The Goblin Raid
Dark blood spattered on pale ice, and Father Christmas brought the sword around in a smooth, shimmering arc. He almost smiled to himself. When folk had first started using that name, he had rather resented it. In his humble opinion there was nothing at all wrong with ‘Nicholas’, and if history had decided to add a ‘Saint’ before it, then who was he, or anyone else, to argue with history? But the new name had grown unsettlingly popular over the years, both in the Mortal World and even at the Pole, so much so that even Nicholas had started using it in his own head. You’re growing senile, my friend. Too old for all this.
The warcry of a charging goblin snapped him out of his reflections, and he jerked his head left as a spear jabbed at his face. Goblins generally stood only about shoulder height to the average man, and Nicholas was far larger than the average man. When the spear whipped past him he caught hold of the haft and easily dragged his smaller foe off-balance and into a pommel-strike. Nicholas’ sword, which his elven smiths named Fatherblade, was built along the same lines as its wielder; big, broad, heavy, and dangerous.
The gold-plated pommel smashed into the goblin’s mouth, sending cracked teeth skittering along the frosty cave-floor. Its grip on its weapon slackened, and Father Christmas neatly swivelled the spear in his grip before thrusting the iron point through the goblin’s narrow chest. The creature gurgled once, then dropped.
Nicholas took a half-second to look around. The Eastern Passage was one of the many caverns that spanned out from his home, festooned with jagged stalactites and stalagmites, all sparkling with white frost. Ordinarily it was a fairly uninteresting place; home to a little hustle and bustle when caravans came through, but hardly a place of adventure. Except, of course, when goblin greed drove them to stupidity. Today the Eastern Passage was a riot of sound and movement, as the elves of the Polar Guard drove the goblins back towards the gate. Kaiei, the elvish captain, was leading by example, slicing his silvery blade through foul goblins left and right.
In size the elves and goblins were roughly the same, having once been a single race, but in these times they had little else by way of similarity. The goblins’ skin had grown grey and pocked, their eyes small and beady, and their bodies had a tendency to hunch. They wore ragged furs and leathers, or what clothing they could scavenge from more hard-working folk, though their weapons at least were well-made and bright. Nicholas almost sneered. The one thing they take pride in; the making of things that do harm.
The elves around Nicholas, on the other hand, had retained their noble nature. For all their diminutive stature they had dignity in their bearing, lustre in their eyes, and garbed themselves with pride in the bright raiment of the Polar Guard; shining silver mail over green tunics, their breeches and scabbards both striped in red and white. There’d been a time when Nicholas too had favoured green for his clothes, but near constant war with the goblins had ruined so many coats and tunics that he had long ago switched to wearing crimson, the better to hide the blood. Of course, it was far easier to change his tunics’ colour than his beard’s, and even now the snowy white was matted with dirty red.
Both sides were fighting fiercely but the Polar Guard had gained the upper hand, and Nicholas knew that the fight would soon be over. He charged into the fray himself, his voice booming out as he ran.
The simple sound bounced around the walls of the cavern, even over the din of battle, and the goblins before him tried to flee. Nicholas did not let them. Fatherblade clove a foe in two even as it turned to run, and took the head from another when it tried to scramble clear. One goblin was fool enough to keep fighting in spite of all, but his curved sword glanced harmlessly from the armour beneath Nicholas’ coat, and Father Christmas rammed four feet of steel through the vile creature’s torso. With a grunt of effort he pushed up, lifting the impaled goblin above his head for all to see, its limbs flailing helplessly at thin air.
It was the twig to break the reindeer’s back. The goblins abandoned all attempt at an ordered retreat and sprinted for the cave mouth as fast as their legs could carry them. The elvish captain gave the short warcry of the Polar Guard to his comrades.
The cry was echoed and sabres were raised as the elves charged after the fleeing goblins. Nicholas left the Polar Guard to their pursuit; the fighting was done, and his part in it was over. The elite of his elves would mop up anyone too slow to make good their escape.
Father Christmas lowered his sword and shucked the corpse from the blade. The dead thing’s tunic made a serviceable cleaning cloth, and Nicholas carefully wiped the stains from Fatherblade. Though the fight had been brief he was breathing hard, and he patted a hand over his ample midriff with a sigh. Too many people left out too many treats on Christmas Eve these days, and it was beginning to show. One or two elves had tactfully suggested that he discourage the children from leaving out so many sweetmeats, but Nicholas had quickly dismissed the idea. Few things would make his busy night more of a chore than crunching on carrots and salad leaves between deliveries.
