“Night of the Yule Cat”
A Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors Prequel
by Stephen D. Sullivan
To Jed, a very fine cat who sadly and unexpectedly left us this year.
East Iceland Between the Two Great Wars – Christmastime
Lady Kathryn Ashton looked up from her drink at the greeting—though maybe it was more of a challenge.
A blast of cold air, a howl of wind, and a flurry of snow from the storm outside followed Gunnar into the rustic common room. The big Icelander stooped to avoid hitting the top of the door frame, while his bulky arms dusted the sides. He stomped off his boots and brushed the flakes from his massive fur-lined parka as he lumbered to the stone hearth near the inn’s big fireplace.
His Nordic blue eyes stayed fixed upon Kathryn, regarding her with mocking amusement. “Ketch any reindeer today?” he asked in his thick accent.
Gunnar laughed, and the other dozen or so villagers in the low-ceilinged, timber-framed hall joined him, displaying a kind of drunken yuletide revelry that one wouldn’t have expected in a country under prohibition. Of course, few in this benighted hostel were quaffing the legal wine served here or even the revolting Icelandic seasonal soda-malt mixture.
Nor was Kathryn obeying the prohibition against hard liquor, though she feared she might pay for that decision tomorrow.
Calling this isolated handful of buildings amid the forested hills south of Egilsstaðir a village was a stretch. Just rooming here—never mind living in this wasteland—required considerable liquid fortitude. So, Kathryn felt some sympathy for the hard-drinking locals. The humid air in the chamber smelled of wood smoke, animal pelts, and unwashed farmers. It was all Kathryn could do not to gag. The strong drink helped.
“Reindeer’s not in season,” she grumbled.
“Found that out on her first day, that one did,” Ingibjörg the serving girl piped in, grinning. “Can’t ya tell from her sour-milk face, Gunnar?”
A new round of derisive laughter.
Before Kathryn could muster a good comeback, another of the inn’s soused patrons, Axel, spoke up.
“Hae, at least rock grouse and snow foxes is still in season. More a girl’s speed, don’t ya think. Já?”
Kathryn felt her face redden, not only from the carraway-flavored aquavit the inn served under the table, and not from her lack of drinking experience, either. She’d heard this kind of misogynist claptrap all her life, and at twenty-one, she was right well sick of it. She’d fired her first rifle at age four, bagged her first deer two years later, and was one of the finest hunters—and best shots—in Lancashire County, if not in all England.
She started to stand, but her knee caught painfully on the rough-hewn leg of her small wooden table, and nearly toppled her drink. She saved the mug, cursing silently, and settled back in, accompanied by another round of laughter.
These peasant farmers aren’t worth punching, she thought. She wished fewer of them spoke English, no matter how broken, so they couldn’t delight in taunting her. Making fun of the foreigner seemed to be their main source of amusement since she’d arrived.
“Ain’t ya heard?” quipped Einar the innkeeper. “She don’t like no small prey. She now be hunting the beast what mauled Bjornsson.”
Gunnar scoffed, waving off the barman’s suggestion. “Bjornsson’s an old man, and probably drunk on yer brennivín. Ha! Hae, gimme one of them, wouldya?”
“Já. Ingibjörg, fetch Gunnar einn Jólaöl,” Einer replied, substituting the name of the disgusting Icelandic Christmas soda for the technically illegal aquavit.
The waitress went to get the big man his spirits.
Just then an arctic gust of wind burst into the room, crashing the aged wooden door against the room’s rough plaster wall with a loud Bang! The door rebounded and slammed shut with a nearly deafening thunderclap.
“Hae, Gunnar!” The innkeeper eyed the newcomer angrily. “Why ya didn’t shut that thing proper when ya come in? It’s cold out, ya know!”
The big man wiped the alcohol from his lips with the arm of his parka before answering. “I did! Musta been Hurðaskellir—the Door-Slammer!”
“And Þvörusleikir Spoon-Licker and Pottaskefill Pot-Scraper work in the kitchen!” Axel declared. Einar and Ingibjörg stared daggers at him for the obvious slight on the inn’s cooking, but all the customers laughed.
“One thing for sure, Axel Ólafsson…” Ingibjörg said with a wrinkle of her pert nose. “…Ya don’t have much to be worrying about if Bjúgnakrækir Sausage-Swiper visits yer home!”
This response brought a much bigger roar of approval from the patrons. Even Axel laughed and slapped his thighs.
Kathryn understood the jest at the expense of Axel’s manhood, but the other references sailed completely over her slightly begrogged head.
“And with yer looks, ya won’t have to worry about Gluggagægir Window-Peeper, Ingibjörg,” Axel retorted. It seemed a mean-spirited jest to Kathryn; Ingibjörg was attractive for a woman in her thirties, if a bit matronly.
“Though perhaps,” Axel continued, “the Englander should make extra-sure to nail down her room’s shutters at night!”
“Else Window-Peeper might steal a kiss—” Gunnar added “—or maybe a little something extra!”
More uproarious laughter.
To fight down a blush, Kathryn lifted her mug. “I would drink to that,” she said, “if I had any idea what you Viking drunkards think is so damn funny.” She took a long swig, to sweep away any remaining embarrassment.
