by Norsebard





This collection of humorous Yuletide stories belongs in the Uber category. All characters are created by me, though they may remind you of someone.

This story depicts a loving relationship between consenting adult Elves of the female kind. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top-right corner and find something else to read.

This story contains some humorous profanity. Readers who are easily offended by bad language may wish to read something other than this story.

All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons (or Elves) is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons (or Elves), living or dead is purely coincidental.




Written: October 6th - 24th, 2015.

As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D

1: The Crunchy Cookie Caper

2: Who Nabbed Cole Frost's Hats?

3: Norsebound

4: Love Letter In The Snow

5: The 956th Annual Amateur Elf Talent Show

Description: Rockabye and Epilotta, Santa's A-Team Elves, return with further Elfin good adventures: Santa has mislaid Mrs. Santa's award-winning recipe for crunchy Yuletide cookies, and Rocky and Lotta must go on a wild quest to retrieve it. On another assignment, they fly to the northern-most tip of the Elfin world to deliver a scrumptious layer cake to an Elf's eight-hundredth birthday; and finally, Lotta has her sights set on a very special prize as she signs up for the annual Amateur Elf Talent Show on Little Yuletide Eve… in short, there's action adventure, humor and romance for the whole Elfin family.










Rockabye 'Rocky' Elf took in a lungful of the crisp, clear December air as she stepped onto the sidewalk outside her house. Not content with just filling her lungs, she stretched out her arms to take in as much as she could while she waited for her ride. "Ahhhhhhh… my kind of weather! Frosty, nippy-nosy, rosy-cheeky, beautiful winter weather. Finally. The Season to be Jolly sure was a long time coming this year," she said, looking up at the clear, deep-blue sky.

A couple of junior Elves who came zipping past her on decorated skateboards whistled at her, no doubt admiring her three-foot-three inch frame, her black hair and her unusual blue eyes. Being the result of a tryst between a local lady-Elf and an dashing southerner who had been an exchange consultant working in the Central Administration, she certainly had a different look to most other Elves in that region.

While she waited for the reindeer cab to find the quiet side street she lived on in Elf Springs, the capital of the Elfin world, she strolled along the sidewalk in front of her home and kicked at little pebbles and tufts of moss that grew between the cobblestones. The season's first flurry of snow had come the previous week, but the wonderfully fluffy white layer hadn't lasted long, much to the disappointment of the Elves who all wished for four feet of snow from October through to March.

Even though she was going on a date, Rocky had decided to forego the really fancy duds - she just didn't feel comfortable in them - for her regular outfit of black ankle boots, insulated, dark-green pants with a black leather belt, a dark-green double-breasted jacket, a red ascot and finally a red Elf hat with a rigid cone. In other words, the typical outfit used by the long-haul sleigh drivers.

A jingling at the far end of the quiet street proved to be the sleigh cab she had called for. Straightening her double-breasted jacket, she waved at the driver and stepped out onto the cobbled street.

When the driver whoa'ed his single reindeer, Rocky strolled around the cab and climbed up onto the sleigh's back seat. Not quite as comfortable as her own custom-built sleigh, the cab's fur-covered bench was well-worn and spotted with various substances that she didn't want to consider the origins of.

The driver was a gruff, old Elf-fellow with dark shadows under his eyes and a two-day stubble on his chin, but he wore a black ascot which signaled he was one of the elders and thus someone Rocky needed to treat with respect. His reindeer was getting antsy, but he held it back with a little tug on the reins. "Where to, lady?" he said in a gruff manner while he rolled the piece of rock candy he was sucking on around in his mouth.

"Seventeen Chestnut Street, if ya please," Rocky said and crossed her short legs. Something was nagging at the back of her mind; something she had forgotten in the heat of the moment, but she couldn't put her finger on what it could be. Scrunching up her face, she checked out her house to see if she had forgotten to snuff out the candles, but the windows were all dark. She hadn't cooked dinner yet, so the stove was cold as well. She had ironed her ascot before the date, but she knew for a fact that she had left the steam iron on the board to cool off.

"Chestnut Street. That's a mighty fancy neighborhood. You got some family there?" the driver-Elf echoed before slapping the reins. His reindeer responded with a tired bray before it set off down the cobbled street.

"No, just an Elf I know," Rocky said absentmindedly. They had only made it thirty yards down the street before she slapped her forehead so hard she nearly blew off her Elf hat. "The hostess gift! Corn-on-a-cob, I forgot the hostess gift! Driver! Ya need to pull over… I forgot something really important."

"What… now?" the gruff driver said, taking a firmer grip on the reins.

Rocky grabbed hold of the sleigh's side to be able to jump out as soon as it would come to a stop. "Yeah!" she said, looking over her shoulder to see if the street was clear behind them.

The driver tugged on the reins which made the tired reindeer slow down and eventually come to a halt. "I'm gonna keep the meter running, lady! Whoa… whoa…"

"Yeah, yeah," Rocky said and jumped out. With her short legs going like drumsticks, she hurried back to her house and zipped upstairs into her bedroom. The hostess gift - a box of deluxe chocolate frogs with a soft, caramel center - was still on her bedside table where she had put it while she tied her bootlaces. She rolled her eyes and took the fragile box back downstairs and out to the waiting cab.

"Okay, I'm back," she said as she climbed up into the back seat after putting the box of chocolate onto the well-worn fur, "and we're still a go for seventeen Chestnut Street."

"You goin' to a birthday party or something?" the driver said, eyeing the box of candy that was protected by gold-and-silver wrapping paper. The box didn't have a note pinned to it, but it did flaunt a large, golden bow tie.

"Naw, a date," Rocky said with a broad grin. "That's why I don't take my own sleigh. I'm hoping for some egg nog… yeah."

The driver shrugged and turned back to his reindeer. "Giddyup, Scott!" he said, slapping the reins. Soon, the old, tired animal let out another mournful bray before it set off down the street to carry Rockabye Elf to her evening date.


The Pine Cone Villa at seventeen Chestnut Street was lit up like a Yuletree by hundreds of little, multi-colored bulbs that had been attached to the roof and the walls. All kinds of ornaments and colorful tinsel occupied every square inch of the house's facade, and a family of snow-people had been built on the front lawn. The snow from the previous week's flurry had all but melted so the snow-folks weren't as snazzy as the Yuletide-loving owner of the house would have liked.

Three-branched candlesticks had been lit and put in every window of the house save for the kitchen where a five-branch stick was needed to cast a light on the wood-burning stove. A large, lidded pot was simmering on the middle burner, and the oven below contained a full roasting pan of raisin buns. On the table next to the stove, two mugs and two sets of plates were lined up and ready to be brought into the living room for the lucky individual who would sample the treats.

The lid on the large pot began to jingle and jangle like the contents were about to boil over - unfortunately, it didn't alert the owner of the house who was busy elsewhere. The lid jingled a little more, then a little more after that. When its jingling didn't yield any response at all, it decided to bang the kettledrum and throw itself onto the kitchen floor with a loud, echoing clang. Moments later, steaming hot bubbles from the cooking chocolate began to boil over and run down the sides of the large pot.

A sound akin to an air-raid siren was heard over the entire house - and most of Chestnut Street as well - when Epilotta 'Lotta' Elf came storming into the kitchen from her bedroom where she had been busy trying on various outfits for the big evening.

Grabbing a wooden spoon, she stirred the pot like crazy to get everything back under control. She managed to defeat the boiling chocolate following a strong wrestling match with the sweet-smelling, brown bubbles, and after rinsing the lid under the faucet, she put it back on the pot with an exhausted smirk plastered onto her face.

She hadn't had time to complete her outfit, but she was satisfied with what she had found so far: she wore gray, woolly socks, dark-blue pants with wraparound legs, and finally a black, broad-strapped tank top. All that was left to figure out was if she should take the dark-blue double-breasted jacket that matched the pants, or the short, reddish jacket that matched her hair. They both clashed with her green ascot, but she was required to wear it for another three years to show that she was still a beginner.

Unlike her dear friend Rockabye, Epilotta had the classic Elfin looks in every sense of the word: she was two-foot-nine, and she had red hair, green eyes and pinkish-pale skin that often sported a ruddy complexion whenever something touched her, made her embarrassed, or got her excited. Though short, she was strong and agile which were great characteristics to have for a gift-dropper - one of the Elves who went down chimneys and other chutes on Yuletide Eve, the Night of Nights, to deliver presents to the world.

A smile played on her lips when she thought back to the first time she had met Rockabye Elf on Yuletide Eve the previous year. Then, she had been fresh out of the Academy and had been so nervous about working with an experienced sleigh driver that she had nearly messed up her first assignment. Rocky turned out to be far less intimidating than she had appeared, and they had been a fantastic team for the rest of the evening and the next, few days.

Whenever she thought of her dear friend Rockabye 'Rocky' Elf, a delightful tickle swept across her body and her soul. They worked so well together - like a pair of old, soft gloves - that it felt like they were meant for each other. Over the summer, she had tried to work with another lady-Elf sleigh driver, but their personalities had clashed at once, and the working relationship had been a short one as a result.

Rockabye Elf was the one for Lotta, there was no doubt about that. She had cried for a day and a half when Rocky's regular partner Benny Elf returned, but the senior gift-dropper had retired for good over the summer so the position had once more become open for Lotta. She and Rocky had kept in touch so she knew about the vacancy even before their big boss, Santa, did.

Insistent jingling from the lid on the large pot made her snap back to reality and mind the matters at hand. Taking the wooden spoon, she began to stir the hot chocolate to show that she was in complete control.


The roasting pan with the steaming hot raisin buns had just been put on the kitchen table to cool off when the doorbell rang. Shimmying and shaking with excitement, Lotta let out a jolly squeak and swirled around twice before she fluffed her hair and stormed into the hallway to get the door.

Swooshing it open, she came face to face with the Elf who often appeared in her dreams. Rocky's square frame filled the door, and her smile was so broad it could hardly fit into the hallway. "Greetings! Welcome!" Lotta said and put out her arm for the traditional Elfin greeting, the arm-clasp.

"Hi, Lotta," Rocky said and stepped inside with her arm still attached to Lotta's.

"Oh! Oh, is that a gift for me?" Lotta squealed when she clapped eyes on the gold-and-silver present.

"It certainly is. Thank you for inviting me," Rocky said and handed the small package to her excited hostess.

Lotta barely had time to smile before she tore the wrapping off the box with the caramel chocolate frogs. Her eyes bugged out on stalks, and the tip of a little, pink tongue shot out of her mouth to wet her lips. "Ohhhhh… I love those. Thank you very much!"

"I knew you would. You're welcome."

Clasping arms suddenly didn't seem enough, so Lotta pulled herself into a hug that finished with her kissing both Rocky's cheeks - they were standing under a mistletoe, after all. Pulling back, she considered if she should place one on the older Elf's lips as well, but she lost her nerve and took a step back instead.

"My my, you look sweeter than a candy apple tonight," Rocky continued, eyeing her friend's short, red jacket that went well with her flaming red locks.

A pair of red blotches on Lotta's pale cheeks only added a certain charm to the appearance of the young Elf, but she still shimmied upon hearing Rocky's words. "Oh Great Elf, thank you… you look nice too. Is it nippy outside?"

"Yeah, kinda," Rocky said and took off her rigid Elf hat. After she had put it on a coat hook in the hallway, she fluffed her black hair and made sure it was pulled behind her pointy ears. "It's so great that it's finally getting colder. The Night of Nights will soon be here."

"I can't wait. Have you eaten?"

"Oh no. You said you were going to make a late afternoon snack for us," Rocky said and promptly caught a whiff of the warm buns and the chocolate that Lotta had prepared. Grinning, she let her nose follow the scent into the kitchen where her lips formed an excited 'O' at the sight of the many, freshly baked buns. "Warm buns and hot chocolate! Oh, you certainly know how to spoil an Elf!"

Rocky's excited response sent another delightful tickle across Lotta's body and soul, and she was powerless to stop a wide smile from spreading over her features. "Please, have a seat in the living room while I take care of the rest," she said, hooking her arm inside Rocky's.

"Oh, I can carry some of-"

"No, I got it. Just sit down."

Grinning, Rocky let her eyes roam up and down her friend's petite frame. On a physical level, the scrawny Lotta hadn't filled out much since her arrival from the Academy, but she carried herself with far more confidence than she had done early on in their working relationship - it became her. "Rookie no more, huh? Well, if you insist."


Later on in the delightful evening, Rocky had kicked off her boots and was flaking out on a chaise lounge in Lotta's living room. The buns had been eaten, the hot chocolate was gone, and only one of the deluxe frogs with a caramel center remained. She sloshed the very last of her formerly hot chocolate around in her mug to dissolve the skin, but she soon drained it and put the mug on a tray on the table next to her.

She had a warm grin on her face as she watched Lotta perform the latest in a long line of songs from the re-issued edition of the traditional Great Elfin Songbook. The young, excitable Elf was going at full speed with her arms out here, her legs out there, and her long, flaming red hair flying around somewhere in the middle.

"The snow was cooooold but you were so warm to hooooold, as we drove in the sleeeeeigh along the waaaaay back home todaaaaay," the young Elf sang at the top of her lungs, holding the last note until she nearly ran out of air. When she was done, she curtseyed to respond to the rapturous applause that came from her audience of one.

"Oh Great Elf, thank you… thank you," she said as she shuffled back to the chaise lounge and got comfortable next to the older Elf with a chest that heaved from the exertion. Her eyes roamed from the empty tray across to the empty mugs, then over to Rocky's lips, and finally up to her date's sparkling blue orbs. "We're all out of buttered buns," she said with a little sigh.

"I know. I had the last one while you sang," Rocky said and snuggled up closer. "But they were great. You're a great cook."

Lotta smiled. While she did so, her eyes traveled down to take in the sight of Rocky's lips again. "Thank you. I used my mom's recipe," she said quietly, letting the pink tip of her tongue come out to wet her own lips.

"You're also a great singer."

"Oh, no… I'm just-"

"Sure you are. You're a natural."

"I suppose I did drive Mom nuts from all my singing when I was a junior Elf…"

"I bet you did," Rocky said with a grin. She realized that talking only spoiled the mood, so she kept quiet and studied the younger Elf's face instead. Her pert nose was cute, as were her earlobes. She had a sprinkling of faint freckles on the upper part of her cheeks, and she had what appeared to be an old scar immediately above her right eyebrow - the result of a ladder stunt gone wrong when she had been a stubborn ninety-year-old who had tried to convince her parents that an Elf-girl could work as a gift-dropper no matter what traditions said. The accident had given her ambitions a big dent, but she had recovered and had indeed joined the Academy as the first in her family.

Rocky and Lotta gazed into each other's eyes for a little while before they moved in just that little bit closer. They both sported goofy, nervous smiles, but it didn't stop them from moving a bit closer still. They ended up so close they couldn't get any further without touching.

Then Lotta's snow cone started ringing with a loud, clear ringtone: 'Oh! The bells will jingle, jingle, jingle, the bells will jingle, jingle, jingle so sweet. Ohhhhhhhhh! The bells will jingle, jingle, jingle, the bells will jingle, jingle, jingle so sweet!' came blasting out of the apparatus, sung by a choir of young lady-Elves.

"Cotton candy!" Rocky said and snickered into her hand. "That thing's gotta work on its timing… what in the world is that ringtone? Where did you get that?"

"Oh, that's the standard for that model… I can't figure out how to change it," Lotta said, staring at the snow cone in the hope that she could will it into keeping quiet. A second blasting of the jingles proved she couldn't, so she let out a long sigh and moved back from the Elf whose lips she had so nearly claimed.

Shuffling over to the sideboard where the snow cone was located, she picked up the colorful gadget and held it to her pointy ear. "Hello, this is Epilotta Elf speaking. Oh, you're calling from the Central Administration?"

That piece of news was enough for Rocky to swing her legs over the side of the chaise lounge and move into a sitting position. She watched Lotta's body language keenly as the younger Elf spoke into the cone.

"Yes, I do have another number for her, actually, but we don't need it 'cos she's right here with me," Lotta continued, turning back to wave Rocky over to her. Suddenly, Lotta froze in place as a different voice spoke in her ear. "S- S- S- Sa- Santa…?! Santa, oh, it's such an ho- ho- ho- honor, Sir!" she croaked, grabbing onto the sideboard to remain upright.

Rocky jumped up from the chaise lounge at once to give Lotta a helping hand. She was at her friend's side in a flash and took a firm grip around the slender waist. She could hear a male voice speaking through the snow cone, so she leaned in and placed her pointy ear on the outside of the apparatus.

'I need you and Miss Rockabye to come into the Central Administration in a hurry, Miss Epilotta. Something's happened, and I need my A-Team here on the double. It's a special assignment, and it needs to be carried out right away. Can you be here in an hour and a half?'

"Y- y- y- y- y- yes," Lotta croaked, but that was all her throat could produce.

Rocky noticed Lotta's predicament and took the snow cone from the younger Elf's unresponsive fingers. "Hello, Santa, Sir? This is Rockabye Elf. You need our help?"

'That's right, Miss Rockabye. We have a situation here, and it's urgent.'

"You can count on us, Sir. We'll be there in a flash."

'Excellent! Goodbye, Miss Rockabye.'

"Goodbye, Santa, Sir," Rocky said and put the snow cone back onto the base station. She needed a moment to get all her thoughts lined up in an orderly fashion, but when they were, she broke out in a disbelieving grin and bumped hips with her friend. "How about that… Santa needs us," she said, looking at the jittery Lotta.

The conversation had brought the young Elf up to the highest of highs, and it was clear she was on the brink of jumping around like a doe in April. Then her enthusiasm burst at the seams, and she started tearing around the living room with her arms flailing wildly in the air.

"WegotacallfromSanta! WegotacallfromSanta! WegotacallfromSanta! I don't belieeeeeeeve it, we got a call from Santa! Santa needs our help!" she hollered, hopping around on first one leg, then the other. "I need my boots… where are my boots… Rocky, did you see my boots? And my jacket… I need my jacket… where's my jacket? And my Elfin hat with the floppy cone and the golden bobble! Oh, Great Elf, where's my Elfin hat with the floppy cone and the golden bobble?! Rocky, do you know where I put it?! Ohhhh, we got a call from Santa!"

"Settle down, settle down, sweet Lotta, there's no need to hustle around like a pack of crazed mountain hares," Rocky said and grabbed hold of the jittery Elf's shoulders before she could do damage to herself or the scores of Yuletide bric-a-brac placed around the household. "Have a little faith in the Great Elf. We'll find all your stuff. And then we're-"

"Off to see Santa!" Lotta squealed and went off on another hopping, dancing frenzy.

Rocky snickered into her hand at the sight of her agile, young friend being so uninhibited. Lotta bounced around her living room like she was made of rubber, and the burst of energy didn't stop until she found her boots below the chaise lounge. "Lotta, please don't hurt yourself so close to the Night of Nights. Oh, I better call the Antler Cab Company so we can get back to my place. We'll take my sleigh," she said and once more reached for the snow cone.


A short forty-five minutes later, Rocky and Lotta were already flying into the approaching dusk on the custom-built sleigh. Rocky had borrowed a reindeer from one of her neighbors, and the big, strong Sammi-Sima had already proved her worth by being able to cruise along at their preferred altitude of twelve-hundred feet at a fair, and completely unstressed, clip.

Lotta's face was covered by the broadest of grins. Scooting over to her left on the fur-covered bench, she snuggled up next to Rocky and wrapped an arm around the driver's waist. She had found her boots, her best jacket for schmutting, and her special Santa's A-Team hat with the golden bobble. In short, everything was all right in her world.

The custom-built wooden sleigh was clean and polished as it invariably was. Held in crimson and forest-green, the sleigh carried colorful, elaborate Elfin carvings that swirled around the little sign that said Rocky's Parcel Delivery Service. The stainless steel runners had just been greased and polished, the flatbed behind the bench had been washed and dusted off thoroughly, and the storage room underneath the bench seat had been cleared out to prepare for all the assignments that would hopefully come Rocky's way during the Season to be Jolly.

Her trusty snow goggles were tied to the rail atop the buckboard in front of her, but it was a clear evening so she didn't need them. Sammi-Sima seemed to know the way, so Rocky loosened the reins and leaned into Lotta's touch. Now and then, she looked over and shot the younger Elf a little smile.


The gray building housing the Central Administration soon came into sight as an imposing, square, Elf-made mountain in the middle distance. Rocky brought Sammi-Sima down closer to the ground so they could enter the hangar which had been built as the top floor of the structure. As a result, it gave them a better view of the vast, icy world below them that stretched out to the horizon at all corners of the world.

"Oh, I haven't been back here since I graduated from the Academy," Lotta said, almost hanging over the edge of the sleigh to take in all the sights. "I spent a few months here as an intern. The whole thing gives me the willies."


"It's just not as charming as the toy factories."

"Can't argue with that," Rocky said and tugged a bit more on Sammi-Sima's reins so they wouldn't overshoot the approach. The beast of burden responded at once and slowed down to a comfortable trot.

Lotta tried to scout for polar bears - she had just read an article in the Elf Springs Gazette where it said that a town in Northern Greenland called Ittoqqortoormiit had been overrun by the large animals - but she didn't see any. Licking her lips, she scooted back to be near her friend. "Rocky, with Santa being here, do you think he's got his private sleigh parked around here somewhere?"

"Can't say."

"It's supposed to be real pretty. Red and white and gold."

"Yep. Wouldn't expect Santa to ride around in a grotty sleigh, would ya?" Rocky said with a grin that was responded to in kind. "Okay, we're coming in to land. Grab onto someth- Oh!"

Lotta snickered and loosened her grip around Rocky's waist just a little bit. "Too tight?"

"Well, I'm not complaining. I was just surprised 's all. I was about to say you should grab onto the rail on the buckboard."

"Ohhh… well, I'm not going to do that," Lotta said with a new grin that proved she wasn't quite the innocent soul she had been the previous year.

Rocky brought Sammi-Sima closer to the mouth of the hangar and let the experienced pack leader find her own way in. The reindeer delivered and reduced the speed sufficiently to make the custom-built sleigh touch down on the icy runway with nary a bump. Once her hooves were back on solid ground, Sammi-Sima went into a safe trot that let the speed drop off naturally. Towards the end of the runway, Rocky tugged at the reins to make the reindeer know she should veer left and go into the corral in the corner of the hangar.

Like in the freight central at Toy Factory Three near Snowyvale, Greenland where Rocky and Lotta had met for the first time, the hangar was an Elf-hive of activity with many different Elves working on keeping the reindeer happy. A few blacksmiths checked the harnesses for wear and tear, a handful of groomers kept the furs shiny and healthy, and a veterinarian checked the legs and the hooves of the animals that were waiting for their drivers to take them back out. Two junior Elves worked as feeders who put nosebags on the deer that needed one, and other juniors were pooper scoopers who ran around with canvas bags and wide shovels to collect what came out the other end.

Since the Central Administration hangar didn't work as a loading bay, there weren't any shunters or labor-Elves present, so Rocky stayed put in the driving seat and steered her sleigh over to a secluded corner closest to the main staircase so they could get downstairs in a hurry.

"Corn-on-a-cob…" Lotta mumbled as she looked around the vast hangar. Unlike the toy factories and her own home, there were no ornaments or tinsel anywhere. The floor, the walls and the pillars holding up the roof were simply bare, dull, lifeless, gray structures made of stone. "But there's no… where's all the… oh, this is… did they even notice the calendar says December tenth?" she said, staring around the non-descript dullness.

"Yep," Rocky said and jumped off the sleigh. "But keeping track of everyone's behavior and wishlists and whatnot is big business… really big business. I mean, imagine if the wrong kid got sent a lump of coal? C'mon, let's go downstairs so we can find out what Santa wants."

"Uh-huh," Lotta said and jumped off the sleigh.


Santa's offices were located four floors down from the hangar. Much to Lotta's heartfelt relief, the tall hallways - that were built for full-sized Humans - were crammed full of Yuletide decorations like ornaments, knick-knacks, tinsel, festoons, woven hearts, jumping jacks and other types of cardboard cutouts, sparkly stars, rows of flags, and scores of little figurines of everything from tweety birds and packs of mountain hares to an ice hole fisher-Elf and a lady-Elf who seemed to have mislaid most of her clothes.

"Oh…" Lotta said and came to a halt at the naughty figurine. She furrowed her brow in discontent, but before she had time to voice her opinion, Rocky had grabbed hold of her.

"They're really big in certain markets," the older Elf said as she steered her companion further down the richly decorated hallway. Walking on a soft, crimson carpet, they went past several offices and conference rooms until they reached the anteroom of the person they were there to see: Santa Claus.

The calligraphic sign on the wall was enough to make Lotta discombobulated, and she fiddled ceaselessly with her collar, her hat, her jacket, the button of her pants, her collar, her hat, and finally her hair. "Rocky… tell me… how do I look?" she mumbled, shoving a stray lock of flaming red hair up under the rim of her floppy A-Team hat.

"Like a little marzipan piggy. Pink, cute and tasty. Someone I could really sink my teeth into," Rocky said with a devious wink just as she knocked on - and opened - the door to the anteroom.

"Buh… whut?" Lotta croaked, but it was already too late to ask about the comment. Her acute state of mental disarray was only worsened when she clapped eyes on the rotund, larger-than-life figure standing at a desk in the anteroom. She let her eyes glide up the familiar black boots, the red pants, the white undershirt, the black suspenders and the huge, white beard and hair until she came to the conclusion that she was face to face with Santa himself.

Staring wide-eyed at the tall, bulky and generally imposing figure, she whipped off her floppy hat to show the proper respect, but suddenly remembered that it wasn't just any old Elf hat but the real deal, a Santa's A-Team hat. Blushing, she stuffed it back on top of her flaming red locks.

"Ah! Miss Rockabye and Miss Epilotta. You made good time. Excellent!" Santa said in a booming voice before he turned back to his Elf secretary and signed the last of the documents they had been working on. "Please, step into my office. We have important things to discuss. Miss Yuttan, hold my calls."

"Yes, Santa," the secretary said, pressing a button on the snow cone machine on her desk to block all incoming calls.

"Greetings, Santa, Sir," Lotta squeaked, stepping closer to the open door at the far end of the anteroom that would lead her into the hallowed halls of Yule.

Even the unflappable Rocky looked a little timid as they moved into the office that was as richly decorated with Yuletide ornaments of every kind as the hallway had been. A large desk stood in the center of the room, and a host of whiteboards on wheels bore countless business charts that showed the progress and forecasts for the coming Season to be Jolly. Unlike the hallways, the office floor was made of old, wooden planks that squeaked and groaned when the heavyset Santa walked across it.

At the far end of the office, a wardrobe had been wheeled in that carried all the different suits and costumes Santa was to wear on the Night of Nights so that all markets - and children - could uphold their local traditions on what Santa Claus, or Julemanden , or Jultomten , or the Yuleman, should wear. "Please, sit down," Santa said, pointing at two Elf-sized chairs that had been placed in front of the desk.

Rocky and Lotta hurried over to the chairs and sat down at once. They looked at each other with equal measures excitement and trepidation painted onto their Elfish faces.

Once Santa had sat down on his swivel-chair, he leaned forward and began to play an impatient drum solo on the desktop with his fingertips. The situation appeared serious, and it was soon revealed just how serious it was. "My dear friends, we have a problem. If not handled right, Yuletide could be in jeopardy this year."

"Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh-nooooooo," Lotta croaked. The young Elf flaked out like a torn sack of potatoes which nearly made her slip off her chair, but Rocky hopped over there at once and helped her get vertical.

"Yes, Miss Epilotta, that's exactly how I feel about the whole mess," Santa said darkly, leaning back on his swivel-chair. "And it's all my fault."

"Sir," Rocky said once she got back into her own chair. "May we inquire what the problem is?"

Santa took a deep breath and let it out slowly, making his impressive mustache flap about in the breeze. He scrunched up his face as if in doubt, but seemed to decide to let out the secret since the A-Team was there and ready to listen. "I've lost Mrs. Santa's favorite cookie recipe. Mrs. Santa's award-winning recipe for crunchy cookies, I might add."

Lotta gripped the armrests hard. "This isn't just bad," she croaked, "this is catastrophic… this is cataclysmic… this is… this is… awful!"

"Cotton candy!" Rocky mumbled, rubbing her face. "I see what you mean, Santa, Sir. That could indeed jeopardize Yuletide. Does Mrs. Santa-"

"No. She doesn't. And she's not going to find out, either, because your mission is to retrieve the recipe and bring it back here… tonight."

Rocky's dark eyebrows crept up her forehead at the thought of the immense task that lay ahead. "But Santa, Sir… if you've lost it, how are we supposed to-"

"I've narrowed it down to these three addresses, Miss Rockabye," Santa said and sent a sheet of paper whooshing across the desk top. "When I lost the recipe, I was writing letters of acknowledgement to three of my best human customers from last year. They each received a royal-blue cookie tin containing supreme quality crunchy cookies… yes, Mrs. Santa's cookies."

"Mmmm!" Rocky and Lotta said as one. "They're so yummy," Lotta added.

"Indeed they are," Santa said and shook his head slowly. "To create some buzz and excitement for the next Season to be Jolly, I gave each of my best customers a note where I revealed a few of the ingredients. While I was working on it, I had the recipe pinned to the inside of one of the lids because I didn't want Mrs. Santa to see that I had been in her cook books. I forgot all about it."

"Ugh," Rocky grunted, looking at the three addresses on the piece of paper. They weren't too far apart so it shouldn't take them too long to fly there, but it was a different question altogether if they would be able to retrieve the recipe from one of the cookie tins. "Human customers. Hmmm. We need to be stealthy. Stealthy and smart."

"Stealthy, smart and fast. And I stress fast," Santa said in a rumbling voice. "Mrs. Santa wanted to make more cookies today already, but I talked her out of it. That won't work twice."

"No Yuletide…" Lotta croaked, flopping around on the chair like one of the fake trout music boxes that played poor, electronic versions of the immortal Yuletide hits. "Oh, I love those crunchy cookies… but no Yuletide… Rocky… we need to do something!"

"That was my plan, Lotta. All right," Rocky said and got up from her chair. Folding up the piece of paper with the addresses, she stuck it down her belt before she put out her arm at the much larger Santa. "Sir, have no fear. The A-Team will bring back Mrs. Santa's award-winning cookie recipe tonight. Or at least before dawn. Possibly. Anyway, we'll do our best."

Santa nodded and rose from his swivel-chair to signal the end of the audience. "I know you will, Miss Rockabye," he said and clasped arms with the far smaller Elf. "Miss Epilotta. Merry Yuletide and may the Great Elf watch over you. Oh, and don't forget, the fate of all things Yule will depend on the outcome of your mission."

"Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" Lotta howled, flopping back into the chair she had just risen from. Once more, Rocky helped her into an upright position, and eventually out of the door.




Calling Rocky impatient was an understatement. On their way up to the hangar, Lotta had insisted she needed to make a quick stop at the cafeteria before they could go on their special mission, but that had been ages ago. Groaning out loud, Rocky rested her forehead against the wall of her custom-built sleigh and let her fingertips play along the fine structure of the carvings in the wood to have something to do with her hands while she waited and waited and waited.

"Coming! I'm coming! Real soon! Won't be long! On my way! Coming!" Lotta cried from further down the staircase. The easily excitable Elf soon appeared in the doorway to the hangar, but she carried so many paper bags she couldn't get the doors opened on her own. "Oh! Oh, that… Rocky? Rocky, would you mind? Please? I have a little problem here… Rocky?"

Rocky sighed out loud and threw her hands in the air. "Oh, that cute, little Elf is gonna tickle me silly one day," she mumbled as she jogged away from the sleigh and over to the doors. When she caught a glimpse of the many bags, her eyes narrowed down into slits as she held the doors open for her friend. "Cotton candy, Lotta… did you buy the whole cafeteria? What's all that?"

"Food! Refreshments for our journey, of course! Oh, we Elves can't go on for any length of time without eating healthy, nutritious food. Therefore," Lotta said and held up the first bag on their way over to the sleigh, "I bought two loaves of gingerbread, half a dozen well-buttered raisin buns, another half a dozen cinnamon buns… they're called kanelbullar here, isn't that a funny name?"

"Lotta, we're not going to be away for the rest of December. This is a single-night job!"

Lotta ignored that completely and shimmied around on the spot when she thought of the special treat she had seen. "Oh, and today's offer was so tempting that I nearly drooled on the floor. They refused to put it into an Elfie bag so I had to forget about it… but it sure was tempting. A good helping of rice pudding with plenty of cinnamon and a pool of hot, melted butter. Add to that, a mug of sweet white ale from their own brewery. How about that? Oh, wouldn't that have made your night? It would certainly have made mine. Uh-huh… anyhow, I bought two mugs sporting cute Yuletide illustrations and two thermos' with hot Yule-tea complete with cloves and almonds and raisins and more cinnamon instead… oh, and a small bag of marshmallows just in case we get peckish on the way," she continued, finishing off her monologue by holding up a bag.

"Peckish?! Small bag?!" Rocky squeaked, looking at the four-pound bag containing the off-white, squishy treats.

"Yeah! Oh, would you mind opening up the bench seat?" Lotta said and held up the many bags.

"One more bag like that and Sammi-Sima won't be able to get us off the ground," Rocky mumbled as she did what she was asked.


Night had fallen by the time they left the hangar at the Central Administration, and they had a clear view of the myriad of stars that lit up the black sky above them. Down below, the icy landscape seemed foreboding in the faint light cast down from the new moon, but Sammi-Sima was soon up to speed and quickly reached the preferred cruising altitude of twelve-hundred feet.

They were the only sleigh flying in that area, and the solitude made it seem like they were standing still in the air. When Lotta poked her hand out of the sleigh, the strong resistance from the wind proved they were going much faster than it appeared. Snickering, she pulled the hand back inside and playfully touched Rocky's thigh with her icy fingers.

"Sneaky," Rocky said and stuck out her tongue. "Okay, we're not too far away from the first stop. Can you make out the exact address in this light?"

"I'll give it a shot," Lotta said and took the folded-up piece of paper from Rocky's belt. Unfolding it, she held it so the moonbeams caressed the page, but it was still tough going to read Santa's handwriting. "Twenty-two Something Road."

" 'Something' Road…?"

Lotta moved the page this way and that, but the writing didn't become any clearer. "I can't read it. There's an S, and an A and… something that could be an E. That's what it looks like, anyway. Sugar-plum-mush, I think Santa wore his white gloves when he wrote it…"

"Mmmm… S-A-E-something. I have a feeling that's not right," Rocky said with a chuckle.

"No," Lotta said and tried to hold up the page in a different angle so she could see better. Getting an idea, she turned it over and discovered she had held it upside down the whole time. "Oh! Forty-four Webster Road! In East Horton!"

Rocky shook her head in confusion and tried to look at the page herself. "Whut? How did you get from twenty-two to forty-four…?"

"I had it the wrong way up!"

"But that doesn't make any sense… never mind," Rocky said and let out a warm chuckle. With Lotta, it was best to always expect the unexpected.

"Forty-four Webster Road, in East Horton," Lotta repeated, leaning over the side of the sleigh to see better. "We're not too far away from it. Look, the town is right down there."

Rocky continued to chuckle, but she slapped the reins and pulled them to the right to let Sammi-Sima know she should descend and prepare to make a low pass over the town so they could check out the sights.


"Hmmm, corn-on-a-cob. The house doesn't have any chimneys. No-schmut-can-do," Rocky said after their second pass over the two-storey villa they needed to search for the missing recipe.

"Cotton candy," Lotta mumbled, crinkling her nose. "But how do they get their presents if they don't have any chimneys?"

"Oh, probably through the front door."

"Mmmm… clever…"

Rocky looked over the sleigh's edge to scout out the terrain below - it only took her a few seconds to find what she was looking for. Tugging the reins, she brought Sammi-Sima and the sleigh around again and aimed for a dark line in the middle of the illuminated town. "I see an alley over yonder… let's put it down there and go exploring."

"Oh, Rocky, is that safe?" Lotta said and put a warm hand on the driver's leg. "It's only evening… someone might see us… or there may be dogs around-"

"Can you hear any mutts barking?"

"Uh…" Lotta said and put a hand behind her pointy ear. "Well, no, but-"

"Then it's safe."

The younger of the two Elves let out a deep, nervous sigh as she wrung her hands and prepared herself mentally to disembark the sleigh. The area could be crawling with hostile humans, canines and other terrors, but she knew she needed to go through it to be seen as a mature, strong Elf.


After the sleigh and the two Elves had made a smooth, trouble-free touchdown in a deserted alley a short distance away from Webster, Rocky let Sammi-Sima walk on a few paces to allow the animal to get a feel for the terrain they had landed on.

Though Lotta was shivering on the inside, she took full advantage of her agility by jumping off the sleigh in a graceful leap. Hunching over, she ran along a brick wall before she pressed herself against the bricks just shy of a corner of the filthy alley. To look cool while she staked out the house they were there for, she squinted hard as she looked left, then right, then left again. She told herself she was cool, she was calm, she was in complete control, and she was ready to show the world that her days as a clueless rookie were long gone. When she reached for the page that had the exact address, she discovered she had dropped it.

Groaning out loud, she shuffled away from the corner of the alley and moved back to the white piece of paper that had fluttered out of her belt without her noticing. It was lying in the middle of the filthy alley, but before she could reach it, Rocky came the other way and picked it up for her.

"Here you go, Lotta," the older Elf said calmly.

"Thank you. I dropped it," Lotta mumbled as her reply.

"I guess you did. Anyway, where are we going?"

Lotta held up the page and checked out the address. Once she had it, she looked up to find a street sign. "To the left… I think. It's the correct street."

"That's a start," Rocky said and glanced to her right. "Forty-four Webster Road, wasn't it?"

"Uh… yeah?"

"That's over there," Rocky said and pointed to her right. Hunching over, she took off across the deserted street without waiting for her friend.

Lotta kept standing at the mouth of the alley - not because she was afraid to cross the street, but because she took off her A-Team hat so she could slap her forehead. "Oh, that went well… she must think I'm such a doofus," she mumbled as she mashed the hat back down onto her flaming red locks. With a sigh, she set off after the experienced Elf.


Once Lotta had caught up with Rocky in the deep shadows of the back yard connected to the house they were there to explore, the first thing that happened was that her mouth was covered by Rocky's callused hand so she wouldn't speak up.

"We need to be quiet," Rocky whispered into Lotta's pointy ear. "There's someone down in the basement. They're playing with an electric train set. I recognize the whine."

A distant choo-choo'ing and a blue light flickering behind a frosted glass pane at the lower part of the house confirmed Rocky's words. "And the back door is open," she continued, pointing up a short flight of stairs. "It leads to the kitchen which is perfect for us. Come on… quietly. Remember, stealthy and smart."

Lotta nodded and followed Rocky up the flight of wooden steps at the back entrance. The older, heavier Rocky went up without any problems, but the fly-weight Lotta made the penultimate step squeak loudly.

A cat hissed nearby, no doubt thinking the squeaking had been produced by a rival on its turf. Somewhere in the far distance, a dog began to bark as a response to the hissing cat. Hearing all that, Lotta scrunched up her face and pulled the A-Team hat down to cover her eyes in shame.

Rocky chuckled at the sight and reached out to give her friend's shoulder a little pat. She moved in perfect silence as she climbed the final step and tip-toed around on a closed porch to take in as many details as she could. Like she had seen from down on the ground, the kitchen door was open, and she was able to slip inside without a hitch.


Once they had both entered the house and were tip-toeing across a pale-blue linoleum floor in the kitchen, Rocky pointed up at a collection of cookie tins that had been placed atop the tallest cabinet. Lotta nodded and began the long climb, thankful that Rocky seemed to be okay with the earlier mishap.

Using the knobs on the drawers as ledges for the tips of her boots, she schmutted up on the kitchen table itself in no time flat, then further up the elegant cabinets until she had reached the stack of cookie tins. There wasn't room for her to stand up, so she sat down next to the many tins. The family living there had three metallic-red, two forest-green and a single royal-blue cookie tin lined up in strict order, and to ease Lotta's task, the blue one was even on top.

She grinned triumphantly as she reached for the blue tin and threw it down to Rocky, but the grin faded from her face when it became clear it wasn't the one that had the recipe pinned to the inside of the lid.

Rocky shook her head and put down the blue one on the linoleum floor. Clapping silently, she signaled Lotta to throw the rest of the cookie tins down to her one by one in case Santa had been confused with regards to the color.


The search yielded nothing but a stale cookie that was so dusty and gray even Lotta passed it over. Shaking her head, she caught the cookie tins that Rocky threw back up to her in reverse order so they could be lined up properly color-coded.

When they were done, Lotta schmutted back down the cabinets to stand next to her friend. "No recipe… now what?" she whispered into Rocky's pointy ear.

"Now we try the next address. C'mon," Rocky whispered, tip-toeing over to the kitchen door. Straining her hearing, she noted that the owner of the house was still down in the basement playing with the train set. She looked back at Lotta and put a finger across her lips to signal that they should try to be at least a little quieter this time around.

Lotta nodded darkly before she and Rocky hurried back to the sleigh.


Sammi-Sima soon had the sleigh and the two Elves back in the air. The reindeer and the riders continued onto the second address on the page given to them by Santa, but Lotta was far too busy to have time to look at it. Ever since taking off, she had been talking and eating; talking about her favorite Yuletide cookies, pastries and treats, and eating from the stash she had bought at the Central Administration cafeteria.

Rocky looked on with envy as the younger Elf - who had just given her a lecture on the importance of keeping regular mealtimes - finally piped down to take a large bite out of one of the loaves of gingerbread. When she wasn't chewing, she slurped down Yule-tea from the thermos' detachable lid and seemed to have an Elfin good time doing it.

Chuckling, Rocky adjusted the reins to give Sammi-Sima a little more freedom to work on her own.

When Lotta was halfway through the gingerbread, she put it back into the paper bag and sealed it with a little knot. "Oh, but the best, the best Yuletide pastry I've ever tasted," she said as she put the bag down behind the buckboard for later, "was a specially prepared sponge cake with raisins, orange peel and glacé cherries that had been soaking in spiced rum. Oh, Rocky, I'm telling you… that was like being kissed by the Great Elf herself."

"I wouldn't know… I haven't had the pleasure," Rocky said with a grin.

Lotta grinned back and reached over to slap the driver's thigh. "Oh, you know what I mean. Would you like some Yule-tea? It's nice and warm and the almonds and raisins are real yummy."

"Not right now, thank you."

"Okie-dokie," Lotta said and drained the contents of the lid before she twisted the container onto the thermos. "Are we still on course?" she continued as she put the thermos down next to the paper bag with the gingerbread.

"Yeah. We're following that river down there… see it?" Rocky said and pointed beyond the edge of the sleigh. Since they were flying through an area mostly devoid of humans, they were far closer to the ground so the landscape with all its ghostly shadows seemed to zip by much faster.

"Oh… yes," Lotta said, peeking over the edge and seeing a silvery band snaking its way across the landscape. The rest of the world below them was dark, but there were pinpoints of light here and there indicating that someone was out camping or perhaps hunting in the wilderness. A faint whiff from a campfire seemed to confirm her suspicions.

"We need to track the river for a short while, then we'll intercept a freeway that we need to follow into the next town. You can already see it up ahead, actually. It's the fire dragon up there," Rocky said and pointed ahead.

Lotta gulped nervously but let out a screechy laugh of relief when she realized Rocky had meant the hundreds of headlights belonging to the cars driving on the freeway. A need for physical contact overwhelmed her, and she scooted closer to her busy friend and wrapped an arm around the strong waist. "Hope you don't mind," she said into Rocky's pointy ear.

"Mind? I don't mind. Why should I mind?" Rocky said and shot Lotta a warm grin. Snuggling down with her new companion, she was about to ask if she could get a bite of the much-envied gingerbread when Lotta turned the proverbial page and found a new subject to wax lyrically about.

"Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" the younger Elf sang at the top of her lungs, "Here we go a-wanderin'… a-wan, a-wan, a-wanderin' over the fields so green! You know, Rocky, I'm not sure why, but I much prefer the songs in the old version of the Great Elfin Songbook. Why is that, you think?"

"I have no id-"

"Some of the new songs are all right, I suppose, but they don't have the charm of the Elf Trekking Song, or An Elfin Good Time, or Twelve Days Of Yuletide, or even the Hustle and Bustle Song. Oh, Hustle and Bustle… that's such a fun one to sing on the Night of Nights."

"Yeah…" Rocky said as she shot Lotta a sideways glance. There was never a dull moment whenever Epilotta Elf was involved, that was a clear and undeniable fact. That she looked so Elfin cute and fine doing all her various stuff was an added bonus. Grinning, Rocky turned back to follow the silvery river through the dark landscape.

"Yeah! We always sang all nineteen verses when I was a little Elf! We sang it while we danced around the Yuletree and it was so much fun… oh no, now I'm gonna cry when I think back to the happy days of my childhood," Lotta said and piped down momentarily. She sniffled a few times, but the pause was brief and she was soon back at full speed and volume: "Ohhhh! The hustle and bustle of Yuletide Eeeeeve, the air is chilly and we need long sleeeeeves!"

"I'm hopin' you won't sing all nineteen verses now," Rocky mumbled, shuffling around on the fur-covered bench.

Lotta hadn't heard the mumbled comment, but even if she had, she wouldn't have paid any attention to it. "Of course, An Elfin Good Time is a good song too. Ohhhhhhh, we're Elves, Elves, Elves. We always have an Elfin good time! Elves, Elves, Elves. And we're simply so cute and fiiiiine! Are we there yet?"

