Snow White Queen
Merlin, Ulfius and Uther were about a mile away from the encampment when Merlin first scented smoke on the breeze.
His beak-like nose quivered experimentally, continuing to sniff, as he wondered whether he should mention anything to his companions. After a moment he shook his head. He probably just smelled the cooking fires; that was all. Maybe one had gotten a little out of hand. If there was a real fire, they would soon see smoke billowing, and there was none.
Besides, Uther was for once somber and perhaps – if Merlin wanted to admit the possibility of cogitation occurring in that thick head – thoughtful; the mention of a fire would only rile him up. Ulfius was quiet, but the lad, Merlin was realizing, was bright, and knew when to keep his mouth shut.
If the boy seems to smell something, I’ll speak up. As Merlin decided that, Ulfius removed a handkerchief from his saddlebags and loudly blew his nose. That was right; the young knight seemed to have a permanent case of the sniffles. He probably wouldn’t smell anything until they were right on top of the fire, if there was one.
Still, Merlin dug his heels into his horse’s sides, wincing at the pain that caused him. Uther and Ulfius followed, perhaps automatically.
As they rode closer, the smell of smoke became stronger and stronger, even Uther sniffed a couple times before retreating back to his thoughts. Then they rounded the crest of the hill.
Terrabil stood as it always had – strong, huge, by rumor riddled with holes, yet somehow impregnable. The camp still stood, as well. But the first two rows of kerns’ tents, the ones closest to the fortress, were nothing more than matchsticks with blackened flags of cloth streaming off them.
Merlin pulled his horse to a stop. Ulfius and Uther followed perforce. Ulfius’s jaw dropped. Uther took a moment, then he took in the damage and roared. Savagely he jerked on the reins and kicked his stallion’s sides, charging down the hill. Ulfius followed without a second’s hesitation.
For Merlin, the hesitation was more than a second. He saw the hill, steep and stony, pockmarked with ruts and holes. He looked down at his saddle. Then he looked again at the half-burned camp.
I suppose, he thought as he reluctantly pressed his heels into his mount’s sides, that it is penance, of a sort. And he gritted his teeth as the horse cantered to catch up with Ulfius and Uther.
He heard Uther bellowing – swearing – demanding to know what the hell had happened to his camp – long before they got within earshot of the camp itself. In front of the tents was a teeming mass of knights and kerns. Merlin found himself wondering what they were thinking, getting that close to the King in his wrath. Shouldn’t they be hiding?
Just before the shouts of the King became audible to the assembled men, though, they let out a resounding cheer that echoed off the hill, the fortress, the mighty sea itself. Merlin could barely see it, but Uther’s jaw dropped, the bellows cut off, and though the horse’s pace hardly slackened, he did rein in before he ran over a kern or lesser baron.
The men, Merlin noticed with shock, were smiling, almost all of them. True, some of the kerns – presumably those to whom the burnt-out tents belonged – looked despondent; Merlin was no mathematician, but he also reckoned that there were less of them than when the small party had left the night before. There was also Amadeus of Gaul, who wore a troubled frown, but the rest of the knights were grinning ear-to-ear. Sir Marcus stood at the head.
Before Uther could sputter any profanities or demand an explanation, Marcus snapped his fingers. “Wine for the King!” A page, who must have been primed for this, came running with a jug and a goblet. Marcus poured and handed the goblet to Uther. “Drink, Majesty!”
Uther, ever suggestible – or perhaps, staring at his camp, just assuming he would need the alcohol – drank. But when he pulled the goblet down, his face was almost as purple as the stain around his lips. “My camp!! What did you let happen to it?!”
“Ah, the tents? An unfortunate, but alas, strategically necessary loss. Never mind, my lord, we’ve managed to find other places to put the kerns.” Marcus shrugged. But in his hooded black eyes was a twinkle that made Merlin want to shudder.
“Strategically necessary?” Uther snarled.
“Yes – when Gorlois attacked us, it was necessary, in accordance with our strategy, to give him a false sense of security by letting him burn a few of the less-important tents.”
“Oh, Majesty, I wouldn’t worry a bit about that,” Marcus interrupted with a cheeky smile. “Because, you see, while he and his men got the pleasure of burning a few empty tents …”
Marcus ducked, pulling something from a basket behind him.
“We got this.”
In his hand was the severed head of Gorlois.
