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Sunday 5 June 2022


Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

     Thick, high walls protected the little house within from the biting, hilltop wind. The minuscule windows were shuttered and draped against the horrors of the world beyond, and the sturdy door locked tight against danger.
    It was a small bubble of safety in a terrifying world, impenetrable and unshakable by the darkest forces beyond. And the girl inside - beautiful, happy, with only the youngest growth of antlers sprouting through her thick, dark hair - was never bored despite the isolation. She cooked and baked, sewed and repaired, cleaned and painted, and when her chores were done and her master satisfied, she spent her free time left in peace, reading and creating, brightening her safe little world in a way she could control. She slept well; warm, safe and dry, and when she rose the next morning, all began again. Her world was predictable, her life steady. Always familiar, always stable. Forever unchanging.
    For a decade, the world aged gracefully around her, and she, preserved and protected, didn't age a day.
    But then, despite the walls, the curtains, the door, something did change.
    The old clay digger that lived nearby could no longer continue his trade, and with rising living costs, the girl was tasked by her reluctant master to dig the clay herself and deliver it to the potter in town.
    The idea of leaving the walls and stepping out into the wider world filled her with terror, but it excited her too. And so, with much worry, much preparation, and many warnings of safety from her master, she took a deep breath, left the walls, descended the hill, and gathered what she could before rigidly following the road towards town. Her eyes were wide along the way, and every twist and turn made her hesitate, sure she'd managed to get herself lost, would take too long and get home to a telling off for lingering in the dangerous world.
    But she hadn't gotten lost, and arrived in town while the sun was still high. There, she delivered the clay, turned around, and immediately followed the road back home, doing precisely as she'd been instructed. And she was glad to; the sights, sounds and smells were overwhelming, and she all but ran back to the high-walled hill, scared and exhausted. And yet, when she finally managed to get to sleep after her master's worried questions, her dreams were alight with new skies, walls and faces.
    Then, the next day, after hurrying through her chores, she dug and delivered clay again. And this time, the experience rejuvenated her.
    She grew efficient over time, both digging and travelling, and came to look forward to the fresh air and cheerful townspeople. She even began to take detours, leaving the road on the way back and daring to walk instead through the forest, following whim or butterfly. She didn't go far at first, but with every passing day she grew braver, and explored deeper and deeper between the trees. She discovered owl holes in tree trunks, stumps covered in orange toadstools, old carved stones half-eaten by roots, a clearing carpeted in spongy, comfy-looking moss, and a small, clear stream that giggled and gurgled as it cascaded over smooth pebbles. The world, she was learning, was beautiful.
    On one fair weather day, warm and clear, she warily followed a bear cub through the trees and onwards to the stream, where she watched it play on its own further down-water, swiping at the little fish that swam in a panic around it.
    Its grumbling joy was quickly infectious.
    Peering around again for its mother and finding still no sign, the girl nudged aside the elk-sedge that grew along the banks, stepped into the water herself and began playing among the tiny fish, sending them darting around in alarm as if she was a bear herself. When she stilled to better catch one, however, a gasp blustered from her lungs. As the surface settled, she found the rippling image of a huge-horned woman staring back at her from beneath the water, a sad, painful look twisting her face.
    The girl froze, blinked, then slowly bent down closer. An aurochs?
    The sorrowful woman moved as she watched her, and raised her hand towards the surface. And the girl found her own hand moving slowly to meet it.
    The contact was solid, but she didn't notice it. In that instant she was overwhelmed instead by information; images, words and emotions bombarded her mind like a hailstorm - images, words and emotions all playing as if from her own perspective. Even the brief but intense flash of hatred and disgust aimed entirely at her felt as though it had originated from her own heart.
    'It did. All of'
    She recoiled, deaf to her own shriek, and threw herself backwards, kicking the water, bank and elk-sedge away from her as she scrambled to find sense. But none came.
    So she ran home instead, heedless of the bear cub that stood up and watched her from the water, grunting and whining in concern. She had already descended into a dense fog of wretched, debilitating confusion.

