Armon closed his eyes tighter, losing the dream. He hadn’t really been sleeping, in truth; it had just occurred to him that perhaps, if he closed his eyes tight enough, he might wake from this world into something better.
“Armon.” The man’s voice was not inquiring this time; Armon’s game was up. “Armon. I know you are not asleep.” Gentle hands brushed the hair from his brow. “Come on, lad. It’s…” a pause, uncomfortable, the words stuck like sharp blades in the man’s throat. Finally, a sigh. “Armon. He’s asking for you.”
Armon pulled his blanket closer. “Go away, Araton. I’m sleeping.”
Araton laughed at him, hearty and genuine. “No. No, you’re not. Come on, lad. He wants you there. He wants you to be there when he…” Another pause, another uncomfortable sigh. “He knows best, Armon. Your father, he… he knows best. Come on, I’ll carry you.” Without another word, Araton picked him up, blanket and all.
Armon had neither the strength nor the will to fight him. “I’m too heavy,” he complained feebly.
Araton laughed at him again. “At thirteen? All arms and legs at that age, my grandmother would have said, with nothing but room to grow.” He grunted as he wrestled with the door, finally managing to open it by shoulder and boot.
“Wait,” Armon said. “Please.” Something in his voice had made Araton listen; he stopped, hoisting Armon higher in his arms as if he were a sack of potatoes. “Put me down,” Armon said quietly. He sighed, deep, resigned. “I can walk, Araton. I can.”
There was silence, and then Araton put him down with a shrug. He crouched down before him, so that they were eye to eye. His eyes were grey; his face, grizzled and worn, but sympathetic. He tousled Armon’s hair, a tired grin spreading across his face. “Be brave, lad.”
They walked from his room and across the sky hall. The walls were streaked with fading sunlight, corrupting all the fineries that draped them with dull shades of colour. There were fine tapestries and mosaics, mere dreams of form in the dusk. The busts of his ancestors, immaculate in marble, looked outwards from the garden under the sky. In the fading light, they wore frowns of hard angles and deep shadows. Reminders, father called them. He had never explained what that meant. Their eyes had always scared Armon; smooth and flat, lifeless and dull, as dead as the men that owned them. Would he become like that one day?
As they crossed the garden, the sounds of screams and crying grew louder. Occasionally there were curses, too, red and angry. Mostly, they sounded like naught but wordless babble. Armon might have covered his ears, had he a choice. But he was sure that father would view that as weak. He squeezed his eyes closed for a moment. It’s not him, he thought, willing it to be true. It doesn’t even sound like him anymore.
As they got closer to the hallway that led into father’s chamber, the curses became more discernible. It was anger, and anguish, and fear; a river of emotion, meshed clumsily together. One solitary guard stood before the hallway, face grave. He stopped the two of them.
“Only you, little Lord,” one of them said. There was kindness in his voice.
Araton harrumphed angrily. “I don’t want to leave the boy alone with him. His father is not himself.”
The guard coughed uncomfortably. “My apologies, horsemaster, but… physician’s orders. He says… says it’s a kindness for Lord Attomar. Says he can’t recognise anyone besides his family anyhow.”
Araton took a deep breath. “He’ll recognise me.” He was shorter than the guard, but broader. In a way, he seemed somehow larger.
The guard dropped his eyes. “I’m… I’m sorry. Horsemaster.”
The breath whistled in Araton’s nose like an angry cauldron. Eventually, he nodded, and turned to leave. Armon saw him hesitate, however. “Your father loves you, Armon,” he said without turning. “Remember that.” He walked away, the muscles in his back tense as a bowstring.
When Armon turned back to the guard, he found his eyes upon him. “Come, little Lord,” he said quietly. “I’ll take you to him.” He hesitated, and then began striding down the hallway. Armon followed, clutching his blanket tightly. It smelt warm and familiar; thick, dense wool, coupled with a smoky, comforting scent. Compared to the hallway, which seemed large, and foreign, and cold, it was a link to a better place.
The guard parted the heavy silk curtain at the end of the hallway, and held it open for Armon to enter.
“Who is that? Who is that? Tallia, I know him not! Get out! Get out!!!” The anger in his father’s voice was muffled by weeping; when he spoke again, his voice was feebler. “Get out. Just… get out…”
The guard bowed his head. “As you wish, my Lord. I’ll leave.” He stepped back through the curtain. At the last moment, he turned, and added, “my Lord… I’ve brought your son for you, as you requested.” Then he left.
“Armon?” His father quested towards him.
Armon was somewhere else for a moment, lost amidst the sights and the scents of his father’s bedchamber. The sweet smells of broth and wine warred with a deep, sickly smell, alike to ash and dust. The heads of proud animals stared coldly from the walls, eyes dark and unsympathetic. The silk canopy that wreathed the bed hung limply, as if sodden. Fine furs were heaped about the bed, making the man beneath them look small and frail.
