Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Near Neighbor, Far Brother

by Kristen Lee Knapp

The sun was high and warm winds swept through the grassy hills. Clouds drifted above, white galleons across a bright blue sea.

Hunters roved the planes on small horses, carrying spears and arrows. Riccor drank cool water from his gourd and wiped slate-grey hair from his wrinkled face. He spurred his horse forward.

A shout. Three snorting, squealing shapes scattered into the grass. Riccor whistled, raising his lance. The other riders spread out and circled the boars.

He rode up on one: tiny, mewling, stumbling. He rode on towards another. Big, slow, dark fur tinged with grey. The hunters' bowstrings thrummed and it fell, feathered.

The third trundled down the hill, grunting. Arrows whistled through the air as the hunters loosed. The boar jogged to the side and the darts vanished in the tall grass.

Riccor raised his lance, spun it in a small circle and the hunters drifted away, making room for him. He shouted, digging his spurs into his horse, couching his lance, lowering the tip...

The spear shattered and the boar toppled over, three feet of wood jutting from its back. Riccor circled his horse and stood over his kill. Grey splotches covered the boar's hide, marred by crisscrossing white scars.

The hunters trotted up smiling and laughing. Two dismounted, one cut the boar's throat and the other started to dress the body.

Riccor dropped the splintered haft of his spear and gazed around. A dark forest filled the valley below, massive trees transformed to the size of mushrooms from the high distance. A tiny white spike rose above the forest, tiny pennants swirling in the wind from its tall towers. Riccor smiled at the sight of the castle.

A horse whinnied, screeching as it reared on two legs and tossed its rider. The man fell limply from the saddle and rolled into the grass. A black-feathered arrow sprouted from his chest.

The hunters tripped and stumbled as they ran to surround Riccor, raising shields and covering his body, shouting and cursing and readying weapons.

Riccor dismounted and knelt beside the dead man. Young, with thinly scrapped mustache and beard, mouth open. Eyes staring emptily into the sky.

A note was knotted on the arrow's shaft. Riccor unfolded it and read, frowned and shook his head. He climbed into the saddle, staring down at the castle in the forest. He barked an order and his hunters dragged the man's corpse over his horse. They rode on, back into the hills.

####

"Love and respect and protect your neighbor to the last gasp. But when he falls to the way of evil, burn down his house, kill his servants and pursue his children." Riccor folded the note and set it down. Coals smoldered in iron braziers, washing the dark stone walls in wavering firelight. Insects whispered in the garden below as the sunset morphed the sky into molten gold.

"Blasphemous!" said Bozrun. The pointed ends of his ash-grey mustache bristled. "Some vagabond's out to stir trouble. Don't heed this nonsense my lord."

"An attack was made on our lord's person and you say that!" grated Drak. He was young and tall with wavy blond hair and green eyes, though his good looks were spoiled by a dark birthmark that covered half his face. "We know who did this. Give me the men and horses and I will set their forest ablaze."

"What will that serve except your sense of vengeance?" Bozrun spread a map across the table and pressed the edges down. "It happened here," he said, pointing. "We should comb the area. They won't have gone far."

"A waste of time." Drak swiped Bozrun's hand away. "Vagabonds want to steal, loot, plunder. Not to ignite a war, old fool!"

"All the same," said Bozrun. "Attacking serves us no purpose. We should retrench, negotiate with Lord Mekros. Perhaps he can help us."

"Your blood is as grey as your hair!" shouted Drak.

"Mekros can field fifty knights and hundreds of fighting men!" Spittle flew from Bozrun's white lips as he spoke. "We cannot win a war against him!"

Drak laughed. "Do not listen to this craven's talk, milord. If we strike swiftly we can win this war in a stroke."

Riccor raised his hand, silencing them. He picked up the note, read it again and sighed. "I perceive the hand of Mekros's wife in this."

Drak scratched his neck. "So a lady rules Ciswyk Wood now. We need not fear."

