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  The Legend of Rudolf.                                               Page 13 of 22

             More days passed, and the darkening advance of winter brought with it even harsher changes to the hard land.  Santa's team was tested more frequently, as the increasingly bitter snows buried the remaining food, and the wild herds continued their restless march from north to south.

            Rudolf continued with his training, his leaps getting longer, his spins and turns more precise.  He had begun to bound halfway across the training pasture, over two hundred paces in a long float, before returning to earth.  But he had not yet discovered the trick that would allow him to float indefinitely above the earth, as Courage by example seemed to do so effortlessly.  Yet there was no return to the severe looks, the harsh comments of earlier days.  A certain patience had taken hold, a tolerance for the missed landing or the wide turn, an understanding that the practice would continue until the skills were mastered.

            As the days until Christmas dwindled, Santa's other reindeer began to spend time in the training pasture, practicing their jumps, turns, and landings.  They stayed at the far end of the pasture, attended by a few of the elves.  One elf who moved among them had a curiously curved arm; he kept mostly to himself.  Sometimes the reindeer would pause and watch Courage and Rudolf; it was difficult at that distance to tell what reactions they had.  Occasionally, Santa would join them as well, for by now, the final preparations for the longest, most magical flight had begun.

            And still, Rudolf had not yet learned the trick of true flight.

            In the stalls, the other reindeer grumbled among themselves:  "I don't know why she continues to bother with him!"  "Even if he flies, what good will it possibly do; he's so tiny!"  "She should stop wasting her time with him and train with us!  After all, she's the leader!"  Only Cupid defended him:  "He's come so far in such a short time!" she said.  "Perhaps this isn't the year he needs to be ready!" 

            Courage was silent, staring at the door of her stall.

            And in his stall at the end of the barn, Rudolf struggled with himself.  Why couldn't he learn this last trick?  It was all that stood between him and the wonder of true flight.  What was wrong?  And how much longer would Courage's patience last?  He wanted to please her more than anything he had ever wanted.  Already he thought he detected the smallest sign of impatience creeping back in:  a look; a sudden exhale; and ever so slight shake of the head.  He felt that if he failed her, he would be truly alone.  How could he overcome this?  He shut his eyes tightly, forcing back the sobs that threatened to burst free.

            When he opened his eyes again, it was unmistakably there, all around, in and of him.  The light that had begun as a trick on the edge of his sight so many days ago now bathed him dimly, washed over and through him as a spirit that passes on the edge of perception, trailing blessings behind.  Perhaps he tried too hard, it seemed to say.  Perhaps he needed to allow it to be.

            The light winked out.  He was suddenly utterly exhausted.  He heaved a sigh and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

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