The Hollow Crown

Prologue

And nothing can we call our own but death


And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,


Wallachia 1486

The cloth was more piss than gold, and slopped over disjointed limbs and damp silk, it looked more like a peasant's blanket than a princely shroud; a river of sickly yellow piss cascading over yet another corpse. The third that month.

"May God have mercy on her poor soul," murmured Father Aurel piously, his fat fingers tracing the shape of a cross over the broken body. "God grant her peace in his eternal kingdom. In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spirtus Sancti. Amen.

"Amen," echoed congregation, bald heads bowed and glistening in the candlelight. "God have mercy, Amen."

"Close her eyes, boy. Give the poor creature some peace," wheezed Father Aurel, shuffling away from the damp corpse as fast as his wobbly legs could carry him. Novice Ionel helped him descended the crooked steps, his own bulbous nose surreptitiously buried in the voluptuous sleeves of his tattered brown robes.

The boy sympathised. When he moved towards the frail carcass, the rotting stench of the Mother breathed over him, all clammy and sour, trickling down the back of his throat.

He forced back bile, his fingers reaching out to touch a face that was almost slimy to the touch, greased by the river, and so cold it could have been carved out of ice.

They would not close; those dreadful eyes had followed him all afternoon. They had wanted her dressed for burial, and he had tried, tried so hard to make her look beautiful, to look sweet and haunting like something out of the stories, or the songs.

An hour he had spent, just brushing her hair until those limp locks were as smooth and soft as lamb's wool, spun out around her like an ebony halo. He had tried to gentle those features, to unclench her tightened fists, to wash the blood from her face; from her belly and from her legs, where it had been pasted like thick brown treacle around a child's mouth.

It had all been for naught. Her face remained terrible; ghoulishly pale, her cheeks swollen, bruise and bloated to the touch, like rotting fruit. A puckered line jarred down from her widow's peak. Livid and pink, it slashed down her hooked nose to the tips of her pale lips, lowered into an eternal grimace.

An angry corpse, he had thought when she had washed up. A scorned lover or a grieving mother. He had spent an age trying to pry open her cold clenched fists, and even then all it had earned him was a lump of rusted steel.

Her eyes had been the worst though. Jade, and bloodshot white, they had looked up at him and seemed to scream. I will see you, they taunted, in your dreams. Like the baby that had washed up almost a moon ago, that was buried under an apple tree in the yard.

Now Father Aurel expected him to wrestle them shut before Brother Joszef and Brother Imrus. Three times her tried before Brother Imrus lost patience and mounted the steps, shoving him aside so forcefully that he almost toppled down the steps.

"Now may she sleep," muttered the monk, but even with the eyes shut she didn't look like she was sleeping. She was the most miserable corpse the boy had ever laid eyes on, and that was including fat old Brother Adam who'd been too big to ride his mule by the end, and had died squatted on his chamber pot.

Once it was done, Brother Imrus walked with him back to the stables. The boy liked Brother Imrus, even if Brother Imrus didn't seem to like the boy, or his other brothers, or even the Abbott, or anyone except the mules, and the stray half-feral cats that held dominion over the barn.

"You still got the cross?" the monk asked, ducking as they entered the barn.

Old Silver gave a low whiney when she saw them, and tossed back her head to dislodge a fly. The boy scratched behind her ears, breathing in the warm stench of straw, piss, shit, and donkey. Compared the reek coming off the dead girl, it was as fragrant as lavender oil and incense.

"Yes Brother," he said dutifully, bringing the silver out of his tunic. It wasn't even delicate or light like a lady's was supposed to be. It was heavy and chipped, and the silver on the chain was almost blackened to copper. A man's cross. Her lover's, he had supposed but now he wondered. Her husband's?

"Keep it safe," ordered Brother Imrus brusquely. "If you lose that boy, I'll shove a broom so far up your arse, it'll reach somewhere not even the old Prince could find."

"Yes Brother," said the Boy, reaching over to pat old Silver's neck. Brother Imrus was always threatening him, and boxing his ears, but the boy didn't mind. If he was in a mood, the monk would tell stories to him of the wars, and if the boy brought him wine, sometimes he'd tell him other stories as well.

"Was it really her?" the boy asked, after he heard the magical sound of a gasping throat gurgling back something red, thick, and probably sour.

"Aye," said Brother Imrus, sighing like a saved man, "Aye boy. It was her. God have mercy."

"She didn't look like what I thought," said the boy, picking up a bristled, thorny old brush. He began to stroke it through Old Silver's mane, and couldn't help but wonder that the stubborn old mule was better groomed than she had been.

The monk chuckled, taking another swig of wine as he cast a dark eye over him. "Seen many ladies then boy? Did Lord Markus parade his daughters before your father at the forge? Or did you dine with them up at the palace?"

The boy scowled and said nothing. I ain't never seen royalty before, but I've seen ladies. When he was a boy, he'd grown up in a village up near Risiorii and once Lord Markus had come riding through his wife and other nobles.

All of them had worn furs, and silks, and pearls at their necks. They'd flittered through on litters and thoroughbreds, like fairies from a song, with laughter on their lips and diamonds on their fingers. They were real ladies. From the tales.

"She has his look," remarked the monk quietly, his hands pausing before they brought the cask up to his lips. "Or at least she has his eyes. I'll never forget those eyes."

Neither will I, the boy knew. He could still see them now. God protect me. God forgive me.

"God have mercy on her. God have mercy on them. It'll all go to hell now. I wouldn't want to be them turning up empty handed. That'll be a pretty picture…." The monk chuckled, and but the look in his eye was almost hungry.

The boy said nothing. There was nothing to say. People fought, people died. When he was younger, he'd wanted to be a solider, but now they were dredged up so often in the river, that he was glade he was going to be a monk.

Monks didn't die cold and wet, they died fat and holy, if they were clever enough, and they ate three times a day, and drank strong ale or sour wine. He'd die in his bed. He would go peacefully in his sleep like Father Ioan or Brother Nicu, dreaming of the apostles and the angels.

"She still didn't look right," said the boy, later once Old Silver, Young Bastard and Pretty Pip had been attended too. By then Brother Imrus was curled up under the eaves on an empty stall, his chin tilted back, black eyes gazing up at nothing but clammy wood and sleeping crows.

"You wouldn't look so pretty after a stint in the Mother either. Or were you expecting Princess Luana to wash up? You are a stupid idiot," said Brother Imrus scornfully.

Heat rushed to the boy's cheeks and he turned his head away.

She should have been pretty, he wanted to say. She should have looked sad and graceful, with ivory cheeks and a gown of black silk. That was how they always appeared in the songs. Except she hadn't been and it wasn't right. She should have been like Princess Luana or Ileana Cosánzeana.

Then he could have made a story about her; he could have wrote it down now he knew his letters, and the other monks would have read it, and old Father Aurel would have wept, and some bard somewhere would hear of it and make a ballad to play to the Bishop or the Lords and Ladies at court.

He could have made her into something. Washed up and mutilated, she was nothing. Just another dead girl dragged in from the river. She hadn't even looked much older than him.

Nothing, thought the boy, drifting into an uneasy sleep. You're nothing now, Princess.

OoOoOoOoOoO

I apologise for once again redrafting my chapters. I pinky-promise that this will be the last time, and that I will hopefully be updating more regularly now that I have some free time on my hands! Thank you all for your patience. Or if you are completely new to this story, then please ignore the aforementioned note, and continue on.

*Princess Luana and Ileana Cosánzeana are heroines from traditional Romanian folklores.