What was it with the race of Sims and their desire to barricade themselves beyond stone walls?
Morgan shivered against her will as she crossed from the brightness of the sun to the shadow of the gatehouse and to the half-sun, half-shadow of the abbey courtyard. She was a daughter of kings, bastard, but still a daughter, so her mind understood the need to defend oneself from animals, from enemies, from the next-door neighbors.
Staying a castle, though, was not the same as staying in a monastery. In a castle, though the portcullis could fall with a slam, the moat could be filled, the Sims retreat to the most interior parts of the castle, one never felt that the world was shut out. There were walls, but they had a thousand holes where light and air and people could get in. Castles were always loud with the shouts of Sims and the braying of animals and the chatter of women and the laughter of men. Here in the abbey, there was shadow from the low walls and a hush that coated the ground as surely as the grass did. One did not feel that even the birds had the courage to sing here.
But it was so wrong! The high wings of monastery and nunnery, the large church — they spoke of the living quarters of many people. There should be lay sisters and brothers, cooks and cleaners, singers in the chapel and scribblers in the library. But there was not. At the end of the day, there was only one nun, two monks, and two orphan girls. And one lady who had been through far too much, and who needed a place where she could just get away.
Perhaps there was something to be said for shutting out the world.
And it was for that lady she was here today. Morgan squared her shoulders and strode across the courtyard. Her leather-soled shoes made barely a sound on the paving stones.
She got in without meeting anybody, for Mother Julian and the girls were at school at this hour — indeed, that was why Morgan had come. Mother Julian was uncommonly reasonable for a month, and after watching Morgan like a hawk for her first few sessions with Claire pronounced the proceedings to be demon-free and thus rendering her presence unnecessary. And after that, Morgan had had the run of the nunnery, Mother Julian shrugging off her presence. “You’re a woman, married too, and if what you say about witchcraft being only passed down in families is true — well, you’re certainly not a moral threat, so far as I can see.”
Morgan appreciated that, she really did. But all the same there was a calculating look in the nun’s eyes that she prefered to avoid when possible. As it was now.
Since Morgan had heard no strains of piano wafting from the piano, she guessed there was only one place Claire could be — and ducking into the nunnery’s small library, she found she was right.
“Good day, Claire.”
Claire looked up. “Morgan! Goodness, is it that time already?”
“About,” Morgan said as Claire embraced her. She had, through long experience, seen Lynn to be quite affectionate when you got her away from her parents. Morgan used to wonder where she got it from. No longer.
“I might be a bit early, though,” Morgan admitted, giving Claire a pat on the back before disengaging herself. “I thought I’d enjoy a walk here … and, well, didn’t take as much time enjoying it as I thought I would.”
“It’s getting so warm and nice these days.” Claire glanced to the window and smiled. “Do you think it will be pleasant for the wedding?”
Morgan only let the corner of her lip tease upward for a second. “Oh, yes. I’m sure of it.” If there was one thing she could do for her niece’s wedding — both her nieces’ weddings — it would be to ensure that the sun shone.
“Not that I think my Lynn will notice if a winter gale is blowing outside,” Claire smiled. “I wouldn’t have noticed either, at my wedding.” She frowned. “Though …”
“I think you would have noticed a gale, Claire. A drizzle, perhaps not — but a gale, certainly.” A gale would have been too much like foreshadowing for anyone in Claire’s position to ignore.
Claire managed a smile as wan as a drizzling day as she sat. Morgan sat beside her and only tilted her head a little to one side.
Their sessions worked better, or so Morgan had discovered, when she did not talk at first. Perhaps Claire had been forced to be the listener far too many times already in her life, and she could not heal until the roles that were reversed. And perhaps she was healing. When they had started, Claire could sit for minutes and quarter-hours at a stretch without a word. Now, she barely let more than a slight conversational pause lapse before she filled it.
“It’s odd,” Claire murmured. “How I keep thinking of my wedding these days. And how different it was for me, and how it is for Lynn. I was younger, of course.”
Claire’s gaze dropped and she began to pick at her skirt. “But old — you know — for a Glasonlander girl without an education. Though I suppose that wasn’t my fault, or my father’s. I was only fifteen when I was betrothed.”
The other woman’s brow furrowed. “I don’t know what drew Bors to me — there must have been hundreds of girls in my position. Good family but not great, a dowry adequate for a second son but not so large that I drew fortune hunters like vultures. And a bit old, you know, considering that we wouldn’t be marrying until after Bors graduated.”
“I think eighteen is plenty young enough to wed,” Morgan remarked. “When you think about it — much younger and plenty of girls’ bodies aren’t mature enough to handle childbearing.” To say nothing of their minds and their ability to handle childrearing. But the men in Glasonland — especially a generation ago — who wanted to marry a girl with a well-formed, mature mind, able to control her life and handle decisions on her own, were not so thick on the ground as all that.
