The Sharp Edge of a Sword
Therns heavy armor clanged dully as he clomped across the death chamber. The room smelled sour, musty and old, and nothing like the death he had witnessed so often on the battlefield. A single lantern flickered in the corner, sending dancing shadows sliding about the room, like death itself reaching into this world and held back by nothing more than lantern light.
He reached his father and looked down upon where he lay stretched out on the bed. Once so vibrant and hale, time and illness had stolen much from him, leaving him a wasted shell. Between his high forehead and sunken cheeks he looked nothing like the king that had commanded he lead the armies north. Now, he looked as if he could barely hold a sword.
You have returned.
Thern spun and saw his mother sitting alongside the bed. Walnut hair splashed down her back with dark ribbons of mourning woven throughout. She looked little different than last he saw her two years ago, older perhaps, but otherwise the same.
The army returns, he answered. Had she thought he simply abandoned his duty? Even knowing that his father was dying, he pressed forward, urging the army onward in the last conquest of the dying king. The Kelts defeated.
Their king? his mother asked.
Thern narrowed his eyes. Almost more so than his father, his mother desired power. The attack on Keltland had been her idea. His father had been content to remain allies. Slain. We rule in Rvenk now.
Then why did you return? She stood. Her burgundy dress, the color of her house, splayed across the floor. To Thern, it reminded him too much of the blood stains he had seen upon the dry battlefields outside Rvenk.
I did not shirk my duty. Evand remained in Rvenk and rules in my stead. I simply returned to pay my respects. Then I will return to Rvenk. Both knew that securing Rvenk opened all of Keltland. With the king dead, there would never be a better opportunity to move.
She leaned toward the king and touched a hand to an arm that was more bone than flesh, with skin that looked like yellowed parchment. The king did not stir at the touch, lying motionless. Even his breathing was shallow. He is not dead, she said.
Thern took a step forward, fixing the helm he carried under his arm to reach toward her before catching himself. Mother.
She did not look up as her eyes moistened. In spite of the arrangement that joined their houses, they had found real love. The healers say that his heart remains strong.
Mother, Thern repeated.
They cannot tell me if he will recover. I have been praying to God that he might
Mother! he said, more forcefully. This is not my father. He would not want this. Father would rather die in battle by the sharp edge of a sword than linger in his sickbed.
Do not speak of what he would want! she said, looking up at him.
Thern met her eyes before finally lowering them. Though he had battled the Keltsslain King Essin himselfhe could not withstand his mothers wrath. Where is Teland? he asked. He looked around the rest of the bedchamber, eyes skimming over the small table with countless vials lying atop. Tricks of the healers and all useless
His mother turned away and looked back down upon the king. He has been sent to Nelsar.
He is not here? Not within the palace? Thern asked. His brother was next in line to the throne. With their father in such condition, he expected Teland to be ruling, not halfway across the kingdom.
Then who rules?
She looked up again at the question. Your father still rules.
This time, Thern did not look away. What game did his mother play? How much of what she subjected him to was love and how much was her thirst for power? Thern felt ashamed that the question even came to mind, but he knew that once Teland took the throne, she would be pushed aside, no longer holding her title or possessing any authority. As long as his father lived, she ruled.
He looked down to his father and swallowed. The man that he had been was gone, dead long before Thern returned home. For whatever reason, his mother was unwilling to see that.
I should have a moment with him. Alone, he said.
She touched his fathers arm again. You may have a moment. I have to meet with the council.
She turned and strode from the chamber. At the door, a pair of guards opened the door for her and followed her out. Thern waited for the doors to close before turning to his father and taking a seat in the small chair next to the bed.
Thern could almost not stand to look at his father. This was not the man he knew, the king he feared and respected. That man was solid muscle, a renowned swordsman, and exuded authority. Instead, he saw only an old man, frail and thin, no longer the warrior he once was.
I am sorry, father, Thern said. He sat by his fathers side and grieved.
Then he stood and unsheathed his sword and placed the tip on his fathers chest. Only then did his father respond, feebly reaching up to the sword and grasping the edge of the blade with both hands, making no attempt to push it away.
With a soft push, Thern slid the sword home.