“It’s moral extortion,” Cord said, apropos of nothing.
I groaned inwardly. We’d holed up somewhere north of Midian, just to the south of Mount Nippier. I suspected the old thief had something to do with that name but kept the speculation to myself. The village we’d landed in was a picturesque little thing nestled in the foothills.
Cute cottages surrounded a central square, where a great old tree grew, branches reaching for the sky as if to caress the clouds. As of the night before, a gentle snowfall had turned tree and paths and homes into soft-edged pastels. It looked like something someone heavily sedated, and maybe a little on the simple side, would have painted.
The residents were cheery, but mindful of their own business, and friendly in a non-intrusive way. There seemed to be little squalor, little strife, and few guards. Frankly, it was dull in a way that made me want to rip my own face off. Which meant it was perfect. We’d be able to ride out the heat our last job had brought down on us.
Cord crumpled up a poster he’d brought in from the cold and chucked it across the room.
“Nonsense,” he snorted.
I sighed and picked up the paper. He sulked, staring out the window, pipe clenched between his teeth as I smoothed the poster. It depicted a stout older man dressed in red leathers astride a moose. A massive pack hung from over one broad shoulder, and he held a double-headed axe easily at his side. He wore a grin beneath ruddy cheeks, and a white beard bristled from his chin. The artist had painted St. Niklas beneath the depiction.
I laid the paper on the table. “What’s your problem with this guy?”
Cord snorted. “Presents?”
I stared at him.
“You don’t know the story?”
“I grew up in an orphanage. The only presents I got were not being beaten by the nuns for an afternoon.”
“Ah yeah, I’d forgotten your childhood was sadder than a three-legged puppy in a meat grinder.”
“Get to the point.”
He blew a smoke ring. “St. Niklas was the patron saint of battle, once upon a time. It’s said that he was just a petty warlord at first, but as time went on, he made a name for himself. The warriors who proved themselves in battle, he’d gift with trinkets and gold. The cowards he’d shame with a bag of penises severed from their enemies, which they’d have to carry around and use as weapons.”
“That escalated quickly,” I said.
“Unlike those penises.”
“And that’s why you dislike him? The whole handing out of floppy cocks?”
“I dislike him,” Cord said, “because of what they’ve made him.”
“You know, merchants. They’ve turned a man with a noble history into a joke. It’s all about selling gewgaws now. They adopted the tradition, pushing the idea that good children should get toys, and bad—”
“Please don’t say severed dicks.”
“No. Even the wealthiest merchants cannot give children severed penises, Nenn. Instead, they give them hardened dog turds.”
“That’s… somehow the same?”
“Yes. Anyway, back to my point. It’s moral extortion. ‘Be good or be punished.’ It’s a direct subversion of free will, and I will not have it.”
“Uh huh. And what, pray tell, are you going to do about it?”
“We’re going to rob that bastard.”
“Wait. I thought he was fake.”
“No, the holiday’s fake. He’s real. And he’s loaded. You don’t think he lets people use his likeness for free, do you? We rob him, and it hurts the merchants. Hurt the merchants, hurt the holiday.”
Cord was treading dangerously close to another crusade. Something occurred to me, and my annoyance levels spiked. “He lives on that damn mountain, doesn’t he? That’s why you kept saying ‘Stop here, Nenn!’ ‘They’ve great rum, Nenn!’.”
“Technically, I wasn’t wrong, was I?”
“No, the rum is great. But you’re still a dick. What about the kids?”
“I’m pretty sure the kids will survive without a mountain of cheap trash they’ll forget in a week. Look at you. You turned out fine, right?”
“Well, I’m hanging out with you, so…”
“Yes, I have improved your life.”
Something else occurred to me. “Won’t he just kill us?”
“Not if everything goes to plan.”
Red flag number one. I tried to pry further.
“Which is?” I asked.
I groaned. Red flag number two. This was not helping my rage.
As the day lengthened into afternoon, Cord sent me out for a few things. He said he had errands of his own, and I decided I’d rather not know. My list was odd enough as it was. The shops were on the opposite side of the square, bright-colored displays in big windows, heaped with carved toys, fine stitched clothing, and sundry baubles. Villagers paced the walks, gazing into windows, children in tow. The tree stood over it all gaily, its boughs decorated with garlands of bright berries and painted wooden ornaments in all shapes and sizes.
The shop I stopped at was run by a wizened old man wearing a red stocking cap with a white puffy ball on top. The chime over the door tinkled as I entered, and he looked up.
“Merry Nikmas!” He said.
I nodded and plopped the list Cord had given me on the counter. The old man pulled a pair of spectacles from his apron and looked it over.
“Hm. Having a Nikmas feast, are we?” He asked as he bustled around behind the counter, placing assorted items into a paper bag. “Better make sure you have all the good stuff.”
He placed two jars of grease, a handful of chestnuts, and a sock into the bag.
“You ain’t got a ham on this list.”
“Yeah?” I said.
“Yeah, you need a ham.”
“I’m good. Just this.”
“You can’t have a Nikmas feast without a ham, though. I’m telling you. What’s your mother gonna say?”
“Probably mmmph mmmph mmmph.”
“I mean, she’s in a coffin, so it’ll be hard to hear her.”
He stared at me for a long moment. My hands itched for my knives.
“You ain’t one of those pansies what hates our holiday, are you?”
“Sir, I have better things to do than hate a date on the calendar. Can I have my stuff?”
“Yeah. Yeah. And you’re taking a ham. Or I’m telling everyone.”
“You are oddly obsessed with putting your meat in my bag, but okay.”
He packed a cured ham into the sack as well, and I threw a few coins on the counter, then made my retreat. As I left, he called after me.
“Don’t let them win the war on Nikmas! Tell your friends, it’s ‘Merry Nikmas,’ not ‘Happy Holidays’!”