There were women, Igraine knew, who were perfectly capable of leading army, running an entire country. Boudicca had been one of these women, Zenobia also, Hippolyta another, Cleopatra yet another. Even Penelope, in her own way, had proven herself capable of running a large estate, kingdom even.
Sitting at the head of Gorlois’s council table and feeling herself dwarfed by the size of the chair, the length of the table, and moreover the burly knights surrounding her, Igraine did not feel herself at all equal to enter the company of these auspicious women.
She hadn’t even seen her girls yet; as far as she knew, they still slept, completely unaware of their father’s death. Though she had done scarcely more since reawakening than throw on a dress, any dress, and rush down to the council hall with the knights, she had had the presence of mind to order that not a word of preceding night’s tragedy was to be spoken to anyone. They would inform the castle as soon as they had a plan of action.
And Igraine would tell her girls herself.
The knights were staring at her, clearly expectant. Igraine cleared her throat. “What,” she asked, voice quavering as she looked around the table, “are our options?”
“Continue to fight. Uther and his men could never take Terrabil – or Tintagel – by main force,” Jordanus replied instantly.
“Or surrender,” Brastias whispered.
Jordanus glared, but—strangely—none of the other knights had a rebuke for Brastias. They rather looked at him, or at the table, or at their hands or the ceiling. None looked at her.
So Igraine, striving in vain to stop her trembling, asked, “Why, Sir Brastias, do you give such … strange counsel?”
“For the same reasons that Gorlois launched an unknightly, and – as we see now – disastrous night raid.” Brastias stood, resting his palms on the table and staring down its length at Igraine. “My lady, your men are dying faster than Uther can pick them off.”
“What?” she gasped.
Brastias began to tick items off, one by one, on his fingers. “Our food supplies are dwindling.”
“But ‘tis the end of winter!” Jordanus retorted. “Supplies always run low at the end of winter.”
“If this was a normal winter, I would agree. However, we cannot have hope of our supplies being replenished in the spring. Not only does the siege prevent supplies from reaching the castle—”
“Yet you all are here!” Igraine called.
Brastias sighed, and his tone was a queer mixture of patience and pity. “’Tis far easier, my lady, for a few well-trained knights to outmaneuver an army than it is for heavy wagons, guided by ignorant peasants. Worse, we doubt that, even if supplies could enter the castle, they would be forthcoming.”
“The raids, my lady. Surely, you knew …?”
“Yes—yes, of course I knew.” And she did know; secure Tintagel had provided shelter and succor to some of the displaced peasants. Well-stuffed as Tintagel was, Igraine had not even troubled her head about the problem of feeding them, for there was no problem.
The relative abundance of supplies in her own household struck her anew, and she sat up straighter. “Surely some of the food from Tintagel … no,” she finished, slumping down again, remembering Brastias’s comments about wagons.
“If it would have worked, our Duke would have already tried it. That I assure you, my lady.”
“Yes, yes … that I understand.” Igraine stared at the table, trying to will the spinning world to make sense to her. “Yet I do not understand how the raids have any effect on—”
“The raids did not stop. They continue—the most recent was two days ago.” Igraine pressed a hand to her mouth. Brastias shook his head. “The peasants – those who have survived – are afraid to return to their farms.”
“No, no, of course not—we could not force them—‘twould be inhuman cruel.” Igraine shivered; she thought herself defenseless, but she had strong walls and loyal knights to hide behind, the peasants under Gorlois’s and now her care had even less. “But that means …” She looked up. “No food.”
“Aye, my lady. And it grows worse.”
Worse? How could it possibly grow worse? Brastias swiftly relayed the news of the diseases sweeping Terrabil. Igraine groaned, then rested her head on her hands and stared at the table.
Gorlois … Gorlois, why did you not tell me these things? Why did you never let me know you were in such horrible straits? I would have lain with Uther, beast though he is, if I had to, to prevent our coming to this! She blinked back sudden tears; these men had no time for a woman’s foolish weakness. Perhaps ‘tis because he no longer loves—loved—me.
But no, that could not be the answer. Whatever had—happened to her the night before, it had not been her Gorlois, for by the words of his own good knights, he had been slain by that point. So it was probably a dream, a horrible dream, perhaps her Seer’s gift wreaking revenge on her for her ignoring it. That was all.
