Earl Aethelred Creighton could boast that his lands, which encompassed several small villages in addition to the town of Susa, provided him with anything he could desire. His manse rivaled the extravagance of the homes of his peers. His exports dominated their respective markets. The commoners that lived and worked on his lands were peaceful and content with their lives, there were always a handful of troublemakers but he had it on the authority of his sheriff that these complainers were in the minority.
He had wealth, he had power, his wife was the picture of youth and beauty; he was a man that had everything.
The joy of his life was not his lands, title or wife. It was his young son Gyrth. In the five years since the boy was born he had become the very center of Aethelred’s life. Full of boundless energy and insatiable curiosity Gyrth had been attached to his father’s side since gaining the ability to walk.
During the spring of the 1510 year since the Ascension an outbreak of black-eyed fever tore through Aethelred’s lands and in truth most of the Southern March Kingdom. The illness typically affected the elderly with a burning fever and sunken bruised eyes that would last a handful of days before breaking and leaving the afflicted weak and tired but otherwise unharmed.
It was considered odd that a boy of Gyrth’s age would catch the fever; however, Aethelred was not alarmed and fulled expected his son to recover before the end of the week.
The fever didn’t break that week and the boy steadily became weaker, wasting away from the unrelenting fever. Aethelred summoned a physician from the Ulmath University examine the boy. The healer gave the boy a tea of crushed herbs and told Aethelred that the fever would break soon and he need not worry.
Another week passed and Gyrth’s fever had not broken. Aethelred looked on his son, his heart aching seeing the boy’s strength sapped. Two weeks prior the boy could’ve bowled him over with an over eager hug now the boy couldn’t manage the strength to lift a hand off the bed.
Aethelred in his desperation began summoning wisewomen, weather callers, self-proclaimed healers and wizards; none were able to heal the boy. A month into his son’s illness Aethelred pried himself away from the sickbed to visit the church in Susa. He prayed with the priest and begged the holy man to do something for his son.
The priest agreed, after a sizable donation had been made and spent an entire day and night in the boy’s room praying and filling the room with fragrant smoke. Upon leaving the room the priest told Aethelred that he should be comforted because the Father had great plans for the boy.
Aethelred sat vigil with the boy that night, holding the boy’s weak little hand. At some point in the night the boy’s breathing became ragged and filled with a wet wheezing. He looked on helpless as his son struggled for one breath after another until at last the boy stopped struggling.
Aethelred had heard death being described as the light fading from the eyes of the deceased, in watching his son die he would have said that the light faded from his own eyes. He had no memory of interacting with his servants to arrange a funeral for the boy. He didn’t remember standing under a cloudless sky not listening to his priest telling the gathering of mourners that the soul of the child was in a better place and that they should not grieve for him.
All that Aethelred knew was that there was a hole in his life and in his heart and that it threatened to consume him.
A full month after the death of his son Aethelred found himself standing before the small statue of his that acted as a tomb marker. There was no consideration for placing the child’s remains in the family crypt, Gyrth was happiest under the sun and Aethelred didn’t want his son’s resting place to be in the dank underground. The statue had been commissioned from an artisan in Elbe who had carved an incredible likeness of the boy from white marble.
Aethelred sat on the mound of earth before the statue heedless of the condition of his fine clothes. Staring up at the carved face of his son he wanted to cry but there were no tears left in him. He spoke in a near whisper.
“The sculptor did a fine job. I almost think that if God breathed into this likeness I would have you back. I miss you. I miss hearing your laughter and the your endless questions. I would give anything to hear those playful and meaningless noises you made running through our lands.” He fell silent as if allowing for the opportunity for a miracle to occur.
“All my hopes and dreams for you are gone and there is nothing left. I cried tears for all of the memories I will never have, for the joys and pains that you will never experience. That priest said that you were in a better place and that I should not weep for you. I can’t understand how there is a place better than by your father’s side.” Aethelred’s body lumped forward and stretched across the mound. He touched the bare foot of the marble son. His eyes found one more tear that slided down his cheek to fall onto the ground. Aethelred eventually fell asleep atop his son’s grave.
Aethelred dreamed of a meadow graced with slight and delicate wild flowers. The meadow seemed to stretch in all directions. Aethelred stood alone spinning slowly in place. The sky above was the most perfect blue he had ever seen, it reminded him of color of his son’s eyes, which had been given to the boy by his mother. He stopped turning when he felt a comforting warmth spread across his cheeks. He took a step forward, the warmth spread across his face. Each step he took increased the heat, but not to the point of being uncomfortable.
Neither time nor distance seemed to have any real meaning in this dream. While the meadow spread across uneven land it seemed endless. Aethelred glanced over his shoulder to view the path he had been taking and saw that he was leaving no trace of his passing. When he returned his focus to where he was heading and found that he was standing on the bank of a wide flowing river of crystal clear water.
The river disappeared into both horizons. Aethelred judged that the river was too wide and the current too strong to risk attempting to cross. On the other side of the river the meadow continued; however, there was a tall tree whose branches were heavy with fresh and green apples. The mere sight of these apples caused his mouth to water and his stomach to groan with hunger. Without realizing he found himself attempting to lower himself down the bank toward the water.
