a ghost story of sorts
|To my love, Therese, Lady of Karadain, greetings,
I fear, my love, that I must needs leave thee, and so I write an epistle to tell thee of my plight and my gratitude to thee, for in thee I have found peace.
’Twas a bleak December evening a thousand and one years ago, and I would fain inform thee, my love, that naught of what I etch for thee with quill on parchment could ever match the stark chill of that day as twilight sped towards night while I waded through white snow, alone in the bitter cold. Yet at the end of that long walk I came to find thee, my love, which makes it worth the while.
And how, dost thou ask, came I into this pass, without friend to walk through so drear a vista? Therein lies the tale that I must tell thee. I pray thee forgive the shakiness of my hand, for I was ever as a child slow to form my letters, and in this pass, when I before the winter sun shines forth above the hills must end my tale, my pen flies far faster than my meager skill. For at tomorrow’s dawn I must leave thee and, my dearest love, thou wilt see my face no more.
I was born in the seventh year of the reign of our King Alfric, to a noble man who taught me well in the arts of knighthood, though I never loved them for I was but a slight lad, not built for the rigors of combat. His wife, my mother, being wise in the art of healing, gave me my letters and training in the arts of healing and of herbs, but of this as well I was not enamored, for in my heart I could hear songs that needed to be shared, and all my love was reserved for that art.
When I was yet a lad of ten years, my elder sister Alys nearing fifteen years of age, she was married to the eldest son of our King Alfric, to whom she had been betrothed since she was but a babe in arms. And on the occasion of her wedding, the King’s bard came to favor us with song. Although I had heard minstrels aplenty, I had never before heard the melody played by a true musician with Power behind the tune. As I heard, I marveled, and sought him out to play the music of my heart so that before the wedding feast was over, I had spoken to him and I was apprentice to a bard.
Though that road is hard, being twenty-one years from the time one is accepted as apprentice until with ceremony one’s name is added to the list kept at Kergwydion, I never sought to find a smoother course. Indeed, I love the music, as thou know, my love, from the ever-changing melody I have played for thee from the time thou didst come into this place. Now that I must bid thee farewell, I wish that I could have played for thee for the thousand years I have lingered here, and not for just a year and a day.
But time grows short. Thy clock that I see here on the table by the bed where thou art, beautiful in sleep, tell me that I have but a short time until dawn. And I must finish my tale for thee before time takes me from thee forever. Thou art the first woman that I have looked upon with love. I must so tell thee, for the words which I cannot speak have hurt me knowing that there was no true way for thee to know me as a man. I wish that I could talk and reach out my hand but once to touch thy face and to gently whisper “I love thee.” But cruel time and relentless fate have torn us apart without a way to soften love’s cruel sting.
My sister’s prince was crowned King Kedwyn while the blossoms bloomed in the spring in the year that I began my final seven years of training to become a bard. They had but one young daughter, for although my sister had many times born children, only one had ever lived beyond a year. Our mother counseled her to cease her vain attempts to give the king an heir, for another birth would likely prove her death, but my sister loved her husband, and wanted with all of her passion to give him a son. I was aloof from such things, having only ears for music, until six years later, when I was but a year from my master’s trials.
At that time, I received a message from my sister, begging for my presence. I came, for as children we had been close, though we had been apart for a score of years. Alys was radiant with joy and love as I never understood until I met thee. If it would cause thee such joy, I would die for thee anew. And she knew that the child that she new bore would prove her death, but she was determined that she would carry him though it would mean her life, for she could not bear to see Kedwyn unhappy.
My mother too was there, and together we worked trying to save the lives of my sister and her child. The king too was there, sitting with her every day, holding her hand with love in his eyes, and at times becoming angry with her determination to carry the child. He had a brother, Prince Lothian who served in the north, warding the land from the raiders, and would rather that his brother inherit than to lose his beloved wife, yet my sister remained adamant. The little princess now a lass of ten stayed ever with her mother, for she knew with a child’s wisdom that something was wrong.
’Twas early in December, and the frost formed inside the room where my sister lay in agony, bleeding with the pains of bringing her babe into the world. I could do nothing but play for her, and strive with my meager Power to hold her to life, for I know but little of the arts of midwifery, but our mother worked ceaselessly while the king sat at her side and yelled at all of us. I could feel her working, and the babe in her womb struggling to get out, but it was not to be. My sister grew weaker and weaker, and at length she passed beyond this life with her husband’s name on her lips. My mother pushed aside the grieving king, through her own tears cut the child out that he might live, for it was a boy, a prince, just as my sister had desired.
