Snow White Queen
Men would say later that Merlin, when the head of Gorlois was brought out, simply disappeared. As usual, they would be wrong. Merlin actually transfigured himself into his hawk-shape, flown to an uninhabited spot, returned to his human form and retched.
His stomach was soon emptied of all the ale he had stupidly drunk the night before. Merlin found a rock and slowly sat down. He was near the sea – all Cornwall was near the sea – so he stared into the blue depths, tried to determine what it was that had gone so wrong with all his plans.
Nothing, he realized slowly, nothing has gone wrong … I should have foreseen this.
Hywel’s prophecy said that the Bear was to be the King of England – but if the boy was born with his parents unmarried, then he would be one more bastard among many. As things stood presently, he would moreover be the youngest bastard among many, the last in a very long line. Civil war would be inevitable as Uther’s whelps fought over every last scrap of the kingdom, and the elder bastards would surely be able to gather more support and troops. More importantly, even if the throne were to be won, Merlin could not see how such a flowering of peace and chivalry could grow out of the soils of civil war. Besides, there was every possibility that Uther might have gone to marry and have a legitimate son, further complicating the matter.
No, for the Bear’s ascension to the throne to be secure, he had to be legitimate. And that meant the marriage of Uther and Igraine.
That, in turn, meant the death of Gorlois.
Merlin bowed his head in a silent apology to his ideals, his God, and perhaps most importantly to Igraine, that loving woman whom he had injured more than any other.
But there was work to be done. So Merlin stopped wallowing and rose.
When he returned to the camp, roughly an hour after he had left it, Uther was holding out his goblet toward Sir Marcus. “To the new King of Cornwall! King Marcus!”
Merlin rolled his eyes as he came in for a landing and resumed his human shape. The man standing next to him stared, jumped, and probably went on to spread rumors of Merlin’s magical reappearance. Merlin ignored him.
Sir Marcus, however, was stroking his chin. “I believe,” he replied, “that King Mark would work better. These Cornish are so obstinate – they refuse to acknowledge anyone with a ‘taint’ of Rome.”
The sound Uther gave was a cross between a laugh and a snort. “Whatever it is that pleases you, Marcus—Mark—‘tis your name. Besides,” he added, clapping Marcus on the back, “’twill be listed as Marcus on all the records anyway.”
“Aye, Majesty.” Marcus’s smirk was supremely self-satisfied. “So—what shall we do with the body of the good duke? I think the head would grace—”
Merlin forced his way forward; Marcus should have noticed the bright crown of red hair advancing but he ignored it. “You’ll give it back to his family for burial.”
The King and the knight – or rather, both kings – turned to Merlin with angry glints in their eyes. “On what authority, wizard—” Marcus began.
“On the authority of human decency and good sense, that’s what authority,” Merlin snapped. Marcus glared; Uther seconded the glare.
Marcus, however, didn’t matter, so Merlin turned to Uther. “Majesty, am I correct in assuming that you want to wed the Duchess, given that she is now free?”
Uther’s jaw fell. “W-wed?”
“Yes, wed, marry, take to wife, however it suits you to express it.” Since the whole of the army was surrounding him, Merlin kept several more caustic remarks locked behind his teeth.
“This conversation,” Marcus suddenly interjected, “should take place in private.”
“Hmm … correct.” So Merlin grabbed Uther and Marcus’s elbows and proceeded to half-lead, half-drag them to the king’s tent. “Ulfius!” he called over his shoulder. Proving once again his prudence, the chamberlain followed without a protest.
Once all four had entered, Merlin set up a spell to garble any sounds emerging from the tent. Then he rounded Uther. “Do you, or do you not, wish to marry Igraine?”
“Considering that he already – I assume – had her, I cannot see a point to that,” Marcus sneered.
Merlin glared, but Uther seemed thoughtful. “That—that was but once, Marcus …”
“I take it the fair Igraine was no disappointment in the bedchamber, then.”
