Jocelyn the Thief strode into the King’s tent, bringing with her a flurry of snow and problems.
She cast off her cloak, tossing it to the floor like a queen. Then she approached Arthur as he sat scratching at ledgers on his small desk. She kneeled brusquely, head bowed.
The young King glanced up from his work. “Jocelyn!” He smiled, and she rose. “What news? What have you stolen for me from the borders?”
He waved away his lesser advisors — grey-chinned men — and gestured at Jocelyn to sit on the fur-lined chair angled close to his own.
“The usual,” said Jocelyn. She counted on her slender fingers. “A threat from the north. Tax protests in the south. Worries of invasion in the east. Goblins in the west.” She paused. “And the midwinter flame must be lit at midnight tomorrow, or the people will foretell another bad year.”
Arthur sighed. His eyes were tired, but bright. “Can any of it be solved?”
“I have sent gold to the north, grain to the south, soldiers to the east. And I will light the flame myself.” She had purposely requested that the King’s camp be set here, on the sacred hill, with all his kingdom laid out below them.
“What of the west?” said Arthur. “Goblins.” He curled his lip. “They harry us with claims to territory. What have you done?”
She waved a hand. “This and that.”
“You mean it is better that I don’t know.”
She rarely called him sire, and he rarely insisted upon it. Arthur’s eyes narrowed. Toadying from Jocelyn was a bad sign. “What have you done?”
“I plucked you from the nooseman’s grasp, freed you from execution for your light fingers and your southern origins.”
“As a mere prince I brought you into my own household as spy, as royal thief, as my . . .” He hesitated only slightly. “Advisor. And yet you show gratitude by refusing to tell me detail of work done in my name!”
He was blustering, and as usual, it had no effect on her. “I did it in my name,” she said.
“Did what? Tell me, Jocelyn.”
She wound her foot in a small circle, stretching the ankle. She wore breeches beneath a long coat. Whore, they called her, southmen’s friend.
Many believed her to be the King’s lover. It was certain that she was in his castle chamber at all hours, conversing with him alone. Arthur would dismiss all others, call for wine, and the candle at his window would burn late into the night.
Arthur said nothing on this matter. Neither did Jocelyn, and in the morning, no matter how early the gossips rose, she was to be found walking the hills above the castle, wandering among the stones, her hair tight in its plait. And the King slept soundly in his bed, alone.
Arthur tore his gaze from Jocelyn’s trim ankle. “I demand details.”
She grimaced, an unladylike expression. “An alliance would protect both nations,” she said. “A western alliance would be the surest way to secure peace with the goblins. This is my advice. As your advisor,” she lowered her voice and looked into his eyes, “and as your friend. A wedding would please the country.”
“Ha,” said Arthur.
“The people love you,” she said. “They wish to see you marry.” It would bring good luck, but although Arthur’s royal cousin, Brick, proffered many noble girls, there was no spring wedding, no midsummer one, and none at harvest. Just the King, and his spiky advisor, this southern woman Jocelyn.
“An alliance,” Arthur said. “A goblin bride? No, Jocelyn. This is too mad.” He paled at her shifty expression. “Tell me you didn’t.”
“She arrives at noon tomorrow,” said Jocelyn. “With her uncle, the warrior chief.” She shrugged. “She is considered beautiful.”
“I don’t care about beauty,” said Arthur. He sprang up and paced about. “I need strength, I need —” He stopped.
“It is for the nation,” she said.
Arthur gritted his teeth. He seized the wine jug and poured a glug of summer into two cups. He handed one to Jocelyn. “Talk to me about the south.”
“I have an idea to mend our friendship with the south,” she said. “But first you must treat with the goblin chief.”
“I will treat, but not with marriage.”
Brick entered. “What is it?” said Arthur. “I am in conference with Jocelyn.”
“Yes, sire.” Brick eyed Jocelyn with distaste. As Arthur’s cousin, he considered his claim to the King’s ear far greater than hers. His toadying skills were proportionally greater. Arthur found him hard to stomach. “Details of the midwinter feast, sire. Who is to sit where, and so forth.”
Jocelyn rose and took the paper from Brick’s hand.
Brick began to protest.
“This is excellent,” said Jocelyn. She smiled at Brick, her eyes sparkling. Brick blanched. Jocelyn was never pleasant to him. She said, “This is why you are at the heart of the kingdom, Brick. This skill is a credit to you and your care for our nation.”
Arthur narrowed his eyes.
“I feel you have a great part to play in resolving our troubles,” Jocelyn said. She tapped the paper. “A most auspicious placement of all nobles, but I wonder can you accommodate two more? The goblin king’s daughter and her uncle, the war chief.”
