Editorial note: This is a longer read than what we normally post here, but it’s a fun seasonal story that goes with the pictures so we decided to run with it. If you want to jump directly to the pictures, you can click here. Similarly, since the story runs almost 9,000 words, if you have to leave and come back later, you can jump directly to the beginning of a section using any of these links:
- The Curse of Being Blessed
- A Moment of Romance
- A Moment of Tragedy
- An Unwanted Gift
- A Moment of Trial
- Travel to a New Land
- Building A New Home
- Sleigh Bells In The Snow
- Welcome to the North Pole
Thank you for reading. We hope you enjoy this special holiday post!
We all grew up hearing similar stories, how this guy named Santa Claus brings toys and goodies to good little boys and girls around the world on December 24. We formed our opinions based on Clement Moore’s account. We turned the Rankin/Bass version of history into gospel. Then, as we got a bit older, we grew to appreciate the legend of Saint Nicholas of Myra.
I’m here to tell you that all of those accounts are wrong. Well, mostly wrong. His given name is Nicholas, though anyone who knew him when he was younger called him Nicky and that’s Mrs. Claus’ preferred name for him still. Mrs. Claus? No, her name isn’t Jessica nor Mary, or even Merry. Martha Delores Ljung is the name with which she was born. She and Nicholas Klaus were married December 19, 293 ADE.
Yes, they really are that old. They’ve seen much and endured more than one can possibly imagine. That is why they have decided to finally let us tell their story, the real one without all the sugar coating that makes them palatable to children who desperately long for some form of a kind, giving adult in their lives. What really happened all those centuries ago isn’t quite as simple and pretty as what Rankin/Bass put together.
So, make yourself some hot cocoa and pull a chair up by the fireplace. The tale of Mr. and Mrs. Klaus is not for the faint of heart.
Right from the start, one needs to understand that Nicky and Martha were born during a period of history that was about as chaotic as anything possibly could be. The Third Century Crisis, as it is known, had seen the thorough decimation of most the extended Roman Empire. The ascension of Aurelius as Emperor in 270, the year Nicky was born, was the first positive step toward ending the disaster, but it came at a steep price. Aurelius had viciously laid waste to much of the Celtic portion of the Empire with a scorched earth policy that eliminated any city not loyal to Rome. By the time Diocletian became emperor in 284, bringing in much-needed stability across the Empire, the Celtic region was struggling just to survive. Poverty and hunger were the rule.
Somehow, most likely through bribes and gifts to military commanders, the wealthy Klaus family had managed to hold on to their land and preserve most of their holdings. Nicky grew up quite differently from other Celtic boys, with a strong education and a deep understanding of economic principles. He always had plenty to eat, so he grew taller than most children and was noticeably stronger than the deprived children who toiled outside his family’s estate.
Nicky was the oldest of three children. His younger brother, Kristofer, was his closest friend and confidant but was crippled by a fall from an apple tree when he was five. Nicky’s sister, Amelia, was a precious child with a sharp wit that was good for putting Nicky in his place but was caught by the plague and died when she was only 12.
While these events might sound like tragedies to us today, they were fairly normal occurrences during the third century. No family was spared the loss of children. Kristofer was rarely allowed outside his room, so Nicky took to playing with the children of the family servants and through them became aware of how fleeting, and often miserable, these young lives were. Playmates he enjoyed one day would grow ill without warning and simply disappear, their fate never being mentioned, nor their passing mourned.
While Nicky enjoyed a fine home made of wood and stone, most hovels were little more than mud and straw pasted together around a gathering of sticks. At night, Nicky slept on a mattress filled with straw and covered in down quilts while his playmates huddled next to their parents on the floor, close to fires, hoping to not freeze to death during the cold winter nights. Growing up in this atmosphere created within Nicky a strong sense of compassion, especially for the children around his village of Arras in what is now Northern France. Frequently, he would slip into the kitchen after a meal and take the scraps left for dogs and pass them along to his playmates.
Being the son of a nobleman, Nicky was afforded the luxury of travel as part of his education, giving him a chance to see first-hand the destruction that Aurelius and his armies had wrought. Wherever he spent the night, Nicky would do his best to find some way to help people in the village, whether by adding money to their treasury, or, more often, helping to build simple carts, plows, and other basic tools necessary to maintain life. He became popular throughout the region of Gaul and even into Germania.
These trips were cut short, however, when Nicky’s father, Constantine, became gravely ill. Nicky was brought back home to attend to the household, a tall order for a young man of only 16. As Constantine laid on his deathbed, he called his eldest son to his side for a traditional blessing.
“I wish for you, my son, all the wonderful things of this life and the next,” the older man said. “May you know wisdom to navigate through these perilous times. May your wealth increase with each passing year and may Rome’s burden on you be slight. May the compassion I have seen in you continue to grow and may the blessings you receive be spread around the world.”
Constantine coughed severely, so much that Nicky was certain his father would cease breathing right there, but as he caught a last bit of breath he motioned his son to come closer and spoke softly into his ear.
