The country’s dead, to begin with.
Well, dead might be a trifle harsh, but it certainly hasn’t got any livelier under the reign of one Uther Pendragon.
You see, it was many years ago that he took over the ruling of Britain. When his wife died in childbirth, Uther was certain that magic had taken his beloved’s life and so he rose to power and banned all magic in Britain.
It must be said that he thought he was doing his country a kindness, but as it often is, good intentions lead down dangerous paths – and Uther’s intentions weren’t all that good in the first place.
And so it came that, three decades hence, Uther still remains in power, controlling the land with an iron fist and not much sympathy.
Uther’s laws are strict, his enforcers stricter, and merciless on top of that. One does not cross Uther Pendragon, Supreme Chancellor of the United States of Britain and Ireland, oh no.
And now here we are on the day before Christmas Eve, at Uther’s palace in the heart of London, where Uther has just finished taking his supper.
Not that Uther holds with the tradition of Christmas – or any holiday, or even weekends. No, Uther’s people work day in and day out, no day of rest. After all, Uther himself tirelessly governs the people every day. It is only fair that if he won’t allow himself to rest, neither should his people.
There are no decorations anywhere to be found, and while the people still remember a time when they were allowed to celebrate the Holy Night, no one dare speak about it.
There is a knock on Uther’s door, and a servant announces the arrival of Uther’s only son, Arthur.
“Good evening, Father,” Arthur greets him, and Uther wipes his mouth on his napkin before inclining his head.
“Arthur,” Uther says with what many would think is coldness, but is, in fact, his softest tone for he’s pleased to see his son. “What brings you here at this hour?”
“I came to wish you a happy holiday, Father,” Arthur says, and oh, Uther should have known that his only child would grow up to be the kind of layabout who thinks the people ought to have Sundays and holidays.
And yet, Uther loves him most dearly. The boy inherited his mother’s soft heart and, while Uther cannot see things the way he does – or the way his mother ever did, may her soul rest in peace – he still cherishes his wife’s memory and cannot be cross with Arthur for long.
“What nonsense,” says Uther with as much disgust as he feels. His son’s cheerful smile, however, never wavers.
“Oh, Father,” Arthur says, putting a hand on Uther’s shoulder. “I hope that you’ll join me, and my Love, for Christmas dinner tomorrow evening at my house.”
“I shan’t,” says Uther. “Every year you ask me and every year I give you the same answer. Haven’t you learned yet, child?”
Arthur’s smile still doesn’t vanish, but it shrinks and softens and saddens.
“It would appear that I have not,” he says and releases his grip.
“My invitation stands, and my home is always open to you if you change your mind, Father.”
And with those words, Arthur takes a quick bow and leaves Uther to the rest of his lonely evening.
Lonely it is, indeed. Uther has no friends, no family aside from his son, and a goddaughter he never talks of anymore, and so he spends all his time alone, surrounded by splendour and wealth. He will gladly spend money on his own behalf, so as to wear the finest clothes and eat the richest food, yet he won’t share any of it with those less fortunate than him.
It is said by many – although whether it is true cannot be proven – that all of Uther’s wealth would suffice to give everyone in the country a better life, if only he lowered the taxes and shared more of what he has.
Uther’s not bothered by such talk. In fact, he doesn’t hear it, nor does he care to. He is content in the life he has, even if he’s not truly happy. Happiness is a luxury that only people without responsibilities and goals can afford – and Uther is not that man anymore.
Later that evening, as he’s drowsing in his favourite armchair by the fire, the room suddenly becomes chilly. Uther shudders and sits up to look for an open window or a door left ajar. Whichever servant has done this will soon learn not to be sloppy in their duties.
But all the doors and all the windows are firmly shut, and even the fire is still crackling away merrily.
Where, Uther wonders, is the chill coming from, then?
As the clock strikes midnight, the lights in the room go out. Uther is about to call a servant and demand the electricity be turned back on this instant when, in the corner by the fireplace, a glowing light appears and grows bigger and bigger.
Uther watches in fascination as the figure of his dear, departed wife Ygraine appears. She’s as beautiful as Uther remembers her: her blonde hair falling below her shoulders in soft waves, her dress a beautiful red, gently flowing around her legs, and her face... He never thought he’d see that most beloved face again in his life, and yet here she is.
Uther thinks he must be dreaming, even though he’s never had a dream as wonderful as this before.
Ygraine smiles at him. It’s not the beautiful, happy smile that Uther remembers; it is full of sadness and worry.
“Oh, my heart,” the ghost – for that’s what she must be – says, “what have you become?”
“Become?” asks Uther. “My dearest Ygraine, I’ve become the man I was meant to be!”
She shakes her head slowly.
“Oh, my darling,” she says, and now Uther sees glistening tears run down her face, “the man you’ve become is doomed.”
“Doomed?” Uther says. “Surely not. I’ve ruled the country fairly and justly, my love, like I promised you I would. There are no layabouts and the laws are strict so that anyone who breaks them must fear death. This, above all else, has been a benefit to all, for no one dares to be a criminal in my land.”
