|When Santa Lost His Beard|
Above a snow-drenched vista, the manic fluster of thirty-six hooves pounding frosty air merged with the neurotic whine of high-pitched bells. All the reindeer, even Comet and Blitzen, were out of puff and Rudolph's nose had cooled from festive red to breathless blue. When was the old man going to go on a diet? each of them thought at least once during the long ride.
"Down boys, down!" a hearty maw drawled, somewhat muffled by the flowing beard that masked it and slurred by the bottle of sherry it had swallowed for breakfast.
The sleigh nose-dived towards a smattering of nondescript igloos, beneath which sprawled the mighty labyrinth of Celebration Island Grotto. Desperately yanking the reins, Santa barely stopped the sleigh from entombing itself in ice and, as reindeer and passenger lurched again into the air, Dasher and Donner emptied the contents of their stomachs in a wide arc onto pure white snows. From a distance, it seemed to the awestruck inhabitants of Celebration Island that an enchanted rainbow had poured forth from Santa's chariot.
"The old man's still got it," an elderly elf remarked from afar as he puffed on his clay pipe and smiled.
"You really shouldn't have eaten all that junk food last night," Dancer hissed to Donner. Legend had it that Donner's name derived from an exotic word for thunder. In reality, the other reindeer had given him the nickname due to his love of kebabs.
"Swing low, sweet cha-ri-ots!" Santa warbled off-key, as his rickety old sleigh keeled and lurched to a clumsy flump in shin-deep snows. "See my deer? Wasn't that bracing?"
Vixen and Cupid dragged themselves painfully to their hooves, wheezing like donkeys that had been kicked in the chest, and collapsed on top of each other.
"That's it!" Santa encouraged. "You go ahead and take a nice nap. I've got Christmas work to do."
Santa alighted from his sleigh with surprising elegance. He was well used to doing so, for the meat-and-pudding flatulence that now seemed to follow him everywhere threatened to injure his dignity each time he rose to his feet. Whistling a merry tune, he rolled towards the largest of the pristine igloos, outside which a grand oaken signpost bore the legend: Stain Nic's halo. Santa squinted to inspect the sign, with eyes blurred by age and festive cheer, and shook his head sadly. He'd often boasted to his elves of being an equal opportunities employer, but hiring a dyslexic sign painter probably hadn't done much for his credibility.
The igloo archway held no door and Santa, with a medley of huffs and puffs, squeezed himself inside feet first. Just as he'd tugged through his shoulders, his entire body rocketed down an icy chute that transported him a hundred feet below sea level into a vast and secret subterranean cavern, lit by enchanted crystals of a thousand subtle shades. Tables piled high with letters, both sealed and opened, stood as lighthouses amid a snowy sea of discarded, trampled envelopes. At the far end of the chamber that glowed in many eerie lights, a rocking chair faced a roaring fire that repeatedly spat embers onto rocky ground.
"Where have you been?" a shrill voice admonished from the rocking chair.
"I'm sorry my dear, I thought I'd take the reindeer for a little morning constitutional."
"Constitutional? Prancer was in hospital for two weeks with concussion following your last 'constitutional'. And Comet needed six months of counselling and group hugs."
"Ah well, those reindeer, they don't know how lucky they are!" Santa laughed. "In my day we never had such things. The group hug wasn't even invented till late last century."
"Last century you could still give me a hug without breaking my ribs. And when was the last time you saw your own feet?"
As Santa pondered this difficult conundrum, the rocking chair swivelled to reveal the slender form of Mrs. Claus, her eyes twinkling in lights of fire reflected by rubies, emeralds and amethysts.
"Come now my snowpetal, beauty is in the eye of the beholder as well you know. And let not that which is shallow seduce the heart through the frailty of the eye."
"You haven't been shallow for a millennium."
"Now that's unkind."
Santa wallowed through the envelopes towards his wife. "Still so many unopened! I can't read as well as I used to, or as fast. Nor are my eyes quite as far-seeing as they once were. Remember when I spied that fallen star a thousand feet beneath the snows and used it to confound old Jack Frost? Even my eagle Gwainor couldn't pierce layers of rock and snow with his vision! Ah Gwainor, dear friend, may you rest in peace."
