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Paul@paulbirch.net and http://www.paulbirch.net
The time Vaasasaari's hereditary Santa dropped dead was never one of Callum's favourite memories. For a start, it happened right at the most inconvenient moment possible, just when . . . but first perhaps I'd better explain how Yuletide goes in Vaasasaari.
In Vaasasaari keep they take Christmas very seriously. Nothing unusual in that. Most of the keeps take Christmas seriously on MacRobert's World; that, and the fact that the 25th of December comes nearly every day, is how Callum MacRobert makes his living. I nearly said "earns his keep" but thought better of it, since actually Callum lives in the City, not in a keep at all. Clear? Good.
Anyway, the point about Vaasasaari is that what they take most seriously about Christmas is Santa Claus. They claim that their Founding Fathers came originally from Father Christmas's home town and are excessively proud of how, back Home, Finland once fought a war with Greenland over his possession. Others on MacRobert's, more sceptical in character, have been known to dispute this (although never within the hearing of the Vaasasaarians), pointing out that Vaasasaari is hardly a Laplandish name, belonging as it does several hundred kilometres further south, and that the history books relate no such war, only a sort of diplomatic punch-up shortly before the turn of the millennium.
Callum wasn't concerned with the truth (or otherwise) of the legends; as a Christmas Specialist he merely sought to bring off the Christmas celebrations to his clients' satisfaction. In Vaasasaari, Santa Christmas (as they called him) seldom came down the chimney on Christmas Eve, not least because there were few if any chimneys in Vaasasaari keep. Instead, he turned up in the Fat Refectory (or Great Hall) on Christmas morning before breakfast and (in a curious twist) received a present from everyone present. Nobody was allowed to eat, drink or leave until he'd given Santa his gift. A gift moreover in the gold, frankincense and myrrh bracket none of your box of dates or monogrammed hanky rubbish for Vaasasaari's hereditary Fat One.
So when the current incumbent rotundly accepted his first gift that year (by tradition a golden goblet of mulled wine from the hand of the Lord of Vaasasaari's Eldest Lady), swigged off the wine in a single gulp (spilling the half of it down his traditional white beard), pulled open his gift sack to put the goblet in, then keeled over and collapsed into the sack himself, there was understandable consternation.
Callum and the Eldest Lady (a bewitching blue-eyed creature of seventeen won just three months before from the neighbouring keep of New-Lanthanum-with-Dysprosium) rushed to pull him out. He wouldn't pull. And by the time they'd thought of rolling him over backwards and pulling the sack off Santa instead of Santa out of the sack it had become abundantly obvious that they needn't have bothered. Santa Christmas had bagged his last gift, and was no longer among those present.
Callum and the Eldest Lady looked at each other, then at the purple grimace that had once been Santa's face, and with one accord tipped him back in the sack. Six of Santa's elves then rolled the sack onto the sleigh (a low-slung model, fortunately) and exited stage right.
The Lord of Vaasasaari, no more than twice the age of his Eldest Lady, his sire having copped it in the recent New-L-with-D how's-your-father, rose splendidly to the occasion and his feet. "Santa Christmas is dead," he proclaimed. "Long live Santa Christmas!"
And "long live Santa Christmas!" the people all replied.
"Ring out the old, ring in the new, Ring, happy bells, across the snow," went on Vaasasaari's Lord, getting a bit carried away. "The year is going, let him go; Ring in the false, ring in the true."
"Er, yes, but hang on a tick," said Callum. "Who is this new Santa Christmas, then?"
"Why, his heir, of course," said Lord Saarakoinen.
"His Ebullience never had no heir," said someone else. "He was completely heirless."
"He must have had a heir," said Callum, "even if he didn't have any children of his own."
The Eldest Lady interrupted. "Oh no, it doesn't work like that. I had to read up on all these nutty . . . er . . . distinctive customs before the wedding. Santa Christmas has to appoint his successor himself."
"I thought the post was hereditary," said Callum.
"It is," said Lord Saarakoinen. "It's inherited by the chap he names in his will."
"Oh," said Callum. "That's what you mean by hereditary, is it?"
"Obviously it stays in the family. He can't appoint just anyone."
"Ah," said Callum. "So who did he appoint then?"
The lord looked to his seneschal, who frowned. "No one, I fear, my lord," he said. "I believe he died intestate."
"No, it means we don't have a replacement Santa Christmas."
