[Warning for sensitive readers]
The orchard stood in full bloom, grown to overflow the crest of the immense hill southwest of Ludwell. The red, pink and white silhouette was visible for miles in the afternoon sun, a ubiquitous mark of the Anarawd in hillfort.
Gamond strode up the hillside and stepped into the sun-dappled shade beneath the boughs, breath calming as his mind and olfactory senses were eased by the elusive scent of the flowers. Beside him, Prince Meliodas drew a deep breath and sighed.
“ It is wondrous Sir Ludwell. A remarkable place. That scent, it is unfamiliar. Not something from the trees of Lyonesse or Cornwall I take it? ”
Gamond smiled, nodding “ Thank you your highness. I don’t think so, Gusg could explain it, I think. It has something to do with the wild trees planted in the heart of the orchard. ”" Just Sir Meliodas, please. I should very much like to see them ”
They walked in silence, undisturbed along natural pathways among the trees, worn by peasant feet during ever more plentiful harvests. Gamond, as always, found solace here, and though he was usually alone during these walks he found that the Prince of Lyonesse was one whose company he did not mind. Eventually, the red heart of the orchard emerged, surrounded to the east by white, and to the west by reddish to pale pink. Meliodas cast his eye all around as they walked deeper, stopping several times to touch the bark and smell the flowers.
“ No fruit yet ” said Gamond, a mix of disappointment and tension making gravel of his voice. A dead tree stood deeper in, rotting from the inside. It would be replaced come autumn, fresh shoots from the grove within Modron placed in its stead in forest earth.
“ These trees show great promise for something so wild, they will provide ”
“ I hope so. ” Gamond paused, weighing his next words carefully. He had rehearsed what to say ever since the prince appeared at Tisbury, yet now he did not know how to express his meaning. It was always so. Frustrated, he decided to simply speak plain.
“ Sir Meliodas. My son, I would very much like to see him grow up with you and yours ”.
The princes’ eyebrows turned a V of surprise. “ Sir Ludwell, that is… very irregular. I cannot… ”
“ I know it is. Your highness, sir, Sir Meliodas. I am not a good man. ”
“ Now surely Lord Ludwell you cannot say… ”
Gamond gave the visibly discomfited prince a long, flat stare. “ Please, listen. ”
As afternoon wore towards evening, Gamond spoke and the prince listened. A story sometimes livid and lifelike, sometimes told in brief statements burdened by emotion and meaning, and full of oppressive silences. Of a blade bound to the heart of the Anarawd, of fell betrayal and the unforgivable crime of a murdered sister, of the loss of a father. Of a destiny turned dark, the blade a lodestone drawing what was once good inexorably toward evil.
“ … the blade must be reclaimed, turned back to good. To save my family. I know this, and I know I am not the man to do it. But my son, my son could be. He needs to be raised by a good, true man. You, Sir, are closest to the heart of the Anarawd that I have known ”.
The sun had sunk beneath the crest of the hill in the west, and the evening slowly grew chill.
Meliodas, touched by the tale and caught in his modestly, eventually replied. His own private anguish turned his voice sour “ I am not so good. Many days… many days are bitter. My peers are often bad men who are cheered for their whims, celebrated for vanity and casual cruelty.” The moment passed, and Meliodas sighed, his expression softening. “And yet, I am who I am ”." _ Regardless of your personal opinion, Meliodas, it is that perseverance and the values of your kin and family in Lyonesse that I admire_. ”
Meliodas said nothing for a while. “ I must think of this, Gamond. I cannot answer you now. ”
“ it is good enough. ”
Summer had been good. He had several new scars, round arrow spots, but pain and injury was nothing new. He floated on his back in the river, in his favourite spot. Late summer heat shimmered above the surface. A fawn looked up as he lazily drifted past, ears clipping. Calm. The animal did not even bolt.
Anwyn hadn’t shot him. She had him in her sight, her brothers’ life at stake, and she had not let the arrow fly. She loved him. Gamonds heart beat warm and slow, soft with uncommon emotion. He would argue her case if any was made against her, argue with the only language he knew well, the iron word. Her brother was a thorny problem, but one that would be solved the same way. He would make the final argument of blood and settle it, one way or another.
He closed his eyes, thoughts content and fuzzy. Anwyn was pregnant. She had said she could not be, that she had taken precautions, and yet it was so. More than ever, he was happy for the news. A son of her blood and his would be a strong, fierce warrior. His line would continue, no matter Meliodas eventual decision. He knew it would be a son, of course it would be, and he would finally be the father who loved, and was loved in turn. Perhaps that hideous pull the blade of hate had on his family had finally abated.
The cold stung his face, leaving some of every breath frozen in his beard. The two torches set in sconces on the wall and two candles burning on the altar cast the chapel in fay flickering light.
Still, he felt warm, wrapped in heavy furs and dreams of the future. A future where the Saxons were no more, driven into the sea. Holy father, let it be so. A future with family, his family. Strong sons and daughters with Anwyns eyes, the envy of maidens across the land. Oh lord, hear my prayer. He would marry her; he had known it in his heart since autumn. It would be his gift to her once the judicial nonsense was taken care of. They would be together.
He sighed, snuggled deeper into the furs, He had retreated to the chapel once Anwyns time was upon her, his presence had helped neither of his two former wives after all. This battle was one women had to fight alone, and his was a strong, strong woman, best his ungainly bulk was elsewhere.
Time passed by, soft treads through meditative silence. The candles burned low as the lord of Ludwell sat alone with his thoughts.
Steps, feet in the snow. Gamond rose, and his heart rose with him. Was it a son? It must be. Berth, his young tutor, dragged the protesting door – heavy with snow – open and and stepped inside. He was pale, wide eyed. He was afraid. “ Gamond… I.. I… ”.
His heart beat, hard, a hammer blow against his ribs. The world faded to white, then back with that beat. He stared into Berths eyes, bulging with stark terror. The young priest clawed desperately at the one slab of a hand curled around his throat, holding him three feet above the ground against the wall. “ What. Did. You. Do. ” His voice sounded strange, far away. Berth shook his head frantically, trying to speak.
His heart beat. Blotting out the world. White. Then red. Red everywhere. The bed was soaked, the floor… he held her close to him. She was in his arms, blinking slowly. So pale. Some odd sound bothered him, shaking his head did not make it go away. A deep sobbing, broken keening, distant. Rising, falling with the uneven rhythm of her chest. But her mouth was closed. He could warm her, keep her here, if only he held on hard enough. Would that damned wailing stop?
She was so still; her hand had fallen from his arm. He kissed her, breathed his life into her lungs. Sudden silence. Live. Stay. Please. One odd eye slid to his, and faded. As her spark flickered out his heart burnt out of his chest, leaving an empty sucking hole. The sound was back, a wordless howl. And hate, hate flooded in.
His head throbbed with the beat of his heart. White. There in his hand, that pale snake. That murderous thing. That disgusting, treacherous piece of himself.
It had killed all that he had loved. Never again. He raised the dagger.