This is a slow paced story, but it's personal to me, and I worked very hard on it. If you have time, I'd love you to read it and leave a comment. It's fairly Christmassy, perhaps suitable if you're looking for a festive story to read!
The Midwinter King, A Fairy Story
I awoke on New Year's Day, when wintry sunlight was filtering through my bedroom window. I lay there for a minute or two, waiting for the sleepiness to fade from me, before I sat up and swung my legs over the side of the bed. Almost immediately my brain felt like it was melting, and I clutched my head with a quiet groan. It was my hangover from the previous night.
Although I felt pretty rubbish, I also had an urge to dress myself and go downstairs. Maybe I’d have some early breakfast, and play the piano as I’d always liked to wake up early. I imagined myself clear-headed and ready for the day whilst my friends were still stumbling about from a New Year’s Eve of heavy drinking. I dressed, glancing at the twinkling Christmas tree on my bedside table, before I pulled open the wooden door, and walked lightly across the landing.
The house was as silent as the grave, as I walked down a spiral staircase to the living area. It was a large room, with the landing overlooking it from a balustrade, and it connected to a kitchen. There were various dishevelled sofas, tables with empty beer bottles on them, Christmas lights lighting the windows, festive paintings adorning the walls, a fireplace, a TV, a piano against the wall, and a large Christmas tree which sparkled in the corner. I liked the room a lot, it was charming and welcoming and had been even more so when it was filled with happy nineteen-year-olds.
When I reached the bottom of the stairs, I walked over to a nearby table where there was a digital radio. I switched it on, and a voice rung out saying, “I hope you all had a great New Year’s Eve, but here’s something to keep you in the festive spirit for as long as possible.” Then the song ‘White Christmas’ by Bing Crosby began to play. I remembered that I could play that on the piano, so I walked over to the nearby instrument, flipped it up I constructed the music out of the clear and cold hanging air. It rang out softly against the rafters as I continued listening to Bing Crosby croon “I’m dreaming of a whiiiite Christmaaaas.” I doubted anyone upstairs would be woken up by the noise due to the amount that had been drunk. The song reached “Where the treeetops, glisten...” and I looked out of a nearby window. The treetops certainly hadn’t been glistening this Christmas; we were in England after all.
The melody swirled and pealed as I played until it mingled with a sudden thud of a window swinging open, and a low moan of biting January air. Those broken windows were beginning to irritate me.
My hangover chose that moment to kick in, and I found myself groaning, looking up at the reflection of the room behind me in the ebony surface of the piano, before swinging myself over the stool, and heading towards the offending window. The white lights of the Christmas tree winked at me knowingly as I reached over the TV to the window frame. I grasped the glass panes, and I pulled the windows shut, before out of nowhere there was a blur of movement. I reeled backwards in surprise as a feathered mass shot inches past my head and into the room.
I turned to see a dainty little red robin, which sat itself decidedly on the coffee table. I looked at it, and it looked at me, cocking its head and whistling cordially.
“What’re you doing in here?” I found myself saying, and the robin whistled in reply. It then swiftly hopped to its feet and swept towards the wooden door. Landing at the bottom, it looked up at the door handle expectantly.
I walked over to the door, and creaked it open, freeing both the robin and a rolling mass of cold air into the room. The bird hopped onto the grass which was crowned with a layer of frost. It then swept down the bank, towards the pine trees standing sentry against a pleasant icy sky.
I started though, when my eyes were drawn to the robin landing on the outstretched hand of a figure garbed in a long hooded white cloak, which concealed all of their features. The robin sat on their hand for a moment, before it flitted off into the woodland.
They may well have been from the village about twenty minutes away down the road, and I thought as much, so I decided to be friendly and ask them what they were doing here. I made my way down the bank, my trainers crunching in the frost; I was about to call out to the figure before they turned tail and fled. I called out “Wait!” and they seemed to drift from my sight into the woodland.
I was already standing on the further down the bank in the frosty air, and I glanced up towards the house for a moment. It was a large mill house, at the top of the bank, with a veranda overlooking the frosty grass. Looking at it returned memories of the previous night, which made me smile to think about.
I found my smile soon fading however, and almost having forgotten the figure who had appeared out of nowhere, I began wander down the bank towards the woods. The wintry air and the ice blue sky seemed to clear my head of the hangover. I could think of nothing better than to go for a walk through the trees.
I passed through the tree line and joined a dirt path, lined with jagged fir branches. There was no wind, resulting in a tranquil silence; the only sounds were my trainers crackling in the frozen twigs, leaves, and brambles. I walked for a while, before leaning against a tree, exhaling a wisp of fog, and closing my eyes.
