KT Wagner occasionally ventures out of her writers’ cave to spend an hour or two blinking against the daylight, or reacquainting herself with...read more family and friends. Several of her short stories are published and she is working on a sci-fi horror novel. She puts pen to paper in Maple Ridge, B.C., organizes Golden Ears Writers and an annual ghost story writing retreat. She attended SFU’s Southbank program in 2013 and The Writers’ Studio (TWS) in 2015.
Six and a half years ago I stood by, shrieking, while a dark fairy transformed my then-boyfriend, Finn, into a hobgoblin. I didn't even try to save him.
“That’ll teach you, human, not to stare at what isn’t yours.” Then the fairy disappeared into a swirl of green and black dust along with its beautiful companion. The one I’d been admiring.
Before that incident, I was a foolish teenager who knew everything and dated bad-boys. I’ve since learned humans have nothing on the fae when it comes to bad.
At first, I rationalized Finn might enjoy his new life as a hobgoblin. When the imps came to collect him, I bid farewell with a minimum of guilt.
Three months after Finn changed, a pixie approached me. I tried to ignore her, as I do with all the little people. It was late December.
Finn isn’t the only one cursed. I’m one of those unfortunate humans born on December 25th to a mother with the same birthday. Seeing the fae is my curse. I see them sticking out their tongues, tangling Christmas lights, souring milk and tormenting small animals. If they notice that I notice, it gets worse. They love an audience.
The pixie glared up at me, tiny fists on hips. “Hey you. Wendy. I know you can see me. Finn told me.”
“How is he? Enjoying a life of carousing?” I laughed.
She shook her pretty blonde head and kicked me in the ankle. “Finn thinks far too highly of you. You’re an idiot. Not only is he miserable, but Krampus is about to make an example of him.”
The pixie gestured impatiently. “Cousin to St. Nick. You know, Santa. I assume you at least know who that is. Krampus is the black sheep in their family.”
Fairy tale, I thought, but wisely kept my mouth shut. Instead, I nodded.
The pixie continued. “Krampus is an ugly creep with cloven feet who likes to rattle chains and beat children with birch sticks. The imps help. He’s their king. In other words, Finn’s boss.”
“Oh.” I didn’t know what else to say.
“You got him into this mess.” The pixie’s face flushed red. “You can at least try to get him out before they finish transporting him to prison. Grab something high in protein and come on. There’s no time to waste.”
She led me down several dark, snowy alleys and I’d begun to fear a trap when we turned a corner into a dead end.
“Shhh.” The pixie held a finger to her lips and pointed into the shadow of a metal dumpster. “Our luck, the guards are asleep.”
Two portly imps clad in purple livery lay slumped and snoring against the brick wall. Less than a foot away, a hobgoblin wagon was hitched to a pair of black sewer rats. Their beady eyes roved and their twitching noses made me want to climb on top of the dumpster.
Then I noticed the cage with its iron-barred windows. A dark, huddled shape shivered inside.
A lump formed in my throat. “Finn?” I whispered.
“He’s been sentenced to life for refusing to hurt children for Krampus.” The pixie’s voice caught. “I don’t think he’ll last much longer.”
I’m not particularly strong or brave, but I had to try. I owed Finn at least that much, so I tossed the cheese I brought to distract the rats while the pixie snuck over and lifted a wooden key from a slumbering imp.
The cage lock thumped as she opened it and the guards woke. Yelling, they surged to their feet. Their pudgy hands clutched nasty looking knives.
I scooped up the pixie and Finn, and ran back the way we’d come. The pixie scrambled onto my shoulder and shouted directions into my ear.
I ran until a stitch in my side and burning lungs slowed me down. I could barely draw breath, but it was enough.
I’ve been hiding Finn for more than six years now. He’s missing and I’m beside myself with worry.
Complicating matters, today’s the day before Christmas. It’s the busiest day of the year here at the Iron Horseshoe Bakery, and the little people are more active leading up to Christmas day when all hell breaks loose.
My fellow humans travel miles to buy holiday bread from our bakery. Chocolate babka, panettone, Swedish saffron buns, and stollen, plus our usual yeast breads. Without Finn, I’ll soon be behind schedule, but I don’t care about that. I just want him found and safe.
Finn’s nest beside the stone hearth is empty. Sometimes he curls up near the brick ovens, but he isn’t there either. I search my rooms upstairs in case he decided to do a little midnight mending or dusting. He might have fallen asleep in some odd place. I’ve asked him not to do my chores, but he doesn’t always listen. His hobgoblin nature has largely taken over, but he is still clings to part of his human nature. More like a house elf, the pixies tell me, than an imp.
I check the traps by the doors and under the window sills. The trays of thick icing are designed to catch little feet. They remain smooth and untouched.
Near the back door I hear a distant noise like paper being wadded up. The sound of my breathing is loud and harsh. I hold my breath. Paper crinkles again, from the direction of the kitchen.
My feet are already running. I bang through the swinging door. Only the fluorescent lights flicker and buzz; the rest of the kitchen is still and quiet.
