If you see someone without a smile, give them one of yours.
If you see someone without a smile, give them one of yours.
If you see someone without a smile, give them one of yours.
Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
“Now?” Sketch said. He practically bounced with anticipation, his fists clenched and his eyes focused beyond the cage in the direction of the cellar door.
“Not yet,” Rune said. People weren’t even in position yet.
“I’m scared,” Lolly said. Holda whimpered and wrapped her little arms even tighter around Rune’s leg. He shook her free as gently as he could.
“We just have to wait.” Sketch joined him in peering toward the cellar door. Rune’s magic ended at the cast-iron grate, but his natural senses were keen enough. Light seeped in from narrow windows high in the walls, bathing the cellar in gray half-light. Above him, all was calm. Wooden floors creaked as Marvin and Henry walked about, no doubt wondering where Tinka had gone. If they only knew…
He stole a glance at his pocket watch. Its face was nearly unreadable even to his impressive senses. Surely, though, five minutes had passed.
Something crashed above them. Lolly jumped at the sound, and Holda found a foothold at the top of Rune’s boot and flung herself toward his arms with all her might. He pried her loose and handed her to Sketch.
Then came another crash followed by a series of heavy thumps. “Where’d he go?” Henry said. “Toward the kitchen!” Marvin answered.
More thumps. Wood scraped against wood as someone heaved a table or some other piece of heavy furniture across a wooden floor.
“Yule boys! Woohoo!” Janks exulted.
Rune grinned. It wouldn’t be long now.
“Now?” Sketch gasped. Holda had her arms around his chest so he could barely breathe.
A radio turned on upstairs, announcing at full volume that “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” The chaos upstairs continued for another minute. The humans yelled, furniture tumbled over. The squeal of an enraged rodent gave way to yelps of pain and calls for a first aid kit.
Finally, a door slammed. Thirty seconds later, chains rattled, and the cellar door creaked open. Angry footsteps descended into the dark.
Henry didn’t even bother turning on the lantern. He shone his flashlight in Rune’s face and spat a string of curses ending with, “Make it stop, you freak!”
Rune shepherded the children behind him. “Is there something wrong?”
“You damn well know something is wrong!” Henry said.
Marvin caught up, limping, with a bloody and tattered pant leg flapping this way and that. “If that friend of yours has rabies…”
Rune smirked as the twins stood there, helpless. Both of them bore bumps and scratches, not to mention expressions of utter bewilderment.
“Wait,” Marvin said. “You speak English.”
Upstairs the music continued. “Feliz Navidad… Feliz Navidad…”
“You’re not like the rest.”
Rune’s gray eyes bore into them, but he said nothing.
Henry waved an angry fist in Rune’s face. “If you don’t call off that…that thing upstairs—”
“You’re right. I’m not like these others.” Rune glared at the human, and even though the grate kept him from manipulating glamour to intensify the effect, he took a step forward and spread his arms to make his body seem bigger. It wasn’t an illusion, just something every predator knows.
“These are children. Do you have children? They’re in a strange place. They don’t know what’s going on, and they miss their mothers and fathers. I expect they’d do just about anything to make you go away.”
He took another step. His eyes flashed, cold and hard. “I assure you, Marvin, I am not like these children at all.”
Marvin flinched at the sound of his name.
“I’ve seen worse than you. I’ve dealt with worse than you. Push me too far, and you’ll find out I am worse than you.” Rune watched his breathing, his body language. You didn’t serve the King of Shadows your whole life without learning a thing or two about intimidation. Marvin and Henry were perfect targets, and Rune had little choice but to hold back for most of the past six months.
“I am the stuff of nightmares, do you understand? All of us: elves, goblins, trolls…. All your people’s fears, all their feeble attempts to hold back the shadows, the things that go bump in the night. All that fear only makes us stronger.”
He flung a handful of Tinka’s screws and springs through the grate. Marvin and Henry jumped and shrieked.
Rune smiled. “And now you’ve got me. Not a child, not a cowering victim, but me. Someone your own size.”
Henry reached for his gun, but his hand shook. Rune grinned.
“So what are you going to do now?”
“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…,” the radio blared. Something glass shattered against a wall. Janks started to sing along, loud and off-key.
“Let us go,” Rune said, “and I’ll be easy on you.”
“Bull!” Henry said, his voice shaking as badly as his hand. “We don’t have to listen to this, Marvin. He’s just trying to scare us.”
