Snow White Queen
One year later
Igraine, Queen of England, stood by the window in her bedchamber and sighed.
Tomorrow. They were leaving Tintagel for Carleon tomorrow. Out the window she stared, forcing herself to commit the familiar Cornish soil, the sweet Cornish spring, to her memory. It was all-too-likely that she would never see her home again. And it was her home no longer, she reminded herself. Tintagel, as all the rest of the Cornish castles, belonged to Sir Marcus—King Mark, she must call him King Mark now. He had been in residence in Terrabil these past twelve months, but all knew that he wanted dearly to base his court in Tintagel.
Truly they should have left Tintagel by now. They had been scheduled to leave directly after the wedding – the wedding that took place a bare fortnight after Gorlois’s death – but Uther had received word of trouble along the Welsh coast and had hastened there, leaving her and her girls behind. Igraine had been glad. Those six months she had tried to regain a sense of herself, tried to help her girls cope without their father. She felt herself to have failed on both counts. Elaine was all right, but she was so young. Morgause viewed her stepfather with unadulterated hatred whenever he came near, and barely talked to Igraine. She also spent as much time as she was allowed in the crypt, praying – or raging – by her father’s tomb. Thanks to Merryn, this was not much time.
Yet it was Morgan, in her own way, who worried Igraine the most. She had become an altogether more silent and stranger child than she had been before Gorlois’s death. And Merryn told her that Morgan often woke up screaming from nightmares, some which showed her father’s murder by Sir Marcus – how Morgan had fixed upon Sir Marcus as the doer of the deed Igraine had no idea – and others that, much as Merryn might try to make Morgan explain, made absolutely no sense. Yet there seemed to be an inner story to the dreams, a story peopled by characters with names like Sir Gawaine, Guinevere, Sir Lancelot, and one pervaded by a feeling of – at least Morgan kept mentioning – more dread.
As for herself, Igraine had felt herself to be held together by thin and fraying threads. Her health had not helped her sense of well-being. Indeed, they should have left for Carleon when Uther had returned from Wales in September, but even he could see that she was in no condition for travel.
Something else had happened in September … something with Uther … but, despite the niggling sense of something, her memory gave her nothing. She shook her head. It was not the only lapse of memory she had experienced in the past year.
Six months, however, had passed since September, and her health was now robust enough to withstand the journey to Carleon. Her health and …
A faint sound, a whimper, excited her attention. She turned around, having chased off the maids that her new state as Queen of England had provided her, she was quite alone …
Well—not quite. So first she crossed to the hearth and the cradle beside it. Ah—as she thought. A pair of big gray eyes looked up into her own. Igraine smiled.
“Hello, little bear,” she crooned as she picked the baby up, cuddling him. Little bear—that was what his name meant, at least to her. Although she had – apparently – suggested the baby’s name, just after his birth, she could not remember doing so. Another of those memory lapses, though this one at least had an explanation. According to Merryn, she had been delirious – raving – after giving birth to him. In Merryn’s words, she was lucky, many women died of such fevers after childbirth.
Why, then, had Merryn’s eyes and voice, much as she tried to hide it, held an edge of fear?
Igraine shook her head. Delirious or no, her choice of name had stuck, and three days after his birth, her little bear had been christened Arthur.
He had been born on Christmas, three months ago today. And his birth had been nine months to the day since—
Igraine was not going to think about that. He was Uther’s son and he had arrived a little early; that was all. For he could not be Gorlois’s son. If the cycle of her courses had not told her that, then the brown hair that was beginning to grow on him would have, or the features that already resembled Uther would have.
Besides, like his father, he was already fond of making demands on her; now he was whimpering again. Not a full-blown wail; she already knew her son had strong lungs and could make his displeasure known loud and clear when his patience ran out. Unlike his father, at least he had patience. Also unlike his father, the demands he made on her she was too happy to fill.
Like now. Igraine glanced hesitantly, like a schoolgirl about to engage in something she knew to be naughty, at the door. But of course no one was about to come in, the only person allowed to come in without knocking was Uther – and Uther was busy in the Hall. So, even though she knew she should have fetched the wet nurse, Igraine unbuttoned her bodice and proceeded to feed her little boy herself.
Arthur was soon sated, and sleepy, Igraine swiftly burped him and, after a few cuddles, put him back in his cradle. Already a stubborn little boy, he tried to keep his eyes open, but Igraine rocked the cradle and sang to him, the same lullaby that Merryn had sung over her cradle, and that she had sung to each of her little girls.