"No," grumbled Bozrun. "We must be doubly careful."

Riccor touched his temples. "No outlaw scrawled this message."

Drak rose. "You are wise my lord. Then I will go and raze their villages."

"I did not give the order."

Drak sat slowly, his right eye twitching. "Then what is your command?"

Riccor sighed and steepled his fingers. "We may yet avoid a war."

"But we should prepare for one," Drak insisted.

Riccor exhaled and looked down. Drak was right, but he required absolute care. The slightest provocation would escalate the situation. "Muster levies," he said.

"Fifty villagers will not be enough." Bozrun folded his arms. "God help us if Mekros plans to attack us. We are not ready for a war."

"Take all the coin necessary," Riccor said to Drak. "Travel to Dreada, hire mercenaries, free companies. Bring them here as soon as possible."

Drak grinned and bowed his head, walking to the heavy iron-bound door.

"The castle is defenseless," said Bozrun. "And penniless. Even mercenaries may not be enough."

Riccor stared at the letter. "Mekros is my friend and my sworn brother. I would not forsake him." He stood and walked from the room, leaving Bozrun. He walked through the cramped hall of his castle, opening a heavy oaken door. Candles lined the dark walls and logs burned in the hearth.

Brea sat brushing her hair in front of a warped mirror.

Riccor smiled.

"Did you watch mother so?" she said.

"No."

Hooves clattered across the cobblestone road as a dozen mounted men rode out.

"Such commotion," she said, glancing outside. "I wonder where Drak is going in such haste."

Riccor looked outside. Drak and his escort were already dark shapes, growing smaller. The stars were emerging from the burnished sky.

"Keep your secrets," she said, setting down her brush. "I'll keep mine. Is it true you are making war on your sworn brother?"

"No," he said, annoyed. "I am trying to repair the peace."

She coiled a sheaf of hair around one of her fingers. "How?"

"I will send an emissary and negotiate."

"You should send me."

He paused, unsure of what he'd just heard. "No," he said.

Brea's pink lips stretched into a smile. "No?"

"No," he said, turning.

"We did not meet until I was fifteen," she said, tone suddenly changed. He stopped, turned back to face her. "You were at war my whole childhood. I raised myself. I was already a woman grown when you returned. It's sweet of you to try and protect me milord, but you are as much my father as I am your loving daughter."

A long pause. Crickets clicked outside.

"You are wise and very cold," he said.

She smiled again. "Watch. I will make your peace."

"How do you propose to do that?"

"Your brother's intentions are obvious. He wants a bride for his son, and he means to force an agreement. I told you it was wrong to rebuff him so many times."

"He wants a claim to my castle," he said between clenched teeth.

She shrugged. "So? Who else will you leave it to?" She picked up her brush and worked a knot from her hair. "I'm sorry Riccor, but I'm not going to hold your stones for you while my life fades away. I'm young and beautiful and I want a man. And children."

Riccor stood, clenching and unclenching his fists.

"I will be ignored if I do not have an escort," said Brea, shaking her hair.

"Bozrun will go with you," he said shortly. "He and Mekros are friends."

She nodded and stood, walked to her wardrobe and pulled free a rich blue riding cloak, draping it over her shoulders. "Thank you, Riccor," she said.

"You'll make a good lord someday," Riccor said numbly.

She smiled, kissed his cheek and walked from her room.

####

The sun rose, pouring dull light through his chamber window. Riccor rose from bed and looked outside. Thin wisps of white clouds snaked through the bright sky. The village stirred with groggy noise below. Riccor dressed, descended the castle stairwell and sat alone at his long table. The castle cook, a withered crone, brought him a bowl of porridge, bread and an overripe apple. Riccor ate quickly, washing his meal down with a few swills of tart red wine. He finished and left the castle, walking into the village.

A monk in a brown moth-clipped robe admitted him to the abbey. Torches burned inside on tall, scrolling columns. Austere wooden pews formed rows before a tall stone altar. Candles lined the walls, illuminating colorful depictions of saints and martyrs imbued in scenes of piety. Seated above all was a titanic stone idol of God, his hands clasped around a set of gilded scales, a hammer resting across his lap.

