HEART OF CHRISTMAS
a holiday story by Thom Carnell
The wind howled and blew the snow into the air like a blinding, white curtain. Winter had arrived early this year and the world was being held in its frozen grip. Inside the small cottage, a solitary elf sat huddled near the fire. He had a caribou skin blanket pulled tightly around his shoulders for warmth. He looked tired, his eyes burning red beneath the strands of his dangling, blonde hair. The wood crackling on the fire was the only sound in the nearly empty room.
He got up and walked over to the large window at the front of the house. He brushed the dew from the interior of the glass with the palm of his hand and looked out. Outside, he saw several Bavarian style buildings that were set amidst miles and miles of freshly fallen snow. Multi-colored lights on strings illuminated the way from building to building. A large barn dominated the compound and was set at its center. Warm light emanated from inside. The elf stepped away from the window, letting the drape gently fall from his grasp.
“The North Pole. Shit.” He let his head hang despondently. “I’m still only at The North Pole.”
Slowly, he walked back to his spot by the fire. Lack of movement over the last few weeks had made his muscles stiff and his joints sore. It was in times such as these that he really felt his age. Simply put, he wasn’t as young as he used to be and if he didn’t keep himself active, he stiffened up. ‘Move lest ye rust,’ was the expression, he believed. Once he was nearer to the hearth, he sat back down in his chair and drew his furry blanket back around his shoulders to fight off the cold.
He looked deep into the fire and contemplated his situation… and his future. He’d been sitting in this cottage for weeks now. Waiting. Waiting for The Fat Man to summon him. Waiting for Santa. Waiting for him to decide to bring him back into the Workshop after all these years to talk about some special project he had up his sleeve. Some kind of mission.
The elf had worked for The Big Guy before, but it was years ago. He’d grown up in Santa’s employ and had toiled in the Workshop ever since he’d been able to hold a hammer. Time passed and he grew to maturity. All too soon though, he found himself falling out of love with the art of making toys. His heart pulled him in other directions, drew him toward different things. Things like papillas and stellate reticulums. Conditions such as Pappillon-Lefevre Syndrome and the ever-present danger of Periodontal Disease. It had taken him helping a friend on a wild and woolly adventure to decide that he too could question his role in society, to go out into The World and live out his dreams. That he too could be happy. And so, the decision was made for him to leave The Workshop and travel across the snow and ice so that he could go to school to study the time-honored discipline of Dentistry.
Thing was… there wasn’t much call out in the world for a three foot dentist.
And so, after many years of him banging on doors and trying to develop a practice, he had little else to do but return to The Workshop, to do his best to try to fit back in with the other workers. The other elves though… they never understood. ‘High and mighty,’ they’d said of him. ‘Being an elf not good enough’ comments were made and their derision stung him. This was supposed to be his family… if they didn’t understand the desire to follow one’s dreams, who in the world would? No matter what he said, no manner of explanation would assuage their contempt.
And so, little by little, the dentist elf was pushed to the side. Ostracized and isolated. He had no family and even his friends (even the one he’d once helped) had let their relationships fall into an apathetic stale-mate. But Santa had said he’d find a place for him. And one thing that could be said of the old guy, he never lied. So far though, that promise had equated to The Dentist being given room and board, but being left to rot in this little room in this little house while the snow blew about outside.
Waiting for Santa’s mission.
There was a sudden knock on the door and the sound of it startled him. Dragging the animal skin blanket along with him like a ceremonial robe, The Dentist went to the door and opened it. In the hall outside, there stood two elves. One was short with a bulbous nose and a dark goatee. The other was tall with a long face and he wore black-rimmed glasses. And while their faces were smiling, their demeanor was anything but friendly.
“Hello, Dentist,” said the short elf with a noticeable sneer on the last word.
The Dentist didn’t say anything. Instead, he walked back to where he was sitting before the fire, leaving the door open behind him. The taller elf with the glasses nudged it open with his foot and they both stepped inside the room.
“You with me?” the shorter elf asked.
“Yeah?” replied The Dentist as he sat back down in his chair.
“The Big Man wants to see you.”
The Dentist shook his head.
“You ok?” the elf with the Buddy Holly glasses questioned.
The blonde elf nodded, but didn’t move.
The tall elf clucked his tongue and nudged his shorter companion. He pointed to the small table near where the dentist sat. On it, there was a pitcher of thick, creamy Egg Nog. A half-filled glass of the stuff sat nearby.
“Having yourself a bit of a party, eh?” said the elf with the goatee. “We have a minute… Why don’t we get you cleaned up?” He reached out and took The Dentist by the hand. “C’mon, man… Santa’s waiting.”
The tall elf shook his head in disgusted amusement as he walked over to close the door.
