I posted this story last year as a holiday gift for my readers. I’m reposting today with the promise of a new Thunder Road holiday story tomorrow.
My readers have been very good to me. Some of you Thunder Road fans have had images from my work tattooed on your bodies, some of you have taken my work and made art of your own (Like Kevin Madison’s illustration below). You’ve also emailed or tweeted or messaged me to say you’ve enjoyed the stories I have to tell. This has meant the world to me.
So I hope you’ll enjoy “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” a second time.
While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks
A Thunder Road Holiday Tale
By Chadwick Ginther
Ted Callan took a drag of his cigarette and let out a long exhale of smoke. The cloud billowed up and away in the cold, December wind.
This Christmas was gonna suck balls.
It was Christmas Eve and an ogre had snatched some poor fucker right off the Osborne Bridge. That hadn’t been something Ted was willing to let stand. After the fight, his clothes were torn to shit and it was too late to get them replaced. He didn’t know why he bothered buying clothes. Whatever he wore next would just be destroyed too. And probably sooner rather than later. Ted had Huginn and Muninn on the trail of the next Grinch on his list of monsters plaguing the city. The ravens enjoyed their recent, and near-constant, freedom to fly and snoop. Ted was just happy to have them the fuck out of his head.
He ground out his cigarette butt and tried to make himself look respectable before he entered the posh hotel that had become his home. Hard fucking row to hoe with torn jeans, no shirt and the buttons ripped off of his jacket. Ted had taken an extra set of clothes along but someone had stolen them, along with his backpack, during the fight.
Ungrateful fucker. Could’ve been you getting eaten.
The front desk clerks had gotten used to him coming in at all hours—and looking shabby. He probably didn’t need to bother. Ted dusted the snow from his coat, and pulled his toque down over his ears. He checked his phone—still enough time for a quick shower and then a drink in the bar, maybe a bite to eat too. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and held his coat shut.
He smiled and nodded at the night desk woman—Amy, he thought her name was. She waved back. He looked over at the Palm Room, debating grabbing that drink before he cleaned up. They were closed. Weird. He checked his phone again. The time had changed. Stupid thing hadn’t worked for shit in months.
Yup, this Christmas was gonna suck balls.
Stekkjarstaur the Yule Lad had barely made it out of Gimli with his peg legs intact.
The little troll had heard rumours that the Norns lived there now, in this “New Iceland” in a “new world” far from their old well at the base of Yggdrasill, the World Ash. Their home was close to a city fast becoming a new hub for the Nine. He hadn’t believed the warnings given him by his parents. Grýla and Leppalúði had always told their sons not to stray far from their cave home on Iceland. Especially not to the New World. More likely, they wanted its bounty for themselves. But curiosity and spite aside, this was the first year that he had found the path easy enough to bother.
The troll hadn’t thought of himself as Stekkjarstaur in some time. The freedom of being so far from home, perhaps, was allowing the reinvention. His brothers among the jólasveinar called him Clod—short for Sheep-Cote Clod and an English corruption of his true name. They loved the play on words and how “clod” had another meaning in English; a lump of earth, implying he was dirt, nothing more, and a dull person. Granted, he was not the sharpest blade in a scabbard, but then it wasn’t as if any of his twelve brothers were as clever as Loki or beautiful as Baldur. It pained him that they’d made him believe their views for so long, but this year would be different. He would find a tribute for the ages. One that even Grýla and Leppalúði could not disparage. He would put his twelve brothers to shame.
Ted hadn’t been in his room long before he was three bourbons deep and still couldn’t calm down enough to keep it from snowing. He could feel the clouds outside, heavy with wet, blowing snow, mirrored in the ever shifting thunderstorm tattoo on his chest.
If he was still living in Alberta with its private liquor laws, he’d definitely be able to get his drink on. He was just glad he still had part of a bottle of whiskey in his room. Not that it was helping. Ted hadn’t gotten shit-faced since he’d got his crazy powers handed to him by a bunch of dwarves.
Maybe tonight was going to be his night.
He stared into his empty glass, considered, and then poured himself another generous splash of bourbon. He wasn’t going anywhere.
Not only was this Christmas going to suck, but it was going to be lonely. His girlfriend had left him. Having Tilda around would definitely liven things up in that “be careful what you fucking wish for” way. Everyone he knew in Winnipeg was either away for the holidays or not returning his calls.
