The Train came chugging from the mountains cold, bringing with it warm wreaths of steam that curled and vanished in the alpine air.
Little Melody (the one with the glasses) stood with the lantern her Mom had given her, and waited for the porter to come pick it up, like she was told. The Yuletide wreath of the main engine came closer, along with a steady reassuring chugging like warm eggnog being doled out into cups. Melody shivered a little more, from pleasure and a desire to be indoors again. But the train drew closer. She looked around for the mark.
There it was, just where she had seen it by her left foot, ten minutes ago. How peculiar it was! The Yuletide Express did not have any fixed stations with roofs (more’s the pity), but rather tiny X’s marked into a stone of hexagonal shape, laid where the bedrock can be seen with the eye. She had marked the spot only by following her Mom’s instructions to the letter (ten steps from the back door, and twenty-five hundred in the direction of the tallest fir) – thank God she was good at counting.
The lantern settled a little into the snow, where it had melted down a bit. She righted it, and waited for the train to slow down. But it did not.
Soon it was a mere sequence of gaily painted carriages plowing through the Greenland blizzard, and the main headlamps glowing a warm circle into the distance. She decided to chance it. Just by leaping a little, she managed to hop onto the final carriage, and held tight with one hand the lantern. Then as she got more used to the swaying of the cars, she stood up, and stoutly walked through the carriage door towards the front of the train.
“I want to see the conductor,” she said to all she passed. Most were merrily dressed, festive with a touch of wildness; satyrs with holly in their horns, raw beasts that prowled the velvet floor with spines and furry underbellies, with pig’s snouts and curved, beady eyes. They snorted, not unkindly, and let her through.”Fear not the Yule terrors, love,” said Mom. “But if the laquer-waxed son of a she-wolf refuse to stop, you go straight through and seek him out.”
She ploughed through the dining car with confident step, not apologising to the creatures with hollow eyes that stared distraught at her wet footsteps on the floor. “To the engine,” her Mom said. “Seek him out.” She pushed ahead. Behind, a cavalcade of curious curios followed, like a moaning tide, with the ringing of bells and the rustling of holly.
Finally she arrived at a large black door, lacquered to an impassive shine, and set flush into the first carriage. “Through, through,” murmured the crowd behind her – she swore to herself not to look. She could feel creaking fingers hovering and bending above her shoulders, and head, and fought back the way she had been taught – mastering herself. She strode through.
Past the door was utter darkness, and a dreadful clanging and the open air rushing overhead, along with a sound like someone swinging a bunch of chains rhythmically against a giant metal wheel. Clang-bang-swish-clish howwwwllll…
She stood her ground, and gulped.
Out of the hollow black before her rose a man-shape, but so coated and camouflaged like soot that she could barely see him move, only feel his dark shape, and his intent shift to her.
“Yes?” he queried. His eyes glowed like two tiny furnaces.
“M-m-Mom said,” she managed, and stuck out her arm like a post. The lantern glowed at the end, radiant. A long dark hand with long dark fingers slipped into the handle around her fingers, and she nearly dropped it, but saw it halt it the air, a few feet above the ground, before rising up to an impossible height, ten men tall. “Go,” said the conductor. Melody turned and swiftly fled, by jumping off into the night.
After she picked herself up from a bank of snow she had unceremoniously slammed against, she looked up just in time to see a swift fireball, brilliant-bright, light up at the head of the vanishing train, and the slow moan of an engine grinding to a halt. The enveloping snow hid her from pursuit. She made her slow, painful way back home, limping slightly.
So the Grinch’s plan was once more foiled, to disrupt Christmas by sending a false Yuletide engine into the depths of the North. The presents would have rotted, mixed into the hoard; the creatures would have frightened and terrified the elves, making them sick for the Day; and Mr Claus himself would have been at risk from the conductor, soot-dark and phantasmal. But all was well.
“How is my little Circle Watcher?” said Mrs Wellington hugging her baby girl to her tightly. “She has your eyes,” said Dad gruffly.
“Stood up to the fault, she did.. Come in dear, and have yourself a reward chocolate…”
And the little family all had themselves a well-earned Christmas Eve.