Santa and Mrs. Claus were just sitting down to their dinner when the two elves arrived and escorted The Dentist into the room. Cooks had brought in a repast of sliced beef, shrimp, and peas when they ushered him in. It broke Santa’s heart to see the condition the man was in. Gone was the bright-eyed youth he’d once known. This was an elf that had clearly lost his Spirit, abandoned his very purpose. It wasn’t that he looked sick, but more that he had the look of a plant that had been too long out of the sun. Withered. Withered and out of sorts.
They sat him at the far end of the table. The elf with the glasses stood guard by the door so that they might not be disturbed. The short one with the dark goatee joined them at their meal. It took a minute for everyone to settle in, but once they did, all eyes fell on The Dentist.
“I hope you’ve been satisfied with your lodgings,” Santa said as he unwrapped his serviette. He tucked his napkin under his wide chin, the majority of which was hidden beneath his long, white beard.
The Dentist smiled. “It’s been a bit dull.”
Santa smiled as he stabbed a slab of the beef with his fork and brought it dribbling juice to his plate. The action was taken as a signal by the others and Mrs. Claus and the seated elf began grabbing bowls and dishing out portions. The Dentist sat unmoving, ignoring them and staring blankly at Santa.
“Yes, well,” Santa said with a heart chuckle. “We do what we can with what we’re given, eh?” He thought for a moment as he cut his piece of meat. He watched his knife intently as it slid through the cooked flesh. Then, lifting the morsel into his mouth, he nodded at the goateed elf that got up and went over to a nearby desk.
The elf picked up a file from the stacks of papers and manila folders that lay strewn across the desk. He brought the folder back to the table, tabs of paper sticking out like dried leaves being pressed in a book. Opening the folder, he sat back down. As he pulled a stapled together group of documents from it and he handed them across the table to The Dentist.
The Dentist looked the papers over and it was pretty clear what it was: a collection of transcripts from various recorded conversations and meetings; reconnaissance mostly, anecdotal reportage concerning a series of abductions and disappearances that were happening on and around The Island of Misfit Toys. The Dentist knew the area well. He’d been there before. Even met the king there once upon a long time ago.
“This all sounds messy,” he said. “But I don’t see how any of it concerns me.”
Santa looked over at Mrs. Claus. She smiled at him and nodded slightly, silently begging him for his patience. Santa wiped his mouth with his napkin and gave their guest his full attention.
“Do you remember Moonracer?”
Of course, The Dentist immediately remembered the winged lion monarch they’d met when he and his friends once ventured to his island. He remembered him as having helped them, and, in return, they’d helped him by finding homes for many of the island’s lost residents.
“Yes,” The Dentist replied. “The lion king. I remember him.”
Mrs. Claus took a sip of her tea.
“For years, Moonracer was always considered a benevolent leader,” she said, taking over the narrative. “His subjects – the toys – loved him. His hand rested lightly on the rudder of his kingdom. Then, one day, his bride bore him a child, a son, and Moonracer loved that child more than he loved Life itself. It was just prior to this that, I believe, you met him.”
The Dentist sat quietly in his chair. He looked at the piles of food in the bowls in front of him and never felt less hungry.
“A few years passed,” Santa continued. “The boy grew, but… he was frail and peaked. Once day, he fell suddenly ill and was taken by a great fever.” Santa looked into the depths of his dinner plate and his eyes became fixed. Absentmindedly, he batted his peas around his plate with his fork like he was playing hockey. “The boy died soon after.”
“Moonracer turned cruel after that,” interjected the bearded elf. “Many were abruptly enslaved and thrown into his dark dungeons without so much as a trial.”
The Dentist noticed Santa staring at him intently.
“It cannot continue,” Santa said, removing his napkin from under his chin. He wiped his mouth with one corner. He stood, unceremoniously dropping the napkin onto his plate. The linen soaked up the meat’s liquid like a sponge. The fat man ambled over to the window and looked out. Snow blew in a whirling, chaotic flurry over his village.
The Dentist let his gaze wander around the table.
“Again… What does any of this have to do with me?”
Santa looked back and a dark shadow passed over his face.
“Simply put…” Mrs. Claus said quietly. “We want you to go up Silver Mountain.” She stared straight ahead, her lips moving slowly. “Travel to Moonracer’s castle and convince The King to abdicate.”
“Abdicate?” The Dentist asked.
“To give up his throne,” said the bearded elf.
The Dentist looked around the room incredulously. He knew what the word meant. He just couldn’t believe he was hearing it spoken out loud.
“And if he refuses?”
