For the holiday, here is a re-imagining of the origin of Santa Claus. This is an early draft, but be warned, it is not a feel-good piece. The fae drive hard bargains.
The icy winds gusted and Nic pulled the coat of his uniform tight about him. The thick red felted wool and the warm, white fur lining did their best, but nothing could stop the North Wind, not fully. Yet, to the home of the North Wind was where he needs must go to claim the favor owed him.
Jessica called out, nearly to the next clearing, despite the calf-high snow. “Hurry, Nic.” Her red locks, long faded to silver were tamed into a neat braid down her back, but nothing could mask her beauty, the kindness of her heart. Her own matching coat was a bright bit of cheer in the grey, wintry countryside, her blue eyes bright and full of hope. Beside her was their daughter, Estelle, with her long, dark hair swirling in the winds, her great green coat open, with the carelessness of youth. Estelle had asked for something less flashy, less bright, and Jessica had obliged.
Estelle. Their wise daughter who had thought long and hard when her parents had shared their fears with her. Who had researched every option, until the day, with sad eyes, and gentle words, explained the favor they must ask, told them the words they must use, and showed them the path they must take. But, then again, Estelle had grown up with the small fae who labored in the workshop and knew their ways far dearer than even her parents, who had worked with them, all these long years.
Nic had held his hope and his mission so dear to him, it seemed both were slipping through his grasp. If this didn’t work, everything they’d built would be gone, and his legacy swiftly forgotten. Nic shook his head, hastened his steps, and rehearsed the words in his head, for the twelfth time that hour.
It might have been hours or moments, in the way that time passed in that place and in that space, that they reached the birthplace of wind and snow and ice, the home of the North Wind, his Queen, and the fae that favored their lands. Nic couldn’t help but watch in wonder at the frost sprites, their cold beauty glimmered as they danced on the breeze. A mountain of snow beside the path opened one white eye as they passed, and the couple drew close, Jessica holding Nic’s arm, as they passed the threat and promise of the snow troll. Estelle wandered a bit further from them, studying the icy land.
His daughter paused in the glow that was neither day nor night in this place, though they knew the time was drawing close. There, in the twinkling twilight, she slid off her mitt and raised a bare hand to the dancing frost crystalline fae, who alit upon her hand. With a gentle motion, Estelle lowered the fae to her shoulder, then re-gloved and stretched her legs, easily catching her parents. As she drew closer, two more dancing frost fae settled upon her other shoulder.
The old couple dared not look back. Instead, they stared at the path ahead, seeing the future they had hoped to avoid writ in the dead trees that lined the path, icicles glistening in the sun, decorating the corpses, that would never wake again, would never see the warmth of spring. Then, the trail changed into something different. A ring of evergreen trees circled a clearing, and in the middle of the field sat a sleeping tree of hawthorn.
“We’re here,” Estelle spoke with an exhale, filled with… was that exuberance and relief?
Nic and Jessica exchanged a worried glance, this was a sacred and powerful place. The danger was greater now. Jessica squeezed Nic’s hand, and they continued forward.
The tree was ringed in stones, and many a stone were covered in fae of all sizes, perched upon them. But to the center of the path lay the thrones of ice, and there, in all their awful and awesome wonder were the Winter King and Queen of the Fae. When they speak of the fae, they speak of slight creatures, of their childlike appearances, but the North Wind was neither. His long flowing white locks curled into his beard, such that none could tell where one began and the other ended. His cheeks were rounded and across his immense shoulders draped a silky blue robe, lined in fur, and embroidered with dazzling silver — or was it frost?
And his queen? Cut from ice, she had the slight appearance that one expected from the fae, but writ large and a face that knew at once both youth and the world before humanity breathed its first. Her gown was the dancing white and silver and blue of frost, swirling about as the wind. The only thing she wore not of magic were her white, elbow high gloves.
“Has another come to beseech us this night?” She stood and her court stood with her. Those who were too small flittered up into the air. The King and Queen a head above all, rising easily eight feet high.
Nic, remembering his daughter’s words of warning, did not fall to a knee at the fae queen’s feet. They appreciate respect, but to set one above yourself, is to find oneself bound for life. With a gentle nod and soft clearing of his throat, Nic spoke in a tone that would never be yelling, but could be heard across a workshop floor, “I come to claim a favor owed.”
A snort of laughter echoed out in a blast of wind from the King of Winter. “Owed?” He rose to his feet. “What mortals claim a favor owed?”
“We are Nicholas and Jessica of Patara. We have brought renewed belief and favor to the start of winter, belief and favor that strengthen Winter,” Nic’s voice boomed out. In the corner of his eye, he saw his daughter nod ever so slightly.
“We have heard of you,” the dazzling Queen gently rested a gloved hand on the arm of her consort. “Speak your favor and we shall determine if your deeds warrant such a boon.”
Nic knew his hand trembled and Jessica squeezed it gently as she stepped forward. They were in this together.
“Lady Winter, Lord Winter, we demand three things. A small demesne that touches the world. Large enough for the workshops and workers. The ability to deliver our works in one night. And for the work to go on, properly tended for as long as it favors winter.”
Lady Winter’s tinkling laugh joined her husband’s icy chuckles, and the court laughed with them.
When the queen finally caught her breath, she held up a slim, gloved hand and her court quieted instantly. “Those are large requests for two small mortals.”
“But,” Nic found his tongue again, “for every year we do this, more humans praise winter, praise fae dealings in winter. And your own power grows. Would you give it up that easily?”
