Martin and the Christmas Waffle

I wrote this story ages ago, but couldn’t find it when  I went to dig it up the other day, so I just rewrote it. Merry Christmas!

At fifty two, Martin was the oldest page boy in the Castle Gauffe, and that was just fine with Martin. He liked his job, liked serving tables, liked polishing saddles. More importantly, if he moved up to squire, he’d have to groom the horses, and Martin was absolutely terrified of horses.

It wasn’t his only fear. Martin was afraid of spiders, runaway wagons, tripping down stairs, pots of boiling liquid, knives, lances, swords, getting tangled up in ropes, rotten cabbages, and getting pooped on by the pigeons that roosted around the outside of the castle walls. They did seem to particularly enjoy using his head as a target.

Therefore, he preferred the limits of page boy. True, it was menial work and none of his fellow pages could even shave yet, but it kept him away from almost everything he hated, save only the pigeons and one other task: the care and feeding of the Christmas Waffle.

The waffle, for those in countries not graced with the majestic animal, is a circular beast, about the height of a tall man, and a foot or so wide. It is covered in hide of square holes and moves itself by rolling. It can move at incredible speeds and there are many tales of entire hunting parties being knocked off their horses and squished when waylaid by an unexpected waffle. Waffles are predators; incredibly territorial, and ferocious fighters.

Their eyes are tiny and almost invisible on their outer rim, though their vision is excellent. But for all their danger, waffles are a delicacy. The flesh of the waffle is spongy and buttery, and goes excellently when doused in maple syrup or a festive cranberry orange compote, as Sir Smeelie and the knights of Castle Gauffe preferred.

Waffles are manageably vicious when caught at an early age, so every spring the knights of the castle would ride out and capture an immature waffle. They would then pin the creature into a specially designed enclosure and keep it there for the rest of the year until the beast could be slaughtered for the Christmas Day feast. Feeding this monster fell to Martin.

Martin hated it. He woke up every day from April to December with a sick feeling in his stomach. It was the first thing he did every morning because he couldn’t bear dreading it one moment longer than he had to. With shaking hands, he would dump waffle’s daily ration of maple syrup in its trough and then run pell-mell for the door before the waffle could slam him against the wall and bite him with its sharp little teeth.

But today was the last day, the day of his reprieve, Christmas Eve. Tomorrow afternoon the waffle would be slaughtered for Sir Smeelie’s Christmas Day Feast and Martin would have a break from waffle care until the capture of the next waffle in April.

Martin got out of bed with something like excitement, combed his thinning hair over to one side, set out his dress clothes for the feast later, and with lightness in his step, he went to feed the waffle one final time.

It is very important that waffles be kept as happy as possible up to the moment of the kill. A harassed or angered waffle tastes stale, like something left in the freezer too long. Sir Smeelie always provided a couple of barrels of eggnog for the beast on Christmas eve to please it and ensure it was sleeping off a hangover when they went to slaughter it on Christmas day, so Martin fetched two barrels of eggnog, put them in a wagon, and trekked across the castle hall and yards on his way to the waffle enclosure.

“Your lucky day, Martin!” One of the knights, a Sir Nifflet, called. “It’s the end of that waffle tomorrow!”

Martin smiled nervously and wiped sweat from his forehead.

But Sir Phlee jabbed him with a finger as he passed. “If you make that thing mad and ruin our Christmas feast, we’ll chuck you over the castle wall!”

Martin chuckled nervously, ducked his head and hurried away to the waffle pen, in the back of the horse stables.

In the semi-dark of the barn, the waffle loomed, rolling suddenly to the door of its enclosure and smashing against it with a bang. Martin jumped, but hurried around to the wagon to heft the first egg nog barrel. He got the waffle prod, sat the egg nog down beside the door, and readied himself to open the pen. Most of the waffles Martin had dealt with could smell the egg nog and were more docile than usual on Christmas Eve, excited to get to the creamy, unfamiliar smell rising from the barrels.

