Read by Greg Page
Beatriz is sitting in the garden, under a tree, playing with the horn cups that fit so neatly inside one another, and can be made to stack into towers, so delightful to knock back down. The cups are scattered across the rug her playmate brought to protect them from the damp. The playmate is saying something about when she was a child. Beatriz cannot imagine the playmate was ever a child, great hulking thing; but her breasts are warm and accommodating, so she nods as though she understands, and begins to gather the cups together.
Then the man arrives, and makes her playmate cry.
Why are you crying?
You are an orphan now, my lady.
Beatriz does not know what an orphan is, but she cries too, anyway.
Hester looks up at the sound of boots and spurs thumping and rattling across the courtyard, and her heart leaps a little; perhaps it will be him -? But it is a strange man, sweating and bedraggled.
Madam, the king is dead. Her heart does a new kind of leap, a kind that stops her breathing. She gasps wordlessly for a moment, holding the smallest horn cup against her throat, unaware it is still in her hand.
How? she asks.
Ambushed, coming back from the battle.
Hester sobs. She had thought the king was safe, the battle won, no need for the marriage to a foreign princess to seal the truce. She’d dared to imagine her soon-to-be-husband on his way home. She doesn’t know what to do, what to be. She is not the king’s widow, not his servant, not - not anything. The child looks up at her.
Why are you crying? she asks impatiently.
You are an orphan, my lady.
Beatriz starts to cry, uncertainly, and the question in her hiccupping woe is self-evident.
Hester looks about her.
Is Princess Beatriz, she corrects herself, is the queen safe here?
We cannot assume so.
We must make her safe, Hester says. She has no plan, she only knows that this is all she can do, now that her plans - marriage, life, happiness - are over. She must keep the queen safe, for the sake of her dead father.
Joachim drags the hat from his head, his prepared speech tattered by the scene of quiet happiness before him. He stammers out something; watches her face crumple, and the princess reach a pudgy hand to bat away Hester’s tears. She asks about safety. Taking the child’s hand, she stands, small and vulnerable and frightened, and he pities her.
I can get horses, he offers, if you can think where to go.
I? she asks. Is there no plan? Doesn’t the council …
Madam, he says, his head clearing, the ambush indicates a conspiracy. We cannot trust …
He is not used to having to improvise. If only the Chancellor had given more direction.
Her pale face tightens and her mouth sets in a straight line. He is grateful she asks no more questions. She shades her eyes as she thinks, fingers surreptitiously brushing away tears.
We must take her to her betrothed.
He hesitates. The child-queen is engaged to the infant son of the kingdom over the sea. He calculates the ride: a day at least, more perhaps, with the child - and how will he find a ship?
Hester is so grateful to be moving that she speaks only to ask their escort his name, and to thank him, which makes him look uncomfortable. Riding with the little queen perched before her on the saddle is awkward and slow; she dimly remembers a journey when she was about that age, tucked into a pannier on her father’s mule. It felt cosy and safe, her father walking alongside, singing as he walked, mother perched on the makeshift saddle. She can’t remember where they were going, or why, just her father’s voice, the warm smell of the mule and the tag end of her mother’s skirt caught in her fingers, sucked to quell her hunger.
Joachim can see Hester’s tiring, even though they’ve taken it in turns to carry the child, who is wrigglesome and impatient.
We should find somewhere for you to rest, he says, thinking of hedges or barns. She shakes her head.
If we keep on to the river there is someone I know.
That worries him. Will someone she knows keep quiet? But if she stays he can ride on to the port, meet with the chancellor’s agent, find a ship …
Beatriz is tired beyond crying, but somehow she cannot abide the idea of sleep. She twists in her playmate’s arms, hating her for this tedious journey. She whimpers indignantly as she’s carried into the warmth of a dark room. Gladly, she holds her hands out to the pretty fire. An old woman makes a disapproving noise and a rush screen is placed between her and the flames. She kicks it furiously, but it’s heavy and will not shift. She is hauled into her playmate’s arms, buried in her skirts. She pulls at the string of beads, and the ties of her shift, but her fingers are slapped away. Beatriz takes a startled breath. Her playmate has never hit her, never spoken anything but kind words. The dam of exhaustion breaks and she sobs, great gouts of rage and confusion.
Hester takes the queen on her lap, and stares at the fire-screen. She remembers as a child watching the flames through its weave, little glances of heat and danger. She remembers knocking it into the fire once, and the edge catching. She glances: the damage is long-mended; only a slight unevenness in the pattern shows her transgression. She pushes Beatriz’s hands away impatiently. She can’t believe her mother didn’t recognise her until she said, Marthe, it’s me, Hester. She doesn’t think she is so changed, that a handsome gown and well-dressed hair make so much difference, but with all her ambition come to nothing, this pokey little hovel with its treasured screen looks settled, safe; and recognition and welcome matter to her suddenly.