“She was …” Uther stared into space, then shook his head. “Perhaps … perhaps if I were her lord in truth …”
Merlin wondered for a moment what exactly had happened between Uther and Igraine, but decided quite rapidly that he had no wish to know what went on in that particular bedroom.
“She would come into the marriage with nothing but her … charms,” Marcus pointed out. “Gorlois had no sons, no brothers or nephews – even if he wasn’t a traitor, all his lands would revert to the crown. Any dowry she may have had would be included in that, and if he did leave her a jointure, well, he was a traitor and you’ve every right to that land anyway. Her family isn’t likely to give her any more, if they haven’t repudiated her before now. And she’s past twenty – nearing the end of her fertility.”
“Yet if she were to wed Uther,” Merlin mused, “that would relieve you of the burden of caring for her and her daughters.”
Marcus’s head snapped to Merlin. “What?”
“What?” Merlin repeated. “Funny, I thought you were one of the most intelligent of Uther’s council, you can’t see that?” Marcus stared. “If Uther were to take the – unforgivably harsh – path of confiscating even the Duchess’s jointure lands, then you would have to care for the Duchess—”
“I would have no such obligation!”
“—if you did not want the peasantry to be up in arms over the cruel treatment of her and her daughters.” Merlin raised one eyebrow. “They do adore the ducal family.”
“Surely the Church—her family—”
Merlin eyed Uther. The King looked confused, and torn – perhaps the prudent reasons against the marriage were warring with his lust? A bit more fuel to the fire, I believe.
“Naturally, naturally both places would provide a suitable home for the Duchess – at least in the eyes of sane, sober noblemen such as ourselves. However, the simple peasantry could hardly be expected to understand the legal technicalities of the situation. They would only see a widow and her three small daughters thrown from their home. Thus they would hardly sympathize with the new owner of that home. Sad, but true.” Merlin shrugged. “Of course …” He eyed Uther speculatively. The King’s gaze was volleying between both advisors. “I suppose … you could manage to appropriate this unusual loyalty for yourself and your heirs …”
“And how, wizard, do you propose I do that?”
Merlin blinked, as if the answer were so patently obvious that he could hardly believe Marcus had not seen it. “Why, marry her yourself.”
“NO!” Were it not for Merlin’s spell, Uther’s bellow would have rung over the camp, perhaps clear to Tintagel. “NO! You won’t have her, Marcus—do you hear me?” His hand locked on Marcus’s forearm, squeezing. “You press suit to her and I’ll have your head!”
“Majesty—please—I had no thought of marrying the woman! The wizard—”
“Never mind him – you won’t marry her! Not if you value your life!”
“I swear it! I won’t wed her!”
Uther panted, glaring into Marcus’s panic-stricken black eyes. “Good,” he announced, releasing Marcus’s arm.
“Majesty …” Merlin said softly. Uther turned his glare to him. “The Duchess is, as you know, a beautiful woman. While Marcus is far too loyal a subject,” to his own self-interest, “to consider wedding her in the face of your displeasure … there are others who would consider that the risks of wedding her would make the rewards that much sweeter.”
“I can forbid her to remarry,” Uther snarled.
“Of course you can. But even the most loyal of your subjects – excepting present company, naturally – would consider that unnecessarily harsh. However, if you were to wed her … to provide a home for her and her daughters …”
Merlin looked to the roof of the tent. “Then not only would you be able to claim the marriage right of her any time you pleased … I believe even your enemies would praise you to the skies as one of the most generous kings to ever live.”
Uther frowned. “If I were her husband—her lord—she couldn’t refuse me.”
Forgive me, Igraine. “No, Majesty.”
“And perhaps—in time—she might even come to see me as she saw Gorlois …”
That I doubt. By the expressions of Marcus and even Ulfius, they doubted it as well. But Uther looked hopeful.
He looked up, finally. “Aye. I’ll wed her. To have and to hold, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and cherish ‘til death do us part …”
Uther gave a smile that made him look almost human. “Aye. I’d like that.”
At least they brought the body back.
Gorlois rested now in the Tintagel’s chapel, not laid out in state as he ought to have been, but in a closed casket. Jordanus had begged her not to open it; the sight, he had said, was hardly one fit for ladies or little girls. Not that it mattered; the lid was far too heavy for Igraine to have lifted by herself.
