Request for Feedback: “Requiem for a Hero”

The following is a short story, and also the prologue for my next project, the first of a series of six novels. So I am very interested in how readers will react to these two important characters. Please comment below, or send me an email at <covercontest@airbornpress.ca>. Those who comment will receive a free copy of the first book of the series, “Zoysana’s Choice,” when it is published in the spring.

 

Requiem for a Hero

The husky blond Warlander swung down the forest path, thoroughly enjoying himself. It wasn’t often he got a chance to be free of his responsibilities, but here he was, off in the woods as he loved to be on a beautiful spring day. No armour, no attendants, no rituals: just himself and the forest.

And to add a bit of spice to the experience, he was sure he was being followed.

At first there had been no real evidence, only a sense that sometimes the sounds of the forest were slightly different on one side of the path or the other. Once he heard an odd, chirping whistle that he could not place.

Now that he was aware he picked up a few more hints, but still he was impressed. Few of his Personal Guard would have noticed. For a while he toyed with the idea that one of the Guides was playing games, but he was sure that even the Sivan, the best of them all, couldn’t be so subtle. Which aimed him towards less pleasant possibilities. He wasn’t worried; the greatsword sheathed across his back was more than a match for any occupant of the local forests. Like the bear that stood rampant on his surcoat, Barent feared nothing in the forest. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

On a whim, he turned aside to an open meadow. When he reached the centre he stopped and gazed around. This is getting very interesting. His shadow was there, he was sure, but nowhere near him was any cover nearly large enough to hide a man. The hair on his neck tingled. Too intelligent to be more than a bit superstitious, he still had moments…Hah! I’ll be jumping at leaves in the breeze soon.

Crossing the meadow, he strode back to the trail and moved along briskly. The presence was still there and once, when he stopped to consider a track on the path, he thought he heard a light, quick panting.

The print he was looking at was different from any in his experience. Small, indistinct and shallow, occurring at uneven intervals and in odd places, it seemed as if the creature making the tracks had – interesting idea – only touched the ground once in a while. More likely, an effort had been made to wipe out the traces. That was more logical. I hope.

He heard the whistle again. He tried to mimic it. After a pause it came again. He repeated it. Again he was answered, quicker this time. He tried again, varying the tune. No response.

Time for a bit of trapping technique. Choosing his spot, he sat down, back against a tree. He scanned his surroundings and then lay back, closed his eyes and listened. After a long while he heard, very faintly, approaching steps: light, irregular, coinciding with the rustle of the leaves in the breeze, but nonetheless footsteps. They came near and stopped. Another pause.

Nothing.

He opened one eye the barest slit. There, in front of him, a pair of tiny leather moccasins, scuffed and worn. His glance moved upwards, past a tattered brown peasant’s smock and a miniature hand with a bit of rag wrapped around two fingers, to meet a bright, full pair of brown eyes in a small, round face.

He opened both eyes and smiled, but there was no response. He knew better than to move. This creature was on the verge of flight as the wariest wild animal might be. He raised one eyebrow. The eyes narrowed in concentration and the dark eyebrows squirmed. He raised the other eyebrow instead. More concentration; the small, flat nose wrinkled.

He performed a creditable imitation of a person trying to raise an eyebrow and failing. The movement started with the eyebrows, and spread across his face, ending with a major contortion, his eyes crossed. At this the wide mouth quirked in a grin and a giggle was just escaping when it was cut off and the wary look returned. He waited until the small body relaxed ever so slightly. Then he smiled again. Receiving a hesitant response, he spoke softly.

“And who are you?”

There was a flash of movement and the glade around him was empty. Except for the slight waving of a few bushes off to his right, he would have sworn he had always been alone.

“I was getting uncomfortable down there anyway. You know, if the Sivan saw me lying defenceless on the ground, playing kiddie games with some kind of wood elf, he’d tan my hide with his scabbard. Even at my age.” He sat up straighter. “Yes, I think I’ll just sit here and whistle myself up a little bird.”

