Christmas Serial in 25 parts
for good boys and girls everywhere
Story by Steve Englehart Art by Joe Staton
December 20: North by North by North
The flight across country to Rustle's woods was very different from the flight across time. In both cases, Rustle could see his surroundings, but countryside looks very different from time.
When Regina lowered her antlers and announced, "Nick will send us away in one minute," he barely had time to prepare himself before they were gone. They lifted away from the hillside, and he could see the grass and trees fall behind. "Ohhhhhhhh!" he wailed, causing fourteen persons in the village to look up for signs of a storm. But he and his friends were invisible.
They flew across Melchior's forest, in all its endless splendor -- the smaller forests that dotted the hills to the south -- the waterfall where Rustle had learned to change his shape at will -- the plain where coal had fallen from the sky -- the forest stalked by savage wolves -- the valley that had lost its trees -- the next valley, also cleared of trees --
"This can't be right!" Rustle gasped. "That's my valley!"
But when they came down among the stumps, they saw that it was true. Since Rustle had left, the loggers had come, just as he'd feared -- and Boughbent, Bumpyhead, Threebranch and all the others were gone! Only one spot on the hillside had no stump, because there was no tree rooted there: the spot where Rustle had stood.
Rustle saw all that, and the others saw Rustle's face.
"Here, here!" harumphed Chiss. "What're you looking so gloomy about? The rest of 'em have been turned into chairs and tables now."
"Threebranch wanted to be a chair," Rustle said softly.
"I don't understand," burbled Mymla. "You knew these trees were going to be cut down?"
"Of course! That's why I wanted to escape. But I didn't know the loggers would come so soon!"
"But -- you mean you came back here, expecting you'd be cut down, too???"
Rustle lowered his branches, a clear sign of surrender. "Yes," he said.
"That makes no sense!"
"It makes perfect sense," said Melchior. "Didn't you hear him say he wanted to be a tree again? Having persons cut you down and make a chair out of you happens to all sorts of trees."
"I accept what I am," Rustle told the elves, wanting them to see. "I don't want any special treatment, of any kind. Besides, it wouldn't be so bad, being a chair in a nice family's home."
Chiss was so mad he started to hop up and down, but Regina forestalled his comeback by gesturing toward the valley floor. Looking where she pointed, they saw a car driving along the road, with a dark green fir tree strapped to the roof. Clearly across the distance came the shouts of happy little persons.
"They have their Christmas tree," said Chiss approvingly.
"You see, you two?" asked Melchior. "Trees can be cut for good reasons."
"That family will decorate that evergreen, and its scent and beauty will make them happy right through the New Year," agreed Mymla. "But oh! Rustle -- !"
"It doesn't matter now," said Regina. "I can't imagine Rustle wanting to stay here under these circumstances."
"No -- not by myself," Rustle murmured, back to staring dejectedly at the stump-littered hillside. "But I don't know what I'll do instead."
"Come to Nick's like you were supposed to," answered Chiss firmly. "He wants to see you."
"Are there any trees at the North Pole?"
"Trees? Well, uh -- no. It's all barren ice up there -- outside. Of course, Nick has a wonderful house, full of elves like Mymla and me."
"I wouldn't want to stay indoors," Rustle sighed. "But I guess I don't have any other choice."
"Most persons would love to visit Nick at the North Pole," responded Chiss, but he knew nothing was going to cheer Rustle now.
So Regina lifted her horns once more, and arranged for a second flight. "Nick will send us in one minute," she said a moment later, and exactly one minute after that, they rose into the sky again.
This time they headed due North. They flew over trees and plains like they had before, but gradually the last remaining signs of vegetation fell away, leaving nothing beneath them but ice-blue water and ice-white ice, with less and less water all the time. The ice began to assume all sorts of fantastic shapes, each one rising before them and falling behind almost before they could credit their senses. Centuries of shifting glaciers and icebergs had cracked and refrozen, cracked and refrozen, until not a single stretch of level ice showed for hundreds and hundreds of miles.
From time to time they passed over herds of reindeer, some of which Regina recognized and others of which she didn't. They also saw the elusive caribou herds, and packs of wolves, and foxes. Polar bears rose on their hind legs and stared at them, seeing what no person could see -- had there been a person in this wilderness. Behind them the sun fell lower and lower in the sky, until they crossed the Arctic Circle and a permanent darkness engulfed them. They flew right through the Northern Lights, and seemingly into the stars that burned so brightly everywhere but below them.
But at the end, Chiss raised an arm and pointed directly toward a spot on the ice indistinguishable from every other spot on the ice. "Nick's house," he said, and the excitement in his little voice was electric.
They came soaring downward toward the spot, with Rustle, Melchior, and Regina searching diligently for whatever Chiss saw. Then, Rustle did see it: a long, flat stretch of ice -- the only flat stretch. They slid to a stop on that ice, and Rustle remembered the elves' stories of Nick's sleigh and flying reindeer.
Before them, at the edge of the flat ice, was a hillock of ice, a shadowed shape against the nighttime sky. Now that hillock began to leak light. Before the newcomers' fascinated gaze, the hillock rose as if on hinges, to show part of the outside of a beautiful building -- carved, much like the carved church building in Myra. The light was spilling from frosted windows all along the building's wall, whose exact center boasted an elaborately sculpted door.
The door opened. A fat man dressed in red stepped out, his face one all-encompassing grin.
"My magic tree!" beamed Santa Claus. "At last we're together again!"
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