Eighth Chapter of W.H. Collins’s dark erotic fantasy. All fourteen chapters are now available from Amazon under the title The Fall of the Black Queen.
Note that this story is intended for mature audiences only and contains extremely graphic depictions of material that many audiences will find disturbing, including spanking and forced nudity. Nothing herein is intended to glorify or condone the horrific experiences which the protagonist endures, and the reader is strictly instructed not to take any prurient interest in this tale of medieval violence and sexual exploitation.
Atop the city walls, leaning over the parapets or even sitting recklessly upon them with dangling legs, Isabella got her first good look at The People.
There had been people, of course, here and there along the road down into the valley from the overlook where Sir Stewart’s company had stopped to rendezvous with envoys from the palace, to organize themselves for their triumphal entrance into the capital. But it was only when enough people were gathered together that their collective will became a political force worth manipulating. Only then, Isabella knew, did they cease being people and become The People.
As she trudged step by step towards the city’s West Gate, Isabella scanned the crowd arrayed on the walls. She squinted, trying to divide the undifferentiated mass, accented only by the white flags sticking up at random angles and intervals like monochromatic pins in a pin cushion, into its constituent groups and individuals. It was a futile task at this distance, but it took her mind off her feet.
The gravel road had given way to stone as they neared the nexus of royal power. Hard and unforgiving but far less sharp and uneven. A small mercy.
Despite the growing ache emanating from the soles of her bare feet, Isabella maintained a steady, brisk stride, matching her pace to that of Sir Stewart’s horse. She walked with her arms stretched straight out ahead of her, elbows locked, like a sleepwalker or a reanimated corpse. Her closed fists pressed their knuckles firmly against one another, fixed in their embrace by the coils of rope that wound around her wrists. It was the same type of knot that had been used to tie her hands behind her back in the Bishop’s chamber of horrors.
From one end of the rope fetters that spiraled up her forearm, a single cord snaked up towards her neck, encircling her throat before tying itself off in a loose-fitting collar. Besides preventing her from dropping her arms below her waist, the leash served as another token of her degradation. She felt like a fattened sow being dragged to market to be weighed and slaughtered.
Shooting out beneath her fists, from the other side of the entwining coils, a much longer length of rope connected her to the back of Sir Stewart’s saddle, secured astride the knight’s dappled white gelding. Isabella struggled to leave enough slack in the rope, lest the steed topple her with a sudden movement.
She was completely naked. As instructed, after pulling the captive noblewoman from her cage, Sir Stewart’s men had stripped her.
Word must have passed among the soldiers, for, by the time the door cut into the roof of the cage had been unlatched and Isabella lifted out like a sack of foodstuffs from the cellar, a small crowd had gathered to watch. She’d stood compliantly before them, offering no resistance as the mangled remnants of her black gown were ripped from her shoulders, the dress slipping out from beneath her breasts and catching around her hips as the lacing on the corset was pulled apart, the entire elaborate costume slithering down her legs and pooling in a ruffled circle around her feet, helped along by the tugging and tearing of the men placed in charge of disrobing her.
Isabella glanced downward. Through the gap between her bound arms, she could see her nude breasts swinging back and forth in step with her forced march. Once more, she felt a warm blush tingle up her cheeks. Despite all she had endured since her capture, there was something strange and distinctly embarrassing about her current state of undress. Horrific as the experience had been, it was one thing to be kept naked within the dark confines of the Bishop’s torture room. It was another thing to find herself without her clothes in broad daylight, paraded down a public road toward the gates of the Kingdom’s most populous city.
She squinted back up at the walls, growing nearer with every step. The front of the procession would be passing through the gate by now, and the focus of the onlookers was directed downward towards the pageantry directly below them. She could hear their cheering and make out the white rose emblazoned on their waving flags, the emblem of her father’s royal authority, now usurped by Lady Joan and her corpulent consort.
On closer examination, however, there were those among the still-distant faces who were already gesturing towards the back of the parade, pointing in the direction of the splendidly-armored White Knight and the naked, barefoot prisoner he was towing behind him. The People had spotted her.
Years before, when her power in the Grey Lion’s court had been at its apex, she had been at the head of a council tasked with resolving the Kingdom’s financial crisis.
To address the crown’s mounting debts, King Harold’s minister of the treasury, Lord Baldwin Loxbury, had greatly expanded the capacity of the Realm’s mints, an achievement for which he’d been widely lauded, particularly among Lady Joan’s faction and their allies. When a scarcity of gold and silver ore threatened to slow production, the innovative minister had introduced the practice of fortifying their coins with tin and copper and other more abundant metals.
