His father gave a rattling, final breath. Magnus reached out and drew down his father’s eyelids with a precise brush of his fingertips. He turned and looked at his younger brother, Peter who came over and put his hand on his brother’s shoulder. Magnus hid the flinch which came to him and ran his tongue over his lips.
‘I do not want the crown, Peter.’ he said.
Peter sighed and clasped his brother in his arms and wept with joy. Magnus accepted the gesture, looking past him to where his brother’s wife stood, false tears brimming in the corners of her narrow eyes. The kingdom would survive her, he thought and Peter was well-intended if effete. A harmless king was better than a cruel one, he decided. A cold wind blew the curtains, and Magnus held back the shudder which ran through him.
Magnus left the castle after watching his brother take the throne, with letters to prove his identity with enough gold to buy lands and cattle. He sought to live out his days in peace/
His brother had other ideas.
Peter gnawed on a turkey leg as he looked across his council of advisors. Katharine sat to his left, looked to her father and smiled at him, which was his cue to speak. Robert cleared his throat and looked at Peter.
‘Your highness, we should discuss the matter of your brother.’ he said.
Robert was a good father, and he listened to his daughter. He spoke her words with practiced care as Peter looked at him with a cautious glint in his eyes.
‘Magnus lives in the forest somewhere reading philosophy to pigs. He’s no threat.’ he said.
Katharine raised an eyebrow and Robert continued.
‘Aye, your highness, but even in his exile, he has his champions.’ he said.
Peter picked up a goblet and washed the meat down with a mouthful of sour wine as he shrugged his shoulders.
‘He’s no interest in the throne. He swore a vow before my father was cold.’ he said.
Robert looked to his daughter for guidance. She slipped her hand on his forearm and leaned into his space, gave a smile like a knife being dragged across a windpipe.
‘My father has your interests at heart, your highness. The people speak of Magnus with fondness.’ she said.
Peter turned his head and grimaced at his wife.
‘He doesn’t have to breathe their shit in as I do.’ he said.
Katharine smiled and kissed her husband on the cheek.
‘No, and his legend grows with each year which passes. Some say you forced him from the throne.’
He guffawed and a spray of saliva, flecked with shreds of meat flew from his mouth as Robert sat back in his chair.
‘He begged me to take it. Magnus knew what awaited him, and he gave it instead. Clever bastard.’ he said.
Katharine glanced at her husband with a quiet, pinched frustration which he ignored with a turn of his head. Robert cleared his throat.
‘Your highness, perhaps you could ask his intentions. I have men at your disposal.’ he said.
Katharine put her hand on her husband’s forearm.
‘You will not rest until you know, my king.’ she said.
Her voice was a gentle command as she leaned forwards and pressed against his upper arm. She caught his scent and grimaced.
‘See to his health.’ he said.
Robert had sent out his men before sunset. A map had been drawn for them, and were acting upon the orders of her queen herself who had addressed them in the stables, wrapped in a black coat with a goblet of wine in her hands.
‘Your highness.’ Robert said.
Magnus walked in from the dark with an armful of logs. Ibb stirred the pot with a wooden spoon as she blew a lock of hair out of her eyes. He smiled and set them down by the fire, before he came and put his arms around her, splayed his fingers over the round curve of her stomach.
‘You can’t keep your hands off my belly, Magnus. Should I be jealous?’ she said.
Her smile was impish and wild. Magnus rubbed his bearded cheek against her face and chuckled. She turned and kissed him on the cheek before she pushed him away and continued to stir the stew she was cooking. He sat down and poured himself a cup of beer as he watched her prepare their meal.
Magnus could afford servants but Ibb refused his money, but had asked for his attention and strength. A simple trade of services and goods which grew into something deeper. It had taken him by surprise, how she had shown no deference to him until beyond his understanding, she had taken him into her bed, and then, by her own admission, her heart. She questioned why this did not shock him and instead, he pulled her close and pressed his face into her neck and inhaled her skin.
It was his answer, a good one, she told herself.
Magnus heard the clatter of hooves and got to his feet, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand as Ibb turned around. Her left hand went to her stomach and Magnus smiled at her.
‘Finish the cooking, I’ll see who this is.’ he said.
.She thought about Magnus and a warm burst of feeling overwhelmed her as she stirred the stew, thinking about feeding her man.
Magnus looked at the four men on horseback and narrowed his eyes. He saw one man reach for something on his hip and he darted backwards, opened his mouth to warn Ibb. The stone, plucked from the quarry outside Garden’s Hill, slammed into Magnus’s forehead and cracked his skull. He fell away with a shudder, eyes rolled back in his head as blood gushed from his nostrils as he collapsed inside the doorway.
The last thing he heard was Ibb calling his name.
