A dull wind streaked across the clouded fields, gray skies brooded above families trying to treat their children to a festive holiday, and filthy slush dripped from the dreary sign welcoming people to Santa’s Village. Robert sighed heavily as he surveyed the pathetic scene. He had seen an advertisement and had come out on a whim, but it seemed highly unlikely that there was anything at this dreary place that could be of interest.
“Tragic, isn’t it.” Came a voice from behind him. Robert spun around and saw a man standing behind him.
“Come again?” Robert asked.
“This place, it’s tragic, no?” The main replied. He had a strangely boyish face that looked somehow out of place beneath a woollen hat and thick winter jacket.
Robert shrugged. “Not the word I’d use, but yea it’s tragic. These parents just want their kids to have a nice Christmas and all they’ve got here is some store-bought cookies and an old geezer in a moth-eaten suit.”
The man blinked. “What? No, I wasn’t talking about the village—I meant the owner, Fanny Bright.”
“What about her?”
“She really believes in this stuff.” The man answered with a sigh. “You should see her house this time of year—the lights on it could put Times Square to shame. Every year Fanny tries to set up this Village but every year it fails miserably. Not her fault too, the girl’s just got terrible luck. Last year for example one of the snack shops collapsed thanks to termites, and the year before that the guy who was supposed to play Santa got into a car accident on the way over. And this year, well, the economy’s sort of put a dent in her funds so she’s stuck with this cheesy mess.”
“You seem to know quite a bit about her.” Robert commented.
The man smiled. “I admire her spirit. Fanny’s a rare type of person and it’s tragic to see this happen to her every year.”
Robert frowned. “So why don’t you help her out if you feel so bad about it?”
“I’d love nothing more than to do just that, but my hands are tied. Christmas is the busiest time of year for me and I barely have time to come out and see how she’s doing.” He pulled back his sleeve and checked his watch before adding, “Speaking of which, I need to get back. If you see Fanny, tell her it’s not her fault.”
“Well, if you need a hand, I’d be happy to help.”
The man blinked. “Why on earth would you want to help someone you barely know?”
Robert shrugged. “I dunno, I just figured if there was something I could do to help brighten someone’s Christmas then I should do it.”
There was a silence as the man considered what Robert had just said. “You know what...” he began slowly. “You’re right. I know exactly how to help Fanny but I’ve just been too chicken to do it. But if Christmas is about anything, it’s making sure everyone can have a happy holiday.”
“That’s the spirit!” Robert said, grinning. “And hey, like I said, if you need a hand—“
“Oh I’m going to need more than a hand!” The man enthused, suddenly energized by whatever his idea was. “Come on!”
Without giving him a chance to respond, the man grabbed Robert arm and dragged him away from the Village and towards the surrounding woods. “H-hey! What’re you doing?” Robert cried out. He tried tugging his arm free but the man had a surprisingly strong grip.
“Just getting us out of sight.” The man answered. “Don’t want anyone to see—and besides, I get nervous trying to do it in front of a crowd.”
Robert had no idea what ‘it’ was, but he was beginning to have some very serious doubts about offering to help this person. Even so... the man did seem sincere when he was talking about that Bright woman; maybe he was just excited about finally helping her? The man finally released his grip once they had reached a small clearing a few feet into the woods. Robert could just make out the Christmas songs being played over the crackling speakers back at the Village.
“Ok, no one should see us here.” The man said. “Normally I’m not supposed to do this with a human but it’s for a good cause and it isn’t like you’d tell anyone.”
Robert took a tentative step back. “Do what? And what do you mean ‘with a human’?” He asked nervously, but the man didn’t seem to be listening.
“Course... the big guy will get mad when he finds out but it isn’t like he hasn’t pulled this stuff before so I should be fine...” The man sounded like he was talking himself into something. Even though he hadn’t the foggiest idea what it was, Robert was now positive he didn’t want to find out. He was about to turn away when the man suddenly clapped his hands together and looked up. “All right! Let’s get started, shall we?”
Robert stumbled as he felt a sudden weight come down on his back. He turned his head and saw an open sleigh harnessed to...to... It took several seconds for Robert to register that he had the hindquarters of a large horse, and that the sleigh was harnessed to him. Startled, Robert looked down to find he was standing far higher off the ground than he should have been, and that his hands had suddenly become thick hooves. There was also the matter of his neck being longer and the suspiciously horse-like muzzle projecting from his face.
