Authors’ Note: Here’s a little moment that could have happened in Before the Dawn. So, if you read on, I think it goes without saying, but I’m saying it anyway: Spoilers.
A Knight’s Tale
“Ugh, it’s snowing,” Mal groaned, peeking out the window through the RV’s permanent blinds.
Ben grinned. “That’s Christmassy, right?”
“I guess. But I feel like it’s time to head back south.”
Ben kept his reply neutral, though he’d been advocating for them to stay away from more severe conditions for weeks. It used up too many resources to stay warm. “Well, you know I think that’s a good idea anyway. But not today. It’d be weird if we pulled up stakes in the middle of Christmas Day.”
Chris agreed. “We planned to head out tomorrow anyway. Maybe we could try California again.”
Teddy surprised them all by jumping into the conversation. “I like it! At least for today.” He paused, brow creasing like he wasn’t sure he could go on, but then smoothing when he decided to. “My family always loved snow on Christmas. My mom would sing White Christmas so loud in the park, I swear everyone in our apartment building could hear her. And she had literally the prettiest voice I’ve ever heard.”
Petra squeezed his shoulders in a tight hug. “She really did. Throwing snowballs with you guys that year I got to stay with you is one of my only good Christmas memories.”
Teddy flashed a smile around the room. “Let’s do that then! Let’s go throw snowballs!”
Ben stood and pulled on his sweatshirt. “I’m game. But I’d probably better find some shows. It’s cold out there even for me.”
Everyone else quickly pulled on some winter clothes and headed for the door. Ben couldn’t put hands on his sneakers immediately, and didn’t want to wear the heavy boots he’d been forced to spend money they really didn’t have on to keep shoveling them out over the last couple of weeks, so he went to dig through the storage area under their bed.
Petra’s voice startled him just as he found the shoes he wanted. “Hey.”
He concealed his surprise at her presence and sat to lace up his shoes. “Hey, yourself. What’s up?”
“I … thanks for making cookies with Teddy and whatever. He seems a lot better than last night and even this morning, to be honest.”
“Ted and I talk food a lot anyway. He’s a lot more helpful in the kitchen than any of the rest of you. Even Aife,” he said in a mild teasing manner, not wanting to get heavy with Petra, who’d spent most of the last couple of days snatching his head off.
She smiled and it was somewhat subdued, but clearly genuine. “Christmas means a lot to him. His family was amazing. I think….” She cleared her throat. “I think you gave him a little family today. And I appreciate it.”
“I always wanted a little brother. Our ginge fits the bill just nicely,” he said with a grin. “Let’s catch up with the rest of them, yeah? We’re gonna get ambushed.”
“Teddy would never do that to me!”
When they got outside, no one else was anywhere to be seen.
“Where’s they get to?” Petra wondered looking around.
“Ya got me. But hey, at least it’s warmed up out here. I was afraid it was too cold for snowballs.”
Like that was the magic word, Chris, Aife, Mal, and Teddy all emerged from behind a snowbank and peppered the two of them with a hail of perfect snowballs.
Petra squealed and ran behind the RV, but not to be chased into shelter by what should have been fairly predictable guerilla tactics by his girlfriend and the rest of the crew, Ben dodged the attack and started hurling handsful of half-packed snow high enough that it missed their hands trying to smack it out of the way and perfectly drop down on top of them.
“Ah! No fair!” Mal shouted, laughing. “It’s running down my back!”
“So, surrender!” Ben called back, hurling some more snow in their direction.
“Never!” Teddy yelled, laughing breathlessly.
After a few more volleys, Ben was feeling pretty good about his chances of calling victory and proposing either a snowman or to get them to head inside for hot chocolate. This was the most active Teddy had been since the incident with The Children and he looked flushed, but not in a good way that was just fun and a little light frostbite.
“Ready to give in yet?” he called, heaving two huge snowballs, that could easily have been heads for snowmen.
“Not on your life!” Chris shouted back.
“Are you sure? Because some of us were never issued proper weapons back in the day! Throwing things was one of my best survival skills!”
He might have continued his playful taunting despite being egregiously outnumbered, but when he bent to scoop up some more ammunition what felt like roughly a half ton of snow dumped over where his bunched up sweatshirt exposed his back and packed in at least a quarter of the half ton when Petra knocked him flat on her way by.
“Sweeping the leg! Seriously?”
Her cackle was his only answer as she dove behind the snowback their friends were attacking from.
“Traitor!” he laughed, standing back up and shaking the snow out of his clothes.
“Do you surrender?” Mal called.
“Fat chance.” He puffed out a slow breath, focusing all of his will on calling on his powers.
“Hey!” Mal yelled as the pile of snow in front of them started to quickly melt.
