The Seaton Family Christmas

 

 This being an exerpt from THE CLAUS EFFECT by David Nickle and Karl Schroeder, Available from Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing, Bakka-Phoenix Science Fiction, Chapters-Indigo, Amazon, and other fine booksellers specializing in slightly askew Christmas novels.



 


Copyright 1997 by David Nickle & Karl Schroeder.


The story thus far:


Emily, who spent a year of her childhood as an Elf in Santa Claus' Toy Mill at the North Pole, has overcome her disillusionment and grown into a productive member of ValueLand's store security staff. However, Santa Claus has not forgotten her betrayal, and sent a team of commando elfs to kidnap her from her workplace (destroying said workplace in the process). We take up in Ontario cottage country - in the midst of the Yule preparations of the Seatons, a Fine Old Ontario Family who appear to have no relation to the aforementioned tale. At least, at the outset...





CHAPTER FOUR

A Seaton Christmas


The Seaton family Christmas had been held at the cottage on Lake Voltaire for as long as anyone could remember, and there was no one who had ever imagined it should be any other way. For although the Seaton men maintained fine homes in Toronto, London, Kingston and Ottawa, as well as properties in the Bermuda and Switzerland, the cottage on Lake Voltaire held a special magic.

Old Thornton Seaton had built the cottage in 1919, two years after he parleyed the dried-goods business he'd joined as a floor-sweeper, into the beginnings of the continent-spanning ValueLand retail empire.

The log-and-fieldstone cottage had three floors, two huge stone fireplaces and an ingenious cast-iron septic system devised by old Thornton himself that had not required a repairman for eighty-two years. Perched as it was on an outcrop of bedrock in the midst of the majestic pines and spruce trees of the Muskoka Tourist Region, the cottage was the natural focal point for the Seaton Family Christmas. Everyone from odd old Winifred and her Sri Lankan husband whose name no one could ever recall, to Mr. and Mrs. Seaton and the seven Seaton children, would gather there each year, twelve days prior to and three days following Christmas Day.

This year, however there were two disruptions to the family tradition.

A catastrophic fire in one of the 200 stores owned by the family had called Mr. Seaton away. Mrs. Seaton had informed the children that their father would be flying back in his private plane as soon as matters were sorted out in the city and they would just have to make do without him until such time. Little Albert burst into tears at this news, for he was only six and feared that his father might have perished in the terrible blaze. It was not until Mr. Seaton telephoned later that night and Mrs. Seaton implored him to speak briefly with Albert that the boy was to be consoled.

And then there were the dwarfs.

Most Christmases, the twisty coves and peninsulas of Lake Voltaire were quite deserted by December, for although the lake's beauty was truly revealed only when its shores were covered in a pure, crisp layer of virgin Muskoka snow, most of the families who owned properties in the area had neither the funds nor the inclination to winterize their cottages by any great degree. As a result of this, one of the great pleasures the Seatons took in their mid-winter retreat to Lake Voltaire came from their long, circuitous cross-country ski runs through the silent winter landscape. The entire family would bundle up in sweaters and snowsuits, lace up their ski boots and clamp on their narrow hickory-edged skis, and spend the entire day touring the deserted properties 'round the lake. Spiff and Captain Blood, the two English sheep dogs that had been with the family since 1983, would tromp ahead, scouting for bears, they no doubt imagined -- although what either dog would do if faced with a charging black bear, Mr. Seaton would often joke, only Heaven knew. Everyone would return home by sunset, cold and sweaty and happy, and retire for a cup of hot apple cider.

But this winter, the old Yates place three cottages north of the Seaton cottage was inexplicably occupied. The day before Mr. Seaton was called back to the city, he and Mrs. Seaton had set aside the day to scout out the trail for the season. When they had come upon the Yates cottage, they spotted a car in the drive. The Yates cottage itself was a modest two-storey wood-frame affair; the only attractive feature of the property was actually the boat house, if one were to be truthful about the matter. Mrs. Seaton commented that she couldn't imagine anyone of substance renting such a place -- particulary in the winter, a season for which the Yates cottage was particularly ill-prepared. Mr. Seaton reminded his wife not to be unkind ("perhaps they haven't the means to rent anything better," he commented), and removed his skis preparatory to stopping in for a courtesy call.

At first no one answered at Mr. Seaton's knock, and when the door finally opened he was on his way back to his skis. "Giwee," said an oddly buzzing voice at his back. When he turned, Mr. Seaton first imagined his ears were playing tricks on him. For although the door stood open, no one was there. Then he saw the movement in the bottom half of the opening.

"Oh dear," he whispered to Mrs. Seaton. A dwarf -- the tiniest dwarf Mr. Seaton had ever set eyes upon -- staggered out onto the expansive porch. He was staggering, Mr. Seaton saw, because he seemed to be even now entrenched in a struggle with an enormous toque which he had somehow pulled down over his eyes and face. Mrs. Seaton stifled a giggle, and her husband spared her a withering glare before rushing to the little man's side.

