by Bruce Arthurs
Nick’s head was already pounding when Gunther sent word of an emergency in the stables. It was worse by the time he arrived and was struck by an obnoxious wave of odor, the pungent reek of reindeer poop and puke. Nick’s stomach lurched, but he managed to keep his half-digested meal of cheese, bread and ale – a lot of ale – from coming up; it would only add to the revolting miasma.
Nick turned from side to side, his good eye taking in the situation. In every stall, reindeer were down or barely standing. They shivered and trembled, eyes wide with alarm and anxiety. At irregular intervals, one or another would lower its head to vomit onto their stall’s straw-covered floor, or let loose an even more malodorous stream from its nether end. Or both, simultaneously.
Even Nick’s lead reindeer, a big bad-ass buck named Rudolph, was clearly sick. It’s normally bright pink nose was pale, with a greenish tinge. It’s stall was in even worse shape than the others. Rudolph stared at Nick with fevered accusing eyes: Why have you let this happen to me?
Gunther’s stable-dwarves were trying to help, putting heavy blankets over the shivering animals and taking up the soiled straw and putting down fresh.
Gunther himself was in the stable’s workshop, adding various powders and herbs to a large tub of water and stirring vigorously. The tub hung over a brazier of hot coals to warm the liquid. A leather funnel and hose lay on the wooden workbench.
“Reindeer flu, m’lord,” the weathered little man explained. “I’d heard it was striking the wild herds in the southlands, but I hadn’t expected it to reach this far north.”
Nick sat wearily on a low stool and placed his head in his hands. He wondered if Gunther’s concoction might help his own through-a-knothole-and-beaten-with-a-stick misery.
No, he decided. He was already getting too many looks of pity and disgust from his workers; he wasn’t sure which was worse. He really, really needed to cut back on the drinking. Snap out of it, he told himself. You’re not the first man whose wife has left him. Buck up! It’s Christmas Eve!
“Will that–” He waved a hand towards Gunther’s tub. “–get the reindeer sky-worthy in time?”
“Mmmmmm….” Gunther wouldn’t look Nick in the eye.
“Just give me the bad news.”
“Not a chance in Hell, m’lord. Between the vomiting and diarrhea, dehydration is the biggest danger. With this–” He gestured at the tub. “–and this–” He held up the leather funnel. “–we can keep the herd going until the flu runs its course. But that’s at least another day, perhaps two.”
Nick sighed. I don’t want to deal with this. Not now. Not ever. Once, he had enjoyed overcoming challenges, but that had been in the old days. The old old days, when problems could be solved with a sword, or an axe, or a spear. But he was older now. He was lesser now. Downscaled, that was the word this era used.
He stood up and crossed to a small thick-shuttered window. He pushed it open. A blast of frigid air slapped his face and set his thick beard rippling. He stared out at the bleak night-wrapped landscape of ice and snow and stone.
After a moment, he closed the shutter and stepped back into the stable’s warm – if smelly – air. He knew what had to be done. It was his duty, damn it. Millions of children around the world counted on him. The rotten little shits, he thought.
“Gunther,” he said. “Gather up the cats.”
+ + +
There had been only two cats in the beginning, when the arctic encampment had been only a few small buildings. As the factories and workers barracks and other facilities had expanded over the decades and centuries, so too had the cat population. Dozens now roamed the various buildings. Some bonded with workers and were devoted pets; others were aloof and semi-feral.
Nick had indulged his wife’s reluctance to winnow the cat population. When she had left, though, she had taken only her two favorites. The remaining cats had been a constant reminder to Nick of his failure as a husband, as a man, as a legend. But now those cats might save Nick’s bacon.
While every available worker was put to finding and fetching cats, several of Gunther’s stable-dwarves hastened to adjust reindeer harness to fit smaller animals.
“I have doubts about this, m’lord,” Gunther advised. He wrung his cap in his hands. “You’ve never herded cats before. Your wife was the only one who–“
Nick cut him off with a gesture. “I don’t want to hear that. I am Nicholas goddamned Claus, and I always make my deliveries.”
Except, of course, he was not really Nick Claus. The name was a title that came with the position. He’d had another name long ago, a much older name.
But there was too much to do to dwell on the past, whether ancient or recent. “Is the sleigh ready? Is it loaded?”
“Yes, m’lord. No problems with that, great blessings be.”
“Yeah, yeah, great. Get the cats harnessed as quickly as possible. I still need to change.”
In his private quarters, Nick’s elf-servant Fred had laid out the annual apparel: Undergarments of wool and silk, scarlet trousers and a matching scarlet coat trimmed in white fur, suspenders and a broad black belt, fur-lined mittens and cap, and boots so well worn-in and comfortable it was almost like being barefoot.
That was part of the magic. The clothing kept Nick warm no matter how cold the weather was, yet was perfectly comfortable in blistering heat as well. And they always fit perfectly, no matter how much weight Nick might have lost or gained.
He still grumbled, though, when the belt had to be cinched a notch looser than the previous year. It’s all the ale, he thought. And the other booze. I’ve got to stop drinking.
“Fetch me a whiskey, Fred.”
Fred had been brushing the coat smooth over Nick’s stout figure. He spaused before answering. “Are you sure that’s a good idea, sir?”
“Dammit, Fred, just get me the whiskey.”
“As you wish, sir.” Fred exited the room.
Nicked checked his image in the mirror. Damn. He’d been a lot leaner and fitter when he’d first become the Claus. He’d had the body of a fighter, a warrior. He’d been a fighter and warrior, and more.
All lost now. Guts and glory, faded to… this. A fat man in a garish red suit. No wonder his wife had left.
“Ho. Ho. Ho.” His voice was as flat and dead as he felt inside.
“Your whiskey, sir.”
“Thank you, Fred.” He took the proffered tumbler and tossed its contents down his throat. He barely tasted it, but felt the warm burn inside. “Ready as I can be. Let’s go.”
+ + +
The cats had been harnessed, but at a cost. Two dwarves at the side of the garage were being tended to by a third; a first-aid box lay open on a table beside him. The first two had copious numbers of scratches and bites on arms and faces, to which the third applied ointments and bandages.
Nick whistled at the amount of widespread, if minor carnage. “Sorry, boys. I didn’t think the task would be that dangerous. If we ever do this again, I’ll arrange for some sort of protective gear.”
“No bother, really, sir,” lied the taller of the two dwarves. His name-badge identified him as NIGEL. “The hardest part was arranging them in an order where cat-fights didn’t start.” He held up his bandaged arms. “It took a while.”
It seemed to have worked, though. A dozen cats were lined up in harness, and none were actively trying to get away or squirm out of their harness. Some washed and groomed themselves; others were curled up and napping. A few twitched their tails and glared at Nick and the others, but they remained otherwise calm even in their harness.
The sleigh already bore the immense sack of gifts to be distributed. Even large as it was, the sack’s apparent size was misleading. It was larger on the inside, and its weight was a reflection of its exterior volume, not the actual hundreds of tons of its contents.
Magic, thought Nick. But not MY magic. Or not completely. Nick’s destiny – or curse, depending on his mood – and all the accoutrements and obligations that came with it may have been in service to a newer God, but elements of the old remained. The sleigh was built of oak and ash and thorn from ancient sacred sites, with ancient sigils and symbols carved deeply into its timbers and components. The runners were immense lengths of bone shaped and sharpened to cut and glide across ice; the public story spoke of whalebone, but Nick remembered when giants still walked the earth and battles were fought against them.
Everything looked ready. Nick climbed into the driver’s seat and took up the reins. The coterie of cats looked too small, after so many years using the larger reindeer. But it was the sleigh’s magic empowering the animals, not the animals themselves, that pulled the sleigh through the sky on its annual journey.
Nick flicked the reins. “Yah!” he shouted.
Nothing happened, beyond several of the cats turning their heads and casting Nick a puzzled stare.
Nick flicked the reins again, a little harder. “Yah!“
One of the grooming cats yoga-ed itself into a meatloaf asana and went to sleep.