Marvin shook an accusing finger. “We’ll be back. And then we’ll see how tough you are.”
They backed away from the grate before at last scampering up the steps to the cellar door.
Rune let out a breath.
Sketch pulled on Rune’s jacket. “Now?”
Rune nodded. “Now. Tinka?”
Tinka appeared as soon as she released the crank on the indifference engine. She smiled and held up her prize: a ring of keys deftly lifted from Marvin’s belt.
It only took three tries to find the key that opened the grate. Sketch pushed the door open, and he, Rune, Lolly, and Holda spilled into the brothers’ workroom.
“Hurry now,” Rune said. He led them out of the cellar. There was no sign of the twins, though now a light or two burned inside the house. Janks was waiting for them.
“Flew away like down off a thistle,” the troll said with a wide, froggish grin.
“Thanks,” Rune said. “You ever need a favor…” Holda grabbed onto Rune’s jacket and tried to haul herself up to his arms. This time, he let her.
“This one’s on me,” Janks said. “I forgot how much fun it is to kick up my heels like that. Makes me a little homesick, you know?”
“Maybe next Yuletide you can go visit your brothers again.”
Janks sighed. “That would be nice. But what now? What about these kids?”
“It’s not too far a walk to the cemetery. If we hurry, we can get to Goblintown before everyone’s asleep. And then…” He looked pointedly at Tinka. “I can return Madam Samarra’s stolen property.” He held out his hand. Tinka slumped her shoulders, reached into her pocket, and handed over the indifference engine. The wind picked up. Clouds rolled in from the west across the starry sky. It was Rune’s favorite kind of weather.
* * *
With the children safely in the care of the Brackwaters, Rune made his way back across into the Fallow. The cemetery was empty, and it was long past midnight. He gathered the swirling airy chaos around him and hurled himself skyward, leaping a block at a time until he finally alighted outside the mother-in-law apartment behind the Colemans’ house, the little place that had been his home since Midsummer.
He lay in bed fully dressed, wondering if the children’s parents had escaped, whether they’d ever see them again. Also, he’d have to keep an eye on Marvin and Henry. It wasn’t unheard of for fallowmen to know something about his kind, but these two’s interest was more sinister than the folklorists, dabblers, and neo-pagans he usually ran into.
But he didn’t have to do any of that tonight. The twins wouldn’t be in too big a hurry to get back in the child-abducting business. And Tinka and the others were in good hands. Brack and Thora would keep them warm and fed and loved until their situation changed. Tinka and Lolly and Sketch and Holda were family forged in fire. They would do fine with the Brackwaters. You can do the impossible, Rune had learned, when your family had your back.
Rune yawned. In a minute he’d get up long enough to undress and snuggle into his warm bed and settle down his brain. He lay still, breathing deeply, welcoming the airy chaos to wash over him with its cleansing magic.
He was almost asleep when something clattered against the roof. He sprang to his feet, instantly awake.
He braced himself against the icy blast as he opened the door, pulling on his jacket. The yard was empty. He looked up.
“Ah.” A tree branch had come down in the wind. Rune couldn’t see any damage, just the icy residue of recent snows half-melted and refrozen. He’d check it out once the sun came up.
“Rune? That you?”
It was Reverend Coleman, his landlord. He had thrown a heavy coat on over his pajamas and was stepping out the back door of his own house. His normally brown skin reddened in the biting cold.
“You heard it too?” Rune said.
“Is anything the matter?”
“Tree branch.” Rune pointed. “I don’t think it did any damage.”
“Well, that’s good,” Rev. Coleman said. After a pause he said, “Late night?”
“I came by earlier and you were gone.”
“Is something wrong?”
The Reverend shook his head. “Not at all. Anita wanted to know if you had plans for Christmas. If you don’t, you’re welcome to have dinner with us. I mean, I don’t know if… That is to say, you might not even have Christmas where you come from. We don’t want to impose.”
“Not at all,” Rune said. “That’s very kind. Thank you.”
“You’re a long way from home. That would be hard on me this time of year. Maybe it is on you or maybe it isn’t, I don’t know. But you’re welcome to be part of our family tomorrow.
“That means a lot.”
“Well then, just come by whenever you like. And Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Reverend. To all of you.”
With some effort, Rune forced himself up and sat with his back against the brick wall. Three young children stared at him, wide-eyed. They moved closer.
“Fall down,” the dwarf girl announced grimly.
