Sunday, 12 May 2013

[Short Story] Solace

The maid sat upon her soft bed, eyes twinkling gently as candlelight shone softly upon the side of her pale face; her bright red lips a plump, dark mark across an otherwise snowy complexion. Her eyes were in shadow, her long black hair falling gently across her shoulders as she sat; a silken veil to frame the intricacies of her face. She smiled gently, her gentle hands caressing the face of her lover; his head laying upon her lap, his earnest blue eyes looking up at her with a mix of pain, confusing and deep longing which she was so utterly familiar by this point that she was beginning to forget what they looked like when he was not so painfully worried. But she didn't mind; it was her pleasure, if not also her duty, to sit and listen as he talked away the weight of the world. Her lover was a kind man, with a pious heart and a conflicted soul; he had been merciful to her when no-one else would even acknowledge she was there.

Her father had been a man of the north; a barbarian, by all reckoning, and her mother a simple peasant-girl from one of the outlying farms. Her birth was seen by the villagers as a betrayal; she was an abomination, the seed of the enemy. A girl not so strong or so tall as to gain acceptance in the tribes, but her pale skin likewise excluded her from passing for a pure-bred southerner. So for years she had run, and hidden, and been beaten and chased, until finally she collapsed at the feet of the man who now lay in her lap; he had taken her in, fed her, and loved her when no-one else in the cruel, cruel kingdom had ever seemed to. And so she made a point to sit and listen, as her service to him, as he told her of the many great wonders and the many dark secrets which his position led him to see and know.

"They cut you so deeply, dear..." she said in a soft, whispering tone. "But they are simple men; what harm can they do you, Flavius?"

"Three men don't scare me, I'm not so weak as to let that force me to kneel." he said simply, a dry smile upon his face as he looked up into hers. "What scares me is the thousands of men who they command. Three provinces, love, three! Ah, if it were just one then I wouldn't be so perturbed, even that I could put down... but this isn't a rebellion, it's a civil war."

"And are you not a King, my dearest?" the maid said, planting a lingering kiss upon his forehead; his short blonder hair tickling her cheek a little as she bent over. "Isn't it true that you descend from the man who united the seven kingdoms under a single royal house?"

"Love, I am not Valerius." he shook his head solemnly. "I've never seen real war. Skirmishes with the north perhaps, but I don't know how to lead an army in pitched battle; let alone against someone with Corrigan's experience. I remember, as a child, watching him fight my father in the tournaments; it all seemed so fun then, so friendly and exciting. But now... all I can recall is the way he moved his sword. It was so fast that you could barely see it; just a blurred line of silversteel, strong enough to knock my father off his feet five times over..."

The maid patted his head, and he sat up; allowing her to craw over to the other side of the bed. He raised an eyebrow as she took a small wooden box from underneath the large four-poster bed's matress. He had never seen it before; which could only mean that it was a carefully guarded secret, if she had managed to keep it out of sight for so long. It was about the size of a large book, made from simple wood with a small iron latch keeping it shut tight. She opened it, slender fingers dancing about the lock, and removed from it a few small scraps of paper and a necklace.

"This," she explained, "Is everything I know about my father."

She handed the box's contents to Flavius, and he looked through them idly. The first thing he looked at was the necklace; a delicate thing, made from woven metal and bearing a religious mark on it; a tiny flame carved onto the face of the locket at its end. It was pretty.

"Lovely." he said, somewhat intrigued.

"The northerners believe that wearing symbols like that can bring you luck; to have a fire next to your heart, they thought, might make the fire inside you harder to snuff out." she said, eyes glazed over slightly.

"Superstitious." Flavius murmured.

"Traditional." she corrected, "As traditional as that crown you wear. What did that symbolise again... strength, and humility? Perhaps it's time for your line to adopt a new symbol. You could call it the heart-stone, perhaps."

Flavius rolled his eyes, and she giggled. It was nice, she thought, to tease him when she could; though she knew not to mock him, and would never want to anyway, it gave her a pleasant rush to poke fun at the monarch. It was a pleasure that her fellow-servants would never enjoy. He smiled, shrugged, and placed the locket down in the box again. The next thing he found inside was a piece of paper with a black, swirling pattern. He recognised what it was, at least; a tribal mark. Each northern tribe had a mark, and a person's family name and the like would be denoted through additions. It was said that those who knew the marks could ascertain their whole life-story simply by looking at it.

