Leading lights: A pair of light beacons, used in navigation to indicate a safe passage for vessels entering a shallow or dangerous channel. The beacons consist of two lights that are separated in distance and elevation, so that when they are aligned, with one above the other, they provide a bearing.
A little golden haired boy walked down the hallway, his bear dragging behind him on its back, staring up at the ceiling and wondering…but that is for another story. The wood floor was very cold to the boy's bare feet and the darkness knelt deep in the corners, ready to spring at any moment. The silence was extreme, it was a soft, profoundly cold silence and the only light was the candle that flickered in front of him, drawing him on with a wan yellow trail gleaming on the polished floorboards.
"Come now, Caspian, you should never have gotten up," his nurse's voice came soft out of the darkness, her hand shielding the candle flame from the draftiness of the castle. "It is time when all little boys should be in bed."
"I so wished I would be able to stay up tonight," Caspian whispered.
"Someday you shall."
The door swung open on soft hinges and closed behind him. With a sudden rush, Caspian ran to the bed and burrowed under the coverlet, shivering. Muttering to herself, Nurse went to poke at the embers that slept on the hearth.
"Nurse," Caspian said suddenly, "Why is it that it is always so silent on nights when it snows?"
"Why do you think?" Nurse asked softly coming to sit on the bed. She tucked the blankets under his chin and pulled on Bear until he was lying snugly next to Caspian, his glass eyes flickering in the candle flame.
"I wish I could have stayed up," Caspian sighed, his mind turning once again downstairs. He had been able to see the Christmas tree lighting, but only for a little while. The tree, a towering blue spruce nearly as tall as the roof, had glittered with a thousand candles and overflowed the hall with a sharp fragrance that filled his mind with wonder. Then he had had to go upstairs while everyone else feasted in the Great Hall, filled with merriment and happiness.
He had not stayed in bed long, but had crept away downstairs, just he and Bear, to peak into the room, as he stood hidden behind a curtain. They had not seen him as they laughed and drank their mead and the lights lit the pyramids of food, but Nurse always seemed to know exactly where he was and now he was back where he had started – in bed.
"Why is it called the feast of Queen Lucia?" Caspian asked, "Who is Queen Lucia anyway?"
At the name, Caspian shivered, "You mean the same Queen Lucy who was the sister of High King Peter the Magnificent? The Queen Lucy that came long, long ago, even before my ancestors came?"
"The very same," Nurse smiled, leaning closer, the golden light playing off her features oddly.
"Tell me about it, please!" Caspian asked, suddenly wanting very much to know.
"Today is the winter solstice," Nurse said quietly. "It is the shortest day of the year. It was this night that Queen Lucy made her journey. She was not much older than you are now. She was called the Valiant because of it."
"What happened?" Caspian begged, "Please! What happened?"
"It was because of the wreckers," Nurse said.
"Who are they?"
"I will start from the beginning."
Rain mixed with snow in the howling wind that tore the sails to sodden ribbons and sent the waves washing over the deck. The ship rose and fell, crashing down the rolling backs of the seas deep into the troughs. The night was black and the tempest tossed waves blacker as the captain peered forward through the cold sleet that rattled and leapt on the deck. Four sailors held the wheel, gritting their teeth against the pull and praying for a hush in the wind – anything to relieve the strain.
Icy seawater washed underfoot and the captain barely kept his footing as the ship rolled with a tortured groan. Lightning slit the sky, but the thunder was drowned by the roar of the seas. Above them, the spars shimmered with an eerie glow; the masts seemed silhouetted with blue fire. Yet, in all that turmoil of rain filled sky and surging sea, something in the distance, where the shore lay, caught his eye.
It was a spark of green, but no more than a spark. As the ship coasted down a wave, it remained motionless, glimmering like a firefly. The ship rose again, surging up a foam laced sea and the Captain saw with a sudden rush of hope, that there was another spark, directly below the first.
"They must be! They must be!" he barely realized that he had shouted aloud, though no one heard but the wind that snatched his words away. Those lights, gleaming green and motionless must be leading lights, the lights that marked a harbor. Lining them up perfectly, one above the other, would bring them through the shoals to safety… safety and quiet out of this raging storm.
Stumbling, the captain took the nearest steersman by the shoulder and shouted in his ear.
"Do you see those lights?" he cried, "They mark a harbor, keep them lined up. We'll be safe within the hour."
Slowly, the ship swung around, rolling in the surging sea. The sailing master shouted above the wind, instructing the sailors on deck to trim the sheets of the straining sails. Rising and falling, the vessel rushed on, those two sparks glittering dead on their bowsprit end. The captain watched them, straining every muscle as if he could push the ship forward toward those lovely lights.
It was then that the ship shuddered, then crashed to a halt, the wind screaming around her like furies. Black water rose impossibly high and crashed in a sheet over the stern and in his last moment standing, the captain looked up and saw that the bow was wedged between two black rocks and the twin lights that had guided them were gone.
"Cruel, cruel joke," he whispered as black water struck him off his feet and sent him under.