Continuing to murmur nonsense, he made himself comfortable. His tracker’s patience told him that his quarry would return long before he, himself, tired of the game. It wasn’t often that the hunter had such pleasant surroundings in which to wait. Yes, this is turning into a very interesting day. After a while, he returned to whistling. He started with a few birdcalls, then moved on to simple tunes he remembered from his childhood. Between songs, he would talk some more to himself. Soon he began to insert his imitation of the chirping whistle. After a few variations of this, he spoke again, louder.

“Well, small warbler. I hope you like my songs. When are you going to whistle for me, little bird?”

“I am not a bird.” The voice came from so near to his left ear that he had to force himself not to start. This bothered him, and his response came out sharper than he had intended.

“I beg your pardon, Mister, but only a silly little bird sneaks that close to a man with a sword.”

There was a pause. “I am not Mister.”

He took a moment to digest this. “Then whoever you are, perhaps you would like to be polite and speak to me, face to face.”

“Maybe.”

Now that he was making progress, he could afford to give in. “That’s fine.”

He waited. The natural sounds of the forest continued. Then he shook his head and blinked. Right in front of him, as if by magic, the leaves of a bush had transformed themselves into a pair of brown eyes and a snub nose. The dark eyebrows wrinkled. “Is something wrong?” The voice was a light treble.

“Why do you ask?”

“You don’t look happy.”

“Oh, I’m happy. I’m very happy to meet the person who has been walking with me for so long.”

“You knew I was there.”

“I noticed after a while.”

The frown deepened. “Did you smell me?”

“My nose isn’t that good.”

“Did you hear me?”

“No.”

“You didn’t see me.” A statement.

“Not a chance – you’re too small and too brown.”

“That’s right. So how did you know?” The demand was intense.

“The forest heard you.”

“The forest?”

“Birds and animals.”

The dark eyes widened, and the wiry figure leaned forward. “Do you talk to them?”

“No, I listen to them. I can tell what’s happening from that.”

“Oh.” A frown passed across the smooth brow. Then he received a quick but correct formal bow. “I will remember. I thank you.”

At least his suspicions were confirmed . “You’re a girl.”

She did not respond but looked at him as if expecting something intelligent or important to follow.

“Mm… yes, I see what you mean.” He grinned. “And what is my Lady doing in the forest this morning?”

“You are supposed to bow in return.”

“Pardon me?”

“When I bow my thanks, like this…” the dusty brown figure moved into the open to demonstrate, “You are supposed to respond thus…” Here she executed the standard “You’re welcome, to an equal, masculine mode,” precisely according to the Codes.

Impressive. Rigorously trained.

“Unless,” her head tilted, “the responder is of extremely exalted rank.” Her eyes slid to the left, and one finger moved as if following words on a page. “In this case the insignia of rank will carry, besides the normal positional motifs, a deep blue crenellated band. I wasn’t sure about yours. You have a straight blue band.” Her stare accused him. “That’s not in any of the pictures.”

“Relax. It will be many, many years before I wear the crenellated band. Never, I hope. The reason I didn’t get up was that I didn’t want you to run away again.”

“I was not running away. I am on a discretionary assignment and I made a considered withdrawal when confronted by a superior force.”

“A section of Haskell’s not well understood by many of our more ambitious younger officers.”

“My grandfather says I’ll never be big, so I better study that part of the manual really well.” A cloud covered her face. “My grandfather said that.”

“Right. So where is this grandfather of yours? I’d like to talk to him.”

The cloud darkened, “He…he’s not…here.”

Time to switch to a less touchy subject. “You know something? I think, in a situation such as this where there is no commonly known third party to introduce us, we would be quite correct in presenting ourselves, each to the other. Then, it being such a nice day and this being an informal occasion, perhaps we could share our lunch?”

She brightened. “Oh, yes. Shall we start the introductions now?”

As he nodded, Barent was not too surprised that she started on a letter-perfect self-introduction. For once he wasn’t sorry about all the time he had spent as a boy, sweating over the Court Etiquette section of the Codes.

As he filled in the correct responses, he learned that she was of foreign ancestry – no surprise – that her name was Zoysana and that she was nine years old. Hmm. She was about the size of an average six-year-old. That make her less precocious than she looks, but he even so… Continuing to respond, he waited to find out who had trained her. Surely some family member. On her paternal side she was related to a branch of lesser Petrellan nobility that he thought had tapered out in the last few generations. Sure enough, she spoke of them all in the deceased mode, including the final level, her father. When she came to the matrilineal, she paused in her recitation.

