With apologies to Karl Edward Wagner.
The bitter wind snarling and screaming across the slate tiles of the little cottage fit Kane’s bleak mood. Endless shrieking; eternal, pointless motion rushing nowhere. It never ended. He never ended. And here he had arrived at yet another frigid winter, suffering an ennui that might drive him outdoors into the frozen embrace of death if he could summon enough willpower to move from where he sat on his stool by the simple board table, warmly dressed though unarmored, sword slung across his back within reach of his left hand.
Puffs of white smoke roiled past him, driven by what must be a draft from the chimney. Kane coughed, then with a sigh of utter weariness, turned toward the chimney and rose to tend to the fire and see if he could address the draft.
A man stood between Kane and the chimney. A man in many ways a mirror image of Kane: tall, broad and heavily muscled, with heavy, coarse features largely concealed by a beard. There were obvious differences, however. Whereas Kane’s midsection was flat, the man before the chimney carried a rotund paunch, and his beard was white in contrast to Kane’s coppery facial hair. The newcomer wore warm, red clothing lined with white fur, and held what appeared to be a woolen sock dangling in his right hand.
“Been a long time, Kane,” the man stated in a hearty, garrulous tone.
“Has it?” queried Kane with seeming indifference.
“A century,” the other said. With that he unleashed a wicked forehand with the sock. The sock bulged with some heavy burden, and its ponderous arc intersected Kane’s left shoulder with a wallop that staggered Kane and burst the stocking. Dull black lumps of coal in staggering profusion scattered free of the restraining sock and bounced and clattered about the rough wooden boards of the floor, some disappearing through gaps to the frozen ground below.
Kane righted himself. He tried to reach for his sword, but the blow had numbed his shoulder and his left arm refused to answer his command. He growled. “Fine. Come on, Klaus. I can take you with one hand.”
Klaus stepped forward, beaming his delight. But instead of coming to meet him, Kane dropped to one knee. He tugged at the end of a rope emerging from a gap between floor boards.
From outside, rising above the insistent plaint of the wind, came the snorts and moans of animals in distress. Moving wide to keep the table between himself and Kane, Klaus moved to the door. He tugged it open, letting in a swirling blast of wind that hurled stinging snow crystals about the small, one-room cottage. Visible in the bright moonlight, in the clearing before a stand of dark, looming pines, a string of antlered deer stood, harnessed to a sleigh. It was these animals keening in dismay. They appeared to have dropped a couple of feet into the snow covered earth. The sleigh teetered behind them on the brink of some sort of pit.
“I figured you might come, Klaus. Now get out,” Kane said, “or I’ll tug the rope a second time. The second pull triggers the bear traps. I imagine two or three of your pets might avoid the jaws, but the rest will suffer one or more crushed legs. Tough night for you in that case.”
Klaus turned to regard Kane. “We’ll call it a draw,” he said at last. “Until next time, Kane.”
“I’ll leave out a plate of cookies.”
“I won’t eat them, poisoner.”
“Leave, Klaus. By the door this time.”
Klaus emitted a belly laugh, placed one mittened finger beside his nose, and left through the door.
Kane felt some function returning to his shoulder. He closed the door against the brutal elements then returned to his stool where he sat with an unexpected sigh of contentment. Existence felt worth enduring again. A grin softened his grim visage. That old bastard had given him a present after all.
There. That’s my present for you, dear reader. If you’d like to grab a last minute present for someone, may I suggest you shop here?