Someone tell me this isn’t happening, Nick thought. Someone please tell me that.
Nick turned his head to see who had come up beside the sleigh. It was the dwarf Nigel again. The tall little man had one hand raised for attention.
“What is it… Nigel?” Nick asked in a flat voice.
“Begging your pardon, sir, but I think I know what the problem may be.”
Nick sighed unhopefully. “All right. And what may the problem be, Nigel?”
“Well, reindeer are herd animals, sir. It’s their nature to move as a group, and in the same general direction. But cats are… well, cats, sir.”
“I see. You know how cats think, Nigel?”
“Oh, yes, sir, I think so. Love them dearly. Volunteered to help with this, sir. That fellow there–” Nigel pointed to a large Maine Coon holding a lead position. “–is my very own Samson. Splendid fellow, if I say so, sir.”
“I’ll take your word for that, Nigel. But I still have a sleigh stuck in parking mode, and a herd of harnessed cats not pulling even their own weight. Do you have a solution, Nigel?”
Nigel beamed. “Yes, sir! I believe I do!”
+ + +
From a storage barn for outdated gifts, an old-fashioned bamboo fishing pole, over twelve feet long, was dug out. The kitchen provided a large trout, gutted and cleaned but still smelling strongly of fish.
“What we have to do, sir,” Nigel explained, “is give the cats a common goal.” The pole’s fishing line ended with a sharp hook, now being worked into the trout’s mouth by Nigel.
“Food and play, sir. A chase, with a chance of food at the end of it.”
“Let’s try it.” And if this doesn’t work, I’m taking a pallet-load of Scotch back to my room and not come out until spring.
There would need to be two people in the sleigh, one to handle the reins, and a second to maneuver the pole. It was a squeeze when Nigel joined Nick on the driver’s bench. Nigel swung the end of the pole carefully up and forward, bracing the pole’s shaft against the sleigh’s dashboard. The trout-baited line dangled and swung as it moved towards the front of the harnessed cat herd.
One by one, the cats noticed the dangling *thing*, and then the enticing odor it emitted. Eyes locked on, tails twitched. The fish swung down further, dangling in front of the cats rather than above them. Several cats, then more, stood and leaned forward in their equipage.
With a soft hissing rumble, the sleigh began to move, bone runners sliding across the smooth stone floor.
“It’s working,” Nick said, amazed. “It’s working! Gunther, open the doors!”
Gunther and his workers scrambled to open the wide sliding doors. Blasts of freezing air raced in, but Nick felt the magic gaining power as the sleigh moved; the frigid gusts felt like a cool gentle breeze to cats and riders alike. The sleigh’s speed increased as the cats chased the dangling trout. The sound of the runners against the floor lessened, then ceased altogether. Air appeared between the cats’ racing feet and the floor.
As in so many other years, Nick’s sleigh was flying. Cats, sleigh, and the sleigh’s occupants were a foot above the ground as they flew out the open doors into the dark and cold.
Nigel raised the trout slightly, and the sleigh’s angle of ascent steepened. The reins were mainly useful for minor course corrections, Nick found. Nigel’s raising and lowering the trout, or swinging it to either side, was the primary control for the cats’ direction.
They soared into the sky, steered between thick cloud-banks, up, up, into clear air, night sky spangled with bright stars. A gibbous moon cast ghostly light over the cloud fields now far below them.
Nick laughed. “It’s actually working, Nigel!” Finally, something’s going right, he thought, feeling… was that joy?… for the first time in a long time. “You’re a genius, Nigel!” he shouted, and gave the young dwarf a congratulatory slap on the back.
Nigel lurched forward in surprise. His grip loosened. The tip of the fishing pole dipped precipitously. The trout dropped in reaction.
One of the big lead cats saw its chance and lunged forward, paws extended, claws out, and snagged the trout.
“Samson, NO!” Nigel cried too late.
The Maine Coon yanked the trout towards itself and bit. The other lead cat reacted by turning and attacking, trying to grab the fish away from Samson.
Nigel hauled on the pole, trying to snatch the trout away from the cats, but the animals would have none of that. The sleigh lurched as the two cats abandoned their duties and fought.
If Nick had had both hands on the reins, he might have been able to stop what happened next. But he was still fumbling, trying to get his grip again, when the two lead cats, snarling, spitting, intertwined, fell back from their position and into the next pair of cats. Nick hauled on the reins one-handed, but now there were four cats involved in a hissing ball of cat-brawl. Then six, then even more as the coiling conglomeration of fangs and claws and flying bits of fur sped towards the sleigh, a rolling snowball from Hell.
And now the sleigh itself was out of control, tumbling, rolling, pitching, with down the only common direction.
Down. Nigel dropped the pole and grabbed for the sleigh’s dashboard. Nick followed the example, dropping the useless reins. The pole whipped around at the end of its line, the trout still buried somewhere deep in the screaming ball of feline outrage.
Down. The stars, the moon, the clouds, the less-and-less-distant mountain peaks below, all spun crazily in Nick’s vision.
Down. Something hit Nick in the head. What the–? He tightened his grip on the dashboard, somehow turned his head against the force of the spinning, falling sleigh.
The gift sack’s neck had come undone. Stuffed toy animals, dolls, games, anything and everything were spilling out, spinning off into the air in a thick stream. The sleigh’s wild tumbling brought escaped objects whizzing by Nick and Nigel. Nick ducked a pair of roller skates. Nigel uttered a pained “Oof!” as a box of plastic building blocks bounced off his ribs and spun into the night.
Down. A flash of mountain peaks again, but now they were to one side of the falling sleigh instead of below. Sudden murk as they flashed through a cloud layer, then burst into clear air again, now with nothing between them and the far-too-less-than-distant ground.
The sleigh smacked into the mountain’s slope with a high white splash of snow. Nick, Nigel, and cats flew in all directions, the felines’ harnesses snapping with the impact. Men, cats and sleigh all bounced, rolled, and came to a stop. The scene was still and silent.
A moment later, a scattered shower of packages and objects pattered into the snow. The silence and stillness resumed.
+ + + + +
Nick wasn’t sure how long he was out. He came to with a faceful of snow. Every bone and muscle in his body felt sore and aching.
The sleigh’s magic had kept them all from being smashed into a blood-and-guts holiday trifle on the mountainside. But even the strongest magics had limits.
He rose painfully onto his elbows, wiped snow from his face, and turned his neck carefully for a full view of his surroundings. The sleigh was on its side a short distance away, but looked undamaged.
To one side of the sleigh, Nick saw the cats gathered in a loose circle; at the center of the circle, Samson crouched, vigilant, the remains of the trout between his front paws. The big cat tore another chuck of fish-flesh off the trout, growling and flattening his ears whenever another cat started to move forward.
Nicked turned the other way and saw Nigel. The young dwarf was half-sitting against a rock outcropping. His eyes were open, and he gave a weak waggle of his fingers when he saw Nick looking in his direction.
“Are you… all right… Nigel?” Nick said, carefully. Even his tongue felt banged up.
“Never been worse, sir,” Nigel replied in a strained but somehow cheery voice. “Ha, ha. Ouch!” Nigel pressed a hand gently against his ribs. “Better than you, sir.”
“Uh, your… face, sir?” Nigel raised a hand and pointed at his own features.
Puzzled, Nick raised a hand to his face. He didn’t feel more than badly banged up and bruised. His fingers brushed across his face—
The right eye-socket was empty.
“Damn it, my glass eye came out!” he exclaimed. The impact – or impacts; Nick remembered several bounces, none fondly – must have knocked it loose.
“Glass? Oh, thank heavens!” Nigel sighed in relief.
“Do you see it anywhere?” Nick asked, knowing the question was probably hopeless. If the eye had landed in snow, it would have punched beneath the surface and be impossible to see. If it had hit rock, a glass eye separate from its owner would have lacked the sleigh’s magical protection and shattered. Even hitting a soft patch and surviving undamaged, the long slopes stretching away below meant it might even now be rolling further and further away.
