There is no reasoning or bartering with the absolute certainty of youth. It is the gift afforded them, and while the more experienced adult might want to caution them, remind them of certain harsh realities in life, some lessons can only be learned in time.
So it is between the love of Gwendolyn and Balen.
When they made their vows to one another, their eyes were locked and their hearts in sync. Balen looked deep into Gwendolyn’s eyes unflinchingly. They were two souls united, breathing the same breath and feeling the inner truths of one another’s souls unbound and unhidden.
Although they did not know it, the circumstances in their lives had already weighed heavily to their advantage for their families were of similar standings with near equal rank at court. Neither out shown the other in appearances, and they both grew up together in their youth.
Balen kissed the tips of Gwendolyn’s fingers with gentleness and passion. “Forever,” he told her.
“Forever,” she agreed with the same earnest.
The Knights of the court must fight for the King, and Balen’s time for war had arrived. He crossed the bridge and into the fields, donning his shining armor with his fellow knights. His gaze kept turning back to glimpse the tower Gwendolyn stood, watching his retreat.
His heels dug into his horse’s sides as they moved into a canter.
He would be back in two years time. Only two years time and he would be nestled in Gwendolyn’s hair, falling asleep to her scent.
Nearby a knight made an erupting noise in his throat and out spat a large wad of spit and mucus into the grass under their horses’ feet. Flies buzzed and horse tails swished absentmindedly as he kicked up speed to follow his brothers in arms.
The tedium of waiting was the privilege and burden of the well-to-do maid. While young men were given the freedom of openness and space, young women had to learn to constrict and be still. They were two halves pushed to their opposing extremes. Neither, summarily, allowed to exist as they truly were.
Gwendolyn’s time was whittled away in needlepoint and soft-spoken words. Her mind was idol and often would drift to the memories of Balen.
She willed her spirit to fly with him onto his steed. She willed herself to be on the same journey. They were apart only in the physical realm, but in spirit they were just as connected and affixed to one another as ever before.
She used these ties to pray for him and keep him safe. On the days she ached for him, she channeled all that energy into the point inside of her, like a needle, that could be utilized to pierce through any dangers he might befall. As she weaved the threads, her eyes would go out of focus and her will would terry forth. Her intent would see him, and she would wrap him in an blanket of protection and love in her mind.
Balen would return home to her, and she would never need to worry about him ever again.
The blood was sticky, and it itched as it matted in Balen’s hair and fed its way through the undercoats of his armor.
No one tells you the truth of battle. No one warns you of what truly is reaped through the act of committing murders. Your body hums, and you’re pulled forward in a red and hypnotic pulse that bursts into the similar but opposite realm as the sexual. There is no softness. No mutually assured pleasures. Swords are plunged into bodies for very different purposes. It is the process of destruction, not of creation, and while love making opens you to your partner, battle closes you to them. Battle shakes that driving empathy so sharply away from you, it is as if it never existed.
The shouts, the horrors. No one tells you of the smells– the odorous effects of bowels emptying and piss flowing as limbs are hacked away. Like a woman held in orgasm, the enemy screams with complete, uncontrollable abandon. But theirs is that of pure agony. The two worlds of love and hatred clash together, and a man must reject one or risk going mad in the contradictions of both.
Balen shut his heart to the noise. He drove his sword into the brains of other men. He hacked away at shoulders and hands and legs, feet and hearts to defeat an enemy and defend his home.
This is what it is to be a man. A warrior. To severe your soul from your body for the good of country and king. For the sake of the women locked away in their castles. To kill by being killed.
Later, in a tavern, his brothers roughly took the maidens there. No courtly manners. No sweet words of permission. The next day a young woman was sobbing and gathering her dress around her, clutching it to her like a babe. The heavy steps of boots offset the sounds of her distress.
His brothers were indifferent, but Balen was moved. He was seeing Gwendolyn’s eyes. Feeling Gwendolyn’s touch.
“Come off it, man. ‘Tis just a wench,” chided the brother who had raped her.
His steel hand on Balen’s shoulder gripped tightly. It was friendly. Brotherly. And also threateningly.
Balen turned away.
A year had passed, and Gwendolyn had found companionship with an older woman of the court. Their conversations were intimate and there was a gentle acceptance in the woman’s countenance that allowed Gwen’s heart to open up and be vulnerable. She spoke of Balen most often, but she also spoke of her future. She talked of the fantasies she had and the plans she was making when Balen returned to start their life together.
Her companion Morgaine spoke very little of her own life. She was a thin woman with no children though they say her husband’s appetites for her are unrivaled. She merely smiled in the warmth and light of Gwendolyn’s surety and hope. She nodded along as they weaved their needles and thread.
The grime truth is that time erodes all feelings, and even the most vivid and happy will be dulled by it. So try as Gwendolyn might, she was struggling now to recall the features of Balen. She could not remember as exactly the shape of his mouth or the look of his eyes. So much of what they had was already faded, so she recreated their life as best she could through Morgaine’s patient listening.
The cold stone of the the castle walls captured their shadows as they leap and dance in response to the crackling fire in the hearth in front of them. Life was an ever moving wheel, and time stretched in front of them like a slow and languid yawn.
Gwendolyn kept waiting.
The rancorous noise of freedom through bloodshed deafens the ears and mutes the soul.
Balen watched as his brothers knelt in the chapel a mere three days after their last assault, bowing their heads in fervent prayer. A sweeping motion, a sign of the cross, and an exchange of coin has their souls expunged of all wrong doing. They left blessed and cleansed as innocent as the young maids they left so long ago cloistered away in their respective towers. Of course, as soon as they were through the impressive archways of these holy redemptive places they were exchanging coin and promises to another kind of confessor. These ladies’ lifted skirts and knowing gazes gain them a new sense of release.
Lust invaded the mind and love was banished as an unwelcome guest. Balen sought Gwendolyn’s eyes in these ladies, but he could no longer recall their luster or their shape. He settled for a shade of hair or a comparable bosom. Their smell was never the same, but he grew fond of the new sensations.
His brothers laughed and clapped as ale was spilled on the floors and tables.
Balen grinned despite himself, and his loneliness abated.
Two winters pass, and Spring brought Balen home. He had returned with honor, having bested several knights and won more than a few ransoms. The King had granted him lands and titles, and he was accompanied by a squire.
The ladies of the court were giddy for the return of masculine comfort. They swooshed and smiled in their elegant dresses and eagerly fed on the stories the knights would bring of the outside world and its mysterious dangers. The knight’s swords were sheaved and put away. They had entered into a new game. A game won through a different sort of sacrifice.
And Balen was finally home.
His face was so similar Gwendolyn didn’t understand why it was so hard for her to properly recall it. Time ceased to have meaning and two years were mere seconds upon first laying eyes upon him. But then she noticed something new. A line along his mouth. A heaviness in his lids. There was something changed there, but she could not yet fathom what.
When they finally were alone, they grasped each other eagerly. They devoured one another in abandonment to all senses and thoughts. The encounter was brief, and the forcefulness surprised Gwendolyn. Balen’s hunger seemed to overtake her own. He thrust so deep into her that she gasped at the unexpected pain. Balen immediately slept, and Gwendolyn held him and fell into a fitful rest some time later.
“Love is patient,” reminded Morgaine to Gwendolyn as Spring faded into Summer.
Gwendolyn accepted this proverb grimly while chewing on her lip. She knew she must be patient with Balen. She knew he would be changed after being blooded in battle, but nothing could prepare her for the actual reality of it and the way his eyes avoided her now.
They had never struggled to speak their hearts to each other before, but now Balen stayed mostly silent. Gwendolyn’s voice was starting to sound like an irksome buzzing to her. She sensed she was like a fly flitting around Balen’s head, and only restraint kept him from swatting her away.
She tried to silence herself and wait for him to say it– whatever it was she knew was locked away inside of him, but this effort also failed. He merely used the absence of words to distract himself with activities outside of the castle. He spent much of his days attending to the stables and riding out into the surfdom on alleged king’s errands.
After years of waiting, Gwendolyn struggled to hold all her emotions in. To not cling. To do as Morgaine said. Be patient.
