I’m doing Flashback Friday a week early, because it’s Christmas, and I wanted to repeat this one, especially as I’ve worked out it appears ‘this yuletide’ in the Princelings series timeline. I had to do some juggling with Christmas stories when I sorted out the Short History of the Realms I mentioned in July when I got on with books 7 and 8. This tale is 2000 words or thereabouts, and was published last year on the Princelings website, which this year has a two-part Pirate story on it! I hope you enjoy this story and all the others involving my characters at Christmas, and have a good and restful time in between the panic attacks for your seasonal festivities. I’ll be back on the 30th with a final fling for the #flashfiction year, and on 31st with the annual book and challenge roundup.
Willoughby blew in with the snow, crashing the door of the Inn of the Seventh Happiness against a table squashed too close, and the wind creating chaos of the napkins and place-settings, carefully laid out for Solstice festivities.
“Making an entrance as usual, Willoughby!” called one of the people leaning against the bar, and other calls and greetings met him as he struggled to shut the door again. The weather noises receded, and the hubbub of a warm and friendly refuge took over.
Willoughby stood behind a line of customers at the reception end of the bar. He considered leaving the quest for a bed for later, and starting with a warming drink. His nose, ears and feet were frozen, but his insides were warm enough, since he’d jogged the last two hours of his journey from the hills this side of Longmoor, when the storm had caught him. If he hadn’t had the engagement to narrate at the inn he’d have turned back.
“Well, I can put you in this room if you don’t mind sharing two beds between you,” Victor was saying to the couple in front him, whose children were huddling into their sides. One boy turned and looked at Willoughby with large, dull eyes. Lost eyes, ones with no hope or expectation in them.
“If ye can do that, we’ll manage, thank’ee kindly. I’ve not much money, y’see.”
“What castle?” Victor asked, since the system applied credits against castles when their citizens went travelling.
The father shook his head. “No castle, not any more. Hoping to make it to Fortune.”
Victor looked at them and sighed to himself. Just another group of refugees. He was trying to keep a tally of which castles they came from, but getting the information from them was hard without making them even more scared. “Okay, take this chitty, keep it safe, and give it to Fortune when you get there.”
“Yes, if they take you in they’ll usually pay a little of your bill here with me. The least we can do for you, really. I’m afraid it means you won’t get a huge feast, though.”
“Any food will be good, thank’ee. And I can keep my coins for later?”
“Yes, keep them for the coach, if you can run to that.”
The father backed away, and Willoughby watched him approach the stagecoach drivers settled by the fire. Maybe the stage would take them as far as Castle Fortune for the rest of his money, if they waited till the one had space. Willoughby shook his head, thinking about the state of the world today. It was not just the number of families on the road seeking a safe haven, it was the reduction in decent, honest people willing to help them. Help that had come naturally once upon a time had become rationed, as if goodwill was a finite commodity. He pondered his planned stories for the next few days and wondered how to get his message across without preaching.
The two people next in the line held a long discussion about whether they would share a bed together in a ten berth dormitory. Victor looked at Willoughby over their shoulders.
“If I knew whether Prince Lupin’s rooms were free I’d have more flexibility.”
“Have you asked them?”
“The vacuum post to Buckmore is down. Nothing’s going through.” How quickly we come to rely on these communications, thought Victor. A few years ago he would have been confident they wouldn’t be needed, but now, with the possibility of the Prince and his family flying to Castle Marsh, or even taking their horseless carriage, he needed to keep the rooms for an emergency.
“Surely they’ll be doing Solstice at Buckmore?”
“Well, yes, but George was flying yesterday and dropped in to see me. He said they might be grounded if the weather closes in. I think grounded means they can’t fly, and the weather has definitely closed in.”
“I see what you mean.”
Willoughby watched as Victor directed the two travellers to the dormitory, since they’d decided it was as good an offer as they’d get.
“Any room for me, then?” he asked, leaning on the desk and looking at Victor’s complicated chart, full of crossings-out and arrows.
Victor blushed. “I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve given your room to two families, each of six, who arrived earlier. They’re on their way to Fortune, too, and the stage came back since the tunnel is blocked. There’s nothing going to Fortune, Dimerie, Cabot or beyond. Fortunately nobody much uses the Deeping/White Horse line any more.”
Willoughby chewed his lip. His resentment at the failure of the Realms to help White Horse made the hair on his neck rise. He was once of White Horse, but most people had forgotten that, just as they’d forgotten what went on there. More fool them, since it was happening other places now. He came back to the present as he realised Victor was waiting for him.
“Oh, no, I don’t mind at all. Must have been a palace you’d reserved for me.”
“No, just the cubbyhole downstairs, but I thought you wouldn’t mind.”
“Of course not, Victor. Is it always like this at Solstice?”
“It used to be fairly quiet. Everyone at home for the season. Last year we had a full house though, which is why I suggested you came to entertain them this year, but it’s… well, we’re more than full. I hope you’re the last.”
The door banged open, sending a blast of frigid air through the room.