“Beware, my son, of the deceits of man. Many are those who would do you evil and do evil to others. Know what is right. Reward the good and punish the bad. Let nothing be hidden from you.”
Again, the elder Klaus coughed quite ferociously and this time he did not recover. Nicky pulled the blanket over his father’s head and assumed his position as head of the family, unaware of all that his father’s blessing would soon entail.
For a couple of years, life went on pretty much as normal. Nicky experimented with how the seed was sown in the family fields, dramatically increasing yield. Then, as Diocletian solidified his rule over all the Roman Empire, bringing a new level of order to the outer reaches of Gaul, Nicky was able to find new markets for the good produced by the artisans the family employed. His understanding of Roman economic policies allowed him to expand his family’s wealth while avoiding the frequently severe taxes imposed by the Empire. The young man’s cheerful disposition also helped him stay in favor with the Roman Legion that was responsible for protecting the region from Hun raiding parties that occasionally came across Germania.
What was good for Nicky was good for all of Arras. With his increasing excess, he was able to invest in additional artisans, especially those who were skilled in weaving thread. The tapestry for which the city would one day be famous had not yet developed, but Nicky found several in the village who were skilled at weaving and looming. By bringing their talents together, he was able to form an industry that brought considerable wealth to the entire town.
Nicky created a special chair and table combination so that Kristofer, who was even more skilled at math than Nicky, could sit up and manage the family finances. As things at home stabilized, Nicky returned to traveling in an effort to expand trade. It was on one such trip, at an inn outside Augsburg, he met Martha. He was immediately taken not only by her beauty and ability to cook some of the best food he’d ever tasted, but he was also mesmerized by her quick wit and ability to put people in their place without causing offense.
Likewise, Martha was impressed by the young man’s boisterous laugh and generous nature. Not only did he have a habit of buying beer for everyone in the inn, but continually brought stable hands and others into the inn for a meal as well. There was never an empty table when Nicky was present. The depth of his kindness was so unusual that it was impossible to not fall in love with him.
Of course, one did not simply fall in love and get married during the third century. Nicky wasted little time talking with Martha’s father and making arrangements to marry her, a deal with which she readily agreed. A minister was quickly secured before Nicky had a chance to change his mind and by the time Nicky was ready to return to Gaul he and Martha had already become inseparable.
Imagine the surprise of his family back n Arras when Nicky returned with more than just the tools and materials that had been the point of his trip! Nicky’s mother, Brunita, was happy to have another woman in the house but found it was often too difficult to keep up with the young woman who was well organized and efficient beyond anything the older woman had ever seen. Kristofer, too, was impressed with his brother’s new wife who not only matched Nicky’s kindness but understood accounting as well as he did and was even able to help when he became too weak to do the writing on his own.
As dark and hopeless as the third century could be, all seemed to be going rather well for the Klaus family. Riches mounted faster than Nicky could find suitable investments and within a few months, Martha was expecting her first child. The impending birth was greeted with such joy that the entire village planned for a massive celebration when the child was born.
In an age still dominated by barbarism, however, good moments rarely lasted very long and for the Klaus family, things were about to take a very ugly turn.
Martha has never been the kind of woman who could sit back and take it easy. She is as constantly busy now as she ever was and even when she was eight months pregnant she was out around Arras taking care of household business, despite her mother-in -law’s objections. Many of the deals Martha created with local artisans and bakers required careful finessing, something she trusted to no one other than herself. So, that she was out after dinner on a cold, dark November night was not especially unusual.
Of course, she had taken the precaution of taking two strapping young servants with her for protection. As kind and trusting as Martha is, she’s never been considered a fool and she knew how dangerous the streets of Arras could be after dark, if not from thieves simply from not being able to find one’s way well in the dark. Stepping in an unexpected hole could be just as dangerous as encountering a person of ill intent. Even oil lamps common to Rome were still a couple of centuries away from becoming commonplace in Gaul. The servants carried torches that, after several minutes in the village, barely provided any light at all.
Matha still has no recollection as to exactly what happened that night. Witnesses say the Roman Legionnaires were riding their horses at such a high speed that they couldn’t have seen the dim light of the torches to know that there was anyone in the road. Why Martha and the servants didn’t hear the horses and move out of the way remains a mystery. Whatever the reason or cause, the five horses apparently didn’t see Martha and her group in time to avoid them, running all three down in the middle of the road. Both servants were killed instantly. Martha instinctively rolled when she hit the ground, likely saving her life, but she still suffered severe injuries and was barely breathing by the time villagers found her and delivered to the Klaus home.
For days, Nicky stayed by Martha’s bedside, delegating all other matters to household staff. He sent for the best healers across the region, but none were able to offer any real assistance. Even as Brunita quietly removed the dead infant from Martha’s womb and began making funeral arrangements for Martha, Nicholas stayed firm with his wife, refusing to shave or remove his immense leather traveling coat until she was restored.
