Wolfsbane and mistletoe, p.6
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       Wolfsbane and Mistletoe, p.6
 

           Charlaine Harris
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Chapter Six

  The Werewolf Before Christmas

  Kat Richardson

  Kat Richardson is the author of the Greywalker paranormal detective novels. She is a former magazine editor from Los Angeles who now lives on a sailboat in the Seattle area with her husband and two ferrets. She rides a motorcycle and doesn't own a TV, so she's only seen one episode of Buffy in her life - poor Kat! On the other hand . . . she has more time for writing and World of Warcraft and working on the Northwest regional board of the Mystery Writers of America. This is her first werewolf story.

  'Twas the night before Christmas - well, the late afternoon, in fact, but who could tell at the North Pole in the middle of winter - and Matthias the werewolf was knee-deep in reindeer guts. Really, it was the deer's own fault for having that glowing red nose that had made it ever so easy to pick him out in the gloom. There it had been, like a neon sign saying FAST FOOD and Matt being like Yellow Dog Dingo - always hungry - had taken the opportunity for a quick snack.

  It hadn't been as easy as he had expected. Something about the moon magic was really messed up at the North Pole, and he couldn't manage to be quite wolf or man, but an uncomfortable, hairy hybrid of both - but at least he was warm. So he'd vaulted the fence of the reindeer stockade and chased the light-footed lunch to its doom. It was pretty tasty, too: corn-fed.

  He'd chowed down with the alacrity you'd expect of a man or wolf who'd been lost in the tundra for most of a week following that stupid, stupid plane crash. That couldn't really be called Matt's fault, either, since the compass and GPS had both been on the fritz when the moon poked its beam through the window. He'd always embraced his wolf nature, and when the moon insisted, he threw himself into the frenzy of the change with the enthusiasm of a pig in a wallow. Well, maybe that had been a bad idea after all. . . .

  What had definitely been a bad idea had been going to the North Pole in the first place. What had he been thinking? That people wouldn't mind a werewolf so much up there? That he could be free to be a wolf as much as he wanted and never have to worry about people? That hadn't worked out so well, and when he'd tried to go home by sneaking on the plane and ambushing the crew, things had gone straight to handbasketdom.

  He'd been wandering around, half-man, half-wolf, and increasingly hungry since he'd dug himself out of the snow that had buried the plane on impact. The human part of him knew there were weather and satellite monitoring stations near the pole - faking the paperwork for a job at a monitoring station was what had got him to the North Pole in the first place - so he figured he'd find someone or something useful eventually so long as he didn't starve first. Luck or Fate had offered up the reindeer with the funky face and Matthias had grabbed the opportunity with all paws.

  He was rooting for "good bits" when the man in red showed up. . . .

  He was a medium-sized fellow with a neat, full beard as thick and white as the snow and he had a funny sort of hat that sat on his head in a floppy red peak, something like a small bishop's miter that had gone a bit soft. A black shadow clung to his back and stout black boots stuck out under his long red coat of thick wool trimmed in white fur and held closed by six fancy gold braid things down the front. He held a tall walking stick that looked like a gold shepherd's crook in one red-mittened hand as he stood in the gateway of the stockade and clucked his tongue in disappointment.

  "Ahh . . . me. This does present a problem. "

  Matthias raised his head and growled his best menacing growl. He was stuck in the back corner of the stockade under a half-shed that kept the snow off the manger, and the easiest way out would mean running toward the man in red. His human brain was still a bit groggy and he wasn't thinking as well as he might have had he been a little less wolfy and a little less excited by the kill. He hoped the fellow would just back away so he could hop the fence and follow the man to whatever conveyance had brought him. Then Matt could steal it and get the hell out of the Frozen North. Or at least that was the first plan that suggested itself to his half-lupine brain and it sounded like a good one to him.

  But the man held his ground and peered at the werewolf draped in reindeer innards. "Don't I know you . . . ?" the man queried. He held out his free hand and a black book extruded from the shadow behind him and slid into his grasp. He glanced at the pages. "Hmmm . . . Oh, yes. Matthias Vulfkind. Haven't seen you in quite a while, Mattie, and it appears you've been very, very naughty indeed. And now, poor Rudy, too. Ah, what will I do with you?"

  Matt stared at the man in red and growled again, forming rough words in his half-human throat even as an entirely human idea began wriggling around in the back of his mind. "Who are you?"

  The man in red gave a sad smile. "It has been a while, but you called me Rider and Sunnercla when you were very small and not so shaggy. Do you remember?"

  Matthias shook his head. He thought it might be best to just rip the man's throat out and get on with his plans, but the man seemed to calm him in some eerie way and he just couldn't do it. It seemed . . . wrong, which was a concept the werewolf had not bothered with in a long time.

  The man shook his head, too. "No? Well, then. I am Nicholas of Myrna. Most people call me Santa Claus now. "

  Matthias drew back in surprise as the idea in the back of his head popped to the front like a tiny lightbulb exploding. Oh no, it couldn't be. . . . "Father Christmas?"

