Snow White Queen
Gorlois flinched and shut his eyes as a shaft of golden light pierced them. He rubbed the back of his neck. When he opened his eyes, he saw Brastias twisting his signet ring, the reflected light darting crazily along the walls and ceiling.
He sighed and turned again to the different drawings of the battlefield spread across his desk. He was not sure why he looked at them; they told him nothing he did not already know. But they made him feel as if he was accomplishing something.
“My lord,” Brastias interrupted respectfully. Gorlois looked up, his hair, shaggy and unkempt, falling into his eyes. “Perhaps it would be best if you retired for the night.”
Gorlois shook his head. If he went to bed, he would only spend hours staring at the cloth canopy, his mind endlessly rerunning the images that now paraded lifelessly before his eyes. “How are our supplies?” he asked, although he already knew the answer.
“No better or worse than to be expected,” Brastias hedged. Gorlois knew what that meant – they were dwindling, and dwindling fast. The fortressed had been well-stuffed when Uther and his men appeared on their doorstep, but that was over three months ago. What the men hadn’t eaten, rot, rats and other spoiling had. Yet that would have been acceptable, normal even, if there was the prospect of getting more food once the spring well and truly came.
“The raids?” Gorlois asked, referring to the favorite “sport” of Uther’s men, that of riding out from the camp to rape, burn and pillage in nearby villages. What peasants had survived these raiding parties were hiding out in the woods or in other fortresses. Unless God Himself sent Uther and his men packing from Cornwall in the next few days, there would be no farming in those villages this year. Villages farther afield, though relatively safe from Uther’s bored knights, were unable to send supplies.
Brastias sighed. “Much the same as usual.” He perked up. “But perhaps, if we waited until a large party set out, then started a concentrated attack—we could catch them by surprise, destroy a good number of them.”
“We could try that,” Gorlois answered patiently. He forbore to mention, for Brastias already knew it, that they had tried that tactic several times already, with mild to moderate success. It made sense if one’s strategy was to slowly chip away at the encamped army. Now, however, the time for that was past. “How is the ague?” he asked, referring to the diseases making their way through the cramped quarters of the castle.
Brastias frowned. “Two more men sickened, my lord. But none lost these past three days.” He made it sound as if it were good news – but how could it be, when now over a dozen were ill, and they had lost four in the past week?
Gorlois looked at the maps with a sigh. What he needed was to get Uther off his land – out of Cornwall – to send him sulking back to Carleon where he belonged, like a dog with its tail between its legs.
What he needed, in short, was a miracle.
He looked up suddenly. And perhaps that sound like a whirlwind rushing through the corridor would bring him one—
Without so much as a by-your-leave, Sir Jordanus burst into the room. “My lord!” he shouted. “Uther has been spotted leaving his camp!”
Gorlois wasn’t sure he had heard right, and Brastias must have been equally unsure, for he demanded, “What?”
“Uther left his camp!” He repeated. “With only two other horses in attendance!”
“Which way was he going?” Gorlois asked, at the same time Brastias demanded, “How did you know it was him?”
“The horse,” Jordanus replied, choosing Brastias’s question. “He’s the only one in the camp to ride a white horse. Won’t let anyone else near it. And it would be a stupid horse to steal,” he pointed out before Brastias could argue. “’Twould stick out a mile.”
That white horse. Gorlois’s blood boiled at the thought of it. Not because of the horse itself, but because it made Uther so damned conspicuous on the battlefield. It baited him, almost, daring him to come and attack Uther, to avenge the insults on Igraine and end this once and for all, instead of adhering to more strategically important goals.
Maybe that was the point. Or else Uther was merely a pompous git who wanted a horse that was obviously better bred and more expensive than everyone else’s. Either was equally possible.
“… And,” Jordanus was continuing, “he’s heading toward the northeast.”
That meant only one thing to Gorlois. “TINTAGEL?” he shouted.
Both knights jumped.
If he—if he goes near her—them—Igraine, our daughters—I’ll spit him, I’ll rip his entrails from his body and—Red rage chocked Gorlois’s very thoughts. His face and knuckles went white, nostrils flaring dangerously.
Brastias and Jordanus exchanged glances. “My lord,” Brastias stated slowly, “it would be extraordinarily foolish for Uther to try to enter Tintagel—”
“There are only three men, him included,” Jordanus pointed out. “Can’t take Tintagel with only three men. Impossible. With any luck, the guards would kill him as he banged at the gate and we’d be rid of that nuisance.”
The thought of Uther dying ignominiously as he pigheadedly tried to force his way into Tintagel did clear some of the rage. If Gorlois really wanted to cheer himself, he could imagine truly undignified ways for him to die … say, a boot dropped from a great enough height, landing upon the king’s skull …
Seeing some of his color return, both knights breathed a sigh of relief. Jordanus ploughed relentlessly ahead. “My lord, if we were to attack now—the army is leaderless.”
