A Father's Son
Mars by Gustav Holst (in case you like listening to music whilst reading)
A Father's Son
It was dark. All he saw was nothing but darkness in the small of the foot-trunk. The only light came from the sun, poking inside a rat-chewed hole at the bottom of the crate and the keyhole that was at eye’s length. He was more than scared. The room reeked the strain of irony blood and his cowardice. And the rank smell of gore from the massacre from earlier that morning when the men came to raid his family’s home. When the men came, he hid; and there he stayed.
He was always afraid, even as a child. He was a coward, a craven, who still clutched to his mother’s apron string… but not anymore.
The hunters came and went; they left hours ago, but he did not want leave the protection of the chest. He ignored the family of rats gnawing at his backside, but he never let out a sound, for fear the men would come back to slaughter him as well. He knew not what they were looking for, and he did not care. It was of no import to him.
The men came as quickly as they left. They only left a bloody mess behind them.
His mother, sister, and little brother did not follow him to the back room to hide. Instead, his mother answered the knock at the door, and by that time, he closed the lid and hid there. He heard the screams of his mother as the men slashed and cut her open as a cow ready to be taken to the slaughterhouse. The hunters teased and raped his beautiful, young sister. He heard her screams the most, for she was the last to die. His brother, Aden, was only eight and died perhaps the quickest of the three.
He sat in the trunk, and all he could do was sit there just remembering.
There was a creak and a shutting of a door. He moved not a muscle, nor breathed a breath. Someone was coming, mayhaps for him.
Another hour passed, and no one came to kill him. Dusk soon settled. He had to see what the damage the men had done. Slowly, ever so slowly, he crept out of the trunk. The pungent smell of blood overwhelmed him and the fear was settling back inside his soul. He tried not to look around, but he had too.
His brother’s head was lying at the foot of the trunk. His sister’s body was naked and bloodied on the feathered down bed, her blonde hair covered her face. He was out of the trunk and in the kitchen of the house when he found his mother’s body. She was tortured with iron-hot spikes to her face, multiple stab wounds to her chest and abdomen, and a crossbow’s bolt stuck through her heart.
He was numb. What more could he feel than numbness? Grief? Shame? Guilt? A flood of emotions took him. Why had the gods forsaken him?
On the dinner table was a piece of parchment with a golden hilted dagger holding it onto the table. He went over to the table to take a look at the letter.
The parchment was thick, and the script, written with blood-red ink, was almost as thick as blood itself. He could make out a few words, for he had not much of an education.
The parchment said something about his father, Daniel of Dane, and how he had killed the king and now his father sat the throne. The men were rebels to his king of a father, and they were fighting for the dead king’s honor. The letter said that the men did not find Daniel in his home, nor did his family know where he was. And as a threat to anyone who would read this letter, the rebels would not stop the killing until Daniel of Dane had stepped down from the throne of their rightful king.
His father was a kingslayer. He was named after his father. He could have been killed much as his mother and siblings, but being the craven that he was, he couldn’t face death like his father would. Daniel allotted that he was not his father’s son.
Daniel tried with all his might to take the dagger from the table, but he was weak and the dagger would not so much as even budge. He thought that he could at least be strong like his father, but alas, he was not.
His mother had shielded him as a child, for he was weak and sickly. His mother never allowed him to play with other children in their neighboring village because his mother did not want him to get hurt. His father wanted him to be a man like all the other boys, but Daniel’s mother would not allow such roughhousing. Her boy was frail enough, she had said. Still his father tried and tried, until his mother had his sister, Tonya. She was a rare beauty, full of wonders and love. Daniel had loved his sister more than anything the world could have offered him, but now she was dead. After Tonya was born, Daniel of Dane left his wife, weakly son, and his newborn daughter to go and fight in the King’s Army. Bandits had broken out across the land and needed dealing with. Almost a year later, Daniel of Dane returned home to his wife and children. Nine months later, Aden was born.
They had lived happily for eight years. Daniel loved his children, and they loved him. His oldest son was beginning to grow into a man-grown, and his daughter was filling out beautifully. Aden was roughhousing all he wanted. Soon Daniel of Dane was growing tired of the king and all his orders, and he left his family without notice one night in the middle of summer.
Daniel remembered the night his father left never to return, and now his father is sitting on some throne governing the capital with his mighty hands. His father had left in such a rage, angry because the old king had taken his farmland away from him. That was their livelihood.
