December 12, 1999

345. Stephanie's Doll

December 19

The grey stone walls and hardwood floors
Resonated the sound of the little leather-soled shoes
As they rounded the corner of the main hallway
And made their way to the main sitting chamber.
“Mommy! Mommy!” the soft little voice called out.
“Mommy, the Christmas tree is here!”

Young Princess Stephanie, her lavender silk and lace
Gown flowing about her as she ran into the room,
Her dark eyes afire with joy, her smile bright,
Ran into the out-stretched arms of her mother.
All in that split second,
As her arms wrapped around her oldest daughter,
Princess Teresa remembered her days as a young girl,
Running through her family’s home in the countryside.
“Mommy! Mommy!” another little voice rang out,
Accompanied with another set of footsteps.
This time it was Princess Jacqueline, her youngest daughter.
As soon as she rounded the corner,
Almost tripping over her long yellow satin dress,
Princess Jacqueline saw that her mother’s arms
Were already full with her sister,
So she ran straight for Teresa’s leg
      and clutched tightly.
“Mommy, come see the tree. It’s so beautiful.”
Teresa slowly bent down towards the ground
And set Stephanie down on the floor
As Jacqueline let go her grip on her mother’s leg,
Grabbed her sister’s hand, and pulled her down the hall.
Teresa shook her head with a smile,
Lifted the bottom of her long, wool burgundy gown,
Then followed her daughters down the hall.
“Don't forget your coats, girls!” Teresa called out,
But the hand-maidens were already waiting
For the girls at the front door of the castle,
      coats in hand.
The hand-maidens draped the coats over the girls’ shoulders
Just as they did each winter morning before the girls went to play.
Just as she reached the door, one of the hand-maidens placed
Teresa’s long burgundy wool and fur coat over her shoulders.
Teresa smiled, thanked the girl with a nod, and stepped outside.
She marveled at the pure whiteness of the snow about the ground.
The stone stairway that led from the door to the main drive
Had been cleared of snow, but the drive was freshly covered.
The family coach, sparkling black
With the burgundy and cyan crest painted boldly on the door
Came to a stop as she and the girls looked on.
Teresa marveled at the size of the fir tree in tow, still covered in fresh snow.
The door to the coach opened and two small black boots stepped on to the snow.
“Mother, what do you think of this year’s tree?” the young male voice called out.
Glancing back to the carriage, Teresa saw her son.
He stood there, triumphantly, proud of his prize taken from the nearby forest.
She bit her bottom lip a bit as not to laugh.
His feet were shoulder length apart, his hands resting on
A carved wooden sword stabbed into the snow;
The same wooden sword a present the year before.
The boy’s black pants and burgundy coat were so bold against
The background of the carriage and landscape of snow.
Such a self-proclaimed bold figure,
She thought shaking her head,
      just like his father.
“William,” Teresa called back, “It is the prettiest tree yet!”
“Sire, would you like to help bring the tree into the house?”
One of the coachmen called from the position he had taken
Beside the carriage tow cart as he untied the tree.
William looked anxiously to his mother. “Go ahead,” she smiled.
Teresa leaned over and nudged her daughters a bit forward.
“Go welcome your brother and watch them put up the tree.”
The two girls cheered and ran down the steps towards the carriage.
Teresa watched them go with a smile as her right hand
Caressed the gold and diamond band on her left hand.
Her mind wandered off into the sky
To a faraway place on the other side of the forest......

