This is a story, dear readers, that begins and ends with love. It tells the tales of betrayal, of wonder, of hope and loss, of grief and of reunion. So begins the first tale, with the ever constant words of once upon a time…
There is a land, free and joyous that is ruled by a Queen, as it has in generations past. She who has skin as fair as snow and hair as long and dark as a waterfall of the darkest chocolate, sits upon the throne with the sceptre within her grasp. She rules with a firm hand, but with gentle guidance and wise counsel the people prosper, and the lands are fertile and rich. There is no fear of famine or war; peace is eternal and so are happiness and the joys of simple life.
By the Queen’s side stands the quiet Captain, who follows his liege’s orders with nary a protest. He is the beloved ruler’s shield and sword, her companion and confidante, and there is no one in the land that she trusts more than her Captain. They have fought battles together and are equals at the art of sword fight. They have taken walks in the royal gardens in the evenings, speaking of their day freely without the constraints of formality and protocol. The loyal Captain knows every little thing about his Queen: her likes and dislikes, her quirks and habits, the way her eyes lose their lively gleam when she encounters a particularly distasteful suitor seeking her hand in marriage. Only, he does not know that she is in love with him.
He does not see how she stares at his strong back retreating, how her smile seems to grow even more whenever he comes to stand by her. He does not see the wistfulness in her eyes for relationships between royals and subordinates, even decorated officers as he, are frowned upon. Love as he might his Queen, he has, sadly, never contemplated pursuing a relationship with the beautiful brunette Queen who holds the hearts of many men in the land. His love is the undying love of a soldier to his Queen, not that of a man towards a woman, and for that the Queen laments.
The Queen knows that her dear Captain would never overstep the boundaries of decorum, even if he had feelings for her. Had she been any other common woman, the Queen would have crumbled and wept at her unrequited love, but she is Queen and she has dignity greater than any woman in the land and she will not beg. She will raise her head high and face the court and her people with pride and quiet grace, as befitting of her royal person. She will smile and thank her Captain for fighting in her name, for pulling out her chair for her and for his quiet goodnights before they retire to bed. She will love him in silence, because she is a Queen and queens never beg or plead.
There comes a day, however, when the Queen’s courage very nearly fails her. Her faithful Captain begs a leave of absence to return to his home where his elderly mother still lives. The Queen generously grants him a leave of seven days, and in those seven days she must admit, rather shamefacedly, that she has languished in the castle, feeling quite lost without his steady presence by her side. She certainly looks forward to when the seven days are over and her Captain returns home to her.
Alas, her hopes have been for naught. For when her handsome dark haired Captain returns to the castle, he returns a married man, a shy, slender sweet blonde clutching at his arm. The Queen relishes in the thought that the girl, really, her Captain has chosen looks very much like a frail waif. One violent blow from the West Wind and she would topple to the ground. Her smile fades even as she welcomes the wedded couple to the castle; waif the blonde may be, but the Captain chose her. Surely, surely there must be something special that she has that the Queen does not. The Queen does not let her people see the silent cracking of her heart, nor the crystalline tears that seep into the silk of her pillow at night. She speaks words of kindness and congratulations to the man she loves so and to his love, and bit by bit the Queen feels as though her soul is shattered.
It seems as though the Queen’s strong spirit has finally been crushed; not by her fiercest enemies but by the simple, foolish emotion one calls love. Dark thoughts now cloud her mind, and her court begins to worry at the sickly paleness that has overtaken her porcelain skin, and the shades that appear beneath her brilliant hazel eyes. The Captain, still floating in the bliss his marriage has gifted him, fails to see the signs. The Queen and the Captain, once a powerful entity that felled anything and anyone who stood in their way, are now broken.
Perhaps, the destruction of their bond is a bad omen. Certainly, the superstitious believe it to be so. Perhaps their whispered words of doom hold some truth, for the day comes that a neighbouring rival who has now become so much more powerful than the Queen declares war between the two kingdoms. The royal advisors and soldiers despair; they know it is a war they cannot fight and they beg the Queen to flee and retreat, a notion that is surprisingly not rejected by the proud Queen. Tiredly, she orders in a low, weary voice that the people are to be evacuated to an allied kingdom, and that the only soldiers to remain to defend their home will be ones that have no family. It is cruel, certainly, but the Queen will not tear her men from their families, leaving widowed wives and fatherless children.
