Fiction, Vigil

Vigil

Note: This is an old one. Maybe 25 years old, or thereabouts. I hope I’ve improved my craft since then.

As we sit here, you and me, watching the sun fall behind the ruined battlements of your castle, it seems appropriate that we return to our beginning in order to realize our end.

The winds now are still and silent and I watch you like I watched you then—like I have watched you ever since. You have not changed through the years. Your gossamer hair is still long and dark like a starless sky; your gold-brown eyes still shine with a warmth that burns in your heart. The smile you now offer to the sunset is still the same shy, timid smile from so long ago; the same smile that in an instant disarmed me and rendered me a willing prisoner of your beauty. It had only been the briefest of moments, yet I had felt as if something had passed between us that another man and woman might need an eternity to experience. You disappeared inside, stealing my love away with you, leaving me like a beggar in the street, and I knew then that there was no other to whom I could ever surrender the whole of my heart.

I had come to you, a soldier without a home, a knight without a kingdom, a lover without a love. Beauty such as yours my eyes had never fallen upon. You were a vision of Heaven, and every new glimpse found you more enchanting than the last.

I was an exile. I had stood by my King in the midst of a revolution and fell as he fell. I watched him hanged in the courtyard before all of his subjects; watched women and men alike weep and mourn this gentle man’s passing; watched them weep and mourn the coming of their dark oppression. My King had been a good man, but love was his weakness. His people were his passion. Not money. Not land. He measured himself—as a king, as a man—by the welfare of his subjects. But he was also naïve, unwilling to believe in the abject darkness that infects some men’s hearts. His goodness became his undoing. My loyalty became mine.

I should have been hanged as well. But I was not. I no longer had a kingdom to fight for—only one to fight against. The most devoted of my King’s subjects had been slain or fled or simply weakened beneath the iron fist of this new rule. Those that had not fallen, in one way or another, were no soldiers. These survivors were weak farmers, merchants, husbands, all with families that would be left behind. My army was a flock of sheep, and I its shepherd. This new rule found no threat—no strength—in numbers of the meek. The villainous horde believed that casting me out was a more suitable punishment than death, and in the months that followed, witnessing how far their dark influence spread, I knew they had been right.

I wandered the broken and blighted land, in search of a haven. I was tired and starved, weighted down by a beleaguered spirit. I will not sicken you with the cruelties I witnessed, but they were many. As I crossed the border, leaving my homeland behind, I believed there was no longer purpose to my life. Had I been a stronger man, I would have fallen upon my sword. Instead, I mindlessly allowed my feet to carry me to your father. I do not know how many leagues I crossed to find your kingdom. I do not know how many times I watched the sun fall beyond the rim of the world. But I fell at your father’s feet and offered him my story, and he was endeared by my loyalty. His was one of few kingdoms that had not fallen under this new tyranny, and he wasted no time in bringing me into his fold and making me one of his own.

That was when you and I met, my fair Amira. In the most desperate of times, we found one another and our love collided like steel on flint, igniting a passion that blazed with the intensity of a thousand suns. Might you find, somewhere in your heart, the memory of how we danced together the evening of your father’s ball, and how I was sure that I had stolen your heart as you had done mine only days before? Do you remember how we danced around the floor, the music filling the air, floating us to our own world where concealed whispers could not touch us, and your father’s victorious battle in his newly waged war meant nothing to us? Do you remember our first kiss; our eagerness tempered by hesitancy? When our lips met, you were like the elixir I had longed for all of my years. The taste of you fired a soul that had grown cold and dark. It was like winter giving way to the first rays of spring. I felt made again, there in your arms.

That evening drew to a close, and I placed a rose in your hair, taking my leave, promising as I disappeared into the dark, that we would not be long apart. You held your hands to your breast and whispered, “I think I have fallen in love with you, Nicholas.”

I smiled at your words and was gone, but spent the night in anguish. I ached to be near you, to hold you. It was the smooth touch of your skin I wanted against me, and not the rough cotton sheets of my bed. However, softened only slightly by tears shed in your absence, the sheets were my sole companions for the night.

