“What bloody time is it?” Sir Edric demanded, refusing to open his eyes.
Dog coughed. “Two o’clock.”
The knight’s eyes snapped open and he sat up, but there was no sign of the sun shining through the slits of his windows’ shutters. He frowned. “Two o’clock in the morning? Dog, the only sort of person who I want waking me up at this bloody hour is a thirsty nymphomaniac. Bugger off.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but Terrence reported a strange sound on the roof.”
“It was probably a rat. Or a squirrel. Go away.”
“Terrence insisted it sounded very large, sir. I told him to remain on duty whilst I let you know.”
Sir Edric sighed, and threw aside his sheets. “Fine. I’ll go up on the roof myself, and you’re coming with me. And if there’s anything short of a dragon up there I’ll feed Terrence to the slime-beast of the Snottlebog.”
Dog waited outside whilst Sir Edric got dressed and buckled on his sword belt. In the corridor of his rather fine house, a thought occurred to him.
“Wasn’t Basil meant to be keeping watch tonight?” Sir Edric asked. He tended not to remember what the other servants were called, but it was hard to forget such a ridiculous name.
“He’s wounded, sir.”
Sir Edric raised an eyebrow. “Wounded? He hasn’t sprained his wrist again, has he?”
“No, sir. He tried to milk Moloch and was kicked halfway across the yard.”
“Ah. Well, that was bound to happen. There’s a reason milkmaids work with cows and not stallions, Dog.”
He led Dog out of the house. The night was frostier than breakfast with his wife. Whilst Dog fetched a ladder, Sir Edric made sure his horses, who slept only an hour or two a night, were all in good order. Hamilton’s Trousers seemed a little down, and Moloch almost bit his hand off when he fed him an apple, but otherwise his sizeable collection of nags was in fine fettle.
He rubbed his hands together in a vain effort to stave off the night’s chill, and tried to devise a suitable punishment for Terrence. A hungry weasel thrust down the trousers was his preferred option by the time Dog finally returned with a long ladder, and propped it up against the wall.
It’ll be a damned rat. Or a squirrel. Or a starling that’s found its way into the loft. On the other hand itmight be one of Esmerelda’s deranged followers. Or perhaps Grog Bel-Rot is out for revenge. A rooftop fight with a nine foot tall lunatic could be a tiny bit dangerous.
“You first, Dog. I’ll hold the ladder for you,” Sir Edric said.
“Very good, sir.”
The knight watched as Dog climbed onto the rooftop, and waited for his reaction. For a moment, the servant disappeared from sight, and then he returned, silhouetted against the stars.
“You should come up and see this, sir.”
Sir Edric sighed. “Just tell me what it bloody is.”
Dog glanced back at whatever was on the roof. “It’s, er, reindeer, sir.”
“Yes, sir. Nine reindeer. And a sleigh.”
Sir Edric glared up at Dog. “I’m coming up to see for myself, and if this is some feeble attempt at a jest, I’ll throw you off the bloody roof.”
He clambered quickly up the ladder. Dog was not the jesting sort, but nor could he believe reindeer had managed to climb onto his roof. His manservant gave him a hand, and then pointed at an incredible sight.
There were nine reindeer and a sleigh on his roof. The reindeer were arranged in four pairs with a solitary lead animal, which was endowed with a bright red nose.
“How the hell did a bloody sleigh get on the roof?” Sir Edric demanded.
“Magic, sir?” Dog suggested.
Sir Edric raised an eyebrow. “If this is a curse it’s a damned peculiar one.”
He kept his distance from the reindeer and their pungent aroma, and approached the sleigh. Whatever manner of creature he imagined might drive onto his roof, it had abandoned its ensorcelled sleigh. The back of the arcane vehicle was occupied by a massive sack. Sir Edric drew his sword, ready to fend off an assailant waiting in ambush or cut the bonds of a slave if he found one trussed up.
This is queerer than the time I saw Percy Lovelock doing the maypole dance with Clifton Bell.
Hundreds upon hundreds of items were inside the sack, each wrapped in brightly coloured paper. Many had ribbons around them, and their sizes and shapes were of a great variety.
“What do you make of it, Dog?” he asked his manservant, sheathing his sword.
Dog peered inside, frowned, and had a second look. “I’ve never seen anything like it, sir. Either the sleigh-driver is stealing, using his magical steeds to land on roofs and then wrapping up his stolen goods, or he’s visiting strangers and giving away gifts. It’s hard to say which is the least likely.”
Sir Edric stroked his beard and pondered the peculiar situation. “Well, if he’s a thief, we should relieve him of his ill-gotten gains. And if these are gifts intended for strangers, we’re entitled to them. The only rational course of action is to take as many as we can.”
Dog reached in to retrieve a box-shaped item, but Sir Edric sighed at him.
“Don’t be a dimwit, Dog. Get the bottles first. A box could contain anything from a plant pot to a severed head.”
Sir Edric, regretting his failure to bring a pack, grabbed as many of the largest bottles as he could manage, and very carefully returned to the ladder. Descending fully laden was awkward, but his righteous desire to deprive the bizarre burglar of his stolen property drove him on. Dog followed soon after, but, before either man could climb back up the ladder, bells jingled in the night and a deep hearty laugh boomed from the rooftop. Without warning, the reindeer drew the sleigh up into the night sky and flew away.
Sir Edric scrambled up the ladder, but two lines in the frost were the only sign of the sleigh ever having been there. He climbed back down and, with Dog, gathered the various bottles they had manage to requisition. Once inside the warmth of his house, he started unwrapping them when Terrence approached.
“Um, something happened while you were outside, sir,” the servant reported.
“You blind me with detail,” Sir Edric replied, tearing open some paper and revealing a bottle of Andelic brandy. “Huzzah! A thief the magical mischief-maker might be, but he has exquisite taste. So, what happened?”
Terrence looked away. “There was a break-in. I was guarding the door, but the miscreant appears to have come in through the chimney. He, er, downed a bottle of sherry and ate several mince pies. And left a present and a card for you, sir.”
Sir Edric’s eyes widened with rage. “The gall of it!”
Terrence handed over the card, and a bottle wrapped in silver paper. The knight set the bottle aside and looked at the card. It had been folded in two, and the outside depicted a jolly fat man driving a flying sleigh pulled by nine reindeer.
No wonder he’s so bloody fat, flying about purloining pies all night. Thieving git.
“The cheeky bastard! He stole my sherry and left a card bragging about it!”
If you enjoyed that festive tale, there's another free short story up here.
To read more of the adventures of Sir Edric and Dog, click here to see Sir Edric's Temple.