The cold, forbidding moonlight shone on the dilapidated figure of one of the most powerful men in the world: John III, atop a fair mountain of pillows. His lined and sinewy neck was too weak to bear the heavy, golden crown on his bedside table. Beside him hunched a portly nursemaid, in an elaborate, mahogany seat.
“You are far too ill for that meretricious masquerade! Rest in bed till your sickness’s past,” pleaded Velma.
“Velma, this is not merely a ball. No one can rule a kingdom such as ours from a featherbed. Those dreaded lords, they know it! Once they deduce the merest suggestion of the lethality of my ailment, they and their armies will be at that door with knives!” After this particularly emphatic statement, John sat up, and jammed a knobby hand at the oaken door of his chamber.
“One more night of recuperation will do you and the kingdom far more good than one of you prancing around the banquet hall,” Velma asserted.
“Velma, one last item.” Velma’s head shot up from her knitting and maternally scowled down at the aged figure, “Go see our sweet old lawyer presently. I have some matters I want him contemplating overnight.”
“The lineage problem again? Leave it be, you’ll be fit for rule anon and might even live to see young Richard King.” With this, they both smiled, morose, discouraging smiles. Velma left hesitantly.
“Ellyn, come forthwith and attend to the King,” she commanded. With that, she was off to the Lawyer’s chambers.
Justice Walter shan’t be happy for another night awake. Velma was absolutely right, for when she told Walter of his assignment, he turned a dark shade of crimson and grimaced at her suggestion.
“Another night, at this same task? I tell you here and now, there’s nothing for it. This law can’t be found!”
“Think of all he could reward you with, if it were.”
“I have heard that his chances of becoming John’s successor, shall be severed by the end of the month.” Earnestly unhappy, he leaned forward in his seat to whisper this last in her ear. Velma’s face turned ashen. “This ghost law is the only way to ensure Richard’s kingship, but I’ve given up on the hope that it could ever be found.”
“Regardless, you will try! You’ve been John’s only friend since you were boys, yet you would see him dead at the hands of that scoundrel, Gregory?”
“I will look tonight, for the last time. Afterwards, we must focus our efforts on our own protection, not the futile preservation of a line.”
“Thank you! That is all I ask…” She left, disappointed by Walter’s reluctance to help.
Walter promptly got to his feet, and headed for his study where he kept the laws. He sat down at his desk and pulled out his copy.
Hours later, after the night had waxed and waned, he still hadn’t finished a section. Walter got up and opened the window by his side. A cool draft swept through the room. Even under his surcoat, and customary hauberk, Walter felt the chill and began to shiver. He closed the window and commenced to pace the room. My search may as well have just started, for I’ve gotten nowhere! There, already I hear the cheerful birds singing, yet my task requires far more time. Time, that’s what we all need.
Resignedly, he went back to his desk, and started with the index.
He began to read.
It was past dawn when he found it. Already the small ray of sunshine coming through his shutters had moved down the wall and fallen on his face.
The law lay in a large section he had visited many times. It read, “A living King may pass on kingship to another, by speaking this line before the public court, ‘I hereby proclaim, under oath of my house, family, and honor, that I cede my title and accompanying lands, wealth, and status to _____’”
He leapt up, springing for the door, then thought better of it and sat down again. Richard isn’t the only one who could reward me for kingship. He has known riches far too long. He wouldn’t be so attuned to the significance as someone of our generation. Even Gregory the Belligerent could turn amiable, or even munificent. Even if this law were enacted, who is to say Gregory won’t contest the throne regardless? Walter put his head in his hands and emitted a low moan. I’ve known John too long to give up on him at his rock bottom. Richard’s charge shall be onerous, indeed. Walter got up slowly, and started to make his way down to John’s chamber’s.
A slender listener quietly departed from his hiding place in a closet opposite John’s quarters, just as Ellyn was walking into them. He stealthily trotted in the other direction to which Velma had gone, with practiced ease, and departed for the stables. He made sure to be seen by both an assistant cook on his way down. He lead his horse out into the central courtyard, and galloped off, into the forest. He had made camp some few leagues away, and was energetically urging his horse on in anticipation. He was made weary by this news of lords with knives and so looked forward to the private seclusion of his getaway. The bewitching moon held promise for a night awake, under the stars.