He sheathed Fatherblade and approached the only elf who’d not followed the Polar Guard in their chase, and the only person there who was more breathless than himself. The elf was shorter and slighter than most of his comrades, and had lost his pointed cap at some point in the fighting. His dark hair was dishevelled, his ever-youthful face drenched with sweat. He wore neither mail nor sword. Instead he was garbed in simple green-and-yellow clothes, and he held a broken spear in one trembling hand. Nicholas had to admit, he’d done well all things considered. Adsuo was no Polar Guard, but an elf who worked with paper and ink, forming and checking the many many lists required to keep the North Pole running smoothly. It was only ill-chance that had found him here during a goblin attack, but from the two grey corpses that lay nearby, it was clear that the elf had done himself credit.
Nicholas’ hand looked massive as he placed it on the elf’s shoulder.
‘You are unhurt?’
Adsuo was clearly too breathless to speak, but he managed to bob his head. Nicholas gave the shoulder a pat.
‘How many came at you?’
Adsuo held up two fingers in a V, and Father Christmas glanced again at the two goblin corpses. He smiled down at the exhausted clerk.
It looked like Adsuo might have wanted to speak, but Nicholas shook his head.
‘Enough. You rest now, my friend.’
He smiled again and strode away. Off towards the cave mouth, he saw the Polar Guard chasing off the remnants of the raiding party, leaving ragged corpses in their wake. Nicholas let out a sigh. The goblins had not breached the castle proper, and at a glance it seemed only a handful of elves had fallen in the attack. So many goblins slain, and for no gain at all for their tribe. Not for the first time he wondered why the Goblin King bothered sending them here, when the result was so often like this. As usual, he answered his own question; no matter how much he stole, the Goblin King was never satisfied with what he had, and his kindred were all the same. Impatient and greedy, the notion of behaving well all year to receive reward at Christmas was simply too much like hard work, and so instead they risked everything to take what they could, whenever they could, no matter the cost. Sad. Sad, and stupid.
He spoke over his shoulder to where Adsuo sat upon a rock. One of the healers had come to help him, and the breathless elf looked ready to swoon. His eyes were closing as Nicholas opened his mouth, and he directed the words to the healer-elf instead.
‘When he comes around, have him tell Kaiei to be sure the Guard make a record of the goblin dead; last time they forgot, and the numbers didn’t tally.’
The elf nodded, and Nicholas knew that Adsuo would understand the importance. Without an accurate count of goblin bodies, they could not estimate how many black lumps they could form out of the bones. And without a proper estimate, some naughty children might have to receive common coal in their stockings this year. That simply wouldn’t do. Though it might look the same when all was said and done, in Father Christmas’ humble opinion, coal just didn’t convey the same message as a lump of charred goblin-bone.
Most of the elves of the North Pole, even the fearsome warriors of the Polar Guard, were possessed of a cheery disposition. On bad days these were foes to fight, and on good days there was hard work to be done, yet most elves maintained a positive attitude to life, and it was rare indeed to find a full day when an elf didn’t smile or crack a jape. Faril, the senior-most of the clerical elves, always seemed determined to break this trend. He dressed in the same bright clothing as the other elves, wore the same jaunty curly-toed shoes, and had flame-coloured curls that suggested a friendly and excitable personality. Never had the phrase ‘looks can be deceiving’ been more apt.
Nicholas sat in his padded chair, his boots off and his pink-toed feet up on the table, and listened dutifully as Faril went on with his report.
‘We have now reached eight-hundred-and-twelve-thousand-three-hundred-and-fifty-four on requests for dolls of various specifications, my lord. Not only is the volume becoming almost untenable, but the requests are becoming more demandingly specific year on year; no more simple, “red”, or “blue”, oh no, lord, we have demands you would scarcely believe it possible for a child to describe.’
Nicholas reached for his mug. The hot wine was rich and pleasantly spiced, and took some of the edge from having to deal with Faril’s complaints. He had hoped for a quiet hour to relax after the battle, a little time to rest his limbs and maybe comb the goblin blood from his beard. But that, it seemed, had been too much to hope for. He took another sip, made tiny fists with his toes, and did his best to keep his frustration from showing.
