Take the old road North until you reach the end; then, keep going. Walk; walk until civilization disappears, the last huddled hamlet put behind you, and you reach the mountains stretching long across the horizon. There you will find a fortress where, even as the cold wind howls between the crenellations, men await the arrival of Christmas eve with stolid, bitter stoicism.
"Snow, ice, rock— I think my face is frozen."
The four men hiding low beneath the alternated barrier snickered. It was funny because it wasn't their beards dangling icicles.
"Might's well come down then."
He carefully shuffled down from his perch, over the hole where they poured the boiling fat and burning pitch and joined his comrades at the small fire. A large stack of wood sat nearby with several cold cauldrons waiting to be heated. The hour was swiftly coming.
"Maybe they won't come this year."
The bearded men turned to the fresh-faced youngster. He blushed hard under their scrutiny which was hard to see under the pre-present redness brought by on the cold to his unprotected face.
"Lad, your new ere, so listen close," said the watchman. "It always comes. Always."
The young man flinched under the watchman's powerful gaze, hard and cold as frozen stone. Poor lad, he'd only arrived some months prior; it showed. He was the only one in the place without a beard. Even the fortress commander's cat had one.
"Just sayin," he said weakly. "Not even sure I believe in all this Christmas stuff."
"Ye said sumffin similar on Black Friday, I recall."
A shiver ran down the young man's spine that had nothing to do with the cold. It was his first taste of what his new duty would truly be. A slow, grinding, mash. Wave after wave of screaming, faceless, consuming things.
The day had started before the sun even crested the peaks and dragged on till well after it fell below them. Black Friday. He would never forget Black Friday.
"Make no mistake lad," said the watchman, "he's real. Claus that is. He may be a spirit, but he's real. I've seen him enough times to know."
The others perked up at this, "You've seen him?"
The watchman nodded, "I've pulled Christmas eve watch every year since I was bare faced as this one," he said. "I seen him, blood red, white round the edges where he missed a bit. And the laugh. Ya never forget that. Big, bellowin thing; shakes the whole damn mountain. Ho, Ho, Ho!"
"I thought he was supposed to sneak in," said the lad, forgetting his skepticism for a moment.
"He does, sometimes. Specially when Jack's there."
That name put a chill down everyone's spine that absolutely had to do with the cold. The spirit of the great North wind; ice, sleet, and snow, was known even in the South lands that saw snow perhaps once a century.
"Is—is he going to be here?"
"Maybe. He comes and goes as he please. He's the only one strong enough to. Not even Clause can travel like Jack without a good foot a snow neath him."
Story time took a short break for hot cider; the cook, a well-rounded woman with bright red cheeks and peachy fuzz along her jawline handed steaming tankards around before retreating back to her domain. Lucky wench.
The kitchen was the warmest place in the whole fortress, warmest place for a hundred miles in fact, and only big enough for half a dozen people and three cats at a time. Unlike in other places, kitchen duty was a coveted assignment.
"So, you were saying, about the sneaking?"
His curiosity piqued, the lad had all the patience of most young men; whereas the watchman, tempered by years and being the one telling the story, sipped his hot cider with measured slowness.
"I remember, the first time I saw him. Jack was there. The wind was howling like a pack a wolves. Could hardly see five feet in front ya. I was manning the fire, trying to get the pitch hot in that freezing gale, when I saw him.
"Dumbstruck I was, like a wee lad seein his first troll. Eight feet tall; that red being the only reason I could see him, and it was fresh, glistening, even in the cloudy night.
"Only saw him a second afore he was gone, but I'll never forget, those eyes; like two snowflakes, so cold."
They all shivered sympathetically. If there was one thing they all understood, it was the cold. Duty was a heavy weight, but it gained a level of oppression when it was all frozen.
"Evening lads." A round of greetings met the fortress commander as he ascended the stairs with the practiced care of a man who'd spent his life walking on ice. "Seen anything?"
"Not as yet sir."
He nodded, stepped up to the abandoned observation perch and gave the scene a quick peruse.
"Snow, ice, rocks—coupla blacks scrounging for leftovers."
"Didn't see them earlier."
The commander shook his head, stepping down, "You usually see a couple stragglers. Once Christmas comes it'll be too late for them and they'll have to wait till next year."
"Let's get through this year before we start worrying about next year."
The men laughed at the watchman; the commander pulling up a small barrel and joining them. "So, what's the topic of the evening."
"Lad ere don't believe in Claus."
"I'm just saying. I've never seen him so how do I know?" he defended shamefully under the commanders disbelieving eye.
"He's real," the man said in a tone that brooked no argument.
"Ee the one at gave ye the patch sir?'
"This?" he lightly stroked the black eye patch. "Nah. Was an elf that did that, rotten little bastard. Stealthy; never see'em coming. Wicked quick."
"I guess so," said the young man. "Just, never seen'em is all."
"You will," said the watchman.
"Before the night is out, you will," the commander agreed.
More might have been said, but for a fierce gust that had them all cowering till it passed then rushing to the edge once it had.
"There! Up the pass."
They were a long way off but there was definitely something moving in the murky dark. "What is it?"
The commander looked at the young man with a grim grin, "What do you think?"
The forms clarified as they drew close; hulking, hairy forms the color of snow and ice. There had to be at least a hundred.
"What are they?"
"Yeti. Spirits of the North, ice and snow, but don't let that fool you. They hit like hammers. Real, solid hammers."
The mass of Yeti parted down the middle, allowing eight huge reindeer to pull a large red sled into view. Several scurrying figures leapt from the sled as it slowed; sharp eared and narrow limbed they were dwarfed by the prancing deer, who were themselves dwarfed by the sleigh driver as he stepped into the snow.
"Look well lad, there he is."
Standing a head taller than all those around him, Clause was a sight, even at a distance. He turned to the assembly and a great noise boomed down the pass. A terrible, dreadful laugh. Ho, ho, ho. The others responded in a horrendous cacophony which threatened to bring down the whole mountain.
What came was much worse. He walked with a stoop which put him at the same level as Claus. In his hand he carried a bit of wood, like a twisted, gnarled shepherd's crook.
The spirit of the North wind looked at the fortress and howled; a powerful frozen wind.
"He's in rare form," the watchman observed.
"That he is," the commander agreed. "Lad, toll the bells."
Scampering down the stairs he took up the tiny mallet and began frantically beating the big silver bells. Doors flew open and men poured into the bitter cold.
"Stoke those fires. Get that pitch good and hot."
Small fires roared into proper blazes hot enough to roast chestnuts. Weapons clanged like caroling bells and the Yeti in the distance grunted and groaned like ageless choirs.
"Look alive boys, it's Christmas eve," the commander shouted. "Get the coal out of your stockings, cuz here they come."
With a deafening roar, the Yeti came. The Christmas rush had begun.