  Santa Claus nodded. "Yes, that too. And Saint Nicholas and Kris Kringle and many other names. And as it is Christmas Eve and you've eaten my lead reindeer, I'm afraid I find myself in a bit of a predicament, Mattie. "

  The werewolf looked at the bloody carcass of the red-nosed reindeer that lay spread around him and cringed. "Uh-oh. "

  "Indeed," Saint Nicholas said with a nod. "While it's within my power to raise a child from the dead, I'm afraid it doesn't work on reindeer. So, it'll have to be you, Matthias Vulfkind. "

  "Oh no!" Matt howled. He leaped to scramble over the nearest part of the stockade fence and found himself floating in the very thin air of the North Pole's perpetual winter like an ornament from a Christmas tree's bough.

  "Oh, yes. Though you are now a man and half a beast, your childhood memory of me gives me power over you this day. " Saint Nicholas held his crozier aloft as if the hook magically held Matthias in the air.

  "I'm no deer!" the werewolf objected. "I'm big and I'm hairy!"

  "Reindeer are hairy, too. You'll do. "

  "I'm a predator!"

  "The deer won't mind - they've run with stranger creatures than you. "

  "But I can't fly!" the werewolf barked, which was certainly true when you considered the recent fate of the airplane.

  "I can fix that. . . . " said Sinterklaas.

  Saint Nicholas reached his free hand into his pocket and brought out a fistful of something that glittered and chimed with the laughter of small children. He flung the stuff toward the werewolf, muttering in Latin - Matt didn't know the words, but he rememberd the sound from his time in Catholic school - and a cloud of sparkling brown dust burst into the air and settled over Matthias.

  The dust smelled of cinnamon and brandy and it tasted of gingerbread and apples, and where it fell into his eyes, Matt saw visions of magical creatures in diaphanous raiment who danced and spun on colored ribbons of magic. He sneezed and snorted and shook his fur, whimpered and rubbed his face in the snow, but he couldn't get rid of the stuff or the strange feeling that crept over him. And then the werewolf was overcome with a giggling, effervescent sensation as if his whole body were made of champagne bubbles. And oh, it tickled! And oh, it itched! And oh, how it made his nose wriggle and twitch and he didn't care for it one bit.

  He set up a howl and pawed at the sky, which made him flip into the air and execute a perfect aerobatic loop that would have been the envy of any stunt pilot. He didn't like that much, either, especially when he knocked his head against the stockade railings on his way back dow
n.

  "Oh! Oh, what is that . . . stuff?" he moaned.

  "It's Christmas Cheer," Kris Kringle replied. "It's made of the dust of Christmas cookies, some mulled wine, and a bit of Christmas magic. And cinnamon, because I'm very fond of cinnamon. Perhaps a hint of brandy, too. Just to keep warm, you understand. "

  "It's nasty!" Matthias whined, pawing at his poor, sensitive nose. He just couldn't get the smell of cinnamon out of it.

  "Funny," said Father Christmas, stroking his beard thoughtfully, "I didn't know you were related to Ebenezer Scrooge. . . . "

  "Who?"

  "Oh, never mind. He reformed. Maybe you can, too. "

  Matthias growled.

  "Now, now. None of that. " And with no more than a nod, Santa summoned two elves who seemed to rise up from the very ground on each side of Matthias. They had long pointy ears and pointed chins and slanted, pointy eyes - in fact, they were altogether pointy and pale and rather terrifying. They reminded him of the administrators at the children's home and the nuns who'd rapped his knuckles with rulers and he quailed in remembered fear.

  Without a word, the two elves put their hands on the werewolf and guided him out of the stockade and around a stand of firs to the courtyard of a large stone house that Matthias was quite sure couldn't have been there before. In the middle of the courtyard stood a huge, old-fashioned sleigh that was painted bright red with shiny black trim. A horse had been painted just in front of the driver's seat, and as Matthias was led past it, the painted horse turned its head to watch him. The werewolf shivered and turned his gaze to the team of eight reindeer harnessed to the strange vehicle.

  He hadn't seen many reindeer before, but he was sure these were the extra-large size. Compared to them, his dinner had been a runt. Had he been on all fours, these fellows would have towered over him; shambling as he was, their gleaming eyes were not much below his own. The animals snorted and shook their heads so their crowns of thick, fuzzy antlers menaced the interloper. Plainly, they knew he had noshed on their diminutive red-nosed buddy.

  It seemed strange to be in front of the reindeer. As the elves began buckling him into the harness, something clicked in Matthias's brain and he thought, "This time the prey will be chasing me," and a sudden horror came upon him thinking of all those sharp hooves and hard antlers just behind his brushy tail, the owners pawing the air as each and every one of the reindeer ran their enchanted hearts out in hopes of extracting revenge for Rudolph.

  His docility dropped away and the werewolf fought and twisted, struggling to get out of the harness that would link him to the angry reindeer team. But no matter how he writhed, snapped, and clawed, he couldn't extract himself from the grip of the elves. In a twinkling he was strapped in tight. Just in front of two huge bucks who snickered and showed him their teeth. Oh, this was going to be a bad night. . . .

  The sharp crack of a whip flicked just above his ears and his tormentor in red called out, "Ho, there, Matthias! Pull!" which was entirely unnecessary, as the gunshot sound of the lash had set him instantly bolting forward, baying in fury. The reindeer lurched forward also, clicking their antlers and gnashing their teeth at him as Saint Nick called out, "On Dasher, on Dancer, on Prancer and Vixen, on Comet, on Cupid, on Donder and Blitzen!"

