being a collection of twelve short readings for the twelve days of Christmas
IIWhile You Sleep
IIIThe Good King
IVNow The Tree Was Perfect
VUnderneath Her Boot
VIIIThe Lost Verse
IXShining In The East
XThe Box of Special Decorations
XIIQuicksilver’s Last Job
Oh, the weather outside is frightful…
Infernus was memorizing the wording of a chthonic summoning spell when Vade, his imp familiar, came crashing through the window. Again. Why couldn’t the stupid creature just use the door?
“Master! I have it!”
Infernus quickly rubbed out the chalk circle he’d drawn. When Vade was around, accidents happened. And any accident with that particular spell would be very bad. Very bad indeed.
“You have what, imp?”
“The fairy you instructed me to fetch. For the top of the tree.”
Infernus frowned. He’d hoped the task would keep the imp busy for longer. As a boy he’d always had a silver fairy on top of his Christmas tree and it was a tradition he liked to keep up. Even necromancers could make a bit of an effort this time of year, couldn’t they? Mind you, the streamers he’d arrayed around his room were probably a bit … visceral for some. And most people probably wouldn’t go for the baubles he’d used. But he liked the way they continued to watch you as you moved about the room. Occasionally winking.
“Very well,” he said. “Put it on the tree and leave me in peace.”
“But, master. It’s going to get very angry if I do that.”
The imp heaved an iron cage onto the desk with a clump.
“Why would a doll get angry?” Infernus asked. But cold dread surged through his veins as he spoke. Surely even Vade wasn’t stupid enough to …
“Not a doll, master. Something much better. A real fairy. I captured it up on Widdershins Way. Angry little thing it is, too. Keeps spitting curses at me and claiming to be a High Ancient. ‘Course, it can’t harm us when it’s surrounded by iron, can it, eh?”
The imp’s green eyes glittered in the candlelight. It looked very pleased with itself. Infernus turned from it to the cage. The bars were beginning to glow as the trapped faerie worked some magic. If it was one of the High Ancients, iron wouldn’t keep it held for long. And when it escaped …
With shaking hands, Infernus began to redraw his chalk circle. Not to keep something inside, this time. To keep something out.
He nearly had it complete when, with a shrill scream of fury, the faerie flew free. The bolt of flame it hurled hit Infernus even as he stepped into the chalk circle.
Thrown to the floor, his last sight was of the Christmas tree, and the baubles that gazed down at him in open-eyed amazement.
She would stay awake this year, she would. Every Christmas Eve she made the same vow. Every year sleep betrayed her. She would awake with a gasp to the glittering presents on her bed and the cold thought he’d been in her room, standing there while she slept.
But she was ten now, no longer a child. If she stayed awake, he couldn’t come in. That was the rule. Everyone knew it. This was her room, where she felt safe. Every other night of the year.
She waited, trying to ignore the smothering weight of tiredness filling up her mind.
“How much further?”
“Not far, my lord, less than a league now.”
“Hold the torch higher! I can barely see. It’s bad enough trudging through all this snow without walking into trees too.”
“Yes, my lord. Sorry, my lord.”
Besz held the torch higher as instructed. Not that they really needed it. The cold, blue light of the full moon gave them more than enough illumination to see the trees. They skirted around a pool of dark water filling a clearing. A low waterfall, frozen to spiky ice, dangled off the rocks at one side. They said Agnes’ Pools had healing properties if you swam in them. He wasn’t about to try them out now.
“This whole escapade is madness,” King Wenceslas continued. “We’ve passed three hamlets already. They’re all my subjects aren’t they? What difference does it make?”
Besz, ploughing through the snow three paces behind, didn’t reply immediately. His feet were numb and the cold crept up the bones of his shins. His face ached from the chill of the night air and from his clenched jaw muscles. Did he have to spell it all out again? Did the King really not understand? He was worse than a child. His feet wouldn’t be cold of course, and not just because of his fine, fur-lined leather boots. Besz glanced back at Lucian, the court minstrel they’d brought along with them, slipping and leaping through the snow-drifts ten yards further back. Lucian looked to be in an even worse state. His thin, multicoloured costume was utterly unsuited to an expedition through the forest at the dead of night, the dead of winter. Perhaps it was just the moon, but his skin looked blue.
