Cast in Bronze
Be careful how you interpret a prophecy.
The Bronze King
Pressed up against a stone wall in the pitch dark, Marguerite tried to control her breathing so as not to let out the smallest sound. She could hear her husband moving about the bedroom, muttering curses. No doubt he thought she was still asleep, had entered the room without a light so as not to awaken her. She was sure that he was drunk and had lost his sense of direction in the dark. Hence the cursing.
Her husband. The King. Driven mad by his superstition.
Inside her belly, the baby kicked again, hard, and she winced, stifling an exclamation. Slowly, slowly, on bare and quiet feet she edged along the wall towards where she knew the door must be, feeling for it with her left hand.
Her attendant ladies, her maid, where were they? Had the King already killed them ? No, more likely he had simply ordered them away. She had told the women not to admit him on any account, to use her advanced pregnancy as an excuse. She hadn’t slept with the King in weeks, not since … not since he had become so strange. But he was, after all, the King. He could order them to admit him and they must obey. He held the power of life and death over all of his subjects. And death, it seemed, was what he was here to deliver this night.
He could, of course, have just ordered her death, ordered one of his soldiers to kill her. But that would not have done. She was a popular Queen, her pregnancy a source of joy and rejoicing amongst the people. If she were to die, it would need to seem like a terrible accident or a sudden illness. To have a third party involved would risk exposure. No, she thought, he had to do the deed himself. She had been expecting it, fearing it, for months now. All because of that damned book.
She had been so happy before that, only just over a year ago. Princess Marguerite, married in a beautiful ceremony in the cathedral to the man she loved, Prince Mark. The one they called the Scholar Prince.
The youngest son, he had had no thought of ever becoming King of Illyria. A gentle, studious young man, he had loved his books and his music far more than the exercise of weapons. In that he was very unlike both his father and his older brother Robert, the Crown Prince. They loved nothing more than going out to battle in the endless wars with the neighbouring countries.
Marguerite had loved Mark for his gentle nature and his interest in books. She, too, loved reading the old romances, and had admired the ancient volumes ranked in row upon row in her new husband’s library. He was always looking for more. Together, they had investigated the remotest corners of the huge and ancient castle. Much of it had fallen into ruin over the years, but in the less crumbling parts there were storerooms which hadn’t been opened for centuries. Mark and Marguerite had delighted in breaking open dusty chests and worm-eaten cupboards to discover what might be within.
She had been so happy, already suspecting that she was carrying a child, the day they had come across a half-burned old volume filled with barely-decipherable handwriting.
Taking it to a window and holding the book open in the bright sunlight, Mark had leafed through the remaining pages in fascination.
“Seems like a book of prophecies,” he had said, smiling. “What fun! What do you think it will say about what our future holds?”
She had smiled too, and shaken her head as Mark had squinted at the crabbed script.
“Here’s an interesting bit,” he had said. “ ‘In the fifth century …’ The fifth century after what, I wonder? ‘… the golden king of Illyria will destroy the Southrons.’ Could easily be talking about my grandfather. He conquered Surdia when he was a young man, and burned their capital to the ground. He had blond hair, that could be described as golden, I suppose.” He laughed. “Pity he went crazy once he was old. Maybe that explains the next bit. ‘… and his line shall be cursed unto the third generation’. The fellow who wrote this must have been a Surdian, I suppose.”
“What else does it say?” she had asked, playing along, amused. “What next?”
“Hmmm … it’s very hard to make out. ‘The golden king shall yield to a silver’. There you go, that could be father, he was already grey-haired by the time he got to be King. Now … I think it reads ‘The silver king shall die in battle, cursing the gods, and yield to the bronze king.’ Oh dear, how predictable. We’ll have a leaden king next. Anyway, better tell father to watch out.” Mark had leaned easily against the stone windowsill, his face full of delight.
“Nearly at the end of it now. What? Ugh! I think it says ‘The bronze king shall have a son, and it shall be the burden of the son to destroy his father.’ A bit grim, that. It’s lucky Richard hasn’t married yet, we’d better warn him too, hey?”
A cloud had passed over the sun just at that moment, and as the light darkened Marguerite had started to become uneasy. These threats of curses and slaughter had suddenly seemed a lot less amusing. “Come on,” she said, “throw that ugly old thing away, it’s not worth keeping. Let’s go back for dinner.” He had shrugged, and came with her. But she noticed that he didn’t throw away the old volume, but kept it tucked under his arm.
