A great hollow boom sounded inside, followed by the slide of the heavy bolt that held the doors closed. A slash of warm light struck the wide stone porch as the doors creaked and opened only just wide enough for one person—a thin person—to pass through sideways. An old man wearing a felt cap, a quilted coat and a pair of thick slippers stuck his face through the gap.
“Merry Christmas, Godfrey,” Walter said.
“Walter! Come in, come in and be quick! Don’t let all the heat out, the frost is cruel this evening!”
Godfrey stepped aside and let Walter through. He pushed the doors closed so fast that Walter had to tug at the tails of his greatcoat to keep it from getting caught. He turned to thank Godfrey but the old man was already shuffling off into a candle-lit alcove where a book and a bowl of soup awaited him.
From the front doors a wide stair led down to the floor of a long high chamber with arches and columns up the sides. The ceiling was lost in the shadow above because the massive chandelier had been lowered to have its candles changed. Tall doors led from the entry hall into the various reaches of the castle and the people of the king’s house came and went with smiles and laughter.
Great fires burned in all the fireplaces around the hall and the king’s hounds lay in piles before them. They were curled and stretched and twisted into all manner of sleepy poses. One of them looked up at Walter and slapped its tail against the ground before laying its head down again.
Mistletoe hung above all the doorways, and every post and beam was wrapped with red-berried holly. Candles lit every alcove. Fir fronds were strewn about the floor. And the smells of spice and baking drifted up from the kitchens.
A group of men stood in the middle of the hall, gathered around the great iron chandelier on the floor. Some of them were installing fresh candles into the dark sockets that were fastened to the flat hoops and curved bars. Others were busy carving the butts of the candles to fit just right, and the stone tiles at their feet were scattered with the wax shavings that fell from their knives.
Ursula, the keeper of the king’s house, entered the hall clutching the front of her skirt in her hands. She went about at a busy pace inspecting all the work that was happening. She nodded and pointed and waved people to and fro, and when she came to the men working with the chandelier she looked up and spotted Walter at the top of the stair.
“Walter,” she called from the center of the hall, “is that a sword you’re wearing?”
“Yes, ma’am it is,” Walter said as his hand strayed to the hilt.
“You will remove it at once and leave it with Godfrey. You may wear it inside the castle with the king’s permission and not before. Do you understand?”
“Godfrey,” Ursula shouted. “Come along now! Take Walter’s sword and pay closer attention to the comings and goings of this house.”
“Steady now!” she said, returning her attention to the men working the chandelier. “Those candles will topple and break. Do you want that taken from your pay?”
Godfrey emerged from his alcove with a dark look on his face. He shuffled up to Walter and held out his hand. Walter unbuckled his sword belt and handed the whole rig to the doorman.
“You should have told me you were armed, Walter,” the doorman said. “I’m supposed to take stock of that sort of thing.”
“I’m sorry, Godfrey.”
“It’s just now I look bad.”
“No time to lose, now, Walter,” Ursula called. “Go and tell the king you’re back.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Walter called. “I really am sorry,” he said to Godfrey.
“Never mind,” the man said as he walked away. “Welcome back, I suppose.”
Walter shrugged and smiled at the old man. He went down the stairs and headed for the back of the hall.
“Straight to the king,” Ursula said as Walter passed the work around the chandelier. She did not look up but kept her eyes on the list in her hand.
Walter nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Walter,” Ursula said.
Walter smiled. “Thank you ma’am. Merry Christmas to you.”
The lower levels of the castle bustled with people intent on the work of the evening’s celebration. The second day of Christmas, the Feast of Stephen, was always marked by a party for the king’s household. They joined in the great hall for singing and dancing and games, a great fire and a night of storytelling.
At seven o’clock the work would stop. At seven-thirty the people of the king’s house would gather in the great hall and at eight o’clock sharp the singing would begin. Glad as he was to have gone home for Christmas day, Walter was excited and eager for his first Christmastide as a member of the king’s house.
The rest of the season would be spent giving parties and feasts for other people. On the fourth day of Christmas—the Feast of the Holy Innocents—the king gave a party for all the children of his kingdom. The inns and hostels of the town were already filled with families who had journeyed in from the hinterlands and distant towns. Walter’s chief duty that night would be to lead all the children on a tour of the castle. His friends would be there and they would all see him in his uniform and sword.
Everyone in the castle knew Walter. When twice he caught young couples under the mistletoe, they greeted him by name and wished him merry Christmas before joining hands to run off in search of another doorway. With every step he took toward the chambers of the king Walter felt more at home.
