Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christmas With the Highwaymen

As a special holiday treat for everyone, I decided to write a short Christmas story with the characters from my book, Ballad of the Highwayman. This one is kind of a filler between book one and book two which is not yet written, but it holds no spoilers, so if you have not read the original book, it will not matter. Eventually, I hope to write a lot of filler stories, both before the first book and between the two, and maybe even some after the second one, and publish them as an anthology once I finish the sequel. This is the first of those little stories, and I hope you all enjoy it!
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A Christmas to Remember
Kilroy Allen rode through town on his way back home from picking up a few things Sylvia had asked him to get for supper. It was already dark, the days being shorter this time of year, and his horse, Horatius’ breath clouded in the cold night air. He leaned over and patted the horse on the neck.
“It will snow within the next couple of days, my boy,” he told him gently and then pulled his cloak closer around himself. It really was cold, but it felt good, and he was happy. It was the first Christmas he would spend with Sylvia in their lovely house since the old days when they were children. And Jeffcoat’s bride, Poppy, who he had married that summer much to everyone’s joy. Kilroy was certainly glad his old partner in crime had found someone to settle down with as well. 
A band of carolers were strolling down the street in front of the warmly lit windows of houses and shops, singing carols heartily. It was a good time to be merry again. The last few years after Cromwell’s death had been much merrier by far since King Charles II had brought back Christmas celebration and merrymaking. Kilroy reached into his purse and tossed several coins into the hat of a lad who was singing with the carolers and the boy touched his forelock and grinned at him.
Kilroy was just passing his old apartment when he caught sight of a slumped figure sitting on the side of the street by the stables next door to his former housing. He pulled up and the small figure looked up at him in slight surprise. Kilroy himself was none the less so.
“George, lad!” he cried. “What are you doing out here in the cold, it’s freezing!”
“I was just sitting out here Mr. Allen,” he said nonchalantly but before he turned his head back down, Kilroy caught sight of bruising on the left side of his face in a street light. He slid off his horse and crouched down next to the stable boy. George had always been a cheerful lad and had taken good care of Horatius when Kilroy used to stable him in the town livery. He did not like to see the boy so depressed and with marks of bad treatment to boot.
“Who did that to you, George?” he asked, unable to keep all the anger out of his voice.
“Oh, I bumped into a wall, Mr. Allen,” the boy told him with a shrug, but he winced and shivered. Kilroy took off his cloak and, to the boy’s protests, wrapped it around his shoulders.
“You don’t expect me to believe that, lad,” he said as he sat down next to him, taking his face gently so he could look into his eyes. “You know you can tell me.”
George sighed and looked down at his feet. “Mr. Ferris sold the livery a month ago because his sister lost her husband and he went to go live with her and help take care of her farm.  He offered to bring me with him, but I do love working with horses, and I didn’t think the new man would be like he turned out to be. He seemed fine at first, but afterward, he started drinking a lot and he would beat the horses for no reason. I didn’t like that and I tried to stop him, but he started to beat me instead. Now, he’s gone off to another town for the holidays and he left me here with no money. I don’t know what to do. I haven’t eaten all day.”
“Why didn’t you go to the Richards’ place?” Kilroy asked. “Mrs. Richards would give you something to eat. You know she wouldn’t turn you away whether you paid or not.”
George blushed slightly. “There’s been so many people there, I...I didn’t want them to think I was begging.”
Kilroy almost smiled at the lad’s sense of dignity and nodded in agreement. “Well, then you won’t have to. You’ll be my guest for the holidays, and afterward, I will find your employer and have words with him.”
“I couldn’t!” George protested. “I cannot impose upon you during your holiday!”
“You can hardly sit on the side of the street either,” Kilroy told him firmly and drew him up with an arm around his shoulders. “Come now. It’s Christmas Eve, and Poppy has a lovely supper planned for tonight. I just picked up some of Mrs. Dayley’s cider to go with it; you look like you could use some cider.”
George smiled for the first time and nodded. “I suppose if you invited me, I can hardly refuse.”
“You cannot,” Kilroy told him in a mock stern voice and lifted the boy, still wrapped tightly in his cloak, onto Horatius’ back. Kilroy mounted behind him and then was off back to the Davies’ mansion, eager to tuck into the meal that awaited them.
The big house was warmly lit as he rode into the yard and George helped him take care of Horatius and put a blanket over him as Kilroy filled his feeding trough with oats.