Kathryn considered her come-back lame, but the locals seemed to think it the funniest rejoinder of all. Many slapped their thighs, several turned red with laughter, and even Ingibjörg and Einar cracked smiles.
“All those creatures are Icelandic legends—like your Yule Pastor,” Klara the scullery whispered to Lady Ashton. The teenager had quietly crept in to wipe the tables and clear up some of the rapidly accumulating mess.
Kathryn appreciated the girl’s sympathetic face, and also her better-than-average English. “Father Christmas, you mean?”
The blonde teen nodded. “Já. But not as… nice. More like trolls. There’s a whole fam—”
Gunnar’s loud voice cut her off as he raised his sloppy mug of brennivín high. “Here’s to all thirteen Yule Lads, their mother, Grýla… their father, Leppalúði … and their cat—the entire devilish clan! Skál!”
“Skál!” the other locals all parroted, drinking.
“You’d best drink. It’s bad luck not to,” Klara urged before quietly slipping back to the kitchen.
“Skál!” Kathryn echoed, taking a bigger drink than she’d intended, and immediately feeling a hammer-like alcoholic blow behind her eyes.
“Hae, maybe ’twas Jólakötturinn, the Yule Cat, what mauled old Bjornsson,” Axel suggested with a laugh. “Maybe he wore old clothes when he went out walking. Jólakötturinn eats ones that don’t wear their new Christmas garb during Yule.” He seemed delighted at his absurd mythical suggestion.
Ingibjörg shook her head and went to fetch another drink. “A fashion-conscious monster cat! Ya old fools!”
“Is that what yer really hunting, Big Game Hunter Englander—the Yule Cat?” Gunnar’s eyes gleamed as he needled Lady Ashton.
“There are no big cats in Iceland…” The denial seemed to tumble out of Kathryn’s mouth of their own volition. Damn aquavit!
“Except for the Yule Cat!” Axel inserted.
“…Your man probably just fell on some sharp rocks or jagged ice climbing around the damned fjords,” Kathryn reasoned. Despite her better judgement, she took another drink. Legal or not, the brennivín wasn’t too bad… once you got used to it.
Gunnar’s blue eyes sparkled with mischief. “Hae, Englander… Ya gonna bring the Yule Cat home for a trophy? Mebbe hang it on yer wall?”
Kathryn wanted to punch his fat face and feel the satisfying crunch of his nose breaking, but instead she took another drink. The 80-proof liquor burned the retort off of her lips.
Einar barked a loud laugh. “Ha! Englander will be lucky to go home with even a single puny rock ptarmigan!”
Ingibjörg shook her blond head. “Smart girl don’t need to hunt grouse—or nothing else. Smart girls have easier ways to bag an arctic fox.” She mimed wrapping herself in a fur stole. “Right, Englander?”
Kathryn sprang to her feet, not caring that she tipped over the table—and her now empty mug—as she did. “You’ll see what kind of trophy I go home with—and I’ll be winning it with my gun, not my… not my…”
Words failed the British noblewoman as her face flushed hot red.
Ingibjörg and Einar backed away as she stepped toward them, but Kathryn merely grabbed a half-empty jug of brennivín off the nearby bar and stormed upstairs to her drafty little room.
The howling northeast wind wrapped Kathryn in its frigid embrace, driving sleet sharp as needles into her exposed face. She pulled her fur-lined parka hood tighter and adjusted her grip on her Winchester 52 hunting rifle. Despite cold and the blowing snow, the storm had abated, and breaks in the cloud cover painted the wooded landscape in the eerie bluish glow of the Aurora Borealis.
“This is a bloody stupid thing to do,” she muttered as she hunkered down among the hoary stand of birches. “You came here to hunt, not to trade insults with the locals—or to freeze your arse off in a fit of goddamn pique.”
Was hunting really why she’d come to Hallormsstaðaskógur Forest, though?
Hadn’t her decision to travel to this God-forsaken bit of Iceland been driven more by her cloying family and their annoying Christmas traditions? “You must do this, Kathryn…” and “You can’t do that, Kathryn…” and “That is not ladylike, Kathryn…”
All the constant dos and don’ts… She was sick to sodding death of them!
Back home, it felt like she had no freedom at all, simply because she was born into the gentry. There was always another performance, dance, or pantomime to attend. Plus, the seasonal charity work (that everyone seemed to let slide during other times of the year), and the never-ending mix of writing cards, wrapping presents, sending thank-yous, baking (though the servants did nearly all of that), cordial visits, formal High Society banquets, mind-numbing parties… Not to mention all the absurd and expensive festive clothing they made her wear for all those things.
Kitted out in her “proper” English Yuletide attire, Kathryn felt like a caged animal. Much better to be wrapped in a too-fragrant caribou-and-sealskin parka sitting in the winter woods at night. Even the malodorous confines of the local inn seemed preferable in comparison to all the Yuletide pomp at home.
And how dare her family force her into their ridiculous preconceptions of what she should do anyway, now or in any other season? She’d turned twenty-one this year, and the Parliament had passed the Equal Franchise act this past summer, and King George had given his assent. All women could vote now—not solely middled-aged landowners. Kathryn now stood equal to any other citizen in the far-flung British Empire.
