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9 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – STEAMPUNK: My Brother’s Christmas Wedding by Bridget Shepherd

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I am so excited to be bringing you a steampunk Christmas story by the one and only Bridget Shepherd. I love steampunk, so I’ve been really excited about this one, and Bridget doesn’t disappoint. Although she usually writes sci-fi, fantasy and horror, Bridget kicks some clockwork ass in My Brother’s Christmas Wedding, so sit back and enjoy.
 


 
My Brother’s Christmas Wedding
by Bridget Shepherd
 
 
I slipped through the hive of bustling workmen rushing all manner of brass statues, figures and gears through the grand ballroom entrance without drawing more than a glance. Everyone here was fresh off the Fine Mechanical Services airship. They’d know my father and brother’s faces but not mine. Being the second son had its perks. It helped that I had dressed down in a black shirt and grey vest with matching slacks. At this time of day I should have been wearing an afternoon suit and jacket, preferably in brown or blue. Changing clothes four times a day had always seemed like a waste of time to me.

I ascended two flights of stairs and met Mrs. Mina Judson, the house staff overseer, on the mid-level balcony. My mother had asked me, without my father’s knowledge, to ensure that the decorations would be perfect for my brother’s Christmas wedding. Mina wouldn’t like this one bit. Sure enough, she wrinkled her nose when she saw me.

“Good afternoon to you too.” I smiled sardonically.

“Those mourning gloves give me the creeps, milord,” she said, staring at my hand like it might strangle her of its own accord.

“They’re not mourning gloves, Mina,” I said, though we’d been over this before. She’d been with the family since I was three and Martin five, and we were as close to friends as our stations allowed. “They’re work gloves. The black grease stains anything.”

“The Honorable Arthur St. Gale should not be wearing work gloves. On a lord, any black gloves look like mourning gloves.” She crossed herself superstitiously. “What’s milord’s fiancé going to think when she sees you in those?” She folded her arms over her well-worn mahogany corset and cream shirt.

“Good thing I haven’t got one then, isn’t it?” I grinned.

“As I heard it, you will soon enough.” It was her turn to grin.

“What in the world do you mean?” Please let her be kidding, I thought.

“Mr. Henley told me that Lord St. Gale has already drawn up a short list of suitable ladies. Lord Thornton will be married by December’s end. Milord will be married in the summer, no doubt.”

Lord Thornton was my brother Martin’s courtesy title as firstborn and heir to our father, the Earl of St. Gale and Viscount of Thornton. Mr. Henley was my father’s valet and the information was likely accurate. Me, engaged? I should have known this day was coming but it still hit me like an iron wall.

“If she doesn’t like them then she’s not the girl for me,” I managed to mumble, but the problem was so much deeper and more widespread than that. For one thing, I only felt that kind of attraction toward men. The enormity of my discontent with my lordly duties began to overwhelm me. I needed to do the one thing in my life that made sense to me. I needed to work on the machinery. “Anyway,” I said before Mina could say anything more on the subject, “mother asked me to personally oversee the installation of the mechanical decorations.” She made a face like she very much wanted to tell me that wasn’t a job for a man of my position, so I added, “You know my mother’s father dabbled in engineering and mechanics, and taught me what he knew. While you may find it unseemly, mother wants me to make sure the workmen don’t cut corners for Martin’s big day.”

“Begging Lady St. Gale’s pardon, I’m not the only one who finds it unseemly,” Mina said, “I can’t imagine them being very keen to work with you, milord. They’ll turn a cold shoulder as often as they can get away with.”

“What do you mean? Once I’ve shown them my skill shouldn’t they accept me?”

“It’s not about your skill, milord, it’s about your breeding. These workers would find me upscale while I’m decidedly middle class. The senior mechanics are upper working class and the junior mechanics and general laborers are lower. They’ll do their job because they have to put food on the table down below, but many of them resent your father and everything he stands for.”

“I’m not my father.” The venom in my voice surprised us both.

“I-I know,” she said, “I wouldn’t dare to talk about this with Lord St. Gale. Have I overstepped?”

“I’m sorry. No, I’d rather hear your thoughts.” I respected my father but on a bad day I’d call him a bloody tyrant under my breath.

“The fact is, they don’t know you, milord. Many of them have built up resentment, even rage coming from poverty down below. Many of these decorations,” she indicated the tall bronze statues and gold plated Christmas trees, “could feed their family for weeks, some even months. I’ve got a cousin down there who even I send money to when I can.”

I thought about it and frowned. “Frankly, I don’t know why we have so many expensive decorations, or a hundred sets of fine clothes for that matter. And I wish I understood large-scale economics, but I’m afraid I don’t.” I sighed.

“Milord really isn’t cut out to be a nobleman is he?” She smiled wryly.

An idea clicked into place like the last gear of a panel.

“You’re right,” I said, “that’s how I’ll do it.” I turned to leave.

“Milord?”
 
“I need to go talk to Jory. Thanks, Mina,” I said over my shoulder and trotted off.

*
 
Lucky for me, Mr. Jory Stedman, my father’s chief of security, had a soft spot for me. I explained that Mina felt my being a nobleman would get in the way of my mother’s task for me and therefore I had decided to go in disguise. I assured him that if my father found out what he was doing for me, he would blame me and not Jory. The next day Mina reluctantly introduced me to the supervising mechanic, Cole Ferris. Except I wasn’t the Honorable Arthur St. Gale anymore. I wore a mechanic’s uniform and my nametag read “Arthur Porter.”

“Mr. Ferris,” Mina said smoothly, showing no trace of the discomfort she must have been feeling, “might I introduce Arthur Porter. Here is his reference from Mr. Stedman.” She handed him a document stamped with the official wax seal. “He is a relative of Mr. Stedman who would be very much obliged if you would allow him to shadow your men. Of course, Mr. Stedman has made the arrangements for his wages. This will not deduct from your men’s existing pay in any way.”

“I won’t turn away extra help as long as he’s capable.” Ferris shrugged. “I reserve the right to show him the door if he gets in the way.”

Something passed over Mina’s features, I couldn’t be sure if she found the thought of him kicking me out unthinkably unseemly or unthinkably hilarious. Either way, she maintained her composure and said, “Of course.”

“Welcome aboard, Porter,” Ferris said and offered his gloved hand. A gentleman would have removed his glove before shaking but I appreciated not having to bother.

“Thank you, sir,” I said and gave him a firm gloved handshake. Mina must have been dying inside.

“I got Miller here shadowing me already,” Ferris said. A big gruff looking fellow behind him nodded to me, then glanced at Mina but didn’t acknowledge her. “He’s a transfer from an energy plant down below. So, you’re shadowing David Weldon.” Ferris turned to a man polishing brass figures a few feet away. “Oi, Carlson, grab that extra tool box and show Porter here to Weldon. Tell him he’s a local to shadow him. My authority.”

“Yes sir,” Carlson dropped his rag and rubbed his gloves on his pants. “How are ya?” He gave me a quick handshake. “It’s this way.” He turned to head off toward the small auditorium.

“Thank you for the introduction, Mrs. Judson,” I said to Mina.

She twitched. “You’re most welcome,” she said, swallowing the “milord.” Miller made a disgusted sound. I was beginning to think what Mina had said was true. He seemed to associate her with my father’s offices and didn’t find her worthy of thanks.

Carlson led me through the small auditorium. Despite its name, it still had space for both a dance floor and dining room seating for one hundred people. Mother had asked me to pay particular attention to this room as the groom’s banquet was to be held here next month and it was meant to be themed after Martin’s favorite Christmas decorations. I looked around furtively for estate servants who might recognize me but as I’d thought, I saw nothing but Fine Mechanical Services workmen. Relieved that my plan was not in danger of discovery, I took in the many works in progress all around the room.

On two sides men assembled eight foot tall nutcracker soldiers and mice. During dinner, a chamber orchestra would play a theme and they would spring to life and lumber across the dance floor, opening their mouths and raising their swords on cue. I knew because we’d had a much smaller set made by my grandfather which was among Martin’s favorites. Good for Mina for thinking of them.

Three giant brass Christmas trees with gold plated branches and tiers of rotating candle rings sat in various stages of completion. Elaborate flashing-candle arrays replaced the usual chandeliers. Everything was coming together nicely. I just wondered where the trains were. Martin had a fascination with trains that I didn’t think Mina would overlook for this occasion. I spotted a foot long brass train engine sticking out of a crate filled with train cars. It sat off to one side and a young man of similar age to Martin and I stood a few feet away working on an automatic meat slicer. He looked up when Carlson said “Hey, Weldon.”

The first thing I noticed about David was the warmth in his brown eyes. He shook my hand firmly as Carlson explained Arthur Porter’s situation in life.

“Great to have ya,” he said as Carlson left. “How’d ya like to get to work on setting up the punch bowl serving arm?” He said it with such enthusiasm that I smiled, knowing he shared my love for these machines.

“Would love it.”

I grinned and pulled the lid off of the labeled crate which was already on the temporary work bench. From the first piece I pulled out I saw the thing was a mess—just how I liked it. I vowed internally to get the thing working better than it had when it was new. David looked at the state of the punch bowl arm and then at me. Apparently satisfied, he got back to work securing the blades in the meat slicer. We worked in happy silence, the sounds of the fifty or so other workers providing cheerful background noise. The rusted iron in the arm’s joint began to pleasantly glide after a little spray and hammer. I recalibrated the spring loading action and had just finished applying a polish to the brass when David finished the meat slicer.

“That’s a great job ya done, Porter,” he said as we carried our machines over to the cooking appliances table. “It’s dinner time now. Would ya join us in the airship mess hall?”

“Thanks, but I’ve got other arrangements.” I wanted to go with him but I’d be missed at dinner and they weren’t getting paid any extra to feed another mouth.

“See ya tomorrow then?” He offered his hand.

We shook. “Wouldn’t miss it.”

*
 
I worked on cookware, serving ware and the odd automatic shoeshine machine the rest of November, until one day, three weeks into our time together, he asked for my help.

“Ya got a real eye for this work, Porter, maybe you can troubleshoot a little problem with me.”

“Bring it on.”

He led me over to the long neglected crate of trains.

“When I saw these trains on my list I knew I wanted them to run overhead here where Lord Thornton will be able to watch them while he’s dining. Seems trains are a favorite the lord and I share,” David said, gazing up at the ceiling like he could already see them chugging along in the air. This was the first time we’d talked about anything other than the machines. He hadn’t scoffed at my brother’s name. I wasn’t sure if that meant he didn’t hate the nobility or if he took such pride in his work that the art came first.

“That sounds like a wonderful idea,” I said. I knew Martin would love it.

“The problem is the fresco,” he said, pointing at the arches and angelic figures painted into this section of the high ceiling. “Can’t exactly drill holes in something like that.”

“Do you have any old train engines?” I asked.

“We have a few but nothing presentable for this kind of event.” David squinted at me like he was trying to read my mind about where this was going.

“That’s okay, they won’t be seen.” I grinned slyly. “Got any match-calibrated magnet boxes?” Grandfather had used them to put floating toys in our nurseries years ago.

David brightened. “If the middle attic above this room is accessible then you’re a genius.”

My face hurt from smiling so hard but I couldn’t stop. “I can get the key from Mr. Stedman.”

“Perks of knowing the local guy, eh?” He beamed at me and I realized that I liked this guy. Really, really liked this guy.

*
 
I went to Jory for the key and David went to get the magnet boxes from the airship. We met up at the door to the middle attic. It was nestled between the small auditorium and the guest rooms above. I felt like some damn kid sneaking around on Christmas night. I opened the latches, pulled a lever and the mechanical lighters brought all the wall candles to life. Boxes of summer decorations and sporting equipment were stacked two high on snaking rows of racks built up to the low ceiling.

