Following is my flash story, Christmas Swap. It took second in the December flash fiction contest at Aphelion Webzine. Here’s a link so you can enjoy all the entries: Flash of Aphelion.
David Alan Jones
Katie Claus stood upon a black stone outcrop, gazing down at the village called Spring. It was a small, valley hamlet built to shelter her grandfather’s few human laborers, but Spring contained within its boundaries every friend Katie had ever known.
Behind her, its crenellated spires stretching high into the mists, stood her grandfather’s castle: Winter. Its gray-black stones — spell-hewn to be impervious to ice and snow — stood out in stark contrast with the merciless, frozen tundra surrounding it. That ominous effect, combined with the hours their parents worked this time of year, led the village children to rename it Dread Winter.
“You can’t do this,” said Napoleon, her nanny elf.
“I won’t let you,” he said, standing up so that his bald pate almost reached Katie’s elbow. “I vowed to protect ya — keep ya from mischief — and Lord Peter knows you’re up to mischief now lass.”
Though it cost him something, Napoleon held her gaze. “It’s not right what you’re planning. Cutting it would be a sacrilege, and a shame on ya — on yer whole family.”
Katie pictured her grandfather; not the rosy-cheeked fat man dressed in red, but the true tough-minded delivery man, stiff and stern and intolerant of anything that might disrupt his precious schedule. She saw him standing before her in his seal leather suit, his hoarfrost-encrusted beard — yellowed from pipe smoke — billowing out behind.
“Lucy’s a good girl. It’s not her fault she slapped Braden. He pulled her hair; I saw it,” said Katie.
“The boss must have a deadline. You can’t do nothing to change a deadline.”
Katie tightened her grip on the eighteen inch shears hidden beneath her green sleighing cloak.
“We’ll see,” she said.
# # #
Entering Dread Winter was not so hard as it seemed, for though the ancient castle was forbidden, it was not unduly forbidding. No guards stood watch this time of year, and the gates stood wide to let vent the deathly heat and noxious fumes produced below.
Katie slid down a peppermint-striped pole towards the fourth subbasement, the incessant thrum of machines growing louder as she plummeted.
Napoleon followed her. His long nose quivered with fear as he strode from the landing alcove.
Glowing magical ice covered the Great Manufactory’s floor, revealing strange creatures of every shape and size trekking across it in cleats, cussing and jostling and fighting to get their work done.
“How ya gonna hide in that?” asked Napoleon.
Katie ignored him, scanning the crowd.
Six polar bears pulling a sledge loaded with raw iron scraped slowly by, its portly driver idly flicking a black whip across their backs. Katie raised her green hood, timed her move, and fell in beside the second set of bears, her eyes downcast. To the driver her cloaked back looked like any other elf and to the milling crowd she looked like a servant tending the bears.
After they had traveled some distance the cavern roof opened into a massive dome, its interior filled with geodes reflecting the ice light from below. In the center of this expanse stood the largest machine Katie had ever seen.
Napoleon let loose a little squeal of delight and surprise.
“The Toy Engine,” he breathed in reverence. “I only ever seen it the once and that with me da. He was a tinker, ya know.”
The Toy Engine stretched for miles into the cavern, with tributary conveyor belts trundling raw materials in, and completed toys out, of its iron bulk.
Eight massive dire wolves ran with indefatigable strides inside circular treadmills, pouring energy into the engine.
Katie groaned when she saw them.
“Wrong end,” she hissed. “He won’t be here.”
“Might as well go back,” said Napoleon.
“No. I’m doing what I came to do.”
Katie waited for a lull in the crowd then swung up onto the Engine’s wide main belt. One of the galloping dire wolves rolled an eye at her, but no one else seemed to notice as she hunkered down behind a toy dollhouse. Napoleon came reluctantly after.
The crowds first thinned, and then disappeared altogether as Katie and Napoleon neared the machine’s terminus. Only those with special clearance were allowed this far, and that did not include Katie Claus.
Grandfather stood amongst his most trusted security elves, reading an impossibly long list of names that rolled out behind him into the cavern.
She slid off the conveyor belt and hid amongst a stack of crates her heart thudding in her chest. Planning the deed was one thing, but actually dashing across the floor in a headlong attack was quite another. Maybe she should just forget —
With that thought foremost in her mind, Katie raced from her hiding spot straight towards him. His thug elves moved to stop her, but they froze at a gesture from the old man.
Grandfather turned a gimlet eye upon his youngest granddaughter.
His deep voice brought her up short — that and his beatific smile. She skidded to a stop before him.
“You have Grandma’s best kitchen shears.”
“What were you planning to do with those?”
Her eyes flicked from his bearded face to the list in his hand.
“Lucy hit Braden yesterday and –“
“And got herself on the Naughty list. I know.”
“It’s not fair. She didn’t mean it.”
“Magic is balance, Katie, you know that. I can’t change Naughty without changing Nice; not once the list is set.”
“I do know it.”
Grandfather cupped her chin in one strong, warm hand, lifting it to look into her eyes; eyes that matched his own.
“You came here with a purpose, dear. What was it?”
Katie reversed her grip on the shears, offering them handle first to her grandfather.
“If you must cut one name from Nice in exchange for Lucy’s, let it be mine, Grandfather.”