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The Last Christmas First Chapter

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Chapter 1. Why is Our Ice Breaking Up?

Crack, crack, crack.

It sounded like gunshots in the still night – but a thousand times louder. Then the ice at the North Pole shook so violently that Vixen dropped her snow-moss ice cream cone.

‘Dasher,’ she cried, ‘what’s happening?’ She was the smallest of Santa’s reindeer, but quick and graceful. Her golden eyes had black, secret centres and her silky fur rippled in the wind as though she was flying.

‘I don’t know,’ said her friend, Dasher, a tall, handsome but worried-looking reindeer.

Crack-crack, crack-craaaaaack!

The ice split in two at Vixen’s feet and jerked apart. Within seconds the gap was ten feet wide. Then twelve feet. Then fifteen, and the moving ice carried her ice cream away with it.

‘I’ll get it!’ said Dasher.

‘No,’ Vixen yelled. ‘It’s too far!’

Dasher, who was both reckless and clumsy, tried to leap the gap but landed hard on the edge of the ice. It cracked under him and he fell backwards into the freezing sea. Huge lumps of ice broke off all around him; one just missed his head.

Vixen gasped. ‘Are you all right?’

The ear-piercing screech of splitting ice suddenly stopped. For a few seconds there was silence, broken only by Dasher’s heavy breathing. Then she heard a terrifying smashing sound. The crack in the polar ice, which ran as far as she could see, was starting to close.

Dasher swam back and forth, looking for a way out, but the sides were like cliffs and sharp pieces of ice kept crashing into him.

‘Ow, ow!’ he yelled. ‘Vixen, where are you?’

‘Over here!’ She leaned down as far as she could. ‘Grab my antlers.’

‘I’m too heavy; I’d pull you in.’

Crunch, crunch. The ice jerked wildly and she started to panic. ‘Dasher, you’ve got to get out.’

‘I – can’t!’

He tried to scramble onto a piece of floating ice but it rolled over and dumped him head-first into the water.

Vixen ran along the split for thirty yards, then stopped. ‘Over here! The ice is broken into steps.’

Dasher’s teeth were chattering. The split was only a yard wide now and his antlers were touching both sides. He reached the steps but could not climb out; the wet ice was too slippery. Vixen was afraid of falling in too, but she started down.

‘Aaahh!’ Dasher yelled; the ice was squeezing his antlers. ‘No, Vixen! You’ll be trapped.’

He twisted his head around and up, freeing his antlers. But the split in the ice kept shrinking, crunch, crunch. If she couldn’t get him out quickly he would be squashed flat.

The ice above her crumbled, forcing her down toward the water’s edge. She cried out in terror.

‘Go back!’ said Dasher.

Vixen fought her fear; she had to save him. She skidded to the bottom of the steps and leaned out. ‘Hook your antlers through mine.’

‘It’s too risky.’

‘Just do it! Hurry!

He locked his antlers into hers and she heaved. Dasher was really heavy; her hooves were sliding on the ice. He thrashed his legs, trying to get out, then fell back, pulling her into the water. It rose past her knees and she was slipping deeper, deeper …

Crunch, crunch, crrrrr-unch!

Her heart was thumping painfully. ‘Dasher,’ she screamed. ‘We’ve got to get out now!’

She pulled with all her strength. Dasher tried again and fell again. He gave a desperate kick and got his front feet onto the lowest step. Vixen tried to drag him out of the water but her knees were so wobbly she could barely stand up. He kicked again, she heaved, and he was onto the ice.

‘Go up!’ he shouted.

Vixen lurched up the steps. Dasher staggered after her.

The split in the ice slammed shut. He shuddered. ‘Thank – you. You – saved – my life.’

Vixen nudged him away from the crack. ‘Why is our ice breaking up?’

He did not answer for a minute; he had no breath left. ‘Comet says – the North Pole – is melting.’

‘Why?’

‘I don’t know,’ he said grimly.

‘I’m scared, Dasher. What’s going to happen to us?’

‘We’ve got to tell Santa. Come on.’

High in the sky the northern lights twisted and swirled, making a gigantic green question mark above the North Pole. They raced back to the village, which was as neat and pretty as a fairy tale.

There was no wood or stone here, so the elves had carved every house and building from different kinds of coloured ice. Outside the blue and white railway station, the cranky station master, Old Buffer, was muttering to himself as he polished his railway lines. A cunning-eyed elf, he looked more than half goblin.

The front veranda of the post office was piled with bulging sacks of letters to Santa. Next door was Santa and Matilda’s big yellow house with its five tall chimneys and a yard full of her hideous stone gnomes.

On the other side of the street, the village elves’ gingerbread cottages had gardens of carved icicles. They grew and blossomed like real flowers, and in the autumn the plants were heavy with strawberry ices, chocolate gelato and other delicious magical fruit. All except Old Buffer’s ice garden outside the railway station. The only fruit it produced looked like blood-red leeches and black, slimy slugs.