“This far from the castle is safer, my lord,” said Besz. “No one comes this way. No one will know.”
“I don’t see that it matters. They’re all just peasants.”
“It avoids … difficulties, my lord. We’re nearly there now, I assure you.”
“Light,” shouted Lucian. “I see light through the trees.” They were the first words the minstrel had spoken since they set out. Up ahead, a smudge of yellow shone between the shifting boughs.
“This is it?” asked the King.
“He’s lived out here for years,” said Besz. “Never sees anyone. He’s perfect. No one even knows his name.”
“Very well. Follow me to the hovel but stay outside. Make sure no one else comes in while I’m … busy.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Besz and Lucian sat together on the step of the ramshackle hovel. The sweet smell of pine woodsmoke from the peasant’s fire inside filled the air. The shadowy bulk of the mountains blanked out the stars to their left. In the moonlight, Besz could just see the line of footsteps they had made, winding between the trees to lead up to the peasant’s door.
He talked, louder than necessary in the muffled hush of the winter night. He talked to drown out the sounds from within: the scuffling, the blows, the sobbing, the screams.
“So you know what you have to do?” he said to Lucian.
Lucian nodded, breathing into his clenched fists. Besz just hoped he wasn’t frostbitten. He’d be useless as a lute player then.
“I’ll do what you need, don’t worry. I’ll make sure the right story gets out. A simple tune and some pretty words and people will soon think that’s what really happened here.”
“Just make it good.”
“I could have stayed back at the castle and done that, you know.”
“I think the King wanted you to be very clear about what he’s capable of. To those he doesn’t like.”
Lucian nodded, but didn’t reply.
The King emerged from the hovel, then, wide eyed, breathing deeply. He wiped blood from his mouth. Blood that was not his own.
“Bury the body,” he said. “What’s left of it. Then we return to the castle.”
“You are sated, my lord?”
“Until the spring, when the roads out of the kingdom open again. Now dig.”
“Yes, my lord.”
The effort of digging the grave warmed them up. The minstrel, not used to hard work, merely scraped away at the frozen surface. The King sat some distance away against a tree, impervious to the cold, of course, not watching them. Perhaps he slept.
“What will you call it?” asked Besz. “Your song.” He had to stand on the spade, the peasant’s own spade, to force it into the frozen ground.
“The Good King,” said Lucian, breathing hard. “Something like that.”
Besz nodded. That would do. Good King Wenceslas. People would believe that.
Once they’d buried the remains they trudged their way back through the snow to the warmth of the castle, following in the footsteps of the King.
It was hanging angels on the Christmas tree that troubled Seb. The shiny baubles he got. And the twinkling lights. But then his mother opened the special box: sixteen brightly painted figures that spent the year lying in little cardboard tombs. Father Christmas, snowmen, reindeer and the angels, all to be hanged by their little noose of golden thread.
Seb studied them as they twisted around. Each angel’s mouths was a wide O of shock. He didn’t always understand grown-ups. For these few weeks of the year you planted a tree in the corner of the room and decorated it. That was what you did.
Well, he’d make his own contribution. His mother said he always tried his best. Early on Christmas Day he crept into the frosty garden to inspect his home-made traps.
Back inside he worked away with scissors and thread. A pile of shiny oblongs had appeared beneath the tree, brought by Father Christmas in the night. That was what happened. Now, with Seb’s additions, the effect would be complete.
He heard footsteps from above. He stepped back to admire his handiwork. The two robins, hanging by their necks, eyes white, still flapped their wings occasionally, their orange breasts like baubles. Most of the mice had stopped moving, but one still wriggled and twisted around, feet working uselessly. The bundles of worms and centipedes – so tricky to leash together – still writhed away.
