Snowflakes were falling outside, drifting and floating from the sky, every now and then startling the young boy as one was caught by the wind and smacked against his window. He jumped back, though he was on his tip-toes again in no time at all.
The chicken coop had grown a slight little white hat, as had the sheep stables, though no sheep lived there anymore. Francis, too, could see that the three small mountains in the distance glistened with the first signs of white. His face erupted in a grin and his eyes hunted for his winter clothes, but his grandmother quickly cut him off.
‘Wait until morning,’ she told the boy, sneaking up behind him, and instead of letting him out to play he was sent to bed. ‘No complaining. I can’t leave your grandfather for too long.’ She tucked him in and kissed him goodnight. ‘It’s going to be a cold winter, this one; I can feel it in my bones.’
Francis leant up and kissed his grandmother on the cheek.
‘We’ll be warm, grandma. Don’t listen to your bones.’
His grandmother couldn’t help but stifle a laugh.
Soon enough she left for Francis’ grandfather, and her bones creaked like the floorboards as she descended the steps. His grandfather hardly left his bed anymore; Francis had seen his worn eyes sinking into his face, each day a little more than the last.
Then, as the boy closed his eyes and settled to sleep, he heard his grandmother’s voice downstairs.
‘We only have six chickens left,’ she said. ‘We cannot kill them and last the winter, nor can we trade them for your antidotes. I pray every day –’
‘What should we do then?’ strained his grandfather; his voice wheezed, scraping against the old man’s throat.
‘Do not strain, dear. We will send Francis to his aunt’s house; she will care
Francis bolted up, wide eyed. He didn’t want to leave his grandparents; they couldn’t make him. He loved them; they loved him.
His eyes were wet with tears when he fell asleep.
The moon peeked through his bedroom window when Francis next opened his eyes – his room was not painted in its normal starry white, but in a blue. Francis rubbed his eyes, blinked hard and shook his head, but no, the room was still blue.
It took him a moment to notice the thing floating slightly above his feet: a small, blue orb, the same blue that took the evening sky just as night crept in, and, shortly after that, when his hands fell over the side of the bed, he noticed that smoke had settled over his bedroom floor, coloured in that same blue; he could have been sleeping on a cloud.
Then the smoke all hurried together by the floating orb, creating arms and legs, a large belly and a head. As Francis slowly sat up the body of smoke puffed out and disappeared into the air, revealing a fat-bellied man underneath.
‘Francis!’ the fat man bellowed.
Francis scurried quickly under his sheets, covering his ears with
‘Francis, my dear boy! Do not be afraid. Do you not know who I am?’
Francis made no noise, nor did he shake his head.
‘My dear boy! I am your Gift-Giver!’
Still he was silent.
‘My boy,’ the Gift-Giver continued, ‘peep out your head, if nothing else. I mean no harm; I give gifts, you see.’
Francis stuck his head out then, just barely enough to see. ‘Gifts?’
‘Yes! Gifts. If a little boy or girl is in trouble, I arrive to help. Now your gift, my dear boy! Come, sit up; I cannot deliver it if you stay hidden away, can I?’
Francis looked but could see nothing untoward about the man, not his blue coat and hat or the timepiece that hung from a breast pocket. He stuck out the rest of his head, and then his hands.
“That’s better. I’m only here to help, my boy. Here we go.”
What the Gift-Giver withdrew was a small piece of cloth, wrapped in a roll and tied with a strip of black leather. Carefully, Francis took the item from the fat man; he untied the leather, unrolled the cloth and stared at the parchment inside.
‘That,’ the blue man continued, ‘is a map of the land around your grandparents’ house. Can you see it? If you look northward, you will notice the very same mountains that you can see from your window here. Although they look quite a distance away, I assure you, they are only an hour’s walk, less if the snow is light. But look on the other side of the mountains; tell me, what do you see?’
‘Precisely, my boy! An X! And what does the X mark? Speak up now.’
Again, Francis stayed quiet.
Francis’s eyes widened, his head shot up, and the Gift-Giver beamed with joy. ‘That’s it, my boy! Now you understand. Tell me first, though: are you brave? Do your bones reek with the scent of courage?’
Francis slunk back again. He glanced down at the map, at the cross which hid treasure, and suddenly it seemed a fair league or two more than one hour’s walk away.
Francis shook his head. ‘I am not brave,’ he whispered. ‘I do not know what it means.’
‘But you must, my boy! You must! How else will your grandparents be saved from this winter?’ He did not know. ‘My boy, that is it: there is no other way. You must be brave to save your grandparents.’
‘But why? Is the treasure not buried, or hidden somewhere safe?’
‘Buried? Yes!’ said the man, ‘but safe? No. Guarding the treasure is a beast with eight legs, and a belly bigger than mine, with an appetite she cannot sate with even the fattest cow,’ the → Gift-Giver’s voice sunk, ‘or man.’
