The Gingerbread Reindeer
by Renee Carter Hall
It was exactly five hours and twelve minutes until Christmas, and the kitchen looked like someone had made an explosive device from flour, sugar, and candy sprinkles. Kate surveyed the mess and sighed. They could have just bought a roll of premade gingerbread dough--or, heaven forbid, a tray of decorated cookies from the grocery store. But Emma would settle for nothing less than making Santa 'real' cookies from scratch, so they'd Googled a recipe and gotten to work. It was a hassle, but so was the whole holiday when you got right down to it. And watching Emma bent solemnly over her work, carefully drawing a line of red icing to make a reindeer's harness, made it worth the cleanup later on.
Emma placed tiny silver balls for harness-bells, then added a dab of black icing for the reindeer's nose. Kate hadn't known they even made black icing, but thank goodness they did. There was only one Rudolph, and they had half a sheet of reindeer cookies among the angels, wreaths, and gingerbread men.
Kate held her breath when it was time to take the cookies out of the oven. The reindeers' antlers and hooves had gotten a little too brown, and she wasn't sure they had enough flour for another batch. Fortunately, Emma approved, picking out the best ones for Santa's plate and leaving the nicest reindeer on top. Kate poured the milk and let Emma put out a handful of baby carrots for the reindeer. She was starting to ask more questions these days about how Santa delivered all the toys in one night. This would likely be the last year of listening for sleigh bells, and they might as well make the most of it.
* * *
"Whoa, team. Easy, easy." Even with Claus's guidance, the sleigh skidded a bit on the roof. Once they came to a stop, he climbed out, stopping to pat each reindeer's neck in turn, soothing them. They were tired already, far more than they should have been. He should never have tried to run them without their lead, but what choice did he have? There was only one Rudolph, and even the elves' healing couldn't mend a broken bone strong enough to make the run on time. Claus willed himself inside the house, feeling that particular tickly sensation he could never quite get used to. It was harder to break through than usual; likely this would be his last year at this house.
Taking a velvet pouch from his belt, he laid a dusting of magic over the gifts beneath the tree, then added a few of his own in matching paper. Parents always assumed they'd bought the extras ahead of time and forgotten them, or the mother figured the father had picked them up, or some such thing. Those who were past believing were easy to fool.
He spotted the snacks left out and paused to drink half the glass of milk. A child's drink, but it was also the essence of life, and it renewed the energy he'd spent on his work. He gathered up the carrots then, breaking them in half to share them out evenly. It wasn't much divided among eight, but it would at least get them to the next block.
A flicker of light at the edge of his vision made him turn. The visitor was unexpected, and Claus bowed slightly, pulling off his cap when he saw who it was. "Boreas."
The visitor bore the form of a frost-elf, slender and sharp, with knowing eyes, but his body faded like silver fog at the edges. Boreas was winter given shape, the power by which the run was made each year, by which time was frozen for a single night while magic was worked for the young. It was not often that he appeared.
"There is an imbalance," Boreas said.
Claus nodded. "We're short our lead. Prancer and Dancer aren't used to running out front. It's thrown them all off."
"When I entrusted you with one of the auroris, I assumed he would be guarded closely."
Claus chuckled. "When you entrusted me with him, you didn't tell me he would be a reckless show-off who would break his leg trying to do a triple loop to impress a doe."
The elf's mouth twitched as he hid a smile. "Even the immortal are not always perfect."
Claus sipped at the glass of milk. "Since you're here, I don't suppose you can conjure up a replacement?"
"From the air? You know my powers better than that. I could enchant a creature already here, perhaps, but…" He spread his thin hands wide.
Claus reached for a cookie, started to take a bite--and stopped. He looked from the gingerbread reindeer to the frost-robed elf and back.
"Well," Boreas said, following his gaze, "I suppose. But he will only last this night. Beyond that, you must keep tighter reins on my gift. The auroris burn hot and swift and need a steady hand."
"Oh, his pride's had enough of a knock, that's for sure." Claus took out a gold pocket watch engraved with an evergreen, glanced at the time, and frowned. "Let's get to it, then. Time might be frozen for everyone else tonight, but I'm already running late."
Boreas bowed his head and whispered a few words in a language so old it was known only by the mountains and the wind. Then he breathed a frozen fog over the cookie, and in a sparkle of frost and stamping of hooves stood a strong young reindeer the color of brown sugar and molasses, darkening almost to black at his antlers and hooves. He was already in harness, and the silver bells chimed as he shook his head to clear the fog that still hung about him.
"He is yours," Boreas said with a sweep of his arm, and then the elf was gone.
Claus ran his gloved hands over the reindeer's legs, lifting each hoof in turn. All were sound and sure.
"You know the run?" Claus asked.
The reindeer nodded, and Claus laid a hand on the harness and drew them both up to the roof.
"All right, team, here's our new lead for the night." Claus hooked up the harness, and the other reindeer sniffed the newcomer.
"Hi," Prancer said. "I'm Prancer; that's Dancer. We're twins, but I'm older by three minutes. What's your name?"
