|Summary:||Holiday cheer meets high adventure when the tribal territory of Samiland-AKA Santa Claus-goes missing on the eve of December! His neighbors, the eight member-nations of the Arctic Council, go on the search and uncover a plot for world domination!|
There was no way he could have seen it coming. Who would ever attack him? Especially at this time of year? There are two kinds of people in the world: those who don't know about him, and those who think of him with anything from nostalgic fondness all the way up to adoration. Well, except for a few individual curmudgeons. But certainly nothing along the lines of a country or a tribe. No one who could hurt him.
Or so he had assumed.
Hard at work in the final hours before the calendar flipped over to December (and the real work began), he was roused from his concentration by a jangling of the bells at the workshop door. Without a second thought, he rose from the table to answer it. Anyone else would have been puzzled to be receiving a caller so late at night, but he just assumed that the annual mail delivery had come a little early.
"Just a moment!" he said, picking his way around all the half-finished projects that littered the floor. Some of them were still being worked on by members of the night shift, who danced nimbly out of his way as he passed, their attention never wavering for an instant. After so many years, decades, centuries, the rhythms of the place were second nature to them all.
The ringing came again, more insistent than before. Whoever the visitor was, they were probably freezing their butt off out there. He picked up the pace a little. "Almost there, almost there! Hold your reindeer!"
He opened the door. The visitor stood there in a red winter cloak, their face obscured.
"What can I do for you?"
"Please, sir… I'm dreaming of a white Christmas…"
"It's customary to put your wishes in a letter, you know. Where do you live? If your latitude and altitude aren't too low, I can probably arrange it."
"Actually, I came to arrange it myself."
The hood was thrown back. He gasped in recognition.
"Hello, Santa. I've been such a good boy this year. Won't you come to my house and give me everything I've ever wanted?"
Before he could even formulate an answer, the visitor — the intruder — sprang like a panther.
It was over in minutes, leaving only a workshop in disarray, a handful of traumatized sprites, and snow drifting in through the open door.
After a while, the clock struck midnight.
It was a little past two-thirty in the afternoon, the sun already quite low in the sky, when a lone figure, well bundled in winter clothing and tramping heavily under the weight of a sack bulging with cargo of a generally flat and rectangular nature, arrived at the workshop. It swung the sack down with a sigh of exertion and knocked the snow off its boots. Then it took hold of the end of a length of belled sleigh harness that hung beside the door and shook it smartly. Nothing happened right away, so the figure withdrew a small liquor bottle from one pocket and tugged the scarf away from its face in order to take a swig. Said face was ruggedly male, with a short-trimmed beard and a fixed scowl. You could easily believe, just looking at him, that he wore that same scowl everywhere — to weddings, funerals, dental appointments. And you would be right. For him it was the black wingtip of facial expressions.
His name was Finland, and he was on a mission. A very important mission, one he undertook every year. But not so important that he couldn't have a little vodka while he waited to complete it. It passed the time and kept out the chill, and more to the point, there was still some vodka in the bottle.
After a few minutes, he jangled the bells again. Nothing resolutely continued to happen, and it suddenly occurred to Finland that there were no lights in the windows. Frowning more intensely, he put the bottle away, re-shouldered the sack, and opened the door. He knew it wouldn't be locked — there was no lock. Not here.
Whatever vague suspicion he might have had was thrown into sharp focus. The workshop was in disarray — benches overturned, tools scattered, projects broken. There was none of the fevered activity that should have been present, no sign of the shop's owner or staff. The only light was the fading daylight coming through the open door.
Finland suddenly wished he had his knife. (He had left it home, feeling it would detract from the nature of the outing.) He stooped to pick up a wood chisel, just to have something in his hand, and absently twirled it like a baton while he continued to look around. Something moved in the shadows at the back of the shop, and he froze, gripping the chisel like a weapon. Then it came forward and revealed itself as a sprite, and he relaxed. He met the fey creature's eyes and gave a nod of acknowledgement. It, or perhaps she (it looked female), recognized him and rushed forward, chattering in sprite language. It had been ages since Finland had been able to understand sprite language — hardly anyone could anymore — but the miserable tone was clear enough. He nodded again.
So. Samiland was gone. Kidnapped, from the look of things. That would have been distressing enough at any other time, but it was December. He couldn't be missing in December. The sprites could probably manage most of his operation on their own, but if he wasn't back by the night of the 24th… no one knew what would happen. It was difficult even to contemplate. It was as if the moon went missing — the immediate and obvious effects, like the cessation of the tides, would not be the ones worth worrying about.
Finland mulled this over while emptying the sack of letters into the mail sorting bin as per the usual routine. It wasn't as if he had anything better to do with it, and if the matter could be resolved quickly, everyone would be glad the normal practice had been followed in the meantime. Once the bag was empty, he searched briefly for more clues but, finding none, decided to take the next step.
As he left the building, he pulled out his phone and composed a text message, which he sent to the first three names on his list.
Emergency meeting at the lodge tomorrow. Spread the word and bring EVERYONE.
Christmas Around the World: The Finnish name for Santa Claus is "Joulupukki" which literally means Yule (Christmas) Goat. His home is said to be on Korvatunturi, a three-peaked mountain right on the border between Finland and Russia.
Sweden had not scheduled the meeting and would not be leading it, but he was still the one that called it to order. He was the most habitually organized of all the countries present and it just wouldn't have been as authoritative coming from anyone else. It wasn't easy — the official meeting room was unusually crowded. Designed to seat ten — the five full-fledged Nordic nations, brother and sister — it was currently being called upon to hold nearly twice as many. Finland had said to bring everyone, and had been taken at his electronically transmitted word. A search of the lodge had turned up not quite enough easily portable chairs to accommodate the entire extended family of territories and ethno-linguistic minorities and so on, so the meeting got underway with FennoSwede sitting on his mother's lap, and Svalbard and the Faeroe Islands standing in the back.
It could have been worse. They always put up the Christmas decorations the first weekend in December, and that involved pushing the meeting table against one wall so that there would be enough room for the tree. They had missed having even less space around the table, and having to share the remaining room with the tree and various wreaths and garlands and candles, by only a day.
"Okay, settle, everyone, settle…" Sweden said. "Christiania, is that a joint? Get rid of it right now! Denmark, control your son! Sister Norway, Sister Iceland, pay attention; we're starting now." All eyes turned to Sweden. "So… I guess I'll turn it over to you, Finland."
But it was Sweden's own sister who rose and addressed the gathering. "Sis…?" said Sweden.
"Finland gave me his notes," she explained. She looked uncharacteristically serious — genuinely serious, even, rather than dungeon-mistress-presenting-the-details-of-your-punishment "serious." It didn't jibe well with her mistletoe hairclip… or the two mistletoe brooches on her dress, one on each… side. "Ladies and gentlemen," she continued, "and Denmark, we have a bad crisis on our hands. Yesterday, Finland went up north to deliver the children's letters to Samiland, like he always does. But when he got there, he found that Samiland was missing, and there were signs of a recent struggle in the workshop. It seems plain that he's been kidnapped. So the most important question to start with is: Did anyone see anything? We all have territory in that area, so did any of you notice anything odd or suspicious around there in the past few days?
There was a long, awkward moment while everyone looked at everyone else. And another while they did it again.
Iceland's hand shot up.
"Yes?" Sister Sweden said breathlessly.
"You're shitting us, right? Samiland can't actually have been kidnapped. Not now."
Finland shoved his chair out and began to stomp around the table toward Iceland, readying his knife.
"Finland, relax," said Sister Sweden, stopping him in his tracks. "Iceland, that was a pretty stupid question. Finland wouldn't lie about something this important."
A wave of low-grade horror was sweeping the room. Even FennoSwede had lost his grin, and Kven had started to whimper softly. Of course the children were most affected by the news.
"So what now?" said Norway. "We have to do something. We're Samiland's neighbors; it's our responsibility."
Sweden looked pensive. "We're not his only neighbors. We can start by asking the rest of the Arctic nations if they noticed anything or can give us any clues."
"Is that safe? I mean, can we be sure none of them are responsible?" asked Sister Norway.
"Pretty darn sure," said Sweden. "Canada is out of the question. America may be a big idiot but he loves Christmas and Santa Claus, and I can't really see Russia pulling something like this these days."
"So how do we want to do this?" said Norway. "I don't mind being the one to visit Russia, if it comes to that."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," said Denmark. "If there's a mad kidnapper on the loose, nobody should travel alone. We should all go together to see all three of them."
"What, all of us?" said Åland. "That would be a pretty huge group to manage."
"Well… obviously not all of us," said Denmark. "We can't take the kids out to do something like this, and someone will have to stay with them, and if anything new develops while we're out, someone should be here to spot it, and — "
"All right, Denmark, that's enough," said Sister Sweden. "I think everyone knows what you're getting at."
"Awwwwww, the guys get to have all the fun!" Sister Denmark complained, slamming her beer bottle on the table.
"If visiting people like America and Russia is your idea of 'fun,'" Sister Norway sighed, patting the smaller woman on the back.
"So that's settled," said Sweden. "The five of us will spend the rest of today getting ready and leave first thing in the morning. We'll hit Canada first, and with any luck, he'll know something and we won't even have to deal with the other two."
Christmas Around the World: In Scandinavia, it is customary to set up the family Christmas tree in the middle of the living room. Once it is decorated, the family joins hands and dances around it. Ornaments are often homemade out of paper, straw, and other simple materials. One of the most distinctive Scandinavian ornaments is a heart woven from two colors of paper, creating a checkerboard effect.
Canada was baking when they arrived at his place — they could smell the maple flavoring from halfway down the front walk. They could also hear the hyperdramatic vocals of Céline Dion singing Christmas carols on his stereo system, turned up so loud that they had to bang on the door four times before he heard them. The music shut off abruptly, and Canada's voice called out, sounding uncharacteristically annoyed.
"It's about time you got here, eh. When I said ten o'clock, I meant—" The door opened, letting out a draft of warm, sugar-scented air, and Canada's gaze fell upon the Nordics. The exasperation melted right off his face. "Oh my goodness! I am so sorry for shouting, fellas! I thought you were America. He was supposed to come over and bake Christmas cookies with me, but he's late! Do come in and make yourselves comfortable."
They filed into the house. "Actually, Canada," said Sweden, "we're not here to visit. We came to ask you whether you've noticed anything strange up north lately."
"Up north as in north north?" said Canada. "Not really. Why, did something happen up there?"
"I'll say," said Norway. "Samiland's missing. Finland thinks he was kidnapped."
"Oh no, that's terrible! Who would do such a thing?"
"We have no idea," said Sweden. "That's why we're asking around to see if the rest of the Arctic countries happened to notice anything."
"Hey, here's a thought," said Iceland. "What if America's late to baking because he did see something and decided to take matters into his own hands?"
Enough glances were traded to create a devastating economic bubble in eyeball futures, making it a good thing that it was just a rather tortured metaphor. "I think we have a winner," said Sweden.
"I'd better go with you, eh," said Canada. "If America's gone into 'international policeman' mode, he could be a tad unpredictable. Just let me get the cookies out of the oven and power down the kitchen and we'll be good to go."
"On second thought," said Sweden, "maybe we have a loser after all."
America's place certainly didn't look like he had taken it upon himself to single-handedly solve an international crisis. It looked more like a giant gingerbread village had been hit by a tornado that had first passed through a telephone switchboard factory, a tinsel warehouse, and a science lab where madmen were injecting jolly inflatable snowmen with the DNA of giant redwoods.
"So… much… blinking…" Denmark whimpered, swaying on his feet.
"Someone's been a busy bee," remarked Sweden. "When did he find the time to put all this up already?"
"Are you kidding?" said Canada. "He's had this stuff up since the middle of November."
They approached the front door and tried to ignore the security cameras swiveling to follow their every move. Canada knocked on the front door.
"Just a minute!" came America's typically loud voice. After a moment, a large, heavily tanned hand protruded through the mail slot. "Entry visas, please."
"America, it's me," said Canada. "The Nordics are here too. We just want to ask you something."
The hand was withdrawn, the door flung open. "Canada! Viking guys!" America whooped, pulling them all into a crushing hug. "Merry Christmas! Welcome to the land of the free!"
"… air…" Sweden croaked.
America released them and ushered them inside without further ceremony. "Can I get you anything? Drinks? Snacks? I know! I'll give you some Christmas cookies! I just made 'em this morning!" He vanished into his kitchen and returned carrying a plate of what looked like giant heaps of frosting and sprinkles in garish shades of red, green, and for some reason purple.
"Where's the cookie part?" asked Denmark, poking cautiously at the sugar-laden lumps.
"I don't believe this, eh," Canada complained. "America, you were supposed to come over to my place for cookie baking! Remember? We've only been planning it all week!"
America's face fell. "Aw, man, you're right! I totally forgot!"
"You know what? I'm going to let it go. I don't have time to argue with you about this. We came to bring you some important news."
They explained the situation.
"Who?" said America.
They explained the situation again, substituting "Santa Claus" for every instance of "Samiland."
"No way!" America yelled. "That's awful! Without Santa, how can there be Christmas?"
"Yes! Our point exactly," said Sweden, relieved to have gotten him, if not on the same page as the rest of them, at least somewhere in the right chapter. "So we were wondering if you had any idea what might have happened. Has anything strange been going on in and around your Arctic territory?"
"Not that I know of," said America. His eyes widened. "Wait a minute. Arctic?"
"Yes," said Sweden. "Sam — Santa lives in the Far North, so we're asking around the Arctic Council members to see if — "
"If there's dastardly dealings going on in the Far North, there's only one country who can be responsible!" America asserted. He narrowed his eyes, and the very lighting in the room seemed to change so as to throw a strip of light across them while the rest of his face darkened dramatically. "Russia."
Awkward silence met the pronouncement. After a moment, Iceland leaned over to Norway and said, "I thought we already ruled him out." Norway only shrugged.
"America…" Canada said, setting a calming hand on his brother's arm, "it's been twenty years. When are you going to stop suspecting Russia of plotting evil all the time?"
"Well… it can't hurt to check," said America. "Come on, guys. To the Alaska wing!" He led them to the northwesternmost extension of his house and upstairs to a little cupola, where he had a small telescope set up in the window, pointed due west. "Lucky for us," he said, peering through it and adjusting the lenses, "I can see Russia from my house. So I can see exactly what he's up to."
"I know I said I didn't suspect him before," said Sweden, "but to be fair, Russia is one of the only people who could be in and out of Samiland's territory quickly enough to avoid notice."
"My point exactly," said America.
"That seems unlikely," said Sweden.
Norway squinted out the window. Right at the very edge of vision was a squat shape that might indeed have been a house, perhaps Russia's. Presumably America had a better view through his telescope. The superpower's face clouded over as he peered through the eyepiece.
"Well? What's he doing, eh?" said Canada.
America slowly pushed the telescope to one side while keeping his head in exactly the same position. "Nothing," he said in the tone of voice a normal person would use to say "Murder."
"There we go," said Sweden. "Can we stop this foolishness?"
"We'll see," said America. "For all we know, this just proves that Russia is only covering up what he did! I say we head over there and interrogate him!"
There was a collective sigh. "Well, we were going to drop in on him next anyway," Norway pointed out.
America did the strip-of-light-across-narrowed-eyes thing again. "I'll get my gun."
"How do you do that?" said Denmark.
"Sorry," said America, thumping a track lighting installation. "It's been glitchy for a while; I've been meaning to get it fixed."
Christmas Around the World: American Christmas decorations are notorious for being over-the-top (like pretty much everything else). Some neighborhoods even have competitions to see who can put together the most elaborate and creative display on their property. As there is no set time for the decorations to go up, some people put them up well over a month in advance.
It was freezing at Russia's place, even by Nordic standards. It was always freezing at Russia's place, when it wasn't boiling. There must have been a giant switch somewhere. Sweden rang the bell quickly and stepped back, hugging himself to conserve warmth.
"Yes, who is it?" called Russia from somewhere deep inside his house.
"It's the Arctic Council," said Sweden, leaning close to the door to make sure his voice carried inside. "We need to talk to you."
"Ah, my fellow Northerners!" Russia replied. "Come in then! It is unlocked!" He sounded friendly enough, but he obviously wasn't making a move to open his own door.
Sweden reached for the handle, but America stopped him, protesting with chattering teeth. "D-don't! It's pr-probably b-b-booby tr-trapped!"
Sweden merely gave him a blank look and opened the door. Nothing bad happened whatsoever. He waved them all in, and they entered the house — first Iceland, then Denmark and Norway together, followed by Canada and a grumpy-to-be-proven-wrong America. But Finland hung back, remaining somewhere around Russia's mailbox.
"Finland?" said Sweden. "Aren't you coming in?"
Finland replied with a vigorous headshake.
"Don't be like this, Finland. You know he's changed. He's not going to hurt you."
Finland set his jaw and shook his head again.
Sweden pulled out the big gun. "Do you want me to tell my sister you were being less reasonable than America?"
Finland's jaw dropped with dismay. Then his entire face pulled away from its edges toward the center. He drew his ever-present kitchen knife with one hand, grasped his liquor bottle with the other, and stomped toward Sweden… and past him into the house, ignoring him completely. It was the only way he could cope with the fact that the other nation was right.
It was much warmer inside, and the air held a pleasantly smoky scent. They found Russia in his rec room, sitting in an easy chair beside a crackling fireplace but far from relaxed. He was hunched forward, with his elbows resting on his knees and his chin on his hands, staring intensely at his TV set. The program was a televised performance of The Nutcracker.
"I must apologize for not seeing you in," he said without looking at them, "but I could not bear to miss this — it is my favorite part!" On the screen, the heroic Nutcracker and the wicked Mouse King were joined in furious, heavily stylized battle, while the prima ballerina looked on in dread.
"Ballet?" America scoffed. "What kind of — "
"Shush! This is high art!" said Russia. "Fight, Clara!" he urged the heroine. "You are no fainting flower — defend your Prince!" There was really nothing for the others to do until the scene ended, good triumphed over evil and the slain Mouse King was borne away by his army. Only then did Russia, in tears over the drama, pick up his remote control… and hit the Pause button.
"It was a video?" Canada said weakly.
"So then!" Russia whooped, leaping up out of his chair and spreading his arms wide in greeting. "How are you boys? I hardly ever see any of you anymore! Iceland — getting back on your feet? Good, good! Denmark! Always a joy! America, you crazy kid, what are you up to these days? As if I didn't know already — you never shut up about yourself! Finland… I knew you couldn't stay away forever." Finland shrank back, clutching his knife and bottle like protective talismans (which, in a manner of speaking, they were).
"Russia…" said Sweden, cutting the awkwardness short to everyone's relief, "as much as we'd all love to catch up, we have more important things to discuss."
"Yeah!" America interjected. "So can the small talk, Commie! What'd you do with Santa?"
Russia raised an eyebrow. "Is he just running at the mouth or is something actually going on?"
Once again, they summarized the situation. Russia grew grim as the account progressed.
"I see," he said, settling back into his chair. "That is indeed serious. I swear by everything I hold dear, this is no doing of mine."
"How do we know you're telling the truth?" said America.
"Let me prove my sincerity. What can I do to help?"
"You can join our investigation," said Sweden. "It's starting to look like we'll need all the help we can get."
Finland's eyes bugged out in alarm.
"Now just hold on a damn minute!" said America. "I never agreed he could come with us!"
"I'm sorry?" said Sweden. "Did I miss the part where you were put in charge of this expedition?"
"Of course I'm in charge! I'm the U.S. of A over here! And I'm declaring this mission a Commie Free Zone!"
"What the — how do I even begin to correct that?"
"You know what?" said Russia. "Forget it. This matter is far too important for there to be any dissension among the team. If my presence will cause friction, I had better stay out. Besides," he added, "I have projects of my own to work on and I don't need to be pestered."
"That's more like — waaaiiit," said America. "What sort of 'projects?' What are you hiding in this house of horrors you call a… house? I think maybe I shouldn't let you out of my sight! Thought you could trick me into letting you have your way, did you?"
"Something like that," said Russia.
"Well, it won't work! You're coming with us, and that's final!"
Russia met Sweden's eyes, which rolled in exasperation.
"All right, all right. You win," said Russia. "Now, you said Finland found no clues in Samiland's workshop. But he has only one pair of eyes, keen as they may be. I say we go back as a group and search every inch. A crime of this magnitude is bound to have left something."
"That is the sort of thing you'd know about, isn't it?" said America. Tilting the shade on a nearby table lamp so that the bulb shone in Russia's eyes, he continued, "Is there anything else you want to tell us about?"
"America…" Canada said patiently, "knock it off, eh. Just give him a chance. You two have been getting along pretty well lately; don't spoil it."
"Huh? Well… okay, Canada. On one condition."
"And what's that?" But Canada could already guess.
America bent double and pointed insistently to the crown of his head.
Eight nations left the house. But there were only seven sets of footprints in the snow.
Christmas Around the World: The Nutcracker is probably the second-most famous ballet in the world, right behind Swan Lake. Both were the creations of Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. As a result, man-shaped nutcrackers like the one featured in the ballet are often associated with Russia, though they originated in Germany. A more native Russian Christmas ornament is the matryoshka doll, especially when painted with Christmas-specific designs.
"Are you sure this is the right place? It sure doesn't look like the North Pole," said America.
"We're sure," said Norway.
"America, if you're going to be part of this, you have to stop questioning every single thing we do," said Sweden.
"I'll be part of whatever I want to be part of," America said stubbornly. "Who's gonna stop me, you?"
"Not so loud," said Iceland. "We'll be there any second and the sprites hate loud voices."
They rounded a bend on the precarious mountain trail and Samiland's home came into view: a mismatched complex of structures laid out on what would, in high summer, be a sun-soaked alpine meadow. Now, of course, it was a field of ice and snow, barely lit by the abbreviated winter daylight. There was the dwelling itself, actually a traditional yurt with a smoke hole in the roof. There was the (empty) reindeer pen, probably the only one in the world with an attached runway. And tucked in the back corner was the workshop, incongruously cottage-like in design.
"I guess you guys were right," said America with a boyish grin. "That's Santa's workshop, all right. It looks just like I always pictured it."
"It always does," said Norway.
They visited the reindeer pen first. The ground was heavily rutted with obvious skid marks: the animals had been taken by force.
"Why didn't they fly away?" wondered Denmark.
Finland shook his head and scuffed a large "24-12" in the snow with his foot.
"What the hell's that mean?" said America.
"It's a date," said Canada. "The 24th of December. Finland means the reindeer only fly on Christmas Eve."
"Why didn't he just say so? How come you never talk, Sauna Boy?"
Finland spent the next several moments in psychological agony, torn between his automatic impulse to whip out the knife and go to town, and the certain knowledge that those who pulled weapons on America rarely escaped without six figures of civilian casualties and a brand-new, hand-picked government. And he really liked Tarja. Finally, he turned with stuttering slowness to the superpower and very deliberately arched one eyebrow before stalking off toward the workshop. The intent of the gesture was to say "How come you never stop talking?" but in his twitchiness, he failed to get it across.
America was nonplussed. "What was that all about?"
"Beats me," said Sweden. "It must have been one of his rural dialects."
"You traumatized him, America," said Canada. "You've got to develop a lighter touch when it comes to foreign policy, eh."
They moved on to the workshop. Finland had stopped at the porch and reverted back to his normal stoic demeanor. Sweden rang the bells, but only as a courtesy to let the sprites know they were there before they opened the door and entered.
Almost as one, the sprites present looked up from their work, wide-eyed with alarm. One or two of them dropped their tools and dove to hide under their benches.
"Poor little fellas," said Denmark. "Even after a shock like that, they're still trying to get their job done. What brave little troupers!"
"Stay here, guys," said Iceland. "I'll talk to them, let them know we're on their side."
"Iceland, you can talk to sprites?" said Sweden.
"Sure. I still see them around home from time to time. They don't get along with the demons, though. I guess I should have mentioned that earlier, huh?" He slowly moved further into the workshop, calling in soothing tones to the little workers. After a moment, one of them, bigger than the others and wearing a more ornate hat — the foreman? — came forward and began speaking. Iceland crouched to converse with the sprite on its own level. The chat was brief, and afterward the young country returned to the group.
"They don't know who it was who did it," he said. "All countries look pretty much alike to them. Mostly they just recognize our flags, and none of them got a very good view of the kidnapper's. It was red and white; that's all they can say."