“Sire, we must go now, before it is too late!” a voice hollered
Over the noise of creaking wood, rock and mortar,
And the rushing of the raging river.
“No, Thomas, we cannot leave when we are so close!”
The Emperor’s hands were freezing cold, blistered and sore.
He felt a pain like he had never known before in his shoulders.
His feet were soaking wet through the cured leather shoes
And he was as dirty as any farmhand had ever been.
“Sire, there is nothing we can do to hold back the river!
The field hands did not dig the flood channels deep enough!
Think of your family, sire, and retire before it is too late!”
The Emperor looked to the General of his army, a lifelong friend.
“Thomas, the people of this town are not just my subjects,
They are my family as well, and I will not let them flood.
We will hold back this river. There is no other choice.”
Thomas nodded his head and smiled.
Emperor or no, his friend William was right.
Thomas turned over his shoulder and called out to his men.
“Keep bringing the wood and stones to support the wall, men!
The Emperor will not retire until we have supported this wall!”
William looked over his shoulder as he pushed as hard as he could
On the wood and mortar support his men had constructed
To reinforce the irrigation retaining wall that was barely holding on.
He watched his soldiers scrambling to bring forward
Boulders, wood, anything to help support the mortar and stone wall.
Beyond his men, though it was small,
It was still the most beautiful farming village in the empire,
Threatened by the rising water and raging current
That was almost overflowing an improperly dug irrigation ditch.
The heaviest snowfall in anyone’s recall,
Followed by a sleeting rainfall
Had melted snow banks up river far faster than normal.
Just a few inches higher and the raging river would break the wall,
Flooding the army, the farming village and the Emperor.
“The men are tiring, sire - they have been at it for hours.”
William nodded at Thomas’s comment and rang out,
“Men, we have almost supported the wall. I know you are tired,
But we are so close to saving these people and their village!
I will stay here at your side, regardless the outcome,
But I assure you our fight is almost won!”
True to form, the Emperor’s men were sparked by his words.
It was just a few minutes later that a voice called down from atop the wall.
“My lord, the water is receding. I believe we have seen the worst!”
Thomas looked up to his Lieutenant, nodded and gave a sigh.
William could already feel the pressure pushing on the wall lessen.
“You see, my friend, a flash flood, just as we predicted......”

Princess Teresa stood in the main sitting chamber,
Near the fire warming her hands,
As she watched her son and daughters decorate the tree
With the help of the hand-maidens and coachmen.
Decorating the tree was a tradition in her home
That belonged to any one under her roof,
But this year, she could not bring herself to participate
With her husband so far from home.
Her thoughts began to wander off again.
But these thoughts were interrupted when
She felt a slight tug on the flowing skirt of her dress.
Startled a bit, Teresa looked down only to find
Her youngest daughter looking up with a smile.
“Mommy, can I put the star on the tree?”
Jacqueline’s soft voice and shining light brown eyes asked.
Teresa returned the smile and ran her fingers through
The little girl’s long dark hair.
“Honey, when do we put the star on the tree?”
Jacqueline thought a minute, then answered,
“We put the star on the tree before we open the presents.”
Teresa laughed a little at the answer she received.
“You are right, honey, not until Christmas Eve.
And, who is it that puts the star on the tree?”
Jacqueline herself broke into a cute little laugh.
“Daddy lifts me and Stephanie up, and we do it!”
Teresa’s hand rested on her daughter’s cheek,
And Jacqueline in turn clasped her mother’s hand.
As Teresa looked back up towards the tree,
She saw Stephanie standing in front of her,
Tears beginning to form in her eyes.
Stephanie said not a word,
But ran out of the sitting chamber,
Teresa let go her caress of Jacqueline’s cheek.
“You wait here, honey, let me go see where your sister went.”
Teresa pulled up her flowing gown as not to trip
And ran towards the doorway her daughter had just run out.
As she passed the threshold and looked down the hall,
The Princess saw that whichever way her daughter went,
She had already rounded the bend of the hallway.
Teresa called out after her daughter
As she walked the maze of hallways and chambers.
She laughed at the thought of her husband always telling her
He feared the children would get lost in the maze of the castle,
But here today, she was the one who was becoming lost.
As Teresa rounded the corner of the hallway
That led out towards the rear courtyard,
She heard her daughter’s soft voice.
As she began to step into the chamber where the voice was coming from,
Teresa saw her daughter kneeling in the middle of her husband’s study.
Teresa stopped herself, curious at the girl’s behavior.
It was then that she saw her daughter’s hands clasped together,
Held close to her chest as she looked up towards the ceiling.
“...and I know, Lord, I asked you to tell Santa
To bring me a new dolly this Christmas,
But could you please let him know for me
That I would rather have my daddy home on Christmas Eve
So that we can finish decorating the tree,
And so my Mommy won’t be sad because she misses him.
I’ve been a very good girl this year, Lord,
So I hope that you can find some time to help,
Even though I know you are very busy.
We’ve all been very good this year,
And would like our daddy home for Christmas.
If you can bring my daddy home,
Please tell Santa to give my dolly
To another little girl who needs a new dolly this Christmas,
Teresa stood there, motionless, fighting back her tears,
Her hand half-clasped over her mouth.
As she stood up, Stephanie noticed her mother standing there.
Teresa hurried over to her daughter and scooped her up into in her arms......