Days stretched into weeks and both Brunita and Kristofer urged Nicholas to return to work, letting the details of business take his mind off his ailing wife. The young man refused. He was insistent that he be the first face she saw when she awoke, which could be at any minute.
Desperation was beginning to set in over the family. Without Nicky running things, bills were going unpaid, agreements unfulfilled. No one understood the details as Nicky did and no one could handle family affairs as well. Then, late into the night on the 20th of December, there was a knock at the door. A ragged old man named Silas stood at the door. He said he was a preacher from this new religious sect known as Christians. Nicky had encountered them frequently on his travels and found them curious, their tales somewhat hilarious, but generally harmless. He instructed the old man be brought inside and given food and a room for the night.
Wishing to thank his benefactor for the uncommon generosity, Silas was shown to the room where Martha and Nicholas were alone. Upon seeing the damaged frame of the young woman, Silas asked permission to touch her and pray. Nicky nodded and watched as the old preacher approached his wife. Other religious priests had already been through, of course, with the results being empty each time. Nicky had no reason to expect anything different now.
As Silas knelt beside the bed holding Martha’s hand, he muttered soft words in Latin that Nicky could barely hear. When he stood, Silas took Nicky by the hand and led him away from the bed.
“The blessings of your father have been granted,” Silas told him. “Your dear wife will recover well. Much will change, though, and you must be prepared. Your gift of generosity hangs like a weighted chain around your neck. You will see Truth and know it, but you will be punished for what you know. I pray for God to be with you.”
Not understanding, Nicky replied, “May all the gods be with me, father.”
Silas smiled and nodded. “Yes, you may need them all.”
Nicky was unaware of when Silas left the house. He sat, as he always did, in a large chair positioned next to Martha’s bed, dosing involuntarily in and out of sleep. The circles under his eyes had grown deep and dark, his beard surprisingly full, the lines in his face forever deep. What little rest he did get was fitful and restless.
The winter sun had just crested over the horizon, mixed with the bustling sound of activity outside the house as they prepared for the Celtic Yule festival that Martha had introduced to the family. While some had questioned whether now was a decent time to celebrate, Nicky had insisted they go ahead.
“I like the beard,” came a soft voice from the bed. “I think you should keep it.”
Nicky sat up, instantly awake at the sound of his wife’s voice, tears pouring from his eyes. “The gods have blessed me, waking you on this yuletide!” he cried. “I knew you would not leave me.”
Martha laughed. “Of course not, you silly man. You have too much to do for me to leave you. You can’t find your boots if I don’t set them out for you.”
Nicky laughed as loud and heartily as he ever had, so much so that it startled people at the far ends of the village. He gathered his slight wife into his arms and held her close. “I’m never letting you leave me,” he said. “Never.”
The festival that night was unlike any other. Ale flowed freely, the feast was unlike any the village had ever seen, and Nicholas forgave the debts of all villagers in addition to giving gifts to all the children. By the time the massive yule log began to dim, so much meat had been consumed that Nicky’s massive overcoat was permanently stained red from preparing the animals.
Martha was still very weak but participated more than anyone had expected, regaling the youngsters with tales of vicious creatures who ate children who behaved rudely or stole candy from their parents’ table. Nicky thought her eyes seemed deeper and wiser than they had before and was sure that her tongue had grown sharper while she was ill. An unappreciated grab at her skirts by a drunken guest had resulted in a retort from the young woman threatening to reduce his arm to the “small size of what you pathetically refer to as your manhood.” The banquet hall had roared at the suggestion but no one dared bother Martha the rest of the night.
Not until the last of the guests were leaving the next morning did Nicky begin to notice that a new problem was emerging. At first, he thought it might simply be the leftover effects of the ale causing him to have drunken visions. As they persisted throughout the day, though, the young man began to worry. He was seeing things that were not happening to him, but other people, people he barely knew as well as good friends.
By the end of the day, Nicky felt as though he were going mad. “Check with the other guests,” he instructed a steward, “See if anyone else has become ill. Perhaps the venison we consumed was tainted.” No one admitted to being sick in any way, though, and Nicky’s visions were growing more intense and more numerous.
“I fear I have been poisoned,” he told Martha after dinner that evening, a meal where he barely ate more than half a loaf of bread. “I look into a person’s face and I see not their countenance but their deeds. I look at you and I see you handing out bread to the children by the back gate. I look at Kristofer and see him crying in his chambers. I look at the stable manager and see him kicking at the dogs. I am most surely going mad and worry at what comes next.”
Martha was frightened by this turn of events. Nicky became more reclusive than ever, refusing to greet guests, avoiding business partners, and sending Martha to deal with domestic matters he normally addressed himself.
After four days of complete turmoil, Martha had an idea. “What if your visions are part of the promise from your father?” she asked. “Did not both he and that old preacher say you would know the truth? Perhaps these visions, this insanity, is that Truth. You have not told me anything about myself that did not happen. I know these are not falsehoods.”
