Snow White Queen
Igraine sighed as the horses clopped from the causeway to the drawbridge, but it was a sigh of content. They must have been sighted before they left the mainland, and the sentries would have passed on the news that would send the castle scurrying into a frenzy. Clearly, the frenzy had reached the nursery, to judge by the speed at which Morgause’s legs were carrying her across the courtyard. She made straight for her father’s horse, of course, it would always be Gorlois who would be first in Morgause’ eyes.
Igraine glanced toward the steps leading to the great hall. Thank goodness, Merryn (her own nursemaid and now her children’s) was there, holding a squirming Elaine and carefully negotiating the steps. Morgan was already at the foot of the stairs, grinning, and calling to her sister, “See! I told you they would be back before my birthday! The fairies won’t take me back after all!”
The fairies—has Morgause been telling Morgan that she’s a changeling again? Igraine let her mind become occupied with wholly innocent, domestic concerns; it was easier than to worry about the maelstrom they had just fled. She would have to have (another) sharp word with Morgause about the tales she created.
Morgan was running toward them now, too, her legs not covering the same amount of ground her sister’s could, but making good speed nonetheless. Merryn finally yielded to the inevitable and put Elaine down to let the little one run or toddle to her parents as best she could. Elaine tried, her little body moving in an absurd parody of running, but soon she tripped over an uneven flagstone and fell on her knees. Her face screwed up all the wrong way, and her mouth opened to wail—
But Morgan turned around, trotted back to her little sister, took her chubby fist into her own hand, and gently coaxed her to her feet. Elaine, all smiles, bounced back up again and started her half-jog, half-run, glossy black curls bouncing on her shoulders.
“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” Gorlois was barely off his horse before Morgause threw her arms around his waist. “You’re home you’re home you’re home!” She looked away from her father and smiled, just for a second, at her mother. “Hullo, Mummy.” Then she squeezed Gorlois all the more tightly.
“I’m happy to see you too, dear heart.” Gorlois somehow managed to extricate himself enough to kneel down at Morgause’s eye level, hands on her shoulders, pushing back the curtain of raven hair. “Have you been a good girl?”
“Of course, Daddy.”
“You didn’t give Merryn and Sir Jordanus any trouble?”
“None at all, Daddy.” Igraine’s eyebrows rose. Morgause would never lie to her father, but she was wise enough not to always tell the whole truth. Igraine wondered how her daughter was wriggling out of this one.
Ah, of course. Merryn AND Sir Jordanus. Whatever she did probably did not involve both of them at once. Either that, or she was cunning enough that neither of them are aware that she was behind whatever mischief was caused.
Else all she has been doing has been inundating Morgan with more changeling tales.
Igraine somehow doubted that it was the latter.
One of the grooms helped her off her mare, just in time for Morgan and Elaine to trot up to her. “Mama!” Morgan called out, Elaine seconding the sentiment with a babbling, “Ma-ma-ma-ma-ma!”
Igraine caught them both in a tight embrace, closing her eyes just for a moment and burying her face in the two sets of raven hair. Morgan pulled away sooner than Igraine would have expected – was her little girl growing up so soon? – but it was not as a gesture of impatience; Igraine could see a puzzled, searching look in her daughter’s slate-blue eyes as Morgan scanned her mother’s face.
“Ma-ma!” Elaine called out insistently, holding her arms out in the way that meant, Up! Igraine smiled and set the baby on her hip, rising in one fluid motion with practiced ease. Morgan, her exuberance at their return seemingly forgotten, reached mutely for Igraine’s hand. Igraine took it and squeezed reassuringly.
Sir Jordanus, one of Gorlois’s most loyal knights, was quickly descending the steps, the steward of the castle nearly treading on his heels. “My lord, my lady!” Even from this distance, Igraine could see that the knight’s face was creased in a smile. She closed her eyes and sighed. Morgan pressed closer to her.
Gorlois stood up, disentangling himself from Morgause’s embraces. Morgause’s face fell, but a sharp look from her mother ensured that her mouth stayed closed.
