Walter buttoned his collar down and tucked in the tails of his shirt. The crisp white linen was bright against the gray wool of his trousers. He pulled on the red double-breasted jacket—so new it was still stiff—and the silky lining let it slide easily over his shirt. It all fit him perfectly, and as he fastened the big silver buttons, Walter stared into the mirror at the white lion that decorated the breast if his jacket. Two tails and a golden crown. The symbol of Bohemia.
Behind him was the short sword his parents had given him for Christmas. It lay on the bed with its scabbard beside it. Walter spotted them in the mirror, turned to pick them up, and slid the sword home with a snap. A sword of his own. Walter took a deep, satisfied breath. He still could not believe he’d been chosen.
It seemed like a dream even after six months of service. And it was this very day, the Feast of St. Stephen, a whole year before when his good fortune had been announced—he was to serve until his sixteenth birthday as page to King Wenceslas the First.
Christmas had been extra special this year. After a whole summer away from his parents, Walter got to spend the fourth week of Advent at home. He saw his friends at the town festival and woke in his own bed on Christmas morning. But it was to be the last time, so he was extra careful to enjoy it while it lasted.
It had been a fine time. The early evenings and candle light of Advent always stirred with mystery. Walter went about with a sense that something was about to happen that had never happened before.
But he loved the Twelve Days of Christmas even more than Advent. They had all the same hush and mystery, but they were happier and without all the waiting. This year, for the first time, Walter noticed when his mother replaced the pink and purple candles in the Advent wreath with the white candles of Christmas.
And it crossed his mind, also for the first time, that all that Advent waiting was one reason why Christmas was such a pleasure. But the idea did not last long. Today was the second day of Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day, and Walter was expected at the castle.
He was a little sad to miss the rest of the season at home. The Twelve Days of Christmas were the very best days of the year in Bohemia. There were lots of little parties and the town festivities always meant later bedtimes and snowball fights. But the king had invited Walter’s parents to the castle for The Feast of the Holy Family, so he would see them again soon, and they would sit to his right and left at the banquet.
They were waiting for him by the front door of their little house. His father was seated on the bench pulling on his boots. His mother stood by with Walter’s heavy uniform great coat in her hands and smiled as Walter sat down next to his father to pull his own boots on.
“It’s been a fine Christmas, Walter,” his father said. “Please thank the king again for allowing you to come home.”
“I will,” Walter said.
“We’ll see you soon enough,” his mother said, helping Walter into the sleeves of his coat. Walter turned so she could hang it across his shoulders. “Only a few days now. Have you got your cap and mittens?”
“Here,” Walter said.
As he fastened the buttons of his coat, he suddenly wanted to cry at the thought of leaving home again. Instead he dug his hands into the deep pockets and pulled out the thick fur-lined mittens and the long stocking cap with its tassel. He held them up to show his mother and when he met her eyes and saw them full of tears he couldn’t help himself.
Walter’s father stood from the bench. He opened his arms and embraced his wife and son together. “All very happy,” he said, “and a little sad as well. The best times are often like that I’m afraid. Even Christmas.”
When Walter’s father released them, Walter clung to his mother for a while longer. Then she pressed him back and gripped his shoulders.
“Look at you in your uniform,” she said. “Such a fine young man you are Walter. And taller than me now.”
Walter smiled and nodded but he was afraid to speak for fear his voice would crack. He twisted his face to hold back the tears and nodded. As always his father came to his rescue.
“Now let’s get that sword belt fastened. I’ve been waiting all week to see you wear it with your uniform.”
Walter lifted his arms as his father looped the belt around him, on the outside of the coat.
“Remember to ask the king for permission to wear that sword in the castle,” his father said. “You know it’s a privilege only he can grant.”
“I’ll remember,” Walter said. “I’ll ask the first I see him.”
“Good,” Walter’s father said. “Now we really should be going. I have the evening rounds to make and you have duties of your own.”
“I expect I’ll have books to shelve in the king’s library.”
Walter’s mother stepped into a pair of furry boots and wrapped a blanket around her. She handed Walter a basket covered with a cloth, and whatever lay beneath was still warm.
“I will see you to the end of the walk,” she said. “But I’m sure it’s too cold for tears by now.”
“Yes, mother,” Walter said. “Thank you for the cake.”
“Be certain to share.”
As night watchman and lamplighter, Walter’s father spent three nights each week walking the streets of the town. Every hour he announced the time and called out the state of the peace. He was chief of the West End, so he carried a cudgel and a pair of pistols, and wore a breastplate.
But Walter’s favorite part of his father’s job was the fact the he kept the lamps burning. Sometimes, at night, Walter would look down at the town from the castle, and seeing the candles would make him feel close to his father.
They walked together into the cold night. Walter looked back at the old row house with its bent chimney and the heavy slate roof. He already missed his little room and the patch of yard in the back. His mother watched him go and waved, and she was still standing at the end of the walk when Walter and his father turned the corner.