  Matthias vaguely rememberd the poem about Saint Nicholas and his reindeer team, but he had never thought about which ones were which. Now he guessed the last were the names of the brutes behind him since they snorted puffs of breath as hot as hell's own on his back and snapped their teeth at his heels. He tried to turn his head and snap back, but the reins held tight in the red-suited tyrant's fists kept him from it. He yipped in frustration and ran as hard as he could, mounting into the sky with every bound.

  The sky! At first, he thought he'd lose his lunch as the white land dropped away beneath them and the whole conveyance - reindeer, Santa, sleigh, and all - mounted into the crystalline blackness of the polar night with himself at the front, hauling like a dray horse and howling as he went. But as he pelted through the air, he noticed how fast he was going - faster than he'd ever run on land - and with such little effort! The night sky felt like black velvet against his paws, his nose smelled scents it had never smelled so crisply, and the giddiness of the Christmas Cheer drew a wolfen howl of delight from him.

  Santa Claus laughed from his sleigh and shouted, "Marvelous! Pull on, lad! Pull on!"

  He didn't need to be urged twice. This was the best running he'd ever had! He dashed on across the gorgeous, moon-kissed night, not even minding the hell-breath of the reindeer at his rear. Tiny twitches of the reins pulled him around, but he hardly noticed, so enamored was he of the fabulous flight of the werewolf.

  It was wonderful, like having his own pack rampaging across the sky, and he didn't realize Santa was slowly directing him downward until a snow-crusted cluster of crazy-quilt onion domes hove into view only inches below his scrambling paws. He yipped and skidded as the roofs rose to trip him and the sleigh bumped to an uneven stop on the roof as the man in red called out, "Whoa!"

  Picking himself back up from where he'd landed on his nose with his rear paws ahead of his front ones, Matthias glared at Father Christmas. "What's this about?" the werewolf growled.

  "It's our first stop, Mattie. Remember that it's my job to deliver gifts to worthy children on Christmas Eve. "

  "Not every child," Matt snorted.

  "No, of course not. Just Christian children - and a few corner cases. One must have limits. I couldn't possibly manage every child's holiday wish. Not without help, at least. "

  And the red-suited saint walked off across the roofs with a sack slung over his back and his uncanny shadow at his heels. The snow swirled up around the man and he vanished into the white glimmer like static on TV.

  Matt hunkered on his haunches, thinking, and scratched one ear, keeping a wary eye on Donder and Blitzen, whose attempts to arrange a pincer attack and bite him on the backside were only partially thwarted by the bells on the deer harnesses. The werewolf growled at them and they backed off, blinking and making reindeer smiles like candy wouldn't melt in their mouths.

  "Now, now, Matthias. Don't be rude to your teammates," Pere Noel chastened him, appearing out of the snow-mist, smelling of apple cider and evergreens, and climbing back into the sled without his sack. The dark shadow flowed across the ground and oozed into the sleigh, too.

  The shadow gave him the creeps, but before the werewolf could say anything, the man in the sleigh called out, cracked his whip, and the enchanted deer team - with the wolfman at its head - rose again into the star-spangled night.

  But the bizarre sleigh-team leader was thinking as they careened through the sky, and when they landed on the next roof, he asked, "How do you know which children are worthy?"

  "I keep a list, you know," Sinterklaas replied. He motioned to the shadow beside him and it solidified into a thin, angular, hook-nosed man with a dark mien and black clothes. He looked a bit like the elves . . . but large and evil. The man's eyes glittered red in the gloom that surrounded him as he handed over the big black book.

  Matt's hackles rose at the sight of the dark man and he let out an inadvertent whimper of fear. A childhood horror stirred in his mind and he cowered under the man's burning gaze.

  Saint Nick patted the book. "In here are recorded all the children over whom I watch. Those who are good are given gifts. And those who are not . . . "

  "Get beatings and coal and sticks," Matt replied, remembering.

  "Well, not so much anymore. We've liberalized, so Black Peter here has less to do. Mostly he simply gives wicked children bad dreams or nothing at all. But Pete keeps track, nonetheless. "

  Matthias slunk to the ground in remembered misery as the Bishop of Myrna and his enforcer walked away from the sleigh with a new bag of gifts. And maybe a nightmare, he imagined, or a smack with a yardstick as he'd gotten a time or two at the group
home. Unpleasant childhood memories tried to creep out of the mental closet into which he'd locked them long ago and he shivered.

  The werewolf had stretched his harness traces to the limit and lain down on the snow in a glaring heap to keep out of the range of reindeer nips when a jerk on the reins pulled him back onto his feet. "Come along, Matthias. Don't be glum. It's Christmas Eve and we've a lot to do before the terminator catches up to us. "

  The man in red cracked his whip and Matt and the reindeer surged forward instantly, leaping into the sky.

  "Terminator?" the werewolf yipped, as he dug his paws into the night. "We're being pursued by a robot assassin from the future?"

  Santa laughed. "Oh, no. Of course not! But we are being pursued by the sun. The line where the night becomes day is called the terminator. Right now we are just behind it, but it moves faster than we do, and when it catches up to us, my power ends for the year. The magic of Christmas begins on the morning of the day before Christmas and ends on Christmas Day. We had best be back on the ground at Christmas House before then, or we'll fall from the sky and no amount of Christmas Cheer will save us. So, now, dash away, dash away, dash away all!"

