Henry and the Dragon: Chapter Five
“Where did you get that cloak?” Neron demanded only a moment after Henry stepped into the shop. He didn’t seem to care about the laden basket in Henry’s hands.
“A gift from a friend.”
Neron reached out a wrinkled hand and and fondled the fabric. “No friend would gift you with something like this.” He sneered. “You stole it, didn’t you?”
“No, I don’t steal,” Henry snapped. “It was given to me by a friend, as I said.”
Neron raised a fist, and Henry feared he was about to be struck again, but then he stopped and held out his hand. “Give it to me.”
Henry wrapped his arms around himself, holding tight to the garment. “No, Kai gave it—“ He stopped when he realized he’d uttered Kai’s name.
Of course, Neron didn’t miss it. His eyes narrowed as he stepped closer to Henry. “Who is Kai?”
“A friend I met near the woods. He’s a wanderer, and has traveled the world over. He has seen sights that I could only imagine.”
“I’m not,” Henry insisted.
“Then you’ll bring this Kai to me.” Neron crossed his spindly arms over his chest. “I must be certain he poses no threat to my apprentice.”
It was a lie, Henry was certain, so he felt no qualms about doing the same. “He may have already left.”
“For your sake, I would hope not. As it stands, I can only surmise that you’ve stolen this cloak from him, and are covering up your crime.” Neron leaned in closer. “How am I to know you didn’t kill this Kai, and dispose of his body in the woods?”
Henry wanted to protest, but how could he? If Neron went to the king, and told him his tale, Henry was certainly going to be imprisoned. He had no proof to refute Neron’s assertion, but the thought of begging Kai to come to town, after he’d made it known he loathed the place, would be asking too much of him.
“Go now, Henry. Find this Kai person.”
“Now? But Master Neron, night has begun to fall.”
“Then give me the cloak, and I will hold it until the morrow.”
There was no option left open to Henry. “I’ll leave now, Master.”
Neron seemed surprised. “Would you not rather wait until first light?”
If it meant giving up the gift Kai had given him, no. “I will leave now.” He held out the basket. “Here is your ghost moss.”
An ugly sneer crossed Neron’s face. “I don’t care about ghost moss! It’s useless to me.” He smacked the basket from Henry’s hands. “As are you. Go forth, if you wish. Be eaten by the creatures of the forest. I care not. If you don’t come back, there will be a new apprentice soon enough.”
And Henry knew this to be a fact. Anyone in town would be grateful for the opportunity, because they did not know what kind of person Neron was. Henry hurried out of the town’s walls, and made his way to his parent’s farm. When he got there, he could smell the yarr and beetroot cooking, and his stomach clenched. How long had it been since he’d had his mother’s cooking? How long had it been since he’d seen his family?
He opened the door, and smiled as his mother turned and her eyes went wide.
“Henry!” she cried, rushing to him and gathering him in her arms. “Merry! Henry is here.”
A tick later, Meredith appeared from her bedroom. Her stomach was distended, and Henry knew immediately what it was.
“You’re with child?” he asked, tears burning his eyes.
“Aye, brother. I am married to Euric, the blacksmith. This will be our third child.”
“And I didn’t know.” He put a hand on Meredith’s stomach. “Hello, little one.”
“Oh!” Meredith exclaimed. “I believe he heard you. He kicked.”
“Where’s father?” Henry asked, looking around.
Merry turned to mother, then swiped away a tear. “Did you not know?” his mother asked. “Your father died last winter. He took ill after running out into the night, claiming the demons were after him. We sent word to town and left it with Neron. Did he not give it to you?”
Anger and frustration boiled within Henry. “No, he most certainly did not. Had he, I would have been here much sooner. I am so sorry, Mother.”
She hugged him, and he put his face into her shoulder. He remembered the scent of viniveer and ekerot so well. It had been her scent. One that Henry had made for her when he was only a little boy.
“You still wear it,” he whispered.
“It was a gift from my son,” she replied, squeezing tighter. “It was the only thing I had left of him. I use it sparingly because I haven’t much left. One day, that too will be gone.”
“I’m sorry, I—“
“Have said enough,” she insisted. “You were only a boy when you went with Neron. You made a very grownup decision to protect your family, and we are grateful for that. Now, however, you should return home.”
“I cannot. I… I’m in trouble, Mother.”
“What’s wrong?” Meredith asked, sliding a hand over Henry’s back. When he winced and cried out, she grabbed his tunic and lifted it.
“Oh my God,” she whispered. “Henry, what happened?”
He pulled the garment down. “’Tis nothing to concern yourself over, Merry.”
She smiled at the use of her old nickname. Henry hoped that would be the end of it, but Mother wouldn’t let go of Merry’s find.
“Tell me the problem, Henry. What happened?”