The Emperor clasped the warm silver cup,
His near-frozen fingers welcoming the warmth.
He let out a sigh and sat back in the wooden chair,
Resting the cup and his weary arms on the wooden table.
The dimly-lit, warm relaxing atmosphere of the inn
Reminded him of the little wood and straw house he grew up in.
“Inn Keeper, you surely have the finest inn in the territory!”
William called out to the elderly man across the table.
“My men are honored at your hospitality.”
The elderly man broke into a smile and bowed his head.
In all his long life, this was the only nobleman,
Let alone the realm’s newest Emperor,
That he was not forced to his knees in the presence of.
“My Lord, you are too kind to my wife and I.”
William shook his head, “No, sir, it is you who have been too kind.
I will sing praise for you to all I know who will be traveling this way.”
The elderly man bowed his head again, then looked up sharply.
“Sire,” he said, raising his hands and clasping them
In front of his chest as he rose from the chair,
“With your permission, will you grant me leave for just a moment.”
William smiled, seeing the old traditions in this elderly man.
“My dear friend, this is your home and we are merely guests.
Please, do as you will.”
William watched the elderly man walk towards a door at the back of the room.
“Oh, Thomas, it is people like that kind old man there
That have dragged me out here in such a storm.
I could not let them down when that irrigation channel
Was about to give way and flood this little village.”
Thomas nodded, looking around the inn’s den.
“Well, sire, it makes a lot more sense now
Than it did when I saw you fighting that river down there today.
I thought for sure we would drown along with this little town.”
“Well, Thomas, our fight here is done. Tomorrow we head for home.
Fate willing, we will make it before Christmas Eve.”
As William thought back for just a split second to home,
His thoughts were interrupted by the return of the inn keeper.
“Sire, I hope you will forgive an old man,
But during the off-season, the inn is slow, and I make ends meet
For my wife and I with crafts and oddities for the children of the village.
You will forgive me that I have nothing more for you
Than a night’s stay at my inn, sire,
But I would ask that you present these items as gifts
To your blessed children from their future subjects of this village.”
The inn keeper placed the contents of his arms onto the table.
There was a dull-bladed metal sword, about three feet long
And two hand-crafted satin and lace, porcelain-faced dolls upon the table.
“Inn Keeper, you do me an honor by offering such gifts to my children.
I will gladly take them with me when we leave in the morrow.
All I ask is that you let me compensate you at least
What you would fare from the villagers for such wonderful crafts.”
“Respectfully, sire, I cannot accept. You and your men fought today
To save our little village, and it is the least I can do.”
William smiled and nodded, conceding to the wish of the inn keeper.
“I accept your terms, Inn Keeper, and thank you a thousand times.
Now, if you will grant us leave, sir, my men and I
Are weary and would like to turn in for the night.”
The inn keeper smiled and bowed, waving his arm towards the stairs……