Nicky held his head in his hands, afraid to look at his wife. “If these things are true,” he said, “then we live among monsters. The butcher beats his wife three times a day. The blacksmith is poisoning his brother. The Legionnaires are stealing from the taxes and reporting falsely to Rome. And what the priests do to children is unfathomable! How can these things be true?”
Martha held Nicky’s hand as she thought for a moment. She hated seeing her normally jolly husband in such a fit of despair and was quite worried that his fear of poisoning might well be correct. Finally, after long moments, she spoke.
“Let us put your visions to a test,” she said. “Make a list of what you see among those here in our own house. We then call everyone in one at a time. Those who have done good, we reward with a treat, perhaps a sweet confection. Those who have done poorly are dismissed. And if there are those who are indeed evil, we give them to the constable.”
Nicholas recognized the wisdom in his wife’s approach to the matter and agreed. The next day, he sat with parchment and pen, recording all that he saw among those within his household, from the lowest maid to his house manager. As the night grew long, with Martha sitting by his side, he began calling his staff into the room. Many feared him for even though he was a gentle soul Nicky at times had a fearful countenance and this was one of those times. His face was dark and his gaze intense.
As each person passed before him, he looked at his list and asked if they had indeed done the deeds he had seen in his vision. Of course, he did not tell them about the visions for fear they would all think him crazy. From the staff’s perspective, it seemed as though the master had spied upon them, though they had no idea how. Most had done well, though, and he rewarded each accordingly. One kitchen boy had stolen food and feared he might be punished but Nicky knew that he had given the food to his aged mother and forgave him.
For those who had done wrong, though, the conversations were intense. A stable hand had stolen from the saddlebags of a guest. A crop manager had beaten his workers. The house manager had been asking Kristofer for money from the treasury to purchase items but then slipped the funds into his own purse. Each denied the charges against them, and when pressed accused Nicky of spying on them. Each was dismissed and the house manager was given a warning that any further trouble would find him reported to the constable.
Oddly enough, Nicky found that confronting his staff with their deeds helped ease the visions. While they were not completely gone, they were less intrusive. He could walk among others without feeling besieged.
Among the household staff, however, the event had provoked a feeling of fear and suspicion. How could the master have known all the things he had revealed? Surely, he must have spies among them, but if so, who? Everyone had been called to account for their actions, without exception.
As the days progressed, however, the staff noticed that good deeds, especially those charitable toward children, were met with frequent reward. An accidental error was allowed to pass without mention. Only intentional and egregious wrongs warranted punishment. Naturally, they responded accordingly, looking for ways to do good and earn the rewards. The Claus manor quickly became known as one where those in need could find food and refuge at most any hour. By the end of the next month, the whole estate felt more lively and pleasant, and Nicky’s visions were hardly bothersome at all.
As winter melted into spring, life in Arras returned back to normal in most ways. In addition to his business prowess, which seemed more astute than ever, Nicky became known as a most fair judge and arbiter of disputes within the region. Even the local constables would seek out his opinion on criminal matters that were less than clear. Of course, no one other than Martha knew of Nicky’s visions and his ability to see the truth for what it was. The townspeople simply thought him wise beyond his years.
All that came to an abrupt halt, however, late the next autumn. A young maid who had been frequently employed at various households was found murdered in the street, her body beaten and abused. A traveling stranger from the North who had been nearby at the time was arrested and charged with the crime, but he adamantly denied the charge and demanded a hearing in front of the village elders, which included Nicky.
Given that autumn was perhaps the busiest time of year for everyone, no one wanted to be bothered with what appeared to be a very obvious case of murder. There was much grumbling as the men of the village gathered to hear the accused defend himself, most having already made up their minds of his guilt.
For Nicky, though, the matter was not so cut and dry. Not only could he see that the accused man was innocent, he looked around the room and realized that the poor girl had not been killed by one but by three men, quite powerful men, who had each had relations with the young woman. His visions were merciless as the trial proceeded and he grew angry with all that he saw. When it came his time to speak, he had little choice but to set the record straight.
The elders did not take Nicky’s account of events well. As he went around the circle, he revealed not only who had committed the murder but everyone else who had forced themselves upon the young maiden and all the various ways in which she had been harmed. The picture he painted was shocking and horrendous by any account, but as he stood in front of the men who had perpetrated the many crimes, it was enough to set the entire council into a rage.
Acting quickly, and without any actual authority, Nicholas freed the accused man and helped him to escape from the elders’ counsel. Anger in the village seethed as word of Nicky’s charges spread. As had happened with his own staff, men in the village accused Nicky of spying on them and refused to do any business with him or any of his staff. As the day progressed, so did the level of anger and an insistence that Nicky’s apparent spying could not go unanswered. Another elders counsel was called for the next evening.
Kristofer called his elder brother to his room. “I fear for your life tonight,” he warned. “My stewards have met with great hostility throughout the village. No one will allow them into their shop nor take your gold. Should you attend tonight’s counsel, I worry that you might not leave with your head intact.”