Callum coughed. "Doesn't that rather leave us up a gum tree?" he asked.
"Pardon?" queried Lord Saarakoinen.
"I mean, up the creek, in a pickle, totally keepless . . ."
"Ah yes, I see what you mean. You're absolutely right," said the lord. "Unless he left a will we don't know about, that is."
"Well, did he?"
"I don't know."
Callum rubbed his hands over his face. "Can't somebody just fill in for now, till after breakfast?" he suggested.
"Oh no," said Lord Saarakoinen, as if it were quite out of the question.
Callum sighed. "All right, then. Let me know when you've decided. I'll be in my room, having a bite to eat."
"No," said the seneschal. "You can't leave the Hall until the gift-giving's over. It's the Law, I'm afraid."
"And you can't break fast either," added his lord. "Sorry."
Callum counted to ten. "Right! So how long will choosing the successor take?"
"Hard to say," said the seneschal. "Cases of intestacy have been known to drag on for years."
"Years! But I've got another Christmas tomorrow! In Appleton Minor."
"Not years," Lord Saarakoinen said. "We'd all be dead of starvation by then. But days, very likely. Possibly as long as a week."
Callum looked at the Eldest Lady, who raised an eyebrow and shrugged. "They're quite good at fighting," she said.
While Callum sat staring glumly at an empty board and the Vaasasaarians sat at their tables chatting to one another with infallible politeness, Lord Saarakoinen's men searched the dead Santa's domain from top to bottom for any sign of a will, or anything that could be interpreted as designating a successor (those of his men, that is, who were fortunate enough to have been on duty outside the Great Hall at the time of the decease and whom Lord Saarakoinen had been able to instruct in absentia over the com system). Callum tried not to imagine what would have happened if no one had been left outside . . . and the com system had gone down . . . and the keep's gates were shut . . . and a hundred years from now archaeologists found their way into the Great Hall . . . and the rows of polite skeletons welcomed them . . . and there was still no Santa Christmas to take their gifts . . . and . . .
No. Not really. Not even on MacRobert's. Probably not even on MacRobert's.
"The problem is," said Lord Saarakoinen, apropos of nothing, "the post is worth a great deal of money. All those presents, you see."
Callum looked up. "He keeps them?"
"Hocks them, more like."
By midday it was clear that no lifesaving will would be found.
"What happens now?" asked Callum.
The seneschal replied. "It goes to the next of kin. Naturally."
"Naturally," said Callum. "And who is this next of kin?"
"I am," said a voice.
"No. It is I," said another.
Callum saw two burly men, barely distinguishable with their red beards and beer bellies.
"The problem is," said the lord again, "we don't know which is the next and which the next to next. Vainamoinen here is Santa's sister-son, beyond a doubt; but Lemminkainen's a bastard"
"in more ways than one"
"and either his brother-son or his father-brother-son-son, we don't know which, for his father and his father-brother were identical twins with the same DNA, don't you see."
"And naturally," said the seneschal, taking over the explanation, "the brother-son has preference over the sister-son, but the sister-son over the father-brother-son-son."
"Oh, naturally," said Callum weakly. "Obviously, then, all we have to do is arrange for one of them to get bumped off and we're home and dry."
"Bumped off? Ah, yes . . . killed. Yes, indeed. You're absolutely right," Lord Saarakoinen said. "Warriors, en garde! Let battle commence!"
Above the clash of steel came the Christmas Specialist's plaintive voice. "I was being sarcastic, you Scandinavian grapefruits!"
Spake the bastard Lemminkainen thus unto his bitter rival, "O thou aged Vainamoinen, O thou very foul-mouthed minstrel, let us measure swords together, let the blade decide between us."
Answered then his bitter rival, spake the aged Vainamoinen, filled with wrath and indignation, "Up yours, lousy Lemminkainen, I will split your lousy gizzard, split it like a lousy lizard!"
Yet although a doughty fighter, Vainamoinen's boast was bootless; Lemminkainen's blade was faster, found its mark in foeman's belly. Thus did Vainamoinen perish, perished thus the would-be Santa, in a pool of blood and gravy in the Hall of Vaasasaari.
And so Lemminkainen the bastard won, donned the blood-red Santa outfit and collected his presents in a gory sack; and a little after teatime Callum got his breakfast at last. Even for MacRobert's World, an unusual Christmas Day.
© Paul Birch, 23rd Dec. 1999.