Snow White Queen
It occurred to Merlin, much later, that the way he was staring at the High King was extremely rude. But he could not help it as his normally hawkish hazel eyes were wide and round, like a fish’s, and his jaw fell abruptly open.
What to say … oh, ten, twenty years later, he would have found a way to state this tactfully, careful not to tread too hard on any royal toes or egos. But at this point in time, the only words that could find their way out of his mouth were, “You want me to what?”
“I want Igraine,” Uther reiterated. “It doesn’t matter if I defeat Gorlois or not—as long as I have her. Even if it’s only for a night.”
“How many men have died in this siege?” Merlin demanded.
“There have only been – ten casualties,” Uther murmured. “On my side, at least—oh, do you mean kerns, too?” The King shrugged. “There are still plenty of them to fill the lines. There’s probably a scribe somewhere who can tell you. What difference does it make?”
“And in the other battles—taking the other three fortresses? And in all the village raiding? There were women and children and old men killed in those raids—not just warriors.”
“So? They are in rebellion.”
“Your brother,” Merlin pointed out, internally thanking Blaise profusely for his deep interest in current events, “promised Cornwall independence if the late Duke would assist him in his bid for the throne. The Duke lived up to his promise – but, if I am right, Ambrosius died before the papers for formal independence could be drawn up?”
“So they are not independent!” Uther snapped. “And what has this to do with anything? All I am ordering you to do—”
Merlin drew himself a little taller. He had the advantage of height, at least, over Uther, who was stocky and muscular, had a knight’s training, and could have easily beat Merlin into a bloody pulp. “You do not order a great wizard to do your bidding, sire. You request.”
“I am the High King of Britain! You will do as I command!” Uther barked.
There were so many things Merlin could have said—but he realized it would only spark a witch hunt. He may have been able to withstand anything Uther or his men could throw at him, but there were so many others – the village herb wives and wise men, the small-time sorcerers attached to most men of nobility, the children with only a faint glimmering of magical power – that could not. Not to mention all the innocents who would be accused of witchcraft by jealous neighbors …
So he took a deep breath and forced himself to calm down. “Sire,” he replied, “with all due respect, what you are ordering me to do is to rob a virtuous woman of her honor by forcing her into your bed. And this is after telling me that you have shed gallons of innocent blood in this unholy cause. Forgive me, my conscience is having difficulty justifying this.”
“Virtuous? Hardly. If she was truly virtuous, I wouldn’t be attracted, would I?” Uther announced smugly. Merlin bristled; he had heard the priest tell that to his mother, that she had only herself to blame for her bastard son, so many times … “Besides,” Uther added, “you’re half demon, what makes you think you have a conscience?”
Merlin brushed aside the reference to his questionable paternity. “I am also half human. And I do not believe that a woman’s virtue has anything to do with whether a man feels himself attracted to her.”
Uther stared for a moment, then barked, “Doesn’t matter. I gave you an order. Fulfill it!” He added, laconically, “You’ll be rewarded, of course. Is that what’s worrying you?”
Merlin stared at Uther for a long moment.
“Sire,” he said finally, “the answer is no. And that is the only answer you will get from me.”
He turned and swept out the flap to the pavilion. His original plan was to take on his merlin-shape and fly away – perhaps to France – before Uther could think to call his guards, but before he could shapeshift—
A puff of smoke appeared on the ground in front of him. Merlin lifted one eyebrow. What sort of gypsy trick is this? It wasn’t real magic, that much he knew, he would have sensed real magic.
Out of the smoke (trying not to cough and waving his arms as if he was issuing dire spells, though really to clear it) came a short, scrawny man with wild gray hair and pale blue eyes. “Ho! I am Hywel, Court Magician!” Another puff of smoke appeared, this time the magician was unable to hold back his coughing.
Merlin dug his fingers into his curly hair and groaned. Why me? “God save me from the court magicians!” he called out in frustration.
“Ah! You had best call on the Almighty to help!” the magician replied, in a voice that was supposed to be deep and earth-shaking, but that in reality … wasn’t. “For only God’s own intervention will save you now!”
“You don’t think a half-demon might have a few tricks up his sleeve?” Merlin snapped, eying Hywel’s voluminous, impractical, star-studded sleeves with distaste.
The imposing pose fell away. Hywel’s eyes went wide. “Half-demon?” he squeaked.