Except, of course, in the Ashford household. There, she still had to behave like a titled Lady. There, they barely tolerated her participation in fox hunts, and they’d disdainfully turned up their noses when she’d gone on safari (or even when she’d learned to shoot and fight) with her far more broad-minded Uncle Lawrie.
Yes… She was well rid of all of that, even if her head was still pounding from the local grog, and her fingers were starting to go numb from the cold.
She did miss her younger sister, Nina—the secret laughs they’d share at the expense of other family members… the warm sibling embraces… and sneaking a hot toddy, late at night in front of the fireplace after the rest of the clan had gone to bed.
Not to mention the sweet taste of the traditional puddings… and the glitter of the family tree on Christmas night… and the look of delight on Nina’s face as she unwrapped presents, every one seemingly a joy and a surprise.
Yes. Kathryn missed those things.
She smeared away the moisture budding at the corner of her eyes with her arm, and a tear-stifling sniff through her nose threatened to freeze her sinuses. The deep inhalation also brought the redolent scent of pines, clustered amid the denuded birches.
The smell of Christmas…
And for a moment, Kathryn was back home at Ashton Manor, admiring the family Christmas tree and enjoying the warm fire and stolen drinks with her sister. In that instant, she’d have given nearly anything to be back home again, despite her ongoing family squabbles.
But no. This was no time for such warm, festive nostalgia.
A wandering mind could get you killed in the wilderness. Uncle Lawrie had been badly clawed during a tiger hunt in India while recounting a bawdy story. He laughed at the scars he received later, but one of his bearers hadn’t come out so lucky. All it had taken was a few lax moments one night at camp…
Kathryn blinked the snow from her eyelashes and used one bespoke, beaver-skin glove to push an unruly strand of blond hair back into her hood. Her sweaty locks felt damp and cold atop her head. She almost wished she’d taken the newly knitted red woolen cap Klara had offered her before Kathryn had stomped out of the inn.
“New Christmas clothes will protect you from Jólakötturinn,” the well-meaning teen had implored, her brown eyes large and worried.
Kathryn had declined, probably too brusquely; her specially made cold-weather gear cost more than any of these folks earned in a year. What did she need with some superstitious scrap of wool?
Besides, the beast that had mauled old Bjornsson wouldn’t turn out to be some mythical cat. No, if there was any truth to that tall tale at all, the culprit was more likely to be a large arctic fox, or a wild dog, or possibly even a stray polar bear, meandering through this snowy wasteland after drifting ashore on an ice floe.
Should Kathryn have brought her Lee-Enfield rather than the Winchester? The Lee had more stopping power—suitable for big game like a bear—but a round from it would likely ruin the pelt of a fox or the meat of a grouse, which was why she’d packed the mighty gun into her luggage after discovering (to her dismay) that reindeer were out of season.
She should have researched the local hunting restrictions before leaving England, but her family had exasperated her so!
Kathryn silently cursed herself for not making proper expedition plans before flitting off to Iceland. That had been her first mistake; good preparation was essential for a successful hunting trip. Her second error had been letting herself be goaded into hunting in tonight’s near blizzard.
No… Scratch that. Her second cock-up had been drinking too much aquavit. Why had she taken that jug to her room? It had seemed a good remedy for her sulk in the moment, but even now, her vision swam every time her attention lapsed.
She patted the well-worn stock of the Winchester. The gun felt solid… reassuring.
It would be enough for what she found tonight—if she found anything.
Besides, encountering a polar bear would be highly unlikely, despite Bjornsson’s recent story. The forest of Hallormsstaðaskógur didn’t sit on Iceland’s coast; a bear would have to wander a long way from the ocean to get here.
“Definitely not a bear,” she muttered to bolster her resolve.
Probably, it’s nothing. Just another drunken Icelander, falling down and making up a tale to cover his pride.
Which meant Kathryn was wasting her time out here at night, in the blowing snow, with Old Man Winter trying to wheedle his way through every seam in her expensively tailored parka.
And the chances of a rock ptarmigan or even an arctic fox blundering by her hastily rigged hunting platform in this little stand of birches seemed vanishingly small.
She swore—angrily, full-throatedly, and then scolded herself for good measure:
The outburst made her head swim, so she squeezed her eyes shut and took deep breaths to quell the dizziness. For a while, she thought she might vomit.
Damn that aquavit! And damn me for drinking it!
When she opened her eyes again, the frosty birch and pine landscape around her still swayed precariously, and dark shadows danced among the trees.
The forest wasn’t moving; the shadows weren’t dancing… Something was moving through the trees—something large.
At first, Kathryn couldn’t make it out through the blowing snow and the weird semi-darkness. It seemed more shadow than reality, a black and gray shape, a deeper shadow among the gloom.
She rubbed the soft, furry back of one beaver-skin hunting glove across her eyes and blinked again. Could she be imagining this? Had the cold and the exhaustion and the local drink really fogged her brain that much?
The thing, whatever it was, persisted, creeping slowly toward Kathryn’s makeshift tree stand.
Too large for a fox, she thought, her eyes still refusing to fully focus on the creature. Bear?
Large even for that… And too dark, not white like a polar bear, the animal’s coat more adapted to forested shadows than the ice-covered floes of the Arctic.
