The Midwinter King, A Fairy Story
I rode at the back of the girl; atop the stallion. After she’d offered to take me back to her home and family, we’d left the heath, and the white stallion was carrying us leisurely through the white coated trees. I ducked under crooked branches, whilst looking at the waves of blonde hair in front of me. I half-wondered if I was still dreaming and was still asleep
“How impolite I’ve been!” She called back as we rode. “What is your name?”
“Theo.” I replied dazedly. “Theo Carrick. What’s yours?”
“Well....” She began. “My name is Emma Illwyd. I cannot quite comprehend though, how you were not aware you were on my family’s land. Every man and woman here within a mile supposedly knows of where we live!”
“I....” What could I say? What on earth could I say? “I apologise Emma. I’m not from around here. I’m...Sebastian’s nephew. He brought me here to help him with....his work.”
“Sebastian’s nephew!” She exclaimed, as she guided her stallion over a wooden bridge, which jumped over a frozen stream. “Well that is quite wonderful. We’ve always hoped to meet his family. Can you ride? Sebastian is an admirable rider. We often go out together on days like this.”
“Well yes...yes I can ride.” I said, not unconfidently.
“Oh do show me!” She cried out, and in a flash she was off of the horse and standing eagerly in the snow. The horse stopped compliantly, looked about it and snorted.
I smiled. “Sure, if you’d like that.” And I shifted forwards, adjusting my hips in the saddle, and taking the reins in my fingers. In a catlike way, Emma swung herself from where she stood upon the snow, and hopped up behind me. Her thin, black garbed arms moved around my waist, and I almost started in surprise. For a moment, I felt her warm breath on the back of my neck, which drew my mind from the sharpness of the cold air.
But then I shook myself, placed my trainers in the stirrups, and urged on the stallion through the snow. The animal stirred, and then trotted leisurely along the rugged white path. I moved with the animal, rising and shifting slightly with every change in its powerful muscles, before it sped up; Emma and I being carried through the trees at a pleasant pace.
“You certainly have skill.” Emma spoke, and I thanked her. “Did Sebastian teach you how to do this?”
“Well no not exactly.” I replied. “I grew up on a farm.”
“You grew up on a farm? Why what a coincidence, my family also own a farm. I rarely partake in managing it though it is my mother who does that. How...” She paused. “...did you find the experience?”
“How did I find the experience?” I echoed, almost bursting out with laughter. “Well I found it...hard....but liberating in a way. And yet it was still slightly enclosing. I felt...shut off from the world. And when I left home it was even more difficult, for I struggled around unfamiliar people and ...unfamiliar environments.”
There was a moment’s silence, and I wondered if I had said too much.
“I can understand that Theo.” Emma responded. “I sometimes feel as if I need to go somewhere or do something new. Not to spend my whole life in this wood.”
“Have you had any chances to leave?” I asked.
“Well...I suppose I have had some chances. But they have just come and gone, like the snowflakes in this forest....but look, there is my home.”
I followed where her delicate fingers pointed over my shoulder, and glimpsed a large mass off wood and stone through the tree canopy. I directed the stallion down the path, and we left the wood, coming to the bottom of a large hill, where the trees formed a ‘c’ shape. At the top of the hill was a grand house, the front of it being about thirty feet in length. It was wrought from dark, leaf green painted wood, and edged with wood painted white. It looked as if it was failing in its resistance against the greater encroaching whiteness about it, and yet it was still a powerful, confident looking place, as if it was holding up the flag for houses everywhere which were being overcome by snow.
“It’s lovely.” I called back, as I led the stallion up the slope, and Emma replied, “Thank you. I’ve always loved it. I’m not sure if Sebastian will be there, but it’ll be nice for you to meet my family. Any friend of his is certainly a friend of ours!”
Upon Emma’s directions I led her horse around the side of the house. As we reached the corner, we both hopped off into the snow, and Emma took the horse’s reins.
I followed her down the side of the house. We passed two well dressed gentlemen, one with an impressive black moustache. I began to accept that yes...maybe I was in 1842: they were dressed in the same tailored coats and top hats that I’d seen in the history books, and they raised them at us as they passed. As we passed round the house, and they round the opposite corner, I looked back and saw one of the gentlemen snatch an odd glance at me.
Soon we reached a pebbled path which darted from a door at the back of the house, to a group of wooden huts and houses in the distance. Amongst them there seemed to be a yard, where dozens of people were moving about. We walked up the path, the horse’s hooves clacking, and I said to Emma, “Were they relatives?”
