A Duke By Any Other Name
The rain fell steadily as a thin mist rose from the sea to cover the land; a sudden gust of wind flung the chilly droplets against the exposed skin of Aldric`s face. He had lifted the hinged visor of his helmet to gaze across the empty waters. The full suit of armor he wore clung to his sturdy 6` 4” frame like a wench at a tavern. Just like a maid with an eye on his money purse, the armor fit Aldric like a glove to form a second skin of sorts. He found it uncomfortable, but not unbearable. The man had long ago become immune to the heavy plates and chain mail along with tavern fillies batting curling lashes to hide not so innocent intentions.
The workmanship of his suit was superb; it was an expensive investment, but a necessary one. Due to his station, it was much more decorated than those he commanded, but the general idea remained the same. Survival. The armor sported delicate filigree work in silver and black. It was fanciful, but did not detract from the fierce appearance of the Lord. Wicked spires twisted from the shoulder guards announcing his intent on the battlefield. Gauntlets ending in vicious claws protected the man`s fists and forearms waiting for the first opportunity to rend flesh from bone.
When mounted on his warhorse Aherin, Lord Aldric struck fear into the heart of many a foe and rightfully so. Galloping into battle on the monstrous beast brandishing a broadsword sharp as a razor, he was like a storm unfurling its fury. Those in his sight were merely dead men walking. His beloved steed was a nightmare come to life. Aherin assisted his master by trampling the fallen, kicking his mighty hooves with deadly aim, and biting the enemy between gleeful snorts with a simple command issued via pressure of Aldric`s thighs. The horse was broad and tall, highly muscled, his hind-quarters powerful, and long legs strong. A midnight black, Aherin had silky hair that gleamed as it danced in the wind and wild eyes filled with an intelligence much closer to human than beast.
Trained from a tender age to fight mounted and on foot, the nobleman was far from green in combat. Highly skilled in knife-play, Aldric made effective use of a pair of twin dueling blades as well as the custom compact wrist mounted crossbow gifted to him by his father. He had received it as a sixteenth birthday present and it was one of his most prized possessions. At the age of nineteen, he had already began to make a name for himself. Lord Aldric was not prideful and did not savor this fact, however, it was the young mans duty to keep the land and peoples whom would one day be under his rule safe. His men respected their leader`s battle prowess, control, and determination. The soldiers repaid his just treatment with a undying loyalty.
Days had become perilous to say the least. Remaining vigilant was key. Barbarian raids had slowly become too common for comfort. Wetting his sword with the blood of the enemy had replaced training in the courtyard and transcribing old texts for his tutor.
The day was grey as an old mans beard long. Though it was common weather for his native land that the sun had chose to hide away on this particular day did not surprise the young Lord. His spirit was bleak and matched the surroundings perfectly. Even the salty, sea air was not enough to clear Aldric`s head nor temper his mood. The crash of waves against the high cliff he stood perched upon did not sooth his nerves as usual. He wondered briefly if his father had sent him away from court, away from him, purposely on this patrol. Did he want me gone for this date? Aldric knew this was not true, but merely a coincidence. Still, he could not dismiss the question. The heavy odor of burning herbs and incense replaced the tangy sea air as memories rose up unbidden to transport him to an earlier time.
Aldric crouched in the shadows of his mother`s chambers and peered out into the darkened room lit only by a handful of squat candles made of tallow. The smoke rose from them to mingle with the noxious perfumes of the stuffy quarters. The skirts of her servants whisked and whooshed as the women made themselves busy applying cool rags and smelly poultices to his mother`s scorching skin. The woman whom had been so full of life and pink cheeked only a handful of months prior was now reduced to a shade of her former self. Skeletal, the bed housing the Duchess, looked as if it was waiting to swallow her up as surely as this disease was consuming her.
The boy only crept forward after the monk called forth to administer prayers of protection for his mother`s soul had departed and the women took their leave for a brief respite. He approached her as quietly as the eleven year old Aldric found possible; he was quickly growing into a man and was finding his new body still traitorous and awkward to negotiate at times.
His mother`s eyes were closed; the grey orbs Aldric shared with her had been shut away from the world, shut away from her son. This wasting disease had stolen the woman`s healthy glow and replaced it with a sickening pallor. It left her weak and retching up the tidbits of food her ladies in waiting forced between the thin, cracked strips of flesh his mothers full, soft pout had withered away to.