Ted knew he was lonely. That he had his ex-wife’s number queued up for a text was fucking proof of that. He quickly reconsidered. Texting Susanna was the booze talking. Christ, what a disaster that would be. He sent a message to his mother instead, telling her that he couldn’t make it home this year. That he had to work. It was kind of true. As much as Ted wanted to, he couldn’t go home. Not without endangering his family. He’d been stringing the family along with maybes since he’d found out that magic was real.
This wouldn’t be the first Christmas with the family he’d missed. When he’d been working in the oil patch, the overtime money had been too fucking good to pass up. But when he had been home, he’d gone balls out. The lights on his old house would’ve put Clark Griswold to shame. He smiled at the thought. You could see those fuckers from space. Watch the Christmas classics with his niece and nephew. Go carolling after getting deep into his brother’s infamous “eggnog”—which was really just over proof rum—and singing loudly and badly.
He supposed he could handle skipping one more Christmas.
Ted had debated summoning a blizzard that would’ve grounded all the planes going in and out of Winnipeg. With all the monsters out and about, it would keep people safer. Those Winnipeggers who had been exposed to the Nine Worlds wouldn’t be vulnerable outside of the city. And travellers visiting Winnipeg wouldn’t carry an accidental monster sighting back to their homes. Accidental monster sightings tended to lead to actual monsters.
He shook his head. There was no altruism in the thought. It was a dick move. He couldn’t see his family. He couldn’t go home. So fuck everyone else who could. A petty, selfish motive.
Let them go home. Let them come home.
Someone wanted to keep Clod from entering the city. It was not Odin’s fence that surrounded Midgard, and kept humanity separate from giants and dragons and gods, that attempted to stymie him. This was something much newer, rawer. Clod squeezed underneath, the way he squeezed into sheep cotes to do his business. Whoever had erected this barrier was more concerned with the great and the powerful. Jötnar. Wyrms. Ever since Ragnarök, the remnants of the Nine had been gelded in this new world that had come after. The jólasveinar were tricksters now, not trolls, but Odin’s old fence was weakening, and in this new world, the old ways were coming back.
Once through, Clod looked back at the unseen barrier. Even Loki of the Outyards would have trouble breaching that. Any other time, Clod would have also, but it was Yule, and until he was compelled back to Grýla’s cave, he could go anywhere he pleased. So long as it was touched by the Nine.
He was glad to be so far gone from home. When all of Clod’s brothers were together, they remembered how much they despised him. And so he was always first to leave Grýla’s cave. Also the first to return for the same reason. He told himself as much, that it was preference and not obligation.
Judging from the lights in the distance, it would be a long walk to the city proper—too long—and Clod’s peg legs sank into the snow with every step, making his journey a slog. He smiled to see a large truck towing a long, flat open backed trailer. It had stopped, but was pointed in the direction of the city. He scrambled from the ditch and hauled himself up and onto the trailer before it started moving. Clod rode into the city, triumphant, as if Thor’s goats were towing him in a shining chariot.
As he headed deeper into the city, Clod smelled something foul. The scent of Niflheim lingered in the air, staining the very earth of this place as if it were soot laid by a great fire. Clod clutched at his chest, wrapping his arms tightly about himself to keep from shuddering. Not a troll or jötunn wanted to be given to the dark lady of Hel.
Clod brushed snow from the shoulders of his hair shirt. This “Winterpeg” had earned its name. It was colder than his home in Iceland, if one could believe that. The streets here were piled high with snow and ice slicked the roads. Winter and pegs. Clod smiled. This would be the perfect city for him.
If only it had more sheep.
He ducked away from a human couple, and watched as they walked arm in arm down, oblivious to his presence. He scowled. They had no tie to the Nine Worlds. They were safe from Clod. Another couple, however, were so bound. Clod licked his lips and followed them.
What were the humans of Midgard but another sort of sheep? And this city was full of them. Folk that were vulnerable to the Nine were packed into cotes that rose to jötunn’s height into the air. Clod had not eaten one of the long pigs in some time. Mostly because Grýla forbade it. Humans were food for her. Clod harrumphed, and stamped his peg legs.
Or the damned Cat.
Perhaps he would take this place for his own.
He stroked his long white beard. Rules were changing. Perhaps if he stayed here, beyond the strange barrier, he would not be compelled to return to Grýla’s cave. The 25th of December had not yet arrived. He still had time to make it so.
Ted had always been a last minute shopper.
This year, “last minute” meant “lucky if you get it by New Year’s.” He’d thought he had enough time until he calculated how long it would take to mail shit to Edmonton and considered how busy the post offices would be. He could always tell his family he’d sent them their gifts for Ukrainian Christmas on purpose, as a joke. They would just assume he was a fuck up.