The posset takes time, and time is lacking. Marthe has scalded the milk, and bruised the leaves, and drained the honey from the comb, picking out wax fragments and bees’ legs, but the mixture should steep overnight. She mashes the mixture to hurry it along although she knows it will not help. It tastes still green; the muskiness of long steeping is missing, the milk has not taken up the humour of the herb. She adds more honey, but this is a brutish mixture, sour and sharp; not even nutmeg will see it right. She wonders whether it might do active harm. She pours it into the ancient horn cup that has sat for as long as she can remember on the mantel above the cook-fire, smoke-cured and dark.
She carries it through to the parlour. The child sobs at Hester’s breast, fists beating ineffectively at corseted brocade.
Here, Marthe says uncertainly, handing over the mixture, see she drinks it all. She restrains the flood of questions: the child, the man, where they are going, and why. She can see that whatever it is, it is bad, and likely will end badly, for them all. Hester nods her thanks and coaxes the child into an upright position.
See my lady, she says, here is a posset to comfort you. The child whimpers and pushes the cup away, but it is a half-hearted rejection.
Hester takes a small sip. It does not taste as she remembers. She holds the cup out of reach and waits for Beatriz to reach imperiously for what is withheld. The small hands close about the cup, and she slurps thoughtfully, until there is nothing left. Hester holds the cup out, and Marthe takes it quickly away and rinses it.
When Marthe returns to the parlour the child is fast asleep. She checks hands and face for temperature, and nods.
Keep her wrapped; she’ll come to no harm.
Hester laughs, barely a gasp.
I pray you are right. She cranes her neck anxiously for the returning escort.
Marthe brings the same cup with water and Hester drinks a few sips before the escort finally knocks the agreed tattoo on the door.
Thank God, she says, as Marthe lets him in.
Hester cradles the queen against her shoulder and walks swiftly under Joachim’s protecting arm and out to the horses. There she turns and nods her gratitude once more to Marthe. When she is safely on the horse she leans down to him.
Kill her, she says, but do it gently.
She cannot look back. He returns again swiftly enough. She kisses the queen’s head gently.
There now, my lady, she says softly, her voice catching a little, we are both orphans now.
Kill her, she says, but do it gently.
Joachim recoils. He is not a murderer. The old woman has been kind, generous. He turns back to the house, bending his head as he pushes through the unlatched door. The old woman looks vulnerable, sitting by the fire and his heart shrinks within him, but she is a witness.
Marthe is sitting by the fire, the horn cup in her hand. She looks up at the escort as he brings the night cold in with him, clearing his throat uncertainly. She sighs, knowing her fear was justified, and drains the cup to its dregs.
Will you forgive me? he asks.
Tell my daughter - tell her there is nothing to forgive, she says, holding out the cup. He sniffs the dregs, and recoils.
Painless, she says, her voice already slurring, and quick. God grant you both the same - someday.
The king walks through his apartments, not believing what he has been told. She has to be here somewhere; it is a tasteless jest to claim that his beloved Hester has stolen his daughter away. He will scold the pair of them heartily when he finds which cupboard they are hiding in.
Joachim helps Hester into the boat, and she lifts her hands to take Beatriz. He turns the queen’s face into his cloak, smothering her sleepy cry.
Joachim! Hester calls, confused, as he casts the boat loose.
Forgive me, he whispers as he turns back to the horse and mounts awkwardly, hampered by the squirming child.
Joachim! She calls after him, but he is gone. There are no oars to the boat, no mast, and the tide is pulling her out of the harbour. She clutches her hands together in tightly contained panic. Is Joachim part of the conspiracy? Has she failed her little queen, her dead king? She cannot bear to think it. She scarcely feels the arrow as it passes through the brocade into her heart. She stares at the fletching for a moment; her mind forms a word but she falls without speaking it.
Joachim wakes the child gently and sets her onto her feet. She stares about her, searching for someone she recognises. Joachim kneels, and turns her to face her father. Beatriz stumbles towards the king, arms outheld, sobbing.
His daughter presses her hot face against his. The king touches her gently, checking for injuries, his mind a blank. Beatriz reeks of sleeping draught. So it is true: Hester had tried to steal his daughter. And now Hester is dead; his Hester.
The chancellor nods at Joachim. With the mistress gone, the king has no reason to refuse the foreign princess, and finally there will be peace.
Joachim bows his head as the king thanks him for his service. He can’t hide the tears in his eyes, tears he sees mirrored in the eyes of the king.
I would do anything for the little queen, sire, he says. The smile on the chancellor’s face freezes; and Joachim knows that he has betrayed himself.
The - Queen? the king asks sharply, his hand tightening on his daughter’s shoulder – the Queen?
(c) Cherry Potts, 2013
Cherry Potts is owner, editor and chief cheerleader at Arachne Press. She has two collections of short stories to her name, and now quite a few anthologies under her editorship. So that’s what you do with two redundancies in five years!
Greg Page trained at Maria Grey College and the City Lit. Previous credits include touring with The London Bubble, Malvolio for TTC, a hired killer and a gay street preacher in independent films; and the voice of a coma victim for BBC radio. He can be contacted through www.roseberymanagement.com