Santa picked up his pipe from a small table near the window and loaded it with a practice hand. He then walked over to the fireplace. He stared into the fire for a moment watching the flames dance and spiral up the chimney. Plucking a length of straw from a broom that was set in the corner, he lit its end by holding it to the fire. Once alight, he held the flaming twig to the mouth of his pipe. He puffed heartily and smoke circled his head like a halo. When the tobacco was burning brightly, he blew the impromptu match out with a plume of smoke> Then, he returned his attention to The Dentist.
“I want you to convince him otherwise.”
Santa sat down in his broad leather chair and took another long pull on his pipe. He let the smoke out slowly before responding.
“Yes… Convince him.”
The Dentist stepped out of Santa’s house and he pulled his jacket tighter against the biting cold. The wind had kicked up and there was a palpable chill in the air. Cold… even for The North Pole. Immense drifts of alabaster stretched across the horizon for as far as the eye could see. Snow was piled high on the roofs and ice frosted the windows of all the buildings.
The Workshop dominated the compound, brooding over the village like a protective mother. Large and shaped like an old barn, the building was like a hearth around which all the other buildings were gathered. To its left were the elves’ quarters: small, squat bunkhouses set in regimental rows. And at the far side of the compound lay the stable for the reindeer.
The bearded elf came out of the house and stepped up alongside him slowly.
“Cold today, he said, trying to sound conversational.
When The Dentist failed to respond, he silently led the way across the snow toward the stables. They crossed the open center of the compound without any further conversation and trudged their way through the deep drifts. The smell of hay grew stronger with every step. As they approached, The Dentist saw a familiar face in the small group of reindeer gathered around one of Santa’s sleighs. With that glowing, red nose, he was kind of hard to miss.
“Hello, Rudy,” The Dentist said once he got close enough to be heard over the howling wind.
“No way,” the reindeer said, his nose pulsing brighter in the dim light. “I heard you were here, but…” He pawed at the ground with his hoof. “Well, heck, man… how are you?”
The Dentist grinned resignedly. “I’m here.”
Rudy walked over and rubbed his head against The Dentist’s upper arm.
“Well, it’s good to see you, man. We should talk later, ok?”
The Dentist looked surprised.
“Are you leading this sleigh?”
Rudy smiled and his nose burned a deep crimson.
“Are you kidding? When I heard it was for you, I insisted on being a part of your team.”
The Dentist scratched the back of the reindeer’s head, just behind the ear.
“Have they briefed you on the mission?”
Rudy shook his head and the bells on his harness jingled brightly.
“Not yet,” he said and shook his antlers. Minute flakes of white fell like dandelion florets. “They said you’d fill us in.”
Before The Dentist could say anything in response, the goateed elf approached and pulled Rudy aside to discuss some of the last minute details. As they talked, The Dentist looked around the stables. It saddened him when he failed to recognize anyone.
“Sleigh’s loaded,” the goateed elf said to him once he was done talking to Rudy. “We put water, some of Mrs. Claus’ biscuits, and there’s hot cocoa in two thermoses under the seat. It should be enough to last you for the trip up the mountain.”
“The mountain?” Rudy asked.
The Dentist nodded as he climbed up the runner and into the sleigh. He made himself comfortable while they harnessed Rudy to the front of the team.
“We’ve business on Silver Mountain.
Rudy nodded, already beginning to calculate their route in his head.
“We’ll head up Jingle Bell Ridge and over Gingerbread Plateau,” Rudy called back over his shoulder. “Once we’re through, we’ll use the ice to cross the water to the island. Then, it’s straight up the mountain.”
The Dentist nodded as he burrowed deeper into his seat beneath the caribou blankets. He pulled the furs about him and gazed up into the slate-gray sky. He knew it would be cold out, especially now with the sun was starting to go down, but the chill in the air felt like it cut deeper somehow. Like the cold he felt outside was being matched by the cold he felt inside.
He took a quick look back at Santa’s house. There, in one of wide windows, he saw a fat silhouette watching them as they headed off into the cold, white wilderness.
Hours passed and The Dentist was left to his own thoughts as the miles of blinding white slid by. He dozed for a bit, but his sleep proved erratic and elusive. While fumbling about in the sleigh, he discovered a leather satchel mixed in amongst the furs and foodstuffs. Inside, there were papers and photographs all focused around King Moonracer. He read the dossier over while Rudy led the way, his nose shining like a beacon in the diminishing light ahead of them.
From what he could see in the dossier, Moonracer had lived a privileged life. Born into royalty, his youth had been spent being molded for the throne by his parent’s most trusted inner circle. Educated and pampered, he was driven to be a good king. The Dentist remembered when they’d met him while on their adventure. He found Moonracer to be a noble and honorable king. He couldn’t imagine what might have driven him to enslave the very folks he’d been so dedicated to protecting, but, The Dentist supposed, grief could oftentimes do terrible things to people.
He continued to leaf through the documents.