     Thick, high walls hid the little house within from the bright, shining sun. The minuscule windows were shuttered and draped against the fascinations of the world beyond, and the sturdy door locked tight against freedom.
    It was a prison in a colourful world, impenetrable and unshakable by the brightest forces beyond. And the girl inside - scared, weak, with only the youngest growth of antlers sprouting through her knotted, dark hair - was broken. She barely slept, so cold, terrified and confused, and when she rose the next morning to tend to her chores, the cycle began again. Her world was predictable, her life steady. Always familiar, always stable. Forever unchanging.
    But now she saw the truth in it: the bars around her home, the careful watch she was subjected to, the permissions she had to ask and obscene questions she had to answer. She no longer read, no longer created. The world had become a numb haze while she sat obediently, eyes wide and haunted. Her voice silent.
    She saw now. She saw everything. And that shock, that fear, trampled her like a furious herd of horses. How many times had it paralysed her? How many times had she resolved to give up, lock herself in and stay within that simple, predictable world? It would be easier. It took less work, and the hurt that would come from it was familiar. Safer, in a way. And she certainly didn't have the strength to fight it.
    And yet, every day that she trudged, numb-hearted, to deliver the clay to the potter, she couldn't help but be drawn back to the forest. She fled to it now, though she was too scared to look back into the water, and tried to breathe away the shakes with lungfuls of fresh, woodland air. And when the sun betrayed her and twilight moved in, the silent, trembling girl reluctantly returned home.
    The shakes plagued her for weeks. She barely ate, barely slept, and became hyper-aware in her exhaustion, noting every word and movement her master made, flinching at every interaction. She heard and saw all of it for what it truly was: absolute control. Absolute control, over her.
    But even though, in some strange way, she feared the forest almost as much as home - that she might learn something more that would become the final strike her fragile world could take before its rubble was ground to sand - she fled back there again the next day. And the next. And the next. Until one day, sitting absently beside her stream, listening to its comforting gurgles, her gaze wandered and landed upon the prophetic water for the first time in a month.
    Her body moved on its own.
    Pushing aside the elk-sedge, she crawled over and peered down through the glittering surface, coming face-to-face with the aurochs woman again. She was already staring back, as if she'd been waiting for her, and carried no less sad a twist in her brow than she had the first time. But there was something else there this time, the girl realised. Something softer.
    The aurochs reached towards her again, and the girl's fingertips hesitantly met hers through the water.
    There was no information this time. Instead, the reflection shifted, and the girl looked down now at her own face. Only then did she realise the resemblance between herself and the woman. And as she marvelled at that, she watched the stumpy antlers on her head grow into the broad, plated antlers of an elk.
    Then the image of the aurochs was back, standing beside her, resting her hand upon the girl's shoulder. And she felt it.
    The smallest gasp leapt from her throat as she spun to her left and found the woman suddenly standing beside her, as solid and real and dry as herself, her huge horns as light as a feather upon her head. And now, she was smiling.
    "Keep going," the aurochs said, her voice as strong as her horns were threatening. "I'm here. I'll save us both. Just buy me time."
    "B-buy you time?" The girl stuttered, her own voice small and unused. But she knew, somehow, exactly what the woman wanted.
    Her eyes must have betrayed her growing horror, because the aurochs moved and knelt down in front of her, squeezing her shoulder while the girl's shakes grew worse beneath her hand. Her smile was sadder now, but unwavering. "I am so sorry, little elk. But you can do this." Then she wrapped her arms around her and faded away, melting into the girl.
    Or the girl melted into her.
    "And," her voice echoed, "I love you, dearly. And I will thank you for all this one day."
    Then the little elk girl was left alone, blinking into the trees, heart racing beneath her ribs, thundering in her ears. And her blood surged with such strength that tears of fury sprang into her eyes.
    For the first time in her life, she felt whole. The fear was still there - greater now, fighting to overwhelm her all over again - but she could do this. She had to do it. The aurochs was taking care of something, and she would protect the horned woman while she did. And, though the fear was incomprehensible, she knew that only in facing it, walking into the storm as it tore her skin apart, could it be finally conquered. And she wasn't alone. She never had been.
    When her hard, stony eyes eventually sank back to the water, the only image she saw was her own true reflection, crowned now with full, powerful antlers.
    She raised a hand, damp with wild water, and fingered the velvet tines as she turned and wandered thoughtfully back home, where she was duly and quietly expected.