Francis’s face went pale. The image broke him to tears.
‘Francis, you must be brave, you must!’
‘But I’m not; can’t you see? I’ll flee, not fight, dare steal its treasure.’
‘Francis, you lie,’ the Gift-Giver’s head snapped sharply upwards, his ears pricking. ‘I must be off; the next of my deliveries is due.’
The fat man clicked his fingers and the smoke reappeared, along with his blue orb. ‘No one else knows about the treasure, my boy. If you want to save your grandparents then you must be brave, and I know you can be. Use it. Good luck.’ A moment later, the Gift-Giver was gone.
He was not sure when he fell back asleep, but when Francis woke the next morning his room was bright with the emerging sun rising over the mountains – the mountains!
They were not so large, more like hills really, and they sat only three in number; a little snow cap had fallen on their heads, and a small forest covered one end entirely.
He looked and tried to judge the distance to them, couldn’t, and frustrated with himself turned away. While dressing he found the map hiding in a drawer. He couldn’t help but open it, though he shut it away again quickly.
Downstairs, his grandmother was waiting for him.
‘Francis, your grandfather and I, we, we won’t be around much longer. You must know that. This winter, if we cannot get food, or medicine …’ she trailed off. Francis nodded, and a tear emerged. ‘Do not cry, my love. Be strong. You must be strong.
‘We have decided that you should go to your aunt’s house. You’ll be safe there. After your grandfather has passed I will come and join you, but I won’t leave him beforehand.’
In a fit of tears – during which Francis’s grandmother constantly rubbed and cleared her eyes – she held the boy tight and ran her hands through his hair, as well. Francis held on tight too, but an itch at the back of his mind made him speak up.
‘Grandma, I don’t want to go. I want to stay here.’
‘I know you do, Francis. But this is for your own good.’ His grandmother blinked hard; she struggled for breath. ‘If there was another way…,’ but unable to finish she shushed Francis off to his room to pack.
He glanced back at his grandmother twice while climbing the stairs, hoping she’d change her mind.
‘Grandma,’ he began again, descending slowly until the steps were all behind him. ‘If I could get the money, would we still be able to live together, all three of us?’
‘Why, yes, of course, dear,’ replied his grandmother. ‘But we need
Back in his room he found himself by the window again.
The snow was light outside, not falling very heavily, and very quickly Francis found himself recalling the Gift-Giver’s words. An hours walk, if the snow is light.
Francis threw his winter clothes on, withdrew the map and hurried back downstairs. His grandmother asked what he was doing. ‘A walk outside; I won’t be long.’
The snow was light outside, and yet the boy still struggled with each step. He groaned, and pushed himself forward, and groaned some more. It was slow, but Francis soon found himself quite a distance away from his home.
The mountain grew with each step too, and his fear grew with it, soon becoming so much that he stopped to find a weapon when he remembered the beast. He hadn’t an idea of what to look for though; a sheathed sword hidden in the snow, or a bow and a quiver of arrows, or perhaps a knife, stabbed hard into the bark of a tree, but he found nothing.
He pulled a stick from a tree, thin and long. He wanted to pretend he had found a great sword for kings, but the lightness of the thing in his hands carved away any imagination he had.
He figured he had travelled close to two hours, if not two and a half, when he arrived by mountain-side, for his fingers and toes were frozen, and his nose felt as if it would drop off. Francis took deep breaths of cold, frosty air. He rubbed his hands together and pressed them into his pockets.
He turned around the mountain and into the forest. Here the snow vanished, for the trees had grown so close that their canopy provided a barrier from it. It was easier on steady ground, so it was only a few minutes later when Francis came upon the X.
There wasn’t a letter carved into the side of the mountain as he’d expected, though what he found was just as obvious: a bush shaped just like the letter, with a bristling hair of snow, reached a small way up the mountain instead.
Francis kept his distance. His teeth chattered and his body shook from the cold.
Slowly, he took a step forward, and then reached out. His fingers trembled. The bush swayed in the wind. He raised his stick high. Then his hand grabbed it.
And nothing happened. Francis waited lest the beast was slow, but nothing happened. He breathed again, reached deeper in and pulled the bush away from the mountain side. Once he had cleared the roots a cave was revealed, not very big, or wide, and as Francis ducked inside he realised there would be no room to move, except forward or back.
It was dark, and the walls were sticky with something that strung webs between his fingers. Francis touched them once but he dared not do so again. His feet kicked things along that felt hard, like rocks, but echoed as if they were hollow.
He continued forward anyway.
He shuffled, breathing shallow and quick, while his body trembled as if the cold wind has pierced right down into the cave. His legs shook and tensed as if ready to run at any moment, then abruptly he stopped. In the dark Francis waved his stick in front of him. He could just make out a large web, and it took a bit of force to pull his stick back. He waved it again but this time the stick touched the wall and stuck completely. He tried with all his might to pull it back but couldn’t. He was defenceless.