I doubt it, but I’m completely a wizard – which is more than I would say for you. “You haven’t heard the stories? How Satan himself, intending to create the Antichrist, came to my mother, a virgin, and—oh, never mind,” Merlin ended, taking pity on the man’s obvious growing panic. “I was baptized at birth, so no matter what the truth of the matter was, I’m not the Antichrist. What do you want?”
“What—oh.” He drew himself up to his full height and intoned, “Our great king, Uther Pendragon, has called you to his aid—”
Oh, God. “I turned him down,” Merlin interrupted. “So if you have any fears for your job, you can stop.”
“You did?” Hywel repeated brightly, then, shocked, asked, “Why?”
“I … liked not the assignment.” Luckily it was midday, so most of the men were involved in the fighting, otherwise they would have probably drawn a crowd.
Hywel’s eyes went nervously to the tent flap behind Merlin. “You—did?” Merlin could sense the man’s conflict – warn Merlin that his refusal might cost him his life, or keep silent and keep his prospects of employment secure?
Merlin rolled his eyes. “Yes. If he thinks that I am going to have a part in ravishing an innocent woman, he can think again. Unless you tell me that the entire fate of Britain—of the world—depends on this—good God, what’s the matter?”
The old magician’s hands had snapped to his side, his eyes gone wide and dead. Apoplexy? Merlin wondered. He stepped forward, about to call for help; he was no healer—
“The Bear is coming!”
Merlin stopped. “What?”
“The Bear approaches—son of the Dragon and the Seer, Uther Pendragon and Igraine the Beautiful. Founder of Camelot, Conqueror of the Saxons, Creator of the Table Round, Student of the Merlin, High King of Britain. Britain will flower under his reign; he will be its greatest king.” Hywel continued to stare straight ahead, and his voice had finally achieved the deep, gravelly quality he had been attempting all along. Only now it was as if Hywel himself was not speaking, it was like something—or some One—was speaking through him. “He will be born on Christmas, and like Christ will lead his people from darkness into light. Ho! Make ready! The Bear approaches!”
Hywel seemed to come back from—wherever his mind had been. He blinked a couple times and shook his head. “So—what was I saying?”
“You don’t remember?” Merlin asked softly. He added, as a jog to memory, “We were discussing bears.”
Hywel blinked. “Bears?”
He doesn’t remember … Merlin let what he had heard slowly sink in.
Greatest king of England …
Conqueror of the Saxons …
Student of the Merlin …
He spun around on one heel and marched back into the King’s tent. Uther was kicking an upended table. “I’ve changed my mind,” he announced baldly.
Uther turned around. “Eh?”
“I’ve changed my mind. I’ll do it.” Greatest king of England! Who could have thought that this man could be the father? Merlin swallowed. “But on one condition.”
Uther lifted one eyebrow. “What?”
“That if there is a child—a son—from this union, born on Christmas, you will give him to me to raise.”
“That’s it?” Uther asked incredulously. He laughed. “Done, man!”
“But, Daddy, you only just got back!”
“It was only to be a day’s visit,” Gorlois answered, smoothing back Morgause’s hair. “I have to get back to Terrabil and get Uther off our land.”
“Why can’t he just go away?” Morgause pouted.
Why, indeed. Igraine sighed below her breath, swaying gently with Elaine in her arms. The toddler looked about ready to dissolve into tears, and Igraine was trying to stave off the inevitable tantrum by rubbing her back and humming a little soothing scrap of nothing.
“Because he is a very foolish man, dear heart, and he does not know when he’s beaten.” Gorlois managed a convincing semblance of his old charming smile, good enough to fool Morgause into grinning brightly, not good enough to stave off Igraine’s troubled frown. “Mind your mother and Merryn,” he continued, “and no more telling Morgan that the fairies are going to come and take her back.”
“Or else I’m going to tell the fairies to come and take you away,” Morgan murmured, loud enough to carry.
Everyone – Gorlois, Igraine, Merryn, the guards and especially Morgause – turned to the little girl with an expression of shock. The gleam in Morgan’s eyes told Igraine that she had thought of this line some time ago and was waiting for an opportune moment to drop it, but Morgause’s parted lips and wide eyes said clearly that she had not been expecting this, and was torn between terrified belief and superior sisterly scorn.
Gorlois tilted back his head and laughed, and the courtyard erupted in dry chuckles. “Oh, will you, Morgan—little Morgan of the Fairies, Morgan le Fay?” He grabbed her in a bear-hug, tickling her. Morgan giggled dutifully before she slipped from his grasp. Igraine thought, though, that she could see the little girl mouthing “Morgan le Fay” to herself with a small but satisfied smile.