He combed through the snow with his fingers, but stopped after a moment, self-doubt draping his mind. Reindeer sick, cats uncontrollable, sleigh crashed, gifts scattered everywhere. Why am I bothering?
Nick fell forward again, face into snow, a deep lassitude creeping over him. He wanted to sleep. Or drink. But trying to find a bottle of gift liquor amongst the scattered packages was too much effort. I’ll just lay here a while longer.
Even when he heard footsteps crunching through the snow, coming towards him, he didn’t move. Nigel’s gotten up, he thought, but that didn’t matter.
Then Nigel’s voice spoke, and it was still coming from the position over by the sleigh. Even more surprising were the words Nigel spoke: “Oh, my… Mrs. Claus, is that you?”
Nick lifted his head from the snow again, just as the footsteps came to a stop before him.
He blinked snow away from his eye and saw…
Sandals of woven gold, spotted with jewels of differing hues, adorned slim feminine feet that led upwards to well-formed calves. A belted robe of shimmering fabric failed to conceal the trim, nicely curved shape beneath it. A feathered cape draped wide shoulders. A necklace of thick gold nuggets circled the woman’s neck. Her face was not only beautiful, but held a strength and resolve impressive on its own. A thick braid of long silver-blonde hair hung over one shoulder and across the front of her torso.
Nick’s jaw dropped. It had been months. She’d lost the dumpy weight, and her body was firm and toned again. The unromantic house-dress, gone. The frizzy head of white hair, gone.
Nick hadn’t seen her look this way for years. No, centuries.
“Freya?” he asked in astonishment.
* * *
“Welcome to New Asgard.” Freya waved a hand at the vista spread before them as they exited the narrow mountain pass.
Nick, from his seat in the uprighted sleigh, saw a wide valley set between towering mountains. Ice and snow on the mountainsides thinned away as the slopes leveled. The valley’s central land was verdant with forest and meadows and fields. A large lake, of an almost-black blue, stretched away to the far end of the valley. Several dragon-prowed longships skimmed the lake’s surface in the distance. On the closer shore, buildings clustered, dominated by an immense hall with many side-structures.
Nick was still trying to recover from the rush of events. The crash. The unexpected arrival of his wife, followed by a stream of Freya’s Valkyries, winged helms and all, on their flying horses. In moments, the sleigh was upright again and the Valkyries had rescued the scattered gifts and packages from the snow. A strip of cloth from the hem of Freya’s robe became an improvised eye-patch for Nick. Then Freya, in a two-wheeled chariot drawn by two remarkably large cats, Tregul and Bygul, had brought the still-stunned travelers here, the sleigh following close behind Freya’s chariot. The North Pole cats, back in mended harness, followed Treygul and Bygul’s lead without hesitation.
“What is this place?” asked Nigel from his perch atop the big toy-sack, filled again and tied firmly shut.
“These are the Mountains Between the Mountains,” Freya answered. “These are the Lands Behind the Lands.”
“But, but… why isn’t it on the map?” Nigel insisted.
Freya cast the young dwarf a disdainful look. “You live in a place that’s not on any map.” Nigel reddened with embarrassment.
Nick tried to give Nigel a better answer. “There are places created by belief and desire. Present but non-present, real but not-real at the same time. Like the Pole, like… like the old Asgard was.” He stared again at the sight before his eyes. “This is rather smaller.”
Now it was Nick under Freya’s glare. He raised his hands in a gesture of appeasement. “Hey, sweetie, I’m amazed to see anything like this at all. We barely escaped the old place, remember?”
Damn, those memories, of watching the borders of their world, a world where he’d been not only ruler but god, shrink and contract as the outside world’s belief had diminished and turned to other gods and religions, still hurt. And it had happened so quickly at the end. Other Aesir and Vanir had abandoned Asgard earlier, but he and Freya stayed until almost the end. They narrowly escaped into the wider world before Asgard had crumpled into a wizened ruin. Weary and heartbroken, sad refugees, they’d trudged along a dusty road in a dry hot land unfamiliar to them. If they hadn’t met that bright-eyed fellow at a crossroads… what had been his name? Nick couldn’t remember now. Impressive talker, though, and kind-hearted; he’d shared bread and fish with Nick and Freya, told them of a job opening he knew, and pointed them in a direction they’d not have chosen on their own.
But Nick had questions of his own. “How did you do this, Freya?”
“I didn’t. But we’ll talk at the meet-hall.” Freya turned her attention forwards again and spoke in the cat-tongue. Tregul and Bygul, pulled Freya’s chariot a little faster. The other cats, back in mended harness, followed the bigger cats’ lead without hesitation. The sleigh moved down the rough road to the valley below, its runners levitating several inches off the ground.
They passed through the forests and by the fields and came to the settlement by the lake. The largest building, the meet-hall, was of heavy timber embellished with carvings of patterns and runes, some brightly painted. The upper reaches of the high walls held several large openings. Nick watched as some of the Valkyries’ steeds flew in and out of the building.
They stopped in front of the meet-hall and dismounted, proceeding inside as chariot and sleigh were taken away by Valkyries. The openings in the upper walls let light and fresh air into the building. Fire-pits of old were replaced by modern fireplaces and chimneys at intervals along the walls. That’s an improvement, Nick thought, remembering the dim interior and omnipresent odor of smoke and sweat in the old Asgard’s meet-hall. There were balcony-like platforms built between rafters, close to the window-door openings; a number of the winged horses were hitched there, Valkyries sharing the platforms and observing the main hall below them.
Freya led them to the far end of the hall, where a large wooden throne stood, deeply carved with more runes and figures, and cushioned with layers of fur from wolf and bear and fox.
Nick couldn’t repress a smile. “Freya, it looks just like it used to. How did you manage all this?” Before Freya could answer, Nick stepped onto the dais, turned and plopped himself onto the throne.
Suddenly the hall filled with hissing. The faces of the Valkyries, both on the ground floor and perched in the rafters above, flashed with anger.
“Nick,” Freya said in a cool tone. “You’re sitting on my throne. You need to get down.”
“What?” Nick stared around the hall. “Are you joking?” The hissing increased. The Valkyries began fondling swords and other weapons.
“My throne, my hall, my Valkyries. My Asgard. Get. Down.“
Nick rose back to his feet. Freya had always been strong-willed, but this… this was a level of authority he’d never seen in her before. “What are you saying?”
“Let’s talk privately.” Freya cast a glance to the side, where a nervous-looking Nigel was flanked by several Valkyries.
“Hmph. All right. Nigel, why don’t you ask the nice, heavily armed women to take you to the sleigh and see if it’s airworthy again? If–” He turned back to Freya. “–it’s all right with you, Freya.” Freya nodded.
“Uh, okay?” Nigel responded. Two Valkyries escorted the dwarf from the hall. Freya raised her hand and made an imperious gesture to the Valkyries in the rafters. The warrior women quickly mounted their horses and flew out the openings. Another gesture, and Valkyries on the ground floor departed.
Nick and Freya were alone in the large hall. Freya stepped onto the dais, moved past Nick, and sat on the throne. She cast a challenging look at Nick.
“I’ll admit, you look good sitting there. But you’re a queen, it would come naturally.” Then he couldn’t contain the frustration and questions building up inside since Freya’s arrival at the crash site. “How did you–? How long has this–? What have you–? Damn it, Freya, why did you leave me?“
She stared coolly at him for long seconds before speaking. “You really don’t understand at all, do you, Nick?”
“If you’ve taken the name of Freya back, you could at least call me–“
She raised a hand. “No. No, Nick, I can’t. You haven’t been who you were, not for a long, long time. You haven’t even been who you were supposed to be for a long time.”
“You lost faith in yourself. You began doing things by the numbers. By rote. You stopped caring.”
Nick tried to keep his face blank, but Freya’s words were uncomfortably true. “I’m sorry you felt that way, but–” He waved a hand at the huge hall. “–how long has… this… been in the works? When you left, it wasn’t a sudden decision, was it?”
