Christmas, Fiction, Sci-Fi, Short Story

The Bones of Christmas

The following is another short story that I wrote recently as part of an ongoing writing prompt exercise with a fellow writer. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. 

This week, it’s a Christmas story. Well, for certain values of Christmas. Perhaps it’s better described as a fairy-tale from a far-off future Christmas…

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Photo by Bistrian Iosip on Unsplash

Sparks fled the campfire, tiny flame spirits rising up to carry a speck of warmth to the icy stars above. The fire was surrounded by an extended family of nomadic deer herders, and surrounding them in turn was a forest of snowy pines looming in from the edge of the clearing. Beyond that, darkness, and the howl of beasts that would keep their distance, so long as the fire remained lit.

There was a stranger in the family’s midst. He had bartered his place by the fire in exchange for his services. He had told them he was a traveller and teller of tales. A bard of sorts, or perhaps a herald, if that suited more. Hood pulled up against the cold, and face partially hidden from the light, the hooded wanderer poked the fire with a stick, sending more spirits dancing skyward to join their brothers. He had been telling his tale for some hours now, and had paused for a moment of introspection. The deer herder family were silent, hardly daring to breath, not wanting to miss a word when the story started again. The stout patriarch of the herder family sat on the opposite side of the fire, while the younger children crowded closer to the storyteller, wide eyes reflecting the diamond stars twinkling above.

At length the stranger began to speak again, continuing the tale.

“It was difficult to imagine they’d once been inseparable, brothers by choice instead of blood. Yet why was his arm still rising, drawing up his gun?” asked the teller of tales, looking at each of the family in turn. When he had began to weave his words the sun was only just setting, but now the moon peered down, eager to listen in on his words. It was Midwinter’s Eve, the longest night of the year, perfect for recounting sagas by firelight. This story he was telling had – like so many before it – begun many long years ago…

The Everwar had failed to live up to its name. The muon scythes and death rays and flesh chimeras had fallen silent a few years previously. Mankind paused to rest, to draw ragged breath and count their dead. So many dead. From the dust and ash of the continental firestorms walked two brothers, one named Pieter and one named Ruprecht. Not the only survivors by any means, but neither were they overburdened with company. The two brothers had been released from their oaths of military service, their guns no longer needed now the war was done. They were from the lands bordering the Black Sea, but their homes and people had been lost in the war so they had no hearth or halls to return to. Pieter and Ruprecht were not true brothers, not by blood at least, but it had been so long since either of them had regarded the each other as anything but kin that they fact they were not was almost forgotten.

They travelled for a time, wandering the wastelands searching for a purpose, until they found themselves in the land that its people referred to as Lappi, far to the north on the cold shoulder of Old Eurasia. One night, as the winter snows drew in and the shadows grew long beside the road, they spotted the welcoming warmth of village lights through the trees up ahead. They took shelter in the tavern of the village whose name they did not know, and settled in to wait out the weather and the prowling ur-wolves that haunted the forests.

The innkeeper, just like the lights of his establishment, was warm and welcoming. The kefir flowed freely and the air was heavy with the smell of spiced meats. As the brothers drank, an old woman approached them, bent and wrinkled like the timbers of the tavern itself. She told them her name was Baboushka, a priestess of the Carpenter, and custodian of a small shrine on the edge of the village. She had a favour to beg of the brothers, if their hearts were true. Babouschka told them that she had a pilgrimage to make, taking her away from the village for a few weeks at the most. She pleaded with the brothers to act as guardians of the shrine in her stead, so that she could complete her journey safe in the knowledge that the bones and relics of the saint that she cared for would remain inviolate.

Baboushka hinted at great rewards should the job be done well, but in truth it did not take much to persuade the brothers. They had been wandering in search of purpose and now they had found one, for a time at least. After witnessing the many horrors of the war, there was a burning desire in both Pieter and Ruprecht to bring some good to the world. Already deep in their cups, they swore a mighty and binding oath more serious than any they had sworn before, to do as the old priestess bade them. Greatly pleased, Babouschka beckoned them follow her out into the night. Drunkenly they staggered out into the deep, crisp snow, following the old priestess to the shrine by the light of ancient stars.