So he did. He told her about Kai, and how he was a true friend, even though they barely knew each other.
“Your eyes alight when you speak of him,” she said, a wide smile on her face. “Have you found love?”
He averted his gaze. “Of course not. Know you well it is forbidden.”
She reached out and took his hand in hers. “Oh, my darling son. Despite their many claims, the church doesn’t know everything. Your father and I? We were not married in the church. We were called heathens, because our parents still held with the old ways, and though we ourselves did not practice them, we also would not condemn our parents for doing so, nor would we cut them from our lives as the parish demanded. Your father and I knew that your heart would never belong to a woman. You were always destined for something else. Now, I ask again. Have you found love?”
Years of hearing how he’d go to Hell were still ingrained in Henry’s mind, but Kai’s words had pushed much of it aside, especially considering that he felt he deserved love, just like everyone else.
“I…am uncertain. Kai is unlike anyone I’ve ever met. He’s good and kind, and after Neron’s beating, he—“
“What! Are you telling me those marks on your body are from Neron?” Meredith shrieked.
Henry nodded mutely, ashamed.
“I’ll have Euric and his brothers visit Neron,” she vowed.
“You’ll do no such thing,” Mother insisted, a sneer marring her beautiful face. “I’ll do it myself.”
“No. Neither of you will do anything,” Henry insisted. “I will not have you placed in prison or worse. Promise me, mother. I need you both to swear your oath to me.”
“But, Henry—“ Meredith began.
“No, Merry. Neither of you will do anything.”
“Very well,” she said, but Henry could tell she wasn’t happy.
“I will make no such vow, my son.”
Fear gripped Henry’s heart. “Mother, I need you to hear me. I am off to the dark wood on this eve. Neron insists on meeting Kai, because of a gift he gave me. He claims that I’ve stolen it, and that I could have done something to Kai.”
“What? That is such nonsense! You haven’t a hurtful bone in your body.”
“Be that as it may, I will not allow Kai to meet Neron. When he saw the cloak, Neron’s greed was evident. I do not know if Kai is of money, but I refuse to allow Neron to sink his talons into my friend.”
“What will you do?” Merry asked.
“I’ll insist that Kai leave straight away.”
“And what of you?”
What of Henry? “I…do not know. I can no longer work for Neron. Perhaps it would be best for all concerned if I were to simply vanish.”
“I forbid it!” Mother yelled. “I will not lose you again.”
He took her hands in his. “It will only be for a time. Kai must be safe, and I wouldst ensure that he escapes our lands lest Neron find him.”
“And what of you? What will happen if they catch you?”
Henry’s shoulder slumped. “My life will be forfeit.”
“Is Kai so important that you would willingly risk your life for him?”
Henry smiled. “He is. I do not know if I love him, but I do know that I am very fond of his face.”
“Merry, you must take care of mother for me. Give me your oath.”
“I will always take care of her, but I would take care of you as well.”
He stroked a hand over her cheek, so different from when he was a young boy. There were now fine lines around her eyes, and a sadness there that made her look much older. Father’s death rattled her, because she’d always been his little one. She’d sat on his lap after they’d eaten the evening meal, and he would talk to her about the farm, telling her about the animals that inhabited it, the vegetables the family grew, and other bits and pieces of their lives.
Henry? He got taught by mother to impart her knowledge. It was she who started him on the path to learning about medicinal uses for plants. By the time Henry was four, he could tell most of them by the shape of their leaves or the smell they gave off. He knew what they did, and how to mix them for even more potency.
Henry loved their father, but he understood they weren’t as close as he and his mother. Da always loved Merry, because she was stronger, faster, and more able than any boy in the area. They thought she was one with whom they could court, but she set them straight by telling them that in order for her to even consider them, they’d have to get father’s approval. And that never happened. Father would scowl, and that would send them running.
Then he went to war, and when he came back, broken beyond repair, he scarcely recognized his family. So haunted were his dreams, he thought the spirits of people he’d once known in war had returned to claim him, the one who’d survived. At times there would be brief instances of lucidity, but those never lasted long enough. The first time, Merry was so excited to have her father back, she wept. Then, when his mind went away again, she cried for a different reason.
Merry ought never cry.
“Speak to me of your husband,” Henry said.
“Euric is a fine father,” she informed Henry. “He is also a wonderful husband. He adores us.”
Henry knew it was like father had adored Merry. She missed that look in his eye when he saw her, but now it was fully evident. Merry was truly in love.
“And your children?”
“Walter and Henry are four. If my child is a girl, she will be Agnes after our mother. If we were blessed to have another boy, he will be called William, which is Euric’s brother.”
Henry swallowed a lump in his throat. “You named them after Father and me?”
“Of course. When I told Euric I wanted to name them for my kin, he said he could not think of better names.” She reached for Henry’s hand. “I’ve missed you, Henry.”
