The Secret of Cloudveil Lodge
Summary: Written for Sookie’s Secret Santa 2011 story exchange. An AAD side story. The Northmans, feeling like the spirit of Christmas is waning, travel to Wyoming to spend an old-fashioned Christmas in the mountains and snow. They get more than they bargained for. Rated T.
I sighed. Eric was sitting beside me and glanced sideways, if only to make sure I was okay. Since I was, he continued working on his laptop. We were both sitting on the couch absorbed in our various undertakings. Eric was typing quickly and neatly, working on some fiefdom business, no doubt. I was in a melancholic mood, and had sat down and surrounded myself with as many photo albums as I could gather. They were the Christmas ones, each one detailing how special each of our last sixteen Christmases together had been spent.
The first album was small, and contained photos of just Eric, Pam, my brother Jason, my friend Tara, Sam… only adults. The second album included our then-three-month-old daughter, Idony. She looked so beautiful, dressed in red velvet and sitting on a Boppy pillow under the Christmas tree. The next few albums featured only her through the years, opening presents with either me or Eric, visiting our friends and family, or having them come over. Then the seventh or eighth album – I had lost count by then – included her little brother, Rowyn. Idony had been almost six years old when Rowyn was born, and I remembered how excited she had been to tell her baby brother all about Santa Claus.
Idony outgrew the myth of Santa well before Rowyn did, so she became my little helper. She had insisted on staying up to help me wrap presents. That was probably not going to happen this year.
This year, my baby, Rowyn, had outgrown Santa as well. Rowyn had asked me, with the seriousness of a ten-year-old, whether or not Santa was real, because his analytical brain could no longer let him believe in the magic. Just as I had tried to do with Idony, I explained to Rowyn that magic was real. Maybe I could juice one more year of believing out of him.
“You know how Daddy is a vampire?” I asked Rowyn, my beautiful redheaded boy. He looked a lot like Jason, but the red hair, as it turns out, was Eric’s father’s genetic legacy.
“What does that have to do with Santa, Mom?” he asked, adopting a pose worthy of his teenage sister.
“Dad’s life is rooted in magic too, you know? Just like Santa.” I was grasping at straws. Both of my children had grown up around vampires, and they thought of vampires as simply another way of being, like there are white people, and black people, there are also vampire people.
Rowyn was not buying it at all. “No, Mom. Dad is a vampire. He’s not Santa. All the vampires I know are like Dad. None of them are old and jolly like Santa.”
I took a deep breath. He had me there. With the notable exception of the Ancient Pythoness, all the other vampires we knew had been turned at the height of their youth and beauty, my own husband included. Eric didn’t look a day older than, maybe, thirty, and that was only because people led hard lives when he’d been turned. He had actually been turned in his early twenties.
Rowyn was looking at me expectantly. His eyes were wide while he waited for my final answer. It broke my heart to give it.
“Dad and I are Santa Claus,” I said finally, feeling defeated by my own kid.
He seemed to deflate as well. “Now what?”
I bet he wished to have not known for a little while longer, but I wasn’t about to tell him that. “Now we just celebrate Christmas without having Santa bring presents. We’ll just give each other presents instead.”
“That’s kinda lame,” he declared with the conviction of a pre-teen.
He had a point. It was lame.
Therefore the sighing as I perused through all the Christmas albums.
“Darling,” Eric brought me out from my reverie. “A penny for your thoughts.”
“Rowyn and I had THE talk,” I said by way of explanation. Eric didn’t get it.
I rolled my eyes. “About Santa Claus. Honestly, Eric. He’s only ten. Besides he’s a boy. The sex talk is going to be your job.”
Eric looked at me then and smiled an understanding smile. “I’m sorry.”
“Rowyn said Christmas is going to be lame,” I said, feeling the same way as my youngest.
“What if we do something different?” Eric offered, still typing away on the laptop.
“Oh, I don’t know… like travel?” He moved the laptop to show me the screen. The picture was of a beautiful wooden lodge nestled in a snowy mountain. Everything was decked out for Christmas, and there was some information below it: Cloudveil Lodge, near Jackson Hole in Wyoming. “We can stay here,” Eric offered.
“That looks beautiful!”
“Pam went to ski there and loved the place. We can go and spend Christmas at the lodge, let the kids play in the slopes. We can make love by the fireplace,” he waggled his eyebrows at me and watched me blush before turning back to the computer and reading out loud, “The lodge will be decorated for your Christmas holiday, and all the amenities will be provided. From chestnuts to hot cocoa, from cross-country skiing to horse-drawn sleigh rides through snow covered lanes, you are sure to enjoy the best old-fashioned Christmas experience…”
“That sounds perfect!” Idony yelled from the entrance to the living room. She’d been listening. I felt my blush deepen, thinking she’d heard her dad’s suggestion about making love by the fire.
