Snow White Queen“So what think you of Carleon, wife?”
Igraine bit back a smile at the gently pressing, slightly teasing tone her husband took with her. She turned her back, going to the washbasin and washing her face and hands to keep him from seeing her expression. “Oh, it is a fine castle! So strong and sturdy. Able to keep out a whole barbarian host, I should imagine.” And what she said was all true – from the point of view of fortifications only, Carleon was a fine seat. However, in terms of living arrangements …
Well, castles were never very pleasant places to live, though comparative safety usually made the discomforts seem a fitting trade. Needless to say, it was also far better than a peasant’s flimsy cottage. Yet even with that in mind, Carleon left much to be desired. The living quarters were falling into disrepair, and it was clear that the servants lacked a strong taskmaster cracking the whip. Carleon had lacked a queen for over a decade. Ambrosius, the previous king, had spent too much of his life on the run from his father and brother’s murderers, and then fighting for the throne of England, to take a wife. The previous king, Vortigern, had had a wife, but he had never used Carleon.
The current king for these four winters past, Uther, younger brother of Ambrosius, also had no wife. But surely he would take one soon. He had just solidified his power and the land of Britain; surely he would want a son and heir to pass it onto. And a son and heir would require a wife. There were no younger brothers of Uther to take the throne, and of his baseborn children (who were rumored to be legion), the only way to decide which was most fit for the throne would be civil war.
Civil war …
Igraine gripped the washbasin, squeezed her eyes shut, and shunted off her inner Eye. She was a Seer, all the women in her family were, but she was a good Christian woman also. Whether the Sight was God’s gift or Satan’s curse she did not presume to know, but there were other, more practical ways for good Christian women to make the world a better place than staring into a mirror or falling prey to the whimsy of visions.
“Igraine?” She heard her husband’s footsteps, felt his heavy yet gentle hand fall on her shoulder, the thumb rubbing against the bare skin the low-cut neckline of her gown left uncovered. Even that smallest contact sent a thrill of sensual pleasure tingling down her spine. But there would be time enough for that later.
“Is everything all right?” he pressed, tone growing worried.
She turned to him with a ready smile. “Of course it is, husband. Just a moment’s passing dizziness.” She easily unclasped the heirloom necklace. “Help me with my hair?”
Gorlois’s emerald eyes swept uneasily to her raven hair, shining and lustrous even in the dim candlelight and confinement of pins and netting. “I’ll pull half of it out,” he murmured, worriedly.
“No, you won’t. It’s easy.” Igraine pulled a carefully-chosen pin out. A curl tumbled forth from the arrangement, landing on her shoulder. She tossed her head a little bit so that it brushed and tickled his fingers. Gorlois swallowed.
“You are a vixen,” he murmured, mostly to himself, before taking his thick fingers – more suited to holding a sword than to the delicate work of unsetting hair – and gently pulled at another pin.
And you like it, Igraine thought, but answered, “Nonsense, I merely have no desire to … disturb the maid Uther so … thoughtfully provided me.” She gave a real shudder, though a slight one. “Whoever trained the maids …”
“She can’t be worse than me,” Gorlois replied as he gingerly pulled at a pin.
Yes, she can! “Husband, at least I know that you are doing your utmost to avoid causing me unnecessary pain.” She avoided a wince as Gorlois unwittingly took out a few glossy strands of hair along with the pin. Though only a man would think that the setting and care of a woman’s hair should be pain-free … She glanced at her husband’s ash blonde locks, worn short so that a helmet would fit more easily. She wondered if he would even bother to have it brushed if she didn’t specifically order his body-servant to see to it. She effected a sigh. “This castle needs a woman’s touch.” There. Even if someone were listening – something all too easily imagined in this pockmarked and half-ruined castle – the remark was perfectly innocent. Who wouldn’t want the king to marry and beget an heir?
“Aye,” Gorlois agreed, keeping any further remarks locked between his teeth. “So what think you of our king, Igraine?”
Igraine’s long-fingered hands, normally so deft and skillful in all manner of women’s work, faltered. She jerked the pin out too quickly, crying out involuntary as she ripped several strands from their roots. Gorlois’s hand dropped and he took a full step back.
“No, no,” Igraine hastily reassured him, “that was me, not you.” She teased, “You are gentler with my hair than I am.”