Four months later there had come terrible news. An armoured courier had come galloping in through the castle gates, blood streaming from a wound to his head. The King and the Crown Prince had been leading their troops against the Carpathians in the west, and had been expected to defeat them easily. But there had been a treacherous ambush. Carpathian archers, hidden on the wooded slope of a narrow gorge, had sent down a dense storm of arrows. Prince Robert had been struck by an arrow which passed through an eye-hole in his visor and had died instantly. The King had also been struck several times and grievously wounded as he had cursed and tried to rally his troops. He was being brought back to the castle as quickly as could be managed.
But when the party of knights had reached the castle and lain down the stretcher, it was clear that the old King was already dead. Duke Matthew, the leader of the knights, knelt down and closed the old man’s eyes. Standing, he had called out in a rough voice to the crowd gathered around, “The King is dead! Long live the King!” All eyes had turned to Mark, standing watching from a balcony with Marguerite swollen-bellied by his side.
“ ‘The silver king shall die in battle,’ ” Mark had murmured, stricken. “I must be the bronze king.”
“Don’t be foolish, my love,” she had said. “Forget that stupid old book. You are King now, you must do your best to be a good king.”
He had nodded then. “Yes, yes, of course. And I shall. I shall.”
He had been a good king. He had sent a strong force to crush the Carpathians and demand the heads of the leaders of the rogue band of archers who had killed his father and brother. But, that done, he had then made peace with Carpathia and his other neighbours.
In public, he seemed calm and determined. But in private, to Marguerite’s dismay, he became increasingly erratic and distracted. One awful night, she had found him poring over the half-burned book of prophecy by the light of a lantern. “ ‘The burden of the son shall be to destroy his father’ ” he quoted. And he had looked at Marguerite’s swelling body.
“No,” she had said. “No, Mark. That is just foolish nonsense. You must put it out of your mind. Promise me!”
He had made a lop-sided smile then. “Yes, yes. You’re right, of course. Just a stupid old man writing centuries ago. Nonsense.” But he had still refused to get rid of the book.
As the days passed, he grew worse. The constant side-long looks at her belly, the muttering when they were in private together, the obsessive reading of the ancient volume. “But what if the book tells true?” he demanded one morning, his eyes shadowed by dark patches which betrayed his lack of sleep. “It told true about the golden king and the silver king. And I am the bronze king.”
“Mark! Listen to me! Those words could have applied to any number of the kings of Illyria. That book was telling of a time long past. I am carrying your child, your heir. The child will love you just as I do, and …”
He had looked up and said bleakly, “And he will grow up and might kill me one day. Destroy me, that’s what the book said. I fear it, I fear it. Perhaps … perhaps we can send him away before he is fully grown, or … or … perhaps …”
She had flared up in anger. “I won’t have my child harmed, do you hear me? I won’t. If you harm it in any way, I shall tell the world of your crime. The people will rise up and tear you down.”
He had flushed, his nostrils flaring. “You misunderstand me. Of course I won’t harm our son. Don’t think it.” But his words had sounded hollow, and he glanced away from her before he had finished speaking.
That conversation had been weeks ago now. After that, she had tried to stay away from him, pleading for rest as the baby’s time grew near. But Mark’s face had grown more and more haggard, his eyes darting from side to side. Each time he looked at her, she could tell that he was thinking: It might be best if the child is never born. He had begun to drink himself into a stupor every night. Even his councillors had noted the change in him and started murmuring amongst themselves. Mark had told no-one about the book, forced Marguerite to swear to keep it secret.
Fearing the worst, she had lain awake many nights trying to decide what to do. The best thing would have been to flee the castle entirely, but it was not easy for someone in her physical condition and exalted role. Where could she go that would not be quickly discovered? So she sat with her ladies, busy with them over embroidery and tapestry work, thinking, thinking, trying to consider what resources she had, what preparations and defences she could make.
And now here she was, in the dark bedroom, her back pressed against the cold wall, listening to him rant under his breath as he sought her. She edged along the wall a little further, found the door frame with her hand, and edged more toward it.