The town of Paravel had been around for less than a year. It was a merry little town, all little warm cottages and illuminated windows casting yellow pools of light on the snow below. There was a main street – and only street – in the town and all the little businesses clustered along it.
King Edmund walked through the shadows, the hand of Queen Lucy firmly in his grasp. She was a Queen, but she was also nine and nine-year-olds are well known for disappearing at random from one's field of view. Edmund himself was eleven, and vastly more grown up at the moment.
Lucy had wanted to take a walk that afternoon and Edmund had suggested the town. Lucy had been quick to agree and the two of them had skipped down the hill to see the decorations on the houses and the candles in the windows just now being lighted to ward away the dusk.
"Come on, Lucy," Edmund said and tugged at her hand as she stopped suddenly to look at something in the lighted window of a little shop. He had a sudden image of tugging the leash of a puppy that had found something marvelously interesting and would not be uprooted.
"Oh do stop for a moment, Edmund!" Lucy exclaimed and Edmund stopped. A row of china dolls met his annoyed eyes.
"Look here, Lucy," Edmund said, "Don't tell me you like dolls suddenly."
"Of course not!" Lucy cried, "Do look at the wooden man!"
"What man?" Edmund asked.
"The wooden one," Lucy said impatiently and at last, he saw what she pointed at.
It was a red coated soldier and the rows of gold braid, the stripes on his trousers and the tall feathered hat on his head stirred old memories in Edmund's mind. In his inner eye, he saw the King's Guard changing at Buckingham Palace in London in what seemed so long ago.
"It's a nutcracker," Edmund stated.
"It's lovely," Lucy said.
"Why?" Edmund asked, "Do come on, I'm getting cold."
Lucy obliged and they continued on, Edmund got cold easily. She looked back over her shoulder once and caught just a glimpse of the nutcracker's scarlet coat. What was it that caught her so about him? Was it the solidness of him, the staunch, 'I don't care a fig' look in his eyes? Or was it the sadness she'd saw in his wooden face?
"I wonder who carved him?" Lucy asked.
In the darkness of the following morning, Cair Paravel was alive with the sights and sounds of winter. Snow lay in white clouds on the battlements, sleighs ran on singing runners over the packed roads and inside, the Great Hall with its wall of peacock feathers, was heavy with the fragrance of greenery. Holly glowed red from under spiked leaves and mistletoe hung in doorways, waiting for unsuspecting persons to step underneath.
Susan sat in an alcove, sewing, her silver needle flashing as it slipped through the silky violet brocade on her lap. She was tacking silver lace around the collar, holding it up every now and then to watch it glitter in the light of the candelabras.
In the middle of the room she saw the little choir animals in their white robes, their voices golden as the stars that shined on high. A tiny squirrel was at the top of a doorway, pinning up a bunch of mistletoe and laughing when another squirrel, coming unsuspectingly under it, was kissed by the High King who stood in the shadows, watching everything. With a squeak, all the squirrel's fur stood on end and she dashed to hide under the nearest chair until she could regain her composure. Peter grinned.
Lucy stood up from her place next to Susan and walked resolutely across the room to stand under the mistletoe, her eyes shining as she looked up at Peter. He could do nothing but oblige.
"You're sad, Peter," she said reproachfully, holding his head down on her level.
"I'm not…not really," he said, kneeling down. "Everything is lovely."
"What happened?" Edmund asked, proving as he moved, that he really wasn't part of the velvet drapes that shrouded the icy window panes.
Peter bowed his head, then looked up, "It's the wreckers again," he said at last.
With a sigh, Susan pushed her needle into her fabric and looked up at him.
"Another ship sank last night on the black rocks up the coast," Peter said quietly. "Only a few men survived. It's the usual story."
"The lights leading onto the rocks?" Edmund asked.
Peter nodded, "then the pirates come down and filch the cargo before the ship breaks up."
"Can't we do anything?" Susan asked.
"I've tried," Peter said. "My first thought of course, was to build a fire at the top of the cliff to warn ships that they were standing in danger, but it isn't bright enough and it doesn't burn well in the cold and snow. It was raining last night."
There was silence as they contemplated this information. The choir sang and the flames flickered, hovering over the melting wax tapers in the candelabras. Lucy turned and went to the window, glad to see that the eastern sky was growing lighter and the stars were fading.
"Can't we catch them?" Lucy asked, looking around.
"Tried that too," Peter said tiredly, "But think of it, going down those cliffs in a storm is suicide and nobody can fly down there in a gale. In good weather, I've sent people down there to see what's up, but they've never found anything."
"Which is why I think they are a remnant," Edmund said quietly.
A shiver went down Lucy's spine, "You mean…some of her people?" she whispered.
"What else?" Edmund asked, turning to look at her seriously. "What else could cling to those rocks in a storm and lure ships to their doom?"
"What happens to the men on the ships?" Susan asked, "what do the survivors tell?"
"There were only three survivors last night and they didn't remember anything but the lights," Peter said, "The rest all drowned or were beaten to death on the rocks."