“A small demesne is an easy thing, but the others…” The Queen sounded thoughtful, despite her sharp voice.
The King stared at the couple, and then past them and his lips curled with a calculating slant to them. “How is it that you two mortals found your way through the ice and snow to the court of winter. Someone’s been telling secrets they shouldn’t.”
Nic and Jessica both shivered in the gusts of wind that buffeted them. The blue-clad king strode toward the couple and it was all Nic could do to hold his ground until the king passed them and put his thumb on the chin of Nic’s daughter, raising her head.
“Wait!” Nic said, raising an arm to wrench his daughter free, whatever the cost.
“Don’t,” Estelle spoke sharp and clear. And with that Nic froze.
Estelle, in her green coat, wasn’t shivering. The frost sprites never moved from her shoulders. “My King,” she began and Nic’s heart froze. She’d warned them never to claim the King and Queen of Winter as their own.
Something was wrong.
“My Queen,” Estelle stepped back from the King’s soft touch and knelt. “Their boon is fair, but needs a thing to seal the bargain, does it not.” Her hair danced in the wind.
“No,” Jessica whispered too quiet for any but Nic to hear as the winds roared.
“I was raised by humans and by fae, I’m as changeling as any you might want for your court. My humanity for their boon?”
“You don’t have to do this,” Nic moaned.
Jessica’s sobs were silent, but she choked out, “we can find another way.”
Turning her bright, blue eyes, eyes to match her mother’s to face her parents, Estelle looked sad… and eager. “It was the only answer, and it will work. I promise.”
“Hmmm, to have one such as you, willing and welcome in my court? Let us talk. Walk with me, child.” The queen gestured and the only daughter of Nic and Jessica obeyed.
The North Wind found his throne once more, and the fae-covered stones tinkled with chatter as they all waited in wonder and fear of what would come next. In the center of it all, alone in the court of the North Wind and his terrible queen, the two humans held each other tight and waited until the queen returned.
“Nic and Jessica of Patara, your boons shall be granted, your sacrifice accepted. Estelle is your star no longer, she shall be my heir and not yours. You can serve all the children, but never yours again,” the queen decreed and her consort laughed his icy gusts. “First, we grant you our northern-most demesne. Secondly, you may re-enter the human realm, but only for a moment at a time.”
Nic opened his mouth to protest, but the queen held up a hand.
“A moment for them. You can never interact with the human realm again, for once you enter it, time for the humans will stop until you depart, or until such a time as the bargain is ended. Your deliveries, of course, can be done then. Thirdly, for so long as you dwell at the demesne and continue your annual raising of human faith and belief in the fae of winter, the bargain shall hold and you shall not age.”
“Estelle?” Jessica’s voice with thick with unshed tears.
“You are your own legacy. I promise, this is what I want, Mother,” Estelle said, as she slid off a pack from under her coat that Nic had never suspected she’d carried, looking full of her things. No wonder her coat wouldn’t close.
“May we have a moment?” Nic asked, ready to beseech the queen, if that’s what it took.
The icy queen softened the slightest and gave a sharp nod. “A moment.”
Estelle went to her parents and they wrapped her in their arms, as tears softly trickled down their cheeks.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” Nic asked. “You know we would never have asked this of you.”
“It’s the only way and the best way. This way, I can rule here, and you two can continue being amazing for all the other humans. I know the fae and I know my bargain. You would have lost me eventually, anyway. And this way, I’ll be here, where you can always find me. And you two can go on, as you always have,” Estelle already had a touch of ice about her. “Besides, a sacrifice works best when it’s willing. This is both for you two, and for me. I will send messages with the little ones, so you’ll always know I’m safe– well. Always know how I am. And, she has said that I may visit you the day after the end of each winter. I love you both, but you love your work and would do much for your legacy. Now you are your legacy. Take this as a blessing, please Papa?”
“Oh, Estelle, my little star,” Jessica snuffled and held their daughter close.
“Love you,” Estelle whispered, and Nic and Jessica whispered it right back. One final squeeze, then Estelle stepped back.
“And the bargain is sealed,” the queen said, as she took Estelle’s hand. Then, before Nic could blink, with a blade made of ice and magic, the Queen sliced his daughter’s throat open in a single swipe. The blood sprayed across the white snow and ice as the warm body landed with a soft thump on the ground. The smell of iron filled the air as the hot blood steamed on the ice.
Jessica screamed. Nic wailed. The pair tried to rush to their daughter’s side, but the snow wound about their ankles and held them fast.
Nic bellowed, “how dare you!”
“She was to live!” Jessica cried out.
All the pair could do was watch, though, as the queen’s attendants lifted the body, dark hair rustling in the breeze, as it had when Estelle stood there moments before.
“And she shall, when the first ray of dawn touches the ground, in the human realm, she shall awaken, mortal no longer. You have had your goodbyes, you have your bargain, now be gone. There is work to be done.”
A jingle of bells caught Nic’s attention and he turned just a moment, to see what new fae approached. It was a bright sleigh of red, pulled by a team of reindeer, but no driver nor passenger could be seen. Nic turned back and to his shock and dismay, he and Jessica were alone in the woods, not a clearing to be seen. Surrounded by fresh, white snow.
A voice whispered in his head, sharp as ice, the sleigh will take you to your new demesne.
And now, every year, Nic and Jessica work their hardest to fulfill their end of the bargain and wait for the day after the end of winter.