Sigrid shifted the bundle of linens into the crook of her left arm so she could open the door. On days like this, when the summer heat poured through the glazed windows, the smell of pine rose from the planked floors, the wooden furniture, even the posts and pillars of the hall to recall the carefree forest of her childhood, before she had come to High Roost to care for its occupants.
The door opened to reveal two such occupants, one living and one — she wasn’t sure what.
“Good morning, my lord,” she chirped, forcing a smile as she looked at the man who sat on the plain stool beside the bed.
Jannik had once been the largest man in the kingdom — seven feet tall, as big around as a bear and at least as strong. Now he sat hunched over, shrunken in on himself to take up less space even than Sigrid in the room.
His voice, when he spoke, was the the querulous tone of a much older man. “It’s no use flattering me, you know.”
She pressed her lips together tightly to keep the words in that wanted to spill out and wash his spirit of the darkness that had claimed him. Such an attempt would only make things worse. Instead, she turned her attention to the other occupant of the room.
Most people wouldn’t consider a piece of furniture to be an occupant, even a bed as beautifully carved as this, of a dark wood unknown in this land. Its sides were shaped like dragons with the wings swept back. Twin heads looked forward from the foot of the bed, and tails entwined to form the headboard. Sigrid, however, felt the weight of its presence, which crept up on her like smoke, sensed before you could see evidence it was there, felt it pushing her back like a headwind. Then, too, there were the eyes. She knew they watched her; she didn’t know why.
Repressing the urge to curtsy, she said, “Washing day. Time to change the linens.”
The sense of menace lifted and she stepped forward to catch her balance, as one did when the wind faded.
“You’ll excuse me if I don’t help,” Jannik said.
“Hold these.” She placed the linens in his lap without looking at him.
The pale quilt in blues and greens came off first, set carefully aside to hang in the sunlight and air. The sheets received shorter shrift, being piled on the floor as if nestled under the dragon’s wing.
After taking a deep breath, Sigrid leaned forward to grab the mattress, careful not to touch the wood itself. On those occasions when she did, more than a dim sense of presence entered her mind, thoughts and feelings not of her making. She didn’t know how Jannik could bear to sleep with these clouds oppressing him. Perhaps that had as much to do with his state as the accident; she’d never had the courage to ask.
Three shakes and the mattress was fluffed again, ready for the linens to be spread upon it. Sigrid reached for the sheet on top of the pile and was startled when Jannik’s hand closed about her wrist.
“It’s almost time,” he said, “and I wouldn’t have changed a thing.”
Her eyes met his in concern. Though he’d been crippled by his fall down the Long Stair that led from High Roost to the town below, none of the physickers who’d seen him had indicated that his condition now was life-threatening. Yet he talked as her great-granda had. Should she tell someone?
But who was there to tell? Most of his attendants and hangers-on had left after his fall. Besides the three of them in this room, there were only two servants at High Roost — Farran, who cared for the horse and goats, and his wife Hilde, who tended the garden and occasionally came out her elderberry win stupor long enough to cook a meal or two.
As if he’d sensed her hesitation, Jannik leaned forward, his gaze pressed upon her. “You have to know. The whole truth.”
The intensity of his eyes worried her, and she jerked away, reaching behind her unthinkingly to catch her balance. She grasped the bed.
Darkness rushed into her, swirling and popping, like sparks from a log turned over in the fire. The roar of a wind filled her ears, then words came, a half-familiar voice. “My husband would never know. Please, I must have a child.”
Jannik’s voice — as it once was, deep and resonant, answered. “I cannot do as you ask. You are bound before God and man. I will not do this.”
An inarticulate cry of rage, a sharp pain slamming into the lower back, then pain after pain after pain until the darkness and the pressure faded to leave Sigrid sitting in the bedroom of High Roost, staring at Jannik with her mouth open.
He was like this because he had been honest? And honorable? The world should cry forth for justice and healing!
Slowly, she released the edge of the dragon’s wing, realizing as she did so that the bed held no more terror for her.
She got to her feet, wishing she could do something to right the wrong that had been done. “Is there nothing?”
“It is enough.” His voice was soft, but it no longer sounded as broken as it had. He reached out his hand to her. His eyes still shone with intensity, but now it was not pity they stirred in her.
She took his hand.
— THE END —
This bed actually showed up for me a few days ago in a very different story. Now I’m thinking it may be the center that an entire collection of stories revolves around.
My blog is participating in the Forward Motion Flash Friday Blog Group, a weekly flash fiction exercise. Check out the other participating blogs for more flash.