Snow White Queen
“So how go the negotiations?” Igraine asked Gorlois softly.
He laughed as he reached for the tureen and helped himself to a hearty serving of soup. “Igraine! Please, give me time to eat; all of this talk makes a man famished!” His eyes, still laughing, fell on hers, then calmed. “Why do you ask, love?”
Igraine glanced at her trencher and started to eat absently. “Well, you know Morgan’s birthday will be soon … and she will be so disappointed if we are not there to celebrate it with her.” She let her eyes stray nowhere near the high table.
“She knows that our business would likely take longer than that,” Gorlois replied, a touch sternly. “Children must learn to handle disappointment.”
“Yes, but …” Igraine sighed; Morgan was so young but she was an oddly quiet, composed child. She had been nearly three before she had even started to talk, and then it had been in full sentences, nearly adult, with no baby-speech at all. She was, at times, quite mature for her age, and Igraine doubted that her parents missing her birthday would shatter her world. Gorlois knew this, of course, and he would realize that Morgan was only an excuse if she continued to protest. Igraine held her peace.
But Gorlois was watching her expression, and, even though he could not see the reason for his wife’s desire to return home, he answered her question in between bites. “Truth to tell … they are not going well. The King is distracted, barely focused upon the matter at hand. Even when our wishes can be brought into accord …” He shrugged. “It may take months to reach a lasting agreement, unless that distraction is only temporary. However …” He turned to her, putting his spoon down. “Do you wish to return home? I do need your advice, but if you truly wish to go, I can petition the king to let you return. Brastias can escort you with the rest of the men-at-arms.”
Yes! Oh, yes! But—no. Igraine closed her eyes for a moment. Did she want to leave her husband alone in this nest of vipers? He was a master on the battlefield, but he could be so blind to these court scandals and intrigues … and so, truth to tell, was she, but at least she had her inner Eye and woman’s intuition to warn her of danger.
So she smiled and patted his hand. “No, no, of course not. I do not wish to go home that badly. If you need me here, I will stay.”
Gorlois watched her for a moment, but her expression did not falter, and soon he smiled in return. “Thank you.” He grabbed her hand and squeezed it. “I will even try to make the negations go as quickly as possible, I promise. I wish to see our Cornish sea again, and soon.”
“And we will finally have peace.” Igraine’s smile was genuine at this thought. To return home to Tintagel on the sea, to be able to raise her girls with Gorlois to help and perhaps to get started on that son and heir … Igraine sighed happily at the rosy-tinted vision. Peace would bring them so much.
The thought improved her mood so much that she tucked into her food with a will, much amplified by the fact that she had been eating poorly for the past few days, feeling the king’s eyes too much upon her. And when the supper was finished, she let herself be drawn into a group of ladies, losing sight of her husband. There were advantages to court life, she thought. The companionship of equals, women who could become true friends without the barriers of rank, was one of the things she would miss when she returned home. Perhaps she could convince Gorlois to invite a few of their husbands for a visit …
She was giggling, quite girlishly, over an older matron’s obscenely ugly choice of wimple when she felt a slight tap on her arm, and a quiet voice whisper, “My lady.” She turned around.
Sir Marcus, the king’s black-haired, black-eyed right-hand man, bowed. She hurriedly curtsied in reply. He was not a tall man, indeed they were almost equal in height, but he was still imposing. “The King wishes a word with you, my lady.”
“Wha—” But before Igraine could protest, Sir Marcus had stepped to the side, and the King himself stood there, tapping one foot a trifle impatiently. Igraine could not imagine how she had not noticed him. Without so much as a by-your-leave—barely even waiting for her to rise from her second curtsy—he grabbed her arm, tucked it under his own, and started to lead (more drag, she thought, half-trotting to keep up) her forward.
“My lord—” She looked over her shoulder; she had noticed how the courtiers were smoothly parting to make way for them, and now she could see that they were just as smoothly closing ranks again and blocking her path. Even if she could have broken free from the king’s iron grip, she could never have gotten anywhere. And Gorlois—he can’t get to me. “My lord, where are you taking me?”
“Your Majesty,” he snapped.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I am the High King of Britain. The title is ‘Your Majesty’.”
“Not king of Cornwall,” Igraine replied loyally, but added, “Your Majesty,” in the interests of keeping the peace. He snorted. She pulled, ineffectually, at her arm. “Where are you taking me?”
“We need to talk.”
She saw the direction their steps were taking them – toward a dark alcove in the shadow of the high table. No! “Then, please, let me get my husband—surely there is nothing you can have to say to me that cannot be stated in his presence.” She pulled at her arm again, with more force, but Uther roughly pulled her back.
“Don’t be a fool.” He almost shoved her into the alcove, and Igraine fell to the far wall, panting, praying that he would not—
What he did was plant both feet squarely in the entrance, cross his arms over his chest, and glare at her. “There will be no peace between Cornwall and Britain unless you come to my bed.”
Whatever she had been expecting, it wasn’t that. “What—” she began.