“That’s right, Holda,” the boy said. “He fell down.”
Holda pondered the situation. She set her heavy jaw and took another step forward. She offered Rune the cookie she’d been holding, part of the stash Tinka had brought from the mission.
Rune accepted the gift and said, “Thank you.” Holda clambered unbidden into his lap.
“Where’s Tinka?” Lolly asked.
“And that big guy?” the boy, Sketch, added.
Something rustled above them. Rune craned his neck to see the gap where Tinka said she’d escaped the first time. As if on cue, her green Santa hat popped into view.
“Sister!” Lolly squealed. Tinka and Rune both shushed her.
“Those men are looking for your sister,” Rune explained as Holda poked at his nose. “We can’t let them find her.”
Lolly slapped a hand over her mouth.
“Who are those men? How did you get here?”
“They were waiting,” Sketch said.
Rune puzzled at this, but Tinka explained. “We were running away. Our parents said it wasn’t safe anymore and we had to go.”
“The King of Shadows was mad at them.” She slinked through the opening and dropped to the floor. “That’s all they would say.”
“Stars above,” Rune said. The King of Shadows was one of the most powerful rulers on the other side, and one of the most ruthless. If he was angry with you, leaving—quickly—was the smartest thing to do.
It’s what Rune himself had done when he’d defected from the King’s service.
“But that doesn’t explain…,” he waved around at the cell, the grate, the camp toilet, “this.”
“Mr. Elmanzer sent us here,” Lolly said through tears. Holda fell back against Rune’s chest and grabbed hold of the lapel of his bomber jacket.
“He didn’t mean to,” Sketch said. “At least, I don’t think he did.”
“Mr. Elmanzer?” Rune said. “Your parents bargained with a waymaker to send you across?”
Sketch nodded, holding back tears. “They said it had to be at Midwinter ‘cause it would be easier to cross. Mr. Elmanzer knew the way. Mom and Dad said they’d come after us as soon as they could.”
“But when we crossed, those two brothers were waiting for us,” Tinka added. “They corraled us in a barb-wire fence, and the big, dumb one grabbed us and threw us in their carriage.”
Rune remembered the white van in the driveway.
“He shot me with that zappy thing,” Sketch complained. “And now he’s got you, too!”
“Not for long,” Rune vowed.
Something moved outside the grate. Rune gently lifted Holda to her feet so he could stand up. A rat appeared from behind the bookcase and scampered to the middle of the room, where it blurred and morphed and expanded to take on the size and shape of a troll in a dark brown long coat.
Rune said, “What kept you?”
“Just checking the place out,” he said. “This placed looked empty from the outside, but that’s just ‘cause the lights were off. It’s actually pretty homey up there.”
“Well, now that you’re here, we’ve got to get these children out of here.”
“And go home?” Sketch said.
Rune frowned because he knew that home was no longer an option. “Children shouldn’t have to run from a murderous king, especially not at Yuletide.” He looked at Janks. “I’m going to take them to Goblintown.”
“Is it far?” Tinka said. “Holda’s legs are little, and she’s too heavy to carry.” Holda had sidled up next to Rune. Now she wrapped an arm around his leg and looked up at him with big, brown eyes.
“Not far at all,” Rune said. “It’s just beneath the city and one world over.” He looked back at Janks and said, “I think I can get there through Cave Hill Cemetery.”
The troll considered this. “The boundary should still be thin enough. But then what?”
“I know some people there. People I trust. And they’re used to taking care of children.”
“Will they know where our parents are?” Tinka asked.
“I’ll bet they can find out,” Rune said. And if they couldn’t, the Brackwaters would do everything they could to find a place the children could stay.
“Then what are we waiting for?” Janks said. “Let’s figure out how to get you all out of there.”
“I have an idea about that,” Rune said. He knelt down to speak to the children. “Now listen carefully… and don’t be afraid.”
Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs but not every man’s greed.
—Mohandas K. Gandhi
Rune and Janks looked at each other and then at the girl.
“You…,” Rune said, struggling to put words together. “How…?”
The girl pointed to a gap in the bricks where the ceiling joined the back wall, barely wide enough for a goblin to shimmy through. Beneath it, someone had piled rolled-up bedding to approximate the shape of a goblin-sized sleeper. She shrugged.
