The King Who Gave Away A Kingdom
A king and queen’s only child – a frail daughter called Katherine, nicknamed Kitty…
“She isn’t thriving at all. She doesn’t kick her legs about or make a fuss, or anything. She always looks so weak.”
Edward ran his hand up and down his wife’s arm, trying to impart a calmness he did not feel. “It could just be a phase. I spoke to one of the nurses, and she said that a lot of babies are sickly to start with. They grow up to be perfectly fit and healthy.” Resting her head against his velvet-clad shoulder, Elizabeth nodded mutely as the king continued. “And summer is coming. We’ll take her outside, make sure she gets lots of fresh, warm air. She’ll be fine, my love.”
“I pray it is so,” Elizabeth murmured. She reached out to gently stroke one of Kitty’s tiny curled fists. The little vise opened and wrapped itself around her mother’s finger before closing once more. Both parents smiled as their daughter’s eyes fluttered open and they were confronted with a gaze as deep and dark as the night sky. Kitty yawned before settling into a gummy smile of her own.
“Look, she’s smiling at us!” Edward reached down himself and tickled a peach-soft cheek.
“She knows who we are. Don’t you, darling?”
The princess gurgled a little, but otherwise did not move.
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Elizabeth glanced over at the king, her smile turning wistful. Edward was sat with his back against the trunk of a great oak, cradling Kitty in his arms. He was pulling silly faces and, in between each one, dropping tiny kisses on her forehead. The little princess was gazing up at him, obviously entranced, and every now and again, a smile would break out on her pale face. Then, Edward would beam back and cuddle her even closer.
Sighing, the queen closed her eyes. If she strained, she could hear what her ladies were whispering.
“So tragic, how much he loves the poor little mite…”
“Never would have thought such a fierce man could be so soft-hearted – a king, no less!”
“And no sign of a second child, either…”
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The queen sat in her solar, resting her aching head against the window. The diamond-shaped glass threw a rainbow of light upon her wan face, but the blackness of her mourning gown soaked up any cheer from the scene.
On silent feet, Edward entered the small room. He stopped and stared in blank dread at his wife before dashing forward to throw himself at her feet.
“Elizabeth, please!” Blindly, he searched for her hands, chafing them within his own warm grip when he felt how cold she was. “I couldn’t bear to lose you, as well as Kitty. Don’t you love me?”
“Of course I do,” she murmured.
“Then please – don’t fade away. Stay with me, stay by my side.”
Elizabeth stared down at their entwined hands, her slender fingers wrapped tight around Edward’s larger, rougher digits. Her tired eyes lifted to meet his; with a bound, he took her in his embrace.
“If I were to lose you –” Edward’s voice broke, and he swallowed thickly. “I would have nothing to live for. Even the throne would mean nought.”
“I miss her,” the queen confessed in a cracked whisper. She pulled one hand free and placed it on her stomach that was as flat as a child’s. “I miss when she was inside me, and I felt I could keep her safe. When she was born – I miss that wonderful smell just after bath-time. Rosewater and my baby, mixed together. I miss her little fingernails and toenails. Do you remember how fragile they seemed? You said they were like slivers of pearl – she was our little pearl baby.”
The king smiled softly, the harsh lines of his grim expression fading till he more closely resembled the young man he still was. “I know. You put it in words better than I do, but believe me – I miss our sweet Kitty just as much. Who would have thought such a small being could be so sorely missed?”
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Slowly, they began to mend. With blind, vulnerable steps, Edward and Elizabeth stumbled their way back from the brink, their scars hardening and transforming into new layers of skin. Acts and scenes passed between them; the private corners of their universe, hidden from outside eyes…
… Elizabeth, lying on a bed – wounded creature, skin glistening like a milk opal in the moonlight. In contrast, Edward shone like a bronzed god, all hard edges and flame. Stretched out in a tangle of bedsheets and furs, his body was laid bare for Elizabeth to play upon, and the sounds she rang from him echoed around the bedchamber like bells.
Edward, carrying Elizabeth along a path of dead leaves, because she felt sorry for the fallen children of the trees and could not bear to tread upon them herself. The king had laughed at her strange ideas, but all the same – it gave him an excuse to hold his wife close, to feel that his strength was enough to support her.
