They always arrive in groups at solstice. Five or more at a time. One year, the solstice brought 16. It was good for the economy. Her uncle was right on that account. She had counted 8 banners over two days. It took them two more days to get their camps established. Thousands of people. So many of them. It was a bad sign. There would be a lot of death.
Hippolyta was tired of death, but death was the choice they left her with. Is it really a choice if there is only one option? The old men would knock soon. They would make their opening statements. Present their opinions on how valuable her life was. Her worth. How many lives she could save. The cost was always the same. The cost was death. Her death or their death. Her people or their people. Her coffee was cold. She threw it back anyway. The tapestry rustled. Jane arriving with a tray.
“Your sister Mary is sending four ships with grain.” Jane pulled the cloche from the tray. Thank god for Mary, she thought. At least the people wouldn’t starve.
“Did she send odds?” Jane was unusually silent. She turned to look at her. Jane, normally so confident, had tears on her cheeks. “Wow. That bad?”
“No! I’m sorry. The odds are in your favor.” Jane dipped into a curtsey. “They are not in hers.” she sobbed. Hippolyta reached for her as she dissolved into tears. Another pregnancy, likely to be girl. Mary’s husband had seven sisters. His father went through nine wives on his quest to a male heir. Nine women, four died in child birth, three were disposed of after brining fourth girls. Mary was wife number three. She had six step-daughters and two of her own. Her sister awaited her own death.
“Jane, I am sorry.” She held Jane while she cried. Jane had been with Mary for more than 20 years. They were too close. Mary’s husband tried to kill Jane and banished her from his spot of land. He was a flaming midden heap. “Mary is strong.” The words were like ash in her mouth. She had no time for tears today. She could hear the old men on the stairs. Jane heard them too.
“How are they still alive? If a woman was that loud…” Jane groused as she wiped the tears from her face. “Honestly, like the elephant herds, every where they go.”
“It’s a good thing they are loud or we’d have no time to gird our loins.” Jane scoffed feebly at the old joke. “I’ll be in the passage.” Jane squeezed Hippolyta’s hand and slipped behind the tapestry. Hippolyta replaced the cloche on the tray. She hated porridge but it was truly terrible cold. It was always cold by the time it reached Hippolyta. She slid the tray behind the tapestry and heard Jane curse.
“Don’t worry about it.” Hippolyta whispered. The herald was yelling introductions outside her door. They do love their rituals. Hippolyta was gripped with an urge to defy. She placed her chamber pot in front of the door. Quickly undressed and climbed back into bed. She heard the iron and oak bar being removed from the door. The old men had arrived.
The pike-men entered first, then the Lord Chancellor. The herald didn’t make it past, “M’Lady” before the Chancellor stepped into her night soil. Perfection. The men following him were forced back into the hallway in confusion. The pike-men fought with their faces knowing that laughter would get them transferred to a position on an exposed wall. The men on the landing were arguing over protocol. Should they wait while the Lord Chancellor changed his hoes? Her uncle was approaching. There must be a prize among the challengers. He wouldn’t haul himself to her cell otherwise.
The herald (whose name was actually Herald) bowed deeply as her uncle entered the cell. Uther was fat. He had always been well fed, but in recent years he had indulged too freely at the many banquets for her would-be executioners. He was sweating profusely and was winded. He had stopped abruptly and was looking about with desperation.
“Did you get lost, uncle?” Hippolyta trilled from her bed as he gasped for breath. “I’d offer you a seat but I’ve misplaced my throne. I believe the Lord Chancellor had it last.” Uther’s face, already flushed from his climb, somehow managed to deepen several more shades. The vein above is right eye pulsed ominously. Hippolyta tutted. “Uncle, you seem unwell. Shall we do this another time?” Uther cried out and clutched his right eye. She hoped Jane had been counting. She may have set a new record.
“Herald! Bring a chair!” Herald the herald bowed deeply and backed from the room. Uther clutched at his eye and his side in turns. He was so out of breath that he could not even curse. Hippolyta hoped for the best. Maybe he would die and this could all end. Uther’s death would not be tiresome. The other lords were hoovering on the landing. They could not offer assistance to Uther. To do so would be admitting that Uther looked like he needed assistance. Uther was easily offended and had a terrible temper. He had trained the court with fear and brutality. They would remain cowed on the landing until a safe protocol or a direct order was issued them.
Two pages, both girls, sprinted quietly into the room with a heavy oak chair. They dropped it behind Uther, winked at Hippolyta, and were gone. Uther sat and growled at the courtiers in the hallway. They shuffled in around the chair now blocking the doorway. Once around it, they bowed to Uther and nodded to Hippolyta. Hippolyta smirked at them from her bed. They stank of fear and obsequiousness.
She nodded to the room. They were all doing their best to avoid looking at her. They were all complicit in her captivity. Every last one of them and they knew it. They fidgeted nervously. They were all frail and soft. Not one of them under 60 years. How had she been deceived by these men? Marley had new boots on. He and Westlake wore a new style of hat. It made them both look as though they were over grown mushrooms. A floppy thing that served no function other than marking them for pick-pockets. Westlake was missing his purse. She wondered if he knew. Marley wore his traditional court tunic from the time of her grandfather. It had new darning that was somewhat sloppy. Not at all like the tight, near invisible stiches Martha made. Had she passed? Westlake and the others had on all new kits. They knew their audience would be with Uther today. Interesting. They were actually waiting for the Lord Chancellor, even Uther. A unified front.