He soon grew frustrated with trying to read in the waning light of day and he moved on to the photographs. The majority of them were of Moonracer through the years. Some were of him in his youth, his tail held high. Others were more recent. In all of them though, his long mane swirled about his head majestically and a righteous certainty burned in his eyes. A few of the photographs featured Moonracer and a woman; the queen, presumably. They sat on their thrones amidst an adoring public. Toward the back of the pile lay a photo of Moonracer and the woman holding a small child. Their faces beamed with the pride and joy of new parenthood.
He turned to the next image.
It was alarming how similar it was to the last photo, but the image had clearly changed. While it was the same Moonracer and his Queen, there was an overwhelming sadness to the image. Clearly, something had happened that affected them profoundly. Then, The Dentist noticed the absence of the child.
From then on, that same sense of loss pervaded every photo. Then, that loss slowly soured into anger. The Dentist gathered the papers and put them back into the leather satchel. What he’d seen had disturbed him. The loss. The sadness. It was too much. He stuffed the satchel back beneath the furs where he found it.
None of it made sense. Not the sudden change in the King’s demeanor. Not the subjugation of an already persecuted population. How were they to blame for what he’d lost? And what was up with Santa hard-lining it like that? He knew what they’d meant when they’d said ‘convince him.’ That was the fat man’s way of sanctioning the rough stuff, of going in heavy. Of saying, comply or else. And as the gray sky gave way to night, he didn’t notice when he slipped off to sleep in the warm embrace of Santa’s sleigh.
The Dentist roused when the sleigh bumped over a small log as it raced across the unbroken landscape of the Gingerbread Plateau. He stretched his back and looked out over the sleigh’s rail at the all-encompassing white. The sound of the reindeer’s bells on the air was crisp and the bright tones echoed for miles. Looking forward, he saw Rudy’s light as he continued to lead the way.
The Dentist called forward for Rudy to stop the sleigh. Nature was calling and he wanted to stretch his legs after having spent too many hours cooped up in the carriage. Rudy picked a spot near the low-lying foothills that led around Candy Cane Ridge. He slowed the team and they finally came to a stop.
The wind bit his cheeks as The Dentist walked a short distance away from the sleigh. After some initial ‘stage fright,’ he stood urinating into the snow and looking out over the desolate, white landscape. As he was finishing up and dressing himself, he spied a small clump of foliage poking its head out of the snow. On closer examination, he saw that they had bright green leaves with small purple berries tucked underneath.
He looked back at the sleigh and saw the reindeer team quietly nibbling snow and resting in their harnesses. He looked back at the plant. He loved the small purple berries. His mother had made Jollyberry Pie when he was a kid. He remembered smelling them as they sat cooling on the windowsill of the house where he’d grown up. He glanced back and saw that the reindeer were still drinking. On a whim, he decided that he had a bit of time. Time enough, anyway.
He trudged through the snow over to the plant and plucked a few of its small fruit. He rolled the tiny orbs around in his hand and purple juice stained the skin of his palm. He threw the handful into his mouth, their skins bursting with rich flavor. A nostalgic wave washed over him as the fruity juice washed over his tongue. Looking ahead, he saw another, larger plant and quickly walked over to it.
When he got close, he looked back and saw that he was now several hundred yards away from the sleigh. He looked out over the barren landscape and saw nothing but a grove of trees a short distance away. He couldn’t imagine being so far away would ever be a problem. He bent over and looked at the plant more closely. There were a lot of the berries on this one. Rather than spend a lot of time plucking them off one by one, he drew a small knife from his belt and cut through the plant’s thick stalk just above the ground. The bush came up in his hand like a bouquet.
As he turned to go back, a great roar erupted from the grove of trees and it echoed across the valley. He looked up and saw the tops of the trees suddenly shake, snow falling from the boughs in heavy clumps. Suddenly, the trees parted and he saw a gigantic ape-like creature coming through the tree-line.
The Dentist was running before he realized it. His feet sank into the snow and it seemed like a dream, like no matter how hard he ran, it would never be fast enough. He pushed himself harder and finally started gaining ground. As he came sliding in, he slammed into the side of the sleigh, rocking it on its skids. He quickly scrambled to his feet and climbed inside.
“Never get out of the sleigh, man,” he whispered to himself as he fought for breath. “Never get out of the sleigh.”
He raised his head to call to Rudy to go – and to go fast – but his voice was cut off by the sound of someone shouting in the distance.
The voice, clearly human, echoed across the valley.
“Go!” The Dentist shouted to Rudy. “Go, go now!”
