Looking up into her young lovely face, I was reminded again of the frailty of life. The brevity of it. Chances missed. Opportunities forsaken. I was transported back in time, when I was a headstrong youthful man, full of life and dreams. Born into royalty, my father a duke with a sprawling estate and a houseful of servants and fields full of folk loyal to our name. My father was a just man, harsh in his judgments but a fair overlord. He showed little physical affections either for his wife, nor his heirs, but his love was shown in his intimate attention to our lives and upbringing. There were times when he went out to fight with his men to support them in the protection of our lands and livelihood. He was a fierce protector and a worthy caregiver.
Upon his demise, while my mother the duchess lived on, his position and title fell to me as the only son. His many daughters would be, and indeed some already had been, married off to strengthen relationships with neighboring families as well as several having been shipped off to further lands as bargaining chips and one for actual real love. Their lives traded and bartered as mere property than the kin they truly were. Such is the way of the world.
I, for my part, attempted to live a life as half the man my father was. Filling such heavy shoes was not an easy fit for me, but I did the best I could. My subjects were as loyal to me as they had been the late duke and I was constantly compared favorably to him. I was wed to a witch of a woman when I was but a young man, a matter of diplomacy and certainly not attraction nor love. I can say in a positive voice that she at least bore me a son in the earliest days of our marriage so that I did not have to continue relations with her, instead letting her rule over her wing of the mansion. She was a miserable woman, bitter in all her ways and icy cold in her deductions and reasoning. Many a time I took her to task for mistreatment of the servants as it was brought to my attention through my personal attendant. I lived with the woman in my home for a dark eleven years before she succumbed to an illness which was swift and vile. As much as I disliked the foul woman, she at least bore me an heir whom I loved above others and I felt her death was too violent even for one such as her.
Throughout my following years, I lived much as a monk, rarely taking a mistress, as they never seemed to fill the void I felt in my soul. My mother had always said I had a poet’s heart, believing as I did that True Love was in existence and sometimes mere mortals found theirs. I couldn’t fully disagree with her and many a night I sat before my hearth staring into the glowing embers longing for another to walk through this life with. The years dragged on, one year coming and going much like the ones previous. The politics of my station in life, the day to day monotony, the occasional border squabble, the judging of the common folk, the running of the house…they all weighed on my shoulders daily. I wasn’t miserable so much as lonely.
I poured everything I had into my son, who seemed to have inherited my gentle spirit and poet’s heart. I was incredibly filled with joy when he came to me one evening to inform me of his intent to officially court the light in his eyes. She was a homely girl from a family several estates over, though I considered her kind and I approved of my son’s choice. Within two years of that night, they were in fact wed in our own main hall, which had been decorated splendidly for the auspicious occasion. Secretly, I had in fact hoped to pass on my title before too many days had passed as I grew weary with the constant politics and sought a retired life of perhaps beekeeping or some other such hobby to occupy my mind and body. My mother, who lay day by day in her own bed by this time in her life, was strongly against the idea and fought me on it daily. My son had eyes only for his beloved but I knew he would obey my wishes, should I actually enforce them at some point.
It was as I was nearing the age of sixty when the sickness came upon me. It was slow and manipulative to the point where in the early days I sometimes wondered if it was merely in my mind, the slow creeping in of various maladies. The herbalist did the best she could but within two years time even she was at a loss of hope for a full healing and called for a live-in caregiver to watch over my failing body. My mind remained mostly clear but as the disease took over, I found myself sleeping longer hours and restless when I was awake. I became primarily bed-ridden although there were sunny warm afternoons when a special chair was brought in and I was able to be wheeled down to the gardens for fresh air and sunlight.
The young maid who was brought in was the most beautiful woman I had ever lay eyes on and she quickly stole my heart with her easy smile and quiet, kind spirit. She lived in the room immediately adjacent to mine; so as to be near at hand should I need her, no matter the day or hour. Her full duty was as my primary caregiver, providing for my every need. Some days she read to me from the Holy Word and other times she told fanciful tales in which to occupy my mind. Always she had a gentle touch and eyes that seemed to look right through my age and failing body to my very heart and soul. She tended to me with more care than any lover. I felt my spirit come to life when she was in my presence and I seemed less of man when she was gone.
On cold, dreary nights, she lay with me on my bed, her youth and vitality keeping me warm beneath the quilts and furs spread across the mattress. I would look over and see her gazing upon me with nothing but love in her glittering blue eyes. She would gently stroke my face and beard, across my brows and run her fingers through my hair. It was all I could do but let my lids drift closed and off I would be carried to dreams of youth and a certain fair-haired beauty. Her ministrations brought light and life to my heart and mind. Softly she spoke into my ear, describing the world outside, the halls of my own home, the affairs my son did not mention, the events of the day, the flora and fauna seen from the balcony window and so much more. It was through her I was able to live again. She brought in entertainment, such as a local bee-keeper who was more than happy to spend an evening talking with love of his craft.
It was nigh on a year spent under her tender care that I knew my days were coming to an end. I could see it in her worried eyes, in the extra care she took in providing for my comfort, in the whispered conversations between her and the herbalist. There became a fervency to her support which belied the otherwise calm demeanor she displayed toward me. I knew I had to tell her my true thoughts and feelings for her, if only to clear an old man’s conscious. It was on a dark and rainy evening that I called her to my bed and asked to lie beside me for a while.
Without a moment’s hesitation, she pulled the quilts over us and laid her light hand upon my breast. Her other hand held my own. I felt her soft breath upon my cheek. I turned slightly toward her as I wanted her to see the truth in my eyes as I spoke. “My Love,” I began quietly, “you have been the light in my eyes these past many months. But these eyes begin to dim and my dreams claim more of my days than my realities. I feel you need know my true heart in these my last days upon this green earth. You are the One True Love I have always searched and hoped for. My heart is bound to yours. Oh, my Love, you fill my heart with so much joy. How did I ever deserve you? You are everything I want. You are beautiful and kind and you are my friend and lover. I say lover because we have made love in the heart. You have claimed my spirit for yourself and I claim yours. Each day is more. I feel changes in me, I laugh where once I was sad; I smile when I used to scowl. I love you more each day. You complete my heart.”
And with that, the deepest outpouring of my heart, with tears running down her beautiful cheeks, I felt a overwhelming peace come over my mind, body and soul. It was if my entire life culminated in this one moment, here in her arms, as if every minute had led purposefully up to this: that I only had to free her by acknowledging my love for her. I had lived my life but to show her True Love. As the peace enveloped my mind, I began to fade away, colors in the room fading. I heard from a distance her voice call out to me and then whisper right next to my ear: “I will always be yours. I will find you again, my Love.” And then all was silent as my final breath passed through my pale lips.