Yo-ho-ho’s vs Ho-ho-ho’s
Copyright 2016 by Ian Pogue
The sleigh twisted and turned elegantly through the sky, slicing through soft cloud and responding quickly to the movements of the reindeer. Despite being hundreds of years old, it was still in good shape. Father Christmas glanced over at its right side, where a miscalculation on a landing in Hong Kong had meant there was a large scrape through its red paint. Too many new skyscrapers, he thought, it was hard to keep track. He’d get the elves to paint it when he got back to the north pole. Apart from that, there weren’t too many repairs needed. Perhaps he needed another cushion, or at least a softer one. The seat seemed to get harder every year, though maybe it was his bottom getting more bony as he got older. He grabbed another mince pie from the stash next to him and shoved it in his mouth. That should help. No matter how many he ate, he still firmly believed that there was no situation that couldn’t be improved by eating a mince pie.
The last thing to test was whether the runners worked on landing. That was the most important thing. He’d been caught out thirty-two years ago, when the bolt connecting the left runner had broken off, causing the sleigh to skid off a roof and fall onto a car below. He’d thought he managed to get the sleigh back into the air again before anyone saw him, but still. What if he hadn’t been able to? He’d also felt very guilty about the car he’d crushed.
From then on he’d done these checks every year. One month away from Christmas he roused the grumbling reindeer and took the sleigh out from the north pole. He found he enjoyed the flight. There was no pressure to deliver the presents in a stupidly short amount of time, and he didn’t have to wear his ridiculous red uniform. It was really itchy, and every year he came back from his Christmas Eve flight and found himself scratching for a month. He’d thought about changing it but his wife said it was tradition, that how would people know it was Santa Claus without the red suit. Otherwise it was just some fat old man breaking into your house. He’d pointed out that no-one saw him anyway, so it didn’t matter, but somehow he couldn’t win the argument.
Still, this was better. Elasticated fur-lined jogging pants, a thick cable knit jumper and a puffa jacket. Woolly hat. Comfy and cosy. In a moment he’d land the sleigh to check the runners, and also give the reindeer a rest and a bit of food and water. First he just wanted to fly some more, feel the wind through his beard. Despite the vast bulk of the sleigh, once it was airborne it was as if he was a bird, born to fly and feeling totally at ease in the air.
Despite their moans the reindeer seemed to enjoy this test run too. The magic flakes that made the reindeer fly were rubbed into them by the elves, though as wind and rain stripped the flakes away, the sleigh could lurch and bump dangerously, threatening to send presents flying out. He’d learned to keep magic flakes in the back, just in case the weather was particularly bad and he needed to top up the reindeer for the final push. The magic kept them young, and whilst they still aged, just as Father Christmas aged, it was slowly, almost imperceptibly. Their hooves might ache, and their fur grow whiter, but they could still dance and skip through the sky like young reindeer through the polar snow.
The sleigh could move fast. It had to. Starting out over the polar icecap, in seconds they could be over Iceland, or crossing the plains of northern Canada. Another burst of effort and they could be over Europe, then down, getting warmer as they went, until they were in Africa, or South America, or out over Asia, and he would have to take off his hat as he started to feel some sweat soak into it, and pull the zip down on his jacket. Even over tropical countries, though, where the children below slept in shorts and vests, and writhed around as they tried to find a cool spot on their bed, up in the air it was never too warm. The speed with which they moved meant that the air always whistled around them, and even with the magic providing a protective bubble, still cooled them.
He didn’t go too far on this practice run this year. He had gone out towards Russia, to the vast, sparse wastelands where in hundreds of miles he would deliver as many presents as he would to a couple of small towns in Germany. Sensing that the reindeer were getting tired, he had turned them round, rather than completing a lap of the earth. Perhaps he hadn’t fed them enough before setting out, or perhaps, like him, it was just that they were another year older. His arms ached a little as he held the reins, and he thought he felt the cold in his fingers a little more than he used to. Then he remembered that he felt like this every year, after eleven months of being snug and warm in his home at the north pole.
As soon as they got near to the edge of the arctic, Father Christmas lowered his hands to signal to the reindeer that they should descend, then pulled back on the reins to get them to slow down. The sleigh came down out of the sky, and with a slight jolt as the runners hit the bumpy surface, landed safely. The reindeer snorted and pawed at the ice, as if becoming used to its feel again.
Father Christmas pushed himself up and out of the seat, having to use both hands to grab the edge and make sure he didn’t lose balance. His legs always ached after a long time flying, and he had to stretch them. The reindeer also needed to move around, they got restless if they had too much time tied together. They worked well as a team, but sometimes he wasn’t entirely sure that they actually liked each other.
Once he was upright, and confident that he wasn’t going to topple over, he moved to the side of the sleigh.
‘Come on, granddad,’ shouted Prancer. ‘We’re gasping here.’
‘Yeah, lets get these harnesses off pronto.’ Dancer was straining forward, trying to stretch the leather of the harness until it snapped. ‘I think I saw some moss over there. Might be tasty.’
‘I doubt it,’ replied Santa.
‘Not for you, maybe, mate. But I love moss.’
‘So do we!’ echoed Donner and Blitzen. ‘Moss, moss, moss!’ they began chanting.
The other reindeer took up the cry, until all eight were yelling together, ‘Moss, moss, moss! Moss, moss, moss!’
‘All right, all right,’ grumbled Santa.
He moved round and began untying the harness on each reindeer. He gave Vixen a pat on the neck.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked.
‘Giving you a pat. A bit of affection. You like that, don’t you, old girl?’
‘Old girl?’ Vixen snorted and stamped her hoof, then snapped her face away from him. ‘Just watch it. Mind the fur.’
Santa shook his head wearily, and tried to make allowances for them. They always got tetchy when they were tired. Centuries old, and they still acted like children. Without saying anything else, he worked his way round and undid all the harnesses, letting them fall to the ground until all the reindeer were loose.
‘Moss!’ they cried again, and then ran off.
‘Don’t be too long!’ he shouted after them. ‘We need to get back to the north pole. Get you some proper food.’
There was no answer, just the sound of hooves crunching against the ice and the occasional rasping cough. The reindeer had hardly covered any distance before he couldn’t see them anymore in the dim arctic light. Santa shrugged, and slowly moved back round to the sleigh and began rooting in the back to try and find the food and drink that Mrs Claus had packed for him.
Captain Redbeard woke suddenly, and found he could not see.
‘What the…what scoundrel has attacked me as I slept?’ he thought, in a literally blind panic.
Then he realised, as he always did. Only one eye, and that was shut. The other that his brain was trying to open was useless. Redbeard the pirate seal weighed almost a ton, and his ten foot long body was criss-crossed with scars. Unlike the rest of his crew, his face was partly coloured, with a reddish snout. One of his eyes was covered with a crusty shell which had been wedged into the socket. Whether this eyepatch had been put in deliberately to cover an eye that had been lost, or the shell had got stuck there in a horrible accident, even the seal himself struggled to remember.
Gently he opened his good eye. His immediate view was of Clegg’s enormous, fleshy and very fishy smelling bottom, which was parked inches away from his face, and rose and sank menacingly with each of Clegg’s sleeping breaths. He coughed at the stench, and raised his head, both to get away from it and to take in their surroundings. The five seals in his crew had slumped down nose to tail and he lay in the warmest spot in the middle of them, as was the captain’s right. Even the smallest was at least eight feet long, and stood higher than a man when up on its flippers. All of them were greyish-brown, though some had dark patches on their backs and sides, as if they were wearing a pirate’s jacket. They all still seemed to be sleeping off the fish feast they had stolen from a boat off the coast of the arctic. As usual, they had hidden in the nets and then swept the fishermen into the sea when they were dropped onto the deck.
He looked further, trying to get his eye to adjust to the light, to check for anything that might attack them. Whilst they were huge and vicious, and the six together scared off most other creatures, there were some that did not altogether fear them. The seals feared polar bears the most. As aggressive and much faster moving than the seals, their razor-sharp teeth and jagged tearing claws terrified them. With their dirty white fur, that stank of fish as much as the seals’ skins, they were also hard to spot against the ice. If the seals did see a polar bear, or worse bears, approaching whilst sleeping out on the ice, as quickly and as quietly as they were able, they would slither to the ice’s edge and slip into the sea, and swim far away.
As Redbeard looked out to his left, he saw nothing to alarm or even interest him. He raised himself further, not to help him see but just to get further away from the smell of Clegg’s bottom. He still he saw nothing. He was lying back down, when he thought he noticed a shape as he swung his head round. He immediately jerked his head back, his blubbery heart wobbling at the thought that it might be a bear. At quick glance, it looked around the same size, though he could not see it properly. As he held his gaze it did not appear to be moving, and he felt some relief. Polar bears rarely stayed still for very long when hunting. He nudged Hector on the other side of him with his flipper.
‘Wake up!’ he hissed. ‘I need you to look at this.’
Hector was awake immediately. Pirate seals reacted quickly.
‘What is it, Captain?’
Hector lifted himself up to the same level as the Captain. With two good eyes he could see much better than Redbeard, but it was still hard for him to see clearly.
‘Is it a polar bear?’
Hector squinted and jutted his snout out further, whiskers trembling both with the whip of the wind and now with the fear that he felt at the mention of the bear.
He saw the shape, but it still did not move, and whilst he could not see exactly what it was, he knew that it wasn’t a polar bear.
‘No. Definitely not, Captain.’
‘Then what is it?’
‘I’m not sure. Some kind of ship maybe?’
‘On the ice? How would it get there?’
‘I don’t know, it’s not like a normal ship, not from what I can see. I need to get closer.’
‘Then let’s do that. Rouse the others. Keep them quiet, though.’
Hector grimaced. Usually when the crew woke up it was accompanied by a series of loud burps and farts, that would bounce down the ice, but he knew he had to obey the Captain.
‘Come on you lot, up you get, quietly,’ he hissed, slapping them across the face with his flippers. ‘Bart, Bellamy, Blood! Captain’s orders.’
Immediately a loud fart slipped out of Bart’s bottom.
‘Keep quiet!’ Redbeard’s interruption brought them all to attention, and no further noise was made, except for one sad, small burp from Bellamy, which had already been on its way out and that he just couldn’t hold back.
‘Sorr….’ He was about to apologise, but then realised that he would be making another noise, which would displease the Captain even more. Redbeard had already turned to glare at him and curled his lip into the start of a terrifying snarl.
‘I’ll keep quiet, Captain!’ he said brightly.
Redbeard snorted and gave up, turning his head back to peer again.
‘Anyone guarding it?’ he asked Hector.
‘Not that I can see, Captain.’
‘This may be our lucky day, then. Let’s be careful though.’
He gestured to Clegg and Bellamy to take the left flank and approach from that side, then to Hector and Bart to take the right. He and Blood would advance down the middle. Usually they hunted this way in the water and they weren’t used to doing this on land, where they were supple and sleek. Even though they moved much more slowly and clumsily here, each one knew exactly where they should be, and it required little direction from Redbeard to get them in the right places.
Each pair moved slowly forward, sniffing the air and twitching their strange, square ears to listen carefully for any other animals. They sensed nothing and grew bolder, almost skating across the ice on their flippers as they gathered momentum. Suddenly, Blood, the Captain’s deputy, halted and raised his left flipper to signal to Clegg and Bellamy, and his right to gain the attention of Hector and Bart. They all came to a rapid stop.
‘What is it?’ asked Redbeard.
Blood sniffed. He had caught a scent. He recognised it, though he had rarely encountered it.
‘Human,’ he replied.
‘Human?’ echoed Redbeard, concerned but also intrigued. ‘And what is that?’
He pointed with his flipper.
The seals had been so intent on checking for other animals that it was only looking up that they realised they had got so close to the shape. Now it loomed in front of them, and they could see it clearly. Being able to see it clearly did not help them. They had never seen anything like it.
‘What is it, Captain?’ asked Clegg.
‘You tell me.’
‘It looks like a ship of some kind,’ said Bellamy.
‘Thanks for that,’ replied Clegg. ‘I could have told you that.’
‘Well why didn’t you? You just asked what it was. I’m telling you, it’s some kind of ship.’
‘We all know that. I just meant what sort exactly.’ Clegg was slightly embarrassed. He hadn’t had a clue what it was at first, but now he looked again properly, and had been given the idea that it might be some sort of ship, he could see that was probably what it was.
It was bright red, with some sort of runners underneath it that looked as if they had once been bright silver, but were now chipped and worn and the colour of the moon behind thin cloud. There was a bench to sit on inside, near the front, and at the rear was a huge cargo hold, which dwarfed the rest of the ship. Attached to the very front was a long chain of leather harnesses, which now lay strewn on the ground unused. Clegg pointed his muzzle at the back of the ship and sniffed, then turned back, disappointed. Whatever it was, it wasn’t carrying any fish.
‘I’ve never seen its like,’ growled Redbeard. Clegg felt cheered by this news. ‘Anyone else.’
‘No, Captain. Not like this,’ replied Hector. The others grunted in agreement.
‘How close is the human?’ Redbeard asked Blood.
Blood sniffed again. His nose was the most sensitive of all the seals, both in working out what something was, and then how far away they were. The Captain valued this skill, as well as his intelligence, in his deputy.
‘Close. Within two hundred yards. There are other animals too. Further away.’
Another sniff. ‘Not sure. Maybe some kind of deer.’
Redbeard snorted. ‘Fine. Cowardly creatures. Well, if they come near then one roar from me and they’ll turn tail immediately.’
The seals all laughed, though anyone listening might have mistaken their laughs for a sharp coughing fit.
‘Quiet!’ snapped Redbeard. ‘The human is still close. We don’t know what kind of weapons he has.’
The seals immediately fell silent again, surveying the ship.
‘Well? Bart, Bellamy, what are you waiting for? Have a look inside, see if there’s anything to eat.’
Bart and Bellamy scrambled to obey the captain. Bart reared up and then with a tremendous smack, fell forward so that he could prop himself up on the side of the craft with his front flippers and peer in.
‘No fish, captain.’
‘We know that! We’d have smelt them. What else is there?’
Bart peered in.
‘Some…fluffy slippers? A hat and goggles. A few crumbs of food. That’s it, nothing worth having, it’s almost empty.’
‘Bellamy! Have a look in the back.’
Using the same technique as Bart, Bellamy leant against the rear of the ship. There was some kind of covering over the back and he had to squeeze his head underneath it to try and see what was in there. He expected that he wouldn’t be able to see anything, but was taken aback by a strange golden glow that pulsed and passed in waves past his eyes, lighting up everything like a thousand candles. Instinctively he threw his head back to avoid it, and in doing so lost his balance and toppled backwards off the side, landing on top of Bart like a spoon smacked on jelly.
‘Get off!’ yelled Bart, whose ample stomach had been crushed.
Bellamy rolled to one side, falling off Bart and in front of the Captain’s snout. Redbeard leant over him.
‘What is it, Bellamy?’ he whispered. ‘Not afraid, are you?’
‘No, Captain,’ lied Bellamy. The glow was like it was alive.
‘Then get back in there,’ hissed Redbeard.
Once again, nervously, Bellamy pulled himself up onto the side and stuck his head in. The glow was still there, but this time he did not flinch. He looked around and saw that it was coming from a large golden pile just behind the seat in the front section. It looked warm and inviting. He took a quick glance around the rest of the area. It looked much bigger than it had seemed on the outside, stretching back like a huge, empty cave. He could see nothing in there except for a few pieces of coloured paper and ribbon, but towards the back even the glow could not light it, and there was only darkness. He turned back and craned his neck to try and get closer to the pile, snout sniffing and whiskers twitching, trying to feel its smell. The scent seemed to change constantly. One moment he was smelling sweet flowers, the next moss. Then for a glorious moment he smelt fish. Fish! Maybe there were fish buried under there. The Captain would be so proud of him if he found a stash of fish to feast on.
He stretched and stretched, dragging his bulk behind him and levering himself up desperately with his flippers, until more of him was inside the ship than outside. Still the warmth of the glow and the scent of the fish lured him in, just out of reach until finally, just when he thought he could touch it with his whiskers, his precarious balance on the ship’s side was lost, and he toppled over the edge and into the back. He fell painfully onto hard wood, then his momentum carried him straight into the golden pile. It was soft, and warm, and made up of tiny golden snowflakes. He couldn’t help rolling around in it, getting the flakes over every part of his body. It made him feel happy and light headed. The pain from his fall disappeared.
The lightness in his head suddenly streamed out to the rest of his body. On land he was used to feeling enormous, every inch forward like he was carrying the other seals on his back. That sensation suddenly disappeared, and he felt as light as the flakes around him, almost like he was floating. Then he realised, he was actually floating. He had risen from the deck, and the pile of golden flakes, and was hovering about a foot above the bottom of the ship. He panicked, and began flapping like an injured bird, desperate not to fall. Doing this made him rise even higher into the air. He quickly discovered that by using his flippers separately, or in different directions, he could turn round, move forwards or backwards, or higher or lower. He was flying! It felt wonderful, nearly as good as swimming. Almost gracefully he rolled around in a complete circle, so that his stomach faced upwards, until he flipped over and back to his original position.
‘What’s going on in there?’
Bellamy whipped his head round and saw Bart’s muzzle shoved under the covering.
Bart couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Bellamy just smiled at him, and did another roll.
‘It’s these flakes. I can fly. Watch!’
He did a lap round the whole of the space at the back of the ship, going up and down as he did so. Bart blinked and gulped.
‘Er…I think the Captain’s going to want to know about this.’
He disappeared back down.
As Bellamy continued to dreamily circle the ship, occasionally dipping back down to feel the warmth of the flakes again, he heard muffled voices from outside. There were occasional shouts and thought he heard words like, ‘rubbish’, ‘mad’ and ‘drinking’. He wasn’t really listening, just floating around, letting his mind drift wherever it wanted to go. He thought of fish.
‘Captain wants you back out.’
Bart’s head was gone as quickly as it had reappeared.
Reluctantly, Bellamy flapped over to the edge, grabbed hold of it and squeezed himself out into the open. Immediately he felt how cold it was compared to inside the ship, and the sting of the icy air caused him to stiffen up and fall immediately to the ground.
‘I thought you said he could fly?’ said Redbeard. ‘Are you trying to make a fool of me?’
‘No, Captain, no!’ cried Bart. ‘Honestly, he was. Go on, Bellamy, show them.’
There was a hint of pleading in his voice as he turned to Bellamy, but there was no need. Once Bellamy had recovered from the initial shock, the lightness returned and to the amazement of the other seals he began to lift off the ice.
‘It’s true, Captain,’ said Bellamy, as he performed as graceful a roll as was possible, given how his blubber wobbled. ‘It’s the stuff I found inside, these golden flakes. I had a bit of a roll in them, and then all of a sudden I was in the air.’
‘You know what this means, Captain?’ said Blood.
‘Of course!’ bellowed Redbeard, still marvelling at the sight of Bellamy, who was now taunting the other seals by hovering just out of range of their muzzles while they tried to sniff his golden body. ‘Er, what?’
‘You know, Captain,’ encouraged Blood. Redbeard still stared blankly at him. Ever loyal, Blood leant in so that the other seals couldn’t hear, and whispered in the Captain’s square, hairy ear. A large grin appeared on his face, and his whiskers shot upwards like an electric current had zapped them.
‘Ah yes, of course. Right, you lot. I want the rest of you inside that ship and covering yourselves in that golden stuff now.’
The seals stared at each other and the Captain.
‘Now!’ yelled Redbeard.
The seals leapt to obey the order and began scrambling inside.
Father Christmas had never felt it right to have a wee too close to the sleigh. Or even on open ice if he could help it. He always preferred a bush of some kind that he could hide behind. Helped to keep the wind off. And stopped the reindeer from looking and laughing. They just did it anywhere, including right by the sleigh, so he wasn’t sure why it made such a difference to him. Standards, he thought, human standards. The current Mrs Christmas wouldn’t be too happy if he sank to the level of reindeer.
He’d wandered about two hundred yards away from the sleigh in search of some kind of bush, but all he found was ice and more ice. Then suddenly he’d come across – no, it was more ice. The reindeer had disappeared, he could no longer even hear them complaining about the shortage of moss, but he knew they’d come back soon enough. After searching for a little more time, he gave up and relieved himself where he stood.
He was spelling out his name. It was too long for him ever to get to the end of it, but he’d done ‘F-A-T-H’, with steam rising around him, when he heard a loud scraping of metal against ice. The ice must be cracking, the sleigh too heavy for it. He’d parked too close to the sea, rather than making sure he was firmly on land. With panicked fumbling fingers, he did himself up and began running back, expecting to see the sleigh sinking slowly into the water. He’d need the reindeer to slip into the harnesses quickly and pull it out.
Instead, to his astonishment, he saw the sleigh rising into the sky, pulled by what appeared to be a crew of golden seals desperately flapping to keep it airborne.
‘As hard as you can!’ yelled a voice, and Santa realised it had come from two seals wedged into the seat where he normally sat. One who could barely fit, and whose skin was being squeezed out of both the front and back like a squashed sausage, had hold of the reins with his flippers. Another, much smaller, was sat alongside him, leaning forward to direct the driver and cajoling the other seals. Then, having somehow strapped themselves into the harnesses that the reindeer used, there were four other seals, two right at the front and two right at the back.
The sleigh was unbalanced and jittery. It lurched all over the sky like someone had let go of a half inflated balloon. Violently left then wildly right, then sharply up and back down again. At one point it came hurtling towards his head, and he had to throw himself to the ground to avoid it hitting him, before it soared back into the sky. Gradually, though, both the driver and the seals that were pulling the sleigh learnt how to control it, and whilst it still stuttered as it flew, its path became smoother.
‘Stop thieves!’ he yelled up at them. ‘Give me back my sleigh!’
The driver leant over the side, and stared at Father Christmas, the first time he had seen him.
‘Not likely! This is our sleigh. We’re having it now.’
‘You can’t!’ yelled Father Christmas. ‘I need it. The children need it. You’re not just robbing a sleigh, you’re robbing them of Christmas!’
‘Christmas?’ replied Redbeard, wrestling with the reins. ‘Never heard of it. And do I look like I care about children?’
He and Blood looked down and laughed meanly at Father Christmas.
Santa looked around desperately for the reindeer, so he could get them to give chase and take back the sleigh, but they were nowhere to be seen.
‘Dancer, Prancer!’ he shouted. ‘Donner, Blitzen! Where are you? I need you!’
Still nothing. Above him the sleigh was gaining height and moving further away. Soon it would be too late.
‘Comet, Vixen!’ He hoped they would appear, but all he heard apart from the wind was some seal wheezing. He stared up forlornly into the sky, as the sleigh grew smaller and smaller until it was out of sight in the darkness and he knew it was lost. He slumped to the ground and cradled his beard and head in his hands.
‘What’s up, boss? You look a bit down in the dumps.’
Father Christmas struggled to hold in his anger as he turned and looked up at Comet.
Comet idly swallowed the green sod that had been hanging from the side of his mouth.
‘Eating moss. We found a big pile way over there. Tasty.’
‘Do you know what’s happened?’
‘No,’ replied Comet, who was thinking only about whether there was any more moss around. He’d felt full, but now that he thought about it, he could definitely go for some more.
‘While you’ve been stuffing your face, pirate seals have stolen my sleigh!’
‘Oooh, that’s unfortunate,’ said Dancer, who had now also wandered over.
‘Yes, it is, isn’t it,’ spat Father Christmas.
‘What are you going to do about it?’
‘What am I going to do about it?’ Father Christmas was growing increasingly exasperated, and the steam around his flapping jaw made it look like he had begun to foam at the mouth. ‘What am I going to do about it? If you lot had been here, you would have been able to stop them.’
‘You let us go,’ said Blitzen, reasonably enough. ‘We needed to eat.’
The rest of the reindeer had now all gathered back where the sleigh had been, and the last of them quickly told by the others what had happened. There had been muffled sniggering and a few derisive snorts.
‘Anyway, didn’t you try to stop them?’
‘How would I have stopped a gang of massive seals? In any case, by the time I got back, they were already in the air.’
‘By the time you got back?’ queried Blitzen gently. ‘So you weren’t here either? You left the sleigh completely unguarded?’
‘I had to…you know…go and er…’
‘Go on,’ coaxed Blitzen.
‘Er…relieve myself,’ admitted Father Christmas.
‘So there we have it,’ triumphed Blitzen, with an extravagant wave of his hoof. The reason the sleigh is gone is because you didn’t stay with it.’
‘Look, I’ve already told you, I wouldn’t have been able to stop them anyway, not without you lot. You’re twisting things!’
It was too late. Blitzen had won them over. The reindeer were now all pawing the ground in agreement, and throwing their antlers around in disbelief at Father Christmas allowing their sleigh to be stolen. Occasionally they would glance over at him, then as soon as he caught their eye, would snap their furry heads away. A discussion broke out, until finally Dancer walked forward towards him.
‘Right then. We’re off home. You know we need to rest before Christmas,’ said Dancer.
‘Fine. Comet, I’ll ride on your back.’
‘No chance. Have you seen the size of you?’ replied Comet. ‘It’s pulling the sleigh or nothing. And as I can’t see any sleigh here…’ He sucked his breath through his chunky teeth, like a plumber sizing up a broken boiler. ‘…looks like you’re on your own. We’ll let Mrs Claus know when we get back, and she can arrange for someone to come and pick you up. She might even come herself, fancy a trip out.’
‘You haven’t got enough flakes on you to last the journey home.’
‘Yes we have,’ replied Comet, confident that Father Christmas was bluffing.
‘I really don’t think so.’
‘No, we have. We can tell. As long as we stop a few times for food, we’ll be fine.’
Father Christmas gave up.
‘Seriously, you’re just going to leave me here? I’ve got to get back and sort Christmas. Think of the children!’
The reindeer began guffawing.
‘Think of the children? Ha, that’s a good one. Emotional blackmail, that is. Anyway, might do them good not to get any presents, greedy so and sos.’
‘You don’t mean that?’
‘No, probably not. But you know we have to save our energy for the big day.’
Comet turned and lined up with the others.
‘Come on, Comet,’ said Prancer. ‘I’m getting hungry again. I wonder what the elves will have for us. Maybe some moss.’
The eight reindeer put their heads down and pointed their knobbly antlers forward, then began running across the ice, which splintered beneath them. Faster and faster, until Prancer and Dancer arched their backs, and sprang upwards. It looked like they were jumping, but then they stayed airborne as their hooves continued in their running motion, and they flew higher and higher. The others did the same, two by two, until they were all flying through the sky, trailing golden flakes as the wind stripped them off.
Father Christmas watched them despondently, his bottom getting ever colder from sitting on the ice. Soon they had gained speed, and he could no longer see the reindeer themselves, just shimmering gold in the very bleak sky.
‘Where are we going?’ asked Clegg, as he continued to wave his flippers frantically. He didn’t feel like he was going to fall if he stopped, rather just spin off higher and higher into the air. This was even more terrifying and he couldn’t bring himself to stop flapping and see what would happen.
‘Where they can’t catch us,’ growled Redbeard.
Clegg didn’t feel that this was particularly helpful, but as always said nothing back. He glanced across at Bellamy, and felt better seeing that he had the same look of confused desperation chiselled across his face.
‘How long do you think you can carry on for, lads?’ shouted Redbeard.
He had seen all their faces, and he wasn’t stupid. He knew that he had to get the sleigh to ground soon.
‘It’s hard to say, Captain. But my flippers are tired.’
‘What happens if you stop flapping?’
‘Er, not sure, Captain,’ replied Bellamy.
‘Well, try it then.’
Bellamy took a big gulp of the starlit air, coughed as it stung his lungs, then did as his Captain asked, pinning his two front flippers back against his body. Immediately he began to plummet sharply downwards, jerking his harness, and dragging the other seals down too. The sleigh bounced up and down, and from one side to another, with the seals all pointing in different directions. Without waiting for any further command, Bellamy began to flap desperately again. As soon as he did so, his body felt light, and he rose back up level with the others. Redbeard snapped the reins, and the seals were forced back into a straight line, and went on smoothly. The Captain turned to Blood, who had been been flung against the side of the sleigh around him.
‘I guess that didn’t work,’ sighed Redbeard.
Blood peeled his squashed face away from the wood.
‘No, Captain,’ he replied in a voice that Redbeard could barely understand, as his mashed up mouth bent itself back into shape.
‘Let’s get this lot on the ground, then. It’s a long way down.’
Blood had seen all too clearly how far down it was when his head had been thrown upside down over the side, and he had been forced to look hundreds of feet below him.
‘Yes it is, Captain. I wholeheartedly agree.’
‘Right, lads,’ cried Redbeard. ‘We’re going down. I think we’re far enough away now.’
The seals tried to roar back in approval, but could only manage squeaks of relief. Instinctively they pointed their muzzles down, and the sleigh began to descend. As they got lower they could see artificial lights, and the roofs of houses. Lower still, and they could see that past the end of the houses was a harbour.
‘Where are we, Captain?’ asked Bart.
Before the Captain could answer, he felt the sleigh begin to jerk around once more.
‘What’s going on?’ he shouted to his crew.
