You don’t know me, but you know my husband.
Likely, you heard about him fighting Shogun’s Bane, that undead dragon with a penchant for carrying off gorgeous but rather disagreeable virgins way back during the Year of Black Snow.
Or else you read that epic poem detailing my husband’s battle against the four-armed Troll King. Or how my precious Therocles stole a magic flower from the den of a kraken to heal a dying child. Maybe you told that same story to your own children to frighten away the chill of long winter nights. For me, though, those stories bring no comfort.
He says he comes home as often as he can, but that’s still only once or twice a year. I guess a leaky cottage and an aging wife can’t compare to the courts of kings and the shy giggles of well-manicured princesses. I know he made a vow — so did I — but there are some vows even knights don’t honor.
Every visit, it’s the same thing. Therocles paces for a few days, hot-tempered as a demon-bat, then says he has to get going before the snow blocks the roads. By then, Dastian has had his nose bloodied and I have finger-shaped bruises on my thighs.
This year was no different.
* * *
“I cannot sit idle all winter, woman!” He reached for his boots. “Somewhere, brave souls are in need!” His square jaw and jet-black hair made him imposing as ever. I thought of how his looks used to thrill my blood. Where had that feeling gone?
“We could use you here,” I said. “The plow’s still broken and there’s a wyvern nesting in the chimney–”
He cut me off. “Dastian, bring my pauldrons!”
I winced at how he spoke our sweet son’s name. Dastian would have done anything to earn his father’s praise instead of his fist. “I’ll get them for you,” I volunteered.
“No! Dastian is practically a man. Sooner he learns which end of a lance is up, the better he’ll be in this world!”
I decided to change the subject. “My love, about that chimney…”
He snarled with exasperation. “I don’t have time to tussle with a wyvern — not with the snows coming! And I don’t have the coin to see it done, either!”
I wanted to argue with him, but I knew he was right — about coin, at least. Wyverns always nest deep, steely talons burrowed in stone. They love chimneys because of the darkness, the heat. Safest way is to hire a sorcerer to charm them out. But for all my husband’s exploits, we rarely had two coins to rub together. Therocles rarely accepted payment for his adventures, and then only what was absolutely necessary to care for his steel and his horse, plus a few macabre gifts for me and Dastian. A Dwarfish jewel hammer carved with skulls. Scrolls of Elfish poetry, reeking of perfume. A map drawn on Troll skin.
This visit, though, what he brought back was far less impressive.
“Perhaps I could sell some of that foulseed–”
“Absolutely not!” Therocles said, aghast. “Use it to poison the zombie-rats in the barn, if you like. But to profit from a gift would be dishonorable!”
I decided not to press the matter. I had already made up my mind. Once Therocles was gone, I’d sell that sack of poison grain — and maybe some of that spare armor crowding our bedroom, too! Would Therocles really notice if gauntlets and a sword or two went missing?
Dastian appeared then, hauling armor that looked like it weighed as much as he did. My heart sank. I could see in his eyes how much he wanted his father’s approval. I mouthed a word, hoping to correct him before my husband saw, but Therocles was already turning.
“I said pauldrons, Dastian! Those are spaulders!” He shook his head. “Boy, you’re useless!”
My heart broke.
Dastian said, “I’m sorry, Father,” and slumped back into the bedroom to rifle amid great heaps of steel for what my husband wanted. There was hardly anything in that room but my husband’s armor and a bed much too small for my liking.
“I wish you’d be patient with him,” I pleaded. “All he wants is to be like you!”
Therocles straightened. He was shirtless, his strong torso crisscrossed with scars, a few of which I didn’t recognize. “That boy is nothing like me! By the time I was his age, I’d already killed my first minotaur!”
“You were sixteen when you killed your first minotaur,” I said without thinking. I cursed myself for not adding the prerequisite meekness to my voice, remembering my husband’s response the last time I corrected him.
But Therocles ignored me and strapped on greaves emblazoned with the Shogun’s blue crane. His tassets lay on the floor, these marked by the two-headed lion of Duke Sanrock. Beside them lay a codpiece, coyly carved with the huge-breasted goddess of the Sister-Knights.
“Since when did you wear mismatched armor?”
“I wear these pieces to show respect for the realms I serve.”
I wanted to call him a liar. But I also wanted Dastian to finish growing up with a mother around. “A fine display, my love.”
He gestured for me to help him. He held breast and backplates in place while I tightened the straps. His hand touched my waist and I fought the impulse to recoil. I was glad when he turned his attention to vambraces emblazoned with a laughing serpent.
Dastian returned, hauling oversized pauldrons marked with the insignia of a white bear. Together, we fixed the metal plates to my husband’s strong, scarred shoulders. I saw Dastian’s eyes widen with admiration. I knew just what he was thinking. I have to admit, Therocles looked impressive in all that armor. Too bad he knew it.
“Son, would you like the honor of bringing my sword?”
Dastian’s freckled face brightened. “Yes, Father!” He headed for the mantle.
“No, not the two-hander! I told you, that goes on the horse. Fetch my bastard sword.”
I concealed a derisive smile. What a fitting weapon for my husband!
Dastian returned with the smaller of my husband’s two favorite blades, still nearly as long as my son was tall. I helped gird the weapon to my husband’s waist. Even though the sword had been cleaned countless times, it still reeked of blood.