December 20-21

The Emperor rose early, before the rest of the men,
Stole into the workshop where the inn keeper
Crafted his toys for the village children,
And left a heavy purse of gold, hidden a little,
But sure to be found the next time the inn keeper
Settled in to work at his craft bench.
As the Emperor stole back out of the chamber,
He shook with a bit of a start as he did not expect to find Thomas standing there.
“Oh, Thomas,” he whispered, “I thought you were still asleep.”
“I woke and found you were gone, and here I find you,
Doing exactly what I thought I would find you doing.
You let him win the argument last night,
So that you could secretly reward him undetected today.”
William smiled and put his hand on his friend’s shoulder.
“I could see in that man’s eyes, he has not experienced enough kindness in life.
I want him to know for the rest of his days, he will not need to fear again.
Now, where are the men?”
“Half are still at rest.  Half ready themselves for the journey home.
I called for volunteers to stay behind
To ensure that the retaining wall holds
And, as usual, all volunteered.
So, those with families, I have ordered to leave with us,
And those without families, I have commended and bid a good Christmas.
I made sure they all were quiet this morning
As not to awaken the inn keeper before you had a chance to leave your thanks.”
“Well, then, Thomas, I guess I owe you my thanks as well.”
Thomas laughed aloud, shook his head and with thick sarcasm,
“No, my good Lord, serving you is far more a reward than any could ask for.”
William returned the laugh. “Let us mount for home, my friend.”

The Imperial Convoy consisted of the General and the Emperor,
Riding in the Imperial Carriage in tow of two gleaming black horses,
The coachman, and an accompaniment of nine soldiers,
Mounted on their trusted war-horse steeds.
The convoy traveled well for two full days,
Pressing hard to try to make it home by Christmas Eve,
      just two more days way.
With the palace just one day’s travel, there was an heir of excitement
Among the men who would at this pace, be home in time.
It was on the third day, however, that the snow began to fall again......

December 22

“My Lord,” one of the Lieutenants called out as he reared back his horse,
“As you know, the road before us goes through
A very narrow pass, but we find it snowed in.
I rode in until we could go no further.
The snow is too soft and too deep.”
William turned over his shoulder and looked to Thomas.
“Sire, you know as well as I do that the pass through the mountains
Is the only way home, and if the snow is blocking, then we cannot go further.”
The Emperor’s heart sunk and he thought back to his home.
“Sire, night will fall within the hour. We have no choice
But to camp here and check the pass in the morning.”
William nodded to the Lieutenant, dismissing him.
As the Lieutenant rode off, William spoke softly,
“Thomas, you know as well as I do that we may all
Freeze to our deaths on this very ground if we stay overnight.”
“Sire...William, we have no other choice.
The village is two days behind us,
And anything before us can only be reached through that pass.
We cannot travel through the night. The horses will die in their tracks.”
“The horses may freeze here overnight, Thomas.”
“William, if we travel back to the village, we will all freeze.
If we camp here, share common warmth, huddle the horses together,
We may lose a few of the steeds, but we will have the chance to save ourselves.”
“Oh Thomas, I fight to see fate’s will in this. All right, we will camp here.”

Through the last hour of light, the men struggled to find some dry wood,
Struggled to dig away some of the snow that covered the road;
Struggled to build barriers to keep out the cold
And made as many warming fires as they could, then settled in.
The early evening was not too bad.
The snow fall stopped and as the men ate,
They shared jokes and told tales of home.
As the late evening turned into night,
The damp cold became unbearable;
So unbearable it made each man at some point wonder
Would it not be easier and less painful to give up.
The laughter was gone and all that remained was a common goal to survive.
About three hours into the night, the fires began to die
As the men ran out of the wood they had gathered.
“My favorite carriage,” William whispered to himself, shaking his head,
As by the dimming fire light, he called out,
“Men, look to the carriage and take apart anything that will fuel the fires.
We will keep watch in cycles to ensure the fires do not go out.”
William’s last thoughts that night were of his family;
His beautiful wife, the young Princesses, and of course, the young Prince.
“I’m not done here yet,” he repeatedly whispered to himself as he shivered.
He whispered it repeatedly until finally, in the dead of the night,
He fell asleep, hoping that he would wake in the morning......