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2022 Kim Wedlock

Wednesday 6 April 2022

Uruz, ├×ola

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

     A bleak, grey spectre glared over the scrubland valley.
     Cold mountain wind howled low through the crevice, sending the dull, mournful rustle of the frozen brush murmuring through the shadow-gripped recesses, and the pummelling storm of rain and hail rumbling beneath it all like a wardrum. Neither light nor hope reached this spot, trapped in the darkness of the glacier-shorn cliffs, and the old, rusting iron cage stood in its thickest depths. And the woman inside it sat slumped, knees hugged close to her chest, clouds of breath steaming from her nose as the hail struck and bruised her bare skin.
     The aurochs' pale body trembled in the cold. Thick, dark hair tumbled in knots down her back. Huge horns projected out from either side of her head, dull, faded, their points filed down. And dim hazel eyes stared from over the top of her arms, fixed to her captor through the bars, the tall, thin man with even emptier eyes, staring at his inconsequential work only a few paces away. There was no passion in him, either, though he chose to be here. No life, no love. Nothing at all. Until he looked her way.
     Just as he did at that moment.
     She watched the light flicker into life inside his eyes. But it wasn't warmth. It was power. Possession. Supremacy. She knew the look well. She read more in it than he could conceive.
     But the aurochs didn't flinch back from it. She was dead to it by now. She'd seen it too much; experienced what came of it too often. And so she met his stare with her own empty gaze, and held it until he looked away again, distracted once more by his work, his prize forgotten.
     Only then did she breathe the faintest sigh into her knees.
     As the vapour gathered on her eyelashes, her stare wandered away, tracking out through the shade of her trophy prison and on towards the frosted grasslands beyond.
     Out there, the sun shone. Out there, far from her reach, golden light battled the scrubby landscape, even while the frozen rain continued to thunder through her bars in the dark. There was hope out there. Life, and freedom. And others of her kind; she could hear them bellowing beyond the man's range, could smell them on the wind. And the ache in her heart swelled almost to the point of bursting. Because she could not join them. She couldn't walk among them. The whole world was so far out of her reach, she didn't deign even to lift a futile hand towards it.
     But neither did she succumb to the melancholy.
     Instead, she moved. Releasing her knees, she sat straight, exposing herself to the elements, and breathed deep of the cold, clear air. She rode that breath inside of herself, followed it into her lungs, and as it invigorated her blood, she retreated into memory.
     The world around her shifted; the straw floor of her cage became rough ground beneath her hooves, and the shadow scattered and revealed harsh scrub and grazing. A hard life, unforgiving, cold and solitary - but there was no heavy, pinning weight of loneliness woven within it.
     It was freedom.
     As she eased herself into her breath, stamped her hooves against the earth and teased her fingers through the biting breeze, she felt what now seemed like ancient traces of strength and power moving through her muscles.
     It set a fire in her heart, a song into her soul, and she spun and laughed. Then, without thought of destination, she ran.
     She stayed in that eternal place for some time before she found the strength to return to herself, yet still it felt her eyes had flickered open too soon, and her view was obscured again by the old, iron bars and the haze of frozen rain.
     Once again, the whole world remained out of her reach.
     And yet, she smiled.
     'For now.'
     Scars had formed on her body, lumps left in bone - but she had always healed. And her spirit hadn't been broken. Not yet. Not quite. The smallest flame still sputtered in her chest, she'd discovered, and every day that her captor reached through those bars to strike again at her defences, it only stoked it hotter. Even in the cold, dark shadows and the skin-piercing rain. Now she'd found it, it would not, could not, be extinguished.
     She would not be broken. Her kind was sturdy. It had taken her a decade to remember it, but now that she had, she held that fact, that assurance, closer than her own skin.
     And, as her eyes tracked back to her once-trusted captor, that faint smile flickered further across her lips.
     She was biding her time. Collecting her strength. Recalling freedom and all that had once breathed life into her soul. She was remembering her worth.
     Her hazel eyes closed, but the smile remained as she listened to her master mutter curses to himself as he worked, and she tilted her head from one side to the other, feeling the weight and power of her horns. They didn't need to be sharp to be devastating. If the fool had wanted to disarm her, he should have cut them off.
     He would be gored in the end.

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2022 Kim Wedlock

Monday 7 February 2022


Estimated read time: 9 minutes

      The binding stone loomed atop the barrow hill. The ghostly breath of fog drifted and curled around it, lit by a moon bleached silent, riding the low, cold hum that had come to infect every night in the ancient glade. So too did shadows stand and flicker in the fog as though time stopped and started, figures of jagged, hulking forms with emaciated waists and huge, circular eyes that glowed and flickered out of time. These shapes rarely strayed from the binding stone. They watched, and guarded. Nothing more.
     Weather had worn down neither carving nor duty. Time hadn't vandalised the stone. And the dead below stirred no longer.

     "I've put this off for long enough."