That was when a most curious thing happened. As Mr. Seaton set hands on the bright orange and green toque, the tiny man let out a high-pitched wail:

"Giwee, ye skeewigilly varminte!"

Mr. Seaton recoiled as though he had been struck, and as he did so the little man regained control of his headgear and flipped the wool from his face, while simultaneously pulling it down further over his ears. The dwarf's eyes, preternaturally large and green, glared out at Mr. Seaton, as though he were a common brigand. The little man pointed to Mr. and Mrs. Seaton with an incongruously narrow and bent finger.

"Giwee, I till ye! Else fyyl ye're dyume!"

That evening, Mr. Seaton announced to the family that this year -- and only this year -- the traditional Seaton ski expedition around Lake Voltaire would be cancelled. This was greeted by groans of disappointment all around, but he lifted his hands so as to say he was not yet finished. "As well," he said, "I fear I must forbid you children against playing around any of the cottages to the north of here, and particularly in the vicinity of the Yates cottage. You may go where you wish along the southern properties, but a family of unpleasant dwarfs has taken up residence at that particular cottage and I should fear for your safety if you ventured very near there."

It was, everyone at the Seaton cottage agreed, turning into a very odd Christmas indeed.

* * *

The morning following Mr. Seaton's departure for the city to deal with the terrible fire in the Thornhill ValueLand, young Albert set out with Captain Blood to do some exploring. His elder sister Haephasia was meant to be watching him, but she had become so engrossed in her book that Albert finally gave up on her and crept off on his own. He pulled on his snowsuit, velcroed shut his snowboots, met Captain Blood behind the woodshed, clambered onto his back and ordered the big dog to take him somewhere interesting.

Together, boy and dog set off into the woods.

* * *

Emily awoke very suddenly and with a terrible headache, thinking for only an instant that she had just had a nightmare. It had been years since she had last dreamed of the Toy Mill and her terrible year with the Claus, but she had heard about recurring nightmares. The fact that she appeared to be tied up in the back of a windowless panel van travelling along a rough and bumpy road, however, suggested to her very abruptly that this was no dream.

"Where are you taking me?" Emily shouted, for the elfs had not bothered to gag her when they wrapped packing tape around her wrists and ankles.

All of the elfs appeared to have crammed into the two seats up front. One looked back around the driver's seat, and four of them poked their heads overtop of the passenger seat. From where Emily was tied, she could see that the windshields behind them were equipped with tinted, two-way glass -- which was a very lucky thing for the elfs if not for her.

How was she going to get out from here? Nine years ago, Emily had wanted nothing more than to become an elf; now, she wanted nothing more than to be away from the hateful little degenerates.

"Wyyl, lyk who's gittin oota beddy bye," snarled one, jumping down onto the seat and pulling an enormous bowie knife from his boot. The thing was as long as his arm.

"Answer my question, you --" Emily found herself searching for the words Claus would have used, overseeing his Toy Mill like some twisted robber baron "--you bloated little maggot."

The elf raised his eyebrows and stepped forward with a terrible grin on his face and the gleaming knife wavering in front of him. "Ooo, Missy girlee's gittin' ippity, is she?" he drawled.

"Leave 'er bye, Sylerphayne," shouted one of the elfs in the drivers' seat. "Come byk hyre 'n helpum wiff the gas pedal. Ilky's gettum tired."

The Sylerphayne narrowed his eyes at Emily, and slid his knife back into his boot. It came up to his hip, looking for all the world like a sword-scabbard that some idiotic duellist had fastened at the ankle rather than the hip. Emily managed to keep a straight face as the weapon flopped along behind the elf.

Her good humour was short-lived, however, as she recalled the spot she had seen on television back at ValueLand. The spot that had described how her house on Tamarack -- her auntie's house -- became obliterated by a blue light from the sky. Auntie wouldn't have been home -- she couldn't have, mustn't have been home. She was on shift at the Hospital until seven, and it wasn't later than six-fifteen when everything started to happen...

Six-fifteen. It was daylight outside now... How long had she been unconscious? She vaguely remembered a rag being pressed to her face, a sense of wooziness, then a slide into the darkness. How long had she been in that dark?

If she could get free, she'd find out soon enough.

If she couldn't...

Emily steeled herself with the grimmest of truths. If she couldn't get free, and if she fell into the clutches of Claus himself, she was probably as good as dead.

* * *

Little Albert and Captain Blood came out of the bushes directly south of the Yates cottage entirely by mistake. Albert had made a point of remembering his father's words as close to the letter as he could: do not play among the cottages to the north, but only to the south; avoid the dwarfs, or the unpleasant people, or perhaps both. Do not go skiing this winter, under any circumstances.

And while Captain Blood may have had no conception of which direction was north, south, east or west, Albert had made a point of knowing better. Mr. Seaton had forbade any northern adventure on the part of the children, and so Captain Blood and Albert Seaton made their way determinedly south.