“No. No, it wasn’t, Nick.”
“You could have told me.”
“You were building your own little world at the bottom of a bottle. You didn’t even notice the signs of a new inter-world coming into being.”
“And you did.”
“Yes, Nick, I did. When the first stirrings of a new potentiality began, I was listening for them. When the first shoot of a new world-tree shattered the rock it grew from, I heard the crack. I found it, I nurtured it, I guided it to become… this. A new Asgard, a new home for the gods we once were, the gods we could be again.”
Freya nodded. “That’s what I thought. At first. But you changed my mind, Nick. You changed my mind. It’s not the same, it can’t be the same as it was.”
Nick sighed. “I only see one throne, Freya, and you’ve already told me it’s not mine to sit upon. So why am I here at all?”
“Simple mercy, Nick. Far-sight showed me your sad try at cat-herding, and your crash. I couldn’t just leave you in the snow.”
You didn’t have trouble leaving me before. The thought hurt, and its pain added to the bruises and aches Nick already had. He rubbed his temples. “Do you have any aspirin here?”
“Of course. We’re not medieval here.” Freya pulled a cellphone from somewhere in her robe. “I need aspirin and water in the meet-hall,” she spoke into the phone. It vanished into her robe again. “Where were we?”
“You rescued me. Not that it matters. Christmas is ruined.”
“Stop moping, Nick. What did you see outside when we arrived here?”
“Um, big valley? Lake? This place?”
“In the sky.”
Nick thought. “Oh. The sun. Wait, it was still—“
“Land Behind the Lands, remember? Time is… flexible here. You should have realized that.”
Yes, I should have. Millions of Christmas deliveries in one night, how else? Just how hard did I hit my head in the crash?
“Some are rather battered, but all your gifts and parcels are gathered up and back in the sleigh’s sack. I can teach you the cat-tongue’s command words and loan Tregul and Bygul to lead the sleigh; they won’t need much direction, or a fish, and the other cats will follow their lead. Rest here for a few hours; when you leave, only a few moments will have passed in the outside world. You can still make deliveries in time.”
A Valkyrie entered the hall, bearing the promised aspirin and water. Nick took the proffered items with gratitude. The Valkyrie’s face seemed familiar, somehow.
Nick turned back to Freya. It grated, and he felt a sense of shame and humiliation, but he said the words anyway. “Thank you, Freya.” After a second, he added, “And afterward?”
Freya shook her head. “There’s no ‘afterward’, Nick. You needed help; I was available. But it was a one-time thing. Get yourself straightened out, Nick, because I won’t be there next time.” She addressed the Valkyrie. “Take this gentleman to a room to rest. He’ll be leaving later.”
Nick followed the Valkyrie out. There didn’t seem to be any point in trying to say more. He followed his guide into one of the building’s side-wings and to a small room. It held a bed heaped with furs, and a small rough-hewn table supporting an ewer of water and several mugs.
“Do you need anything else?” the Valkyrie asked.
“No,” Nick answered, then paused. There was something familiar in the woman’s voice too. “Wait. Do I know you?”
The Valkyrie chuckled, then lifted her helm off to better show her face. “Oh, maybe a little,” She winked at Nick. “Odin.”
Nick’s eye widened, not for the name itself, but for the sudden masculine tone of the Valkyrie’s voice.
He could see it now. The shape-shifter god had changed almost beyond recognition, but… something around the eyes, and definitely Loki’s unnerving smile.
Nick gestured at the woman standing before him. “This again?” It wasn’t the first time Loki had assumed the shape of a woman or other creatures. Nick couldn’t keep a note of disapproval out of his voice.
“Oh, c’mon, you have to admit I rock a dress better than Thor.”
“Thor was in disguise. He was acting. Which I hear he’s still doing, and quite well at it, apparently.”
“So it’s said.” Loki sniffed. “Talk about playing to type. Did you know he’s partly responsible for all this?”
“What? Freya didn’t mention that.”
“Really. Conditions for a new inter-world were primed by a few people trying to reestablish the old religions about a century ago, and increased when a version of what was called our myths entered their culture by–” Loki laughed. “–by comic books, of all things. But it was the past few years’ movies, with millions of people sitting before theater screens and televisions, wanting and willing to suspend disbelief if just for a few hours, that raised the potential to the tipping point. And Thor’s human identity being cast to play the role of Thor, that provided the final push from potentiality to actuality.”
“Huh. Didn’t think he had the smarts.”
“Oh, the dolt doesn’t even realize what he helped create. He’s happy playing a human playing a god.”
“But what are you doing… here?” Nick waved at Loki’s female form. “And why this?”
“You might find this hard to believe, but I’m actually trying to prevent trouble.”
Several seconds of silence stretched between them before Nick spoke. “You’re right. That’s hard to believe. What are you talking about?”
“Have you sen any men here, other than yourself and the little Nigel fellow?”
“Um….” Nick thought back to his arrival. “There were longboats, out on the lake.”
“All-female crews. There aren’t any men in New Asgard. Freya doesn’t allow them.”
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe it’s something to do with disappointment over the men in her life.”
“You’re putting this on me?”
“Partially. Also, attitudes and mores have been changing. Overall, women accept changes faster and more easily than men. Only natural, since many of the changes are to women’s advantage. But to forbid men from Asgard altogether seems… extreme.”
Nick spluttered. “Asgard… Asgard was never restricted to men! Why would they–? Why would she–? What about the battles? The glory? What about–?” Nick’s face flushed with outrage, and his eyes seemed to flash with internal lightning.
Loki smiled thinly. “Freya has lost all respect for tradition. She has made her Asgard a travesty of what it was. She must be stopped. You can stop her. Only you, Odin, All-Father, Lord of Asgard. Retake your rightful position. Take the throne. Take New Asgard and make it again what it was.”
Nick stared, aghast at Loki’s words. “She will not yield. I know her that well.”
“No, she will not. You know what you will have to do, All-Father.”
Nick’s face paled. “No. I will not say those words. I will not.”
“Say them and make them true.” Loki leaned closer. She spoke in a low whisper. “You must murder Freya.”
Nick turned away, hands rising to cover his face. A deep groan rose from within him. “No. Let me think. Let me think. She is my wife.”
“Is she, still? She left you. More than abandoning you, she has usurped your rightful place, your proper throne. She has stolen your destiny.”
Nick shuddered, groaned again. For a moment, he stood still and silent. Then, slowly, Nick lowered his hands and turned again to Loki, his face set in stone, his mouth a thin grim line.
“Destiny. I had almost forgotten that word. But how can the deed be done?”
“I escaped Asgard’s collapse only shortly before you and Freya. I managed to bring several… items… with me.” She whispered again. “I have the Spear.“
Nick’s eye widened. “Gungnir? It survived?”
Loki nodded. “That, and more that may be of aid to you.”
Nick stood silent for another long moment. Then he spoke. “What must be done, shall be done. Take me to the Spear.”
* * *
Loki led Nick to a door leading out of the meet-hall. They moved cautiously, trying to stay unseen. A close-by building, Loki explained, held stables for the Valkyrie’s steeds, and storage rooms at its far side.
Nick and Loki crouched behind low bushes. They were only a score of yards from the stable, but there were Valkyries coming and going. From combs and brushes several of the warrior-women held, Nick concluded it was a regular time for grooming.
“How will we get past them to the storage rooms?” Nick whispered.
“I could cast an illusion over you, make you look like another Valkyrie.” Loki squinted skeptically at Nick. “Perhaps not. But that shouldn’t be necessary. It’s almost time for–“
The long blare of a horn, off towards the front of the meet-hall, interrupted her words.
“–one of the planning meetings,” Loki finished. “Everyone has to attend.”
Sure enough, several Valkyries left the stable, heading towards the hall’s front entrance. Others quickly finished their work and left at a faster pace..
