Sapling (weekend freewrite)
From a tower window in Nottingham Castle, two men stared down into the moonlit courtyard. They knew, the both of them, that before the night was out, one of them would die and at least one of them would have preferred that it wasn’t him.
The Marshal glanced over at his long-time companion, his long-gone friend, whose mind had been as a locked box to him, these past eighteen months. Centuries, more like. He stared into the distance, gave a bitter smile and patted Hurion on his back.
‘What do you see?’ the Marshal asked, one final time. For most, it would have been a question, but for them, it was a game, a trick of the light that would as soon reveal death and betrayal, monsters hiding in the dark, as well as the possibility of treasure. For them, the light of the breaking dawn had always constituted an ending, as well as a lifeline.
‘Death,’ Hurion replied dryly and without looking at his long-ago mentor, even though a part of him would have liked to. Oh and how, just a glance in his direction, a wavering moment to check, reassure himself he was walking the path of the just, make sure he hadn’t somehow misunderstood this whole thing. Perhaps he would have liked to ask him, one more time, if he was sure of this, if there was no other way, but Hurion knew he could not make that gesture, for that is not what men do. Men suffer. Men fight. Men carry the burden, even when it’s on the point of crushing their souls.
He could have lied, but what would have been the point? He was fairly certain it was not his death he was seeing in the moonlight. He was young, he reckoned, he could fight well, he had both agility and skill. And most of all, he had the speed his master lacked, though not his cunning. He would win this battle, he felt almost certain, and still, in his heart, the feeling lingered – the impression of pain, of a lead weight dragging down at his soul. The feeling of, dare one say, grief.
The old man nodded, a barely-there nod, for he could already feel himself fading out of this world. They both knew how the morning would unfold and both young and old knew not to bear grudge. It is just the way of life, as their predecessors had lived and died before them.
‘The garden,’ Hurion said, narrowing his gaze. ‘A sapling in the yard, by the shade of the old, barren oak. It wasn’t there when I was last here, when I last fought in the courtyard.’
This, he said with the faintest trace of regret in his voice, unnoticeable to all but those trained in the art of listening, and the Marshal, alas, was one such man.
Hurion feared, he could tell, but that was a good sign. It meant he was ready. The Marshal nodded and walked away, descending the cold, stone stairs, by now inscribed in his memory.
There would be no parting words between them, no farewells, for that was not the way of men.
‘There is usually a picnic with dancing and singing,’ the Princess laughed, in her voice, only the faintest trace of disappointment, but no one paid any attention to her. The King’s eye was bleary, watching the preparations only in passing, which was the most concentration he could conjure nowadays. For the King had not been well for a very long time. In the care of his trusted ministers and most beloved Queen Mother, he’d allowed himself to subside in front of the mighty disease that harrowed him. An ailment that caused forgetfulness, a dry eye and a feeling of tiredness where there had previously been none. The King, as is the destiny of all monarchs, had weakened and was now relying on the good-will of his daughter and more importantly, on the cunning of his Mother. For the old woman knew that should the crown pass on from her son, her place would also be blown away, as swift as the wind. The girl was young and impetuous and would listen, but only for so long, and then, the Queen Mother would be left alone, to fend for herself in the face of the coming beasts.
In his high chair, the King slumbered. To his left, the little girl that was little no longer wriggled her toes in anticipation and watched with pleasure and the slightest hint of lust as the two men approached one another in the arena. Young and old. The young man, Hurion, she thought he was called, was hers. Or would be, soon enough. She would have liked him to, for he was the only one, in the whole kingdom, who would understand her. To kill your elders, to scale up, in order to fill the shoes of mighty men – an honor, but most of all, a curse. By default, the little queen-to-be rooted for the young, charismatic fighter, with the large scar running down his left cheek. Hurion was by no means handsome, but there was a certain likableness to him, a gift that had seen him out of more than one unpleasant situation.
The Queen Mother, in turn, hoped that the old fighter would win, for once, in her own time, she’d dreamt of him, as a young, strong fighter. Back then, the Marshal had not been called that, had borne a name other and a sword, heavy and made of steel, an impressive man that had dazzled both the young princess and her father, enough to earn his keep at the royal court. But now, it seemed, his time had come and the Queen Mother steeled herself for a bitter loss. One must always be prepared to cut loose the losing ends, the disappointments. It is of vital importance that one not linger in ties to the past. It would not do.
In his chair, above all, the king preferred neither of the two fighters. He was thinking, in his mind, of the taste of strawberries, as a boy, in a garden he had not seen since.
Hurion cast only the slightest glance toward the royal stand and noticed the young lady grimace, as if her ear hurt. He wondered, in passing, if their future queen might not be growing deaf. Already? So young? Questions vied for attention in his mind, but only for a second, for in the next, he was already barring the attack, responding, being alive in the only way he knew – by fighting. The man before him, with grayish-white strands in his hair and beard, with eyes that bore a thousand fine lines around them, had taught him everything about the battlefield – he’d told him about reflex, he’d taught him about defense. And now, he would die, at the hand of his own pupil. Somewhere deep down, Hurion felt a gnawing sense of shame. He would have liked to stop, to beg for forgiveness, but there is no time for that on the battlefield. And even though they’d spent the past twenty years together, Hurion well knew it would be either him or the old man lying dead in the dust before the morning was out. There would be no mercy, and thus, you must never show none.
The Marshal himself, surely, was not showing any such weakness. Even in his old age – the man had to be pushing seventy, at least – even knowing he would lose – he had to, the entire crowd seemed well aware of the fact – he still wouldn’t back down, wouldn’t allow young Hurion the slightest moment of respite.
And so, Hurion fought accordingly, not to kill, but rather, to make his old master proud. He wouldn’t want the old man departing this world thinking that Hurion had not been worthy, had been a waste. No, the Marshal would die knowing that the boy he’d picked out from the yard-hands had grown up to be a fine man. He would know that all the years he’d spent training, advising, preparing young Hurion had not been in vain, that the boy would carry his legacy well.
The Marshal put up a brave fight, but a moment of weakness proved the end of him. For the slightest of seconds, his eyes darted toward the old queen, now ancient in her comfortable, pillowed chair, and then, Hurion sank his sword in the tender, stringy flesh, felt the slight resistance and pushed on despite of it. In his own turn, as soon as he saw that his old master was dead, he glanced toward the Princess. The young girl was foolish and temperamental, but a worthy ally. In his heart, Hurion knew that his master would have approved.
He was given one day of rest, precisely twenty-four hours to bask in the praise, during which he did not allow himself as much as a single tear, for crying, also, was a sign of weakness. Besides which, crying had never been his way. He would bury the memory of his old master in the tender soil, beside the sapling, inside the courtyard, but not now. Now, there was the actual funeral to tend to and preside over, stony-eyed and victorious, for none of these men cared about the boy he’d been once, the one who’d cried for his mother in the tender night, the one whose only friends had been the trial wooden sword, and the silver-haired master.
On the day after the funeral, Hurion walked into the courtyard to find a waif-like boy, no more than seven or eight, shivering. Waiting for him.
‘This day, your training begins,’ Hurion said, his voice gruff, his eyes cold.
Based on @mariannewest's 3 weekend prompts. As always, thank you and thank you for reading.