Well, 2015 was a great, but hectic year for me (more on that later). In the meantime, I hope you’ll all enjoy the continuing (mis)adventures of Yule Lad Sheep Cote Clod.
Go Tell it on the Mountain
A Thunder Road Holiday Tale
By Chadwick Ginther
Sheep Cote Clod glanced over his shoulder.
He was not supposed to be here; he was supposed to be leaving presents for good children, and pranks for the bad, as was his doom. It still grated that fate had turned him from monster to prankster. Things had been better in the time before Odin’s fence went up around Midgard, when he was simply allowed to eat bad children. True, he preferred the taste of mutton to babe, but if you seasoned them just so….
Thinking of mutton got the scent in Clod’s nose, and put the taste on his tongue. His stomach rumbled. He should be chasing sheep, not cats. Especially not this Cat.
He already regretted his decision to come to the range of the Jólakötturinn, the Yule Cat. The Cat did not like visitors. It had been a year since Clod had last left his home, and the derision his brothers among the jólasveinar had shown when he’d slunk in, beaten, with no tribute for their mother, Grýla, still set his cheeks blazing with shame. His brothers broke Clod’s peg legs, and left him to crawl out the new year, thankful they hadn’t taken more.
A new Yule’s first day had come and almost gone, and The Cat would be free to roam soon enough, devouring children whose families hadn’t given them new clothes, but Clod didn’t want to think of that, or how he’d be punished should he be caught…by the Cat—or their mother. Clod was mostly accustomed to the new legs he’d whittled but they wouldn’t be enough to escape if he failed to entice Jólakötturinn to his cause.
It might’ve been smarter to spend his first night away from Grýla’s cave finding bribes for his brothers so they would join him in his search for revenge. Maybe they could finally put their torturous skills to work against someone other than me. Clod was always wary of the option he thought best. He’d never been a deep thinker, and his first impulse was rarely better than one he’d overchewed. Besides, his brothers didn’t like him, and Clod knew they would take his offerings, agree to help, and then beat him and go about their Yule business as if they’d promised nothing.
But if Clod could win the Cat to his cause…they’d have to listen. The Cat would keep the jólasveinar in line. This was the best course of action. This time, the plan would have to work.
Or it would be his last.
Hard to think of victory when all Clod could remember were the times the Cat had tormented him. How the Cat had eaten Clod’s first set of legs when they’d been flesh, and how the needle-thin tips of his great claws could cause so much pain and leave such a tiny scar. Many times the Cat had taken Clod in his mouth and held him there, tasting him for hours, but never swallowing.
Their mother, Grýla had spurred the worst of that, trying to toughen up her offspring. Grýla loved setting her children against one another, and had always considered the Cat more her heir than any of the jólasveinar, her three husbands, or the near three score other children she’d birthed.
Tomorrow it would be Giljagaur’s turn to leave their cave. The Gully Gawk would’ve been out gleefully stealing milk and violating cattle last year, while Clod had been beaten and humiliated by a weapon of the dwarves. A man they’d named Ófriður. Un-peace. His ravens had torn at Clod’s beard; stolen his hat… but Ófriður had allowed Clod to live. Sent him home to be tortured. He was as bad as the Cat. He rubbed at his bald head, and tried to comb his beard over his pate with his fingers to make a shield against the cold. Ófriður’s mercy at their first meeting would be the man’s final mistake.
If Clod could find him again.
He’d looked all over the city Ófriður had called home, but the Un-peace had vanished as surely as Loki after a prank. Eventually Clod would track him down, but he didn’t want to wait. He had so few days a year to roam free of Grýla’s cave, and Clod wanted to use them all on revenge—not hunting. But he was a single troll and he knew, not Grýla’s brightest scion.
There’d been no fence around Ófriður’s domain this time. No fences around Midgard either. It seemed there were no fences anywhere. Not anymore. And yet Clod was still bound by the magic of Yule. He had to hope that same magic still held Jólakötturinn. If it didn’t, the Cat would certainly devour him.
The Yule Cat frequented Grýla’s cave—when he wanted something—but had made a second, private lair in one of the most desolate areas of Iceland, where not even the álfar would trouble him. Snow crunched beneath Clod’s peg legs. His wooden shanks sank deeply into the drifts; sweat streamed down his face, freezing in the wind. He dug at the snow with his hands to make a path, but his fingers were numb and his arms exhausted. Clod’s peg legs made for difficult going, but at least they didn’t get tired.
The black slopes of the volcano where Jólakötturinn dwelt rose up against the sky, blotting out the stars. All but two, which glowed a baleful red.
Those weren’t stars.
And the looming mountain was no spur of rock, it was Jólakötturinn, the Yule Cat himself. The Cat arched his back, fur bristling like black knives stabbing the stars, and pounced to the snow, sending an avalanche of ice crystals at Clod. The ice cut like needles driven by a gale. Jólakötturinn settled, paws kneading the snow, red eyes shifting side to side.
Clod’s courage left him in a rush, all his whiskey turned to piss. Turning, he ran blindly into the night. He bounced off something warm, but hard as rock, and landed on his back, kicking his pegs in the air.
With a paw the size of a house, Jólakötturinn delicately pinned Clod to the snow, and watched. It took some time for Clod’s struggles to cease. Every second became a year as he waited to die, and yet, he didn’t. When he stopped thrashing, the Cat’s paw lifted. Shaking, weeping, Clod looked for an exit—any exit—but the great length of the Cat’s tail penned him in.
I’m trapped. Clod bit his lip to hide a whimpered, “Meep.”
He’d die a mouse’s death, not a troll’s. As he shook in the snow, Clod wondered who would take over his day of Yule. Would Grýla birth another lad to keep their traditions alive or just cut the legs from one of her other children to make a new Clod? Would she miss him? Would she even notice he was gone? Would she care if she did?
None of the jólasveinar would, he knew that.
Clod swallowed, hard, trying to drown the lump in his throat in his roiling stomach. “G…g…greetings, honoured Jólakötturinn.”
“Stekkjarstaur.” The Cat’s tail scythed through the sky, slicing at the moon. “You dare much to come here.”
Clod swallowed again, and nodded. The Cat had used Clod’s true name. He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing, or bad, Jólakötturinn liked to play with his food, as all cats do.
Nasty, nasty beasts, they are.
“Why?” The Cat purred the word, and it echoed off the mountains, so loud Clod feared an avalanche.
What could he say to set the Cat to hunting the prey Clod wanted him to hunt, and not eating what he’d already caught? Softly, he said, “I…I have found a challenge for you.”
The Cat’s eyes narrowed.
Odin’s balls. That was not the right thing to say.
“You dare to assign me tasks?” The Cat hissed out the last word. His tail batted Clod closer. Closer to those huge paws. The Cat’s claws were out; each curved sickle longer than the entirely of Clod’s body. “As if I am some pet? Not even Grýla would be so daring.”
Clod said the only word he could that might sway the Cat, and he had to hope it would be enough. He had to hope the Cat had heard the name of the dvergur weapon.
“Ófriður,” Clod said.
The Cat did not move his legs. Did not allow Clod a chance to escape. Instead, he lowered his head and drew Clod’s stare into his terrible red eyes. Jólakötturinn’s breath was rank with blood, a remembrance of recent death and promising more to come, but his face softened as a purr shook snow from the mountains.