“That should be almost all,” Loki whispered. “I’m required to attend, but we have about ten minutes yet before it gets called to order.” One final Valkyrie exited the stable at a fast walk, following the others. “That’s everyone. Let’s go.”
They crossed the open space quickly and entered the building. The stable was softly lit, smelling of hay and timber and horse. There were long rows of stalls, most occupied by the winged horses; some whinnied or nickered as Nick and Loki entered.
Loki headed towards the back of the stable. “There’s an entry to the storage rooms back he–“
“Mister Claus, is that you?“
Nick and Loki both turned in surprise. At the opposite, far end of the stable, in an open area, was Nigel. Behind him was Nick’s sleigh, and scattered fuzzy lumps Nick recognized as the cats from the Pole.
An exasperated noise came from Loki. Then the shapeshifter streaked down the aisle at high speed.
“Wait!” Nick shouted and ran after Loki. By the time Nick reached the open area, gasping and panting, Loki had seized Nigel by the throat and pinned him against the side of the sleigh. Nigel’s eyes widened in terror as Loki began to draw her sword.
“No! Loki, stop!”
Loki paused and looked back. Nick, wheezing, staggered to a halt. “He might raise the alarm, Odin. We can’t allow that.”
“No, but we need not kill him.” Nick pointed to a coil of rope hanging from a nail in a nearby stall post. Loki loosened his grip on Nigel’s throat as Nick moved towards the rope.
Nigel gasped, sucking air into his lungs. “Mister Claus,” he said in a weak voice. “What’s happening? Why did she call you–?”
As Nick lifted the rope from the post, the horse inside the stall neighed with sudden excitement and reared up on its hind legs, pawing the air with sharp black hooves. Nick stepped back. “What the–?”
Loki chuckled. “Oh, you’ll like this.” She gestured with her available hand, and the horse… changed.
Both Nick and Nigel’s eyes widened as the horse’s legs wavered, blurred, and then doubled in number.
“Sleipnir!” Nick exclaimed. He reached to touch the horse’s head. The now eight-legged animal grew calmer and moved forward to press its head against Nick’s hand. “I thought you died in Asgard’s collapse. You still remember me, boy?”
Nick looked towards Loki. “You saved him?”
“Of course. What kind of mother would I be if I hadn’t?”
“Yes, well… thank you, Loki. I mean that.”
“Let’s save the sentimental hug-fest for later. We have a dwarf to tie up, and a goddess to murder.”
“Murder?” Nigel squeaked. “What–?” Loki snatched the pointed cap from Nigel’s head and wadded it into the dwarf’s mouth.
“Sorry, Nigel.” Nick said. He and Loki bound Nigel’s legs and tied the dwarf’s hands behind his back. “Have faith. I know what I must do.” They picked Nigel up unceremoniously and laid him in an empty stall, ignoring Nigel’s muffled grunts.
“Quickly now.” Loki led Nick to the storerooms. One room held stacks and piles of shields, greaves, and weapons. Long spears leaned against one wall, but they were ordinary spears, with plain wooden shafts and sharp but unadorned black iron points.
“I do not see the Gungnir.”
“I hid it in plain sight,” Loki answered, gesturing again.
One of the spears blurred and transformed as Sleipnir had. It lengthened by half a foot, and the shaft thickened to fit a larger than normal hand. The point stretched and widened into a long blade, engraved with runes and symbols; the bluish metal held an undulating pattern like waves in the ocean.
Nick lifted the transformed weapon away from its ordinary companions. “Yes,” he said, seeming to stand taller and straighter now. The red-suited old fat man appeared suddenly strong, and ready, and dangerous.
“Great,” said Loki. “Do you have a plan? Make it quick. If I’m not at that meeting on time, it may arouse suspicion.”
Nick told Loki his plan.
* * *
Meanwhile, Nigel worked the makeshift gag from his mouth. Confusion raced over his face at the strange turn of events, but the important thing was to get free from his bonds. He struggled, but felt no slack in the ropes.
Nigel heard a meow. He turned his head towards the open end of the stall. A fuzzy brown face looked back at him. It was Samson, Nigel’s big Maine Coon. “Samson!” Nigel called in a low voice. “Samson, come here!”
The cat came into the stall, then stopped. Nigel called again. Samson stared for a moment, then padded towards Nigel.
“Good boy! Come on, Samson! Come here!” Nigel wriggled the fingers of his bound hands. “The ropes, Samson! You need to claw the ropes!”
Samson went to the wriggling fingers and sniffed at them.
“Good boy, Samson! Claw the ropes open! It’s okay if you scratch me too. Claw them, Samson!”
Samson hopped onto Nigel’s buttocks, turned around once, laid down, and went to sleep.
Nigel groaned. Samson purred.
* * *
“Audacious, but risky. I’ll try to keep you from being killed immediately. I’m off.”
Nick watched Loki depart, then stood by the storeroom door another moment, deep in thought.
He went back to the stables, to the stalls where Sleipnir waited and Nigel lay.
Nick nudged the cat off Nigel’s posterior, propped the Spear against the side of the stall, and pulled the young dwarf into an upright position, leaning him against another side of the stall.
“Mr. Claus, please, why are you doing this? This isn’t what a Claus is supposed to be. This isn’t you. Santas don’t kill.”
Nick sighed. “In my day, Nigel, I’ve slain many. I put that aside for a long time. But the sun and planets turn in their circles and cycles, and that older time seems to have returned again. A time for warriors, not saints.”
Nick opened Sleipnir’s stall. The horse came forward and they touched foreheads. “Hello, old friend,” Nick said. “Ready for new adventure?” Sleipnir whinnied in response and moved out into the wider pathway.
Nicked backed several yards away, took a deep breath, ran forward, and leaped up, turning in mid-leap to land neatly on Sleipnir’s back.
Nick smiled. “Hah! Fat but not flabby.” He leaned over and picked up the Spear.
“Please don’t do this,” Nigel begged. There were tears in his eyes.
Nigel looked towards Nigel again; his expression turned serious. “Nigel, I know what I have to do. Try to trust me.” He held up the Spear in display. “Once thrown, Gungnir always strikes its rightful target. I’ll try to have you let loose as soon as possible.” He turned Sleipnir and rode out the stable’s door.
Alone again, Nigel felt despair. He looked around for any sign of hope.
His eyes lighted on the nail where the coil of rope had hung. If he could scooch himself over to the post… if he could push himself upright against the post… if he could raise his hands high enough behind his back….
Nigel began to scooch.
* * *
Once outside, Nick urged Sleipnir into a gallop. Not towards the meet-hall where Loki and the Valkyries had gone, but away from it. They went between buildings, staying close to walls that kept them out of sight of the meet-hall’s upper windows. Nick’s plan called for stealth and surprise, and Loki had laid out a way to achieve it.
To call Sleipnir’s pace a gallop was understatement. The eight legs blurred as their pace increased. Horse and rider zipped between buildings and across pathways in eye-blinks, not seconds.
They reached the far edge of the settlement, zipped across a field, into the forest, and increased their speed yet again. Sleipnir’s hooves rose above the ground, now churning air rather than dirt, swerving and dodging swiftly between trees.
Nick laughed. His beard rippled in the storm-wind of their passage. He felt strong, and powerful, and… sober? Yes, that was it. His mind was clear of desire for ale or whiskey; it had been a long time.
The movement of Sleipnir beneath Nick gave an immediacy and connection to his surroundings the sleigh had never managed. This was what he was meant to be, this was what he had been, and might be again.
Nick and Sleipnir missiled through the woods. Thickly forested hills rose outside the settlement, and their course led around and behind them. A long arc brought them to a valley between the hills. They turned into it, keeping low and under the tree cover. They were heading back towards the settlement, back towards the meet-hall, approaching the hall’s back side. That side of the hall bore no windows from which they might be seen.
Zip. Zoom. Out of the woods, past more buildings, a swift vertical climb up the back wall of the meet-hall, a quick deceleration and hard turn at the roofline, and Sleipnir dropped softly onto the meet-hall’s roof, next to a tall chimney.