"Any minute now," Rocky said, biting her tongue so she wouldn't laugh out loud.


"That one? That's the house that's next on Santa's list?" Lotta croaked in a monotone as she stared over the side of the sleigh at the two-storey house below them. Multi-colored lights shone in every single window, and loud, thumping, obnoxious music that only Human teenagers could love blasted out of the open doors. A large group of party-clad teens were wiggling to the rhythm on the front patio, and others had turned on the hot tub in the back yard and were frolicking in the bubbly water wearing silly hats and holding colorful drinks with umbrellas and little drinking straws.

"That's the one, Lotta," Rocky said and steered Sammi-Sima away from the unbearable loudness to find a spot to set down the sleigh.

"But… what in Santa's Suspenders are they doing?"

"I do believe it's called a party, actually."

"Oh, haw haw. I'm not that wet behind the ears. Anyhow, that's not a party," Lotta grumbled as she crossed her arms over her chest and assumed a surly expression. "At parties, you mingle with your Elfin friends and family and listen to wonderful Yuletide music and drink egg nog or Yule-tea or warm milk with honey. You eat buttered raisin buns and cookies and crullers and try new treats baked by some of your neighbors… and you play tag or pin the reindeer or capture the flag… you don't do whatever they're doing!"

"Diff'rent strokes for diff'rent folks, Lotta."

"We're not that different! We Elves throw parties to have fun and meet the family… but the Humans do it to play awful music and get loaded!"

The proverbial light bulb went on above Rocky's head at Lotta's words. Letting out a chuckle, she steered Sammi-Sima back to the house. "That's a really good point, Lotta. They're so loud… and loaded… they won't notice a thing. There's no smoke from the chimney, so how about we just parked it upstairs and schmutted downstairs? Zip in, get the tin, zip out get… uh… home. Okay, I never claimed to be a poet," Rocky said and stuck out her tongue at the younger Elf next to her.

"Oh, noooo…"

"Oh, yes," Rocky said and whoa'ed their reindeer. The experienced beast of burden came to a stop in mid-air immediately above the black hole at the center of the chimney. Braying, Sammi-Sima shook her back and let out a few snorts, but soon fell quiet.

"But you told me yourself we Elves should stay as far away from Humans as we could! And now you wanna walk right into a den of filth?"

"We're Santa's A-Team Elves now, Lotta. We need to be leaders. We need to bend the rules now and then, too."

The look on Lotta's face betrayed that she wasn't too sure about that aspect of their new status. The hats were neat and the title gave her something to talk about at family dinners, but she wasn't too keen on the dangers involved. To ease her mind, she began mumbling the fourteenth verse of the Hustle And Bustle Song, but the thumping music was so loud up there on the roof that the kicking bass drum made a mockery of her mumbling.

The lyrics of the obnoxious song playing downstairs were hard to understand, but they seemed to revolve around a young man buying a gold Cadillac to show off to his friends and cruise around to look for felines and feathered farm animals.

Lotta's Human still wasn't too good despite enrolling in several language classes over the summer, so she scrunched up her face and turned around to ask her far more experienced companion about the strange lyrics.

"You don't wanna know," was the only comment out of Rocky before she took the long step off the sleigh and schmutted onto the roof below them. "You coming or what?" she continued from downstairs.

"I don't really feel like it… but I suppose I must," Lotta said and exited the sleigh with far less enthusiasm on the whole.

In the meanwhile, Rocky had climbed up on the chimney and was sitting on the upper edge. Her short legs were swinging freely over the black chasm, and when she saw that Lotta was right behind her, she pushed herself off the edge and fell into the black hole. A thump from below a few seconds later proved that she had landed safely. "All clear!" she whispered back up the dark chute.

Lotta shrugged and followed her friend down the black hole with an echoing "Yo-ho-hooo!"

The shaft wasn't as tight as she had feared, but the walls were covered in soot and the smell wasn't the greatest she had ever experienced. Down, down and down she went until she performed a graceful landing on her feet inside a dormant fireplace. Her landing kicked up a little flurry of ash that someone hadn't bothered to clean up after the last time the fireplace had been in use, but that posed the least of her problems.

She and Rocky had landed in the living room, and the place was rockin' with loud, excited party-goers gyrating and jumping about to the thumping beat while wearing outrageous clothes - baggy and ill-fitting for the young men, and hardly there at all for the young women.

Several spotlights had been placed in the corners and other strategic spots, and they sent out a blurry, confusing wall of psychedelically-colored light that cycled between red, green, yellow and blue, and did so at such a high tempo that it appeared it was one, continuous color change.

Two couches had been moved to the outside of the dance floor, and they were both occupied by young people who were drinking, smooching, snuggling, drinking, kissing - and drinking. A table stood in the far corner of the room carrying snacks, cans of hard lemonade, cider and beer, and at least half a dozen bottles of strong liquor. A man, who was no doubt supposed to be the designated responsible adult, looked like he had sampled most of the bottles on the table, and he didn't even try to hide the fact that he was drinking directly from a red-labeled bottle containing a clear liquid.

Lotta watched the whole thing with eyes that continued to widen as she took in more of the horrors going on at the party. None of the teens at the party looked remotely like they wanted to play pin the reindeer, tag or capture the flag, or would even enjoy a helping of rice pudding with cinnamon and a pool of melted butter, that was a fact.

"Oh, Great Elf, hear me! This is your faithful follower Epilotta Elf. Please save me from this insanity!" she finally cried, clapping her hands over her sensitive, pointy ears when the music was turned up another notch. The new song that started playing sent a wave of cheers through the crowd, and it only took a few seconds before they all danced in a grossly provocative fashion which brought a whole new level of vulgarity and madness to the proceedings.

Chuckling, Rocky tugged at Lotta's best schmutting jacket instead. "The kitchen is over there… c'mon! Lotta! Kitchen! Over! There!"

"I can't hear a cotton-candy thing you're saying, Rocky! Where do you want me to go?" Lotta howled at the top of her lungs to be heard over the staccato breakbeats.

"Over there… there," Rocky said, once again pointing at the kitchen.

"I can't hear you! Where?"

"There! There, for the Great Elf's sake!"

"But we can't just-!"

"Oh yes, we can," Rocky said and pulled a howling Lotta out into the crowd. Employing their best schmutting skills, they evaded all the jerking legs and feet by going left, right, right, left, right, left, left, right, left, left, right, and finally another right.

Amid the chaos and mayhem on the dance floor, someone dropped a full can of a golden liquid that got sprayed everywhere. Rocky and Lotta missed the worst of the waterfall, but plenty of the sticky stuff splashed over Lotta's face and her best schmutting jacket. "Ewwww! Oh, corn-on-a-cob, this is horrible! Horrible! Hor-ri-bell!" she cried, wiping the froth off her forehead. It smelled vaguely like ale, so she tested it on the tip of her tongue. The foul, bitter taste almost made her mouth turn inside out, and she had to wipe her tongue on her sleeve several times to get rid of it.

When they finally reached the swinging door to the kitchen, Lotta was in such a hurry that she overtook Rocky on the last stretch and blasted through the door. The kitchen was free of party-goers, so she leaned over and let out a long, heartfelt "Blergh-blergh-blergh-blergh-bl… ergh!" to rid her tongue of the last of the foul taste.

" 'Ya okay, Lotta?" Rocky said as she closed the swinging door behind her. It was easy to see that the younger Elf wasn't, so she ran over to her and wrapped an arm around her petite shoulders.

"Nuh-uh… oh, Rocky, I don't think I'm cut out to be an A-Team Elf… or even a gift-dropper. I don't wanna play this stupid game anymore… I just wanna go home and snuggle up in bed forever and a day…"

"Oh, c'mon, it was just a beer shower."

"Is that what it was? Remind me never to buy an ale down here."

"Will do," Rocky said with a grin. Looking around, she scouted out the kitchen to see where the family could be storing their cookie tins. There weren't any natural spots to keep tins at the top of the cabinets, but there were large doors below the kitchen table that could easily swallow a tin of Mrs. Santa's award-winning crunchy cookies. Feeling lucky, Rocky strolled over to the doors and opened the first one.

It took her until the third door until she found the royal-blue tin, but before she had time to snatch it and check the lid for the recipe, a resounding, revolting belch heralded the arrival of one of the party-goers. "Lotta! Schmut! Schmut-schmutter-schmuttest!" she cried before she threw the tin back onto the shelf where she had found it. At the last moment, she jumped in after it and shut the door behind her.

Lotta gasped loudly, realizing she had been caught in the worst possible spot. She tried to make like a garden gnome who had been brought into the kitchen on a dare, but it wasn't easy for her since she was still standing smack-bang in the middle of the floor. Assuming a neutral expression, she stared straight ahead without moving a muscle.

The drunken party-goer - who had one of the dreaded cans of beer in his hand - didn't see Lotta at first, but when he spotted her, he came to a dead stop and tried to focus on the gnome in the blue outfit and the red hat. "Whoa, dude… that's so friggin' cool!" he slurred, trying to reach for the little person with his free hand. His first attempt went wide one way; the next went wide the other way.

The third attempt went straight down the center, but Lotta shuffled to the side at the last moment so she wouldn't be groped by the drunken teen. As his hand whooshed past her once more, she pulled her lips back in a horrified grimace. "Rockabye… where are you? Oh, Great Elf, this is just as bad as I had feared… Rocky?!"

The aforementioned sleigh driver stuck her head out of the kitchen cabinet and quickly understood that Lotta was in distress. "Oh, Lotta, I told you to schmut," she mumbled, looking around for something she could use against the overgrown, drunken threat. The best item was the royal-blue tin they were there for.

Growling, she stuffed it under her arm and stepped out onto the kitchen floor to deal with the threat to her dear friend. With a fierce, warbling war cry, she hustled over to Lotta and grabbed hold of the younger Elf's arm. "Polka!" she cried, a command she knew Lotta would understand at once.

Together, they performed a perfect Woods-Elf Clog Polka - four revolutions one way, four revolutions the other way, hop-hop-hop and a hand clap, and then start over - which took the drunken reveler by complete surprise.

Shrieking, the teen flew back against the kitchen table with a horrified expression on his face. When the Elfin polka continued unabated, he spun around and threw the rest of his beer into the sink before he stormed out of the kitchen to warn the others about the spiked brew.

"Ohhhh, I adore the good, old Woods-Elf Clog Polka! Now that's what I call a party!" Lotta cried, slapping Rocky an echoing high-five. "You got the cookie tin?"

"Yep!" Rocky said and held up the royal-blue tin.

"We got the schmut!"

The two Elves hurried over to the kitchen door, opened it and ran out into the back yard as fast as their short legs would go. They gave the hot tub a wide berth, but the handful of young men and women enjoying the bubbles were far too busy with each other to notice the two, small figures who schmutted up a drainpipe and onto the roof.

Safely up in the sleigh, Rocky jumped onto the flatbed behind the bench seat and tore the lid off the tin. Then her face fell.

Lotta, who was kneeling on the bench with her unbridled excitement almost spilling over, cocked her head and looked at the older Elf with a puzzled expression on her face.

"Sugar-plum-mush, it's not the right one, Lotta. It's empty," Rocky said in a monotone.

The younger of the two Elves blinked a couple of times before she reached up and stuck her fingers in her pointy ears to give them a thorough drilling. "Oh, I think I still have the yucky beer in my ears… I could have sworn you said it was empty…"

"I did say it was empty. 'Cos that's what it is. Empty."

"But… but… but…" Lotta said, shaking her head in disbelief. "After all that hullabaloo, we only got an empty cookie tin?"

Without speaking, Rocky scrunched up her face and showed Lotta the empty underside of the lid where Mrs. Santa's cookie recipe was supposed to be.

Lotta sighed and stepped off the bench. "Oh, what a tickle-monster. Great Elf, this is one of those nights," she mumbled before she opened the fur-covered bench so she could get some comfort food. This was a two-bun deal, perhaps even a three-bun deal, and it would require plenty of butter too.




Cruising along at twelve-hundred feet on their way to the next, and final, address on the page Santa had given them, Lotta let her jaws do the talking. To digest the burning disappointment she had experienced at the last stop, she turned to the buns like she had said she would, but it only became a two-bun deal after all when she remembered the bag of marshmallows.

According to her, the squishy treats were yummy, so she went to work digging into the four-pound bag she had bought at the Central Administration's cafeteria with great gusto. The sugar rush spread its magic and improved her mood by leaps and bounds. It didn't take long before she was snuggling up next to Rocky with a merry song on her lips.

"Ohhhhh, a little Elf traveled far! Up hill and down vale and oh-so far! O-le, o-le, o-lar! Ohhhhh, the little Elf met a-" To cap off her singing, Lotta took a final, large bite out of a squishy marshmallow. No Elf would ever speak through a mouthful of food, so she waited until she had chewed thoroughly and gulped it all down before she would continue with her singing.

"Hey," Rocky said, interrupting the song-Elf, "don't you think you should give the marshies a rest? Remember what happened to my good friend Benny Elf. At the height of his problems, he couldn't even get out of bed in the morning until he'd had a Sugabomb. I like you too much to see you head down the same slippery slope, Lotta."

Lotta gulped down a nervous lump that had formed in her throat. Suddenly the squishy treats didn't seem as attractive, and she closed the bag in a hurry and put it away. "You're right. Thank you."

"You're welcome."

They flew on in silence for a little while before Lotta reached over to put a warm hand on the driver's thigh. "Rocky, what do we do if we can't find Mrs. Santa's recipe?"

"I honestly don't know. Santa said the fate of all things Yule depended on us…"

Lotta shivered and snuggled up even closer. "Oh, corn-on-a-cob, I wish you hadn't reminded me of that," she mumbled. "Perhaps we need to change our names and move up to the Norse Elves. I have distant relatives up there, actually. They never visit 'cos it's so far. It's a full day's journey down here… and back, of course."

"I guess that's why they're called distant relatives," Rocky said with a grin.

Lotta had already opened her mouth to reply before the Krone dropped and the joke registered with her. "Oh, haw, haw," she said and swatted playfully at the sleigh driver's tummy. They cruised along for another few minutes before Lotta smacked her lips once more. "I could eat another raisin bun. Would you like a raisin bun, Rocky?"

"More food?"

"I'm peckish."

"After ransacking the poor marshmallows?"

"Oh, but they're so light and squishy… no real substance. A raisin bun is healthy, nutritious food. Well-buttered, of course. Proper food for Elves."

"Huh. I'll say. I don't want a bun, but I sure could eat some of that yummy, great-smelling gingerbread you had earlier…?"

"Oh! Oh, sure…" Lotta said and reached down below the buckboard for the paper bag she had set aside earlier. Much to her acute, burning embarrassment, she had already had it all without asking her friend if she wanted some of her favorite Yuletide snack. "Oh… I'm… I'm… I'm…" she said, holding up the empty paper bag.

Looking at the empty bag, Rocky scrunched up her face in disappointment. "You ate it all without asking me?"

"Yes… I'm sorry. I didn't stop to think. I just gobbled it up," Lotta mumbled with a pair of blossoming, red blotches covering her cheeks. "I'm a bad Elf. I should be punished…"

Rocky smiled at the bashful expression on her young friend's face. She couldn't stay miffed for long and reached out to rub Lotta's thigh. "No, come on… we're Elves, we always remain friends no matter what. But next time-"

"I'll ask before I eat. I know. I won't forget for as long as I live," Lotta said and nodded hard. "Instead of a raisin bun, I think I'll have one with cinnamon now. Can you control Sammi-Sima standing up while I dive into the storage room?"

"Sure," Rocky said and got to her feet. The headwind tore at her black hair and her red Santa's A-Team hat, but she managed to keep everything where it should be. While she was standing up controlling the reins, she noticed a large flock of geese flying the opposite way some distance ahead of, and slightly above, the sleigh. In the air, larger groups always had the right of way, so she adjusted the reins accordingly to let Sammi-Sima know she should fly below the formation of feathered animals.

After sealing the bag of marshmallows and putting it into the storage space for later, Lotta rummaged through the various items below the bench seat until she found the paper bag with the halved cinnamon buns. A familiar scent greeted her sensitive Elfin nostrils, and she moved several bags of food aside to find the source of the odor. "Ooooh, honey-bunny! Gingerbread!" she cried when she discovered a second loaf of the tasty treat. "Oh, thank you, Great Elf! I forgot all about buying two loaves of gingerbread!"

Popping her head back out of the storage room, she held up the paper bag with Rocky's favorite snack. "Look! Look, I found some gingerbread for you!"

"Great," Rocky said, staring straight ahead. She seemed preoccupied, and it was soon revealed why. "Close the lid so I can sit down. We have a flock of unruly featherheads out yonder."

"Unruly featherheads?" Lotta echoed, closing the lid in a hurry. She clutched the bag with the gingerbread as well as the two halves of her own cinnamon bun as she sat down. Looking ahead, she spotted at once what Rocky meant. The formation of geese was loose and unstructured, and they flew all over the place like they were so busy cackling to each other they didn't have time to uphold the traffic code. None of them, including the leading bird, paid any attention to where they were in the sky, or even where they were going.

The geese were closing in fast, and Lotta was just about to take a bite out of the sugar-coated half of her cinnamon bun when Rocky roared: "Hang onto your hat!" into her pointy ear.

The experienced sleigh driver tugged hard at Sammi-Sima's reins to make the animal understand she should go into an emergency dive which would be the only way to evade the flock of birds. Braying hard, Sammi-Sima responded at once and went into a steep dive.

For a moment or two, the sky was a potential disaster zone filled with cackling geese, loose feathers, braying reindeer and howling Elves - and even worse: when gravity took over, Lotta's tush left the fur-covered seat.

She squealed like an air-raid siren as she let go of the cinnamon bun and grabbed onto the rail atop the buckboard. While her left hand was busy doing that, her right was clamped down onto her priceless Santa's A-Team hat with the golden bobble. The cinnamon bun just sort of hovered in mid-air - right in front of Lotta's mouth like it wanted to mock her - for several seconds before it gained a mind of its own and sailed over the edge of the sleigh.

Lotta howled in frustration when she tracked the bun with her eyes, but it was too late to save it. When Sammi-Sima finally leveled out far below the geese, the treat was long gone. Spinning around, Lotta hopped up to kneel on the fur-covered bench in the hope she could catch the errant cinnamon bun, but when she tried to reach for it, her arms were three hundred feet or so too short. "Oh… what a load of sugar-plum-mush," she growled when she turned around and sat down. Huffing, she slammed her arms across her chest.

"Those cotton-candy geese," Rocky said and rolled her shoulders to get her muscles to relax. "Are you all right, Lotta?"

"I lost my bun."

"I'll take that as a yes," Rocky said with a grin. When it became clear Lotta was severely miffed, she leaned in and bumped shoulders with her younger friend.

The nudge helped, and a weak smile spread over Lotta's features. "And we probably lost your gingerbread as well…" she added somberly.

"Nope! I put my foot down when the feathers started flying. Literally," Rocky said, pointing down at the floor of the sleigh where her boot had been firmly planted on the loose edge of the paper bag without squashing the gingerbread itself.

"Oh… that's something at least. I wish I could say the same about my bun…" Lotta sighed and peeked over her shoulder at the large flock of geese that moved away from them with lazy, unhurried strokes. The birds flew on in their unruly formation like they hadn't noticed a thing. "I miss my bun already… my sweet, wonderful cinnamon bun… bye-bye, bun, I hardly knew ya," she mumbled with a world-class pout forming on her lips.


A fair while later, Rocky tugged on Sammi-Sima's reins to let the animal know she should descend and prepare to land. The third and final stop loomed below them: a single-storey bungalow in a quiet residential suburb not far from the largest city in the region.

Pulled back from the sidewalk, the house had a large front lawn which could in theory serve as a possible landing site for an Elfin sleigh, but there were too many bushes for it to be workable. The avenue the house was located at was lined with tall poplars - and parked cars - so that was out of the question too.

"Hmmm," Rocky said, glancing over the edge of the sleigh as Sammi-Sima brought it around for one more pass. The whooshing noises created by the hooves and the runners prompted an old lady out walking her dog to cast a puzzled look up at the sky. "Corn-on-a-cob, we were almost spotted there," Rocky continued, moving away from the sidewalk in a hurry.

Once the sleigh had flown to a safer area, she tugged on Sammi-Sima's reins which made the experienced animal come to a halt above a flat-topped, low building adjacent to the bungalow.

"Now what?" Lotta said in a downcast voice.

"I think that's a garage down there," Rocky said, peeking over the edge. "Yeah, it is. Everything's dark and quiet… I have a feeling nobody's home. Okay, I'll come along for this one too, but I reckon we need to split up. If we go separately, we can cover more ground. This is the last stop, so… the recipe ought to be around here somewhere."

Lotta's lips curled up like she had taken a large bite out of a sour lemon. "Great Elf, I sure hope it is," she mumbled, taking off her hat to scratch her red hair.

"Do you want to explore the house or the garage?"

"The hou- no, the gara- no, the house. Yes, I'll take the house. I'm a big Elf now. I can handle the house."

"But of course you can. I never doubted you for a second," Rocky said and gave Lotta's leg a little squeeze.

Taking a deep breath to get her nerves under control, Lotta smiled at her friend before she mashed her A-Team hat down onto her flaming red locks and took the big leap off the side of the sleigh. After landing safely on top of the garage, she hurried over to the nearest corner and found a drainpipe that she used to schmut down to the ground.

Once there, she looked around the small, dark yard but didn't find any natural entry into the house. She peeked around the corner of the building and saw a back garden that hadn't been kept for a long time. A concrete stairwell led down to a cellar door that looked promising.

She zipped down the staircase but found the cellar door locked. The door had four, tiny window panes, but they were too filthy to see through - and besides, she couldn't reach them even standing on tip-toes.

Grunting, Lotta returned to the back garden and began to search the walls of the house for a drainpipe she could use. The bungalow had several, but they were all in poor shape. She had no time to waste, so she chose the nearest one and sent a quick prayer to the Great Elf to protect her on the next schmutting.


The schmutting went well and she soon found herself on the bungalow's heavily slanted roof. Turning around, she wanted to wave at Rocky, but the driver had already left the sleigh to go off on her own exploration. There were two chimneys on the roof: a larger one that had a bird-shield on top that prevented Lotta from using it, and a smaller, open-topped one closer to the side of the house they had landed at.

She scaled the slanting roof with little fuss until she reached the smaller of the two chimneys. Looking into it, she couldn't see anything down the black chasm, but she was a brave Elf so she jumped right in with a merry "Yo-ho-hooo!" on her lips.

She landed gracefully in an old-fashioned open fireplace in a rustic kitchen designed in a rural style so popular with some of the better-off humans. So far, so good - but it seemed she had used up all her luck on that drop. Her lips drew back in a worried grimace when she dragged her boot across the kitchen floor and noticed that it made a clear, visible line in a thick layer of dust.

The house was dark, quiet and empty. The kitchen units and cabinets had been dismantled long ago which had left behind yawning gaps that reminded Lotta of an Elf she once knew who had lost all his teeth but one. "Oh… corn-on-a-cob… now what are we gonna do?" she mumbled as she shuffled into the center of the empty kitchen.

Just to make sure she didn't miss any hidden compartments, she traversed the inside of several of the empty cabinets, but her search ended fruitless. Shuffling back to the center of the kitchen floor, she pulled down her A-Team hat to cover her eyes in frustration.

A bump, a scrape and a muffled "Ouch!" from the garage opposite the narrow yard made her push the hat back up and hurry over to the nearest window. She schmutted up onto the kitchen table so she could get a view of the outside, but the window was far too filthy to see through. Grunting, she used her sleeve to clean the pane, and eventually pressed her pert nose against the cold glass.

The side-door to the garage was open. A cone of light from a single bulb reached out of the door and shone onto the gray pavement, and an Elfin-shaped shadow flickered across the back wall and what appeared to be a great deal of cardboard boxes. When another bump and a muffled "Ouch… sugar plum mush!" was heard from inside the garage, Lotta squeaked and hurried back to the open fireplace to schmut upstairs so she could provide assistance in case Rocky needed it.


A brief minute later, Lotta ran through the open side-door and into the garage. She immediately looked around for her friend and found her sitting on a work bench at the far wall. The older sleigh driver had a miffed look on her face, so Lotta hurried over there to see what had gone wrong. "Oh, Rocky… are you all right? Did you get a boo-boo?" she said and reached for her friend's hands to check for bruises or other injuries.

"I'm just fine. Frustrated, but fine. Any luck in the kitchen?"

"No, it's empty. I think the house is under renovation or something… there's nothing in there at all," Lotta said and threw her arms out wide in the age-old sign of resignation.

"Cotton candy," Rocky grumbled, pointing her thumb at the many cardboard boxes surrounding the two Elves. "Take a look at all those boxes, Lotta."

"Uh… yeah?" Lotta said, turning around to take in the sights. The garage didn't contain a car, but the hundreds and hundreds of square, brown cardboard boxes took up so much space - from the floor to the ceiling, in fact - that it would be possible for an Elf to disappear in there for a whole week. "I see them… is there anything in particular I need to look at? They're all pretty much identical."

Rocky chuckled darkly and took one of the boxes that she had already opened. "Well, it just so happens that whoever lived here before was an avid collector."

"Oh… I see?"

"Of cookie tins," Rocky said, pulling up a fluorescent-yellow cookie tin.

Lotta's eyes popped wide open and she spun around to face the ominous mountain of boxes. "Oh! Sugar! Plum! Mush! Oh, Great Elf, what are we gonna do? What in Santa's Suspenders are we gonna dooooooooooooooooooo?!" she howled at the top of her lungs while her arms flailed wildly in the air.


It turned out to be one of those good-news, bad-news situations. The good news was that, after rummaging through every drawer in the garage that would open, Rocky found a binder containing a thorough, alphabetized index of all the cookie tins. Another piece of good news was that the avid collector did indeed list the cookie tin Santa had sent his A-Team to find - but the bad news was that the cardboard boxes had been stacked up in numerical, not alphabetical order. In other words, Rocky and Lotta needed to go through all of them to find the right one.

While Rocky remained at the desk to keep a sharp eye on the index, Lotta crawled around inside a hazardous, confusing maze of brown cardboard boxes that all looked the same save for a small, white sticker on each one that explained the contents of that particular box.

"What was the-" - cough, cough - "-number again, Rocky?" Lotta said in a voice muffled by the dust in the air and the sound-dampening cardboard around her.

"Number zero-zero-one-eight-eight-six!"

"Thank you!"

Lotta glanced around the narrow cave she found herself in. The boxes closest to her all had numbers in the zero-zero-one-eight bracket, but she couldn't find a box labeled eight-six. "Cotton candy, I'm gonna be old and-" - cough, cough - "-wrinkly before we find the right box. But by then it won't matter 'cos Mrs. Santa-" - cough, cough - "-will have become so angry with Mr. Santa that she'll call off the whole Yule-thing altogether!" - cough, cough - "Oh, Great Elf!"

"Are you talking to me, Lotta? 'Cos if you are, I can't hear a thing you're saying," Rocky said from over at the desk.

"No… I was talking to my own good Elf. Lamenting the loss-" - cough, cough - "-of the glorious Yuletide," Lotta said and wiped a few dust bunnies off her brow. The box labeled eight-six just wasn't there, no matter how hard she looked. "Oh, if I don't find that recipe, I'll be remembered-" - cough, cough - "-as the Elf who annihilated Yuletide! Epilotta Elf, the slayer of all things Yule. My family will disown me!"

Coughing once more, she shook her head at the horrific consequences ahead for them all if she couldn't live up to her status as a member of Santa's A-Team. "No more sweet ale or rice pudding-" - cough, cough - "-with cinnamon and pools of melted butter… no more warm milk and honey or hot chocolate or gingerbread…" - cough, cough - "No ornaments or tinsel… no more caroling in the snow… no more ice skating at midnight… no more egg nog with my friends! No more Yuletide pudding or spongecake-" - cough, cough, COUGH - "-with raisins and orange peel and glacé cherries… no more gifts or presents or little surprises… all the Human kids and the Elfin juniors will cry themselves to sleep each night-" - cough, cough - "-from now 'til eternity and it'll all! Be! My! Fault!" - HA-CHOOOOOO!

" Prosit ," Rocky said from somewhere beyond the boxes.

"Thank you… ugh."

Turning around, Lotta sat down with a bump and stared at the boxes surrounding her. She was tired, she was covered with dust, she was thirsty and she had the jones for a well-buttered raisin bun, but she needed to carry out just one more check of the piles of boxes before she could get back to her stash of food and drink up in the sleigh.

One box in particular caught her eye. It was atop the highest pile, and it teetered precariously on the edge like it wanted to send her a message. She cocked her head and gave the box a closer inspection. Though it was far away, she could just about make out the label which read zero-zero-one-eight-eight-six.

"Oh!" she cried, jumping to her feet. "Zero-zero-one-eight-eight-six! Zero-zero-one-" - cough, cough - "-eight-eight-six… I got it! Rocky, I got it! It's at the top of one of the piles… I'll schmut up there at once and-" - cough, cough - "-bring it down!"

"Great! Be careful, Lotta…" Rocky said from her spot outside the maze of cardboard, but the young, excitable Elf had already thrown caution to the wind and was schmutting her way up the side of the boxes.

Balancing at the top of the pile with the A-Team hat's golden bobble touching the ceiling of the garage, Lotta reached for the errant box with a jittering hand. "Zero-zero-one-eight-eight-six! It's the right one! Oh, I got it, I got it, I got it…"


"I got it… oh, it's heavy… it must be-" - cough, cough - "-the right one… ungh! Ungh! C'mon… ungh!" she croaked, pulling the box closer to her.


"Lotta! I don't like the sound of that… take care… please!" Rocky hollered from down on the floor.

"Yeah, yeah. I got it… let me open the lid to make sure…" Lotta said, holding onto the pile with one hand while she ran her fingers across the dusty cardboard to find the center so she could open it. The job required her full concentration, so she stuck her pink tongue between her lips and gave it a little squeeze.


"It's royal-blue, all right," Lotta said, just peeking over the edge of the box. She wasn't able to see much in the gloomy light from the single, dim bulb, but it certainly appeared to be the right cookie tin. "Rocky! It's the-" - cough, cough - "-right one! I think…"

Down below, Rocky ran into the opening of the cave and tried to push against the walls of the cardboard boxes that were all buckling and crunching under the eager Elf's weight. "Lotta, get down from there… in a cotton-candy hurry!" she cried up to her friend.

"Whut? Uh… okay. Santa's Suspenders, Rocky, you don't need to shout… I have fantastic hearing," Lotta mumbled as she closed the flaps and grabbed hold of the box. Her right boot slipped off the edge of the cardboard box she was standing on, but she quickly moved down to the next one. Too quickly, as it turned out.

With a creaking, crunching groan, the tallest of the piles in the garage finally gave up the ghost and began to tilt. Once it got past the point of no return, it collapsed and brought every single cardboard box - and Epilotta Elf - down with it. The natural disaster created a chain reaction that upset the delicate balance of every other pile in the garage, and as a result, everything came crashing down.

As the hundreds of empty cookie tins hit the ground and each other, they played a loud, violent, disharmonic symphony that went on and on as pile after pile of boxes collapsed and joined the chorus. In the middle of all that mayhem, a pair of fair, Elfish voices squealed out loud at the wild fairground ride they were going through.


Lights came on in all the bungalows up and down the quiet avenue; babies cried, dogs barked and angry words were shouted out of open bedroom windows. Several people called the police, and one elderly lady who had just come home from walking her dog even called the National Enquirer's news desk to report she had seen Elves flying around in a sleigh pulled by a reindeer.


Inside the garage, the piles had all finished collapsing, but the dust was slow in settling. Lotta's flaming red locks popped up from a pile of twisted cardboard and empty cookie tins. Her A-Team hat was on backwards, but as she sat up, she shook her head to get the garment back into the proper position. Then she exploded in a fit of howling laughter.

"More! More! More! I wanna go again!" she cried, hopping up and down on her behind. She squealed out loud at the fun ride she had experienced, but her laughter died down and turned to strangled quacks when she realized the royal-blue cookie tin she had found had long since parted company with the cardboard box she was still clutching to her chest.

At the same time, Rocky climbed backwards out of a pile of cookie tins that were shoved aside with plenty of jingling and jangling. "Well, now I have a story to tell the grandkids…" she mumbled, sitting back on her short thighs. "Lotta, you okay?"

"I was… now I'm not so sure," Lotta said, looking wide-eyed at the empty box and the endless piles of cookie tins that had assembled around the spot where she sat. The Great Elf finally reached out to give them a helping hand when a royal-blue tin that rolled in from Lotta's right came to a halt at her booted feet. "Now I'm okay," she said with a grin.

Snatching the cookie tin, she tore off the lid and showed it to Rocky. "The A-Team delivers! Epilotta Elf brings the cookies! We've saved all things Yule! Oh, Santa will be so pleased with us…"

"It's empty, Lotta," Rocky said, staring at the inside of the lid.

Lotta blinked a few times before she let out a rattling gurgle and fell backwards onto a pile of cardboard boxes that fortunately cushioned her fall.


The passed-out Epilotta didn't come fully back to sample all the delights of the Elfin world before the chilly headwind blasted through her flaming red hair on their way back to the Central Administration up north. At twelve-hundred feet, nobody could hear her sniffle - apart from Rocky who promptly reached over to pull her close.

Above them, the pre-dawn sky was dark to the point of being nearly black, but it wasn't as dark as Lotta's heart. She sniffled again and leaned into Rocky's strong shoulder. "We failed our task. I let everyone down…"

"Oh, phooey! You didn't let anyone down, Lotta. Santa just didn't give us all the addresses. Or maybe he just plum forgot who he sent those cookies to. It's not your fault. Or mine for that matter."

"Still… now there won't be any Yuletide. Ever again. I've killed the Yule. It's my responsibility that hundreds if not thousands of Elves will lose their jobs at the toy factories. Not to mention everyone else affected by this. Oh, what'll Rudolph do now? Work as a traffic signal? And Donner and Blitzen and Prancer and Vixen and… and… and… I can't remember the names of Santa's other reindeer. I'm a bad, little Elf. Oh, they'll cast me out of the Elf fellowship. I just know it. I'll become one of those sad, forlorn Elves who'll forever wander the grim Earth searching for the Elfin warmth and comfort she had to leave behind-"

"Lotta, where in Santa's Suspenders do you get all that stuff? C'mon, it's not going to be that bad. Have a little faith in the Great Elf."

"I can't…" - sniffle.

"Oh, Lotta…" Rocky said and leaned in to offer her downcast companion a consolatory kiss on the temple. "Have some Yule-tea. It's spiced with cloves and cinnamon, you know. And almonds and raisins and sugar. Once you've had it all, you can chew on the yummy raisins that get that great, rich taste of tea…"

Lotta shook her head with despondency written all over her fair, ruddy face. "Nuh. Don't feel like it."

"How about a marshmallow, then?"


Rocky's eyebrows went on a little tour of her forehead. Lotta was a sensitive Elf, she had learned that quickly, but she couldn't remember her ever being this downtrodden. "You wanna sing the Elf Trekking Song? Or the Hustle and Bustle Song?"


"Oh come on, it's such a goodie… Ohhhh! The hustle and bustle of Yuletide Eve, the air is chilly and… come on, Lotta… the air is chilly and we need long sleeves!"

"Don't wanna sing."

Sighing, Rocky turned her attention back to controlling the reindeer. "Oh, Great Elf, this is a bad one," she mumbled, slapping the reins to get Sammi-Sima home quicker.


The gray hangar on the top floor of the Central Administration building had never been grayer. It didn't help that one of the large strip lights in the ceiling had gone on the fritz which left parts of the runway and the taxiways draped in a somber, moody grayness.

As Sammi-Sima came in to land, Rocky and Lotta watched several hastily assembled worker-Elves performing a balancing act atop a seventy-foot tall ladder in order to fix the light. Judging by the cursing and swearing that went on, it didn't appear as if they were having much success.

The touchdown onto the landing strip was perfect once more, and Sammi-Sima's hooves worked like drumsticks when they finally touched the floor. Rocky tugged the reins to whoa the hard-working reindeer and let her know she should take a left so they could go over to the corral.

The reindeer and the riders had barely reached the corral before the usual gang of Elves - two minders, a groomer, a veterinarian, a feeder, a blacksmith and a pooper scooper - swarmed around the steaming hot reindeer and gave her the feed, water and attention she deserved after working so hard for so long.

Up on the fur-covered bench, Rocky helped detach Sammi-Sima's harness so the animal could walk freely while the two Elves would be busy down in the offices. "Thanks, friends," she said to the others as she jumped off the sleigh. "Miss Epilotta and I will need her again once we've spoken to Santa."

"Lucky you!" one of the junior Elves said. The young Elf was holding a canvas bag meant to collect reindeer poop, and it was clear by the look on his face that he would rather be anywhere else at that specific moment in time.

"Heh… not so sure about that," Rocky mumbled as she moved around the front of her sleigh to help Lotta down.

The corners of Lotta's mouth pointed south. She had a look on her face that was usually reserved for major incidents of the negative kind, like not being able to find the recipe that Santa sent you out to retrieve. Two red blotches covered her fair cheeks, and she had pulled the A-Team hat down to just above her eyebrows so it wouldn't take long to cover her eyes in shame if a situation called for such a response.

'Miss Rockabye Elf and Miss Epilotta Elf… please report to Santa's office immediately. Miss Rockabye Elf and Miss Epilotta Elf… please report to Santa's office immediately. Thank you,' suddenly blasted out over the public announcement speakers in the hangar - Santa's secretary Yuttan Elf had done the talking.

"Judgment day," Lotta croaked, taking hold of Rocky's hand as she jumped off the sleigh. Even when she was firmly on the hangar floor, she didn't let go of the sleigh driver's callused paw.


The ornaments and tinsel had lost their sparkle and luster for Lotta as she dragged herself through the endless hallways on their way to Santa's office. Not even the naughty figurine of the scantily-clad lady-Elf could wrestle a smile from her lips. It would all be banned, outlawed, dissolved, thrown onto the junkpile once they had told Santa they had been unable to find the recipe. "The junkpile… that's where I'll be living from now on… or under a bridge somewhere. The other Elves will hate me," she mumbled, dragging her feet to such an extent that she made scuff marks in the plush carpet.

Just when she wished for the floor to open up and swallow her whole, she was pulled into a strong hug by Rocky who gave her a warm, consolatory squeeze.

"C'mon, Lotta… it won't be as bad as you think," Rocky whispered into Lotta's pointy ear while she moved her hands up and down to give the younger Elf a little back rub. "We can work it out… don't you worry about that. Santa is a clever fellow. This can't be the first time he's mislaid something vital."

"It's all over, Rocky… I can feel it."

"Shhh, no. Come on, have a little faith in the Great Elf."

"I can't," Lotta said and shook her head despondently.

While Rocky and Lotta were locked in the tender embrace, the door to the office whooshed open to reveal none other than Mrs. Santa. The elderly lady - who wore clogs, long, red stockings, a traditional, green dirndl dress with a small apron permanently attached to it and finally a red bobble hat perched crooked atop her voluminous, white hair - adjusted her old-fashioned spectacles and let out an "Awwwwww…" at the sight.

When Mrs. Santa recognized the golden bobbles on the two Elfin hats, she smiled and pointed at the anteroom. "My husband is ready to see you now, dears. Go right in. He's in a good mood today."

"Thank you, Mrs. Santa," Rocky said politely before she turned back to her friend. "Lotta?"

"Don't wanna…"

"Hafta," Rocky said and led her reluctant fellow Elf into the anteroom.


Santa sat behind his desk in his office holding what appeared to be a scrapbook clipping. He was deep in thought as he copied the information from the small piece of paper onto another sheet using an old-fashioned fountain pen that he dipped in an inkwell at regular intervals.

He hadn't noticed the two Elves sitting down - or being sat down, in Lotta's case - on the two chairs in front of the desk, but he certainly noticed when Lotta broke down in a howling sob that caused him to quite literally blot his copybook.

"Oh, Santa, Sir," Lotta howled, whipping off her A-Team hat and twisting it in her hands, "we tried and tried and tried to find that recipe but we couldn't, and we looked everywhere! We really, really did… we really did look everywhere we could!" - Deep breath - "First we explored a house where the owner was down in the cellar playing with an electric train set while we were there and it was a little bit dangerous and we went through their small collection of cookie tins and we found the one we were looking for but the recipe wasn't there…" - deep breath - "Then we went into a really, really dangerous situation at the next stop where there was some kind of awful party going on with loud, awful music-"

"Lotta-" Rocky tried, but she was cut off at once.

"-and everyone was awfully drunk and someone spilled beer on me and I nearly turned myself inside-out just to get it off my tongue…" - deep breath - "and then we were discovered by a drunken Human who caught us searching for the cookie tins and if it hadn't been for the Woods-Elf Clog Polka he would have captured us and used us for the-Great-Elf-knows-what!" - Deep breath - "We found the right cookie tin but the recipe wasn't there either and then we nearly had an accident high, high, high up in the sky with a flock of geese who didn't adhere to the airborne traffic code…" - deep breath - "I lost my cinnamon bun! I hadn't even tasted it yet… it made me real sad because I just love, love, love cinnamon buns, perhaps not as much as I love raisin buns-"


"-but… but… but, oh never mind all that now." - Deep breath - "When we got to the final stop the house was abandoned but they had a huge, huge and I mean h-u-g-e collection of cookie tins in the garage and we searched and searched and searched but we couldn't find the recipe anywhere and then the whole thing collasped… callosp- collapsed on top of us but it wasn't as scary as it sounds… it was actually kinda funny in a thrilling sort of way, but we didn't find the recipe there either," - deep breath - "and now we're here and you're gonna cancel the wonderful, wonderful Yuletide and we've let you down. I'm so sorry, Santa. I let you down…"

At the end of Lotta's wall-to-wall monologue - that left her dear friend Rocky slackjawed and flabbergasted over the tsunami of words that had burst forth from the petite Elf - her shoulders slumped and she fell back against the backrest of the chair, completely drained of breath, spunk and fighting spirit.

It took several seconds before Santa's bushy eyebrows fell back into their regular position above his eyes. "I see. Well… it certainly sounds like you've had an Elfin good adventure, Miss Epilotta," he said after a little while.

"You can say that again, Santa, Sir," Rocky mumbled, looking over at her deflated friend.

Santa grabbed hold of the edge of his large desk and let out a rumbling laugh that made the two Elves scrunch up their faces in confusion. "I found the recipe just after you had left! Isn't that funny? It had somehow slipped into the crack between two drawers that I rarely use. Here it is," he said, holding up the scrapbook clipping that he had been copying when Rocky and Lotta entered the office.

"Ohhhhhhhhh, thank the Great Elf," Lotta croaked in relief. This time, she did indeed flake out so hard that she fell off the chair. Landing with a bump on the creaking parquet floor, she buried her face in her hands and let out a long, heartfelt groan that illustrated pretty well what she felt about the whole, Elfin disaster.


By the time Rocky and Lotta had said goodbye to Santa who sent them on their way with a Merry Yuletide and a Ho-Ho-Ho! and began the trek home behind Sammi-Sima, dawn had broken, and a breathtaking array of colors ranging from deep-blue, past purple and pink, and onto orange and pale-blue greeted them high on the morning sky.

The endless parade of nocturnal disasters - and the subsequent relief that Yuletide as they knew it had been saved - had taken such a toll on Lotta's sensitive soul that she could do nothing but lie down across the fur-covered bench under the comforting protection of a warm blanket. With her head resting on Rocky's thigh, she was fast asleep. All the events that had transpired were processed in her brain, and she let out a constant mumble of all sorts of humorous, and several not-so humorous, comments on the state of the Elfin world in general and the Season to be Jolly in particular.

Rocky chuckled and reached down to pull the warm blanket further up to cover her young friend's shoulders. She had thought about throwing the old blanket away, but had kept it down in the storage area just in case - now she was glad she had.

Lotta once more wore the A-Team hat with pride, and Rocky swept the golden bobble behind Lotta's head so it wouldn't tickle her cheek. "Santa was proud of you… and so am I. You did well tonight, my sweet little Elf…" she whispered, gazing warmly at the sleeping lady-Elf next to her.


The rest of the flight home went without trouble of any kind, and it didn't take too long before Sammi-Sima put her hooves down on Chestnut Street. Once she had scrubbed off enough speed, she came to a halt outside Lotta's richly decorated Pine Cone Villa.

A loud yawn proved that Lotta once again saw the light of day, and she stretched her petite body this way and that on the fur-covered bench to get all the sleepies out. She wrapped the warm blanket around herself as she sat up and looked around. "Oh… we're home?"

"Yep," Rocky said and tied the reins to the rail atop the buckboard.

Lotta licked her lips and shot a sideways glance at the older Elf next to her. It was clear she wanted to say something, and it was equally clear she didn't quite have the nerve to go ahead with the question. She squirmed a few times before the courage finally came to her. "Uh… Rocky… do you wanna come in and… uh… I was thinking about making some warm milk with a dash of honey, and perhaps have a cookie or two. I thought that we might… that we could perhaps… you know, spend a little positive time together after all that drama?" she said while a pair of red roses blossomed on her cheeks.

Rocky chuckled and leaned in to bump shoulders with her friend. "Yeah, I'd love to, but… I can't, Lotta. I got places to be and Elves to talk to. I'm already running a little late, so…"

"Oh," Lotta said in a downcast voice. Her shoulders slumped and she had to look away to hide the disappointment that was etched onto her fair, expressive face.

