I sent this story out with Christmas cards in December 2019. It’s a sequel to 2016’s. ‘The Fourth Age of Christmas’
‘Can you help Jason in the Magical Grotto, Barry?’ Tracy the admin’s waiting to pounce as I trudge through the mud in front of her Portakabin. ‘The walls are leaking again with all this rain, and he’s having to move the bran tubs.’
‘Sorry, Trace,’ I say, waggling the pickaxe in my left hand at the shovel in my right. ‘The chemical loos are playing up, and all. Mrs W wants me to dig a latrine in case of emergencies.’
‘Bloody Norah,’ says Tracy with feeling. ‘If they’re gonna start making me go in a ditch, that’s it for me. I’m off to my sister’s early.’
‘You and me both,’ I reply. ‘Not to your sister’s, obviously.’
It’s all a lie, of course “ well, not all, those toilets are genuinely dodgy “ but if I told Tracy what the excavating equipment’s actually for, she wouldn’t approve.
They’re decent tools too, good dwarven steel from the Forges of Azghad deep beneath the Peak of Perillon, that I’ve been keeping in proper nick in my shed for when they’re needed. You can’t buy quality like that at Homebase. Or at all, these days.
She sighs. ‘I’ll have to find Jason another Little Helper, then.’ When I arrived here at Santaland, the employees in that particular role were called Elves, but I got very vocal on the subject and now it’s Little Helpers. They all think it’s some PC thing, but it’s about pride. I’ve got nothing against elves “ some of my best friends, and all that “ but I’m not having any human calling me one.
Tracy goes on. ‘I’d send Kayleigh, but she’s trying to mend the fairy lights over in the Enchanted Northern Lights Forest Walk, after that kiddie got the electric shock. I don’t care what Mrs W says, we can’t be having that.’
‘What’s the rush with the grotto, anyway?’ I ask. ‘We haven’t even got a Santa.’ The last one didn’t even make it through his first day, after spending the morning swigging from a hipflask, telling a little girl reindeer would burst into flames if they travelled at over a thousand miles per hour, then vanishing into the North Pole Playbarn and passing out in the ball pit. Frankly, I was impressed. A couple of us Helpers have tried filling in since, but Kayleigh can’t do the voice and I just don’t look the part.
Tracy groans. ‘Oh, God. Mrs W thinks there’s a new Santa coming today, but he phoned me just now to say he’s got that alopecia and his beard’s falling out. I don’t know how I’m gonna tell her.’
‘Well, rather you than me, Trace,’ I admit. I hoist the pickaxe again. ‘Anyway, that lav isn’t going to dig itself.’
‘Barry?’ she says tentatively as I turn to go. ‘I’ve been thinking, you know. Most of us are stuck with this, but you don’t need to be working in a dump like this at Christmas. Most of our Little Helpers ain’t that little “ I mean, you’ve seen Kayleigh, bless her. Bloke like you, you could do panto. There’s money in that, and between the shows your time’s your own. They’re crying out this time of year for… well, you know. People your sort of height. You’ve got the beard for it, and all.’
‘Been there, done that,’ I say. ‘Fancied something different this year.’
* * *
It was Elaphar got me into this, of course. Elaphar of bleeding Lornlethias, one of the aforementioned some-of-my-best-friends and your actual Elf of the People of the Forests of Light, with all the annoying baggage that lot always bring with them. You know, all the nobility and righteousness and inconvenient altruism.
He’d been at a loose end ever since last Christmas, when we bested Crag son of Scarp, the erstwhile Troll King, like us a long-lived survivor of the long-since-ended Third Age. In the old days, the armies of our sundered peoples led by Athelys Elvenhorn and Kelvaín Cunninghand joined in common cause to defend the Western Realms from Crag’s monstrous armies at the Battle of Hammerpass.
This time we found him in a basement in Swindon, and I put my battle-axe through the laptop he’d been using to post hurtful comments all over the internet.
Elaphar was all for killing Crag, but we’d been making a lot of noise and it turned out that Scree, wife of Scarp, was still around too, and it was her basement. When we told her what her son had been up to she got quite indignant and told her he’d show some respect for other people while he was living under her roof, or he’d feel the heelstone of her hand. Then she told Elaphar and me how nice it was to see people from the old days, and gave us some mince pies and mulled wine.
I suggested Crag could get some other hobby that would get him out of the house, maybe join a choir. I was actually working up to a ‘Troll the ancient yuletide carol’ joke, but everyone else seemed to think it was a really good idea, so that’s where we left it.