The team took up the slack in their harnesses and the sleigh started slowly moving forward. The ape creature was coming toward them, bent over and loping quickly. The Dentist was able to see the creature clearer now that it was closer and it seemed vaguely familiar. Like he’d seen it before… or had caught a glimpse of it once in a dream. The beast was covered in hair with long arms and short, squat legs. It had a wide mouth, but, oddly, no visible teeth. The creature raised its head as it ran and roared mightily, its call echoing across the glade. The Dentist saw a man wearing a parka and a knit cap perched on the back of the thing’s neck, riding the creature like a stallion.
“Ya-hoo-hoooo!” the man cried again.
The Dentist felt the sleigh slow and finally come to a stop. He frantically looked around, yelling out to question why they’d stopped. He looked back and finally got a good, clear look at the man’s bearded face. Bit by bit, he started to remember… remember who these creatures were and from where he knew them. He remembered their trip long ago, across some of this very same stretches of ice. This was where he and Rudy had their time together. The experience had helped him to finally decide to buckle down and become a dentist. Slowly, the memory of a boisterous companion on that trip and of how he’d once saved the day played across the screen of his memory.
The Dentist saw the man grab hold of the giant ape’s ear and pull back like reins. The beast slowed to a stop and knelt down onto one knee. The man climbed down from his back gingerly and, once he was back on solid ground, he approached the sleigh.
“Hellooo!” he shouted and his voice rolled melodically across the silent ice.
“You,” Rudy called even as he struggled against the restraints of the sleigh harness. “Hey, I remember you. You… you’re…” His nose lit up brightly as the name came to him.
The man pulled a flap of woolen material away from his face and laughed heartily.
“You got that right, Sonny Jim. I am! I am indeed!” he cackled and his voice was deep and resonant. He nodded toward the giant ape. “Me and my bumblin’ friend here have been scouring these mountains for years now, looking to sell or trade all manner of commodities: furs, blubber, even precious metals like gold and silver …” He slapped his thigh and laughed excitedly. “Silver and gold!”
The man deftly pulled an ice ax from his belt and threw it high into the air. The ax spun and glittered brightly in the light. It struck the ice in front of them, the tip of its blade sinking deep into the downy fluff. He pulled it out of the snow by its handle and licked the crystals of ice that were left clinging to the metal. He tasted the substance and appraised its content.
“Hmmm… nuttin’,” he said, sounding disappointed.
An arctic wind came up and blew across the icy plain, the cold interrupting them.
“Storm’s brewin’,” The Prospector said, looking up into the darkening sky.
The Dentist climbed out of the sleigh and did his best to recover his dignity.
“We’re on our way up Silver Mountain,” he tried to explain. “Do you know these parts? We could use a guide,” he said hopefully.
The Prospector laughed uproariously.
“But, of course! I do know this land. And I know it well!” he chuckled. “I’ve traveled throughout these parts the whole of my life.”
Without another word, he stepped away from the group and walked over to where the large ape stood waiting patiently. The thing stood nearly as tall as the trees and had a ferocious – albeit toothless – countenance, but it stood by and waited on the man passively. By its look and attentiveness, it clearly held a deep loyalty toward the man. The animal’s demeanor was more like that of a large dog than a ravaging beast. The creature bent down and listened intently as The Prospector spoke softly into its immense ear. When he was done talking to it, the beast nodded its understanding and turned its back to them. The creature then ran off; disappearing into the snowy hills without issuing another sound.
“He’ll watch over us for afar,” The Prospector explained as he walked back to the sleigh. There were small clumps of snow sticking to his pants leg and boots. After kicking the powdery white off on the runners, he climbed in next to The Dentist and gave Rudy the ‘all’s clear.’ The sleigh lurched forward and both occupants were tossed back into the furs on the seat. Once underway, they settled in for the long ride ahead.
They soon came to the edge of a large, frozen plate of ice which had spread over the sea. The frozen glacier had extended out passed the shore and the group soon found themselves at the edge of the large sheet of ice. Carefully, Rudy led the sleigh onto the frozen surface. The Prospector got out and walked a good distance back toward the shore. Taking out his ice ax, he started chopping ferociously at the ground. The piece of ice on which they were sitting suddenly broke away and the ocean’s flow began gently carrying them away.
“The current will take us to The Island,” The Prospector shouted so that all could hear. “Once we find land, we can follow the path up Silver Mountain to the castle. I’m assuming you want to see Moonracer?” he asked with a sly look on his face.
The Dentist nodded, but said nothing. He didn’t particularly feel the need to explain anymore of his mission to him. From here on, the information was simply beyond anyone’s ‘need to know.’
More time passed and the group drifted along on the ice, the sky moving slowly overhead. The Dentist and The Prospector talked for a while, reminiscing and catching up, but they soon fell into a relaxed silence and just waited. After a while, The Prospector dozed.