“And are you loved?” Ygraine asks. “Do you love?”
“Love, what nonsense. I loved you and I still do. I love our son, that makes two people. Whom else would I need to love?” Uther says with a frown on his face. “And why would anyone need to love me? I don’t need their love to rule them. I don’t need their love to know what’s best for them.”
“Oh, Uther,” Ygraine says yet again, tears now flowing freely, “I so hoped that I would see you again once your life ends, but I fear it shall never be.”
“What? Why do you say such things, my love?” Uther cries, feeling fear now for the first time.
“You have been cruel, my love, and without mercy or love in your heart. Upon your death, your soul will not find peace and harmony, the way I have. Look at me, my darling. You’ll find no chains or burdens upon me, for I am free of debt and guilt. But you, dear heart, you shall be clad in chains and made to suffer for all eternity for what you have done.”
As she spoke, a hole opened in the wall and through it, Uther caught a glimpse of a place so terrible that he went pale and cold all over and shrank back into his armchair out of fear.
“That is where I’ll be cast?” he asks in a voice so small he barely recognises it as his own. “Is there no way around it?”
The window into the terrible hellscape closes, and Ygraine’s tears finally stop flowing.
“You can yet be saved, my darling. You will soon be visited by three spirits. They alone can help you regain the path which you lost so long ago. With their help, you may yet be able to repent and turn yourself around. Only then can we be together again.”
Ygraine’s ghost begins to fade, and Uther leans forward in his chair to reach for her. His hand passes through her hip, and she smiles at him with the same sad eyes as before.
“I miss you, my heart. Heed the spirits and do as they tell you,” she cautions.
Uther nods his head vigorously, and promises to do everything she asked.
Then, in the blink of an eye, Ygraine disappeared and all the lights turned back on.
It’s not much later that Uther goes to bed, already convinced that what he saw was a mere dream brought on by something bad he ate. Tomorrow, he’ll fire the cook for that.
He has barely closed his eyes and dozed off to sleep when the clock strikes one, and promptly a light grows brighter and brighter near the foot of his bed.
Will he have to fire the whole bloody staff? They cannot prepare a meal, and they tinker with the lights. What good are they if they don’t serve him?
Uther opens his eyes to give them a piece of his mind for disturbing him so late at night, but he can’t find a servant, or anyone, in his room, for the light is so bright that he can hardly bear to look at it.
“Who are you?” he cries, and the voice that answers is... Why, it’s that of a child.
“I’m the first of the spirits that have been foretold,” the child says, and, finally, the light fades enough for Uther to look upon the figure standing at the foot of his bed.
It is a child, truly. A young boy with dark hair and big, blue eyes. His ears stand out from his head, and he’s barely tall enough to look over the frame of the bed.
“You are a boy,” Uther muses. “Just a boy.”
“I’m the Ghost of Christmas Past,” says the boy and, to Uther’s horror, he lifts off the ground and floats high above Uther’s bed.
“Come with me, Uther Pendragon,” the ghost says as he reaches out a hand. Now that Uther sees all of him, he notices there are no shoes or socks on the boy’s feet and his trousers are too short around the ankles but cinched tight with rope around the waist. His shirt has holes in the sleeves – which are equally too short.
“Where are you taking me?” Uther asks, not daring to take the boy’s hand.
“Why, the past of course,” the boy says, grinning brightly at Uther and showing a gap in the lower row of teeth.
“The old past?” Uther asks doubtfully, and the boy giggles.
“No, silly, your past.”
“Oh. And this is what I must see so I may one day be with my Ygraine again?” Uther asks, still uncertain what to do.
“It is!” the boy exclaims excitedly, and he floats nearer to Uther, still holding out his hand.
“Then I suppose I must,” Uther says, taking the boy’s hand..
In an instant, he’s pulled into the air, and another hole, much like the one he saw before, opens in the wall. Fear burns in Uther’s chest that the boy has lied and is taking him to the hellscape right away, but no matter how much Uther tries to let go of the boy’s hand, he cannot.
And then, in an instant, they’ve gone through the portal and find themselves in a place that Uther knows immediately.
“Camelot,” he whispers reverently. “It’s Camelot, the place where I grew up and went to school!”
“It is!” the boys says cheerfully, and slowly guides them down to the ground so they may walk.
Uther’s feet are as bare as the boy’s, and there’s snow everywhere around them, but he feels no coldness even though all he’s wearing are night clothes.
“Come,” says the boy and tugs on Uther’s hand, “let’s see what we will see.”
Uther follows the child into the heart of the village, craning his neck this way and that to see all the familiar sights. That house with the red front door, and this cottage with the ivy growing thick along the walls, now covered in snow – all looks exactly as it should.
And then, in the square by the well, Uther spots three boys and three girls playing in the snow. They’re building snowmen and occasionally one of them throws a snowball in the hopes of starting a proper duel.