“If these run the whole way we’re screwed,” David said.

“I haven’t been up here in years, but if I’m right, they don’t.” Everything looked so small now. The shelves were so tall when I was six years old and running amok anywhere and everywhere inside the estate walls.

We made our way through the maze of racks. As I had hoped, when we reached two thirds of the way through, the shelves ended. The rest of the room was like a ghost from my past. Illuminated by two small windows on the right, each chair, sofa and table was covered with a dusty white sheet but they were all exactly where I remembered them.

“When I was a child,” I said, “there were many live-in servants who had children. I used to play in here on rainy days.” I didn’t add that my father had forbidden me to and my mother had covered for me. My mother’s father had been possessed of some unusual views when it came to just about everything, including whether a gentleman should wear greasy work gloves from time to time, and whether or not a nobleman’s child should be allowed to associate with servant children.

“Hell’s bells, this is a common servant’s living room? Not just for the butler’s family or something?” David lifted a few sheet corners and whistled at the fine furniture.

“Is it not like this on other sky cities?”

“They call St. Gale a prize catch for an honest servant,” David said. “They say Lady St. Gale has a soft spot for her servants. Seeing this I believe it.”

Pride swelled in my chest at my mother’s kindness.

“And… none of your family or friends ever caught hell from Lord St. Gale then?” David looked at me like he wasn’t sure he should even be broaching the subject.

“I tend to fly under his radar these days,” I said wryly.

David blinked at me. “Is it not true then? Rumor is that any servant caught stealing, even food, loses a hand before he’s turned over to a jail down below. The lady’s the carrot and the lord’s the rod, they say.”

I went cold in the clammy attic. My father, have a man’s hand cut off?

“I-I don’t know anyone it’s happened to, anyway. No one talks about it.” Doubt formed a knot in my stomach.

“Sorry to ask,” David said. “Truth is, I’ve been penning a list of injustices.” He looked embarrassed. “I don’t rightly know what I’ll do with them, who I’d give them to, but I think people ought to talk about these things. The lords ought to abide by a kind of justice that’s fair. I try and get at least two people with firsthand knowledge of an injustice before I add it to the list. No sense writing up some bloody list of rumors.”

“Wow.” I was struck speechless. David Weldon, charismatic mechanic. David Weldon, man of fairness and justice. “You-You’re amazing.”

He turned beet red. “I don’t know.”

“I’d propose to you on the spot if I could,” I blurted, then flushed too.

David chuckled. “At least we could confirm whether Lord St. Gale punishes for that.”

“What would he chop off then?” I laughed.

David’s face fell.

“Wait, you’re not telling me…”

He nodded gravely. “It’s confirmed on St. Risden.”

I went pale.

“I know, no man wants to think of that, but it’s a real danger for some men,” he said quietly, and I saw then that he was like me.

“David,” I said, realizing I’d been thinking of him by his first name all along.

He caught the tone in my voice. “Then you’re..?” he asked barely above a whisper.

“Not only am I a man who loves other men, but I’m also Arthur St. Gale. The Earl’s second son. I’m a nobleman in love with mechanics. And I’m in love with you, David Weldon.”

David gaped at me and I steeled myself for rejection. I saw my mechanics career crashing and burning. It could never have lasted anyway, I thought.

But then, David kissed me.

*
 
After taking—ahem—far longer than necessary in that old middle attic, we had the magnet boxes installed in the tops of the shiny brass train sets and in the bottoms of the motley train engines. We left the latter running on a track and returned to the small auditorium with the former. Using a wooden ladder, I held up each engine until the matching engine passed by overhead and the magnet boxes zeroed in on each other. All in all we had five rings of train sets each floating along in the opposite direction of the one next to it.

“It’s perfect!” David shouted.

I grinned and almost fell off the ladder.

*
 
Mid December was upon us, and that meant David switched from fixing machines and designing displays to checking over the work that the junior mechanics had done without direct senior supervision. Not being an official Fine Mechanical Services workman, I wasn’t allowed to officially grade anyone so David gave me some homework.

A decoration’s interior would be designed and assembled in part on the airship and then matched with the gold plating and other fine pieces which belonged to and were kept here at the estate. This way the internal mechanics could actually be improved from year to year. My assignment was to compare a list of components and their respective weights with the weight that the preassembled pieces had been logged as when they were brought in for final assembly here at the estate. Of course, David expected them all to match up, this kind of comparison was only routinely done on parts made outside of Fine Mechanical Services, but since I had never performed such an examination before he considered it good practice for my future. Sweet that he thought I had a future in mechanics.

When I got to the grand Christmas tree directly behind the podium where my father would give his speech to Martin, I found a large discrepancy. I called David over.

He frowned. “You actually found something?”

“The spinning mechanism in the midsection of the tree is unaccountably heavy, look.” I pointed out the figures in the documentation.

“It must be some kind of upgrade. Maybe an extra stabilizer?”

“There’s another grand Christmas tree near the door.” I ran my thumb down the page until I found its figures. “Why upgrade only one?”

David sighed. “No dinner for us then. We’ll check it out after everyone’s left for the day.”

*
 
He went back and finished his examinations of the juniors’ work and at the end of the day when everyone had cleared out for dinner we both went hungry and opened up that sucker.

Doing so saved my father’s life. The middle spinning mechanism had been replaced with a time-bomb set to go off at the exact time my father was scheduled to be in the middle of his speech.

“My God,” I said. “What do we do?”

“Close it slowly,” David said. “And we’ll call the King’s explosive experts.”

Before I could, a slot that had read “set” flicked to a red panel that read “tamper.”

“Damnation!” David scrambled for a tool kit. The clock that had been ticking normally sped up and up, ringing in my ears.

“Have you done this before?” I asked hopefully.

He stuck a screw driver in the status slot and pulled it back to “set,” then to “off.” “Hold this,” he barked. I grabbed the handle from him and held it firm against the machine’s resistance. David sprayed an instant-dry fixative into a vent in the front of the bomb.

The ticking slowed.

And stopped.

“Oh God, thank God,” I gasped.

“Never,” he said.

“What?”

“I’ve never done that before.” He looked at me with a twitchy smile.

“Oh God.” We both laughed in hysteria.

Once we had composed ourselves, David and I closed the tree back up like nothing had happened and quietly took the matter directly to Mr. Stedman. David researched who had been assigned to that piece of the tree and it turned out to be Mitch Miller, the new guy shadowing Ferris. Somehow Miller had found out that we knew and was caught a few hours later trying to leave the city by trash barge. One of the King’s own explosives experts would be in the next morning to dispose of the device and take a sniffer dog around to check for any other explosives.

Mr. Stedman was called in to give an account to my father and, inevitably, David and I were named as his saviors and my whole charade was exposed. He called us to him separately. David would see him in his official receiving room and I would be sent into his study like the child he still considered me to be. Mother met with me in the adjoining library before I was to see him.

“He thanked your friend properly,” she told me, “your case is obviously more complicated.” She smiled sympathetically.

“Exposed because I saved his life. Good grief, the irony.” I groaned.

“What are you going to do with yourself, Arthur?” she asked, straightening my tie and tucking it back into my vest. “How are you going to have a happy future under your father’s thumb?”

“How do you have a happy life under his thumb?” I quipped.

“Your father has his problems,” she replied, “but he’s a smart enough man not to try to rule his wife the way he tries to rule his sons. Don’t worry about me, I have a happy life.”

I looked into her wise hazel eyes and believed her. “Does father chop off the hands of thieves before he sends them down below to jail?”

Her expression saddened. “Legally, he has the right. There’s nothing I can do besides try to counsel mercy.”

“And Martin? Will he continue that practice when he is Earl?”

“Oh, no. I’ve taught my boys better than that.”

Well, that was something at least. “And what would you recommend for my life then? The priesthood?” I asked somewhat feverishly.

“Why don’t you join Fine Mechanical Services?”

“Wha-” I sputtered.

“I looked it up,” she continued, smoothing the collar of my jacket. “Your father can’t disinherit you legally under the crown unless you commit a crime. Joining Fine Mechanical Services is not a crime. Just don’t tell him about your boyfriend.”

I sputtered some more and stared at her incredulously.

“I’m your mother,” she said in the same matter-of-fact tone, “I know everything.”

I shut my mouth and tried not to turn red.

“Stand up, shoulders straight.” She clapped me on the back. “Go in and face your father.”

I took a deep breath and entered my father’s study. I spoke to him frankly for the first time in my life.

*
 
Needless to say, my father was infuriated, but not enough to cancel Martin’s wedding. It helped that, as much as he considered my choice in career a wasteful embarrassment and mar on the St. Gale name, I had just saved his life. I told him not to worry about the mar. I was happy to keep the name Arthur Porter and leave my identity as Arthur St. Gale a secret until it suited me to reveal myself. Arthur St. Gale would be a target and I couldn’t put David in danger. As far as the servants of the house knew, Arthur St. Gale was going away to study business economics. And for all I knew, my father would actually pay tuition to a university to keep up the ruse. I couldn’t have cared less.

*
 
Christmas week was a wonderful success. Martin loved the trains, and the day after the groom’s banquet, he invited David and me to see him privately.

“Thank you for coming, and again for the trains.” He shook our hands, gloves off this time. “Mother’s told me everything and I wanted to tell you personally that you have my support. There are many areas where I agree with my mother rather than my father, and I hope you’ll feel more at home in St. Gale in ten or fifteen years when father’s retired and I take on the earldom.”

“Thanks, Martin,” I said and hugged him for the first time since we were kids. “I’m sorry we haven’t spent more time together as adults.”

“We’re on different paths, little brother.” He clapped me on the back, another trait he got from mother. “I’ll find a way to write to Arthur Porter, don’t worry about that.”

“I’ll count on it.”

“Lord Thornton, if I may,” David said and withdrew a folded envelope from his jacket pocket. “I took the liberty of copying you this list of injustices I have discovered in my travels around the kingdom. They are something a man of integrity like milord ought to be aware of.”

“David tries to get two firsthand witnesses before he adds anything to that list,” I added, and nodded for Martin to take it.

“Thank you for entrusting me with this list, Weldon,” Martin said solemnly as he took the envelope from David.

*
 
On Christmas Day, after the wedding and after Martin and his new bride had departed for their honeymoon on a luxury aircruiseship, David and I met in our cozy little middle attic. To our surprise, mother had furnished it like a bedroom, complete with candles and flower petals.

“She went overboard.” I rolled my eyes and blushed.

“It’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen,” David said, beaming.
“I should be grateful,” I said, becoming pensive. “Who knows the next time we’ll be able to safely sleep in a bed together.”

“Let’s enjoy it, worries are for the morning.” David sat down on the edge of the bed. “But before that, know this, Arthur. I love you. I’ll never tell your secrets, and you can always rely on me as a reference for your mechanical skills.”

“I love you too, David Weldon.”

***
 


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10 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – ROMANTIC COMEDY: Cherry Pie by Meghan Schuler

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People, today I bring you something truly special. Meghan Schuler – writer of horror and mystery – has created a ROM COM for your reading pleasure. A ROMANTIC COMEDY. AND THERE’S MUSIC. This, Meghan informs me, is the second song Emmy dances to.
 
(She hated me for this, by the way. You’re welcome.)
 


 
Cherry Pie
by Meghan Schuler
 
 
“You did what?” Livy asked, her mouth hanging open. I blushed and turned away, my face hot. I hated blushing. I always looked like a lobster and every time I thought I was over the blush, I’d just blush more.
 
She pushed my shoulder when I didn’t answer and I buried my face in my coffee.
 