The crew were too busy trying to control their bodies to answer. They suddenly felt heavy and clumsy. The sensation of being lighter than the air around them came and went. One moment they were arrowing blissfully through the air, their flippers like eagles’ wings, the next they were like crazed chickens running round a coop and dropping from the sky. It was happening to each of them at different times. ‘Keep going down, lads!’ shouted Redbeard.
The seals didn’t have much choice. There were just moments of flying now, with far longer intervals of uncontrolled falling. Redbeard spotted the harbour jetty, and dragged the seals round until they were pointing towards it as they hurtled from the sky.
The sleigh kept going down, noisily demolishing a chimney stack from one house, then stripping roof tiles from another a little further on. By now they were only a few feet above the ground, and about to crash into a small hut just before the start of the jetty. With one huge effort, the seals hurled their bodies into the air. Their bellies scraped raw on the hut’s roof, leaving it with a sealskin covering that would protect it nicely from the rain in the future, but they managed to just get over it. The seals fell the remaining few feet, bouncing painfully on the hard jetty, and being dragged along as the heavy sleigh’s momentum continued to propel it forward.
‘Put your flippers and tails down!’ yelled Redbeard as the sleigh headed rapidly towards the water. Reluctantly the seals did as they were ordered, and pressed down hard. The sleigh kept moving, but gradually slowed.
‘Keep going, lads!’
Redbeard wasn’t sure it was slowing quickly enough. Clegg and Bellamy at the front looked as if they were almost in the water. He instinctively pulled back on the reins, though this made no difference to stopping the sleigh.
‘Aaaaarrrrrggggghhhh!’ cried Clegg and Bellamy, as they saw the water approaching.
Finally the sleigh came to a halt. Clegg and Bellamy’s heads poked out over the edge of the jetty, and they could see the dark water beneath them.
‘That looks nice,’ said Clegg, suddenly remembering that water was where he was supposed to be. Not flying around in the sky.
‘Yes, lovely,’ replied Bellamy. ‘Shall we just carry on in?’
‘Best not,’ said Clegg. ‘Think the Captain wants something.’
Redbeard had dragged himself out of the sleigh and was now alongside the chain of crash landed seals.
‘What a ride, eh lads?’ he grinned. The other seals didn’t feel quite so energised by it, but kept quiet. Very slowly they all dragged themselves back along the jetty, as far from the edge as they could manage without making it obvious to the captain what they were doing.
‘The wind through your bristles!’ He rubbed a flipper against his muzzle. ‘Makes a change from the salty sea.’
‘Yes, Captain,’ replied the seals dutifully, each one privately imagining the bliss of the salty sea pressing against their whiskers, rather than the howling wind tearing into their noses and ears.
‘What happened, though? One moment we were soaring through the air, the next sinking like a harpooned whale.’ Redbeard chuckled at the image.
Blood had been studying the other seals carefully.
‘I think I know, Captain.’
Redbeard hadn’t worked it out yet, but he never cared that Blood often had a quicker mind than him. Blood knew who was in charge.
‘Tell us, then, Blood.’
‘Look at their coats, Captain.’
Redbeard stared but still saw nothing out of the ordinary. Four fat seals with grey-brown skin and a few spots, shuffling backwards thinking he wouldn’t notice their cowardly behaviour.
‘Look just the same as they always look to me. Ugly and – stand still, don’t think I can’t see your flippers moving!’ he suddenly shouted, causing the seals to jolt upright and collide with each other. Their skin squeaked like squashed mice.
‘Ugly and grey,’ continued the Captain.
‘Exactly,’ said Blood.
There was another horrible screech as their skin stretched then snapped back as the seals settled to the ground and lay still.
‘Ah, I see,’ said Redbeard after a moment of thought. ‘I see. Best get them in the back again, then.’
The other seals weren’t sure yet what he meant, but Redbeard and Blood understood each other perfectly. It was the golden flakes. Their skins were sallow and dark, after the wind had stripped the flakes from their flesh. Without the flakes they couldn’t fly and lay heavy on the ground.
Blood had already made his way to the back and was peering in.
‘Are there enough?’ asked Redbeard, worried that they had used all the flakes on their first flight, and that they would be stuck where they were.
Blood stuck his head right under the tarpaulin, and was instantly bathed in that warm golden glow. There still seemed to be lots of flakes in the cavernous interior.
He pulled himself out and grinned at the Captain.
‘Plenty, Captain,’ he laughed. ‘Plenty to go round.’
‘Then let’s get everyone in and covered, and get on the move again,’ said Redbeard. ‘And quickly. I think we have some visitors.’
Blood was facing out to sea, but the Captain was staring back along the jetty and towards the town. Before he had even turned his head to see what the Captain could see, he heard the shouts of humans, though still too far away for him to understand clearly what they were saying. As he wheeled round, he realised that it didn’t matter that he couldn’t understand them, their faces told him all he needed to know.
A mob from the town was coming towards them. Anger burned on their faces, though on some at the sides and at the back he could detect fear too, and he stored the images of their faces in his mind. If he needed to, he could isolate these weaker humans and a fearsome roar would make them run away like a fox chased by a bear. Others, though, looked more determined, and they carried a variety of weapons. There were large knives that were normally used for gutting fish, metal hooks with jagged points, and a few burning torches that were what the seals feared most.
It was a shame for Blood that he did not know how useless the torches were going to be as a weapon by the time the mob reached them.
‘What did you bring that for?’ asked Roald, one of the townsmen, to his neighbour. Roald had equipped himself with a large hook on a chain that he could whirl round at great velocity before flinging it in deadly fashion. His neighbour was brandishing one of the torches.
‘It’s a flaming torch, isn’t it?’ replied Knorr. ‘All things run away from flaming torches. And whatever is down there, will be no different.’
‘I’d agree with you,’ said Roald, before pausing in what his neighbour to took to be thought, but was actually so he could gather breath. Roald was a large man who was quickly realising that he ate far too much herring and that rapidly advancing mobs might not be for him. He carried on.
‘I’d agree with you. Only what you have there is not a flaming torch. It’s a piece of wood that you’ve set fire to.’
‘What’s the difference?’ asked Knorr.
‘The difference is that your piece of wood is burning down quickly, and you’re going to set fire to your own hand before you get anywhere near what is down there.’
Knorr looked up and did some crude mental arithmetic. Roald was right. Thinking some more, he realised that he could break ranks and charge forward, and that would get him to the enemy quicker than the wood would burn down. He looked ahead again and could now see much better what had crash landed on the jetty. He decided to stay with the pace of the mob and keep a careful eye on his stick instead.
Blood and the other seals could not see the problems the mob had. It was made up of at least fifty people. Whilst they could fight off many of them, and the knives would be little use – the men would soon realise that all plunging a knife into their side would achieve would be to poke a hole in a mass of blubber, like knifing an enormous jelly – the harpoons and the fire could do them some serious damage. If it came to it, they could hurl themselves from the jetty into the sea, and swim to safety, but Redbeard was desperate not to lose his prize.
Hector and Bart were already hauling themselves up into the back of the sleigh, with Clegg and Bellamy jostling behind them.
‘Stop sniffing my backside!’ shouted Bart, as Clegg’s snout collided with his rear for the second time.
‘I am not sniffing your backside! It stinks of fish. Why would I want to do that?’
‘You love fish, that’s why!’
Clegg couldn’t argue with that, but it was the crowd of angry men that was leading him to bump into Bart.
‘Just get in!’ he shouted, and shoved Bart with the top of his head. Bart toppled over into the back of the sleigh. Clegg quickly threw himself in, closely followed by Bellamy. Once in, all four just hurled themselves into the nearest pile of flakes and rolled and wriggled and squirmed until they had covered all parts of their bodies.
Redbeard and Blood had already got back into the sleigh and were holding the reins ready.
‘Come on!’ shouted Redbeard, turning round. ‘They’re nearly here!’
The men were now at the entrance to the jetty, when suddenly they stopped, astonished. They could now see clearly two huge seals sat in the front of what appeared to be a Santa sleigh. Whilst this would have made anyone pause and take stock of the situation, this was not fully behind the rapid halt. What really stopped them in their tracks was the sight of four golden glowing seals emerging from the back of the sleigh, and floating serenely down the jetty. The first in the chain flapped his flippers once, and twitched his tail, until he landed down at the far end of the harness that stretched out on the jetty. He manoeuvred himself into it, securing himself just as the second arrived to do the same. The mob knew the best way to deal with anything strange and scary that arrived in their small town.
‘Get them!’ they yelled, and began running down the jetty.
Clegg and Bellamy followed behind the other two, and landed in their positions along the harness. But the noise and the closeness of the mob, who were now within throwing distance of a flaming torch, unnverved them. They struggled to fit themselves into the straps, which seemed to tangle. Just when they thought they had them in place, they fell to the ground.
‘Come on!’ cried Redbeard. ‘We need to go!’
Redbeard’s eye was fixed ahead, waiting for the moment when he could yank the reins and take off. Blood, on the other hand, was turned in his seat, and could see just how close the townsmen now were. They were just tens of metres away. He could feel the heat from the flames, whose light caught the metal of the knives and harpoons and threw strange reflections onto the sleigh.
‘We really need to go,’ he thought to himself, though said nothing, just continued to stare back at the men, hoping that what they were seeing would make them stop again. This strategy didn’t appear to be working.
Finally Clegg and Bellamy got their straps in place.
‘Ready, Captain!’ they shouted.
‘Yaaaaahhhhh!’ cried Captain Redbeard, with a shout so loud that it did make some of the men at the front of the mob slow down slightly, and those behind barged into their backs.
The seals shuffled themselves round, directed by Redbeard’s flippers hard on the reins, and dragged the sleigh round with them, until everyone and everything was facing in the opposite direction. This time the mob did come to a complete standstill, faced with four fearsome seals tied into a reindeer harness, and two wedged in the drivers’ seat of what was clearly, undoubtedly, irrefutably, Father Christmas’ sleigh. The seals were staring at them menacingly and baring their deadly teeth. Sights like this were naturally rare in their small town. A whale had once beached itself, which despite their best efforts to get it back in the water had expired, and eventually its internal gases made it explode stinking blubber all over the nearest houses. This, though, was on a whole new level.
‘What do we do now?’ whispered Knorr to Roald. Stopping in front of the seals had thrown out his calculations about how long it would be before his burning torch became a burning arm. He kept glancing nervously upwards.
‘I think…’ whispered back Roald, who could see one of the men right at the front taking aim with a harpoon, ’…that we get them.’
The harpoon was fired, but it shot wide of the seals. Its firing, though, triggered the rest of the mob to start running towards the seals and Redbeard to snap the reins to get the seals to take off. Seeing the men charging at them, this time looking both angry and scared, which was always a dangerous combination, the seals threw their thick necks backwards. This lifted them into the air, and at the same time their flippers went into motion like the wings of a humming bird, up and down as quickly as they could possibly manage, and they and the sleigh began to speed forwards.
Another harpoon whizzed through the air, again missing the seals but this time colliding with the side of the sleigh, tearing paint from its side and momentarily making it jolt. It was not enough to stop the seals, who kept moving both forward and upwards.
‘They’re going to hit us!’ cried Knorr, looking directly into the steaming face of a bearded seal who was now flying rapidly towards him. The men gripped their knives, and waved them around their heads, trying to protect themselves from the tonnes of blubber careering through the air.
The seals, who had as much desire to have their bellies ripped open by the men’s knives as the men did to be hit by them, flapped even harder. Clegg and Bellamy were now just in front of the mob, and with one final effort managed to clear the heads of the nearest men. Hector and Bart weren’t quite as nimble, and Bart’s flank collided with the bushy beard of one of the taller men, sending him flying over the edge of the jetty and into the water.
The other men threw themselves to the floor, just as the sleigh went over them at a height which would have knocked their heads off if they had still been standing.
‘Out of our way, landlubbers!’ cried the driver. ‘We’ve got work to do!’
The sleigh began rising rapidly, heading over the village until it suddenly changed direction and soared out to sea. The men watched from their positions on the ground, until gradually they began to stand up, realising that the danger had passed.
‘At least I didn’t get burnt by my torch,’ thought Knorr, as he lay on the ground still gripping it tightly. He glanced over to see how close it had got, just at the moment its flame burnt right down.
‘Owwwwww!’ he yelled, releasing it immediately.
‘Told you,’ said Roald.
The sleigh hurtled onwards over the sea, bouncing up and down as each of the seals took a rest from flapping, before being sharply reminded that this would cause them to plummet, and rapidly carrying on.
‘Where are we going, Captain?’ asked Blood cautiously. They had been flying for about ten minutes now. The bronze compass that was built into the front panel of the sleigh showed that they had been travelling due south. Redbeard had kept his grip dead straight so far, only moving his flippers up and down to twitch the reins and get more effort out of the flying seals. Blood didn’t know if this was a plan or Redbeard was simply trying to get as far away from the villagers as he could.
Redbeard knew and didn’t know. He knew that they were going to find more fish. All the fish that was taken from the waters where they lived, by the hundreds of boats that passed through with their giant nets, went south. They were going to get it back, to free it, he thought, and return it to its rightful owners – the seals.
It was possible that other creatures ate the fish too. And perhaps the fish could have been left alone to enjoy a quiet life swishing through the sea. But it was part of the circle of life that seals ate fish. And besides, he was really, really hungry.
So they were heading south. Beyond that, he didn’t know where they should go. He looked around for anything that could help him, and spotted some tatty papers shoved down at the front of the sleigh.
‘Pull that out,’ he replied to Blood, indicating the papers with his head.
Blood leaned over and grabbed them. He tried to pull them apart, but they were all connected, and as he unfolded them he realised it was a map. He placed it on the front where there was more space, and carefully used his flippers to open it out completely. There were tears in some of the folds, and other parts were stuck together and began to rip if he was too clumsy in separating them. Finally, though, he had it opened out completely.
‘What is it?’ asked Redbeard.
‘It’s a map, Captain.’
Blood often saw them on the ships that they robbed.
‘Perfect. You know where we’re going?’
‘The places where there are most humans. That will be where all the fish are.’
He grinned, and Blood stared back at the map.
He pushed the map down on each far edge with his flippers, and began trying to find the places that Redbeard wanted. Big places, those with most humans. Those with most fish. His eyes scanned the sea and huge areas of land that were previously unknown to him. In one, a large mass shaped like some kind of ear, joined to another one below it, he began to see what he was looking for. There were large circles, with what he knew to be letters next to them. Some of the biggest ones that he could find on the whole map.
He looked more closely, to make sure he was picking on the biggest ones. The strangest thing happened. He was suddenly sucked down into the map. Rather than seeing the crinkled parchment, and being aware of Redbeard and the sleigh at the side of his vision, he was above the city, and all he could see were the tops of buildings, and roads, and light that shone along them and up into the sky. He shook his head rapidly in bewilderment, and as he took his eyes away from the map he was back in the sleigh, staring at Redbeard’s dirty hide.
‘What are you looking at?’ snapped Redbeard, even though Blood could see that he was still staring straight ahead, and shouldn’t have known that he wasn’t looking at the map.
‘Then get back to studying that map.’
Blood did as he was told, and stared back at the same place. Instantly he was back above the city. This time he held his gaze, and felt the map drawing him in further. He allowed himself to go with it, and he zoomed downwards. A tiny, tiny movement of his eyes shifted him left then right, until he was directly above the houses and apartment blocks and able to move instantly in any direction.
He flicked his eyes and suddenly he shot out of the city and was only looking at desert and scrubland, with the odd twinkle of a light. Too much, he thought to himself. Trying again, he flicked back and found himself just above a large block, not more than a few feet from its roof. He paused there, and instantly the chatter of his mind’s own thoughts ended and was replaced by a flood of words into his brain. For a moment he couldn’t understand them, but he concentrated and realised. Paul aged five, David aged seven, Carina aged three. Names and ages, names and ages, that the map was streaming into his head. They kept being repeated as he hovered over the building, and he counted around fifty of them. He moved above a house some distance away and the same thing happened, only this time there were only two names, two ages. Again he switched, this time above a high rise building, and a blast of names hit him, so fast that it was hard for him to keep count.
He snapped himself away from the map again, and the chatter in his head disappeared. Fish, he needed to find fish, or the captain would start to get angry. He could already sense him shifting in his seat as they flew, tensing up with frustration, and he could see his jaw moving as he ground his deadly teeth.
He thought, and then sank back into the map, to just above the same city. It was getting easier to control and to move around without going too fast or too far. He began to scour the rooftops, all the time thinking about fish, and let his mind drift so that he wasn’t consciously choosing direction. He didn’t know if he was being led, or it was just the way that his mind worked, but he began to feel as if the map was telling him where to go. Without really realising, he found himself above a large, flat roofed building. It was not somewhere that people lived, with windows only at the very top of the building and at intervals round its sides were large blue metal shutters.
For the first time, rather than just float above the building, he tried to dive down into it. He went down at great speed, and even though he knew he was really sat in the sleigh, and all this was just magic of some kind, he winced and closed his eyes as he approached the concrete roof, expecting to smash into it. Instead, he passed straight through and then stopped immediately, hovering again. Tentatively, he opened his eyes and was amazed at what he saw. The building was full of people, some scurrying around pushing large boxes, some behind counters, some in front looking and prodding at the boxes which had been placed on the counters. What was more important was in those boxes. Fish. Boxes of fish. Hundreds, no thousands, of fish of all kinds. He recognised some as the fish they ate and stole in their home waters. Others he had never seen before, they were different shapes and colours and sizes, some bigger than any fish that he had ever seen.
‘Er, Captain,’ he said, not taking his eyes off the map and the market. ‘I think I’ve found something.’
‘Good,’ grunted Redbeard. ‘How do we get there, then?’
‘Er…’ Blood didn’t know. It was one thing to see the place on and through the map, but he had no idea how they should then actually get there.
‘Is there a compass bearing? Which way is it?’
Blood sighed to himself, knowing that there was about to be some very aggressive shouting, or perhaps even a slice to his flank with a sharp claw. The Captain looked after them, and kept them well supplied with fish, but he could also be a very angry seal when he didn’t get what he wanted.
Blood looked back at the map, and down at the city again.
‘How do I get there?’ he thought. ‘I really want to go to that big place.’
Suddenly the sleigh leapt and then jerked to the right. Blood looked up to see what was happening, thinking that Redbeard had grown bored of waiting for him to work out which way to go and had taken matters into his own flippers. Redbeard, though, was barely clinging on to the reins, trying desperately to straighten them while his flippers were being dragged in a different direction. Blood glanced over the top of the sleigh at the seals and saw that the same thing was happening to them. Their harnesses were digging into their bodies as they tried to force the seals to alter their path.
‘What’s happening, Blood?’ asked Redbeard. ‘What have you done?’
‘Me, Captain? I haven’t done any…’ Blood stopped abruptly, realising.
‘Just go with it, Captain,’ he shouted, as the wind rushed around them.
‘Just go with it! I think the sleigh’s trying to take us there itself.’
Redbeard raised one eyebrow, or possibly both but the second was hidden by his clam eyepatch, then did what Blood said. Instead of fighting against the reins, and trying to get back on the course that he wanted to follow, he allowed his flippers to be guided. It was strange, like a gentle electric current was flowing up from the reins into him, and forcing his flippers in a particular direction. When he was in line with what the reins wanted, he felt in harmony and the ride was smooth. If he moved the reins out of line, the current snapped and hurt him.
Redbeard also looked out at the seals ahead of him. He could see them thrashing around.
‘Don’t fight it,’ he cried. ‘Just let the harness guide you!’
The seals did as they were told, and soon the sleigh was flashing through the sky at incredible speed, though to the seals it seemed like they were barely moving. They crossed the ocean, with its terrifying waves beneath them, then hit a coast and were whipping across expanses of plains, forests, cities and finally desert. All the time the seals kept flapping, but they needed to move their flippers no quicker than before, even though the sleigh was travelling at a much faster speed. Clegg wondered why the air didn’t make him colder, or threaten to rip the whiskers off his face, but it was like they were in a capsule and protected from the outside.
At the edge of the desert they began to see more and more buildings, until it was clear that they were arriving at a city. Redbeard started to think about how he would stop the sleigh when the time came.
‘How will we know when we’re there?’ he asked Blood, who was hanging over the side trying to see if the roads and buildings that he could now see were the same as when he had been drawn into the map. Some looked familiar, but it was a city, and he realised that many might look alike.
‘I think we just will,’ replied Blood. ‘We have to trust the sleigh.’
He wasn’t completely sure about this last part, but didn’t know what else to say to the Captain. He knew it wouldn’t be a good idea to tell him for a second time that he didn’t really know.
The sleigh began to slow down.
‘Is that you, Captain?’ asked Blood.
‘Of course it’s not me!’ shouted Redbeard, whose flippers had been rubbed raw by the reins, and who was consequently severely irritated. ‘You just told me to trust the sleigh!’
Blood thought it best to carry on checking the rooftops, and try to ignore the Captain for a bit. The sleigh had been moving too fast for him to get a proper look, but now it had switched to a more sedate pace. He could see each individual building, and as the sleigh gradually drew to a complete halt, he looked down and saw a flat roof that looked familiar. There were large blue metal shutters all around the building. This time he could not see inside, and so could not check. But he knew. He knew what was inside. He levered himself upright again and turned to Redbeard.
‘Captain. We’re here.’
Father Christmas was not jolly. This was hardly surprising, given his situation, trudging across cold and barren ice in a pair of jogging bottoms. Still, he felt bad about it. Father Christmas was meant to be a symbol of jollity. ‘Ho-ho-ho’, he would exhale, making everyone feel a little bit better. He tried one now across the ice.
It bounced sadly away. There was no-one to hear it, and even if they had it would have sounded slightly desperate. He had not seen any caves, and would soon need to find somewhere to camp again. The previous night he had built a kind of an igloo, though the Eskimos probably wouldn’t recognise it as one. It certainly wasn’t rounded at the top, with a proper tunnel, and clean, carved bricks. Instead he had moulded some snow into ugly, odd shaped blocks, and heaved them into a square and on top of each other, leaving a narrow tunnel of space down the middle. The effort of doing this had left him breathless and sweating, but the igloo had worked for one night.
He also hadn’t eaten in a long time, apart from a chocolate bar he had found squashed in one of the puffa jacket pockets. He could sense the weight falling off him. No-one wanted to see a skinny Santa. The jogging bottoms kept slipping slightly, and as he walked he became annoyed at having to keep tugging at his rear to pull them back up. There seemed to be more of a gap between his puffa jacket and his jumper, and the icy air had found a way in and was now gradually making him colder and colder, no matter how much he tried to wrap his arms round himself and stop it. In the meantime, he needed to survive the cold but he didn’t know how long that would be possible, as the north pole magic was gradually stripped from him.
Ordinary men could only survive for a few hours out here, wearing the clothes that he had on. The magic that still clung to him meant that he could go much longer, but there was still a limit, and once it wore off he would be no more protected than anyone else.
He looked up at the sky, hoping to see the flash of a sleigh and hear the jangle and moaning of reindeer. Instead, as he knew he would, he saw only grey sky and wisps of cloud. He wondered what had happened to the sleigh that had been taken by the seals. They had probably crashed it somewhere, he thought, he doubted they’d be able to control it.
He continued scrunching along, but as he did so, he realised that the sound of his boots on the ice was echoing around and much louder than it should have been. Maybe his ears were playing tricks, or there were some hills or caves that were making the sound waves bounce in odd ways. Still, it wasn’t something he had ever noticed before, and he walked around on ice a lot. He carried on, but it still sounded all wrong and nagged at him, so he stopped. The sound didn’t. He could hear a noise like the crack of boots on ice, and it was coming from directly in front of him. There was someone else here.
‘Hello?’ he shouted, tentatively. The noise would probably turn out to be some kind of animal, which would run away at his shouts. Another scrunch, a bit nearer this time. Yes, some kind of animal. Just one wearing boots.
‘Is anyone there?’
After the echoes of his yell had died away, he stood still and listened again. Nothing, apart from the usual arctic noises. No boots, no ice cracking. He began to feel a little foolish, and chuckled to himself. He’d been out here too long, and the wind was making him hear things.
‘Is…is someone out there?’ came a voice, suddenly. Then the march of the boots began again, quicker this time and out of the gloom Father Christmas suddenly saw a man striding urgently towards him.
He was dressed much more properly for the arctic than Father Christmas was. Furry hat, goggles to protect his eyes, a beard, though he noticed pleasingly that this wasn’t anywhere near as bushy or soft as his. A luminous padded jacket, dark trousers that looked very chunky and therefore made him assume that they must be heavily padded. Heavy boots.
‘Over here,’ cried Father Christmas, entirely unnecessarily as the man was heading directly towards him and was only about fifty metres away. Nothing more was said until the man had marched further and stood just a couple of metres in front of him. Father Christmas noticed the beard again. Brown and scratchy, grown out of necessity rather than adding to his appearance. The man lifted his goggles, and Father Christmas saw kindly eyes, though in the gloom he could not really pick out their colour.
‘What are you doing out here?’ asked the man. ‘Which project are you with?’
‘Project?’ replied Father Christmas, not knowing what he was talking about.
‘Are you lost?’
‘Not lost, exactly,’ replied Father Christmas. ‘Just unable to get home. I know where I’m going. I don’t have any transport. The reindeer just left.’
The man looked puzzled, but didn’t ask about the reindeer, as if he was not entirely sure that he had heard correctly. Instead, he carried on patiently trying to establish where Father Christmas was from.
‘My name’s Stephen. I’m from the research project based a couple of miles away from here. We’re tracking bears. I’m assuming you’re doing some work out here too?’ Stephen spoke with an English accent, though Father Christmas couldn’t work out exactly which part of England.
‘Work? Oh yes, I was on a training run. My sleigh got stolen, though.’
Again the man looked slightly bemused, but again he didn’t pick Santa up on his use of words. He assumed that the man in front of him, who had to be some kind of scientist, had been out on a snowmobile that had crashed or something. Things didn’t get stolen out here.
‘Where’s your…’ Stephen was going to say project, but thought better of it. ‘Where’s your home?’
‘Oh, at the north pole.’
‘I realise that, but where exactly? How many miles south of it?’
‘No, no. Right at the north pole. Well, no, not right on top of it.’
Stephen was relieved to hear this correction. There was nothing right at the north pole. No research stations, no bunkers, certainly no homes. People had gone there, of course, but they all based themselves further south.
‘It’s a bit to the side.’
Stephen’s heart sank again on hearing this. He tried a different approach.
‘Who are you?’ he asked.
‘I’m Father Christmas,’ replied Father Christmas.
Stephen looked at the straggly figure in front of him. He had a beard. Other than that, there wasn’t much about him that was like his image of Father Christmas. He was thinner, and there was no big red jacket with white trimmings, or black belt with a golden buckle. He stared at the puffa jacket and jogging bottoms. He didn’t remember Santa wearing those. He looked further down. He was wearing big black boots, to be fair. But still. Oh dear, thought, Stephen. I don’t know how long this guy’s been out here, or where he’s come from, but it’s clearly sent him mad.
‘I don’t think so,’ replied Stephen. ‘I’m not sure how to tell you this, but you really don’t look like him?’
Father Christmas chuckled, and Stephen was taken aback to see his eyes sparkle and flash with such intelligence that it made him doubt his initial impression of the man.
‘I can assure you, Stephen, it’s definitely me.’
But who is me, Stephen thought? He had to be some kind of scientist who had got lost from his team for too long. His brain had started to freeze – he knew that wasn’t the scientific term or explanation for it, but it summed up the situation pretty well – and now he had begun to think that he was Father Christmas.
‘I just need to get home,’ said Father Christmas. ‘Do you have some means of transport? Once we’re back, I can arrange for you to be taken back to your…what was the word…project very quickly.’
‘And your home is…at the north pole?’
‘Yes, of course,’ replied Father Christmas.
Stephen felt it would be better to take the man back to his own research station, and work things out from there. That was heading west from where they were, though, and the north pole was well, north. Very north. As far north as you could get, and he knew that there wasn’t much up there apart from a lot of ice and a load of flags that had been left behind by people who had thought it was a good idea to show they could get there, despite lots of other people having been there before.
Father Christmas was staring at him. Not Father Christmas, he thought immediately, correcting himself. The man who thinks he’s Father Christmas. The eyes, or at least the bits of the eyes that weren’t obscured by bushy white eyebrows that seemed to be trying to escape and join the hair in his moustache and beard, were appealing to him, inviting him to agree. It’s just not a good idea, he thought, we’ll end up who knows where and be lost together. He opened his mouth to tell him this.
‘Ok, I’ll take you to the north pole.’
Stephen clamped his black glove to his mouth in surprise. That hadn’t been what he meant to say. That wasn’t it at all. The eyes continued to stare at him, calm and warm. He coughed and tried again.
‘It’s no problem at all.’
This time he leapt backwards, completely taken aback by the words that had come out. All wrong. In leaping backwards, he lost his footing and stumbled over. Father Christmas reached down and extended a large, friendly hand. Stephen hesitated for a moment, not wanting to make physical contact and get even closer after the effect he had seemed to have just by looking at him. Then the rational scientist in him took over, and he realised he was being ridiculous. He must just be tired, he had been away from the station for hours now. He grasped the hand that had been offered.
‘That’s very kind of you,’ said Father Christmas as he pulled Stephen to his feet. ‘Most generous. I really won’t put you out at all, as soon as we’re back I’ll get you back to your project in a jiffy. How will we get there?’
