Oh, dear. Chuck’s given us holiday horror, 2000 words. You know I don’t do horror. Elves and strings of tinsel and food and flying things going dark, dark, dark, he suggested (I paraphrase). After reading Real Santa I’m slightly more in the mood but … well, I suppose I could give it a go. Not with elves and fairies and santas, though.
Looking over the flash fiction I’d done in the last year, I thought of this.
The Yule Log of Doom
“It’s just a legend, though, isn’t it?”
“Well, nobody’s heard from either Carruthers or Watkins since they went to look for those.”
“No reason for us not to search for the Sylvan Sapphire now that we’ve worked out the code.”
Bryce sat back in his camp chair, puffing his pipe and watching the smoke coil towards the stars. Peterson leant his elbows on his knees, clasped his hands and stared at the flames of their dwindling fire. He sighed.
“I do think, old chap, that you might have mentioned it before. I’ve only packed tropical kit. “
“Well, it was only a fall-back plan, y’know. We can wire from the airport and get some snow gear to meet us at Tromso.”
“I really think we should put more effort into finding the Eye of the Tiger, though.”
“What, after what that witch doctor said? No, man, ‘Go north’, he said, and I for one will follow his guidance.”
“Just because the river turned red, just as he predicted?”
“… followed by the scorpion, and the two-headed scarab beetle? No, he was the real thing all right.”
“Someone could have put those there. He’s a fake.”
“No, he’s the real thing. Did you see the shrunken head on his shoulder? Still weeping tears? Sign of the genuine article, that is.” Bryce took out the pipe and knocked it against his Burberry-clad ankle. “Enough’s enough, I say. Three months in this damn desert, and no traces of the caverns they talked about in the scrolls. Time to go north. I’m sick of heat and dust, anyway.”
Since Bryce was financing the expedition, such as it was, Peterson had little choice in the matter. They packed up the next morning, and after a mere twelve hours were back in civilisation, if you could call the mud-walled city civilisation. It had a telegraph station and an airstrip, so it counted.
Peterson fixed up their transport, while Bryce paid off their guides.
“Take this for luck in your next venture, sah’b,” said the head boy, in surprisingly good English. Bryce was too busy examining the carved pattern on the smooth black stone to notice the change of accent. He was still turning it over in his hand as he climbed into the little biplane, sitting beside Peterson, behind the pilot.
“I’m not sorry to leave, you know,” said Peterson, waving at the small group dwindling below them. “I had a bad feeling about that venture, for some reason.”
They changed onto the regular flying boat service at Juba, and three days later arrived in Southampton. They motored up to Croydon, got a flight to Copenhagen then the train across the Kattegat, through Sweden, to Oslo and then up through the mountains to Tromso. Cooped up in a twin-berth travelling car, they fell out with each other and made up again several times, working together over the coded messages.
The smoothness of the journey was unusual. “You’d almost think this thing was a lucky charm,” Bryce commented, bringing it out once more as they finished their breakfast. “I don’t ever remember such a trouble-free expedition.”
“It’s curious,” said Peterson, looking at it across the table. Bryce was reluctant to let him handle it, for some reason. “It’s not a rock you’d expect to see in Africa at all. It’s more like a schist.”
“It’s just a trinket,” said Bryce, stowing it in his pocket again.
Peterson shot him a look. Why was Bryce reluctant even to talk about it? There was something about the stone Peterson disliked. I wish he’d let go of it, he thought.
Two days later, cowering under the reindeer hide covers, they sped through the snow-cloaked forests on their sleighs. Bryce now stopped the sleigh-drivers at every fork in the trail, holding the stone in his hand, to determine which track to take. Each time they set off again, Peterson had heard an owl cry. The first few times he’d wondered whether it was a snowy or great horned owl. Then he tensed until it happened again. Now he dreaded it. He no longer thought it was an owl. As they made camp for the night, although there was no daylight this far north, at this time of year, he asked Bryce what he thought of it.
“Imagination, dear chap!” was all he replied, and turned back to his codebook.
Peterson lay in his sleeping bag under the canvas that separated him from the stars. He imagined the pin-pricks of light, and the swirling, grumbling, flickering borealis. They hadn’t seen it yet, but he hoped they would. What he kept seeing were stars that were too low in the sky – the wrong place to be Procyon or Rigel, too low to be Aldebaran or Canopus. They kept pace with the sleighs during the day. When they stopped, they were like eyes in the trees themselves. “Probably wolves,” he said to himself as he wriggled about trying to find a more comfortable position.
A mighty fir looked him in the eye and picked him up by one branch, hooked into his desert shirt, dangling him forty feet in the air. “No, no, I don’t know,” he screamed in reply to its silent demand: where is the yule log? The tree dropped him and he crashed to the ground.
“You okay, old chap? Time for breakfast!” Bryce said, pushing aside Peterson’s tent flap and finding him in a tangle on the ground.
As they started the third day’s journey, Peterson’s dream returned to him; he observed the trees they passed, looking for the form of the one in his dream. He could see lights above the trees now, dancing and shimmering. The aurora, he told himself, but from what he heard, the aurora didn’t shimmer in thin threads, or dance like it had wings. Fairy wings. It ought to be beautiful, but this made him clutch at the coverlet and pray for mercy.