The bishop, a loose-fleshed old man, emerged from the cloisters in a swirl of red and gold silk. "God's blessings upon you."

Riccor knelt and bowed his head. "Lord Bishop," he murmured.

The bishop wove his fingers together and leaned on the altar. "What can I do for you?"

"I have come for absolution and guidance."

The bishop's fingers fluttered across the altar. "You've maybe come to us two or three times in the past five years. Has something happened?"

"No. I simply want to confess before God."

The bishop nodded. "The only way to God's forgiveness is through confession. Begin, and He will judge your soul. Know that He sees even the deepest pits of your heart and knows your every sin in intimate detail."

Riccor waited for him to finish. "I will see a suitable donation is made to this church," he said.

The bishop smiled. "I expect you will be forgiven. Speak your sins."

"I have doubt."

"What do you doubt, Lord Riccor?"

"A friend."

The bishop pinched his flabby gullet. "A friend?"

"We swore brotherhood eighteen years ago in the Holy City, in sight of God. And now I doubt him. I doubt everything."

The bishop pointed to the statue. "God forgives any sin but doubt in his awesome might. Oaths are sacred. But they are made by men, and men are prone to corruption, greed, folly. Men may break a holy oath on a whim. But God is absolute. Doubt him, and you will be destroyed." He smiled. "Have you more sins?"

"Yes."

He told them as he remembered them. The bishop listened, occasionally offering advice.

Riccor rose as he finished. "Thank you, bishop."

"Before you go," the bishop said suddenly. "Since it has been so long since your last visit, you should seal your confessional with a sacrifice. God views such acts with the highest pleasure."

Riccor agreed and the bishop led him back into the abbey's yard. Two monks dragged over a mud-splattered woman. She screamed and fought and kicked.

"This woman is a harlot," the bishop said. "She compounded her shame by stealing from her client. All of her assets were seized. And as she has violated men's hearts, so have our noble monks violated her. God's will be done."

"I'm not! I'm innocent! Please!" She writhed, weeping, shrieking.

"What is her name?" said Riccor, frowning.

"Siya." The bishop handed him a long poleaxe. He raised his hands to the sky. "We invoke God to bear witness as we purify this foul sinner in blood and pain. May God's glory be everlasting."

The monks tied the woman down to a tree stump.

"Don't! He's lying, I'm not..."

Riccor raised the axe and hammered down on the woman. Blood and viscera erupted from the massive wound. But his aim was off, he'd fouled a shoulder. Riccor raised the axe again. It took two more blows to sever her head.

He thanked the bishop and the monks and promised them a generous donation and returned to the castle. He changed from his bloody clothes and later ate a full lunch, carried out his duties and as night came he retired to bed.

####

Someone shook him from a deep sleep.

"Trouble milord," said a voice before walking out.

Riccor dressed in a daze. Outside the stars winked and the moon cast the hills in silver light. He descended the stairs to the hall. Captain Ogzen and another guard held a bloody and bruised man by the arms.

"Who is he?" said Riccor.

Ogzen spat. "No one knows. Never seen him here before."

"Who are you?"

Blood poured from the man's mouth when he opened it to speak. "I am Duzek. I'm just a merchant."

Riccor frowned. "What are you trading?"

"Salt fish, furs from the north."

"We found him snooping around the walls," said Ogzen. "He had papers and pens on him."

"Did you find anything incriminating?"

Ogzen twisted his face and shook his head.

"I use them for receipts," cried Duzek. "I give my clients receipts, that's all! Please!"

Riccor sighed. "Release him."

Ogzen and the other guard let the man go. Riccor turned to leave.

"When your men seized me my mule bolted. My wagon broke an axle," said Duzek, sobbing.

"Come morning the wagoneer will see to it."

"This delay costs me money. My clients will be furious! They'll cut my pay."