     The young man approached through the trees, leaving behind the vibrant land where the green lay rich and full beneath the darkness, and on to where it and the night melded together like lovers. The village lay far behind him, but even here he could hear the drums of the festival just beginning, despite the moon's warnings.
     But, as the trees opened up into that foggy, shadow-haunted glade, suddenly nothing but Night could be heard: silence woven with a streak of the Unknown's breath.
     And then, as visibility dropped, the featherlight footsteps of shadows.
     The three hulking shades lurched towards him, slow and menacing, growing larger and larger until they stood taller even than the tangled yew trees, though their steps were eerily quiet.
     But the young man didn't flinch. He walked on despite them, passing between without pause or glance, and continued on towards the barrow hill in silence.
     This, the shades wouldn't allow. They turned and followed with low, creaking groans, and a sharp rush of air chased a swipe across his back. But it didn't touch, and he didn't turn.
     He continued on, muttering an incantation beneath his breath, but it did little to dissuade them. Again they swiped, and again they missed. But the creatures wouldn't stop.
     He heard the strain and felt the buckle in the earth as a tree was uprooted, and the frantic rustle of the leaves as it was thrown towards him. Quickly, his fingers pressed to his forehead.
     The tree bounced backwards. And the shield shattered under the impact.
     He lowered his hand from the spellstone in his brow, stopped in his quest and turned at last towards them. Their eyes, he discovered in that passive look, were different now, tinted with a sickly yellow ire.
     His other hand rose to his forehead as each of the shadows threw flickering black claws towards him, and another incantation breathed through his lips. Upon the final word, the shades dissolved where they hunched, eerie howls juddering from their cores. But for all their absence, their presence remained.
     He turned and walked on anyway.
     Another gust swept by behind him, then another, and another, but their effort was unrewarded. Their claws could never reach him. He wasn't strong enough to banish them away, not without overruling the binding stone first. They were, after all, its guardians - but there was little they could do whilst doused. This, at least, he could manage.
     But he would need much more.
     The young man moved on towards the barrow, dogged by the helpless creatures who howled in silence against their impotence. But the defence did not fall with them. Something else lay in wait, a single, stronger thing, sitting upon the barrow on a throne of pure darkness. This one, the young man knew as he eyed it with a veiled gaze, was powerful.
     But he had known what awaited him, and was prepared.
     Again he touched the spellstone and uttered another invocation, dutifully pacing through the ancient words until they began to muddle and melt on his tongue. Lethargy fell over him far sooner than he'd expected, and he dropped to one knee before that throne, even as fire flared at last to his will. But its glow was weak; it didn't reach far enough.
     The shade rose from its seat while the darkness reshaped into a cloak at his back, and drifted slowly, heavily, towards him. The young man half-watched with bleary eyes, but he was struck before he could activate the shield. It was too fast, much too fast - unless it was an inconceivably ancient one of its order.
     He was no match at all.
     Blood speckled his lip as he hit the sharp, rock-studded ground. The impact rang in his ears and spun behind his eyes, but he steeled his will and rose again. The pain chased the lethargy away, and his spell moved justly.
     Fire erupted between them, more powerfully than the last, and blinded the shade. A shriek ripped free in a backward voice, and it recoiled in its smoke, red skin flickering, the being's indefinite shape breaking where the light was at its brightest. But he had no chance to force the flame into contact for the final strike. Even in shock, it was too fast, and it had nothing corporeal to hit until it itself attacked - at which point, it would be too late. His only hope was a counter-curse.
     The fire sputtered and died all too soon, and the lethargy closed its grasp around his mind once again. His knees sagged to the ground while the being began to circle him, drawing a cold, wretched air around with it. But the young man still had bearings enough. He turned his back to the shade and staggered around with him in the opposite direction, brushing a line over the grass with his fingertip as he went.
     He'd made it barely over half way when a rush of dark, freezing smoke swiped his hand aside. But the shade didn't rasp in victory. In that moment, the man had closed his fist and caught a wisp of that smoke, and with the last of his strength, he snapped the nail from the string about his neck and drove it down through the darkness and into the ground.
     A shriek like the sky itself breaking pierced through his ears and stole his hearing away.
     The ancient shade rushed forwards in the new silence, reaching a gnarled black claw towards him, but the young man didn't recoil. Its claw turned white as it passed over the nail, and that purity spread throughout the darkness until the smoke itself became solid and the shade a jagged figure of pearl.
     The lethargy passed in a heartbeat. The shade had been defeated.
     With a gasp of relief, the man struggled back up from his knees, stumbling on to the top of the barrow while blood trickled from his ears, and the pearl shattered and crumbled to dust behind him.

     Darkness reigned. Clouds moved fast in the distance. Trees waved, and a light wind blew over him, tugging silk and chain. But nothing at all passed his ears. The world was mute, and would, he suspected, remain so forever.
     He didn't wallow. The bloodied young man, his silk robes torn, turned around atop that barrow hill and looked back over the tree tops towards the distant village. The glow of lanterns limned the corners and edges of the rooves, purple lights afloat in celebration.
     His thin lips hardened, and he brushed his loose golden hair back from his face in resolution. The celebration wouldn't be wasted this time.
     A deep breath flooded his lungs, his head tipped back, his eyes closed, and he sank again to the ground. With feeling alone, he opened his satchel and withdrew the knife, the string, the bottle, the flowers, and all else. Then, with a prayer to the moon and a brushing touch to the spellstone, he began.
     "The Second Circle rings anew," the words murmured beneath his breath while he took up the handclamp and relinked and closed the broken chain, bent and beaten, and lay it upon the ground in a circle.
     "Once vices shed," then he poured wine and scattered tobacco, poppyseeds and gold around the circle.
     "And duties bled," he scattered nails and petals beyond.
     "And vessels cast aside." The empty wine bottle smashed on the rocks behind him.
     "Outgrew did we our hate," he cut a length of straw.
     "Our fear," a length of thread.
     "Our fate," a length of chain.
     "And strive no more to bitter' rue," the blade turned to his wrist, "once tethers cut by fate." His blood was warm as it flowed over his skin and stained his misty sleeves. Then he made himself comfortable on the grass, and exhaled deeply. "Wander... Wander... Wander..."
     He saw the glow of the binding stone through closed eyes. He felt the presence of the hulking shadows shatter. And he felt the pressure upon the barrow diminish. Spirits were not meant to be bound like this. Death is the Untethering; the time to fulfill all of life's lost curiosities, to see and learn and discover what they couldn't in life.
     For most.
     The young man breathed his last; his spirit vacated its shell and entered instead the cursed heathen binding stone, disintegrating its wretched, hateful hold on the dead at last.
     With a beautiful, bright hum, the spirits of the barrow rose again from their prison and drifted on through the wind, glowing among the scattered pearl dust.

