Right, guys, this story is loosely, I hasten to put emphasis on the loosely for all you Dickens fans out there, based on Charles Dickens' tale, A Christmas Carol. Now, I know its a bit out of season but I was struck with the writing bug and really needed to get this up. I think there will be five chapters (I've planned this. Wow!) just to give you an estimate.
By the way, just so you are forewarned, I sort of combined the Ghost of Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Past but I said it was loosely based on the book so forgive me. Please?
The Winter Festival
Snow blanketed the earth, the grass was silver and iridescent with a layer of frost and the air was cold and crisp. Somehow, winter made the world all the more beautiful. It covered up all the blemishes and problems. A blank canvas; ready to be imprinted upon. Icicles hung from a wizen, gnarled tree branch, shimmering in the harsh, early morning sun. They looked impossible, suspended in space: glistening, transparent and fragile. Berries looked like rubies when encased in the translucent ice and their surrounding leaves like the delicate sweetmeats that a shop in the village sold, sprinkled with sugar to stop them going bad.
Two little speckled sparrows bathed in the cool water which had collected in a shallow indent on a rock. In order to reach it, they had to peck through the thin layer of ice on the surface (with the weak rays of sun aiding their plight). Now, they hopped in and out, of the clear liquid, squeaking as they fluffed up their feathers against the chill.
The lake in the middle of the forest was a shiny mirror, the water having frozen in the early days of winter and not thawed since.
Many wild creatures had taken to their burrows, to their holes, to their nests, in order to escape the coldness which had enveloped the land. Even some well-prepared animals were feeling the chill, despite their thick coats. A winter hare could be seen bounding swiftly through a thicket, hurrying to get back to his warren, snowy white pelt blending in with his surroundings to make him less vulnerable to the increasingly desperate predators that roamed the desolate countryside. The lynx, that had been watching him with hungry eyes, slunk away, realising that he would not get lucky this time.
All the crop fields were barren and bare, not a single shoot could grow through the severe weather and survive. It was just the livestock that stood in the fields, shivering in the frostiness of dawn. Sheep huddled together, a huge woolly mass of bodies, whilst the cows tried to suck some moisture from the grass beneath their feet – the water in their trough had frozen solid. A lone horse hung its head as it stood in the middle of its paddock.
No cockerel crowed this morning to signal the break of day. It had long since been killed and used in a hearty broth.
Although everything seemed rather desolate and food was rather scarce, that didn't matter, not to the people. The Winter Festival was fast approaching Camelot; it was an annual event held on the twentieth day of winter – unsurprisingly – when all the citizens in the area would celebrate the might and power of the deity Caillech. They would attempt to appease her so that she would look kindly upon them and grant them a good season – not taking too many of their livestock from the cold or too many of their children from fever or starvation.
The main festivities would occur in Camelot itself where there would be dancing on the streets and feasting on the supplies they had saved up especially from the autumn harvests. No expense was spared – certainly not in the castle kitchens, anyway. There you could find rich cuts of venison; haunches of pork and beef and lamb; a large, plump pheasant was the centrepiece, un-plucked with all its beautiful coloured plumage still showing. Exotic spices, salty sauces and a variety of herbs were used to season the meats. Although, for the most part, vegetables were sparse, you could find the odd carrot or bean or cabbage, saved up and boiled for the occasion.
Around the castle, the walls would be adorned with extravagant decorations that were brought out every year to signify the festival: ribbons and tassels and bells and chimes and quaint little statues of Caillech herself. Lovely fragrances would be spread around the passages, to go with the season; sometimes a waft of cinnamon would reach your nostrils or else a whiff of rosemary.
And for some reason, some idiot had thought it intelligent to bring a pine tree into the Great Hall, which it wasn't. However, somebody had yet to move it, so there it stood, tall and proud and green, a little…or rather big, part of nature inside the castle.
Although the Winter Festival was supposed to be a joyous time, there was someone who didn't enjoy it, not one tiny bit. His name was Arthur and he was sitting in his room, at this very moment, sulking.