I should be happier than I had ever been. Why was I not?
My thoughts were interrupted, however, by a sound of rustling, and the treading of boots in the petrified undergrowth. I opened my eyes to see a man, possibly fifteen feet away, who was making his way through the trees. A staff was grasped in his closed fist, his features obscured by the morning light reflecting off of the frost. A limber dog loped at his side. He hadn’t noticed me, so I called out to him and walked over. As I drew closer, his face became clearer in the white light, and I realised I recognised him. His name was Sebastian; he was a groundskeeper in these woods, for the manor about twenty minutes away. He at first glance resembled a bulldog, with his stoic appearance, bald head, and faint jowls. He wasn’t intimidating, but faintly handsome in his middle age. He had vivid eyes, and a mouth that seemed to be constantly quirked into a smile as he walked up to meet me.
“Hello mate!” He replied to me. “Happy New Year!”
“Happy New Year,” I responded. “Do you remember me?”
His brow furrowed for a moment, before he nodded and smiled, “You’re one of the kids up at the mill house. It’s...Theo right?”
I nodded, smiling back. His dog, a grey German Sheppard looked up at me quizzically.
“What’re you doing out at this ungodly hour?” He asked.
“Just out for some air I guess. What about you Seb?” I wondered why I had called him Seb.
“I just like to go out in these winter mornings.” He responded, his breath smoking, as he turned and surveyed the woods fondly. “There’s something so comforting and pure about it all.”
“My thoughts exactly,” I replied, as I knelt down and scratched his dog behind the ears. “By the way...you know these woods well right?”
“Better than anyone I’ll reckon.”
“Does anyone else often come around here? I thought I someone near the house earlier?”
For a moment, just for a moment, I thought I saw a strange expression flicker across his face. Soon however, it passed and he shook his head.
“Nah nobody save me and you kids up at the mill house. Everyone in the village relies on me only to take care of the woods at times like this. I’d imagine you were seeing things. How about you come back to my cottage for a bit? I had some hot chocolate warming up...”
He’d brushed over my previous question unusually quickly, and under most circumstances I’d be wary of going back to the house of a man who I barely knew. But I thought of how my nearby friends would be impressed that I’d got to know the local games-keeper, so I easily accepted his offer without thinking.
We began to make our way off of the path, and away from the winter sun.
We continued through the trees, a low wind beginning to pick up and murmur in my ears. A quaint little cottage came into view after several minute’s, as a second dirt track widened out into what was almost a road. It was wrought from dull red brick, with a chimney puffing away happily on top.
“Home sweet home.” Sebastian smiled, before seemingly forgetting that I was there as he crunched over a pathway of frozen leaves. He pulled open the cottage door and made his way inside. I followed after, exchanging a glance with a robin that hopped into the yard out of nowhere. I moved through the door that Seb had opened, and was embraced by a wave of warmth so I pulled the door shut behind me. I found myself in a small, tiled kitchen, with a fire rumbling away in the corner, and a tiny little Christmas tree glittering with blue lights. Seb wandered over to pass me a steaming coffee cup.
“Hot chocolate from the village is the best hot chocolate you’ll find I reckon.”
I took a sip, half expecting to be poisoned. It was sickly sweet, and good.
Seb suddenly began to talk to impressive lengths: I was faintly surprised, originally seeing him as a strong and silent type. But he talked about how he spent most winters over here at the wood, having a job in retail in London. It was here that Molly, the German Sheppard, was his only company. He loved it, going up to the village three times a week, to get supplies and a meal, and spending the remainder of his time at one with the forest, as he put it.
“But what about you? You’re what...eighteen?”
“Cool, cool. You’re at University are you?”
“You know those other kids from Uni?”
“Eh...some of them.” I replied. “The rest are just friends of friends. You remember the guy who arrived first...with the walking stick? I believe he talked to you first? Yeah his name’s Liam he’s one of my mates. I know Bea as well...the girl with the dark hair. A few other people I’ve met in classes and stuff.”
“Nice. Bea was the pretty one right?”
I felt a warm sensation surge through me, and for a moment I forgot about the cold nipping at my skin.
“Yeah that’d be her.” I replied.
I wondered if the conversation would continue on further, but it seemed to trail off into silence.
I caught sight of something, and I nodded towards some wooden shelves that were stood across from a stove. “What are they?”
Sebastian looked towards the shelves, where multiple wooden figures stood. They were civil-war soldiers, painted red and black like out of fairy tales. He went and picked one up, moving its arms and legs backwards and forwards, as if it was trying to jump out of his grasp and run off and out of the door. “They’re silly things.” He laughed. “I make them in my spare time, for a nephew that I have.”