A well-stocked garden: egg-yolk chrysanthemums, raspberry-hued dahlias and creamy gladioli – their white sheaths so fragile, they had to be bound tight to upended sticks of hazel. Camomile daisies allowed to run wild, and a few late hollyhocks, bobbing solemnly in the breeze. In the midst of all this fading glory lay an effigy; beneath it, a little white tomb. A princess slept here – no bigger than a doll, yet as well-beloved as a queen of heaven – and the garden was regarded as sacred by the king and queen. The season drew to a close, as did the year – but still they held her memory dear.
All-Hallows arrived, and it was at this point – when the veil between this world and the Otherworld is at its thinnest – that a shade crept forth. Hidden deep within the shadows of the castle, it took root and began to watch Edward and Elizabeth, waiting for its moment.
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The king was in the Purser’s Chamber, deciding upon festivities for the new year, when a breathless squire burst in.
“Sire, an urgent message from the queen!”
Edward looked up sharply at the extraordinary entrance, snatching the neatly-folded piece of parchment thrust under his nose. The boy’s lack of dignity was soon forgotten, however, as he read Elizabeth’s note.
My love, meet me in the castle forest. I have wonderful news, and I wish to tell you in a place that is special to both of us. Where you proposed to me – I shall be waiting.
Thoughts of a second, much-hoped-for pregnancy flashed through Edward’s mind, swiftly followed by feelings of guilt and betrayal towards Kitty. But then, another child might be the very thing to lift them completely from their grief. Elizabeth was still tormented by fits of melancholy, and she had shown no interest whatsoever in celebrating the new year – hence why Edward was alone with his plans that morning. A fresh pregnancy to start the year with, and then – Edward’s thoughts raced ahead – a late-summer babe, born into warmth and plenty. Perhaps this one would be stronger than poor Kitty – their little frost child of snow-white skin and blood as cold as ice.
With such hopeful thoughts in mind, Edward stood and dashed out the room, calling for his bearskin cloak. When he was suitably attired, he set out on foot for the forest. He brooked no company, as only the king and queen knew of the place alluded to in the message.
Five years ago, Edward had proposed to Elizabeth – then a penniless, abandoned offshoot of a once-great family – beside a tumbledown waterfall at the heart of the forest. As a child, when Edward wished to escape the endless bickering of his parents and the humiliating affairs on both sides, he came to this green paradise and played amidst the rocks and trees. He had taught himself to swim in the shallow pool; lounged like a sand-lizard upon the massive slabs of granite, his naked body turning nut-brown over the long summers; watched with endless fascination the kingfishers diving into the spray, their fragile bodies miraculously intact as they re-emerged from the churning water. Elizabeth was the only other person he had taken to visit the falls – a sign of how precious she was to him.
The king’s strides were long and quick, and soon he was approaching the hidden glade. As he crested the final ridge that led down into the valley, he was surprised to see Elizabeth, just ahead of him and picking her way gingerly along the frost-hardened path – if it could be called a path. No-one else, except the creatures of the forest, knew of this ancient trail, and the dirt track had slowly disappeared over the centuries beneath a carpet of grass and brambles.
Edward gave a loud halloo, the sound echoing through the grimly-silent trees. With a start, Elizabeth turned to see her husband hurry towards her.
In light of her potential condition, he was glad to see she was wearing a thick cloak of sable and fine, high leather boots to ward off the bone-numbing cold. The furs had been dyed a dark navy, matching the deep radiance of her eyes – eyes that were now gazing at Edward in apparent mystification as he approached.
“Well met, my love!” He planted a hearty kiss on her lips. “It appears I was faster than you expected.”
Faint lines jumped between her eyebrows as she peered up at him. “What do you mean?”
“I caught you up. Never mind, we shall soon be there and you can tell me this wonderful news.” As he spoke, Edward wound his arm around Elizabeth’s waist, intending to keep her by his side for the remainder of their journey. Her face was such a pretty picture of confusion, he could not resist stealing a few more kisses, lingering upon that sweet flower of a mouth – a bud that opened willingly to his touch.
“Shy queen of my heart,” he murmured once their lips were parted. “You are the only person who could drag me into the middle of a forest on a perishing winter’s day.”
She pulled back, the confusion morphing swiftly into alarm. “Edward, what are you talking about? You asked me to meet you by the waterfall. And what is this about wonderful news?”