Vixen and Dasher hurried down the main street, past the shops. Little Twiggie Twitchin, the village’s fixit elf, was sitting outside her repair shop, frowning at Santa’s magic wand. She had been trying to repair it for weeks, without success. She pointed it at her cup of coffee and said, ‘Heat it!’

The coffee froze solid and the cup split in two, the pieces skidding out across the street. It was a bad sign.

Vixen looked around for Dasher. He was gazing in the window of the cake shop, and drooling. ‘Not now, Dasher!’

She ran towards the toy workshop, then stopped. Though she had seen it every day of her life, the workshop was so marvellous that it never failed to raise her spirits.

A thousand years ago, Santa’s elves had carved a gigantic iceberg, inside and out, to form the workshop. The elves loved carving and over the centuries they had turned the iceberg into a glittering palace.

On the outside, a glorious staircase curved up the right-hand side to Santa’s office, then up onto the roof. A matching staircase swept up on the left side to the elves’ sleeping quarters. Their apartments had pretty little balconies with curved black rails, round green windows, and pointy roofs like witches’ hats.

Animals were carved all over the outside: fierce polar bears, laughing whales, yellow-tusked walruses, wrestling seals, pure white Arctic foxes and – Vixen’s greatest terror – deadly wolves. She shivered and turned away.

The elves had also carved images of their old foes from the ancient elven world: leering goblins and disgusting old trolls, and their eternal enemies – the dark elves of the underground.

Vixen and Dasher looked in through the front doors. At the back of the workshop an enormous wall clock, shaped like a black, scaly dragon, breathed white fire to mark each passing hour, and blue flame on holidays. Santa sometimes made toast in the fiery blast, which explained the scorch marks on his red hat. Once, at midnight, an extra long burst of fire had caught him unawares and burnt his eyebrows off.

Ten tall columns, each thirty feet high, supported the silver ice ceiling. Myriads of twinkling fairy lights – red and orange, purple and green – hung from it, casting coloured light over the elves’ work benches.

Vixen froze. ‘Why aren’t the elves working?’

All four hundred and twelve elves should have been tap-tapping away at their benches, making the toys Santa would deliver on Christmas Eve. But the elves were staring at one another, fearfully.

All except Lord Telver, a withered old elf with bulging eyes as yellow as mustard. He was glaring at Santa and his wife, Matilda, who had just tiptoed out a side door. Telver crushed a handful of ice in one fist, then stalked after them. He was furious.

‘Where are they going?’ said Dasher.

‘We’d better find out,’ said Vixen.

Santa and Matilda were hurrying up the outside stairs to Santa’s office, which was directly above the workshop. Santa opened the door and ushered Matilda inside. Rafe, the leader of the reindeer, was close behind. Then came Comet, limping, and finally Telver. Santa looked sick, Matilda afraid. Telver slammed the door behind him.

‘Let’s spy on them through the office skylight,’ said Dasher.

They galloped up the stairs, past Santa’s office and onto the roof. A long skylight of polished ice ran between a pair of tall orange chimneys. A rusty old satellite dish was fixed to the left-hand chimney. Puffs of coloured smoke rose from the chimney pots and floated into the sky like Christmas tree decorations. Vixen put her front hooves on the skylight, very carefully, and peered in.

Santa’s huge fireplace was made of magical blue ice. A fire burned there all year round but the ice never melted.

In front of the fire, separated by a black beanbag, were two armchairs. Santa had a battered red leather armchair with a half-eaten box of chocolates on one arm and a foot-high stack of children’s letters on the other. Matilda’s armchair was small and covered in green velvet. A shiny ice bucket stood in the centre of a long wooden table.

On a bench in the far corner sat an old-fashioned brass laptop with a typewriter keyboard and a winding key sticking up in the middle. No one at the North Pole had any money, so all their equipment had to be made out of bits and pieces.

‘I can’t see them,’ said Vixen. ‘Can you?’

Dasher stretched out his long neck. ‘Oh, no!’

‘What’s the matter?’

‘Santa and Telver are having a furious argument. Santa’s gone red in the face and Telver is waving his wand.’ A series of crimson flashes lit the office. Dasher gasped. ‘He’s exploded half the light bulbs.’

But Santa and Telver had been friends forever. Something was terribly wrong.

‘What are they arguing about?’ She crept a bit further onto the skylight but still could not see.

‘I’ll find out!’ Dasher strode out onto the middle of the skylight.

‘No, Dasher, it won’t hold your weight!’

Suddenly, from beneath his hooves, cracks zigzagged out.

‘Dasher, look out!’