Balen was changed. He didn’t know when it happened, but the evidence was impossible to ignore now. What once gave him such inner peace and pleasure now felt like a cage. He felt stifled. Restricted. Like he was wearing clothes he had outgrown. He had told himself over the past few years that the world he was entering was temporary. Ugly. Just a scene to endure so he could return to love, life, and Gwendolyn. But the luster and sheen of their youthful bliss was no longer so vibrant. The colors had faded and the thread gone bare. Whatever he and Gwendolyn had weaved together felt like a cheap imitation of itself, and Balen kept waiting for its beauty to return to no avail.
His brother-in-arms Gwent was waiting for him at the tavern in the village by the castle. He found him and sat with him as a pitcher of beer was placed between them along with two mugs.
It was a dingy, poorly lit sort of place. The ale was barely drinkable, and the tables were stained by years of constant use. A haggard-looking young girl of maybe thirteen summers was refilling drinks and dodging sly drunken hands as her father watched.
Gwent poured the beer, and it took two pitchers of ale to get Balen to start talking.
He waited for the words to end and for Balen to tire of his own jumbled attempts at expressing his feelings. With a sigh, Balen leaned back wearily in his chair, and Gwent casually sipped from his mug with a knowing smirk. “You are still so very serious, Balen,” he teased. “Your mind is too preoccupied with unnecessary worries. You sit here with your thoughts moldering away in you as if they have mastery of your person and not the other way around. Are we not men? Do we not train for this? You are my knightly brother, and your happiness is important to me, so let me emphasize this so it is easy to take in– stop thinking in such extremes. You have your duty to your betrothed, but you also have your duty to your heart. Neither one is in danger of being lost. Merely compromised with. Take this childhood maiden of yours, be married and done with it. Take your titles and your land and set up your home. You need but couple with her ’til she welps a few sons for you, and in the meantime there will always be your brothers and me here in these taverns, ready to take you off and share in the adventures befitting the men of our station.”
“I have sworn eternal love,” Balen lamented. “You do not understand. My honor is in my word. And I love Gwen. Her devotion to me has remained true and unfaltering. I cannot deny my oaths while she holds firmly to her own.”
Gwent’s smile was patronizing this time. “Oh, brother, you are young and naive when you hold to the notion that maids remain true. They are just as fickle as we, and their love unrefined and lowly as befits their sex. She seeks only what all maidens want, a good home and a brood of children to look after. Nothing else is needed to preoccupy the longings of their heart. We men, adversely, cannot subsist off of such meager domestication. It is God’s will and our nature that drives us to sow our wild oats. Any true maid knows better than to try and bridle a knight. You think too much of this Gwendolyn’s feelings. A woman’s heart is small and child-like, and to indulge it is to unman one’s self.”
Balen went silent and drank his ale. He was thrown into a recollection from his childhood. Gwendolyn and he had their heads together peering into the contents of a bird’s nest. Twin smiles lit their faces, and Balen remembered thinking that the color of the Robin’s eggs matched the color of her eyes. How simple it all was then. Yet moments die the moment they are conceived, and all he had left now was the fragmentation of his own recollections that are easily marred and altered. Already he was doing it, rewriting the script of this story. He inserted Gwent’s words and altered the framing. Now Gwendolyn’s smile was less bright. It was more simpering. It was a smile not to be trusted.
Youth is greedy. It walks into things with the entitlement of someone who hasn’t been humbled by the raw realities and pains of life yet. Morgaine watched Gwendolyn plan her wedding and hold onto the fervent fantasy of her and Balen’s dream lives together. She watched how she beamed when he approached and how she held his arm, seemingly oblivious to the ways he pulled back or flinched. Gwendolyn was refusing to face this new change in her life– the loss of a pure love she was convinced was eternal. She was burying it inside of her chest. She was ignore its sting and carrying on in the glittering halo of her own naïve refusal.
Balen will change, no doubt she was telling herself. He was constant and true once, and he will be constant and true again. He is just recovering from his travels.
Morgaine knew a little something about most men, and that was once they’ve tastes the freedom of their own double standards and privileges, they no longer saw the purpose in maintaining love with a wife. While one may love the other fervently, nothing can change the fact that in the eyes of the law and the country, only one of these persons can be in possession of the other. And that person is not Gwendolyn.
Morgaine already knew the story of Gwendolyn’s life. She had seen it before, and she knew there would come a point where Gwendolyn would have to make a choice, and Morgaine knew nothing could be done to help Gwendolyn in this next journey. Only she could walk its path, but Morgaine feared for her all the same, and she held hope that she would find herself on the opposite side of it– the betrayal of love. And that she wouldn’t succumb to its pains.
Guilt tests a man’s character. For its is guilt that alerts him of the harms his course in life is causing to others, and it is only through learning from guilt that he will decide the kind of man he ought to be by it.
Balen felt the sting of guilt daily now when he looked at Gwendolyn’s happy face. He felt the worry that gnawed at his sided and ate at his chest. He wanted to tell Gwendolyn what secrets were stirring in his heart. He wanted to be free of them and embrace her with the same abandon they used to share in bed together so many lifetimes ago. Only now that longing was starting to change. It was warping into something else. He was deathly afraid of sharing that vulnerability with someone else. In fact, he felt ashamed for even having such impulses. A man ought not unmask himself like a feeble, whimpering child before anyone. He was a powerful and authoritarian force, unfettered and uncontrollable. So he started to resent Gwendolyn’s affects on him. He started to feel distrust and even anger at her simpering smiles. In truth, there was a deeper reason he was growing to resent her, too. It was a reason that kept growing.
He missed the brothels.
It surprised him to say it to himself since when he first frequented them he had despised them. But now he wished to sample from their goods again, and better yet– he missed the acts he could perform in them without fear of how it might be responded to with Gwendolyn. Sometimes in bed he would feel this rising urge to ignore her comfort, to grab her hips and slam her down on him. He wanted to crack her open. Spill her out. He wanted to gather her hair into his hand and pull her head back as far as she could go while diving into her with complete fearless abandon. In truth, he wanted to hear her scream.
Balen and Gwendolyn married in late-Summer under the King’s blessing. Their youth and beauty made for an enchanting event in the castle, and the King was generous with the ale and food; the minstrels played until near into the morning. No Knight was left walking straight as they took Balen’s arms and heartily pushed and led him and Gwendolyn to their marital rooms to consummate their vows.
But when it was time to perform the act, Balen merely swaggered over and collapsed face first halfway on the bed with his boots still on and his hands limp to his sides. With the help of a maid, Gwendolyn turned him and deposited a jug of water near his bedside. With hesitance then a firm resolve, she left the chamber and retired in her old rooms, closing the door to the loud, unapologetic sounds of Balen’s snoring.
“I don’t understand, Morgaine. He said he loved me. I’ve always loved him. I can’t imagine life without him. How can he treat me like this?” asked Gwendolyn with a rapid intake of breath.
Morgaine and she were strolling arm and arm through the castle gardens, their gowns trailing behind them on the stone grounds as they wove through the floral paths. Morgaine patted her hand gently and reassuringly.
“I have always been privy to Balen’s thoughts. I have always known the inner workings of his heart, but now it is as if we are strangers. My words are water to stone, and my intentions suspect. And I do not know where he goes most of the day.”
“Perhaps he seeks simple merriment with his fellow knights?” suggested Morgaine. “‘Tis not uncommon. My husband spends more time under a table at a tavern than at home.”
Gwendolyn stopped to looked at Morgaine with sympathy. “But how do you stand it?” she asked in honest bewilderment.
Morgaine laughed lightly. “I learned a long time ago that there is little point in agonizing over things we have little to no control over. My husband loves to drink and seeks comforts elsewhere. But his conduct does not have to affect my mind or my spirit if I don’t want it to.”
“But what of love? Life cannot exist without love.”
“Yes, true,” Morgaine said indulgently and sweetly. “But what is love? Love is friendship. Love is motherhood. And yes, sometimes, when you’re lucky, love can also be shared with a lover. But love isn’t something that can be horded or something that can be possessed and taken. It is a free moving force. To truly understand love and experience it, you must be open to its fickleness and its temporary nature. You must let it nestle inside of your own heart first before attempting to chase after it inside of others.”
Gwendolyn stared at the flowers and sighed. “I cannot imagine a moment not loving Balen. I cannot imagine a time I could just be contented with him off in a tavern and me home without him. Without him, I would die. I just know I would, I–”
“You,” interrupted Morgaine, “-ought to use your words more carefully when talking of such matters. Words of love and of death have great power, and to speak of them so glibly is to tempt the gods.”
