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  The Legend of Rudolf.                                               Page 14 of 22

             The next day, he and Courage took up their usual places at one end of the practice pasture.  One by one, the other reindeer filed into the other side of the clearing and began their practice as well.  They were accompanied this time by many elves, and by Santa, too:  these were some of the last practice times before Christmas.

            It was late morning, and the pasture was full of activity, when Rudolf finished one more turning bound and trotted back toward Courage.  This time, however, instead of stopping to listen to what advice Courage could give, he trotted right past her, head down, to a point near the center of the clearing.  She watched, puzzled at first, as he pawed the ground, tossed his head, and fixed his gaze on a point above and behind her.  She turned and followed the direction of his gaze, saw a tall stand of fir trees at the clearing's edge, saw and in a flash understood what those trees, that gaze meant, and understanding wheeled about to acknowledge, to encourage and to warn, but he was already off, a few steps, a quick canter, a bound, as trained, so precise and true, and then up, up in a graceful arc that would carry him into a flight that would not end until he chose it to end, graceful and soaring

-- but not high enough, the trick not yet learned, the arc interrupted and faltering, the small form crashing into the unforgiving sharp branches snapping against grey-brown hide, the creature suddenly made earthborne, heavy, clumsy, falling through snow-laden branches to land with a sharp thump! in a shower of snow.

            The sound interrupted the others' practice.  They watched the little reindeer shake himself off and slowly walk back into the clearing.  A few of them realized what had happened, and a couple of snorts and harrumphs! rang across the clearing, followed by chuckles from among the elves.

            Seemingly unconcerned, Rudolf trotted slowly past Courage to the same spot near the pasture center, pawed the ground yet again, looked up, sighted the distance, and was off again, arcing through the air.  And again, the leap fell short.  Again, the crash into the unforgiving trees.  Again, the bouncing fall to earth.

            This time, the little form took longer to emerge from the base of the trees.  When it did, it trotted a bit more slowly.  It walked head down past Courage, refusing to return her look.  Some of Santa's reindeer pretended for a moment to be busy with their practice.  But when Rudolf set himself in the same spot a third time, pawing the ground and measuring the distance, the other reindeer dropped their pretense and watched.  Stillness set in over the pasture. 

            When the third try ended as had the first two, and the grey-brown form emerged with red in places other than its nose, Cupid cantered over to Courage, watched with growing alarm the small determined form take its place, set itself, and try again, only to fail a fourth time.  "Stop him," she whispered, as the bruised and bleeding form walked past, the ragged sobbing breath now the only sound to be heard across the pasture.  "You must stop him!"

            Courage watched Rudolf set himself a fifth time.  "I can't stop him," she said, her voice catching:  "None can.  He is finding his heart."

            A fifth try.  A sixth.

            None in the pasture could fathom how this littlest of reindeer, this mangled runt, was staying on his feet.  As he prepared yet again, Santa stepped forward from among his team, striding toward Rudolf, to stop what appeared to the rest of them to be a journey to the margins of madness.

            Rudolf was exhausted.  Six tries, six failures.  Branches had pierced him; rocks hidden under the snow had torn at him.  His breath was coming in great gasps.  He heard the sound of approaching footsteps, and part of him wanted to be gathered in, to be told that he had tried his best.  But the hard seed inside him refused to be gathered in this way:  he must try once more.  He looked up a seventh time.

            Through his exhaustion, then, he saw it once again:  the light, bolder and brighter than ever.  It seemed to dance above the trees, pulling him upward and onward.  And suddenly his legs seemed light, light and strong like feathers; and skills set by weeks of training converged, became whole; and he was off, first trotting, then leaping up, up, high over trees, pasture, compound, the light pulling him onward and upward, a great soaring expression of flight.  The pasture rang with shouts and cheers as Rudolf turned and glided over them, flying toward the ever-dancing light; while, far below, amidst the cheering and laughing elves, one with a curiously curved arm yet watched the flight, eyes unblinking, a small and private smile lighting his face.


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