The shrine was a grotto set in a small hill, it’s walls decorated with the bones of diminutive creatures and the entrance lit by flaming torches that helped to ward off the howling beasts of the forest. Once inside, Babouschka showed the brothers her charge, the remains of Saint Nikolaos, known as the Wondermaker, held reverently in the tender embrace of the earth. But it was not only his bones in the grotto, but also his earthly trappings, including the ancient Codex Nikolaos, a leather-bound tome that it was said contained written within that which lay in the hearts of every man. Upon seeing these holy wonders, the brothers swore their oath again, reiterating their vow; they would guard the shrine until Babouschka returned, or Nikolaos himself arose to relieve them of their vigil. Seemingly satisfied, the old priestess made a final bow to the brothers, and then was gone into the night.

Pieter and Ruprecht were as good as their word. They kept their vigil over the grotto in the snow as the days became weeks. However the weeks soon turned to months and the months to years. The brothers despaired for Babouschka, assuming the worst; perhaps she had fallen to some peril on the road, or her natural time walking the Earth had simply come to an end. But an oath was an oath, and neither complained about their sacred duty. The pious villagers would bring the brothers offerings of food and ale to sustain them, and so they continued their lonely vigil in the cold grotto on the edge of the world, until the promised few weeks had become two long decades of waiting.

Twenty years to the day after Babouschka had left them, on a Midwinter’s Eve when the coldest stars held court, a stranger came to the grotto. Pieter and Ruprecht heard his slow, heavy footsteps crunching through the silent snow and strode out to meet him at the grotto’s entrance, suspicion in their eyes and hands ready on their holstered weapons. The stranger was an imposing sight as he emerged from the darkness into the light of the burning torches. He was a giant of a man, taller than either of the brothers by a full head, with the martial bearing of a warrior-sage from the terrible wars of their youth. His armour purred and growled with power like a caged beast, the metal of it a deep red and trimmed with ivory and complex knotwork. His helmet fully enclosed his head, his face hidden behind a mirrored visor as black as coal, and an array of antiseptic white rebreather tubes hung from the bottom of his helmet like a great beard. He smelt of machine oil, cinnamon and the cold air of the deepest winters.

The giant stranger told the brothers that he was the Wondermaker Returned – Saint Nikolaos reborn – and he was here to claim the Codex Nikolaos so that he could once again know what was in the hearts of all men. The brothers laughed at this, and prepared to show the stranger what they did to heretical impostors. But before they could act, the giant man wove uncanny visions and phantasmagoria to baffle their senses. He showed them scenes of Christmases long past; strange tableaus of plenty, vistas of laughter and gifts. Then the visions were gone and the Wondermaker spoke of the joy of those times. The brothers did not recognise the scenes they were shown as anything from their time in the world, but longed to see them again. The Wondermaker promised them that they could, if only they would let him in to the grotto. Seeing the brother’s reluctance, the stranger promised he would return the following night, and with this he strode off into the night from whence he came.

Overcome by what they had witnessed, Pieter and Ruprecht retired to the grotto to consider the best course of action. They sat in heated debate amidst the ossified remains of the mighty antlered beasts that had been the Saint’s companions in life. The candles in the grotto flickered as the brothers spoke, throwing dancing shadows and giving the dead beasts the illusion of a jerking, prancing animus. Ruprecht was skeptical of what they had seen that night; he named the Wondermaker Returned as a fraud. Most likely a warlock, he said, or some other forbidden horror, out here on the cold edge to avoid the judgement of the Europi Hegemony. Or perhaps a gene-altered remnant of the Everwar, fleeing the purges of the Reforged Czars. He advocated setting a trap for the stranger the following night, that they might ambush him, crack his armour and smite his red ruin upon the snow. Pieter counselled caution; he was not ready to believe either, but reminded his brother of the oath they had sworn and of the original Nikolaos’ message of hope. They should at least, he argued, hear him out. But on one thing they both agreed, the Codex Nikolaos would remain under lock and chain in the grotto for now.

The second night came and the stranger was as good as his word, returning in the long watches of the night as the snow silently fell. Pieter kept his counsel but Ruprecht named his suspicions to the stranger, and asked him to prove it was not so. Again the Wondermaker Returned weaved his magicks and the brothers were assailed with scenes of Christmas as it was celebrated around the world this very year. They saw the mass of humanity losing hope, still struggling to recover from the benighted centuries of the Everwar. Barely a light was lit or a song sung. Gifts, such as they were, tended to be nothing more than a generous division of dwindling rations.

Ruprecht’s heart remained hard, dismissing the visions as nothing more than a glamour, but Pieter was moved to tears. Again the Wondermaker Returned commended the brothers on their vigil, and asked them to turn over the Codex Nikolaos to his care, so that he might begin to set things right. They refused, but Pieter asked the stranger what it would take to restore hope to Humanity. In return the stranger told Pieter that it would simply require one person to believe that he was the Wondermaker Returned, and thus be the match to light the candle of hope in the dark. Time was running out, he said, and he would return a final time the following night. Again he left the brothers to their own council, vanishing like a snowflake in a storm. Pieter’s heart was beginning to thaw, but Ruprecht remained as skeptical as ever, promising his brother that if Pieter would not act against the threat to the shrine and the relics of the Saint, he would act alone.