They’d be right.
Ted’s late-shopping habit had started as a necessity. Susanna had been a terrible snoop when it came to gifts. She’d made a habit of sneaking peeks at her presents since she’d been a girl in her parents’ house and wasn’t about to stop after they’d moved in together after college. There’d been no hiding place she couldn’t find. If Ted had wanted to surprise her, last minute shopping had been the only way to pull it off.
It had been a game they’d both enjoyed, until they’d both stopped playing.
Ted hadn’t even had a chance to wonder what his and Tilda’s first Christmas together would’ve been like. She’d burst into his life like a prairie thunderstorm, changing everything he knew, and then was gone almost as suddenly. Did she even celebrate Christmas? She was one of the Norns, but even if she was a fortune teller with elf and giant blood, she’d been raised in Canada. Christmas must’ve come up. If surprising Susanna had been a pain in the ass, he couldn’t imagine how hard it would be to buy a gift for someone who could see into the future.
Good fucking luck.
Clod stalked the couple, following their progress from the safety of a tree-lined boulevard. He stopped. Clod smelled something interesting.
“Lucky you,” he whispered as the couple turned a corner and headed out of sight. Lamb.
He was near the epicentre of that stink of Niflheim, which almost hid the prize. Even from this distance he knew the lambs were dead. Not even the maddest farmer would marinate a live sheep—of any size. But alive or dead, they smelled sweeter than mead. He followed his nose up the steps of a tall stone structure, topped by a green copper roof, and dashed through a revolving bronze and glass door.
Inside, Clod noticed there was something else in the air besides lamb. This place reeked of foreign magics. Almost hidden under that, and the roast lamb, Clod smelled something old. Something that gave him chills and made him shudder until his pegs knocked together. Something he hadn’t been able to sense from outside the building. Something old. Something new. Both together. Fire and blood, dragons and lightning, sky and rain. This could be the power he needed to end his geas and take this city. But Clod also smelled…
The scent of the All-Father made Clod want to bolt out the door and back into the cold. The All-Father is dead. He repeated, The All-Father is dead, until he believed it. Odin was long dead and whatever this remnant was, it was not the god himself. And anyway, the smell of lamb was too enticing to resist, even if Clod would’ve needed to outwit the All-Father to taste it.
Ted’s phone rang, the ring tone playing Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy.”
That meant it was Grey Ladies Tea House, the home of the Norns in Gimli, on the other end of the line. Maybe Tilda had gone home. Maybe she was calling to tell him that.
He took a deep breath, hoping it was so, and answered the call. “What’s up?”
“Where’ve you been?”
Ted’s heart dropped a bit. It was Vera, Tilda’s mom, once known as the Norn Verdandi. He shouldn’t have been surprised. Tilda had said she’d see him again at the end of the world, so maybe it was a good thing that she wasn’t in town. He tried to recover some good cheer.
“Busy,” he said. He didn’t need to elaborate, Vera knew the score.
“Ah. I just wanted to give you a little warning.”
“We had one of the jólasveinar try and sneak into our larder tonight. Urd and I ran him off, but we’re pretty sure he’s headed your way.”
“What’s a…” Ted tried to replicate the Icelandic word, but he was pretty sure it sounded like yoloweiner when it came out of his mouth. Without Huginn and Muninn in his head to prompt him, his Icelandic pronunciation was pretty piss poor.
“One of the thirteen Yule Lads. Trolls that come down from the mountains to prank children.”
“You have fucking Christmas monsters?”
“Yeah, but they’re cartoons. They don’t actually show up to steal your shit.”
“I assure you the jólasveinar are very real. And at least one of the thirteen will be on his way to Winnipeg.”
Ted wasn’t worried. The fence he’d built around the city was holding. “He won’t get past the Perimeter.”
“He will,” Vera insisted. “He made it past our wards, he will make it through yours.”
Ted groaned. “I just fought an ogre. I’m kind of tired to save Christmas from a troll.”
“He will be small to your eyes. Three feet tall—”
“Three feet tall?” Ted snorted. “Talk about a little fucking warning.”
There was silence on Vera’s end while Ted laughed.
“Are you through?” Her tone said he’d damned well better be. “They are more and less than their stories, Ted. I thought you know that stories can’t be trusted.”
She was right, dammit. He had been burned before. “Is this guy really a threat?”
“Just be careful. I doubt he means to leave rotten potatoes in children’s shoes while he’s in Winnipeg. He probably can’t kill you, but he will try if he sees you. And he’ll piss you off.”
