Aphelion Issue 237, Volume 23
March 2019
 
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Kezia

by Timothy Tarkelly


In Anglia, in snow and wind,
As so many stories begin,
Strangers found company and warmth
By fire in the local inn.
Nudging new friends with cheerful tales
(Some of which had even happened),
Laughing at jokes with custom roar
While drinking their own weight in ale.

Some, regulars who left their wives
To pass the village night alone
Lying cold until the morning’s
Eventual homeward stumble.
The rest, true highwaymen who’d found
This roof before, where they had wet
Their lying lips at the same bowls,
Forming pacts of rowdy humor.

There was an unfamiliar man,
His beard still but youthful stubble,
New to service as a pikeman —
Was really new to life at all.
He had no stories, but his hands
Bandaged from a cruel weapon:
Blisters, cuts, and of course nightmares
Of the day when he might use it.

A mere gambeson for armor,
Hardly a true warrior’s skin
Would offer no mercy against
Enemies or the elements.
In spite of his poorer station,
The others took pity and cheered
Courage, soon to be exhibit
And his ears, so damp for advice.

The young pikeman drank and smiled
Abroad, but at family hearth,
Aglow from fire, from fondness.
That of strangers being warmest.
And admiration being new,
He thought he found permanent friends.
Then attention silently grew
For a sudden interruption.

The door opened and talking ceased,
The fire nearly extinguished
From the biting gust that swept
The inn, offending hosts of mirth.
But sudden cold, and glares throughout
Faded at the entered stranger
Who loosened his hood and cowl
Revealing a highway hero.

A famed traveler, this stranger,
A grayed, aged veteran named Wald.
Hailed for courage, that is certain,
but praised for love and noble walk.
“An amazing tale,” was promised.
The young pikeman, eager for friends,
but red for Wald’s reputation,
listened with his novice arms crossed.

                    II

Wald had lived as mercenary,
Calling the richest takers Lord,
And never spared a lonely thought
To any other weaker way.
Banners and blood kept him forward
And without the constant battle,
And slowing stone of his orders
He feared his soul would soon shrivel.

Graveyards bloated in his strong wake.
Mercian fields and Sussex mud
As well as the roads between them
Were coldly stamped by his feared trudge,
Wearing the beasts, flowers, and spheres
Of the fullest, noblest coffers,
As if his legs only felt purpose
Under rich livery colors.

When he did feel the right to nurse
his beaten fibers, thirsty joints
he opened himself to pleasure
and drew curtains to other cares.
Profession, knightley grace vanished
In this recreational turn.
Replaced by oaths that make men blush,
Bawdy chugs, and gruesome hollers.

In this mood is when he met her,
wine and women all in his reach,
that a caravan of merchants,
Musicians, and Eastern dancers
came pouring into the town’s camp
to sell their wares and buy some rest.
With an audience of soldiers,
The music played and birthed Wald’s quest.

Wald’s heart could hardly keep its pace
With the drummer’s rhythmic torrent
As the music sent him soaring
On a rare cloud of fevered joy.
He rolled his tired bones over
To the new gathering circle
And found himself also dancing,
Clapping, twirling, singing along.

That is where he saw Kezia,
Or that’s the name he thought he heard.
Dancing beauty in human form:
Raven hair splitting like dark flames
As she set her body moving
To the heated, tensile beat
Of her own foreign tambourine,
Striking nerves he could not fathom.

He watched with dizzy eyes spinning,
Had stopped, no longer in control
of his limbs, his head, or his heart,
His voice slain like men from his past.
Kezia, curtained in old rags,
but gleaming like a polished stone.
Kezia, of no known bloodline,
But progeny of fair Branwen.

Though he had stood before armies
and served as steel to royal crowns,
He had not shed a drop of sweat
in fear’s name, nor in submission.
But she could not have been mere mortal.
A goddess, he needed, wanted
to be near, to hear her voice pour
Forever like endless honey.

But when he ventured to approach
his lips would not fulfill their name.
Wald, the brave and noble fighter
Had been nervously struck tame.
So he did not manage to speak,
And when the music had ended,
The fire turned to tired smoke,
Wald dumb as Kezia vanished.

In the hottest throes of battle,
Wald’s heart never dreamed of running,
Nor dare speak such things as retreat,
But he was a white flag that night.
He slumped, defeated to his bed
and fumed at his new found weak state.
But rose in fury with the strength
to turn grief on its coward head.

