Written for a music prompts game. The prompt is “Halo” by Beyonce.
The days pass more slowly when one is waiting. The nights are colder. Every visitor, while welcome, is not the visitor most longed-for, most desired.
Calvin was grateful that Ethelbert was a man of letters, and the letters he sent were long and full of news and tales and hope. Hope, yes, even that, hope that soon the war would be won and he could come home, “to once again bask in the presence of my true friend.”
Calvin wrote back to him, forming the words carefully with his trembling hands, and he tried to keep the news cheerful, speaking of books and friends and crops. He did not speak of nights spent lying awake with pain and the increasing difficulty of keeping down even the simplest broth. He did not say, “Come home so that we may say goodbye,” though he thought it every time he signed his name.
Calvin slept little, but when he did he dreamed of Ethelbert. He remembered when they were boys together, when he could run at Ethelbert’s side through forests and fields. He remembered when they were young men together, fighting side by side. He remembered the days after his injury, Ethelbert’s tender care and unwavering strength when Calvin’s own failed.
He tried to put this into words, but he was never a poet. He could write, “The lambs are plentiful this spring,” but he could not write, “When I pray I name you as my only saint.”
When he could do little but sit and watch the fire burn, he listened for the sound of hooves, the promise of a messenger with a new letter — or better still, of Ethelbert himself, keeping his promise. He clutched one such letter in his hand, one that ended, “Be of good cheer, for I will return soon.”
He feared that when Ethelbert did return, it would be too late. He feared even more so that when Ethelbert returned, he would put off visiting his friend, in order to avoid giving the answer Calvin desperately wanted to hear.
Rain and wind beat against the walls of his family’s keep. The knotted sinews of Calvin’s body screamed in protest against the damp and cold, and he exhausted himself with walking in the attempt to find relief, even when held up by his two strongest retainers. Finally Calvin ordered them to lay him in his bed and stoke up the fire, and as they worked he watched the nimbus of the flames around their bodies and thought it looked like one of the masters out of the Netherlands, St. Peter praying in prison, his holiness the only source of light.
The door to his chamber burst open. Calvin shielded his eyes with an arm, startled by the brightness of the torches and the enormous figure on the threshold, mighty and shadowed, his head glowing like the boys as they’d built up the fire.
He gasped, as the figure approached, “Have you come to take me, Death?” for what else could this figure be but the dark angel come to carry him away at last?
The figure dropped to his knees and clasped Calvin’s hand. “No, my friend,” said Ethelbert, “no, I’ve come home to stay.”
Calvin’s hand fell to Ethlebert’s head, warm in the cold room, still lit by the fire, a vision more heavenly than the sweetest of Calvin’s dreams. “I prayed you would come. And here you are, like an angel from God.”
“Your prayers were heard,” said Ethelbert and then there were lips, cool as rainwater, on his forehead and his mouth. “A voice whispered to me, ‘Go home. Be at his side, he needs you most.’ So I came.”
Calvin turned to him, their hands still clasped. He fixed his eyes on Ethelbert’s face. “I think I can sleep now.”
“Sleep.” Ethelbert ran his hand over Calvin’s face, trailing warmth and the scent of leather. “Sleep, my friend. I’ll be here when you wake.”