"I don't suppose you know what this one means?"  he said, looking at it. The maid crawled over to him, resting her head upon his shoulder gently and peering at it.

"The two dots on the left-hand side mean that he was the second child of his family, I think. And the line underneath it all means he was a smith. Apart from that, I don't know... there are no books on the subject in the castle library."

"I'll have one bought." Flavius muttered, more to himself than to his companion, but she quickly shook her head at the thought.

"No, no. You can't be seen to take an interest in that." she said firmly. "You are the Milvian King; the northern tribes are a blight on the land that is rightfully yours, remember?"

"Is one war at a time not enough, that I must carry on the crusades?" Flavius said exasperatedly.

"The crusades are part of the Kingdom's soul now, my liege." she said, her tone commanding. "To break from that particular tradition would only lose you more allies than you already have."

"And what of your people?"

"They're not my people." she growled. "They are my father's people."

King Flavius looked at her, smiling slightly.

"Oh, that you were Queen and I not King, then we'd have the type of ruler to see us through this." he said, laughing a little. "Bless you, love, you're a smarter woman than I, despite all my education and all my private tutoring."

"Which is... which is something I've been meaning to talk to you about." the maid said, biting her lip. Flavius looked at her, his jovial smile falling flat as he saw the pained expression upon her face.

"...What, love?"

"Please, don't call me that. Not right now." she said, shaking her head slightly. She placed a hand upon his cheek, bringing his head around so that she could look him in the eye. "...You're right in saying that you need a Queen."

Flavius immediately stood, a furious expression on his face.

"No!" he yelled, "We are not discussing this again!"

"Listen to me..." the maid began, but was immediately cut off before she could force any further words from her mouth.

"Why?" Flavius muttered. "This matter was settled long ago, we agreed; we swore."

"Listen to me, Flavius, I..."

"You would have me throw myself away? What of us, what of everything we've said and done?"

"Listen to me, Flavius, or so help me I will send you to the fires far quicker than any army would!" the maid screamed furiously, tears streaming down her cheeks in a great flood which to her felt like hot oil poured across her face, so painful was that moment. Silence fell upon the room, as the two looked at each other; the King and the Maid, the two forbidden lovers.

"...Why, love? Why is this so important to you?"

"Because, it is with an heir that your position is safe. It's with a Queen that this city is safe while you are afield. And for all our talk and all our promises, I cannot be your wife Flavius. I am an outcast and a commoner; to marry me would spell the end of your dynasty, and a chaos far worse than anything that three dissatisfied Lords could trump up to meet you." she smiled weakly. "I will not abandon you, dearest. I'll be there, and I'll be whatever I'm needed to be... wetnurse, nanny, or confidant. I already hear talk, gossip coming through the walls. People are getting suspicious as to why my quarters are in this part of the keep, and why I am so furnished. If nothing else, it would put rumours to rest if I were to be a handmaiden."

"...And who do you propose?" Flavius said, his voice for once cold, calculating and rational. He cast his eyes to the floor, pinching his forehead between his fingers firmly. "I know you have a candidate in mind... it's just like you."

The maid hesitated for a moment, a little unwilling to speak her mind. But catching sight of her lover's expression, she thought it better to save them any more heartache than was necessary and make her intentions clear.

"When the Lords came up for court, I served tea to their retinues. Aside from the comments that one might expect, I am after all an 'exotic' servant that Lords may be unfamiliar with, I was able to listen to them talk. Lady Julia I thought to be a fine fit... she is young, intelligent, witty... and beautiful."

"But how could she ever possibly compare to you?" Flavius said, coming close to her with a weak smile upon his face. She returned his smile, equally half-heartedly.

"She will be a good Queen, I'm sure. What's more, she can be Queen..." The maid looked to her royal lover for a moment, before wrapping her arms around him in a calm embrace; burying her face in his neck. Flavius held her close, his strong arms holding her tightly. "...And I'm sure that you will be happy together."

"And this what you want?" Flavius said, tears in his own eyes now.

"More than anything, my dear. More than anything."

Flavius kissed the top of her head tenderly, doing as much as he could to retain his composure.

"...Then I will make the arrangements."

With these words, it was done; though the two did not withdraw from each other for some time further. They stood, clasped together, their hot tears mingling as they were bathed in candlelight; casting a simple silhouette on the wall as they breathed together.

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