You were the sole vision of my dreams. You were the only occupant of my thoughts. I did not understand how you affected me the way you did. At least that is what I told myself. But the truth was I had never allowed myself to love. Love was fleeting, impermanent. It was impatient and cruel. All of this, life had taught me as I watched comrades surrender their hearts to loves that would later wither and decay into delicate ash blown away by the wind.

You promised to be my rock, my port in the storm, my candle in the night. In the few short days we had with one another, you told me stories of your childhood; how when you played, you were never the delicate damsel in need of saving, but a fierce knight that battled dragons and rescued even the bravest, most battle-hardened men. You even suggested, with a smile, that one day you would most likely have to save me. We laughed together as we talked of your childhood. In those stories from the past, you allowed me to glimpse the woman you had become. You had grown into the role of diplomat, and left your play behind to become the image of courtly grace and beauty. But in matters of state, I knew you would once again become that knight of old. Your people were as close to your heart as any single love could ever be. You appeared to be nothing more than a simple, fragile woman. To study your eyes, however, would be to discover the true fire that raged beneath the facade. You were more than just the proper lady. You were a woman driven by passions that many would never understand let alone know. For me, you were nothing more than what I needed most at that moment in my life.

Following the evening of our first dance, our paths did not cross until the next afternoon when I rode through the courtyard on my way out to lead another of your father’s campaigns. I spied you at your window waving down to me and calling my name, the rose I had given you still in your hair.

Waving a red ribbon, you cried, “Come back safe to me.” Then you let the ribbon fly. I watched it float down, twisting and turning upon itself like the emotions that roiled within me. I snatched your ribbon from the air, and still clutch it to this day.

Though icy fingers of honor and duty rent my heart, I triumphantly raised my trophy and offered to you the warmest smile I could muster.

“I will not be long,” I answered and was gone.

I know not if you ever learned of the events that took place on the battlefield. I know not if you learned of my capture and of how my eyes fell upon those that I had fought against many months prior. I could see in their wide eyes that they had not forgotten me. I was stripped of my armor and tied between two trees. Many gathered about the scene, and I was reminded of the audience that had watched the hanging of my previous king.

“What have you to say?” One man asked of me.

My fair Amira, thoughts of you rushed through my head in a torrent, and I was silenced, fearing that the words that came to my lips would be sobbing pleas to spare my life so that I might return to your embrace. Despite my heart’s liberation by your love, I was still a proud man and a soldier. Such groveling I could not allow before any man; even a man meaning to murder me. All I could do was offer an empty smile and a tear. Then I closed my eyes and lifted my head to Heaven, where I hoped we would one day be reunited, and was ran through with cold indifferent steel. I lingered in life for a time, watching the world I had known fade behind hateful taunts and jeers. When I did not die right away, my throat was cut.

Dark turned to light then and I was with you once again.

I watched you weep as they buried my body. I stood beside you and held you close to me. But you did not feel me there. And I did not feel you.

I watched you, alone some nights, standing at your window, gazing out at the stars painted on the canvas of the dark sky and following the moon as it drifted through the heavens.

I watched you as you suffered with a heavy heart. You were lonely—but not alone. Suitors flocked to your door to comfort you, to win your heart with their compassion. But you still thought of me. My name was on your lips after you had awakened from many a nightmare. But through it all, I sat idle, knowing that there was nothing to say or do, but believing there to be a time when I would once again be able to hold you in my arms, find comfort in the lilt of your laugh.

How often I gazed into your sad eyes, hoping to see even the faintest flicker of recognition or even the dimmest reflection of myself. I wanted you to see me; to know that though my flesh was no longer yours, my spirit followed you, unable to leave your side. But it was only ever pain that stared back at me. At the tears that rolled down your cheek I would rage at the injustice of being taken from you and howled in misery as I was unable to ease your suffering.

On your wedding day, though your sadness had not entirely lifted, I could see a coming brightness. I was warmed by the joy you had finally found, but I could not ignore the icy blade of sorrow that impaled an already dead and dying heart.

