The Strongest Of Souls
The wind blew and leaves rustled. Anthony Chadwick sat huddled around a small, starving fire and surrounded by a thin blanket for the meager protection it gave. It barely covered his broad shoulders and wasn't long enough to fit his tall frame. But, alas, he was still grateful he brought it. He would try to sleep, for sleep was something he lacked. He lay sprawled on the ground; his trusty long sword at his side, hoping that the little fire would keep any dangers at bay. At least he was trying to convince himself that. Finally he gave into sleep, but not the restful sleep he so desperately needed, but a fitful slumber full of thoughts of the recent somber occurrences.
It was the evening of the Summer Solstice, a fortnight prior to Devon's 10th year. Preparations were being made for the Solstice celebration and for Devon's apprenticeship initiation into the royal court. As countless generations before him, Devon was about to embark on his greatest journey yet. He was to be apprentice to the king himself, as did Anthony Chadwick when he was young. After many apprentices, and many years, it was Devon's turn. But this was to be different; Devon had acquired latent abilities from his mother's family which enabled him to sense the presence of danger. 'His mother's family. Helena. How she would have been so proud of our son'. Chadwick thought.
It had been 20 seasons ago when Chadwick had first met Helena. The Miller's daughter. His lips gave way to a slight grin.
It was a chilly autumn morning when a young Anthony Chadwick drove the heavy, horse drawn wagon to the grain mill. Chadwick, nearing the end of his years as an apprentice, was in charge of picking up the weekly supply of grain for the castle. He was tall and thin in his youth. It was shortly after he left the position as the King's apprentice, that he began the heart of his Knight training. The training; that made that tall, thin boy into a tall, fit man.
As Chadwick pulled up to the mill, people were scurrying about, carrying grain in one form or another. Rumors were that an upcoming storm was on the horizon, and that sent townsfolk into a frenzy. Chadwick hitched the wagon to a post and walked inside.
It was then that his eyes caught the sight of her. A girl, about his age, was hurrying back and forth, measuring and weighing parcels of grain and flour. Her pace was so fast that her skirts fluttered behind her with each step. Her hair was the color of the summer sun. Chadwick hung toward the back of the crowd, afraid to speak, when Richard, the Miller saw him. Richard was a large and jolly man. He had ginger colored hair that Chadwick always remembered as having a dusting of flour. As Chadwick recalled, Richard was always covered in grain dust.
"Aye! Tis the King's Lad" Richard spoke over the crowd. The blonde girl looked up, and their gaze met over the crowd. Richard not noticing any interaction between the two young people hastily walked over to Chadwick.
"Lad" he said, "We've been very busy. Would the King mind if I had his order ready for him later in the day?" Richard looked concerned; no one liked to disappoint the king. Chadwick spoke, "Do not worry Sir. I see you are quite busy. That will not be a problem." Richard smiled as he slapped Chadwick on the back, nearly toppling him over with the force. "What a good Lad." Richard said as he turned his back and once again returned to packing large bags of grain. Chadwick was trying to hide his embarrassment by avoiding eye contact with everyone. Everyone wanted a glimpse of the Kings personal helpers. He chanced a glance at the beautiful blonde girl. He must have betrayed his embarrassment, because when he saw her, she was giggling and smiling at him from behind a large bag of grain.
Chadwick, thinking this was his chance, slowly walked toward the girl. She was trying to lift the large bag. Quickly he ran to her aid. "Here. Let me help you with that." He spoke as his grey eyes met her green. "Thank you Sir." Came a soft, quiet voice, but the red in her cheeks betrayed her mild manner. Chadwick lifted the large heavy bag and placed it on the scale. He was first to speak, "My name is Anthony. What is yours?" "Helena" she spoke quietly, now avoiding eye contact.
With the large bag weighed and loaded onto the customer's cart, Chadwick returned to speak to Helena. "I've been here many times. Why have I never seen you before?" The flood of people had gone down and Helena had a few moments to talk. She said, while continuing to weigh small bags of grain, "I have been away helping my Grandma." Her eyes brightened as she spoke, "she was a great seer and a healer, you know, and I was helping her." Her smile faded. "She died last week. So that is why I am here. I had no reason to stay there. I am back with my family now"
Chadwick, feeling the sorrow of her words said in an effort to comfort her, "She was a seer? That is amazing!" Helena's eyes lit up once again. "Aye, can you imagine being able to see things before they happen? I wish I was able to do that." Chadwick continued to talk to the young woman for most of the day.
It was Richard who interrupted their conversation, hours later. "Aye, Lad. We have the King's order ready fer ya." Chadwick made eye contact with Helena one last time and nodded to the Miller. "Thank you Sir. The King will be very happy" With that, Chadwick took his leave.
Every week thereafter, Chadwick went back to the Mill. He made sure he spoke to the beautiful Helena, and when Helena was not there he made sure to inquire of her well-being. Even after his apprenticeship had ended and before his Knight training began, he still made trips to see the beautiful miller's daughter. Shortly after he began his Knight training, he spoke to Richard the miller and asked permission to court his lovely daughter. Within the year they were betrothed and married.
Chadwick's smiled faded. Sorrow filled his heart. It had been 5 winters since she took her last breath. During the first signs of the cold time, she took ill. Confined to a bed, the months that followed were filled with anxiety and pain, seeing Helena struggle to breathe as she coughed up vile substances. Her appetite declined; slowly she withered away, until there was nothing but a shell of the beautiful woman she used to be.
Devon had awoken from a fitful sleep and ran to Chadwick, sensing that something was terribly wrong. They ran to her closed room where the healer isolated her. They entered as the healer shook his old grey head, his amber eyes lined with unshed tears. There they saw her, peaceful in her eternal sleep. Like a pale porcelain doll, wrapped in white sheets, with a hint of a smile on her pale lips.
The whole Kingdom attended the crossing ceremony, including the King, his advisors, and the Kingdom's Sorceress. Helene's body was carried to the shore where the traditional funeral raft awaited. She was surrounded by dried flowers, given by friends, and the townspeople. She was adorned in a regal looking silk gown of gold, the color of her hair. Mist rose from the winter sea as the raft drifted off into the distance.
From above, on the cliffs, local archers set loose fiery arrows, which enflamed the raft. The flames rose high into the air, releasing Helene's spirit from the body that held it prisoner. As he watched the smoke rise and flames engulf the raft, Chadwick's heart hardened, not knowing why his beloved had been taken so early in her life.