-Twelve Days Prior-
It was a mistake to let Esme leave with their children.
No, in all actuality, it had been a necessary development. The children were not at all comfortable in this new environment, and Gabriel's health had declined steadily despite Virgil's attempts to bring the man comfort. But they were gone, and Virgil sorely missed their presence at his side. They had set out days earlier, leaving Virgil alone with the dying man.
With or without his family, he was busy. But things were different. Esme was not there to offer soothing touch by day, nor words of encouragement by night. Kisa and Aira were not there to walk beside him as he diligently weeded the evenly spaced rows of vegetables, nor was Evan near to coddle before both man and infant drifted into dreams.
They had set out by morning. In the evening time, dripping sweat, Virgil entered the room where Gabriel lay and took the frail man's hand. It was a scene Virgil was accustomed to: This room, where the dying lay to slowly cast off the shackles of mortality. No one had lain in this bed and suffered quickly. Always, the slow descent. It could have been Gabriel's dear mother, Leliandra, with a nine-year-old Virgil perched at her feet. It could have been Virgil's own exalted mother, and the teenage half-elf would have bathed her forehead in cooling water without complaint. Now it was Gabriel, and Virgil sat silent while mentally willing his closest link to childhood to live on. There was no need to communicate for Gabriel had maintained a stoic air since their arrival.
Virgil tended to outside chores because he could not bear to see his beloved land lapse -even if the garden had been choked with weeds, the livestock underfed, the pallor of the neat little cottage now dirtied and chipped. He restored these out of love and bade Esme watch over Gabriel for that same reason. But Esme was gone, and he was here to suffer in silence. So he thought until he heard a whispery voice.
"Virgil . . "
Instantly, the half-breed was alert. His grip upon the older man's hand tightened.
"I'm here, Gabriel."
"Are we alone now," the aged human asked with little difficulty.
"We are," Virgil verified dutifully.
"Good." Gabriel struggled to sit upright, and managed only when Virgil slid his arm around him and piled pillows at his backside. Gabriel's gaze shifted uncertainly, but then his equilibrium was stabilized and he continued to speak.
"There is bad blood between you and I."
"I was angry, you were lost."
"I should not have done it, Virgil. I should never have cast you from my hearth." Tears in the old man's eyes.
"Yes," Virgil agreed. Even though it pained his heart.
"You are happy now?"
"Yes," he said one final time.
Gabriel smiled, and his eyes fell to close with a swiftness that startled Virgil. Quickly,the half-elf applied his other sight, and he was reassured to see only a trickle of filament-like soul escaping Gabriel's body. He would die soon, but not as of yet.
There was comfort to be had in the face of truth; perhaps Virgil could remember the man he loved, and perhaps Gabriel could come to terms with his bout of irrational brutality. Strengthened in will and spirit, Virgil tended to the slumbering man. He sang the songs of long-ago youth while cleaning mess and sweat that had accumulated through the day.
-Eleven Days Prior-
No denying death, and no denying that the upkeep of this rustic farm would not survive that death. So Virgil went out long enough to tend animals before returning to the cottage. The noontime meal was still hours away. Gabriel could have no more than thin broth, in any case, and the meal was acceptable if Virgil supplemented it with a slice of bread and butter.
So Virgil took the hours remaining to plan. He could not bear to wander through his family home and remember the way things were when four occupied this haunted place. He sat in Gabriel's room, where the man dozed on and off. From the supplies brought from the Outpost, Virgil procured a legal-sized tablet and a pen. He did not worry that Gabriel would awaken and question him on these modern marvels, for Gabriel's eyesight was failing along with the rest of his body.
Writing, then. A list of necessary, heart-breaking tasks. What to take, what to sell. There was very little Virgil wanted, save personal effects that he had never had the chance to ask about before. Old toys, for sentimental reasons. His mother's gilded mirror, her ornate box holding royal jewels from an era long passed (these he would save until Kisa and Aira were much older). Leliandra had once possessed a box of similar values, and Virgil would take that as well. He wondered if the blanket she had made for him so long ago was still around. He made a note to search for it. Finally, when Gabriel passed, Virgil would take the set of sculpting knives that he had trained on so long ago.
Gabriel . . .
Virgil had told Esme that Gabriel was his adopted father, and it was not far from the truth. Gabriel had taught him so much, countering Mother's passive nature with hard work and stern advice. Yet Virgil had lost the both of them at near the same time. Mother died, and Gabriel had cast him out for doing the unspeakable . . .
