The Tragedy of King Alexander the Stag
Story © by Delia Sherman, may not be reproduced in any form without the author’s express written permission. • Illustrations © by Colleen Doran. • Originally published in Colleen Doran’s A Distant Soil, 2000. • Part of the World of Riverside.
Of the Kings who died young, some fell in battle and some to the wizards’ sacrificial knife after only one Progress or two, in times of peace. And such a one was Alexander, who might have been a great leader had he been born in a seemlier time, under a gentler wizard. For he chafed under Guidry’s rule and questioned his precepts, and thought to have brought a queen into the Royal Park and would have changed all manner of things for love of her.
Not long after Alexander had endured his trial and his crowning, he called upon a noble of the Council of Nobles in the royal city, and dined with him in the hall of his house. According to the custom of the day, the noble did him all honor, carving the king’s meat to him with his own hands and setting his own daughter to stand behind his chair and pour his wine and hold the basin for his fingers. Now his daughter Rosamond was as black and silver as a moonlit night, and the king’s eye falling upon her, desired her for his bed and his pleasure. Which pleasure the maiden was fain to render him; for he was comely and warlike to look upon, with rubies plaited in his long pale hair. And so they lay together, not one night only as the custom was, but whenever he might with honor escape from his duties, and there grew between them a love that was not of the body only, but of the heart and spirit, a love common to all human kind but forbidden to kings.
A Chronicle-History of the Northern Monarchs—Nicholas Hollis
Alexander lay in his lover’s arms and was happy. He had slept after he’d loved her, and wakened deep in the night with his head butted into her soft breast, her hair and her arms twined around him. Under the furs, the air was warm and damp and fragrant with musk. He sighed and rolled away, knowing he’d wake her, knowing that this was the time for talk and kisses, before morning and Guidry called him back to duty.
“What are you thinking?” she said in his ear, very soft and slurred, half-dreaming still.
“How I’d like to stay here forever,” he answered.
“Forever is a long time.” There was a smile in her voice. “Two days in bed, and you’d be fretting for your horse and your Companions, wondering what he was doing, who he was talking to, what he was planning.”
Alexander eased his arm under her shoulders, which she lifted to accommodate him, and gathered her to him. She was a tall woman, with a deep bosom and haunches round as a doe’s. Yet she seemed small beside the long-limbed, muscled bulk of her lover.
“I wouldn’t stay in bed,” he told her. “I would walk with you in the gardens and ride with you in the wood with a falcon on my wrist. I’d play Castles with your father and teach your little brother how to ride. And every night, I’d lie beside you and rest my head on my favorite pillow. How soft you are,” he went on, cupping her breast.
Rosamond nuzzled into his neck and his silky hair, but said nothing.
“Why, you’re afraid of something,” he murmured. “You’re trembling like a doe waiting for the hunter to pass. What have you to fear? I am here and I stand between you and every harm.”
“Every harm?” she whispered.
“Certainly.” He leaned up on his elbow, trying to pierce the darkness to her face. “What is it, my love? What is the King’s mistress afraid of?”
“You,” she answered. “Him. Guidry. The law of the Land, that governs all you do.”
“Not all,” he protested, laughing. “The Land does not send me to your bed night after night. And Guidry has said nothing against you.”
“He is displeased, though. How could he not be? I’ve taken you away from him, I’ve broken your bonds, I’ve. . .”
“Enough.” Alexander sat up, found tinder-box and candle, and struck a light. When he saw that she was weeping, he rubbed his face against her and licked her neck comfortingly, and still she wept until he grew angry.
“I’ve told you, there's nothing to fear,” he said. “But if you will not believe that I am strong enough to protect what’s mine from harm, I will leave you to your weeping. Perhaps I will return and perhaps I won't. I have no desire to be drowned in salt water.”
Rosamond sat up and wiped her face on the linen sheet. “I am with child,” she said thickly. “Your child.”
Alexander stared at her, eyes wide in his long face, and then he grinned, and then he shouted and hugged her to him, furs, linens, and all. “How long have you known?" he demanded between kisses. “Why did you not tell me? How could you think I would be angry? When will it be born? What shall we name it? Do you know how much I love you?”
He gave her no time to answer, but kissed her again and again, kisses leading to loving and loving to sleep, so that it was morning before they spoke again of the child to come and of Guidry.
“It’s very simple,” Alexander said. He pulled an embroidered tunic over his head and shook out his long, pale hair. The stones with which it was braided clicked as he tossed it back over his shoulder. “Guidry will accept your living in the Royal Park. He has no choice—he is bound to me as I am to him. Unless I perform the rites with him, he has no magic.”