Ted rubbed at the bridge of his nose. “He already has. Have you heard from Tilda at all?”
Her silence said, yes or no, that it was none of his fucking business. Instead, she said, “I know it has to be hard for you, this time of year. Being alone.”
Ted had another thought. “This troll isn’t some kind of trick to get me to come out for dinner?”
Vera laughed. “We don’t celebrate Christmas. But try to have a happy one.”
“Thanks,” Ted said. “Something to crack knuckles with will make it just like being back home.”
Ted ended the call and tossed the phone onto the bed. He reached out through his connection to his ravens.
Hey, fuckos. Change of plans. Head home.
When they showed up, he’d get them on their new target. So much for his peace and quiet. Exhaustion, whiskey and hunger had taken their toll on him and he promptly followed his phone down to the bed.
Clod’s peg legs clattered over the marble of the hotel’s floor. The lamb was distracting. True, it was dead (and cooked), which was not as much fun as a live lamb or sheep, but they tasted equally good, and he filled a stolen pillow case with as much as he could carry so that he could get his mind back on business. A pity, that they weren’t alive. Sheep were some of the few animals dumb enough for Clod to outwit and small enough to overpower since he’d lost his legs. Grýla had pulled them off in a fit of pique. She’d eaten the first, the second she’d given to the Cat to gnaw upon.
Finally, he found the scent that had drawn him into the hotel. That blend of old and new. The Odin scent was also strong here, perhaps originating from the same room. Clod hopped up to grasp the handle of the door and it turned as his weight dropped. A shove, and the door was open. He smiled. There was nowhere he couldn’t go. Cautiously, he slipped inside.
The scent that had so intrigued him came from a man. From the sounds of his snores, he was asleep despite the lamp on the nightstand still being on. He laid atop the covers of the bed, dressed in rags.
Clod eased closer. The carpet muffled the steps of his peg legs. There was potent liquor on the man’s lips. He wouldn’t wake. Clod rubbed his stubby fingers together, barely able to stifle a laugh. The man was covered in tattoos. Clod had seen such adornments before. They were no oddity, even in the old times, but he’d never seen such work. The power in them. This was the work of dvergar—dwarves—he looked over his shoulder. His kind were no friends to the dwarves, and they were no friend to him.
He had heard of such a creature. Ófriður, the dwarves had named him. The un-peace. Word of his deeds and his great doom had reached even to Grýla’s cave. Ófriður had faced the giant, Surtur, and lived. Had faced two gods, Thor and Hel, and won. The power he must possess.
There was such a thing as too much power.
Images of Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir, and of Heimdall’s horn adorned his arms; the hooves of Sleipnir, his feet. Peeking through his torn shirt, Yggdrasill spread across the man’s back. Clod wanted to turn the man over, to see what other gifts the dwarves had given him, but he looked heavy. He tried to shift him, but feared waking such a creature. He did not know how to harness the power inscribed in the man’s flesh, but he dearly wanted it for his own.
Clod decided to help himself to what treasure he could move while he was able.
The bottle of liquor was closest. It was almost empty. He popped the cork and breathed in the heady oaky, sweet aroma. He licked the edge of the bottle and felt the pleasant burn on his tongue. Yes, that would do nicely. He added it to his bag.
The Odin scent came from a chair. Clod crept closer, the hair on his arms stood on end. His knees knocked. His every instinct told him to flee before the All-Father did something horrible to him. But it was not Odin in that chair, merely his cloak. But that was a mighty find, indeed. With the magic in this cloak, Clod could look like anyone. He pulled it from the chair and twirled it over his shoulders. Its magic settled over him. He could disappear, he could hide—even from the ending of Yule.
No more would he be dressed in cast off rags, roughly stitched together. There were coats of great wealth and warmth, and fancy baubles that clattered and shone, in his future. He started when he saw himself reflected in a mirror. He was larger than Grýla. Larger than Leppalúði. Larger than the Cat. Greater than all of his brothers combined. So large, Clod was now, he had to stoop to see himself, and his bent back brushed the ceiling. Oh yes, this was a mighty find. Even if he could not solve the riddle of the man’s power, with Odin’s cloak, Clod would not have to return to Grýla’s cave. He could look and go wherever he pleased. Whenever he pleased.
He smiled, rubbing his hands together. But that was not enough. He wanted the power to destroy everyone who had ever mocked him. This man had that power. Clod would take it. The power of Ófriður would be his.
He would be Stekkjarstaur again, not Clod. No, I will find a better name. A greater name. He looked again at the man on the bed. I will show them un-peace.