“Ah no, they were just guests. We have maybe a dozen people staying for New Year. I must introduce you to a few of them!”
“Do you often have guests here?”
“I suppose so.” She smiled in that flashing way of hers, but looked somewhat sheepish at the same time. “I confess that I love to have artists and writers at the house. I find them the most fascinating people. My mother and brother only just seem to tolerate it!” She looked at me embarrassedly again.
“Is your mother a tolerant person?” I asked.
“Oh of course, she has to be I suppose. She runs the house, the farm, the inn, and keeps all the workers happy, whilst my brother and I just sit around and entertain. I love her dearly. See....there she is.”
By that point we’d reached the yard area which I’d spotted. Emma left me standing beside an open gate, and led her horse over to a nearby stable.
There were a crowd of people standing on the frozen, churned up ground. They were ringed by various barns, stables and cottages. Some were men and some were women, they were dressed in coarse, patchy clothing, some smoked pipes. All clutched coats about their shoulders and put their arms around each other to keep warm. Before them, a woman sat at a wooden table, with two muscular bearded men stood beside her. I could see a likeness to Emma in Emma’s mother. Though brown haired, and more of an optimistic face, she had the same focused grey eyes. She was making notes on bits of paper, and called people forwards in a loud and clear voice: giving them small leather bags. .
Then she noticed me and asked, “Who might you be?”
Everyone swivelled their gaze towards me. I said ‘Uh...’
‘He’s Sebastian’s nephew mother.’ Emma called, walking from the stable to me. “He was just on his way here when I met him.”
“Ah, I see.” Her mother responded. “You never mentioned a nephew Sebastian.”
Then, from the crowd stepped Sebastian, with his dog Molly beside him. His face was flushed scarlet with the cold, and there was an extremely confused expression on it. The two of us locked eyes, and after a moment I feel there was an abstract understanding between us. We seemed to know each other better than ever.
“I apologise madam.” Sebastian said. “He lives far away, and I didn’t know if he’d be coming to help me with my duties. It seems that he is. Did you have a good journey....Theo?”
“Well it’s a pleasure to meet you Theo. My name is Adelaide.” She broke in. “I see you are acquainted with my daughter. Now Sebastian...I believe we owe you four pounds...”
They made some sort of transaction. Sebastian’s gaze was flickering between Adelaide and me: he looked like he was having a mental crisis. After a moment, I heard him say ‘Thank you madam...” and Adelaide stood up an addressed the entire crowd around her. “Thank you. All of you. You’ve worked very hard over the past year, and a successful harvest brought us all joy and success. Tonight I’d like to invite you all to the inn. There we shall celebrate a happy and healthy winter!”
There was a chorus of laughter and cheering amongst the workers, several women moved over to Adelaide, fervently thanking her, one woman kissing her hand.
Eventually, they all dispersed talking excitedly, and smiling amongst themselves. It seemed that they were returning to their respective homes away on Adelaide’s land. I heard a few children say ‘Mother what will we eat for the midday meal?’ Some people walked past me to walk through the gate, some of the men slapping me jovially on the shoulder saying “Pleasure to meet you.”
Once the crowd had dispersed, Adelaide walked over to me, followed slowly by Sebastian. Lacking Emma’s quiet gracefulness, Adelaide acted brisk and confident. Her dress was slightly dirty, and she smirked at me like she’d known me for years. She seemed so unlike how I’d imagine a rich Victorian landowner.
“Will you be staying with Sebastian Theo?”
“Yes.” Cut in Sebastian. “He’ll be helping me...with my duties.”
“Wonderful.” Responded Adelaide, as if all were right in the world. “Well you are welcome at our home whilst you are here. One more guest brought by my daughter should not make much of a difference.”
She laughed when she said that, and looked at Emma, who smiled sheepishly and looked down. Then Adelaide said in a more serious tone. “You were out riding for a while Emma. Robert and I had to entertain many of the guests whilst you were out. Even if you did find a good looking young man whilst you were gone.”
Emma looked stricken. “I’m awfully sorry mother. I really lost track of time.”
“Well darling, you can help me by showing Mr Wordsworth to his bedroom. He arrived earlier with his daughter.”
The name ‘Mr Wordsworth’ rung a bell for me.
“Yes! Yes of course!” Emma exclaimed. She and her mother began to walk along the yard, back towards the orchard. Emma threw a fond glance in my direction. “Do come to the house and meet everybody.”