"Well, that's not much help," said Denmark. "Lots of countries wear red and white. I wear red and white."
"So do I," said Canada. "And I'm sure it wasn't me."
America gasped suddenly. "And so does Santa!"
"What is your point?" asked Russia.
"Maybe the kidnapper is… Evil Doppelganger Santa!" The sprites cringed under the noise.
"America, remember what I said about being too loud," said Iceland.
"Sorry," said America, dropping to a stage whisper. "But it makes sense, doesn't it? I saw a movie once where that happened! There was this evil version of Santa, and he wanted to replace the real Santa, so he made this army of toy soldiers to take over the North Pole!"
"America," said Sweden, "movies are fiction. You're 235 years old; you should be able to distinguish reality from fantasy by now." He groaned and massaged his temples. "We'll just have to investigate everyone with a red-and-white flag until we find something."
"Not necessarily," said Russia. "There may be a witness after all. America reminded me of it just now."
"Yes. He mentioned North Pole — have you been to see her yet?"
The Nordics blinked. "No, actually," said Norway. "We didn't think to."
"For shame," Russia said with a sly grin. "She is Samiland's neighbor too, is she not? As well as all of our own. How could you forget her?"
"Well, she's not very easy to talk to — what's America doing?" said Denmark.
America had turned away from the group and was muttering into his phone. They caught the words "two dozen" and "deluxe assortment" before he noticed that he was being stared at, said "I'll call you back!" and hung up. "Sooooo… shall we be off?"
"Before you all get too ticked off at my brother, let me remind you of one thing," said Canada. "I'm adopted."
Christmas Around the World: What sort of creatures are Santa's helpers? In English-speaking countries they are usually called elves, but in Nordic lands, the word "elf" often refers to a very different sort of being (similar in some ways to the Irish sidhe) and one of the Christmas toymakers would be considered a nisse or tomte. These words are often translated into English as "gnome," but a more accurate rendition might be "brownie," as in the helpful household spirits of British folklore. The closest Russian equivalent, by the way, is the domovoy, another household fairy.
(In any case, to avoid confusion and untoward cultural baggage, this story uses the generic term "sprite," which can be applied to almost any variety of "little folk" found anywhere in the world.)
The Arctic Council found North Pole out on her second-story balcony, resting her hands on the railing and watching their approach as though she had been waiting for them. It was a clear night (it had been night there for weeks by now), and she stood bathed in the light of her unmoving star to eerie effect.
Russia was the first to greet her. "Good evening, my snowdrop! You are looking lovely tonight!"
North Pole made no response. She might as well have been a statue, except that she shifted her head ever so slightly as they approached, in order to keep her gaze fixed on them.
"You've been expecting us, haven't you?" said Sweden.
She made a slight nod, barely perceptible in the starlight.
"Then you know what's happened to Samiland. You saw something."
"Why didn't you contact us right away?"
No response. It was like talking to Finland, only without the helpful knife gestures.
"Snooty bitch," Iceland muttered. "She acts like the world revolves around her."
"She just hates to volunteer information," said Norway. "She doesn't want anyone to think she's playing favorites."
Whether that was true or not, the fact remained that they finally had a lead on the culprit's identity, if they could just coax it out of the witness.
"Come on, babe, don't hold out!" said America. "You know you can trust me. Just pretend these other guys aren't even here."
"Maybe a more direct approach," said Russia. "No cheap flattery this time, North Pole. This is very important: Who was the kidnapper? Who took Samiland?"
North Pole frowned. She planted her hands on the balcony railing and vaulted over it, landing lightly on the ice below. She marched toward the group, her eyes flashing.
"Oh, crap," said Sweden.
"Easy," said Norway. "I don't think it's us she's angry at."
North Pole stopped a short distance from the group and pointed off to one side. There were lines etched in the ice over there, too regular to be natural cracks. Maybe she was annoyed at them after all, if the answer to their question had been there all along and they hadn't even noticed. They went over to take a look.
The lines made a symbol: a circle with what looked at first like a stylized X in the center, until North Pole herself came over, bringing the starlight with her and revealing that each arm of the X angled off to the right.
Denmark made a strangled sound of alarm.
"Oh, god…" said Norway. He rounded on North Pole. "Does this mean what I think it does? Are you saying Nazi Germany did it?"
"Oh, god…" Norway moaned, sliding into a sitting position and burying his face in his arms.
"Buck up," said Sweden, setting a hand on his shoulder. "It won't be like last time. I promise."
"Are you kidding?" said America. "This is gonna be great! What better way to spend the Christmas season than pounding the crap out of that evil bastard and saving the world again?" He punched his palm a few times for illustration. "Hey, Russia! Remember last time, how he was trying to beat the crap out of you and you were all 'Is that all you got, Comrade? HA HA HA!' but really he was about to win and then I swooped in and kicked his ass? We could totally do it again! I am so glad I made you come along!"
"I too find that I like you better when we have this asshole to fight," said Russia. "I am impressed, America. What you said just now — it is more credit than you usually remember to give me."
America shrugged. "I've been watching the History Channel."
"It's so weird," said Denmark. "Why would Nazi Germany take Samiland? It's not like he has a lot of land or money."
"He must be after him as Ded Moroz," Russia agreed, "but that still doesn't tell us why."
"I know, right?" said Canada. "Ruining Christmas doesn't seem like his style. Hanukkah, maybe, but not Christmas."
"Well, at least we have an entire month to solve the mystery and effect a rescue," said Russia.
"Maybe you do," said Sweden. "Most of us only have until the 25th of this month."
"It's already too late for Netherlands," Denmark sighed. "I'll send him a text to let him know not to wait up. So what do we do?"
"We'll drop in on Germany," said Sweden. "I hate to bring up this subject with him, but he's the only one who might have any more information. Thank you for your help, North Pole. We'll stop bothering you now."
Christmas Around the World: When do the presents come? The date varies by country. In most of the Christianized world, the main celebration is on December 25. But in others, including Russia and other countries dominated by the Eastern Orthodox Church, the most important date is January 6. The difference is due to a discrepancy between the Julian and Gregorian calendars that wasn't corrected until long after the East/West split in Christianity. Nowadays, January 6 is called Epiphany and is said to correspond to the day the Three Kings brought their gifts to the baby Jesus.
In the Netherlands, however, Santa — or in this case Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) — visits on his own day, December 6. He brings candy and gifts for good children… and his assistant, Black Peter, carries a stick to spank the naughty ones!
On their way to Germany's house, Denmark pulled America aside and explained to him very carefully the difference between Germany and Nazi Germany, and why you should never mistake the one for the other, and that in fact it's usually not a good idea to even mention the other to the first one, and maybe he should just let the rest of them do the talking. America listened attentively and assured Denmark that he understood and he was starting to get the hang of this "international cooperation" thing and it was in no way going to be a repeat of Russia's house. At all.
So naturally, when they got there, America shoved his way to the front of the group before anyone could ring the bell, kicked the door in, and charged inside with his gun drawn, shouting, "FREEZE, NAZI SCUM!"
Germany, who at that very moment had been heading toward the front door with a wreath to hang on the outside of it, instantly passed out from sheer mortification.
"Aw nuts," said America. "That was the other guy, wasn't it?" The rest of them held a group facepalming session.
Fortunately, Germany's spell of unconsciousness gave them time to do some damage control. First, they made sure it was just a faint, and not a stroke or shock or anything, before moving him to his sofa and readying some smelling salts. Then they started working out a cover story. It was easy enough to get America to go along with the half-truth that he had thought Nazi Germany was hiding out there and got overenthusiastic about challenging him, but he flat-out refused to apologize.
"I'm not going to pretend I did anything wrong! I was acting in the name of FREEDOM! and that's never wrong! Right, Canada?"
"I, uh, well, I, um, I guess so," said Canada. "But," he added, "if it were me, I would apologize."
"What's your point? You'd apologize if he did it to you."
"I can't really argue with that, eh."
"This is stupid," said Sweden. "America… just swallow your pride for five minutes. We need Germany to be functional."
"Well, if he doesn't want to be mistaken for Nazi Germany, maybe he should change his name!"
"What?" Sweden sputtered. "I can't believe you just said that!"
"What? That's what my sister did when we had that huge fight that one time! And then she changed it back after we made up!"
Denmark suddenly got a very sly grin. "America," he said in an exaggeratedly conversational tone, "I wonder what Santa would think of how stubborn you're being?"
You never saw a nation switch gears so quickly. America's voice dropped in volume by about half and rose in pitch by about an octave. "You don't think… he'd put me on the Naughty List, do you?"
"I don't know… but I wouldn't want to risk it."
Suddenly America would have done anything to make amends, which was right where they needed him. At that point, they revived Germany.
He spotted America first and recoiled with a cry that was equal parts fear and guilt. But before he could apologize, America was apologizing to him. "Aw, man, I'm sorry! I didn't mean to freak you out like that! I actually wasn't even talking to you — I thought you-know-who was holed up in here! Man, do I feel stupid for busting in like that! I'll shut up now, but I just wanted you to know how sorry I am!" And then, amazingly enough, he shut up.
Apparently the role reversal short-circuited Germany's usual downward spiral and allowed him a quick recovery. "Uh… I forgive you?" he said. Then he noticed the others. "Hey, guys. What's going on?"
"Here's your wreath, Germany," said Denmark. "You dropped it when you fell."
"Oh, right," said Germany, getting up and taking it. "Come with me while I hang it up."
They followed him back to the front porch and watched as he placed it on the nail in the door and let it settle into place. "There. Decorating finished."
"That's all you're putting up this year?" said Norway.
"Of course not! That's just the finishing touch! Come around to the backyard and see!"
They followed again, and as they came around the back corner of the house, as one, they gasped with delight. Germany had a fir tree, five or six meters tall, planted in his backyard, and it was completely covered with hundreds of the most exquisite blown-glass ornaments in every shape imaginable: not only traditional spheres and pine cones and grapes and the like, but castles and violins and rearing horses and… a complete listing would be pointless and take up too much space. Suffice it to say, it was gorgeous. While the Arctic Council gazed upon it in awe, Germany sidled over to his house and pulled a switch, and the whole thing burst into light from the electric candles affixed to the ends of the branches. There was an admiring "Oooooooooooh!" from the group.
"It's so sparkly!" said Iceland. "And I know what I'm talking about!"
"Germany," said Denmark, "you always have the best Christmas trees."
"Well, he should," said Sweden. "He practically invented them."
Germany shut off the lights. "I can't wait until tonight; it will be really spectacular once it gets dark. Come on back inside; it's chilly out here. I've got sweet pretzels in the oven."
"Actually, Germany — " Sweden began, but Norway nudged him sharply. " — that sounds lovely," Sweden finished.
They went in and, after some initial Finno-Russian drama over the seating arrangements, settled down in the living room with the fresh snacks, as well as some mugs of hot cocoa, liberally flavored with mint and, for those who wanted it, brandy. There was another tree in there, much smaller but just as lavishly ornamented.
"It was so nice of you all to drop in," said Germany. "There's not much point in decorating if no one comes to see."
"Don't thank us yet," said Sweden. "This isn't exactly a social call. America might have been too blunt about it, but we do need to speak to you about you-know-who."
Germany's mug began to clatter against his saucer and he turned faintly green.
"Nobody blames you, of course," said Russia. "Let's get that out of the way first thing. But much as it pains you to think about it, he is your family and no one else is likely to have much insight into his activities."
The clattering got worse as Germany began to hyperventilate.
"Somebody take his cup before he passes out again," said Norway.
Canada hopped up and got it just before Germany pitched forward off his chair and lay on the floor, twitching slightly.
"Well, this is going well," Sweden deadpanned.
"Maybe we should just leave," said Iceland. "I don't think we're going to get anything out of him, and that's assuming he knows anything to begin with."
"He knows something," said Russia, propping the unconscious nation against the wall. "He would not react this badly otherwise. He would just apologize fifty times and then try to change the subject." He glanced up at the doorway that led to the hall. "Isn't that right, my dear?"
Germany's sister stood there, taking in the tableau — her brother on the floor in an all-too-typical faint, the Arctic Council arrayed around her living room. After a moment, her eyes widened, and she sagged against the door frame. "He actually did it," she said weakly. "He wasn't bluffing for once."
"Aw, don't you pass out too," said America. "One's enough."
"You see?" said Russia. "I told you. Types like Nazi Germany — "
"Don't say that name!" Sister Germany barked.
" — can never resist boasting of their evil plans. What did he tell you, my dear?
"And why didn't you warn anyone in advance?" said Norway.
Sister Germany drifted into the room and took the seat her brother had so unceremoniously vacated. "How were we to know he would actually do anything this time? He's always ranting — eyes up here, dummkopf — always ranting about his latest scheme to seize power again, and this one seemed crazier than most."
"So what's his game?" said America. "Why does he want to ruin Christmas?"
"He doesn't want to ruin it; he wants to run it. I'm sure you all know about his little fascination with the occult. He has been looking for a way to steal magic from others for years now. Apparently he finally found it."
"He's going to steal Samiland's Christmas magic?" said Sweden. "And do what with it? Give everyone presents? Spread cheer throughout the world? How does this help him achieve world domination?"
"Who knows?" Sister Germany said with a sigh. "My brother and I have given up on figuring out how his mind works. All we know is what he lets slip whenever he starts raving about his master plans."
"Master race plans," America snickered.
"Always tasteful, that American humor," said Russia.
"Did he let anything slip about this one?" said Norway.
"He may have," said Sister Germany. "Lately he has been going on about reclaiming past victories and getting revenge on those who defeated him last time. More than usual, that is."
"Revenge," America scoffed. "I'd like to see him try."
"Be careful what you wish for, my boy," said Russia. "If he has acquired powerful magic, the game is changed."
"Where would he have taken Samiland?" asked Sweden. "Not here, obviously."
"That I don't know," said Sister Germany. "But you might not have to find him. If he's after revenge or reliving old conquests, he may very well come to you."
Norway stood up suddenly. "We should go. If that is what he's up to, there are lots of countries we have to check up on and warn. Probably starting with our own."
"I'm on it," Sweden said, rapidly punching a text message into his phone while they started gathering up their coats. He addressed the non-Nordic members of the team. "You three can let your sisters know it's all right if they head over to the Nordic House — safety in numbers, and all that. How about you?" This was directed at Sister Germany, who was pulling her groggy brother to his feet.
"We'll be fine here," she said. "He won't hurt us. He thinks he does these things on our behalf. We'll let you know if we find out anything else."
"Who are you talking about, sis?" Germany mumbled.
"No one," she said. "Let's go make some more pretzels."
"Hey, Canada," said America as they left. "We should give Dad a heads-up. The last thing he needs is Blitzkrieg in the middle of Christmas dinner."
"Yeah, no kidding," said Canada. Suddenly he pulled up short with an expression of abject horror. "Oh no… Mom!"
Christmas Around the World: The ultimate origin of the Christmas tree is disputed, but there is no doubt that the tradition rose to prominence in northern Germany during the latter half of the 16th Century. The earliest decorations used were edible: nuts, sweets, and fruits such as apples that kept well over the winter. The familiar blown-glass ornaments date back to the 1880s and are also German in origin. One German custom is for the parents of a family to hide a pickle-shaped ornament somewhere on the tree. The first child to find it Christmas morning gets a special present or treat.
A/N: This chapter will not include a "Christmas Around the World" trivia bit. Instead, I would like to direct you to "Christmas Night of Zombies" by MxPx as a soundtrack piece for the action sequence.
"Don't panic," said Sweden as they hurried in a southwesterly direction. "I'm sure your mother is fine. She's famous; it would be all over the news if anything happened to her."
"We haven't been watching the news! We've been doing a crummy job of detective work!"
"A what job?" said Iceland.
"Crummy," said America. "It's Canadian for 'crappy.' When he's really upset, he swears in his native language."
Finland raised his liquor bottle in solidarity.
To be fair, Canada did have cause to worry in that France hadn't been answering his frantic phone calls. It wasn't unheard of for her to neglect her phone — she received a lot of visitors for purposes such that interruption just wouldn't do — but under the circumstances, it wasn't a chance he was willing to take.
As they were crossing a large field, a light snow began to fall. "Where did this come from?" said Norway. "The sky was clear a few minutes ago."
"I think I just figured out something Nazi Germany can do with stolen Christmas magic," said Denmark.
The snowfall grew heavier, piling up in drifts around the field. The going was getting harder, especially for the smaller members of the group. They were just about in the middle of the space when Canada, in the lead, stepped into an invisible hollow in the ground and wound up buried up to his armpits.
"Oh… fiddlesticks!" he cursed. "I don't have time for this, eh!"
Denmark snickered. "Some Arctic nation you are, Canada, if you can't even handle a little snow."
"Says the guy who's only in this club due to a technicality," Canada grumbled.
"And who almost choked to death on a snowflake a couple of winters ago," Sweden pointed out.
America took Canada's hands and pulled, but the snow was damp and clingy and sucked at the smaller brother's legs. The group set about digging him out instead. After a moment, the snowfall quit as abruptly as if someone had turned off a tap, but the clouds overhead turned so dark and heavy that the daylight all but vanished. From all around they heard an echoing sound like off-key bells.
"It's him," said Denmark. "It must be."
A frigid wind gusted across the field, sculpting the fresh snow into little peaks and valleys. The largest heap in the vicinity, its size enhanced by its position at the top of a gentle rise, suddenly burst open like an egg in a microwave oven. There stood Nazi Germany, arms akimbo, looking proud and malicious and not at all like someone in possession of Christmas magic ought to look.
"That was a pretty good entrance, don't you think?" he said. "I'm giving myself extra points for style. In fact, I think I'll do that last bit again." He made a sweeping gesture with his arms, and the snow re-gathered around him and exploded off once more. This time, he struck a bodybuilder pose, but he quickly straightened up. "No… that was a little over the top, I think. Well, gentlemen? Aren't you going to say hello? I came all this way just to see you." He began to stride down the slope toward them.
"You just stop right where you are!" said America, pulling out his gun. The others brought out their own weapons and drew into a defensive huddle.
Nazi Germany stopped and spread his hands pacifistically. "You wound me with your distrust. I only want to spend some time with my favorite countries in the world. Isn't that what this season is all about? Visiting with… loved ones? Ask Canada; he can tell you."
Canada struggled against the remaining snow trapping him. "You lay one hand on my mother, and so help me, I'll make you so sorry!"
Nazi Germany let out a bark of laughter. "That's it? That's your idea of a threat? Well, if you're not even going to try, I won't waste my time. My checklist won't complete itself, you know. I'll give fair France your regards. Happy Holidays." And with that, he sank back into the snow and vanished.
"We'd better hurry," said Norway, redoubling his digging efforts. "Now that we know he's targeting France, we can't lose another second!"
"Don't you worry, bro," said America. "We won't let him mess with your mom. She may be a thin-skinned crybaby, but she's our thin-skinned crybaby!"
"Uh… I don't want to alarm anyone," said Denmark, "but have you guys noticed the sky is still dark? Shouldn't it have cleared up once he left?"
"I can still hear that strange bell sound also," said Russia. "This cannot mean anything good."
With a final heave, they got Canada out of the hole. And onto America's head, to avoid any more such mishaps. But the wind was picking up again, shuffling the snow into new piles… and the piles were moving, as if something alive were squirming inside them. They took on roly-poly forms, sprouted stick arms which they used to rub coal-lump eyes, and the horde of living snowmen lurched forward, snarling, to surround the Arctic Council.
"Aw, hell no…" America said. "That's just wrong!" He leveled his gun at one of the snowmen and fired off several rounds, but it didn't even slow down. "It's a snowman zombie apocalypse!"
The snowmen closed in, swiping at the group with the gnarled branches they had for arms. Some of them were armed with brooms and snow shovels, which would not have made very fearsome weapons had they not been glowing with a rather sickly bluish light, like a winter evening gone wrong. Wherever those implements struck, they left a thin but wickedly cold layer of ice.
"What do we do? What do we do?" Denmark squawked.
"Obviously we fight!" bellowed Russia. He whipped out a vodka bottle to rival Finland's, took a hefty swig, and then punched the nearest snowman right in its fossil-fuel face. Its head shattered under the blow, and it collapsed into a heap of powder and twigs. "This way!" said Russia, darting for the space left in the ring before the other snowmen could close it. There were more snowmen arising out of the ground in the area beyond, but they were a less immediate concern.
Now, though, the true nature of their predicament became clear. The snowmen yielded readily to a well-placed punch or kick (or fish, as Norway found out by accident), and Finland could disarm them both efficiently and quite literally with swipes of his knife, but they just kept on coming. Every one that they destroyed was replaced by two or three more.
"We need to undo whatever force is animating them!" said Sweden, ducking a broom.
"I'll buy us some time!" said Iceland. He stuck two fingers in his mouth in order to whistle up a magma demon, but a crowd of shovel-wielders surrounded him and smacked him a few times, converting him to a rather fetching ice sculpture.
"Iceland!" Norway cried. "Hang on!"
"Norway, don't leave me alone!" Denmark wailed.
They were gradually getting separated. Finland went down and in very short order had his arms and legs fastened to the ground in ice. Russia sacrificed his vodka bottle, smashing it on a particularly savage snowman in order to partially melt it. It didn't collapse, but its motion became wobbly and it wandered off, probably to find a nice place for a nap.
Then Canada, from his perch, spotted something that made all the difference. The largest snowman of all, nearly as tall as America, stood atop a nearby hillock. It was the classic construction, with a battered top hat and a woolly scarf and a carrot for a nose, but instead of attacking it was… directing. Conducting, even. Its stick arms — more like small branches — were waving about rhythmically, and in one of them it held an additional stick that made a very convincing baton.
"America!" he said, pointing. "That one's the leader! If we take it down, I bet they'll all go down!"
"I'm on it!" said America, breaking away from his current battle to head for the hill. He hadn't gotten very far, however, when a low blow from a broom stopped him in his tracks, iced over from the waist down. Canada went tumbling forward with the momentum and landed awkwardly, but he got up and kept going without missing a beat, in the process grabbing a stick of his own.
"Bro!" America shouted. "Don't try to smash it! Knock its hat off!"
"Just like the song! Got it!" said Canada, charging up the hill, lifting his legs absurdly high like a prancing horse in order to make his way through the deep spots. The snowman turned to him, raised its baton to strike — and from close quarters it was evident that it wasn't a baton or even a stick, but Nazi Germany's crop — but it must have been expecting someone taller. The blow that would have landed squarely on America's head, or even Sweden's, missed Canada entirely, and he was able to duck under the crop and bring his own stick up in a manner that surely would have earned him a spell in the penalty box had his opponent been human. The hat all but flew from the snowman's head.
It instantly went rigid, holding its last pose as if it had been made that way by a particularly odd-minded child. Downslope, the entire horde did the same, a few of them becoming structurally unsound and crumbling. There was one final twitch of movement from the leader: just for an instant, the gravel and buttons that made up its face assumed a sneer very like Nazi Germany's. Then a gust of wind tore the crop from its hand and the hat from the ground and carried them both off out of sight. The sour bells became silent and the dark clouds dissipated.
Those members of the Arctic Council who were still standing and free to move immediately went to the aid of the others, chipping off the ice and helping to rub some feeling back into their frozen limbs. Except in Iceland's case — the ice covering him was all of a seamless piece, and with what they had on hand they could barely dent it. It was hard to tell how he was doing in there — he was still sparkling, but that might have just been frost forming on the surface.
"We'll just have to take him as he is and melt it off him when we get to France's place," said Sweden.
They set out once more — chilly, damp, more rushed than ever, and in dread of their enemy's amply demonstrated power.
Nothing looked out of place at France's stylish townhome — the whole building front was neat as a pin and tastefully decorated with lights and garlands — but that didn't stop Canada from pounding frantically at the door. "Mom? Is everything okay in there? Answer me, eh!" He rang the bell, which played the first few bars of "La Marseillaise" and then tried the door handle itself. It opened easily enough, and the group gratefully stepped through into the warm foyer.
Norway set the frozen Iceland down with a thud. If there had been a bow around him, he would have looked like an extravagant Christmas present, perhaps for France's garden.
"Mom?" Canada continued to call, wandering into the parlor. Everything seemed normal. A cheerful gas fire blazed in the fireplace and a pair of ornamental wooden clogs sat on the hearth. But there was no telling how swiftly and stealthily Nazi Germany could strike with his purloined powers.
