Marcus and Alexander stood before Lord Pierce’s desk, the sweat on their lean shirtless bodies drying, guilt, concern and fear written across their faces. Their lord sat in his chair silently, staring at the pair with unrelenting golden brown eyes. Outwardly, there was little difference between the twins. Each was of similar height, each had shaggy dark golden brown hair, each had athletically chiseled bodies, and both wanted to be somewhere other than there at that moment.
It took a keen eye to tell them apart if you didn’t know them. I was child’s play if you did, even if over the years they had gotten quite expert at impersonating each other. It was, however, hard to mask the slight thread of arrogance that ran through Marcus, or the keen sparkle in Alexander’s eye. While they shared many of the same personality traits, those personalities were built on entirely different foundations.
Finally Marcus broke the silence. It was always Marcus that spoke first. “M’Lord, I-” Gareth’s raised hand silenced the young man.
The pair continued to stand, looking at the ground as the minutes went by. The only sound in the room was the crackling and popping of the fireplace. Finally, there was a soft knock at the door and Maester Jonys entered. He glanced at the twins with a degree of sympathy and spoke to his Lord. “Aaron’s injury is minor, my Lord. He will have a nasty bump on his head for a week or so, but otherwise he is unharmed.”
“Thank you Maester.” replied Gareth, dismissing his servant and returning attention to the pair before him. “Well?”
“M’Lord, we were merely sparring.” said Marcus fervently. “I don’t know what happened. I-”
“Don’t you? I do.” Gareth interrupted as he rose from his seat. “You are a better swordsman than Aaron; much better in fact, but on this occasion, Aaron was winning. He knew he couldn’t outfight you so he tried to outsmart you. He would have succeeded but your vanity would not allow it.” Gareth turned to Alexander. “Where were you in all this? I generally rely on you to keep your brother in check.”
Alexander tried to say something, but the words caught in his throat and he went back to looking at the floor. While he was generally the better speaker of the pair, his innate shyness usually kept him silent
Gareth looked back at Marcus. “So tell me. What is really behind this? You can be passionate, but it is not like you to lose control when you are just sparring.”
The young man remained silent while his Lord waited patiently for an answer. Surprisingly, it was Alex that finally replied. “He’s jealous.”
“I am not!”
“You are too.”
“What do I have to be jealous about?”
“He’s smarter than you, he’s faster, he rides as well as you, he’s better looking, he sees through your tricks, and he can outshoot you on your best day. The only thing your better at is with a sword and he’s starting to match you with that too.” Alex had only limited patience with his brother’s self-delusions.
“Well, he wouldn’t be better if-” Marcus bit his tongue before finishing his sentence. He glanced quickly at Gareth before looking back at the floor.
Silence descended on the room again and continued for what seemed an eternity to the two boys. Finally, Gareth broke the silence. “So it seems this is my fault.” the Lord said thoughtfully. “Very well, come with me.”
The Lord led them from his study, and grabbing a torch, strode into the bowels of the castle. As the boys followed their anxiety grew, for the passages Gareth took inevitably ended in the dungeons. Finally, he turned into a side passage. It was an area they‘d rarely visited and contained storage rooms filled with the disused items that all families collected over the years. Stopping at one of the heavy doors, he unlocked it with his keys and entered, lighting the torch on one side of the doorway and placing the one he carried in the empty sconce on the other.
Sitting in a dust covered chair, Gareth indicated a covered painting propped against several large crates. He said nothing, and the boys looked at the object with hesitation. Finally, Marcus walked forward and pulled the cloth from the portrait with a single motion and a cloud of dust. Both the young men gaped, for they were looking into a mirror, their reflection frozen in paint.
“His name is Derryk. He was my older brother and Lord of this House till Konrad Lugas stabbed him in the back near the end of Robert’s rebellion.” Gareth casually brushed some of the settling dust from his leg. “As you grew older, you and others began to notice the family resemblance to those of House Pierce. When you were old enough to understand the whispers that you were hearing, you assumed I was your Father, and I was happy to let you believe it.”
Marcus continued to stare at the painting. It was Alexander that turned to his uncle. “Why?”
“Be careful, Alex. You will have many questions, but you must be sure you want the answers.”
“Why?” Alexander repeated firmly.
“Your mother’s name was Byrkita. She was the fourth daughter of an extremely minor noble, but when it comes to love, such things have never mattered to the Pierces. Derryk met her on the King’s road. He said he rescued her from a group of brigands, but I understand she and her guard had defeated five of the seven even before he arrived.
They fell in love, and Derryk sought her hand in marriage, but her father refused. I do not know his reasons, but he had little love for his daughter. She wasn’t biddable or dutiful like his other children, and he was a man addicted to control. He said he didn’t want his House connected to a family like the Pierces, but I think he refused to spite her.”
“They continued their affair in secret.” said Alex.“It was hardly a secret.” Gareth laughed. “She spat in her Father’s face and they ran away to Falconcliff where the man could not reach her. They would have married, but the Septum of the time was an elderly prig of a man who would not perform the ceremony without her Father’s consent. I suppose it didn’t help that she was already with child.”
“Us.” interjected Alex.
“But why keep this from us?”
