The Lamplighter

The dusk fell over the little town of Farndon and, if you looked carefully, you could see an old man walk slowly down a side street, towards the main road of the town.

His name was Ben, and he was the town’s Lamplighter and, every evening, just as the light was beginning to fade towards dusk, he left his tiny cottage on the outskirts of the town and, with a wave to his wife, Edith, he would pick up his lantern and ladder, and make his way to the first lamp on his route.

Christmas was about to arrive and, as Ben walked slowly down the main street, he pondered, once again, on what he could get for Edith, for a Christmas gift. Ben was a poor man, paid very little for his job which, he felt, had too great a responsibility, for the pittance he was paid, but it was the only job that he was able to work at, and he hated the fact that Edith still had to take in washing, in order for them to make ends meet.

The couple were only just making enough between them, to buy food, and a few necessities, and Ben was afraid that they were both getting beyond the strength needed, for them to keep up their work, especially Edith, whose job could be backbreaking, and whose hands were now riddled with the joint ailment that made life so difficult for her.

Ben realised that, once again, he would have to try to make her a gift, but shook his head in sorrow, and sighed for all of the things he would have loved to provide for her but, just then, a thought struck him: the previous day, he had been walking nearby in the forest that surrounded the town, looking for fallen branches to bring home for their fires, so that Edith could heat the water for her washing. While there, he had come across a leafy glade that he had never seen before and, in the centre of the glade, was an old tree stump, ithat was in quite a strange shape.

Ben had walked around it, examining it in puzzlement, trying to work out what it had reminded him of, when he suddenly realized that it was the shape of a little, tubby, man! Ben had rushed home, as fast as he could, to tell Edith about what he had discovered. Poor Edith had been in the middle of preparing their meagre evening meal, and had only given a quick, distracted, tutt, before getting back to her work – but now Ben knew what he could do for Edith’s gift!

As quickly as possible, Ben fiinished his round of lighting the town lamps, hoping that there would be sufficient light for him to get back to that tree stump and so, rushing home to put away his ladder, and to pick up the axe he used for chopping firewood, Ben called a quick cheerio to his wife, put the axe over his shoulder, and turned towards the forest, lamp lighting the way as the dusk darkened.

By the time that Ben got back to the glade, he was glad of the lamp, as darkness had fallen early that day. The woods, for the first time in his life, felt eerie to him but, looking up, he saw that it would be a full moon, and so the light would filter enough through the trees, to make it almost like daylight although, by the time that it did, Ben’s heart was beating uncomfortably fast, due to all of the unusual sounds of the forest at night. Ben realised that it was just the wildlife going about their normal nocturnal lives, hunting for food, or searching for mates but, somehow, that didn’t seem to slow his fears.

After hesitating for a short while, Ben walked slowly over to the tree stump, and examined it carefully, using the light of his lantern, to see as clearly as he could where he could use his axe to break the stump, without damaging that unusual shape. He finally decided on an exposed root that seemed to connect with the base of the stump, which then seemed to connect to what looked like a foot. So, using all of his strength, he lifted the axe above his head, and brought it down on the root with a mighty blow.

As the axe struck the root, a great vibration ran from the root to the blade, to the hilt of the handle, and Ben dropped it as though struck by lightening – and then all went black.

When Ben came to, it felt as though he had been gone for a long time. He realised that his head was resting on the soft cushion of somebody’s lap. He slowly raised up his head, trying to sit up, while looking at whoever he was resting on. He gasped in amazement, as he saw who it was . . . in the light of his lantern, he was staring at the jolly flesh, not wooden, features of the tree stump man.

Ben moved away from him, pulling himself along the ground until he could stand up away from the man, then he looked around, to see if he was imagining it all, and that the tree stump would still be there . . . he wasn’t dreaming! The little man he was looking at, really had been the wooden tree stump. The little man stared at him, then quickly stood up, too, and grinned at Ben, eyes twinkling with delight.

