A Reckoning Day

Once upon a time, long ago, and yet not so long ago as all that, a small man trudged up a hill.
Snow swirled about him angrily, as though it had a grudge to bear.  And for the man, heavily bundled against the night, that grudge might have been against him.  But there was little he could do about that, for his stepmother lived atop the hill, and he was duty-bound to pay his respects.
When he had entered the town that lay at the bottom of the hill only moments before, it was silence that greeted him.  It was the quiet of heavy fear; slow, steeping and tense. 
But this was nothing new; he had come to expect this. 
Even now, no light shown in the village that lay at the bottom of the hill up which he strove.  No person came out of any house.  He would not be surprised if some had nailed their doors shut.  And their windows, too.  That was the way of it.  It struck him that, in other circumstances, he would have done the same—though he well knew that such precautions offered no protection.
When he finally reached the summit, he was met by an archaic staircase that led to a large set of doors made of ebony wood encased in an ancient house.  
He glanced up. 
The snow atop the roof seemed to give the gothic mansion before him an otherworldly appearance.  But the man knew, too, that it would have looked as though it did not belong in this world, no matter the snow.
The butler, always grave, always gaunt, let him inside at a knock.  There was little difference between the temperature outside and that within—only relief from the chill wind.  Candlelight flickered along the hall down which the butler led the man; but they offered only dim, haunting light.  It was illumination enough, however, to reveal that the small man had powerful shoulders, wider than the butler’s, whose height was twice his own.  And enough to let the man notice the tautness in the tall back of the one he followed.
The small man entered the dining hall and saw, as he always did, a bone-thin woman, wrinkled but upright, seated in a stately fashion at the far end of an ebony table.  The table was waxed so that its reflection was as clear as glass, but the man knew better than to look at it; he knew the reflection was never true.  The woman sat and sipped at the broth in front of her, as though it could sustain her.  But the man knew better.
‘You are looking more haggard this year than last, stepmother,’ the man said, knowing that his words would aggravate.
‘While, of course, you look exactly the same,’ the woman said slowly, her deep voice far lower than her age would suggest, a sneer dripping down the corners of her mouth.
‘A price, of course,’ the man said, as his gaze glanced about him, then dropped to examine the floorboards.
The woman scoffed.  He had been too blatant, too quick to look. 
But he had waited all year for this.
‘Where is she?’ he asked—as he had many times.  And yet he knew she could always hear the desperation in the question that made him vulnerable.
‘Must we do this, Hugo?’ she answered in reply, and the depths of her voice lost their harsh edge, her words soothing as though she caressed each one; as though they caressed him, lulled him, made him feel as though he could let down his guard and finally be at peace.  
Hugo shook himself. 
It was no more than a witch’s trick—and that it was the last of her power made it fade all the more quickly.
‘Unless you are willing to repent, stepmother?’ he answered dryly, once more in control of himself, and she let slip a snarl while her nostrils flared.  She had less control over herself this time.  But that had no bearing on what was to come.  ‘No, is it?  Then unless we have come to the dusk of time, and I very much think we are not yet there, then yes, I believe we must.’
The woman let her lip curl, revealing sharp teeth and a look of potent hate.  ‘So be it.’
Suddenly, the butler sprung toward him, but Hugo was ready for him.  His hand had slipped into his jacket pocket and pulled out an orb that glowed with beams of golden light.  As the light touched the butler, he froze, with arms outstretched, one foot hung in midair.  The light grew stronger, and chains appeared out of the nothing and began to wrap themselves not about the butler, but around the bone-thin wrists of the woman.  Finally, Hugo was free to look.
The dining room would be the first place he searched this year, bending down behind every piece of black, gilded furniture.  No trunk went un-opened.  Even the suit of armor that stood archaically in the corner had its visor examined.‘A new hiding place this year, stepmother?  Or have you gambled on an old haunt?’ Hugo mused aloud but knew there would be no response; the orb had bound his stepmother’s tongue.  The glare the old woman gave him withered but had no power behind it that could do him harm.
And he had no time to pay attention to it, for he had to search.  If he dallied, the stroke of midnight would come to soon.  And he would not let that happen again.  It had only been once that he had failed, but that was long ago.  Before he had claimed his right of service and vowed to perform this duty.  Since that time, he stood between his stepmother and her powers on this day every year.  So it had been for nearly as far back as he could remember.  But he could only keep doing so if he beat the strike of twelve.