For the most part, the pair kept to the old ski trail, which of course had not been broken but was easy enough to sight as they passed. Occasionally, they came upon a cottage, all shut up and asleep for the winter months. With each house, Albert became more and more pleased about his newfound aptitude for directions. When his father returned from fixing the fire problem in the city store, he would report on his success with this new skill.

It wasn't until he was out of sight of all the cottages that he saw the skiers.

He and Captain Blood were resting for a moment against the stump of a birch tree, and it was Captain Blood who first caught the scent. The dog hunkered down low and began to growl, and the panic spread to Albert like measles in a preschool.

"What boy?" said Albert. Captain Blood's growl turned into a whimper, and he looked down, towards the lake.

"What boy?" Albert's first thought was unpleasant dwarfs, but it occurred to him that just as likely was one of those black bears that father always made jokes about. Or it could be both! Albert began to feel quite dreadful.

Then he saw them.

There were five skiers, all moving with lithe swishing motions along a stretch of flat snow on the very edge of the bank. Each appeared quite thin and fit, in even better shape than Albert's father who worked out at the gym twice a week when he had time.

Albert didn't think they were dwarfs, but he wasn't sure about the unpleasant part. He wasn't sure at all...

Suddenly, the skier in front stopped and pointed with his ski pole. Directly at Albert.

"Gottenhimmel!" shouted the second skier, a woman with black hair tied back under her orange and green toque.

"Die kind!" bellowed the fourth, this one a man wearing ear muffs, whose hair was cut so short he was practically bald.

Albert screamed and ran. Captain Blood began barking furiously and bounded after him. Albert had no idea if he were being followed, but as soon as Captain Blood caught up Albert clambered on the dog's back and shouted:

"Giddyup!"

Captain Blood took off through the trees like a shot. Albert hung on as best he could, and shut his eyes during the very worst parts. When he opened them again, there they were:

North. Worse than north in fact.

Albert and Captain Blood were in the front yard of the Yates cottage, and the unpleasant dwarfs who now lived there were just getting out of their van.

* * *

Emily had managed to wiggle forward in the van to a point where she could see the driving team and watch them at work. In spite of herself, she was fascinated: the teamwork involved in the operation of a large and ungainly motor vehicle by tiny unlicensed elfs was a thing to behold.

It took a total of four elfs to operate the automatic-transmission panel van. There were two pedal men -- one who toiled on the pedals himself, rather like a coal man on an old steam locomotive; and a second, who worked more or less in a supervisory position, sitting on the back of the chair and shouting instructions to his partner below. Then there was the navigation team; again, one who worked for the most part in a supervisory capacity, this time giving orders to the wheel man, who actually sat on the dashboard facing backwards. The supervisor -- who also changed gears from drive to reverse when circumstances required -- sat on the back of the driver's seat and shouted instructions to the wheel man as various obstructions and obstacles presented themselves. The long drive was a cacophony: "Hit ye brake pidil!" "Tayrn a ye richt! Ye richt!" "Sayrry." "Give 'er soom geas!"

Emily suspected that they could have made do with one less engineer, but she wasn't about to say anything, certainly not under the circumstances.

"Giddop."

The van crunched to a halt, and Sylerphayne prodded Emily with his toe.

"I can't get up unless you untie me," said Emily, and indicated the huge ball of packing tape the elfs had wrapped around her ankle. Sylerphayne regarded it uncertainly and called to the front. Another elf came back, this one armed with a big police revolver.

"Trye anyffin' an' ye'll be sayrry," he croaked, and pointed the gun at Emily's head.

Sylerphayne went to work on Emily's ankles with his bowie knife, and eventually she was able to pull one leg free. He wouldn't take the tape off the other leg, though, and it clung to Emily's ankle in a huge, crumpled ball.

"Now giddop." Sylerphayne poked at her with the point of the knife this time. Emily cringed back and stiffly pushed herself to her feet. The side door to the van slid open and Emily squinted at the brightness of the daylight.

There was snow everywhere, and trees. In the midst of a copse of pine trees, a tiny boy riding an enormous sheep dog stared back at her with wide, terrified eyes.

Almost immediately, he prodded the dog and they disappeared amid the trees and underbrush of the awful Christmas scene.

Emily swore under her breath.

* * *

Mr. Seaton was able to conclude matters at the ValueLand sooner than he had expected, and that evening he flew up in Nightingale, his treasured Piper Club single engine. When Mrs. Seaton's motorcar pulled into the driveway back from the airport, a crowd of children rushed out to welcome their father back to his Seaton Christmas. Mr. Seaton was still wearing his woollen overcoat and work suit, so he looked a little out of place amid the crowd of bluejeans and oversized Christmas sweaters, but he gave each one of them in turn an enormous hug, and told each how he missed them. However, when he had set Haephasia down, Mr. Seaton looked around the darkening lot and said with some puzzlement, "I've said hello to everyone now, except for little Albert. I hope he's not too angry with me for running off."

"Albert's in his room," said twelve-year-old William.

"He won't come out," said William's older sister Jennifer-Mae.

