We could call in an airstrike on the Alfkin stronghold, but the Gift is inside. Besides the engines on X25-12 Candystripe Strike Fighters don’t hold up to Antarctic conditions. Me and my squad hunker down to plan the assault.
Back in the world, I went by Gwendoline Cordoba, but it was never my name to begin with. I renamed myself when I chose this life, and Red December Girls never look back.
“Sergeant Wreath, you have a suggestion?”
Lieutenant Ribbons is greener than fresh reindeer poop. I skimmed her file before we dusted off from Pole Charlie in Dunedin last week. She used to be one of those curse girls you read about; got put on ice back in the sixties by rivals in her own coven. Our boss Nick was the one who thawed her out, a couple of months before the Alfkin boxed him up.
“With respect, Sir/Ma’am, I know how the enemy think. They want us to give them a fair fight.”
“Fair?” I know that funny look. She’s eyeballing me like she can’t tell if I’m serious. I guess I can’t blame her. I still look like a nine year old. Witches have a lot going on, but they don’t know squat about shape shifting. “Since when do Alfkin engage in fair fights?”
My impatient huff comes out sulkier than I intended. Kid-sized physical forms don’t convey emotional nuance well. “Never, but we want them to think we will.”
This faction of my distant cousins we’re up against are called Humbugs. Haughty, arrogant ticks, even by Alfkin standards. Of everyone who took up the Queen of Winter’s banner, these were the hard-line crazies. Anti-Kringleist fanatics.
“You Alfkin, you’re all the same,” says Ribbons. “Everything’s a game to you, isn’t it?”
“If you say so, Sir/Ma’am.” If this looks like a game to her, it’s only because she doesn’t understand the rules.
The Lieutenant shakes her head. “Every day I ask myself, was this worth getting out of bed for?”
The Humbug stronghold is a cute little fairytale cottage snuggled in a shady woodland grove in the middle of the Antarctic Desert, three hundred kilometres southeast of McMurdo Station. Don’t be fooled by the postcard-picturesque appearance. The Queen is expending serious juice to keep it running in subzero conditions.
My plan’s pretty simple. The rest of the Red December Girls will split into fire teams and create a distraction by sabotaging the generators. Which is to say, the perimeter network of ancient, mystically-powerful elms that maintain this sun-dappled temperate forest inside a freezing blizzard.
The fire teams get to work setting fires, attracting all sorts of attention.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Ribbons and I walk up and knock on the front door. Alfkin magic works by certain rules, and one of the rules is, if a couple of shivering, unarmed girls knock on the door of an abandoned cottage in the middle of nowhere, it is bound to invite them to enter, usually to their extreme doom. Unfortunately for the Humbugs, Alfkin magic lacks an appreciation for such subtleties as one of the girls being a centuries-old changeling, and the other a smallish Croatian twenty-something, neither of whom requires weapons to go armed.
“We’re in. What now?”
Lieutenant Ribbons tries to sound cool and focused, but there’s no shame in an awestruck reaction to Alfkin architecture. The interior of the cottage is a vast cathedral of bone and petrified wood, lit by wafting firefly lanterns and candlewax stalactites of glowing golden sap. It’s intentionally eye-catching.
“Get down,” I hiss, dragging Ribbons behind a bench made from the shoulder blade of a greater Pacific kaiju. Two strange shapes emerge through the great ribcage-doors to the inner compounds. Each figure is an entire Alfkin mobile artillery crew manning a heavy arbalest weapons platform, from which sprouts large avian legs. They stalk about like hungry scavengers, hunting us.
“Baba-Marshall Yaga should sue for copyright infringement.”
“Never mind the name dropping,” I snap. “Can you take the one on the left?”
“Five immortal fey on an oversized chicken-mounted crossbow?” scoffs Ribbons, flexing her hexing fingers. “I’d be chanted out of the coven if I couldn’t.”
“You were chanted out!”
“Just get them, Sergeant Wreath.”
The arbalesters fight hard, with spring-propelled spears, and razor claws, and cutlasses when we get close. But their fighting styles are a couple of centuries out of date, and Red December Girls are This-Minute-Or-Sooner, if you get me.
So before long me and the LT are wrestling to rein in our new ambulatory gun emplacements. It takes a few words of old Alfkin and a soothing hex to calm them enough to start hunting for the Gift.
Various problems arise: more chicken-crossbow crews; several enlarged leopard seals guarding various important doors; and more than a few arguments over whether to turn left or right at the animated statue of the Queen of Winter.
Neither, as it turned out. The Gift is hidden – or perhaps shoved negligently – beneath the flowing ermine robes of the Queen’s statue, out of sight and probably forgotten almost immediately by the sullen, feckless Humbugs.
“Do you want to open it?”
“Sir/Ma’am, how many times do I have remind you I’m a lot older than I look?” But the Gift has a bowtie and beautiful gold-green wrapping paper, so I open it.
Old Saint Nick’s snugged up asleep inside. “Same kind of heavy-slumber curse my coven laid on me,” says Ribbons, reversing it. “He should come to in three – two – one.”
“Ho ho ho?”
“Welcome back, Sir/Ma’am,” says Ribbons, snapping a salute.
“What time is it?”
I nod to the Big Man, who’s not technically in the chain of command. “December 24. I’m afraid we didn’t get you anything.”
Santa smiles, looking from me to Ribbons. “But I see I got you something. The gift of cooperation and mutual respect.”
We exchange a look of our own, and smirk. Maybe he’s half-right.
“With all due respect, Santa, next time I’d prefer world peace and a pony.”
Season’s greetings, one and all. Since this is more or less a sequel to Nestled In the Gift Wrapping from late December last year, I guess it is now a Friday flash fiction tradition to have an Xmas story starring Santa and various combative elves. You’re welcome.
As this Year of Trials comes to a close, we all must contemplate the uncertain specter of 2019. Will it be a harbinger of greater malignancy, or will it do us a solid by not abjectly sucking? The future is murky, but I offer this balm: my newsletter comes out once every six weeks or so with glad tidings, writing news and free fiction. Sign up using the form below to get all that goodness and a free ebook of my short story collection: