He had no heirs of his own. Her sons were dead. Taken from her by illness when they were travelling with him. That was what he had told her, but she didn’t believe him. No one else had fallen ill. He told her that they would have other sons. Every night he moved over and in her and every night she turned her face away and endured. He did nothing to give her pleasure, as if the act itself was reduced to breeding and no longer gave either of them any joy.
Her womb did not quicken. She suspected that it was precisely because he did nothing for her pleasure. She had thought him old when they wed and another ten years had not been good to him. She had never loved him but now she didn’t respect him either. It was the loss of respect that finally soured the relationship.
She mourned for her boys. Her beautiful boys. Tall and dark of hair like their father. She told him she needed proof and he said the bodies had to be burned because of the disease. Not even a lock of their hair remained. Without the proof of her eyes and the touch of her hands as she washed them and laid them to rest, she clung to the belief that they continued to breathe and to grow.
They had grown too tall too fast and perhaps it was that that had given her away, for they were not his sons. Her womb had quickened for her lover because her whole body had ached for him. She had clung to him, drawn in every part of him that she could, tasted him, bitten him and swallowed him down. By all the gods, when he had filled her it was the final part of a long journey and every part of her welcomed every part of him.
The contrast made it worse.
The leader sent him away. A long and dangerous sea voyage; a raid on the lands to the West. He was too cowardly to just have him killed. She knew better than to ask for mercy for him. Or for herself. Her body missed him and her heart. She had taken comfort in her twin sons but now, they too, were gone.
She turned her heart to her people. She watched as she sat next to him in the great hall to listen to his judgements. The stupid, vain old man was destroying his kingdom rather than passing it whole and strong to another. His closest advisors were bullies not fighters. The laws were twisted to his purposes. She did her best to temper his wild accusations, to defuse his rages, to suggest results that were fairer, to countermand his orders and to take his ire when he found out that she had interfered. The people learned to appeal to her first; to send her alms. The cleverest sent their children to ask.
He was destroying the kingdom as fast as he was destroying her. Each night the act wore her down a little more. He rubbed away at her and a little bit more of her disappeared. Soon, she would be gone, as well.
The next council meeting, she heard voices outside, raised in alarm, but no warning trumpet. Armed men entered the great hall. Some greeted them as old friends. She allowed herself to hope.
The men parted respectfully for their leader. He needed no deputies to force people to follow him. He strode towards her and she put her hand over her mouth. His height and his walk. She knew every movement of that body. She glanced at her husband and saw his eyes narrow.
He had returned, against all the odds… and yet, she was not certain of his motives. Not until she saw the figures behind him.
She lifted her skirts and she ran.
They tried to behave like men, but failed and behaved like boys who thought their mother lost to them. She inhaled the scent of their hair, ran her hands over their faces. She kissed them repeatedly. She made odd noises of joy and wonder. Her lover waited patiently.
“How?” she asked her sons.
“He tried to kill us, mother.” They pointed at the leader.
He blustered and denied, but his accusers stood resolute. His lies exposed, he ordered his bullies to attack. The great hall filled with the sounds of clashing weapons and the shouts of battle. The fight, such as it was, was over quickly. The veteran fighters won easily.
Her husband was forced to his knees.
The people demanded to know why he had tried to murder his sons.
“They are not my sons,” he answered.
Her lover met her eyes with astonishment.
“The gods sent them to their father,” she told him.
“I protected them because I knew they were yours, I did not suspect that they were mine.”
“Whore!” Her husband spat at her skirts.
She stared down at him. She looked every inch a queen, dark and dangerous.
She reached her hand back and the dagger was placed in her palm.
His eyes quailed. There was no valour in a death like this. And he knew death stood at her shoulder.
“The kingdom is done with your incompetence,” she told him.
She stabbed him cleanly in the heart. It was more than he deserved but she had always been fair. He looked incredulous.
Her lover knelt to her and she embraced him. She held him to her heart and buried her face in his hair. When she opened her eyes, the whole hall was kneeling to her. Her sons led the cheers and the people shouted her name. They buried the king with due honours and confirmed her as their leader. She had earned their respect not demanded it.
That night she and her lover made a daughter.
© AM Gray 2013