Seven Tales of High Fantasy
by Dave Smeds
from “The Beheaded Queen”
[Editor’s note: When posted a few weeks ago, this excerpt was inadvertently truncated. It was meant to contain the entire opening scene of the story. And now it does!]
Ten months had passed since my lord king had deigned to liberate me from my niche. Over the years, as his fury had dimmed, I had become little more to him than an ornament—akin perhaps to the portrait of his great-grandfather, the Reaver, that hung in his council chamber. In some ways the indifference was not unlike his treatment of me during our marriage.
The yeoman set me down on the pedestal beside the throne, where once my lesser chair had stood. He and a palace maid plucked the cobwebs from my eyebrows, brushed my hair, and dabbed oil of rose behind my ears.
“Regal Lady. By your leave, I will lift you from your tray,” the yeoman said.
“Do as you will,” I replied. My voice sounded peculiar to my ears. The enchantment did not permit me to speak when consigned to my niche. These were the first words I had uttered in three seasons.
He grasped me around the jaw and raised me. The maid removed the cloth that had lain beneath me. It was stained with a few drops of the blood that still brimmed at the end of my neck, fresh as the day the axeman had parted my head from my shoulders. The poor girl shuddered as she slipped the new linen into place.
They arranged me so that I faced the throne, not the gallery. This was the first clear sign that I was to be addressed by the king himself.
Pathren kept me in suspense nearly an hour — intentionally, I am sure. He entered alone, his men-at-arms left behind at their sentry stations at the great doors. Soon he loomed in front of me.
“Traitress,” he greeted me.
“Murderer,” I responded.
The last time I had called him anything other than “Father of My Sons,” he had ordered me back to my niche and caused the drape to be closed, denying me the privilege of witnessing the doings of the court — the one diversion I had left to keep me from dwelling on my wretchedness. This time he did not react.
“It seems we are speaking,” I said. “Why?”
“The crown prince is betrothed.”
Had I still possessed a heart, it would have skipped a beat. “Bredden is to marry? When? To whom?”
“To Imileya, eldest daughter of the King of Fenmarch.”
I had expected a different answer. Some unpleasant prospect, revealed to torment me. I had not smiled in years, but I was ready to now. “That is a superb match.”
“It has advantages,” admitted Pathren.
Then I saw the problem. “What does her father ask of you in return?”
“My watchtower at Goblin Pass.”
“Are these terms you can bide by?”
He held his hand low, palm up in a curl, as he had in bygone times cupped my womanhood. A possessive pose. “The Reaver built that watchtower. It has been part of the realm for over a century.” He sighed. “You are right. I cannot simply let Alvos have it.”
“Yet the betrothal is a fact? You have agreed?”
“I have,” he admitted. “We are committed to the courtship year.”
“How can this be?”
“I have made peace with it in this way: I will give the watchtower to Bredden. He will pass it to Imileya as a wedding gift. For a number of years it will be manned by a garrison of her choosing — one from Fenmarch, if she likes. Upon her eventual death, title passes to her heir. Who will also be Bredden’s heir. So the tower will ultimately be part of Sorregal again, and in the meantime, it will never actually belong to Alvos.”
“I take it you will not put your seal upon the transfer until near the end of the courtship year?”
So he had until next summer to reconsider. But if realized, these were unprecedented concessions on his part. He could not be the instigator of this scheme. “You are doing all this at Bredden’s request,” I said. It was not a question.
“That was bold of him,” I said. “How is it you did not tell him no?”
He shrugged. A simple gesture, and one more honest and unguarded than I had seen from him since we had been newlyweds.
“Bredden has always done as I have asked. Perhaps it is time to do as he asks, simply because he asks. He is the future of Sorregal. It is his right to lay the foundation of his reign. I would rather see him do so now, while I am here to catch him if he stumbles. And if he should enjoy success, let it be while I am here to witness it.”
Pathren was feeling his age. He had not been young when he took me to wife. He now had no trace of auburn left in his hair. It was all grey, as his beard had been for years.
“Nature will soon have its way with me. With Alvos as well. Our sons have less reason to hate one another. Diplomacy may succeed. If in the process Bredden wins himself a bride of quality, so much the better.”
“Does she accept this marriage?”
“Now we come to the issue,” said Pathren. “She has said yes, but she had little choice. Does she grasp what it should mean to be Bredden’s wife? I would not care to see him played falsely.”
As he gazed at me, a glimmer of the old rage flickered. I said nothing. Any comment would only have sent him into a litany of my crimes. That was a speech I had heard too many times.
