Today I have the pleasure of bringing you a Christmas-themed fairytale by our own Jani Grey. Jani not only wrote in third person point of view for the first time in this story, she also usually writes urban fantasy and steampunk, so I gave her a fairytale to see if we could bring out her more traditional magical side. Personally, I think she rocked it.
Pebbles in the Snow
by Jani Grey
In all of Hannah’s sixteen years of life, she’d only seen Nicklaus a handful of times, and even then it had mostly been flashes of red and white from behind the thick forest’s dark greens, browns, and shadows.
Although Nick never made any noise as he moved about the tightly packed trees, the villagers did hear the laughter of his elves. Shrill cackles that enforced the stories parents told their children to keep them out of the forest. Nick was nice enough, they said, his elves not so much.
But Nick needed food and he refused to come into the village.
“As much as he likes delivering presents to children,” Hanna’s mother told her, “he cannot stand the adults. He says that with the loss of their innocence, something darker takes root, even in the most devout.”
It was the reason children were sent in to the deliver the food, because Nick believed they still had that innocence. It was known that the same children were never sent in twice. Hanna’s brother Garret always wanted to know everything about everything, and had asked his parents about it. They’d simply told him it was adult business.
“You stay on the path, Hanna,” her mother said.
“I’ll stay on the path, keep the cart between us, and keep my eyes and ears open.”
She glanced over her shoulder to where her stepfather stood conferring with the other men of the village. A door opening and closing distracted Hanna, and she found Garret stepping out of their cottage-like house with scarves in his arms. The door slammed shut behind him, and their stepfather shouted an obscenity at him. Garret’s hands and teeth clenched at the words. Their mother turned her back to her husband while Garret wrapped one scarf around Hanna’s neck a few times then another around his own.
“Take this,” their mother said and surreptitiously shoved a heavy cloth bag into Garret’s pocket. “They’re pebbles, the shiny kind you find along the riverbed. If any of those elves step into the path, you hold it up for them to see then throw it into the trees. Searching for it among the snow will keep them busy. As long as you stay on the path and use the pebbles, you’ll be fine.”
Although this happened annually, both Garret and Hanna knew that every couple of years, two children were sent into the forest and only one came back. The adults always ignored it, saying it was the price they paid to keep Nick and his elves happy, and with that, keeping the rest of the world happy as well. The world needed some happiness.
Their stepfather approached them, and Garret put one hand in his pocket to cover the bulge from the bag of pebbles. He had the usual scowl on his face whenever he looked at the children. Garret returned the look, though kept his opinions to himself.
“Here,” the man said and handed Hanna a loaf of bread and a bottle of water. “Eat and drink it carefully, there’s a long walk ahead of you.” He mumbled something that sounded like good riddance and strutted away.
After one last hug from her mother, Hanna picked up the handle of the cart, and the siblings made their way into the cool, dark forest.
“Do you know what year this is?” Hanna said.
The cart was laden with various meats, cured and fresh, vegetables, rice, and an assortment of other edibles. It didn’t look like enough to keep Nick fed for a whole year, but who knew what kind of enchantments he worked.
“It’s the year when somebody doesn’t come back,” Garret said. “Do you think Stepfather orchestrated this? That we are the ones to deliver the food this year?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised. He’s a vile man. Mother knows it too, she’s just too set in her ways to do anything about it. We’re going to have to do something about it.”
Hanna had always thought of Nick’s forest as a magical place even though it was forbidden to her. Sometimes she would stand at the edge, just looking at the wall of foliage and drawing from the magic that lived inside it. The trees would bow to one side without the help of the wind sometimes. The birds would sing solely in another part of it. And it kept the elves contained.
“Garret. Garret, it’s looking at me,” she said.
He sprinted to the front and halted beside her. Garret dug one of the pebbles out of his pocked and held it up in the air. It caught a thin strip of light filtering through the trees, and the little elf cocked its head to one side.