I let the chimes over the door answer for me. Once free, I made my way back to the little cottage we’d rented. Cord met me halfway there, stepping from beneath the branches of the tree. He brushed pine needles off his coat.
“Do I want to know?” I asked.
“You do not,” he said.
We walked a little further in silence.
“We have a ham,” I said.
“Oh good. I was worried you wouldn’t bring home stray meat.”
We reached the front door of the cottage. Cord reached into the bag and took the grease out.
“Hang the sock over the fireplace. Make sure you fill it with chestnuts.”
“What’re you gonna do?”
“Grease the wheels of justice.”
“Right, forget I asked.”
I stepped inside, set the bag down, and hung the sock as asked, while Cord banged around on the roof. He was up there for some time, so I sat with my knife and whittled the ham into a rough likeness of Cord’s head.
“It’s like you read my mind,” he said upon entering.
“You worry me,” I said.
“The Gentians have a saying: Worry is just fear with no one to stab.”
“Gods, I hate them.”
“Me too. Get some sleep. We’ll need to be up in a few hours.”
“Yeah, wishing me fairies in my dreams?”
“No, gods no. Those little fuckers eat teeth.”
“Never mind. Sweet dreams.”
I grumbled something unkind and went to the couch, where I sacked out in a matter of minutes. Something about not being on the run relaxes a person. I might have to consider doing it more often.
Two things woke me. First, the sound of something large and heavy crashing down the chimney at breakneck speed. The second, knocking at the door. I sat up, reaching for my knives as ash blasted into the room from the fireplace, followed by a cursing mass in a red suit.
“HO! HO! HOOOOO NOOOO! MOTHERFUCKE—”
Niklas didn’t get to finish the sentence because Cord cracked him over the skull with the chestnut sock. It made a sound like a tiny horse hitting a wall. They struggled for a moment, Niklas grabbing Cord’s throat in a death grip and smashing his windpipe. Cord went down, but it was a short-lived victory. Niklas staggered, the concussion catching up to him. The big man collapsed like a sack of potatoes a moment before the door was kicked in.
I sprang to my feet, knives out. Two diminutive men charged in, dressed all in green, bells on their clothing jingling. They pointed tiny crossbows at me. If they didn’t look like they were ready to use them, it might have been adorable.
“Reach for the sky, broad,” the one on the left said.
“Gino, it’s a girl. Youse can’t just ask a girl to reach for the sky. She gots the tiddies and everything. Sit down, please miss.”
I itched to look behind me. I didn’t know what was happening back there, but it was awful quiet.
“Yeah, what Joey said. Youse gots to sit down, girly. Or I gots to stick this here bow in your cooch.”
“Gods, Gino. You always gots to be such a pig? I’m sorry, miss. Here, let me he-“
He stepped forward and lowered his bow, reaching out to guide me to the couch, like I was a wilting flower. So, I kicked him. Funny thing. When you punt someone under three foot, they tend to fly. A long way. His buddy watched, open-mouthed, as the elf flew through the doorway. Cord chose that moment to appear from the dark and clock the remaining little man with a ham. The elf’s eyes rolled up and he collapsed.
“About time,” I said.
“I can’t believe you kicked an elf,” he said.
“You’re robbing St. Nik.”
“Look, there’s a moral line. Rob the rich, don’t kick small people.”
“Where does braining someone with a five-pound ham fit in?”
He changed the subject. “C’mon, help me grab his bag.”
“I get all the best jobs.”
We grabbed Niklas’ bag where it had fallen, some of the contents already spilled across the room.
“How’d you get him, anyway?”
“Greased the chimney. Grab that corner.”
When we upended it, a slew of coins fell out, and we gathered those as they fell, but mostly it was filled with wrapped packages, and suspiciously squishy bags. Cord grabbed one and tucked it into his tunic, and ignored the rest.
“Is that—” I asked.
“Bag o dicks, yeah,” Cord said.
“Saving it for later.”
I decided I didn’t want to know. A low grumbling from outside pulled our attention from the gold, and I went to the doorway and peered out. The townspeople had discovered the elf. I’d managed to punt him into the tree, and they stood around looking alternately confused and angry.
“Uh, Cord,” I said.
The elf thrashed for a moment, shaking the boughs, and sending pine needles down in a bristly rain. He struggled to straddle the branch, and pointed at our cottage.
“Those motherfuckers got Niklas!” The little man shouted.
“Ah, fucknuggets,” Cord said. “Plan B.”
“Plan B?” I asked.
“Greased the tree, too.”
Cord grabbed a lantern and chucked it at the massive pine. The glass hood broke with a tinkle, releasing oil and flame. The tree blazed into life as fire caught its branches at an unnatural rate. The elf began to scream as tendrils of flame licked at his tiny felt suit, and he tried to shake himself free, bells jingling at an alarming rate. But the pine tar was too much for his small frame, and the tree held him like a lover as he burned. A smell like peppermint filled the air.
“I am definitely going to the hells for that,” I said.
“Run!” Cord shouted.
We stopped long enough to grab one or two more stray coins, then sprinted toward the river, where we’d berthed our little boat. Behind us, the citizens watched their Nikmas tree burn, paralyzed in horror. The shrieks of the elf made a counterpoint to the chime of Nikmas bells from the church. Somewhere in the crowd, a child wept inconsolable tears.
We’d possibly given the patron saint of warriors and heedless consumerism brain damage, murdered two of his elves, and burned down the one pure symbol of their holiday. I didn’t blame them. And yet, I felt like this wasn’t entirely our fault.
The shopkeeper, standing on the stoop of his store, caught my eye as we sprinted away, and I couldn’t resist a parting shot.
“Happy holidays to all, and to all, a roast elf!”