I hope everyone enjoyed their Christmas. Since it’s that time of year and The War isn’t exactly uplifting, I thought I’d share a short Minivandian’s story. This may or may not be in one of the new books coming out in the next few months.
Nicholas of the North leaned back in his seat. It had been a long night, but he was finally approaching the end of his journey. His tired eyes gazed yet again at the team of reindeer that pulled his sleigh. He dimly remembered how fresh and anxious to get underway they had been the night before, but now, their heads drooped and their steps were more plodding than prancing. Still, they kept moving, with the silver bells on their harness marking the rhythm of their gait.
A light snow fell from the leaden sky, and the flakes hissed along the polished wood of the sleigh’s body. The tromping of his team’s hooves in the snow was quiet, and the whooshing of the sleigh’s runners as they ran along their path was hypnotic to his tired mind.
One good thing about using reindeer, he mused as his eyes drooped, is that they don’t need much direction from me when they know they’re close to the barn.
“I’m getting too old for this,” he muttered grumpily as he rubbed his eyes in a futile attempt to force them to focus properly. Immediately, though, he felt a pang of guilt. The effort of delivering his packages and sacks was nothing compared to the joy of those who received them.
“I just need something to eat and a nap,” he said with a tired smile, “Of course, tomorrow starts the months of eating well and exercise to make up for all of the cookies tonight, don’t they, boys?”
The pair of reindeer closest to him lifted their heads and looked back at him. He wasn’t quite sure, but he thought he saw smiles on their muzzles. His reindeer reminded him so much of the hounds he had kept as a young man, intelligent and hard working. He smiled as he looked into their gentle, brown eyes.
Truth be told, he wasn’t hungry. Sweets from the four corners of the world filled his belly, and he’d sampled drinks, hot and cold, intoxicating and not, of all manner. But a little of his wife’s home cooking would do him wonders.
“A little Eyrisch coffee would hit the spot,” he thought to himself, and the thought made his smile even broader. Yes, having an Eyrisch wife did have its benefits.
Nicholas went back to listening to the cheerful ringing of bells and the hiss of the sleigh as it made its way across the ice field. Just as the sun started to turn the horizon pink, he dozed off. Dreams of comfortable beds, warm baths, and sunny beaches drifted through his mind. He was about to bring a fruity rum drink, served by a buxom wench in a grass skirt, to his lips, when the sound of the surf stopped. It was replaced by a sound not unlike a great beast defending its den. He looked up, and the curvy lass had been replaced with the visage of his lead reindeer. She was looking down at him, then turning to look off to the side, then back again.
Nicholas sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. His sleigh was stationary in a vast snowfield, it’s icy surface scoured almost smooth by the wind. The pre-dawn gloom made it look like the surface of the moon. Regretfully, the tropical sun, fruity drink, and pretty girl were gone, replaced with eight reindeer, a snowbank, and a cold wind whipping down from the north. He heard a low, rhythmic growl coming from a nearby hump in the snow. His reindeer looked at him expectantly, and the leader tossed her head as if to say “What is making that noise?”
Nicholas looked at the mound of snow before him. If he concentrated, he could feel the life that lived under it, and his sight let him know that there was no danger. Even so, he took his mace, Kringol, from its resting place in the sleigh before he stepped down.
The snowbank was the only feature more than a few inches tall for as far as the eye could see, and no tracks, save those of his reindeer and sleigh, marred the frozen landscape. Whatever or whoever was under the snow had been there for a long while.
Nicholas stepped forward cautiously, feeling his felt boots crunch through the thin crust of ice which lay atop the snow with each step. As he reached the edge of the drift, he reached out again with his senses. He could feel rough fur and steel in the mound, but no ill will. Again, he could not see anything in the near future which signaled danger, but a twinkle came to his eyes as he saw the small form asleep under the snow.
Nicholas drew himself up, put Kringol up on his shoulder, and chuckled to himself. Taking a deep breath, he shouted loudly enough to be heard for miles around.
“Hello!” he boomed out in his deep voice, “Anyone alive in there?”
At the sound of his call, the growling snore cut off. The silence was perfect in the snowfield, as none of the reindeer moved, none of the bells jingled, and the being in the snowbank held its breath.
Suddenly, with a roar, the snow exploded up and out. In a flash, a fur cape was thrown back and a small figure burst from the drift.
“Stand easy, lad,” said Nicholas of the North, who only smiled at the violence of the boy’s reaction to his call, “You’ve nothing to fear.”
The young man stood up to his full height, which brought him to about chest level with Nicholas. He was filthy, with stringy hair, which might have been brown or red if its owner were to wash it, reaching to his shoulders. His feet were bare, but he gave no mind to them as he stood in the snow.
The ruined snow cave, in which he had been asleep, contained a small pack and the pelt of some animal, which he had apparently been using as a blanket during his long winter’s nap. He was stocky, but had the look of someone who ate only when food could be found, and had not been able to find anything of substance for quite some time.
His clothing, cut in the manner of the barbarian tribes that roamed the vast northern prairies, were made of wool, but were too small for him and had been worn threadbare. The boy seemed to have no other clothing to guard against the cold. In his hands he held a small knife, its blade and hilt showing signs of hard use, but its edge sharp and keen in the light of dawn.
The boy’s green eyes glared at Nicholas, who had begun to laugh at the fierce expression on the child’s face. For a moment, he held the jolly old elf’s gaze, then he looked away to the sleigh and reindeer.
“What do you want?” he demanded through teeth clenched either to look warlike or, more likely, to keep them from chattering. Nicholas couldn’t be sure, but he thought that he saw a shiver run up the boy’s back. Apparently coming out of his cozy little den so quickly had put a chill on him.
“I am Nicholas of the North, son of Epiphanius, young man. Who are you?” replied Nicholas.