“That’s me,” Uther says, pointing to one of the boys. “And there are Gorlois and Balinor, my best friends. And, look, there are Hunith and that wretched Nimueh, and oh—”
He stares at the little blonde girl with her woolly hat and thick mittens. Her cheeks are rosy and her eyes bright as she throws a snowball directly at Uther-as-a-boy. “It’s my Ygraine, who lived next door when we were children.”
“Do you know what day it is?” asks the boy, gently squeezing Uther’s hand.
“I believe it must be Christmas Eve,” Uther says. “My mother will be calling me inside soon to have lunch, and all my friends will go to their homes, too.”
“That’s right,” agrees the ghost. “Let’s see what happens later.”
And just like that, the scene has changed and they’re inside Uther’s childhood home. The door to the sitting room has been locked since Christmas Eve and now, in the morning of the 25th, a bell sounds and the door opens. Uther watches the eyes of his younger self widen in excitement, and then they’re in the sitting room, where the candles on the tree are lit and it smells of pine needles and candlewax and entirely like Christmas.
There are only three presents under the tree, one for each of the family members. The moment Uther spots them, he knows what he received that year. He remembers it as clear as he can see the scene unfold before his eyes. He had asked his parents for a game, the very same one that all the children in his village were already playing. His friends would readily share it and let him have a go, but Uther had wanted desperately to have his own so he could continue with it whenever he couldn’t borrow anyone else’s.
The shape of his presents looked to be right enough, and his younger self is looking on excitedly as, one by one, his parents open their gifts first.
Finally, it’s young Uther’s turn and he undoes the string and tape on the wrapping as carefully as his mother taught him so she may use it again in the following year.
But, oh, young Uther’s smile disappears as he realises that his wish hasn’t been fulfilled and what he has instead is a book. A measly book for children his age that he could’ve got from the library any time he wanted and no one would’ve fought him for it.
Uther watches his younger self begin to cry and, for the first time, he sees the way his parents look at each other in that moment. It seems to him that they are as unhappy as their child. His father looks angry and his mother looks sad, and neither of them seems to enjoy their own present anymore.
Uther sighs. “A fool was I,” he tells the ghost.
“How come?” asks the boy.
“I did not see that mother and father didn’t have the money to buy the game I wanted then. It was a frivolous wish and they were right not to indulge it.”
“You were poor,” the ghost says in sympathy.
“We were,” Uther says. “Poorest family in the village, but father and mother did their best.”
His younger self has thrown himself into his mother’s arms so she may soothe his sorrow. Uther watches as the boy quiets down, then blows his nose, and eventually picks up the book again.
“You liked the book,” the ghost says.
“I did,” Uther says. “It was a good story about someone who had nothing, but worked hard and earned his reward in the end. I learned many things from it.”
“You also forgot many things about it,” replies the ghost, but when Uther asks what he means, the boy just offers him a smile and tugs on his hand again. “Let’s go and see another Christmas.”
And no sooner did he say it than the scene changes and Uther finds himself in another house in the same village. He recognises it right away although he’s never been here more than once in all his life. It is decorated in festive colours with a modest tree sitting in a corner, branches decorated with simple yet beautiful ornaments.
He, too, recognises the two women on the settee, one of them blonde, the other of dark hair.
“Nimueh,” Ygraine begs her friend, “you must help me. Uther wishes for a child, and I want nothing more than give him one.”
But Nimueh shakes her head and takes her friend’s hands in his. “It cannot be done, Ygraine. The sacrifice would be too big.”
“I swear on the Old Religion that I will gladly give my life for my child’s!” Ygraine exclaims, and Uther, who has never heard this before, cries out “No!” at the same time Nimueh does.
“You must take it back!” Nimueh urges, but Uther already knows what will happen even though he has never witnessed this scene in his life before.
“I cannot,” Ygraine insists. “It is my wish, and now you must grant it.”
Nimueh bows her head and, as Uther watches with dawning horror, she speaks the words that sealed his darling wife’s fate.
“Come,” says the ghostly child at his side. “There’s more that you must see.” And with those words, the scene changes around them until they’re back in the sitting room of his parents’ house, where Uther and Ygraine lived after his parents died. It’s yet another Christmas Eve, and Uther-the-younger is now a grown man. He sits by the fire, a baby in his arms, with no other light illuminating the room.
“No,” Uther says. “Don’t show me this, please. I remember that night all too well.”
“There are things you don’t remember about it all,” the ghost says.
The doorbell rings but, when the young Uther doesn’t get up to answer it, it stops eventually. Then, footsteps approach and the door to the sitting room opens.
Uther already knows who’s there, but his younger self doesn’t even look up.
“Uther,” a kind – much too kind, it grated on younger Uther’s ears – voice says, and now young Uther look up to find his friend Hunith with her husband Balinor in front of him.
“Leave,” young Uther says, and it’s a mark of how true their friendship was that neither Hunith nor Balinor even flinch at the tone of his voice.
“Uther,” Hunith says again, “let us help you. Little Arthur needs his milk, and I don’t mind feeding him along with my Merlin.”
“I told you to leave,” young Uther repeats, his voice harder even than before. The baby in his arms begins to cry.