“I don’t believe it. That’s so unlike you!”
 
“I wanted to surprise him,” I muttered, the coffee scorching my tongue. Great, so I’d look like a lobster and not be able to taste food for a week.
 
“Oh, he’ll be surprised all right,” Livy said, sitting back in her chair. She shook her head at me, grinning in disbelief. “Is this after your big dinner?”
 
“It’s not a big dinner,” I said, probably for the millionth time. Just because Connor and I have been dating for a year doesn’t make it a big dinner.”
 
“Um, Emmy? Yeah, it does. This is your first serious relationship. You two were made for each other!”
 
I pulled my cup away from my face, looking at Livy with uncertainty. “Are you sure?”
 
She rolled her eyes, tossing her stick-straight brown hair over her shoulder.
 
“Seriously? You met at a bookstore. You both like reading. And the History Channel. And… whatever else you bookworms do. Look, he’s got a good job, he’s a nice guy, he’s got that nerd-cute thing working for him. You’re set, sweetie pie.”
 
I dropped my elbow onto the table and my chin into my hand. “What if he hates it?”
 
“Laugh it off! Have you two even—“
 
“Livy!” I hissed, the blush returning.
 
“Well?”
 
I pushed back from the table and slumped. “I mean… yeah. I guess.”
 
“You guess? You have or you haven’t.”
 
“Yes. But then we agreed to not get each other gifts, and now I feel awkward,” I said, blowing a lank strand of hair out of my face.
 
“I doubt he’ll be getting you the same thing this year,” Livy said, smirking.
 
“I hate Christmas.”
 
“Oh, you do not. Come with me. We’ll getcha something nice picked out for your dinner.”
 
I let Livy pull me out of my chair, scooping up my coffee cup with my free hand. I hadn’t bothered unbuttoning my coat and I was warm as the cold wind greeted us at the door. I might not hate Christmas, but I did hate snow. As we crunched our way into the shops, thoughts of last Christmas flooded back to me, the awful music and the first time I’d met Connor.
 
I had just jabbed the speaker in the ceiling with a broom to turn the slow, irritating “classic” of ‘Frosty the Personified Snowman” off. I missed and punched a hole in the tile. A throat cleared behind me and I jerked the broom down, sending a shower of white dust down on the man below. I scrambled down the ladder.
 
“I am so sorry,” I said, hands twitching uselessly. I wanted to brush the dust off, but thought it’d be too invasive. The guy took care of it.
 
“I’m looking for the classic literature section. I think I keep getting turned around,” he said, pushing his glasses back on his nose.
 
He was only a few inches taller than I was, with short sandy-blonde hair, thick squared glasses, and a lop-sided grin. I thought I was going to melt into a puddle at his feet.
 
I managed to nod, cursing myself as I turned away from him. Get it together, Emmy.
 
“Um, it’s right over here. We’re rearranging for the holiday season and it just got a bit out of hand,” I stammered. “Was there a particular book you were looking for?”
 
“Sense and Sensibility.”
 
“Oh, really?” I asked, unable to keep the surprise out of my voice. He just blinked.
 
“Yes, for my Austen class. It’s not that I don’t have it, it’s just that my copy is basically a mess of sticky notes and annotations. It’s a bit difficult to read like that.”
 
“Here’s the classic. And your Austen,” I said, pulling the book off the shelf.
 
“Actually, I’m Connor,” he said, laughing. He held out his hand.
 
I handed him the book and immediately looked away. I really was about to melt.
 
“Emmy,” I said. Of all things, I bobbed a curtsey. It was all I could do to keep a straight face.
 
Connor just laughed again, taking the book. “Thank you.”
 
“Was there anything else?”
 
“No, this is it. Is the register at the front?”
 
“Yeah, follow me,” I said, still not looking at him as I walked back to my counter.
 
He stayed behind me, picking his way around stacks of books, the soft soles of his shoes whispering along the carpet.
 
“It’s quiet in here. Are you the only one working tonight?”
 
“I’m the only one ever working. It’s my book shop,” I answered, stepping up to the till.
 
Connor’s brows were raised. He was impressed. I couldn’t hide the little grin that hung on my lips.
 
“What do I owe you?”
 
“Nothing. Take it.”
 
“I can’t just take it,” he said.
 
“Yes, you can. I won’t take your money.”
 
“How about coffee then? Let me buy you a drink.”
 
And that was that. We’d spent just about every day of the last year together, in person or on the phone. I smiled just thinking about it, ignoring Livy’s tug at my arm was she pulled me into a store.
 
Livy shoved something at me, spun me around and pushed me into a curtain before I realized it wasn’t a curtain, but the fitting room.
 
“Hey, wait, what?” I stammered, tripping into the small chair in the room.
 
“Put it on. Where’s Connor taking you anyway?”
 
“Nowhere you’d ever go,” I answered.
 
“Ugh, upscale or lowbrow?”
 
“Middle of the road? It’s a cafe.”
 
Livy huffed. “Can we agree on a nice dress?”
 
“Are you kidding? It’s freezing!”
 
“Tights, Emmy. That’s what tights are for. And cute coat,” she said.
 
I looked at the dress. It was orange.
 
“I hate orange, Livy.” I thrust the dress out at her and she took it, shoving another hanger into my hands.
 
“Get some color, Em. You’re not an octogenarian.”
 
“I like black, okay!”
 
“Take the dress, Em.”
 
I did, the fabric rustling past the curtain. It was a short wine-colored cocktail dress, small beads and crystals running along the neckline and down the skirt.
 
“Holy hell, Livy, I can’t afford this!”
 
“My treat. I don’t know about you, but I want Connor’s eyes to pop out of his head when he sees you.”
 
“He’ll see me, all right,” I muttered, slipping the dress on. The burgundy fabric tumbled over me and swished at my feet. It fit like a dream.
 
As if on cue, Livy batted the curtain away. I spun in surprise, the dress flowing out as I turned.
 
“Damn, Emmy, that dress was made for you!” she exclaimed, motioning for me to spin for her.
 
I did, trying to avoid my own eyes in the mirror.
 
“This is too much,” I began, but Livy cocked a hip and silenced my argument.
 
“It’s perfect. We’re buying it. You’ll wear it if I have to come over and dress you myself. Actually, I am coming over to dress you myself,” she declared, snapping the curtain back into place.
 
I let the gown slide off my shoulders into a ridiculously expensive puddle, pulling on my clothes and my wool pea coat. I handed Livy the dress, avoiding her eyes.
 
“What? Don’t you like it?” she asked, draping the dress over one arm and hooking mine with the other.
 
“I do like it. It’s just… not me,” I said.
 
“I saw your face light up, Emmy. Besides, you wanna talk about things that ‘aren’t you?’” She smirked at me and the flush returned. Livy paid for the dress, gave me the bag, then shoved me back out into the snow. As she said, we had work to do.
 
###
 
Connor beamed at me when I opened the door. I smiled back, sheepish. Livy was hiding in my bathroom. She’d spent three hours curling, twisting, pinning and painting me, and the end result wasn’t as terrible as I’d feared. There was no way my hair would stay this perfect once I walked out the door, but my pale pink lipstick and jet black eyeliner had me feeling more confident that I’d had in years.
 
“You look amazing,” Connor said, giving me a soft kiss on the cheek.
 
“You look dashing as well,” I answered. I straightened his tie. What were couples supposed to do when presenting themselves all dressed up?
 
He offered me his arm and I took it, grabbing my bag off the couch. As soon as the door to my apartment closed, I heard Livy leave her hiding place. Call me crazy, but I’m positive the crashing and thumbing meant she was doing her happy dance.
 
The restaurant was warm and rich with the scent of spices and sweets. Icicle lights hung from every window and jazzy swing versions of carols played softly beneath the whisper of voices. Connor pulled my chair out for me and I pressed the backs of my knees against it, a flutter of worry coming over me as I practiced for what I was going to do in a few short hours.
 
I hadn’t realized Connor had been talking to me and I snapped my attention to him, a stupid grin on my face.
 
“You didn’t hear a word I said, did you?” he asked.
 
“No, sorry. I’m just a little nervous.”
 
He wrinkled his brow, hiding a smile. “Why?”
 
“I’ve never done this couple thing before and Livy talked up the fact that it’s our anniversary, and there’s all this Christmas stuff going on and—“
 
“Emmy, you have nothing to worry about,” he said, reaching across the table to take my hand.
 
I let out my breath in a huff, trying to relax. “I’m not used to this.”
 
“We’ll learn together. Now, do you want to hear my news?”
 
I nodded.
 
“I’m graduating early. I’m officially a professor,” he said, beaming.
 
My smile mirrored his. “Really? Connor, that’s wonderful!”
 
“No more thesis papers, no more courses, and lots more time with you,” he said. The nervous flutter returned, joined by a warmth that took the edge off a bit.
 
“I know we said we wouldn’t exchange gifts this year, but I did get you something,” he said, a blush creeping up his neck. He reached into his coat and pulled out a thin box, wrapped in red paper. He pushed it across to me and nodded.
 
I tore open the paper, the velvet box inside as black as my dress. A silver bracelet rested on the white cushion, “My heart is and always will be yours” engraved in script.
 
“Sense and Sensibility,” I said.
 
“I thought it fitting. You remind me a lot of Elinor.”
 
I blushed. Elinor, the practical, logical one. After tonight, I might be slated for Maryanne.
 
Dinner didn’t last long because soon the meal was over, the time flown by with talk of school, and life, and our future—together—and I swear I turned green, the flutter now a fully-fledged dragon tearing at my resolve. It didn’t help that when we’d stepped back into my apartment, a metal folding chair was set up in my living room.
 
I muttered an excuse and flew into my bedroom, only to find my outfit laid out for me with a cheeky note from Livy. I took off my dress, staring at the red robe and stockings on my bed, then at the pajamas on my chair.
That damn red robe fit like a glove. I leaned over my vanity, staring at myself in the mirror. I could do this. Connor and I had agreed not to exchange gifts, but it didn’t count if I was the present. He’d get to unwrap me. When you’re the only naked woman in the room, you’re the only naked woman in the room. It’s not like we hadn’t seen each other naked before. I’d closed the bedroom door before I’d even realized I’d left.
 
Connor was sitting on the couch, his attention transferring to me as I drew the red feathered boa off the table and wrapped it around my arms. I arched a brow at him and turned the music on, Go to Sleep Little Baby drifting over the room.
 
I marched forward, toe to heel, swaying my hips with my steps. So far, so good. I wasn’t on my ass on the floor. I could do this. The heels clicked on the tile, the sound of my stomp loud in the kitchen. I let the boa fall, looking over my shoulder as I turned. I turned back, bringing the boa over my head, then running it across my body, my hips swinging in time to the music. I traced a line from my ankle up, trying to keep my eyes locked on Connor.
 
I couldn’t tell if he wanted to laugh, and I turned my head, flinging on end of the feather boa over my head to catch it in my other hand. My heels clicked as I shimmied, the odd sensation of various body parts jiggling renewing my self-consciousness.
 
It’s all about confidence, I reminded myself, wrapping my leg over the boa, the feathers ghosting across my skin and I dragged it up and around my neck, giving it a sassy flick as the verse ended.
 
The feathers stuck to my lipgloss as it wrapped it from my neck, setting it on the floor. I stuck my butt out and came up, squishing the boobs together for extra cleavage, my hands untying the robe. I rolled my shoulders and let it slide off, kicking it away. The over bust corset was striped like a candy cane, my bloomers red and frilly and the garter holding up my white stockings. The first part was easy. The next part would test my resolve.
 
