On the Feast of Stephen – one from the archives
Some of my own writing...
Originally written on St Stephen's day, 1995.
I updated it a little for a recording a few years ago.
"Good King Wenceslas"
A Christmas Fairy Tale
GOOD King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
Where the snow lay all about
Deep, and crisp, and even.
Brightly shone the Moon that night
Though the frost was cruel.
* * *
LANKIN trod lightly. It was the only way he knew. Though the snow was deep, crisp and even, the footprints his felt slippers left in the surface would lead you to think that it was no more than an inch or so deep. Or that Lankin had very little material substance, which was rather nearer the truth.
Behind him, at the treeline, it wouldn’t have been diffcult to imagine small, sharp narrow eyes, watching from the darkness, but Lankin didn't need to look back to know that the Queen was watching from the woods, and he didn’t have to look up at the moonlit hills to know that somewhere, the King, also, was watching.
Lankin, if his thoughts could run that far, was thinking of where he was going, and, if he could manage a thought so far from his instinctive nature, of what he would do, when he got there.
* * *
IT would have been called, in a more traditional tale, a cottage. It was more of a croft, long and low, shaped like a tumulus or small barrow, covered (if you could see under the snow) with layers of interwoven bracken fronds, but now, under the deep, crisp, even snow, the only features that disinguished it from the other humps, tumps, hummocks, hillocks and lumps around and about, was the thin column of smoke rising, from a chimney little more than a hole in the roof, in a straight line like a rope to the vivid stars.
With a certain amount of cursing, the Old Man, whose name was Felix Godbolt, shoved open the much repaired door, cursing the snow, the cold, the poor workmanship of the door and its hinges, and cursing most of all his age, that made the snow, the cold, and anything that required good workmanship his enemy.
His snow shoes were woven from twigs and willow-bark, and he pulled behind him a flat sled, on which he had loaded a couple of bundles, and axe, and some blankets. A casual observer, especially one that knew the song, might well have wondered where he was going to load the winter fuel, which he must have been going out over the deep, crisp, even snow to gather.
But the old man was not an idiot. If he had thought that he could survive the winter by going out into the snow to gather firewood, he would already have been many years dead. The croft was itself more than half filled from floor to ceiling with firewood, and there was a pile behind the croft fully the length and height of the croft itself.
He pushed the door hard closed with his shoulder, cursing again, and made sure that the horseshoe was hung straight above the doorframe, before setting out across the snow.
* * *
WENCESLAS, both King and Good, stood in Christian Bliss, watching the final preparations for the celebration of the birth of Christ that would, that night, take place within the Great Keep of his mighty feudal domain.
Every year, year after year, the same great feast, the same glorious mass, the same distribution of winter essentials to his guests. For this night, Wenceslas' guests were the poorest of the poor of his kingdom - the serfs and bondmen, the dispossessed tenants and cursed sick, the lame, the deformed, those touched by the hand of God, and those abused by the hand of man.
For the moment, Good King Wenceslas looked in.
He looked into the mews where the austringers were preparing the birds for the Great Fly Past at midnight - most of the hawks would not take part - this was a job for the two Little Owls, and the Merlins, who could be trained to fly at night. The austringers would have spent much of the last two months rounding up the doves that would circle the keep in a great humming cloud.
He looked into the stables where for once there was quiet - none of his visitors had horses, and Wenceslas felt that on this Day it was better for the horses to be unseen, and he could feel that he was among his visitors.
He looked into the cellars where the butlar was teaching the underbutlar the art of judicious wine selection. He was at the point of saying that the secret was not to serve the best wine, but the one most likely to please the palate for which it was intended.
He looked into the mighty kitchens, where a fireplace large enough to accommodate four oxen was, indeed, accomodating four oxen. The heat in the kitchen was almost unbearable after the crisp sharp cold of the courtyard and the quiet still cold of the cellar. The fire was being charged with logs that took two grown men to lift, and the kitchenboys turning the spithandles and ladling wine and fat onto the carcases were having to work short shifts as even their iron screens were not enough to prevent them from being slightly roasted themselves.
(A cook offered Wenceslas a cup of hot wine, but he refused, preferring to await the beginnings of the feast.)
He looked into the dressing rooms where platters were being built up on dishes the size of cartwheels, and tunnys, flagons, kegs, barrels and bottles were being carefully pre-stacked for their speedy delivery to the hall in the proper order.
He looked into his daughter's suite, where serving girls and pages were lined up, each one to be finally dressed by the Princess (who spent the rest of the year being dressed by them).
He looked in one by one on his sons, each of whom was preparing his party piece, beit a speech on the virtues of man (the eldest), a demonstration of the fine art of fencing (his second and third) or a selection of reels on the fiddle (his youngest).
Finally, he looked into the great hall, whose four fireplaces already blazed, where narrow tables had been laid out, narrow benches crammed in, and boards and knives set at each place. Wenceslas knew that it was a matter of pride for those that attended the feast every year to bring back the same knife that they would have found at their place at the table one the first year they attended, though each year a few knifes were taken home, by those who were there for the first time, or those whose knife had been lost, or worn out, during the current year - and of course those who had no need for a new knife, but who took one home anyway, through prudence or absent-mindedness.
The finishing touches were being added to the decorations. In other parts of the castle, seasonal decorations were of cloth or even paper, in addition to all the winter greenery that would be brought in to show that inspite of the cold and the deep, crisp, even snow, there was still evident green life outside in Nature, as much as inside, here in the abode of man. Here in the great hall, all the decorations were of polished brass, as the heat with all four fires ablaze, and the tremendous draft and noise (and occasional bouts of food throwing) would all to rapidly leave the more conventional seasonal adornments looking rather sad and delapidated.