“There’s no need to talk to us like this,” says Balinor. “We’re your friends, we only want to help.”
“How can you help?” spits young Uther. “There’s no help. She’s gone and with her everything I hold dear but this child.”
“And yet you won’t do right by him?” Hunith tries again. “Give Arthur to me to nurse. I’ll take care of him for a little while and once he’s old enough, I’ll give him back and show you how to care for him.”
“You would take my child away from me?” young Uther snaps, tightening his arms around the baby. The baby’s cries become louder. “Don’t you hear that you’re upsetting him with such talk?”
“Uther, be gentle,” Balinor cautions, but young Uther won’t hear of it. He springs to his feet and moves further away from his friends.
“I’m all he has left, and he’s all I have left – I’ll never give him up and you can’t make me. Leave now! I don’t want to see you ever again. Nor that witch Nimueh who cursed my Ygraine and murdered her!”
His friends stare in disbelief as young Uther’s eyes grow cold and distanced. Uther can see on their faces that they don’t recognise their friend anymore and so that’s why they decide it’s best to leave him be for now and return in the morning. What they don’t know, and what Uther remembers, is that, by then, young Uther will have already left the village with his son and his goddaughter, who was entrusted to him on the death of Gorlois and his wife two years past.
“Boy, take me away from here,” says Uther. “I don’t wish to see more of this.”
The scene dissolves as Uther watches his younger self turn his face down to the child in his arms and begin to cry as he cradles the baby close to his chest.
“One more,” the ghost says, and Uther dreads what he’ll see next.
They are in his home, the palace, on an evening that might have been any other night of the year, for there are no decorations, no festive songs, nothing at all that would hint at Christmas.
“You remember this day, do you not?” the child at this side asks, and Uther’s ashamed to say that he doesn’t.
He sees himself, older than before but younger still than he is now, reading by the fire, much like he has done every evening for many years. Nothing seems remarkable about the scene until the doors to his room fly open and a beautiful young woman strides in.
Suddenly, Uther knows what night it is, for he hasn’t seen his goddaughter since this night.
“I will hide no longer!” Morgana exclaims, green eyes sparkling with belligerence. “I must say the truth and hope that it will change you.”
The Uther in the armchair puts down his book and looks up at his goddaughter with fondness. There’s so much of her father in her, Uther has always thought. The dark hair, the temper that won’t be tamed – both remind Uther of his friend Gorlois, and how much Uther cherishes Morgana in his life, for she challenges him much like her father would have done, even if she goes too far sometimes.
“What is it you have to tell me, child?” Uther asks, and Morgana’s eyes flash gold for just a moment before Uther’s book lifts off the table and flies into Morgana’s hands.
“I have magic,” she declares and while Uther will never forget the determined look on her face, this is the first time he can see his own face go still and then turn to stone upon the news.
“You will abandon this unnatural behaviour this instant,” Uther says, rising slowly out of his chair. “I will not have a degenerate in my home.”
“I am the way I am, and I will not change – not for you nor anyone. It is you who must change. Magic is no evil, no defect, and you must lift the ban so people can nurture their gifts and use it for good!”
Morgana’s voice has risen with every word, but a simple gesture from Uther silences her.
“Leave,” he says, voice as icy as it was the day he left Camelot so long ago. “You are no longer welcome in this home.”
“Uther!” Morgana exclaims, eyes wide with fear for the first time.
“You have no right to call me that. You will leave this house and you will never return. I will not tolerate witches in my home,” Uther repeats.
“But I’m your goddaughter!” Morgana argues, all the while stepping back and away from Uther.
“If you were my family, you would renounce all evil in your heart,” Uther says. He raises an arm and points toward the door. “Leave, I said.”
Before this night, many people had looked at Uther with fear or hatred or disgust, but not once had it been a person he held dear. The last time Uther saw his goddaughter, fear and fury marred her beautiful face, and it is a look he has never managed to forget, no matter how hard he has tried.
The door shuts with a loud bang, and the room is silent. The scene dissolves as the younger Uther sinks back into his armchair, face in hands. And then, suddenly, the older Uther is back in his room, the only light coming from the childish ghost by his side.
“You’ve lost much in your life and you’ve worked hard to never have to think about any of it,” the ghost says, his smile gone now.
“How cruel of you to remind me so harshly, then,” Uther says, finally tugging his hand free of the child’s. “How merciless to make me watch while my Ygraine gave up herself because she believed it would please me. How terrible to remind me of my dear goddaughter who turned away from me.”
“This is your past, Uther Pendragon,” the boy says, and now his voice doesn’t sound sweet like a young child’s anymore. It’s an old voice all of a sudden, scratchy and harsh. “Do not blame me for what it is.”
Uther raises his arms to shield his face from the growing brightness. He stumbles back and falls into his bed, eyes screwed shut as he scrambles to hide beneath the covers.
He’s asleep again before he knows it.
The bell tolls two and when the second gong has rung out, music fills the air and wakes Uther from his slumber.
Once again, he curses his servants for being insubordinate beggars who’d make merry in his house on his purse.
