King Lear/The Pillars of the Earth
The life and times of Regan of Cornwall, later Regan Hamleigh.
AKA: the fic that ruined my life for an evening. RUINED MY LIFE.
The confessional booth is prettily decorated, carved with the Virgin standing before a sky starred with fleur-de-lis—the French, she thinks, are so intolerably French—but small when she climbs in, uncomfortably so. She has not been in one since she was a child, it feels. How long has it been, then, since she was a child—longer felt than lived. She is young yet. Covering her cheek in the mirror, she could be pretty yet. Her palm clasps to her cheek in the darkened chamber, and she drops it, looks down at her lap. If God is watching, her little hand will not do much for her.
She knots her hands together, drops her eyes. If Goneril was here, she would laugh. Goneril, more clearsighted than any God to Regan, but this is blasphemy and Goneril is God’s now, or the devil’s more like. She shudders in a breath. The devil is not language, then. The devil is waiting, and it’s all she can do not to cry out aloud.
“Yes, my child?”
The priest’s voice is gentle, prying.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been some months since my last confession.” A year is compact of months, she thinks; she lost track in the war and she is lying to God’s chosen already and she is damned, damned a thousand times over.
“I have lied, Father. I have cheated Death and bid him take my sister’s life as my own, and he did. I have outlived my sister and my husband and the man I loved, and I have come to a new kingdom with blood on my hands, and Death has turned his back on me.”
“Would you rather he sought you out?”
“No.” Regan bites her lip, teeth fitting into a furrow she's already left behind, bites until she can just taste blood. The skin does not break. “Of course not.”
“My child, what is your name?” the priest asks, and she knows it is not God bidding that he ask: she is not so ignorant.
“I am Regan, widow of Cornwall, daughter of the late mad King Lear.”
“Would you like to regain your place in the state?”
“I would rather nothing else—” She pauses. It is a priest. Not a very good priest, but a priest nonetheless. “If God wills it, of course,” she finishes primly, and somewhere Goneril is laughing, somewhere in hell Goneril is laughing, somewhere in hell Goneril and Edmund are together, and here on earth Regan feels the pious words turn to sludge in her mouth.
“Of course God wills it,” the priest says, smooth and reassuring. “Would he put a princess such as yourself through such trials for no reason but debasement?”
“That is between you and he,” she replies. “He’s not spoken to me.”
“Have a care, Lady Regan. We are in God’s house.”
“Come out of God’s cubbyhole and talk to me face to face, priest.”
“You are blasphemous, princess.”
“No, priest, merely presumptuous. You mustn’t call me princess—I have no kingdom at my back.”
“It is a token of my respect.”
“You cannot respect me if you do not look me in the eye.”
She stands, crouches her way through the doorway, and waits. The man who emerges from the other side is older than Theobald and uglier than her father in his dotage, but with cleverer, keener eyes than anyone she’s ever seen. He inclines his head. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
She offers her hand, and he touches her fingers. “Lady Regan of Cornwall.”
“Father Waleran Bigod.”
“What would you have me do, Father Waleran? Not penitence, I think.”
“No, milady. I would rather make use of the blood on your hands.”
“A novel thing for a priest to say to a murderer.”
“You are not a murderer, Lady Regan. You are a woman of the state; you are above such baseness. Yet I think you would not have that blood go to waste.”
“No.” She thinks, again, of Goneril—stabbed through the heart by her own knife, Regan’s name the last on her lips. Not Edmund’s. Regan’s. Inhaling sharply, she looks the priest in the face. “Once more, I would ask what you would have me do.”
“A woman of the state deserves absolution in the name of the state,” he says, and she looks at him aslant.
“Did milord de Blois bid you put these sayings to me?”
“Milord de Blois asked nothing. Milord de Blois is a man of piety.”
“Yes.” Father Waleran inclines his head. “He is privy to that most human of frailties; it is in his blood. But he is a man of piety all the same.”
“He looks kindly on you.”
“Indeed, and I mean to reward his diligence.”