Midnight saw the listener among the sparse tents of his camp, inhabited by a mere ten people. He went straight to the biggest tent, which lay in the center of the encampment. His cousin, long thought to have gone with extended family in Germany, has since resided there. He dismounted, tied his horse to a nearby post, and went inside. “Richard, cousin, what a sight for sore eyes! I have heard rumors, of gathering armies and clashing claims, but here you are! You shall stay with us?” The speaker was a genial sort of man, with the relaxed physique of a middle aged nobel-the only one in the modest camp bearing such a trait.
“Let’s sit, Caspar, for I have travelled long. We have matters to discuss afterwards.” The young prince started in with a lamb shank, and ravenously continued to a thick bourguignon. Once content, he sat back in his chair and spoke up, “I have too heard of these rumors, and before I do so with my father, I’d like to share my reaction with you. We both know John will die before the month is out, yes?” Richard appealed slowly, scrutinizing Caspar for a reaction. He nodded sullenly. “The only uncertainty is to what comes next. My father wants me to fill his shoes and head the kingdom, and Gregory, of course, will reaffirm his claim to the throne.” Richard, once again, paused to see Caspar’s response.
“Well yes, that is the problem. What else have we to discuss?” Caspar looked bemused, so Richard continued hurriedly,
“As my cousin and most trusted friend, I figured I could rely on you to be a dependable confidante. In actuality, there are not only two sides to this lineage conflict, but three.”
Richard was cut off mid breath as Caspar interjected,
“There’s another claim to the throne? Who is the other contestant? Why haven’t they shone their face before?” Caspar looked acutely unsettled by this information. Richard continued,
“It is not another claim to the throne which galls me, but my own reluctance to stake mine. I believe I would rather live at large, with the band, than as disputed head of tumultuous kingdom. I could never be at peace with nerves afire and my subjects at my throat.” Now he paused, but afraid to look up, he watched his boots.
“The prince doesn’t want to be king! Ludicrous! The luxuries, the power, and the pride at being potentate of all Europe. Gregory’s life’s nadir would be your coronation day! The people would rejoice you!” Caspar was ecstatic, but Richard’s demeanor was a gloomy mask, shielding his indecision.
“I have no doubts about my position, only my future lies untold. I shall start by getting out of the country. I suppose I must leave a letter for my father. I’ll get to it.” Not wanting to hear Caspar further conflict his motives, Richard promptly left. Flummoxed, Caspar whispered to the wind, “Goodnight.”
In his tent, Richard laid out his writing materials on a small wooden table. He began to write:
I have decided to withdraw my claim to the throne. I
Here he stopped unsure of how to go on. What will Father think? He’ll be dumbfounded, or angry. Yes, ragingly angry. Who am I to spurn a title that’s been in our family for innumerable generations, and leave Father amid the chaos? It’s him or both of us, that stubborn fool whom I love so much! I’ve already chosen…
don’t want to be King. Get out of the country as soon as you can, and meet up with Caspar’s band and me by the little creek at the back of our private retreat. We will wait only one week. Till then, I love you.
Not invigorated by haste, he resigned himself to have the letter sent in the morning.
Justice Walter picked up his pace. He rounded the corner onto the passage John’s rooms fronted, in a flurry of flailing folds and limbs and barged through the door with a loud clamor. When he opened the door, he found the King in bed. “I have great news; there is such a law! It states that if you say a short line in public court naming your successor, your successor he shall be.” Justice Walter was smiling.
“That is wonderful. Assemble the court immediately. How long should it take to assemble all the lords?” John inquired, wanting to verify his assumption.
“We can expect the matter effectuated by tomorrow night.” Velma burst into the room.
“What’s the news?” She saw their excited faces, and she too began to smile.
“Velma, that law exists! Walter can tell you more about it on the way as you shall be accompanying him on his little trip. Walter, you must take Velma, and your copy of the Laws to my private retreat for safe keeping. Go get ready for the trip. Be inconspicuous.”
“Of course. Goodbye, my King.” They both left in a rush.
