Yuletide is always a special time of year, whatever world you live in. I hope you enjoy this story which follows on from Princelings Revolution (but takes place before the bonus story in the paperback). It’s the idea I had for a winter story last year, but needed to wait till the time was right. Enjoy just over 1800 words of your favourite characters.

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Yuletide at Castle Marsh 2021

Fred raised a glass of sparkling Wozna Cola and clinked it with Jasmine’s. “To 2022!”

“Yes, to 2022, Daddy.” She sipped, and looked at the sky through the window to the west. “I hope they land safely.”

“Mmm. Willoughby was confident the weather would hold, even across the Great Western Sea. I hope it’s just another of those magical skills he has.”

Jasmine looked down to hide her smile. Willoughby’s ninja skills did not stretch to weather forecasting. With him on board, though, there was a good chance of avoiding danger before it hit them.

These were strange times. Last Yule she and Willoughby had travelled from Castle Vexstein, now under the rule of Locksley. He was steadily refusing any title such as Lord or King, even though he was of noble birth. A cousin of hers, in fact… or was it second cousin, if he was her father’s cousin, no, brother. Well, half-brother. She shook her head. Fred’s family was so confusing. 

“Troubled, sweet?” Fred asked.

“No, just confused by Locksley’s relationship to me. We were with him just before Yule last year, before we came down to stay with you at the Inn of the Seventh Happiness.”

“Ah, yes. I was there, homeless, and a pauper. I’d just discovered I was penniless a few weeks earlier. And George was fretting about getting the Daughter of Pelican built. And now…”

“Now we are home, the people have chosen you to lead them again, and George has fulfilled the promise you made to Mariusz, who turned out to be Willoughby’s uncle.” 

It was Fred’s turn to nod. “Well, let’s hope we have a nice settled life from now on.”

“You’ll get bored if you don’t have some exciting project to work on.”

“Not as bored as George will be. Improving the flying boats won’t be as much interest for him as designing them and testing them.”

“Daddy… did you realise that technically Willoughby is the same age as me?”

“What! He’s been in the realms since before you were born. Before I met your mother even.”

“Only just. About six months. He and I were born in the same year.”

Fred frowned. “In Hattan, you mean?”

“Yes, then he came down the time tunnel and went back eleven years. So on the one hand he’s a lot older than me, and on the other, we’re the same age.”

“You can’t be both at once.”

Jasmine kept her face expressionless. Willoughby had a way of being anything he wanted to be. It was hard to know who the real Willoughby was, but she probably knew him better than anyone. In fact…

“They’ve just come over the coast south of Caerleon.”

“How do you know these things? Ninja skills, I suppose. I should have stopped him teaching you.”

“I would have had them anyway, just not known how to use them, how to trust them.”

It was Fred’s turn to look out of the window. “I suppose we’d better go out with the launch to bring them in. This wind will push them into the reeds otherwise.”

“So it’s a great honour, and indeed a great pleasure, to have Lord Mariusz with us this year, after all the troubles we’ve been through, and all the patience you’ve had, putting up with George and me and our secret project. But now you all know the truth. And perhaps Mariusz wouldn’t mind saying a few things to you all at our final feast of 2021. Mariusz?”

Fred sat down. 

The huge black and white coat that housed Mariusz, lord of Hattan, rose as its owner got to his feet.

“Ur, well, hi everybody. I was never much of one for speechifying. It’s hard to understand all the changes that have happened in the Realms since I was last here in 2010. I’d been visiting so often in the previous ten years that I thought I knew you all, that it was a settled place, full of partying and socialising. At least, thanks to Wozna,” he raised his glass to them and sipped, “I could get around among you incognito as a simple cola salesman. I enjoyed my visits, and I enjoyed meeting you, or your countrymen, at any rate. I hope everything will settle down in this new way you have of picking your leaders, which sounds pretty good to me. 

“With everything that went on, I’m amazed that Fred and George managed to keep the agreement we made; stop the time tunnel that brought Wozna to you and you wait until the technology George invents catches up with me. Thank you for having me back, and I’m glad to say, sales of Wozna are nearly back to what they were six months ago.” He grinned at them, hoping they understood his joke. “Well, that’s in my time, of course. It’s often hard to keep promises. What you guys have gone through to keep that promise, well, I admire you even more for it. You’re the genuine article, you guys. I’m glad you made it safely through these years.

“And now, can I suggest a toast? To Fred and George!”

The Marshfolk were very happy to toast Fred and George, especially with the Wozna that most of them had never tried in the past, but had decided was a great party drink.

wozna bottles

“Thanks, Jasmine.” Mariusz helped himself to the espressimenta she offered him, as they settled cosily around the fire in Fred’s study. “Yeah, things are changing at Hattan, too. The five families met up last month, after the last grandfather had passed on, and decided to end the war between us. So we’re working on new commercial ties, agreements over trades, sharing apprenticeships, all sorts.”