“I don’t have very much on this side because my grandfather came from a long way away. It’s a good thing, because I don’t remember too well.”

“You seem to remember very well, my Lady. Please continue.” And then it all began to fit together. She started in the reverse order, with her mother, again in the deceased mode. She then went on to the grandfather as next living relative and, with a slight hesitation, named him as deceased also. At the end of the ritual she bowed and stood, chin high, but with a quiver to her lip.

Without missing a beat Barent rose and picked up his side of the ceremony, using the shortened version as usual. When they had completed the final handclasp she looked up at him.

“Are you really Third Prince Ascending?”

“That’s what the blue band means.”

“I will remember. I thank you.” They exchanged quick, semi-formal nods this time, then grinned at each other, both slightly embarrassed but pleased at their new intimacy.

“Now, about lunch. As this is more your territory than mine, perhaps you could suggest a spot?”

“I have an idea. Why don’t you come home with me?” She pulled at his hand, and he wondered at her enthusiasm.

“Sounds marvellous, but I don’t want to intrude. The people at home could have other plans…” She seemed bothered by this, so he forged on. “Well, perhaps we could ask?”

She looked even worse. “I don’t have to ask.”

Could she be on her own? “It must be all right, then.” Trying to sound more cheerful than he felt, he made a shrewd guess and hung back, “But I don’t have much with me – sort of a hunter’s snack, fresh brown bread and cheese. I don’t suppose you have any herbs or berries?”

She danced a step. “But I do, I do! That’s perfect.” Her anxious glance at his pouch confirmed how simple her diet was if she was on her own in the forest.

He wondered how long she had been solitary and how she survived. Her grandfather must have taught her more than the Codes. She looked clean, considering her situation. Her clothes, although worn, were neat.

He awoke from this reverie when his guide cut off into the undergrowth. “We’ll go in this way, today.”

“Isn’t there a path?” He had to make sure he kept an eye on her; she could disappear so quickly, and it would be embarrassing, stumbling around the bush calling for her.

She frowned. “Never the same route twice,” she quoted.

“Of course. How could I forget my lessons like that? Lead the way.”

Even with this hint he nearly stumbled into the side of her home before he noticed it. A tiny stone cottage backed into a crevice between two huge boulders, a handkerchief-sized glade in front. A tree shaded the door and windows and almost hid the sloping turf roof. Camouflaged and positioned for defence. Couldn’t have designed a better hideout myself. The beaten dirt of the clearing gave it away but provided a clear field of fire from the narrow windows. Off to one side a strange pattern of posts and rails was driven into the earth; it looked like a training ground, but he couldn’t see how it would be used.

After fiddling with the handle, Zoysana opened the door and ushered him in. Ducking under the lintel, he looked around, aware of her regard.

Plastered walls, a stone cooking hearth, beautifully crafted rustic furniture, all built on a small scale. He didn’t have to read the titles of the familiar, well-worn books on the shelf. A smooth plank floor. Also, a tight plank ceiling: a bonus, considering how a sod roof tried to trickle down on you. A curtained arch led to two small bedrooms. Receiving an anxious nod of approval, he glanced in each. Again, elegant simplicity. A low bed made up with a plain blanket and a thin pillow, a table with shelves under for neatly folded clothing. And in the very back, the ultimate luxury: a dim cave, complete with a spring that bubbled from one wall and disappeared through a pool in the floor. Various provisions were stored here, hanging from roof beams and in boxes and earthenware jars on shelves.

But no weapons. More and more curious. In a part of the country where every farmer’s cottage had at least a staff or bow handy to the door, this house looked too pacific. This concept didn’t jibe with the layout of the building, the equipment in front and the girl’s training. He pondered this as they returned to the main room. He watched Zoysana setting a precise pattern of cups and utensils on the low table.

“If I might make a suggestion, my Hostess?”

“My pleasure is to honour my guest’s command.”

He grinned. He knew the exact page in the Codes that one came from.

