The Death Knell...
Thaddeus felt the pall of death when he entered Stephen's chamber. The somber and hushed tones of the Death Knell played throughout the castle corridors—minstrels preparing those within the castle for Stephen's impending demise. Thaddeus would have ordered them quiet, ordered them to stop playing were it not for the fact their music would inform those who cared about the fate of their precious prince that he was gone.
At Stephen's last breath, a signal would be given to the minstrels from the chamber window. The final notes would drift away and the music would stop. The people within the castle and the surrounding courtyard would then know Stephen was dead.
Off to the side, as he had seen her many times before during this last year, Lieutenant Pemura stood at a podium recording in scrolls what was happening for the Caldysian chronicles. Her elfin-style face looked haggard with sorrow and weariness. How many times had she recorded Stephen being so close to death? Thaddeus had never asked her, and she probably had lost count, but the effects showed on her face. Her round brown eyes were heavy, clouded.
Her long auburn hair was pulled back only in a tail, the standard Rashule Braid forgotten for the sake of haste. She lifted her head to exchange a sorrowful look with Thaddeus for only a brief moment then returned her attention to the scroll.
In that one instant, Thaddeus saw a tear fall down her cheek, reflected in the soft torch light just above her station. How hard it must be for this woman, this scribe, to record all things of significance for the Royal Chronicles. How difficult it must be for her to divorce herself from her emotions. This time, however, though she fought bravely to control her composure, it was all too clear she was losing the battle. Thaddeus did not envy her.
He turned to the canopied bed, where he had shared every night this last year with Stephen, holding him, monitoring his breathing. Though the act of sexual connection could not be performed due to Stephen's illness, there were other things they did to express their love. The holding, the touching, the kissing… in Thaddeus watching over Stephen like a dragon guarding a valuable treasure, and in Stephen playing his harp for Thaddeus, his music as beautiful as Shevna waking up to Spring. In these things they had made love time and time and time again.
The bed had been their safe harbor in both sickness and in joy; a source of comfort when Stephen battled against the breathing attacks that sought to steal oxygen from his lungs and body. It had also been a shelter for them at the end of those long days after taking care of affairs of state, or Stephen's lessons and dealing with Megar and Folon. It was a place where they could rest in each other's arms and love each other simply by touch.
Thaddeus could not help but think how fitting it would be for Stephen's final moments to be in Thaddeus's arms… in this bed.
Both Benesh and Kinarr hovered over the dying youth, hidden from Thaddeus's eyes by the red velvet curtains that made up the canopy and served as a small means of privacy for Stephen.
Tamor sat by Stephen's side, holding his son's limp and pale hand between his own pale and shaking ones. He looked up at Thaddeus through a slit in the curtains and gave his son a smile.
"He has come, Stephen." Tamor eased Stephen's hand to the bed and stood, reaching out, no doubt, to brush the blond hair away from his son's face. "I'll send him over." He then turned and slowly walked up to Thaddeus. His stride was burdened and heavy, his stature slumped in the pending grief and obvious sickness coursing through his body.
"Thaddeus," he whispered, and took the younger man by the shoulders. The two gazed deeply into each other's eyes. Thaddeus did not bother to hide how he felt, his inability to accept what was happening.
Tamor's soul revealed his acceptance of this moment from years of preparation. This time, however, there would be no reprieve. Stephen would not make it through the night. It was clear in Tamor's face, written there like some noxious decree no matter how much Thaddeus wanted to deny it.
"We have been prepared for this since the healers told us of his sickness, Thaddeus," Tamor said. "You have only been with my son for a little over a year. You knew of his sickness, but you have had so little time to prepare for the outcome. I fear more for your heart than I do my own."
Thaddeus worked his jaw as he fought to bite back his tears. "Majesty? What are you saying?" He knew what Tamor was saying, but as with all cases of denial, to hear the words spoken rather than conjectured upon was a necessary evil.
Tamor gripped Thaddeus's arms tighter. "He will not live to see the sunrise," he whispered, the threat of tears choking his voice.
And there they were—the final words on the matter. No conjecture this time, no room for error or miscalculation of symptoms. Thaddeus tensed, and the need to weep defeated his attempts to hold back the tears.
"I can't accept that, Majesty. I won't accept that." If he kept faith in his denial, if he gave power to it, perhaps his belief would merit another day for him to bask in the love of his heart and soul.
Believe Stephen will live and he will. Believe it, believe it… believe it!
