L. S. Johnson lives in Northern California with her partner, multiple cats, and a pond full of goldfish. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Interzone, Crossed Genres, Lackington’s, Strange Tales V, and other venues. Currently she’s working on a fantasy trilogy set in 18th century Europe. Find her online at http://traversingz.com/.
The Tale of King Edgar
by L. S. Johnson
When they bring the baby to him, Edgar looks down at the mewling creature, its face like a piece of crumpled, bloody silk, and feels the knot in his belly loosen. “Call him Bertram,” he says, flicking aside the swaddling cloth to confirm the sex. “He’ll do. Though I may have to pay someone to marry him, with a face like that.”
The laughter of his retinue carries him out of his castle, onto his horse, and into the great sun-filled world that is his kingdom. A day without omens, and therefore full of possibility. He rides hard and far, his retinue bellowing his praises over the thunderous hoofbeats, shouting of a future of contented fullness. He has an heir. He has certainty.
When at last Edgar reaches his duke’s smaller, shabbier castle, he leaves the parley to those with a bent for such things; he eats his fill and drinks far more; he is given a woman and his duke’s own bed and so many skins of wine he trips over them in the night.
When he catches his reflection in the moat, chasing yet another of the wide-eyed girls that seem to await him in every niche and crevice—do they grow them here, he wonders, like the fields of flax they had passed—his reflection makes him smile. He is handsome and strong; he is king, head of both a people and a dynasty, now. He can do as he pleases. The thought more exciting than the girl’s unlaced dress.
Upon his return he finds that the red-faced, squalling creature has been transformed: in its place is a plump, scrubbed baby with a somber gaze that makes Edgar look away. A gaze designed, it seems, for him alone; for everyone else Prince Bertram is all smiles. Sometimes Edgar, king of everything as far as his eye can see, is left standing for several heartbeats without proper acknowledgment while the women fuss over the cradle.
When Edgar looks upon that solemn, staring face—so like yours the women coo—for the first time he feels the specter of death.
In honor of Bertram’s first birthday, Edgar hosts three days of games and competes in them himself. He jousts and wrestles, shrugging off his retinue’s concern. He even wounds one of his knights, crippling the man; still Edgar feels driven by some nameless thing in his belly, something serpentine and barbed whose squirming makes him fidget on his throne and toss in his bed. When the games end he turns himself from fighting to fucking: he takes his queen, he takes her ladies, he takes the women he sees in his halls and his kitchens and his cellars, he carries off pretty girls from the marketplace and the best whores right out of the brothel, and once he even snatches a woman straight from the fields, her skirts still full of seed and soil when he takes her in a nearby copse, his retinue politely turning their backs.
Only when his queen’s womb swells again does the snarling, squirming thing in his belly grow quiet. A second son. Edgar would show no preference; he would hint, discretely, that the succession was an open question. Let Bertram and his brother fight it out with sword and wit; it would ensure the best man took the throne. Better still would be to have three, four, even five sons. Edgar would keep silent right through his dotage; only on his deathbed would he pronounce the name of his heir, the one most fit to take his place.
When he hears the first cries he goes to his queen’s chambers, where an identical red-faced creature awaits him. He opens the swaddling cloth before anyone can speak, only to stare in bewilderment.
And when he comes out of the room again the first thing he sees is Bertram, standing upright like a tiny man, looking at him with the cool appraisal of a farmer planning to cull his herd.
The hall is full, full of his household and his knights, full of his dukes and his earls and their households and their knights, all their voices mingling and echoing off the walls in a cacophony that makes his ears ring. Dozens of eyes follow Edgar’s every move and note his every gesture; his words are squirreled away like the tastiest morsels, the better to be picked apart in the days to come. So many decisions will be based on a lingering touch or a casual remark. All day he has been praised to the skies, given chests overflowing with tithes, offered parcels of land and comely daughters.
He has never been so happy.
The servants bring food, piles of it on large wooden boards: roasted beavers, pheasants, a magnificent peacock with its tail in full spread; pies and cassoulets; the first sweet fruits from his orchards. At last the roar of voices quiets as they begin eating, scooping up the food with curled fingers. This too Edgar revels in: the sight of them all swilling like pigs at a trough, every swallow binding them more completely to his rule.
And then a high, lisping voice says, “But why shouldn’t we negotiate?”