"Perhaps dear," said Mrs. Seaton, quietly drawing her husband away from the children, "you had best go have a word with him."

Upstairs, little Albert lay curled in a tiny ball on his bunk bed. Mr. Seaton folded his scarf over his arm and sat down on the bedside.

"Now how's my little Albert," said Mr. Seaton. "Does he have a hug for his old dad?"

Albert sat up and gave his father a hug.

"Hello Daddy," said Albert. "Did you have an agreeable trip to the city?"

"An agreeable--?" Mr. Seaton laughed. "Yes, my boy... Most `agreeable.' Everything's sorted out, at least as well as can be expected. And see?" He leaned back and spread his arms. "Not so much as singed. Didn't I tell you the fire would be well out by the time I got there?"

"Yes Daddy."

"Well it was. But I've told you all about my trip, now tell me what you've been up to whilst I was off doing grown-up things."

Albert didn't answer at first.

"Oh come now," prompted Mr. Seaton, "it can't have been all that dull."

"I saw some skiers," said Albert, looking at his hands.

"Some skiers!" exclaimed Mr. Seaton. "Well! Perhaps I was wrong to think that one cottage full of disagreeable little people was enough to spoil a whole Christmas of skiing. How many skiers were there?"

Albert frowned. "Five," he said. "I think."

"Five skiers." Mr. Seaton said. "Well! We can't let them have all the fun. Can we Albert?"

"I beg your pardon, Daddy?"

"I think," said Mr. Seaton, "that unless anyone has anything terribly important on their itinerary, tomorrow we shall spend the day skiing. All the way 'round the lake."

"All the way, Daddy?"

Mr. Seaton smiled and stood. He offered Albert his hand. Albert took it, but Mr. Seaton noted the boy was still a little pensive. If he were anyone else's boy, Mr. Seaton might have suspected he was holding something back. But he wasn't anyone else's boy, and Mr. Seaton felt again the warm glow of pride and love that had first come upon him at young Albert's christening. Albert was a Seaton man. And Seaton men had nothing to hide.

"Come, Albert," said Mr. Seaton. "We'll go downstairs and make the announcement together."

* * *

Emily counted a total of nineteen elfs in the cottage, and they were armed with everything from Swiss army knives and baseball bats to AK-47s. Most of them were gathered waiting for Emily in the main room, whose walls were lined with hunting trophies and heavily-shellacked handicrafts. The elfs had moved an enormous coffee table made from a single slice of treetrunk next to the fireplace, and it appeared to be serving as a command table. There was an elf standing behind it, the points of his ears painted a fiery orange by the sputtering fire behind him. His hair was slicked back with bacon grease, and as Emily was brought in he set down the cellular telephone he was talking on and regarded her. The rest of the elfs fell silent.

"Wyll, wyll, wyll," said the greaseball. "If it hayn't Em'ly the Elf."

"I'm not an elf," said Emily, "I had that fixed. And I don't believe we've been introduced."

The elf stepped around the table. He was wearing a tiny flak jacket and carried at his side what Emily recognized from her security training as a Skorpion machine pistol. Its stubby barrel clattered over the cottage's slightly-warped floorboards as the elf walked.

"Me nam hayn't impoort'nt. Boot Y'll tell ye anyhoo." The elf stopped so close that Emily could have punted him into the fire if she weren't worried about the hail of gunfire that his eighteen henchmen would bring down on her. "Y'm Fellwither. Ye din't syym t' r'mimber me. Do ye?"

Emily shook her head. "I've never seen you."

Fellwither smiled, revealing a raw red gap where his two front teeth should have been. "Ye widdn't hae. Back in the ild days, Y wis th' elf in charge o carrispendences."

"The elf in charge of correspondence?"

The elf's eyes narrowed and he fingered the safety on his Skorpion. "The elf whose job ye tik."

"You were the elf responsible for administering that mess?" Emily recalled the stacks of unopened letters, hundreds of feet high, that had rotted in the correspondence hall when she arrived at the Toy Mill. It had taken her months to put that place in order.

"Aye," said Fellwither. "Ye robbed me, Emily. But noo... Noo ye're nae longer the Claus' faverit. An' when I deliver ye... Then things'll change."

"Deliver me?" Emily stomped her foot, and the room was filled with the sound of sliding bolts and clicking hammers. She looked around uneasily at the hairtrigger elfs. The ball of tape fell off her ankle.

"Deliver me," said Emily more quietly, "where? To the pole?"

Fellwither began to laugh. It was an asthmatic, pallid sound, and before long the other elfs joined in.

"The Pole?" Fellwither wheezed. "The Pole? Ye dinna ken anythin' do ye Emily?" He turned to Sylerphane and the others who had brought her.

"Lock 'er oop," he ordered. "I dinna wint t' see this one 'till tamara."

* * *

The Seatons were all up before the sun. Filled with a scrumptious breakfast of home-made blueberry waffles and Canadian back bacon, they set out with the first glints of daylight to circumnavigate Lake Voltaire.