“The…. gods?” asked Gwendolyn, repeating.
“God,” corrected Morgaine with a quick crossing of herself. “God has a forgiving and understanding mind for our youthful vows. To swear to eternity in the first bloom of your life is an amusement to the greater forces. But beware of repeating the sentiment too much and too often. Such vows are sacred and you will be held accountable.”
“But do you…. think Balen will return to me as he was…. eventually?” Gwendolyn asked in a small, desperate and vulnerable voice.
“I think that…. what he decides is something only he can do. We cannot force things. Merely wait until they unfold as they ought.”
Winter brought rebellion and new declarations of warfare.
Balen returned to the fields with a shining sword, polished armor, and a strong desire to escape the confines of the castle and the shame of his lagging love for Gwendolyn. The familiar horrors brought with them a return of buried memories and rage. He plunged into battle with zealous abandon with his sword drawn to cast a baptismal fountain of blood upon his changeable soul.
But recklessness comes with a price, and for the first time, one fateful afternoon, when the ground was slick with the mud and blood of war, Balen was felled by the black shadow of an enemy combatant. He lifted his arms in submission and shouted loud that he yielded. Death hoovered. Death retreated. Death grinned in its near victory.
And before the darkness took Balen, a shudder ran through him as the blood poured out.
To be needed is so near to being loved, and Gwendolyn’s heart was playing a familiar tune as she helped Balen walk through the hallways still haunted by the ghosts of their childhood memories. His helplessness had seen a return of a gentler, kinder version of him. It was as if the change never happened, and he was finally returned to her– once again he was the same smiling man, holding her so close to his side, whispering of the beautiful future they would one day have with each other.
They made quite the pair. Balen was a fortnight into recovery from his injuries, and she was nearly halfway through her first pregnancy. Her belly was beginning to swell, and his pride was starting to return. They would be leaving soon to their estate to put things in order and begin their lives anew. Balen had promised her this. His hand was finding hers more now as he clasped them together firmly and sincerely. What a fool I was, he confessed, to not see the beautiful gifts I’ve been given in this life. To not have had the sense to cherish it always.”
Gwendolyn kisses him with complete forgiveness. Her hand rests softly on the growing child inside of her. Life couldn’t be sweeter than in this moment when vows are being renewed and love has found its happy place again in both their open and accepting hearts.
“Begone, you devilish haunt. You are not welcome here. Your words are poison.”
Gwent was surprised at Balen’s harsh accusations cast at him loudly in the king’s hall. Servants, ever listening, cast their eyes quickly away from his asserting glances and found new areas of the castle to busy themselves as he renewed his bounding steps toward Balen.
“Odd greeting for an old friend, or perhaps the medicines for your injuries have rattled that soft brain of yours?”
Balen made a face of annoyance. “I am in no mood for jests, and I am of sound mind. Much has been mended since last we spoke.”
“Praise God,” stated Gwent. “It is pleasing to see you so fit. You have been missed by your brothers.”
“My brothers are faring just fine without me, I am confident.”
“Perhaps it is the confinements of this place that has left you in such a foul temperament then?”
“Do not go shifting blame to this castle,” retorted Balen. “My accommodations are fine. It is your company that solely puts me in a bad mood.”
“Pray go on, speak plainly of what I’ve done to grieve you so, brother.” He spoke the last word with a biting clip to his voice as he pulled up a chair and sat down.
“Your words are reasonable in tone, but their meaning is far from benevolent,” said Balen. “I have been here in recovery for a while, and this time has affording much to reflect upon.”
Gwent gestured to a servant to bring him ale and he drank it greedily.
“You, sire, are the embodiment of sin,” Balen accused. “You press upon me to embrace your licentious nature and the hypocrisies of your station with little regard to the damage it does to the persons with whom we have sworn protection. I have poured my blood– poured my sweat into upholding the virtues of our Lord King in fealty to his cause, but your doctrines have degraded and reduced these gallant causes to mere issues of self-interest. You use our causes to indulge the most base of man’s desires. The most depraved of our inner callings. You are the devil himself disguised as a knight.”
“I hear the workings of another one’s thoughts in your words. Perhaps your lady wife–”
“My wife has no bearing in the deliberations of my own heart. You insult me by what you say–”
“And you insult me with ever breath you take,” said Gwent with the slightest edge to his voice now. “I pray you be patient and still.”
Balen worked the inner parts of his month but said nothing.
Gwent watched for a second of silence then continued: “You have lost your way, Lord Balen,” he accused. “I do not judge you for it. All men upon their first defeat in battle must face themselves in this way. You think because you were felled honorably that you have lost that part of you the revels in his freedom. You feel unworthy now of partaking of life’s bounties. You would prefer instead, perhaps, the warm and sterile life of a country knight? A fat lord and his wife counting grain orders and tenet’s taxes. Storing up things for the winter like ants in a colony? You got the briefest of tastes of the bitter inevitability of mortality and you ran from it like a scared and scurrying rat. Shame! A true knight does not cower at the open jaws of death and hide quivering behind a woman’s skirt. He unsheathes his sword and takes back his honor.” Gwent drained another cup of ale. “Enjoy the sweetness of time with your wife and the growing arrival of your first son. Kiss her sweetly and revel in the still, stagnant waters of their simplicity, but know that your destiny is with me, the King, and your brothers in arms.”
“I will not leave her again. It gives me pain. Great pain. To be parted from her,” confessed Balen quietly.
“As does all loves,” dismissed Gwent. “If she is a true lady of the court she knows her duties, same as yours. And if your conscious pricks at you so– the pleasures we shared those two summers past– merely tell her of them and be free of the burden. ‘Go out and sin no more!’” he quoted. “You need never lie with another woman again or feel the rush of power that is forged in battle. You’ll be a proper and true knight– as dedicated to your knightly oaths as a priest alleges to be of his God’s edicts.”
“I cannot tell Gwendolyn,” said Balen with a shudder.
“Then don’t. She is your wife by law, and she must obey whatever it is your wish of her. She knows this. Simply command and she will obey.”
“It’s not like that with her.” Balen struggled with the words. “We are…. equals. I cannot command her to do things if she does not wish them.”
“All women will seek to control men if we do not control them first. It is merely a matter of when they devise to do it. But, like Eve to Adam, it is an alteration of the roles God has given us. This befuddlement of your positions has a scent of witchcraft to it.”
Balen slammed a fist on the table. “Do not insult my wife again, knave.”
Gwent slammed his mockingly back. “Your childish melancholy grows tiresome. I am no longer in the spirit to entertain it any longer. Stay here and sulk, brother. It matters little to me. I am a man who knows his own mind. I do not need to waste words teaching the ways of life to a churlish infant. It is beneath me.”
As Gwent left with a dramatic tugging of his sleeves, Balen couldn’t see it, but in his retreat to the left courtyard, a ghostly and knowing smirk flitted across his face.
We can control our thoughts. We can control our feelings. We can choose who we become. But few of us ever want to step outside that which has woven our identities for so long. And for all the concepts other persons present us, all the suggestions they give on how we ought to live and believe, we trust most our own thoughts and feelings– the only surest and realest things we know.
Be true to your heart.
Balen was in battle with himself again. As his strength returned, so did his desire to be free of the castle life again. He started to notice once more small and irritating mannerisms of Gwendolyn that he never recalled noticing before. He was even growing to despise the concern and sadness growing in her eyes as he pulled away from her again. He felt as if she was clinging to him like a wet and chilling cloth. It was suffocating. It was ensnaring. And more and more he was starting to think on Gwent’s words about the nature of womankind.
To try and mitigate the damage and inconvenience of his waning attentions, Balen practiced indulgence. He smiled broadly at Gwendolyn when she voiced her growing concerns and pet her condescendingly on the head.
Better she understand and know now how things ought to have always been with them, he reasoned. He had spoiled her in the past, allowed too much closeness and attachment, but they still had time to remedy the mistakes. She would learn well enough and soon enough.
There is a certain kind of creature which has existed since the beginning humankind. These creatures are not women for they do not deserve such titles, but they were born with the parts to suggest that they were of feminine makings.