The sound stabs Edgar in the gut. He nearly rises from his seat at the sudden cramping he feels; he looks around the room, momentarily heedless of his effect on those around him, until he sees Bertram’s small body at a nearby table. Flanked by an earl and his nephew, the two looking down in amusement.
“A king should be fair,” Bertram blithely continues. “He should always negotiate first. That is the mark of a good king.”
“Your son,” someone says in Edgar’s ear, “is forming alliances over his pap. Born to rule, that one.”
Edgar can barely see for his rage. Negotiating. Just to say that word in the wrong ear. Just to say it. As if anything had ever been won with words, as if every inch of his kingdom hadn’t been won with steel and blood. It is all he can do to keep from throwing himself over the table and beating the boy back into the bloody pulp he was born as.
Instead he seizes the nearest servant, swallowing to keep the snarl out of his voice. “It is time,” he says, “for the prince to retire.”
Watching the servant coax Bertram away, he doesn’t notice the pie that is laid before him. Bertram protests, then starts to cry; those around him recoil and Edgar exhales, his anger slowly ebbing. See? he silently declares to the hall. See? He is nothing but a child, he can affect nothing, he might as well not even exist!
He hears, on the edge of his awareness, a strange twittering noise; he realizes a hush has fallen over the gathering. As Bertram and the servant leave he turns back to the pie and plunges his knife into the crust, eager to resume the feast.
The twittering changes to a high-pitched shriek. There are gasps of horror as the crust falls away, revealing a living raven, black-feathered and wild-eyed, its breast and wing now bloodied from the knife. Its garbled, wheezy cries scrape at Edgar’s mind. It tries to hop free from the dish, its one good wing flapping impotently. Edgar senses the others’ shock and revulsion; he remembers that the cook had mentioned a trick to entertain the guests. Now that trick has made him look a fool.
He tries to seize the bird, to break its neck and put it out of its misery; but the raven lunges at him, stabbing at his hand with its sharp beak. Again gasps go up; one of Edgar’s knights makes to help, only to stop halfway, unsure of whether or not to intervene. Again Edgar tries to seize the bird, this time taking up his knife again, but with a mighty push of its uninjured wing the raven manages to propel itself out of the dish and off the table, landing wetly on the stone below.
Then everyone is out of their seats, the men crawling under the tables, the women twisting at their skirts. Cries go up as one or another nearly seizes the bird, followed by more of those garbled shrieks; one after another the men reappear, holding bloodied hands and looking furious.
“It’s a sign, an omen,” someone gasps, but when Edgar turns to see who spoke everyone seems caught up in the hunt for the raven.
At last the hall quiets down, the men looking askance at each other; a murmur runs through the crowd that the bird has vanished.
Edgar feels sweat rising on his brow. Quickly he gestures to the empty crust. “Take it away,” he says, his voice ringing with authority. “You, and you there, look for the bird; it is hiding in some corner. I don’t want it stinking up the place.” He sweeps the crowd with a look, silencing all murmurs. “And I want that cook put in chains; I will deal with him later.”
Still there is only silence, until he pours himself more wine and drinks deeply. Only then do the others dare to resume their conversations; but Edgar knows they are speaking not of him but of what they just witnessed, and what it might mean.
Later, when he leaves the hall, he pauses by the open door of his daughter’s room and watches her sleep. She never offers opinions, or insinuates herself with crafty earls. She merely smiles at Edgar, and gives him sweet little kisses, and tries to crown him with flowers. She is learning to sew and sing. Such a simple thing, to raise a girl.
When he closes his eyes that night, all Edgar can see is the raven, looking at him with that wild fury in its eyes.
The women are singing. There has been a third child, another girl; they are singing to her in the nursery:
Lavender’s blue, diddle diddle
When I am king, diddle diddle
You shall be queen
Do they always do this? Edgar cannot say, but it irks him. In times past he left during this period, when his queen was still too weak to receive him. But this time he has lingered to see to Bertram’s education, and he is regretting it.
Between them, on the broad oak table, lie scattered the papers of his rule, the terms of surrender and the divisions of land, the seals and marks of all those beneath him. Every scrap speaks to Edgar of the past: of the men he killed in battle, of the ones he cowed into obedience; of the houses scoured for goods and then burnt; of the fields piled with slaughtered livestock, their dead eyes following him. Of the screams of dying children, not unlike the cries of the raven.
