Snow White Queen
“Good night, Elaine,” Igraine murmured, kissing the baby’s forehead. Outside, the early spring wind howled around the towers and turrets of the castle, but inside the fire burned in the grate and made the room as warm and comfortable as one could expect. Thick tapestries hung on the walls of the nursery kept the drafts out and deadened the noise. Elaine barely seemed to notice the wind as she smiled up at her mother.
“Ni-ni, Mama,” Elaine answered, waving her chubby fist. Then she yawned.
“Lay down, sweet.” Igraine, sitting on the bed Elaine and Merryn shared, scooted to give the toddler room to follow her instructions. Elaine obliged without argument, scrunching up her eyes and yawning again as her head touched the pillow. Merryn would join her soon enough, after the last of the cleaning up was completed. Igraine tucked Elaine in, kissing her one last time. “Sweet dreams.”
There, that was one child taken care of for the night. Igraine stood and rolled her shoulders, moving to the only other bed in the nursery, and to what would probably be the bigger battle.
Morgause was sitting up, physically ready for bed – hair combed and plaited for the night, face and hands washed, night rail on – but to judge by her crossed arms and sulky expression, not at all mentally ready. Morgan had already curled up onto her side, the covers pulled to her chin. Igraine sat before Morgause.
“Why do I have to go to bed so early?” Morgause challenged instantly. Igraine decided not to counter that it was the exact same time she had gone to bed for the past few months, if anything it was later, but that it may have felt earlier because the days were getting longer and lighter.
“Because,” Igraine explained patiently, “you know your sisters can’t sleep if you’re still awake and moving around.” That was certainly true of Elaine; since Elaine was three months old she had always watched and been fascinated by Morgause. At times it was near-impossible to get Elaine to take a nap if Morgause was still in the room and doing something. Morgan, on the other hand, probably could care less if her sister was awake or not, but she tended to be a light sleeper and would probably be unable fall asleep if Morgause was making noise of any sort.
Morgause pouted. “And,” Igraine added, “tomorrow is a very important feast-day and we’ll be attending Mass early.”
The disgust on Morgause’s face intensified. “The Feast of the ‘Nunciation.” Igraine let the mispronunciation slide. “More boring—”
“It—” Clearly Morgause thought better of defending her point of view, but she crossed her arms more tightly and looked away. “Will Daddy be here, then?” she challenged.
Igraine closed her eyes and sighed. “No, Morgause. He’ll attend Mass at Terrabil, with his men.” Morgause seized upon every possible “special” occasion to ask for, indeed demand, her father’s presence. Though Gorlois had not been back to Tintagel since the day Igraine had that fit—
She suppressed a shudder. Best not to think too closely about that horrible day.
“Why won’t he come home?” Morgause snapped.
“He needs to stay at Terrabil, to protect us from Uther.”
“But he promised …” Morgause’s voice trailed off, her cat’s eyes shooting to Merryn.
Igraine lifted one eyebrow. “Who promised what?”
Morgause’s gaze dropped to the coverlet.
“Daddy promised,” she whispered. “Daddy promised he’d be home by spring.”
Oh, Gorlois, Igraine thought. Why did you tell her that? Never mind, she knew why. And this promise certainly explained Morgause’s growing sulkiness and mood swings. She probably felt herself betrayed, poor thing, especially after the equinox had come and gone without Gorlois’s return.
“Sweet,” Igraine started, “your father may have made that promise, but that he couldn’t keep it isn’t his fault—”
“Then whose is it?” Morgause interrupted.
Uther’s, was what Igraine wanted to say. But she held her tongue. Morgause was only a child, her thoughts toward Uther were already angry enough. Did she really want to open the door to further hatred? Morgause was of the type to bear a grudge; would it not be better to say that it was no one’s fault, that the circumstances had spiraled beyond any one person’s control?
“Uther’s, of course,” Merryn interrupted in her no-nonsense manner. “Now stop harrying your mother and get to sleep like a good girl. She still needs to say good night to Morgan.”
Morgause’s eyes hardened at the mention of the king’s name, but she replied, dutifully enough, “Yes, Merryn. Good night, Mummy.”
“Good night, Morgause. Daddy will be home soon enough.” A hug and Morgause settled into the bed, sighing and facing the wall.
Igraine rolled her eyes, her hand reaching for the last daughter’s shoulder. She would try to be quick with Morgan, it was not like her to be curled up this early, she was probably tired—
It was too subtle to see, but with her hand on the bedcovers, easy to feel. Morgan was trembling.