December 23

As usual, even in the freezing winter snow, the Emperor arose first.
It was slightly warmer already and although there was no direct warmth from it,
The morning sun had began to peek through the trees around them.
William nudged Thomas who was still leaning against him for warmth.
“We have made it through the night!”
“By fate’s will, we have my friend. Check the horses and I will check the men.”
With great hope and a prayer in the back of his mind,
William went to each of the men,
And although they were in bad shape, some worse than others,
All ten woke when he shook them.
“Thomas, the horses, how are they?” William called out.
Thomas returned, his head hung down, shaking. “We lost three, sire. The men?”
“We have fared better than I thought we would, my friend.
All of them men have risen this morning.
Thomas, send one of the Lieutenants to the pass again,
Have my Coachman and two soldiers remove the dead horses from the camp.
Have them lie the horses in the snow by the trees.
Let the men know we will return to give them proper burial and honor
As they are soldiers who died, battling this fierce winter by our side.
Send the rest of the men to survey the area around us.
Maybe there is another way we do not know of
To get around the pass, or somewhere we can take shelter.”
Thomas nodded and walked off towards the men......

By midday, with the snow beginning to fall again,
It became apparent that the pass was not going to clear.
As the Emperor surveyed their situation,
Their food running low, the men worn from the battle the night before,
Some beginning to suffer from frost bite,
And the carriage already more than half splintered into pieces,
It also was becoming apparent that they could not last another night.
As midday turned to afternoon, and afternoon turned to early evening,
The scouts all returned, remorseful and empty-handed.
Just as night was falling, the men sat to their meal,
A meal that would consist of the remainder of their food.
The Emperor distributed his portion amongst the men,
Then turned from the circle and walked off into the snow.
“Sire, you will need the strength in that food tonight,” Thomas scolded
      as he ran after William.
“Thomas, the men need that more than I, and besides, it could be their last.
The remainder of the horses will not make it through the night,
And we do not have enough wood to fuel those fires.
We eat the last of our food tonight, and this grey sky will not clear.”
“Sire, the men need to see you in good spirit, no matter how bad our situation.”
“Thomas, fate has willed us to die here on this road tonight.
There is nothing that I can do to stop it, nothing anyone can do.”
“William, I have been your friend since long before you bore title,
Long before you were blessed with that wonderful wife and those children,
And you have never stopped the fight; never conceded even to the Heavens,
Yet, here you stand before me, ready to be beaten by nothing more than the cold.
Your fate is not yet decided, and it is not fate that can save us tonight.
It is your strength that will need to save us all tonight.”
The words hit William’s heart very hard;
They were so difficult to hear...Difficult because they rang true.
“Leave me, Thomas,” William whispered.
“Leave me to say good-bye to my family.”
Thomas rested a hand on his friend’s shoulder for a few seconds
Then turned back towards the men and the fires......

William shivered in the cold of the night air
As he faced towards home.
“My wife, my children, what words can try
To let you know the love I have for you
In this mortal heart and immortal spirit of being.
Not a thing exists in this world and this time
That I value more than you.
Please forgive me for leaving you too soon,
And know that I will be there in spirit each day,
Looking over your shoulders, watching you live your lives......”

Princess Teresa was enveloped and saddened by the silence in her bed chamber,
Lying within the warmth of her bed, a fire crackling in the fireplace.
No matter how she lay, no matter how hard she tried,
She could not get warm enough.
Her hands shivered with cold, her feet ached from the lack of warmth.
She was normally cold during the winter, but the past two nights
The shivering of her hands and aching feet had been virtually unbearable.
She had extra blankets put on the bed, extra covering on her feet and hands,
Had more and more wood thrown on the fire, but nothing warmed her.
It was still early in the night, but she had retired to bed to try to gain warmth.
As she lay there, unable to sleep, her husband on her mind,
She rose from the bed and walked to the window,
Covered by a thick burgundy wool drape.
Teresa reached to the drape and flung it open.
She felt the coldness of the air trapped behind the drape,
The coldness of the window’s glass, the coldness of the outside air.
She looked out upon the grounds of the castle, covered in chilling white snow.
The snow was deeper than she could ever remember seeing it.
The Princess placed her shivering hand on the cold window,
Every thought in her mind of her husband.
“Come home to me,” she whispered to herself......