I said I would. Soon enough Sebastian and I were left alone in the yard. He said “Before you ask...no you’re not dreaming. Come and take a walk with me.”
I followed him down a path between two barns, and we walked out into the snowy orchard, his dog padding along beside us.
“It’s a beautiful house isn’t it?” He said, and I agreed with him.
“I thought that many times when I discovered this place five winters ago. I’d fallen asleep in my cottage after a hard day’s work. I had a strange dream...all I remember is that there was a figure in a white cloak...”
“I had that dream!” I interrupted, and Sebastian nodded. “I can’t say I’m surprised. This is a strange situation. I certainly thought so when I woke up in Victorian times, and discovered this family. But I’ll be honest with you...I’m not bothered about knowing why this happened.”
He looked up to see my confused face, and laughed. “I know...I’ve gone totally mad. But these people love me and I love them. And if I’ve learned anything in my life, when you find love from others you just have to accept it, and enjoy it whilst it lasts. I don’t have much family back in the present day. Yeah...I wasn’t telling the truth when I said I have a nephew! Those toy soldiers are for the young man of this house. My only family is my mother, who’s very ill and won’t be with me for much longer.”
“Thanks but its okay. You know what...when she dies I’m just going to stay in this time.”
“What?” I exclaimed. “Could you really do that?”
“I could. She would want me to stay with these people. They’re my new family now.”
I was taken aback by such a sincere expression of affection. But soon enough my attention was drawn to the landscape when we reached the end of the orchard. There was a grassy bank sweeping down towards a large lawn, which was overlooked by the house, and a paved terrace where a man was shovelling snow off of tables and chairs. The lawn was speckled with hedgerows, trees, statues, and statues crowning fountains, whilst beyond the lawn there was a vast expanse of farmland, sprawling with fences, cottages, and dark figures trekking here and there. The farmland was cut off by the tree-line of the distant wood, and the whole landscape was blanketed in white.
Eventually I thought of something to say, “So...they’re your new family. So...who exactly are the Ilwyds?”
“Good question lad.” Sebastian said. He was walking down the slope into the garden now, and I followed him. We passed the man shovelling snow, he tipped his hat and said
“Sebastian, how are ye?”
“Not so bad Thompson, are you well?”
“Aye things are bloody cold, but pleasant I have to say.”
“So...” He said to me, as we reached the lawn. “Adelaide is maybe forty years old she inherited the farmland from her landowner parents. She also owns a nearby inn, which you might have heard her mention earlier. It’s called ‘The Midwinter King’ and she inherited that from her husband, who died about five years ago.”
“Poor lady...” I said, and Seb nodded.
“She’s strong though. You saw how optimistic she was back there. I reckon she could literally take the world on her shoulders, considering how much responsibility she has. She’s really amazing...”
He looked wistfully into the snowy distance before suddenly continuing.
“She has two children. Her younger son is called Robert, who I think is inside at the moment. He’s thirteen, so younger than you, and he’s a clever lad. Very polite too, even if he sometimes seems a bit cold. He’s into photography, and military things: those soldiers you saw in my cottage were actually for him. And you’ve met lovely Emma. She’s fascinating, don’t you think...?”
I made a noise of affirmation.
“I think she is.” He continued. “She’s a strange mixture of sad and eccentric, and is simultaneously cold and warm towards people around her.”
I thought that was a good description.
“She loves literature, poetry, art, and the outdoors. You saw that horse that she was riding? I brought her that as a present. I brought it from the present day.”
I was amazed. “You can do that?”
“Sure I can. Maybe I should bring an iphone next time, imagine their faces!”
I laughed and he laughed.
“But back to the point. I always think there’s some burden weighing upon Emma, like there’s something she is determined to carry, no matter the cost it has on her personality.”
“I suppose so.” I replied. “But I did find her interesting. You really want to be around her.”
“That’s true.” Seb said. We’d reached one of the back doors to the house, he pulled it open and we walked into a wave of warm air. We walked into a small wooden room. The ride with Emma had warmed me up, but I was just realising how cold I’d gotten: now I was in the house my joints hurt as life flowed back into them.
“So....” I began. “Who are these ‘guests’ who everyone keeps talking about.”
“Well I couldn’t really tell you lad. But it’s New Year’s Eve, so I’m sure Emma’s got some interesting people to stay.” We were now in a long wooden corridor with a scarlet carpet, and paintings on the walls, and I heard the noise of people coming from somewhere, but Sebastian was walking towards a door leading to another room.