‘I have a snowmobile,’ Stephen found himself saying before he even realised he was going to speak.
‘Marvellous. Then let’s go shall we?’
‘Yes,’ said Stephen, more conscious of choosing to speak this time, but still utterly confused and trying to work out what else to say. After a moment, he didn’t say anything but just began marching in the direction of his snowmobile while working out his plan. He would pretend to Father Christmas – he stopped himself again, not Father Christmas – that he was heading north.
‘Do you have a first name?’ asked Stephen. ‘Surely your wife doesn’t call you Father Christmas?’
‘Oh no,’ replied Father Christmas. ‘That would be silly.’
‘Great,’ thought Stephen. Now we’re getting somewhere.
‘She calls me Santa.’
Stephen closed his eyes and exhaled heavily through his frosty nose in frustration.
‘Right, of course she does.’
He decided not to speak again and got back to working out his plan. He wouldn’t let the fact that in his head he kept calling this man Father Christmas bother him. If that’s what he wanted to be called, then fine. He would pretend he was heading north, but really he would head back to his own research station. Then they would radio around the other stations in the area and find out who he was. He had to have come from somewhere.
‘Are you ready?’ asked Father Christmas, somewhat impatiently. ‘I don’t want to delay you any more than I have to.’
Stephen couldn’t bring himself to try and say anything. He’d either say something completely different to what he intended to, or snap at the old man and then feel bad about it. Instead, he just waved his arm in the direction of his snowmobile, and the two of them began scrunching across the ice again.
As they hovered above the flat roof, Redbeard felt his hide begin to itch. He glanced down and saw that it was drying out quickly. Usually it was oily and supple, now it was beginning to harden and creak as he shifted. The sun was fierce, creating a baking heat that the weak efforts of the sun back home never did. He knew it was the same sun, but he couldn’t understand why it was so hot here. They would only be able to stay for a short time.
‘This is definitely the right place?’ He asked Blood the question, though he’d travelled with him long enough to know that if Blood had already said they were in the right place, then they were.
‘Then we need to act quickly.’
‘Yes, Captain,’ replied Blood again, aware of his own skin drying out.
‘How do we get down?’
Blood thought for a second, then looked up at the other seals who were floating silently, waiting nervously to see what would happen next. He noticed that their flippers kept moving up and down, they were too scared to stop. He also noticed their hard heads.
Blood stared back into the map, until he could see the building as if the map had been taken away and he was simply looking down at it.
‘In,’ he whispered.
The sleigh lurched forwards out over the edge of the building, then curved round while all the time taking itself lower. Redbeard tried to pretend he was steering, but moving the reins did nothing to alter the sleigh and the seals’ course. Hector and Bart at the front of the sleigh saw what was coming first and began to scream. Clegg and Bellamy’s view was blocked, but they knew that if Hector and Bart were screaming something bad was definitely about to happen and they should do the same, so began yelling themselves.
They had good reason to scream. The sleigh was now hurtling towards a set of the blue shutters which were obviously made of hard metal to stop people getting in. Blood wondered if they had ever been rammed before, and just how hard and thick the metal was, before the shutters got so close that all thoughts disappeared out of his head and he too began screaming. Only the Captain was not yelling, just staring ahead with a manic grin on his face, gripping the reins.
Hector and Bart ducked their heads just in time, so that instead of their softer snouts hitting the shutter, it was the hard bone at the top of their skulls. With the speed and weight of the sleigh behind them, the shutter bowed like someone punching their fist into the side of a canvas tent. Blood thought for a moment that the metal was going to recoil against them, and they would just bounce off and crash to the ground. But their momentum kept them going and after what seemed like ages but must only have been a fraction of a second, the metal shattered and they punched a hole through the shutter and careered onwards into the market.
‘We’re in!’ yelled the Captain, and even as the sleigh was still moving forwards and downwards, and all the other seals still had their eyes shut in terror, he was scanning the market and in an instant assessing what and where everything was.
He liked what he saw. The hall was vast, and most of it was filled with fish. Fish and lots of people. Stall after stall with fish piled high in carefully arranged boxes at the front, and not so neatly organised boxes piled high on top of one another at the back. Porters moved around the narrow pathways between the stalls, with trolleys that were also loaded with boxes of fish. Fish, fish, fish, fish, fish. Redbeard’s manic grin remained.
The first stall the seals reached got off lightly, and the sleigh just knocked down the sign at its front and smashed a few of the boxes at the back. The next one was not so lucky, as most of the boxes at the back were flung out across the surrounding stalls. The final stall they hit, which slowed them to a halt, was completely destroyed. The seals and the sleigh, which by now were skidding along the ground, smashed into it right at the front, showering the nearby stallholders and porters with raw fish, and scattering all the boxes at the back. Clegg and Bellamy ended up with their noses in a pile of raw fish, and before anyone could question them or order them around, gobbled down four or five each.
Redbeard and Blood had been flung to the back of the sleigh as it slowed, their blubbery bodies bouncing off the back of the seat. After they had stopped jiggling, they recovered their poise. Redbeard knew that they had to work fast.
‘Out of the harness, lads!’ cried Redbeard.
The crew didn’t need any more invitation. Possibly one or two didn’t react as quickly as they might have done, unable to resist snaffling another fish or two as they extracted their flippers from the harness. The fish were just there! What were they supposed to do – it was one way of carrying them.
Redbeard sucked in the air, and revelled in the glorious aroma. The stench of fish. Even better, the stench of dead fish. He never tired of it, and being somewhere he could take in that delicious smell always made his spirits soar. He looked around and saw chaos, and that made him feel even better. Aside from all the demolished stalls, there were humans screaming and running out of the building as fast as they could, though many were slipping on scaly fish and tumbling to the ground as they did so. Others just stood still, staring at the seals and the sleigh with wild eyes and open mouths, unable to understand what had happened or what was going on. They would understand soon enough, thought Redbeard.
‘Get as much fish as you can!’ cried Redbeard. ‘I want it loaded into the back of the sleigh. Move!’
The seals went to work. This was easy, the fish were already in boxes. They started with the stalls nearest to them. Working in pairs, they used their snouts to push a polystyrene box into position across the floor, the boxes sliding easily across fish guts and scales. Each then wedged their body and snout on one side. They then began to flap, and would slowly rise into the air, propelling the box towards the back of the sleigh until they were in position, before tipping it and dumping the fish into the cavernous rear.
Box after box followed. One or two of the stallholders unfroze, realising that their livelihood was disappearing rapidly with a gang of seals and a sleigh. Whilst this seemed most unlikely, the time to worry about that was after they had stopped the fish being stolen. One of the stallholders grabbed a large metal pole that previously been supporting a stall roof, and waved it in what he believed was a menacing fashion at the nearest seal. The seal roared at him, sending him backwards both with the force of his voice and the stench of his hot fishy breath, before flicking his tail and knocking him over.
Other stallholders who had been thinking about doing the same thing, and had picked up poles and pieces of metal in preparation, started to think that might not be the best way forward. They began to place the metal quietly on the floor, trying not to alert the seals to the fact that they had even contemplated hitting them. One let his pole go just a fraction too soon, and it clanked noisily, echoing round. Hector, who was nearest, propelled himself across the floor, ducked his head and butted the man in the chest. The man found himself flying across the hall in a less graceful manner than the seals flew, which was saying something, until he exploded into a pile of fish boxes and was drenched from head to toe.
No one else dared to challenge the seals, and soon the hall had been stripped of its fish. Redbeard was amazed at how much the back of the sleigh held. He knew it was large, but it seemed unending, as if they would never fill it no matter how many boxes they put in there. He wasn’t sure that they could eat all the fish before they started to go rotten, but he could think about that later. As long as they could get back to the north, they could pack the fish into ice somewhere. They would just need to protect their treasure from cowardly thieves.
‘That’s enough, lads!’ he yelled. Looking around, he could not see any more boxes that they could take, anyway, only broken or spilled containers with damaged fish that wouldn’t be worth moving. ‘Back in the sleigh.’
The seals, who were busy sucking up lots of the fish that Redbeard considered worthless, reluctantly dragged themselves back over to the harness and slotted themselves in.
‘Here we go again,’ grumbled Bart, though in a very quiet voice so that there was no possibility of the Captain hearing him. ‘Not even time to eat many fish. My stomach hurts from hunger.’
‘We’ll feast when we get home!’ yelled Redbeard.
Bart’s stomach lurched, less from the hunger and more from the idea that Redbeard might have heard him. He glanced round but from the expression on Redbeard’s face it was probably just coincidence. Either way, he stopped talking and concentrated on making sure his harness was secure.
‘Flap!’ yelled Redbeard, and the seals obeyed instantly. They rose into the air, but the sleigh stayed on the ground.
‘Harder!’ he cried again.
‘We’re trying, Captain!’ shouted back Hector.
Blood glanced around, and saw that part of the back of the sleigh had got wedged underneath a stall, stopping them escaping.
‘Captain,’ he said, gesturing with his eyes. Redbeard turned and saw the problem.
‘Go and sort it, then,’ he muttered, despite him being much, much larger than Blood and therefore more capable of shifting the stall.
‘Really?’ thought Blood to himself, but didn’t dare say this to his Captain.
‘Yes, Captain,’ he said slightly tetchily, though also rather quietly.
Blood dragged himself out of the sleigh seat, and perching precariously over its back, wedged his body against the stall. He could feel the sleigh pulling against it, as the seals kept trying to drag it into the air.
‘Come on!’ yelled Redbeard behind him.
The corner of the stall was digging into him, and despite his layers of blubber it was starting to hurt. He leaned into it more and it began to shift, until finally he raised it above the wood of the sleigh and it popped off and the sleigh shot forward, throwing him backwards into the seat and on top of Redbeard. Redbeard grunted and with a twist of his body flicked him off and he finally fell sprawling on the seat he had started from.
‘Take us home, Mister Blood,’ said the Captain.
Blood grabbed the map and peered into it, searching for the mass of ice and comforting cold that they called home.
‘Quickly!’ cried Redbeard. The sleigh had stopped moving forward and was now simply hovering, waiting for instruction.
Finally Blood found it, and stared down into the map like he had before, focusing on that corner of the ice they had come from, which seemed a long, long time ago now. He could see its curves and caves, and the black water that licked the icy edge.
‘There,’ he thought, and in response the sleigh powered ahead. It banked steeply as it turned on itself, then accelerated as it headed towards the broken mass of metal that was the shuttered doors that it had originally broken through. Blood suddenly became very worried that there wasn’t enough space for them to squeeze back through, but the sleigh judged it perfectly. With inches to spare on either side, they flew through it and out into such harsh sunlight that the people below could only track it for a second before it was up into the air and they could no longer hold their gaze against it, and it was lost to their sight forever.
The snowmobile was bouncing across the ice at a fair speed, and Stephen felt warmer than usual, due to the large arms that were round his waist, and the fat belly that he could feel pressed against him. It was not unpleasant, but could not distract him from thinking about how he was going to get Father Christmas – he had now utterly given up calling him anything else – back to his base.
He knew that the bleak landscape played tricks with your mind, especially when you were alone, but he had never come across anything as dramatic as this. The man needed to be taken away from the north pole and back home, where he could hopefully recover. He glanced round to check on him, and though talking was impossible, due to the noise of the engine and the whip of the wind across their ears, he got a sharp nod from Father Christmas signalling that he was ok.
Stephen checked the compass in the middle of the snowmobile handlebars. It still pointed east, as he headed towards his own station, though the needle was bouncing oddly up and down and slightly from side to side. He imagined this was due to the motion of the snowmobile, though it had never happened before. As far as he was aware, Father Christmas had not seen the compass over his shoulder, or if he had was not protesting about going east rather than north as he had instructed. By Stephen’s calculations they were about two thirds of the way back, and he should soon start to see the glare of the halogen lights that surrounded the camp. The path would take them between two enormous ice hills, a part of the journey that always made him nervous in case cracks and shifts in the ice caused an avalanche.
He glanced up, but there was no sign of lights yet. Strange. He also didn’t recognise the peaks and valleys that they were travelling through, though when you were in a landscape made almost entirely of ice it was hard to remember exactly how things looked. Still. He looked again at the compass, and the bearing was still correct, but he slowed the snowmobile down, brought it to a halt, broke Father Christmas’ grip around him and climbed off.
‘Is something wrong?’ asked Father Christmas, softly.
Stephen looked around, turning his head and then his whole body to try to make sense of the landscape around him. It was all wrong.
‘No,’ he replied. ‘It’s fine.’
‘You’re going the right way, you know,’ said Father Christmas. ‘It’s a bit of a way, but we’ll be back at my home before too long.’
‘Right,’ said Stephen, not really taking it in. They were definitely going the right way, the compass said so, but he couldn’t work out why things weren’t becoming familiar. He had no choice but to carry on.
‘Back on the snowmobile.’
‘Right you are,’ replied Father Christmas. He paused. ‘You don’t have anything to eat, do you?’
Stephen fished around in his pocket and found a half eaten energy bar.
‘You can have this if you want. That’s all I’ve got until we get back.’
Father Christmas took it from him and looked at it suspiciously.
‘Yes, that’s what I said,’ barked Stephen.
‘Oh well, never mind,’ replied Santa, making Stephen think that he was going to give it back. Stephen realised that he was getting hungry himself. ‘It’ll have to do.’
Father Christmas chomped it down in two bites, handed Stephen the sticky wrapper, which Stephen somehow found himself taking, and then clambered back on to the snowmobile.
‘Are we off, then?’ he enquired.
‘Yes,’ replied Stephen wearily, hauling himself back on and eying the compass suspiciously, then giving it a tap. He must just be tired, he thought. He fired the engine again, and the two of them set off in the same direction they had been going before.
It had seemed to take them no time at all to get back home, and now the seals lay stretched out on idyllic ice. Hector didn’t know exactly how many fish he had eaten, but he was confident that it was more than he had ever eaten before. He had eaten fish until his belly was so full that as he tried to swallow more, they got stuck in his throat, puffing out his cheeks and sticking out of his mouth.
‘Wor gweedy,’ said Bellamy, who was lying next to him.
‘Wi cant wondersand wu,’ replied Hector, also unable to speak properly because of all the fish.
Bellamy spat three fish out of his mouth and swallowed another two.
‘I said, ‘you’re greedy’.’
‘I would have understood you the first time if you weren’t so greedy yourself,’ said Hector. ‘I can’t move,’ he groaned.
‘We’re going to have to in a minute. The Captain wants us to do another run, find more fish.’
‘Find more fish? We just buried that last lot, that will keep us going for weeks.’
‘He says we need more. Need to stock up.’
‘For how long?’
‘I don’t know, months, years? Anyway, it doesn’t make much difference, we’re going to have to do it. You know what he’s like.’
Hector sighed. He did know what the Captain was like. Moody, irritable, bad tempered if he didn’t get his own way. Better than any of them when it came to a fight. But he kept them fed and kept them mostly safe, so they were loyal to him.
‘Captain wants us back in the harness,’ said Clegg, who had dragged his own fish bloated body towards the other two. ‘Need to get airborne again. Bit more of this.’
He flapped to show them what was needed. Then flapped again in surprise. He had grown used to lifting up into the air at the slightest movement of his flippers. This time nothing was happening and he stayed planted on the ground, sinking ever more slightly into the ice like a tonne of seal should do.
‘What’s going on?’ he asked the others, confused.
‘It’s the flakes,’ replied Blood from behind him. ‘You’ve run out. You need to get some more on you. Climb in the back again and have a roll around.’
The seals did as they were told and flung themselves into the rear of the sleigh. Now all the boxes of fish had been removed, it looked cavernous again. Clegg was first in and once his eyes had adjusted to the gloom, searched around for the pile of golden flakes. He struggled to see it, until Bellamy, who had entered behind him, nudged his flank.
Clegg turned. He recognised the glow once he was looking in the right place, but soon realised why he had not been able to see it.
‘It’s a bit small,’ he whispered to Bellamy. ‘What’s happened to it?’
‘I think we’ve used it all up,’ Clegg whispered back. ‘It’s nearly run out.’
‘So what do we do now?’
‘Let’s have a roll around anyway, see what happens. Then we’ll have to tell the Captain.’
The two seals looked at each other then slid quickly over to the pile. If there was only a bit left they definitely wanted to get there before Hector and Bart. And if any seals were going to fall and end up as blubber pancakes, they knew which ones they wanted it to be. They rolled around like before, but instead of luxuriating in soft cushions of gold, this time they found themselves scraping across splintery timber.
Suddenly they were shoved hard by Bart and Hector, who had realised what was happening as soon as they got into the sleigh, and were now fighting for their share of the gold.
‘Get out of it!’ yelled Bellamy. ‘We were here first.’
‘We all need to fly,’ hissed Bart. ‘If we go down, you come with us. We’re all strapped into that stupid harness together.’
Bellamy and Clegg looked at each other, and realised that Bart was right.
‘But of course you’re welcome to share,’ continued Bellamy. ‘We were just finishing off. Come on, there’s plenty for everyone.’
This last statement was a big lie. The seals slithered and rolled and dragged themselves against whatever flecks of golden flakes that they could find, but still only managed to coat themselves with a thin, patchy covering. They flapped, and managed to take off, but their movement was jerky, and they felt as if they might fall at any moment. One by one they came out of the sleigh, nervous about both tumbling down and telling the Captain what had happened.
‘What’s wrong, lads?’ asked Redbeard as he saw them. ‘Come on, we need to get going on our next trip. Do you just want a few more fish before we go, is that why you’re looking so mopey?’
The seals all looked at each other, willing someone else to speak. Bart finally plucked up the courage.
‘It’s the flakes, Captain. There aren’t enough left to fly.’
Redbeard stared at them for a few seconds. The seals couldn’t read anything in that one dark, dead eye. It was hard enough to stare at it, even for a moment. They all looked down at the ice, and shuffled nervously from side to side.
‘Hector!’ barked Redbeard suddenly. ‘Fly for me!’
Hector flapped and took off, but Redbeard could see how hard he was working compared to before, and how rough his motion was.
‘Wonderful!’ cried Redbeard. ‘So we have a new mission now. Fish are off the menu. We need to find some more gold. Golden flakes!’
Hector crashed to the ice, despite his flippers still gently moving. Bart gulped and spoke again.
‘Captain, there’s no way we’ll make it there. We can barely stay up in the air.’ Bart was scared. He thought he had been scared when he was flying through the air before, but that now felt like being worried about a fly buzzing round. Now he knew what it was to feel really scared, and he felt like all the fish inside his stomach were churning round like the contents of a washing machine.
‘Trust me. I’m a pirate.’
‘We don’t even know where we’re going,’ said Bart. ‘How are we going to find some more flakes?’
‘We’ll work it out, no problem. Back into the harness! We ride again! I love this ship!’
The seals, despite their fear, did as they were told, while the Captain and Blood hauled themselves back into the driver’s seat.
Redbeard turned to Blood.
‘You know I rely on you for this sort of thing? Don’t let me down.’
The statement was a threat, rather than a plea.
He stared back into the map and thought hard. Drawing himself into it became easier each time.
‘Home,’ he said to himself.
His eyes were sucked down, and he felt them pulled across the map. He tried to resist, but no matter where else he tried to look, the map dragged his eyes away. North, he realised. Due north. His eyes went down and down, and he could see it more clearly. At first he thought it was just ice. As he came down through the clouds, though, he saw dim light, and then as he sank lower still, there was an explosion of bright light, and a dazzling city beneath was revealed. There were huge buildings, bigger even than the fish market they had fled from, and people, or at least he thought they were people, hurried around everywhere. He wasn’t sure, but he thought they might have been skipping and dancing as they moved.
He had hoped to see piles of golden flakes to confirm that this was the right place. He scanned all over but couldn’t see any. Still, he had to trust. He had no better idea, and Redbeard would not accept failure. He had to trust the map.
Blood closed his eyes and snapped himself back out.
‘Captain,’ he said as calmly as he could manage. ‘I’ve found it.’
‘Of course you have,’ replied Redbeard, gripping the reins in preparation. ‘Lads!’ he cried. ‘Get ready to fly.’
The seals shuffled nervously in the harness, but knew there was no getting out of it. They were going to have to flap very hard.
‘How far is it?’ whispered Redbeard to Blood, so that the other seals couldn’t hear him. ‘Will they make it?’
This was the first time that Redbeard had expressed any doubt. Blood knew that he was taking off either way, though, and there would be no persuading him otherwise. He just wanted to know.
Blood had no proper answer. When he’d looked into the map, though, he’d felt an instinct, an idea of what distance was involved, and how many flakes were needed. He knew it would be tight.
‘It’s a fair distance, Captain. But I think we’ll be ok.’
There was no point in telling him anything else. If he was right, no harm would have been done. If he was wrong then they would fall from the sky and there would be nothing left of either of them to shout or be shouted at.
‘Good lad,’ said Redbeard, and winked at him.
‘Yaaaaaaahhhhhhh!’ he suddenly cried. The seals flapped desperately, eventually rose from the ground, and the sleigh wobbled into the sky and jerked its way due north.
‘I don’t know where we are. This isn’t right. The compass must be broken, though I’ve never heard of such a thing.’
Stephen was off the snowmobile again, desperately looking round. They should have been back at his camp by now. Not even by now, by about an hour ago. He had kept driving on, against his instincts and judgement, hoping that he would start to recognise some of the landscape, or see some lights. Instead, there was only unfamiliar ice and rapidly sinking darkness.
‘You’re definitely going the right way,’ repeated Father Christmas, who was still astride the snowmobile, waiting patiently for Stephen to get back on.
Stephen ignored him. He needed to think. The snowmobile was just about out of fuel, and it would soon be completely dark.
‘Shall we carry on?’ coaxed Father Christmas gently. He knew that this was his best hope of getting back quickly, and he was desperate not to spend another night out on the ice.
Stephen shrugged. He didn’t know what else to do. There was no point in staying where they were. Without saying anything else to Santa, he got back on, allowed Santa’s belly to sink into his back and his arms to cuddle him again, and turned the key to start the snowmobile. The engine fired and they bounced along the ice once more. Stephen followed the compass, even though he trusted it as much as he trusted the man behind him who claimed he was Father Christmas.
Fifteen minutes later the bouncing stopped. So did any type of movement. The engine wheezed like a man after a coughing fit, gave a final retch and then went quiet. Though he didn’t need to, Stephen turned the key to switch the engine off. Both he and the engine seemed to sigh sadly as he did so.
‘Why have we stopped?’ asked Father Christmas. ‘We’ve still got a bit of a way to go.’
‘We’re out of fuel,’ replied Stephen, thinking that Father Christmas would already have guessed this. It appeared not.
‘Oh,’ said Father Christmas. ‘That’s a bit of a blow. What shall we do now?’
‘Hit you?’ thought Stephen. ‘Fling myself to the ground and lie there sobbing? Stand here wailing?’ The practical scientist in him stopped him from doing any of these things. Instantly his brain was filled with calculations, and was recalling all the survival training that he had been given about what to do if he did find himself lost out on the ice. With Father Christmas. He didn’t remember the trainer mentioning that situation.
‘We need to find some shelter. I don’t know where we are and it will be totally dark soon. We’ll have to stay out overnight and try and find help in the morning.’
‘Oh no,’ said Father Christmas. ‘Are you sure there’s no other way?’
‘No,’ spat Stephen, wishing there was. ‘There really isn’t.’
‘That’s a pity,’ said Father Christmas.
Before he could say anything else, or Stephen could reply, there was an enormous roar from behind them. At least, it seemed like an enormous roar, but as it went on, Stephen realised that it was actually two roars that had melted together into one giant, and terrifying, noise. Not really wanting to, but simply reacting, Stephen and Father Christmas whirled round to see what was there.
What was there was two enormous polar bears, reared up on their hind legs so that they were at least ten foot tall. Maybe even bigger. They had strange markings. Whilst most of their body was a grubby white, like every other polar bear that Stephen had seen, their fronts were covered in pink. There was a narrow strip at their left shoulder, and then the marking extended over the whole of their chest and down to the start of their legs, making them look as if they were wearing a pink leotard. Even in the gloom Stephen could also see their long, carnivorous teeth and their scimitar claws. He could see even more of their teeth when the bears roared again. Both he and Santa couldn’t help taking a step back, though Stephen took a longer one than Santa, tripped over him and as he tumbled pulled him to the ground with him.
The bears brought their front paws crashing down to the ground and ice flew up. Shards sprayed into the faces of the two men in front of them, who now brought their hands up to protect them, useless though that would be, fearing the worst. The polar bears instantly shrank back themselves, and sat on their haunches, sniffing.
‘Sorry about that,’ said the one on the left. ‘Didn’t mean to frighten you.’
‘We just, you know, can’t help roaring,’ said the one on the right. ‘It’s what we do. It’s just, you know, instinct.’
Stephen stared, struggling to understand what he was seeing and hearing, but as a scientist unable to resist asking questions.
‘And why’s that?’ he asked the bears.
‘It’s our species,’ said the one on the left.
‘Your species?’ questioned Stephen.
‘Yes,’ replied the bear on the right. ‘We’re wrestling bears.’
‘Yes,’ said bear left. ‘Bears that, you know, wrestle.’
For a moment there was no sound except breathing. Stephen didn’t know what to say. Or do. The bears just sat there in their leotards, grinning at him. Father Christmas broke the silence.
‘What are your names?’
‘Dave,’ replied bear left.
‘Dave,’ replied bear right.
Stephen was able to speak again.
‘Dave and Dave? You’re both called Dave?’
‘That’s right,’ said both bears together. ‘Dave. We’re brothers.’
‘It makes things pretty easy,’ said left Dave. ‘Only one name to remember. Morning, Dave, Dave will say. And I’ll be like, oh yes. Morning Dave, I’ll then say to Dave. Any time we want anything it’s just Dave. Easy, you see?’
‘Yes, I can see that,’ replied Stephen.
‘What are your names?’ asked Dave.
‘I’m Stephen. And this is…’ He couldn’t bring himself to say it.
‘I’m Father Christmas.’ Santa stuck out a beefy hand and shook the paw of each bear.
‘Father Christmas! What are you doing out here?’ asked one of the Daves.
‘We’re lost,’ said Stephen, but his words disappeared as Father Christmas cut across him.
‘We’re on our way home. Some pirate seals stole my sleigh. Stephen was very kindly helping me, but sadly his snowmobile has run out of petrol. Could you help us at all?’
‘Help Father Christmas? We’d be honoured,’ said Dave. ‘North Pole, is it?’
‘Of course,’ replied Father Christmas.
‘No problem. Might take a while, though. We’ll run overnight, get you there tomorrow sometime.’
‘That would be wonderful,’ said Father Christmas. ‘Just rest when you need to, though. We’ll manage.’
‘Right you are,’ replied Dave.
Santa looked at Stephen. ‘You’ll come with us?’
Stephen wasn’t exactly sure what was happening, and was still bewildered, but realised that he didn’t really have a choice. He could stay out in the cold, perched on a snowmobile that was going nowhere, and hope that someone happened to come by and rescue him. Or he could go with Father Christmas and two wrestling bears, and see where he ended up. It really wasn’t the sort of decision he made every day. He nodded back at Father Christmas, who in turn nodded to the Daves to indicate that they were both coming.
‘Right, up you get then,’ said Dave.
The bears had crouched down, and were resting their shaggy necks almost on the ice so that the men could climb up. Stephen grabbed a hunk of fur, gently at first, then realising that he wasn’t hurting the bear at all by tugging on it, grabbed it more forcefully and levered himself onto Dave’s back. Dave’s neck was enormous, and the muscles in it felt like iron bars. Stephen stopped trying to wrap his arms all the way round it and just carried on gripping some fur.
‘Thank you for this,’ he said to Dave.
‘No problem. Anything for Father Christmas.’
‘And he’s…’ Stephen didn’t even get to the end of the question before Dave replied.
‘Yes. Of course he is. Can’t you tell?’
Stephen thought about everything that had happened so far.
‘I think maybe I can now. Or am starting to.’
‘It’s obvious,’ said Dave.
‘By the way,’ said Stephen. ‘Just out of curiosity, what were your parents called? Was it…?’
‘Dave?’ asked Dave. ‘Yes.’
‘Not your mother too, surely?’
Both Daves snorted. ‘Our mother? No, that would be stupid.’
‘So your mother’s name was…?’
Suddenly both bears reared up and roared once more, then as their vast paws came down they began to run at incredible speed. Stephen clung on and buried his head in his bear’s fur to keep it from getting ripped by the wind. Before he did, he couldn’t help notice that the bears were heading in exactly the same direction that he had been travelling on the snowmobile. It must be north, he thought. I wonder how that happened.
‘We’re going down!’ screamed Clegg.
This was not like their bumpy landing at the fish market. They had meant to land then, they just hadn’t done it very well. This was the sleigh falling out of the sky, like a stone thrown over a cliff edge.
This time it was the sleigh that was leading the seals, rather than the other way round. The harness bit into them, twisting and cutting with the pressure, until they didn’t know if they were yelling because they were falling or because of the pain of their blubber being sliced open. They couldn’t get out of the harness even if they wanted to. Bellamy definitely didn’t want to. If he was out of the harness he would certainly just crash to the ground. If he stayed in it, at least there was a chance that the sleigh might magically fly, or one of the other seals keep them airborne.