He knew that there was no way he could cross the river safely, but those apples looked so good it was worth the risk. He inched toward the water only stopping when a male voice called out to him.
“Aethelred, that is unwise. The current will assuredly pull you away. Besides the apple will be ask in your mouth.” The man was on the opposite side of the river and though he was far away his voice seemed right next to Aethelred’s ear.
Aethelred looked up to the man and was instantly struck with a sense of familiarity but his memory could not put a name to the face that was now smiling at him. He ceased his attempt to descending the bank and settled himself where he was.
“I know it is hard, but try to ignore the apple.” Such an odd thing to say, though Aethelred did notice that every time he thought of the apple he felt the urge to plunge himself into the river. He forced the fruit from his mind. He instead focused his attention on the stranger. The man was dressed in simple breeches of a tawny color with a short sleeved tunic of a lighter shade that had elaborate trim around the hem and the wide v-neck. The man had yellow hair that was cut short and piercing blue eyes that Aethelred could see clearly from his side of the river. The man clearly knew him and seemed to be waiting for him to place his face.
“Sir, you face is familiar to me but for my life I cannot recall your name.” Aethelred yelled out across the flowing water.
“There is no need to yell,” the man said. “We can hear each other easily. As for my face, I am surprised that you cannot see yourself in me.” Aethelred leaned forward squinting his eyes pouring his concentration into the man’s face. He locked on the man’s eyes and he noticed the way the man’s smile caused the corners of his eyes to rise slightly as if the eyes were imitating the curve of his mouth. The last time he saw those eyes they had not been smiling, they had been darkened and sunk into their sockets.
It struck him like a physical force causing his knees to buckle. Sending him to the ground in a weakened heap. “Gyrth?” he whispered not certain if he really wanted to know the answer.
“Yes, papa.” The man’s voice was gentle.
“Am I dreaming?” he asked.
“Not exactly. Part of you is really here; the rest of you is laying atop my grave.”
Aethelred found himself and scrambled to his feet. The desire to eat the apple had been strong and almost irresistible; the desire to hug his son was stronger. He started a reckless slide down the bank and was about to dive into the water when Gyrth’s voice rang in his ears.
“You mustn’t, papa. The river will not allow it, you don’t belong here.” Aethelred stopped himself and stared up at his grown son.
“How is this possible? Can you help me cross? I need…”
“You did need this and the Father has given a great gift to you. You cannot cross the river, you do not belong. Papa, you stand opposite the shores of Heaven.”
Aethelred couldn’t speak as the truth of his son’s words reached him. Heaven, it was not a place that Aethelred spent much time thinking about. His life was consumed with the day to day decisions his station required him to make. He made no time for the Church, on the whole he found the priests tedious and even more self-centered than nobles. Now he found himself staring across into the paradise promised to those faithful to God; he was also being given the opportunity to say to his son the words that had been building within him over the past few weeks.
“I am sorry, son”
“I know, papa.”
“I did everything that I could, I tried to save you.”
“You did everything humanly possible.”
“It wasn’t enough.”
“How can I cross the river? I want to be with you, I want to hold your hand, just one last time I want to hold my son.”
Silence filled the gulf between them while Aethelred waited for a response.
“I love you, papa. You were a good father but you need to be a better man if you are going to be allowed to cross the river,” Gyrth reached a hand up to a low hanging apple and gently detached it from the tree.
“I will give more to the Church, I will listen to every sermon and take the words of the priests into my heart. I will do whatever I can to join you in Heaven.”
“No papa that is not the right path. To cross the waters you must take the love of the Father into your heart, you must take His words into your heart, you can give to the Church, but it would be better to give to the people who are in need,” Gyrth was gentile with his rebuff.
“Papa, the Son weeps at how his message and his path has been lost. All of the Father’s Children are concerned with the numbers of people that have fallen off the path to Father’s side. Live your life with kindness, reveal the true word of the Son, papa try to bring the Father’s love back to the message,” Gyrth stepped away from the river’s edge, Aethelred flinched as the distance to his son grew.
“Don’t go,” he called out. “I … I don’t know where to start.”
“Forgive yourself, papa. That is the first step. It was my time to join the Father. I am happier than you could ever understand.” Aethelred felt the fresh sting of tears in his eyes. He tried to blink them away. When his eyes cleared he found himself alone on the bank of the river.
“Gyrth, I love you, son. I miss you. I will find the path to your side.” Aethelred called out to Heaven before turning away from the coursing river.
The twin moons were melting into the horizon surrendering the sky to the waking sun when Aethelred’s eyes eased open. He was still laying atop the fresh turned earth of his son’s grave. The grief caused wrinkles of his regal clothes had been replaced by streaks of dirt and dewy dampness. His back was stiff and sore, protesting loudly when he eased into a sitting position.
A smile broke out across his face. The shackles of misery had been cast off and while he heart still ached for his lost son it was also filled with the joy of hope and future. The first steps that Aethelred took that morning were the first of a new life, a life dedicated to the memory of his son and the path of kindness that a dream had placed him on.