Steam rolled off the bank, obscuring Ben’s view. “So,” he said, trying to see through the cloud of his creation. “Does this mean I win, or what?”
Mal launched herself at him and they both toppled back into the snow laughing.
“I win!” Mal giggled.
Ben pushed himself up to sitting. “Oh, I don’t know. I’ve got a lap full of my favorite person.”
“And a wet butt!”
“And that, too.”
The others had emerged from the cloud swirling around them, all grinning broadly at the two of them laughing in the snow.
“Well aren’t you two just a picture,” Chris chuckled.
“Speaking of,” Mal said, fishing her phone out of her jacket pocket. She tossed it to Chris. “Snap one real quick before Ben gets all serious about something!”
“It’s impossible to be serious with wet boxers, I’m pretty sure.” He wrapped both arms around Mal and pulled her closer, grinning for the camera and for what it would mean to Mal later.
“Alright! Let’s head inside. There’s a wet butt situation Ben needs to take care of,” Mal said as she hopped to her feet and extended a hand to Ben.
Ben emerged from the bathroom in dry clothes a short while later to Chris in full history professor flower.
“So, you see was just a knight who ran afoul of the Church.”
“Who ran afoul of the Church?” Ben asked, helping himself to the hot cocoa simmering on the stovetop.
“Hans Von Trotha, who, I think we can safely assume, was the victim of a likely smear campaign led by the abbot of Weissenberg Abbey in response to a feud between the two of them that ultimately got Von Trotha excommunicated.”
Ben sat on the sofa next to Mal. “This doesn’t seem like a very Christmassy story. I mean, I’m no authority on Christmas since I only ever celebrated it the last couple of years with you guys, but–”
“Scary stories are totally Christmassy,” Mal said. “The tradition of Christmas ghost stories are the whole reason Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol.”
“Okay, sure, but some old German dude getting booted by the Church….” He let the question hang in the air.
Petra chimed in this time. “Apparently, he’s where the story of the Christmas Scarecrow comes from.”
Ben swallowed too much hot cocoa in one burning gulp. “No! You are not telling that story, Aife.”
Aife threw him a very superior look. “I haven’t said a word in all this.”
“Like I’m supposed to believe you didn’t–”
“Give her a break,” Mal laughed. “I started it. I was telling everyone the story of Hans Trapp, the Christmas Scarecrow, who eats bad little children. It’s just a silly made up story. You know, like Krampus.”
Ben cleared his throat stiffly.
“Krampus isn’t made up?” Mal asked, grinning from ear to ear.
Ben shook his head and moved to hold up his hands, then remembered he was holding a mug full of cocoa. Instead, he got up to dump out the rest of the hot drink, mostly so his back was to his lie detector of a significant other when he said, “I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of any beings who may or may not be my former coworkers.”
“I bet I could get you to talk,” Mal smirked and wriggled her fingers.
“You can keep your hands to yourself, Miss Sinclair. Or should I say Master Interrogator?”
“Nothing doing,” he said as he sat down next to her again. “Besides, at least Krampus is actually related to Christmas. The Trapp thing … Isn’t.”
“If you’re going to spoil my fun telling a spooky story, the least you could do is give me a little something about Krampus.”
Ben grinned and shook his head in defeat. “His name is Eugene.”
“Now you’re just being mean.”
“You’re so full of it,” she laughed.
“Fine, don’t believe me. But if he ever shows up ready to wallop you with his big silver beating stick or whatever the Hell it is, don’t blame me when you can’t beg for mercy by using his real name.”
A brief discussion about whether Ben was telling the truth or screwing with them ensued and Aife was no help at all when they asked her to weigh in and she said, “I honestly never heard about Krampus around Hell, so I don’t know what to tell you.”
“Thanks a lot!” Ben said. But he couldn’t hide his satisfaction that the disturbing Trapp story had lost center stage.
Once Mal got bored with the topic though, the spotlight went right back to it. “So, Krampus is real and apparently has boring parents. Cool. Now, what I want to know is who this Trapp guy really is if Ben doesn’t want you talking about it,” she said to Aife.
Aife glanced at Ben. He said, “I’m not your boss anymore, don’t look at me. But just so you know, this is the grossest story I think I’ve ever heard.”
“I don’t disagree,” Aife said. “That’s why I hadn’t said anything.”
Ben shrugged. “You’re not gonna hurt my feelings, but I’m starting dinner instead of sitting here and being horrified.”
He got up and moved the five feet to their kitchenette, as though that actually put distance between him and the tale Aife was about to unfold.
She hesitated. Chris squeezed her hand. “Is this one of those stories you don’t want to tell because you think talking about your old job is going to bother me?”