Daniel just stood there with the note in his hand, hoping beyond hope that this was all a dream and he would wake up at any moment to the sound of bacon sizzling in the frying pan. Hoping that he would soon hear the sound of his mother’s footsteps coming into his room to wake him from his nightmare. But he never woke up, and his mother never came.
He stood there all alone. His father was never coming back. But he could not help himself from thinking that little shred of hope that he would come back to find his wife and children dead and to end this little farce.
The smell of smoke woke him of his senses. The house was afire and Daniel was still inside. The men must have lit it on fire before they left.
Smoke was filtering inside the kitchen. With sudden fear, Daniel grabbed for the dagger, which broke free of the table, and bolted for the door.
He ran a good few paces and turned around to see his whole life go up in flames. His mother, sister, and brother were all inside that house, and they were all going to burn up all because of their father. It took all the strength that Daniel had not to cry. He had to be a man about this.
The house came crashing down as all his memories burned away. He had nowhere to go; he was practically useless. He had nothing in mind to do except one thing: He needed to find his father and let him know what had happened to his mother and siblings. Daniel had nowhere to start. Where would he go? He had no notion where to find his father’s kingdom, much less having the apt to read a map. He knew he had to go, and so he shed his burning self behind, and the new Daniel had sprouted wings and began to soar to new heights.
He followed the old road he took to give milk to their neighbors east of his house. He did not look back.
His past was behind him as he walked down the road to his neighbor’s house. His neighbors, Dyerl and Edna, had a son around Daniel’s age. Mycca was his best friend, and when they were younger, they would play strategy games, for Edna did not want her boy roughhousing either. Soon Daniel’s father made him stop going to Mycca’s house for some reason or other.
Years past on, and the only time Daniel was allowed to go over to the neighbor’s house was to deliver the milk that his father’s goats had produced. Daniel saw Mycca only once a month. Mycca would soon leave their village to go fight in his father’s rebellion. Mycca was slain in battle, and Daniel never saw his friend again.
Their house was a league from his, and mud and ruts filled the road. A storm had come the night before and made the road’s dirt turn into slushy mud.
The mud was caking on his bare feet. Dyerl’s house was soon in eyesight, and Daniel could see Dyerl working in his carpenter shop making a table for the new Lord of Dane’s wife, Lady Sybil. The workmanship was remarkable.
When Dyerl saw Daniel coming down the road, he stopped what he was doing to look up at him and to see the smoke rising up from behind Daniel.
“By the gods,” cursed Dyerl. “Daniel, what happened? What’s with the smoke?”
Daniel did not look behind knowing it would only hurt worse in the end. “Some men came, looking for my father.”
“They found nothing?”
“They killed my mother, killed Aden, and raped and killed Tonya,” he informed Dyerl without a sound of emotion.
“Gods! Why were you not killed in all this?” asked the carpenter.
“I hid,” was all he could answer.
Dyerl put his tools down and rushed to the boy. “Come, my wife will make you a strong cup of wine.”
Dyerl guided the boy inside his house where his wife was cooking and cleaning the house. The man and boy sat at the table.
“What is this, Dyerl? What are you doing with Daniel of Dane’s son?” inquired his wife.
“Be still, woman. This boy has just had his family killed.”
“And why would they do such a thing?” she asked.
Daniel showed them the piece of parchment. “I couldn’t make out all the words, but… they were rebels fighting for the dead king’s right upon the throne, the one my father overthrew.”
“My, if that don’t beat all,” Edna said.
Her husband looked at her. “Fix him a cup of wine, love.”
She did as her husband bid and set the cup in front of Daniel. He drank the strong drink in one gulp hoping for more, but it never came.
Dyerl asked, “What was that smoke from?”
“The house,” Daniel answered. “They burned it all down, even with mother and Aden and Tonya in it. This was all that I took.”
Daniel showed them the golden hilted dagger. Dyerl stood up and left the room. He returned with clothes of Mycca’s and a woolen mantel.
“Here take these and put them on to see if they fit. Edna, make him some food,” demanded her husband.
“What for?” asked his wife.
Dyerl said, “I think he’s going on a journey to find his father and to let him know what happened to his wife and children.”
Daniel went in the other room to change, and when he came out, there was a basket waiting for him on the table. Dyerl stood up from the chair he sat in.
