You didn't think I'd forgotten, did you?
It is, of course, time for the third instalment in our mouth-watering guest-blogging event of the century, "A Very Abaddon Christmas."
Filling today's little-plastic-chocolate-mould on your 99p ASDA advent calendar of the mind is this offering by Paul Kane, author of The Afterblight Chronicles: Arrowhead and The Afterblight Chronicles: Broken Arrow. Offering us a glimpse of Christmas in post-Blight Nottingham Castle, he sets this tale some time after the events of Broken Arrow...
A The Afterblight Chronicles: Arrowhead Story
By Paul Kane
A The Afterblight Chronicles: Arrowhead Story
By Paul Kane
Robert had to admit, they’d done a fine job with the decorations.
He’d barely noticed when he arrived back from patrol the day before – perhaps because he was tired and all he really wanted to do was get to bed, and get to sleep. Mary was still away from the castle; along with Jack and a clutch of Rangers she was delivering much needed care packages to villages on the outskirts of Nottingham, to the people struggling at this time of year. (He wasn’t worried about her safety – she’d shown him time and again she could take care of herself, and over the past year had been out on any number of missions with him.) Mary was also out spreading the word about their big event.
They’d all missed out on a summer fête that year, the work that had gone into rebuilding the castle – and their lives – after what had happened with the Tsar had put them off any kind of big celebration. Even Robert and Mary’s wedding had been a low key affair (and deliberately so). Just the people closest attending, the people who mattered most, and Reverend Tate doing the honours, of course.
But by the time the end of the year was drawing closer, residents at the castle were starting to talk about the possibility of a ‘Winter Festival’. Dale especially had been bending Robert’s ear about it.
“I think he just wants the chance to show off again in front of an audience,” Mark had joked, referring to Dale’s previous life as a guitarist in the band One Simple Truth. “That and the chance to pull some groupies.”
Sophie had punched the lad’s arm. “Mark, you’re terrible.”
“You know it’s true.” He laughed and then put his arm around her shoulders. It was nice for Robert to see his adopted son so happy; it reminded him of the love he felt for the special woman in his life.
So, catching him at a particularly vulnerable moment, Dale had finally persuaded him. “Okay, okay. You’re in charge of the entertainment, then.”
“You bet!” Dale had said, grinning all over his face.
It was Tate who’d organised the decorations, though – getting Bill to tap a few contacts from his market routes, and drafting in a few of the Rangers to help set them up. Robert hadn’t noticed these much when he got back, but now night-time was falling and the candles were being lit, he’d wandered out into the grounds to be confronted by something out of an old Christmas movie. Tinsel adorned the trees, gold and silver streamers ran the length of the castle walls. Even Robert had to admit, it was a beautiful sight.
“You approve, then?” Tate asked, joining him at the top of the slope running down from the Middle Bailey.
Robert nodded. “It’ll be just the boost the men need.”
“Not to mention the people of Nottingham, and beyond,” Tate reminded him. “Looking forward to seeing Mary again?”
“Do I even need to answer that?” Robert said with a smile.
“I suppose you’ve got her something nice for Christmas – your first as a married couple and everything,” the holy man mused.
Robert’s face fell. “Oh sh…” he began and then saw Tate’s raised eyebrow. “Sugar… I’ve been so busy with work and everything. I guess I just hadn’t really thought about it... Damn. Do you know if she’s got anything for me?”
Tate would say nothing, simply advised him that he’d better get his thinking cap on.
“And what about you?” Robert asked. “What would you like?”
Tate sighed. “What I want, my son, I don’t think even you can arrange.”
A few hours later people began to arrive for the celebration.
An hour after that, it was in full swing. Beer and wine was flowing, there was enough food for all, and Dale played his guitar and sang to a packed audience of men, women and children – all of whom had been through some pretty traumatic times. It even had Bill, who’d arrived with a number of his marketer mates, tapping his toes to the beat.
When he took his break, leaving a battery-operated CD player to blast out festive tracks, Dale grabbed hold of the tall American, Jack, by the arm. “Have you seen the talent that’s here tonight?”
