Another frigid winter in the arctic, where barely a yard of vision was fathomable through the heavy powder snow. Even those bred in this frost would shiver as they stepped outside, bones retreating further into warm blood and thick skin. The igloos and cottages blew heavy smoke out into the air, quickly swallowed by the matching white of the snow and frost. It was a cold piece of heaven, all white clouds, dark sky and glittering stars. The only other color was the yellow waning moon, as daylight was on vacation on the other side of the world.
The reindeer gathered throughout the day in an adapted routine. Morning – graze, noon – run, night – graze, and then retreat. It was monotonous, though for an animal there was an ease in strict patterns. They knew the time even without the sun.
Food was never scarce, and though the grass beneath the snow was no longer edible, their small human tenders prepared hay and oats. They broke the sheets of ice over the ponds with their hooves when they were thirsty, then they ran around a trail paved of a thousand reindeer over a thousand years through the hills.
Rudolph always ran in front of the herd, as quickly as his slender limbs could carry him, his mouth open and panting as he dashed through the snow. He could run as fast as he wanted, but the others would always find him due to his malformation; a bright and glowing muzzle. If he didn’t run in the front, he would be trampled, as he was significantly smaller than the rest of the heard. And if he ran in the back, he would be sorely punished when the run was over. So he ran as quickly as he could, early for meals and drink and first to retire.
As he cleared the path and approached the broken pond, he stopped for a drink. He could barely see his reflection over the glare of his nose. Sometimes he would paw down under the snow, into the soft soil, and rub his nose in the clay-like mud by the river bank. It was only temporary, but it did cover the glow. Still, throughout the day it would dry and crumble, and he didn’t fool a single man or deer with his mud-coated snout.
He was preparing to gallop back to the village when he heard a panting voice call his name, a member of the herd clearing the hills and trotting down to his side.
“Wait, Rudolph!” She said. He paused warily. It was Prancer. She was one of the reindeer who pulled Mr. Claus’ sleigh every Christmas, the second to the left as he recalled so fondly. He tilted his head ever so slightly in inquiry as to why she would stop him, the feeling of boiling blood beating in his ears.
“The day has almost come.”
“Oh you know! When we travel the world with the sleigh. It’s two days from now, y’know.”
“Oh yes, I do know.” Rudolph said, frowning. “Have you come just to tell me this?”
“No, I have news,” Prancer panted. Her ears flicked backwards – they had company. Rudolph stepped back a few paces as the rest of the herd caught up, swarming them to get a good angle of the drinking water. A large steer appeared by Prancer’s side, towering easily over Rudolph and giving him a disdainful look.
“There it is, the Blood Moon. A thing of witchcraft. When do we drown him?”
“Cut it out, Dasher,” Prancer grunted. “You’re just jealous that Mr. Claus invited Rudolph to lead in the trial run!”
“Jealous,” Dasher spat. “Jealous of that atrocity!” He stepped forward aggressively and Rudolph instinctively stepped backwards.
“I’ve been invited? Tonight?”
“Why yes, Rudolph!” Prancer sang. “That’s what I came to tell you. After we sup, when the moon is brightest, we do a trial run. Nothing too fast, since we’re already tired. And then the day before, we don’t run, so we can rest! We drink fairy water before we go, it makes us move through time. And then we go from house to house – oh boy, it’s a blast! I hope you make the trial run!”
“You’re too kind,” Rudolph said bashfully.
“She is too kind,” said Dasher, as to not be forgotten. “I’ll see you there, Demon.”
“As I will, you.” Rudolph said calmly, and trotted off for dinner.
He couldn’t eat, and simply watched as the small human bustled around with hay and oats. A very small one, the one who called herself Poinsettia, paused in her bustling to rub his muzzle.
“Hi Rudolph,” she said sweetly. She was a young girl, who wore a red dress and dark leggings, white lace around her collar and a fluffy white cap that covered her pointed ears. She had always been kind to him, and bandaged him as a fawn when he was beaten up by the other reindeer.
“I got word that you’re playing in the reindeer games tonight. So exciting! I hope you do well.”
“I don’t know, I’m very nervous.” Rudolph admitted. Her dark eyes were alight as she took his head in her hands and peered into his eyes.
“You know why you were invited, right?
“Well, no, I don’t.”
“The owls predicted the foggiest night yet! And we’ve all seen that wonderful nose of yours – it’ll lead the sleigh safely through the night!”
“Why, I never thought of that. You mean Mr. Claus doesn’t hate my nose?”
“I don’t think so, and if he ever did, you’ll show him wrong now won’t you?”
“I suppose I will.” Poinsettia looked both ways, then quickly placed her hands in her pockets and returned them under Rudolph’s nose with a handful of red berries. “I brought your favorite,” she whispered. Rudolph quickly lowered his head and ate the bitter berries, then nuzzled her cheek until she giggled and hugged him around the neck.
“Alright, I’ll see you tomorrow!” she said, waddling off on her small legs with the skirt of her dress swaying around her.
Rudolph met with the rest of the reindeer at Mr. Claus’ house. Mrs. Claus greeted them with a timid smile. She paused when Rudolph entered, placing a hand under his head and squinting at his nose. “Oh my,” she had said, then waved him into the house without further conversation. She was far thinner than he had expected, with sunken eyes, drooping skin and sparse white hair.
Mr. Claus was also more sinister than the tales described – it was Rudolph’s first time ever seeing him. Only the reindeer leading the sleigh and Santa’s closest helpers ever got to see him. He was wearing a heavy black coat, thick leather boots and a knit cap pulled over his head. He was massive, perhaps nearly seven feet tall, and more husky than round. His white beard fell to his chest, currently braided and tied at the end with a bit of string.
