I went visiting Castle Marsh instead of story-writing – you can see how it started last week. Now read on!
Castle Marsh Christmas
In which I discover that the Steward stands in for the King at all times
I’m flying in one of George’s new inventions towards Castle Marsh to visit King Fred in time for a Yuletide interview for you. Last week I explained about the flying machine, and George told me Fred had gone south to sort out some sabotage on their food stores.
Now we’re approaching Castle Marsh, standing on its rock in the middle of the reed-filled marshes.
Or at least they were, when I last visited.
For a start, Castle Marsh may be on its rock, but you can’t see that for the amount of buildings that surround it. The ones on the outside seem to be built on stilts. There are roofs in steps all the way to the base of the castle wall, covering the rock-face.
Then I realise that many parts of the marshland are no longer filled with reeds waving in the breeze. Instead, there are small windmills with blades whirring, strategically placed on banks at the edges of ditches filled with water. The banks surround mostly grassy fields, but some are clearly planted up with green vegetables.
“Is that kale?” I ask George as we sweep around and straighten up, a long wide lake ahead of us.
“Yes. Kale, cabbage and swede for the winter. We’ve harvested the celeriac and carrots. Those fields have got clover or tares in them now, to look after the soil till spring.”
I’m impressed. Their vegetable growing strategy fits Garden Organic’s recommended strategy perfectly, and I never gave them any hints.
“So what’s in the stores that Fred’s worried about?”
“Hay mostly. The root veg, or course, but hay is easily set alight, and that’s what these gangs do if they can’t take it all away.”
“But why? What a waste of food!”
“Haggis has been trying to find out why they do that. Fred said exactly the same as you. Hold on!” He did something with the controls and the nose pointed at the sky briefly, and I felt a bump as the body of the plane hit the water. It sounded like a huge wave was rushing past us on both sides. I said as much.
“That’s exactly right,” George seemed perfectly capable of chatting while he steered the machine towards a jetty at the end of the lake. I remembered seeing it land when George arrived to collect me. It felt as impressive as it had looked from the shore. His assistant Dash, who had been sitting on another pile of sacks in the back, came forward and opened the hatch we’d entered through. He threw a rope out, and we started to move sideways.
“Here we are then. Not too wobbly-legged, I hope. Some people get that sea-sick feeling.”
I was fine, and ducked through the hatch to step onto a nicely made boardwalk. A beautiful lady with a daughter and two smaller sons met me at the end of the walkway.
“Greetings, Jemima. Welcome back to Castle Marsh.”
“Thank you Kira, although I didn’t realise it had been so long. Is this Jasmine? Hello.” I kiss Kira and Jasmine, and shake hands with the boys, Arthur and George Jr. They recently had their fourth birthday. Jasmine takes my hand and escorts me up to the castle entrance with her mother on my other side. Jasmine’s nearly seven, but has all the poise of a future queen. The boys stay with the machine, assisting Dash. George says he’ll follow on.
“Is everything ready for Solstice?” I ask as I’m served peppermint tea in their warm and cosy lounge. The interior of Castle Marsh has become more like a warren of apartments, beautifully decorated and furnished, but all clearly the work of the inhabitants.
“Just about. As long as Fred sorts out the problems down at Agnes Fountain we’ll be fine.”
Kira chuckles. “Willoughby started calling it that. He did his Good King Winkelman story here one year, and there’s a fountain in that, ‘underneath the mountain’. We reckoned the spring from the big rock down there was about right.”
“How is Willoughby?”
“Oh, he’s marvellous! He’s got more people involved in running bits of things that need to be done, too. He knows all sorts of things that Baden does at Buckmore, things we’ve always done ourselves. It’s much better—and more of the castlefolk are involved, which we like.”
Speaking of Willoughby, in he comes.
“Urr, hi,” he says, as Kira introduces us. Somehow that reminds me of his uncle, but nobody except he and I know that secret. I’m not sure whether to hug him or not. I’ve put him through a lot. He solves the problem by coming up to me.
“Do you mind?” he asks, giving me a hug.
“Not at all!”
“Message from Fred,” he says. “He won’t be back till after dark. Can Jemima wait? But you’re staying the night anyway, I’ve got a room ready for you.”
“Well, I think I’ll wait, then.” I smile, and everyone relaxes. It seems there’s more going on than I suspect. “I don’t have to return till tomorrow, but I spent longer in Wash than expected, so I must go home then.”
“I’ll fly you wherever you need to go.” George has arrived too, and tucked into the scones that someone brought in with the tea.
“Why is there so much flooding around, anyway?” I remembered why I’d been delayed in Wash.
“We don’t know,” replies Kira. “But it’s much worse in Wash than it is here.”
