Snow White Queen
When Sir Marcus grew old, men would laugh behind his back, call him a doddering fool and a cuckold to boot. While the second charge would unfortunately be true, the first would always be an exaggeration. Marcus would die with his cunning and clever faculties intact.
They would serve him well, he knew, sitting straight on his horse in the chilly March air, this night. Already he could hear the faint approaching thunder of Gorlois’s men. Of his own men – or Uther’s men, rather – those who had doubted him heard it as well, and turned to look at him with some surprise.
But Marcus had known that such an attack would come, had known it from the moment Uther and his party had mounted. Gorlois was an intelligent man and kept sharp lookouts; there would be no way he would miss the fact that Uther’s conspicuous stallion was riding away from the camp. And Marcus had gambled that, judging the party to be leaderless, Gorlois would risk all on a night attack.
So Marcus had made his plans. He had roused the men from their beds – forced the knights into their armor and kerns to their weapons – and assembled them behind the first circle of knights’ tents. The King’s camp was arranged like the Roman camps, Uther’s and the highest ranking men’s tents in the center, and the other tents extending outward in circles of decreasing rank. Thus the outermost tents belonged to kerns. Since most of those tents were small and humble, Marcus hid the men behind the knights’ far grander and taller pavilions. Furthermore, he had ordered all torches in the knights’ section of the camp extinguished, though some still burned outside the kerns’ tents.
The rumble was coming closer. Marcus peered around the tent he was stationed behind. No torches – so Gorlois and his men were counting on the moon to guide them to the camp. That was a bit unfortunate; moonlight was all well and good if one wanted to lay waste to a sleeping camp, but quite inconvenient for fending off cowardly invaders.
Yet perhaps there would was hope yet …
Gorlois and his men were fast coming upon the camp; they were almost to the kerns’ tents. A few more minutes—Marcus gave a sly grin. As he had thought, no, hoped, one of Gorlois’s knights grabbed a torch and tossed it on a tent as the horses pounded through and the swords hacked and slashed canvas. The tent was dry enough to catch fire easily; soon more knights followed the example of the first. A few of the kerns groaned – why, Marcus wasn’t sure, maybe because all of their scanty provisions and belongings were in those tents – but quickly their superiors silenced them.
The fires spread, and with the fires, the light spread as well. Marcus’s grin widened. So thoughtful of the enemy, to provide light for their own defeat.
And soon, Marcus thought, Gorlois’s men would notice the absence of screaming … he wondered, as the mad charge continued, what might happen if someday a leader were to decide to bypass the kerns’ tents and attack the knights of the opposing army directly. That would cause real damage—but Marcus pushed such foolish thoughts aside. No honorable knight would commence such a sneak attack on his fellow noblemen. Besides, what were kerns there for but to be first to the slaughter and to sound the alarm?
“Hold!” That voice was, without doubt, Gorlois’s. The rumbling stopped. Marcus felt a faint bite of disappointment. So Gorlois was not to ride without thinking into their trap. Marcus could hear faint murmuring coming from the direction of the opposing army. If he was not careful, they could well choose to cut their losses and return to the relative safety of Terrabil.
Savagely Marcus dug his heels into the sides of his horse, causing the gelding to rear. And at the top of his lungs he shouted, “Charge!”
The floodgates opened, and through the spaces between the tents a river of Uther’s kerns and knights rushed. A river of steel in front, a rapidly spreading inferno behind – Gorlois and his men were caught, and Marcus’s grin turned feral as they realized it.
But Gorlois, despite his imprudence as regards the power of the king, was valiant. So he unsheathed his sword, pointed it into the center of the press – a direct line to Marcus’s heart – and shouted in answer, “Charge!”
Gorlois’s men were loyal. None chose to brave the flames and return to Terrabil. To a man, they leaned forward, spurred their horses, and charged.
The two armies met with a clash of swords, shields and lances. Confusion exploded. The din was deafening; Marcus would not be surprised if it reached as far as Tintagel.
Flames leapt from tent to tent, casting the battle in a weird orange glow. They reflected off the polished steel of the knights’ armor and weapons, sending bright flashes darting everywhere. Horses churned up clods of earth. Kerns’ blood spouted and stained the surcoats of the knights, though, since Gorlois had brought no kerns, many of the cowards fled as soon as they could escape the press of horses’ legs and knights’ swords.