He looked about the mansion with careful haste, his orb turning a bright light in each place he searched.  Hugo could not afford to miss even one small detail.  The drawing room and the billiard room were investigated with detailed precision.  The conservatory and the library had little behind which a body could be stowed, and yet he went through each cranny.  Hugo could have sworn the bedrooms had multiplied throughout the year—but he knew this to be impossible.  And all offered only emptiness.  Even the curtains and tapestries in each room revealed nothing but their hidden walls. 
Hugo descended to the kitchens, and the larders and cellars.
He went through it all again, the entire house, looking at corners he had already seen twice, and carefully glancing in every mirror to see if it might reveal a trick of light or a glimpse of something that he had missed.
He heard the chime of the clock and as it struck eleven times, he knew the night was passing too quickly.  Hugo’s hand raked through his hair.  How many times had he done this?  Had he ever left it so late?  He went through, in his mind, the other nights and the places she had used before.  He could swear he had looked at them all.
He went back to the room where his stepmother sat frozen. 
‘Where is she?’ he asked her, as the clock chimed at the quarter hour before the midnight volley, staring into the old woman’s eyes, black as a starless sky.  He gazed, as though her pitch eyes would tell him something she would never knowingly provide.  ‘Where is she?’ he said again, notes of panic creeping into the question as the clock struck again and again.  He had nowhere else to look but at the woman, no last option but to gaze into her wicked face and see what it revealed. 
It was his last hope, and it was not much of one.
The woman’s gaze narrowed and then rose slightly, almost as though they had an expectation of victory, as though they could already taste triumph and drink the blood of youth once more.  Hugo could see the aching longing—it had been a long time since she had had youth.  How convenient a stepdaughter had been to such a one; a drink full of youth’s freedom and a wealth of dark power.  And yet, the last time she had drank such elixir, it had marked her imprisonment.  For a girl only lasts the year out; and Hugo had been ready when her strength faded.  As he had been ever since.
It was that look of triumph that proved the old woman’s downfall.
For Hugo—looking as deeply as he could for any sign that would save the girl, the village, himself before the time ran out—saw something out of joint.  
A hint of not quite black had lit in a tiny spot in the maleficent eyes that had turned momentarily upward.  Hugo looked up, into the corner.  There she was in the darkness of the room where the dim candlelight did not quite reach.  His eyes, adjusted by his gaze into darkness, could just make out her curled brown hair hanging down in the dark corner of the ceiling.  The rest of her was bound, gagged, and stilled as though she’d had the stunning bite of a spider’s venom just before it drained her of life.
Hugo lifted his golden orb, and let its power do its own work.  The rope hanging her from the ceiling released and the girl fell into his thick, strong arms.  The clock struck midnight then, the twelve chimes dinged as he breathed, savoring the feeling of relief that stole over him.  Safe.  He undid the girl’s bindings with care so as not to wake her.  She need not remember this place.
He spared a last glance for his stepmother, one that let him rest on the fallen wizened face with straining eyes, and took his prize to the door.  He woke the girl just as they stepped away into the swirl of falling snow.  He took her by the hand, and she blinked open chocolate-colored eyes.
‘Where have I been?’ she asked.
‘Never you mind,’ said Hugo.  ‘Its where we are going that matters.’
They trudged down the hill, the girl marveling at the lights and candles that glistened in every window.  The sight warmed him as no other sight could; a sign of faith that the danger was no more. 
There was one window, however, where no lights were lit. 
And it was before this that Hugo and the little girl stopped and knocked on its simple wooden door.
‘Mama!’ the girl cried, tearing her hand from Hugo’s and flinging herself in her mother’s arms.
The girl’s mother cried out with her arms stretched before her, and she buried her face in the little girl’s brown curls.  She could not spare the words to do more than give a weighted nod of thanks to Hugo, as tears flowed down her face and dripped onto the small head beneath her.  But he did not need more.  He released her from the burden of expressing an unfathomable gratitude, and gently pushed them both inside.
Hugo closed the door and stepped away. 
It was over. 
Once again. 
Long ago he had chosen his day of reckoning.  And he had chosen well.  The Yuletide, the Solstice Day.  This day of all days when victory took its place amidst the darkness.
He looked up to the top of the hill, where now the snow moved in torrents, but fell only on itself.  The mansion was gone.  All safe, for another year, Hugo thought, as he trudged through the snow and disappeared.

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