The buildings of Prague were all stone with slate roofs, and the streets were all of cobblestone. Candles lit every window and filled the diamond shaped panes with warm yellow light that spilled out onto the snow-covered sidewalks. Every post and fence pole was wrapped with evergreen or touched with red ribbons and silver bells.
Above the town, on top of a neighboring hill, stood the castle. Candlelight shone in all the tall windows, flames flickered on the battlements, and watchfires lit the walls and front gate. A single line of torches stood across the face of the hill to mark the road and the whole scene was alive with mysterious shadows—Christmas shadows, Walter called them—and he loved them best when all the lights were put out except the candles on the Christmas tree.
At the town square a great crowd of carolers had gathered around the frozen fountain. They stood in groups talking and bracing themselves against the cold. They laughed and smiled and called out to each other as they waited for the organizers to get them started.
Several young men moved through the crowd handing out candles. They lit them with tapers and the carolers passed the flame from one candle to the next. Walter watched as the little dots of light spread and multiplied until every mittened hand held a lit candle and the crowd became more quiet.
Walter’s father turned and waved goodbye. He set off to begin his rounds by lighting the lamps that surrounded the frozen fountain. As Walter made for the bridge and the road that led up to the castle he heard his father call the first hour of the watch.
“Five o’clock and all is well, a happy Stephen’s Day to all!”
The carolers responded with a cheer and broke suddenly into song and Walter could still hear them, though he could no longer make out the words, as he passed through the gates of the town.
He crossed the bridge over the river and there were sleigh bells. Walter stepped aside and leaned on the stone wall of the bridge to watch a great sleigh pass by, drawn by two huge woolly horses. It was on its way up the hill to the castle and the drivers waved at Walter as they passed.
“Merry Christmas to you!” they called.
“And to you!” Walter shouted back.
“Care for a lift up the hill?”
“No, thank you,” Walter shouted. “I like the walk!”
“Ah, well, your youth keeps you warm, I suppose!”
Sleigh after sleigh swept past Walter on the snow-packed road to the castle. In the kingdom of Bohemia, each of the Twelve Days of Christmas was another celebration and supplies were in constant demand throughout the season. The sleighs jingled by on their polished runners filling the orders the king had placed months before with the merchants of the town.
The torches that marked the road were as tall as Walter. Even in the light of the moon the drivers found them helpful because the downward side of the road was a dangerous drop. The torches fenced off the edge of the road all the way around the hill and up to the front gate.
Walter looked down on the candle-lit town as he made his way up the long slope. It looked like the embers of a campfire in the deep dark of nighttime. Just faintly, he could still hear the singing of the carolers as it drifted up on the frigid breeze, and he watched the lights of the West End come up one-by-one as his father went about his work. At last Walter turned and approached the front gate of the castle.
Two great watchfires flanked the castle gate and set the shadows dancing. The heavy portcullis hung open and a huge wreath was fastened to it. A sleigh came up the road behind Walter and glided to a stop as Vaclav, the king’s captain, stepped up to speak to the driver.
Vaclav was a small man, many years older than Walter’s father. He wore a sword that seemed far too large for him, and a great heavy mustache covered much of his mouth and chin. He was merry as always and his voice made Walter feel welcome, even though he was talking to someone else.
Like all the guards, Captain Vaclav was dressed in special livery for the Twelve Days. He wore a sprig of holly at his breast and his sword was tied into its scabbard in with a white ribbon to symbolize the peace of the season. He carried a long musket, taller than himself, and was crack shot. With his own eyes Walter had seen him shoot out the flame of a candle from fifty yards.
“Good lad, Walter,” Vaclav said as he waved the sleigh forward. “Merry Christmas to you.”
Walter smiled and nodded as he passed. “Merry Christmas to you, Captain Vaclav. Are you inspecting all the deliveries yourself?”
“No, just taking my turn. Lots more traffic this time of year. How was your time at home?”
“Just fine, sir,” Walter said.
“Very good. Welcome back!”
Inside the courtyard men were still working to clear the cobblestones of the deep snow that fell the previous week. It was so heavy they used a team of horses to pull a plow they’d built for the purpose. Tall piles of snow lay against the walls and the castle guards carved paths into them up to the parapets to use as shortcuts to their lookout stations.
The plowmen waved to Walter as he crossed toward the main entrance to the castle. He stepped onto the cleared area and stomped the snow from his boots.
“Look here, I just cleared that spot!” one of the plowmen called.
Walter looked up ready to apologize but the men were smiling and leaning on their shovels. Walter shaped a snowball and threw it, and the nearest man swapped it out of the air with his shovel. They all waved Walter on and when his back was turned they let loose with a barrage of snowballs that sent him running.
He was still shaking his fist at them as he took the first of the wide stairs that led up to the front door of the castle. It was a huge paneled door with heavy hinges and wide iron straps. Walter lifted the knocker and let it drop.