I learned years ago that yeast bread reminds the darker fae uncomfortably of cozy homes. Yeast also causes an irritating rash among the nastier of their kind. Cold iron burns them. I keep lots of both within reach.
I’m holding an iron poker in case they’ve breached our defenses.
That sound again, only louder and it’s more like a tap being turned on and off.
I tip-toe around the butcher block island in the middle of the kitchen. Large plastic bins of flour line the wall on the other side. In front of the rye bin, on the tile floor, there is a light dusting of flour.
Heart pounding and weapon brandished, I approach. With the pointy end of the poker I flip open the bin lid. Something big and black is half-buried in the flour. I jump back as it shudders to life. My eyes adjust. It’s an upside down cast iron fry pan—the one I use to caramelize onions for savoury rolls.
With the poker, I hook the pan and drag it off. The flour underneath quakes. The pan clatters against the tile floor. Thin, grizzled arms wrap around a misshapen bald head. I glimpse enough blistered scalp to recognize Finn’s prison brand, a stylized black K.
I reach in, haul him out and gently shake. He sneezes and a cloud of flour settles onto me, the counter, the floor and everything else within arm’s reach.
“Geesh. You okay?” I ask my trembling friend. “Open your eyes.”
He cracks one rheumy, yellow, flour-crusted eye, then stares around wildly. “We have to hide. They’re out there, Wendy.” He crawls up my arm and hangs onto my hair. “The imps have found me and Krampus is coming.”
“There’s no-one here. I searched the whole place looking for you.” I pluck him off my neck. “Are you burned anywhere else?”
Shivering, he shakes his head. “N-n-n-no. I used potholders.”
Yup, potholders are poking up from the flour. I sigh. “Where’s your hat?”
Finn always wears a red knit toque. Mostly to hide the brand but also he’s vain and thinks the colour complements his complexion.
We both freeze at a crashing noise from the alley.
Finn squeaks, “They’re back.” And dives into the pocket of my apron. He doesn’t really fit, but I let it go.
I lean across the bins and peek through the window blinds. Glowing red eyes stare out from a grey face. Black fangs drip venom. I squeak and duck under the counter.
Grabbing hold of the hobgoblin’s feet, I pull his head out of my pocket, and hold him upside down in front of me. “What is going on?”
“It all started with the pixie…”
Of course it did. Finn has a thing for pixies. I set him on the floor, and squat down to listen.
“No wait, that’s not right. It started with the mouse. I caught one near the flour bins.” Finn’s gaze darts between the door and the window. “I know how you feel about me, er, disposing of mice in the kitchen. I took it out back.”
Knowing any attempt to rush his tale will lengthen it, I nod and force a smile. “Go on.”
“Across the street, the pixies were partying on the fire escape landing. I sat on our back step and watched while enjoying the, my, er, snack—”
Sharp tapping on the window interrupts.
I shake my head. “They can’t get in. We’re okay for now.”
Finn covers his ears and continues, “One pixie fell. The rest didn’t notice. I ran over. She was hurt. I put my hat under her head and yelled for help.” He hugs himself and shakes his head. “Poor thing.”
I stick out a leg and hook the poker with my foot, pulling it within reach. Panic bubbles in the back of my throat.
Tears flood his eyes. “I forgot about the brand. I wanted to make her comfortable, but I was under the street light. I guess they saw me. I’m sorry, Wendy.” He sobs and trembles. “They grabbed me. Pulled me away from her. Said they were taking me to the king. Then her pixie friends chased them off. Krampus is coming. I’m doomed.”
“Nonsense,” I tell him, even as the sound of the front door splintering is followed by noises on the roof. “I’ll protect you. We’ll run, find a new place to hide.”
There are footsteps in the storefront and the rattling of chains. I push Finn behind me and stare helplessly at the gap below the door. There really isn’t anything we can do.
A clomping noise, and the floor shakes. Hairy legs ending in cloven hooves appear under the door. I reach for the poker. Scaly clawed fingers slither over the top of the door. The door cracks open.
Finn and I both whimper.
The sound of jingling bells.
The hooves turn away.
A commotion of banging, grunting and thumping from the front room.
Finn and I clutch each other, hardly daring to breathe.
A long moment of silence.
“Come out, come out wherever you are.” The voice is high pitched and giggly, unlike any imp I’ve ever heard. A pixie scampers into view. “There you are. Saint Nicholas is looking for you.”
Finn and I stare at each other.
“Ho, ho, ho,” a jolly voice bellows from the storefront. “I’ve been hearing all about Finn from the pixies. His good deeds and how he stood up to that rotten cousin of mine. Just so happens, I have an opening in my elf ranks.”
I almost pass out from relief.
A week has passed since Christmas, and I’m happy for Finn, I really am. When I have time to think about it, I’ll miss him a lot. Right now, my hands are full training the pixies to help in the bakery. They tell me a house full of pixies is more of a deterrent to the nastier fae than yeast bread, so I am thinking of baking shortbread and chocolate chip cookies next year. It’ll be a nice change and we’ll need lots for when Santa and his elves visit.