He’s out of bed, not even stopping to put on a robe or slippers, and in the dining room from where the music heralds in an instant. Inside, he finds but one fellow sitting at the head of the table, a feast laid out before him.
A young man with black hair; large, blue eyes; and prominent cheekbones is singing some of the old Christmas carols that Uther remembers from his childhood, and yet cannot recall the words of.
“Who are you?” asks Uther as he walks near. “How did you get in here? Who gave you permission to eat my food?”
The young man finishes his song and then laughs melodiously, his eyes crinkling at the sides, the lines visible long after he’s stopped.
“I’m the second of the spirits who have been foretold,” says he, and Uther shudders.
“I am the Ghost of Christmas Present,” the young man goes on, and he spreads his arms as if to embrace all the world and everything in it. “Come in, and know me better, man!”
“And I suppose I must go with you,” Uther grumbles.
The young man laughs again. “You must, yes.”
“Then let us go, so I can find some sleep yet,” Uther says, impatient now.
Another laugh bursts out of the ghost and then, lightning fast, he grabs Uther’s wrist, and the world around them changes.
Gone is Uther’s opulent dining room and the food therein, gone is the residual warmth and the warm light from the chandelier.
They’re in the poorest part of the city, which Uther recognises even though he never comes here.
“Where have you taken me?” he whispers, forgetting that he cannot be heard or seen as long as he’s with the spirit.
“Where you need to be, Uther Pendragon,” says the ghost.
He leads him to a ruin of a house with more holes in the roof than shingles; inside, everything is wet and mouldy.
“What will we find here?” Uther asks, looking around with narrowed eyes, his nose wrinkled in disgust.
“See for yourself,” says the spirit, and points towards a corner where Uther can see the glow of a meagre fire.
He steps nearer and can soon distinguish three figures huddled together for warmth. There’s a young boy, no older than sixteen, with dark, matted hair, and much dirt on his face – at least what you can see under a scruffy beard. Next to him, a woman, some years older than him, with what might be blonde hair but could easily brown – dirty as it is, there’s no way to tell. Her features are sharp and not unfamiliar to Uther, but he cannot place her face. But next to her, oh, he knows that face, would know it anywhere. The dark hair, unkempt and knotted worse than a bird’s nest, the face pale and sallow.
“Morgana,” Uther says, taking another step forward. She can’t hear him, and yet he thinks she might have looked up at him for a moment.
“This has been her life since you made you her leave,” the ghost says, sadness tingeing every word. “Penniless and branded a witch, no one would give her shelter, no one food or money. No one would be kind, for fear of your laws and what it would mean to break any of them.”
Uther swallows as he watches the three people sit silently by the fire. Now that he looks closer, he sees the boy hold a stick, on the tip of which is a meagre lump of meat that’s cooking over the fire.
“Lucky thing that you caught that rat,” the woman in the middle says. “It will be nice not to have to sleep on an empty stomach. On Christmas Eve, no less.”
“Rat!” Uther spits. “That’s no meal.”
“It’s all they can get,” the ghost says. “Those who have magic may not work, may not farm, may not do anything but live in poverty. If you want to call it living.”
“It’s no less than they deserve,” Uther says, already feeling less convinced even as he says it. His Morgana was proud once. Now she wears rags and eats vermin – and is still too proud to give up the very thing that brought her here.
“She could’ve come back any time,” Uther defends himself.
“If she gave up who she is,” the spirit adds.
“Better to live with change than to die by stubbornness,” Uther says, wrinkling his nose as he watches while Morgana bites off the rat’s tail.
“And why should it be her who changes?” the ghost challenges, but before Uther can reply, a shout, then the screeching of wheels can be heard outside.
In an instant, the three jump to their feet and hurry outside. Uther and the ghost follow, and what they find is a terrible sight.
A car has hit a wall, and on the ground beside it lies a young boy, bleeding badly from a hit to the head.
Immediately, Morgana runs to him and kneels by his side, hands stretched over his small body. As Uther watches, a light forms beneath her palm while her lips are moving.
The other two are engaged in similar chanting and gesturing, but concentrating on the vehicle and its driver.
It seems to take an age, but the injured boy sits up, no longer bleeding and looking much recovered, and the driver climbs out of a broken window of his car, equally unharmed.
“This is what magic can do,” the ghost says, and he squeezes Uther’s wrist. “And now we must go and see another home.”
The street disappears and, in its stead, a brightly lit alley appears. A small house with a red door stands at the end of the street and, as they move closer, Uther can see flickering candle light illuminate the ground floor windows.
Just as they reach the door, another person in a big coat and hood approaches, knocking three times, then twice, then twice again, and then another four times.
“A signal!” Uther exclaims. “What’s all this secrecy about?”
The ghost puts a finger to his lips and winks at Uther. “Watch,” he says, and so Uther does.
The front door opens, and the hooded figure steps inside while Uther and the ghost follow.
“I’m glad you could make it,” a voice says, and Uther finds it belongs to a young woman with dark skin and curly hair. “We were worried you wouldn’t. You’re so late.”