“Can’t say that I really noticed,” Jack replied.
“Come on, you need to get back on the horse again,” said the younger man, referring to the business with Adele, when Jack had totally fallen for the wrong woman.
Jack snorted. “I just got off one. Leave me be, kid.”
Dale shrugged his shoulders. “Okay, but don’t complain when I’m unwrapping my presents and you get nothing.” He went off in the direction of a blonde and brunette who were about his age, putting an arm around each when he got there.
Robert caught the display and chuckled, then realised that if Jack was around it meant that-
A pair of hands covered his eyes. “Guess who,” he heard in his ear.
“Er…got to be Mark, but I thought your voice had already broken, son?” He heard Mary laugh and turned, gathering her up in a tight embrace.
“Miss me?” she asked when he put her down.
“That depends – did you miss me?”
Mary pretended to think about it, then broke into another smile. “What do you think?”
“Brought some more people with you?” said Robert, looking around as more bodies filled the grounds.
“I did indeed, and someone quite unexpected.”
“Let me guess,” Robert said. “Santa Claus.”
“Not really…look.” She pointed towards the gate and standing there was Gwen, holding little Clive Jr’s hand.
“But…but how…? I thought she vowed never to come near this place again.”
Mary shrugged. “Some of her ‘people’ wanted to come to the festival…Oh, wait…” Mary nodded across to Tate, who had now seen Gwen and was hobbling over to her, limping with his stick.
Robert and Mary moved through the crowd so they could listen in.
“Reverend,” said Gwen, eyeing up the man with what could only be classed as disdain. She still hadn’t forgiven him for luring her to the castle during the Tsar’s attack. Tate had only wanted to keep her safe, but that wasn’t how she’d seen it.
“Don’t get too excited, I’m just here to keep an eye on my lot.” She indicated a few of the residents of New Hope in the crowd.
“I see…Look, Gwen. I know you-”
Gwen turned her back on him, picking up her son and making to leave Tate’s presence – maybe even the party itself. She paused when he said, “Gwen…Gwen please stay. I haven’t seen you or Clive Jr in so long.”
The willowy woman turned around slowly, then gave a small nod. They began to speak, but it was drowned out by a crowd of revellers going past. If nothing else it was maybe a start to healing past wounds. And perhaps that was just the present Tate had been talking about. As Robert watched them, though, he could have sworn he caught sight of someone lurking behind them in the gatehouse – someone wearing a crimson-coloured hood. Someone keeping an eye on Gwen, perhaps? But when he blinked and looked again, the figure was gone.
“Robert,” said Mary, breaking into his thoughts, “I’ve got something for you.” She handed him a wrapped square, which he promptly undid, revealing a framed portrait of them both together – drawn by Mary herself.
“I…I don’t know what to say…It’s…I’ve never…”
“Shh, you don’t have to say anything, silly. Happy Christmas.” He kissed her and motioned for them to leave the party behind, stopping only briefly to note Sophie giving Mark a kiss under the mistletoe: his very own present.
Robert led Mary outside the castle, to where his horse was waiting.
“Where are we going?” she asked, as he climbed up and pulled her on behind him.
The weather was much better than it had been this time last year, no snow in sight and a clear sky overhead. The journey took them a little while, but finally Robert guided his steed in through the gates of Sherwood.
He heard Mary laugh, holding on tighter to him. Leaving the horse tethered, he led Mary into the heart of the forest, with a lit torch in front of him. There, in a clearing, was a make-shift camp, complete with a fire that just needed lighting and a lean-to tent cosy enough for two. Robert bent inside and brought out a bottle of champagne with two glasses.
“Sorry it’s nothing much,” he told her. “I just thought, well, we don’t get that much privacy at the castle…”
“Oh Robert, it’s absolutely brilliant! But won’t we be missed?”
“Not for one night,” he promised, and drew her in close. Time alone was precious; the perfect gift they could give each other.
They kissed under the stars, the leafless oaks allowing their light to shine through.
“I love you, Mary,” Robert told her.
“And I love you, too,” she replied, pulling up his hood and losing herself inside the folds…