“My dear wife,” the Emperor continued, “first my friend,
Then my love, and always my princess,
Please forgive me for leaving you.”
The Emperor stood silent, fighting back his tears.
Just as he raised his right hand to his cheek to wipe away a tear,
The cold winter wind rustled the branches over him,
A quick, almost violent gust of wind.
“Come home to me,” he heard the wind whisper in his ear.
“Teresa?!” he called out, circling about to look into the trees.
“Come home to me,” the wind whispered again.
William turned all around, his eyes wide and bright,
But all he saw were the men and horses camped in the distance.
He instantly fell to his knees in the snow
And looked up to the sky through the branches above.
“I am coming home, my love,” he said. “I cannot give up now.”
William raised his hands to his chest,
“William,” he said to himself, “it is time to stop the fight.
Fate cannot save you and these men now.”
With tearful eyes, shivering in the snow, he called up to the sky,
“My Lord, it has been a long time since we have spoken.
You have blessed me so many a time in this lifetime,
And though I do not thank you often enough,
I know that I could not have done it without you.
You and I have had our differences over the years,
But there is a wonderful woman and three wonderful children
That I need to get home to, but I fear we will not make it through the night.
These men here have families that they may never see again.
I concede to you Lord, and ask that you allow us all to live through the night.
With the last line of his prayer, humbled and accepting,
The ever-strong Emperor gave in to his tears......

“Hello!” a voice called through the trees.
“Hello, is there someone there?!”
William rose to his feet and looked into the trees.
He saw the fire from a lantern floating towards him.
“Yes!” he called out. “We are travelers blocked by snow in the pass!”
William watched the lantern light.
The light grew closer and closer until he made out a shadowy figure,
Until finally, the shadows gave way to a middle-aged man.
“What fools try to travel through the pass so late in the year?!”
William smiled at the man, wiping the tears from his cheeks.
“Fools on their way home to their families,” he said.
The man surveyed William, then looked beyond him to the men by the fires.
“How many men are you?” he asked, walking past the Emperor.
“We are twelve total,” William said, following behind the man.
“We were on our way home from the river valley and got caught yesterday.”
“My daughter saw a dim light from your fires out our window tonight.
I didn’t believe that little girl, but lucky for you folks she made me come out here
And make sure that there wasn’t someone stuck on the road.”
“Well, we are in-debted to your daughter, sir. We barely made it through last night
And know there is no way we would have survived tonight.”
“I am afraid I must agree with you. You look low on wood - Is that a carriage?”
“It was a carriage yesterday morning, but we needed it more as a wood pile.”
“Well, gather your men,” the man said, looking back towards the woods
From whence he came. “Tonight you and your men are my guests.
My home is not much more than a shack,
And I am afraid I have no room for your horses,
But we have plenty of winter rations and plenty of warmth.”
William immediately thought hard on the horses
And knew as much as he would want to try,
The struggle to pull them through the woods
Might leave the men in the cold so long
That they may never reach the warmth of the stranger’s house.
William looked to the stranger who awaited reply.
“Sir, we can never tell you how thankful we are.”
The stranger nodded, and said,
“Worry not, my friend.  Gather your men and let's be on our way.
All my life I have lived in these woods and never known a winter this cold......”