“Leaderless?” Gorlois echoed. Yes—leaderless. Uther, with all his faults, was a damn good general. Moreover Gorlois doubted that his pride could take having another general of equal caliber with him … there would probably be no one truly competent to lead the men still present … Sir Marcus was said to be good, but he was Uther’s boon companion, doubtless he would be with the king on his fool’s errand …
“Aye,” Jordanus answered. “And they wouldn’t be expecting any attack; it’s past dark. We could decimate them—scare them off our lands—rout them!”
Rout them …
“My lord, consider this carefully,” Brastias said—more implored. “It’s late, the men are tired. When Uther returns in the morning, he will be furious and fight all the harder—”
“Not if he’s picking up the pieces from his destroyed camp,” Jordanus pointed out.
“Is it not too big a risk?” Brastias continued.
“We could get them out of Cornwall!” Jordanus countered. “Isn’t that worth a risk?”
“Out of Cornwall,” Gorlois whispered. He stared at the maps …
“Brastias. Jordanus.” He heard his voice, but it sounded separate from him, as if someone else was using it to speak. His finger rested on a spot on the map. “Get the men up. Assemble them at the southern passage.” He jabbed at the map, and his eyes, hard and determined, met both of his knights.
“We leave as soon as everyone is ready.”
For the first and what Merlin fervently hoped was the last time, the gates of Tintagel opened for Uther without quarrel.
As soon as they were out of sight of the camp, all three had replaced their rings, and Merlin had – over Uther’s protests – cast a simple illusion over the white stallion to render it a nondescript dun. Merlin and Ulfius’s horses were already unremarkable. Merlin did not waste energy worrying about whether or not the colors were the same or similar to ones that Jordanus and Brastias customarily rode. The dark would provide camouflage, and horses in pitched battles tended to die at quite higher rates than those used merely for show.
But now was the first true test of his illusions, and Merlin felt himself sit straight up in the saddle, watching as one of the guards came forward and held Uther’s horse. “’Tis a bit late, Your Grace,” he remarked easily, conversationally, waiting for the man he thought was his Duke to step down.
Uther stiffened, Merlin guessed he had never been spoken to that familiarly by a man with a lesser rank than Baron in his life. Don’t cuff him, don’t cuff him … Merlin heard himself praying, the guard would surely know something was amiss if Gorlois acted with unaccustomed aggression—
“Aye, late it is,” Merlin, to his shock, heard Uther agree. The king looked toward the highest tower of the castle. “I meant to come this afternoon … but, er, pressing duties delayed me, and the tides …”
“Aye, Your Grace.” The guard nodded as Uther effortlessly dismounted. Ulfius followed without a word.
Uther dug into the coin purse that Merlin had insisted he bring with him – just in case – and flipped a silver piece over to the guard. He caught it with an expression, visible even in the dim torchlight of the courtyard, of plain surprise. Merlin mentally cursed, apparently it was not Gorlois’s custom to tip so generally.
Uther must have noticed the surprise, for he said smoothly, “For the lateness of the hour.” The guard nodded, slowly. “Split it with your comrades in the gatehouse,” Uther added, the much-more brisk nod confirmed to Merlin that this was more in character with the Duke.
Yet part of Merlin was still wallowing in the shock that Uther could be so … human.
Briskly, he turned away from that path and stared at the pommel of his saddle. It was imperative that he determine which leg would hurt less to bring up and over to dismount. His aching thighs were reminding him why, if he couldn’t walk or fly to a destination, he normally chose to stay at home.
“Everything all right, sir?” the guard asked.
Damn it, no, it isn’t, Merlin thought, but there wasn’t much the guard could do about it. So, sucking in his breath, he pulled one leg up and all-but-fell off the horse.
Apparently Sir Jordanus was much more graceful; the guard stared at him with wide eyes. Merlin gave a small, tight smile. “Strained muscle,” he said lightly. The guard hissed knowingly.
Uther and Ulfius were already halfway across the courtyard. Cursing all things equine and the foolish folk who had decided they were the best means of transportation with every step he took, Merlin hurried to catch up.
Even Merlin’s hawk-sharp eyes were strained by the entry into the comparatively bright great hall. He squeezed them shut and rubbed them; when he could again see properly, Uther and Ulfius were still blinking. Good, it gave a few moments to think. Though Merlin had made certain that Uther had the route to the Duchess’s bedchamber memorized, none of them knew whether Gorlois would head there automatically, or if he would wait, or send for the Duchess, or—
Apparently the news of their arrival had preceded them.
Merlin saw Uther’s reaction first – the stiffened back, the sharp gasp, the sudden frantic wiping of his palms on his surcoat. Ulfius’s eyebrows lifted a few inches – probably more at the King’s reaction than anything else – but other than that, neither his posture nor expression altered.
Then there was nothing else for Merlin to look at but the Duchess.
He had mapped traced her bloodline to a time before the Romans came – had come to Cornwall with a vague intention of teaching her children – had, through Hywel, spied on her living arrangements, her home– had spent weeks planning to trap and ruin her – but before this night, Merlin had never seen the lovely Igraine up close.
