Heartache and Loss

I have been clearing out some bits and pieces and I happened upon this story which I thought I would put into the blog for posterity. As a gesture to a dear friend, one of the characters has since been incorporated into a published short story – Reaper, my contribution to the Black Library Live 2012 chapbook; so if any of you think ‘hey, I know that name…’ this is why.

This story though, was written in the wake of IC events at LRP. I was really rather proud of it in its own way. The pre-amble is… my character returning home following the death of her husband on the battlefield. The idiot.

I apologise for the formatting. WordPress has done Weird Things. Am working on fixing it. 🙂

Heartache and Loss

Bad Tolz was far behind her now and Teneniel von Kessel realised with some small surprise that she already missed it. It was, after all, the closest thing to home she had ever known. As a child, she had been raised by a succession of tutors employed by her father: a succession of tutors who had despaired of the young Moredhel elf’s inability to concentrate on anything other than the woods and trees outside the window.

Chosen by the Hunter at an early age, Teneniel had grown up half-wild until the day her father had sent for her to join the warhost. She had been fuming with him, caught up in that terrible period of a young Moredhel’s life that could roughly equate to what humans called puberty. In hindsight, she had been positively foul when she’d first arrived. She had been disobedient, rude, disrespectful…

And then everything had changed.

Kale von Kessel had arrived with the warhost at roughly the same time as she herself had and she’d not given him a second glance. Just another human male far, far below her attention. What had first brought him more closely to her notice had been his considerable archery skill.

I’d not meant to start thinking about him.

Berlin was some fifteen miles away and she had long ago gotten sick of riding in the carriage that had been sent to meet her halfway to Berlin. So she was riding one of the horses and Kale’s assistant, a harried, balding man called Gunther had taken the carriage. He was confused by the switch, but then Gunther had been confused by his master’s choice of wife – and had made no qualms about speaking his mind clearly. Kale had practically patted him on the head and ushered him out the room.

‘Forgive my household staff, Nell,’ he’d said. He’d picked up the pet name for her not long after their marriage during the Great Renewal of 1108 and she’d grown rather attached to it. ‘They like to think of themselves as progressive, forward thinkers, but they’re as backwards as a clod of dirt at times.’

You’re thinking about him again.

Of course she was. He’d only passed away a few days previously, and the sting, the absolute ache of his loss hadn’t eased off at all. Teneniel herself had gone through the gamut of emotions, from grief to fury and back again. It hadn’t made her a terribly pleasant travelling companion and the Berlin militia who had come with the carriage to collect her hadn’t really known how to treat the fiery daughter of the Lord Arcane. They’d collectively decided the best thing was to give her a wide berth.

It had been the most intelligent thing she’d ever seen Kale’s militia ever do.

Frequently she broke away from the party to head into the woodlands, where she would half-heartedly hunt small game, always looking for the stag that she had been told to seek, but never finding it. She suspected that the Hunter had been having a joke at her expense. Once or twice one of the younger militia came with her, eager to shoot his own bow and Teneniel at first treated him with the cold superiority of her race. But like Kale, the young man was warm and funny and even managed to make her smile and – the Gods forbid – laugh once or twice and she gradually lowered her defences.

But as they approached Berlin, the momentary release of misery resumed its relentless grip around her heart. From what the guards had told her, Berlin had reacted poorly to the death of Kale. He had been a good overseer of the capital city: a good man, a fair man, a just man and a canny, shrewd politician.

He was my husband, she thought, suddenly made proud by the fact. Her back straightened in the saddle and some of the Moredhel pride that had always marked her carriage sprang back into her spine.

Five miles to go and she would be amongst Kale’s belongings. She didn’t know what she expected to find there: maybe some small memento that would bring her closure, perhaps? Maybe she would get over that strange feeling that at any time, he might just walk in through the door, laughing all over his stupid face and chuckling at the joke he had played on her.

Stupid man.

How dare he die before she was prepared for it?

She’d known, of course, in marrying a short-lived human that his death would likely come many years before her own. She’d just not expected it to be so soon. To a Moredhel, ten years was barely the blink of an eye. She’d known Kale for barely three. It was a whisper on the wind. But the mark he had left on her was eternal.