One man drew his sword, a short, pitted piece of pig iron with years of use scarred into its surface as he looked at Ibb and sneered. Ibb stood there, legs apart as she glared at the soldier with cold, hard eyes before picking up the hatchet which sat by the fireplace. He laughed, a short mocking bark which betrayed a measure of caution as he called to the others.
She stepped forwards, flung the hatchet overhand and it thumped into his forehead with a dull, damp slap. Ibb took the sword from his hands and shoved him aside. She did not look at Magnus on the way past. She gripped the sword and turned it over in her hands as she charged out of the door. Her stomach ached, but she felt detached from herself as she stabbed the first man in the throat, tugging the blade to the right and bringing his windpipe with it in a moist knot of cartilage and blood. She stabbed upwards on the second blow, punching the sword through the other man’s jaw and then kicking him in the crotch as he fell down with the sword embedded in his jaw.
Ibb wrapped one arm around her stomach as she squatted to one side and rested her hand on the hilt of the sword.
‘If I pull the blade, you’ll bleed out. Tap once for yes, twice for no. Understand?’ she said.
His eyes bulged in their sockets and Ibb tapped the hilt with her index finger, which made him whimper. He tapped once and she sighed as she got to her feet. Ibb knew she was close to having this baby, and she considered how Magnus was not there to share it with her. Her eyes misted over with tears.
‘Did you come here on purpose?’
He tapped once.
She learned what he knew. When she was done, she twisted the blade and pulled it free as the soldier bled to death at her feet. Night had fallen and she looked at the surrounding bodies, including Magnus slumped in the doorway. A shadow had fallen across his broken face, which she took to be a small mercy from the gods as she staggered back into the house.
Ibb needed to keep her strength up.
She sold the cattle for a good price, took the money and disappeared. Magnus had fallen ill, she told people, too quick to be saved. Ibb told people it was something which ran in his family. She was going north, back to her people to have the baby there. People wished her well, but exchanged relieved looks when she was gone. She was a good woman, but something about her frightened them and her departure was cause for relief in the village.
Robert wiped his forehead with a handkerchief as he watched the hounds leap through the grass. He took up a horn and gestured to a servant who walked up and poured wine into it before stepping backwards with a bow. He took a long draught and wiped his lips with his fingers before he looked through the trees.
Robert wanted to kill something beautiful. He imagined it was his daughter, which was something he kept to himself, but as she grew more demanding, his imagination warped and grew fat on his resentment. He picked up the reins and ushered his horse forwards.
Something stabbed into his neck and he winced. He brought his hand up as he struggled to swallow. Robert gasped as he stared into the woods, saw someone detach themselves from a copse of bushes as his limbs spasmed out of control. Robert’s tongue swelled up and slipped to the back of his throat as he fell out of the saddle. He died on his back, looking up at the sky and wondering what had happened.
Katharine wept as they carried her father’s coffin into the depths of the family tomb. She had needed his counsel, not for herself but for Peter. He had become insensible with drink and even ignored her complete refusal to allow him to return to the marital bed since Ethelred had been born. She still needed a poultice between her thighs each night and his distaste for the realities of women had him fleeing to his whores. Her blessing followed him.
They had been so close to victory. She had replaced the commanders and the courtiers with those loyal to her plans. An expansion of territory which would see the kingdom grow into a new era of prosperity. Peter had been useful but soon his madness would outweigh his use as an excuse for her authority. She wept with frustration, not grief but few would ask what brought a woman to tears, let alone a queen.
She returned to her chambers, Peter had gone to his whores and she stood before Ethelred’s basket, watched him and summoned the feeling of love she was supposed to experience. He was so wizened and soft, like a plucked chicken or a piglet and she wondered what it would be like to slip a knife into his stomach. It had cost her to bear him, and for what?
A son was a legacy, she told herself. His utility to her was affection, so she decided not to harm him. Instead, she reached out and pinched the inside of his thigh between her nails before she picked him up and soothed his febrile, hot cries of alarm and pain. Katharine wished her husband was so easy to control.
He laid on the cushions as she crawled across the bed towards him. He gestured for her to take off her veil but she shook her head.
‘I am not worthy to be looked upon, your highness.’ she said.
Peter narrowed his eyes. It was not Petal serving him tonight, and he was sure it was her turn to provide him with his small measure of comfort. Funerals made him drink, and drinking made him want to fuck someone. He knew his erection was inconstant and unreliable so he ushered her over with a sigh.
He felt the blade slide between his ribs and gasped with surprise. Her breath was warm and sweet against his cheek.
‘He was your brother.’ she said.
Peter turned his head and saw she had kept the veil in place.
‘Was?’ he said.
