The man shuffled down the quaint street, his boots kicking dirt up from the
ground. Wind-licked leaves spun around in front of him as if trying to offer
some sort of comfort, but that comfort didnt come. His fingers closed
around the large object he carried in his hand. Wrapped in an old piece of
burlap, it reeked of blood, death, and battle, but traditions were traditions,
and he would deliver it as he was supposed to.
A glance to the clear evening sky and a silent prayer were all he offered when he found the house he was looking for. He didnt much feel like being in this place, and normally he wouldnt be subjected to the unpleasantness of the mission. A simple note sent by messenger would usually suffice, but in this case he had a personal interest. It wasnt just responsibility and duty--it was friendship.
He wrinkled his nose as the smell of animals from the nearby barn filled his senses. The odor was so strong he could taste it, but he would not let it bother him. There were other matters to worry about, much more important than the stench of manure. With a drawn breath, he raised his gloved hand to the door, silently cursing the fate that had dragged him to this place.
The news was bad.
The thudding sound of the knock was made by a gauntleta leather oneand its rhythm still sounded like a dirge. She knew the sound well, but that didnt make it at all palatable. She didnt want to open the door, but she knew this would happen one day. She knew this was inevitable.
Years ago, when they had just married and decided to start a family, they had talked about it. They both knew the risks, and neither could explain away the duty when the war started. Eleven years it had raged on, eleven years longer than it needed to last. She fought the knot forming in her throat as she chased their two small sons upstairs to their bedrooms, and then steeled herself as she approached the door.
The knock came again, as if reaffirming itself in the realm of reality. She reached towards the crude lock and unfastened it, her fingers fumbling at the latch. A moment later she won the small battle and then gently pulled the door open.
She knew the man standing there, and she knew how he felt. He still might have been on the right side of fifty, but at that moment, he seemed to age another thirty years. Touches of silver in his dirty blond hair were pulled by the wind, and through the new wrinkles on his face she could read his message.
Nonetheless, he met her eyes as he said quietly, Im sorry, milady.
Shed known it was coming, but his words were still paralyzing. Her breath caught in her throat as her eyes welled with tears.
The man reached for her hand with his free one and gripped it tightly. Allow me to come in and stay with you, milady. It is the least I can do.
She nodded ever so slightly at his request and felt his arm drape over her shoulders as he guided her to the lounging bench in front of the fireplace. The bench was rather ornate, something not seen often in this town, and on most days, quite comfortable. She sat there, letting the delicate blue velvet cushions hold her and the oak frame support her. Although still very much in shock, she could hear the children shuffling around in their bedrooms upstairs, but knew they didnt dare to come out. They were well aware of what their father did for living and the consequences of such a life.
Her friend set his burlap bundle down on the low table before her and started to unwrap it.
Let me do that, she said, interrupting his slow, reverent movements.
He nodded and stepped back. Pulling off his gloves and tucking them into his belt, he bowed his head solemnly as she removed the shroud of the unwanted gift.
She peeled the cloth back gently, being careful not to disturb its contents. Inside was what she knew would be therea long, hastily cleaned, but well-oiled broadsword. Her hands went to touch the silver hilt, but something wasnt right. She looked back at the man in a mix of surprise and anger. Salome, where is the sheath?
We couldnt find it, milady, he said as he glanced away. We didnt find anything else. But you know how the enemy will take things.
She felt her teeth grit. She knew this, but didnt want to believe it. She didnt want to accept death as the answer here, and so she found a bit of hope lying within her own denial. Embracing this, she pushed herself away from the sword and announced, Hes not dead.
Salome didnt answer her, but after a moment he bowed his head respectfully. Allow me to make us some tea, milady. There is much we need to talk about. He didnt even bother to wait for her answer before disappearing into the kitchen.
Her eyes fixed themselves on the sword as though waiting for it to come to life so that she could demand the truth. With a sigh, she realized this course of action was futile and reached to touch the adorned silver hilt. Her fingers traced the tiny carvings of good fortune on the crossguard and the green stone set into the pommel, which proclaimed the owner to be a proud member of the elite ranking officers. She glared at the sword again, wanting to hear its tale but then leaned back, and impatiently waited for Salome to return and explain it all.
Salome poured the hot water into the worn teacups and waited for the tea to steep. He brushed the forming tears from his eyes and shook his head at her stubbornness. She wouldnt accept it and he hadnt expected her toshe always could see through his lies, even when it was for her own good. Sighing, he knew that hed just have to give her all the information he had and pray she wouldnt do anything stupid.
Footsteps slowly descended the stairs to leave their owner, the elder son, standing proudly in the kitchen. He bowed his head to the man and offered a somber greeting. Hello, Lord Salome.
Salome forced himself to smile at the dark-haired boy of eight years. Hello, Ryan.