A wistful smile played across Rocky's lips as she reached over and swept a few stray locks of flaming red hair off Lotta's shoulders. "On the other hand, waiting another hour won't worsen old-Elf Knarli's sour burps… he's already a grouch so no one will notice the difference."


"The loadmaster down at Toy Factory Three," Rocky said with a warm grin. "You know him. Bad-tempered fella. A real sullen grump."

"Oh… I thought it might be him. Right. So?"

"So… you have a spare toothbrush I could borrow? And maybe a bar of soap and a towel so I could steal a quick shower while I'm at it? All that excitement has left me feelin' kinda funky."

Lotta's cheeks gained a whole new shade of red, but she gulped down her nervous anticipation and turned towards her dear friend. "Oh… I do. Uh… I mean yes. Uh… I mean, I have all three. And you're very welcome… if you feel like it…?"

"I accept your invitation, sweet Epilotta," Rocky said and placed a quick peck on Lotta's cheek before she climbed down from the sleigh.

Now the fair Elf's cheeks really caught fire, and she ducked her head down between her shoulders and snickered out loud. "She thinks I'm sweet," she said as she crinkled her nose and pulled her lips back into a broad, toothy, happy-happy smile.












Four days later, December Fifteenth.

Epilotta 'Lotta' Elf didn't even need to pull apart the bedroom curtains to know that Father Snow had finally arrived at seventeen, Chestnut Street. Though dawn had yet to break - it was only a quarter past nine in the morning - a bright light that could only be produced by the wonderful white powder shone in through the covered window.

Turning over in bed, she moved her hands above the three blankets she always used in wintertime. The air was chilly, but not intrusively so since she had remembered to get a good fire going before she had gone to bed, and there were still glowing embers in the fireplace in the corner of her bedroom.

She put her arms behind her head and let out a sweet sigh of contentment over the good night and the pleasant dreams she'd had. The world was silent, another good indication of the amount of snow that had to be falling. Suddenly fully awake, she clutched her hands to her mouth and let out a long, joyful squeal while she kicked out with her short legs in anticipation of the fun she would no doubt have once she got outside.


After dealing with mother nature's urgent demands, she zipped back into her second-floor bedroom and pulled the curtains apart. She held her breath while doing so, but she needn't have worried. The world outside was whiter than white. Snow was everywhere; piles, drifts, mountains of it. "Oooooooooh!" she cried, shimmying on the spot in her sleeping gown.

The clouds that had dumped the snow onto Chestnut Street and everywhere else in Elf Springs were slowly drifting away, revealing a clear pre-dawn sky. It wouldn't be long before the sun would grace the Elfin world and bring life to the hundreds of billions of snowflakes.

"Watch out, snow… Epilotta Elf is out to getcha," she said and let out a nose-crinkling snicker. "Oooooh, can't wait! Great Elf, it's gonna be so much fun…"

Spinning around, she whipped off her sleeping gown and zipped into the bathroom to perform a quick one-two-three stand-up bath.


Later, she stood with her nose pressed to the kitchen window downstairs while she shoveled down a bowl of porridge. To call her eager as a beaver in May to get outside and play in the glorious snow would be an understatement. She had barely gulped down the last spoonful before she zipped back upstairs into her bedroom and opened the large, wooden closet where she kept all her winter clothes.

Beaming like a freshly minted Krone, she took her sturdy winter boots, her lined wraparound pants, her mittens and her fur-lined, hooded jacket. Everything was in good order, so she donned the whole outfit and finished off by yanking the hood's laces so tight that she could barely look beyond the fur lining. "Oh!" she said and snickered once more. After loosening it a little, she spun around and flew down the stairs.

Lotta whooshed open the door and ran out into the snow that was just as white as she remembered it from past winters. The weather was cold and somewhat windy, but she loved everything about it from the poetic silence of the snow to the nippy-nosiness and rosy-cheekiness of the wind. The first thing she did was to run into the middle of her front lawn and throw herself down onto her back. "Snow Elf! Snow Elf! Yippieee!" she cried, moving her arms and legs to create the familiar pattern in the snow.

A good, old snowball fight was one of her favorite winter pastimes, but it wasn't much fun without others to play against. It seemed she was still the only Elf awake on Chestnut Street, so instead of waiting for others to come out and play, she began to roll up enough of the squeaky snow to make a snow-person or two.


"Oh, caroling, caroling, through the snow-" she sang while she decorated the snowman she had made. She created the big fellow's eyes and happy mouth out of fragments of burnt wood, and used an old carrot she had saved as his nose. The crowning moment came when she put a genuine silk top hat on his head. It didn't go on right the first time - she could hardly reach up that far - but she pulled it crooked for the second attempt which made it sit just right and give the snowman the look of a suave man of the world.

"All set. Hello there, Mr. Cole Frost! Oh, it's so good to see you again… I've missed you, you know. It's been too long. How 've you been? The kids are fine and healthy, I trust? And the missus? Oh, Icéla would like a new winter coat, would she? Wouldn't we all," she said, fluffing her snow-covered mittens as she took a step back to admire her handiwork. She snickered out loud over the rather one-sided conversation. "Perfect. Oh, I love the winter… it's so wonderful!"

The hot chocolate beckoned, and she walked back inside with a spring in her step and a merry tune on her lips.


After lunch - that consisted of a mug of hot chocolate with a whipped cream chaser, a thick slice of Yuletide marzipan Stollen -cake coated with plenty of butter, a crunchy cookie or three, a slice of gingerbread and finally a fresh, juicy clementine for dessert - Lotta donned all her winter gear again and went outside in the snow to create the rest of the snow-folks family so Cole Frost wouldn't despair in his lonesomeness.

Fully wrapped in her fur-lined jacket and hood, she closed the front door behind her before she turned around and hopped, skipped and jumped down her garden path to get to the best piles of snow. "Oh, I saw three Elves come sailing in on Yuletide day, on Yuletide day, I saw three Elves come- what in the world?!" she cried, coming to a dead stop in the middle of the garden.

Cole Frost's genuine silk top hat was gone.

"Oh, I don't believe it! Corn-on-a-cob!" she cried, running over to the bare-headed snowman. Beyond the missing hat, there didn't seem to be anything wrong with him on a physical level, so she ruled out being visited by a goose or an Arctic fox. "Where in Santa's Suspenders could it have gone?" she mumbled, pulling down the fur-lined hood so she could see better.

The garden was still draped in lovely sunshine which made the snowflakes sparkle. A few shadows were already building next to the Pine Cone Villa, but they weren't large enough to hide the silk top hat - and besides, it was black so it would stand out against the white snow like a sore thumb.

Pulling the hood back up so her sensitive, pointy ears wouldn't get too cold, Lotta ran the long way around her front lawn to check under all the snow-covered bushes and behind every pile, but her search came up short. She even looked up to see if any large birds like crows or magpies had visited Chestnut Street, but none could be seen. In short, the top hat had vanished into thin air.

Grunting, she shuffled back to Cole Frost. While she stared at the sorry sight of the hat-less snowman, the corners of her mouth began to droop until they were pointed south. She didn't look down, but if she had, she would have seen a pair of Elf-sized tracks in the pristine snow - tracks that hadn't been made by her own boots.

"What is the cotton-candy Elfin world coming to?" she mumbled as she shuffled back to the house to get a new hat for Cole Frost. "What kind o' tickle-monster would steal a hat straight off a snowman's head? Is nothing sacred anymore? Now an honest Elf can't even build a snowman without gettin' robbed in broad daylight! Oh, Great Elf, everything was much better in the olden days… when I was but a little Elf, we never thought twice about grumble-grumble-moan-moan…"


A few minutes later, Lotta put a tartan flat cap on the snowman's round head. Crossing her arms over her chest - which wasn't easy in the fur-lined jacket - she took a step back and cocked her head to take in the effectiveness of the modification. The new headwear wasn't as pretty or as suave as the top hat, but it gave him a city chic appearance, and it would have to do.

The snow was perfect and it would be a crime to let it go to waste, so she turned away from Cole Frost and began to roll up a new set of round building blocks for the rest of the snow-family.

She was determined not to let the incident ruin her good mood, so she broke out in a stirring rendition of the second verse of the Hustle and Bustle Song, one of her Yuletide favorites. "Ohhhhh!" she sang as she scooped up handfuls of snow and began to shape the heads for Mrs. Icéla Frost and the little Frosties, "The lights go on at four o'clock sharp, the evening comes with song and harp! Mmmm, mmmm, hmmm, mmmm, hhh-mmmm!"

While she sang, and while she worked on the snow-family, she kept glancing over her shoulder to see if she could spot any suspicious activity going on behind her, or even catch a glimpse of the dastardly hat-nabber, but Chestnut Street was quiet save for an elderly Elf who had taken his pet duck out for a noon stroll.

Lotta tracked the odd sight with her eyes while she rounded off the ball of snow she intended to use for Mrs. Icéla Frost's head. She still had plenty of fragments of burnt wood for the eyes and the mouth, so everything was going as planned. Looking with great interest at the pet duck as it waddled along the cobbled sidewalk, she missed the Elf who legged it behind the villa next door to remain out of sight.


Later that afternoon, Lotta sat on her chaise lounge in her living room with her snow cone pressed to her ear. Her mother had called right in the middle of the afternoon snacks, and the family talk was a daily ritual that couldn't be skipped unless Lotta was away on a gift-drop.

A well-behaved Elf would never dream of speaking through a mouthful of food, but Lotta felt it was all right to make an exception in this case since her mother knew her so well - besides, when an Elf had helped blow the nose, kiss a boo-boo, or even wash the diapers of another Elf, a little slurping wouldn't matter much.

A plate carrying four of Mrs. Santa's award-winning crunchy cookies balanced on her knee while she had the snow cone pressed to her ear. That occupied her left hand, and her right alternated between snatching a cookie and grabbing the mug of Yule-tea she had made.

"-Yes, I promise, Mom." - Crunch, crunch - "Yes, I promise to keep my regular mealtimes and bedtimes." - Slurp - "Yes, I know how important they are." - Slurp - "Mmmm? Oh, sure." - Crunch, crunch - "At the weekend? Oh, I can't say yet, Mom…" - Slurp - "I don't know if Santa needs me for anything." - Crunch, crunch - "Sorry? Oh, Rockabye… well, she's a friend." - Slurp - "A dear friend, yes." - Crunch, crunch - "No, Mom, just a friend. Yes." - Slurp - "I know, Mom… I promise you'll be the first to know. Yes." - Crunch, crunch - "Okay… bye, Mom. Love you and Daddy." - Slurp - "Mmmua. Talk to you tomorrow."

By the time Lotta put the snow cone down on the living room table to allow it to cool off, the four cookies had vanished and the tea was almost gone. Leaning back, she swung her legs and socked feet up in the chaise lounge and smiled at the details of the conversation she had just had. "Just a friend," she mumbled. "But a dear friend. A very dear friend. Mmmm."

She snickered at the warm wave that rolled over her whenever she thought of her friend Rockabye Elf. Pulling her short legs up, she closed her eyes and tried to picture Rocky's dashing features in her mind's eye. It wasn't difficult. They were so good together it was almost a force of nature. They were polar opposites of each other on so many levels, but they had more in common than met the eye, and they complemented each other well.

Suddenly, Lotta realized nearly fifteen minutes had gone by while she had been daydreaming. "Oh, I can't waste the entire afternoon," she said and put her socked feet back onto the floor. "Not when there's snow to be played with."


After cleaning off the mug and the plate, a certain sense of mistrust took over and she inched over to the kitchen window to check up on the status on her snow-family. The little Frosties were all right, as was Mrs. Icéla Frost and the old shawl she wore around her snowy shoulders. The burnt fragments of wood made them all wear happy smiles, and she had tried to form their twig-arms to wrap around each other like a real family would.

Then she nearly swallowed her tongue - the flat cap was gone from Cole Frost's head.

She didn't even have time to hang the tea towel on its nail, much less don her winter outfit - apart from stuffing her feet into a pair of wooden clogs - before she blasted out of the front door and ran over to the four snow-people. "Sugar! Plum! Mush!" she cried with clenched fists. Roaring out her frustration, she flung the tea towel down into a pile of snow. The flat cap was gone, and like the silk top hat, it had vanished without a trace.

Her jaw set in stone, she spun around on her heel and stared across the rest of Chestnut Street that didn't seem like a hive of villainy, but clearly was. "Whoever you are, you think this is funny?!" she roared at the top of her lungs. "It's not funny! Bring back those hats at once!"

Nothing happened, save for the flock of birds that rose from the nearby trees at the angry sound of her voice.

Lotta's shoulders slumped and her chin began to tremble. She wouldn't get the hats back, that much was clear. It was too cold to be out in the snow only wearing clogs and her regular outfit, so she shuffled back inside with a chest that heaved from her silent sobbing.

After dumping the wooden clogs in the kitchen so the snow she had picked up would melt, she went straight over to the chaise lounge and grabbed the snow cone. She didn't even need to follow the numbers her fingers punched in; they had all been stored in her muscle memory. "He- hello, Rocky?" she said with a clear sniffle once the connection had been established. "Oh, I need you… can you come over?"


Lotta paced back and forth in her upstairs bedroom. At frequent intervals, she looked out of the window that gave her a far better view of Chestnut Street than the one she had from the kitchen below. So far, there was no sight of Rocky or her colorful, custom-built sleigh, but it had only been four minutes since they had hung up, so she was excused.

Another peek out of the window yielded the same results. Sighing, Lotta returned to pacing the floor while she tried to sing an old favorite from the Great Elfin Songbook. "Oh, we wish you a merry Yuletide, we wish you a merry Yuletide… we wish you… oh." - Sigh - "I wish Rocky would hurry up and get here…"

The sound of reindeer hooves clip-clopping on the cobblestones below made Lotta hurry back to the window, but it was a false alarm - it wasn't Rocky's sleigh. "Cotton candy," she mumbled, pulling back from the window.

A splash of crimson and forest-green that hustled onto Chestnut from the next connecting street made her look again. She squealed out loud when she recognized Rocky's long, black hair that flowed out behind her in the headwind. The experienced sleigh driver took the corner on one runner and was soon on the final stretch, but that was all Lotta had time to see before she stormed down the stairs to greet her dear friend.

She whooshed open the front door and put out her arms in an invitation for a hug even before Rocky had jumped off her sleigh. The older Elf wore a hastily assembled outfit of brown clog-boots, gray, woolly pants, a gray schmutting jacket and a crimson Elf cone hat.

Lotta let out a choked-up "Awwwww!" when she noticed that Rocky carried a bouquet of purple saxifrage, one of Lotta's favorite winter flowers. When Rocky was at the door, they fell into an easy hug and gave each other quick kisses on the cheeks. "Oh Great Elf, I'm so glad I caught you home, Rocky…"

Rocky smiled at her excitable friend, but the smile faded when she caught a glimpse of her drawn features. "What's wrong, sweet Lotta? Are you ill?"

"No… I've been robbed."

"What?! On Chestnut Street?!"

"Yeah…" Lotta said with a shrug. The bad moments could wait - now she had to take care of the good moments. "Oh, thank you so much for these wonderful flowers. They're so beautiful," she said as she stepped into the kitchen to find a suitable jar for them.

Rocky chuckled and closed the front door so the icy conditions outside wouldn't follow her inside. "You're welcome," she said and took off her rigid cone hat. After hanging it on a coat hook in the hallway, she fluffed her long hair. "You sounded so down on the snow cone that it was the least I could do. Sugar plum mush, you've been robbed… what happened?"

"Somebody stole two hats from my snowman outside. Cole Frost's hats. Can you believe it?"

"No… what's the Elfin world coming to?"

"You know," Lotta said, sporting a wistful, little smile as she arranged the flowers that she had put in an old pickle jar, "that's what I said. It made me real sad. If an Elf can't even enjoy the simple wonders of rolling up snow-people anymore, what's left?"

"Yeah, no kiddin'," Rocky said and scratched her black hair. "All right, let's sit down and figure out what we should do. Oh, and I'd like to know exactly what went down."

Lotta nodded and stepped into the living room. "Well, it all started when I-"


A short thirty minutes later, two Elfin-sized figures crouched down behind the snowbank on the opposite side of Chestnut Street from Lotta's house. Rocky and Lotta wore layers upon layers of winter clothes so they wouldn't be cold while they staked out the crime scene. At Rocky's insistence, Lotta had found a third hat for Cole Frost that she had put on the snowman with great aplomb in the hope that the hat-nabber was still around, not to mention watching her.

Steam rose from the thermos of scorching hot Yule-tea as Lotta unscrewed the lid. She poured herself a small amount before she held the thermos with the sweet-smelling liquid under Rocky's nose. "Tea?"

"No thank you. I'm good. The rice pudding gave me a good base to work on."

"Yes. We Elves always work best on a full stomach, I agree. Especially when it's hot rice pudding with a good sprinkling of cinnamon and a pool of melted butter. You know, healthy, nutritious food," Lotta said and nodded somberly.

The shadows were already lengthening; in mid-December, the sun would set no later than three-thirty in the afternoon, and it was already slipping behind some of the taller houses on the street.

Lotta had just taken another sip of the Yule-tea when she spotted an Elfin-like figure running towards her family of snow-people. The figure was dressed in the traditional Elfin style with clogs, white knee-socks, gray plus-fours, a crimson vest over a white shirt, and finally a floppy, red hat with a white bobble.

"Mmmmm-buggl-glop!" she croaked through a mouthful of tea. When it wasn't enough, she pointed frantically at the hunched-over figure while she gulped down the scorching hot liquid.

"I see 'im. Stay here while I catch the little crook," Rocky said and jumped up from their cover.

"Like cotton-candy I will!" Lotta growled and followed the older Elf across Chestnut Street. She had an urge to sing an Elf marching song at the top of her lungs, but she thought better of it.

The suspicious-acting Elf had reached the snow-family and had already snatched the hat from Cole Frost's head by the time the two avenging Elves came blasting into the garden.

"Hold it right there, fella!" Rocky growled, reaching for the culprit's arm that held the hat.

The hat-nabber let out a squeak and spun around so fast the floppy Elf hat fell off, thus revealing a full head of long, red locks. The red hair framed a pretty lady-Elf face that didn't look like it belonged to a crook at all.

"All right, Sister Elf!" Lotta growled with her hands firmly on her hips. "What's the meaning of all this? Who are you? And why are you stealing Cole Frost's hats?"

"Lotta, simmer down," Rocky said and snickered into her hand at the waves of uncharacteristic aggression that rolled off the otherwise benign Elf. "I think we should let the Elf explain in her own words."

The hat-nabber's chin started trembling, and it didn't take long before she broke down in a howling sob at the negative attention from the two older Elves. Her freckled cheeks began to wobble as crystal tears ran freely from her green eyes. "I'm so sorry… I j- just wanted to ask if I could play with you…"

"Huh! Have you considered that a simple 'Greetings' would have worked wonders?" Lotta growled, taking the third hat - an old, greasy cap - from the nabber's hands. Though she was still steaming furious on the inside, she had to admit she didn't like to see any Elf cry, much less when she was the cause of the tears.

"I'm new here… my family just moved in across the street a few days ago," the other Elf said with a strong sniffle. She pointed across Chestnut Street at one of the other houses that hadn't yet been decorated with Yuletide ornaments and tinsel. "I just wanted to play, but I didn't dare ask… my Mom told me you're a special Elf… so I didn't think you'd wanna play with me."

"I'm not special. I'm just me, Epilotta Elf. And you should have asked before stealing my hats…" Lotta mumbled.

To defuse the situation, Rocky reached out to the crying Elf and mussed her arm. "It's all right. I'm Rockabye Elf, and you already know Epilotta's name… what's yours?"

"Trickamore Elf. My friends call me Trixie… but I don't have any friends here. They all stayed behind in the old town we moved from…"

That tidbit of information tugged on Lotta's heartstrings, and she softened her angry demeanor at once. She knew exactly what Trickamore went through: her own family had moved to another town when she was just a wee Elf, and she'd had to gain a whole new set of friends as well. It had taken her a while, so she understood the younger Elf's plight. "I'd love to play in the snow with you, Trickamore… but having my hats stolen made me a sad Elf. A very, very sad Elf. The next time, please ask before you jump to conclusions… much less steal. Taking things that don't belong to you will just give you and your family a bad name and reputation in the neighborhood."

"I understand," Trickamore said, nodding hard.

Lotta moved over to Rocky and hooked an arm inside that of her big hero. They smiled at each other, happy the matter had been resolved peacefully before the pancakes had started to whistle through the air. "Oh… Trickamore, do you still have the other two hats?"

"Oh, of course, of course. They're under my bed."

"I'd like them back, if you don't mind…"

Trickamore nodded, wiping her nose on her sleeve.

Lotta smiled at the younger Elf before she turned around to shoot Rocky a grin. "Tell you what… both of you. It's too late in the day to play now, but wouldn't it be cozy and lovely if we all three went inside and made a nice pot of hot chocolate and some whipped cream? We could sit by the fire and tell fairy tales?"

Trickamore's pink tongue raced across her lips in anticipation - and so did Rocky's for that matter. Both Elves said "Yes, please!" at the same time.

"We have a deal," Lotta continued with an ever-widening grin plastered on her face. "And then tomorrow, we can all meet at noon and make new snow-people or have a tickle-monster of a snowball fight… or play tag in the snow or whatever we decide on doing. Wouldn't that be so much fun?"

"Oh, yes!" Trickamore said, once again nodding so hard her red locks bobbed up and down.

Rocky let out a warm chuckle and pulled Lotta into a sideways hug. "I told you once and I'll tell you again… you'll make Chieftainess yet, Lotta."

"Oh, I don't wanna be the Chieftainess… I just wanna be a happy Elf. And I'm a happy Elf right now," Lotta said and got up on tip-toes so she could steal a kiss off Rocky's rosy cheek. "And now… it's high time for hot chocolate!"

"Yippie!" Trickamore and Rocky cried as one before they hurried up the garden path to wait impatiently at the front door.

Chuckling out loud, Lotta followed her two, eager friends and invited them inside the warm, cozy Pine Cone Villa.
















On a chilly, but sunny day in mid-December, soft singing and rhythmic squeaking wafted out from underneath the gap in the half-opened door to Rockabye 'Rocky' Elf's garage.

At present, the experienced long-haul driver was on her hands and knees giving the intricately designed runners of her custom-built sleigh a good greasing. The elaborate Elfin carvings that covered every last piece of available surface on the sleigh, apart from the flatbed itself which was made of planed planks, had already been given plenty of attention with a feather duster and a touch-up of paint here and there to make sure they stood out in time for the Season to be Jolly.

The little sign that said Rocky's Parcel Delivery Service had been given a thorough polishing so the brass letters were easy to read for anyone spotting her on a delivery run. Business had been a little slow over the summer, so she figured she needed any help she could get in attracting big orders.

Leaning back on her thighs, she wiped her filthy hands on her coverall and let out a sigh. She was satisfied; the sleigh appeared brand-spanking new. It was December eighteenth and the Season to be Jolly was just around the corner, so everything had to be ship-shape.

Like most of the Elfin homes in Elf Springs, Rocky had put up so many Yuletide decorations on her one-storey house and the low building housing the garage that the roofs nearly collapsed. Multi-colored festoons - none shorter than fifteen feet - were sprawled across the outer walls, and she had put up hundreds of tiny, glittery rosettes in contrasting colors to give it plenty of pizzazz.

She had blinking lights here, woven Yuletide hearts there; silver bells here and figurines of little snowmen there - all in all, her house was a colorful affair. She had done far more than in previous Yuletides, and she had an inkling it was simply to impress her dear friend Epilotta Elf whose enthusiasm for all things Yule knew no boundaries.

The familiar sound of her snow cone ringing inside her office at the end of the garage reached her pointy ears, and she got to her feet in a hurry in case it was Lotta calling with another emergency of the hat-nabbing kind.

The garage was separated into two sections: a larger one with a flat floor where she parked her sleigh and stored all the harnesses and other equipment she needed for her business, and a small office at the back with a desk, a swivel-chair and two filing cabinets. When Lotta had seen it for the first time, she had promptly cleaned up the mess on the desk, but it always returned to a messy state, no matter how much Rocky tried to get it sorted.

To find the ringing snow cone, she needed to sweep aside a week's worth of spent lollipop sticks, candy wrappers and used napkins, but she did so with a flick of the wrist. When the machine finally came into sight, she snatched it from its base station. "You've reached Rocky's Parcel Delivery Service. This is Rockabye Elf speaking," she said as she moved around the edge of the desk and sat down on her swivel-chair.

A few fumbles and bumps at the other end of the connection gave her time to look at the goutweed leaves that Lotta had insisted she put in a ceramic pot in a corner of the office. According to her, the office had needed a green touch. The green touch had turned into a brown touch following Rocky's complete failure to water the leaves. Chuckling, she returned to the snow cone. "Hello? Lotta?"

'Hello!' a young, Elfin voice said at the other end of the line. 'It's my Great-Granddad's birthday and we wanna send him a cake!'

"Well, that's great for your great-granddad," Rocky said and let out a new chuckle. Further fumbles and bumps could be heard before a mature lady-Elf voice took over the conversation.

'Hello, Miss Rockabye?'


'Oh, I'm sorry for the confusion. That was my grandson Oola-Boola. That's not his real name, of course. His name is Ola, but Oola-Boola suits him much better. Ha-ha. Oh, I'm Wandawell Elf and I would like to hire your sleigh for a gift-drop… if you're available.'

"I certainly am, Miss Wandawell."

'That's Mrs. Wandawell, actually.'

"Oh, I beg your pardon. All right, what is it, where to, when is it ready, and how fast should I get it there?" Rocky said and looked around for a pencil and a piece of paper so she could take notes.

'Oh, you're efficient!' Wandawell said and let out a snicker. 'It's a layer cake. A birthday layer cake with crushed macaroons, whipped cream, marzipan, sugar candy and a base of ice cream to be exact. I don't need to tell you it's very, very fragile.'

Rocky grunted out loud as she heard the details. Finally finding her writing tools, she jotted down everything she had heard so far. "Huh, no. Great Elf, that sounds-"

'Yummy! I know. It's to be sent to my husband, Mr. Snoozaby Snorri Elf, who lives in the Northeast Greenland National Park, in Peary Land, close to the polar ocean and Mount Mara. He's an ice hole fisher-Elf, you see. The Inuit Elves who live up there call it Kalaallit Nunaanni nuna eqqissisimatitaq.'

"Noted. Well, not the last part. Please don't ask me to spell that."

'I won't!' Wandawell said with a snicker. 'It's my husband's eight-hundredth birthday so we thought it had to be something really, really special. He lives with my step-daughter up there, actually. Gunni-Wink. She's a headstrong lady-Elf, I can tell you!'

"She must be. Peary Land… that's at the end of the world. Literally. You can't get any further north than that," Rocky said and swiveled around. She had a map of the Known Elfin World pinned to the wall of her office, but Peary Land was so far north it was barely inside the boundaries. "All right. Now I only need to know when I can pick it up, and how fast it needs to get there."

'Well, it's being made right now down at the baker's on Beechwood Drive… and his birthday is tomorrow, actually.'

Turning back to the desk, Rocky let out a long whistle. "Tomorrow. Hmmm… all right," she said and tapped a fast rhythm on the desktop with her fingers. "It's a tight deadline, but I'll manage."

'Oh, excellent! Excellent, Miss Rockabye. The layer cake should be ready some time this afternoon, hopefully at three or so. I'll be there so we can discuss the payment at once. Would that be satisfactory?'

"It certainly would, Mrs. Wandawell. I'll see you then. Thank you for choosing Rocky's Parcel Delivery Service. Goodbye."

'Goodbye, Miss Rockabye,' Wandawell Elf said and hung up.

Scrunching up her face, Rocky leaned back on the swivel-chair and went to work calculating the amount of provisions she would need. The reindeer wouldn't be too stressed since the sleigh would weigh next to nothing, but it was a long haul for a single animal - in short, she needed two. Grunting, she reached for the snow cone that was still warm from the last conversation.

When the connection was established, she got up from her chair and walked into the garage to check her harnesses. "Hi, Canute, it's Rocky. Yeah, I'm just fine, thanks. I know, I promised to come by for a hand of Olsen sometime. And I will. Listen, I need a pair of sturdy reindeer for later today. They don't need to be fast, just tough. I got a tickle-monster of a long haul, way the cotton-candy up to Peary Land. Yeah, no kiddin'. Yeah, I'll hold while you check the stock."

While she waited for the chief groomer to look at the animals he had in his corral, she walked around the front of the sleigh and opened the lid to the storage room under the fur-covered bench seat to get a status on her tools. The pair of snow goggles, the jinglestick alarm system, and her spare maps all looked to be in good condition. Her sturdy work gloves were present, and her coin pouch was full - which was important in case she needed to buy extra feed for her beasts of burden along the way.

"Hello, Canute? Yeah, I'm still here," she said and closed the lid when she heard the senior Elf's voice in her ear. "Wreck and Ballumbalytis? Works for me. Wreck is a solid animal. Haven't worked with the other fella yet. Oh, and I need them within the hour. Yeah, I know, I know… yeah, I already have the harnesses and the rest of the gear. Great. All right, talk to you later. Bye."

After pressing the little cube on the snow cone to close the connection, she walked around the custom-built sleigh with a critical eye to check its air-worthiness. Satisfied that everything was spot-on, she unbuttoned her coverall and headed for the bathroom.


Fresh out of the bathtub, Rocky was still drying her long, black hair when she padded into her bedroom on bare feet. Her one-storey house was more spartan than Lotta's Pine Cone Villa, and her furniture was older and not quite as fancy, but she had all the amenities an Elf could need: a kitchen, a bathroom, a living room, a master bedroom and a guest bedroom that she used for storing all her old accounts and a lot of other stuff that she couldn't even remember what was anymore.

She had a towel wrapped around her three-foot-three-inch body, but she shed it to step into her underwear. Her best winter clothes were soon dug out of her old wardrobe: she put a pair of insulated wraparound pants, a double-breasted schmutting jacket, and a thick, fur-lined coat on the bed, and finished off by sticking a pair of sturdy, black boots underneath the bed's frame.

"Peary Land… Great Elf, that's gonna be a long, boring ride," she mumbled as she donned a black tank top over her underwear. Sighing, she shuffled over to the window and looked out at the snow-covered cityscape. A ton of snow had been dumped on Elf Springs after the big one that had made Lotta so excited the other day, so the Elfin world outside was whiter than white - which was nice because it created the perfect mood for Yuletide, but it also meant it would be nothing but a dull, featureless blur down below when the sleigh was in the air.

She bared her teeth in a grimace as she thought about how to deal with the situation. It didn't take her long to make up her mind - she needed to call Lotta.

Without getting dressed further, she strode into the living room and snatched her other snow cone from its base station. She sat down on an old armchair as she dialed the number and waited for it to be picked up.

'This is Epilotta Elf speaking… uh… just a moment… I have a pile of cookies in the oven!' Lotta said at the other end of the line, making Rocky laugh out loud. 'Corn-on-a-cob, one of 'em just fell off the pan and got smashed into a dozen pieces!' Lotta continued in a growly voice.

"Lotta, it's me."

'Oh, hi! So nice to hear your voice, Rocky.' Several jingles and jangles followed over the line, indicating that Lotta was transferring the baking hot roasting pan from the oven to her kitchen table.

"Likewise," Rocky said and draped a bare leg over the armrest. As always when it had been a couple of days since she had spoken to the easily excitable - and just plain cute - redhead, she couldn't stop smiling when she heard her voice again.

Grinning, she snuggled down in the armchair and used her free hand to tease the tender skin on the bare thigh she had just draped over the armrest. "I wanted to ask you if you had time to come along for a gift-drop later today. But I guess you're busy with your cook-"

'Hang on there, Rockabye… I love my cookies, yes, but some things are more important than others. A gift-drop?'

"Yeah. A real long one. Way up to Peary Land… way, way, way north… the furthest north we can go, as a matter of fact."

'Oh… I guess you can't do that particular run in a single afternoon…?'

"No, it's going to take a full day if not more. Or to be precise, since I'll be leaving later today, it's going to take me the rest of the day, the whole night and most of tomorrow as well. I'm delivering a birthday layer cake to an ice hole fisher-Elf up there."

'Mmmm…' More jingling and jangling followed over the line, but Lotta had fallen silent. A few seconds went by with nothing but kitchen noises coming through.

"That sounded like a no-can-do 'mmmm'," Rocky eventually said, crinkling her nose in disappointment.

'Well,' Lotta said, accompanied by more jingling and jangling, 'it's just that- oh, sugar plum mush, another cookie just fell to its doom!'

"I'm sorry to hear that," Rocky said with a chuckle.

'It's just that I've invited Mom over tomorrow afternoon for a light snack… just a little thing, you know… pancakes and crullers and hot buns and cookies and gingerbread and warm milk with honey, or perhaps a little Yule-tea… oh… no, tell you what we're gonna do!'

"Yes, Epilotta, Ma'am," Rocky said with her tongue stuck firmly in her cheek - Lotta didn't notice the itty-bitty barb.

'First I'll call Mom and reschedule for the day after tomorrow. Then you can come over and pick me up whenever you're ready for it!'

"Oh, are you sure? It's going to be a long, long, long haul this time, Lotta."

'You better believe I'm sure, Miss Rockabye! Great Elf, am I talking to myself here?'

Rocky leaned her head back and laughed out loud. Lotta in and by herself was always like a strong shot of energy, but she had to admit she liked it best when the spirited redhead showed her spunky, confident side. "You have a deal, Miss Epilotta. All right. I'll swing by at some point within the next hour or so."

'Deal. Oh, and once you get here, you can have a cookie or two… if there are any left.'

"Did you drop another one?"

'No, but they smell so good I might eat 'em all!'

"Ohhh, I should have known," Rocky said and let out another grin. The chemistry they shared was so loud and clear it was uncanny, even through a snow cone connection. Sweeping her bare leg back over the side of the armchair, she sat up straight and got ready to move on with the program. "Talk to you later, Lotta. Bye."

'Bye-bye… and I'll be waiting.'


A short hour later, Epilotta Elf stepped over the threshold into the snowy landscape and shut the front door of her home behind her. Since the birth of the Great Elf herself, no Elf in any part of the Elfin world had ever locked a door, so she didn't either.

She was wrapped tightly in her winter gear to keep warm while she waited for Rocky and while they traveled around at low speed in general. As soon as they were going at cruising speed up in the air, the design of the sleighs meant the riders on the bench seat would always be protected from the cold - besides, Elves were born tough, not like the scrawny, hyper-sensitive Humans who couldn't cope very well with sub-zero temperatures.

Somewhere underneath the heavy winter jacket, she had a thick book and a small tin full of freshly made cookies stuffed under her arms. After hearing the details of the gift-drop from Rocky, she had gone straight up into the attic and had turned an old chest upside down to find that specific tome. She had distant relatives up north, and the Norse Elf-South Elf phrase book she now carried had helped her more than once when talking to some of the older family members.

The sound of a jinglestick being jingled somewhere in the middle distance made her fold down her tightly laced hood and put a hand behind her pointy ear. It was definitely a jinglestick, and it was definitely moving closer.

She smiled at the prospect of meeting Rocky again. They were getting a lot closer, that was an undeniable fact. They touched, they hugged, they had even kissed a little - though it hadn't been enough by far. It warmed her heart just thinking about the tall, cute, bronzed Elf with the unusual eyes, and she couldn't stop a broad smile from spreading over her lips.

Then the crimson and forest-green sleigh came around the corner of the connecting street that Rocky always used to get from her own place to Chestnut. Lotta let out a delighted squeak and zipped down to the sidewalk to be ready. Her grin grew even wider when she saw the two reindeer that pulled the sleigh.

Atop the fur-covered bench behind the buckboard, a coat-wearing Rocky held the jinglestick high in the air and gave it a good shaking to let the Elfin world, and Chestnut Street, know she was coming through. Whoa'ing the reindeer, she pulled the sleigh to a halt at the cobbled sidewalk in front of the waiting Elfin figure.

"Greetings, Elf. Do you know if Epilotta Elf is in?" she said to the figure who was wrapped so tightly in the winter gear only the pink tip of a nose was visible. She stuck out her tongue to show she wasn't being entirely serious.

"Oh, haw haw. Silly Elf!" Lotta said and shuffled up to pat the lead reindeer. "Hi there, fella. Impressive antlers, I must say. Oh… isn't that Wreck?"

"It certainly is. And B-"

"Bob! It's Bob! Oh, Bob, I'm so glad to see you!" Lotta said and clapped her petite hands in wild glee. She only stopped when she could feel the book and the cookie tin slip down underneath the jacket.

"Actually, it's not Bob. It's Ballumbalytis," Rocky said drolly.

Lotta came to a dead stop and stared at the reindeer with the unusual name. "Oh," was all she said before she shuffled around the sleigh and climbed up onto the furry bench.

Rocky gave her a sideways glance but knew better than to ask. Instead, she slapped the reins which made the two reindeer set off in a slow walk across the snow-covered cobblestones. "What's that you've got there?" she asked, nodding at the two items Lotta had just pulled out of her jacket.

"Cookies!" Lotta said and knocked on the lid of the tin.

"Yay… can I have one, please?"

Winking, Lotta pulled off the lid and held up the tin so the driver could reach the hazelnut-chip cookies. "I promised you could… they're really good if you ask me. And since I'm the only one here who knows anything about the cookies, I guess you have to ask me!"

Rocky chuckled at the undeniable logic of the statement as she reached for the nearest treat. As expected, they were crunchy and just plain yummy. No Elf would ever speak while munching on anything, so she waited until she had gulped down the first bite before she made a comment. "Yummy. Me likey," she said, wearing a big grin.

"Thank you," Lotta said and returned the grin. Putting the lid back on the tin, she held up the book instead. "And this is a Norse Elf-South Elf phrase book. I already know a few phrases, but we may need a little bit more than hou babba chikka dakka dou."

"What?" Rocky said and let out a braying laugh that made Ballumbalytis reply in a similar fashion.

"Hou babba chikka dakka dou. It means, where can we get something to eat around here?"

"Now why didn't I figure that out, huh?" Rocky said and snickered into her hand.


The jinglestick that had been attached to an eye on the side of the buckboard did its best to create a magical Yuletide mood by playing an endless, harmonic symphony with its many bells as the custom-built sleigh slid across the snow going further into Elf Springs.

Everywhere Rocky and Lotta went, Elves of all ages and shapes greeted them and the two clip-clopping reindeer. The Season to be Jolly would officially start two days later, but it seemed most Elves had opened a family-sized can of Good Mood well in advance. Lotta waved so much at the happy Elves they went past that it didn't take long before she could hardly lift her arm.

The homes lining the cobbled, snow-covered streets of Elf Springs were richly decorated with every kind of ornament and tinsel imaginable, not to mention expertly woven wreaths of holly. Evergreen garlands were suspended between the houses above the streets, and the sleighs parked at the sidewalks were all draped in colorful festoons and silk-paper cut-outs.

Candles were already burning in every house Rocky and Lotta went past even though it was only in the middle of the afternoon. The sight made Lotta scrunch up her face and think about whether or not she had snuffed out all her own candles before she had left, but she relaxed when she remembered playing the counting game - that meant she had checked all the rooms.

The weather was frosty and nippy-nosy, but it didn't stop a group of juniors from conducting a large snowball fight in the town hall square. Close by, other Elves tried their luck at ice skating on the frozen town pond - some looked like graceful nymphs on their skates, while others fell down twice for every four steps they took.

An ice cream vendor who had branched out into selling hot drinks and roasted almonds had set up a cart shop next to the skaters, and business was going well judging by the line in front of the small stand on wheels. Just as Rocky and Lotta clip-clopped past with Wreck and Ballumbalytis setting their own pace on loose reins, the vendor took the lid off the large pot of roasting almonds which sent a delightful aroma into the nostrils of the two Elves.

Lotta let out a contented sigh and snuggled up close to her companion. "Great Elf, can it get any better than this? Snow, food and the company of a dear friend. This is what makes Elfin life worth living," she said, looking up at Rocky's striking profile.

They gazed at each other for a few seconds wearing identical smiles before the driver turned her attention back to the street ahead - but the smile didn't leave her features for a good while.


Beechwood Drive beckoned, and Rocky brought Wreck and Ballumbalytis onto the cobbled street in good order. At the bakery, she tugged at the reins which made the two animals climb up onto the sidewalk and come to a halt in front of the lavish storefront windows. The reindeer brayed and shook their backs, but it was just to show they were ready for far more.

"So," Rocky said and tied the reins to the rail atop the buckboard. "I arranged with the Lady Elf who called me that we should meet here, but I don't see any sleighs."

"Mmmm…" Lotta said, looking away from Rocky.

"I sure hope we won't have to wait too long. It's too cotton-candy cold to sit around and do nothing. And we don't have all that much daylight left," Rocky continued, looking up at the clear, blue sky where the sun was already creeping towards the western horizon.


Rocky grunted and looked at her friend. It didn't take a genius to figure out where Lotta's attention was, so she decided to play a little trick on her. "Oh, by the way, did I tell you I met a real cute Elf down at the bank the other day?"


"Great Elf, she was a fine li'l package. Yeah, she said she would love to come over and tickle me silly. Do you think I should call her and invite her over for dinner or something?" Rocky said, smirking hard to keep the laughter inside.

"Mmmm… whut?!" Lotta said, finally tearing her eyes away from the bakery's storefront windows where an entire morning's worth of bread, buns, pastries and cookies were lined up in perfect order. Dozens of loaves of rye, white bread and whole-grain filled out three reed baskets at the bottom. Buns of all shapes and sizes occupied the lower of the two center shelves, and pies of every kind presented a pretty picture on the upper of the two shelves. The top shelf was graced by a plethora of cookies and smaller pastries. "Oh, you," she said once she figured out what was going on. She narrowed her eyes when she realized she had been had, but she couldn't stay miffed for long and soon reached over to claw at Rocky's thick winter coat.

The little moment was broken when a mature lady-Elf shouted a greeting from further down the street. Her six-seater passenger sleigh was an older model, and it was pulled by a donkey whose flea-bitten fur proved it had seen better days. "Miss Rockabye? Miss Rockabye, I'm Wandawell Elf. We spoke over the snow cone. I'm so sorry I'm late… we had a little diaper drama with my grandson, but I'm here now," she said as she tugged at the donkey's reins so the older sleigh lined up next to Rocky's newer, more modern freight-liner.

"Greetings, Mrs. Wandawell," Rocky said and reached over to perform the traditional arm-clasping with the mature lady-Elf. Mrs. Wandawell was dressed in clog-boots and a dark-gray, woolly dress that had a white apron sown onto the front. She was older than she had sounded over the snow cone - probably in her early six-hundreds - and the hair underneath her rigid cone hat was graying. "Don't worry about being late, we've only just arrived too. This is my dear friend Miss Epilotta Elf. She's coming along to keep things lively on the interminable journey," Rocky continued, gesturing at Lotta.

"Oh, that's nice. Greetings, Miss Epilotta," Wandawell said and waved at the younger Elf.

"Good afternoon, Mrs. Wandawell," Lotta said and bowed her head to show the proper respect for an elder Elf.

After Wandawell had put her reins over the buckboard of her older sleigh, she got up from the bench seat and proceeded to climb down with some difficulty. Huffing and puffing, she moved around the back and over to the store on stiff legs. "I think I'll pop inside and see how far they've gotten with the birthday cake," she said with a hand on the doorknob. "Oh, and I have your fee in my purse, Miss Rockabye."

"That's quite all right, Mrs. Wandawell. We've got plenty of time to deal with that," Rocky said and waved dismissively.

Wandawell smiled back and depressed the handle. The old, wooden door to the bakery creaked open which made a pair of bells above the frame send out a pleasant jingle. The door appeared to be a little too heavy for the older Elf, so she had some difficulty keeping it away from her.

"I better help her," Lotta said and hopped off their sleigh with her regular nimbleness. Hurrying over to the door, she put a hand on it to hold it open so the older Elf could concentrate on walking in there on her poor legs.

Rocky kept sitting on the fur-covered bench like she was waiting for something. Her goal became evident the moment Lotta had followed Mrs. Wandawell into the bakery, because it only took another second before she reached for the cookie tin and took off the lid. Lotta's hazelnut-chip cookies were simply too good to leave be, so she popped one into her mouth right away and took another one for later.


Inside the bakery, Lotta only made it one step beyond the door before her senses were assaulted by the many delightful scents that permeated the small shop. Freshly baked bread - open jars containing many different kinds of jam - spices like cinnamon, cloves, and coriander - pickled oranges, candied apples and sweet raisins - warm pastries with chocolate or sugar frosting - Welch bread, pastry canapés, piles of colorful meringues and pies, pies, pies everywhere. Strawberry, raspberry, blackcurrant, rhubarb, fruits of the forest, peach, pecan, pumpkin and about a dozen other varieties.

Lotta almost drooled. She did manage to keep it all on the inside, but she needed to wipe the corners of her mouth a couple of times on the sleeve of her winter jacket to make sure. Grinning like a crazed mountain hare, she stepped up to the display cases to admire the many delightful products at close range while Mrs. Wandawell spoke to the owner of the store.


Outside, Rocky had already finished the second cookie and was debating with herself whether or not she should spring for a third one already or save it for a little later - and in this case, a little later should be interpreted as three minutes down the road.

The creaking and groaning of a heavy sleigh out on Beechwood Drive pushed the cookies from her mind and made her turn around in her seat to see what was happening. When she spotted the older long-haul sleigh driver atop the buckboard, she raised her arm and waved at her friend who controlled the reins of four beasts of burden that pulled a sleigh loaded to the rim with presents. "Greetings, Valdemar!" she shouted, hopping off her sleigh to greet her friend.

