Queen of Salt and Blood (Part One) by Nixx Winters
It began with a queen’s insult.
Lady Coran de Courcy stood alone on the battlements and watched them come over the east leighs, her face stung by a thousand knife-tip raindrops that hid her tears.
True. Impossible but true. She beheld Raulo Ironside’s army the furthest it would ever again be from the city of Tainn, and slipped back into the tower.
There were no soldiers at their posts. Corridors stood empty like the long cavities of a deboned creature, hollow and vulnerable.
She passed into the throne room, and the Queen’s Guard shut the doors behind her for the last time, barring them. The beam striking its iron rungs tolled out in the silence, and Coran began to tremble.
Fear hung rancid on the humid air of twenty bodies and an equal number of the Guard herded in such a small space.
Queen Adela sat defiant in all her splendour, her rubies and chains of office, her salt censer. Even her green silk and ermine rejected her widowhood and her fate. Her thick hair was swept beneath her hennin, white veil crisp as it would be for sabbath worship in the cathedral. The other ladies of the court stood around her, hands folded at the peaks of their high-waisted gowns. Coran joined them, and sat at Adela’s feet. ‘There is still time,’ she said in answer to the queen’s searching look. Coran knew before it happened that Adela would shake her head.
‘Music, your grace, or a poem?’ asked Lady Mornay too loudly for the stillness, too garrulous. But then, her husband was not one of the lords waiting beyond the wall for Ironside. Her husband was not their dead king.
‘Peace, Lady Mornay. That is all I require now.’ Adela fingered the prayer beads at her chest.
Chain grating over stone rattled from the gatehouse. Coran took Adela’s hand and they shared a squeeze.
The Guard sharpened, moving into rank and file before the dais, a rush that flickered the lamps, casting wicked shadows dancing over the tapestries.
Coran gave her prayers up to Hejl, something she’d never done until the war. Not even then; not until it had all become madness. It wasn’t real. The doors would open and the king would return, or their ally, Angis of Halkirk. Adela’s homeland of Burgos would send aid to their daughter.
Coran only thought she’d seen the Islip armies from the wall. A trick of deprivation, strain.
But the sound reaching her ears was not the disciplined thump-thump-thump cadence of Aubignon soldiers passing over the bridge. It was a cacophony of footfalls, the flap of scavenger birds descending, winging for the best parts of the carrion.
No one in the Westlands had sent aid for six months. They weren’t sending it now.
Adela cleared her throat. ‘Unbar the door.’
Coran gasped for breath, fists clenched. No, no. Don’t touch it. Don’t obey her. Bar it. Shore it up. Run.
‘Playing games with Ironside at this late hour won’t curry favor,’ Adela said to the room, though Coran felt the words directed at her.
Lady Gilea bowed her thick face and wept.
It was true. The door’s protection was an illusion. Barring it was an incitement to retribution.
The bar grated free, and four of the Guard returned it to its stand behind the door. Coran could have laughed at their now-useless habit.
Voices, thick and guttural, echoed against it.
She held her breath.
Panels jarred and swung inward, their iron sweep grating like the claws of an eager beast.
Spots exploded at the edge of her vision. Sweat drenched and chilled beneath the heavy velvet of her gown.
Islip soldiers filled the entrance, ten abreast Coran thought, if they’d formed up like proper soldiers. But they hung like a rabble in their leathers and primitive angled helmets, faces all made the same by beards matted with blood and soil to a ubiquitous shade of ugly. The poorest man in Tainn resembled a king, by comparison. This thought horrified Coran more than any other in the moment. Scribes would remember the end of the house of Aubignon. To Coran, it was the end of the world.
The Queen’s Guard raised their pikes, the green silk of their tabards in Adela’s colors heroically bright. Their Captain, Aedwyn, stepped into the no-man’s land of the vestibule. ‘We Chalcivar are sworn to give our lives for the Queen of Aubignon,’ he announced in rich-tongued Burgost.
‘Captain Aedwyn, stand down.’ Adela’s voice was clear and strong, anchoring Coran who felt on the verge of shrieking.
‘Sons of the Hound…’ bellowed Aedwyn.
‘Captain, stand down! Stand your men aside!’
Pikes raised, extended.‘…Come and take flesh!’
Adela’s cries, the screams of the retinue mingled with the sharp clang of iron and steel, the heady bite of axe into oak.
The Guard thrust their pikes, hooked the jowls and chests of man after man, a single Chalcivar the equal of ten Islip marauders – but in quality, not quantity. There were so many to fight.