“This whole thing stinks,” Janks said. He stalked to the grate and gripped it with two huge hands—then lurched away with a gasp. “Crashing waves! It’s made of tupping iron!” He pulled off his shamlee cap, and his illusion of a human face dropped as grasped the sides of his head.
“Okay, okay,” Rune said. “Shake it off. Your magic’ll come back in a minute.”
“You think I don’t know how iron works?” the troll spat. “It’s just a bugger to have it ripped away like that!”
“We’ve got more important things to think about now.” He knelt in front of the girl. “These are your people?”
She nodded and pointed. “Lolly” she indicated the younger goblin, “Sketch, and Holda.” She faced Rune. “I’m Tinka.”
“It’s…good to meet you,” Rune said.
“So, you gonna get them out now?”
Rune studied the grate. It reached from floor to ceiling, with a padlock and chain that looked much older than the newfangled lock on the cellar door.
“Let me see that lockpick,” Rune said.
She handed it to Rune and then began to empty her pockets. Lolly reached her hands through the grate to receive her sister’s bounty: treats from the mission, a plastic water bottle, a bus pass, a paper bag of something that jingled like metal striking metal, and finally a fresh pair of little girl’s underwear she’d tucked inside her jacket.
“Holda can use the potty,” Tinka explained. “But she got scared the other night. Had an accident.” Rune spied the portable camping toilet in the corner.
“Stars above,” he muttered.
He tried to insert the jimmy without touching the lock itself, but with little luck. He tucked his hand inside his jacket sleeve, but that just made him clumsy. The iron of the lock grazed his skin, and he pulled his hand away as if he’d been burnt. In that fleeing second, the airy chaos was simply gone—and with it, all his magic. It was excruciating, not physically but psychologically, as if his tether to reality itself had been broken. He moaned and backed away, disoriented.
“Just shake it off,” Janks mocked.
Rune had a thought. “Tinka, you’re young. You have a little magic but not much, right? Could you…?” He offered her the jimmy. She took it and approached the lock. She grimaced when she touched it, but she held on and poked at the keyhole, getting more and more frustrated by the second. At last she turned away. “Jimmy’s too little,” she said. “And the iron’s too cold.”
“Somebody knew what they were doing,” Rune said.
“You ain’t kidding,” Janks said. He’d noticed a wooden bookshelf on the wall. Rune joined him and surveyed the titles on the spines: Grimm’s Fairy Tales he’d heard of, the other titles were new to him, but he could imagine their contents: The Invisible Commonwealth, The Fairy Mythology, and several volumes by someone named Paracelsus. There were old, musty volumes of folklore, alchemy, and Hermetic magic. There were also plastic binders with titles printed in black marker on the spines.
“Rune, heads up,” Janks said.
The elf’s head was still clearing up from the iron, or he’d have heard the car pull up in the driveway. Car doors opened and shut. A male voice shouted, “Marvin!” Then two pairs of feet hurried toward the cellar door.
“Hide,” Rune said. He darted to the lantern and flicked it off. The children in the cage wept and muttered.
Janks was gone in an instant, body shrank and twisted until it was the size and shape of a largish rat. Meanwhile, Tinka scurried into a tight corner behind a stack of plywood propped against a wall.
The cellar door creaked open. Beams of flashlights danced on the walls.
Rune pressed himself against the wall and summoned the airy chaos. Slowly it came to him, and he willed himself to be blanketed in a veil of invisibility. It was something he’d done a thousand times. He’d be safe, even in plain view, as long as he didn’t draw attention to himself.
“It doesn’t look like anybody’s been here,” a voice whispered. They were definitely in the cellar now, moving toward him.
“That don’t explain the door,” the other said. He entered the back section where Rune and Tinka were hiding. He was average height, maybe forty or fifty years old but in good shape. He moved like someone who’d been an athlete in his younger days. He took off his gloves and laid them on the table where the lamp was. He unzipped the front of his jacket and turned on the lamp. He was only a few feet from Rune, but his attention was on the grate.
“Boo!” he shouted. The children shrieked and backed away. The man laughed.
“Henry,” the other man scolded as he came into view. “That’s not going to accomplish anything.” This man—Marvin, apparently—was nearly identical to the first: a little pudgier and wearing glasses, but obviously Henry’s twin.
“Just having a little fun,” Henry said.
“We’re sitting on the greatest discovery in human history,” Marvin retorted. “You can have fun later.” He approached the grate and furrowed his brow. “Deutsch? Können Sie mich verstehen?”