"Maybe she just stepped out," said Sweden.
"And left the fire on?" said Russia.
Canada went to check upstairs, but before he had gotten halfway up, France herself appeared on the landing, clad only in a silk robe and a towel wrapped around her head. She looked greatly annoyed. "What is all this? What is so terribly important that you just barge in here without even a phone call?"
Canada lunged up the stairs to wrap his birth mother in a hug. "I was so worried," he said. "You weren't answering your phone."
"I was in the bath," she explained. She peered down the stairs. "Are those the Nordic countries? Tell them to take off those crosses while they are in my house! You know not everyone is Christian."
"France?" said Norway. "Did you drain the bathtub yet?"
"No, not yet," France said, speaking the last word as Norway sped past her with his encased brother balanced on one shoulder. "Now, really!" she protested. "What is going on here?"
"I guess we've got a lot to explain," said Canada.
"Very well… once I have gotten properly dressed and have had a bite to eat and once these northerners get rid of the crosses."
Several minutes later, France chased America out of her kitchen, shouting "Boorish oaf!" He had a croissant in one hand, a quiche in the other, and another croissant hanging out of his mouth. After another moment, she re-emerged herself, nibbling daintily at some slices of terribly expensive cheese. The Arctic Council was seated around the parlor, the Nordics obligingly shirtless and mostly uncomfortable about it… except for Denmark, who was always happy to go as unclothed as anyone asked of him, and Iceland, freshly thawed and wrapped snugly in France's guest towels while he soaked up the heat from the fire. All things considered, he wasn't too badly off — it would have been much worse for a country who wasn't half covered in glaciers most of the time anyway. And the towels were even the right colors, sparing him the awkwardness that would have resulted had they been visiting, say, Jamaica.
The others, though, would have rather put their shirts back on. The fact that France had set up an elaborate crèche display on her window box seat just added a whole new layer of unfairness to the situation.
Once things had settled down a bit, they gave France the short version of the situation. She almost spit out her mouthful of cheese in shock, but held on like grim death to her poise and managed to swallow it instead.
"Oh, Canada, dearest, no wonder you were so upset! I think that fascist pig was baiting you, however. You are the first visitors I have had all day."
"A decoy. Dammit!" Sweden said. "How could we have been so gullible? Wait a minute… I said France was probably all right, didn't I? It's you guys who fell for it!"
America said something unintelligible through a mouthful of quiche.
"What?" several people chorused.
America swallowed. "So where do you guys think he really went?"
"Who knows," Sweden groaned.
"What made you think he would come after me in the first place?" asked France.
"Sister Germany said he has been going on about reclaiming old victories and taking revenge," said Russia.
"An embarrassment of choice, that," France remarked. "Practically everyone in the developed world qualifies for one or the other. It sounds like you have your work cut out for you. That being the case, I won't keep you."
"Are you… kicking us out?" said Norway.
"I'm afraid I must. I have a gentleman caller coming in a few hours. But I will be certain to let you know if anything goes amiss with the visit. It will likely be of interest to you."
"And why's that?" asked Canada.
"Because, dearest… my gentleman friend today is Italy."
Christmas Around the World: In France, instead of hanging up a stocking to receive Christmas gifts, people leave their shoes by the door or the fireplace. Just as the Christmas stocking is a specially made item and not a literal sock that you would wear, the shoes that France has set out in this chapter are decorative pieces rather than functional footwear. Style-wise, they are sabots, clogs similar to the ones traditionally worn in the Netherlands. Père Noël, the French Santa Claus, is said to wear this type of shoe.
"So now what?" wondered Denmark as they walked along. He didn't have to explain himself — they were all thinking about what France had said. If they tried to catch Nazi Germany out by visiting everyone he was interested in, they would just end up going in circles, because sooner or later he was interested in everyone, one way or another. That was what upgraded him from maniac to megalomaniac.
"We need to think about this logically," said Sweden. "The most important thing is finding Samiland."
"The same problem applies," said Russia. "He could have taken him anywhere."
Canada, who had been relaxing atop America's head, suddenly jerked bolt upright, nearly falling off. "Guys! What day is it?"
"The tenth," said Sweden.
"No! I mean what day of the week is it?"
"Yikes! America! We have to get over to Dad's right away!"
"Holy crap, you're right! Sorry, guys, we'll have to catch up with you later!"
"Why are you two freaking out all of a sudden?" said Sweden. "Anyway, England was on our original list of people to visit, so we can just come with you."
"Oh," said America. "Yeah. Right. Well… follow me."
When they arrived at England's house, the front gates were thrown wide open and all the downstairs lights were on. America let Canada down off his head before ringing the bell, and the two of them assumed sheepish grins. When England answered the door, he rounded on them.
"Where the bloody hell have you two been? I expected you hours ago!"
"Sorry, Dad, we got busy and lost track of time," said Canada.
"Well, never mind. The evening's still salvageable. Come on in."
"What about the guys?" said America, hooking a thumb over his shoulder at the Nordics and Russia. Iceland made a friendly wave.
"What? Of course not! This party is family-only and you know it."
"We'll try not to be too long," Canada said apologetically as England ushered the two of them inside.
"Honestly, you two. Would it have killed you to send a simple RSVP saying you were going to be quite late? Especially you, Canada — what happened to my responsible boy?"
They arrived at the main room of the house, where the rest of the clan was already enjoying themselves. The second Saturday in December had been reserved for the family Christmas dinner party since the end of the last World War, when they were finally all talking to each other again. "You can see things are well underway, but there's still time before the plum pudding," England said.
It was evident that every family member of age had been drinking copiously already. Ireland and Scotland sprawled on the sofa, having a heated discussion in what could equally well have been various strains of Gaelic or mere drunken gibberish. Wales was harder to locate, but they spotted him slumped against the wall near the Christmas tree. His head lolled to one side with a dreamy, slack-jawed expression and he was gradually pulling all the leaves and petals from a potted begonia that he was hugging to his chest.
The main event, however, happening around the middle of the room, was the boisterous wrestling match between Australia and New Zealand. Anyone who didn't know the family would understandably assume it to be some type of rodeo-style event, but it was actually pure sibling horseplay. Or sheepplay, as the case might be. The kids — Sealand and New Zealand's young daughter New South Wales — were cheering them on. Not taking sides, since New South Wales had divided loyalties and Sealand had no stake in the match at all, but just encouraging the tumult in general. There was no telling how long the contest had gone on or how long it was likely to continue, but they had already knocked over England's favorite leather armchair and broken a vase and gotten cloven hoofprints two-thirds of the way up the wall.
"Right," said England, shakily pouring himself a large glass of sherry. "It's so nice to have the whole family together. Pity it's only once a year. I'll just be in my study for a bit." He wandered off, whimpering between slurps of the drink.
"Poor Dad," said Canada. "He tries so hard every year to have a nice get-together, and this always happens."
"Good thing too," said America. "If he got his way, it wouldn't even be a party, just everybody sitting around wearing top hats and monocles and going 'wot wot old chap?' and sipping tea."
"True that, eh," said Canada. "Well, we might as well get this over with."
They went to the study and knocked. "Now what?" they heard England mutter inside. He opened the door a crack. "What's happened? Has the house finally been set on fire? Why aren't you two enjoying the party?"
"Dad, I have to be honest: we're not here for the party," Canada said. "Something's come up that's more important."
"Oh, I can't wait to hear this," England said sourly. "Come have a seat then."
Instead, America seized England through the open sliver of doorway and lifted him up by his shirt front and shook him back and forth. "Dad! Santa's been kidnapped and Nazi Germany did it and he attacked us with evil zombie snowmen and we don't know what to do next and Christmas will be ruined!" He held the older country so that their faces were perhaps a handspan apart, panting with agitation.
"Er… Canada, would you mind translating?" said England. "What's actually going on that's got your brother's knickers in such a bunch?"
"That's… actually pretty accurate, Dad. Nazi Germany did kidnap Samiland, and on top of that he stole his Christmas magic."
"Oh. I see. If you'll just put me down, America — there's a good lad — we'll discuss the matter inside."
They all went into the study. England sat at his desk and motioned for the other two to take the chairs on the other side. He poured himself more sherry. "I had begun to wonder when that fascist bastard was going to start making trouble again. I never would have expected something like this, however. How much do you know?"
"Not much," Canada admitted. "And we're stuck for how to find out anything more."
"Have you asked Germany if he knows what he's up to?"
"Yes," they both chorused. "You can imagine how well that went over," America added.
"What of his allies from the war? If he confided in anyone, it would most likely have been them."
"How do you know?" said America.
"Come now. I know it's been quite some time since I nearly conquered the world, but you never really forget how the mentality works."
"It's an idea, at least," said Canada. "Thanks for the advice, Dad. We'd love to stay for more of the party, but…"
"I know, I know," England sighed. "You've got plenty to be getting on with as it is. I'll see you out. I hope your friends won't be too angry to have been kept waiting. Who were they, by the way? I didn't take a good look at them."
"Just the rest of the Arctic Council," said America. "It's kind of on us, seeing how Nazi Germany invaded the Arctic in order to kidnap Santa."
"The Arctic… oh, bugger, that means Norway's out there, wasn't it? I've been meaning to thank him for this year's tree and keep putting it off. I suppose I ought to let him in, then. And the others as well. Just for a moment."
But when they got back out to the main room…
A lot can happen in a few minutes. For example, a Viking invasion of the British Isles. (They had gotten tired of waiting and had fallen back into old habits.) Ireland was running around on all fours in a clear state of distress while Denmark rode him like a pony, complete with ass-slapping. Sweden and Norway were applauding the performance from their seat on a bench made of a trussed-up Wales. New Zealand would have loved to come to his rescue, but she had problems of her own, since Iceland had taken it upon himself to pillage the livestock and she and her daughter were the only livestock at hand. Scotland was still free, as was Australia, for they had sought refuge atop the sofa back and were engaged in an iterated game of you-call-that-a-knife-this-is-a-knife-oh-and-by-the-way-this-is-a-claymore with Finland.
As for Russia, he was merely observing the proceedings with a certain amused detachment. He had helped himself to some tea, flavoring it with a lemon from the table centerpiece.
England made a weak, tremulous yelp of dismay and folded at the knees. "I got this one. Cover your ears," said America. He drew his gun and fired once into the ceiling, then stood in the little rain of plaster with a peeved expression. Every head whipped toward him and the Cosmic Blu-Ray Player was set on Pause. "Come on, guys, knock it off," the superpower said.
It was fairly awe-inspiring how quickly a semblance of normalcy was reinstated. Although it must be noted that being attacked by Northern sea-raiders and then being in the same room as a gunshot will not only sober a man up, but keep him sober for some time even after he starts drinking again… so it wasn't completely normal. In any case, the Arctic Council took their leave fairly quickly.
"Did you have a nice conversation with your father?" Russia asked politely.
"Yeah… actually, we have our next move," said America. "Dad thinks Nazi Germany might have confided in his former allies. Oh, and he also said something about Norway and a tree."
Norway winced. "Oh, no. He hates it, doesn't he? I knew I should have gone with a Blue Spruce."
Christmas Around the World: It's a fairly well-known fact that English plum pudding is not pudding and contains no plums, being more of a loaf made mostly from breadcrumbs and suet. What it does contain, at Christmastime, is small tokens for fortunetelling. Whichever item you get in your portion is supposed to foretell your status in the coming year. Traditionally these were a ring for marriage, a button for bachelorhood, a thimble for spinsterhood, and a sixpence for wealth. There seems to be no information as to what it means if you get the wrong gender's token of single status.
The other tradition referenced in this chapter is the annual gift of a Christmas tree from Norway to England. This is an ongoing gesture of thanks for English hospitality toward King Haakon when the Nazis exiled him during World War II.
After deliberating, they decided to visit Japan, even though he lived about an order of magnitude farther away than, say, Italy. They remembered that France had made a date with Italy and promised to notify them if anything seemed amiss, and they hadn't heard from her.
Actually, they did ask one former Axis nation who was more nearby. Just as a formality.
"Finland, did Nazi Germany tell you what he was up to?"
Violent headshake, glare.
"Obviously," said Sweden. "Don't get all pissy. I don't mean anything by it. Now… what would be the best way to get to Japan?"
Russia burst into belly laughter and slapped Finland on the back. "Embarrassed to remember it? I would be too!"
Finland jerked away from Russia, pulled out his knife, and turned to the other nation with a look that clearly said, "Touch me again and history will repeat itself."
"Ooh! Ooh! I know! Pick me, pick me!" said America, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet with his hand in the air.
"What's your idea, America?" said Sweden.
"Let's take my new plane!"
First, America made them all submit to a pat-down search ("What is the point of this? What on Earth do you think we might do?" "Can't be too careful, Sweden, not in this post-9/11 world." "But it's us!" "Can't make any exceptions, either — that would be profiling! Say… you're not wearing exploding underwear, are you?") before letting them board. He also made Finland check his knife and liquor bottle as baggage. ("No sharp objects, no liquids, and I'm going to have to take a look at that hat, sir." "PERKELE!"). But once they were actually aboard, they had to admit it was a pretty nice plane, a twin-engine number with first-class seating for twelve, and beverage cart service once America got Canada to wear the little apron. It had been "dressed up" for the occasion, with the wings painted as though they had strings of lights spiraling around them and a similar image of a wreath around the nose. (It also had mistletoe hanging from the doorway between the passenger area and the cockpit, until America realized that it was all guys on board and ripped it down and stomped on it several times and looked around guiltily and covered it with a floor mat and adjusted the floor mat to be straighter.)
Russia admired the luxurious furnishings as he got comfortable in his seat. "So this is what you spend your money on instead of education and healthcare?"
America pouted. "The captain has turned on the 'No Commie Talk' sign. So shut it."
"I can see this is going to be a long flight," Sweden remarked dryly.
"Not as long as you might think," said America, pulling down his aviator goggles (even though, yes, it was a fully modern, enclosed plane). "My baby likes to go fast." He breezed through the pre-flight checklist and began taxiing down the runway. "Warp Five, Mr. Sulu! Engage!"
He wasn't kidding — a mere seven hours later (not accounting for time zones), they were walking up to — and gawking at — Japan's house. His Christmas decorations were almost as elaborate as America's, and in some respects more so — America hadn't installed nearly as many animated LED displays, for instance — but he seemed to be a bit confused regarding the iconography of the holiday. He had Santa Claus and a reindeer visiting Baby Jesus, the Sugar Plum Fairy driving Santa's sleigh (which was being pulled by polar bears), and a giant robot with angel wings and a halo fighting Godzilla on the roof. And on second glance, that might actually have been Sailor Moon in the sleigh. But the spirit was there.
"It looks safe enough," said Iceland. "Somehow I have a hard time seeing this as the local branch office for a world-domination plot."
"Maybe that's just what he wants us to think," said Russia.
"No way, man," said America. "Me and Japan, we're like this. We're here to find out if Nazi Germany tried to team up with him again. I already know there's no way he'd say yes."
"Maybe that's just what he wants you to think," said Russia again, this time directing a sly grin America's way.
"Save the rampant speculation for later," said Sweden as they arrived at the front door.
The thing about visiting Japan was that he insisted upon starting with the same little rituals every time — greeting everyone individually by name with a bow, showing them where to leave their shoes even though half of them knew the routine by heart and were already putting them there, asking if they wanted anything to drink and, if they gave any response other than "Green tea" (including "No thank you"), saying "Are you certain you would not prefer green tea?" until they got the hint, etc. And with eight people for him to take through the obstacle course of ceremonial politeness, by the time they were all gathered in his sitting room and enjoying their tea (or not enjoying it, but drinking it all the same), they had almost forgotten what they were there to talk to him about.
Denmark got the ball rolling basically by accident, when he asked if Sister Japan was at home.
"She is," said Japan grimly, "but I think perhaps she does not wish to see anyone at the moment." And in the awkward silence that followed, the faint sound of sobbing could be heard from upstairs.
"Poor girl," said Canada. "What happened?"
"It is not my place to say," said Japan. And since he had already said, in his roundabout way, that she wanted to be left alone for the time being, that had to be the end of it.
"Man, Christmas sucks this year," said America. "First Santa gets kidnapped, and now this!"
"Wh-what?" said Japan. "Santa Claus… kidnapped?"
"Of course!" said Sweden, smacking his own forehead. "That's why we came here in the first place! Japan, this may be a delicate question… has Nazi Germany been by here recently?"
"No," Japan said right away. "But it is funny you should ask, because Germany has been. Actually…" He looked conflicted for a moment. "… It is because of his visit the other day that my sister is so upset."
"Oh, snap," said Denmark. "He broke up with her, didn't he?"
"Yes," came a tearful voice from the base of the stairs.
Japan rose to his feet. "Sister… I apologize for allowing these foreigners to disturb you."
"Mr. Sweden… you mentioned Nazi Germany," said Sister Japan, walking over. "I think you should see this." She handed Sweden a note, which he began to read aloud.
"'Hey, stupid Slant-Eyes,' — Ugh! — 'maybe we made a good team once, but I don't need you anymore. Enjoy your disgusting jellyfish sandwiches while you can, because come Christmas Day I'm going to… ' This is horrible! '… I'm going to smash your ugly yellow face in and make you suck — '" He turned slightly red and handed the note back. "I think we've got the gist of it. 'Germany' gave you that, did he?"
"Yes. On Wednesday."
"Just this past Wednesday? The seventh?" said Norway. At Sister Japan's nod, he continued, "But that's impossible — we were at Germany's house that day, and he was there and acting completely normal. Normal for Germany, that is."
"The magic," said Sweden. "Nazi Germany must have disguised himself as Germany, come here, and given that vile note to Sister Japan just to be cruel."
"Oh!" said Sister Japan, smiling for the first time during the Arctic Council's visit, and probably the first time since Wednesday. "That's even better! When you mentioned Nazi Germany, I thought perhaps he had brainwashed my Germany. But if it wasn't him at all…"
"I see no cause for happiness in this news," said Japan. "Sister, that note could apply equally well to both us. We are being threatened."
"That answers our question, at least," said Russia. "Nazi Germany is not interested in reinstating old alliances. He feels confident enough to go it alone this time."
"But now we're back at Square One," Sweden pointed out. "We still don't know who else might have any information."
"Pardon me," said Japan, "but am I to understand that Nazi Germany has acquired some sort of magic and kidnapped Santa Claus?"
"Other way around, actually," said Denmark. "He kidnapped Samiland — or Santa, whichever you prefer — and stole his magic."
"And at the time, none of you were aware of it?"
"That's right," said Sweden. "We didn't find out until Finland went to deliver the letters. What are you getting at?"
"Aha! Then he mostly likely did not act alone, at least at first. It is actually very difficult for a single ordinary person to kidnap another without being noticed."
"But who would have helped him do something like this?" said Norway.
"Someone," said Japan, "who is very much afraid of him. Instead of looking at Nazi Germany's former allies, you should be looking at those he crushed. Particularly, I would think, those who still are not powerful. Those he could intimidate into doing his bidding, even now."
Sweden glanced at Norway who glanced at Denmark who glanced back at Sweden. "Poland," they chorused.
"Ah," said Russia with a smile that could have meant almost anything.
They left soon after that. The only reason they didn't leave immediately was because first they had to endure Japan's standard end-of-visit rituals, from the first "It has been my pleasure to have you as a guest, [Insert Name Here]," to the last wave at the door.
"Hey, Sister Japan," Denmark said suavely, "if Germany ever does want to split up, you know where I live. And maybe we could have Norway over too, if you know what I mean."
"Thank you, Mr. Denmark, but if I need sympathy right after a breakup, I will probably want to talk to other girls." With one last little friendly bow, she closed the door, leaving Denmark rather crestfallen on the porch.
Norway whistled. "She shot you down and didn't even know she was doing it. It takes talent to set that up, my friend."
Christmas Around the World: Only a tiny minority of Japanese are Christian, but Christmas has gained a lot of traction there as a completely secular holiday, with gift-giving, parties… and a romantic aspect that is not present in the West. Spending Christmas just with your significant other is as valid as spending it with your family, and it is a popular day for marriage proposals.
They arrived at Poland's house to find him at the top of a very tall ladder, replacing a burnt-out bulb in his string of Christmas lights. He seemed to be having trouble reaching it, however, and at the rate he was going, the ladder was going to skid on the icy walk and dump him.
"Poland?" said Sweden as the group approached. "Do you need any help?"
Poland froze mid-grab, a hunted look passing briefly across his face. "Oh," he said as he caught sight of them. "Oh, it's just you guys. Yes, actually, I could use a bit of an assist. Could someone shift the ladder about a half-meter to the right for me?"
Norway and Sweden went to fulfill the request. It was fiddly work, given the conditions and the fact that Poland was still standing on the ladder.
"Well, what do you know," America commented to no one in particular. "It's true!"
"What are you talking about?" said Canada.
"Uh… nothing. Never mind."
"Thanks, you guys are lifesavers," said Poland as the ladder settled into its new location and he completed his task. He descended to the ground and backed away from the house, admiring his handiwork. Besides the lights, he had a luxurious wreath on the door and dozens of star-shaped ornaments hanging from the bare branches of his shade trees. He nodded with satisfaction before addressing the others. "I don't often see all of you together. What's the occasion? Besides the obvious," he added, waving at his festive house. "Would you like to come in for lunch? I need to make room in the freezer for my Wigilia stuff…"
"Maybe another time," said Sweden. "We need to talk, Poland. We have a crisis on our hands, and unless we can fix it, your decorations will be meaningless."
The hunted look came back for a second. "Oh… oh, really? And you think I might be able to help, do you?"
There was a round of meaningful glances. "When was he here, Poland? And what did he make you do?" asked Sweden.
"I don't know who you're talking about," Poland said too quickly.
"I think you do."
America rushed forward and seized Poland by the front of his shirt, shaking him. "Don't lie to us! You're his little lapdog, aren't you? Aren't you, dude-ski? TALK!" Poland screamed, not so much out of fear as out of gobsmacked surprise.
"America! Let him go!" Norway scolded, pulling on America's arm. "What the hell is wrong with you? I thought you were going to stop doing that!"
"What? I thought we were doing Good Cop, Bad Cop," America said.
Eyes were rolled all around. America sheepishly released his captive, and some semblance of dignity was restored to the situation. "We know you're scared, Poland," said Sweden, "but Samiland has been kidnapped, and I'm sure you can guess who's responsible. We need any information you have."
"All right, all right," said Poland. "You're talking about… Nazi Germany, right? Yeah, he was here a couple weeks ago. He said he needed a car and would give me a good price. Turned out the price he had in mind was not beating me up. What could I do?"
"We don't blame you," said Denmark. "Right, guys?"
"The car you… sold him," said Sweden. "What did it look like?
"It was nothing special. A sedan, dull silver, nice trunk space. He said he didn't want anything conspicuous. I knew he must be planning to do something bad with it, but I just didn't want to get the shit kicked out of me again!"
"It's okay, Poland," said Norway. "Were there any identifying marks on the car at all?"
"The rear bumper was kinda dented. Oh, and there was a decal on the window that I didn't bother to scrape off. Just some abstract design with swoopy lines and points. He seemed to like it."
"It's something to keep an eye out for. I'll put word on the grapevine," said Sweden. "Thanks, Poland. I know it took some guts to tell us."
While Sweden composed a mass text to pretty much everyone they knew, Poland drifted over to his porch and sat down heavily on the steps. He rested his head in his hands and made a tight little sound like a stifled scream.
"He looks pretty strung out, eh," Canada remarked.
"He's worried about repercussions," Denmark muttered. "I've been there. America, go say something to him."
"Huh? Oh. Right," said America. He walked up to Poland and said "Sorry about yelling at you, man. I get a little over-enthusiastic sometimes."
"Not that!" said Denmark. "The other thing! The thing you're actually good at sometimes!"
"Huh?" America said again, screwing his face up in puzzlement. Standing slightly behind the others, Canada mimed something, but America couldn't decipher it. Eventually, though, realization dawned.
"Don't you worry, dude-ski," he said, slapping Poland on the back in what was intended as a chummy gesture. "That bullying Nazi bastard won't lay one hand on you. He'd have to get through me first! And I'm already gunning for his ass for what he did to Santa! We'll see who's the übermensch once I get through with him!"
