11.1.11 | By: Megan Langham

Volunteer Mission

In my last (first) post I introduced myself; now I should like to introduce the written work of mine that is currently closest to my heart.

Volunteer Mission.


It was my project for that most infamous event NaNoWriMo. Hence it became the thought ever in my mind, the image ever before my eyes, the sworn enemy of all things mathematical and geographical…even after November of ‘10 was quietly assigned to the archives of time. It wasn’t finished. That is why. I had reached the most traumatic event of the book, the climax-before-the-climax, and I didn’t have the emotional strength to finish then. (Besides, it was only four or five days before the month’s merciful end.) Several of my literary cohorts and I have decided to finish our NaNo novels in February, but until then the tales must languish. And I must grow pale and interesting while I wait with calloused fingers and scattered timelines.

Put simply, this is a story of friendship. It is about pain and longing and self-sacrifice. One man does not know how to receive a gift; what, then, if the gift is his life? For such a gift, what price must the giver pay? Is it really loving to die for a friend, or is protecting them from grief and bitterness the truer love? These are hard questions, and this is a hard book. It is perhaps the most personally devastating of all the stories I have ever written, but to my mind it rings the truest.

(Tidbit: The name of this blog is taken from one of the book’s chapter titles. I thought it seemed fitting enough, or at least rather lovely.)

Here is a part of the first chapter. (The prologue, which was originally a short story on its own, has been shared often enough that I decided to post something a little less familiar here.) I don’t believe I need to give a great deal of background…Evan se Dynge is the main character and Selwin ap Tuder is his friend, who has just volunteered for certain death in Evan’s place. Wales is the setting; it is not a time of open war but of undisguised hostility between both the English and the Welsh. (Which is just about the most infuriating political situation I can think of, especially as it dragged on in that way for several years.) Anyway, I shall stop babbling and silently point you to the excerpt.

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“You look chilled,” said Gwilym.

They were sitting around a smoking bonfire of hastily-gathered tinder wood and half-green saplings. Some of the men had asked if they might fell a tree and split it for firewood; the leaders had heard this and promptly dismissed it for reasons they would not say. So the officers and men alike shivered beside kindling fires that smoked more than they heated and set the closest ones coughing.

“I’m all right,” said Evan.

He was chilled, but he would suffer frostbite before he would admit as much to Gwilym, who with his rosy cheeks and plump brown hands looked warm enough himself.

Gwilym shrugged and tossed another handful of twigs onto the fire. Flames leapt up where he had thrown it. “It’s a sad thing about Selwin,” he murmured, glancing sidelong at his companion. “Sad thing. Only a day since he left, and it feels like a fortnight. Dafydd’s borne it well, though, I think. Haven’t you, Dafydd?”

“Now, now,” protested Dafydd, laughing while he shook the hair out of his eyes. “It’s his mischief-loving nature I don’t miss, and that’s the truth. Too fond he was of a hearty laugh at someone else’s expense.”

“Is,” said Evan, with vigor. His companions glanced at him curiously. “Is fond of a hearty laugh at someone else’s expense. He’s not dead yet.”

An uncomfortable silence followed this correction, broken by Dafydd’s nervous laugh. “Of course I didn’t mean that. Good Lord, Evan—you needn’t sound so bitter.”

“Did I sound bitter? I’m sorry.” Evan forced a smile; his fingers moved, almost imperceptibly, to the hem of his cloak. “The events of this day and the day before have been trying. To all of us, I believe. You’ll understand, then, if you hear a hint of bitterness in my voice that wasn’t there before.”

Dafydd and Gwilym exchanged glances. “Aye, we can see you take it hard,” said Gwilym gently. “It might—it might ease your mind a bit to know that Selwin left you something before he went away.”

With considerable effort Evan fought back the impulse to gasp, jerk up his head, snatch the secret from Gwilym’s clenched hand. Instead he looked up, slow in his apparent unconcern, and met Gwilym’s dark eyes briefly. “Did he, then? I thought we’d said everything there was to say before he left.”

“It would seem not.” Gwilym found his worn brown bag which hung just inside his cloak, loosened the cord that bound it and after searching for a moment with his fingers, pulled out a folded square of paper. Evan took it in his hands and opened it.

“He seemed troubled in his mind when he gave it to me,” said Gwilym. “His hands were shaking, and he looked a mite pale about the lips. I don’t blame him. Well, man? Can its meaning be shared? It can’t have been much of a secret if he entrusted it to me and never said a word against my reading it.”

Evan looked up quickly. “Did you read it?”

“Would it kill you to know that I did?” Gwilym laughed and cuffed Evan lightly on the shoulder. “Na, man, you can set your heart at rest. Though I dallied with the temptation, I didn’t give in. So unless you wish to tell us, your secret is your own.”

“It isn’t much of a secret to tell or keep,” said Evan, blushing. He could feel that he was blushing, and it made him resentful. “I’ll read it to you, if you’ll be satisfied with nothing else. Here it is:

In the year of our Lord 1281.

