Niklaus: Part One – An Invitation

Happy Friday, everyone! Today marks the final day in our Festive Fantasy Week celebrations for 2013. I want to share with you now a short story that I’ve been working on in the build-up to Christmas. Now, I’d hoped to have it wrapped up by now, but it’s not quite there yet. However, that might not end up being such a bad thing. I’m going to release it in three parts here on the blog, hopefully having the whole thing on here by Christmas Day.

I really hope you enjoy the story and make sure to stay tuned for Part Two, which should be posted over the weekend.

*

Niklaus: Part One – An Invitation

Tobacco smoke snaked up from the pipe and obscured the old man’s face like a veil of fog. Impossibly blue eyes danced from behind the smoke, framed by a briar patch criss-cross of wrinkles and scars. The man’s weathered face—so dark, so lined and like old boot-leather—was encircled by brilliant white hair, so overgrown now that the man’s mane and beard were indistinguishable from one another. His thick, pale lips formed a perfect circle as he took another drag from the pipe and let out the smoke in a series of silent whispers.

‘Tell me that last part again,’ he purred. ‘About the deer.’

The alehouse was eerily devoid of life tonight and so quiet and hollow that even the faintest whisper felt like a primal rumble come from the earth itself. The man seated opposite squirmed in his seat, his drink untouched. He was small in comparison to the old man, even though in his own village he was regarded as the tallest of men. His name was Jonas Haugaard, a local border watchman. ‘Some boys from the village found a dismembered stag head at the edge of the forest. The antlers were broken into hundreds of pieces and scattered about in the snow. The poor beast’s eyes had been removed, probably before it died.’

The old man nodded slowly. ‘Was there blood? In the snow?’

‘No, Father.’

‘Please,’ the old man snapped, biting suddenly on the ivory mouthpiece of his pipe. ‘Just “Niklaus”, if you would.’

Jonas bowed his head and cast down his gaze to the scarred tabletop. ‘What does it mean, Fa— Niklaus?’

‘Dark times,’ Niklaus muttered, peering through the smoke, concern lining his face. ‘The head is an invitation.’

‘An invitation to what?’

Niklaus reclined and tipped out his pipe, tapping it thrice with his forefinger. ‘You say there are three children gone missing? All boys?’

‘That’s right.’

‘Then we should already be through that door and on the road. We leave now.’ Niklaus pocketed his pipe and stood abruptly, the myriad trophies and trinkets that adorned his belt jangling softly as he rose.

‘Niklaus, where are you going?’ Jonas said, twisting round in his chair as the old man stomped past. ‘Shouldn’t we wait until morning before we set out?’

‘Do that and you will have the blood of three children on your hands, Jonas.’

‘What? You really think…’

Niklaus gave a hard look and threw open the alehouse door, taking his crimson-dyed greatcoat and knapsack from a stand. He stood in the threshold, allowing the bitter winter winds to snap at his face as he shrugged on his coat and shouldered the bag. He stared into the inky darkness and saw much evil there, cursed as he was with sight beyond that of ordinary men. Those unspeakable fiends hounded him at every turn, drove him every night to the sanctuary of alehouses and other establishments of low status. The locals would not grant him shelter and he dared not set foot in a temple of the Lord. He was beyond penance.

‘My staff,’ he muttered. ‘Where is my staff?’

Jonas cast about pitifully, even venturing so far as to exchange empty glances with the alehouse’s sullen proprietor. ‘I can’t say that I saw—’

‘No,’ Niklaus snapped. ‘You can’t.’ Never mind. It wasn’t the first time his staff had been taken on a night such as this. Though he would have to reclaim it before the night was done. ‘Have you transportation, Jonas?’

‘An old nag,’ Jonas replied. ‘She’s not much, but she is reliable.’

Niklaus nodded and stepped out into the cold, his fur-wrapped boots sinking almost half their height into the snow. Jonas followed promptly behind and closed the alehouse door in his wake.

‘The village is an hour’s ride from here,’ Jonas said. ‘In clear conditions.’

But Niklaus wasn’t listening. He had already left the thoroughfare, such as it was, and started across the grassy flats, the faint din of his trinkets marking his passage. ‘Come, Jonas,’ he commanded.

Jonas hurried after the strange man and found he had to jog to keep up. ‘Which…’ A pause to catch his breath. ‘Which route are we to take?’

The night would have been impenetrable, were it not for the huge moon that hung overhead, bathing the snow-swept land in pools of cool milky light. The undulating grasslands were broken up only by patches of woodland, all great pines and black firs.

‘We are heading in the wrong direction!’ Jonas called ahead, as he slogged through the snowdrifts. ‘We should turn back.’

‘Jonas,’ Niklaus barked, ‘there are hidden and secret ways in this bleak place that may never reveal themselves to any except me. The paths I tread cannot be plainly seen and because of that they are perilous indeed. Keep me in sight and do not stray from our course.’

Jonas did as asked and followed as closely as he could manage. He glanced down at the ground, expecting to be able to follow the old man’s tracks left behind in the snow, only to realise that he left none. Impossible! Perhaps the rumours were true about old Niklaus—perhaps he truly was in possession of divine powers. It was said that he was of giants’ stock and had been placed on the earth by the machinations of an angel. Word was, Niklaus had once been the most pious of men, a Holy man, only to fall from God’s favour and forever be cursed.

‘Close your eyes,’ Niklaus said suddenly. ‘Close them now and follow my voice.’

‘W-why?’ Jonas spluttered, reluctantly obeying.

‘There is a darkness here, Jonas. It searches for souls to consume even as we speak. If your eyes are closed then you shall be almost invisible to it, like a covered lantern.’

It was silent then, punctuated only by the occasional whisper from Niklaus as he navigated through the night. After several long minutes, Jonas was nudged on the arm.

‘Open your eyes,’ Niklaus said. ‘We have arrived.’

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