He knew that wasn’t going to be him. As much as he flapped, and waved his tail and frantically shook his head, he kept going down and down. And down. Quickly. Very quickly. He sneaked a glance to his left hand side. Clegg was doing the same as him with the same lack of result. And screaming. Clegg was screaming a lot. Bellamy didn’t think that this was helping. It was certainly giving him a headache.
‘Can’t you make this thing fly any better?’ Redbeard yelled at Blood. Gravity was largely keeping them pinned back in the sleigh.
‘Any better?’ shouted Blood back at him. ‘It’s not even flying at all!’
‘What do you mean?’ cried Redbeard. ‘We’re soaring through the air.’
‘Soaring? Soaring?’ Blood knew that he was now yelling angrily at the Captain, which was usually a very bad idea. He hadn’t been able to stop himself, though.
‘Soaring,’ went on Blood, shouting over the rushing air, ‘means going upwards. With some degree of control. In case you hadn’t noticed, we are falling uncontrollably downwards.’
‘Up, down, it’s all the same. We’re definitely flying through the air.’
Blood didn’t know how the Captain managed to stay calm in situations like this, and retain a sense of blind optimism that everything would be all right. That was why he was the Captain. He was also, Blood realised, completely mad. Possibly not completely. Just mostly. In all the wrong ways. Blood tried to focus.
‘In answer to your question, Captain, then no, I can’t make it fly any better.’
‘Going to be a bumpy landing, then, Blood.’
Blood thought about picking him up on the use of the word ‘bumpy’, rather than something that fitted the situation slightly better. Like ‘excruciating’ or ‘deadly’ or ‘horrific’. Then decided there was no point. He turned away from Redbeard and tried to look down, though the wind slapping his face like an angry fisherman forced him to turn away quickly. He got a brief glance of where they were, and all around was white, white, white. What they mostly saw every day and got ever so boring.
Apart from the occasional twist as it was buffeted by the wind, the sleigh had maintained a stubbornly downwards, very fast trajectory. Suddenly, it slowed, not quite to a complete halt, but like they’d hit an enormous jelly and were sinking into it. Blood looked down, but he couldn’t see anything apart from the ice.
‘What’s happening, Blood?’ asked the Captain.
‘We’ve slowed down, Captain,’ replied Blood. Not knowing anything else, he thought it was best to stick to the facts.
The sleigh continued to descend slowly.
‘Are you all right?’ shouted Redbeard to the crew, who like the sleigh were also sinking, and having been certain they were about to die, were somewhat bemused by this.
‘Er, yes, Captain,’ shouted Clegg back. ‘Kind of.’
Blood noticed that a darkness was beginning to surround them. He looked up and there were no clouds or the moon, or anything of comfort. It was just dark. He felt nervous. The Captain, on the other hand, was cheery.
‘I told you we would be fine. Nice, soft landing. Always knew it.’
‘I don’t think we’re on the ground yet, Captain.’
‘Soon will be.’
‘Have you not noticed the…darkness,’ asked Blood, tentatively.
‘What darkness?’ asked Redbeard. ‘I can see lots of lights!’
‘What, Captain?’ asked Blood, confused, but only for a moment. Whilst blobby darkness was still above them, below them was an eruption of light. Not simply the contrast of darkness against shiny ice, but actual bright light, of all different colours. It was so bright that initially Blood couldn’t look at it for more than a second, having to turn away to protect his eyes. Gradually they grew used to it, and he could stare down and begin to take it in.
There was a city down there. Perhaps not a city, maybe not quite as big as that, but there were a lot of buildings, and each one was lit up on the inside and outside. White, green, yellow, red, and shades that he couldn’t even recognise as different colours blended in with each other. It was difficult to see the layout of the place due to all the light. There were clearly some huge hangar like buildings, but it was hard to see what else. It definitely wasn’t what he expected to see. He suddenly knew exactly where they were, though. At the sleigh’s home.
He was trying to peer more closely, when the sleigh suddenly began to fall again at speed. He quickly looked up, and saw that the sleigh was no longer caught in the sticky barrier, but had passed through it completely. With nothing to hold it, the sleigh was now continuing its rapid fall, and the ground was quickly approaching.
‘Flap!’ shouted Redbeard to the seals, and they dutifully obeyed but it was no use, the magic had disappeared. The sleigh continued to plunge, closer and closer to the city, and the seals barked their gravelly screams as they saw roofs and houses and spiky lamps approaching. They hurtled past the side of one building, bouncing off windows and bricks as they did so, and Blood prepared himself for the worst. He closed his eyes, then opened them again as he found he couldn’t face his death without knowing exactly when it was going to happen, like a child on a rollercoaster who just has to face the horror. Then he closed them again as they were about to hit the ground, unable to avoid the instinctive reaction, and put his flipper up in front of his eyes as an added feeble defence.
‘Bye, Captain,’ he whispered.
The sleigh smashed into the ground. At least, that was what Blood was expecting. But at the last moment, just a few feet up, the seals managed one last, desperate flap for survival, eked out some momentary magic, and generated some lift to soften the landing. Blood and the Captain winced as the seals plopped down like custard poured onto a pavement, but they instantly knew by their moans and groans and the way they were wriggling that they were okay.
‘My stomach,’ moaned Clegg.
‘Are you hungry or injured?’ shouted Redbeard.
‘Injured,’ Clegg shouted back. There was a pause. ‘No, hungry.’ Another pause. ‘I think maybe both?’
‘My flippers,’ groaned Bellamy.
‘My everything,’ complained Bart.
‘Stop whinging,’ said Redbeard. ‘At least you’re all alive.’
‘Where are we?’ asked Hector.
‘Never mind that,’ replied Blood. ‘Who are they?’
The seals looked up, and saw that staring at them, on the road they had landed on, and through the windows, and peeping round every corner that they could see, were hundreds and hundreds of very tiny people. With funny hats and pointy ears. Smiling broadly.
‘Get ready,’ hissed Redbeard, grinding his fangs.
Stephen wasn’t sure how long they had been travelling. At the start he had clung to the wrestling bear’s fur, feeling that he was going to fall off at any moment. Dave lolloped quickly but rocked severely from side to side across the ice. He had constantly shifted his grip as the fur seemed to slide through his hand, and pressed his legs in against Dave’s sides until they began to ache and cramp.
As the minutes and then hours passed, his own fatigue and the drowsy warmth of the fur meant that he kept nodding off, until a jolt or a slip snapped him awake. Eventually he fell into a deep sleep, with the bear knowing that just the way that Stephen was draped across his back would keep him from falling off. Dave heard the snores from above and smiled to himself, but carried on running.
Father Christmas had not slept. He was used to long periods awake, especially while travelling. After all, it was a whole night on Christmas Eve when he needed to deliver all his presents, and there was no time for sleeping then. He had known that riding on the polar bear did not need him to cling on, or bury his hands in the fur and wrap it tightly around them. He simply sat astride Dave, legs gently pressed against his flanks, gazing out at the unending expanse of ice, and thinking of home. It was Father Christmas who saw them first, and reached down and tapped Dave on the neck to alert him. Before he could even speak, Dave was slowing down.
‘I see them,’ he said flatly.
The other Dave had noticed his brother reducing to a walk, and then what he had seen, and he did the same, until the two bears were pacing along the ice within touching distance of each other.
‘You’d better get off,’ said Father Christmas’ Dave.
Father Christmas did as instructed, and once he had slid off Dave’s back he reached up and tapped the sleeping Stephen on the leg. This had been when he woke.
‘What’s going on?’ he asked as he too got off the bear, who leaned towards the ground to help him, before squinting hard at the gloom in front of them. It was dawn, or maybe it was the middle of the afternoon. It was hard to tell up here.
‘Problem,’ replied Father Christmas. ‘Wolves.’
‘Ok.’ Stephen knew about wolves. Packs of them roamed near their base, scenting both the food they ate and the scientists themselves. The wolves would have happily eaten either. The scientists burned fires and let off occasional flares to scare them away, but still they came near, watching and waiting for an opportunity.
‘They won’t attack the bears, though, will they?’ he asked. ‘I thought polar bears attacked wolves, not the other way round?’
‘If there’s enough of them, they will. And if they’re hungry enough. It’s been a long winter out here.’ Father Christmas chuckled to himself.
‘What’s funny?’ asked Stephen.
‘It’s always a long winter out here, no use pretending otherwise.’ He chuckled again, then stopped. The sight in front of them wasn’t amusing.
What had seemed to be part of the ice was moving towards them, and as it did so Stephen was able to see more distinct shapes, and make out paws and snouts. And fangs. The wolves were white with flashes of grey around their muzzles and ears, and some had streaks around their paws and tails. They looked almost silver, and as they padded closer Stephen could see beautiful pale blue eyes, enormous and seemingly out of all proportion, and he got sucked into staring at them. Then he pulled his gaze back a bit, and realised with a shiver that they weren’t out of proportion, rather the wolves themselves were simply massive. There were around twenty of them, though he couldn’t count properly as they were getting closer and closer. He could hear their ugly panting and see the steam rising from their warm drool.
‘What do we do?’ he asked, instinctively reaching for a flare from his snowmobile to try and frighten them off, knowing deep down that the snowmobile had been left far behind, but unable to stop himself.
‘Don’t worry,’ replied Father Christmas. ‘The wrestling bears will take care of it.’
The bears were stood dead still, on all fours, as rigid as if the arctic air had finally frozen them into statues. Stephen leaned forward to ask them what they were going to do, but Santa put his arm across him and held him back.
‘No,’ he said quietly. ‘Just let them do their work. Let them concentrate. This is what they do.’
The wolves were now within about fifteen feet, and starting to break apart in their pack and circle round them. Stephen was getting twitchy, thinking that they needed to act immediately or the wolves would have an advantage when they were round to their sides and behind them as well. Santa could feel him pushing against his arm which he had left there, and held it more tightly and whispered again to Stephen.
‘Just wait. They know the time.’
The bears took one step back in unison, and twisted their necks, like they were unwinding. They turned to each other and nodded very slightly. Stephen readied himself for a brutal fight, for chunks of fur and flesh to fly. It was going to be ugly and frightening and gruesome. The wolves had closed to within about ten feet when the bears suddenly reared up, towering over everything. Stephen waited for them to attack. They took him by surprise.
‘You!’ shouted the Dave on the left. ‘Are the worst wolves I have ever seen in my life! You’re mangy and dirty! Your teeth are blunt! You’re about as menacing as an ice cube.’
The wolves stood and stared, though they had stopped moving forward. Stephen tried to read their eyes and their expressions, but they were unchanging. The other Dave began his attack.
‘Look at your fur, it’s horrible! And your claws are pathetic. Have you even got any?’ He waved his own front paws at them. ‘We are going to destroy you! See these?’ He waved his paws again. ‘See these?’ He bared his fangs. Despite himself, Stephen was quite impressed. ‘We are going to tear you apart. If you’ve got the guts to stand here and fight.’
‘What are they doing?’ Stephen asked Santa. ‘Why are they shouting at them?’
‘They’re wrestling bears,’ replied Santa in a bemused tone. ‘This is what they do. Have you never seen wrestling? Everyone starts by shouting.’ He tapped his head with his finger. ‘Psychology, you see. Get inside their heads.’
‘But they’re wolves. They work on instinct. You can’t get inside their heads.’
‘Oh you can,’ replied Santa. ‘Just watch. It’s all in the shouting.’
The bears continued their attack.
‘You’re weak and pathetic. Run away little wolves. We are going to smash you!’
‘We are the strongest, fittest, bestest bears in the world. And you, my friends, are going down!’
Stephen again tried to work out what the wolves were thinking. He thought he detected a slight nervousness, or certainly confusion, but he was perhaps just trying too hard to see something that wasn’t there.
Suddenly the bears slammed their paws on the ground, sending slivers of ice flying onto the fur of the nearest wolves. Then they reared up again and roared, a roar so loud that even though they were standing behind them, both Stephen and Santa felt compelled to take a step backwards. The roar went on and on, echoing around and seeming as if it was getting louder and louder rather than fading away. Finally, everything fell silent. The bears stared at the wolves, and the wolves stared back. Then, just when Stephen thought the wolves were going to attack, they turned and slowly began to walk away, their heads bowed and their tails dropped.
Dave and Dave turned back to the men.
‘That told them,’ said Dave.
‘Wolves don’t mess with us,’ said other Dave.
‘Hop back on, then,’ said Stephen’s Dave. ‘We’ve still got a long way to go.’
‘Thank you,’ replied Stephen as he clambered back onto the fur. ‘That was very impressive.’
‘It’s what we do,’ said Dave, as he began marching forward to continue their journey. ‘No problem.’
Redbeard stayed still, but was ready to attack, just like the other seals apart from Bellamy. He found that he was unbearably hungry, and the groaning from his angry stomach was distracting him completely. The little men in funny hats stared and stared, giving Redbeard a better chance to take them in. They were all about two feet tall, actually a little more including the hats, though Redbeard assumed that they didn’t have sharp, pointy heads that filled them. That might be painful if it came to a fight.
Each one was dressed in a tunic with large, round buttons, in a variety of colours. He spotted reds, greens, yellows, blues and a few other colours amongst all the men on both sides of the road and in all the buildings that he could see. No, not just men. Females, too, now he looked more closely, with softer features and long hair that he could see spilling out from underneath those pointy hats. Whether male or female, they all wore thick tights, then pointy shoes that he thought were made out of leather.
He could see hundreds of them. Though they were tiny compared to the seals, sheer weight of numbers might make it tricky if the seals had to try and overcome them. Redbeard needed to find the supply of magic flakes. This isn’t the time to start a fight, he thought to himself, I need to be gentle.
‘Oy, you!’ he shouted to the little man closest to him. For bearded seals, being gentle meant not crushing something. ‘Who are you lot and where are we?’
The little man didn’t answer, his expression just changed to one of fear, and he took a step backwards. Redbeard dragged himself forward in response, saw the man look even more afraid and immediately pulled himself back again.
‘I don’t mean to scare you,’ said Redbeard more softly. ‘We mean you no harm.’
The other seals had to work very hard to stop themselves from laughing.
Still the little man said nothing.
Suddenly, out of the shadows of the buildings at the side of the road, a large snowman stepped in front of the Captain. At least, Redbeard thought he stepped, but then realised the snowman had no legs. Redbeard wanted to see him move again, to work out how he did it, but at the moment he was stock still. He was about six feet tall, with a black wide brimmed hat, black eyes made out of coal and a large carrot for a nose. His mouth didn’t appear to be made of anything, there was just a gap there, though Redbeard noticed the snowman was chewing on the butt of a carrot.
Down the front of the snowman were four more large pieces of coal like buttons. And sticking out of each of his shoulders was a slender tree branch with five twigs at the end of it like fingers. Redbeard caught sight of the twigs flexing. Not like fingers, they were fingers, just made of wood.
The snowman spat the piece of carrot out from his mouth and onto the ground. His mouth immediately disappeared, sucked back into the snow that formed his head. It left a striking and menacing sight of just the hat, a carrot nose and the two dead, coal eyes. Redbeard felt himself wanting to flinch as he stared into those dark pools, but held himself rigid. He couldn’t let either his seal crew or all the strangers see that he was taken aback. Particularly not the stranger right in front of him.
He stayed still as the snowman reached up, and for a moment he thought that the snowman was going to pull out a weapon of some kind. Instead he grabbed his carrot nose, yanked it out and stuck it in his mouth, chomping on it. Redbeard watched amazed as another bright orange carrot immediately shot out of the hole that had been left, instantly giving him a new nose.
‘Where are you from, friend?’ asked the snowman, though he made the word ‘friend’ sound anything but a warm greeting. ‘We don’t see your type round these parts very often. Especially not with one of those.’ He gestured at the sleigh behind them.
Redbeard could feel the tension. All the little people were staring, many mouths open, an occasional murmur as one neighbour whispered to another. He pulled himself up, so that his gaze was level with the snowman.
‘I am Redbeard,’ he pronounced in bold tones, speaking to the whole of the crowd rather than just to the snowman. ‘From the southern seas far from here.’ He paused. ‘I come in peace.’ He’d always wanted to say that. The snowman gave no reaction to this kind gesture, but just kept grinding on the carrot.
‘Who are you?’ asked Redbeard.
‘They call me Chunky,’ he replied. ‘Chunky the Snowman.’
‘And what do you call yourself?’
The snowman reached up and pulled the carrot from his mouth for a moment, so he could speak clearly.
The carrot was reinserted.
One of the little people ran up to the snowman, who bent over so that they could whisper in his ear, though Redbeard couldn’t see that there were any actual ears in the snowman’s head.
‘Sure, kid,’ the snowman said as he stood up again. ‘I’ll ask him.’ He reached over and clumsily patted the little person on the head, knocking his hat off. There was no pointy head. ‘You’re a good kid.’
‘I’m a hundred and forty seven years old,’ replied the little person, somewhat huffily.
‘Sure you are,’ replied the snowman. ‘Like I said, you’re a good kid.’
The little person picked up his hat and scampered back to the side of the road. The snowman turned back to Redbeard.
‘Where did you get the sleigh, friend?’
‘We found it,’ lied Redbeard without any hesitation. ‘It was abandoned on the ice close to where it meets the sea.’
‘And there was no-one with it? No fat guy? No reindeer?’
The eyes never blinked, never moved, never changed, but Redbeard couldn’t help feeling that their expression was now one of suspicion and disbelief. Redbeard remained blank, and the seals behind him either did the same or kept their heads bowed so that no-one could see their faces.
‘No,’ he replied. ‘No-one.’
This statement caused panic amongst the little people, as a splatter of talking burst out, accompanied by a lot of arm waving and jumping up and down. Redbeard carried on.
‘We knew it was important. And…’ He coughed apologetically at this point. ‘We were naturally curious as to what it was. So we did a bit of exploring round it, my crew here found themselves covered in those incredible flakes. Then Blood here…’ He turned and waved a flipper at Blood, who was trying not to look surprised at the Captain’s lies. ‘…don’t worry about his name, by the way, he’s really quite a gentle soul….’ Blood couldn’t help spluttering at this point, and pretended he was having some kind of coughing fit. The Captain narrowed his eye at him, then turned back and carried on.
‘…Blood found some kind of magic map, and realised that he could get the ship back to its owner. So my crew nobly stuffed themselves into the harness, and all of a sudden we had taken off and were flying here.’
Still no reaction from Chunky. Redbeard was frustrated, with no idea whether Chunky believed him or not. His pirate instinct was to lash out and take the snowman down to be on the safe side. He restrained himself.
‘You’re lucky we made it. I don’t know anything about those flakes, but it seems as if they were wearing off them. We nearly crashed.’
‘Thank you, friend,’ replied Chunky. He began to move towards the sleigh, and the seals shifted slightly to one side to allow him more space to do it, even though there was plenty. Chunky had a presence that made him seem even bigger than he was, as if there was some kind of field around him that you couldn’t invade. Redbeard still couldn’t work out how he moved.
‘And you brought the sleigh straight back here?’
Chunky was now walking round the back of the sleigh. Blood could see him staring at the scratches and dents from when they had crashed the sleigh into the fish market, and hoped that Chunky would think they had happened when they had just landed. Chunky didn’t say anything or react, but carried on to the back of the sleigh, and stuck his head in. He immediately jerked it back out again.
‘Wooh, that stinks of fish! Any idea what that’s all about?’
The seals all gulped, but said nothing, trying desperately to think of an innocent explanation. Blood suddenly sniffed his armpit.
‘I think it’s probably us,’ he said to Chunky. ‘Unfortunately. Our diet is mostly fish and they get everywhere. I imagine that when we climbed in the back to see what was in there, we rubbed against the wood and made it smell of fish. Sorry.’
Chunky said nothing for a moment, and like Redbeard, Blood wasn’t sure if Chunky believed him. Then Chunky spoke again, grinning.
‘That’s gonna need a lot of cleaning.’ He turned and spoke to one of the little people. ‘Can you elves sort that out?’
‘But what about Santa?’ replied the elf.
‘And the reindeer?’ asked Chunky.
The elf snorted. ‘Yeah, those lovely reindeer. They’ll be fine, they look after themselves well enough. But what about Santa?’
‘We’ll get to it kid. I’m as worried as you are. First things first.’
He turned back to Redbeard.
‘Welcome, friends. I thank you for bringing the sleigh back, though we are naturally concerned about our friends who were in it.’
The seal crew breathed a sigh of relief, but Redbeard and Blood knew better than to think that the snowman trusted them completely. Those eyes remained coal dead.
‘We’ll find you a place to rest and recover. Then we’ll show you the magic kingdom. Santa’s home.’
As soon as Chunky had welcomed the seals, the mood amongst the elves changed completely. Blank faces or fear or suspicion was replaced by joy, and the elves’ faces glowed brightly, and the seals felt a wave of warmth flowing over them. They had never seen anything like these little people before.
The elves swarmed out from the houses and pavements, and gathered round the seals, jostling them and each other, trying to get the closest. The ones who managed to do this immediately tried to turn back, as the stench of fish and seal blubber leapt onto them, but that was not possible with the weight of the other elves behind them.
‘Come with us, come with us!’ they cried, and the seals found themselves propelled along the snowy road. There were lights everywhere, turning the snow multi coloured like the crushed glass of a broken kaleidoscope. Bellamy didn’t like it. It was far too cheery. In the distance he could hear tinny and distorted music. He didn’t think he was going to like that, either.
The seals were turned sharply and directed through the doorway of a large building. The light was dazzling, and it took a few moments for their eyes to adjust and for them to be able to see what was inside. The light was not coloured, but bright white, showing up everything in absolute clarity. The room was so vast that the seals could barely see the other end of it.
There were rows and rows of workbenches, with stools next to them. As the seals gazed along them, they saw that the benches were covered with things in boxes, things that were loose, and things that were partly assembled. Underneath the benches were all kinds of tools – saws, hammers, screwdrivers, spirit levels, wrenches, paintbrushes, spray guns. On the far walls there were huge cupboards, mostly closed but some had their doors ajar, and the seals could see all sorts of materials, like wood, and coloured plastics, and screws and nails. Running above was a metal structure that hummed and clanked and the seals realised that there was a belt moving slowly along it that could carry items out of the hall. The conveyor kept moving, though no-one was currently working at the benches.
‘Welcome to Santa’s workshop,’ whispered the elf nearest to Hector.
‘Santa’s workshop?’ questioned Hector, though it was more of an unthinking response than a real question. He had only ever heard of ice and rocks and desolation at the north pole. Certainly not workshops and elves.
‘Yes, Santa’s workshop,’ replied the elf. ‘Where all the toys are made. Not long till Christmas now.’ He gave a little whoop of excitement, unable to help himself. Then suddenly he stopped and realised. ‘As long as Santa comes back to us.’
‘Has he ever not?’ asked Hector.
‘No,’ replied the elf.
‘There you go, then,’ said Hector.
‘He’s never been away this long, though,’ said the elf, a worried look on his face. ‘Neither have the reindeer. Thanks for trying to cheer me up, though!’ he said brightly.
‘No problem,’ replied Hector, though he thought the elf probably wouldn’t have been quite so friendly if he’d realised that Hector and all of the other seals were trying to work out if elves tasted anything like fish. Fortunately for the elves, on balance the seals were thinking probably not.
‘So what happens to all the toys?’ asked Blood to the elf nearest to him.
The elf looked at him strangely, as if he couldn’t believe that Blood didn’t know.
‘They get delivered to all the children of the world by Santa. At Christmas.’
‘Huh,’ said Blood, without anything more insightful to say. ‘And they all get made in here?’
‘Not all of them,’ chuckled the elf. ‘This workshop isn’t big enough to make all the toys in. There’s another one on the other side of the town. We’ll show you that one once you’ve seen the canteen and where we live. Come on!’
All the elves were gradually moving through the workshop and out through the far door, with the seals following behind. Chunky was bringing up the rear, keeping a close eye on the seals and particularly Redbeard. Suddenly the elves stopped, and Clegg and Bellamy ran into the back of some, trapping them under a mound of blubber.
‘Sorry about that,’ they murmured, stepping back to release the gasping elves, only to send six elves behind them tumbling like bowling pins.
Ahead of them, Hector and Bart, able to see easily over the heads of the mass of elves, could see what had caused all of them to suddenly stop, though they didn’t particularly know why. A woman had entered the workshop, and the elves all parted in front of her. She was in her early thirties, with bouncing blonde hair that nestled into perfect shape on her shoulders before tumbling down her back. She had blue eyes, high cheekbones, a petite nose and full, red lips. If the seals had known much about human females, they would have known she was beautiful. She was wearing a red dress, with a low cut neckline trimmed in white fur, which finished not very far down her shapely legs, which were clad in white tights to match the trim.
The elves stood on their toes to try and see over each other. Occasionally one elf would knock the hat off another to get a better view, and would instantly have his own hat ripped off in retaliation. Clegg thought that he saw the odd kick to the ankles, causing the assaulted elf to crease up in pain, again allowing the elf behind him to see more clearly.
‘She’s coming, she’s coming,’ whispered the elf next to Bart, in delirious excitement.
‘Who’s coming?’ he asked, receiving a scornful look in response, as the elf forgot his manners and that the seals were strangers, and could not possibly know what he was talking about.
‘Mrs Claus, of course,’ replied the elf.
The elf was getting exasperated. ‘Santa’s wife. She’s a wonderful woman.’
‘I can see that.’
The crowd of elves continued to move aside as Mrs Claus effortlessly glided across the ground, her legs moving like a model down a catwalk. Bart saw the elves lift themselves, raising their noses in the air like they were fish on a hook, and realised as Mrs Claus got closer to him that they were smelling her perfume. It was too strong and sweet for him, and certainly nothing like the smell of fish, and he began to cough.
From the other end of the room Chunky, who had been following all the seals into the workshop, began making his own way through the elves. They did not part for him, though, and he jostled and pushed them aside, muttering things like, ‘Outta my way, kid’ and ‘Move, shorty!’ until he had reached the open area where Mrs Claus stood, the elves too in awe of her to advance within more than a few feet.
‘Candy, good to see ya,’ said Chunky.
‘Who are our guests, Chunky?’ asked Candy Claus, in a husky but high pitched voice.
‘A family of seals,’ said Chunky. Blood snorted slightly, he had never heard Redbeard’s pirates described as a family before, but his noise went unnoticed. ‘Got some bad news for you, kid. They found your husband’s sleigh and brought it back. But it was empty. No sign of Santa or the reindeer.’
Mrs Claus gasped and clasped her hand over her mouth. She released it to speak again, but ran it through her hair as she did so. The elves swooned.
‘He’s never been gone this long. And they hadn’t seen any sign of him?’
Chunky turned to look at Redbeard to check. Redbeard just shook his head, doing the best impression of ignorance and sadness that he could manage.
‘I’m sorry, kid,’ said Chunky. ‘Nothing.’
‘Then we have to get out there and find him. Right away. It’s so cold. I’m so worried about him.’
‘We can’t do anything without the reindeer,’ drawled Chunky. ‘Otherwise we’re just wandering around in the cold and dark ourselves. Very slowly. That wouldn’t do anyone any good.’
‘I know,’ said Mrs Claus, her gorgeous eyes filling up with tears. ‘But I can’t just sit here waiting.’ Her face suddenly brightened.
‘Perhaps…’ she said, looking round at the seals before turning back to Chunky. ‘Perhaps our guests could help us, as they flew the sleigh here?’
Chunky shrugged, and she looked at Redbeard.
‘Will you help us? I have to get my husband back.’
Blood whispered in Redbeard’s ear, who then replied.
‘Yes, we’d be happy to. But the seals are very tired from flying and need food and rest. Just for a while.’
‘Of course. But I beg you to help us as soon as you can.’
‘We will. Don’t worry, we’ll help you find him. But of course…’ Redbeard paused slightly ‘…you’ll need to show us where we get the magic flakes. The seals can’t fly without it. They’ll have to cover themselves in them again.’
‘No problem,’ said Chunky, spitting the last chunk of a carrot onto the workshop floor, and immediately ripping his nose out and shoving the carrot into his mouth. He began chomping on it. A new carrot nose sprang out. ‘The elves can show you. After you’ve rested.’
‘That will be fine,’ said Redbeard, inwardly grinning but presenting a serious, concerned face to Chunky and the elves. ‘Absolutely fine.’
As he bounced along on the back of Dave the wrestling bear, Stephen was thinking. Again. He thought a lot anyway, it was part of his job as a scientist. He had been thinking even more than normal on their journey towards the north pole. There wasn’t a lot else to do. The scenery was magnificent, but there were only so many times that you could you look at it and think, ‘oooh, that’s magnificent’, before you lost sense of it and it became just a mass of ice and rock, largely similar to the ice and rock that you passed a few miles back. It was also dark a lot of the time, which made it difficult to see the ice and rock, however magnificent it might be. Sometimes it was dusky, and he could pick out odd shapes and formations of ice. Sometimes it was completely black with only a few stars or occasionally the strange glows of the northern lights for illumination, and he wondered how the bears were able to run so smoothly, deftly avoiding any obstacles.
