Snow White Queen
Early March. Igraine sighed as she gazed out the window of her bedchamber. Terrabil was only ten miles away, but the mist and fog coming off the sea kept her from seeing so much as ten feet from the casement. So despite the bird’s eye view, she was always as dependent on Jordanus or Brastias for news as the rest of the castle. The constant waiting had made it a long, long winter.
Why can’t the fool just leave? she thought bitterly, and not for the first time. It should have been madness, suicide, to try to hold a siege in the middle of winter. Terrabil would have been well-stocked in preparation for the dead season. A winter spent in tents – even in a climate as relatively mild as Cornwall, in the south of Britain and on the coast, where snow only rarely fell – should have killed more of the King’s army than Gorlois’s arrows, boiling oil, swords and all the rest of it.
Maybe it had. Maybe Uther’s army was seriously depleted, maybe it was only through sheer stubbornness that the tents and pavilions had not come down. Maybe. But maybe did no good if the King refused to leave.
Besides, even if the messages Jordanus delivered from Gorlois were hearty and full of cheer, the expression in the knight’s eyes never was. Igraine sighed and turned from the window. Her gaze traveled across the room, to her own reflection.
Why had she had the great silver mirror taken from the treasure room, anyway? Because you are a fool, Igraine. You succumbed to temptation in one moment of feeling you would go mad if you got no news, of deciding that damn the priests, damn the Church, damn everything, you would See what was happening if no one would tell you … and then, of course, once the servants find the mirror and bring it up here, you have changed your mind. You will not Look. So instead you will torture yourself until Gorlois comes safely home again, safely home for good.
She stared at her reflection, searching, almost hopefully, for a wrinkle, a strand of gray, something. Something that would take away her beauty, render her less attractive in Uther’s eyes and make him realize that this madness was not worth it. She no longer entertained hope of peace, true peace – there would probably be raids and counter-raids on the border for as long as she and Gorlois, or Uther, lived. But hopefully, hopefully, the King would see sense and leave, let his attention be drawn by more important matters, and forget about them.
But if the mirror, as family legend claimed, could only show the truth, then these hopes could come to naught. Igraine turned from her reflection in disgust.
She jumped, hand pressed to her heart, turning quickly to the door—then sighed at her own foolishness when she saw Morgan, one hand hanging onto the doorknob, poking her head into the room hesitantly. Igraine felt herself smile. “What are you doing here, sweet? Come in, come in.”
With a bright smile Morgan ran in instantly. “I wanted to see you, Mama. Morgause is making Sir Jordanus lie.”
“What?” Igraine demanded, a touch sharply. She sank onto the chair across from the table that held the mirror, though she refused to face it, sitting parallel to the table instead. Her arms instinctively reached out, an invitation, and Morgan wasted no time in clambering onto her mother’s lap.
Igraine waited for Morgan to settle herself, nestling against her body and leaning her head back. She wondered how much time she ought to give her before repeating the question.
But Morgan, clever little Morgan, had not forgotten Igraine’s question, indeed she answered as soon as she was comfortable. “Morgause is making Sir Jordanus give her the news.”
“Why didn’t Sir Jordanus come up here?” Igraine murmured.
“He is. Or he will. But Morgause wanted to play in the courtyard, so we were out there when he rode in. And Morgause wants the news.”
Like everyone else, Igraine thought with a mental sigh. “So why did you say he was lying?”
“Because …” Morgan frowned, considering. “Because he always tells Merryn what there is to be told first, and they talk in low voices so we can’t hear. And she always looks troubled and sad when he’s done. But everything Sir Jordanus tells us is good news. So …” Morgan was quiet, and Igraine let her wait to gather her thoughts. “Even if everything he tells us is true … then he’s still not telling the truth, the whole truth, because otherwise why would Merryn look so sad?” Morgan craned her neck backward, slate blue eyes staring into Igraine’s. “Is that the same as lying, Mama?”
“Er … it is called ‘lying by omission’, but it is not as bad as true lie. Still, you must not do it.” What is he telling Merryn that he is not telling me? Igraine wondered. She would have to pump her old nursemaid for information as soon as she could.