He was just nodding off when Igraine heard the door open.
She froze—looked to the door—Uther can’t be back yet—there were two dozen petitioners when last I saw him, that was barely an hour ago—
There was no one there.
No—wait—she was looking at the wrong height. A couple feet lower, and a raven-black head was poking inside, looking hesitantly around.
“Morgan?” Igraine asked softly. “What are you doing here?” Hearing the faint edge of admonishment in her tone, Morgan began to back away. “Oh, come here, you silly goose.” Igraine patted her lap, and with the first really big smile Igraine had seen on her face in a year, Morgan ran up to her.
“Shh,” Igraine cautioned, “the baby’s sleeping.” For a second the smile faded, but soon it was back as Morgan impetuously hugged her.
“Well, to what do I owe this?” Igraine laughed, hugging her daughter back. Morgan pulled away with another smile.
“I wanted to see you,” she replied, clambering up onto Igraine. “Your lap’s back,” she noted with approval. Igraine’s pregnant stomach had not afforded much room for swiftly growing five-year-olds, still less for swiftly growing six-year-olds.
“Yes, yes it is.” Somehow this remark gratified her much more than Uther’s lewd suggestions about her slimming figure. “And why didn’t you come up with Merryn, silly?”
Morgan was quiet. “Merryn says we won’t be able to see you much when we get to Carleon … so we’d better get used to it now.”
Igraine’s mouth opened, then shut. Merryn was right, of course – blast her, she was always right – once a day would be the best Igraine would or, according to the customs of raising noble children, should manage to see her brood. She would have so many new duties, too, especially in the beginning … and of course there would always be Uther to please …
But despite what custom and the Church and the court should say, her babies would always come first. “That is true … but sweet, if you ever really need me, I’ll be right here for you. I promise that.”
Morgan squirmed, shifting to look at her mother’s face. She tilted her head, surveying Igraine carefully. And for a second, Igraine almost thought she felt a faint buzz …
“I believe you,” Morgan pronounced finally, turning around and resting against Igraine’s bosom. Before Igraine could sort out the strange statement or the strange tone, Morgan was shifting again, leaning forward and looking into the cradle. “That’s him?”
“Hmm? Oh, yes. That’s him.” Morgan and the others had only seen the baby twice, once at his christening and again about a month later, when Igraine had showed the baby to his sisters. Elaine was the only one to show even cursory interest; Morgause had airily flounced off and, after a second of hesitation, Morgan had followed her lead. “Your little brother Arthur.”
“No, he isn’t,” Morgan whispered. “Not really.” She looked up. “He’s not Daddy’s.”
Igraine’s mouth fell open. “No … no. He’s not—your father’s son.” She swallowed. “But he is still your brother, your brother on the surer side—never mind that, I’ll explain it when you’re older.” Igraine locked her arms around Morgan, looking at the baby. “And you should love him because of that.”
Morgan said nothing for a long moment. Then, “Mama, why did you marry Uther?”
Igraine’s mouth fell open. Morgan turned around. “He killed Daddy – or had Daddy killed – why don’t you hate him like Morgause does?”
Igraine couldn’t answer—couldn’t think—until she heard the truth tumbling out of her. “We needed the protection, little love. Without your Daddy …” She shivered and held Morgan closer, hardly able to believe she was justifying herself to a six-year-old. “Uther could have done many, many bad things – but I married him so he wouldn’t. He was strong … we were weak, little one.”
“He was strong,” Morgan repeated. “Someday I’m gonna be strong.”
Igraine’s eyebrows rose. Morgan looked up. “I will. I’ll be so strong, no one will be able to tell me what to do. Or hurt me. I’ll be able to protect myself – and you too, Mama. So you can leave Uther and he can’t hurt you anymore.”
Morgan looked at the baby. “And I’ll protect Arthur, too, because you love him – and you say I should love him. So I’ll protect him – if he’ll let me.”
Igraine could not speak. Part of her wanted badly to believe her little girl – the other part knew better. Morgan was a girl, the daughter of a Duke, true, but a duke all-but-executed for treason. How could she ever grow strong enough to protect herself, let alone her mother and a man – a man who would someday be king?
And what kind of mother was she, wishing that her daughter would be strong enough to support her?