Holding his breath, Martin lifted the latch, holding out the waffle prod with his face screwed up in concentration. The waffle rolled backwards, watching him from the dark corner of the pen. Martin nudged the door open and it scraped across the straw- covered floor.

Hefting the barrel, Martin staggered forward, still clutching the waffle prod in one hand. In the darkness of the pen, the Waffle rumbled. Martin stretched his neck up to see over the barrel. He didn’t notice the rock sitting in the middle of the floor.

If it had been in slow motion there would have been a grace to it, the catch of his toe under the rock, the surprised expression on his face, the arc of the egg nog frothing and splashing out of the barrel, and the grand finally: Martin landing face first in a spray of egg nog, a cloud of dust and straw rising up all around him.

With a roar, the waffle raced out from the shadows, bounced over Martin without a second glance, and went rumbling and leaping down the barn aisle and into the sunlight.

In the now silent pen, Martin sat up, gasping for air, staring around him with the look of a man who has just lived his worst nightmare and can’t wake up. It was gone. Outside he heard shouts, “Get out of the way! Head it off! Close the gates! Close—No! Oh no!”

He put his head in his hands. The teasing was bad enough on a regular day. Now, he could imagine living his entire life being jeered down every hallway and over every task. He couldn’t bear it…He wouldn’t bear it.

Martin stood, collected the wagon with its final barrel of egg nog, and marched down the stable. He brushed past the knights and the squires, deaf to their comments, steely gaze fixed on his goal. (He thought it was steely gaze, anyway. The people he passed assumed he’d been rolled over and was in pain.)

And so Martin stepped forth on his first quest, the quest that would change his life. So focused was he on keeping his knees from knocking together that he didn’t acknowledge the silent household standing behind him.

“Think we’ll ever see him again?” Sir Nifflet asked Sir Phlee.

“If he doesn’t come back with a nice, tender waffle for supper, good riddance!” Sir Phlee sniffed, and sauntered off. He had been knocked down by the escaping waffle and was feeling particularly vindictive.

Martin plunged into the darkness of the forest, following the waffle’s trail of crushed grasses and trees. The reality of what he was doing began to sink in as the trees loomed thicker and darker, and the deep stillness of the forest settled around him.

Something rustled in the grass. He spun to look for it, but there was nothing there. He clamped his elbows close to his sides and stood up straight, trying to look intimidating.  How was it that the knights walked? He stiffened his back, scowled at the forest around him and cleared his throat in a threatening manner.

The bushes to his left growled back. Martin let out a squeak, and was halfway up the tree when the waffle—his waffle—rolled out from the bushes. Its pitted flanks heaved and its beady black eyes glowered up at him. Martin felt a stab of hope—he’d been fattening this waffle up all year. It might still have a bad temper, but it was no longer the tough, wild waffle it had once been. If he could just get it to drink enough egg nog to make it sleepy, and then knock it out, maybe he could tie it up and get someone else to bring it home for him.

The waffle was on one side of the path, Martin was in the tree on the other, and the wagon with the barrel of egg nog sat in between them, the lid half off from the bumping wagon ride. Martin looked at the egg nog. The waffle looked at the egg nog.

The waffle moved first. Rolling out of the bushes, it started for the egg nog. Martin searched around the tree for a rock to throw at the waffle, and, predictably, didn’t find one. So, holding his breath, he inched down the tree and felt around on the ground for a rock, all the time watching the waffle. The waffle immediately noticed his descent and paused, snorting and huffing a yard from the egg nog.

Martin found a rock that he thought might be able to knock a waffle out, and stood upright, hands clamped by his sides, owlishly watching the waffle. The waffle edged towards the egg nog. Martin blinked extra slowly to keep from alarming it.

And then, whether it was due to missing its breakfast, or just the desire to vent its ire on its caretaker, the waffle charged Martin.

This could have been the defining change in Martin’s life. He could have stood his ground, faced the beast, knocked it out with a blow to its geometrically patterned sides, and returned in triumph to the castle, the Christmas feast saved.