Father Christmas’ study was a good deal darker than the rest of the great fortress. The outer caves of the North Pole were grey and white, all bare rock or frosty rime, lit only by bluish elf-globes hung at intervals from the walls. The rooms within the fortress proper were bright and merry, full of coloured tapestries, painted frescoes, thick woven rugs in a hundred hues, and candles burning in polished gold holders. But Nicholas wasn’t fond of splendour in his own rooms. His study was a place of dark-stained oak, velvet cushions in deep green or rich red, and simple bronze lamps to give the place a yellow light. Shelves lined the walls around him, three of them groaning beneath the weight of his leather-bound ledgers, while the fourth contained those books he deemed worthy of granting shelf-space.
The huge desk was built to suit the needs of so large a man as Father Christmas, and most elves looked diminutive when they stood before its shadow. However, once again, Faril was resolved to be an exception. He stood before the desk with an air of quiet authority, and raised a brow at his lord as he spoke on.
‘Of course, this only supports what I have said all along.’
Here it comes. They both knew what the upcoming rant would be about, just as they both knew how pointless it was to complain about something so far beyond their control. Yet he will have his say anyway. The two beings might share the same ultimate goals, but Nicholas and the senior elf saw the world in very different ways; a man of action saw futility as something to avoid, but for a lifelong administrator, futility was never a barrier to activity. Or to rambling conversation, in this instance.
‘The increase in literacy is fast becoming a burden beyond our ability to shoulder.’
Nicholas tried to cut him off before Faril could get into his stride.
‘Learning is a good thing for a child, and the more adults who can read, the more freedoms they can gain. I am all in favour of it.’
Faril didn’t question his lord’s judgement, not directly, but his opinion on that was plain in his tone.
‘Yes, well, that is all very well for the Mortal World, but up here we have our own problems, lord, and the increase in letters multiplies those problems more than even you appreciate. These days we are fortunate to reach Samhain before the backlog begins to mount up, and as for the work itself, well,’ he gave a tiny shake of his head, ‘the mathematics alone is becoming unworkable from November.’
Nicholas pinched the bridge of his nose.
‘Perhaps you should consider not using Roman numerals anymore?’
Given his own recent reflections on futility, Nicholas marvelled at his own naivety for making that suggestion. Predictably, Faril swept the idea aside.
‘A motion was made to consider that option only eighteen years ago, lord, and you know full well that change cannot be rushed. When the discussion period is over, we shall put it up for formal review.’
Nicholas bit back the urge to comment; elves were wonderful creatures but they did not embrace change easily, and generally took the view that if a problem ever arose, it was the other person who had to change. All the same, surely even Faril could tell that lists and calculations for 812,354 dolls would be easier to work with than lists for DCCCXMMCCCLIV of them?
He took another sip of wine, enjoying the warmth as it flowed through his thick chest. It was probably a mistake, but he asked the question anyway,
‘Have you any ideas that we could put in place a little sooner?’
‘If fewer Bad Children wasted time and effort writing to us, I could free up some elves from the sorting office. You could turn some more Bad Children into hobgoblins? It has worked before.’
Nicholas frowned. Worked was perhaps a generous term for it. A few years before, when the lists had initially begun to swell, he had chosen a few names from the Bad Children list and made an example of them. Selecting those whose principle offence had been greed, he had transformed them into hobgoblins and cast them into the wilderness for a year and a day. It meant fewer long letters to look through that Christmas, and the plan was for the children to gain some perspective and so make reasonable requests the following year.
Hobgoblins, the half-formed shadows of true goblins, were wretched creatures who were feared and hated wherever they went, and Nicholas had reasoned that a year and a day living in such a state would teach the children a thing of two about the consequences of greed. The result had been… mixed. About half had learned their lesson, and when they’d gone back to being human children they had been far less selfish and had encouraged others to do the same. The other half had been eaten by mountain trolls.
Nicholas stroked his snow-white beard. He supposed it might be an experiment worth repeating, though they’d have to change one or two conditions. He was about to ask Faril what the logistics would be when a knock sounded from the heavy fir door. Father Christmas’ voice boomed out a call to enter, and a slender elf in a yellow cap bowed into the room.
‘Excuse me lord,’ he nodded to Faril, ‘sir, but we have a meeting to arrange an assembly committee for discussion of the management of the bi-monthly conference.’
Faril’s eyes widened as if he’d been told the castle was on fire.
‘That is today?’
The yellow-capped elf shuffled his feet, setting the tassels ruffling on his pointed toes.
‘A memorandum was dispatched this morning by the standard courier service, sir, and sent to your deputy vice-assistant’s dogsbody.’
Faril closed his eyes.
‘Olin, you know full well that internal correspondence is arranged by my deputy vice-assistant’s junior dogsbody!’ He opened his eyes again and let out a huffing sigh. ‘Small wonder it never reached me.’