The reindeer lined up across the warm living room, set to fire by the deep hearth that sweltered from the brick wall. The rug was colorful and felt odd under Rudolph’s hooves. There were twelve reindeer here – there must have been more before the other trials.
“Welcome all to the final Reindeer Games,” Santa growled deeply, his hands behind his back as he paced over the line. “I need the most endurance, the most speed, the most dexterity and the most intelligence. Those who are here, meet hose traits.” He paused in front of Dasher, who stood with his head high and his eyes gazing far away.
“Rudolph!” he barked. Rudolph popped to attention, more out of fear than respect. Santa paced across the floor to him and stared him down. Rudolph was sure he would melt. Santa squinted at his nose the same way Mrs. Claus had earlier.
“Jess, turn off the lights.” He requested. Shuffling somewhere in the house, Mrs. Claus dimmed the lights. All that could be seen was a red glare, and slowly the room came into focus. Rudolph could quickly adjust to the light put off by his own nose, and in a blink’s time could register Santa waving his hand back and forth. The man watched in amusement as Rudolph followed the gesture, followed in a few moments by the other reindeer who turned to see that Santa was moving.
“My goodness,” he breathed. “Absolutely! That will do! To the sleigh, you all go. Rudolph, take Dasher’s place, everyone shift down.” Only Rudolph could hear Dasher’s grunt of disapproval as they headed to the sleigh and got into position. A couple of elves strapped on their harnesses. They ran the same path as usual, through the hills with Rudolph in the lead. The path had added obstacles, poles and hurdles and tunnels to complicate the trip. Even odd machines were scattered about to push out clouds of smoke at random intervals. With Rudolph’s nose, the journey was thoroughly illuminated, and the rest of the reindeer followed along with seemingly little issue. Rudolph found that he had to run slower than normal, and stumbled a bit initially from not being used to running in a close knit formation. But he quickly got into a cadence with Dasher beside him and Prancer behind him. He found himself smiling in the frost.
That night, Rudolph curled up in his straw bed, exhausted and happy. Santa had shifted their positions, putting both him and Prancer in the front, due to them being of closer size. The rest of the reindeer were shuffled by height, causing Dasher to be in the back. Four were removed from the sleigh, and the final team to run on Christmas had been decided.
Almost asleep, Rudolph’s ears twitched as he heard the sound of hooves carefully padding over the hay.
“Do you really think you can sneak up on me?” he asked the room. He slept alone, due to his constant beacon keeping the rest of the reindeer awake.
“I don’t need to sneak.” Rudolph recognized Dasher’s voice before he saw him. He quickly stood. Dasher wasn’t alone; he was accompanied with three other reindeer, and Poinsettia.
“What are you all doing here?” He asked, mostly asking Poinsettia. She frowned at him, then down at her feet.
“We can’t have you leading the sleigh, Rudolph,” Dasher said in melodic tone, sauntering towards him.
“Why not? You saw me tonight – the light will help you see through the fog. Without it, you won’t make the rounds!”
“Don’t be so cocky,” Dasher grunted. “Lanterns, flashlights, other glimmering things… they’re all around us. We can get by without that Witch’s Mark you bear.”
“There’s nothing Satanic about my nose,” Rudolph retorted. He began to break into a sweat. He was nervous. No… something else? His vision blurred, and his mouth was dry. “Poinsettia?” he finally asked. She averted her gaze. Had she poisoned him? He focused to remain standing, to remain conscious.
“You’d imagine the things I’ve seen while leading the sleigh,” Dasher said. “Now, in most cases, we never enter the human houses, but when there aren’t chimneys, I can see through the windows.
“Men are odd creatures. They hunt and they kill and feast upon the flesh of those not victorious in their battle. I’ve seen the heads of deer, mounted on the wall, their eyes completely empty. The skull caps of dead enemies of war, hair still intact. The teeth of mythological tigers, yellowed from old blood and wrenched right out of their jaws. I have yet to make you my prize….
“You are nothing but a monster – a monster will not lead our Christian holiday! Well I’ve just the plan for you… I’ve just the plan for you….”
Rudolph finally let go. He didn’t feel himself hit the ground. The other reindeer guarded the outside of Rudolph’s stable while Poinsettia set her knife to work under Dasher’s watch. Tears drenched her face as she slid the blade under Rudolph’s cheek bone, around the back of his neck, under his eye socket, slowly she worked, fresh blood blending in seamlessly to her red velvet dress.
“Don’t cry,” Dasher said. “That’s what your father does, he skins things. Don’t you want to be just like your father?” Poinsettia nodded, but only whimpered as she continued. “Great job, little girl. I’ll bring you to him tonight, just like I promised.” He trotted away as the smell of blood grew too strong.
“Lightening,” Dasher called. One of the reindeer turned to look at him. “You’re back in,” he said with a smirk. Lightening smiled back at him. “But from now on, you’re Dasher. That is how you introduce yourself, that is the name you respond to.” Lightening simply nodded again, satisfied. “We don’t speak of this to Prancer.”
“Of course,” said Lightening.
“We don’t speak of this to Prancer,” they echoed in unison.
“Great,” said Dasher. “Hail Mary.”
The night of Christmas, Mrs. Claus couldn’t help but notice that Rudolph had grown oddly large. Santa towered over the deer as they stood in line in the living room, pausing as he sized up Rudolph as well.
“Eh, you’re face looks strange,” he said, tilting his head this way and the other at the wolf who wore a sheep’s skin. The hollows of the eyes were a little too small, and the leather string that tied the mask on was clearly visible. A light lit in Santa’s eyes, one of familiarity, but it faded back out as the tasking of the night racked in his brain and took its place. He donned his red and white coat and hat, and his black boots.
“Alright! Let’s bring joy to all of the children of the world.”
“Yes,” said Rudolph. “Joy to every one.”