They weren’t as scary to look at as they were to hear in the middle of the night. It resembled a small child, clean and dressed in dark brown and blue clothing and boots as protection from the snow. It stared at the pebble, enraptured by the shiny rock. Garret pulled his arm back and threw the pebble into the snow-covered trees. The elf screeched and bounded after it.
“Is it just me, or did that look like the McClellan’s boy? The one who got sent in about two years ago,” Garret said. He walked back and Hanna resumed pulling the cart down the path.
“I thought he seemed familiar. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“That Nick kidnaps the children to work for him? Then yes, I am thinking what you’re thinking. But why doesn’t McClellan look older? He should have been at least seventeen by now. He’s smaller than I remember too,”Garret said.
“Nick must be doing something to them. This is scaring me, Garret. I’d always thought it was the elves that were bad. But he’s making them bad, isn’t he? He’s going to take one of us and make us bad as well.”
“No he won’t. We’ll drop the food and run. We’re older and we know what to expect. We’ll be fine.”
The walk was tiring, and the deeper they moved, the darker it became. Both pulled out flashlights to light the path which had become narrower and bumpy. The elves continued their cackling and screeching, and Garret constantly kept the pebbles in his hands, clearing the path while they continued our journey. Twice they stopped to eat and drink the bread and water their stepfather had given them. Neither Garret nor Hanna dared to touch the food in the cart.
Night had fallen by the time the two reached the clearing that served as Nick’s home. They hid behind the trunk of a thick tree, peering out from behind it to marvel at what stood bathing in the moon’s light.
A house made of cookies. Or maybe ginger bread, if the smell permeating the area was anything to go by. The white roof resembled icing sugar decorated with gumdrops and the door’s frame was made up out of sugar canes. A light sprinkling of snow covered the grass, tiny footprints dotting the expanse.
“I’m really hungry, Garret. Think we can sneak up and eat some before we drop off the food? He won’t even notice, and we’ll need the energy for the trip home.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. What if one of the elves sees us?”
A few feet away from the delicious-looking house sat a two-storey building, lights ablaze, and Christmas songs blaring from an open window. Tethered to a post just outside it were nine reindeers. It looked like yuletide perfection, but none of this felt right, and the feeling had started digging in its claws when they’d seen McClellan.
“Somehow I don’t think they’d say anything. Quickly, come with me,”Hanna said.
They left the cart behind and skirted the edge of the tree line surrounding Nick’s homestead, staying in the shadows. When they reached the spot closest to the workshop, Hanna darted across the clearing to the closest window. Garret followed and peered through the opening with her.
Inside the building was alive with activity. Elves moved around everywhere, assembling, sorting, and wrapping packages and presents. Some were part of assembly lines, others scuttled around the floor with clip boards and pens. A massive gated fireplace took up one wall, the flames roaring, and two big piles of chopped wood stood on either side of it.
What seemed most out of place was the elves. While cheery music filled up the building, none of them were smiling, and even more peculiar, not a single one of them spoke a word.
“This isn’t right, is it?” Hanna said. They dropped into a crouched underneath the window, and pressed close against the wall.
“It’s not.” Garret’s mouth firmed into a thin line.
“What should we do? Because we have to do something. We can’t just leave them like this.”
“I don’t know, Hanna. We’ll figure it out.”
The siblings decided to let the dice fall and take what they were handed. In the dark of night they snuck back to where they had left the cart and pulled it onto the path.
Garret and Hanna emerged from the forest and walked to Nick’s front door. Their instructions were to park the cart, knock on the door, then leave a quickly as possible. Instead Garret moved half in front of his sister, knocked, and waited.
The door swung open. Nick seemed bemused to find the two of them still there. “My, my,” he said and stood aside. “Do come inside. You must be tired and hungry.”
Hanna and Garret shared a glance, hands gripping each other tight, then stepped inside.
Nick’s place was warm, merry, and decorated with Christmas goodies. Next to his small fireplace stood a table laden with all kinds of food, from dinner to dessert, snacks and sweets.
“Don’t eat anything,” Hanna whispered as Nick closed the door behind them.
