by Therese Arkenberg

It is said that the dead have no touch, no sight, no taste or smell, but only hearing. As a younger man I derided the belief as mere superstition. Now I know the truth of it — the last thing I saw was Aeswyth’s hand rising to close my eyes, and then the pain stopped, and I have had only sound ever since.

Whenever I remember Aeswyth, I regret that the dead cannot speak to one another. I would like to tell him what has happened of late, so he would know he had not fallen defending my keep in vain. But perhaps it does not matter. Aeswyth always cared more for his duty than anything else in the world, even victory.

I had bled out my life. My gut was split, a lung pierced; for a time I tasted blood bubbling on the back of my tongue. The pain was terrible, but soon it faded, and after Aeswyth closed my eyes I was suddenly consumed by a lack of sensation. Without agony, I felt nothing. I was left in darkness. At first, I could not even hear.

It seemed I should feel fear, or at least some sort of uneasiness, but it was hard to have fear without a heart to pound, or worry without lips to bite, or grief without eyes to weep. My mind slowly strayed to other things — how did the battle go? Were my forces overwhelmed by Kennata’s attack? Or had we sent the whoreson to hell?

At that thought, I felt that I should laugh. What was hell, if this nothingness was what the dead had to face? Or did I live still, only lost in some strange delirium from my wound?

As if in answer to the question, I heard a sound. A thick, high scrape finished by a heavy thud. I could not tell at first where it was, but after some concentration I decided it came from above me.

Skiss-thunk. Skiss-thunk. It sounded somehow familiar. Where had I heard it before?

Skiss-thunk-ha. Skiss-thunk. Ha. That was the sound of a man gasping for breath, panting as he labored at something …digging?

Of course I knew. The knowledge left me with no panic or fear, though for a moment I felt a spike of rage — damn Kennata and his war for leading me here! Damn the man who had killed me! Damn Aeswyth for closing my eyes! But then it was gone, and I was empty again as if it had burned the last feeling out of me, leaving only a cold heavy weight like the earth heaped over me, no better and no worse than the empty nothingness I had felt before.

I listened as they filled the rest of my grave, then heard the cold slide of metal into soil as they planted my sword at my feet, there to wait for the year and a day until my Bequeathment.

For a long time I listened to the birds. There was nothing else to hear, except the wind through the trees and sometimes the distant tramp of feet. I must be buried near a road, but not one often used. or maybe it was used daily — though I tried to keep track of the morning trills of robins and twilight calls of owls, time has a way of slipping past the dead.

The next human voice I heard was Kennata’s.

“My lord, you have visitors,” he said. His voice was deep and rich with satisfaction.

This was hell. Since I had died, the only emotion I felt between the long intervals of nothing was rage, and when that rage came I was helpless. I wanted to answer him but had no mouth to speak. I wanted to rise and strike him but had no life in my limbs — or anywhere. I could only listen.

“Yes, visitors. Me and one other. Say something, woman.”

She didn’t speak, she cried. Then I realized that rage was not all that was left to me, because my dead heart broke, and I found myself near alive again with grief. Strange, to think that she was the one mourning.

“Say something! For one, tell him — have I mistreated you?”

“No.” She spoke the truth, she must be speaking the truth or I couldn’t bear it.

“And your children?”

“The children are well.”

“See?” I heard a shift of weight on the earth above me and imagined the scene: my wife on her knees in tears and shame, Kennata leering over her. I smoldered with helpless anger.

“I have been a worthy guardian of your family, my lord, and a fine steward of your lands.”

“Stop!” my wife cried at something he did. “Let go of it!”

“Why, woman? There’s no law saying I can’t touch the thing, provided I don’t take it out until a year and a day.”

Until the Bequeathment. The bastard’s paws were on my sword! Laying claim to it, he must fancy, anticipating the day he could take it and with it, all that was left of me in the world. House, lands, title, wife — all that he held now would become his under the law. I was a warrior, and whoever took my sword at the Bequeathment a year and a day after my death would become my heir and the champion of my family.

