It is, once again, my birthday. And, in the oldest traditions of birthdays, I am going to give you all a gift.
Not only is the sale still going in the store ("Birthday2016" without the quotes during checkout, if you'd like to save 31% on your orders), but I also have a brand new short story for all of you. It's a Christmas story, of a sort. Santa, or something similar, takes a very active roll in it, in any event.
I do hope you enjoy it.
The Last Day of Winter
They huddled together, the families and friends of the valley in their small huts and rough cabins. The winter had been building in the mountains for months, blocking all access to the valley, stranding them to their own devices until spring came and melted the snow and ice in the mountain pass. It wasn't running out of food or fuel that worried the people in that little village, nor the cold driving local wildlife to acts of violence against them and their livestock. It was something else – something far older, and far more inevitable.
In one of those rough cabins, just as unimportant as any other, the children slumbered in a large bed covered in furs nearest the fire. Their parents were in conversation with a group of other adults at the other end of the single room, their breath steaming with each word. "You can't be serious. Aldo is almost too old for it," the father said to the gathered group.
"It can't be helped. You knew the risks and your chances, the same as everyone in the village. It's his turn," one of the men responded, not unkindly. Aldo's mother said nothing. She simply stared, unblinking, into the fire across the room.
Aldo, asleep next to his sisters, was awoken to the sound of something scratching at the doorway. He rubbed his eyes and looked around the gloomy room by the flickering firelight. Long shadows grew from the few mean sticks of furniture the cabin contained, but his parents were nowhere to be found. The scratching persisted. The door on its leather hinges rattled with each successive scrape. Aldo, thinking for the safety of his siblings, grabbed a dagger from beside the fire and approached the door.
As his hand brushed the latch, the racket stopped. The howling of the wind, the crackling of the fire in the hearth, and the beating of Aldo's heart were the only things that dared to break the silence. Aldo swallowed in a dry throat. He turned to go back to bed, but caught sight of his sisters, still asleep, oblivious to the dangers in the darkness. Making up his mind, he quickly got dressed in his thickest clothes, went to the door, licked his lips, took a breath, and let in the night.
The air was crisp and clear. The snow was undisturbed, sparkling and spreading out on the hill before him in the moonlight. The wind grew suddenly still. Out among the trees, movement attracted his attention. A wolf, great and powerful, wandered between the pines. As Aldo watched, it paused, turned to him, and seemed to smile.
Then it charged.
Aldo fell back from the door, the latch falling back into place. The wind bellowed against the doorway, blowing in through the cracks, numbing his face. The hillside he had seen was not what was supposed to be outside of his cabin. The rest of the village, peaceful, pocked among the valley, should have been there. He shook his head, wondering what had just happened.
Something slammed into the other side of the door. Aldo jumped backward, gripping his dagger tightly. Again and again something large and dangerous collided with the door, trying to gain entry. Aldo watched the wooden latch bend and flex with each hit.
He ran to the bed. Grabbing at his slumbering sisters, he screamed, "Wake up!" but neither of them stirred. He shook them bodily, but they didn't resist. They lolled, limp, back to the bed. The latch shattered behind him. A stiff, cold wind met his back. He grasped the dagger firmly in his hand, and turned.
The wolf watched him from the distance, sitting on the hillside, a quizzical look on it's long face. Aldo's breath came in great gulps, his body slick with sweat despite the cold. He still held the dagger in his shaking hand, but again he found himself in that unknown place. The wolf stood and trotted directly at Aldo, its tongue swaying back and forth in the still night air. "Get back!" Aldo shouted, slashing the dagger toward the beast.
The wolf paused and then sat in the snow. It narrowed its eyes at Aldo, then nudged itself forward, causing the snow to fall away from its paws and roll down the hillside. It stood, took a few steps more, then sat once again and tilted its head at him, completely calm. Aldo locked eyes with the great wolf, trying to keep his heartbeat from betraying him. The beast stood, then leaned forward, its hind end in the air. It winked at Aldo, and then leapt. Aldo jumped to the side...
...and landed amongst the cooking pots in the corner of the cabin. The fire had gone out, leaving the room black save for the moonlight coming through the broken entryway. The door hung limp on one leather hinge. The bed lay shattered, blankets and furs strewn about the room, but Aldo saw no sign of his sisters.
He crawled from the corner and found the dagger laying next to him. He picked it up just as the light in the doorway was covered by the shadow of a man.
"Oh, ho! What have we here?" the man's deep voice echoed through the cabin and in Aldo's ears. "A small scrap of child – a morsel – nothing more. No grand oxen, well fed and feted? No prized boar, hunted and corralled, sent to me as my just due?"