Gorlois still stood back, whipcord frame tense, eyeing her askance.
Igraine sighed, and then sat on the bed. It would take twice as long to undo her hair by herself, and it had been a long day. She had no intention of remaining on her feet that long. “Hand me that shallow bowl, will you? No, not the washbowl, the other one. Yes, that one.” He placed it on the bed, and she started dropping the pins into it as she removed them from her hair. Gorlois sat on the bed next to her, watching her progress carefully, though still not daring to take part himself.
As she dropped a fourth or fifth pin into her bowl, not quite teasing the next one out of her hair yet, Gorlois repeated, “So, what do you think of the king?”
Igraine was prepared for the question, though, so she only asked with a tinkling laugh, “What difference does my opinion make?”
“You are passing wise, my lady.” Gorlois waited a moment for her to respond, and then sighed. “Igraine, please. Do not make this difficult. You want this peace as much as I do – more, perhaps – but I cannot make peace with what I barely know. I need all the help, all of the opinions I can get.”
You were more than content to make war with what you barely knew, Igraine thought bitterly, but held her tongue, as a woman must.
She shrugged, searching for an off-handed comment, and murmured, almost to herself, the first thing that came to mind. “He … he has eyes like dried blood …”
Gorlois’s hand closed over her wrist. Igraine realized she had slipped. “Dried blood?”
He knew she was a Seer, of course, that was half the reason their marriage had been arranged. And he would read into that statement more shades of meaning and influence that Igraine would ever seek to imply … “Gorlois,” she said a little sternly, “he has fought in more battles for his quarter-century than most do in twice that time. His father and eldest brother were murdered, and his own life was in danger more than once. Anything I might … See in his eyes bespeaks more of his past than of his future. Besides …” She smiled slowly, seductively. She effortlessly shook her hair free of its confinement. The raven tresses fell freely, loosely over her shoulders. Gorlois’s eyes brightened and Igraine’s lightened in response. “Politics … that is business for the day … and this, husband, is the night …”
It was brazen and bold of her, but she planted both palms onto the squishy mattress, leaned forward, and kissed him. Gorlois did not mind such boldness; he never had since their arranged marriage had blossomed into love. His hand rested on her shoulder, then gently caressed her neck, then moved … lower …
In their sport the bowl of pins fell to the floor, but the bowl did not break and neither noticed, nor did they care.
It was no wonder they called her “Igraine the Beautiful.”
Uther sat upon the dias, nails almost managing to dig into the arms of his throne. Almost. One needed sharp nails to dig into the solid, heavy oak the throne was made of, and Uther’s were bitten nearly to the quick after a lifetime of worrying.
He shifted, reminding himself to set his sullen expression into something bespeaking pleasure. All he managed was a sneer, but the milling courtiers pretended not to notice. His eyes, brown, perhaps a bit like dried blood but no one would ever tell him that, swiveled back to the close-knit gaggle of ladies.
Even in the press of court finery and ladies posed to look their best, Igraine effortlessly outshone the best of them. Perhaps it was that the other ladies all calculated their appearance to attract potential lovers and husbands, whereas Igraine was simply beautiful. Her hair, raven-black, was thick and shining. She was taller than most of the ladies, taller than the fashion, but that was all right because it meant there was more of her to look at. Uther’s tongue absently, appreciatively, flickered over his lips.
Fashion dictated that women be curvaceous, with large breasts, wide hips and narrow waists – in other words, designed for childbearing. Igraine defied this design. Her form was willowy, her breasts small, hips slender and narrow, legs long, though Uther could only imagine the shape. She had two children, Uther knew (or was it three?), yet her figure gave not a whisper of it.
She was pale of course, nearly all noblewomen were, to be otherwise would have marked her as dangerously indifferent to convention. But her complexion was not so much peaches and cream or roses and cream; it was cream without the peaches or roses. It was porcelain, or highly polished alabaster. Her gently sweeping raven brows were a shock on that skin, and they served to greatly enhance her silver eyes.
There was no other word for it, those eyes were silver. And they were large and glistening. They sat well in her lovely face, a face made even lovelier because of the knowledge that the beauty would not fade, not completely. It was not youth and vigor that lent Igraine her bloom, it was bone structure. The regal sweep of the cheekbones, the line of the jaw, the straight and simple nose. Uther could have stared for days …
But then, he would want to do much, much more than stare …
“So what do you think of her?” he asked, his voice a gravelly rumble.