They didn't get to see whether America's reassurance had the desired effect, because from all around came the sound of off-key bells. "Challenge… accepted!" said Nazi Germany's voice. They looked around wildly, but there was no clue to his whereabouts… until suddenly Poland went "Ow!" and there he was, holding the weaker country in a half-nelson. He must have popped up out of the snow like before.
"You little weasel," he hissed. "You'll pay for that betrayal."
America, true to his word, sprang into action. "Sir, you need to calm down," he said in his best authoritative voice.
"So you really do want a one-on-one fight with me, America," said Nazi Germany. "And while the rest of your little Arctic club watches. Magnificent. "
"Sir, if you do not release him and back off immediately, I will have to book you on charges of — " He took a deep breath and spoke rapidly, as if reading off an internal list. " — assault, battery, trespassing, breaking and entering, vandalism, kidnapping, unlawful imprisonment, grand theft reindeer, performing magic without a license, loitering with intent to commit a felony, copyright infringement, aaaaaaaand… hate speech! Granted, I'm kind of making an assumption about that last one, just 'cause it's you."
Nazi Germany cackled. "You forgot one. Assault with a deadly weapon!" He flicked the crop toward the house, something in the air went twing, and Poland's painstakingly hung string of lights came to life, tearing free of the eaves and lunging for America. He whipped out his gun and opened fire, but succeeding only in taking out two of Poland's ground-floor windows. The string lashed out again, throwing a loop of itself around his feet and yanking them out from under him. Then it began to coil around him.
America made a squeaky yell of alarm. "Guys? Could I get a little support over here, maybe?"
"Come on, eh!" said Canada, waving to the rest of the Council as he moved in.
"Oh no, you don't!" Nazi Germany snarled. "Weren't you listening? This was meant to be a one-on-one fight!" The string changed tactics, behaving less like a snake and more like a clock's mainspring that had been grievously overwound. Its frenzied writhing was impossible to predict, and in very short order it had snagged at least one arm or leg of all of them. At that point, the snare closed. With a bit more twining and tightening, they were thoroughly tangled up.
"Don't you hate it when that happens?" said Nazi Germany. "And it always does, no matter how carefully you pack them the previous year. Well, gentlemen, I believe that makes victory for me. Careful not to move around too much, or you might break the bulbs. I don't like to think about what would happen then. As for you…" He turned his attention to Poland… or rather to the spot in the snow where he had been cowering, for at some point in the chaos he had made himself scarce. Nazi Germany turned on his captives. "Where did he go? You must have seen something!" he demanded of the closest one. Unfortunately for him, it was Finland… and now he couldn't ask anyone else without looking rather foolish. "Never mind! He couldn't have gone far…"
There was a sound from inside Poland's garage — a low, snorting sort of sound.
"Is that a horse?" Denmark whispered to Norway.
Nazi Germany burst out laughing — not an evil cackle like anyone would have expected, but the laughter of someone who has just seen a three-year-old child walk into the living room wearing Daddy's sport coat and Mommy's high heels and singing "Dude Looks Like a Lady," only since she's only three, she gets the lyrics wrong and sings "do it like a lady" instead.
"Priceless!" he screamed between howls of laughter. "He's going to do it again! Hey, Poland! You do know what the definition of 'insanity' is, don't you?"
He was quite merry right up until there came the roar of an engine and a VW Passat, as black and shiny as patent leather, burst from the garage, right through the door, with Poland at the wheel. The driver's side window was rolled down and his arm was sticking out of it, holding a plush toy pony. It whinnied when he squeezed it.
Nazi Germany's face registered total shock. He barely had time to dive to the side in order to avoid being mowed down outright, and in the process he lost his grip on the crop. The string of lights lost its animation and went slack, and the Arctic Council immediately began struggling out of it. Having missed his target, Poland hit the brakes, and the car went into a skid that ended when it plowed into a lamppost on the other side of the street. Nazi Germany scrambled to his feet, located the crop, and snatched it up, but by that time the others had freed themselves from the snarl of wire and moved out of its reach — about half of them going to check on Poland, the rest keeping a wary eye on him. His decisive advantage was gone, to say nothing of the element of surprise.
"Not so easy, is it, Fascism Face?" said America. "Now tell us where you took Santa!"
"You know what I've always found charmingly naïve about you, America?" said Nazi Germany with his trademark smirk. "The way you give orders and just expect everyone to obey, simply because it's America saying it. Why in the world would I give that information away?"
America cracked his knuckles. "Because if you don't, I might have to go Jack Bauer on your ass."
"Oh, really? Do you expect it to work? I've always found torture to be a woefully inefficient method of gathering information, which is why I mostly do it just for fun." He dropped the smirk. "You'll never find him no matter what you try. I've hidden him in the last place anyone would ever expect to see him. You've already lost. All I have to do is run out the calendar until Christmas. But by all means, enjoy your exercise in futility." With one last glare in the direction of the crashed car, he dove into a snowdrift and was gone.
"Asshole," America growled.
"Goes without saying," said Sweden. "Let's see how Poland's doing."
He was a little shaky, but the Passat's airbags had spared him from any real harm. Actually, he was being plied with handshakes and backslaps and promises to buy him drinks, and had entered that semi-giddy state that ensues once the adrenaline wears off and the endorphins have the playground to themselves.
"Sweden!" said Denmark. "We want to take him out for drinks to celebrate his new spine!"
"All right," said Sweden. "I guess a few hours couldn't hurt."
"I hardly think this is a time for revelry," said Russia. "We've made very little headway so far, and if Nazi Germany is to be believed, he has already arranged things so that his plan will inevitably succeed."
"He isn't to be believed," Sweden said matter-of-factly. "He's bluffing. If there was no way for us to stop him, he wouldn't be so devoting so much effort to attacking us. He would just sit back and run out the calendar, like he said. We've got him worried… probably more so now that even Poland is fighting back. Well done indeed, Poland. It's a shame about your car though. Will the insurance cover that?"
"How should I know?" said Poland. "It's not mine."
"I should have guessed. Do you remember whose it is?"
Poland grinned hugely. "Nazi Germany's."
Christmas Around the World: Perhaps the most important Christmas icon in Poland is the Star of Bethlehem, so much so that "Gwiazdka," the affectionate nickname given to the Star, is used as an alternate name for the holiday. Star-shaped ornaments are widely used, and a ritualized supper called Wigilia (vigil) is eaten on Christmas Eve, beginning when the first star appears in the evening sky and continuing until midnight. Sometimes it is even said that the Gwiazdka is the one who brings gifts to children.
Precision. That was the key. It couldn't be obtained via the careful use of measuring devices, no matter how well calibrated — no, this sort of perfection could come only from intuition honed by years and years of practice.
Fifteen down. One to go. Sister Denmark took one more swig of beer to keep her mind in the proper state — Danish Zen, as it were — before dipping the wooden spoon into the mixing bowl, lifting it out again, moving it with nearly angelic grace, and letting exactly the right amount of cherry sauce fall onto the last serving of risalamande. It was calculated to optimize the interaction of creamy goodness with sweet tartness in order to generate the maximum potential scrumptious… ocity… ism.
She let out the breath she had been holding and finished off the beer. That was one hurdle cleared.
"It's ready!" she called out. "Everyone back to the table!"
She arranged the serving bowls on a tray and carried them out, only to find several people still missing. "Iceland, where is everyone? I know Norway said she was going to hang up some more grain for the birds, but where are the territories?"
Sister Iceland was too distracted playing with the dalah horses she had swiped from the mantel, so Scania filled in. "Åland and Svalbard went to cut a Yule Log while there was still some daylight. They should be back soon. Faroes was gonna try to convince Greenland to join us for once."
"He damn well better join us," said Sister Denmark. "I served him up a bowl." She set the tray down, to a chorus of ooooooooohs. "Nobody touch it yet. We're waiting for St. Lucia. That goes double for you, Mister Munchies!"
"Aw…" Christiania grumbled.
"So when is this saint chick supposed to get here, anyway?" said Sister America.
"It could be any second," said Sister Denmark. She went out to the back porch and called across the cleared space that was treated as the lodge's backyard. "Come on, Norway! You fed the wild animals, now come finish feeding yourself!"
Sister Norway descended the ladder and returned to the lodge amid a cloud of grateful grosbeaks and titmice. She giggled as they gave her their little bill-kisses of thanks. "Awww… you're welcome. I always love sharing with you."
Sister Denmark yelped and skipped back. "Norway, are you crazy? Don't bring those things in here!"
"Okay, clear off now," said Sister Norway, making gentle shooing gestures. "There's still plenty to eat back there and you're missing it!"
"And you're missing the party," said Sister Denmark, dragging her inside. "Hey! Nobody better have touched that risalamande!"
"Let me get the dinner dishes started soaking before I join you," said Sister Norway, picking up the largestplatter. Previously, it had held the main course: a baked salmon the size of a mature wolverine. Now it held mostly scales, bones, and garnish.
The doorbell rang. Sister America's dog Ottawa burst into a frenzy of yapping. "She's here!" Sister Denmark crowed, hurrying to open the door. "Welcome to our home, St. Lucia!" Then her jaw dropped in dismay. There was the white robe, and there was the candle crown, but the face looking down at her from between them was definitely not Sister Sweden's.
"Hello, gorgeous," said Nazi Germany, giving her a hard shove so that she fell backwards and he could invade the lodge unimpeded. He didn't appear to be armed unless you counted his crop… but that might not be a bad idea, given that it was twinkling. "No one move! My minions have this building completely surrounded!" A pair of toy soldiers, fully as large as Nazi Germany himself and with painted-on armbands, entered behind him, balancing muskets over their shoulders and carrying Sister Sweden with their free hands. She had been bound hand and foot and gagged and looked absolutely flabbergasted to be on the receiving end of such treatment.
"Welcome to the Nazi Occupation!" Nazi Germany announced, grinning hugely. "Some of you have done this before; for others it will be a new experience. The most important thing for you to understand is that I don't want to harm any of you. And as long as you behave yourselves, I won't. Granted, I might use my wonderful new magic to turn you all into puppies… yes, adorable little puppies with red ribbons around your necks, and I might set you in stockings hanging over the fireplace, and take well-lit photos and have exquisite Christmas cards printed, which I would sign and send to your pain-in-my-ass brothers so they know how serious I am! But I won't harm you. However, if you resist — or if your brothers don't take the hint and stay out of my way — " He paused, snarling, one eye twitching for a moment before returning to his triumphant attitude. " — then I'm afraid I will have no choice. Are there any questions?"
"I have one," Sister Norway quavered, shuffling closer with downcast eyes.
"Yes, my dear?"
"Do you like fish?" And with that, she flung the contents of the platter in his face and clobbered him with it on the downswing. It wasn't a very heavy platter, and he was only a little dazed. But he was disoriented long enough for Sister Norway to grab Sister Denmark and begin herding the other occupants toward the stairs. "Go! Go, go, go!"
"What about Sweden?" Sister Denmark gasped. "We can't just leave her!"
"She can take care of herself for now. One thing at a time."
Indeed, as soon as Nazi Germany recovered enough, he ordered the two soldiers accompanying him to give chase. But in order to do that, they had to drop Sister Sweden, and the would-be dictator, intent on regaining control of the situation, didn't notice that she began to squirm out of her bonds. She was good at escape artistry, having had to learn it in order to be sure of getting breakfast on those occasions when she subbed for an extremely heavy sleeper. By the time Nazi Germany thought to return his attention to her, she was on her feet.
"Bastard!" she said, slapping his face. "Do the words 'safe, sane, and consensual' mean anything to you?" She slapped him again and took advantage of his total surprise to snatch the candle crown from his head and run out the front door.
"Stop her!" Nazi Germany shouted to the soldiers outside. "Schnell, schnell!"
The soldiers had formed a ring around the building, spaced a few meters apart, and the nearest ones began closing in toward her. But they were relatively slow compared to Sister Sweden, who was surprisingly nimble in high heels. She ducked and rolled at exactly the right instant, the two soldiers collided with each other, and Sister Sweden laughed as she escaped into the woods with a dusting of snow on her dress.
Knowing nothing of this, the others barricaded themselves in the women's bedroom, locking the door and pushing the bureau in front of it.
"Now what?" Sister America complained. "We're trapped! It figures that you Euro-punks wouldn't know what you were doing! I wish St. Lucia would get here so she could kick Nazi Germany's ass with her awesome saint powers!"
Sister Russia went to the window to observe the besieging platoon. "We already were trapped. At least this room is defensible."
"Exactly," said Sister Norway. "They won't be getting through that door anytime soon; it's solid oak. It gives us some time to come up with a plan, at least."
As if on cue, the soldiers chasing them arrived and began pounding at the door, but it was solid oak and gave no more than a noise. Ottawa resumed barking. Sister Russia glanced out the window again and frowned. "Wooden soldiers. I suppose the boys took the only axe — dammit, America, will you shut that dog up?" Sister Finland appeared to realize something, got down on the floor, crawled halfway under the bed, and began rummaging around.
Sister Canada joined Sister Russia at the window. "Do you think they're okay out there?"
"Svalbard and Åland should be," said Sister Norway, pacing. "They wouldn't have gone down without a hard fight, and we would have heard something. I couldn't say about the other two, though."
"We should, like, call them!" said Sister America. "And be all, 'Help! We're under attack!'"
"It wouldn't get through," said Sister Norway. "There's no phone reception once you get out under the trees."
There was some kind of commotion around the front of the lodge, out of sight of their window. It began with shouting and ended with a ripple of husky laughter.
"That's Mom!" said Scania. "She got away!"
"I knew she would," said Sister Denmark, in flagrant contradiction of the facts. "I wasn't worried for a second!"
"So what will we do?" said Sister Canada. "Hold out until she comes back with the guys?"
"No, I have a better idea!" said Sister Iceland, perkier than she had any right to be in the situation. "Let's disassemble the bed, use the poles and sheets to make hang gliders, and launch off the roof! We'll sail right over their heads!"
"Interesting plan," said Sister Norway. "We'll keep it in mind. Finland, what are you doing down there?"
Sister Finland emerged with a canvas-covered bundle about a meter long. Without ceremony, she shucked off the wrappings to reveal a notched and rusted but still quite serviceable Viking battleaxe.
"My word!" Sister Canada gasped.
"Canada, watch your language!" said Sister America. "There are little kids present!"
"I guess that answers your question, Russia," said Sister Norway.
Sister Finland nodded toward the door. The women pulled the bureau away from the door, unlocked it, and opened it, letting the soldiers all but tumble into the room. They led with their muskets, which gave Sister Finland the perfect opportunity to come in from the side and lop off half the length of both guns with a single swing.
The soldiers were automatons, unthinking and unemotional. They shouldn't have had the capacity to be taken aback. But they were. They looked down quizzically at their truncated firearms. The axe came around again, took the head off one of them, and buried itself to half the width of the blade in the other. Both soldiers — what was left of them — collapsed with a noise like bowling pins falling. Sister Finland let go of the axe as the second soldier fell, rubbing her wrist. It had all taken less than twenty seconds.
"Nice work," said Sister Norway. "Did you hurt yourself?"
Sister Finland held out her hand to her son and began leading him out of the room. "That was awesome, Mom!" he said with his usual huge grin.
"Well all right then," said Sister Norway, retrieving the axe from the non-decapitated soldier. Sister Iceland collected the head of the other one and absent-mindedly spun it on her finger as they left.
They were not surprised to run into Nazi Germany on the landing halfway up the stairs. They were surprised, however, to see him smiling.
"I like you Nordic folks. I really do," he said, tapping his crop against his hand. "You're my kind of people. And your bravery and quick thinking under pressure are commendable, which is why I am willing to remain merciful provided you apologize and surrender now." He raised the crop. "Those of you who are not Nordic will be handled on a case-by-case basis, but for those of you who are… I'll even let you pick your favorite shape of squeaky toy."
"I pick head-shaped!" Sister Denmark said, snatching the wooden head away from Sister Iceland and hurling it at him. It bounced off his own head with an amusing klonk, and over he went, somersaulting down the bottom half of the stairway. The others hustled down right behind him — in fact on him every third step or so. They reached the bottom and kept going, right out the front door of the lodge.
There they stopped. There were easily a dozen soldiers on their side the lodge, muskets trained on the building and ready to fire at an instant's notice. While they were still sizing up the situation, Nazi Germany came staggering out after them. He looked a mess, which was gratifying, but he was spitting mad. Puppyfication seemed imminent. They all huddled up, kids in the middle, and readied their few weapons.
And then eight of the remaining soldiers went up in flames. An instant later, there came bursting out of the woods what could only be described as… a St. Lucia procession.
It was likely the strangest one in history. For one thing, the processioners usually walk at a sedate pace instead of running. And they generally carry candles rather than torches. And they tend to go along singing carols or hymns, not yelling battle cries. And they are almost never armed, least of all with things like wood axes and big-game rifles and harpoons. (The large cross was less of a stretch, but still unusual in that it was being wielded with violent intent.) But most of all, it is dead certain that there has never been another Lucia who got to her destination and immediately denuded her crown of its candles so that she could use them as missile weapons.
Nazi Germany found his odds worsening by the second. He looked around — at the new arrivals, at the hostages who refused to simply act their part, at his gradually shrinking army — and came to a decision. "Soldiers! Attack!" Then he flung a peppermint humbug at his feet and vanished in a cloud of candy-scented smoke.
The remaining soldiers fired their muskets, but a combination of good reflexes, primitive mechanisms, and luck ensured that no one was hit. And the thing about muskets is that they're only good for one shot before reloading, whereas torches and axes are just there and can be used as many times as you can manage to swing them. It wasn't long before the invaders were just so much burning scrap, and they didn't even need a Yule Log because they already had a perfectly good bonfire. It had been so easy that they weren't sure what the point was, and eventually decided that Nazi Germany had just been covering his escape.
Sister America, for once, said what they were all thinking: "God, what a fucking loser." Then she ruined it by continuing to talk. "That was totally awesome! I'm going to celebrate Viking Christmas every year from now on!"
Christmas Around the World: This chapter features several Scandinavian traditions associated with the Christmas season: risalamande, hanging up grain for wild birds, dalah horses, and especially the St. Lucia festival on December 13 (hey, that's today!). It would take too long to go into detail on all of them, but should you choose to look into them on your own, be aware that liberties have been taken in order to serve the needs of the story.
Lesson of the Day: Never let Denmark set the terms of a drinking excursion.
Predictably — making it strange that no one had predicted it — "a few hours" had progressed into a late night, which had turned into a late morning, which had continued as an afternoon and evening of nursing hangovers and attempting to locate pants. (Except for Russia, who managed to be fresh as a daisy no matter how tanked he got the night before. He credited his beet-rich diet.) The upshot was that it wasn't until the next morning after that that they managed to get going again.
"What's our next move?" asked Norway, patting Denmark's arm reassuringly. They were walking through a pleasant snow-dusted forest, letting the brisk outdoor air clear what remained of the brain fuzz.
"I'll tell you in a minute," said Sweden, going through a solid day and a half's worth of text messages. "Yes! Estonia saw the car, the silver one Poland mentioned. On the first of the month, it looks like. And Greece saw it a couple days after that. And Romania, a little before him."
"Sounds like he was heading south," said Iceland.
"Yeah… no, wait. Netherlands saw the car after Greece did — no, wait! He was just leaving Turkey's place at the time!" Sweden snapped his phone shut and sat down on a stump to think.
"Hey, what was it Nazi Germany said?" said America. "Santa's in the last place we'll look?"
"'The last place anyone would expect to see him.' I believe those were his exact words," said Russia. "Probably trying to plant a false lead. I wouldn't think anything of it."
"I would," said Canada. "If he were trying to steer us wrong, he would have been more specific. Like when he pretended he was going after my mom. This other thing seemed more like he gave in to the urge to gloat and dropped a clue by accident."
"You think so?" said Norway.
"Yeah. You hang around with certain people long enough, you start to get a feel for Freudian slips like that."
Sweden stood up abruptly. "Antarctica. That's where Samiland is."
"That's quite a logical leap," said Russia.
"No, I'm sure of it. Heading south… and then that particular wording he used."
"Oh, I get it!" said Denmark. "The last place you would expect to see Samiland is the opposite of the first place you would expect to see him."
"Bingo," said Sweden. "Let's get back to the plane."
A phone chimed, indicating a new text message. Sweden went for his automatically, but it was actually Finland's. He pulled up the message to read, and his eyes widened in alarm.
"What is it?" said Sweden. "Is that from my sister?"
Finland nodded vaguely. He looked briefly around the group, settled on Canada as the one he disliked least, and tossed the phone over. Canada read the message out loud. "'He was here.'" There was a collective gasp. "'No one was hurt, but we thought you should know.' There's more, but I think Finland would rather it stayed quiet." He returned the phone. "Guys, maybe we shouldn't go rushing off just yet."
"Rushing off where? Are you gentlemen going on a trip? Maybe I'll join you."
They whirled around. Nazi Germany stood at the base of a massive, ivy-cloaked oak tree. He looked frazzled, even haggard, but the smirk was in place. He began a slow walk toward the group.
Out came the usual weapons, but this time there was real menace in the wielding. "Keep your distance," Sweden said with deadly calm. "You don't dare come within reach of us after attacking our kids."
"'Attack' is such an ugly word," said Nazi Germany, although he did stop. "I prefer to think of it as making a point."
"A point about what?" said Denmark. "How even with all your stolen magic, you still couldn't handle a bunch of women and kids?"
Nazi Germany's eye twitched, but he maintained his fixed grin. "If I had meant to do them harm, I would have. But I'd really rather be friends. I don't know why you Nordics insist on opposing me when I only want what's best for you."
"Best?" Norway sputtered. "Is that supposed to be a joke?"
"Not at all. I actually don't have a sense of humor. But I am starting to think it might be a mistake. I have been wasting my good will on countries with no concept of gratitude… or of keeping decent company. So help me, I'm going to teach you better even if I have to smack you around a little to do it."
"Watch it…" said America.
"I intend to. And I expect to enjoy the show greatly." He raised the crop. The off-key bells sounded. But this time, they played a snatch of a tune.
The holly and the ivy… when they are both full-grown…
The ivy covering the oak tree exploded. It was not like a bomb exploding, which is destructive, but like the Big Bang — a sudden, vast event of creation. New tendrils cascaded forth, lengthening and thickening and putting out shiny green leaves by the hundreds.
With a heartrending cry of terror, Denmark turned and fled.
"For once, I agree with Denmark!" said Sweden. "Run!"
On second thought, maybe it was like a bomb had gone off… at the base of a hydroelectric dam. They stampeded through the forest, and the ivy poured after them, so swiftly that they could barely keep ahead of it. From time to time, it would surge ahead on one side or the other, forcing them to veer to the opposite side in order to avoid the tide of greenery. Herding them. And they knew it… but there was nothing else they could do. It was either go where the ivy pushed them, or be swallowed up.
The rampant growth drove them deeper into the forest, to places of tall trees and thick underbrush. There they met a dead end in the form of an immense clump of holly bushes, almost large enough to qualify as trees in their own right, all thorny leaves and berries that were entirely too reminiscent of blood at the moment. The ivy was still coming. There was no time to think. Denmark flattened himself against Norway with a despairing whimper. The ivy rose up like a tidal wave to engulf them… and stopped. Not frozen — the vines were still quivering and coiling — but waiting.
A new vine turned up, supporting one massive star-shaped leaf upon which Nazi Germany was sitting as though it were a lounge chair. He was even sipping a drink. No one should drink eggnog through a straw, but he was.
"I suppose you're going to tell us this was just to teach us a lesson about your 'awesome power,'" Sweden remarked.
"Actually, no," said Nazi Germany. "I'm just savoring the moment. I do that, you know. Mmmmm… tasty moment. All right, mustn't overindulge. That's always a risk during the holidays." He made an almost negligent gesture with the crop, and the ivy plunged forward. Time seemed to slow to a crawl.
There was an electrical sensation in the air, and an impression of sparks or tiny flames leaping from the charging ivy tendrils to the branches of the holly behind them. And then the last thing happened that the Arctic Council would have expected — the holly branches shot out overhead to catch the ivy and hold it at bay.
"What's going on?" Denmark wailed. "Norway, what's happening?"
"I don't know!" he said. "Is someone on our side?"
"That's absurd!" Nazi Germany roared. "You! Holly! What is the meaning of this? You should be working with the ivy, not against it! Stop this foolishness and crush them!"