“Merry Christmas, old friend,” he told the horse with a friendly pat before he put a hand on George’s shoulder and led him inside.
The house was in a merry bustle. The halls had been decked throughly with holly berries and evergreen boughs. That, mixed with the smell of the cooking, brought an instant smile to George’s face and Kilroy grinned at him. “Come then, let’s get you cleaned up a bit before supper. I’ll see if Sylvia can find you something warmer to wear as well.”
They headed back to the kitchen and Kilroy caught sight of Roster Scarcliff lounging in the doorway under a sprig of mistletoe, watching the bustle in the room. He turned as he heard Kilroy growl slightly behind him and grinned in his usual charming way.
“Ah, Kilroy, don’t growl. We’re standing under the mistletoe. We should shake hands. You do know enemies meeting under the mistletoe should form a truce?”
“If you believed that was the only thing mistletoe was good for, I highly doubt you would be standing there,” Kilroy replied blandly. “The only women in there are married, my friend, and if you even dare kiss Sylvia on the cheek, I shall not honor any truce mistletoe might merit.” Roster shrugged, but moved out of the doorway. “Suit yourself, but I should warn you, Claude and Thomas will be coming later. And you know what Claude is like.”
Kilroy looked up at the mistletoe, considering taking it down when Roster caught sight of George. He grinned.
“Well, good eve, lad,” he said. “What are you doing here tonight?”
“He’s my guest for the holidays,” Kilroy told Roster.
“He looks like he could use a good square meal,” Sylvia commented coming over to them and kissing Kilroy quickly as he was still standing under the infamous sprig. She smiled down at George, taking in his ragged appearance that Kilroy could see all the more now that they were in the light. “Come, George, wash up before supper. And I’ll see if I can’t find you anything clean to wear.”
George thanked her and followed out of the room. Kilroy stepped into the kitchen with Roster to greet Jeffcoat and his wife Poppy who was pulling a meat pie out of the oven. He placed the cider on the flour-covered table and reached for a slice of ham when Poppy smacked his hand with her wooden spoon.
“Not yet!” she scolded him. “You men, get out of the kitchen!”
“Don’t worry,” Jeff laughed as Kilroy rubbed his smarting knuckles. “She did the same to me. Was that George you brought with you?”
Kilroy frowned and nodded. “Aye, it is. I found him sitting on the side of the road. That man who bought the livery from Ferris beat him. Drunkard too; you know the type.”
“I do,” Jeffcoat said darkly, immediately sober. Kilroy knew he had run away from a drunk employer himself to live as a poacher in the woods where Kilroy had found him when they were both boys. “I know the type all too well. Who is he?”
“His name’s Devlin,” Roster said. “I didn’t like the looks of him myself, but I had no idea he was beating the boy. If I had, I would have shown him a thing or two about beating.”
“We should pay him a visit,” Jeff said, his face flushed with anger. “I’d like to show him something myself.”
“Not now, Jeff dear,” Poppy told him, running a hand gently over his cheek as she passed him on her way to the oven. “Kilroy brought George here to make him feel better. Cheer up, love. After the holiday is over, you can go and beat the stuffing out of him.”
Jeff had to smile. “Very well, I’ll wait to beat him until after Christmas.”
“Lovely spirit,” Sylvia said blandly, though not without a smile, as she came back into the kitchen and took up the bottles of cider and several of wine that Kilroy had brought back. “Claude and Thom are here, Kilroy. George is with them right now.”
“Sylvia,” Kilroy told her with a serious expression. “Careful of the mistletoe.”
She laughed at him and patted his cheek gently. “I know how to deal with dear Claude, Roy. You know he means no harm.”
Kilroy snorted and then went out to greet his comrades before Poppy recruited him for table setting as she had done Roster and Jeff. 
He smiled to see George with a happy grin on his face as he was talking to the two highwaymen, Claude du Val, the dashing young Frenchman and Colonel Thomas Blood. The boy looked a lot cleaner though the bruises still spread across his left cheek and Kilroy had the suspicion that there were other bruises covered by his clothing. He was wearing an old outfit of Kilroy’s that had not fit him for years. He wondered at it still being there, but knew that Sylvia had her ways. With his hair brushed and wearing less shabby clothing, George looked warmer and a lot happier; he was laughing at a story Claude was telling him. Kilroy went forward to greet them and the two highwaymen clasped hands with their host, greeting him heartily.
“A present for you Kilroy,” Claude told him, holding up a bottle of wine. “I found this last week in a coach. It’s a vintage from France!”
“You found it, you say?” Kilroy asked with a raised brow, taking the bottle from the Frenchman. 
“You know how it works,” Claude told him with a wink.