They live only half lives, and they despise their own sex. Whenever in observance of a loving couple, they seek only to destroy, take, and rip apart that which they feel will never be gifted to them freely. They know only hunger and greed. They hunt with the same deadly eyes as a man tracking prey. Their greatest moments are when they break the hearts of other women. The men believe they are there for them, embracing them during their dark confessions, but the minds of these creatures are always cast in the inexplicable directions of the women they’re betraying.
They are not like the prostitutes in their brothel-prisons, who mostly lack the means to change their fated circumstances. They are willful choosers of the dark world of shadows. They only ever want what they can’t have, and once they have it, they no longer enjoy it. Thus they remain forever starving, forever empty, and forever alone.
It was one of these creatures that spied Balen one day. He was deep in his cups and half-passed out at the table of the great hall. Gwendolyn was no longer around and had taken to her bedchambers increasingly more often. Her pregnancy was a difficult one, and as the months ticked by, her fatigue demanded she start her confinement early. Balen was not taking her absence well. While with her he often found himself impatient and listless, but without her he was also miserable. And so he increasingly drank.
Sensing opportunity, the creature gingerly lifted a tankard from a servants hands and snapped her fingers for more ale.
Sliding into the bench beside him, she observed his strained yet still very handsome features. His eyes were clouded, but she sensed an intelligent fire to them. Her conquering heart quickened at the weakness and pain written on the lines of his face. How pitiable Gwendolyn’s champion looked. How easy it would be to pluck him up and clutch him to her breast. She wanted to taste those manly tears, to be adored as the one to rescue him from his heartbreak.
Not all women, she would soothe to him. We are not all so cruel. I will worship you and make no demands on you. I will let you simply be the man you were always intended to me. I will stroke your brow and reassure you of your innocence. I will give you relief and refuge in my forgiving arms.
Balen’s downcast eyes lifted and locked onto hers. She smiled at him in a welcoming and seductive way. “Good evening, milord,” she said demurely.
Gwendolyn lay still in bed, counting the days in passive observance. Her back ached and body rebeled after so many days in inactivity.
She got up and paced her room when she needed to stretch. She stared at the wall unfocused and entered into a world inside of her mind, recalling fonder memories or repeating darkly some of her most anxiety producing fears.
She would occasionally and absentmindedly rub her growing belly. The sensation of what lay underneath her skin was still strange to her. During some moments it was awe inspiring. It filled her with immense maternal joy and a strange exhilaration for a future with her and her child. Other times it felt foreign and even frightening. It felt like her body was changing in ways she had no control over, and she was losing herself each day as it got bigger and bigger.
The servants came and left, changing out the chamber pot and bringing her meals, and the ladies at court would visit every now and again to check-in on her progress. Strangely, one woman by the name of Silva, someone who she had only known vaguely in the court, had been especially interested in her condition. She would bring small gifts and sit for a great deal longer than the others would although Gwendolyn could not ascertain what she might possibly want with her. Perhaps she was just bored, she theorized.
Morgaine was the most relieving of a distraction. She always seemed to bring the light of the outside world with her, and she would help her with her backaches and seemed to instinctively know where the pains in her body originated. She would also bring strange teas that smelled of honey and nettles and seemed to revive her better than anything the healer would bring her.
The only person who would increasingly not visit with her was Balen who would come occasionally only to pace and fidget for a brief period before offering up an excuse to be away. He would clumsily kiss her on her forehead upon departure, and the impression of his lips would burn for long afterwards.
Gwendolyn would hold her stomach, trying to draw strength and resolve from the little person inside her. She would talk to it reassuringly. Your father is just as excited to have you arriving as I am. He’s going to love you so much, I just know it.
The men of the castle knew little about being invisible. They did not know what it was like to be dismissed. When they said something, even the smallest of men would be listened to with a politeness rarely offered to a woman. Resultingly, they were often times reckless with their behaviors around women. They did not see a need to lower their voices or consider their impressions when walking past them, and women, skilled in the arts of information, use this slight against their sex as a means of advantage.
The creature Silva, that had been preying upon the circumstances of Balen and Gwendolyn’s rocky marriage, was especially aware of this situation. She was careful who saw her with Balen, and she used her brief interactions with the ladies of court in the evening hours to sew seeds of mischief and doubt over the love between the freshly wed young couple. A few well-placed words and a subtle hint of impropriety on Gwendolyn’s part, and the information that circled between the ladies began to shift and dance to a new tune of conversation.
‘Did they know of the young, handsome minstrel from Glandenshire east of here that visited the castle two summers past?‘ she asked.
They all had vague recollections of him although there were many musicians that frequented the halls that summer.
Perhaps she ought not to have said, but it was whispered about by a servant how Gwendolyn’s eyes would not leave his all night long, and while the King and his men was deep in their cups, no one noticed or saw where she and the young man went. Gone for hours, they said. The servants claimed to hear a telling ruckage by the pantry. Sounds most unbecoming of a lady.
The women shook their heads and whispered.
But surely this is nothing but a vicious rumor….and yet it would explain Balen’s cold and unexpected manners soon after his return from the war.
Balen was always such a kind man, they’d recall. Many of them had wanted him for themselves, but Gwendolyn had claim to him so early on none had made an active attempt at it. But now that they knew what a fickleness of loyalty might lay within her heart, well…..
She always was a bit too self-important for her own good. Gloating over her quick marriage.
But maybe there was another reason for that now.
Silva smiled a sweet and innocent smile as the women reached their own conclusions.
Who is to say?
Silva made certain to keep this game of hers well out of earshot of Morgaine, but even so, she sensed the strange, dark woman’s eyes following her often as she weaved down the more abandoned corridors, having mapped Balen’s movements and figured out his patterns. He was prone to skulking around area where he could be alone. A perfect situation for her.
It was a careful seduction, but one she was familiar with. Already his eyes were lighting up when he would see her. She would be accidently walking by, of course. And she would display interest in his problems but always with respectful and innocent distance, smiling at him with an unshakable belief at his goodness and light.
Balen’s heart couldn’t help but open to hers, and as the lies spilled from his mouth, the justifications he was already crafting for his abandonment of Gwendolyn, she soothed and supported them, nodding in complete understanding.
When her hand comfortingly found his one night during a particularly advantageous moment, she pretended it was the instability of the stones beneath their feet that caused her to stumble. This got her close enough to have him breathe in her scent, to lock eyes with her own, to lean in…. and well….
The loneliness and anger of Sylva’s youth abated. A warmth flooded in. The triumphant ensnarement of a unfaithful man and the betrayal of one of her own soothed the angry torrent of jealousy and rage that fueled her. The fire this act now fed erupted inside of her with a furious hunger. She shook with desire as she finally took him, body and soul, and shoved him deep inside.
Oh, such ecstatic joy!
It was the closest feeling to Love a creature like her could experience, and it was arguably better. She certain knew of nothing more potent and powerful.
Who is to say?
In marriage they say that two shall become of one flesh. What a dangerous suggestion! For no person is ever like the other. And if one person cannot distinguish themselves from the other, well, no hatred is stronger than that of self-hatred, and no man can resist the urge to pour that ugly poison generated inside of himself into the willing heart of his spouse, especially if their souls believe them to be of one essence.
Balen had a choice to make as he took to having Silva while Gwendolyn was in confinement. He could face his guilt and recognize the pain he was inflicting, or he can run away from it– justify it. His searching mind began to scrap together a tale of his choosing, rot from the words of Silva and Gwent but brought to life by his own willing imagination.
Balen was not a bad man, he reasoned. He had been loyal and true to Gwendolyn’s since they were children, so why did he find it so easy to walk away from her? Surely there was something rotten inside of her that drove this instinct. Examples began to form of her moodiness and jealousy. He began to recall her malice and judgment. And while he had been injured, and she so attentive– had that really been dutiful love, or was she hiding something from him? A guilty heart, perhaps.
What had she been doing while he was away risking life and limb for the good of the kingdom? Surely not all her time spent had been devoted to weaving and idle gossip? He had seen the way her eyes had followed some of the handsomer male servants. How easily could she have have taken one of them into her chambers. How easily she could have lied to him about it. It was a common tale told enough by the lads at the tavern– the cockholding knaves servicing their wives in more ways than inside the grounds of their servile duties. Perhaps the child growing inside of her now was not even his. No woman as along as she was in her pregnancy needed to be placed in confinement so soon unless she lied about its conception. Perhaps it was nothing more than a bastard brat of a stableman?