“So why doesn’t he tell us the truth? The whole truth? Since lying is bad?” Morgan asked.
“Because … because he loves you, sweet. Because he loves you and your sisters and he doesn’t want to see you unhappy.” That, certainly, was true. Most of the castle was besotted to a certain degree with the Duke’s three daughters – known fondly as the “ducklings” – but Jordanus was worse than most. Morgause, in particular, could wind this particular doting “uncle” easily around her finger.
“Won’t we be unhappier when we find out?” Morgan pressed. “Because we weren’t prepared?”
Oh, sweet, if things ever get so bad that you find out, we will all have much, much more to worry about than your reaction. “Don’t you worry about these things,” she said instead. “Let Papa and Sir Jordanus and Sir Brastias take care of everything.” Still, she hugged Morgan even closer to herself.
She thought she heard her daughter snort, but Morgan was squirming in her grasp before Igraine could be certain. “Mama, where’d the mirror come from?”
“Hmm?” Igraine glanced absently at the silver surface—and blinked. She had never seen, before, how much of her own features Morgan had inherited. Maybe it was because the expressions were so different; Igraine could see how a man would see proper feminine weakness and docility in hers, whereas Morgan’s was solemn, pensive, and had the beginnings of …
Still, the resemblance was so obvious … Igraine watched, in the mirror, as her hand gently stroked Morgan’s cheek, the cheekbone smaller but nearly identical to her own. Morgan smiled tremulously into the mirror, and Igraine smiled in reply.
“It was part of my dowry, sweet,” Igraine replied. “It’s been in my family for generations.” She wondered what else she ought to tell her daughter – how the oval-shaped mirror, made of pure beaten silver with the edging in gold, was so valuable as to be almost worthless, since nearly no one could afford to buy it? Should she say how family legend insisted it had been forged by the old pagans of Britain, and blessed – or cursed – with their spells and prayers? Should she mention how the women of Igraine’s line had used it to scry for generations, centuries even, until it came into Igraine’s possession?
Instead, all she said was, “And someday, it will come to you—or one of your sisters, of course,” she added hastily, “in their dowry.” Their? Why not ‘your’?
Morgan nodded simply, as if she understood everything her mother had said, and everything she hadn’t. She squirmed again so that she faced the door.
A gentle knock came. “Come in,” Igraine called.
Merryn poked her head inside. “Morgan! There you are, you naughty girl, running off and leaving me in a dither. What if you had fallen down the well, eh?” She balanced Elaine carefully on her hip, holding out her hand imperiously for Morgan to take. Morgan sighed and slipped off Igraine’s lap, taking the hand obediently. “If you wanted to see your mama, you should have asked.”
“You would have said no,” Morgan answered simply.
“Merryn!” Igraine called sharply, standing up. “Have the girls been asking for me?”
The nursemaid colored. “My lady—my lady, you have a great many worries—”
Igraine glared, her eyes starting to blaze.
“And—and—and Sir Jordanus—”
Igraine sighed. “Is here and wishes to see me. Yes, I know.” She straightened the wrinkles in her dress. “We will discuss this later, Merryn.”
“As you please, my lady.”
Igraine nodded, then gathered her dignity and left her bedchamber.
“Three months!” Uther bellowed. “We’ve been here three months—no break in the siege—men dropping dead every day—never able to secure enough reinforcements to take the castle—and what you have been doing? Nothing! What do I pay you for?!?”
Hywel winced and decided that this was not the best time to mention that, in the strict sense, he hadn’t been paid since before the siege started. “Your Majesty, the workings of great magic take time—”
His normal “sales speech” would have said that some of the greatest magic was known to take years to come to fruition, but he veered off that course. Uther was never a patient man at the best of times; to be told now that he may have to wait years would probably lead to him having Hywel loaded into a catapult.
