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  The Legend of Rudolf.                                               Page 18 of 22
 

             That frightful night was the longest Mrs. Claus had ever known.  The wind screamed against eaves and shutters, the storm itself a blank pitiless face of destruction, hurling itself against buildings made suddenly fragile.  She could not shut it out.  She could not shut it out.   She could do nothing but hear those voices chattering high above the plain, seeming to signal the return of evil into the world.  She made hot cocoa, absently checked and rechecked the preparations for the Christmas evening feast, all the while hearing those voices and thinking He said his magic would see him through.  But what if it doesn’t?  What will happen to the rest of us?  Will those voices claim us, too?

            She tried to read a book, the title of which she later would not remember, sitting in the large parlor easy chair.  The ticking clock intruded.  She stoked the fire, tried not to look at the time.  The storm wailed on.  At length, she managed to drop into a shallow, restless sleep, its peace broken by shape-changing beings that swam out of the dream-void, wings, shrill cries, hard clouds on the moon – and then starting into wakefulness, a glance at the clock telling her that only a small space of time had passed, after all.  She sighed then, tried to think of tomorrow’s festivities, the happy tired faces around the tables in the celebration hall – but always over everything the murderous storm howled.  She went to the kitchen, fixed herself a mug of hot cocoa and returned to the parlor, the house creaking and rattling around her.  She settled back into the chair and waited.

            When next she awoke, the fire had died to a red glow.  Her eyes traveled to the parlor window.  Could it be --?  The barest hint of grey light intruded on the darkness.

            Instantly she was awake, on her feet, at the window.  Why, it was nearly dawn!  And no sign of the sleigh!  What had happened?  She listened:  the storm had nearly spend itself.  But they had not returned.  Where could they be?  She peered into the predawn gloom.

            She saw something then, at the edge of sight:  the tiniest of lights, bobbing and dancing.  Was that --?  Her heart leaped, for now she saw the tiny outline, the sleigh defined, pulled by eight shapes at once small yet so familiar even at that great distance – and at its head the ninth, tiniest shape of all, the one that glowed, speeding the team unwaveringly home.

            Then those marvelous bells, the bells of Santa’s compound, began their joyous ringing, welcoming the tired team home.  She could see the elves, now, pulling on the bellropes with all their strength, other elves jumping up and down, waving their arms.  She had never heard the bells rung like that, she realized, as she threw her coat on over her flannel nightgown and stepped into her boots; realized, too, as she opened the door to greet the landed sleigh that the elves had been as worried as she had been.

            Santa was already out of the sleigh and moving amid a flurry of elves, who were busy removing the traces from the exhausted team.  She could see him pausing at each animal, talking quietly and earnestly.  Last of all he spoke with Rudolf, and the little animal bowed his head, the glow fading as the morning light chased away the gloom.  Santa raised his head at last, saw Mrs. Claus on the porch, and boomed – as he always did upon his return – “A cup of hot cocoa for me, if you please, Mrs. Claus!”  And leaving the team in the skilled care of the elves, who would see to their rubdowns and rest prior to the magnificent evening feast, Santa strode to the porch, wrapped Mrs. Claus in a huge bear hug, and magical husband and magical wife entered their home.

***

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