He noticed more how she avoided his eyes when he visited, shyed from his moods. Surely this behavior was not common for a woman of virtue. She was no better than he. He just had the good instincts to sense her infidelities.
Balen held the firm breasts of Silva close to his face and tasted them greedily. Her hands ran comfortingly through his hair, and he felt a growing sense of peace and gratefulness for her sweet smelling body so willing and supple under him. Silva was a true lady– a refuge from the inconstancy of a false woman’s heart.
The sting of sweat and the clash of steel was rejuvenating to Balen as he worked his way back into the routines of knightly practices. He had still not returned to his physical peak and he had lost some of the surety in his movements, but it was good to be swinging his arm again and letting the familiarity of his training take over as he parried and spared with his partners.
He finally took off his helmet while breathing heavily and tossed it to his squire, walking from the tourney one late afternoon. He worked his hands out of his well-armored gloves and held them lightly.
He noticed a dark haired woman approaching him. Her deep red robes reminded him of blood as she carried something with her. Upon a closer encounter, he saw it was a sword, belt, and scabbard. The make of the scabbard was of exquisite quality with foreign etchings along its sides and the belt was made out of strong, well-oiled leather.
“Greetings, Sir Balen,” said Morgaine.
“Greetings, My Lady,” returned Balen. “How does it fare with you this afternoon? Surely you’re not wanting to spare with the men here.”
Morgaine laughed at his joke. “Certainly not. I have come merely to offer a gift to one of the finest and bravest knights in this court.”
Balen felt both jealousy and curiosity take root in him. “Oh? And who might this worthy knight be?”
“Why, it is you, Sir Balen.”
Balen laughed again. “I do not recall our relationship being of such a closeness that it would warrant so grand a gift.”
“You mistake me. This is not from me, Sir Balen. It is from my husband. Upon hearing of your victories and then of the injuries you sustained, he asked me to offer you this sword both as a tiding of respect and also a belated wedding gift.”
Balen couldn’t believe his fortune, and he didn’t bother to hide the delight on his face. “Gifted to me, you say? Your husband is as generous a lord as they say of him. But may I–” he hesitated to take the sword.
Morgaine extended it outwards towards him, hands cupping both ends of the scabbard as the belt dangled downwards.
Balen took off his old sword, handed it to the squire still present beside him, and he took the new sword out of her reach and wrapped it around his waist at once, buckling it, and examining how it rested. He reached his ungloved hand to grip the handle of the sword and draw it out, but Morgaine held up a warning palm quickly and imperatively.
“Before you do that, I feel pressed to tell you about the legend of this sword.”
Balen smiled amusedly. “A legend, eh? Is it crafted by the fairies, perhaps?”
“No, sir,” said Morgaine with a thin smile. “It is not, but it is indeed said that this sword is magic.”
“Will it help me slay my enemies? Or keep me from deadly wounds, perhaps?”
“It is said to reveal truths,” answered Morgaine seriously. “A touch of skin on the handle of the sword and clarifying insights are said to impress upon the mind of whomever is wielding it. Some say it can even command your enemies to speak truth.”
“Clever,” said Balen dismissingly. “But not very useful to a man in battle.”
“Not all swords are used solely in battle,” corrected Morgaine.
“Perhaps we ought to see about this then, hm?”
Balen took his ungloved hand and gripped the handle of the sword firmly. He drew it out and it shown brilliantly in the light. A moments pause descended between the two of them as he assessed the quality of the steel. He then looked at Morgaine with challenging amusement.
“I can’t say I feel much of anything.”
Morgaine shrugged. “A disappointment, I am sure.”
“Indeed.” He resheathed the sword. “For I would have much liked to have seen a little deeper into that mysterious head of yours. You have a reputation as you likely already know.”
“I have heard,” said Morgaine simply. “Although I’ve never much understood why. I hope you enjoy the gift and that it serves you well. My husband was wise to gift it to you. It suits you, I think. Farewell, brave knight.”
Balen watched Morgaine retreat with a thoughtfulness. Her elegant neck was long and her hair bond tightly on top of her head. She looked other worldly even from behind. Curiosity grew, so he gripped the sword handle again and waited for a change or revelation. No new truth revealed itself about the woman, and he let go.
Silly superstition, he thought.
But still, he had a new sword, and even without magical properties, it pleased him.
Gwendolyn woke in the morning knowing something bad was coming. This impression crept in from the windows and crawled inside of her bed. She pushed the blankets off her body quickly and began to pace the room in an attempt to shake the feeling.
Just a dream, she reasoned, or more anxiety.
Once again she wished for her pregnancy to be over and for her and Balen’s lives to be started away from the castle. She felt poised on the edge of something– about to go over, and the suspense of that moment kept dragging on and on, inching her ever closer to a madness that threatened to burst her open.
Once this was all over, Balen would be back to how he once was again. Once this was all over, they’ll go to the country. Once this was over they’ll be happy again.
Gwendolyn made a pledge to herself that she would never give up on Balen. She would never stop having faith in him and in their family.
As if in response to this oath, a wave of pain shook her body. It started low in her belly then erupted higher upon it. She gasped out in surprise and held herself.
The pain happened again but greater this time. She bent over and blew breath deeply out of her nose and lips.
She had felt small pains like this a full moon cycle ago and gone into confinement, but now it was back and more intense. Another moan pushed out of her as she tried to hobble back towards her bed.
The chamber maid that slept on the other side of her doorway came in and surveyed the scene. She put down her linen quickly and moved to Gwendolyn. Grasping her hand firmly while cradling her side, the maid helped to carry her back to the bed.
“I need a healer. Something… doesn’t feel right,” gasped Gwendolyn.
“This is nothing to worry about, Miss,” reassured the maid. “The babe is stirring a bit is all. It happens sometimes near the end of a woman’s birth cycle. It will settle.”
“It…. hurts.” Gwendolyn was surprised by how raw and terrified her voice sounded.
“It will be alright, Miss. We will find you a draught for the pain. Just be still. Rest. Breath.”
Gwendolyn did as she was told, her breaths coming out in short little gasps.
Morgaine’s sharp little knife plunged deep into the soil surrounding the root of the plant she was trying to dislodge. With skilled dexterity, she twisted and scooped it free right as the wind changed directions. A chill went down her back. She tugged and placed the freed plant into her satchel.
Tucking away the knife, she straightened her back and looked in the direction of the wind.
Silva repressed a grimace of irritation when Balen was awoken by her morning routine and pulled her back into the bed with him. His breath reeked of stale beer, and his body odor was foul. She yearned for a bath and to be rid of him, but she smiled instead and let him plant a strong kiss on her lips. His tongue probed and she forced herself to relax and give into the inevitability of another morning of coupling.
The firey force inside of her that had erupted when they first connected had burned down into the barest of embers. She felt the familiar cold of having lost her interest in another man again, but there was still the hateful blonde to think of that was away in her beautiful rooms with her baby to consider. The thought of Gwen’s dumb and grief stricken face made her body respond more passionately to Balen. She gave her best girlish laugh as he flipped her over and took her. He was getting less gentle as time went on, and she was finding it increasingly hard to pretend it was enjoyable. Luckily, like most of the men she bedded, Balen failed to notice.
The ladies moved throughout the castle talking rapidly, their heads close together. The knights continued on their way to the tourney grounds, examining their armor, examining their belted swords, and occasionally examining the forms of the women as they past.
Meanwhile Gwendolyn’s cries echoed loud and barely noticeable or heard from her chambers.
“It’s early,” commented the chambermaid in a worried tone.
“Not too early,” said her companion.
“She’ll pull through.”
“It’s been a difficult pregnancy.”
“Such it is for all women. Pray if you can.”
They tell you that you forget the pain. Time has a way of erasing the horrific damage that rips through you. It is the kindness of nature to forget. But perhaps it is a curse, too, for if you forget, you very well might repeat the same mistakes that led to it. How many children do women have? How many times must they be split apart then resewn again by the kindness of time?
Gwendolyn swore she would never forget the pain. She no longer cared for herself of her child. She just wanted it all to end. If only she had Balen with her now before it was finally all over. If only he would return to her.
Grief made her scream all the louder, and she bled.
