Sand grits against wrists already rubbed raw. Stones press into flesh already bruised. Ill-treated and thoroughly bereft, Margaret is rejected at last even by the hungry river. It's spat her up onto the most inhospitable shore possible.
A shod toe prods her: not ungently, neither is it kindly. Bleary and battered, she peers through straggling locks to see who's found her here, all alone. It's an effort wasted when the samaritan speaks. Margaret would know that voice anywhere of all voices. Low and tremulous and rich unto surfeit of cream. It's William's mother. Not mother, but captor. Not captor, but keeper.
"O wretch," mourns the Queen, "would it had been you, not he."
"He bargained us both," protests Margaret. Her sweet high voice cracks now. It's the only dry thing about her, all else sodden.
"He was ever a fool," says the Queen. "He cannot barter what's not his. Annan claimed his bones alone -- she would none of yours."
Margaret would answer but cannot, for she's seized by a clenching. Retching up what seems half the river, she exhausts herself.
She wakes again dry. The light is strange and dim. Where, what, whose strange haven is this? She sees the light's filtered through a twining of branches so thick as to render even high noon nigh crepuscular. The wood smells of burning roses, and of cloves and cinnamon-bark, and of clotted earth. It's on soft tussocks of moss that Margaret's weary body lies.
"You hate me," says Margaret. "Why have you brought me here? Why not let me die?" Her body craves life, but her heart wishes only for death without her William.
"I'll not have nothing," says the Queen. The dim light is forgiving to Margaret's throbbing sight. She can see the Queen plain. A thin woman, knobby limbs like the knobby boughs of trees, hair long and lush as the leaves of a weeping willow. Her gown is no gown at all, but thick robes of fur. "I'll not be robbed entire."
Margaret realizes she too is wrapped in furs. That's what has warmed her. There is no fire here, only that smoke-scent that speaks of a fire not long dead. Her old clothes, the river-soaked and ruined stuff, is not within reach or sight.
"What do you want of me?" she demands, too tired to be wise or careful.
"I want only what you carry," says the Queen. "Then you can do as you will, and be gone, for all of me. Until that time, you'll be within my care."
"Within your prison," counters Margaret, "as you had kept my love against his will. So too you'll keep me, and my child? Never!"
"You," says the Queen, cold, "have no choice."
Has Margaret had a choice, ever? She did not ask for a white fawn to come to her. Being what she was, and raised gently, she could not turn away a wounded creature. Could she have chosen other than to love him, when the enchanted fawn-form sloughed from him to show a pale-skinned, shadow-eyed swain? Hollow-cheeked from privation, an unfriendly life in the wilderness, surely. He was the tales of all her youthful nights and days, the stories ladies told one another over their spindles and fine stitchery. Lancelot raving in the wilderness. Percival the noble young savage, Yvain wandering mad with grief.
Here in the Queen's bower she tells these stories over to herself, aloud, for lack of other entertainment. The Queen, her jailor, is silent audience. She never approves nor disapproves aloud. She never orders Margaret to be silent. She never offers a kind word.
The Queen is silent and watchful as wood. She smells always of flowers and smoke, and this is how Margaret knows her comings and goings, never by sound, for not a twig so much as creaks under the Queen's foot.
Margaret wearies of this treatment. One waking hour, she speaks to the Queen direct, knowing she'll get no answer, trying to goad her. "What if the child's a daughter?" she asks. "What then will you have from all this?"
The Queen is silent.
"You'll not have William come again. You'll have something else, and boy or girl, it'll be half myself."
The Queen is silent.
"I do have that feeling, that it'll be a girl. Mothers know these things," taunts Margaret.
The Queen is silent. The Queen cannot know. The Queen was never a mother, only a thief, a scavenger, a thing which took up the floating babe William and subjected him to all manner of uncouth enchantments. The Queen is unnatural.
These are the things that Margaret thinks about the Queen.
When Margaret's labor pains begin, the Queen is not present. Good. Margaret keeps quiet, restricts her sounds as much as she can. To have the Queen here with her, seeing her in the extremity of indignity and pain that's swift approaching, is something that Margaret would as soon be spared. She thinks she can birth the babe alone, as animals do in the wood.