“And Maguire sent a keg of his ale,” Thomas added, motioning to the small barrel sitting beside him. Kilroy thanked him. They were all in agreement that the Irishman who ran the highwaymen’s favorite haunt, the Fiddler’s Rant, brewed the best ale to be found in the country. 
“Come in and sit down,” Kilroy told them. “Supper is nearly ready. But we can start off with a mug of the ale.”
They settled down in the parlor, Kilroy procuring mugs of ale for them and one of cider for George who sat by the fire, looking much more like his old happy self as he sipped the drink and warmed his back. Jeff glanced over at him several times and smiled finally to himself to see that the lad really was comfortable and not just pretending for their benefit.
Before long, Sylvia came to tell them that supper was ready and they filed to the table, chatting happily. Kilroy took Sylvia’s hand and sat her at the table properly, taking his own place at the head. 
It was a lovely meal, and the food was expertly prepared by Poppy. Kilroy, for one was incredibly glad Jeff had married the woman, as now they had someone who not only liked to cook, but could do so very well. He still remembered the first time Sylvia had tried to cook supper. They had nearly lost the Davies’ mansion and would have, had Jeffcoat and Kilroy not been so quick with the water. That was the last time Sylvia had tried to cook anything. 
They told stories of past exploits, and many there were with most of the table’s occupants being highwaymen. Through the whole meal, George listened with utter attention, sitting between Jeffcoat and Poppy. He ate heartily, Jeff’s pretty wife filling his plate whenever he emptied it, until he could not eat another bite. As they turned more to drink than the depleted food, Kilroy stood, raising his glass to his guests.
“My friends, my love,” he added, smiling down at Sylvia, “Let me propose a toast. Let us drink to our good King Charles. And to the demise of Oliver Cromwell. Our fair country is once again fair, and thanks to our king, we can once again celebrate Christmas.”
“Here, here,” Roster added, standing up as well with a grin, clashing his cup against Kilroy’s before he drank heartily.
“To friends,” Jeffcoat added, standing as well.
“A health to them,” Claude grinned as he drank.
“To family,” Sylvia added, standing and putting her free hand on Kilroy’s arm.
“Agreed, my dear,” Kilroy told her and drank before he kissed her.
They all sat again and Poppy smiled. “Anyone want dessert?”
They all groaned but in good humor.
“Spare us for now, Poppy,” Kilroy told her with a grin, patting his stomach. “Later, I am sure we will all be up for pies and such, but right now I think we’re completely stuffed.”
“But there’s still food on the table,” she told them with a twinkle in her eyes.
“And we shall clear it, for we plan to go out with the carolers,” Sylvia told them, standing up to start clearing the table. “If everyone helps, we will go faster.” Roster took the first dishes in obediently, the women right behind him. George took platers as well, wanting to do all he could to repay the supper. His belly was fuller than it had been for weeks.
Claude lingered in the doorway of the kitchen, supposedly talking to Roster when Sylvia came back through. He grabbed her and kissed her quickly on the cheek.
“Caught under the mistletoe,” he laughed at her as she glared at him for it.
Kilroy grabbed the Frenchman and hauled him back into the kitchen. “I would stay away from the mistletoe, if I were you. It might have escaped your notice, but the only women here are married.”
“We should have invited more ladies,” Claude grumbled and straightened his lapels that Kilroy had grabbed.
Once the supper things were picked up, they bundled up tightly to go out to town. Kilroy loaned George a second cloak that they tucked up so it wouldn’t drag the ground.
“Cozy, lad?” Poppy asked him kindly.
“Yes ma’am,” George told her and she smiled, putting a hand on his shoulder to lead him outside.
“We’ll take the carriage,” Kilroy told them. “We should all be able to fit. Jeff and I will drive.”
“Nonsense,” Thomas Blood said, helping him hitch the horses. “You married men sit with your wives. Roster, Claude and I will sit on the top. You all sit inside with the lad.”
They laughed and chatted happily as they made their way to the town and once there, they made sure the horses were cared for before they went to join a group of carolers. The only ones among them who really had true voices were Poppy and Roster, but no one really sang very well anyway, especially after such a repast, and it was all in good fun. They enjoyed themselves more than anyone else listening to them did.
Mrs. Richards, who ran the best inn and eatery in town came out to meet them as they stood outside her shop and bade them come inside to warm up. They trooped in and crowded the seats, rosy-cheeked and laughing as they pulled gloves and hats off. The kind landlady passed out mugs of coffee and chocolate and hot pastries filled with berries. 
