Legend of Rudolf. Page 8 of 22|
So it was that the first of Santa's great reindeer forage trains made its way into the wild countryside. Santa consulted with Courage, trusting her to point the way to the best places to drop the bundles of hay, lichen and reindeer moss – in sheltered areas, and at the junctions of unseen trails.
The team worked tirelessly through the afternoon, their job aided only slightly by a pale, watery sun that had finally appeared, low in the southern skies. At length, they were down to their last few forage bales. Courage led the way to a last sheltered area, a small stand of fir trees with jumbled rock clustered about their feet.
The chief elf grunted as he hoisted the last and – it seemed to him – heaviest bale from Courage's sleigh and staggered under it toward the shelter. Just as he reached the nearest trees, however, a white explosion sent him sprawling under a mass of snow, the bale bursting and showering him with forage. Something small and swift raced past the startled team – small and brown and with a dash of red. It took refuge behind a small clump of low trees in the middle distance.
The surprised silence was interrupted by a stream of mutterings and sputterings coming from the chief elf, whose feet and arms were the only things the rest of the team could clearly see. These were busily engaged in flinging snow and bits of fodder in all directions. Santa laughed, a big booming laugh, and the rest of the team joined in. A couple of other elves chuckled their way over to where the chief elf lay.
Santa jumped out of the sleigh and walked up to Courage. He undid her bell-laden traces. "Go fly over to the youngster behind the trees," he said quietly, "I've a feeling he needs our help."
Courage nodded. She moved a few paces away from the sleigh; then, with little apparent effort, she bounded into the air and rose high above the clearing. Santa watched, amazed still that a creature twice the size of ordinary reindeer could cut through the air so silently. For although Santa too used magic, he did not comprehend all its boundaries, living of and within it just as creatures of all times live of and within their worlds. Santa watched as Courage floated silently over the darkening plain, up and over the little clump of trees and the tiny creature hiding within, then coasting down, down, to land with a soft thud on the snow behind.
The quiet sound jerked the little reindeer around as though he'd heard a rock shatter an ice field. He stood on four stiff straight legs, staring at Courage. He had never seen another reindeer that size. He simply stared and stared, afraid to move, afraid even to take his eyes off the huge creature whose snorting breath made large white clouds in the cold air.
If the little reindeer looked surprised, Courage looked equally amazed. She had never seen anything quite like the small one facing her. "Where have you come from, little one?" she breathed slowly. Where indeed? she thought. And where is his mother, besides? Poor little one, he looks so forlorn. Something terrible must have happened for her to have left him. But what? She took a small step toward the little creature, who leapt back, tossed his head, and stamped one small foot. She peered at him, trying to bring him to sharper focus in the gloom. There was a redness of some sort about his head, not fully defined to her even at this short distance. She shook her head. What else had she seen? Was there some kind of glimmer, a glow within that redness?
But it was gone, winking out – if indeed it had ever existed.
Abruptly, the little creature raced away, leaping from the clump of trees and darting leftward across the open plain. "This will never do," Courage muttered, and with two long and gentle bounds she flew over the speeding form and landed directly in front of where it was headed.
Again, the little reindeer stopped short and wheeled about, as if to run off again. "Wait!" Courage called. "Wait, little one! There's no need to run! I am a reindeer, just as – "
But she stopped abruptly, her voice seized by what she was seeing. For the little reindeer had turned his head back to look at her over his shoulder, in amazement at the discovery of speech, of his understanding of it, of her use of it. She stared. Reindeer he was, all right, young and small of stature, with newly-formed antlers and grey-brown coat. But she could not stop looking at his face. "By the stars, child, what has happened to you?" she said softly. She had never seen a head like this, the nose bulbous and red, crusted with odd growths. How could he even see around such a thing? Without thinking, she took a small step back, still staring at it.