The knight did not seem to notice the sudden pall over his lord and lady’s faces; he made his bow quickly and asked hurriedly, “You have made peace so quickly?”
“Yes. No more fighting, my lord?” Merryn, whose youngest son had been killed by Uther’s troops, inquired eagerly.
Morgause’s cat-green eyes lit up at the prospect of no more war, of her Daddy no longer having to leave. Morgan’s gaze flickered between both of her parents, and her lips pursed together. Elaine continued to babble happily, leaning her head on her mother’s shoulder.
The men-at-arms milled nervously. Sir Brastias, perhaps not wanting to meet the eyes of his fellow knight, seemed unduly occupied with a group of crows crossing overhead. Their harsh caws sounded to Igraine like a death knell.
As the silence stretched, Igraine watched Merryn blanch, and saw the hope leave Sir Jordanus’s face.
Finally, when everyone in the courtyard (except, perhaps, Elaine and Morgause) had guessed the truth, Gorlois sighed. “We were deceived, friends. The King summoned us to Carleon only to dishonor our fair Duchess. He did not succeed, of course – and she is obviously completely innocent of any wrongdoing,” he added in a tone that made it clear that anyone who stated otherwise would face very unpleasant consequences. He sighed again. “Far from welcoming peace, we must now prepare for war.”
The courtyard was silent.
Uther sat at the head of the rectangular table and glowered at his privy councilors.
“The Duke is gone,” he barked simply. “Gone, with his wife, his knights, his men-at-arms, his whole entourage. Gone without my permission. Gone, and therefore committing high treason.”
The councilors shifted a little, glancing sidelong at each other. Sir Marcus, on the king’s right hand, tapped his fingers against the polished wooden tabletop.
“Then if he’s a traitor,” King Lot, the youngest of the councilors at only eighteen, yet in control of a vast amount of territory in Scotland, “find him, try him, and kill him.”
“You’d have to defeat him first,” Sir Marcus pointed out. “He’s probably got himself holed up in Tintagel. The place is virtually impregnable. It’s almost an island – the one way to get to it from the mainland is by a causeway that can only be crossed at low tide. You can’t attack it by sea, the sides of the island are so steep that no one could climb up to the castle.”
Uther was impressed; he had had no idea that Marcus knew the defenses of Tintagel so well. Even in the wars, they had never gotten deep enough into Cornwall that Uther had bothered to study up on that particular fortress’s defenses.
“Siege,” King Lot replied instantly. “All we have to do is block the causeway and we could starve them out.”
“Aye, and let men from every one of the Duke’s fortresses come and beset us?” Marcus replied. “Gorlois isn’t a fool. He keeps only the lightest of garrisons at Tint—”
“We go too fast,” King Josephus of Garlot interrupted. “There is no proof that the man is a traitor.”
Uther’s hard-edged gaze swiveled to the older man, who squirmed in spite of himself. “Majesty, please,” Josephus pleaded. “Leaving court, however suddenly, should not be grounds for conviction of treason. You remember his wife fainted that night – perhaps he felt it wisest to deliver her to her own home.”
“So he puts a fainted woman up onto a horse in the middle of the night, and rides nonstop, so quickly that none of our men can keep up?” King Uriens of Gore asked skeptically. “I might accept that logic if he was trying to murder his wife, but if his interests are to help her ...” He shrugged. “Mind you, I’m not saying that there isn’t a logical explanation—I just doubt that that is it.”
Uther, who had been prepared to commend Uriens for his loyalty, scowled. “No matter what his reason for leaving may be,” he spat, “the fact that he did it without permission or an explanation smacks of treason.”
“But what could he have done?” Lot wondered aloud. The faces of the other kings and knights swiveled to face him. He shrugged. “If he is guilty of treason—wouldn’t he have done something overtly treasonous before fleeing? But nothing was amiss either before or after he left—other than that he was gone.”
“Maybe he left not because of what he did,” murmured Amadeus of Gaul, a poor knight who was only allowed onto the council because of his unfaltering loyalty to Ambrosius, “but because of what was done to him.”