Connor’s eyes grew wide and his mouth opened as if to speak, but I turned away. Unpinning my hair, I let the curls Livy had worked so hard to craft fall to my shoulders. The next song, the song the chair was for, was much much dirtier. The guitar strums of “Swoon” propelled me to my chair, and I pressed my knees against it, sliding down to sit. Rising Appalachia crooned lyrics about chocolate sauce and marmalade, and I leaned back, my arm brushing through my hair before I bent to run it up my leg. I shifted in the chair, drawing my leg up before stepping over, planting my knee on the chair.
 
I circled my hip, movements slow, melting from step to step. I moved around the chair, my hips going wide in what my teacher had called a ‘big-ass hip circle.’ I gripped the chair behind my back and sank down, rising and stepping past it.
 
Connor was leaning back into the couch now, the same uncertain smile on his face. I hid my swallow of nerves as I turned, once again tracing a line from my ankle to my inner thigh. This next part started the train of things Emmy was definitely not comfortable with.
 
I moved my hips in a figure-eight, my hands moving up along my body to tangle in my hair before I dropped, facing Connor at an angle. I parted my legs just enough to give a good, solid hint of just how this whole thing might end. I planted my foot on the chair, drawing it in.
 
My hand ran up my ankle toward my inner thigh before I straddled it. My nerves flared, but I did the chest circles on beat, preparing to twist my legs to the side and straddle the chair backward. The chair rocked, my butt sliding off the edge. I hooked my legs over the back, the chair tipping as I tried to rebalance. I was glad Connor was behind. I’m sure my expression was hilarious, my eyes wide as I feared I’d topple over. I gripped the sides of the chair and leaned back, my legs in the air. My curls caught under my back and I shook my head to free them.
 
I scissored my legs. Almost done. I could do this. I parted my legs, spread-eagle and scooted up, using the back of the chair as leverage. I turned back and planted my hand on the tile, cartwheeling my legs over.
 
Sit up gracefully, Emmy.
 
I pushed off, and the chair shot out from under me, depositing me awkwardly on the floor. Mortification came over me and I tried to school my features, but it was too late. Connor sat forward, and I had to diffuse the situation before it all went to hell.
I popped the stays on my corset. Gratuitous boobs solved everything. I hoped to whatever burlesque goddesses there were that my peppermint pasties had stayed on. I leaned back on my arm, the other resting on the curve of my hip as the last cords faded out. Sure enough, a pop and one of the pasties flopped to the floor.
 
Connor stared at me a moment, brows knit in concern. Then a smile inched across his face and he burst into laughter. I curled up, shielding my chest with one arm and turned away, trying to hide my face. He got off the couch, crouching down beside me. He wrapped his arms around me, still laughing.
 
“Stop it,” I muttered.
 
“Why? It was amazing,” he said.
“It was not. It was supposed to be sexy and cute and I wanted to surprise you, and I messed it all up.”
 
“Emmy, it was great. You were great. And I am surprised,” he added, picking up my fallen pasty.
 
“You’re just saying that,” I said. “You’re laughing at me.”
 
“I’m not laughing at you, Em. What’s the use of being in a relationship if we can’t laugh together? I loved it, and I love you,” he said. He turned me around me kissed me, his hands tangling in my hair.
 
Connor had never said he loved me before, and I dropped my arms and wrapped them around his back, wanting to say it back my tongue was too preoccupied with other things. He was still grinning when he pulled away.
 
“Maybe you can start a weekend class at your bookshop. Bookworm Burlesque,” he suggested.
 
I shook my head, my embarrassment turning to into humor at last. “I think I’ll keep the strip tease isolated to the apartment.”
 
“In that case,” he said, fingers slipping beneath the other peppermint. He tossed it to the floor, the sparkly disk hitting the couch. “In that case, I think I can finish unwrapping this gift on my own.”
 



12 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – CRIME FICTION: All I Want For Christmas by Greer M. Robinson and Melissa Petreshock

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Just 12 days until Christmas! Today I bring glad tidings and a gruesome present in the form of a Christmas Crime fest courtesy of two lovely ladies. Check out Greer M. Robinson and Melissa Petreshock on Twitter. Melissa is one of the best people you’ll ever meet; Greer is a young author, like me, and I think she absolutely nailed this. Show her some encouragement and love, peoples. I know I can count on you.
 


 
All I Want For Christmas
by Greer M. Robinson and Melissa Petreshock
 
 
“She’s not fucking here! What the hell do I do?”
 
“Are you sure the plane isn’t late?” I ask and nudge a full cup of percolator coffee around on the diner counter.
 
“No! I just forgot to mention it was delayed four hours,” Marge snaps.
 
“Okay. And you tried calling her?” I guide Marge through some logic. Someone has to keep his cool.
 
“Every minute! Jesus, the customer service desk has been paging for almost an hour, and I’m still running around looking for her. What are you doing?”
 
A waitress pops out of the kitchen, opening her mouth to ask if I want anything, but decides against it. “Waiting for Dan at Jay’s. I told you he has a twelve hour layover on the way to Indonesia and we’re going to the range.”
 
“I can’t find Kirstie and you’re going to play with man toys?”
 
“Maybe she missed the flight and her phone died.” Chances are Kirstie’s sitting in Chicago O’Hare in her leggings, purple neon leg warmers, and boots. Now that it’s cold she’d have stopped running as much, sporting an oversized sweater to blanket what she calls lumps. Bumming over her dead iPhone and forgotten charger, I’m sure slumping in those black covered airport seats, impatiently waiting for a lady from the gate desk to squeeze her onto another flight isn’t improving her mood either. “So she’s getting a hotel, or she’s already on another flight and her phone’s off.”
 
“Mark. Her bags are here. The stewardess told me she’s on the flight manifest.”
 
“Marge, honey, listen to me. Let’s assume she landed and someone else didn’t board the plane with her ticket. It means she left in a rush.” It’s all too easy to imagine her running out of the airport, mousy hair flying around those glasses she begged for after that pop country singer brought them back from the eighties.
 
“I swear to God if Jackson convinced her to come to his house I’ll—”
 
“Now, hon, don’t make me come out of retirement just to arrest you. Why don’t I swing by and see if she’s there as soon as Dan gets here. Just try to remember she’s engaged to Jackson.”
 
“I’d rather try to forget,” Marge snorts. “We’re not done talking about that either. Don’t you come back without her!”
 
The bell hanging above the diner door dings. In all these years, Dan still hasn’t changed, all slick business attire and buzzed hair. He clutches a box wrapped in Christmas theme paper, fitting in with much of the diner’s cliché Santa statues and white paper snowflakes.
 
“I know. I’ll call you when I’m at Jackson’s. Bye, hon.”
 
Dan sets the box, complete with a red reflective bow, on the counter, and I throw my arm around his shoulder. “It’s been way too long, man. How’s the Bureau treating you?”
 
“Considering you left me your position, I’m doing better than I ever could have.”
 
I’ll be damned if Dan ever owns up to any of his accomplishments. The boy’s humble to the end. “You’ve made it your own, I’m sure. You know you can always call me with questions, even the dumb ones. I never judged you, not once.”
 
“Thank you. I’ll keep that in mind. How’s the family?”
 
“Oh, good. Actually, I’ve got a little something I need to take care of. Kirstie came home from winter break today.”
 
“University of Chicago, correct?”
 
“Yeah. She’s only got one more semester. Marge is all in a twist, though, ‘cause she can’t find Kirstie at the airport and thinks she slipped away to her fiancé’s house.”
 
“Fiancé? When did that happen?”
 
“Oh, here about a year ago, I guess. Jackson’s a great guy, got his heart in the right place and all, but Marge just doesn’t like him. I promised I’d swing by his house and see if she’s there, but you can stay and have a cup of something.”
 
“It’s not a problem at all. I’ll come if you don’t mind—haven’t seen Kirstie since your retirement party.” Dan tucks the present under his arm and I slug down the last of my coffee, leaving a five under it.
 
“Sheesh, she’s a grown woman now. Sharp, too. She’ll remember your face just from that party.”
 
“She will,” Dan says, smiling. “I’m sure she will.”
 
#
 
“Well,” I say and shut off the grumbling engine. “This ‘ere’s the place.”
 
We both pile out of the truck—I didn’t trust that rental of his to handle to snow and hill up to Jackson’s—and hesitate crossing the white banked road. The two story bungalow is light up with Christmas strands round the porch rim, and the drawn curtains expose an ornamented tree through the front window.
 
“Lovely home.”
 
“Like I said, Jackson’s a solid man.” We cross the road and head up the drive, past the SUV. Least someone’s home. “I got no problem with ‘em.”
 
I knock on the door, and Jackson opens it within seconds, wiping his hands on his jeans. Kirstie always says he’s ruggedly handsome.
 
“Mr., Mr. Adams I wasn’t expecting you, if I’d know I’d—”
 
“Calm down, son,” I say. “I’m just dropping by.”
 
“C-come in, please. They say it’s the coldest day in fifty years.”
 
“I heard that.” Dan and I shed our jackets in the coat hall, leave them on a bench. Right inside is a cozy living room, a sofa and matching chair creating a sitting area with a crackling fireplace and luminous tree across from them.
 
“I was just about to make some espresso—would either of you like one?”
 
“I just had some, but thank you. Oh, sorry, this is Dan Harper, my trainee when I was back at the Bureau.”
 
“Nice to meet you,” Dan says and they shake hands. “Thank you, but I’m avoiding caffeine for the nerves.”
 
“I’ll just put one on for myself, then.” Jackson slips through a door next to the staircase, into the dated kitchen, and we crash on the couch.
 
Marge would never stand to live here, never stand for Kirstie to live here. She couldn’t imagine having one of those old white fridges or yellow laminate countertops, and God forbid a beautiful hand carved coffee table like this one. Something still so close to the outdoors would flare up her allergies.
 
“That’s how they fell in love, Kirstie and Jackson. Coffee. A new place opened up in town some years back and he was working it, made Kirstie the best damn espresso ever. No more percolator for her. Turned out he owns the entire shop, started a business and everything. Marge thinks it’ll go under, but I say it’s steady. Nothing like good Joe.”
 
“Interesting.” Dan’s mouth don’t even open as he says it. He pulls at the bow on top of that present. I bet it’s something he can’t leave out in the cold.
 
Jackson returns and perches on the air chair, no coffee. His eyes shift between us, settling on me as he fidgets with a throw over the arm of the chair.
 
“Jackson, I’m just looking for Kirstie. Marge went to the airport to pick her up, but she’s not there. Did she split and come here?”
 
“No, no sir. I haven’t seen her since September when she went back to school.”
 
“You know I’m fine with it,” I sigh. “The engagement. You’re a good kid. I just want to know she’s here. That’s all. Marge’s blood pressure is about to lose it.”
 
“She’s not here, I swear! She really isn’t at the airport? Where is she?”
 
The espresso maker dings and Jackson jumps up. “Oh, I’m sure she’s around. Probably just lost. You mind showing me how to work one of them espresso things? I’ve always wanted to learn.”
 
“No, um, it’s really easy. That was the noise for the water finished heating. I’ll show you real quick.”
 
Inside the tiny kitchen, I step away from in front of the door, out of sight. Bringing Dan along probably wasn’t the best way to make Jackson come out with it. “Is she here?”
 
“No, sir. She’s not.” Steam rises out of the espresso maker. “Sir, there’s something I have to—”
 
Jackson jerks forward, mouth wide open with a strangled, gargling sound, and keels over. He hits the wooden floor face down, arms straight at his sides, red hole in the back of his head staring me in the face. Above, a perfectly circular hole in the window. Through the window, a plethora of trees for camouflage.
 
I lunge forward and slam against the cabinets under the window, out of range. It’s the only damn window in this kitchen.
 
