“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.”