“I have made a pact with Bredden,” he went on. “Father to son. King to crown prince. During this coming year, while Imileya dwells among us here in Sorregal, things must go well. If they do, the wedding will be held. If they do not, the betrothal shall be dissolved. And I keep my watchtower.”
“How would you determine if it has ‘gone well?’”
“In sundry ways, but only one that need involve you. I must be satisfied of Imileya’s nature. Will she be loyal to Bredden, or an agent of Fenmarch? Will she be a source of harmony in my castle, or a seed of dissension? You are to judge.”
I could barely credit what I had heard. “I?”
“You. It cannot be left to Bredden. If the sight and scent of Imileya makes him keen to get between her legs, he will be blinded to any flaws she has. I need a woman’s perspective. I would not trust the assessments of the ladies of my court. They all have their own schemes in play. You are the mother of the Heir. You will want what is genuinely best for him.”
“That could not be more true.”
“Then we have an accord. You will leave in the morning with the entourage I am sending to fetch Imileya from Fenmarch. You will observe the princess closely from the moment you meet her. She may reveal herself in her homeland and on the journey in ways that she will not once she is ensconced within these walls, among folk entirely alien to her.”
“A boon,” I asked. “Fetch Bredden here. Let me see him before I go.”
He chuckled. “He is already waiting.”
He yanked the pull-cord. The bell of summoning resounded beyond the great doors.
Pathren rotated my tray so that I faced the supplicant’s dais. Through the archway strode a young, strapping man I barely recognized. I had not seen Bredden since he had left for the wars in the south, to learn first-hand the leading of the kingdom’s warriors, and to prove himself in their eyes.
Slight scars ran across his chin and right cheek — not enough to mar his handsomeness, but enough to show he had not shirked from danger on the battlefield. His armor rode smartly on his broad frame. His eyes were alert and evaluating. Yet I sensed all was not well. He was changed. Hardened. He stopped before me and gave a short bow, not deep, but precisely proper for a crown prince addressing his mother. Too proper for my liking.
“Madam, it is good to see you.”
“You are a boy no longer,” I murmured. Tears welled in the corners of my eyes. They did not drip down my cheeks, but it was not for lack of emotion on my part. In my current state I neither drank nor ate. The potions the demon swabbed into my mouth each month sustained me, but they did not grant me the moistness needed to weep.
“No. I am not. Not for some time.”
“Are you of a mind to marry?”
“Then we will speak of it.”
He understood at once. “Sir?” he said, turning to Pathren. “Might I hear my mother’s counsel in private?”
Pathren canted an eyebrow at us, but he made no protest. Soon Bredden and I had the throne room to ourselves.
“I have heard the reports of your doings,” I told my son. “You have accounted well for yourself. No one questions your fitness to lead the realm when your time comes. Even your father sees it.”
“I found the strength you spoke of,” he said. He did not say it triumphantly. Now that we were alone the anguish in him was vivid.
“What is it?” I asked gently.
“Such things I have seen. Such actions I have had to take. With a word I change the course of men’s lives, or end those lives. I scarce know myself any longer.”
“My precious boy,” I murmured. “You must not despair. You have come far.”
“But in what direction?” he asked.
I had never seen him so troubled. I could not know all that fueled it. When he had been young, nothing that went on inside him was opaque to me. Now he was encased within the armor of a king-to-be, and I could not know all he was. The one thing I could know with certainty is that it was no whim that had caused him to pursue a marriage at this time.
“You look to a wife to serve as your gauge.” I smiled. “I gave birth to no fool.”
He leaned close, undaunted by the eldritch aroma that my flesh gave off. “She must be the right one, Mother. I do not fear the battlefield. I fear only what I may be, with the wrong voice in my ear at night.”
“What do you know of Imileya, to make your overture to her?”
“I have heard tales enough to give me hope. But in the end, I know no more than anyone in Sorregal. Is she right for me? If anyone can judge this, it is you, Mother.”
“I will do all I can,” I said. “And Bredden?”
“Blessings upon you, to give me this task.”
“Blessing are already upon me,” he answered, “or you would not be here to give the task to.” He kissed my forehead.
Ten years I had suffered. Now I knew there was meaning to my survival.
A Nebula Award finalist, Dave Smeds is the author of novels, short fiction, comic book scripts, and screenplays. His writing spans several sub-genres including hard science fiction, contemporary fantasy, superhero, martial arts, horror, and erotica, but he is best known for his works of imaginary-world fiction. His novels include The Sorcery Within and The Schemes of Dragons.