(Short story for the theme “Loss”)
Dusk hung over the grim Northumbrian field, veiling, but not obliterating the sights that swam before Edwin’s eyes. Shield and banner, once glorious in their pomp, now lay in jumbled heaps amidst torn limbs and lifeless forms, contorted, muddy, and everywhere was the stain of blood. He leant on the shaft of his sword to steady himself, red streaking the fair hair and face in lurid patterns of death, his lean form panting hard. It was over. They had won! He was alive and relatively unscathed, but inside dwelt a sickening emptiness.
Senses reeling he staggered forward, blue eyes shot with scarlet, searching among the heaving bodies for what he could not find, the living body of his brother. He had seen him go down in the first charge, like a bird pinioned in flight, the bright eye shocked, unbelieving. Wulfric had thought himself unconquerable, now somewhere on the bloodied field he lay food for carrion.
Dead? Probably… The horses would have performed that had the arrow not. The flight of the songbird had ended forever. No more would they laugh and carouse together, the gay voice and nimble fingers beguiling away the shadows that beset him. No more would he know the claims of kinship …
Voices were raised shouting the victory! A strong, eager arm clapped across his shoulder, but his heart was empty. He was alone now, hero of the hour, but alone, the last of his line. He dare not show his pain, morale is a fragile thing. Too many had died. He must raise his arm and shout with them, regale his men with cries of victory…
It was some time later they brought the body wrapped in a concealing cloak, but it could not mask the crimson seeping through the folds. He felt sick to his stomach but he must face this, he could not run from his grief as others. He must play his part as ever and play it well. Clenching his jaw he pulled back the corner of the cloth. He had expected it, but it was none the less overpowering. The face, once fair and fine, had become a mangled mess of blood and bone; the sandy hair sullied and smeared red with carnage. It was ever so in battle, he had seen it before, but not his brother. He replaced the cloth, nodding to the men to take the body thence.
Now he must feast, and celebrate. He must show himself strong while inside he fought with his own inadequacy. Why had he not been closer? Why had he allowed him to come at all? He knew the answer. He could no longer spare him while others died, others brothers, sons, and husbands. Only sixteen summers Wulfric had seen, many had died younger running to embrace their fate, eager for the fray only to find the truth –death lurked for all.
He swilled the wine around his cup, partaking sparingly, afraid to indulge lest hard held emotions betrayed him. He must face it like a man come what may. The promised match would now materialize. The land stood secure, secure with but one heir, one arrow left in the bow. Any family now must be of his own making. He would take the girl and with her the lands. He would sire offspring, other sandy haired boys, but for what he wondered dully, to end as his brother? No! He would secure peace. Somehow he must secure a lasting peace. The marriage would help. He would seek judicious men to advise him. Their position was strong now; peace could be achieved, peace but without Wulfric.
The proffered bride was attractive (more than he had hoped for). Edwin looked across at her lightly veiled face, her lithe curvaceous figure. He was lucky he thought glumly, securing his line would not be arduous with such a creature. She smiled shyly beneath the covering.
“Why should she not,” he thought, “he was the victor, possessor of vast territories, soon her own also.” He nodded acknowledging the smile. She’d be willing enough. He was himself still pleasing to the eye, young, strong, with his brother’s fair features marred only by a scar on his forehead not yet fully healed from his last foray. He had what he wanted, but at a price, and that price ate away at him inwardly where none could see.
Edwin knelt on the sodden turf, the clean white stone masking the horror that lay somewhere beneath his knees. He felt the guilt, the blood on his hands, blood, not just of Wulfric but of so many others. A sense of loss assailed him.
“War had been thrust upon him,” he reasoned. It had been part of his life since ever he could remember, the biers, the carts carrying the wounded. It seemed every spring there was fighting of one sort or another and every winter they nursed their wounds, physical and otherwise.
He’d learnt young. He had to! It was said there had been no peace here since the iron heel of Rome had withdrawn leaving its in print on the land, a shadow of past dreams. His fathers had come in search of rich, fertile acreage. They took it by the sword and still paid the price in blood, striving for supremacy in a deadly game of death. Just intentions were not enough, he must show himself strong or all would crumble to ashes, have been for nothing… Now he had opportunity, peace might blossom once more on these ravaged lands. He must make it so! He must set aside his inward wounds, staunch the bleeding of his heart and begin to build as he had before, but this time on a better foundation…
It had been six months now, lonely, empty months consolidating their gains, endlessly traveling too and fro, appointing men he could trust, seeking out troublemakers and disposing of them in grim executions he told himself were necessary – a weak ruler would soon be no ruler! Now he was headed home to see a bride and mother to be with whom he had spent less than a fortnight all told, yet that it seemed had been enough, God willing, to secure an heir. Back to a woman he scarcely knew and a household he had neglected. Yet peace there was and tiny buddings of prosperity to come. Spring was in the air, the cold gloom of winter meeting its death in gleams of the returning sun. Yet in his heart there could be no spring, winter reigned established forever in his emptiness.
There had been those who tried to ease his pain along the way. The woman he took to his bed then found excuses to bring along. She knew him, as women of her breed know a man well. She sensed the inner hurt and turmoil, but was unable to quench the fire of his grief, though in her arms he found some respite. He had had to leave her behind, one more offering on the altar of peace to maintain his façade with his new wife. It was not that he was unhappy with his spouse; she was just too young, too cloistered to understand.