“They ain’t gonna talk,” Henry said. “Even if you do find a language you both speak.”
“How many times do I have to tell you? They don’t have to talk, though that would make it easier. They just have to…be. Long enough for me to get a clear sense of what they are, where they came from.” He strode to the bookcase.
“Where they came from? You was there, same as me.”
“You drew that circle on the ground, did that mumbo-jumbo with the mirror and the stick and the barbed wire… damnedest thing I ever saw.”
“And soon….” Marvin stopped in mid-sentence and stood up straight.
“Something moved. Over there.” He pointed at the plywood where Tinka was hiding. Their backs were to Rune; he tensed his muscles.
Henry pulled a yellow and black snub-nosed handgun from his pocket. “Who’s there!”
Tinka gasped. Rune heard it, but he wasn’t sure the humans did.
Henry yanked down the plywood, and Tinka bolted. Lolly and the other children screamed. Tinka slipped past Henry, who leveled his weapon at her.
Rune gritted his teeth. Before the mortal could pull the trigger, Rune stepped out of his corner. “Hey!” He lowered into a fighting stance, ready to spring. Henry spun away from Tinka and aimed at Rune.
The children shouted, and then Marvinin shouted and stumbled toward the wall. Tinka had kicked him hard in the shin.
Rune lunged for Henry. Henry fired, and Rune’s whole body spasmed. The sensation was like having a painful leg cramp from head to toe. He fell to the floor, his muscles jerking. He felt the sting of two metal stingers in his belly.
“Where the hell did he come from?” Henry sputtered.
“Just secure him!” Marvin ordered. “We’ll sort it out later, once we’ve found that girl!”
The next thing he knew, iron chains rattled, the gate creaked open, and two pairs of rough hands carried him into the cage.
Rune followed, leaping rooftop to rooftop, while Janks followed the girl on the ground. The troll kept his distance, waiting for Rune to make his move. Their quarry was in a hurry and obviously nervous. She kept looking over her shoulder, which forced Janks to turn away or duck into a doorway.
Rune hurried ahead and leaned over the wet, slushy roof a couple of buildings ahead. He caught Janks’s eye and nodded. All he had to do was drop…
A bus pulled up to the curb, and the girl jumped on.
Rune’s stomach churned. But Janks thought fast. He sprinted forward, waving for the driver to wait. The troll looked up a Rune and rolled his eyes before boarding the bus himself.
There was nothing for it but to follow them. The bus turned south onto Baxter, past Cave Hill Cemetery, and then made a slight left onto Bardstown. Through the windows, Rune saw the girl sitting by herself near the back, her arms crossed, her eyes frantic. Janks sat behind the driver and pretended to doze. The bus was nearly empty otherwise, but there were still too many mortal eyes to try anything.
She got off along a stretch of shops and restaurants not too far from Madam Samarra’s. Janks followed as she headed for the back streets.
Rune leaped two rooftops at a time to head her off. Now they were in a residential neighborhood of older houses, modest but mostly well-kept. Christmas lights draped porches and shrubbery, and inflatable holiday characters graced snow-covered lawns. Rune recognized the scene with the baby; the Colemans had that one. He wasn’t sure how this peaceful tableau jibed with the wooden soldiers and candy canes and fat, bearded men, but he was bound to figure it out eventually.
The girl came closer. The street was empty, so Rune took a chance. Drawing the airy chaos around him, he flung himself from the roof to the sidewalk in front of her.
“Cahó!” she yelped. She jumped back; the knife in her hand appeared as if out of nowhere. “Nee covóot mii, cohsh! Cwan mii dii haam cot!” She spoke Riverspeak, a creole language from the other side. Don’t touch me, cousin. I’ll hurt you good.
Janks broke into a run. She heard his ponderous steps and shifted her body to keep both of her pursuers in sight.
Rune held up a hand, and the troll held back. He took a tentative step forward, and the girl slashed at him. The serrated blade of her weapon, a steak knife, reflected the multicolored holiday lights.
“Nee cwan os dii haam,” he said. We’re not going to hurt you. He allowed his magic to heighten his senses as he had at the mission. He took in her every subtle movement, every shift of her weight, every glance of her eyes.
Those eyes were big and bright and worried. Streaks of tears etched cracks across her dirty cheeks.
Rune continued in Riverspeak. “My name is Rune. That’s Janks.” He extended his hand. The girl flinched. “You’re in some kind of trouble?”