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2022 Kim Wedlock

Tuesday 7 December 2021

Winter Relict

Estimated read time: 24 minutes

     The hooded woman grumbled to herself and rubbed her thin arms furiously against the cold. No cloak was thick enough at this time of the year, no matter where she was. Even the mildest winters were bitter. But this...the mountains, the drifts, the trees hidden somewhere under that thick white sheet...ugh. This was just ridiculous. And she was fairly certain her lungs had frozen solid.
     'Needs must, needs must, needs must,' she reminded herself again, gritting her teeth behind chapped lips. As wretched as it was, it was a good sign. She certainly wasn't going to find the old man - man? - in a tropical setting. So, rather than follow a hunch, which had not been working out for her, she'd decided to actually do some recon. She'd moved from one town to another, listening rather than asking, and among the pleasant atmospheres, Yule pyres, mulled cider and pine needle tea, she'd finally found exactly what she'd needed regarding the giant goat that had been carrying people off in the night.
     Aaalllll of which had led her out here, tracking through frozen mud in the dark, shivvering, small teeth chattering as she searched for prints and traces under the half-lit moon. She could still hear the town's horns, drums and bagpipes blaring in the distance. Casting a wistful look backwards, she was sure she could see the light of the bonfires from there.
     She sighed witheringly and trudged on.
     'Needs must.'