Balen had told himself that the child wasn’t his. It had been a simple enough lie to help ease his floundering conscious which still pricked at him on the occasions the drink couldn’t keep it at bay. But now that Gwendolyn was in labor, and he knew their child was on the way, it was pointless to resist the truth he knew in his heart.
The child was his, and Gwendolyn was faithful. It was only he who had betrayed their oaths. It was only he who had succumbed to his own weaknesses.
He tried to muster the words of Gwent into the surface of his thoughts, but they crashed and fell away from him like a receding tide. He tried to focus on the reassuring words of Silva and her intoxicating scent, but it all fell empty in lieu of the real and present situation.
The moon was full, and he looked up at it as its luminescence pushed back the shadows of the castle walls and illuminated the landscapes below him. He was high in the east tower, the same tower he had pledge eternity to Gwen. How strange and different moonlight felt to the warmth of the sun. It was like a shimmering curtain that cast off your mind’s illusions.
Balen drank deeply from the skin of ale he’d brought with him. It dampened his feelings but not enough. His mind was no longer cooperating with him in the ways he needed it to. He swayed slightly, drunker than he realized, and he saw someone coming near to him.
At first he thought it was Morgaine. –her small body, maroon dress, and dark hair– but upon a second glance with forced focus it revealed itself to be Silva. She was as beautiful as ever, and her face was composed in deep concern.
“I heard about Gwendolyn, and I came to find you,” she said.
Balen’s body stiffened. It didn’t seem right suddenly for Silva to be uttering the name of his wife like that. It was sacred to him, and her words bruised it.
“Are you well?” she asked.
Balen felt the familiar anger that followed him now, always cursing below the surface of his composure. He fought it down and turned his back to Silva to look out at the moon again.
This was wrong. She shouldn’t be standing here. This was Gwendolyn’s and his place. She had no right to cross into it.
A hand touched his shoulder and he recoiled away from it.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he told her.
Silva looked around at the deserted area. “It’s fine,” she said. “No one can see us. We are alone.”
“No, you shouldn’t be here,” he repeated. “It isn’t right.”
Silva smiled and tried to touch him again. He didn’t pull away this time, so she wrapped an arm tentatively around him from behind. “I know this is hard, but this can also be seen as a blessing. If the night goes as they say, perhaps we won’t need to keep meeting like this in secret.”
“What does that mean?” demanded Balen, his blood turning cold.
Silva gently rested her forehead between his shoulder blades. “I know it’s painful. I know that her betrayal still hurts, but soon we may not have to worry about it anymore. You’ll be free of her. Free to start again.”
“You think she’s going to die.” Balen was deadpan.
“They say it is almost certain.”
“I should be with her.”
Silva was thoughtful. “It would look better for you if you did. People might think you a monster for not saying goodbye.”
“And do you think I’m a monster?”
“You are my lord,” she murmured.
Balen turned around and looked at her. His eyes were empty of emotion. Completely black.
Silva felt uneasy.
“And you? Are you a monster?” he asked.
Silva cast her eyes to the side in a look of submission and smallness. “I am, as always, your obedient friend. I look only to serve you and make you happy.”
“You want me to be happy.”
“Oh, yes, My Lord. I desire nothing else.”
Balen’s naked hand found the hilt of his sword.
Silva felt more growing discomfort and took a step back.
“You desire…. nothing else,” he said as if to himself. His empty eyes looked to be processing something. “No,” he said finally. “That is not true. Tell me the truth.”
He gripped the sword tighter. “The truth,” he commanded.
Silva’s mind began to calculate. She looked around the torrent and confirmed again that they were alone. “Perhaps you are too overly distraught for company. I will take my leave until you are feeling more yourself.”
“No. You will stay and answer my question.”
Silva frowned and went on the offensive. “I do not feel inclined or encourage to speak freely to you in this moment. Your manners are not one of a knight. You are distressed and…. have been drinking, and I will forgive the rudeness. But I will take my leave.”
She stepped back and Balen stepped forward. “You are not here for me or for my happiness, Lady Silva. I see this now. You have been playing me for the fool this whole time, having me think you are a simple and obedient maid, but this isn’t real. You are false.”
“My Lord Balen, I pray–”
“How many men have you done this to? How many good knights have you lured into your chambers with your honeyed words and false promises?”
“You are grieved. Please, stop before you regret your wor–”
“I am regretful of my words, Lady Silva, but none of the ones I am speaking now. I regret every word I ever uttered with you these past months. I regret trusting you with them. I regret the lies. I do not regret what I say freely now. I do not regret telling the truth at last.”
Silva mouth twitched and her impatience pushed forward the fire inside of her. It sprang to life. “You weak, selfish, foolish man,” she cursed. “You dare to cast blame on me for things of your own doing? You speak to me of falsehoods while your wife dies bringing your child into this world? Whatever my sins may be, do not begin to judge them without first comparing them to your own. I did not ask you to couple with me or be with me even now tonight. You made your own choices, Balen. You betrayed yourself and the people you professed to love, not me, and you will not turn on me simply because you lack the courage to face this.”
“Watch your mouth, witch,” warned Balen.
“You are a false knight and a coward,” continued Silva. “Do you really think I would stand here and suffer your abuses in silence? I am not your Gwendolyn. I am no weak woman willing to throw my life away on the changeable and selfish heart of a cowardly man who cannot admit to his own mistakes. Who wallows in his own self-pity. Who treats women as toys. Who shouts and throws tantrums when he doesn’t get his way. You want truth? You sicken me, and you bore me. Your touch has brought me no pleasure for some time.”
“Why are you here then, Lady Silva?” asked Balen.
“I–” Silva felt a curious sensation inside of her. It bade her to speak even though everything inside of her told her to be quiet. The words escaped and fell forward. “I am here to hurt you. To hurt everyone who rejected me. I wanted you, you know, Balen. Years back when we were still children, but you only had eyes for your precious Gwendolyn. That stupid, simpering thing. She has no wit! No charm. She’s unworthy of you. I couldn’t have it.”
She balled her hands into fists. “I hate these women at court always tittering and flittering about together. They exclude me. They ignore me. They look down upon me because I’m smarter than they are. Those sluts will never know a real woman’s power, so I show it to them. I sleep with their husbands. Every one of them that displeases me. I am a master at my craft, and you, sir, are merely one man on my long list of conquests.”
“So you have done this before,” said Balen. He didn’t feel rage. He felt relief to finally hear it.
“Oh, yes. Many times, in fact. But I will admit that being with you was one of my more enjoyable feats. I had wanted you for a long time, but you were always too in love to be taken. I had to wait until your marriage troubles. Until your changeableness set in, and I knew it would. All men are faithless. All men betray their ladies in the end. To be the orchestrator of those whores’ punishments is, well, it is pure joy. And conquering you was sweetness, indeed. Even now I wish to be rid of you and gone, so I can make excuses to go to Gwendolyn’s chambers. I want to see her struggle and bleed out. I want to watch the life go out of her eyes and revel in it. That dumb slut was the most naïve I ever encountered. Her dumb loyalty to you made me sick. What absolute weakness– to fall for someone like that. To ignore her own survival for what? For you? You! The sheer idiocy of it all makes me laugh. It makes me want to throw up. She, and all women like her, make me sick, and I hate them. I hate them. And I hate you!”
Balen let go of his sword, and Silva recoiled, surprised by her own words.
“I–” Her face froze in horror at what she had just revealed. She was dumbfounded and unmasked. The look on Balen’s face caused any color in her face to drain away. Her lips trembled as she spoke, “My Lord, I—I pray you forgive me. Something is not right with my head. I do not know what just came over me. Please, I– I was mistaken. None of what was said it true. I—I love you and your lady wife. I must have been taken over by a fever. I am not myself.”
“No.” Balen saw Silva now. Truly saw her. She was no longer beautiful. She was cruel and twisted and in pain. A howling and angry animal, and he had been twice the fool for thinking of her as his salvation. She was a demon come to damn him. “You are completely yourself.”
“Please,” Silva was frightened now. She tried to grasp Balen’s arm but he pulled away. “You cannot tell anyone what I said. It will ruin me at court. My marriage prospects…”
“You think now of marriage?” Balen laughed. “What a pitiable man to have a wife such as you. No, we are all pitiable men for having ever laid eyes upon such foulness. You are ruined, lady. The court will know of all of this. I will confess it and come clean at daybreak. You are free to remain here and face it although I suspect you will flee. Leave now and you might even be able to escape the court’s judgements. Perhaps a nunnery will take you in. Or a brothel.” he smirked at the thought.