“I’ve given it a good deal of thought,” he continued, brusquely cutting her off. “It’s the only way. Your husband and I will never agree on anything – but if I had you …” He reached out to stroke her face. Igraine recoiled. He scowled. “Think about it, woman. You want peace—”
“No!” Igraine interrupted, she was probably landing her head onto a chopping block, but she could not listen to this. “No, my lord—Your Majesty—I am a chaste and loyal wife, I would never—I could never betray my husband in that manner—”
“Hardly a betrayal. You’re giving him what he wants – peace. Peace on his terms, even. I could be very generous—if you wanted.” He gave a smile – it almost looked like a wolf snarling before it tore into the flesh of its prey – Igraine pressed her back closer to the wall. For a second her Inner vision almost overlaid her outer, showing a man—
She shunted the image to the side and shook her head. “No.”
“Igraine—” Uther’s voice was turning more and more into a snarl. “Do you want Tintagel sacked? Your husband’s head on a pike? You, your lovely daughters – Morgause, Morgan and Elaine,” he said the names in a high, mincing falsetto, as if he sought to imitate her voice, “paraded through the streets of London, like the Romans used to parade their prisoners? And then—”
Gorlois! Igraine sagged in relief. Her husband, her tall golden husband, stared down the average-sized, dark-haired king with an expression of suspicion bordering on contempt. “What do you need to discuss with my wife that cannot be said in my presence?”
Uther frowned, his dark eyes darting between the Duke and his wife. “Well,” he began, “you may as well know about it—”
“No!” Igraine called out. If Uther told him, whether Gorlois believed her willing to respond to his desires or not, it would not matter; indeed, it would be worse if he knew her to be innocent. He would try to kill Uther either way, and whether he succeeded or not, he would still die—
Your husband’s head on a pike, you and your lovely daughters paraded through the streets of London—
“No! No, Gorlois, it matters not, come, let us go—” She grabbed his arm, tried to pull it.
“Be silent, woman!” the King snarled.
“Do not, my lord,” Gorlois growled in reply, protectively urging Igraine behind him, “presume to speak to my wife in such a manner.”
“Gorlois!” Igraine hissed. “Let us go—”
Igraine looked over her shoulder. The area around the alcove was quickly growing crowded with courtiers attracted by the raised voices. There would be plenty of witnesses to her husband’s attempt at what they would view as treason—“Gorlois!”
“Hush, Igraine,” he said gently. He stepped closer to Uther, dangerously close. “You.” He pointed a finger at the man’s chest. “I like not the way you speak to my wife—nor the lecherous glances you send in her direction—”
Oh, God! Uther would never forgive or ignore that remark—and Gorlois would not stop until he had avenged his perceived wrongs—and neither would listen to her.
So Igraine did the only thing she could think of. She moaned, put a hand to her head, closed her eyes, let her knees buckle—and “fainted.”
Gorlois’s body went rigid, and then started to shake. He stormed to the door of the chamber, or rather to the wall beside it, where he had left his sword and scabbard leaning. His hands trembled as he undid his belt and tried to maneuver the scabbard onto it. “I’ll kill him—I’ll kill him—I’ll stab him like the dog he is—”
“No!” Igraine flew up from the bed, where Gorlois had deposited her and had not allowed her to rise since she had “come to.” “You’ll be killed!”
“I’ve been willing to die for causes less worthy than this—Igraine, help me with this belt, I can’t—”
“No!” Gorlois turned and stared at her in disbelief; this was the first time in their marriage that she had flatly refused to obey him. Argued, yes, suggested other alternatives, certainly, but never refused.
And she compounded her disobedience by storming up to him and tearing the scabbard from his grasp. “No! I will not assist you in—in—suicide!”
“Suicide? Better to die with honor than to live without!”
“Honor? What’s honor? A word! A puff of air, there and gone before the eye can blink!” She waved her hand dismissively, turning, still holding the sword.
“It is your honor that I seek to defend!” Gorlois shouted back.
“My honor?” Igraine answered, turning, her hair whipping over her shoulders. For a moment, she looked fierce. “Oh, yes,” she crooned. “Go out there, defend my honor. Get yourself killed by Uther’s guards—Uther himself—Uther’s hangman! Let the whole court, the whole world, agree, Gorlois defended his wife’s honor very well, she is surely a woman unstained – so that Uther can come and despoil me the moment your heart stops beating!”
A chill passed through him at the words, and he crossed himself.
“And what of our daughters?” Igraine was continuing, starting to pace, her skirts billowing out with every step. “What do you think will happen to them? The orphans of the man who tried to kill the king – or worse, succeeded! At best they will be hated and reviled for the rest of their lives, at worst …” Igraine shuddered. Gorlois stepped forward to comfort her, put his hands on her shoulders, but she wheeled around quickly. “Did you never think of that?”