“And I you,” Henry choked out. “How are you feeling?”
She cocked her head. “What? I’m well. Why do you ask?”
Henry frowned. “You were so sick, and—“
“I have not been ill for many years, and—Henry, I beg of you. Please tell me that Neron spoke with you.”
He had not. “No,” Henry choked out. “He told me he sent Mother the medicine on schedule, and—why would he do that?”
It wasn’t a question that Henry needed an answer to. He knew to his soul what the truth was. He’d said as much before. Neron didn’t want an assistant, he wanted a servant. It was why he’d not taught Henry anything, despite promises he would.
“I’ve been such a fool.”
“No!” Mother snapped. “You were a boy who loved his family so, he would have done anything for them. This is on Neron, not you.” She clutched his arm. “Would this Kai protect you?”
Henry sighed. “I am uncertain. I would think so.”
“Then you must go with him, far from Innernook. If Neron discovers you know the truth, he might do something far crueler to you.”
“But you and Merry!”
“Euric will protect us. He would ensure your safety as well.”
Of this, Henry was certain, but one man could not stop the king’s guards.
“No, I must go. ’Tis not safe for you if I am here.”
Tears formed in Mother’s eyes. “But we will lose you again,” she whispered. “I cannot let this stand.”
“Yet you must,” Henry informed her. “You cannot tell anyone you’ve seen me. I should be as a ghost to you both.”
“But Euric will—“
“I will not risk your children, nor our mother,” Henry insisted. “As our parents would not do with our grandparents, you must do with me. Disavow me to any who would ask about me. Spat on my name. I have no doubt Neron will send kings men after me. He is not one who will be made a fool of. Promise me you will both do this. Disavow me as your son and brother.”
“No,” Mother said, the tears now leaving silvery tracks down her cheeks. “Please, do not ask this of us.”
“I must, and you need do as I ask. For your safety, as well as that of Merry’s children, you need to forget about me. It is only for now, though. I promise I will get word to you when I am able.”
Mother grimaced, then nodded. “For Merry’s children.” Then she squeezed Henry’s wrist. “If I do not hear from you, I will kill Neron myself. Do you understand? My life will be forfeit, and I will gladly sacrifice it if I can take that demon to Hell with me.”
The look on his mother’s face frightened Henry. She seemed to be resigned to her own death. “No, Mother. Your job is most important of all. You must help Merry raise good, strong children. They need the love of a doting grande dame, and with three, Merry will need you more than ever. Is that not so, Merry?”
She seemed as though she would protest, but then nodded. “I’ve been trying to get her to leave the farm and come live with us,” she admitted. “The farm is too large, and alone she cannot manage it.”
“And your home is too small for so many of us,” Mother retorted.
“Then I have the solution,” Henry announced. “Merry and her family will move to the farm. There are several buildings that Euric could turn into a smithy, and it is not that far from town, so his customers will not be inconvenienced. Plus, with more room, he would have the ability to sell items he could not before.”
Merry’s lip trembled. “Mother? Could we live here with you?”
Mother’s eyes widened. She grabbed Merry and held her close. “Of course! Why would you think you could not?”
“Because this is where father died. I was uncertain you wanted us to be here.”
She patted Merry’s back. “I loved your father so, and in this place, our home, is where I felt closest to him. I could not leave here, as my heart would not travel where I went, instead remaining here. I want nothing more than for for my family to be here, to fill this place with love once again.”
Henry sighed. He was happy he could help his family once more before he had to leave them, possibly forever.
“I should go,” he said. “It would be unwise for others to know I’d been here.”
“Wait!” Mother shouted. She turned and hurried off to her bedroom, and when she returned, she held a scabbard with a gem studded hilt. “This was your father’s sword. He carried it with him in battle. I think he would be most vexed if you did not take it with you for protection of both you and your beloved.”
He wanted to remind her that Kai wasn’t his beloved, but he let the comment slide. He held out a hand, and when she gave the sword to him, heat suffused Henry.
“The blade is imbued with your father’s spirit,” she informed him. “Trust in him, and he will not let you down.”
Then she threw her arms around him, and then they were joined by Merry.
“I do not wish you to leave,” Merry said. “My children should know their family.”
“With the grace of God, one day they shall,” Henry informed her.
Then he slid the loops of the scabbard around his waist, allowing it to rest on his hip as his father had done.
“You look so much like him,” Mother said. “Grab the pommel of the sword.”
Henry did as she bade, and the heat he’d felt in his hand rushed through him. He held the blade aloft, the metal gleaming in the dim light. For a moment, Henry was certain he felt his father’s spirit, pulling him in as if he was hugging Henry.
And he believed his mother was right. No matter where he went on his journey, someone would always be watching over him. He stepped out of the house, and into the dark night.