It was a warm day in the courtyard.
Stately and motionless, the lady sat in shadows, whilst a young teen sparred in the light beyond, unaware of the female eyes upon him.
“Milady, are you- are you taking this well?”
With a clatter, the youth’s wooden sword fell upon the ground. His instructor berated him over some imperceptible mistake.
The matron, a full forty winters of age, glanced up towards the crippled steward. Her blonde braid, winded up around her pate and thick as a man’s hand, seemed the color of wheat stalks frosted over.
With bleak words, she replied, “There is not much for me to bemoan any longer.”
Three times mother, and yet three times donning the mourning black upon burial caskets- it seemed too cruel for a queen’s lot. Most in the castle thought so, and said so as well- in hushed whispers, out of sight and ear, where none of the royals would know the speakers.
The king had mourned his loss with broken flasks and locks on the doors behind which he stormed about in a drunken anger. Everyone had always laughed how not even mead could break their king’s dignity. Nobody laughed now. Merriment could not bend their lord to drink- it took a third dead son for that.
The queen mourned silently.
She had disappeared after her sweet, last child was buried deep in the ground. Her maids only came upon her in the smallest chapel, its stone walls suffering dearly from neglect.
Now her husband’s fourth child had arrived at the royal residence, and in the flurry of preparations for greeting the new heir, all had almost forgotten the queen. She seemed barely a queen anymore, to most. It was such an empty title without the baby to prove it, and little more than a formality when the matron in question moved about the halls like a ghost.
The manservant made a motion with his hands, tight with uneasiness. “The heir- the bastard has not yet spoken with you. Milady, if you feel giving him an audience to be befitting, I should-” He had no chance to finish his suggestion.
The Queen rose.
“Meseemed it right before you had the grace to name it, sir.” She spared him a brief glance. “And do be so good a man as to call him the heir. That he is, my husband’s son.”
She crossed into the courtyard without a second glance, bringing the bout within to an awkward halt as both youth and man stopped to look to the dame.
Slipping on the slick grass, the steward hurriedly followed her.
Queen Maud stopped before her stepson, who, cowed by the strange woman and her majestic bearing, clumsily fell to a knee. Her dainty hands rested upon his cheeks with nary a comment, and she turned his face up to survey it closely.
It was a youth’s face, spread over sharp cheekbones that promised it stern, solemn features once time and age did their work. Black curls fell loosely on the forehead, already wrinkled under the pressure of constantly furrowed brows. His dark eyes looked up to her, surprising in their innocence. She found little of her own children in him, and much of the king bound to her in holy marriage. Yet it was a face of stark dignity, and thus she spoke to him.
The instructor warily followed suite after his student, lowering his own sword to the grass.
“My husband has a strong son,” she said quietly, and with just those small words sparked both recognition and shock in the men watching her.
The bastard heir’s eyes widened, his countenance framed by the fingers of the woman whose sons had died to give him his seat. No one had told him of this lady’s appearance or nature before this moment, not wanting to bring up trouble whilst mundane matters pressed him. And now she stood before him.
“My lady,” the steward began softly, lowering his head. “Such compliments are poorly suited for the king’s illegitimate ilk.”
Someone flinched. It so turns out that it was the sword instructor, turning an icy glare up towards the steward. Meanwhile, the bastard didn’t make a sound.
The queen caressed his cheeks gently. He really was little more than a boy, but a cold and solemn prince nonetheless. Such a face would be ruthless someday.
She had made her choice already, the moment she saw him and now placed hands upon him, in a blessing.
“He would have been my son’s elder in any way. Which one of them was the true usurper, my fair lords?” She gazed deep into the youth’s black eyes. “Who had the right, my boy?”
A deep silence fell upon the courtyard. Both steward and instructor could not take even a breath, poised and waiting with a tension so palpable a knife could’ve cut it.
“Mother,” came the whisper, right before eyelids slid over the dark eyes, and the youth relaxed like a summer-lulled tomcat under her touch. A blink, then a few more, but he could only manage a second of attentiveness. Yet the light in his eyes was bright. “Please aid me on my way. Your wisdom is beyond my years.”
She bent over to kiss his forehead. “Yes, my boy. One day you will be king, and I will stand beside you with all it is in my power to give you. Come to my side after this noon. There is much for the rightful heir to learn.”
With that, the steward and she departed in silence, as a young handmaiden appeared to join her lady.
The lad and his instructor watched them leave without a word between them. Then the older man gave him a cuff on the ear.
And the clanking of wooden swords rang out once more.
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