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"Merry Christmas, Joby!" Lonts jumped through the bedcurtains and onto the bed.
Joby, who was relishing this rare opportunity of having the bed to himself, groaned and spread himself out further along Kieran's side. On the other side of the bedcurtains he could hear Kieran, Tamaz, Mieps, Adam and Toppy all drinking their morning-tea.
"I had a really strange dream last night", said Lonts, crouching on his haunches "I dreamt everything in the house went green".
"What, environmentally-friendly you mean?" said Joby.
"No, the colour green", said Lonts "All the curtains and the furniture and everyone's clothes. Do you think that signifies anything?"
"Only that you had too much of the cabbage soup last night", said Joby.
"Can I get in with you?" said Lonts "My legs are cold".
"Yeah, get in", said Joby.
Lonts clambered under the bedclothes. Joby looked up at him and smiled.
"Hey", he said "You've got your little crucifix back!"
"Yeah, we found it this morning on top of the dressing-table", said Lonts "It seems to have just reappeared out of thin air. I was really pleased".
Adam pulled back the curtains on three sides, exposing the rest of the room to Joby like a stage set being gradually unveiled.
"Ad!" Joby groaned "We were nice and snug in here!"
"Time you were up", said Adam, thrusting his hands into the pockets of his dressing-gown "It's half-past 10".
"Morning or evening?" said Joby, caustically "It's hard to tell around here! Anyway, it's Christmas. I'm having a lie-in".
"You've already had it", said Adam "We've got church parade".
"I'm not a church-goer", said Joby "Kieran can go and pray for my soul for me. He always does anyway!"
"Jules is insisting that we all go", said Adam "And if we don't I'll get it in the neck".
"Why should we all have to go?" said Joby "We're not the Royal Family, having to be seen in church on Christmas Day to try and convince everyone we're nice people really!"
Tamaz clambered over Lonts and then lay on top of Joby, who groaned with pleasure. Adam grabbed Joby's fet and pulled him out from under him, stopping just before he would have landed him on the floor.
"I wonder where we'll be this time next year", said Lonts.
"Somewhere warm I hope", said Joby "Somewhere whree your clothes don't feel cold when you put 'em on, and where there aren't any churches to go to!"
"I felt like Scrooge", said Adam, standing a short while later at the foot of the stone stairs by the entrance to the East Wing "Hauling people out of bed on Christmas morning, breaking up tender little love scenes, and all because you've suddenly had a highly improbable attack of religion!"
"It's got nothing to do with religion", said Julian, furling up his horse-whip "And all to do with pleasing the estate people. They expect us to set an example on Christmas Day".
"Wh-a-a-t?" said Adam, looking at him as though he'd gone off his head.
"And I couldn't stand the thought of Codlik looking insufferably smug all through Christmas lunch", said Julian "Because he'd piously been to church and we hadn't. We're going to show that pompous little prig how it's done".
"Sometimes Jules, I'm absolutely amazed no one has ever shot you!" said Adam.
"It could still be arranged", said Ransey, coming towards them from the direction of the Great Hall.
"Oh Ransey, you look very dashing today, old love", said Adam "Is that cravat new?"
"Sort of", said Ransey "Finia made it for me".
"Using up old curtain material I expect", Julian muttered.
"Of course not everyone's got the style and sophistication to carry it off!" said Ransey "You might need that horse-whip, Julian. Bertha put a bowl of mulled wine in the hall, and our lot are getting down it at a rate of knots!"
Julian tore into the Great Hall, which was icy from where the main doors had been standing open for some time, with horse-drawn sleighs lined up outside.
"We've been here, waiting for you for hours", said Hillyard, clutching a punch-cup, as was everyone else.
"Well you seem to have had no trouble keeping yourselves amused!" said Julian "Is there anyone sober enough to drive?"
"No worries, not round here", said Kieran "It's not exactly the M25 out there!"
"Bloody good job really", Joby sniggered.
"I've tried to stay sober", said Bengo.
"After your antics yesterday I'm relieved to hear it!" said Julian.
Bengo rather spoiled his impressive act of near-sobriety by doing an unscheduled pratfall over a chair.
"I bet you couldn't have managed it so fluidly if it had been scripted!" said Bardin, helping him to his feet.
"I think Bertha meant this as a pleasent little nifter against the cold", said Adam, indicating the cleaned-out punch-bowl "Not as a means to get completely rat-arsed!"
They went outside to the waiting sleighs, where the air was thick with the horses' frosty breath.
"Here we are the Ben Hur Memorial Stakes", said Julian "The going is extremely rough, and we'll all be lucky if we survive to see the winning-post!"
In spite of Julian's grave doubts they got down to the village chapel in one piece. By the time they arrived most of the congregation had already gathered in the pews, including Codlik and Glynis, who were sitting at the front in their best clothes. Codlik looked archly disapproving, and even more so when Julian chucked his whip into the pew. Codlik bent forward, leaning his forehead against his fingers in a devout prayer pose. Intensely irritated by this, Julian flung himself onto the floor in a pose he had seen Kieran use.
"Jules!" Adam hissed.
He had barely got him into the pew when Bertha padded stealthily down the aisle, leading Thierry gently by his elbow. There was the much-expected mutters of consternation amongst the congregation, as Thierry's sins were a more juicier souce of gossip than even Freddy's unseen presence in their midst. Bertha ignored them, and firmly sat Thierry in one of the pews.