The skylight broke and they fell through in a storm of snow and ice. Vixen landed on the beanbag, oof! Dasher crashed into Santa’s armchair, snapping its legs off, squashing the chocolates and scattering the letters across the office.

‘What the –?’ yelled Santa.

Telver shrieked like a cat caught in a door and his silver wand, which was shaped like a sword, fired crimson blasts in all directions. One struck the fire and it flared halfway across the room like an attacking dragon. Vixen yelped as flames sizzled her nose.

Rafe, a huge old reindeer with grey fur and gold-rimmed glasses, drew himself up until he seemed twice his normal size. His majestic antlers were more than a yard across and his eyes were brown crystals covered in frost.

‘How dare you spy on Santa?’ he thundered.

Dasher scrambled out of the ruined chair. He was almost as tall as Rafe, but lighter and his antlers were smaller.

‘Sorry, sorry!’ Dasher backed away, treading on the letters and crumpling them.

Vixen’s knees were knocking but she stood her ground. ‘Our ice is cracking up, and we want to help.’

Steam gushed from Rafe’s nostrils. ‘Out, now!’

Matilda laid a small hand on Rafe’s shoulder. ‘Dasher is supposed to be our next leader and Vixen’s a good thinker. I’d like them to stay.’

Rafe politely bowed his head. ‘Of course, Mrs Claus.’

Matilda gathered the letters and put them in Santa’s lap. He slumped into the broken armchair, picking at the squashed chocolates and staring into the fire. Whatever he was worried about, Vixen knew it was really bad.

At the far end of the room, Comet, who had twisted antlers, a scarred face, a long, tangled mane and a wooden front leg, began winding the key of his laptop, whirr-click, whirr-click.

Suddenly Telver leapt onto the ice bucket and crouched there like a gargoyle, glaring at everyone. Long ago he had been a great elf warrior, strong and brave and afraid of no one, but age had shrunk him. His legs were bowed, his back bent and his nose, enormous.

‘We’re in deep trouble,’ he said furiously to Santa. ‘What are you going to do about it?’

Santa held up the stack of children’s letters, then put them down again. ‘Telver, my magic is fading and we’re weeks behind with the Christmas toys.’ He sounded exhausted. ‘Can we talk about this in the New Year?’

‘It can’t wait!’ snapped Telver.

‘Comet,’ said Matilda, ‘It’s time.’

Comet limped forwards, his wooden leg thumping, and turned on a projector shaped like a walrus. He scratched his back on its yellow tusks then put on a pair of bright green glasses. With his magnified eyes and unbrushed fur sticking out in all directions, he looked like a mad magician.

‘Please make it simple,’ said Matilda.

‘But I’ve got a hundred pages of data to show you,’ said Comet.

‘We won’t understand it. We’re not scientists.’

‘Morons!’ Comet muttered. ‘Why do I bother?’

Matilda drew herself up to her full height, only four-foot eleven. ‘You’d better not be talking about Santa,’ she said furiously.

Though Comet towered over her, he took a step backwards. ‘I – I meant Rafe,’ he said hastily.

Vixen choked. Comet had always been rude and cranky, but insulting their great leader, Rafe, was too much.

‘All right!’ Comet snapped. ‘I’ll give you the primary school version.’ He turned to a roll of maps, like a window blind, mounted on the wall. ‘The world is getting hotter. Global warming is melting our ice, and now it’s breaking up.’

‘Rubbish!’ said Telver. ‘The ice goes for hundreds of miles.’

Comet pulled the map cord and the roll unwound to show the first map. ‘This is what the North Pole looked like in 1980.’ Ice covered most of the Arctic Ocean. He pulled the cord down to reveal a second map. ‘And this is what it was like ten years ago.’

The area of ice was only half as big! In the silence, Vixen could hear her heart pounding. This was scary.

‘And this – this is what it’ll be like next year.’ Comet revealed the third map. There was only a tiny speck of ice left at the North Pole, and it was cracked to pieces. ‘Our ice is melting from underneath. The workshop could roll over and break apart at any time.’

Vixen shivered. ‘But … that would be a disaster. How come we didn’t know?’

‘I’ve been talking about it for years,’ said Comet. ‘Why doesn’t anyone ever listen?’

‘Because you’re a rude, annoying old bore,’ Dasher said softly.

Rafe butted Dasher with his antlers, knocking him sideways. ‘Must you always act like an idiot calf?’

Dasher went as red as Santa’s armchair.

Then Comet yanked the cord right down to reveal a heart-breaking picture – a terrified polar bear and her two cubs, trapped on an ice floe the size of a tablecloth. They were surrounded by hungry killer whales.

‘Next summer,’ said Comet. ‘No cute cubs. And no North Pole.’

‘But … what’s going to happen to us?’ whispered Vixen.

‘What’s going to happen to Christmas?’ said Santa grimly.

Storyteller