Mr. Seaton led the group, which consisted not only of Mrs. Seaton and the seven Seaton children. Also along for the day were odd old Winifred and her Sri Lankan husband; James, a quiet if long-haired boyfriend of Jennifer-Mae's who wanted to play guitar in a rock and roll band; and Mrs. Seaton's old school chum Agatha Shelby-Wicks, who only last spring had signed her divorce papers and felt uncomfortable spending her first Christmas alone in her new Rosedale apartment.

"We'll set out south," said Mr. Seaton, who in truth was still uneasy about the dwarfs who had taken over the Yates cottage. And so all thirteen skiers started off between two large tamarack trees along the Seatons' southern property line.

* * *

Emily was locked in a second-storey bedroom with an old iron bedframe, a lumpy spring mattress and a wool blanket that was too small for anything but an intimate picnic. There was also a night table similar to the coffee table downstairs, a wall-clock whose face was another heavily shellacked slice of a tree-branch, and a ceiling light whose glow was mottled by the scores of dead insects that had gathered in its bowl-shaped shade. The door was locked by a heavy bolt on the outside.

Before they left her, Emily managed to convince Sylerphane to cut the tape around her hands.

By morning, she had formulated a plan.

* * *

"Hello!"

Mr. Seaton waved at the five skiers with his pole as they made their way north along the shore of Lake Voltaire. One of them looked up and waved back.

"Gutten morgen," the man replied.

"Gutten morgen!" Mr. Seaton shouted back, then said to the children: "These people are from Germany, my dears. Fortunately, I recall a few words of that language I picked up in my youth hostelling years. I shan't be a moment."

When Mr. Seaton called again, it was in German:

"It... is... a good day... for skiing!"

"Yes, it is," replied the German skier.

"Have... you been... at Lake Voltaire... long?" asked Mr. Seaton.

"No," replied the German skier.

"Those... are lovely... white snowsuits... you are wearing," commented Mr. Seaton. "You... blend right in... with the snow... Did you buy them... in Muskoka?"

"No," answered the skier again. "You will please excuse us, sir."

"Quite right," said Mr. Seaton. "The day... is still... ahead."

"Goodbye sir." The skiers started to move on.

"Be... careful... of the dwarfs!" Mr. Seaton shouted after them. The skiers stopped for a moment and looked back. "They don't... appreciate... visitors."

The Seatons waved as the Germans continued on their way.

* * *

The German skiers stopped behind an enormous rise of bedrock that they had scouted out the morning before. It was just at the Yates' southern property line, and it had the double advantage of shielding both sight and radio signals from any sentries in the Yates' cottage. Gunther, the operation's leader, raised the antenna on the Blaupunkt walkie talkie and reported in while his team checked their weapons over, one final time.

"This is Tiger Team final transmit before Operation Vacation commencement," said Gunther. He did not bother to press the receive button: the backup team was under orders not to transmit, in case the enemy were monitoring signals. "Target is in sight--" he glanced farther up the rock, where Ilsa had climbed with her binoculars. She gave him a thumbs-up "--and conditions are optimal. Rendezvous time is unchanged. Over and out."

Ilsa slid back down the rock. "There's one sentry. I can see the top of his cap over the porch railing."

Gunther nodded to Lars. The barrel-chested Swede was hefting his prized carbon-fibre hunting crossbow, checking the tension on the braided steel bowstring and the charge on the bow's laser targeting scope. A quiver of steel bolts gleamed at his side.

"This will kill a man through an inch of plywood," said Lars.

"Wait until we're in position," said Gunther. He dropped the Blaupunkt into his satchel and hefted his own weapon, a gleaming blue-black Heckler & Koch MP5 submachinegun. As he spoke, he removed a silencer from one of the combat snowsuit's pockets and screwed it onto the gun's short barrel.

"Everybody knows what to do," he said simply. "We won't have much time before backup arrives, so let's fan out."

* * *

That morning, Emily caught two elfs under the mattress. She had propped up the misshapen old thing directly in front of the door, and waited patiently behind it until she heard the bolt on the other side slide free. Without hesitating, Emily pushed the door open, flung the mattress forward and immediately leaped on top of it. There were two satisfyingly muffled squeals, and a third shout from behind the door. An elf Emily didn't recognize came around the side of it with an unwieldy .44 magnum revolver that he was holding as though it were a rifle.

Emily was prepared, though, and as he tried to aim it she brought the heavily-shellacked wall-clock up underneath the gun's enormous barrel. The magnum went off into the ceiling, the recoil throwing the elf that fired it against the wall hard enough to stun him. Without a thought, Emily jumped off the mattress, scooped up the most powerful handgun in the world and clubbed its previous owner over the head with its handle.

Plaster rained down on the squirming mattress, and Emily thought briefly about firing a couple of rounds into it. No, she decided. I haven't killed anyone yet.

Not even, as it happens, the Claus.

Emily left the two elfs to disentangle themselves and made for the stairs along the narrow hallway.