Yet in the very hour when the King announced the death of the queen and the birth of a prince, disaster struck. Raiders from the north swept into the kingdom, burning towns and carrying away our people into the north. No one knew what had happened to the armies that were under Lothian’s command, but it was feared that they were lost. The king rode forth, leaving son and daughter in the protection of my mother and I while he went to war.
Time is pressing. I have but an hour to tell thee my tale. I would that I could spend more time regarding thee, memorizing thy features so that I can remember thee as I leave for my final home. Thou art so brave my love. I am humbled that thou didst remain here in this place, when with all the Power of my curse I was forced to bid you leave me alone once more. Know you this, now that I must leave, that only thy person, the way thine eyes smile as thou wouldst harken unto the music of my heart, the way thou wouldst talk to me of the arcane doings of thy time, thy beauty, thy gentleness, the love thou hast for this land and mine abode, all of these things together create thee, the only one I could ever love. Would that fate could have let us find each other when I could have felt the touch of thy hand. If only I could be free to stay with thee. The parchment grows blurred for mine eyes are wet with tears, as I remember how I must leave thee and go on alone, and all because I was tricked to betray my king.
For as we carried the young prince and princess to my father’s fortress, we were seized by men and held fast, and to our horror my mother and I found that it was the brother of our king who had led the raiders into our fair land, and now held us fast. How cold it was in the castle tower where my mother and I were placed with Alys’ children, while the king fought his foes. Desperately, we sought a way to free ourselves and save the king, for Prince Lothian, sought his death, then to serve as regent to the little prince and so to cloak usurpation with legality.
’Twas my plan that we followed to my shame, for all that followed lies on my head. We knew that the king must be warned, both of where his children were and of his brother’s treachery, but our own lives also were forfeit once our care of the children could move to one that Lothian trusted.
It was a plan marvelous in its simplicity. I climbed down the tower wall, tearing my hands on the rough hewn stones. And then I walked to where the king’s camp lay with the December winds knifing through my clothes. In the twilight, the snow glowed with a fell light and I felt that I would fain return to and walk through the bleak December evening. There was no snow falling to add to the mantle of snow and ice beneath my feet. Mayhap it would have been better had there been, for the air had no clouds to blanket in its warmth. And still I walked, until finally, hands frozen and feet red and raw, I came to the king’s camp. I marveled. Surely he was camped afar off, and yet I had only walked through the night and now ’twas dawn. Kedwyn greeted me at the entrance of the camp.
He called me brother and greeted me warmly, seating me by the fire, and telling me that he knew of Lothian’s treachery. Then, oh how my mind shudders at the thought, the treachery was complete, for he hurried to the castle where his children were held and left me at the fire, soaking up the warmth, and in my heart there sounded the song of the rescue.
But nay. In scarce two hours the king returned with madness in his face. For a sentry had spied me, sneaking down the castle wall, and oh hate me not, my love, Lothian had in his madness killed the king’s fair children and my mother as well, and then ambushed my king as he rode to their rescue. Had I waited but a day, but no, in my pride I had betrayed my king, and the princess and the prince that Alys had died for were dead.
This did the king tell me, and then with sword at my throat cursed me to linger in the place where they had died, as punishment for my treachery and treason. ’Twas a bleak December day as I was marched back to the castle I had fled only hours before, bleak and cold as the winter day descended from twilight into dark as I walked to the castle door, up to the tower. I watched the window being bricked up and the door welded into place.
I lingered in that prison full ten years, with only my harp and my flute for company and a voiceless hand that pushed food through the door at twilight. In time my hands healed, and I would play my sorrow. For a thousand years I played my sorrow, bitter in my grief with the chill of December forever in my heart, until thee.
For many came to try to live in my cold prison, and never did they open the tower where I dwell or seek to know my story until thee. I saw thy coming to break down the door and open the window so that for the first time in a thousand years I saw the sun. Thine eyes are like unto my king’s piercing through my soul, and at first I sought to drive thee off, but thine ardor for this castle would not so be halted.
Thou madst my tower thy bedroom, and listened to my songs as I sang out my heart. I tried fought thee, for I know I am unworthy of thy love, but with all that I am or could be, I am thine. The night past, as I watched thee sleep, and imagined that I could but touch thy head to stroke thy hair, I saw my sister standing with her prince and they smiled at me and told me that the curse was up and at tomorrow’s dawn I will leave this tower prison.
My king has forgiven me, my love, and given me leave to write thee and bid thee farewell. I rejoice, for I wish to serve him again, though my name never be listed in Kergwydion as a bard. I sorrow leaving thee, for I truly love thee, though we may never touch and thou knowst me only as the face behind thine in thy mirror and the melody that haunts thy sleep.
Fare thee well. Dawn approaches and I leave thee forever. Know thou that thou hast my love now and forevermore,
Adain of Birkenholme
writing this final day of December at Keradain