Now the tree was perfect.
Seb smiled. His mother was going to be delighted.
bq. underneath her boot
bq. the first human footprint
bq. marks the snowball planet
Sally loved the swirling patterns the frost etched onto the outside of her bedroom window. You could see faces if you looked closely.
Of course, her grandmother had warned her, said they were the marks of ghosts outside in the dark, hungry for warmth. But her grandmother was always saying things like that. And this Christmas morning the house was still quiet. No one would know.
Quietly, Sally unlatched her window, wanting to touch the delicate lines, trace the fronds and curves with her fingertips.
The icy blast hurled her backwards to the floor. Cold mist suddenly filled her room. She saw the faces again, then, dancing in the air around her. Saw fingers of ice as they reached for her face.
bq. church chimes midnight mass -
bq. reaching through the frozen soil
bq. a fresh crop of hands
Author’s Note: The Christmas carol In The Bleak Midwinter, with words by Christina Rossetti, will be familiar to most people. But recently, an early draft of her work came to light which included a verse alluding to the plagues of zombies that so afflicted Victorian Britain.
Here is that lost verse, reproduced with apologies to Rossetti.
In the bleak midwinter
Zombies woke and moaned,
Dug through earth like iron
Fingers shred to bone
Slow, they shambled through the snow
Coming to your homes,
In bleak midwinter, seeking
Brains to go!
“So we enter the atmosphere, flare the ion drive, track west. The humans will think we’re this weird moving star. It’ll be hilarious.”
Once the baubles and lights had been arranged on the tree, Ven unlocked the cupboard where he kept the box of special decorations.
If there had been anyone else to see, the objects would have puzzled them. But Ven knew them intimately. Each was a totem. A memento. He hung them with great care. The clumps of hair. The vials of liquid. The finger-bones.
That evening, as the darkness gathered, he sat to admire his work. It was good. Except … there. A gap.
He frowned. It wouldn’t do.
He’d need another special decoration in time for next year.
“Oh, look. A snow angel.”
Harriet slid to a stop, holding onto Jane’s arm to stop herself falling over. Someone had lain in the stretch of sparkling snow in front of the Presbyterian Church. Harriet looked up and down the road but could see no one. This late in the year it was already dark. Too icy for cars or many people. House-lights were beginning to twinkle out through the twilight.
“Come on, let’s make our own,” said Jane.
“No,” said Harriet. “Let’s just get home. I’m bloody freezing. And this place is creepy.”
The familiar tone of mischief was clear in Jane’s voice as she replied. “Oh, Harry. We’ve walked past here a thousand times. Like, every day of our lives.”
Harriet shivered as she stood. She could feel the heat being sucked out of her. “Yeah, in the daylight. You know what’s under there, under all that snow.”
“They’re just dead people, Harry. They can’t harm you, can they?”
“Still, I don’t like it. It’s not right.”
“Well, I’m going to make my own angel,” said Jane, unhooking her arm from Harriet’s.
Harriet watched Jane lie down in the thick snow. If there was one thing Jane hated it was being told she shouldn’t do something. She’d always been like that, ever since they were kids. Harriet looked back up the road. They were nearly home. Their parents had insisted they come back from their friend’s together. She could see the lights from her own house up ahead. And, across the field, beyond the stand of black trees, Jane’s too. They were close enough.
“Make one if you want,” said Harriet. “I’m going home.”
She half-walked, half-slid along the treacherous road, shivering as she went. Now that the sun had gone down the temperature was plummeting. Her jaw clenched and her teeth began to chatter. So that actually happened? She’d thought it was just what they said in books. She would never admit that her mother had been right about wearing a coat, of course, but she had been. She stopped and glanced back to see Jane lying in the deep, pristine snow in front of the church, waving her arms and legs up and down to make her angel. Flapping frantically.