She touched a hand lightly to the satchel she wore around her shoulder and managed a small smile. Annie, her dearest, closest friend had written to say that she would go out of her way to come to Berlin and help with sorting Kale’s affairs, with putting everything into some sort of order and for that she was inordinately glad. In Annie she had found something she’d not known during her formative years. A friend with whom she could whisper girlish idiocies, a confidante in whom she could trust anything. It had been Annie who she had first rather shyly told that Kale had asked her to marry him.

Teneniel was slowly coming to learn that sometimes friendship was just given freely, without conditions – and it was still difficult at times to realise that.

She rode on.

Despite the heaviness in her heart, the ache in her very soul, this journey had to be made and she had to make it with stoicism and focus. It would do nobody any good to see her break down. She had shed tears of furious rage and grief on the battlefield in the Badlands, and again during the ritual to Halakne, the Mother Goddess of the Moredhel, but since then, she had not cried once. She was High Diplomat. She was the wife of the Lord Chamberlain and the daughter of the Lord Arcane. She could not allow the people of Teutonia to see her weakness.

She would save that for when she was at last alone.

Which will be for the rest of your life, the cruel inner voice whispered.

Hardening her heart, Teneniel dropped her horse back to ride within the group of militia and together, they headed through the city gates of Berlin and to whatever waited them there.

* * *

She had always been free and easy with her emotions; indeed, it was one of the many flaws in her personality that had driven her father, tutors and pretty much everyone around her to distraction in her earliest years.

‘Learn to shield your true feelings from people who would seek to use that as a weakness against you,’ her father had tried time and again to instill into her. And she had tried, the Gods above knew how hard. But right now, Teneniel didn’t care one bit about what the man standing in front of her was thinking about her reactions.

‘Lady Teneniel, you must understand my position on this…’ Gunther was wringing his hands in what she had come to recognise as body language indicating the prelude to a whine. She thinned her lips and narrowed her eyes at him, leaning back in the chair at the head of the dining table.

‘We’ve been over and over this, Gunther. The people of Berlin need to learn that there is far more going on in the world outside their gates than they are aware of. People are dying out there!’ Teneniel waved a vague hand in the direction of the window, almost smacking a passing serving girl in the face.

‘Sorry,’ she mumbled by way of apology, feeling as she always did, somehow out of place amongst the rosy-cheeked, flaxen haired serving girls of Kale’s home. Not for them the lure of outdoors. Not for them the perfume of fresh air and damp soil. No, they all smelled like flowers. Like violets, like roses…and Teneniel found it cloying.

‘My fault, m’lady,’ simpered the serving girl, sashaying away to the kitchen. Teneniel watched her go and clenched her fists briefly by her side before turning her attention back to her late husband’s assistant.

‘I understand the people of Berlin want to give their overseer a state funeral,’ she said, her voice dangerously quiet. ‘But as I have explained to you, Gunther, there is no body for this to be performed with. Kale, along with everyone else whose life was sacrificed on that battlefield, was cremated. Incinerated. Burned. Is there any part of this that you’re not understanding, Gunther?’

Gunther winced at Teneniel’s rather graphic descriptions. He was a peace-loving man, a gentle soul who had adored his former master. Kale had been the easiest master ever: he’d essentially left the running of the household to Gunther whilst he had gone out hunting, attending to the King’s needs in Berlin, and then – if you please – charging into an ill-advised marriage to one of the spoiled daughters of the house of the Moredhel. Gunther had not approved. He’d not approved to Kale’s face on more than one occasion, but had never received a satisfactory response.

Now, though…now the woman was practically unbearable. She had arrived in Berlin the previous day, road-dusty and weary from travelling the great distance from Bad Tolz and had been incommunicado for the rest of the evening whilst she had indulged a very real and desperate desire for a long, hot bath. Gunther had been left anxiously pacing the inner chambers of the council hall waiting for his master’s wife to come and explain what was happening.

The news of Kale’s death had reached Berlin swiftly and everywhere there were black banners of mourning. People murmured to themselves that he had been a good man, a decent leader and an excellent human being all round really. Even those who’d never known him. ‘A shame,’ they’d said, sotto voce, ‘that his wife isn’t so easy-going.’