“That’s true. It’s probably better that I waited. Or rather, that Bors’s father forced him to wait.” Claire glanced at the wall. “I doubt I should have been able to handle four children in six years otherwise.”
“I do wonder, though,” Claire murmured, “why Bors didn’t seek out some twelve-year-old who had just started her courses when he was looking for a bride. He knew he’d have to wait a few years. It would seem … more in character for him to pick out someone younger, you know?”
Yes, Morgan did know. Bors would probably prefer them to be younger, malleable, and thus more completely dependent upon him. Then again, from what she had heard of young Claire, perhaps she had seemed as malleable and dependent in her youth as any man could wish. “Perhaps his parents had a say in that.”
“Oh, I’m sure they did. After all, it … makes more sense for a first-time couple to be closer in age, don’t you think? Well, first time for the man. Especially if they’re both young. If a young man tried to marry a very young girl — well, it would be the blind leading the blind, don’t you think? He would have to take everything, absolutely everything, in his charge, and … well, I guess it would just be harder than it has to be. Whereas a woman who was older would be able to handle more things herself, and leave to her husband the work of getting on in the world.”
Morgan only nodded.
“But you don’t agree with any of that, do you?” Claire murmured. She glanced at the bookshelves across the way. “You think that a wife should help with the getting on in the world, too.”
“Well, it does make things easier to have two hands on deck, so to speak — don’t you think?” Morgan replied brightly. “Don’t you think that your Lynn and my incorrigible nephew will fare that much the better for both of them helping each other in public and in private?”
“It’s different for royalty, though. I mean — Queen Alison does so much, and so openly — and yet I don’t think even most men with Bors’s views would say that she steps out of her place.”
She didn’t say Bors. Not that I blame her.
“Well,” Morgan mused, “perhaps it is because the work of running a country is so great that no one person could do it alone. And so there needs to be a division of labor — and who better to divide the labor with than one’s wife?”
“That’s true,” Claire agreed.
“And perhaps, you, Alison’s way has something to do with it. That woman is nothing if not tactful. And if there’s one thing my family needed,” she sighed, “it is a rather large dose of tact.”
Claire smiled shyly. “The three of you are all rather … forthright, aren’t you?”
“The three of us?”
“You, the King, Lady Morgause.”
Oh, Wright, let’s not eve talk about her. “Indeed, we are,” Morgan chuckled. “My mother was so … reserved, quiet, tactful. I don’t know where it all went.”
“Perhaps your mother had to keep it all, in order to deal with her children and her hus–” Claire stopped, her blue eyes far too wide.
“Her lover, you mean. From everything I hear of Morgause’s father … well, Mother probably needed tact to deal with him, too.” Morgan sighed. “I like to imagine …” She stopped. “On second thought — never mind that. How have things been with you, these past few days?”
Claire too had her share of tact, for she changed the subject with scarcely a blink. “Oh, I’ve been keeping busy, reading some of the tracts Mother Julian gave to me, and working on my music, and — oh! Oh, Morgan! We had such a scare the other night!”
Morgan did her best not to roll her eyes and sigh. Be nice, she scolded herself, with that husband of hers, how often do you think she had a chance to enjoy a good gossip? “What happened?”
“Father Hugh!” Claire replied. “He was gone all night — lost in the woods, poor man! He was searching for some sort of herb, something he wants to try on Lord L–er, one of his patients, and he got terribly lost!”
Now Morgan had to hide a smile, not a sigh. Only in this kingdom would we hear that the abbot was lost in the woods all night — and believe it! “Poor man. Is he all right?”
“I think so. He seemed so lost and dazed when he came back, though, that we were all quite nervous for him. Brother Tuck put him straight to bed, and he was much better once he woke up. But all the same, if he hadn’t been … well, I was going to suggest sending for you. I hope you, er, wouldn’t mind?”
“Of course not. I can’t guarantee that I would be able to help him, of course, but I’d certainly try. You say that he’s well now, though?”
“Quite well! The same as he ever was. I suppose he must have just been tired.”
“Walking in the woods all night will do that to you.”
For a second Claire’s face transformed into Lynn’s whenever she bore a wry smile and a sigh. Morgan half-expected an “Oh, Tommy” to escape her lips. “Indeed, it will,” Claire chuckled. “But other than that, it’s been peaceful, quiet here. I’ve spent most of my time working on my song, to be honest, except for — oh!” she gasped. “Mistress Ferreira came by the other day for my last dress fitting! It’s all done now — the dress I’m going to wear to the wedding. Would you care to see?”
Her eyes shone like a girl’s asking to play dress-up. And though somehow Morgan had been born without the bone that led her to care for such things as dress up (as a girl, she had always prefered to play witch or knights), she could not help but smile. “Of course.”
