It was amazing how one could be so alone, and yet so utterly surrounded by others.
There was no doubt in Claire’s mind on that score: she was alone. It did not matter that the babble of voices crashed above her head like a churning sea. It did not matter that the creaking chairs and rustling of cloth and the tapping of fingers on tables combined to make an unholy melody as performed by the Grim Reaper’s orchestra. It did not matter that there were lulls when the sea calmed and instead the torture of ten eyeballs upon her, dissecting her, stripping her, began.
Claire was alone.
From time to time, the crashing of the waves of voices formed bubbles that floated down to where she was, chained at the bottom, slowly suffocating under the pressure of the deep. When the bubbles reached her, they popped, and when they popped, they left words behind. Words like wedding and colors and gowns. Words like Thomas and Jessica and William and, from time to time, Lynn.
But not Lynn — Lynn was just the blessed last syllable, the one that she could gasp into her aching lungs. The one thing that she could hold to survive. But, like all survival, it brought with it pain. For with the wonderful Lynn came the first two syllables: Gwen and do.
Gwendolyn. It was not how her daughter preferred to be called. Though it was a parent’s duty to name a child, surely it was the child’s right to take that name and to turn it into something that he or she preferred to be known by. Claire did not know if her little Lynn disliked her full, given name. All Claire knew was that when Lynn was called Lynn, she looked up with a smile. When she was called Gwendolyn, she looked up with a tiny frown.
Or maybe it was because the only person who ever called her Gwendolyn was Bors, and Claire herself, when Bors was watching.
Claire shuddered, and another bubble floated down, directly to her.
Claire looked up.
“Lady Claire, are you all right?”
Why was the Queen look at her so? She wore a small smile and her voice was that of a woman speaking to a frightened animal. She sounded as if she would coax Claire from her safe, warm den, into the too-bright sunlight and chilling wind for — what, exactly?
Foolish woman. Did she not realize it was better to die in the dark than to come out into the sun, only to risk more pain?
Claire looked away.
She stared at the table, only to see the Queen’s pale freckled hand inching nearer to hers. Freckles. Claire remembered all of the times she had been told to stay out of the sun — before it had become hateful to her — informed that if she went out-of-doors, she would ruin her complexion, and no one would want to marry her. She had told her daughters the same thing.
And yet this woman with freckles had become a Queen. And Claire, without freckles, had married …
The Queen’s hand stopped. “Lady Claire, please.” Her voice was no longer coaxing, but frightened. “For Wright’s sake, say something. You look …”
She trailed off. Claire looked up. Surely, if the Queen’s voice was no longer saying anything, her face might tell her all she needed to know —
The Queen was no longer looking at Claire. Her eyes had darted down to the other end of the table, where Bors was watching with jaw agape as poor Sir Lancelot tried to gain Lady Guinevere’s backing on a point. Her husband’s voice was all the storm in the sea — without it, all she would hear would be the murmur of waves.
“Claire, has he done something to you?” the Queen whispered.
What had Bors not done to her?
Claire looked at the table.
A sigh came from the other side, followed by the cacophony of the Queen’s heavy skirts as she shifted from side to side. Claire’s eyes shut of their own accord, but that only brought the horrid hammering of all the noise, noise, noise more to beat against her skull. What she would not give for a pleasant sound, instead of this wailing medley!
She forced her thoughts down, down, to the relentless drumbeat of her own heart. It would have to do for now. It was at least more regular than the eddies and flows of conversation. And it was comforting, too. Every beat her heart gave was one less beat that she would have to endure in the future.
Her hand began to move against her dress — tap, tap, tap. Tap-tap. She could do so much with a beat to start her moving.
Ah, yes, there was a melody beginning to be plucked, oh-so-hesitantly, on the strings of her mind. It was not as good as composing with her piano, but it would have to do for now. For now, it was all she had.
It was not her favorite tune of descending into the lake and letting the waters slip over her head, for she was already deep underwater, and not in her sweet soothing lake, either. No, this was a song of storms and rain, of thunder and of lightning. She could hear it now — the boom of the drums, the crash of cymbals, lightning striking with every time the cymbals came together. She saw the lightning, so hungry, eat tree and house and barn, and castle, too. Her father’s excuse for a castle went up and out in a flash of lightning so brilliant, it more than made up for every moment of dullness ever experienced in that gray stone structure.
Unknown to even she herself, Claire began to smile as she tapped the rhythm of the thunder on her thighs.