Reeling a little in confusion, Ben kept staring from the empty space where the stump had been, and back to the little man until, with voice rather shakey through the shock of it all, said: “I’m sorry if this sounds strange but, surely, you were just a tree stump, and not as I see you now?”

The little man grinned at Ben, then said in a laughter-filled voice: “There was no mistake on your part, Sir. I was trapped in that tree stump for three hundred years, until you came along and struck at the root that held me in the spell that bound me. You see, I was the ruler of the people who used to live in these parts, until my half-brother, Dorin, tricked me into this spelled prison”.

Ben stared at him in amazement, then said in a puzzled voice: “Surely other people have been to this part of the forest, and seen you here, over the years?”

The little man suddenly looked sad, then said quietly: “Only once every hundred years could I appear to mortals, and this is the first time that anyone happened across me at the right time to do anything,” he brightened up suddenly, then continued, “Well, never mind that. My name, Sir, is Bryn. May I know to whom I owe my life?” He held out his hand towards Ben, to shake it.

Ben took the little hand that was offered to him, in his, and shook it warmly, ” My name is Ben,” he said, ” and it’s my pleasure to have helped you escape that wicked spell.”

Bryn smiled at Ben, then looked serious again, “There is one thing that I need to warn you of,” he said, “My half-brother will know by know that I have been freed, so I must go from here as quickly as possible, to lead him far away from you. But first, it’s only fair that I grant you a wish, for all of the help you have been in freeing me. Ask for whatever you may wish for, to the good, and it’ll be yours”.

Ben stared at Bryn in pleasure, then thought for a minute. This was his only wish, so he needed to think about what to ask for. Then he remembered that the whole point of his coming to this place, was to have used the stump to carve something for Edith. He said, slowly: “I didn’t free you with the knowledge that this would be the result, but if you really mean that I can have any wish, then there IS something that I would ask for”.

Bryn smiled, and said: “As I have just said, anything you wish for, that will do good, is your’s for the asking”.

” Very well, then. I am an old man, and do not earn enough to be able to buy my darling wife a present for this Christmas. I was going to use the tree stump, to carve something for her as a present but, obviously, that’s impossible now, so all I ask, is for something that will make life easier for Edith?”

Bryn smiled with delight at Ben, then said: “I am glad to see that you are not a greedy man, Ben. I will grant this wish with great pleasure. Have you a crossroads, with an Ash pole planted in the centre, near to where you live, Ben?”

“Yes, I have,” said Ben in surprise, “why would I need an Ash pole?”

“That is the same crossroads where my people used to meet, until Dorin captured and imprisoned me here,” said Bryn,”Well, if you go there with your axe, on the Eve of Christ’s Mass, as near to midnight as possible, you will find, by walking three times widdershins around the Ash pole, that it will spring up into the tree that it had been. You must strike the root that will be exposed, as you did for me, and then you will get your reward.” On that last word, Bryn disappeared in front of Ben’s eyes, as if he’d never been there.

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Christmas Eve came much sooner than Ben had thought it would. All day, he paced to and fro, getting under Edith’s feet, and getting on her nerves, to the point where she wanted him out of the house. Eventually, she lost all patience with him and, with her hands on her hips – a sure sign to Ben that she’d had enough – she said, crossly: “Husband, please will you stop this pacing? I’m sure you’re going to wear out the very ground beneath your feet!” Her tone softened slightly, “If you have nothing to do, maybe you could help me get this washing done, before the day ends?”

Ben looked ashamed of himself and, before another minute had passed, had rolled up his sleeves, and joined his wife at the wash tub. “I’m sorry my dear, one of these days, you’ll not need to be doing this kind of work”. Edith looked at him, with a slight smile on her face, “I’m afraid that day will never come, Husband, as well you know. We need the money I can make doing this, in order to put food on the table.”

Ben sighed, but kept scrubbing the clothes in front of him, hoping that they could finish it quickly, before he had to go on his lamp lighting rounds. He hugged his secret to himself, hoping that things would be better for them both before another day came.