To the bewilderment and dismay of the King’s advisors, however, a new problem emerged. Just as Lord Baldwin’s new supply of cash began to flow into their coffers, there was a sudden, inexplicable rise throughout the Kingdom in the price of goods. The lenders they had relied upon to bankroll the affairs of state refused to extend them further credit and demanded repayment for the government’s debts in kind rather than in adulterated coinage.
But as alarming as the monetary chaos was to King Harold and his court, the consequences fell hardest on The People. From grain to lamp oil, they found themselves unable to afford the basic commodities of survival. Unrest swept the countryside and flared into violence in the towns and cities. Fortunately, the King’s ministers were able to swiftly solve the problem by enforcing strict price controls, but, no sooner had they done so than a perplexing new woe befell the Kingdom’s economy: widespread food shortages. Famine loomed.
Desperate, the Old King had commissioned an emergency council, granting them extraordinary powers to deal with the situation as they saw fit. At its head, he placed his elder daughter. It was an unusual position of authority for a woman, but Princess Isabella had the loyalty of the Aardmorian faction, whose political support and financial backing the crown needed more than ever in those troubled times. Besides, the fiercely intelligent young princess had been outspoken against Loxbury’s policies from the beginning. Perhaps she had the sound judgment needed to exert command over the capricious forces of commerce.
It was not quick or easy, but Isabella and her fellow councilmen, who swiftly learned to respect the princess’s talents if they hadn’t already, turned things around. There was hunger, to be sure, but the famine was not as severe nor as prolonged as it might have been. Credit began to flow again, prices stabilized, trade resumed, prosperity gradually increased.
Yet, Princess Isabella’s success did not make her beloved by The People. Whatever her policies may have done for their wellbeing in the long run, in the short run she had ended the popular price controls on grain and levied new taxes that, while directed mainly at the Kingdom’s largest landowners, were resented on principle. Cause and effect became muddled in the minds of many, and it became common to lay blame for the years of turmoil and the hardship at the feet of the Grey Lion’s daughter.
These misplaced grievances were stirred up and exploited by the Whites, who refused to acknowledge Lord Baldwin’s mismanagement. Isabella was portrayed as having manipulated her way to her position of responsibility and, once there, of abusing her power for personal gain. It was around this time that the rumors concerning her and her mother’s occult practices first started gaining traction.
It did not help that the beautiful young princess who would soon be dubbed the Black Queen had little patience for public relations. Though outspoken when it came to matters of state or military policy and unshy about asserting herself within the halls of the palace, she had never been comfortable drawing attention to herself in a public manner. Unlike her younger sister, she did not make public appearances or cultivate a public persona, and she certainly did not employ a network of gossips to burnish her reputation or slander her opponents. Effortlessly gorgeous and unapologetically intelligent, Isabella had always come across as aloof and uncompassionate where The People were concerned.
Now, though, they would have all they wanted of her. The snooty princess who had so selfishly kept herself to herself, who had arrogantly refused to court their adoration while ruling over them, now she would be subjected to public scrutiny more probing than she could possibly have imagined, whether she liked it or not. The noblewoman who had valued her privacy over the opinion of The People would soon find herself offered up on public display for their entertainment and their ignorant judgments. There was nothing she could do about it. She belonged to them now.
Isabella had put on a brave face thus far, burying her past traumas and future fears beneath the tangible, immediate struggle of one-foot-in-front-of-the-other. One step at a time. But as the city walls loomed closer, her courage faltered. Whatever diversions the parade ahead of her offered, the attention of the throngs who’d flocked to the West Gate to welcome the victorious White army was now unmistakably directed towards the procession’s centerpiece and finale: the dazzling figure of the King’s High Marshal himself, the gallant and glamorous White Knight, and, behind him, stumbling along at the end of a rope like a pack mule, a nude woman who could not possibly be the indomitable Black Queen, the infamous Lady Isabella of Aardmore.
She could hear them now. Shouting down at her. Or shouting down about her to Sir Stewart or the other soldiers. She fixed her gaze ahead, trying to keep her chin from trembling, keep her stoic expression from contorting into sobs of helplessness and humiliation. Her legs felt wobbly, and she channeled all her willpower into bringing them under her command. One foot in front of the other. One step at a time. To aim higher than landing her next footfall successfully was to expose herself to certain despair.
Ahead of her, the haunches of Sir Stewart’s steed swayed in dependable rhythm with its steady, well-trained trot, the same rhythm that Isabella had been doing her best to emulate and internalize. Ten paces behind. No more no less. Meticulous as always when it came to matters of self-aggrandizement, the White Knight had emphasized these instructions multiple times, made her repeat them back to him like a condescending schoolteacher while she stood there naked before him, his followers readying to hitch her to the back of his saddle.