Nick dismounted. The slant of the roof was no problem; centuries of experience made Nick sure-footed even on the steepest pitch. He stroked Sleipnir’s head.
“Here’s where we part again for a time,” he said. Then he leaned close and whispered into Sleipnir’s ear.
* * *
Nigel panted with effort. He’d pushed himself to his feet while leaning against the post, poking himself painfully several times with the protruding nail. Now he tried to stay upright while raising bound hands high enough behind his back to slip the rope over the nail. His shoulders protested sharply; it was much more difficult than he’d expected,. But he managed it with a gasp, then began rubbing the rope back and forth along the nail’s rough shank. There was little room for movement along the shank, perhaps a finger’s width, and each stroke brought a fresh twinge to Nigel’s shoulders. But he kept on, unsure what his next step would be if he freed himself.
He heard a sound and turned his head toward the stable’s entrance. The eight-legged horse had returned, but without the Claus. It stepped towards Nigel, hooves clopping against the floor in a crowded rhythm.
“What… what is it? Where’s Mr. Claus?” Nigel asked.
The horse ignored his words. It moved beside him, wedged its head behind Nigel’s back – Nigel winced at the added stress on his overextended shoulders – and began nipping carefully at the rope’s knot.
* * *
The planning meetings were a chore, but a necessary one. Freya stifled a yawn and shifted on her throne; even padded with furs, her butt grew sore eventually. The committee reports – construction, recruitment, resources and other areas – tended towards the dull and dry and numerical. Discussions could grow heated, but Freya kept a firm hand on arguments that seemed at risk of getting out of control.
It surprised almost everyone in the meet-hall when a deep rumbling noise emanated from the fireplace on the back wall. The interior of the fire-chamber twisted and blurred, then a scarlet spheroid shape suddenly burst from the fireplace. The shape unfolded in unorthodox and impossible directions, becoming a white-bearded fat man in a scarlet suit, a cloth tied over one eye. A fat man with a long spear. A fat man who bounded across the space between fireplace and throne and jumped nimbly onto the back edge of Freya’s throne, balancing there without tremble or waver, spear held high and pointed downwards at Freya. Freya twisted on her seat and stared up at Nick with eyes grown wide.
Valkyries reached for weapons, but one Valkyrie raised her hands and shouted in a penetrating voice. “Hold, my sisters! Do not risk our Queen!”
The hall’s occupants froze in place, uncertain whether to act or not. Those who recognized it knew the spear Gungnir, once thrown, invariably struck its target.
The Valkyrie who had spoken stared intently at Nick, growing impatience in her eyes, and gave a tiny jerk of her chin, as if to say, Well? Get on with it.
Nick looked around the hall. Gungnir never wavered in his hand.
“My name is ODIN!” he shouted, in a voice that rang clear to every corner of the huge hall. “All-Father, and KING of Asgard! And I have a few things to say.”
He paused, then continued. “I ruled Asgard. I fought for it. I gave an eye for it, trading that eye for knowledge. When Asgard fell, I became Nicholas the Claus. A lesser creature, a lesser god, a lesser man than I had been as Odin. But Odin and the Claus have this in common, a special knowledge….” The muscles in Nick’s arm and shoulder tensed, and his next words were a mighty roar. “…we know who’s NAUGHTY!“
With those words, he twisted the Spear upwards and away from Freya, and threw. Gungnir flashed across the room, straight and true. It struck the Valkyrie who had spoken in the shoulder with such force she was thrown back and pinned to a wooden support post. The Valkyrie screamed with pain and clutched at Gungnir’s shaft with both hands.
The other Valkyries reached for weapons again, but a quick gesture from Freya stilled their hands. Nick leapt from the back of the throne, somersaulted in mid-air and landed upright. He pointed at the Valkyrie he had struck. “That is no Valkyrie! That is Loki, the trickster! Loki, the liar! Loki, the perfidious! Loki, who made for Baldur’s death from envy, and who sought to suborn me into slaying Freya, my own wife, your Queen!”
The Spear-stricken Valkyrie still clutched at Gungnir’s shaft, grimacing, her eyes glaring hotly at Nick. The womanly shape shifted, became the shape of a man. Gasps and murmurs of recognition rose from the onlookers.
“Trickster, liar, perfidious?” Loki’s voice was strained, but rang with anger and venom. “Strange words for one winning advantage by his own lies and trickery.”
“I told no lies,” Nick replied, walking towards Loki. “And I have had enough of you.” He grabbed Gungnir’s shaft and yanked the spear from Loki’s shoulder. Loki groaned and slid down against the wooden post, clutching at his wound.
Nick lifted Gungnir again. The Spear’s point now aimed directly at Loki’s heart.
A hand fell on Nick’s shoulder. “Hold, Nick,” Freya said.
Nick turned his head towards her. “Hold? He tried to have you killed, Freya!”
“He is Loki. Mischief and chaos are his nature.”
“He’s spied on you for months!”
Freya shrugged. “Do you think I would not recognize Loki, in whatever form?”
Loki’s mouth gaped at her words. “Yes, Loki,” Freya said. “I knew you, and I have kept your mischief here small while you continued your charade. Better to keep one’s enemies close, is it not?”
Loki snarled. “The mighty of Asgard have fallen once. They may yet fall again.”
“Poor little scorpion,” Freya answered. “What am I to do with you?”
“Yes, what?” Nick asked. “Slay him and let us be done with it.”
Freya eyed Nick. “Forget not that you once swore blood-oath with Loki. You are forbidden from slaying him.”
“Well, that was a mistake,” Nick muttered.
Freya continued. “And those are not words a Claus would speak.”
“I am more than the Claus, Freya.” Nick struck his chest with a fist for emphasis; a slight wave jiggled across his belly. “There is still Odin, your lord and husband, within me.” Their eyes were fixed on each other’s now.
“Gah, what mush,” muttered Loki, and struck. He lunged forward, his body stretching and lengthening. Arms and legs shrank back into his torso, Valkyrie armor and uniform falling away as Loki’s new shape slid from within them. Scales erupted over skin, and Loki’s head reshaped into a horned and sharp-fanged, snake-like aspect.
The Wyrm that had been Loki struck at the Spear, knocking its point aside before Nick could react. Snakish coils whipped around both Nick and Freya and tightened, drawing them together with Gungnir pinned upright between them.
The coils tightened again, and Nick felt breath being squeezed from his lungs. He struggled to no avail. Inches away, Freya also tried to free herself, her face mottled with strain.
Valkyries around the hall shouted and drew swords. Loki’s Wyrm-shape moved, twisting and rolling even as he held his crushing grip, giving no opportunity for would-be rescuers to strike without risking Nick or Freya. The hind-part of Loki’s transformed body whipped around, knocking several Valkyries off their feet and making others step back.
Again the coils tightened, and Nick’s groan came out as an anguished gasp. His vision turned black around the edges. He struggled to stay conscious. He heard more shouts, but they came from above, not from the surrounding Valkyries.
Nick craned his head up, and saw a horse – a eight-legged horse, moving fast – fly through one of the upper-story window-openings. It zoomed into the hall, performed a tight loop, and rushed downwards. Through ever-narrowing vision, Nick saw a small figure on Sleipnir’s back, arms clutched tightly around the animal’s neck.
“Hold on, Mr. Claus!” Nigel shouted. As Sleipnir leveled out of its dive, Nigel jumped. The dwarf slammed into the Wyrm’s thick body just behind its head. Loki jerked in surprise. The crushing coils around Nick loosened by a fraction, and Nick hauled a load of blessed fresh air into his lungs.
Nigel clutched desperately, arms grasping the Wyrm’s neck. Loki thrashed, trying to dislodge the unexpected attacker. Nigel was making shouts of “Aieee!” and “Oh-h-h-h, poop!“, but still he held on. Nick felt an additional fraction of freedom, enough to tighten his grip on Gungnir and jerk the Spear upwards. The movement was only an inch or two, but enough for spear-point to prick underside of Wyrm-jaw. Loki jerked again at this new surprise, and Nick gained enough slack to bring the Spear up further and faster than his first attempt, trying for a wound to incapacitate, not just annoy.