Ogzen bared his teeth. "Bastard!"

Riccor touched his temples. "Ten silver drabos will compensate you. See him out."

The guard helped Duzek out.

"Am I still in charge of this castle's defense?" growled Ogzen.

"Yes." Riccor clutched his skull, wishing he'd never been woken.

"Then why am I disregarded? I swear to you, that man is a spy!"

"I am lord here," said Riccor. "This castle is mine. I will disregard you, if it is my pleasure. Or command you to dance like a monkey. You will obey."

"I could leave," said Ogzen. "I wouldn't be alone either."

"Nor would you be alone when God judges you for your treachery." Riccor turned and ascended the stairs, never looking back. He paced alone in his room for a time. Light peeked over the horizon when he laid his head down again for sleep.

####

Riccor stared out from his window, over the lush green hills. A long yellow banner stood at the crescent of the opposite hill. Something about it held his gaze, a dark speck in the distance that sent centipedes crawling across his skin. He buckled on his sword and descended into the castle, ignoring his breakfast and walking into the stables. The master of horse slept soundly on a bale of hay. Riccor saddled his own horse, an old stallion with a frost-white muzzle, then rode out from his castle and up the opposite hill.

A rotting head was mounted atop the banner's spike. Black smudges of blood and tar marred the head's weathered skin and bushy grey mustache. The eyes stared up. A crow picked at the tongue from a rotting, gaping mouth. The banner below the head was flame-yellow, split by a solid white chevron. Riccor thought of all the times he'd seen that banner and smiled.

Ogzen rode up on a long-eared mule. "Bozrun?" he said, looking pale.

"Yes," Riccor heard himself say.

The green grass swayed, touched by gusts of crisp wind.

"Raise the town militia," said Riccor. "Draw provisions, set watches." He looked up again at the head and his voice broke. "Take that down."

"They can be here by nightfall!" Ogzen shook his head. "God protect us, we are all going to die." His eyes widened, as though suddenly realizing something. "When will Drak arrive with reinforcements?"

"Soon," said Riccor. "We only need to hold out." Riccor turned his horse and rode back to the castle, occasionally looking up at the black crow circling overhead.

####

The sun vanished and night darkened the sky to a majestic purple. Hundreds of tiny flames lined the horizon. Riccor watched them come, mounted atop his grey stallion, feeling suffocated by his shirt of steel rings. He thought only of Brea as he saw two figures approach on horseback under a long white banner. He rode up to meet them.

"Far enough," a man's voice said.

Riccor dragged the reins back and stopped.

The two figures cantered nearer. Dusky light glowed across the surface of Mekros's silvery armor. A gold cape wrangled wildly in the wind, darkness making it look more brown than yellow. A thin mustache curled across his fleshy face.

A woman rode up beside him, his wife. Tezel sat garbed in a gown of twinkling samite, making her glitter with starlight. A gold and ruby circlet was set on her brow. Her tight face was scrunched into a scowl.

"Where is my daughter?" Riccor asked them.

"Safe," said Mekros, lifting his palms. "I swear to you, brother, she is safe."

"Where is she?"

"This parley is over if you persist," said Tezel, raising her chin.

Riccor clenched his jaw, looking past them at the torches arrayed on the hill. "By what right do you attack my lands?"

"It's been a long time," said Mekros, smiling. "At times I see your castle and I think you have your own little world here, apart from everything." His eyes wandered, losing focus. "God smiled on us those years in the Holy City. Those were simpler times. Eat, drink and fight for our King."

"Zakyrs will never allow your treachery, Mekros," Riccor said, spitting.

"King Zakyrs is dead," said Tezel. "The land is at war, and a new King reigns."

Riccor had to think back. "But Zakyrs had only one daughter. If he is dead then she is Queen now, by rights."

"The only right in this world is found at the edge of the sword," declared Tezel.

"A slip of a girl has no rights to a man's throne. I have given my allegiance to the new King," said Mekros. "I have come for yours."