“Morgan?” Igraine whispered. The decorous thing to do would have been to rise and cross to the other side of the bed, but Igraine ignored her years of training in propriety and crawled there, her skirts puddling every which-way. “What’s wrong?”
She felt Morgan gulp, and the little girl looked up with impossibly huge eyes. Holy Mother, she’s pale, Igraine saw, losing some of her own color.
“I—I feel funny, Mama,” Morgan whimpered.
Instantly Igraine’s hand went to Morgan’s forehead, but – almost to her disappointment – she could feel no fever. “Funny how?” she pressed, gently, gesturing for Merryn to come closer.
“I …” Morgan shook her head; whatever she was feeling was beyond her capability to describe.
“Does your head hurt?” Igraine asked. Morgan shook it. “Your throat?” Another shake. “Belly?”
“No—no, Mama. It feels—it feels like everything’s buzzing—inside me—and it feels bad.” Her lips quivered. “I don’t like it, Mama, make it stop!”
Igraine blinked; this was like no disease she had ever encountered. Merryn materialized behind her at that moment. “Buzzing?” the nurse queried sharply. “You mean shaky?”
Morgan shot her nurse a helpless look. “She’s certainly shaking—look at her,” Igraine answered, trying to resist the urge to take the little girl and fold her into her arms.
“Aye – mayhap it’s an ague.”
“But there’s no fever,” Igraine protested.
“It might not have come on yet,” Merryn answered easily. She reached past Igraine and lifted Morgan from the bed. “I’ll move her to the sickroom and stay with her – Morgause, move into bed with your sister. And no complaints, mind!”
Igraine never knew how Morgause reacted to that; she had jumped up to follow Merryn. “Maybe I should have her sleep with me …”
“Nonsense, my lady, she’ll be much better off in the sickroom. We don’t need you getting sick any more than we need the girls to.” Merryn opened the door to the small room, really more of a closet with only a small bed, an end table and a trundle for Merryn. Merryn settled Morgan onto the bed. “There, little love. You sit tight and I’ll make you a posset.”
Morgan nodded, but as soon as the nurse turned her back, she had brought her knees to her chest and started trembling again. Igraine hung in the doorway. “Morgan,” she murmured. Morgan looked up. “If you want, you can sleep with me tonight—”
Morgan’s expression was of naked want—but somehow—it changed. When she spoke, Igraine could not shake the sense that someone much older, much wiser – and yet sadder – was speaking through the little girl. “No, Mama. It would not be right.”
Yet before Igraine could wonder about it, the little girl had returned to the fore. “But—can you stay with me?” Her voice was tiny and scared.
“Of course, sweet. I’ll stay until you fall asleep.” Or until Merryn chases me away.
This time Igraine did not resist the temptation to take Morgan onto her lap and hold her close as the little girl shook and trembled with the howling wind.
Ulfius lifted the flap of the King’s tent. “Wicked night,” he remarked evenly as a stray gust of wind forced blustery way into the tent.
“Aye, but ‘tis the only night we have,” Merlin answered distractedly, gazing at the three signet rings in his hand. They throbbed with power, even Hywel, once they were done, hadn’t wanted to touch them. Though the power was his own, Merlin still felt vaguely uncomfortable holding all three at once.
Still, the power would dissipate when the illusions were activated. It had to, otherwise Igraine, with magic running strong in her blood, would surely sense it. Gorlois was not a man to turn to sorcerers, even in dire necessity. And Uther was not bright enough to invent a sufficient excuse for the sudden change.
The power was laced most tightly around Gorlois’s signet ring – his genuine signet ring, Merlin had stolen it and the other two from Terrabil over a week before. To sneak into the castle and out again had been relatively easy, especially with the glamour he bestowed upon himself to make him seem nondescript and not worthy of notice. Getting Gorlois and the other knights to take their signet rings off so that Merlin could switch them with the bands of gold bespelled to match their previous rings (once Merlin got a good look at said rings, of course) was a bit harder. The mission, however, had been a success, and Merlin was careful not to mention to Uther where and how he had gotten the rings.
Torchlight glittered off the golden wyvern that crowned the ring, Gorlois’s personal crest. Merlin blinked, for a moment he almost thought that the wyvern had shifted to form a dragon. But that was only a trick of the light – it had to be.
