Pestilence Sampler

My beloved son,

If you are reading this, then you know that I have taken no steps to alter the succession. Whether that will be my conscious decision or whether fate will intervene to take that decision from my hands is unknown as I write this. Perhaps that is for the best, for it frees me to say the words that are in my heart and in my mind, unencumbered by any foreknowledge of what may transpire.

As I look at the familiar handwriting, tears well in my eyes, causing the words on the page to blur. No less a blur are the events of the past week. It’s hard even to remember that a mere nine days ago I was enjoying a pleasant holiday with family and friends at my parents’ country manor. It’s still difficult to take in the fact that, despite all our efforts, Ralf has taken his vengeance by taking my father’s life.

For one thing I’m grateful – that I was there at the end and that he knew I was holding his hand as he passed into the next world. After he took his last breath, the silence in the room seemed to last an eternity. No one moved for a very long time. Finally, the bishop had no choice. He stepped to the side of the chair where I sat next to my father’s bedside. Placing his hand on my shoulder and looking across the bed at my uncle Rupert, he said very quietly, “I have no special instructions.”

In our tradition, the king’s will is lodged with the bishop for safekeeping in the vaults of the church. A king may specify the succession for two generations in his will. If he does so, he provides the bishop with a separate document of special instructions to be read and acted upon before the next king is declared. If he doesn’t, the rules of primogeniture apply.

The bishop stepped back to the head of the bed and turned to address the room. Quietly, but with great authority, he intoned those dreadful words of transition. “The King is dead.” Then, looking directly at my elder brother, John, “Long live the King.” Rupert and I each made our way to the new king and delivered the ancient pledge of loyalty.

A state of affairs that so many had tried and so much had been done to forestall was now upon us. My brother is ill-suited by temperament, intellect, and attitude to be king – a fact of which we were all reminded as we watched his response to the bishop’s words and our pledges. He held his head high, looking down his nose to accept our pledges rather than deigning to bend his neck. His chest puffed out like a peacock seeking a mate . . . so much that one could easily imagine the tail feathers fanned out in grandiose display behind him.

He then gave the bishop what seemed to me a rather menacing look. Undaunted, the bishop moved slowly to the door that exits into the private reception room where the lords of the kingdom were gathered. Opening the door, he once again intoned those fateful words, and John walked into the outer room, followed by the rest of us. At almost the same instant, the opposite door opened and Gwen, my wife, rushed to my side, followed by Richard, one of my four great friends since childhood, all sons of hereditary lords of the realm. Richard and Laurence are heirs to the Devereux and Montfort domains, respectively. Phillip has already become Lord Thorssen, his father having perished alongside King Harold when their party was mistaken for the advance guard of a rebel force during an unfortunate expedition in the Kingdom Across the Southern Sea. Alone among my mates, Samuel Ernle will never be a lord, being the third son in his father’s large family; but he’s distinguished himself in the knighthood, most recently as Captain of the King’s Own Guard.

The lords made their pledges, which John accepted with the same haughty demeanor he’d shown to me and our uncle. “Devereux,” he addressed the first lord of the realm in a commanding tone. “We’ll have the funeral two days hence and the coronation the day after.”

Lord Devereux couldn’t suppress his look of complete astonishment. “With all due respect, Your Grace,” he began.

And then my mother completely lost her composure – something I don’t believe I’ve ever seen in my entire life. “Nooooooooo,” she wailed, running to John and beating on his chest with her palms. “No, no, no, no, no. You can’t do that. He was your father. He was our king. He deserves your respect.”