Eric had no such wariness. He turned to look at his daughter and gave her a wide smile. He switched his gaze to me, waiting to see what I would say. But what could I say? Rowyn’s words about having a lame Christmas were still ringing in my ears. Spending time at a beautiful lodge seemed like the perfect antidote to “lame.”
I smiled. “Let’s go,” I said, and Eric clicked. We’d booked the lodge for the week surrounding Christmas.
The first few days in Wyoming were nothing short of beautiful. My kids actually taught me how to ski, not that I was going to ski with Pam and Eric at night, though. Pam had joined our group at my insistence, knowing how much she enjoys skiing and not having the heart to tell her where we were going without extending the invitation. So in the end, Idony, Rowyn and I went skiing during the day and enjoyed the wonders of December in the Wyoming wilderness, and Eric and Pam went skiing at night taking the rougher courses and showing off by filming it.
We did enjoy a horse-drawn sleigh ride on Christmas Eve. I packed plenty of hot cocoa for the kids, threw several blankets over us, and then off we went as soon as the sun set. We had a lantern dangling from a hook of the sleigh that cast a gentle glow over the snowy lane and the woods at either side, and I was very happy that my hubby was endowed with his better-than-human vampire vision. We could barely see to either side of us, but it was still such a beautiful night and we had so much fun singing Christmas carols as the horses shuffled down the lane. We arrived at a resort that was decked out with all manner of holiday embellishments.
“Who wants to stop and have a look around?” Eric asked turning toward us from the high driver’s seat.
Pam, Idony, Rowyn, and I exchanged glances, all of us thinking the same thing and answering as one: “No!”
With that Eric turned us around and back we went to Cloudveil Lodge where I had a roast warming in the crock pot, and several other goodies waiting patiently in the oven, among them an apple pie that I knew my kids were looking forward to with almost giddy joy.
And even though the two vampires that were part of our family couldn’t enjoy the feast I’d prepared, they still joined us at the table and we had a very happy time simply listening to said vampires tell us stories of Christmases past. Eric hadn’t celebrated them until meeting Pam, but afterwards she made it a point of doing something special.
We opened a present each right after midnight, when it was officially Christmas Day and then I sent my kids to bed. We were supposed to have a very busy Christmas day. The lodge came equipped with not only the horses, the sleigh, and the person who helped us take care of both, but also several snowmobiles that we would take to go skiing and looking at nature. The various pictures of moose and deer standing not ten feet from Idony and Rowyn were priceless. The animals had just wandered over, not feeling any threat from us.
“Are you having a good time so far?” Eric asked me that night as we snuggled in bed, a fire roaring in the fireplace making soft shadows all over the room.
“I’m having a great time. How about you?” I asked him, although I knew the answer. Every time he returned from the slopes looking windblown and frozen, he had nothing but a wide grin on his face and stories about who had beaten whom out on the trail.
“It’s been great. I think we should do this every year from now on. The cold reminds me so much of home…” Eric had a wistful look on his face, no doubt remembering the frozen north of his homeland. He’d told me many times how they had celebrated this time of year in his village. It wasn’t Christmas, but it was still very festive.
Eric’s wistful look left his face and was swiftly replaced by confusion. “Did you hear that?” he asked me.
I shook my head but paid closer attention. That’s when I heard it: the sound was coming from the roof, it seemed. Eric hadn’t yet lowered the day shutters over the windows, so he went over to a window to take a gander at whatever he could hear. He was only wearing his boxer shorts, but seemed decided to go and find out more about the noise. He dressed quickly, with me at his heels, and we both went to check. Pam was exiting her room at the same time, all ready to go kick some butt in her snow pants.
“It might just be snow falling on the roof,” I said, offering up an alternative.
“It sounds like footsteps,” Pam said and put a hand on my shoulder. That lone gesture told me that she appreciated my optimism, and wished I’d been right.
The next noise came from the living room downstairs. We walked quietly towards the main staircase, our footsteps cushioned by the thick rug under our feet. Everything was so very silent except for a soft rustling noise that sounded like someone was brushing against the branches of the Christmas tree that had come with the lodge.
Eric disappeared vampire fast from the top of the stairs, and Pam put her arm out to hold me in place, knowing I would follow Eric as fast as my human feet could take me there.
“It’s all right,” Eric said from downstairs. “You can come down and turn on the lights,” he said for my benefit.
Pam descended first and turned on some lights, while I turned on my heel hearing my children’s voices asking what was wrong. They had obviously heard something.