“You are a good woman of your court, milady. I mean to restore you to it.”
“My court is in England, Father. Not in France.”
“Just so. You shall be in England before we see next winter.”
She presses her lips together and nods silently.
“Come back tomorrow,” Father Waleran says. “God is not finished with you, milady.”
“I think you are not finished.”
“I am His servant,” he replies and bows his head one final time. She watches him walk away and thinks that there is something untouchable and dignified even in his assumed humility—like as not because it is assumed.
That night, she lies in bed and touches her stomach, trying to map the deep twist in the base of her gut beneath her hands. She can still feel the bones of her hips beneath her hands. Not for long, she thinks. Not for long.
Edmund, she thinks, eyes open and tearless and staring into the blackness of the room around her. Her eyes feel solid and brittle in her head, as if they could break apart on hairline cracks of blood. Edmund, she thinks, heavy and nauseous and impossibly full from the inside out.
“I need a husband, Father,” she says.
“That would make your position easier.” He nods. “I will speak with God, milady, and shall tell you what He has to say.”
She snorts indelicately, echoing in the rafters. The chapel of Blois is small and shabby and shadowed—a house of God should have more light, she thinks. Even she knows that.
Still, she comes back the next day and sits in the front pew alone until Father Waleran sits by her side.
He leans in, presses his hand atop hers. “Sir Percy Hamleigh,” he says, low in her ear. “He’s here from the English court.”
“And what shall I do with Sir Percy?”
“Whatever it is you women do. He will charm to you quite easily, I think—”
She recoils. “A common knight?”
“A knight ascendant. Harness him to someone clever, and I’ve no doubt he’ll gain a proper title before long.”
“A clever wife.”
“Does milord Stephen de Blois mean to sell me like chattel?”
“Milord Stephen knows nothing of the subject, but would look favorably on the match. Sir Percy has done nothing to disgrace himself in the eyes of the court.”
“He’s done nothing.” She sniffs. “Is that all I am to expect? I am to charter my body to the unexceptional?”
“Have you earned so much more, milady?”
She falls silent.
“This is a question of need, Lady Regan. Yours,” Father Waleran says, low in her ear, “not mine.”
He leaves her in her pew, her head bowed down and her hands clasped together in her lap. A pious picture, she knows. Curled together, her nails dig into the backs of her hands until blood wells in the furrows they leave behind.
That night, she dances. She is young, yet. She is pretty, yet. She turns her cheek to Sir Percy deliberately, greets him in a soft voice. He leans in to hear her when she speaks, close enough to smell the perfume on her breath.
She has been swallowing perfume, candlewax, bitter and brittle, craving their tastes more than food. The sluggishness in her blood is not legacy, the mad humor of her cravings not heritage. This is new. She needs a husband, and she smiles from beneath her lashes just as her sister once did. She wears black, pale skin, eyes cast down. In and out of the church, the court murmurs favorably of her: so pious, so mild, a woman of God. Sir Percy speaks to her gently.
“It is difficult,” she says, voice tremulous, “to be alone and not in one’s own God-given country. I miss English soil.”
He nods with somber eyes.
She will have him before the week is out.
At the wedding, Father Waleran recites the vows, and she watches his face, not her husband’s, as she is ringed and given away. Walking back down the aisle, she sways on her feet against the press of incense and flowers in the air. It is all she can do not to tear the bouquets apart, to split the stems beneath her nails, to shove the petalled heads whole into her mouth. Instead, she smiles at her new husband, eats small bites of fowl at the table, vomits covertly and delicately into a bush outside, and tries not to watch the jugglers too closely. Her head is swimming, her stomach tossed about to the pace of the minstrels’ tunes.
“Shall we dance, dear one?” Percy asks, touching her elbow like she is something precious and fine, and she nods as best she can manage.
She stands at the head of the dancing-hall, and the lutes kick in merrily. One step, she manages, and another, and then her knees buckle and she crumples to the floor.
Percy rushes forward, bends to touch her cheek. “Are you hurt, wife?”
