Christmas Serial in 25 parts
for good boys and girls everywhere
Story by Steve Englehart Art by Joe Staton
December 21: Santa Claus
Nick's and Rustle's eyes were locked on each other. The tree was seeing for the first time the "Santa Claus" known to persons everywhere, and Bishop Nikola was seeing his "magic tree" for the first time in seventeen centuries.
Nick had aged enough to turn his beard and eyebrows white, but his cheeks were still ruddy, his eyes even more latticed with laugh-lines. Just as the elves had said, instead of his red robes he wore a red suit, with a similar cap, all trimmed with white fur. His boots had become unadorned black leather, better suited to this land of ice and snow. He was smoking a pipe, or at least clenching it in his teeth; Rustle saw (with a small thrill of relief) that it wasn't actually lit. But one thing about Bishop Nikola had not changed in the slightest: he was fat!
"It really is you!" Rustle gasped. "You're really here!"
"That I am, that I am," laughed Santa Claus. "And you -- " Impulsively, he stepped forward and threw his arms around Rustle in a heart-felt hug, laughing all the time. Rustle started to pull away in embarrassment -- but then he held his ground and hugged Nick back the best he could. I hugged him once, to save him from Gerondimar, he thought. I can hug him now.
When they finally let each other go, Nick said, "I always knew I'd see you again. You couldn't have given me the gift of time if you didn't already have it yourself. Not one century -- not five or ten or seventeen -- could keep me from believing that one Christmas, we would meet once more. By all my reindeer, it's good to hear your whispering tree-voice again!"
Still somewhat flustered, Rustle said, "I guess there was no way to know how long it would be, since trees look the same in any time."
"That's right," grinned Nick. "People down below -- that is, everyone who lives below the North Pole -- "
"Meaning everyone in the world," interjected Mymla.
"Yes, everyone in the world changes their style of clothing over time. If you'd been a human wizard, I would've noticed when the clothing you wore in the third century came into being in a later century, but since you wore nothing but olives, I was left to wait for the answer. Oh, was I ever excited when I heard Chiss and Mymla had found you at last!"
"You needn't think of me as a 'wizard,'" Rustle protested. "I'm only a tree, who happened to be in the path of the gnome who stole your silver bell."
"No, Rustle!" boomed Nick. "Don't you see it? You didn't just 'happen to be' in Yørgøn's path. It was destiny that brought him to you, because you'd already held the magic, 1700 years before!"
Rustle's bark furrowed. "But I only sprouted a few years ago."
"Nevertheless, the way it's worked out, you were also alive in the distant past. Your life now can be seen as your second existence, not your first -- you planted the seeds of your future when you went into the past. But I can see that this is a difficult idea -- as it would be for anyone who hasn't altered time on a regular basis, as I have -- and Christmas is a time for all difficulties to be put aside. So banish it from your mind, my friend, and just accept what's here and now. Please, come into my workshop! Come see what I've become!"
They entered through the cheerful door -- even Melchior and Regina came along. But once inside Rustle stopped once more, this time in something more than amazement -- something more like awe. Before them was a short set of stairs, leading down to a room that extended as far as Rustle could see, ahead of him and to the sides. And everywhere in that endless underground chamber, he saw elves: fire-elves and water-elves and other-elves, dressed in every color under the Northern Lights. Some elves were taller than others, some fatter, some older, but all had the characteristic large pointed ears and enormous eyes, wide hips, thin legs and oversized hands and feet. They were sitting at long, wide tables, one after the other, and working on every sort of thing Rustle could imagine, and everything else he couldn't. There were airplanes, boomerangs, computers, dolls, easels, footballs, gyroscopes, helicopters, ice skates, jack-in-the-boxes, kites, lariats, magic wands, necklaces, ornaments, piñatas, quartz watches, rocket ships, sweaters, tricycles, unicycles, videos, western cowboy hats, xylophones, yo-yos, and zoo animal babies. There were zithers, yearly diaries, X-Caliber action figures, walkie-talkies, violins, UFOs, tents, sleds, race cars, quivers, periscopes, O-gauge trains, Nutcrackers, marshmallow pies, licorice whips, kaleidoscopes, jigsaw puzzles, illustrated storybooks, hobby horses, games, flags, earrings, dinosaurs, cards, basketballs, and ant farms. And there was a continuous hubbub of chatter and laughter and calls for more paint and more glue, but the hall was so heavily decked with rolls of colorful paper, ribbons, fat balls of string and sprigs of shiny holly that the noise was kept within comfortable limits.
Up and down the aisles between the tables ran the youngest elves, taking completed things and loading them into carts, higher and higher and higher, until Rustle was certain everything would tip over into a mountainous mess. But the little elves never lost a single thing as they trundled their carts to a wide circle in the middle distance, where they ran up a spiral ramp (and how could they possibly not tip their prizes out now?). Only when they reached the top did they lift the backs of their carts and tumble the toys into a funnel-like chute.
"Everything is sorted for delivery there," said Chiss. "All the toys going to one street are put into one bag, then all the bags for the neighborhood are put into a bigger bag, then all the neighborhood bags are put into town bags, then town bags in state bags -- "
"Province bags!" yelled a passing elf, good-naturedly.
" -- then those bags go into country bags, then continent bags -- "
Rustle turned to Nick. "I don't know what a continent is, but if it's bigger than all the things before it -- "
Nick just laughed -- he was so much more jolly than when Rustle had seen him last -- and reached into one of his huge pockets. Out of it indeed came the silver bell. "This time around I never lost it, because the Coalman destroyed himself with his own magic in the past, and didn't come back into being when I did -- so he isn't in this time to have Yørgøn steal it. The Coalman wanted me to disappear, but it's he who doesn't exist now. This silver bell is your gift to me, Rustle, and I've held onto it since the night you gave it to me." Carefully, he put it back in his pocket. "It's allowed me to do everything I ever wanted."
The tour of Nick's workshop continued from there, but despite the throng's enthusiasm, Rustle's interest started to drift away. Everything about the hubbub was pleasant, every scurrying elf was genuinely delighted to see the tree who made Nick into Santa, but more and more Rustle realized that hubbub and scurrying were exactly what he'd been hoping to put behind him. At last, the unrelenting happiness of it all drove Rustle to ask if might look around on his own for a while. Nick agreed at once, of course, but the first sign of something other than pure joy crossed his face.
As Rustle walked out of the chamber, out into the cold and darkness, he saw Nick turn to Chiss and Mymla, with Melchior and Regina crowding 'round
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