Saturday, August 16, 2014

Chapter 50: His Beloved's Face

     "It is done, Agneta, my love. This long war is finally over, and soon every trace of their heathen religion will be wiped from the land."

     Reinier's hand gently caresses her gravestone, silent, as though he waits for a response. He tries to imagine her voice, the happy lilt she used to have, before. Before the curse on him destroyed her joy, killed the light that emanated from her. After the first miscarriage, she would not give up. She was, in her own way, a fighter, like him, and she would not bow to the curse the demons had laid on his line.

     So they kept trying, pregnancy after pregnancy, each one ending in miscarriage or stillbirth.  With every loss, her determination to try again grew, just as her joy in life diminished, until she had no joy left, only her anger, her pain. Through it all, she had prayed everyday, constantly, that the Watcher show her some mercy, and give her one child.

     Reinier's hand drops from the stone that marks her grave, balling into a fist. The Watcher answered her prayers, and gave her one child. But the curse would not let him go so easily. In exchange for the heir she wanted so badly to bear, it took her life. Reinier's heart turned from the Watcher on that day, for what use is a god that cannot save his most faithful subject? But even as he lost his own faith, his drive to supplant the demonic religion the people here adhered to doubled. For Agneta. For vengeance on the demons who'd cursed him, not caring that the curse meant for him had destroyed an innocent, pure woman. He would put the god his wife had died serving in the place of the Lady, consort of a demon prince, and turn the people away from their heathen superstition to Agneta's faith.

     "I've had word that Church means to canonize me," Reinier tells her, letting his fist unfold and reaching out again for the cold stone that had replaced his Agneta, "St. Reinier the Dragonslayer. I wish you could see the paintings they've made of me, my love," he whispers, his lips turned into a smile of bitterness. She would be proud of his deeds, the way he'd conquered the whole country, built churches and spread the faith. Every church he built was graced with one of his relics, a tooth of the fearsome dragons he'd slain, and each displayed great paintings and tapestries of him, standing astride a fallen dragon, his sword in hand, ready to strike.

     The dragons had made it all so much easier for him, though he is sure that could not have been their intent. If they could even be aid to have intent, Reinier muses, still unsure about his own theories of dragon intelligence. They seemed, at times, to move with purpose beyond that exhibited by lesser animals. But their strategy in this war they waged against him showed a lack of understanding of human politics and allegiances. They could not attack him where he was strong, in the towns he'd fortified with the blue iron that weakens magic. So they attacked the unfortified towns that he had not yet conquered, towns who had been neutral or allied to his enemies. And those towns would invariably turn to him, offering him their fealty if he would just come and save them from the fearsome, firebreathing beasts. So many battles were avoided thanks to the actions of these dragons. And with every dragon he'd killed, his own legend grew, and did his influenhce over the local lords who relied on him.

     Reinier turns as he hears his named called from the path behind him. Reingard, his youngest sister, waves at him once they have his attention, and she and her husband, Gunteras, Agneta's brother, approach. Behind her skirts, Reinier spots the boy, and frowns.

     "Why did you bring him here?" Reinier asks the couple harshly. Gunteras stands quiet, his mouth open, obviously taken aback by the question. Reingard's brow furrows as she frowns at her brother.

     "He's come to pay respect to his mother," she snaps at him, "And to see his father," she adds in a more gentle tone, taking her brother's arm, "He grows more like you everyday," she says with a coaxing smile.

     When he'd given his son to his sister and her husband to foster, he'd told her he couldn't bear watching the boy grow older, seeing Agneta's face in his and being reminded of his loss. Looking at the boy now, seven years old this very week, Reinier sees nothing of his beloved's face. The boy is a complete copy of himself, and that pains him more than any remembrance of Agneta ever could. She gave her life to give Tiedric his, and yet he bears no resemblance to her. She died to give him birth, and she was erased as though she had never been.

     Reingard puts a gentle had on Tiedric's shoulder, urges him forward to greet his father, looking sternly at her brother. "Sire," Tiedric greets his father with a stiff bow, clearly as uncomfortable as Reinier is with this graveside meeting. In this, he had failed Agneta, Reinier knew. He could not bring himself to love the boy who took her from him, even knowing that she would be hurt to know of this distance between her husband and son.

     "Tiedric has begun his sword training," Gunteras attempts to break the awkward silence between father and son, "His sword master says he's exceptionally gifted with the weapon."

     "Your mother would be very proud of you," Reinier says, forcing a tight smile.

     "Thank you, Sire," Tiedric answers, mouthing the rote phrase with no feeling, and fidgeting awkwardly as his glance turns towards his mother's grave behind his father. The mother he never met, Reinier thinks, understanding for the first time the burden his son carries, the guilt his mother's death has laid on him. In that moment, his heart aches for the boy, for the son he cast away, and his hand makes a motion, as though to reach out for Tiedric and embrace him. But then he remembers the curse, and knows that as much as his heart aches, the boy is better off without his father, and Reinier's hand instead reaches for his brother-in-law, gesturing for him to follow as he steps away from his sister and his son. "Gunteras, I would speak with you of the next, and final, battle in this war."

    Reingard's disapproval is evident on her face, as in Gunteras' confusion, but both know better than to speak a word of objection. Gunteras follows Reinier as is his duty, and Reingard gently leads Tiedric to Agneta's grave, where he may confer with his other parent of cold stone.

     "Is there to be another battle, then?" Gunteras asks. He had believed that with the surrender of the Penguillies came the end of the war.

   "It is my hope that there will not," Reinier answers, "But it is a slim hope. Avendale has agreed to come to me and swear fealty, but the conditions I lay upon that fealty might be more than he can swallow."

     "Avendale?" Gunteras gasps in a near laugh, "Surely a village so small cannot put up any resistance? What could you possibly ask of him that he will not capitulate to? What could you even want of such an insignificant village?"

    "They are small, yes, but not insignificant. Avendale is the place their heathen religion holds most sacred. Where the other petty lords have pleaded with me to not burn their groves, they have stopped short of fighting to keep them, because as long as Avendale's still stands, their Lady has a home, and they keep a place for her in their hearts even as they mouth prayers to the Watcher. The priests and priestesses who flee from the Watcher's justice take refuge there. If I am to root out this heathen belief, Avendale must destroy their grove, and their high priestess must publicly recant, and set her sacred trees to the flame herself."

     "And you anticipate resistance in this?"

     Reinier closes his eyes and lets out an unconscious sigh, "Sterren Avendale will not do this willingly. I'm hoping the threat to her entire village will force her hand, but I know well, hers is a hand that is not easily forced. Her cousin will bend his knee to save his people, but Sterren..." He has not spoken her name in years, for who would he speak to of her? But he has thought of her often, wondered about the child she bore him, and whether they were spared from his curse. Late at night, when dark dreams keep him from restful sleep, his mind turns to happier memories of the love they shared, once, long ago, and his sorrow drives him to tears. Tears that no man must see him shed for a love none may know of.

     "Well, if she does not, they have hardly got the forces to stop us," Gunteras shrugs, "This war is won no matter what this priestess does."

     "It is," Reinier agrees, "But it would mean much to have the Avendale witch recant publicly and set the last of their groves ablaze. But even if she will not, I will see it done."