  And he cracked the whip again. Matthias and the reindeer put on a burst of speed and raced into the night toward the next stop. And as they ran through the holy night, the werewolf thought very long thoughts.

  It was curious, Matthias mused, that Christmas had such power and yet it lasted such a short time. Hadn't there been a whole season of it when he was a child? The traditional joy hadn't been present so much after a while - not after his parents died and he bounced from one children's home or foster home to another - but he was quite sure there'd been weeks of delicious odors, songs, and glittering decorations, even at the charity boarding school run by the Sisters of Mercy.

  He was surprised he could remember anything good about the place. He hadn't thought of it in years. He had willed himself not to think of it, in fact; for that was where the bad things first began to happen and that was where he'd first met Black Peter. Oh yes, now that his mind was turning over the stinking depths of his memories, he remembered the terrifying dark figure with the hooked nose and the blazing red eyes.

  The dark man had come late on those childhood Christmas Eves. He'd come with switches and cudgels, towing nightmares that overwhelmed the joy of the morning's paltry gifts - hand-me-down clothes and rough toys in generic paper and ribbons. The gifts hadn't even had names on them, just green ribbons for boys and red ones for girls and cryptic marks in the paper corners, which Matthias had figured out indicated the sizes of the secondhand shirts, pants, or shoes inside. Under the hands of some of his caretakers, bruises or horror had not been new to Matthias over the years. The small daily abuses, the neglect, the cruelty of children, and the worn-down rote charity of exhausted adults had made his young life too bleak for tinsel to rectify.

  As he'd grown older, the whole holiday thing - his whole life - had become terribly depressing and the Season of Light had seemed shabby and dim. He'd gotten into fights, talked back to the nuns, and cheated on his schoolwork and exams - not just at Christmas but all the time. He kept himself warm in his anger at the world that seemed to hate him - it was better than the constant chill of fear and despair.

  The year he'd pushed Lindsey Strathorn down the chapel steps on the third Sunday of Advent had marked his first visit from Black Peter. He'd only been reaching for her braids to give them a yank, but it had been too tempting to give a little shove instead - just a little shove. . . . He hadn't meant to break her arm - it wasn't really his fault.

  The year he'd started smoking had been the last time he saw the bleak specter of the fiery-eyed man. He'd woken to the rustle of someone's garments in the dark and the thud of a stick against the bedpost. Matthias had jumped from beneath the covers and run screaming into the chapel, turning over the ranks of burning votives and cursing God and the nuns as he bolted out into the snowy Christmas night.

  Wandering in the snow-drifted streets in his pajamas, he'd fallen in among wolves of the human kind and pushed his past aside forever, burying it in the darkest part of his mind, along with the death of his parents and the sight of the burning chapel.

  At first he had been just the youngest predator in the human pack, but he'd fought and bit and clawed and gouged his way up until he met a bigger, meaner wolf than he was; an inhuman beast that still walked upright like a man. Maybe, he thought, it had been inevitable that he'd end up a werewolf. He hadn't minded. Actually, he'd kind of liked it and taken to it with ferocious glee. He'd had enough of being hungry and poor and hated for no reason at all. He'd be a wolf and he'd never be hungry or cold and no dark man would beat him. And if somebody hated him, they had good reason, and if they feared him - even as a tale in the dark of night - so much the better.

  He'd rejected everything he'd learned from the Sisters of Mercy so thoroughly that he hadn't believed there was a Saint Nicholas. The fellow in the sleigh didn't look that much like the jolly fat man of American soda commercials and sidewalk collection kettles - more like the European figurine his German-speaking parents had put on the mantel - so who could blame him for not recognizing the man? Well, he wouldn't make that mistake again. Yet here the fellow was and he had the power to let Matthias fly through the air - if only for one night a year and in the company of bad-tempered reindeer who held grudges. He seemed to have a great many powers and that was interesting. Very interesting indeed . . .

  They paused again on a rooftop made of moss-shagged wooden shingles. From below, Matt could detect the odor of sleeping babies and Christmas cookies with hot tea. He watched Kris Kringle closely this time as he stepped down from his sleigh and walked across the rooftops to vanish in a flurry of snow and a sparkle of icy glitter. Matt wasn't quite sure how the trick was done, but he had an idea.

  When the jolly old elf and his not-so-jolly companion returned, Matthias cleared his throat and asked, "Just how many children do you visit every year?"

  "A few thousand. I'm not sure of the exact number. "

  "Why not all of them? I thought that's what you did. "

  "That would be impractical," the red-clad saint replied with a sad nod. "These days I make personal visits only to certain children - the ones for whom hope, charity, and comfort are the greatest need. "

  "What about the rest?" Matt growled. "Don't they deserve that stuff, too?"

  "Of course they do. But I've a great many helpers and no need for me to try and visit every child. There are over six billion people on the planet now, you know. "

  "That many?"

  Santa nodded. "That many. Of course, many of them don't believe in me and I cannot enter where there is no memory or belief in me - even just the memory of belief, as you have, Mattie. Atheism and pragmatism have cut into my old territory, and of course, there's also commercialism. "

  "Doesn't that bother you?"

  "Oh no. Who do you think started it? All that Christmas buying frenzy and advertising - the commercialism of Christmas that so many decry - has lightened my workload tremendously. Every hopeful, believing child who receives a gift bought by their parents and labeled 'From Santa' is still, in a way, receiving a gift from me. It's the Spirit of Christmas that's important, not the size or the origin of the gift. "

  "Seems like a con job to me," Matthias muttered.