"I will," said Riccor, touching the hilt of his sword. "To my new Queen."

Mekros winced as if struck, then frowned. "I would sooner renew our friendship. Think of it! We can march together, as of old!"

"Choose carefully," said Tezel. "It is not a pleasant fate that awaits you."

"A worse one awaits you both," said Riccor. "God punishes usurpers. Murderers. My people will reject you."

A serrated smile slashed Tezel's lips. "Shall the master slayer preach to us of piety?"

"What do you mean?"

"Did you sacrifice a woman to purge your sins, my lord?"

Riccor blinked and nodded.

"That woman was innocent. You murdered her and tried to bribe a man of God to ignore the incident," she said. She paused, smiling even wider. "Your bishop and I are good friends. Word will spread soon, and both the high and low will curse your name for your crime. The Faith will not save you."

Riccor ground his teeth. "Deceiver," he growled.

"My husband prays you will listen to reason and submit," she said. "I hope for the contrary. Our spies have long infiltrated your pitiful hovel. We know its every weakness. And we know you have expelled most of your garrison. Where are they, I wonder? Rallying outlaws for more mischief?"

"You are very confident," said Riccor.

"We have thirty knights, and five times as many fighting men. At a word our siege engines will fire on your castle and our sappers will mine your walls. Exactly how many men do we face?" she said. "Five? Ten?"

Riccor forced himself to smile at her.

Mekros exhaled. "Yield, brother. This massacre need never happen. I beg you to yield."

"You err if you believe I fear death."

"Does your daughter?" said Tezel.

Riccor paused. "It was she who wished to go. Her fate is her own. God will judge her favorably for her courage."

"I do not want to use force," said Mekros. He fixed his tired gaze on the ground.

"Your wife is right. I cannot win in a contest of numbers. But I will have my due." He pulled off his leather glove and threw it in Mekros's face. "A knightly contest. Do you have the courage?"

A smile flickered on his jowly face. "A noble duel. A contest of champions." He nodded. "If that is your wish, old friend. Two old men are evenly matched," said Mekros. "Single combat at dawn on the summit of this hill. Let that decide this conflict."

####

Primeval mist snailed through the humid air. Clouds glowed above in the morning light like wisps of flame. Riccor dismounted from his old stallion, stabbed the earth with his lance and looped the reins over the haft. He walked up the hill, steps punctuated by the jingle of his chain armor.

Mekros emerged from the mist and darkness, dismounted his horse and slapped its flank, sending it running.

"I do not want this." Mekros sighed. "Is it such a terrible thing to kneel?"

"If I don't, will you kill my daughter?"

"No. God no. I would never hurt her."

"But Bozrun, you would."

"My wife said it was necessary to demonstrate our loyalty to my liege. A man can choose his friends but seldom his wife. A long time ago I tried to repudiate her and failed."

"My daughter is willful, but innocent. She knows nothing of bloodshed or betrayals or war," said Riccor. "Please."

"If only I could alter what has gone before. I cannot let her go. I cannot stop this war. How would it look?" Mekros shook his head. "If you would but surrender we can avoid it. No one need die!"

"Men have died."

"You know what I mean," said Mekros. "You could return home. You need not go to war at all. Live out your remaining years in peace."

"While your wife waits for me to die." Riccor drew his sword and readied his shield. "Talk accomplishes little. You offer me fetters and call it peace. I decline. But I will have your oath that you will return my daughter if I am victorious."

"You have my solemn vow." Mekros drew a weapon from his belt, a long-chained flail with three spiked balls at its end. He wiped a hand down the face of his steel shield. "Are you ready?"

Riccor rolled his shoulders and crouched stiffly. "Yes."

Mekros nodded and advanced, swinging his flail. Riccor raised his shield, but the flail's long chains hooked over the lip of his bulwark and the spiked balls punched him in the back, piercing his mail and sending a shock of pain through his body. He slashed out but Mekros edged away.