"It is not simple,” she said, but he didn't hear her. He rubbed his cheek against her head and left her.
Outside, the air was green and damp, with an undercurrent of wood smoke and horse dung. Alexander filled his nose and lungs with it, then ambled away from Rosamond’s house towards the Royal Park and the compound and the training fields to Guidry’s grove.
He found Guidry in the outermost of the sacred places, sitting in the embrace of a huge oak-stump carved into a chair. He was writing in a leather-covered book.
“Welcome, my king,” he said as the young man drew close. “The omens are right for a new progress. The route is set and the maidens’ names are chosen. We will leave tomorrow.”
Guidry looked up from his writing. He was a massive, dark man like a bear, with a bear’s blunt face and small eyes set deep under a heavy brow. “I cannot think I heard you aright, my king.”
“You could hear a seed take root,” said Alexander bitterly. “I will not go on progress. I just went on progress.”
Guidry shrugged. “Two years ago. It is time. And you liked the last one well enough.”
“Two years ago, I had not met Rosamond," said the king.
“You need children.”
“I have children—over a hundred of them, at last count.”
“One hundred and thirty-two,” said Guidry, and stroked his grizzled beard. “You father had more than three hundred.”
The king made a huffing noise. “One hundred and thirty-three. Rosamond is pregnant. And I will not leave her in order to copulate with a hundred drugged and bespelled virgins whose faces I will not see and whose voices I will not remember, just to supply officers for my successor’s army. I love her and I’m going to bring her here to live until her baby’s born.”
Guidry put aside his quill and his book. “You would bring a woman to live here, in the Royal Park?”
“And where would she live?”
“In my quarters, with me.”
“And what will she do there? From the youngest prince to the most venerable of the wizards, each has his place in the great chain of magic binding us to the Land. Where is her place, eh?”
The king’s nostrils flared and he lowered his head stubbornly. “Rosamond is my comfort and my mate.”
“Have you forgotten, my king? I am your comfort and your mate.” Guidry darted out a great hand and caught the king’s wrist. As he twisted it to display the wreath of oak and ivy tattooed around the king’s sinewy forearm, the sleeve of Guidry’s robe fell away from the holly leaves that sprang green and living from the flesh of his arm.
“I have not forgotten that I am bound to you,” said the king between his teeth. “I can never forget that.”
“Then how can you speak to me of comforts and mates?” growled Guidry, and flung the king’s arm from him. “How can you speak to me of women? Women are like the Land. They belong to the king, to be ploughed and sown with the seed of future generations. Only common men cleave to one woman.”
“I love her, Guidry.”
“It is your duty to love me.”
“I fear you,” said the king. “I desire the ecstasy I feel when we come together in power. That is not love.”
“It is the love between a wizard and a king. It is the love you have sworn to me.”
“I didn’t know,” the young king cried. “I didn’t know comfort or peace or joy until I knew Rosamond. I have been reborn in her arms, and am no longer the man who swore to love you, and only you, all the days of my life.”
“Are you then no longer king?”
Beyond words, the king trumpeted with rage and charged head-long at the wizard, who grinned a toothy grin. The holly leaves bristled on his arms, and his black eyes glittered furiously below his brows. He caught the king’s battering fists in hands strong as vises and wrestled with him, each muscle straining. A twist and a heave, and the king lay on the ground with his face in the grass and Guidry kneeling over him, holding him by the wrists and his long hair.
“Do you submit?” Guidry growled.
“No,” said the king into the soil.
Guidry pulled up on the imprisoned wrists until every sinew in the king’s back creaked and his shoulders threatened to pop from their sockets. Then he made a disgusted sound and let him go. “You are not a recalcitrant wizard,” he said, “to yield up your will to me, mewing and begging. You are my king, and I am your wizard. We serve the land side by side.”
The king rolled over onto his back, panting. “I was not mewing.”
“Nor begging. And you would probably swallow your own tongue rather than do either. That’s why I chose you among the little kings and prepared you for your trial. You are a warrior, not a lover.”
“I can be both.”
“Only to me. Remember, you are not as human as you once were.”
The king lay still, his tattooed arm shading his eyes. Smiling up at his wizard, his subject and his lord, he said, “I’m human enough to make bargains. I will come to your bed and perform my part in the rituals of power and lead the army against the Southern King when the treaty fails. And Rosamond will come into the Park and live here in peace and honor.”