  Sinterklaas stroked his beard and climbed into the sleigh. "Seems to be working out all right. I hadn't taken you for such a traditionalist, Mattie. "

  "I'm not," the werewolf growled and started to say more.

  Santa Claus shook his head and picked up the reins. "We can talk as we go, but we have a great deal yet to do, my furry friend. Trot on!" And he snapped the reins, urging the team up into the sky once more.

  They ran between the stars and the earth, and Matthias paused a moment to snap at a bit of stardust that sprinkled from above an
d hauled the sleigh up and around into a huge, swooping loop - just to see if the red-coated man and his load of gifts would fall out. But Saint Nicholas only clung like a limpet to his seat and laughed, "Ho, ho, ho! Excellent, Mattie!"

  As they raced ahead of the terminator, the weather became damp and misty, though none of the team or the driver seemed bothered by the cold. The fog, however, was a different matter.

  "Oh dear," muttered Sunnercla. "Now I do miss Rudolph - that nose of his lit the way through even the densest fog. I hope we won't get lost in this murk. "

  "I have a nose," Matt objected.

  "And it's lovely, but it's not exactly casting light in the darkness, dear boy. How will we find the houses of the deserving children if I can't see them?"

  "I'll bet I could smell them out," Matthias said.

  "Really? Well . . . most of them do leave me cookies but there're a lot of cookies around this time of year. "

  "And hope. You said your special children have hope. "

  "Yes. And belief. But those don't have a smell. "

  "Oh yes they do," the werewolf said, remembering. "Hope smells like despair before it goes sour. Belief smells like candle wax and incense. And I smell that right now. " He also smelled the odors of sleeping children and gingerbread and fir boughs near a wood fire. He was sure that only a house full of Christmas could smell like that - all the others had - but he didn't say so. Rider had his tricks, but so did Matthias and he wasn't going to let on that the Christmas Cheer had made his nose as magical as his flying paws.

  "Indeed?" asked Sinterklaas. "Then lead on!"

  Putting his nose to the scent, the werewolf snuffled and trotted through the air, following the smell down and around, skirting through ranks of tall buildings, over the tops of trees, and finally to a rooftop where the team paused for Santa Claus to run his errand.

  As they waited, the reindeer looked at Matthias out of the corners of their eyes and muttered among themselves. They still didn't like him, but at least they weren't trying to bite him anymore.

  When the man in red returned, he walked right up to the deer team and began distributing cookies from his pockets. "There you go, my good friends. You've worked very hard, so it's time for a treat - there's still much yet to do, though, so eat up!" He walked up to Matt and held out a gingerbread man. "That was excellent work, Mattie. I saved the best one for you. "

  The werewolf sniffed at the cookie and sneezed. "I'd rather have the children - they're tastier. If you can go in all these houses and do all of this, why do you settle for cookies and milk? You could have anything. If I could do that, I'd definitely eat the brats in their cribs. "

  The Bishop of Myrna frowned, saying, "I couldn't do that. I'm the patron saint of children - I could never hurt them. "

  "But you let Black Peter punish them. Just like you did me. "

  "You were awfully naughty, Mattie. Children need correction once in a while - to learn what is right and what is not. All parents know this. You had no parents and no one to help you know when you'd done wrong. "

  "I had foster parents and a schoolful of nuns to correct me. "

  "Apparently not enough - considering. And after all I'd done for you . . . Well, water under the bridge now. We'd best be going. "

  Saint Nicholas scratched him behind the ears and walked back to the driver's seat with the shadow of Black Peter slinking along behind. For just a moment, the dark man showed his face and winked at Matthias and gave an evil grin.

  Annoyed and a little afraid, but feeling a post-Rudolph emptiness, the werewolf gobbled down the gingerbread man in two bites - it certainly wasn't as good as reindeer, but it would do. Then the sleigh was on its way again, with Matthias still sniffing and leading them through the fog.

  They'd visited several more fog-bound buildings and were just emerging from the mist above a frozen lake when a mournful sound drifted up to the sleigh from the ice below.

  "Whoa, Mattie!" called the man in red. "Find that noise!"

  Cocking his ears, the werewolf listened for the thin cry. There it was . . . the chilled voice of someone alone on the ice, freezing and crying. Matthias plunged toward the sound of the weakling, thinking of the times he'd hunted to similar cries of distress, cutting the weak and injured from herds of animals - and men.

  The reindeer pulled with all their strength to match the powerful leaps of their leader and they dashed down to the ice-bound lake, circling lower and lower until they touched as lightly as eiderdown onto the cracked surface of the ice. A small figure lay on the ice beside a fissure in the surface. Next to the still body, a wavering form wailed its distress.

  Matthias wouldn't have imagined the red-clad saint could move so fast, but Saint Nicholas bailed out of the sleigh when it was barely stopped and ran across the treacherous ice to the child lying beside the hole. He knelt down and scooped up the dead child, cradling its blue face against his red woolen shoulder.

  "Peter!" he cried. "Black Peter, you wretch, bring the book and my crozier!"

  Matthias sniffed at the wailing ghost of the little boy. "What happened to you?" he asked.