The flail's spiked balls hurtled down again and Riccor raised his shield. The flail clanged against his helmet and rang his ears. He staggered back, nearly falling.

"Yield," said Mekros, flail circling overhead.

"No."

The flail hammered down upon him. Splinters exploded as the spiked balls lodged into his oaken shield. Riccor jerked his arm, ripping the flail flew from Mekros's hands. He stabbed at him but Mekros stumbled back and fell.

"Not bad!" Mekros laughed, pulled himself up stiffly and drew his sword. "Now we begin!" He screamed and swung his blade wildly.

Riccor leapt aside. Mekros stumbled forward and fell, the weight of his armor turning him into a tumbling boulder. He grasped and fought for a grip in the tall grass, disappearing down the hill.

Riccor ran after him and found his sworn brother at the bottom of the ravine. His legs and arms were bent in grotesque angles. Brown and red splotches stained his silvery armor. His chest heaved with sharp breaths. "Mercy," said Mekros. "Mercy, brother."

Hooves trampled near. Tezel appeared from the mist atop her massive warhorse.

"My daughter," said Riccor, pressing the tip of his sword against Mekros's neck.

"My brother," coughed Mekros.

"Whatever oath my husband swore is no concern of mine." She turned and snapped the reins and vanished into the mist.

Riccor looked back at Mekros and knelt beside him. He unbuckled his cuirass, lifted up his mail hauberk and plunged the tip of his sword into his heart.

Trumpets sounded over the hill. Men and horses and catapults and rams and ladders crested the hill. Riccor dragged himself up into the saddle of his horse and rode away. The battle began.

####

Worms of black smoke squirmed into the blue sky. The gate was a splintered ruin. Corpses lined the walls, arrows littered the streets. Thatched roofs roared with red flame.

Riccor sat in a pool of mud and blood, a crossbow bolt lodged in his left arm. Blood streamed down his back. His breath came in sputtering gasps.

Ogzen limped over, his right arm gone to the elbow. "Another wave is coming. A ram, some men with axes."

Riccor tried to stand and fell back to the ground. "Can we fight them off? How many men have we left?"

"Not enough," said Ogzen, before he retched.

Shouts echoed from the gate.

"It's past time to desert," said Riccor.

"You should go," said Ogzen.

"Into the castle and lock the doors?" Riccor shook his head. "I have lived long enough."

"I mean from the town."

"Why?"

"Because that sot Drak will never lift the siege on his own."

"He'll probably bend the knee to that woman."

"Maybe," said Ogzen. "He has a lofty opinion of himself. He may only get himself killed."

"No." Riccor shook his head. "I die here."

"And your daughter?"

Riccor's breath stopped in his chest. He owed everything to her.

"Drak can only be a day, two days away," said Ogzen, before retching again.

The gates shook as a ram slammed its way through.

Ogzen offered his arm. Riccor took it and stood. A stableboy hurried over his old warhorse and together they dragged him into the saddle.

"Abandon the walls," said Riccor. "Draw everyone into the keep. You must hold for one day. Give me one day and I'll return."

Ogzen smiled and slapped his horse's rump. A bent-back old man in a mail hauberk opened the postern gate for him. Riccor trotted through and rode for the distant hills.

####

Riccor drifted in and out of a black sleep. Blood sluiced from the quarrel in his arm and the wounds in his back ached. Each time he opened his eyes the sun had passed deeper behind the distant craggy peaks. The sky roiled with yellow and orange and pink and purple, lapping after the sun like waves, stars glittering in their wake like grains of sand.

He dropped his sword. It landed in the mud and he knew if he dismounted he would never be able to get back in the saddle. He dropped his shield and it clattered off a rock. His head lolled on his limp neck and shoulders, pain throbbed through his veins and pulsed through his arms down into his fingertips. His hands went numb and froze around the reins of his horse.

He wondered how far he had come. The smell of blood and smoke filled his nostrils. His lips were gummy and a sour, putrid taste hung on his tongue. He reached for his waterskin but dropped that too. Flies buzzed his head as the last sunlight slipped beyond the horizon.