Nicholas desperately wanted to pass comment on that system, but it would only aggravate the poor elf. Instead he tried to calm things before Faril could grow too flustered.
‘The meeting can wait ten minutes, I am sure? Time for an old man to finish his wine and lace up his boots?’
The pair hesitated for only a moment; the elves might be the ones running the Pole, but Father Christmas was still the ultimate authority. Olin bowed his head.
‘As you say, lord.’
He glanced to his colleague and made an X with his two forefingers. Faril nodded, and Olin left the room. Nicholas looked at the senior elf quizzically, and Faril repeated the X gesture Olin had made.
‘This, lord? Some of the juniors have started using it as a form of shorthand for a ten-minute wait. Personally I think it rather needless, communicating the same thing with words is perfectly practical, but they seem to have taken to it as a form of casual interaction. Why exactly such a notion…’
Father Christmas had stopped listening; the answer had started coming to him before the elf was through the first sentence, and it had set the hairs on his arms to tingling. An X with the hands to mean ten. He thought of Adsuo, the breathless and fainting elvish clerk, and the two goblin corpses lying at his feet. I asked him how many and he showed me a V. He almost cursed himself for not being more certain at the time. He hadn’t meant two, he’d meant five! Father Christmas sprang to his feet, already reaching for the thick black swordbelt.
‘Sound the alarm! We are infiltrated.’
Faril did not question him and was at the door in moments, his voice shouting clipped commands to any elf close enough to hear. Father Christmas buckled on his sword and didn’t bother finding socks as he hauled on his boots. Five goblins came at Adsuo and he killed only two. A cold feeling crept into Nicholas’ spine. Where had the other three gone?
Father Christmas put his heels to Rudolph’s flanks, and the beast broke into a charge. His suspicions had been right; goblins from the first attack had hidden themselves away until the fighting was done, likely in some dark corner or in amongst the supply carts. Once the Eastern Passage was clear, and the Polar Guard had withdrawn, it had been easy for the goblins to slay the remaining sentries by stealth, and open up the gates for their comrades. Now, the frost-rimed cave was pandemonium.
At least two hundred goblins had forced their way into the stronghold, with the Goblin King himself at their head, mounted on a feral white bear. Nicholas fixed his eyes on his enemy as Rudolph gained speed and closed the distance. He was still furious at himself for missing Adsuo’s warning, and he channelled that fear at the foe before him.
The Goblin King was a little larger than most of his kind, though no less ugly to look upon, with the same grey skin and beady eyes as the others. He wore quality mail over his ragged black clothes, and had festooned his body with an emperor’s ransom in gaudy gold. Chains, ear-rings, finger-rings and nose-rings were sparkling with every move he made, and even his curved sabre was plated with the same precious metal. He swung it with speed and expert skill, cutting down elves as they tried to block his path. Nicholas felt his jaw click as he ground his teeth together.
Behind him, Kaiei and twenty of the Polar Guard rode on their smaller reindeer. They were swift beasts moving at a steady gallop, the tiny bells on their reins jingling all the way, but Nicholas knew he would soon outpace them; no other mount in the world could keep up with Rudolf when the battle-lust was on him. He’d seen no bloodshed since the day he’d savaged Dancer in the stables, and now Nicholas could feel him straining forward, eager for the kill. Nicholas heard the charging ‘yip yip!’ cries of the elves behind, but he let Rudolph gain more speed. The Goblin King was straight ahead, and he was about to learn what happened to those who dared to violate this fortress.
The goblin horde were butchering the unarmed elves who’d been working in the cave, and many hesitated at the prospect of a real fight. The Polar Guard’s charge could be terrible to behold and Nicholas noticed, with the eye of a centuries-old veteran, that the left flank of the goblin mass seemed ready to crumble already. The whole raiding party might have broken and fled right then and there, but the grim voice of their king called out.
‘Stand firm! We have them by the throat!’ He looked to Father Christmas and spread his arms wide. ‘Welcome to the party, old friend!’
Nicholas felt rage course through him. Goblins were everything that Christmas was not; greed, avarice, selfishness and cruelty. He would not have them come to his house and call it celebration! He called over his shoulder, one arm pointing to the goblins’ weak left flank.
‘Yip yip, Kaiei!’
The elves peeled off towards the enemy’s weak point, and Nicholas glared ahead, raising Fatherblade high and shouting one of the cruder insults he’d heard in the Mortal World.