Gareth gazed at Alexander for a long moment and continued. “Originally, Derryk was overjoyed to have two fine and healthy sons, bastard or no, but sometimes the gods are not kind. Six months later, her Father sent men to kill you. They failed, but Byrkita died defending you.”
“Did our Father kill hers?” Marcus asked through clenched teeth.
“Do you think such an act would go unchallenged by House Pierce of all Houses?” Gareth returned his attention to Alexander. “However Derryk was never the same after that. Irrationally, he blamed you for the loss of his love.”
Alexander sunk into a nearby chair. “That was why you let us think you were our Father. Better to be cared for by a false Father than hated by a real one.”
“I sought to spare you pain. Perhaps I was wrong.”
“You should have told us.” said Marcus still staring at the painting.
“I have told you now.” Gareth rose from his chair, a slight edge to his voice. “Should I have told you earlier? Should I have told you at six when your Father was killed? Should I have told you at twelve when you were growing into manhood and happy with your life? When, exactly, is the correct time to tell someone their Mother was murdered and their Father blamed them?”
Marcus turned, his head bowed. “I’m sorry, my Lord.”
“And so you should be. You are jealous of Aaron, are you? Have I not tried to raise you well? Have I not cared for you and given you both the opportunity to grow into fine young men? Have I not treated you both equally while allowing each of you to follow your own path? Have I not ignored some of your more unorthodox behaviour? In many ways, the pair of you has a better relationship with me than I have with my own son. If anyone has a right to be jealous, it is Aaron, except he takes so much after his Mother that the thought would never occur to him.
The three of you have grown up together, but you’ve never been friends, and it was never Aaron’s fault. He has never looked down on you as most noble born might a bastard. He likes the both of you, but you two have always had each other; you didn’t need him, and you didn’t care if he might have needed you. Have you considered the reason Aaron is better than you in many things is because that is all he has?”
The twins said nothing. All they had heard was wrapped in confusion, guilt, anger, love and other strong emotions. They didn’t know how they felt, or even how they should feel.
Gareth removed the key to the storeroom and tossed it to Alex. Turning, he took one of the torches on the wall and prepared to leave. “Lock up when you are done.”
“M’Lord,” Gareth knew the question Marcus was about to ask. “Do you know which one of us was born first?”
“Have we not had enough traumatic revelations for one day?” Gareth looked at Marcus, his eyes sparkling in the torchlight. “If I said it were you, Marcus, would you stay the same? You are a good man but you can be overconfident and prone to vanity. If you knew for sure, would you still have the same relationship you have with your brother?
What if I name Alex as oldest? Could you deal with that? He would certainly not want the burden of being the eldest. At the moment he would follow you into the white wastes if you asked. Could you still lead him there if you were the younger? Would you want to? Would you follow him?
If you wish to know who was born first, I will tell you, but not today. Perhaps not for some time. Do not attach such importance to a few short minutes, and do not let it define your life or alter what you have together. Think carefully before you ask this question again, and be sure you want the answer. I will tell you if I must, but I care for you both and I do not think the answer will be a kindness, no matter what that answer may be.”
Gareth turned to leave, but stopped in the doorway, his back to them. “One thing more, Marcus. You were careless today. You let your emotions and your pride interfere with your duty, and my son was injured as a result. I would suggest that you not be so careless in the future.”
The pair watched their Lord stride away without waiting for an answer. No answer was required. The twins turned to look at the painting, Marcus taking the seat Gareth had just vacated.
“So he hated us.” said Marcus. There was a tone in the young man’s voice Alex had never heard, anguish.
Alexander looked long and thoughtfully at the image of their Father. “No, he didn’t hate us. He was hurt and angry and wracked with grief. His lordship still mourns his wife even today. The Pierces are like that.” Alex paused for a moment. “We Pierces are like that.”
Alex walked over and knelt to one knee in front of his brother and took the him by the hand. “I will not blame our Father for shifting his grief to us. The one he loved was murdered and all he was left with was the squalling bastards she died protecting. Every time he looked at us he must have been reminded of her. It was not his fault that he died before getting to know us.”
“You’re kinder than I am.” said Marcus.
“No, I’m not.” replied Alex, rising. “You just take longer and hide it better.” He walked to the portrait, recovered it and took it under one arm.
“You’re taking that?”
“Yes, I am. We wanted to know the truth. Now we must live with it.”
“Your acting very ‘elder brotherish’ all of a sudden.”
“Perhaps I am.” Alex grinned broadly. “Maybe I’ve let you have your way for too long. Come on.”
“We’ll make a schedule.” returning his brother’s grin and rising. “I’ll be elder on odd days and you be elder on even days.”
“You must think me a right prat. Practically all the good feast days are on odd days.” Alex laughed. “You think I’ll give you first pick of the girls on all of them?”
“You have up till now,” replied Marcus in a playful mocking tone. “and I always share.”
Gareth watched the pair walk up the passage from the hidden alcove. He knew that they’re banter covered pain and turmoil, but they would be stronger for it. It would take some time for them to absorb this new information and reach equilibrium again within themselves and the others around them, but it would come.
He also knew that Alex believed he’d seen the truth when Gareth had implied that neither would like the answer to the question of who’d been born first. Alex had always been the cleverer of the pair. Marcus would continue to lead and Alex would continue to follow with quiet restraint. The seed of doubt would still be there, but if Gareth had learned anything, it was that there was value in ignorance.