The knight’s costume was even more flamboyant than usual. His armor, plainly forged for ceremony rather than battle, glittered in the sunlight, and a long white cape flapped heroically in the wind behind him. Managing the reins with one hand, he kept one arm raised in a perpetual wave towards the spectators on the walls, rotating his palm slowly so as to diffuse the benevolent rays of his humble thanks towards The People.
Sir Stewart and his trussed trophy were almost directly below them now. The multitude of faces, hundreds perhaps, gawked down at her. There were too many voices, all shouting and calling out on top of one another, for Isabella to pick out much from the general clamor, but here and there recurring phrases would rise out of the background noise of boos and hisses: Her name, for example, or, more often, one of her epithets. “The Black Witch.” “Whore of Aardmore.” Curses, taunts, appeals to see her hanged or worse. Unimaginative observations about her nude body, remarking on the size and shape of her bouncing tits or calling attention to her shaved cunt.
Her heart raced, and, with the city gate looming and the temporary shelter of its stone archway drawing near, her stride unconsciously quickened. Her tether to Sir Stewart’s horse slackened as she hurried forward. Without thinking, she approached within nine paces of the waving knight. Then eight. Then perhaps no more than five or six.
Isabella staggered forward with a yelp of surprise as an acute sting licked across her naked backside. Above her, the crowd cheered and hooted in delight, as if their favorite tournament combatant had just made an impressive tilt in the joust.
She looked back over her shoulder, impotent anger swelling within her. There, she met the eyes of Charley, the sadistic farmboy from the village west of the capital. Shortly after Sir Stewart’s men had stripped her of her clothes and positioned her in her proper place within the procession, the White Knight had arrived, accompanied by his fresh recruit.
He had dressed the boy in royal livery. A finely embroidered white tunic hung from his shoulders. Most strikingly, he wore a tall white hat, ringed in fur and with a gigantic ostrich feather running up the center and fluttering over the top. It was a grandiose costume, like the cupbearer for some emperor out of the distant Orient.
Sir Stewart had given him a thin, flexible cane of birchwood, the sort of stick used to drive mules and other beasts of burden. He was instructed to march behind the captive queen. If the prisoner fell behind or surged too far ahead (“How many paces, Isabella?” “Ten, My Lord.”), he was instructed to strike her.
With so much else to take in, Isabella had nearly forgotten the boy was back there. But the sharp pain that nipped her bare skin, making her involuntarily clench her bottom and arch her back even as she stumbled onward after the white horse, made clear that the lad intended to take his mandate seriously.
He returned her backward glance with a look of smug satiety, as if he had been waiting for this moment. His arm was still raised from the arc of his stroke, the thin wooden rod, nearly as long as he was tall, held high in his hand, still reverberating from the impact. When the cheers erupted from the crowds along the city walls, he raised his face in dawning exhilaration. He lifted both arms towards the onlookers, waggling his stick above his head, welcoming The People’s adulation.
“Well done, boy!” shouted the White Knight from up ahead, once the crowd’s cheering had subsided, “Mind your pace, Isabella! Ten steps! Not nine not eleven! If she forgets again, you give her another reminder, boy! Don’t be shy!”
Choking back a sob, Isabella turned back ahead, fell back a few steps and tried her best to simply march on, one foot in front of the other, making sure that the rope connecting her to the knight’s saddle stayed slack but not too slack.
They passed the city watch, standing at attention in straight lines projecting out from the wall and flanking the entrance to the West Gate. Their pikes were raised in salute to the King’s High Marshal and his triumphant forces. They had adopted a similar formation during the ceremonial inspections that Princess Isabella had made during her time at court, accompanying her father at first and then later on her own. It had been important to her to demonstrate her authority and to make her face familiar to a key constituency in the power games that animated the capital.
Some of those same men were here today, she had no doubt, witnessing her homecoming, leashed naked behind her cousin’s horse, to the city where she once held such sway. Against her higher will, she was unable to resist a quick sidelong glance. One of the guards pursed his lips as her eyes rose towards him in an elaborate, mocking kissy-face.
“Lift your arms higher, Your Majesty! We can’t see your tits!” one of them called out, to the chuckles of his comrades.
For some reason, the unprofessionalism angered Isabella more than the taunts. When she’d been in command, she’d have had these men flogged for such lapses of discipline.
As if reading her mind, another guard called across to his neighbors, “Lookit that stripe ‘cross her arse! Red as a raspberry tart. Musta stung fierce that. Discipline, My Lady! Discipline is the mortar that binds the Kingdom!”
