This is the fourth of ten parts of Fred’s Yuletide Escape. Chapters average 1000 words, but this is the longest one at 1700 words. If you missed the start, you can find it here.
King Fred of Marsh has decided to take off for a little adventure before his Yuletide duties start. After visiting his neighbours at Castle Wash, he is arriving by stage coach at the Inn of the Seventh Happiness, having remembered where he last saw the coach driver – on a pirate ship.
Chapter 4: The Narrator
Fred squirmed his way through the crowd standing in front of the Inn of the Seventh Happiness and walked across the empty room to the bar.
“King Fred! How delightful to see you! Oh…” Argon, the innkeeper had a genuinely warm welcome for his visitor, but his smile faded as his agile mind quickly flicked through his available accommodation. “I’m dreadfully sorry; it’s really busy here tonight… the best rooms are gone.”
“That’s no problem, Argon; I’m on a mission to escape the trappings of royalty. What’s going on, anyway?”
“We have a narrator visiting, one of the best. Everyone’s out there, as you saw. It’s almost a festival!”
Fred had indeed seen. The coach driver had pulled up at the end of the tunnel and asked Fred if he’d mind walking out into the market place, since there was no room for the coach. All the visitors and the residents of Seventh Happiness were crowded around a person standing on some fiddlesticks, set up in the space usually reserved for the stage coaches in front of the inn. The market stalls were all still open, although nobody was browsing, and the owners of the stalls seemed to be in the front rows of the audience. The strings of lights that festooned the market from side to centre added to the festive atmosphere. Inside the inn, they could hear the rise and fall of the narrator’s voice, and the occasional roars of approval, yelps of fear, and general applause that greeted the narrator’s performance.
“Why aren’t you out there, then?” Fred asked.
“Well, it gives me a chance to tidy up a bit, get ready for when they come back in. I had a chat with the guy earlier and I know the stories he’s telling tonight from way back. He puts a new twist on them, though. Victor’s out there, he’ll fill me in on the details. Now, what can I get you, and what can I do about your room?”
“Something warming, please, and don’t worry too much about the room, no need to move anyone, I hope. Is that cubbyhole under your stairs free?”
“You can’t stay there!”
“Is it taken already?”
“Well, no, but…”
“It’s my favourite place, Argon; it reminds me of my first visit here. I’m on a sort of adventure, I just want to be a traveller, you know?”
“Well, if you’re sure…. How about some mulled cranberry juice?”
“That sounds nice. Have I had cranberry juice before?”
“It’s a bit like bilberries but drier. There’s a new supplier way up north. I think it’s rather nice.”
He turned his back on Fred and ladled a dark steaming liquid into an earthenware mug. “There you go,” he said, turning back and handing Fred his drink. “Is that on account or are you taking adventure to mean anonymity too?”
“I hadn’t thought of that. I’ll just put it on the account.”
Fred turned to watch the crowd through the windows, sipping his drink. It was good. He spotted the driver of the stagecoach from Wash talking to a couple of guys on the edge of the crowd. They turned and seemed to look straight at him, yet Fred was sure they couldn’t see him through the glass, although the inside was better lit than the market place. There was prolonged applause outside. It seemed the entertainment was over. The doors opened and the inn quickly filled up. Fred lost sight of the driver and his friends.
“Hi,” said a breathless voice at his side.
“Oh, hi Victor! Great to see you,” Fred smiled into the enthusiastic face of Argon’s son, “how’s your new business going?”
Victor had finished his business degree, spending his project year working with George at Buckmore. Now he was working for himself, advising castles and small businesses.
“It’s good. I have to help Dad too. He gets tired easily. Be right back.” He disappeared and emerged behind the bar. Victor had an extraordinary ability to move through packed places. Result of a life’s practice, Fred thought with a grin.
He moved to one side and watched the crowd. There was no one there he knew, although several people looked vaguely familiar. He wondered who was in the best rooms, as Argon clearly had them occupied that night. He moved in to the quiet room at the back, as a group started to play Shove Ha’penny on the board next to where he was standing. It always got a bit lively, although why, since all you had to do was slide small coins along a board, Fred couldn’t fathom.
He sat by the log fire at the back and stared at the flames.
“Do you mind if I join you?”
“Not at all.” Fred moved to one end of the seat to allow the newcomer to take his place at the other.
He was a lithe brown-haired person with two white square patches on his coat, like he’d ripped it at some stage and patched it with white instead of brown. He relaxed and gazed into the flames, as Fred was.