Harriet turned away. It was then she must have slipped on a patch of ice. She felt her foot give way, a moment of confusion, then she hit the ground. She tasted gritty snow. Cold bit into her face. Her head throbbed sharply where she must have banged it on the packed ice but she didn’t remember that happening. Had she passed out for a moment? She looked up and around. Everything looked the same – the deserted road, snow everywhere – except that, back by the church, Jane had gone.
Harriet climbed warily to her feet and began to walk, taking great pains not to slip over again. She touched fingers to her forehead and felt the wetness of blood. OK. This wasn’t funny any more.
Where was she? Jane wouldn’t have just left her lying there in the road. She must be playing some trick. It was just like her. Harriet followed her line of footprints back to the church. There were her and Jane’s trails, side-by-side. There were no others. No one else had been there and Jane, apparently, hadn’t left. How could that be?
She looked all around, expecting Jane to jump out at her from somewhere. Falling snow began to obscure everything about her. On the ground she could see the outlines of two angels. The newer one was deep, its lines crisp, freshly cut through the white drift. Jane had lain there but now there was just the empty shape of the figure, vaguely human. The falling snow was already beginning to fill it up again.
She could think of only one explanation. Heart pounding, Harriet knelt on the ground next to the snow angel and began to dig with numb hands.
She felt her wrists being grasped, felt herself being pulled under the snow, only when it was too late.
Quicksilver the thief clung to the shadows of the towering pine trees. Ahead, across a short stretch of open snow, his prize awaited. The greatest of prizes. It really existed. He had doubted his sanity more than once on the long trudge north. But there it was, sitting in the open. People said he could steal anything. If he completed this job he might believe it himself.
He watched and waited, studying the tableau before him, picking out potential dangers. The likely locations of traps, the hiding-places of guards. Great braziers set all around filled the scene with shifting shadows. He was used to scaling the walls of imperial fortresses but here there was only a series of low, log cabins. Still there would be eyes watching from within those brightly-lit windows. He could feel them.
He couldn’t make out any obstacles between him and his prize, but open ground was never good for a thief. He thought about running, relying on simple surprise. He could ghost across, position himself so one of the braziers hid him from the cabins. No. Too dangerous, too exposed. Cause a diversion, start a fire? That only alerted people, put them on edge. A disguise? No one up here to disguise himself as.
Being a thief often meant doing the opposite of what people thought you’d do. People saw what they expected to see. His name was a part of that: a deception, like so much else. He could move quickly if he had to – he had outrun enough arrow-traps over the years – but the solution here was to do the opposite. Fortunately he had prepared: practised this very thing for two long months in his mountain hideaway.
He pulled the hood of his specially-prepared white suit over his head. The material had been very carefully chosen: just the right reflectivity, just the right sparkle. A circle of white gauze fitted over his face so he could still see but the light couldn’t reflect off his eyes. He was completely covered.
He lay down in the snow and began to crawl out of the shadows towards the treasure, hauling himself over the ground. He moved a hand with infinite slowness, placing it a little way in front of him. Then one of his feet. Inch by painful inch he crept forwards. Anyone looking would see no movement. They would see the stretch of whiteness and then, the next time they looked, the same stretch of whiteness. They wouldn’t notice the small drift of snow that had shifted its location. He hoped.
It took him two hours to complete the crossing. His legs and arms and back burned with the effort of it. The line of beasts tethered to the sleigh began to paw the ground as he approached. They could smell him even if the snails-pace of his movements hadn’t alarmed them. Quicksilver stood slowly, keeping the sleigh between him and the cabins.
Steam rose from the beasts as they stamped or whinnied. A motley collection: a great black bear, antlered caribou, a mountain-lion of enormous size, shaggy forest ponies, wild boar and timber wolves. They watched him with yellow eyes.
Quicksilver reached into his pocket and began to hand out the treats he had brought with him: sweet berries, dead mice, truffles, depending on the species. He moved down the line, making gentle, reassuring noises, patting flanks. Then he was there. He grasped the wooden rail of the sleigh and sprang up into the driver’s seat. Behind him, loaded and ready, countless riches of every description. It would be his crowning achievement. What songs would be sung about him now?