Silva buried her face in her hands and began to cry. He turned away from her coldly.
“Do not dare approach me again, Madam, for it will not end well for you.”
As Balen walked towards the edge of the tower, he felt a growing release inside of him. He saw with absolute clarity what trickery had befallen him and with it came a growing comprehension of just how far he had strayed from the young man that had stood at this tower three summers past. He felt immense regret and then–
There was a rustle of clothes behind him and the slap of rapid foot steps approaching. He drew his sword instinctively and turned to run it through Silva’s stomach as she attempted to thrust her dagger deep into his neck. Her body shook from the shock of its drive as it went all the way through to the hilt. Her lips parted in an ‘oh’ as her eyes stared past him with extinguishing fire. The dagger fell helplessly to the ground and he withdrew the blade.
The gasping, curdling sound in her throat was the last noise to be made as she collapsed at his feet. Blood pooled around her still body, shinning and opaque in the bright, unyielding moonlight. Balen stared at it and at her at first unable to comprehend what had just transpired. He dropped the sword and fell to his knees. His eyes locking onto the now lifeless ones of Silva, staring up at him.
The baby was weak and small, but he cried with the strength of a healthy one. The midwives cleaned and took care of him while Gwendolyn lay still in her bed, eyes half-lidded and body collapsed from complete exhaustion. She was drained of all her strength, and the bleeding still hadn’t stopped. There were whispers around her that barely broke through the pain. She felt as if she was floating. Any moment now she would leave this bed and be in heaven with her mother.
She had no feeling towards this. Simply acceptance. Her life was over, and her baby had lived. She couldn’t even muster the thoughts as to what that might mean for him– not having his mother. She felt neither grief nor joy. Just numb nothingness.
“Gwendolyn,” she heard a voice call out to her.
“Gwendolyn,” said the voice more firmly.
A strange presence appeared by her bed. It was blurred and she couldn’t make out who it was. She tried to open her mouth to speak. Her lips were too dry. She tried wetting them, but the effort proved too difficult.
“Your son lives,” said the voice.
She closed her eyes and half opened them again in response.
“Your son lives and so will you.”
Who was this person to tell her such things? Gwendolyn knew she was dying. It was happening any moment now.
“I am taking you away from here. To a place you will be safe and at peace. A place where you can raise your son.”
Balen? Had Balen finally come to free her at last?
“There is nothing left for you here, but I can offer you a refuge away from this life.”
How could she be taken somewhere? She couldn’t move her body. She couldn’t even speak.
The voice was gentle. “You sweet, brave girl. I am so sorry. You will live,” said Morgaine.
This is not my fault, Balen kept telling himself. She attacked me. It was my right to defend myself. This is not my fault.
Yet guilt clawed at him. Memory mocked him. He saw Silva now just as she was that morning, moaning under him and smiling. How could this be so? How could she be dead now when just twelve hours ago she was happy and in his arms?
I am cursed, he realized. God has cursed me for my sins.
No! This was not his fault, he reminded himself.
This was Sylva’s fault. She was the one who lied. She was the one who seduced him with her wicked tongue. He was going to confess. He was going to make amends. Go to the church. Ask Gwendolyn’s forgiveness. Sylva was the one who could not accept this. She was the one who made an attempt on his life.
Damn her rotten soul!
But as Balen watched her laying there in a pool of red, his hatred faded again, and he was once again caught up in his grief. He bowed his head and wept openly.
“You do well to weep, Sir Balen,” said a voice.
His head snapped up and his hand reached for his sword. Morgaine held up her palm in warning.
“Peace. It is me.”
Balen gripped his sword and got to his feet with a new accusation in his mind. “It was you, you witch. You orchestrated all this. You had me kill Lady Sylva.”
“You are blaming me now? You have a predictable nature.”
“Do not test me, witch. I have murdered one woman tonight. It does not seem much for me to do it again.”
“You would strike me down where I stand defenseless? Your soul has truly been corrupted.”
Tears obscured Balen’s sight and his sword arm wavered. “I-I didn’t mean for this to happen. She came at me, see? The dagger is there. She would have seen me dead.”
“And now she has paid for it in full,” said Morgaine coolly. “Poor thing.”
“She deserves no pity,” said Balen cruely. “You do not know her sins.”
“I know them enough, and I know this– that every sin committed on this earth is done from a place of hurt. From a wound unmended. Lady Sylva was a woman in great pain, and her fears led her to succumb to it. Even great evil can be pitied. There was a time she might have gone down a better path– perhaps if love had been given to her more often or more kindness offered up to her as a child, but we will never know what may have been. In the end, she made her choices.”
Helplessness and fatigue found its way suddenly in Balen. He buried his face in his left hand. “What must I do now?” he asked.
“It is time to face yourself, Balen. To look at yourself unmasked. No hiding this time. And no blaming others.”
“How do I–” Balen cut short as he looked down at the pool of blood beneath him. He saw the trace shadow of his face. His shoulders. It swam in front of him as he gripped his sword.
“I was always afraid,” he found himself saying. “And I was always jealous of Gwen. She was so resolved and unflinching. Love came so easily to her. I felt emasculated by her strength. I—I wanted even to punish her for it. But fear kept eating away at me the more I tried. I don’t think…. I ever even truly saw her. I only was ever able to see myself and what I wanted her to see. I-I wanted to be better than her. Better than everyone else. I hated how alone and weak I felt inside. And I knew one day she would see it– see me for what really I am. All those women in the brothels I paid– they made me feel good. I told them what to do, and they did it. I grew to love the power. I wanted to feel that power always. I-I enjoy killing men in battle. Not for the king or for my country but because I liked how it felt to do it. And then I-I enjoy hurting women in bed. I liked to see their pain. It made me feel less afraid. But I couldn’t stand for Gwendolyn to see this. That I’m no good. That I’m a coward. That I– I can’t love her. That I’ve never managed to love anyone. Not even myself. But I didn’t want to lose Gwen because I didn’t want that idea of me to die. I needed her to keep believing in it. And I–”
Balen shuddered as he stared at Sylva.
“I think that I always knew when she found out about me and what I am and what I’ve done that…. I would do to her what I did to Sylva. I think…. I think I cannot bare to face the shame of it all. I think it would have killed me for her to know of it. I think that, in time, I would have killed her first.”
“So you are a murderer, a cheat, and a liar,” Morgaine summarized. “You cannot love, and you would rather destroy your wife than face your guilt.”
“I—I have– it is as you say. I think I have always known this about myself. Ever since we were children. I have always known there was something missing in me. Something wrong.”
He looked imploringly to Morgaine. “Tell me, does she live? What of our…. child?”
Morgaine did not blink. Her hands rested together in front of her dress, lightly touching. “She lives as does your son.”
Balen gasped in relief. He staggered back towards the edge of the torrent and turned to look out at the fields. Tears stung his eyes again. “This is good.”
“You will never see them,” said Morgaine.
“What?” Balen turned and stared at the dark woman.
“I am taking them with me tonight to a secret place where they will be safe.”
Balen was stunned. He put his sword away. “You jest.”
“I do not.”
“I will not let you.” He stepped toward her then stopped. He shook his head, recalling clearly what he had just confessed to Morgaine. An anger erupted in him. “Witch, what did you do to me? To make me speak such evil falsehoods?”
Morgaine smiled serenely. “For once, Sir Balen, your accusations are not without merit for I am indeed known by some to be a witch, and I am also responsible for what you have thus spoken to me this night, but you are wrong about their being falsehoods. For you see, that sword I gave you is indeed what I said it to be, and it has unmasked you and revealed you to be exactly what you have always secretly known.”
“This is trickery! This is the work of the devil! I am not this man. You are just the same as the bitch I cut down. Liars. All liars. Evil fucking cunts.”
He drew his sword again and the blade flashed. His reflection shown back at him in its polished metal, and he locked eyes with it. He froze in his tracks at the monster staring back. It had black eyes, and he knew without a doubt that it was him.