But Loki pulled his head aside as Nick thrust. The blade rose alongside the Wyrm’s cheek, causing only a scratch. Loki’s eyes widened as spearpoint slid past eyeball in a near-miss.
The Wyrm roared and gyrated wildly. Nigel flew off the Wyrm’s neck in a high arc, wailing. Nick and Freya were slammed about, then the coils loosened and withdrew, leaving them sprawled on the hard floor.
A half-dozen Valkyrie, seeing opportunity at last, rushed towards the Wyrm, weapons drawn. Several fell as Nigel landed in their midst.
The Wyrm sprang into the air, twisting and blurring into a new, smaller, shape. Loki, now a sparrowhawk, beat wings frantically, darting back and forth in the air. Swords and spears batted at it, but the small swift bird dodged. It climbed higher and zoomed out a window-opening. Valkyrie on the upper platforms jumped onto their steeds and pursued the fleeing bird. Valkyrie on the ground floor ran out the door and towards the stables.
“Oof,” said Nick, sitting up slowly. His bruises had bruises.
“Ack,” said Nigel, wincing as he disentangled from a pile of Valkyrie.
“Crap,” said Freya, rising to her feet. “Are you all right, Nick? That bastard tried to kill you!”
Several Valkyrie helped Nigel to his feet. They seemed to bear no ill-will for his collision with them. Several smiled warmly at him, casting considering eyes over the small man’s frame.
“I’m all right, Mr. Claus. I think.”
“That was a spectacular display of bravery, young Nigel,” said Freya. “Very impressive.”
“Very stupid,” said Nick. “By the stars and sky, I only sent Sleipnir back to let you loose, not for reinforcements. But, ahh…” A sheepish look crossed Nick’s face. “…I’m glad you came.” He tried rising to his own feet, failed. Freya extended her hand. Nick hesitated, then took it and let himself be assisted.
“I think Mr. Claus has the right of it, Mrs, ummm…”
“Call me Freya, Nigel. And you can call Mister Claus ‘Nick’. Right, Nick?”
“Hmm? Uh, sure. Sure, Nigel.”
“Nick?” Nigel’s voice was uncertain. “Not…?”
Nick waved a hand. “I’ve been Nick a long time. I’ve gotten rather used to it. That other name….” He looked towards Freya.
Frey hesitated before replying. “You are both Odin and the Claus, Nick. You showed the best of your Odin-self here, just a few moments ago.”
“Heh.” Nick couldn’t restrain a grin. “Even when I had a spear pointed at you?”
Freya arched an eyebrow. “Did I look that frightened?”
“Hmmm. Actually… no.”
“You’ve disappointed me sometimes, Nick, but you’ve never hurt me. I was surprised, not frightened.” She considered for a moment. “Maybe a little. But for you, too. I feared you’d be skewered by my Valkyries.”
A Valkyrie standing by Nigel spoke. “It was a near thing, my Queen. If Sybil… err, Loki, that is… hadn’t spoken out, I was ready to let an arrow fly.”
“Well, good that Loki spoke out then, if only for extra seconds to see Freya slain,” Nick said. He looked towards the window-opening where Loki had fled. “Think they’ll catch him?”
“Probably not,” answered Freya. “Loki’s slippery, always has been.”
“It was all a sham, then?” asked Nigel. “Both of you pretended to be deceived by Loki?”
“Yes,” answered Nick. “Sorry. It seemed the best way to keep you out of the way and safe.”
Sleipnir approached, its eight hooves cloppity-cloppity-cloppity-clopping against the floor, and pushed its head against Nick. Nick stroked the horse’s head. “Were you ever on a horse before, Nigel? Your riding technique looked a little… unusual.”
“Barely riding at all, sir. More climb on, hold on, and let him have his way. I didn’t know if he’d go back to you after freeing me. It was sheer hope.”
“I couldn’t let the Claus ruin Christmas. Or himself.”
Freya took Nick by an elbow and led him a short distance away. “What did Loki tell you,” she asked, “meant to make you want to kill me?”
“You know what Loki’s like. A bit of truth, a lot of twist. He, ah, said you were usurping my rightful place over Asgard, and turning it into a women-only paradise.”
Freya stared at Nick for several long seconds, then burst into laughter.
“Oh, Nick. Yes, Asgard is being rebuilt by women, and I’m trying to create a system where women have authority and rights the old Asgard lacked. But we’re not excluding men, not forever. We’re just trying to minimize assholes. The loudest arguments in our meetings have been over how soon to admit men.”
“Hmmm.” Nick looked towards Nigel and the small coterie of Valkyrie around him. Several positively cooed over the young dwarf; one ran a finger along the outside of Nigel’s ear. Nigel’s eyes were wide and startled-looking.
Nick turned back to Freya and spoke in a softer voice. “So the Valkyrie…” He held up two fingers held slightly apart, brought them together. “…aren’t…?”
Freya rolled her eyes. “Some of them are. Not that it’s any of your business.”
“Point taken.” He paused. “Nigel and I should go soon. Christmas can’t wait forever.”
“Flexible time here, remember? You wouldn’t have to leave for several days, here.”
“Do you… want me to stay?”
“You need to stay, you and Nigel both. At least a day. You’re both banged up from the sleigh’s crash and from Loki’s shenanigans.” Freya rolled her head on her neck; Nick heard several vertebra pop. “I’m pretty sore myself.”
“Nigel? Did you hear that last bit?”
“Yes, Mr. Clau… err, Nick.”
Freya pointed at the two Valkyrie flanking Nigel. “Take him someplace to rest, you two. Make sure he’s comfortable.”
The Valkyries smiled. “Oh, we will.” They each put a hand on Nigel’s shoulders. “Come along. We won’t bite.” Nigel was lead away, a somewhat anxious look on his face.
“Do you think he’ll get much rest?” asked Nick, sotto voce.
“I have my doubts. He is a very nice-looking young dwarf,” Freya answered, absently fingering the gold nuggets of her necklace before letting her hand drop away.
Nick cleared his throat. “Well… I should go back to my guest room, I suppose. Good night.” He squared his shoulders and turned away, then stopped as Freya’s hand touched his shoulder.
“Nick….” Freya paused, her face uncertain for a second. “Why don’t you come to my chambers? I have a hot tub; good for soaking away aches and pains. And we could… talk more.”
Nick stared, his own expression just as certain. “That’s, uhh… thoughtful.” He felt he’d suddenly stumbled into the middle of a minefield. Don’t screw this up, he told himself. “Maybe we could have that talk over–” He saw Freya’s face stiffen. “–coffee?” he finished.
He realized, surprised, that his need for a drink, the need that had been a part of him for so long, was… not gone; there was still part of him wanting that easy answer, its convenient solace and numbness. But the desire was muted, overshadowed by a need to regain what he had once been. The day’s events had given him a taste of that. He wanted more, and Freya’s words gave him sudden unexpected hope that maybe – maybe – there could be more.
Freya’s face softened again, making Nick’s heart leap. She brought out her cell phone: “Send a pot of coffee and service to my chambers, please. And get the hot tub ready.”
An unasked question Nick did not dare to ask hung between them. Freya put away her phone, looked at Nick’s face, and answered the question anyway. “We’ll talk, Nick. We might talk quite a lot, and that’s all. Oh, and we might get your suit cleaned.” She nodded towards Nick’s scarlet suit. The suit’s magic repelled soot and blemishes associated with the duties of being a Claus, but wrestling a giant snake-thing apparently wasn’t covered; the suit had multiple smears and stains from the tumult.
Nick looked down at his outfit and slapped himself mentally. He’d been so focused on Freya, on the thought and hope of a rapprochement, he’d thrust away all thought of his duties as the Claus. Damn it all. He didn’t want to lose this opportunity by leaving her side again. But… duty! But… Freya! But… but… but….