“Dan! Man down—sniper’s in the forest facing the kitchen!”
 
“I got it!” He shouts and the screen door bangs behind him.
 
No more shots. Just the one. Doesn’t mean there won’t be more. But no, this was targeted. Jackson. Kirstie.
I whip out my phone and dial 911. Dial tone, dial tone, dial tone. …
 
“911, what is your emergency?”
 
I assert my formal FBI credentials and prattle off the address, GSW in the back of the head. …
 
“Sir?” The operator’s voice rings in my ears. “You were saying you also have to report something?”
“A missing person. My daughter. Kirstie Meyers.”

 
#
 
I stick Jackson’s photo up on the murder board with a magnet. Between that and a town map, the entire surface is covered. The local station just doesn’t have the resources we have in New York, but for now it’s all we’ve got.
“Ballistics came in from the rifle I found in the woods. Just an M40 sniper rifle.” He sticks the picture of the murder weapon under the same magnet holding Jackson’s photo. “How long ago did the hospital call?”
 
“Hour or so. They tried to operate but the damage was irreparable.”
 
Kirstie most definitely gone, Jackson assassinated, cops are going door to door at this point. Thank God I was FBI or no one would’ve responded like this. It would’ve been, “Oh just wait. I’m sure she just ran off a bit—college girls and all.”
 
So many families lose kids with the same treatment, the message they receive when their stomachs know otherwise, tumbling, rolling around with the truth that someone has their baby.
 
“Oh, God Marge. I have to go home, Dan I have to—”
 
“I know. I’ll drive you. The entire station is on this, and they’re sending over other guys from New York. My guys. It’s going to work out.”
 
“Work out? How can you say it like—what do you mean other guys?”
 
“I have a plane ticket, Mark,” he says stiffly. “And the Bureau says I can’t work this, even though you trained me. I’ve gone too long without taking time off.”
 
“You’re leaving? Kirstie is gone and you’re—you know what, fucking go. All you’ve done is walk around with that stupid present anyway. I swear to God I trained you better than this shit.”
 
“I’ll take a cab, then.” Dan sets the present down next to a cup of coffee on the conference table and leaves with perfect composure.
 
I collapse in a chair. Dan flying off to Christ-knows-where Indonesia and Kirstie’s gone and there’s nothing except for Jackson’s body—poor Jackson—and the sneaking suspicion Kirstie just fled on childish impulses to be free and avoid Marge’s lectures on the engagement and—
 
My phone ringing pierces the silence. It’s the cop temporarily heading up the investigation, name elusive.
 
“What is it?” I grip my phone.
 
“We searched Jackson’s phone calls and found a new phone number started calling roughly ten days ago, every day for no longer than three minutes. He never calls it back.”
 
The number. Of whoever did this.
 
“Shit, Mark,” the commander continues. “We tracked the cell to an apartment. It’s here, but the place is covered in evidence. Whoever did this has known Kirstie for at least a year—there’re pictures of her before the engagement ring. But a lot more of the ring.”
 
A type, a profile, someone obsessed with Kirstie, someone who can’t stand the ring.
 
“I want it all in. I want to see all the evidence when I get back.” I shrug on my coat and grab the present. The tag is addressed to me and Marge. He probably couldn’t bear to give us whatever he planned. “I have to see Marge.”
 
“It’ll all be at the station, sir.”
 
I hang up. I don’t want it, any of it. I want my little girl.
 
#
 
I hand Marge the tissue box next to the present on the coffee table and she blows hard into it before discarding it to the floor with all the others. She curls back up against my side and squeezes my arm, a dense lump of tears discoloring the back of the couch.
 
She’s out of water again.
 
“I’m going for water, hon,” I whisper and run my fingers through her colored hair briefly, taking longer to detach myself from her.
 
The water dispenses slowly out of the fridge, drops grabbing on to each other and holding tight. God, if I had listened to her maybe we would’ve found Kirstie by now—because now she’s gone. Kidnapped kids don’t come back. And I was the one who said it was nothing, who let her get engaged so young, who let her drift into the unknown.
 
“Mark,” Marge cries from the living room. The glass is full, almost too full, but she needs water after crying for hours.
 
“Hon, I—”
 
She stares at me with wide eyes, mouth open, but blank, so blank.
 
A severed finger like a hot dog, the bloody end covered with gauze, sits at the bottom of the box. Matching the manicured nail, the bright red bow tied neatly around the middle joint does not obstruct the humble diamond engagement ring between it and the bloody stump.
 



13 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – HIGH FANTASY: The General by Josh Hewitt

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Merry 13 days ’til Christmas, readers! Due to a dramatic turn of events and a twist of fate, today you’ll be treated to a High Fantasy tale by none other than Josh Hewitt. This guy ran the amazing Worlds End project, and now – after much bitching – he’s put words on screen for you people once again. Hewitt usually writes literary fiction, so this was kind of like feeding peanuts to someone with a nut allergy, but not only did he not swell up and die, he wrote one amazing story. You will love this. He wrestled with the genre, wrangled it, poked a little bit of fun at it and, boy, did he stick the landing.
 


 
The General
by Josh Hewitt
 
 
The general was amazing with a knife.
 
The major watched him, that gigantic bear of a man, turn the small wooden object with one hand, while using the other to carve into it. The details the Major could see were beautiful–intricate and delicate and almost unreal all at the same time.
 
He didn’t want to stop the General–he could have stood in the General’s greatness all day and watched that man, that hero to so many poor souls, continue to put all of his focus on that small wooden trinket. He could have stood there and absorbed that moment for just a bit longer.
 
But he had a job to do.
 
“General. It’s time.”
 
The General looked at his work, showing just a faint smile, barely visible behind his large bushy beard. He then placed the object on the desk next to him and rose. He stood a good two feet taller than the Major, and a good deal heavier. He walked over and placed his thick cloak over his broad sholders.
 
“Your name is Azaral, correct?” The General’s voice bellowed out, that low growl that reminded Azaral of the sounds of the werecats howling in the light of the third moon. He nodded.
 
“Yes sir.”
 
“And, you have children. Isn’t that correct, Azaral?”
 
“Yes sir.”
 
The General smiled at him, a warm one. It was so odd to see such a look from him, Azaral thought. He had never met the General in person before this time, but he had heard the legends. He had heard the tales.
 
The greatest warrior the land had known. The one who would finally end the war. The one who would defeat the Kairn once and for all.
 
The champion the people had hungered for. Had prayed for.
 
Yet, with all the accolades, with all the stories and myths and legends that follow one such as the General, there were the other tales too. The ones Azaral would never breathe around the General, no matter how much ale he had drunk.
 
That he once slain an entire Kairn village by himself. Men, women, and children.
 
That he ate Kairn flesh.
 
That he had sold his soul to the dark lord Drammagus for invincibility in battle.
 
All those stories hit his mind, and all ran like frightened children from the light and warmth of his smile.
 
“Children are our most special treasures. They are the hope and light of the world. After old men like me have left here for the other realms, they will shape this world in ways we could never.” The General smiled and turned away.
 
“Hopefully, for the better.” he whispered.
 
Azaral saw the General reach for Nithguan, “The Northern Wind”, the largest battle axe anyone had ever seen. The enormous weapon glinted in the light of the lanterns surrounding them. Azaral could see the spells carved in the blade, letting the weapon chop through even the most enchanted armor. Nithguan was the General’s oldest companion. And there were nearly as many legends of it as there were of the General.
 
“We must do now what must be done. Though I dread to do it.” The General said, his voice low where only Azaral could hear. “Now is time for us to close this book.”
 
How long had the war gone on? Even Azaral knew that was an unanswerable question. For nobody could remember a time when they were not locked in battle with the Kairn. His grandfather, the oldest of his kin, had told him years ago remembering his grandfather talking about when his grandfather would tell of his grandfather recalling his grandfather referring to it as the “Millennial War”. But for many, many, far too many generations, it had been only known as the “Forever War”.
 
Now, on this day, it could be ending.
 
As they exited the General’s tent, he turned towards Azaral one more time.
 
“Your children? Boys?”
 
“One boy, strong. One girl.” The General smiled at Azaral’s answer.
 
“Good.”
 
Azaral knew better to ask if the General had children. It would have been a pointless question.
 
The General didn’t even have a name.
 
Azaral wondered what it had been like for him–growing up not as a child, but as a soldier. One of the “Children Of Forever”, the youth who had been born and bred from the greatest warriors and strategists they had known. Whose entire world had revolved around battle, the clash of iron and steel, the blood and flesh.
 
“Azaral, gather your men. And get the others to as well.”
 
Azaral just nodded.
 
Soon, they were all in line, ready to proceed to the death. Azaral looked at the General, surrounded by his troops. He could hear his men muttering silently under their breaths about the General’s warriors–those dark feys known only as the Nigh.
 
He felt a shiver run up his spine just thinking their names. How many times had he been told, as a child, to watch out in the dark of the forest?
 
“They’ll eat you alive, then use your skins as clothing. If you are lucky.”
 
Many, many years before they had stood with the Kairn. Nobody knew what it was that caused them to convert and follow the General. The most commonly accepted tale was that the General had killed their king, making himself their new ruler.
 
(There were other far more terrible and terrifying tales.)
 
“Today, we draw sword and axe and wood and iron to defeat our enemy,” The General spoke, his voice soft, yet each word almost broken with anticipation. “Today, we end our world, as we know it. What shall we build?”
 
“In the frozen lands of our home, in the snow, there is a saying that a village must be formed on the ashes of something else. For a new world to begin, an old world must die. Do we have it? Do we have what it takes to set ablaze our world?
 
“Can we destroy this war, this fight that we have known forever, that we have only known? Can we end it, and give our children, give our future, a fresh blanket of snow which to build? Which to shape?”
 
The General paced in front of the men, and caught their gaze. Soon, he bellowed loud, “We must! For our world! For our land! For our future! We must now strike the final blow to the Kairn. Today! Today, we start fire to destroy–for we know what will be raised again will be a better world!”
 
With his last words, he thrust his axe high, to much cheer and applause. Azaral himself felt his hand find the hilt of his blade, ready to fight.
 
Azaral saw the General’s chariot approach, eight cloven hoofed beasts pulling. In the lead was a dragon–fire leaping from his nose. Even as the sunlight cracked the darkness, the nose of the beast beamed bright as a torch. The General took his place in the chariot and held tight the reigns with one hand.
 
Zzazzn, the leader of the Nigh and the General‘s right hand fey, stood next to him on his transport. The Nigh were slight anyway, small of stature and lean of weight, but next to the General, he looked almost like a child. Azaral approached them both.
 
“Sir, we are ready.”
 
“The Nigh will fight to the death as always.” Zzazzn slithered. Azaral felt another chill just from hearing the voice.
 
“As it was meant to be.” The General held Nithguan high, and looked back at the troops.
 
“Friends, warriors, soldiers, protectors of this land and its future….TO THE NEW WORLD!”
 
With that, the General cracked the reigns, and his chariot raced off towards the Mountains of Suralim. Towards the home of the Smoke King and the Kairn.
 
The men raced with him, Azaral high on his steed, as they approached the land of their enemies. The Kairn were ready for battle that morning, sounding their horns and filling the air with a horrible sound. They were flanked by the men of Nigliman, the traitors who had sided with the Kairn. Around them were the wild beasts of the woods, the snakes and the raithelborn and the spiders and the yven.
 
Azaral looked to see their own forces, the men of the realm and the Nigh and the noble creatures of the world–lions and werecats and dragon and jeravons. They attacked the front lines of the enemy with ruthless abandon and righteous aggression.
 