Ignoring the advice of the local medicine man and attending clergymen, the boy reached for his mother`s bony hand and grasped the fevered flesh in his cool. Aldric feared not touching his mother more than polluting himself with her sickness. How could he deny her of this simple act of love? He froze as she stirred afraid he had disturbed her. She sighed softly before a moan struggled to the surface as a tremor shook the woman. Immediately regretting causing her pain, he carefully began to release his hold. Aldric`s eyes widened in surprise as the Duchess suddenly grasped his slender fingers with a fierceness while fluttering the sparse lashes of her eyes. He remained still and waited for what seemed an eternity before she managed to speak.
“My son,” the words were faint and fought to slice through the oppressive atmosphere of the bedchambers. “My son.” The rattle of chains of death shook her chest. A cough, a life stealer and death agent, wracked the woman. He flinched; sorrow filled his soul as he was helpless to ease his mothers pain.
“Mother, I am here,” Aldric whispered back unsure of what to say. The young Lord had never experienced death so close to home. He had never lost one that was so close to his heart. Many in the kingdom had fallen to this illness before. He had no reason to believe his mother would escape the shared fate of the other victims. Of course he still held out a small hope she would avoid the grave. Why should she not? She was strong, had always been strong, and was his mother. God could spare her, should spare her. The Duchess was devout, charitable, and kind. There were so many more deserving of this infliction. Why should she be punished? Why should he?
The cough finally stopped and a small smile stretched across her mouth. Aldric`s words appeared to appease her. Claret stained his mothers lips redder than any gloss or rouge she once wore during feasts and court frivolity. A peaceful look painted her angelic face and her beaten body relaxed. The locks of gold that crowned her head laid fanned out across a pillow and inspired the image of a halo. Death itself had been unable to strip the Duchess of her last remaining glory. The boy rejoiced in that knowledge and returned her smile. As quickly as she was there then she was gone; her hand fell away from his and once again sleep claimed her. His mother returned to the mystery of slumber; she returned to the land in which she could not be reached by mortals.
The chamber door opened to briefly flood the interior with light from beyond it. Duke Jerek Godwin, Aldric`s father, strode in along with a handful of servants and armed guards. The boy jumped back away from the bed and hung his head in shame. He was not supposed to be here. He was to be practicing with the sword this afternoon. Rarely disobeying a direct order from his father, he waited to be rebuked. Instead his father ruffled Aldric`s inky locks with an indulgent smile and allowed the women to shoo him into the hallway.
From the never ending night of his mother`s chambers to the startling sunshine of the day, he went. Aldric fled the beams of reality and ignored the sympathetic looks and clucks of the inhabitants of his home to dive into the security of his own chambers. There the boy flung himself onto the bed to weep into a pillow and allow his soul to spill out in a scream that the young Lord would never submit to again.
The Angel of Death came for her that day. It swept tattered wings of black along his mothers body, breathed it`s fiery breath upon her, and stole his mother away along with the last remnants of Aldric`s childhood leaving only after its destruction was complete.
The screech of a seabird brought him back to the present. Scowling, Aldric resisted the urge to peer over the edge of the cliff and watch the frothy foam gather and wash up along the rocky beach below. Instead he turned a piercing eye to the horizon.
Rolling hills now speckled brown as the approach of winter marched against the land filled his vision. It seemed to span from here to forever, although he knew this wasn`t the case. Aldric was not so ignorant nor naive enough to believe the world ended at the doorstep of his home. Lord Aldric Wilhelm Godwin, son and heir of Duke Jerek Godwin, was all to aware that if one did not look beyond the warmth of his keep soon enough another would claim the very resources needed to fuel the fire.
His land was rich with exactly that. Mines of coal and silver lay in those very hills he now studied. It was a diverse place the Lord called home- there was farmland to support his peoples` hunger and pasture for oxen, sheep, cattle, and horses. Fishing was, of course, an integral part of life for those here on the sea and a healthy trade flourished via water and land routes. There was much to gain by those seeking plunder and far more to lose for Aldric`s family and those they commanded and protected.
The men stood ready and silent awaiting the word to break camp. “We ride,” Aldric called out in a deep voice. His squire scurried to make ready the Lord`s warhorse as a cheer rose up from the troops. They would make haste to get home in time for the arrival of his grandfather Lord Konrad Von Eberhardt . His yearly visit was drawing nigh and Aldric was loath to miss him. His father would be anxious to get firsthand reports of the skirmishes breaking out in their territory. There were some troubling rumors Lord Aldric wished to speak to him in private about as well. Not a superstitious type, the man was not sure of what to make of the outlandish tales sweeping across the countryside, but too many reliable sources had sworn they were true. His frown deepened and he pushed the disturbing thoughts away. His mood was black enough. The matter could wait until he spoke with the Duke. It was time to return to the fortress on the coast he called home.