by Deborah L. Davitt

I was set up to do my holiday baking, a pile of snow-white flour and glossy brown sugar already in the bowl before me, when I went to crack the first egg into it—and instead of clear whites and golden yolks, blood poured from the broken shell.

Not just a little bit. The whole egg contained nothing but clean, fresh-spilled venous blood. I swore and grabbed for the next, cracking it over the sink. Then another. Then another.

There is no time of year when the veil between worlds is thinner than the days between the winter solstice and the first full moon of the new year. My ancestors knew those days as Jól—called Yule in these times—and on Mōdraniht, or Mother’s Night—now known as Christmas Eve—old wives would tell tales of ghosts and spirits. My family has continued that tradition, down to the last generation—mine.

I hissed a couple more swear words under my breath, so that the kids wouldn’t hear me, and then threw the entire carton of bleeding eggs into the trash. “The ancestral spirits haven’t been placated this year,” I told my husband, who barely looked up from his phone, glued to a game. “It was my brother’s turn, and wouldn’t you know, he forgot.”

“Text him,” my husband suggested, as tiny warriors fought eldritch spirits on his screen, with magic and with sword. “God damnit,” he added in some exasperation. “Cheating son of a bitch AI.”

I sighed. There’d be no getting sense out of him till he finished this season on his mobile game. I picked up my own phone, and called, rather than texting my brother. Texts could be ignored. A direct phone call? Sent a message in and of itself. “Hello?” Erik said on the other end of the line after only two rings, sounding startled. “Signe? It’s early for the Christmas call—”

“Did you go to the barrow and make offerings this year?” I demanded, cutting him off. “I’ve got bad omens coming out my ass here.”

“Me? No! It’s your year to do that!”

“Nooooooo,” I drew out the word. “It’s not. Because I did it the last three years, and you agreed you were going to get off your ass and do it this year, now that your kids are old enough to come with you to learn the ancestral rites.” I forbore to mention that I’d brought my own kids with me the last three years, with one a toddler, and the other swaddled in a Snuggli strapped between my breasts, respectively.

There was a guilty pause. “Oh, shit,” Erik muttered. “Between work and the kids’ soccer schedule, I completely forgot.”

“Well, at least you admit it,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest, holding the phone in place between ear and shoulder. “Now, what are you going to do about it?”

“Do? There’s nothing else to do. I’m going to grab my weapons and armor, tell anyone who asks me what I’m doing that I’m a lost LARPer, and go put down draugr till they all rest in damn well pieces.” Another pause, and then a slightly challenging note entered his voice, “Unless you think you can do better than that?”

My innate competitiveness will be the death of me. “Are you kidding me? I’ll put them back in their graves without using weapons.”

The words hung in the air like a curse.

Is that a beot, Signe? Erik asked.

A beot is half-oath, half-boast. It’s a way to express confidence in oneself, and to challenge oneself at the same time. I wished I hadn’t opened my damned mouth, but it was too late now. I couldn’t back down. “Maybe it is,” I allowed, flicking my short blond hair out of my eyes. Before kids, I’d worn it in a braid down my back; these days, a couple inches of spiky hair was my lifesaver every morning. “Want to make it a contest? Whoever handles the most ancestors, wins.”

You have a deal. Meet you at the barrow in a half hour?”

I’ll be there.”

My husband looked up from his phone, and the tiny wizards and warriors there for a scant moment as I got my cloak and filled a cooler with cookies I’d baked earlier in the week. Snack cakes. A bottle of mead. A dagger and a bowl. All the things you need for bargaining with the dead.

My valkyrie,” he said fondly as I bent down to give him a kiss. “Don’t worry about the kids. I’ll handle dinner tonight.”

I knew that meant hot dogs, but really, what other options were there? I’d had to pour out the milk, which had curdled despite being ultra-pasteurized, thick chunks filling the drain of my sink along with the clots of blood that had gathered there. I would be willing to bet that any food in the freezer would defrost as rotting ruins, too. “I’ll try to be back before midnight.”