“I’m going off to find Robert, and to give him his Christmas present.”
“What...those toy soldiers?”
“That’s right. You should go and find Emma. She’ll be pleased to introduce you to some people.”
Abruptly, he closed the door and was gone, like he’d never travelled back in time with me in the first place. Sebastian seemed like one of those people who only has conversation to the extent of their own convenience. He was kind though, and likeable.
I began to wander down the warmly lit corridor, approaching the sound of people talking. Passing a large flight of stairs, I saw there was a man walking down them so I nodded and said “Good morning.”
“Good morning!” He exclaimed. “Are you a guest here?”
“Ah well....no....I don’t know....I mean might be staying, I’m just not sure yet.”
“You’re not sure if you’re staying?” He had a muddy American accent. “Do the family know that you’re here?”
“Oh yes. I’m a friend of...”
“Have you broken in? Are you the begging sort?”
He’d reached the bottom of the stairs now. I wondered if he’d just got out of bed, for his dark hair was tousled, and his narrowed eyes were ringed with shadows. His forehead was large, and a small moustache was plastered on his face.
This man looked at me silently for a couple of moments, before I jumped as he suddenly broke into laughter and patted me on the shoulder.
“Don’t look so terrified m’boy! I was just having some fun.”
“Right...” We were both walking down the corridor now.
“Who might you be then?”
“My name’s Theo.”
“Well it’s a pleasure m’boy.”
There was something about this person which sparked a memory of sorts. But I couldn’t quite place what it was, so I asked him,
“Pleasure’s all mine...and your name?”
He burst into laughter again. Once again, it was very sudden. He seemed to jump between suspicion and affability, a person of emotional extremes. “Why, what a lovely change this has been! Well I’m Edgar Allen Poe, the poet.”
I was struck dumb by the name.“Oh. Right... You wrote...the raven poem?”
“Oh...I just said that you’ve written some great poems.”
“Well thank you.” We were approaching a room where noise was emanating from. “I’m overshadowed by many of the artists who I’ve met at this house. The Ilwyds have been so kind.”
“Are you friends with them?”
“Well mutually. Through an acquaintance who often stops by here. I was on a tour of England, and I thought this would be a perfect place to visit.”
“I suppose you have many interesting people to talk to.”
“I certainly do. England’s a fascinating mystery to me. The people seem to look so vividly on the world, and have such powerful relationships with family and friends. I suppose I want to understand that.”
This seemed like very profound statement, and I suddenly said, “Well I guess we’re good at finding minds alike to ours. I think that’s important for everyone.”
Poe looked at me with something like respectful recognition, yet seemed very sad at the same time. “How right you are...the human mind flowers in the company of those which it can connect to...but people have too many secrets m’boy, which stops us from accepting each other, body and soul...”
We’d turned a corner, and were approaching a wide open door. A bright, whitish light and an orchestra of chatter emanated from the room inside, a sudden contrast to the warm, quiet corridor.
“The Ilwyds though...” He continued. “They certainly accept everybody...”
Poe walked through the door. I followed him into a large room, where a large fire in the corner casting a pleasant glow, and a large sparkling Christmas Tree watched over scene over the scene. A dozen people were sitting on extravagant couches, walking about an admiring the ornate blue colour of the walls, and the various paintings, taking books from bookcases and reading them, and talking animatedly to each other. Everyone was well dressed, the men in tailored black coats and white shirts, the women in dresses of various warm colours. Two waiters weaved in and out of the guests, carrying trays of wine, and what looked like mince pies to me.
Poe nodded and smiled a temporary farewell under the noise. He seemed to ethereally fade into the background, almost becoming a painting himself, before I heard Emma’s voice. She was beckoning to me from where she stood with a kindly faced, middle aged woman, in a greenish dress and dark brown ringlets.
“Theo. May I introduce Elizabeth Barrett Browning...” Emma said. “...a lady I admire greatly...”
“How do you do?” Spoke the lady.
“I...very well thank you.” I replied, somewhat flustered. I’d certainly remembered Bea talking about this person, having studied her at University. Though I was entirely unfamiliar with the stuff she’d wrote I was more or less struck dumb.
However, I soon felt at ease, for she was a softly spoken, kind sounding lady. Soon after a server had presented me with a glass of mulled wine, her husband appeared. I could remember less about who Robert Browning was, though I again recognised his name, and the gruff voice emanating from his harsh beard made him slightly intimidating. But he was constantly throwing adoring glances to his wife, and the enthusiasm with which they both discussed their poetic works as a couple made me relaxed once again.
