Erhmm...I originally wrote this a VERY long time ago. I only found it recently in a stack of old papers my mum had squirreled away, but I decided to brush off the cobwebs and make it more presentable to post. Since it was written so long ago this sort of thing has probably been done a billion times since, but I wanted to post a Christmas story, and it was either revise this one, or take time away from working on "The Measure of a Sovereign" to write an entirely new one. Hopefully it isn't too unoriginal.
It was the night before Christmas, but to say not a Creature was stirring would have been a most ridiculous exaggeration. True, most of the better behaved of Narnia's children were tucked up in their beds, breathing in the quiet rhythm of peaceful sleep. The vast majority, however, were more capricious, and were darting to and fro, avoiding their parents' attempts to calm them, and giggling shrilly.
Father Christmas was not in the least disturbed by this behaviour, in fact, he was delighted that the children, at least, seemed to have forgotten the terrors winter once held. It warmed his heart to see them once more merry and carefree despite the snow that blanketed the land. Still, it would not do for him to be seen this year, as he had been last year, so he smiled at the antics of the young ones, and drove on in his sleigh-making note of which homes he needed to revisit when all at last was silent.
When he had finally crossed (and re-crossed) the length and breadth of the land and arrived on the shores of the Eastern Sea, the great castle of Cair Paravel was utterly silent beneath its shrouding layer of pure, white snow. He crept, silent as a ghost through the empty hallways and silent rooms, depositing parcels and bundles next to beds and on side tables.
He had never quite understood where some children got the notion that his reindeer could fly, and that he was in the habit of scrambling down chimneys, but he supposed it might have something to do with the stealthy manner of his visits. Locks, bolts, and doors meant very little to him in his mission to spread the joy of Christmas to all who would welcome it.
The first hints of dawn were beginning to streak the Eastern sky with rosy light by the time his bag was nearly empty, and his rounds almost completed. He lifted the once overflowing bag down from his shoulder and peered inside it to find that only two parcels now remained. Ah, yes, he thought with great satisfaction as he neared the last door, softly whistling a jolly tune. At last.
He shouldered the bag one last time, and pushed the heavy door open soundlessly to be met with a very unexpected sight and a wave of warmth. He froze, still with only one foot inside the door, and blinked in the soft glow of the firelight. Oh dear, this simply won't do! No one is supposed to see me this year. The previous Christmas, which hadn't really been Christmas at all, had been the one, very special, exception to a long tradition of Father Christmas coming and going largely unnoticed by the inhabitants of Narnia.
The boy seated before the fireplace wasn't exactly a Creature, and he wasn't exactly stirring, but he was wide awake nonetheless. For a moment, he continued staring into the flames and did not seem to notice his unwitting visitor, then he looked up and Father Christmas felt distinctly less jolly upon seeing the haunted expression in his eyes.
"Hullo," said King Edmund of Narnia, formerly of Finchley, and turned back to his scrutiny of the twisting flames.
"Merry Christmas, your majesty," Father Christmas offered, taking that as an invitation and stepping further into the room. After all, he had talked to the boy's siblings the year before, surely there could be no harm in talking to him as well.
"Are you Father Christmas?" the boy asked, not looking up again.
"I am," Father Christmas answered, recovering some of his joviality. "And you are Edmund Pevensie." It wasn't precisely meant as a question, but the boy nodded all the same. Father Christmas reflected he did not seem very pleased to be Edmund Pevensie at that particular moment, at least if his frown was any indication.
With a slight sigh he reached into his bag and pulled out the last two presents-a pair of rectangular bundles wrapped in thick brown paper. He placed them carefully on the low table next to the boy's chair and waited. The child, for he could hardly be called anything else given his age, regarded the parcels curiously, but did not immediately pounce on them as most children would.
"I must apologise that you received no gift from me last Christmas," Father Christmas told him quietly, slightly puzzled by his odd behaviour. "The Witch's power was weakening, but not enough that I dared risk approaching her camp." He folded the now empty bag into a tidy square and tucked it carefully into one of his coat's many pockets.
The boy nodded, seeming to accept the explanation without question, though Father Christmas thought he saw a brief flash of confusion cross his face. He could not quite banish the feeling that the boy wanted to ask him a question, but the faint streaks of colour in the East were quickly turning to burning gold, and there were other bags in his sleigh and other Lands awaited his coming. He turned to go, intending to call out a final "Merry Christmas" before he closed the door, but the boy called after him before he could do so.
"Father Christmas, sir?" The young king was watching him intently, with such a look of curiosity that it reminded him sharply of the boy's younger sister.
"What is it lad?" he asked, always unable to resist even an unspoken plea from a child. He crossed the room to drop into the chair opposite the young king, and propped his cold boots up on the edge of the hearth.
"Can I ask you something?"
Father Christmas chuckled, and resisted the urge to point out that the boy had already asked him several questions. The sun was threatening to emerge over the edge of the world, but still, he supposed a few moment's delay would do no harm.
"Certainly, but before we get to questions, open the heavier of those two." He nodded towards the paper wrapped parcels. Half the joy of giving gifts was watching the children open them, and Father Christmas always contrived to watch a few of Narnia's younglings from some hidden vantage point on Christmas morning.
