King Edward and his First Knight of the Realm, Lord Geoffrey, rode slowly through the mist that slinked through the crisp morning air. The hooves of their massive black warhorses crunched lightly on the rime-tipped rocks and scattered grass as they picked their way across the countryside towards Widow’s Lane. Both men had remained silent and solemn since departing Traitor’s Keep in Castle Rock. Shivering, the king pulled his vermillion tunic tighter around his golden breastplate and gazed out across the land. It was dotted with sleepy hamlets all the way to the feet of the Dragon’s Back Mountains that speared the sky gorily in the rising sun far off in the distance.
“It’s beautiful isn’t it?” said Geoffrey quietly.
“By the Gods, I will see no beauty in it again after this dread morning,” muttered the king bitterly. “I swear, I would take the lives of 100 of the finest Knights of the White Flower to preserve yours.”
“I lay with Lady Kasseris – the queen of the realm. Your queen. It’s high treason, Edward. You must dispense the king’s justice as decreed by the law and promulgated by the King’s Council.”
“The Shades take those craven fools on the King’s Council, Geoffrey! I gave you my full consent and leave to bed Kasseris! You were always meant to be with her, ever since we were babes playing with wooden swords in Old Nag’s dandelion gardens. Kasseris was only my queen to unite the Five Kingdoms after the Storm of Blood River. She held her office with elegance and bore me two fine sons even though her heart always beat in time with yours, dear Geoffrey. Why shouldn’t I have rewarded this love as I did? No man has ever shown me such unflinching bravery and loyalty as you. Damn it, you have been my First Knight from the beginning! You are my best friend!”
“I am ever humbled by your love, Edward. You are a great king and also my best friend. You’ve brought the longest lasting peace the Five Kingdoms have known in centuries. Why? Because you’ve always placed yourself under the law and the King’s Council. We are old, Edward – almost 34 now. Look at our salt-and-pepper beards! I have had a good, long life at your side and you have blessed my last year by slaking my thirst for the love of Kasseris. I want for nothing.”
“If only your seed hadn’t quickened inside her when I was away on Mermaid’s Deep…” sighed the king, his voice trailing off as the horses grunted, silver vapour streaming from their flared nostrils, almost nodding in agreement. “No one would have known the better.”
“We both assumed she was too old to bear another child.”
“She is too old!” the king bellowed. “She’s only 2 years younger than us! Only the Gods know what variety of scimitar you have dangling between your legs, Geoffrey! I swear on the Haunted Anvil that I have never heard of a single maid in the entire realm, not even the old whores on Devil’s Spit Road, to have been with child over the age of 30! I daresay, the only cold comfort I will have from this day forth is the knowledge that half of the Five Kingdoms are populated by you!”
Edward winced at this, as he always did when the king became vulgar. “I do mourn for the child… Ah, there’s Widow’s Lane.”
“Murdering a child in the womb… May the Shades devour me in the fires beyond the Veil of Tears. I…”
“A rider approaches under the messenger’s banner,” interrupted Geoffrey as he glanced over his shoulder.
“What is it, boy?” demanded the king as the messenger pulled up his horse behind them.
“Your Grace,” said the young man, dismounting and dropping to one knee. “The First Knight of the King’s Council bids me tell you that Lady Kasseris is half a league behind you.”
“Good,” said the king, gruffly. “Tell Harold we will wait for them here. Lady Kasseris and Lord Geoffrey will walk Widow’s Lane together.”
“I… yes… I…”
“Yes? Yes? If you have a tongue then use it, damn you, or I’ll have it ripped out with the Mute’s Tongs!”
“I… I… fear Lord Harold will not be pleased to hear of this, Your Grace.”
Blind with fury, the king dismounted his horse and took the messenger by the throat. “Lord Harold will not be pleased??!!” he roared, spittle showering from his mouth and catching in his beard. “Am I your king or is Lord Harold?! Answer me!!!”
“You! You are, Your Grace!!! Please!”
“Then you tell Lord Harold that Lady Kasseris and Lord Geoffrey will walk Widow’s Lane together and will mount the King’s Gallows together,” hissed the king, “or I will send your steed back to him with your head on a spike! Now, get out of my sight!!!”
The King’s Gallows
The king entered the courtyard on horseback. There was only a small crowd gathered in front of him to witness the execution; all 25 members of the King’s Council were present, as decreed by law, less than two dozen Knights of the White Flower and the Chief Magistrate of the Realm. They cleared a path for him as he guided his horse towards the gallows, stark and black against the clear blue sky. Lady Kasseris and Lord Geoffrey stood expressionless, hand-in-hand, with the nooses tight around their necks. He had ordered the gallows specially built so that they would fall together when the trap-door opened. As he reached the foot of the scaffold, he dismounted, and climbed the stairs to the platform.
He stood before Lady Kasseris, her lips trembling slightly, as she looked up meekly to meet his anguished gaze.
“My Lady,” he said. “You are ever a wonder of beauty.”
“Your Grace is too kind,” she said as the king looked down at her swollen belly.
“May I?” he asked.
“I would be honoured, Your Grace,” she replied as he gently touched her stomach and felt a determined kick.
“I daresay, you bear a king… It’s the darkest crime to kill a king, may the Gods never forgive me.”
“You are ever my king, Your Grace,” she said clearly without a tremor in her voice.
He touched her cheek lightly and turned to Geoffrey, placing a firm hand on his shoulder.
“My Lord Geoffrey,” he said, “First Knight of the Realm and ever a loyal and courageous friend to the king.”
“You are ever my king, Your Grace.”
The king turned and shouted “Chief Magistrate, mount the scaffold with the documents and the King’s Seal, if you please!”
The crowd murmured in curiosity at this unexpected demand as the Chief Magistrate climbed the stairs.
“Lady Kasseris, by this royal decree, I hereby divest and release you of all servitude to me and the realm of the Five Kingdoms. Lord Geoffrey is now your king in life and in death. With this seal, I hereby proclaim it”. A gasp of shock and loud mutterings swept across the assembled crowd as the king gestured for a second document from the Chief Magistrate.
“Lord Geoffrey, by this royal decree, I hereby divest and release you of all servitude to me and the realm of the Five Kingdoms. Lady Kasseris is now your queen in life and in death. With this seal, I hereby proclaim it”.
Shoving the papers back into the Chief Magistrate’s hands, he marched down the steps of the scaffold and faced the bewildered crowd. Lifting a mailed fist into the air, he shouted: “May the king’s justice be done!” His stomach turned over inside him as the executioner pulled the lever and the trap-door opened with a sickening snap. “And may the Shades take you all on this cursed day,” he said darkly as he strode from the courtyard through the silent throng to walk back through Widow’s Lane alone.