There was only one person to whom that question could have been addressed, and he gave Igraine a calculating stare. “Certainly the loveliest woman in the court.”
“A fitting mistress for a king?”
“Aye. She wouldn’t look half bad on a throne,” he added. “Too bad she’s already married.”
Uther growled, his eyes flickering to the other side of the long throne room. Gorlois stood with one of his knights – Sir Brastias, Uther believed – making hesitant conversation with another of the courtiers. His hand rested on his hip, as if wishing to be resting on the pommel of a sword. Well, Uther could sympathize with that, he was a military man himself, more at home on a battlefield than at court. But there – as Gorlois’s gaze flickered over, momentarily, to his wife – all sympathy ended.
“He won’t take kindly to being cuckolded, will he, Marcus?” Uther snarled.
Sir Marcus, knowing well that the snarl was not aimed at him, shrugged casually. “What man does?” he answered. “To wear horns is not an easy fate, even if the king himself … crowns a man with them.”
“It’s more than that. Most men know it’s better to wear horns when the king requests it than to refuse. Gorlois …” The way he looked at his wife … it was not simply husbandly appreciation. After all, Igraine was a jewel, a treasure, a man would be a fool not to look at her often and view her as the fine possession she was. Gorlois’s gazes, though, held more than that, and more than simple lust. It was like … like …
Uther felt his pique rising. He hated to be confused, to not understand. Unfortunately, it was an all-too-common occurrence for him.
He shook his head. “He thinks himself independent. He won’t accede to my wishes as a vassal should to his High King.” Uther had been fighting for four years, ever since he came to the throne, to get Gorlois to swear fealty to him. The past two years had been spent in bloody stalemate, and, slightly desperately (and sensing that Gorlois, being only Duke of Cornwall and having fewer resources to draw upon would also be growing desperate), he had called the duke and his wife here to parley.
Deciding that he wanted, no, needed Igraine in his bed had not been part of the plan.
But it was too late for those second thoughts now. He sighed. “What do you think we’ll have to give up in order for me to get her?”
Sir Marcus was silent.
The knight, only a few years younger than Uther, sighed. “I don’t think, my lord,” he replied, reluctantly, “that Gorlois will care to put his wife’s honor onto the bargaining table.”
In other words, the price would be too high. Uther growled. “There must be something …”
“He is more than capable of returning to Cornwall and continuing to fight, fruitlessly, as he has these past four years,” Sir Marcus pointed out. “And it may not be so fruitless. The churls are fanatically loyal to the Duke and Duchess. If he lets it be whispered that their Duchess’s honor was slighted, the soldiers will rush to defend her as if she was their own mother or sister. They could trounce us, if their blood were roused enough.”
Uther’s hands flexed in frustration.
“However,” Sir Marcus murmured, “there is another way …”
Uther looked up, raised eyebrow mutely inquiring.
Sir Marcus’s eyes went to his own mistress, a luscious, dewy little piece, only seventeen and married to his half-senile uncle. “If the lady is willing, well …” He tore his eyes from the pretty, buxom Irish redhead and shrugged. “What does it matter what her husband thinks?”
Uther scowled. He preferred to conduct his own affairs more-or-less openly – more, because he preferred the husband or father or brother or other responsible party to know about it, less because he preferred that no one else be aware – not the clandestine, skating-on-thin-ice type Sir Marcus preferred (not that Marcus was in any particular danger of being challenged by his uncle). But, given the choice between a secret bedding (or five) of Igraine and no bedding at all …
“And,” Marcus added, gently prodding Uther down this path, “if the Duchess should find herself under the impression that you are in love with her, well, she might see fit to influence her husband to give us a few … valuable concessions. He is a fool, you know; he actually asks for her advice in order to take it …”
That did it. Uther gestured for one of the pages, who ran up to the dias and helpfully leaned his ear close to the king. “Tell the Duchess Igraine that I wish to speak to her.” The page nodded and ran off.
Uther watched as the page murmured his message to the lady, saw her hand flit to her mouth as her color rose. Feminine modesty. Good. When was the last time I had a modest woman? But she nodded and rose, a little nervously, her eyes flickering over to him. Her hands ran over the fine material of her skirt quickly, almost as if she was wiping sweat from her palms, before they lifted the skirts slightly as she walked over.