The rest of the councilors were silent, and all heads swiveled to face Amadeus.
Uther pounded his fist on the table. “Do you want to be accused of treason, too?” he snarled. Amadeus stared at him, not blinking his warm oaken eyes. “Do you want your head on a block—your son Accolon deprived of his inheritance? Do you?”
Amadeus sighed, though his gaze did not waver. “No, Majesty.”
“Then I suggest you keep your mouth shut,” Uther growled. His cold, brown, dried-blood eyes swept around the table. The only man able to meet them was Sir Marcus. “I am the King. Treason is a crime against the King – and who better than I am able to determine what a crime against me is? If I say the Duke is guilty of treason, then, by God, he is guilty!” He pounded his fist on the table again.
“Majesty.” Sir Marcus’s voice was soft, calm, ingratiating. Uther reluctantly looked at him. “You remember, the Duke … suffers from delusions of independence. The promise your brother made to him and his father …” He shrugged and sighed. “It was unfortunate, but remember Ambrosius needed as many allies as he could get against Vortigern. And letting go of Cornwall was easy when Ambrosius had no lands and next-to-no allies. One can easily give up what one never had.” He shrugged. “The Duke, though I doubt he would presume to call himself your equal, certainly would not consider himself your vassal. He would not see his sudden departure as treason, and it would not be just to punish him for it.”
Just? And it would be just to let a traitor walk abroad and claim to rule his “independent” duchy? But Uther could sense that Sir Marcus was not finished, and the pause was expectant. “Then what,” he snapped, “do you suggest I do, in the interests of justice?”
“I suggest,” Sir Marcus replied evenly, “that you send him a dispatch … cordially inviting him to return to continue the negotiations.”
Inviting? Uther thought, but, “With his wife?” was all Uther permitted himself to ask.
“As you wish, Majesty.” Sir Marcus shrugged, as if it made no difference to him whether the Duchess was ordered to return to court as well. Uther knew that was not true, for, if nothing else, the Duke might actually obey his summons if he was ordered to come alone.
“With his wife, then.” Uther decided. What was the point of having Gorlois back if he could not have Igraine?
There was, he thought, a faint – very faint – murmur of disapproval, mostly from the older kings and knights, and Amadeus was scowling. However, no one protested aloud.
Sir Marcus nodded carelessly. “Very well. And I also suggest that in this … invitation, you make it very clear what the … consequences of not complying will be.” He gave an almost feral grin. “I suggest that you tell him straight out that you will fetch him out of his strongest castle in forty days if he does not come. And,” he continued, “should Gorlois see fit to ignore this—cordial invitation …” He shrugged. “Well that, certainly, would be treason—would it not, gentlemen?”
The table was silent.
Finally Uriens spoke, almost reluctantly. “Yes,” he agreed. “It would be treason.”
“Then we are agreed?” Uther demanded. All heads around the table nodded. “Good,” he snarled. “See to it that the dispatches are sent. I will be forming the army. We will be ready to march the instant his refusal comes back.”
“How amusing,” the Duke of Cornwall remarked as he removed King Uther’s seal from the parchment. “Look, Igraine, the King has sent us a note.”
The messenger, though his head was still respectfully bowed, eyed the Duchess through his lashes. He thought he saw the lady pale as she set aside her embroidery.
The Duke scanned the letter carefully, extending one arm and beckoning for his wife to join him. She gracefully stood, her gown bunching and clinging as she crossed the room, her steps quickened by what the messenger thought was fear.
She read at her husband’s side – The lady can read? How unusual, the messenger noted – the Duke’s arm encircling her waist while she leaned her head on his shoulder. “What a charming invitation,” the Duke chuckled. “Look, darling—he says that if we do not come to Carleon instantly, he’ll come and fetch us himself.”
“Gorlois …” the Duchess murmured. Her silver eyes flickered to her husband’s face.