"No I don't remember. I hadn't even met you back then. And mind the box of wrapping paper, I left one on the floor somewhere after I'd finished wrapping presents in the Candy Chamber."
With a cry, Santa fell to his knees. "Where did that come from?" he wailed, violently gripping his bruised toe as if attempting to squeeze the pain from it. "Did you cast a spell of invisibility on the blasted thing?"
Mrs Claus sighed and stared at her husband with frustrated patience. "Perhaps you should let the elves help you out with the letters?"
"That's precisely what I am doing, but we're short on staff. Remember when Krista and Freyborn fell into the fish-flavoured chocolate fountain last year? While they were organising presents for orphans of the Friddick Foundation? They said that was the last straw. Now they're refusing to work over Christmas. In fact, they've just taken three weeks unpaid leave to attend an Elf and Safety seminar over in Penteza."
Santa finally reached his wife, having negotiated all the hazards of the Reading Room, and opened his arms to offer an embrace. Mrs Claus leaned towards him, sniffed, then pulled back sharply.
"Sherry at six in the morning?" she shrilled, in a tone so torturous that the icicles that hung from the igloo entrance began to cry water.
"Snowpetal, please! I have to get into training for Christmas Eve. You know how it is. All those loving, warm-hearted people like to leave me a gift of a sherry and a mince pie near their hearths by way of thanks for the gifts I bring. Well that adds up to a lot of sherries. So I need to up my tolerance levels."
"I won't have you riding under the influence. You still owe Wizard Adarkmag ten thousand gold pieces for crashing into his tower and bending his minaret."
"Yes that was rather painful," Santa admitted, wincing at the memory. "It is possible that I have developed... a minor sherry addiction."
At that point, Mrs Claus stopped fighting the urge to despair and let her head fall into her hands. She wept until the envelopes that submerged her tiny little feet became quite soggy. Not knowing what else to do, Santa awkwardly rested his hand upon her shoulder. Then, as if he had touched a Muse, inspiration struck.
"Snowpetal, I have it!" he cried, snapping his fingers.
"No you don't," Mrs Claus wailed. "You lost it years ago."
"No, I mean a solution. Remember that witchdoctor I met in Berian back when I still delivered presents to the rogues up there? He ran a little retreat for people who wanted to rediscover their younger selves and start living a healthy lifestyle again. Up there in the mountains with all that fresh air, it's bound to do me good. I might even stretch my legs for a bit of exercise now and then."
"And what about Christmas? Do we just call off Christmas? Shall I get in touch with Jack Frost and tell him he can cover our island in ice and snow for the whole year again? Or should we just give your job to Krampus?"
"No my dear, it's perfectly simple. YOU take over my duties while I am gone."
"Me? But I can't even ride a sleigh."
"It's as easy as falling off the Yuletide log. Besides, you'll have plenty of time to practice before Christmas Eve and I'm sure the reindeer will appreciate having a lighter load to bear. What about it? You've always said you needed to get out more. You could even give out some of your old clothes as presents. That'd save me getting the elves to sew together more Santa Claus gear. They could have Mrs Claus gear instead."
"But, my old clothes... some of them are literally ancient. I won't even have time to wash them all. Who in the name of Captain Keelhail's codpiece would ever want to wear my old clothes?"
Santa roared with laughter. "Dearest snowpetal, most Syrnians would gladly wear costumes composed of cow pats, stitched together with Sorer webs and embroidered with Barghrag's belly buttons so long as they were dropped by a minor celebrity during holiday season. Just ask the Undead Warlock. But your outfits shall make queenly gifts indeed."
"Yes, I suppose my bonnet and mittens do look rather sweet. And my coat is copious and could warm the smallest heart. And we still have all those candles and wreaths left over from my last birthday party. I could give those away too."
"Not to mention your vast collection of mildly kinky boots," Santa added with a wink, drawing a blush so furious from his wife's cheeks that it seemed she'd moved the fireplace several inches nearer.
"No more talk!" Mrs Claus shrilled. "From here on in, it's serious business. You get yourself off to Berian and lose some weight. I've got a sleigh to learn to ride..."
"Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies."
- Groucho Marx