“Until her child is born,” said Guidry.
The king rose in a single movement, tall and shining against the dark leaves of the grove. “At least until my child is born.”
It is said in the poem called “The King’s Lament,” that the king offered prayers to the Land that the child be a girl and share her mother’s fate and not her father’s, to be servant to the land and both less and more than a man. But his prayers did not find favor with the land, for the child was a boy, to be taken from his mother in his fifth year and brought up among the other princes of his father’s getting.
A Chronicle-History of the Northern Monarchs—Nicholas Hollis
Guidry sat cross-legged on a rock, whetting his knife. At his back was a hill and a cave and a cold, black stream. At his face was a small clearing carpeted with moss and flowering vines, and a round, deep pool that returned the gaze of the cloudless sky like an eye. It was noon, or close enough.
The king would be here soon.
He’d known the price of his kingship from the beginning. They’d all known—the king’s sons—since they were brought into the Royal Park when they were five years old. Kings gave their lives to the land. While they lived, they gave their hands, their minds, and their seed. At their death, they gave their blood.
In the distance, a hunting horn sounded, clear and cold in the still air. Around the glade, oak and ivy whispered eagerly together, and the pool shuddered into a ring of ripples. Guidry laid aside the whetstone and tried the glittering black blade against his thumb. It cut deep, and almost without pain. Satisfied, he hung the knife from his girdle and rose.
The Land trembled against his bare soles, setting the vines nodding. It was eager, scenting blood. Or perhaps it was angry at the insult the king had offered it, or fearful, reflecting the king’s fear. It was the Land, unhuman, and no man might know what it felt. Guidry knew what it wanted, though, and loved it more than he loved any of his kings. He stooped and laid his hand upon the earth, stroking, soothing.
Beyond the glade, there was a noise of broken wood, of hooves striking sparks from stone, and a rumor of male voices shouting, “The deer! The deer!” Guidry straightened, planted his feet in the moss and damp earth, and waited.
Something like a white mist clouded the holly bushes at the clearing’s edge. It was a white deer, a stag with a fine, wide rack of horns, its pale flanks dappled with blood and streaked with green from its headlong flight through the wood. It broke through the holly and stumbled to the pool, where it stood with its flanks heaving and its nose bowed to the clear water.
Guidry said, “Alexander.”
The stag jerked up its head, pricked its leaf-like ears forward, and roared. The attitude revealed a golden chain and a fine woven band, crimson as new blood, lying snugly against its creamy throat.
“You aren’t going to give in, are you?” murmured Guidry, almost tenderly. “That’s why I chose you. That’s why you might have been the greatest of our kings. Now that honor must go to your son.”
The stage came to attention.
“It need not have come to this," Guidry said. “Not now; not yet. I might have allowed you to play at families with your mistress and your child in the Royal park for two or three years yet. But you must plot to fly to the South, to our ancient enemies.”
Guidry pulled his feet from the earth and stalked, as it were a tree walking, towards the pool and the white stag. “You plotted to fly, with the woman and the child, to rob the Land of your hands, your mind, your seed, your blood. For love. For human love."
Guidry was now within arm’s reach of the stag, whose legs were trembling with its desire to bolt, whose nostrils flared with its desire to attack.
“Yes, yes,” said Guidry. “You are very brave, very strong, and very beautiful. The Land will grow strong on your blood.”
Guidry drew the black knife from his girdle and the stag rolled its eyes at him, blue as the pool at its feet and startlingly human in its narrow face. It lifted its head proudly, and the sun drew diamond from the polished edge, then ruby from the blood that sprang from the white throat. For a moment, King Alexander stood at the pool’s edge, a naked man crowned with horn and cloaked with blood and his long, pale hair. And then he collapsed upon the moss.
Guidry knelt by the king’s body and thrust his blade three times into the earth to clean it. Then he closed the blue eyes, kissed the parted lips, and heaved the corpse across his shoulders to carry it into the cave.
And it is said that Rosamond’s son was that Montjoy, called the Diplomat, Chosen by Guidry’s successor Alaric and tested in his seventeenth year, who compounded with the queen of the South, and went with his Wizard and his Companions to dwell with her as King of a new land in her capital city. And his life was long as his father’s was not, who was written in the Lists of Kings as Alexander the Stag, for that he was headstrong and quarrelsome in his season and died to bring plenty to the Land.
A Chronicle-History of the Northern Monarchs—Nicholas Hollis