He hated this season most out of all of them, in winter he could not do what he wanted to do, he was restricted as to whether he could go out training because of treacherous conditions and icy temperatures, he couldn't hunt because there was nothing to hunt and he hated the Winter Festival because it was so gaudy and loud and they had to entertain hundreds of guests; many of whom he loathed. Every year he would have to make pleasantries with Lords from Belinhath, Tintagel or Knor and would have to entertain the minor-kings from the Celtic regions with stories and anecdotes. Those men were imbeciles; that's all he had to say on the matter. He couldn't understand how someone could become king if they didn't know gold from silver.
Unfortunately, he knew this year would be no different. Perhaps, he could say that he was ill, force Gaius to make up some malady that he had come down with so he could remain in his room all day and miss the dreaded event.
On top of all the stupid pomp and ceremony already associated with the festival, it was traditional to give gifts to those you cared about, in Arthur's case that was his father and Morgana; he'd given Morgana enough bloody jewellery to last a life time. Why would she need anymore? His father was usually satisfied with a nice bottle of wine or a new doublet. Not that he needed any more of those either. What did you give to someone who had all they needed already?
This year, he had toyed with not getting them anything at all, or maybe, he could give Morgana a cockroach in a box as a joke. That was sure to get her eternally sour mouth laughing. Maybe Father would appreciate a spell book; not that Arthur would know where to get one of those.
He just wished they didn't have to make all this fuss.
Another thing he wished for was that his damn servant would be on time for once. Arthur couldn't understand how Merlin could be so lacking in brains and time-keeping skills. Often, he wondered why on earth he put up with the boy as his manservant; he was just so useless. The young prince didn't think there had been a single day in all the time he had known the peasant boy that he hadn't done something wrong. Merlin was a walking accident waiting to happen. A magnet for mayhem.
Arthur decided that if he didn't turn up in the next five minutes then he was going to fire him. He didn't care whether it was the Winter Festival tomorrow or not. Merlin needed to be taught a lesson.
It was about three minutes later, when a tangle of limbs burst into the room; a shock of coal hair on his head and a pile of washing in his arms, Arthur knew immediately that his manservant had arrived.
"Merlin," he growled, his eyes narrowing at the sight of the clumsy young man who was dropping socks all over the place. "Where the hell have you been?"
"Um…well….you see, I had to do this errand for Gaius and then Rein, the head servant said…."
"You know what? I don't care," Arthur snapped; his jaw was tense and angry. "This is the fifth time you've been late in the last five days. It's just not good enough, Merlin."
Merlin frowned, looking puzzled. "It's the run up to the Winter Festival, Arthur, I've been really busy."
"Don't call me Arthur, Merlin, you are just a servant, not my friend, address me as sire or my lord, nothing else."
"Sorry," the manservant looked hurt, "Sire."
"Better. Anyway, this ridiculous farce of a festival is no excuse to shirk your duties; the duties I pay you for. If you are late just one more time then you will lose you're job."
"Are you serious?" Merlin seemed surprised. Arthur didn't care.
"Yes, Merlin," he replied, sharply. "Now, go and get this dent in my armour knocked out."
The prince tossed a heavy piece of metal at his manservant and watched, with a certain satisfaction, as he buckled under the weight, thrown off balance by the sudden presence in his arms. Arthur was actually surprised that he hadn't dropped the chest plate or at least fumbled it. Somehow, he managed to retain his footing and negotiate putting the fresh laundry on a chair beside Arthur's bed, whilst still holding the armour. Once he was done, he offered his master a strangely wounded look and then left.
Arthur groaned to himself once more and then proceeded to batter the pillow on his bed with his fist, venting his frustration. The things he had to do as the king's son, it was such hard work. He often wished he had as few worries and difficulties as Merlin and the other servants seemed to face. They had it easy in his opinion; he'd never seen his manservant worrying about politics or the welfare of the people or making alliances with pricks from other far off kingdoms. On top of that, Arthur had to worry about pleasing his father. He would bet his entire sword collection that Merlin had never had to worry about pleasing his parents. He had that laid back, content, forever buoyant attitude which Arthur associated with happy childhoods.