The Emperor walked through the door of the stranger’s home,
The line of men following him closely behind.
The men were so starved for warmth that they did not even look around
As they walked into the little house, but just made straight for the fire.
The warmth was so wonderful, the most wonderful warmth they had ever felt.
“I am Matthew. This is my wife and my daughter, Mary.”
Realizing that he had not even seen the wife and daughter when he walked in,
William looked over his shoulder...
The home was barely large enough to accommodate all fifteen people
Standing within its walls. It was a one-room home.
The room was dimly lit, but you could still see the hard times.
He saw a wife and mother fighting everyday to make do with what she had.
He saw a husband and father fighting daily to provide for his family.
He felt for them, but it was the child, the little girl that hit his heart hard.
She was sitting in the corner of the room in a little wooden chair,
Holding on tightly to a heap of something in her lap.
Her long dark hair was frazzled, her face a little dirty,
But it was the eyes that he saw looking back at him.
They were the same little eyes he saw when he looked at his daughters.
The little girl looked with big puzzled eyes at the men.
William smiled at her and walked across the room towards her.
“Hello, Mary. My name is William. We’re the men
Whose fire you told your father about that you saw tonight.”
William had reached the girl and knelt down to her.
She said not a word, her face frozen in an inquisitive look.
“Mary, if you hadn’t seen our fire and told your father,
We would have frozen out there tonight.
We may not have seen our own little girls again,
And for that, we all owe you all the world.”
The girl still sat motionless.
“Mary, do you know that you saved our lives tonight?”
After a couple seconds, the little girl nodded her head yes.
It was then that William looked to the heap in her clutches.
“What do you have there, Mary?”
The little girl still said not a word,
But held up in front of her a tattered little doll.
The poor little doll was nothing more than some sewn rags attached to
A cracked porcelain head, missing an ear where you could see inside.
The dirt on the doll’s face matched that of the little girl’s.
“Is that your doll, Mary?”
Again the little girl nodded.
William sat on the floor before the girl and looked over his shoulder.
“Thomas, could you please hand me my bag?”
Thomas, who had grabbed the bag from the ruins of the carriage,
Stepped forward and handed it to William.
As William set the bag beside him, Matthew saw for the first time
The Imperial seal sewn into the side of the black leather bag.
“Oh, My Lord,” he called out, “Please, sire, I had no idea--”
William turned to Matthew and stopped him by holding up his hand.
“Matthew, I will not hear of such a thing as you apologizing to me.
Sir, you have no idea how in-debted myself and these men are to you and your family,
Especially young Mary here.”
With that Matthew nodded and William returned his attention to Mary.
“I bet it gets pretty lonely for you and your dolly out here, Mary.”
The little girl finally started to relax a bit and sat back in her chair.
She still spoke not a word, but vigorously nodded yes at the comment.
William opened the leather bag and looked inside.
He reached in and pulled out the larger of the two dolls
The inn keeper had given to him.
William thought on his oldest daughter and said to himself,
“Stephanie, honey, I’m sorry about your doll,
But this little girl is helping me get home to you.”
The soft eyes of the little girl lit up, she gasped, and a smile emblazoned her face
As William gently placed the new doll on her lap beside the old one.
“A very kind man, much like your father, gave this doll to me
To give to Princess Stephanie for Christmas,
But Mary, I want her to stay here to keep you and your dolly company.
Can I charge you with taking care of her for me?”
Mary’s entire body shook from shaking her head yes as she hugged the doll.
“Now, I may miss this little doll, so when the snow clears,
I am going to send a carriage for you and your mommy and your daddy
So that you can bring the doll to visit me and my family.
Would you like that, Mary?”
Mary let out a little bit of a laugh as she nodded this time.

After some time to warm further by the fire and to eat,
The twelve travelers slept on the floor of Matthew’s house.
William’s last thoughts that night were of his family again,
And although that was his last thought every night,
The thoughts were so much more precious tonight......

December 24

A gentle nudge woke William from his sleep in the morning.
He was most startled to see Thomas awake before him.
“Thomas, what is wrong?”
“Nothing, sire. I just rose early this morning.
Today is truly a gift.”
“That it is, my friend. I must thank you for your words last night.
They helped save us all.”
“How do you mean?”
“When we are home, sitting in my parlor, I will tell you how.”
Thomas shook his head with a smile. “Well, sire, speaking of home,
I have been down to the camp and the horses...they...well,”
“Thomas,” William stopped him, “we knew they would not make it-”
“No, they did,” Thomas interrupted. “That is what I am trying to tell you.
I went down there this morning and the pass is clear.”
“The pass is clear?”
“Yes, William, the pass is clear.”
“The horses?”
“There are tracks that lead from the camp through the pass.
The horses are trying to beat us home!”
The two men shared a laugh, relieved over the past two days of hardship.
“Without horses, Thomas. how will we get home?”
“Well, that is where I come to your aid again, My Lord,” Matthew called out.
William turned over his shoulder and saw Matthew standing, saddle in arms.
“Sire, I have room for only one stead in my little stable,
But you are welcome to ride her home.”
“Matthew, I-”
“Sire,” Matthew stopped William, “you brought such joy to my little daughter last night.
My steed is yours to ride home to your family.”
“Ride on, sire,” Thomas said with a smile. “It is early yet.
If you leave now, you will reach the palace at nightfall.
Send a battalion of my men to come get the rest of us.
We will spend Christmas Eve in the warmth of Matthew’s home
And we will spend the last few hours of Christmas Day with our families.”

