Christmas Serial in 25 parts
for good boys and girls everywhere
Story by Steve Englehart Art by Joe Staton
December 13: Myra
The sound of the bell seemed to go on forever -- and perhaps it did. Just like the time Yørgøn gave Rustle the power of movement, a sparkling trail of silver light appeared, which faded to red, which spiraled 'round the little tree and snagged on his branches. But this time the light blinded Rustle, and the sound deafened him, and the only thing left to his experience was the feeling of flying like a bird.
About the time he was beginning to forget about time, he felt a pressure on his roots, and after a little while he realized that the time of flying was done: he was back on the ground. But this ground was a lot warmer than the glacier he'd been on. As the red light grew fainter, and the sound of the bell dwindled away, he saw that he was indeed in an entirely new place. Having little experience with persons, he couldn't tell immediately if the ones he saw in the distance were from the year 282, but he had no reason to doubt the power of the magic bell. This had to be the village of Myra, in the province of Lycia, 1700 years in the past.
He was standing on a rough plain, beside a small white brick house about half a mile from other buildings of its type. It was decorated with very fancy carvings, of persons with beards. The other buildings, not nearly so fancy, clustered close together between Rustle and the bright blue sea. He had never seen the sea before, and watching it for too long, bobbing and weaving out there, made him dizzy. He twisted away toward a medium-sized river (not nearly so big as the one near his home woods) which cut sharply through some tall nearby mountains, ran right past the one house, and flowed on through the town on its way to the ocean. Looking at the mountains, which enclosed the plain on three sides, he saw hundreds and hundreds of trees. He reached out to them with his spirit, and absorbed their habits and their names. Apricot trees. Olive trees. Used to living in the dusty heat.
He looked down at himself, and saw a cold-weather tree, one that would stand out in this place and time. So he squinched up his branches, concentrated, and changed to look like the olive trees, the most common residents. He liked the new form: though the bark was thick and the limbs were twisted, the spirit was smooth and warm.
Next, he took the bell, still hanging from the end of one branch, and placed it up against his trunk where another branch joined it. Then he carefully bent the second branch down over the bell to hold it hidden from all eyes.
Just at that moment, he heard voices from inside the house. Looking in through a window, he saw two persons, in the process of walking outside. One was dressed in flowing red robes which were tied with a long white sash. He was not especially tall, but he was most especially fat. He looked to Rustle, who knew little of persons, really, like a giant chipmunk. The other person was thinner, older, and far more dejected. The fat person, whose eyes had those crinkles around them that showed he laughed a lot, wasn't laughing now. His arm was around the other person's shoulders.
"I wouldn't worry, Xandarius," he said. "These matters have a way of working themselves out."
"I take comfort in your faith, Bishop Nikola," said the other -- and Rustle felt his twisted limbs flex with excitement! He had found Santa Claus! This person was younger than the elves had said -- his beard was a vigorous brown, with not yet even a trace of white, and he spoke a language new to Rustle (though of course he understood it). But it was definitely their Nick!
Bishop Nikola spoke in a kindly fashion. "Go on home to your family, my friend. I'm certain that God will provide."
"Bishop, God provided me with three daughters, each a year apart. They have been the three lights of my life, but now they all wish to marry within the same year, and you know the custom -- I must give each of their husbands a gift of money to help them begin their lives together, or the marriages cannot take place. If that were to happen, my good name -- my innocent daughters' name -- would be disgraced. Then they would never marry, and I cannot continue to support all four of us! I shudder to think what terrible fate would befall them then! But my investments in the grain trade have not succeeded -- I do not have the money for one to marry, let alone all three. I was hoping I was hoping, Bishop, that you could lend me the money."
"I'm sorry, Xandarius. Truly I am. But my way of life is even harder than yours. What little money I have must be saved to keep my young church alive."
"I understand. I do. I would never have asked you, except I've asked everyone else. And they've all said no. 'What's in it for me?' they said." The old person shot an angry glance at the harbor. "If only more of the Greek riches carried by the ships that put in here would stay here!" But the fire burned out as quickly as it had flared, and he walked away, head hanging.
Bishop Nikola gazed after him, stroking his brown beard, for a long minute. Then he went back inside his building, and Rustle next saw him when he appeared at the window to look out, as if making sure he was unobserved (naturally, he paid no attention to a tree). Satisfied, Nikola moved to a carving on the far inside wall, fiddled with it somehow (his broad back blocked Rustle's view), and opened it to reveal a small hidden hole. Inside was a pouch filled with something that clinked when Nikola picked it up. He stared at the bag, stared in the direction of the front yard where he'd had his talk with Xandarius and there was a smile on his face. It was the smile Rustle had thought belonged there -- the smile of a jolly and mischievous person. He put the pouch back and closed the carving, whistling a cheerful tune. Then he left the building and walked toward the sea.
When Nikola had vanished, Rustle heard the clumpfing of hooves in the nearby forest. Horses' hooves, he thought -- not reindeer or moose. The riders (there were four of them) burst out into the open and rode hard for the house. They reined in between it and him and leapt to the ground, their boots kicking up small clouds of yellow dust. "Building his church outside the city was the priest's big mistake!" laughed the tallest one, who seemed to be their leader. "Keep watch!"
The tall person strode into the building and went straight to the carving. His hands moved to the same location Nikola had chosen. The carving popped open, and a laugh of triumph escaped the intruder as he grabbed the pouch and stuffed it into his tunic. "Just like the wizard said!" Rustle heard him exclaim as he ran back outside.
At that moment a shout came from the shore. Trying not to be obvious, Rustle twisted his gnarled form and saw Nikola surging toward them, as fast as he could. But although the bishop's weight seemed no hindrance to his speed, he couldn't reach the thieves before the leader leapt to his mount and spurred it away. "Ride!" he shouted. But Rustle had known what he had to do from the moment he'd first seen them. He put his spirit into a single cone -- a very small pine cone -- and drew back the olive branch on which it sprouted. As the three lesser bandits began to move -- Ptang! he flung himself toward the nearest one, and was caught on the horse's flaring tail.
Then he took off on a ride he would never, ever forget.
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