Coran’s head spun, not with terror but a wave of something potent, a feeling of too much wine. It deafened her to Adela, to the pounding of hopeless warfare. To animal screams that sang out the end of the Chalcivar.
She stumbled to her feet, clawing at the throne, at Adela, trying to fill her lungs.
Adela was already on her feet, still commanding a the last of a heedless guard in words too hoarse to make out. She grabbed Coran to her. ‘Steady, Coran. Firm now.’
‘It’s not…’ She was going to vomit. Coran drew another long breath. ‘Not the fighting. I can feel…’ What? Pressure, vacuum, energy. She experienced but couldn’t explain it, not even as it faded. Magic? That was hysteria twisting her thoughts. There was no such thing as magic anymore.
The court women had drawn up the dais, stifling, crowding it like high ground in a flood.
Aedwyn dropped to his knees among his men, axe blade buried deep in the shoulder-seam of his armor. He listed, swayed. Spittle and blood smacked the stones before him.
Tears pricked Coran’s eyes.
She was a noblewoman. She didn’t know the sounds of violence, didn’t recognize the zip of a blade for what it was until Aedwyn’s head had already thumped to a stop against the dais step.
Lady Gilea collapsed. Lady Margerie fell to the stones beside her, retching.
Coran hugged Adela around the waist, felt the tell-tale heave of her queen’s side even though Adela’s face was pale stone.
A copper-pence stench filled her nose, hot in the back of her throat and sick-sweet with piss. She gagged, fighting down bile.
The Islip soldiers parted for their king. Coran would have recognized him among them even on the battlefield. Raulo Ironside radiated an organized brutality, an intent that made him separate from his men. He stripped his helm and threw it beside Aedwyn’s decapitated body, kicking it with an impassive expression from inside the mass of hair ringing his face. He was a demon, a devil, almost exactly as Coran had imagined one in her younger and more faithful years. This; how had the greatness of Aubignon been taken by this?
Raulo stepped over the bodies of the Chalcivar like an inconvenience and made his way up the dais.
He reeked with one hundred and eighty-two days of sweat, filth, rancid blood, dung, and the tears of Aubignon women crying for their brutalization as much as their dead husbands. Coran held her breath as he passed.
Raulo tugged up his hauberk, wrested the front of his braes, and pissed on King Filip’s throne.
Coran didn’t look away. There was nowhere safe to train her eyes.
When he’d finished, he shoved Adela to her knees, pushing her from Coran’s grip, and he fell into her throne. There was a message here, that he sat in Adela’s pale saltstone throne. A message Coran was too frightened to decipher.
When the men of the privy council – what remained – appeared in the vestibule, Coran’s knees gave a little. There was some measure of hope, some sanity left, with the lords here.
Raulo beckoned six of his men. ‘Ta horen till oubliette.’
Take the whore to the oubliette.
Six words that Coran had come in the last six months to understand were at the heart of a kingdom’s ruin. Adela of Burgos had rejected a suitor, shamed and shunned him in front of her people, and for twelve years that suitor – Raulo nobody, in those days – had thought of nothing but a reckoning. It had been a benign anecdote in Coran’s childhood and for all the years Aubignon’s ruin by the Islip had been an impossibility. Told by someone enthusiastic, it had even been an amusing tale.
No one was laughing at Raulo Ironside now, not even when he leaned and licked the taste from the mineral rock of Adela’s throne.
His men started forward.
‘The queen…we negotiated for her. You gave your word for her return to Burgos!’ This from Lord Taunton, not a privy member but a powerful duke, one of Aubignon’s fiercest diplomats.
Adela’s face, Coran’s last glimpse of it, was a mask of incredulity. That Lord Taunton had believed for a moment Raulo would exterminate a dynasty just to let her go.
Raulo shrugged as Adela was dragged from Coran’s grip, as if to say he didn’t care. Taunton had negotiated; Raulo had not.
Coran raised her skirts and started after Adela held stiff and stoic between the men. ‘She can’t be alone, unattended!’
A pommel caught her full in the gut and sprawled her among the dead Chalcivar.
Raulo barked something in his ignorant, ill-formed tongue. Her vision faded. Hands; there were hands on her shoulders. Gentle, hurried. ‘Lady de Courcy is only strained by the day; she needs her rest,’ a familiar voice murmured.
Lady de Courcy did not need rest, Coran thought, stumbling along to her apartments. Lady de Courcy needed a plan.
END OF PART ONE