“The girls are in Tintagel,” Gorlois murmured. “It’s virtually impregnable—”
“Oh, yes, let them grow old alone, in isolation and terror, never daring to leave the island for fear of what may happen if they do.” Igraine shook her head, her eyes never leaving his face, her expression disgusted. Gorlois clenched his fists at his side.
“Then what do you suggest we do, wife?” he asked in a low, dangerous voice. “For Uther will never have you while there is breath in my body—that much I swear to you.”
Then she strode to the wardrobe, threw the doors open, and started tossing clothes and belongings onto the bed. “Go! Leave! Now!” She pulled one of the trunks leaning against the wall over to the bed and lifted it, or tried to. Gorlois found himself helping her before he could think better of it. She started piling their things into it. “We leave now—when he doesn’t expect it—ride all night, toward Tintagel—he’ll never catch up. There’s a full moon, we can see our way easily. We’ll be home in two, three days.”
“You would have me run like a coward?” Gorlois spat.
She crossed again to the wardrobe, grabbing more clothes and near-throwing them into the trunk. “Better a live coward than a dead man of honor!”
“You don’t understand—”
“A woman, without a man to protect her, is vulnerable to all—that much I understand. Uther will be furious no matter what we do—that much I understand. The only hope we have is to be as far away from him as possible when his anger breaks—that much I understand.” She faced him, chest heaving, head thrown back, silver eyes looking into his unblinkingly. “If you care at all for me, Gorlois, then you will choose to protect me, to protect our family, and leave your honor to take care of itself.”
Gorlois stared at her for a moment, then sighed. “I’ll get Brastias.”
“Tell him to hurry.” She was eying the interior of the wardrobe, then the trunk, with a highly speculative look. “We’ll be gone as soon as the wardrobe is empty.”
The king’s bellow woke the old wizard out of a sound slumber, but he was practiced in receiving such summons and instantly arranged his body into that of a man deep in trance. He was giving off a monotone hum before his brain had sleepily tried to wonder what was going on.
But the king was in no mood to respect the workings of magic, for he lifted Hywel straight off his pallet and all-but-slammed him into the wall. “Where are they?”
Hywel’s mind was instantly jolted into wakefulness. He blinked rapidly, pale blue eyes focusing with difficulty on the king’s face. “Where are—”
But before he could finish, the king let go (sending Hywel sliding partway down the wall before his thin and scrawny legs could find their balance) and turned angrily to the stone table in the middle of Hywel’s bedchamber/workroom, sweeping all the herbs, scrolls and various other detritus to the floor. (Luckily Hywel had learned soon after he came into Uther’s service to leave potentially delicate magical instruments only in places where an enraged king could not see them and think to destroy them in a fit of temper.) But for once, clearing the table was more than just an angry gesture born of a wish to break things. The king pointed to the empty surface, in particular to the bloodstains that Hywel could never quite manage to wash off. “Sacrifice your chicken, read the entrails, toss some bones—but find them! And find them now!”
He was about to storm off and slam the door behind him, before Hywel asked in a quiet, almost querulous voice, “Find whom, Your Majesty?”
“Find—” He spun around, his face nearly white with rage. “Them! The Duke of Cornwall and his wife!”
Ah, that ought to be simple! Hywel smiled briefly, before moaning and clutching his temples, as if the strength of his “vision” threatened to overwhelm him. “Ah—ah—I see them now …” He tightly squeezed his eyes shut, not before he noted the strength and angle of the light coming in from his small windows. “They are abed, my lord! And they—oh. Oh my.” He opened his eyes and chuckled. “I do not think, my lord, that they would appreciate anyone watching their activities at this moment.”
For some reason Hywel did not quite understand, Uther’s eyes darkened with rage. “Abed where?”
His sleep-addled brain not noticing the danger, Hywel replied, mystified, “Why, in the bedchamber Your Majesty so generously provided for them.”
The next few minutes were always fuzzy in his memory – but when the memory became clear, Hywel was cringing on his pallet, covering his aching head with both hands. “… last night! They took all of their men-at-arms, their things, and left last night! Without permission, without leave, without so much as a note!”
“Perhaps,” Hywel hurriedly mused, “perhaps there was an emergency at their home – perhaps—no, I have a vision coming—” He squeezed his eyes shut again. “I see a child—sick, fevered—he is looking out the window, longing for his mother and father, while a nurse pushes the little boy’s—”
“They only have girls!”
Oops. Hywel cringed. Had his spies not told him that? He would have to curse one of them to whip the rest into obedience … no, wait. Someone probably had mentioned it. His memory wasn’t what it used to be, especially after his head (he supposed) had been slammed into a wall.
“And I didn’t ask why they left, I asked where they went!” Uther spat. He crossed to the door, standing in the threshold with one hand on the knob. “Find out where they went – and soon – else your head will be on a pike next to that traitor duke’s!” He wasted no more time before slamming the door shut behind him.
Hywel sat on the pallet, still shaking, before finally shaking his head. He pulled himself up by gripping the table.
He would have to get his spies on this problem, and soon. Uther was not in a mood to be kept waiting.