THE FOURTH AGE OF CHRISTMAS

I sent this story out with Christmas cards in December 2016. It was a variation on an idea I’d been toying with for a while, of juxtaposing the elves and dwarves of high fantasy with their less-illustrious cousins in contemporary Christmas folklore.

I’m fond of this one. 2019’s story, Wight Christmas, is a sequel.


THE FOURTH AGE OF CHRISTMAS

     ‘You sure you’ve got the dosh, pal?’ asks the barman, smirking at me. ‘I though you might be a bit short.’

     ‘Nah mate, I’m fine.’ I grit my teeth and hand it over.

     ‘All tenners, is it?’ he says, grinning now. ‘Just making sure. I wouldn’t want to short change you.’

     Time was I’d have hacked his feet out from under him and stomped on his face with my steel-soled boots, but those days are long gone. My battleaxe and armour are stacked up under a tarpaulin in my garden shed back home, next to my pick and shovel and the largest collection of uncut gemstones in the country.

     Besides, it’s Christmas, isn’t it? There’s glittery tinsel strung up all along the bar, kids out in the High Street are getting cattle-prodded into line ready for Santa’s Grotto, and the Hippodrome opposite has the usual posters up of a bunch of minor soap and reality TV stars, including Gerald the dog from the hilarious YouTube video.

     Maiming potential audience members would not be well received by the theatre management. If I lose my biggest source of income for the year I could end up having to sell off one of those stones, and they’ve got sentimental value.

     So I take the tray the loudmouthed git hands me, set it carefully on the next-door bar-stool, clamber down to the floor, carefully reach for the tray and carry our seven pints across to where the other six are waiting, still thirsty from our matinee performance.

     ‘That barman’s a knob,’ I say, handing out the drinks to Kenny, Lenny, Jimmy, Mickey, Ashvin and Jock. ‘He reckons just because the play does jokes about our height, we won’t mind him piling in.’ I climb onto the bench next to them.

     Ashvin grimaces. ‘“I’ve had it up to here with people looking down on us,”’ he says glumly, quoting from the script. ‘“How could they stoop so low?”’

     ‘I’ll nut him in the guts if he tries it with me.’ That’s not a quote, it’s just Lenny being Lenny.

     ‘We all pay our price for treading the boards, Barry,’ Jock says in his plummy baritone. He’s the oldest of the others, and the only one who works full-time as an actor – or as often as he can get the parts, which is another thing altogether. ‘We owe it to the public to pursue our calling, whatever the opprobrium heaped upon us.’ If nobody stops him, he’ll bring up that time some bloke recognised him as a robot off of Blake’s 7.

     None of these lads are dwarves, of course – half of them don’t even have beards. They’re just short humans. Little people. Persons of short stature and restricted growth. I haven’t seen another actual dwarf since Owaín, son of Dowaín Barrowbeard of Ironvale, lost an argument with a runaway coach-and-four in the Quantocks, ooh, 200 years ago now.

     Still, this lot are an OK bunch to work with, most of the time.

     The door opens and in comes this bunch of prannies dressed in green jerkins, jingly hats and little pointy boots. Santa’s Little Helpers from the grotto outside. None of these blokes are all that little, but they’ve all got that fey, fragile look about them, like love interests in a bittersweet Hollywood romcom.

     ‘I swear,’ one of them declares, ‘another kid asks me if these ears are real, I’m pulling them off and stuffing them up his nose.’

     ‘Them lot on a break or something?’ Jimmy asks us.

     ‘Probably handing over to an evening shift,’ Ash says. ‘It’s late-night shopping tonight.’

     ‘Your round, I believe, Leonard,’ Jock informs Lenny, finishing off his pint quick enough to start me worrying about his performance this evening. Jock’s a pro, but sometimes ‘The show must go on’ means loading him into a wheelbarrow and telling the audience he’s Sleepy.