She put away her knife, resting her hand in the pocked of her fleece jacket. Now that Rune had a good look, it was way too big for the child, reaching almost to her knees, and covered in dust and grime.
“What’s your name?”
And then she wasn’t there.
Janks cursed, but Rune spun around, ramping up his magical senses. “Not possible,” he muttered.
“B’the depths, where is she?” Janks said.
“Quiet,” Rune hissed. She had to be close by. If he could hear her footfalls, her breathing, catch a glimpse of her out of the corner of his eye, even in the darkness…. He took a deep breath.
Something moved at the top of a driveway: a small, dingy form hiding behind a white van. Rune was after her in a flash with Janks lumbering close behind.
He slapped his hand over her wrist before she knew he was there. She didn’t yell or scream, but she hissed and glared at him and called him several unflattering names in her native tongue.
In her hand was a small metal box with a crank on one side and a hodgepodge of gears beneath a glass panel on the other.
“The indifference engine?” Janks said, finally catching up.
Rune nodded. “It let her pass beneath our notice, but only for a couple of seconds.” He dropped to one knee to look the girl in the eye. “I don’t know who you are, but if you’re in trouble, my friend and I will help.”
“Uh, Rune,” Janks said in English. “I ain’t exactly sure that’s what I signed on for.”
Rune shushed him and kept his eyes focused on the girl.
“You can trust us, cohsh. Alright?”
She pulled her hand away, and Rune let her. Slipping the indifference engine back into her pocket, she motioned for them to follow.
Behind the dark and shuttered house was a cellar door locked with a bright, new stainless steel padlock. The girl reached inside her jacket and drew out a thin metal bar, which she inserted in the keyhole and jiggled around until the lock snapped.
She set her finger to her lips and warned Rune and Janks with her eyes. The message was clear enough: keep quiet.
They descended the rough cement steps into a dark, musty cellar. The girl scampered ahead. Rune and Janks followed, knocking cobwebs out of their way. They moved in utter silence…which only highlighted the sounds of whimpering that assaulted upon Rune’s elvish ears. His heart pounded as he navigated the pipes and the junk.
“Oh,” Janks groaned. “That ain’t right….”
“What? You sensing something?”
“Uh huh. Nothing good.”
The girl flipped on a battery-powered camping lantern. In the blue-white light, the metal grate at the back of the room leaped suddenly into view—and the children locked behind it. There was another goblin girl, much younger than the first, and a half-elven boy holding a toddler, a girl whose big frame and stout facial features marked her as a dwarf.
“Tinka!” the little goblin girl squealed, but the boy quickly hushed her.
Rune and Janks stood there, nonplussed.
Finally, the troll spoke. “Crashing waves,” he muttered. “What kind of monster puts kids in a cage?”
“Did you know mortals exchange gifts at Christmas?” Rune said.
“Or course,” Janks said. “You didn’t?”
“I’ve only been on this side a few months. This is my first Christmas.”
“It’s a lot like Yule,” Janks explained. “Usually me and my brothers get together up north and just kinda cut loose.”
“But not this year?”
The troll sighed. “You know how it is. People say things, do things.” He said nothing for several steps, then, “We ain’t talked in a couple of years.”
Family conflicts were the worst. Rune nodded but said nothing.
“So you wanted to get some mortal a present?”
“My landlords have been…very understanding lately. I’m short on cash, but I’ve got good credit with Madam Samarra. You know about her?”
“Runs that New Age bookshop on Bardstown, right? I hear she sells magic stuff—I mean our kind of magic stuff—out of a back room.”
“That’s the one—and yes, she does. But I just wanted some kind of trinket or something for the Colemans. None of ‘the good stuff,’ as she calls it.”
Rune gestured, and he and the troll turned onto Jefferson Street.
“When I got there, she was beside herself. Says a girl had just made off with something from the back: a little hand-held indifference engine.”
Janks sucked in a breath. “What I wouldn’t give for one of those!”
“She couldn’t exactly call the police, given what the girl had stolen, so…”
“So here we are, tracking down a thief.”
“I’d have turned the job down if it weren’t for the Law of Secrecy.”
“I hear you,” Janks said. “You let yourself be known to folks in the Fallow, there’s no telling what kind of backlash it’s gonna bring. One of my brothers had a horn growing out of his forehead for six months.”
“And a child might not be as careful as we would.”