When your father died and you ascended the throne, I knelt before you as your most loyal of subjects. I swore my fealty and once again pledged to you my heart. By now, I had resigned myself to being your ghostly shadow, but how I still prayed for just one fleeting moment when my professions of undying love would be carried to you as whispers upon the wind. But no, the wind was still and silent and my presence seemingly never known to you.

I was with you throughout your rule and I cried bittersweet tears beside your deathbed. Now we would be reunited. Now my true companion would return to me and make a heaven of this hell.

But you had let me go. Though love for me still lingered somewhere in your heart, you had been able to move ahead with your life. New loves had opened new doors for you, new paths that carried your soul from mine; my spirit was lost in the wake of a lifetime, and I was left like a man pounding upon a pane of glass desperate to be let in from the cold. But the noise of my pleas had fallen upon ears that had long ago forgotten for what they listen.

Though, seemingly, I was lost to you, I could not leave my love. So I returned to the only place I knew to be near you.

How many years…how many lives… has it been? I’ve seemed to have lost count. But I was with you through them all.

Do you dream of an angel that bears my resemblance? Do you ever believe a shadow to be following you, but when you turn it is merely your own? I believe I know the answers. Is it selfish of me to want to be wrong?

I close my eyes now and let my mind drift back over those countless years. I’ve seen you grow, many times, into a woman. I’ve seen you born. I’ve watched you die. And I’ve suffered through it all.

I remember being with you once when you were a child. You played the part of a fair princess, dressed in your finest gown, standing at your window and wishing for your prince to climb to the sill and rescue you from the dragon that held you captive. I was charmed by the irony of the scene, remembering how the woman I had met before so long ago had never needed a knight’s rescuing. I wanted to be your gallant knight, and searched in your play for any hint of a memory of the man that still carried with him your red ribbon.

You danced alone one evening in a grand hall, turning round and round beneath a glorious chandelier that shone with a soft candle-lit glow. I imagined myself in your arms as I had been on the night that you fell in love with me. In my mind we danced, and I prayed that each second might bleed more slowly into the next and that time might conspire to give us an eternity in one another’s embrace. I still wanted so much to be back in your arms as if the years had not separated us and death was no bar to your touch. With whom did you imagine yourself riding the currents of music as if you were two doves sailing atop an open breeze? Were you moved by a distant memory of the two of us spinning beneath the gaze of a hundred onlookers, but only really aware of one another, lost in a moment of profound glory? Do I dare hope that as you—we—danced, somewhere in the deepest recesses of your thoughts was a vision of me?

That is how it has been for me all these years. Not being able to touch you or speak to you has weighed heavily upon my heart, but I would not have given it up for anything. I’ve learned how to close doors and keep others ajar; to lead you and to guide you. To guard you. And I’ve never stopped loving you. I’ve kept hoping that there might be some place in your heart that you still believe in me and that one day you might find it and then all of my dreams might be realized.

But to be without you like this—to not be able to touch you—has simply grown too much for me to bear. I have realized that I am lonely, but unlike you, quite alone.

I’ve waited too many lifetimes to tell you that I love you. So I say it now, hoping that this truth might this time be carried to your ears on the same winds that have failed me so many times before and that somehow our two worlds might be brought together, if only for a moment.

My Princess, I love you and have loved you for an eternity. But the stronger my love grows, so does my need to be free from you. You have held my heart captive all of these years but the time has come for me to let you go. I can no longer go on being that beggar with an empty tin.

Let me look upon your beauty one final time. Let me see me in your eyes. Let me find some way to remember you even after I have forgotten.

So I stand now and take my leave. From here, I return to the darkness to seek out a new light. Our time together has come to an end, but my love, keep a candle burning. Someday I may find my way back to you.

And as I return to the darkness, my vigil done, confident in the sanctity of your eternal soul, I watch you over my shoulder. You rise and look in the direction of my sad, retreating soul, hands to your breast.

“Nicholas,” you whisper.

But I am already gone.

Photo by rolf neumann on Unsplash

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