She stood on the meadow outside her father’s castle. The meadow where the sheep and cattle had grazed, the meadow where the little peasant children had gone out to play. How had she, as a little girl, so longed to join them! But no, she was a lady. Ladies did not run, their skirts hitched up to their knees, through the sweet summer grass. Ladies did not tumble, shrieking, with half-naked peasant children. Ladies did not count the grubby faces as the faces of her friends; ladies were not permitted to return a smile that attempted to be friendly. Ladies must stay inside, and sit, and sew, and be grateful that they could not run and play and jump and tumble.
Claire hummed the melody of the rain.
She stood, now, in that meadow, soaked to the skin — no — better than that — soaked and mud-covered after a good roll in the grass. Mud-covered and naked! And now, for the village was gone, and the castle was gone, and the high trees had mysteriously disappeared, she was the tallest thing in the plain. And she stood, as tall as she may and proud.
The lightning was coming closer …
She watched it, watching it do a delicate dance over the field. The crash of cymbals came sooner and sooner, faster and faster, as the lightning hopped and skipped and jumped, closer, ever closer —
“My goodness, Lady Claire, what’s that tune called? I say we try to make the young folks dance to it!”
Claire’s eyes popped open.
Lady Guinevere smiled at her, her lips a-tremble. Sir Lancelot gnawed at his bottom lip. And Claire just stared.
“The way it goes — faster and faster.” Was not Lady Guinevere reputed to have a way with words? Why did she falter and stumble? “Can you imagine them? Will and Prince Thomas and Princess Jessica, and your own Lady Gwendolyn, trying to keep up with it? Do you know what it’s called?”
“Bah!” came Bors’s voice — it was the farthest thing from music that she could imagine. “It’s not called anything! It’s some fool thing that she’s trying to make up!”
“I don’t think it’s foolish,” Sir Lancelot dared.
“Lance, for Wright’s sake, you can’t possibly think that …”
“Claire?” the Queen asked, her hand edging near to Claire’s again. “Claire, are you –”
She knew that — no, in her mind, she would not call it a note of warning. A noise of warning, rather, in her husband’s scratching voice. She looked away.
“Sir Bors,” came the King’s voice, as deep and foreboding as the lowest notes on the piano, “surely there is no need –”
Claire jumped to her feet and ran from the room.
She needed her piano. Needed it. Needed to feel the sweet silken touch of its ivory keys. Needed to pick out her melody, as best she could on an instrument that was not drums or cymbals. She wanted the lightning back, she wanted the thunder, she wanted to feel it coming to claim her —
“Claire!” the Queen gasped.
“CLAIRE!” Bors shouted.
“Bors, sit down!” came the king’s voice. “Allie –”
A swish of skirts, but Claire was already gone.
The music room was not, in her husband’s small château, a long run from the dining room. And the piano was placed close to the door. Claire slid onto the seat with a sigh of relief. She was home! Here she could sit and rest her weary bones, except for her fingers, of course — but those she would weary until the pain in her digits matched the pain in her swollen head–
She brought her fingers together and pushed them out again with a delicious crack. Her head she rolled from side to side, her shoulders she shifted and stretched. A deep breath and she was ready to begin. The first note —
She hit the key again.
Again — again — again!
Her breath coming faster, Claire jumped up. The bench clattered to the ground behind her. She saw, rather than felt, the trembling of her hand as she touched the lid of the piano. She opened it —
Her shriek, she would be told later, had been heard as far as the village at the bottom of the hill.
When Claire was next aware again, there was an arm around her shoulder, a gentle voice in her ear whispering soothing phrases. “Claire, Claire, hush, hush … it’s all right, it’s all right … don’t you fret, dear, everything will be fine …”
The Queen! But why was the Queen holding her and rocking her like a frightened child? “There, there … it’ll be all right …”
No! No, it would not!
“NO!” Claire shrieked.
With a voice that had soothed the sobbing after a hundred nightmares, the Queen asked, “No, what, honey?”
“It won’t be! Nothing will ever be all right again!”
“Now, now, don’t say that –”
“He took them!”
The Queen froze. “He took what?”
“The strings …”
“The — the what?”
“The strings to my piano …”
“The — the strings? They’re –”
“They’re gone! He took them!”
“Now, now, Claire,” the Queen hushed, “I’m sure Bors didn’t just take them — perhaps the piano is being … er … tuned …”
“He took them! He took them!”
