Christmas Serial in 25 parts
for good boys and girls everywhere
Story by Steve Englehart Art by Joe Staton
December 17: A Night of Miracles
Down along the twisting trail galloped Bishop Nikola, sparks flying from his horse's hooves. The rising moon leered above him, cutting deep shadows in the dirt ahead, hiding whole sections before he was on top of them, and at the same time making him and his white horse stand out like snow on a crow. He had no weapons, and there was no telling how many weapons the bandits had. "Why didn't I close the hearth wall?" Nikola asked himself over and over, in time with the drumming hooves.
His only hope was speed. He didn't know this trail and his pursuers did, but his horse was fresh and theirs had just come back from the Patara pass. Maybe that would make a difference
Naghhhh!! The horse stumbled making a sharp turn, staggered toward the edge. Rocks slid under him. Another stumble. He felt his great weight shift outward, over a thousand-foot drop. Each foot clearly outlined in moonshadow. All the way down. Moment in eternity -- horse caught his balance. Rocks clattered. Horse and rider stayed alive and thundered on.
An arrow whispered past the bishop's head. He had been mad to challenge the bandit chieftain! But the face of Xandarius swam out of the darkness: "God provided me with three daughters. They have been the lights of my life." What else could a man of God do?
The trail twisted back, running below itself. Above was the spot where he had almost slipped over. The rocks up there were still sliding off, raining down on Nikola. In fact -- the whole trail was crumbling away! Years of broiling summers and soaking winters -- now the furious charge of many horses -- ! Great hunks of dirt and boulders fell just behind him.
A shout turned him around on his horse, for a glimpse of the bandits pulling up where the trail had collapsed. But there was enough room for them to pass the point of collapse in a single file, and soon their shouts of vengeance were rising from the rear again.
When he reached the plain, they were half a mile behind him. Only then did he wonder what he would do when he reached the village. The constable -- ? No, Dritalos would be of no help. What else could Nikola do? With every passing second, the moment of decision raced closer. And then it was there!
He was at his church. The dust of the galloping bandits rose high in the moonlight behind. There was no place to hide, no way to fight --
In the moonlight, Rustle bloomed white.
Nikola shook his head in wonder. What he was seeing was beyond explanation -- beyond what even he would believe in the realm of miracles. But that wasn't the end of it. The tree suddenly grew two feet taller.
"Climb me!" Rustle shouted. He knew the bishop couldn't hear him, but would he understand anyway?
The bishop looked at him. "It's impossible," he muttered. "The tree couldn't have grown; I must have imagined it." He looked at his own huge body. "It's not tall enough to hide me, and I'm too fat to climb it anyway." Yes, he said all that, but that wasn't the end of it. He was a man of God. Beyond logic, he had Faith.
So he ran to Rustle, and struggled to raise a fat leg high enough to reach the lowest branch. Rustle bent to help him.
Nikola got his foothold and climbed to the next branch. Now it was easier for him; the limbs were closer together. Up he went, hugging the tree to his wide stomach. But all too soon, he was as high as he could go, and the thunder of Gerondimar's horses was loud in his ears. Another arrow flew at him and missed wide to the right, but the distance was good. Had he made himself a sitting duck? He looked to the ground -- it was much farther away than when he'd begun.
Rustle continued to grow as he returned Nikola's hug, wrapping his branches around the gasping person so closely that no arrow could get through. Nikola was completely enclosed, and the bishop knew now that this was to be a night of miracles.
Rustle towered over the moonlit plain; he could easily see the tops of the houses in the village where the persons still slept, unaware of the danger to their priest. But the bandits pulled to a halt at Rustle's base. They weren't sure what they were seeing, but having no faith in the God Nikola served, they had to believe it was all a trick of the moonlight. Furiously, they nocked and fired their arrows at the treetop, but every one of them stuck in the wood or bounced away, leaving their quarry untouched.
Gerondimar leapt from his horse and ran to the tree. "You'll never tell anyone where my treasure's hidden, priest!" he shouted upward angrily. "I know you have no weapons! I'll get you in the end!" But as Gerondimar tried to put his weight on Rustle's lowest branch, Rustle pulled it out of his way, and the bandit pitched forward on his face.
Then all the bandits ran at the tree, trying to grab ahold of it. But Rustle kept flicking his branches away from them.
One of the bandits vaulted back onto his horse, and stood atop the steed, trying to climb onto the tree farther up. But Rustle snapped the horse on the nose and startled it into throwing his person to the ground.
"Who has an axe?" cried Gerondimar. "Give me an axe and I'll lay this accursèd tree low!" But no one had an axe, and the knives they carried were too small to do the job. That didn't stop them from trying, though, and Rustle decided it was time to put a stop to this. He began to draw the sap from everywhere within him and push it out through his bark. As the bandits clutched at him, they stuck to him -- one, two, three -- all four.
Panicked, they tried to tear themselves free, but they couldn't. Struggling, they stuck to each other as well as the tree. So Rustle ended his attack, and unwrapped his higher branches from around the bishop. He bent down, careful not to touch the bandits, so that Nikola could climb to the ground unhampered.
When the constable, finally awakened and emboldened to investigate, arrived at the church, he found Gerondimar and his men lying in four lumps, like caterpillars in cocoons. Nearly in hysterics, they told the old man what had happened to them -- and Dritalos turned to Bishop Nikola with new respect. "It can't have happened the way they tell it, of course but perhaps I should come by your church more often," he said.
Then, at last, Rustle heard the laugh Chiss and Mymla had told him about -- the jolly "ho ho ho!" of a person who knew all was right with the world.
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