“Not at all.” She shakes her head dizzily, looks up at him through the fluttering cast of her lashes. “Only overwhelmed—with joy, of course.”
They leave early. He holds her hand as she steps into his chamber; Father Waleran has stepped through first. He blesses the bed, and she tries to hold in her laughter. It lasts until he has kissed his fingers and pressed them to the pillow, until the courtiers who followed them upstairs have departed. Percy gets up and shuts the door.
She removes her gown but leaves her chemise on, pulling it up over her hips when she lies back. “You’re a beautiful woman, Lady Regan,” he says, fumbling with his breeches.
“I thank you, husband,” she says, eyes cast toward the ceiling. “You mustn’t lie to me, though. Not now. We are man and wife, and you must speak honestly to me if I am to be a good wife to you.”
He inserts himself into her. They are man and wife indeed. No union forged in blood, this; no toast with battlefields and wine. She feels the bond between them: thin and flimsy as an unknotted string.
He breathes hot against her ear. “You are a good woman.”
You must not lie to your wife, she thinks. He knows not what she does, though, and, willing herself not to turn away, she touches his cheek with something that she believes could bloom into affection—someday, perhaps, if given enough time.
He gives her nothing but mead to drink for the next week, honey-liquor to beget male heirs. She drains every cup, slowly, bemused. “I am meant to sire sons, milord,” she promises him. “I would not know what to do with a daughter.”
She envisions the daughter she would make. A new print of her own face, unmarked: another Goneril. She shudders and closes her eyes, tips back another glass of honey wine and another until the world swims.
It’s another month before she starts to swell, barely noticeably, under her own hand. Summer rises and falls, and the heat brings her daily to her knees, drunk and dangerous with it; when the air finally breaks, she is full as a kettle screaming over the flames and Percy’s friends have begun to toast him nightly at the table, spilling ale in the name of her and her womb. The chill nips through the heat, the fruit begins to die on the vine, and still they stagnate on French soil.
“What does God want with me and mine here?” she snaps to Bishop Waleran. “Shall my son grow up French?”
“Wait,” he says. “God does not like your impatience, and nor do I.”
“I can speak for two, Father. I think you cannot do the same.”
“Wait,” he says again, complacently, and she must trust him. There is a smile quirking his thin lips. If she were anyone else, she would not like that look: it is not a reassuring grin. Yet it is the closest thing to hope that she has been given in months.
It grows cold: she can taste the shift in the air, they say pregnant women become attuned to such things. She thinks she could eat the air whole, if she just opened her mouth and bit.
The air changes, and the son of the king of England comes to court.
His name is William, called William Adelin for his legitimacy, and he makes the room alternately silent and too loud around him; she does not believe that he notices. At meals, she watches him, the way he cups his drink negligently in his hand, the way his head lolls late into the evening, tipping his golden curls back. He is languid by the firelight of the evening, not on his guard. Rex designatus, she thinks; he should know better. The shadows lie across his exposed white throat like knives. Percy is not watching him, not until she tugs at his sleeve.
“What think you of the heir apparent?”
“The princeling?” Percy shrugs. “He’s palace-bred, and it shows. Doesn’t do a lad good.”
“No,” she thinks, and looks to the head of the table, at Theobald and Stephen, at Stephen’s face, and her hand, holding a cup of wine to her lips, stills. Stephen’s face is thin and hollow and his eyes reflect the flames held in the sconces, looking at William, seeing nothing but William—she knows, immediately, and feels it in the familiar place, the base of her stomach, like an unborn heartbeat. Theobald lays a hand on Stephen’s wrist. Stephen shakes his head, looks away, and Regan understands, deep, down to the bone.
“It’s too cold to hunt,” she hears the prince complain to one of his companions, shaking his curls. Even his naked head is gold as a crown, better polished than any true metal. He gleams like fool’s gold in the firelight. “What’s the use of coming to France if you can’t go after a decent French boar?”
“You will be home soon,” someone says, “back with crown and country,” and the prince laughs, stands, silencing the court with a shrug of his shoulders.