“Thank you, my Lady. As this is the occasion of my first visit to your abode,” he indicated the table, “I agree that the formal tea ritual should be observed. However, after that, since we both must assume the roles of cook, server, and guest, I think a less structured atmosphere would be pleasant.”

“Would that not be incorrect?”

“If I may bore you with an observation resulting from the experience of my advanced age?”

“Does that mean you’re going to teach me something?”

He laughed, “No, I’m just holding up my end of the discussion.”

She exaggerated her relief at this as she was expected to, but there was a note of disappointment as well.

“You are familiar with the Codes. Now, the Codes have a meaning and a purpose, and they hold our society together and keep it running smoothly.”

“Yes, of course.”

“But the Codes do not, and cannot, cover every situation. There is a time to obey the book and a time to improvise. This time we’re on our own. In fact, the only reason I can think of that two strangers at a friendly meeting would maintain higher formality would be that they were afraid of each other.”

“Afraid!” She looked insulted.

“Yes, afraid. Don’t be afraid of that word.” He began the quote, “‘Fear may induce or allay the courageous act…’ ”

“ ‘…but should never control it.’ Haskell’s Code of the Mercenary, page 56,” they finished together, laughing. He threw up his hands in surrender.

“Someone drilled that one into your head too, did he?” He winced inwardly when her face sobered.

“Yes, he did.”

“Well, then,” he hurried on, “if people can’t figure out how to treat someone because they’re afraid, they can fall back on the formal mode.” He clapped his hands together. “So, since we’re not afraid of each other, shall we have a nice, relaxed meal? I would prefer that we were not only well schooled, but also well fed.”

Her face brightened, and she began to bustle around. “Right away, my Lord!”

As they moved through the ceremony he watched her movements. He had been served in a more elaborate style, and he was sure that there were nine-year-old “ladies” at court who could manage the tea ceremony with more accuracy. But her gestures had a subtle, fluid grace which many a high caste hostess would never achieve. Her form intrigued him because it was vaguely familiar but he couldn’t place it. She didn’t fit into any of the schools prevalent in court at the moment, nor any he could remember from the past. At least the tea was good, an unhoped-for bonus. And for a change, the ritual request of the source of the leaves resulted in a detailed list of local herbs, complete with their proper names.

He tasted again with closer appreciation, and his ideas began to come together. Capable as she seems, this little girl has serious problems ahead of her, not the least of which being money. Not that money was a necessity. She might make it, out here by herself, well hidden. If she didn’t fall prey to disease, accident, wild animal or outlaw, and with help from the villagers, she might survive. But what kind of life? Without stimulation and practice, the learning would soon fade. Without enough human contact, her personality would edge away from normal. She might escape the rigours of nature just long enough for the villagers to burn her as a witch.

He wouldn’t take her under his wing and support her even if she would accept it. In the first place, no one in his position could go around adopting every waif he came across. Turning her into a pampered freeloader would be a worse disservice than leaving her here to struggle. He searched for other options as she brought the ceremony to a precise close and they relaxed their formal poses. He pulled his pouch to him. “Cooks’ hats on.”

As he laid out the generous portion of bread and cheese the cook had packed for him, the girl disappeared out the door, returning with a handful of green things, which she took in to the spring to wash.

The meal was a pleasant change for both of them. Her salad and spices were new to him, and the way she attacked the bread spoke volumes about the variety of her recent diet. By the time they both sat back, satisfied, he had made a decision. The gods knew he was not a healer, but he had seen enough grief to know what she needed right now.

“Might I make a suggestion?”

“Certainly. Was the food all right?”

“Of course. After all, who prepared it? No, I wanted to comment on your tea ritual.”

How quickly that calm, round face could become so expressive. “It…didn’t match up, did it?”

“Quite the opposite. I enjoyed it immensely. Your teacher would have been proud.” He ignored her pain. She must get used to the reality of her loss, hard though it is. “I have an interesting idea.”

“Excuse me. If you would…?”

“In the fifth response, where you are supposed to tell me what ingredients went into the tea…”

“I didn’t forget that!” Her eyes widened. “I know I remembered it.”

“Calmly, calmly. I know you performed it by the Codes. However, in recent years it has become more complicated.” He leaned forward, elbows on knees.