George, on his part, thought, as he licked the berry filling off his fingers, that he had not had such a lovely holiday ever. He had almost felt like he was part of a family again. Mr. Ferris had always treated him kindly, but he had never really felt like George’s family. He remembered only a bit about his parents, who he had lost when he was only six years old, and had almost immediately been found by Ferris and asked to work for him. He realized that this evening alone would make him regret leaving Kilroy and the others. He had not thought of doing anything besides working at the stables as he always had. Now he wondered if perhaps he could find another job. He would not particularly like to work for Devlin anymore, but nor did he want to see the horses hurt by him either. He knew that he would not be able to quit the job unless he knew Devlin would not hurt anyone else.
Just as he was thinking this, the door to the Richards’ inn slammed open and everyone looked up to see a dark-haired, heavyset man storm in, his face red with the cold and anger, and most likely a good bit of liquor.
“Where’s the little brat, eh?” he shouted. “Shirking his duty to sit and drink chocolate! I’ll whip the hide from him, so I will!”
“At least he wasn’t shirking his duty to drink brandy,” Roster said in a dangerous voice and the man spun around to stare at him. He was about to challenge Roster when he caught sight of George sitting between Poppy and Sylvia at one of the tables. The boy went pale as he saw the older man and Sylvia put a firm hand on his shoulder to keep him from rising.
“That’s my boy!” Devlin said, pointing to George. “Let me have him so I can teach him a lesson he has long since deserved!”
“Why don’t you teach it to me instead,” Kilroy told him coldly, standing up and starting to pull the coat from his shoulders. “I have no qualms about how I get my hands dirty.”
Jeff grabbed his arm and shoved him back down. “Not you, Roy. You don’t need to get into any more trouble. I’ll take care of this worthless drunkard.”
He shed his own coat and stepped up to Devlin, his wiry frame looking small next to the heavyset man. Devlin sneered at him.
“I’d like to see you try to take me single-handedly, you scrawny weasel.” 
Jeff grinned at him. “All right, fatty. We’ll see how it goes.” He wasted no time and swung a right to Devlin’s jaw, connecting sharply.
The bigger man staggered back a pace before he swung at Jeff quicker than expected in his inebriated condition. The blow connected with the side of Jeff’s face, and he spun half around with the force, but kept his feet and shook off the hit, touching his split cheekbone gingerly as he turned back to his opponent. Devlin had taken a horsewhip from the back of his belt and he uncoiled it.
“Perhaps this will teach you better manners,” he said and brought back the whip to strike at Jeff.
Jeffcoat, however, knew how to stop a horsewhip. He reached out for it, letting it wrap around his arm before he grabbed it and yanked, pulling Devlin into an unsteady lurch forward. As he fell, Jeff brought his knee up with a resounding crack into the bigger man’s jaw and Devlin fell with a slight whimper into a heap on the floor, out cold. Jeffcoat tossed the whip down next to him in disgust.
“Someone go call the sheriff,” he said. “This man is no longer fit to be roaming the town at will.”
A young man ran out to fetch the sheriff as George stood up to go over to Jeff, looking down at his former employer.
“What now?” he asked, though not necessarily worriedly.
Jeff put a firm hand on his shoulder as he bent to pick up his coat. “George, You’re not going back to that stable. That’s no place for a good lad like you. You need someone who can provide for you; teach you a trade. Poppy and I are going to take you in, lad. We have no children yet, and, well, I would love a son, George.”
George was so stunned by the proposition that all he could stammer out was, “But..But what about the horses? No one will be there to take care of them!”
“I’m sure someone will take over the livery, dear boy,” Poppy told him, brushing the hair from his face in a soothing gesture. 
“And as you seem good with horses,” Jeff added, “You’ll be able to help me very well. I’m going to go into breeding. The fastest horses around is what I want. For special clients only,” he added quietly and winked.
“Do you mean it?” George asked, still in a state of surprise, unable to take it all in at once.
“Of course they mean it, dear boy!” Kilroy told him with a grin. “Jeff and Poppy are two of the most wonderful people I know, and I have no doubt they will treat you like their own son by tomorrow morning.”
George could hardly stop the tears that flowed from his eyes and Jeff drew him to his chest in an embrace. “He’s right, George. And I hope you will see us as much a family as we see you.”
“Thank you,” George mumbled, his voice muffled in Jeff’s shirt. Poppy embraced him as well and leaned down to kiss him on the head.
The town clock struck twelve bells and new songs started up from the carolers in the streets. Kilroy drew Sylvia into his arms and George lifted his head agin, wiping the tears from his eyes with a grin on his face.
“This is the best Christmas ever!” he told them all and they laughed happily.
Kilroy kissed Sylvia then turned to the others. “Merry Christmas everyone!”
They celebrated long into the night, and that was definitely a Christmas George never forgot; the Christmas he got his family.