“Crashing waves, you’re right,” Janks said with a gasp. “It’s hard enough for a full-grown troll to remember the rules, but a kid…”
“And Madam Samarra says she was a goblin?”
“Looked like one: dusky-skinned, big eyes, four feet tall or maybe a little more. Said she was almost grown, but she could probably pass for a younger human child if you didn’t look too closely. She ran out of the shop and headed north. All I could do was follow her trail”
“And that’s how come you ended up talking to me.”
“Right,” Rune said. “Here we are.” The rescue mission was a block ahead. He didn’t bother to disguise himself with glamour. He had seen humans with high-arching eyebrows, with hair the color of corn silk, and even sometimes with squarish corners at the tops of their ears. People sometimes noticed there was something different about him, but not often.
The mission was lit up with colorful lights. A couple dozen people sat around folding tables. A Christmas tree gave the room a festive feel, and a big guy in an army surplus jacket played carols on an old upright piano. Some sang along while others shared jokes and stories. A few just stared into space, their expressions indecipherable.
Rune drew to himself the airy chaos, the surging creative force from which his magic sprang. The subtle effort sharpened his senses to beyond even elvish levels. He scanned the room for anything out of place, anyone who might be a thieving young in disguise.
Nearly everyone looked old, or at least worn. Their clothes might have been cleaner or better fitting, but they were laughing and enjoying each other’s company. A woman, maybe one of the clients, busied herself collecting people’s dirty paper plates while a man offered to refill his neighbor’s coffee. Supper was apparently over, but nobody seemed inclined to leave.
There were only a few children; that’s where Rune directed his attention. No, all of them seemed perfectly human.
Footfalls caught his attention. A smiling white-haired man approached him. “Merry Christmas!”
“Are you hungry? Most of the food is put away, but I can fix you a plate if you’d like.”
“No, thank you,” Rune said, still scanning the crowd.
“I’m starving!” Janks announced. He had just spotted the dessert table at the back of the room, and shouldered past the man to get to it.
The white-haired man chuckled. Rune took him to be the leader—the reverend, father, gesith? He was never sure about titles in the Fallow. The man turned back to Rune. “How about some coffee then? Maybe a slice of cake?”
“Tea, please—if it’s not too much trouble.”
“No trouble at all.”
Rune sat at the end of the nearest table. The man at the piano started a new song, and nearly everyone joined in singing. Rune pretended to mouth the words. He was lost when it came to the fallowmen’s holidays. He did know that the special days familiar to him were often times when the boundary between his world and this one became thin. Might that explain the presence of Madam Samarra’s thief so soon after Midwinter’s Day? Was she someone from the other side?
The white-haired man brought Rune’s tea before the end of the second verse, along with a slice of chocolate cake. At the same time, Janks sat next to him with two paper plates piled high with sweets of every kind.
“Think that’s enough?” Rune said.
“I can always get more,” he said through a mouthful of divinity.
“We can’t stay long. I’m going to ask around, see if anybody remembers—”
“Hold on,” Janks said. He sniffed the air. “Incoming.”
“I dunno. Somebody’s coming. Somebody…ooh!” The troll looked like he’d taken a sniff of something pungent but not unpleasant. “Somebody scared, worried, determined, angry…” He licked his lips and looked Rune in the eye. “She’ll put up a fight if she has to.”
The troll subtly gestured toward the door. She was just slipping in, eyes darting left and right. She looked just as Madam Samarra had described her: short, dusky, in a dingy fleece jacket and a floppy green Santa hat.
The girl skirted around the edge of the room toward the dessert table. Rune sipped his tea as she wrapped a stack of cookies in a paper napkin, slid it into her pocket, and reached back for one more to eat. She did the same thing with the fudge, and then again again with the mixed nuts. All the time, she scanned the room, eyes wide and distrusting.
Janks braced himself to stand up.
Rune said set his hand on the troll’s enormous arm. “Secrecy, remember?”
Rune kept his eyes on the girl. When the reverend or whatever he was approached her, she skirted by him without making eye contact. Open mouthed, he let her walk away.
As she reached the door, Rune stood up and nodded for Janks to follow.
The girl had crossed the street and was hurrying eastward.
“Follow her,” Rune said. “I’ll head her off.” Janks nodded.
Rune ducked between the mission and a neighboring building and let the airy chaos swirl around him, growing into a wild and restless whirlwind. He took in a long, deep breath and took flight.
O God, help me to believe the truth about myself—no matter how beautiful it is.