As he climbed higher it became more quiet and fewer people happened by. The halls were decorated and candle lit, but with less extravagance. Passage after passage, stair after winding stair went by as Walter climbed up to the quarters of the king. At the top of the last stair he stopped and listened. He could hear no sound from the boisterous activity below.
The hall where he stood was lit by a modest Advent wreath with four white candles on a table of black stone. The candles had been lit by the king himself at the hour of sunset, and it was the only Christmas decoration he permitted in his quarters.
Walter crept past the wreath as quietly as he could, and paused at the king’s door to fix his shirt. He raised his fist slowly and it crossed his mind that his new life at the castle was about to begin for good. He knocked three times as Ursula had instructed him to do.
“Come in, Walter!”
Walter smiled at the booming sound of the king’s voice. It often seemed as if King Wenceslas was about to sing. And sometimes he did.
Walter opened the door and stepped inside. “Sire?” he called.
“On the balcony!”
The main chamber of the kings apartments had a library at one end, a great desk at the other, and a fireplace with comfortable chairs in the middle. The furniture was all dark polished wood and there were suits of armor in all the corners. The only light in the room was a deep bed of glowing coals in the great fireplace.
Walter always stopped at the sight of the king’s sword. It was called Brunswick, and it hung on a wooden rack above the mantle piece. It was long and straight and had a silver-studded sheath to which its hilt was bound with a white ribbon.
As he crossed the room, Walter stopped for a closer look at the sword. On its hilt and crosspiece was the likeness of a lion with two tails, the emblem of Bohemia. Walter leaned down to set a chunk of oak on the coals. He watched the sparks race up the chimney, then stood and turned to the open balcony door.
The king was barefoot in the snow on the balcony, wearing only his nightshirt in the bitter cold. His long hair and shaggy beard were still wet from his bath and ice beads formed at the ends. He was a young man, not yet thirty years old, and he was very big and strong.
“You’re just in time, Walter!” the king said without turning to look. He was staring at something in the distance. “Come and stand by me. Do you see that peasant yonder?”
On a neighboring hill Walter saw a single torch emerge from a copse of trees. In the faint light Walter could see the man who held it. He stooped to put an armload of branches into a basket he’d set in the snow, and when he’d finished he turned and entered the stand of trees again.
“I do, sire.”
“Do you know him? Who is he and where does he live?”
“That must be Tom Whit sire. My father knows him. He lives a league from here at least. His house stands against the fence of the Forest, by the Fountain of St. Agnes.”
“The Fountain of St. Agnes?” the king said. “Underneath the Mountain?”
The king frowned at the dark shape of the Mountain off to the west. The thick blackness of the Forest spread out around it like an apron of shadow. The moon was high and bright now, and in the town below the church bell chimed faintly the hour of six o’clock.
“All that way for wood?”
“People often come to that place for firewood, sire,” Walter said. “The ancient pines are dense and the snow does not settle beneath them. The wood is easier to find.”
“My lord king?” called a voice from the room inside. It was Ursula the keeper of the house. “My lord, will you come and take your supper?”
“Supper?” the king muttered, still looking at the little flickering torch on the hilltop.
Tom Whit emerged from the pine trees again. This time he hoisted the basket onto his back and set off through the snow, trudging along under the weight of his winter fuel.
Ursula stuck her head out the open door into the cold. “My lord, All your heat will escape.”
“Supper!” the king said. He slapped his great hand against the railing. “Of course!”
“Sire?” Walter said.
The king opened his arms and called out in a voice like song. “Bring meat and wine! Bread and pastry!”
“Your majesty?” Ursula said, stepping backward into the inner chamber.
“A feast!” the king shouted, stepping in after her. “Prepare a feast! Prepare a feast at once! And wood! Bring me logs of pine for heat on the quick and oak to last the night!”
Walter smiled at the sudden joy of his master and chased the man inside. “Sire,” he shouted, “what do you intend?”
“Yonder peasant, Walter, yonder peasant. We two shall see him dine this night. We shall bring him meat and wine and a splendid fire to warm his house!”
“Tonight?” Ursula said. “But sire, your supper is waiting, and your household awaits the celebration. This is the second day of Christmas, sire, the Feast of St. Stephen.”
“My dear Ursula,” the king replied gently. “My eyes have fallen upon a man in need. Would you have me look away?”
Walter felt taller by at least an inch simply to stand beside the king at that moment. Ursula went shame faced and looked down at her hands.
“No sire,” she said. “Of course not.”
The king laughed and kissed the top of her head. “In that case, my good woman,” he said. “Bring me my cap and mittens.”