In truth, he felt a little disappointed. It was almost too easy. And – a worse thought – what could he possibly do next to top this? He picked up the reins and called softly to the beasts. They didn’t move. He flicked the reins across their backs and called again, a little louder. Still they didn’t move. One of the caribou looked back with a mournful stare.
“Oh, you can’t make them move just like that. You need the right outfit, for one thing. The hat.” A deep voice from the shadows, bear-like in its growl. Amusement in it too, though, like this was all some fine joke. It could only be one person.
Quicksilver’s hand moved to his favourite dagger. As if that would help him. He weighed up options. Fight, flight, talk his way out of it. He didn’t like any of them. The thing about meeting your victims was not to do so in the first place.
“I don’t think any clothes of yours will fit me, old man.”
The figure laughed. “Oh, they fit whoever wears them. And you’ll need them if you’re to take over from me. It can get cold up here.” The man stepped in front of one of the smoking braziers. There was something of the forest beast about his form, too. A deep, looming power. Quicksilver half expected to see antlers on his head. But, as he ambled forwards, he became just an old man, his beard white. Strong once, maybe, but now with his muscle turned to fat.
“What do you mean, take over from you?”
“That’s why you’re here,” said the old man, delight in his voice.
“I’m here to take your sleigh and so steal from every single person in the entire world at the same time,” said Quicksilver.
The old man laughed, walked along his line of beasts to scratch behind ears. “Ah, so you’re a thief? I was a killer. A hired sword. Damn good one, too. I slew hundreds and none ever drew blood from me. Not one of them.”
“What are you talking about? You’re the Yule Father. The Spirit of Winter. The Gift Giver. Father Frost.”
The old man waved a dismissive hand. “Oh the role is eternal. But we actors come and go. Everyone gets what they want, you see. What they need. Not necessarily what they ask for. That’s how it works. I came here fifteen years ago, sword in hand, to make a dark name for myself. So I thought. But what I really sought was rescue. And that’s what I was given.”
What was this? Some sort of trick? Quicksilver needed to escape. If he could just goad the creatures into flight he could be away. Go anywhere. The cut of a knife on one of those flanks might do it. He readied his blade while keeping the old man talking. “So, can I go or do you intend to set the elves on me?”
The man walked right up to look into Quicksilver’s eyes. “I can see the weight of guilt that bows you down. Have you carried it long?”
“You can’t see guilt, old man.”
“Oh, I can. What is it, all the people you’ve impoverished, made homeless, starved to death? Do you see them at night, when you sleep?”
“I sleep very well.”
“Ah. I used to wake up reliving every limb and head I’d hacked from someone’s body. So let me see how it is with you. You set yourself these impossible tasks, breathtaking acts of thievery, each more daring than the last. And you’re good, aren’t you? Damn good. No one catches you. No one keeps you out. But there’s your problem. You’re trapped. All you live for is the next job. You have wealth uncounted you never spend. And where will it end? In your death. You take on the impossible knowing you’ll eventually meet your match and get yourself killed.”
“I steal because I can. Because I like it.”
“I’m sure you did once. But now you can’t stop. If each job isn’t more outrageous than the last it bores you.” The old man sounded genuinely sad as he spoke.
“No,” said Quicksilver.
“Fortunately I have another way out.” The old man pulled off his fur hat and handed it to Quicksilver. “Here. It’s yours.”
“You’re giving me it?”
“That is what I do. Take the coat too. I won’t need it now. It isn’t what you asked for but it is what you want.”
Quicksilver studied him, expecting some trick. The old man held out the furs and waited. The caribou with the baleful eye waited, too.
“It’s midwinter,” said the old man softly. “The turning point. The death of the old and the birth of the new. That’s what I’m giving you.” He leaned closer, whispered conspiratorially as if he didn’t want the beasts to hear. “And, just between you and me, the flying is a lot of fun.”