Still wrestling the other plant, the holly lifted a few of its branches, making a tunnel. "It is on our side!" said Russia. "Come on!"
It took a lot of coaxing to get Denmark into the passage, and inside it was like a tight, prickly nightmare. They emerged looking like first drafts that the editor has just handed back. But the important thing was that they emerged, together and whole, and there was a clear path ahead of them to get away.
Once the noise of the contest had faded with distance and layers of vegetation, they stopped to catch their breath.
"What was that all about?" said Canada, speaking for the whole group.
"You know what I think?" said Iceland. "I think Nazi Germany isn't as in control of the stolen magic as he'd like to be."
"Obviously," said Sweden. "But why? Maybe we can use it to our advantage."
"First things first," said Russia. "We have quite a long flight ahead of us. America, can we make a non-stop trip?"
"Nah," was the reply. "We'll have to make a fuel stop at my brother's."
"At your brother's," Denmark repeated blankly. "This wouldn't happen to be the same brother we tried to set fire to back at your dad's place, would it?" He chuckled sheepishly.
"You guys tried to set Australia on fire?" said Canada.
"We know," said Sweden. "That whole incident was childish. There's just something about being around your dad's side of the family that gets us all nostalgic. We'll apologize when we call ahead to let him know we're coming."
"No, it's not that," said Canada. "It's just that I wouldn't have thought you'd need to go to the effort at this time of year."
Christmas Around the World: Decorating with evergreens for Christmas — or the Winter Solstice — is a very ancient and nigh-universal custom. Such plants have always been seen as the promise of spring even in the depths of winter, and humanity's admiration for them is remembered in carols such as "O Tannenbaum" and "The Holly and the Ivy." The latter also reflects an English folk tradition about the Holly Boy and Ivy Girl, who vie annually for control of the natural world.
The plane touched down on a little seaside runway near Australia's beach house. It was a brilliantly sunny day, and when Norway opened the hatch, he was nearly bowled over by the wash of heat.
"Ack!" he exclaimed. "What the hell?"
"Welcome to the Southern Hemisphere!" said Australia, waving from the ground as they descended the steps. "You lot might want to shed those coats; heatstroke can be pretty nasty. And speakin' o' nasty…" he added mischievously as America touched ground. America glanced over, their eyes met, they both grinned, and then Australia jumped his big brother and the two went rolling across the sand in full Roughhousing Mode.
"Is this really — " Sweden began, but Canada cut him off.
"Let them work it out of their system, eh. This is normal."
"What we have here," said Australia as they two of them wrestled, "is the North American Greater Chook-Headed Tosser. Ain't he a beaut? Rather stroppy, though. You want to watch out for those paws."
America got the upper hand in the most literal sense, straddled the prone Australia, and shoved his face fraternally into the ground. "Eat dirt, punk! EAT IT!"
"This is ridiculous," Sweden muttered.
"This is awesome!" said Iceland. He cupped his hands around his mouth and crowed, "Yeah! Get him! Stomp his head!"
"Which one are you rooting for?" said Russia.
"Who cares? It isn't every day you get to see a show like this!"
"Have fun, guys," said Denmark. "I'm going to go say hi to Sister Australia. And by 'say hi,' I mean bang her until — where's Norway going?"
"Thank god he didn't finish that sentence," said Sweden.
Norway, panting profusely, was slogging toward the ocean, peeling off his sweater on the way. Australia was in the middle of trying to knot America's arms behind his head when he noticed. "Uh-oh. He doesn't want to do that. You don't want to do that, mate!"
"I'll stop him!" said America, bounding to his feet. Still charged with adrenaline from the tussle, he didn't bother with niceties like calling out to Norway. Instead he opted to chase him down and hit him with a flying tackle. The two of them crashed to the ground with such force that they left a small crater.
"YES!" America cheered, and went into a weird chant: the word "defense" alternating with a low-pitched two-syllable hoot.
"I would ask what that was for," Norway said, mostly to the sand, "but somehow I'm guessing it doesn't matter."
"It was for your own good, was what it was for," said Australia from the rim. "There's a box jelly advisory today. And a shark advisory, although at least with sharks you can see 'em coming. Hope they all clear off in time for the surf competition next week." He looked around. "So then! Who's up for lunch?"
"Wow. Antarctica," said Australia. He chugged a Foster's roughly the size of his own head before continuing. "I assume this has to do with ol' Nazzo. Dad told me about it while we were cleaning up after the party."
"We're pretty sure that's where he's hiding Samiland," said Sweden.
"Pretty big area to search," said Australia. "Maybe I can help you narrow it down a bit." He spread out a large map of the southern continent on the table. "Now let's see… if I were an aspiring tyrant hopped up on stolen magic powers, where would I set up my HQ?"
"In the mountains!" America blurted out like a quiz-show contestant. "No! Under the ice sheet!"
"There!" said Iceland, pointing to a spot near the 170th east meridian. "Mount Erebus!"
"What makes you say that?" said Sweden.
"If crappy airport novels have taught me anything, it's that there are three types of locations for secret supervillain bases. One — the Antarctic. Two — an island far from civilization. And three — a volcano. And Mount Erebus is all three!"
"By that logic, we should check your place," said Norway. "Two out of three ain't bad."
"Well, we know one thing," said Australia. "He couldn't have passed within radar range of any of the research stations down there, or he'd have been found out. That doesn't leave many routes he could have taken, let alone places he could have set up shop. If you ask me, the smart money's in and around here. Marie Byrd Land."
Sweden nodded. "Good call. No one really pays attention to that area. He could do almost anything without attracting notice."
"Do we have enough time to make a thorough search?" asked Russia.
"In my bird? Don't make me laugh!" said America. "If we leave first thing in the morning, we can be dancing on Nazi Germany's head by dinnertime tomorrow!"
Christmas Around the World: In the Southern Hemisphere, seasons are reversed relative to the Northern Hemisphere, and Australia enjoys high summer for Christmas. Families in coastal areas may take trips to the beach to celebrate, and Santa is sometimes depicted arriving via surfboard and wearing swim trunks. For the most part, though, Australians borrow the winter imagery used by most of the Christianized world, incongruous as it is for them.
A/N: Music for this chapter is "Christmas Eve – Sarajevo 12/24" by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
It wasn't exactly bad weather, given that it was the bottom of the freaking world. It was just that they had to fly under it in order to make sure they didn't miss anything. There was just enough cloud cover to turn the sky into one big gray-white glare, and to produce periodic mild snow flurries. They had been spiraling toward the center of Marie Byrd Land for hours with no sign of what they were looking for.
The radio crackled. "Attention, all passengers. This is your captain speaking. At this time I would like to direct your attention to the left side of the plane, where if you'll look out the window, you'll see… another vast field of white nothing!"
"He must be really bored in there," said Iceland.
"It almost makes me wish we would develop engine trouble just so he'd have something to do besides make another asinine 'announcement' every ten minutes," said Sweden.
A few minutes later, the cockpit door opened and America stuck his head out. "Hey, Computer Viking! C'mere! I need you to fix something!"
"And this is why you should be careful what you wish for," said Denmark.
Sighing, Sweden got up and joined America in the cockpit. "You know, I'm not actually a repairman. We're not in any trouble, are we?"
"Nah, not really. The radar display just went on the fritz."
"What? Who's Fritz?"
"Just look," said America, tapping what must have been the display screen, although currently it was a supremely unhelpful mass of randomly jumping pixels. "Can you tell what's wrong with it?"
"It's not really my area of expertise," said Sweden. "I guess… electronic interference?"
America gasped. "Like a jamming signal? We must be getting close!"
"Maybe. Or it could be from the Earth's magnetic field. Or something totally different. Like I said, it's not really my thing."
America pouted. "I thought you were supposed to be smart."
Sweden sighed again. "I'll see what I can do. Where are the controls for this thing?"
They cruised into another patch of snow. Back in the cabin, Norway glanced out the window to see how thick it was and made a startled sound.
"What's wrong?" said Canada.
"I thought I saw something out by the wing."
Denmark burst out laughing. "That was great, Norway! Now do the pig-faced doctor — no, wait! Do the library guy with the glasses!"
"I'm serious! Sweden!"
"Just a minute!" Sweden called out. After a lot of knob-twiddling and a certain amount of "percussive maintenance" (i.e. giving it a good smacking), the radar screen was displaying a fuzzy but intelligible image. It revealed several ghostly figures flying alongside the plane. "What the hell are those?" Sweden demanded.
America looked over. "Oh, that's nothing. They're just radar angels."
"Radar what? This had better not be one of your ridiculous 'God is my co-pilot' delusions."
"Hey, don't knock it!" said America. "But anyway, radar angels aren't real angels. They're — " He broke off in a yelp as something big and translucently blue-white glided over the windshield. They only saw it for an instant, but that was enough to take in the flowing gown, beatific expression, and huge feathered wings.
"… you were saying…?" Sweden said weakly.
"Sweden!" came Denmark's insistent squeal.
"I'd better go see what they want." He left the cockpit. "What?"
"Look!" said Norway, pointing out the window, where more of the gauzy flying figures were visible. How they were keeping pace with the plane was anyone's guess.
"We saw one up front too," said Sweden. "America said something about 'radar angels,' but I don't think this is what he meant."
The sun peeked through the clouds just for an instant, throwing the creatures' pale shadows visibly onto the wings and fuselage. Rather than accurate silhouettes, however, they made familiar, simple three-lobed shapes. "Snow angels?" said Canada.
"Apparently," said Sweden. "But are they friendly, or what?"
There was a loud clonk from overhead, and the plane shook as though hitting a spot of bad turbulence. The "Fasten Seatbelt" sign winked on.
Finland expressed the collective sentiment with admirable succinctness. "Perkele… "
The plane veered sharply right and downward, not quite diving. "Folks, I'm gonna have to ask you to remain in your seats while we take a little evasive action!" came America's dread-filled voice over the intercom.
There was no evading the angels, however. They swarmed about the plane, striking it like demented birds and raking it with their sickle-like fingernails. The noise was appalling… but not as appalling as the realization, a few minutes into the onslaught, that… well… pieces were coming off. Denmark screamed almost inhumanly as the first fragments of metal flashed by the window.
"Why aren't we fighting back?" said Sweden. "America must have some weapons on this thing; he's America!" Before anyone could venture an answer, the plane gave a tremendous lurch and one of the engines sputtered to a halt, spewing smoke.
"We can still stay up with just one of them, right?" said Iceland.
America addressed the cabin again. "Um… folks? You know the, uh, the emergency landing safety procedures? Those? Yeah… right about now you might want to think about following them."
"We're gonna die!" Denmark wailed. "Norway! Hold meeeee!"
"That's not proper procedure, Denmark!" said Sweden.
It wasn't dire yet, but they were definitely losing altitude. Every time America tried to shake off the snow angels, they dropped another few dozen feet and failed to recover them, and between these incidents the plane descended at a steady pace. And all the while, the angels continued to gouge at the plane's body and wings. One of them plowed hard enough into a window to crack it, and it was a mercy that they were low enough not to have to worry about the pressure differential.
And then the other engine went out.
"Crash positions now, guys!" Sweden croaked just before the bottom fell out of the world.
For several heart-stopping seconds, they were in freefall, before America managed to turn it into a dive and then pull up into a steep downward glide. Too steep. They were still going to plow into the ground at an angle inconsistent with continued good health. Chaos prevailed in the cabin, with Denmark screaming about impending doom, Sweden screaming at him to stop screaming, Finland screaming "Perkele!" with every new jostle, and Russia singing some grim old folk song that no one else recognized, although the word "chernyĭ" came up a lot.
"Hold it!" Iceland said all of a sudden. "Someone give me some duct tape!"
"It's a little late to fix the damage!" said Sweden.
Canada found a roll and tossed it over. "Thanks!" said Iceland, sprinting for the door.
"Iceland, are you crazy?" Norway shouted.
"Probably!" said Iceland. Then he forced the door open and more-or-less vanished.
There was no time to worry about him. They had maybe a couple of minutes left before impact. Then one wingtip scraped a rock outcropping and the rebound kicked the plane into a barrel roll — one, two, three, four full rotations, and in a final moment of screaming horror, they hit the ground, bounced once, and came to a skidding halt somewhere in the remotest area of land on Earth.
Gradually, things came back into focus. It was almost a disappointment — after an ordeal like that, the least fate could do was kill you so you'd be guaranteed not to ever have to go through anything like it again. But not only was no one dead, there weren't even any serious injuries — a lot of bruising all around, and Finland and Russia both had bloody noses. This turned out to be because each one had flung a hand into the other's face during the panic of the last few moments before the crash. Russia insisted that it was completely accidental on his part, and Finland contrived to indicate much the same, and no one could really prove otherwise.
America came wobbling out of the cockpit. "You know what they say," he said, pulling off his headset and letting it fall to the floor. "Any landing you can walk away from is a good one! Do I ROCK or what? U-S-A! U-S-A! Hey, are we missing someone? Where's Volcano Viking?"
"Oh, god! Iceland!" Norway gasped, lunging out of his seat (and out of Denmark's quivering grasp). He leaned halfway out of the door and yelled his brother's name to the blank white wilderness.
Sweden came up alongside him, looking around. "Up there!" he said, pointing. Iceland was spread all over the tail end of the plane. His flag, anyway. It was his parachute. They climbed up and rummaged through the fabric until they found him, duct taped to the tail fin, his sparkles orbiting his head like tiny, shiny moons. He was mumbling incoherently, although it was also possible he had lapsed into his native language.
"Iceland," said Norway, waving a hand in front of his face, "come on, talk to us."
"So we can understand you," Sweden added.
"Ódauðlegódauðlegódauðleg… Oh hi, guys. Did you see that? It was amazing."
Sweden took in his slurred speech, unfocused gaze, and dilated pupils. "Yeah, that's a concussion," he said.
"What is?" said Iceland.
"What you have," said Norway.
"Let's get him inside before we all freeze out here," said Sweden. They began peeling off the duct tape, which would have been easy enough had it not been for the interference of the parachute and its straps, or had Iceland been in any condition to help out. About halfway through, he raised his head and squinted unsteadily toward the horizon.
"Hey, cool. Looks kinda like the ash flow back home."
It wasn't a volcanic eruption, but it was almost as bad. Heavy clouds were tumbling toward them, driven by a fierce Antarctic wind that was turning the very air before it into a mass of deadly whiteness.
"Not cool! Bad!" Norway blurted. "Very, very bad! Move, move, move!" Redoubling their efforts, they got Iceland free and managed to get him and themselves inside the plane and slam the door shut only seconds before the blizzard reached them with a howl of wind…
… and a sound of off-key bells…
"Just so we're clear," said America, "this isn't gay, right? We're just keeping warm. Nothing gay about it at all, right?"
"That's right," said Sweden, trying hard not to betray his annoyance.
"It can be gay if we want it to," said Denmark with a sly smile. "Show of hands: Who wouldn't mind if we made this gay?"
"Not helping, eh," said Canada.
"Norway, put your hand down," said Sweden.
The plane's cabin was designed to stay cozy even in the rarefied atmosphere of 30,000' altitude. But, operating under the assumption that the insulation had been damaged in the crash, they had decided to wait out the blizzard (and Iceland's concussion — they were just going to have to poke him periodically to keep him alert until his brains unscrambled) swathed in the polar fleece blankets that were part of the first-class accommodations. To get the most out of them, they pinned them together into one super-long blanket, huddled in a circle, and wrapped the whole shebang around all of them at once. There was easily enough to make two comfortably loose layers, plus a few blanket-lengths to tuck underneath so that they had something softer to sit on than the bare floor.
Iceland was pretty loopy for the first few hours, leaving the rest of them to debate among themselves whether his parachute gambit had made the landing better, worse, or been negligible either way. The plane had been pitching and rolling far too much for them to judge, even in retrospect. America was of the opinion that it had had a neutral effect at best, and the real heroics had been on his own part. Russia immediately said that if America thought so, that was enough for him… to disagree completely.
"You callin' me a liar, Comrade?"
"I am only saying that you cannot possibly be objective about it. I am correcting for your obvious bias."
"Maybe I should go over there and correct your ugly face!"
"Bring it on, cowboy!"
"Guys!" said Sweden. "Listen. This storm could take days to blow over. If you're getting cabin fever already, we'll never get through this."
"Maybe we should find something else to talk about," said Norway.
"Like what?" said Canada.
"Well, in the old days, on miserable evenings like this, we used to sit in a group pretty much like this and tell stories."
"Is it evening?" said Denmark. "I can't tell."
"We're in 24-hour daylight and a raging blizzard," said Sweden. "I don't think labels like 'day' and 'night' even apply."
"Fair enough. I like Norway's idea, though. We can tell Christmas stories! I've got a great one!"
"Is it 'The Little Match Girl?'" said Sweden. "Because if it's 'The Little Match Girl,' I consider that in pretty poor taste. Given the circumstances."
"For your information, said Denmark., "I was going to tell 'The Fir-Tree!'"
"That's not much of an improvement," said Sweden.
"Hey, I don't know that one!" said America. "I wanna hear it!"
Denmark stuck his tongue out at Sweden and proceeded. With sound effects. He was a decent storyteller, and America was the perfect audience for such things — he paid rapt attention and reacted to every development with just the right pitch of emotion (which probably explained why he never had any to spare for matters like international politics). So naturally, by the time the story had concluded, he was a quivering wreck.
"Jeez, what's wrong with you?" he bawled. "Don't any of your Christmas stories have happy endings?"
"Why don't you tell the next one?" said Canada. "You've got dozens of them."
"Okay," said America. "Okay. Just gimme a minute." He started to recover his composure, but then burst out crying again. "Oh, man! The poor little tree! All he wanted was to be special! There's nothing wrong with that!"
"Maybe someone else should tell one in the meantime," said Russia. "I could tell the story of Babouschka."
"Heard it," said Norway.
"Yeah, heard it," said Denmark.
"Me too," said Canada.
"Even I know that one," said America, sniffling. "Okay, I think I'm good. For real this time. You guys ready? This one's a classic. Actually, it's a poem."
"Ooh, culture! Let's hear it!" said Denmark.
America cleared his throat. "Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot…"
As it turned out, America was a pretty good storyteller too, at least to the extent that he knew his material and emoted correctly. They weren't sure the piece he had chosen deserved such caring treatment, but they gave him a gentle round of applause when he had finished.
"Hey, I have a question," said Iceland.
Norway did a double-take. "Iceland! You had me worried for a while there. How's the head?"
"I've had worse," said Iceland. "Anyway, you're not a real extreme athlete unless you mess yourself up from time to time. Actually, hang on a second." He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and unfolded it to reveal a diagram of the human cranium with about a dozen red X-shaped stickers on it. He prodded his head until he found the spot that made him hiss with pain, applied a new sticker, and put it away. "Only two more and I get my Iron Skull award! Okay, back on track. So my question is, are heart sizes standardized? How does that work exactly?"
"What a weird question. Are you still dizzy?" said Canada.
"No, this is pretty much normal," said Sweden.
"How many sizes too small do you guys think Nazi Germany's heart is?" said Denmark.
"I don't think he has one," said Norway.
"Oh, he has one," said Russia. "It's totally black, with sharp points and hard edges. Not like a normal heart at all."
"Okay, man, that's creepy," said America. "How come I'm the only one here telling any nice stories?"
"I could tell you about Grýla and the Yule Lads," said Iceland. "You might like that one. It has a kitty in it!"
"Don't say yes. He's trying to trick you," said Norway. "It's actually pretty horrible. I've got a nice one. Carpenter Anderson…"
And so it went, as the hours rolled by and the plane rocked under the force of the savage wind. Iceland was the first to nod off, followed shortly by America, and when Denmark half-crawled into Norway's lap and snuggled against his chest, the remaining five decided to call it a night, even if it was technically daylight above the storm. Gradually the cold seeped in, but they paid it no mind, dreaming of all the Christmas stories they had shared… and the one still yet to be completed.
Christmas Around the World: Stories and legends referenced in this chapter: 1. "The Little Match Girl," H.C. Andersen. 2. "The Fir-Tree," H.C. Andersen. 3. Babouschka, traditional Russian folktale. 4. "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," Theodor S. Geisel. 5. Grýla and the Yule Lads, traditional Icelandic folklore. 6. "Carpenter Anderson" (AKA "Christmas Eve at Santa's"), Alf Prøysen and Jens Alhbom.
A/N: This chapter gets two musical pieces! "Siberian Sleigh Ride" by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (Yes, I'm tapping them again — get used to it, 'cause they're awesome!) and "Ghosts of Christmas Past" by Nox Arcana. I won't spoil the chapter events by saying where they fit, but you should be able to figure it out when you get there.
The Arctic Council awoke when the shivering got too bad, to find the light lopsided: brilliant, unfiltered sunlight on one side, a dim bluish glow on the other. The plane had been half buried by the blizzard, and it was just fortunate happenstance that the door was in the unburied half. Even so, they had to shove it a few times to get past the snow mounded up on that side of the craft. Then they were able to go out and take stock.
It was hopeless. There was no way it would ever fly again even if they could dig it out. Even as they stared at the crippled machine, a big piece of sheet metal fell off the unburied wing with a clang.
America fell to his knees. "NOOOOOOOOO!" Canada walked up and patted his shoulder consolingly.
"So is this it?" said Denmark. "Are we just screwed?"
"It might not be as bad as it seems," said Sweden. "I'm pretty sure Nazi Germany sent the storm. If we can reach his base on foot and rescue Samiland, transportation won't be an issue."
"It came from that direction," said Norway. "So that's where we go."
"Do we have to walk?" said Iceland. "Can't we, I don't know, cannibalize the landing gear to make unicycles or something?"
Norway picked up the piece of sheet metal and regarded it thoughtfully. "Or something…" he said. "Too bad we don't have a team of dogs."
Russia waggled his thumb at the grieving America. "Will a great big ox do?" he said, and grinned.
Moments later, they were racing over the snow on their jury-rigged toboggan. "You're sure Santa will give me a new plane for Christmas?" said America.
"There's only one way to find out!" said Sweden.
"Okay, but if anybody says 'mush' again, they're walking!"
After perhaps half an hour, Finland suddenly rapped Sweden on the head and pointed off into the distance.
"Ow! What the hell was that for? Oh."
A structure was just becoming visible on the horizon. Finland, with his sniper eyesight, had spotted it first. Five or ten more minutes brought them within easy view of it, and America slowed to a jog. Its design was along the lines of a high-security prison or military fortification.
Made of gingerbread.
The walls, roughly six meters high, were frosted along the top, studded with giant gumdrops and raisins, and surmounted by several candy-striped guard towers. The towers were manned, or perhaps nutcrackered — the guards certainly looked stiff enough to be of that ilk.
"Unbelievable," said Denmark. "He makes like he's just giving us tough love, but then he goes and follows the Fairytale Bad Guy School of Architecture. Does he even see this place?"
They found a gully between two snow dunes where they could scope out the compound without being too obvious. "I don't see any way in on this side," said Sweden. "And I'm not sure we can get around to check the other sides without being noticed."
"I bet I could," said Canada. "It can't be too different from avoiding Nunavut polar bears."
"Don't take any unnecessary risks," said Norway.
"I never do," said Canada. Crouching slightly, he walked about a quarter of the way around the back side of the dune and suddenly sank into the snow up to his armpits. "Oh, for fudge's sake! Not again! You guys better not laugh."
"We weren't going to laugh," America blatantly lied.
"You're laughing right now," said Canada. He wriggled, trying to work his way out, and something made a muted crunch and he vanished with a gasp.
The others ran to the new hole. "Canada! Bro! You okay?" said America.
"I'm fine," came Canada's voice from a scant few meters down. "Actually… I think I just found our way in!"
"That's great!" said Sweden. "So keep it down before someone hears you!"
One by one, they lowered themselves after him and found a metal-lined tunnel, apparently empty except for the pile of snow under the open hatch they had dropped through, and running straight in the direction of the fortress.
"Oh, yeah, this is what I'm talking about!" said America.
"Pretty good plan you had there, Canada," said Iceland. "Got any more?"
"Keep it down," Sweden said again. "Let's try to find Samiland as quickly as possible."
"But cautiously," said Russia. "There are quite likely to be booby traps."
"Right," said America. "Like trapdoors leading to pits filled with alligators. No, wait… he's using all Christmasy stuff. Peppermint alligators."