Don’t take too many chances. I don’t want to have to come looking for you.” He pushed his glasses up, and for a moment, his eyes snapped into keen focus. In spite of a crippling phone addiction, he was an exceptional mage in his off hours from his engineering job. Still, he let me handle the stuff that came with my family and its history, especially around the holidays, rather than interfering. “Be safe.”

I’ll try,” I agreed, giving him a second kiss, before leaving the house.

The barrow was a long, low hill outside of town. City officials knew that it was a private cemetery, owned by the Thorson family for generations. Since we’d been here since the pioneer days, they left us well alone on the subject. They didn’t need to know how many revered ancestors had been shipped here from Germany, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden to be reburied here in soil they’d have found foreign and distasteful—hence why they needed to be placated on a yearly basis.

I met Erik at the wrought iron gates, as he was unlocking the heavy chain that padlocked them shut. He wore a chainmail hauberk, and carried a very real, very worn sword and shield. The shield was nicked and worn; the hilt of his sword smooth. As he straightened up, he towered over me, easily six foot six to my five foot eleven, and broad in proportion—countless football coaches had endeavored to interest him in the game throughout our adolescence, and every one of them had been frustrated by his indifference. He was the epitome of a bear warrior, my brother, down to the long hair, braided beard, and tattoos.

He was also a criminal defense attorney in his ‘mundane’ life.

It makes life more interesting when you’re more than one thing at a time.

Look,” he said now, gesturing. “Someone hopped the fence and tried to vandalize the place.”

Tried?” I said, following his pointing finger to where I saw a fallen bottle of spray paint, a hammer, and . . . two bloody sneakers, sprawled about ten feet apart. “Oh. Shit.”

Yeah. They’d have woken up for that regardless of me forgetting things. But the question now is how many of them are active.” He gave me a frown. “You sure you want to do this? There’s still time to just let the beot lie.”

I spread my hands. I’d left my sword and spear at home, but while I’d said I’d do without weapons, I wasn’t so foolish as to have foresworn armor. Still, my chainmail was hidden under a festive holiday sweatshirt adorned with mistletoe and brightly-colored bulbs. . . and now I swept my feathered cloak onto my shoulders.

The juxtaposition couldn’t have been more absurd if I’d tried.

No,” I replied, clenching my teeth as they threatened to chatter. “I said what I said, and I meant what I meant. Let’s do this.”

We found the first victim just inside the barrow. He was still alive—barely. His stomach had been bitten open—savaged. Entrails steamed in the cold air. “We should probably call 911,” Erik said as I dropped to kneel by the young man’s side. He looked ashen, and his feet were bare—surely the owner of the sneakers outside. I couldn’t find a pulse in the wrist, but there was a flutter of life at the neck.

I’ll do it—” I said, reaching for my phone.

Which was when the first of the draugr lurched out of the recesses of the long, straight passage beneath the earth that made up the barrow. I flinched back as its claws raked through my sweatshirt to catch on the metal rings beneath. “Hey! That is my favorite Christmas sweater.”

Jól,” Erik countered, swinging his sword down, slicing off the draugr’s hands, drawing the attention of the draugr onto himself. It lunged for him, teeth clacking against his shield.

Whatever. I like celebrating both. More presents that way.”

Gods above, they smell.”

Then the next seven came at us. “Little help would be nice!” Erik panted as he shoved the first one back into the others.

Duck,” I advised, reaching up to the cold, leaden skies above. We were close enough to the tomb entrance that I could do what I did best: I called lightning down, sending it shattering through the corpses. Thunder crashed through the narrow confines of the barrow, air pressure increasing vastly, if briefly, against my eardrums. Undead hearts danced briefly, fluttering briefly to life, before spluttering back out of existence as eight bodies went up in flames.

Erik, who’d wisely ducked the instant I’d said to, straightened up, gave me a dirty look, and said something very rude.

I laughed. “You can get the next ones. I can’t do that deeper in the barrow.”

This was your grand plan? Lure them all to the entrance and let the bodies pile up around you?”