“Rich ladies who want to impress their guests make it a competition to see which one can outdo the others, both in the style of the ceremony and in the quality of the blend they serve.”

“But tea is a solemn rite. You can’t turn it into a competition. That’s not proper!”

“I agree, but they have nothing else to do, so that is how they entertain themselves. More important, they pay a lot of money for their teas, and they wouldn’t dream of letting anyone find out what each one contains. So at response five, they don’t quite tell the truth.”

“But the Codes say…”

“Oh, they don’t actually lie. But they make broad generalizations and create flowery names that mean nothing.” She was still frowning, so he tried again, looking for more simple words. “What if you used something like fennel wort in your tea.”

“I wouldn’t do that – the roots are poisonous.”

“Are they? But you miss the point. No hostess would ever admit to having anything by that name in her tea; it sounds too ugly and it is too easy for other people to find it.”

The light began to dawn. “She doesn’t want anyone to know what she’s using.”

“Right. So she calls it something like ‘Winsome Blossom of the Valley’.”

A knowing smile quirked the corners of her mouth. “And that’s no hint, since most of the flowers grow in the valleys.”

“I suppose they do. Anyway, the point is that those same ladies pay a lot of money for an interesting and tasty tea.” He indicated his cup. “Do you have more like this? Any different flavours?”

“Aye. I have a fresh bag right here. I know a few others and I have more written down.”

“So if you could sell them, you could make quite a bit of money.”

“Why would I want money?”

“Sooner or later, you will need money.”

“What good is money?”

“Ah.” This was about as hard as he had expected. “Look at it this way. Do you like my dagger?”

“No.”

“Ah. Well, do you like my insignia?”

“Oh, yes.”

“What if you wanted it?”

“I couldn’t. It’s not my…”

“No, no, no.” She was trying hard to understand, and this strengthened his patience. He preferred problems he could solve with his sword, but he gritted his teeth and went on. “What if you wanted one of your own?”

Uncertainty crossed her brow. “I could make one…”

“No, you couldn’t. Look at the workmanship.”

Inspiration. “I could snare some rabbits and trade them for it. I got cloth from the village that way.”

At least he was making progress. “See that thread? That is gold. Do you know what gold is?”

“Everyone knows what gold is. It’s a pretty colour and hard to find.”

“The amount of gold in this badge alone is worth more rabbits than you could snare in a month.”

He had her cornered, but she was still looking for a way out. “But what if I don’t want a badge?”

“Think of what you do want. In the end, it all costs money. Do you have any?” There was a long pause. He could see the dreams tumbling about her.

“Then I could never get my own badge.”

“Ah, but we were talking about the tea.”

“That’s just leaves and things. Easier to find than rabbits!”

He grinned. “If my mother used your tea one time in her formal daily ritual, then all those ladies would want to find out where it came from.”

“Is your mother so important…oh, of course she is.”

“And those ladies wouldn’t be happy unless they paid a lot of money for it.”

“They wouldn’t?” Her eyebrows went up. “Don’t they want to keep their money to spend on important things?”

“Take my word for it. I’m no merchant, but I’d guess you could sell the tea in that jar for enough money to buy the gold in my badge. What do you think of that?”

“I think I understand money better, but I don’t understand those ladies.”

“I’m not sure I do either. But on the subject of understanding, why don’t you like my dagger?”

What could have been a blush tinged her brown cheeks. “Oh, I’m sorry. It’s a beautiful dagger. It looks very efficient.”

Efficient. A good term for a working weapon. What a strange background this waif has. “But you don’t like it. Why?”

“May I see it?” He handed it over. He noted that she held it as if the feel was familiar. “What would you do if I attacked you with it?”

He thought his answer over, then took the easy way out, with the truth.

“I think I’d laugh.”

“I suppose so.” She returned the dagger, then straightened and bowed. “Demonstration for instructional purposes, Sir?”

Dammit, she’s switched levels again. He started to get up.

“No, please stay there. It will work better. What if I was clearing the table,” she walked past him to pick up the dishes, “and I stumbled…”

He found himself staring at her, eye to eye, as she leaned against his sword arm. He could feel a sharp, two-tined eating fork pressed against the vein in his throat. Again she had managed to startle him!