There was a sudden knock at the door. Arthur cursed and marched over to the door. His mood blackened further when he opened it and came face to face with a young handmaid dressed in festive colours, with holly and mistletoe braided into her honey coloured hair. Her eyes were big and blue, sparkling with jolliness. Arthur found himself hating her.
"My lord." She bowed her head and curtsied very deeply. The prince sighed, exasperated. "I have come on behalf of the king to request your presence in the Dining Room for breakfast."
"Tell him I'll be there in a minute," Arthur barked, before shutting the door in the girl's face. For a moment he felt a bit ashamed and then he reminded himself that he was royalty and she was not and therefore she could hardly complain.
The day had been hellish and it was only the eve of the Winter Festival, Arthur couldn't imagine what the actual day would be like. Guests and dignitaries had been arriving all day and filling up the rooms in the castle. It had been part of his duty, as Prince of Camelot, to greet every single one as they came through the door, make small talk for about ten minutes and then accept a gift. Arthur believed the whole shenanigan to be a complete waste of time and wished he could get those minutes of his life back. Unfortunately, one couldn't rewind time.
To make things worse, he'd gorged himself on all the rich foods which the kitchens provided in order to distract himself from his misery and quench his boredom. Now he felt completely and utterly sick to his stomach. Which obviously didn't help his already sour mood.
Merlin had been a fool all day too. He couldn't get a single, simple task right. It was like making a slow child do his errands. Arthur was still sure that the boy had a grievous mental impairment.
He remembered one incident when he'd been walking down a deserted corridor, in a completely foul frame of mind when he caught sight of his idiot manservant standing idly in the middle of the passage with his back to him. To begin with, he'd shouted angrily at the youth and then, when he didn't answer, he'd hit him, hard, between the shoulder blades. Merlin had then jerked forward, yelping in surprise, his voice thick with sleep. Arthur couldn't believe that he had managed to fall asleep, on duty, whilst standing up. He was supposed to be mopping the floor for goodness sake - and that wasn't even one of the tasks that Arthur had set him! Really, he should be mucking out the stables or polishing his master's boots.
Although, the prince assumed that his servant was awake, he realised that he had somehow fallen back to sleep in the time that it had taken Arthur to admonish and berate him. Slowly, he tipped to one side and the young royal stared in absolute astonishment and disbelief as he gradually unbalanced himself and then fell, heavily, on the flagged stone floor. There was a sharp crack as his cheekbone hit the ground. Arthur winced; perhaps he should have stopped him.
Unsurprisingly, Merlin woke up again with a start and sat up; his whole side was drenched in water from his previously unfinished mopping. There was a dark bruise already forming on his face. He truly was a ridiculous mess.
"What the hell? Are you an ignorant buffoon?" Arthur exclaimed, his eyes bright with disgust.
Merlin looked embarrassed. "No – I was just….tired….I have to go." The prince was surprised when his servant glanced at him nervously and then hurried away down the corridor, kicking the bucket of soapy water over the floor as he went with a wayward foot.
"Idiot." Arthur breathed after him.
Fortunately, the night was falling on Camelot and Arthur would be able to get some sleep before having to survive another day of torture. Maybe, by some miracle, he wouldn't wake up until tomorrow evening, when all the celebrations would be over and he would have missed it all. What a dream that was. Somehow, though, he imagined that his father would wake him up whether it was by shouting at him and forcing him bodily. Uther believed it to be of the utmost importance to keep the tradition of the Winter Festival going because otherwise the people would have little to look forward to each year and if they stopped offering gifts to Caillech, then she might unleash her wrath on them.
Staring out of his window, the young man watched as the lights in the city sprawled out before him were gradually blown out one by one. Soon, the dwellings were blanketed in a sea of darkness. Still, Arthur continued to gaze upon the land and wondered what it would be like not to one day have to rule over it all. What if he'd been born into a different life? Would he have preferred that?
Probably not, was the answer. Arthur knew that he liked his luxuries and his status and his pride too much. If he wasn't a Pendragon then he wouldn't be anyone; a nobody, like Merlin. Perhaps, he would have even have turned out like the boy: clumsy and hopeless. That didn't bear thinking about.