“Yes, Majesty, time. And—I was not entirely certain what you wished for me to do …” Uther’s fists were clenching tightly at his sides; Hywel continued hurriedly, “You see, Majesty, you were often so busy with important affairs of the siege that I did not want to interrupt—”
“You want to know what I want you to do?” Uther interrupted. “Something! Anything! Make yourself useful for God’s sake—unless you want to be fighting on the front lines and making yourself useful that way!”
Hywel’s jaw dropped for a moment – true, his “quarters” were barely better than a common kern’s, but at least he had never been expected to risk his life in the service of the King! He swiftly composed his face. “But, Majesty, what is it that you want the most?” he hedged. He straightened, twitching his star-studded robe so that it would cover up how his knees were practically knocking together. “Magic takes a great deal of energy, and …” He hesitated before admitting this, but he sighed and continued, “I am not as young as I used to be.” After all, Hywel rationalized, it’s not as if he can’t figure that out by looking at me. He ran a hand through his wild iron gray hair. “I would hate to … to expend too much energy, more than is wise, in order to please Your Majesty—and then find that what I had delivered, though helpful, was not what you wanted most.”
“You are asking me to condone your laziness?” the King roared. “And what do you think I want?”
He ignored the first question. “You want many things, Your Majesty.” Uther’s face was growing redder and redder. “You want to take Terrabil,” Hywel continued swiftly, “and to deliver—just punishment to the Duke, and to … to wend your way into fair Igraine’s bed—”
The anger fell away from Uther’s face. “You can do that?”
Well, that answers the question of what does he want.
“Do it!” Uther called out. “Do it, and I swear, I’ll—I’ll—I’ll give you land! Yes, land, rich land, holdings of your very own! How would you like to be a baron? No—a count! Yes, a count!”
Oh, dear, oh, dear. “Majesty,” Hywel pleaded, “this will take time—”
“You need to wait ‘til the dark of the moon to make your lust potion? Done,” Uther answered easily.
“Actually, lust potions are for the full moon—but I mean—” Hywel chewed on his lower lip. “Making the potion—that is one thing. What will take more time—is getting it to her. And having her get here.”
Uther waved his hand dismissively. “Women in heat always find a way to fulfill their desires. And kill a messenger and send one of your men in his stead.”
Oh, like that will work. Hywel had already tried that. Getting rid of the messenger had been the easy part – but apparently the Cornish were a close-knit bunch. His own man, when they had seen who he was, had barely escaped with his life.
And getting the potion in was the least of his worries. If the potion worked – which Hywel was not at all certain that it would, his recipe was rather imprecise and he had never tried it – he still had the problem of getting Igraine to the King before it wore off. Lust potions, the best theories stated, worked best when the luster and the object of the lust were in close proximity, say, in the same room. Maybe, maybe, if his messenger showed up at exactly the right moment, Igraine could be convinced to go with him to meet the King.
But Igraine had resisted the King when she had been deathly afraid of him, afraid not only for herself, but for her husband, for her daughters, so clearly her loyalty to her husband could not be shaken by fear – and fear, Hywel thought, was a much stronger motivator than lust.
Maybe, though—if he was going through the trouble of installing someone in her household—he shouldn’t bother with the potion. It was unlikely to work, and just another complication. Maybe, instead, he could have her kidnapped …
He dismissed that notion immediately. Even if she did not call for her guards and have his man killed – an entirely too-likely possibility – even if he arrived at the camp with his charge alive and in good condition, it would not work. Uther would never bed a woman fiercely struggling, or so obviously bruised and damaged that she took away all desire. A heavily drugged bedfellow would also fail to satisfy him.
But that was all assuming that he could get someone inside …
“Your Majesty,” Hywel replied, regretfully, since he had liked the idea of a land and a title to go with it, “I fear—” Remembering himself, he squeezed his eyes shut and put his fingers to his temples. “I see—I see a vision—you will never bed the Duchess unless the Duke is dead and all his land, holdings and people under your control—”
“Then arrange for that!” the King barked.
Hywel blinked. “An assassination? That will take months to plan!”
“How long does it take to bespell a knife?” Uther challenged.