“They’re definitely cool looking.” I replied smiling, sipped my chocolate and immediately felt awkward, as a silence ensued.
“Well.” Sebastian replied, before gulping down his coffee cup and setting it down on the table with a clunk. At the sound, Molly sprung up like a soldier called to attention. “There are some horses out in the wood, which I’ve got to check on. They’re wild roaming, and I keep them safe for a few farmers up at the village. I’ll have to bring Molly with me to track them. But it’s been nice talking to you mate. You leave today right?”
“Well maybe I’ll see you later....I don’t know. Stay here if you want, but be warned I have nothing worth stealing, and....I know where you live alright?”
I thought he was making a joke, but it seemed like he was reading it from a script, and that something else was on his mind. He nodded absently to me, and left the room. Followed by Molly, he closed the door.
I stood there, coffee cup in hand, sort of surprised and confused at the whole series of events. Being left alone in somebody else’s house wasn’t something I’d had happen often.
I suddenly felt myself overwhelmed as my hangover flooded back to my head, followed by a wave of sudden tiredness. So I went and sat by the fire on Sebastian’s tattered couch, hands clasped around the steaming liquid between my fingers. I wondered what I was doing here.
There was a light thud on the wooden floor nearby. It was followed by another, and another. So I turned my head to see three of Sebastian’s wooden soldiers had hopped down from their positions up on the shelves, and were marching decidedly towards the door, their arms moving forcefully up and down, whilst black rifles were slung over their shoulders. I followed them, and as they stopped before the door, I grasped the handle and pulled it open again with a creak.
Without a word of thanks, the three riflemen strode into the cold air, and over into the trees. I watched them with confusion. Then I followed, closing the cottage door, I watched them walk over to a young blonde boy, sat beside a tree, who watched the soldiers with a happy smile upon his face.
Then I heard an animal snort nearby, and I glanced over to see a young girl, perhaps seven or eight, leading a shimmering white pony over the leaves. Her laughing eyes looked at it with an adoring gaze.
And then my gaze was drawn towards the distance, where I saw a figure garbed in a white cloak. Their face was covered by a hood, but I could tell they were looking at me. I could also tell that they were the same figure I had seen by the house.
I blinked and the figure, the soldiers, the horse, the boy, and the girl had all vanished. I stood there for a minute, wondering what I had just seen, until there was a crunch of frozen leaves nearby. I followed the sound round the back of the cottage, and felt the wind begin to pick up and whisper.
I arrived at a tangle of undergrowth and bushes, and as I pushed my way through, I arrived within a small glade. At the middle of it, there stood Bea with a notebook in her hands. She was looking up and around her, with a look of fascination.
Bea wasn’t particularly short or frail; as long as I’d known her she’d always struck me as fairly tall, almost my height. And yet, in my mind, I’d always likened her to a little bird. Her face was bright, pointed, and lovely, and her hair was long, raven dark and wavy. There was delicateness to her, and she was built lithely and elegantly: as if she could take flight at any moment if she wished it so.
I called out to her, and she turned to me. She grinned, and I felt my heart go wild.
“I knew we were right to come here for New Years.” She said to me, turning slowly in a circle and looking about her as if in wonder. “Places like this just ooze inspiration and literary magic. I feel like I could sit here forever, and just write stories about forest sprites, cold weather, and romance.”
“Bea...” I faltered, “What are you doing here?”
She looked at me, and raised an eyebrow sardonically. “Well I just told you. I’m enjoying nature. I thought you knew me well enough for that.”
“Yeah but....what is going on?”
She placed her notebook on the frosty ground, treaded over to me, and stood looking into my eyes. Her hands lifted and cupped my face on either side.
“We’re all together Theo,” She said softly. “you, me, Liam, and everyone else. We’re together at Christmas time. There’s nowhere I’d rather be than with you.”
There was a moment’s silence, before I said...”Am I dreaming?”
“Well the question is Theo...” replied Bea, touching her forehead to mine, “Do you want to be?”
My eyes opened to the beamed ceiling of Seb’s cottage, and the rumble of the fire in the corner. I sat up on the couch rubbing sleep from my face, and stood. Had I really been that tired? I hadn’t felt tired. But regardless, I walked over to the door and instinctively glanced over to the shelf where the toy soldiers stood. They were as still as stone.
I pulled open the door and started back when I saw that everything was coated in a fine layer of glimmering snow.
The trees, the leaves, the dirt, the undergrowth, everything had been crowned with white, and yet the all encompassing tranquillity of the wood remained.
