"Just have a little more, won't you, mother?" A pair of slender hands cupped the small mug, offering it near to the lips of the woman.
"No, no," came the breathy answer, along with a fond smile. "I've had enough." She laid her head back upon the small mountain of pillows with a sigh.
Her daughter lingered there for a few seconds, the cup still held aloft, before surrendering the effort. She set the cup down on the wooden table beside the bed, then took her mother's weathered fingers into her grasp.
"If this is the end," said the older woman, smiling still despite her grim words. "Write a good song about me, won't you, Beyrith?" Her chest gave a heave, and she curled up as if to sit. Her lungs wheezed and crackled, she gasped in another breath, and collapsed back onto the pillows.
Beyrith's hand tightened around her mother's. "This is hardly the end," she declared. Her forehead darkened at the sickening sound of her mother's rattling breaths. "You're doing better than you were yesterday. And you will be better still tomorrow. I will write no songs of the name Bletsung. Not for a long while yet." She leaned over to the bedside table and carefully blew out the flame of the oil-lamp.
“I am glad you came to see me,” said the ailing woman, and her free hand lifted up to search the air blindly for her daughter’s cheek. Beyrith leaned over to gently guide her mother’s palm to her face. “But you will not stay long, if I know my daughter at all.” She tenderly caressed the young woman’s soft skin before lowering her arm.
“I will not,” came the confirming answer.
A small span of quiet followed, wherein neither of them spoke nor moved, though their hands remained clasped on the wool coverlet.
“What is the hour, my daughter?” Her mother’s airy voice broke through the quiet.
“It is twilight, mother. Nearly dark.”
“You should stay here for the night.” The older woman’s fingers were suddenly strong like iron, though her grip was still gentle. “No need to go gallivanting off into the darkness.”
Beyrith’s voice took on a more consoling tone when she spoke again. “I do not fear the night. But there is something strange stirring along the river to the west, and I want to see what I may. And it is better to move about such places in the shadows and avoid being seen.”
“You have no need to go,” her mother repeated, attempting to place sternness into her rasping voice. “Leave such things to the men who have armor and shields to keep them safe!”
“It is not a matter of sword and spear,” replied Beyrith, turning her ochre eyes to the small window set into the wall above her mother’s bed. Beyond the blurry pane, the world was an inky, black-blue shadow. “I have heard along the road and at the border camps, talk of a dead man. But he was not slain by orcs. Nor simple-minded robbers. He was just a fisherman, they say.”
“I don’t like you being around such talk as much as you are,” said her mother, drawing her thumb over her daughter’s knuckles. “The camps are for the men, not for young women. How do you know how this man died, or who is to blame? You should not be worrying on such grim thoughts.”
Beyrith turned her gaze down to the woman laying beside her. Bletsung was as fair as any woman of the Riddermark could ever be; pale of skin, eyes like cornflowers in spring, and hair that shone like cornsilk, though age was beginning to turn it into silver. She looked again to the window, and in its muddled reflection, her hair seemed as dull as the rust-brown earth of the nearby hills.
“Not for young women,” she repeated softly to the air. “You would know much of that, wouldn’t you, mother?” Immediately she felt her mother’s fingers tighten in an unspoken warning. Beyrith bit her tongue between her lips and obediently turned the current of the conversation. “He was not killed outright with a blow from a blade or an arrow. He was tortured in a most peculiar way.”
Bletsung did not speak for several, long minutes. The silence was thick and rank with foreboding, though her daughter remained still and calm throughout. At length, the older woman gave a sudden cough that shook her slender body and rattled the bedframe. A cup of water was quickly brought to her lips, and she drank with shallow, trembling slurps before sinking down once more. “Tortured,” she breathed, and shook her head back and forth upon the pillow. “I don’t like that. It feels wicked. Evil. It is one thing for soldiers to torment their captives, but to do such to a simple, working man…” A rasping sigh escaped her throat. “Leave it be, Beyrith, I beg you.”
Her daughter had slowly withdrawn her hand while her mother spoke, and now she rose to her feet. Her eyes were still transfixed on the little window, as if she saw beyond it all manner of captivating things. “Haven’t I always said that they were savages and beasts?” she murmured.
“Beyrith!” her mother choked out. “You don’t even know who is responsible for this.”
“Who else would it be, mother?” At last, Beyrith turned back to her mother, crossing her arms. “And if this is the sort of sneaking, cowardly terror they wish to bring to our people…”
“You stop this right now.” Bletsung struggled and panted until she was propped up against the wall, and on slightly more even footing to confront her daughter. “For too many years you have held this...this grudge. And not only held it, but nurtured it. Cherished it, even! Like a twisted and unnatural child in your heart!”
Beyrith sucked in her breath at this sudden onslaught of words. Her eyes went wide and she clenched her jaw, refusing to strike back at her mother. She whirled around and presented her back instead.
“I do not hold them blameless for the crimes they have done. This you know full well, Beyrith. But you! You hold them to blame for every wrong in the world. Even those they have not committed!” Her throat hitched and her chest spasmed, and she was forced to pause and cough violently before daring to go on. “It is unjust, Beyrith. Unjust and unfair. And will lead you to ruin one day, I fear.”
“There is none else who would have done this,” Beyrith insisted, in a softer voice.
“It is not your duty to punish those responsible, my child,” came the breathy, exhausted reply.
“I do not intend to punish anyone,” said Beyrith, adding softly after, “...necessarily.” She turned slowly to look back at her mother. “But I will find out what I may. And if chance happens me upon the man who did this…” It was too late to take back the words already spoken, but she pressed her mouth closed and said no more.
Bletsung’s eyes were closing. Her body sagged against the mound of pillows with a heavy sigh. Her lips parted, but nothing came forth. Again she tried, and presently she murmured, “Béma protect you, my daughter.”
The somber resignation in those words fell upon Beyrith like a heavy weight. “Do not worry for me, mother. I will come back tomorrow to see how you fare.” There was no reply from the shadowy figure upon the bed. An unpleasant ache struck within her gut, and in an effort to soothe it, she stepped over and leaned down to place a kiss on her mother’s fevered brow. Then, turning away, she strode to the door of the house and swept out into the darkness.