“I found some of Mycca’s old boot,” he said. “I hope they can fit, but if they don’t, we’ll stuff them with fur. And…”
Dyerl moved over to an old trunk as Daniel went to slide the brown-leather boots on his bare feet. Dyerl opened the trunk and pulled out a piece of cloth wrapped around something long and skinny. He pulled off the old fabric to reveal a long sword in its sheath. He brought it over to Daniel.
“This was the sword that your father gave Mycca on the day that they left. I want you to have it,” he said handing the sword to Daniel.
He did not know what to say. He nodded his thanks, took the basket full of food, and started for the door.
“Wait,” called Edna.
He turned around to see her rummaging through some old books until she found the right one she was looking for. She pulled it out of its place on the shelf and dusted it off. She handed it to Daniel.
“Here are the maps to all the major kingdoms and cities. May it be a light to you on your journey to find your father,” she said with a smile.
He left their house with a pack full of food and the map in his hand. The map said to take the north road from his neighbor’s home and continue on that road until he was to come at a crossroads.
The day was long as was the road, all mud and ruts. Daniel passed by few houses. The sun was beaming down harshly upon his neck; burning the skin that protected him. He would keep a hand on the back of his neck, but that did not keep him cool enough. The sun was just too hot.
The afternoon had suddenly taken a toll on Daniel. Flies and gnats were swarming around him biting his flesh. Many times he would have to slap himself in attempt to kill off the infernal insects. A stream flowed nearby, he remembered. He would stop there to lunch and rest his weary legs and aching feet. All that was on his mind was the burning of his home and life and the recent death of his family. His father would know the answers; he just had to.
In the stream were little trout not even big enough to catch and cook to eat. They just were not abundant in meat. He just sat by the bank with his feet in the waters, having the little trout nibble at his toes while he ate on hard, stale bread and cheese. The water was cool to his mouth as he took a drink from it. Half an hour passed by, and he knew it was time for him to continue on his journey.
He estimated that he would arrive at his father’s kingdom three days hence, and that was without much stopping to rest and time to sleep. Evening would soon set in and night to follow that. His feet were in continuous pain from the walking. He had to stop somewhere to rest his exhausted body.
Up ahead, indicated by the map, was a river. He decided to stay the night on the riverbed. He would make camp, a fire, and would sleep under the stars. But, he thought, what if some bandit or wolf was to come and slit my throat in the night? He would never reach his father then.
He stretched out on the riverbank wrapped in his cloak. His fire had died, and the sounds of night were sounding all around. Off in the distance, a wolf howled at the full moon in the cloudless sky. The night was cold, and Daniel wished that the fire did not snuff itself out. The fire would have come in handy for both the warmth and protection against the wild predators of the night.
Sleep soon crept over Daniel within an hour. He dreamed horrible nightmares of his mother and siblings burning alive in the house while he was not there to save them, if his cravenness would allow him to save them. He awoke shivering as dawn was breaking over the horizon.
He broke his fast on the stale bread and cheese that Edna had given him for his quest to find his father. Once he was finished, he continued on his way down the road toward the north.
Along the way, he passed many a village. There was an elderly woman pulling a wagon filled with vegetables, some ripe and ready to eat while others were rotting quickly.
“A penny for a carrot, my dear,” begged the woman.
Daniel searched in his pocket for a penny, but found none. “I’m sorry, miss. I haven’t a penny.”
The old woman stopped her cart pulling. “Give us a name, child, and Old Maggie will give you a sweet, eh?”
“D-d-daniel of Dane.”
The old woman closed her eyes, eyes that had seen many generations before his. “The king’s son. What an honor to meet ye, m’lord. But why so far away from your castle, child?”
Daniel did not know what to say. “I do not live at the castle.”
“Then where do you live?”
Old Maggie held out her hand. “Here, a pretty silver piece for the Young King.”
“But my father is still alive. How could I possibly be king?” he inquired.
“You shall see. Old Maggie sees all. Heads be ye king. Tails be ye death.”
Old Maggie flipped the silver piece in the air and continued on her way with her wagon. The coin made a thump when it hit the muddy ground she had just left. He went over to where it had landed.
The coin was on heads. Could she have perchance been a soothsayer? The Art of Divination was not at all common in his village. His mother told him that it was an abomination before the gods to perform such dark arts. The fact that clairvoyance was possible baffled him. He picked up the coin and thought nothing else of her premonitions.
