As I mentioned in my last post, this month Epic Fantasy Writer launches as a community blog. To kick off our collaboration, this December you’ll meet some of our contributors through short stories tied to the Christmas season. Here is today’s post, by Byron Gillan.
The Blackwoods were white with snow.
The dull silence of the morning was broken by the faintest whistling wind as it sifted through a labyrinth of pines. The steady breath of air rustled loose small flurries, which drifted slowly down to thicken the white blanket far below. Beric Cohmwell reveled in the momentary beauty of nature; the serenity of its silence. It would not always be this way, he feared.
“Can we stop here for a while? To play?” Beric’s eldest child and only son, Euwin, asked. The young prince had brought his pony up beside his father’s steed. The boy’s sister followed. The children’s faces were rose-colored; their warm breath drifted from their lips to dance on the invisible current of the wind before vanishing.
“Please da’, pretty please?” Fionna, pleaded. The princess cupped her hands together and pushed out her lower lip.
“Alright, but only for a short while,” Beric answered her. “We’re expected back in time for supper. Your mother will have my hide if we’re late.” Euwin and Fionna cheered, and leapt from their ponies to race off into the deep-snow. Almost immediately, a fierce battle erupted as the two exchanged heavy fire with one another, snowballs their weapons of choice.
Beric watched the children frolic, utterly ignorant of the larger world, and the darkness that threatened to consume it. It made him both happy and sad. His children were innocent, but they would not be so forever. Eventually they would learn how the world worked, and they would be broken by it. A sound drew his attention, and Beric turned to see the last member of their party waiting diligently on her own pony.
“May I join them, your grace? If that is alright?” the pony’s rider asked him timidly.
The diminutive girl was of an age with his own children, but where Fionna and Euwin’s skin was light as snow, and their hair red as fire, this child was dark-skinned like the night. Her hair was silver, her eyes gold. Nor did she possess the childlike demeanor of Beric’s children. This one was quiet. She was damaged already. Her youthful innocence belied a past of horrors Beric understood first hand.
“If you would like, you are more than free to. I know they would like the company,” Beric told her, feigning a warm smile to hide his anguish.
“Thank you, your grace,” the girl replied, remembering her formalities. She then climbed down from her mount and strode over to join Euwin and his sister. At first, the other two children seemed unsure of what to do. It was not custom for young Silas to join them in their play. Then, Fionna dipped to the ground and scooped up a fresh handful of snow, and lobbed the grenade, creating a new combatant. Silas shrieked with happiness as she joined in battle with the other children.
Beric remembered the day Silas had first come to join his family, and he knew the facade she wore now would not last long. She was of another people, another race, and they named themselves enemy of the Commigial. His people. Silas was a prisoner of war, but she was also a child. She was not guilty of the crimes of others, and yet Beric’s own people would see her punished all the same. Beric watched the prisoner play with his children, and he wondered what madness might inspire someone to ever harm a child. For any reason.
The majority of his own commanders and lords, nobles and advisors, saw her as nothing more than a prize of war. An object they could use for their own ends. She was the daughter of their greatest enemy. The princess of the Men’kai. For her, her father would sacrifice anything. Beric had already received letters implying as much, written by the hand of Ju’kall himself. The girl’s father wanted her back, safe and sound, and his words implied there was no price he would not pay.
Some counseled he should send Ju’kall his daughter’s head. Repayment for all the atrocities her kind had committed against the Commigial. Others thought differently. They saw her as a means of pacifying the Men’kai for good. As long as the child remained a prisoner within their lands, her father could not act. He would be forced to surrender everything, to keep her safe. They were both lovely choices. Murdering a child, or else locking her away as a prisoner of war for the remainder of her long life.
The Winter Solstice was almost upon the world. The grandest festival his kingdom would entertain until the spring-thaw. It was a time when past grievances were supposed to be cast aside. Where good will and compassion were to be extended to all. Where love and friendship were gifts given, without cost, to your fellow man. That last part made him pause.
Your fellow man.
It did not distinguish based on ideology, race, or religion. It did not imply a barrier of any kind. Barriers built from a foundation of petty terms coined by men who would never be capable of sight beyond the shallow vision of their own misconceptions. The good will of the feast days was all-encompassing in its sincerity, its inclusion. The Commigial believed that the Winter Solstice was a means of escaping the horrors and the darkness winter brought. It was a way to sooth old wounds, and to move forward in solidarity with those around you. Hoping together for a better future.
The feast tonight was in celebration of that belief. It was when all the local lords and nobles of Beric’s court would gather beneath his roof to share in joy and food and revelries together. It was also when they would decide of the girl. Their prisoner. He could think of no darker a thought. Beric knew what his people wanted from him, though he was loath to even consider it. He wondered if any of them understood the hypocrisy of their own desires. The insanity of their plans. He supposed not, else they would never have suggested it. His people had become twisted versions of themselves, their innocence and their better natures lost to the past-horrors of war and misery. Beric remembered his own horrors, all-too-well.
They had driven him to spare the life of this child, the girl who now ran and played with his own children as if all the terrible events that had led her to this point had never occurred. He’d had killed for her, to protect her. Perhaps it had been to protect himself. There was only so much evil the soul could endure, and Beric had reached that point a long time ago. Sparing the girl’s life had been as much a means of salvaging what little was left of himself as it had been an act to save her.