They stopped at a huge rock, standing as a pinnacle at a track crossing. Who makes these tracks? Peterson asked himself. Why are they wide enough for our sleighs, when this area is uninhabited? Why are they not just wolf tracks? Visions of treelike creatures moving along them filled his mind. He stifled a scream and hid beneath the covers.
“Hey up, Peterson,” called Bryce. “Come and look at this.”
“Do I have to?” Peterson’s voice wavered from the depths of the sleigh.
“Come on, man, what are you doing?”
Peterson dragged himself out, telling himself not to be stupid. Yet, the sight of Bryce standing next to the pinnacle filled him with foreboding. Why did Bryce seem larger than life? Was he… glowing?
“What is it?” he stammered.
“Our little keepsake from Africa and this pinnacle seem to be related. Look. What do you make of it?”
Peterson crept closer. Bryce held the little black stone close to the pinnacle; the composition and colour looked extraordinarily alike. “Er, yes, indeed. You may be right. What’s that noise, though?”
“A sort of humming, or fizzing….” He lifted the flaps up on his hat and shifted his head this way and that. “It seems to be coming from the pinnacle.”
“You’re imagining things, man. Let’s get some food. Maybe stop here for the rest of the day. Hey, you!” Bryce strode off to the sleigh drivers and told them to make camp.
Peterson watched him go. The humming stopped. It was replaced by an eerie vibration that passed through the trees: Chinese whispers in tree-speak. Peterson swooned, and leant against the pinnacle. He jolted upright, and turned to look at the pillar, which had rejected his touch as clearly as a debutante he had once tried to seduce. He back away from it, and glimpsed shapes down the tracks they had yet to travel. We should go back, he thought.
Only you may go back.
Where had that thought come from? It wasn’t his. There was silence around him, silence so profound that he felt the weight of tons of water pressing down upon him. Rushing sounds in his ears; swirling airs in his brain. He fought to keep his eyes open, straining to focus on Bryce and their guides.
He could see them, unpacking the tents, setting up the primus stoves, starting to cook dinner. Why was he the only one affected? Was he ill?
You see, they cannot.
He walked away from the pillar: the rushing diminished, a susurration below the conscious hearing level. He toured the clearing, checking each track in turn, peering into the woods. Eyes blinked at him in the woods, in the trees. These were not wolves. Shadows crept along the paths, keeping their distance – for now.
“Peterson, come and eat, man! What’s got into you?”
He shook off his foreboding and joined Bryce at the fire. Warm soup and a snifter of sherry tasted like gruel, but he supped it gratefully, feeling the warmth move down to his belly. The driver tending the stove looked up at him; Peterson saw a strange gleam of gold in his eyes. Wolf’s eyes, thought Peterson, and moved away. The rushing noises grew louder.
Bryce put down his empty mug, and stretched. “Not far now, old chap,” he said. “I can feel it. That Sylvan Sapphire must be within a league of here, and I‘ll decipher the code on that pinnacle this afternoon. Now, are you up for a bit of work?”
Peterson got to his feet and followed Bryce to the pinnacle, dread rising in him with every step. He clutched the codebook, focused his mind. You’re a professional, prove it.
“Here we are, okay… we start with a two bar rung, followed by two triangles and a horse.” They had long since agreed on nomenclature for the codes.
“Um,” Peterson flipped the pages of their codes. “That’s, er, height symbol, very enclosed, wood or bench.”
“Promising. Then an upward arrow, a star with a line over it, F, horse again and star with line under it. One of those stars is the sapphire, isn’t it?”
“Yes, the one with the line over. I don’t think we’ve had a line under a star before. The upward arrow is a tree – so we have the Sylvan Sapphire at the start of that! This must be it! The F is a distance measurement. And wood or bench with a star, on the ground perhaps?”
“Hmm, do you think they are talking a foreign language here, or something?”
“Maybe it’s shorthand.” Peterson’s stomach was churning. Maybe he shouldn’t have had the soup.
“What’s that light – oh, it’s the moon! An omen! Just clearing the trees, look.”
Peterson did not want to look at the moon. He wanted to get the code sorted and leave. His stomach was telling him to go, and his knees were trembling.
“Hello…” Bryce stood facing the moon, but as Peterson watched him, he turned towards the pinnacle, his eyes fixed at the same height as the moon. Peterson stepped back one pace, then another.
Noises from the tracks on either side of him broke into his trance, but Peterson continued to back away, gaze frozen between awareness of the wild black shapes that sped towards the clearing, yet locked on Bryce. Behind him, the drivers were throwing things aboard the sleighs, shouting in their clients’ direction, but Peterson couldn’t hear them.
The stone in Bryce’s hand pulsed sapphire-coloured light through flesh and skin, with a matching pulse deep in the pinnacle echoing every move. Then Bryce began to glow. His hair stood on end, sparks drifting off into the air. Peterson backed into a sleigh and was hauled aboard by the driver, who wheeled the animals around, to flee back the way they had come. Peterson’s gaze dragged him to the back of the sleigh, looking over the rearguard at Bryce as he burst into flame and was carried off by the black, shaggy tree-like things into the forest.
The trees had their own Yule log this winter.
(c) J M Pett 2014