Sunday, December 5, 2010

Ghosts of Yule

By Colyne Stewart, Dec AS XXXVII

Based on Charles Dickin’s “A Christmas Carol”

Once there lived on the Cliffs of Ardchreag a miserable old miser. He was a twisted husk of a man, with long wispy hair and a hawkish nose whose lined face had not known a smile for many, many years. Originally from Italy he still wore his courtier’s garb, but it was neglected and holes were worn through it in many places. For a home he had a grand manor, though he refused to staff it or maintain it. The grounds were over run with dark trees and choking bushes. The house was dimly lit, the fireplace, when lit, belching thick greasy smoke. No one knew what had made this man, called Barbus, behave this way. He had been so as far back as any of the cliff dwellers could remember. All year round he was arrogant, mean and foul tempered. At Yule he was at his worst, for the joy and delight others felt at that time of year only seemed to stoke the fires of his anger and loathing.

Barbus owned the local flourmill, and employed several of the poorer members of the populace. Poorer, as Barbus was a stingy and greedy employer who hated to part with a single penny. A mangy donkey was also often employed to turn the wheel whenever the human workers took their all too infrequent breaks. Barbus had heard of using a windmill to turn the wheel, but refused to pay to have one installed. If he did not love money more than he hated Yule he would have closed up shop in December. Most of the flour he ground was used to bake treats in Yulish celebrations, an act he abhorred. Still, money was money.

On the day before the winter solstice, Barbus was paid a visit by Brandt das Lederwerker, the local castellan. Brandt, as part of his duties, had come to invite the old miser to a Yule party to be held at the canton’s grand keep. As was his wont in year’s past, Barbus declined, going so far as to throw a piece of coal at the good castellan. Brandt, being a chivalrous fellow, ignored this show of ill temper, wished Barbus a prosperous Yule and left. Thankful the irksome castellan was gone, Barbus began to yell at his workers, whom he considered lazy, when there was another knock at the mill’s door.

This time the opened portal revealed Her Grace, Duchess Eanor of Amberhall. Barbus quickly sketched a perfunctory bow as the Duchess told him she was collecting items to distribute to those less fortunate members of the populace. As she went on she noticed Barbus’ face getting darker and darker until finally she stammered to a halt. Very slowly, Barbus closed the door in her face.

“Gods!” he railed, “Why am I to suffer the attentions of fools!” He kicked at his donkey for a moment, and felt better for it.

When the day was done, and Barbus finally let his workers leave, he shuffled through the snow towards his own abode. When he arrived he climbed up the stairs and sat before a fireplace, which contained just enough fuel to burn lowly and not a twig more. As he sat he nibbled on some crumbly cheese and sipped a cup of tepid tea. Soon his head began to nod and he was almost asleep when he heard a strange noise. Rousing, he stood and glanced about the shadowed room.

“Who is there?” he called, picking up a cane. “Come out or so help me you will receive a thrashing as you have never had before.”

Slowly a figure appeared in the darkness by the window, advancing upon him. Barbus squinted as he thrust a candle forward, trying to perceive the stranger’s face. The candle’s light illuminated a tall man dressed in rags, and the wall behind him, for the light passed through his body as if he was not there at all.

“Greetings,” said the specter. “Greetings, Barbus.”

“Who are you?” stammered the old man. “What do you want here?”

“I have come bearing a warning,” said the spirit, smiling to reveal rotted teeth. “A warning from beyond, to change your ways before you end up as I.”

“And who may you be, sir?” Barbus asked quietly.

“I am known to all and sundry who dwell on the High Cliffs. My name is Ruprecht, called the Cockentrice.”

Barbus gasped. Here before him stood the most vile and despicable man to ever call the cliffs home. The Cockentrice, named after a pork and fowl food dish, had been a rich merchant who was renowned for his cruelty and violent nature. He was greedy, as a pig, and as foul as a bird. When he had died none had mourned and his body had been tossed in a bog.

Ruprecht told Barbus of the horrors he had suffered after death, of the toil and pain inflicted upon him by those some call devils, and other valkeries. Pointing a wormy finger, the Cockentrice told Barbus that those tormenting creatures had been discussing his own soul as of late. If he did not change his ways he too would end up as a plaything for the horned and winged ones.

The miser was not inclined to believe such nonsense, and told Ruprecht to be off. With a small smile the Cockentrice told him that he would be visited by three spirits that night, who would come in guises of those known to him. With a final leering grin the specter suddenly vanished.

Finding himself alone, Barbus began to disbelieve what he had just seen. The Cockentrice was long dead; he could not have just been in his room.

A small laugh made Barbus swing around. Standing by the fireplace stood a young woman dressed in white. She held a broom in one hand and a fiery glow surrounded her head like a nimbus.

“Katerina du nord?” said Barbus, naming one of the Cliffs newest members.