     It didn't take long - though it certainly felt it - to find the prints, and they were exactly as people had described: a goat. A bipedal goat, with a...
     She took as natural a step as she could while being so aware of it.
     ...With a longer than average human stride. And given the depth of the prints in frozen mud, it was big. Or, more likely, heavy.
     "Looks like I'm on the right tracks," she murmured to herself. So, glad no one had been around to hear her pun, she wrapped herself tighter in the never-thick-enough cloak, took a deep breath, and followed the prints onwards into the snow-laden forest. The chill rapidly seeped through her boots, and a second set of tracks - a simultaneously pleasing and worrying set - appeared just as fast: the unbroken marks of something dragging through the ground on either side of cloven hooves.
     She paused and looked closer. The edge of the snow wasn't crisp; it had collapsed back in over them.
     So they were made by something heavy. Like a thick iron chain...
     A smile stretched her pale, grey lips. "Bingo."
     But she couldn't celebrate too soon. It was an old beast, a relic; unique. Powerful. Intelligent. Capable of reasoning, if only in black and white. And that reasoning, it seemed, was failing. After all, it was only December 2nd, yet the Krampus was up and about.
     Evidently, somewhere in recent months - or even days - he'd become corrupted, and, since he wouldn't have been easy to handle at the best of times, untouchable as he was by her inter-realm magic, all that was left open to her - or all she could think of while the cold built icicles inside her skull - was good old-fashioned assault.
     Extending her gloved hand, a silver blade appeared within it. Conjured, yes, but now her fingers wrapped around the hilt, it was real enough. And just as heavy.
     Her lips twisted doubtfully as she wielded and hefted its weight. But she'd just have to manage.
     A cold wind tugged her gaze back out along the tracks.
     Pulling her cloak tight again, she stiffened and moved on, stepping quietly, covering the distance faster than any human, and listening even closer. The air was cold; sound would travel further, and the first thing she'd hear would be--
     The tinkle of the bells and clang of the chains.
     A grunt rumbled in her throat. 'Found you, fella.'
     Silently, she stopped at the edge of the pines and stared on ahead from the shadows, half-blinded by the open white snow beyond. It took half a heartbeat for her eyes to adjust. Then, there he was, a dark shape moving across the field, ninety metres away.
     Clink. Clink. Clink.
     The chill the beast gave off reached her even from that distance, seeping deep and paralytically into her organs. So she set the briefest flame in her core in answer.
     The shock of the heat pushed a gasp from her throat and her legs back into action, and she left the shelter of the trees, flakes of falling snow melting as her red-hot breath cut through. Fast and silent she moved, until both he and the sack on his back were defined in the dark. She'd seen enough bags of bodies to know what was in it. They may not be dead yet, just entranced - but if he was out already, breaking the laws of his...what was it? A 'deityship'? Well, if he could do that, what else was he doing?
     But victims were second to the Krampus. He had to be stopped first. And she wasn't exactly under any obligations anyway. If there was time to save them, there was time. If not...well, she was never there.
     She wondered for a moment just how literal that truly was.
     The closer she drew, the colder it became, and the air darkened just as unnaturally. It was as if she'd stepped into some kind of bleak, corrupt atmosphere, and a grey, sour smell soon began to thrash inside her nose. She closed herself off to it, losing some sense of balance in the process, but it was better than the lethargic submission that would come from the aura's exposure.
     When she was finally just ten paces away and her heart was hammering in her chest, she stopped, straightened, thrust the blade into the snow beside her, loosened out her arms, and took a deep, steadying breath. She'd faced off against the Devil Herself, and successfully - she assumed - fled from Hekate. She could handle the Krampus.
     "Sorry old boy," she said aloud, since there was absolutely no way to get the sneak on a creature like this anyway, "I need a moment of your time."
     The figure slowed to a jangling stop. She waited. Then, slowly, cumbersomely, he turned and cast her a look over his shoulder.
     Her hammering heart leapt up into her throat.
     He looked almost as she'd always imagined he would: a goat-man, upright; dark, hairy, tall, with a long, sharp tongue lolling out from a mouth twisted in misery. But she hadn't expected his build to be quite so broad, nor for his teeth to be quite so long nor so yellow, nor for his goat-like horns to be so thick and twisted. He looked...ancient.
     And his eyes betrayed just how ancient. Primordial, almost.
     She stalled at the sight of them, then fought motion back into her body. Withdrawing the sword from the frozen earth, she steadied her grip just enough for control while keeping her arm loose enough to relieve at least some of the image of threat. "I realise you're busy," she continued coolly, "you've got your work to see to, but I was sent by theeee errrmm deeeiiity council...the Deity Council, and I'm afraid I have to take a look at your list--" She ducked sharply beneath the lashing chain. "Either that's a 'no'," she muttered, "or I'm on it."
     He struck at her again, booming an old, ragged howl over the bells, but she shifted where she stood, barely missing the strike as she collected her strength and burst ten feet backwards in a single movement. "I guess you're right on that count, though I'd rather it wasn't you who gave me the spanking."
     The sack he'd carried as if it weighed nothing crashed like lead to the ground as he swung at her for a third time, chains and bells clamouring, following unwittingly as she lured him away for the trees. He wouldn't be able to swing so easily in there, and if he tried, he'd save her the trouble by tangling himself up. Then she could get what she needed and be off, back to somewhere warmer, brighter, with pleasant company and absolutely no bells.