He passed a sacked city with its ruins burned away. Only smoke was left of the city. Daniel found a note, much like the one on his table at his ruined home, nailed onto a burnt post. The letter read much the same as his at home. The men had searched the city and had not found his father there. He was beginning to worry. What more was he to be subjected to before he reached his father, if he reached his father.
Midevening came, and rain clouds started rolling in. Thunder roared in the distance. The sun was hiding behind blood-red clouds as it began to set beyond the skyline. He had traveled a lot that day, and he needed a place to rest and hide from the oncoming rain. A village appeared up ahead.
All the buildings were still intact, yet there was no one left alive. The stench of the place wrinkled up Daniel’s nose. Flies were all on the dead in the streets, and maggots were in the carrion of the lifeless bodies. Men, women, children; it did not matter who you were; all were dead.
The stench was too horrible for Daniel to continue his search for a hiding place from the rain, so he ventured into the first building he could get inside to get him away from the stench of death. The smell remained outside. There were no dead inside. The bad men must have taken everyone out side to kill them.
The house he had entered was a big house with upstairs and a cellar. In the kitchen was a loaf of bread, which the person who baked it pulled it out of the oven, sitting on the counter waiting to cool. Daniel quickly rushed over to the loaf and pulled out his knife. He cut the bread in slices; it was still soft. It tasted good with his cheese that he still had.
The rain began to fall, and the pitter-patter of it would hit the roof of the house’s thatched roofed ceiling. There was not much room on the first floor to sleep. He made his way up the stairs slowly to the top. There were only three doors on this hallway. He knew he needed a fireplace to keep warm through the night.
He opened the first door on his right. No fireplace. The second on his right; still no fireplace. The one door on his left did not want to budge open. He shoved it with his shoulder. The door came crashing in with Daniel almost falling face first on the floor.
The room rank with decaying flesh. He looked up to see three bodies hanging from the rafters of the ceiling; the bodies were swinging with the breeze. Strips of carrion were hanging from them. A raven, somehow, had gotten in the room and had begun to feast on the dead. Flies and maggots surrounded the decaying bodies. One’s eye was missing, while one of the other, still slightly fresh, had its tongue hanging out of its mouth.
Daniel screamed in horror. What madness had driven these people to commit suicide? Again, he found a note written in the same script as the one he left at Dyerl’s house.
He ran from the room; not bothering to close the door. He rushed down the stairs until he came to the first floor. The air had a slight chill in it as it hung around the room. He was not his father’s son. His father would have had the decency to take to decaying bodies off the nooses and bury them. Daniel could not bring himself to look at them. He could not bear to have them look at him.
He then realized that that room was the only one with a fireplace and a bed. Thank the gods there was a fireplace here on the lower floor.
“Wood,” he breathed to himself, scanning the room for any sign of food for a fire. Off to the side of the hearth was a wood box. The door to the box was closed. Daniel made his way over to it and stooped to open the door.
Inside the box, a black cat jumped out and hissed, scratching his face and arm. The cat bolted out of the room, and it gave Daniel a start. His heart was racing so fast that it might explode. He was beginning to second-guess whether or not he should stay here for the night.
Thankfully, there was wood in the box. He put enough wood in the hearth for a good, warm fire to start the night off. The rain was beginning to make him sleepy. All he needed now was a tender and flint. He combed the room over but saw none. He found an old stone close to the fireplace. He pulled out the dagger and began to hit the stone on the dagger as hard as he could. Sparks flew, yet none would hit the wood.
Kindling would start a fire, he thought, but he had no earthly idea where he would find kindling. Then he remembered the parchment nailed in the streets. Yet he was too afraid to go back out for fear the dead might come back alive. He was not his father’s son. His father would not have been afraid of such nonsense.
He tried the stone and dagger once more. The gods must have felt pity for him, for the fireplace was soon ablaze with a roaring fire. The warmth of it felt good to his face, and soon his entire body. He ate his bread and the last of his cheese. By this time tomorrow, he thought, I will be at my father’s kingdom and will be welcomed in opened arms.
Daniel slept by the hearth that night, with a full stomach, grateful wishes, and dreams of his father's smiling face once he saw his son coming home to where he needed to be.
A woman screaming, men shouting, and silence awaked him. No one was alive in the city; how could he hear screaming? The dead, he thought, might actually come back to do some evil demon’s bidding.