I wish,” I replied ruefully. “No, we’ve got to get to the central chamber and do the rites to send them back to sleep for the next year.” I hefted the cooler in my left hand meaningfully. “My ‘grand plan’ was to try to talk my way through.”

His heavy brows rose. “Talk?”

Talk,” I affirmed.

Oh, this I’ve got to see.” He bowed slightly, gesturing for me to precede him into the barrow’s depths.

It wasn’t that easy, of course. It never is. Every plan you make sounds great on paper. Execution, however, was another matter. “Great-aunt Hilde!” I said firmly, using what my husband had come to call my mom voice. “It is bad manners to try to eat your nephew!”

Signe, I don’t think appealing to her sense of etiquette is going to get this done!” Erik shouted as her long yellow teeth snapped at the air near his throat.

Are you kidding me? Do you remember how starchy Aunt Hilde used to be when we were little? Every napkin folded just the right way. Every piece of cutlery in just the right place. Put him down right now!” This time, in full mom voice as the draugr of our great-aunt, a slightly-built woman who’d died in her eighties, wracked with osteoporosis and arthritis, hefted my bear-warrior brother off the ground and threw him into a nearby wall, where he grunted in pain as his ribs snapped.

I interposed myself between him and the oncoming draugr. Aunt Hilde. Uncle Sven. Great-grandpa Torsen. Great-great-grandma Sigrun. More and more of them began to boil up the passageway at us, and I began chanting their names, trying to keep and hold their attention. Binding their spirits a little more firmly to their bodies. In between their names, I managed to thrust the cooler at Erik.

Now? Here? This isn’t the ritual chamber!” Erik sounded rattled, and well he should. The ritual chamber was consecrated ground, which would amplify the magic of our offerings, and would hopefully send the spirits back to their rightful place, closing the door between the worlds. Making the offerings here, well . . . .

Don’t think we have much choice,” I called over my shoulder, before going back to my chant. “Torson. Hilde. Sven. Sigrun.” Shit, I don’t recognize that one—he’s old. Older than the rest. Must have been imported from the old country for us to care for, and recently. . . .shit, shit, shit! One step closer. Two. Three. He was so close I could smell the ancient spices used in his embalming process so long ago. . . .

My eyes fell on an antique silver bracelet the ancient draugr wore. “Magnus!” I shouted, and the draugr suddenly rocked to a halt, though his claws grazed my chest. “Magnus the Red!”

Who?” my brother shouted.

Magnus the Red. He dates back to the 1160s, for the sake of the gods.”

Just keep doing what you’re doing, Signe! It’s working!” Erik scrabbled in the cooler I’d packed, setting out the lebkuchen and the Christmas cookies and the Hostess snack cakes I’d scrounged from my kids’ school stash.

Sigrun. Magnus,” I droned, turning to catch each ancestor’s decayed eyes with my own with each name. “Torson. Hilde. Shit. Um. Einskaldir? Right. Einskaldir. Sven.”

Once the food formed a neat circle around Erik’s feet, he reached out and pulled me back into it, still chanting. The undead crept closer, their claws reaching for us, but hesitating now, uncertainly wavering between our flesh and the baked goods, prepared with love, below.

Sigrun,” Erik said now, joining his voice with mine as he uncorked the bottle of mead, pouring it out on the stones as a libation. “Sven. Torson. Magnus. . . .”

I knelt and grabbed the knife from the cooler, cutting my hand with it, and letting the red fluid drip into the bowl. “With this, I offer a little of my own life, that you might live a little tonight. Come Sigrun, come Magnus, sip of my blood—”

“—and remember who you really are,” Erik finished with me, taking the knife away and nicking his own palm to let his own blood blow into the bowl. “You were not monsters in life. You need not be in death. Come Sven, come Hilde,” our voices soared and twined, “come Torson and Einskaldir. Come all of you, and feast on the offerings we have prepared for you, and then return to your rest.”

The draugr came. They ate of our cakes and lapped the blood and mead off the floor.