An unfamiliar, uneasy feeling began to settle in Edward’s stomach as he regarded his troubled wife. Relinquishing his grip upon her, he reached beneath his cloak – inside his jacket – and pulled out Elizabeth’s note. “I did not ask you. You sent me this message – see.”
Elizabeth took the paper. Her hands, encased in smooth buckskin gloves, trembled a little. She seemed to examine the words most carefully before looking up with wide, frightened eyes. “I did not write this. I received a similar message, apparently from you, begging me to meet you here. It… it said you could not stop thinking about Kitty, and you wished the two of us could escape court life.”
The forest shivered above their heads as they took stock of their situation. A trap was about to snap shut around them, and Edward understood for the first time what a cornered fox must feel like during the closing moments of a hunt. Glancing over her shoulder, Elizabeth drew closer, as if they were about to be set upon immediately.
“This is not a joke, is it?” she whispered.
“I will have someone’s head if it is,” Edward snarled. “But no – I do not think it is a joke. Whoever sent those messages knew to play upon our strongest desires. They used Kitty’s memory to appeal to you, and for me –” He pulled up short as he remembered how much hope he had placed on a possible pregnancy – a wish that now seemed laughable in the face of their current situation.
“What? You said wonderful news.”
“I thought perhaps…” Again, his voice trailed away as his eyes dropped with embarrassment to Elizabeth’s stomach. Her quick intake of breath was enough to show she understood.
“Oh, I see…” She began to drift away from him; away from the path they had taken, and towards the waterfall. Alarmed, Edward sprang forward, seizing her tight around the waist and hauling her close.
“Where are you going?”
“Somebody – or something – wished to meet us. They were able to lure us both here, so there doesn’t seem any point in trying to escape. We might as well find out what they want.”
Elizabeth’s voice was quiet, her gaze blank and accepting, making Edward finally see how far apart they had grown. Whilst he had been confident of new life, she was uncaring – perhaps even hopeful – of death.
Regardless of her feelings, Edward could not allow his wife to confront whatever had lured them here alone. They therefore began to walk hand-in-hand towards the desolate waterfall, Edward’s face grim and watchful; Elizabeth dazed, as though in a dream.
The waterfall had dried to nothing throughout the late summer and into autumn. The basin of the falls was therefore exposed, revealing a cracked, rutted surface. Although they had not had any snow yet, the earth was as hard as stone, iced with an additional layer of hoarfrost that made walking quite perilous. The royal couple therefore drew to a halt when they reached the edge of the bare pool.
They waited in silence, hugging each other as a guard against both the chill, biting air and the sense of dread for whatever awaited them. Hazel and birch, stripped of their leaves, overhung the edges of the forest dell, their fragile limbs tipped with rime and creaking occasionally in protest against the cold.
Edward could never say for sure where the creature had come from, but his strongest impression was from within the trunk of one of these trees. A particularly gnarled trunk, the knots and contusions melting into the shape of a being – a shade of the Otherworld.
The shade had not been born with any precise form, but being a creature of shadow and dread, it had fed upon people’s fears, till eventually the spirit was made flesh. Edward’s breath left his body in a small pant of disbelief, causing Elizabeth to turn round and see what had so shocked her husband. When she saw the creature, she too gasped.
The shade had only just finishing forming, and it seemed as curious about its body as Edward and Elizabeth were. Long fingers, barely covered by pale, mottled flesh, ran up and down its naked body, exploring every crook and kink. It was sexless, bare-headed and could barely stand without swaying in the breeze. Yet, when it fixed its black, pupil-less eyes upon them, Edward could not help feeling he and Elizabeth were infinitely more helpless.
With a noiseless dart, it scurried closer. Hurriedly, Edward thrust Elizabeth behind him, turning to keep her shielded as the creature skipped round them.
“You tricked my wife and I into meeting you here. What do you want?” the king growled. The creature leered up at them, its face grotesque and misshapen like a woodcut carving come to life.
“I wanted to thank you.” It spoke in a thin, breathless voice. “There is so much hurt and sorrow hanging around the two of you – especially you,” and it pointed to Elizabeth. “Shades of my nature feed on anguish. Your heart is so racked with pain, you have given me life.”
“You mean, you have come into being because of our suffering?” Elizabeth asked weakly. “We have created you?”