They passed a scattering of hovels beside the road. A girl looked up as their procession rode by spluttering mud. He had seen her somewhere before. Her look turned to confusion as their eyes met. She hesitated a moment then dashed forward weaving haphazardly between the horses to grasp his stirrup, eyes scared, fingers clutching .
“Be careful girl!” he yelled. “You’ll get yourself killed!”
“My Lord! My Lord!” she cried. “I must speak with you! Please, I must speak with you!” One of his guards was already pulling the girl away. He tapped heels to his mount to continue when her words stopped him in his tracks.
“It concerns your brother Wulfric, my Lord. “ He turned to face her, eyes gleaming, twin fires ignited by the passion below. Fixed with his gaze she trembled before him.
“Tell me!” he commanded.
“Lord, I cannot … It is a private matter…” The girl was terrified, the smudged dirty face and tangled hair adding to her look of wretched degradation. He had seen many such, their families scraping a living from neglected fields, women taking the place of their men folk rendered dead or useless by the ceaseless fighting that consumed all before it. His demeanor softened.
“Bring her along!” he ordered. “But for your own sake I warn you,” he continued to the wretch, “it better be worthy of my attention.” The soldier swung her up behind him and they continued on.
Reaching the gate he reined in his mount. Curiosity consumed him concerning the girl. Probably an unpaid strumpet of Wulfric’s he reasoned – it happened. He had been young and not always wise in his choice of women, though this one seemed to have little enough to recommend her. He’d give a few coins for his memories sake and be free of her…
His wife came running down the tower steps her belly swollen with child. He greeted her with a false smile and took her arm. The wench would have to wait a while.
“Take her to the kitchen and give her some food,” he called to the soldier accompanying the girl.
It was a full hour later when, changed and finally quit of his adoring bride, he made his way to the small room where the girl had been taken. He saw her leaning against the wooden beams as he entered, her face emancipated, eyes red as if she had been crying. She started at his entrance.
“So woman, here I am. What is it so important you dare run the gauntlet of my horses?”
“Sire …” she whispered eyes glued to the rushes that carpeted the floor at her feet. “Sire, it’s…”
“Out with it girl! I don’t have all day. You said it concerned my brother Wulfric. Does he owe you money? Is that it?”
The girl looked up in surprise, eyes open, mouth agape.
“No my Lord. Never that! He was always good to her.”
Edwin paused. “Good to whom?”
The voice was quiet as her eyes once more clung to the rushes, “my sister… he’d bring food and coin, but … there were so many in need … and now he’s gone and the child is born I fear for her…” The eyes glanced upward to meet his gaze, tears brimming within.
“Child? …” The word hung on the air. Edwin scarce dared breathe it forth. “Your sister bore Wulfric a child?” The smudged face nodded.
“When did this happen?”
“About a month since. A fine baby boy sire, but a mite small seeing she’s had little enough to feed him since the money ran out. My father won’t have her back in his house, calls her a whore! But she’s no whore. She’s never been with anyone else. I take her food when I can but there’s little enough to spare…” Edwin stood silent. Was she telling the truth? Or if so what guarantee was there that the child was Wulfric’s?
“Where bides she now?”
“Not a league from here my Lord.”
“Very well, if what you say is true I shall go look at this child and if it indeed be his…” his voice faded.
Soon they were cantering down the path from which he had so recently come, a handful of men at his back and the girl once more riding pillion. They stopped outside a small hut of wattle and dub. Edwin braced himself as he entered. The smell of the place was overwhelming. A small, emancipated woman lay on a mattress of straw; a ragged quit covering her shoulders. From beneath the covers a faint whimpering sounded. The babe was hungry. Eyes looked up squinting at the bright light streaming through the doorway, her hands clutching the quilt as if in some way it could make her invisible. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom he recognized her as one of the kitchen maids. He knew his brother had from time to time indulged his youthful lusts in such quarters, but to father a child, and take care of the mother thus seemed unlike his wild and irresponsible sibling.
“Show me the babe,” he whispered, his tone calming the girl. Frail hands pulled back the cover to show tiny fingers, large luminous eyes and a small triangular mouth quivering in search of sustenance. He gazed in wonder, there could be no doubt, the cherub face, patches of soft sandy down that lined the crown, the eyes, there was no mistaking the eyes. It was like seeing the ghost of Wulfric reflected there. The tiny face reddened, the cupid mouth opened in an unexpected roar. The girl hugged him close to her chest.
“He’s hungry,” she explained. “I don’t have enough milk for him…”
Edwin reached down and picked up the squawking bundle. Looking into the child’s streaming eyes he smiled, the first true smile since that awful day.
“Don’t worry we’ll get him a wet nurse.” It was a bastard but it was his blood, his brother’s blood. In his illicit wonderings his brother had left him a consolation. Wulfric lived on in this tiny fragile vessel. He would guard it, feed and protect it, gently blow on the flame of hope till it rekindled. The songbird might once more fly and he, the eagle, might find rest for his soul.
“Come,” he said quietly, “I’ll care for you now as he would have done had he lived. You can return to your old work when you are recovered and the child shall live with me. Bastard though he be, he is all that remains of my brother and as such he is precious to me.”
It seemed the spring sunshine found its way within at last; the snow began to melt in his heart. Though the scars of loss would ever remain the pain was gone. Soon, if his luck held, there would be boys in the hall once more. He had brought peace, not for Wulfric perhaps, but for his son and for those other sons yet to come forth.