Rudy Takes Charge
“Right, this is it. Amaryllis ‘as told me Red on ‘is way to meet us. It’s not snowin’ tonight, and everyone’s watchin’ the big match, so we gotta chance it.”
It was evening, three days after their last chat, and downstairs Mr and Mrs Reindeer were watching their team, the Yuleport Yawpers, who were playing in the World Ice Hockey quarter-finals against the Montreal Wanderers – and losing horribly. Angry shouts of “Filthy pass!” and “Come on, Stripes – the man’s a pigeon!” were ringing up the stairs from time to time – a big turnaround from the start of the match, when they had been decorating the living-room in their team colours and singing with joy at the fact that the Yawpers were now playing in London, on a pristine outdoor ice rink to rival the best Canadian rinks.
Meanwhile Holly, Rudy and Sham were talking in whispers on their versatellies, already dressed in their warmest clothes, with long reindeer skin coats and trousers covering them from head to foot. Underneath, Rudy had insisted on wearing his Yawpers red and green shirt, as he couldn’t watch the match: the fact that he wasn’t downstairs with his parents showed his dedication to their mission, and Sham appreciated it.
“It’ll take me about an hour to get to you from ‘ere. The match will be done in ‘alf an hour, and everyone will go to bed, depressed. I’ll meet you just after midnight,” continued Holly, “by the trees outside the school.”
Sham was glad that the others couldn’t hear his thoughts at this moment, and in fact he was glad that he couldn’t hear theirs either. Holly was looking blank (which was always a bad sign) and Rudy was as white as a sheet – even his lips were white. If they had spoken their fears, he doubted if any of them would have had the courage to go on, but, as it was, perhaps each of them thought they were the most afraid.
He cleared his throat, ready to speak, when suddenly the words, “Children are the living messages we send…” came scratchily through, and the image on the versatelly blurred and shivered; it was clear that someone else was trying to join their conversation. Rudy gasped and Holly looked ready to disconnect, but Sham thought he recognised the voice.
“…to a time we will never see!” he whispered carefully. The usual whirr and click was followed by the appearance of…
“Priya!” said Sham, as her image stilled. Now he and Rudy could see both Holly and Priya, side by side on the screen. They couldn’t have been more different – Holly with her full Inuit clothes on, and flowers behind her (the harp seemed to have disappeared) and Priya in a red dressing-gown, lit only by the light of the screen, with a blue paper folder in her hand. She was back in her own home now, but all was in darkness behind her.
Holly leaned forward and hissed into the screen.
“What you vixin’ well doin’ ‘ere? You en’t gonna stop us!”
Priya shook her head frantically.
“No, Holly! I’m not here to stop you. I want to give you these. I thought that if you were going to try to stop The Suits, you might need them.”
She held up the blue folder for them to see.
“What is it?” said Sham.
Priya pulled a bunch of papers out of the folder and held them towards her camera. There were detailed diagrams, showing what looked like –
“Is this the Cloud Assembler?” Sham whispered.
“What?” said Holly, as Priya nodded. “Where’d you get this?” she said slowly.
“My dad. Don’t ask me any more, please. I’m going to leave them behind the snowman on our driveway. Just take them and give them to someone who – maybe – can stop this before it gets any worse.”
Holly appeared to be silenced for once.
“Thanks,” she said, and Sham realised that was a big concession for her. “I’ll give them to Red. ‘E’ll know what to do.”
For a moment, nobody said anything.
“How did you know we were going tonight?” said Sham slowly. Since Priya had returned home, she had not been part of their conversations at all. “Did you have a dream?”
With Holly and Rudy there, Priya looked a little embarrassed. She nodded.
“I wish I could come too,” she said softly. “I hope you find her. Just be aware, though, that she may not be the same as you remember her.”
Sham looked taken aback.
“What have you dreamt about? Is Gran all right?”
“I don’t know – I just know that a lot has happened since you last saw her.”
“It’s because of them finding the envelope, isn’t it? It’s all my fault for not hiding it properly.” Sham felt suddenly angry with himself. “I knew they would do something to her…”
Holly interrupted. “Right, well that just makes it more urgent. We need to get goin’ – if Miss Wrap-a-Package is ‘ere, ‘er mam is probably close be’ind ‘er.”
“No, Holly, she isn’t,” said Priya. “She’s fast asleep. I checked. Just go – and be careful. I hope the strength of – of the Resisters will go with you.” Although Priya was leaning back, so that she was in shadow, it looked as if she was crying.