* * *
I find Elaphar right where he said he’d be, round the other side of the earth mound where Ye Olde Traditional Christmas Market (one stall selling pick ‘n’ mix and candy floss, one selling the same plastic junk we stuff into the bran tubs) has been set up. Like me, he’s dressed in the daft green leprechaun outfit that’s the compulsory uniform of Little Helpers everywhere. Like mine it’s dripping with rain, but with his lanky blond waifiness he very nearly carries it off anyway.
He’s already cleared away some of the scrub growing on the backside of the mound. There’s nothing else round this side except the rubbish skips and a muddy approach road for service vehicles. ‘Do you have them, Barί?’ he asks me. I’m visibly carrying two quite large digging implements, so I just give him a look. ‘Wonderful!’ he says when the penny eventually drops. ‘Then we must make haste.’
I don’t reckon anyone will miss us for a while, and if they do realise we’ve both nipped off somewhere, well, I don’t think they’ll be in a rush to investigate. Elaphar and I arrived at Santaland together, it’s obvious we’ve got shared history, and most of our colleagues here just reckon we’re an item. Elaphar hasn’t twigged, of course, because elves don’t think like that, and I haven’t corrected the misapprehension because it’s really funny.
The tall streak puts his back into it, I’ll give him that, but his lot weren’t built for digging the way we dwarves were. Soon I’m a good yard deep into the mound, tunnelling away with my axe, while he’s pretty much just using the shovel to clear away the earth, and having to bend down low to do it.
‘So, you still reckon this place is haunted, then?’ I ask as I excavate, with no less scepticism than when he first came to me with some article he’d found on his phone, listing all the reasons this place had to close early last year.
The norovirus was the big one, obviously, giving the news site the lovely headline ‘WINTER CHUNDERLAND’, but there were also mentions of the mud, the reindeer running away, the impenetrable fogs that suddenly descended without warning, the staff having breakdowns, children seeing terrifying apparitions in the mist, all the usual stuff they put in these reports.
‘Haunted? No!,’ Elaphar laughs merrily until I want to deck him with the pickaxe. (Just the handle, obviously “ like I say, he’s a mate.) ‘No, it’s cursed. I know such places. In my youth I travelled with Ningalast the Red, one of the great wizards of the Third Age, and he broke the power of many such mounds. Did you know these parts well in those days?’
‘These parts?’ I grunt, as I delve once more into the yielding earth. ‘Not so well, no. Might have passed by underground, on my way somewhere.’
‘Mounds like this were common here even then,’ says Elaphar ominously. ‘They are relics of an older Age than ours, my friend. Even in those days they were places of ill-omen.’
* * *
When we dwarves dig, we don’t mess about. Twenty minutes later, Elaphar and I are standing inside the mound “ well, I’m standing, Elaphar’s kind of bent over because the ceiling’s pretty low “ and we’re gazing around ourselves with awe and, in my case, a fair dollop of the old avarice.
Because the mound’s full of treasure, isn’t it? Treasure of the Elder Ages, not your Saxon tat. Gold goblets and plate, silver brooches and pendants, gemstones by the hundred. Off this central chamber, which is lit by the damp and listless morning light from outside, half a dozen side-tunnels snake off into the darkness, holding who knows what further troves of wealth.
‘Will you look at this lot,’ I whistle. ‘Reminds me of a dragon’s lair I saw once in the Kingdom of the Copper Crown. I think they’ve built Stoke-on-Trent there now.’ I reach out to pick up a particularly scintillating ruby, but Elaphar grasps my hand.
‘No, Barί. The hoard will be cursed. I have seen such things before. If you take just one gem from it, it will destroy you.’
I say, ‘Mate, you know we dwarfs don’t listen to that sort of warning. Frankly, we reckon they’re in bad taste. No, I’m just going to take all the loot I can carry and stick it in my shed, if it’s the same to you.’
‘Please, just wait for a moment,’ Elaphar says. ‘I think there’s someone lying over there.’
I say, ‘Well, it’s a tomb, isn’t it? That’s what these places were for.’ I look around again at the scintillating treasures surrounding me. ‘Funny, I’d have thought some archaeologist would’ve dug it up before now.’
‘They’ll have considered it,’ says Elaphar, ‘but then decided the whole idea was too depressing and given up. That’s what the curse does to people. That’s why Santaland fails every year.’ He’s crossed over to the figure lying on a gilded bier at the far end of the mound, under a pile of crimson velvet and golden chains. He gasps. ‘Barί, come quickly!’