“I do apologise,” the one with the hood says, and suddenly Uther knows the voice and knows who’s beneath the hood even before it’s taken off. “I had to see my father first.”
Uther watches as first his son’s blond hair is revealed beneath the hood and then his son’s familiar face.
“Arthur,” Uther whispers, and the ghost’s grip around Uther’s wrist tightens.
“Come,” the young woman says. “Everyone else is already here.”
Uther follows her and his son to a small room at the end of the hall while the ghost keeps a bruising grip on his arm.
Inside the room there are a dozen people of different age and gender, some black, some white, some brown. Uther recognises no one but his son, and he fears what kind of company his boy is keeping that Uther knows nothing of.
“Friends,” Arthur speaks, and they all turn their eyes on him and watch him attentively – Uther being no different.
“You know what night it is, and even though the Supreme Chancellor—”
“Your father!” a man with mousy brown hair interjects.
“My father,” Arthur concedes, “cancelled Christmas a long time ago and won’t abide its public celebration, for he calls it magical nonsense. And yet we come together when we can to celebrate and to remind ourselves that there’s still light in the world.”
There are murmurs of agreement for Arthur, and grumbles of disapproval of Uther, around the room and it lasts until Arthur raises his hand to silence them.
“But that is not the only reason we come together on this night,” Arthur goes on. “We all know that my father’s reign cannot be allowed to continue, that those who possess magic deserve to be free.”
An ice-cold shudder runs down Uther’s back and his eyes snap to the ghost at his side. He’s still smiling, but Uther wonders if it’s his imagination that there’s a dangerous edge to it now.
“What is the meaning of this?” Uther whispers, but the ghost merely shakes his head and points back at Arthur.
“Listen,” is all he says.
And so Uther does.
“I know that not all of you trusted me from the start, and I cannot fault you for this. I pretend to be in agreement with my father – or at least not in open disagreement. The truth is that he is two men. He is the father that raised me, and whom I love despite not always doing right by me—”
At this, Uther’s heart clenches painfully. He had thought he had done right by his son, given him every single thing he had ever expressed an interest in. He’d given Arthur the freedom to explore the world on his own, while still setting down a strict set of rules that would ensure that he grew up to be a respectable man and leader – a worthy successor to Uther’s seat of power.
“—but all boys grow up. And as I did, I came to see the other man, the Supreme Chancellor, whose cruel reign over our country has destroyed many lives, and continues to bring us more ruin and pain.”
“Hear, hear!” the audience cries, and Uther feels icy dread settle in his stomach.
“And while I don’t wish my father harm, I wish the Supreme Chancellor to be removed from his position, so that we may take back our country and return it to its people, whether they be magical or not.”
There’s applause from the people in the room.
“As the only heir and named successor of Uther Pendragon, I can reach this goal for us, and with your help, Britain will once more be good to its people,” Arthur concludes.
Some of the people jump up and go to embrace Arthur, while others turn to each other to do the same.
“Why are you showing me this, Spirit?” Uther asks. “Why would you show me my own son’s betrayal, and the way he hates me?”
“Is this all you saw?” the spirit asks. Uther turns to see the ghost looking directly at him, blue eyes boring into his.
“What else could I have seen?” Uther asks, desperate for an explanation for all of it.
“Did you not hear that he loves you? Has he not invited you to spend Christmas with him and his Love? Does he not admit that he wishes you, his father, no harm, that he only seeks to be rid of the Chancellor?”
“But I am one and the same!” Uther protests. “Am I not?”
“I cannot answer that question for you,” the ghost says, and before Uther’s eyes, his cheeks begin to hollow and his skin grows pale. “We must be off. My time is nearly done,” he says, and with a tug on Uther’s arm, they’re back in Uther’s room.
“I say, Spirit,” Uther says as the ghost’s grip on his arm weakens and then disappears, “what’s happening to you?”
“My time in this world is but short-lived for I am the Ghost of Christmas Present, and my light must go out when that of Christmas does. You’ve all but killed me, and one day not so long hence I shall be gone forever,” the ghost replies, and his voice has become brittle and scratchy as the skin of his face has become saggy and wrinkled and horrible to look at.
“Spirit, it pains me to look at you,” Uther says, but he finds he cannot avert his eyes quite yet. “It is as if you’re melting, just like a candle does.”
“And just like it, my light is not eternal if not renewed and nursed and sheltered,” the ghost says, voice just above a raspy whisper.
Uther watches in horror as the Spirit’s form shrinks and dissolves until there’s first only a skeleton and then nothing left at all – and then the ghost and his light are gone.
Of a mind to slip back into bed and ignore whatever apparition is to haunt him next, Uther fumbles for the edge of his bed, and is rather grateful when he can make out the corner of it in the faint light shining in through the window.
Only, the light grows once more and with sudden dread, Uther realises that it’s not the moon shining through the window, but the third ghost.
“Are you the third of the spirits that have been foretold? The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come?” Uther asks when a humped old man with long white hair appears in his room.