All of it years ago now.
Yet Bertram sees nothing, hears nothing. Learns nothing. “Why are the tithes so uneven?” he asks, again.
Edgar sighs. How to explain that it is not a matter of abacus and paper, that it is a far more complex sum of harvests and goods, slights and favors, strategic values and strategic costs?
“I do not see,” Bertram continues, “why we cannot come up with a fairer kind of reckoning. You are asking double here what you are here—” he holds up two documents— “yet the first has far less land than the second! It’s completely arbitrary! No wonder we keep hearing rumors about a rebellion.”
Edgar leans forward and smacks the first paper. “That,” he says loudly, “is an asshole who must constantly be brought to heel, and that—” he smacks the second paper—“is a man who has known his place since I took the throne, and has a right to expect favor in turn. That is the reckoning.”
In the ensuing silence the women sing:
There they did play, diddle diddle
And kiss and court
All the fine day, diddle diddle
Making good sport
He waits for some sign of Bertram’s understanding. But he is met only with that somber stare, delivered under a brow growing dark and wide with age, framed by a widow’s peak that Edgar knows matches his own. The boy has his jawline as well, the women tell him it is a shared trait, that when the prince becomes angered he is the spit of the king.
Now Bertram raises his chin, his lips compressed, and Edgar knows what this means: that his son thinks him wrong, only he knows it is not to his advantage to say so.
Edgar knows this, for he has seen his own face in exactly such a pose, when he has had to bide his time.
And when that time came, oh how he had reveled in delivering the blows—
Lavender’s blue, diddle diddle
Let me be king, diddle diddle
You be the queen
“Get out,” he says, and turns away, rubbing his jaw as if he had been punched.
At last he manages to break away from his retinue. A few knowing remarks, a couple of elbows to the ribs, and Edgar slips through his rooms and out into the narrower hall for his own private use. Right leads to his queen’s chambers; left leads down towards his servants’ quarters and the far side of his castle. Supposedly for escape during a siege, but Edgar uses it for a different kind of escape.
After all, his queen is with child yet again. There was a lost child after his second daughter, the women told him it was a boy, but Edgar has had his fill of sons. Already he is thinking to send Bertram away, on some kind of tour or campaign; he’s sick of seeing that stare at every turn, he’s sick of the endless questions he knows are waiting behind Bertram’s compressed lips.
All that, and lately Edgar feels uneasy when he sees his son conversing in the hall. He was impatient at that age; he would have been more so if he had not felt such deep respect for his own father… and has Bertram ever felt a whit of respect for him? Has he ever seen Edgar as anything other than a thing to best, if not with strength then with his relentless questions, designed to undermine his king’s authority at every turn?
But Edgar can think on that later.
There is, after all, a new maid. A choice armful, everyone agrees; even his queen’s ladies have remarked upon her comeliness. Edgar has made a study of her: he thinks of her at the meeting table and in the pew, in his bed at night and when he would do his duty with his queen. He knows every swell of her figure, every drop of moisture when she sweats in her chores, and oh but he will make her sweat tonight.
At her door he pauses, listening. Instead of silence there are faint noises: panting and moans, a familiar creaking rhythm. The little trollop. He is at once annoyed and intrigued, for he made his interest plain from her first day, and he cannot think who would dare to trump him, no matter how obvious her invitation.
Edgar opens the door silently, and as the room becomes visible he feels a familiar pain in his belly. For he knows all too well the young, lean body pressed between her thighs, the cracking voice that sings out as he works at her:
I sow’d the Seeds of Love
And I sow’d them in the spring
This boy. This creature he spawned. The maid giggles and kisses Bertram and he’s laughing as he sings, he laughs into her plump red mouth. Would that she could have seen him at birth, seen the mewling, bloody flesh that he had been. Would she be giggling now? Oh she would not.
Being poked by a boy. A mere boy. Clearly she sought his favor, perhaps she even sought to trick him into promises, get the king’s son bound to her with vows and a babe and the things she could ask for then…
Edgar turns away, his stomach clenching so violently he thinks he will be sick. A mere boy, bedding that. He should storm in, thrash his son and throw her out into the night with only her sheet for a cover. A mere boy, in her bed. He cannot even think of her now without seeing Bertram’s thin body rutting over her like some rangy jackrabbit.