And lovely she was. Her hair was plaited for bed, the impossibly long braid hanging carelessly over one shoulder. The raven strands glistened, shining thick and glossy in the torchlight. The carelessly side swept bangs showed a hint of a gentle wave; tendrils escaped at the sides to show a similar slight curl. Her figure was hard to discern in the warm woolen wrapper she had placed over her night rail, but the ease with which she lifted the skirts and jogged across the hall hinted that a further gazelle-like grace lurked beneath the layers of cloth. Skin of the smoothest alabaster peeked out here and there. Her face was regal, carved, but a smile like a warm hearth on a cold winter’s day rested on it, and somehow nothing seemed more right but that that woman should smile. And her eyes … they were like two bright, polished silver mirrors. A rainbow of color swirled in them. Merlin could have stared for hours, wondering if he could ever pick out the colors that made his image … his heart gave a funny little skip …
Galatea? he wondered, eyes flickering appreciatively to the regular features. No, no. This woman was no statue magically come to life; she radiated life and light within and without. But nor was she a Helen or Venus, promising carnal pleasure and nothing else. She was—she was—
Penelope, Penelope, of course. The woman whom Ulysses had braved sea-monsters, Cyclopes, Sirens and the wrath of the gods themselves in order to return to. The woman who had attracted over one hundred suitors when she had a twenty-year-old son and a husband whose death was hardly confirmed. A woman who was every bit as clever as her famously shrewd husband, and one who sought to nurture and protect her son at all costs.
So, these thoughts running through his head in a confused jumble, Merlin stared at her. And as he stared, he almost understood why Uther had raised an army and held a siege in the middle of winter in order to have this woman.
Almost. Merlin was no Seer, but his eyes were sharp, and he could see things that other men – Uther particularly – could not. He could see the way she ran to the man she believed to be her husband, the easy, familiar way she took both his hands in hers. The smile on her face was all for him, for Gorlois. And her voice, a silk-smooth hum, every word was directed at Gorlois.
If Penelope had her Ulysses by her side, why would she ever turn to another man?
Maybe Uther could sense this, sidelong Merlin could see his expression of shock and—yes—joy, at finally having Igraine’s undivided attention, to be able to bask in the glow of her love. Even if the love was not for him, well, he could borrow it for a while, and who would miss it?
The sweet low hum of her voice continued, Merlin could make out bits about a child – Morgan, he thought – who was sick and fretful, and had only just dropped off to sleep. But the hum was faltering, dropping off, one brow was arching—Uther would have to comment soon—
He did, with a startled cough. “Ah—Igraine—wife …” He paused, and repeated, clearly relishing the syllable, “Wife.” The smile on Igraine’s face became a little lopsided; as if she was somehow amused by the pleasure her husband took in the knowledge that she was his. Uther forced a chuckle. “You work yourself too hard … staying up all night …”
Igraine smiled and shrugged a little. “She asked me to stay with her … how could I refuse?”
Uther faltered, then tried another chuckle. “Aye … you are a wonderful mother. And,” he put an arm around her shoulder, “you must be tired.”
“Aye, a little, perhaps.”
“But hopefully—not too tired, for …?” Uther’s finger trailed down her cheek. Merlin felt faintly sick, and turned away.
“Gorlois …” The word was teasing, and accompanied by the giggle of a shy schoolgirl, as Igraine blushed and peeked through her lashes at the two “knights.” Then, serious again, she turned to Uther. “I am never too tired for … your company, but … wouldn’t you like to see Morgan? And Morgause, she has missed you so …”
Merlin experienced a brief moment of panic. Gorlois was an unusually attentive father among the nobility, but if Merlin knew Uther, the king would only be thinking of one thing … and comforting sick children was not it.
Improbably, though, he made the save. “You—you said she just dropped off to sleep. Would it not be better to let her rest?”
“Oh—oh, aye.” Igraine flushed a little. “How foolish of me. And if Morgause were to see you, she would be up all night.”
“And you are tired. But not too tired. So let us go upstairs and—rest.” With that last word Uther’s arm around her shoulder tightened; Igraine visibly gave a start. “Come, wife.” He repeated the word again. “Wife. To our chamber. Come.”
Even if Igraine had wished to argue, she could not, for Uther was firmly, inexorably, pushing her forward, to the stairs that led to the Lord and Lady’s suite.
And Merlin was fighting the demon in his breast – or was it the angel? – that was clamoring for him to stop, to rip the illusion off the three of them and save this lovely woman from disgrace and dishonor. He tried to distract himself with thoughts of the Bear and of the Table Round, of a golden age to war-weary Britain, but—but—
They were gone.
Merlin felt his rump hit a bench, hard. Ulfius lifted one eyebrow and followed at a much more decorous pace.
“Send for ale,” Merlin ordered, resting his forehead on one hand and staring at the table.
He had a feeling he was going to need a lot of it to get through this night.