Smiling she walked towards him saying, “Nay, though I have appeared in her image. I am the Ghost of Yules Past. I have come to show you yours.” So saying she took hold of his hand and they floated through his closed window and up into the night sky. As they flew Barbus watched the ground slip past beneath them. His eyes boggled as he saw houses slowly unbuild themselves, fields grow over with tall trees and bridges shrink to nothing. Soon the cliffs looked much as they had when he had been a lad, just arrived from Italy. In those days Ardchreag had not existed as its own entity yet, but were lands claimed by the far off citie of Eoforwic. Still, many had lived along the bluffs and it was to these wild lands that Barbus had come as a young man.

The ghostly Katerina took him to a port, where several ships bobbed in icy waters. Upon reaching a large warehouse, she instructed him to look inside. Doing so he saw a great party underway. People danced and sang and caroused; the walls were hung with torches, evergreen and red berries. Tables were laden with food and minstrels pranced through the dancing crowd, plucking at instruments and singing. Dragging him through the wall, Katerina pointed out a solitary figure in a corner patching a fishing net. Barbus recognized the young man as himself. Whenever someone came over to the young Barbus and asked him to dance, or tried to engage him in conversation or a game, he would sneer at them and drive them off.

“You were a lonely boy,” said the ghost.

“Yes,” acknowledged Barbus. “No one else really liked me.”

“What I see is a boy afraid to like anyone else, in the fear that upon knowing him, they may not like him.” Katerina looked into Barbus’ bleak eyes. “You were alone because you wanted to be alone.”

Before Barbus could refute her statement, a young woman came and sat beside his younger self.

“Alone except for her,” continued Katerina. “The one who loved you, whom you drove away.”

The scene about them changed as the two young people embraced and aged. Soon they were standing along the edge of the cliffs, hand in hand, now not a young man and woman, but a man and a woman. As Barbus and the ghost watched the woman and the past Barbus had an argument over money, for Barbus refused to pay for a wedding. Their voices raised and finally the woman stalked off, crying, and Barbus choked as he remembered that Yule, so long ago, when he had lost his only love through his passion for coin. The past Barbus took a sprig of holly off his breast and threw it from the cliff.

Crying now himself, Barbus turned to Katerina to find himself standing once again in his room. He wiped his face with the sash of his dressing gown when he again heard a laugh. This one came from downstairs and was deep and resounding. Cautiously, he walked down the stairs and found a fire lit in the main fireplace. The room was hung with decorations and a pile of food and toys lay on the floor. Sitting atop this treasure was Wulfgang Donnerfaust, dressed in a green robe trimmed with white fur. He held a burning torch and wore an evergreen crown adorned with candles on his head. Barbus knew this was not really Wulfgang, but the second ghost.

“I am the Ghost of Yule Present,” said the spirit, confirming the old man’s thoughts. “I have come to show you what you miss.” Standing up the giant man strode towards the manor’s doors and flung them wide. With a large hand he waved Barbus outside.

Stepping out into the night, Barbus followed Wulfgang down the streets of Ardchreag’s main settlement until they reached the Middlefield Keep. Banging open the door, Wulfgang ushered Barbus inside where a grand party was underway. Candles and fires flared, food lay everywhere and the sounds of merriment filled the air. Barbus saw almost all the populace of the canton crammed within the keep’s walls. There was Iolanda de Albornoz, quaffing great quantities of fermented milk; and there was Thorfinna gra’feldr and Mahault van der Eych laughing as they tossed axes at targets on the wall. Colyne Stewart and Eirik Andersen were bent over a game board while behind them Wat of Sarum and Lina Carville were dancing a jig. William the Younger flourished a new sword, Siegfried Brandbeorn and Isotta Giangfliazzi led others in black nag, Vlad and Brandt discussed armour, Rosalinde strode bearing trays of steaming hot cookies. Everywhere the populace was engaged in activities that brought them merriment.

“You could be here,” said Wulfgang, “instead of home alone.”

“They would not want me here,” muttered Barbus. “I am despised.”

“Not true,” responded the ghost. “If you were not wanted here, would you have been personally invited to attend? Listen, even now they talk of you.”

In a corner Piero di Paxiti da Vincenza and Marian of Heatherdale were indeed speaking of Barbus, wishing that he had come and spent the season among friends instead of alone.

“Among friends?” whispered Barbus.

“Indeed,” said Wulfgang. “Do not be so quick to assume that you are disliked. Now come, we have another party to see this night.”

Once again the ghost led Barbus through the streets until they reached an orphanage. Inside, Eanor of Amberhall and several others were distributing toys and clothes to the children. A creeping feeling of guilt assailed Barbus as he saw their little faces light up as each received a small gift.

“So little makes them so happy,” he said. “And I who have so much am so unhappy. With my money I could have given them much, much more.”