"Greetings, Rockabye," the other driver said and whoa'ed his reindeer. The heavy vehicle came to a gradual halt at the curb, and it gave the younger Elf an opportunity to catch up. "How 've you been?" he said in a gravelly voice as he clasped arms with the younger Elf.

"Oh, just fine, thanks. You?"

"My knees hurt and I have a boil on my right butt cheek."

"Corn-on-a-cob! Hate it when that happens."


Valdemar Elf was a senior and thus wore a black ascot that showed his advanced years and greater experience. Beyond the ascot, he wore the regular long-haul uniform of black ankle boots, a pair of insulated, dark-green pants with a black leather belt, and finally a dark-green double-breasted jacket. His long, graying beard clashed with the rest of the colors, as did his floppy, crimson Elf hat. "So, you're waiting for a load?" he said as he eyed the empty sleigh.

"That's right. I have to bring a birthday layer cake way the cotton candy up to Peary Land… near Mount Mara. It's not quite done yet, I don't think," Rocky said and glanced over at the bakery.

"Sugar-plum-mush, Peary Land… that's far."

"Yeah. Ever been there?"

"Once, a couple of years ago. Bitterly cold and blinding white. And that was in the summer. It's gonna be one cotton-candy of a gift-drop, Rockabye. You better wrap up tight."


Valdemar nodded somberly before he pointed over his shoulder. "I got a milk run today though it looks like a bunch-a presents. They're going all over Elf Springs. No deadlines so I can take my sweet time in gettin' around. Which reminds me, I promised I'd be home for supper so I guess I better be going."

"I guess you better," Rocky said and clasped arms with her old friend once more. "Stay safe, Valdemar."

"You too, Rockabye.. you'll need it where you're going," the senior Elf said as he slapped the reins which made the four reindeer set off on the cobbled, snow-covered street.

Rocky waved at her friend before she shuffled back to her own sleigh. Just as she reached it, the little bells above the door to the bakery sent out a jingle signaling the arrival of Wandawell Elf, Lotta and four junior Elves who each supported a corner of a huge, white cardboard box.

The cardboard box was carried over to the sleigh and moved up onto the flatbed. Rocky and Lotta jumped up there to help the over-worked juniors push it the rest of the way until it was safely leaning against the rear side of the bench. Humming a merry Yuletide song, Rocky went to work attaching a few safety wires to the big box that turned out to weigh less than it looked like.

"All right, that's secure," she said, dusting off her hands after she had tested the integrity of the wires.

"And I have your fee, Miss Rockabye," Wandawell Elf said, opening her purse. She found the appropriate amount of coins and put them into the sleigh driver's callused hand. "I believe that's your regular rate?"

"It is indeed, Mrs. Wandawell. Thank you very much," Rocky said and let the coins jingle in her palm.

As Wandawell looked at the white cardboard box up on the flatbed, she dug into her purse once more and found an envelope addressed to Snoozaby Snorri Elf that had been decorated with plenty of flowers and little hearts. "Oh, and if you would be so kind to give this to my husband when you find him, I would be grateful."

"That's a promise, Mrs. Wandawell," Lotta said and took the envelope. "I'll take care of that personally."

"Good! Good. Thank you. Thank you both," Wandawell said and clasped arms with first Rocky and then Lotta. "I wish you a Merry Yuletide and a safe journey north!" she continued as she climbed up on her old sleigh.

After wishing Wandawell a Merry Yuletide in return, the two younger Elves waved at the senior as they watched her flea-bitten donkey set off down Beechwood Drive. The frame of the old six-seater passenger sleigh complained as it slid over the many cobblestones, but it was soon out of sight.

"Are we ready to go?" Rocky said and turned back to her sleigh to put the coins into the pouch underneath the bench seat.

"Ummm… not quite," Lotta said and shimmied on the spot. A pair of red blotches spread over her cheeks, and it was soon revealed why.

The little bell above the door to the bakery jingled again, and out stepped the four junior Elves. Each of them carried four bags of bread, pastries, buns, pies and cookies so Rocky and Lotta - mostly Lotta - wouldn't starve on the long haul. Another junior came running out of the bakery behind the others carrying two thermos' of hot Yule-tea with almonds and raisins.

Grinning, Lotta supervised where the junior Elves should place the paper bags so everything would be within reach when the situation called for it - half went up on the flatbed, the other half went into the storage space beneath the fur-covered seat. "Oh… wait a minute… hang on," she said and jumped to her feet. She used her fingers to count the number of bags and came to the conclusion that something was missing. "You forgot the most important thing!" she cried as she schmutted off the sleigh and hurried into the bakery.

Rocky just let out a long, slow sigh, but she opened her eyes up wide when Lotta came back out of the store with her arms wrapped around a churn of butter that was just about as big as she was.

"Now… we're… ready… to… go!" Lotta groaned, wobbling around as she carried the churn in front of her.

The only comment out of Rocky was a droll "Uh-huh?" Shaking her head, the sleigh driver laughed out loud as she went over to the door to come to her dear friend's rescue.


Once Rocky had steered the sleigh onto one of the streets designed to be used as a runway, Wreck and Ballumbalytis had no problem getting the light-weight vehicle up to speed. Starting out at a slow trot, they gradually picked up the pace until their strong legs moved in a blur. The greased runners offered no friction on the snow that covered the street, and the sleigh was soon barreling down the runway.

Out of sheer reflex, Lotta gripped the metal rail atop the buckboard. Though she had experienced many take-offs in her brief career as a gift-dropper, she never got used to the crazy speeds needed to lift off - she much preferred to cruise around at a natural, low speed like they had done when they went through Elf Springs.

The headwind forced her hood back, but she didn't have any hands left to pull it back up. Her flaming red locks soon fluttered in the breeze, and she was glad she had decided to put her Elf cone hat into her liner pocket. If she had worn it, it would have been blown clear back to Chestnut Street by now.

After what seemed an eternity, Wreck and Ballumbalytis finally reached the speed needed to lift off. As soon as the runners left the snowy surface, the ride became smoother and the headwind trailed off. Rocky kept a tight grip on the reins just in case, but the two strong reindeer knew what they were doing and went into a gradual climb that saw them well up in the air before long.

"Ahhh, much better," Lotta said and leaned back on the fur-covered bench seat. Looking around, she squealed in delight at the sight of the massive amounts of snow that had been dumped on and near Elf Springs by the big flurries. Her heavy winter outfit wasn't needed anymore, so she unbuttoned her jacket and swept it off her shoulders. "Do you want me to help you with your coat, Rocky?" she said, remembering to take her cone hat from the liner pocket before she stowed the fur-lined jacket in the back.

"No, thank you. I'm fine for now."

Lotta smiled and put on her cone hat. It was gray so it created a nice contrast to her red hair. "Okie-dokie. Oh, Great Elf, this is a nice day to be in the air!" she said, glancing at the white landscape and the strong, low sun above them.

The cookies she had made earlier in the day called out to her, so she took the tin and unscrewed the lid. Furrowing her brow, she cast a sideways glance at her companion when she realized that almost half of the cookies were gone already. She shrugged and took one - they were too good to leave be.

They flew on in silence for a little while before Lotta drew in a deep breath. She held it there long enough to make Rocky shoot her a puzzled look, but then the easily excitable Elf broke out in the good, old Elf Trekking Song: "Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh!" Lotta sang at the top of her lungs, "Here we go a-wanderin'… a-wan, a-wan, a-wanderin' over the fields so green! Only-today-they're-whiiiiiiiite! Come on, Rocky, join me for the chorus!"

Rocky did her best to keep up with the singing, but she was soon lost to the sight of the enthusiastic, bouncy Elf next to her who acted as the lead singer of their two-Elf band. Chuckling, she shuffled around on the bench and thought ahead to the undoubtedly crazy events they would experience on the endless journey north - and better yet, they would experience them together.

A brief lull in the singing was soon blown away when Lotta dug further into the Great Elfin Songbook and began a stirring rendition of a traditional song every Elf knew from their time at Junior Elf Summer Camp.

The lyrics alone invoked pleasant memories of sitting around camp fires on long, hot summer nights; making twistbread and roasting marshmallows over the open flames, holding hands in the shadows, playing the ukulele, and singing in a loud, off-key fashion. "In a cabin in a wood, a little old Elf by the window stood. Saw a rabbit hoppin' by, knockin' at his door. Help me! Help me Sir! it said, or the Human will cook me dead! Come little rabbit, come with me, happy, happy we will be," Lotta sang, stomping her feet, clapping her hands and creating her own rabbit chirps and bird-song sound effects between the verses.




Several hours into the flight, everything was going well for Rocky, Lotta, Wreck, Ballumbalytis, and the layer cake on the sleigh. They were cruising along at the preferred altitude of twelve-hundred feet, but since the area was devoid of Humans, they could have flown closer to the ground had they wanted to.

Though they were flying over the vast Magical Calshiweah Forest, the landscape below was as dull and featureless as Rocky had feared. Lotta's eyes had been out on stalks to spot the ancient Sacred Pine Tree - the Tree of Life where the Great Elf herself was conceived and born as the child of Mother Nature and Father Earth, according to Elf mythology - but she had missed it, much to her grumbling annoyance. Even Lotta's boundless enthusiasm had waned when the snow-covered pines went on and on and on with nary a variation for hundreds of miles.

The sun had started to set not long after they had left Elf Springs and the hinterland, and the only highlight had come when the last rays cast shadows that seemed to go on forever between the many trees.

To offset the dullness down below, the darkening sky above provided a glorious spectacle. Not only were the stars out in force, the bluish-green northern lights drew abstract paintings across the heavens as it moved in unpredictable patterns that were reminiscent of water forming the sand on a beach.

Lotta had fallen silent as she gazed up at the spectacle. Her yap was hanging open and her eyes were wide so they could take in all the wonders - she even tried to sweep her petite hand across the cloth of stars to predict where the next waves of light would show up. "Look, Rocky… the Great Elf is playing with her veil tonight. Isn't it beautiful? Oh, she's looking down upon us all!" she said with great reverence.

"Yeah, it's fantastic," Rocky said, looking at another section of the sky. After a little while, she looked back at Lotta's wide open face instead - that was just as beautiful as the northern lights.

"Whenever the Great Elf plays with her veil, a special, little Elf is born," Lotta continued, not noticing Rocky's eyes on her. "Actually, it happened on the night I was born."

"I believe that!"

"Please don't tease me, Rocky. I'm serious…"

"I wasn't teasing you… honest," Rocky said and reached over to muss her companion's leg.

Lotta gave Rocky a sideways glance to see if the older Elf was in fact teasing her despite her reassurance she wasn't, but came to the conclusion that she really had made an honest statement. Smiling, she snuggled up to her friend and leaned her head on the strong shoulder. "Yeah. Just after I was born, the healer delivering me brought me outside and held me up towards the evening sky so the Great Elf could bless my arrival. I was told he said the green veil proved that I was a special, little Elf."

"You are special, Lotta. No joke."

"Awww. Thank you."

Rocky reached down and gave Lotta's nearest arm a little squeeze. "You're welcome. I was born in the early hours of the morning, but I was blessed by the Great Elf too."

"We all are, silly Elf!" Lotta said and swatted playfully at Rocky's tummy.

Rocky snickered into her hand, but a host of blinking lights in the far distance soon demanded her full attention. "There's an airplane full of Humans," she said, pointing at the blinking red and white lights that followed a path high above them.

"Huh," Lotta said and followed the trajectory of Rocky's finger up in the sky. "I wonder where they're going."

"To the other side of the world, probably."

"Mmmm. I don't get it. I mean, number one, how can they even get those huge crates in the air, and number two… who in their right mind would want to sit inside such a tin can during a flight?! I just don't get it…"

"Oh, you know the Humans, Lotta. They get scared over nothing. They would soil their undies if they had to sit on the outside of their airplanes like we do."

"Go figure," Lotta said with a shrug. "The view and the fresh air are the best parts! And the raisin buns, of course. And the gingerbread. And the cookies."

"Well, they do have in-flight catering, I know that for a fact. Oh, which reminds me… one of my second cousins twice removed was a bit of an adventurer. Kwickborn Elf. He snuck aboard one of those big birds and went halfway around the world resting in the luggage compartment."


"Oh, yes!"

"Great Elf, I'm glad I don't have to be cooped up with a bunch of Humans for any length of time… what happened to him? Was he discovered?"

"Oh no, he arrived just fine. He's living in a place called Hollywood… I guess it's down south somewhere. The last I heard, he had changed his name and had gone into the movie business."

Lotta pulled back with a jerk and stared at Rocky with a pair of eyes that narrowed down into slits. "You're making all this up, aren't you?" she said in a low, dangerous voice.

Rocky held back the giggle for as long as she could, but when it came, it was a good one. "Yeah," she said, snickering into her hand. "Well, not all of it. Kwickborn really did sneak aboard an airplane, but he left in a hurry when he discovered there were vicious mutts down there being transported in cages."

"Sugar-plum-mush, Rockabye," Lotta said and leaned back against the strong shoulder. "I must be rubbing off on you. If I didn't like you so much, I'd tickle you silly right now. Shootin' jokes at unsuspecting Elves… I mean, what's the Elfin world coming to?"

"I like you too… and you can tickle me silly any day of the week. Twice on the weekends if ya fancy," Rocky said and rubbed her shoulder against Lotta's side.

They looked at each other for a few seconds before they burst into laughter and snuggled up even closer.


"Ma kola tooba wamba?" Lotta said, holding up the Norse Elf-South Elf phrase book she had brought along for the ride. When she didn't get a response, she tried again in a sweeter voice. "Ma kola tooba wamba?"

"I have no idea what you're saying," Rocky said and let out a long sigh. "You know, I don't think that book will help us much. Or it won't help me much. Cotton-candy, it won't help me at all."

"Mibala kola Epilotta," Lotta continued, nodding at her friend like it would explain it all.

Rocky looked at Lotta's expectant face for a few seconds before she tried speaking the strange language. "Uh… mibala kola Rockabye…?"

"Yes! Mibala kola means 'my name is', or 'I am' ! Oh, we'll make you into an expert on Norse Elf in no time!"

"I doubt it."

Lotta grinned and leafed through the phrase book. At the back of the book, the editors had collected several essential phrases that everyone traveling in the Elf Norselands should know. "Let me see," she said, licking her lips as she moved her index finger down the pages. "All right. Wilka komu-ula binobeno kima wa-lomma?"

"Is that even a language… or are you making it up as you go along as a payback for the airplane story?" Rocky said in a monotone.

"Oh-ho, no… it's a language, all right. Wilka komu-ula binobeno kima wa-lomma, Rocky."

"Pass. Now and forever."

Lotta grunted and swatted at her companion's tummy again. "It means, I would like a glass of goat milk, please."

"Goat milk?"

" 's what it means, yes."

"I can't stand goat milk."

Groaning out loud, Lotta closed the phrase book and used it to swat at Rocky's thigh. "It doesn't matter! It's for when we find some kind of eatery along the way. Wilka komu-ula binobeno kima means I would like a glass of… something."

"Oh… so wa-lomma is goat milk?"


"I can't stand goat milk."

Several seconds went by - accompanied by the familiar sound of crickets chirping somewhere in the far distance - before Lotta closed the phrase book once more and threw it down in the footwell behind the buckboard. "I need a slice of pie," she said and shuffled around so she could reach the proper paper bag up on the flatbed.


"I spy… with my little eye… something that begins… with a… an S!" Lotta said, looking around the sleigh and their entire - fairly limited - neck of the woods to find something they hadn't already used in one of the twenty-two previous rounds of I Spy .

Rocky scrunched up her face and appeared to be deep in thought. "Mmmm… star."

"Ha! No!"


"And another no!"

"I give up."

"Oh, for the Great Elf's sake, Rocky!" Lotta said and nudged an elbow into her reluctant playing partner's side. "It's so easy… you might say it's aaaaaall around you."

Rocky gave the whole world surrounding them another thorough check before she let out a sigh that proved that if it had been her choice, they would have stopped playing after the eighteenth round or so. Maybe even the fifteenth. Or the twelfth. "Sky?"

"No! That's not a physical thing…"

"I give up."

"Oh, Rocky! Snow!"

"I see."

"Or not, as the case most certainly was!" Lotta said and let out a snicker.

Rocky didn't reply beyond a sideways glance. The experienced sleigh driver shuffled around on the fur-covered bench to find a spot that wasn't so warm. They had been going for ages already, but they had only just reached the halfway point of their seemingly endless norsebound journey.

Far below them, they had crossed the boundary into the Northeast Greenland National Park, but the darkness of the night meant it was all just a gray, blurry blob of snow, snow and more snow. She needed to stretch her legs and her back, but without knowing what kind of terrain they would find down on the ground, it would be too dangerous to land - there was a risk they wouldn't have enough runway to get airborne again, even with the light-weight load they carried around.

"Good thing we're Elves and not whales," Lotta suddenly said. When it didn't earn her a response, she snuggled up closer to her companion.

The odd comment completely derailed Rocky's train of thought, and she looked down at the fair Elf next to her for an explanation. "You're gonna have to spell it out for me, Lotta… 'cos I didn't get that one."

"Well, it's just… we couldn't play I Spy , could we? I mean we have little eyes, but whales have huge eyes. I spy with my little eye, right?"

"Oh. Right. Sounds reasonable enough," Rocky said and let out a confused chuckle. She had said it before, and she would say it again: with Epilotta Elf around, she had to expect the unexpected at all times.

"G'wan, it's your turn."

"Oh, can't we take a break from playing? Please? Just a ten-minute break? Or how about we played Twenty Questions? I love Twenty Questions…"

"Oh, but I Spy is so much fun!" Lotta said and clapped her hands.

Rocky didn't want to disappoint her dear friend, so she scrunched up her face and let her eyes roam over the limited amount of things the world around them had to offer. "All right. Hmmm," she mumbled.

She had already used most of the letters in the alphabet, including a couple of real tricky ones like W for whooshing tail, E for eyebrow and X for excellent cookies - referee Lotta had disallowed the last one. "All right… Hmmm…"

Before she had time to come up with a letter, two flickering points of orange light down on the ground some distance ahead of them caught her eye. If light was on in a house or some other kind of settlement, it would mean it was inhabited, and that could mean they would be able to land. "Light," she said, pointing ahead of her.

"Oh, Rocky! You're supposed to say L!" Lotta cried and smacked her hands down on her thighs in frustration. "Then I'm supposed to guess the- what? A light? Out here?"

"Yeah, ahead of us a few miles out. Tell you what… I need a break, so I think we should descend and check it out."

"Sounds like a good plan, Rocky. I need to visit the little Elves' room, too…" Lotta said and shuffled around on the bench seat.

"We may not be able to land, though."

"Oh… uh… oh."

"We'll never know if we don't try, so… let's try," Rocky said and tugged at the reins to let Wreck and Ballumbalytis know they should slow down and begin a steady descent.


Flying at an altitude of one hundred and twenty feet above the ground, they were able to get a far better view of the terrain below. Snow-covered pine trees stood tall and proud everywhere, and large, gray rock formations occasionally appeared through the thick layers of snow down on the forest floor.

Rocky had found a corridor between the tall pines, and the sleigh was headed towards the two points of orange light that were still visible in the near distance. The experienced long-haul driver kept an eye on the condition of the surface below them while they moved ahead. "Underneath all that snow, I think it's a dirt road of some kind down there, Lotta. It looks fairly smooth to me."

"I agree. The snow looks flat and safe," Lotta said, peeking over the edge of the sleigh to scout out the terrain. The light from the new moon was faint, but her sensitive vision didn't need much ambient light to pick up details that would be all but invisible to human eyes.

"Whoa… whoa, Wreck… let's go down, boy. Whoa, Ballumbalytis," Rocky said and tugged at the reins once the vehicle and the two reindeer were at the point of touching down. When the hooves and the greased runners made contact with the snow, the ride became bumpier, but it wasn't enough to endanger the birthday layer cake up on the flatbed.

It also became colder, and Lotta reached for her fur-lined winter jacket at once. Taking off her rigid cone hat, she pulled the hood up and tightened the laces. There was a funny smell in the air, and she took several deep - unsuccessful - sniffs to figure out what it could be.

The points of lights got closer. By the time the sleigh reached the end of the snow-covered dirt road and slid into a courtyard of sorts, it became evident they were produced by two torches burning brightly in firebowls made of metal grating. Two large, metal pans next to the firebowls carried glowing lumps of coal that were stacked up four high in each.

"Humans," Rocky said darkly as she looked at the metalwork. She grimaced at the stench that emanated from the glowing lumps of coal. "That explains the odd smell."

"Yeah. But Rocky, please don't forget that only a small part of the Humans are bad. Remember the two young girls we saved on the Night of Nights last year? Hannah and Sandie? They were real friendly to us… and we could play games with them."

"They were children. That's different. We should always remain vigilant whenever there are Human adults nearby. This could be a station for the national park rangers… in which case we'll need to be even more vigilant." As she spoke, Rocky kept holding onto the reins like she didn't know whether to leave again at once, or remain there for a little while so she could stretch her legs.

Two larger buildings and a smaller hut lined the courtyard. One of the larger buildings seemed to be a regular farm house, and the other looked vaguely like a two-storey barn, though with a few extra features like a pair of dormers below the drooping roofline.

Rocky's burning need to rest her back - and her backside - won out over her skepticism, and she clicked her tongue to get Wreck and Ballumbalytis to turn the sleigh around so it would face the right way along the snow-covered dirt road. When they were in position, she tied the reins to the rail atop the buckboard and jumped off the sleigh.

Lotta followed her friend down into the soft snow that reached above her knees. While Rocky strolled around to stretch her sore legs and rest her backside, Lotta studied the two buildings facing the courtyard. The barn in particular seemed to have a magnetic pull on her, and she shuffled over there through the snow to check it out.


A pair of clean tracks created by runners stood out clearly in the snow, proving that a sleigh of some kind had left the barn at some point after the last flurry. The sliding door the tracks led away from hadn't been closed fully, and Lotta simply could not fight the temptation of sneaking a peek inside the large building.

Glancing around the corner of the sliding door, she could see the building worked as a combined barn, stables and general storeroom. Several wooden ladders went up to a hayloft that ran the length of the barn which explained the pair of dormers on the exterior.

Though the first section was empty, it was easy to see by two rail-straight scuff marks on the hay-covered floor that it was a regular garage for a sleigh. There wasn't anything exciting to see there so Lotta moved on. Down at the far end of the single, large room, all sorts of old scrap metal had been mashed together into a pile that nearly reached the ceiling, and she knew better than to explore a pile of junk like that - the risk of getting injured was too great.

The most interesting item in the barn, however, was the large animal that occupied the middle section. At first, Lotta thought it was a dray horse, but sneaking inside and moving closer to it, she could see it was a fully-grown moose. Elves had no natural enemies in the animal kingdom apart from vicious dogs, so she felt perfectly safe around the heavy, long-legged beast that seemed to be asleep.

Lotta tip-toed closer to it to get a better look, but came to an abrupt stop when she heard someone mumbling in their sleep in what appeared to be a human voice. She spun around on her heel and stared wide-eyed at the rest of the barn, but the only two beings in there were herself and the moose. The human voice certainly hadn't come from her - which meant the moose had spoken.

Her theory was proven right a split second later when the moose came to from its slumber. It was hard to say which of the two had the biggest fright, but they both jumped back in a hurry. The moose backtracked with clumsy steps until its hind quarters bumped against the wall on the other side of the barn, and Lotta squealed out loud and dove for cover behind one of the support pillars.

"Halt! Who goes there? Friend or foe?" the moose said in a loud and clear Human voice.

Shaking her head thoroughly, Lotta moved around in the loose hay to find a better vantage point. The moose was still there, and it was still speaking in a Human voice. She slapped her cheeks to wake up from the bad dream she found herself in. Perhaps the slice of pecan pie she had just had had been fermented somehow?

"Is anyone there?" the moose continued. "Oh, Jumping Jehoshaphat, I'm sure I saw a rat in here…"

"A rat?!" Lotta squeaked. Letting out an impressive huff, she stepped into the center of the bay where the moose was standing. With arms that were crossed over her chest and a foot that tapped a fast beat on the hay-covered floor, she let out another of the impressive huffs. She still hadn't learned to speak proper Human, but her bubbling temper more than made up for that deficit. "I'm Elf, thankyouverymuch! And you moose talking," she said in pidgin Human.

"I could have told you that," the moose said and let out a snort.

A few seconds went by in silence before Lotta threw her arms in the air. "You tell me how Santa's Suspenders moose can talk like Human?"

"Human? Oh, is that what it's called? I have no idea. My owner talks and behaves like a scientist, so perhaps he has conducted some kind of perverted experiment on yours truly to bring out this side of my personality. I've long suspected him of being a mad scientist although I have no proof. There's something rotten in the state of business, that much is clear."

"Corn-on-a-cob, this is surreal," Lotta mumbled in Elfish. She rubbed her brow and gave the odd moose a thorough check. It was a moose, and it was speaking Human - there were no two ways about it. "You are who?" she said in Human.

"I fail to see how my name can be of any value to you, Elf, but alas, ask and you shall be rewarded. Archibald T. Moose, Esquire. Don't call me Archie. I cannot stand people, or Elves, who disrespect the name my dearly departed mother found for me in the annals of our family history."


"Oh, I am but a moose," Archibald T. Moose said, ignoring the puzzled look on his spectator's face. "A moose with a silver tongue if I do say so myself. One shouldn't brag. Bragging is so vulgar… but it's hard not to when you consider the brilliant skills I have in my repertoire. Come now, Elf, isn't there anything you would like to know? Say, about quantum mechanics or the meaning of life?"

Lotta's jaw slowly slipped down to her chest as she tried to digest the whole, somewhat insane notion of a talking moose who was apparently quite full of himself.

"No? Oh, that slackjawed look is so boorish. Alas, my tiny Elfin friend, I can see my wisdom and knowledge is wasted on your kind. Ah, let me conduct an experiment on you. Rice pudding."

"Buh… whut? Rice pudding?"

"I should have known," Archibald T. Moose continued, shaking his large head. "The experiment was a success. The subject only responds to the most basic of needs and urges. Ack, how cruel that a brilliant mind such as I should encounter a creature with such limited intelligence."

"Buh… meeses… no… mice… no… aargh! Moose- mooses always nice. You no nice moose! Goodbye!" Lotta said with a growl. Nothing more needed to be said, so she spun around and stomped out of the barn. Behind her, Archibald T. Moose let out a snort, but she ignored him completely.


Outside, she strode through the snow until she reached the sleigh where Rocky was busy checking the harnesses controlling the reindeer. "Sugar-plum-mush, you'll never, ever believe what just happened," Lotta growled from somewhere down in her throat.

"Try me," Rocky said, patting Wreck's fur.

Lotta turned around and pointed at the barn. "There's a moose in there."

"Oh, is there a moose loose in the hoose?" Rocky said with a grin that faded when she caught a glimpse of the scrunched-up appearance of Lotta's face. "Uh, that was a joke. Hoose, you know… house."

"Rocky, for the love of the Great Elf, leave the cotton-candy jokes to me, will ya?" Lotta said in a deeper register than usual. It only lasted for a little while, then she clutched her head and let out a sigh. "No, there really is a moose in there. An insolent moose!"

"He's probably just lonely…"

"I don't think so. He insulted me! Me, Epilotta Elf!"

Rocky grimaced and leaned against the sleigh. "Well, what do you want to do about it?"

"Do? Do? Do?!" Lotta cried and clenched her fists. After a few seconds, she shrugged and climbed up into the sleigh where she opened the fur-covered bench seat. "Eat a well-buttered raisin bun," she said and dove down into the storage room.

Chuckling, Rocky held up the seat so it wouldn't give Lotta a smack in the rear while she had her head down among the many paper bags. "A bun sounds mighty fine right now. Wouldya mind finding one of the thermos' as well?"

"That's a can-do," Lotta said and took it at once. When she came back up for air carrying a paper bag with a few buns for her and her friend, she broke out in a cheesy grin. "Oh, by the Great Elf, Rocky… I'm telling you it was the worst-mannered moose I have ever spoken to. Sugar-plum-mush, he was just plain rude! Rude, I'm telling you! Ru-hoo-hoo-hoo-de! Let's eat. That'll help."

Chuckling, Rocky reached for the thermos and unscrewed the lid so they could wash down the foul taste of rude moose.


The two Elves only stayed at the suspected ranger station in the national park for another quarter of an hour. They had no way of telling how soon the Human owner would return, but they saw no point in risking getting exposed, so once the tea and the raisin buns had been consumed - and Lotta had visited the little Elves' room - they climbed aboard the custom-built sleigh and continued their trek north.

After they had barreled down the bumpy, snow-covered road to take off, Rocky steered the two reindeer into a wide arc through the sky to get them back on course. High above the tens of thousands of pine trees, they leveled out and got underway.

Lotta leaned over the side of the sleigh and looked down at the barn far below. The rude moose was once more left to his own devices. A part of her felt sorry for the intelligent creature, but another - weightier - part was still annoyed over being called dumb, which was in effect what the large animal had done.

Huffing over the insult, she folded down her hood and unbuttoned her winter jacket to get some fresh air to her petite body.


Several hours went by where Rocky, Lotta and the two reindeer continued to head north. A certain travel fatigue had set in, and Lotta's yawns turned more frequent. Rubbing her eyes didn't do much to get the sand out, and she didn't even feel like playing games, eating snacks or singing merry Yuletide evergreens from the Great Elfin Songbook.

The landscape below was so dull and uninspiring that Lotta's eyes began to slip shut. The first time it happened, she caught it and shook her head to get the sleepies out. The second time the sand-Elf came to visit, her chin dropped down onto her chest, but a tiny amount of turbulence stirred her awake at once.

"Oh Great Elf, I'm so sleepy," she mumbled, shuffling around on the fur-covered bench to find a spot that wasn't quite so sleep-inducing. When that didn't work, she took a deep breath of the fresh air and held it inside to cool off her lungs. Unfortunately, it only had a limited effect. Rubbing her face didn't give her much either, and she had to admit that she might as well try to catch some shuteye. "Rocky, would you mind if I took a little-" She interrupted herself to break out into a huge yawn. "-Nap. Pardon me."

"Of course not. C'mon, use my thigh as a pillow," Rocky said and waved her friend over to her.

"You wouldn't mind? It wouldn't bother you?"

Grinning, Rocky smoothed down the insulated fabric on her pantleg. "No. Well, it would if you drooled on my pants."

"I'll try to keep it all inside," Lotta said with a snicker. Yawning again, she swung her legs up on the bench and scooted over to her friend's lap. The thigh was warm, soft and inviting, and it didn't take long before she was fast asleep.


In her dream, she found herself frolicking merrily in a field of blooming flowers under a warm, summer sun. The sky was blue with a few, scattered puffy clouds. Red poppies, yellow tulips and purple saxifrage surrounded her as she danced around wearing a white, flimsy summer dress and holding a bouquet that carried many of the same flowers that were found on the field. In her free hand, she held a thin veil high in the air. The gentle summer breeze caught the veil and made it float around like a butterfly in flight.

Her shoulders, arms and upper chest were bare save for an amber pendant around her neck, but it wasn't a revealing dress at all and she never felt exposed as she danced around silently among the beautiful flowers.

Out of nowhere, Rocky appeared wearing a white summer dress that at first sight was similar to Lotta's. A closer inspection revealed the fabric gracing the taller Elf's body had several highlights that weren't on Lotta's dress; they were different, but similar enough to complement each other well.

The two Elves met and reached out for one another. Amid the blooming poppies, tulips and saxifrage, they clasped arms and drew closer. Gazing into each other's eyes, they closed the distance between them and claimed the other one's lips in a warm, loving kiss.

When they separated, they stayed close. Rocky reached up and caressed Lotta's cheek. "I love you, Epilotta. Now that we're Joined under the watchful eye of the Great Elf, I promise I'll love you forever and a day."

They both smiled through a veil of tears. "I love you too, Rockabye. Forever and a day like we said in the sacred vows," Lotta said and reached up to return the caress. A few happy tears ran down the cheeks of the tough sleigh driver, but Lotta caught them with her thumb. "Please don't cry… not now… I love you, Rocky…"

Lotta began to weep as well, and large, crystal tears escaped her eyes and fell onto her cheeks. Wet tears. Very wet tears. A ton of very wet tears.


Grunting, Lotta broke out of the beautiful dream and came to on the fur-covered bench high in the sky en route to Peary Land. Dazed and confused, she wiped her cheeks that were still quite wet. The moisture turned out to have been produced by snowflakes rather than tears. "Corn-on-a-cob, what's going on here?" she mumbled, sitting up with a jerk.

"We're in the middle of a cotton-candy snow storm!" the real Rocky said with her entire face scrunched up into an ugly mask to keep the snowflakes out of her eyes.

"Oh… but… where are your goggles? Did they blow off?"

"No. They're down in the storage space."

"But why didn't you-"

" 'Cos I didn't wanna wake you up, that's why."

"Oh… I'm… I'm… thank you," Lotta said and scooted off the bench. Climbing down into the gap between the seat and the buckboard, she reached up to put a hand on Rocky's thigh. "I'm awake now, so… please lift your tush. I'll get the goggles."

Rocky scrunched up her face even more but rose from the fur-covered seat. The pelting she received from the snowflakes that came in horizontally and at full speed made her groan out loud, and it only got worse when her hood was blown back and her long hair was spread out behind her. "Ugh! Ugh-ugh-ugh… ugh!"

Rummaging through the storage space, Lotta swept aside a pile of spent and full paper bags from the bakery before she found the two sets of goggles. She wrapped her own pair around her arm for later and prepared Rocky's pair first because it was far more important that the driver was able to see where they were going. The lid was slammed shut with a bang, and she hopped back up onto the bench and held out her hands. "You can sit down now, Rocky! I found them… lean down just a little so I can reach!"

Rocky did as asked, and Lotta soon pulled the snow goggles down across her friend's black locks and pointy ears. The inclement conditions got in the way of the operation and meant it wasn't a perfect fit, but it would have to do.

"Thanks, Lotta! I owe you one!" Rocky said, adjusting the goggles to make them sit better on the bridge of her nose. A few strands of hair had become stuck on the wrong side of the glasses and were already tickling her cheek, but she pushed that aside for later.

"Oh no, you've already helped me so much," Lotta said as she put on her own pair of goggles. Even with the protective gear in place, it wasn't easy to see what was going on, much less where they were actually headed. She loved snow and had enjoyed hundreds if not thousands of flurries big and small in her Elfin years, but this one was too much of a good thing.

The snow cloud responsible for the storm towered over the sleigh and the two reindeer pulling it. From the zenith down to the horizon; everything was a gray wall of snow. At the speed they were going, it pelted them and turned into ice needles that prickled their skin. "You were right before, Rocky… this is a clear ten on the Ugh scale! Sugar-plum-mush, I've never seen anything like it!" Lotta cried. Despite the goggles, she needed to keep a hand in front of her face to evade the worst of the ice needles.

Suddenly, Ballumbalytis brayed in pain and broke his stride. A dark shadow of something solid flew over the sleigh and was gone even before Lotta could move her head to track it.

The progress of the sleigh faltered as a result of the incident which made the ride a lot bumpier. Wreck tried to compensate for his associate's loss of momentum, but he was only able to do so much. The strong animal turned its head back and let out a braying wail meant to warn the two Elves.

"It just got even more Ugh!" Rocky cried, tugging at the reins.

Lotta grabbed hold of the rail atop the buckboard with anxiety blossoming inside her. She gave up trying to track the foreign object and whipped her head around to look at the beasts ahead of her. Ballumbalytis was right in front of her seat, but when she tried to peek through the gloomy conditions, the brutal ice needles meant she couldn't see anything. "Great Elf, I think something hit him, Rocky!"

"Yeah. Those cotton-candy ice needles… he probably got 'em in the eye or something!"

"No, I think it was something more substantial… it flew right over our heads. Corn-on-a-cob, I saw it, but only for a split second…"

"Whatever it was, he's hurtin'."

"Oh, no… are we in trouble?"

"Not yet! We need to get out of this cotton-candy mess, though… hang on, Lotta, we're slowing down so we can descend!"

"Oh, Great Elf!" Lotta cried, ducking her head down so she wouldn't get pelted too badly. "Please hear your faithful follower, Epilotta Elf! This is one of those times where we could use your hand on the reins! Urgently!"

"I already got my hands on the reins… that oughtta do for now," Rocky said and tugged on the leather straps to let Wreck and the ailing Ballumbalytis know they should slow down.

"Maybe if we're lucky, the snow won't reach all the way down to the ground!" Lotta said and began to chew on her already short fingernails. Two seconds later, she reached up and covered her snow goggles with her hands. "That didn't come out right. Of course it'll reach down to the ground, you rube! Oh, Santa's Suspenders, this isn't one of my best days…"

Rocky chuckled but didn't have time to reach over to muss Lotta's hair or thigh like she usually did when she wanted to comfort her friend.

Ballumbalytis still wasn't back to normal, but Wreck put up a good job of covering for his battered companion. The two reindeer slowed down and performed a controlled descent until the sleigh was flying roughly four hundred feet above the ground.

The rocky, natural terrain of the Northeast Greenland National Park wasn't the world's most hospitable place to make an emergency landing, but for once, the two Elves and their reindeer were in luck and found an isolated stretch of land that didn't contain too many visible outcrops - the ground underneath the snow was a different matter, so they had to chance it.

Lotta hadn't been too far off the truth when she quipped about the snow not reaching down to the ground. The flurry was still going strong by the time Rocky steered the sleigh around to come in to land, but the snowflakes were much larger and thus softer.

As the greased runners once again made contact with the snow-covered surface, the sleigh bounced around a little, but although the trembling was stronger than the last time, it wasn't enough to damage the layer cake.

"Whoa… whoa, boys," Rocky said and pulled at the reins. Wreck and Ballumbalytis soon slowed down to a medium trot, and then a fast walk. After turning the sleigh into a natural hollow circled by massive rocks to try to find some shelter from the falling snow, Rocky jumped off the bench seat almost before the vehicle had come to a standstill so she could check up on Ballumbalytis.

Lotta donned her winter jacket and followed her friend up to the animal whose pained braying gave a good hint that it was most displeased with the situation. "What's wrong with him, Rocky? Can we go on?" she said after wading through the waist-deep snow.

"I don't know yet," Rocky said, examining Ballumbalytis' muzzle, eyes and ears. "Cotton candy, he's got a big bump on his forehead right below his antlers. His eyes are all right, but there's definitely a nasty bump there. Sugar plum mush, it must have hurt like a-"

"A ball of ice! It must have been a ball of ice that flew over us, Rocky!"

"Could be. Anyhow, I do know we can't stay here for any length of time. We're more than a thousand miles from civilization… if Ballumbalytis is unable to carry on, we may be forced to leave him beh-"

"Leave him behind?!" Lotta said and drew in a gasp.

"It would be morally reprehensible to force a hurting animal into such hard work, Lotta."

"Well, I agree, but… but… is the alternative really that much better for him? Oh, Great Elf…"

Rocky shrugged and focused on tending to the battered animal.

Scrunching up her face, Lotta pulled down her hood and looked around. They had landed in the middle of nowhere, and that was to be taken quite literally. She made a slow three-hundred and sixty degree turn down in the natural hollow but saw nothing but snow, rocks, more snow and more rocks.

A dark shadow in the center of one of the numerous rocks lining the hollow caught her attention. She couldn't figure out what it could be, so she began to wade over there through the waist-deep snow. Getting closer, she could see the dark shadow was in reality the mouth of a deep cave. "Oh…" she mumbled as she shuffled closer still.

Leaning against the rock face at the entrance to the cave, she popped her head inside to sniff for predators and carnivorous animals like polar bears, wolves or crazed mountain hares. There was a familiar smell in there, but it didn't come from an animal, of that she was certain. In fact, it smelled more like onion soup, but she scoffed at that ridiculous notion. "Hello?" she said, holding her hand up to act as an amplifier.

"Hello, -ello, -llo, -lo, -o," echoed around the cave, but it didn't get a response. Grinning over the unexpected fun moment amid all the dark drama, Lotta snickered into her hand and took a deep breath to give the echo cave something else to play with.

Before she had time to let rip with one of the classics, a resounding "HELLO? IS ANYONE THERE?" came blasting back at her. It spooked her so badly that it made her jump back from the entrance. Inevitably, she tripped over an unsighted rock and fell flat on her tush; disappearing fully in the thick layer of snow, she left behind a perfect outline of an Elf who had her arms out wide in panic.

"Oh, Great Elf, now I've messed up again," Lotta mumbled as she clambered to her feet and hurried back to the sleigh as fast as the snow and her little legs would allow. "It's probably another talking moose or something frightening like a big hairy drooling hungry tickle-monster and now Rocky's going to be angry with me because I left her all alone at the sleigh and maybe she's not even there anymore 'cos she left to find me but I was playing at an echo cave and found something spooky and maybe I gotta walk a thousand miles to get home! I need to get back to her!" - As she spoke, her voice grew in intensity until it was only a notch below all-out screeching.

While Lotta hustled one way in the waist-deep snow to get back to safety, Rocky came hustling the other way to find, and no doubt rescue, her dear friend. "Lotta? Lotta? Where are you?" the sleigh driver cried from further out into the natural hollow.

"Right here! Rocky! I'm right here!" Lotta cried back, waving her arm in the air to catch her friend's attention. The deep snow made it difficult for her to make any progress, but she moved her legs like drumsticks to get away from the scary cave.

When they met somewhere in the middle, Rocky quickly checked her dear friend for injuries by patting her down thoroughly. "The next time you get an urge to wander off someplace, please tell me beforehand! You had me worried sick, Lotta! This is dangerous terrain we're in!"

"I know… I'm sorry. I found a cave and I said hello and I heard an echo rattle around in there and it was really fun and I thought I wanted to do another but-but-but-but then the echo said something I didn't say! It said, is anyone there, but I never said that… I only said-"

"Hello?" a gruff, female voice said behind the two Elves.

Gasping deeply, Lotta stood up on tip-toes as the spookiness caused a tidal wave of goosebumps to riddle her body. Tip-toes proved not to be enough, so she jumped up and wrapped her arms and legs around Rocky's strong body while letting out an unbridled squeal similar to an air-raid siren directly into her companion's ear.

It soon became too much for Rocky who began to wobble where she stood. One moment later, she fell down backwards and landed on her behind in the deep, soft snow - only then did Lotta's squealing stop.

"Rocky?" Lotta croaked in a jittery voice.

"Yeah… did you soil your shorts?"

"Not yet… are we doomed?"

"Hmmm… I don't think so," Rocky said as she got a good look at the person who had spooked them. The first surprise came when it was revealed the female was an Elf just like Lotta and Rocky. The second surprise came when it was revealed the Elf carried a pickaxe. "Or maybe we are," Rocky said and gulped down a nervous lump that had formed in her throat.




The flurry grew in strength, and a myriad of large, soft snowflakes were soon falling from the leaden sky. It didn't take long before a heavy, white layer had formed on Rocky and Lotta's hoods that made them resemble the snow-people Lotta had made back home on her front lawn. The winds picked up as well and turned the environment in the natural hollow into something not even the toughest Elf would want to spend too much time in.

"Hello? Can you understand me?" the mysterious Elf tried again, speaking in perfect Elfish. The lady-Elf was dressed like the labor-Elves back home in Elf Springs and elsewhere, with sturdy boots, insulated pants and a leather apron that covered most of her body. Underneath it, she wore what appeared to be a double-breasted schmutting jacket where the sleeves had been removed despite the bitterly cold conditions. Like most other Elves, she had red hair, green eyes and a ruddy complexion, and she wore a crimson rigid cone hat atop her flaming red locks.

When she still couldn't squeeze a response from the two other Elves, she put down her pickaxe and lifted her cone hat to scratch her hair. "Oh Great Elf… it's just so typical that when we finally get some visitors, they can't understand a cotton-candy word I'm saying…"

Rocky and Lotta looked at each other and let out identical grunts. "Oh, we do, actually…" Rocky said as she tried to extricate herself from Lotta's seemingly sixteen arms and legs that were still wrapped around her body. "We just didn't expect to find an Elf out here in the wilderness… oh… uh… oh, your leg, Lotta… no, the other leg…"

"I'm trying," Lotta said and swung her leg back. It caused her to lose her balance, and she ended up head-first into a deep pile of snow. She disappeared into it altogether with a soft phlum , but she squealed in delight when her head popped up two seconds later completely covered in the white stuff including a full beard that would have made Santa envious.

The mysterious Elf chuckled at the sight as she shuffled out to help the two visitors get on their feet. Rocky was easiest to help, so the sleigh driver got a hands-up first. "Greetings, I'm Irish-Rose Elf. Welcome to Quint Mining Corporation's northern-most dig site," Irish-Rose said and performed the traditional arm-clasping.

"Thank you. Greetings, I'm Rockabye Elf."

"And I'm Epilotta Elf! Greetings! Awwww, Irish-Rose… what a beautiful, beautiful name!" Lotta said, still wearing her faceful of snow. Once she had spoken, she reached up and brushed herself off so she would be presentable for the other Elf.

"Uh… thank you," the miner said, grinning at the younger Elf's antics.

Lotta tried to clamber to her feet, but the snow was too slippery and she ended up where she started. Irish-Rose came to her assistance by grabbing hold of her arm and yanking her up like she weighed less than one of the snowflakes. "Yeow!" Lotta howled, getting up so fast she nearly lost her balance all over again. Once she was upright, she clasped arms with the miner while staring at her powerful, nearly square frame.