He stared at her for the moment it took to calm himself. “But could you use it?”

Her triumphant look wavered, fell. “I don’t know.” She pushed herself upright and stood, disconsolate. “I don’t like to kill the rabbits, either.” She looked earnestly at him. “But the book says…”

He chuckled. “I know what Haskel says about bravery, and I couldn’t agree more. Your time may come. Now tell me. Do you have any other surprises for me?”

She smiled impishly, looked around, shrugged and handed him a plate. The edge was not exactly sharp, but it was thin and very hard. He checked the room again. The curtain rod. The fire irons. Some tangled sticks on the wall he had at first taken for juvenile art work. He rose and bowed.

“I will remember. I thank you.”

She bowed in return, then clapped her hands in glee, a childish motion, considering the topic. “They are good, aren’t they? Oh, Grandfather told me. Oh, he will be so pleased…” She stopped.

“No,” he reminded her gently, “your grandfather would have been so pleased.”

“Yes.”

“Would you tell me about your grandfather?” There was a long pause. “I already know the official version; your introduction gave me that. But what was the real story? I think it would be a good idea for you to tell it.”

She squared her shoulders as if preparing for an ordeal. Her eyes unfocussed and her breathing became slow and controlled.

“My grandfather came from far away, over that way.” She waved a hand in a northeast direction. “He came here from his own land to seek adventure and glory. And money, I suppose. He worked for a duke, teaching his soldiers to fight. He studied very hard to learn our Codes, and then he taught more. He taught the old duke’s children as well. He sent a long way home for a wife, and she came here. She didn’t like it, so she died, but she gave him a daughter first. That was my mother. When she grew up, she married one of the young duke’s sons.” She was out of her depth, but she floundered on.

“But another man didn’t like it, so it went wrong, and after a while, they died.” Her chin rose. “My grandfather said they died well.”

Restraining himself from saying something fatuous like “I’m sure they did,” he waited. Let her get through this her own way. So far she was only telling a story. She had never met these people, and the concept of father and mother held little emotional significance.

“So my grandfather came away and brought me here. I was very, very, small. He used to say he didn’t know much about little girls,” – fierce pride here – “But he taught me what he knew.”

“And that explains the tea making.”

“But you said I did it fine!”

“Did your grandfather ever teach you about style?”

“That’s in fighting. Two people can do a move differently, but they’re both right?”

“Sort of like that. In sitting through hundreds of tea rituals every year, I have developed an eye for style. Yours is unique, and I was wondering about it. Now that you tell me, it’s easy. Your style is that of the warrior performing the feminine role. Or a feminine warrior, and we don’t have too many of those. Unique and very interesting. But continue about your grandfather. What else did he teach you?”

“He taught me the Codes, because that is the most important part of an education. And Haskel. And we both learned about the forest, because we live here,” she smiled. “Sometimes I learned faster. He said I was perfectly quiet. Well, almost perfectly. You can hear really well, can’t you?”

“Sometimes people can’t hear so well when they are old. But you do move lightly.”

“That’s because I’m small. It was the same with weapons. He said I would never be big enough to use any of the regular ones, and nobody would let me carry one anyway. So I had to learn to use what was available.”

“But he wasn’t above helping out the availability.”

“The what?”

Barent indicated the curtain rod. “Availability. The things that are available.” A precise enough definition, from a Warlander to a nine-year-old.

“Yes. Just because you’re a lady doesn’t mean you have to be defenceless.”

“Wait until you meet my sister, Kenna. All she needs is her tongue. Don’t worry, you’ll understand when you get to know her. So your grandfather taught you a lot.”

“Aye. All the time. He really liked to teach, I guess. It was fun most of the time. Some of it was hard, too. How long can you hold at nose level?”

“…what do you mean?”

“I’ll show you, come on.” She ran out to the bars set up in the yard. Picking up his sword, he followed. She jumped, grabbed a bar and pulled herself up until her nose was level with the bar. “You just stay like this as long as you can. Try it.”

Catching a higher bar, he pulled himself up. He had been through plenty of tests of strength, but not precisely like this. In a very short time his arms started to hurt.

