Friday, May 16, 2008


Now for something a bit different ...

Catherine, Queen of Lyonesse, was crowned on St. Barnabas' Day of the year one thousand and thirty-five, as reckoned from King Ambrose, raised on a shield by the ancient Lords and Commons as their champion against the Emperor Theodosian.

As she knelt, rose, and knelt again, amid organ and choirs and heady incense, Catherine traced her royal predecessors. Once she had given her coronation oath there was little more for her to do. She had here three hundred servitors, and in the Cathedral of St. Pelagius, unlike the secular world outside, they all knew their duties. She even knew her own.

Surely on this occasion, Catherine supposed, her thoughts should be lofty and grave. She had to keep her mind on something as her ladies led her before the altar rail and stripped her of gown and kirtle, leaving nothing to her royal dignity but her shift, and even that fallen about her waist. Bishops in a row as sturdy as pikemen shielded her from her subjects' eyes, save only the Archbishop of Kelliwick's, as he anointed her with holy chrism.

Catherine discovered the first arcanum of monarchs crowned and anointed: Chrism was foul stuff. Archbishop Bromley ladled it with a golden spoon onto her forehead, hands, and between her breasts, and it smelt like a grease-pit never once cleaned in those thousand and thirty-five years since Ambrose. After him came Uther Pendragon and then Arthur, his history well known, and the reason why Catherine's sword of state was an empty scabbard.

The Archbishop finished anointing her, and her ladies drew round to dress her in her coronation robes. Lady Solange de Charleville, though a mere maid of honor and foreigner to boot, had the honor of wiping off the chrism. This faithful companion of Catherine's exile since childhood merited a doubtful privilege or two. Lady Solange wrinkled her nose expressively as she dabbed the stuff off. Her dark eyes met Catherine's. "Memento te mortalem esse!" she whispered in Latin. Remember thou art mortal!

"Soyez conscients de Tunstal Castle!" whispered Catherine back. Solange curtseyed, and finished wiping the chrism. Catherine had not yet committed any of her subjects to Tunstal, and hoped she never would. She would not pray for that, only for the possible. She had already sworn to perform the difficult, to uphold right and defend the Church and the poor.

Tunstal Castle was built in the time of the Saxon kings, but Lady Solange had given the further offense of throwing off Catherine's reckoning of her forebears. After Arthur's fall came troubled times, but at last arose Cedric the Saxon, who conquered yet turned Christian, and gave peace to the Prythonic princes as Arthur had given it to the Saxons. Twenty-seven rightful Saxon kings sat on the throne of Kelliwick during six hundred years. Their names and deeds, ably assisted by Catherine's ladies in waiting, sufficed to get her into her coronation robes.

Her Lord High Admiral had not yet discharged his great guns – that would come later, and perhaps leave something standing of Kelliwick town. For now, as the bishops drew aside to show Catherine's people their anointed sovereign, the acolytes of St. Pelly's let off fresh volleys of billowing incense. It wreathed about her, thick with lemon-blossoms and saffron, and other scents Catherine could not name, but as it lifted she had at last her moment of terror, for she desperately wanted to laugh. In her royal and churchly vestments, pure white linen colobium and supertunica of gold silk, she was clad as an angel – and so an imposter. True angels had the form of much fairer maids than Catherine, as all men knew, and with golden hair not red.

She was spared laughing during her own coronation by the order of ceremony, for next she received her unseen sword of state, the scabbard of Caliburn. The Duke of Ashland girt her with it, his right as first lord of her land. Old Ashland had been her father's friend, and it should have been Henry the Third crowned this day. Catherine blinked back tears, at least infinitely more dignified than laughing. Ashland strapped the scabbard onto her baldric-wise, and for a moment clasped her shoulder.

The Archbishop placed orb and scepter in Catherine's hands. The golden orb, surmounted by a jeweled Cross of St. Pelagius, sat marvellously heavy in her left hand. The twenty-eighth Saxon in rightful succession from Cedric chanced to be Kynthred, anciently writ Cynethrith, last of the Edlings. In the way of the world, her cousin Edwin made himself the twenty-eighth Saxon king.

Yet weighty orb, scepter, and Caliburn's scabbard had nothing availed Edwin the Usurper, nor even his fastness of Tunstal in its lake. For rightful heiress Kynthred had a husband, duke of Guienne in the Aquitaine. So it came to pass in the year of the crown seven hundred and eight, that John of Guienne crossed the Narrow Sea with Kynthred's rightful claim and ten thousand lances. Thus ended Edwin and the Saxon line, and began Catherine's own.

A great hush filled St. Pelagius', all the company of her people kneeling as the Archbishop placed the crown imperial on Catherine's head, its great weight crushing down her unbound hair. She had got this far! The world had never thought she would, because if she was an imposter as an angel, Catherine was plainly a much greater imposter as a king. Yet far above her the bells of St. Pelly's rang out in peal, then other bells, church by church across Kelliwick town. Presently the first great culverin boomed from her castle atop Kelliwick Tor, a vast heavy thud as though God's table were overset. Another spoke, and then another, as Catherine was ushered to Arthur's throne.

Archbishop Bromley paid her his homage, then the rest of the bishops, then her lords temporal beginning with Ashland, the Duke of Prydeland, then their enemies the dukes of Dunfolk and Norrey, and the Earl of Carrickferney for his aged father Tearnac. Well-favored and knowing it, Carrickferney smelt of wine, and blew her a kiss as he swore his fealty. The Church might grant a dispensation for them to marry. Catherine had no intention ever to seek one.

The other earls followed, twelfth among them the Earl of Avalon, Lord High Admiral. He too was well favored to Catherine's mind, with the golden locks she lacked; and he did not smell of drink nor blow her a kiss. Yet nor did he conceal self-satisfaction as another gun boomed. Those same bronze great-pieces, in the lower tiers of his ships, had persuaded King Charles of Aquitaine to restore her to her people.

Even Avalon must think her beautiful, Catherine was sure, with the crown imperial on her head! His forebears had called themselves Lords of the Isles, but King John the First made an end to that as well. Twelve kings of the House of Guienne had ruled in turn, and they made Lyonesse mighty, yet a hunting-arrow in Selwyn Forest cut short the thirteenth. All came full circle now, and a new royal line must await somewhere in the wings. For Catherine was last of her house, together only with her sister Anne.

Choirs and congregation rose in voice and countervoice for the recessional, and were overtopped by the blast of the great-organ filling the air, reverberating from nave and transcept. Crowned and anointed, Catherine de Guienne rose from her throne. Forty-three Kings of Lyonesse had sat there before her, never before a queen. She had no husband to draw a sword for her, and she had vowed to take none till she could give him as dowry a kingdom in good order.

How she was to accomplish this Catherine did not know, only that by God's grace she would try.


Anonymous said...

Very vivid word-picture. It really brings to life an alternate history. This is an interesting story with interesting characters with interesting problems. Great story.

Rick said...

Thanks! I suppose it is a form of that notorious fantasy sin, the Prologue. Though at least in this case the story proper starts minutes later, in the narthex of the church.

DinduGoy(ransomcheckyouremail) said...

I enjoyed it. I don't think that it is a prologue. More like a chapter either early on or the first chapter in second book.

Rick said...

Ten extra points for following the link chain!

I suppose I thought 'Prologue' mainly because of the style. Which in turn comes from trying to capture something that is easy to visualize but hard to render into prose.