“I have done nothing wrong,” Nicky said, feeling defensive. “I have only told them what they already know to be true. It is shame that is fanning their anger.”
“Guilt is a powerful emotion, brother, and many will go to any length to hide what you have laid out into the open.,” Kristofer warned. “Perhaps it would be better for you and Martha to visit her family in Germania for a season. I can manage matters here.”
Nicky considered his brother’s words carefully. Already, he had been having visions of men meeting in secret to plot his capture. He knew the threat to him and his family was real. “The words you say are, of course, true,” Nicky said. “My life is in danger. What I also fear, though, is that should I leave, their anger against the family will be severe and they will do you grave harm.”
“I have already sent for the Legionnaires,” Kristofer replied. “I know you dislike their presence here, but they owe you a great debt and they would look bad in Rome’s eyes were they to allow trouble to start. Unrest like this grows, you know. What might start as a little thing here could soon spill over to riots in Calais or even Metz. They will protect us, but you must go, and go quickly.”
“I must speak first to Martha,” Nicky said.
“I have already spoken with her and she is packing your things,” Kristofer answered. “And I have arranged for my stable steward, Big Gee, to accompany you. He is preparing a carriage with our best horses to take you North as quickly as possible. I will send word when it is safe for you to return.”
Nicky hung his head. “Has it really come to this?” He looked into his brother’s face and saw the pain with which he had made arrangements for their departure. There was no other reasonable choice for the safety of the family. “Should I tell the staff?” he asked.
“Leave that to me,” Kristofer said. “For now, the fewer people who know the better, I believe.”
Nicky nodded in agreement. “Okay then, to Germania we go. I’m sure the yule season there will be exciting.”
Big Gee was a tall, broad-shouldered young man with a simple demeanor and loyal to the Klaus family. When Nicky and Martha arrived at the stable, they found he had covered the open windows of the family carriage with heavy canvas to help keep out the cold and protect them from being recognized. He had removed the family crest from the doors and carefully packed all their belongings in a way to ensure that nothing would slip or fall off during the ride. He also made sure both his broadsword and crossbow were brandished so that any would-be thief might think twice before attacking the carriage.
Martha, impressed by the arrangements, asked the young man, “You have done so much for us, are you sure your family won’t miss you? We can’t promise when we’ll be back.”
Big Gee shrugged. “Don’t know that it matters that much. Big Gee only has the horses. Wherever they are is where I need to be.”
Martha smiled at the young man and climbed into the carriage. “You know the road to Augsburg?”
Big Gee nodded. “Travelers have told me about it. We are well prepared.”
Nicky pulled his big, blood-stained overcoat around him. “We shouldn’t have any trouble this time of year,” he said. “Bandits tend to not like the cold.”
“Snow the bigger problem,” Big Gee answered. “Extra blankets in the carriage.”
Nicky patted the young man on the back. “You are a good man. I’m happy to have you on our trip.”
Big Gee nodded. Despite his size and appearance, he was only sixteen years old and was quite anxious about traveling through the cold. Nicky could tell the young man was of a pure heart, however, and made a mental note to reward the steward handsomely upon their return.
While the trip North would not be without adventure, Big Gee proved quite capable at spotting trouble before it got to them. From fending off wild animals to foiling a thief who snuck into the carriage while they were stopped at an inn, Big Gee proved that he didn’t have to speak much to be a worthwhile protector.
The trio arrived in Augsburg a week in advance of the Yule celebration, however, only to find that bands from the Northeast had raided the town just before harvest, leaving few buildings standing, and few people left to tell the tale. Martha’s family inn had been burned to the ground, her parents missing. They had nowhere to stay.
“There is another inn just a few miles up the road,” Nicky said. “We can stay there until we figure something out.”
That inn, too, had been ravaged by raiders, however, and so had many others along the path. Nicky instructed Big Gee to guide them back toward the coast and from there they secured passage to Brittania for the winter.
Nicky’s penchant for honesty set worse in Brittania than in had in Gaul, however, and by spring they knew they would not be able to stay here, either. The problem was where to go without finding the same problem all over again.
One afternoon, after having found it difficult to even find food for the horses, Big Gee confided to Nicky. “I fear for your safety here. These are dangerous people, full of greed and murder.”
Nicky nodded in agreement. “I have never had visions so dark as what I’ve had here. But where else is there to go? To the East are only Barbarians. To the South are the Romans.
Big Gee moved in close as though sharing a deep secret. “I hear there is another land to the West. Sailors at the port talk about it. Waters are clear. Fishing and hunting are good. People are quiet and keep to themselves.”
“Do you think we could secure passage there?” Nicky asked.
“Dunno,” Big Gee shrugged. “Could ask. They’d want gold. Not sure they are worthy”
“Let me talk with them,” Nicky said. “I’ll know whether they tell the truth.”
Big Gee took Nicky to the pub near the docks where he had met the sailors who talked about the land to the West. Nicky found them to be men of questionable scruples, but loyal to whoever was paying them at the moment. Negotiating passage for the three of them to the new land was not terribly difficult.