     But she had to get him in there, first.
     Again she evaded, ducking low beneath two more swings before spotting the pattern and stealing a precise attack of her own.
     Black blood hit the snow with a single satisfying nick, and a colossal roar ripped the night immediately after it.
     Her head rang as the howl knocked her balance and twisted deep in her gut, rattling her eyes inside her skull. She barely collected herself in time to avoid the retaliation, and looked back in confusion, searching urgently through his fur.
     The edge of her silver blade had liquified on that single cut, and she could see it now, sizzling, mixing with his blood and oozing with an acrid stench. So she had hit him. Clearly, it wasn't enough. And now, he was moving faster.
     She sprang backwards again despite the dizziness, closing herself off further from the smell, and desperately avoided the chains, reading his pattern again to work in another strike. It took more concentration than she had. If she got it wrong, if she moved too soon, she'd get her blade tangled in those ringing chains and wouldn't get the chance to summon another. All she could do was move and wait until she could guarantee a clear strike. However long it took.
     The chain clanged back in, a bigger movement than the others and a noise that was beginning to make her feel sick, but it was wide enough to be able to dart away from. Until a second chain swung in behind it, longer and heavier than the first.
     The pain it fired through her shoulder tore a yelp from her lips, and she was sent skidding sideways on her feet through the snow as the bells rang mournfully between them. But there was no time to find solid footing nor prod at the swelling; the Krampus was already on her, howling while his chains flashed by yet again.
     She bit back the useless squeak, tightened her grip on the sword and struggled through the snow, summoning more attention and lowering her defence against the smell of his burning blood. Her nose was cold and numb enough to withstand it, and if she fell again, she might not be quick enough to get back up. She was fairly sure that single hit had broken something in her shoulder. She couldn't afford to waste her energy.
     So when he closed in, she tensed, ready to spring away, and watched both of his chains for the cue.
     But it didn't come. He bellowed directly into her face instead, an impossibly loud sound that rattled her eyes all over again and reverberated into her bones. For a long moment, her mind escaped her, and she found her sword swiping recklessly, ignoring the chains. Somehow, it hit.
     More liquified silver seeped into his bloodflow, another wave of the acrid stench pulsed into the air, and another wretched howl of pain ripped from his old throat.
     She stole the moment to jump back to her feet, drawing on magic to aid her speed before he launched into an enraged fury. But it didn't come. Instead, something wrapped tightly around her left leg, then her right, and as she looked down in alarm at the two small, grey, flickering figures, more chittered and leapt gleefully onto her arms. Then the pain burned through the weaves, and the toxic smell of sulphur irritated her eyes.
     But a simple ice shard spell seemed to take care of them. Goblins apparently couldn't take very much.
     Though that, she soon realised, wasn't their point.
     While more swarmed in, she growled and cast again, and the snow reached up to root the goblins in place. Then er attention fell sharply back to the Krampus, already galloping, bellowing and swinging his chains.
     She dropped sharply when his weapons were within range, and struck out with her leg in a move she really didn't have the practise for. But, by more luck than skill, she still managed to catch and stagger him. If not for his fetlocked legs, she'd have missed completely.
     While his chains fell limp, she stole distance, dancing backwards through the writhing snow and clawing goblins still stuck in its reach.
     Then a sharpened birch stick flew towards her face.
     Instinct dragged her to one side even as she cursed. She should've grabbed for it.
     Then, once again, with the speed a creature that size shouldn't have possessed, he was suddenly in front of her. He was getting faster, she was sure of it. And his eyes were wilder, too.
     When something suddenly struck her backwards again, she was sure nothing had hit her but his voice, and though her ears rang with the sound and her eyes weeped under the smell of his breath, she still made out the sound of horns and bagpipes drifting in from the distance.
     The town. It was too close.
     But so, she realised with a leap of her heart, were the trees.
     She gritted her teeth, scrambled back up, struck clumsily, and made to run the final stretch. But heat pierced her shoulder before she could even turn.
     The lethargy already creeping through her arm told her what had happened.
     She ripped out the birch stick and clutched it tightly even as the heaviness spread to her chest. Just how potent were these ruten?
     She had little time to wonder. Despite the jingle of his bells and the clatter of his chains, the Krampus was on her too soon, knocking her to the ground before she even thought to try to move.
     'No,' she thought as his heavy chain withdrew, 'I underestimated him...'
     Then the goblins were back on her, burning her through her clothes. Her spell had collapsed.
     Maybe this was too much after all. At this rate, she was going to get dragged back to his realm, and--
     Her eyes widened. 'Ohhh...'
     Quietly, she spat out a curse and sighed, pushing herself slowly to her feet while the goblins giggled and the hooves stamped up behind her. Her vision doubled, but she cast the spell anyway, regardless of whether it would work fast enough or not.
     The hooves stopped, and the chains moved again.
     The goblins retreated.
     She slipped the blade into the sheath that appeared at her hip, just as the clatter and ring of steel swung its way around her.
     The deafening bells and chains' tight squeeze were the last things she knew.