With a dizzying fury, Isabella recognized her own words. It was a maxim she’d deployed for years, organizing institutions large and small, from her household staff to the multiple field battalions of the Black army. Now it was thrown back at her by a bunch of impudent rogues befouling the uniform of the city watch, as they watched her struggle to maintain a disciplined march upon threat of being once more whipped across her bare haunches by a preening little boy. Conscious of the warm flush smoldering across her face, she gritted her teeth and looked away.
“Lookit ‘er blush!” someone said, just as she stepped across into the shadow of the city gate. The observation made her redden further.
Beneath the stone tunnel, the sounds of the crowd grew muffled. The clopping of Sir Stewart’s mount echoed around her. The sound was joined with the footfalls of the flamboyantly costumed peasant boy behind her and the handful of soldiers who formed the procession’s small rearguard, and with the patter of her own tender steps scrabbling across the cool, shaded bricks.
Upon the sheltered tunnel walls, several large sheets of parchment had been plastered. Isabella glanced at them in astonishment as she passed, her attention caught by the sight of her own visage gazing back at her in the form of a crude woodcut. They were all identical, and she struggled to take in the text that accompanied her ink portraits, craning her neck to read the poster receding behind her before picking up where she left off with the next in the series.
It was her confession. Every slanderous lie she’d been forced to sign. The fornication, the adultery, the Sapphic orgies, the Satanic rituals, even her mother’s shameful fate in the afterlife. All disseminated for public consumption. Isabella felt a knot rise in her throat. She thanked God that so few of The People were literate.
A moment later, the parade emerged back into the sunlight. The roar of the crowd erupted full-throated once more. The sound now came not just from above, the same onlookers having run to the other side of the wall or else a whole different set of spectators now getting their turn, but also from the throngs around and ahead of her.
The narrow alleyways of the capital forked out in chaotic tendrils from the open square just inside the gate. In the whole of the city there was only one path wide enough to accommodate the plunder-laden carts and three-abreast cavalry formations of the White Knight’s grand triumph: the Palace Road.
The Palace Road sloped down in a wide arc, following the city’s natural topography, towards the central plaza between the cathedral and the guild hall. From there, it was a short climb to the gates of the Royal Palace, its fortifications looming over the city like a watchful benefactor, giving no hint of the extravagant garden and courtyards ensconced within. Unlike the filthy mud streets the otherwise criss-crossed the capital, the Palace Road was mostly paved and reasonably maintained. Yet, frequent potholes were inevitable on such a highly-trafficked throughway, and the road was by no means free from the hazards created by emptied chamber pots, those stagnant puddles that gave urban life its universal texture and fragrance.
Isabella could see the parade ahead of her snaking down the Palace Road. The masses had gathered along the road, standing in the doorways of cramped shops and houses or leaning out windows from the rickety upper stories that jutted out precariously above the road, forming a partial canopy over its narrower stretches.
Like the crowds on the walls, they waved white banners as they cheered the martial pageantry marching by. The white rose hung from balconies and fluttered over rooftops. A fresh wave of huzzahs seemed to crest as Sir Stewart emerged through the gate’s stone archway in all his knightly pomp. A moment later, gasps and astonished laughter mingled among the cheers. Far down the rows of rabble lining the parade route, heads turned. They pointed. Losing immediate interest in whatever sideshows made up the triumph’s vanguard and meandering midsections, the focus of the crowds swung inexorably back towards the prize that the White Knight towed behind him.
Isabella stood out from the rest of the procession. She walked alone as if surrounded by an impenetrable unseen bubble that separated her from the tight formations of soldier’s marching ahead of her or the rearguard behind her. She was bookended by solitary figures: the gleaming mounted figure leading her from ten paces on and the absurd, grandiose little attendant urging her forward. Isabella’s position announced plainly that she was the centerpiece of the whole affair. She was situated so as to call maximum attention to herself.
Willing herself desperately to stifle the tears of shame that seemed to be building to a critical volume behind the levies of her eyes, she concentrated on simply taking one more step. Then another. Then the next. As for the jeers and derision that rained down upon her as she was paraded down the Palace Road between and beneath the teeming buildings of the capital, she did what she could to shut them out.
Eventually, a step thwarted her. Distracted momentarily by particularly shrill heckling from a gaggle of women hanging off a balcony directly above her, Isabella’s foot sank deep into a crater of mud that marred the center of the road. At least she hoped it was mud.
