Read by Greg Page
White mountain, white sky; burdened with dirty grey clouds that speak of more snow to come. Deep snow, thick snow, cold, deadly. On the lower slopes of the mountain, a road lined with a stuttering collection of shivering onlookers in improvised, impoverished mourning.
On the road, from the valley and the palace and the town, a funeral cortège: the matched black horses startling against the white, struggling to pull the hearse through the snow that falls faster now than any amount of sweeping can clear, ice under their hooves, deadly in the cloth muffling the clink of their metal shoes.
The slow journey of the body of the late Landgraaf, from the funeral at the cathedral in the centre of town, out to the fantasy fortress folly on the slope of the mountain, has taken two hours already. The widowed Graafin, wrapped in sables and riding a mare as white as the snow, is shuddering with cold and tension. Wind whips through the trees, the snow dances and chokes.
There is another hour or more to go, at the pace set by the man walking at the head of the procession; Alban von See with a bared great sword held before him: walking, in black armour – full armour, real armour – although neither he nor his deceased liege lord realised that this was armour designed to be worn on horseback, and at that, on a horse bred to it.
His heart pounds, out of time with the muffled drums; faster, less certain. He can no longer feel his feet. He forces them to move, one step, another: breaking the fresh snow, forging a route for the cortège to follow.
The great Rhenish helm all but overwhelms a man more used to wigs and silk ribbons and dancing shoes.
He no longer thinks of anything but the next step. He can barely see where he is going: snow has impregnated the slits that serve for sight and air, melted in the heat of his trapped breath, then frozen hard.
The inside of the helm is surreal: dark, and noisy with his laboured breath. The padding that at first protected him from cold and the harsh edges of the ill-fitting armour is drenched in his sweat which has now formed a crisp rime, icy and raw against his skin.
Four hours ago, when he left his new wife, the widowed Graafin , with kisses and laughter and promises of exactly how they would consummate their marriage once the old man was buried, his heart had been light with hope. The old bastard was dead at last and Sofia his to claim. A quiet ceremony, just the archbishop, the new Landgraaf, and a scandalised ambassador from Engelandt for witnesses, a small antechamber, a Prie-Dieu and a diptych to serve as an altar.
Alban had pledged his heart to Sofia many years earlier, but Wilhem stood between them, and despite the urgency of their mutual passion, Sofia was loyal and he honourable. Wilhem might father bastards all across his fiefdom (and he did) but his wife remained chaste.
So, Alban’s heart had been light and his mind carefree as he went in search of the armour that Wilhem’s medieval fantasies dictated. And perhaps, had Wilhem died in summer, and if, perhaps, he had been content to be buried in the cathedral – but it is winter and the Landgraaf’s final resting place is the mausoleum in the grounds of the faux ruin he had built up on the lowest pass of the mountain that shelters his city, built to house his favourite mistress, mother to a brood of Wilhem’s by-blows.
Even while Alban and his man Jurgen had puzzled out the armour and how it was worn, they had laughed together – like schoolboys, he now thinks, in a moment of coherence – but as each piece of metal was strapped on, his mood had darkened. The Landgraaf was dead after all. He had been a loyal servant to the old man, had been something of a favourite – Launcelot to his Arthur, as some court wit had put it, not fully understanding the look that passed over Wilhem’s face as the words left his mouth, nor the subtle snubbing he received from Alban for ever after.
To Alban, struggling with greaves and gorget, laughter had seemed inappropriate suddenly, and the first misgiving settled with the weight of the breastplate; but he was thirty-four, healthy, vigorous, in his prime, there could be no declining the unquestionable honour of leading the funeral cortège and keeping the final vigil. It was only two miles. He walked more than that regularly – even in snow – but the armour – and the helm ...
And now, only two thirds of the journey complete and the steepest section yet to come – it comes down to finishing, to taking the next step.
The respectful citizens are long gone. There is no one to hear his gasping breaths.
It is less than a mile, he mutters, less than a mile.
Out from the trees, and the wind howls. If it were not for the drums that occasionally mutter into his consciousness, he could imagine he is alone on the mountain with the snow encasing him.
The brief winter daylight is already fading, the bilious yellow of choking sun giving way to muddy pewter dusk. The honour guard are lighting torches.
His feet slip from under him. Alban’s heart is like lead, ice strikes to the bone, breath is terror.
Sofia pulls the edge of the cloak closer across her face, her clothes are drenched and heavy with snow that cascades from the folds as she straightens them. The funeral music pounds in her ears, persistently out of tune in the cold. She can barely see Alban, stumbling now, ahead of the coffin. She cannot bear it. She rides forward, a half-thought to stop this. As she comes level with Alban she slows the horse to an awkward stop, shifting uncomfortably in the snow. Alban fumbles with the visor but it will not open, he turns his blind face to gaze at her, his Graafin, his wife, he can barely make her out, snow coated and pale. He turns away without speaking, and takes another agonising step. The Graafin looks round. Some of her ladies are visibly shaking. She waits ashen-faced, for the chancellor to join her. There is no question of turning back, not for her, not for Alban.