And then they returned to their rest. They faded slowly, like the ghosts that they were, most leaving no signs behind that they’d ever been. However, there was a slight pinging sound as something hit the floor. Erik darted forward, using his cell phone as a flashlight, crouched down, and stood again, his expression unreadable. “I think this is for you, Signe,” he said, holding something out.

It was the silver torc ring that Magnus had worn.

I couldn’t—”

You recognized him. You gave him back a little part of himself that hadn’t been there for the gods know how long. It’s yours.”

He handed me the band. “Ring-giver,” I teased. The most ancient kenning for king.

Erik’s grin in the cell phone’s light was lopsided. “Oh, just put it on. And happy Jól.”

Happy Jól, Erik.” I slid the band onto my wrist, pushing it up my arm to above my elbow. The tarnished silver tingled as it slid into place. Yes, Magnus had meant it for me. The gift was. . . for want of a better word. . . happy to be in its place.

My cell phone had been fried when I called the lightning down—it’s an unfortunate side effect of being who and what I am. But Erik’s worked, and we called 911 for our young vandal, Erik shedding his arms and armor and hiding them in the barrow for the time being as we waited for the ambulance.

The paramedics said shocked things about a pack of pit bulls in the area, and took care of him. He might even survive to see the new year. It’s the season of Jól, after all. The walls between the worlds are weak, and miracles are known to happen.

I won’t forget next year,” Erik promised as we paused by our cars, the red and blue lights of the ambulance flashing. His lawyer credentials and the fact that the wounds were clearly bite marks on the young man had gotten us off without being questioned by police. We were on our family land, paying our respects to our family at Christmas.

We’ll just do it together,” I told him, sighing. “The magic’s stronger when it’s the two of us working together, anyway.”

He paused, shoving his hands deep into his pockets. “Did you notice,” Erik asked abruptly, “who we didn’t see down there?”

I winced. “Yeah,” I said after a long moment, looking down at the ground. “Didn’t see Mom and Dad. Kinda . . . . kinda glad we didn’t.”

Maybe it’s because they’re. . . sort of too recent to have forgotten themselves?”

Or maybe they recognized our voices and went back to sleep?” I countered.

We regarded each other sidelong. “I don’t know,” Erik replied at last. “I’m just glad we didn’t see them. I don’t think I’d have had it in me to cut them down.”

That’s. . . kind of why I said I’d try to do this without weapons,” I admitted. “Everyone in there was someone else’s mom and dad.”

Erik leaned forward and gave me a hug. “Still, it was a stupid beot.”

Yeah.” I agreed, smiling lopsided. “Wouldn’t have been able to do it without you.”

All right, now we’re getting soppy.”

Little bit. You bringing Margery and the kids over for Christmas at our place, right?”

And you’re bringing Elliot and the kids to my place for Jól.

We hugged one more time, and then got into our cars. I drove home, aching in every bone.

Where I found that my dear husband had indeed fed the kids and put them to bed. He even started running me a bath when he heard the garage door opening. “I was just about to come looking for you,” he said, smiling and picking a bone chip out of my hair, regarding it thoughtfully. “Everything handled?”

Everything’s handled,” I agreed, leaning into him.

Good.” He kissed the top of my head. “I’ve got a bottle of wine with our names on it waiting for when you’re done with the bath.”

Did you finish your seasonal event?” I asked, teasing.

He looked sheepish. “Actually, yes. I’m at your disposal.”

Good. Come join me in the tub.” I kissed him back.

Sometimes, the little miracles are all we need.


Deborah L. Davitt was raised in Nevada, but lives in Houston, Texas with her husband and son. She’s known for her prize-winning poetry and acclaimed short stories and novels. Her work has appeared in F&SF, Analog, and Asimov’s. For more about her work, including her Elgin-nominated poetry collections, The Gates of Never and Bounded by Eternity, please see www.edda-earth.com.  For information about her podcast, please see www.youtube.com/@ShiningMoonSpeculativeFiction.





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