“What?” Hywel asked, holding one hand to his head in a puzzled manner.
“To bespell a knife! You told me about that before I took you into my service!” Uther spat. “Bespell a knife, so that the hand that picks it up feels compelled to murder the man of your choice!”
Hywel cursed himself. He knew he had gone overboard in his desperate attempt to get the king to hire him. Now he could not even remember what he had said …
“You said that you would do that so that I could be rid of rivals, opponents and no one would ever be the wiser! You said—” Uther narrowed his eyes. Hywel blanched. The slow brain was suddenly working …
“Charlatan!” Uther grabbed a boot from the bed and threw it at him. Hywel ducked, grabbing his conical hat so that it didn’t fall from his head. “Get out! Fool! How much money have I spent on you? Get out!” He threw a heavy belt-buckle. “Get out!”
Hywel wasted no time in grabbing his robes to give his chicken-thin legs room to run and fleeing.
Uther, growling, turned to the table that housed the maps and battle plans. Apparently, if he wanted the fair Duchess, he would have to take Terrabil and the Duke first …
He heard a dry, quiet cough. He turned around.
Standing in the tent flap was Ulfius, a man only made knight a year prior, short and graceful with gold hair and moss-green eyes. His father had been an important ally of Ambrosius, and now he was Uther’s chamberlain. “What?” Uther snarled.
Sir Ulfius bowed. “Your Majesty,” he said smoothly, “I could not help but overhearing your, er, argument with your court magician. I hope that Hywel’s … incompetence has not entirely destroyed your faith in magic.”
“Faith in magic?” Uther snorted. “Isn’t that an oxymoron? Or blasphemy?” Ulfius said nothing. “Why?” Uther barked.
“There is,” Ulfius said hesitantly, “another magician abroad … Craig the Bastard, though he calls himself Merlin …”
“Craig the—” Uther started, then his eyes went wide. He spun around. “Merlin? The Merlin? The one—Vortigern—”
“The same, Your Majesty,” Ulfius nodded, “if the rumors be true,” he added.
Uther stared at his knight.
“Find him,” he barked finally. “Find him and I swear by all that is good and holy – if this man is half as good as his legends proclaim, I will make you a duke.”
Merlin cursed his beggar’s rags for the fiftieth time as he tried to pick his way along the rocky coast. He added in a few curses for Uther and his army, and another couple for the Duke’s stubbornness. If they hadn’t been fighting over land or whatever it behooved these great men to fight over, then the countryside would not have been so dangerous. Uther’s men, though unable to force entry into Terrabil, had not been idle all winter. They had been raiding and razing otherwise-quiet villages for miles around, perhaps in an attempt to increase their supplies. The dispossessed former villagers were every bit as dangerous, even more so because they had desperation rather than boredom to fuel their rage. The only way to travel unmolested was to do so disguised as a beggar.
Not that he couldn’t deal with any attempts at molestation, just that his method of “dealing” with such problems tended to attract unwanted attention. Besides, turning someone into a frog in this weather was a de facto death sentence – for the frog – and he had no wish to have a murder on his conscience.
He stopped for a moment, leaning on his staff and gazing out at the sea. Why, of all the places I could have gone, did I decide to come to Cornwall anyway? Any other sensible man with the ability to travel would have been fleeing the county as quickly as leg or horse could take him.
Well, there had been Blaise, his old tutor who had a touch of Seer in him. When Merlin had been hunting about for a good place to base his researches, the old tutor-scholar had suggested Cornwall. (This had been before news of the current troubles had reached them.) And since Cornwall was on the sea – a very necessary component in his researches – and also had the probability to be, in the future, controlled by magic-wielders (since the current Duchess was from a long line of Seers), Merlin had seized on this opportunity. True, there wasn’t an heir yet, but there was no telling how long his researches could take. The idea of being tutor and magical advisor to the powerful Duke of Cornwall was a big enough career-jump that Merlin felt he could afford to wait. Besides, there were always the Duke’s three daughters to train, should they show magical abilities. The prospect of teaching – no matter who the student was – lifted his spirits a great deal.