That was one of his thoughts. Sometimes he just thought about home in England, and how much he was missing his wife and son. He was due to be back there very soon, in time for Christmas. Instead he was somehow riding on the back of a polar bear, alongside Father Christmas, and in danger of missing the plane that would land just once at their station before the new year. He thought a lot about Father Christmas. He never imagined that he would meet him. More than that, he thought about the science of Father Christmas, though Santa kept calling it magic when he talked to him about it. As far as Stephen was concerned there was no magic, only things that science hadn’t yet explained.
Like how Santa’s sleigh flew, though he was yet to see it. Santa kept telling him how the reindeers pulled it through the sky at unbelievable speed, so that from the earth it simply looked like a streak of lightning or a shooting star, if it was visible at all. Stephen had asked him how it worked, and Santa had simply replied that it was magic, and that was all he needed to know, but it wasn’t. There must have been some fuel, or some engine, or something that propelled it, just as a plane flew with giant engines that gave it thrust. It couldn’t just be magic, there was no such thing.
Then there was Santa himself. Stephen was coming round to the idea that the man in the jogging pants could actually be Father Christmas, especially given the way that the polar bears reacted to him. There was an aura about him that made Stephen feel warm inside, like he’d just drunk a cup of hot chocolate every time Santa spoke to him. How old was he, though? He spoke of times hundreds of years ago, and seemed to remember the world as it was before electricity, before computers, when he still had to jump down smoke filled chimneys everywhere. When all the presents were wooden or simple metal, and there were no plastics, or circuits, or batteries to be remembered or forgotten.
If he was telling the truth, though, this would make him older than anyone had ever been, and older than Stephen thought anyone could be. Again, he did not know how this could be possible, and when he asked Santa about it, Santa just gave that curious chuckle, shook his head and told him that it was just the way it was, and the way that it had to be, and not to think too much about it. Stephen ignored him and thought about it anyway, until Father Christmas distracted him with another tale of how delivering a present had gone wrong, and then another, and then a story about a particular elf he had known, until the soothing tone of the stories and the rocking movement as the polar bear ran, sent him back to sleep and he finally stopped thinking for a while.
Redbeard was hungry, but not as hungry as he had been. The elves had led them to some kind of barn, its floor covered with straw, where the seals had flopped down. Before they had gone to sleep, teams of elves had brought them fish. To the elves, it was a vast quantity, buckets and buckets, but to the seals it was just a snack. Still, it would do for the moment. Once they had been led to the source of the magic flakes, they could steal the sleigh and go wherever they wanted.
The other seals were now also awake, their grumbling stomachs too sore and loud for them to ignore. Redbeard used the time to tell them the plan, and make sure they knew exactly what they were doing. Then he told them again. And again. It was hard to get something to stick in a seal’s head, other than the image of a fish. After three goes he hoped that they would remember. Sometimes it took five, but he didn’t have time for any more, as an elf popped his head round the door of the stable.
‘Are you ready?’ asked the elf. ‘Mrs Claus is anxious that we start the search as soon as possible.’
‘Yes, we’re ready,’ replied Redbeard. ‘Aren’t we, lads?’
‘Aye, Captain,’ replied the seals, with various degrees of enthusiasm.
‘This way, then.’
When the elf had his backed turned to them, Redbeard nodded and winked to his crew. They grinned back. Soon there would be more fish than in all the oceans, thought Bart to himself. Then thought again. Hang on, don’t all the fish come from the ocean? Does that make sense? He pondered once more, as they shuffled out of the stable. There’s going to be a lot of fish, he concluded.
They came out of the stables but rather than lead them back towards the workshops, they turned in the opposite direction, and were led down a road with few buildings on either side. The sun was low in the sky, but Redbeard could tell that it was on its way up rather than down, and that they had therefore slept through the night. My seals will be well rested, he thought. As before, elves were crowded on either side of the road. This time, rather than staring in fear and fascination, they were cheering the rescue party of blubbery heroes who were off to find Santa and save Christmas.
Blood noticed that despite the weak sun, the air was not particularly cold, and the elves wore light clothes. There was no wind, howling across the ice like it generally did whenever they got out of the sea back home. He glanced upwards, but could see no sign of the dome over this most northerly of cities. He knew it was there, though, and realised it must insulate the city from the harsh polar climate.
After a few hundred metres, the lead elf stopped in front of a small stone building. Waiting for them were Chunky the Snowman and Mrs Claus.
‘We’re here,’ said the elf.
‘Is this it?’ asked Redbeard, slightly surprised.
‘It’s not what you think, friend,’ replied Chunky.
Redbeard looked at him questioningly, but didn’t say anything more. He poked his head inside the wooden door of the building, held it there for a few seconds and then withdrew it again. He turned to the other seals and picked on Bart.
‘You first, Bart,’ he said. ‘Then Bellamy, Clegg and Hector. Blood and I will bring up the rear.’
Bart obeyed instantly, and shuffled across the ice towards the door.
‘You don’t need any flakes, do you?’ Chunky asked the pirate captain, as Bart sloped past him and Redbeard. His tone did not seem suspicious, just curious.
‘You never know,’ replied Redbeard. ‘One of the crew might get too tired, or might get injured, and Blood and I might need to take over.’
If Chunky had eyebrows, he would have raised one, and even without them Redbeard was sure he could detect the slightest stirring of snow above Chunky’s right coal eye. Nothing more was said, though, and one by one the seals began to go into the building.
As soon as Bart was inside, he had to wait a moment to let his eyes adjust to the light. It was very dark, but there was a strange, gold glow, and he realised that it was exactly the same as in the back of the sleigh. After a few seconds he could see as properly as he was ever going to be able, and saw why the building was so small. A few feet into the hut, a large tunnel opened up and stretched away underneath the ground. He moved closer to the edge, where he could see that the tunnel sloped gently down, and all he needed to do was follow its path. Even as he entered, though, he could not see where it ended, but the glow became stronger and stronger as he moved in.
The other seals were following behind.
‘Is it ok?’ whispered Bellamy to Bart.
‘It’s fine,’ Bart whispered back. After venturing about fifty metres down the tunnel, he could see that it opened out into a large cave only another twenty metres or so further forward. He carried on and suddenly he was out of the tunnel and in the cave. He burst out laughing.
‘What is it?’ hissed Bellamy from behind him in the tunnel.
‘Magic flakes,’ replied Bart. ‘They’re everywhere.’
Indeed they were. The cave seemed endless, and even with the curious glow that lit it up like a torch in a tent, Bart could not see where it ended. Bart’s words bounced around, echoing and echoing until he thought that they would never go quiet. Finally there was silence, apart from the grating of Bellamy on the path as he levered himself into the cave.
‘Wow,’ said Bellamy. He could now see what Bart had been unable to stop staring at. Piles and piles of golden snowflakes, everywhere they looked. They were mountains, towering up to the ceiling, dwarfing everything around them. The seals stared upwards, and could see that the snowflakes seemed to shift and move, and it looked as if they were falling from the ceiling onto the mountains, which then caused others to cascade down the sides, sending snowflakes tumbling down onto the ground like waterfalls. A path had been cleared through the middle of the cave, which stretched back as far as they could see, but it was gradually being covered by blinking golden snowflakes as more and more scattered off the bottom of the piles.
By now all the seals were standing in the cave, except for Redbeard who was still making his way down the tunnel. The seals looked at one another.
‘Shall we?’ said Hector.
‘After you,’ replied Clegg. ‘There’s plenty for everyone.’
Each seal dived into a different mountain of flakes and began rolling around, feeling themselves lighten even at the first touch.
Back at the surface, Chunky had watched the seals disappear down the tunnel.
‘Do you think they’ll be all right?’ asked Mrs Claus.
‘Dunno, kid,’ replied Chunky. ‘Something doesn’t quite sit right. Maybe we can sneak an elf on the sleigh with them to keep an eye on them.’
‘No,’ corrected Mrs Claus. ‘I just meant will they be all right down there.’
Chunky shrugged. ‘Send an elf down if you’re worried. I think they’ll be fine.’
Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted something. An object in the sky but not a cloud. A speck, then another, and another, moving towards them. They got closer and closer, and Chunky suddenly realised what they were. He nudged Candy Claus, who yelped in pain. As much as Chunky tried, he could never seem to remember that his hands were sharp sticks.
Mrs Claus turned and gasped. ‘The reindeer!’
She scanned the sky desperately to see if her husband might be riding on the back of one, but the reindeer were on their own, though she could now see that all of them were coming back. As they came nearer, Mrs Claus could see that their legs were moving frantically, and clouds of steam billowed from them like the jet of an iron. They too were exhausting their supply of magic flakes, stripped off in the wind, and were desperately trying to land before they crashed down to the iron ground.
Prancer and Dancer landed first, hooves smacking the ground and then they careered along the path. Elves scattered, then stepped back and turned round, only to find themselves diving for cover again as the rest of the reindeer came pounding down. The reindeer themselves ended up in a furry pile about fifty metres away from Chunky and Mrs Claus. Mrs Claus ran over to them, and Chunky, without doing anything that could be considered running, or even revealing how he was moving at all, somehow kept pace.
Candy threw her arms round the nearest reindeer, who happened to be Comet.
‘Oh, I’m so glad you’re back! I’ve been so worried!’
‘Gerrofff!’ shouted Comet, shaking his head to loosen Candy Claus’ grip. ‘What are you doing, woman, give me a bit of space.’
‘Hey Chunky,’ he called, ‘chuck us a carrot. I’m starving.’
Chunky shrugged, then tore his carrot nose out and threw it to Comet, who opened his jaws wide and caught in his large teeth, before swallowing it down in three gulps.
‘Nice one, Chunky,’ he said. ‘That’s much better.’
Chunky’s nose sprang back.
‘Where have you been?’ asked Candy. ‘What happened?’
‘Just getting back home,’ replied Rudolph. ‘Had to stop to rest a few times. Get some food inside us. Especially when the flakes started to run out.’
‘Have you seen my husband?’ asked Candy.
‘Not since we lost the sleigh.’
‘But you’ve been searching for him?’
The reindeer suddenly began looking at each other and down at the ground, and half of them developed some kind of cough that stopped them from replying.
‘Well, yeah, I mean, searching, yeah, we, er, kept our eyes open for him, of course,’ replied Rudolph. ‘Haven’t seen him, though. Or the sleigh,’ he added as an afterthought.
‘Oh, but we’ve got the sleigh,’ said Candy. ‘Some seals found it and brought it back. They’ve been ever so helpful.’
The reindeer looked at each other again, but this time with horror in their eyes.
‘No, no, no!’ spat Blitzen. ‘You’ve got it all wrong, Candy. Seals stole it from us in the first place. Took it while our backs were turned then fought us off when we tried to get it back.’
‘Have they gone now?’ asked Donner.
‘No,’ said Candy, her cheeks flushing. ‘They’re down there, in the cave, getting more flakes. They were going to help look for Santa.’
‘They’re lying,’ said Rudolph. ‘They’re just going to take the sleigh again.’
‘But what do they want with the sleigh?’ asked Candy.
‘Judging by the smell of it, I’d say they want to use it to get as many fish as they can,’ said Chunky, chomping on his carrot. ‘That’s all they ever seem to talk about. Catching fish, eating fish, eating too many fish, wanting more fish. Fish, fish, fish, fish, fish.’ He caught himself in mid flow, and stopped a further ‘fish’ from coming out of his icy mouth. He turned to the elves.
‘Where’s the sleigh now?’ he asked. ‘We need to hide it.’
‘In the centre of the town, just in the square,’ replied one.
‘Then we need to at least put it out of sight. Reindeer, can you give it a tow somewhere?’
The reindeer snorted, and a few of their muscly lips curled in displeasure, but after some hesitation all of them nodded.
‘Then you need to move quickly guys!’ shouted Chunky, as they started to amble slowly back into the town. ‘They’ll be here soon.’
‘Who’ll be here soon?’ rasped a horrible voice from behind them. Candy, and the reindeer and the elves all whirled round. Chunky sucked on his carrot for a moment, then picked it out of his mouth and flicked it out into the snow, before slowly circling, and finding himself face to face with Blood’s head poking out of the shed door.
As soon as Blood stuck his head out, he realised the situation had changed. The expressions on the elves’ faces had changed back to the worry and concern that he saw when they first arrived. Candy looked petrified and Chunky – well, it was impossible to read Chunky’s face but he definitely wasn’t smiling. And then Blood caught sight of the reindeer, and knew that things had changed completely.
The rest of the seals, who had been scooting obediently back up the path, drenched in golden flakes and trying to stop themselves from floating up against the sharp tunnel ceiling, bumped into each other as Blood came to a sudden halt. Redbeard, deeply annoyed at crashing into Bart’s behind, hissed down the tunnel.
‘Keep moving, you scurvy seals! What’s the hold up, we need to get to that sleigh?’
Blood turned round and whispered to Hector.
‘Tell the Captain we need to get out of there. They’re onto us. Quickly,’ he added, as Hector seemed to hesitate.
Hector nodded, then turned himself and whispered to Bellamy, who did the same, all the way down the line of seals. Quickly, a message came back to Blood.
‘Captain says, ‘what do you mean, they’re on a bus?’’
Blood shook his head in despair, lifted himself up and shouted back down the tunnel.
‘Captain, we need to get to that sleigh and get out of here. The reindeer are back.’
Redbeard drew himself up, sucked in a breath and then roared with all his might.
‘Seals, charge! To the sleigh! We are leaving right now!’
Outside the hut, the elves were hopping nervously from foot to foot. Candy Claus had wrapped an arm round Chunky and was half hiding behind him .
‘What are we going to do?’ she whispered to where his ear would have been.
‘Don’t know, kid,’ replied Chunky. ‘Thinking about it.’
He didn’t get the chance to do any more thinking. Redbeard’s roar tore out of the tunnel, closely followed by the seals flying at enormous speed. Their huge tails swished as they barrelled along, sending dozens of elves tumbling like skittles. Bellamy had passed within centimetres of Chunky, but his base remained rooted to the ground and he had simply swayed gently to take himself out of the seal’s way.
‘We’ve got to get after them!’ cried Candy. ‘We have to stop them!’
She turned to the elves.
‘Run! You need to stop them!’
Chunky still stood motionless.
‘No chance, kid. The elves can’t stop them, however many of them there are. Not by just chasing them. It’s down to the reindeer now.’
The seals were already upon the reindeer, who had speeded up slightly but were still no more than trotting and had just reached the sleigh. Comet was digging his nose into the harness, so that he could slip it on, but was smashed by Bart’s head, and sent skidding. Winded, he lay there for a few seconds before scrabbling upright.
‘Oy!’ cried Dancer. ‘You can’t do that to him!’
‘We can do whatever we want!’ yelled Clegg, and turned course, accelerated and tried to butt Dancer, who managed to dive out of the way.
The other seals had reached the harness by now and were climbing into it. The reindeer had formed themselves into a circle around the sleigh, and stood there snorting, heads bowed and antlers pointing in anger at the seals.
‘What do we do now?’ whispered Dancer to Vixen. ‘Can we take them?’
‘Not sure that’s in the job description,’ he replied. ‘Maybe we should check the rules.’
‘No time for that. If we’re going to do something, we should do it now.’
‘Probably,’ said Vixen, without looking as if she was preparing to move even an inch. Two of the seals were fully in the harness now, with two almost there.
‘We’re just going to let them take it? Really?’ asked Dancer, though as he was saying this he found his hooves shuffling backwards slightly, without him even thinking about it. ‘We really should do something.’
‘He can always make another one,’ replied Vixen. ‘Plenty of wood round here. I think.’
‘That’s been around for hundreds of years. It’s unique. You can’t just make another one.’
‘So had horses and carts, and look what happened to them. It’s all cars and buses and trains now. You’ve seen them when we’ve been flying around.’
‘And what happened to the horses then, eh?’ whispered Dancer.
Vixen shook her head and shrugged. ‘I dunno.’
‘Glue, that’s what!’ he hissed.
‘Fair point,’ acknowledged Vixen. ‘We should probably do something.’
The two remaining seals were just tightening themselves into the harness. In a few seconds they would be ready to take off. Redbeard and Blood were wedged up front as usual, and Redbeard was already gripping the reins in preparation.
‘Got anything sharp?’
Vixen grinned. ‘These,’ she said, baring her teeth.
‘Good thought,’ replied Dancer, and they both ran over to the sleigh, between its front and the backsides of Clegg and Bellamy, and began gnawing at the leather.
The other reindeer saw what they were doing, and however reluctant they had been to intervene, now rushed to join the others. What one reindeer did, they all did. They all focused on the part of the harness that connected to the front of the sleigh. If they could cut through that, the seals would never be able to get the sleigh off the ground. What they would then do with six very large, very angry seals, was a thought that was just beginning to occur to Prancer, but he immediately replaced this with the thought that they might just fly off and then leave them alone forever. Quite why they would do this was another thought that tried to replace this last one, but he blocked this out and carried on gnawing.
The reindeer were making progress, but whilst Clegg and Bellamy’s bodies were strapped in, their tails were free. With a yell they began swishing them, battering the reindeer, and knocking them away from the harness. The reindeer tried to get back in to chew again, but the seals kept their tails moving and they couldn’t.
Redbeard could see that all the seals were now hooked in.
‘Fly!’ he cried. ‘Fly now!’
The seals began to flap, and rise from the ground, and it became impossible for the reindeer to keep grinding at the straps. They had begun to make them fray, but nowhere near enough to cut through them. They leapt onto the harness again, and the seals’ necks strained, skin bulging as veins popped out, and Donner and Blitzen were pulled onto their hind legs as the seals took off. Their back legs scrabbled against the ground as they tried desperately to gain some purchase and pull the sleigh back down, their front legs waving uselessly in the air. Redbeard, unable to think of anything better to do, kept snapping the reins and yelling, ‘Fly!’ at the top of his voice.
Even the reindeers’ hearty bite could not grip for too long, and one by one they fell back to the ground, until the sleigh was hovering a few feet above them in the air. The elves had now caught up, and were trying to grab onto the sleigh. Some were simply flinging themselves into the air. Others, who had a little more ingenuity, had formed themselves into an elf tower, clambering on each others’ shoulders. Wobbling precariously, one of these towers crashed almost immediately, felled not by the seals but by the stupidity of putting the smallest of their team at the bottom. One tower was constructed more soundly, and the highest elf was even able to reach up and touch the harness. One lash of a seal tail, though, and the elves tumbled back to the ground, or in the case of one, onto an extremely annoyed Dancer.
‘Enough!’ roared Redbeard. ‘Let’s go! Forward!’
The seals flapped again, and the leather squeaked against the sleigh, groaning with the extra weight of the seals compared to the reindeer. Momentum gathered, and the sleigh inched forward, then moved foot by foot, until suddenly it shot out into the sky.
The elves, and Candy and Chunky, felt water dripping on them.
‘It’s raining,’ said one elf.
‘Raining?’ replied the elf next to him. ‘It never rains here.’
‘That’s not rain, kid,’ interrupted Chunky, who was brushing the water off himself. ‘It’s sweat. Seal sweat.’
‘Eeeeuuuggggghhhh!’ cried the elves, who immediately dived inside to get out of its way and wash it off, leaving Candy and Chunky alone in the street.
‘It’s gone!’ wailed Candy. ‘It’s gone and he’s gone! We’ll never get them back. Christmas is gone. It’s all over.’ She sank on to her bottom and began sobbing. Chunky leaned his snowman body into her. She shivered in anticipation of the ice, but somehow the embrace was warm and comforting.
‘It’s never over, kid,’ said Chunky. ‘At least, not until the fat snowman sings.’
‘I can see it,’ said Father Christmas. ‘In the distance there. We’re nearly home.’
‘Not my home,’ thought Stephen. ‘We’re further than ever from there. I really have no idea where we are now.’ He had slept more on the back of the bear, and he didn’t know how far they had travelled or even what direction they had travelled in. For a scientist, this lack of knowledge made him feel very uncomfortable. He gripped Dave’s fur more tightly so he could pull himself up and look at what Santa could see.
‘Where?’ said Stephen. It was the middle of the day, and as light as it was ever going to get. He could see ice and ice mountains and ice gorges, and little else. He certainly couldn’t see lights or buildings or dancing elves or anything else that he associated with Santa’s home at the north pole.
‘Out there!’ cried Santa, extending his arm and pointing, before he wobbled alarmingly, and had to rapidly yank it back and grab on again. Stephen had been able to follow the line of his arm before it was snatched back, but had still been unable to see anything more than before. Father Christmas suddenly chuckled.
‘Of course! You won’t be able to see it, will you? You can’t see through the cloaking magic. Keeps it hidden from prying eyes. You can see it, can’t you, Dave?’ he said, leaning down towards his polar bear. The bear nodded.
‘Yep, I can see it,’ said Dave, and kept on running.
‘So we’re nearly at the north pole?’ asked Stephen. He wasn’t sure he believed Santa, but it was only as unbelievable as some of the other unbelievable things that had happened to him recently, which had now turned out to be completely believable.
‘Not quite,’ said Santa. ‘It’s a bit to the side, remember? If it was right at the north pole that might draw too much attention. Too many people want to go there, planting their flags. First person there, first person without any help, first person skiing, first person arriving hopping on one foot. There’s no end to it. So we moved it, stuck it away from the actual north pole so it wouldn’t be found.’
‘And what if someone does find it. Some people must have bumped into it at some point,’ he pondered. ‘Doesn’t it show up on satellite?’
‘That’s where the magic comes in,’ replied Father Christmas. ‘If people are on the ground who aren’t meant to come in, they hit the edge and just kind of…bounce around it, and come out the other side none the wiser.’
‘Bounce around it?’
‘How does that work?’ Stephen’s scientific mind was desperate to know.
‘But how does it actually work?’
‘I don’t understand the question. It works by magic.’
‘But how does the magic work?’ Stephen was getting impatient.
‘What do you mean, how does the magic work. It’s…magic.’
‘Stop saying, ‘its…magic.’ Especially with that annoying pause. I want to know how magic works.’
‘But no-one knows that. It’s…’
‘Don’t!’ growled Stephen, before Father Christmas could get the word out. ‘Don’t say it!’
Father Christmas couldn’t help himself.
‘Aaaagggghhhh!’ cried Stephen, though he couldn’t help smiling.
The bears suddenly stopped.
‘We’re here,’ they said. Stephen still couldn’t see anything. ‘What do we do now?’
Dave and Dave seemed nervous, and were pacing backwards and forwards. Santa patted his Dave on the side of the neck.
‘It’s ok, Dave,’ he whispered gently. ‘It won’t hurt.
Stephen looked at him quizzically.
‘Some animals can see the barrier. They can see beyond it too, but they can also see it in front of them. Passing through that magic makes them jittery. But they’ll be fine.’
‘Sort of like humans getting an x-ray,’ said Stephen.
Father Christmas looked at him blankly. ‘X-ray?’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘Just walk briskly,’ said Santa. ‘It will be fine. It doesn’t hurt.’
Dave looked up at him suspiciously, but began to pad forward, gradually increasing his speed, then suddenly ducked his head and closed his eyes. He disappeared from Stephen’s view.
‘Where’s he gone?’ asked Stephen, mystified.
Dave looked up at him, puzzled.
‘In there,’ he replied, extending a huge paw. ‘He’s just in there. Can’t you see Santa waving?’
‘No,’ replied Stephen flatly. ‘I can’t see anything but ice and more ice. I can’t see anything more than what I’ve been seeing for what seems like days now. Ice.’
‘All right. No need to go on about it. Let’s get in there, then, and you can see for yourself.’
Dave shuddered and tensed up, and Stephen felt himself lifted higher on his back. Then, with a look of determination, he marched forwards. His head suddenly disappeared from Stephen’s view, then before Stephen could worry any more about this, he felt as if he had been plunged into treacle. His limbs were squashed against him, and his legs crushed against Dave’s side. His face was contorted, and for a few moments he felt like he couldn’t breathe, and began to panic, until he felt a pop in his ears and his legs and arms sprang outwards, and everything was released.
He lifted his head, saw what was in front of him, and quickly put it down again, shaking it with his eyes closed. Tentatively he opened his eyes and again raised his head but he still couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Father Christmas was standing next to Dave, and behind him were bright coloured lights, and in the distance there were buildings, some tall and thin, some short and flat, but lots of them, a whole town. He glanced behind him, but saw only a bleak landscape of ice the same as before.
‘Where are we?’ he asked, though he knew the answer and didn’t really know why he was asking the question. Perhaps he just wanted to hear someone else say it.
‘Can’t you see?’ cried Father Christmas. ‘We’re at my home!’
‘Right,’ replied Stephen, not knowing what else to say. ‘Of course.’
‘Come on, come on, we must go and find everyone!’
This was not the same man that Stephen had met days ago. That had been a tired old man. Father Christmas was now full of energy, and his eyes crackled. It must have been a trick of the light, but his skin looked as if there were sparks bouncing off it. Somehow he looked taller.
Santa began running across the ground, though even with his new energy he was still a rather round gentlemen and Stephen only needed to walk briskly to keep up with him. In any case, after about twenty metres the enthusiasm for running clearly wore off, and Santa slowed to a rapid walk.
‘We must find my wife, and the elves, and Chunky,’ he gabbled, ‘and tell them what’s happened. We’ve got to get the sleigh back. It’s nearly Christmas!’
The bears walked beside them, flanking Stephen and Santa.
‘Look over there,’ said the Dave next to Stephen.
Stephen looked up, and could see a mostly green mass moving towards them. He couldn’t quite work out what it was, until it got a bit closer and he could see that it was hundreds of little men and women. In pointy hats. They were running as fast as their tiny legs could carry them, sometimes faster which meant that they tripped and fell flat on their tiny noses. Other elves behind them didn’t stop to help, but just carried on running, too excited to worry about those who had fallen.
Stephen could hear a wall of squeaky noise coming from the mass, but wasn’t able to work out if they were saying something in particular, or just yelling as a release of energy. As they got closer, it suddenly hit him.
‘Santaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!’ they were crying.
Santa himself had a broad smile and had now shifted back to a trot. Stephen thought about keeping up, but decided it would be better to hang back. The bears alongside him did the same, dropping behind even Stephen.
‘I’m not getting mixed up in that,’ said Dave.
‘Too right,’ replied the other Dave.
Within a few more seconds, the elves were upon Santa, but none of them touched him. They bounced around, they leapt in the air, they shouted at him but all the time there was a slight gap between them, like some kind of force field was stopping the elves from getting any nearer.
‘Where have you been?’
‘We missed you!’
‘I love you, Santa!’
‘Come and see the new toy I made!’
‘When are you going to get the sleigh back?’
‘Calm down, calm down,’ replied Santa. ‘I’m back now. We’ll sort everything out.’
Stephen raised his eyebrows in surprise. It was a woman’s voice rather than an elf’s, with an American accent. He hadn’t been expecting to hear a voice like that. He certainly hadn’t been expecting to see someone looking like the woman who was running through a crowd of elves. Candy Claus had realised her husband was back, and her long blonde hair danced in the air behind her and her body bounced as she ran towards him. She reached him and threw her arms around his body, though she was unable to get them all the way round. Adjusting herself, she placed them round his neck and gave him a huge kiss on the lips.
‘You’re ok! I’ve been so worried. The reindeer told us about the seals. They’ve taken the sleigh again! We’ve got to get it back! But at least you’re safe.’
She stopped her gabbling and buried her face in his beard. He pulled her into him, and whispered in her ear. Stephen couldn’t hear what he said, but she lifted her head for a moment and smiled at him, a look of complete love on her face, before putting it back in his bushy beard.
The elves kept jumping around, making a constant chitter chatter, but there were so many voices that one couldn’t be distinguished from another. Stephen looked straight ahead, and before long could see they were entering a town square, at the centre of which was a large clock tower adorned with coloured lights. In front of the tower stood a large snowman. Stephen couldn’t help noticing that he seemed to be eating his own carrot nose, though there was another in the right place.
As soon as they were in the square, Santa levered his wife off him, and simply held her hand, though she instantly snuggled in against his burly arm.
‘Chunky!’ he cried.
The snowman nodded, and in a low drawl replied, ‘Santa’ without emotion. His head swivelled slightly, and his coal eyes stared as he looked at Stephen. He turned back to Santa.
‘Who’s this guy?’ he said suspiciously, flicking an arm towards the scientist.
‘Oh, this is Stephen,’ he replied, placing the hand that had been attached to Candy on Stephen’s shoulder. ‘He rescued me, I can’t thank him enough.’
Santa suddenly thought, and turned to his wife. ‘I haven’t introduced you!’ he said brightly. ‘Stephen, this is my wife, Candy. Candy, Stephen.’
Stephen stretched out a hand, but Candy ignored it and leapt at him, giving him an enormous hug. ‘I’m so pleased to meet you, thank you so much for helping my husband.’
‘It was my pleasure,’ said Stephen, ‘though really it was the bears who helped us most. Dave and Dave.’
The Daves had been ambling behind, and now reared up and bowed, terrifying most of the elf crowd. As their paws came back down, they almost crushed one who had been busy staring in adoration at Candy Claus. The two elves next to him had dragged him out of the way at the last second.
Stephen knew that it probably wasn’t the right time, but he was too curious.
‘You look quite young, Candy. Do you mind me asking how long you two have been married?’