He thought of his wife and their brief time together. At least it had produced their daughter. His eyes sank shut. When he opened them, torches surrounded him.

"Take him down," someone said.

A dark shape approached and took his horse's bridle. Riccor jerked the reins back and the old warhorse bit the man, sending him stumbling away, screaming.

Two men rushed forward with pikes and stabbed the horse, it fell with a wailing shriek and toppled on top of Riccor. Strong hands ripped him from under the dying horse and he was thrown to the mud.

"I was resigned to live life as an outlaw," said Drak. A few day's worth of stubble covered his jaw. "My forty lads wouldn't have turned that battle," he said, pointing with his blackened iron longsword.

Riccor tried to rise but fell back.

"Make an end of it already," someone said.

"I will be rewarded for this," said Drak. He drew his knife, rolled Riccor on his back and cut his throat. Tearing pain. Blood filled Riccor's mouth and soaked his neck, pouring down his chest. Death came slowly, an agonizing flood of blood and darkness. He thought of his daughter.

####

The abbey's bell chimed merrily. The pristine blue sky was dotted with tiny white puffs of clouds. Summer winds carried the scent of flowers and feasts through the street.

Brea, daughter of Riccor, wed Milik, son of Mekros and Tezel. The bishop oversaw the ceremony and was afterwards promoted to cardinal. Tezel brought Brea to the altar, Drak presented Milik with the rings. They walked hand in hand from the abbey, under flurries of flower petals. Townsfolk came and cheered as they passed. Others looked down from their labor as they rebuilt overthrown walls and thatched scorched roofs.

They stopped below the castle keep. Brea looked up. Birds circled overhead, swooping down at a dark shape pierced by a tall iron spike.

Milik's hand was cold and wet in her own. She looked at him. Sweat dribbled down his fleshy face. His blue eyes flinched from her and he looked away.

The guests gathered. Drak, freshly shaven, congratulated them both. The bishop blessed their union and invoked God to make their first child a boy. Tezel approached last.

Brea bowed to her. "I am sorry for your husband," she said, smiling. "He was a noble man."

"Yes," Tezel said. "I fear there will never be another like him, or your father. They were very great." She looked at Milik. "You leave tomorrow and put your sword to the King's service."

"Yes mother," he said, voice cracking.

"Remember, the marriage must be consummated."

"Mother, I..."

"Have no fear my lady," said Brea, touching her arm. "It shall be."

They stared at one another. "Congratulations," said Tezel, turning and walking away. Two guards admitted them into the castle keep and shut the huge doors. Flowers were set across the tables and throughout the hall. A feast awaited them on the table, dishes of roast swan, capons, eel, vegetables and flaky pastries.

"Are you hungry my lord?" she asked, looking at him.

Milik paled. "I... No, no of course not."

She looked at the table. "It would be a terrible waste not to eat any of this."

He nodded sheepishly. "You're right."

They sat together. She ate very little, though he ate less. Her husband, she thought, drinking several cups of wine.

"I'm sorry," he said suddenly.

"My lord?"

"For everything. Your father. My mother. This." Tears dribbled down his face as he raised his cup to drink.

She set her hand on his and they walked together from the hall up to the bedchamber. They coupled twice. The next morning Milik departed with his mother and the bulk of their army, feet and hooves leaving a storm of dust in their wake. Brea watched them leave from her father's window. She looked into a warped mirror and rested a hand on her stomach.

THE END


© 2009 Kristen Lee Knapp

Bio: Kristen Lee Knapp is an author/student living in Jacksonville Florida with his girlfriend Kaity. Kris's stories have appeared in Allegory ezine, Moon Drenched Fables, Bewildering Stories and Yellow Mama. This is Kristen's third appearance in Aphelion; his novella Three Revolvers on Mars was featured in the September 2009 edition.

E-mail: Kristen Lee Knapp

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