  The young ghost sniffled and blinked at him. "A man offered me a ride home from school, but we never went home. He hurt me and then he left me out here. I prayed and prayed for someone to come. . . . "

  "Bit late . . . " Matt growled.

  "Never say that, Matthias!" Saint Nick scolded. "Not on Christmas. " He held out his hands to Black Peter, who offered him the big black book and the gold shepherd's crook.

  The patron saint of children looked at the sad little ghost and opened the book. "There, now, Jose, we'll make it right. "

  Matt craned his neck to look over the man's shoulder at the book. He could see a creamy page that had but a single name penned on it in wet, red ink - Jose Maria Antonio Guttierez. As he looked, Santa Claus began to speak, long Latin phrases that shivered in the air and the ground shook as he raised his stick in his free hand. The words broke into sparkling shards that swirled and glittered, falling on the page and on little Jose, making the red ink run.

  Still Sinterklaas intoned the strange words and the ink shimmered, turning brown, then yellow. . . . The ghost gasped and so did the boy in the saint's arms.

  The glimmering words that filled the air blazed into white light and the red-coated man brought his crozier down. It touched the little boy with a sound like distant cannon and a shout of angels and the air itself was afire!

  Matthias jumped back and the little boy in Santa's arms coughed and opened his eyes. Matt looked for the ghost but it was nowhere to be seen. He looked at the book and saw that the name on the page was now written in gold ink that gleamed as if it were a coin newly minted.

  Jose looked up and gasped, "Papa Noel . . . "

  "Merry Christmas, Jose," said Father Christmas. He glanced at Matt and Black Peter, then back to the boy. "You're a long way from home, but we'll get you back. "

  The man and his shadow bundled the boy into the sleigh, and Matthias and the reindeer team hauled the conveyance into the sky once again, soaring miles to the south, over rivers and fields, over the craggy red and yellow spires of New Mexican canyons, to touch down on the grass of a playing field while Kris Kringle took the boy back to his home. He handed him back into the care of his dazed, tearstained parents, who didn't seem to realize how far their child had traveled or that they were talking to the real Santa Claus and not just some seasonal department store employee.

  Black Peter grumbled, brushing at the book as he stood beside Matthias and watched from a distance - no one wanted to explain the presence of a magical sled with eight reindeer and a werewolf in its traces and certainly not a black shadow of a man with burning red eyes.

  "Now, I'll never hear the end of it," Black Peter muttered.

  "Huh?" Matt grunted. "End of what?"

  "You'll find out. . . . " The dar
k man looked quickly around and then flipped open the book and pointed at it. "Here, take a look, but read fast, the bishop is coming back. "

  Matthias glanced down and saw his own name on the page. There were three gold stars beside his name - which was a filthy brown with tiny hints of gold at the edges - and then a little red X followed by more gold stars, and then a handful of black check marks that stopped abruptly with a big black X. The werewolf could guess what the stars meant - those were the years of his youth, surely - and the black X must have marked the year he rejected Christmas.

  "What's that mean?" he asked, poking his paw at the red X.

  Black Peter grinned - his teeth looked like knives and Matt felt a shiver of dread at that smile. "That's when you died, little Mattie. "

  "But I'm not dead! And I don't remember being dead. . . . "

  "Think of what you've just seen - "

  A hand in a red mitten snapped the book closed and Saint Nicholas took it away from his dark companion.

  "Now, now, Peter, don't scare poor Mattie. He's done very well tonight. That name was jet-black before this night started, and you and I shall have to discuss how that blackness came about. . . . "

  Matthias growled at Rider. "Tell me about the X!"

  Grandfather Frost sighed. "That's a long story and the sun is catching up to us. I think it should wait for another time, so we're not stranded here on Christmas Day. "

  "I won't be stranded," Matthias snapped. "I don't need a magical team of reindeer to fly me home - I am home - or close enough. " Matt hunched his shoulders, raising his hackles and bristling as he crouched close to the ground, poised to leap at the man in the red suit - completely forgetting about the harness.

  Saint Nicholas glanced at the eastern sky, then back to the werewolf. Matthias couldn't see any difference in the color of the night, but he supposed that came with practice - like the trick of getting into houses.

  "Very well," Santa said. "You know that I am the patron saint of children and that is because of what this evil man did. " He pointed to Black Peter, who glowered. "When I was Bishop of Myrna, three young boys from one of the villages went missing. They were all good friends and mischievous little scamps so at first no one was too worried about them, thinking they'd be back as soon as whatever adventure they had conceived was done. But they didn't come home and their families began to worry. There had been famine in other villages and many people were hungry and many more were desperate. The city was suffering the most, for there were too many mouths to feed on the food the villages and ships could supply.

  "I had bought some grain for the city from a ship's captain. His cargo was meant for a powerful lord farther down the coast, but he sold the grain to me out of pity, which moved the heart of God. A miracle was given to him so that his grain was replaced for his goodness and he did not suffer punishment by his master for coming home shorthanded.

  "The people cried in joy over the grain, but among the cries of joy I heard the cries of the sad parents for their missing children. And another sound came to my ears as well - the voices of the missing boys themselves, praying for their lives, for their families.