“Let us toast to my father, across the channel,” he says, and all along the table, the lords and ladies lift their cups. “Long may he reign. He sends his best to Blois.” William turns toward Stephen, tips his cup. “Obviously,” he says: he laughs first, and the whole table falls to laughing second.
Stephen raises his cup. “To my uncle,” he says. “We accept his love and return it tenfold.”
William sits. William Adelin, rex designatus, more title than man.
Stephen Adelin, she thinks, merely curious as to how it sounds. It sounds well—not given, perhaps, but won.
“Stephen Adelin,” she says to Father Waleran the next day, barely voicing the words at all. “Is that what you’re thinking?”
Father Waleran smiles indulgently. “It’s not that simple, is it?”
No. You cannot just bestow a name and expect it to stick, she thinks. It must be tested—forged, even—or it is worth nothing. (Wife, she thinks, pressing a hand to her belly through the gown.) A king must be dyed in blood.
“He is leaving for England out of Barfleur in a week,” Father Waleran tells her. “We will be on that ship.”
“We?” she asks, and he nods.
“My dear Lady Regan, I don’t mean to take root in the court of Blois any more than you do.”
“I did not know you dreamed of English soil,” she smiles. “I did not suspect you for a patriot.”
“Not English,” he says, “though English will do.”
“Not Roman, surely,” she laughs, and he flinches just slightly. Her eyes widen. “Well, Father—”
“Do not speak of St. Peter’s city, Lady Regan. Not here in this miserable little chapel.” He sits back against the wooden edge of the pew. “Sometimes I wonder if God has a wandering eye,” he murmurs, barely audible. “How easily he could skip over such a meager little palace, then.”
“You do not trust him to take your fate in his hands.”
“I would be a very sluggish servant if I left all the work to my master.”
She inclines her head. “Indeed.”
That night, she whispers to her husband: “What think you of sailing back to England this week?”
“I think well, but”—he glances down toward her stomach—“should we not wait out the months? You are delicate, wife.”
“I am none such,” she grimaces, “and how do you think a babe would fare on such a journey? Not well. Now let me ask you again: what think you of sailing back to England on a boat with the king-to-be?”
Percy’s eyes widen, and she giggles in genuine amused surprise. “So impressed with a bit of royalty!” she says, bringing an impulsive hand up to touch his cheek. His estates are in order, she knows; it took only a few idly dropped comments before he took to giving her his letters to look over before he sealed them. “Shall you bring me home, to this home I’ve not yet seen?”
“If you say you will be well—”
“I will be,” she says, and in her womb, her son-to-be kicks violently. Edmund—she thinks she will call him as much, but she silences her wish on her tongue for the time being, knowing that it would sound like womanly folly to be thinking of such things. Even silent, she feels blood rising in her cheeks.
“Motherhood sits well with you, dear,” Percy says, reaching out to stroke her pinkening cheek in return. His fingers hover above the mark—he reaches for the other, in the end, and she flinches back.
“I am not a mother yet. Let us not count extra bodies among us; we shall travel simply—us and the priest.”
“Sweet Percy,” she says, “would you have us travel without the hand of God by our side?”
Later in the chamber, she wills herself to put her hand once more to his cheek. “Now, my husband, tell me once and truly, what do you think of William Adelin, rex designatus?”
“Not much rex in him that I can see,” Percy grunts, “or perhaps too much—why?”
“And would you like to be better than a knight?”
“A baron,” she offers. She loosens the front of her gown. “An earl.”
“I’d like that just fine—better than fine—why—”
“And do you believe that God is looking out for us?”
“For all of us,” he starts, “all of us in his sight,” and she shakes her head, dropping her gown to the floor.
“No, Percy, not everyone. For us.”
“You seem blessed these days,” he says, and she laughs until she feels the child lurch and kick inside her, unpinning the veils. “Ever since you were out of widows’ weeds—”
“The priest gave us a task to lay my ghosts to rest, Percy. God has spoken.” Slowly, with effortful steadiness, she pulls the lace at the neck of her chemise looser and looser, until it drops from her shoulders, falls to the floor. “Will you listen?”