This was all, of course, assuming that the Duke emerged victorious from these current struggles. But Merlin thought it likely. Uther might have been a tremendously stubborn king, but it was harder to take a castle by siege than it was to withstand one. Sooner or later, the King’s attention would be forced away from Cornwall. The only game the Duke had to play was a waiting game.
In the meantime, though, there were his researches. Merlin leaned more on his staff and gazed meditatively at the crashing waves. Where did power come from, and where did it go? Why were some families stronger in magic than others? How much power came from the interplay of the elements, as alchemists liked to insist, and how much came from—other sources?
Well, he had come to Cornwall to answer—or at least shed some light upon—the third question. The coast – where land, air and water met – ought to be stocked ready with power, if only one could figure out how to access it. And the sea itself ought to be an even readier source. Then again, if his current theories were correct—
He was drawn rather rudely from his reverie by the sound of pounding hooves, an impatient, “Out of the way, beggar!” and a clout from the flat of a blade that nearly sent him stumbling into the briny.
Merlin caught himself easily, and—the wind picking up, blowing away his hood and showing his copper-red hair (and the temper attached)—cast a powerful illusion before the knight’s horse.
Out of nowhere an enormous red dragon appeared on the sand, lifted itself to an even greater (and probably, given the physics of the dragon’s weight and body structure, impossible) height by standing on its hind legs, and shot a stream of “fire” at the knight.
“And let that be a lesson to you not to harass beggars!” Merlin called, dispelling the illusion just as the stallion reared, sending the short knight plunging to the ground. Merlin steadied himself on his staff and prepared to stalk away.
Merlin ignored the call. He couldn’t detect a note of pain in it, anyway, and as long as the knight wasn’t dying because of the fall, Merlin didn’t particularly care what happened to him.
“Beggar! Beggar, come here! At once!”
Oh? And who will make me? You, perhaps? Do try, it would be quite amusing to watch you fail. Merlin gave his long legs some much-needed exercise, stretching them to their full length as he picked his way along the shoreline.
“Beggar! I order you to come here!”
Merlin rolled his eyes.
The sea and the wind were loud, but Merlin’s hearing (assisted by a spell) was sharp. He heard grunting, grumbling as the knight re-mounted his horse. Then there was, again, the thunder of hooves.
This time Merlin took the precaution of stopping and setting up a strong shield against physical assault. He planted himself firmly against his staff and watched as the knight rode up, wondering how he would react to the shield.
The knight, strictly speaking, didn’t react, but the horse veered well to the side and stopped a good two feet away from where Merlin had placed the shield. The knight lifted his visor, gazing carefully at Merlin through a pair of moss-green eyes. “Beggar! Where did you gain the power to summon and disperse dragons in the blink of an eye?”
Merlin was silent.
No, I think not.
“In the name of the High King,” the knight shifted so that Merlin could clearly see the dragon emblazoned on his surcoat, “I order you to give me this information!”
“Uther isn’t King of Cornwall,” Merlin replied, treasonously. If the man had claimed to be one of the Duke’s men, he would have spouted off some nonsense about how he wouldn’t help men who served traitors. Anything to get the soldiers off his back.
“Traitor!” the knight called. “Uther is High King of all England!” He drew his sword, probably to teach Merlin a (possibly fatal) “lesson”—
The sword, just as Merlin was expecting, collided head-on with his shield and rang like a bell.
The knight jerked his hand away, staring at the still-vibrating sword in wonder. “You are no mere beggar.”
And it took you how long to figure that out?
The knight, his eyes still wide, continued, “The King has great need of a sorcerer. He will pay you well. He sent me in search of Merlin, but you—”
“Merlin?” Merlin demanded incredulously. “Merlin, as in Craig the Bastard?”
“Yes, Merlin,” the knight answered impatiently. “However, as I was saying—”
“You’re an awfully incompetent searcher,” Merlin interrupted. “You’ve already found Merlin—and it’s taken you ten minutes to realize it.”