Isabella stumbled. Only the pull of the rope kept her from toppling over, and she teetered from side to side across the width of the Palace Road, leaning back against the taut cord connected to her wrists for balance, knowing that if she went down, her body would be dragged across the jagged cobblestones until Sir Stewart saw fit to halt his horse. Her nude breasts, too big to fit through the narrow passage between her locked elbows, leapt and jiggled, jostled by the force of the tightening rope which jerked her arms upwards and outwards. Even as she battled madly to right herself, she could hear The People react to her peril, their cries rising in excitement and glee.
Finally, she found her footing. She straightened out, and the soles of her feet began to strike the stone path in a painful but regular rhythm. No sooner had the danger of capsizing abated, however, than she felt the sting of the cane lash across her bottom, its whizz and crack somehow cutting through the din of the crowd. Caught off-guard, it drew from her a high-pitched wail of shock and pain that she would never have consciously allowed to escape her lips.
The People cheered.
A sensation of piercing heat sizzled in a straight diagonal down her lower buttocks where she’d been struck. Her arm twitched in an instinctive urge to reach back and rub the tingling, exposed flesh, but the coils around her wrists foiled that tiny solace before it began.
Still fighting for her balance, she tried to adjust her stride to catch up with Sir Stewart. She wasn’t nearly quick enough. Perhaps emboldened by the positive feedback he was receiving from the crowd, her handler Charley decided a second reprimand was in order. Lifting his rod high in the air with a theatrical flourish, he brought it hissing down into Isabella’s nude backside, leaving its mark across the soft curve of her ass with crisp pop and forming an angry X where it crisscrossed his previous stroke.
This time, Isabella stifled her cry beneath a throaty grunt, even as the burning of the second welt rose and throbbed. Clenching her buttocks against the pain, she pranced forward to catch up with Sir Stewart. It was an awkward, degradingly comical little dance, and, indeed, peals of laughter greeted her from the surrounding doorways and balconies as she hopped gracelessly past.
The city grew increasingly dense as the parade neared the cathedral plaza, and the chatter and cheers of its citizens ricocheted through the cramped alleys, echoing down the Palace Road like wind through a canyon. Isabella tried to treat it like wind, loud but indistinct, something that could be shut out as she fought to keep her aching feet moving one after the other. One step at a time. Ten paces behind.
Isabella settled into a sustainable pace, eyes locked down and forward, ignoring the taunts of the crowds and the lingering pain that pricked her backside, trying as best she could not to dwell on the horrifying reality of being whipped naked through the streets of the city that should have been her birthright. Suddenly, something struck the side of her face. It felt like a wet slap. Her neck whipped to the left with the force of the blow, causing her rope collar to bite into her skin.
A fresh surge of cheers and laughter accompanied the moist smack of the impact, augmenting the general cacophony.
Isabella’s mouth hung open, absorbing the shock and the sting. Momentarily blinded and disoriented, it took her a moment to register the film of sticky goo that had sprayed across her cheek, leaving splatters from her jaw all the way up into her hair. Still scurrying onward to maintain her pace, she looked down and behind her to see a piece of rotted fruit lying smashed on the receding pavement, a distended brown mass that might have once been a peach.
Another missile landed near her feet, splattering mush up her ankles and calves. Another struck the road a few steps ahead.
Her sharp temper, so worn down beneath the incessant grind of her subjugation, swelled anew. Outrage swallowing her shame and despair, she scanned the passing balconies and rooftops for her attackers, but the peach barrage had inspired such widespread merriment among the throngs of onlookers that it was impossible to tell who might have actually hurled the fruit.
“Cowards!” Isabella screamed, her voice cracking as it squeezed out her dry throat. “How dare you! Worthless craven filth! You dishonorable knaves! Bestial weak-livered ma—Gaaaaaaaah!”
The cane crashed into Isabella’s bare bottom with a heavy Thwaaaaap!, sending her dancing forward in another clownish, high-step trot.
“Oh! Oh G-God!” she gasped through gritted teeth.
“Behave yourself, Isabella!” she heard Sir Stewart shout back at her. “We’re almost there!”
She was panting, her nude breasts heaving in the crook of her bound arms as she tried to keep herself together. She could feel the syrupy peach juice oozing slowly down the side of her face while, traversing the plump curves of her bottom, the bite of the birchwood rod tingled insistently. Still, she staggered on, the firm cheeks of her victimized buttocks bouncing in rhythm with her faltering stride.
Spoiled produce rained down sporadically, copycats or collaborators of the initial ambush. Peaches seemed to be the ammunition of choice, though some of the smaller bombs might have once been plums or nectarines. The People’s aim was unimpressive, and the cobblestone path around Isabella’s feet erupted periodically with the splatter of exploding fruit.
But a small fraction of the squishy projectiles found their mark. Something large and moist smashed hard into the small of her back, disintegrating into a burst of goo and leaving a thick residue that trickled gradually down the curve of her spine and pooled in the cleft of her ass.
