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He Who Fights Monsters

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He has been warned that the enemy will come tonight, a creature from the pit of hell, bent on mayhem and vengeance. Once a year, when the days are short and the nights are cold and dangerous, the monster sweeps over the mountains, rampaging, destroying, feeding, leaving terror in its wake. It’s the penalty they pay for their sins, he is told, but the young warrior isn’t sure he believes in sin. He has seen evil rewarded and virtue punished too often to believe in laws and justice. Instead, he puts his faith in his own senses and abilities.

The people seem to view the coming of the monster as inevitable. They talk of bolting the doors and building up the fires when normally they would suffer the house to grow cold for the sake of thrift. Tonight is different. While the common folk go about their business and hope for the best, the warrior prepares. He takes stock of his weapons, which are not as plentiful as he’d like. He has two primitive grenades, and if they’re not enough he should have time for a clear shot with his rifle. He will bring as spear as well, but hopes it will not be needed. Should the monster get that close, he will at least leave his mark on its hide.

Hours to go until midnight but the frost is already thick on the windows. No point in freezing to death before the monster arrives. He doesn’t have much in the way of warm clothing, but by wearing several layers at once he manages to protect himself without impairing his mobility too badly. He fills his canteen but doesn’t bother with food: there will be time to eat when his enemy is dead, not before.

Telling no-one of his plans, he gathers his weapons and makes his way to the gate. From there he can watch the mountains, keeping an eye out for the monster. It’s a clear night and the moon is almost full. The wind has already hardened today’s snowfall, which glitters in the faint light. It would be a fine night for a bonfire or a sleigh ride, but such pleasures are for victors. The warrior gathers his cloak around him tightly, and prepares for a long wait.

***

It’s still dark and freezing cold when Jake starts his working day. Three more months. Three more months and he can rejoin his brothers in the city where he belongs, where a man can find music and good company, and where there’s life and activity at all hours. Out here in the hinterland he’s lucky to speak to someone outside the household once a week, and the only music is the mistress’s endless practicing, which is never anything you can dance to.

The first task is to start the kitchen fire and be damned if he isn’t out of split wood. Three times last evening he had reminded himself to replenish the supply, but his employers had been entertaining. It had gone sour, as usual, and he had been left to clean up. They are never easy to live with, but when Old Sir goes on a tear there’s no hope of peace. Jake yanks on his gloves to go outside and stops dead, horrified, before can take three steps.

In the bright light of the setting moon he sees the prints of tiny boots leaving the kitchen door, down to the back gate. Oh, dear god. Jake takes off in a sprint, throws the gate open, and trips over two sticks left in the path. The child of the house is curled up like a doorstop right there. Jake leans down to scoop the boy up and brings him inside, laying him down by the stove. The kid is breathing, thank god. His employers are not attentive parents, but even they would object to death by hypothermia. Jake hares off again to lock the gate and grab the sticks. Hide the evidence! He gathers an armful of firewood and soon has the stove blazing. The boy stirs, rolls over on his side and sticks his thumb in his mouth.

For a moment Jake would like to slay the little beast. The kid is always underfoot, running around, upsetting his parents, making life difficult in general. What on earth possessed him to spend the night outside? He is wearing his winter coat (why are there stones in the pocket?) and three shirts, thank goodness. Jake removes the boots and chafes his hands and feet. The brat finally wakes up, owlish and irritable, as bad as his parents are in the morning. He must be half- dreaming because he wants to know where his weapons are.

Jake grabs him by the shoulders and gives him a shake, just enough to get his attention. “Listen to me! Tell me why you left the house? Were you trying to get yourself killed?”

The child reacts with comical fury. How dare Jake be angry when he risked his life to protect the house from the monster. Did Krampus come? Was anyone eaten? Well, then, he deserves a thank you, not a shaking!

Jake sighs. The mother. She’s been using this demon from her homeland to coerce good behaviour for weeks, vainly trying to keep her son quiet. Mind you, complete silence is a bit much to ask of a five-year-old. Jake recalls his brothers and sisters tearing around like a gang of chimps when they were young. Jakes checks for frostbite of damage, and finds none. Better get him out of the way before anyone else wakes up. The child is already nodding off and doesn’t resist being picked up. Jake sets him back in his crib and wrestles the winter gear off him. Jake sees that he's managed to kick or tear the side from the crib somehow. Really, they should get him a proper bed, but Jake won’t be the one to convince them.

Three more months and he’ll be free of this madhouse. His brothers aren’t the easiest men to work with but they’re a bunch of dairy cows compared to these lunatics. Heartened by the thought of city lights, Jake stokes the fire in the kitchen and puts a huge pot of water on the stove, ready for the maid-of-all-work, the only other servant in this place. Time to gather more wood and water, but first, get rid of the remaining evidence. Jack picks up the sticks - there will be hell to pay if he doesn’t get them back - and the ridiculous little boots. Really, there should be some reward for vanquishing Krampus. Deluded or not, the little man really thought he was facing danger last night; danger other than freezing to death, that is. Jake visits the pantry where the holiday supplies are stored. Mistress won’t miss a few walnuts and peppermints. He leaves the sticks by the crib and fills one of the boots with Christmas treats. The boy is still sleeping, fortunately, and will probably forget everything. Better get back to work. Three more months and he’ll be off, working for his own future children who will be raised a damned sight better than this one.