Has to be a bear—too big for anything else…
Kathryn had never heard of any bruin this massive, though. It seemed too large for a brown or a grizzly, or even a Kodiak. And how would such a beast get here, so far from its native grounds in Europe and North America?
Just then, a brief respite in the blowing flakes gave Kathryn a clear view.
She gasped. “Impossible!”
The thing turned at the sound as it emerged from the blizzard:
A gigantic cat, shaggy and black, snow and ice dripping from its matted coat. Its questing eyes burned like hot coals, seeking the source of Kathryn’s utterance.
The huntress’ nerves jangled, and she trembled at the monstrous sight.
But that was insane, merely a legend. No. This had to have some more rational explanation: a feral breed, like the Norwegian Forest Cat, somehow grown to enormous size, a mutant or freak…
Or an escapee from a zoo or exhibit…
Yes, that had to be it.
Kathryn had read of eccentric collectors of exotic animals in England who later released their pets into the wild. Such irresponsible acts were probably the explanation for the alleged Beast of Bowland in her home county of Lancashire.
Perhaps a similar thing had happened here, in Iceland. Someone had imported a big cat as a pet, or for some kind of zoo, or for a nasty hunting scheme, and it had gotten loose. That made sense.
Kathryn clutched her Winchester 52, such rational explanations running wildfire through her head, but felt neither comforted nor confident. The gun, really only suitable for smaller game, seemed scant protection from such a brute.
The monstrous cat’s blazing eyes swept the frozen landscape, searching, its nose snuffling the forest floor.
To Kathryn’s brennivín-fogged eyes, it seemed far too large for an escaped zoo animal, bigger than the largest bear, nearly as big as an elephant.
That had to be the aquavit, didn’t it?
Gulping frigid air as the questing beast stalked closer, Kathryn forced her trembling to still, quelled her jangling nerves, and raised her rifle.
The animal was creeping directly at her now, nostrils flaring as it sniffed her out, burning eyes focused with disquieting intensity. The low thrum of its growl shook snow from nearby branches.
Heart pounding in her ears, Kathryn took careful aim. A headshot would mean a quick kill, but she knew from experience how quickly an animal’s head might move at the last instant, ruining everything.
Better to aim where the neck met the chest, a larger and less mobile target, and deliver the bullet straight to the heart.
Even that would be tricky in these conditions, especially with the cat’s head so low to the ground…
Kathryn held her breath, and between heartbeats squeezed off one 22-caliber shot, then cycled the bolt for another, and then a third before breathing again.
Blam! Blam! Blam!
The shots echoed above the predatory hiss of the storm.
She felt sure she hit her mark—more than once—and the snowy pelt beneath the enormous cat’s chin puffed out a rain of white crystals.
But the cat didn’t stop. It didn’t slow. Its threatening growl increased, shaking Kathryn’s small tree stand. The tremor rattled her bones.
She re-aimed quickly, targeting one baleful eye, uncertain whether she’d have time to re-load another of the Winchester’s five-round magazines.
Why didn’t I bring the Enfield?!
She fired—Blam! Blam!—directly into the burning orb.
The Yule Cat didn’t stop. It didn’t even blink.
Kathryn leapt away as the beast’s massive bulk turned her tree stand into kindling. Its impact cracked the supporting birches and bent them to the icy ground.
The huntress landed hard in the snowpack, the breath whooshing out of her lungs.
She scrambled to her feet, turning, trying to put her gun between her and the monster.
It batted the Winchester out of her grip with one ashcan-lid-sized paw. The weapon spun off into the forest.
Kathryn turned and ran, heart a triphammer, body drenched with fear sweat.
She wondered if she could reach the hunting knife in her boot while on the run, and whether the comparatively puny weapon would do any good.
A glance back showed the burning eyes nearly upon her.
She shouldn’t have looked!
Never look when you should be running full speed!
She stumbled… Reached for the knife…
The titanic paw swiped, hissing, through the flurrying air.
Pain exploded in Kathryn’s back, and she fell face first into the snow.
She tried to scream, but no sound came out; she had no air.
Something grabbed her right boot—terrible claws—and dragged her backward.
She shook loose and crawled away, through the powdery flakes, as fast as she could.
Another blow, sending her down.
An unbidden memory: a ginger house cat at Ashton Manor playing with a mouse, batting it side to side and almost letting it escape before hauling the poor creature back in.
A stupid way to die at Christmastime…
Kathryn’s fingers groped.
Where was that knife…?!
Another blow—Whomp!—and her head reeling.
One last, absurd thought: I should’ve brought Klara’s cap!
And then… blackness.
Kathryn roused, very surprised to find that she wasn’t dead.
At least, she didn’t think she was.
Surely Hell would have been much hotter than she felt at the moment. (She had no illusions that she might be Heaven bound—rich man and eye of a needle, and all that.) Though wherever she’d woken did feel oppressively warm and close.
Her mouth tasted sour—had she vomited?—and the heady air smelled even worse, like tanned skins, rancid meat, and burned pots. Loud voices echoed in her pounding head, but at first, she couldn’t make out what they were saying.
Where am I?
Painfully, straining against lids that felt like lead, she forced her eyes open. A grimy earthen floor, a bark and moss-covered log wall, and the smelly reindeer skin she was lying on greeted her.