fin.

If you liked this, go and get a copy of Ballad of the Highwayman either from my Createspace store listed in my links or from Amazon.com. And also don't forget to write in to Pepys' Advice Column for holiday questions, or any questions really, whether they be troubles, or questions about historical customs and such. And do remember to check the poll to tell me who your favorite highwayman is. It will be up by the end of the month! 

Slainte, Hazel

8 comments:

  1. Such a warm, cozy story. Nice job, Hazel.

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  2. Merry Christmas to everyone from all of us in Newbury!

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  3. And Cromwell is long long gone now, so no one will cancel Christmas! =D

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  4. Whenever authors write a Christmas short story - or a birthday short story - for major characters, I always get worried. But this one was awesome! It felt real. I can't wait until I can actually read "The Ballad of the Highwayman"!

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  5. Thanks! :) Yes, I too am the same way. This was mainly just a plot idea I had and I just decided to put it into a Christmas setting for the holiday. That way it's not entirely just a fluff piece. Though I don't really have anything against fluff in general ;P

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  6. If a character moves in with one of main ones, I imagine that that will more than likely have some bearing on the second book's plot. ;) It is a very well-done "in between" story.

    Sylvia is already a favorite with me, by the bye. She's awesome. I don't know what it is about her, but she's caught my Reader's attention. And I love the line "infamous sprig." How true. ;)

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  7. Yes, George does have a bit to play in the sequel, and you'll see him in the first book as well, though he doesn't play a very important role. He's one of those characters I found I just was really attached to so I had to use him more ;)

    And Sylvia is probably the favorite of my girls right now. She was an amazing character to write about. If you liked her in this, you'll love her in the actual novel. ;)

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