The gingerbread reindeer blinked, then looked to Santa.
"He smells like cinnamon," Dancer said.
"Cinnamon it is," Santa declared. He climbed back into the sleigh and snapped the reins, and they were off.
It was as if Cinnamon had run with them for ages. He knew the turns, the changing winds, the subtle currents along the route. They made up time at their next dozen stops and soon were actually running ahead of schedule. Claus found himself humming at his work, and the reindeer joked and teased each other, as if this were nothing more than a quick practice flight around the barns.
This, Claus knew later, was their mistake.
Even at the very last house, the mood was light. They were tired, but pleasantly so, in a way that made them proud of their work without feeling exhausted by it. Claus slipped easily into the townhouse, hoping for a plate of chocolate chip cookies to end the night on. Inside, it was unusually dark, no night lights in the hallways or glowing embers in the hearth. There was a tree, though, and Claus waved a hand absently at it, to turn on its lights. The multicolored strand lit, but something looked wrong. Claus peered more closely at the branches. The needles were black, almost charred, though the tree itself looked untouched.
Perhaps it was artificial. The trends changed so quickly, after all. He distributed the gifts beneath the odd branches, then reached for the glass of milk. It was halfway to his lips when the smell hit him. The milk was sour, and as he watched, blue-green mold blossomed on the plate of sugar cookies.
The lights on the tree sizzled and went out.
On the roof, the reindeer felt a sudden slipping, as if the snow were sliding away beneath their hooves. The wind turned sharp and foul, and the stars went dark as if pulled into endless black. The reindeer wanted to run but knew they couldn't. Their nervous breaths rattled in their lungs, and there was no steam when they exhaled.
Cinnamon trembled. "What--is it?"
Prancer and Dancer shook as well, and the bells on their harnesses clacked in the thick air. Finally Prancer was able to speak. "It's him."
Dancer shivered. "The Unmaker."
And before Cinnamon could ask anything more, it was there with them.
Merely looking at him made the reindeer feel as if they were coming apart, antler and hoof and bone, like stuffed toys unraveling at the seams. If Boreas held winter's delicate beauty, its crystal and silver, the Unmaker was winter's bite and its howl, the merciless cold that promised sleep but dealt out death. Everything about him looked wrong, smelled wrong, felt wrong. Every sense they had among them screamed the wrongness of the thing before them. It did not have a mouth, but it had fangs. It did not have eyes, and yet its gaze froze them in place. Then, in a black flash, he was gone. Inside the house.
"We have to warn him," Cinnamon said.
Prancer's head was down, his ears back as if he were facing into the wind, even though all was still. "There's no way in. That's Claus' magic. Not ours."
Cinnamon remembered the tickly feeling of being brought up to the roof. And then, as he remembered the sensation, he started to feel it again, just a tingle at the tips of his hooves.
The other reindeer had been born in stables, but he was born of magic. And if enough of it still lingered in him, maybe there was a chance.
Cinnamon could feel the barrier between himself and the house, like a thin bubble of glass. He closed his eyes and pushed hard against it.
* * *
The Unmaker's voice was black silk. "Did you think I had gone for always, Claus? You must have, to be so unguarded, here at the closing of the night, with no bright-nosed auroris to keep me at bay."
Claus held the Unmaker's gaze. "Don't mistake mortal fatigue for weakness."
"Ah, but it is weakness. The night's power is ebbing. We both feel it."
There was no need to ask what the Unmaker wanted, what he came for. He sought the same object, to the same end, always. Already Claus could feel the cold crawling tendrils seeking his breast pocket, where his watch was kept. The power the Unmaker desired didn't come from the watch, but it was focused there, and with it, he might bend time to his own will.
"A night that never ends," the Unmaker purred. "A darkness that never lightens. A voice whispering in every ear that the worst will happen, always, that nothing can be done. The world unmade, bit by bit, never to see the dawn."
As he spoke, Claus felt the tendrils tighten. He spoke a few phrases, but the warding spells dissolved like spun sugar. Cold crept under his skin and into his chest, as if the Unmaker held Claus' heart in an icy hand. Slowly the grip tightened.
Claus tried to speak the words that would summon Boreas, but he'd waited too long. Dark fog muddled his mind. He mixed up syllables, had to start over, forgot what he was doing. The words broke apart and scattered before he could hold them long enough to speak. All the while, the hand clenched tighter around his heart. He could feel the watch slipping from his pocket, tugged out into the open. Dimly he saw the flash of the gold case -- and then a flash of another color, golden and warm and alive.
Cinnamon snatched the watch in his mouth and held it firm. "Release him." The words were a little jumbled around the watch, but he knew the Unmaker understood.
"Delightful!" The Unmaker's black fog swirled around Cinnamon. "Such a delicate creature. So easy to break. Such a satisfying snap."
Cinnamon didn't move. He felt the cold creep in but didn't shiver. He was born, he realized now, of two kinds of magic. There was Boreas' enchantment, but there was something deeper as well. He had been born of heat, the wholesome fire of an oven's glow, the ordinary magic of flour and sugar and spice. He had been born of a mother's indulgence, her patience, her love, of a child putting all her heart into a simple task from that same love.