Edgar stumbles down the hallway, clutching at his stomach; halfway back to his rooms he vomits, the sounds echoing in the darkened hall, bile spattering his shoes.
His rooms, though he only left them a few minutes ago, feel empty and cold. When he climbs into bed he is overwhelmed by a strange, musty odor: as if his bed hadn’t been slept in for ages, as if he had died long ago.
He spends his days with his daughters—three of them now, and each a pretty thing, he’ll have no trouble marrying them off—letting them sing to him and read to him, letting them show him their dances and their embroideries. He tells everyone it is because his queen is dead that he spends so much time with them, but in truth their affection is the only thing that quiets the writhing serpent in his belly, the bright, sharp pain that bursts forth at the mere sight of his son.
That Bertram had sobbed endlessly when his mother died, that he had to be dragged from her bedside… Edgar could understand it; he could, perhaps, even wonder at it; but it did not soothe the beast inside him.
So instead he bides his time, and spends his days with his daughters, and at last one night he whispers to a single trusted man about his son, and then whispers to a second trusted man about the first.
When Bertram comes to say goodbye Edgar makes a good show of it, hugging him and rubbing his head, speaking well of the figure he cuts in his armor, how he will impress everyone on his first tour of the kingdom. It takes everything Edgar has to utter that neutral the. He wants to say my kingdom, wants to scream it in Bertram’s face; he knows for appearances’ sake he should have said our kingdom; yet to pronounce the latter, he fears, would make the serpent in his belly burst agonizingly forth.
Bertram says something about making him proud, but Edgar barely hears him; he is distracted by the sight of his queen’s eyes peering at him from beneath that dark brow. His youngest daughter is the spit of her mother, but how strange that he never realized Bertram has those same wide eyes—
“I still don’t see why we should not go together,” Bertram says.
The words cut through Edgar’s thoughts like a blade. He nearly thanks the boy for this last challenge to his authority; instead he says, loud enough for the room to hear, “I trust you as I trust myself.”
Only when Bertram is walking away does Edgar nod once to his man and make a hidden sign. And the matter is done; he thinks of it no more.
Three pretty daughters. Already he is contemplating possible matches for them, imagining the outcome of this or that alliance. After the mourning period he will hold games; that will incite some proper competition. Falling over each other to prove themselves the most loyal and obedient. A wonder he hadn’t thought of it before: why leave such matters to fickle Nature, when you could cherrypick your succession?
He has learned a lesson, these past years, about like minds. He has learned many lessons—
“Father, will you not wave goodbye?” His eldest daughter beckons him to the window, her handkerchief fluttering in her hand.
He goes to join them, smiling as they press against him, and watches Bertram ride away. Every foot between them like a salve to his aching stomach. In a tree near the window he sees a cardinal contentedly nesting and finds himself smiling with relief at such a clear omen.
The rightness of it all. His halls his own, his beds his own. No more staring, no more ridiculous questions. The lesson well and truly learnt: daughters are a far better investment than sons.
“I will miss him,” his second daughter says. “But he’ll have such a good time with his friends.”
“Friends?” Edgar asks absently, still watching the cardinal.
“Oh, Bertram has lots of friends,” his eldest says. “Dukes and earls from all over, and a whole host of knights. He said a grand company is waiting for him just a ways down the road. You should have gone with him, Father, you would have had a wonderful time.”
Edgar stares at the road, watching his son disappear over the rise. Dukes and earls. A host of knights.
“I’m glad you stayed,” his youngest daughter tells him. “Let Bertram be king out there. You can be king right here!”
“Silly girl,” his second says, “there cannot be two kings.”
She gathers up the youngest and they begin to drift away, still chattering among themselves, fluttering about each other like birds. Yet Edgar cannot move. A grand company is waiting for him. The serpent in his stomach has become as heavy and cold as stone, a dread so overwhelming it threatens to take his legs.
As he stares at the empty road, struggling to understand, a broad shadow flits across his field of vision. The raven curves upwards, then dives into the tree with a fearsome cawing, setting the branches into a blur of movement. When the leaves become still once more there is nothing to see: raven, cardinal, and nest have all vanished; all that remains are a few scarlet feathers, drifting away on the breeze.
Copyright 2015 by L. S. Johnson