Solstice is on Wednesday, but this is my last post before Christmas, so I’m hopefully early on the Thursday prompt! Sorry, KL, I’m missing your Carriage prompt entirely.
After last week’s wreath, I decided a visit to Castle Marsh was in order. This is another 2000 word Christmas indulgence!
And to anyone waiting for my Christmas card, it’s either in the post, or waiting for me to send by email if I ever get my home WiFi restored. I retyped this story onto my iPad to take it to the supermarket cafe to load up!
Solstice at Castle Marsh 2022
The flying boat may not be the ultimate in luxury, like the ones of the 1930s, but it was comfortable, and not too bumpy. The landing was everything I imagined: slowly sinking towards the water, skimming over the tops of icy reeds, then a whoosh of spray as we skidded along the surface, slowing down till we sank to boat level, and bobbed gently on the waves of our own making.
“Did you enjoy that?” George called from the cockpit.
“I did, thank you!” I wondered what it would look like from the pilot’s seat. Maybe I’d ask him for a separate joyride. This time he’d been co-pilot to Biggles, who’d taken over the role of chief pilot at last.
We taxied into the mooring area and pulled up to a boardwalk, where the cold water looked almost oily in its movement. In the three years since the revolution, there’d been a deal of activity. They were still awaiting scaffolding for the northwest tower, but they’d completely revamped the flying facilities. A small crowd loitered on the land, watching me get out.
Jasmine ran up and hugged me. She was almost my height now, and as queenly looking as a teen can be. “I’m so glad you came!” she said. “Fred is all worried about messing up. I think he needs a pep talk from you.”
“What is he worried about messing up?” I asked. He’d always fretted about the Solstice speech, which was the next day, but as I understood it, all the rest of the Yule festivities were low key now, finishing off with the Green Willow Day events. Surely he couldn’t be fretting over that.
“I think… oh, I’ll let him tell you himself.”
“And how are you? Missing Willoughby?”
“Ah, well, that’s part of Daddy’s problem, I think. I don’t miss Willoughby, not really, because I can talk to him when I like. Although it would be nicer if he were here, but Daddy misses him a lot. Yet, really there’s not much for a steward to do now he’s not actually king, just the elected leader. Everyone gets involved in organising things.”
“Somebody has to co-ordinate it all, surely?” I thought of businesses and other organisations I’d been in. It all took management to make the whole work together.
“Well, I seem to have inherited Mummy’s organising talent. And people always step up to help me, and come forward with just what’s needed without being asked.”
“So, maybe he’s worrying that he hasn’t done something he should have done?” That sounded all too much like Fred to me, even if Jasmine didn’t realise it.
We had been walking up the slope towards the castle. The gates looked well-patched, but open, as they always had been when I’d visited. I wondered if they ever closed them, but I wasn’t going to ask. The lower courtyard was tidy, but crowded. The makeshift dwellings had long gone, and bright flowers adorned window-boxes around the area.
“How do you get flowers blooming at the winter solstice?” I asked Jasmine.
“You’ll have to ask Lola. She’s taken over from Alys as our resident growing things expert. I think she said they are pansies, and they’ll last until the snowdrops come out.”
“Ah.” A new gardening expert. Just what they need to restore the land, or at least, I hoped Lola was up to that.
The upper courtyard would have been just as tidy, if it were not for a pile of branches in one corner, and a lot of people standing around looking at it.
“Oh,” Jasmine said. Then, “oh, dear,” after a short pause. “Let’s go upstairs a different way.”
“But isn’t that the main staircase, through that door? I was hoping to see the orrery.”
“Oh, it’s just as you always imagined it. I’ll show you later.”
Then I caught sight of Fred, standing in the middle of the branches, having a discussion with someone. I could see by his expression that anyone else would be remonstrating with them. He was doing his utmost to remain calm, and establish the facts. But his ears were red, which was a sure sign he was furious, or upset. Most probably both.
“Ah, yes. I don’t suppose you’ve got a nice cup of tea upstairs?” I said.
Jasmine breathed a sigh of relief and I followed her up the stairs.
“That’s lovely,” I said, as we settled in the chairs in front of Fred’s fire. Some things never change, it seems. “While we’re waiting, why don’t you do the interview with me. This is the one for my readers.”
She nodded enthusiastically. Fred had probably briefed her on this.
“So, briefly, who are you, what do you do here, and what training did you have for that?”
“I’m Jasmine, and I’m sort of second in command here, although I don’t have an official position. Fred is now the elected Castle leader, and he has a group of people which we still call his Quorum, made up of representatives of all the skill and interest areas. And when anything comes up that Fred needs someone else to do, I find who will do it and let him know. I do things like looking after the old and sick, and making sure they get what they need, and looking after visitors, making sure they have accommodation and so on. And anything else, really. I was once a princess, and I was in line to be the next ruler of Castle Marsh, so I learned all about running things from when I could walk and talk. First from my Mummy, who died some years ago now, and then Daddy, and of course other key people in the castle. Everyone, really.”
“Other key people, yes. Where is Willoughby? Isn’t he steward any more?”
“It’s a long story. We wanted him to stay, and he wanted to stay, for lots of reasons. But then Lord Mariusz died, and it turned out he was Willoughby’s uncle and had been talking to Willoughby about succeeding him. And eventually Willoughby decided to do it. Although he said he’d rather stay here as he felt more at home in the Realms.”
“Well, he’d been here a long time. Half his life. All his adult life. He’s an important figure in the history of the Realms.”