"I'm having an adventure with someone who just said 'peppermint alligators' and meant it," Sweden muttered.
"Actually," said Russia, "I was assuming it would be more along the lines of sealing us in a room and flooding it with nerve gas. But let's not psych ourselves out."
On that disturbing note, they set out down the corridor. The trip was uneventful for the first long stretch, prompting Norway to wonder, "Is this even attached to the compound? Maybe it's just left over from an old research station or something."
"We'll find out sooner or later," said Sweden.
Eventually the corridor ended at a thick steel door. America drew his gun while Russia moved forward to press his ear up against it. After a long moment, he nodded. "It seems quiet enough." Holding his gun at the ready, America tried the handle. It moved readily, and he slowly eased the door open, making no noise… and then shoved Russia through and pulled it closed again and held it, listening hard. The only sounds that came back were Russia's growls of indignation.
"Oh, will you grow up?" said Sweden. Finland, on the other hand, walked up and offered America a high-five.
"See? Sauna Boy knows where it's at. Come on." When he opened the door a second time, Russia grabbed the front of his parka and pulled him down so they were nose to nose.
"Do anything like that again, and do you know what I'll do? I will repossess Alaska and rearrange the oil pipeline so that it spells out 'Америка моя сука' when seen from the air. Do you know what 'Америка моя сука' means?"
"Look it up with Google Translate!"
The corridor continued beyond the door, but soon offered them the choice to go right or left.
"Should we split up?" said Canada.
"No," said at least three people.
Finland rested his hand against the wall on one side, then the other. He pointed left and started walking. The others shrugged and followed. After a little while, they turned a corner and came to a place where small rooms branched off the hallway — storage rooms, by the look of it, but currently empty. A miniature train track ran down one side of the corridor, looped about, and went back up the other side, disappearing around the next corner. As they went along, the train's chirpy little whistle sounded, and its headlight began to appear.
"Hide!" said Sweden, and the group divided down the middle and took cover in the two closest storerooms until the train had made its full circuit of their section of hallway and disappeared again. "It must be a patrol unit," said Sweden.
"Wait a minute," said a voice from farther up the corridor. "Is that Sweden I hear?"
They ran toward the voice. One of the storerooms had had its door removed and replaced with a lattice of interlocking candy canes. And there in the makeshift cell was Samiland, looking forlorn and worn out but basically unharmed.
"Am I glad to see you guys!" he said. "Now listen. We're almost out of time — don't touch that!" Denmark yelped as his hand brushed the candy canes and he received a mild shock.
"Don't worry," said Sweden. "We'll get you out of there somehow."
"Is this that Samiland guy you keep mentioning?" said America.
"Of course it is!" said Norway.
"Nice — to — meet — you," America said with exaggerated pronunciation. "Do — you — know — where — San — ta — is?"
"You must be America. Nice to meet you too," Samiland said wryly.
"This is Santa, you dolt!" said Denmark.
"Are you sure? He doesn't look like him."
"Train!" said Norway. They scattered to the nearby rooms until it was safe again.
"I must admit I am surprised to see you looking so well," said Russia.
"Nazi Germany can't be too hard on me," said Samiland. "He needs me to fuel the magic."
"I thought he stole the magic," said Sweden.
"So far he's just borrowing it. I'm still the source… at least until Christmas Eve night."
"What happens then?" said Denmark.
"You really don't know how it works?" He's planning to usurp my position! The point of the sleigh trip around the world isn't just to deliver the presents — whoever holds the reins receives the mantle of Santa Claus for the next year! That's been Nazi Germany's goal all along!"
"So what happens if he's Santa?" said America.
"Quite possibly… the end of the world," said Samiland. "As long as he's just borrowing the magic from me, he has to do things my way to an extent. But if he becomes Santa, then he'll own the magic and can do things his own way. He can give himself presents, remake the holiday in his own image…" He shook his head. "And that would be the worst thing of all. Think about what Christmas really stands for. The part that transcends religion and culture."
"Capitalism," said America without missing a beat.
"Don't be a moron," said Canada. "It's generosity. Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men… right?"
"Exactly," said Samiland. "Or in other words, everything that's the opposite of what Nazi Germany stands for. If he owns Christmas, he'll turn it into exactly what it isn't meant to be. The tension will be too much. Something will have to give."
"And it might end up being the world," said Sweden. "So how do we get the magic away from him and back to you?"
"I'm not sure. Nothing like this has ever happened before. Let me think…"
"Train!" said Denmark.
When they reconvened a moment later, Samiland continued. "Here's something. Magic you don't own has to be put in some kind of object to be used. Whatever Nazi Germany's using, if you can get it away from him and bring it to me, I can probably reclaim the magic out of it."
"Well, that's easy," said Denmark. "It's his crop. He's been using it like a magic wand."
Samiland's face fell. "A weapon? No, worse — a torture device? I can't take it back now; it's tainted. Unless… do you fellows know anything about the Original Christmas Magic?" The consensus was that they did not. "Long story short, it's supposedly the purest magic in the world. If I could just get my hands on it, I could kick Nazi Germany to the curb and reclaim my magic."
"I like the idea of Nazi Germany being kicked to the curb," said Denmark. "Where can we find this awesome magic?"
"I can't remember off the top of my head. But there's a book back in my workshop where you can look it up. It's the dark blue one with — "
He was interrupted by the piercing sound of a train whistle, and they were all flooded with the blinding glare of the toy's headlamp. More alarms began blaring, joining the clamor one at a time until there were four distinct tones like screaming birds.
"You have to go! The guards will be here any second!" Samiland shouted over the noise.
"But… the plane…" said Canada.
"RIGHT!" said America. "Santa! The snow angels broke my plane! Can I have another one pleeeeaaaase? I've been really good this year!"
"More to the point, we'll be stranded otherwise," said Sweden.
"I would if I could," said Samiland, "but Nazi Germany would be sure to notice if I used magic on that scale. The best I can do is give you one of these." He rolled a humbug out of the cell, between the bars of the lattice. "Once you get outside, stand in a circle and throw it down in the center. It will take you as far as the coast. Now go!"
Canada scooped up the humbug and they went, retracing their steps at a run, kicking aside train cars as needed. Once they had all gotten back up through the hatch, they followed Samiland's instructions. The candy exploded into minty smoke which set them all coughing, and when it cleared, they found themselves right at the edge of the Gatt Ice Shelf, surrounded by bewildered penguins.
"How will we get back to civilization?" asked Russia.
"If you'll give me your phones," said Sweden while Norway settled down to make friends with the birds, "I can probably combine the signaling devices and convert them into a radio beacon."
"I don't think that'll be necessary," said Iceland, pointing out to sea. A craft was approaching at speed. It proved to be a motor yacht with Australia at the helm.
"What are you doing here?" America called to him. "This isn't your claim!"
"It's not yours either, is it?" said Australia. "That blizzard yesterday turned up on the Doppler, and I said to myself, my brother's way too pigheaded to die of that, but his toy plane might be a different story. So can I offer you lot a ride?"
"That might be the best rhetorical question I've ever heard," said Sweden.
The yacht sped northwest toward warmer climes. Its passengers had made themselves comfortable, taking advantage of the opportunity to kick back a little. From Norway, sucking up the sea air at the bow railing to Iceland, wakeboarding several meters behind the vessel, they had all found a way to unwind.
Except Sweden, who was huddled on one of the deck chairs near the helm, scribbling in a notebook and fretting.
"Hey," said Australia at one point. "Stop that."
"Stop what? I'm not doing anything."
"Yes you are. You're making me all tense. What's eating you? You've hardly said a word since I picked you blokes up. That's not like you… unless I'm confusing you with Finland. I'm not, am I? That would be embarrassing."
"No," Sweden sighed. "I'm worried that we're running out of time. I've been working on some calculations. Even assuming ideal travel conditions, it's going to take us a day to get back up to Samiland's workshop and another day to return to Nazi Germany's base, plus whatever we have to do to find the Original Christmas Magic… and we have less than a week left."
"You can do it!" Australia chirped.
"Thanks. Listen… stop for a moment."
"All right!" Australia killed the motor. The yacht coasted quickly to a stop, then made a slight lurch as Iceland caught up and plowed into the stern with a started yelp.
"Everyone stop what you're doing and gather!"
"I'm okay!" Iceland called from the ocean.
A couple moments later, they were all assembled. "Here's my thought, guys," said Sweden. "I'm not sure we have time to go running around looking for this Original Christmas Magic. It would be nice to be able to hand Samiland a trump card, but… yes, America?"
America stopped saying "Hey" over and over and started saying "Okay" over and over instead.
"What's his problem?" Norway whispered to Denmark.
"He's a leetle tipsy. We were playing a drinking game."
"You let someone else get drunker than you?"
"Nah. I'm a lot tipsy. He's just worshe at consempating. Compensating. Worse."
"Does anyone have any idea what America is trying to say?" said Sweden. No one did, America apparently least of all, so Sweden continued. "Anyway, maybe we shouldn't risk running out our deadline in order to find an instant win. Maybe we should just regroup at Australia's and then go back and do this the old-fashioned way."
"Do you really think we can win that way?" said Canada.
"I think it's the more prudent option."
"I don't," said Russia. "It's hard enough to wear Nazi Germany down when he can't just summon more soldiers from thin air. We need that trump card if we are to have any hope of victory."
"What if we try both?" said Norway. "Take a shot at finding the Original Christmas Magic, and if we really run short of time and haven't found it yet, go to Plan B."
"Stop that," said America. "Say OCM."
"What?" said Norway.
"Say OCM. It sounds fruity the other way."
"Fine, whatever," said Sweden. "It's a nice idea, Norway, but without knowing how long a direct assault will take, we won't be able to tell when we're really running short of time."
"What's all this 'direct assault' business?" Australia put in suddenly. "You said there was a back way you snuck in by."
"Nazi Germany's bound to have blocked off that tunnel by now," said Sweden.
"There might be others," said the southern country. "Or maybe… you could make a back way in."
"How would we do that without him noticing?" said Russia.
"I guess we could have half of us try to keep him busy while the other half break in," said Canada.
Sweden shook his head. "Neither group would stand much of a chance. There aren't enough of us."
"Now, that all depends," said Australia, leaning forward and winking. "Who's 'us?'"
By the time they reached Australia's territorial waters, he had managed to get in touch with England, France, the Japan siblings, New Zealand, and the Netherlands, and some plans were already being put together. The basic idea was to set decoys to draw Nazi Germany's attention away from the Arctic Council while they were seeking the OCM, and again when they went to infiltrate the Antarctic fortress.
"You guys really don't have to do this," said Canada.
"You guys shouldn't do this," said America, who was coming down off his buzz and getting a little surly as a result. "This is Arctic Council business."
"That's rich coming from you, son," said England via online video conference. "Besides, if Nazi Germany is planning to give himself the world for Christmas, that makes it everyone's business by definition. We'll all do what we can. I don't know why you didn't ask for help in the first place."
"Martyr complexes," Australia volunteered. "It must be. They were all hoping to die in the attempt so everyone'd go 'Ooh, they were such heroes, how tragic.'"
"We were not!" said Denmark.
"Your ride's on his way, by the way," said Australia. "He'll probably meet up with us by the time we get to my place."
"Oh?" said Sweden. "Who's taking us?"
"Okay," said Sweden. "I understand that you had to come down here to take New Zealand home after the party. And I understand that you then stayed a while. And I understand that you're just going home and can't take us any farther than your place. What I don't understand is why, given all that, New Zealand is coming with us."
"You'd understand if you'd ever been in love," Wales sing-songed.
"Baaahhh!" New Zealand agreed, resting her head in his lap.
"This is no time of year to be away from family," Wales went on. "We've been teaching New South Wales about her roots."
"You mean pedigree," Iceland muttered, under Wales's hearing.
"We made Caleniggs, and they were ever so lovely. Then Enzie and New South Wales ate them, candles and all. It was a fine time. I think I'll compose a poem about it for Eisteddfod next."
He went on like that for hours — droning and pointless and oddly comforting for that. The fact that, even in the very act of taking them to a magic toy workshop in order to find a book that would lead them to even more powerful magic which they would bring to a legendary being in the clutches of a would-be evil overlord so that he could defeat said overlord and save Christmas and the world, Wales could go on about mundane things like family craft activities… it proved that there was still normalcy. There was still hope.
There was still time.
Christmas Around the World: The Calenigg is one of the very oldest Christmas traditions still in existence, dating back to the 4th Century when Britain was ruled by Rome! A symbol of good luck for the New Year, it consists of an apple with three twigs stuck in the bottom like stool legs, a candle stuck in the top surrounded by sprigs of evergreen, and almond slices stuck all around the sides. Although not as popular as they once were, there are still villages in Wales where children carry Caleniggs around to the houses while singing carols; the householders are then supposed to give them pennies or cookies in exchange for the luck they have brought. After Christmas, the Calenigg is placed on the windowsill or a high shelf and allowed to shrivel, but as long as it remains intact, it is said the luck will stay.
The workshop was so busy that they could feel the ground vibrating as they approached. Per the normal protocol, America rang the bells ("I wanna do it! Can I do it this time, guys, please?"), but it was extremely doubtful whether any of the sprites heard them. The door opened only to the length of a forearm or so before colliding with something that stopped it cold. America gave it an experimental shove, and then froze, cringing, as the obstacle gave way with a drawn-out clatter. As the door swung fully open, the Arctic Council found themselves the focus of attention from several dozen sprites whose startlement quickly shaded into annoyance.
They filed in sheepishly, mumbling apologies and sidestepping the frantic activity. The time for building had passed; it was now wrapping season. The thing America had knocked over was a veritable tower of gift boxes, one of many scattered around the interior of the workshop, The piles grew steadily larger as the sprites worked, but even so the little creatures had no trouble avoiding them as they rushed around. While the group watched, four of them took the corners of a sheet of colored paper and trussed up a box to neat perfection in a handful of seconds.
"They're so efficient," Sweden whispered. "I'm surprised Nazi Germany hasn't tried to make them work for him."
"I'm not," said Denmark. "Aren't they a little short to be Stormtroopers?"
"Where might we find this book?" asked Russia.
"I'll find out," said Iceland. He located the foreman sprite, waved him over, and started talking. The sprite looked meaningfully at the toppled tower of boxes and back at Iceland, saying something that none of the others could understand but that they could easily interpret, given the sarcastic tone.
"Oh. Uhhhh… I guess I'll pick that up," said America. He began to re-stack the presents. Satisfied, the foreman motioned toward a door at the back of the shop and returned to whatever he had been doing beforehand. The rest of the group began picking their way across the bustling floor. "Hold it!" said America. "Canada, you're staying here and helping me." With a sigh, he joined America in straightening up the mess, and the others continued.
On the other side of the door was… a library. Or perhaps archive would be more accurate — the shelves lining the walls seemed to hold as many loose-leaf binders as actual books. Either way, it was huge for a private collection. There must have been thousands of books and binders, and not a few hobbyist magazines and catalogs. Just out of sheer curiosity, Sweden pulled out a binder and thumbed through it. It was filled with woodworking patterns. Many of the books were actually technical manuals for various pragmatic arts — carpentry, metalwork, even electronics — but there were also cookbooks, songbooks, a few gardening books, and apparently a copy of every single book ever written on the subject of Christmas. They weren't very well organized; Samiland's idea of library science seemed to consist of grouping books by size according to the space on the shelves, and then making a token attempt to alphabetize by title. Such a system inevitably breaks down in such a multilingual collection.
That was more-or-less all right, since they weren't looking for a particular title but for a book with a dark blue cover. Unfortunately, dark blue has been a staple color for hardback book covers roughly since the invention of book binding, and each shelving unit contained dozens of candidates.
"Well," said Sweden, "start looking, I guess."
"What are we looking for again?" said Iceland.
"The location of the OCM," said Norway. (Whatever America's motives for coining the abbreviation, it was certainly handy.) "It's probably in a book about magic. Or maybe folklore. Or I guess it could be considered trivia."
"Way to narrow it down," Denmark grumbled. "Just watch — with our luck it'll be written in Chinese or something."
"Actually, I'd say our luck's been pretty good so far," said Sweden. "We were in a plane crash and nobody died."
"Well then… don't jinx it," said Denmark.
By and by, America and Canada rejoined the group. "Whoooaaaaaa…" said America, gaping at all the books. "What's all this for? I never pegged Santa as a big reader."
"You learn something new every day," said Canada.
"Dig in," said Sweden. "We have a lot to search through."
For hours, they pored over every dark blue tome they could lay hands on — and the medium blue ones as well, just in case Samiland's definition of "dark" was a little unconventional. They made some excellent finds along the way — such as an autographed first edition of A Christmas Carol and a collection of Renaissance-era Italian recipes — but what with the crunch they were in, they didn't appreciate the treasures as much as they should have.
At long last, America, groping at the very top of a tall shelf, discovered a heavy volume that looked like it had lain there undisturbed for decades. "Hey, guys, I think this one's blue," he said, and blew a thick layer of dust from the cover to the chagrin of everyone standing nearby. It was indeed blue, with embossed gold suns and stars. There didn't seem to be a title at first, but after looking at it for a bit, they started to get the idea that the embellishments were the title, somehow.
"I bet this is it," said Sweden, opening it and flipping a few pages. Each page held only a few lines of text in some unfamiliar script rather like Arabic crossed with Ogham as written by a Japanese calligrapher. It looked mystical and extremely old.
"It's sprite language," said Iceland.
"What does it say?" asked Norway.
"I know what their writing looks like, but I can't read it. I only know the spoken language."
"Hey, call that one with the hat over here," said America. "Have him read it."
"Right," said Iceland. He excused himself from the library for a moment and they heard him carry on a brief conversation with the foreman. He came back looking frustrated. "It's like this. The sprites aren't allowed in here and the books aren't allowed to leave this room without Samiland's express permission."
"I don't suppose they would be willing to bend the rule this one time?" said Russia.
"Never," said Iceland. "That's the thing about sprites… they follow every rule to the letter."
"That's true," said Sweden. "But on the other hand, they love loopholes." He carried the book over to the library doorway and held it open and upright so that those outside the room could see it. A couple of sprites looked up from their paper and ribbons and began nudging one another admiringly. The foreman actually laughed out loud, walked over, and began reading. Iceland listened carefully, told Sweden when to turn each page, and called a halt after a certain point.
"That was it, all right," he said. "You're not going to believe where the OCM is."
"Where?" said pretty much everyone.
"Okay… I'm not 100% positive. Sprites don't write much down, and when they do it's usually in this sort of riddle-poetry, but if I'm remembering my metaphors right…" He took a deep breath and looked around at the group before finishing.
"North Pole has it."
"You have got to be kidding," said Norway.
"I'm not. And one more thing… we only have until the Winter Solstice to get it."
"Then let's not dawdle," said Sweden.
Christmas Around the World: Struffoli is an Italian dessert that probably dates back at least to the Renaissance and is still considered essential to the Christmas season in Naples. It consists of small balls of sweet dough, fried in hot oil and garnished with orange-flavored honey and candy sprinkles.
A/N: Today's musical selection is "Setting the Trap" from the Home Alone soundtrack. There's just something about stirring remixes of "Carol of the Bells" that make for great action sequences.
"I'm definitely going to have words with her when we get there," said Sweden as they made their way toward the tree line. "Actually, she'll be lucky if I don't repaint her house with antifreeze. We would have beaten Nazi Germany a long time ago if she had just given us the OCM from the start."
"Be fair," said Norway. "She probably didn't know we would need it… and anyway, you know how she is."
"Maybe she doesn't even know she has it," said America. "Like Dorothy and the Ruby Slippers."
"We'll find out soon enough," said Russia.
The edge of the forest loomed ahead, beyond it nothing but flat tundra and then the expanse of the northern ice cap. Here at the nadir of the polar winter, there was not even a hint of sunlight, and the sliver of old moon was hanging out with the sun well below the horizon. However, a ghostly bluish aurora flickered overhead, multiplied by the reflective snow and ice so that the whole landscape was suffused with luminescence, like an artist's impression of the surface of an outer planetary moon. It was so goddamn cold that their breath was turning to frost in mid-air.
They were almost out of the trees when the sound of off-key bells began…
A crack opened up in the crusting snow, and the Nazi Germany rose out of it. He kept rising even after they would have expected him to stop, which turned out to be because he was on horseback.
But what a horse! They don't breed them like that anymore. Probably they never did, because you would never get that shade of white on a living animal, so pure that it outshone the ice and illuminated itself and its sneering rider. Its mane and tail kept swirling even in the absence of wind. Its harness was berry-red and trimmed with tassels and gold and silver jingle bells… but that was where it started to go off-model as far as fairytale horses are concerned, because the notches in the bells were shaped like swastikas, and when it tossed its head, its eyes appeared the color of raspberry jam.
"I decided I wanted a pony for Christmas, so I gave myself one," Nazi Germany said. It sounded like one of his smug jokes, but he wasn't smiling. "It's how I soothed myself after discovering your latest little stunt. Nice try."
With that, he tossed something to the ground in front of them. It rolled to a stop, revealing itself to be… no, it couldn't be… could it?
At first glance, it appeared to be a severed head. Upon a closer look, however, it appeared to be Denmark's severed head.
They all made some sort of alarmed noise, but Denmark shrieked so loudly that they probably heard him on Mars. "OH GOD! HE KILLED AND DECAPITATED… wait a sec… who… but… I'm right here and… what the hell is going on this is the creepiest thing ever!"
"Calm down, Denmark!" said Sweden, who could have stood to take his own advice. "It's just a robot!" Indeed, now that the initial shock had passed, they could see the wires sticking out of the neck end. "Japan must have made it to use as a decoy. We'll have to have a little talk with him about that…"
"You'll have ample opportunity once you're sharing a torture chamber with him," Nazi Germany said. "You must know I am extremely put out by this mockery!"
"Funny thing about being a racist asshole wannabe world conqueror," said America. "It tends to piss off all the countries who'd rather play nice with each other, not just the ones you kick on purpose. There's a lot more where that came from. But you know what? It's almost Christmas and I'm feeling forgiving. So if you back down now, I'll see if I can get the prison guards to spit in your food only every other day."
Nazi Germany narrowed his eyes. "You speak as if I didn't hold all the aces."
America assumed his poker face just an instant too late.
"What did you find?" Nazi Germany demanded. He started to raise the crop.
"RUN!" America shouted, already leaping.
Nazi Germany tried to pull the horse back, but even magically created horses don't retreat easily. America caught its mane, and although he was shaken off in less than two seconds, that was long enough for the others to dart past and leg it toward the northern horizon. "Oh no, you don't," said Nazi Germany, wheeling about and preparing to pursue. America reached out and grabbed one of the horse's hind legs with both hands. It didn't fall, but it couldn't exactly run while hobbling three-legged and dragging a weight. "Stop that! Let go!" Nazi Germany ordered.
"Nuh-uh!" America retorted.
Nazi Germany, for once, used the crop as it was intended and smacked the horse's flank. A ripple of something spread out from the point of impact, so that as the animal kicked America loose and surged into motion, it changed, growing bulkier and shaggier. By the time it was moving properly, it had transformed into a polar bear… as re-imagined by Gary Gygax. It roared as it gave chase.
"Oh god!" Denmark shrieked. "What the hell's after us now?"
Norway glanced back for a fraction of a second. "Believe me, you don't want to know!"
"Spread out!" said Russia. "Make him choose which of us to chase!"
Nazi Germany was completely evil and probably insane, but he wasn't stupid. He chose Denmark. When the nature-phobic Scandinavian realized the sound of pursuit was staying with him, he howled with terror and redoubled his running efforts, only to slip on the ice and go tumbling. Predictably, Norway changed course to hurry to his aid. Not quite as inevitably, but still not terribly surprising, Sweden did too. He was well aware that Norway had a bad track record with even normal polar bears. "Perfect," Nazi Germany muttered to himself, preparing to swing the crop as his mount closed the distance. This was going to be a killer spell. (It shall be left as an exercise for the reader to determine how literal that is.)
But no one could have predicted what came next. It was as if a wall of blue fire sprang up from the ground to block the bear's path, but in reverse — the aurora actually descended, a glowing ephemeral curtain of magnetic fury. And there in front of it stood North Pole, glaring frosty daggers at the onrushing attackers.