A dripping piece of fruit bounced off her chest, spraying her in the face with its putrid-sweet pulp as it grazed the white hilltops of her tits. A moment later, a rotting plum flew towards her at a similar angle. This time, however, instead of glancing off the buoyant surface of her naked breasts, the plum sailed straight into the cleavage between. There it stuck, coming to rest with a wet splat right inside the deep nook formed by the push of her pinioned arms squeezing her bosom upwards and outwards.
Disgusted, Isabella tried to shake the mushy plum loose, but, with her arms locked in front of her, there was not much she could do. It stayed tucked between her tits, oozing its juices down her front.
Perhaps concerned that the mob might slip out of control, or at least that he might be struck by a wayward nectarine, Sir Stewart barked orders up the line, and soon their pace increased. Isabella had to jog to keep up.
Her aching soles pounded the stone street. Her breasts bounced wildly, jumping up and down against her arms (yet somehow the jostling still failed to dislodge the plum). Her butt cheeks shimmied in a frenzied see-saw, rubbing rapidly against one another with an increasingly sticky, viscous sensation, as sour peach juice continued to ooze down into her crack. Her lungs burned from the sheer exertion. Finally, just when she thought she could go no further, resigning herself to being dragged behind the White Knight’s horse following her inevitable collapse, the procession slowed.
The deceleration was sudden enough that Isabella found herself careening forward towards Sir Stewart’s horse before catching herself and falling back to her proper position. The boy with the stick, who had also been forced to break into a run, caught up just in time to whack her across the bottom, but it was a tired, half-hearted blow, and it barely registered.
The Palace Road was widening out into the large central square. The Cathedral Square was used to host vendors’ stalls on market days and for other civic events. The spires of the capital cathedral loomed at one end of the plaza, while the squatter but no less imposing guildhall sat at the other end.
Today, the square was filled with people. They thronged up the cathedral steps and under the arches of the guildhall’s long portico. As Isabella lurched out into the square, making sure to maintain the correct distance behind Sir Stewart’s horse, she saw that the White Knight’s regiment had also taken up formation within the plaza, guarding the wagons of plunder that now sat parked beneath the shadow of the cathedral. This was the parade’s terminus, then. Isabella flicked her tongue across her dry lips, wondering what was in store for her now.
With threats and shoves, white-uniformed soldiers maintained a corridor down the middle of the crowd, through which the White Knight gallantly rode, trailing his naked captive behind him. Up ahead, Isabella noticed wooden scaffolding rising from the center of the plaza. A stage had been erected.
A sea of menacing faces walled her in on either side, but Isabella kept her gaze forward, watching the elevated platform creep closer and closer. Finally, they reached a set of stairs. Sir Stewart dismounted. Unhitching the rope from his saddle, he coiled it around his arm until there was only a short length separating him from his prisoner. He then tossed it over his shoulder and started up the wooden stairs, tugging his prisoner up after him.
As she shuffled up the creaking steps, she glanced briefly behind her. Two members of Sir Stewart’s rearguard were following. The village boy with the cane had started up the stairs as well before being pulled back down and told to stay put.
When she and the White Knight emerged onto the stage, they were announced by the sound of trumpets, and the crowd that encircled the small platform on all sides erupted in wild cheering. Sir Stewart raised his hands high above his head in a triumphant greeting.
He turned back to Isabella. Dropping the coils of rope to the ground, he grabbed her wrists and pulled her close.
“You look disgusting,” he observed, examining her with a look of faint amusement as if noticing for the first time the fruit pulp smeared across her face.
Then, shrugging, he pulled a knife from his belt and sawed through the cords around her wrists. With relief, she dropped her arms. At the same time, the moldy plum she had carried tucked between her breasts dropped to the floor, drawing hoots of laughter from those in the crowd close enough to see it happen.
Sir Stewart grabbed the remaining piece of rope looped around her neck and tugged her towards the edge of the stage. Then, with sudden violence, he put his hand on her shoulder and shoved her to the ground, kicking her legs out from under her so that she collapsed to her knees onto the wooden planks. Her palms slapped hard down upon the lip of the platform, and she found herself on all fours, facing The People.
“Good gentlefolk and honest citizens!” Sir Stewart cried out above the noise of the crowds. “I give you . . . the Black Queen!”
A deafening clamor spread across the square. It was half joy and half scorn, as the gathered masses vacillated between booing their enemy and cheering her defeat. Eventually, a discernable chant gained momentum. “Burn her! Burn her! Burn her!” the crowd repeated. Isabella looked out over them in terror.
