Christmas Serial in 25 parts
for good boys and girls everywhere
Story by Steve Englehart Art by Joe Staton
December 15: Gift in the Sand
The village of Myra looked much the same as it had when Rustle left it. The same sun-drenched calm lay over the land. There was no sign of excitement, or of the constable.
Gerondimar's guard rode up and down the main street of the village. The persons there who knew him looked at him with fear and anger, but no one lifted a hand. With a contemptuous smile on his thick lips, he rode out to the church.
It was there that Rustle left him.
He let loose of the horse's twitching tail and fell atop the olive tree's exposed roots. Then his spirit was back in the olive tree again, watching the guard gallop toward the mountains.
Now he had only to wait for Bishop Nikola.
His plan was simple: he would tell the bishop that the bandits were in the Patara pass this evening, so that a lone person, aware of the secret of the tower gate, could enter and recover the gold. There was, of course, the problem of the hidden treasure room, but Rustle was certain Nikola could outwit Gerondimar. It had to be that way, because Nikola had to become Santa Claus.
As if on cue, Nikola came plodding along the path from town. He was such a jolly person by nature that it hurt Rustle to see him so unhappy. As soon as he came near the tree, Rustle whispered urgently, "Bishop Nikola, I know how you can recover your gold!"
Bishop Nikola kept right on walking and entered the church with a defeated sigh.
Rustle stared. Hadn't he heard him? The tree drew back his branches and shouted as loud as he could, "Bishop Nikola, I know how you can recover your gold!"
The bishop appeared in the doorway, and studied the sky. Then he looked at the sea. What's the matter? Rustle asked himself. "I could have sworn I heard a storm rising," muttered the man in red.
My goodness! thought Rustle. Gnomes can hear me, elves can hear me, reindeer and moose can hear me -- but persons can't!
Now what could he do?
He thought and thought -- and found only one solution.
Using his lower branches (which fortunately, as part of an olive tree, were very near the ground), he would draw a picture of the fortress, with the secret stone to open the gate marked. Bishop Nikola would see it and know what had to be done. Such an undertaking would be the hardest test yet of Rustle's ability to move, but he was certain he could do it.
He flexed; these olive trees were really pretty twisted. He could have had more freedom of movement as a pine, with his graceful, limber limbs, but a pine would have attracted too much attention. As it was, he was glad the church was outside the town, where few persons came.
He bent, and drew in the sand and dirt. At first, the results were unrecognizable, but he was able to rub out the bad parts with his leaves and rework them. Every once in a while, the breeze would disturb his picture, but the wind wasn't nearly as strong as it had been on the mountaintop, and he could go back over any imperfection.
In the end, he had a very serviceable diagram of the fortress. And not too long afterward, Bishop Nikola came out of the church once more.
And walked right past it.
Rustle yelled at him. Bishop Nikola looked at the sky again, and walked on into the village.
Now what was Rustle to do? He could become a cone again, and try to snag Nikola's red robes -- but by the time he thought of that, Nikola was too far away.
The bright Lycian sun was beginning to fall low in the sky by the time the bishop reappeared. Up in the Patara pass -- wherever that was -- Gerondimar would be joining his men, to lie in wait for the expected caravan. How long would that occupy them? Rustle had no idea. He only knew that this was his last chance.
As Bishop Nikola trudged by, his eyes sadder than ever, the olive tree that was Rustle suddenly blossomed with bright red flowers.
Nikola stopped. He stared.
The tree bent forward and pointed a sharp branch directly at the picture.
Nikola's eyes got very wide.
He hurried over, tummy flouncing, and knelt to look at the picture. Then he looked up at the mountains, and Rustle knew he understood that this was a diagram of the bandits' fortress; there was really nothing else it could be.
Then he looked at Rustle again -- but he seemed to be looking past him, at the sky. "This is a miracle," he said fervently. "God has seen fit to make me a present of this knowledge. And I swear I shall not fail to make good use of it, in the service of God!"
"No, it was me," whispered Rustle. But of course, Nikola didn't hear him.
The bishop hurried into his church and stuffed a bag with meat and fruit to serve as an evening meal (there was a reason he was so fat). Then he hurried into town, to the stable of a white horse he owned, and galloped off toward the highlands.
Rustle the olive tree wished him the very best of luck.
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