‘Thank you for the compliment,’ replied Candy. ‘Just coming up on three years now. We got married on New Year’s Day.’
‘So you must have been quite young when you got married…?’ Stephen knew he was being quite rude, but he couldn’t help asking.
‘Early thirties,’ replied Candy.
‘Right,’ said Stephen, sneaking a sly glance at Santa who was standing there innocently. ‘Lovely,’ he went on, for want of anything else to say.
‘Enough with the chit chat,’ interrupted Chunky. ‘It’s bad, Santa. Those seals came here with your sleigh, then stole it again.’
‘So how do we get it back? They could be anywhere by now.’
‘They’ll be somewhere that stinks of fish, at least,’ replied Chunky. ‘But we don’t need to go after them. They’ll be back when the flakes run out again. We just need to be prepared. We need a plan.’
He spat out his carrot, which hit the nearest elf full in the face before bouncing to the ground. Then he looked at Santa, and Mrs Claus, the Daves, and all the elves, and finally Stephen.
‘And we’re going to need everyone. Those seals are big and those seals are mean. It’s going to take all of us.’
He ripped out his carrot nose, and stuck it in his mouth. Another one popped out.
‘Are you in?’
‘Where shall we go?’ asked Blood.
The sleigh was now a long way from the north pole, and from those annoying elves and the snowman, and those ridiculous happy faces. Though Redbeard smiled when he thought about how he had made those same faces look so miserable, as they realised that the seals had not come to help them, and as they watched the sleigh soar out of sight. It really warmed his heart.
The sleigh was flying higher and faster than they had ever got it before. The seals had done a good job in covering themselves completely with the flakes. Redbeard knew that they could go anywhere they wanted to now. He thought about what they could take apart from fish. He knew of something called money. Perhaps they should go and take some of that.
‘Have you heard of money?’ Redbeard asked Blood.
‘Yes, Captain. Humans use it to trade for things they want.’
‘Anything you want, Captain.’
‘Like a boat or a net? We could just give someone some of this money and they’d give us those in return?’
He thought. ‘What’s this money made of?’
‘Paper, usually, Captain. Or sometimes metal.’
‘What sort of metal?’
‘I’m not sure, Captain. Maybe copper or tin.’
‘So we give them a bit of copper or tin or paper, and they’d give us a boat?’
Blood sighed inwardly. He knew better than to let it out in front of the Captain.
‘Fools.’ He was silent for a moment, then raised a flipper. ‘So we could give them some of this money and they’d give us fish?’
‘But we’d have to go somewhere and steal some money first?’
Redbeard paused once more.
‘Let’s just go and steal some fish. That’s much more fun.’
Stephen was amazed how warm he was. He hadn’t realised how cold he had been until he had got so much warmer. He had grown used to the cold as they had travelled, and whilst Dave’s fur had insulated his front as he clung on, his back had been battered. Now he was sat in a plush red armchair in front of a huge log fire, heating his toes as Father Christmas did the same in an identical armchair opposite him. A steaming mug of untouched hot chocolate was next to him, as he hadn’t quite worked out how to get past the mounds of marshmallow and whipped cream that Santa’s wife had piled on the top. Santa had seemed to drink it down in one enormous gulp, before letting loose a belch so powerful that it made the flames of the fire flicker and almost go out.
Soon they were going to meet Chunky. Stephen wanted to study him again to try and learn how he walked. He also wanted to make sure that the plan they were coming up with was going to work. Recovering the sleigh and then getting Father Christmas to take him home seemed to be the only way of being back with his family for Christmas. Though getting the sleigh back was vital to ensuring that there was going to be a Christmas. First, there was a bit of time to relax and take the chance to ask Father Christmas a few important questions.
‘Santa?’ he piped up.
‘Mmmm, yes,’ replied Santa, who had been on the point of drifting off into a lovely sleep.
‘Candy. She’s quite young. Compared to you. And very…’ he searched for the right word before settling on ‘pretty.’
‘Well, they have to be fairly young,’ replied Santa, without really thinking. ‘Otherwise they don’t last.’
‘Don’t last?’ replied Stephen, somewhat bemused.
‘Well yes. I mean, I go on and on. So I can’t get a wife my age. And even if I got someone who looked the same age as me, a few years and poof, they’d be gone.’
‘Poof!’ repeated Santa, waving his hands to illustrate.
‘And that’s the reason? I mean, she is very…pretty.’
‘Well, you know, I hadn’t really noticed that part,’ mumbled Santa. ‘Candy’s a lovely woman, marvellous personality. We get on very well.’
‘Nothing to do with looks?’ asked Stephen, pointedly.
‘Oh no,’ mumbled Santa unconvincingly, unable to look Stephen in the eye. ‘Nothing at all. Barely notice them.’
‘Hmmm. Anyway, how did you meet her. Them! How many have there been?’
‘So how do you meet them?’
‘Just out and about, really.’
‘Out and about?’
‘But you only go out once a year?’
‘Oh no. Sometimes more. Especially when I don’t have a wife.’
‘Have they all been American?’
‘Not at all. All sorts really.’
‘So you don’t have a type?’
‘No, they just need to be…’
‘Pretty?’ asked Stephen.
‘No, no,’ emphasised Santa. ‘Anyway, I must have a nap now. Big day ahead.’
Stephen knew that Santa wouldn’t answer any more questions, and laid back in his chair as well. Definitely a big day ahead.
The sleigh flew down, the seals flapping with all their might. It was getting increasingly difficult to pull the sleigh behind them, now it had been filled with fish. There had been multiple raids, mainly on fish markets similar to the one that they had originally stormed into in America. Each time Blood had stared into the map, and found a city, and focused on it, and the sleigh had led them there. For the last raid, he had tried it differently, and realised that he could just form a picture of a fish in his mind, and the sleigh still took him to the right place. Fish, fish, fish, fish, fish.
It had been easy. People hadn’t really resisted. Almost too easy. The seals relished a fight and there was none to be had. Most people cowered behind their stalls as the huge beasts slithered around, squelching on fish guts that had been spilled out over the market floors. Redbeard was getting bored.
‘Take me somewhere else, Blood!’ he roared in a market in Lima, sending another five fishmongers diving for cover. ‘Somewhere where they’ll fight, not like these cowards!’ He roared again with all his might, and a stall which had been teetering after being rammed by Bart, finally toppled over, its canvas roof providing an added hiding place for its workers.
Even the seals were finding it all a bit monotonous, though if they could speak freely some of them would definitely have voted for more fish eating rather than fighting. But they were keen enough on a bit more adventure to follow Redbeard’s lust for fighting and get Blood to take them somewhere else.
So they dived down, hoping to find not only more fish, but some fighters worthy of the name. Not, of course, that anyone could compare with the seals for fighting skills, certainly not humans. Polar bears maybe, if there were enough of them. But if the humans had some weapons, to make it a bit fairer, then it might be fun.
Down and down they went, until Hector realised that he was feeling hotter and hotter.
‘What’s this about?’ he asked Bart, next to him. ‘Is this right?’
Bart glanced up, and could see that there were no clouds in the sky, just a very bright, scalding sun. It was brighter and hotter than anything they had experienced before, and so unlike the pale, barely warming sun that they were used to.
‘It’s different to back home,’ said Bart.
‘Yeah. They’re different all round the world. How many have we seen now? Five or six?’
‘Yeah, something like that.’
Blood caught their conversation, and shook his head sadly at their ignorance, but still began to wonder where exactly the sleigh was taking them. Wherever it was, he never got the credit when it was somewhere good, but would definitely get blamed if it was somewhere bad.
The ground beneath them looked yellow and empty. As they descended, he also began to feel hotter. He wasn’t sure how this could be, as in theory they were moving away from the one sun that blazed in the sky. He realised that the earth below was scorched and baked, and reflecting its stored heat back at them. He couldn’t see any immediate signs of fish, and a nervousness began to rise in his belly. The Captain was not going to be happy. Already he was thrusting sideways glances at him, which felt like Redbeard was shoving a stick in the side of his face.
‘Where have you taken us this time, Blood?’ hissed the Captain.
‘Er, not sure, Captain,’ whispered Blood, truthfully. ‘It’s not really me taking us anywhere,’ he went on, not entirely truthfully, but close enough that if it really came down to it, he could claim an honest mistake.
‘And where are the fish?’
‘Not sure, Captain. They must be here somewhere. They always are.’
This was definitely true. Some of the places they had gone might have been awkward, or unpleasant, but there had always been fish, and lots of them. Blood craned his squat neck out of the sleigh to see below them, but worryingly could see nothing but earth.
The sleigh and the seals landed on hot, shifting sand, which was like nothing they had ever seen before. A cloud of steam rose up, as the sweat on their body began to boil, and each seal began to dance around from flipper to flipper.
‘What are you doing?’ roared Redbeard.
‘It’s too hot,’ shouted back Clegg. ‘It’s burning our flippers. And my belly! Can we take off again?’
‘Not until we have the fish,’ cried Redbeard.
‘What fish?’ called out Bellamy.
‘Good question,’ replied the Captain, turning again to Blood, who by now was hanging out of the sleigh in desperation, searching for a pile of fish that he knew must be there.
‘Maybe they’re buried,’ replied Blood.
‘What is this place, anyway?’
‘I don’t know, Captain.’ He peered at the map. ‘I think it’s called a desert.’
‘Dig!’ called Redbeard.
The seals churned the sand with their flippers as they jumped in the heat.
‘What is it?’
‘I think it’s some kind of hot soil.’
‘I can see that! What about the fish?’
‘No, no fish, Captain. Can we go again? I think I’m starting to cook.’
Redbeard sniffed the air, and there was indeed the scent of gently frying fat coming from in front of the sleigh. No matter, he thought. His seals had grown fat on all the fish he had found for them. A lot would have to melt away before it did them any real harm.
‘There they are!’ cried Blood, who had continued to scan the desert floor.
‘They?’ replied Redbeard, raising a rugged eyebrow above his clam shell eye.
Blood looked again. Below him, silent and unflapping, was a single, sad fish. Its scent reached his nostrils. A fish that the scorching earth below was slowly baking. Seals didn’t like cooked fish. Especially if there was only one of them.
Blood was baffled. He had no idea how the fish had ever got there. There didn’t seem to be any rivers or lakes or sea for miles around. He also didn’t know why the sleigh had brought him to this place, where, as he scanned desperately around, there appeared to be no other fish whatsoever. Surely there were piles of other fish in many other places in the world? They couldn’t have exhausted all the stocks already, they were only six seals. Six outstandingly greedy seals, but still only six seals. What he did know was that he would be held responsible, and as he turned back towards the Captain, he saw that Redbeard had already sidled over to sit right next to him.
Blood could feel Redbeard’s scarred skin grating against his. He could taste his horrible breath, and a flipper was placed on his back. Blood had seen seals in this position before. It didn’t end well.
‘You know, Blood,’ said Redbeard, not looking at Blood but staring instead at the seals on the desert below, who continued to hop from flipper to flipper to try and escape the sand’s heat. ‘This really isn’t very good, is it?’
‘There are no fish…’
Blood thought about pointing out that actually that wasn’t strictly true, but the one fish on the ground was now burning up and it was difficult to tell that it had ever even been a fish.
‘And we have some very hungry and hot crew members.’
‘You’ve seen what happens to seals who let me down in the past, haven’t you, Blood?’
‘Yes, Captain.’ Blood shivered, despite the heat. The flipper gripped him even tighter. Suddenly the grip relaxed.
‘But still, you do a good job most of the time. And we have had a lot of fish recently.’
Redbeard grinned at Blood. At least, Blood thought it was a grin.
‘So let’s try again, shall we?’
‘Yes, Captain.’ Blood slumped back in his seat, relieved.
‘Don’t make a mess of it again, eh?’
Blood shivered again, sat bolt upright, and began to think very hard about fish.
‘They’ll be back.’
‘They might not’
‘They will. They’ll want to fuel up the sleigh again.’
‘Even so, when will that be? We’ve got to have the sleigh in time for Christmas.’
Chunky insisted that the seals would return. They would want to carry on robbing, and would need flakes. The others weren’t so sure.
Candy was perched on Santa’s lap in an old wooden rocking chair that had been a present from some elves to Santa centuries ago. It now creaked loudly at each movement, both because of its age and the weight of the two people on it. Stephen sat in a leather armchair that also groaned each time he adjusted his position. Chunky stood by the door, as far away from the log fire as he could get, whilst the bears were outside, guarding the door and searching the skies.
‘Let’s assume,’ said Stephen, ‘for the sake of argument, that they do come back. If they don’t, there’s not much we can do about Christmas anyway?’
He looked around, and the others either shrugged or nodded in agreement.
‘You can’t build another sleigh?’
‘Not like that one,’ replied Santa. ‘It was built centuries ago. Using magic.’
‘You couldn’t just build a new one out of wood and dump it in the flakes.’
‘Like Chunky, you mean?’ replied Santa.
Stephen looked at him, puzzled.
‘Oh, you hadn’t heard that story?’
Stephen shook his head.
‘The elves made him. Like they make most things round here. They were bored one afternoon in midsummer, so they went off and built a snowman. Only this time they decided it would be a laugh to stick him in the magic flakes and see what happened. So they took him down the tunnel and buried him. Left him for a day and then when he came out he was like…’ Father Christmas looked over at Chunky, who was in the process of finishing one of his carrots and inserting a new one. Stephen watched, amazed as always, as another carrot nose popped out instantly as the other was removed.
‘All…cowboy like?’ Stephen didn’t really know how best to describe him.
‘Alive. Initially he didn’t say or do anything. Just stood and watched, and waved his arms around occasionally.’
‘So he didn’t talk like that?’
‘Oh no, that’s because they just left him in front of a television. Before he worked out how to talk and move. He watched a lot of movies.’
‘Do you mind,’ interrupted Chunky. ‘I’m right here.’
‘Sorry,’ said Father Christmas. ‘I don’t mean any offence. I’m just trying to explain.’
‘Sure,’ drawled Chunky. ‘Anyway, we’ve got bigger things to talk about than how the wonder that is Chunky the Snowman got here.’
He moved slightly further into the room, then feeling the heat from the fire, stopped.
‘In answer to your question, no, you can’t just build a sleigh and dump it in the flakes. It could be flown by the reindeer, but it wouldn’t be big enough. That one was special. No-one left who knows how to make it. So you’d have to make millions of trips that you wouldn’t have time for, the reindeer would get too tired and blah, blah, blah.’
‘Blah, blah, blah?’
‘Yeah, blah, blah, blah. Millions of disappointed kids, no Christmas etcetera etcetera. Might do those spoilt brats some good not to have Christmas for once, anyway.’
‘Chunky, you can’t mean that?’ protested Santa.
‘Don’t I?’ Chunky shrugged. ‘Anyway, I can’t see that there’s anything we can do if the seals don’t come back with the sleigh. So let’s hope that they do, and make a plan for just how we’ll get the sleigh back and get rid of them.’
Stephen nodded. ‘I agree. Logically that’s the only way to look at it.’
‘And I care if you agree?’ spat Chunky. Stephen was about to complain when he noticed Chunky winking at him. At least, he thought that was what it was. For a moment, Chunky’s right eye was there, then Stephen could see only snowy white, and then the eye suddenly reappeared.
‘Anyway, I’ve gotta split,’ said Chunky. ‘Getting a bit warm in these parts. You come up with a plan, then when we speak again I’ll tell you how we should be doing it.’ He reached out to open the door, but as he tried to push down on the handle all that happened was that his twig arm bent in the middle. Candy leapt up and opened it for him.
‘Thanks, sweetie,’ said Chunky, before shuffling out. There was a small pool of water between where he had been standing and the door.
‘So what are we going to do?’ asked Santa, once the door had been closed behind Chunky.
‘We need everyone,’ said Stephen. Candy was back on Santa’s lap. Stephen made sure that his eyes never drifted downwards from eye contact with either Santa or Candy. His mind kept leaping to his family, and how he needed to get back to them in time for Christmas. At least, that was when they were expecting him. If he didn’t appear, that was when they would start to worry. The sleigh was his only hope of getting back quickly. Otherwise it was on the back of a grumpy reindeer or a talking bear, or a very long walk on his own. He needed to help them for his own selfish reasons, but was realising more and more that he just wanted to help them. They needed him. They might have all this magic, but it hadn’t done them much good so far. They needed practical help, a scientific mind, some proper planning.
‘Particularly the bears,’ he went on.
And some enormous wrestling polar bears wouldn’t hurt, either.
‘Here’s what we should do.’
They waited. And waited. Elves and bears and Stephen kept scanning the sky, but there was still no sign of the seals returning.
‘They’re on their way, kid, I tell ya,’ said Chunky to Candy, who kept insisting that they would never be back.
Stephen still felt that they would, that it was logical, but even he was beginning to doubt. Who could tell if seals were logical. Particularly pirate seals. The short days slipped by.
Then finally, they came. Out of the sky like a crate dropped out of a plane, the wooden sleigh staggered in to land at Santa’s home. One of the elves, who had been stationed to keep watch at the top of the clock tower, saw it. The elf immediately reached for the bell to alert the others, only to find that the bell knocker was too heavy for him to swing. He grabbed his partner, and together they managed to run and smash the knocker into the bell’s side, before falling backwards. The bell rang three times, and everyone knew.
‘Positions everyone!’ cried Father Christmas.
Elves spilled out of every building, forming an enormous crowd that blocked the path down to the tunnel. They were armed with sticks and bows and arrows and unusually large candy canes. Stephen knew that they were too small to really stop the seals, but sheer weight of numbers might at least slow them down before they got to the flakes. The elves bounced and shouted, scared but a little excited at the same time. The sleigh was coming and they would have a chance to get it back.
The bears were parked at the entrance to the tunnel, right in front of the door. The door could no longer even be seen behind the bears’ fluffy backsides.
‘You can handle this, right?’ Stephen had asked them more than once. ‘This is the sort of thing that you do?’
‘Seals? No problem. We eat seals for breakfast.’
‘Not just for breakfast. Lunch and dinner too,’ added the other Dave. ‘When we catch them.’
‘Well they’re going to be coming straight for you,’ Stephen had said. ‘So it shouldn’t be a problem.’
‘We’ll be ready.’
The bears did indeed now look ready. Their necks craned as they stared up at the sleigh. Redbeard was cracking the harness as the seals flapped and it was clear that they were running out of magic flakes again. They wanted to get more flakes and get out of there again as quickly as they could. Stephen and the others had to get the sleigh back and drive the seals away. Even if the seals managed to get some of the flakes, as long as they could separate them from the sleigh and get them to fly off, that would be good enough. They could get all the Christmas presents delivered and worry about the seals coming back again later.
‘Elves, are you ready?’ cried Father Christmas. He was standing with his wife in front of them, watching the sleigh as it came in over his head. He wasn’t used to shouting at the elves, and it felt strange. Gentle encouragement was more his usual style. The elves needed to be pumped up, though, they weren’t used to fighting.
‘Ready!’ they cried, brandishing their various weapons in the air. They stood rigid, and then pointed them at the sleigh as it came in, lower and lower. Redbeard grinned maniacally. Blood had his eyes closed as he anticipated the impact. Santa and Candy jumped out of the way as the sleigh slammed onto the road, and winced as splinters of wood sheared off the runners with an ear twisting shriek.
The seals and the sleigh crashed into the first wave of elves and they were no longer ready. They were flat on their backs, weapons now pointing up at the sky, wondering what had happened. The sleigh was still firmly attached to the seals, but they had been slowed down a bit, and as the sleigh ploughed on, each successive line of elves still got run over, but slightly less easily. Stephen and Chunky watched from the side, near to the bears, wondering if the sleigh would come to a halt before it reached the bears. Stephen was carrying a knife so that if the opportunity arose, he could at least slice through the harness. Chunky was just chomping on his carrot.
‘You going to move?’ asked Stephen, as the seals and the sleigh bounced from side to side as they smacked into different groups of elves like a pinball. Chunky shrugged.
Stephen tensed himself, ready to jump out of the way if necessary. There was no way of telling if Chunky was doing the same.
For a moment it looked like the sleigh was going to hit them, as the seals collided with a final group of elves that brought them to a virtual standstill, and the sleigh behind them swung out in a big arc. Rather than jumping, Stephen found himself just staring at it, hoping for the best. Then he closed his eyes. Chunky just stood impassively. The sleigh pulled near, but Stephen felt no collision. He tentatively opened his eyes again. A stomach ripping cry from Redbeard greeted him, and his malevolent eye stared brutally.
Stephen had hoped that the elves were going to help, and leap on top of the seals in large numbers. There were too few of them left, though, that hadn’t been laid low by seal blubber. It would be down to the wrestling bears now, and Stephen had to look for his opportunity to cut the harness.
Before he could even make the slightest movement to try and do this, and whilst all his attention was focused on Redbeard and Blood, he was hit with incredible force in his midriff by Bart. He shot through the air and landed roughly on his side, winded. He tried to get up, but was gasping for breath, and then was hit again, this time by Hector. The two of them then ground their snouts into him from either side, and shoved him violently towards the sleigh. Stephen suddenly realised, with a feeling that gave him more stomach pain than anything the seals had done to him, that Redbeard and his crew also had a plan. They hadn’t come back just expecting to sidle into the cave without anyone trying to stop them. They knew everyone would be waiting for them to do just that and had come up with their own strategy. He had been stupid not to think of it. Then he might have been able to work out what they would do. As it was, as he was propelled along the road towards the sleigh, he didn’t have a clue.
‘Chunky!’ he yelled out, hoping for some help. The snowman was still stood to one side, and was waving his arms around frantically.
‘What do you expect me to do, kid?’ yelled back Chunky. ‘I got twigs for arms!’
He had a point. The seals would snap them off in a second. It was probably too late, anyway. He was close to the sleigh now. When they got to the side of it, the seals levered him upwards with their snouts and flippers, and he was tossed into the back.
‘No idea who this one is, but we need that fat guy in the red over there. Get any men you can find.’
This was the last thing Stephen heard for a while, before he hit the bottom of the sleigh and everything went black.
The other two seals that had been in the harness had immediately headed to the door of the tunnel, sweeping a few brave elves out of their way as they did so. Other elves, seeing that there was no chance of stopping the pirate seals that were propelling themselves with a complete lack of grace, but impressive speed and acceleration, took a wise choice and dived out of the way. They knew that Dave and Dave were waiting for the seals. Ten feet each of raw power and menace, used to hunting on land and lightning fast compared to the pirate seals.
Clegg and Bellamy were soon just a few feet away from the door of the tunnel, and skidded to a halt as they caught sight of a white and pink wall in front of them. Inwardly they gulped with fear. A seal’s natural reaction to seeing any kind of polar bear was to turn in the opposite direction and hope the bear hadn’t seen them.
‘Hello, boys,’ said Dave. ‘We’ve been expecting you.’
The bears definitely had seen them. Both Daves were on all fours, faces aimed directly at them and nostrils dripping sweat and mucus. Turning in the opposite direction had been rapidly removed from their options. But they were pirate seals. They would fight as best they could. They nodded at each other, and then reared up, yelling loudly and trying to intimidate the bears with their teeth.
The right hand Dave laughed.
‘Is that all that you’ve got?’
‘Not very impressive, is it?’ grunted left hand Dave. ‘Shall we show you how it’s done?’
The seals crashed back to the ground, and as they did so the wrestling bears lifted themselves up and towered over them, their enormous hind legs somehow supporting their whole weight so that they barely wobbled. Both began shouting.
‘You don’t even deserve to be in the same fight as a wrestling bear!’
‘You’re weak, you’re stupid!’
‘When I’m finished with you, there won’t be enough left to make a candle!’
‘How dare you come back here! My paws are going to crush you!’
‘See how big my paws are! Look, Dave.’
Dave turned to Dave, and waved a paw at him.
‘See how big my claws are!’ yelled the other Dave, also waving his paw.
Below them, the seals looked at one another, wondering when the actual fighting was going to begin. The bears were now exchanging high fives, and testing who could roar the most ferociously.
‘Do you think we should…?’ wondered Clegg.
‘What, you mean, just go in?’ asked Bellamy.
‘Maybe,’ replied Clegg. ‘I mean, they do seem a bit…busy.’
‘Probably better than trying to fight them.’
‘Definitely,’ said Clegg.
‘Let’s go then.’
As silently as they could, the seals began shuffling forwards, one behind the other, so that they would fit down the gap between the bears. Dave and Dave were now staring intently into each others’ mouths.
‘Your teeth are so sharp. You’ll eat through those seals in one bite!’
‘Yours are so big! You’ll crush their bones in one bite!’
‘Do seals have bones?’
‘I don’t know. Better ask them.’
‘Oy you, have you got bones?’ The bears looked down, but there were no seals to answer the question.
‘Where have they gone?’ Dave was bemused. ‘We haven’t wrestled with them yet.’
Some elves came flooding forwards. ‘They’re in the tunnel, they’re in the tunnel! They got past you!’
‘Got past us?’ asked Dave, incredulously. He turned to Dave. ‘They got past us.’
‘Not again,’ said Dave. ‘This always seems to happen.’
‘I don’t know what we’re doing wrong.’
‘Get after them!’ screamed one of the elves.
After bumping and blocking each other, the bears decided to go one after another, but they were too big to get through the door and into the tunnel. Inside, at what was a furious pace for a seal on its flippers, but quite slow for a bear or a human, Clegg and Bellamy made their way down. Some of the elves, realising that there was no way that Dave and Dave could get in and stop them, scrambled in themselves. Other elves, knowing that this would be pointless, waited outside with the bears. Their chance to stop them would be when they came out again. The elves who had gone into the tunnel, who were now either clinging to a stinking seal tail, or had already been squashed against the side of the tunnel, were beginning to realise this too. Some of them let go and ran back up, and eventually just one lone elf bounced along the hard path, painful cries of ‘oooffff!’ and ‘aaaagggh!’ echoing around.
Clegg and Bellamy barely even noticed the elves. They had one order, which was to cover themselves in as many flakes as possible, as quickly as possible. As soon as they emerged into the glowing cave, each seal threw itself into the nearest pile of golden flakes. They wriggled and writhed and dragged their bodies over the flakes, until every part of them was glowing, and even their long eyelashes and whiskers shimmered like fireflies dancing in the night sky.
‘Ready?’ asked Clegg.
‘Ready,’ replied Bellamy, nodding. ‘Let’s do this.’
They turned and went back up the tunnel, only this time they did so at much greater speed, as the flakes lifted them off the ground, and they skimmed the surface of the path with barely a flap of their flippers.
‘Faster!’ called Clegg, and again Bellamy nodded. They flapped again, and moved quicker and quicker up the tunnel.
‘They’re coming!’ cried the lone elf who had been brushing himself off and getting his breath back until he had heard the seals flying up the tunnel towards him.
He turned to call up towards the door, and as he turned back he had to duck immediately as Clegg came flying overhead. He sighed in relief as Clegg missed hitting his head by millimetres, only to be knocked flying as soon as he stood up again as Bellamy came scything through.
‘Ow!’ cried the elf. He was about to repeat the process of dusting himself off, when he realised how much pain he was in and lay down again. ‘No hurry,’ he thought. ‘Definitely no hurry.’
At the top of the tunnel, Dave and Dave had heard the call from the elf, and were gathering themselves, paws raised and pressed against the door to stop the seals with awesome power as they tried to come out. They had not realised just how quickly the seals would be flying, though. Clegg and Bellamy had glanced up, and seen that the door was closed, but simply put their hard heads down and flew on regardless. As the tunnel widened at its far end, Bellamy drew level with Clegg and the two smashed into the wooden door.
Even with the bears’ weight pressed against it, it simply flew off its hinges, and the bears were thrown backwards, lost their balance and fell. The two seals flew on, over the heads of the spread-eagled bears, and the elves who were crowded around, and tore up the streets of Santa’s town.
‘What took you so long?’ asked Bart as they juddered to a halt beside him and the sleigh.
‘Door,’ replied Bellamy.
‘And some polar bears,’ added Clegg.
‘Give us a hand with this, then,’ said Hector, who was actually quite impressed with how the other two had managed to get past the bears twice, but would never admit it.
The ‘this’ that Hector was referring to, which was perched on one of his shoulders and one of Bart’s, was a large man in a red suit. He wasn’t moving. Father Christmas had been knocked unconscious when the seals had pounced on him, and was now a dead weight that the two seals were trying to lever into the back of the sleigh. Elves hovered nervously around, thinking that they should try and do something, but knowing that they had little chance fighting.
‘It’s harder when they’re not moving,’ pointed out Bart.
Once the others joined in, flying off the ground to get underneath Santa, he was tipped into the sleigh in no time.
‘Good work!’ cried Captain Redbeard from the front of the sleigh. ‘Now, get some of those flakes on the others!’
Clegg and Bellamy immediately began rubbing themselves against the other two, dragging their flanks across them, until instead of two golden seals and two dark ones, there were four muddy seals. Rather than two seals who could fly, and two who would remain on the ground, there were four who were capable of getting airborne.
‘One last trip!’ cried Redbeard. ‘Enough fish to see us through winter, then we’ll come back here and take it over, then rest until summer.’
The elves could hear this clearly enough. So could Candy Claus, who was tucked around a corner, watching. Redbeard didn’t care who heard them. No-one could stop him and his seals.