“Not created, exactly. I always existed. I am the nightmare in a child’s mind. I am the panic that drags a drowning sailor beneath the waves. I am every pinprick of a rose, every sting of a bee. Your suffering nourished me, and now I have physical form.”
The couple thought of the child they had lost, and the creature formed in her place. As if sensing their misery, the shade’s dark eyes latched onto them with a curious intensity. It stiffened, seeming to stand more upright.
“You said you wanted to thank us,” Edward said hurriedly, trying to drag his thoughts away from his dead daughter. “What more do you want?”
“Nothing. But I thought it only fair to offer you something in exchange.”
“What do you mean?”
“A life for a life – or another chance at life, to be more precise. I will give you a choice, but not the choice of your own life.” The creature pointed at Edward. “You may choose to forfeit your wife’s life for that of your daughter’s.” It turned to face Elizabeth. “Or you may choose to forfeit your husband’s instead.”
“No!” Elizabeth gasped, clutching the front of Edward’s cloak as though she were afraid he would disappear on her there and then. Edward held her even closer.
“This is a cruel game you play, spirit. One which we refuse to take part in.” As he said the words, he glanced at Elizabeth. Her eyes were wide and fearful, but still she nodded imperceptibly. Reassured, the king turned back to glare at the creature, who looked mildly amused.
“Really? You are that selfish?”
“You would deny your only child the chance of life? For what, your own?”
Edward turned to Elizabeth. “I could not bear to lose you, my love. But I would understand if you wished for me to forfeit my life. I would do so willingly, if it would bring back Kitty… and I know how much you would love and look after her.”
“No. Besides, you are king. The country needs you. If anyone can be spared, it is I. Our daughter would live, and… and you would be free to marry again, perhaps even have a son.”
“Hush now, none of that talk.” The king buried his lips in her hair, briefly forgetting that they were being watched. Slowly, his mouth worked its way across Elizabeth’s pale brow, reaching the crease of her left eye. Kissing the closed lid, he tasted the salt of her tears before moving to the other eye and tenderly repeating his actions. The queen moved to hide her face against Edward’s shoulder, breaking into bitter sobs as she did so.
Edward thought even the creature looked affected by their grief. Giving an awkward shrug, it turned to go. Its bare feet rustled against a bed of frozen leaves, the noise making Elizabeth spin around with a panicked gasp.
“Wait!” Tearing herself from Edward’s grasp, she flung herself before the ugly creature, hands outstretched. “There must be something else we can offer you. Anything you ask for is yours – if you will bring our child back.”
The spirit’s black eyes narrowed, a small grin lurking at the corner of its twisted mouth. “Anything?”
“Anything other than losing one another,” Elizabeth specified.
The spirit threw a quick glance at Edward, who hesitated. His thoughts were more measured than his wife; as king, he had grown used to deliberating upon important matters, instead of hastily agreeing to anything and everything. However, he knew Elizabeth would never forgive him and, more importantly, perhaps never recover if they lost their final chance at reclaiming Kitty. Slowly, he nodded.
“You would offer anything? Even a kingdom?”
Elizabeth slumped where she knelt, no doubt certain she had lost. Feeling strangely light-hearted – as if this was the least the creature could demand – Edward walked up to her and gently drew her to her feet.
With one hand cupped beneath her chin to force her to look at him, he gazed into his wife’s navy-drenched eyes.
“Even a kingdom,” he agreed on a murmur. Elizabeth swayed a little in his arms, but the shade did not hesitate.
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When the king and queen did not return from the forest, search parties were ordered. After several troublesome months had passed, Edward’s eldest nephew assumed the throne, and a jittery peace descended upon the country once again. Of course, there were rumours and sightings – none of which came to anything.
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A tendril of white smoke weaves its way through the trees, carrying a faint, spicy smell of apple-wood. The cottage it rises from is hidden within a fold of magic, and any who search for it would find their task quite impossible. If you were not looking, however, but merely wandering the leaf-strewn paths of this ancient forest – a place which never seems to change, but is constantly flowing between bud, bloom, brown and bare – you might come across the cottage, and maybe even its inhabitants. In the summer, a forester and his wife potter around the well-kept garden; ahead of them, their daughter laughs and runs. Her pale face is lit from within with an Otherworldly glow, and she has no fear of the shadows that lurk amongst the trees.