Sham leaned forward, closer to the microphone. “Priya, stop blaming yourself for the snow – it’s not your fault. We’ll contact you when we’ve got Gran. Just keep it a secret as long as possible.”
Priya nodded, and then, with a click, she was gone.
“Right,” said Holly, straightening up and shouldering her rucksack, “I’ll meet you outside, by the school. You pick up the folder, Sham, and we can give it to Red.”
“I will,” said Sham, feeling all at once determined to get going and to do things right. He leant forward and switched off the versatelly. He and Rudy watched the screen slowly dim, until it went completely dark. They looked at each other. Now there was nothing else to do but wait for the match to finish.
Sham felt as if he was holding his breath, as he lay, boiling hot, under the covers, with all his layers of clothes on. But Holly was right. When the match ended in a crushing defeat, Rudy’s parents crept up silently to bed, not even checking in on Rudy and Sham as they usually did.
The boys waited until the house had been quiet for a while, and then they crept downstairs to the front door, their rucksacks on their backs. The big key clunked in the lock and they both pushed against the ice as hard as they could. The door came free with a cracking sound, and Rudy winced. But all remained silent. They stepped out into the night.
The front garden was filled with impacted snow, and the coldest wind Sham had ever felt was blowing on his face – now he understood why the Reindeers had never let them go out at night. They both stood gasping for breath for a moment, adjusting to the icy air. Then Sham signalled to Rudy to stay where he was, and crept towards Priya’s house. There were Priya’s footprints, leading from the front door to the snowman, and at his frozen feet was a blue folder. Sham picked it up and tucked it quickly inside his rucksack. Before moving away, he looked up at Priya’s window: there he saw her face, and her hand waving, and then she closed the curtain and disappeared.
Rudy was waiting for him, a pair of snowshoes on his feet, another in one hand for Sham.
“Here,” he hissed. “Put these on. They’re the best snow-shoes. Wide decks.”
Sham had not used these yet, but he’d heard Rudy talking about them many times over the past few days. He clipped his feet into place in the shoes and took the poles that Rudy was offering him.
“Where did you hide these?” he whispered. Rudy just nodded towards the garage. The only light, now that everyone was saving electricity and keeping their Krissmas lights switched off, was the strange, dim light from the snow, and Sham became aware of the absence of sound. The only faint noise was the hum of a Cloud Assembler high above the clouds; it was obviously not right overhead at the moment.
“More snow coming soon, I reckon,” said Rudy, looking up at the total blackness above them.
“How can something so beautiful be so bad?” whispered Sham, almost to himself, but Rudy heard him.
“It isn’t bad, not the snow,” he said. “It’s just people who are bad, not weather.”
Sham looked at him in surprise, but Rudy was fiddling with his gloves and pulling his scarf up around his face until only his eyes were showing. Sham did the same. As they moved away down Chestnut Avenue, the icy wind made his eyes water, but it didn’t penetrate the reindeer skins. Rudy led the way this time, using his poles to confidently progress across the packed snow. Sham glanced back at the house, and felt a stab of fear at leaving it, but he was soon building up a rhythm and moving quickly across the packed snow.
After about ten minutes of hard and silent stomping, Sham could see the roof of the old school house, piled high with snow. It seemed like another lifetime when he had been in there, getting to know Priya and the others, listening to Miss Bell, playing in a sunny playground; yet it was only a few weeks ago. The school stood, silent and watchful, as Sham and Rudy passed the icy metal gates. Holly was waiting.
“Look,” she said breathlessly, her voice muffled behind her scarf.
Sham looked back. As he turned, the wind hit him in the face, and he realised how lucky they had been to have the wind helping them from behind. But he wished Holly hadn’t stopped them to look. The great Krissmas tree in the town square was still lit up, as were some of the main lights in the centre of Yuleport. Looking down the hill, beyond the town, in the direction of where he knew the sea was, there was nothing but white. It appeared that even the sea had frozen over. It was a terrifying thought. He heard Rudy’s sharp intake of breath, and guessed he was thinking the same.
They set off, with Rudy leading the way, his compass and torch at the ready. He had been carefully plotting their route for days: they had decided that they would have to go round the outside of Yuleport, so that they wouldn’t be spotted, and they would meet Red further up the river near to the place where they had to cross. It was mostly uphill at first, and the going was tough. Once, Rudy checked the compass and found that they had veered slightly to the right, so they altered their course and started again. After nearly half an hour, Sham’s arms were starting to ache, and he found his mouth was dry. But things were about to get a whole lot worse. Without warning, it started snowing again, and within seconds, they could hardly see their feet, let alone where they were going.
