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Bitter Storm

by L. S. King

The drums beat slowly as the family left the crypt. Dead, Alcandhor thought as the wind and snow whipped about his face. His father was truly dead.

The final mourning ceremony had been delayed to give time for his elder brother, Haldhor, to arrive from his remote bounds in the mountains.

But he had not come.

Not even for his own father's funeral would he leave his bounds. Intractable. As always.

Haldhor had refused the mantle of Thaneship, so now Alcandhor was Thane of their clan. Thane of the peacekeeping Rangers.

The drums stopped and Alcandhor turned to face the crypt, as did all his kin. Two Rangers shut the doors, bowed, and backed away, as a final sign of respect to their dead Thane.

Alcandhor's throat tightened, but he stood as stone. His father had known he would die young. The blood of the alien race that had befriended them centuries ago was strong in him. He had many gifts, including prescience. Alcandhor cursed that foresight. Cursed that his father had known of his death, and warned his family. Cursed that he accepted that fate with such calm.

"Come," urged his uncle, pulling on his shoulder. Alcandhor shook his head, staring at the crypt. Kin filed past, but he saw them not.

His oldest son came and took his hand, tears in his eyes as he looked up. Alcandhor put a hand to the young boy's cheek. At least he was old enough to remember his grandfather. His other two children were too young; they would not know the quick wit, the broad grin, the piercing blue eyes, the wisdom of their grandfather. They would not remember him holding them with such pride and love, playing games with them on the rug in front of the hearth. They would not grow up learning from him, watching him as Thane, seeing the ideals of their clan embodied in such a wonderful example.

But even his oldest would not remember much. Would he remember his grandfather showing him how to hold a knife as he started Ranger Training, and how proud the Thane was as he gave the boy his first sharpened one for his own when he had proven himself with a blade? Would he remember his grandfather's strong hands as the taught him to grip a sword, or sitting with him, reading to him?

Alcandhor patted his son's shoulder, then nodded that he should follow his cousins. "Go on."

"Papa?"

"I will be along. I just need...time alone."

Alcandhor's long hair lashed about his face and the snow stung and smarted, as he waited for them all to leave.

Last to go was his sister. She put her arms around him, but had the storm turned him into ice? There was no balm, no solace in their shared grief. She let him go and turned to walk back home.

Was life more than the bitterness that seemed to fill him with one blow after another? His life's dream to study to be a lawkeeper died when his brother renounced heirship to Thane and dropped that weight on Alcandhor's shoulders.

"I wanted not that burden, Father," he whispered. "I wanted not to be Thane. Who do I turn to, now?" Anger rose like hot bile in his throat. "Why did you have to die? 'Twas not your time! You were still young and hale. You have grandchildren to watch grow. Do you not see how your clan mourns you?" His voice cracked and he continued even softer. "And your son mourns you? Could you not have fought the foresight? Could you not have lived?"

Alcandhor inhaled with deliberate slowness, letting the icy air fill his lungs. The anger froze, like brittle ice it cracked and splintered into shards and fell into the snow.

He walked closer and set a hand on the snow-covered stone of the crypt, barely noticing the sharp, fiery pins of ice that shot into his skin from the contact.

Cold. Alone. That was the future.

"How do I say good-bye?" he muttered. "How do I take up life without you? How do I take up Thaneship? 'Tis doubly bitter losing you, Father."

His father's face swam before him, a loving, yet chastising expression set on it.

Alcandhor knew what he had to do. With another long inhale, he drew his sword and held it in a high salute. But his arm fell as his resolve faltered and he turned away, his shoulders bowed, the sword dragging in the snow. "I want not to say good-bye. Or take this cup of leadership." But he knew he would take it. He must.

The storm raged on.

Note: This story was written for the Deep Magic December 2003 Writing Challenge, and was originally published in the January, 2004 issue of Deep Magic. It has been republished here by permission of the author.

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