Ahead of him, Azaral saw the General swing his mighty axe, lopping off head after head–with other body parts mixed in. He was more than a fighter, more than a soldier. The man who had been so patiently creating art that morning had become death incarnate. Azaral was struck by a mighty fear–a fear that all the stories he had heard, every single one of them, might actually be true.
 
“To me, Azaral!” He heard the General call after the first hour of battle. He fought and killed his way to the General’s side.
 
“You are the most skilled soldier I have ever seen.” Azaral said, while watching Zzazzn dispatch two Kairn with his small knives.
 
“I take such compliment with high regard, seeing your skill in battle.” Zzazzn hissed. “The General calls for you because of it.”
 
“We must make our way inside the stronghold, to the throne room of the Smoke King.” The General said. Azaral and Zzazzn acknowledged his command. They fought their way through the Kairn and the traitors, invading into the heart of the enemy, moving at a fast pace it was as if the winds of the east were pushing them. Finally they reached the stronghold.
 
Azaral looked around at the large wooden door that led into the darkest territory known. There were no windows, and the walls were tall and steep, with no stray mortar work to put a foot on and climb. He walked to Zzazzn.
 
“No way in. Only cracks in the door are too small for even you to fit in.”
 
“Shhh.” Zzazzn sneered. Then pointed to the door, where the General was standing, his hands folded in front of him. Azaral stood and watched as the General slid somehow stretching his body through the narrowest of cracks.
 
“By the sons of Nilioh.” he muttered once the General had gotten inside. He ran to the door and examined the crack the General had slipped through–it was less wide than his thumb.
 
He heard a loud clank, and then the snickering of Zzazzn.
 
“I suggest you move.” Zzazzn said, and Azaral scooted to the side, as the large wooden door suddenly crashed down, the chain holding it up had been split by Nithguan. The General stood, battling nearly a dozen soldiers, hewing their heads from their necks with ease. Zzazzn raced in with Azaral quickly in tow.
 
“How did he…”
 
“Nigh magik is powerful.”
 
So. He was a sorcerer too.
 
Azaral followed the General through the front guard, into the main keep. They met many foe, fighting furiously as they heard the battle rage outside. Soon, they faced the last obstacle–the notorious Razolon Guard, the most fearsome of the Kairn. They battled as they could, but it was the General who struck the final blow on most of the Guard. Soon, they walked into the final room.
 
There, sitting on his throne, was the Gray Man, the Living Ash. The Smoke King. A silver crown sat on his head, and around his neck was a long silver chain. Hanging on the chain was the gem Varlon, one of the three Simiron Stones. His hand clutched it and stroked it for a second.
 
The heat from the room was unbearable to Azaral, who loved the ice of the land and the winds that had fueled him.
 
“Smoke King! I challenge thee to end this war!” The General said, gripping Nithguan with both hands. The Smoke King chuckled.
 
“If it isn’t a Child of Forever come to challenge me.” The Smoke King cackled in a rasp, raising his sword. The flames leapt off of it. “Is this battle what you want? I know it isn’t so. You are too peaceful.”
 
“I be a man of war today, foul ruler.” The General held his gaze steady.
 
“Then, war it shall be.” The Smoke King jumped from his chair, floating across the room. The General held his hand out, signaling to Azaral and the Nigh to stay behind. They watched as the two combatants circled the room together.
 
Suddenly, the General moved as quick as a winking eye, swinging his blade at the Gray man. Nithguan flew through the King’s abdomen, which moved like a dark cloud, reforming as soon as the blade had passed.
 
“Not even your axe can harm me.” the King laughed. “And now you know your doom.”
 
The king struck out his sword, but the General easily parried it. The General laughed.
 
“Of course I knew your strength, Smoke man. I know your weakness too.” He sliced at the arm holding the sword, and watched as his axe went innocently through.
 
Then the sword hit the ground.
 
“Whatever he’s holding,” Azaral said to Zzazzn, “that part is solid.”
 
Zzazzn just nodded.
 
As the Smoke King was picking his sword back up, the General started chanting some words.
 
“What is he…” Before he could finish the sentence, Azaral watched as the Smoke King’s head flew across the room.
 
For no reason at all.
 
“What…what happened?”
 
Zzazzn smiled as the General caught the chain holding the gem Varlon with the edge of his axe while the Smoke King‘s dead body hit the ground.
 
“Time froze. Except for him. Nigh magik.”
 
“Oh.” Azaral could only reply.
 
The young king sat in his court, surrounded by his subjects. His beautiful wife on his right, on his left was the older sister who had given the throne to him, who had passed on her birthright. In his hand, he held the final Simiron Stone, ready to be reunited with his two brothers.
 
And the war that had defined his fore-fathers, and those before that, had ended.
 
The General stood before the young king, his eye on the stone the man held.
 
“For you, my warrior, my protector–there is no honor too high to bestow upon you. No treasure too priceless.”
 
“I only ask to go.” The General replied. Azaral stood there, next to his king, in wonder. The king was offering any riches, any treasure. And all he was asking for was to leave?
 
“You wish to go? Well, if that’s your reward…”
 
“No. I wish to leave here. Leave these lands. I would have you use the Simiron Stones to open the doorway to the other worlds.”
 
“The last time the doorways were open, the Kairn slipped through. This is a very dangerous boon you ask. Why do you ask it of me?”
 
“I wish to go somewhere where I do not see the blood of my fallen brothers. Where I do not hear the screams of battle. I wish to go to a new world. One where I can no longer be the General. But something…someone new.”
 
“The last time..”
 
“I know. I know what I ask. But that is my reward. I wish to leave these lands and never return.”
 
The king looked at him, wary of the request. Then he heard the snakelike sounds from the childlike darkling next to him.
 
“The Nigh wish to go with our master. We wish to go with him to the new land.”
 
Suddenly, the King’s sister spoke.
 
“I wish to go too.” The voice belonged to the King’s sister.
 
“You?”
 
“My brother, my dearest brother. I passed on the throne because I didn’t want to be queen during such a time. I didn’t want to be known as a queen of blood. Or of war. But now, I would wish to go with our General, to find something new to be a part of. If, of course, he would have me.”
 
“I would, m’lady. I would.”
 
The General walked up to the King and presented him with Nithguan. Then he looked to Azaral.
 
“For your daughter.” He held out the object he’d been carving the first moment they met. Azaral took it.
 
It was the most beautiful doll he had ever seen.
 
“She will love it, General.”
 
The ancient words were spoken, and the door opened to a new world, one of ice and snow like their homelands. The Nigh bounded through first, followed by the dragon with fire in his nose, anxious he was to follow his master. The General walked through, holding hands with the King’s Sister, the maiden.
 
When they were through and the portal had shut, the General surveyed around him. Suddenly, he heard Zzazzn speak to him.
 
“So, what will we do now?”
 
“I will do what I’ve always wanted to do.” The large man smiled. “I will make children happy. No longer shall I be known as the General. I shall be the Toymaker.”
 
“No, my love,” the King’s sister spoke. “You shall be known in this world by the tongue of our land, so we will never forget our past. No longer shall you be Varnisa Mordoni, the General. Now you will be Santa Claus.”
 



14 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – DYSTOPIAN: Keeper of the Flame by Jacqueline Czel

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Behind today’s magical door we find a dystopian tale courtesy of Jacqueline Czel. Jacqueline termed it ‘tolkeinesque’, and I think that’s an apt description of a story that takes us to a fantastical dystopian world.
 


 
Keeper of the Flame
by Jacqueline Czel
 
She was a Keeper. Vale knew it. Something deep in his bones told him so. He also observed from across the spacious hall that she was very young. Being around thirty years of age she was by far one of the youngest keepers they’d ever had. According to the ancient legends, young keepers were far more powerful than most. It had been about six hundred years since the last Keeper blossomed before the age of seventy or eighty. It gave him and others much hope.
 
He scratched his red beard while he studied her as she moved among the growing crowd. Christmas was upon them and gathering together at the great hall was tradition. Clans from all over the northern lands they called Álfheimr trekked to Gimlé for the Yuletide festivities. They travelled at great risk. Bands of Dökkálfr, the dark ones from the south, had increased their raids on small villages and attacked all kinds of moving caravans. Making the journey to the hall was dangerous but most of them believed their traditions needed to be preserved at all costs.
 
Her long braided locks swept across her lush curves. She had shed her furs and her exposed bronze shoulders and arms glistened in the firelight. He watched her lean down to kiss the forehead of a small child who looked up at her with large blue eyes that sparkled like sapphires. It was a pure child and there weren’t many of them left. Vale wanted a child of his own. He knew it would be a well-loved halfling but unbound, fertile women were hard to come by.
 
Bands of humans passed over the ancient bridges that mysteriously appeared over a thousand years ago, as their dying planet became increasingly inhospitable for humans. Those who crossed over the crystal bridge hidden in the Aurora Borealis, were welcomed by the Ljósálfar in the place their ancients called, ‘still further above’ or third Earth, so long as these humans chose to leave all of their poisonous technologies behind. Other bridges opened to the southlands and humans from warmer regions merged with the Dökkálfr and other kinds of beings on the planet.
 
While the average ljósálfar could live to be over six hundred years, their chances of siring children were very slim. Inter-marriage with the humans brought more children into the fold but a long life without a family was still slow torture for many of them. It was believed that having a child was a gift that was only given to those possessing true faith in the eyes of God. Risking death in exchange for new life was the greatest gift a ljósálfarian woman could bestow upon her beloved mate.
 
Vale continued to stare at Kenna and wondered if she would willingly stare death in the face for him or any man. Her waist, the sway of her fine hips and curve her of thighs beneath her leathers, entranced him. A flood of desire filled him as well as a sense of guilt. It was considered sinful to lust but Vale couldn’t refrain. Even from afar, he thought her beautiful. She was worth wading through hellfire for.
 
He though she wouldn’t notice him anyway. His beard, incredible height and broad stature were sure signs that he was more human than elf. Vale also lived the life of a warrior. The scars on his cheeks and hands were evidence of many battles fought against the dark elves and ice giants. No beautiful, soft skinned woman would want such a hard man, an axe wielding killer who easily took life away from others.
 
Kenna knew many pairs of eyes were upon her in the hall because she was a new keeper, but one particular set burned a hole in her. They were very human, too. She felt his warmth, curiosity and desire. She had not actually gazed upon the man who had been staring at her, but knew what he was thinking. His longing, sadness and self-doubt warmed her heart. He had not seen her up close. He didn’t know she was a halfling too. Kenna understood the inferiority he felt in the face of pure blooded Ljósálfar. They were fair, lithe and graceful and possessed many unusual abilities. Even after centuries of intermarriage most halflings inherited very few of them.
 
Rather than turn around to look at him, Kenna scried him through the eyes of an old crone stitching a leather pouch on a bench nearby. He was rugged, a hot blooded warrior. She liked his beard and long reddish brown hair which fell in a thick braid down his back. She felt a pressing at her own mind and quit the third eye of the elderly woman. An older keeper sensed what she was doing. Keepers weren’t supposed to use their powers for personal gain.
 
As the sun set and stars illuminated the big northern sky, clans from afar kept arriving at Gimlé. While they settled into their quarters, the elders and keepers gathered at the far end of the hall to discuss the tree. There couldn’t be a true Yuletide celebration without an evergreen. In addition to cutting down a fir tree, boars needed to be culled from the forest for feasting. While many of their people worshipped the One True God, the Ljósálfar had a longstanding sacred oath with the ancient ash tree, Yssgdrill. It was forbidden to kill any of the trees in Álfheimr. A party must crossover the crystal bridge to retrieve the evergreen back on old Earth where the forests had regained their pristine glory.
 
