Taking a deep breath, Miran of Gairadane drew back the string on his bow, which was nearly as long as he was himself. Putting a great part of his strength into keeping the arrow steady, he looked out toward the target he had erected some years before. A moment later, he could only glare at his own futility as the shot landed not quite on the mark. How long, he asked himself, could this go on while he retained a shred of sanity?
Forgoing the rest of his usual practice, he unstrung his bow with one strenuous movement, scooped up the quiver, and with both these things in hand, he moved off toward the cottage which had been built for him just above the bay of the island which was his home, leaving the spent shaft resting in the target area.
His shooting range was faced by the rear of the cottage. On the east side of the building he tended a small garden so that he would not subsist on the supply ship that came out to visit him at least once each month. The appearance and disappearance of the ship had become one of the things of life which never changed at all. Therefore he had no compelling reason to watch for it and rarely looked out toward the bay with any feelings. But if he had looked at that time, he would have seen the boat anchored in its usual place in the bay.
He entered the cottage by the back door and first hung his archery gear on the wall close by the entrance. Next he went to the little hearth on which he was keeping a rabbit stew hot and freshly seasoned for any time when he felt like eating. He did all this slowly, because he walked with a painful limp, the origin of which he did not know. Adding a log and an onion, and hardly noticing that he had done so, He pronounced the odor good. He moved on to the little sitting room.
In this room, there were two chairs, one straight and one which rocked, and a worktable which supported various carving tools and two or three little figurines in wood. Taking up the tool and the model he wanted, he moved toward the rocking chair, only to find that there was already someone in it.
“Well, sister, this is a surprise. What brings you out here?” Early the previous year, he had begun to get visits from a young woman who said she was his sister. He had only the vaguest recollections of a young child taking much of his parents’ attention away from him, at which young age he had been packed off to the island with a nurse and a servant to help. Apparently he was not wanted anymore. His mama and papa would rather have the other child instead. Since that far-off half-remembered time, he had not seen her again until she arose out of the sea one day the previous year wanting to know how he was and what could be done to help. She always came on the supply boat, but was not with it every time. This she had not yet explained.
“You make handsome little soldiers. The ship takes your work all the back to mother and father, did you know that?”
“I thought, I hoped it did. But these things are so small. It is a wonder they do not get lost on the journey. How are mother and father? Are they both alive and well?”
“I can never say that with certainty, brother. The journey between here and Gaimaron is long and cannot be hastened. When I left, they were both alive, though I cannot say well.”
Miran went on whittling at the pace of one watching the smallest detail of his work. Just a little anxiously, he asked “Why can you not say well, sister? Has some malady befallen the city which you have for the moment escaped?”
“It is a sickness that strikes them alone. They try not to let me see it, but they both long to see you walking the halls of the palace. Father is barely keeping his head. He goes about everywhere with one of your carved men in his hand, and I often find him looking out of the western windows. Mother I find alone in a room, calling for both of you to come back to her, and pleading with the Great One that you come back soon, lest she lose you both, or you lose her. And I have my own struggles, to keep from them that I know their anguish.”
His sister, Miranda, had not told Miran this before. He could not take it in easily and quickly. It jarred loose his calm demeanor, and made him stop suddenly, the knife held in mid-air. “Do you tell them that you come to visit me here? Surely that might give them some comfort, to hear news of me?’
“I have not told them. I fear the other path, that such news might drop them lower in their grief and shame and so kill them. I cannot know before I speak which way they will answer. I fear they live only to see you again, but if you do not come soon, that will not be enough.”
Miran lost all interest in his carving. Putting it back where he had found it, he said to his sister “Do you know anything of the truth of why I was brought here? For I have never known, myself.”
“The news is painful to bear, and perhaps that is some part of our father’s reason for this.” Miranda replied, indicating with a sweep of an arm the whole cottage and surrounding area. “Mother and father have not the strength to tell me, it seems, but I got the story out of the oldest servants in the palace. They told me that it is your limp that has caused this trouble. Father became frightened that you would be too weak to rule in your turn, so he had you sent out to this place to live as a hermit. As the years have passed, he is being weighed down more heavily every year by two shames: the reality of his own and the potential of yours. So say the oldest and wisest servants of the house. For myself I cannot say whether either or both of them be real or imagined. But that is the reason he both longs to see you and refuses to call for you.”
Miran had not gone back to the chair, but had been listening patiently as he leaned against the worktable. At the conclusion of Miranda’s speech, something inside him seemed to snap. He only said coldly “It is true, the news is dire.” Without another word he left the room as Miranda leapt up and called after him in vain. A moment later she heard the back door shut hard and had to choose whether she could safely follow her brother in this state. It took merely a moment or two to decide in the positive, and she too rose and left the room.
She soon found to her great relief that he had not decided to make the long trek to the far end of the island, where she had sometimes had to go to find him after coming ashore. Instead, he was standing in his customary spot, methodically firing and nocking his arrows and paying no attention to where on the target they landed. He also seemed to be speaking angrily. She stood off within earshot of his remarks and listened.
“What is there in a limp to frighten a man? And such a great king? He thinks it a shame? Does a slow gait mean I will not be able to make wise decisions? I could fight on horseback if they let me learn. All the great men do. Ha, there may be something in this after all. If my father is truly a great warrior, than shame in combat is his greatest fear...But no, that is no help...” Suddenly Miran stopped his speech. He had spent all his arrows. Miranda decided to help him a little and went forward to pull them free of the target. A moment later Miran was at her side as she worked.
“Sister, the old man who needs a staff is still as much a man as the young warrior. Greater in some ways, I think. I have learned much from the news that you have been bringing here, since you first arrived. Would it be a true guess to say my father fears my coming because he fears the people’s pity? You say our father is a good king. The people must like him as a man, and if many are much the same as he is, it will bring great sadness to their hearts to see their great king has a cripple as his son. Such men would say “He is such a good lord to us, why must his future honor be borne up by one who cannot take it?” If I were to hear such words, I would not follow his footsteps as well as I could, for I suspect that even I would be infected with the feeling. Perhaps first it would be towards father, but he does not want me to feel it, that I might feel less of a man. I do not feel ready to meet him yet because it is hard to forgive a man for such loneliness and abandonment as I have lived, with nothing but a faint memory of our parents. But go back and say that I forgive my father for his reasons, and when next the boat returns to me, I will embark.”
In the midst of Miran’s speech, they had begun walking back to the cottage, as he carried his equipment. Miranda spoke as they reached the door. “But, brother, many weeks will pass before you reach home. Much may have happened. They might die awaiting your return.”
“It is the same for you, yet you come this far often, and invent some lie so they will not know. That is worse. Your words should give them strength. Come, eat with me before you begin the journey.” So saying, he stepped into the cottage again.
Later, he stood and watched as the boat began to move away into the evening. It seemed his own words were already beginning to work some charm on him as he stood above the bay, repeating “I will go back. I will see my home again.” He then ended with “Thank you, sister, you have saved me also.” Then he stood silently, watching the boat pull away as the rays of the light of the sun died away behind him.