‘What about Christmas?’ cried an elf, getting as close to the sleigh as he dared, whilst staying out of reach of one of the seals’ tails.
‘The children…they get presents…they’ll be heartbroken. We have to have the sleigh.’
Redbeard paused, then leant down into the front of the sleigh. For a moment the elves thought that he had really listened to what they had said, and was going to let go of the reins. They held their breath. Then Redbeard raised himself up again, and threw two old and smelly fish at them.
‘Give them these,’ he spat.
The elves looked sad, especially two who had been hit in the face by rotting fish.
‘But the sleigh…’ began the elf. He turned to another elf next to him. ‘He’s missed the point. Even if we wanted to give the children the fish, we still need the sleigh.’
‘Do you want to tell him this?’ asked the other elf.
The elf opened his mouth and then let himself stay silent, and shook his head sadly.
‘Didn’t think so,’ said the other one.
‘Fly!’ cried Redbeard, and the seals began flapping once more, and steadily took off. Dave and Dave spotted what was happening and were about to run after them, when Candy placed a hand on each of their pelts.
‘It’s too late,’ she said to the bears. ‘And I need you here for when they come back.’ Her face didn’t look full of confidence, but she went on anyway, and chose her words carefully. ‘You’re the only ones who might be able to stop them.’
The bears brightened at this show of faith.
‘Yeah!’ cried Dave. ‘If they come back again, we’ll destroy them!’
‘Pound them!’ yelled the other Dave, smashing his gigantic fist into the ground as he did so. ‘They won’t know what hit them!’
‘We’ll shatter them!’
The bears continued screaming at each other, paying no attention to anything that was going on around them. Candy shook her head sadly, then looked up, where the seals and the sleigh zigzagged across the sky, like a tyre tossed on a choppy sea. In the back of the sleigh, bouncing around, were Stephen and Santa. She wondered if she’d ever see them again.
‘What happened?’ asked Santa. ‘Actually, don’t answer that. I remember now. Where are we?’
‘In the back of the sleigh.’ Stephen was clinging to a wooden support on one side of the sleigh, trying not to get thrown across. Santa was sat in the middle, but his bulk and low centre of gravity seemed to mean that somehow he stayed still, no matter how much the sleigh careered from side to side. Stephen thought that this was somewhat at odds with all the laws of science that he knew. Still, as he was increasingly realising, there was a lot that he didn’t know.
‘No, I know that,’ said Santa. ‘Not meaning to be rude. Just that I’d recognise the sleigh anywhere, even if I have been bashed in the head. I just meant do you know how far from home we are?’
A very long way, thought Stephen. Too far.
‘I’m not sure,’ he replied. ‘But I think we’ve been flying for about five minutes.’
‘Could be anywhere,’ said Santa. ‘Just depends how much speed they’ve got up.’
‘So that didn’t go so well.’
‘The bears were pretty useless.’
‘I’ll admit,’ sighed Father Christmas. ‘I had hoped for a bit more from them. I thought they’d handle the seals easily.’
‘Do they ever, you know…actually wrestle?’
‘Oh yes, of course. They’re wrestling bears. That’s what they do. It’s in their breeding.’
‘Hmmmm. I can see they do some parts of wrestling. Like all the shouting. But have you ever actually seen them wrestle?’
Father Christmas thought for a moment.
‘Well, not as such, no. Not actually wrestle. But I’m sure other people have.’
Father Christmas wrinkled his nose. ‘It stinks of fish in here.’
‘Going to be an awful job for the elves once we get it back. Can’t have all the children’s presents stinking of fish. Unless they’re actually getting a fish. Which would be unusual.’
‘You think we’re going to get it back?’
‘Of course,’ twinkled Father Christmas. ‘I’ve been through worse than this.’
‘Really?’ Stephen sensed some hope.
Santa paused. ‘Well, no not worse than this. Not in terms of pure…measurement. It was just a figure of speech. But I’m sure we can sort it out.’
‘How?’ asked Stephen, losing patience. ‘Or was that just a figure of speech too?’
Before Santa could answer, the sleigh jolted violently and began to turn over.
‘What’s going on?’ yelled Stephen, clinging as hard as he could to the wooden support.
‘We’re going upside down. They’re trying to tip us out! Come over here and hold onto me.’
‘But what are you holding onto? We’ll fall!’
‘We’re going to fall anyway. You can’t hold on forever. Trust me, it’s the best way.’
Father Christmas reached out his hand, and despite himself, and knowing that as soon as the sleigh went completely upside down they would both plummet, Stephen let go and leapt across. His right hand grasped Santa’s who pulled him in and placed both his arms around him. It was like falling into a giant red beanbag.
Before he could think anymore, the floor became the ceiling and then even Santa’s bizarre centre of gravity wasn’t helping him and the two of them fell, straight through the opening of the sleigh and into the sky. Stephen eventually got his brain to open his eyes. For all of three seconds, but this was enough for him to see that they were still above ice. They couldn’t have gone that far. Of course, they weren’t so far above ice that it would take long before they were on ice, or more likely in ice, in lots of little pieces.
Santa was on top of him, and still holding him with those felt wrapped arms. Stephen had no idea how they were going to survive. Perhaps Santa was going to turn over at the last minute, knowing that his bulk would protect them both. He didn’t think much of this plan, but a worse thought occurred. Perhaps he was just going to use Stephen as a crash mat to save himself. Santa was important, he was needed for Christmas, there was no way that Santa could be allowed to perish. Stephen, on the other hand, was not important.
Just as Stephen was waiting for a very hard collision, he felt himself yanked tightly, and falling much, much slower than before. He risked opening his eyes, and as he did so realised that their speed of falling was decreasing all the time. As much as he was able, he looked upwards, trying to crane his head around Santa’s suit. Rather than the blue arctic sky, all he could see was a billowing red. The strain on his neck became too much, and he had to look back round, and before he could investigate any further he was pulled upright, Santa’s legs extended beneath him, and Santa executed a perfect parachute landing. He released Stephen, who stumbled to his knees and looked back at him, laughing.
‘You have a parachute built into your suit?’ Stephen was amazed and impressed. And glad he was not now buried about six feet into some very cold ice.
‘Oh yes. Safety feature of the suit. Got the elves to put it in. Don’t trust those reindeer. Never know when they’re going to go a bit crazy. They don’t care about me, you know.’
‘I’m sure that’s not true,’ replied Stephen, thinking that it probably was. ‘Anyway, thank you. You saved my life.’
‘Well, you rescued me when the seals stole my sleigh.’ He coughed. ‘Not that I wouldn’t have done it anyway, of course.’
‘So what do we do now?’
Stephen was looking around. This all felt very familiar. All around were mountains and miles of ice. No landmarks of any note. The sun was going down. The sun was always going down out here. No snowmobile to get them somewhere else this time. Everything looked very bleak. It always looked bleak out here.
‘First, we make a shelter,’ replied Father Christmas, who seemed unrealistically chirpy. ‘Then in the morning we start to make our way back.’
‘That could take us basically forever.’ For a scientist, Stephen was rather imprecise and prone to exaggeration when he was feeling quite emotional.
‘I’m sure that’s not true,’ replied Santa, thinking that it probably was. ‘I’m sure someone will come and rescue us. They’ll be working on a plan. The bears can come and get us.’
‘The bears? Not much use when the seals attacked, were they?’
‘They’re good at running.’
Stephen shrugged. ‘I suppose so.’
‘Or the reindeer might come. My wife will make them. Whatever happens, we need to get back. It’s nearly Christmas. There must be a Christmas. There always is. Stephen, I have to try.’
‘Ok. Shelter first. Then back. Let’s save Christmas. Somehow.’
I’m going to die out here, thought Stephen. Probably on Christmas Day.
The elves were moping. Moping elves were not a sight that anyone wanted to see. Because they were so lively and bubbly and smiley and friendly normally, even the slightest hint of sadness was bizarre and upsetting. To see them completely downcast was awful. Candy sat in a rocking chair, staring at the elves lying around her. Each time that the chair slowly rocked, its rockers pressed into the side of an elf who had chosen to slump on the floor underneath it. He breathed out a sad and pained ‘ooofffff’, but could still find no energy to get out of its way.
As she looked out of the window, Candy could see Dave and Dave lying on the ice outside, their heads flopped straight out in front of them. Elves were draped all over them, even on top of their heads so that each bear looked like it was wearing an elf hat.
‘We’ve got to do something,’ said Candy to Chunky, who was lurking a little inside the doorway, trying to speak to Santa’s wife, but not wanting to get too near to the fire – though even that was limp and barely flaming.
‘Course we do, sugar,’ replied Chunky. ‘But what? The sleigh’s gone, Santa’s gone, that scientist guy’s gone. All we’ve got left are a load of useless elves and two depressed polar bears.’
It was now two days since the seals had left. The bears had initially seemed full of fight and determination, but every hour that passed seemed to drag them into an ever blacker mood. Now you could barely get a grunt out of them, let alone a roar. The elves shoved food into their mouths by levering them open and hurling the food in. The bears then roused themselves just enough to chew and swallow.
‘We’ve got to be ready for when they come back. We failed once, we’ve got to get it right this time.
‘Got any suggestions?’
Candy smiled, which Chunky thought was the first time he had seen her smile in quite a long time.
‘Actually, I do. But we’ve got to get the elves going again. There’s no way we can get the sleigh back without them.’
‘The elves? But they’re tiny? And useless. Did I mention that before?’
‘You did. But they’re not…’ Candy paused as a sad little ‘oooofffff’ came from underneath the chair.
‘Can’t say I agree with you, toots. But if you’ve got a plan, let’s hear it.’ Chunky pulled the latest end of carrot from his mouth, tossed it out of the door and yanked another one out of his nose.
‘I’ll need you to go and meet Santa, and tell him what we’re doing. We need him back to win. The elves won’t keep going without him here.’
A crinkle appeared above Chunky’s coal eye, as if he was raising an eyebrow.
‘And how do you expect me to do that. We don’t know where he is, he could have been taken anywhere by now. You know he was in the back of the sleigh, right? They could be in Africa by now.’
‘They won’t be. The seals need fish and they need cold. I heard them. One last raid and then they’ll be back here for the rest of the winter.’
‘Still doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have taken Santa and the scientist a long, long way away.’
Candy shook her head vigorously, her hair dancing like corn in a breezy field.
‘I just don’t think so. They wouldn’t have wanted to take any risks. They would have dumped them out as soon as they thought it was safe to.’
Chunky shrugged. ‘Maybe you’re right, kid. But I still don’t know how you expect me to find them.’
‘Due south. That’s all you need to do. They’ll be coming due north. That’s how Santa will find his home. And me.’
‘Has he got a compass in his head?’
‘Kind of. It certainly seems that way. Whenever we go outside the city, he always knows how to get back.’
Chunky chomped on the carrot some more. He took it out as if he was about to say something of huge importance, hesitated then put it back in again. Almost immediately he yanked it back out again and began spitting out words, as if he was trying to get them out as quickly as possible.
‘You know, kid, when they did dump them out it was probably from a great height. I hate to tell you this, but he might not be…moving anymore.’
Candy shouted at him.
‘Do you think I haven’t thought about that! You don’t need to remind me!’ She began to sob. Chunky slid over to her and put a twig arm around her.
‘There, there, toots, don’t get yourself in a state. He’s probably fine.’
‘Ow!’ cried Candy. ‘You’re scratchy.’
‘What do you expect? It’s wood. From a tree. All natural, baby.’ He paused. ‘Like you?’ he queried.
Candy ignored his question. He took his arm off her, and moved towards the doorway, aware that water was starting to slide off him.
‘But thank you,’ said Candy. ‘I know that you mean well. You’re just a little…blunt sometimes.’
‘That’s not what you were just saying about my arm.’
‘But yeah, I know. Gotta tell it like it is, kid. No point in sugar coating.’
‘No point in sugar coating? Have you seen this place? It’s made of sugar coating. You can’t move for something that the elves have sugar coated.’
It was Chunky’s turn to laugh.
‘Please will you go and try and find Santa,’ she implored. ‘I’ll get the elves and the reindeer ready.’
Chunky looked down at the moping elves.
‘You sure about that, kid?’
He cruised over the top of one, leaving an icy coating on the elf’s tunic and water trickling down his nose. The elf didn’t move, or make a sound.
‘Those reindeer don’t look too enthusiastic, either,’ he went on.
‘I’ll get them ready,’ repeated Candy, with a force and a confidence that Chunky wasn’t sure he’d seen in her before. Over the years he had doubted the strength of character of quite a few of Santa’s wives. Too fluffy, too silly, too giggly. There for decoration and to make Santa cups of tea and to make him feel special. Not that he should have needed a confidence boost. When most of the world’s children wrote you letters each year, it made you feel kind of important. But maybe not loved, which was what Santa always wanted. Candy, he could see now, was different. He looked again at the blonde hair, and the short skirt, and back up at the very pretty face. Don’t judge a book by its cover, he thought. Unless the book was titled something like ‘Pirate Seals Are Nasty Robbers’, with a picture on the front of a pirate seal roaring and stealing fish. Then you might have a fair stab at what the book was going to be like. Fair stabs being the opposite of what the pirate seals gave to everyone.
‘Okay, kid, you got yourself a deal. Tell me the plan and then I’ll go and try and find Santa.’
It had been a long time since Chunky had been outside Santa’s city. There was nothing out there for him. Whilst the cold didn’t bother him, the fierce wind stripped away pieces of his body, and he would constantly have to pick up more ice and smack it against himself to rebuild. He worried that if there was a storm he would get blown away completely, without time to keep himself held together.
Then there were the animals and birds. Not many of them, but enough. They were curious, and wondered if he was food, and would come and sniff and peck and bite him. When they worked out that he wasn’t food, often they would wee on him. That wasn’t fun. Then, once he had fought them off, he would strip away his body himself, and replace it with fresh ice. Damp, yellow stains weren’t pleasant. Other times animals would just claw and bite at him because they were afraid or they just enjoyed it.
Chunky needed to move in disguise. He’d already taken his hat off. Once he was clear of the city, he dropped the white, canvas bag that he’d had the elves make for him. With his right stick arm, he reached in and pulled out two white branches, and laid them out on the ground. Then he used the same arm to grab his left arm, and he yanked it out of its snowy socket.
‘Ouch,’ he grumbled. ‘Reminds me why I don’t do that too often.’
He took the brown left arm and tossed it inside the canvas bag. Then he reached down, picked up one of the white branches, and in one swift movement thrust it back into his left shoulder socket.
‘Ow,’ he moaned again. ‘Just two more to go, kid.’
He wiggled his twig fingers on the end of the arm, and whirled the arm around.
‘Seems to be working ok.’
The process was then repeated, to place his brown right arm in the bag, and insert a new white one.
He then removed his coal buttons. He was now completely white up to his head. There was no way he could remove his eyes, he had to be able to see, but the nose was a different matter. He pulled it out, but another one immediately popped up in its place.
‘Oh yeah, forgot about that.’
He took the chomped down carrot from his mouth, and in one swift movement he pulled the new carrot out from his nose, and inserted the stump. The stump popped out as another carrot appeared behind it.
‘Not quick enough, Chunky.’
He chomped down the carrot he was holding, then even quicker than before he pulled his nose out and plonked the stump in with even more force. This time it held.
‘Gotcha,’ he spat out.
When he closed his eyes, all that could now be seen was a tiny splash of orange on an otherwise white body. He picked up the bag from the ground, and slung it over his shoulder. From the back, as he marched out into the arctic wilderness, there was no way that you could see him. He was the ice, and the ice was him.
‘Pure as the driven snow,’ he chuckled. ‘Don’t think so somehow.’
The chuckling soon died down. He didn’t know how far he was going to walk, or if he would ever find the two men. The further he got from the city, the less protection he had from the wind, and the harder it became to move forward. He didn’t know how long he would be able to keep going. And he didn’t know if he would ever be coming back.
Candy felt strangely light as she walked through the city, and couldn’t think why. She patted her clothes, which were the same as ever, and looked down at her shoes, which were also no different. She poked gently with one foot at an elf that was lying still on the ground, and in the way of the door to the workshop that she wanted to get into. The elf didn’t move, so she gently levered him out of the way just enough to be able to prise the door ajar and squeeze through. As she did so, she just about stopped herself from treading on an elf lying on the other side. She closed the door and looked around. It was a sad scene.
She realised why she felt so light. Often the elves would be bouncing around, grabbing at her and almost pulling her down, make her feel much heavier than she really was. They were so excited to see her. Almost more excited than when they saw Santa, she sometimes fancied, though she was probably just fooling herself. She would pat them on the head, and tickle them under the chin, and they would swoon and let go, only to be replaced by others who wanted the same treatment.
Now the workshop was silent. Some elves lay slumped across the workbenches, pieces of toys abandoned in front of them. The conveyer belts were not working. They were a few days away from Christmas, and unless work started again very soon, even with Santa’s magic speeding things along, there would be no way that all the toys and gifts could be ready for Christmas Eve. If he came back. The elves were just waiting, but not for Santa. They were waiting for the seals to return, as they had threatened and promised. They believed that the seals would take over the city, as they had threatened and promised. She had to find some way of changing this idea, of using the elves and their skills. There were so many of them. Even though the pirate seals were huge and fierce and mean, she knew that they could be beaten by weight of numbers and by careful planning. She looked around again at the forlorn elves. She had to admit, at the moment it didn’t seem very likely.
She had an idea. Without even realising she went outside and began to quicken her pace, going faster and faster until finally she broke out into a run. Her feet scuffed against elves as she dashed through the streets, and she jumped over some without even thinking. So fast was she running, and with such a look of concentration and determination on her face, that even some of the elves who had been lying flat on the ground raised their heads and looked at her curiously before slumping back.
Candy ran up through the town square, took a sharp right turn towards the main workshop and flung the door open with such force that it bounced on its hinges and slammed shut behind her. She scooted between various benches and conveyors, slowing as she realised that she was in danger of tripping, but keeping the same sense of urgency. She burst through the office door on the far side. Glancing around, she quickly found what she was looking for, pulled a chair out, sat down and leaned in. She pushed a large button, and without even testing, began shouting.
‘Listen up, elves!’
The tannoy boomed through the workshop and out through the town. The tannoy was used to let elves know that it was time to start work, or to signal the end of the day, or even just to let everyone know that all the presents had been delivered. She had it turned up to maximum volume.
‘Do I really sound like that?’ she thought, before deciding that she should worry about it later, and carrying on. Really, though, like that? Again, not something to worry about now.
‘This is Candy Claus. I know that you’re tired and scared and worried about Santa. I know that you’re terrified of the seals coming back, and taking over. I know that you don’t think that there’s any way that we can beat them.’
She paused. All this really didn’t sound good. She needed to haul it round somewhat before she made things even worse.
‘But we can.’ She paused and then repeated herself, making sure that there was even more confidence in her voice this time. ‘We can!’
She pressed her mouth right into the microphone, wanting her voice to be even louder than before.
‘We have the numbers, if we work together and work smart. Those seals are dumb. Really dumb.’ She knew that this wasn’t quite true. They may not have been intelligent like the scientist, but they had natural cunning. Still, they were entirely motivated by fish. That was pretty dumb.
‘If we have a plan and work together, then we can beat them. And I have a plan! Chunky has been sent to find Father Christmas. They will be back! We have two polar bears…’
At least she thought they had two polar bears. They needed inspiring as much as the elves did. Hopefully they hadn’t wandered off.
‘…two polar bears that the seals are scared of. Terrified. We can use them and we can defeat them. But we need to prepare and get organised. We will only beat them if we get ready now!’
She stopped shouting, and lowered her voice, almost to a whisper.
‘I know you are all scared. So am I. But I know what is right and what is wrong, and I know what we have to fight for. Think of the children who need Christmas. Think of your home. Think of Father Christmas. Think of whatever you want, but in your hearts you know we have to fight for everything we hold dear.’
She raised her voice slightly again.
‘I have a plan. It will work. I know we can beat the seals. But I need your help. Let’s do this together!’
She could see the scene now. In the workshop elves would be dancing on the tables, energised and ready to work. Out in the streets they would have raised themselves from the ground, placed their arms around each others’ shoulders and looked each other in the eye, bonded in their determination. Even elves who had taken to their bedrooms and hidden under the covers would have thrown them back and with a pump of the fist, leapt up and marched out of the door to join the others. Only to march back in again when they remembered that they were naked. All over the town the elves would be bouncing and rocking and ready for the battle ahead.
‘Let’s do this together!’
She banged her fist on the table.
‘Let’s do this together!’
That time it hurt. She decided to stop banging on the table.
She flung her chair back, which tipped over and clattered as it bounced across the floor. Turning, she marched to the office door and flung it open, ready to greet the bands of excited elves.
The scene was exactly as she had left it when she had come in. Elves slumped over their workbenches, unmoving. No flicker of movement, no smiles or nods, not even slight movements of the mouth. Not a sign that they had heard what she was saying.
Thinking that perhaps the tannoy had not been working, she strode back into the office, this time leaving the door open so that she could hear properly what was coming out of the speakers in the workshop.
‘Hello, hello, testing, can you hear me?’ she implored. She could hear the echo of her words bouncing around the workshop, muffled and slightly inaudible from where she was, but definitely loud enough. There were no other sounds.
Tears began to invade her eyes, and sobs shake her throat. She stood up once more and ran out of the office and out of the workshop. Desperately she hoped that things outside might be different, that the elves in the workshop were those who were most scared, who had wanted to hide themselves away more than any others. But outside was just the same. Elves on the ground, silent and still. Tears now waterfalling down her face, and anguished cries coming from her mouth, she sank to her knees in despair.
‘This is getting easier and easier,’ thought Redbeard. The flakes were starting to wear off the seals, but he knew that they had enough to get them back to the north pole. There, as planned, they would settle in for the winter. They had plenty of fish to keep them going, three raids since they left the pole had seen to that. Redbeard was looking forward to resting and gorging. Although he didn’t like to admit it to himself, and certainly would never say it to the others, he needed some time these days to ease his creaking joints. One day a challenge would come, and he would fight a final time and be overthrown as the leader. He looked at Blood next to him, and then ahead at the rest of his seal crew, and snorted. It wouldn’t be any time soon.
‘Everything all right, Captain?’ asked Blood.
‘Absolutely shipshape!’ roared Redbeard, shouting louder than he needed to in order to make himself heard above the rush of the wind. ‘How long until we’re back home?’
Blood raised a blubbery eyebrow at this reference to the north pole as ‘home’, but didn’t say anything to the Captain. He glanced down below him and could see white. It could just be the foaming sea, but was more likely ice. He didn’t really know, but as the Captain wanted an answer he took a guess.
‘Not long now, Captain. We’re flying above the ice.’
‘Splendid! Let’s get back, take the place over, put the fish on ice and put our feet up.’
‘Aye, aye, Captain.’
Ahead of him, the crew huffed and puffed, occasionally wishing that it was Blood and the Captain who were in the harness instead of them. Fantasies of cracking the whip on Redbeard’s leathery hide flashed through more than one seal’s peanut brain. In just a couple more minutes, though, the sleigh, without any order from Redbeard or Blood, suddenly slowed down, and they began descending.
‘We’re here, Captain.’
‘Are you sure? Where’s all the bright lights?’
‘It’s shielded, remember, Captain?’ said Blood, gently. ‘Some kind of magic? I think…’ He introduced a note of doubt into his voice, though in his mind he was very sure.
‘Oh yes, of course,’ replied the Captain, as if he had just been momentarily distracted. ‘Very well.’
He leant forward and yelled out at the crew. ‘Seals, are you ready? Remember the plan!’
‘Yes, Captain,’ they yelled back, excited both at the prospect of a fight and more enticingly at the moment, a good, long rest.
‘Blood, take us down!’
Blood leant into the front of the sleigh and thought about the city below. The seals, almost commanded by the harness, began flapping and the sleigh shot forward and down, and in seconds they were all dazzled. From a steep descent, the sleigh levelled out and now well practised, the seals and the sleigh landed gently on the snow in the middle of the town square.
The crew quickly slid their flippers out of the harness, expecting to be surrounded instantly by hoardes of elves who had been planning and waiting for this moment, just like before. Blood and Redbeard jumped out of the front, claws and teeth at the ready. Everything was quiet, though, and as they looked around, the seals could see plenty of elves, but they were all silent and lying motionless on the ground.
‘What’s going on, Blood?’ asked the Captain.
‘I’m not sure, Captain,’ replied Blood, and this time the note of doubt in his voice was genuine.
He slithered over to the nearest elf and poked it with his snout. The elf didn’t move, but just continued staring. Blood repeated the action with another elf, and still nothing. He tried a bit more force with a third, slapping it with his flipper, but still there was no response. Apart from a soft little ‘oooofffffff’ as the force of the slap rolled him onto his back.
‘They’ve given up, Blood!’ cried Redbeard joyously. ‘No fight left in them.’
He stared around at the rows and rows of listless elves.
‘I’m almost disappointed.’ A sudden thought snagged in Redbeard’s brain. ‘Any sign of those hopeless bears?’
The crew had crawled on ahead, scouting out the way.
‘Not that I can see, Captain,’ cried out Bart.
‘Nor me,’ echoed Bellamy.
‘No sign at the moment,’ replied Blood, more cautiously.
‘Well, keep your eyes open and signal if you do,’ said the Captain. ‘They may be useless but they’re still big. Don’t want to get in the way of those paws, even if they are just flapping around.’
He waved a flipper ahead.
‘On we go! Let’s get another coating of those flakes. Then we can unload the sleigh, put the fish on ice and feast.’
The band of seals closed up, so that no individual could be picked off if any enemies did attack. It was unnecessary but they were too well trained by Redbeard to do anything else. They went straight down from the main square towards the tunnel, sometimes flicking an elf out of their path, sometimes going straight over one if that was easier. Still no elves moved, just stared out at them, flat expressions on their faces. There was no music, just an occasional hum, which might have been the coloured lights flickering slightly or some kind of machine in the distance.
As they got closer to the tunnel door, all the seals peered to see if the polar bears were guarding it, or even the reindeer, but there was nothing. They had won. They had all the access they wanted to the dust, and could settle in for the winter. Redbeard’s mind was now racing with the possibilities for after that. Surely the elves had to start moving again. He didn’t know how long they could go without food. He suspected it was some time – they were only tiny – but once they roused themselves, perhaps he could take control of them, add them to his crew. They could look after the fish, feed them to him and his crew. Keep the sleigh in good working order. They could make life so much easier as he grew older.
The door had been put back since their last visit. Clegg pushed it open slightly nervously with his snout. It creaked, and he met some resistance as he tried to push it wide enough for them to get through. Once he managed it and poked his head round, he found it was due to another elf lying on the other side. The seals relaxed, and blubber sank six inches to rest more firmly on the ground.
‘What are you waiting for?’ asked Bellamy behind him, trying to squeeze his neck so that he could see round Clegg and further into the golden glow that crept up the tunnel. He was prevented by an enormous backside. ‘Is there a problem?’
‘No. No, problem at all.’
‘Then get a move on. I’m hungry. The sooner we get this done, the sooner I can have some fish.’
Clegg slid down the tunnel, four other seals following behind. Even Redbeard came this time, with only Blood left behind to guard the sleigh. As they moved down, Redbeard’s one good eye looked suspiciously at a few elves that seemed as if they had been thrown away like litter in the tunnel. They still remained motionless.
The golden glow grew brighter. Redbeard smiled a golden smile. They were at the cave.
The seals glided back up the tunnel. Fish, fish, fish, fish, fish. Back to the sleigh, unload and then feast. Hector was in the lead this time, and stopped suddenly as they reached the top.
‘Come on, Hector. I’m hungry.’
‘What’s he stopped for?’
‘Dunno. Because he’s fat?’
‘We’re all fat, and I can still move.’
‘The door’s closed,’ said Hector.
‘Well, open it then, fatty, fat…’ There was a pause while Bellamy’s small brain desperately searched for a better insult. It gave up. ‘…fat.’
‘It wasn’t closed before, was it? I was in last. We left it open.’
‘It was probably just the wind,’ said Bart, more helpfully. ‘Blew it shut behind us.’
Hector was relieved to hear this simple explanation. Then his small brain thought.
‘But it opens inwards. How would the wind blow it shut if it opens inwards?’ He thought some more. ‘And anyway, there isn’t any wind.’
‘Hector, just open the door!’ roared Redbeard from the back of the line.
Hector very quickly stopped thinking and tugged at the door handle. The door wouldn’t open. He tugged again.
‘Locked? It can’t be. It’s probably just stuck.’
He pulled again, but still couldn’t get it open.
‘I don’t think so.’
Redbeard knew something was wrong, even if his crew were too stupid to work it out. Bart was using the time while he was waiting to roll round and round with a goofy grin on his face.
‘Hector,’ he shouted, ‘give it one more good pull, and if that doesn’t work we’re going through it.’
Hector did as he was ordered, slipping his flippers inside the handle, and then flying backwards with all his strength. This time the door did open, though only with a huge crack from the lock and a cascade of rock as he broke it. As the door released, he crashed into the seals behind him, who were all sent momentarily off balance.
Hector looked up and at the door entrance he saw them. Elves. Lots and lots of elves. With lots and lots of weapons in their hands.