No, no bad memories now. They could come when he was safe in bed with Esme wrapped comfortably around him.
Back to the pad. Virgil would have to load the old cart one final time to take it to the nearby village. There were those who remembered what the Santoni family had been. There were those who remembered days long before Virgil was born, when Gabriel and Leliandra had been minor royalty. They remembered the fall of the Santoni house, where two surviving members retreated far away to live out the remainder of their days in peace. They remembered when Leliandra's foster child returned with a babe of her own, and the subsequent years where Mother visited the village on a monthly basis to heal those who were afflicted. Perhaps they would want mementos.
It would prove to be a difficult chore, for the bartering of every item dear with callous merchants would surely be less painful than the tears, the reminiscing, the proverbial shake of fist to God above that stole the beloved Santoni family from the earth. But this would be a final act of kindness in their name, to parcel their belongings among those in need of material possessions or memories of bygone days. The livestock were few, but they would be appreciated by those who had less. Pots, pans, linens, clothes far finer than many in the village had . . yes, a final charity before Virgil left this archaic world and returned to the Outpost.
He had no idea about what to do about the cottage, the fertile lands, the nearby stream where cicadas sang delicately in the early evening. Another problem for another day then. Once it was done, he could leave this place. Four days on horseback would take him to Jyyl, and there technology was sufficient to have him back at the Outpost in another two days time. Six days return from the time of Gabriel's expected death, and Virgil could cry on Esme's shoulder.
The preliminary list was done. It was time for the noon meal. Gabriel slept peacefully . . for now.
-Ten Days Prior-
"I want to give you something."
Virgil glanced up sharply from his list, which had undergone countless revisions. There were few times over these days that Gabriel spoke, and fewer still that were lucid. Now, however, he half-sat with eyes clearly focused on Virgil.
"There is a false book on the shelves. 'The Art of War', if you will retrieve it."
So Virgil stood, setting his pen and paper aside. He crossed the small room to the shelves fastened to paneled wall, and located the mentioned book. Once pulled, it proved heavier than a normal novel though it was fashioned of sturdy leather. With book in hand, he dragged the chair closer to Gabriel's side and sat again. Gently, he eased the book onto Gabriel's frail lap.
The old man offered a smile as thin as a razor, lacking in strength though full of sincerity. Brittle fingers pried the cover of the book open to reveal a swath of woolen cloth dyed black. Wrinkled hands parted the cloth then, to further showcase the contents.
Already, Virgil could feel the prick of tears behind his eyes. Two knives, two sheaths, fashioned to fit a person much younger than he. Half-remembered days of learning under Gabriel's tutelage, away from the eyes of Mother and her obsessive pacifism.
"Ah," remarked the aged man thoughtfully. "I can see it in your heart; the foolish notions of your mother. So I tell you something, Virgil, and listen closely: Do not let her ideals blind your own. If you have things in this world worth protecting, then you'd damn well better protect them. I saw four reasons already, and I suspect a great deal more. Remember. .. "
And though Virgil had an inkling of what he was supposed to remember, it remained unsaid. Gabriel fell back upon the bed with a gasping breath, and was still. Erratic rise and fall of chest, erratic pulse when Virgil dared to check. Then, just as swiftly, it passed. And Gabriel lived another day.
-Nine Days Prior-
There was no vision to accompany Gabriel's passing. No fanfare, no fireworks, no final words of endearment. It happened in the early morn after Virgil had departed the cottage to tend to the animals once again. He returned to place his hand to Gabriel's cheek and it was cold. Unyielding. The peace of death, the stubbornness. You will not bring me back, for I have gone to a place far better.
With a strength Virgil knew not, he pressed those open eyes to a final close. He kissed each cheek, and stood.
Outside, then, and somehow there was a shovel in his hand. In an instant, or perhaps in hours, a growing hole appeared in the ground, sheltered by the boughs of an ancient oak. Virgil was inside, plastered with sweat and dirt. Limbs ached, throat parched. But the hole was expanding, deepening, and the steady motion of thrust, push, lift filled him. With every shovel full of dirt, he emptied the hole and filled his heart with some semblance of peace.
Twilight, then, and he was standing beside a gaping maw of earth. Gabriel, clean and dressed in his favored night shirt, held respectfully in Virgil's arms. Into the earth, and accompanied by murmured prayers even as Virgil took the shovel once again to cover the shell of a great man. It worked in reverse now -each shovel of dirt filled the hole and emptied him of the comforting knowledge that something worthwhile was being done. The grave was complete, and Virgil was empty, and the half-elf had no one to console him when he bathed in tears that night alone.