“I am Dodjevir, son of Sooka, son of Bestefar, of the tribe of Eikhjelm. Are you going to try to rob me?” answered the boy, trying to puff himself up and look fierce. To Nicholas’s eye, he looked like a boy who sorely wanted to square off like a man, but did not quite know how to properly do it.
“Rob you? Far from it. I’m known as a…. giver of gifts, I suppose you could say,” said Nicholas, the twinkle returning to his eye.
“I require no gifts from an outlander like you, old man!” retorted the boy. His voice, which he had been forcing down into a baritone, broke into a squeak as he spit the words past his teeth. The wind caught his stringy, dirty hair as he tossed his head, which gave the impression of a young lion who was just starting to come into his mane.
“Oh, I think you will like what I have. Come, come, let me take you somewhere that is warm. My wife will feed you, and I will give you a better place to sleep than a snowdrift.” said Nicholas. He gestured to the sleigh with his free hand, yet still kept a firm grip grip on his mace.
“I require none of your charity! I was born here, and this is how I wish to spend my winter,” the boy replied forcefully. Now Nicholas was sure he could see him shivering from the cold.
“Well, at least put on your shoes and coat while we talk,” said Nicholas, “I would never forgive myself if you froze to death while you were being stubborn.”
“I l-l-ike the c-cold!” the boy hissed, his body shaking violently.
“Now, be reasonable, Dodha… Didja… I’m sorry, but how do you pronounce your name again?”
“Dodjevir!” the boy said, his voice quaking to the rhythm of his shaking.
The boy’s shoulders slumped.
“Fine, just c-call me ‘DaddyBear.’ Everyone else does,” he huffed, his voice falling away from its earlier bravado. Now, he truly looked miserable to Nicholas’ eyes.
“Well, I’ll work on it. But, please, wrap up in something. You may be a barbarian, but even the most stern of warriors knows to dress for the cold,” Nicholas replied.
The boy’s eyes narrowed and he seemed to consider the older man’s advice for a moment. Without another word, he backed toward his belongings. Never taking his eyes from Nicholas, he reached down and picked up the white and gray pelt from the snow, then drew it across his shoulders.
A breeze brought the smell of the fur to Nicholas’ nose, and its stench made his reindeer stamp and shy.
“What is that you’re trying to wear?” he said, wrinkling his nose.
“It’s a warg skin,” the boy said proudly, “I killed it myself just before the snow flew!”
“Next year, remind me to bring this boy skills in curing hides,” Nicholas murmured to his reindeer.
DaddyBear seemed more comfortable once the thick fur insulated him from the cold. He looked down at his belongings, then up at the sleigh.
“You’re still welcome to come home with me,” Nicholas said, “Or I could take you somewhere else. There isn’t enough snow here to dig yourself another den, and I doubt you’ll find any game within a day’s walk to feed yourself until spring.”
The boy considered his words for a moment, then with a shrug, nodded his assent.
“All right, old man, I’ll accept your hospitality, but I will not take it as a gift. I do not take charity,” he said defiantly.
“Good enough,” Nicholas said as he turned back to the comparative warmth of his sleigh, “Gather your things and get in.”
As DaddyBear picked up his meager belongings, Nicholas picked up several empty bags on the front seat of the sleigh to make room for his new passenger. But when he picked up the last of them, rather than being light and slack like the others, it was heavy in his hands, and he felt something solid and heavy within it.
Nicholas looked up to the lightening sky. A wry smile came to his lips as he whispered, “I guess this means I was meant to find the boy.”
DaddyBear, the stinking warg pelt wrapped tightly around his shoulders, dumped a half-filled leather haversack on the seat. He sat next to it, making sure to keep the pack between himself and Nicholas.
“I do believe that I have something for you, young man,” Nicholas said with a chuckle, “It appears that I have but one gift left, and it has your name upon it.” He thrust the sack into the boy’s empty hands.
DaddyBear looked from the sack, to the old man, then back to the sack. He undid the string holding it shut, reached inside, and withdrew its contents. It was an axe, its iron head still showing tool marks from its making. The polished handle, made from fine-grained hickory, shone in the early morning light. He ran his fingers along its blade, nodding at its sharpness.
“Thank you. It’s a fine gift, but I have nothing to give in return,” he said finally.
“There is no need, my son,” Nicholas replied, “Just remember that to give without expectation of repayment is a fine thing.” He picked up the reins and whistled to the lead reindeer, who bawled out a command. Soon, they were racing across the snowfield, leaving the rude den far behind them.
“Now, will you come with me, or would you like me to return you to your own home?” Nicholas asked once he was sure they were back on the path to his home.
DaddyBear looked up from his new axe, chewing on his lower lip for a moment.
“I could come with you for a few days, I suppose, but I will not stay beyond that,” he said.
“And what will you do then?”
“What I’ve done since I left my father’s house: find my own way.”
Now it was Nicholas’ turn to think. Then, a thought came to his mind and a smile split his face.
“How about this?” he finally said, “You come home with me until my wife says you’re not skin and bones anymore. After that, I’ll take you to the home of someone I know.”
“Have you ever heard of Blacktooth the Kossak? He has a son your age, and he’s always looking for new warriors.”
The boy thought about that for a moment, then nodded.
“I’ve never heard of him, but if he will take me on as a warrior, and not as a servant, maybe I will be able to stand it.”
“Good, good,” Nicholas said, “Now, let’s get home. I hope you’re hungry. Sorcha always puts on quite the feast for everyone when I get home.”
His laughter and booming voice trailed behind the sleigh as they made their way through the snow. Behind them, the wind filled in the sleigh’s tracks, as well as the hole left when DaddyBear had leapt out to face Nicholas. By the time the sun burst over the horizon, there was no evidence of their passing.