Warning: This story takes place in a fantasy version of the early 1800’s during a violent war. There will be some occasions of homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, gore, sex, ableism, implications and discussions of sexual assault, violence, swearing, and general unpleasantness. It won't overwhelm the story but will be present. Please do not read if you aren’t in the right place for these issues. While this is a general trigger warning, if there's a really violent chapter, I will leave an extra warning.
William Augustus Vandervult was the fourth son of Viscount Robert Vandervult, raised by luxury and love. William’s mother, Lady Matilda Vandervult, brought her boys up to be poised and fine gentlemen. Though they did not want for anything, Matilda ensured they never took anything for granted either.
The Vandervults were known for their charity work spread across the kingdom of Heign. Orphanages and clinics mostly, so young William learned not to flinch at the sight of a missing limb or the sick. In fact, he found the work of doctors most interesting. Pure, in a sense. Helpful and bright among the horror and darkness. Magic seeped around them in more ways than one. Whispered incantations of a long forgotten tongue carried the same beauty as an orchestra. In a flick of the wrist, those words of beauty healed the injured, calmed the sick, or made peace for the dying.
After a hot day toiling among the clinics, Matilda often said to William, “There are many less fortunate than us, and so it is our duty to share that fortune and rid the world of a little sorrow each day.”
William thought the world of her, and his father who shared those beliefs. His parents met in a clinic, in fact, on a summer afternoon tending to children suffering Shimmer sickness. However, the Court of Lords his father was a part of were not all known for charity. Occasionally, William eavesdropped on their conversations over the suffocating stench of cigar smoke and liquor. The court gentlemen laughed over atrocities and barked at those who dared to suggest charity.
“If we took pity on every bastard, there’d be more pity than gold,” Lord Hornbill loved to claim.
William found so-called gentlemen such as Lord Hornbill to be poor company and never quite understood why his father invited them over for dinner.
“There will always be those among society who do not see past their own desires. Those very same could rule this world if we allowed them, so on occasion we must invite them for tea and find compromise,” Robert explained to his boys, the oldest of which understood, but William did not. He found many of his father's phrases peculiar, though that could be because he did not have the same aptitude as his brothers.
He did not know business like Arthur. He could not charm like Richard. He could not absorb knowledge like Henry. William was sensitive, so they all said. He preferred the company of flowers and animals over people. He could not stomach a hunt alongside his father or brothers. An act many gentlemen found concerning, though William couldn’t fathom why. Matilda doted over him, their youngest and a spitting image of her; fair skinned, a dimpled smile, hair of spun gold and eyes of promised spring.
“I would not stand another dull conversation of proud men spouting nonsense a moment longer if I had my way,” she proclaimed over an afternoon of knitting.
William quite enjoyed knitting, finding the repetitive motion soothing while his brothers would have nothing of it.
His mother smiled, comforting as morning sunlight. “You, my sweet child, always have interesting tales and thoughts to share. I find that far more fitting than an overly confident man who can wield a rifle or smoke a cigar.”
Lady Vandervult was the singular person who found William’s interest fitting. Though Lord Vandervult never spoke ill of his boy, he was not expected to follow in the footsteps of his brothers.
As the eldest and wisest, of course Arthur would take the title of Viscount. Richard held galas across the kingdom to raise money for their charity ventures. William once heard Matilda claim Richard could charm the britches off the king himself, though he couldn’t fathom why Richard would want to do that. Henry, though barely seventeen, had earned a position within Heign’s Magical Society. To study magic among the most renowned mages of Heign was an honor no Vandervult had been offered before. Then there was William, the fourth son who tended to birds with broken wings and cried over books unbefitting of a boy.
“Do not let others find you reading such things,” Henry chastised after catching William huddled at the back of the library with his nose in a romance book. “Such books are for ladies.”
“Why?” asked William. “They are poetic and sweet. They tell of love. Can gentlemen not enjoy love?”
The bridge of Henry’s nose wrinkled. “Do not speak like that to others, either. They will not treat you kindly.”
Henry frowned and ruffled William's hair. “Because it is not the way of things, my dear brother."
William thought perhaps the way of things was wrong for no one should be deprived of a marvelous book. They allowed one to explore a thousand worlds in a single lifetime. What could be more magnificent than that?
He would become incredibly grateful for the many lives spent among books for the life he knew came to an abrupt halt at the age of sixteen.
“He cannot go,” Matilda argued. Her voice carried through the cracked door to Lord Vandervult’s office.
William kneeled and dared to peek inside. The fireplace had not been lit on the warm fall afternoon. The windows had been tightly shut. The light of dusk glistened against the glass, revealing the faint warding spells to protect against beasts of the night.
Matilda told William stories of days where monsters didn’t roam the lands, though he couldn’t fathom a world without worry. Just as he couldn’t fathom how either of his parents stood the smell of the office. Robert’s guests caused the room to reek of cigar smoke and liquor. A glass cabinet containing a dozen foul tasting beverages lined the wall. William would know after Richard convinced him to taste one. Deep navy wallpaper circled the upper half of the room, designed with twisting morning glory flowers stretching to the ceiling. Ebony wainscotting completed the lower half of the room, save for one wall where a stack of shelves contained dull books that rotted the brain.
Robert stood at a wide black desk leaning against the same colored cane tipped in silver. His opposing foot tapped impatiently against the floor.
Matilda sat on the sofa, a hand against her heart and the other pressed to her head. William had never seen her so troubled. Never witnessed such horror in her eyes. That seeped into his soul for he knew the outcome of this conversation.
“This is not our war,” Matilda whimpered.
“This is everyone’s war,” Robert argued. “The Shadowed Disciples have plagued our realms for too long. Their summoned beasts are no longer rats dying in cages. We, and our children, have not known the world without their curse, without their fleshed damnations. Should this war continue, an unholy plane may spill upon ours. Calix Fearworn will cast this world in shadow, ending all life as we’ve known it.”
“Do not speak that name in our house,” Matilda whispered and pressed two fingers against her heart, as she taught William. He prayed to the Holy Soul to forgive his father for uttering a blasphemous name. The name of a murderer like the world had never seen.
“Not speaking the name of evil will not defeat it,” said Robert. “Fearworn, and his Shadowed Disciples, cannot be ignored. The kings of Terra and the lords of Faerie agree: this is no longer a divided war. Our kings and lords require every family to send one man of their direct lineage to the front.”
Red faced and ruffled, Robert huffed and tapped his cane heavily against the floor. “Richard and I have been deemed unfit to serve. Arthur is our heir and Henry is studying magic that will be used by our soldiers to survive.”
“Does that not count as serving?” Matilda argued.
“No, as he will not see the frontlines. William must go,” Robert said in the stern tone he used on the boys, the one that wasn’t as authoritative as he needed it to be.
Matilda wailed like William had never heard, a sort of pain that only a parent could feel. Her voice shook and the tears formed rivers against her pink cheeks. “He is too young. He is our baby.”
“He is sixteen.”
“William is not like our other boys. By the Holy Soul, Robert, he cannot hunt. How can you expect him to take a life?”
Robert kneeled before his grieving wife. He grasped her hand so tightly William worried he'd cause harm. But Matilda returned that force. Her bottom lip trembled, so did Robert’s.
“William will do what he must to protect himself.” Robert’s voice cracked. A tear seeped from the corner of his eye. “He’ll learn to survive. He’ll come home.”
That was the first time William ever heard his father cry. Both of his parents wept, and once he returned to his room, so did he.
William Augustus Vandervult went to war at sixteen where he became who he needed to be to survive.