“Okay.” I thought. “I must have slept for longer than it felt.”
I found myself closing the door and walking. Onwards and onwards, my trainers crunching in the snow, looking about me and wondering how this had happened. I strained my eyes as I made my way along the white path, looking as far as I could through the trees which stood like the pillars of some temple, until I lost my vision in a haze of lazy grey.
The sky had shifted from a clear ice blue to that same grey, as I saw when I craned my neck, looked up. I almost felt like I could fall into that haziness, towards which the pointed arms of the white fir trees reached. But I would be able to go where the trees couldn’t go, and would just float throughout the grey as long as I wanted to.
I shook myself from this state, thinking that I was becoming too much like Bea. She was the one to get sentimental and corny, not me. But perhaps I was getting too lost in my thoughts, like she would: for I walked down the path, took a left turn, crossed a bridge, diverted around a pond, walked through a tree line, and found myself on the edge of a heath.
It was a wide, expansive heath. Marked about one hundred feet away was a cluster of dark fir trees, which stood at the centre of a sea of white. The rest of the trees encircled the sea, winding for hundreds upon hundreds of feet and towering over it, as if they were a gang of bullies enclosing upon the cluster at the centre.
I’d never seen this place before. Evidently I was very lost.
I walked out into the snow, scanning the tree line, half expecting to see some traces of Bea, Liam, or anyone else. I then caught sight of somebody on the other side of the heath. They were so far away; I could barely discern their features. They were dressed in black, that much was clear, but it looked as if they were suspended in the air, drifting above the snow like a ghost.
I was filled with a strange combination of relief and confusion at the sight of this figure. Whoever they have been, it wouldn’t have done any harm to ask them how I could get back to the mill house. So I paced through the snow towards this stranger, I almost jogged in order to warm myself up as I was beginning to feel the cold biting into me.
As I drew closer, the figure became clearer and I saw that the person was not floating in thin air, they were riding a horse. The horse was so white, that from a distance it blended in with the snow, so looked like it didn’t exist. It was a beautiful animal, and I’d seen some beautiful horses in my life: an imposing and muscular stallion, which was cantering across the snow, its rider directing it towards me.
And soon, I caught sight of the features of the person atop the horse as well. It was a girl, perhaps my age, if not slightly older. She drew up beside me, her horse snorting as she reared it to a stop, and looked down at me with two cloudy grey eyes, filled with polite curiosity. She had a round, elfin face, with a soft and melancholy expression upon it, and reddened by the cold. That same face was almost hidden by a wide, black, old fashioned looking bonnet. Waves of sunny blonde hair cascaded down the back of the ebony dress that she wore, a contrast to the animal she rode.
“Good morning!” She remarked politely, tilting her head as regarded me with a strange look. “I haven’t seen you around here. Are you from the village?”
“I....well....do you think you could tell me...?”
“Are you acquainted with Sebastian?” She interrupted. “Your...clothes remind me of what he wears.”
“Sebastian? You...know him?”
“Oh of course,” She replied, “he’s always been a wonderful friend to my family. But you didn’t answer my first question. Are you from the village?”
I felt like I should be irritated by this girl’s pushiness, but I wasn’t really. She seemed to have a genuine interest in who I was and what I was doing here. I almost felt flattered.
“I’m not, no.” I replied. “I’m staying with some friends, at a mill house, around twenty minutes away from the village. I think I’ve got lost. You wouldn’t happen to know the way back to the house would you?”
She narrowed her hazy grey eyes, and shook her head. “I know nothing of a mill house nearby. I’ve never heard of there ever having been one.”
I stood there, puzzled, not knowing what to say.
“Are you...are you feeling quite well?” The girl asked in a concerned tone. “Would you need me to take you to the local doctor?”
“Um...no....thank you. I would just like to ask...where exactly am I?”
“Well you’re in the Naidolg Wood of course...!” She responded.
So I was still in the same place. That was good.
“...on my family’s private land no less. But don’t worry...I’ve grown to like you so I’ll let you go where you please.” And she gave the first smile I had seen from her, her teeth flashing in the brilliance of the white around us. It was the type of smile, which felt like a sympathetic bond between two people. It was as if we had a private joke between us, which nobody else knew anything of.
“Your family’s private land?” I asked with incredulity, and before she could respond, a thought came to me.
“It’s New Year today right?” I asked her, and she tilted her head again confusedly.
“Well it is tomorrow, if that’s what you meant.” She replied, and then looked off into the distance with a contemplative look. “It'll be 1843. Goodness I hadn’t quite appreciated that yet.”