One night just before Yuletide, the Lord of Misrule pursued the Wren Boys through London's cobbled streets. The ivy-crowned lads with their bright red coats and summer-colored hair led his Lordship a spring-heeled chase through the gaslit fogs, their birch spears held close, laughing all the way.
That year's Lord of Misrule was a great brute of a man, son of Mhaire, a Traveler woman, and a blackamoor sailor off a Dutch spice trader, abandoned to be raised by thieves. When the solstice lordship settled upon him, he had rousted the minstrels and set great back-alley feasts, lighting the lives of London's poor like a balefire on a barren heath. While about his mercies, the Lord had happened upon the Wren Boys cheering one another toward their annual rites of bird-murder in the name of the Holly King, and taking His Lordship's name in vain. Thus they had come to fight, then flight.
"I'll show you who's to rule the winter," the Lord of Misrule bellowed. Beggars and fancy women trailed behind him, eager for the sport. The Wren Boys cornered Loudon Lane only to find a coal wagon blocking their way. They turned, laughter lost to the fog.
His Lordship was tall as a forest in his green velvet. "Who's first, then?" he asked, cracking his knuckles.
The leader of the Wren Boys stood forth, a lad half the Lord's size. "I'll take you on, you rotten great darkie," he shouted, waving his birch spear. "Cock Robin I am."
The Lord of Misrule laughed, temper slipping away like the running tide. "You? You'd slay the wrens of the Holly King to make the year come round, yet you're no taller than my elbow." He turned to his ragged court, arms spread wide, infecting the beggars with laughter until the cobbles rang.
Cock Robin, also son of a Traveler woman and thus no stranger to anger or magic, thrust his spear deep to find the Holly King hiding inside this man.
"Oh," sighed the Lord of Misrule, falling to his knees. "My game, misplayed."
Then he lay upon the cobbles, dark blood seeping between the stones to find the thirsty earth.
Robin had not meant to kill the Lord, only to slay his laughter, saving his blood-work for the wrens in their holly bushes. "Summer help me," he whispered as the beggars muttered his bloody death.
At those words a doctor arrived, clad in the long leather coat and bird-mask of the Plague Years, reeking of pox and fire though London had known neither in more than a lifetime. His glassy-eyed glare stilled the angry crowd.
The doctor bent to the Lord, working the birch spear free in order to properly staunch the wound. The Lord of Misrule sat up and vomited a handful of bright holly berries. He stared as if they were rubies from farthest India.
"The year is come round again," the doctor said in a voice of hollow wood. "You are brothers, black and white."
The Lord and Robin each saw Mhaire the Traveler in the other's face, and they knew that winter and summer were truly brothers. They went to find a drink together, while the berries melted into blood to feed summer's grave and bring another healing winter to Britain.
Copyright © 2003 Joseph E. Lake, Jr.
Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, with his family and their books. In 2003, his work is appearing in diverse markets such as Realms of Fantasy, Writers of the Future XIX, and The Thackeray T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases. For more about him and his work, see his website.
One Is All Alone
Three the Rivals