‘Villain, I have done thy mother!’
The Goblin King’s eyes went wide with anger, and he urged his bear forward to face Rudolph head-on. He quickly left his comrades behind, just as Nicholas was leaving his, and they both knew in that moment that, battle or no battle, this day would be decided between the two of them.
The bear’s jaws were dripping with drool and elvish blood, and it snarled as they came within heartbeats of combat range. In return, Rudolf let out a bray of barely-sane fury, and Father Christmas called the command in the instant before the crash.
Rudolph obeyed without thought. What had been a charge on foot suddenly became a flying leap through the air, and when the bear tried to snap at them, Rudolph butted forward with all the strength and momentum a charging reindeer could muster, bolstered by the magic Nicholas shouldn’t really have used; flying reindeer were supposed to be only for delivering presents, but he rationalised that killing goblins was a present to the whole world.
Rudolph’s antlers gouged into the bear’s neck, driving through thick fur, tough hide, and into the soft meat beneath it. Blood spattered the reindeer’s nose as it flicked its head sideways, dislodging the antlers from the wound with the precision born from long experience. They kept on flying as the bear began to sway, and Father Christmas brought Rudolph around for another pass at their blooded enemy. For a moment his eyes registered the wild fighting going on around them, and he assessed from that glance that the Polar Guard were holding. Good. All I need do is finish this filth, and all will be well in the world.
He shouted again as the reindeer charged.
Rudolph smashed into the falling bear, just to ensure the kill, and once again his antlers opened gashes in its neck. The bear’s roar of pain was no more than a gurgle. The Goblin King was trying desperately to leap clear of his mount before it toppled, but his foot had caught in a gold-plated stirrup. The goblin screamed as his own battle-steed fell down upon him, a solid ton of fur-clad muscle landing on his leg with an ear-splitting crash. Father Christmas head the bone snap even from above, and he smirked a little at the thought of the agony his foe would be suffering. But pain alone is not enough.
He quickly brought Rudolph in to land and leaped from the saddle. A pat and a whispered word in the beast’s own tongue sent the reindeer charging off on his own, free to gorge himself on the joy of slaughter. Nicholas leaned Fatherblade against his shoulder and stalked towards his enemy. The Goblin King was hopelessly trapped beneath the bear, and Father Christmas did not waste time with words. The great sword rose and fell, and a moment later a goblin head was bouncing along the cave floor, accompanied by dozens of gold chains. A moment after that, a cry of dismay went up from the others, and an undignified stampede began.
Nicholas didn’t bother looking around. He knew the sight all too well; overconfident goblins, their courage based purely on their advantage of numbers, would be fleeing for the Eastern Gate with the Polar Guard hard on their heels. Today’s attack had been far worse than most, that was certain, but once a goblin’s spirit broke it didn’t matter how large the battle. They would run for their lives and hide away, as they had a thousand times before. At some point another goblin would start calling himself king and the whole thing would start again, but for a time at least they would be too afraid to attack the North Pole openly.
Father Christmas sighed, almost disappointed that the battle had ended so quickly. He had thought at least to cross blades with the Goblin King, but if he was clumsy enough to get caught in his own saddle, then he probably wouldn’t have been much of a challenge anyway. Though he did at least leave something worthwhile behind him.
Nicholas would normally have let Kaiei handle the Polar Guard’s pursuit, but he called the elf captain over to him before he could get underway.
‘Leave the butcher’s work to the others, Kaiei. I need you to take a message back to Faril, and he won’t listen to anyone of lower rank.’
Kaiei smiled, his teeth glowing white in a face stained with goblin blood.
‘As you say, my lord. What is the message?’
Nicholas started cleaning Fatherblade on the dead goblin’s clothes.
‘I find myself in a good mood, Kaiei. Have Faril bring to me the very top page of the Good List, straight away.’
The elf frowned.
‘Surely you have already checked it twice, lord?’
‘True enough, but I wish to confirm which children have been the very best behaved this year.’
He took the newly-cleaned sword in one hand hooked the tip under one of the fallen king’s chains. He brought it up, and the polished gold winked prettily. Nicholas half-turned to Kaiei.
‘This gold is the result of greed, and ought not belong to any one person. Besides, we need something to wrap that new cocoa with, and once it’s beaten thin, this little haul should go a good long way.’ Father Christmas glanced briefly at his enemy’s severed head, then looked back at the gold he’d taken from him. ‘The best children must always have the very best rewards. For some of them, it is going to be a very Merry Christmas.’