“You two get back in your rooms,” I said and made a pointing motion, shooing them away.
“It’s all right,” Eric called out again. “There is no danger. They can come.”
I frowned in confusion and made sure to put my body between the living room and the kids as we went down the stairs. I was a mama duck and they were my ducklings, even as they tried to look over my shoulder.
What met my eyes was very interesting indeed. Eric was holding onto someone, a stranger, by the neck. The stranger looked like a man in his sixties, with a long beard that was mostly white and otherwise dressed for the cold Wyoming weather.
“Do you mind, Mr. Northman?” the stranger said without trying to take himself out of Eric’s hold.
“I do mind. Who are you and what are you doing here?” Eric asked, turning the man around to look at his face.
“I am your host and I was not about to do anything untoward your family. On the contrary: take a look,” the man said, sweeping his hands in the general direction of the huge Christmas tree.
We all looked in the same direction. Where once there was just the remainder of the presents that we had brought with us, there now was WAY more gifts than there should have been.
“Is that Santa?” Rowyn asked in a small voice from behind his sister. I had an idea that she was standing in front of him like I was standing in front of both of them: to protect.
“Answer my son,” Eric growled, his patience running low.
“You could say that I am,” the man said. Eric let him go and the man collected himself, brushing his coat back into place and then standing to his full height, which was not very tall at all. “My name is Nicholas of Myra, although nowadays I go by Nick Batara. Nice to make your acquaintance, Northman family,” he said with a deep bow that included all of us.
I remembered the name of the owner of the lodge as Nick Batara. And, of course, who didn’t know of Nicholas of Myra. Saint Nicholas! Saint Nicholas was right there in the living room!
“Explain,” Eric said, still short with the man. “You are vampire.”
“Well, of course. It’s hard to become a legend unless you get to be around for a long time,” Nick said and laughed a hearty laugh. By that point I was merely staring and unable to move.
“That explains so much,” Idony said behind me, sounding uncannily like Pam. I had to rethink the amount of time she was spending with her Auntie Pam.
Nick laughed again at Idony’s comment. “I love giving things to people, but nowadays it’s impossible to hit every house in the world. So I give to some select charities and also I visit whoever stays at this here lodge.”
“Why did you make so much noise?” Pam asked, about as mad as Eric was.
“I have the gift of making other things fly. My snowmobile is on the roof. I tried to make the ‘Santa Claus’ entrance, but didn’t realize that my guests included vampires! That was silly of me, I should have been more careful about making noise.”
“Why didn’t you just use the key? You must have a key,” Pam pressed.
“Of course I have a key, but that’s no fun. Besides, I knew there were kids in the house. What if they happened to see me?” Nick said, pointing in my general direction where my kids were still shielded behind me.
“I’m not a kid,” Idony grumbled.
“Me neither,” seconded her brother.
“Oh! Perhaps I was mistaken! Maybe I should take back all these wonderful gifts I’d left here for you two, since you are not kids anymore,” Nick said, stooping to pick up the gifts.
“NO!” my children said in unison and pushed their way past me, running to protect the gifts that had been placed under the tree.
“Wait!” Eric boomed, stopping the kids in their tracks. He turned to Nick. “Why? I just want to know why.”
“Why? Why! Why not! It’s Christmas, the holiest time of year, when we celebrate the birth of one of the most important people on Earth, one that taught us to love each other and accept each other, take care of each other and love God. I like to do this, to have the satisfaction of making others happy. The charities that receive my gifts and give them to those in need are doing great things, but I never get to see the faces of those who I help in such a way. Also, I happen to know that the families that come up to my lodge are in sore need of a reminder of what Christmas is about. It’s not about me, or some fake personage who brings presents in the middle of the night to naughty kids who don’t really deserve them. It’s not about trying to figure out who you owe a gift to because they’re in your life in some capacity, whether you like the person or not. It’s about Him,” Nick said looking up. “It’s about celebrating the love we feel for our family and for strangers alike, simply because they are all part of Him up above.”
Nick’s speech had the intended effect on my heart, the heart of a believer in a power above. It was something I’d always liked to think about everybody, human or not: we are all part of something bigger, and therefore we are all capable of two things: of loving and of being loved.
We couldn’t have spent a better Christmas. Nick joined us as we opened the gifts he’d brought us and sipped hot cocoa by the fire. We never returned to Cloudveil Lodge. Now that we knew the owner’s secret, we didn’t need to see it to experience it. We decided, as a family, that others needed to partake of the secret and had their Christmas spirit recharged by good ol’ Nick.
But we did remember him and what he taught us, and decided that, as a family, we could do more for the ones who needed help at Christmas and all year long. Nick’s example lives on in the Northman family.