She had brought the girls in to pray beside it a little earlier, and had prayed over it herself. Yet part of her refused to believe that the ugly black box could hold her strong, happy husband. If, perhaps, she could have seen the body … but the sight was hardly one fit for ladies.
Strangely, she had not cried. Perhaps hers were the only dry eyes in the castle. Her girls had certainly cried. Morgause had responded, predictably, by first throwing a tantrum, demanding that God couldn’t take her daddy from her, she needed him here. Then she had thrown herself on the bed in a paroxysm of weeping. Elaine, catching the general mood of the nursery even though she probably did not understand that her father was gone forever, had broken out in loud wails. Morgan had been silent, frighteningly so, and though tears had streamed down her cheeks, the expression in her eyes had been complete terror.
She had been the only one of the three to ask how her father had died. But even if Igraine had known the details – or thought them fit for a five-year-old to hear – the terrified tone would have stopped her from sharing them. If Igraine had not known better, she would have thought that Morgan, somehow, knew the answer, and was only asking for – yet was afraid to receive – confirmation.
The girls, all three of them and Merryn, stood several paces behind Igraine. The rest of Tintagel and all Gorlois’s knights who were not guarding Terrabil stood behind them. They crowded near the entrance of the castle.
In the middle of the courtyard, Igraine stood alone. She wore her simplest gown. Her wedding ring was off her finger. She wore it on a chain around her neck, the ring resting over her heart, conveniently hidden by the high collar of the gown. Above the gown she wore a simple cross on a thick gold chain. Both had been part of her dowry, much as she preferred the more elaborate filigree cross Gorlois had given her after Morgan’s birth, she knew better than to wear anything connected with him openly.
Uther would not want to see that.
For it was he, he and his men, that she waited for in the middle of the courtyard. The gates of Tintagel were flung wide open, perhaps for the first time, to admit a conqueror.
He and his men were riding up the causeway now, the tide being low enough to admit them. Igraine found herself praying for a leviathan, a sea serpent, a giant squid, anything to leap from the sea and swallow Uther and his men whole. Anything so she would not have to go through with this.
But her prayers went unanswered; no leviathan came. Nothing came, but Uther and his men. They rode closer and closer, until they passed under the shadow of the gatehouse and emerged into the blazing sunlight of the courtyard.
He must have brought half of his knights with him, but Igraine only paid attention to the three men nearest to him. The one to the King’s right was Sir Marcus, she shivered, remembering the last time she had seen him. A short, golden-haired young man rode a little behind Uther, clearly a knight but far too young to have been admitted to the Council. His chamberlain, perhaps?
The third man, however, to Uther’s left, was impossible to place. He was tall and spare, too thin to be a knight, though he rode a horse that only a knight could have afforded. His hair, copper red, sprouted in all directions from his head, not close-cropped as a knight’s would have to be. He wore no armor, not even the light brigandine and leather that Uther and his men had chosen to put on. His eyes, a shrewd hawkish hazel, met hers with an expression of unutterable pity, but Igraine swiftly directed her eyes back to Uther.
Uther pulled his horse to a stop a few feet away from her. As if this had not all been planned to the last detail, Igraine sank in the lowest curtsey of her life. “Mercy, Your Majesty.”
“Mercy? ‘Tis unusual for combatants to ask each other for mercy in the midst of a battle.” Uther’s voice was gleeful, but Igraine heard another sound, a strangled sound emanating from the red-haired man. She felt a sudden buzzing rush to her senses, a rush of power she had never before felt from another human being, but just as suddenly it vanished.
Igraine forced her mind away from these foolish side thoughts. “We are no longer combatants, Your Majesty.”
“No? When did that change?”
Damn you, can you not have a little pity? No, she was being uncharitable, he was showing great mercy and pity merely by letting them keep their lives. “I surrender, Your Majesty.”
“So you admit that your husband – for he is not here to admit it himself – was a false, recreant traitor?”
