Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Empty Nester/Retirement (from work) (09/10/09)
TITLE: On the Eve of Combat
By Diana Smith
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Unusually, Lady Branwen had dismissed the servants and was serving the midday meal. Through steaming venison and chunks of warm bread her knightly husband kept his head down, avoiding her gaze. Perhaps anxieties over tomorrow’s events were distracting him. More likely he would have been comfortable with Lady Branwen at the other end of the enormous table, empty space between them. Missing in the hall was the boisterous presence of their younger sons.
“Where are Erec and Hector?” Branwen’s eyes met her husband’s questioning glance. She had not expected her younger sons at this particular family meal; they were likely in the village offering their own farewells. A mother’s embrace and prayers would be obtained just before their horses bolted away.
“With friends I assume, burning with flames of excitement to follow you into battle.” It was a slit of an opening and in desperation she shoved through.
Sir Caradoc stilled a moment and then straightened with a resigned sigh. “Out with it woman. You are nipping at my heels as a mastiff would, now sink your teeth.” The man was finished with avoidance; frontal engagement was required.
With barely an intake of breath, Lady Branwen voiced the question lodged in her throat. “Must you go? I do not doubt your prowess or your ability to lead, but nothing good will come of this.” It was a well practiced discussion.
“Would you have me break my oath of allegiance to the king? Would you have me spit in the face of a man who has kept peace here for a generation? Our own family has flourished under him, and now that he is threatened, you would have me cower and hide. Never.” This was spoken softly, despite the statement’s strength and directness. It was not in him to shirk knightly duties, despite a current lack of taste for them. The King needed support from all nobles in the face of this threat.
“Your children…” She began to entreat, but was cut off with that same soft voice.
“You cannot deny that Hector and Erec are of age. Better to leave one here as guard, but the force against the King is growing and young blood is necessary. So they come. Elders from the village will be armed and stationed here; that shall have to suffice.” He was dancing around the true issue, and knew it.
Abruptly she rose and strode over, falling on her knees before him. “Truly, I am not worried for myself, but for my family.” Her green eyes begged for understanding. “For my husband.” His lap gently cradled her head, his aged hand caressing it.
Their eyes locked once more - hers pleading and passionate, his sorrowful yet unrepentant. “Our children Caradoc - your sons. I am confident your arm will shelter the two that fight beside you. It is the son across the field that tears my heart to pieces. What if you face him? What if his brothers come upon him? Will you forgive yourself if your sword deals his fatal blow? Will I?”
Silence blanketed the room, her sobs stifled in his clothing, his breath shallow.
In his youth he had faced many enemies, battling with the young monarch to secure the crown. Since then he had retired from warfare and grown content to manage his home, take his place in government and raise their three boys. Caradoc had watched his eldest son reign victorious in tournament after tournament, a naturally skilled warrior. Not for a moment had he ever suspected that prized son would join a treacherous group against the king. Now his own flesh was the enemy.
The old knight sat with earthly riches surrounding him, his servants even now preparing armour for battle. Caradoc’s younger sons doused themselves in the village, arrogantly scorning the coming danger while their mother cried in his lap, her well founded fears unavoidable. Across the restless countryside, the King waited for Sir Caradoc’s sword to join the fight. The fact that Caradoc’s heir stood against them was painful, yet also inescapable. Allegiances screamed louder than the heart.
“Must you?” She whispered. “Must he?”
“What is left of my heart I leave here, for I cannot face my son with a father’s love. Cherish it. And pray, pray for us all.”
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