There was a moment of silence and Lucy, trying to shake the darkness of the wreckers from her shoulders, seized it.
"We are going to get the Christmas tree today?"
"Of course," Peter said, laughing, "In fact, if you'll put your boots and cloak on, we'll leave at once."
Lucy had often thought that during winter, night was the most magical time of all, night when the snow glittered like fairies' wings under the moon and the stars looked down on a silent, beautiful world.
But as the horses threw themselves into the harness, the bells danced and the sleigh runners sang, Lucy thought that the day could be magical too. It was all cold blue sky and snow, deep with blue shadows and twinkling sparks of light. The horses snorted, sending clouds of mist into the sharp, clear air. Nothing seemed to be any particular color, or at least, when Lucy tried to name a color, she could not. The snow was alive with every color, deepened by blue shadows and to the right; the sea gleamed gray and blue, iridescent as the feathers on a peacock's breast.
Nearly everyone from Cair Paravel came too, the snow behind the sleigh churned and flying as centaurs and unicorns dashed after them and squirrels, mice, bears, foxes, lions and every other kind of animal, ran to keep up. The gentlemen and ladies of the court reined in their steeds to keep pace with the flying sleigh and Lucy laughed with the sheer happiness of it.
Peter urged the horses on and they were galloping when they left the little town behind and reached the woods down the slope from Cair Paravel.
The forest was the most magical place of all. The trees bowed to them as they walked past, touching their branches to the snow and wishing them all the happiness in the world. The chickadees sang and darted through the air, while a buck froze to watch them, tiny hoof upraised, eye gleaming. Tiny bushes with bright berries were bowed, frozen in the snow and Lucy reached out to touch a twig so coated with ice it looked as if it were blown glass. The sun was low on the horizon and its slanting yellow rays lit the snow with a brilliance that made their hearts skip with the beauty. Long shadows crossed yellow light and the crowns of the trees seemed alight with the sun.
The party fell silent in the woods, treading softly after the four children as they plunged through knee deep snow. The centaurs' beards drifted in the soft wind and the fauns hugged themselves against the chill. Susan thought of another winter when they had walked through snow for miles before time had rushed forward and spring had come, Edmund remembered, with a shiver, darker, colder thoughts then Susan would ever have.
It was in a small sun-sparkled clearing that they saw what they came for. It was a tall, sharp fir tree, thirty feet or more, and beautiful as a ballet dancer. The branches hung heavy with snow as Peter respectfully went forward and knocked on the trunk. No one answered and as they cast around, the other trees in the area informed them that that particular tree was deserted and had been for some time. A rabbit, shaking snow out of his ears as he came out of his hole, agreed with them, pointing out that the dryad had left last year for a sunnier climate.
"Well then," Edmund said, smiling and presently, the dwarfs came forward, their axes flashing and swung and swung until at last, the tree groaned, swayed for a moment and fell, magnificent to the end. The centaurs charged forward with ropes, to lash around the base of the trunk and a moment later, they were hauling the tree through the woods. Everyone else ran alongside, and when Lucy stumbled, she found herself swung astride the trunk by one of the centaurs. She clutched the nearest branch, laughing.
As they approached the town, Lucy subconsciously slid off the branch and galumphed to the little shop front she had seen last night. She didn't know what drew her, but she desperately wanted just another look at the nutcracker. Yet, she knew something was dreadfully wrong when she reached the window. No flash of red met her eyes, only the pinched, white faces of the china dolls. The place where the nutcracker had stood was empty.
"Oh!" Lucy gasped, "Oh!"
"What is it?"
She looked up to see Peter and his happy face made her suddenly ashamed of the tear that tricked down her nose and dripped off the end.
"Oh Lucy! You're not crying!" he cried, kneeling down, "What happened?"
"The nutcracker! It's – it's gone!" she choked. "It was there last night!"
"It's just a nutcracker," Edmund said lightly, then made a strange choking sound when Peter gave him a hooded glance.
"Tell you what," Edmund added, suddenly grinning, "We'll make you one."
"Whatever happens, you mustn't cry," Susan said nonchalantly, wiping Lucy's tears away. "Just think how much someone must be enjoying the nutcracker. That must make you happy."
"It doesn't," Lucy wailed then wailed all the louder when she caught sight of Peter's face. If she didn't know better, she would have thought he was smiling.
Author's Note: If you consult your calender, you'll find out that today, the 13th of December is the feast of St. Lucy (or Lucia, whichever you prefer). Though I'm not into the creepy back story about pulling out eyes and all that, I was reminded that 'Lucy' means 'light'. I couldn't leave it alone (not to mention that Rose has been after me to write a Christmas story). The 13th was originally thought to be the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) now we know it falls more around the 20th.
Wreckers were active in Cornwall in the 18th century, as well as other places like the Caribbean, Canada, the American Colonies ect... It was piracy, hand in glove with the marine salvagers who steal ships that are left high and dry at low tide on the norfolk broads (and other places.)