Part 2

     The sour sting in her sinuses finally permeated the fog behind her eyes, and dragged her from the depths of what had been an almost pleasant sleep. It was acrid, both natural and ancient.
     Burned...hessian? And...ffff...sssss...ssssomething... No. No, she couldn't place it.
     Slowly, the thought finally came to open her eyes, but the effort was far more than it should've been, and when she thought she'd managed, the ongoing darkness made her wonder.
     She adjusted after the third delibrate blink, and found herself staring at a hand and a knee, neither of which were hers.
     "Well. I'm inside the sack after all." And it was shockingly spacious - but she supposed it had to be to accommodate everyone else in there with her.
     Her gaze drifted upwards, though there wasn't really enough room to move her head, but she couldn't feel anyone pressing down above her.
     So no one else had been added since. Then her spell had worked fast enough; the birch rut's enchantment hadn't fully taken hold. She'd probably only been unconscious for a few minutes.
     Of course, that was probably little comfort for the others, who remained petrified solid, faces twisted and frozen in fear. Some were probably close to death already, whether they were back in the Krampus's realm or not.
     But, again, they weren't her problem.
     She turned her attention out through the sack, rocking with the beast's slow, ponderous steps, and listened, trying to map the route as rapidly as possible - the smells, the sounds, the creature's speed, the ditches in the ground, uphill or downhill...
     But the Krampus's own aura was throwing it all off.
     She strained over it as best she could, deciding not to risk raising her defence any higher or the dizziness would make orientation impossible, and soon noted the sound of horns and bagpipes, joyful music that played now like a beacon.
     And then a dreadful warning. However far he'd carried them in the few minutes she'd been out, they were already nearing another settlement, and if he put any more people in the sack, her chances of escape would plummet. And it would be bad for them too, of course...
     'The corruption seems to have made him almost wild, though... Maybe I can distract him...'
    Her eyes drifted back over the frozen, horrified faces and her voice rose through the sack. "So, how's business?"
     No reply. Had she expected one?
     Maybe she wasn't reaching him. Well, if her voice wouldn't, the snow would. Her fingers shifted where they were trapped and directed the spell, thickening the drift around his hooves and slowing him as he walked.
     "Must come pretty easy, given how people are," she continued anyway. "They rarely learn their lessons, do they?"
     No response.
     "But I have to wonder: this isn't a curse, so what do you get out of it? Reputation only goes so far, and it seems a pretty dull form of entertainment. So...what is it?"
     "Mm. No, then again, you don't seem the type for any of that - necessity, that's all. So it must be food then - enough to stock the coming year, I suppose. Can't say I wouldn't do the same when you only have to work one night of the year...though I hear you've been busy for the past four..."
     Her eyebrows rose as she felt him come to a stop and turn, then heard him grumble something beneath his breath.
     A frown slipped in as she listened, but he soon fell silent again and walked on. "Any particular reason for that? Is your list too long this year for one night?"
     But, again, no answer.
     "Mm... Well, what constitutes 'naughty' these days, anyway? Because I notice Queen Amelia is still knocking about.... And witch hunters. And witches, for that matter, so I think it's safe to assume that whatever forces you obey seem to have their own criteria. know, I'd almost go as far as to say there aren't any rules. Pick and choose; make examples out of restless sleepers. Should keep people on their toes, right? Of course, if that was the case, you wouldn't be out here right now..."
     Again, he stopped, turned and mumbled.
     She muttered a curse of her own. Mapping still wasn't working. She was fairly sure they were moving away from the village, but she couldn't be sure. With a purse of her lips, she redoubled the density of the snow and tried another tactic.
     "You know, you came to my town once. Took two kids, only brought one of them back. I was terrified I'd be gone the next year. Funny how things stick with you." She stifled her struggle as she attempted to free her trapped arm. "The wrong things, clearly. You know, I can't actually remember any Yule from my childhood other than that one. Realm-walker's lot; we live too long. Assuming we don't get done in by our own shenanigans." She grunted. "I'm sure that's how I'll go. It'll be my own fault. People always said so.
     "But, you know, I never really made a lot out of Yule. But I suppose you don't have to. Doesn't make a difference; memories happen when they happen, and whyever they happen. I've been around long enough to learn that. For example, my best Yule was in Navalehya. It was quiet, aurora was flowing, almost got frostbite and Nisska made a chicken eskellian that almost killed us." A grin snapped across her face even as she continued to subtly wrestle herself free. "At least I think it was Yule...
     "My worst, though, was definitely Yule. Xarinill - they do things differently there, that's why I know it was Yule - and I was hunted by a tribe of dracoria. My fault, I misunderstood, removed a curse I shouldn't have. Or, rather, one they didn't want remov--"
     She hissed, barely missing biting her tongue as the sack was dropped down. Then came the unmistakable smell of sulphur.
     Hell lay ahead.
     Good. At last. Stronger there, he might be, but the problem areas would be solved. He'd be more corporeal, easier to strike, and, more importantly, slower. And she could use the energy in that place just as well as he could.
     And, if she carried on irritating him, he'd get there even sooner if just to get rid of her.
     Finally, she freed her arm as the sack was lifted again. "So," she sighed in relief, though the limb was empty of blood, "what's it like for you? Are you as singular as I am? I suppose you would be. It's how you were made. Nowhere to go but your home, bound to one purpose, no deviation allowed, and feared by humans just for doing your job." She squeezed her fist to revive circulation. Not for the first time, she wondered if it was already rotting inside from starvation. "You know, even if you hadn't broken the rules, it would only be a matter of time before they started hunting you. There are a few already after me, and I didn't abduct or lose any of their children. Then again, I suppose some would argue I'd done worse, but regardless, hunted is hunted, and there are too many of them and far too few of us. It's only a matter of time before they come up with something to end it once and for all. Then neither of us will matter. All the children you've taken, all the lessons you've taught, all the things I've taken and lessons I've taught... Pointless. We're wasting our time really - but that's an awfully dangerous rabbit hole to go down, don't you think?"
     She puffed a quiet sigh. "You know, I can't help but notice you've not answered me yet. Must be that tongue of yours, hard to control, lolling out like that all the time. Good thing I'm perfectly capable of holding a conversation on my own, eh? Master of the monologue. Don't get much practice with people, but it's either this or lose the ability to speak altogether, and I don't much fancy that."
     The monotonous pace stopped, he turned again, and the smell of sulphur in her sensitive nose noticably thinned.
     Curses rasped behind her teeth, and she moved to finally reach out of the bag until the pattern of his mumbling registered. Then, she stalled.  'A Yuletide song?'
    The sack dropped again, and as the cold seeped deeper through the hessian, she frowned and listened to him walking off, his bells and chains clanging. They stopped several long paces away and swayed, presumably, as he looked around.
     The frown deepened as she waited. Then, she moved. Out poked her head, then her shoulders, then her elbows, and she watched him for a while. There was something else in his eyes when he finally looked back.
     A question?
     Slowly, her hand rose from the sack and pointed back towards the sulphur. His eyes followed, and his head bobbed a cumbersome  nod. Then back he clanged, pushed her back inside, lifted the sack and shifted it over his shoulder once again.
     As a stranger's hand pressed into her cheek, her eyebrows rose. 'He's just...senile...'
    And a better idea formed.
     She wracked her memory as the sack resumed its slow to and fro swing, and began to sing along. The rough, mumbling voice outside soon rose in tandem, and when the Krampus finished that jolly song in something half-resembling the usual tune, he moved immediately into another. The bells and chains began to rattle with the rhythm, and his hoofsteps stamped like a metronome.
     Slowly, with that measured pace and deciphered sound, the rest of the world presented itself around her, and the smell of sulphur grew strong again. And when the bag next dropped to the snow in the midst of the toxic stench, out she climbed, the pair of them still singing, sun on its way up, hellish gateway open beside them, and she summoned a flute to play along. For only a few minutes they stayed this way, until the Krampus suddenly turned and descended that fiery path as if he'd been called by something. She, the sack and its contents had been forgotten. Yet even as he disappeared into the fire, his singing drifted back out with the sulphurous gas.
     She wasted no time. Letting go of the flute, which continued to play itself, she stooped and drew a circle in the snow around the gaping, sputtering hole, whispering an incantation in alternating tones. Only when the final word and gesture had been made did she stop circling and straighten, and watched as the ground pulled itself back together and the toxic haze diminished.
     The Krampus wouldn't be visiting next year. If he even remembered to try.
     While the cold, white sun rose low on the horizon, a gusty sigh steamed from her curving lips, and her shoulders rounded. "Problem solved." At least until something else stepped in to fill his role. Something more suited to modern values. Necessity was necessity, after all.
     Then her gaze dropped to the birch branch she'd saved, its end covered in white blood, and smiled with satisfaction. The wound in her shoulder steamed itself shut in a heartbeat. "Jolly good." Then she moved on to leave. She had too much still to do.
     But she'd barely gotten more than five paces before her attention drifted to the sack. "...Ugh. I suppose I should get these people home first..."

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Copyright © 2021 Kim Wedlock