     Still, I’m thirsty too. ‘Might as well get them in now, mate,’ I tell Len, finishing my own. ‘Save time later.’

     So Lenny goes over to the bar. And of course, just as he gets there one of Santa’s helpers turns round a bit too fast, bumps into him and spills about half a pint of beer over his head.

     Some of the others would just sigh and tut at that, but not Lenny. Especially not when this prat laughs a friendly, merry laugh, and says, ‘My apologies, my little friend! I didn’t see you down there!’

     So of course Lenny punches him in the crotch and he doubles up neatly. But by that time I’m running over there too, because I know this bloke.

     Because it’s only bleeding Elaphar of Lornlethias, isn’t it? Elaphar the Archer who stood at the left hand of Athelys Elvenhorn against the dwarf armies at the Battle of Halvard’s Delving, who dispatched more than fifty of my brothers with his fleet arrows, and who later slew the Dwarflord himself, Kelvaín Cunninghand, at Battle of Tholdor’s Flood, with a single true-aimed shaft of elven alder-wood.

     That Elaphar of Lornlethias. And he’s here, in a frankly dingy Wetherspoon’s in this grotty town centre, clutching his remaining beer and dancing gracefully backwards as Lenny kicks him in the shins and yells, ‘I’m sorry, mate, did I spill your pint?

     Then two of Santa’s other helpers grab Len and drag him off, and I can see by the clunky way they move that they’re just human. Elaphar steps forward again, looking relieved, and reaches out his hand to Lenny saying, ‘I’m sorry I offended you, friend; please, let me make it up to you by – aargh!

     That bit’s because I just broke a bar stool over his shoulders.

     And then the rest of the lads are piling in, Jock shouting, ‘A barney! How splendid!’ There’s only four of them, but they’re bigger than us, and for a while there’s a lot of fists and feet and teeth and elbows involved, and not a lot of time to think about the other stuff.

     * * *

     Thing is, all this isn’t as surprising as you might think. There may not be many of us still around from the old days, but most of us are pretty easy to find, if you know where to look.

     I mean, take me. Two months of the year I work in a big building with huge posters up on the outside saying DWARFS. Makes loads of sense for me, of course – if small humans can get seasonal work playing us, why shouldn’t we? – but it’s not exactly inconspicuous.

     It’s not even like learning the lines is a problem. You need a good memory when your natural lifespan runs to thousands of years.

     With some of them, though, it’s just lack of imagination. If you see a really big bloke shifting the stock at Carpet Giant, you’ll know what I’m talking about. And I know for a fact there’s a nest of brownies have infiltrated the Girl Guides.

     You remember that singer, Ethel Merman? Actually a merman. Not a lot of people know that.

     And honestly, superb archer and dread warrior though he may have been, Elaphar of Lornlethias was never all that bright. I’m not at all surprised he’s got a job by answering an ad in a local paper saying ELVES WANTED.

     * * *

     Anyway. The barman phones the landlord, who it turns out has an arrangement with the bouncers at the strip club round the corner, and pretty soon the lot of us are out on our ears on the street, with the night frost coming on and the kids at the grotto all gawping at us.

     As we get to our feet and brush ourselves off and stuff, Elaphar’s staring at me. Finally he says, ‘Barí son of Arí Cavernskull of Netherdeep? Can it really be you? Barí the Steadfast, who stood with Kelvaín at Hammerpass, when the dwarves fought alongside Athelys’ armies to protect the Western Realms from the stone armies of Crag son of Scarp, the Troll King?’

     I gape up at him. ‘Isn’t that just bloody typical of elves?’ I say, indignantly. ‘Forget all the times we fought each other, forget all the brothers of mine your people slaughtered at Halvard’s Delving and Tholdor’s Flood, forget the fact that you personally killed Kelvaín once he’d helped out Athelys at Hammerpass –’

     ‘Only after he betrayed us to the Goblin Lord at Morholm,’ Elaphar objects mildly.