“I was looking at Wash’s floods compared with ours,” George says. “I think it’s to do with the drainage. Ours is better.”
“Yes, you saw the little windmills around as we came in? Yes, well, they run pumps that help to drain the marshes so we can grow food on them. Despite Wash never having food shortages, they decided they’d do it too. I think they’ve got it a bit wrong though, or else their water comes from a different sort of place from ours.”
“Was that the reason the causeway started to flood?” I remembered Fred’s Yuletide Escape, when we met the flooded road for the first time.
“Probably. Then it just got worse; whole spreads of flooded areas in places that had been drained, floods that last all winter. And they’re salty. Ours are freshwater.”
“So the road from Wash gets flooded. Does that cause problems—you were getting more things from Wash, weren’t you?” I ask Kira, who had been so pleased the ladies could visit a castle with many more opportunities for craft ideas than Marshfolk knew.
“Sometimes our craft supplies get delayed, but we continue to learn. We even have some people who have learnt to use a machine called a loom now. They turn out the most amazing cloth. I must show you the things we’ve got ready for our craft fair during Yule.”
“I’d like that.” I would, in fact I’d love to stay for Yule, but that would be a big drain on their resources. I wonder if Fred will arrive back in time. I’ve got some questions to ask him.
Next morning, I tour the castle in the company of Jasmine, Uncle George (as Jasmine calls him—to everyone else he’s George, and baby George is George Junior) and Willoughby.
“And this is where I work.” Willoughby opens the door to an office that is a whole floor down from Fred’s office. It is a bright room; two walls are lined with boxes clearly containing scrolls, since one or two of the lids are off. The window looks out towards the south, overlooking the lower courtyard and the kitchen garden beyond the walls. I comment about the extent of the housing beyond that.
“Yes, it keeps growing. Fortunately we can make good warm walls and roofs of thatch made from reeds. It’s a long way to get timber from the forest, and cutting too much wood makes the mud flood the drainage channels.” He pauses. “You know, I hadn’t got a clue about the way the land works until I came here. Makes me wonder what would happen if certain other rivers flooded.” He winks at me, and I’m sure he’s thinking of the place he grew up. Jasmine and George have continued down to the kitchens on a secret mission, so I check there’s nobody around. “Do you still wish you were there?”
He sighs, and looks towards the window. “I don’t know. I’m happy here, but, you know, it’s home, isn’t it. Maybe I wouldn’t fit if I went back. Then again, I wouldn’t fit anyway, because of the age thing.”
The age thing. Willoughby has travelled in time and got stranded. If he ever gets back to his home overland (and sea) he’ll be twelve years older than whatever age he would have been. At this minute, there’s a ten year old Willoughby playing games in his uncle’s castle, Castle Hattan.
“Do you ever think of how you’ll explain it?”
He laughs. “Often. Whenever I think of ways of getting back there I think, ‘but how will I explain it?’ I can’t go back, basically. I’m thinking of stowing away on George’s plane, though.”
“Do you know the plan?”
He nods. “Eventually we all had to come clean. Fred and George, and probably Kira, know my secret, but nobody else, I think. I think Fred is relieved someone else understands the urgency of the flying machine project.”
We continue our tour, joining Jasmine, who takes me by the hand and shows me through the lower courtyard, which once was a deserted quadrangle, and is now crammed with a market, workshops and eateries. “Mummy said we moved all the temporary houses outside to better conditions,” she informs me gravely. I sometimes wonder what it’s like being a princess in such rapidly changing conditions. Kira is obviously preparing her well for her role in the future.
We inspect the kitchen garden, which includes a large range of hardy herbs, as well as some growing under tunnels of what Jasmine calls polly. “It’s a clear glass that doesn’t break, and is easily moulded.” George explains. “Somebody from Cabot invented it to Geoffrey’s specifications.” Geoffrey is a vital part of George’s team. He invented the lightweight metal used for the aircraft.
The wind forces us towards the shelter of the apple trees that still grow at the end of the garden.
“I’m worried about this wind,” George says, looking at the clouds in the west. “I think I really ought to get you back, unless you want to stay another night.”
I think hard. To come all this way and not see Fred… But, I do have to get back.
I accept George’s invitation. It’s been a fascinating trip, and I’ve seen so much, including things that have only been hinted at in the stories recently. I hug everyone I know, including Jasmine, who’s delighted, and I tell Kira how much I regret leaving before Fred comes home.
“He’ll understand,” she says. “He really wanted to see you.”
“There’ll be another time.” I say this, and wonder. These are dangerous times, and getting more so, by the look of things.
I hope all the Marshfolk will be safe, but you never can tell. Happy Yuletide, everyone.
© J M Pett 2017