Winkin, Blinkin, Celeste and Domino were the ring leaders, and they had been for nearly a century. Every time Nick came across a group of elves whispering conspiratorially together, one of those four was bound to be nearby. Of course, as soon as they saw him coming they started whistling, or glued a wheel to a toy train, or in some other way tried to look harmless. But he knew their minds. They were lazy, spoiled creatures, and they meant him evil.
So Nick started to watch his back. He never allowed an elf within three feet of him. “Away!” Nick would shout, and whatever little Fey happened to be standing too near would fall back with alarm.
“I’m telling you, Charlotte,” he grimly told his wife as they lay in bed that night, “They’re trying to kill me. They wear hats with bells and pretend to be my festive little helpers, but they are Fey above all else. They’re always up to something.”
Charlotte put her book in her lap and regarded her husband over her spectacles and down her nose. “The elves have been helping you for the last two hundred years. Do you really think they would turn on you now?”
“It’s been a slow turn,” Nick grumbled darkly, “But I’ve been watching it happen for eighty years. It started that day old Bombadoo was crushed under the sleigh on December twenty-third and I didn’t give him the day off. I’ve seen the way they look at me now. Their little gazes are full of daggers.”
Charlotte snorted and looked back at her book. “You’re ridiculous,” she said, and that was the end of her advice. Nick went to sleep with darkness in his heart and dreamed of blood on the snow.
The next morning was December twenty-first, the Winter Equinox. Nick pulled on his boots and his warm furs. He tucked a cap onto his mostly bald head and made his way to the workshop, expecting to see the elves hard at work despite the fact that it was one of their highest holy days. Nick remembered the pride he had felt when he had bullied the elves into working on the equinox so many years ago. And the look that had been on Bombadoo’s face as he caved to his master’s will. That had been the same year that Bombadoo had been hurt on the job. Nick knew that the elves suspected the accident was not one, but he would deny any wrongdoing until the day he died. And since his last day was not likely to come without some serious magical intervention, Nick would be denying culpability in the injury of the oldest elf for a very long time.
What he found was an empty workshop. Dolls rested on worktables, still bald and with one eye. Trucks lay neatly beside their own wheels. There was not a single elf to be found. Nick stood in the doorway, clenching his fists furiously. This was four days before Christmas!
He knew exactly where they would be. Nick tightened his coat and stomped out through the snow. He found them by the sound of their flutes and the bright green grass that had sprouted through the hard-packed snow. The elves were dancing in a circle. They were nude, lithe and each less than a foot tall. Their skins glowed in the bright light of the midday moon. Each of them had white, fluffy hair like the seeds of a dandelion right before the summer breeze gusted them away.
Nick crossed his arms over his chest and prepared to deliver a scathing lecture that the little Fey would not soon forget. And then, suddenly, he realized his foot was tapping. Nick scowled and tried to still his disobedient limb, but the elven music swirled around him and through him, and suddenly he did a pirouette at the edge of the clearing despite himself. Fear froze his spine, and Nick suddenly realized it was too late: he was caught in a fairy circle.
The elves did not stop dancing, but a few of them looked up at their giant master and snickered. Celeste, eyes glinting wickedly, gave him a skirtless curtsy and gestured for Nick to join them. Nick found he had no choice.
“Stop playing right this instant!” Nick boomed as his feet carried him into a jig. “You’re all supposed to be at work!” Some of the more timid elves exchanged frightened glances, but Domino played his pan pipes louder still in a lilting song of defiance. Nick barked, “You’ll be punished! All of you!” He was already short of breath and sweating. Belatedly, Nick wondered if the old legends about fairy circles were true . Could the Fey really make their enemies dance themselves to death? The elves seemed impervious to his plight. Nick danced on the glittering crust of snow, helpless to stop his body from doing as the fairy circle commanded. After many hours he collapsed in a panting, red-faced heap. His limbs continued to twitch as he lay there, still trying to dance despite his own physical exhaustion. Nick rested his head in the snow and looked up at the sky, wide and black and studded with stars like holes in the paper of reality. His chest ached, and he couldn’t catch his breath.
A tiny head, crowned with fluffy hair and glittering, hate-filled eyes appeared in Nick’s vision. It was Bombadoo, with Winkin, Blinkin, Celeste and Domino beside him.
“I want a day off,” Bombadoo said conversationally.
Nick nodded, unable to speak through his heavy breathing.
With a wicked smile, Domio asked, “Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to screw with fairies?”