Jocelyn gathered up her cloak. “I must visit the circle. In this wind, the fire must be built right or it will not burn, and what would the people make of that?”
The stone circle stood black against the thick snowfall. The snow brightened everything — even Brick, labouring towards the beacon at the circle’s heart. “I cannot allow this marriage” he hissed to Jocelyn, who straightened, kindling in her hands.
She gazed at Brick, her expression tranquil. That was guaranteed to infuriate him. “The princess is deemed very beautiful by her people.”
“Who are goblins.”
“She is also clever and interesting.” This Jocelyn knew, having spent a week in the girl’s company, persuading her that a human husband might not be so repugnant.
“The King doesn’t want someone clever and interesting.”
Jocelyn ignored this. “This country needs allies, and a marriage is the easiest type.” Brick snarled. “Stay away from the princess,” she said. “I tell you, Arthur must marry and it must be strategic. We cannot wait around any longer for him to fall in love and offer his hand. We must act.”
Brick said sourly, “Given up on snaring him yourself, have you?”
Jocelyn looked at him. “You know I care for the King, and this country, too much ever to endanger his happiness.”
Brick faltered under her searing gaze. “He’ll not marry a goblin,” he muttered, and scuttled away.
The midwinter feast was the best in years. Everyone agreed. The snow, the tables ringing the hilltop, the midwinter flame blazing at the heart of the feast — all was as it should be. The court hummed with hope for the future, for their beloved King, and the prospect of a wedding, and peace at last.
The goblin princess arrived, resplendent in purple silk and a cloak fashioned from the pelts of many small animals. Her uncle the warrior wore armour with spiked shoulders. He spoke little, but observed everything in Arthur’s court closely.
Jocelyn sat far down the table. She claimed no nobility — indeed, everyone knew her lowly, southern beginnings. She sat with the knights and the squires, enjoying their banter. The younger men admired her greatly. The older men knew better than to flirt. Jocelyn’s only interest lay in serving the King. She chatted easily to the knights, but if any dared to smile too fondly, she would flutter her fingers and his cup would spill in his lap, or he would find, when he stood, that his boots were laced together.
Arthur sat at the head of the table, drinking from his silver cup, nodding seriously at the goblin princess’s conversation. He drooped, tolerating her attention, and staring at Jocelyn. She met his gaze blandly.
The goblin princess had strong features and her hair was dressed in a style which made the court ladies flinch, but she also had a melodious voice and a sense of humour. Jocelyn liked her. So, too, did the men. Every knight in the place was smitten with her.
Arthur summoned Jocelyn to present her to the goblin princess. Jocelyn made no curtsey, but bowed her head like a man.
“You are beautiful and strong,” said the goblin princess. “This I observed before, but I did not know your worth to the king. Are you his secret sister?”
“No,” said Jocelyn.
The entire table choked on their dinner.
“What then?” said the princess. “How can you walk alone, sit alone with the King?”
“I would never question his honour,” said Jocelyn. “Would you?”
Everyone fell still.
Brick said quickly, “You have a delicate sensibility which does you credit.” He bowed to the princess.
The princess blinked.
“It ably shows the high morals of your own court,” said Brick. “I trust you find our foreign customs interesting rather than repulsive.” He smiled at her.
The princess blushed. Arthur had not smiled at her all night.
“Jocelyn is the royal thief,” said Brick. “Our trickster.”
“Oh,” said the goblin princess.
“It is not polite to speak of it,” said Brick in a low, confidential voice, leaning towards the princess. He caught Jocelyn’s eye, triumphant.
She glared at him, but Brick, sensing victory, only edged closer to the goblin bride.
The princess said to Brick, “Tell me more, sir.” And she smiled.
The hour grew late, and after people ate their fill, they wandered from the tables and gathered around the midwinter flame. Many boots trampled the snow.
Jocelyn found Arthur beside the great stone, directly in front of the flame. She strode to him, and produced a flask of wine and two cups from her sleeve.
“That’s the sacred wine,” he said.
“It’s the best.”
They drank. The cold at their backs met the fire’s fierce heat, the perfect expression of midwinter.
“Brick likes her, anyway,” he said.
“Do you?” she said.
“I thought I had to marry her regardless,” he said. “In your plan.”
“It’s better if you like the person involved,” she said.
“Oh, so that it is not complete torture?”
“Yes.” She grinned at him and unfolded her hand to show a sweetmeat, wrapped in gold leaf.
For once, he would not be charmed. “Why are you so set on this? We’ve been happily going along for years, and now I should get married. Why?”
