“Hands up who’s heard of Decemberon?” the old beggar asked his eager audience.
One child stuck his hand up. There was always one.
The beggar laughed one of his special guttural laughs, all mucus and shingle. Of course, he’d rattled off this tale before, although not in this part of town. Stories – good ones, well-told ones – had a habit of spreading like a contagious disease, so there was a chance the lad had picked it up somewhere.
But a storyteller ought to be able to spot a liar. And the beggar, a yarn-spinner of no ordinary talent, watched his audience closely, peering slyly out from under his heavy-shadow hood. He’d seen the way the boy had searched the faces of those around him, reading their ignorant, expectant expressions and seizing his moment to look superior. A natural-born fibber, that boy, but quick-witted. He could go far. But this was the beggar’s show and he wouldn’t stand for people nudging in for a bite of his limelight.
“Not many of you, I see. Not many at all.” He tailed it off with another phlegm and pebbles laugh: “Hurhur.” And left it go at that. Hopefully the kid would be satisfied with his scored points and shut up and listen avidly like the rest of them.
“Decemberon is King Of The Fieries.”
“Don’tcha mean Fairies?” piped a grubby-faced girl in the front row. “He means Fairies,” she informed the crowd. A lot of young dirty heads nodded their agreement.
“No, I don’t mean bloody Fairies. I could tell you a thing or two about Fairies and they’re not the lacey, butterfly-winged sugar-smiles and stardust little angels you think. They’re mean sadistic little buggers and you’d best get that into your skulls right now.”
That had their attentions at least. Most had gasped and sort of stuck there, in a tableau of horror. Nearly thirty urchins, nippers and young scallywags sitting around on boxes and barrels or on muddy cobbles in this neglected backstreet behind the marketplace. One – another female – had the courage – or was sufficiently shocked – to voice their concern.
“You said a swear! My mum wouldn’t like me sitting here listening to your stories if you’re going to swear.”
The beggar was certain he could come up with a few choice words to say about her mother that would silence the girl, but ideally he preferred it if only good reports of the friendly storytelling beggar got back to the ears of parents.
“You’re right, lass. And I’m sorry. I will wash my mouth out with soap.” Bleuch, he thought. And even tasted perfumed bubbles. Disgusting. “But,” he addressed the gathering appropriately softened seriousness, “it might be worth all our whiles to bear in mind, a story almost never benefits from interruptions. So, assuming you’re all sitting comfortably, I’ll begin.”
Comfort was not really a feature of the available furniture in this back lane and some of the kids fidgeted like lizards on hot sands, but they’d all obediently clammed up and sat waiting with open ears and eyes.
“Decemberon is King Of The Fieries.” The story didn’t call for special emphasis at that point, but it was best to be absolutely clear with this lot. “All through the year, whenever your dads or mums light a fire in your hearth, well, you’ll see sparks – burning embers – floating up your chimney. Up and up they drift to find their homes in the stars. Look up at the sky at night and you’ll see the brightest star – that’s Decemberon’s palace. That’s where they go first, of course, to pay their respects to the King. And he assigns them their homes, tells them which stars to go live in. And every year, every star will twinkle just that little bit brighter.” To be honest, he hated using twee words like twinkle, but the kids seemed to lap them up like candy. “And the luckiest ones, the ones he thinks most deserving, he lets them join him in his palace. So the palace always remains the brightest star in the sky.”
Some of the kids let out appreciative oohs and ahs, which the beggar didn’t count as interruptions. They were a welcome sign he was winning them over.
“Now, you’ve all seen those embers rising up – ”
“I have! I have!” said the smart little point-scorer, thrusting his arm up again.
“You all have,” insisted the beggar. “But what you don’t know is they fly up that chimney full of tales of everything that’s gone on in that house that day. See, the fire is watching, always watching, and the Fieries are its messengers, taking word to Decemberon. Every day throughout the year, they go up to the heavens and report to the King how all the people of the world have behaved. Whether they’ve been good or bad.”
“We don’t light fires in the summer.” Point-scorer again, being too smart for his own good.
“That’s right. Summer is like winter for the Fieries. Most of them sleep, like tortoises, while the sun warms the earth, dries the wood and looks after things generally. The Fieries lie dormant, tucked away in the wood until it’s proper dry and they’re released when your parents start lighting those fires when the cold months start to come around.”
Point-scorer’s mouth wrinkled sceptically, but he wasn’t brave enough to argue the point. For now.
“Anyway,” the beggar pressed on, “one night a year, in the heart of winter, it’s important to leave the hearth unlit. No fires, because Fieries can only float upwards when there’s a fire. But if there’s no fire in the hearth, on this one night, that’s when Decemberon descends.”
This provoked more oohs and ahs.
“Yes, he and his Fieries come down your chimneys. To all the houses where the children have been good. And if they leave out warm mince pies and a glass of sherry – or something stronger, he doesn’t mind – well, he’ll leave them a present.”
“What kind of present?” asked an excited girl. And every young face lit up in anticipation of the answer.
“Ah now, that depends on how good they’ve been.” They wouldn’t be able to see his smile under his hood, but the beggar went ahead and favoured them with a big fat grin anyway. “And how good the pies are.”
[To Be Continued…]