Through it all, Marcus had but one goal. He dispatched with ruthless efficiency all who got in his way, but he searched without end for one particular surcoat.
For Marcus was no fool. In this battle for the King’s favor, he knew he had lost to the wizard Merlin. Merlin, the canny bastard, had seen what it was that the King wanted most and had schemed to deliver it to him. But the wizard could only offer Uther a taste of his desire. Marcus intended to give the King a full serving – indeed, all he could eat – and reap the far, far greater reward.
There it was—the white wyvern. Marcus saw it only out of the corner of his eye, but he jerked his horses’ reins and turned its head in that direction. Ruthlessly he charged ahead, shoving aside one of his own men, trampling a wounded kern. The kern’s screams followed his horse, but to Marcus’s ears they were lost in the screams of so many others.
Gorlois was fighting someone, Amadeus of Gaul, who, to Marcus’s mind, was putting up a spirited defense but not nearly a spirited enough offense. Gorlois was focused entirely upon his opponent; he could not see Marcus single-mindedly bearing down on him. And so he was completely unaware when Marcus brought his sword crashing down on his shield arm.
Gorlois howled; the shield crashed to the ground. Amadeus glanced between the two knights and, after a second’s hesitation, betook himself elsewhere. The helmet of Gorlois swiveled to face Marcus, and Marcus thought he could see the emerald eyes underneath narrow dangerously.
But he was too busy cursing himself to much care. If he had taken more care with his aim, he could have disabled or even killed Gorlois with that one stroke. Now he would have to fight him.
Yet even as he parried Gorlois’s blows and trying to force his sword past the Duke’s, a question lingered in Marcus’s mind – disable or kill? Disable and capture him and Uther could have the glory and pleasure of killing Gorlois himself; Uther would pay dearly for that pleasure. But Gorlois was unpredictable; he seemed sensible, but look at him now – embroiling his whole duchy in a war, just so that his wife would not have to service the King! Get him angry enough, and he could do anything – even kill the King—
There would also be protocol to consider, and the lovely Igraine. If she heard her husband was captured … it would not be the first time that a beautiful woman managed to convince an obdurate leader to show mercy …
Dead, Marcus began to realize, was better—far better.
Yet it might be more difficult. Gorlois fought with the blind fury of a demon. At times it was all Marcus could do to keep from being killed himself. Gorlois’s sword flashed in the flames as it went up and came down, slicing side to side—
The flames—the flames were spreading—
All the knights and kerns had been moving away from the fire of instinct, their horses drove them to it. But if one drove one’s opponent toward the flames—
Marcus dug his heels into his mount’s side; the horse, startled, jumped forward. Gorlois’s stallion jumped back. Gorlois was knocked off balance; before he could recover, Marcus laid a hard, ringing blow onto his chest. And he pressed forward.
Gorlois’s stallion kept moving backward; though Gorlois defended himself fiercely, he was unable to regain his advantage. Marcus could feel himself tiring—much longer of this, and Gorlois might well be deciding whether to kill or capture him—
The flames were growing closer—the whites of Marcus’s horse’s eyes showed. The gelding tried to quail, tried to move back, but a fierce cuff from Marcus kept it stumbling forward.
A stray breeze picked up, bringing with it the sound of church bells. Marcus found himself absently counting the chimes. One, two—
The breeze brought with it a lick of flame. Three, four—
The flame extended a beckoning finger—five, six—
The finger, like a child grasping its mother’s hand, latched onto the trailing end of Gorlois’s jousting saddle—seven, eight—
The horse reared, Gorlois was grabbed the reins in panic, his mind completely focused on keeping his seat—nine, ten—
Eleven—the horse came down—
Cold on the stroke of midnight, Marcus’s sword sliced through the air and cleaved Gorlois’s head from his shoulders.
The arm around her shoulder grew tighter and tighter the further they progressed along the corridor. Igraine felt almost as if she was being squeezed, compressed to fit into a narrow doorway leading to a narrower box. She tried to stretch, to shift just a little. Even from the earliest days of their marriage, when they were two awkward adolescents, just fumbling to learn the arts of lovemaking, Gorlois had been surprisingly attentive to those little signals. Tonight, however, every shift tightened the clamp he had on her; every stretch brought an increase in the frenetic pace toward their bedchamber.