Aldo shook, his breath billowing around him. The stranger, his long, grey beard hung with icicles, had nothing so obvious emanating from his cold, blue lips. He shook his head at Aldo. "You're hardly worth the effort, boy."
"Where are my sisters?" Aldo found his mouth speaking the words without having asked his permission.
"Sisters? I've seen no women, nor girls. No, boy, only you and myself are here." The man struck a match against the door, illuminating his face in a sudden, dancing glare. Scars showed on the parts of his face that weren't covered in ice and hair, and his sharpened teeth glowed as he inhaled from a ragged pipe. "Run, boy," he said, stepping aside from the door. He blew out a dark blue plume of smoke and smiled.
The Wolf bit, hard, into Aldo's leg, causing him to shriek and flail. The wolf let go and backed away. It licked the blood from the fur around its mouth and sat down, seemingly content to have a slight taste. Aldo scrambled back in the snow, flashes of agony stabbing at his mind every time he moved his wounded leg. The wolf growled, but didn't stand. It simply lurched forward – not raising its paws, not bending its legs – as if in warning. Aldo grasped at his leg to stifle the blood.
A voice came on the wind, whispering as if snowfall on a lake, "You are in danger, Aldo."
Aldo looked up at the wolf, but it hadn't moved. It simply sat there, eyeing him conspicuously. Aldo looked deep into the wolf's eyes, and the voice came again. "Run, Aldo."
Aldo ran through the cabin door like a bolt of lightning, but stopped to get his bearings. The village lay abandoned, all chimneys empty of smoke, all doors ripped from their frames. An enormous, scarred hand engulfed Aldo's shoulder. The stranger's voice came from behind him. "You're alone, boy. Nobody will save you."
Aldo spun around, sweeping the dagger through the air, narrowly missing the stranger. "Oh-ho-ho-ho! He's got spirit!" the stranger laughed. Aldo crumpled to the ground, suddenly unable to catch his breath. Pain blossomed as the stranger withdrew his fist from Aldo's stomach, slowly, taking Aldo's dagger from an un-resisting hand. "Spirit won't get you very far with me, child," he growled.
Aldo, unable to stand, began to crawl away, grasping his stomach with one hand and clutching at the snow ahead of him with the other. The man casually stepped in front of him, placing a boot upon his neck, pressing him into the snow. Pain erupted in Aldo's side. The stranger's boot sent him rolling into a snowdrift. Aldo opened his eyes to see his attacker standing in the moonlight, dressed in a blood-soaked fur coat and sailor's cap, marching toward him. He was cleaning his nails with Aldo's dagger, gloating in his victory. Aldo closed his eyes.
"Aldo!" the voice came again like ice to the brain. Aldo sat bolt-upright, eyes-wide, staring at the wolf who sat inches from his face. It was growling at him ferociously, biting at the air. "Aldo," came the voice once more, calmly, "don't be afraid. I've got you."
The wolf lunged at him, its great mouth gripping Aldo's throat. Aldo closed his eyes as its teeth began to pierce his skin...
And for the first time in what felt like hours, Aldo felt warmth.
He opened his eyes.
The wolf lay before him, bleeding from a wound in its side. Aldo saw the dagger, quivering with the violent force of the throw, protruding from the crimson wound. Aldo was bathed in blood, steaming gently in the cold. With a shrill whimper, the wolf ceased breathing.
Footsteps crunched in the snow behind Aldo, and the blood-covered stranger walked past him, kneeling next to the wolf. "Oh-ho-ho, yes. She'll do." He turned to Aldo and winked.
Without knowing why, Aldo began to cry.
The fire crackled nearby, warming his side far beyond the point of pleasure. Aldo rolled away from it. A moment passed before he suddenly sprang to life, looking about the room. His father sat in a chair on the other side of the hearth. "Aldo? You're awake. We were beginning to lose hope." There was no joy in his father's voice, just a cold acknowledgment of fact.
"What happened, father?" Aldo asked, looking around. "Where is everyone?"
His father looked at him, sadly, for a moment. "Your sisters are with the neighbors," he said, finally.
Aldo tried to stand, but his leg was swollen and useless. He rubbed at the spot the wolf had bitten him, but found that the wound wasn't of the flesh. It ached nonetheless. "And mother? What of mother?"
His father's face fell. He looked at a spot on the floor for some moments before shaking his head, slowly.
Outside the door, the first birds of spring began to sing, picking through the melting snow.