‘What is it, Hector?’ yelled the Captain, unable to see.
‘It’s the elves, Captain. They’re, er, blocking the way.’
‘Well just push them out of the way, or go over the top of them like you did when we came down. It’s not that hard.’
‘It’s not that easy, Captain,’ shouted Bellamy, who was immediately behind Hector and could see the true nature of Hector’s problem. ‘The elves aren’t lying down anymore. They’ve got knives and um…’ He peered round Hector and looked more closely.
‘…and axes, and er, things like that.’
‘Excellent!’ cried Redbeard, to his crew’s surprise. ‘They want to fight! The perfect way to take over this place. It wouldn’t have felt the same if we’d done it without a proper fight. How many of them are there?’
Hector couldn’t see. There were too many elves staring angrily at him, blocking the doorway. He knew he needed to give the Captain an answer. He thought for a moment.
‘Excuse me,’ he said to an elf directly in front of him. ‘Before we get going with this, would you mind if I just popped my head out?’
The elf shrugged, and looked from side to side at the other elves next to him, who also shrugged. The elf turned back and nodded, and then he and a few other elves prised themselves apart to create a gap, which Hector shoved his head through. The gap got bigger as the elves shrank back from the smell.
Hector took a good look and then brought his head back in. The elves closed up their bodies again, and went back to staring as fiercely as they could.
‘There’s thousands of them, Captain. Thousands,’ he said, turning round slightly so that Redbeard could hear him properly.
An elf poked a tiny dagger in his bottom.
‘Ow!’ he yelped, more in surprise than pain. He whipped his head round and stared at the offending elf. ‘What was that for? We haven’t started yet.’
‘Sorry,’ replied the elf, as he was jostled by other elves, who were also annoyed that he had broken ranks. ‘Got a bit carried away.’
‘Just wait, will you!’
He turned once more.
‘What should we do, Captain?’
‘What should we do? What should we do?’ Redbeard could barely believe what he was hearing. ‘You said there were only a few thousand of them?’
Hector was about to say that he wasn’t sure if there were only a few thousand, or many thousands, then realised that it really wasn’t going to make much of a difference to the Captain, and kept his mouth shut.
‘We’ll fight them!’ roared Redbeard. ‘Crush them! Destroy them!’
‘Yes, Captain,’ replied Hector as brightly as he could. He turned back to the elf who had stabbed him. ‘We’re going to fight you now.’
‘Ok,’ replied the elf. ‘Ready when you are.’
‘I’m ready now.’
‘Do you want to go first or should I?’
Hector heard snorting and roaring and snarls of frustration from behind him. The elf was being bumped and nudged by the crowd, who also couldn’t understand what the hold-up was.
‘I really don’t mind,’ said Hector. ‘But I think we should get on with it.’
‘Agreed,’ replied the elf, nodding and making his green hat wobble. ‘Why don’t I start?’
‘Fine,’ said Hector.
Before Hector could even brace himself, the elf had poked him again with his tiny dagger, so hard that as well as the dagger piercing Hector’s skin, the elf’s arm disappeared up to the elbow in a mass of blubber.
‘Ow!’ cried Hector, before ploughing forward, straight over the top of the elf and also demolishing dozens of elves immediately next to and behind him. As some of the elves tried to recover, they were struck by the rest of the seals flying out of the tunnel.
Once he was clear, Bart soared up into the sky to get a better view of what they were facing. Hector had not been wrong when he had said that there were thousands of elves. He didn’t know where they had been hiding themselves before, probably in the various workshops, but now that they were out on the streets, it seemed as if there was nothing else but elves anywhere. He couldn’t see the roads or paths, and the sleigh was surrounded by them. Still, he thought, there might be an awful lot of them, but they are very tiny. He pointed his head down and gathered speed to torpedo into the nearest bunch.
Despite now being able to fly, Redbeard didn’t trust the golden flakes and was staying firmly on the ground. He swept forward, taking advantage of feeling much lighter and more agile. It was almost like he was ten years younger, and this lifted his spirit and his energy. A tail swoosh here and ten elves were gone. A butt of the head and there were another five lying motionless on the ground. They were feisty little blighters, though, and they just kept coming and coming. Wave after wave of elves threw themselves at the seals, and even those that he thought had been taken care of occasionally got back up.
The seals would wear them down eventually, though. Candy, who was currently watching from a first floor window close to the town square, could see that as well. Where were the wrestling bears? They had promised to stay and fight, but she had no idea where they had wandered off to. She scanned as far as she could see in the town, out down the empty side roads, and towards the edge of the town where the buildings began to run out, but could see no sign of them. The reindeer were mooching around near their stables, showing complete disinterest in what was happening.
‘Not my responsibility, love,’ Dancer had replied when Candy had implored them to help fight the seals. ‘We do flying.’
‘Can’t you just fly around, then, and distract the seals?’ she had asked.
Dancer had sucked his teeth at this thought, as if he was giving it serious consideration, and for a moment Candy had thought she might have persuaded him. Then he had shaken his head violently.
‘No, can’t do that. We do flying with the sleigh. On Christmas Eve. You wouldn’t want us to waste all our energy ahead of that, and not be able to go out on the Christmas run, would you? No, no, no.’
‘There won’t be any Christmas run unless we can get rid of the seals,’ Candy had thought to herself, but hadn’t said anything. There was no point in trying to persuade the reindeer once their minds were made up.
Looking away from the reindeer now, Candy stared back down at the fighting in the streets. The elves kept coming and coming, but they were constantly beaten backwards. The seals were massively strong and heavy and powerful. Even if they had just been on the ground it would have been difficult enough, but with their ability to fly, it seemed next to impossible for the elves. More and more of them were lying flat out on the roads, battered by the seals, with too long to recover before they could fight again. Candy could see that they were fighting a losing battle.
She wandered over to a large lamp, and reached down and turned it off. Then she removed its shade, and wrapping her hand in her sleeve to protect it from the heat from the bulb, took that out. Then she grabbed the shaft of the lamp in two hands, and gave it an experimental swing, as if she was aiming the large weighted bulb at the bottom at a seal’s head. It gave a satisfying swoosh. She whirled it around again until she was happy. If she was going to go down, she would go down swinging.
It was taking Candy a bit of time to get near to the seals. First she had to step over the bodies of elves who were lying on the ground, groaning. Then she had to try and get through the crowds of elves who were still fighting, and pushing themselves towards the seals. There were less of those than the ones on the ground.
She ducked as an elf came flying over her head. He landed on a group of other elves, sending them all tumbling. Another one followed, and as she got closer she saw that Bellamy was using his tail to flick at any elves that came near. He was far too powerful for them, and though they sometimes got in some sharp jabs with their daggers, there was no way that they could get close to drive the seal backwards.
She ploughed on through the elves, then with an enormous overhead swing, smacked the base of the lamp stand into Bellamy’s rump.
‘Aaaaggghhh!’ he cried, a mixture of surprise at the contrast to the pinprick elf daggers, and real pain. She swung the stand again, this time hitting him in the middle of the body. Again he cried out, but didn’t shift a centimetre backwards.
‘Next time it’s your head, if you don’t get out of here!’ she yelled. Bellamy considered this. As he was doing this, the elves to her left hand side scattered, and a huge figure rumbled through. Trying to keep one eye on Bellamy, she turned slightly and found herself face to face with the scarred head and dirty clam eyepatch of Redbeard himself.
‘Finally someone with some fight in them!’ he cried joyously. He sniffed the air, and then coughed as he sucked in Candy’s perfume. Father Christmas always told me I was wearing too much, she thought. If it’s overpowering a seal that smells like a fishmarket, he might have a point.
‘A woman, though,’ he reflected, grinning.
‘You don’t fight women?’ she asked. ‘I’ll fight you. You need to leave here.’
‘Oh no,’ said Redbeard quietly, or at least as quietly as a two tonne roaring seal ever spoke. ‘I’ll fight anyone, man, woman or beast. I’m just disappointed that it’s going to be too easy, that’s all.’
Candy gripped her lampstand even more tightly, and suddenly realised that all the action and fighting around her had stopped. The elves were staring at her and Redbeard. The other seals were staring at them too. This had now become a duel, and the winner would determine the outcome of the entire battle. Defeat Redbeard, and the elves would be renewed and remotivated. Lose, and they would go back to how they had been, listless and hopeless, and the North Pole and Christmas would be finished.
‘Do you want to go first?’ whispered Redbeard. ‘I’ll let you have a free shot.’
‘If you’re dumb enough and vain enough to let me do that, why not?’ replied Candy. She swung the lampstand and brought it down as hard as she could towards Redbeard’s head. She expected him to try and duck and move out of the way, but he stayed motionless and just let it hit him. He closed his eye on impact, and didn’t make a sound, and for a moment Candy thought she had knocked him out. Then the eye flicked open again, and he grinned.
‘Right,’ he hissed. ‘Now it’s my turn.’
Candy knew that she should hold her ground and not take a step back or it would send the wrong signal, but she couldn’t help herself. Her right foot shifted, and though she caught herself and dragged it back, it was too late. Redbeard had seen her weakness.
‘Put the weapon down,’ hissed Redbeard. ‘I won’t hurt you if you give up now.’
Redbeard moved closer to her. Candy was terrified, but shook her head.
‘My patience is wearing thin. We are taking over this place. We can do it the easy way or the hard way. Personally I prefer the hard way, a proper fight, but it’s up to you.’
Candy shook her head again, and gripped the lampstand even tighter. The elves around them held their breath. Redbeard came closer still, and Candy could see his saliva dripping jaws and his yellowing, gunky eye, and his filthy clam eyepatch.
‘You wouldn’t hurt a woman, would you?’ Candy suddenly found her voice again, and was desperately trying to think of some words that would stop Redbeard.
The Captain did pause, considering what she had said. Finally he spoke again.
‘I’ll hurt anyone.’
Without any apparent effort, Redbeard leapt forward at Candy, teeth bared. She thrust the lamp stand out in front of her to try and slow him, realising that there was no way she could stop him.
At the same moment, out of nowhere, an enormous snowball came flying through the air and landed with huge force on Redbeard’s back. It knocked him over, and as Candy opened her eyes, wondering why she had not yet been hit, she saw him covered in snow and flat against the road.
‘What?’ he roared, and tried to leap up again, only to be hit by another huge ball of snow.
The other seals stopped staring and tried to make their way to help their Captain. As each one moved forward, they too were hit by gigantic snowballs and tipped to the ground.
‘Find out where they’re coming from!’ shouted Redbeard.
Candy wanted to know too. She also didn’t want to be head to head with Redbeard any longer. They seemed to be coming from the south side of the town. She skirted round some elves and ran over. It was hard to see at first, but she could make out three figures – one red, one white, one mostly green.
She yelped with joy and excitement as the three coloured figures came closer and she was able to see who they were. Chunky the Snowman, Stephen the scientist and most wonderfully of all, Santa. Chunky looked different. Instead of his thin stick arms, he now had huge branches. She watched amazed as Santa and Stephen loaded huge snowballs into each of Chunky’s now enormous hands, stretched the branches backwards, then released. The snowballs launched as if from a massive catapult. There was a store of the snowballs on the ground next to them.
There were now only a hundred yards or so between them, and she ran as fast as she could across the snow, the distance closing all the time as they carried on towards her. Within seconds she was able to fling herself at her husband, landing on him and feeling that wonderful sensation of landing on a pile of pillows.
‘Baby!’ she cried. ‘You’re safe!’
‘It certainly appears that way,’ replied Santa, feeling slightly crushed by Candy’s hug.
‘You found them Chunky!’ she cried.
‘Sure did, kid,’ said Chunky. ‘Hang on.’
Out of the corner of his coal eye, Chunky had noticed a seal that had also worked out where the snowballs were coming from, and was flying towards them. The three of them broke off from talking to Candy, and between them manoeuvred two more large snowballs into Chunky’s hands and fired. The snowballs travelled with uncanny accuracy, hitting Bart right between the eyes and sending him tumbling to the ground, where he lay groaning.
‘It’s amazing,’ said Candy to Stephen. ‘Nice use of science!’ she went on brightly.
Stephen coughed before replying, as if he was slightly embarrassed.
‘Well, it’s mostly science…and a bit of magic,’ he went on, glancing over at Father Christmas.
‘The snowballs and Chunky’s arms,’ nodded Candy. ‘They only hit the seals. And so hard. Still, it’s pretty impressive.’
She smiled at Stephen, and he found himself staring at her, and then getting slightly embarrassed again. He looked down at the ground.
‘Thank you. But we need more snowballs. We sneaked back in and only had time to make a few.’
Candy looked down and saw that there were only about four snowballs remaining.
‘Can you get the elves to make some more?’
‘I’m on it,’ replied Candy, with renewed purpose.
Candy yelled instructions to the elves. Soon they were rolling out balls of snow in a frenzy.
Redbeard stared at the action, shaking off the last of a snowball. Blood had drawn alongside.
‘A plan, Mr Blood?’
‘We need to stop the snowballs. After that they’ll just crumble.’
‘And how would you suggest we do that?’
Blood smiled. ‘I suggest we use our heads.’
Redbeard smiled back.
‘Very well. Hector, Bart,’ he yelled.
The seals dodged the huge snowballs that were now being fired with increasing speed, and Candy watched as they took instructions, wondering what they were up to now.
‘I think we’re winning,’ said Father Christmas, as he helped load another snowball. ‘Do you think they’re going to run away?’
Stephen looked up at him, and then saw two giant seals flying as fast as they could towards them.
‘Not quite,’ he gulped. ‘Out of the way!’
He gave Santa a hard shove, sending him tumbling to the ground a few yards away, just as Hector and Bart ducked their heads and smashed Chunky. The force was enormous, and his wooden arms shattered in half, shooting splinters over nearby elves.
‘Oh dear,’ said Santa.
‘Arm yourself!’ cried Stephen, picking up a chunk of wood that had fallen, and swooshing it through the air as Bart came towards him. Santa followed suit as Hector approached him. Chunky just stood and hoped for the best.
They kept them at bay, but it was clear that without Chunky’s catapult arms, the seals would eventually wear them down. Elves were being scattered, and bodies crushed. Candy rushed over to them.
‘What do we do now?’ she asked in desperation.
‘Chunky!’ yelled Stephen. ‘We need a distraction. I need you up in the air.’
‘You want me to fly?’ said Chunky. ‘What movies have you been watching?’
‘The ones where you’re a hero!’
‘Fair enough,’ said Chunky. ‘Guess a snowman’s gotta do what a snowman’s gotta do.’
He suddenly soared upwards. Candy gasped.
‘I’ve never seen him do that before.’
‘Well, he was dumped in the flakes,’ explained Santa. ‘He’s just never liked heights. And I don’t think he can do it for very long.’
Chunky flew up to a tower on the south side and as hoped, the seals followed. Hiding behind it and using what was left of his branch arms, he began throwing stones at the seals approaching him and those on the ground.
‘Come on, boys!’ he yelled as the seals headed towards him. ‘I’ve got plenty more of these!’ He shook a fist of sharp stones at them and spat out a carrot from his mouth. As ever, he yanked his nose out and shoved it in as a replacement, before hurling another fistful of stones at the seals. The ones that hit were sharp and painful, even if they weren’t going to do any lasting damage.
‘Deal with this…abom…’ started Redbeard.
‘Abominable?’ shouted down Chunky.
‘Abomination!’ cried Redbeard.
Hector and Bart continued towards Chunky. The stones had little effect on stopping them. Then he ran out of stones.
Hector and Bart were headed straight for the stone tower. Instinctively, Chunky ducked behind it, thinking that they would have to dodge round to get him, giving him a chance to fly off. The seals didn’t bother with that. They just bashed straight into the tower, creating an explosion of bricks and dust and sending Chunky flying backwards into the air. He began falling, debris around him like a dirty snow shower, doing nothing until he suddenly remembered about the flakes, and began to flap what was left of his arms and wiggle his torso. He was able to lift himself clear and away from the bricks, but either the magic wasn’t working properly anymore, or the dust was somehow blocking its effect.
Either way, he was still falling rapidly. He wiggled some more, and his arms bent like the branches of a tree in a storm as he tried ever harder to fly. It just about worked, stopping him exploding like a snowball hurled against a wall, as he hit the ground with a thump.
‘Phew,’ he exclaimed to no-one in particular as he sat up. ‘That was close.’
He closed his coal eyes in relief. At that moment, one of the bricks, having bounced off another one, smashed into his torso, and blew a huge hole through his middle. Chunky collapsed.
Hector and Bart landed next to him and peered closely.
‘Leave him,’ said Hector. ‘He’s done. We need to help the others.’
Bart nodded. They flew off, and as they rose, and looked back, it was hard to see where Chunky stopped and the ground began.
Chunky, Father Christmas and Stephen dashed over to where they had seen Chunky land. He had managed to get upright, but was lurching slowly and painfully. By the time the three of them reached him, he was close to the point where the town stopped and only snow and ice awaited beyond its border.
‘Chunky!’ cried Candy, where are you going?
‘It doesn’t look good, kid,’ he said, turning towards them. ‘I got hit pretty bad.’
Candy was crying.
‘We’ll fix you up. You’ve been hit before. We can repair you.’
She grabbed a handful of snow, ran up to him and began stuffing it into the huge gap in his body, trying to make him whole again. But the snow simply fell to the ground, and the holes remained. Chunky reached out a twig arm and gently stopped her from doing any more.
‘I wish it was that simple, Candy. No more. No more.’
He stepped away from them.
‘I think it’s time to go.’
He pulled out his carrot nose, and this time no other nose popped back to replace it. He spat out the remaining stump of carrot from his mouth. Then, as he had done when he had stepped out of the city to find Santa, he began to remove his buttons and his arms. Once his right arm was on the ground, he shook his left shoulder violently and the other arm fell to the ground. Now all that stood in front of them was a white snowman shape, a large hole in its middle, with two coal eyes. With his mouth closed, the face was completely blank. The mouth suddenly moved.
‘Gotta go, kids,’ said Chunky. ‘It’s been a blast.’
From nowhere, a wind whipped up, so hard that it tore pieces of snow from Chunky’s body. Candy and Santa clung onto each other, Santa wrapping his enormous arms round to shelter her. Stephen ducked his head and shielded his eyes, but still kept looking as much as he could at Chunky. A large piece of snow was snapped from his head, and turned to flakes disappearing on the wind. Another piece torn from his body, then another, from the left side and the right side. All the time Chunky just stood there saying nothing, being whittled away into snowflakes and blown into the sky, until there was no mouth left, and no head, and his body was a stump. Soon that too was flung into the air, and all that was left of Chunky were the coal eyes, the branch arms and the carrot nose that still lay where Chunky had dropped it.
‘He’s gone!’ cried Candy, falling to the ground.
Santa knelt down next to her, and gently pulled her up and cradled her.
‘Not gone,’ he said. ‘Just…not here.’
And they all stared out silently at the ice, where Chunky now lay scattered.
It was clear that despite his best efforts, Chunky had created only a small diversion. Knowing that they could do nothing else, and realising that the elves were now on their own, they hurried back into the town. Turning a corner, suddenly they saw Bellamy and Clegg, who raised themselves up, towering over the three. A few brave elves threw themselves at the seals, but their tiny daggers and fists just bounced off, and they soon gave up. Stephen stared ahead, unable to take his gaze from the globules of saliva that were dripping from Bellamy’s gaping mouth. Candy had closed her eyes again and half turned away. Santa stood calm and unmoving, though even he flinched slightly as Clegg twitched, before going still once more.
‘This is it,’ thought Stephen. ‘This is the end.’
‘You are going dowwwwwwnnnnnnn!’
A huge white and pink shape leapt into the gap between the seals and the others.
‘I’ve been waiting for this moment. You are mine!’
Another enormous white and pink shape appeared.
‘We are going to destroy you!’
‘We’re going to pulverise you!’
‘You tell them, Dave.’
‘You tell them too, Dave. We are the greatest pair of wrestling bears in the history of wrestling bears.’
‘No-one can touch us.’
Dave and Dave had returned.
Normally the seals would have fled in terror, but they had been through this before. The bears weren’t even looking at them and were roaring at each other, smacking their paws on the ground, and then waving them in the air.
‘Do you think we can go round them?’ asked Clegg, craning his neck.
‘Maybe under them?’ suggested Bellamy.
‘Yes, that might be best. Get these three out of the way and the place will be ours.’
‘Ahem,’ coughed Stephen. He couldn’t be heard over the roaring of the bears, so he coughed again more loudly.
‘Yes,’ replied Dave, placing his paws on the ground and bending his head into Stephen.
‘And the other one,’ said Stephen.
Dave nodded and nudged Dave, who also bent down.
‘Excuse us,’ they said, briefly turning round to the seals.
‘The thing is,’ said Stephen, ‘you’re not actually doing any fighting.’
‘We’ll get to that,’ said Dave. ‘We have to intimidate them first. It’s all part of the wrestling.’
‘Do they look intimidated?’ asked Stephen.
Dave and Dave turned again. The seals grinned at them and gave them a flippery wave.
‘Not really,’ they replied to Stephen. ‘We can’t have done enough intimidating.’
Astonishingly fast, they leapt on their hind legs and began shouting and waving their paws again.
‘You,’ they cried at the seals, ‘are the worst! You can’t fight. You are ours!’
‘Should we do it now?’ asked Clegg, completely ignoring the bears.
Stephen coughed again.
‘Yes,’ replied the Daves.
‘Maybe it would be a good idea if you just…I don’t know…started fighting?’
Dave and Dave considered this.
‘Come on, come on,’ he thought.
‘You know, that might be better. What do you think, Dave?’
Dave wrinkled his nose.
‘Yes, I think that’s a good idea.’
Before Stephen could even think of anything else, the bears had sprung onto the seals and were clubbing them with their enormous paws. The seals cowered beneath them, surprised by the ferocity of the attack, but more surprised that they were attacked in the first place.
One of the Daves suddenly sprang into the air, to try for an enormous bellyflop on Clegg, who saw him at the last minute and rolled swiftly out of the way. Dave’s splash landed on snow and ice, sending shards flying, but he was up in a second and raining blows on the seals again. Bellamy turned and tried to get away, but Dave stamped on his tail, causing a howl of pain.
‘Not this time,’ said Dave. ‘What are we going to do with them?’ he asked, turning to Stephen and Santa.
As he turned though, Bellamy wriggled free and with a thrust of his flippers he was airborne. The other Dave, who was currently pounding his fist on Clegg’s head, was distracted for a moment, and Clegg also slipped away and flew off.
‘After them!’ cried the Daves, but now that they were in the air, there wasn’t a lot that they could do.
‘They’re heading for the sleigh!’ yelled Stephen. ‘Everyone get to it!’
The seals had now gathered together in flight, and were indeed heading for the sleigh. Redbeard had taken stock of the situation, and decided that with the polar bears back, and actually fighting, there was no way that they were going to take over the pole this time. They would take the sleigh, regroup and replan, and come back another time. All they had to do was dive into the straps and take off. Even the bears couldn’t stop them from doing that.
The others were running as fast as they could, which in Father Christmas’ case was not very fast, but could see four of the seals flying well ahead of them, and they were overtaken by the two others.
‘We’re too late,’ wailed Candy, as Redbeard and Blood climbed into the front, and the others began inserting themselves into the harness. They carried on, but with every step they saw the seals getting more secure and ready to fly.
The sound of thunder bellowed behind them, and the wrestling bears came storming past.
‘We’ll stop them!’ cried Dave.
‘You’re going dowwwwnnnn!’ shouted the other Dave.
The other three stopped, realising that there was no way that they would reach the sleigh before the bears, who were the only ones who would stop the seals now. But even they had given up too much of a lead. The harness was on, flippers were flapped, and the sleigh rose into the air above the bears’ heads. They reared up on their hind legs, and thrust their arms in the air, revealing once again just how massive they were. But their arms only reached underneath the seals and underneath the sleigh, and it flew past them, first level and then rising into the air.
‘It’s over,’ said Candy softly.
‘Just wait,’ replied Father Christmas, with a knowing smile on his lips.
‘For what?’ replied his wife.
‘Just wait,’ he repeated.
They all stared up at the sleigh. Father Christmas, Candy, Stephen, the bears, all the elves. Even the reindeer, who had padded round the corner and were looking up at the sky like everyone else. All were silent, and in this quiet they began to hear a creaking and a groaning.
‘What’s that?’ asked Candy.
She got no reply, as a new sound was added. The sound of tearing. The sleigh was now some way off, and the noises grew fainter, but suddenly there was one loud snap. The harness, chewed by the reindeer, had finally frayed and snapped. They watched as the seals desperately tried to extract themselves from the harness as the sleigh plunged. The seal crew panicked, and began falling as one, unable to get out and not having the intelligence to work as a team to try and rescue any of Blood, the Captain or the sleigh.
‘Well, Mr Blood,’ said Redbeard as they fell. ‘Your plan has failed. Your suggestion?’
Blood was not quite so calm as Redbeard, who despite the plummeting sleigh looked like he was stood on the deck of a cruise liner pondering what to have for dinner. He tried to think.
‘I suggest we get off,’ he replied.
‘A fine idea. We shall return home.’
‘What about the others?’ Blood was looking up at the falling mass of harnessed seals.
‘They’ll probably be fine. After you, Blood. A Captain is always last to leave.’
Blood nodded and jumped off the sleigh, flapping and flying off towards the coast. Redbeard followed. The north pole family watched from the distance.
‘We need the sleigh!’ cried Candy. ‘It’s going to be smashed!’
Father Christmas turned to the reindeer.
‘Would you mind?’
The reindeer turned themselves inwards into a circle and grumbled to each other, before turning back to face Santa.
‘Oh go on, then,’ moaned Rudolf. ‘We’ll go and get it.’
‘Good job it’s not too far.’
‘Not as if we haven’t already saved you. If it wasn’t for us, those seals would be long gone with the sleigh.’
‘That’s got to be worth something.’
‘We’re going to be tired when it comes to Christmas Eve,’ grumbled Prancer. ‘You remember that. We’re going to need some extra carrots.’
‘As many as you want,’ replied Santa.
‘We’ll hold you to that,’ said Dancer, and Santa wondered if he had been slightly foolish.
The sleigh looked as if it was now only a few metres above the ground, and there was no way that the reindeer would get there in time. One moment the reindeer were there, though, and the next they were gone and far away in the sky.
‘I guess that’s how they get round the world in one night,’ mused Stephen.
They gathered themselves in a tight group, and flew underneath the sleigh, taking its weight on their backs and slowing it down, just a few metres above the solid, destructive ice. Kicking hard, they headed back to the city. They flew into the main square, and one by one peeled off from underneath, until the sleigh came landed with a slight, but non-damaging, thud.
‘You’re welcome,’ said Rudolf. ‘Now about those carrots.’
The elves cheered and hugged each other. Candy flung her arms around Santa, though her face dropped as she thought about Chunky, and she held her husband even more tightly. The bears gave Stephen a big hug, which felt surprisingly good, if somewhat terrifying. Preparations for Christmas could begin again. It would be tight, but Christmas would happen.
There were wild celebrations at the north pole after the seals had gone. The elves danced and sang, knowing that Christmas was saved, before Father Christmas gently reminded them that there were many presents still to make, and many preparations that still needed attending to. Time was short and they would have to work hard to get everything ready.
With a new enthusiasm and energy, though, the elves worked even quicker than ever, and finally Christmas Eve came and Father Christmas was ready to go. The reindeer had been given their promised extra carrots, and even they could not help showing a trace of enthusiasm for the night that was really the highlight of their year.
‘Are you ready?’ asked Santa. ‘We’ve got a few stops to make before I can drop you at your home. England’s kind of in the middle of the route.’
‘No problem,’ replied Stephen. ‘I’m looking forward to it.’
Santa smiled. Both he and Stephen knew that Stephen was a little afraid of just how fast they would be going.
‘You won’t fall out, you know,’ Santa tried to reassure him.
‘I know,’ said Stephen, not knowing this at all, and trying to match Santa’s reassurance with his scientific knowledge that there was no way he could do this without burning up or falling out. Still, he had seen enough in the past days to know that there was more to science than he or anyone else knew.
‘Let’s go, then,’ said Santa, snapping the reins. The reindeer began to trot, before breaking into a run, then getting faster and faster into a gallop. Candy and the elves waved at them as they passed by, then everything that Stephen could see was a blur, and suddenly the reindeer launched themselves into the air and they were flying.
‘Woah.’ Stephen couldn’t help yelling out as he was flung back into his seat at the front of the sleigh. Instinctively he put his arm round his pack to make sure it didn’t fall out, before thinking again and placing it carefully on the floor behind his legs where it would be safer.
‘Don’t worry, it’ll be ok,’ said Santa. ‘Anyway, it’s just got a few clothes and things in, hasn’t it? I can easily replace them.’
He gestured to the back of the sleigh.
‘Mostly,’ said Stephen, unzipping the pack just to peer in and check on the contents. Santa was looking out at the sky ahead of them. Stephen pushed aside a jumper, and near the top, still safe, was a carrot nose and a carrot stump, six pieces of coal and a black, wide brimmed hat. He pulled the jumper back over them. The pack was zipped back up.
‘It’s fine,’ he said, shoving it back again. ‘Just fine. So, where’s the first stop?’