A hunter’s cabin… She must have passed out from the brennivín, been found by a passing hunter, and taken to his lodging.
Yes. That would explain all the absurd things she’d imagined she’d seen in the woods tonight.
Kathryn tried to sit, but found she couldn’t; she felt oddly restrained.
“What in hell?!” she murmured, realizing she must be tied down. Had she been so delirious that the locals had to restrain her?
I will never drink again!
Her hosts didn’t seem to notice that she’d awoken yet. Probably because they were still arguing.
“It’s no good, I’m tellin’ you,” a deep male voice said. “The meat’s not tender enough!”
“If you stew it long enough, anything becomes edible, my lad,” noted a female voice that sounded like a shrill, scratched phonograph recording.
“But we ain’t got all week to wait, Ma,” a higher male voice protested. “We got work to do! Christmas is almost here!”
“And then we gotta go back into the mountains with Da an’ the rest,” a similar voice added. “I don’t wanna go back in the mountains. I wanna have some fun first!”
Something about the voices seemed unnatural to Kathryn, and she didn’t think they were speaking English, though she understood them plainly enough. Had she fallen out of her tree stand and hit her head?
A concussion plus a hangover would be no more than she deserved for bumbling out on such an ill-conceived venture.
She wriggled against her restraints to try to get a better look at the hunters who’d saved her.
The room she lay in looked to be more a cave than a cabin. The sloppily chinked log wall with its single window, near which Kathryn lay, blocked off the cavern’s entrance. Uncured reindeer pelts and fox furs hung from the ceiling, accounting for some of the place’s foul stench. Even more of the malodorous atmosphere steamed from a huge stew pot sitting atop a blazing conflagration built in an enormous fireplace on the cave’s far wall.
As the strange visages of her rescuers came into view, Kathryn’s blood turned to ice water.
Around the fire, four misshapen figures were gathered. A huge, malformed crone with grayish, hairy skin, wiry black hair, and blood-red eyes, dressed in a rough-spun wool frock, sat in a crude rocking chair made of birch logs. In her gnarled hands, a pair of bone needles, each as long as Kathryn’s arm from elbow to fingertips, knitted a shabby greenish hat.
Next to her stood two hulking figures dressed like demented Christmas gnomes in mismatched outfits of red and green. Each was taller and broader than the big villager Gunnar. Both sported gnarled Father Christmas beards on their knobby faces, and scruffy shocks of hair peeked out from their grubby stocking caps.
“Pot-Scraper,” the crone hissed at the third similar man dressed in blue—obviously brother to the other pair—standing next to the big iron kettle, “I see what yer up to! Git away from that pot!”
“But, Ma…” Pot-Scraper protested in his high voice.
“Don’t ‘but, Ma,’ me!” the crone snapped. “Git back, or I’ll have yer fingers in that stew!”
Reluctantly, the troll-like man in blue joined his kin.
Only then did Kathryn, still woozy, notice the enormous, shaggy black cat curled up near the fire, licking itself, a cat so large that it took up nearly a quarter of the cavernous room.
For a moment, everything spun, and it was all the huntress could do to keep from passing out again.
Pot-Scraper dug the toe of one stubby boot into the lodge’s earthen floor. “Door-Slammer’s right,” he said, nodding toward the troll in red. “Girl’s too old to eat!”
“An’ like I said, we ain’t got time to stew her,” added the high voice of the vast hobgoblin in green. “Right, Slammer?”
“Right, Peeper,” the corpulent red troglodyte agreed in his deep voice. “But mebbe we could tenderize her with her own bang stick! That’d fit her right. Já?”
“Já!” agreed his brothers.
Door-Slammer mimed bashing the floor with Kathryn’s Winchester, apparently recovered from the forest, but the gun splintered to flinders in his huge mitts.
“Now look what ya’ve done!” his ogress mother scolded. “More mess to clean! Pick that up, the lot of ya!”
The lumbering Yule Boys—for, to her horror, that’s what Kathryn realized these terrible creatures must be—scampered to clean away the scraps of wood and metal and toss them into the roaring fire.
Despite her grogginess, Kathryn groped desperately for the hunting knife in the leg sheath near her right boot, silently praying that these cannibals hadn’t taken it.
“If we can’t tenderize her, we might as well let the cat keep her,” the lad in green grumbled.
“Window-Peeper’s right,” said Slammer. “Let Jólakötturinn have her.”
Kathryn narrowed her eyes as he tromped to the door in the wooden wall of the cave, swung it open and then slammed it shut, with a thunderous Bang!
Her hand found the carved horn hilt of her hunting knife—Thank heaven!—loosed it, and began surreptitiously sawing at the ropes pinning her to the odoriferous bed. Fortunately, the bonds seemed neither new nor sturdily woven.
“Let’s not be hasty,” Pot-Scraper opined. “Might still be some good meat on her bones.”
“Might stuff her with turnips and roast her…” Window-Peeper suggested.
“Bastin’ her with reindeer fat could be good…” Door-Slammer added.
“An’ serve her with seal blubber and honey!” Grýla, the rotten mother of the horrible clan, put down her knitting and rubbed her hands with glee at the notion.