"Irish-Rose," Rocky said, wading through the snow to get over to the sleigh where Wreck and Ballumbalytis were shuddering to stay warm during the heavy flurry, "is there room for our sleigh inside the cave? I don't want to leave it out here… we're hauling a birthday layer cake… and one of our reindeer has been injured."

"Oh! Oh, sure, there's plenty of room inside… come on, I'll help you get 'em turned around," Irish-Rose said and shuffled over to the sleigh.


While Lotta provided the running commentary with plenty of thoughtful, constructive comments and suggestions - well, mostly - Rocky and Irish-Rose were able to help Wreck and Ballumbalytis through the snow and into the mouth of the cave. They came to a halt seventy feet beyond the entrance and turned the sleigh around once more so they'd be able to leave whenever the weather improved.

The few minutes the beasts of burden had been exposed to the heavy flurry had coated their fur and painted the sleigh white, so all three Elves spent several minutes unhooking the harnesses and grooming the animals so they wouldn't be wet, cold and miserable once the snow started to melt.

Lotta couldn't quite reach far enough to be of much help with the reindeer, so she decided to clean the sleigh instead. After shoveling armfuls of snow off the flatbed, she checked the safety wires and the cardboard box that contained the layer cake for Snoozaby Snorri Elf. Everything looked to be in ship-shape, so she opened the lid to the storage area and grabbed a well-buttered raisin bun as a reward - after all, an Elf can only go so far without healthy, nutritious food.

While she enjoyed the bun, she looked around the cave which was larger than it had appeared from the outside; nearly thirty feet tall and at least fifty feet wide at the spot where they had parked the sleigh. The cave continued behind her, but it narrowed down into roughly half the width and height of the mouth. The rock face was jagged, but she couldn't see if the coarse patterns were natural, of if they had been produced by Irish-Rose and her pickaxe.

Although there was some snow on the ground, the temperature was pleasant - the shape of the cave's entrance meant they were protected from the strong winds that howled across the hostile terrain outside.

As Lotta gulped down the final bite of the bun, she couldn't help but think that Irish-Rose's job of mining for something unknown way out in the middle of absolute nowhere had to be the Elfin world's most lonely occupation.

Crumbling up the empty paper bag, she shuffled around on the bench seat. As she did so, she happened to cast a glance over her shoulder further into the cave. Down there, Irish-Rose came out of the next section carrying another pickaxe. "Huh! Great Elf, she's fast! I didn't even see her move past me…"

The only problem was that Irish-Rose was still giving Rocky a hand grooming the reindeer. Lotta's knees began to knock as she whipped her head back and forth between Irish-Rose-the-groomer and Irish-Rose-the-pickaxe-carrier. "Uh… Rocky?"

"I'm kinda busy right now, Lotta," Rocky said, grooming Wreck's fur. With long strokes, she moved the brush down around his flanks to get the last traces of snow off him.

"Uh… Rocky!"

"Lotta, please…"

"Rocky! There's something really, really, really odd going on here!" Lotta cried and jumped to her feet. "There are two Irish-Roses in here! Oh Great Elf, please protect your faithful follower Epilotta Elf from all this-"

Irish-Rose-the-groomer broke out in a loud, echoing belly laugh when she realized what was going on. "Simmer down, Epilotta. That's my twin sister Carnation!"

Lotta whipped her head around one last time between the two identical Elves before she let out a sigh and bumped down onto the bench seat. "Oh… thank the Great Elf. After that talking moose business, I was… I was… never mind. I need another bun… oh… but it would be rude of me to sit and eat while the others work so hard…"

Wiping her brow, she jumped off the sleigh and shuffled over to the second of the two miners who was identical to Irish-Rose down to the clothes. "Greetings, I'm Epilotta Elf," she said and put out her arm.

"Greetings. I'm Carnation," the labor-Elf said and clasped arms with the younger Elf.

Lotta smiled and nodded, expecting more from the tough miner, but nothing came. She turned back to Irish-Rose when the first miner laughed again.

"Don't expect any kind of lengthy conversation out of Carnation. She's the strong, silent type. I'm the outgoing, social type," Irish-Rose said with yet another laugh.

"Oh…" Lotta said and turned back to Carnation. The topic of debate seemed to have been exhausted, because the silent miner nodded a greeting and shuffled deeper into the cave to go back to work.


When the animals had been groomed thoroughly and Ballumbalytis' injury had been tended to by applying a herbal poultice from the mining station's emergency kit, Rocky opened the lid to the small space underneath the seat to store the grooming brushes - she had to chuckle out loud when she was forced to sweep aside half a dozen empty paper bags from the bakery to find room for the tools.

Like Lotta had done before, she climbed up on the flatbed and checked the safety wires holding the white cardboard box in place. It hadn't moved, and it hadn't been affected by the wet snow falling on top of it. Dusting off her hands, she jumped off the side and went over to Lotta. "This is quite an adventure we're having this time, huh?"

"I'll say… I'll never forget this Season to be Jolly," Lotta said and wrapped an arm around her friend's waist.

"I hope you're not regretting accepting my invitation…"

"Never! I wouldn't want to miss it for the world. Still… how you put up with me, I'll never know. Corn-on-a-cob, I seem to be a trouble-magnet this time… a talking moose and Ballumbalytis suffering an ice-strike and then I wander off and find a cave with a pickaxe-wielding Elf… not to mention the snow, the snow and the snow… and it seems to take us ages to get up to Peary Land…"

"Oh, phooey. I put up with you just fine, Epilotta Elf," Rocky said and returned the squeeze. "Don't you even think about doing anything different. I like you just the way you are."

Locking eyes, the two Elves smiled warmly at each other. At that exact point in time, they were both sharing the same thoughts. Lotta couldn't help but recall the vivid dream she'd had where she and Rocky had danced in the field after their Joining, and Rocky couldn't help but recall the four, little words that had escaped Lotta's lips when she had been asleep across her lap: "I love you, Rocky."

The bond grew stronger between them by the minute, but the tender moment was interrupted by Irish-Rose clearing her throat. "Come, let's go in where it's cozy and warm," the miner said and put her strong, callused hands on Lotta and Rocky's shoulders. "I'll give you Elves a brief tour of the facility, and then we'll have a late-late supper."

"Food! Yippie!" Lotta squealed, hopping up and down while clapping her hands.


The mining station turned out to have been split into several sections that had all been carved out of the bedrock by hand. Beyond the storage space near the mouth of the cave, there were sleeping quarters, a mess, a recreational room and rudimentary bathing facilities. At the bottom end of the complex, two mine shafts reached hundreds of yards into and under the massive layers of rock.

The interior of the complex was dark and gloomy, and the only light came from brass lanterns that carried burning heavy-duty candles. The lanterns weren't strong enough, and they were too few in number, to create light for more than a few feet at a time. Deep, scary shadows ruled the roost everywhere else.

With Irish-Rose taking up the point of the little group, they shuffled through the dark hallways for a while to see the sights until they came to a pair of wooden doors.

Lotta's jaw was hanging wide open as she took in the scale and utilitarian nature of the industrial complex. Until now, she had thought the toy factories were big and impersonal, but they were homey and exuding Elfin warmth and coziness compared to the mine that was beyond what she had thought possible. She nearly fell behind the others out of sheer awe over the un-Elf-like working conditions the sisters had to endure, until she heard Rocky call out for her - then she picked up the pace and hurried after her friend so she wouldn't end up getting lost and encountering further scary critters.

Irish-Rose guided them into the mess area that was indeed smaller and cozier, if still not lit particularly well. A large pot was simmering on a wood-burning stove that created enough heat for Rocky and Lotta to take off their winter gear and sit in their schmutting jackets. Before Lotta put her winter jacket over the back of a chair, she took her gray rigid cone hat from her liner pocket and put it on so she was respectable.

The mess was just a smallish, square room with an additional storage room beyond it separated by a bead curtain, but the builders of the mine had somehow been able to cram several wooden benches and sturdy tables up next to the wood-burning stove.

Carnation was already there, eating some kind of soup or broth. Looking up briefly, she nodded at the two Elves before she returned to her food.

Lotta took a few, deep sniffs, and her stomach replied at once by growling. "Oh! Oh, Great Elf, that smells delicious! I'm just a starved little Elf who hasn't eaten for-"

"Ten minutes. A raisin bun," Rocky said drolly.

"Oh, but that's nothing! We need to look at the bigger picture here, Rocky. An Elf can only work, rest and play if we have something substantial in our tummies. Irish-Rose, would it be possible to have a bowl of the… what is it, broth?"

"Soup. No problem, the more the merrier," Irish-Rose said and reached up into a cupboard above the stove to get two soup bowls, a pair of spoons and a stack of cloth napkins. "It's a strong blend of beetroot, southern artichokes, parsnip, turnips, carrots, cabbage and onions… simmering for fourteen hours in a spiced stock."


"Oh, I beg your pardon," Lotta said and patted her tummy while a pair of red blotches spread over her cheeks.

The ever-silent Carnation offered the blushing Elf a brief look before she returned to her soup bowl.

Rocky chuckled and nudged Lotta's shoulder. "What my loud friend here is trying to say is, she's kinda hungry."

"The best cure for that is to eat, drink and sing merry Yuletide songs!" Irish-Rose said and put the spoons, the bowls and the napkins on the wooden table. "Well, have a seat. I'll swing by with the pot once you're ready."

In no time flat, Lotta zipped in behind the table and unfolded the cloth napkin. It was large enough to work as a bib, so she stuck it down the front of her schmutting jacket so she wouldn't stain it and end up looking like someone who had roughed it in an underground cave somewhere. Grabbing her spoon and holding it ready so she could dig in, she looked over to the simmering pot in wide-eyed excitement. "I'm ready now, Irish-Rose!"


Lotta could easily have consumed a third helping, but she didn't want to leave the two sisters high and dry when it came to canned goods for the rest of the Arctic winter, so she put her spoon into the empty bowl after only her second helping of the delicious soup. "Oh, thank you… that was delicious," she said and dabbed her lips on one of the napkins. "So you only have company four times a year, Irish-Rose?"

"Yeah," the miner said and took a crunching bite out of a raw, peeled carrot. Like all Elves would, she chewed it well and gulped it down before she continued. "Our bosses at Quint Mining Corporation send up a transport sleigh once every quarter. They bring us supplies like canned food and all the other things an Elf needs out here. We get water from the snow, by the way. The raw materials we've dug out of the rock are put into boxes that are sealed. Then the teams fly back with the load and come back three months later… and so on and so forth."

Lotta nodded excitedly. "How come you two ended up way out here?" she said, looking at Carnation who only offered her a brief glance in return before she went back to doing the-Great-Elf-knows-what.

Irish-Rose took another crunching bite of the carrot before she answered. "We had already been lumberjacks, national park wardens and all sorts of other outdoorsy kinda jobs. It seemed like a natural progression. Except that this isn't outdoorsy but underground-sy." Irish-Rose broke out in a loud belly laugh that soon claimed Lotta and Rocky as well.

The corners of Carnation mouth twitched, but that was all the response she could muster.

"How come you're only two miners here now?" Rocky asked. "The mine is massive. It looks like it's got working space for fifty Elves at least."

"It used to be home to a hundred Elves, believe it or not," Irish-Rose said and took another bite of the carrot. "The short answer is the mother lode dried up."

"Mmmm… I see," Rocky said and nodded thoughtfully.

"Yeah. We can still find crystals here, but what Carnation and me can harvest now is nothing compared to earlier. The mine's nearly two hundred years old, but it's been going downhill for the past fifty, give or take. In another generation or so, Quint Mining Corporation will probably close it down for good."

Lotta followed the conversation with great interest. Her cheeks sported red blotches, but for once it wasn't because she was embarrassed over something she had said or done. "Oh, that's fascinating," she said to Irish-Rose. Secretly, she eyed the yummy carrot and thought about asking for one.

"I'll bet you've come across some of the crystals we've mined," Irish-Rose said and reached over to slap Lotta's shoulder.

"Ufff! Uh, I have?" Lotta said, rubbing her shoulder that had already turned a little sore under her schmutting jacket from the impact of the miner's callused paw.

"Well, you do put up a Yuletree for the Season to be Jolly, don't you?"

Rocky chuckled and leaned in across her dear friend. "Oh, you better believe she does, Irish-Rose. It's so huge she needs to borrow a stepladder whenever she's going to decorate it."

"Oh!" Lotta said, whipping her head back around to the friendly miner. "Those crystals! The crystals that we can buy in the Yuletide stores that absorb the light and reflect them in dozens of beautiful colors? Oh, I really like those… they light up the room even if there's only a single candle burning."

"Yep, those crystals," Irish-Rose said with a proud grin on her face.

"Imagine that…" Lotta said reverently. Smiling, she turned back to Rocky. "Say, I think I've just come up with another item for my Yuletide wishlist…"

"Wish and you shall receive, Lotta," Rocky said in a put-upon theatrical voice. The two Elves snickered at their little exchange and reached underneath the table so they could hold hands for a few seconds.

Irish-Rose chuckled at the obvious affection that went on between the two visiting Elves. Even Carnation noticed and raised an eyebrow. It didn't last long. "So," Irish-Rose continued, "I don't suppose you Elves have brought sleeping bags or anything along, have you?"

"Sleeping bags?" Rocky said, "No, we're en route to Peary Land. We have a special delivery to make later today."

Irish-Rose shrugged and took another crunching bite of the carrot. "I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you won't make it. That storm outside won't go away for another ten to fifteen hours if it follows the pattern of those we've experienced recently. And trust me when I say you can't fly ten feet in it. You'll go down for sure."

"Uh… Irish-Rose…" Lotta said, putting her finger in the air like she wanted to be excused, "when you say 'go down', you mean…?"


That piece of news made Rocky scrunch up her face and let out a groan, but it was nothing compared to the look of horror that was etched onto Lotta's expressive features. "Rocky! It's much too dangerous to go on… I'm a happy Elf and I'd like to continue being one. I don't wanna crash anytime soon, thankyouverymuch. We need to sit out the storm here."

Rocky leaned back on the bench and let out a long sigh. She looked at the three other Elves at the table and came to the unfortunate conclusion that she and Lotta were stranded there for the time being. "Sugar plum mush. I guess that's part of the charm of flying up to the great, white north. All right. If it can't be helped."

"Oh, Great Elf! Thank you, sweet Rocky," Lotta said and gave her friend a sideways hug.

Irish-Rose nodded and began to scoot away from the table. "Works for me. I need to check, but as far as I can recall, the only spare bunk we have is a double… but I guess that's just fine with you Elves, right?"

Carnation just let out a grunt that could mean anything, but at least she looked up to study the reaction of the two Elves next to her.

Lotta blushed and looked down. Rocky wet her lips and glanced at Lotta. After a stone silent moment that felt like an eternity, the sleigh driver's lips creased into a nervous smile. "A double will do just fine, thank you."


A few hours went by following the supper where Rocky and Lotta hardly spoke two words to each other, and when they did, they were just generic pleasantries. For the first time ever, the mood between them was stilted and awkward - and Lotta didn't like that one little bit.

Since Irish-Rose and Carnation had only just started a ten-hour shift, the two visiting Elves had been given a corner of Irish-Rose's sleeping chamber to rest in. When bedtime had arrived, a double bunk had been dragged in there from the storage room, and the two Elves had been given a large fur blanket that could easily cover them both.

Unfortunately, the double bunk wasn't quite a double - it was a one-and-a-half at the most. In short, there wouldn't be room for any kind of daylight between Rockabye and Epilotta.

Elves are touchy-feely creatures. So far so good. They are also honorable creatures bound by sacred traditions of not getting up to any hanky-panky before their names could be found on the dotted line on the Joining certificate.

Holding hands or exchanging kisses on the cheek or forehead were perfectly acceptable overtures, but sharing a double bunk with an Elf they thought highly of in more ways than one would be borderline indecent, even without any hanky-panky involved whatsoever. It proved to be a challenge for both Rocky and Lotta. It wasn't the next step after holding hands, it was more like the last chapter in the final volume of the entire series.

Sitting on the bunk clutching the fur blanket, it didn't matter to Lotta that she was fully dressed save for her footwear. It didn't even matter that she was very fond of the Elf who sat down on the other side of the bunk and took off her boots. It was too much, and definitely too soon for her. She smirked as she felt her cheeks catch fire. She was dead-tired and she knew that Rocky had to be too, undoubtedly even more so, but the whole scene was the very definition of awkward.

Rocky felt Lotta's eyes on her, and she turned around and offered her a small consolatory smile. "I know. But I'm really tired…"

"Oh, I'm… I'm just fine. I'm cool. I'm a happy Elf… and an open-minded Elf. I'm a happy, open-minded Elf," Lotta said with a fake smile screwed onto her lips.

Grunting, Rocky swept her legs up into the bunk and reached for the candle. "Are you sure you're all right with this? I mean, I can sleep on the floor…"

"Like cotton candy you can! If anyone should sleep on the floor, it should be me… you've worked so hard all day long. But we can do this. We're adult Elves. Come on, snuff out the candle," Lotta said in a voice that was stronger than she thought she could produce at that point in time.

Nodding, Rocky wet her fingers and snuffed out the flame. The room fell into an inky blackness at once. Moments later, the bunk creaked as Rocky pulled the fur blanket over her and her friend.

A few minutes later, the bunk creaked again, followed by a startled grunt and an "Oh, Great Elf! I'm so sorry… I didn't mean to tou- touch- put my knee there…" uttered by Lotta.

"That's all right. It just caught me by surprise 's all. Let's get some sleep," Rocky replied.

Two minutes later, the bunk creaked again, and this time, Lotta let out a strangled squeak when Rocky's hand had landed on something private as she had turned over on the narrow bunk.

It wasn't easy to see or feel which was which in the inky darkness, so a sequence of squeaks, eeeks, ooohs, ughs and mumbled apologies followed until Rocky sat up in the bunk and clambered to her feet. She fumbled and bumbled around for the matches, but found them eventually.

Lighting the candle, she let out a deep sigh at the sight of Lotta's fiery cheeks reflecting the orange light from the flame. The petite Elf's hair was tousled and her double-breasted schmutting jacket had been unbuttoned and pulled halfway up her stomach. "I'm using Irish-Rose's bed. I'm sure she won't mind," Rocky said and shuffled over to the other side of the chamber on socked feet.

"All right," Lotta squeaked as she dove underneath the fur blanket.


The next morning wasn't quite as awkward as Lotta had feared. She needed to go to the little Elves' room before Rocky had woken up, but when she came back to the sleeping quarters, the sleigh driver was sitting on the edge of Irish-Rose's bunk scratching her wild hair. "Good morning to you, Rockabye," Lotta said and shuffled over to her own bunk after dealing with mother nature's urgent demands. "Sleep well?"

"I did, actually. Good morning to you too, Lotta. I hope you had sweet dreams?"

"I certainly did. We were home and it was the Night of Nights," Lotta said warmly, remembering the vivid dream she'd had. "Mom and Dad were there, and so were you. We ate rice pudding and sang Yuletide songs… half the Great Elfin Songbook! Oh, and we danced around the Yuletree. It was cozy. Warm and beautiful… and just so lovely."

Rocky nodded and once more remembered the four little words Lotta had uttered when she had slept on the sleigh. "Glad to hear it," she said with a smile.

"Yeah," Lotta said in a voice that proved she was back there, dancing around the Yuletree with her natural and extended family. She nodded and sat down on the bunk. "I know we'll be busy on Yuletide Eve with the gift-drops and all that, but perhaps… one year… you could come over… and… we could dance around the tree together?" As she spoke, she cast a shy glance over at her dear friend.

"I'd love to, Lotta," Rocky replied with a warm smile. "Maybe one year I'll take the Night of Nights off."

Lotta smiled back. She let out a little sigh of relief, happy to see the end of the unpleasant, stilted mood that had come between them the previous evening. "I hope you will. Oh, I also hope the weather has improved. Irish-Rose and Carnation are fine Elves, but…"

"But we need to get a move on so we can get home. I agree," Rocky said and got up. "First, though, I need to use the bathroom. Then I'll find our hostesses and check the weather."

"Oh… does that mean we won't have time for breakfast?" Lotta squeaked, holding an unlaced boot to her chest.

Rocky went over to the door to the hallway and swung it open. She remained in the doorway for long enough to shoot her friend a little wink. "Sweet Lotta, we always have time for breakfast… I wouldn't want you to waste away to nothing, would I?"

After Rocky had left, Lotta crinkled her nose in joy. "She called me sweet Lotta… I love when she calls me that. But why do I get the feeling she was teasing me? Oh, that Rocky…" Snickering, she reached down and began to do up her bootlaces.




A short forty-five minutes later - Lotta had sniffed her way into the mess room where a large pot of oatmeal porridge had been simmering on the wood-burning stove, and that had taken quite some time - Lotta, Rocky, Irish-Rose and Carnation stood at the mouth of the cave and looked out onto a dazzling white landscape.

The fierce snowstorm had finally blown over. The sky had turned blue once more, and the sun shone down upon the blinding white wintery dunes. In late December, the rays weren't strong enough to melt sufficient snow for even the tiniest icicle, but the sheer brightness of the light offered hope compared to the depressive dark-gray gloominess that draped the world when the storm raged.

While Rocky brought Wreck and Ballumbalytis over to the sleigh to hook them up to the harnesses, Lotta made sure to thank their hostesses in every way possible. "Oh, Irish-Rose and Carnation… Rocky and I want to thank you for the shelter, for the wonderful, wonderful soup, for the use of the bunk, for the wonderful, wonderful oatmeal porridge and simply for being here when we needed you so badly!" she said, clasping the arms of the sisters with great enthusiasm. "Great Elf, we would have been lost or worse if we hadn't decided to set down here. Though I will say you scared me a little when you called back after I had played with the echo in here… oh, why doesn't the echo work when we're on the inside? Never mind…" - deep breath - "Oh, and you also scared me a little… no, a lot, when you came out with your pickaxe last night and I really, really thought it was the end of the road for us but at least I didn't soil my shorts this time." - Deep breath - "And then I got really, really confused when Carnation showed up and I thought she was you and you were her and-and-and-and you were already there grooming Ballumbalytis but you were also down there with a pickaxe… but then I discovered you were, and are, a pair of wonderful, wonderful Elves, so everything turned out just fine in the end!" - Deep breath - "And the oatmeal porridge was superb!"

Irish-Rose seemed overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response, but Carnation stepped forward and pulled Lotta into a little hug. "You're welcome. It was fun to see new faces," she said, and that was the most Lotta had heard the near-silent Carnation Elf say for the entire duration.

"Hear, hear," Irish-Rose said and mirrored her sister by pulling Lotta into a hug. "Will you make another stop here on your return trip from Peary Land?"

"Oh, I think we will!" Lotta said. "We're not going to stop at the talking moose again, that's a cotton-candy fact," she continued under her breath.

Behind the three Elves, Rocky dusted off her hands and strolled over to the little group. "Ballumbalytis is much better today, thank the Great Elf. Your poultice was strong and effective. He's sore and the bump is still visible, but he's steady on his legs and he seems eager to go on. Farewell, Irish-Rose… Carnation," she said, clasping arms with the sisters.

"Farewell, Rockabye. Oh! Oh, I nearly forgot…" Irish-Rose said and slapped her forehead. "I have a small present for you!"

"Oh! Is it a bowl of oatmeal porridge-to-go?" Lotta said and clapped her hands in glee.

Irish-Rose shook her head before she ran into the sleeping quarters. She was back at once carrying a small pouch. "Ah, no… it's a couple of crystals. We've dug them out of the ancient rock ourselves, but they weren't the right shape and were rejected by the quality control. That doesn't mean they aren't beautiful, however," she said and reached into the pouch. When she pulled out her hand, she held onto two pieces of crystal that caught the sunlight at once and sent it around the dark cave with the strength of a rainbow.

"Ohhhhhh!" Lotta breathed, staring at the precious gift. When Irish-Rose transferred the crystals into Lotta's palm, she held them up to her eyes to get the full effect of the strong colors that played inside the gems. "Oh, Great Elf, they're so beautiful! Oh, look at them, Rocky!"

"I'm looking, all right…"

"Oh, thank you so much," Lotta said and wrapped her arms around both sisters at once. The strong miners were pulled into a hug by the scrawny Elf, but their laughter proved they didn't mind.

"Farewell, Irish-Rose! And you, Carnation! Have no fear, Rockabye and Epilotta shall return! And thank you for the beautiful gift! And the oatmeal porridge!" Lotta cried as she climbed aboard the sleigh for the first time in nearly a day clutching the pouch with the crystals in her hand.

Slapping the reins, Rocky made Wreck and Ballumbalytis begin the next stage of their trek north. The reindeer brayed as the weight was transferred onto their shoulders, but they seemed in good spirits. The long break had made the wooden sleigh settle down, so it creaked and groaned as it got underway.

The weather was ideal for a sleigh ride, and the two reindeer were able to get the light-weight vehicle up to take-off speed before they were even halfway up the lane that led away from the cave. Their legs moved like blurry drumsticks as they barreled down the snow-covered lane, waiting for Rocky to give them the final command by tugging on their reins.

The driver finally did, and the sleigh took off and climbed into the blue, crispy-clean air with no problems at all. On its way up, it created its own, little flurry as snowflakes rained off the runners and the underside of the flatbed.

Once they were in the air, Rocky tugged at the reins again to let Wreck and Ballumbalytis know they should go into a sweeping arc so they could return to a northbound course. As the sleigh flew back over the mouth of the cave, Lotta hung over the edge and waved her entire arm at the two sisters who duly waved back.

"Oh, that was a great bowl of oatmeal porridge," she said when she bumped back down on the fur-covered bench. "They were nice Elves. Don't you think?"

"Absolutely," Rocky said and glanced up at the sun. "Corn-on-a-cob, it's later in the day than I thought it was. It's already past noon… we only have three hours of daylight left. Maybe less up here in the wilderness. It'll be dark before we reach Peary Land, that's for sure."

"As long as it isn't snowing like it was last night, I'm just fine with darkness," Lotta said and slipped the winter jacket off her shoulders. Taking her gray rigid cone hat, she mashed it down on her flaming red locks and leaned back on the bench so she could enjoy the ride and Rocky's company.


To go easy on the reindeer, it took them a while to reach the preferred cruising altitude of twelve-hundred feet. From up there, they had the best view imaginable of the majestic, sweeping vistas below.

The clear weather allowed them to view a vast section of the Northeast Greenland National Park: they were able to see all the way from the square, imposing icebergs in the far east to the frozen highland tundra in the west. In the far distance ahead of them, they could see Mount Mara and the white-gray polar ocean beyond it as mirages against the pale-blue sky.

"That's where we're going," Rocky said and pointed ahead. "On the other side of the mirage… that's Peary Land. The last stop before the end of the world… literally. There's nothing beyond it. Nothing at all but the salty, frozen sea."

"Great Elf, this is so awe-inspiring," Lotta mumbled, looking over the edge of the sleigh. Far below them, she was able to spot a large flock of what she thought had to be musk oxen. The large, hairy animals were standing in a close circle, munching on the only patch of heather within a hundred mile radius.

She knew there were many other animals down there in the vast, protected nature reserve, like wild reindeer, Arctic foxes, wolves and mountain hares, but they would obviously be too small to see from twelve-hundred feet. She tried to scout for polar bears, but she couldn't see any of the big, white creatures anywhere.

"Yes it is," Rocky said and waved her friend over for a little snuggle. Lotta was only happy to comply and soon wrapped an arm around the driver's waist. "Do you know the best part?" she continued, leaning down to muss her chin against Lotta's red locks.

"Uh… no?"

"There isn't a Human within fifteen-hundred miles of here. Not one."

"Well, they aren't all bad, Rocky…"

"I know. But with the national park free of Humans, we can breathe easier and just live our lives without worrying we'll get spotted. Anyway, I'm guessing we have, oh… three, maybe four hours to go until we reach Mount Mara. From there, we'll fly lower so we can find the correct settlement. We're gettin' there, Lotta… it's not done yet, but we're gettin' there."

"Four hours? That's just enough time for a snack… and a song!" Lotta said and threw her free arm in the air. "Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh! It's so good to be an Elf! Elves, always so kind and warm and free! Elves, the best friends you could ever hope to have! Ohhhhhhh, we're Elves-"

"Elves! Elves!" Rocky sang, joining her excitable friend for once.

Beaming, Lotta snickered out loud and snuggled up even closer to the sleigh driver. "Ohhhhh! We always have an Elfin good time! Elves, Elves, Elves. And we're simply so cute and fiiiiine!"


Rocky had been right - the sun had set before they found the small settlement on the shore of the endless, foreboding polar ocean. However, they had been in luck for once; before the sun had gone behind the thirty-five-hundred foot tall Mount Mara, its final, golden rays had illuminated the stretch of land she and Lotta had decided to use as a landing strip.

Wreck and Ballumbalytis moved slowly ahead across the rocky terrain so the precious, fragile layer cake wouldn't be destroyed at the last hurdle. Much to Lotta's surprise, there was hardly any snow on the ground despite spending the last several hours flying over nothing but ice and snow inside the national park.

She held the Norse Elf-South Elf phrase book ready in her hand. She hadn't had an opportunity to use it yet, and she was eager to test her language skills on real Norse Elves. She was sure they would be very surprised when someone from the south could speak their own dialect.

"Sugar plum mush, look at this alien terrain… what happened to all the ice and snow? What's this all about, Rocky?" she said, glancing out onto the uneven trail they were rumbling across.

Unlike the snowy conditions that had been their constant companion ever since they had left Elf Springs, the surface near the settlement of the ice hole fisher-Elves was nothing but a dusty layer of soil with plenty of loose gravel and even rubble on top; the countless, uneven stones were held in tones of dirt-red and granite-gray. Tufts of bushy plants looking more like heather than grass stood proud and tall in many places, and moss and patches of purple and yellow flowers could be found on the sides of the many rocky outcrops that littered the terrain.

"I'm not sure," Rocky said as she steered the sleigh around the worst bumps on the trail, "but I seem to recall reading about this place having a weird climate… I think it's called a polar desert, actually."

"Huh… cotton-candy, that's an apt name," Lotta mumbled, looking at the uneven road ahead. "Do you think all of Greenland looks like this under the ice cap? Isn't that fascinating?"

"Yeah… I don't have a clue, to be honest. I guess it could look like that."

The settlement - seven scattered, wooden houses that had all been built on poles that made them stand two feet or so off the ground - soon came into sight, and Rocky decided to steer the sleigh off the rubble and onto a larger patch of heather that was just off the trail to make it a smoother ride.

"How can any Elf live up here? How can any Elf choose to live up here…? I don't get it," Lotta mumbled under her breath. "I wonder which one Snoozaby Snorri Elf lives in?" she continued in her regular voice.

"One of them."

"No! Really? Corn-on-a-cob, I don't know what I would do if you weren't here to tell me these things!" Lotta teased, hooking her arm inside Rocky's and shooting the driver a cute, little wink.

"Oh, haw, haw. Let's try this one… right here," Rocky said and whoa'ed Wreck and Ballumbalytis. They came to a stop in front of a nondescript, off-white wooden house that really wasn't much larger than a shed. It had a gently sloped roof, and a single, narrow chimney pipe sticking up near the center.

The four walls sported only three windows, but it was curiously lacking a door - nor were there any stairs leading up to the house that stood on nine, two-foot-high poles. Lotta jumped off the sleigh and ran around the small house to find some kind of entrance, but came up short.

"What in the Elfin world is going on here?" she said and scratched her hair. She bent over and looked under the house just to be on the safe side, but it had a flat underside which didn't provide any clues. "Have a little faith in the Great Elf, Lotta… have a little faith… something will come to you… something… someth- huh. Oh, forget it. Rocky, do you have any suggestions?"

"Perhaps you could try to tap on the walls or the windows?"

"Good plan! Okie-dokie, I'll do that," Lotta said and did another tour around the small house. "Well, I don't-" -tap, tap- "-think it's gonna-" -tap, tap- "-work, Rocky." -Tap, tap- "There doesn't seem-" -tap, tap- "-to be anyone-" -tap, tap- "-home…"

"Yes! The curtain just fluttered aside, Lotta!" Rocky said and pointed at the window the furthest away from Lotta's current position.

By the time the younger Elf had made it back around the house to the correct window, the curtain was limp once more. Lotta scrunched up her face and shot Rocky a dark glare. Sighing, she set off on another tapping tour of the premises, but she only made it three-quarters 'round before the entire side of the house that didn't sport a window was opened. "Oh! Great Elf, it worked!" she said and jumped back as a rope lowered a retractable staircase onto the uneven ground.

A young Elf wearing traditional garb - sealskin kamik boots and an anorak - stepped out wielding a fishing rod. The Elf looked around until Lotta's diminutive figure was spotted down on the ground. "Qaliqawanuema, numatinaquau litanimowuqaq?" the figure said in a harsh, confused voice.

"Uh… uh… uh… Santa's Suspenders… hang on! One moment-a-rooney! Hang on, I have the phrase book… right here… somewhere… oh, right here… no… corn-on-a-cob… where's the cotton-candy phrase book?!" Lotta said, going to work patting down her winter jacket to search for the little book. It took her a moment or two before she realized she had left it on the bench seat. "Oh, for the Great Elf's sake! Uh… Rocky? The phrase book… do you have it?"

"Yeah, I got it…" Rocky said and jumped off the sleigh. She hustled around the shed-like house and gave it to Lotta. While she was there, she looked at the fishing-rod wielding Elf and offered the confused person a smile.

Lotta leafed through the little book until she found the right passage. "Mibala kola Epilotta," she said while pointing at herself. "Kola Rockabye," she continued, pointing at Rocky. "Ma kola tooba wamba? Uh… Snoozaby Snorri Elf?"

Other than a confused shake of the head, Lotta's brave translation garnered very little response, or even enthusiasm, from the anorak-clad person in the doorway.

"Oh… oh, sugar-plum-mush, did I pronounce it wrong?" Lotta mumbled before she cleared her throat and tried again. "Mibala kola Epilotta. Ma kola tooba wamba Snoozaby Snorri Elf?" she said, exaggerating the movements of her lips to articulate the words perfectly.

"Listen," the Norse-Elf said in perfect Elfish which made Lotta's eyes pop wide open, "I don't know what you think you're saying… but those words are, like, five hundred years old… we don't talk like that anymore."

"Oh…" Lotta said and felt all her enthusiasm fizzle out of her like a leaking balloon. "Uh… greetings, I'm Epilotta Elf, and this is my dear friend Rockabye Elf."

"Greetings. I'm Gunni-Wink Elf. But save your breath. We're not buying anything… whatever you're selling," Gunni-Wink said and began to pull up the retractable stairs.

"No! No, no, no, wait a minute… will you wait a cotton-candy minute!" Lotta cried and hopped forward. "We have something for Snoozaby Snorri Elf… you wouldn't happen to know which shed is his, would you?"

"Snoozaby Snorri Elf? Sure I do. It's this one right here," the Norse-Elf said and lit a candle inside the shed before she stepped outside onto the top step. The light that shone onto the Elf's face revealed she was an Inuit-Elf in her mid-four hundreds, though it was hard to tell from her weathered skin.

Unlike the Elves living in and near Elf Springs, she had short, dark hair, slanted, dark-brown eyes, bronzed skin not dissimilar to Rocky's, and a face graced with high cheekbones, flat planes and a wide nose. "He's my gramps. So… if you're here for his birthday bash, you're too late. He's an old Elf so he's gone to bed."

"Oh, sugar plum mush," Lotta said and shot Rocky a disappointed look.

Rocky stepped ahead and wrapped an arm around Lotta's slumping shoulders to give her a little moral support. "Miss Gunni-Wink, it just so happens we have a birthday layer cake for Mr. Snoozaby Snorri Elf sent to him by his wife Wandawell Elf down in Elf Springs."

"Estranged wife."

"Beg' pardon?"

"My gramps remarried that Elf from down south after his first wife died of fever some years back. Wandawell didn't want to live here, so she split after only a couple of seasons. It hit my grandfather hard. It took him years to get his life back on track. So don't expect me to harbor warm feelings for Wandawell Elf."

Lotta's eyebrows went up, then down, then up again before they settled on falling into a disappointed furrow just above her eyes. She opened her mouth to reply, but couldn't find the right words, or indeed any words at all. It was only logical that the Elves living at the very end of the world would have to be independent and as tough as the bedrock surrounding them, but the detachment in Gunni-Wink's words when she spoke of her family startled Lotta. "Well… it's a really, really wonderful cake…" she mumbled after a while, clutching the worthless phrase book to her chest.

Gunni-Wink's face softened and she even cracked a little smile at the two visiting Elves. "Yeah? Well, I've never said no to cake. All right, come in… I'll try to wake up gramps. Don't bother taking off your boots," she said and headed back inside.

Lotta nodded but didn't go on.

Rocky turned her friend around and put her hands on her shoulders. "Are you all right, Lotta? You look shocked. Was it because of her attitude?"

"Yes, but not toward us… toward her family. I just thought our families were the most important things in the entire Elfin world for us Elves… but I guess it's different up here… somehow. Oh, now I just wanna go home and hug and cuddle my Mom and Dad forever!" Lotta howled, burying her face in Rocky's chest.

"There, there, sweet Lotta… we'll get home… eventually," Rocky said and gave her friend a little squeeze to put her tradition-bound mind at rest.


The cardboard box containing the cake wasn't easy to carry up the rickety steps for the three Elves, but they managed without tipping it over or knocking it against anything. Before they had gone to fetch the box, Gunni-Wink had put a table in the middle of the small fisher-Elf's house she shared with her grandfather, and she, Lotta and Rocky lowered the box onto the table with great care.

The birthday Elf was sitting on his bunk across the spartan, single-room house that really only consisted of two bunks, a small desk with a chair, a pot-bellied stove, and the table that was presently occupied by the box with the cake. The floor was bare as were the walls, and the only personal items in there were the clothes worn by the two fisher-Elves.

The fish they caught on their perilous expeditions onto the frozen polar ocean were dried and stored in a storage shed further along the trail; the shed was co-owned and used by the entire eleven-Elf strong community of ice hole fisher-Elves. Four times in the summer - but never in the winter - representatives from companies in Elf Springs flew up to the small settlement to buy the stock of salty fish, and to offload enough firewood for the fisher-Elves to last through the Arctic winter.

Snoozaby Snorri Elf was one of the last remaining early-generation ice hole fisher-Elves. The Elf, whose wrinkly, leathery skin and long, white beard proved that he had seen it all, had been there from the start when the settlement was founded some seven-hundred and eighty years earlier though he had only been a toddler at the time. He was a bone-tough fellow as he sat there with his strong, callused hands resting on a cane. He wore a floppy, dark-gray Elfin hat, traditional sealskin kamik boots, and clothes that were just a touch too big for his elderly frame; despite his frail appearance, there was no denying his presence.

Once the cake was secure on the table, Lotta and Rocky went over to the bunk and bowed deeply to show the proper respect to the elderly Elf. "Greetings, Sir, and good evening," Rocky said. "We're Rockabye Elf and Epilotta Elf from Elf Springs. We would like to wish you a happy birthday. We've brought you a cake from… uh, from your wife Wandawell Elf."

"And a letter, Sir," Lotta added, holding out the envelope with all the little flowers and hearts that Wandawell had given her at the bakery.

Snoozaby Snorri let out a grunt at the mention of his wife's name, but he offered the two visiting Elves a friendly nod. "Thank you very much, Miss Epilotta. Miss Rockabye," he said in a frayed, fragile voice. "I'm afraid my eyesight is so poor these days I can't read the letter. My sweet Gunni-Wink will need to do that for me."

Lotta smiled and handed the letter to Gunni-Wink who threw it onto the desk without even looking at it. The smile was wiped from Lotta's face, and she quickly returned to the birthday Elf.

"So I heard someone say something about a cake?" Snoozaby Snorri said and looked past the two visitors.

"Yes, and it's such a wonderful, wonderful cake, too!" Lotta said, hurrying over to the layer cake. With careful gestures, she removed the cardboard box so the spectacular cake came into full view in the flickering light from the candle.

The filling of crushed macaroons, whipped cream, marzipan and sugar candy still looked delicious, and the base of ice cream hadn't even begun to melt despite the amount of time it had spent in the box.

In short, it hadn't been damaged at all by the long haul, and Lotta had to dab the corners of her mouth to keep everything inside. She hoped she would be first in line to get a slice - after the birthday Elf, of course.

"Now that you've brought it all the way up here, let's have a taste," Snoozaby Snorri said and tried to get up from the bunk. Gunni-Wink and Rocky each put a strong hand under the old Elf's arms to help him up, and together, they walked over to the table. "Oh, Gunni-Wink, how about finding the good bottle of dram?" the old fellow said with a certain gleam in his eyes.

"We just had a dram before you went to bed, grandpa."

"And now we'll have another. When the bottle is empty, we open another one. That's what I say," Snoozaby Snorri said and tapped the cane into the wooden floor.

"Yes, grandpa," Gunni-Wink said and moved over to the desk. Opening the only drawer, she took a half-full bottle containing a golden liquid that soaked two stalks from a plant that gave the dram its strong, natural taste. "We only have three shot glasses, so you'll have to share," she said to the two visitors.

"Oh, that won't be a problem," Rocky said. "I'll be driving so I better lay off the spirits."

Lotta pulled her lips back in a nervous grimace. The only time in the year she tasted spirits was at the grand feast the day after Yuletide Eve. Her father distilled his own dram, but she knew he watered it down for her so she wouldn't keel over. "Oh… I don't know if I… if I… should," she said, eyeing the golden liquid as it was poured into the small shot glasses.

"Bottoms up! Skoal!" Snoozaby Snorri said, downing the dram in a single gulp.

"Your health, Sir, and happy birthday," Rocky said, saluting the old fellow.

Gunni-Wink drank her own shot without speaking. Turning back to Lotta, she held up the bottle in an open invitation for a drink.

"Rocky?" Lotta said and chewed on her cheeks. "Ummm… do you think I can handle it?"

Wiping her lips on her sleeve, Gunni-Wink reached across the little group and gave Lotta the remaining glass. "Of course you can. It's smooth and lovely. I made it myself."

Rocky raised an eyebrow at Gunni-Wink's words before she locked eyes with her dear friend. "That's your decision to make, Lotta, and yours alone," she said with a supportive smile. "No one else can make it for you. If you don't feel like having a dram, just say no."

"Well… smooth and lovely?" Lotta said and studied the golden liquid in the bottle. Gunni-Wink nodded. "Oh, I can handle that… I'm a big Elf now. All right, Miss Gunni-Wink, I'd like a shot, thank you. Uh… not a biggie-big one. Just a-"

"Taster," Gunni-Wink said and poured Lotta half the amount the others had been given.

"Thank you. Well, Mr. Snoozaby Snorri, Sir, happy birthday. Your health," Lotta said and drained the shot glass like she had seen the others do. For the first few moments, a rich taste of dill and other herbs and spices blossomed in her mouth. Enjoying the surprising flavors, she smacked her lips and was about to ask for a little refill when the dram really kicked in and sent steam pouring from her collar and out her ears.

She shook, shivered and shimmied; her legs went one way, her arms the other. Her eyes rolled around in her head, and her flaming red hair stood on end as the searing heat spread through her tummy and the rest of her system. "Fy for en grønlangkål… ej, det er godt nok en kradser, hva'? Hu-ha-da-da, det er lisså det hele snerper…" she croaked in the strange south-west Elf dialect spoken by parts of her family. Why she could suddenly speak that dialect when she had never been able to before, she had no idea. It didn't matter - she had already forgotten every word she said as she fumbled around with her arms spread out wide.

Rocky steered her friend away from the layer cake before it would come to an unfortunate disagreement between the two. "Oh, dear. You should probably stick to warm milk with honey, Lotta," she said, fanning Lotta's face that had turned beetroot red.

Gunni-Wink chuckled at the young Elf, but put the bottle away in a hurry before other accidents could take place. "I'm sorry, Epilotta. I didn't think you'd react that strongly."

"Smoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hooth, huh? And lovely… oh… it's… okie-dokie… I… think… I'll… be… fine… in… a… moment…" Lotta said and fell into Rocky's waiting arms as the dram really set in. Hiccuping, she looked up and winked at the sleigh driver to show her dear friend that it was - mostly - an act. While she was there, she took the opportunity to give Rocky a little squeeze that was responded to in kind.

The birthday Elf laughed out loud at the antics and reached for a pastry fork that Gunni-Wink had put on the table in the meantime. "And now… cake!"

"Oooooooh!" Lotta said and clapped her hands in glee. When she noticed Gunni-Wink only had spoons for the rest of them, her grin only grew wider. Before she dug in, she turned back to the old Elf and raised her spoon high in the air. "Three cheers for Snoozaby Snorri! Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Sing! Fooooooooooooor he's a jolly good Eeee-helf…"


A fair while later, Snoozaby Snorri Elf had been tucked in by his granddaughter following several encores, plenty of cake and further rounds of dram. The house at the shore of the vast polar ocean had been rocking, but now it was dark, quiet and settled.

Lotta, Rocky and Gunni-Wink shuffled back to the sleigh where Wreck and Ballumbalytis waited patiently. The three Elves clasped arms and exchanged brief hugs before Lotta and Rocky climbed aboard their ride and got comfortable on the bench seat.

"Have a safe journey home," Gunni-Wink said and knocked three times on the sleigh's wooden frame. Her face was flushed from the dram and the nippy-nosey, rosy-cheeky conditions, but her demeanor had softened since she had first met the two visitors from the south. "Thank you for hauling that cake up here. It's been a long, long while since I've seen gramps that happy. We all know he won't have too many birthdays left, so… we better make them count."