His love was now righteous action.
He charged the camp, crying for love
And stamping his noble intent.
But he found the camp abandoned.
Her caravan gone for new towns
To sell bold wares, and to bewitch
The likes of some other hero,
Turning them to a new coward.

What was Wald to do, but follow
Trailing his broken heart along
Looking for the tell-tale dust cloud
Travelers stir as they move on?
And when he got to the next town,
There was no Kezia in sight.
He followed the trailed road complete
And never found the band again.

Ever since, he has gone walking,
Alongside of many others,
Having discarded his banners
And marching only as lover.
His name spread to many cities,
Earning highway friends struck with awe
Who lusted for the gift of travel
And honored romance above all.

While any quest can keep men moving
For years — or decades, in this case —
Even knights grow old and find
A time to lay their quest to peace.
Pure Wald, the knight, soldier of love,
Handsome in his pearly honor,
Had never found his Kezia,
Or any trace of her people.

By now, as he sat in the inn,
With the pikeman grumbling at him,
He was limping, gray, and tired
Felt his journey soon be ended.
He could no longer keep his pace
With friends gained from all his travels,
Could barely breathe without coughing,
Could not live on empty promise.

                    III

In his old state, he earned pity,
From the men drinking around him,
Who never want to see love fail,
Or address their own shortcomings.
They loved to hear this tale retold
And none of them ever doubted
That it would end as it should end:
With Kezia walking with him.

But it finally set on them,
Much like the sun dipping below
To cast at first, subtle darkness,
Followed by the bitter, cold snow.
Wald would never see his journey
Come to any fruitful ending.
Even the remarkable find
Life to be a disappointment.

Wald recited for the pikeman
And the rest could barely listen,
Feeling as if there was nothing
Good left in this tired kingdom.
But the pikeman, weak and jealous,
Grew a smile fraught with malice,
Because he found flaws to exploit
In Wald’s famous lover’s journey.

“If you really wanted to find
Kezia as you claim,” he said.
“There are two things to consider
About your journey’s origins.”
Wald furrowed a confused browline
And the crowd gasped at his daring.
“What faults do you so charge him with?”
They were all loudly demanding.

The pikeman laughed as he went on,
“How many of you can recall
Finer details of one’s likeness
After a night of imbibing?
Who puts stake in their memory,
Once it’s been informed by beer?
Who would bet their reputation
On the vision of a drunkard?

For all we know, he has seen her
A hundred or a thousand times,
But he did not recognize her
As he drunkenly imagined.
Is there any who’d be willing
To admit this is likely?
To admit this hero could be
Living in some false adventure?”

The party grumbled and cursed him,
But no one shared disagreement.
Then, Wald spat in heated challenge,
“What is your second objection?”
The pikeman rolled his eyes and breathed,
Leaned in to exert confidence.
The pikeman began his speech,
Feeling the pulse of victory.

“I don’t understand the logic,
Of chasing those who always run.
If travelling dancers travel,
Then why not wait for her return?
We’d like to think that love exists
Only when we march in its name,
And poets never recorded
The songs of those men who sit still.

But if you had stayed put somewhere,
Odds are Kezia would have stopped
In that same town some months later
And you would have had your moment.
Instead, with the pretty nomad,
Foolishly chose to chase after
And could likely always be just
One town before or behind her.”

The inn found silence and Wald frowned,
Having had his life dissected
By a man barely old enough
To hold up his wooden ale bowl.
His heart then sank even deeper
And he withdrew to rented bed
Where he let his age come claim him
And then breathed his last living breath.

The pikeman had friends no longer,
Banished to a lonely table.
His punishment would have been stronger,
but they had yet discover Wald.
So the night continued silent,
Dreams and hopes scattered on the floor,
Until in the distance ringing,
The sounds of caravan dancers.

The pikeman could not believe it.
Bursting open the inn’s front door,
He peered to see the company
That approached in this late hour.
There was a man leading the group,
Who carried the aged body,
Of an old woman companion
Who had just died outside of town.


2019 Timothy Tarkelly

Timothy Tarkelly's poetry has been featured by Cadaverous Magazine, Cauldron Anthology, Aphelion, and others. He was recently named an Honorable Mention for the Golden Fedora Poetry Prize by Noir Nation. When he is not writing, he teaches at a community college in Southeast Kansas.

Find more by Timothy Tarkelly in the Author Index.