Soon, the washing was all done, and hung on lines suspended from the beams in their little cottage. Ben put some hardwood on the fire, to raise the heat in the room, so that the washing would dry as quickly as possible. Soon, it was time for him to leave, to light the lamps all acrioss the town, and so Ben, as usual, picked up his lantern, and ladder, and left their cottage. It seemed to take forever, to finish lighting all the lamps but, eventually, about an hour before midnight, Ben crept into his cottage to put the ladder away, then crept out again, and made his way to the crossroads with the Ash pole at the centre.

When he reached the crossroads, it was very close to midnight, so Ben looked at the pole, for the root that Bryn had mentioned. As soon as he spotted it, he heard the church bells begin to chime the midnight hour. On that first chime, Ben started walking three times around the pole,widdershins but, just as he finished the first revolution, the sky was split with lightening, out of nowhere.

For a second, Ben paused but, just as the chime began it’s second beat, and he took a step to begin the second revolution around the pole, Bryn suddenly appeared before him, and it seemed as if the world stood still. “Bryn! I’m so glad that you came”, he said, half frightened at his sudden appearance, “I thought for a minute that something was wrong”. Ben took a step towards him, but was stopped by the look on Bryn’s face, “why, Bryn, what’s the matter?”

“So you think me Bryn, hey, old man? What do you know of him, you snivelling piece of humanity?” Ben was shocked at the voice, which roared at him, with a tone totally unlike Bryn’s voice just a few days earlier. “My name is Dorin, you fool, so kneel down before me, and prepare to die”.

Ben looked at him in horror realising, too late, that Dorin was Bryn’s double, “How can this be? Bryn said that you were half-brothers. How could you look so alike?” As Ben said this, Dorin’s face changed in front of him and, in mere seconds, Ben was looking at the true features of Dorin . . . ugly, snarling, tormented features, that spoke of the evil within, showing the world what he was truly alike.

“You are the mortal who freed my half-brother, I suppose?” Dorin sneered at him, “well, you’ll pay for that, believe me!” “Leave that man alone!” A voice shouted out of the darkness, “he has done nothing to you, brother. If you want revenge, then you can try to kill me first,” and out of the darkness strode Bryn – but a Bryn that Ben wasn’t sure he knew at all. His face was full of a righteous fury, that Ben could feel from where he stood.

At Bryn’s words, Dorin’s face turned almost black with the rage, and hate, that he felt for his half-brother and, in a flash, he pointed at Bryn and, from his finger, streaked a lightening flash of red, which just missed Bryn, as he whirled his hand around, and a shield of light sprang up to deflect the lightning bolt. “Fight, then, brother!” Dorin roared in anger, “you will die, first, and then this weakling mortal after you.” With that, Bryn moved back away from the brothers, and watched in fear as a battle of will, and lightning bolts, began between the brothers.

For what seemed like hours to Ben, the battle between the two small men went on, both seemed as powerful as the other, and Ben couldn’t see how either of them could win, as the fight seemed so equal between the half-brothers. The night was filled with bolts of lightning – red for Dorin, and blue for Bryn. It streamed from their fingertips, without cease, it seemed to Ben, and he prayed that it would end, and that nobody would come to investigate the noise, and lights, as they, too, would be at risk.

Soon, though, it seemed to Ben, that Bryn was slowing somewhat, and that the bursts of energy that he was using to fight Dorin, were becoming weaker as time went on. Dorin also noticed this, and a grin of triumph crossed his face, as he strengthened his attack against Bryn, with a rage Ben had never seen before, and hoped never to see again. Sudenly, with a cry of triumph, Dorin leapt forwards, and caught Bryn with such a strong burst of energy, that it knocked Bryn, senseless, to the ground.