The courtiers parted to let her pass, the males among them watching with admiration, the females miffed that this stranger, this rebel’s wife, had seemingly superseded them all in the king’s favor. Igraine made her curtsy gratefully and a shade more respectfully than strict protocol demanded. Her voice, though not overloud, still rang clear as a bell over the silent court. “You wished to speak to me, my lord?”
Uther straightened, unconsciously flexing the muscles of his stocky frame. His tunic strained. Igraine’s eyes went wide for a second. She’s impressed, Uther beamed, ignoring the tiny voice in the back of his mind whispering that Igraine’s reaction had not been one of awe but one of fear.
He gestured to a servant to bring a low three-legged stool. “Sit, my lady. I wish to feast my eyes on the most beautiful lady in the court.” The servant set the stool down next to the throne, though at an angle that made it easy for both conversation and for Uther to gaze to his heart’s content.
“I am not the most beautiful woman in court,” Igraine quietly demurred, though she did sit. Her eyes flickered away from him, to her husband. Uther followed the line of her gaze. Gorlois’s face was a mask of absolute calm, but his eyes were fixed, intense, upon his wife’s countenance. Uther scowled.
Igraine saw the scowl and seemed to shrink into herself. Uther gritted his teeth and forced himself, again, to smile. He realized quickly that the awkwardness of simply staring at the increasingly nervous duchess would soon outweigh the pleasures to be gained therein. Will need to calm her down …
“So,” he began, clearing his throat uneasily. He glanced at Marcus, who was watching Igraine with a speculative expression. What would calm a woman down … His mind ran over the limited range of subjects that he knew to be acceptable to women – clothes, embroidery, husbands, gossip, children …
Children would do it. Even men at times discussed their children. “You have two children?” he asked suddenly, a little more harshly than he had meant to.
“Three, my lord,” she answered in a low voice.
“Fine, strapping sons?”
“Daughters, my lord.”
So she could only bear girls. Well, that was bad news for Gorlois, but good for him. If there were any surprises from their relationship, they would then be girls and (assuming he acknowledged them and Gorlois didn’t take them for another one of his) couldn’t lay claim to the throne. He had too many bastard sons running around already to risk adding another potential claimant to the mix.
Still, he would probably do well to feign an interest. “Their names? And ages?”
“Morgause, Morgan, and Elaine. Elaine is only a babe, just turned one this summer past. Morgause is seven, and Morgan will be five in a few days.” Igraine had almost seemed to be calming, but at the mention of her second daughter she colored slightly.
Uther’s eyebrows lifted. “When? Perhaps it would be fitting for the king to send a birthday remembrance.”
“The last day of October, my lord.”
“Soon indeed. Right around All—” Uther’s eyes went wide as he realized exactly when the child’s birthday was. He crossed himself hurriedly, unthinkingly.
Igraine sat ramrod straight. Something flashed into her eyes – anger? No, she would never dare to be angry with the king. And even if she did dare, what reason would she have? Surely his reaction was natural enough.
But he could sense that the conversation was taking a turn for the worse, so he quickly continued, “I hope they are all as beautiful as their mother.”
“They are children. Children change so much, it is impossible to tell.” Igraine’s long-fingered hands, which had been resting on her knees, clenched the material of the skirt, pulling it up a few inches. Uther leaned back, wondering if he could catch a glimpse of ankle … but Igraine noticed and loosed her grip. The soft folds of the skirts fell again, modestly trailing the floor.
Uther sighed and attempted conversation again, but it proceeded only in fits and starts, and Igraine refused to cooperate, answering in monosyllables or in a tone so stiff that it instantly ended any hope of continuing along that subject. Finally he dismissed her, and though she took her leave of him very respectfully, he couldn’t help but think that she gravitated to her husband simply to spite him.
He turned to Marcus. “Well?”
The knight was uncharacteristically blunt. “Find some other target for your affections. She’ll never come to your bed willingly. And her husband wouldn’t prod her if you offered him your throne.”
Uther snorted. “She’ll come.” He narrowed his eyes at the duchess, more so at her husband, who had so forgotten propriety as to absently wrap an arm around her waist as he talked. “Willing or unwilling, she’ll come.”