Christmas Serial in 25 parts
for good boys and girls everywhere
Story by Steve Englehart Art by Joe Staton
December 8: The Spirit in the Bark
The moose who had run into Rustle's extra-strong pine needles sat on his haunches as Mymla oh-so-carefully plucked the needles from his nose. Now that he had caught up to them, the shadowed forest was silent, save for his occasional "Ow!" and "Achh!"
When she finally had them all out, she washed the nose in cool water, just as she had washed her leg. Snorting softly but with less pain now, the moose stood up. With his massive antlers, he was much taller than Rustle, and much, much taller than the elves -- a truly magnificent figure when seen in Chiss's firelight.
"As I attempted to inform you, before I was so rudely received," he said in a deep, resonant voice, "I only wanted to help you."
"How do you know we need help? We don't need help! We're doing very well without help!" snapped Chiss.
"Be quiet," said Mymla, who had known the fire-elf a long, long time. "Let's hear him out."
"Yes," whispered Rustle, who had dropped his new needles to the forest floor very quickly after seeing what they'd done to the moose. The only other thing he'd ever hurt in his entire life was Yørgøn, and that was after the gnome had attacked him. This time they had only thought the moose was going to attack, and Rustle was deeply ashamed of the pain he'd inflicted in response. His branches shivered in the night.
But Chiss was not easily silenced. "How can a big lummox like you help us?" he demanded. "How do you even know what we might need? How do you even know who we are???"
"If you'll give me a chance " said the moose.
"This is a trick! A Coalman trick!" blazed Chiss, advancing even though the moose was six times his size.
"Will you let me talk???" The animal's bellow shook the trees.
Chiss stopped, rocked back on his heels. His brow furrowed as he thought about forging ahead then waved a hand with elaborate unconcern. "Go ahead, then. Might as well be fair."
"Thank you," snorted the moose. "First of all, my name is Melchior. I'm the king of this forest."
"I didn't know forests had kings," said Rustle. "Mine didn't."
"Oh yes yours did. All do. But I think that perhaps your king preferred to spend his time among the larger forests," answered Melchior. "As king of this forest, I have a thorough knowledge of everything that goes on here. As soon as you entered, I knew you had. And I knew why you came. And I knew who you were."
"Oh yes?" sneered Chiss. "Then who are we?"
"Two of the elves that live at the North Pole," replied the moose equably, "and the Spirit in the Bark."
"Awww," Rustle sighed. He really had been hoping the moose would prove to be of help. "You're wrong. I'm only a tree."
"You were only a tree, my thorny friend," said Melchior. "But someone filled you with magic, and now you're the spirit within every tree. That's why you can draw upon other trees' powers, and sprout needles to pierce my incautious nose."
If Rustle had had a mouth, it would have dropped open. "No," he said again. "I have the magic -- I can do what you say -- but I'm not a a Spirit."
The moose seemed very tall suddenly, his antlers black against the slivers of Northern Light visible through the treetops. "The Spirit in the Bark is in every tree. It flows through the earth, through the roots, to connect all trees with each other -- it's a part of the Spirit of Life that flows through all of us.
"It's very hard, normally, for those of us with Spirit in the Flesh to see the Spirit in the Bark, just as Life in trees is hard for us to see, unless we watch for a long, long time. By that I mean, we can tell if a tree is alive or dead, but beyond that, we have to wait for a leaf to sprout, or a bud to flower, to see anything happen as we understand the word. You just don't do the things we do to show that we're alive.
"But once you were given the power of movement, it released all the powers that are ordinarily kept subdued in your kind. Now you can draw upon the strength and knowledge of all other trees. Everything that makes up a tree is available to you, making you the Spirit in the Bark."
"I I had no idea," faltered Rustle.
"I still don't," said Chiss. "Mymla and I, we're the special creatures here. We live from fire, and from water. We've put in our time with trees! Who are you to tell us about some Spirit in the Bark?"
Melchior looked at him down the whole length of his muzzle. "I am the king of the forest. I know what the bark knows." He looked at Rustle square on. "I know."
Rustle looked back at the moose, his trunk cocked to one side. After nearly a minute he answered, "Yes you do know." Then he looked away, into the distance, thinking. "But what an incredible accident."
Melchior shook his huge neck, antlers carving the night wind. "There are no accidents. This is a time for good spirits to roam the land -- a happy time -- and it always has been. Long before the child Jesus came into this world, those of Flesh and those of Bark celebrated this season when the Sun turns back north. That's why this time was chosen for Him. And if I may say that's why this time was chosen for you."
Rustle slowly bent two branches forward and hugged himself .
The Coalman had been immersed in his private musings for a very long time when he suddenly stabbed a bony finger in Yørgøn's direction and declared, "I am prepared. Leave me!"
The gnome, leaning back against the cave's stone wall atop a cracked wooden stool, dropped his feet forward but made no move to get up. "I've come this far," he said petulantly. "I want to see what you do to Nicholas."
"Go away." The sorcerer's eyes were fixed on an unseen distance. His face, uplit by his roaring fire, was as chill as the plain outside his cave.
"But -- where?"
"It matters not, though I'd avoid the North Pole. Nicholas's friends are your foes for the rest of your life."
"But why can't I stay, master?"
"Because if you do not obey me and leave, the rest of your life can be measured in minutes. Do you understand me?"
"Uh, yes -- I do," muttered the gnome with more alacrity than he'd heretofore demonstrated. He slid off his stool and, keeping a careful eye on his master, scuttled quickly toward the passage leading outside. In less than a minute, the Coalman had the cavern to himself.
The magician nodded, and turned to face his table of sorcerous paraphernalia.
But out in the passageway, unseen, Yørgøn had stopped. He was eyeing the rough cave wall there.
He began to use his gnome's power to cut into the solid stone