"You must accept it, Thaddeus," Erik said as he stepped closer and reached out to tenderly, firmly squeeze the tense shoulder. "You must be brave for Stephen's sake. Let him see your strength. He so fears leaving you behind. It is the one thing breaking his heart. Draw on that reserve of stubborn pride you harbor within you."
Thaddeus took in a few deep and shaky breaths and quickly brushed a hand over his eyes. "I wish to see him alone, if it would be permitted me?"
"It is permitted," Tamor said, his tone of anguish ripping into Thaddeus like a merciless sword cutting his heart in half. "I have said my farewells to him many times over the course of his life. He has asked for no more medicines. He is tired and wishes to sleep."
Thaddeus knew what Tamor was really saying. He needed assurance. "I will ease him into the next world, my king. I swear it."
Tamor lovingly put a hand to Thaddeus's cheek. "I know you will. Come to me when it is over. We will grieve together."
Thaddeus nodded, and a few tears escaped his eyes once again. He knew what this was doing to Tamor—what Stephen's death would mean to both the king and the land of Caldys, but neither were important to Thaddeus. He did not care for politics or family or any other thing in the world but the dying youth in the bed before him.
Nevome, Nevarie… my soul, my heart. To be parted from you will be death for me. But I vowed to protect you. I vowed to ease any pain inflicted on you. I vowed to hold you as dear to my life as my own breath. But you are my breath, you are my heartbeat. I live and breathe and will myself to feel because of you. Oh, I shall not tarry long in your wake, Nevome. Would that I could heal you in some way, but you shall not go into the next life alone. I know you will want me to live on, but without you I have no life.
Benesh and Kinarr approached, carrying away with them their bags of herbs and oils. Outside the rain fell in torrents as lightning flashed and thunder ripped through the sky. The elderly healer gazed out the window, his body weary, his spirit tired.
"The rain seems to know when shadows cross over a loved one's soul, as though coming to wash away the pain such shadows always leave behind." The comment was made possibly more for his own pain than that of the others around him. He too had lived with this burden since Stephen had become ill. He took in a deep breath and approached Tamor with reverence and compassion.
"It will not be long now, my king." He turned to Thaddeus. "Go to him. He needs you more than ever."
Benesh lowered his head, his face streaked with tears that glistened in the glow of the chamber's lit torches, but the torches were bitterly dim now, in the presence of impending death shadows.
Outside, the minstrels played on.
Kinarr drew close to Thaddeus, taking the warrior's arm. Thaddeus saw the tears streaming down the lieutenant's face, the soft green eyes full of pain. Kinarr loved Stephen. He had been the one who would have taken up the position of Stephen's warrior guard had Thaddeus not returned to Caldys. Now he and Shumway were back together, lovers in spite of their differences in rank. Kinarr would need his captain in more ways than just military focus now.
"Go to Shumway for your comfort," Thaddeus leaned in and whispered in Kinarr's ear, putting a comforting hand to his friend's neck. "You've done all you can for Stephen, Kin. Now it's my turn." A small kiss to Kinarr's cheek sealed the request.
Kinarr only nodded, trying to speak but unable to. He gave Thaddeus's arm an affectionate squeeze and followed Benesh.
The healer, Kinarr, and Pemura, who left her writing materials on the podium, slowly walked to the door, followed by General Erik, who turned to Thaddeus. "I will inform the other guards. The burden of telling them will not lie on your shoulders."
Thaddeus inclined his head in gratitude.
Tamor took his arm in a gentle and compassionate squeeze. "You were his hope, my son," he said. "When you entered Stephen's life, he saw a chance to live. You opened up a world for him he never was allowed to be a part of before."
Thaddeus nodded. The tears steadily flowing now, and he would not stop them. It would not be what Stephen wanted, but he could not deny them. They were as real as his pain, and he could not run from it or ignore it.
"As he did for me, Majesty," he choked.
Tamor pulled Thaddeus into a warm embrace, only for a brief but meaningful moment. Then he released him and hurried after Erik, Benesh, and Kinarr.
The door closed behind them and Thaddeus felt the weight of death hovering over the room. He turned to the curtained bed and feared what he would see, but it was Stephen who laid there. Thaddeus's soul.
Stephen's voice, weak yet full of need, broke Thaddeus out of his grief-stricken paralysis.
He ignored the threat of impending death and stepped closer to the bed, unbuckling his armor and setting it on the floor as he neared. "I am here, Nevarie," he said. "And I will never leave your side."