There was a sudden loud crash from the direction of the dresser. A musical crash and the tinkle of chimes. He had knocked her music box off its stand. He swore loudly then. Marguerite knew there was no time left. She pushed open the door and ran out.
It was brighter out here in the ante-room. A lantern sat glowing on a small table where Mark must have set it down. There was no sign of her handmaiden or the ladies of the bedchamber, their beds empty. Behind her she heard Mark reach the bedroom door and call out “Marguerite!” Then “Damn it!” as he stumbled over something. She seized the lantern and overturned the table, and then ran out into the corridor, slamming the outer door behind her, leaving the ante-room in darkness. It might gain her a few more seconds.
She was dressed only in her night-shift, but she was not aware of the cold night air. She knew that she could not run for more than a few steps at a time with the child grown so large within her. Without hesitation, she turned to her left and went around a corner. Realising that the lantern light would give her away, she threw it out of the nearest opening and heard it clatter briefly on the cobbles below.
Heavy curtains had kept her rooms dark, but out here there was a weak moonlight, just enough to see by. Suppressing panic, she walked on as swiftly as she was able, along the route she had planned out days before. When Mark reached the corridor, he would automatically turn to the right, the way to the Great Hall. That would only delay him for a short while, but she prayed that it would be enough.
She already knew the labyrinthine layout of the ancient castle quite well, from those happy times when she and Mark had explored it together, hunting out books and manuscripts. But in recent weeks, sneaking away at night while her ladies were asleep, she had paced out the passages near her room, and now she knew them intimately. She turned left, then right, then left again. The child kicked again within her and she let out a small gasp.
Along the corridors she could hear Mark raging in fury, and knew that he had now turned back towards her. But there might still be time. There must be time. She tried to run.
Her breath coming hard now, she reached the door she had been looking for. She grasped the latch and tried to lift it. It was stiff, little used, as it had been when she had first discovered it days ago. It took time to work it open. Now she had so little time, so little. She sobbed in panic, her hands beginning to bleed. Finally, it worked loose, and the door swung open. Dimly she could see the spiral staircase behind it.
At that moment, she heard Mark only a few paces behind her. The King, his voice slurred with drink. “You bitch! I’ll kill you, kill you and that whelp!”
She dodged through the door and tried to slam it behind her, but his booted foot jammed in. She leant with all of her strength against the door, crushing his foot. He cried out in fury, but he kept pushing on the door and it started to swing open again. She left it, and started up the stairs. Hysteria gave her strength and speed, and she managed two turns before she heard Mark begin to follow, limping and cursing.
There was another door, faintly outlined by the moonlight. The latch of this one was almost rusted away and it opened easily. Marguerite however only opened it a fraction and then on tiptoe ran up another turn of the spiral stair, over broken steps, until she was almost out of sight of the door. She stopped then, making a superhuman effort to control her gasping breath.
Here came the King. As she peered around the stone staircase, he ran up to the door she had left ajar. Ranting, raging, he threw it open and surged through. Only to fall forward, screaming.
Marguerite, her heart battering inside her, listened. To her horror, his curses and rants continued unabated, though now there was a note of awful desperation to them. Slowly, step by step, she went down to the open door.
Stepping carefully over the plaited cord of black embroidery wool she had tied across it days before, she stood at the edge of an abyss. There were only ruins beyond. The tower here had long ago broken away and the door looked out into empty space.
In his madness and drunkenness, Mark had tripped over the cord, as she had hoped he would, and fallen. But not all the way to the distant ground. She stood holding on to the door frame and looked down into his face as he swung there above the awful descent, clinging with one hand to a remnant of the old stone floor.
“Help! Help me! I command you, help me!”
She looked down at him, pitiless, her love long since gone. “No,” she said coldly.
“But I … I can’t die this way. The book … the book said …”
“The book said that your son would destroy you,” she said calmly, as she placed her heel onto his clasping fingers and then threw all of the weight of her pregnant body onto it. “It didn’t say that your son had to be born first!”
He screamed once, piercingly, as his hand was crushed, and then again as she released it and he fell into the darkness.
© Copyright David R. Grigg. All rights reserved
About this Story
This story was published in the December 2012 issue of eFantasy Magazine. I can’t now recall what the inspiration was, but it took a while to develop after I came up with the idea of the prophecy.