the wind. The cave through the mountains is dark and often hard to see.”
“Our sleigh has lights for just such an occasion,” said Stephen.
“Excellent, then perhaps the darkness won’t be a factor for you. The long way also boasts another sight, every ten years the unicorn herds migrate this way and pass near the mountain on that side. The migration is happening right now and I can assure you there is nothing quite as impressive as a herd of unicorns. I saw the last one and the memory still fills me with peace and love.”
“I think that’s about it, I’ll leave you to your decision.” The sparrow spread its wings and began to lift off. As it began hovering just above Molly’s finger it looked at the group. “I almost forgot,” said the sparrow. “The cave under the mountain goes directly through the dragon’s lair. Good luck.” The sparrow turned and flew away chirping happily to himself.
“Oh by the way, there’s a dragon,” said Amelia in an unflattering voice. “Like it slipped his mind.”
“How are we doing on the race?” asked Stephen.
Everyone in the back pulled out the race map and found themselves inside the kingdom of tales. Molly sighed. “We’re in fifth place.”
“Yes,” said Hudson, “but it looks like most of the racers went the long way.”
Amelia looked at the map, “North has passed through the mountain and is almost to the kingdom of the Fey.”
“I can see the fork,” said Stephen. “Which way do we go?”
The three in the back looked at each other. They nodded after a few seconds and then Hudson said, “Let’s go see a dragon.”
Stephen turned the sleigh up the left path towards the mountain. After a few minutes of traveling they noticed the trees in the area turned from bright happy trees to burnt trunks. The bright white snow turned to muddy slush on the road. Stark jagged rocks jutted out of the snow like fangs. As they got closer to the mountain the spotted the cave entrance.
The side of the mountain was shaped as a massive skull with the mouth making the cave entrance. Something deep in the cave glowed giving the eyes in the skull a menacing red glow. As they approached the cave belched out a cloud of dark bats that took to the skies.
Once inside the cave Hudson flipped a toggle and bright lights on the front of the sleigh turned on revealing a claustrophobic dank tunnel. Hudson had to duck to avoid stalactites that hung a little too low. The cave was easy to navigate with occasional bouts of glowing moss or a jet of flame to show the way. Other than those rare pieces of light the cave was dark and wet. Something a bit too thick to be water oozed down the sides of the walls. The entire cave system smelled of burnt garbage.
Soon, the cave ahead began to glow and the friends could just make out a glittering shine that seemed more welcoming than anything they’d seen thus far. They started to feel a bit better about the trip when suddenly a loud roar shook the tunnel causing small rocks to dislodge from the roof and rain down on them. Stephen drew his sword and set it across his lap.
“Never fought a dragon,” said Stephen. “I’m sure it isn’t too difficult.”
“Sure,” said Hudson. “Plus, we’re with you so…” Hudson’s words trailed off.
“We are all going to die,” said Amelia.
Molly hugged Amelia.
“Woof,” said Daisy.
“Ruff,” said Drake.
Stephen laughed. “Daisy said all we have to do is take out its ankles than after that it’s just a matter of climbing real fast. And Drake’s looking forward to finding out what a dragon tastes like.”
The friends laughed.
The bright glow in the cave finally came into view. The path had turned from snow into gold. Huge heaping piles of gold coins, glittering gems, and fantastic statues. The cavern expanded far beyond the range of the lights, but the reflection off the coins made the entire room light up like daytime. The far walls were so distant that a dozen dwarf halls could have fit in this one room. Every surface was covered with treasure.
The friends whistled, ohhed, and awed; impressed at the enormous display before them. Everywhere they looked were pieces of art, fantastic statues, and portions of buildings. The top of the Empire State building, a section of the Eiffel Tower, a chunk of the Tokyo Tower, and bits of Buckingham Palace all stuck out of the horde somewhere. As they rounded a section of a Greek coliseum they were suddenly reminded whose cave they were in.
Sitting in what would have once been the Emperors box, using the entire section as a seat, was the dragon. The great red beast towered over the small sleigh. Long leathery wings spread out in both directions and the dragon leaned its head back and roared. The gold around them slid and the ceiling once again dropped chunks of rock. The dragon looked down at the sleigh and waved a large pennant the size of a parade float, it was green and bore the symbol of the Kingdom of the Fey. Over its massive chest and belly the dragon wore a gigantic tee shirt that read “Queen Amber Rocks!”
The dragon excitedly waved at the racers as they passed in front of him and Molly waved back. The dragon leaned back is head and blew flames at the ceiling and then clapped his front paws in excitement. As the racer passed through his cave and into the exit tunnel they heard the dragon roar again.
The group sat there very quietly, unsure what to say until they left the cave and saw the fog that would take them to the final leg of the race.
As they left the fog for one final time, Hudson had replaced Stephen at the controls. They entered the snowy paths of the woods behind Molly’s house.
“That was weird,” said Stephen.
“Yep,” said Molly. “Do you think we could visit him sometime?”
“I’ll ask around,” said Amelia.
“Neat,” said Hudson.
“Ruff,” said Drake.