Aife smiled at him. “I know you’re not like that. But Ben is right. It’s an awful story.”
“So, the Christmas Scarecrow wasn’t some knight on the outs with the Church?”
Chris stroked his chin. “I really thought it was just a little piece of history, co-opted by storytellers. Just the tale of a real knight, taken to an extreme by the Church and perhaps some bored villagers.” He cleared his throat. “I suppose I was inclined to want to believe it. That’s during a time I wasn’t on the best of terms with the Vatican myself.”
“Now that’s the story I think we should hear,” Ben piped up from his spot in front of their stove.
“Nope!” Mal said. “I want some spooky Christmas. And Chris is not capable of being spooky.”
Chris and Ben shared a look. They supposed Mal was inclined to forget both of their pasts as warriors, which was fine with them, if charmingly naive.
“Alright,” Aife began. “I was a trainee at that point, working on the early stages of getting my status as an Agent sorted out. I was off in this little corner of Alsace. The local government didn’t do much about anything the wealthy wanted to get up to. And by the time I got there, stories about Hans Trapp were being told far and wide.”
“Why?” Mal asked, already caught up in the tale.
“He was richer than God, more prone to excess than Nero, and so ruthless and merciless to those around him, especially the local poor, that even the demon in charge of the small office nearby gave him a wide berth. Unfortunately, he got wind that Hell was doing business in the area. And he showed up on our doorstep. Looking to make a deal.”
“For what?” Teddy asked, wide-eyed.
“Power, money, sex, fame,” Aife replied.
“You know, the usual,” Ben offered with a shake of his head.
“I thought you didn’t want any part of this,” Mal laughed.
“I don’t, but … Okay. I like stories. Even terrible ones.”
“Anyhow,” Aife said with emphasis that told Ben she wanted the story back on track so she could just finish telling it. “We told him no. He had nothing of value, the Office was over its quota already, and even Forneus thought he was a creepy fellow.
He took the whole thing very personally and decided he was going to make Hell want his soul.
He set out to do it by dressing up as a scarecrow, lying in wait for people along the road near his castle, and murdering them in ways that even modern film hasn’t dreamt of when it tackles the idea of serial killers.”
“Whoa,” Petra said, warming to the conversation.
“Whoa, indeed. And when his brutal killings didn’t change our minds, he started eating his victims.”
“Oh, my goodness,” Chris said, glancing around at the young people, especially Teddy. “Ben was right. This does not make a very good Christmas story.”
“Then what happened?” Mal asked, too involved to not want to hear the conclusion.
“I have no idea,” Aife admitted.
“So how did he wind up in the stories of the Christmas Scarecrow?” Teddy asked.
Aife shrugged. “It may well be just some classic bad parenting. His story got out to the locals and he made a convenient boogeyman.”
“Did Hell give him a deal?” Petra asked.
“Like I said, no idea. They could have.”
“What aren’t you saying?” Mal asked.
Ben came back over and sat next to her again. “She can’t tell you the ending of a story if she doesn’t know it.”
“But she has a theory,” Mal pressed.
“Weeeellll,” Aife began.
“Go ahead, but if you ruin Christmas, it’s not my fault,” Ben said.
“I’ve always wondered if Hell didn’t do one of their backhanded deals with him. You know, give him what he wanted, but not without cost.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like he wanted to be famous more than anything else. So … I wonder if they didn’t just turn him into some sort of spectre. Permanently.”
“Oh, oh jeez,” Mal said leaning against Ben’s shoulder. “No wonder you didn’t want her to tell it. That’s super creepy. And horrifying. And … it kind of makes me love you both even more. That you could have been somewhere that does things like that, but you’re still you? That’s incredible.”
“We don’t know that they did any such thing,” Ben said. Then he gave Mal a sideways grin. “But you won’t catch me hitchhiking in Alsace at Christmas, that’s for sure.”
The spell of the terrible story was broken by everyone’s laughter. Ben took the opportunity to get the afternoon back on track. “You guys want me to actually cook some more after that big lunch, or do you want to uphold a time honored holiday tradition this afternoon?”
“What tradition?” Teddy asked.
“Chinese food,” Ben and Chris said together.
Petra had her phone out a second later. “Everybody write down what you want. I’ll call it in.”
“What do you guys want to do while we’re waiting?” Ben asked.
“Let’s watch a Christmas movie,” Teddy suggested.
“I know exactly what one I want,” Mal said.
“We’re not watching A Christmas Horror Movie of Black Christmas or whatever other awful scary crap you saw is gonna be on satellite,” Teddy said. “Not after that story!”
“I don’t want to watch any of those,” Mal said innocently.
“What do you want to watch then?”
“Krampus! So Ben can point out the inaccuracies!”