Kenna watched as Baron Harald smoked his wooden pipe and blew curls of clove into the air. He was the reigning elder this year. The Baron studied the elders and keepers sitting before him long and hard. One elder, as well as one keeper would have to make the journey with the warriors that would be selected. Kenna’s eyes connected with his. His icy blue gaze beneath a thick, white brow tried to penetrate hers. She knew he could not. He blinked and shook his head. Kenna knew her dark eyes disturbed him as did her new powers. Halflings with elfin powers were rare. Halfling keepers were rarer still. She could easily cloak her still unknown abilities and Baron Harald didn’t particularly like or trust powerful women.
 
“Egill, he cried out in a raspy voice a moment later, bring the runes!”
 
A covey of thirteen would make the journey this year. The ancient stones sung the names. Egill, the blind caster, interpreted their song. Kenna’s was among them. A four hundred year full blooded ljósálfar elder named Meryl was sung too. Vale was the last warrior chosen by the stones. When his name was called, Kenna’s skin began to tingle. Something was not right. There was more to this journey than the fetching of the yuletide tree from the forest into which they were going to venture. A second message from the stones lingered in the air.
 
Kenna felt it but runes were not her gift. She could not hear their song or read the meaning of the etched markings laid out before her. She did however notice the nods of some of the much older elders and keepers. They knew something she didn’t. As they chatted quietly amongst themselves in the ancient elfish tongue they often spoke when discussing important clan matters so as not to disturb others, Kenna followed Meryl’s lead and excused herself. She had not yet studied the archaic tongue so she could not follow the conversation.
 
The uneasy feeling she had, stayed with her as she settled onto her sleeping furs in her quarters. She wondered what role Vale had in the unseen event that would surely unfold on their journey. She fought her wild thoughts and forced herself to sleep because the party was leaving at first light. Long before Kenna awoke the next morning the warriors had already saddled their horses, tied supplies to their mounts and hitched the sled to a team of wolf dogs that would pull the tree back to Gimle.
 
On hearing the din outside in the courtyard, a sleepy Kenna righted herself, pulled on her leathers and furs, laced her boots tightly around her calves and ran out of the hall to join them. She pushed her honey colored braids out of her face and quickly counted the number of horses. There were thirteen members of their party and only a dozen saddled horses. Before Kenna could protest at not having her own steed, a pair of strong hands lifted her off the ground. Vale planted her in front of him on the saddle. He slung his arm around her waist, picked up the reigns and kicked at his white dun which broke into a slow trot.
 
“Why don’t I get my own horse?” Kenna fumed.
 
She resented being treated like a child. She was a keeper, albeit a new one, but surely she was far more powerful than warriors with axes, swords and arrows.
 
“Because you’d be a burden if you did, he said in a smooth, deep voice. It was the first time he’d actually spoken to her. “You’re no horsewoman. The Dökkálfr and wild wolves would snatch you away in no time, little one.”
 
Kenna bucked against him and squirmed so she could jump off but was stilled when Vale tightened his arm around her waist. The words ‘do not’ crossed her mind at the same time. She turned her head towards Meryl who rode past them his own dappled steed. He looked regal in all white furs over which his long, white mane of hair cascaded.
 
“Don’t waste your time fighting, girl. He’ll over power you every time. He is a man who can easily protect or kill. That is all he knows. It is his duty to protect you on this journey. Let him.”
 
The full blooded Ljósálfar knew Kenna could read minds and therefore receive any messages he’d send to hers. He had a number of his own abilities, which he kept, like any wise elder, in reserve until they were absolutely needed. Meryl was being kind by explaining the way of the warrior to her.
 
Kenna was a child of the fields and had been kept away from the war being waged between the Ljósálfar and Dökkálfr by the old woman, Siggy, who found and raised her. Tales of battles reached their small cottage but she had never encountered any warriors until her powers exerted themselves. Soon after that, a couple of keepers showed up unannounced at the small croft. A handful of warriors escorted her and the other keepers back to the sorcerer’s hall in Andarsfjord.
 
She settled as best she could against Vale and let him guide his dun out onto the open trail leading to the Northern Lights. She kept her eyes focused on the warriors in front of them, Leo and Gilt, as they rode out. As the morning wore on, she shuttered her mind as she had been taught by older keepers so she wasn’t constantly assaulted by Vale’s thoughts. Most of the images in his mind involved him burying his thick cock inside her as he held her beneath him on a bed of furs by the crackling fire in his cottage. She had encountered Ljósálfar males who had entertained such thoughts about her before but his lust was unyielding.
 
Kenna reasoned by early evening that having her rear settled on the same mount in front of him for hours on end was fueling his incredibly vivid imagination. At every attempt she made to pull herself slightly forward on the steed, to put space between them, he swiftly drew her back.
 
The rest of the day passed uneventfully until they reached the borealis which floated between the worlds. The iridescent colors and shimmering flux awed Kenna who had never seen such wonder. Meryl had been there many times. He was one of the few elves who frequently ventured regularly back and forth between the worlds. Kenna and the others let him lead them across the glassy bridge.
 
Vale found himself enchanted not only by the handiwork of the God but the awe on Kenna’s face. He tightened his hold on her as his steed took them across the bridge. He noted the childlike wonder on her pretty face as she tilted her chin upwards to look at the moving colors. At one point she extended her arm and hand to touch it but he pulled it back without hesitation. Although he worshipped the one God, there was always the danger that some other deity or sky dragon might snatch her out if his arms.
 
At that moment she turned her face up at him. Vale blinked. Her eyes weren’t the ice, elvish blue he expected. They were large, almond shaped and almost black – human eyes. He gazed into her limitless pools and felt a stab in his chest. Vale noticed how the colors danced over her dark eyes and along her soft, curved cheek. She smiled innocently at him. She was far lovelier than he ever imagined. He set his jaw and looked away. It wasn’t wise for warriors to show their emotions.
 
Two more days passed and on the third a large blue spruce was found and cut down by the men. Later that night, Kenna studied Vale from across the fire pit while enjoying the scent of the tree. He hadn’t pay her much attention on the journey and even scowled at her on occasion. He still thought about undressing her in his mind and taking her on his furs, though. His thoughts were often more intense. She was still curious to know what the runes sung. Kenna was attracted to him but also annoyed by his incessant thoughts. She was more than a play thing and a pathetic charge on the back of his horse.
 
“Will you stop!” Kenna finally snapped in front of the other warriors and Meryl, who took to sharpening their blades. “I can read your mind, you foolish man.”
 
Vale turned his face toward hers, steeled his jaw and glared. He inhaled deeply, and exhaled a wave of anger. He had no idea Kenna possessed powers to that extent. Vale inwardly railed at having his private thoughts read by the very woman he’d been fantasizing about for days. His desire for her was undeniable. He normally didn’t spend hours pining over women but he had never been so drawn to one particular woman before.
 
“Don’t you think that’s a bad habit and bad manners?” He chided.
 
Before Kenna replied Meryl raised a hand to silence them. All ears perked up and the wolf dogs began to growl. They were not alone.
 
Vale quietly shifted his position and pulled his halberd from its sling. It was the second time in minutes he was caught off guard and it angered him further. He swore to himself he would make Kenna pay someday for being such a distraction. She deserved to be placed over his knee and given a good spanking. On the other side of the fire he noticed her jaw dropped. She picked up his thought. He suddenly realized he was going to have fun with his little mind reader.
 
“Enough!” Commanded Meryl while reprimanding their minds with his own. “Your lover’s dance is going get us killed.”
 
The other warriors had risen to defensive positions. Their axes were drawn. Leo and Gilt readied their bows. They would loose arrows into the darkness if they had to. Meryl, who stood closest to the fire, concealed an ancient Ljósálfar sword under his white cloak.
 
“Use your dust, girl,” he ordered. “Put that fire out now!”
 
Kenna reach into the small leather pouch slung her shoulder and quickly withdrew a small green bottle. She stepped closer to the fire. While doing so an incoming arrow flew through the air and narrowly missed her body. She took another brave step and unplugged the vessel.
 
“Quick, we’re open targets!” Meryl seethed.
 
She shook the dust in the bottle over the flames. All of the embers magically died before the powder hit the pit. They were now standing under the big, moonless sky. Starlight and their senses were their only guides.
 
Enemy arrows continued to slice the air. Meryl told the bowmen to loosen their own. They let out a round and heard a few cries as their arrows struck targets hidden in the darkness. They hit a couple of the Dökkálfr attempting to ambush them. As one of the warriors from the enemy party fell, Kenna crept into his mind with her own seizing his last thoughts.
 
“Help me, Luri,” cried the dark elf as his eyes closed forever. Kenna wondered who Luri was and passed the thought on to Meryl.
 
“Show yourself, Luri!” The elder commanded.
 
“Give us the girl, Meryl,” replied a menacing voice. “Then you can go back to hauling your rotten wood.”
 
Kenna blinked. She tried to press into the mind of that voice but met a sealed door instead. It was a well-protected mind. She instinctively knew Luri was quite sinister.
 
“Nice try lovely,” was followed by an arrogant laugh.
 
Vale snarled and the wolf dogs growled. They were dealing with a dark magician. It put him and his men at a disadvantage. He adored Kenna but at the moment wished they had a more seasoned keeper with them. She would be no match for Luri. The dark elf’s ruthless reputation preceded him and the fact that he came in person for her meant the Dökkálfr wanted her badly. Vale realized that Kenna’s powers were unsurpassed. He swore to himself he wouldn’t let Luri get his hands on her.
 
Kenna caught Vale’s thought and recalled the dire feeling the runes left her with.
 
“Get over here, little one!” He seethed.
 
That sinister laugh followed. Kenna turned towards Vale but she inwardly knew his axe was useless now. Luri wasn’t going to physically fight. Unpracticed Kenna pushed at her palms with her mind. She was a keeper of the flame and had seen what the more seasoned keepers could do. She felt a brief burning on the inside of her palms before cobalt blue flames swirled inside them.
 
“You Northerners are all fire and air,” Luri laughed.
 
Kenna inhaled deeply. She knew she was different, the dark ones did too. They wouldn’t have followed them to old Earth without reason. Kenna needed more information. She quickly realized that although Luri was a seasoned magician who knew how to shutter his mind, those with him weren’t so skilled or wise. She deciphered his second’s thoughts quite easily.
 
Long ago the Ljósálfar were given the command of fire and air while the dark elves were granted power over earth and water. Luri and his men believed she might possess the power of all the elements.
 
She thought about it for half a second. Was it possible? Why did they believe this? She pushed the thoughts away when an incoming arrow hit Vale. She heard him swear. She reached for him in the darkness and in doing so fell and sliced her hand on a jagged rock protruding up from the ground. The blue light in her palm went out as blood oozed from the cut.
 
Vale had pulled the arrow out his shoulder and flung it to the ground. He reached for Kenna and pulled her against his chest. She heedlessly pressed her bloody palm to his fresh wound. Vale growled as she touched him. Kenna felt all of his love and desire for her flow into her. She felt all of his remorse from his hard life and his desires for peace and a family. She saw herself and the world through his eyes as a burning sensation flooded her body. They were being bound by blood.
 
Kenna understood the smiles of the elders now. They had been fated and her warrior wasn’t just a life mate. He was also a key. Kenna understood. She called forth fire and cauterized the wound on his shoulder. Vale grimaced then gave her a knowing look before they heard Leo cry. They both turned to see a large, whirling dervish of blackness towering above them. Without thinking, Kenna stood up, raised her palms, focused her powers and stilled the sand. The particles were suspended in midair.
 
Others gasped as the older magician’s handiwork bent to her will.
 
“The full gift!” Meryl whispered.
 