Wenceslas cast about him for a page:
"Young fellow," said he (for spake him always thus), "Methinks 'tis time about for looking out. Come follow me to the top of this our warm and homely tower, to see that none hath straid from the rightly path that lead him hence this night."
"Sire." replied the page (for no more word was needful).
* * *
THERE was a little but very light wind at the top of the topmost tower of the keep, and though the moon shone bright and full, yet the stars were bright, sharp, and faintly blue.
With foreknowledge of Wenceslas' tradition, the snow had been swept from the top of the tower, and a small fire had been lit in the room below to warm the flags on the parapet. Wenceslas would not have noticed, as though he lived in comparative luxury, he was quite impervious to physical deprivations. The page, on the other hand, was extremely glad of the fire, and the warmth of the stones under his feet. A kindly guardsman handed the page a cloak as he stepped outside.
Wenceslas cast his eyes all about, and saw, to his considerable satisfaction, that all the tracks in the snow led like the spokes of a cartwheel in across the plains and hills to the castle. He saw many people moving along the tracks, with jolly lanthorns, singing cheery seasonal songs, some pious, others less so. Wenceslas appreciated both, as expressions of joy.
He raised his eyes to the horizon, and paused a moment:
"Methinks I do espy, upon the brow of yonder lowly hill, a man who pulls a sled across the deep crisp even snow. Surely knows he of the festival this night? It needs him not to seek his winter fuel, for he may have his fill of heat and light and food and joyous company this night would he just turn his path to the right, and join the host to which I am the host. Know you, page, who he be?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain. He has a cottage under the eaves of the forest, at a place the call the fount of Saint Agnes. Every year he goes to the coppice at the place called the Mound of the Other King, but none knows what mote he there."
"Never has he come to my feast?"
"Never has he Sire."
"Well we can't have him stay out all night, especially when there's food and drink to be had. Hie you to the kitchens, get me a good bundle of food, wine and stuff to make a fire. If he cannot or will not come to my feast, I shall bring it to him. Meet me at the gate."
* * *
THE Old Man, with much trouble, finally reached his destination. Lankin was already there, waiting for him, but the steel of the Old Man's axe was too much to bear, and he couldn't hide himself, even against the pallor of the deep crisp even snow.
"So this year ye comes in person, milord?" the Old Man mocked.
"Mock me if you will. I come because I have no choice. An if happen you forget I was hear in person last year, and before that, and before that, back as far as memory."
"My memory is longer. Them," the Old Man streatched out his arm and pointed to the castle, "they's forgot that yous've ever been. An now this, your yearly death at my hand, that your Queen sends you to and your King watches (I sees him, no matter what), is just a story. Do you not know what they say, in the village? They say I fights a battle that has long been won."
"But you always come."
"I come because one year, getting nearer every year, you'll die, and that year, noone will be here to kill me, and I will be able to reunite the Queen and the King, and we will be more than memories and shadows."
The Old Man smiled.
"I shall tell you what defeated you, as I know it will do not good, but let you know that you lost because you have no imagination; you don't even realise that you're changing even as you change. When I die, you'll not come here any more; it will be as if you've never been."
Lankin appeared to be distracted. Certainly he hadn't heard the last part of the Old Man's words, or he made as if not to have heard.
"We seem to have visitors."
The Old Man looked in the direction of Lankin's stare, and saw Wenceslas and the page.
"Let them come."
Lankin and the Old man stood watching as Wenceslas and his page approached.
* * *
WHEN they were near enough, Wenceslas called out:
"I say! I bring you Christmastide goodwishes and the comfort and joy of good victuals and the wherewithall to make fire."
"I have both those, in sufficient store, but I thank thee for thy thoughts going out to an Old Man who is of an older world that yours, and not long for it, either," the old man called back, smiling quietly.
"You I know, from my page here, who says you are one Godbolt, of Saint Agnes Well, but this gentleman beside you I know not."
"Nor should you, my lord King. He is a member of a certain gentlefolk, who visits this place apon this night every year, and I meet him, and we act out a sort of ancient rite."
"How fascinating," remarked Wenceslas in a tone becoming of the most modern of monarchs.
"Once upon a time," the Old Man went on, "there was another King, though his name was spoken with trepidation and many a sidewards glance. Now, gladly, he is all but forgotten. I, and milord Lankin here, we remember, so we have to come, but I'm the last, and when I die, the memory will be gone, and even Lankin will not know any more."
"You are mistaken," Lankin cut in, "Look up to the top of the mountain, for there the King stands waiting."
The others looked up, and though the Old Man did indeed see the tall figure of the Mighty King of the Elves, with his shaggy goat's legs and his great head crowned with the antlers of a giant stag, this image struck no awe, fear or wonder in him, for he knew what Wenceslas and his page would see.
"A mighty stag," said Wenceslas, "and a handsome fellow at that. I suppose he might seem like a king in this place, if there were no good Christian men. It is good to remind ourselves," Wenceslas went on, "that we are not quite so far from the wilds as we like to think, but it is in the gesture that I make with these three nights of feasting that I affirm how men stand apart from beasts; we help each other because we can, not because we have to."
Lankin wore a look of ill-disguised horror, for as he himself looked at his King, that glorious symbol of barbarism, he saw the silhoutted figure fade from view, replaced by a stupid stag, a mindless rutting beast.
"Then it is over," said Lankin, "This year you will not even need your axe."
Lankin turned and walked away, and it seemed to all three that as he walked he shrank, and dwindled, to a tiny, shiny winged mannikin, and finally to a little point of light that twinkled, spun, twirled, and vanished.
The page began, "but that was…?"
The Old Man continued, "a little story, in your head; you might know what you think you saw, but who can say what really happens. The best we can do is tell the story of the world as it writes itself, as that is how we see it. Now, shall we go to this feast of yours? My rheumatism is killing me."