The staircase itself opened directly on the main living room of the cottage, so Emily approached it cautiously, calling on her Value-Securities training. "Stick to the walls," Mitchell had emphasized. "Breath slow and deep, watch your back and hold your flashlight up here, like a gun."

Emily had no flashlight, but she certainly had a gun, so she made the necessary mental substitution and went forth. When she reached the top of the stairs, she pressed her back against the wallpaper and looked down.

The room was empty. It looked as though the elfs had vacated it rather quickly. The coffee table was covered in papers, laptop computers and the remains of an overcooked breakfast and tiny elfish house slippers were thrown in a heap next to the empty galoshes rack, which appeared to have been knocked over in the midst of the hasty exit. From the kitchen, a three-minute egg-timer buzzed and buzzed; but other than that, the house was silent.

Gun before her, back to the wall and checking behind her, Emily made her way down the stairs.

* * *

From his position behind the van, Gunther couldn't see whether Lars had hit the sentry, but he had no doubt the taciturn Swede had succeeded. The single gunshot from inside the house a moment before had puzzled Gunther; his team couldn't be inside yet. It had not yet been time.

Now, Gunther checked his Rolex and nodded, more to himself than anyone else.

Now it was time.

Gunther sprinted to the rear wall of the cottage, circled around the septic tank, and flattened himself against the wall beside the screen door to the kitchen. A high buzzing sound drifted out, but Gunther could hear no sounds of movement.

A moment later, Ilsa was beside him, her own Heckler and Koche MP5 submachinegun pressed against her chest. She signalled that she would take point.

Reluctantly Gunther nodded, and quick as a cat, Ilsa was inside. Gunther followed.

The kitchen was a mess -- the twin sinks were heaped with dishes and laundry, and a half-eaten roast (from at least two days ago by the looks of it) sat on the counter amid discarded fruit rinds and old carrot stems.

Aside from that, the kitchen was completely empty.

Gunther and Ilsa spared one another a puzzled glance. Albrecht and Simon should have moved in on the front porch as soon as the sentry was down -- and if the enemy wasn't ready for a rearguard attack through the kitchen, there should have been at least some sounds of resistance from the front room.

Gunther motioned for Ilsa to cover him, and he moved silently to the doorway to the cottage's living room. It too was a mess, but his attention was drawn farther away, by what he saw through the enormous picture window, in the upper story of the cottage's red-and-white painted boathouse. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the girl.

"Down!" he screamed in English, as he dove for the floor and the elfs in the boathouse opened fire with their Browning 50-calibre machine gun.

* * *

Emily hit the floor.

Over her head, the glass from the picture window exploded across the living room, the barest instant before she could hear the rapid chugging sound of the machine gun.

The hail of bullets continued.

The cottage's cheap wainscotting exploded in clouds of splinters; the left antler of an enormous moose-head was severed by a bullet and crashed down onto an antique china cabinet, which exploded under more bullets an instant later; one of the chains supporting the huge wagon-wheel chandelier snapped, sending the massive assembly swinging wildly askew.

A man wearing what had once been a white snowsuit fell in through the hole that used to be the picture window. He had been struck twice -- once in the knee, once in the chest. There was a lot of blood, and Emily couldn't look.

A string of bullets cut across the bannister, sending more wood chips flying. The bannister creaked and fell, a few feet shy of Emily's legs. For the moment, anyway, the gunfire had ceased.

Sobbing, gun ready in a sweaty fist, Emily crawled on her stomach towards the kitchen.

Someone was in there.

* * *

Plaster dust fell through the kitchen like a snowstorm. The gunfire, Gunther realized, would be tearing at the very structure of the cottage; if the elfs wanted to, they could virtually level the place with that machine gun while he and what was left of his team huddled inside.

Gunther allowed himself no illusions about Simon and Albrecht; if the two of them had followed orders -- and he was certain they had -- they would have been directly in the machine gun's sights when the enemy opened fire. And sophisticated though it was, their body armour would have been a pathetic defense against the Browning.

He didn't know about Lars. Ilsa was all right, though; she didn't even appear shaken by the assault, God bless her. Gunther hoped he was holding out as well.

If the elfs knew what they were doing, they had maybe three seconds before the next volley. He didn't waste time signalling Ilsa to cover him. Keeping low, Gunther poked his head around the ruined doorframe and scanned the debris for the girl.

"Don't m-m-move."

Gunther started. The girl -- Emily -- was lying on her stomach, not ten feet away from him. He hadn't expected she'd have been able to cover that distance.

Emily was pointing an absurdly powerful .44 magnum more or less at his face. Gunther glanced up at the boathouse gun emplacement; three elfs were fiddling ineptly with the belt feed mechanism. Good. Gunther revised his three second time limit.

"Come back here," he said. "We're friends. Here to get you out."

To Gunther's relief -- armed civilians made Gunther uneasy as a rule, particularly when he was assigned to rescue them -- the girl lowered the gun and scrambled towards him. When she was close enough, he gathered her up in his arm and dragged her the rest of the way into the kitchen. "Are you injured?" he asked.