The Dentist retrieved the leather satchel from where he’d set it. Opening it, he picked up Moonracer’s story where he’d left off. Toward the back of the file, he found a separate envelope with an official-looking letter inside. The note had come from Santa and was written on his personal stationary. Accompanying the letter was a report of Santa having sent someone else – someone before him – to talk to Moonracer. Perhaps it was for the same reasons. Perhaps not. There was really no way to be sure. The report didn’t exactly say.
The Dentist looked at a photo that was paper-clipped to the main piece of paper. In the picture, there was the image of a reindeer. He was standing in front of The Workshop with Santa and his expression was friendly, but remained one of concern.
“Blitzen,” The Prospector interrupted, having roused.
The Dentist looked up and saw his companion looking at the photo in his hand.
“What?” he asked.
The Prospector tapped the photo with his finger.
“Blitzen. One of Santa’s team. Word is… he disappeared into these very mountains. Word has it that he vanished into the ice and was never heard from again.”
The Dentist looked back at the photograph and scowled. He didn’t like the sound of it. Not any of it. He slipped the letter back into the satchel and closed it.
Why would Santa send him on this mission and not mention having already sent someone? Further, why would he not say anything about him ‘disappearing’ into these very mountains?
He pushed his thoughts aside as he returned the case to where it had been under the seat. Silence returned to the confines of the sleigh, each man returned to his private considerations as they floated on the frigid sea.
It was several hours later when they felt their ice sheet raft run aground on the shore of Moonracer’s island. It took a bit of doing on all of their parts to get the sleigh back onto solid ground, but once they had, they were soon loaded up and back on their way.
Rudy led the sleigh up the mountain, Moonracer’s castle looming forebodingly in the distance. A few more hours passed and they soon found themselves passing through the battlements of King Moonracer’s castle just as the sun was starting to peek over the horizon. They’d slowed to a crawl as they carefully made their way along the narrow streets and into the interior of the palace. High in the walkways overhead, a rag doll and a teddy bear with wings looked down at them suspiciously. They passed a cowboy riding an ostrich who stared at them balefully while a water gun stood nearby dripping jelly.
Rudy finally brought the sleigh to a stop in the middle of the castle’s central courtyard. The stones were wet with morning dew and they shimmered in the low light of the morning. Christmas wreaths, long past their prime, hung rotting in nearby windows. In a place where Christmas was celebrated every day, it was pretty clear that Christmas hadn’t been celebrated here in a long time.
The Dentist stepped down of the sleigh and was quickly followed by The Prospector. They walked up the line and began unstrapping the reindeer from the harnesses. Once free of their restraints, Rudy instructed the other reindeer to stow the reins and stay near the sleigh to guard it.
A loud clomping sound suddenly broke the quiet. It sounded like a gate was being slammed shut again and again by the blowing of the wind. A clown whose head was on a spring which came out of the top of a wooden box hopped out of doorway and into the light.
“Hello! Hello! Welcome!” the clown called, welcomingly. “It’s ok. It’s ok…. All is well. Come along! Come along!”
The Dentist squinted at him.
“I remember you…” he said. “You’re…”
“The Jack in the Box!” shouted The Prospector.
The clown scowled.
“Charlie,” he said scornfully. “My name… is Charlie.”
The Prospector clapped his hands and laughed uproariously.
“That’s right… Charlie,” he laughed and clapped The Dentist on that back.
The clown shook his irritation off like it was rainwater.
“We’re here to see The King,” The Dentist said.
The clown looked surprised.
“The King?” he said. “Really?”
The Dentist nodded and his expression was stern. “Santa sent me… to come see him.” He nodded toward the castle’s highest parapet.
The clown bowed his head at the old man’s name.
“S-s-santa sent you?”
The Dentist nodded again.
“I’ve been instructed to ask the King a few questions,” he eyed the clown suspiciously, “about some things that have come to his attention.”
A deeply concerned look passed over the clown’s face.
“Yes… very good. Very good. But, of course. Well… seeing as it was Santa that sent you… I guess it’s ok. Yes… yes. Absolutely!”
He turned and hopped away.
“Follow me, please,” he called over his shoulder. “I’ll take you to see the King.”
The Dentist and The Prospector left Rudy and the reindeer to watch over the sleigh. They followed Charlie into the castle, taking the grand stairs to the upper floors where the throne room lay. Along the way, they saw more small groups of toys gathered along the length of the hallways. The Dentist noticed a train with square wheels on its caboose, a plane that couldn’t fly, as well as a scooter with two wheels in front and one in back. Further along, there was another teddy bear that was riding a bike and a small, Russian nesting doll involved in a heated debate with itself. From what he could hear, they were arguing the validity of someone named ‘von Clausewitz.’ The Dentist wasn’t sure who that was, but the debaters were vehemently arguing their chosen sides. A small wind-up mouse stood next to them and he eyed the duo with an exasperated acceptance; like this was an argument of long standing.