Levka's sermon was a gloomy, dour effort, in Kieran's opinion more worthy of a Good Friday than Christmas Day. Afterwards, he went "backstage" to help him off with his vestments.
"You didn't like it did you?" Levka asked.
"I just felt that for Christmas Day we should've got something a wee bit more joyous and uplifting", said Kieran, feeling annoyed that he had to talk in such a delicate fashion to him "We are supposed to be celebrating the birth of Christ after all!"
"You're right", Levka sighed "I spend my whole life wanting to proclaim the greatness of Christ, and when I do, mere words seem so useless. I end up wanting to say 'Christ is great, Christ is good' all the time, which sounds so banal!"
"The problem of words", said Kieran "I think it was easier in the days when Latin was still used in services, the words gave everything a magical feel. Translated into plain English it was never quite the same!"
"I have been known to speak in tongues for that reason", said Levka "I'm not sure if you approve, but I feel sometimes that is the only way to put what I feel into words".
"If it brings you closer to God, then it has to be a good thing", said Kieran "Speaking in tongues has had a bad press from more straightlaced members of the Church, because they see it as having a supernatural connection, like automatic writing. But as far as I can see it never causes any harm. So much of what we do is mystical, so it's really just splitting hairs. I know a lot would call me irresponsible for saying that, but that's one of the reasons I want to disappear, to get away from having to watch what I say all the time".
"I haven't helped there have I?" said Levka, looking crestfallen.
"You've done nothing wrong", said Kieran "It was me who behaved like a thug, not you!"
"Do you have to go?" said Levka.
"Yes", said Kieran, simply.
"Will you ever come back?" said Levka.
"Who can possibly know?" Kieran raised his hands in a helpless gesture "No one can. But I want to see if there's still a human being beneath all this Vanquisher of Evil stuff, and that way I can get closer to God too. I don't want to end up getting buried under it all. Will you promise me one thing after I've gone? Will you stay on up at the big house? I don't think living alone on the estate would do you any good, and even after the monks had gone home, I think you could be useful to Codlik and Glynis up there. It wasn't unusual for big houses in the old days to have their own priest in-situ, and later on you might be able to help with the education of the bairn".
"If they want me", said Levka.
"If they want you", said Kieran, feeling he'd advised him as far as he could, and now the rest was up to him.
"Julian says that if we stayed on here it'd be like trying to keep a pack of hunting-hounds as lap-dogs", said Hillyard "We're just not cut out for this. But Glynis and Codlik are perfect. They'll give the community a focal-point it needs. And I think it's what Woll would have wanted really".
"And it gives you all a good excuse to get away", said Dolores, selecting a peach from the bowl on her bedside table.
"Yep", said Hillyard, leaning against the mantelpiece. The firelight danced on his ample naked body.
"Won't Julian be wondering where you are?" said Dolores, her long dark hair trailing over her juicy nipples.
"Nah", Hillyard laughed "I've played a trick on him. Anyway, he'll just snarl a bit and make a few snide comments, but he knows ..."
He trailed off in embarrassment, so Dolores decided to finish for him.
"He knows no one else is a threat", said Dolores.
Hillyard looked uncomfortable.
"It's alright", said Dolores, peeling the peach "I'm a big girl now, and if you're going to go off into retreat, well there's not going to be much opportunity for sexual high-jinks there".
"Oh I don't know!" said Hillyard, sitting down on the edge of the bed "I still hold out hope I might have Lonts one day!"
"He's a beautiful man", said Dolores "When he's around I just sit there drinking him in. He's one of those people you never get tired of looking at. Their looks are an endless source of fascination and pleasure".
"Let's call this furthering diplomatic relations then", said Hillyard.
"It's not going to be the same when you've gone", said Dolores.
Two men let out an agonised cry from further down the corridor.
"Christmas night at the big house", Hillyard groaned.
"This wouldn't be the trick you've played on Julian would it?" said Dolores.
"Everyone was so rat-arsed it was a doddle", said Hillyard "He wanted help getting to bed, so I put him into Ransey's! Hah! He'll never forgive me!"
They grabbed bath-robes for warmth and went out into the corridor, which was now a hive of activity. Hillyard found the sight of a furious Julian and Ransey, both bearing down on him, so hilarious that he collapsed back onto the small flight of steps leading to Adam's room.
"Oh shit", he laughed, helplessly "I think I'm going to have a cardiac arrest!"
"I bloody well hope so!" said Julian, standing over him.
"Jules, darling", Adam giggled "You'll never know if it really happened!"
"Oh yes I do", Julian growled "I could never get THAT drunk!"
"Where were you?" Ransey demanded of Finia.
"In with us", said Lonts, smiling at Finia.
"I'm going to bed", said Julian "My real bed, not one with an accountant in it!"
"Didn't you notice it wasn't me?" said Finia to Ransey "We look about as different as you can get!"
"He had the sheets pulled up over him", said Ransey "It only slowly dawned on me that you're not that tall!"
The crowd gradually dispersed. Mieps sidled up to Dolores and fondled her long tresses.
"You have such lovely hair", he said, softly.
"Thank you", said Dolores, bemused.
"Take no notice of him", said Joby, prodding Mieps away "He's a bit peculiar!"
"Yes", said Dolores "He fits in with you rather well!"
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