“Tell my ladies they may go. As for the musicians, I want only the drums. The honour guard must stay, but if you can find alternates there will be more than time for them to be relieved before we reach the castle.”
“And you, my lady?”
“I will stay with my husband.”
Alban is barely aware of the commotion behind him, the faltering of the pipes and oboes and trumpets. Another step: he thinks about the tears he imagined freezing on Sofia’s eyelashes, so different from the tears that had been in her eyes only that morning, when he held her hand in his, the ring, hot in his grasp, the glisten in her eyes – the dread that she, or perhaps the bishop, might, even now, reject him, scorn his offer of marriage.
Sofia stares ahead, her eyes fixed on the distance between the faltering steps of her new husband and the barely visible light in the gateway of the fortress above. How many times has she looked up from the palace and seen lights up here, and cursed Wilhem and his mistress? How many times has she, in a fit of temper, declared that he would be the death of her? A chasm of certainty opens in front of her, that this ludicrous spectacle has malice at its heart. Wilhem intended this: to humiliate her and to torture Alban from beyond the grave.
She closes her eyes and thinks about tipping the coffin into the snow, collecting Alban into her arms right there, to share just one embrace – but there is her son, seventeen and with all the vulnerable arrogance of innocence, riding at her side.
Now only the archbishop, the Graafin, the young Landgraaf, the honour guard, Alban von See and two drummers creep up the mountainside.
Curving stone walls: snow-coated five inches deep, icicles lance-like on the gate house – the flickering oil lamps in the courtyard, and relief from the wretched wind.
At last, echoes silently in every mind, although the drummers do not falter. They like the echo off the walls after so long barely able to hear their own beat. There is no one to greet them, no one but the old Landgraaf’s mistress.
There is no one to take the Graafin’s sodden cloak, no one to offer warming mulled beer, no one to stable the horses, no one to help Alban von See out of the dead weight of his armour.
There is not a woman in all the city who is not in love with Alban von See. Even Lotte Kettler, dancer, singer and mother of six of the dead Landgraaf’s twenty-one illegitimate children, even Lotte is half in love with Alban von See.
As he stumbles in the courtyard, her involuntary response is to step forward and help him up. But the archbishop, a man made hardy by a lifetime of abstinence, is off his horse and helping the knight back to his feet before the sword can fall from his grasp.
The honour guard sweep the snow off the coffin, shake the frozen folds of the flag into order and shoulder their burden.
The archbishop leads the way, into the chapel, where Wilhem II will lie in state for one more night before he is buried.
Sofia follows, with Alban close behind her, surreptitiously supported by one of the drummers.
Darkness: then a candle’s glow, then another and another. Light blooms around the raised coffin. The archbishop flings off his outer cloak and shrugs his cope straight. In the confusion on the road, the boy with his mitre in a box has been sent home. The Graafin, the young Landgraaf and Alban von See kneel bareheaded at the foot of the coffin, the honour guard and the drummers bend their heads. The archbishop raises his hand ready to pray.
The archbishop grimaces, and starts the briefest address he will ever give in his life. Heartfelt amens echo, and the Graafin and the Landgraaf get to their feet.
They have all gone at last, all save von See, kneeling before the coffin, holding his sword upright, the hilt pressed to his forehead as though in deep devotional prayer.
The chapel is icy and Alban coughs, a deep ugly hacking cough that shakes him and rattles the armour. His hair is damp with sweat. There is a persistent nagging pain below his armpit, like stitch, but worse, deeper and colder, and another dull ache in his lower back. He focuses on the draped coffin above him and shudders. He prays, silently, desperately.
At some point in the long, long winter night, he falls, tries to take his weight on his hands, fails, and crashes down to lie winded and coughing, praying aloud now, between retching and coughing, praying for morning and deliverance, tangling words and meaning until the darkness closes about him completely.
Low morning light through the doorway: brooding recesses bleed darkness. A draped coffin stands between four extinguished torches.
A dull reflection of the light from black metal, a Rhenish helm tipped onto its back, visor askew. A sword, abandoned; a man, unstrung, a discarded marionette.
(c) Cherry Potts, 2014
Cherry Potts is owner, editor and chief cheerleader at Arachne Press. She has two collections of short stories to her name, and quite a few anthologies under her editorship. So that’s what you do with two redundancies in five years!
Aged 6 Greg Page was cast in a nativity play. Somebody put a tea towel on his head and he became someone else. He was hooked. Since then he's been someone else more times than he cares to remember. He can be contacted through www.roseberymanagement.com and has no idea what he's done with his keys.