A frosty beam of winter starlight fell across a small bed that was piled high with warm quilts and awakened a small girl from a sound sleep; she rose silently and padded across the room to a small window. Pausing briefly, she stared in mute wonder as the massive star's light broke through the dark cloudy sky then eagerly began working the frozen latch to push aside the last obstacle between herself and her old Christmas friend.

A brief moment of alarm flashed across her face when the wooden window frame scraped against the frozen stone then she instinctively leaned forward to watch the ice flakes swirl and spin as they made their silent free fall to the ground thousands of feet below and couldn't help but be amazed by the thousands of ice crystals that coated her tower, making it sparkle like a million gemstones. Then shifting her gaze upward again, she cautiously clambered up onto the ledge to let her slippered feet dangle over the side. Suddenly, a tiny chameleon appeared in her lap and she almost laughed out loud in delighted surprise.

"Pascal," she whispered in hushed glee, lifting him up to give him a snuggle and a peck on the top of his head, "we mustn't wake mother. You know how she hates that—but thank you for coming. Merry Christmas."

"Look, it's my star," she continued, pointing upward, "It comes every Christmas so I think it's meant for me, just like the lights on my birthday."

Leaning back against the stones, she sighed contentedly, feeling happy, loved, and warm, despite the freezing temperature, with her friend beside her and her star watching over her. Then she closed her eyes.

"Rapunzel!" Mother Gothel's voice sang out, "Oh, Rapunzel! Where are you?"

The girl's eyes flew open and she disorientedly laid a hand on the cold stone to steady herself before remembering where she was and why she was there. It seemed as if it had only been a few minutes since she'd drifted off but already the sun was rising over the dark evergreen forest and both window and stone were damp with melting icicles. Anxious not to let her mother catch her breaking the rules by hanging out the window and excited to celebrate the day, Rapunzel shoved her damp hair aside and leaped off her perch

"Merry Christmas, Mother!" she yelped, catching her balance just before she tripped over her long locks. Gothel appeared a moment later.

"You've been sitting on the window again, haven't you?" she accused, her face instantly paling with rage.

Rapunzel giggled nervously, "Who me? What makes you say that?"

"Your nightgown," Gothel snipped, narrowing her eyes, "and hair are wet." Throwing up her hands, she stormed forward and flung a small purple dress at the little girl, "Honestly, Rapunzel, I just don't understand why you can't follow the rules. You know I'm just trying to protect you! And on Christmas, of all days. I would have thought you could at least try to be more considerate—"

"I'm sorry, mother," the little girl's face fell and she scrambled to change clothes, "but I—"

"Rapunzel," Gothel instantly interrupted, "How many times do I need to remind you? You can't apologize and then say but! Honestly, what am I going to do with you? If I wasn't here, I just don't know what would happen to you. And haven't I always told you what they'll do to you if they see you? Those people out there! My dear, I'm only trying to protect you and then you go and break mommy's heart." She swept her daughter into a tight embrace, "But what can I do? I love you!"

"I know, I know, mother, I know," Rapunzel wormed her way to freedom, her mind still on celebration, "I really am sorry. And I'll try to do better. Really, I will. What can I do to make it up to you? I'll do anything. You name it. I'll do it. Just say the word, I'll—"

"Oh, stop that racket!" Gothel snapped, rolling her eyes as she flounced back towards the staircase, "You know I can't stand it when you prattle on and on and on like that!"

"Alright, dear, no more talk for now," she continued with a sigh, turning around about halfway down the staircase to watch the little girl trudging after her; her tone was utterly different, "Mommy needs to feel refreshed...then we'll open your presents."

Squealing with delight, Rapunzel dashed past her mother, skipping and bouncing all the way down the long staircase. Quickly setting up two chairs, she grabbed her hairbrush and was seated and waiting by the time Gothel came up to her.

"That's better," the woman almost sneered as she sat down and began to comb her daughter's lush blonde locks.

"Flower, gleam and glow," Rapunzel sang softly, her wide eyes already roaming around the room. She quickly spied several brightly wrapped packages tucked into obvious hiding places and the tempo of her voice noticeably picked up, "Let your power shine. Make the clock reverse."

"Rapunzel!" Gothel snapped sharply, gritting her teeth as she cut her daughter a hard look and brushed furiously.

"Bring back what once was mine," the little girl's voice steadied for a moment, but quickly picked up speed again, "Heal what has been hurt. Changes the Fate's design."

"Rapunzel!"

"Save what has been lost," Rapunzel swallowed her excitement again and with difficulty managed to finish steadily, "Bring back what once was mine. What once was mine."

"Now presents!" she squealed, bouncing to her feet..

"Well, actually," Gothel caught her arm, spinning the girl's body around. She rolled her eyes in her daughter's face, "I think you ought to bring us some breakfast first." Sighing again, she shook her head hopelessly, "Honestly, I don't know what you'd do if I wasn't here? You'd probably waste away to nothing. Imagine, presents before breakfast. Wherever did you get such a ridiculous idea?" She swept the little girl into her arms, "But I love you so much. I just can't let anything happen to you. Oh, do you even know how much I love you?"