     ‘– forget the fact that your people and mine are mortal enemies, let’s just accentuate the positive, shall we? If you think –’

     ‘This ponce still bothering you, Barry?’ Lenny asks, coming over to us. ‘’Cause I’m ready to go again any time he likes.’

     ‘Nah,’ I say wearily. ‘Thanks for asking, though. Turns out we know each other from way back.’

     ‘Barry, we’re expected in the green room,’ Jock admonishes me, like we’ve never had to drag him there on time before.

     ‘Yeah, I know,’ I say. ‘You lot head off, I’ll be there in a sec.’

     ‘So what are you doing in town, Barí?’ Elaphar asks as they go.

     ‘I’m, er...’ I start. I’m standing right underneath a poster, in fact, but like I say he was never one of the bright elves. ‘I’m... in a play,’ I say. ‘I’m... kind of an actor these days. Some of the time. Look, it’s not as if what you’re doing is all that –’

     But his eyes have lit up with understanding. ‘You’re in the pantomime?’ he says, delighted – but he’s pleased for me, not laughing at me, you know? ‘Can I come? I love pantomimes!’

     Bloody elves.

     * * *

     He meets me at the stage doors after the performance, bubbling with excitement. ‘Barí, look!’ he says, waving his phone at me.

     Not that I’m precious about it or anything, but I’d been expecting him to say he thought I was good, or how much he enjoyed the play, or something. Not that I’d believe him, it’s just what people say. I know he was in the audience because there were elven war-cries mixed in with the booing whenever the Wicked Queen was on stage.

     But no, he’s got this thing on his phone he wants to show me. ‘Look at what?’ I ask. ‘Yeah, see you in the pub,’ I add as the other six pass us. ‘The one we haven’t been barred from, yeah?’

     ‘Someone took pictures of our fight earlier,’ says Elaphar.

     He’s on the local paper’s website. GNOME WAY TO BEHAVE, it says. Dwarfs Vs Elves Bust-Up in Town Centre Pub. And yes, it does have photos.

     I groan. ‘Well, that’s me out of a job this Christmas. You too, I suppose. I’d better go and tell the lads.’

     ‘Wait, though,’ Elaphar says. ‘Look at the first comment there.’

     It’s from someone calling themselves Rocky McRockface, and it says Pointy-eard beanpoll gettin his arse kickd by beardy shotrarse LOL Shoudve just stomped on him LOL.

     ‘Well,’ I say. ‘Thanks for bringing that to my attention, mate, but...’

     ‘Don’t you see? He’s taunting us,’ Elaphar says.

     ‘Yeah, he’s taunting us. Not very well, either. But –’

     ‘Look at the username,’ Elaphar insists. ‘You know what this means, Barí.’

     ‘I really, really don’t,’ I say. ‘And it’s been a trying day and I need a drink. So, Elaphar old son, if you don’t mind –’

     ‘A crag is a rock!’ he shouts. ‘A scarp is a rock face! And “mac” means “son of”, of course. Barí, it’s Crag son of Scarp!’

     I frown. It really has been a long day. ‘You mean this internet troll is an actual troll? The Troll King, in fact?’

     ‘Of course!’ cries Elaphar. ‘And he’s picked us out to goad with his cruel barbs! We, the last survivors of the Armies of the Western Realms! We, the heirs of Athelys and Kelvaín, who fought him at Hammerpass! He’s challenging us! It is our duty – it will be our honour and our glory – to hunt down this Troll King and destroy him once and for all!’

     I grimace, tugging at my beard. I look back at the theatre, with its great big posters up of people who used to be in Doctors or Britain’s Got Talent, then over at the pub I’ve been barred from. Then at the only slightly worse pub I haven’t been barred from yet, where the others will be settling in until closing time.

     ‘Well,’ I sigh. ‘I probably haven’t got anything better to do now, have I? Let’s go to my place and I’ll get kitted up.’


© Philip Purser-Hallard 2016.



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