Uther had regained his breath by the time his toady returned. Herald began his introduction to give the ancient yet frustratingly healthy Lord Chancellor time to catch his breath. Hippolyta let him get through her titles then she cut him off.
“Herald, Gentlemen, Uncle,” she nodded to them. “As you can see, I was not given notice of this meeting and have not yet breakfasted. We all know who we are by now. Please state your business.” Uther went red again as did the others. Lord Chancellor took the role of patronizer-in-chief.
“Princess, may I remind you that you live thanks to the mercy and kindness of Lord Uther and every man in this room.”
“I have an excellent memory, Jeff Smithson.” There was an audible gasp. Jeff was the Lord Chancellor’s given name. His common name. “We are all aware of the conditions of my captivity. Present your contenders.” There was blustering and protest at this egregious breech of protocol.
“It is precisely this blasphemous and disrespectful mouth that forces your confinement, niece.” Uther spat. He had ruptured several vessels in his right eye. It would be bloody for a fortnight.
“I thought it was your fear that I might kill you and actually lead this country instead of rape it for profit as you have done.” The room went dead silent. “Herald, perhaps you do need to continue your introductions. These men have completely forgotten they are traitorous cowards unable to kill a woman on their own.” She let them gape in silence. Herald the herald cleared his throat but both he and Hippolyta knew his life would be forfeit if he spoke now. “Now that we understand each other, I suggest you get to the point before any of you drop of old age.”
Lord Marley cleared his throat. The Lord Chancellor nodded an encouragement. “My Lady Hippolyta, Duke Theseus of Athens, Greece, and Egypt has asked for an audience.” That was new. She had met 163 men on the field of combat in 10 years. Not once had this request been made. Or at least, not made of her directly. She assumed others had asked but were denied. They want her to react or acquiesce. There was more to it. Hippolyta kept her face unreadable. Lord Marley cleared his throat. “He requests to meet you before pressing his suit.” They stared at her.
“WELL!” Uther bellowed. All the men jumped. Hippolyta did not.
“Well what? I thought we were clear on the nature of this situation or have you all simultaneously lost your wits?” She blinked calmly.
“We did not wish to impose a stranger upon you in your boudoir.”
“So it is senility. Stephens, send for coffee, two poached eggs on toast with that sauce with the chives that Margery makes.” Stephens, the pike-man made as if to leave the room. There was a chorus of dissent from the old men. Including a few squeaks as they all shifted towards the door which was blocked by the corpulent form of Uther and the oak chair. Behind which the pike-men were blocked from entering into the chamber. Hippolyta laughed richly. “How do any of you suppose Stephens or Johnson would protect you in here? My gods you are stupid!” She watched as Uther got to his feet and yelled for the chair to be removed.
“Stephens! Maintain your post, you fool!” Uther bellowed. “You will never sit upon the throne Hippolyta! My brother was deceived by witchcraft when he adopted you. You will never be royal nor worthy of sitting with Kings! I am the rightful heir. I am the KING and my son will rule when I pass. You will marry Theseus and know your place! GAAHHHHHA!” He clutched at his eye again.
“This has been amusing but I am quite famished and wish to dress for my strenuous day at needle work.” Hippolyta wiped tears from her face. “You have taught me a valuable lesson, I should always let the herald complete his introduction. Perhaps then you would remember that I was born royalty whereas you merely married it. Your title is Regent Protector, Uther. As long as I breath, you will never be King.” Uther lunged at her then gasped and clutched at his chest. The courtiers all rushed to help him, like moths to a flame. Only Valois got too close and received a fat fist to the face for his troubles.
“Infuriating woman!” The Lord Chancellor spat.
“I’m infuriating? Hello, pot? It’s the kettle. You’re black. Your intrigues bore me but you are hilarious old fools. Uther, I suggest you consult a physician about that eye. It looks horrible.” Uther stomped from the room. The others filed towards the door.
“Gentlemen,” They all froze and looked at her. “I trust you will all remember that everyman in this room lives thanks to my mercy and kindness.” They moved quickly for their age. “Careful on the stairs!” She called after them.
Stephens was the last to leave. He waited for Johnson to take his post facing the stairs as was protocol. He placed his right fist over his heart and bowed to Hippolyta. “I am always delighted when I’m on duty and Uther visits. It is good to hear you laugh.” The same fleet-footed girls slipped past him with a silver tray and a coffee service. They set them on the table, winked at Hippolyta, and were gone. Stephens closed the door. Jane waited until the oak and iron thudded home before she emerged from behind the tapestry.
“You are reckless today and I loved every minute of it.” Jane moved to take the fresh breakfast away.
“Hey! I just got that! What are you doing?” Will no one let her eat today?
“You can’t eat that, mistress. It could be poisoned!”
“It won’t be. Uther was here when I ordered it.”
“I know. That’s why it might be poisoned.” They both laughed.