But this wasn’t that moment.

Martin decided that it was infinitely preferable to be mocked for losing the waffle for the rest of his life, than to not have a life at all. And he ran as fast as his legs could carry him. Running as fast as your legs can carry you is not a good idea in the thick wilds of the woods. He tripped (again) and before he could blink, or breathe, or regret anything, the waffle was upon him.

But, yet again, an angry, spoiled waffle is not the same canny beast that is caught in the coolness of April. The waffle missed Martin. It only got his shoelace into its teeth. Martin went flying into the air—wheee—around the waffle—BAM, onto the ground—whizzing into the air, wind fluttering his thin hair—BAM, onto the ground—wheeee—BAM—wheeee—BAM!

Martin, convinced he was being mauled, or possibly had already been mauled and was passing through the creature’s digestive system, just shut his eyes, wrapped his arms around himself, and hoped that being consumed by digestive acid would be more peaceful than whatever this was.

Meanwhile the waffle was beginning to panic. Waffles usually defeat their enemies by rolling on them, so having an opponent who kept flying into the air out from under his rolling edge bewildered the waffle. So it turned back to the only constant place of refuge it remembered: the castle.

The castle household heard Martin and the waffle approach before they saw them. The roaring and crashing got louder until suddenly, there they were, the meek and mild Martin apparently wrestling the waffle to the ground, flying into the air with the beast’s attacks but sticking with it and fighting the beast into submission. They all gasped in surprise. The littlest boys cheered. The knights ran to open the castle gates, and in Martin and the waffle rolled with a cacophony of grunts, growls and thumps.

Before anyone could see anything through the dust cloud and bits of forest they’d brought with them, the waffle had bounced and growled and spun its way across the courtyard, down the stable aisle, and into its pen. The waffle door slammed shut with a bang.

Martin was flung over the fence and landed in a heap on the stable floor. Everyone gasped again. The little boys cheered. The knights shouted huzzah. One of the cooks went into hysterics and a squire fainted.

Sir Phlee and Sir Nifflet rushed forward. Sir Nifflet propped Martin up, and Sir Phlee wrung his hand. “Fantastic!” He shouted. “Absolutely astounding! Masterly! Manfully done!”

And this was the moment that changed Martin’s entire life. Previously, Martin disavowed his involvement in anything remotely praiseworthy. Too much praise could get him promoted. But this Martin, this new, adventurous Martin, forgot his caution. He wasn’t entirely clear how he’d gotten back to the castle with the waffle anyway, and he was probably a little concussed. He lifted his head on a wobbly neck, and grinned. And the castle household, seeing him smile, erupted in celebration.

Martin was tended by the lord’s own doctor. Martin was given a bath in the knight’s bathtub. Martin was offered grapes, and meat, and cheese, and some of the prettier ladies in the castle blushed and tittered when he was wheeled past in his wheelchair. For the next forty-eight hours, Martin floated, blissful, in a warm glow of endless praise and pampering.

Everyone seemed to have forgotten he was the one who lost the waffle in the first place. Even better, he got to sit down and eat at the Christmas dinner, and was offered the choicest piece of the waffle he’d singlehandedly returned. Finally, when all the feasting was over, the wine was mostly drunk and everyone was leaning back and sighing contentedly, Sir Smeelie called for their attention.

“Martin, come up here,” he said. Martin got up and advanced, still in a pleasant haze of good food and flattery.

“Martin, I think what you did yesterday was truly exemplary.” Sir Smeelie said. “I think this marks something new for you, and we’re going to commemorate it.”

Martin became uneasy.

Sir Smeelie raised his voice so everyone could hear: “After forty two years as a page boy, I am raising you to the status of squire!” Martin’s eyes were glassy. The old knight clapped a hand on Martin’s shoulder. “Smile for the court portrait painter, son! Tomorrow, you start learning how to care for the horses!”