“Cold night,” Fred said conversationally.
“I expect so. I tend not to notice when I’m working.”
“What do you do?”
The newcomer glanced at him. “Ah, you came in from the Prancing Pony tunnel near the end, didn’t you?”
Fred nodded. The stage had spent the last part of its journey in that tunnel, although it had only joined that track just before it went underground. He had particularly remarked it to himself as he needed to add the route to his map of the realms.
Victor brought a tray of steaming food in and pulled a low table into place between them; he put the tray on it. There were two mugs of hot liquid, too.
“Dad asked if you minded sharing supper. On the house. And I thought you’d need a refill.” He indicated the mug to Fred, who passed his now empty one to Victor.
“Thanks, Victor. Thank Argon for me too. You can put it on my bill, though.”
“S’okay. Willoughby brings extra business.”
The brown person smiled at him. “Thanks. Good to know I’m useful.”
Victor dashed off, and the brown person tucked into the food. Fred watched him for a bit, then leaned forward to take a few bits for himself.
“Sorry,” the brown person said, still munching. “Forgot my manners. Here.” He edged the plate further towards Fred.
“No, it’s fine, honestly. I’ve just been sitting in a coach all day.” Nevertheless, he ate the delicious food hungrily.
They cleared the dish between them and sat back, wiping their lips and generally freshening up a little.
“So what do you do?” Fred returned to the question he’d asked before the food arrived.
“I’m Willoughby, the narrator,” he said, introducing himself.
“Oh, pleased to meet you. I’m Fred,” he shook Willoughby’s hand, noticing that he had strong muscles, despite his lean appearance.
“And what do you do, Fred?” asked Willoughby with a twinkle in his eye.
“Oh, well, I er,” Fred wondered what to say if he was incognito. “Well, I’m a princeling. I try and keep myself useful.”
Willoughby nodded. “Some do, it’s true. I met that Prince Engineer chap, he was a princeling once. He’s an excellent chap.”
Fred glowed with pride but managed to stop himself saying, “he’s my brother.”
Instead, he voiced a thought. “Narrators travel around the whole time, don’t they?”
“Some do, others get a permanent berth at a castle. Then again, I’ve just finished a year in residence at Castle Buckmore. It was a new idea of theirs. Their resident narrator died, so they decided to give narrators a year’s term in residence, for a bit of experience and fun, really.”
“And now you’re on the road again.” Fred’s spirits were rising.
“Haven’t decided. North probably, although it’s the wrong time of year. I always fancied a Yule season at Dimerie or Fortune, but I don’t want to go down there yet.”
“What about going East?”
“I’ve never been East. They say the winds are cold. But sometimes if the weather’s cold you get a warm welcome, you know? Where are you from?”
“The Castle in the Marsh,” said Fred, “we hardly ever get narrators there. You’d be very welcome.”
“What’s the king like?”
“Oh,” Fred wondered how people would describe him. “Um, friendly, listens to people. Gets on with his own things. His daughter is two at the start of Yule. They have a birthday party for everyone in the castle.” He warmed to the idea of what someone, a princeling at Marsh, might say about him. Especially what they might say that would attract a narrator. Kira would be overjoyed to get a really good one there.
“Well, from the sound of it, it’s the end of the earth. Oh, sorry, you’re from there, of course.”
“Well, it is, rather. But you could spend the Yule season there and then move on if you wanted. It’s warm and friendly.”
Willoughby drained his mug and stretched his feet towards the fire. “Yeah, perhaps I could. Well, it was nice meeting you. I’m going to turn in now. See you again sometime.”
“Yes, I hope so.”
“Goodnight, Princeling Fred of Marsh.”
“Goodnight, Willoughby.” Fred liked the sound of his old title. Made him feel much younger. Strange really, as it was only four years since he had been a Princeling. The rise through Crown Prince to King had been rapid.
He finished his own drink, and got to his feet, thinking it was time for him to go to bed as well. As he went through the doorway towards the stairs, two chaps came up to him, one either side, leaning against him to steer him towards the door of the inn.
“What’s going on?”
“You just stay with us, King Fred, and keep quiet! We want a little word with you.”
Fred was squeezed and escorted through the inn out into the market place towards a stagecoach standing ready for departure. He started to turn and struggle, but the people beside him grabbed hold of his coat and his feet and swept him expertly into the vehicle, setting him on the floor and sitting on top of him. He heard the door slam and felt the jerk as the coach set off, slowly at first then gathering speed, racing off down a tunnel into the night.
(c) J M Pett 2013
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