If Teneniel had heard their words, she’d not have cared. Not one bit. Perhaps a week ago, whilst Kale had still been alive, she would have cared what her husband’s city thought of their lord’s choice of spouse, would have cared what they thought of her, would have wanted to know that she wasn’t somehow making his life more complex than necessary. But now?

Now, she couldn’t have given a Swarm-rat’s arse what they thought of her, just so long as they understood the King’s will.

‘Perhaps we could make arrangements for an empty coffin…’ Teneniel’s instinct was to wrinkle her nose at the suggestion. She found it somehow distasteful. All followers of the Hunter believed that the body should be burned after death: that the vessel that had once contained a soul should be set free from the corporeal plain where it could vanish once more into the ether and be re-joined with the air and land from whence it had come. Coffins were, to Teneniel’s view, ostentatious things that led to much wailing, weeping and gnashing of teeth.

She’d witnessed the state funeral once, many years ago of a former Lord of Bad Tolz. People who’d right up until the day he’d died called him a ‘cantankerous, miserable, misogynistic old bastard’ stood by the side of the road as the carriage holding his coffin had passed and mourned loudly and with what Teneniel sensed was genuine misery. It had puzzled her then as it puzzled her now.

‘If you feel it will placate the…’ She bit her tongue. She’d been about to say ‘the screaming hordes’, but felt perhaps that was a little harsh, even for the two-faced people of Berlin. ‘…populace,’ she corrected herself, ‘then make it so, Gunther. You have access to the city’s funds, you know how to make such preparations. Go away and do it. Leave me in peace.’

‘The people are waiting for you to make some sort of announcement to them, Lady Teneniel. Will you do that? They wish to know how Kale … I’m sorry, how LORD Kale died. They need to fix that image of him as a hero in their minds. Will you do that?’

Teneniel stared at Gunther for a moment, then briefly lost her composure, burying her face in her hands for a moment. ‘I’m not ready,’ she said, her voice muffled. Her eyes hidden by her hands, she missed the brief moment of compassion that flickered across Gunther’s face. The secretary raised his hand almost imperceptibly, as though he would lay a comforting arm on her shoulder, but he thought better of it. He had heard of Teneniel’s temper. He was quite partial to his reproductive organs.

‘I will help you prepare a speech if it lessens your burden,’ he offered, his voice soft and sympathetic enough to break through the shield of misery. Teneniel looked up and her eyes were bright with unshed tears. She wiped angrily and absently at her eyes and nodded.

‘That would be…kind of you, Gunther.’

‘Then with your permission, I will retire to my offices and commence work.’

‘Yes. Go.’ Teneniel nodded and made a vague dismissive wave. Gunther bowed low and made his way to the door. His hand reached the handle and he heard Teneniel behind him.

‘Gunther?’

He paused and turned. ‘Yes, my lady?’

‘Thank you. You’ve been a great help. I know that Kale would be proud of you.’

‘As I’m sure he would be of you, Lady Teneniel.’ Gunther spoke the words automatically, but was surprised to realise as he left the room, that he actually meant it.

Alone once again, Teneniel stared at the uneaten plate of food in front of her, and instead reached for the wine decanter.

* * *

Hangovers were never fun, but this one was particularly unpleasant. It was compounded, perhaps, by the fact that when Teneniel finally hauled herself out of what hadn’t been a particularly restful sleep, she discovered that she was asleep at the dining table, her head resting on her arm.

The cold, grey pre-dawn light filtered in through the windows and she realised, with no small amount of embarrassment, that at least one of the serving staff must have been in once she had fallen asleep: there was a blanket across her shoulders and the table had been cleared of all the crockery and food that had looked and smelled so delicious but which had sat on her stomach like rock.

Straightening out the kink in her shoulders, Teneniel got to her feet, only to discover that moving was a very bad thing. A wave of alcohol-induced nausea rushed up her throat and she swallowed back the bile, sitting down on the chair again and letting out a whimper. She’d not allowed herself to get this inebriated for a long time. Her constitution had never been terribly good where alcohol was involved, something which Kale had always found faintly amusing. She vaguely recalled a meeting with the King of Albion, King Tristian, whereby she had been encouraged by both men to drink unfortunate amounts of a beverage the King had called ‘whisky’.