No sooner had the “Burn her” chant found traction, however, than it abruptly died down. A chorus of shushes made its way around the plaza, and the crowd gradually quieted down. Still on her hands and knees, Isabella’s expression changed from terror to puzzlement.
Amid the growing hush, she heard the creak of the scaffold’s wooden stairs. Slowly, she turned, just in time to see a head of blonde curls rise above the edge of the platform. The yellow hair bounced with luxurious fullness and glistened in the waning afternoon sunlight. Crowning the head was an elegant French hood trimmed in white and gold, radiating out at an almost perpendicular angle, like the halo of a saint in a religious icon or like the frill of a beautiful but dangerous lizard.
The lizard’s eyes found Isabella’s, and Isabella felt her stomach drop. She felt dizzy. The arms supporting her weight grew weak and began to wobble. She had known the moment would come. But not like this.
The regal figure stepped onto the stage. Her dress was gold and white, matching her hat, and embellished with what appeared to be pearls. Sir Stewart took her hand and delivered an extravagant kiss. She smiled and nodded her acknowledgement.
“Cousin,” she said.
Then, turning to the disgraced woman kneeling, filthy and naked on all fours, at the lip of the stage, she nodded again, with a faint, haughty smile.
“Sister,” she said.
No, Isabella thought. No, not like this. She opened her mouth to speak but found she could not. Instead, she merely gaped back at her sister, Joan D’Montefort, Countess of Cartreaux. The White Queen.
Queen Joan looked vaguely disappointed at Isabella’s speechlessness, but after regarding her humiliated sister for a moment, she pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows in the tiny equivalent of a shrug.
“Mount the prisoner as discussed,” she said, addressing Sir Stewart’s men, “I will now address the People.”
The two White soldiers descended menacingly upon Isabella. Taking hold of her shoulders, they lifted her to her feet and escorted her to the middle of the stage. Joan and Sir Stewart made room for them. Two squat wooden pillars were set into the platform’s center, each about four feet tall and set about three feet apart. A knot rose in Isabella’s throat as she realized their purpose.
One of the soldiers took a knife and cut the rope collar off of Isabella’s neck. Meanwhile, the other had fetched a heavy, broad plank from where it had been piled at the opposite corner of the stage. Grunting with exertion, he lugged it back to the parallel columns, lifted it high, and slid it down between them into a slot specially carved for that purpose. The thick board caught a third of the way down, forming a stout, asymmetrical “H” with the pillars. Along the top edge of the plank, three semi-circles had been cut, a larger one flanked by two smaller ones. The pillory, Isabella thought with numb despair. They planned to place her in the pillory like a petty thief.
The other soldier pushed her forward. He placed one hand on the back of her neck and was about to grab her wrist with the other, but it was unnecessary. She knew what to do. Rather than be forced into position, Isabella leaned forward compliantly, resting her chin on the middle hole and her wrists on the outside holes. A moment later, a mirror plank was slotted into place and slid down towards her neck like an executioner’s blade.
Isabella flinched as the two wooden boards came together with a thud. When she opened her eyes, the circles surrounding her head and hands had been completed. The soldiers snapped shut a pair of latches, locking the pillory in place and locking Isabella into her humiliating position, her face mounted in the middle of this wooden frame like a hunter’s trophy, her hands pinned comically by her ears.
The position of the pillory’s head-hole was barely higher than Isabella’s bellybutton. She bent her knees at first, squatting as the boards were being locked in place. After a moment, though, she realized that her legs would not sustain this pose for long and adjusted her stance. She took a step back, straightened her legs and arched her back. It felt utterly demeaning to bend over like this, presenting her hindermost parts to the segment of the crowd gathered around the rear of the stage, but there was no other option.
She looked up to find Joan looking down at her. For a moment, her half-sister’s benevolent, queenly smile widened into something more sadistic and gleeful, and Isabella could see the face of the bratty little girl who had tormented her growing up. Then it was gone, and the sober monarch returned, looking at the pathetic prisoner with detachment, pity even.
The White Queen turned. The audience had started a chant of “Love live Queen Joan! Long live Queen Joan!” but at the slightest gesture from their sovereign, they quieted. Joan’s high, feminine voice rang out, bouncing off the wide stone walls of the guildhouse and echoing across the crowded plaza.
“My beloved countrymen and loyal subjects,” she said. “The dark days of blood that have tried our Kingdom’s resolve are nearly behind us. The gallant Sir Stewart has returned in triumph from the northlands, having destroyed our enemies’ host and laid waste to their strongholds. Sir Stewart, the Realm thanks you for your selfless service. The People owe their freedom and their very lives to you. You will be rewarded with lands and titles befitting your patriotism.”