The others gasped. None of them had ever seen a keeper who possessed the power of the four elements before.
Kenna muttered words that came to her mind and transformed the sand into snowy powder and let it fall to the ground. She then let a flood of new sensations wash over her. The feeling she had carried for many months of being an untrained keeper were gone. She knew her powers. Their secrets filled her.
 
Vale stood up next to her but partially guarded her figure out of habit. Kenna placed her hand in his. He looked down at her in awe. Because of their bond, Vale knew what she was pondering. He told her with his mind what he would do.
 
He shouted to Meryl and the other Ljósálfar warriors. The elder cast a safe guard around them before Kenna chanted a few words in the ancient elvish tongue, waved her free hand and called the power of air. The fastest way to end the fray was to take it instead of stirring it. She drew it from the Dökkálfr half a lea away. The sounds of gasping and rasping echoed in the darkness. The dark elves where suffocating as she called for the breath in their bodies.
 
“Retreat!” Cried Luri.
 
His distraught mind leaked his thoughts for the first time.
 
He had cast a quick safeguard for himself, his second and another dark elf standing close by but he knew it wouldn’t hold for long. He knew his other men were dying behind him. He turned and fled with his two remaining warriors into the Scandinavian forest, abandoning the rest of their entourage.
 
Kenna felt wobbly after destroying the Dökkálfr. She had never willfully sought to hurt or kill anyone before. She leaned against Vale as she regained her composure. He put his arm around her and stroked her hair.
 
“You have all four powers, little one.” He said in deep voice. “What do you think this means?”
 
“For starters, she replied, “We can bring the tree home in peace.”
 
Four days later, the massive tree was hauled up with ropes, steadied and tethered. Afterwards the young and old decorated it with wooden stars, pinecones, white feathers, and hundreds of small candles. After the Yule tree was finished, Kenna stepped back from it and lifted her palms. As the keeper who selected the tree, she had to light it this year.
 
She closed her eyes and concentrated. Every candle wick flared to life illuminating the great hall. Light flickered off the crystalline stones and granite containing bits of mica giving the walls a golden glow. The feasting tables were lined with tall candles which roared to life as did the lamps in the wrought iron sconces lining the walls. The warm light, a happy mood and scent of fresh pine filled Gimle. People reveled in the magic of the moment. Musicians perched in the corner of the room began to play Christmas reels which added to the festive air.
 
Kenna felt a familiar pair of eyes on her and turned around. As her smiling mate stepped closer to her, the ground began to rumble. Vale’s thoughts of stripping her naked and consummating their bond on his furs were interrupted by the shaking walls. He cupped Kenna’s chin and tilted it upwards. He stared into her dark eyes.
 
“I will bed you after we deal with those ice giants out there.”
 



15 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – HORROR: Hey Baby It’s Cold Outside by Laura Hughes

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Today’s Christmas story comes from one of my nearest and dearest, Laura Hughes (that’s @MittensMorgul to some of you.) Laura put fingers to keys for you lovely people and created a Yuletide horror for your reading pleasure. She usually writes fantasy, urban and otherwise, but this foray into horror inspired her to give her new WIP a tinge of the scary.
 
Lock your doors before reading this one, boys and girls, lest you make like Wham! and give your heart away this Christmas time…
 


 
Hey Baby It’s Cold Outside
by Laura Hughes
 
Thirty minutes. He promised himself it wouldn’t take any longer than that, and he’d already found the perfect ring. Two days before Christmas, even thirty minutes inside the mall felt like years. Between the panicking masses of last-minute shoppers, the forests of fake greenery and even faker snow, tired-looking elves, a skeevy Santa, screaming kids, their haggard parents, and the endless melange of horrible holiday songs piped in from every direction, he was more than ready to escape back out into the depressing sleety slush and four P.M. darkness of the parking lot.
 
They’d only been together a few months, but he knew this was the right move. It wasn’t an engagement ring. It was a show of intent, he assured himself. He wanted to be with her forever, and maybe someday they would be, if she was willing to keep him.
 
He couldn’t keep his hands out of his coat pocket, as if the neatly wrapped box tucked inside had taken on some mystical magnetic property. He ran the rest of his errands in a daze, only coming out of his reverie long enough to pay for his groceries and not get himself killed driving home.
 
He fully intended to set the little box under the tabletop Christmas tree in the living room of his small apartment. If she weren’t coming over for Christmas dinner, he wouldn’t have bothered setting up the tree in the first place. It seemed appropriately festive, if not a little cheesy, the day he’d bought it. Now that the time had come to use it for its intended purpose, it seemed cheap and gaudy compared to the significance he’d attached to her gift. He clutched the golden box to his chest, and then absentmindedly shoved it into his shirt pocket. It felt right, to keep it close to his heart.
 
 
Christmas Eve brought a cold front that turned the mucky slush into a frozen wasteland. He worried she’d want to cancel their plans, but she assured him she wouldn’t miss their Christmas together for the world. She told him she’d spent weeks making his present, and didn’t want to wait even one more day to share it with him. One of the perks of falling in love with an artist. Her passion would keep her warm on her walk to his place. He was also certain it could keep him warm, too.
 
He smiled and tapped the box, still in his breast pocket, in time with his racing pulse. In a moment of madness, he could’ve sworn he felt an answering thrum from the ring. Nerves. Just nerves.
 
He chuckled under his breath and returned to the kitchen. He’d poured himself into cooking the perfect holiday dinner. The table was set, finished off with a cluster of candles that looked like candy canes and pinecones. It was sappy and tacky, but he didn’t care anymore. She made him feel a little squishy around the edges, and he was okay with that.
 
Pumpkin pie cooled on the counter. Dinner was on the table. The last tray of gingerbread baked, and filled the entire house with the festive aroma. The kitchen timer and doorbell ding-donged simultaneously, and his veins coursed with a sudden adrenaline rush. A split-second decision drove him to answer the door, to not leave her standing out in the cold, even if it meant a few burnt gingerbread men. He was sure they’d understand. What’s a few scorched cookies when the alternative was letting his one true love slowly freeze to death out on the doorstep?
 
He opened the door and all but dragged her in from the cold. She stood smiling up at him, but he could only stare down in wonder. How could he be allowed to keep such a perfect creature? It didn’t seem possible that anyone could be so happy to see him. Especially her.
 
She grinned wider. “Aren’t you going to get that?”
 
“What?” He frowned, confused, dazzled by her to the point the rest of the world faded away.
 
“The kitchen timer?”
 
Realization dawned just before the smoke detector would’ve chimed its protest on behalf of the incinerated army of gingerbread men. He said a few silent words over the fallen soldiers before consigning their ashes to the trash can.
 
She’d hung up her coat and made herself comfortable on the couch by the time he returned from the impromptu funeral. A large silver gift bag sat on the coffee table in front of her. Armed with a couple of glasses of aromatic mulled wine, he decided dinner could wait a few more minutes. He placed one of the warm glasses in her frost-numbed hands, and made a toast.
 
“To the restorative powers of love. And mistletoe.” He grinned, with a glance up to the cluster of leaves and berries hanging above their heads. And then he leaned in and kissed her.
 
Her eyes widened briefly in surprise, they clinked their glasses together, and then drank. She watched him over the rim of her glass, a secret smile of I know something you don’t know crinkling the corners of her eyes.
 
“Burnt cookies aside, everything smells delicious,” she said at last.
 
“Shall we eat first, then?” His hand went unconsciously to his pocket yet again. “I thought maybe we could exchange gifts first.”
 
She thought about it for all of two seconds before nodding firmly. “Yes. I don’t want to wait any longer. You have to see your gift.”
 
Without waiting for him to go first, she shoved the gift bag into his lap with an eager sparkle in her eyes. All the delight of an entire childhood’s worth of Christmas mornings radiated from her. He’d never seen anyone so excited to give him anything. He’d never known anyone who could do this to him, turn the very blood in his veins into jet fuel. A glance from her could set his insides ablaze.
 
“If you’re sure,” he said. He didn’t care if she was sure. Her energy was contagious. He tore into the crinkly tissue paper around his present with the enthusiasm of a five-year-old, while she watched on with undisguised glee.
 
“It’s rosewood,” she said, as he laid the delicately carved box on the table. “The inlays are rose quartz and jade. Do you like it?”
 
He ran his fingers over the smooth lid, and caressed the three-dimensional rose vines crafted of semi-precious stones that wrapped around the sides. It was only a little bigger than the index card box he kept all his mother’s beloved recipes in, but he could feel her love for him in every hand-carved inch of it.
 
“You made this? For me?”
 
She nodded, but couldn’t meet his eyes. “Merry Christmas, my love.”
 
He gulped back a tear. He wouldn’t let himself cry. “No one has ever made me anything so beautiful. I love it. I love you.”
 
He clasped her hands in one of his, and leaned in to distract her with a kiss while he drew the box from his pocket. When he pulled back from her lips, he slid her gift into her hands.
 
“I hope you know how much you mean to me,” he said, answering the questioning look on her face. “I hope I haven’t overstepped my bounds.” He nodded at the tiny box, acknowledging the significance of what lay inside.
 
She gently bit down on her lower lip and her fingers trembled as she raised the gold-wrapped package up between them. He held his breath, and she carefully picked the wrapping apart. She took her time, trying not to tear the paper, as if it was as precious as the gift inside.
 
His hands closed around hers, around the box, and he helped her raise the lid on its stiff hinge. “Merry Christmas, sweetheart.” The box popped open with a muffled click, and she gasped at the sight of the carefully chosen ring inside.
 
“Ruby is your birthstone, right? And diamond is mine.” He plucked the ring from its nest, its large ruby gleaming between two smaller diamonds, and slid it onto the ring finger of her right hand. She looked as if she were about to object.
 
He stammered out an explanation. “This is only a promise of things to come. No pressure now. I just wanted to show you how much I love you, how much you mean to me. I intend to keep this promise. I want to share the rest of forever with you. When you’re ready, it can go on your other hand.”
 
She sighed, and looked up from their entwined hands, from the twinkle of her new ring, into his eyes. “I am ready, you fool.”
 
She leaned in and kissed him. Her hands slid up his arms to encircle his neck, and he scooted closer, dragging his lips down her jaw to the hollow below her ear, mumbling love and gratitude and wonder into every inch of her skin. She all but purred under his attentions, sighing out words he couldn’t decipher.
 
The rest of the world fell away, until they were the only two things in all of creation. Her hands grew warm against his spine. The base of his skull throbbed in time with his thudding heart. He couldn’t remember anything but the feel of her against his lips, but the warmth of her hands intensified until he could hardly bear it any longer. Still, he couldn’t break away from their embrace. The thudding in his skull became a wild flutter. He couldn’t feel his body, but caught a confused glimpse of her face as he slumped backward onto the couch. The fluttering was nothing more than a high-pitched scream now. And then silence.
 
She sat up and withdrew her hand from behind his head, now resting on a throw cushion, eyes forever frozen open and glazed over. A soft sigh escaped her lips as she watched the ring shine with a new light on her finger.
“Thank you.” She pulled the ring off and shifted it to her left hand. “We’ll always be together now, my love. I promise. For the rest of forever, your soul with mine.”
 
She stood, opened the box she’d carved for him, and held it above his chest. She spoke the rest of her spell over his body, then plunged her bare hand into his chest. His heart had stuttered out its last beat, and she tore it free of its moorings. It fit perfectly into the box she’d crafted to hold it.
 
She finished her wine, wrapped her coat around her shoulders, and walked back out into the frozen winter wonderland. She had her true love with her always, for the rest of forever, heart and soul. It was a very merry Christmas, indeed.
 



16 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – FAIRYTALE: Pebbles in the Snow by Jani Grey

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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.”
 
 
The end.