"No. I mean, I don't think so. There's a man in there..."

"Like us?" asked Ilsa, with half an eye on the screen door.

Emily nodded. "I think he's dead."

"We have to pull out of here," said Gunther firmly. "We'll survey the damage from a safe distance."

"What about the backup team?" asked Ilsa. "They can't fly into this."

"We'll have to change the rendezvous point." Gunther checked his chronometer. "There's still time." He opened his satchel and removed the Blaupunkt.

"Tiger Den, this is Tiger Team Operations. Come in, come in. Over."

The Blaupunkt squawked. "This is Den, Tiger Team. What is your status? Over."

"Change to backup rendezvous location," said Gunther, and rhymed off a set of co-ordinates. "Expect a welcoming committee. Over."

"Rendezvous confirmed, Tiger Team. Den over and out."

"They're taking too long to reload," said Ilsa. "Something is up."

Something caught Gunther's eye then. He whirled in time to see two elfs as they rounded the ruined doorway to the living room. One of them raised what Gunther could have sworn was an antique sten gun.

Without thinking, he pointed the MP5 and pulled the trigger. The elfs ducked as a mountain of plaster and particle-board collapsed on top of them.

"Let's get out of here," he said. But Emily and Ilsa were already out the back door. Gunther shot a quick volley of covering fire into the living room and followed.

* * *

The elfs' van had not been struck by any of the gunfire, but Emily's rescuers stayed clear of it anyway. The three of them ran directly for the treeline, always keeping the house between them and the machine gun. Emily could see the reasoning: the van would make an easy target, and from the looks of the damage the gun had already done, it would provide no protection at all.

The machine gun fire started again as the three of them hit the treeline. Looking back, Emily could see fragments of the shingling flying high into the air, like pieces of ash.

Then they were in the woods, circling back towards the lake. They came out from the trees behind a high rock. There were numerous supplies laid out here, almost as though for a camp -- including, Emily noticed, six sets of skis.

The woman took one sets -- these ones complete with boots -- and handed them to Emily.

"You'll need these," she said, dropping another pair of skis onto the snow in front of herself. "We won't have much time."

Emily's boots did up with velcro, and she was able to put them on in a few seconds. Still, the others were ready long before she was.

"Hurry," said the woman as they turned to the trail leading south.

"I'm going as fast as I can," said Emily.

* * *

They had not gotten 100 yards when the sound of gunfire broke the forest silence again.

"There!" Ilsa pointed towards the lake, and Gunther looked, at once crouching down and raising his MP5.

The elfs didn't have skis, but they were following on double-bladed childrens' skates, skimming over ice that would have been to thin to support even a small child. There were three of them, armed with small handguns, and before they could fire again Ilsa and Gunther sprayed the area with submachinegun fire. The elfs disappeared behind cover. For the remainder of the haul Gunther ordered them to blaze a new trail, higher in the trees.

It seemed a wise decision; the rest of the journey to the new rendezvous point, three cottages south, passed without incident.

* * *

The man -- he had introduced himself as Gunther -- swore. "How in God's name did they know we would be here?"

A team of a dozen elfs were coming up from the docks. They carried a dizzying array of firepower -- including, Emily saw, a surface-to-air rocket launcher! -- and began to fan out around the immense, three-storey log-and-fieldstone cottage almost immediately.

"It's almost as though they're using a spy satellite," said the woman, Ilsa.

They could be, thought Emily, thinking of the blue light that destroyed her Auntie's house, less than 24 hours ago. "They could be," Emily said aloud.

"Stay quiet, Emily," said Ilsa. "We have to think."

They were facing the rear of the mansion-cottage; unlike the previous building, there were no doors here. Most of this wall was taken up by a huge, black iron cylinder, two storeys tall. At its base was a row of valves at a console from which also branched multitudinous pipes. Each of these was wrapped in thick swaths of cloth, tarred hard and black. The pipes pierced the great log-and-stone wall at seemingly random intervals. A low gurgle filled the air.

Gunther checked his chronometer. "Less than two minutes to rendezvous. Too late to change plans."

"We have to take them out, then," said Ilsa. "Emily, you must remain hidden."

"We will be back presently," said Gunther.

And with that, Emily's two rescuers disappeared back into the wilderness. In the distance, she was certain she could hear the steady chop-chop-chop of helicopter blades through the wintry air.

* * *

Gunther tried to avoid using his gun for as long as possible. He took down a sentry watching the lake with his bare hands, and used his stiletto on a straggler coming up from the lake. When Gunther used the machine gun, he wanted to be better positioned.

Ilsa was going to move in from the north, and as soon as both of them had the main house in their sights, they would both open fire.

It would have to be soon; within minutes, the elfs would be too dispersed to take out in one assault. It would get messy; and Gunther had neither the time nor the manpower for a messy fight.