She had no time to sort out her feelings, for a knock came on her door. Morgan slipped off her lap as Igraine stood. “Yes?” she called, but softly, so as not to wake the baby.
Merlin, the wizard, opened the door. He smiled, Igraine smiled warmly back. So kind, Merlin – he was the only of Uther’s men to pay her girls any mind, using his magic to perform tricks for their amusement. And he was the only one to ever stand up to Uther; Igraine somehow knew that all of her requests which had been at first denied and then, magically, granted had somehow been due to him.
“The wet nurse said … ah, there he is.” He strode in purposefully, toward the cradle. “Sir Ector is almost ready to leave …” He hesitated. “Have you said goodbye yet?”
Igraine stared at him, as Morgan slunk near to the door. Sir Ector? Goodbye? “I—my lord, I don’t know what you mean.”
Merlin was almost at the cradle—he stopped dead. “Uther didn’t tell you?”
Igraine inched nearer the cradle as well. “T-tell me what, my lord?”
“Your Majesty … I think you had best sit down.”
“No—no.” She shook her head. “Tell me what?”
“Please, Your Majesty—”
“Tell me what?”
Merlin swallowed. “It—it was decided—it was decided months ago, my lady. As soon as Arthur was old enough to withstand the journey—he was to go to fostering.”
“Foster …” Her eyes went wide. “NO!”
“No! No!” In one motion she grabbed Arthur and held him close to her. “You won’t take him! You took my husband—my life—my sanity, you will not take my son!”
“Your Majesty—Igraine,” Merlin said. “Please, sit down. Let me explain—”
“No! You’ll destroy him! If you take him away—hide him—he’ll suffer for it! There will be war—his sisters will hate him!”
Where were these words coming from? She knew not, in truth she cared not, and she could feel the part of her that might have cared fading, going into hiding. But she cared not about that either.
Merlin stared at her as Igraine continued to shout. “Leave him with me! I can keep him safe! I’m the only one who can keep him safe!”
Morgan, shaking, suddenly ran for the door. Leaning out of it, she called, “MERRYN!”
Merryn, on the hunt for her errant charge, heard the call and came running. When she arrived, panting, at the top of the stairs—she would never forget what she saw.
Igraine stood by the fire – almost dangerously close – no, definitely dangerously close, she was holding the baby! She was holding Arthur, swinging him wildly to and fro—and she was shouting—wild words that she could not understand.
“They’ll try to kill him—kill him because of his father, because they couldn’t kill his father! But I can stop them—I can make them love him—I can keep him safe from them—you can’t!”
Merlin stood in front of her, trying to get closer yet not so close so as to alarm her. “Igraine, please. Calm down, I can explain all.”
“You can’t take my son from me!”
“Merryn!” Morgan tugged at her dress. “Help Mama!”
Merryn jumped, then looked again to Igraine. She was getting closer and closer to the fire—and the baby was wailing—
“My lady!” Merryn ran forward. “My lady, please, calm down—surely Merlin can’t mean to take your son from you, sit, be calm, all will be explained, I’m sure of it.”
Igraine’s gaze turned to her—she stopped moving. Merryn froze. If she hadn’t known better, she would have called the expression in her baby’s eyes utterly mad.
“There, now,” Merryn said softly, slowly coming closer – as if to an animal at bay, who might bite if she thought herself threatened. “There, Graina. All will be well—I promise. Sit down, now.”
Igraine shook her head. “No.”
“Now, now, Graina …” She was very close, close enough to lay a hand on her baby’s shoulder. “It’s all right. Everything’s all right. Just sit down.”
“No …” Igraine started to step back—
But not quick enough, Merlin leapt forward with almost superhuman speed and snatched Arthur from her grasp. Igraine let out a bloodcurdling screech and tried to take him back; Merryn had to catch her around the waist to keep her from succeeding.
“Give him back!”
“What did you do that for, you great oaf?” Merryn shouted, nobleman or no nobleman, as she tried to drag Igraine out of range. “You set her off again!”
“She might have hurt the child!” Merlin shouted. Well, even if he had been a man of her own station or lower, Merryn couldn’t argue with that.
“No, I would not! I would never! I am the only one who wouldn’t hurt him! Give him back!” Igraine tried to leap forward, but Merryn held her fast.
“Oh, get out of here, you fool!” Merryn shouted to Merlin. “You’re only upsetting her!”