As terrified as Ben was at this, he also noticed that the attack had weakened Dorin, too. He looked around, feeling as desperate as he could ever remember, to find something to help save Bryn . . . then his eyes fell on his axe, which had fallen unnoticed, when Dorin had appeared. With a speed that he hadn’t realised he possessed, Ben leapt across the glade to grab his axe and, before Dorin knew what was happening, Ben had swung the axe over his head, then brought it down, as hard as he could, onto Dorin’s head, killing him outright. Ben fell to his knees, feeling weak, and full of horror at what he had done. Tears ran down his cheeks, and he prayed thanks that he had survived long enough to do that last deed.

After a few minutes, Ben realised that Bryn still hadn’t moved and so, afraid of what he might find, he slowly dropped the axe to the ground, and stood up, then walked over to him. He checked, with hands trembling, whether Bryn was still breathing, and sighed a huge sigh of relief, when he saw Bryn’s chest moving up and down. Ben sat down besides Bryn, and gently laid his head on his lap, just as Bryn had done for him a few days before.

For a while, Ben felt too exhausted to do anything but sit there, but then he realised that it was too quiet. He couldn’t hear the wind in the trees, there was no sound of animals in the night and, most of all, he hadn’t heard a sound since that second chime had begun. It was as if the battle between the brothers had emptied all of the surrounding countryside of life. But, as the minutes seemed to tick by, Ben realised that he was feeling stronger again and, slowly, but surely, the sounds of life started filtering in around him. He looked down at Bryn and, suddenly, his eyelids seemed to flicker. Ben called his name gently, hoping to bring him back to consiousness and, very soon, his eyes opened, and he looked straight up at Ben.

“Good. You have come back”, Ben said quietly, ” I thought for a time that you wouldn’t survive such an onslaught!” Bryn carefully sat up, with a little help from Ben, then stared over at here his half-brother lay. “It was you that saved me?” Bryn looked at the axe, lying next to the body, “It looks like I owe you my thanks once again, my friend. But you shouldn’t have taken such a risk!” “I couldn’t stand by and watch you be killed by Dorin,” Ben said, embarassed, “after all, I would have been next on his list. I’m just sorry that it was necessary to kill him at all.” Bryn put a hand on Ben’s arm, in sympathy, “I know how you feel, my freind, but it was a case of kill, or be killed – you know that as much as I do.” Ben nodded sadly in agreement, then slowly helped Bryn to his feet, then they both walked slowly, and rather shakily, to the Ash post, where Ben’s lantern was still shining, despite the lightning duel.

“It looks as though you didn’t have the time to claim your wish from me,” Bryn said to Ben with a slight laugh, “well, I think that something can be done about that.” At that moment, both men heard a Cock crow in the distance, “We had best hurry,” said Bryn, urgently, “it is almost dawn, and there will soon be people about. It is also Christmas morning, and I’m sure that you would wish to return home to your wife, with the gift that I had promised you?”

Bryn smiled at Ben then, with a sudden laugh, he took a step towards the Ash pole, then quickly started to turn around widdershins. He turned faster and faster, until Ben couldn’t see anything but a blur in front of thim. As Ben watched, Bryn’s spinning figure started to sink into the ground until, at last, Ben could see nothing of him. There was silence for a minute, and Ben was about to move when, suddenly, Bryn started to appear again, spinning clockwise this time.

As Ben watched in amazement, he saw Bryn slowing down, then noticed that he was holding something in his arms. Ben looked carefully, and saw a small wooden chest, banded with metal. Bryn immediately handed the chest to Ben. “Take this, my freind. If you use it well, you and your wife will want for nothing for the rest of your days.” With those last words, Bryn disappeared before Ben’s eyes, once more.

Ben looked around, and saw that the body of Dorin had also disappeared, then he looked down at the small chest in his arms, and was going to open it, when he suddenly decided to leave that up to Edith – after all, this was supposed to be her present. He picked up his lantern, and his axe, which was now clean of the blood that had covered it, and slowly made his way home to his wife.