“STOP !” the woman screamed.
Daniel rushed out of the house to find two men penning a beautiful maiden up in a corner. Her dress was tattered here and there, and a sleeve was hanging down from where the men had wanted to see a breast. She covered herself meekly.
“Please,” she pleaded. “Don’t hurt me.”
“We won’t hurt you,” said one.
“No,” stated the other, “we won’t. Just give us some lovin’. That’s all we ask for.”
Both men made their move toward the young girl. Daniel had to do something, or these men would rape and kill her just as they had his sister, Tonya. He pulled Mycca’s sword from its scabbard. It made a ringing noise; the men turned to see where it had come from.
“Don’t you dare hurt her,” he said, timidly.
“Or what are you going to do? Tickle our toes?” asked one.
“Teach us a lesson?” asked the other.
“Put down your swords, sirs, and you shall not be harmed. I do not want to kill anyone, unless I really have to.”
“Put your blade up your arse, and go prance around some where else’s,” said the other.
Daniel looked down, almost in defeat. “I am not my father’s son.”
His father would have taken these men’s manhood and made them wear them around their necks. No, Daniel was not his father’s son.
One started at him; Daniel flinched away. As he did, he brought Mycca’s sword upward going into one’s cavity and made a fleshy sound. Blood covered him.
“That was my brother, you-” started the other. Until Daniel’s sword kissed the other’s blade and brought him down by opening him from ear to ear.
The maiden was on her knees; her hands were on her stomach. She was crying pitifully. Her breath was staggered in between sobs. Daniel rushed over to her.
“Shh, it’s alright,” he said, trying to comfort her. “You’re safe now. I’m not going to hurt you.”
She looked him in the eye. “You did a kind deed, sir. But I fear it was too late.”
She removed her hands to reveal a sword wound in her abdomen. The blood was black and oozing fast. One of the men had stabbed her liver. She was to die whether or not he had saved her. She kissed him lightly on his lips.
“Let me look upon the face that saved my life as I go to enter the High God’s home,” she said staggered. The light from her eyes faded as she passed away in his arms.
He laid her to rest like the others: in the streets. He continued on his journey to find his father’s kingdom. He travelled hard and far, and soon he, within a league or two, Daniel saw for the first time in his life the empire that his father ruled.
It was an immense castle, with great big walls, drawbridge, and rusted, old portcullis. He was crossing the drawbridges, when two guards came stumbling out of a brothel where the women were half dressed, waving farewell to their customers. Daniel was not his father’s son. He would never let his guardsmen whore around in brothels. Inside the city gave a different attitude. It was very much alive and swarming with activity.
An old man was selling meat pies on the corner. Daniel asked him where he would find the king of the castle.
“First time in the city?” inquired the old man. Daniel nodded. “Go up the main street here, and soon you’ll find yourself in the king’s keep.”
Daniel left the old man and went on his merry way to find his father. The doors to the castle were closed, so he opened them. Inside was the King’s Court, and his father was sitting on the high throne.
“Who goes there? Interrupting the king’s council?” asked his father.
Daniel replied, “It is I, father. I’ve come here to tell you that my mother, your wife, and daughter and son have been killed by rebels of the dead king.”
The king got off his throne to come and glance at his son. “Daniel? You haven’t aged a day. Your mother and siblings are dead. Rebels from the dead king, you say?”
“That’s what the letter said.”
The king laughed, as did his council. He went to sit back on the throne. “Council,” he said, “this is my son, Daniel of Dane. Rebels of the dead king killed my wife and children.”
More laughs outburst. “It isn’t funny. My mother’s dead.”
“Dear boy,” said the king. “I had them killed, and you were to die also. I will have no son of mine bear this throne once I am dead. When I’m dead, there will be no other king. I had every village sacked trying to find your mother and my children, but my men failed to kill the one craven in the world: My eldest son. But now, I have no children. You, sir, are no son of mine.”
The king laughed but for the last time. In Daniel’s rage, he pulled Mycca’s sword from its sheath, swung the sword at his father’s throat, and let him bleed for what he did to his mother and sister and brother. May he burn in all the hells there may be, he thought.
Daniel took the crown that was atop his father’s head and placed it on his own. He threw his father from the throne. He sat in his father’s place and looked to the Royal Council.
He said simply, “I am my father’s son.”
The sound of a silver-piece hit the floor: Heads.