Gorlois gave a small smile before he rose to his feet, slowly, shakily, like he was a man tired and old, near the end of his time—Igraine pushed the thought away and told herself to stop being silly. Men always moved slowly, as if they were slogging about underwater, when in full armor, as Gorlois was. As for being tired, well, Igraine was yawning herself; they may have spent much time abed last night, but it was not in slumber.
He was up, now, and turning that small smile towards her. The smile widened as Elaine turned to him, and Gorlois took off his gauntlet and gently stroked the baby’s cheek. Elaine’s pouty expression melted and she chortled. Igraine breathed a slow sigh of relief.
Gorlois looked again at Igraine. She was never certain which of them moved first—but in an instant they were in each other’s arms, Igraine ignoring the cold and sharpness of the armor. She thought, or imagined, that she could feel the warmth of Gorlois’s body passing through the armor, and that maybe if she held on long enough it would dissolve and leave nothing more standing in between them—
They clung to each other until Elaine, squished, uttered a squawk of protest; then, reluctantly, they drew apart. Gorlois smiled ruefully and rubbed the baby’s cheek again. “Sorry, little love. Next time, I’ll wait until I have your mother all to myself.” Elaine’s eyes were puzzled; she raised her thumb to her mouth and sucked it pensively. He tilted his head a little. “Be a good girl for Daddy until he gets home? All of you?” he asked, turning his attention to Morgause and Morgan as well.
Elaine’s thumb popped out of her mouth and she said simply, firmly, with a funny little nod, “Yesh.”
Gorlois blinked and laughed. “Oh, is this a new development you forgot to mention?” he teased.
Igraine smiled. “She answers when it pleases her—like her sisters.”
“Goodness, another headstrong daughter, just what we need to liven things up around here,” Gorlois chuckled. Then he turned to Igraine and his eyes became grave.
There would be no more delays; Igraine knew that look. “Farewell, my lady.”
“Godspeed … Gorlois … take care of yourself. Come home soon.” She always said this; she could not understand why the words came out in such a strangled little whisper this time.
“I’ll be home before you know it,” he answered. “I promise. And soon our lands will be free forever of Uther and his hounds.”
Igraine nodded dully. “I know. I know.”
“Goodbye.” She gave a small, tremulous smile, and stepped out of the way so he could mount his horse.
She found it impossible to watch as he mounted; instead she stared at the ground, trying to keep the sudden moisture that had sprung into her eyes locked behind the lids. Why was she taking this so hard? Gorlois had left her before—into graver danger than this—and truly they had been apart more than they had been together during the course of their marriage—so why—
“My lady?” Merryn spoke quietly, but enough to pull Igraine back to the present. The old nursemaid held out her hands, suggestively, for the baby.
“Oh, of course.” Igraine handed Elaine over without so much as a token protest, and indeed the baby was happy to be passed into the capable arms of her nurse. Igraine fell into step beside Gorlois’s horse, and the two of them walked to the gatehouse.
There Igraine stopped, as she always did. It was for the men to cross the threshold and gallop across the causeway into the great wide world beyond. She, a woman, knew her place, knew that she had to stay in the home, behind the safe protective walls of the fortress.
Then why, as Gorlois reached the great portcullis, turned and waved for the last time, did she want to buck reason, tradition, propriety, and run after him? Why did she want to pursue him like a madwoman, grab him and force him to stop, beg him to return to the castle with her? Stop—stop! part of her was dying to scream. Gorlois, come back, stay with me—don’t go—if you go I swear you will never return – don’t go, don’t go—
As Igraine watched Gorlois and his knights leave, Merryn watched her. Merryn had the three ducklings to care for now, but Igraine had been the first child she had ever nursed – so soon after her own daughter had sickened and died – and Igraine was the child of her heart if not of her body. And so, even though she knew she should be hustling the ducklings back to the nursery, she stood and waited for her child and her mistress to move.
Strange, how Igraine, Duchess of Cornwall and truly – since there was no Queen – the greatest lady in the kingdom, managed to look so small, lost and forlorn as she stood at the threshold of the gatehouse. She looked like a child, almost, a child helpless to do anything as it watched something very precious being snatched out of its grasp.
Merryn waited until the Duke had cantered to the end of the causeway, then called softly, “My lady?”
Igraine started and turned around. “Y-yes?”
“’Tis cold, my lady.” As if on cue, a chill late winter wind picked up and cut right through Merryn’s dress and cloak. Morgause started, conspicuously, to shiver. “Mayhap you would like to go inside?”