Something scurried along the floor up ahead and Francis turned and ran. He looked for the way he’d come and ran as fast as he could. The outside light was blinding but it was all that he could see. His heart pounded within his chest, and he clenched his jaw so tight that it hurt. But he kept running. The light blazed, and then he was out, free, panting and falling and glistening with sweat. His chest heaved up and down with each exhausted, heavy breath. The muscles in his legs burned. He reached down and rubbed them, and he couldn’t lift his hands away.
The webbing was caught between his fingers and legs. He pulled his hand hard away until the webbing broke, but Francis jumped up still screaming, running for a tree to scratch the stuff off with.
Bark broke and a branch snapped and the horrid stuff resisted everything. He scratched and screamed until finally it simply fell off, not sticky anymore. Francis looked upwards and caught sight of a lovely beam of light piercing the canopy, striking his hands. His breathing still heavy, he bent down and looked at the webbing, now on the ground, as close as he would dare, and watched as the white thread turned slowly into white smoke, trailing off one end and working its way towards the other. In a matter of seconds the horrid thing had become a thin wisp of smoke that Francis was able to blow away.
He sat his back against a tree nearby.
If he couldn’t do this then his grandfather would surely die. But Francis couldn’t smell the scent of courage in his bones, and thought only of the beast within the cave that would make him its next meal. How could he possibly defeat such a great thing?
He stood up, though. Foraging around in the trees he pulled out another stick, harder and heavier than his last. He hadn’t any way to get the outside light into the cave, but he had his bravery, and was quick too; he wondered if the beast was slow, and even dared to dream that it would be asleep. No one else had the map; no one else could save his grandparents. It was up to him then, Francis, the scared little boy. When he reached the mouth of the cave he ducked his head and continued on in, not slowing his pace or losing his feet, or even lowering his eyes.
He walked on for five minutes or more, until he heard a scurrying up ahead. Francis stopped as it reached his ears, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. He ignored it.
He turned a corner and, to his hearts relief, saw a faint glint of light up ahead. Treasure! Squinting, Francis could see goblets, and coins, and gems of many colours, and crowns and necklaces and even, he thought, a flying jewel, though he quickly realised it must be a firefly instead.
This was what he had come for; this would save his family.
Francis breathed deep and kept his eyes fixed on the treasure. He raised his new stick before him. He stepped forward.
His last thought before he stepped through the opening was of his grandparents.
The first thing he saw made him jump back in fright, though he needn’t. It lay on its back, a temple of bones, with ribs that would protect a large abdomen and beneath it eight lengthy sets of legs. He looked for a head, his eyes scouring the rocky floor, covered in bones and skulls from all centuries past, and soon found one larger than the rest, curved like no other and with great big sockets above two fangs.
The beast had died sometime long ago.
Francis carefully eyed the room once more and saw rats scurrying off in a corner. He ran into the treasure.
He jumped in and hit his head on a chalice, but did not feel it, not over his joy, not over the excitement and wonder. He screamed into the mountain and it echoed back around him. He laughed with himself, and climbed through the pile, and found trinkets of gold, and coins from lands foreign to him, and tiaras, crowns and sceptres.
He found swords and jewels, rubies and emeralds and sapphires that gleamed and reflected his exuberant face back at him. Francis filled his pockets with coins, and found a crown which he polished with his sleeve and stuck on his head. He found a vest, laden with silver mail, then searched for his sword to complete his attire but found none he liked.
His smile was incredible. His treasure, however, completely weighed him down.
It took a far greater time to trek home, and he had not known hard work until he stepped foot back in the snow, but he dared not drop any treasure to be found by someone else. Thus he struggled onwards, his feet ploughing deep. It wasn’t yet midday, but now Francis had all the time in the world.
His grandmother stood at the door, her eyes searching and longing, and when Francis stepped out into the open she turned to him and gasped: her grandson had become a knight in shining armour.
His grandfather would be saved, food would no longer be scarce, and Francis, the little boy, would get to live with both grandparents still.
The Gift-Giver reappeared that night, as is the custom for Gift-Givers he said. Eyeing Francis, still awake in his bed, nestled into mountains of jewels with his crown still on, the fat man beamed with joy.
‘Francis, my boy! You’ve done it!’
‘I know. But the beast was already killed; I didn’t have to.’
At this the Gift-Giver sat at the end of the bed, moving aside a few jewels to do so. ‘My boy, bravery isn’t about slaying beasts, or winning battles; it is about overcoming fear and believing in yourself.’ Then, with the hint of a smile he added, ‘I never did say you needed to slay the beast though, did I? I only said you needed to be brave.’
The Gift-Giver didn’t stay much longer. When he was gone Francis realised that he was right: the boy may not have slain the beast, but if not for finding his courage and bravery he would never have found the treasure either.
Thus he was Sir Francis: a scared little boy, but a saviour, nonetheless.