The bear skidded to a stop. It may have been a magically constructed nightmare beast with huge fangs and claws and even little horns, but it was still a polar bear and it wasn't about to defy the pole herself. She made a shooing gesture, and it turned around and fled over Nazi Germany's copious protests. They covered a lot of ground before he managed to strike it with the crop again. It turned into snow and collapsed, and he wound up half-buried and swearing at the top of his lungs in German. (At least, they assumed he was swearing. Above a certain threshold of anger, all German sounds more-or-less like swearing. Ask any non-speaker.)
"That was… timely of you, North Pole," said Sweden. "Much appreciated. Actually, we were just coming to see you. We think you have something we need."
"Let's get the hell out of here before he digs himself out," said Denmark.
The group reassembled. North Pole waved almost negligently for them to follow her. "That was way scary!" said America. "I tried to distract it with this, but it didn't work! All those commercials lied to me!" He held up a Coke bottle, shaking it for emphasis. Then, demonstrating that special quality that set him apart from most of the developed world, he shrugged and opened it.
He spent the next twenty minutes picking cola-cicles off his face.
A/N: Music for this chapter: "Above the Northern Lights" by Mannheim Steamroller for the cave scene, and "Wizards in Winter" by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra for the travel sequence.
None of the Arctic Council had ever been inside North Pole's house before, and now that they were, they almost wished they had kept it that way. It was only a house on the outside.
On the inside, it was an ice cavern, spectacular but grim. Spectacularly grim, in fact. There was not a hint of natural light, but their flashlight beam showed soaring arched ceilings and banks of icicles everywhere you would normally expect to find stalactites, all of them glittering with a fuzzy-seeming coat of tiny, dendritic frost formations.
North Pole led them to the rough center of the space. There was nothing to sit on except a few stumpy mounds of ice, so they remained standing. Their hostess spread her hands and raised an eyebrow in a manner that clearly said "Well?"
"Oh. Right," said Sweden. "We found Samiland. He's being held captive, but he was all right when we saw him. He said we should find something called the Original Christmas Magic, and a book of his said it would be here. Do you know what that is?"
North Pole was either puzzled or irritated. Both emotions looked remarkably similar on her. Either way, she went stock-still and did not reply in any meaningful fashion.
A long, awkward moment passed.
"Uh… if it helps, I think today is the last day we have to get it," said Iceland. "So it would be really, really great if you could remember…"
Recognition dawned. North Pole beckoned and led them to an aperture in the wall. Beyond it was a downward-leading staircase.
"You have a basement?" said America.
"Careful, everyone," Norway said softly as they followed North Pole down the ice steps. "Don't slip."
North Pole had a basement, all right… and it was flooded. The stairs went right into the water. The room was several meters across and irregularly shaped, with broad ice shelves protruding from the walls near water level, making banks of a sort. "Hey, fellas, you know where we are?" said Canada. "Under the ice cap. This is all hollowed out." So it wasn't flooded per se, which would imply that there was a floor under the water. The seabed doesn't count, because nobody has a basement with a four-kilometer ceiling.
North Pole pointed toward one of the shelves, where something was glowing.
"Is that it?" said Sweden. "Wait, that was a dumb question, wasn't it? You wouldn't be showing it to us if it weren't."
North Pole nodded. It was unclear which question, if not both, she was answering in the affirmative. She motioned for them to follow again and stepped directly onto the water. It solidified under her feet as she went, making a bridge.
"Is it safe?" said Sweden, prodding the frozen path with his toe.
"I don't think she's trying to trick us," said Norway. "She wouldn't save us from Nazi Germany's polar bear just to drop us in freezing water."
"How cold is it?" said Denmark, bending down to test the water with his hand. Norway grabbed his arm.
"Don't do that! Not unless you want to lose some fingers."
"Enough foolishness. Our hostess is waiting," said Russia. North Pole had stopped about halfway across the basement and begun to tap her foot.
The ice bridge bobbed alarmingly under their combined weight, but it held. A moment later, they were across and looking down at the Original Christmas Magic.
It was a stick or something, maybe sixty centimeters long and stuck into the ice like a little flagpole. More likely, it was the shining mote at the end of the stick-or-something: a tiny, brilliant gleam with no readily identifiable source, like the light from a single Christmas tree bulb without the bulb. Whatever it was, just standing nearby made them feel warm and contented.
"It looks like a star," said Norway.
"It looks like the sun," said Denmark.
"The sun is a star," Sweden pointed out, just because he could.
"Do you think it's hot?" said Denmark. And then, since he had been prevented from touching the water before (for an excellent reason), he impulsively reached out and touched the light. There followed a rather confusing moment, and when the world swam back into focus, he was lying with his head in Norway's lap, feeling much as he did when he hung out with the Netherlands and picked up a contact high, but without the urge to make a big batch of cookie dough and eat it raw out of the mixing bowl.
"There we go," Norway was saying. "He's back."
Sweden moved into view. "Congratulations. You just achieved a new personal best for reckless idiocy. Are you all right?"
"Yeah…" Denmark said dreamily. "Actually… I feel fantastic." He sat up straight. "That's powerful stuff! We might not even need to give it to Samiland — just hit Nazi Germany with it once and tie him up while he's blissed out. I didn't miss anything, did I?"
"No," said Iceland. "You were only out for a minute or so. What was it like?"
"Well…" Denmark said, picking himself up.
They all watched a complex series of emotions tap-dance across his face. Those who knew him well steeled themselves for the mind-bogglingly inappropriate description which was bound to come out of his mouth in a second. They were a little taken aback by his actual reply.
"Springtime. That's what it was like. Or maybe more like a dream of springtime. It was all warm, and sunny, and — and flowers, and… yeah. Springtime."
"Yes," said Russia. "It would be."
"Wait," said America. "What does springtime have to do with Christmas?"
"Not much anymore," said Sweden. "But this is the Original Christmas Magic. You're too young to remember when the main reason to celebrate at midwinter was that the daylight was finally coming back and the winter would end. It's not so critical now that we have supermarkets and global trade. But that explains why we only had until today to find it. Once you reach the Winter Solstice, you don't need to hope for spring, because you can see that it's on its way."
"This must be why Nazi Germany lost control of those holly bushes," said Norway. "Snow and decorations… he's got that covered with what he stole from Samiland. But wild plants have more to do with this. This is profound stuff, guys. We'd better be really careful with it."
America rather unceremoniously picked up the stick and waved it a few times. The others flinched, but nothing happened. "Cool!" said the superpower cheerfully. "All right, men! Time to go pound some Nazi ass!" (If he realized his Freudian slip, he hid it well.)
"I swear," said Sweden. "You and Denmark are just as bad as each other."
"Hey!" they said in perfect unison. "I am not as bad as — " They cut off, still in tandem, and slowly glanced sideways at each other.
Frowning, North Pole snapped her fingers and pointed back over the water, toward the stairs.
"I apologize on their behalf, snowdrop," said Russia. "You have been magnanimously patient."
She led them back across the basement and directed them to leave the house, which they did.
"The problem now," said Norway, "is how to get back to Antarctica in time."
"We'll think of something," said America, twirling the OCM wand like a baton. In his carelessness, he almost dropped it, but made a quick snatch and just prevented it from hitting the ground.
"See?" said Sweden. "This is exactly what I'm talking about! You don't have the sense you were founded with! Let someone else carry it!"
Finland walked over to America and grabbed the wand. "Hey!" said America. "Ask first!"
"Not exactly who I had in mind," said Sweden, "but… Finland, what are you doing?"
He was waving the OCM in slow circles, his gaze fixed on the sky.
"No fair!" said Denmark. "None of the rest of us are getting drunk!"
"No, look!" said Norway.
The aurora was reacting to the movements of the wand, like a curtain fluttering in a gentle breeze. Finland pointed and gave them all a hard look.
"Don't be absurd," said Sweden. "North Pole's the only one who can do that… isn't she?"
"There's only one way to find out," said Russia. "And it would solve our transportation problem."
Iceland cottoned on, and his eyes grew enormous while his sparkles tripled in intensity. "Yes! Oh, man, I have always wanted to try this! Finland, buddy, you gotta let me take the spot behind you. I was made for this!"
"I don't get it; what are talking about, eh?" said Canada.
"Everybody join hands," said Iceland, "and hold really tightly! We're gonna ride the aurora!"
"I must be out of my mind," said Sweden, grabbing Norway's hand on one side and Iceland's on the other.
They formed a chain, with Finland in the lead, holding the OCM wand aloft. "Do you actually know what you're doing?" said Norway.
Finland didn't, but just at that moment he must have done something right purely by accident, because Nature's best light show suddenly coiled down to ground level, wrapped them in a snug blanket of highly charged ionic particles, and whipped back into the sky, taking them with it.
It was impossible, of course. That's why they needed Christmas magic to do it.
From there it was several long minutes of breathtaking high speed as they rocketed along the lines of the Earth's magnetic field, carried by pure light. Literally breathtaking — the sheer speed forced the air from their lungs the way people used to think would happen with railways. But it didn't matter, because they would have been breathless with the thrill anyway, even before they were flung into the upper atmosphere, where the oxygen molecules like their privacy. And all the while, they were surrounded by — enveloped in — a riotous wash of color like an explosion in a tie-dye factory.
By and by, they returned to something like a sane altitude and their speed dropped enough for them to breathe again. Some of them promptly screamed in terror, though others were so paralyzed that they still had no voice. But if they had been better prepared for the experience, they might have agreed with Iceland:
Then, just as suddenly as it had begun, the trip was over. Once again they were in an icy wilderness, but now the sun blazed overhead. Finland, panting like he had just run a marathon, handed the OCM wand off to Iceland, got out his liquor bottle with shaking hands, and drained most of it at a single gulp. Denmark clung to the ground and planted a big kiss on it, and then had to hold his position and whimper until Norway noticed and freed his stuck-frozen lips.
"Well," said America in a strangely flat voice, "we're here. I think. Actually, where the hell are we?"
"Let's get to the top of that rise and take a look around," said Canada.
They weren't gone long. "We saw the crash site," Canada reported, since America was undergoing another round of grief over his late and lamented airplane. "That-a-way. Shouldn't take us long to get there, and then we can retrace our steps from the first time."
"Let's not waste any time," said Sweden. They set out in the direction Canada had given.
"Wait," said Russia. "Who has the OCM?"
They located Iceland, who hadn't moved. He looked positively dejected. "What's the matter with you?" said Sweden.
"That was it," said Iceland. "The biggest thrill I'll ever experience. What could ever match it? Nothing, that's what! I'm too young to have already reached the high point of my life!"
"Well, look at the bright side," said Sweden, taking the OCM wand from him and hauling him to his feet. "We still have to infiltrate Nazi Germany's fortress again. There's a decent chance you'll die soon anyway."
The smile returned. "Oh, well, when you put it like that…"
Christmas Around the World: As everyone knows, the closer you get to either of the poles, the more dramatic the differences in daylight are from one season to the next. At all points above the Arctic Circle, there is at least one day where the sun does not rise at all in winter, and even a bit further south, there may be only a few hours of sunlight each day in December. It's no wonder that the Northern European pagans made the Winter Solstice such an important festival, since it marked the point at which the daylight hours would start growing again. The Norse called this festival Jul, after their word for "wheel," possibly in reference to the round sun or to the turning of the seasons. This word has entered the English language as "Yule," which is still used to refer to the Christmas season. Many Christmas traditions and symbols — evergreen trees, candles, big holiday meals, gift-giving — originated not with Christianity, but with pre-Christian paganism and the drive to find or create light and hope in the darkness of winter.
A/N: Music for this chapter: "Wish Liszt (Toy Shop Madness)" and "A Mad Russian's Christmas", both by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. (Yes, them again.) Just put them on repeat until the chapter is over.
They weren't sure what to expect as they got closer to the fortress, but they definitely didn't expect an argument. The sharp tones were audible over some distance, and then they rounded a snow dune and there were England and France, bickering. They had long since passed the point of actual persuasion attempts and were simply shouting over one another, pausing only for breath. It wasn't even possible to tell what they were arguing about, although with those two, any possible topic was not so much a cause for disagreement as an excuse.
Sweden cleared his throat with all the deafening subtlety of a master meeting president. The two verbal combatants stopped so suddenly that there was the actual sound of a needle sliding off the edge of a vinyl record.
"Lads!" said England, spreading his arms as though intending to embrace them all. "So glad to see you've made it through all right. Do forgive our… er…" He looked over at France and simply dropped it. "Come along now, quickly. There's a lot to get you caught up on. We'll do it over tea. Madam, we shall simply have to continue our discussion later."
"I'll be in my tent when you're ready to apologize," France replied, and took her leave.
"Okay, dad, what was all that about, eh?" said Canada.
"Never you mind, son," said England, leading the group in a different direction. "France is just being entirely like herself, that's all."
"Dad…" Canada said warningly.
"All right! If you must know, we were arguing over how, and in fact whether, to attempt to rescue Japan. He was captured a few days ago during a decoy operation."
"We know," said Sweden.
"We do?" said Norway.
"We could have guessed if we hadn't been too busy to think about it," Sweden clarified.
"That's not the half of it, I'm afraid," said England as they reached his part of the encampment. He began bustling about a camp stove. "The Australias went behind all of our backs and tried to spring him the next day, and they got caught too. Although I'd be more worried about them if I didn't know them like I do. If we had the time to spare, I'd say just to wait until Nazi Germany got fed up and sent them back. But moving on. That night, Belgium disappeared while on guard duty. I'm quite certain he was distracted by his comic books, but that's neither here nor there."
"Belgium's here?" said Canada. "Wow… who all did you manage to bring on board?"
"Don't interrupt. You'll find out in due course. Anyway, since losing Belgium, we've been lying low. I say, is that what Samiland sent you to find?"
"This?" said Sweden, remembering that he had the OCM. "Yes. Don't touch it. Actually, we should find someplace we can set this. A pile of snow is fine. Good, thanks. There we go."
"Don't worry about a thing, dad," said America. "Now that we've got that baby, we'll tear through Nazi Germany's defenses like tissue paper."
"I don't know," said Norway. "Samiland just said to bring it to him. I think we shouldn't mess with it. You saw what it did to Denmark when he touched it."
"So? It's not like it hurt him."
"We also weren't in a fight at the time," said Sweden. "We should go ahead with the original plan — have the others provide a distraction while we sneak in the back way."
Russiashook his head. "I thought we were assuming Nazi Germany had sealed up that tunnel. Still, there may well be others. We never did do a proper reconnaissance."
England sipped his tea. "I'm not sure a distraction would work. He's expecting you to arrive any moment, you know. If we show up instead, he'll probably see right through it."
"Well, what are our options?" said Sweden. "No, back up a little — what are our resources? I gather you've been doing some fighting…"
"Very little," said England. "Primarily we've been waiting for you, and reacting to threats as they arise." He chuckled. "You ought to see what Sister Japan has cooked up."
"Dad, you can't win a war fighting defensively," said America.
"If we are to win this," said Russia, "we must not treat it as a war at all. We mustn't accept Nazi Germany's terms."
"Well, we need to decide what we're going to do, and fast," said Sweden. "If Samiland doesn't make his rounds tomorrow night, it's all over."
"Let's just use the plan we already have," said Denmark. "And if things get really hectic, we can use the OCM as an ace in the hole."
"He's right," said Norway. "It's better than running out of time trying to come up with a perfect plan. But things had better be really desperate before we resort to using that magic. As in, no other options left. Sound good?"
"It sounds perfectly workable to me," said England. "I'll round up the others straightaway so we can find a surreptitious entry point and work out the timing." He polished off his tea, dabbed his face with a napkin, and overturned the cup on the snow to let it drain while he went to gather the troops. As it were.
"Don't forget about Mom!" Canada called after him. They heard him grumble as he broke into a stomping gait.
Unfortunately, no one thought to peek under the teacup, or they might have gotten a clue as to how the day's venture would turn out.
As predicted, the tunnel they had used to enter the first time was blocked off. (The block was a slab of solid steel with Nazi Germany's portrait cast in bas-relief. He was making a duck face in the portrait.) But they found another, nearby and equally shielded from view of the fortress itself. This one had an intact grate over the hatch, so they didn't even have to fall in to discover it. By comparing its location with the other, they worked out a rough speculative map for getting to Samiland's cell from the entry point. The Arctic Council got into position. As for the others, they prepared to… put on a show.
Sister Japan got the ball rolling, under the half-truth that she was rescuing her brother. It was quite a spectacle — she posed holding a scepter with a winged jeweled heart motif, too cute for words, and shouted a phrase that was probably meant to be perfectly good English, and her sensible cold-weather outfit transformed into a lace-intensive confection with about five layers of petticoats and knee-high boots and a hairdo featuring ringlets. Then she made a speech about love and honor and justice and kittens, accompanied by more posing. Then she launched an attack on the fortress that should have come with a warning for epileptics. And another one for diabetics.
The response from within was immediate. Dozens of toy airplanes droned overhead, dropping tree ornaments that shattered on impact into thousands of mirrored shards. The guards in the striped towers opened fire, but Sister Japan activated one of her costume's special features and figure skated out of harm's way. At that point, France, England, and Italy rushed in from the sidelines and demanded to know what she thought she was doing, being so reckless as to storm the fortress alone. Of course, they were being pretty reckless themselves, putting themselves all in one spot like that. It made them a perfect target for a massive attack from the enemy. Really, what were they thinking. Honestly.
The massive gingerbread gates began to creak open. An entire platoon of toy soldiers and nutcrackers was visible through the gap. The gathered countries waited, smiling to themselves…
Round the far side of the fortress, Sweden perked up. "They're opening. That's our cue." America applied a crowbar to the grate, and it popped free. One at a time, they jumped through. Norway, carrying the OCM, went last.
It was a longer fall this time, a bit jarring to the knees, and so it wasn't until the last of them landed that they were able to stand up and get an idea of their surroundings.
They were, in fact, surrounded. By two layers of enemies. They didn't look immediately hostile or indeed military, but the swastika armbands were a dead giveaway. The inner ring was comprised of nine couples in colorful ballroom attire, all wearing small coronets. The outer ring was the band, in dark suits, not quite two dozen strong and split about evenly between woodwinds and percussion. They regarded the Arctic Council with undisguised haughtiness.
"Oh, dear," said Russia.
Then the music started. One of the percussionists began beating out a rapid, complex rhythm, the players raised their instruments and produced an unsettling multilayered tune, and then… the couples danced, and demonstrated why the design of a combat sequence in an action film is called "choreography."
It was a raucous, leaping sort of dance, involving much twirling and flinging out of limbs on the part of both sexes. And all the dancers were wearing very hard shoes, and the men were artistically waving sabers about as part of their steps, and the women seemed to have large coins sewn into the hems of their gowns — which doesn't seem like a problem until you think about the sheer speed involved.
The aggregate effect was rather like being trapped in a really festive and elegant machine. The Arctic Council found themselves kicked and clobbered and squeezed from all sides without interruption, while also having to duck sword swings. The dancers absolutely did not falter, and the complexity of the music made it nearly impossible to predict their movements. Once one hit landed, several more were likely to follow as pain and disorientation hampered the luckless target's ability to dodge. Even talking was a crapshoot — as likely as not, a swift blow to the gut would cut short any words.
The solution was obvious — stop the music, or more probably, stop the one percussionist who was pounding out the beat and giving the others their cue to follow. But the whirling, slapping wall created by the eighteen dancers seemed impenetrable, and the scant glimpses of the musicians that could be obtained through the flouncing colors afforded few clues as to which one it was.
"Norway! Use th — ugh!" came Denmark's interrupted yell.
Russia was faring better than the others, for the most part. As soon as he realized what was going to happen, he had mentally thanked Ukraine for the lessons all those years ago and launched into a bit of defensive Combat Hopak, and sure enough, it worked. The onslaught was intended for victims who were either trying to stay upright or cowering on the ground, not performing their own battle-ready variation on "Trepak." So he got only modestly battered and was able to keep his senses mostly intact. Thus was he able to realize, after a point, that none of the drummers in the outer ring was leading the music, that the sharp, busy rat-a-tat didn't quite match up with any of their visible efforts. Then he chanced to see a flash of gold behind their ranks…
"America!" he called over the music, parrying a high-buttoned boot. "I think there's another of these fancy gentlemen hiding behind the drummers! Try to spot his crown!"
"Huh — ow!" America replied. "Hey, I see him!"
"He must be the key to all this! Boost me over and I'll take care of him!"
"How do I know you won't run away and leave us?"
"Just trust — oof! — him!" said Sweden. "It's not like we have — ack!" He took a well-dressed knee to the chin and went down.
"All right, fine!" said America. "Guys, give us a shield!"
He laced his fingers together, let Russia step in his hands, and launched him. The elder nation somersaulted out of the inner circle, bounced off a timpani with a magnificent boing, and came down like a hammer (no sickle) on the tenth gentleman, who was producing that convoluted rhythm by prancing about in tap shoes. Remembering how it had gone with the snowmen, Russia swept the little crown from the man's head, and he simply vanished. Without his example, the musicians couldn't keep to the tempo, and the dancers stumbled, and then all of them evaporated as well, and it was all over but the groaning.
"I think my whole body is one big bruise," said Denmark.
"No problem," Sweden croaked. "We've been through worse. Not recently, but… at least we know it's survivable… right? Has anyone seen my glasses?"
"You're wearing them," said Iceland.
"Hey, man, you're still here!" said America. "And you thrashed the bad guys! Way to go, Russia! You know, maybe you're not so bad after all!"
"Finally you notice. So you'll stop treating me like an automatic enemy?"
"Well… we'll see."
"Norway, you still have the OCM, right?" said Sweden.
"Good. Let's keep going."
They pulled themselves together and began finding their way toward the part of the complex they had visited before. The alarms were blaring, but they met no further resistance along the way (except for a giant teddy bear that reared up, roaring, only for its head to explode in a cloud of polyester fiberfill courtesy of America's gun). When they found the right tunnel, they forgot their aches and ran up to the candy-barred cell.
It was empty.
"Oh, no!" said Sweden, banging his head against the wall next to the peppermint bars. "What does this mean?"
"I can think of a couple of things," said Norway. "Either Nazi Germany needs him to prepare the sleigh… or he moved him because he suspected we'd be arriving to bust him out. He had those guards waiting for us…"
"Either way," said America, "our best bet is to find Nazi Germany. Let's get topside and see what's going on up there."
They continued, eventually finding a set of stairs. Halfway up, the walls changed from metal to gingerbread, so they knew they were on the right track. The doorway at the top of the stairs led to a huge room, barren except for the dais at one end, which was furnished with a lectern, several ostentatiously large Nazi banners, and two tasteless statues of Nazi Germany striking heroic poses. Oddly enough, there were no Christmas decorations at all, unless the metallic strands hanging from the ceiling were supposed to be tinsel. They flashed in the light from the OCM.
"He does love to give his speeches, doesn't he?" said Denmark.
Across from them was a small door similar to the one they had entered by, and at one end of the auditorium was a large double door. "Is he more likely to be out where the action is, or somewhere private getting ready for tomorrow night?" said Sweden. "We definitely don't want to split up…" He walked slowly forward, brushing the longer strands out of his way.
And that was when the attack came from above.
There was no doubt about it: Nazi Germany's minions had superior numbers and the home field advantage. In fact, the home field was the source of many of them, as periodically a wave of snowmen and ice creatures rose out of the ground to attack. But England had that pretty well covered. Literally. At any sign of such activity, he would zip in and hose the area down with a blast of piping hot tea.
"Take that, you blighters! Rule Britannia!"
They all had something to bring to the table. Sister Japan — or rather, Lovely Warrior Nipponko-chan — had a seemingly endless supply of her love-fueled "Rainbow Heart Beams," the perfect antidote to Nazi Germany's hate. Romania, hiding from the perilous midnight sun under his black cloak, slipped among the massed toy soldiers as stealthily as the fog and stole the weapons right out of their hands. The Netherlands was taking care of an important aspect of the operation at home, but Sister Netherlands was there with her portable combat windmill. France, acting along similar lines, had brought a handheld guillotine and, just to drive the point home all the harder, had foregone her usual blue beret in favor of the Red Cap of Liberty and periodically shouted "Death to all tyrants!" as she sliced through her opponents. Italy flitted about the field, helping out where needed, doing some of everything — a true Renaissance man.
So while they were vastly outnumbered, they were holding their own… for the time being. It would have to be enough.