She drew back and twisted the blade, opening the wound further as she tugged it free and stuck the blade into the side of his throat underneath the windpipe.
‘As girls, they told us the best time to best a man was when his sword was sheathed but his dagger was out.’ she said.
Peter clutched at his throat, blood spurting through his fingers as his mouth hung open, tongue protruding as he gave rattling, sodden cries through his ruined throat.
She stood up and opened the window, tossed out the length of knotted rope she had left in the chamber and tied one end to the bed which Peter bled onto. Ibb turned and looked at him.
‘He never told me about you. I found out, was ready to walk away for the lie but he told me you had honoured his wishes and he was just a man again.’ she said.
Ibb tore the veil from her face and glared at the pallid corpse on the bed.
‘Now, your highness, you will honour mine.’ she said.
She climbed out, quiet as a whisper and was on her way to the palace before the guards came in and the whorehouse erupted into a vicious tornado of panic.
Katharine awoke to a small hand clamped over her mouth.
‘Don’t raise your voice.’
Katharine swivelled her eyes in the darkness. She feared for her son, but the voice, low and female, chuckled.
‘I’ve no desire to hurt the child. It’s your job, isn’t it?’ she said.
Katharine pushed against the hand but she took a hard blow to the temple which made her collapse back against the furs. She thought about biting her but a blade came to rest against the side of her throat. She froze in place, wondering if she could fight her way free.
‘I see you’ve got poultices on. Hard birth, was it?’ she said.
Katharine nodded as much as the blade would allow. The woman sighed.
‘My boy came out like shelling peas. He was a pleasure I would’ve shared with Magnus.’ she said.
‘He was supposed to be there with me. The first man I’d wanted a child with, and you had him taken from me.’ she said.
Katharine swallowed and waited for her to continue.
‘My son didn’t last a night. You took them from me, your highness. You‘re going to tell me why.’ she said.
Katharine exhaled as the woman’s hand came away.
‘Your brother was a threat to the king’ she said.
Katharine could not make out the details of the woman’s face, but she caught the shape of a grimace as she shook her head.
‘No, he was a threat to you. Magnus was a good man, he took care of me, and he had no interest in ruling over anyone but himself.’ she said.
Her fingers bit into Katharine’s jaw and the pain compelled her into stillness.
‘Your man was weak, so you played at being the man you needed. A weak, broken version of one, like your father was. Did you try to win my Magnus?’ she said.
Katharine’s heart raced in her chest as her stomach cramped with discomfort. She twisted away but the woman’s fingers squeezed her into holding still.
‘You sorry, empty coward.’ she said.
Katharine stared at the woman, her eyes adjusted to the gloom. There were soldiers outside, but they were too far to reach her.
‘I did what I thought was right.’ she said.
Katharine’s last thought was to deny the woman her suffering. She had learned how to deal with pain when she carried her son and with Peter dead, she would be a figurehead, nothing more. The woman stood back, sheathed her knife and raised her hands.
‘And where has it gotten you?’ she said.
Katharine tried to sit up but the woman’s hands were quick, and two sharp punches sent her into a pitching, total blackness studded with flashes of acute agony.
The last command she gave was to find her son. Diplomatic efforts were made to her neighbours but without her husband, and beset by rumours of her plans to wage war on them, made them unsympathetic to her grief. Kings died like flies. Mirabelle had sent a note of condolence but said a determined mother had all the weapons she needed to achieve her aims which Katherine took as a covert rejection and a mocking note.
She moved to the North Tower, attended to by a few servants as she sat each day, blank and mute, as the council of advisors took over the kingdom in her name. Ethelred would have been nine years old, and she walked over to the balcony and looked down at the courtyard. Its distance looked inviting and when she stood on the ledge, the wind buffeted her and she let it take her over.
There was a moment’s relief before the earth broke her in two. Her mind had been taken from her nine years ago and it was returned to her as her bones shattered and organs burst inside her.
Ibb walked over to the bank of the river. She watched him bait the hook with a lump of raw beef, his tongue protruding from the corner of his mouth as he stared at it, fingers moving with a glacial care. She watched him in an appreciative silence.
He lowered the rod and smiled at her.
‘I will catch us a Heaper, you’ll see.’ he said.
Ibb grinned and walked over, ruffled his dark hair and kissed him on the crown of his head.
;You will, my son, you will.’ she said.
He stood up, cast the hook into the water and watched it with a grim determination. Nine years old, and he could hunt and dress a deer, wield a knife and walk in silence. Ibb was a good teacher, but she missed having a man to guide him into manhood. She feared becoming like his mother, seeing him for what he could do for her over guiding him into maturity. Such fears made her eyes water, but they passed and as the afternoon sun hung high overhead, Ibb watched her son provide for them both with so much love in her heart she thought it might burst.