Her husband’s eyes race over the expanse of her body, and he swallows and nods. “Tell me.”
The party takes all day to leave Blois, half of which is spent making reverences to the lords de Blois. Regan curtseys before them both, and when Theobald is looking to the next lord vying for his attention, Stephen nods his head toward her. “I wish you well, Lady Hamleigh.”
She has grown accustomed to the name, she does not start. “I wish you only the best, milord.”
The party stops at the harbor tavern, the prince and his coterie disappearing inside. She waits with her husband and Father Waleran as the rest of the party loads itself onto the rest of the fleet, watching the ships shrink into the distance. The November air bites in her lungs, and she wraps her woolen cloak around her shoulders, laying it twice-over her swollen belly when she sits herself sidelong on her horse. It stamps in the cold, and she digs her heels into its side to make it stop. Beside her, Percy is nearly as restless with the reins in his hands.
“Come now,” she says, reaching out, “stop it,” and he flinches, grabbing at her shoulders.
“Don’t do that! You’ll fall.”
“You’ll fall yourself if you keep twitching,” she says sharply. He opens his mouth, and she shakes her head. “Pray, if you’ve words to spare.”
He falls to mumbling under his breath, and she sighs, watching the cloud it makes in the air. Reaching in front of her face, she pokes through the white picture of it with her gloved forefinger. She watches the sun set into the sea, as if it is drowning itself in increments.
The last of the sun has dipped fully below the horizon when William and his party eventually emerge, William rolling. “To sea,” he chants, holding his horse’s reins in his hands, as he leads the group up the docks, “to sea legs.” Handing the horse to one of the deck hands waiting as he boards, he walks up to Father Waleran’s horse. “My cousin Stephen told me to stick close to the priest, and my father told me to heed my cousin Stephen. Come aboard, priest.”
When Regan and Percy dismount alongside, William blinks at them. “Ah, yes, of course you follow the priest. You’re a woman of God, aren’t you, Lady Hamleigh?”
She inclines her head. “I am, my lord Adelin.”
“And a favorite of my cousin’s.” William squints at her face. “Christ knows why!” he says rather cheerily, as if it’s not meant as an insult. She grits her teeth, and Percy takes her elbow in a reassuring grip. She doesn’t know who he’s trying to reassure: her or himself.
The three of them stand abovedecks, near the nearest lifeboats. The boat speeds on, swift and sure, the best in the fleet for the future hope of the kingdom.
Father Waleran smiles, watches the sailors move; she tries to pick out the moves of the dance, but she only knows it to be predetermined, not of the specific music to which it is tuned. She waits, geared to his reactions, her husband to hers.
The crunch of the rocks and the lick of the flames hit the ship at nearly the same time, and Father Waleran has ropes in his hand: “Lower the boat.” The ship lurches with its passengers’ screams, and still she hears his voice, businesslike and low, more clearly than anything else. She grabs her husband by the hand, tugs him into the boat.
They hit the water with a splash and watch the flames lick against the black sky, bobbing against the blacker waves, silent and still clasping hands—Father Waleran with himself, lips moving in unreadable incantations, eyes not to the heavens but to the ship.
A slim figure with a riot of curls dives from the bow, arcing almost elegantly into the water. Pressing forward against the side of the dinghy, Regan watches him bob up and down in the water, the ship teetering with the shift of her weight: the prince, unmistakably. He surfaces near them. “For the love of God—” he begins, and Father Waleran offers his hand.
“Yes, my son.”
“The priest!” William shakes his head, spits out water, almost laughing—truly—shaking with it, with shock. “They are all going to die, Father. Everyone on board.” He is still laughing, the laugh high and wild and animal. “What have I done to displease God so?”
“You mustn’t blame yourself so, my son.” Regan sluices her paddle through the water, tuning her motions to her husband’s. “Have you any last confessions to make?”