“Maybe not,” Victor sighed, eyeing a young couple, with the female clearly in need of assistance after a difficult journey. One of the people near the door got up and offered her his seat, which she took gratefully.
“I can sleep on the long seat near the fire,” Willoughby offered.
“It’s already taken by two of the drivers. The other two are on the floor beside it, and the two that came back from the Dimerie line have bagged the cushions on the side by the wall. If you don’t mind, I’m putting you in Saku’s bed, and he’s going in with Argon. They’ll be thrilled to be sharing their room with you. Is that okay?”
Willoughby grinned. Sharing with Victor’s kids would be just fine. He wondered what the Saku he knew so well, and the Argon he’d seen around before he’d left his real home castle, would think. “No problem, as long as they don’t snore.” He winked to show he didn’t mean it, and Victor’s tension dissipated.
“Now, where on earth am I going to put this pair?”
Nobody else arrived that night, and no stagecoaches left the next morning, partly because it was Solstice, and partly because the snow had mounded up around the top of the cliffs surrounding Seventh Happiness, and drifted in great piles into the southern edges of the little settlement. A group of locals, assisted by visitors, dug out the entrance to two of the four southern tunnels, just in case someone was coming through from Dimerie or Cabot, but the drivers said they weren’t setting out in case they got stuck in a drift.
At noon everyone crammed into the inn for the Solstice celebrations. In castles they were usually formal affairs, with speeches from kings and followed by sumptuous feasts. So Victor said as he started his speech. Willoughby heard mutterings and extended his listening to hear “not in Vexstein, they weren’t,” from several quarters, and a complaint about a couple of other castles, too.
Victor went on to say how the people of Seventh Happiness were “glad to live here, free to make our own lives, and to share what little we have with our visitors. We remember the old year, and all the things we achieved, the kindnesses we received and gave, and the things we want to do better next year. And as the days grow longer, we look forward to good growing seasons, good harvests, good health, and good cheer!” At that everyone raised their glasses and made a toast to the community of the Seventh Happiness and to next year. And some said “to safety” or “to a home of our own” or whatever they wanted most.
Then Willoughby told the first of his stories, which was of the hero who had been caught out in the woods at Midwinter, and was found by lots of lost villagers with nothing to eat because the harvest had failed. After a few adventures they found their way back to the shelter of his cave and he magically fed them all from just the few grains of wheat he had in his saddlebag. Everyone enjoyed the story, and then it was time for the feast. Calli, Madge and Toby had done wonders to make a little food go a long way, too, and there was enough for everyone to have a really good meal, with lots of lovely vegetable soup to fill up the corners.
Then while all the adults had a rest, Willoughby told the kids the story of a young couple who had to travel a long way one Solstice, and they had come to a busy inn in their home castle because everyone had to be checked by the tax collectors. “And there was no room at the inn, so the landlord offered them shelter in his stable. And there, during the night, the lady found she was ready to give birth, and she did so, and laid him in a manger, soft with hay, watched over and warmed by the ox and ass that lived there.” The kids were spellbound by the visitors that came to see the child, who was destined to be a great king, but lived in poverty until he was old enough to claim his inheritance.
“Will I be a king one day?” one child said to his parents after Willoughby finished, but Willoughby didn’t hear the reply. Maybe all children could aspire to be kings, he thought. Maybe you don’t have to be born a prince to become a great leader.
It was later in the evening, after he’d told the adults the story of the Diamond Souls, that he was relaxing, thinking he’d surely earned his keep this Solstice, when Victor came over to him with a large glass of mulled apple juice.
“Here.” Victor said. “Thanks for the stories. It would have been even more chaos without you, with all those kids to keep happy.”
“Are they all heading south?”
“Yeah, one way or another. Although of course, if they’re here, they’re heading south. I heard from Sowerby there are a lot heading north, too.”
Willoughby considered that. People travelling north and south, away from the Troubles. The Realms were divided. Only people with flying machines could travel swiftly and safely between the two. That didn’t help for a strong society. He shifted in his seat, as Victor shifted too.
“I didn’t think much of your second story,” he said. “He was’t much of an inn-keeper if he couldn’t find room for a mother about to give birth.”
“I suppose he thought she needed peace and quiet.”
“Well, yes, but there’s always ways.”
He was interrupted by Calli as she came in. “Two boys,” she said, smiling. “Mother and children doing fine. The father, too, come to that. They’re sleeping now.”
Victor nodded, looking slightly smug.
“Where did you put them?” Willoughby asked.
“Oh, they’re in Prince Lupin’s room. Thought it best, really. A birthplace fit for a king, really.”
Willoughby laughed. “You never know, Victor, you never know. These are strange times.”
“Strange times maybe, but there’s never no room at the Inn of the Seventh Happiness.”
(c) J M Pett 2015, with thanks to Rebecca Douglass for pinching the gist of Halitor at Midwinter, which appears in the BookElves Anthology Volume 2. Willoughby’s other stories appear in the forthcoming Princelings Book 7: Willoughby the Narrator and on my blog here, and in the Bible (Luke, 2.7)
Don’t forget to enter this year’s Midwinter’s Eve Giveaway, which closes on December 31st!