I was attempting to remember some literary terminology that I remembered Bea had mentioned to me at University, and felt I was doing surprisingly well, before laughter and cheering began to disperse through the room.
I turned in the direction of the commotion, and saw a space in the room, where a young man was blindfolded and grinning. He was stumbling around, men and women calling out jokes and sardonic advice to him. Some daring souls flitted across his unpredictable path, women’s colourful dresses twirling like fireflies, as they giggled and danced out of his way. I could remember playing this game ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’ when I was younger. Old history lessons from school came back to me, as I remembered it was popular in Victorian times.
The blind-man suddenly lurched to the side, which caused people to move backwards like the tide, and I took a few steps backwards too. I felt myself backing into someone, and I immediately swivelled and apologised, steadying the figure behind me. Worst of all, it was an elderly man, leaning on a stick whilst supported by a middle aged woman, who looked at me crossly. He however, didn’t seem worried in the least; he looked the sort of person who would forgive anyone for anything at all. He had a large nose, and looked at me with kindly grey eyes, saying “Ah, do not worry young man. I have some strength yet in these old bones!”
He introduced the lady beside him as his daughter Dora, and himself as William Wordsworth. I politely introduced myself, and the three of us each took a mince pie from a silver dish, carried by a waiter who appeared out of nowhere. I attempted to figure out where I’d heard of this man, before he said whilst looking out of the French Windows nearby,
“This is must be an exquisite place to grow up. The South of England has such a demure charm to its forests and meadows. Don’t you think so Dora?”
Dora did think so.
“And you young man. Do you not find these landscapes gift you with an irrevocable peace?”
“Well...yes. I suppose so.” I laughed, as every moment I spent in this room it felt like my vocabulary was expanding. “I’ve always thought...being outside brings you closer to friends and family.”
“Couldn’t have put it better...” Mr Wordsworth smiled. “Tell me young man...have you ever had the pleasure of visiting the home of Dora and I? The Lake District really does render one awestruck. I have certainly been brought closer to my family from growing up and living there.”
Before I could answer there was a burst of laughter nearby, as the smiling young blind man had caught the arm of a fleeing blonde woman in a verdant dress. She yelped, and attempted to extricate herself, before she burst into laughter as he drew her close to him. They made a show of guessing who he’d caught, whilst she blushed, and laughingly called ‘Not fair Thomas! Not fair!’ Someone called out how Thomas had been after her the entire game, and others thought he could see through the blindfold.
I had a memory of sitting with Bea on New Year’s Eve, the previous evening, both of us on a couch with our legs positioned by each other’s heads, and talking, whilst people enjoyed the party around us. I’d said “Which place would you like to go most in the world?” and she’d said “The Lake District. Wordsworth definitely said some nice things about it.” And I laughed, threw a cushion at her, and called her a nerd, whilst she called me totally uncultured. But then she explained about how much the poet had loved the spiralling mountains, and the rolling craggy green hills, and I was enchanted by what she was saying.
I then turned back to Wordsworth and continued to speak to him, somewhat stunned to think that I was meeting all these historical figures.
After a few moments, someone else appeared and struck up conversation with Wordsworth and his daughter. I progressively drifted off from the conversation as my awkwardness seemed to grow. Then was a lull in the noise when the sound of a piano cut through it. People gradually were turning their attention to the new development in the room, and I moved around attempting to see who was playing. Eventually I got a view over someone’s head, and saw that it was Adelaide. She was playing, and singing in a reverberating contralto. Her voice was expressive, and somewhat melancholy, I could see most people around me were totally captivated by her voice.
I felt a light tap on my leg, and looked to see a young girl beside me. She was maybe twelve years old, with slightly severe features, and dark braided hair.
“Oh. Hello.” I said.
“Hello.” She replied. “What was he like?”
“What was who like?”
“Why the poet laureate...Mr Wordsworth of course. I’ve been hoping all morning that my papa will introduce me to him, but he still hasn’t.”
“Well...he seemed very kind...and very clever.”
The next moment, a middle aged man appeared, and spoke in an Italian accent... “Dear Christina, you haven’t been bothering this young gentleman have you?”
“Not at all!” I said immediately, but Christina looked like she didn’t care if she’d been bothering me at all.
“Go find your brother Christina.” He said. “I must speak with him.”