It is with this order that the people begin to leave, and along with them the Captain and his new wife. He wonders why he has not caught sight of his Queen, but certain that she has left to safety, as have the rest of the people. Little does he know that the Queen stands, a lone figure on the battlements of the ancient castle, sword in hand as she waits for the war cry that will signal the end of her reign. She is Queen, and she is her land, and the Queen will ensure that as her kingdom falls to dust, so will her blood seep and return to the earth whence it came from. A shrill cry sounds, and with a silent prayer to her father in heaven, the Queen turns and fights.
It is many months later that the people of the land return to their desecrated home. Worn and grief stricken, they are without a leader. Yet such is the resilience of mankind that the people acclimate and start to rebuild. Homes, schools, marketplaces; step by step, the broken land is their home once again. Still, no Queen sits upon the bloody throne where the last sat brokenly, lifeless with a thrust to her heart. It shall remain empty, evermore.
The Captain, who understands now the depth to which his Queen had loved him, has taken it upon him to carry her bloodied body and to bury it, tenderly, lovingly in an unmarked grave in the land of his home. Every day, he leaves a fresh bunch of the brightest red roses, her favourite, he recalls, on her grave and every day, he begs for her forgiveness and swears that one day, they would be reunited and he will love her as she loved him.
So ends the first tale.
It is a wicked time in the Kingdom of England, where the people are dropping dead from the Great Plague. Some are fleeing from the center of the epidemic; some resign themselves tothe horrible death, but not the wealthy and powerful. Certainly they have much to live for, still. The nobility are sequestering themselves in their castles and mansions, safe away from the disease that seems to stem from the populous. The servants are hard to work every day, scrubbing the floors clean and running disinfectant baths. Every rat that pokes its nose out of dingy holes or drains is killed on sight, burned and swept far, far away from the homes of the royal families and the nobility. Death is on the mind of each and every citizen of England, and chaos reigns as everyone fends for themselves. It is a time when fathers are abandoning children, husband wife, one brother another; certainly, then, the strongest survived.
Lord Beaumont is one such man who braves the threat of the plague, preferring to stay in his mansion well outside the City of London. He is receiving some guests today, a third cousin removed and his wife who have fled from Derbyshire where the plague is at its height and have begged to seek refuge with him. He hears the rattling of carriage wheels and moves to greet his guests, only to have his breath swept away by the bright eyed beauty who curtseys politely to him.
Lady Hastings, young and beautiful wife to Lord Hastings, rises to meet the piercing stare of her husband’s cousin. She stares for a moment longer than is proper, for she feels that she knows this man. He smiles genially at her even as he drops a quiet kiss onto her gloved hand. Her husband gives a hearty greeting and clasps him on his back and the moment is gone. Their gracious host leads them personally to their quarters, and Lady Hastings cannot help but think the curve of his strong back seems rather familiar.
The couple has now been staying with Lord Beaumont for a week, and he finds great joy in conversing with the intelligent lady. They speak of poetry and politics and agriculture, and he admits to being surprised at finding such a bright mind in the opposite sex. She, in turn, is overjoyed to be better acquainted with the sensitive, well-learned gentleman who treats her as an equal. She loves her husband, but the man is infuriatingly chauvinistic at times. She wonders at the vast difference between the cousins and a stab of guilt enters her heart when she realizes how much more she prefers Lord Beaumont over his cousin. She struggles to put the thought out of her mind, and yet, with an easy, open smile, he makes her feel alive again.
The room is dark and servants are rushing in and out with wet cloths and water and vinegar, which the servants frantically bathe the Lord and Lady Hastings in. Lord Beaumont is at his wit’s end; he is furious at how his guests could have begotten the damned disease. He admits he fears for the lady’s life greater, and he prays to whatever god that is listening to not take her away. It is a sin to want another man’s wife but he is a glutton for punishment if having her love is the price he has to pay.