“I’ll be back in just a minute!” Claire replied as she almost skipped from the room.
Morgan chuckled and expected to be waiting far more than just a minute.
And yet she was wrong — for it was an astonishingly short time later when Morgan heard slippers click-clicking against the stone floor, and Claire burst into the library. “Ta-da! What do you think?”
Morgan … blinked. “How on earth did you do your hair so fast?”
“Oh, I’m getting used to not having a maid. This style is so simple, I can do it myself. It’s just a braid wound about a bit, skewered with hairpins and stuffed into the cauls. You like it?”
“Oh, indeed! It looks adorable on you.”
“And the dress?” Claire asked, twirling.
“I think, considering your age and the number of children you have, there will be women wanting to claw your eyes out. And if there aren’t, there should be.”
Claire laughed. “Morgan!”
“I’m being perfectly serious!”
“Come now, I know I shan’t be able to squeeze myself into Lady Morgause’s tight bodice — it’s she who should be getting her eyes clawed out!”
You shan’t catch me arguing with that. “Morgause has her own tricks. Besides, you’re able to wear that style without looking as if you’re just starting to expect another baby — it’s not many women who can pull that off.”
Claire glanced down at gown. “True,” she murmured.
“I always liked these kinds of gowns,” Claire finally added after a full moment fixing her eyes upon the fleur-de-lis that dotted the skirt. “It was Bors who didn’t. He thought they were … advertising. You know how it was the fashion when we were young in Glasonland, for all the women to wear gowns like this? I think looking like you were expecting was half the attraction.”
“It probably was,” Morgan agreed. “Advertising one’s fertility and all that.”
Claire sighed. “You make it sound so … so …” She shook her head. “Vulgar isn’t quite the word.”
“Perhaps that’s what’s wrong with it,” Claire murmured. Then she shook her head with a smile. “Anyway. Would you like to hear the progress I’ve made on the wedding march?”
Morgan smiled and rose. “Of course.” It was no good to protest that she knew nothing of music, that she was no competant judge — she knew that by now. Listening to the wedding march was their weekly ritual by now. Even though Morgan could offer her nothing in the way of criticism, constructive or otherwise, it seemed to … help Claire.
How that worked, Morgan was not sure. Maybe it was just a goal, and a goal she could meet. Something to make her feel that there was something in her life that she could work on, and control, and get better at. Maybe it was because this was something she could give her daughter for her wedding that was not ultimately a gift from Bors — purchased with his money, or made with materials purchased with his money, or made in time that had been “stolen” from caring for him and his castle and his children.
Still, though, as Morgan listened to the music, she had to wonder what it was that Claire would use for her release once the wedding was over. She had told herself that she would worry about that when the wedding grew closer, but the wedding was growing closer — closer and closer every day.
And worse, perhaps, the wedding march was nearly complete. Even Morgan’s untrained ears could tell that much.
And it was a lovely march. Never before could Morgan quite understand how it was that one managed to tell a story through a song. She called herself too simple and prosaic, at the end of the day, to quite perceive that. But if she closed her eyes … even in the sterile, chaste chapel, she could well imagine those first faltering steps along a journey of love and laughter — and anger and tears too — a journey that would, if all went well, last a lifetime.
There was little that made Morgan wish she had had a wedding such as her niece and nephew were getting. Certainly very little of the planning of this extravaganza inspired that in her. But this song … if nothing else, sometimes Morgan wished she had gotten a wedding march.
Then again, the frenzied ride through the dark, the pounding on the abbey door, and the wedding ceremony read aloud by the very amused Mother Hildegard had its own romance, its own charm that Morgan would be a very foolish woman to trade for a bit of music.
The last notes died away, and Claire leaned back. “The bridge isn’t quite right,” she murmured. “I still need to work that out.”
“Well, it’s your song, I suppose you would know,” Morgan murmured — which was as close as she would get to admitting that she had no idea what or where this bridge was, why it was wrong, or how to fix it.
“It could be better,” Claire replied. “It has to be better.”
“Claire,” Morgan replied in a warning tone.
“What?” she asked, standing.
“Claire, please — please don’t take this the wrong way. But Lynn is your daughter, and even if she wasn’t, what you played was beautiful enough that I doubt she will even notice that the — bridge — isn’t quite right.”
The door to the chapel swung open just as Claire began to say, “But Morgan …”
“I … hope I’m not disturbing you, ladies?”
Morgan glanced sidelong. “Father Hugh — no, no, of course you’re not.”
“Indeed, sir. Do you need the chapel? I was just practicing the march I want to play at the wedding.”
“Indeed,” Father Hugh replied. “I heard you. That’s why …” He wrung his hands — but only for an eyeblink. “Well, to be honest, that’s why I came. I thought — I thought you might both be here.”