"You're welcome, Gunni-Wink… and thanks," Rocky said and untangled the reins from the rail atop the buckboard.

"Yes, thank you, Gunni-Wink," Lotta said as she folded down her hood so she could see better. "Thank you for the dram… it was… it was… hmmm. Yes. And thank you for letting us in in the first place!"

Gunni-Wink chuckled and made a sweeping gesture with her hand. "Yeah, I wasn't too sure about you to begin with. When you started speaking that ancient language, I thought… what in the name of the Great Elf is going on here?"

Snickering, Lotta reached down and once more clasped arms with the Inuit-Elf. "Yes, that wasn't one of my best moments. Gunni-Wink, on a more serious note… I know it's none of my business, but I think you should read the letter aloud to your grandfather. I have a feeling that hearing from Wandawell means more to him than you perhaps think."

Gunni-Wink nodded and let out a sigh. "I know. I'll read it to him at breakfast."

"Good. So," Lotta said, looking at Rocky who already held the reins ready for whenever the chatty Elves among them would finally wrap up the birthday party.

"So," Rocky echoed, shuffling around on the bench. "Goodbye, Gunni-Wink. Stay safe up here in the wilderness. Both of you."

"Thank you. Perhaps we'll meet again sometime," Gunni-Wink said and took a step back from the sleigh so the visitors had room to roll. "Goodbye, Rockabye… goodbye, Epilotta."

"Bye-bye, Gunni-Wink!" Lotta cried, waving with all she had. At the same time, Rocky clicked her tongue to make Wreck and Ballumbalytis understand they could get a move on - they were finally homeward bound.











The air in Elf Springs was humming with excitement. Rockabye 'Rocky' Elf sensed it at once as she closed the door to her garage and walked back to the waiting sleigh. The weather was nice and nippy-nosy so she didn't need to wear more than her double-breasted schmutting jacket, a pair of insulated pants, her indispensable black boots and a floppy, crimson Elf hat with a white bobble that reached down to her left shoulder.

Countless adult Elves hurried along the sidewalks, all carrying neatly wrapped presents and wearing harried expressions, and the junior Elves who were ice skating with their friends or simply playing in the snow could hardly keep a lid on their bubbly enthusiasm.

It was December twenty-second, and the Season to be Jolly was in full swing. The clock was ticking - there were less than forty hours to go until the Night of Nights, Yuletide Eve. The most important period for any Elf anywhere, but especially for all long-haul sleigh drivers and gift-droppers who had to work pretty much non-stop for three days straight to provide Yuletide presents to the world's children, or at least those whose families subscribed to the notion of exchanging gifts on December twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth.

Climbing aboard her custom-built sleigh, Rocky sat down gingerly on an extra cushion. The interminably long trip she and her dear friend Epilotta 'Lotta' Elf had just returned from had taken a severe toll on her backside so she needed the padding. Upon returning from the gift-drop up to Peary Land at the northern tip of the world, she had slept for a day and a half. In her younger years, she could have left for another run at once, but those years were literally long gone.

Rocky shook her head to get all those dark thoughts out of her mind. She was on her way to meet some of her oldest friends from the long-haul industry, and she wasn't about to let a sore tush ruin that. "Yah!" she cried, slapping the reins to let her borrowed reindeer, Sammi-Sima, know she should get underway.


Her journey through the snow-covered Elf Springs was uneventful other than the usual chuckles brought forth by snowball fights involving joyful Elves. There seemed to be an inordinate amount of Elf couples around who were holding hands or simply walking close. Rocky smiled at the sight; her smile turned wistful and dreamy when she thought of her dear friend Lotta.

They were getting closer all the time. But for the unfortunate incident involving the more-or-less double bunk in the crystal mine operated by the rock-tough twin sisters Irish-Rose and Carnation Elf, everything was going well between them. They were on the brink of something major, she could feel it in her bones. Lotta wasn't the first lady-Elf companion she'd had over the years, not by far, but certainly the most intriguing, charming, funny, cute, warm, loving-

"Oy! Will ya get a cotton-candy move on up there?!" a lady-Elf voice barked somewhere behind Rocky. "Some of us have to work to earn a living, you know!"

Snapping out of her dreamy state, she turned around on the fur-covered bench seat and noticed she was blocking a narrow street with her sleigh. Her pleasant thoughts of Lotta had made her come to a grinding halt - literally. "Uh… yeah. Beg' pardon, Ma'am," she said and slapped Sammi-Sima's reins.


The courtyard in front of the Hen's Teeth pub was full of sleighs by the time Rocky got there, and she needed to circle the lot twice to find a spot to park her ride. Because of the heavy snowfall that had struck Elf Springs recently, portable awnings had been put up over all the parking bays so the reindeer and the sleighs wouldn't be buried when the next flurry would dump its white, fluffy contents onto the city.

She had barely come to a halt before the lot's minders came to collect the parking fee and to hear if her reindeer needed feed, water and a grooming. After paying the fee, she declined everything else and shuffled over to the pub itself.

Opening the door, she cast a quick glance at the group of tables to the right of the entrance. Her friends hadn't arrived yet, so she shuffled up to the long, wooden bar counter opposite the tables to order their drinks.

The Hen's Teeth pub was popular among the long-haul sleigh drivers because of the friendly atmosphere, the large but cheap meals, the top-notch sweet white ale made by a local brewery, and finally the simple fact that they had it all for themselves. Regular Elf families tended to stay away from such places because of the burly sleigh drivers and the nimble, occasionally scantily-clad, lady-Elf entertainers who performed song and dance acts four nights a week.

At present, one of those dancing-Elves stood at the bar, warming up her vocal cords by drinking a small glass of port. Rocky nodded at her - everybody knew everybody else at the Hen's Teeth - before she tapped her knuckles on the counter to get the bartender's attention. While she waited, she took off her floppy Elf hat and stuck it into a pocket. "Greetings," she said once the bartender had come over while wiping down a glass. "Five mugs and a full pitcher of sweet white, thanks."

"Comin' right up, lady," the bartender said. The Elf - who wore black pants, a black vest over a white shirt, and finally a rigid cone hat sporting the logo of the Hen's Teeth pub - put down the glass he had been cleaning to slide one of the pitchers in under the tap for the draught ale. Once it had been filled up to the rim, he put it on the counter with the five mugs. "That'll be twenty Kroner, please."

Rocky counted the coins from her pouch before she put them on the counter and grabbed the pitcher. It was heavy - and the sea was even heavier - so she had to carry it down to the table using both hands.

"Oh, they'll allow anyone in here," a male-Elf voice said from the doorway.

Rocky chuckled and turned around to wave at her old friend Jasper Elf. Behind the jokester, two other sleigh drivers filed into the pub: Sven Elf and Valdemar Elf, the eldest of the bunch. Like always, they were all dressed in the outfits favored by the long-haul sleigh drivers: Black ankle boots, insulated, dark-green pants with black leather belts, dark-green double-breasted schmutting jackets and finally an ascot in varying colors depending on the years of seniority. Rocky, Sven and Jasper all wore a red ascot, but Valdemar's was black to show he was an elder. "Well, I guess they do since you're here, huh, Jas? Greetings, ev'rybody. I got the ale, fellas," she said and moved back up to the counter to get the mugs.

" 's what I've always said," Jasper Elf continued as he walked into the pub and took off his rigid cone hat, "Rocky's just the best li'l ol' Elf, isn't she?"

"Yeah, yeah," Rocky said and pulled out the chairs for her old friends. There were five chairs at the round table she had chosen, but since they were only four, she moved the last one over to the next table. "No Canute?" she said as she unbuttoned her schmutting jacket and sat down.

"Naw," Sven Elf said as he pulled his chair a bit further back so his larger frame would fit, "the missus held onto him. Something about their wedding anniversary or some such."

Rocky chuckled and distributed the mugs around the table. "Oh… cotton-candy. Yeah, I guess that's kinda important. Valdemar, I hope you have the spare deck of cards?"

"I sure do, Rockabye," the eldest sleigh driver said in his familiar gravelly voice. Reaching into a pocket of his schmutting jacket, he produced a deck of well-worn, but high-quality cards. "You wanna deal?"

Nodding, Rocky poured herself a healthy mugful of the dark-brown, sweet ale from the pitcher. To prove that it was a top quality ale, a nut-brown head rose at once. As she took the cards and began to shuffle them, she looked around at her playing companions and let out a little chuckle. They were all part of the family of long-haul sleigh drivers, but they couldn't be more different:

Jasper was the youngest, a baby-faced Elf in his mid-two hundreds whose chin and cheeks had barely begun to get fuzzy. A real ladies' Elf with a sweetheart at every loading station, he was the jokester of the bunch, but he would always help a friend in need.

Sven was a settled, self-elected bachelor Elf in his late-three hundreds. He never got too excited about anything, but he would ride all day, all night and all day again if he got a load that needed to go somewhere ASAP.

Valdemar was a mature, though not demure, elder as witnessed by his black ascot. In his late-five hundreds, he had already been everywhere and seen it all - and most of it twice. He was happily married to Lillimum Elf, so he had scaled back his hauling to local work and short overland trips so he could get home to a warm meal in the evenings.

And Rocky? An Elf in her prime, her early three-hundreds, whose life and looks didn't follow the Elfin norm. She was happy and content - attributes she had always possessed save for the first few years of hauling where other sleigh drivers had looked at her funny for having the wrong color hair, the wrong color eyes and the wrong notions of who to kiss. The only possible way for her to be more happy and content would be to jump the final, little hurdle and become romantically involved with Epilotta; the intriguing, charming, funny, cute, warm, loving-

"Rocky? Hello? Elf Springs to Rockabye Elf, please!" Jasper said and tapped his knuckles on the table. "Ya gonna deal that deck or continue to stroke it like it was your pet wabbit?"

Rocky stared at her old friend with a puzzled look on her face. She had zoned out - again. "Uh… yeah. Of course," she said and began to deal the cards. "So, the game is Olsen and the stakes are the yummy chocolate frogs with the creamy center. Everybody got a buncha frogs ready?"

"Yeah!" came the predictable response from all three of her fellow players.

"Okie-dokie. Let's play," Rocky said as she distributed the cards across the table.


The amount of spent lollipop sticks and empty candy wrappers on the playing table proved that, so far, it had been an Elfin good time for all involved. They had played hand after hand; each of them had won a few and lost a few. At one point, Jasper had eaten one of the chocolate frogs they used for stakes. He claimed it was an accident, but the others weren't too sure about that, especially not since he was about to lose the frog due to a poor hand.

The active pile was short, the reject pile was tall, and none of the players had that many cards on hand. Rocky sneaked a blue peek over the edge of her three cards to eye her competitors. She carried the king of clubs, which would be expensive if she failed to get rid of it, the deuce of diamonds and the nine of diamonds. If she lost the hand as-was, she would get twenty-one penalty points on the scoreboard, and that would ruin her good average.

Jasper threw down a seven of clubs which made Rocky narrow her eyes into blue slits. If Sven and Valdemar couldn't add to the reject pile, she could get rid of the king. Sven couldn't - but Valdemar could. He put down a seven of spades which made Rocky groan inwardly. She had no spades, nor did any of her cards match a seven, so she needed to pick one up from the active pile. A three of spades! That would do, so she put it down on top of Valdemar's seven and looked at Jasper while she waited for him to make the next move.

Valdemar shuffled around on the cushion he had borrowed. He still had a little problem in - or rather, on - his hind quarters, but he wasn't about to let it get in the way of playing cards with his friends. "So, Rockabye… how did the run to Peary Land go? It was a real tickle-monster, wasn't it?"

"You can say that again, Valdemar," Rocky said without taking her eyes off the current game. "A clear ten on the Ugh scale. Just about everything that could happen to us, did. Poor Ballumbalytis even got hit right in the noggin by a block of ice."

Jasper let out a grunt as he watched the progress of the game. "Mmmm… hate it when that happens."

"Oh! Oh, that explains everything!" Rocky said, flashing her friend a devious grin - it earned her a groan from Sven, a pair of rolled eyes from Valdemar and an inventive hand gesture from the Elf across the table.

While Rocky made fun of him, Jasper eyed his fellow players. Somehow they hadn't noticed he only had two cards left. One more drop and he would win the hand. "Haw, haw, haw. By the way, since when do you refer to your reindeer as 'us,' Rocky? I know the nights can be cold and lonely, but that's where I draw the line." - This time, Valdemar groaned and Sven rolled his eyes.

"Oh, I had someone with me," Rocky said with a grin.

"Oh-ho!" the jokester-Elf said, leaning in across the table which made the others pull their cards back at once. "Does she have a name… and have we met her?"

"Her name is Epilotta. And yes, you actually have met her… though I'm not telling where or when. I'm keeping her away from you, Lothario Elf," Rocky said with another grin as she was finally able to get rid of the king of clubs after Sven had put down the ten of clubs and Valdemar had had to pass.

"I'm not that bad, honest. Oh, by the way… Olsen," Jasper said and put down his final card, a jack of clubs.

The others just sat there with their yaps hanging open until they threw down their cards and let out various grunts.

While Jasper began to shuffle the deck for the next hand, Sven distributed the last of the sweet ale into their mugs. "How about we played a best of five for a new round of ale? Last place buys," he said as he put the empty pitcher down on the floor so it wouldn't get in their way.

"I can agree to that, my friends," Rocky said. Jasper and Valdemar nodded and grunted their approval as well. One card nearly landed in her lap, but she whacked her hand down on top of it so it wouldn't be visible to the others. "So… the Season to be Jolly is here… are you Elves coming to the big pre-Yuletide bash up at Toy Factory One tomorrow evening?" she continued as she picked up the final cards Jasper dealt her.

"Yep! I got a cool date with a hot li'l Elf!" Jasper said.

Sven shook his head as he took the cards. "No. I prefer to rest tomorrow. The next couple of days are going to be tickle-monsters. I need the sleep."

Valdemar shrugged. "The missus and me haven't decided yet. We usually go, but… I can't say yet. There's a free buffet, you know."

"Oh yeah, that's right," Rocky said and arranged the cards she'd been dealt. "I better warn Lotta… or perhaps just bring a wheelbarrow."

"To scoop up some free food?" Sven asked.

"Naw. For Lotta… so I can wheel her home after she's cleared out the buffet," Rocky said sporting a wide grin. With all the cards distributed and the active pile open and ready for play, she settled down with her hand.


"Hearts. And Olsen!" Valdemar said and put down his last card, the eight of hearts, on the active pile.

A chorus of groans and ughs soon followed, especially from Rocky who was left holding no less than four cards. Rolling her eyes, she counted the values and arrived at nineteen penalty points for that hand alone. "Nineteen," she said to Sven who kept the score.

"Ouch," Jasper said with a grin. "Why, Rockabye… you're strangely absent today. Betcha can't get your little Epilotta out of your mind, huh? Yeah, it happens to all lady-Elves at some point. Of course, most of them have met me, not an older Elf like you, but…"

To shut the little brat's yap, Rocky threw a spent lollipop stick at him, but he evaded it easily. "I'm just a little slow-witted today 's all."

"You must be," Sven said, putting down his pencil after having finished adding the numbers. "We played a best of five for the new pitcher of ale, and despite winning one round, you had enough penalty points in the other rounds to come in… well, last. By some margin."

"Sugar plum mush," Rocky said and pushed her chair back. Rolling her eyes over the fact that Lotta was indeed all she had on her mind, she took the empty pitcher and shuffled up to the bar counter.

The Hen's Teeth pub had become busier so she needed to wait for the bartender. While she leaned against the counter and watched her friends at the playing table, she couldn't help but think about how right they actually were. Lotta really had inched her way into Rocky's heart. It hadn't happened over night, but it had happened. She had always loved to be alone, but now she couldn't wait for the next meeting with the spirited Elf. There were Elfin mannerisms and attitudes she was incompatible with, and yet, when Epilotta Elf did some of those things, they turned into the cutest little gestures and comments in the whole, wide Elfin world. That cute, little Elf really was the best shot of energy she could ever hope to receive. All it took for Rocky to get the warm fuzzies was to think of the intriguing, charming, funny, cute, warm, loving-

"Ah, forget it," the bartender said as he moved away from Rocky.

"Uh… whut?" Rocky said and turned back to the counter with a puzzled look on her face. "Hey, can't an Elf get some service around here?" she continued, tapping a fingernail on the empty pitcher.

The bartender shot her a dark glare as he came back to her. "Lady, I asked you four cotton-candy times what ya wanted…"

"Oh… uh, sorry. Fill it up, will ya. Sweet white again, thanks." As she reached for her coin pouch, she felt her cheeks grow warm for the first time in years. She had it bad, and it seemed it got worse by the minute.


The cards flew across the table as Rocky dealt the next game with an expert's touch - One-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four zipped over to the intended player. As she performed the routine gestures, she allowed her mind to wander back to some of the things she and Lotta had experienced together. One-two-three-four. For some strange reason, they always seemed to run into some kind of trouble whenever they were on a gift-drop together. One-two-three-four. A vicious mutt here, a blocked chimney there. One-two-three-four. A wild and crazy party here, a talking moose there. One-two-three-four…

"Hey, Rocky… what kind of game d'ya think we're actually playing here?" Jasper said, holding a full - very full - spread of cards. "How many cards are in an opening hand for Olsen, anyhow? I could have sworn it was five."

Furrowing her brow, Rocky looked across the table at her friend. "Well, duh. What, ya forget how to play, Jas?" she said, stopping abruptly to count. She had dealt seven cards to everyone instead of five. "Oh, for the love of the Great Elf!" she growled and began to collect every card so she could deal them all over again. This time, she paid extra-extra close attention to the number of cards she gave her fellow players.


The next several games rolled back and forth between the four players. They each won and lost hands as they enjoyed their sweet white ale and sucked on lollipops and rock candy.

"You know, my friends, I've been thinking," Rocky said and put an ace of diamonds down on the reject pile. To her left, Jasper groaned and took one, two, three cards from the active pile before he called a pass. "Lotta is an old-fashioned Elf. Do you think I should write her an old-fashioned love letter? Or did that custom leave our society once the incomparable Dodo Elf had made her exit?"

"A love letter?" Sven said and put down a card on the reject pile. He only had three left, and the others paid closer attention to the calm player.

"Yeah… you know, a love letter," Rocky said, eyeing Sven's small hand.

Jasper had no experience with, knowledge of, or indeed interest in love letters, so he kept out of the discussion and settled for sneaking his hand over to the next chocolate frog.

Valdemar cleared his throat to stop the junior player from eating the stakes - then he put one of his cards on top of Sven's on the reject pile. The elder player suddenly only had two cards left, but the others were too busy eating candy and drinking ale to notice. "I wrote love letters to my Lillimum when I courted her," he said to take focus away from his limited hand. "But that was ages ago. I don't know if you young'uns still do that. How old is Epilotta?"

"Oh, in her early two-hundreds," Rocky said and put down a card.

Jasper's lips went into a lop-sided grin at once. "Oh, is she? Now isn't that interesting. I had figured she would be an old, old Elf like you, Rocky… but I guess she isn't. Huh. Where does she live?"

"Don't. Even. Think. About. It," Rocky said without taking her eyes off her cards.

Jasper grinned at the others before he went back to the game. "You know, love letters… it's a romantic notion, all right. I don't think any of my lady-Elf-friends would want one, but if Lotta is an old-fashioned Elf, I think you should at least try," he said and put down an eight of diamonds which would determine the next suit. "Oh, hearts," he added off-hand.

"But you need to write it yourself," Sven added as he had to take three cards off the active pile because he couldn't match the new suit. "Don't just buy a gift card from the Yuletide store and think she'll be satisfied with that. Won't work, Rockabye. It'll only end in tears."

Jasper, Valdemar and Rocky all let out identical, puzzled grunts and stared at the incurable, self-elected bachelor who apparently knew more about the art of courtship than he had let on.

"No, I would write it myself… of course. I do have a couple of ideas, but I'm stumped when it comes to the basics… you know, the beginning, middle and end," Rocky said and picked up a card out of sheer reflex. She didn't notice she hadn't needed to before it was too late - but once she had it, she wasn't allowed to put it down. Groaning inwardly, she rolled her eyes at her acute lack of brainpower as she stuffed the card up next to the others.

Valdemar squinted at the others as he appeared to rearrange his lone, remaining card. The others still hadn't noticed his limited hand. "I'd just do it if I were you, Rocky. If it's from the heart, she'll love it… and you," he said and put down his last card when Sven put a card on the pile that matched it. "Olsen. Read 'em and weep."

The others groaned out loud and threw down their useless cards. Once they were all out in the open, Jasper stared at the cards Rocky had put on the playing table. "Miss Rockabye Elf, I think you need a cold shower," he said, shuffling her cards away from the others so they were in plain sight.

"What in the Elfin world are you talking about now, Jas?" Rocky said with an annoyed chuckle.

"Well… uh…" Jasper said and pointed at the cards that would indeed have been a sure winning hand if Rocky had only paid attention to what was going on on the playing table instead of waxing lyrically about the love letter.

Rocky scrunched up her face when she realized Jasper was right. "Oh… Sugar. Plum. Mush," she growled. Sighing, she pushed her chair back from the table. "No, that's it. I need a break. Carry on without me, fellas. I'm only wasting your time today."

"Go and write that love letter to get it out of your head, Rockabye," Valdemar said as he collected the cards.

"Yeah," Jasper chimed in, "so we can get it out of our heads, too. And while you do that, the real players can play."

Grinning menacingly, Rocky leaned against the chair's backrest and appeared to be running a hand up and down her cheek. "Oh, haw, haw. By the way, you're looking real smooth today, Jas. Have you finally started shaving?"

The youngest player's eyes zipped down to his cards and stayed there while the others chuckled at his expense.

Taking her mug, the empty candy wrappers and the spent lollipop sticks, Rocky shuffled up to the bar counter where she deposited all the trash into the appropriate garbage can. The line at the bar had grown since she had been there last, so she turned around and looked at the denizens of the Hen's Teeth pub while she waited.

Everybody in there wore the same outfits, sat the same way, drank the same beverages and ate the same snacks - and all were long-haul sleigh drivers. Chuckling, she turned her attention to the small stage in the corner where the entertainer-Elf sat on a tall barstool by a piano. Her musician hadn't returned from his break yet, so she chatted quietly to some of the hopeful, young Elves who had come to the stage to get close to the cute, little Elf.

"What can I do for you, lady? Oh… it's you again," the bartender said when it was finally Rocky's turn.

"Yeah, it's me again. Rockabye Elf," Rocky said and turned to the bartender. "A small mug of sweet white. I also need a pencil and a notepad or something. A piece of paper. Anything."

The bartender grunted and filled Rocky's mug with the sweet white ale before he reached under the counter and found a pencil and a small pad. "How about a Yahtzee scorecard? You can just tear off a page and use the rear side."

"Sounds like a plan. How much?"

"Three Kroner for the ale… and five Kroner in deposit for the lease of the scorecard pad," the bartender said and put out his hand.

Rocky grunted but put the coins in the Elf's open palm. Grunting again, she took the mug and the two writing utensils and shuffled down into a corner of the Hen's Teeth pub where the typical noises found in any drinking establishment, like merry laughter, clicking dice, and jingling of tumblers and mugs, weren't so intrusive.

Her new spot gave her the opportunity to look out onto the parking lot through one of the pub's large windows. It had started snowing again, and the minders and groomers were busy running around with blankets to protect the reindeer that had stopped in the takeout or short-term bays that weren't covered by awnings.

The mere thought of Lotta's unbridled joy when she would notice the snow flurry was enough to send a wave of warm fuzzies through the tough sleigh driver's system. The excitable Elf would probably already be out rolling up snow-people on her front lawn, or perhaps even be engaged in a snowball fight with Trickamore Elf, Lotta's new neighbor.

Feeling inspired, Rocky took the pencil and went to work at once on the rear side of the scorecard.

'Dear Lotta.


This is all very new to me. You may find it unbearably schmaltzy - if you do, I better apologize in advance.


Your smile. Your laugh. Your sparkling eyes. You are a very beautiful Elf, but it isn't just the exterior. It's your spunk. Your vulnerability. Your willingness to help other Elves, even when it's at your own disadvantage. Your personality. Your entire nature.


All those things come together to form the Elf I have fallen for.


When I fall asleep at night, I think of the fun, exciting things we have done during the day. Together. When I wake up in the morning, I think of the fun, exciting things we can do in the new day. Together. And if there's a day we haven't seen each other, or a day we won't see each other, I get annoyed. Annoyed that a day was wasted; annoyed that we weren't, or won't be, together. Together, Lotta. That's all that matters. Me and you.


I'm running out of paper, but I need to tell you that you have touched me in a way no other lady-Elf has. I have it bad, Lotta. I've fallen for you, and unless I'm very much mistaken (and I'm not)…


I'm in love with you.


That's a big, frightening word, I know. But it's true.


I hope you feel the same way. Perhaps you will tell me if you do?



Forever yours,

Rockabye 'Rocky' Elf'

Leaning back on the chair, Rocky tapped the butt of the pencil onto the table a couple of times before it dawned on her the love letter was done - and not only that, it was perfect. It would offer Lotta a clear, unfiltered look into Rocky's soul.

A kernel of worry started to niggle in her gut. What if Lotta didn't like what she read? They were close and getting closer, that was a fact, but was a love letter too much too soon? Or did she even read the younger Elf right? Lotta was a bundle of raw energy and very touchy-feely, but it was a big leap from touchy-feely to a romantic relationship. In her sleep, Lotta had uttered the four little words that had linked the final cogs and set the whole thing in motion, but on the other hand, sometimes a dream was just a dream.

And what of the age difference? It wasn't big, only ninety-five years or so, but it was there. Lotta had never mentioned anything about that, so it was possible she just didn't care. Or maybe she did care but wouldn't say anything because she knew it would hurt Rocky in the wake of how close they had become. Or, or, or, if, if, if. "Or maybe you're just overthinking the whole, cotton-candy thing," Rocky mumbled, chewing on her lips as she read her own words for the umpteenth time.

She tried hard to see the letter from Lotta's point of view, but she wasn't able to, and ultimately gave up. Nodding to herself, she folded up the letter and put it into the liner pocket of her schmutting jacket. She couldn't better it - it was make or break-time.

She drained her mug and rose from the chair. In exchange for borrowing Sammi-Sima, she had promised her neighbor to do a gift-run for him before dusk fell, and that wasn't far off. After putting the mug and the Yahtzee scorecard pad back on the bar counter - and getting her five Kroner deposit back - she shuffled over to the table where her friends were still playing Olsen. "How's it going, Elves?" she said and leaned against Valdemar's chair.

"Oh, just fine, Rockabye," Valdemar said, pointing at the chocolate frogs they used for stakes. All the remaining treats were lying in a pile in front of him. One of them even had bitemarks to show that someone - Jasper, probably - had been desperate.

Sven and Jasper just chuckled and looked at their own meager winnings. "You get that love letter-thing done, Rocky?" Jasper said and took a fresh cherry lollipop.


"Shouldn't you read it aloud to us just in case?" the jokester said, winking at his friend. "I mean, so we can tell you what's wrong with it and what you should have said instead?"


Jasper chuckled and winked once more. "Oh, I see."

"Anyways," Rocky said and patted Valdemar's shoulder. "It was fun as always, my friends. I need to be somewhere, so… talk to you later. Merry Yuletide, Jas… Sven… Valdemar," she said and waved at her old friends who duly waved back.

Outside the Hen's Teeth pub, the snowflakes fell silently and formed little piles on the ground. Though it wasn't cold by Elf standards, a plume of steam escaped her mouth as she breathed. Mashing her floppy Elf hat down onto her black locks, she tapped the liner pocket of her double-breasted schmutting jacket to make sure the love letter was safe. Satisfied that it was, she flipped up her collar before she shuffled off to her custom-built sleigh and Sammi-Sima - she had a letter to deliver.

















The date was December twenty-third - also known as Little Yuletide Eve in certain circles - the time was ten in the morning, the place was Chestnut Street in Elf Springs, and the Elf hopping, skipping and jumping along the sidewalk with a merry song on her lips was Epilotta 'Lotta' Elf back from buying a few groceries for the grand feast that would take place the day after Yuletide Eve.

Behind her, the rusty, ungreased runners on the shopping sleigh squeaked as she dragged it along. Each time she hopped, skipped or jumped, the six carrier bags filled to the brim with all sorts of groceries and beverages jerked around, but so far, nothing had spilled over.

The new snow was still thick on the ground after the previous day's flurries, but the sky was deep-blue and the sun was even caressing the white dunes with a few rays. Further pale-gray clouds that moved in from the east promised more snow later in the day, perhaps at lunch or during the afternoon.

"Hi, Lotta!" a lady-Elf voice cried from the other side of the street.

Lotta came to a halt and waved at her new neighbor, Trickamore Elf, whom she had met under less than fortunate circumstances. "Hi, Trixie!" Lotta cried back, waving her floppy Elf hat high in the air while she looked at the other Elf working on assembling several snow-people - Trickamore had built an entire family in the front lawn of the house she shared with her parents.

They waved at each other once more before Lotta mashed her Elf hat down onto her flaming red locks and continued on home. The loaner shopping sleigh she had borrowed at the supermarket was heavy to get going because of the poor condition of its runners, but she was strong despite her scrawny exterior, and she was soon back up to speed. She celebrated the little success by hopping, skipping and jumping along the sidewalk with a merry Yuletide song on her lips: "Ohhhhhh! 'Tis the Season to be Jolly, la-la-la-la-laaaaaa-la-la-la-la!"


Lotta was still singing as she turned onto her garden path, but she came to a stop when she spotted the large footprints that were planted in the snow - the mail-Elf had visited her. "Yippie!" she said, though she couldn't clap her hands because of the shopping sleigh. Opening the mail at Yuletide was one of her favorite pastimes. Everybody she knew sent her colorful cards that she put up everywhere around her house, the Pine Cone Villa.

She had sent out twenty-four decorated, home-made Yuletide cards and had heard back from nineteen of the recipients. Two of the remaining five families were away on vacation up north so they couldn't send a card back in time for the merry days of Yule, but she had high hopes the remaining three cards would arrive on the twenty-third or the twenty-fourth.

Brushing off the mailbox, she opened the lid and took the stack of mail the mail-Elf had stuffed in there. One-two-three colorful Yuletide cards fell into her hand, and she let out another "Yippie!"

Two further cards were in the mailbox, but Lotta could only see one of them because the other stuck to the first one's rear side. The one on top was a square, high-quality envelope with Santa's seal in red, gold and silver in the top right corner. It looked important, so Lotta furrowed her brow and stepped into her house - she came back out at once when she realized she had completely forgotten about the shopping sleigh and all her groceries.


Going into the kitchen after having changed into her indoor clothes - gray knee-socks and a comfortable, red dress with puffy sleeves and an apron permanently attached to it - she put the important-looking envelope on the table while she distributed all her new groceries into the appropriate cupboards and shelves. She couldn't keep her eyes off the square envelope and snatched it the moment she was done stowing away what she had bought. She didn't notice that a second, smaller envelope fell onto the kitchen floor behind her.

"Oh, it really is from Santa… I wonder what it could be?" she mumbled as she shuffled into her living room. After finding a letter opener shaped like an icicle, she went over to her favorite chaise lounge and sat down. It didn't take her long to slit open the envelope and pull out the cardboard invitation inside.

"Oh, great Elf!" she said while her eyes zipped down over the text. She could hardly believe what it said, so she had to read it again, and aloud: "Dear Miss Epilotta Elf, you are hereby invited to the traditional pre-Yuletide get-together at Toy Factory One on December twenty-third. Please arrive no later than five PM. You may bring one companion or family member. Junior Elves welcome. Please do not forget your invitation as you will need to show it at the door. Traditional Elfin garb preferred, modern casual accepted, uniforms more than welcome. Let's eat, drink and sing happy songs. Merry Yuletide, Santa."

Lotta stared out into her living room without seeing anything at all. "Oh… Great… Elf… I've been invited to the pre-Yuletide bash! Oh, Great Elf, I can't believe it! Corn-on-a-cob, it's only in a few hours' time! I need to shower and find my old-fashioned clothes and-and-and- call Rocky!"

She was about to lean back in her seat before she remembered at the last moment that the chaise lounge didn't have a backrest where she sat. Snickering into her hand, she jumped up to get to the snow cone, but discovered that a trip to the little Elves' room was more important at that particular point in time.


Shuffling back from answering mother nature's demands, she went past the door to the kitchen. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of the second envelope that was still lying on the floor where it had fallen. She grunted and made a detour to pick it up.

"Where did this come from?" she mumbled as she looked at the neutral, white envelope that only had her name on it, not her address. The paper was of a less expensive quality than the official invitation, and it didn't feel like it contained a letter. Furrowing her brow, she opened it to see what was inside. A piece of paper that she wasn't prepared for fluttered out, so it slipped through her fingers and fell onto the kitchen floor all over again.

"Huh? A Yahtzee scorecard?" she said as she bent over to pick it up. "Oh, that Trickamore. She's a sweet Elf, but she does have some odd ideas when it comes to-"

She came to an abrupt halt when she spotted the handwritten words on the rear side. Once again, her eyes zipped down across the text, and once again, she couldn't believe what she had just read. She tried twice, three times, even four times before the words became clear enough for her to read proper. "Dear Lotta," she mumbled, reading aloud just to make sure it was really happening. "This is all very new to me… your smile. Your laugh. Your sparkling eyes. You are a very beautiful Elf… your personality. Your entire nature. All those things come together to form the Elf I have fallen for… sugar-plum-mush… oh, Great Elf…"

Looking up with eyes that were so wide and dreamy they had gained a fairy-like quality, Lotta stumbled over to lean against the edge of the kitchen table. Once she had solid support, she read on: "When I fall asleep at night…" she mumbled, once again reading aloud, "Together, Lotta. That's all that matters. Me and you… you have touched me in a way… I have it bad, Lotta. I've fallen for you… I'm in love with you. That's a big, frightening word, I know. But it's true. I hope you feel the same way. Perhaps you will tell me if you do? Forever yours, Rockabye 'Rocky' Elf…"

Her voiced trailed off into nothing as she digested the words on the note. Rocky was in love with her. Not just sorta-kinda fond of her, or liking her a lot, or Elf-pals, or even a dearest friend - she was in love with her.

Moving away from the kitchen table with the note pressed to her heart, Lotta walked in a trance as she moved into the living room. It didn't bring her anything, so she left to enter the bathroom, then up the stairs into her bedroom, back downstairs into the living room, and finally out into the kitchen where she had come from.

"Oh, my Elf… I can't bel- oh, Great Elf, she's in lov- oh, corn-on-a-cob, is this really happening? She's in love with me… I need to talk to her, right this minute!"

Spinning around, Lotta hurried back out of the kitchen. She strode towards her front door until she realized she was only wearing socks, not boots. The rest of her indoor ensemble would also be unfit for wintery conditions, so she hurried up the stairs to get dressed. Two seconds later, she hurried back down the stairs and zipped into the living room.

Snatching her snow cone from its base station, she threw herself onto the chaise lounge. Her fingers dialed the number with no conscious thought connected to the procedure, and then she put the apparatus to her pointy ear to listen to it ringing.

'This is Rockabye Elf speaking,' Rocky's familiar voice said at the other end of the line a few seconds later.

A pang of happiness burst through Lotta upon hearing the dulcet tones coming through her snow cone. She wanted to speak, but the grin she wore was so wide her mouth wouldn't obey her. When her lips relaxed, her throat tied itself into a knot, and a few happy tears escaped her eyes.

'Jasper, is that you? If it is, it ain't funny, friend!' Rocky said over the connection.

"No, it's me… Lotta. Hello, Rocky. I got your note."

A pregnant silence filled the air between the two snow cones.

Lotta pulled her legs up to move into a comfy, snug position. "I just wanted to tell you that… that… I'm so happy… so, so happy to hear that… that you're in love with me. Oh, sweet Elf, just saying it… oh, Rocky, I'm… you're my dearest… oh…"

'I'm coming over, Lotta… we need to talk face to face. I'll be there in ten minutes.'

Lotta nodded before she realized Rocky wouldn't be able to see it through the snow cone. "Please do. I miss you."

The click at the other end of the line proved that Rocky was already flying low to get from her house to the Pine Cone Villa on Chestnut Street. Lotta snickered and pressed the cube on the snow cone. Snuggling down on the chaise lounge, she clutched the love letter to her heart and let out a long, happy sigh.


It didn't take Rocky ten minutes to reach the Villa, it only took her seven and a half. Her heart had been in her throat the entire way, and not just because of her wild overtakings and various other maneuvers she had needed to pull to clear the entire fleet of Elf Springs Sunday drivers who had taken to the same streets that she needed.

She would never have been able to make it to Chestnut Street in that short amount of time if she hadn't - by sheer luck - had Sammi-Sima already hooked up to her custom-built sleigh. She had planned to go to the hardware store to pick up a few random bits and bobs that she could use for the last Yuletide presents, but then the call from Lotta had come.

Rocky brought the sleigh to a stop by tugging on Sammi-Sima's reins. The clever animal seemed to understand that love was in the air, because she came to a halt right at the curb in front of Lotta's garden gate. The reins were soon tied to the rail atop the buckboard; a split second later, Rocky jumped off the sleigh and hustled up the garden path.

With bated breath, she used the door-knocker and waited for that very special Elf to appear in the door. What Lotta would say, or even how she would react to the letter, would be anyone's guess - it was certainly far beyond Rocky's mental capacity to figure out at that stage.

The door was finally opened and Lotta came out to greet her visitor. Much to the detriment of Rocky's blood pressure, the two Elves just looked at each other for several seconds. Then, Lotta put out her hands in an invitation for a little squeeze.

Rocky reciprocated the gesture at once and covered the smaller, though just as strong, hands in her own callused paws. "Greetings, Miss Epilotta," she croaked when nothing further seemed to happen. "May I come in?"

"Greetings, Miss Rockabye. You may," Lotta said and moved backwards without letting go of her dear friend. Entering the hallway beyond the front door, she closed it with her heel - and just stood there.

The silence caused Rocky's heart to nearly break free of her rib cage, but she let out a long sigh when Lotta pulled her down for a strong hug. "You got my note?" she whispered though the answer was obvious.

"I did. Thank you for baring your soul to me. It was… unexpected. No, it wasn't. It was enlightening," Lotta said and traced Rocky's flushed face with a finger.

"I needed to say it… or my cotton-candy head would have exploded. How do you feel about it? The message, I mean," Rocky croaked, trying simultaneously to look at, and away from, the Elf she loved. When she didn't get an answer, she unrolled her scarf and threw it over a coat hook. She hadn't had time to find an Elf hat in all her haste, but she unbuttoned her double-breasted schmutting jacket to get some fresher air to her flushed body.

"Well. I think I'm perh- uh… perhaps too young to truly recognize my feelings yet," Lotta said with a blush creeping onto her cheeks. She shimmied on the spot and reached for her friend's hands again. "Oh, Rocky, I do feel strongly for you, too, but… but… but…"

There were too many buts in there for Rocky's taste. Screwing a smile on her face, she tried to control her voice as she spoke. "But it isn't love?"

"Oh Great Elf, I don't know… I've never experienced it! I've never had a lady-Elf-friend before… except for one week at Junior Elf Summer Camp when I was just a wee Elf… but I do know that when we're apart, I miss you. I know that when I see something funny and you're not there, I wish you were so we could share it. I wish you were near me the whole cotton-candy time… I want to hold you, touch you, tease you, play with you… uh, not like that. That's a little too soon for me… I meant play in the snow…"

Rocky chuckled and pulled Lotta in for another hug.

"Oh, but… but… whenever you leave, even after we've spent the whole day together, I miss you at once. I never want you to leave, Rocky, but I know you have a business to run, and… and… things. I wish we could spend even more time together. Together… that was such a major point of your letter."

"Yes. We're just so good together its uncanny."

"Yes… do you think that's love, Rocky?"

Rocky smiled and traced Lotta's eyebrow with a finger. They moved a little closer. "It could be." Holding onto each other's arms, they gazed deeply into the other Elf's orbs. "I have a strong feeling it could be." They moved closer still.

"This is usually where the snow cone rings…" Lotta whispered, gazing at Rocky's lips, eyes and the rest of her striking Elfin face.


"But not today. I didn't put it back on its base station."

"It can still ring, Lotta…"

Lotta closed the final distance between them and put a hand behind Rocky's black locks. "Who cares," she said and pulled the tall sleigh driver down towards her. For the first time ever, their lips met in a kiss that was perhaps a little awkward to begin with - the first three seconds - but then became a wonderful, warm, loving affair.

When they separated, they stayed close to savor the moment. "It's love. I know that now," Lotta whispered, moving in for another kiss at once now she had finally experienced the full glory of loving someone.

Pulling back for a second time, they fell into a strong hug and rocked back and forth for nearly a minute. They both sniffled, only too happy to have cleared that hurdle - though they both knew the path ahead was still frightening. "Wow… I can understand the lure of kissing now," Lotta said with a snicker.

"Definitely," Rocky said with a broad grin that could hardly fit between her cheeks.

"And! Look up… we're underneath the mistletoe. Isn't that romantic?" Lotta said and pointed up at the green leaves she had tied to a hook in the ceiling.

"Oh… so it was only a mistletoe kiss?"

"No," Lotta said, and no further words were necessary. Grinning, she shimmied around and performed a few dance moves in the middle of the hallway. "I feel like celebrating… oh, I know! I wanna make you apple charlotte! But not just any old apple charlotte… no, a traditional Norse Elf apple charlotte with vanilla and mini-breadcrumbs and redcurrant jelly and the whole cotton-candy- but first… another kiss, please!"

"Always happy to comply," Rocky said and whipped the younger Elf back to her. Lotta squealed in delight, but the squeal was cut off when their lips touched in a kiss that was just that bit deeper and more sizzling than the first few. "Good enough?" she whispered hoarsely once they broke off the sweet contact.

"Corn-on-a-cob," Lotta squeaked in a high-pitched voice. "I need to watch what I'm saying… ooooh, that was nice. Almost as nice as the apple charlotte will be!"

Chuckling, Rocky was dragged into the kitchen by her excitable friend and put in a corner while Master Chef Epilotta Elf went to work on the traditional Norse dessert.

"First, we need apples. Lotsa apples," Lotta said, reaching in under her kitchen table to get a bag of fine, red apples. "Late harvest so they're rich and yummy. They're to be peeled and cut into thin slices… then we have to puree them and put 'em into a pot. Add a little water to make it nice and squishy, and then it's onto the stove. Once it's good and hot, we'll add the chopped vanilla, some sugar and the mini-breadcrumbs and let it simmer for a while until the apples have turned to mush. Are you with me so far?"


"Good. Once the apples are ready, we pour the mush into a bowl and stir a couple of times so the mini-breadcrumbs are evenly distributed. Afterwards, we let the whole thing cool off while we kiss a little more… tee-hee," Lotta said and broke out in a few happy dance moves. "Once we're ready to enjoy it, we add a few globs of redcurrant jelly as decoration, followed by plenty… and I do mean plenty… of whipped cream, and… there you have it. Epilotta Elf's favorite dish involving apples."

"It certainly sounds yummy."

"Oh, you better believe it's yummy. Then we'll make some Yule-tea, carry the whole thing into the living room… and enjoy it together. That's the best part," Lotta said, adding a wink.

Rocky nodded and took the opportunity to steal another kiss. Only five minutes had gone by since their heartfelt declarations of love, and they had already kissed four times - or was it five already? Was it possible to wear out one's lips through kissing?

"C'mon, Rocky, I have two peelers," Lotta continued and waved her dear friend over to the kitchen table so they could get started on the dessert.


By the time the apple charlotte was cooling off and the Yule-tea was in a tea pot, Lotta had found the tools needed to make whipped cream, and she went to work whistling a merry Yuletide song.

Rocky had seen the younger Elf get busy with the stirring equipment before and knew it was high time to step away from the Chef before the white, sticky stuff would start to fly. She backed up into the corner the furthest she could get from the possible disaster zone.

"Ohhhhhhh!" Lotta sang as she emptied a jug of cream into a stirring pot. "On the first day of Yuletide, my sweetheart gave to meeeeeeeeeeeeee-" While she hummed the rest, she stuck two long-necked spoons into the cream and set off whipping it at such a frenzied pace a windmill wouldn't have been able to keep up. "Snow, snow, snow… oh, the joys of snow…" - Whip, whip, WHIP, whip - "On the second day of Yuletide my sweetheart gave to meeeeeee-" - Whip, stir, whip, stir - "Yuletide Eve is nigh and the bells jingle… oh, hear the bells jiiiiiiiiiiiiiiingle so sweet!" - Stir, stir, whip, whip - "On the third day of Yuletide my sweetheart gave to meeeeeee- oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-ohhhhhh-oh." - Stir, whip, stir, whip - "Ohhhh, jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the waaaaay-" - STIR, whip, STIR, STIR - "Whoops! Oh, corn-on-a-cob… ugh, I got it on my nose!" - Whip, whip, WHIP, WHIP - "But Santa said to the little Elf, don't be sad, don't be sad-" - Whip, stir, whip, stir - "On the fifth day of… no, on the fourth day of Yuletide my sweetheart gave to meeeeeee-" - Stir, whip, stir, whip - "Siii-he-lent night, Eeeee-helfin night-" - Whip, whip, WHIP, WHIP - "We always have an Elfin good time. Elves, Elves, Elves. And we're so cute and fiiiiine! Done!"