-Eight Days Prior-
Going through the motions. Virgil rose early that day -the sun had not yet deigned to paint the eastern sky. Only his familiarity with the cottage, and his slightly better vision, allowed him to navigate the house to clean up and prepare a meager breakfast. By the time he was through, there was a tinge of pink in the air, and the light was sufficient for him to prepare the cart and harness the horses.
For the past two days, when not at Gabriel's side, Virgil had dutifully cleared the house and surrounding structures of their possessions. In little time, he was ready to leave for the village. The problem with this journey was the time it took, and the time he'd have to dwell on these past few weeks. He could almost hate Anne for bringing the dire message to the Outpost. But there was an old adage to never shoot the messenger. And, he thought ruefully, there was little room for hate in his heart.
-Seven Days Prior-
He had not slept. Had instead navigated through the night, and so reached the village of Orin by mid-day. The sun was high o'er head. Virgil had, for once, been sitting instead of hoeing, and the day was mild in this season of the Fall, so he was comfortable enough despite the direct light and the ache in his bones that betrayed too much time sitting in one position.
He was aware of many things. The village had grown more so in his absence. And he was garnering looks of incredulous nature. Of course, people recognized the cart. Perhaps they recognized him, though he was far older. They knew what it meant, of course.
By the time he had reigned the cart to a halt before the Inne (where so much time was spent in his lamented youth), there was a congregation of people around him. Yes, they wanted to hear the news.
"Gabriel Santoni has passed," he said simply. "It was his will, and my will, that the possessions of the Santoni household be given to those dear and those in need. Please. help yourself."
There was no shuffling, no convergence of frenzied bodies. These were people struck with grief, and they came in proper fashion to request this item or that. As Virgil expected, they cried. They spoke to him of years long passed. They acted just as Virgil had assumed they would, and he drew again upon that unknown strength to stand there through the day and bear their lamentations. Once, he thought he saw a head of wheat-coloured hair, the physique of a young woman still growing into all of her assets. A second look proved him wrong, and he almost hated Anne for avoiding him in this time of community grief.
Finally, it was over. They had come, they had gone. He had managed to arrange the safe-keeping of the horses that drew him hear, and the cart as well. A select few people would leave in the morning to secure the rest of the livestock. The work was done, and he could return home. All that remained was the purchase of an equine suitable for riding, and he would be on his way.
"A meal before you leave?"
Virgil turned and smile wearily at the inquiring person's identity. Anne, of course, garbed modestly in village wear. She smiled in return and bade him to enter the Inne.
Inside, then, and seated over bowls of thick stew with a plate of breads and butters between them. Anne had spoken, and Virgil had forgotten the words.
"I'm sorry, what was that?"
A bemused look from Anne. "I asked if you were planning to stay this night."
"Yes. I will rise early, procure my conveyance, and return to the outpost."
"Always such pretty words from the Pretty Florenn." She was smiling again.
"I speak them well, do I not?" They shared laughter, they shared bread.
Later still: "You never told me why you look so old."
"Everyone else in Orin has had the sense not to ask."
"So I am senseless, and I am curious. How did you come by a wife and three children?"
He did not bother to correct her on that point. Soon, in any case, it would be correct. "I have told no one yet, Anne. I am not ready to tell. But I will send a courier soon, and you will know. Is that acceptable?"
She dwelled on it a long moment before nodding once. "It is acceptable."
"And how old are you now? My sense of time is skewed." A polite question from Virgil, an attempt to stave the thoughts that cluttered his mind. He felt mildly guilty that his thoughts were on Gabriel, and the Outpost, and Esme -and in no way connected to Anne, who had so graciously treated him to lunch.
"Seventeen. Soon Howell and I will marry. All that dissuades us is the lack of adequate housing here."
"Say, Anne . . . I know I shall miss the wedding, but there is still a present I may give. Would you enjoy a quaint cottage a mere two day's travel from here?"
The journey from Orin to Jyyl was smooth, and the travel from Jyyl to the Outpost smoother still. In the tenth hour, Virgil's hired driver pulled up to the gates. The driver cost an arm and a leg, which surely meant that the half-elf must finally learn how to drive. It was of no consequence now. He was home, and his past was finally buried.
A short walk was all it took to cross Coalition grounds and arrive at the Eternal Night barracks. The door creaked open, and he peered carefully around to surmise whether the house was asleep or if maybe, just maybe, someone needed a hug from Daddy as much as much as he needed one from them.