Just as the night before, Princess Teresa stood whispering at the cold window,
Her hand pressed against the chilling glass, wishing and worrying.
She was forced to send the children to bed, disappointed and sad,
Without the star atop their Christmas tree,
But worst of all, without their Daddy home.
As Teresa stood there, her eyes becoming clouded with tears
She saw a shadow move by the outer gates of the courtyard.
One of the lantern lights that always stood stationery near the guard tower
Began to quickly move up the drive.
She watched in wonderment, yet fear of unfavorable word of her husband.
It wasn’t until the lantern light moved into the light from the castle torches
That she recognized the burgundy wool coat trailing behind the man on the horse.
Teresa ran to the door of her bed chamber and threw it open.
“Daddy’s home!” she hollered as loud as she could.
She ran towards the children’s bed chambers. “Daddy’s home!”
As Teresa rounded the corner, she saw three little heads
Peeking out of two doorways at her, eyes still sleepy.
“Children, your father is home,” she smiled.
The little faces lit up and they ran towards and then past her.
When the four reached the main sitting chamber
There stood the Emperor, still covered in some snow,
The porcelain hand-painted star to the tree in his hand.
“Daddy!” the voices rang out as they ran towards him.
The children grabbed so tightly when they reached him,
They almost knocked The Emperor over into the tree.
The ever-strong Emperor fought back tears again.
He could not speak a word, so overcome by joy,
But simply pointed to the star in his hand.
At that the girls jumped into his arms,
He lifted them with sore, tired shoulders
And together, Stephanie and Jacqueline placed the star atop the tree.
William put the two girls down, then clasped his son in his embrace.
After holding young William tightly for some time, he finally could speak.
“Merry Christmas, little ones,” he said as he looked to his wife.
Their eyes locked, they shared a smile and their loving glance,
Both breathed a sigh of relief, and no words were necessary.
Young William and Jacqueline then immediately looked to the black leather bag.
They looked at each other with bright eyes then reached for it.
“All right, all right, hold on,” William laughed as he opened the bag.
“These gifts are not from me, children, but from an inn keeper
Who kept your daddy safe and warm in the River Valley.
He asked me to give these to you and I hope
You appreciate them as much as I do.”
William reached into the bag and withdrew the sword.
The prince’s eyes lit up as he reached his hands up and gripped the handle.
William’s hand went back into the bag and withdrew the little doll.
He marveled at how Jacqueline’s reaction mirrored Mary’s the night before.
“I will take you to the River Valley Inn
This summer so that you can thank the inn keeper.”
“Thank you, daddy,” Young William and Jacqueline rang out.
It was then that the Emperor noticed Princess Stephanie.
She had taken about five steps back
And stood next to her mother, her arms wrapped around her waist.
‘Now, Stephanie honey,” he said, “I’m sorry about-”
“Daddy,” Stephanie stopped him as she let go her grip
On her mother’s waist and stepped forward, reaching up and grabbing his hand...

Teresa would tease her husband for years about the look
On his face when little Princess Stephanie spoke her heart that night.
She would tell him it was as if he had seen a ghost.
“Daddy,” Stephanie said, “I don't want you to worry about me
Because I was happy to give up the dolly
To have you here with us on Christmas Eve.
And don't worry about the dolly, either, Daddy
Because I know the little girl who has her needs her more than me.
I am sure that she will take good care of her.
I am just so happy to have you here with us for Christmas.”