“What do you need, Father?” Claire asked, while Morgan stared at the nervously smiling monk and thought, Both?
“It is — well, to be honest, it’s something a medical question,” he admitted. He glanced at Morgan. “And I hoped to, er, ask the advice of my colleague — when she had a moment, that is. There’s no rush.”
“No rush?” And yet he came as soon as he heard the piano playing …
“Indeed. Whenever you have a minute, my lady. It’s — not pressing. Not at all.”
The monk doth protest too much, methinks. And so Claire must have thought, too, for she chirped, “Oh, Father, I should probably change back into my other dress anyway. I’ll leave you two for a minute.”
“Only a minute,” Morgan replied. “We still need to talk.”
“Of course, Morgan. I’ll wait in the library.”
“Very well.” As Claire shuffled out the door, Morgan turned to Father Hugh with one eyebrow raised.
“Let us sit down, sister,” he said, gesturing to the foremost pew. Morgan raised her eyebrows but sat without further quarrel.
Sister. Interesting. Morgan straightened her skirts. Not daughter. “What is it you need, Father?”
Father Hugh sighed. “Medical advice, as I said earlier.”
Morgan bit her lip. “For Lord Lot?”
“What — oh. No, not for him. Unless — have you any?” he asked.
“I’ve not seen him.”
“Ah. Yes. Of course. But you’ve heard nothing about the treatment of brainstorms?”
“Little more than you would have heard, and what little that is … involves magic.”
“Which would be rather difficult for me to put into practice, for a number of reasons,” Father Hugh replied with a smile that almost managed to be wry. “A pity, that.”
“How … how is he?” Morgan whispered.
Father Hugh sighed. “The doctor in me says not well, not well at all … the monk sees a cure for all of his ills in sight.”
Morgan sighed. “Garnet will take it hard.”
“So will Mordred — and the youngest boy. He will scarcely even know his father.”
“No,” Morgan shook her head, “no, he won’t. Poor lad.”
“Poor lad.” Father Hugh sighed. “But — but alas, I did not actually ask you to come here to discuss Lord Lot.”
“Then who did you want to discuss?”
Father Hugh shifted. “Er — well — er, me.”
Morgan blinked. “You? But you …” Look healthy as a horse!
“It’s really nothing much to worry about,” Father Hugh replied. “Just an annoyance. A bit of stomach trouble that I can’t seem to shake. I was wondering if you had any ideas?”
“Ginger tea?” Morgan suggested.
“That as well.”
Morgan frowned. “How long has this been going on? And what are your exact symptoms?”
“Nausea — vomiting in short order,” Father Hugh sighed.
Morgan blinked. “Shouldn’t you be resting, then?”
“Ah, that’s the trick of it!” Father Hugh laughed. “It only happens in the morning!”
“The morning?” Morgan almost laughed. “If you were a woman, I would say …”
“He was gone all night — lost in the woods, poor man! He was searching for some sort of herb, something he wants to try on Lord L–er, one of his patients, and he got terribly lost!”
Morgan blinked and stared at the wall.
“Father Hugh — how long has this been going on?”
“Er — a few days.”
“I see.” Morgan bit her lip. “I see.”
“… Lady Morgan? You seem troubled.”
Oh, that’s an understatement! “Tell me — are there any other symptoms? Perhaps in the … chest area?”
Father Hugh blinked. “How … how did you … know?”
“What, exactly, are you feeling?”
“Tenderness,” he admitted. “Perhaps a bit of pain. I thought — I thought I might have pulled a muscle.”
If only, good Father, if only.
“Lady Morgan,” Father Hugh murmured, “if — if there is something you think it might be …”
“I can’t answer that, until you answer another couple questions — fortunately or unfortunately.”
“Fortunately or unfortunately?” Father Hugh chuckled. “Well, say on, Lady Morgan. I’ll answer.”
“Did these symptoms start before or after you got lost in the woods?”
The good Father blinked. “After …”
“And the night you got lost — what do you remember happening?”
Father Hugh’s teeth clicked shut, and he turned to stare at the wall.
“Father,” Morgan whispered. “I can’t help you if you don’t tell me.”
“The only things I remember are walking through the woods, lost and frightened,” Father Hugh replied, “and …”
“A strange dream.”
Father Hugh blinked. “There were lights. And laughter. And dancing.” He pursed his lips. “That is all I can truly claim to remember, Lady Morgan.”
Ah, but that’s enough, that’s more than enough. “Father … you’re not going to like this, but I think I know — I know what’s happening.”
“You do? What could it be, then?”
Morgan took a deep breath, “Well — for starters — I very much doubt that the lights, and the laughter, and the dancing were a dream.” Another deep breath. “Father Hugh … have you ever heard of being abducted by the fae?”