Presently, the trio arrived at a large door where two guards stood watch. To the left of one of them, a reindeer lay drowsing on the floor, near a low, stone table. The Dentist noticed him, but didn’t recognize him, so, he didn’t let his gaze linger. As the clown knocked on the door with his forehead, The Dentist glanced back at the dozing reindeer. Realization washed over him like a cold rain as he slowly began to recognize the face.
The reindeer looked lazily up at him and meeting his gaze was like staring into an empty well. His eyes were uninhabited windows that no one had looked out of for a very long time. The door before them suddenly opened and a large, spotted elephant poked its head out.
“Hallooooo!” the pachyderm called, sounding congested. “Who is it that dares to bother The King?”
The Dentist stepped forward.
“I do,” he said. He paused, then looked into his eyes proudly, “Santa sent me.”
The elephant stared back, darkly. “Santa, eh?” He squinted at him and gave him an assessing up-and-down. “Welll…”
The Dentist put his hand on the door and pushed it open.
“Stand aside! I am here on official business.”
The elephant stumbled back, cursing. He walked toward the gallery, grumbling. “Well, that’s all you had to say…” then, under his breath, “didn’t have to push me like that.”
The Dentist and The Prospector walked to the center of the immense throne room. More cathedral than ballroom, the place opened into a massive, cavernous space. Slate grey, rock walls rose into space, arching high overhead like a basilica. At the head of the room, a tall, golden chair sat upon a raised dais.
Suddenly, from far overhead, a winged-lion flew into the room through a high window. He was large even for a lion with wide, feathered wings that cupped the air that held him aloft. He circled the room and landed lightly on the dais. Before finally settling onto the throne’s seat, he circled the chair several times, eyeing the intruders suspiciously.
“And, what do we have here, eh?” the lion spoke with an open contempt. “Messengers? Sent by the Fat Man, I presume?”
The Dentist stepped forward, frowning. He may not have much liked Claus, but… at the end of the day, he was Santa and that deserved a certain amount of respect.
“I beg Your Majesty’s indulgence,” he began, speaking slowly, “I have been sent by Sa…”
“Yes,” Moonracer interrupted. “Santa, the corpulent megalomaniac. Yes, sent to assess my stability, I understand… and to judge my ability to Rule.”
The Dentist looked at him blankly. He thought it best not to lie. “Yes.”
The lion laughed and shook his mane.
“As if he… as if you… possess the moral authority to judge me. Him on his candy-striped throne. And you… with your failed aspirations.”
The Dentist took another step closer. He now stood at the foot of the stairs that led up to the throne. He stared unwaveringly at the lion, ignoring the personal jab, quietly assessing this king’s state of mind. Since he was now closer, he could see that there were dark circles under Moonracer’s eyes and his mane seemed snarled and unkempt. There was a kind of desperation to his countenance, like someone barely managing to maintain control. His grief had clearly broken him, crushed his sense of right and wrong and sent him down a dark path of hate and subjugation. But it was clear, even after a cursory examination such as this… he was unfit to rule.
“My instructions were to come here and implore you to lighten the weight of your royal hand on the residents of this island. They look to you for leadership, to shepherd them toward a better life. Like a parent mi…”
“Hold your tongue, Dentist!” the lion roared and his tone soured on the last word. “You come into my home and speak to me of parenthood, of my being unable to rule my people adequately.”
The Dentist looked around with an expression that bordered on disgust.
“Well, you must admit… Your kingdom is not what it once was, Sire.”
Moonracer smiled and a chill ran down The Dentist’s spine.
“You… will tell the Fat Man that I will take his words under consideration.”
The Dentist bowed, knowing this was a lie.
“Thank you, Sire. I will inform Santa that an understanding has been reached, then?”
The lion scowled and got up from his seat. He stalked across the platform slowly.
“But please…” he glared down from his throne at the group. “Stay the night. You are welcome to enjoy the hospitality of my humble home.” He looked up toward the open window he’d flown through. “A storm is brewing, but it should pass quickly. You will be able to get back down the mountain by morning.”
The Dentist bowed lower and thanked him once again. He knew he’d need to consider his next actions carefully. His mission had been specific. ‘Convince him,’ Santa had said and they both knew what he meant.
With all he had seen, The Dentist quietly decided in that moment that the king must die.
Night fell and The Prospector, Rudy, and the rest of the team all sat around the sleigh and drank toddies with some of the toys they’d seen around the castle earlier. As the others partook in their revelry, The Dentist excused himself and, saying he needed to use the lavatory, made his way through the shadows at the back of the sleigh. Once at the carriage, he made sure the coast was clear before removing The Prospector’s ice axe from where he’d left it on the floor of the sleigh. He hid the tool beneath his coat and quickly (and quietly) made his way back through the castle to Moonracer’s throne room.
