The King swallowed the words, his eyes fixed upon the keystone his great-grandfather laid a century ago. His own throne was a scant three years old, the power in flux. Another regicide would return the land to civil war.
Only two advisers flanked the crone, their hands resting upon hilts as she shuffled through her book for a loophole. The rest sat outside the Queen’s door for news, their shadows staining the wood.
“Sire! Sire!” A squeaky voice echoed through the stones, trailing a page in passable livery. “Sire!” He paused before the darkened assembly, gathering spent breath. “The babe is born,” the page beamed, the smile stretching his cheeks to breaking. He kowtowed before his master and glanced up as if expecting a treat.
“Bring it to me.”
“Highness?” the page shifted upon his bended hose to the macabre tableau. Rotted fingers waved from the crone as her book flared. Another page turn damped down the fire and the advisers slipped back in their swords.
“Retrieve the child and bring it here,” the King’s voice commanded. Without raising off bended knee, the page scattered from the room.
Warmth bloomed through the castle halls as news of the heir’s birth traveled. Laughter and applause shook the impenetrable walls. But the joyous petals never penetrated the King’s room. He remained steadfast, a hand curled inside his finery, as his adviser asked, “What shall you do?”
The page’s pale cheeks parted the shadows, one of the Queen’s ladies nipping at his heels insisting he return. Movement pulled the King’s eyes to the blanket wadded up in the boy’s arms. The page clutched it to his breast, his fingers shaking from fear of a slipping grip. Lips parted but not in a smile as the page held out his bundle.
Royal fingers slid under the bottom as another hand cupped the head, sliding down the blanket tossed across the face. “It’s a girl,” the page said, his fingers not releasing as no emotion crossed his Lord’s face.
A ringed pinkie circled around the blotted, scarlet face of his firstborn. Her mouth gaped as if she were about to cry in distress, but settled back as the King shuffled the fragile body into his arm’s crook.
“What will you do to save your rule?” the adviser asked again.
The King picked up the girl’s tiny fist, balled up as if ready for a fight. “There is only one course of action.”
Ten Years Later
A lithe hand tested the latch upon the door. It gave to her tiny form with almost no resistance. She swallowed down the shout of joy. It wasn’t proper to give ones location away before the deed was done. The books were very specific on that.
Pulling the door back excruciatingly slow, she wiggled her slender body through the gap. Fire barely licked at the crumbling logs; the entire room slumbered in deference to the body slumped in the chair. Sonorous rumbling cracked the silent room. She smiled at the snoring and inched a foot inside. This was going to be easy.
Metal glinted in her fingers as she rounded about the high backed chair. Only the salty hair of the King was visible to her, his head bobbing in a dream. Her feet paused as she rose onto naked tiptoes. A crack broke the rhythmic snoring as the logs tossed in their fitful dreams, but her target didn’t respond, his sleep too deep. This is perfect.
She inched across the floor, her bare toes treading across threadbare carpet. One hand rested upon the oaken chair, the scent of horses and lavender floating up from the rocking head. She shifted about the metal bit, ready to strike.
Fingers clamped onto her side!
She gasped in terror at being caught, her hands shaking so her surprise almost dropped to the floor. Then the fingers started to thump against her sides and she could no longer contain it. The giggles collapsed to snorts as she failed to fight against the tickling onslaught. “Daddy! Stop!”
The sleeping head rose straight. A solacing hand guided her around the chair and the King looked upon his daughter sill fighting through the giggles. He wiped at the tears bubbling from her joyful eyes and smiled himself.
“You cheated!” she accused, her lip in full pout.
“I did no such thing,” the King said, feigning such a dramatic shock that she dare defame his honor the laughter returned.
“But I almost got you,” the Princess insisted, her hand on her hip.
Her father smiled, nodding his head, “Aye, you almost did.”
“I made you something,” she said as she held out the metal bit in her hand. Jagged edges had been sanded down meticulously until it was almost the shape of a heart. “It was from a broken sword,” she explained without him needing to ask, “I fixed it.” The metal heart dangled off a bit of twine.
The King picked the string out of her fingers and placed it around his neck. As he held up the heart reflecting back his peppery beard he asked his daughter, “What did I do to deserve such a gift?”
“It’s because I love you!” she shouted as she threw her arms around him, almost knocking the chair back.
The King caught the force, his feet easily steadying the chair as he kissed the top of her head, “And I love you, always.”
Another Ten Years
Smoke and blood dribbled through the King’s eyes as he surveyed the battlefield. The tide turned in their favor as another tumble of thunder rattled their enemies’ nerves. He wiped the dead man’s blood off his brow and shouted to an adviser, “The day is ours!”
He gestured to his men to raise the victory flag when he paused and spun about upon his horse, “Where is my daughter?”
The adviser pointed towards a clump of fighting bodies, “The left flank was weakening; she went to secure it.”
The King nodded, sound advice. But, while the rest of the enemy washed back to their camp, the knot surrounding the Princess remained. His white beard drooped as an unspoken terror filled his heart. Without calling to his generals, the King spurred his horse on. Both his men and enemies alike threw themselves out of the way of the aged man barreling down on his war steed. Weak fingers unsheathed the sword at his side as he rode closer to her.
Her armor was bathed in blood, the helmet long lost. She rammed a shield into the face of one man and stuck in her sword. One of their own crawled away from her feet as she roared. She would not leave a man behind, no matter how many the enemy threw at her. Another fell to her reach, failing to parry her expert thrust. His daughter turned to take on the last, failing to see the man sneaking up behind.
There was no time to call for reinforcements. The King jumped from his horse, his body plummeting onto the man. Aged bones creaked and cracked as they met with youth and armor. The battleground assassin rebounded from the drop and kicked at the mass on top of him. Rolling away, the King tried to stagger to feet, but his legs collapsed as pain seared through his marrow. A dagger rolled in the assassin’s hands. He stood over the broken man, about to finish it, when a blade burst through his chest. The dead man didn’t have time to inspect it before feminine hands yanked it out and shoved the body aside.
“Father!” the Princess shouted as she dropped to him, her sword skittering away.
Blood dribbled out of his mouth as he coughed, the pain nearly unbearable. She lifted his head and said, “It’ll be all right. You’ll be all right. I’ve got you.”
He gripped onto her trembling arm with the same hand that circled that tiny red face twenty years past. She pulled him closer and he touched her cheek, his own blood smearing it. “Shh…it’s okay,” he said.
“No, you’ll…you can’t die. You’re the King. Kings don’t die!” She shook her head at the illogic of her grief. Tears blended to anger. “If I hadn’t come, you wouldn’t be here. You’d be safe. It’s my fault,” she shouted, her words punctuated by thunderclaps.
“I would have always come for you,” he said, sputtering through the blood welling inside his throat, “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” the Princess wept, her forehead brushing against his.
“We can’t escape destiny,” he whispered as her tears washed away his face, “but we can make it bearable. If the world came round again, I would not change a thing.”
On the battlefield, with the sky weeping, his firstborn child killed the King.