Christmas Serial in 25 parts
for good boys and girls everywhere
Story by Steve Englehart Art by Joe Staton
December 2: Yørgøn
When Rustle came to the top of the hill, waddling lump-thump! lump-thump! on the crackling winter grass, he saw a beautiful lake below him, covered with winter ice, and another valley -- this one completely stripped of trees. Down the hillside in front of him were row after row of black stumps -- and marching straight through them, away, was Yørgøn.
"Wait," whispered Rustle as loudly as he could. He understood whatever persons said to him, whatever language they spoke, because that's how a tree is, but he wasn't used to talking back. The persons who walked through the woods never seemed to hear. "I'm getting used to using my limbs, really, Yørgøn, but I still can't move as fast as you."
His voice was carried by the hilltop wind and the gnome turned 'round to look at him. Yørgøn seemed annoyed, but he slowed his gait for a few steps, and then stopped altogether -- though his roll-tipped shoe tapped updownupdownupdownupdown a hundred times a minute.
"Did you know walking is easier if you swing your branches while you shuffle your roots?" Rustle asked after he made his way down to the gnome.
"I imagine so," said Yørgøn. "Now let's go." And he started off down through the stump-littered hillside again.
"Can't we wait a while?" asked Rustle. "I've spent all my life standing still!"
"We don't have any time, tree. Christmas always comes faster than anyone thinks, and so does night."
"Christmas?" asked Rustle, curious, but also hoping to stall for more time. "What is Christmas?"
"None of your affair," snapped Yørgøn. "Shouldn't have mentioned it anyway. Now let's stop this continual chattering and walk on!"
"Do you have to meet someone?" Rustle asked, and he was beginning to wonder if he'd done the right thing. He had wished he could get away, but maybe this wasn't what he'd had in mind.
"Maybe I do and maybe I don't," replied Yørgøn, "but you'll find out soon enough. Now I want you to start walking!"
Half an hour before, walking was what Rustle had wanted more than anything. Now he felt rooted to the spot, and not by his roots -- it was by his growing desire to have the little person go on without him. He remembered, dimly, some of those persons with bags on their backs who walked through his valley, and the big ones telling the little ones never to go away with persons they didn't know. Did that apply to trees, too? He tried to stall for more time. "How, uh, did that silver bell make me move?"
"It's magic, I told you. It lets you change things. I made your roots grow faster, 'til they were strong enough to carry you, and then gave all your limbs the power of movement."
"Why did you do that?"
"Are you coming with me or not?"
"Why did you do that?" Rustle repeated, trying to keep his whisper from quivering.
Yørgøn put his hands on his hips, the sleeves sliding down over them. Lips pursed, he made up his mind. "All right -- you're not coming. So now I'll tell you what you want to know. I helped you move because every time night falls on my journey, I have to burn something."
"B-burn -- ?" It was the most terrible word in Rustle's vocabulary.
"Yes, burn. It's part of the pact I made with my master. He calls himself the Coalman -- he likes coal, you see."
"But c-coal comes out of the g-g-ground. The p-persons who came to my valley when I was just a s-s-sapling brought in big ugly machines with big ugly c-c-claws and ripped up the ground for a long time. They pulled out hunks of b-black, crumbly stuff, and carried it away. That's got n-nothing to do with t-trees."
"Charcoal does!" cackled Yørgøn. "Charcoal is what's left after the wood's been burnt!" He looked at Rustle haughtily. "And, as a gnome knows, the coal you're talking about is made by fallen trees and plants over a long time. If I wanted to, I could use the silver bell again and turn you into earth-coal in about a minute. But I'm not supposed to be using it. Uhh, too much, that is."
"Then why did you use it on me? If all you wanted was a tree to burn, why use the silver bell to make me walk?"
"Because most trees grow in groups, like you did. They have terrible memories, but if I burnt you in front of your group, they'd remember that. Now that you've left them, though, they'll soon put you out of their minds. And that's good for me in case anyone should come after me." He reached deep into his bag again, and pulled out a long wooden match. He struck it along his knobby nose -- it flared to an evil flame. "I wanted to get farther along, but night falls early this far north, so it's close enough -- and there are no trees in this valley to care what happens to you." He thrust the match at Rustle --
-- and Rustle hit him hard on the head with his biggest branch! WHOCK!
"Døøglin haø!!" screeched Yørgøn, astounded, and dropped the match. It hissed as it hit the frozen ground and went out with a burst of foul smoke.
"I told you I was getting used to using my limbs!" shouted Rustle, and hit him again. Then he turned and started to lumber back up the hill, back toward Bumpyhead and Boughbent and Threebranch. But despite his growing skill in movement, he was no match for someone born to move. Yørgøn caught up to him before he'd gone a third of the way to the top, and tripped him with a well-placed boot. Ka-RASH!! went Rustle, down on the ungiving ground. He struggled and pushed himself over and looked straight into Yørgøn's eyes; now he and the gnome were the same height. Yørgøn laughed as he plucked another match from his bag.
But before he could light it, a wave of water from behind Rustle hit Yørgøn full in the face, sending him sprawling down the slope. Away he slid on the water, thumping into the weathered tree stumps and shouting distress and fury, until finally the water dispersed and he slid to a muddy halt. He got up, shaking his head like a hosed-down dog, but when he looked up the hill again, a look of fear replaced the fury. And as Rustle, unable to twist around to see behind himself, watched in amazement, Yørgøn suddenly turned and bolted away as fast as his skinny legs could carry him.
Now, at last, Rustle heard footsteps approaching him across the frozen ground, from behind. Two sets of footsteps. He told himself that whatever had attacked the gnome must be his friend, but he was still unable to turn and see, so he couldn't be sure. He had to wait
Then they came around into his view --
"No, we're elves," said the woman.
"Nick sent us," said the man. "You know -- 'Santa Claus.'"