For the past three minutes, Rocky had clapped a hand firmly over her mouth so she wouldn't ruin the moment by laughing out loud. Her body betrayed her, and she couldn't contain the happy feeling that bubbled up from her chest. Leaning her head back, she let out a braying laugh that made the chef nearly drop the bowl of whipped cream she had worked so hard to stir.

Lotta snickered as well - she knew she had behaved a little silly. Instead of getting miffed, she stuck out her tongue and took the stirring pot with the whipped cream. "When you're done laughing, would you mind taking the dish with the apple charlotte? Let's eat on the chaise lounge."

"Yes, dear," Rocky said and took the dish with the dessert that smelled so yummy she could hardly keep herself from sampling it with an index finger.

In the living room, Rocky put down the dish on the table and let Lotta distribute the apple charlotte and the whipped cream onto two plates. The Yule-tea was quickly poured and sugared, and everything was nice and cozy.

They enjoyed the dessert in silence - or as silent as Lotta could be when every other spoonful prompted an "Oh Great Elf, this is yummy!" - until they pushed away the empty plates and mugs, and just sat there basking in each other's presence.

Lotta eventually swung her legs up in the chaise lounge and scooted up to the headrest. Smiling shyly at her dearest friend, she patted the space next to her in an invitation for a snuggle, or perhaps even a cuddle.

It was a big moment in their budding relationship, Rocky understood that at once. It hadn't been more than a few days since Lotta had been so uncomfortable sharing a bunk in the mine up north that they'd ended up sleeping in separate bunks. Now, she had offered a spot right next to her. It didn't take more than three seconds for Rocky to kick off her shoes and join Lotta on the soft chaise lounge. Lying side by side, they held hands and leaned their heads against one another's.

"Oh, I nearly forgot," Lotta whispered. "I got an invitation for the pre-Yuletide bash today! My first! Isn't that exciting? Oh, this will be my best-ever Season to be Jolly… did you get one as well?"

"Yep. We're Santa's A-Team, don't forget."

Lotta nodded and let out a grunt. "Oh, Rocky… I know we've done a hundred things together, but wouldn't it be like our first date? You are going to go, aren't you? Please say yes."


"Oh no, you aren't going?" Lotta said and whipped her head around.

Rocky let out a warm chuckle at the worried response. Reaching over, she patted her companion's hand to add a modicum of comfort. "Whoa there, sweet Lotta. I never said I wasn't going. I was simply gonna ask if you would like to come along with me?"

"Oh, yes. I'd love to. Yes, please," Lotta said and turned her head so she could kiss the side of Rocky's black locks. "And I love it when you call me sweet Lotta," she added in a whisper.



"Mmmm. You are sweet. Could I persuade you to kiss m-"

"Cotton-candy, I thought you'd never ask," Lotta said and rolled over onto her right side so she had better access to Rocky's lips. Before they even had time to blink twice, their lips were locked in a tender contact that kept going for quite some time.


At a quarter to four in the afternoon, the airspace surrounding Toy Factory One was so clogged up with Elfin sleighs of every shape and size the Elf traffic controllers had been forced to create a holding loop that circled the factory two miles out and two miles back. A labor-Elf had been sent out in the snow at the entrance to the hangar with a couple of lanterns so he could signal the sleighs when it was safe to begin final approach.

Much to Lotta's vocal annoyance, she and Rocky had been caught up in the traffic jam and had been forced to head onto the holding loop where they had spent the better part of twenty minutes flying around in circles amid all the other delayed sleighs. At least they had given Sammi-Sima plenty of feed before they left.

Moaning about it wouldn't help, but a little snuggle would, so Lotta scooted across the fur-covered bench seat and wrapped her arm around Rocky's strong waist. "Oh, it's going to be so much fun… if we ever get there," she mumbled. The sky around them was already dark, but the stars hadn't really come out yet so there was very little to look at while they waited. Instead of looking up, she looked down at the clothes she had chosen for the big event.

First, she had found a traditional Elfin dress complete with a bonnet, a muff and a pair of pale-brown clogs, but she had decided against wearing it in favor of her schmutting outfit. It had said on the invitation that uniforms were welcome, and she had earned hers the hard way by graduating top of her class at the Elfin Academy. She was an Elfin good gift-dropper, and she might as well flaunt that fact. She and Rocky both wore their Santa's A-Team Elf hats with the golden bobble - she had earned that too.

Rocky tugged at the reins to go around the final bend of the holding loop. Down below, the poor labor-Elf continued to swing the lanterns left to right as the sleighs went past over his head. By the time Rocky and Lotta closed in on him, he changed his gestures from a left-right motion to one that went up and down. "Wa-hey! We've been given a go for landing, Lotta!" she said and gave Sammi-Sima the command to break out of the loop and head for Toy Factory One.

"Fih-nally!" Lotta growled, looking at the countless other sleighs around them that were forced to continue in the holding loop.

The final approach to Toy Factory One was less dramatic than the approach to the other two factories. They were both further south so raging snowstorms had been created in front of them to conceal the facilities from prying Human eyes, but the greater distance to Human settlements near Elf Springs meant it hadn't been necessary there.

Rocky and Sammi-Sima aimed for the vast opening to the loading bay that would see even more activity on the following days, though of a different kind. The hangar was well-lit, and the landing strip had just been cleared of the previous sleigh by the time Rocky's custom-built vehicle blasted through the opening and onto the runway.

Sammi-Sima's experience told, and she slowed down enough to make it a smooth, trouble-free landing. As the greased runners hit the ground, the increased friction helped slow down the sleigh until the reindeer was only going at a fast walking pace.

Lotta could hardly believe her eyes as Rocky turned the sleigh off the runway and onto the corral in the farthest corner of the loading bay. Toy Factory One was busy like seldom before, with hundreds of passenger sleighs and reindeer stacked up in a huge parking lot next to the corral. Minders, blacksmiths, groomers, feeders, pooper scoopers, traffic wardens and scores of assorted other Elves ran to and fro to remain on top of everything while guests in traditional Elfin garb or the occasional schmutting uniform filed from the sleighs and over to the double doors.

"Oh, ye Great Elf! I'll stick to you like glue, Rocky!" Lotta said and clung onto her friend's arm. "If we lose sight of one another here, it'll be the first week of July before we'll find each other again!"

"Good thinking," Rocky said, waiting at the tail end of a long line while the Elves working as traffic wardens found a spot for her to park her custom-built freight-liner among all the flashy passenger sleighs. "Oh, look… there's Knarli Elf! I'll bet that old curmudgeon can whip the young Elf-pups into shape," she continued, pointing at an Elf elder who carried a clipboard, a whistle and a fierce scowl.

"Oh no… he gives me the chills… I hope he doesn't see me," Lotta mumbled, looking at the vastly experienced load supervisor who had been transferred up from Toy Factory Three for the big event. "Ack, he looked in this direction… quick, Rocky, I need to go into the storage area underneath the seat before he yells at me!"


Fortunately, nothing happened with the grouchy Knarli Elf, and Rocky and Lotta soon entered the main conference hall a few floors below the hangar. After showing their invitations to a burly security officer-Elf - they were there to stop trolls from sneaking in and creating havoc by eating all the good stuff from the free buffet - the younger of the two Elves came to an abrupt halt just inside the doors. Her eyes bugged out on stalks as she took in all the colorful decorations.

The conference hall had been spruced up with so many Yuletide decorations that it was hard to believe the stores in Elf Springs had any left. Everything that had ever graced a Yuletree was there, from jumping jack Elves to paper drums and trumpets, from strings of Elfin and Santa miniature flags to snow-families made of cotton wool, and from woven hearts made of silk paper in gold and silver to braided festoons that were sprawled all the way across the ceiling like a canopy.

There were Elves everywhere, all clad in their finest. Not even a hatter's trade convention could match the number of floppy and rigid cone Elf hats on display. Everyone wore the traditional Elf colors of forest-green, red in every shade, gray, white and the occasional splash of black. Now and then, a dusty-blue schmutting uniform could be seen among the greener colors, but they were few and far between.

Lotta wore dusty-blue, so she stuck out at once. Her Santa's A-Team hat with the golden bobble only added to the attention she and Rocky were given as they shuffled across the floor of the conference hall to get to a seating arrangement close to the buffet.

The place was hopping with junior Elves, young Elves, mature Elves, older Elves, and a few really old Elves who were all chatting merrily to each other. A playpen had been set up for toddler-Elves who were supervised by what appeared to be an Elf knitting club. A playpen of a different kind had been set up for the older Elves: an ale trolley from one of the local breweries.

Lotta took a deep sniff of the delightful aromas that wafted out from the buffet. She eventually sniffed so hard she needed to get up on tip-toes to have room for it all, and her tummy let itself be heard by growling. Coming to a halt, she eyed the glass display cases that promised plenty of free food. "Are we…? We're gonna… oh, but perhaps I should wait a little while… on the other hand, all the best pastries and buns and cookies and pies and soups and-and-and… oh, it will be gone by then… on the third hand, if I eat a lot now, there won't be room for much later… nah, scratch that argument."

She had started using her fingers to keep count of the options, but soon gave up. Instead, she spoke over her shoulder. "Rocky, do you think we should-" - Rocky was gone - "Rocky? Rocky? Rocky?!" she cried, spinning around to find the tall, dark-haired sleigh driver in the sea of Elves.

"I'm right here, Lotta," Rocky said and hurried back to her lost friend. "Sugar-plum-mush, Missy Elf, we've only been here for two cotton-candy minutes!"

"But… but… but this time, I stood still and you moved on! Oh, corn-on-a-cob… the free buffet called out to me… it tried to lure me in. I think there's maybe a troll living in that buffet," Lotta said while she shuffled around in a little circle to hide her embarrassment.

Rocky chuckled and took Lotta by the shoulders so she could steer her onto safer ground. "If there is, you can meet him later. Let's mingle first."


"Rocky! Over here!" Jasper Elf cried, waving at his friend the moment he spotted her. The long-haul sleigh driver, whose ability to charm the lady-Elves was as legendary as his tendency to be the joker in the pack, was dressed like a rural Elfin Count of yore, with clogs, gray knee-socks, dark-brown plus-fours, a white shirt with a round collar, a green vest, and finally a gray Elf hat with a floppy cone that was resting on his right shoulder. A short, forest-green jacket went with the rest of the rented costume, but he had hung it over the back of the chair because it was too warm to wear inside.

A lady-Elf wearing a modern dress with a full skirt sat on his lap, looking bored.

Strolling over to her foppish friend, Rocky put out her hand and clasped arms with Jasper in the traditional Elfin greeting. "Greetings, Jas. What in the cotton-candy world is that thing you're wearing?"

"Oh, according to the costume shop, it's a suit fit for the landed gentry. Today, I'm a rural Count, as a matter of fact," Jasper said and made an appropriately foppish gesture with his hands.

"What in the Elfin world for?"

" 'Cos it makes me look suave."

"I'm surprised you even know that word, Jas," Rocky deadpanned, giving the entire costume a closer inspection. The craftsmanship and the quality of the cloth used couldn't quite hold up to a critical eye, but it looked good from a distance - a classic spit-and-polish job.

"Duh, I know someone who owns a dictionary."

"Amazing. Aren't you gonna introduce me to your lady-Elf friend?" Rocky said as she took a step back to take in the scenery. The lady-Elf, whose hair and makeup had been done up to follow the latest trends and fashions, cast a bored glance at the two lady-Elves.

"This," Jasper said, squeezing the lady's tush, "is Cara-Miah Elf. Say hi to my good ol' friend, Rockabye Elf, Cara-Miah."

"Hi," the lady-Elf said in a voice that proved she was so bored she had nary a shred of energy left within her.

Lotta's eyebrows went up, then down at the sight, and she performed a sideways shuffle to get closer to Rocky in case Cara-Miah's vegetative state was contagious.

"Listen, honey," Jasper said and gave Cara-Miah's tush another squeeze, "why don't you go over to the buffet and fetch me another slush ice. Pink grape. If they're out of pink grape, then cool blue. All right?"

"Eh," Cara-Miah said with a shrug. Getting up, she nodded a brief see-ya to Rocky and Lotta before she disappeared into the crowd of party-clad Elves.

"Is that your hot date, Jas?" Rocky said with her tongue stuck firmly in her cheek.


"You wanna borrow a match or something?"

"Uh…" Jasper said, narrowing his eyes. "What for?"

"I think her wick has gone out."

Lotta let out a cross between a gasp and a snort. Rocky chuckled at her own joke which had been pretty good according to herself, and Jasper hid a smirk.

The smirk turned into an interested expression as he took his time to look better at the shorter, younger Elf next to his old friend. "Greetings… I'm Jasper Elf. And who might you be?" he said in a buttered voice as he put out his arm.

"Epilotta Elf. Greetings," Lotta said and took a step back after clasping the other sleigh driver's arm.

"Oh! Lotta? The Lotta?" Jasper said, looking up at Rocky with a strong hint of mischief sparkling in his eyes.

Rocky grunted and shuffled over to one of the other armchairs that belonged to the seating arrangement. Someone had left an Elf Springs Gazette in the chair, but she threw it onto a nearby table and sat down. "Yes. That Lotta."

"Mmmm!" Jasper said, once again eyeing the petite redhead. "Tell you what, Epilotta… if you can't find a seat anywhere, you're more than welcome to sit on my lap."

Rocky buried her face in her hands and let out a long, pained groan. Lotta was a sensitive - and slightly touchy - Elf at the best of times, so it was a dead cert that Jasper's provocative comment had just ruined the whole evening for Lotta and therefore for herself.

Lotta's jaw did go to work as she digested the words, but she shot him a detached, uninterested glare. "Well, thank you for the offer, Jasper," she said while she shuffled over to join Rocky, "but you simply don't have what it takes. Rocky does. Goodbye."

"Ohhh!" Jasper said and threw his hands in the air to surrender. When Rocky turned around and flashed him a broad smile that said 'you lose, buster,' he got up from the chair and went on a search-and-rescue to find Cara-Miah instead.


Ten minutes of fierce snuggling later, Rocky knew she couldn't hold onto Lotta for any longer and released her to go to the free buffet with a little pat on the rear.

Lotta didn't need to be told twice, so she zipped across the floor of the conference hall to get there ahead of a group of Elves who were marching for the buffet. She beat them by inches and snatched up a tray with a triumphant grin on her lips. "Oooooh… pies!" she said, mashing her nose against the glass to see the many beauties on display. "Oh, kringle-bread with caraway seeds! And warm pastries with creamy, runny filling! And buns… plenty of buns… lovely buns… raisin buns, cinnamon buns… Oh! Cinnamon buns with rock sugar!" - Deep breath - "Cookies… mmmm! Mrs. Santa's award-winning crunchy cookies! Chocolate chip cookies, hazelnut chip cookies… oh! Peppernut cookies, my favorites! A different kind of crunchy cookies, mushy cookies, all kinds of cookies… marzipan cakes, layer cakes, marzipan layer cakes…" - deep breath - "cream profiteroles, oh… maxi eclairs with chocolate frosting and a filling of crushed macaroons in whipped cream… I think I'll need one of each!"

Moving along, she never made it further than the next display case. "Ohhhh… pancakes! Genuine, puffy pancakes with syrup and- oh, Great Elf, I hear them calling for me! Yes, I can hear you!" she said and opened the glass lid to grab the pastry scooper so she could transfer the pancakes to her tray. "I can hear you… come to Epilotta… come to Epilotta… oh, cotton candy! I need a plate… I didn't get a plate… where are those sugar plum- oh, there they are… ugh, down the other end of the line. Oh, what's an Elf to do? If I leave the pancakes behind now they won't be here when I return… but if I skip the plate and put the pancakes directly onto the tray, I can't get any syrup 'cos that's just too nasty… or I may catch someone's bug if they've sneezed on it or didn't wash their hands after they went to the little Elves' room-" - deep breath - "Oh! A plate! Yo-ho-hoooo, a forgotten plate… oh… ack, it's got creamy filling smeared all over it. A plate… where… there must be… plate? Plate? No plate. Oh, corn-on-a-cob, I'll just put the pancakes on the tray. There. Then I'll return for the syrup." - Deep breath - "You hear me, Sy? You better be here when I get back."

When she moved away from the glass display case, she balanced a pile seven pancakes tall on the tray. Zipping past the line of Elves - who all stared at her like she had two heads - she snatched a clean dinner plate from the shelves close to the entrance to the buffet and hustled back to where she had left Rocky. "I found some pancakes!" she said and put down the tray on the little table by the seating arrangement. The pancakes were soon piled onto the clean dinner plate; they took up so little space across the plate there was room for plenty of the good stuff at the bottom of the pile. "Didn't get any syrup! Won't be long!" - Then she was off again.

"Uh-huh?" Rocky said and nabbed the puffy pancake on top. Leaning back in the chair, she munched on it with great relish while she waited for her highly excitable companion to return.




Lotta was a natural mingler. With her charming personality and easy-going style, she was able to get other Elves to open up and speak freely. In some cases, so freely that she saw or heard things she really didn't need to know. When that happened, she had to seek out Rocky's hand for a comforting, little squeeze - a good example was a younger lady-Elf who felt it necessary to explain in gory details her misadventure with a wood wedge, a hammer and her thumb. An even better example was an elder Elf who insisted on pulling up his shirt to show Rocky and Lotta a scar he had received in his younger years when he was a long-haul sleigh driver. It could have been worse, though - he could have pulled down his pants.

Doing the rounds, they had spoken to junior Elves and mature Elves, labor-Elves and office-Elves, chubby Elves and rail-thin Elves, Norse Elves and South Elves, and even someone from the hometown of Rocky's father way down south.

It was inevitable Lotta's tummy would grow weak and empty through all that yapping, so she and Rocky gravitated back towards the free buffet. The lines at the glass display cases were still as heavy as before, and the number of trays and clean plates were low, which was visible proof that the other Elves weren't just looking at the food on offer, they were grabbing it.

"Great Elf, I am in dire need of a refill," Lotta said, holding an empty mug of Yule-tea and an empty plate that she had actually licked clean to scoop up every last one of the yummy crumbs from her puff pastry.

Rocky eyed the empty plate and Lotta's astonishingly flat stomach. "Again?"

"Oh yes. It's only my third helping, so-"


"I beg your pardon? Third."




"Well, excuse me, Miss Rockabye Elf," Lotta said and came to a hard stop on their way over to the buffet. "It's my third helping, thankyouverymuch," she continued, sticking out the tip of a pink tongue.

Rocky chuckled and held up her hand. "One," she said and extended her thumb, "the pancakes. Two, the fruits of the forest pie which was covered in whipped cream. You had the whole pie, I might add, not just a slice. Three, the warm Princess pastry…" she continued, extending one finger at a time.

"Oh… you're right. Cotton candy. Well, it's a free buffet, after all," Lotta said and resumed shuffling over to the lines. "I forgot the pancakes. But they don't count 'cos you nabbed one of them! I only had six!"


"Uh-huh! Now let's go and eat something before those Elves over there clean out the place!" Lotta said and stomped off to the buffet lines.

"Yes, dear," Rocky said with a grin as she followed her fiery companion.


Standing in a line twenty-four Elves long to get one of the highly yummy cream and marzipan cakes that had just been presented, Lotta's keen hearing picked up fragments of a conversation that went on between two lady-Elves a couple of spots ahead of her. Looking past the broad-bellied Elf she was standing behind, she noticed two Elves who both wore traditional West Elf outfits: clogs that had been painted white, woolly, red leggings, a red skirt with a white edging, a white shirt with red sleeves, and finally red Elf hats with floppy cones. A host of silver bells seemed to have been sown onto their sleeves so they jingled when they moved.

The Elves were similar in looks, but there was a big difference in their age, so it was a good bet they were mother and daughter. At present, they had their heads together, whispering in excited tones about some kind of open amateur competition that was about to take place at the big event.

Lotta couldn't pick up everything, but her interest had certainly been piqued. Though she wasn't a diehard Elf who needed to constantly measure herself against other Elves in order to live - like quite a few of the smart, young Elves she knew - she had always loved amateur competitions. It gave the regular Joe or Jane Elf a fair chance to show what he or she could do, and it always created new, exciting connections or perhaps even friendships.

Scrunching up her face, she looked at the endless line ahead of them. It would take an eternity to get anywhere, but she didn't know how much time she had at her disposal. "Uh… Rocky, wouldya mind holding our spot in the line for a moment? There's something I need to find out about…"

"Sure. The little Elves' room is right over there," Rocky said and pointed at a sign hanging on a wall some distance away from them.

"No, it's not that… I'll tell you as soon as I get the lowdown," Lotta said and zipped out of the line.

She was up at the two West Elves in a hurry and put out her hand for a traditional arm clasping. Unfortunately, the silver bells on the sleeves meant the lady-Elves couldn't clasp arms at all. Chuckling, Lotta waved at them instead. "Greetings, I'm Epilotta Elf!" she said with a smile so the two lady-Elves wouldn't think she was a crazed fan.

Up close, it was easy to see the family resemblance between the two Elves. The elder of the two was a mature Elf in her early four-hundreds, and the younger was still only a junior just shy of one hundred and eighty or so - she looked like she hadn't even received her first, green, ascot yet.

"Greetings, Miss Epilotta. I'm Mrs. Eleanora Elf," the older of the two Elves said, "and this is my daughter Miss Trudy Elf. Say hello to the nice Elf, Trudy."

"Hello, Miss Epalotti," Trudy said in a meek voice as she performed a fumbling curtsey. Her eyes were glued onto Lotta's A-Team hat with the golden bobble, and it looked as if she was in severe awe over being so close to a member of the exclusive club.

"Oh, that's Epilotta, actually. Hello, Trudy," Lotta said with a smile. "So, I couldn't help but listen in on your conversation before… what's that about an open amateur competition?"

"Oh! Mmmm… that depends… are you a competitor?" Eleanora said and winked several times in an exaggerated fashion.

"I might be, yes…" Lotta said and snickered into her hand.

"Seriously, it's a talent show where those who feel they have something to offer can compete against other amateurs. Trudy and I will do a traditional West Elf ceremonial dance… isn't that right, sweetie?"

Trudy's cheeks glowed red at being called such a juvenile pet name in public so she could only nod, but she did so with such a fervor that her floppy Elf hat bobbed up and down and the bells on her sleeves jingled.

"Oh, I'll definitely cheer for you," Lotta said with a smile. "Uh… do you know where and how an Elf could sign up for the competition?"

" 'How' is easy, Miss Epilotta, and 'where' isn't far behind. You just go over to the booth over there… by the red and white banner… see it?" Eleanora said and pointed out over the crowd of Elves.

Lotta spun around and followed the lady-Elf's finger. The red and white banner was in full view, and she wondered why she and Rocky hadn't seen it on their frequent tours of the conference hall. Speaking of Rocky, the sleigh driver looked back at her from further down the line with a puzzled frown on her forehead - Lotta waved and sent her dear friend a thumbs-up. "Yeah!" she said when she turned back to the two West Elves.

"That's where you sign up."

"Great Elf, it's that easy?"

"Yes," Eleanora said and wrapped a jingling arm around her daughter's shoulders. "And get this, the winner will receive a whole year's worth of free raisin buns. All the raisin buns he or she can eat… for a whole year. Imagine that!"

Lotta did indeed imagine that. She just stood there with unblinking eyes and her jaw hanging down to her chest. She had heard the words, and she had even understood them, but then her brain had short-circuited at the thought of how big a pile of raisin buns she could munch her way through over an entire year.

"Oh… perhaps you should hurry, Miss Epilotta," Eleanora continued. "When Trudy and I signed up ten minutes ago, it looked like they were maybe getting ready to-"

Lotta jumped up on tip-toes and threw her arms out wide - her raisin buns were in jeopardy already, and she hadn't even begun to count them. "Oh, sugar-plum-mush! Uh… pardon my explicit vocabulary on this glorious evening… uh… uh… thank you very much, Mrs. Trudy… no, Eleanora… uh… and Miss Trudy… bye!"

The two West Elves only saw the back of Lotta's schmutting jacket as she zipped away from them, past Rocky who let out a loud, surprised grunt, and head-first into the crowd of Elves to get to the competition booth before it was too late.

She zipped left, then right, then another right, then left, another left, a right, back left, and finally a right until she came to a screeching halt in front of the booth. A mature lady-Elf was still sitting there, sorting a stack of papers, but the very moment Lotta opened her mouth to sign up, the mature Elf put a cardboard sign on the booth's counter that said 'Gone For Supper. Back Later.'

Lotta gasped and flew over to the booth. "Wait-wait-wait… can't you… I just heard about the comp- please… it'll only take a moment…"

The lady-Elf put the stack of papers under her arm and raised an eyebrow at the agitated Lotta. "Like it says on the sign, I'm off for supper. I'll be back later."

"Ohhhh… when is later?"

"When I've eaten."

"But when does the competition start?!"

"Even later than that."

"But can I still sign up when you get back?!"

"Yes. You'll still have time when I've had my dinner. Good day, Miss Elf," the mature Elf said and shuffled away from the booth without even looking back.

"Oh… cotton… candy…" Lotta growled under her breath. Rolling her eyes, she took off her A-Team hat to air her flaming red locks that had gone damp from all the excitement.

Two seconds later, Rocky came hurrying through the crowd to catch up, literally and figuratively. "Miss Epilotta Elf, would you mind telling me what in the Elfin world is going on here? We've lost our spot in the line now! I've known you for a year, and I have never, ever seen you run away from food before… free food!"

"If I win the competition, I'll get a mountain of raisin buns!" Lotta cried and threw her arms out wide. "But she went to have supper, for the Great Elf's sake!"

Rocky scrunched up her face and stared at her dear friend. This was the essence of Epilotta Elf right there. More than that, it was Epilotta Elf in a nutshell - and she loved every last bit of it, not to mention every last bit of her.

Chuckling, she pulled Lotta into a hug to wipe the ungainly, dark frown from her fair and often so expressive face. "From the top, please. And take it slow… this sounds confusing."

"Oh, it's not confusing at all, Rocky… all right," Lotta said and felt all the negative waves float out of her when she rested her head against Rocky's strong frame. "Back in the line at the buffet, I overheard two Elves talking about…"


The procedure to sign up for the 956th Annual Amateur Elf Talent Show had gone surprisingly easy, and Lotta clutched the slip of paper she had been given as a receipt on her way back to the seating arrangement. Deep in thought, she flung herself down into one of the available chairs and began to think so hard she needed to take her A-Team hat off to keep a cool head.

Sitting regularly wasn't enough, so she flipped around in the chair and put her legs over the right armrest. Two minutes in that position didn't give her anything either, so she put her legs over the backrest while her head was pointed down - her red locks fanned out onto the carpet looking very much like the failed experiment of adding mudflaps to sleighs.

Other Elves gave her funny looks, but she didn't pay any attention to that. Having a rush of blood to the head only made her dizzy, not wise, so she turned around again and put herself flat across the armrests with her knees resting on the cushion and her tush in the air.

Through all that, Rocky had studied the odd ritual closely, but she hadn't dared to ask what Lotta was doing. All the weird positions reminded her of the cutesy images of fluffy kittens that she knew the Humans were so fond of sending to each other on their fancy Internet. "Lotta…?"

Instead of replying, Lotta shuffled around again and put her head on the right armrest, her tush down on the cushion, one leg over the left armrest, and the other leg up the backrest.

"Lotta, pardon me for interrupting your… uh… Yoga session, but what are you actually doing?" Rocky said, massaging her temples.

"I'm thinking."

"Yeah? About what?"

"About what kind of act I should do in the talent show."

"All right. Well, that's fairly obvious if you ask me."

Hearing that, Lotta sat up straight and smoothed down her hair and her schmutting jacket. "It is? I guess I do have to ask you 'cos I can't see it…"

"You're wearing it. Do a schmutting act," Rocky said and leaned forward on her chair while she pointed at Lotta's dusty-blue uniform. "A chimney-drop. Simulated, of course. Didn't you once tell me you graduated near the top of your class in that discipline?"

"At the top of my class," Lotta mumbled while her cheeks turned red.

"And there you have it. Borrow a bag so it'll look like you're carrying presents… and schmut around on the stage. Do a couple of rolls, perhaps we can find something you could climb up and over and down… you know? Hey, we could put one of the chairs on the stage! Stealthy and smart, like our motto. A schmutting act."

Lotta scrunched up her face and fell back into a deep thought-process. "Well, I wouldn't need to practice, that's for sure… wait… since when did we have a motto?"

"Since now," Rocky said with a grin that was matched by one from Lotta.

A Yuletide fanfare that blasted out of the public announcement speakers made everyone sit up and take notice. The fanfare continued for a few bars before it was faded down in exchange for an Elfin voice who sounded suspiciously like Santa's secretary Yuttan Elf. 'Now hear this! In a few moments' time, our beloved Santa will announce the names of the ten contestants that have been selected by the official Yuletide committee to take part in this years' Amateur Elf Talent Show-'

"Whut? Selected by a committee? Oh…" Lotta said while the corners of her mouth dropped south. "I thought we just had to sign up to take part… oh, corn-on-a-cob, I was… oh, well. Never mind. We can kiss that goodbye, Rocky. C'mon, let's get some gingerbread… it'll help," she continued, getting up from the chair even before Rocky could shake her head.

"Will you wait a cotton-candy moment, Lotta!" Rocky said and jumped up to follow her dejected friend. "Hey… wait. Don't you want to listen to Santa's speech? Who knows, you might have made into the ten finalists."

"I doubt it. I need some gingerbread. And warm milk with honey. It'll comfort me…"

"I'll comfort you right now," Rocky said and leaned down to place a little kiss on Lotta's lips. It was in full view of everybody, but that had to take a back seat to getting Lotta in a better mood.

The kiss worked, but only a little. Lotta's lips creased into a faint smile, and she squinted at the Elves closest to them to gauge their reactions. Nobody gave a hoot, so she leaned in towards her dearest friend. "Can I have another, please?" she whispered for Rocky's ears only.

Rocky was only happy to comply, and leaned down to claim her friend's lips once more. "Better?" she whispered back once they separated from the second kiss that had gone on for just that fraction longer.

"Much better. Thank you. But I still can't see how I'll be among those selected," Lotta said and pulled Rocky in for a sideways hug.

Over the public announcement speakers, Yuttan Elf droned on: '-Contestants will be whittled down to five finalists who'll be asked to perform their act again. The official Yuletide committee will withdraw to cast the final votes. After that, the top three will be declared. As you probably know, the prize for the winner is a full year's worth of free, freshly baked buns of your choice, delivered to your doorstep… though not in one go. The second place will get- oh, here The Man is now. Elves, I give you Santa.'

Right on cue, Santa stepped into the conference hall carrying a huge giftbag of toys over his shoulder. At once, he began to distribute the gifts among the junior Elves at the party which created an instant ruckus among the Yuletide-loving audience. He was in full uniform - black boots, red velvet pants, a red coat with white fur trimmings, white gloves, and a floppy bobble hat made of red velvet - and he waved and ho-ho-ho'ed at all the Elves he met along the way.

Lotta jumped up and down and clapped her hands in glee at the glorious sight. "Oh, Rocky! This is what it's all about! Happy-happy-Elf-Elf-happy-happy-Elf! Oh, it's so good to be an Elf!" she cried before she stuck two fingers in her mouth and let out a piercing whistle at the imposing figure whose long, white beard and bushy hair bobbled as he walked around.

After having done the rounds, Santa stepped up on the portable stage that had been brought in for the big event. It wasn't easy to get the Elves calmed down following his grand entrance, but by putting his arms in the air, he made everyone settle into an excited murmur rather than all-out giddiness. "Merry Yuletide, everybody!" he shouted, causing another ruckus to break out among the colorful crowd. "The Night of Nights is almost upon us, which means that tonight is Little Yuletide Eve. Yes, it's true! Another year has gone by already. And that means… it's time for the annual Amateur Elf Talent Show. Now, I have here… a list-" - Santa reached into the bag of toys and produced an old-fashioned scroll - "that I can't read without my glasses," he continued, whipping up a storm of laughter.

Reaching into the gift bag again, he produced a pair of old-fashioned spectacles that he put on and pushed up his bulbous nose. "A list that contains the names of the ten acts you will see in this year's show. I guarantee we'll all have an Elfin good time watching the brave Elves perform in front of such a receptive and responsive crowd!"

"Ohhhh, won't he ever break the tension?" Lotta said and clung onto Rocky's arm.

Up on the stage, Santa unrolled the scroll and looked at it thoroughly before he spoke: "My dear, Elfin friends! The ten contestants are… Mrs. Eleanora Elf and her charming daughter Trudy Elf with a West Elf jingle bell dance! Mr. Theodore Elf who'll perform Yuletide evergreens. Miss Epilotta Elf with a… oh… it doesn't actually say." Santa stopped reading from the list to look around for help.

"Santa's Suspenders!" Lotta squeaked, clutching her head. "I didn't know what to write in that field! I hadn't decided yet!"

"A schmutting pantomime!" Rocky roared so everyone and their pet rabbit could hear it.

"Ah!" Santa continued, "A schmutting pantomime. Thank you! Uh, carrying on… we have Miss Dithermore Elf who'll recite Yuletide poetry under the moniker Princess Frost. Following Miss Dithermore, we'll have the Seven Snowflakes Caroling Choir who'll…"

Down among the Elves listening to Santa, Lotta let out a long sigh of relief and thumped her forehead against Rocky's chest. "Cotton-candy, I didn't think I'd get selected… but I was, thank the Great Elf. Now the real work begins… do you think I stand a chance against the opposition?"

Rocky chuckled as she reached up to muss Lotta's neck. "How would I know? We haven't seen anyone yet."

"Oh… true."

"Lotta, just be yourself and enjoy the moment. Win or lose… if you've done all you can and you're satisfied with your effort, that's all there is to it. What the others do, and how the committee votes afterwards, well, all of that is out of your hands. Mmmm?"

"Yeah, I guess," Lotta said and moved back from her dear friend.

"You wanna grab a bite to eat while we wait for your turn?"

"Oh, I don't know…" Lotta said and put a hand on her tummy. "I think I'm perhaps too cotton-candy nervous to enjoy anything… maybe a gooseberry pie?"

Rocky chuckled at the predictable response. Wrapping an arm around Lotta's shoulders, she dragged the star-to-be away from the crowd and over to the buffet. "Sounds good to me. I'd like a slice of that."

"Oh… well, I was thinking we'd get one ea-" Lotta said, looking up at her taller friend - she interrupted herself at once when she noticed one of Rocky's black eyebrows creeping up her forehead. "Oh… no, we can share. I can definitely share. I love sharing… especially with you."

"Awwww… nice save."

"I know…"

The two Elves stuck out their tongues as perfect mirrors of each other. Both snickering, they shuffled over to the buffet before the crowd would return and snatch away all the best dishes.


Theodore Elf proved to be an elderly Elf with a bulky frame, bushy eyebrows and a full, white beard. A skilled bass singer, he captivated the audience with his soulful renditions of traditional Yuletide songs. His daytime job - that happened to take place at night - was that of a night watch-Elf who walked the streets of Elf Springs to call out time and to protect the sleeping Elves from fires. He was dressed in an old-fashioned, dark-gray robe that reached all the way down to his long-legged, black boots. To complete the ensemble, he wore a brown fur over his shoulders, and a floppy Elf hat with a long cone that reached halfway down his back before it ended in a tip, not a bobble. He leaned against a gnarled cane up on the stage, but it was part of his performance and not a walking aid he needed to use on the job.

When he stepped off the stage, the applause was thunderous. Everybody clapped and whistled at the Elf who waved back with great enthusiasm on his way down.

"Corn-on-a-cob, what a fantastic singer…" Lotta breathed, dabbing away a tear that had formed in the corner of her eye upon hearing the traditional, often sentimental Yuletide songs. "I might as well withdraw… I can't beat him."

Rocky grunted and nudged Lotta's shoulder. "Let the committee decide that. Who's next?"

"Uh… the Seven Snow- sugar plum mush, I'm holding it wrong," Lotta said and turned the page with the list of contestants upside down. "No, it's the mother and daughter team first… then the caroling choir, then it's…" - Gulp! - "Me."

Mrs. Eleanora Elf and her daughter Trudy Elf came onto the stage and received a fair amount of applause just for appearing. The Elves certainly looked the part in their bright red outfits and the shiny luster from the silver bells that had been sown onto their sleeves.

With the mother counting off, they began an intricate dance act where they flew around in their light-weight clogs. The show was inspired by a traditional ceremonial dance used at weddings in the western provinces, and Eleanora and her daughter Trudy used the wooden clogs to create the underlying, rock-steady rhythm while they spun each other around in circles so the bells jingled and jangled. Now and then, each Elf broke into a solo where she pirouetted around and around with her arms out wide while the other Elf clapped time. They both let out traditional West Elfin shouts, cries and commands to keep with the old-fashioned theme during the high-skill spinning, and the bells on their sleeves were given a strenuous workout.

When the dance stopped with a flurry and a powerful cry from both performers, it was easy to see by Eleanora and Trudy's heaving chests and flushed, beetroot red faces it had been far tougher than it looked to perform the number. To compensate for the energy they had burned off, the applause was strong and enthusiastic.

Lotta did her part by whistling and waving at her fellow contestants to keep their spirits up, and to thank them for the show. "Fa-bu-lous!" she said and nudged an elbow into Rocky's ribs. "Don't you think they were fab?"

"They were fab," Rocky said with a grin.

"They were the Elves who told me about the talent show… I hope they'll get a good result. Oh, cotton-candy, I hope they'll all get good results," Lotta said and nodded thoughtfully. "But I won't stand a snowball's chance in my oven against that kind of competition… Great Elf, they must have practiced for years!"

"Never say never. The Great Elf might smile upon you, Lotta…"

"That would be a first…" Lotta mumbled, but reconsidered at once when she thought back to the wonderful surprise she'd had that very same morning when Rocky had let her in on the big secret. "Or maybe she would," Lotta continued, hooking an arm inside Rocky's.

While the mother and daughter team took off their clogs and ran off the stage, the Seven Snowflakes Caroling Choir entered from the other side. The seven members of the choir - four male Elves and three lady-Elves - lined up in three rows sorted by height so they formed a perfect wall of carolers with the tallest Elves at the back.

Each had a few sheets with the lyrics of the carols they were going to perform, but it was merely meant as a last-ditch backup in case their nerves cracked under the pressure. The Seven Snowflakes all wore brown boots, gray pants, and a crimson vest over a pale-gray shirt. The name of their caroling choir came from the white, rigid cone Elf hats they all wore.

Once the conference hall had quieted down, the lead singer - one of the lady-Elves - began caroling an old chestnut in a crisp, crystal clear voice. Soon, the remaining six Snowflakes joined in and delivered a stirring rendition of the old carol that everyone in the audience could sing along to.

The choir sang a handful of one-verse carols and a pair of longer works. The songs and carols were all performed with near-professional perfection, which was hard to fathom since all seven Snowflakes worked as cobblelayers or street sweepers in and around Elf Springs.

The crowning moment came when the Snowflakes performed a canon version of the evergreen An Elfin Good Time where the members accompanied themselves by having the male Elves sing the lyrics while the lady-Elves hummed, and then vice versa for the next verse and chorus.

At the song's climax, they all sang the immortal "Elves! Elves! Elves!" lines when they suddenly heard someone from the audience joining them by singing along at the top of her lungs.

"-simply so cute and fiiiiine!" a fair Elf sang while she kept her arms high in the air. Everybody in the audience gasped and stared wide-eyed at the rude Elf who had caused the disruption. The arms fell down at once followed by a muted "Oh… I'm… sorry… I got carried away- Never mind…"

The embarrassing moment wasn't enough to ruin the mood, and the subsequent applause for the Seven Snowflakes Caroling Choir threatened to blow the roof off Toy Factory One. The carolers all waved and bowed to the people below the stage before they shuffled off stage-right to make room for the next contestant.


Rocky bit down on her lips to stop chuckling while Lotta hid her burning face in the nook of the taller Elf's shoulder. A few mumbled words drifted up to her pointy ears, but they were too muffled to understand. "What's that, sweet Lotta?" she said and pried the mortified Elf off her.

"I. Wanna. Die."

"Oh, you've got no time for that now… you're going up onto the stage. G'wan, Miss Epilotta, you're next," Rocky said and tried to push Lotta over to the nearest staircase that led up onto the stage.

"I. Wanna. Die."

"No, come on… it's time for your schmutting pantomime."

"I. Wanna… oh, I can't. Not after that… ugh… scene I just made."

Rocky put her hands on the sides of Lotta's face and leaned in to give her yet another little kiss, this time on the forehead. "Look, everybody knows we Elves love to sing. You weren't even off-key or anything. It was beautiful, Lotta," she said while she caressed the embarrassed Elf's cheeks with her thumbs.

A short, pregnant pause developed between them. It was clear to see in Lotta's expressive green orbs that something was brewing at fever pitch in there, but the cause of the mental activity wasn't revealed until she opened her mouth to say: "Will you join me on the stage?" in a half-whisper.

Rocky jerked upright like she had been stung by a thumb tack. "Uh… whut?"

"Please," Lotta said and made the cutest pair of doe-eyes imaginable. Though she rarely needed to use it on Rocky, she was the master of the doe-eyed Elf persuasion tactic. She had several different doe-eyes in her arsenal raging from 'just barely doey' to all-out 'I'll drown myself in sweet white ale if you won't do as I ask' - The doe-eyes she displayed now were at the meatier end of the scale.

Rocky sighed and looked toward the ceiling. "I don't think it'll work, Lotta… you didn't put my name on the registration form, did you?"


"Well, then… I don't think they'll let me up there. Santa didn't mention me in the list of contestants, remember?"

Lotta sighed and put her hands on Rocky's strong sides. She should have known doe-eyes wouldn't work on the sleigh driver's solid logic no matter how doey she became. "Oh, Santa's Suspenders, you're right. I need to take care of business myself… me, Epilotta Elf!" she said and rammed a finger into her chest to look all adult and strong - but all she got out of that was a sore spot that she just knew would bruise. "Ooof! Ouch, won't be doing that again anytime soon…" she croaked as she wiggled around in pain.

She shook her head to get back to business: "Oh, but I'm a big Elf now. I can do this! Of course I can! Why, I just have to be stealthy and smart and do one of the things I'm best at… schmut! By the Great Elf, Rocky, I'll schmut 'em so hard they won't know what hit 'em!"

"That's the spirit. By the way, I think you shouldn't wear your A-Team hat. We don't want to give anyone the impression you were only selected because you're one of Santa's chosen."

"Oh, good thinking," Lotta said and took off her exquisite hat with the fur rim and the golden bobble. "Please take care of it… well, duh."

Rocky grinned and folded it up neatly before she put it into a pocket of her own schmutting jacket. "I'll treat it as my own. And finally…"

"Uh… yeah?"

"Here's another little kiss for good fortune," Rocky said and placed a tender peck on Lotta's lips.

"Thank you. I won't let you down," Lotta said as her parting comment on her way up onto the stage.

"I know you won't," Rocky said, but by then, the applause for the lone figure up on the stage was so strong it drowned out her voice.

At first, Lotta looked like a reindeer caught in a lantern, but the applause seemed to loosen her up. She bowed at the audience a couple of times before she put her hands in the air to signal she wanted everyone to settle down. "My fellow Elves… I'm Epilotta Elf. This won't be a song and dance act though I'm pretty good at both. No, this will be a pantomime. My dear, dear friend Rockabye Elf and I talked about using props, but I won't. No, this is going to be a bare-bones pantomime… a unique look into what we gift-dropping Elves do on the Night of Nights. I hope you're ready 'cos I'm about to start and it's going to be a wild affair."

Stepping back, Lotta waited for the next wave of applause to die down before she took a deep breath and started an all-out, fast-moving schmutting pantomime full of acrobatic maneuvers like climbing drainpipes, dropping down chimneys, crawling across floors using the tush-up-nose-down technique, jumping through hoops, escaping vicious guard dogs, balancing on roof gutters, hanging from rafters, schmutting across snow-covered roofs, rolling left, rolling right, rolling left and right, rolling forward, rolling backward, squeezing through half-shut windows, diving in through gaps that just weren't big enough for an Elf her size, jumping up to twice her height, crouching down to half her height, and all the other things any top-quality gift-dropper should know by heart.

She even added a few of the scenarios that could go wrong on a live schmutting job, like ending a chimney-drop in the embarrassing bottoms-up position, or falling off a roof and landing in an outhouse, or appearing right back where she started after taking the wrong heating duct, or forgetting to actually take the presents before she schmutted from the sleigh, or the best one of all, wrestling tall, prickly Yuletrees that got in her way - Lotta had personal experience with that final one.

The first part of her show had earned her plenty of oooh's and ahhh's, but the second part fostered plenty of laughter. The laughter was music to her ears, and she made sure her moves were clear and precise so the audience would be laughing at what she did, and not at her own self.

Back at the Elfin Academy, she had scored top points at the schmutting exam for planning and execution, but a few points had been deducted for her style. Now, her experience with actual gift-drops enabled her to keep her arms and legs in the right positions at all times so she wouldn't look like a clueless rookie in a fancy outfit.

Her big production number ended in a pirouette that turned into a mid-air flip before she landed on her feet and threw her arms in the air. Grinning triumphantly, she received a storming applause from the audience that she soaked up through every pore. The spectators clapped as she walked down from the stage, and continued to cheer until she reunited with Rocky.

By then, the next contestant was ready to go on, but Dithermore Elf - using the stage name Princess Frost for her high-brow recitals - needed to wait a moment before the audience had settled down enough for her Yuletide poetry to reach anyone's ear.