The room grew darker. Beyond the window, a cloud obscured the stars and moon. Clod narrowed his eyes. It was growing closer.
That was no cloud.
He wrapped the cloak tightly around himself and shrank down, hiding behind a dresser. Whatever it was, it seeped through the glass window and drifted over to the bed, settling like a fog over Ófriður. The cloud solidified into the shape of two birds. Ravens. Clod didn’t like that. Ravens were no damned good, especially not when you were on the outs with Asgard. They rested on either side of the man’s head. Clod took a step back and one of his pegs thunked against the wall. As one, the ravens’ eyes fell upon him.
He felt a weak “meep” escape his mouth and he snatched up his bag of lamb and whiskey and dashed for the door.
From behind him, air rushed through feathers. One of his peg legs stepped on the edge of the Odin cloak, and he stumbled and fell. They were on him. The two ravens—black as the Cat’s heart—squawked and cawed, their feathers fluttering and buffeting. He slapped at them, but they were almost of a size with him. Their beaks dove for his eyes, like tar-soaked swords.
Curse Odin, and his cloak! It had betrayed Clod and now the All-Father’s creatures would be his end.
No. He would not let them best him. There was no Valhalla for the jólasveinar—no Valhalla left at all—but Clod would not die without a fight. He launched himself at the nearest bird. They would not be his end. He was no easy carrion. He caught its foot before the bird could get fully aloft and hauled it towards the floor, wrapping his arms tightly around its wings.
He bit into the raven’s neck and for a moment tasted blood. The hot salty tang turned vile immediately. Clod spat to clear his mouth, it was as if he’d swallowed an entire well full of ink, not blood. The raven’s feathers were caught in his beard and the raven was again naught but mist, drifting towards the bed.
Clod spat another gob of ink onto the floor. In his distraction, the other bird stole his cap as he leaned forward.
Better than an eye.
The raven dropped the cap and shrieked, launching itself towards Clod. He stumbled backwards and tripped over one of the man’s boots, falling onto his back. Clod kicked at the raven with his pegs. The bird gripped tight to one of the pegs with its talons. Every time his thrashing brought the bird’s head close to Clod’s body, it would lash out at his face with its beak. He screamed as the bird tore free a chunk of his beard.
Ófriður rolled over and sat bolt upright. Lightning sparked and jumped over his right arm joining with a storm cloud on his chest.
He yelled, “What the fuck is going on?”
The raven turned its head, as if to answer him. Clod snapped its neck. This raven, too, became naught but an inky cloud.
Ófriður leapt at Clod, full in his power. Not a man, but a storm made flesh. Even if his brothers could all agree to work together, could the jólasveinar face such a thing and live? Clod wasn’t sure.
The fist of Mjölnir grasped him around the neck. Clod struggled, a babe in a giant’s clutches. His heart pounded in his chest. Grey crept in around the edges of his vision.
“The Cat’ll take you,” Clod gasped.
The man snorted. “I hate cats. Bring it.”
The man’s grip tightened.
“Bring them too.”
The last thing Clod saw was the ravens, whole again, alight on Ófriður’s shoulders, their black eyes searching his, and then all went black.
“Little fucker fainted,” Ted said, surprised. He’d expected more out of a troll, even one this short. He tossed him on the bed with a shrug. “Now what do I do with him?”
Take him beyond your Perimeter and the fence around Winnipeg, and when his time comes, he will be compelled to return to Iceland, Huginn said.
But do so soon, before Christmas Day, or he may stay here, Muninn added.
Ted wasn’t sure how he’d get the little fucker out that far. It was a hell of a walk from the city center to the Perimeter for a guy with no car. His head hurt. His stomach gurgled. And he was in no fucking mood for that. He sighed as a gust of wind slapped snow against the window of his room and picked up his phone.
Three rings later, Vera picked up at Grey Ladies.
“Hey,” Ted said. “You were right. Peg legged little sonofabitch snuck into my room.”
“Are you okay?”
“Better than him. But I need to get him out of the city before I’m stuck with him, and I’m still without wheels.”
Silence on the other side of the line.
Ted hated asking favours, of anyone, but he did. “Can you come and get me please?”
“I’ll have to dig out the car. Unless you plan on easing up with the bad weather?”
“No promises,” Ted said. “Who knows what’ll show up next.”
Vera laughed. It was a warm, homey sound. “I’m sure I’ll manage. We’ll make sure he gets home,” Vera said. “And you can stay over for dinner tomorrow, if you’d like.”