“He really is mad. This proves it.” Princess Matilda was talking to Lady Cecily Danvers, Countess of Salisbury and a group of her friends. “He’s summoned everyone who matters from across the land to display his toy sword to them. We thought he’d forgotten about it and buckled down to being King, but the madness seems to have come back. This time everyone will see it and will have to do something about it.”
“It would be too embarrassing not to,” agreed Cecily. “A Regency Council seems the obvious thing, unless John has enough support to be Prince Regent?”
“I’m very disappointed in John,” said Matilda. “He just doesn’t seem to care.”
There was much discussion and uncertainty as people took their places in the Great Hall and awaited the arrival of the King. Many had worries and conflicting concerns which they hoped to raise, and with the swirling rumours weakening the authority of the King there was little confidence that this meeting would achieve much, and considerable fear about what might happen if the King demonstrated that he was no longer a mentally capable ruler.
The King entered wearing the sword on his belt and strode to his throne, where he seated himself in front of his audience and with the Wyvern banner and its flame bearing altar behind him. William was crouched unobtrusively beside it ready to tend the flame.
“I have called you together,” began the King, “because the Land calls to all of us. For too long selfishness has prevailed. The links between the people of Wessex have weakened. The identity of Wessex is crumbling. The links joining the people and their Land have frayed as people have ignored it, seeking only material gain. Few any longer believe that there is anything else, that there is an even more important ‘inside’ to the ‘outside’ which they see and touch. But there is an inside to the Land just as there is to ourselves. I’ve called you here to show you.”
Gasps and murmurs arose. The King stood; drawing his blade, then knelt on one knee and struck the pommel sharply on the stone floor until the sword rang. “Awake! Attend! Serve!” he cried, and the sword sang.
As the people stared at it, the sword seemed to shine more brightly, its sounds ringing sweetly in their minds, drawing their fascinated attention. “We are Wessex,” said the King quietly, and they knew that this was true. “There is more to Wessex,” he added, and slowly they became aware of the growing form of the Wyvern embodied in the flames of the altar, which William was assiduously feeding. A consciousness of its majesty and their joint integrity grew amongst them as the King added, “This is the Wyvern of Wessex, the Voice of the Land. It unifies us, which is why it is our emblem. Its wisdom will assist our deliberations. You perceive it now because of the magnifying influence of this sword, whose virtue is awareness of truth. The Land calls us to attend and serve it, as it serves us. Who will serve Wessex? Who will not serve Wessex? Who has acted or will act against Wessex?”
Immediately everyone knew the true answers to these questions, and knew that all the others knew. Gaps seemed to open in the crowd as people shrank away from Princess Matilda and some others.
“What should be done?” Everyone knew the answer to that as well, and the answer to the next question, “Who should do it?
“Seize them, and fetch me an axe,” commanded the King. While waiting, he placed the sword upright on its stand beside his throne.
Princess Matilda had not died well. Wriggling and wailing, screaming out that she really was loyal to Wessex, which everyone knew to be a lie, and that she would be loyal in future, which everyone knew to be another lie, she had been forced to her knees and bent over a bench. With a heavy heart the King had performed his duty and dealt the heavy blow which ended his aunt’s life and her treachery. Most of the others died with more dignity.
In the case of Prince John there was less certainty. Clearly he had been less than loyal to the King, but he had served Wessex to the best of his understanding. It was not clear how the death of his mother would affect him and how he would behave in future. The decision was left to the judgment of the King. John acknowledged his fault and submitted to that judgment without requesting mercy. Grim faced, the King beckoned him forward and he knelt in the gore and put his head on the bench. Was it better to be safe than sorry? Slowly, the King laid the edge of the axe across John’s neck and raised it, held it aloft and lowered it to his side. “Get up,” he said. “Wessex still has need of you.”