“Gabriel is being so tiresome today Papa. I try to speak to him and he ignores me! I think he thinks he ‘s better than me, now he’s met lots of writers.” But she did go eventually, and weaved through the crowd, towards where I noticed a slighter older, auburn haired boy, sitting reading by a bookcase.
“My daughter is vivacious eh?” The man next to me said with a hearty laugh, but I guess that is what children must be, you know what I mean?”
“I had to leave my home country because people would not listen to me.” He continued. “I hope my children will make people listen to them.”
Before I could reply, there was a chorus of applause as Adelaide finished playing the piano. I saw her turn and smile graciously at those gathered about her, and noticed Sebastian was stood beside the nearby doorway. He was looking at Adelaide in an admiring way, a way in which I imagined all people would want to be looked at.
“Let’s have another song by Jove!” A portly man boomed.
“I wouldn’t want to put anyone else off from playing.” Adelaide replied.
“Don’t you play Theo?” Sebastian called across the room, causing multiple heads to swivel towards me. I wondered how he knew that.
“Well...yes.” I said. I wasn’t a good liar in those types of situations.
“You do! How exciting...!” Adelaide exclaimed. “Do give us a song Theo...”
Before I knew it, various hands were encouraging me towards the instrument, and there was a swell of chatter amongst the crowd. I wanted the ground to swallow me up there and then; I was two hundred years into the past, about to play the piano for some of the greatest writers and poets in history!
Without thinking too much about it, I sat down and played. The tune that immediately came to me was, once again, White Christmas by Bing Crosby. I played the vocal section, using some cloudy jazz chords to create a gentle swinging rhythm. I almost forgot where I was; once I brought the song to a close there was a burst of applause, and I almost jumped in shock.
I stood up from the stool, and various people patted me on the shoulder with comments of “Marvellous...” “Bizarre but quite beautiful....” “My goodness I’ve never heard anything like that...”
Looks of confusion and admiration were all being passed my way, it almost seemed like I’d become the central figure of the entire world. When I was just considering running straight out of the door, there was a loud noise as a waiter dropped one of the metal trays, somebody started profusely apologising, and then the room descended into chatter again.
I felt someone’s hand on my shoulder, turned, and saw Emma was looking at me with curiosity.
“You are quite astonishing at the pianoforte Theo. I’ve never heard that sort of music before...”
“I...well...it was my Dad who taught me. He...invented that style...”
She smiled. “Come with me. I fear there are too many people in this living room. I must introduce you to my little brother...”
Half an hour later, I was in a smaller room. Emma was sat in a nearby armchair, reading a book, and five other people were sitting at the nearby desk reading, some examining the bookshelf, some asleep in chairs, but most of them were men older than Emma and I. In this room, there was a delicate guitar, which I had begun to play idly.
Emma’s brother, Robert, was there too: he was a stern looking young lad of ten, but he’d seemed friendly enough when I was introduced to him. He was playing with the toy soldiers which I assumed Sebastian had given to him earlier, completely oblivious to anyone else in the room. I watched him play with them whilst plucking the guitar, and remembered the bizarre dream I’d had about those soldiers, back in Sebastian’s cottage. Now I was here, it seemed the dream had become something totally everyday and understandable.
One man with an impressive moustache was pacing across the room reading a book. He went from one side to the other, and when he passed Emma I heard him make a comment about what he was reading. He said it was “Most enlightening...” and “the author Thomas Malthus gives a fascinating view into the problems the poor will pose to England’s future.”
Emma responded saying “How charming. He sounds very clever.” without looking up from her book. The man looked dissatisfied, but then returned to his pacing.
Without thinking, I asked “What are you reading Emma?” and received a venomous look from the pacing man.
She closed her book and smiled, “It’s rather silly. It’s a fairy story. It’s called The Midwinter King.”
“Don’t you own an inn with that name?”
“We certainly do. Before papa died, he’d often read us this story. It was one of his favourites as a child...when he bought the inn he named it after the story. I suppose that was what attracted mother to him! He didn’t have as much money as she did...but I suppose she liked men who enjoyed fairy tales!”
“You must get to the point Emma....tell Theo what the story’s about!” Cut in Robert. He didn’t take his eyes off his soldiers, which almost made me burst out laughing.