“Oh, and note his opening lines! It seems our sudden departure has marked me as a traitor in his eyes!” The Duke gave a laugh that made the messenger want to shudder, though he did not quite dare. Most of the nobility didn’t deign to notice servants, but of course they broke that particular rule whenever a servant would have liked to take advantage of his perpetual invisibility.
“How can you have committed treason when …” the Duchess murmured, shaking her head and pressing a hand to her temple.
“I was on his soil. Perhaps that is his justification. Either that, or he believes that the man with the biggest army needs no justification for his actions.”
“Gorlois!” The note of anguish in her voice made the messenger’s heart drop.
“No fear, love, there is no army big enough to take …” The Duke eyed the messenger speculatively, then remarked decisively, “Terrabil.” The Duchess’s eyes went wide, her gaze darting between the messenger and her husband. “It’s closer to Carleon, darling,” the Duke pointed out. “He would have tried to take it anyway.”
“And he could have encountered a nasty surprise,” the Duchess pointed out.
“A true knight does not rely on surprise.” The Duke tapped the parchment, clearly pondering something. Then he crumpled the summons – the messenger went weak in the knees, between the salary of the scribe, the price of the ink, and the cost of the parchment itself, that note was worth more than he made in a year – tightly in one hand. “Messenger!”
“M-my lord?” The messenger straightened hurriedly.
“Emrys, my lord.”
“Good. Emrys,” the Duke began, sounding almost friendly but for the thick undercurrent of anger to his tone, “there will be no need to send a written reply.”
“I’m sure you can remember this,” he continued lightly. “Tell Uther that he may be High King of Britain—but he is not King of Cornwall, nor its Duke, nor – and mark this carefully – nor its Duchess.”
Emrys’s gaze slid over to the Duchess. Her arms were crossed over her chest, her hands chaffing her upper arms as if she was cold.
“I’m sure you can remember that, can’t you?” the Duke asked lightly, then, glancing toward a side door, barked, “Brastias! Jordanus!”
Two knights – one somewhat short, broad-shouldered and with amber-colored hair, the other dark, tall and lithe – burst from the door. “Jordanus – ride to Terrabil. Be certain the garrison is well-stuffed and the men ready. Uther will probably set out from Carleon the minute this ‘immortal one,’” he jerked his thumb at Emrys, “sets foot on the drawbridge.” The tall one nodded and left via the main door, the one Emrys had been shown into. “Brastias, come with me, I want to hear your thoughts on the defense of the border …” The Duke and the blonde knight disappeared into the side room, the door shutting behind them.
Emrys was left alone with the Duchess, who stared at the closed door, her palms pressed together nervously. She hardly seemed aware he was there.
But then her silver gaze fell on him, and Emrys realized that she had never forgotten his presence. “You must be starved,” she murmured. “Go, fetch yourself a meal from the kitchen. I’ll have a scribe write out the Duke’s reply. It shouldn’t take long.”
Emrys bit his lower lip. His stomach was insistently reminding him how long it was since he had last eaten, yet the Duke … “My lady—I fear the Duke had intended me to leave now …”
“Nonsense. You can’t be expected to journey back on an empty stomach. Besides …” The Duchess frowned, as if she was afraid to trust her memory on this issue. She crossed swiftly to one of the windows that gave out onto the sea. “Yes, the tide is coming in.” She gave a wan smile. “Your best opportunity to leave was twenty minutes ago. You’ll have to wait anyway.”
“Thank you, my lady.”
Emrys served the rest of his life at Uther’s court, and in that time he heard many troubadours sing of Igraine’s beauty and of the conflict she caused. But what he always remembered best – the story he told his children and grandchildren – was her kindness. How, even though she had no obligation, indeed, no reason to do him a good turn, she did it anyway.
And, as they say, one good turn deserves another …
December was beginning, bringing bitter winds and snow, but Uther’s heart was warm and his smile bright as he rode at the head of the column of the army. It had, perhaps, taken him longer than he had wished to gather his army – troops had to be amassed from all corners of the kingdom – but the way the campaign was going was more than making up for that.