I put Geoffrey to bed, Ryan said. Hes too little to be up this late.
Good. Youre a good help to your mother, was all the man could come up with as he looked at the piteous child.
I have to be. I promised Father Id take care of her. So dont worry. It will be all right, Ryan said as he turned towards the staircase.
Salome smiled at the young boy, admiring his courage and innocent selflessness. Just as stubborn as his parents, too, he thought. With the first light of happiness he had experienced that day still in his mind, the knight took the mugs and walked back to the keeping room.
He handed her the tea, knowing its warmth was welcome in her frigid hands. She took a sip and then turned her gaze on him, her eyes commanding him to tell her what had happened. He sighed as he stared into the fire for a moment, and then he found his voice.
As you know, milady, this border clash--
It isnt a border clash. Its a war. It may have started as a border clash, but eleven years later were still fighting.
I agree, milady, he said as he put his cup down far too carefully on the table and then took a seat next to her.
Then dont sugarcoat things for me, Salome, she said as she glared over the top of her mug.
Dropping his gaze to floor, he spoke with guarded anger in his voice. The Council would like it to be called a border clash.
Her eyes narrowed at him, their bright violet color nearly cutting through his skin and expecting the story to continue.
He gingerly took his tea off the table. Cradling it in his hands, he spoke again. Regardless, milady, we were assigned to attack the port city of Dubios. Its close to the border, and if we had taken it, we would have had the upper hand and might have been able to negotiate a treaty.
You were not successful, she said flatly, putting her cup back down.
No, we were not. We didnt anticipate their numbers, nor did we anticipate the denseness of the woods surrounding the city. He lifted his chin and looked her in the eye. That is my fault.
She shook her head at him as if the small motion would slay this nightmare of a war that plagued him. Still desperate to hear the rest of the tale, she prodded him in a most tender waya soft, plaintive whisper of his name.
Salome nodded to her and continued the story with trepidation in his voice. Many were lost, but as I said, all that we found of your husband was his sword. I had the men scour the woods in the hopes that he and his battalion had escaped, but--
They found nothing.
Yes, milady, he said, replacing his tea on the table and gazing into the fire.
Im sure they took prisoners. Are you doing anything to retrieve or even identify them?
The Council has not yet approved action on that. Although I have heard rumors of a peace negotiation in the works.
She snorted and raised a brow at him. The Council will take weeks to decide either. Perhaps if you sent word to Tintos capital and asked for a treaty, and then waited on the Council? You could have the entire thing wrapped up before the wax dried on their seals. She glowered at him. Unless you want to keep fighting this idiotic war.
Of course not, milady. I myself have questioned the need for it to the Council, but all I have been given are stalling tactics and rhetoric.
Of course you did. Thats all those old fools speak inriddles and politics. Unfortunately, it is the way of the world: war means good commerce, and good commerce means re-election. There was a strain of hatred and reminiscence in her voice as she added: Remember, I dealt with them at one point, too.
A half-hearted smile crossed his lips. Yes, milady. I remember.
There was a long moment of silence between the two as they reached for their cups and then sipped their tea. Then she started the questions he was truly dreading. Tell me, did any of his squad return?
He never could lie to her. No, milady.
And did you find any of their weapons, armor, or Her voice trailed off.
He touched her shoulder. No, milady. As I said before, I only recovered your husbands sword. All that was left of the group were their weapons. No sheathes, no shields, no horses.
Another few moments passed as they looked at each other from over their cups, and he could see the workings of her mind through her eyes.
She replaced her teacup on the table and turned to face him. When I first saw you, Salome, I thought that Percival was dead. But now I know that he is alive. He and his men were captured! An entire battalion just doesnt float off into the distance. Besides, Tinto is a respectable nation. They would return the dead to their families.
He closed his eyes. Were not quite sure that we were fighting the Tinto army, milady.
What do you mean?
He pinched his nose in thought as he explained it. The enemies weve encountered over the past year or two have been fighting less like soldiers and more like bandits. This time, they met us in the woods, and we didnt even have a chance to get to the city gates. Men just popped out of trees and overtook us. It was a very strange, yet effective strategy.
Salome watched with guarded emotions as the inevitable outcome of his visit finally manifested. Her eyes closed and then reopened with a new resolve. Getting to her feet, she moved to look out the small window to the dark street with grim determination. Something must be done here, and if I must be the one to do it, then so be it.
Milady, you do not need to show your strength to meI know what you are capable ofbut I dont think you are making the right decision by getting involved in this. I will swear to you that I will do everything to find out exactly what happened, but you have a family to think about now, Lady Chris.
Her reply was harsh and full of the spirit shed had her entire life. I already am involved in this, Salome. I will do whatever it takes to bring my husband back to me, so dont try and talk me out of it.