“Yes I’m getting to that.” Emma said impatiently. “Well it’s about two men...they are both woodcutters out in a forest....one of whom is an apprentice. They meet a faerie prince who is called the Midwinter King. He is sort of the king of the forest....and the in the forest there are lots of Dryads who live amongst the trees, who he rules over sort of like a father. But he is dying...so he wants somebody to succeed him as The Midwinter King, and govern over the forest. So the two woodcutters agree to become the next two in line....and the older one becomes the new Midwinter King, to lead the Dryads. And the forest continues to flourish...”
“Sounds interesting...” I replied.
“Yes I think it’s rather sweet, a story about self-sacrifice, and the natural world. Robert thinks it’s bizarre, but he just doesn’t appreciate things like I do.”
She laughed and Robert made a pfff noise. “Not likely.” And he stood up, walking over to some French windows nearby. Outside, beyond a terrace, there was a large sloping meadow on the edge of the orchard, and some younger children were running about in the snow, hurling snowballs at each other, and laughing. “I’m going outside.” Robert declared.
“You will do no such thing.” His sister called. “Mother told you to stay inside...you’re still getting over that cold.”
“Sod my cold. Try to catch me if you like.” And with that he opened the windows, and fled out into the whiteness. He joined the snowball fight outside, and began exchanging fire with the children, to cries of surprise and delight. Emma sighed, got up and moved to the window saying “Come on. You know this is silly.” The guests in the room watched these events concernedly, looking fairly anxious at the sudden influx of cold air.
“Come back inside for goodness sake.” She continued, moving further out onto the terrace, before she cried out as a snowball smacked her straight in the face.
“Come and get me back dear sister!” Came Roberts voice, and Emma eventually laughed and said, “Alright then,” and launched into a heated battle with the rest of the children, snow flying everywhere. I’d walked over to the French windows, and was about to close them and make myself useful elsewhere in the house. But as I was doing so, Emma was smacked in the face by a rocketing snowball, and shrieked “Theo! Help me!”
I hesitated for a moment, until I thought that it looked so unbelievably fun. So I closed the French windows and joined in, running about, falling in the snow, and getting up to be caught in the cross fire of freezing missiles. I got one of the kids in the shoulder, turned and saw the little girl who I’d met earlier: Christina. I was about to say hello to her, until she grinned wickedly and threw one right in my face. One of the kids began running further down the slope towards the orchard, and soon enough everyone was following suit, laughing and shouting. I was about to take aim at Robert, who’d just splattered me with a fairly icy snowball, before coldness surged down my neck as somebody shoved one down my collar. I yelled, I saw it was Emma who was laughing hysterically, before I grabbed another handful of snow and did the same to her, and she shrieked trying to get away. But she lost her balance and slipped on the slope, and leaning on her, I did the same. The two of us rolled down the slope towards the trees, head over heels. We skidded to a stop, she being half on top of me.
“My goodness Theo, you really had me there.” She laughed, getting up and brushing the snow off her. I stood up too, feeling slightly flustered by what had just happened, and the fact that we’d both almost ruined the clothes we were wearing. Emma didn’t seem bothered in the least. I remembered how my friends and I had been on a walk in the forest in the present. It was great to see everyone’s dirty faces, flushed red by the cold, and happy to be in each other’s company. I’d seen Bea a few times, who looked content as she skirted frozen puddles and crunched through undergrowth. I noticed that behind Emma, the rest of the children had found some other amusements further up the hill, so I said, “I think we’re just about safe!” and she laughed.
“Do help me, one of you.” Came Robert’s voice nearby. We turned and saw he was scrambling up a large tree nearby, attempting to hook his leg over a protruding branch.
“That tree is the easiest to climb in the orchard.” Emma explained to me, walking over to her brother. “I can climb it, but Robert’s too little to do it himself.”
“Soon I’ll be bigger than you, and I won’t help you climb trees.” Said Robert indignantly, but before she could help him, the voice of Adelaide resonated from the direction of the house.
“Emma! Emma!” It sounded almost ghostly, across the snowy meadow.
“Oh dear. An important guest might have arrived. I shall see you both later.” She flashed me her wonderful, sympathetic grin, and fled up the slope towards her mother.
“Need a boost?” I asked Robert.
“A boost..? Yes I need a help up if you would.”
I gave him a good shove on the back, and he scrambled his way up, turning and sitting on a branch, looking down at me.
“Thank you kindly.” He said.
“My sister is very rarely at play for that long.” He said, looking at her walking off in the distance. “These days, she ignores me most of the time. She just talks to people who she says are more interesting, and walks around being sad.”
“Why is she sad?” I questioned.