But Kennata was no champion. He was a thief.

My wife cursed, loud enough to reach his ears. I heard a sharp crack as he struck her. She moaned, but this time quietly, so only I could hear.

“None of that, woman. You will treat me honorably, and I will return the regard, or otherwise…” He spat. “Now, I think we have paid respects enough to your husband. Let’s go.”

“Damn you,” she whispered. He didn’t reply. Perhaps he didn’t hear. Strange, to think the dead might have a sense keener than the living, but perhaps I do.

Her steps lagged behind his as they walked away. I loved her then, as much as I ever had in life, but it brought me no peace. There was only more grief in knowing she was in Kennata’s hands. Whether he planned the visit to hurt me or her, I can never know. I had never thought of him as superstitious, and I am not even sure he believed in life within the grave.

I waited in hell as their footsteps faded away, his heavy with pride, hers so light I could barely hear them, and was left alone with the birds and — though I could not feel them, I knew they were there — the worms.

Kennata came many times in the following months, sometimes with my wife — my widow — and sometimes alone. Later, he even allowed her to come by herself, and she whispered quietly to me about our children’s growth, the ripening of the fields — things which remained the same in Kennata’s hands or my own. Both were doing well, both were ignored by him, and perhaps the two went together.

When he came it was to gloat, to speak of his victories in the surrounding country and the campaigns he planned for the future as his strength grew. He told me about the fall of my keep, the burning of the wooden palisades, Aeswyth’s death at the edge of his sword. Perhaps he did know I was buried here, still present and able to hear his words. But then, Kennata always was a braggart. He might have spoken of his greatness even when he thought there was no one to hear.

Neither he nor my wife ever mentioned the Bequeathment, but surely they had not forgotten it. Surely they were counting the days. Three hundred sixty six. I couldn’t know how many were gone. It is hard to tell the passing of time by sound alone. Once there was a long silence, broken only by a wet crunch from the road — men tramping through fresh snow. I had died in early summer. So much time was gone.

The worst part of death is the helplessness. I was never one to pray, and I did not start now, but I learned then why people do: they beg the gods to help where they cannot, and by mouthing their petitions at least they feel they are doing something of use.

My wife’s visits grew less in the winter, as did Kennata’s. I couldn’t be glad of his absence when there was also hers. The quiet was very bad, but when the first bird returned, I cursed it, even though its song gave me something else to put my mind to. It was a herald of spring and more time lost.

The birds tortured me with their welcomes to each other as more and more arrived home, and I waited for Kennata to come and torture me with his gloating words. But the next time I heard a human voice, far into the spring, it was my wife’s.

“I’m alone today,” she said. “He’s out. Riding in the north. He’ll be back in perhaps a month.”

It would be about the time of my Bequeathment.

“I thought of bringing the children here today, but I didn’t. I’m not ready for it, love. I don’t want them to see your grave. I don’t know how to tell them that you’re dead. They’ve heard it, of course, but I don’t know how to make it real to them.”

I heard the now familiar rustle of cloth as she knelt. There was more, a bone-deep snap — the last of the chilly weather would still be plaguing her joints because she was affected by rheumatism when very young. It was a trait of her family.

She was so frail, my wife, and so precious. She had held up so bravely and cursed Kennata, even when he struck her. But she could not explain to our children that I was dead, and tell them what that meant, and answer their questions. How strange, I thought, were the weaknesses of that woman!

“I don’t want to tell them, because I can’t tell myself. I keep waiting for you,” she said. “I know that you are dead, but my heart doesn’t believe it. Each day I wake up expecting you to ride over the horizon…you will not. You are gone from me, gone forever.” Her voice rose. “You died protecting me, but you failed! Look at us! You beneath the ground, and me his captive. The spoils of his victory.” She spat, and thought it was at the thought of Kennata, it landed on my grave.

