Continuing our Yuletide Narrathon at Castle Marsh with Willoughby the Narrator….
The wintry sun was still low on the southern horizon, but had risen high enough to peek above the bank of cloud. Those on the far side of the courtyard were bathed in sunlight, and some even shed their blankets. The marsh was not a warm place in the winter, but the hospitality and good heating inside its earth-packed stone buildings made people happy to be safe inside the castle at Yuletide.
The Narrathon, however, was outside in the courtyard, and Willoughby had spent the last few minutes hiding behind a glowing brazier of pre-burnt wood they called charcoal, listening to the speaker in front of him. Polite applause and a few cheers from his friends greeted the young person’s ending “and they all lived happily ever after!”
Willoughby grinned to himself as the young red-headed person slunk off to join his friends, received by welcoming arms, being patted on the back. They were generous to him; it had been a hesitant, mumbling delivery, but he had done it, in front of all those people, and he deserved full praise.
“Well done, indeed,” Willoughby cried, jumping up on his fiddlesticks and applauding in the youngster’s direction. “It takes courage to come up here and tell stories. Mind you, I’m a natural!” He winked at his audience, and once more he had them in the palm of his hand, his cheekiness and good humour winning over the most discerning of audiences.
“I wouldn’t ask every audience this, but… I bet you think your king’s a good king, don’t you?”
“Aye,” came rippling back from the crowd, who left what they’d been doing and gathered closer now that their guest speaker had returned to his platform.
“I can’t hear you!” Willoughby joked with them and put his hand behind his ear, trying to catch more sound.
“AYE!” came a more robust response, and the rest of the stragglers hurried over to find out what had happened.
“Kind to the workers, considerate to the weak and feeble?”
“Aye,” “He is that,” and more mutters of agreement filtered through to where Willoughby stood.
“Well, he must be, because he invited me to stay for Yule when he met me in the wilds!” Willoughby laughed, and his audience joined in, knowing how hard their king had worked to persuade a real narrator to come to their castle rather than go to one of the richer, warmer ones.
“Let me tell you about another king, called Winkleman. He lived many years ago, when life was even harder. If you belonged to a castle then you really did belong – you were little more than a slave. If you lived in an outlying community nobody cared about you. No support from anyone. If it was cold, you froze, if it was a bad harvest, you starved.”
“Just like Vexstein!” called a wag from near the back of the crowd.
“Don’t say that too loud if there are strangers about, my friend… but I reckon we are all friends here, aren’t we?”
“Aye!” the crowd called again.
Up in a window of the second level, Fred pulled back and looked at George. “The rumours are growing, you know.”
“I know, I’ve heard them too. And we aren’t getting refugees any more. Something’s really wrong, there.”
“I wonder what Willoughby knows. We have to have somebody there to find out the truth.” Fred and George turned back to the window, to listen to the Narrator in their courtyard.
“It was the day after mid-winter, when most were still sleeping off their Solstice Feast. It hadn’t dawned yet, but the snow had that blue, reflective sheen to it that you get when dawn isn’t far off. You’ve never seen that, have you – never up in time!” Willoughby said in an aside to a group of young men, to the general laughter of the rest of the crowd.
“King Winkleman was up and about. Maybe he had eaten one too many carrots, or maybe he was just an early riser. He padded about in his great warm robe and furry slippers, crown slipped casually over one eye, and paused to look out on the setting moon, starry sky and shimmering snow.
“He was just taking in the sights, you know, the lovely round full moon hanging low on the snowy landscape when the sun is not far away? Yeah? Romantic, isn’t it? Well, not for the poor beggar who was out searching for twigs, broken branches, anything he could find to make a fire to keep his family warm.
“King Winkleman had good eyesight, and he could see that the fellow was struggling in the deep snow. He called one of his attendants, and told him to find his steward, but the page came back and told him the steward was in a really deep sleep and he couldn’t wake him. King Winkleman rolled his eyes and muttered you can’t get a good steward these days under his breath” – laughter rippled through the crowd, since their king had been looking for a steward for months now – “then he said to the page ‘well, you’ll have to do.’
“The page drew himself up to his full height, which, since he was barely as old as you,” he pointed at a youngster in the front row “brought him nearly up to his liege’s armpit. ‘Go and fetch some bread and some carrots, and some fuel as well, if we can spare some. Load it onto a sled and then meet me down by the gate. Hurry now!’
“The page did as he was bid, and the king went and changed into his winter travelling clothes, kissed his sleepy wife and told her he’d be back for a late breakfast, and hurried down to the main gate.
“They’d gone maybe half an hour, trekking over the snow towards where the king had seen the beggar, when the moon clouded over, and it started to snow again. The page was really struggling with the sled, King Winkleman took the rope from him and told him to follow in his own footsteps, since whenever he put his big boots he made the snow really firm, until the snow could fill them up again.
“They struggled on for a few more minutes and found the beggar, huddled up against a lonely tree, trying not to end up as a one-person snowdrift.
“’Here you are, fellow, what are you doing out in this wretched storm?’ the king said, as if it was just a minor inconvenience to him.
“Oh, your majesty, sire, I was just lookin’ for somethin’ to keep my wife and kids warm, sire, beggin’ your pardon, sire.”
Willoughby used his voice in an imitation of the security chief’s accent, which caused a good few laughs.
“Well, my good fellow, you’d better take the contents of this sled and get it back to them as soon as you can. Which way do you live? ‘
“’Over yonder sire, a few leagues hence, by the spring that comes out from under the huge rock we calls the Mountain.’
“’Right, then, says the king, ‘will you be all right to get back there on your own, or shall I send my page with you?’
“’Oh, I’ll be all right, sire. The sun’ll be up right soon, and I’ll find my way all right, you be sure of it.’
“’Good, I’ll leave you to it, but if any of your family or friends need anything, you send to the castle and ask for it, you hear me?’
“And the beggar went off, since the snow had now stopped again, and the king watched as his sled left tracks in the fresh snow, showing the beggar was surely going in the right direction.
“’Well, now, my page, shall we get back to the castle and have some breakfast by a nice warm fire?’
“The page was shivering in the cold, and when they started off, he could hardly keep his feet in the fresh snow, which covered up all manner of lumps and bumps. It looked like the king and his page might be stranded out there, save for the sun coming up and lighting the way back to the castle for them, that and the king lifting up the page and putting him on his shoulders.
“So the king brought the page safely home, and ensured he got a nice hot breakfast, and when his courtiers had all staggered down to their breakfasts he called them together and told them off for sleeping while others were stuck out in the snow, and he got everyone to go out and deliver emergency rations to all the people living in the wilds within a league of his castle, just so they could see themselves through the worst of the winter.
“And the people all rejoiced and called him good king Winkleman.
“And that, my friends, is the end of this story – and it’s time for our feast, judging by the smell coming from those rooms over there! Don’t all rush at once!”
But his warning was in vain, for as he finished his tale the first big splobs of snow started to fall again, and people ran for cover, preferably in the nice warm kitchen where everyone was welcome to share in the Yuletide feasting.
(c) J M Pett 2014
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