“Both love and hatred can be frustrating emotions, when their object is not present. My father had sent me away. Not that I missed him overmuch; it was not he who had raised me, after all. But he had sent me away from the only home I had ever known from those who had loved and cared for me. How could I not hate him? But I was a precocious child, and of an age to begin thinking. In Philadelphia, I was a stranger, and lonely, but I was free. Schooling, books, later university and the play of minds; all these he had given me, at the risk of his own life; there was nothing for me in the Domination. And he was my father: how could I not love him?
“And he was not there: I could not scream my anger at him, or embrace him and say the words of love. And so I created a father in my head, as other children had imaginary playmates: daydreams of things we would do together—trips to the zoo or Atlantic City, conversations, arguments . . . an inner life that helped to train the growth of my being, as a vine was shaped by its trellis. Good training for a novelist. A poor substitute for a home.”
Daughter to Darkness: A Life, by Anna von Shrakenberg
Houghton & Stewart, New York, 1964
Arch-Strategos Karl von Shrakenberg sipped carefully from the snifter, cradling it in his hands while looking down from the study window, southwest across the gardens and the valley, green fields and poplars and the golden hue of sandstone from the hills . . .
One more, he thought, turning and pouring a careful half-ounce into the wide-mouthed goblet. One more, and another when Eric came; he had to be careful with brandy, as with any drug that could numb the pain of his leg. The surgeons had done their best, but that had been 1917, and technique was less advanced; also, they were busy. More cutting might lessen the pain, but it would also chance losing more control of the muscle, and that he would not risk.
He leaned weight on the windowsill and sighed; sun rippled through the branches of the tree outside, with a cool wind that hinted of the night’s chill. He would be glad of a fire.
Ach, well, life is a wounding, he thought. An accumulation of pains and maimings and grief. We heal as we can, bear them as we must, until the weight grows too much to bear and we go down into the earth.
“I wish I could tell Eric that,” he whispered. But what use? He was young, and full of youth’s rebellion against the world. He would simply hear a command to bow to the wisdom of age, to accept the unacceptable and endure the unendurable. His tongue rolled the brandy about his mouth. Would I have stood for that sort of advice when I was his age?
Well, outwardly, as least. My ambitions were always more concrete. He rubbed thumb and forefinger against the bridge of his nose, wearily considering the stacks of reports on his desk; many of them were marked with a stylized terrestrial globe in a saurian claw: top secret. I wanted command, accomplishment, a warrior’s name—and what am I? A glorified clerk, reading and annotating reports: Intelligence reports, survey reports, reports on steel production and machine-tool output, ammunition stockpile reports . . .
Old men sitting in a basement, playing war games on sand tables and sending our sons and daughters out to die on the strength of it, he thought. You succeeded, won your dreams, and that was not the finish of it. Not like those novels Eric was so fond of, where the ends could be tied up and kept from unravelling. Life went on . . . how dry and horrible that would have seemed once!
Stop grumbling, old man, he told himself. There had been good times enough, girls and glory and power, more than enough if you thought how most humans had to live out their lives. Limping, he walked down one wall, running his fingers lovingly along the leather-bound spines of the books. The study was as old as the manor and had changed less; a place for the head of the family, a working room, it had escaped the great redecoration his mother had overseen as a young bride. His eyes paused as he came to his wife’s portrait. It showed her as she had been when they had pledged themselves, in that hospital on Crete, looking young and self-consciously stern in her Medical Corps uniform, doctor’s stethoscope neatly buttoned over her breast and her long brown hair drawn back in a workmanlike bun.
Mary would have helped, he thought, raising his glass to her memory. She had been better than he at . . . feelings? No, at talking about them when it was needful. She would have known what to do when Eric became too infatuated with that damned Circassian wench.
No, he thought grudgingly. Tyansha understood—better than Eric. She never tried to get him to go beyond propriety in public.
He had tried to talk to his son, but it had been useless. Maybe Mary could have got at him through the girl. Mary had been like that—always dignified, but even the housegirls and fieldhands had talked freely with her. Tyansha had frozen into silence whenever the Old Master looked at her. Tempting just to send her away, but that would have been punishing her for Eric’s fault, and a von Shrakenberg did not treat a family serf that way; honor forbade. He had been relieved when she had died naturally in childbirth, until . . .
Mary could be hard when she had to be, Karl thought. It was a tool with her, something she brought out when it was needed. Me . . . I’m beginning to think it’s like armor that I can’t take off even if I wanted to.
The Draka had made more of the differences between the sexes in his generation, although less than other peoples did. The change had been necessary—there was the work of the world to do, and never enough trustworthy hands—but there were times when he felt his people had lost something by banishing softness from their lives.
Well, I’ll just have to do my best, he thought. His hand fell on a rude-carved image on a shelf—a figurine of Thor, product of the failed attempt to revive the Old Faith back in the last century. “Even you couldn’t lift the Midgard Serpent or outwrestle the Crone Age, eh, Redbeard?”
A knock sounded. That would be his son.
Haven’t seen the inside of this very often, since I was a boy, Eric thought, looking about his father’s study. And not often under happy circumstances then. Usually a thrashing. There was nothing of that sort to await today, of course; merely a farewell. Damned if I’m going to kneel and ask his blessing, tradition or not.
The room was big and dim, smelling of leather and tobacco, open windows overshadowed by trees. Eric remembered climbing them to peer within as a boy.