Father… his head was raised, staring in Armon’s direction. His eyes were unfocused. Foggy lanterns cast a muggy yellow light across the room, giving his face a wan appearance. “Armon… my son, beloved son, come here, my boy.” He was crying. “My boy, beautiful boy.” He raised his arms for an embrace, which seemed an effort.
“Armon.” The voice of his mother, sitting beside the bed. Her hands were folded sedately across her lap, fingers loose. On the outside, she appeared every inch the lady of the house, but Armon knew his mother well enough to know better. Her eyes, rimmed in red, gave her away.
“Armon,” she repeated. “Go to your father.”
The physician, robed appropriately in black, nodded. “It is safe, Armon.”
Armon walked slowly across the room. His father’s eyes seemed glazed over, as if he were seeing the world through distorted glass. “My son,” he said, wearing a trembling smile.
Armon embraced him. His father’s breath was hot and dry on his cheek, and his chest shook with each haggard breath. Unkempt grey hair turned grey as an old man’s tickled his cheek. “My son, my boy.” He broke from the embrace, but his hands gripped Armon by the shoulders. “Have you been safe, my boy? Have you been careful? There are enemies everywhere, enemies everywhere, you have to be careful with everything you do. Do you understand me?” Without warning, he broke from the hold into a coughing fit, and Armon used it as an excuse to take a step back from the side of the bed. He dropped his eyes, not wanting to see, and busied his hands with the loose frays of his nightshirt.
The physician was there to take his place in an instant, bowl of water in hand. Gently, he offered the bowl to Armon’s father. Eyes suddenly bright with panic, father shrieked, recoiling from the physician. “Poison!” He knocked the bowl from the proffered hand with surprising strength. The water beaded thinly amongst the furs. “Do you think me a fool? You try to poison me!”
“No poison, my Lord,” the physician said calmly. “Only water.” He replaced the bowl with a moist towel, which he placed on father’s forehead. Father reclined weakly without complaint.
“Water…” father grumbled. Suddenly he stirred. “Water… the pumps… are they properly installed, Lucia? The men, they work too slow, my father will not stand for it…”
“Husband.” It was mother, reaching out to hold father’s hand. “Your father died many years ago. As did Lucia the builder.”
Father frowned. “I know that, Tallia! You talk no sense.” He sighed with frustration. “Where is Armon? I want him to be here. I will pass tonight, I can feel it. He should be here. Why is he not here?”
Armon’s throat was tight with emotion. “I’m here, father.” His lip trembled when he spoke. He took a hesitant step forward, reaching out with one unsteady hand. “I…” Sighing, he let his hand drop. He didn’t know what to say.
“Armon!” his father exclaimed. “My son, my boy. Have you been careful?” His head sagged back onto the bed, exhausted even at that simple effort. “Enemies,” he whispered.
The physician stirred uncomfortably. “Perhaps it is time to summon… the priest,” he suggested. “For… well, my Lord, I can only ease your physical passing.”
“No priests!” father screamed. His words were a raw shriek, just barely the words of a man rather than a maddened beast. “No priests! The Gods love me not!” He coughed again, his brow furrowing angrily. “Wine,” he muttered.
“No,” mother said softly. She reached out, her hand resting on her husband’s frail arm. “No wine, husband.”
“Wine!” he sobbed. “Please… wine.”
Mother sighed, and looked to the physician. “It can do him no more harm, now,” was his answer.
“Quickly!” Armon’s father screeched. “Gods, the pain! There is fire in my belly! Fire! Oh, it burns!” He sobbed, coughed, sobbed again. “Burns…” he whispered.
The physician deftly produced a full wineskin from somewhere, unstoppered it, held it to father’s lips. Father twisted his head angrily away from the skin. “No! Let Armon do it! My boy, my son… serve me my wine, please…” his eyes, bleary and tired, pleaded with Armon. Armon swallowed the sob in his throat, straightened his shirt, and took the skin from the physician.
“My son…” father said as Armon held the wine to his lips. He gulped deep, once, twice, thrice, the muscles in his throat pumping hard. He turned his head away when he was done, causing Armon to spill a few drops on the pristine white cushion. The wine stained the cushion a deep purple colour, like ripe grapes at the harvest.
“Keep it close by,” father added softly, a trickle of red running like blood from the corner of his mouth. He smiled, and closed his eyes.
A moment passed. Another. Father’s eyes did not open. Armon’s heart leapt to his throat, tightening it with panic, with horror. No. The thick taste of bile filled his throat. “Father?” He shook him by the shoulders, horrified at how thin and frail they felt. “Father???” He shook harder. “Father???” He felt his lip begin to twitch. No. A hand fell on his shoulder – the physician’s, he thought. He was shouting something, but Armon did not care. All his attention, all his emotion, was centred upon his father. Wake up! “Father???”