The old man nods gravely and extends a boney white hand to clasp around Uther’s shoulder. Uther is of a mind to step away, but finds that he cannot move – and so he is forced to let the Spirit take him away.
It’s broad daylight when Uther opens his eyes again, the hand of the spirit gripping his shoulder tightly and so Uther knows he hasn’t awoken from the nightmare yet.
They’re outside, and Uther recognises the square in front of his palace in the heart of the city. It’s overrun with people despite the cold weather and the falling snow. Every face he looks at appears full of joy and merriment, and the people are waving flags or holding up signs, all of them praising President Pendragon.
“What’s this?” Uther asks, but the Spirit gives no reply. He raises the bony finger of his other hand, and points towards the balcony of the palace, where a man is just appearing from inside the building.
“It’s my son!” Uther cries. “But look how much he’s changed!”
And so it is, and so he has. His shoulders are as broad as ever, but his hair is beginning to grey, and the wrinkles around his eyes are more prominent than they are now.
“How much time has passed?” Uther wonders aloud, but the Spirit remains silent.
The crowd, too, has spotted Arthur now, and slowly but surely a chant raises into the air as everyone on the square begins to call Arthur’s name.
Arthur smiles at his subjects, and Uther wonders if he’s imagining the sadness in his eyes or if it’s really there.
Just like in the decrepit building among his friends, however many years ago now, Arthur raises a hand to silence the crowd – and they all stop their chanting to listen to what he has to say.
“Dear people,” Arthur says. “It has been many years since the rebels captured Supreme Chancellor Uther Pendragon and removed him from power. I have had the privilege and honour to take charge of the government and begin the long way to recovery for our country. It hasn’t been easy an easy path and all of it uphill but now, as another year of my reign comes to a close, I can say with pride that the United States of Britain and Ireland are well on their way to full recovery.”
The crowd cheers, and Arthur gives them a few moments to settle down again. When the chants of his name start up again, he raises his hand once more and the crowd immediately quiets down, eager for his next words.
“As you all know, Uther Pendragon was exiled and even I, his only son, was banned from ever seeing him again so as to ensure that his corrupted thoughts would never again infiltrate our society.”
This time, Uther is sure that he sees regret and sadness in Arthur’s demeanour, although anyone else would not recognise the signs: a hand tightened into a fist, a barely audible hitch in his breath – Uther knows all these tells.
“Today, on this day of Christmas, I must inform you that former Supreme Chancellor Uther Pendragon has died in the night without ever seeing the face of another human being again.”
A grave silence falls over the crowd, and then, as if given a signal, the crowd erupts into laughter and cheers and some even begin to sing and dance on the spot.
Uther watches in horror as the people celebrate his death.
Arthur seems to have decided that he wouldn’t capture the public’s attention again and with a stony face he retreats back into the palace while the crowd continues to cheer for Uther’s demise.
“Is this the scope of their hatred?” Uther asks the Spirit. “That they would sing and dance on the day I die? Oh, Spirit, tell me it’s not too late to change this future. Look what I have done to my son, to my goddaughter, and look what I have done to myself. See what I did to the people that they must be so joyful when I am gone. Tell me I can change, and earn their forgiveness and their love!”
The spirit tightens his hand on Uther’s shoulder and turns his head to stare him in the eyes, never saying a word while Uther cries for mercy.
It happens between one beat of the heart and the next. The world goes black around Uther and when next he sees a light, it’s the sun peeking through the curtains of his bedroom.
Uther’s clutching at his bedcovers, afraid of setting even just a toe out of bed, but when the light remains where it is and never grows larger or brighter, he dares to get up and take a closer look.
There he discovers that it is the sunshine of a new day that stole into his room, and he throws the curtains wide as he’s filled with relief and the hope to get another chance, to undo what he has seen.
He looks around for the clock on his bedside table and— Yes! It is the twenty-fourth; it’s Christmas Eve morning, and he hasn’t missed a thing yet.
Quick as you will, he brushes and shaves and dresses. Not even half an hour later, he is out in the palace, greeting all his staff with a bright smile and the promise of a wonderful feast to which they are all invited – that is unless they want to be with their families, who are all invited, too.
He spends all morning ordering the cook and everyone else about until he’s safe in the knowledge that everything will be ready by tonight.
At noon precisely, he steps out onto the balcony – the very one where he saw Arthur declare his father’s demise in that terrifying vision Uther had – to speak to his people like he has on every December the twenty-fourth as long as he has reigned.
It is brief this year, which is the first change everyone notices, but not the most remarkable thing anyone observes.
The people are unsure what to make of their Supreme Chancellor’s smiling face and when, first, the Chancellor says that Christmas has been reinstated, and that, secondly, all rights will be returned to magic users – well... The people don’t quite know what to think, do they? Maybe their Chancellor has had too much to drink, or it’s an imposter who stole his place.
Then they all seem to conclude that no matter which is true, the consequence of such a declaration must follow, and so they go home and dare to hope.
In the afternoon, Uther receives word from one of his law enforcing agencies, which he tasked with finding his dear goddaughter mere hours ago, that she has been found, and so Uther takes his jacket and rushes to meet with her.