The boy regarded him thoughtfully for a moment, suddenly appearing much older than his eleven years. "You needn't have brought me anything, sir; I've already been given so much." After another moment he smiled slightly and reached for the parcel. "Thank you though."
He really is a most peculiar child, thought Father Christmas. He could tell the expression of gratitude was genuine, but so was the declaration that he needn't have been given a gift at all.
The brown paper fell back to reveal what appeared to be a heavy wooden box, beautifully carved and inlaid with alternating checks of ivory and mahogany. The boy examined it closely before locating the latch on one side and opening it cautiously. He lifted out a little golden Centaur with rubies for eyes, and smiled suddenly as he looked more closely at the box.
"It's a chess set!" he exclaimed in wonder, setting aside the golden Centaur carefully, and picking up a silver Lion with sapphire eyes.
The box, when opened fully and laid flat would form the chess board, and the gold and silver figurines were, in fact, the chess pieces. There were Dwarves in place of pawns, Centaurs served as knights, Lions as bishops, and the other pieces varied very little from the ordinary ones you might find in a shop in London-save that they were a good deal finer.
"I will stay, and we can talk, until we have played one round," Father Christmas told the boy cheerfully, smiling as the shadows receded from his eyes to be replaced with quiet wonder.
The young king grinned, somewhat ruefully as he placed the chess set on the low table between them, and began sorting through the pieces. "I fear that won't be long; I'm rubbish at chess, and Peter always wins."
Father Christmas smiled, glad to hear that there was no trace of resentment in the quiet words. Whatever Edmund Pevensie had done in the past he had undeniably changed for the better.
"I did not give you this gift because you are good at chess, just as I did not give your brother a sword or your sister a bow because they excelled in the use of them," he told the boy kindly. "I gave it to you so that you might become better. A king should be capable of strategising and thinking quickly in battle and in diplomacy; chess is very good practice for both."
He moved a silver Dwarf forward two squares to begin the game, before leaning back in his chair and smiling. "And now, your question, Son of Adam?"
The boy frowned in concentration as he moved one of his golden Dwarves forward. "You said I received no gift from you last Christmas; what did you mean?"
"I mean that I delivered no gift to you," Father Christmas responded, carefully moving a silver Centaur out from behind the line of Dwarves. "Why do you ask?"
"It's just," the boy frowned again, but whether it was in concentration or confusion Father Christmas could not be sure. "Well, I thought you must have."
Father Christmas felt a frown of confusion cross his own face. What a very unusual child, he thought again. "My dear boy, whatever do you mean by that?" he asked aloud, recovering from his confusion quickly enough to sweep one of the golden Dwarves off the board with his Centaur.
"Last Christmas," the boy said slowly, studying the pattern created by the chess pieces carefully. "I was with the Witch." (Father Christmas already knew this of course, but he sensed that the boy needed to tell him that anyway.) "We met some of the Creatures you had given gifts to, they were having a tea party, and when they said Father Christmas was in Narnia all I could think was what I wanted most for Christmas."
Somehow, Father Christmas doubted that this boy had been thinking of toys and treats at that particular moment, and he remained silent, waiting for him to finish his tale. It was a long moment before he continued speaking-he seemed lost in thought, staring down at the chess board and studying the golden Lion figurine. At last, he looked up and met Father Christmas' eyes fully for the first time.
I don't think I've ever seen anyone look so sad, and yet, so hopeful at the same time, thought the jolly old man with uncharacteristic graveness. The terrors of winter, it seemed, were not fully forgotten for this young one.
"I knew I didn't deserve anything from you, but I still wished anyway. All I wanted was the chance to tell my family how sorry I was, for everything, and maybe earn their forgiveness. When I got the chance, well, I always wondered if maybe you had heard me."
And then you regretted your wish and wondered if I made them forgive you-if all of it was an illusion, a gift from me, Father Christmas thought sadly.
"No," he said aloud, in response to the unspoken question. "No, my dear boy, I gave you no gift last Christmas. Your family forgave you truly, with no prompting from me, and you earned their forgiveness on your own." He moved the stately silver queen diagonally across the board with a smile. "And that, I believe, is Checkmate."
The boy smiled, sadness fading from his eyes as quickly as if it had never been. "I told you I'm rubbish at chess," he grumbled good-naturedly, still grinning.
Father Christmas laughed and got to his feet, stretching his stiff muscles. "Perhaps next Christmas you will best me, Son of Adam, until then, remember what I have told you. There is no trickery in your family's love for you; and your redemption was Aslan's gift, not mine. My gifts, at times, may be illusions, but the Lion's are true." He turned to go, pausing in the door to look back at the room, lit by fire and the golden rays of the rising sun.
A king, rather than a boy, smiled back at him in quiet gratitude. "Thank you, sir," he said solemnly. "Merry Christmas."
"And to you, King Edmund," Father Christmas called back, and was gone.
After that bright Christmas morning, the merry old spirit always left Edmund's room till last in his rounds, and never failed to sit with the young king till the sun had risen-playing chess and talking companionably. He never knew, or perhaps he did, that the king considered his friendship to be (nearly) the best Christmas gift he had ever received-second only to his family's forgiveness.
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, or whatever you prefer :-)
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