He was about to open fire anyway when an elf shouted something that made his heart sink:

"Found 'er!" He waved a sawed-off shotgun in the direction of Emily. "Found 'a gurlee!"

Positioning be damned, thought Gunther. He sheathed his stiletto, raised the MP5, and charged up the ridge to the steps of the cottage. Two guard-elfs spotted him, but before they could lift their weapons he sprayed them with a burst from his MP5. They fell into the snow, ears covered and weapons abandoned. To his right, a trio of elfs setting up the rocket launcher dropped the machinery and reached for their sidearms. Gunther was quicker, though, and the rest of his clip sent the elfs scurrying.

Instinctively, Gunther ducked low, an instant before the chupping of small-arms fire sent a rain of bullets whizzing over his head.

As he ran he slammed another clip into the MP5. The gunfire was coming from the porch -- a row of elfs lying on their stomachs with handguns aimed in front of them like marksmen. Gunther flipped the weapon to full automatic and fired in a spray, shattering glass and splintering wood. He felt like laughing, the way he always did when the blood of battle started pumping through his veins. Where was Ilsa? he wondered as he ducked behind a row of hedges. She was a fine woman.

The snow at his feet puffed up as bullets dug furrows, and Gunther was off again. Focus he told himself. You're a team commander. They've found the girl Emily.

He sprinted around the cottage, in the direction of Emily's hiding place. Ahead of him, a half dozen elfs were making their way there, at another elf's behest. Taking a second to first gauge the angle and make certain the girl wasn't in any danger, Gunther raised the MP5 so he could sight along the barrel, and took aim. The cold December air was an elixir in his lungs.

"Heyum."

Gunther turned, but not fast enough. The elf with his black hair slicked straight back and miniature flak-jacket zipped all the way to the top had already raised his Skorpion machine pistol.

"Drop dyyd," he said, and pulled the trigger.

* * *

Emily raised the 44 magnum, braced herself against a tree and pulled the trigger. Even though she prepared, the recoil nearly tore her arm off. The bullet flew wild. In the distance, there was a clang and a low hissing sound.

Fellwither grinned and stepped forward. "Wyll wyll wyll, girlee, whatsamattar? The Guun too byg fyr ye wee daynty haynds?" The Skorpion was out and ready.

"You won't kill me," said Emily. "Claus wants me alive."

"Whosez?" chortled the elf. Three others had joined him. "Better alive, bu' nuffin' wrong wy' dead."

Emily raised the gun again, despite her aching shoulder. "This time I won't miss," she said, in her best snarling voice.

Fellwither slicked back his oily scalp and laughed in that same, wheezy tone as the night before.

"I'll take you with me," said Emily.

"Ye kin't hit the brad side o' a bairn," said Fellwither.

"I warned you." Emily raised the gun and fired. The bullet went wild again. There was another clang, and then a sound like wood warping in the cold, after a humid summer.

Fellwither smiled and raised his machine pistol.

"Fyyle ye're dyume, Emily Elf."

As he was about to pull the trigger, the Seaton family septic system went off.

* * *

The explosion could be heard for miles. After eighty-three years without a man in to look at it, the intricate system of pipes and valves and holding tanks designed by old Thornton Seaton in 1917 had built up a truly prodigious pressure differential. Only Thornton's ingenious design and an unusually skillful line of welds on the inner casement lining had prevented leakage or some similar disaster from happening many years earlier.

Thanks in large part to that skill and ingenuity, the force of the explosion was for the most part directed skyward, and the brownish geyser climbed nearly six hundred feet into the air before it subsided. It was high enough to be seen from Huntsville, many miles distant, and it was clearly visible from the small peninsula on which the Seaton party was resting, mid-way through their Christmas cross-country skiing expedition.

Winifred began to moan almost immediately, even before the geyser had reached its full height and the rest of the family realized what was happening. It was almost as though, Mrs. Seaton commented some days later, odd old Winifred had known it was going to happen. As though, she added unkindly, she had perhaps had something to do with the mishap.

The geyser only lasted a few seconds, and then a second explosion set a ball of blue flame twice as high. Back in Toronto, Mr. Seaton would explain that this was no doubt caused by the vast and highly combustible quantities of stored methane in the septic system, coming into contact with the pilot light from the natural gas cookstove.

When the explosions finally stopped, for the first time that anyone could remember the Seaton family had nothing to say to one another. Some sat, some stood, some lay prone on the cold stone; but the agreeable banter that made Seaton family Christmases such a memorable time for all concerned was entirely absent on this occasion. Even as the long, black helicopter passed low over their heads, landed near the remains of their house across the lake and took off again to the south, there was not so much as a politely inquisitive noise from any of the thirteen shell-shocked skiers.

The Seaton Family Christmas, all agreed at a much later date, had been ruined -- utterly beyond repair.


To learn the fate of Emily, Ilsa and the Claus, kindly purchase a copy of THE CLAUS EFFECT by David Nickle and Karl Schroeder, available from Edge Publishing. The eventual fate of the Seatons, alas, is a tale for another day...