Quicksilver looked at the animals tethered to the miraculous sleigh. They would only move for the Yule Father. The real Yule Father. He saw now. He slipped his blade away. He could probably make a dash for the safety of the forests. But then it would just be the long trudge home. Finally beaten.
“I don’t know what to do,” he said.
“Oh, it’s easy,” said the old man, laughing. “Truth is you don’t really do anything. You’re a totem. A figurehead. The beasts know the roads to take and the elves make everything. You sit there and look the part. An occasional laugh is good.”
He’d forgotten how to laugh. When did he last laugh?
“How long would I have to do this?”
The old man shrugged. “Until you’ve balanced everything up. Each gift given will lessen the weight on your shoulders. One day – five, ten, twenty years from now – someone will come to replace you. Sneaking through the woods, not even knowing why.”
Quicksilver hesitated. The turning point. He’d been a thief for a long time. And he had been the greatest, hadn’t he? He reached out and took the hat from the old man. It felt comfortable as he pulled it onto his head. He stood and worked his way into the fur coat, too. It fitted well. Strangely, he felt lighter with it on. The beasts become more restless, ready for the off, bucking their heads in anticipation.
The old man nodded his head, his beard wagging. “It suits you.”
“What happens to you?” asked Quicksilver.
“I’ve lived a lonely life. It’s time I found a woman. Time I had children of my own. I’m not that old.” He chuckled at his own words.
“Will I see you again?”
“Of course. Every year. But I won’t see you. Now off you go. You’ve a long way to travel, my friend.”
Quicksilver picked up the reins once more. The beasts lurched forwards, scrabbling over the snow, throwing him back into the seat. They began to pick up speed. The cold air rushed into his face.
A dizzying lurch and they left the ground, hurtling into the cold northern sky. Quicksilver’s stomach thrilled with the exhilaration of it. And, as they climbed, he found himself roaring into the darkness with unexpected laughter.
Many thanks for reading this little collection of stories. I hope you have/had a wonderful Christmas.
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Find out more
Two worlds, one nightmare…
Fifteen year-old Cait Weerd has no idea she’s being sought by the undain: sorcerous creatures that feed off the spirit of the living. She doesn’t know they need her blood to survive. She doesn’t even know she’s a witch, descended from a long line of witches. Cait Weerd doesn’t know a lot, really, but all that’s about to change.
At Manchester Central Library she’s caught up in sudden violence. In the chaos she’s given an old book that’s been hidden there. Given it and told to run. Hide the book or destroy it. The book contains all the secrets of the undains’ existence. They and their human servants want to find it as much as they want to find her.
Cait learns the fates of two worlds are at stake. Just what she needs. Along with definitely-not-a-boyfriend Danny, she has to decide what the hell to do. Run, fight or hope it all goes away.
It’s only then she learns who she really is, along with the terrible truth of what the undain have been doing in our world all this time…
Simon Kewin was born on the misty Isle of Man, but now lives in England with his wife and daughters. He writes SF, fantasy, mainstream and some stories that can’t make their minds up.
He can be summoned from the mists at simonkewin.co.uk or on Twitter.
Copyright © Simon Kewin 2014
Simon Kewin has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
The contents of this book are works of fiction and, except in the case of historical fact, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
This book is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the author, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.
Christmas Decorations originally appeared in Bards & Sages Quarterly.
The Good King originally appeared in Mirror Dance.
Shining in the East originally appeared in Seedpod.
Snow Angels originally appeared in Bent Masses.
Frost, While You Sleep and The Box of Special Decorations originally appeared as part of Loren Eaton’s Advent Ghosts.
Quicksilver’s Last Job originally appeared in Bards & Sages Quarterly.
a version of Midnight Mass originally appeared in Trapeze.
Oh, the weather outside is frightful... A collection of twelve short readings for the twelve days of Christmas. Christmas ghosts, the true story of Good King Wenceslas, alternative Christmas tree decorations and a meeting with a certain very jolly present-giver...