He had sacked not one, not two, but three garrisons since stepping onto Cornish soil, and now he was coming up on Terrabil, a bare ten miles from Tintagel. See! he thought defiantly to his detractors, to the men who whispered and grumbled that they were all being forced to risk their lives so that the King may sate his lust. See! You risk your lives for a good cause. God smiles on my campaign. How else could it have been so easy?
And it had been easy. Each of the garrisons – fortresses he had never been able to take in four years of warring on the border of Cornwall – had only been lightly manned, and barely supplied. The resistance they had put up was pitiful, and they had surrendered nearly immediately. Though one or two of his best generals had been killed in the fighting … Uther scowled, then smiled, remembering the trumpets blaring as he had ridden up the drawbridge of each of the three fortresses and accepted each commander’s surrender. Indeed, after claiming each castle for his own and seizing the weapons, Uther had been in such a good mood that he had even let all the people – all the people, even the fighting men along with the women and children and the infirm – go free. The way that had melted into the countryside, not even attempting to harry his troops in the slightest, had confirmed their gratitude.
Uther spurred his horse from pure high spirits, his mind turning over pleasant scenarios. Devious Marcus, he was sure, had already deduced from the conduct of the warriors that Gorlois was losing the respect of his people. And no wonder—drawing the whole duchy into war just to protect the “virtue” of his wife! Every peasant knew that if a nobleman wanted his wife, it was useless to resist. The peasant would end up dead, and his wife despoiled anyway and widowed to boot. Why should a noble be any different, if the king lusted after his wife? Uther would have even been willing to admit that the king ought to give up his own wife if asked by a man of higher rank, except there were no men of higher rank than the king (except perhaps the Pope, but Popes weren’t supposed to be going around despoiling men’s wives).
Yes, soon Marcus would manage to have his whole machine of propaganda grinding and lurching and churning out one story after another. Why, if he was lucky, Marcus would turn the whole countryside against Gorlois, and Uther would have a nearly bottomless well of reinforcements to draw from …
“Your Majesty! Look out!”
Uther looked behind him, to see who had shouted—just as his horse gave a high shriek and reared. Uther barely managed to keep his seat.
And it wasn’t until the great charger was on all fours, the whites of its eyes still showing, that Uther noticed the arrow quivering in the ground between the horse’s forelegs.
Uther looked up in shock.
Terrabil was before him, two, perhaps three miles off. The drawbridge was up, but he wasn’t worried about that. Terrabil was rumored to be riddled with secret passages and posterns out, and what one man used to get out, another could use to get in. The Duke of Cornwall was, theoretically, the only man who knew every single postern and passageway, but Uther was confident in his ability (or rather, the ability of Marcus and his spies) to find one or two that his men could use to overrun the fortress.
What worried Uther was the large host grouped in front of Terrabil, led by none other than Gorlois.
He was supposed to be in Tintagel! Everyone said he was in Tintagel! Hell, the messenger found him in Tintagel! But no, it had to be Gorlois, not only was the man the right height and girth, he had also pushed back his visor and allowed his face and blonde hair to flash for a moment in the weak winter sunlight. And to his right—
No! No, it’s not possible! The commander had been so terrified when Uther and his army had overran the fortress under his command, and so sycophantically grateful when Uther had magnanimously spared the lives of everyone inside … Uther had been certain that he would instantly retire to whatever country estate Gorlois must have been given him and not set one foot from his lands until this conflict was over.
But there was Sir Brastias, in the flesh, grinning devilishly before he snapped the visor of his helmet over his face. Uther gripped the hilt of his sword reflexively. For that insult, he would behead the knight himself—
Gorlois, though, had other plans. His sword came out, flashing. “Charge!” came the cry from across the battlefields.
Quickly – perhaps too quickly – Uther felt his own sword in his hand, raised in the air. His generals would be furious with him for what he was about to do …
But Uther didn’t care. All he saw was Gorlois, the traitor to him and his realm, and more importantly, husband of the woman he wanted. And if Uther could be rid of the husband, why, then, he would be rid of all obstacles between him and fair Igraine’s bed …