Christmas Serial in 25 parts
for good boys and girls everywhere
Story by Steve Englehart Art by Joe Staton
December 22: Father Ice
Rustle stood outside Nick's workshop, beneath the Northern Lights -- a solitary figure on the most barren of landscapes. He did not mind the cold or the dark the way an ordinary tree would have -- not with the magic still in him. But he minded the absolute lack of companionship. Nothing grew here.
Behind him he could hear the laughter of the elves, carried out into the six-month darkness like the buttery, warm light through the windows. Perhaps for his benefit, the hillock hadn't closed down again to hide Santa's workshop. But nothing from that house touched him, any more than the light from the brilliant stars or the undulating aurora overhead. Around him he could hear the arctic wind blowing for a thousand empty miles
And then he heard the steady crunch of feet crossing ice.
Nick came into his view, smiling his constant smile. He nodded toward the landscape. "It is quite a change from Lycia, isn't it, Rustle? No horses, no bandits -- Gerondimar reformed after you left, you know. I tried my best to help him see the error of his ways, and I was fortunate enough to have some success. But I'm sure you're wondering how I came to this place "
Rustle was too polite to say that he was only thinking about himself now.
But Nick didn't seem to notice. "After you left me, I kept the bell you gave me hidden for a long time -- as normal men measure time. I was still but a simple priest; I served my Lord, and didn't seek to tempt His wrath by abusing such awesome power. So I went on as I'd begun, helping those in need, in secret. And as the village prospered, the money I gave to people started to come back to me, in the form of offerings at the church. I was able to increase the size and frequency of my gifts, and that seemed enough to me. What I didn't realize was, that sort of thing would attract outside attention.
"The ships that put in at Myra on their way across the empire carried the tale of the 'blessèd village' everywhere. Now, this was in the time of the emperor Diocletian, a pagan, who wanted to undo all the progress the church had made since its beginnings. One day a war ship came to Myra, and it came for me.
"No one knew for certain that I was the secret giver, but the gifts invariably went to those who needed Christian charity. I was suspected, and it was enough. I was taken away to prison, so suddenly that I had no chance to reach the bell. I was kept in a small, dark dungeon -- and the gift-giving in Myra stopped. With that sort of confirmation, I was sentenced to remain in that cell for the rest of my life."
"Oh," whispered Rustle, caught up in the story in spite of himself.
"You may be certain that no day went by that I didn't think of the bell, my friend. I'd had the ability to realize my dreams in my hands, and I'd failed to use it. It became very clear to me that prolonging my life, if such a life was a good life, could not be against God's will. Quite the contrary -- God had not sent you to me so that I might die in a cell. You may believe that I prayed to the Lord for a chance to rectify my conduct.
"Ten years after I was imprisoned by Diocletian, he was replaced on the throne by Constantine, an emperor who once again believed in the God I worshipped. Constantine had me released; I went at once to Myra. The town had changed -- it had suffered in its way as I had in mine, and the spirit of optimism and hope was gone -- but the church still stood. Unused it was, but neither had anyone uncovered its secrets.
"The bell was where I had left it.
"On a winter's night in the year 306 -- as cold a night as we ever knew on the Mediterranean -- I rang the bell and became as you see me now. Well, in truth, my captivity had made me much thinner, but my hair was already white, and other than regaining my former figure, I haven't changed in the slightest in the seventeen centuries since.
"I left Lycia then. Too much was known of me there. I traveled away from Rome, to the east around the Black Sea, and north, into what we now call Russia. I found a village that the faith had not yet reached, and settled in to begin my new life. I ministered to the souls and the needs of the people there for over thirty years, until they began to ask themselves why I had not seemed to age. At that point I moved onward, again to the north and east, and repeated the process. Over a total of four hundred years I moved farther and farther toward the hinterlands of Siberia, and after a time I could no longer disguise myself as a simple priest. Besides my lack of aging, I was unaffected by the freezing winters, just like you. I became known to the people as Dedt Moroz."
Rustle, who understood Old Russian as instinctively as he understood Old Lycian, knew that meant "Father Ice."
"The church naturally believed that I, Nikola, had died centuries before. The stories of my gifts had lived on, however, and eventually I was declared a saint -- Saint Nicholas! A man who is blessed by God." He turned to look back at the half-hidden house full of laughter and light. "I suppose I am," he murmured, and Rustle was surprised to hear his rich voice still touched by a trace of awe.
"They called me the patron saint of children, you know -- because of the way I'd helped the three girls. And because of all the time I spent in Russia, I'm the patron saint of that country, too," Nick continued reminiscently. "It was there that I first encountered my elves. You see, as I walked onward through that glorious wilderness, I was often inspired by the wonders of Nature before me. As I came to learn, they were also inspired by me. Chiss and Mymla have explained that elves are the usually invisible beings who guide the natural elements. As my reputation spread, it reached their ears, and they watched me for close to two centuries. Satisfying themselves that I was not like other people, they finally appeared before me and offered themselves to my service. At the time, I had no need of them, and after passing a delightful six months among them, I thanked them for their kindnesses and continued on my way.
"Early in the eighth century, though, I found myself at the tip of Siberia -- at the end of the continent. Russia was such a vast land, after the apparent confines of Lycia, that I had expected it to go on forever -- like myself. But it didn't. There was nothing before me but ice-blue water or was there? I was just below the Arctic Circle, where the times of six-months-light and six-months-dark begin, so there was a morning, a noon, and an afternoon, even if they all were very fleeting. On clear days, late in the afternoon, I thought I could see another land in the far, far distance. But the sun sank so fast, I couldn't be sure. Now, remember, in those days (or perhaps you don't know this, Rustle) we all thought the world was flat -- that you could sail to the horizon, which certainly looks like an edge, and fall right off. Still, I had no fear for my life any more, so I hollowed out a tree trunk with a sharp rock, and when the summer was as far advanced as it gets that far north, I set sail to the east. I had a good wind -- it took just six hours to reach North America."
"Gosh," said Rustle, "what happened then?"
Nick smiled a small smile, hidden by his beard. Caught up in the story, Rustle had forgotten his sadness for the moment -- which meant Nick's plan was on its way to a perfect climax, just in time for Christmas Eve
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