Morgaine lifted her skirts slightly and walked towards him. She still wasn’t blinking. “This is a fight you cannot win, Balen. The truth has been revealed. It is a gift if you only had the sense to recognize it. But you will not. And I must do now what I must for the sake of Gwendolyn’s future for you see, even as you are, naked and unmasked, she would still loved you. She would foolishly continued to embrace you until you did to her what you did to poor Sylva there. Such is the way of some people. For she cannot believe what you and I both know to be true– that you are irredeemable. And that there are limits even to a Goddesses’ mercy. However–” Morgaine paused, now in front of Balen who’s outstretched sword hadn’t moved. He was paralyzed and shaking. “I am going to give you something better than anything Gwendolyn’s love could have provided. I am going to give you this chance, right now, to finally be free of your illusions, to face yourself in totality, and to ask forgiveness for your sins.”
Tears fell hard and freely from Balen’s face. They streamed as he took in large shuddering breaths. “I am so sorry, Gwen,” he whispered to the sword. “I am so very, deeply sorry.” His eyes widened after the words, and Morgaine looked satisfied.
“Ah, yes, see, that? That’s what it feels like. Not such a weakness after all, is it? Imagine if you had but reached this point of your own volition. How happy you and Gwendolyn could be now. A shame that this will never be.”
“Why not? Why can’t it be? Why can’t we simply start over? Gwen and I. Now that I know, I can be better.”
Morgaine put her hand on Balen’s chest and shook her head. “The spell only works while you are grasping the sword and looking at you own reflection. The moment you turn your eyes away, its powers recede and your old self returns. You will forget what we experienced here. You will abandon yourself again, and you will abandon your love for Gwendolyn. Nothing will change your course. Nothing in this lifetime at least. I have seen it before.”
“You are wrong,” said Balen with resolve. He looked away from the sword and at Morgaine. “I will not forget. I–”
She saw a shadow on his face. A cloud shifted over the moon, and Morgaine pushed. The sword dropped from Balen’s hand and he fell from the tower. His yell was brief and quickly ended.
“But you already have,” she said to the broken and still body down below.
.break the wheel.
Time has no meaning in the Land of the Fae, and for the mortals who find themselves in its realm, they can discover upon leaving that many centuries have past after mere minutes in the other world. This was how it was for Gwendolyn and her son. After Morgaine took them through the veil, they were greeted by kind women dressed in long simple white dresses. They bathed them both and fed Gwendolyn’s a strange smelling broth that put her into a deep sleep. By the time she woke, she realized she could no longer speak. Grief left a lump in her throat, and try as she might, she could not dislodge it.
As time went on, the absence of Balen left an unending ache inside of her that was only quieted by the needs of her son who she poured her love and attention into with an ever present tenderness. There was another cause for her grief, too, for, after escorting them to their new home, Morgaine was no where to be found. Gwendolyn feared she would never see her friend again, and she missed her terribly. But eventually she learned to embrace her solitude and draw strength from her own company and the company of her baby.
One night, some time later, when the torchlights had been extinguished, and Gwendolyn lay asleep in her bed with her son swaddled and snug nearby her, a shadow stirred and a figure crouched over the still form. Morgaine surveyed the peaceful expression on Gwendolyn’s face with an unreadable expression. Her hand grazed the arch of Aldwin’s crib and left it gently rocking as she exited the room as quietly as she entered. Once outside she pulled back the hood that had shielded her face from view and surveyed the fae land with a deep inhale of breath. She felt a sense of completion in her task and was contented with what she had read on Gwendolyn’s face. The young woman would make a full recovery.
“How goes it, fair lady of the night,” said a mocking voice.
She didn’t bother to look at Gwent and merely raised her hood again. “Why are you here?” she asked coldly.
“Straight to the point, and here I was hoping for a little foreplay.” Gwent wiggled an eyebrow suggestively as he emerged from the shadows.
Morgaine stationed herself on a bench near the entrance to the grounds of the temple. An old campfire sprung to life as she sat down . Gwent positioned himself across from her on an opposite bench. The light from the flames made funny shapes across his face and in his eyes.
“It’s been a while since we’ve sat like this,” commented Gwent.
“Your disdain is noted, but I’d rather hear an apology, instead.”
“Yes.” Gwent pouted. “For it was you that ruined the fun I was having last summer. Tossing that poor boy off the tower like that–” he tutted. “I didn’t think you had it in you.”
“I did not want the girl to come to anymore harm, and that puppet of yours was too far gone to be saved.”
“Yes, well, I will take that statement as a compliment.”
“Come now, Morgaine. How long have we been doing this? A few hundred years give or take. Doesn’t it ever grow wearisome?”
“Perhaps it is time you quit then and find a new way to occupy your time?”
“You think you’ve won, haven’t you? I will admit. It was an interesting card you played.”
“See, now there lies the difference between you and me, Gwent, you see this as a simple and amusing game to be won or lost. I see it as something else entirely.”
“Yes, yes, that old story. Whatever angle we might be coming from, the results are still the same: you cannot stop this cycle. Only delay it.”
“In that we will continue to disagree.”
Gwent stretched his hand towards the fire. The flames went higher and danced for him. “Eternal love, am I right? Amusing what these mortals invoke without understanding their consequences.”
“I still believe in that boy.”
“Balen? Hard to believe given you–” Gwent made a slicing motion across his throat. “–killed him like you did.”
Morgaine ignored his jest. “Has he returned yet?”
“And why would I tell you that?”
“You’re here. I’m here. We know how this going. There’s no harm in asking.”
Gwent examined her through the flames. “He’s back,” he said. “Up to the same tricks. A shame his lady companion isn’t with him this time. Rather cruel, really.”
“Cruel to take away what you deem, ‘inevitable.’”
“Again, tower.” Gwent whistled and made a spattering sound as he acted out a falling Balen with his hand.
“It’s nice to know after all this time, I can still surprise you.”
“So are we going to have a problem?” Morgaine turned serious now.
Gwent was thoughtful. He took a stick and began to poke at the fire to make the embers pop. “I was angry at what you did for a time afterwards,” he confessed with a strong jab. “Not only did you take out one of my favorite pets, you took my sweet little Sylva with him, too. She had been a devoted follower to me for many cycles. I was growing quite attached.”
“I’m sure that poor woman will be back to do your bidding soon enough.”
“Not so.” He sighed regretfully. “Dramatic deaths do that on occasion. Leave a soul…. floating away…. contemplative. She may never return to my path.”
“A shame” said Morgaine with acid in her voice.
“If I showed the same disdain for your role in all this, I wonder how you’d take it.”
“I know what you feel, regardless of if you show it or not. I’m no fool to trust the mask, Gwent. You’ve been around your prey too long. You forget what it’s like to be with an equal. One who actually sees you.”
“And I see you, too, Morgaine,” reminded Gwent. “And while I admire your little maneuver to get Gwendolyn away from Balen, it won’t last long. She will eventually have to leave this place, and their souls will find each other again. They always do, and she’ll end up in the same situation. Over and over and over.” He laughed in an unnaturally high sort of way. “You’d think after watching it for so long, I’d be bored with it, but it’s still just as funny as ever.”
“Your amusement will have to wait. Gwendolyn’s removed from the wheel here. She’s outside of it, and I plan to have her not enter it again until she’s good and ready. It could be five hundred years before your favorite pet ever sees her again.”
“And they say that I’m cruel– denying Gwendolyn her eternal love like that.”
“Do not presume to understand my children.”
“Yet, I understand you, and mark me, Morgaine, this action of yours will not work. She will be back and ready again to have her pretty little neck snapped by my boy.”
“Perhaps, but until then, I ask that you do not interfere and grant her this respite.”
Gwent sucked on his teeth. “Hunger….. is the best spice. And you may relax, Morgaine. I have no interest in the girl. Always found her a bit boring. I merely wanted to come visit and check in on things, and to of course–” he mock bowed his head with his hand on his chest in the courtly style, “– to pay you respect for the masterful performance.”
Morgaine let out a breath she was holding. “Our business is concluded then.”
Gwent nodded slightly. “For now.”
Wind filtered through the trees around them. The fire swirled into a twisting, bright column. A shower of sparks lit from below it and spread up and then out into the night.
Farewell, Lady Morgaine. I’m sure we will be seeing each other soon enough, whispered Gwent’s voice upon the wind, and with a final gust and a rattling sound of tree branches scrapping suddenly together, he was gone, and Morgaine remained.
She shivered only once then hugged her arms against the growing chill.