Big Gee returned to the inn where they were staying and told Martha the news. He then helped her pack and brought her and the carriage to the docks.
“The carriage cannot go,” Big Gee was told. The young man flushed with anger and was about to argue when Nicky put his hand on the young man’s shoulder.
“Don’t worry about it,” Nicky told him. “I’ve sold the carriage and we can buy a new one when we arrive at our destination.”
Big Gee nodded but was still disturbed by having to sell the carriage. He was not fond of water travel and this trip would be longer than any he had ever had before. He helped secure all of Martha and Nicky’s belongings, then fixed himself a place to sleep in the ship’s hold.
Two weeks later, they arrived at the strange new port known as Hafnir. Still, several centuries before the Vikings would colonize the land, the people here were short, stocky, and significantly less developed than was the rest of Europe. There were no more than two dozen people in the entire village and of those only three would come out to meet the ship when it arrived.
Nicky was happy to be off the ship. The visions were not as severe as they had been in Britannia but he became increasingly aware of who among the crew could not be trusted. He had stayed quiet most of the trip to avoid trouble, but the sailors sensed his uneasiness around them and regarded him cautiously. This was strictly a fishing and fur port. No one had requested passage here before.
Disembarking the ship, Nicky also found it difficult to communicate with the few people at the port. Their language was nothing he had encountered before. Even the sailors had relied on hand gestures to communicate. He eventually secured transportation and the general idea of where they might stay for a few days until they learned the lay of the land.
On the plus side, the people Nicky encountered were gentle souls. Among them, his visions almost went completely away. They were hard-working people, primarily craftsmen and fishermen. They lived peacefully without any fear of invasion or oppression. Even the Romans had not yet discovered this quiet land.
At the same time, they had no use for Nicky’s gold, having never seen the metal before. Business was conducted via trade, which meant having to create something of value in order to obtain something of value. At first, Nicky was able to secure their loading by helping out around the inn, but it quickly became obvious they would have to come up with some other means of supporting themselves.
The solution came almost by accident. Big Gee was passing his time in the stable with their new horses, carving models for a wagon and a new carriage he planned on building. He had also crafted the model of a sleigh based on what he had seen in the stable. He wasn’t sure exactly how it would work on rough roads but had figured out from other stable workers that it must somehow glide across the snow in bad weather.
Children playing near the stable saw Big Gee’s models and began playing with them. As other children saw the models, they wanted some of their own as well. When Nicky saw what was happening, he suggested that he and Big Gee start a business making models and tops and other small amusements they could then trade for other goods. Big Gee wasn’t sure about the commercial value of something as simple as a small cart but went along with the plan primarily because there wasn’t anything else to do and he rather enjoyed the easy work.
To the surprise of both of them, the trinkets business proved to be extremely popular among the villagers. Nicky was soon able to barter for most anything he needed. Even parents seemed to enjoy watching the little wood tops spin across the floor. Nicky found that small wood statues of animals proved to be extremely popular as well, particularly when they were colored in various pigments and dyes. Puppets fashioned to look like people in the village proved extremely popular as well.
The toy business soon expanded to include cabinetry, chairs, and other carved furniture. Nicky discovered that he only had to show Big Gee how to do something once and from there the young man could quickly create any number of exact replicas so as to make it impossible to tell which was the original. Within a matter of months, they had managed to trade enough of their wares to secure a comfortable home with plenty of food stores. Life here was comfortable and peaceful.
Visitors from outside the village were rare. The ship from Britannia only arrived at port once a year. Occasionally, peddlers from a village even further North would come down with special dried fruits that could not be grown locally. Nicky always found them eager to trade for his baubles and managed to keep a steady supply of the dried fruits which Martha was then able to bake into breads and cakes.
One day, a trader Nicky had encountered before arrived with a list of goods requested from those in his village. By now, Nicky had learned much of the local language and was able to translate the rudimentary symbols into Latin, which he could more easily understand. While nothing they requested was difficult, the volume was substantially more than Nicky immediately had available. He told the trader the best he could do would be to deliver the goods to his village in a few weeks.
The trader left a healthy supply of dried fruit as a guarantee of payment and left, having given Big Gee detailed instructions on how to find the village. The two men set to work on the order while Martha minded the store and kept the ovens busy with breads and sweetened meats. Theirs was easily the most popular home in the village. Even standing outdoors gifted one with delicious fragrances and hearty aromas.
Nicky and Big Gee were almost finished with the massive order when the first snowstorm of the winter hit the village. While they had known snow in Gaul and Germania, none of them had ever seen the depths that fell on the village over the next several days. Big Gee quickly understood why the sleighs he had seen were so important and immediately set about fashioning one that would be large enough to transport all the toys they needed to deliver to the Northern village of Alizkjer. The people of Hafnir were amazed at something so large that, had it not been for the large pile of toys, could have held the entire population of the village.