On the following night the Wondermaker Returned appeared before the grotto one final time. He had a final rapture to weave. He painted for the brothers a vision of a nightmare future where there was no Christmas, and no joy. People cowered in the dark midwinter, all hope extinguished, and never dreamed to see the light again. Pieter wept at the sight and asked how this future could be avoided.

The Wondermaker leant close and reminded Pieter that it would only take one person to believe in him. Ruprecht declared that he had heard enough, that the stranger’s lies were an affront to the memory of the Saint, and that he would see them ended. Ruprecht went to draw his pistol to strike down the Wondermaker. It was a fine weapon, a matter converter with a dark oak grip and mother of pearl inlay. It was a heirloom weapon assembled in their homeland on the shores of the Black Sea. Large though the stranger was, and as impressive as his armour appeared, there was little that could stand before a matter converter beam. Ruprecht raised the weapon, merely having to pull the trigger to disintegrate the imposter Nikolaos from the inside out.

But he did not get the chance.

Pieter.

Pieter had always been the slower to anger of the two, but ever quicker on the draw. A burst of Pieter’s heat ray took Ruprecht in the chest, burning him through, coring him like a soft piece of fruit. Ruprecht had no time to register that he was dead by the hand of his own brother. He simply collapsed into the hard snow, the flaming edges of his clothes guttering out in the cold and wind. Pieter fell to his knees next to him, overcome by the enormity of what he had done. A massive shape loomed over him, and servo gears whined as a huge red gauntlet rested gently on his shoulder.

“Was I right to do this?” asked Pieter, looking up into the Wondermaker’s visor, “Have I sacrificed Ruprecht to restore Christmas? Are you really the Wondermaker, or are you a lingering horror of the Everwar, come at last to claim two wayward survivors?”

For long moments the Wondermaker said nothing, and all Pieter saw was his own accusing eyes’ reflected in that black visor. He could feel the cold of the snow creeping up through his knees and into his heavy heart.

“Have I done good or ill?” pressed Pieter frantically, cradling Ruprecht’s head, “When you walk into the grotto to claim it, how will the Codex Nikolaos judge me? Am I naughty or nice?”

The Wondermaker widthdrew his hand from Pieter’s shoulder and stretched himself up to his full height.

“I do not need the Codex to judge you,” he said, “for your actions already show me your heart, Pieter of the Black Sea. You have seen the truth of things, and sacrificed all that you have for the good of the whole world. Know that I am the Wondermaker Returned. I have spoken no lie. I will bring joy and gifts to all those in the world who are pure of heart. Joy, gifts, and above all, hope.”

Pieter then wept tears over Ruprecht, elated that he had made the right decision but sadder than he’d thought possible at the fact his brother would not see this promised world and Christmas restored.

“Save your tears, for your work is not yet done Pieter. You are released from your oath to the grotto, but I have a new purpose for you. Just as I am a herald of joy to the righteous, you will use your gift for seeing the truth of the situation to punish the wicked.”

The Wondermaker helped Pieter to his feet.

“Now come, for Christmas is almost upon us, and we have much work to do…”

The tale was finally told, and the family around the fireside nodded their approval at its telling. It was a fine story they all agreed, and the teller of tales had earned his spot by the fire for the night.

“That is most kind of you to say so,” said the bard, lowering his hood and lighting a long stemmed pipe, “now perhaps you would favour me with a tale in return?”

“We are no storytellers, we are simple rad-deer herders,” laughed the patriarch of the family with mirth, “what tale could we possible tell to one such as you?”

“Oh, it’s only a simple tale I’m after,” the stranger insisted, taking a puff on his pipe, “tell me, simple herdsman, how is it that you have such a vast herd of rad-deer for a family of your size?”

The heat of the camp fire seemed to recede for a moment. Some of the young men exchanged shadowed glances, and the smile froze on the patriarch’s face.

“They were all acquired by legal means,” he replied frostily, as his wife ushered their children away to bed in their yurts.

“Really,” replied Pieter, his hand slowly sliding for the heat ray holstered at his hip, “you know it’s naughty to tell lies, don’t you? Because I found a murdered herder family not so far from here that may beg to differ with your claim…”