Igraine half-turned, but Merryn had chosen her moment wisely and Gorlois was nothing more than one reflection of sunlight on armor amongst many. “Aye,” Igraine murmured. “Let’s go in.”
But she hesitated, if only for a second. Merryn watched her mistress’s eyes dart to the window of her bedchamber. Igraine took a deep breath and rolled her shoulders, as if gathering her courage for some ordeal. Then, “Let’s go in,” she repeated.
Merryn stepped back respectfully, grabbing Morgause’s hand and pulling her back too. Morgan followed suit of her own accord. Igraine led the way, but slowly, as if she was deep in thought and scarcely paying attention to where she was going.
Igraine was a strange lady, which was why Merryn ended up following her most of the way to the lady’s bedchamber. Not that Merryn was unduly worried about her mistress – but that the nursery was only a short flight of stairs away from the lady of the manor’s bedchamber. Most fine ladies were more than happy to foist their offspring off onto the nurses and go on with being great ladies, never bothering their heads about the children they had brought into the world, but not Igraine. Igraine wanted to be close to her babies. Gorlois let her, because, well, he was away half the time, drat him, so it’s not like his rest was being unduly disturbed by the presence of his offspring As for when he was there … he adored Igraine, and trusted her, and never would have denied her so simple a pleasure as being close to her little ones. Merryn couldn’t very well drat him for that.
But because Igraine was such a strange lady, Merryn had barely gotten the girls into the nursery, Elaine down for her nap, and was only just beginning to threaten Morgause with a good whipping if she didn’t get started on her embroidery, when she heard the screaming from above.
Her baby was in trouble, her baby needed her, and for a moment Merryn forgot the other three babies and ran headlong up the stairs. She was not the only one, some of Igraine’s maids were poking terrified heads out of doors. When they saw Merryn run by, some darted out and followed her. There was another pair of footsteps Merryn could almost hear, small and quiet—
The screams were becoming more distinct. “No—no! It’s not true! It’s not! Gorlois!!” Merryn threw open the door and saw Igraine collapsed on her knees, hair streaming down the sides of her face, crouched and sobbing. “Gorlois!”
She was near her vanity table, the one that housed the large, impossibly smooth and costly mirror that Merryn could never pass without crossing herself. And Igraine was beating her hands against the hard flagstone flooring. “No—no—no—no!”
“Graina!” The old pet name, discarded before Igraine’s betrothal, slipped out before Merryn could think better of it. She ran to her side. “Child, what’s the matter?” she gasped, grabbing Igraine’s shoulders and trying to pull her close.
Igraine pulled away. “Gorlois!” Her eyes, wide and wild, silver as the mirror, popped open. Merryn almost crossed herself in fear. Igraine, panting, cast cornered glances at her nurse, the assembled maids—the mirror—
She shrieked. “It lies!” She pointed wildly at the mirror. “It lies! Liar!” She took off her shoe, her sturdy country shoe, and threw it at the mirror.
Merryn held her breath, waiting for the shatter and tinkle of glass. Instead, the shoe bounced off, the mirror sustaining no damage. Quick as thought, Merryn pushed Igraine’s head down, lest she be hit by the errant shoe.
But Igraine had collapsed again, still sobbed. “It lies—it lies—it lies!”
Merryn’s jaw dropped, then she looked toward the maids. Seeing their shocked, frightened faces spurred her into actions. “You! Don’t stand there like a bunch of ninnies! Help me!”
The maids ran forward; Merryn put her arms around Igraine’s shoulder. “Help me carry her to the bed! Fidelma! Go get the apothecary—some sort of sedative for the Duchess. Now!”
Fidelma lifted her skirts and ran, the other two maids rushed forward to help Merryn carry Igraine to the bed. Igraine had been limp, but as soon as one of the girls grabbed her legs, she began to struggle and thrash.
“Hold still, love, hold still …” Merryn murmured, waging a losing battle to keep her grip on Igraine’s body.
Once again the silver eyes burst open. They turned, inexorably, to the mirror. “Turn it to the wall! It lies!”
Merryn didn’t know what to say—but all at once her gaze turned to Blejan and she shouted, “You heard her! Turn it to the wall!” Blejan was the least steady of the two remaining maids, but since the shoe hadn’t seemed to do the mirror much damage, Merryn doubted the maid would. “Now Ailís—on three we’ll lift—one, two—”
In the confusion and bustle no one, least of all Igraine or Merryn, saw little Morgan hovering in the doorpost, her eyes wide and terrified.