He recognises the alley right away, and a shiver runs down his spine. The spirit had it right, what it showed him was the truth.
Uther steps into the decrepit building – it looks much worse in daylight even – and there, towards the back, around a fireplace that holds no fire, sit Morgana and her two companions.
They all look up at the sound of his steps, and are on their feet not a moment later.
“Morgana,” Uther says, his voice as soft as he has ever made it just for her when she would not sleep for fear of terrible dreams. “Child, I’m sorry.”
This at least appears to surprise all three.
“I will make amends,” Uther promises, daring another step. “And I know it shall take time but if you forgave me it would mean more to me than all the riches in the world.”
There is no movement from the trio. Uther knew not to expect warm acceptance, but his heart sinks at the absence of emotion on his dear goddaughter’s face.
“You may come home whenever you wish and bring as many as need shelter,” he offers at last. “I declared only two hours ago that my laws will be changed and magic allowed once more.”
This – at last – provokes what he had been waiting for all this time. Morgana gasps, and there is hope written plain across her features. It warms Uther that he knows her so well still.
“There is a feast tonight and you and yours are welcome to join me and anyone else who wishes to partake,” Uther says at last. “I shall bid you goodbye for now, but leave you this.”
With the snap of a finger, his driver carries in a large wooden crate, filled with food and clothes for all three of them. They won’t be having rat tonight, come what may.
Uther bows his head and leaves the three to discuss what they have heard.
“To my son’s home,” Uther orders and off they go to the other side of London.
For the first time, Uther notes the small house at the end of the street with the red door – but then, he’s only been on this street once before, many years ago.
The doorbell rings, and it’s his son himself who answers.
“Father!” Arthur declares. “What a surprise! I didn’t expect you until later.”
“You didn’t expect me at all,” Uther grumps – not showing how amused he truly was. “I’ve never accepted your invitation and I shan’t do so now.”
“Oh,” says Arthur, and his face takes on a sullen look.
“I shan’t accept it because I demand that you and all your guests will join me at the palace for a Christmas feast of my own,” Uther says, finally letting the smile break free that he has been holding in so valiantly.
“I— Father?” Arthur asks, and the look on his face was so funny, Uther couldn’t help but laugh heartily at it.
“Father, are you well?” Arthus asks then, for he was worried about how his father was behaving.
“Quite well, thank you,” says Uther, wiping at his eyes. “You will come, won’t you? And your Love? I invited Morgana but she may not wish to see me again so soon.”
“You invited Morgana?” Arthur is incredulous.
“She is my daughter in all but blood,” Uther says, “and I have done her much wrong. I must be better, and so I will be.”
He claps a hand on Arthur’s shoulder. “I must be off now. Much to prepare, you see. A feast won’t arrange itself!”
And with that he hops back into his car and is gone, leaving a much bewildered Arthur standing in his door.
That night, the feast is grander than anyone has seen in a longer time than people care to remember. All of Uther’s servants and all their families attend – although many thought that the invitation was an order, and so most of the parents look uncomfortable, and the children are quiet.
However, all of it changes when Uther himself, dressed as Father Christmas, appears with a big bag of wrapped boxes. No one dares believe their eyes even as they watch while Uther hands every child a present, and every single one of his staff a cheque, and the order not to come to work the next day.
And then, quietly, and with barely anyone noticing, Uther’s own gift arrives, dressed in a warm coat, and with a washed face.
Morgana has come although her companions have not. It is more than Uther dared hope for, truth be told.
“My child,” he says, and those who stood closest to him will swear even decades later, that there were tears in his eyes.
The daughter he lost flies into his arms, and neither one lets go for such a long time that people begin to worry.
Muffled cries of joy, and apologies can be heard from the hugging lump, until – finally – the lump separates and became two people again.
“Eat,” Uther bids his goddaughter and never lets his eyes leave her even as she walks away to do as she’s been asked.
“I must say,” comes a voice from behind Uther, and he turns to find his son. “You are a much changed man, Father.”
“Arthur!” Uther declares happily, and then a new lump forms, although this one is of a much shorter lifespan.
“Merry Christmas! Did you bring your friends? Your Love?” he asks eagerly. Although Arthur has oft spoken of his Love, Uther has yet to meet them for himself.
“I did!” Arthur announces, and then a young man steps forward who – Uther shivers – is much more familiar than expected.
“Father, may I present, my Love, my Merlin.” There is pride in Arthur’s voice and much affection.
Uther grips the boy’s hand – warm and soft in his – and looks at him intently.
“Do I know you, my dear man?” he asks, and the young man named Merlin smiles, happy and wide. It is in that moment – less than the blink of an eye – that Uther can see the man’s past (a gangly, bright-eyed child), his present (the young man with sharp cheekbones), and his future (a wrinkly face with long white hair and steely eyes) in that joyful expression.
“I believe, Uther Pendragon, that anyone would remember meeting me,” says the young man, and even in that voice, Uther hears the echo of spirits who called his name not too long ago.