I wrote this piece in response to a flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig— 1500 words on, as he put it, “a rare, strange, unparalleled apocalypse.”
Well, I took a look at the challenge and thunk real hard, and…went in completely different direction. If this story puzzles anyone, I would ask them to not consider the modern English usage of the word “apocalypse”, but what the word actually means in Greek. The story’s inadequacies as a story, of course, have nothing to do with etymology.
Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel
“Tell her,” Timon said. He stood close to Aldan, speaking for his ears only.
“No,” Aldan said, speaking just as low.
It was probably an unnecessary precaution; it was unlikely that either of their voices could be heard over the music and the happy cries of the dancers. One hundred men and women matched steps in the middle of the hall. A hundred more urged them on from the sides, or gabbled among themselves beside tables heavy with food and drink. Timon and Aldan were alone in the crowd, far off in a corner behind pillars, and very nearly out of sight of the newlyweds, who sat atop the dais at the far end of the room. Aldan dared glance that direction. Ranald lolled in the groom’s seat, smiling broadly and toasting the dancers. Rebekah sat beside him the bride’s seat, her spray of flowers in her lap, quietly smiling.
“For the love of the all-seeing gods, why not?” Timon said.
“She marries a great lord,” Aldan said, “and she is happy. Besides which, she hardly knows me.”
“But you love her,” Timon said.
“What is that?” Aldan said. “Nothing. With this marriage we all buy peace among ourselves. Whatever I feel is nothing in comparison.”
“But, Aldan, your happiness….”
“Stop whispering in my ear,” Aldan told him. “It will do no good.”
He stepped away, leaving Timon glowering among the pillars. Aldan moved through the crowd carefully; he was not dressed in festive garb, but in traveling clothes, with his sword buckled on. His mission started as soon as he could pledge his loyalty to his new lord. Horses and the men detailed to follow him were waiting on the ceremony; all Aldan could do was make sure they were fed and out of the rain.
He went to the nearest table. The delicacies here would not sustain him on the ride he had ahead of him; but he had to eat or drink something, out of courtesy. This was not the time or place to give offense.
He found a plate of dove’s eggs in spiced butter, and ate them slowly as he walked to the other side of the room. He garnered stares as he did; some of the guests obviously wondered if he were a vagabond who had somehow gotten in past the guards. Others just as obviously wondered how someone so homely could have been invited to the nuptials of the high warlord of Telania and the fairest daughter of the old Houses.
He finished the eggs, and found a place for the plate in a niche in the far wall. It was an old icon shrine, now empty, and Aldan reflected that it was possible no servant would find the plate for twenty or thirty years. He wondered why that amused him.
“Still causing trouble, I see,” someone said from behind him.
Aldan turned. Scholar Harald approached; his old tutor was unchanged, save for more lines in his face. Aldan bowed. “It’s just they never have anywhere you can put the dishes,” he said.
“Ah—then we can blame the host,” Harald said. “As we can blame him for so many things.”
“Teacher,” Aldan said, warningly, “you should guard your lips.”
“Perhaps,” Harald said. “Perhaps I’m an old man who doesn’t care who knows what he thinks of our new overlord.”
“If nothing else, restrain yourself for my sake,” Aldan said. “It would grieve me to see your head displayed on the Traitor’s Walk.”
“Bah,” Harald said, waving his hand in that manner that told Aldan his teacher considered the matter unworthy of discussion. “It is needful for someone to bear witness to what we are giving up.”
“A generation of civil war?” Aldan suggested.
“Our ancient liberties,” Harald said.
“There will be time for that later,” Aldan said, growing worried. “First we have to defeat the Galocina.”
“Some would say the Galocina are a convenient distraction….” Harald said.
“Teacher, please,” Aldan pleaded.
“All right– I will be quiet, for your sake,” Harald said. He smiled. “It is too bad you never spoke up.”
“Spoke up?” Aldan said.