  "So I followed the sound of those prayers and they led me to the home of a butcher - a fat, evil butcher named Ruprecht," the saint added, glaring at his shadow, "who had tricked the boys into his home, then killed them and chopped them to bits. He put the bits into his salting barrel and meant to sell them to the hungry people of the town as salt pork. The arrival of the grain had delayed the butcher's plans and so I found the murdered boys and raised them from the dead and sent them home to their families. Ruprecht became my assistant to atone for his sins. He keeps my list and he punishes the wicked children so that they won't grow up to be like him. I prefer to call him Peter, now, so he won't be reminded so much of his evil past, but perhaps that has been a mistake," the saint added, glaring at the dark man.

  "So you see that I have the power to bring children back to life - but only once and only on Christmas. When you were three, Matthias, your family was killed in a house fire on Christmas Eve. I couldn't save your parents, for I don't have that power, but I brought you back. You'd always been a good little boy. "

  "And you brought me back for what?" Matthias roared. "So I could be an orphan and hated for it? Blamed for surviving while my parents died? Bounced from home to home? Starved and poor all the time? That was your gift to me - your only gift, I might add! In all those years you never brought me a present!"

  The reindeer shied and shuffled in the snow and snorted in fear as the werewolf howled his fury.

  Saint Nicholas spread his arms, calming the deer, then looked to Matthias, frowning. "You didn't get them? I brought them every year. They were such little things but I thought you knew - I couldn't let them be too obvious - but they were there. The way your shoes always fit better than anyone's. The red coat when you were five with the fire engine in the pocket - "

  "I never got a fire engine! There never was a red coat!" The reindeer jumped with nerves and the sleigh rattled as Matthias bayed and raged. "The shoes pinched and leaked. The nuns beat my knuckles until they bled and we all went to bed hungry every night but Christmas Eve - and that was only because people brought us their unwanted food. You raised me from the dead just to leave me in hell - what sort of saint are you?"

  Hagios Nikolaos glanced at Black Peter. "And what do you know about this?"

  The punisher of wicked children only shook his head and said nothing. But there was a glint in his red eyes. . . .

  "We shall speak of this again, Black Peter. Mark my words. " Then Sunnercla turned from him and put his arms around the furious werewolf, trying to gentle the savage beast by muttering soft words. Matthias ripped and tore at the man in red, biting and gouging and howling with anger and despair, but every injury he inflicted healed again almost as fast as he gave it.

  At last the werewolf put his head down, exhausted, on the snow. Santa Claus sat down beside him.

  "I'm so sorry, Matthias. So sorry," he said. "I can only save a child once. After that, you have to save yourself. You were a good child and I never understood why you went bad. Then you ceased to be a child at all and I didn't know what had become of you for such a long time. I have many duties besides Christmas - patron of many things - and I suppose I didn't look hard enough for you. But you weren't a sailor or a baker or a prisoner and I didn't think you'd keep a shop or move to Greece. None of my other spheres of influence seemed very likely to benefit you, either - and that was my fault for not looking harder. Then, tonight, here you were and I had another chance. I have tried to help you. Now, Matthias. Now I do truly need your help. "

  "I don't want to help you. I think my Christmas Cheer has worn off," Matt muttered.

  "But don't you like running through the night sky?"

  Actually he did, very much, but he only shrugged, not trusting the old red-coated fake.

  "Do you really want to strand the sleigh and the reindeer here? To disappoint all the other children I have to visit tonight? Would that be fair?"

  Matt grumbled. He didn't care - well, he didn't. But maybe a little more running through the sky . . .

  "I don't know," he muttered. "You weren't very fair to me. What do I get out of it?"

  He could tell Rider didn't like that, but he figured he had the fellow by the short fur now. The sunrise was inevitable and the terminator crept toward them inexorably. If the Bishop of Myrna wanted to get home before it caught them, he'd have to make a deal.

  Saint Nick heaved one more sigh and got to his feet. "All right. . . . You've got me over a barrel, Matthias. What's your condition?"

  The werewolf sat up and shook his fur back down, grooming a little just for the delay. Then he said, "I want the recipe for Christmas Cheer. "

  "Christmas Cheer? But that only works once a year!"

  "That's all right. I can be
content with running through the skies once a year. It's not bad. "

  "Is that all?"

  "Yup. Well . . . and directions out of the North Pole because that place is crazy. "

  Santa stroked his beard and said, "All right. It's a deal. So long as you get us back to Christmas House before dawn. "

  "And the recipe had better work!"

  "I guarantee it will - on my word as Father Christmas. But only on Christmas Eve, remember. "

  "That's fine. " The werewolf stood back up in the harness and shook his fur into place. "Give me a little more Christmas Cheer for right now and let's go!"

  Another handful of the glittering magical dust was presented and drizzled over him while Saint Nicholas muttered his magic words. Then the man in red and his dark henchman settled themselves in the sleigh and Matt and the reindeer took off.

  They raced against the creeping sunrise, dashing for the last of the houses full of worthy, sleeping children, and every time they stopped, Matthias paid close attention to what Pere Noel did. He always put his mittened hand to his face, said something, and then vanished into the snowy uproar of Christmas magic at work.

  Finally Matthias asked, "How do you do that? The chimney trick, that is? How do you get in and out?"