“He wouldn’t –”
“Of course I did!”
Had the Queen not caught her, Claire would have crumpled to the floor and — who knew? — perhaps never risen again.
“Sir Bors, please! The last thing she needs is you agitating her right now!”
“She needs? She needs?” The floorboards shook under the weight of Bors’s stomping foot. “What about what her family needs? She has two sons and a daughter to raise!”
“For heaven’s sake, surely you can see –”
“I can see that my son sees the nurses more often than he sees his own mother! I can hear him wailing while she plays that blasted piano morning, noon and night! And Elyan — do you know what Elyan tells me? He’s not had a single conversation with her since the twins were born!”
“Sir Bors, please –”
“What kind of mother does that, Claire? Hmm? What kind of mother?” The whole earth seemed to shake with Bors’s foot pounding against the floor — or perhaps it was the shaking in her knees —
Was she truly failing her sons, too, as well as her daughters?
The Queen’s arms grasped her around the shoulders. “Bors! For Wright’s sake — shut up!”
Silence. Even Claire’s sob died in a gasping hiccup.
Then, the whisper of a snake.
“What did you say?”
Claire felt herself pushed forward, the brocade of the Queen’s bodice scratching against the velvet of her gown. It was only when the Queen started to shout again that Claire realized she was not being abandoned, but protected.
“I told you, as your Queen, to shut your foolish mouth before you do any more damage to your poor wife!”
“How dare you?”
“I am –”
“A woman, and I will not be ordered about by a woman in my own home!”
“Sir Bors! I will be called by my title –”
“You will, sirrah –”
“Sirrah? How do you dare?”
“I dare as your Queen! Now be quiet before –”
“Before you do what? I assure you, my lady, there is nothing you could do to me that could compare with the insult –”
“Sir Bors,” came a voice, low and deadly as a growling bear, “if you do not wish to be addressed as sirrah — if not worse — for the rest of your life, I suggest you stop shouting at my wife — and yours for that matter.”
Claire looked over her shoulder to see Lady Guinevere, ready to spit fire; Sir Lancelot, trying to catch his breath; and the King … looking at her husband as one might a bug he was about to crush under his boot.
The room began to tremble again, and Claire felt the Queen’s arm go around her once more. “Hold on, Claire, it’s going to be all right …”
Whoever would have thought that such a nice woman as the Queen could be such a horrible liar?
Claire leaned her head on the Queen’s shoulder and watched as her husband faced the King, the fabric atop his back rippling in fury. “My liege,” Bors began, “surely you understand –”
“No, Sir Bors, I do not understand. I do not understand how many man could see his wife, obviously needing some sort of medical attention — my sister, perhaps –”
“I will not have –” Bors began, and choked.
The King’s eyebrow went up. “Do you really wish to insult my wife and my sister — both my sisters, and my daughter by implication — in the same day?”
“Surely Your Majesty will take no offense,” Bors replied in a tone just shy of a snarl, “if I believe what the good Book of Wright tells me, and hesitate to endanger the souls of my entire household by allowing witchcraft to be practiced under my roof.”
“My daughter has been beneath this roof hundreds of time — my sisters, one or the other, too, I’d gather.”
“Not practicing witchcraft, my liege.”
“Claire,” Guinevere asked before the King could speak, “do you want Lady Morgan? Do you think she might help?”
“She said –” Claire whispered.
Bors wheeled. “What?”
“BORS!” shouted the King and Queen at once.
“Did you have that — that woman in this house? Claire! Answer me!”
Claire shrunk into the Queen’s encircling arms, hiding her face. She did not even look up when another pair of footsteps entered the room.
Nor did she blink when she heard the gasp.
“Bors! Enough is enough! I would not let a man so treat a dog in my presence –”
“Arthur, please, stop shouting, you’re only agitating her further — there, there, Claire, it’ll be all right –”
“It shall not be, if that woman comes again into this house!”
“Bors, please! They say I’m the dull sword in the family, but at least I know when to stop –”
“Lance! Don’t you go taking –”
When the sound tearing through her throat stopped, she opened her eyes to find five pairs staring at her. “Morgan,” Claire whispered. “I want Morgan.”
“Claire! Have you gone mad?” Bors shouted.
Claire collapsed against the Queen and prepared to slip back into despair, since all hope was clearly lost. If even he could see that she was mad …
But she did not hear her son’s footsteps running from the room — and still less could she see where he was going.