Finally, after one more increase caused her to almost trip over her dressing-gown, she had to speak up. “Gorlois, you’re hurting me.”
He came to a full, complete stop, looked at her. His expression could best be described as incredulous. And for a moment, behind his eyes, Igraine thought she saw – sensed – almost …
The slippery sense was gone, before she could name it, almost before she knew she felt it. It would be years before she could know, or guess, what she had felt in that second, and in a brief second it was gone from her head.
He shook his head, pale blonde strands of hair flickering in the torchlight. “I’m—hurting you?”
“Yes, but only a little,” she said in reassurance.
His eyes narrowed a little, head cocked to the side. “How?” he asked in a plaintive, confused voice, like a child faced with some incredible accusation.
“You’re holding me too tightly.” She never thought she would say this – but then again, Gorlois’s arms had never before felt like a vise.
He stared at her for a few seconds, then infinitesimally released his grip. “Better?”
“Good,” he replied, then began to rush her along the corridor once again. They passed the children’s nursery, came to the stairs leading to her chamber. His loosened grip did contain one advantage, when they turned the corner, Igraine was able to slip out of it and sprint ahead.
She came to the chamber door and was the first through it. Part of her mind, a tiny section at the very back, toyed with the idea of slamming the door and leaving him to sulk in the corridor—but he was inside and the door locked before the back could clearly communicate with the front.
He did not try to put his arm around her shoulder again, instead he rested his hand on the small of her back and guided – propelled, really – to the enormous four-poster. Their marriage bed.
Igraine turned her back on it, standing next to the backwards mirror of her vanity table. “Wait!”
His lips parted – not quite enough to call it a fallen jaw – but almost.
“Gorlois …” Igraine let her voice turn pleading. It was manipulative, she knew it, but he was acting so strangely; she instinctively felt the need to pull out all the stops. Later, when this eerie feeling had left her, and when he was again the Gorlois she knew, she would apologize.
“Gorlois, what is the matter?” She reached for his hands, held them gently in her own. “Talk to me … you know you can trust me …”
He stared, awestruck, at their joined hands. Then he looked at her face.
Igraine tilted her head slightly so her hair fell into her eyes; she blinked rapidly so her eyes would appear wet and glassy. She frowned, just a little; it was a quivering frown that seemed to be on the verge of tears.
Again, that strange something swam beneath his eyes and was gone. His hold on her hands tightened to the point where it was almost painful. Then he let go and grabbed her shoulders, squeezing so hard that the bones almost grated together. Igraine gasped.
Outside, church bells began to toll the hour.
“You,” he said harshly, face in hers, spittle spraying like a rabid dog, “are my wife—are you not?”
Igraine nodded, eyes very wide.
“And you are sworn to me – to me – to obey me, aren’t you? You swore that?” Again Igraine nodded.
“Then when I say I want something—I want you to live up to your marital duty—you will obey!” He pushed her backward, and she went sprawling onto the bed.
As he crawled on top of her, Igraine squirmed – not too much – just enough to look at the heirloom mirror on her vanity.
But the polished wooden back held no answers for her.
Cold on the stroke of midnight, clumsy hands, not at all like the graceful ones she knew, began to tear away her dressing gown and night rail, and Gorlois’s lips pressed down hard on hers.
Three hours later, he left her. It was the first time since before Morgause had been born that Igraine was glad to see him go.
She hissed as she slowly sat up, feeling every bruise from their rough … rutting, there was no other word for it. It could not be lovemaking; she could feel no love in their coupling. As for bed-sport, anything for sport and play should not hurt this much.
Could it be, she wondered, falling back to the pillows, that he no longer loves me? But the bed felt dirty, polluted, just lying there made her stomach turn. So she forced herself to stand, to shove aside those thoughts just as she shoved aside the tangled and damp blankets. Her night rail and wrapper she pushed aside as well; they had been ripped as he had feverishly disrobed her. No matter, she was a wealthy woman and had others. In the morning she would deal with the mending and what to do with them, if she could bear to look at the garments.
