Besieged by Regret
Dust hangs heavy in the dry, hot summer air. Motes of it dance in sunlight which streams through cracks in the armory roof. Before me, a dwarf in a heavy leather apron, marred by little burn marks characteristic of smith's apparel, tries to explain about the crossbows. "Any apprentice can make three decent cords in a day. Problem is, we sent most of them off with the others as can't fight."
"So we won't be able to span many of these bows?" I'm only asking to take my mind from the sense of dread. The king assigned me this duty just this last winter, and already I'm failing him. the dwarf just looks at me like I'm an idiot. "How did everything get this bad?"
"Your responsibility since you took over."
"That was just a week ago."
With the urgency of time pressing down on me, I shudder at the thought of what is certain to happen. I need to have Grace, but she's checking the walls for anything I missed- any weakness which is apparent to a more experienced eye than mine. I have fought repeatedly since I turned fourteen, but never commanded a garrison. Doubt gnaws at me. Any flaw in the defenses could be fatal with what I know is coming.
I head out into the harsh sunlight. Sweat forms on my brow. It drenches my gambeson. I look along the lines of the shanty town which grew down there, in the shadow of the citadel, wondering how many of the people I drove from there in anticipation of this horror will survive and how many will die because their livelihood was destroyed? The time before your first battle is horrible, imagining what you might endure. Before your second battle is far worse, for you know the horrors of earlier ones. You recall all the men you slew, all the wounds you took or inflicted, all the things you saw and cannot forget. Even now, I have men going door to door, puling down the flimsy structures so the wood can be added to our stores for fuel. A cloud of dust pops up where a building suddenly collapses, its thatch roof sending hay along with fine dirt into the air. So much waste, and for what? Just pride in the end, nothing more.
I walk a slow circuit of the walls and look at the barren countryside, left worthless during the endless wars fought through this stretch of contested earth. Bones from a hundred battles clog the ground, making it capable of supporting only weeds. Goats can survive on the forage but little else. I hear familiar footsteps behind me, the tread of Grace's boots on the stone of the battlements.
I turn to see her approaching, in a simple tunic and breeches rather than full armor she so frequently dons. Her rich brown eyes dance in the light and her honey skin glows, but a frown line mars her visage and she drags someone behind. Someone small, and lithe and hiding from me. My heart sinks. Of all those I wish spared, little Kerel, my son, tops the list.
Barely nine, he was born three days after the solstice, which is not yet a month past. Product of my love for Grace, he is my future, my hope, my sustenance when all else seems pointless. And now he is here, in range of all the evil which approaches. I fight the tears which threaten to spill. I want my final memories of Kerel to be happy, not marred by my fears.
He looks at me, happy, defiant. His tousled sandy hair sets off the hazel eyes, mix of my green and Grace's brown, which light with the fiery passion of youth. "I hid when everyone left. they found me only when they started pulling down the town."
"I sent you away for your safety," I tell him. I no longer have to kneel to be on a level with him, just bend a bit- a smaller bit each passing year. He has grown since his birthday, and the fact fills me with pride and joy. But his presence does not.
Grace places a restraining hand on my shoulder. "They are not such barbarians they will harm children."
"Children get caught between blows," I begin. The waiting has left me on edge, short tempered. "And they are just that ruthless. Kerel will be a target because he is my child."
"Our child," Grace chides me. Words fail. I cannot respond as tears again threaten to overwhelm my composure. I grip them both in a close hug.
Naturally Kerel objects. He wriggles free. "Father, I am no longer a boy."
I stand straight. At twenty-five, I am in my prime. His mother is a bare three years my senior and also in fighting trim. I let him gaze at me, our interaction momentarily numbing me to the terror which looms just over the horizon.
"Tell me that again, when you are a man's size."
He screws up his face, ready to argue until the sun sets. Grace claps a hand on the back of his neck. "Kerel, don't argue with your father. He has a great deal on his mind. Go play now."
He starts to run off, but instead falls in behind us. I head to the main stable, ready for a ride to relieve my tension. We reach the main courtyard and begin to cross, but a heavy coach rolls in through the open gate, interrupting us. Six men-at arms ride powerful coursers in escort. I recognize the piebald one as belonging to my old nemesis, Sir Reginald of Torkken. He leaps to the ground and holds the door as three people emerge. The Duke and Duchess of Brecon, along with their marriageable daughter. A fourth person, a priestess of Vorel, goddess of weddings exits just behind them.
My breath comes short. I have nowhere to run. My future mother-in-law sneers. "I see you have your whore and bastard here. Such an insult cannot stand."
My doom has arrived and I fear it will claim all I love.