Therocles demanded other items — his lance, his oak-and-iron shield, a mace made from a bronzed demon-skull. Dastian and I gathered them and carried them all outside. Winter’s first snowflakes speckled the morning air.
I shivered, dressed as I was in nothing but a thin, purple sarong like those worn by the Blue Shogun’s tarty priestesses. I hated the thing, but Therocles demanded I wear it. We loaded the goods onto Sweethoof, the droopy pack mule my husband treated about as well as he treated his family.
The pack mule’s ears twitched unhappily. I felt sorry for Sweethoof. Just a plain, luckless creature like the rest of us. It was Dastian who named him. He’d been a little boy then, but Therocles still teased him mercilessly for his choice in names.
Sweethoof was supposed to be for us, to help around the homestead. But Therocles did not like the idea of burdening Glory with all those essential provisions. Glory — a huge brute with flame-red hooves. My husband’s war-horse. I couldn’t make that up if I tried.
Once Sweethoof was loaded for travel, jangling sadly beneath a mess of weapons and provisions, Therocles sent our son to saddle Glory. Dastian, as always, took a flask of anointed water with him, in case the zombie-rats made an appearance. I went back inside, found a clean wooden goblet, and poured it full of strong, crimson wine. Tradition required me to serve my rotten husband a farewell drink.
I carried the wine out, careful not to spill a drop. I bowed my head like I was supposed to and offered him the goblet. Instead, he touched my hand with rare gentleness. “My love, thank you for your gracious hospitality.”
I fought the impulse to throw the wine in his face, and nodded. “You are welcome, my love. We will light incense and pray for your safe return.”
Therocles smirked. “I fear you shall have to light that incense alone, my love.”
I felt a thorn in my throat and nearly dropped the goblet. “No, not my Dastian…”
Therocles waved me off. “My mind is set. Dastian grows soft in the company of his mother. It’s well past time he served as my squire. The wilderness will make him his father’s son!”
“But your squires have a bad habit of dying…”
Therocles pretended to inspect his armor, probably hoping I’d drop the matter to avoid risking his disapproval. But this was my son! I grabbed my husband by the arm and spoke the name of his last half-dozen squires — all slain during his exploits, probably taking death-blows meant for him.
“Is that the fate you’d have for our son?”
Therocles pried my fingers off his arm. “Honorable men do not shy from danger. Understand that, and you may finally understand me!” He turned back to inspecting his armor.
I eyed a thick-bladed dirk sheathed at his belt, wondered if I could draw it and stab him before he realized what I was doing. Then I got a better idea. I took his hand, smiling sweet as could be. “Forgive me, Husband. I am but a simple woman. Your will is best, I am sure.” I batted my eyelashes. “But before you depart, kindly grant me a boon, Sir Knight.”
Therocles brightened. That kind of talk warmed him even more than the body I had in my younger days! He bowed. “Of course, Milady. Speak your heart’s wish and it shall be granted.”
I pointed east. “Down by the river grows the Weeping Tiger sapling you brought back from the shogun’s court — a symbol of your heroism! Pray, fetch me one of its blossoms so that I might see it and remember your goodness.”
His expression soured. I saw his dark eyes scan the clouds, sensed him weighing the dishonor of refusing his lady’s request against the likelihood of this delay snowing him in. I wondered if there was anything Therocles feared more than being stuck with his family. But honor won.
“Your will is my command, Milady,” he said with a scowl.
“Take Dastian with you,” I suggested. “Would it not be good for him to begin his journey into manhood by witnessing so honorable and humble a gesture?”
Therocles nodded carelessly and waved to Dastian, who was just then leading Glory from the stables. “Come, Boy! Your goodly mother has an errand for us.”
Dastian glanced at me, worried. He recognized the edge in his father’s voice. Luckily, he knew enough to obey without comment.
* * *
Once they were gone I rushed back into the cottage. Some wine spilled from the goblet and ran down my wrists. I refilled the goblet, then drank it down until my throat burned and my head swam. I knew I didn’t have much time, but I needed that.
I set the goblet on the table and refilled it again. Then I heard a strange growl and a scratching sound coming from the fireplace. I jumped, but it was just the wyvern nested in the chimney. Sometimes, they have nightmares and thrash in their sleep. It sounds so terrible, Dastian and I have to leave until it stops.
I shuddered. Then I went to the sack of foulseed. Along the way, I grabbed a heavy, fur-lined cloak and threw it over my shoulders. Still shivering, I withdrew a handful of foulseed and scattered them on the kitchen table. They looked black and oily, almost pretty. I picked up a kitchen knife and crushed them with the flat of the blade. Clear fluid leaked out, glinting in the morning light streaming through the open door. Using the edge of the knife, I scraped up as much of the fluid as I could and stirred it into the wine. Then I stared at it.
I wondered if I should offer some kind of prayer to the Gods. I thought of Dastian. “May he always keep his chimney clear,” I prayed. Then I walked back to the doorway to wait, goblet in hand, careful not to spill a drop.
About the Author: Michael has been published in Planet Magazine, Asimov’s, Mythic Delirium, Ideomancer, On Spec, Ploughshares, Quick Fiction, and others. He also has work forthcoming in Absent Willow Review. He has previously published two books and four chapbooks of poetry.
Story (c) 2009 by Michael Meyerhofer email@example.com
About the Artist: Romeo Esparrago is a hero-artist to many.
Illustration (c) 2009 by Romeo Esparrago