“To Rebekah,” Harald said. “If she were married now, the Warlord would have had to find some other woman of the Old Houses to wed—although I doubt he could have found anyone else as highly placed.”
Aldan shook his head. “You are dreaming, Teacher. Rebekah hardly knows my name. And her house would have hardly consented to wedding her to a mere soldier…especially one as homely as I am.”
“You have other qualities,” Harald said.
“None that could overcome the plain terror of my face,” Aldan said. “Forgive me, Teacher, but I need some air.”
He bowed to Harald, and stepped out on one of the western balconies. The balcony was covered, so he was not instantly soaked, but out in the dark the rain came down in a steady deluge. The sound of it actually matched the muffled sound of the celebration within. Soon enough he would be out in it; there was no delaying his mission for mere weather.
“What a night,” a voice said. “I am so sorry you’re going to have to ride through all that.”
Aldan turned. His mother came through the open doors on to the balcony. Her shrewd eyes examined him, as if looking to make sure his clothes were on straight and he combed his hair. Her smile, though, was indulgent and proud.
“The fate of a soldier,” Aldan said. “You get used to it.”
She came near. Aldan bowed to her, then hugged her close. “Well, thank the gods I’m not a soldier,” his mother said. “I’d hate to get used to this.” She stepped back, examining his face. “Exactly why are you still here, though?”
“Waiting on the ceremony,” Aldan said. “I must place my hands between the Warlord’s, and bid the couple farewell.”
“Oh, that,” his mother said. “Archaic claptrap.” She looked up and seemed to search Aldan’s face. “It won’t be easy for you, son. I am sorry.”
“What do you mean?”
“Having to farewell the woman you love as she is given to another,” his mother said.
Aldan sighed. “Everyone seems to be talking about impossibilities tonight. To Rebekah I am hardly more than dust; and my countenance….”
“Merely provides a covering for singular virtues,” his mother said. “Well, perhaps it is best you are leaving for the frontier.” She laid a hand to his cheek. “But I still claim a mother’s right to want my children to be happy.”
“Happy…is something I stopped worrying about many years ago, mother,” Aldan said.
Soon after they called for the pledging, and Aldan went in. There were a few courtiers ahead of him, so he had few minutes to wait and fidget and feel the eyes of the guests upon him. He was used to stares, usually. For the most part. Being the object of quite so much gawking at the same time was, he had to admit, a little unnerving.
Then it was his turn. He went forward, ascended the dais, and knelt before Ranald. He placed his hands between those of the Warlord. “My lord,” Aldan said, “I pledge my loyalty and service, my labor and my life. I pledge this to you and to the realm, in peace and in war.”
Ranald smiled down at him. “Ah,” the Warlord said, loud enough for all in the hall to hear. “We are pleased to receive the service of a soldier so brave and skilled. A little cheated, perhaps, in terms of beauty, but then, you’re not going out to make love to the Galocina, are you?”
Titters from the crowd; Aldan managed to smile. “No, my lord.”
He stood and stepped over to Rebekah, as the next courtier ascended the dais toward Ranald. Aldan knelt down before her. “Lady,” he said, “may the gods bless your union and sustain the peace it brings.”
“Aldan,” Rebekah said. She said it so softly that Aldan barely heard her, although he was only a foot or two in front of her.
He looked up. Rebekah stared down at him; her eyes searched his face. “Are you…well?” she asked him.
“W-well enough, lady,” Aldan stammered. He was suddenly swimming in her eyes.
“I’m sorry…I’m sorry you have to go away,” she said. “So far away…I want you to be careful, Aldan Osteran. Please, please be very careful.”
“I will, Lady,” Aldan said.
“I will pray for you constantly,” Rebekah said. She seemed to want to say something more, her eyes still fixed on his, but the next courtier was done with his pledge, so Aldan had to stand and turn away from Rebekah’s avid gaze, and descend the dais. He walked out of the hall, straight-backed, despite the way his legs threatened to buckle under the weight of revelation.