“Unrest,” she said at once. The sweetmeat vanished. “Trouble on all borders.”
“Well, I can’t marry four people.”
“You only need to marry one to show your determination for peace.”
“You’re so keen on the idea, you marry.”
There was a pause. Jocelyn stared into the fire, her lips pressed together. After a minute she shook the dregs from her cup and tucked it back in her sleeve.
Arthur cursed. “Forgive me,” he said.
“It was a fair point.”
“No. You are not a parcel to be bartered about. That privilege is reserved for royalty,” he added. It was meant as a joke, but it came out bitter.
“I would marry,” she said. “But nobody has offered.”
“Because you serve me.”
She bit her lip. “That is exactly it.”
“Then you should do the asking.”
“Ha. I cannot,” she said.
The flame roared high in the sky. It gave Arthur the excuse to look away from her. How could she remain unruffled at this talk?
“It’s almost midnight,” she said. “The blessed hour. Put on your gilt cloak. You can make the announcement.” She drew a long breath, and let it out, looking at him. “I wish you well, Arthur.”
He blinked. She rarely called him by his first name, intimate as they were. “Likewise,” he said.
“As the year turns from darkness towards light,” she said, “you must claim your bride.”
He did not answer, but stood by the fire, watching as she walked away.
Arthur stood near the great flame, in his blue cloak flowered with gold thread. Jocelyn stood a little away from him. She still wore her breeches, but her cloak tonight was a sombre grey. She wore plain boots and her plait sat meekly over her left shoulder.
Brick stood stiffly beside Jocelyn. “How fine you look,” said Jocelyn. “A true noble.”
He grunted. “This won’t work.”
“Who could refuse a king?”
Brick shuffled his feet. Jocelyn had never seen him blush before. “Love is important,” he said. “Even for royalty.”
“Arthur will do what is right,” Jocelyn said.
The crowd parted as the goblin warrior led his niece towards the flame. Her purple dress flowed behind her — but her eyes were bright with tears. Jocelyn smiled.
Arthur greeted the guests, and made a short speech about neighbours and ending the darkness of war. It was rather poetic.
He stepped forward, before the sacred flame. “The midwinter fire,” he said softly. The court grew hushed. “We honour your light, which sustains us through winter and reminds us of the coming spring.”
The people murmured approval.
Arthur stood, lips parted, fists clenched at his sides.
An anxious murmur ran around the throng.
Arthur said, “In troubled times, I, that is, alliances, and ah, spirit of friendship, and, I —” The speech went no further.
Jocelyn’s fingers twitched, but she could do nothing more.
“Sire,” said Brick, striding forward like the expert courtier he was. He cleared his throat. “As you have indicated, sire, it is important that we show — love — towards our neighbours. And so I offer my hand, in front of this sacred flame, to the goblin princess.”
The princess gasped. Her tears had dried.
“Do I have your blessing, sire?” said Brick. He cast a triumphant glance at Jocelyn. He had outmanoeuvred her, publicly and in a way which would be hard to undo, witnessed by the ancient flame.
Arthur clasped Brick’s hand. “Gladly, cousin,” he said. “Such an alliance was just what I hoped for.”
There were cheers and embraces all round, and the people roared their approval of a flame-blessed wedding. The warrior chief called for wine, and merriment broke out around the hilltop.
Jocelyn lingered by the flame.
“It didn’t quite go to plan,” Arthur said, appearing beside her.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Jocelyn.
“I couldn’t have done it,” he said. “I might be King but my irritating cousin is right for once.”
Arthur stepped close to her and untwisted the end of her plait. “About love.”
She fluttered her fingers and the rest of her plait unwound of its own accord. Her hair spread loose across her shoulders. “You would form an alliance with the south? My people would welcome that.”
“Forget alliances.” Arthur clasped her hands in his. “I cannot marry anyone but you.”
“I know.” She smiled. “Now do you see why I couldn’t ask?”
“Because you serve me,” he said. He shook his head, and they turned towards the flame, laughing.
Nobody heard what agreements were made between the king and the thief, nobody saw how the bargain was sealed. But all exclaimed as the midwinter flame soared high into the night sky. A sign, said everyone, a good sign.
And when the King and Jocelyn returned to court in the dawn light, she wore his cloak, and his hair was covered in snow, and both she and he were smiling. The dwindling flame lit the morning sky over the couple, and nobody doubted her wisdom, or his choice of a winter bride.
Friendship with the south was now secure, as with the west. Already there was talk of northern peace.
As the year turned from dark towards light, the sky clouded, and fresh, silent snow began to fall.