“Make them now,” Father Waleran says. The ship is small behind them; Regan thinks she could fit the distant flames onto her palm if she looked back, could crumble the ship to ash and waterlogged splinters in her palm. There will be no survivors. Her husband drives the dinghy through the water with sure strokes, but she hears his teeth chattering and does not believe the cold is to blame. She cannot feel the cold herself. Can barely hear the screams of the ship in the distance over the sound of her own heartbeat and the breath in the dinghy.
Father Waleran slides his dagger out of its sheath.
The blood splatters against Regan’s cheek, the skirt of her gown. It’s warm, she realizes in some dim physically aware part of her brain, as her skirt sticks warm and wet to her lap. Percy is screaming through his teeth, drawn and helpless until she reaches out and slaps his cheek. His hands are not moving.
“Help,” she hisses.
“Help,” he replies, whimpering it into a plea.
In the end, it’s she who helps Father Waleran, who holds the prince by his hair beneath the waves until he stops thrashing and turns impossibly heavy in her hands. She thinks of Gloucester, who had not died in her hands, who had been warned; of the servant, whose throat she had cut, whose blood she had worn. Low blood; now high blood. It looked the same then, and it feels the same now. She cannot see it in the dark; the world is painted in shades of black.
Percy whimpers until she snarls “Shut up” to him.
There are tears on her face, warm and salted as blood as they slip into her mouth. Shuddering in her bones, she presses her hand to the swell of her stomach. Edmund. A second Edmund, bastard bred with legitimacy, born under a king that will love him. A king that will love them, a true king with a true kingdom, and she wipes her hand over her face, snuffling against her palm. At the sound, the wet crumpled sound of it, Percy looks over at her in the moonlight, eyes softening, reaches across the little space between them.
“Don’t touch me,” she bites at him. “Look to the boat.”
The only sound, then, is the lapping of the waves.
When they wash up on the shore, Father Waleran crosses them both. “God absolves our actions this night. We have done it to ensure a king that will give Him His most lawful tribute.”
Percy’s head bends toward his prayer, wrapping his arms around himself, and Father Waleran looks to Regan alone. “English soil,” he says. “See, God has already rewarded his servants.”
She curtseys to him for it: shaking her dredged skirts in her hands, breaking the crust of blood and salt on their surface. “I hope to continually earn His favour, Father.”
“Follow me and you shall, Lady Regan,” he promises.
“Bless my son, and I will.”
Her son is born in Percy Hamleigh’s estate, humble and English and, she thinks, temporary. Soon there is to be a king that loves them. Soon, someday, and they will live somewhere better than this—yet now, with the future soaring in her heart, she is content to hold her son nestled against her breast.
“Edmund,” she says aloud. “Edmund Hamleigh.”
Percy shakes his head, reaches for the child. Recoiling, she only holds him more tightly to her, and Percy’s eyes darken.
“We will call him William,” he says, and leaves, shutting the door harder than he ought to in a woman’s room. She smiles bitterly at his back. No blood in his veins, she thinks. Milk. Water. The truest bonds are forged in blood, and the child at her breast bears hers in his veins, has been washed in hers, and was baptized in a prince’s blood in the womb. William, then. “William,” she tests aloud, and almost laughs in surprise: there is something delicious in possessing that name now, something forbidden. “William Hamleigh. My son.”
She strokes his soft head. His hair is darkish red—it occurs to her that she has never seen Percy’s true hair color; it has been grizzled as long as she has been his wife. But she does not think of him—her son will not be like that man, no whimpering at the sight of blood. He’s made of the right stock, after all. The right man.
“You’re going to look just like your father when you grow up,” she croons to him, and he opens wide dark eyes at her. She sees herself reflected in them, filling them. No reflections, no unmarked sister, just her and her alone. Tracing the small purse of his lips, she imagines Edmund’s smile. Edmund given the chance to smile all he likes; Edmund’s face, worn on his son, their son, smiling back at her. For her.
“You’re going to look just like your father and you will love me best. Yes, darling,” she whispers, “you will love me best of all.”
She presses her lips to his forehead and lingers there. This is a kingdom, too; this embrace shall grow into a throne.