That hadn’t ended well, not for Teneniel, anyway. The resulting hangover had lasted the better part of an entire day and she had sworn, there and then, that she wouldn’t allow herself to get in such a state again.

So much for that promise.

After several minutes, the overwhelming urge to throw up the entire contents of her stomach began to subside and, taking a deep breath, she forced herself to stand. The world wheeled and she gripped onto the table for support, taking several more gulping breaths of air, enough to allow her a moment of self-control long enough to get out of the dining room and to the staircase that would take her to the bedroom.

I can’t actually remember how to use the right muscles to go up stairs, she thought, a little sadly as she stood at the bottom of the sweeping, grand staircase, holding onto the bannister rail for support.

‘Lady Teneniel, are you quite alright?’

It was Gunther. Did the man never sleep? Somewhat ashamed of herself, she gripped the bannister a little more tightly and turned a vague smile on the secretary.

‘I admit to feeling a little unwell, I must admit…I didn’t sleep so well last night.’

‘Do you want me to call the physician?’ He actually sounded genuinely concerned for her welfare, but she steeled herself and shook her head, managing another of those very vague, very unconvincing smiles. Gunther took a few steps towards her and considered her as she stood there. She looked back at him, and just for the briefest of moments, she allowed the veneer of self-control to shimmer and vanish. He found himself looking at a young woman who was, by her people’s terms at least, barely into adulthood, who was trying to deal with the harsh reality of losing a husband who she had clearly adored. She was many miles from her own family, and Gunther found himself feeling genuinely sympathetic. Gunther suddenly felt a pang of guilt for his own animosity towards her and something softened. After all, he himself had a seventeen year old daughter, and her moment of vulnerability stirred his paternal instincts. He moved to her side and put a hand on her elbow.

‘I will assist you upstairs,’ he said, in a tone that Teneniel recognised very well. It was the same tone she had heard her father use on those occasions he wanted her to obey without question and she chewed her lip momentarily. ‘I will assist you upstairs,’ Gunther continued, ‘and then I will tell the many people queuing to see you that you are indisposed for the morning. You will go to your room and I will send up one of the serving girls with a sleeping draft. You will get some sleep, and you will come downstairs after lunch with your mind focused on the task at hand.’

‘Will I? Oh, I mean yes, yes, I will. Um.’

Teneniel was flabbergasted, but accepted the man’s assistance up the stairs.

Just when you thought you’d gotten to understand someone, they threw this sort of thing at you to deal with. Could it be, she tried to work out, that she was actually starting to like the grumpy old sod?

Yes, she acknowledged with a rueful little smile. You are.

* * *

More than a week had passed since Teneniel and the party of militia who had attended her had arrived in the city of Berlin and in that time she had gone through all sorts of emotions, made all sorts of revelations about not only the people of her late husband’s city but also about herself and only now was she truly starting to feel even remotely like her own self.

A number of kind-hearted missives she had received from dear friends – Lady Annie von Wolfsburg amongst them, and Lady Rayenne of the Vengorium, had given her flagging spirits hope and the promise of visits from both had raised her expectations to almost excited levels.

Gunther, true to his word, had made sure she had gotten a decent night’s sleep. And then another. And then another. And then he had sat down with her and he had treated her to the sort of frank and open discussion that she had never expected to hear from the man. Her appreciation and even her liking of him had grown practically by the hour as he had explained to her kindly – but firmly – that for now at least, she had to put her grief to one side and provide the people of Berlin with a state funeral for their beloved Chamberlain.

Gunther had talked her round to the idea of using an empty coffin, citing that the late Chamberlain could not be seen lying in state due to the severity of injuries sustained on the battlefield. Whilst Teneniel’s gut feeling had been one of disgust, she had reluctantly agreed and two days previously had sent forth a pronouncement that funeral would take place on this very afternoon.

She’d not seen anything like it. The city had gone from a collective black cloud and outpouring of grief to a hustle and bustle of excitement. Everywhere there were market traders setting up stalls, people were baking and cooking and generally acting in what Teneniel could only feel was a remarkably inappropriate way given that they were about to have a funeral.

She voiced her feelings to Gunther over breakfast on the morning of the funeral.

‘It seems…strange to me,’ she admitted, toying idly with the dish of scrambled eggs that had been placed before her. ‘Two days ago, they were miserable beyond belief. Now they’re almost celebratory. It feels disrespectful.’