"Of course, I know, mother," Rapunzel bit her lip and wormed her way to freedom again. Then she obediently scampered off to the kitchen, "Breakfast coming right up!"

With the brisk efficiently of lots of practice, she scraped together the kind of spartan meal that would please her self-conscious mother and returned with a tray of oatmeal, fruit, and hot green tea.

"Now, Rapunzel," Gothel resumed her lecture, barely glancing at her plate as she watched the girl excitedly wolfing down her own portion, "As you know, today is Christmas."

"Yes, I know!" Rapunzel's eyes danced with delight, "And I'm so excited, mother! I bet you'll never guess what I made for you!"

"And you do remember what people do on Christmas, don't you?" Gothel's voice rose an octave.

The little girl instantly quelled, "Th-they come into the woods to-to decorate a Christmas tree..."

Gothel snorted, rolling her eyes again, dismissing the answer with a flip of her hand, "Please, Rapunzel, they pretend to decorate a tree. But they are really looking for you, my dear! They want your hair! How many times must I remind you? Oh, Rapunzel, you're so foolish. But I love you so much. Oh, I just don't know what would happen to you if I wasn't here!"

"I-I-I understand," the girl stammered, biting her lip to keep her tears at bay, figuring her mother was still angry about last night, "And I really am sorry about last night. I know I could have been seen, even in the dark, and I—I'm so sorry!"

"There's a good girl," Gothel cooed, looking pleased with herself, "I know you don't do these things on purpose, but you just don't know how to control yourself. Oh, Rapunzel, you're so naive. But that's why you must always stay with me. I will always protect you, my dear." She sighed again, "Now, clean up the table and then you can find your presents."

"Oooo, presents! Yes!" Rapunzel's face lit up, her joy instantly returning as she scooted off with the dirty plates, bowls, cups, and utensils. Looking back, she squealed, "Just wait until you see what I made for you! I've spent the last few months working on it!"

"Oh, you're so funny, Rapunzel!" Gothel threw back her head and laughed, "You know you don't need to get me anything. Having you here with me is all I need."

"All the same," the girl reappeared a few minutes later with a happy sparkle in her eyes, wiping her damp hands on her dress, "I wanted to do something special for you, mother."

Gothel laughed again, then waved her away, "Presents, my dear, remember your presents are waiting."

Rapunzel glowed as she tore around the room to collect the gifts that she'd seen earlier then she hurried back to open them at her mother's feet. "Oooo, more paints!" she cried, ripping the wrapping paper off the first gift, "I've been needing them!"

"Another dress!" she exclaimed with delight at the second, "Ooo, it's my favorite color too!" But when she opened the last gift, her breath caught and her eyes grew as big as saucers, "And-and a telescope!" She jumped up and threw her arms around Gothel, "Thank you, mother!"

"I know how much you like to track the stars," Gothel shrugged demurely, pushing the little girl away, "Now, get away. You'll wrinkle my dress. How many times must I remind you about personal space, Rapunzel?"

"I-I don't know what to say," the little girl groped for the proper words as she sank back to the carpet, recognizing how unlikely it was for her mother to give her such a thing, "Thank you."

"You're welcome." Gothel beamed smugly, her smile tainted with a twinge of superiority, "Now I believe you were excited to give me something?"

"Oh, right!" Rapunzel's face lit up. She jumped up and scampered back up the staircase, her long hair bouncing behind her, calling, "I hid it under my bed!" Reappearing several minutes later, struggling with an awkwardly large box, she tottered and swayed all the way down the staircase to set it at her mother's feet with a plunk. "Here it is!" she announced, excitedly bouncing up and down in place.

Gothel dutifully pulled off the wrapping paper, lifted the lid, and pulled out a simple red dress.

"I put it in this big box so you wouldn't be able to guess what it was before you opened it." Rapunzel giggled at her own cleverness.

But Gothel didn't respond; she was giving the dress a critical once over and just looked increasingly annoyed. Then she spied something else tucked into the corner of the box and reached in to retrieve a beautiful wood carving of a flower, painted yellow with a purple center, just like the one that had made Rapunzel's hair magical.

"Really, Rapunzel?" she snipped, her face flaming as she turned her attention back to the dress, "It's so drab and, ugh, this fabric is so course! How awful. And do you really think I'll fit into it? I'd be ashamed to wear something so huge. It's insulting, dear. Honestly, I just don't know why you do these things after mommy has loved you so much." Glancing back at the wood carving, she sneered, "And what is this? A door stop? Do you want me to trip every time I come into your room?"

Making a face, she quickly flung it away. The delicate petals and leaves easily snapped off when it hit the stone wall and Gothel turned back to glare at her daughter, "Now, look at the mess you've caused! And after I went to all that trouble to get you a telescope too! Well, I expect you to clean it up before I get back! You did remember that I'm going out this afternoon, didn't you? Honestly, Rapunzel, I just don't know what to do with you sometimes, but I love you so much I just put up with it."

Her daughter barely heard her. As the tears welled up in her eyes, Rapunzel whirled away and ran all the way back to her bedroom. Flinging herself down on her comforter, she sobbed uncontrollably until she fell asleep.

