Chapter 1 :: The Lamenting Mother

by Tenshi

The day the Cardinal's men came for my father, I was down in the rear courtyard with my brother, looking for empty seed-pods to make into boats. It was a cool fall day, rare even for the highlands where I was born, and the world was like the swan-wing on my mother's favorite brooch, bright and endless. I had just finished training for the morning, and Duane was in a foul mood to have been soundly thrashed by a boy three years his younger who hadn't even gotten his height yet.

Duane was usually in a foul mood. He and father had never gotten along; they were perhaps too much alike, and father's expectations were great for his first born. Duane was not ungifted with a sword, but there was little doubt that I was better, even before I finished first in the boy's events at Apstead Tourney the summer before. Duane had not even placed, and the echoes of the fight he and father had as a result seemed to linger in the stones of the keep for days afterward. When father rode out of the gates that last day, Duane did not stay to watch him go. I might not have either, but that my mother's hand was on my shoulder, and I did not wish to leave her alone there.

I had heard very little of the conflict in the city. I was, therefore, greatly dismayed that my father should be ordered from his home and told to report before the committee of inquisition. I might not have been sure of its actual purpose, but even my ignorance could not keep me from noticing the pall that had fallen on our home. My mother, who I remember as being very beautiful, seemed to age ten years overnight. Her soft skin became like cold wax, and her glossy dark hair threaded with grey. It was as if my father was already dead.

A week after he left I found her in her chambers one afternoon, a small glittering pile of jewels in her lap. There were stamped brass boxes and delicate porcelain jars scattered on the bed next to her, and I called twice before she looked up.

"Mother," I said, "what are you doing?"

She laughed, and held out her hands. "I'm looking at the jewelry your father has given me, would you like to see? Or are you too old to sit with your mother, Grissom?"

I protested that I was not, if only because it was good to see her smiling, and bent over the treasure in her lap. I have seen more wealth since, at times all on one person, at times in my own hands, but to my boy's eyes it was like a king's treasure box, sumptuous and rare. There was the rosary she wore to church, with long beaded chain and silver rood, there was a handful of gold rings, and a number of bracelets and brooches, a tangle of necklaces, and pearl earrings. I watched as she picked up each item in turn, looked at it carefully, and set it aside. Sometimes she would smile, and hold out to me a pearl, or a garnet, or a carved shell, and say, "Your father won me this for placing first in the joust at Fairmond," or "This was a present from my sister the day your brother was born," or "This was my mother's from her wedding trousseau." Sometimes she would not say, merely gazing down at whatever she held, and smile with a kind of sadness. Even during these silences I knew that not a crumb of gold or the meanest glass bead was without a story behind it. At last she had placed everything into the silk handkerchief in her lap, leaving out only her rosary and the band of beaten gold on her wedding finger, which I had never seen her remove. In her small palm lay a gleam of silver, her favorite brooch, the one she used to pin her cloak shut and wore at her throat on feast days.

"This belonged to my great-grandmother," she said at last. I had not known this. I only knew she was fond of birds, and thought that was why she favored the silver brooch. "They were not nobles," she continued, "for it was their son who won a knighthood when he saved the king from a wild boar, and his daughter my mother who married a knight of the Greylands. My great-grandfather was a simple craftsman, and this silver he scraped from the edges of coins and the leavings of his commissioned work for ten years before he had enough to craft into this for my great-grandmother. I had thought one day to give it to my daughter, or if not, to the wife of you or Duane." Her fingers closed for a moment around the brooch, and then she looked at me, her eyes bright as the silver. "Will you keep this for me, Grissom? It is my third most precious jewel."

"Of course, mother." The silver was warm from her hand as she put it into mine. I looked down at it, at the arching swan wings and slender neck. Some strange emotion was registering in me, and I frowned at the bundle of her jewels. "Your third?" I asked, thinking she meant the rosary and wedding band set aside.

She surprised me then, sweeping off her bed and taking me up in her arms, something she had not done since I was old enough to wear a short sword and be addressed as a man and not a boy. She smelled of lilies. "My darling son," she whispered. "You and your brother. You must be brave. Will you be brave for your mother?"

"Of course," I said, agitated that such a thing needed to be asked. I was a St. Just, and the history of my name was a thousand years old. "There's no need to worry, mother. Father will come back."

I knew, the moment I said it, that it was not true. And so did she.

"Forgive me, you are a man, and not a little boy." She let me go, and for the smallest of moments I wanted to contradict her, to be held in her arms and have my hair petted and be told that all would be well. I found a name for the feeling inside me, and it was fear. I was ashamed.

"Go on, now," my mother said. "I mustn't keep you, and I have much to do." I went like a bird fleeing the safety of its cage, flying blind into the open jaws of a wolf.

When I crept into her room later that evening, her jewelry was gone, the brass caskets and sweetwood boxes sitting as empty as vacant tombs.

My father was executed three days later. I was thirteen. The inquisition was just beginning.

It was Duane who at last answered my bewildered questioning. He was always proud of knowing more about the world and the workings of things than I did, perhaps to make up for the fact that I so often bested him in the training ring. Our parents were noted for their generosity, more than willing to pass along coin to those in need, or those with causes. In my childhood it had not been a crime to do so. But when the State and Church went to war against one another, the Cardinal sought to undermine the State by removing as many nobles as it could in ways that could not be construed as acts of war, only of god. The captured followers of Müllenkamp betrayed their benefactors to save their own lives, and in the list of names there was my own, St. Just. My family's entire existence was laid to waste because a handful of miserable heathens hadn't the honor to die in silence, choosing instead to write the death sentence of a man who had done them no more harm than to pass them gold from the generosity of his heart.

Before then I did not know I knew how to hate.

I learned quickly, after that. Fathers died, that was the way of things, and Duane was young but at sixteen, more than old enough to take over the holdings. But we had lost far more than that. Our lands were forfeit to the Cardinal, our family name banished from the records. We had ceased to exist, as if death had come for us but we could not surrender, clinging to some unholy animation.

Of all our belongings we were permitted to keep only the clothes we stood up in. But the inquisitors did not search us, perhaps because of my mother's cold dry eyes or the memory of my father's deeds, and she retained her wedding band and I the swan-brooch on a cord beneath my tunic.

I was afraid to ask what would become of us, but I had not counted on the foresight of she who bore me. Her jewels had been sold, the money sent already for our keeping, where it could not be revoked. We were not to become monks as we feared, for our mother's coin had bought us place in the ranks of the Crimson Knights, to be trained, and to make a place of our own keeping.

"Nobility cannot be bought or sold, and is not a matter of name or blood," she said, at our parting. "It is bound inextricably to one's soul." She kissed us, and then she was gone, to a quiet abbey in the south. I never saw her again.


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