“Is Saku okay?” George asked. 

“Yeah, he’s well, playing with new ideas. But he naps in the middle of talking about them sometimes. He’s not so young as he used to be.”

“He’s outlived Argon, though. He must be very old.”

Mariusz sighed. “Sad, that. I must get up and visit Victor while I’m here. Will that be okay? Do you have a stage up the tunnel now or anything? I reckon I could never run up and down it like I did in May. Almost the death of me, that was!”

“I can fly you up any time,” George said. “Unless Jasmine and Willoughby want to take you?”

“Willoughby, fly me? I don’t think so!”

“Jasmine’s the pilot, uncle. I’ll just come for the ride. Fred likes her to have supervision still.”

Jasmine smiled. Fred frowned, but checked Jasmine’s face and relaxed.

“You must be very fit, though,” Fred said to Mariusz. “I could never have done all that, even with the time tunnel.”

Mariusz paused. “To be truthful, young Fred, I don’t reckon it did me any good at all. Ever since then I’ve had a bit of an ache in my side, and I don’t think it’s a stitch from exercising.”

“What do your medics say?”

“Oh the usual. ‘Take it easy, don’t work so hard.’ It’s not as if I’m travelling any more.”

Willoughby regarded his uncle, then looked away, a haunted expression in his eyes, which only Jasmine caught. The pair exchanged glances that seemed to contain a whole conversation.

The next morning Fred took Mariusz for a tour of the Marsh, since it was a beautiful mid-winter day with no frost and almost summer-like winds. George took them in the old flying machine so they could go to places like Summernot beach and the old forest. He even flew within sight of Arbor to give Mariusz at least a view of his old holiday spot. 

“Elinor,” Mariusz sighed. “She was quite something.”

Fred had a long thought about time and its effects. Maybe he wouldn’t tell Mariusz about the Huguenots. “We’re good friends with the Arborites now. Things have changed a lot there. You probably never met Queen Rosebud.”

“I thought Jess would have been in charge by now.”

Should he tell Mariusz the whole story? He stared at the trees giving way to the marsh again and decided not. “If we go back now, you can have a light lunch before going up to see Victor. I’d love it if you came back tonight, but I understand if you want to stay over, with all this travelling.”

“I want to make the most of it, Fred. I didn’t want to say in company, but this pain in my side is pretty bad. I doubt I’ll be visiting again. I don’t know what will happen at Hattan when I go, but it needs a good, steady organiser. I know he’s wanted here, but you’ve taught him everything he needs to know about running a complex organisation. I spoke with Willoughby last night about maybe him taking over from me. He’s thinking about it. And he’s family, and that’s important at Hattan.”

Fred nodded. It wasn’t that his guest just wanted to stay home in Hattan. He was preparing to hand over. What would Willoughby say?

flying machine

Mariusz came back from Victor’s the next morning, looking happy but tired. He talked about Victor and his family for a couple of hours, obviously pleased that the young person he’d known since he was a baby had grown into a fine family man with plenty of business ventures running at once. 

“He told me all about your funding crisis for the Daughter of Pelican, too. I totally approve of your solution. Very ingenious.”

“Thank goodness for that.” Fred had completely forgotten that he had used Mariusz’s Wozna account to pay for the flying boat development, and apologised for not raising it himself. Mariusz waved a hand. 

“Not a problem, young Fred.” He looked around, taking in all his surroundings. “You’ve got a fine place here. I know you’ve been through a lot to get here, and I appreciate it. I never came to Castle Marsh before. I don’t think I missed much then, but I’m real glad I didn’t miss it now.”

“I’m sorry you can’t stay longer, but… well, you have a castle to run.”

“Yes, we never get a vacation, do we? Can I just wander around alone for a few minutes? Want to take it all in, you know.”

“Of course. George says to leave no later than three. You’ll be flying into the sunset all the way.”

“That sounds pretty. I’ll see you down at the boardwalk.”

Fred watched him stroll off, taking the stairs to the battlements, and then wander along, stopping to lean out every now and then. 

An arm crept through his as Jasmine leant against him.

“Hi.”

“Hi yourself.”

“I’m not sure I should tell you, but Willoughby says he won’t be coming back.”

Fred stiffened. “Willoughby said… him or Mariusz?”

“Mariusz, of course! Why wouldn’t Willoughby come back?”

The certainty in Jasmine’s voice made Fred wonder…

No, Willoughby would come back. At least to say a proper goodbye.

© J M Pett 2021

Yuletide 2021 at Castle Marsh
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