“Lemme prod her an’ check her prospects,” Pot-Scraper finished.
He lumbered toward Kathryn, gnarled finger outstretched to poke her, just as the last of her bonds snapped.
“Ha!” she cried, springing to her feet.
Startled, Pot-Scraper took a step back as she lunged at him.
But whether from the lingering effects of the aquavit or because she’d lain immobile for too long, Kathryn’s legs buckled, and instead of stabbing him in the eye, her hunting knife only found the blue-clad troll’s left thigh.
“Od’s blood!” Pot-Scraper blurted, landing on his wide posterior, the blade still in his leg.
Kathryn cursed, but managed to steady herself as Window-Peeper hollered, “I’ll get her!”
The green-clad Yule Boy came in like a charging bull.
Kathryn side stepped and socked him hard in the eye.
Peeper went down like an overstuffed sack of suet, shaking the whole cavern as he hit the earthen floor.
“Must mother do everything herself?” Grýla hissed, rising from her birch rocker.
But she tripped over her green-clad son’s writhing form. Kathryn rushed forward, bashed her shoulder into the old witch’s chest, and heaved with all her might.
Grýla staggered back, feet pedaling but finding no purchase, and toppled into the big hearth, upsetting the enormous kettle and kicking fire and cinders everywhere.
“Yowl!” the Yule Cat screeched, shrinking into the far corner as the flames and boiling liquid cut it off from the rest of the cavern and its evil masters.
“I’ll get her, Ma!” Door-Slammer cried.
He swung at his human foe. Kathryn tried to duck, but her foot slipped on the spilled stew, and she tumbled backward into Grýla’s knitting.
“Ha!” Slammer’s fiendish eyes went wide with glee as he bore in on his clambering opponent.
Panic surging, Kathryn groped for something—anything—that might tilt this overmatched fight in her favor.
Her fingers found one of Grýla’s bone needles.
Kathryn seized it, with a swath of rough green knitting still trailing, and as Slammer grabbed for her, stabbed the needle into his left eye socket.
“Yiiiiiiieeeee!” The red-clad troll’s howl of pain shook dust from the cave roof.
The needle broke off in the ogre’s eye, leaving only the woolen tatter and a splintered bone shard in Kathryn’s hand. Her improvised weapon was now less effective, but that didn’t matter.
She scrambled to her feet, leapt over Pot-Scraper—only now rousing—threw open the door, and dashed out into the frigid night.
The wounded and furious Slammer got tangled with Scraper as both blundered toward the door.
“You watch out!”
Then a thunderous SLAM! echoed through the darkness, as the door to the troll’s lair banged shut.
“Dolt!” Grýla shrieked from inside. “What have ya done?!”
“It’s me nature; ain’t it?” Door-Slammer pleaded sheepishly.
Grýla’s furious reply faded as Kathryn dashed off into the snowstorm. “After her, you worthless nobs! After her!”
Kathryn didn’t stop to see if any of the trolls—or the Yule Cat—followed.
She ran with every iota of strength she could muster.
She ran as if all the legions of Hell were giving chase, because—in this case—that was almost literally true.
She ran until her heart pounded and her lungs ached.
The storm froze her bones, and icy flakes tore at her exposed face.
She kept going until her feet and legs felt as though they would burst from the effort…
…Until the world swam drunkenly before her eyes once more…
…Until the blizzard closed in all around her, everything went numb, and all the world faded to black.
Warmth surrounded Kathryn.
Not the uncomfortable, humid, foul-smelling heat of the trolls’ lair…
Rather, a soft, downy warmth, accompanied by a familiar, not-unpleasant fustiness, the distant scent of pine, and the sweet aroma of…
Kathryn blinked her eyes open and was more than a little surprised to wake in her own bed, at her room in the inn. Eiderdown duvets and pillows surrounded her in fluffy comfort.
She sat up.
Klara, reclining in a straight-back wooden chair by the room’s crackling fireplace, startled. “Oh! You’re awake.”
Kathryn rubbed her head. Her hair felt damp and tangled. “Apparently.”
The teenager bustled to the bed with a bowl of lumpy porridge. “You’ve been asleep a long time. You should have something to eat. Here. It’s grjónagrautur… fresh made.”
Kathryn took and ate some, grateful for the sweetness and comforting heat. “Rice pudding…” She smiled. That, at least, she hadn’t imagined. “How did I get here?”
“You don’t remember?” Klara looked puzzled. She bustled around the room, straightening things and cleaning with a little green cloth. “Einar carried you up. When you staggered in, in the middle of the night, we thought you’d die for sure. Half froze, you were. That was three days ago. You slept straight through Christmas!”
Despite the whole point of this trip being to miss Christmas with her family, Kathryn’s heart sank at the news. She sighed.
“I’m glad you’re not dead,” Klara said with a shy smile.
“I’m tougher than I look,” Kathryn replied. She stretched and quickly regretted it. Every bone and muscle in her ached.
Klara continued tidying up. “You were in a terrible state… Clothes all torn and bloodied… But when Ingibjörg and I undressed you, we didn’t find any wounds—nothing bad, anyway.”
