The Princelings of the East celebrate Yuletide with a number of events over a ten day period, from Solstice to Green Willow Day. The Narrathon is hugely anticipated.
So now – take your seats for the first in this year’s Yuletide Narrathon!
Willoughby the Narrator jumped up on his fiddlesticks, as they called the bent wooden frame that all narrators carried with them on their backs, to use when they told their stories. He looked around at the assembled crowd and stretched languidly as he found himself a comfortable position on top of them. The Master of Ceremonies was still making the introductions. Since he was a guest, and the only professional narrator to have come to this out of the way castle in the middle of nowhere, he would speak first. And then, since it was a castle with not much experience of Narrathons, he would speak again after each of the three brave souls who had been volunteered to tell their own tales. Seven stories was a record for a Narrathon at Castle Marsh, he’d been told. If it wasn’t so cold here, he would volunteer to stay a while and teach them more stories. Maybe he’d decide once he’d heard how awful the local tale-tellers were. Their hospitality was warm, at any rate.
“And now, it is our great honour to welcome, for the first time at the Castle in the Marsh, the famous Narrator, Willoughby!”
Muffled applause rippled round the courtyard, and a few cheers raised the level of outward enthusiasm. Willoughby stood on his sticks and grinned at everyone.
“Thank you, thank you. It’s a great pleasure to be here, here at the home of the fabled Engineer, Prince George, to say nothing of his illustrious brother King Fred, and his beautiful Queen, the lady Kira.” He bowed towards them, noting he had correctly judged their contentment with a change in the established protocols. He would be kicked out of somewhere like Vexstein if he upset the formal naming of names.
“Tonight, this chilly night – although as I’ve heard it, you think this is quite warm,” a few people laughed. The wind was freezing, people huddled together and a few old ones had thrown blankets over their backs. Willoughby continued without a pause, “I will tell a tale to you of a far off land and a Queen as beautiful as your own, although in no way similar otherwise. And maybe there will be other people you’ll recognise scattered about my narrative.” He winked at a young person in the front row, who giggled and hid her face in the side of the adult next to her.
“The land I tell of was as cold and icy as the worst winter you can ever imagine on the marsh. It was winter forever, and its queen was the Queen of the Snow. She had white hair, and cold blue eyes, and was accounted beautiful, yet her heart was as cold as ice, and as hard as diamond.
“Never seen a diamond, my pretty?” Willoughby interrupted himself, looking at someone in the audience. “You will, I’ll be bound, with looks as sweet as yours!
“The queen was intent on enslaving the whole world to her idea of order – and you know what that means – everything silent and snow-covered, ice on the lakes so nothing moved, trees rimed with frost, and snowflakes dripping from the breath of the few sad people that had not managed to escape her clutches.
“There was one poor person there, let’s call him Geoffrey,” a few nudges and giggles rippled through the crowd as everyone looked at Geoffrey, a handsome journeyman engineer with a large following among the younger girls, “who was stuck on a snow-covered island in the middle of a lake. He’d been there as long as he could remember, since the Snow Queen had a way with her smooth talking that made people forget everything else. She had tricked Geoffrey into following her from his village in the south, where it was warm in season, and roses grew between his home and the one next door, and he tended the roses with the help of the girl next door, who was called…” Willoughby paused, well aware that each girl was hoping he’d name her, “… Gisella.”
A sigh riffled around the courtyard. Willoughby had spent time beforehand choosing his names. There was no Gisella at Castle Marsh. There would probably be ten, next time he visited.
“What’s worse, she had taken him in her carriage through a frozen waterfall and he had got a splinter of ice in his eye. You might think that was nothing special, but she had enchanted the waterfall, and it was so cold that the splinter didn’t melt in his eye, but made him see everything strangely, and not how they really were, and the magic worked its way through to his heart, making it as cold and hard as the queen’s own. Wouldn’t that be a tragedy if it happened to our Geoffrey here?”
“Oh, yes!” came an anguished response from one of the girls, and everyone giggled.
“Well, remember what happened next then… you might need to know how to save him.” The front of the crowd edged forward as a press of girls made sure they could hear.
“It was a close thing. Our Gisella, being a brave girl, and wondering where Geoffrey had gone, started looking for him. Everywhere she went, she asked the birds and the squirrels and frogs, and everyone if they knew of him, and they just told her, go north, go north. So she travelled north, past Vexstein, past Hallam, past Palatine, even past Edin.” He looked around and realised most of them hadn’t been further than Castle Wash, although most had a vague idea where Vexstein was.
“Eventually she found herself in a land of snows, so snowy that even the birds were snowy white, and there weren’t many of them. And she came to the edge of a frozen lake, and looked across it; she could see a shape, and it sounded like it was crying.
“’Who are you and what are you crying about?’ she called.
“And a boy called back, ‘I’m crying because everything is frozen and I cannot leave unless I solve a puzzle the queen gave me, and I don’t know how.’
“’Maybe I can help you,’ Gisella called, and she tested the ice with her foot, very gingerly, and started walking across. And it was so cold that the ice was quite thick, so she carefully made her way across to the island and stood by the boy.
“’Geoffrey! I’ve found you!’ she said and threw her arms around him. But he pushed her away.
“’Why do you call me that?
“’But you’re Geoffrey, and I’m Gisella. Don’t you remember me?’
“’I can’t see you,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘And I don’t remember anything except being here, forever, and trying to solve this puzzle.’
“So Gisella got him to show her the puzzle. ‘But it’s easy,’ she said, ‘can’t you see it?’
“’No, I see wobbly lines and strange patterns, that’s all.’
“’Oh Geoffrey. And you don’t remember the houses we grew up in, and the roses in the garden?’”
“’What are roses?’”
“And Gisella brought out a dried red rose from her pocket and laid it in front of him. ‘This is a rose, it’s faded now, but it still smells good.’
“And Geoffrey looked at the rose, and touched it, and a thorn pierced his finger and he started crying, which washed the sliver of the magic waterfall from his eye, and he cried all the more remembering the roses, and Gisella, and their homes.
“’We must leave, before she comes back,’ he said suddenly. ‘Help me solve the puzzle.’
“’What must we do?’
“’Spell out the word eternity using snowflakes. Then I’ll be able to leave.’
“So Gisella helped him spell out e-t-e-r-n-i-t-y using the snowflakes, and the snow on the island started to melt, so they grabbed each other by the hand and ran over the lake, jumping onto slabs of ice as it broke up, and out through the snow queen’s world, and south towards the sun, on and on, past Edin and Palatine and Hallam and Vexstein, till they got home.
“And they lived happily ever after tending their roses in their garden, but remember, every winter when the ice comes, to watch out for the snow queen, and never to follow her to the north.”
Willoughby vanished from his fiddlesticks, and a red rosebud popped up between the slats to take his place, and everyone gasped. And it broke the spell they’d been under listening to his story, and they all broke into wild applause.
(c) J M Pett 2014 with thanks to Hans Christian Anderson