Yet that tingle in her belly …
She would not think about it. That way lay madness; she was sure of it. And she had too much work to do, no time to go mad.
Igraine looked up. “So … you give me many reasons why we can no longer fight … but none to surrender and put ourselves at Uther’s mercy.”
Jordanus looked almost delighted, but Brastias shook his head. “I believe that, for you, my lady, Uther would show mercy. And that mercy would extend to all of us.”
Jordanus banged his hand on the table. “Do you slander my lady’s honor?”
“Slander her honor? No, my lord, nothing could be farther than my thoughts! Is it slander to know that our Duchess is a lovely woman, and that lovely women have wrung mercy from obstinate men ere this and will do so again?” Brastias shook his head.
Igraine stared down the table, though her eyes saw nothing. “Uther,” she pronounced with a finality that seemed entirely disconnected from her conscious mind, “is a monster. And the terms under which he would grant such a generous mercy are none that any woman of honor – widow or no – would accept.”
Jordanus glared at Brastias. Yet the latter knight had only two words for her, “Not … necessarily.”
Igraine looked up with a mutely enquiring eyebrow.
Brastias swallowed. “He may suggest—marriage.”
“NO!” Igraine stood so quickly that the chair behind her clattered to the ground. “No, never! I would rather die!” Her own fist banged against the table. “What kind of knights are you, to sell your lady to the very man who sought to take her by force?”
“My lady!” Brastias called, shocked.
“You are selling me! As if I was a joint of beef, or—or a whore on the streets!”
“My lady!” This time the protest was Jordanus’s.
“What right have you—any of you—to demand that I give up my self, my life, and join myself to a monster?”
“We make no demands—”
“You do! You clothe it in mincing words and many ‘my ladies,’ but you demand all the same!” Igraine knew not where this savagery was coming from, but she rode it, like a dangerous wave that would take her to a strange new land—freedom? “I, sirs, am the Duchess of Cornwall, and I am not yours to command! I am no man’s to command!”
“My lady, we do not command! We merely reason—”
“Gorlois never would have wanted this!”
Unknown to herself, she was testing Brastias, trying to tease out an answer to the question that, despite being moot, still plagued her. If he replied that Gorlois would have wanted it, then she would know that his love for her would have run out before his life did, and her vision of the preceding night would have been true.
But he did not. “Gorlois is not here! He died in order to prevent things from coming to such a pass!” She had never heard Brastias so angry before. “He failed, but he died to protect you, giving no thought to all the others entrusted to his care!”
Brastias took a deep breath. “My lady, to be a leader requires making sacrifices – sometimes sacrificing something you hold dearer than life, in order to preserve something you hold dearer yet. Gorlois would not do this, and so now he lies dead. He thought he could keep all. But he failed.” Brastias swallowed. “He failed, and so we, his knights, are forced to beg you to care for us as he could not. We are asking you to save our lives at the expense of your … ‘tis not even your honor, my lady …”
“My life,” Igraine replied softly, not looking at him.
“Nay, my lady. Uther would not take your life, not now. Forgive—forgive my base way of expressing this, but he desires you too much.”
She looked up, slowly, silver Seer’s eyes boring into his. “There are more ways to lose a life than by death, Sir Brastias. Every woman knows that. And you offer my life up in order to save yours.”
“No—no, my lady.” Jordanus’s deep voice cut in. “Never. We do not offer you to anything. The choice is yours. We will—all of us—fight to death to preserve your life.”
“And to the death it would be,” Brastias added – Jordanus glared but he continued to speak. “We would all die, and then – whether he wed you or not – Uther would have what he wanted of you. After …” He shrugged. “I cannot say what would happen to you, my lady, but I do know that it would not be long before your lovely daughters were laid to rest in the cold earth beside their father.”
Every mother’s instinct she possessed screamed at her to do anything, everything, to prevent such a tragedy, to fight with all she possessed to save the lives of her daughters. But she was a woman. And women could not fight.
She turned away, staring at the banked fireplace, her arms crossed before her. She stood as if she was holding herself, for now, truly, whom had she to hold her?
Igraine bowed her head, and, as her father, mother and nurses had painstakingly trained her to do, bowed to the inevitable.
“You leave me no choice, Sir Brastias. Send to Uther.” She closed her eyes. “I will surrender on … on whatever terms he names.”