“Yes, that’s one of the things Fred said to him. And he was flattered, he really was. But he felt responsible for what would happen at Hattan without someone with what he called ‘management experience at the helm’. So he went. He comes back quite often, though.” Jasmine ducked her head to try to hide a smile.
“It’s a long way between here and Hattan. He hasn’t reopened the time tunnel, has he?”
“Oh, no. That’s all finished. No. But, well, you know he has ninja powers.”
“Of course. As do you.”
“Yes, well his are really, really strong. He showed how he can move from place to place by just thinking about it, if another ninja calls. He’s working on nipping back here. He’s nearly worked it out. I can see him a bit shimmery and see-through. Daddy can see him too, a bit like a ghost, he says. But we can talk to him, and Daddy needs to talk out loud.”
“That’s amazing.” I was seriously impressed. I couldn’t imagine what sort of power it would take to travel distances like these ninjas could, but I didn’t think they could jump whole oceans to get somewhere. Nearly, in Willoughby’s case, but not quite.
“What does Fred think of it?” I asked.
Fred walked into the room to answer the question himself. “Fred thinks it’s amazing, and he’s very glad. Hello, Jemima, sorry I couldn’t greet you as soon as you arrived.” He hugged me, which felt wonderful.
“I haven’t got very far interviewing Jasmine.”
“Has she told you that although she’s ten years younger than him, they were born on the same day? Actual day, not date.”
“Ah, the curiosities of time travel. I did know. I had a lot of trouble working that out. I’m still not sure it’s wise of her to associate with him.”
“He’s helped me with my ninja powers, Jemima, so there’s no going back now!” Jasmine laughed. She moved my empty cup to her table, and poured me another without moving from her seat. “I’m not sure I won’t spill it if I send it back,” she added, and got up to bring it back to me in the normal way.
“What do you think of that, Fred?”
“I’m getting used to it. She doesn’t show off much, but I know she practices in private, just so she can use them in an emergency.” We watched Jasmine pour a fourth cup of tea, and pick it up to hand to George as he came in the door.
“Thanks, love,” he said without so much as a raised eyebrow. He put the cup down and hugged me again. “That was a fun flight, wasn’t it!”
I agreed with him and we settled down to more gossip.
“So what’s got you worried?” I asked Fred as we relaxed in his snug after supper, just him and me and George.
“Oh, everything in general, and nothing in particular.” He said it lightly, and in some ways I wondered if it was true. But something must be causing the underlying tension.
“Yes. I suppose there’s a little frisson of nerves, wondering how people take to the new speech, and that sort of thing. But all the Quorum have been involved in it, and they took it away to their own groups to see that everyone was happy with it, so it must be okay.”
“Are all the castles doing a new Solstice speech?” This was a key ceremonial event of the year, when the leader said what he thought of the old year and everyone made a vow to support the castle. A vow of belonging, was what I’d originally thought. I wonder if it served a different purpose now.
“Some have dropped it entirely, gone over to just feasting and merriment, and looking forward to the return of longer days. We still wanted to celebrate being Marshfolk. So we are.”
“That sounds good to me.”
“It’ll be fine,” George said. “It’s just that it’s the first time.”
“First night nerves?” I suggested. They both nodded.
“Just like a first flight,” George continued. “You’ve designed the plane for every eventuality, you’ve tested it out, you’ve done some trial runs, but now you’ve got to leave the ground with everyone watching.”
Fred laughed. “That’s it exactly! I just wonder whether someone will be there to catch me if I crash into the reeds!”
“You won’t crash, and yes, we’ll be there.” George had such a calming presence.
Fred stretched and yawned. “No-no, don’t go yet, unless you really want to,” he said hurriedly as I wondered whether that was a signal for bed. I relaxed again.
“I’m glad you came,” Fred said.
I smiled at him, thinking if I said nothing, he might carry on.
“I miss Willoughby.” He paused again. “And that makes me miss Kira more. It’s really strange. When Willoughby was here, I missed Kira but there was someone who knew how I felt and let me get on with missing her. Now it’s just George and me, and George misses her too, but it’s just like, well,…”
“It’s like when we were Princelings,” George took over as Fred tailed off. “All that’s happened, it’s back to being Fred and me, here at Marsh, with a much smaller population again, and apart from the kids, nothing’s changed.”
I shifted in my seat. “Apart from a whole different way the Realms operate, thanks to Fred; apart from the wonders of technology, thanks to you, and thanks to the younger generation like Jasmine and Willoughby, for helping us feel old.”
“I told you she’d understand,” George said to Fred.
Fred grinned, but his solemn look returned as he turned to face me. “I think I need a new purpose.”
“I’ll let you into a secret, Fred. So do I. I just have to find the right project. So do you. And what’s George going to invent next? Maybe we all need a new project, a new purpose. And maybe that’s why people gather round at Yuletide, and renew commitments and loyalties, and thank whatever they believe in for another year got through, however good or bad it was. And we all look to the new year, and hope to find new things, or correct things we need to correct, or find a new purpose.”
“Gosh, Jemima. That’s very deep,” George said.
“Well, now you know where I got it from,” Fred told him.
“Happy Solstice, boys,” I said, raising my glass to them. “And have a very happy Green Willow Day, and a good year ahead.”
© J M Pett 2022
And I’ll repeat those sentiments for all my readers, although there’ll be another couple of posts at the end of next week. WiFi permitting…