Christmas Serial in 25 parts
for good boys and girls everywhere
Story by Steve Englehart Art by Joe Staton
December 4: The Cavern of the Coalman
Soft snow was falling thick and fast in the night as Yørgøn, clutching the silver bell, flew across the final river and landed facing a jagged cavemouth. For the thousand-and-first time he looked back, but there was no Chiss, no Mymla, no Rustle -- not even a hint of pursuit.
He took a deep breath and slipped past the sharp rocks, into the echoing cave.
From the very beginning there was a sensation of warmth, but that was because caves hold the same temperature all year 'round; what would have been cool in June was comforting in December. After the first two turns of the tunnel, however, the temperature quickly started to rise. After the seventh turn, Yørgøn saw a gradual lessening of the darkness ahead. After the eighth, he entered a much larger chamber, filled with light from a roaring fire. Glowing slabs of wood were stacked twenty-high, their flames reaching hungrily for the vent in the rock ceiling. It was an oven in that chamber -- the way his master liked it.
He was more than three times Yørgøn's size and dressed in a robe that had once been white but was now sooty black. His face, wrinkled by the pull of a tight-fitting cowl, was sallow and pock-marked, as if the heavy smoke had tattooed his flesh. His eyes were a pale, pale yellow, like the light of fireflies, and his mouth was a thin dark slit.
"You have it?" he demanded, the slit splitting.
"In my bag, master," replied the gnome. He produced the silver bell and held it out, catching the flame reflections. The Coalman's hand closed around it convulsively.
"This will be the end of Nicholas, the 'Saint' -- at long, long last," he breathed. "Was there any trouble?"
" None, master."
"It was nothing, master. A minor problem with two of his elves."
"You escaped them?"
"Oh yes. No one knows where I am."
"Did you ring the bell at all?"
"Let me see these elves." The tall, sooty man turned to an ancient table littered with books and twisted vials. He picked one book; as he lifted it clouds of dust fell away. He hurled it into the raging fire. There was a crackling, a hissing, like the wings of a hundred ravens, as the smoke began to clump together and form fantastic shapes, which grew more and more distinct -- shapes of two elves and of a tree
"But you've lost it now," said Rustle. "Because of me."
"We haven't lost it," rasped Chiss. "Why d'you think Nick sent us?"
"I don't know."
"Because elves are better than gnomes, that's why! That bug-sucker can run away, but a fire-elf can follow his trail by the heat he left behind."
"What if he rings the bell again?"
"He still leaves heat, wherever he goes."
Rustle looked around by rocking side-to-side on his roots (he really was getting good at using them). "I know I haven't had much experience -- with walking, with gnomes and elves -- with anything," he said dubiously. "But I know the seasons. And I know winter steals heat as fast as it can."
"Not fast enough for me," said Chiss, nodding importantly. "I can follow Yørgøn's trail as if he were right in front of us."
"Speaking of 'right in the front of us,'" said Mymla, "what are those?"
Rustle looked at the forest again -- and saw that its darkness was lit by some thirty glowing spots, hovering the now-familiar two feet off the ground. "Are those more elves?" Rustle asked, but he didn't really think they were.
"No!" Chiss flung his arms out to hold his companions back. "We're under attack!"
"The Coalman!" gasped Mymla. "He knows we're after him. That means Yørgøn's reached him already!"
But before anyone could say another word, the glowing spots surged forward. As they left the woodland's darkness, they came revealed as the savage eyes of timber wolves! Fifteen wolves, all muscles bunched, all jaws a-slaver, all racing straight for Rustle and his friends! He had just time enough to wonder if his ability to move like persons made him vulnerable to pain like persons -- then the first teeth snapped on his trunk!
There was no pain.
That was good. And since the wolf was obligingly standing still down there, gnawing away, he was an easy target for Rustle's battering branches. WHACK! The wolf howled and jumped back, glaring. Even better. But what about Chiss and Mymla?
To Rustle's left, four yowling wolves went sliding on a wave of water, just like Yørgøn had. That was five accounted for, for the moment, but with so many more -- !
The fire began.
From a spot to Rustle's right, a sheet of flame flared up between him and his attackers. Instinctively he stepped back, but Chiss barked, "Don't move!" He was so intense about it that Rustle forgot his instincts and stopped right where he was. Another sheet of fire rose to the left of him, then a third to the rear. Now Rustle (and the elves, as he twisted to see) were in a three-sided box of flame, through which, hazily, he could see the wolves growling in confused frustration. But there was still one open direction, and whatever force it was that drove the wolves made them forget their fear of fire. They massed, howling, before the travelers. The braver wolves started forward -- only to be met by jets of flame thrown from the fire-elf's fingertips.
Foosh!! The lead wolf's fur caught fire, and he leapt away as if yanked by a leash. The ground around him had melted from the intense heat, and he put the fire out by rolling in the muck. Meanwhile, a second wolf and then a third tried their luck, but they, too, were driven back. The other wolves looked at their pack mates and shook themselves, as if fighting the force that had mastered them. Their fear of fire won out. They turned as a group and ran past the flame-box, down into the treeless valley.
"Nick knew what he was doing when he sent us," laughed Chiss, and with a wave of his oversized hands the fire-box was gone. Mymla washed away the glowing embers, burbling happily. And Rustle began to think that this adventure just might be the most fun he'd had in all his life.