“Which one of you will be staying for dinner?” the old man said. His big white beard moved as he smiled and held out a chair.
“Where do you get your elves from?” Garret demanded without preamble.
“Why? Are you interested? I’m short one female, but you’re a strapping lad, so I’m willing to compromise.”
Hanna’s fingers tightened around Garret’s. She stood on tiptoe and whispered, “This was a bad idea. We should go.”
Garret began backing them toward to the front door. Nick followed, the most pleasant of smiles on his face. They bumped into the door, and when Hanna reached back to pull it open, didn’t find it locked as expected.
She yanked it open and they stumbled outside. Gone was the pleasant, happy air surrounding the area. Gone was the music from the workhouse. And worst of all, gone was the path that had brought them there. Even if they ran into the forest, they would get lost and possibly die from exposure or never find their way out again.
“This way,” Garret rushed out and pulled his sister toward the open door of the workhouse.
He slammed the door shut as soon as they were inside. Work stopped, and all the elves ran to hide in the shadows or behind furniture. They really were scared of the pleasantly evil man rattling at the door.
“What do we do? What do we do?” Hanna muttered and scanned the room.
Garret put his hands in his pocket and pulled out the bag of pebbles. He withdrew one of them and tossed it into the air a few times. The elves all perked up at the sight of the shiny stone, and Garret got a speculative gleam in his eyes.
He sprinted to the burning stone fireplace and pulled the gate open. After throwing two armfuls of chopped wood into it and dropping a few on the floor in front of it, he returned and pulled Hanna to one side. Nick had gone from rattling the door handle to bumping against it with either a shoulder or a foot. For such a portly man, he had a surprising amount of strength in him.
The door splintered underneath his weight, broken pieces dangling on the hinges while others fell to the floor.
“Look what you made me do,” Nick said. His shoulders heaved from exertion and his face had a ruddy glow to it. “Both of you will stay here and work until the damage you’ve caused has been repaired.”
Garret and Hanna moved and Nick shadowed them. Garret pressed a few of the pebbles into Hanna’s hand and squeezed her arm once.
They stopped when Nick had his back to the open fireplace. He snapped his fingers and the elves slowly moved out from behind the furniture. The old man pointed a finger at Garret and Hanna. Most of the elves appeared hesitant. A barked command from Nick scared them into advancing on the children.
Garret held up a pebble, light from the fireplace and globes above glinting off it. The elves stopped and stared, enraptured by the sight. With a quick move, Garret nodded to his sister, and they threw their pebbles at Nick.
The old man caught them in his hands. The shiny stones so enamoured the elves that they chased after them. No less than fifteen elves ploughed into Nick. He stumbled backward, tripping over the few logs Garret had left scattered in front of the fire.
Nick fell into the fire, sparks and ash puffing into the air. Hanna darted forward and pulled the elves that had fallen in with him out by grabbing onto the back of their clothing. When she had the last one out, she swung the gate shut.
Hanna turned away from the sight, although the elves had no such compunction. Half of them stared at the fire while the other half searched the floor for stray pebbles. She took what Garret had left and threw it to them.
After a while things quieted down. Garret and Hanna stood in the middle of Nick’s workshop, his elves now staring at them as if waiting for instructions.
“Uh, Garret. What do we do now?” Hanna said.
“Well, we can’t just leave them like this, and there are gifts to make. So here’s my suggestion. You go back to the village and find out as much as you can about,” Garret waved a hand to indicate the workhouse, “this. I’ll stay here and… I don’t know, keep them corralled. Maybe put them back to work to keep them out of trouble. I don’t know, Hanna. We didn’t think this through. We should have thought this through.”
“What do you want me to tell mother?”
“Tell her nothing. You know how people ignore it when only one child returns. But I want you to volunteer to bring the food every year. Nobody wants to do that so they’ll let you go. We know that Stepfather has something to do with what happened here. We have time to try and figure it out.”
“What about you?”
“It looks like I’ll be taking over this year.”