Walls held books, old and leather-bound; plantation accounts running back to the founding; family records; volumes on agriculture, stockbreeding, strategy, hunting. Among them were keepsakes accumulated through generations: a pair of baSotho throwing spears nearly two centuries old, crossed over a battle-ax—relics from the land-taking. A Chokwe spirit mask from Angola, a Tuareg broadsword, a Moroccan jezail musket, an Armenian fighting-knife with a hilt of lacy silver filigree . . .
And the family portraits, back to Freiherr Augustus von Shrakenberg himself, who had led a regiment of Mecklenberg dragoons in British service in the American Revolution, and taken this estate in payment. Title to it, at least; the natives had had other ideas, until he persuaded them. Six generations of Landholders since, in uniform, mostly: proud narrow faces full of wolfish energy and cold, intelligent ferocity. Conquerors . . .
At least those were the faces they chose to show the world, he thought. A man’s mind is a forest at night. We don’t know our own inwardness, much less each other’s.
His father was standing by the cabinet, filling two brandy snifters. The study’s only trophy was above it, a black-maned Cape lion. Karl von Shrakenberg had killed it himself, with a lance.
Eric took the balloon glass and swirled it carefully to release the scent before lifting it to touch his father’s. The smell was rich but slightly spicy, complementing the room’s odors of books, old, well-kept furniture, and polished wood.
“A bad harvest or a bloody war,” the elder von Shrakenberg said, using the ancient toast.
“Prosit,” Eric replied. There was a silence, as they avoided each other’s eyes. Karl limped heavily to the great desk and sank into the armchair amid a sigh of cushions. Eric felt himself vaguely uneasy with childhood memories of standing to receive rebuke, and forced himself to sit, leaning back with negligent elegance. The brandy bit his tongue like a caress; it was the forty-year Thieuniskraal, for special occasions.
“Not too bloody, I hope,” he continued. Suddenly, there was a wetness on his brow, a feeling of things coiling beneath the surface of his mind, like snakes in black water. I should never have come back. It all seemed safely distant while I was away.
Karl nodded, searching for words. They were Draka and there was no need to skirt the subject of death. “Yes.” A pause. “A pity that it came before you could marry. Long life to you, Eric, but it would have been good to see grandchildren here at Oakenwald before you went into harm’s way. Children are your immortality, as much as your deeds.” He saw his son flinch, swore inwardly. He’s a man, isn’t he? It’s been six years since the wench died!
Eric set the glass down on the arm of his seat with immense care. “Well, you rather foreclosed that option, didn’t you, Father?”
The time-scored eagle’s face reared back. “I did nothing of the kind. Did nothing.”
“You let her die.” Eric heard the words speak themselves; he felt perfectly lucid but floating, beyond himself. Calm, a spectator. Odd, I’ve felt that sentence waiting for six years and never dared, some detached portion of himself observed.
“The first I knew of it was when they told me she was dead!”
“Which was why you buried her before I got back. Burned her things. Left me nothing!” Suddenly he was on his feet, breath rasping through his mouth.
“That was for your own good. You were a child—you were obsessed!” Karl was on his feet as well, his fist smashing down on the teakwood of the desk top, a drumbeat sound. They had never spoken of this before, and it was like the breaking of a cyst. “It was unworthy of you. I was trying to bring you back to your senses!”
“Unworthy of your blood, you mean; unworthy of that tin image of what a von Shrakenberg should be. It killed John, and it’s hounded me all my life. When it’s killed Johanna and me, will that satisfy your pride?” He saw his father’s face pale and then flush at the mention of his elder brother’s name, saw for a moment the secret fear that visited him in darkness; knew that he had scored, felt a miserable joy. The torrent of words continued.
“Obsessed? I loved her! As you’ve never loved anything in your reptile-blooded life! And you let me go a month at school without a word, if my favorite horse had died, you would have done more.”
The shout bounced off the walls, startling him back to awareness of self. There was a tinkling, a stab of pain in his right hand; he looked down to see the snifter shattered in his grasp, blood trickling about glass shards. He brought his focus back to his father. “I hold you responsible,” he finished softly.
Karl’s eyes held his. Love? What do you know about it—you’re a child. It’s something to be done, not talked about. Aloud: “God’s curse on you, boy; pregnancy isn’t an illness—she had the same midwife who delivered you!” He fought down anger, forced gentleness into his voice. “It happens, Eric; don’t blame it on me because you can’t shout at fate.” Sternly: “Or did you think I told them to hold a pillow over her face? She knew your interests, boy, better than you did; she never stepped beyond her station. Are you saying that I’d kill a von Shrakenberg serf who was blameless, to punish my own child?”
“I say—” Eric began, and stopped. His father’s face was an iron mask, but it had gone white about the nostrils. Something inside him prompted sayitsayitsayit, a hunger to deliver the wound that would hurt beyond bearing, and he closed his lips by sheer force of will. Blood-kin or not, no one called Karl von Shrakenberg a liar to his face. Ever.
“I say that I had better leave. Sir.” He saluted, his fist leaving a smear of blood on the left breast of his uniform tunic, clicked his heels, marched to the door.
Karl felt the rage-strength leave him as the door sighed closed. He sagged back into the chair, leaning on the desk, the old wound sending a lance of agony from hip to spine.
“What happened?” he asked dully. His eyes sought out a framed photograph on the desk—his wife’s, black-bordered. “Oh, Mary, you could have told me what to say, what to do . . . Why did you leave me, my heart? This may be the last time I see him alive—John and—” His head dropped into his hands. “My son, my son!”