The White Knight bowed humbly. The People cheered.
“Reginald de Cassingham, Baron of the West Midlands has repented his treason and lain down his arms. The Duke of Aardmore, who we are told even now cowers in a mountain cave with his few remaining followers, has sent emissaries to negotiate a lasting peace. And, as you yourselves have seen, the faithless pretender who once called herself the Black Queen, that woman of such scandalous repute that she has brought shame and disgrace to the name of her father, King Harold the Grey Lion, has been shown for what she is. Let it be known that God has chosen but one king and one queen to rule over you.”
“Long live Queen Joan!” the People shouted before being quieted once more.
“Look upon the deceitful harlot who once thought to threaten this Kingdom,” Queen Joan continued. “What fool would pay such a creature fealty? If you good Christian men and women did once fear her sorcery, look now and see how her dark power has been laid bare. She belongs to us, body and spirit, now and for all time, to do with her as we wish.”
“Burn her! Burn her!” the crowd cried, but Joan held up her hand.
“Your pleas have been heard and are most just. The punishment for treason can only be death. But His Majesty and I have prayed on this woman’s fate and the Lord has filled our hearts with mercy. By law, Lady Isabella’s life is forfeit. And indeed all honors and titles, all vestiges of her former royal personage are hereby stripped. But her body shall be spared as an enduring tribute to His Majesty’s magnificence and generosity and compassion for the rest of her days. Henceforth, she is the personal property of the crown and shall be kept in the palace to serve us and to use as we see fit.”
This time, the cheering was more scattered and confused, as if the crowd recognized the applause line in the Queen’s speech but was not fully committed to the sentiment. A moment later, however, something picked up their spirits. Isabella felt the stairs of the scaffolding creak, and, a moment later, there was clapping and laughter and eager pointing in her direction.
The excitement seemed to be directed at something behind her. Unable see anything beyond the stout boards surrounding her head, a feeling of intense vulnerability tingled across Isabella’s skin. She could sense someone standing just behind her shoulder, and there seemed to be a strange warmth radiating across the right side of her torso.
At a gesture from Queen Joan, a man stepped into her periphery wearing heavy gloves and a smithing apron. A straight metal implement was in his hand, and it took the rattled Isabella a moment to follow the straight, black rod from the gloved fist wrapped around its handle to the tip that flared open into an intricate pattern of intertwining metal ribbons, all glowing a pale orange.
The smith held the steaming brand in front of Isabella’s face, rotating it as if to demonstrate its exquisite craftsmanship. With eyes like quivering saucers, Isabella watched its pattern reveal itself as it turned, the twisting ribbons taking shape as the elaborate petals of the Cartreuax rose, the sigil of the White King’s vile new dynasty.
The rose flickered pink and white and back to orange, and animal fear commandeered Isabella’s will. She began a desperate, futile struggle. She bucked against the pillory, shaking its sturdy foundation to no avail. She banged her hands against the wooden holes that entrapped them.
“No! . . .” she screamed. “No! . . . No! . . . Please!”
The glowing brand disappeared from view as the smith stepped back into Isabella’s expansive blindspot.
“By law, this woman is now royal property,” Queen Joan told the crowd. “Whoever touches her without the King’s express permission shall be guilty of trespass to His Majesty’s personal chattels. We shall display our trophy here in the Cathedral Square until Vespers. Look upon her and contemplate the might and the mercy of God and your King!”
There was cheering, but it barely registered to Isabella. Her ears were ringing, and it felt like the world was moving in slow-motion. The warmth by her right side returned, centered around her upper thigh. She kicked and screamed. Several hands grabbed her, holding her still. Someone wrapped an arm around her waist. Someone else gripped her right knee tightly with two hands, holding her leg flat on the platform floor.
And then, searing pain. Her desperate pleas became an incoherent shriek. One second. Then two. Finally, the brand was taken away. The burning subsided into a dull throb as the cool early-evening air whipped across the tender patch on her upper thigh, just below the cleft of her buttocks, where the brand had marked her. Her screams petered out into sobs. With a feeling of nausea, she became aware of the faint scent of her own scorched flesh.
Trumpets sounded. Queen Joan turned and, with one last smirk towards Isabella’s teary, fruit-stained face, she took Sir Stewart’s hand and allowed herself to be escorted towards the stairs of the stage. The scaffolding creaked as the White Queen and the White Knight and their followers began their royal recession.
Isabella was left alone on the high platform. The rigid grip of the pillory forced her to face the hostile crowd while, behind her, unseen, the rest of the masses were free to file by and gawk at her exposed body and at the King’s mark which still smoldered upon her naked haunches.