Christmas Serial in 25 parts
for good boys and girls everywhere
Story by Steve Englehart Art by Joe Staton
December 5: Rustle Stands Tall
The Coalman studied the smoke which rose in curdled shapes from his pyre; his face showed his displeasure. Yørgøn studied the Coalman; Yørgøn's face showed fear.
"The elves and that tree that you made walk are following your trail unswervingly," rumbled the magician. "My wolves slowed them, but that fire-elf couldn't be stopped. He's closer in spirit to me than you are, gnome. Perhaps I should have tried to bribe him to my cause, rather than trust to an outside creature!"
"N-no one who works in Nicholas's shop will ever betray him, master. He treats them too well -- they like their jobs too much. Only I could have gotten you the silver bell."
But the Coalman continued to muse. "I had expected your theft to go undetected until much closer to Christmas evidently you alerted Nicholas somehow. His minions are coming straight for me, a good three weeks early. That doesn't really hurt me -- not while I hold the bell -- but it adds a complication I don't appreciate. Nicholas is a jelly-bellied do-gooder, but he seems to act intelligently and quickly when he must." He glared at the cowering gnome. "Perhaps I should do the same!"
"M-Master," quavered Yørgøn, "surely you can stop those elves. The bell -- !"
"The power in the bell is not to be wasted -- such as you have done!" replied the magician. "I have devoted my life to the dark arts, for one purpose only: the absolute and eternal destruction of the man the world calls 'Santa Claus.' I did not become the Coalman to deal with elves -- or trees!" His yellow eyes grew paler than ever, 'til they looked like the cold glitter of midnight stars. "But I suppose there is time to try once more."
Now Rustle, Chiss, and Mymla were making their way pretty quickly across the northern wilds by this time. They'd passed through the forest during the night without any further sign of the wolves, and had begun alternating between wooded areas and open plains. Passing through the forests made Rustle cheerful, though (to tell the truth) he was feeling pretty cheerful in general. He liked his elfin companions, he liked his now-comfortable ability to walk, he liked the prospect of adventure, and, although he only knew Santa Claus through the elves' stories, he liked that old person, and was happy to be of help to him.
The only odd thing was, he felt that the tall trees they came upon now were familiar to him, even though they were a species he'd never seen before. Sometimes he stopped before one of them and stared up at it, as if he could see something, or feel something, that neither of the elves could. But each time, he ended up deciding that he couldn't.
"What does magic do to trees?" he asked after the fourth time he stopped.
"No idea," said Chiss. "I've never seen it used on anyone except Nick."
"And the reindeer," added Mymla. "All it does to them is get them around the world in one night."
"But that's because that's what Nick wants it to do," said Chiss. "In the hands of someone who never used it before, especially a gnome -- who knows?"
"It makes me feel funny -- " Rustle began, but his attention shifted toward the plain ahead of them. It was overhung with dark billowing clouds that he hadn't noticed before, and he was usually very sensitive to the weather. "It looks as if we're going to have some rain."
Before the elves could even respond, the clouds shot over their heads and filled the sky. The three friends looked for cover, but there was none on the plain, and before they could think further, the storm broke with a bang. But not a storm of rain. No, what came tumbling from the sky was coal -- huge, heavy, black lumps of coal, which fell upon the unprotected travelers unmercifully. Rustle grabbed the ground as hard as he could with his roots, but the storm's winds tore at him, bending him until lost his hold and toppled. WHUNK! It made him mad, being down again, and he fought the wind to get up. He refused to be taken out of the fight so easily. He pushed with one limb, and pulled with another, and though he slipped more than once, he kept trying until he shifted himself around to point his branches toward the wind. Then he let the wind's own strength lift him up.
For the first time he had the chance to look to the elves. He expected to see them doing something wondrous again, but he didn't. Chiss was shielding his head with his hands, and Mymla was rolling in a puddle, holding her leg.
"Do something!" Rustle cried out desperately.
"We can't!" roared Chiss. "Mymla's water is useless against this barrage, and my fire -- my fire would ignite the coal and burn the both of you to death!"
"This is terrible!" gasped Rustle. "I never thought the Coalman would beat you two! Elves are -- " He stopped. "Wait! I have an idea!" He started waddling toward them, buffeted by the wind. "The coal can't hurt me! So I can protect you! Quickly -- get close!"
Chiss dived for the shelter of Rustle's trunk. With her bad leg, Mymla had to crawl to him, but she did the best she could. Rustle bent his limbs around and interlaced them, to form a sweet-smelling evergreen canopy over their heads, and stood tall against the pelting black rocks.
Until a particularly big hunk of coal hit one of his branches where it joined his trunk -- and snapped it off!
"Ow-wowwch!!" yelled Rustle. Gnawing wolves were nothing compared to actually losing a limb -- but to his everlasting credit, he did not move. He stood up to the storm and let it play itself out. Though it lasted another quarter of an hour, nothing else had any effect on him.
Possibly the Coalman saw that, because when the storm did end, it vanished as suddenly as it had appeared, rolling back across the plain.
Mymla, who had been cooling her leg with a steady stream of cold water throughout the bombardment, looked up at Rustle with tears in her eyes. "You were so brave," she said, "but what a price you paid!"
Chiss, though, was pointing excitedly toward Rustle's trunk, where the branch had been broken off. "No! Look down here!"
She did look, and so did Rustle, who had been much too busy to look before. And what they saw astonished them both.
Where Rustle had lost his branch -- a new one was already growing!