Some hours later, she was awakened by the happy chirping of little songbirds fluttering outside her window and she groggily lifted her stuffed up head to see them pecking the window. Her mother's cruel words came back like a battering ram, distracting her for a minute, but the birds were insistent and finally pulled her back to the present. "Oh!" she yelped softly, as joy suddenly lit her tear-stained face, "I almost forgot!" Instantly, her feet hit the floor and she scooted on tiptoes all the way down to the kitchen, ever on the lookout for her mother. But Gothel was nowhere to be seen and Rapunzel snatched a sack of bread crumbs out of their hiding place and raced back upstairs.

Cautiously creeping up to the window, she peeked outside to make sure the coast was clear then flung a handful of crumbs into the air. The little birds sailed up to meet it, swirling, spinning, dipping, diving, and rolling in a kaleidoscope reds, greens, yellows, purples, oranges, blues, browns, black and white then sank downward towards the dry frosted earth, following the crumbs as they fell. Rapunzel tossed another handful and they rose and fell again like a colorful quilt riding the currents of the wind. Tossing a third handful, the young girl finally began to giggle, forgetting her mother's cruelty and feeling free to take delight in the acrobatic show her little friends were putting on. Then suddenly she was laughing hysterically and tossing out handful after handful in delirious glee. She didn't know where her mother was and she didn't care. All she knew was that she was alone and her friends were happy and she was happy.

But it didn't last. Answering laughter deep within the forest reached her ears and set her on high alert. It seemed as wildly reckless and happy as her own laughter and she jerked away from the open window in terror. Soon more voices could be heard, coming closer and closer to her hiding place, and her heart rammed inside her ribs in fear.

The townspeople were coming!

But where was her mother, she wondered. Surely, she would come to keep her safe. Surely, she wasn't so upset about this morning that she wouldn't come now, when Rapunzel needed her protection the most. "Mother…?" she whimpered softly, then clamped her mouth shut for fear of being heard. She backed away from the window and called again, more frantically, "Mother? Where are you?"

But she couldn't ignore the happy sounds outside and somehow curiosity ebbed away her fear. She crept back to the window and peered over the ledge like an alligator in a lake, with only the very top of her head visible, to behold the once a year sight of children and adults decorating a nearby evergreen.

They hung colorful ornaments, lights, garlands, and even little edibles for the woodland creatures and all the while sang beautifully festive carols and hymns. None of them seemed to notice the tower at the edge of the clearing, let alone that the window was open and a tiny blonde girl was watching.

Suddenly, a young boy took off running with other children in hot pursuit. They laughed and squealed as they chased each other, running figure-eights through the snow around their parents and neighbors in an energetic game of tag. Laughing, some of the adults joined in and their audience of one thought the game was ten times more exciting than when it had been only the children playing. Then someone brought out a big red ball and it didn't take long for a kickball game to ensue. Around and around the children flew, kicking up snow flurries as they raced between the tall stately trees that mark the bases as the adults cheered them on. Rapunzel watched all this with puzzlement, unease, and longing. It looked like so much fun, she wished that she could run down the stairs, fling open the door, and be a part of it all. She wished that she and her mother could have that same kind of fun together.

Why can't mother and I do something like that? she wondered, bravely entertaining the notion with relish for a moment. We could make an obstacle course right here inside the tower and I could use my hair to wing through it. She almost squealed with glee before catching herself and her eyes widened with reproach. Who was she kidding? Mother would never...

Maybe mother is right, she scolded herself silently, reaching up to finger her one short dark strand of hair that had been cut and lost its power.

I don't know what I'm doing, she continued her harsh inner monologue, what was I thinking...wanting to go out there where they only want my hair when I'm safe here and mother loves me and protects me.

Turning away from the window with a sigh, she scrubbed the tears from her eyes. Who was she kidding. It was too dangerous for her out there. Those people were wonderful with their own children but if they ever saw her and her hair they'd probably turn into greedy pigs just like her mother always said. Resigning herself to her fate, she turned away from the window and slowly headed downstairs but skidded to a stop about halfway down, horrified by the sight of her spoiled wood-carving still lying on the floor. She almost turned back, unwilling to face the tragedy that had befallen her months of painstaking work.

"I expect you to clean this up before I get back!" Gothel's harsh words rang in her mind, grounding her retreat to a halt before it began.

So instead of running, she hurried to grab a broom and get the hated chore done as quickly as possible. Deliberately trying not to think about all the hours that it had taken her to make the little ornament as she swept, she let her mind wander back to the night before. Instantly, the Christmas star leaped brightly into her mind's eye and she suddenly felt as if someone was really watching over her again.

Then she considered the people outside and the old ache of longing returned.

"What is it like, out there where they play?" she sang miserably, choking back tears when she accidentally let her mind register her ruined work on the floor, "I'll just keep wonderin' and wonderin' and wonderin' and wonderin'..."


Author's Note: This story is entered in the Fellowship and Fairydust Winter Writing Contest. The judging is ongoing but I will put links to our website and Youtube channel on my profile page so that you read the great stories that are there.