Callus Attomar opened his eyes. “Armon? What are you doing? My boy, stop it! I am here. I was merely resting.” His eyes had regained their strength, their focus. “Just resting.”
Armon sobbed, bit his lip, tried to hold back the flow, and failed. He began to weep openly, the tears stinging his cheeks like cold fire, like mortality. Slowly, he became aware that his hands still gripped his father’s shoulders, still shook them, as if trying to shake the life back into them. His mind made the connection, but lacked the will to stop the movement.
“Armon!” There were hands upon his shoulders, pulling him back, grappling with him. The physician. “Armon! Stop it, please! Let go!”
“My son.” Father looked up at him, smiling. He was strong again, and whole.
Stop it. The tears, a floodgate of emotion, would not stop, but he managed to bring his hands to a standstill. Their grip on father’s shoulders, however, was as hard as rock, and beyond his will to release. There was a comfort in their purchase, a safeness, that he did not want to let go of. Not yet. Not yet. I’m not letting go.
“I’m right here, son…” Father, tall, proud, a man of stature and honour.
“…let go, boy! Let him go! It’s no good!”
“Armon.” Mother’s voice. She leaned across the bed, touching the side of his face delicately. She wept, too, and made no effort to hide it. “Let him go. He’s gone.” Teardrops, falling from her cheeks, took forever to strike the furs beneath them. “Armon. He’s gone.”
“My son…” A whisper, but proud, as strong as father had been in his prime. Armon looked down at the shrivelled old man in his arms, yellowed with fever, lifeless. The colour had drained from his face, and his skin had long since gone cold. His eyes were closed, as if they had never been open. In place of Callus Attomar, soldier, brave noble, staunch defender of the Republic, was this old withered thing of dried flesh and brittle grey hair.
“Let him go,” mother whispered, her voice trembling through her tears. “Armon. He is gone.” She sobbed, pulling him close to her chest. “He is gone.”
He wept. There was no dignity to his sorrow; water ran from his nose and mouth as much as his eyes, and his sobs were loud and hoarse. Gone. There was no strength, no dignity, left in this husk that had been his father. Gone. His mother’s sobs, echoing in his ears, mirrored his own. Gone. Afraid to look, his hand scrambled out in place of his eyes, searching, groping blindly for his father’s hand. His fingers brushed the lifeless digits of Callus Attomar’s, his hand reached higher…
…and found their place usurped by a wineskin, gripped tightly even in death. Armon retracted his hand as if scorched, and smelt the sweet scent of wine on his fingers.
In an instant, his tears were burnt dry, replaced by the fiery blaze of anger.
The physician stood sedately beside the bed. “Now he sleeps,” he intoned.
“Sleeps?” Armon growled. He laughed, furious. “Sleeps?” He snatched the wineskin from his father’s hand. Even in death, his grip was stubborn. “He’s not sleeping!” Armon yelled, squeezing the wineskin in his hand. “You hear me? Not sleeping! Dead!” He hurled the wineskin at the startled physician. “Dead!!!”
“Armon…” his mother sobbed, reaching towards him.
He opened his mouth, but had no words. Instead, he yelled, a wordless cry of anger, fury, pain, sorrow. Mother recoiled, horrified. The physician took a hesitant step towards him. Armon turned and ran, stumbling and falling in his haste. He rose to his feet, and kept running, down the hallway, past the startled guard at the end of the hall. He ran, away, as far as his feet might carry him.
They carried him past the stables, where the horse grumbled at his noisy intrusion. Suddenly it all seemed clear. He opened the gate to the nearest stall, owned by a stallion as dark as the sky. He was a beautiful creature, and strangely silent. His eyes, as dark as the rest of him, watched Armon with a strange intelligence.
“Armon?” Had the horse spoken to him? No… there was light at the far end of the stables. A lantern. Araton, curious and grumpy, glared at him from the narrow doorway. “Armon. What are you doing, lad?”
Armon turned back to the horse. The animal took a step closer to him, nodding. There was an understanding, Armon was sure of it. He climbed the side of the stall, turned, and threw himself over the animal’s back. It reared, kicking, bucking, and charged out of the gate. Armon lay low against the horse’s back, gripping, refusing to let go, as they galloped out into the night. Araton was yelling something. He sounded concerned. Armon did not care, could not care. There was nothing left of him to muster it.
Courtyards and gardens whipped past beneath their feet, a blur in the dark, until finally they receded into pasture. The villa vanished behind them into the night, until there was nothing but Armon and the horse, and the cold harsh reality of night. Tears streamed from his eyes, flying away into the darkness. It was still not enough. Gone.
It was a cold night, and the animal’s breath steamed past his face in long white drafts. It smelt of oats and grain and horse. They kept moving. Pasture vanished. Long grass came next, then trees, their branches whipping past Armon’s head like claws. Armon leaned back, the wind blowing the hair from his face, and let the thistles of the unfeeling branches whip the tears away from his eyes.