When he arrived at the large door of the throne room, he found it locked. He pushed against it with all of his weight, but it remained steadfast. At first, he was crestfallen, thinking his mission was compromised. But after searching some of the nearby vestibules, he found an access through one of the vents in the throne room’s fireplaces. Sensing no heat, he wriggled his way inside through the flue and angled down into the cold hearth.
He crossed the room stealthily, keeping himself to the shadows. Far up on the raised dais, he saw Moonracer’s form lounging on his shadow-enshrouded throne. As he got closer, he saw the lion bent over and writing in a large book with a plumed instrument. His pen moved quickly across the book’s blank pages and he spoke aloud the words he was inscribing.
“I saw a polar bear… leading and army of penguins. And their eyes… were lust-filled over their angry grins. And the Fat Man… The Fat Man continues to sit on his throne… his throne of lies.”
The Dentist edged closer. The more he heard him say, the more knew his decision was correct; the King had gone mad and had become a liability. Not just to Santa or his people, but to the world. Clearly, he must be made to abdicate the throne. The Dentist thought back to what Santa had said back at that dinner, ‘Convince him.’
He hefted at the ice ax in his hand, as he edged closer. Better to replace him on the throne with someone new,, then let his madness spread and infect others.
“He holds those elves imprisoned in his ‘village,’ and then, calls me jailer?” Moonracer continued. “What do you call it when the jailers accuse the jailers anyway?”
Without any word or warning, The Dentist stepped up behind the king, raising the ice ax over his head. He brought the weapon down with all of his strength. The blade dug deep into the back of the lion’s neck, just at the base of the skull. The king whirled, roaring out in pain and anger. After tugging the weapon free, The Dentist struck again. The ax sliced deeply into the side of his thick neck. The King’s legs went stiff and he pitched forward onto his face. The Dentist raised the ax once again. Moonracer looked up toward the ceiling, his eyes focusing on the glittering surface of the rock wall.
“The tinsel…” he whispered. “The tinsel.”
And The Dentist brought the ax down for the final time.
The crowd gathered out in the courtyard of the castle was slowly starting to disperse. The Prospector, Rudy and the other reindeer, and some of the toys still remained, huddled over a small fire. Most of the others had returned to their homes and their beds. It was late and the Jollyberry wine had run out a short time ago. The small group that remained had found their way past most of the small talk and had settled into a gentle reflection. The fire was warm and the company was pleasant, so they were all content to sit back, enjoy the night, and contribute to any further conversation as the mood suited them.
Charlie yawned and looked up at one of the castle’s tall spires. It had been a long day for him. The arrival of these strangers had only made it all the more tiring. Suddenly, he saw something moving up on one of the balustrades. He gasped and pointed up toward the entryway to the castle, motioning for the others to look as well. As the group looked to see what he was pointing at, Charlie drew a breath and screamed aloud.
On the stairway that led up to the castle’s front door, The Dentist stood in the moonlight with the blood-covered ice ax in one hand and the severed head of King Moonracer in the other. The Prospector leapt to his feet and rushed forward before anyone else could move.
“Leapin’ Lizards, kid… what did you do?!?”
He might have protested further, but the grave look on The Dentist’s face stopped him in his tracks. The toys all looked up at him aghast. Others, hearing Charlie’s anguished scream, came out of their houses and started to gather in the streets. The Dentist stood looking out over the crowd menacingly. He dropped Moonracer’s head and they all morbidly watched as the head bounced like a blood-soaked ball down the stairs.
Charlie hopped up to the front of the group. His eyes met The Dentist’s and he slowly bowed his head, the sound of his spring twanging was unmistakable.
“Sire….” He turned toward the rapidly amassing crowd. “The King is dead. Long live the King!”
The crowd cheered confusedly, none being exactly sure what had just transpired.
The Dentist walked down the stair and passed Charlie in the Box.
“No,” he hissed as he walked by, his eyes hard and without emotion. “Govern yourselves.”
The Dentist signaled Rudy that they were leaving. Rudy and The Prospector immediately set to hooking up the team. Charlie chased impotently after them.
“Please… please,” he pleaded, his face a frightened, twisted thing. “You can’t leave! Who will lead us?”
The Dentist said nothing. He only silently packed up the sleigh and got inside. Soon, all was in readiness and he gave the signal for them to head out. And in that final moment, The Dentist looked at Charlie and his gaze somehow made Charlie feel as if everything was going to be all right.
And as the sun rose up over the horizon, the sleigh slid off into the night, Rudy’s bright, red nose leading the way.
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