"How'd I do? How'd I do?!" Lotta whispered hoarsely the moment she and Rocky found each other. The two Elves jumped into a strong, shaking hug that finished with a trio of kisses - two on the cheeks and one on the lips.

"Just wonderful, Lotta!" Rocky said and grabbed hold of her dear friend's schmutting jacket to give her a playful, little shaking. "I told you you'd do well… I was so proud of you. You looked so cotton-candy cute and fine… not to mention skilled beyond belief. Just wonderful."

"Ohhhhh, thank you. I hope-hope-hope it'll be enough to win a year's worth of raisin buns… oh, Great Elf, please sprinkle a little fortune dust upon your faithful follower Epilotta Elf…" Lotta said and clapped her hands together in a little Elfin prayer.

Rocky laughed out loud and wrapped her arms around Lotta's smaller body to give her another good crush, this time from behind. Shuffling around comically, they turned back to the stage to watch Dithermore Elf.

Lotta wanted to support her fellow contestant Princess Frost through her recital - Dithermore wore a gorgeous home-made costume during her performance: white shoes, white pantalets, a blue-and-purple skirt decorated with little, frosty stars, a purple long-sleeved blouse with hundreds of white flecks sown in, and finally a crimson, floppy Elf hat with a golden band around the crown - but she was so chock-full of bouncy energy after her top-notch performance she just couldn't remain in one place for more than two point four seconds at a time.

Bouncing around like a rubber ball even in Rocky's strong arms, she eventually shook her head. "No, it won't work, Rocky… I'll just make a fool of myself again… and I'll ruin Dithermore's show. Let's go over to the seating arrangement-"

"Or the buffet."

"Or the buffet. Why didn't I think of that? Oooooooh, I could eat! The last time we were there, I noticed they had a bowl of roasted almonds… I could sure do with some roasted almonds… and some hot chocolate. Yes. Roasted almonds and hot chocolate. And maybe a- oh, what are we standing here for? Let's go!"


Going past the seating arrangement, they spotted familiar faces everywhere. The bass singer Theodore Elf spoke with some of the members of the Seven Snowflakes Caroling Choir, and Eleanora Elf and her daughter Trudy were laughing and exchanging anecdotes with some of the spectators.

"Oh, there's Valdemar and the missus!" Rocky said and waved at her old friend who duly waved back. "C'mon, Lotta, I want you to meet Valdemar. He's a good friend… he helped me find my feet when I was just starting out as a long-haul sleigh driver."

"But the buffet- oh, it can wait," Lotta said and made a detour to the comfortable chairs where she and Rocky had spent time earlier.

"Greetings, Valdemar. Mrs. Lillimum, nice to see you," Rocky said and clasped arms with her old friend and his wife. "This is my dear friend, Epilotta… Lotta, come over and say hello. Lotta…? Oh, I'm quite sure the buffet will still be there in five minutes' time," she continued when Lotta upheld a longing gaze at the glass display cases.

Valdemar - who wore his regular, dark-green schmutting uniform, his black ascot and a red, rigid cone Elf hat - chuckled out loud as he clasped arms with Epilotta. He remembered all too well the uncharacteristic befuddlement that had fallen over his stoic friend at the card game the other day, and now when he saw the reason for it, he understood perfectly. "Greetings, Miss Epilotta. I'm Valdemar Elf. How nice to finally meet you. Rockabye has spoken so fondly of you… now I can understand why."

Lotta's cheeks exploded in a flash of red as she clasped arms with, and bowed for, the Elf elders. "Oh, thank you. Thank you very much, Mr. Valdemar. Greetings, Mrs. Lillimum, I'm Epilotta Elf."

Valdemar's wife Lillimum was a mature Elf in her late five-hundreds like her husband. She wore traditional garb in the shape of clogs, gray knee-socks, a crimson dress and a rigid cone Elf hat similar to Valdemar's; laughing warmly, she pulled the younger Elf in for a brief hug. "Greetings, Miss Epilotta. My, you're a cute little one, aren't you!" - The special attention didn't help the condition of Lotta's cheeks.

"Jasper's running around here somewhere, too," Valdemar said, "but I think he lost his hot date… Caramel, or somebody."

"Cara-Miah," Rocky said.

Valdemar nodded. "Right. A real vapor-head. Isn't that right, dear?" Mrs. Lillimum nodded as well and let out a grunt as an emphasis. Valdemar chuckled and turned back to the two lady-Elves. Cocking his head, he gave Lotta a string of funny looks. "You know, Rockabye, I could have sworn I've met Miss Epilotta before… somewhere… but I can't remember where it could have been…"

Rocky chuckled and pulled Lotta in for a sideways hug. "That's right, you have. And we were together when it happened. Cast your mind back to last year's Night of Nights… Toy Factory Three… the loading bay. We were playing cards with Sven and Jas when a secretary came running in to tell me that Benny Elf was indisposed-"

"Oh, sugar-plum-mush, that's right!" Valdemar cried, slapping his knee. Not even a whispered 'Tut, tut… language, dear,' from the missus could ruin his enthusiasm. "Great Elf, I see it now… imagine that! And lightning just struck, or how?"

"Well, it took me a little while…"

"It always takes you a little while, Rockabye," Valdemar deadpanned, earning himself a round of laughter and a stuck-out tongue from the lady-Elf in question.

Lotta grinned broadly and stood up on tip-toes to place a wet, sloppy kiss on Rocky's cheek. "It took us both a little while to arrive, Mr. Valdemar, but we're here now. And we're not leaving."

"Good for you!" Mrs. Lillimum said strongly, reaching over to nudge her husband's shoulder. "A little lovin' goes a long way… isn't that right, Valdemar?"

"Oh-so right, dear."

Rocky, Lotta and Lillimum chuckled at the undeniable truth of that statement. The troll hiding in the buffet began once more to call out to Lotta, and she kept looking over to the glass display cases to make sure there was still plenty of the good stuff left for whenever she could get over there. When a gap developed in the long lines, she tugged at Rocky's sleeve in a hurry. "Rocky… I need a little healthy, nutritious food. I'll be back in a flash with some snacks. Can I get you anything?"

"A mug of sweet white if you can carry it?"

"I'll manage. I'm only springing for a cone or two of roasted almonds, a mug of hot chocolate… make that a mug of hot chocolate and a sweet white ale… and maybe half a raspberry pie if they aren't all gone. Maybe a whole pie, but only if they have fresh whipped cream. The stale whipped cream from earlier was just too cotton-candy nasty, even for me." - While she spoke, the lines filled up again - "Oh! Oh, I better hurry… see you in a flash, Mr. Valdemar, Mrs. Lillimum. I gotta-"

The last part was spoken so fast it all came out as a single word. With a zipping sound, she was gone.

"Well," Valdemar said, tracking the petite figure as she schmutted across the floor to beat the next group of people who were aiming for her buffet, "she's certainly got a lot of spirit, doesn't she?"

Grinning, Rocky sat down on one of the comfortable chairs. "That she does, Valdemar. That she does. So… how's it going?"

"Oh, Mrs. Lillimum's right hip is sore and I still have a boil on my butt cheek…"

While Valdemar spoke on, Rocky eyed the dusty-blue schmutting uniform over at the buffet - Lotta was busy zipping back and forth to collect all the various items she was there for. The mere sight of her sweetheart created a broad smile that spread over her features. Life was Elfin good sometimes.




The big Pre-Yuletide bash on Little Yuletide Eve carried on in fine fettle. A fascinated Lotta had spoken at length with Theodore Elf, the singing night watch-Elf, on how he could reach into such deep registers; she had been given hands-on tutoring by Eleanora Elf and her daughter Trudy Elf on how to perform a ceremonial West Elf clog dance, and she had swapped recipes with Mrs. Lillimum Elf. In exchange for her traditional apple charlotte with mini-breadcrumbs and redcurrant jelly, she got the recipes for a South Elf marzipan specialty and a selection of East Elf cookies, including Finnish bread, vanilla rings and a type of crullers she hadn't tried yet.

Rocky sat at a table with her friends Jasper and Valdemar. They were busy chewing the saddle leather, but throughout their conversation, she had only had eyes for Lotta who was still engaged in an in-depth analysis with Mrs Lillimum on the pros and cons of using chocolate chips or chunks in cupcakes.

For the umpteenth time, Rocky realized she had been spoken to. Turning to face Jasper and Valdemar, she uttered an embarrassed "Huh?" when she found herself zoned out once again.

"Corn-on-a-cob, Rocky," Jasper said with a cheeky grin. "You have got it bad, Elf. I don't think I've ever met a lady-Elf who had it that bad."

"There's another reason for that, Jas," Rocky said while her eyes slid back over to Lotta and Mrs. Lillimum.

"Oh!" Jasper said and pretended to have been shot in the heart. "What the cotton candy is that supposed to mean? Are you saying I'm not the perfect Elf?"

"Well, let's see," Rocky said and began to count off on her fingers. "You're lacking smarts. Looks. Charm."

"Yeah, yeah…"

"Oh, and your own sleigh so you can go on rides and exploit the moonlight. By the way, didn't you have a date earlier? Four hours later and she's still powdering her nose?"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah…"

"I got plenty of fingers left, Jas," Rocky said, holding up her hand so she could wiggle her digits at her old, vain, foppish friend.

Valdemar chuckled and produced a well-worn deck of cards from his jacket pocket. "Now that we're done with that silliness… anybody fancy a game of Olsen?"

"I'd like a slice of that pie," Jasper said and moved his chair closer to the table so he could reach.

"Great. Rockabye?"

Rocky shook her head. "Not this time, fellas. The Yuletide committee is still voting on the five finalists… I'll probably need to leave in a hurry when they start calling out the names."

"You can always break in later, Rockabye," Valdemar said while he shuffled the deck. Looking like a professional - it's all in the wrist - he began to deal the five cards needed to play Olsen.

Rocky watched her friends play for a few minutes, but Lotta had a stronger pull on her. Excusing herself from the card game, she got up and shuffled over to the second set of chairs where Lotta was nodding and smiling and smiling and nodding while she listened to Princess Frost - also known as Dithermore Elf - recite another of her Yuletide poems.

Though the recital was somewhat dry and high-brow, Lotta sighed with pleasure and leaned into the touch when Rocky's callused hand caressed her cheek. It got even better when the hand slid down her neck under the schmutting jacket to tickle her collarbone. She looked up and offered the taller Elf a smile. "Great Elf, they're certainly thorough… I didn't think it would take the committee this long…" she said, speaking in a whisper so she wouldn't disturb Dithermore Elf's poetry.

"Are you hungry again?"

"Believe it or not… no."

Rocky let out a shocked gasp and clapped a hand across Lotta's forehead to test her temperature - something was clearly wrong with the insatiable Elf for her to behave in such a shocking way. "Well, you're not running a fever. Hmmm! Did you have a piece o' pumpkin pie you didn't agree with?"

"Silly Elf!" Lotta whispered, swatting at Rocky's arm.

Dithermore Elf's recital ended up being interrupted after all when the public announcement speakers came to life playing the Yuletide fanfare. The cheerful piece of music was played twice to let the party-goers know they should pay attention to the message that would follow.

'Now hear this!' Yuttan Elf said in a solemn voice, making everyone stop what they were doing to listen. 'The Yuletide committee has reached a verdict. The five finalists for this year's 956th Annual Amateur Elf Talent Show have been chosen. Finalists, once your name is called out, please proceed to the stage where Santa will greet you. The Seven Snowflakes Caroling Choir-'

"That was inevitable. They caroled so cotton-candy beautifully," Lotta said, biting her already short fingernails.

'Mr. Theodore Elf. Mrs. Eleanora Elf and Miss Trudy Elf,' Yuttan Elf continued over the speakers.

"Oh, I'm so happy for you!" Lotta continued, waving over at the singer and the two Elves who had told her of the contest. When they left for the stage, her smile faded and turned into a frown. "Two left… neither of which will be me, Rocky."

"Have a little faith in the Great Elf, Lotta… two acts left equals two chances for you."

Lotta shrugged and concentrated on listening to Yuttan Elf calling out the names of the finalists.

'The Great Magellan Elf to the stage, please.'

Lotta furrowed her brow for a moment before she remembered the colorful Elf in a purple robe and an odd hat. "Oh, is that the magician? I think that's the magician… isn't it? I didn't have time to watch his performance… I was-"

"At the buffet… yeah," Rocky said drolly.

Lotta shot her dear friend a green glare, but her nerves wobbled too badly to stay miffed for long. Gulping down her anxiety, she went back to chewing on her fingernails.

'And… Miss Epilotta Elf,' Yuttan Elf said over the speakers.

"Oh, thank the Great Elf! Wa-hooooo! Ohhhhhhh," Lotta cried and nearly fell off the chair. When the tension left her, she flaked out so hard she had to grip the armrests to stop her tush from getting intimately acquainted with the carpet. Clambering to her feet, she grabbed hold of Rocky and gave her a strong squeeze.

A quiet sniffle that reached Lotta's pointy ears made her pipe down at once and look around for the source of the sniffling. It turned out to be Dithermore Elf who wore a gray, disappointed frown on her face. Dabbing her eyes on a pink handkerchief, the poet in the beautiful costume wept quietly, clearly lamenting the fact she didn't get into the finals.

Lotta felt her fellow Elf's pain and zipped over to her at once. Kneeling on the carpet, she put out her arms and pulled the older Elf into a gentle hug. "I'm sorry you didn't get through to the finals, Miss Dithermore… you did great tonight. You write deep and spiritual poetry… you'll bounce back, I'm sure of it…"

"Th- thank you, Miss Epilotta," Dithermore said in a thick voice. "I guess the committee was just looking for something else this time…"

"Mmmm," Lotta said and nodded thoughtfully. A part of her felt she had cheated Dithermore out of a spot in the finals, but she told herself she had no influence on how the committee had made their decision. Smiling wistfully, she gave her defeated fellow competitor another little squeeze before she got on her feet and returned to Rockabye.

"I sure could need a kiss right about now, Rocky…" she said as they began the short trek over to the stage. "I actually made it, you know… can you believe it?"

Rocky chuckled and spun her dear friend around. Leaning down, she planted a wet smooch right on Lotta's kisser - it left the younger Elf with a gobsmacked look that dissolved into a wild snicker. "Good enough?" Rocky whispered, adding another, gentler kiss as an aftertaste.

"Ooooooooh!" Lotta squealed before she broke out in another bout of snickers.

'Miss Epilotta Elf and all finalists, please head to the stage. Santa is already waiting for you. Thank you,' Yuttan Elf said over the public announcement speakers before she turned off her microphone and cued the Yuletide fanfare.

"You're welcome," Rocky said and supported Lotta so she didn't have to rely too much on her wobbly legs.


Wherever Santa went, a large crowd of Elves who wanted to get close to the good-natured Man with the Bag followed. Young Elves and old Elves, short Elves and tall Elves would always line up in a four-Elf-deep circle around the man in the hope he'd shake their hand or just let out one of his trademark, rumbling ho-ho-ho's.

On this occasion, the circle of Elves that had formed around Santa was even more colorful than usual. Lighting up the conference hall, Theodore Elf's dark-gray robe, Eleanora Elf and Trudy Elf's bright red outfits, Lotta's dusty-blue schmutting uniform, the white cone hats carried by all seven Snowflakes, and Magellan Elf's outrageous costume that consisted of a gold-and-purple cape over a deep-crimson suit, and a purple Elf hat with a floppy cone long enough to nearly reach the ground all vied for attention.

Lotta, Trudy Elf and one of the lady-Elves from the Snowflakes were the shortest of the bunch, so they were allowed to stand up front, nearest Santa. Rocky didn't want to intrude so she kept to herself over at the stage, but she smiled and winked at Lotta at regular intervals when they locked eyes to help ease her friend's quivering fidgetiness.

"Congratulations, everybody!" Santa said in a booming voice. "Oh, I've had a wonderful time tonight, and I know Mrs. Santa has as well. I wish we could take the show on the road so everyone in Elf Springs and elsewhere would get a chance to see you… but alas, we'll all be too busy in the coming days. Suffice to say your performances were spot-on, all of you."

"Thank you, Santa, Sir," the Elves all said.

"Oh, thank you for wanting to get up there in the first place. I know how much courage that takes, even when you're doing something you all love," Santa said and waved his gloved hand. "Now… the Yuletide committee has asked me to explain to you how we proceed. First, you'll draw your second-round starting number out of a hat… then you'll perform your act again so-"

A gasp interrupted Santa's speech, and he shot a surprised, puzzled look at Lotta whose face had just turned white. "Miss Epilotta, are you ill? Maybe you should eat something."

"Oh… I'm… just fine, thank you, Santa, Sir… it's just… it's just… oh… never mind. I'm terribly sorry for the interruption, Santa, Sir. Please go on." - Even while Lotta spoke, she cast a panicky glance at Rocky with a pleading look in her green orbs.

Rocky bared her teeth in a worried grimace, not sure what in the Elfin world had gotten into Lotta this time. Interrupting Santa's appearance for a second time would be inexcusable, so she kept quiet. She needed to know what was wrong with Lotta ASAP, so she moved away from the stage and slid over to her dear friend to find out.

"Very well," Santa continued, looking back at the colorful Elves. "Where was I…? Oh yes, you'll perform your act again and the committee will withdraw for a second time to tally the points they've given you. After which, a victor shall be declared!"

The Elves present all cheered - some even threw their Elf hats in the air. Lotta did neither. Instead, she looked like someone had just told her the Elfin world had run out of butter so well-buttered raisin buns would be a thing of the past.

Rocky finally made it around the group and slid in behind her dear friend. "What's wrong, sweet Lotta?" she whispered for Lotta's pointy ears only.

"I can't do my act again, Rocky," Lotta said in a trembling voice. "I improvised the whole cotton-candy thing! I can't remember what I did or when I did it… or… or… ugh. And it's so unfair to the others here 'cos they've probably rehearsed for weeks and weeks, if not months, to be ready for the big event… and now I've cheated someone out of a spot in the final five. I'm such a fraud!"

Rocky sighed and looked toward the heavens in the hope the Great Elf would provide some form of pointer. This was yet another thing that would have driven her off the wall if it had come from anyone else than her sweet, little Lotta. Somehow, the drastic mood swings only added to her charm. No pointers or clues came to her from the Beyond, so she pulled Lotta into a little hug instead. "But you know all the basics, Lotta. Just remix 'em and you'll have a brand new show. C'mon, please don't despair. Think of all the raisin buns you'll have… think of all the fun times you and I will have sitting on your chaise lounge eating free buns and drinking Yule-tea… or how about eating free buns and drinking lemon-flavored iced tea on your back porch under a parasol on a lazy, hot summer day. Mmmm?"

"Oh, I would love that, Rocky… love, love, love that. It sounds so romantic."

"Mmmm," Rocky said and mussed Lotta's hair and pointy ear with her mouth.

Lotta began chewing on her fingernails all over again while her face fell into a deep frown that didn't look like it would go away in a hurry. "You really think I can do it again?"

"I know it's a real tickle-monster, but you'll knock 'em flat, Lotta. I know you will," Rocky said, finishing her little peptalk by giving her dear friend a pleasant kiss on the lips for good fortune.

Lotta nodded and wiped her damp brow. "I'll try," she said and turned back to Santa and the other Elves. Just in time, too, because she was first up to draw a number from an Elf hat. She drew number two, which meant she would be the second Elf to get back on stage.

Eleanora Elf and Trudy Elf drew number one, Theodore Elf drew number four and The Great Magellan Elf drew number three - which left the inevitable number five for the Seven Snowflakes Caroling Choir.

Lotta stared at the slip of paper that sported a stylized '2' on the front. Turning it over, she almost expected to find a Yahtzee scorecard like on the love letter she had received from Rocky. The thought of the heartfelt declaration made her break out into a smile and nearly forget her nerves, though her heart was still thumping along at a fair clip. Her dear friend was still there next to her, so she sought out Rocky's hand and gave it a little squeeze. "I'll try," she whispered and moved up on tip-toes to return the earlier kiss.


By the time Lotta came off the stage following her second performance, she was so warm from the exertion that steam poured off her. Simply unbuttoning her schmutting jacket didn't give her enough fresh air to her body, so she took it off and walked around in her black undershirt while the other finalists cheered her on.

She bowed and smiled at her fellow Elves, but it was a strained smile. Beads of sweat glistened on her forehead, and she needed to fan herself to breathe. The Great Magellan Elf went up on the stage to begin his own repeat performance, but Lotta didn't have enough energy left to watch - instead, she staggered over to the seating arrangement and bumped down into one of the chairs.

At the same time, Rocky came hustling back from the buffet with a mug of cool, clean water. Sliding to a stop behind the chair, she leaned down and helped Lotta chug down the contents of the mug. "You were great, Lotta. Again. It was a different act to the first one, but it was just as great."

"Thanks," Lotta said and used the last of the cool water to wipe the sweat off her brow. "Great Elf, I gave it all I had… I hope it was enough."

"You're already a winner to me," Rocky said and placed a smooch on the side of Lotta's head. "Once you've caught your breath, I think we should go back to the stage to look at the others do their second performance. It's only fair."

"I agree… I'm ready now," Lotta said and got up. She chuckled when she realized her sweaty back had made a damp pattern on the chair's backrest. "Oh… look at that. Doesn't it almost remind you of the talking moose?"

"I wouldn't know, Lotta. I never met 'im."

Lotta grunted and hooked her arm inside Rocky's. "Oh yeah, that's right… count your blessings. He was a real… a real piece of… he was rude. Let's leave it at that."

"We better," Rocky said with a snicker.


After a while, all the finalists met at the foot of the stage. They all clasped arms and gave each other whispered words of encouragement and support to show that no matter how hard an Elf would compete, he or she would never lose sight of the most important thing in their Elfin lives - to remain an Elf others would want to form a friendship with.

The fortunes and thus the moods of the finalists differed greatly compared to the first round. Eleanora Elf and her daughter Trudy were quietly confident they had done a good job, but even if the committee didn't agree with them, they had already gone further than they had thought possible. Lotta was positive she had delivered a strong second performance, but she had doubts whether or not the Yuletide committee would accept how different it was from her first run. The magician The Great Magellan Elf wasn't too happy: one of the props he kept in a hidden pocket had snagged on the cape and had fallen onto the floor with a clang - it had made him look like a clumsy rookie. The bass singer, Theodore Elf, was even more down because his nerves had caused him to flub a line in one of the verses. It had upset his timing for the rest of the song, and he was unhappy with his entire performance. In contrast, the members of the Seven Snowflakes Caroling Choir were cool, calm and collected. Not only were they on top form, Lotta had kept her mouth zipped throughout so no one had interfered with their caroling.

Everybody piped down when an office-Elf hurried across the floor of the conference hall and delivered a second scroll to Santa. Clearing his throat, the Man in Red put on his old-fashioned reading spectacles and got up. The tension was unbearable as he unrolled the scroll to find out which of the finalists he could pronounce the winner.

"Elves, the results are in," he said in his customary booming voice. "The scroll I present here lists the final placings of the 956th Annual Amateur Elf Talent Show, as decided by the official Yuletide committee. In fifth place with fifty-seven points, The Great Magellan Elf."

The other Elves clapped and cheered at the Elf magician whose scrunched-up face proved he blamed himself for fumbling with the hidden prop in the deciding round.

Lotta sought out Rocky's hands as her nerves once again stood on edge. She hoped the committee would look kindly upon her stage show, but she would only know for sure when Santa announced her name. A faint smile creased her lips when Rocky came to her assistance at once and held on tight.

"In fourth place, scoring sixty-eight points, Mr. Theodore Elf," Santa continued, looking at the bass singer over the rim of his reading spectacles.

"Thank you, Santa… thank you for your applause, everybody," Theodore Elf said, nodding at the other Elves who cheered for the finalist. Similar to Magellan Elf, a deep frown on the night watch-Elf's forehead proved that he felt he had let himself down by flubbing the line.

Santa cleared his throat and unrolled another section of the scroll. He gave the Elves a quick glance over his reading spectacles before he carried on. "In third place… with seventy-four points… Mrs. Eleanora Elf and her charming daughter Miss Trudy Elf. Let's give them a hand."

Eleanora and Trudy let out a few West Elf cries and jumped into each other's arms for a big hug. As they moved around, the countless silver bells on their costumes jingled and jangled.

Lotta stuck two fingers in her mouth and let out a piercing whistle at the friendly lady-Elves. Reaching over, she patted both Eleanora and Trudy on the shoulder and gave them a pair of strong thumbs-up.

"First or second, Lotta?" Rocky whispered into her friend's pointy ear once the cheering had died down.

"Second. Corn-on-a-cob, I'm going to miss out on the raisin buns," Lotta whispered back. "I can't see how anyone can beat the Snowflakes tonight."

Santa moved further down the scroll and found the name of the Elf in second place. "Coming in second," he said and added a long pause to prolong the tension. "Miss Epilotta Elf."

The moment she heard her own name called out, Lotta sighed deeply at the loss of the mythical raisin buns, but she cheered for the Snowflakes nonetheless. The caroling choir had won the talent show fair and square with a performance that had blown everyone else clear out of the town pond.

"Miss Epilotta scored seventy-six points so the contest for second place was a close affair," Santa continued, closing the scroll. "Which leaves the Seven Snowflakes Caroling Choir as the clear winners. They amassed ninety-one points out of a hundred. Snowflakes, please come up here… up on the stage, please."

A wild cheer broke out for the Snowflakes who went around the colorful group of Elves and clasped arms with their fellow contestants. Plenty of back-slapping was distributed between the Elves, and most of them hugged and kissed each other on the cheeks as well.

Lotta clasped arms with the lead singer of the Snowflakes, a charming lady-Elf by the name of Patticake, whose glistening eyes and blossoming red cheeks proved she was delighted with the victory. "Congratulations!" they said as one - and snickered into their hands when they realized they had said the exact same thing at the exact same time.

Patticake and the rest of the Snowflakes shuffled up onto the stage to clasp arms with Santa. The cheering from the other Elves continued until Santa put his gloved hands in the air to get everyone to settle down. "Elves! The victorious Snowflakes will soon receive their prize for winning the 956th Annual Amateur Elf Talent Show. Three hundred and sixty free raisin buns that I hope they can figure out how to share between them-"

"Oh!" Lotta said, staring up at the winning caroling choir. "They have to split the buns seven ways? That isn't all that much for each… huh, corn-on-a-cob… Rocky, did you know that?"

"No," Rocky said into Lotta's pointy ear. "If you had won, you'd have needed to share with me, you know."

"True, but… still. Split seven ways!" Lotta said and shook her head like she couldn't fathom the development.

Up on the stage, Santa shepherded the Snowflakes to the side so there was room for the others as well. "Miss Epilotta Elf, please come up here," he said and looked over the rim of his reading spectacles that he had forgotten to take off.

"Me?" Lotta squeaked, staring in wide-eyed surprise at Santa, at Rocky, and at the empty spot on the stage where she was supposed to be standing in a short while.

"No, the other Epilotta," Rocky said and gave her friend a little shove.

Lotta stumbled ahead and eventually found her way up onto the stage. It was a surreal experience for her to stand up there as one of the best three, but she milked it for all it was worth by waving at the other Elves who had been watching the talent show - she spotted Jasper, Valdemar and Mrs. Lillimum who all waved back.

"Now, before you learn of the nature of your prize, Miss Epilotta," Santa continued, holding a fatherly hand on Lotta's back, "you must promise me you'll share your winnings with all your friends… or perhaps one friend in particular. I fear one hundred and eighty free raisin buns might be too much for any one Elf!"

"One! Hun! Dred! And! Eigh! Ty! Raisin! Buns?!" Lotta cried in a voice that nearly turned screechy. While she spoke, she clutched her hair and teetered on the brink of tearing out tufts of the flaming red locks. "I get… I- I- I get… one… one… hun- hun- hun- hundred and eighty free raisin buns…?!"

"You'll get one hundred and eighty free raisin buns, Miss Epilotta," Santa said and let out a booming laugh. He gave the shell-shocked Elf a thumping well-done pat on the back before he went over to the edge and called Eleanora and Trudy up on the stage.

Lotta disappeared into a haze of Elfin bliss for nearly three minutes before she came to and searched for Rocky down among the audience. Their eyes met, and she mouthed "I love you" to her dear friend. The message of love was soon followed by: "One hundred and eighty free raisin buns! Yippie!"

Eleanora and Trudy weren't as fortunate; though their prize consisted of free raisin buns as well, the offer was only valid for a single month, thirty buns in total, and they had to share their winnings - the mother and daughter team didn't seem to mind.

With the talent show winding down, the Seven Snowflakes lined up to perform their winning caroling act once more. This time, everybody in the conference hall was invited to sing along to An Elfin Good Time since it was the Elf anthem and the one song everybody would know by heart.

Lotta grabbed the opportunity and jumped off the stage. She zipped over to Rocky and hooked her arm inside her dear friend's at once so she wouldn't have a chance to cook up an excuse for not going up there. "You're coming onto the stage with me…"

"Oh, noooo…" Rocky said and shook her head like a crazed mountain hare.

"Oh, yes you are," Lotta said while she nodded in a similarly exaggerated fashion. "You're coming up there with me, and we'll sing An Elfin Good Time with the rest of our Elf friends. Come on, you have such a lovely singing voice… you have to let the Elfin world hear it once in a while…"


"Get up on the stage, you big chicken-Elf! You've been giving me cotton-candy peptalks all cotton-candy evening! Now it's your turn to get your cotton-candy bee-hind up there!" Lotta said and stomped her foot hard each time she said 'cotton-candy'.

Rocky smirked but complied with her sweetheart's request. "Oh, all right…" she mumbled as she shuffled up the flight of stairs onto the stage itself.

They lined up at each other's side not far from Eleanora and Trudy Elf. Smiling from ear to pointy ear, Lotta clasped arms once more with the two Elves, knowing full well that if they hadn't been so kind as to let her in on their conversation, she wouldn't have been there at all. "Well done, Mrs. Eleanora… Miss Trudy. Tell you what, wouldn't it be more fair if you got thirty, or maybe even fifty, of my free raisin buns? I love, love, love raisin buns, but if I munch my way through all that, I'll blow up."

Eleanora and Trudy briefly looked at each other before they nodded enthusiastically at Lotta's suggestion. "Oh, that would be so wonderfully kind of you, Miss Epilotta," Trudy said while a pair of red blotches tainted her young, star-struck cheeks.

"You betcha! Let's talk afterwards," Lotta said before she turned back to Rocky.

"That was an Elfin good thing to do, love," Rocky whispered and leaned down to kiss Lotta's hair.

Lotta smiled at her dear friend and wrapped an arm around the strong waist next to her. "It was the only thing to do. Now let's sing."

When everyone was ready, Patticake, the lead singer of the Snowflakes, raised her hand in the air and began to count off. Soon, all the Elves - and Santa - sang along to the evergreen anthem:

"Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh! It's so good to be an Elf! Elves, always so kind and warm and free! Elves, the best friends you could ever hope to have! Ohhhhhhh, we're Elves, Elves, Elves. We always have an Elfin good time! Elves, Elves, Elves. And we're simply so cute and fiiiiine!"

"-cute and fiiiiine!" Lotta cried at the top of her lungs, throwing her arms in the air in an explosive burst of enthusiasm. "Encore! Encore! C'mon, one more time! Ohhhhhhh! It's so good to be an Elf…"


All Elfin good times must come to an end, and the big pre-Yuletide bash at Toy Factory One proved no exception. As the event wound down, the conference hall still echoed from the happy Elfin sounds of the spirited, traditional chain and clog dances performed by every single Elf in the huge building. Unprompted, and going by Elfin instinct alone, they had lined up and had danced the night away in the unique style that had been carried down through the generations for as long as Elves had existed.

They hadn't even stopped when the clock struck midnight though most, if not all, needed to work flat out for the next several days. In the factory itself below the conference hall, the steam whistles had sounded to signal that additional conveyor belts should commence running to keep up with the demand. It was December twenty-fourth and the big show was about to get underway.

Steaming hot, dead-tired, and boundlessly happy, Lotta and Rocky slipped away from the manic crowd and went off on a little journey of exploration that would see them end up on one of the scenic balconies after traversing some of Toy Factory One's administrative floors. It was nippy-nosy out there, but it was just the thing an Elf needed after participating in the traditional chain dances. As an added bonus, the balconies were mostly unlit and rather secluded to give Elves a good opportunity to find a little romance.

Rocky held the door open for Lotta before she too slipped out onto the moonlit balcony. The stars were out in force, and the ancient, pale-gray moon hung high upon the heavens above them. Through the massive amounts of snow that had fallen over the region near Elf Springs, the landscape surrounding them was just a gray mass of wintery dunes, but it didn't detract from the budding romance that was in the air.

Alone - and lost to the world - they sought out each other's hands and moved in close. Standing face to face, and so close their bodies touched, they were content with basking in each other's presence for the time being. Identical smiles spread over their lips as they studied their new sweetheart's features. A kiss was imminent, that much was certain.

They moved closer, but before their lips could make contact, kissing noises from further into the shadows reached their keen, pointy ears. Lotta's eyes popped wide open and she clapped a hand across her mouth to contain the snicker that was already burning at the tip of her tongue.

Rocky chuckled under her breath as her sensitive eyes discovered the reason for the passionate smacks. Smirking, she turned Lotta around and pointed into the area of the scenic balcony that contained the deepest shadows.

There, two characteristic figures were locked in a loving embrace. Santa and Mrs. Santa were kissing just as tenderly as they had done on the day of their wedding - or even prior to that, as a matter of fact, but that was a little-known tidbit that had been removed from the hefty tomes of the Yuletide Chronicles so certain people wouldn't throw a fit - and it didn't look like they were going to stop any time soon.

Santa did eventually notice the company, and broke off the kissing after placing yet another little peck on Mrs. Santa's lips. "Hello there, Elves," he said in his customary rumbling voice. "Oh, it's you… I beg your pardon, Miss Rockabye. Miss Epilotta. I didn't recognize you at first."

Mrs. Santa snuck a hand around her husband's rotund waist and gave it a little squeeze. "There was a perfectly good explanation for that, husband dearest. Greetings, fair Elves. Have you been enjoying yourselves tonight?"

Lotta nodded enthusiastically. "We certainly have, Mrs. Santa! The sweet white ale and the warm milk and the hot chocolate and the Yule-tea were all really good, and the pies and the cookies and the pastries and the raisin buns and the cinnamon-"

"Lotta…" Rocky said under her breath.

"-buns… oh, the cinnamon buns!" - Deep breath - "And the roasted almonds and the kringle-bread with caraway seeds and the cream and marzipan cakes were all really, really yummy! And then we had the big talent show-"

"Lotta… I'm pretty sure Santa and Mrs. Santa already know all that…"

"-where we had so much fun watching all the contestants and we sang along to An Elfin Good Time, and Mr. Theodore Elf had such a beautiful, beautiful, singing voice, a deep, deep, deep bass the likes of which I've rarely heard before and he entertained us by singing traditional Yuletide songs." - Deep breath - "And then we danced! Oh, did we dance! We danced the Woods-Elf Clog Polka and the Merry Widow Polka and the traditional Elfin chain dance and the Two-Ahead-and-Two-to-the-Side Mazurka and one of my absolute favorite folk dances, the Sweetheart Shuffle… I'm sure you know it, Mr. Santa, Mrs. Santa, that's the one where we sing" - deep breath - " 'Take your partner by the hand, lead her to the sacred land' while we dance a wonderful, wonderful slow shuffle!"

"Lotta," Rocky said, finally grabbing hold of her dear friend's shoulders to make her understand that she should have stopped at least a minute earlier.

"-And then we… whut? Oh. I'm sorry… I got carried away. But we had a wonderful time tonight, Rocky and me. Thank you for hosting the Yuletide bash, Mrs. Santa. Mr. Santa, Sir."

Santa and his wife looked at each other sporting identical grins. "That's good to hear, Miss Epilotta," Santa said while he shuffled closer to his A-Team. "Which reminds me, I got your Dearest Santa letter this morning. I promise we'll do what we can… but perhaps the matter has already been resolved?"

Lotta's cheeks flushed red in an instant as she looked at the tough, but loving, sleigh driver standing next to her. "It has, Santa, Sir. The Great Elf came through for me. It's going to be a beautiful Season to be Jolly for me after all."

Rocky furrowed her brow, but she figured she'd hear the details later.

"I'm glad to hear it. On another note entirely-" Santa said, but he was interrupted by his wife giving him another kiss.

"Before you start talking business, I'll head upstairs to help the labor-Elves with Operation Clean-up," Mrs. Santa said and shuffled over to the door that would take her inside. "Have a wonderful Season to be Jolly, Miss Epilotta. Miss Rockabye. Merry Yuletide to you both."

"Merry Yuletide, Mrs. Santa!" Lotta cried, whipping off her A-Team hat and waving it in the air.

Once the door had closed, Santa moved over to the edge of the balcony to look out over the vast landscape beyond Toy Factory One. "Elves, you've done a great job flying my colors this year. You've certainly proved yourselves worthy of being members of my A-Team."

"Thank you, Santa, Sir," Lotta and Rocky said as one.

"Tomorrow evening… no, tonight! By the Great Elf, it's already past midnight. The Night of Nights is tonight, can you believe how time flies?"

"No, Santa, Sir," Lotta and Rocky said as one.

"To show my gratitude for the things you've done for me as part of my A-Team, I'm going to invite you along for the big sleigh-ride tonight. If you accept, you'll be a part of my traditional gift-run. You'll still fly your own sleigh, of course, Miss Rockabye. You'll follow me around the world with a four-in-hand of the finest reindeer we have. Miss Epilotta, you could display your schmutting skills at some of the most important addresses in the world… children's hospitals, Yuletide markets, orphanages, retirement homes-"

The invitation had made Lotta and Rocky turn speechless for once. Even the ever-bubbly Lotta was dumbstruck and unable to truly fathom the implications. She looked at Santa, and then up at Rocky. A moment later, she looked back at Santa and then up at Rocky. "Does… does that mean we'll… we'll… we'll be flying with Ru- Rudolph and Prancer and Vixen-"

"And Donner and Blitzen and the rest of the boys," Santa continued. "Sure it does. The whole gang will be there. Was that a yes?"

"That was a yes, Santa, Sir," Rocky said, flashing a proud grin so wide it could hardly fit between her cheeks.

Lotta shook her head in shock but soon began to move her limbs in odd, jerking motions as the news filtered through to her brain. "Rudolph and Prancer and Vixen and Donner and Blitzen and Dasher and Dancer and Comet and Cupid… oh, Santa, Sir… we would love to come along! Love it! Just love it so much we're about to explode in a million little twinkly glittery sparkly stars that'll take a full regiment of labor-Elves a week to sweep up and then they won't even be able to put us back together because we blew up so hard!" she cried, bouncing around all over the scenic balcony.

Santa nodded a couple of times while he waited for a clever response to come to him. None ever did, so he settled for saying: "That's nice, Miss Epilotta. All right, I'll see you this afternoon, then. Three PM sharp. It's in the air… can you feel it? Yuletide is upon us."

"We certainly can, Santa, Sir," Rocky said and grabbed hold of Lotta so the excitable Elf wouldn't stray too close to the edge of the balcony in all her joyous bouncing.

"Merry Yuletide, Elves," Santa said and opened the door to the toy factory.

"Meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeerry Yuletide, Santa, Sirrrrrr!" Lotta cried at the top of her lungs, waving her A-Team Elf hat high in the air.

"Merry Yuletide, Santa, Sir," Rocky said with a smile. The Man in Red had barely left the balcony before she swept Lotta into her arms and claimed her lips in a strong, loving kiss that took their breaths away and left them floating like free Elves on the wings of love and sailing on rivers of bliss - not that they had time to think about flowery, old clichés.

They kissed and kissed and kissed some more until they separated wearing identical, goofy grins. Then they kissed a little more. "Oh, you little, glorious Elf," Rocky said and kissed Lotta's forehead. "I-" - kiss - "love" - kiss - "you" - kiss . "I really do," she whispered before she leaned in and gave Lotta another of those heart-expanding, mind-shattering kisses every Elf loved to get.

"I love you too, Rocky," Lotta whispered back, caressing the sleigh driver's cheek. "Oh, sweet Rockabye… I love you. It's so wonderful to be able to say that. It took us so long, but now we're here. I won't leave, that's a promise."

"Me neither. This one's forever. Forever and a day," Rocky said, once more leaning in so she could kiss her dear friend silly.

Lotta furrowed her brow, wondering where she had heard that phrase before. Her mind had turned so fuzzy from the storming kisses she couldn't quite remember, but it had something to do with a warm summer day where she and Rocky had danced in a field of flowers in bloom. Suddenly it came to her - the vivid dream she'd had on their way up to Peary Land hauling Snoozaby Snorri Elf's birthday layer cake. "Oh!" she cried, but the exclamation was muffled at once by the next sweet assault on her lips.

"It's so good to be an Elf," Rocky whispered when they pulled back once more.

"Agreed," Lotta said and crinkled her nose in a bout of all-out joy.

"What was that Santa said about having received your Dearest Santa letter? Did you send him your wishlist?"

Lotta cocked her head in puzzlement. "Well… of course I did. Don't all Elves? No, this was something else. I…" - she stopped to let out a snicker - "I sent Santa a letter where I said that the one thing that would make my little Elfin heart soar was… was… to get a sweetheart. Someone I could kiss and cuddle… you know… all those sweethearty things."

"Awww," Rocky said and swatted at Lotta's arm.

"And the Great Elf came through for me… in the shape of a Yahtzee scorecard. I did wonder about that, actually!"

"Well, it was the best I could do at the time. It was either that or a napkin… or I suppose I could have used toilet paper…"

"Ohhhhhh!" Lotta cried and pretended to shy back in horror. It only lasted a few seconds, then Rocky's warmth pulled her back. "Did I tell you lately how much I love you?"

"It's been several minutes," Rocky said and leaned in to reap the rewards of her bravery. As their soft lips touched once more, she had an inkling that if she hadn't jotted down the words at the Hen's Teeth pub, none of the evening's events would have happened - and she would have been poorer for it.

When they separated, Lotta broke out in a broad, but tired grin. "Oh, we better head home so we can get some sleep. It's going to be a big, big night for us tonight. Can you believe it? We're going to fly on Santa's gift-drop!"

"Yeah… no, I can't believe it, actually. I worked my Elfin behind off to achieve something with my own business… look at us now. I mean… Rocky's Parcel Delivery Service is going to be on Santa's official team."

"Do you think we'll have any crazy anecdotes to tell afterwards?"

Rocky leaned her head back and laughed out loud. "I don't just think we will, I know we will. With Epilotta and Rockabye on the case, how can it be anything but crazy?"

"True. We do seem to attract craziness, don't we?"


"Rocky," Lotta said and reached for her dear friend's hands. "There's something I've been wanting to ask you. It's a question that's been burning on my mind for a while… I didn't know how you'd react, so I haven't mentioned anything about it."

"Oh… Lotta…"

Lotta looked down shyly and gave Rocky's hands a little squeeze. "You may not have the answer… I'm not sure I even have the right question, but…"

"Oh, Lotta!"

"But if I posed that question, would you answer it?"

"Of course I would! Please, Lotta… you can ask me anything. Anything at all," Rocky said and took a firm grip on Lotta's arms in case it was something that could only be answered with a smooch or two.

"All right." Blushing, Lotta performed a little shimmy. She looked up twice, and chickened out twice. With a pair of red blotches covering her cheeks, she took a deep breath and said: "How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?"

"Oh, Lott- uh… whut?!" Rocky said, snapping out of her blissful state to stare wide-eyed at the teasing Elf in her arms. The long-haul sleigh driver's face flushed gray, then white, then red upon realizing that she had been had royally.

"Gotcha! Ha! Priceless!" Lotta cried and hopped up and down.

"Oh c'mere, you little rascal Elf, you! I'm gonna kiss you purple!" Rocky growled. From one moment to the next, she wrapped her arms around the younger Elf - and once she had her, she wasn't about to let go. Despite Lotta's heartfelt squealing, she pulled the teasing Elf into a crushing hug. "Gotcha! Two can play that game… and payback's a you-know-what-Elf!"

"Oouff!" - kiss, nibble - "Yes, ma'am!" - KISS, kiss - "Oh this is nice…" - nibble, kiss - "Ohhh, this is nicer than nice…" - NIBBLE, kiss - "This is nicey-nice. I did-" - kiss, kiss, nibble - "-actually have a real question…" - kiss, nibble, kiss - "Could I-" - KISS, nibble - "Can I-" - kiss, KISS - "Will you-" - nibble, nibble - "Would you-" - nibble, kiss, nibble, KISS - "Abba-dabba-chippa-chappa," - KISS, KISS, nibble - "Oh… Rocky, do you wanna come-" - kiss, nibble - "Home with me? We could maybe-" - nibble, kiss - "Perhaps-" - nibble, kiss, nibble - "I don't know-" - kiss, kiss, nibble, nibble - "Catch a little nap… together…?"

Rocky moved back and licked her well-loved lips to have them ready for the next flurry of kisses that was sure to follow. "Together?"

"Always together," Lotta said. She was acutely cross-eyed from all the kissing. Her mind was swimming, her knees were knocking, and her heart was thumping harder in her chest than it ever had, but she wasn't complaining in the least.

"I like the sound of that. Yeah. Let's kiss a little more first, though," Rocky said and dove down for yet another sweet assault on Lotta's lips.

The younger Elf, whose cheeks had now reached the same color as her flaming red locks, couldn't find anything wrong with that plan - and the best part of all was that their mutual adventures were only just beginning…














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