He was reminded of a story his father had told him once. King William had been a far different man than Beric, always filled by a burning desire to fight. Perhaps that was why the late king, his father, was remembered so fondly by his people in a way Beric understood they would never feel for him. It had been late into the winter months, when King William had brought a far younger version of himself to look upon the tombs of their forbearers. It had been an especially cold and harsh winter, not unlike the one that gripped the Blackwoods now.
“The dead of our line all lie here,” Beric’s father had said as they stood side-by-side, overlooking the white-shrouded mounds that stood over the tombs deep below. “This is where we will both come to sleep, when our time arrives.”
“Do you have to go?” Beric remembered asking then. The Men’kai were retreating; falling back across the Trent to seek the safety of their own lands. His father had defeated the last of their armies, crushing them in battle on the fields of Duren.
“Yes,” William had answered. “They are our enemy, and there can’t be peace until their kind are wiped from this earth.” Beric had been young then, too young to understand the way of the world, or at least, too young to see it in the way his father had.
“But why can’t they just go away? Why can’t we just leave each other alone?” It had been a naive thing to ask, and his father had not taken well to his questioning. The king had turned and slapped him across the face with all his strength, sending Beric staggering into the snow.
“You’re old enough to know how stupid that was,” King William had told him, as he’d stood over Beric, his eyes aflame. “Get up.” Beric had obeyed, and when he’d risen, his father had struck him again. “The Men’kai understand only one thing. Power. Get up.” Beric obeyed, and yet again he was hit.
“Stop…please,” he remembered crying as he’d wiped away the blood trailing from his cracked and bleeding mouth. His father hadn’t stopped. King William had continued to beat him again and again. When it finally grew too much for Beric to endure, he lashed out, striking his father in the stomach and pushing him back away from him.
“The Men’kai won’t stop,” Beric’s father had coughed as he’d rubbed at his side where his son had been forced to strike him. “They won’t end their campaign unless we make them. Do you understand?” Beric had nodded his head, but he hadn’t believed his father’s twisted philosophy. Then or now.
“We need to start back,” Beric said. He was back in the forest, back in the present, with his children and with her. The three turned and looked at him, their misery at having to leave evident on each of their faces.
“Can’t we stay just a little while more?” Euwin asked him.
“No, I’m afraid not,” Beric replied. “We need to start back.” The children came to take their ponies, walking together with arms locked. They were still smiling, still happy, and utterly without conflict. They were children, but they would not always be. When the time came, they would take charge of their world, and they would shape it in their image. The three of them together represented the future. They were the salvation of both Men’kai and Commigial. That was what his own father had never been capable of understanding. The past did not dictate what was yet to be, what might be still. He looked at the children, together and happy, and he prayed. He prayed that they would be different, that they would learn from the mistakes of the past, and change the world for the better. They would do it together.
As they rode back, following the old trails that led through the forest, Beric rode at the center of their small party. He remained quiet for a long time, while his children and Silas spoke quietly around him. After some time, he finally asked them a question, the same question that had hovered over him since the moment Silas had first come into his life. “Do you want to go home?”
They all turned and looked at him, though only Silas seemed to understand immediately what he was asking. “Yes,” she told him. “I do.”
Beric nodded his head. “You know what my own people want done with you, yes?” Euwin and Fionn exchanged looks with one another, clearly uncomfortable, but Silas didn’t hesitate in meeting his gaze.
“Yes,” she said. “I know.”
“It isn’t right,” Euwin said. “They want to hurt her, but Silas didn’t do anything wrong.”
“No, she didn’t,” Beric said as he smiled at his son. He was everything he could have ever hoped his child might be. A testament to how wrong King William had been.
“Are you going to let her go home da’?” Fionna asked.
Beric remained quiet for a while as they rode on. The children didn’t ask him again, but they were clearly thinking about what had been said. None of them spoke, they were all lost in their private worlds. “I want the three of you to promise me something,” Beric finally spoke. They all turned to look at him once more.
“What?” Euwin asked.
“I want you to remember this day. Our time out here together. Remember each other, and never forget that your greatest enemy is still a person. A fellow human-being, with all the good and the bad that that entails. I want each of you to promise me that you’ll do better than I did. Than any of those that came before you.”
“We will,” Fionna said.
“I will,” Euwin answered.
Lastly came Silas. She was not as quick to answer as the other two children. Beric watched her carefully, drinking in every nuance of her face’s features. “You would do that? Let me go home?”
“It would be the right thing to do,” Beric did not outright say yes. He hesitated, even though he hated the alternative. It was not an easy thing, doing what was right.
Silas smiled at him. “I could make that promise.”
The Blackwoods were white with snow; gripped in the ice-cold embrace of winter. But for a few moments, the winter’s cold was thawed. A fire of hope had been kindled in the frost. Beric saw its first embers.
Byron Gillan is an avid reader, recent college graduate, and freelance writer, with multiple publications in various newspapers, magazines, and online publications, including work for the Buffalo News. His first novel, The Children of the Forest, is currently seeking funding on Inkshares, and was recently entered in the Nerdist.com writing contest. Byron focuses primarily on fantasy, horror, and science-fiction, and enjoys blending the various genres together to create something new. His writing seeks to ask difficult and important questions about pressing social issues, such as race, environmentalism, religion, and more, exploring them through the lens of his favorite genres.