Christmas Serial in 25 parts
for good boys and girls everywhere
Story by Steve Englehart Art by Joe Staton
December 18: A Night of Silver
The day after the battle at the church, Bishop Nikola was acclaimed a hero throughout the town of Myra. The capture of Gerondimar and his men was a wonderful present for the village. The news that only two guards remained in the fortress, along with a detailed sketch of the secret entrance and the secret treasure room (drawn by the bishop, with no further mention of a "magic tree"), was a wonderful present for the constable. This time Dritalos was more than willing to lead a group of villagers into the mountains, find the gold and jewels and arrange to return them to their rightful owners.
But offered credit and a reward, Bishop Nikola just laughed -- the hearty, jovial laugh he'd enjoyed so much before Xandarius came to ask for his help. He waved his hand and said he'd only done what anyone in Myra would have done, and whether that was true or not, the people were willing to believe it. Even Xandarius nodded his head at the bishop's words, though the deep lines of worry in his face were in no way erased while a grand festival sprang up spontaneously on the church grounds.
And so the day of triumph drew to a satisfying close, for everyone except the father of the three girls and Bishop Nikola.
That night was a dark one, as the waning moon wasn't due to rise until well after midnight. Just before midnight, a rotund figure left the church building and walked reverently to the spot where Rustle stood. "Thank you for this chance," said Bishop Nikola to the tree, and slipped quickly into town.
Making his way through the deserted streets, he soon found the house of Xandarius. Along one side of it was a rain barrel he'd seen a hundred times while making his rounds, and though mounting it without help (such as he'd had from Rustle the night before) wasn't easy for a man of his size, he succeeded through pure desire. A similar effort took him up onto the roof, where, very slowly and quietly, he tiptoed to the chimney. From under his robe he took three bags, each filled with enough gold to provide Xandarius's daughters with their marriage gifts -- half the gold he had in all the world. And biting back his rediscovered laugh, he let the bags drop down the chimney, into the cushioning ashes of the villager's hearth.
For several moments he stood stock-still, listening for any sign of awakened sleepers in the house. Hearing none, he tiptoed back to the roof-edge, and let himself down. Ten minutes later, he was back at his church, cheerfully imagining Xandarius's astonishment come morning. Bishop Nikola knew he'd be asked if he were responsible, and he knew what his answer would be: "It's the gift that matters not the giver. May your daughters live long and happy lives, my friend."
Now, in the silent night, the good bishop stood before Rustle and talked of his hopes for the future. "I received a gift myself from this adventure -- the gift of knowledge. As a priest, I have sacrificed my chance to have a family of my own. What I've told myself is, I am now a part of everyone's family. I hope that's true. I hope they all look upon me as something like an uncle. I know there's very little more precious than family -- that's why a priest's devotion to God must be greater even than that.
"Whenever a family gathers together, the spirit of God -- of life, and of love -- is within them. I would do anything I could, now, to keep families together. I only hope that I can do that for the rest of my life. I only wish that I could do it forever, because I would if I could. That is what I've learned."
He had been talking to the tree as if to a friend, because he knew what the tree had done the night before. Still, no man grows accustomed to a tree responding to him, so he was not prepared for what happened next. The tree raised one of its gnarled olive branches to reveal a shiny silver bell, hidden between the branch and the trunk.
Bishop Nikola reached out and plucked the bell from its hiding place, but the tree wasn't finished. It, too, reached out, and delicately slipped a tiny twig through the hole in the top of the bell -- and rang it.
A sparkling trail of silver light appeared, which faded to red, which spiraled 'round the olive tree and clung to its twisted branches. Then, as the dark of night returned to the churchyard, the tree spoke -- or shall we say, rather, that Bishop Nikola finally heard him ?
"The bell is my gift to you, Nick. When you ring it, you will have your wish."
Bishop Nikola's knees almost gave way. "You you !"
"I'm really not important," Rustle replied. "I'm just someone who wanted to make certain you received this bell. I could have given it to you at any time, but I've learned that its power isn't to be lightly used or casually given. I had to give you your own chance to prove what kind of person you are. You have proved it, as I knew you would, so once I leave this place, you will be the keeper of the silver bell -- again."
"Again?" repeated the bishop wonderingly. "I've never seen it before."
"No -- but someday, you'll understand what I say."
"But here! What is this talk of leaving?" demanded Nikola. "Won't you stay with me, to help me use your gift wisely?"
"You don't need me for that."
"Oh yes I do!"
"No -- you don't need anything now, because you're the giver of gifts."
"Ah," nodded Nikola slowly. "Please forgive me. It is not for men to try to detain angels."
"What's an angel?" Rustle asked. Then he shrugged. "No matter -- I know I'm not one. I'm only a tree." Above the eastern mountains, the moon finally rose into view. Its silver light sparkled off the silver bell. Rustle lifted the bell once more, admiring it, and thinking back on all it had accomplished since he first saw it drawn from Yørgøn's bag. He realized that he would probably never see it again. "I'm only a tree, despite all my adventures -- and it's time I rejoined my forest."
He rang the bell softly, and before the bishop's widening eyes, he shimmered, sparkled, and vanished into the moonlight. Only the bell remained, hanging just for a moment in the spot where he had held it -- then dropping to the dust.
Nikola picked it up. He stroked his long brown beard. "I must spend many years, I believe, meditating on what I've just witnessed -- but for the moment, I have two tasks ahead of me. One, to hide this bell where no one but I will ever find it. And two, to think of what I can say to Gerondimar and his bandits tomorrow, when I try to bring the peace of God to their souls ."
email Rustle, Steve, and Joe! We'd love to hear from you!