What does it matter? You won, Uther, right or wrong the battle is yours! But there was no point defending Gorlois’s honor, more importantly it was part of the terms of surrender. “Aye, Your Majesty.”
“And thus you surrender all your lands, all your titles, all your husband’s rights to me and me alone?”
“Aye, Your Majesty.”
“And the conditions of this surrender?”
Part of her wanted to name new terms, to demand that in return for these concessions Uther grant her the lives of her daughters and vassals, but such was not part of their agreement. “N-none, Your Majesty—but still—I beg you—as a woman, as a mother—mercy!”
Uther said nothing for a moment – perhaps it was only a dramatic pause, but Igraine felt her heart begin to pound. “Please!” she heard herself call.
Uther jumped; that was not in the script. “Please,” she said again. “Please—the vassals—the knights, the servants, the peasants—they had no choice but to fight with Gorlois. He may have—he was wrong, but he was their lord. When you call your vassals, they fight whatever their personal feelings on the war!
“And my babies … my daughters …” Igraine looked up for the first time. “Please! They’re just little girls—they can’t hurt you—” She almost said or your heirs, but the words seemed stuck in her throat. “They can’t hurt you,” she repeated, whispering.
Uther’s face was blurry, his expression impossible to read—she was crying, she realized, the first tears she had shed all day. Yet Uther said nothing.
“Uther!” The voice came from the red-haired man. Igraine hastily wiped her eyes—then blinked. If it hadn’t been impossible, she would have sworn that the man looked ready to leap from his horse and throttle his King.
Again came that rush of power—overwhelming yet intoxicating—If I had power like that …
“Aye—er—yes. Your surrender, my lady, is accepted. And mercy granted, to you, your—your little girls, to all the vassals and peasantry on your lands.”
Igraine almost collapsed. “Thank—thank you, Your Majesty.”
“Now, my fair lady, arise!” Uther put one hand under her chin and grabbed her left hand with the other. With gentleness that surprised her, even as her skin crawled, he helped her to her feet. “Arise and rest easy, my lady. You and your loved ones are safe.”
She almost collapsed again – not because her conscious mind believed Uther’s words – but because her Seer-self whispered that it was true. And perhaps the look on the face of the red-haired man, the way his eyes bored holes into the back of Uther’s head, also told her that if Uther was not being truthful, then he would suffer dearly for it.
“But my lady …” Uther lifted her hand, her left hand, as if to examine it more closely. “You wear no wedding ring.”
Igraine’s eyes fell. “I am a widow now, Your Majesty.”
“A widow? Now will we do well!” the blonde boy, the chamberlain, shouted. The formal, elevated language told Igraine that this speech, this speech in particular, had been planned in advance. “Our king is a lusty knight and wifeless, and my lady Igraine is a passing fair lady. It were great joy unto us all an it might please the king to make her his queen.”
“My queen?” Uther almost managed to sound surprised at the suggestion. Igraine closed her eyes. “My lady—would you consent—that is—would you marry me?”
He almost crushed the bones of her hand, he held it so tight. Can he doubt my reply? she wondered. This had all already been negotiated, already settled. Her hand was just another part of the ransom.
She looked up. For a second—just a second—she could almost pity him. His eyes for that second did not remind her of dried blood, they looked almost like a puppy begging her for a bone.
Igraine took a deep breath. “Aye—aye, Your Majesty. I would—gladly become your wife.”
The chamberlain let out a cheer, hastily seconded by Sir Marcus. All of Uther’s men followed – except the red-haired one – the pity had returned to his face as he stared at Igraine.
Even Igraine’s vassals – former vassals – joined in the cheer. Though their cheer was not as loud, they, at least, understood the choice she was making.
She thought she heard Morgause scream, “Mummy! No!” but it was lost in the general tumult. Igraine shut her eyes, then stared up again at Uther.
The puppy-like look was gone, and he was giving a sickening grin. Igraine barely restrained a shiver.
“You belong to me now, my queen. My snow-white queen.” He raised his hand and stroked her cheek. “You belong to me.”