I neglected to mention to you, Evan, that I’ve given you the Taliesin. Naturally I couldn’t take it with me and I suppose I was a fool to bring it on this campaign at all, but there, I’ve done it and now the book is yours. Unless I return, in which case I’ll want it back. And I—


He stopped in sudden confusion. Gwilym leaned forward with a little cry of concern; Evan had gone still as stone. In a heartbeat he mastered himself and looked up with a faint smile. “My eyes wandered,” he explained, his voice a husky whisper; then with a quick clearing of his throat he glanced down at the paper again.

“That’s nearly all. He tells me to be careful of—of the book, and he pledges me not to fall prey to its charms lest I be unfit to fight for Wales. Facetious. Typical.”

Dafydd laughed and after a moment Gwilym joined in, but the concern did not leave his eyes.

Evan lingered a little longer by the fire after his fellows had gone to bed, giving as his reason that he wanted to breathe God’s air for as long as he could before retiring to a crowded and stuffy tent. It was a poor excuse. Among the three, only Evan believed it.

When he was quite alone he unfolded the creased paper—in a daze, hardly knowing what he did—and read again the words that he had kept from Dafydd and Gwilym.

And I give you Glynnis, also, as much as she is mine to give. I believe in her heart she is already yours—it’s only her promise to me that keeps her from loving you. Cherish her, Evan, as I trust you will the Taliesin. She is far more precious.

Glynnis.

Oh, Selwin, I did not ask for this.

Glynnis…so lovely in soul and spirit, so alluring and winsome and impossibly pure. Could it be true that she loved him, preferred him—such a cold word—to Selwin? It did not seem possible.

It was like Selwin to swear to an impossible thing merely to encourage happiness. Evan had heard from Glynnis’s own lips stories of things he had done in his childhood, things that showed how bound up his happiness was with that of his friends.

Something of the sort had happened at their first meeting. They had been soldiers then as now, fighting for the freedom of Wales. Their prince, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, had not been a prince then but merely an uncrowned warlord, powerful in his own right without the addition of a title. Selwin and Evan had been thrown together by an odd chance. By virtue of his family’s high rank and his own promising qualities Evan had been given a position of leadership as soon as he was drafted. Selwin, less fortunate in his rank and bearing, had begun as one of “the men”—a common foot soldier.

One day not long into the war—a month perhaps, or rather two months—the officer in charge of Evan’s adjoining division had been killed by a sickness without a name. He had lain his head down a healthy man, closed his eyes in sleep, and never opened them again in this world. Only a week before that his preceding officer had died of a spear through the lung in a slight skirmish of which he was almost the only casualty.

After these two singular deaths it was not surprising that the division was beginning to make a bad name for itself. A new commander had to be chosen from among the men, which should have been easy enough—or would have been, if the system were stricter. As it was the leaders could not simply order: the man had to agree.

At last a man stepped forward. A man he must have been, but to Evan’s eyes he appeared no more than a boy. With some effort he explained that his brother had had a dream, a vision, and he had been reluctant to tell the leaders himself because the gist of it was that he, the speaker, was the one who must be chosen for command of this division…

“It sounds strangely, I know,” Selwin had said, spreading his hands as if to say What would you? “It is not that I’m seeking promotion, I assure you, sir. But this was troubling my brother’s mind, and I thought it best that you should know.”

The leaders, little caring what his motivations were, had taken him up immediately. That was how Evan had first seen Selwin, and how he remembered him for a long while after that—standing in front of Lord Iorweth with a grin that was one part shyness and two parts impishness, pushing his blond hair out of his eyes with one hand and leaning against a tree with the other.

Nearly from that first moment they had been friends. Evan, who had previously cared little for human companionship, was surprised to find how quickly his heart had warmed to this man so lately a boy. Selwin in his turn held nothing back from Evan, kept no selfish secrets. At first this lack of reserve had shamed Evan, set him to questioning his worth as a friend and even as a man, as he was all too often inclined to do; but Selwin had an easy, graceful way about him of dispelling shame. Before a fortnight had passed Evan’s life and dreams were inextricably bound up with Selwin’s.

Now with a few words those dreams had been shattered forever. Any glory gained from this mission would inevitably fall to Selwin; the more glory if he died, as he was sure to do. And such a death! Impatiently Evan pushed away the gruesome images that had persisted in entering his mind ever since he had heard of the mission. He would not think of that, not now. He would not even keep this letter written by a dead man.

With a bitter smile on his lips he tossed the inky paper into the flickering flames and watched as it slowly crumpled. There would be no chance of a too-curious soldier finding it now; the secret it carried would remain a secret.

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So now when I mention Evan and Selwin in the course of casual conversation, you may laugh and shake your head knowledgeably. And come February (which is—goodness, it’s soon!) disjointed mentionings of Evan and Selwin are all you’re likely to get.

But I may yet surprise myself. In the meantime, I shall stock up on tissues and pepmints.

*raises mug of steaming tea* To friendship!

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