Kathryn examined her arms and took a peek at her legs under the covers. She had a few small cuts, and numerous purplish bruises, but she seemed to be in one piece. “Thank God for that, at least. The blood must have been from…”
From… what? Had she really spent the night as a captive to the Yule Lads, their ogre mother, and their monstrous cat?
The experience had seemed real at the time, but could it all have been a delusional nightmare?
“From what?” Klara asked.
Kathryn shook her head, which pounded like a drum in response. She grimaced and squeezed her eyes shut a moment, to chase away the pain.
“Did you… Did you find the beast that mauled old Bjornsson? Was it… the Yule Cat?” The teenager’s brown eyes looked frightened at the prospect.
Kathryn thought of relating what she remembered, but… It all seemed too absurd.
“I… I’m not sure. I found… something.” She took a deep breath, and her ribs complained. “I think.”
“Did you kill it?”
Kathryn set her bowl down on the birch log side table. “I… Maybe. Whatever it was, I don’t think it’ll be back—not for a while, anyway.”
“You don’t know what it was?”
Kathryn rubbed her head again and chuckled, which rattled her skull in a nasty way. “Your local aquavit was stronger than I expected.”
Klara laughed. “I’m not supposed to know about that—too young—but I’ve sneaked a sip now and again.”
“My sister and I did that, too… Every Christmas season,” Kathryn admitted. Bittersweet memories flitted through her mind. “…Except for this year.”
“Is your sister at your home… In England?”
“And you miss her?”
A deep sigh. “Yeah.”
Klara patted her hand. “If you feel well enough, you might be able to get home by Þrettándinn—Twelfth Night, I think you call it?”
“Yes,” Kathryn agreed, her spirits rising. “Perhaps I could.”
And next year, she’d suck it up, ignore the pressures from her father, her brothers, and her other relatives, and spend Christmas at home with Nina—no matter what.
Slowly, painfully, the battered huntress swung her legs over the side of the fluffy bed. “Help me pack; would you?”
Klara stopped her cleaning and straightening. “I’ll be happy to.” Then she looked at the dust rag in her hand. “Oh! I’m sorry.” She held the green shard of knitting out to Kathryn. “This is yours. I probably shouldn’t have used it for dusting, but… It was handy. Sorry.”
Kathryn shook her head. “That’s not mine.”
“It must be,” Klara replied, looking puzzled. “It fell out of your pocket—along with an old piece of broken bone—when Ingibjörg and me were checking you for wounds.”
A chill shot through Kathryn’s aching form. “What happened… to that bone?”
“Ingibjörg didn’t see no use for it, so she threw it on the fire. Did we do something wrong? Was it precious to you, somehow?”
Kathryn shook her head. “No. It’s nothing.” She took the shabby scrap of green knitting and tossed it on the blazing hearth.
Klara looked puzzled. “Why’d you do that? It wasn’t badly soiled. I could have washed it for you.”
Kathryn started packing. “Some… things are best forgotten.”
THE END – MERRY CHRISTMAS, 2023!
Thanks to Jean, Steve, Christine, and Warren, the Keno Writers, for the usual wise critiques. Special thanks to Brian A. Hopkins and Craig Martelle for consults on period weapons and visibility in blizzard conditions, respectively. Anything I’ve gotten wrong is my fault, not theirs.
About “Night of the Yule Cat”
I have been wanting to write a Cushing Horrors Yule Lad story for ages now, ever since I first heard about them a few years back.
I could never figure out how to do it, though. The boys and their gruesome parents and scary pet, the Yule Cat—which a wonderful PBS docu-short dubbed a “Murder Floof”—seemed too dark for an encounter with the Cushing Twins, at least before the start of the original novel.
One of the tricks with these Christmas stories is that they all have to take place before Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors, because I have plans for sequels to that story, and some of those sequels will likely take place during the holiday seasons to come.
Accordingly, all of the Cushing Yuletide “ghost” stories need to be set in the past. “A Shadow Over Christmastime” (2016) is set immediately before the book, as are “Krampus vs. the Werewolf” (2018), and “The Mummy’s Gift” (2019).
That covers our main heroic characters—Opal and Topaz, Paul Longmire, and Dr. Cushing—for the year just prior to the main tale. (For those keeping track, the twins were 17 years old that year.) All the other stories presented to date, including this one, are set prior to that holiday season.
But, because Opal and Topaz start the series so young, and with little belief in the supernatural beyond their own uncanny gifts, I have to be careful of what situations I put them—or my other heroes—into before the continuity of the main story.
Which makes it a little tricky to figure out who I should focus on each year for my little Christmas gift to you all.
Those of you who also follow my free Frost Harrow Halloween stories are no doubt familiar with the refrain of me talking to my wife about what I should write for these two holiday traditions.
I had a couple of ideas for tales I might do this year, but they involved characters who will become more important in future Cushing Horror novels. One of them, Lucy Harker, sharp-eyed readers will already have encountered in my story “The Blood of Dracula.” But I’m not sure how many of my regular readers have read the Turning the Tied anthology (from the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers) where Lucy appears. Another character I might have written about this year appears in an as-yet-unpublished story, “The Bride Reborn.”
Given those circumstances, this didn’t seem the right time to feature folks from those shorts as the main characters in my 2023 Yule story—even though I have some fun seasonal ideas centering around them.