Merlin hesitated, but after one more ill-considered escape attempt by Igraine, he swallowed, hard, and turned away. His cloak billowed like wings – hawk wings – as he left the room and half-ran down the stairs.
“No!” Morgan called out. “He’s taking Arthur away! He’s taking him away from Mama!”
“Morgan, shush!” Merryn ordered, though she could scarce make herself heard over Igraine’s frenzied screaming. She writhed, she pulled, she strained in vain to free herself.
Then suddenly she went still, and just as suddenly strained again—only in a different direction, so she startled Merryn into letting go. But before Merryn could try to catch her again, Igraine was seated at her vanity table.
Merryn hesitated – why not let her be? She wasn’t rushing headlong out the door, that was all Merryn thought she could ask for at the moment—
“Show me Arthur!” Igraine shouted to the mirror—the mirror’s back—but as Merryn’s heart gave several horrible squeezes, the mirror floated up, of its own power, and turned around.
Merryn stumbled backward as if knocked by a physical force, she held one hand over her heart. Igraine stared in silence.
Then, without warning, she screeched and propelled herself away from the mirror. “No! NO! It can’t end like that! No! Show me how to save my son!”
Igraine was still screaming, but Merryn couldn’t go to her, not with her heart still jumping around like it was now. “Ailís! Blejan! Fidelma!”
She heard the maids running—Igraine was still shouting. Then Igraine stopped.
She turned. She looked past Merryn – but Merryn could see the wild, yet somehow calm, look in her eyes – her gaze fell on the door—no, near the door … “Morgan!”
Is that girl still here? Merryn turned to look. Yes, Morgan was there, standing close to the door and dead-pale.
“Morgan … oh, my poor Morgan … I’m so sorry …” Igraine was crying. “Please … I’m so sorry for asking this … but protect him, please … I …” She looked at her hands. “I cannot …”
For a second—Merryn could not believe it – but for a second, Morgan was no longer a child. For a second she was a woman grown, grown and strong and wise, and in that second she nodded, solemnly. “Yes, Mama.”
Then Morgan turned into a child again and ran down the stairs. The maids ran up, and chaos broke forth again.
Ector was speaking, but Merlin wasn’t listening.
My God … my God … why didn’t that fool Uther tell her? He wanted to scream, but that would have only waked the baby – the baby they had only just calmed down. It had been decided months ago, before the baby was born, that Arthur would be fostered out as soon as he was old enough to withstand the journey. There was no way that Uther could be trusted to raise the next King of England. Especially since he was making noises about declaring his and Igraine’s second son as the heir, especially since Arthur had been born at a most inconvenient time, technically too soon to have been Uther’s son.
Well, Merlin intended to make certain that there was no second son. Igraine would be sure to fall in with his plan—that is—unless—
His mind went spiraling back to the scene he had just witnessed.
I’ve driven her mad, haven’t I? No—no—that was not possible. Was it? He’d heard that Igraine had had such fits before—often in the past year—and one right after the birth of Arthur—but she’d come out of them before, she would now—wouldn’t she?
… I’ve driven the lovely Igraine mad … my God, what was I thinking?
“You said he was a bastard?” Sir Ector was asking as he dandled the baby. Merlin jumped.
“I—sir—I beg your pardon?”
“The little mite.” Ector tickled the baby under the chin. “You said he was a bastard?”
“Oh—oh yes—aye, I did say that. One of the Queen’s ladies …” Merlin sighed. “Unfortunately, a marriage could not be effected in time … and to protect the lady’s reputation …”
“Aye, I understand. Poor lad … abandoned by his parents like that …”
Ector narrowed his eyes, then shrugged. “Well—we’re glad enough to have him … Caron has been wanting another babe …”
Merlin blinked, raising one eyebrow. He’d heard often of noblemen anxious for more sons, with wives somewhat reluctant to go through pregnancy and birth yet again, but never of a wife who wanted more children and a husband who was hesitant to deliver.
Ector noticed and looked at the ground. “Well … I’d want more too … but with the hard time we had just getting Kay – my son, about a year older than this one – to full term, and the trouble she had birthing him … and all the miscarriages before that … Caron’s almost died three times …” He shuddered. “As long as Kay stays healthy … I want Caron to stay healthy, too.”