‘Not at all, my Lady,’ said Gunther with a faint smile. The building of trust and mutual respect had worked two ways. Over the past week, he had come to appreciate what it was that Kale had seen in the young Moredhel and had even found himself daring to think that the match had gone beyond politics. She had the sort of temperament that you treated with great care, but an air of honesty that was hard not to engage with. ‘The people of Berlin love nothing more than a big event like this. To them, whilst they are filled with grief at the loss of Kale, they are also now glad that the opportunity has arisen to celebrate his life – and there is much to celebrate, is there not?’

She wrinkled her nose, a childish gesture that she had never really outgrown and shrugged one shoulder in a non-commital way. ‘It still feels strange to me,’ she mumbled and forced herself to eat her breakfast.

The rest of the morning was a buzz of activity: she had gone through a massive pile of documents that Kale had left undealt with and found herself, almost to her shame, irritated at him for not being a little more conscientious when it had come to matters of administration. She liked to know that everything was dealt with and so had worked her way through his backlog of work.

Largely it was dull beyond belief: disputes over land, requests for extensions on rent, minor irritations that she delegated to the various people in Berlin who dealt with such things. She found one or two letters that she herself had written to Kale whilst she’d been settling into Friedburg, far to the south west and both of them brought fresh tears to her eyes.

‘I miss you,’ she said softly to the empty room that had once been Kale’s office. ‘You stupid human son of a Joining. How dare you do this to me?’

She closed her eyes and fancied she could hear his response.

I do it because I dare, Nell. What would life be without a little risk here and there?

The lump in her throat dissipated and gave way to a smile. Kale had always been about the risk. She had always been about the need for reassurance. She’d always needed validation from those around her. From her father, from her Moredhel siblings, from the King, and more than anybody, from Kale.

More of his words echoed through her mind. A conversation they had had not long after they’d first been married and she’d had that conversation with him.

Set your mind to what you want to be and aim for it. Nobody can ever take away from you what is fundamentally you.

You’re talking nonsense, Kale. Death can take that away from you.

Nell, death just takes away your breathing privileges. If you have made your mark on this world, even long after Death has dragged you into the pit, your name won’t be forgotten. Think of all those Teutonians whose names even now are legend. King Hariatta. Stumper. Tankred. Blood-gor. Just a handful, but Death hasn’t removed them from the history books, has it?

He’d tweaked her nose then and they had settled down to sleep. Eventually.

She sighed and bowed her head over the pile of parchment. It was good in a way: all this work was keeping her mind off the impending funeral. Gunther had written a speech for her to deliver and she had to admit that it held the right balance of sorrow and joy. It had made her cry when she had read it – but they’d not been tears of grief. They’d been tears of another kind.

Her hand reached for the scroll on which Gunther had penned the words she would read to the people of Berlin that afternoon.

“Kale von Kessel died as he lived: bravely, in good humour and with the words ‘For Teutonia’ on his lips. Whilst we, his people, his friends and his family must grieve for his absence in our lives, let us give thanks to the Gods of Teutonia for all the joy he gave us whilst we knew him.

Our time in this world is fleeting: it is over before we really get the chance to experience life. Even for the longer-lived races, such as my own, our existence in the world is brief compared to the life of the stars. We are all insignificant – and yet we can all make a difference. Kale von Kessel fitzHumaktson made a difference in his life, and for that, his name will join those of the Teutonic heroes before him.

On the day when the weight deadens on our shoulders, may the clay dance to balance you.

And when your eyes freeze behind the gray window and the ghosts of loss get in to you may a flock of colours, indigo, red green and azure blue come to awaken in you a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays in the curach of thought and a stain of ocean blackens beneath you, may there come across the waters a path of yellow moonlight to bring you safely home.

In Death we are reunited. In Death we are all equal. In Death we place absolute certainty.

I send you now to the arms of Mortis.

Rest, my beloved.”

The tears had come again and she brushed them away with irritation. When this funeral was over, then she could begin to move on. And in that second, she finally understood the logic of Gunther’s pressed request for a funeral. It represented closure for them all. This afternoon, she would say farewell to Kale.

But she would never say goodbye.

 

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