  "Mattie, we don't have time for a long discussion. We're running a bit late as it is. "

  "I'm not. I have all the time in the world. "

  "Oh, all right, I'll tell you. If I say the right words and breathe in a pinch of Christmas Cheer, I can pass through anything - I become the Spirit of Christmas itself for a few minutes. It doesn't last very long, so I have to make my trips quickly or work the spell again. "

  "Oh! So that's what that poet-fellow meant in the 'Night Before Christmas'! I thought he just meant you were winking at him. "

  "Poet-fellow . . . Oh, you mean Clement Moore who wrote 'A Visit From St. Nicholas. ' Yes, yes . . . 'laying a finger aside of his nose . . . ' That's what it was," Saint Nick agreed.

  "Ech . . . snorting cookie dust," Matt said with a shudder. "That's disgusting. " Though not quite as disgusting as some of the things he'd done in wolfskin, Matthias thought. Then he grinned a smug, wolf grin; it was just as he'd suspected.

  "Well, the job's not all sugar plums and Christmas cake, Mattie. "

  Was it his imagination, or did the old saint seem tired and cranky? Surely Santa didn't get grumpy. . . . He was supposed to be perpetually jolly. But it was getting pretty late and even the reindeer had given up any extra expenditure of energy. Matt had noticed they had stopped trying to bite long ago and begun to pull along willingly with him, not just to show him up or get revenge. Maybe they were starting to get used to him, after all, and that was just fine with him.

  Matt shrugged and waited for the crack of the whip or the flick of the reins to signal it was time to move once again, and they took to the sky in a flurry of hooves and paws.

  As they finished their rounds, the edge of the sun flared on the eastern horizon like prairie fire. Saint Nicholas turned the team sharply north and urged them to run for their lives into the polar darkness. And run they did, for they were now airborne and the nighttime terminator was as deadly as any assassin robot. If the sun touched them, they would tumble to the ground with all the aerodynamic grace of flung rocks.

  They dashed for the north with their hearts in their mouths, ripping at the blue-black sky with their hooves and paws. Matthias could feel the bubbly sensation of the Christmas Cheer fading, dulling the brightness of color, stealing the extraordinary scents from his nose, and letting the chill of the perpetual winter touch him even through his thick wolfen pelt. He pulled and pulled, ran and ran, sinking toward the earth. . . .

  And stumbled to the snowy ground with a thud and a tumble. The reindeer skidded to a stop behind him, tugging him to a sliding halt with the weight of their bodies. He picked himself up, shaking off the snow, and looked around. He could see the edge of Christmas House and the elves trotting across the snow to help them. He breathed a sigh of relief.

  The elves clustered around them, unharnessing the team, dragging away the sleigh, helping Matthias out of the modified straps of his own harness. They led the reindeer back to their stockade and helped Santa Claus - who seemed suddenly very old and frail - toward the house. Matthias trotted after them.

  "Would you like a bite to eat or a hot drink, Mattie?" the Bishop of Myrna asked as they flopped down in front of a roaring fire in his living room.

  "Oh, no. I should get going. "

  "Are you sure? It's been a long, hard night - you did very good work. "

  Matt scratched himself, yawned, and stretched, then stood up. "It has been a long night, but I'd rather be on my way. After you give me my present, that is. "

  Saint Nicholas frowned, but he got up and left the room, returning with a piece of paper and a small bag that he offered to the werewolf. "Here it is. The bag has the recipe and a few ingredients you may have difficulty finding out of season. Make it up fresh in the morning of the day before Christmas and it should be just fine. The directions out of the North Pole's influence are on the paper. " He looked a little wistful as he added, "I do wish you'd stay a little while, though. We might have much to talk about. . . . "

  "No thanks," Matthias replied. He took the bag and the paper and carried them off into the darkness of Christmas Day.

  The next year, as Christmas Eve lengthened toward night, Matthias was lying in the snow behind a stand of fir, watching the activity in the courtyard of Christmas House. His nose was full of the scents of cinnamon and brandy, and the flavor of gingerbread and apples lingered on his tongue. Visions of magical creatures in diaphanous raiment danced and spun on colored ribbons of magic before his eyes as the elves below dragged out the sleigh and polished the harness. They wouldn't know what hit them. . . .

  Oh yes, Matthias had made his plans meticulously; he'd mixed up the Christmas Cheer and he'd retraced the route to the North Pole and now he need only wait. He knew all the old saint's tricks, and this year, when the red-coated hypocrite came out to the stockade, Matt wouldn't be dazzled or taken by surprise. This time he'd jump on the Bishop of Myrna and rip his throat out. Then he'd take his place in the sleigh and rampage through the Christmas Eve sky from house to house, and he wouldn't be settling for milk and cookies. . . .

  Behind him, in the gloom, a shadow formed and flickered a knife-blade grin, and dark hands checked the book where the gold-tinged name Matthias Vulfkind turned ashy black. Something horrible laughed and was cut off short. . . .

  Another voice spoke from the darkness. "Black Peter, you have a lot to answer for. "

  Matt jerked around, looking for Saint Nicholas, and found instead a huge white wolf. Its fur was as thick and as white as the snow and the look in its eye was both kindly and disappointed. From its jaws hung a thread of black shadow that writhed and spat red sparks of ire. The Nicholas wolf spat Black Peter onto the ground and put a paw upon the writhing shadow, then chuckled a wolfy chuckle. "Oh, Matthias . . . As a child I gave you a second life, as a wolf I gave you a second chance, but here you are again. Do you need more flying lessons?"

  Matthias could only stare.

  "What? Didn't you know I'm also the patron saint of wolves? Mattie, my boy, what shall I do with you . . . ?"

 
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