Zoysana seemed unaffected. “How are you doing?”

“Fine so far.”

“My grandfather always said that it wasn’t a matter of strength – just willpower.”

Barent had tested his own will and the limits of his endurance, but he also knew that he was proportionally much heavier than she was. The strength-to-weight ratio of someone her size could be amazing.

“I bet you wish you took your sword off first,” she chuckled. “Weapons!”

Barent waited until the pain stopped and the burning began. If she wants to vindicate her grandfather’s training, she’s capable of hanging here until she passes out. I wonder if I am? “Do we have to do this all day?”

“Of course not.” She dropped off and wandered over to him, flexing her arms.

He felt ridiculous, but something made him hold on a while longer before letting himself down. “Not my choice for a pleasant afternoon’s entertainment, but excellent training. Mind if I borrow the idea?”

“It’s not mine to give away. It’s my grandfather’s.”

“But it is yours now, isn’t it? He left all his ideas to you, just like this house, and everything here?”

“I guess so.”

He sat down on a lower bar, his face at her level. “What happened to your grandfather, Zoe?”

After a moment she turned and walked towards the side of the house, beckoning him to follow. There, in an angle between the wall and the boulder, was a small triangle of flat earth, smoothed and packed, with a grave mounded of stones in the centre. It was a travesty of the traditional Warlander’s Resting. The four corner pillars were simply large rocks. They seemed much too heavy to be moved by even an average nine-year-old, but nonetheless, they were only rocks. The monument, carved in wood instead of stone, had been lovingly polished, but the lettering was crude. It was, all in all, a pitiful Resting for a noble man, but Barent wondered how many Warlanders had a grave prepared with such toil and love.

He turned to see Zoysana holding herself fiercely in check. This was painful but necessary. “What happened?”

“Nothing, really. He was very old – older than you. And one day he got sick and couldn’t eat. I did everything he told me, but it didn’t help. And after a while he couldn’t tell me any more. So I tried all the things he had taught me. Then I went to the old lady in the village, but she couldn’t help either. And…then…he just stopped breathing.

“And so I read the books very carefully, and I tried to do everything properly for him. But I don’t think I did it very well. The carving isn’t very good.” She twisted at the cloth around her fingers. “I’m pretty clumsy with a chisel. But when I did the ceremony, I practised ahead of time and I remembered almost all of it.” She gulped hard, “But there’s some parts, you know, that one person just can’t do alone. Do you think he’ll mind?”

Better to get things on a more conversational level. “How long ago was this?”

But this weak attempt to ease her pain failed as well. She looked about to collapse. Her head drooped and her feet shuffled together. This small detail seemed to be the final drop, about to make the bucket overflow.

“I…I’ve…I’ve lost track of the days. It was my duty to mark them, and I forgot!”

“Don’t worry about that. We have people at court keeping track, and it’s the nineteenth day of the Second of Summer. So that’s solved.” He knelt down to face her again. “And you have done very well for your grandfather. I’m sure many Warlanders would be honoured to have a Resting built this way. But there is one major item you have missed.”

Her eyes flew wide. “No!” She looked frantically around. “No. It’s all there – just like the book says!”

“Gently, now. The part you missed isn’t in the book.”

“It isn’t?”

“Remember, the Codes don’t cover everything. The Codes only say what should be done for the Warlander Fallen. What about you?”

“Me?”

“That’s right. Don’t you know what has to happen for you?”

“No.” She looked at him sideways, apprehensive.

“Did you cry?”

“Mmhm,” ruefully, “lots and lots.”

“By yourself?”

Her head nodded vigorously.

“Good. But not good enough. You see, the book doesn’t say so, but what you have to do is, you have to find a friend, see? And then your friend has to put both arms around you and hold you really tight, see? And then you have to cry. Lots and lots.”

The big brimming eyes looked up at him. There was nothing left to say. He reached out and gathered the small body in his arms. At this point it all burst through. Her head on the Warlander’s breast, her cheek pushed hard against the huge brass buckle of his baldrick, Zoysana sobbed the final requiem for her grandfather.

1 comment for “Request for Feedback: “Requiem for a Hero”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.