Merlin nodded. So in this, at least, he had chosen well. Ector was kind, selfless enough to consider his wife’s health before his desire for heirs. And Merlin had heard that he treated his serfs well, and took his responsibilities toward them seriously. Besides, he was poor, as noblemen went. He would not have the means to spoil Arthur with over-love for material things.
Yes, Ector would do very well.
Merlin glanced through the gatehouse. “The tide is coming in.”
“Is it? Aye, then we’d better go.” He handed the baby to the wet nurse he had hired – a buxom peasant from the village – and lifted her up to the mule where she was to ride pillion behind his squire. It was, perhaps, a precarious mode of travel for an infant, but it was all Ector could afford, and Merlin found it hard to believe that the child fated to be the best king England would ever see would be seriously inconvenienced by it.
Merlin stood at the edge of the gatehouse, watching them ride away. He stroked his beard, daring to hope that maybe—despite everything—in this, he had chosen well.
A whirlwind rushed past him—a small whirlwind, a whirlwind with a plait of black hair streaming behind her like a banner. Merlin watched in shock—the whirlwind rushed through the gatehouse, onto the causeway—
Morgan! Merlin started and ran after her, his long legs quickly catching up to her. He grabbed her, scooping her up. “Whoa, Morgan! Slow down, little one!”
“Let me go! Let go!” She squirmed and writhed until Merlin, fearful he would drop her, set her down but kept a firm hand on her shoulder.
She looked up at him. “You’re making a mistake!”
Of course she thinks that … her mother … dear God, she had to witness that … Merlin schooled his voice into patience, it was his own damn fault that he was having to explain these things to a child. “Morgan, this is a great deal more complicated than you think it is—”
“Morgause hates him already!” Merlin blinked, he couldn’t understand what a bit of sibling rivalry had to do with anything. “And she’ll hate him more if she can’t get to know him – if Mama can’t teach her not to hate him! And she can’t if he’s not here!” Morgan stamped her foot. “Morgause is going to make a lot of trouble!”
Merlin stared. Then, still staring, he crouched to the little girl’s level. And he looked, with both his eyes and his magical sense.
The face was a child’s—the body—the voice—even the words were a child’s. But the eyes … there was something else, something lurking. And the message, he could feel, was not the senseless protests of a little girl.
He took a deep breath, hardly believing what he was about to do. But he began to speak, and when he spoke, he addressed himself to that something he saw lurking behind little Morgan’s eyes.
“What if I told you,” he said softly, “that Arthur is going to be a very great king someday?”
Morgan narrowed her eyes suspiciously.
“It’s true. There’s a Seer I know who foresaw it – you can ask him if you don’t believe me.” She hesitated, but she after a moment she nodded. “Now … Morgan, you know what sort of man Uther is.”
Morgan wrinkled her nose.
“Do you think – truly think – that he is the type of man who could teach a little boy to grow into a very good king?”
Another hesitation, but slowly Morgan shook her head.
“No—I don’t think so, either. So I am sending Arthur to live with Ector. Ector is a very good man, and he will raise Arthur well. And then – in a few years – I’ll follow, and make sure Arthur is learning as he should be. So hopefully, between all of us, we’ll be able to raise a good king, a king who will bring life and light to England.”
Morgan frowned, then she stuck her arm out, so that the shadow fell on Merlin’s knees. “There’ll be shadow.” This was no child speaking. “Lots of shadow. Shadow like that.” She pointed to the gloom of the gatehouse.
Merlin frowned. “But Morgan—with light there is always shadow. There is no light, not on this earth, that can reach around corners and fill the world with brightness.”
Morgan – or perhaps the something lurking within her – put her hand to her lip, appearing to chew this over. “I guess it’ll be a bit like a day, won’t it?” Merlin pulled away and blinked. “Darkness before – then light – then darkness again,” she explained. She frowned, her lip quivering. “But … the night will be very long.”
“Yet the day, I trust,” Merlin answered, “will be bright. Bright enough to help us all get through the night, and live in hope of another day.”
“You—you think so?”
Merlin smiled. “I most sincerely hope so.” He stood up. “Come now,” he said, patting Morgan on the shoulder, “’tis cold out here. Let’s find your sisters, shall we?” He stuck his hand out.
Morgan stared at the hand. Then she looked up with a smile – a big smile, a smile that was all little girl.
Trustingly, she put her hand in his, and together they walked back into Tintagel.