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Ben took his time walking back to his home, and wife. He had a lot to think about, and he needed that time to sort his thoughts out. He was also terribly tired after all the events of the night. Snug inside his shirt, he had tucked the small chest, still unopened. He had no idea at all what might be in there, but he knew it was right for Edith to be the one to open it.

The sun had been up for almost an hour by the time Ben reached his home. With a sigh of relief, he walked to the little shed besides the cottage, and hung up the lantern, and his axe. As he let go of the axe, a beam of early morning sunshine hit the blade, and shone on to the wall opposite. There was a flash of light on the wall, and Ben suddenly saw words appearing on it. He moved closer, and started to read the words as they appeared: THROUGH DARK AND LIGHT YOU BATTLED THROUGH, MAY ALL YOUR WISHES SOON COME TRUE. Ben knew at once that this was a message from Bryn, and he smiled to himself as he turned and walked out of the shed, shutting the door firmly, and carefully, behind him.

As he opened his cottage door, Ben heard Edith bustling around in the kitchen, and he smelt the porridge, that was their normal morning fare, cooking over the fire. He walked quietly into the little room, and gently took out the little chest from his shirt, then placed it on the little table that they used to eat at. Edith suddenly looked around, and jumped, startled by him being there, then she looked down at the table, and saw the chest. “Oh, Ben, is that for me?” She smiled at him, questioningly, and went to put her hand towards it. He smiled and nodded yes to her, and she quickly lifted it up, surprised at it’s weight.

“Did you make this for me, Ben? It’s quite lovely!” Edith smiled at him, then went to open the chest, and her jaw dropped in shock at what she saw. She looked quickly at Ben, “What? Where did you get all of this money, Ben?” She started to look afraid, worried that Ben had done something terrible. Ben steered her towards the table, sat her down in her normal seat, then sat down besides her, and told her everything that had happened over the last few days. Edith didn’t break into his tale. She waited until she knew he had finished before asking any questions. Once she was satisfied, she looked in the chest again.

“Well, at least it’s not gold coins,” she said to him, smiling, “there’s no way that we could spend them here, and people know we are poor. The coins here will help put more food on the table, at least,” she said, smiling happily at Ben. “I’ll just count them, so we know what we have to deal with. With that, Edith gently tipped the chest up, and coins of many small denominations rolled out onto the table. Edith put the chest to one side, then started happily counting. Once she had finished, she smiled at Ben, “This will keep us well for at least a year, Ben and, if we’re very careful, probably even two years!”

Ben stared at Edith, so happy that she was not going to have to worry about money for some time, then he lifted up the little chest, and handed it to her, “Maybe you’d better put the money back in there, love. Leave a little out, so that we can buy a few more stores for over the winter months, and I’ll bury the rest in the chest, so that nobody sees it. Edith nodded, “Yes, you are right, Husband, there are enough rogues in the town, that it wouldn’t be safe to leave it where it can be seen, or found easily!” As she said this, she opened the lid to the chest, ready to replace the money, then looked down in shock. She slowly passed the open chest back to Ben, and he looked down at it, puzzled – then immediately looked at Edith, in shock himself. The chest was full with coins, once more!

Ben immediately realised that the gift was even more generous than he had imagined. If it filled up whenever it was emptied, that meant that his Edith would never need to take in washing ever again! They could live a life of gentle retirement, without worrying where their next meal was coming from! “We are going to have to move to another town.” Edith said, at once, “Everyone knows us here, and knows our circumstances. If we suddenly have more than they’re used to us having, then people will talk, and it will be dangerous for us!”

Ben’s heart sank. He realised that she was right. But, thinking about it for a moment, he knew that a move to a town where nobody knew them, would be a better life, than living in penury, as they had been. “You’re right,” he said to her, then he smiled brightly, “but at least we’ll have each other, and can help others in need, too, Edith.” She grasped Ben’s hands, “Yes, won’t that be wonderful, Husband?” Then she smiled at him, as if he’d made all of her wishes come true at once.

Copyright: @katythenightowl, on 26-09-2021

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