Not surprisingly, as with my annual FH story, my wife came through again. When we were discussing the characters and stories I might do for this Christmas, and why some characters and stories wouldn’t work at this point, she said: “What about that werewolf hunter lady?”
Kathryn Ashton had played a small but memorable role in Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors, and I plan to include her in at least one more novel in the future. So, when Kiff put the notion in my head, I almost immediately realized that Lady Ashton—the huntress—would be a perfect solution to two problems: one, what character to use this year that my readers might know, and two, who in my cast could possibly face off against the Christmas Cat, the Yule Lads, and their spooky family.
Yay! Thanks, as usual, Kiff!
Once that solution formed in my mind, the story elements quickly fell into place—a tale that would not only be exciting in its own right, but would also expand Lady Kathryn’s background and hopefully make her even more interesting than the glimpses I’d provided in DrC’sCoH. Plus, she was fun to write in the book, and I expected she’d be just as much fun out on her own.
And she was.
I hope you agree.
Even though I had the Yule Lad/Christmas Cat mythology hanging around in my back literary pocket, I still ended up doing a ton of research for this tale.
If you follow me on Facebook, you might remember the post I made which noted that sometimes writing is spending more than two hours on research only to change the opening word of the story from “Iceland” into two words: “East Iceland.”
That anecdote is entirely true.
In order to write this yarn, I had to not only get a better idea of what makes Iceland tick, but also what made Iceland tick back in the 1920s and 30s, when the Cushing stories take place. Even finding a location in which to set the tale proved tricky, because I wanted something with a forest—and the Vikings stripped away most of the native trees (for homes and fuel) half a millennium ago.
The national forests that Iceland has now all seemed tiny to me, especially since Kiff and I had made a cross-country drive in the US this October, and become aware (again) of how vast the wild spaces in our own country remain, despite the urbanization of the coasts. Plus, most of Iceland’s woodlands are recently planted—reforested in the last half century—not old enough to be in this frostbitten epic.
Fortunately, I eventually discovered Hallormsstaðaskógur, in East Iceland, the largest national forest, near a huge (and supposedly monster-haunted) lake that, sadly, didn’t even rate a mention in this tale. This was a story about a hunter encountering the Yule Cat in a snowstorm, after all!
My research about Iceland continued hot and heavy all the way to the end of creating the narrative. Often, it made me take long pauses in the writing to figure out some minor point, like whether I should include all the non-English accent marks and letters in the local words (I decided to, rather than try to adapt them; we’ll see how that goes in print publishing, when that eventually happens), whether you can take a plane from London to Egilsstaðir, the closest town to where the story is set, back then (you can’t), what kind of guns Kathryn would use on her expedition and for what game, and even whether the Icelanders eat rice pudding for Christmas the way my Swedish relatives do.
(Though there are lots of similarities between the Icelanders and my Scandinavian kin in Yuletide traditions, I didn’t want to get nabbed in any more research mistakes than “necessary.” Though the pronunciation of Icelandic words remains completely baffling to me.)
I hope I’ve gotten all, or at least most, of the facts about this fascinating country and its people right. If not… Let me know, and I’ll try to fix it in the print edition.
If you want to learn more about the “villains” of this piece, you can find some great stuff online. I especially want to recommend the PBS series Monstrum, which you can find on YouTube, for its jolly look at the Yule Cat as a “Murder Floof.” Being a Monster Kid, I’m super pleased that Public Broadcasting is doing such an interesting myth-and-history monster series. I can hardly wait to watch their Cthulhu episode!
In terms of tributes and Easter Eggs, there are probably fewer in this story because of its exotic setting. All of the local people’s names came directly from internet searches of common Icelandic names. However, you can certainly see Axel as a tribute to the big Icelander of the same name in Journey to the Center of the Earth (which also starts in Iceland).
Lady Kathryn is named for Kathryn Leigh Scott, one of my favorite Dark Shadows actresses, of course, and her Uncle Lawrie is named for my friend Lawrie Brewster, who is currently busy reviving Amicus Studios, the “other” English horror movie studio (cousin to the more famous Hammer productions). Check Lawrie and Amicus out on Facebook. Maybe he’ll even have a new Kickstarter to support his newest film running when you do.
And I think that’s about it for this tale of the tail… er… tale.
The main writing of “Night of the Yule Cat” took about 4 days—including the many East Iceland-type research pauses—and I anticipate the rewrites will take the usual day or two more.
I expect you will breeze through it in far less time, but I hope that your enjoyment will linger throughout the Christmas Season.
So, as they say in Sweden, where half of my family comes from, God Jul, or in Iceland Gleðileg jól!
And from back here in the U.S. of A…
Happy Holidays! Merry Christmas! And Happy New Year!
Read my other FREE Cushing Horrors Christmastime stories:
“A Shadow Over Christmastime” & Notes (2016), “Christmas Imps” (2017), “Krampus vs. the Werewolf” (2018), “The Mummy’s Gift” (2019), “Cornering the Congo Creature” (2020), “The Doll in the Window” (2021), “Wassail of the Mari Lwyd” (2022)
Story & Art (c) 2023 Stephen D. Sullivan – All Rights Reserved.
Illustrations created by SDS using AI tools and Photoshop.