Who could use a Christmas story? Here is something featuring characters and settings from my work-in-progress, Shadow of the King, in all its unedited glory. Enjoy!
The snow stopped an hour ago, and a starry night was just barely visible behind thinning clouds. Wet, slushy snow crunched beneath Rune’s boots. He zipped his well-worn bomber jacket up to his neck against the icy breeze coming in from the river.
To Rune’s left was the playground at Waterfront Park—deserted this late at night, and with the water play area closed for the season. To his right was the ice-cold Ohio River. His destination lay straight ahead: the Big Four Pedestrian Bridge connecting Louisville with Jeffersonville, Indiana.
He stopped to listen. His sensitive elfish ears had no trouble homing in on the slow, even breaths of massive lungs not too far ahead. He cleared his throat to signal his approach. Rune hadn’t gotten this far in life without learning not to take a troll by surprise.
“Janks?” he called, striding toward the bridge. He tried to make his footsteps louder, then realized, first, that it was nearly impossible for him to do so and, second, that his contact had already marked his coming.
“Rune,” a gravelly voice answered from under the bridge. A figure emerged: nearly seven feet tall, wide-shouldered, big-nosed, bundled in a dark brown long coat, with a green toboggan cap pulled down over his forehead and a matching scarf around his massive neck. “‘Sup?”
Rune took another step forward. “Can’t complain.” He stopped a few yards in front of the troll. “Not much going on around here.”
“It’s Christmas Eve night,” Janks said. “That ain’t exactly peak season for an outdoor playground and water park.”
“I guess not.”
“Kinda like the peace and quiet, though,” the troll continued. “At least every now and then.” He gestured for Rune to approach. “But this ain’t a social call.” There was no malice in his voice and no distrust. He was simply assessing the situation. And, of course, he was right.
“I’m looking for a kid,” Rune said. “A goblin girl. Thought maybe you’d know something.”
“A kid?” The troll’s eyes widened beneath his bushy brow and his froggish mouth curled into something like a grin. “How old?”
Janks frowned. “Too tough,” he said. “A goblin, you say?”
“That’s what my client says. She stole something. I’m supposed to get it back.”
Janks perked up. “So she’s been naughty, eh?” He rubbed his hands together and licked his lips. “That makes things more interesting…”
“Janks,” Rune threatened.
“I’m kidding, I’m kidding!” the troll protested. Rune was not at all sure he was kidding. “Like I said, they’re too tough at that age. I’d rather eat shoe leather.”
“I just wanted to know if you’d heard anything about a goblin girl in these parts. My client says she was wearing shabby clothes and one of those stupid pointy hats everybody wears this time of year.”
“Not a peep,” the troll said. “Far as I’m concerned, you can have her.”
“Too tough?” Rune said, quirking an eyebrow.
The troll spread his hands. “I’m just messing with you. You know that, right? That age, they’re just not fun to scare anymore—and their emotions are all over the place.” He made a face as if something left a bad taste in his mouth.
“Fine. I guess I’ll—” Rune stopped short when what Janks said finally registered. “You pick up on emotions, don’t you?”
“I never knew a river troll that couldn’t.” He puffed out his barrel chest.
Rune considered this for just a second. “D’you have any plans tonight?”
Janks eyed Rune warily. “You want me to help you? That’s gonna cost.”
“I’ll owe you one,” Rune said. “And so will my client.” He turned away. Trolls loved excitement, anything out of the routine. That’s what he was counting on. But Janks wouldn’t be forced or cajoled. He had to make up his own mind.
“Shabby dressed, you say?” the troll called after him. “Maybe check over at the rescue mission on Jeff Street. I mean, just a thought.”
Rune stopped. He wiped the smile off his face before he turned back around. “Sounds like a longshot,” he said, “but we’ve got to start somewhere.”
Janks’s eyes lit up. “Just a minute,” he said, hustling forward. He took off his knit cap and shoved it into his long coat. Then he pulled a different had out of an inside pocket, a battered, plaid flat cap. As soon as he put it on, his trollish features dissolved: his eyebrows, nose, and mouth all shrunk to more human proportions, and he might have even seemed a little bit shorter.
“A shamlee cap?” Rune said. “Impressive.”
“We don’t all blend in as good as elves,” Janks said.
“I suppose not,” Rune said. When the troll caught up to him, he turned his back to the river, and the two trudged away together through the snow.