Big Gee had also built a special harness to connect the four horses to the sleigh, having melted down some of the now-useless gold coins to create bells that jingled as the horses pranced. The young man hoped that the noise would be sufficient to ward off any wild animals that they might encounter. While they had not seen much more than elk and caribou, rumors of wolf-like creatures filled local fables and Big Gee wasn’t going to take any chances that one of them might be based on fact.
Martha had sewn together several caribou pelts to create a large sack that secured the large supply of toys. She had also taken the time to line Nicky’s and Big Gee’s overcoats with wool from local mountain sheep. Her own cape was woven from the same wool, making it incredibly warm and rather festive looking.
The trio loaded their wares, bade farewell to their neighbors and headed North toward Alizkjer. The bells jingled loud as the horses pranced off across the snow and Big Gee was careful to look for signs of drifts and soft snow as they attempted to stay on what had once been the only road out of the village.
There were no weather forecasts back in the early fourth century. There was no way for the Klaus’s and Big Gee to know that a most horrible storm was bearing down upon them. Big Gee fought as hard as he could to keep the sleigh moving forward, even when the snow had covered his face to the point he had only the jingle of the bells on the harness to let him know the horses were still moving. Nicky and Martha huddled together against the wind. Both had been through blizzards before, but nothing as relentlessly brutal as this storm. Despite all the warmth of their coats and blankets, it was not enough to protect them from the severity of the storm that engulfed them.
I cannot tell you from this point how much time passed. I can tell you that the village of Alizkjer was completely lost and no record of it has ever been found. The entire land was engulfed by snow and ice and would not see new villages settled until the Vikings arrived some 400 years later.
For Nicky, Martha, and Big Gee, it was like easing into a very cold sleep. They were never aware that the sleigh had stopped moving or that the horses had broken free of their harness. Sleep engulfed them, holding them in this frozen state until help arrived.
Help was not something that is easily explained, however. Nicky was the first to be awakened by the small, child-like face, its cheeks bright red from the cold, eyes sparkling like the snow glistening in the sunlight. The little person had dug a rather large excavation to reach the sleigh at all, several times its own height. As he woke, Nicky was amazed at how strong the little creature seemed to be. Another of the small creatures soon joined the first, gently waking Martha and then Big Gee.
“How did you find us?” Nicky asked.
The little ones quickly motioned for quiet, gesturing at the snow looming around them. They understood that the whole thing could come crashing in on them at any moment should too much sound or the wrong movement trigger an avalanche. Carefully, and with blinding speed, the pair removed the snow and ice completely from around the sleigh. Then, with the little ones standing on either side of the runners, a most amazing thing happened: the sleigh began to move!
Big Gee rubbed his eyes, sure that the ice must have blinded him from being able to see the horses. He could hear the bells, but there was nothing in the harnesses pulling them.
Nicky and Martha were wide-eyed as the sleigh slid gently out of the tunnel and into the open air. Still snuggled together, because they had no reason not to be, the couple looked at each other, their minds full of shared questions, such as who were these little people, how did they survive under so much snow, and could they still get their load of toys to Alizkjer on time? Even after they were safely clear of the walls of the snow tunnel, though, the little people motioned for them all to be very quiet.
The little people were dressed as what Nicky and Martha assumed were one male and one female. They were each very child-like in their size and their motions, but obviously very learned and skilled in the ways of the people of the North and getting around the snow. They were so light that they did not even leave footprints in the snow.
The male of the two picked up a handful of snow and tossed it into the air. As the flakes floated away, he motioned toward nearby trees. As the female headed toward the massive pines, the male motioned again for them to stay quiet and not move before joining her.
Watching the little ones disappear into the trees, Big Gee looked desperately back at Nicky and Martha, trying to communicate his questions in hand gestures so overdone as to make Nicky start to laugh. Martha reminded him of the need to be quiet and Nicky grabbed Big Gee’s hands so the young man would not continue. The look in Nicky’s eyes was enough to calm Big Gee for now.
When the little people returned, they came riding on the backs of two large animals that somewhat resembled elk but with a noticeably different antler spread. Two others follow closely behind. The little ones brought the massive beasts to the sleigh and fitted them into the harness that had been designed for the horses. As though aware that his passengers were all watching with their mouths open, the small male turned and said in a form of Gaelic, “Rangifer tarandus,” as though he expected them to know what that meant.
The two little people sat on either side of Big Gee, each taking one-half of the reins, and with a snap started moving forward, gliding rapidly across the snow and gathering speed with each gallop. Then, with a whistle from the small female, the sleigh tilted back and the entire rig, even with its heavy cargo of toys, took to the air and began to fly!
Big Gee screamed in panic. Martha held desperately to her seat. Nicky, however, found the whole adventure amusing and let out with a large laugh that echoed below them. The two little people looked at each other and smiled.