The ghost said nothing, placing a heavy hand on Barbus’ shoulder. When the old man reached up to touch it, it felt chill. Looking at his shoulder he saw naught but a small pile of snow. Spinning around he again found himself in his rooms.

“This has been a very odd night,” he said. “I suppose soon I will see the final spirit.”

As if his words had summoned it, an armour clad figure, visor obscuring its face, spring from the gloom. A white hooded tabard rustled as it approached.

“You would be the Ghost of Yules Yet to Come?” asked Barbus. He was answered by a silent nod. “You have come to show me my future?” Again there was a nod. “Then led on, spirit, for I am not afraid.”

Fog began to pour from the holes in the figure’s visor and soon the room was wrapped in it. When it finally blew clear Barbus found himself standing before the Middlefield Keep. No music could be heard, nor laughter. A half burnt log lay in the snow by the doors.

“What is this?” he asked. “What manner of Yule has no singing, no music?” The armoured ghost pointed at the doors, which blew open. Hesitantly, Barbus crept inside.

Within he found the keep in disarray. Tables were over turned and chairs were choked by cobwebs. Standing looking over the mess were two figures Barbus did not recognize.

“A shame,” said the first, who wore a golden crown. “It was such a good canton.”

“These thing happen, Excellency,” said the second, who wore a kingdom badge.

“Damn,” said the Baron. “If only that miser had not bled the lands dry. The populace could have stayed…”

“As it is the populace does not want to stay. There are too many bad memories.”

Sighing, the Baron said, “Let’s get this over with. Burn it down.”

Barbus retreated outside, cringing and close to tears. He clutched at the ghost’s tabard and rasped, “It cannot be! Say it is not so! I cannot be responsible for the death of Ardchreag! It was my first home here!”

Ignoring his entreaties, the ghost took his elbow and dragged him back into the fog. When they emerged once more they stood before the orphanage, its doors barred. The point made the ghost forceabaly shoved Barbus into the fog again, this time to emerge on the edge of a bog.

Standing knee deep in water Barbus looked up into the ghost’s unseen face. “Why are we here? Here, of all places?”

Silently, the ghost pointed at the dark slimy water by Barbus’s feet. Something was floating on the surface. Reaching out with a tentative hand, Barbus pulled up the edge of a black burlap sack. The sack was heavy, its load pulling it underwater.

“No,” whispered Barbus.

The ghost nodded.

“No,” he repeated. The ghost placed a cold gauntleted hand on the back of his neck, and, crying, Barbus pulled open the sack. Inside he saw a body, one that wore his face.

With a strangling cry Barbus stumbled backwards and fell into the freezing water. He felt hands grabbing at his ankles, pulling him down and he struggled and splashed until he found himself sitting up in his bath at home. He felt himself all over, then jumped up and ran to the window throwing it open.

Down in the street a boy dressed in heavy woolen tunics was passing.

“Boy!” called Barbus. “What day is this?”

The boy looked frightened at being addressed by someone with Barbus’ reputation but said, “The winter solstice, sir.”

“I did not miss it,” whispered Barbus. “And I can change.” To the boy he said, “Take this purse, and buy me food and toys and clothes. Meet me back here and there’s more in it for you.”

As he caught the tossed purse in his hand the boy, emboldened, asked, “What is it all for, sir?”

“For those less fortunate than you or I, my lad,” was the answer.

Tying the pouch to his belt the boy said, “Then I’ll do it for nothing, sir.” And off he ran.

Barbus quickly groomed himself, and finding that all his clothes were in a sorry state, ran straight off to a tailor’s. Within an hour he had returned wearing bright new garb in greens and reds and whites. He found the boy, and many more besides, standing in his yard holding many packages. More lay in wagons.

“That was quite the purse, sir,” said the boy. “I had to get some of the lads to help me carry it all.”

“Good thinking, my boy,’ said Barbus. “We shall need the help to distribute it all. This way.” So saying Barbus led the strange parade down the streets towards the orphanage where he found Her Grace handing out toys. She seemed dumbfounded when Barbus arrived with his gifts, but cheerfully accepted them. Smiling, she, Barbus and his lads gave all the orphans gifts. Then, Barbus had them all travel with him to the Middlefield Keep where they found Brandt, Wulfgang and others preparing for the Yule. More gifts were handed out, and Barbus had food brought in for the feast. The word spread of the old miser’s change of heart and the entire populace gathered that night to celebrate.

From that day forward Barbus was a changed man. He was kind, gentle and generous and made it a point to travel each Yule upon his donkey to deliver toys and clothes to the underprivileged of the land. As time passed he became stout, growing a beard and wearing the green and white of the Ghost of Yule Present. To this day the legend of Barbus is still told, though often in different ways.

A Happy Yule to All.

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