He needed to be the Claus. But he wanted to be Odin as well. He wanted to be Freya’s husband again. He wanted… everything. Everything.
* * *
Much later, after New Asgard’s day had turned to night and begun moving towards morning again, Nick slipped out from under the covers of Freya’s bed and padded, naked, to the long narrow window. A moon shone bright among scattered clouds, the mountains a tripled shade of blue in its light, with almost-black shadows, dark rocks and trees, and an almost phosphorescent azure reflecting from the snow at higher elevations.
Nick’s suit, cleaned and pressed, laid over a nearby chair. Nick didn’t want to look at it, didn’t want to think of it, but couldn’t keep it from his mind.
He didn’t want to be the Claus anymore. Freya had been right. He’d grown tired and bored, of the job, of the duty. He’d slacked off, stopped caring, and the drinking had started in earnest. After Freya had left, it had been even worse. He’d even come to resent and despise the children who believed in him.
He didn’t want to go back. Not without Freya. And Freya’s place was here, now. But there was no place for Nick in New Asgard, not yet, maybe never.
Freya came up behind Nick, pressed her body along his. “Can’t sleep?”
“No. My mind is all a-muddle. What I want to do, what I should do, what I have to do. There’s no easy answer, Freya, no clear path to follow.”
She laid her arms over his shoulders and her hands onto his chest. She fiddled with his silvery chest hairs and was silent for a long moment.
“You could give it up,” she said, softly. “I walked out on being Mrs. Claus. You could let someone else take over. Maybe that young man Nigel. The Claus suit would adjust itself to fit him. I could show him how to have Tregul and Bygul lead the sleigh. He could take your place. He could be the Claus. And you could be with me.”
Nick savored her words for a moment, then spoke.
“That is a wonderful idea, Freya. And you would despise me if I did so.”
Her reply came after a long pause. “Yes. I would.”
Nick sighed and placed his own hand over one of hers. “You were never really happy as the wife of the Claus. You were always more than it required.”
Freya sighed in her turn. “I got so sick of baking all those damn cookies.”
“But they were very good cookies.”
“You should bake me a batch.”
Freya stepped back and slapped Nick’s shoulder, but it was a toy-slap with no anger behind it. Nick turned towards her. The moonlight shone on her own nakedness, and Nick felt excitement stirring in him again.
“I’m not sure where it goes from here, Nick. I didn’t expect this to happen. I didn’t expect to be here, now, with you.”
“In bed with an old fat man?”
She smiled. “You’ve never disappointed me in that regard.”
“Eh, nice words, but there were a few times….”
“You were drinking pretty heavily before I left. How are you feeling, by the way? Did the tea help?”
Earlier, after hours without a drink, Nick had begun to experience headache, nausea and sweats. More aspirin, and cups of a strong herbal tea meant to flush out toxins, had helped.
“I feel all right now.”
Freya looked down. “Apparently you do.”
“Fat but not flabby.”
She looked coyly into his eyes. “Ready to prove that again?”
When they finished, they lay side by side on the rumpled bed.
“If I were to give up being the Claus, and came here to be with you,” Nick said, “I’d only be your paramour. There’s no place here for me.”
“Not right now.”
“Maybe never. I’ve gotten used to being top dog. The All-Father. The Claus. The Guy In Charge.”
“Old dogs can still learn new tricks.”
“Nice words. But actions speak louder.”
“What are you going to do?”
Nick sighed. “In a few hours, I’ll get up, put on my suit, and go to the stable. I’ll meet up with Nigel, you’ll show us how to command your cats, and Nigel and I will fly off to deliver Christmas presents to children all around the world.”
“You could put a little more enthusiasm into your voice.”
“After hundreds of years, it’s difficult. More work every year, and less respect and appreciation, it seems.”
“I remember. You need some vacation time. See different places.”
“Like here? I’d hate to have to crash the sleigh every time I wanted to visit.”
“I’ll see what I can do. You earned a lot of bonus points today, revealing Loki’s scheme. I don’t think there’d be many objections to your coming back again.”
“And what would I do here? Besides, you know, this?”
“That tickles!” Freya moved a few inches away. “There are things. Built any longboats lately? Taught spear-fighting? Have you thought of writing a memoir about the original Asgard?”
“Hmm.” Nick considered, stroking his beard. “An eyewitness history… may-y-y-be. I’ll give that one some thought.”
“Do so. Meanwhile, we’ve still a few hours before you have to leave. How do you want to spend them?”
“Do you think an old fat man has the stamina… hey, that tickles!”
* * *
The practice runs with Tregul and Bygul went well. Nick and Nigel took turns at the reins, swooping and zooming over New Asgard’s lakes and forests, before landing the sleigh at the mountain pass through which they had arrived. The bright morning daylight of New Asgard shone into the pass, fading and shifting into the cold darkness of a different reality at the far end. Freya and an escort of Valkyrie had come to say farewell.
“Well,” Nick said, awkwardly. “Goodbye, Freya.”
“For now, Nick. Not too long. Someone will need to pick up Tregul and Bygul from the Pole after you finish your deliveries. I thought I might come myself. I could bring Sleipnir with me. If you don’t object.”
“No,” he answered. “No, I don’t think I’d object.”
A Valkyrie flew up from the valley below and landed. She saluted Freya, and passed her a small box.
“Oh, good. I was afraid it might not be ready in time.” Freya turned back to Nick and handed him the box. “Merry Christmas, Nick. I had one of the Valkyries whip this up.”
Nick, non-plussed, took the box and opened it. “Oh, my,” he said, and pulled out a dark brown leather eyepatch. “This is just like my old one.”
“I thought it might be a reminder you’re more than just the Claus.”
“Let me try it on.” Nick removed the improvised cloth patch, put the new eyepatch over his empty socket and adjusted the strap. “Feels good. Nigel, what do you think?”
Nigel, who’d been speaking quietly to his new Valkyrie acquaintances, looked over. “Absolutely piratical, sir. Children will be terrified.”
“Nonsense. Children love pirates. Ar-r-r-r-r! This could be an entirely new direction. Captain Whitebeard, the Christmas Pirate! I could steal presents from naughty boys and girls.”
“Um, you’re joking, sir. Aren’t you?”
Nick looked thoughtful for several seconds before answering. “Of course. Just joking, Nigel. Children will grow used to the new look. Time to go. Let’s get back aboard.”
Nick and Freya, mindful of the public onlookers, exchanged a hug. Then Nick and Nigel climbed into the sleigh as Freya and the Valkyries moved back to give them room.
“You know what, Nigel? Why don’t you take the reins?”
“Me, sir? Are you sure?”
“Sure enough. In fact…” Nicked pulled the blue cap from Nigel’s head and replaced it with his fur-trimmed scarlet cap. “…I’m thinking it’s time I took on an understudy. Interested?”
“Me, sir? Oh, yes, sir!”
“Good. Let’s move out, Nigel. We have gifts to deliver.”
Nigel took the reins and spoke the commands Freya had taught him. Tregul and Bygul moved forward into the pass, the other cats following behind.
Nick turned and waved at the small crowd watching them depart. The sleigh rose above the road as it moved into the frigid air at the far end.
The sleigh continued to rise, exited the pass, and climbed upwards in a wide turn southward, towards cities and homes and the hopes and wishes of children. To an observer, it would have shrunk to a barely visible object moving across the night sky.
That same observer might have heard a voice high in that same sky, the voice of a small man, words softened by distance but still clear: “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas to all!”
And, a second later, the deeper voice of a larger man. “Ar-r-r-r-r-r!”
Bruce Arthurs has been writing and selling SF/F and mystery stories since 1975, with over a dozen published in scattered venues over scattered years. His mystery story “Beks and the Second Note” was a Best Short Story finalist for the 2017 Derringer short mystery fiction award. He has also edited two anthologies, and wrote an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (“Clues”, 4th Season, 1991). He lives in Arizona with his wife Hilde, several housemates, and six cats.