She took out another nightdress and dressing-gown, then, casting a glance at the bed, grabbed a blanket that had fallen to the ground early in their coupling and thus was not too polluted. She walked over to a chair by the fire and wrapped the blanket around her body. Yet before she sat, she felt, deep in her belly, a faint tingle—
Igraine froze, then placed her hand over the tingle, which was already gone. She had only felt such a sensation three times before, and each time, nine months later—
Oh, dear God, no. No, I don’t want a child, not from that. She collapsed onto the chair. I want to forget that ever happened, not have to look at the new babe every day and be reminded of this!
But maybe, if there was a baby – and if the baby was a boy – an heir would surely bring Gorlois’s love back to her, or at least his respect, wouldn’t it?
Her eyes flew open wide as she realized what that thought meant – that part of her, a large part, had accepted the loss of Gorlois’s love as fact and was already scheming to win it back. Oh, no, oh no …
Like she had not since she was a child, she brought her knees to her chest and stared at the flickering embers over them. But when? She wondered plaintively. And why?
When was obvious, sometime between when she had last seen Gorlois – the day of her disastrous, false vision – and now. Why … why was equally obvious. He was embroiled in yet another war, when he was so close to achieving peace, over her virtue, was he not?
But ‘tis as much his fault as it is mine! the rebellious portion of her mind clamored. He was the one who chose to fight – had he ordered me to lay with the brute, I would have done it! And hated the both of us ever after, aye – but I would have done it!
That, however, didn’t matter – the facts of the case never did, when a man chose to blame a woman for whatever it was that was going wrong. Look at Adam. No one had forced him to eat the cursed apple, Eve had only suggested it, but he choose to blame her for his own downfall – instead of behaving and getting yet another replacement wife – and his descendents continued to do so even now.
He blames me, he hates me, and unless this baby is a boy, he’ll keep doing so until one or both of us dies … Tears swimming in her eyes, she continued to watch the embers, until all faded to black.
When she next became aware, there was faint light streaming through the eastward windows, and a large, insistent banging on her door. “My lady! My lady, urgent news!”
What—Before she was even properly aware of doing so, Igraine had risen and was crossing to the door. She threw it open.
On the threshold stood Sir Brastias and Sir Jordanus. Last night their surcoats had been clean and mended, now they were dusty, torn and blood-splattered. Igraine was lucky enough not to have a weak stomach in regards to blood, but her eyes did widen. “What is it?” she asked.
Brastias was unusually pale; Jordanus seemed close to tears. Igraine’s grip on the doorknob tightened. “What?”
Brastias swallowed. “My—my lady, our news concerns the Duke—you’d best sit down—”
Oh, God! She was frozen, her hand on the doorknob was the only thing connecting her to life on this earth, if she let go—Igraine felt herself shake her head. “No. No, tell me.”
Whatever they had to say—whatever they could possibly have to say—could not be as bad as what she feared—
Jordanus and Brastias exchanged glances. Brastias gulped and turned to her. “My lady, I—I regret to inform you, but last night our Duke, your husband, was—killed.”
Killed? No, no—I want him back—with me—even not loving me, even hating me, I want him back—no, he can’t be dead—he just left me! With you two—what have you done, why weren’t you protecting him?!
Her lips could not move, but her eyes must have questioned, for Brastias continued, hesitantly, “We—we tried to attack the King’s camp—but they must have sensed a trap, they were ready for us—they ambushed us—and the Duke, he entered into single combat—”
“It was that bastard Marcus!” Jordanus exploded, the tears breaking free. “Pressed his horse—wasn’t a fair fight—drove the horse right to the flames, of course the brute had to rear, then when the Duke tried to keep his seat, he killed him!”
“Jordanus!” Brastias shouted. Igraine’s hand started shaking.
“Witchcraft,” Jordanus babbled between gasping sobs. “Must’ve been witchcraft – no other way a coward like Marcus could have done it – aye, and it was right at the stroke of midnight too—”
Hands ripping at her robe—harsh, cracked lip forcing themselves on hers—
But he only left me two, three hours ago—
The room spun, her grip on the doorknob loosened, and the rushes silently rose to meet her. Then, again, everything went black.