Reluctantly, he tore his eyes away from his portal into the peasant world, and made his way over to his bed. He pulled off his shirt and then climbed beneath the covers. Somehow, he knew that tonight would be a long night. And tomorrow – even longer.
Arthur woke to a strange noise. It sounded, in his opinion, like the clanking of chains. A strange, macabre noise that he associated usually with the prisoners who whined and cried in the dungeons; they would knock the links of the chains together in order to irritate the prison guards. Usually, it worked and they would receive a severe beating for their impudence. Luckily, he, personally, had never been subject to having the nasty things restraining him, despite the many times he'd disobeyed his father. It paid to be the King's son, he supposed.
The clanking was getting louder and Arthur was getting more annoyed. With a huff of frustration, he threw off his covers and climbed out of bed. Then he froze…
Standing, in the middle of his room, was a figure. Initially, he thought it a child and he wondered, immediately, how it had got into his chambers. However, upon closer inspection, he realised that, in fact, although it was the height and size of a child, it had the features of an adult. Intense, black eyes bore into his.
Its indeterminate age was not the main issue, though, what Arthur had issue with was the fact that the man-child glowed; as brightly as the moon on a cloudless night. It seemed to seep light from every pore; even its clothes shone. Around its thin wrists and ankles, thick, heavy manacles were bound, loose chains trailing along behind it. Had it broken out from somewhere? Was it in trouble? So many thoughts whistled through Arthur's head that he soon became disorientated and confused.
There was a dark stain on its shimmering white tunic. Blood.
"Who are you?" Arthur said, weakly at first and then, suddenly remembering who he was. "I demand to know who you are and what your purpose is here!"
"My purpose is to meet you."
"And do you know who I am?" Arthur replied, sharply.
"Prince Arthur, of course," the apparition smiled; it was a very eerie smile, "I am the Ghost of Winter Past."
Arthur frowned, his brow knotting deeply. A ghost? Surely not. His father had taught him of these strange beings: apparitions. They were the dead and yet they had not passed on to the next life. Instead, they just hung around, washed out and wandering, eternally between alive and dead. Gaius said they were forever imprinted on the fabric of this world and they could never escape. One thing Arthur knew for certain, he never wanted to meet one and he certainly never wanted to be one. However, here it was.
"A ghost?" Arthur stated, then. "Who's past?"
"Your past," the spirit answered, its ageless face giving nothing away.
All the prince could think was that he wasn't liking the sound of this and what could he do to get rid of the thing before someone walked in to see what the commotion was about. It wouldn't do to have a translucent person in his room if Father came to visit; not that he would at this time of night, more likely one of the guards.
"First, we must address why I am here," the phantom stated, solemnly. "And that is for the reason that you are a selfish, depreciating, bullying man who is destined to one day become King of all of Albion. However, your cruel ways must stop, you must open your eyes and view the world as it truly is if you are ever to become the great king you are fated to be. You must change, young Pendragon, if you are to take up the throne which you have been prophesised to sit upon."
Arthur scowled. He wasn't sure he liked the way this 'spectre' was talking to him or the way he described him. For one thing, the prince knew that he wasn't cruel, perhaps a little bullying but never cruel and that, no matter what this spirit said, he would rule Camelot some time in the future. It wasn't like some ghost could stop him.
"My eyes are open," Arthur snapped, "And I'm not cruel. I only do what is necessary."
"We shall see," the Ghost of Winter Past replied, mysteriously, before it said. "You shall be haunted by three Ghosts, of which I am the first, on this eve of winter celebrations. Without our visits then you cannot hope to become the true and just king that you are meant to be."
"Right, so what exactly does all this entail?" Arthur raised his eyebrows and crossed his arms, looking at the spirit with an expectant expression.
"It entails a trip into the past, the past of a certain young man whose destiny has been intertwined with yours since birth."
Right, so I know that Arthur is being a bit of a prick but that's the point. He's meant to change.
I really, really hope you liked it. I feel I've set myself up quite well and I hope you agree.