Rudy paused. He waited for the other two to catch up with him.
“We need to stay close together,” he croaked, over the noise of the wind.
“Go either side of me,” said Holly, spitting out snow as it blew into her mouth.
The boys nodded, and the three of them set off again, the snow blowing round their backs and sometimes into little whirlwinds that caught them in the face. Rudy somehow held his torch in one hand along with his pole, but it made little difference. After another length of time had passed that was impossible to measure, Sham felt that they were getting too far away from Yuleport, rather than just skirting the edges. They could see no buildings close to them at all any more, only wild fields and trees on the open hillside. Nobody spoke, but they all knew that they were lost.
All Sham’s muscles were aching. All his previous fitness, from running every day, seemed to have left him. He knew that he would have to pause soon, or he would collapse in a heap in the snow.
Just then, without warning, there was a terrible noise. It was a long-drawn-out hollow, cracking sound, and Sham had barely registered it before he heard Rudy shout over the wind, “Stop!” He stopped at once, but Holly didn’t seem to hear and had carried on. All at once there was a much sharper crack and a yell and Holly disappeared.
“Lie down – NOW!” yelled Rudy, already on his side and frantically removing his snow-shoes and rucksack. Sham immediately lay down awkwardly, his hands splayed out, his own show-shoes preventing him from lying flat.
“Where’s Holly?” he screamed, feeling as if his heart was beating in his mouth. But Rudy, some bright object in his hand, was already edging forward across what was clearly ice, and seemed to have reached wherever he was making for. Sham could just make out his feet, a few metres ahead of him.
“Sham! Grab my feet!”
He just heard the words, though they were almost blown away by the wind. Almost blinded by snow, Sham reached forward and grabbed Rudy’s reindeer boots. He was sobbing now, and crying aloud, “Please don’t let her be dead! Please save her!” There was the additional fear that the ice under them all was about to give way completely, and they would all be drowned in the icy water. It was the worst moment of his life – worse even than the moment when The Suits had arrested them, or when he had realised that Gran’s envelope had gone – because they were so totally alone out here.
And then he heard Rudy calling him again:
“I’ve got her – take this, Sham, and pull!”
Something hit the ice beside him, and Sham realised it was a bright orange rope. How had Rudy…?
“Keep your courage alive. Be strong.”
Nobody had spoken, but he heard the words so clearly in his head, that it was as if someone was right there beside him. It was his grandfather’s voice. And suddenly Sham realised that he knew exactly what to do. He let go of Rudy’s feet, spun himself round, grabbed the rope and held on, using the sides of his snowshoes to press him down, yet feeling as he did so that this could break the ice at any moment. Then he pulled and felt a tremendous resistance at the end of the rope. He pulled again and it started to move towards him. Now he could hear Rudy’s voice through the swirling snow, but couldn’t make out the words.
Suddenly the resistance stopped, and something was sliding towards him across the ice. It was Holly, still dressed in her reindeer skins, a rope around her middle, sodden and gasping.
“Keep lying down! Go back, go back!” Rudy was shouting. Sham rolled over and wriggled himself forwards on his front, expecting at any moment to hear the terrible cracking sound again. But it didn’t come, and moments later they were all together, lying, panting in the snow, face-down.
Rudy was already pulling off his reindeer skin coat. “Take – her – coat – off,” he gasped to Sham. “Freeze – if – stay like that…”
Holly’s teeth were chattering. She seemed unable to move. Her lips were already blue with cold. Sham pulled off his own hat and put it on Holly’s head – hers seemed to have vanished, along with her rucksack. He immediately felt the wind and snow strike his head like a hammer blow, but he ignored it and struggled to pull off his gloves, in order to help Holly remove her coat. Rudy already had his own gloves off. The three of them seemed to be one heap of reindeer skins mixed up together, as the boys struggled to get Holly out of her sodden furs and into dry ones.
Rudy started pulling extra clothes out of his rucksack like a Krissmas magician taking robins out of a Santa hat. They were not reindeer skins but a bright orange lightweight coat and hat. He pulled the coat on himself and passed the hat to Sham, who shoved it on his head and felt immediate relief from the wind. These clothes were clearly less lightweight than they looked!
“T-t-too bright!” croaked Holly.
“Would you prefer us all to die of exposure?” said Rudy. Strangely, he was grinning. “Good to have you back, Holly,” he added.
