Christmas Serial in 25 parts
for good boys and girls everywhere
Story by Steve Englehart Art by Joe Staton
December 14: Gerondimar's Tower
After a short while, the jostling of the horseback ride began to lessen -- but the ride continued. They'd reached the mountains which surrounded the village, and were making their way upward along a narrow path. After what seemed to Rustle to be forever, they arrived at a gaunt gray fortress astride a sharp crag. The wind howled; it was cold again.
The four horsemen clattered to a halt before the fortress gate and the last one, the one whose horse Rustle's small cone was hanging on, swung down with practiced ease. He reached as high as he could, to press a stone in the wall that looked no different from all the other stones in the wall, and the gate swung wide. The three other horsemen rode inside, leading the fourth bandit's horse (and Rustle); the fourth bandit closed the gate behind them. As it clicked shut, the leader called out authoritatively, and two guards appeared from a doorway in the inner building.
"Any trouble?" asked the bandit chief.
"None, master," answered one of the guards, a brutish person with a smoker's wheeze. "He's been sitting by the fire -- just waiting, you might say, and talking softly to himself."
"Well, his information was perfect. The gold was exactly where he said it would be."
"Of course it was, Gerondimar," murmured a voice Rustle had never heard, but knew. From behind the two guards, pushing them carelessly aside, came the Coalman.
"I knew where Nikola hid his gold because I come from the future, as I told you," said the person in dirty gray. "I have visited the remains of his church in my time, where cheerful tourist guides pointed out every detail of his daily life in your time. He's quite famous in my time. Or -- " An ominous chuckle. " -- he was!"
"I didn't understand you when you came here, and I don't understand you now," the bandit answered, with less arrogance than he'd shown thus far, "but it's not given to ordinary men to understand wizards. I can only thank you for your help, whatever the reason for it." He gestured toward the room from which the Coalman had just come. "And now, my friend -- we must celebrate!"
"I fear I cannot join you, though I thank you for your help, as well."
"Not join me?" snapped Gerondimar suspiciously. "It is not polite to refuse a man's hospitality."
"Ah, but I have the best reason in the world."
"What can that be?"
"As soon as Nikola realizes his gold is gone forever -- as soon as he abandons his dreams of helping others -- I will cease to exist!"
Down in the village of Myra, Bishop Nikola stood before the chief constable, Dritalos: "I know precisely who has stolen the church's savings! It's your job to bring the man to justice!"
"Well, yes," sighed the constable, who was both an old man and midway through his lunch. "But you're accusing Gerondimar."
"Of course, Gerondimar! He is the chief bandit of Lycia! I saw him with my own eyes!"
"But he lives in a fortress in the mountains. It would take an army to get him out of there. Besides, he's said to have a secret trick to keep his treasure secure, so that even if I had an army, which I don't, I probably couldn't get your gold back."
"You could try."
"I could," agreed Dritalos judiciously. "But I'm getting paid to be the constable, not to get myself killed. When you add it all up -- what's in it for me?"
Bishop Nikola's jaw tightened. What's in it for me? That was what everyone asked in Lycia. No matter how he tried to teach them regard for their fellow men and women, they remained lashed to a way of life that revered nothing but greed. And they didn't even appreciate the things their greed had gotten them; they always wanted more. That was why no one would loan money to Xandarius.
Of course, Bishop Nikola hadn't loaned any money to Xandarius, either.
But he had had a better plan -- he'd thought. He'd wanted to give Xandarius the money secretly, so he wouldn't have everyone in the village coming to him for loans. That way he would keep his church afloat -- which was, after all, his primary goal -- and still be of help to the old man. Oh, he'd had several good reasons for doing what he'd done but in the end, neither Xandarius nor the church had prospered .
So instead of arguing further with the constable, Bishop Nikola turned away, and walked heavily into the noonday sun.
The gold was gone. All his hopes and dreams of good deeds were gone.
He had never felt so disheartened.
In the mountain fortress, the Coalman smiled a ghastly smile. He whispered "The end of Santa Claus " -- and vanished.
The bandits gaped at the spot where the sorcerer had stood. Gerondimar rushed forward and waved his hands in the air there, but encountered nothing. The other bandits glared around themselves, trying to find the man hiding in some corner or shadow, but saw nothing.
At last their leader spoke. "Wizards! We've seen our share of wonder-workers, lads, coming and going on their journeys to the ends of the empire -- and we've helped ourselves to their mystic treasures -- but that one was the grandest. And he had no treasure at all."
"What if it's some sort of trick?" asked the guard with the wheeze. "He's seen the inside of our fortress now -- what's to keep him from returning to steal from us?"
"The same thing that keeps everyone at bay," said Gerondimar. "The treasure room is hidden, and far more cleverly than the good bishop's. No outsider will ever find it." He waved them away, changing the subject. "You there, guard -- ride down to the village and see what that fool constable is doing about our theft. Since you weren't involved in it, you'll run no risk. You others, go find your hiding places in the pass before the caravan from Patara arrives. I'll join you when the sun's a hand's-breadth above the sea."
"We just finished a long ride!" protested one of the thieves.
Gerondimar smiled, a smile nearly as ghastly as the Coalman's. "Obey -- or die!" he hissed.
With more than a little muttering, the thieves remounted their horses, and clattered back out of the fortress. Far below them, they could see the little town of Myra, and the empty plains between it and their mountains.
"I suppose he must have his way," said one, as they turned up the trail to the pass. "He has done well by us."
But not as well as he's done by me -- and Bishop Nikola, thought Rustle. For he had brushed from one horse's tail to another, and rode now back to town.
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