No, he realized. He had not been born. He had been made.
And making was stronger than unmaking.
Dark tendrils gripped him, harder and harder. Cinnamon grew warmer, hotter, glowing golden. Beneath the black surface of the Unmaker, red cracks appeared. Light moved beneath the darkness, breaking it apart from within.
There was a sudden rush of air, cold, then hot, and then stillness, and silence.
Claus didn't remember falling, but he was suddenly on the floor. He stood up slowly and took a breath. He was alone. For a moment he caught a sickening scent of burnt sugar and clove, but then there was only evergreen and bayberry. The tree was lit again, and its needles were lush and green.
The watch lay by the hearth. Claus picked it up. Even through his gloves, the case was warm. He slipped it back into his pocket, then turned to face the presence that he now felt faintly by the tree.
Claus smiled sadly at Boreas. "You do pick and choose your times to show up, don't you?"
Boreas said nothing. Sometimes the immortals were like that, and Claus tried not to hold it against them.
"Isn't there anything you can do?" Claus asked quietly.
"I cannot take back what was freely given."
Claus nodded and drew himself back up to the roof. The reindeer shied at his sudden appearance, then relaxed. He could feel Prancer and Dancer watching him, but he couldn't meet their gaze.
"Let's go home," he said, and took up the reins.
* * *
The year turned. On the next run, Claus found some homes barred to him, while others opened for the first time. He tucked a pink teddy bear and a pacifier into the stocking on one mantel, then added a bit more sparkle to the tree. The glass of milk was a small one, as it always was when the parents set it out, but it was satisfying enough, and the gingerbread cookies were homemade. He picked up the one on top, paused when he saw what it was, and set the reindeer back on the plate.
"You can eat it," a voice said brightly from behind him. "I don't mind."
Claus turned. Warm air brushed his face, as if he'd opened an oven door. Cinnamon stood before him, whole and complete to the last silver bell on his harness. The only change was a new wisdom in the young reindeer's eyes.
The lights on the tree burned brighter, the cookies warmed on the plate, and when Claus looked back at the glass of milk, it was not only full again but garnished with a sprinkle of nutmeg.
Claus rested a hand on the reindeer's neck. "How?" he asked softly.
It was Boreas who answered. "Making is stronger than unmaking. And sometimes what is made can be very strong indeed." The elf nodded to the reindeer--not bowing to him, not quite, but as close as Boreas had come to bowing to anyone in all the eons Claus had known him. "There is a place for you among my kind, in the Far North," he said. "If you wish it."
Cinnamon glanced at Claus. "Only if I could come back sometimes--if I'm needed."
"I'll call you the next time Rudolph does something stupid," Claus promised.
"It may not be a long wait," Boreas added dryly. The elf nodded to Claus, then drew his cloak over Cinnamon.
"Say hello to Prancer and Dancer on your way," Claus said. "They've missed you."
Cinnamon nodded, and in a swirl of snow, the two disappeared.
Claus took out his watch and thumbed the case open. The night stretched before him like a golden ribbon, with plenty of time to spare. He ate two of the cookies and finished the glass of milk. It was the best he'd ever tasted.
* * *
"Emma, weren't you going to put out cookies for Santa?" Kate held out the special plate they'd always used, the one with the snowflakes on it.
They picked them out together, an assortment of gingerbread and sugar cookies from the grocery store, with a couple Oreos from the pantry for variety.
"And carrots for the reindeer," Emma reminded her.
Kate poured the milk and watched Emma carry the snacks to the coffee table. Emma was a year older and at least a year wiser. She doubted Emma really believed, anymore, that a bearded man in a red coat was really going to come down the chimney and eat those cookies. And yet they put them out, pretending together.
It should have felt like a waste of time, like an empty ritual, but it didn't, and she wondered why. Maybe wanting to believe was enough. Or maybe belief and wisdom weren't separate things, but more like the hands of a clock, each pointing in a different direction but meaning something together.
Or maybe she'd been up too late the night before wrapping presents. Kate chuckled at herself and took the milk in to the living room. "Okay, kiddo, off to bed so Santa can come."
Emma scampered to her room. After a while, Kate put out the presents, ate a few cookies, and drank most of the milk. It almost had the feeling of a sacrament, and she laughed at herself again. She filled the coffee maker and set the timer, then turned the tree lights off. In the morning, she would find them lit again, but of course she'd left them on and just forgotten. After all, it had been a very long night.
This work and all characters (c) 2012 Renee Carter Hall ("Poetigress"). May not be reprinted, redistributed, or reposted without written permission.
When Santa finds himself one reindeer short for the Christmas run, the frost-elf Boreas enchants a replacement. But there's more than elf-magic being worked, and when an ancient foe threatens them all, the gingerbread reindeer finds he's made of more than just flour and sugar.
(Rather listen than read? This was first published in the Anthro Dreams podcast.)