Zipping high above the earth allowed Nicky to see something that no one else would propose for several centuries, and even then with the considerable debate: the earth was round, not flat. As the sleigh followed the curve of the horizon Northward, cold wind whipping at their coats, Big Gee still whimpering in fear, Nicky leaned over and gave Martha a kiss on the cheek, letting her know everything would be okay.
Several minutes passed before the sleigh began angling downward toward a large clearing completely covered in snow. There was a slight moment of terror when it appeared that the sleigh might crash into the earth, causing Big Gee to let out a scream, but the small people quickly leveled off and brought the rig in smoothly.
Big Gee was the first one to hop down from the sleigh, happy to be back on the ground. He backed away from the little people and the large beasts pulling it, afraid of what might happen next.
Nicky helped Martha from the sleigh, then turned and kneeled down to address their rescuers. “I don’t know if you can understand me,” he said, “but we want to thank you for rescuing us. What can we do to repay your kindness?”
The little people looked at each other, then the male of the pair said in perfect Latin, “Yes, we understand you quite well. We understand and can speak all the human languages. My name is Elf Grindl and my partner is Elf Tipitina. We are happy to welcome you to our home.”
Nicky looked around at the vast expanse of nothing but snow. “Elves, you say? Our legends have spoken of such. I never expected to meet such wonder, though. Do you make your home in the snow itself?
Grindl giggled. “No, but I do have to resize things a bit for you to see it.” With that, the elf waved his hand and a full village raised up from the snow, complete with candles burning in the windows.
Tipitina took Martha by the hand, speaking in the Germanic dialect of Martha’s home in Augsburg. “Let me show you to your new home,” she said. “We’ve been looking forward to your arrival. Hopefully, we have everything to your liking.”
Nicky and Big Gee followed Tipitina as Grindl unhitched the hooved beasts and set them free. They entered into a large home with a large fireplace, logs burning brightly, with plenty of oil lamps around the room for additional light. The furniture was plush and upholstered in a fashion the humans had never seen. In the kitchen was a massive stove on which a kettle had just started steaming with hot water. The table was set with what could only be described as a feast of meats, fruits, breads, and other foods the humans had never seen.
Grindl tugged on the hem of Nicky’s coat. “If I may take your coat, good sir, I’m sure you are famished from your long trip.”
Nicky removed his coat and tried to not cover the elf completely. With a blink, the coat was hanging on a peg by the door. “Speaking of trip, we seem to be quite far from Alizkjer. When do you think we might be able to get them their goods?”
Grindl looked at Tipitina, their happy countenance fading for a moment. “Alizkjer and Hafnir are no more, I fear. There were too many for us to save. History will not know they ever existed.”
Nicky and Martha looked at each other, shocked by this news. A tear slipped down the gentle man’s cheek. “You could not have saved any of them? Not even a child?”
Grindl shook his head. “We almost never found you. Many seasons were spent searching for anyone. Our prophecies foretold of one who would emerge from the snow to guide us. Had we not believed in that prophecy so heavily, we would have stopped searching long ago.”
“Wait, are you saying we’re actually dead?” Big Gee asked, touching his body to see if he were possibly imagining the whole experience.
“No, silly,” Tipitina said between giggles. “The three of you can never die. You were blessed. Your breath was merely frozen for a time. A little bit of cocoa was enough to wake you.”
“Cocoa? What’s that?” Big Gee asked.
Tipitina giggled again and gave the three humans large mugs of the warm liquid. “Go ahead and drink. You need the strength.”
Nicky took a sip from his mug and declared, “Ho, ho! This is a most amazing drink! Far better than any mead or ale I have ever tasted!”
The elves guided them to the table. “Please, eat to your fill. I’m sure you will have many questions for us later. There are beds prepared should you desire rest and for you, Big Gee, we have prepared your own house with tools for you to create more carvings. We do love your work.”
“My own house?” Big Gee questioned? “No one in my family has ever owned their own house!”
Both elves giggled before Grindl spoke. “You have proven yourself faithful to the Klaus family,” he explained. “Their blessing is your blessing. Their riches are your riches.”
Nicky still could not get his massive pack of toys off his mind. “This is all so wonderful, and your generosity is so very gracious. What of all we have made, though? Has our work been in vain? And what of our families? Will we not see them again?”
Grindl guided the big man to a large, carved and upholstered chair at the head of the table. “Your work has never been in vain,” he explained. “You have many questions that are understandable. Tomorrow we begin planning. Your work here will be greater than anything you have ever done. There is a dark age coming to humans, a time of unspeakable evil and loss. The people who are good need hope and together, we will help you give them that hope. All of them.”
“And those who are not good?”Nicky asked.
“We have other plans for them,” Tipitina said. “They will get what they justly deserve.”
“All the rest we will discuss with morning’s light,” Grindl said. “There are some modifications we would suggest to the sleigh, Big Gee needs to meet our reindeer friends, and Mrs. Klaus, there are many waiting to see how you bake such delicious breads. We are as anxious as little children.”
The Klaus family settled down at the table and enjoyed their meal, hardly aware of the incredible adventure that had just begin.
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