The day of the court came, and the lords arrived in droves. Their splendid gilt carriages trundled into the forecourt and released their occupants into the palace, where they would await the hearing. None knew of the purpose of this hearing, and none expected to see John beforehand. John had been awake for several hours before their arrival and had already taken the precaution of closing off his wing of the castle.
John slowly strutted around the room, with Ellyn’s aid and a jeweled walking staff. He had been practicing for over an hour, and expected to be walking solo by that night. “Why not rest awhile. You tired.” Ellyn said.
“I shall not learn to walk by lying down. Faster now.” Elyn begrudgingly increased her pace. They walked around like this for several minutes, when John said, “Stop. Now release me, I’m ready.” Elyn strengthened her grip and said,
“Are you sure? Let’s rest first.”
“Release me, you fool!” He screamed. Crying, she slowly lessened her grip. She stepped back, but stayed within grabbing range.
John stood shakily, leaning heavily on the staff. Though still a marked improvement from earlier this morning. He slowly started to take one foot off the ground. John now started to shift his weight forward, and lean more heavily on the staff. He slammed his foot down beside it. “That’s the first step I’ve taken in years! Lets try another…” He rocked forwards onto his right foot,, and more quickly this time, took another step. “Yes! One more…” Here came the crucial part. His feet were both together, and in order to rely on the staff for his next step, he would need to move it forward, but meanwhile put all his weight on his feet. He did so gradually, at last, he smiled and whipped the stick up, off the floor. As if on silent cue, his legs buckled and he crumpled to the floor. Elyn was upon him in a flash.
“Are you okay? Who shall I send for?”She panicked and feared for her position. “I’m so sorry!”
“Only a few bruises. Now go get those door guards to help me up.” She ran out and returned in moments, with two fully armored guards in tow. They quickly helped John up. He too, now had tears in his eyes.
“Never fear, you’ll be strutting like a bird by tonight, just in time for the hearing.” Said one of the guards, beaming down at John.
“You can hear that, but not your king crashing to the ground?” John questioned, over his sadness and properly fuming.
“I’m sorry, sire. You’re heavy clothes muffled the sound. I will not fail you, next time.” He smiled.
“Be gone! I will walk, dammit!”
It was nearly night when the court was fully convened. The King was just putting on the finishing touches, leaning on a jeweled staff, when Walter tore into the room looking haggard, but animated. “You must not step out onto that stage! Richard sends a message. I met up with him at the house, he orated his message, and gave me this letter to take to you. Read it now!” Walter handed him the letter, and John ripped it open, and read it quickly.
“Richard doesn’t want to be King? That ungrateful miscreant would rather roam around in a vagabond camp, than be King of all England! And tell me now, he would?”
“He wrote me another note to take to you, after I told him of the coming proceedings. Here.” Walter handed him the note. John undid the royal seal, and read aloud,
“‘If I know my own father’s stubbornness as I know my resolve, you will go out on that stage with an assumption of personal divinity, and leave it a lifeless study in the contrary. I beg of you to flee the city, and come live at the retreat with me. If not, name Walter as your heir.’ That is what he says.” Walter was as surprised as his King. They had whispered all this time, but now a great bellow cut through the quiet of the room.
“Your King will now speak!” John stared at Walter for a time, then turned to go. Walter quickly reached out to grab him,
“You can’t go out there, you’ll be assassinated by Gregory’s men before you say a word!”
“Guards!” Several guards appeared from the hall. “take this man to my stable, outfit him with a horse, then see him off northwards. He knows where to go.” The guards grabbed hold of Justice Walter and dragged him away.
John hobbled slowly out onto the stage and started to speak, “I have been your King for a long time,” he addressed the crowd, “too long.” There were gasps all around, and a sudden uproar. John used his hand to signal for quiet, “I have found a law that allows a living King to name his successor. I enact this now with all of you as witness.” From the corner of his eye, John noticed a small man stringing a crossbow from the left balcony, but he forged ahead regardless. “I hereby proclaim, under oath of my house, family, and honor, that I cede my title and accompanying lands, wealth, and status to Ri…” The crossbow bolt hit him in the upper neck, silencing him forever.