A smile spread across the man’s face as he approached the Shire horse that was now Robert. “I suppose I owe you a more... specific explanation.” He said, pulling off his cap to reveal pointed, elfish ears. “As you have probably guessed, I’m not human. I’m a worker, see, up north with Santa and the rest of the gang. I’ve also got a bit of power in me—as you have also probably guessed—and while it would be a very simple matter to give Fanny Bright the Christmas miracle she needs, the rules just won’t let me interfere on that level. That’s where you come in—my man on the inside. Right now you’re overloaded with Christmas magic and soon it’s gonna start seeping off into the surrounding area, and I need that area to be Santa’s Village.”
“Well, it’s not like I have a choice...” Robert said solemnly, or tried to say, anyway. All that came out was a low bray.
“Of course you have a choice!” The elf cried out suddenly, “And yes, I can understand you. Just tell me you want out and I’ll drop you off at home like you never even left—but please just hear me out! All I need is for you to hang around the village giving sleigh rides and let the magic just do its thing. I can guarantee that Fanny’ll take good care of you. Come December 24th I take you back, get your body back to normal, and send you wherever you need to go. Heck, I’ll do your Christmas shopping for you—I happen to know a very good distributor!”
Robert was prepared to say (or bray, he supposed) “Turn me back” right then and there, but for some reason he couldn’t bring himself to do it. The elf just seemed so...desperate to help this Fanny person have a good Christmas for once. He couldn’t believe it, but Robert found that he was willing to go along with the plan.
“Fine, I’ll help.” He said.
The elf’s eyes lit up. “Really?”
Robert tried to shrug, but only ended up shuffling his front hooves a bit. “Sure, it isn’t like I have any other plans.”
“You won’t regret this—I promise!”
The elf took a hold of Robert reins and gently led him back to the entrance of the Village. The ground felt strangely distant beneath Robert hooves and it felt very odd to feel his ears flick back and forth. Stranger still was the sleigh he pulled behind him. Despite being large enough to hold at least seven people, it was unnaturally light—more magic, perhaps? Robert wasn’t really sure what to make of the situation—other than that he was definitely going to have a very interesting holiday.They stopped a few feet from the welcome sign. The door to one of the ‘gingerbread’ houses opened and a woman in a Mrs. Claus outfit came running up to them.
“What on earth is all this?” She demanded of the elf.
“Good afternoon, Ms. Bright!” He replied cheerfully. “My friend and I,” he patted Robert, “were wondering if you’d consider adding sleigh rides to the attractions here.”
Fanny looked from the elf to Robert, and then sighed. “You have a lovely horse, sir, and I would love to be able to rent it, but I doubt I could afford the price or even the upkeep.”
“My dear, you misunderstand, I’m not renting—I’m giving!”
“Just for the holidays of course, I’ll need to get the ol’ fella back on the 24th, but consider it an early Christmas present. I can have all the food and supplies you’d need delivered in a snap!” The elf snapped his fingers for emphasis. Robert was surprised a bale of hay didn’t fall from the sky then and there.
Fanny looked conflicted. “That’s a wonderful offer, but I don’t think it would be appropriate to—” She was cut off by the excited squeal of a passing child.
“Oh, look! Sleigh rides!” Exclaimed the little girl, hopping and pointing at Robert. “Can we go on one?”
“I don’t see why not.” Remarked the girl’s mother. Approaching Fanny she asked, “How much for a ride for two?”
“Err...” Fanny began. She glanced at the elf, who gave her a ‘thumbs up’. “No charge, just have a good time.” She said.
The mother beamed and helped her daughter into the sleigh. When they were both on board, the elf cheerfully patted Robert on the side and he set off obediently. It was strange, but as he pulled the mother and child around the field, a warm glow began to grow inside him. Maybe it was the fresh snow now falling on the ground, maybe it was the sweet smell of cinnamon and apple cider that had started to come out of the snack huts, or maybe it was the joyously laughing child in the sleigh. Whatever it was though, it made Robert glad to be a sleigh horse and helping to bring just a bit more Christmas cheer into the world.