“I don’t think he’ll let you bite him,” said Stephen.
“Woof,” said Daisy in a consoling manner.
The screech of a hawk broke the conversation. Suddenly the sleigh was flanked by a wolf and a hawk. The animals moved beside the sleigh keeping pace with the riders.
“Hi Skip,” called Amelia. “Hello Dee Dee.” She waved at the two animals.
With quick steps the wolf and hawk moved into the sleigh and changed into their human forms.
“Welcome home,” said Dee Dee.
“You’ve reached the final leg,” said Skip.
“Any special instructions ladies?” asked Stephen.
Dee Dee smiled. “I’m afraid not,” she said. “You’ll just have to follow the trail and do your best.”
“Good fortunes, “said Skip.
The two leapt from the sleigh and returned to their animal forms before they hi the ground. After that the groups parted company as Skip and Dee Dee moved off into the trees.
Molly and Amelia had already grabbed the map and were looking at the other racers.
“We’re in second,” cried Amelia.
“Only North is ahead of us,” said Molly, “and we’re gaining on them.”
Hudson pushed at the control to make the sleigh go faster. The sleigh rounded trees and traveled down familiar paths. They saw the cave where they had found the Fairy Queens lost ball, they drove through their favorite picnic spot, and passed over the creek where they liked to fish in the summer.
Molly looked at the path ahead. “We’re coming up on the flower meadow. We’re almost there.”
The friends cheered as they rounded on last tree. Suddenly the sleigh hit a root and one side popped up in the air. The sleigh started to weave back and forth and the friends quickly moved to balance the sleigh. Hudson moved the controls to play against the forces of the skidding sleigh and the slick road. With a loud thump they brought the sleigh back under control and managed to lead it back to the center of the path.
The bushes parted before them and that’s when they saw the sleigh of the North. It had spun off the path and into the flower fields. It was lying on its side and the elves were trying to unfasten the reindeer from the sleigh.
“Oh no,” cried Molly.
“Those poor racers,” said Amelia.
Hudson pulled on the controls and slowed the sleigh. “Should we help?”
“If we leave the trail,” said Stephen, “we forfeit the race.”
“It’s the right thing to do,” said Hudson.
“Let’s go help them,” said Molly.
Hudson turned the controls and the sleigh left the race route.
It didn’t take long to help the elves unfasten the reindeer and make sure everyone was okay. With some rope and a bit of effort they were even able to right their sleigh. It had taken some damage in the crash but could still go slowly. Even though the work had been quick, the other sleighs had still passed them. By the time they were able to get back on track they were in last place. They traveled to the finish slowly to make sure the North made it as well. In the end both sleighs crossed together to thunderous applause.
* * *
The Kingdom of the Leprechauns won first place beating the Kingdom of Trolls by mere inches. There was a trophy ceremony and a grand ball after the race. At the ball the friends were recognized for sportsmanship for helping another race team. Queen Amber had even taken time to speak to them and let them know how proud she was of each of them.
Later as the ball continued Stephen, Molly, Hudson, Daisy, and Drake found Amelia sitting in a corner with a glass of lemonade. She was quiet and her wings drooped. The usually bright colors were now a deep blue. Drake sat beside her, his head in her lap.
“Amelia, are you okay?” asked Molly.
“Yeah,” said Amelia.
“Is there anything we can do?” asked Hudson.
“I’m fine,” said Amelia.
“You didn’t eat anything at the party,” said Stephen. “We brought you a piece of cake.”
“Not hungry,” said Amelia.
“Ruff,” said Drake and he licked her entire face in one motion.
“Gah,” cried Amelia falling over backwards.
“You want to tell us what’s wrong?” asked Molly.
“Or do we let Drake lick you again?” asked Hudson.
“Fine,” said Amelia climbing back onto her seat. “I just really wanted to win. I’ve dreamed about this race for so long. I’ve watched so many of them. We got to be a part of it. We were in the race and we were going to win. Then we didn’t.”
“No,” said Stephen. “We didn’t. But, I don’t think that’s the point.”
“My dad says winning is great,” said Hudson. “But sometimes there are more important things.”
“We had fun,” said Molly.
“Yeah,” said Amelia.
“We got to spend the day together,” said Hudson.”
“That’s true,” said Amelia.
“Woof,” said Daisy.
“That’s right Daisy, we saw sheep,” said Stephen.
“Ruff,” said Drake.
“We did run up a huge tree Drake,” said Stephen.
“We got to see a dragon,” said Amelia.
“We did, didn’t we?” said Molly.
Amelia and Molly clasped hands and whispered together, “a dragon.”
“I guess today was pretty good,” said Amelia.
“We had fun,” said Hudson.
“My dad says that’s always more important than winning,” said Molly.
The friends hugged.
Suddenly the sky was filled with fireworks, loud music boomed across the clearing, a huge mirror ball shot up into the air and hovered above the party, and streamers and confetti of all different colors showered down on the ball.
“Somebody hit the festivities button,” said Stephen.
Merry Christmas Everyone.
Have an amazing holiday no matter what you celebrate.
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