“Didn’t anyone tell you? I’d have thought your uncle would have. Perhaps he’s not aware. My sister is madly in love with a man who might be dead.”
“Indeed she is. She attended school with a rich young man called William Rosewood. The two almost grew up together, and he proposed to her last year. But this was before he went off to fight. Somewhere in the East...with a name I can’t pronounce....Af...afgha....”
“Yes. That. A few months ago we received word that William was missing. Emma was devastated. She does seem to hide it well. The way she was laughing with you though...it did make me happy to see.”
Later in the day, I had been carried off to a Church service in the village. It was about midday, and the Ilwyd family had gathered together a party of some distinguished house-guests, and some farm labourers, along with Sebastian and I. It was a twenty-minute walk down a frozen footpath, a canopy of flaming white trees overhanging it. I’d noticed palpable differences in everyone’s appearance. Most of the workers were haphazardly dressed, in duller tones of shabby coats and hats, worn as protection against the winter. Many of the house-guests were less practically attired, there were swirling dresses and flimsy dark suits which resulted in lots of “By God it’s chilly,” and “Could we not have taken a carriage Mrs Ilwyd?” Many of the guests were turning their noses up at the workers, but others, including Emma, made enthusiastic conversation with their companions. Some guests were pointing out passing wildlife with childish joy. Emma was walking beside Sebastian and me before she gasped and pointed her parasol out into the woods.
“A doe! How gorgeous!”
It was indeed a doe…which looked at us in almost a smiling way, as if it were thinking how endearingly naive, we all were to go walk in its home. It flitted off almost instantly as it was pointed out.
“You find some quite lovely creatures on this route.” Emma continued.
“You often go riding here. Don’t you Emma.” Sebastian responded.
“Yes! I always have…it is a magical place.”
“Especially at winter, on New Year’s Eve.”
“Quite correct Sebastian. I loved this path very much as a child.” She said that strangely solemnly, before looking at me. “Don’t you agree its magical Theo?”
I certainly did agree.
We soon reached the village. It was quieter than I expected, certainly quieter than it had been when I’d visited it with my friends. We’d gone round all the charming shops, and had eaten lunch at a pub. I liked the village a lot at that time, but there had been lots of tourists, and I couldn’t help imagining it in the past. Now I was seeing it like that, it seemed very mysterious. A cold fog had descended upon the streets, and darkly dressed figures were striding backwards and forwards in the street, blowing and stamping their feet in the snow. Some called out greetings to members of our party. I liked it for it felt like a scene out of a story.
The Church was larger than most countryside churches, with grand myriad stained glass windows and holly strung between pillars. However, it was well lit and cosy and the people in it didn’t seem bothered by the weather outside. The service lasted one hour, and I had to restrain few yawns now and again. I read out of the hymn book and joined in singing a carol. Sitting back down on my pew, I looked about me as everyone else did the same.
I noticed Sebastian and Adelaide were stood together, a couple of pews in front to my left. They were both listening intently to the priest...
“...for it is the new year! God will help us to look to the future, and cast off the ghosts of the past. As it is written, in Jeremiah, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Adelaide looked very sad then and stared wistfully off into the distance. Perhaps the priest’s words had touched something within her. Whether or not she was reminded of her past husband, I don’t know. But I saw Sebastian gradually take her hand in his. She did not pull away from his touch, and met his gaze, with a look loving gratefulness. I saw immediately that he adored her...
After the service, I filtered out of the church along with the crowds. People chatted, their breath coalescing in the cold air, as they dispersed across the large square. I’d lost track of anyone that I recognised, so I went and sat at a nearby fountain.
I surveyed the area for Emma or Adelaide, but the crowd filtered away, and soon enough I was almost alone.
Well. They’ve lost me. Great.
But then somebody appeared on the other side of the square. It was a well dressed man who looked about him, and then began to stride intently across the snowy paved stones towards me. “Good day my fine fellow..!” He called out. “So sorry to bother you, but I believe I was to meet some friends here, who own a big house nearby. They are called the Ilwyd family.” He was hook nosed, with slightly curly brown hair, and an enigmatic-laughing expression on his face. Before I could say anything I heard Emma’s voice.
“Theo! I do apologise, we didn’t realise we’d lost you.” She emerged from a nearby street, and approached the two of us. When she saw the new arrival she smiled and said, “Why you’ve arrived sir. How wonderful.” two of them shook hands, and Emma turned to me. “This is Charles Dickens.”