He undressed to his tunic, pulling out the rainbow cloth given to him upon their bonding ceremony from the pouch hooked to his sword belt. He let the belt drop to the floor, uncaring of the sound it made, for all sounds now, even the music of the minstrels that filled the air with their soft notes, were as dead to him as his spirit, dying in the presence of this merciless horror.
He opened the curtains and gazed upon the still, pale youth on the bed, propped against the headboard to allow more ease of breathing. His normally brilliant, golden hair was now dimmed in the moisture of feverish sweat.
Stephen opened his eyes, and even in the presence of a death patiently waiting for his body to expire, the prince was able to smile. "I am not afraid… Thaddeus. You taught me… not to fear."
Thaddeus stepped onto the dais where the bed was stationed. He slowly moved to Stephen's side, pulled back the covers as Stephen held out his arms. He slid in between the sheets and pulled his charge close to him, easing the prince's head onto his shoulder.
"Are you in pain?" Thaddeus whispered, tenderly kissing the sweat-covered brow. Stephen was warm, the fever engulfing his body. Thaddeus reached over to the table at his side and lifted a rag from the bowl of water. He wrung it out and used it to wipe the sweat from Stephen's hair and face.
"My body… is numb now. Benesh said… this would happen. It hurts to breathe… but that is… normal for me." He spoke haltingly, struggling to find what little breath he could pull into his lungs between the words.
Thaddeus gently ran the cloth over Stephen's pale features, combing it through his hair. "I will keep watch," he assured. "Rest now."
Stephen eased into Thaddeus's hold, placing his trembling palm over his heart. Could he feel the maddening beat under the flesh and ribs? Thaddeus fought to control it, but it was a losing battle.
"Before I sleep… I wish to… speak my heart," Stephen whispered.
"Then speak, Nevome."
"I want you to know… how much… I love you."
Thaddeus choked back the tears. "Such things we have said to each other time and time again, shown each other through action every day. I have never doubted. I have always known the depth of your love."
"Still, I wanted to… voice the words… one more time."
Thaddeus kissed him again. "I love you as well, Nevarie."
"I wish I could… play for you… one more time."
Thaddeus looked up to a cloth with its swirling rainbow colors nailed to the wall above them. He positioned himself and pulled it from the wall, spreading it over Stephen. The youth reached out to grip it.
"Warriors burn the bodies of their dead, do they not?"
"Yes. To release their spirits to the heavens or to join with their lovers in soul."
"I would ask… such for me."
Thaddeus shut his eyes, forcing the stinging tears back. He choked down the sob that threatened to escape. The burn was preferable to the actual shedding of tears before this youth. A few minutes ago he needed the tears to flow. Now all he wanted was for them to vanish.
"As you wish, Nevome."
"And this will be… wrapped around… my body." Stephen gripped the cloth. "And the music… will fly into the wind… and surround you, Nevarie. And I will… never leave your side."
"Yes," Thaddeus whispered, unwilling to trust his voice to not quiver if he spoke louder.
"Take a piece of… this cloth for yourself… and carry it with you."
"I will. I will always carry you with me."
Stephen smiled as he rested his head one last time over Thaddeus's chest. "I remember the day… you gave me this cloth. The day after… our joining of souls. I played for you again, and… you told me how the music… reminded you of the birds in the jungle… you traveled through… with Jetar. How their mixed song… filled the air… and you were in wonder… over the different colors… of feathers that greeted… your eyes."
Thaddeus smiled as he wrapped his arms tighter around Stephen. "You carried the cloth with you for months afterward. Then finally we had to nail it above your bed when you saw how dirty it was getting."
"It was more… than just a piece of cloth… to me, Thaddeus. It was a symbol… of our union."
Stephen's voice faded off as his breathing grew more labored by the conversation. Thaddeus pulled him closer. "We need not speak anymore, Nevome. Ease your breathing. Let sleep come to you now."
"I do not wish… to leave you. I know if I sleep… our time here together… will be over."
"You will always be with me, Stephen. It is as you said. We have joined. How can I but believe you will always be with me? Now please, Nevome. Ease your fear for me. I will be fine. I promise."
Stephen wrapped his arm around Thaddeus's chest and tightened his hold. "My life… my soul… my heart, all these things… you made… better this last year, Nevome. Never… forget that."
Thaddeus nuzzled his cheek against Stephen's brow. "I won't. Not ever. Sleep, my prince. Close your eyes. I'll be with you… forever."
And with those words, Stephen closed his eyes. "Forever," he whispered.
Sleep took him into its peaceful realm quickly.