For a long time I had felt no shame, only anger and grief. But now her words tore through me, and any anger I felt was only at myself. I had failed. And now my family was left to pay the price. What did it matter to me what happened at my Bequeathment? It would only hurt my pride, and that pride I was not fit to have. I had failed. I would lose nothing when Kennata took my sword — but my widow, my love, my darling wife would lose everything she had left. She would lose all hope.

“You will not save me. In a month, he will come here again. You know what he will do. The law will lie on his side, and respect for the law is the only reason he hasn’t claimed your sword yet. He could, and we would be just as helpless! You can do nothing. I’ve been waiting for you, but you won’t come.” She took in a shaking breath. She was not weeping. She had not cried since the day Kennata first brought her here.

I heard her rise. “I love you, husband, but you are no longer my champion. I know that now.” She took another heavy breath. “You are not my champion. But neither is Kennata.”

I heard her footsteps move away, and I almost prayed for the gods to turn her steps around, to bring her back to me. She did not shift from her course.

“So, my lord, do you know what day it is?”

Kennata’s voice. And it could only be one day.

Soft footsteps moved over my grave, almost covered by Kennata’s proud stomp and the anxious shifting of his witnesses not far away. My widow was here. My heart ached, knowing what she would have to see.

“On year and a day since he has died,” he said.

“Yes,” said my wife. “And now it is the day of his Bequeathment.”

“It is.”

Another stomp from Kennata and the ring of my sword blade from the earth — it took only a moment. Despair came like pain after a fatal wound, slowly, fighting through a cloud of something numb. That numbness felt the way I had always imagined death would.

“I claim this.”

The voice was clear, calm, proud. Loud as it was even in my grave, I knew it must carry far.

It was my wife’s voice.

“Today is his Bequeathment, and I claim his sword. I am his heir. I am the steward of his lands, the guardian of his children. I am my own champion! Me, Kennata! You always discounted me, didn’t you?”

I felt some shame, because I had discounted her, too. But my foolishness went unknown — though I think she would have forgiven me — because I was dead.

As was Kennata in the next moment.

I heard the sword cut through air, then flesh, heard a cry from Kennata, a murmur of dismay from his witnesses. They would not interfere, though, not with something as sacred as a Bequeathment.

I head the heavy thud as his body fell to the ground.

“There,” my family’s champion said. Her voice was light with relief. “Bury that.”

“Where, my lady?” someone asked. I recognized an old servant of our keep. He sounded joyful, even more than she did — Kennata would not have been well loved. From the nervous shifting of other witnesses, likely his friends, they knew it.

“Anywhere. Away from here. Off of my lands.”

“Yes, my lady.”

They lifted Kennata’s body and left, obedient to her orders, obedient above all to the law of Bequeathment.

In my grave I laughed, or at least came as close to it as the dead can. Joy rose in me, bright and burning, and it almost seemed that I could see again. I could see her — my wife, hair blowing in a rising wind, chin held high, standing over my grave with my sword in her hand.

My heir. A champion.

No one has told me yet where they buried Kennata. Perhaps I will never know. I wonder sometimes if they set his sword in the grave, left him that honor. He was, after all, a warrior.

It is two years and two days since my death, the day of Kennata’s Bequeathment. I wonder who will take his sword. I wonder what he has left that could be claimed.

Maybe somewhere in this wide world there is someone who cared for him. Maybe they have heard of his death. Maybe they still wait for him to return. Maybe they wait for him to save them. Only time will tell if they will set aside that hope, and rise as their own champions.

In the meantime — of this I am certain — Kennata waits. And listens.

2 Responses to “Bequeathment”

  1. Aubrie says:

    Excellent fantasy story! Tragically told, leaving the reader with a heavy weight in their hearts. People talk to the graves of their loved ones all the time and you always wonder if they are listening.

    Well written!

  2. Merc says:

    Lovely! I especially like how you show it all through “hearing” alone–nice job. 🙂

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