It is in the dead of the night that he goes to her bedside, tenderly wiping the sweat away from her brow. His cousin’s dead body has been removed an hour ago, his possessions burnt and every trace of his destroyed. The woman Lord Beaumont loves is delirious; she clutches at his hands and whispers for him to help her and his heart breaks as he whispers that she will live. She opens her eyes then, and they are as clear as the cloudless night sky. He is brokenly glad when she recognizes him and murmurs his name, and he, uncaring if he should catch the disease presses a kiss to her sweaty forehead, tells her once again that she will live. They both know it is a lie, but still she lets him keeps his hope and cradles his face within her thin hand. She implores him to stay, and he does, holding her until she turns cold and the servants cover her achingly beautiful face when dawn comes.
The Great Plague finally ends, and England is despaired with the deaths of her people. Lord Beaumont stands before the grave of his love at dawn, laying down a single red rose as he presses a kiss to the cold tombstone. He leaves, and the household of the Lord Beaumont bury him the next day, next to the unmarked grave bearing the woman he loves so.
So ends the second tale.
It is the year 1945, and the leaders of the world are saying that the war will finally end. Soldiers, renewed in their vigour and hope, continue to fight the Germans and the Japanese, and the sounds of warplanes and tanks and bombs continue on. The women, inspired by the gentle Florence Nightingale, are doing their part in the war, helping to tend to the wounded and soothe the final moments of the dead. The people hope that the bloodshed will soon cease, and that their soldiers will finally be able to return home.
Screams and groans of anguish fill a medical tent and the women mutter prayers as they tend to the injured. A platoon of injured British soldiers has been transported to the tent for medical attention, and already one has succumbed to multiple gunshot wounds. Nurse Hartman is one such kind soul tending to a grievously injured man who makes no sound, though his wounds surely must be killing him. The wound to his head is worrisome, and he drifts in and out of consciousness, whispering a woman’s name. His sweetheart, she supposes. All she can do is to keep his fever from rising, and pray that the doctors get to him in time.
The doctors do not come. She learns that the medical truck has been ambushed, and the women grieve for the men whose death warrants have just been signed. She grieves especially for the man she is caring; his dark brown hair and strong face striking a chord within her. Sweeping his hair away, she muses that his sweetheart is a lucky woman. The man awakens suddenly, and grabs at her hand. She is not startled, stares back at him calmly as his dark eyes flicker to take in his surroundings. When she knows the he is calm, she soothes him back to lying down, crooning a wordless lullaby she remembers her mother singing to her. She sees the resignation in his eyes, and she thinks it makes him look sad.
She talks to him, asks him about his home, his love, his family. He tells her they were to be married this spring, but war has kept him from home. She tells him that he will live to marry his love, but he smiles sadly at her; they both know he shall never go home. He passes a worn letter to her, and bids her to return it to his family once he is dead and buried, to which she wordlessly agrees. She stays by his side that night, and a tear slips from her eyes when his breath evens out and he dies in the morning, her hand tightly clutched within his. She feels strangely empty, despite never knowing him. Yet, as she slides his eyes close, she hopes that maybe, one day, she might see him again.
So ends the third tale.
It is bright, and the woman opens her eyes to a world that is green and soft. She stands, and a thought as hazy as mist appears at the back of her mind. She knows this place, and from the
corner of her eye, she sees a beautiful woman laughing as she spars with a smiling, handsome man in armour. She sees a grave, not far off with a single rose atop and cannot help but feel great love emanating from it. She sees a monument, commemorating the dead who have fought a great war, and she feels grief for something that seems out of her grasp. There are other images, among them a woman being burned at the stake, her face contorted in agony as she reaches out to a man who is crying for her to be set free. There is a sickly child dying on a hospital bed, his parents grieving at his death and pulling away, so far away.
They are your lives; our lives together, my love.
As if in a dream, the woman turns to face a man whose face haunts her dreams, and yet, it was a face that seemed different each and every time. She opens her mouth and reaches out to touch his handsome face.
I know you.
He smiles, and she feels her heart soar higher than any bird could ever fly. He pulls her close, and presses a chaste kiss on her forehead, and suddenly, names and past lives do not matter. She is here, and so is he, and there is their love that has crossed times and lives to be where they are now. She is certain now that this is the afterlife, and as she sighs into his kiss, she understands that their love could never have been in life, for it is too wonderful and pure to be parted by old age and sickness. For here, in the timeless abyss that is the afterlife, their love shall be eternal and constant, evermore.