The monster was as big as a car and haphazardly assembled out of such items as icicles, colored lights, and one massive red tree ornament, and it descended on a line of shimmering silver. The colossal creature came down almost right on top of Sweden, and as he skipped backward out of sheer reflex, it dawned on the group exactly what they were facing.
A spider. A giant spider.
A giant Christmas spider.
Denmark screamed like a girl and hid behind Norway, but Norway was hardly any less horrified. It wasn't that he had any particular problem with spiders, but he did have a problem with potentially being eaten, and it wasn't even a natural arachnid.
"Well, guys?" said America. "What do we do about this one?"
The spider charged, hissing. They scattered, which probably was not the brightest idea. The auditorium was functionally a maze — it hadn't been apparent at first just how much of it was laced with the tinsel webs, which were almost invisible unless they happened to catch the light full-on. Both of the doors they had seen were covered with a fine net of them. They weren't sticky or especially hard to snap, but they had a slowing effect, and the spider was quick to single out anyone who was at all impeded.
"Norway! Use the goddamn OCM!"
"Not yet, Denmark!"
"Finland!" said Sweden. "Get to one of the doors and cut the webs off it! Either one! It doesn't matter for now!" Finland grunted assent and began slashing his way toward the double door simply because it was closer.
The spider noticed, of course, and went after him with lightning speed. Before he had closed half the distance, it caught him by the foot and began wrapping his leg in tinsel.
"Not on my watch, Charlotte!" America barked. "You leave Sauna Boy alone! He's my Russia-bashing buddy! Uh… no offense, Russia!" He ran forward, grabbed one of the spider's rearmost legs (the same basic strategy he had used on the horse), and pulled it off balance with a sharp yank. It was enough for Finland to cut himself free and scramble away. Hissing some more, the spider jerked its leg out of America's grasp and turned on him. With a squeak of fright, America brought out his gun and emptied the clip, but nerves made him miss every shot and he only succeeded in knocking some tinsel down from the ceiling. Finally he clubbed the creature's face with the butt of the spent gun, breaking two of its light-bulb eyes. It shrieked the way spiders always do in movies even though in real life it's physically impossible for them and retreated up its webbing toward the ceiling.
"Let's go! C'mon!" said Sweden, waving them all toward the door that Finland was busily working on. "Before it comes after us again!"
"Are we all here?" said Denmark. "Where's Norway?"
"Over here!" Norway called from a far corner of the auditorium. He had blundered into a tangle of tinsel at some point and was still extricating himself. He would have had an easier time of it if he hadn't been holding onto the wand, but he didn't dare drop it.
"Do you need any help?" said Sweden.
"I don't think so, just give me a minute."
A horrible hunch made Denmark look toward the ceiling, and sure enough — the spider was making its way toward Norway's corner. Anguish gripped him for a fraction of a second, and then he was sprinting. "You guys go on ahead! We'll be right behind you! Hang on, Norway, I'm coming!"
"He's insane," Sweden said flatly.
"I said I don't need — " Norway began, but then he glanced up, caught sight of the rapidly approaching monster, broke off with a yell, and strained against the restricting tinsel.
Denmark got close just as the spider dropped, and launched himself at it. It was big, but being made mostly of a huge tree ornament, it was hollow, and his slight weight was enough to send it swinging wildly on its thread. He held on like grim death, which was probably appropriate given the circumstances, as the spider scrabbled with its icicle legs and craned its head toward him. The erratic pendulum motion became more severe, until finally the line snapped and the spider went careening into the nearest wall with Denmark still aboard. Its body shattered.
Norway wrenched free of the remaining tinsel strands and ran to Denmark, who was curled up on the floor with his eyes shut tight, grimacing. There were a few nicks on his face from the glass shards, but they had already stopped bleeding.
"Jesus, that was a crazy thing to do," said Norway, brushing mirrored fragments off of him. "Are you all right?"
"I'm covered in bug guts, aren't I?" said Denmark. "I don't want to look. It must be gross."
Norway had to chuckle. "You're fine. Come on, hero. The others are waiting. And… thanks. That had to have been hard for you."
"Well, you're my best friend. Besides, it wasn't a real spider. If it had been a real spider, you'd have been saving me, I guarantee it."
The walk to the door was uneventful. Beyond was daylight; they had found the main yard of the fortress. From outside the walls could be heard the clamor of a full-scale battle between the forces of Christmas gone awry and the upstanding nations of the world.
"Hey, guys," said Sweden distractedly.
"Nazi Germany is a sick, sick guy!" Denmark wailed. "Who the hell would think to do that with Christmas decorations?"
"Who the hell would think to do that with a spider?" said Norway.
"Who indeed?" said Nazi Germany.
Only then did Denmark and Norway look up and realize that the others were staring down the master of the fortress himself. He had Samiland in a headlock and was slyly tapping the end of the crop against his face.
"What's that you've got there, Norway?" he said. "It's so nice and shiny. Is it a present for me? I certainly hope so. I'd just be heartbroken if it weren't, and when I'm in the dumps, I have a terrible habit of taking it out the closest person. It would be simply horrible if I accidentally did something mean to Samiland here because of something you did. Or didn't do. So what's it going to be?"
Christmas Around the World: The original Christmas Spider is the hero of a folktale from Germany and the Ukraine, concerning a spider that covered a Christmas tree with webs in the process of exploring the decorations. The webs were then turned into silver by the Christ Child/Santa Claus, thus creating the first tinsel.
"There's no way we're handing this over to you," said Norway, clinging to the OCM wand with both hands. "You probably can't even use it."
"Well, we'll never know unless we try, will we?" said Nazi Germany, adjusting his headlock on Samiland to be just a bit tighter. "But seriously. Don't make me do something dreadful, like — oh — turn him into a mouse and then see that he never stirs again. At least, don't make me do it while you all watch. I'd hate to make my favorite countries in all the world witness something so gruesome."
"It's a little late for that, don't you think?" Denmark sputtered in outrage. "You threw my own severed head at me!"
You're bluffing," said America. "You won't hurt him. He's the source of all that magic you're throwing around, and without that, you've got nothing."
"You make an excellent point," said Nazi Germany. He transferred the crop to the hand that had hold of the tribal territory in question and snapped the fingers of his now-free hand. There came an approaching sound of heavy footsteps, and a squad of toy soldiers trooped into view, each one frog-marching one of the reported prisoners: Japan, Australia, Sister Australia, or Belgium. They formed a line behind Nazi Germany, pushed their bound captives to the ground, and set bayonets to their backs.
The Arctic Council gasped and started, but said nothing. There was nothing for them to say.
"It gets better," said Nazi Germany, all grin. He snapped again, and the scene repeated itself… but there were more soldiers this time, and their captives were the members of the strike team.
"Terribly sorry about this, lads," said England. "My tea ran low and the tide turned against us."
"You really should have stayed in contact with them," Nazi Germany said mockingly. "I believe that makes endgame. You have thirty seconds to cooperate with me, or my men will have to run your friends through. Nothing personal, of course. What am I saying? Of course it's personal! This was supposed to be easy! My plan was foolproof! But you had to keep getting in my way! Well, it will be easy now. I'll be taking that stick of yours. Whether I can use it or not, at least you won't be able to use it against me!"
For a moment, no one moved. "Tick-tock," said Nazi Germany, tapping his foot and squeezing Samiland a little more. The tribal territory met Norway's eyes and made a nearly imperceptible nod. And a wink.
"All right!" said Norway. "You can have it."
"Aw, no, Sweden! I mean, Norway!" said America. "Don't give in to him!"
"I said we wouldn't use it until we were out of options," said Norway. "Well, now we are. I didn't expect to use it like this, but we don't have a choice. All right. I'm going to toss it over, so get ready to catch."
"Perfect," said Nazi Germany.
Norway gently threw the OCM wand underhand. Nazi Germany reached out with his still-free hand to intercept the arc. His fingers closed on it.
Things happened very quickly after that. The OCM flared green, and a tendril of energy lashed out and raked Nazi Germany's arm. His eyes widened, and with a squawk of pain and a curse he flung the wand away. In the next instant, Samiland rammed an elbow into his captor's gut, squirmed free, and went after the item as it tumbled away.
"Let's go!" shouted Sweden, waving the rest of the Arctic Council along with him as he sprang into action. They targeted the soldiers, their priority getting the captives out from under those bayonets while Nazi Germany was still out of breath. There was still one left by the time he recovered and barked the execution order… but since it was Romania and the bayonet was made of metal rather than wood, it caused him no worse than a mild sting.
"It's not over yet!" Nazi Germany shrieked, whipping the crop through the air in a complex pattern. Every door fronting onto the yard burst open, and scores of wooden soldiers poured out of the buildings, muskets at the ready. As well, the ground heaved and cracked underfoot, and ice-sculpture monsters began to emerge from the fissures.
The Arctic Council and their allies stood their ground. The enemies surrounded them and prepared to charge… but the attack never came.
There was a brilliant flash of green. And a loud roar of green. And a powerful scent of green. Every sense, in fact, was overwhelmed by an intense impression of greenness, as for the first time since the early Cenozoic at least, the hope of springtime came to a tiny corner of Antarctica.
When the tide of sensation had ebbed, the ground level in the yard had dropped by roughly half a meter, that much ice simply scoured away. There was no sign of the monsters, but there was a grove of nearly a hundred small evergreen trees: one for each soldier. They had been made of pine… and still were.
And through the living Christmas trees strode Samiland, holding the OCM wand out like a sword. "Actually," he said, "I rather think it is over. Unless you think you can beat me in a fair fight? No ambush, just you and the magic you stole from me, versus me and the magic that rejected you. Something tells me you'll lose rather quickly."
Beside himself with rage, Nazi Germany bellowed wordlessly and began a headlong rush toward Samiland, lifting the crop for some devastating blow or spell. Samiland squared his stance to meet the charge… and then sidestepped it, grabbed Nazi Germany's non-crop arm, spun him around a few times, pulled him up so that they were nose-to-nose, and clasped hands with him in such a way that the two magical implements were brought together.
Nothing much visible happened. Golden sparkles rippled along the length of the crop and back again, and that was all. But Nazi Germany made an outright cry of fear and tried to wrench away. "I think not," said Samiland, wiggling the fingers of one hand in the air. "Oh, how I've missed this." A spool of gift-wrap ribbon appeared and, of its own accord, wound around Nazi Germany and trussed him tighter than a Christmas turkey. Samiland let both him and the crop fall to the ground.
"No!" Nazi Germany burst out. "I didn't mean it! I had a miserable childhood! I swear I'll never — "
"Oh, hush, you," said Samiland, manifesting a little stick-on bow and tamping it securely over Nazi Germany's mouth. "I've never known anyone so in love with the sound of his own voice." The assembled nations erupted in applause. Samiland looked around, seeming to notice them for the first time, and blushed a little. "Oh, no, there's no need for that. I owe all of you thanks, and that's no small thing at this time of year. But I'm in a terrible hurry. I've only got a few hours left to make my ride, or this may all have been in vain. Can you all get home on your own?"
The answers were mostly affirmative, but Sweden, speaking for the Arctic Council, said, "We can't. We rode the aurora to get here from North Pole's house."
"Come with me," said Samiland. "I know just the thing. And bring him. While we were locked up together, Belgium told me what they were planning to do with him, and I'm happy to see to it myself. Don't worry about him getting loose — that ribbon is rated to withstand the treatment of any postal service you care to name."
The combined group broke up again with a few hurried good-byes and promises to get together again soon. America shouldered Nazi Germany, none too gently, Finland claimed the discarded crop, and the Arctic Council followed Samiland toward one particular building. It looked like an aircraft hangar crossed with a barn… which was essentially what it was.
The reindeer were already lined up in the traces, looking tired and skittish… but at the sight of their master, they perked up and relaxed. Before doing anything else, Samiland spent a few minutes with them, giving each one individual attention, stroking necks and murmuring in comforting tones and checking to make sure the harness was fastened properly. Then he waved the others over.
"Go ahead and toss him in the cargo bin," he told America. Maybe it was just the acoustics, but his voice sounded deeper and richer than it had before. He climbed into the driver's seat and settled in, taking the reins.
America heaved Nazi Germany off his shoulder and into the sleigh. "But where will we sit? That is… you were gonna offer us a ride, weren't you?"
Samiland looked back over his shoulder at America — or rather, Santa Claus did — for upon taking his customary place, he had acquired his familiar white-bearded, red-suited appearance. "Well, there are eight of you, aren't there? Pick a reindeer and hold on tight!"
"You mean… ride them?" said Norway, eyes sparkling.
Denmark eyed the closest reindeer warily and made a little squeak of alarm when it suddenly turned its head toward him… and licked his face. "Hey," he said. "Hey, you're not so bad. That's right… you're domesticated, aren't you?"
They saddled up… so to speak, since there were no actual saddles. "Is everyone ready?" said Santa. "I wasn't kidding about holding on!" He snapped the reins, and the sleigh surged forward. The two lead reindeer were already airborne by the time they reached the door.
Discussing it later on, they agreed that it was better than riding the aurora. Even Iceland agreed, despite the fact that was not as fast or turbulent. For one thing, sitting on the back of an animal feels more natural than hurtling through the air. For another, at least for the first leg of the journey, they could keep track of their progress by observing the coastlines and mountains. Then after they crossed into the nighttime half of the globe, Santa took the sleigh up above the cloud layer and they were cruising through a dazzling starscape. It was somehow both tranquil and exhilarating. And of course, the fact that it was a victory ride, with Santa Claus's rolling laughter providing the soundtrack, made the whole thing sweeter.
In due time, however, it had to end. "I'll be letting you off soon," said Santa, bringing the sleigh back down and slowing it down to about the speed of a commercial aircraft, so they could talk. "I'd invite you on the delivery trip, but once I get everything loaded up, it's usually all the reindeer can do to pull it all. Passengers would be out of the question."
"Awwww…" America pouted. "I thought we were gonna get to go with you."
"Believe me, there's nothing I'd like better than to give you all your hearts' desires. You certainly deserve it after all you've done. But even my power has limits."
"We just did what we had to do," said Sweden. "It was our responsibility."
"And that in no way diminishes the accomplishment. You saved Christmas! Do you have any idea how good that looks on a résumé?"
"Are you sure you won't be in any danger being alone with him?" said Russia. Nazi Germany had long since retreated into a sulky stillness and was glaring balefully at everything.
"Quite sure," said Santa. "I'll make him my first delivery of the night. Right after I return the Original Christmas Magic to North Pole, of course. It's heady stuff, but I wouldn't want to use it full-time… and in any case, now that the Solstice is past, it needs to spread around the hemisphere. And now…" He eyes twinkled mischievously. "… what are you all doing up so late on Christmas Eve? Don't you know Santa won't come if you're not asleep? Off you go! And Merry Christmas to all!"
He raised his hands and brought them together in a mighty clap. There was a shockwave of glorious light and warmth, a sensation of great speed, and then…
Comfort. Joy. Peace. And sweet dreams.
Nazi Germany awoke slowly. He felt very well rested, but something made him apprehensive, and as he achieved full awareness he realized that he was sitting upright but still largely unable to move. He was tied to a chair, his hands strapped atop the armrests, and the fact that his bonds still consisted of festive ribbon did nothing to brighten the situation. Quite the opposite, actually, because of the irony involved. He looked around wildly and discovered that he was in a courtroom.
"Well, well, well… looks like St. Nicholas came after all. Better late than never," said an amused voice from the judge's stand, accompanied by a whiff of acrid herbal smoke. The Netherlands leaned over, smiling a broad smile that was equal parts smug, triumphant, and mildly baked.
"What is the meaning of this?" Nazi Germany demanded.
"Welcome to The Hague! We hear you haven't been very good this year, In fact, I've got a list." He pulled out a slip of paper and began reading. "It says here you've been up to things like assault, battery, trespassing, breaking and entering, vandalism, kidnapping, unlawful imprisonment, grand theft reindeer, performing magic without a license, loitering with intent to commit a felony, copyright infringement, and hate speech. Although that last one is kind of an assumption based on the known character of the defendant. But wait! There's more!" He flipped over the paper. "We've also got assault with a deadly weapon, eco-terrorism, attempted identity theft, cruelty to animals, and my personal favorite… improper use of foodstuffs! Boy, you have had a busy holiday season, haven't you? It would take forever to run through a full trial for all that. I don't think anyone wants to deal with that on Christmas, so why don't we skip to the end?"
The Netherlands picked up the gavel, and a brass bucket that was sitting on the bench, and descended to ground level. "You know what happens to naughty children at Christmas, don't you?" he said.
"You're going to dump that bucket of coal in my stocking?" said Nazi Germany sourly. "Or on my head, perhaps?"
"Nope," said the Netherlands, dipping his hand in the bucket. It came up black with soot, which he smeared on his face. "Black Peter says hi. I've owed you this for over seventy years, asshole." He raised the gavel, and began to bring it down.
The great thing about spending Christmas in the Far North is that you can sleep in and still get up before dawn. However, not many people bother, since they've usually stayed up until the wee hours the previous night. Certainly there were already some rays peeking in the window by the time Sweden stirred. He grabbed his glasses off the nightstand and squinted through them at the clock: it was just past nine. He tried to get up, only to discover that Denmark was using him as a body pillow — surely by accident, since that was usually Norway's job.
"Gyeh!" he exclaimed, flinching out of the other's grasp so hard that he fell out of bed. What he landed on was not the floor.
"WE'RE UNDER ATTACK!" America yelled, sitting bolt upright in his Stars-and-Stripes sleeping bag. He whipped his gun out from under his pillow and began pulling the trigger while aiming it randomly around the room, and it was by a stroke of luck that he had never reloaded it after the events of the previous day. But the yelling was enough. Suddenly the room was full of shouting and people leaping out of bed and getting tangled in blankets and falling over each other. And just as it was starting to die down, the door was flung open and yet more people, mostly in pajamas, crowded in shouting.
Fortunately, it was too small and close-knit a group for the panic to be self-sustaining, and after a few minutes of utter chaos, it began to dawn on people that nothing was actually wrong.
"You guys are back!" someone squealed with delight. It was Sister Denmark. "Merry Christmas!"
"Yes!" said Sweden. "We're back! And so… are… wait. This is the lodge!"
"Of course it is, silly," said Sister Sweden, pulling her brother to his feet. "Where else would it be?"
"But America and Canada and Russia are here," said Norway. "And they have their own bedding and everything."
"Should they, like, not?" said Sister America. "I brought my bedding."
"I guess Santa figured we should all be together for Christmas," said Canada.
"Have we got some stories to tell!" said Denmark. "Let's get some breakfast! I'm starving and I can't even remember the last time I had a beer!"
"You had three yesterday while we were planning the infiltration," said Norway.
The whole lot trooped downstairs, and soon breakfast was in progress, as well as various familial and romantic reunions and a whole lot of exciting tales. Sweden claimed couch space to sip fresh coffee and cuddle with Åland and patiently humor FennoSwede as he showed off all the toys he had gotten.
"We went ahead and let the kids open theirs last night," Åland explained. "Your sister and Sister Norway thought it was important to try to keep things as normal as possible. But we saved the rest for you guys."
"I appreciate it," said Sweden. "I just hope our non-Nordic guests don't get jealous." He sat up straight. "You know what this room needs? A fire in the fireplace. Come out to the woodpile with me."
"Out of context, that would sound really dirty," Åland grinned as they got up. They traded their slippers for boots and opened the back door…
"Oh my…" said Sweden.
"We're going to need to make more coffee," said Åland.
The land behind the lodge looked like a United Nations campout. The huge tent bearing the design of the Union Jack was the most noticeable, but France and Australia were on either side of it, and there was Japan and Germany and… They scanned the whole lot and quickly determined that the gathering consisted of not only the Antarctic strike team, but every nation they had visited throughout the month. And the inhabitants were starting to wake up and poke their heads out with expressions of acute puzzlement.
Canada walked up behind Sweden and Åland. "About five people are saying to stop letting the cold… Dad! What are you doing here, eh?"
"Buggered if I know," said England. "I thought I was on my way home."
Canada turned back inside the lodge. "Guys! Guys, you have to see this! Everyone's here! Santa brought everyone here!"
It was the best kind of chaos as people scrambled to put on some proper clothes and ran out to share greetings and hugs. By and by, someone wandered around to the front of the lodge, where more terrific surprises awaited: a fifteen-meter tree, richly decorated and piled three layers deep with gifts, some of them transported from the homes of the guests, and some entirely new. The largest wasn't even wrapped, but it had huge bows tied around the wings and, just to allay any doubt, a trace of duct-tape residue on the tail fin.
"My plane!" America whooped. "It's good as new! Santa remembered! He really did!"
"Good thing too, or how would everyone get home?" said Russia.
"Well," said Sweden. "Well! Merry Christmas, everyone! Let's get this party started!"
The children were assigned to hand around the gifts, since they had already opened theirs (but even so, a few more toys and an iPod were discovered in the pile), and the breakfast order was doubled and the party got underway. Not long into it, the Netherlands arrived, looking extremely pleased with himself.
"It's all taken care of," he reported. "Nazi Germany won't be messing around with magic any time soon… not with seven broken fingers and a rotator cuff injury."
"Yikes," said Iceland. "Remind me never to piss you off."
There were far too many gifts to list them all, but there were a few highlights. Canada gave America a knit hat with a maple leaf design, which America immediately tried on and declared almost as good as the real thing. Germany gave Sister Japan a stuffed bunny rabbit — a simple thing, but it made her turn candy-apple red and run giggling into the house. Denmark gave everyone beer and swore it was his very best, and Sister Australia tested the claim by smooching him right after he took a swig. And Sister Sweden opened her gift from Finland to discover… Nazi Germany's crop, apparently permanently glitterized by its encounter with the Original Christmas Magic. She responded with a significantly raised eyebrow, and he gave her his best puppy-dog face in return.
Things finally started to wind down near sunset. The general consensus was that they should do something appropriate as a group, to give the holiday a proper send-off.
"I know!" America piped up. "In the spirit of international goodwill and harmony, let's exchange traditional greetings in our native languages!"
"Oh, so this is one of those kinds of stories," said Sweden. "How educational."
"I'll start! Merry Christmas, everyone! Oh, and Happy Hanukkah! It's still Hanukkah, right? And a great big Feliz Navidad in honor of my honey Mexico, who unfortunately isn't here with us."
"Don't forget about Kwanzaa!" said Sister America. "Actually, just say Happy Holidays. That way everyone is included! Except the JW's, but I think they like it that way."
The idea began to pick up momentum. "Happy Christmas, kids," said England.
"Merry Christmas, Dad," said Canada. "Et Joyeux Noël, Maman."
"Joyeux Noël et bonne année," said France, not to be outdone.
"Jeez, you startled me!"
"Don't worry about it. And Wesołych Świąt."
"My turn! Glædelig Jul, Norway!"
"God Jul, Denmark."
"Come on… join in, you two!"
"Do I have to? I don't even celebrate Christmas! Ugh, fine… Juullimi Ukiortaassamilu Pilluaritsi. Are you happy?"
"There, that wasn't so hard, was it? Gleðilig Jól."
"A Blythe Yule an' a Guid Hogmanay to ye."
"Nollaig shona duit!"
"Happy Christmas, mate."
"God Jul, sweetie."
"God Jul indeed."
"God Jul, pet. It really is a lovely gift." Pause. "Well? Aren't you going to say it? Everyone else already has."
Sigh. "Hyvää joulua."
"And a Happy New Year!"
Merry Christmas to all my readers! At the risk of sounding trite, I hope you've had as much fun reading this adventure as I have writing it. (I have had a lot of fun writing it.) And at the risk of sounding like an after-school special, I hope you've learned something about the myriad ways Christmas and related holidays are celebrated across the world. A complete account of the research I did while writing could comprise a story in itself, but here are some of the sources I used:
Christmas in Scandinavia by Christine A. Maccaro
Holidays and Customs by Childcraft Press
Yule: A Celebration of Light and Warmth by Dorothy Morrison
The Bronner's Christmas ornament catalog
Any number of websites including — naturally — Wikipedia
Languages used in the greetings at the end include, in order: English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Polish, Romanian, Dutch, Flemish, Danish, Norwegian, Greenlandic, Faroese, Scots, Irish Gaelic, Welsh, Ovine, Japanese, Russian, Icelandic, Swedish, and Finnish.
Now go open presents.