He heard Uther shift and closed his hand over the rings. “Are we ready to leave yet?” the King demanded gruffly.
Merlin sighed. “Majesty, we can leave whenever you desire.” Uther instantly jumped up from his stool, a folding model in the style of that of the old Roman generals. “However, the sooner we leave, the longer we will have to wait by the bridge to Tintagel, for the tide to recede enough for us to cross. I merely thought that you would prefer to wait here, in the relative comfort of the tent.” As if to punctuate his statement, the wind rushed past with a shrill whistle.
Uther sighed and returned to his seat.
But after twenty more minutes of mindless cooling of the heels, even Merlin had had enough. Moreover, it would be best to leave some extra time in the journey, in case unforeseen circumstances arose.
He rose; Uther and Ulfius quickly following suit. “It is best we leave soon. But first—” Before Uther could dash from the tent, Merlin held out two of the rings – Gorlois’s wyvern crest to Uther, Sir Brastias’s otter to Ulfius. He kept the mastiff of Sir Jordanus. “Try these on.” It would be best to test this in the better light of the tent.
Uther frowned at the ring. “I don’t think,” he said softly, “that this will fit.”
“Just try.” Uther’s fingers were stubbier than Gorlois’s, true, but if the spell worked properly …
Uther sighed, but, removing his royal signet, he gripped Gorlois’s ring and prepared to shove it as far as it would go onto his finger—
Only he had no need. As soon as the ring brushed Uther’s skin, his fingers became long, agile, and just the right size to slide the ring on. His body became a tall, tight whipcord, hair shorter and ash-blonde. Emerald eyes stared out of a lean, angular face. The spell extended to his clothing; the gold dragon on the scarlet surcoat (well, the surcoat used to be scarlet) shifted to a white (more-or-less) wyvern on a cerulean background. Even tiny details – the sword-calluses on the hands, a scar on the shoulder that extended just barely past the neckline of the tunic – carried. Merlin was somewhat surprised to see a cut on the King’s cheek, one that he certainly hadn’t put there. The semblance of the Duke was also leaner, and more haggard-looking, than Merlin had planned to create the illusion.
… Yes, using the signet rings had been a good idea.
Uther jumped – probably because the ground was suddenly several inches farther away from his face than it had been a moment before. He stared at his hands, pulled the surcoat to get a closer look, felt his hair (thicker, and with more wave than Uther’s) and pulled a few strands into his eyes. “My God,” he whispered, awestruck. Even the voice was spot-on. Wide emerald eyes turned to Merlin. “I should give you an earldom for this.”
Oh, no. I shan’t be your vassal after this! “Our previously-agreed fee,” Merlin said hurriedly, “is more than sufficient.” He glanced at Ulfius.
The younger knight was weathering the change better than his King, though it was a bit of a shock to see the broad-shouldered knight where the graceful youth had stood a moment before. His surcoat, also graced with Gorlois’s wyvern, was river-green with a brown crest. The blonde hair had not changed much, only a slight difference in tone, but the eyes were now the brown of varnished wood.
As for himself … Merlin did not need to look down to know that his build had filled out somewhat, and that his hair had become a blackish brown and his eyes dark blue. A quick check, however, did confirm that his wizard’s robes had become a knight’s surcoat in yellow and dark gray.
The illusions on him and Sir Ulfius were much less detailed than the glamour upon Uther; Merlin doubted they would fool a wife or lover. But that was more than all right. Merlin had no intention of seeking out any lady-friends of Sir Jordanus, and he intended to make damn sure that Sir Ulfius had not picked up any bad habits from his king.
One last glance, and Merlin nodded. “All is ready. Take off your rings and we can leave.”
“Take off—” Uther began.
“—or leave them on, if that is your choice. After all, you are completely free to leave yourself open to getting run through before you leave the camp, if that is your wish,” Merlin finished smoothly, removing his own ring. Uther scowled – the expression looked strange on Gorlois’s face – but pulled the ring off with a rough jerk. Instantly—with no warning at all—he became himself again. Merlin blinked rapidly.
Perhaps the King was learning, for instead of taking out his pique on Merlin (who would only respond in kind), he turned to Ulfius and snapped, “Tell Marcus we’re leaving and that he’s in charge. We’ll wait for you at the edge of the camp. Come on,” he added to Merlin, “we’ll go to the horses.”
“Very well,” Merlin answered. He noted, as he was the last to leave the tent, Ulfius fingering the otter of his ring as they exited into the howling wind.