Christmas Serial in 25 parts
for good boys and girls everywhere
Story by Steve Englehart Art by Joe Staton
December 6: The Feast of Saint Nicholas
Our scene now shifts to Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands, where earlier on this very day, the harbor was surrounded by -- children.
Those children crowded against each other, trying to get the first glimpse, the best glimpse, of the man who was coming to see them. Their parents stood behind them, with broad smiles on their faces. And behind the small people and tall people, the pigeons perched and cooed along the ledges of the neat three-story houses. Somewhere in that city of bicycles and boats, above a wide canal lined with wintry trees, a Gothic church bell began to ring, and other bells joined in.
The boat was finally here!
It chugged across the harbor, past the tugs and fishing smacks, a bright red trawler gleaming in the low midwinter sun. It was noon, but the sun was just half-way up the sky, as happens in northern Europe now.
The boat hove to before the wide brick quay, and, as the people along the wharves watched avidly, the prow was lowered with many a squeal (of winch and excited child). It touched the land where the softly lapping water touched it. Aboard, a horse snorted, ready to be freed.
Down from the boat, astride the horse, rode a grandfatherly man, smiling and waving.
Some adults breathed the words "Sint Nicolaas " (Dutch for "Saint Nicholas"). All the children shouted "Sinter Klaas!" (Dutch for well, you can guess!). The pigeons cooed and burbled, and cocked their heads.
The man from the boat was a fat man, wearing a red suit beneath the open, red and gold tunic of a bishop. A bishop's peaked hat sat slightly askew atop his white-maned head. His chin was covered with a white beard, so that only a red button nose and laughing eyes were visible on his face.
He rode to the top of the quay, where he raised both arms for silence. In a moment, the crowd quieted, and then the man began to speak.
"Children and parents of Amsterdam -- my friends -- ! It was almost one thousand years ago that I first arrived here, on a boat from over the sea. It is almost five hundred years since Amsterdam and I began to celebrate the spirit of Christmas together on this, the day dedicated to the giving with that spirit. 'The Feast of Saint Nicholas' we call it, but it's really the feast of yourselves, for it's all of you who find the spirit inside yourselves, and give of yourselves to each other. I only come here every December 6th to join your celebration -- every December 6th, for all of time!"
The children shouted their joy, and most of the adults added to it. With a nod and a laugh, Sinter Klaas flicked the reins on his horse and the great steed clip-clopped away onto the cobblestone street. The crowd parted for him, then fell in behind and followed as he made his way into the city, to lead them to their queen in her palace. This was only the first in a series of appearances taking place all across Europe today, which would bring joy to everyone he met.
No one in the crowd heard him mutter to himself, "Hurry back, Mymla Chiss ."
But the Coalman, peering into his smoke, heard him clearly. "At least he's still relying on his elves -- with no knowledge of this tree you set loose, gnome."
"It seemed so unimportant at the time," whined Yørgøn.
"So did you," snapped the sorcerer. "But what's important now is this: that threesome is all that dogs my trail, and with the water-elf slowed by an injured leg, they can't reach this cave before I've rid the world of 'Saint' Nicholas."
"You mean you're going to ring the bell now?"
"You fool! What do you know of the lost arts? To use the bell for a scheme as grand as mine, there must be preparations -- but I will be finished before there is a possibility of interruption."
"Shouldn't you spy on the elves one more time, to be sure?" asked the gnome.
Now Rustle, Mymla and Chiss were camped beside a glorious waterfall, even farther north, where the elves were examining the little tree with intense interest. It had been just a few hours since the coal storm had broken his branch, and less than that since he'd surprised them all by starting to grow another branch -- but now, that branch was almost fully-grown, and covered with green scented needles! Ignoring her own pain, Mymla kept asking, "Does it hurt?"
"Not at all," whispered Rustle. Even though he'd answered the elf's question a good fifteen times, he remained as astonished as she was. He waggled the branch up and down. He waved it back and forth. In all respects it felt exactly as if he'd never been without it.
But was that the way he'd felt before Yørgøn had rung the silver bell at him? The glow of the magic within him was so all-encompassing, he was no longer sure just how he'd felt when he'd been planted in the forest. He only knew that he was all right now.
"Did you grow it back on purpose?" Chiss asked abruptly.
"No," replied Rustle. "I remember wishing I hadn't lost my first branch, but I didn't do anything."
"Wishing's enough," said Chiss, "when you're dealing with that bell." He laughed triumphantly. "That stupid gnome gave you the power to beat his master!" He whirled like a flame in the wind and threw his arms wide, not unlike his own master, Nicholas, before the Amsterdam crowds. "Are you watching us now, Coalman? Your stupid gnome has cooked your goose!"
"Shhh!" cautioned Mymla. "You'll get him to attack us again."
"Yes," agreed Rustle anxiously.
"What do we care?" crackled Chiss. "The three of us can handle anything!"
"Well, I don't know "
"I do. Can you grow another branch?"
"You mean, one I didn't have to start with?" Rustle thought about it. "I guess so."
"Well, can you grow some holly?"
"What's holly?" Rustle had never heard of such a thing -- but, all at once, it seemed to him that he knew what it was, after all. "Those spiky leaves over there?" He pointed his new branch at the dark green trees they'd been passing.
Chiss smiled, fervently. "That's exactly right," he nodded.
"I'm not a holly tree."
"Go on -- try."
Mymla was watching them both closely, her great brow furrowed but she was nodding slowly, too. Rustle looked at her, looked back at Chiss -- looked up at the holly trees.
Looked at his new branch.
Something was starting to grow there.
At first it was just a bud, looking like every other bud he'd sprouted every springtime of his life, but instead of taking on the distinctive needles of a pine twig, it became a spiky leaf. A dark green leaf, hanging strangely from the light green limb.
"That's holly, all right!" laughed Chiss. After a moment, Mymla joined in his laughter, and after another, Rustle made it three.
But his was just a little nervous.