‘I’m not over-keen to inspect a millennia-old corpse, to be honest, Elaphar old son,’ I say, but in fact I’m gazing raptly at the treasures on display, with gold… wealth… riches… running through my head on a loop, and I can’t be doing with the interruption.
‘Barί!’ the elf shouts. ‘It’s Ningalast the Red! And he’s alive!’
I break eye-contact with the gems to stare at him ‘Are you telling me some idiot’s left an actual proper wizard lying about in “’ I begin, but at that point a bunch of skeletons with swords come out of the side-tunnels and start trying to slaughter us, which gets a bit in the way of my train of thought.
* * *
They’re wights, of course “ reanimated remains of the dead, raised to activity by the residual magic of some evil enchanter or necromancer, probably long gone himself, but leaving the spell behind. You don’t see a lot of them about the place these days, although I did run into a clutch of them just outside Cowes a few centuries back. They’re nasty buggers, difficult to kill because of being dead already “ you have to smash them into squirming bits and make sure none of the bits are in a position to hurt you.
If we’d come here thousands of years ago when they were less decomposed, we’d have a real problem on our hands, but like I say this lot are just skeletons now, and this really is a damn good pickaxe. I’d rather have my proper battle number, but beggars can’t be choosers.
While I’m hacking the bone-men to bits, and vaguely aware of Elaphar laying about himself with the shovel up the other end of the chamber, I try to remember what I know about Ningalast the Red. One of the Seven Great Wizards from Over the Ocean, I’m pretty sure. He had a chariot drawn by “ yales, was it, or was it dire-elk? “ and a fortress somewhere up in the northern ice-fields. He was well-known as a friend of elvenkind, which obviously didn’t endear him to my lot.
The Seven Wizards were immortal, obviously, which now I come to think of it means it’s less of a surprise that Ningalast is still around now than that the other Six aren’t.
Anyway. As soon as the last wight’s been ground into bonemeal, Elaphar’s grabbed its sword and is chopping away at the golden chains, which I now see the comatose wizard isn’t wearing for decoration. I go over and join in with my pickaxe.
Somehow the cursed hoard’s lost all its charm for the moment. Either the spell’s gone, or spending all this time with Elaphar’s beginning to get to me.
As soon as we’ve freed him from his bonds, Ningalast the Red begins to stir.
I say, ‘So “ have we broken the curse, then?’
‘No,’ Elaphar says. ‘We need to break up the hoard. It is the only remedy in such cases. Each piece must be given to someone else, and we must keep none of it for ourselves.’
I say, ‘So… you could give me that diamond-studded statuette, say?’
‘No,’ says a booming voice, and Ningalast the Red is struggling weakly to sit up. I’m surprised for a minute that he understands English, but I guess it’s all part of the wizardry. ‘The finders must keep none of it. All must be given away.’
‘Well, you’re no fun,’ I mutter.
The elf and I hoist him up by the armpits, and he stands. He’s a heavy bloke, plumper than the wizards I remember, and his beard tickles my ear. He’s just as cramped under the low roof as Elaphar is, but with a fair bit of struggle we manage to manhandle him outside onto the slippery approach road, and prop him up against the bins. With trembling hands he fills an ornate pipe with some stuff that’s probably not legal any more.
A thought strikes me and I say, ‘Oi, mate, do you know of any spell that can fix leaks?’
He glares at me. ‘Did I not, dwarf, I should make a poor wizard indeed.’ He lights the pipe with a snap of his fingers.
Elaphar and I stroll a little way away. He sighs. ‘It pains me to see Ningalast in this mood. His disposition was usually a jolly one. He loved children and halflings.’
‘Right then,’ I say. ‘So we’ve got a priceless treasure trove to distribute somehow, and a bloke who’s going to be acting very oddly until we find some way to integrate him into Fourth Age society.’
‘Yes,’ Elaphar agrees. ‘It is a challenge.’
‘Also,’ I carry on, ‘Mrs W’s replacement Santa isn’t arriving today, which means that Santaland is basically just Land unless we can get hold of someone to replace the replacement.’
The elf frowns. ‘Actually, Barί, I think the other problem might be more important?’
I sigh, too. Elaphar’s handy in a scrap, but when the First of All was handing out the brains to the elves, he wasn’t exactly at the front of the queue.
‘Let’s put it this way,’ I say. ‘I think we can get this place some halfway decent reviews on TripAdvisor. Let’s get your mate there over to the Magical Grotto, and bring the other Little Helpers back here with the bran tubs.’
© Philip Purser-Hallard 2019.
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All material © Philip Purser-Hallard 2020 except where otherwise noted, and not to be used without permission.