“If you’re talking, you must be better!” said Sham, smiling too, and noticing that Holly’s lips were already a little less blue.
“S-S-Santa’s Grotto, you’ve got an ‘ot ‘ead!” muttered Holly. “’S’like bein’ inside a tea-cosy, that’s what.”
And all at once they were all laughing, wildly, with relief, lying back in the snow, and it was then that Sham noticed that there were only a few flakes now falling. The blizzard had passed over. They could see each other again without screwing up their eyes. Even the wind seemed to have dropped.
Sham sat up carefully. Rudy had pulled out a torch and was shining it towards the hole where Holly had fallen through the ice.
“It’s some kind of a pond,” he was saying. “Impossible to see it, because it was covered in snow – and I don’t know know why it wasn’t properly frozen over. Probably being kept open by animals looking for water to drink.”
Instead of telling Rudy off for shining the torch and drawing attention to themselves, Holly was looking at him. Her eye makeup had run down her face, making her look like a panda. Her teeth were still chattering, but her eyes were full of a new respect.
“Thanks,” she said croakily. “I dunno ‘ow you did that, but thanks.”
Rudy looked as if he was trying not to smile too widely.
“That’s okay,” he said. “It’s what I came for, isn’t it?”
“Where did you have the rope?” asked Sham. “That was amazing!”
“Under my coat,” said Rudy. “Pure elf-madness to come out without one,” he added, sounding like the old grumpy Rudy for a moment. Then he glanced up and pointed with his torch. “Look!” he cried.
Moving swiftly on skis towards them was the figure of a young man. He was dressed from head to toe in reindeer skins, but none of them doubted for a moment who it was. Holly gave a cry and moved towards him, throwing her arms as far around him as the skins would allow, and then her face was buried in his chest. He did not hug her, but stood like a statue, looking over her head at the boys, and by the light of Rudy’s torch, Sham could just his mouth lifted at one corner in a cynical smile, above a rough beard.
Holly quickly pulled herself together and stood back from her brother. She wiped her gloved hand across her nose.
“Come on,” said Red, and his voice was clipped and cultured – quite unlike his sister’s. “I guessed you’d be struggling in this blizzard and came to find you. Just as well I did – you were way off track. We should hurry. You two elves show up like a couple of Krissmas lights in that orange – and I found you because of the light of your torch. Luckily, nobody else was out at this time of night – but you were pretty stupid to use that torch. Holly, you should have known better.”
And without another word, he turned and started walking across the snow to where a sledge was waiting for them. Sham and Rudy glanced at one another with ice-encrusted eyes, and then followed. Holly didn’t move for a moment, the blank look back in her eyes. As Sham passed her, he pulled down his scarf and gave her a small smile. She ignored him and started walking after her brother, still shivering frantically. It appeared that Red was not interested in anything that had happened to them.
The relief Sham felt on seeing the sleigh was enormous. Four large huskies were waiting patiently, already harnessed to the front. Two of them were pure white, whilst the other two were coloured like salt and pepper; all had the calm, strangely pale eyes with black rims that he had seen in the pictures on Rudy’s wall. They were all panting, their breath creating small clouds around them.
“Siberian huskies,” whispered Rudy, as they climbed into the sleigh. There was such a sense of being delivered from danger and discomfort, into security and comfort, that Rudy and Sham sighed as they sank back on the reindeer skin seats, and pulled more skins over their legs. Holly, however, seemed to barely notice, and looked as if she was desperately trying to help her brother with the dogs. However, he simply told her to sit down, with an irritated voice. Sham had never seen Holly like this – it was as if she were a shadow of her normal self. She sat down without another word, and Rudy immediately covered her with a reindeer skin to stop the shivering.
“Hey, Holly, these dogs have got more eye-makeup on than you,” said Sham, in an attempt to make Holly laugh, but she just rubbed her gloves under her eyes frantically to remove her smudged eyeliner. It was so unlike Holly not to respond; Sham couldn’t figure out what was going on. “Why huskies and not reindeer?” he asked Red while the latter was steadying the dogs and adjusting their harness.
“Quicker and hardier,” said Red curtly.
“Tough, you mean – like your sister,” said Sham. Holly glared at him, but Red stopped for a moment and looked at him. Sham held his gaze, determined not to be intimidated.
After a few moments, with no change of expression, Red scratched his beard with a gloved hand and nodded thoughtfully, before getting on to the sleigh with the harness ready in his hand. “All right,” he said. “Let’s go.” And the huskies took off, moving in unison, dragging them all back towards Yuleport.