Margaret is in the wood. Margaret is, she realizes, a sort of animal.
It's her unhinged laughter that brings a visitor running.
Not a woman, but a white deer, perfectly white save for the red tinge about the rims of her ears. The deer gazes at Margaret until the laughter quiets.
"I don't trust you," says Margaret to the deer.
The deer lies down beside Margaret's bed of mosses.
Of course, the deer is the Queen. This is obvious to Margaret. The deer remains her silent companion for a number of hours, some number, Margaret loses track and can think of time only as a lull between pains.
She is startled, then, when the Queen comes suddenly to loom over her and the deer alike.
"You're already here," she protests.
This is the first time Margaret ever hears the Queen laugh. "No. She's someone else, nothing to do with you. She pities you, I think. Do you enjoy her pity?"
The deer pushes her muzzle against Margaret's trailing hand.
"I need no one's pity," says Margaret.
"She needs yours," says the Queen. "Her man left her as yours did you. He lives far to the north, indifferent to her plight. Even I cannot unbind her."
"That's a lie." Margaret means the part about her own man. "William died to rescue me. He never left me, would never leave me."
"William," says the Queen, "was always leaving."
When the child fights free of Margaret's flesh, the deer and the Queen both are in attendance. The Queen has brought icicles for Margaret to suck, ice altogether out of season, and she has brought leaves for the deer. She has brought linens, old and worn but clean. She has brought all manner of things. Though human in shape, Margaret is animal entire now, nothing but pain and gasping and fear. The deer does nothing, but it's Margaret's only friend here, and Margaret is glad every time she notices the deer is still present.
"A girl child," says the Queen. The umbilical cord she severs with a sharp knife of bone.
Margaret chuckles in tired triumph. "See?"
"I am not displeased," says the Queen.
The deer shoves her muzzle against Margaret's hand again, for comfort, Margaret's comfort.
"There are things you'll never understand," says the Queen. She is not taunting. She is stating a plain fact, flatly.
Margaret feels this is an unfair assessment, and that William never understood the Queen either even though he'd lived with her all his life, and that no one could be expected to understand that which was not human. What comes past her cracked lips is: "You're unfair."
"Yes," says the Queen, and lays the child on Margaret's breast for milk.
Margaret is her own child's wet nurse not for very long at all. The Queen has other ways of feeding a child, it seems. She must have done, to have raised William. Mayhap she'll turn the child to a forest creature, and find a forest creature to give her suck.
When she's well enough to walk, the Queen urges her up from the moss, out through the trees. The bower gives onto a clearing in the wood, and at the edge of the clearing, a white form waits.
It is the white deer, she of the red-rimmed ears.
"She waits for you," says the Queen. "You'll leave together."
"Where are we to go?" demands Margaret.
"Home, or to hell, or wherever the wind takes you," says the Queen. Her bony shoulders shrug, the heavy fur robe ripples. "Or you could help her, if you'd the heart for it."
"Don't speak to me of heart." Margaret spits on the ground, unladylike as that is. She can think of no better way to show the Queen her scorn. "You, who'd take an only child from her mother."
"Where would you take the child?" The Queen's voice is mild. "To your parents, whose home you fled for the shame of bearing her in your belly? To a town where you'd have no means to feed her? Would you live with her in the wild, and feed her on berries, and live yourself as a beast?"
Margaret has no answer for this. She has no choice. She has never had a choice.
"Come back to me together, you and she," the Queen's gesture encompasses the white deer, "in a year and a day. Then we will see."
"Are you making a bargain with me?" Margaret is wary, and afraid, and angry.
"I can promise what's mine," says the Queen. She knows more about promises than William did.
Margaret and the deer travel far to the north. Their story is another story, and the deer's true name is, also. Through all their travels, nightly, in Margaret's dreams a white fawn gambols, a very small white fawn, with ribbons braided around her neck.
She never dreams of William save once. In the dream he is calling, calling from the bed of the Annan, saying: Come back to me, my love. You were to join me here. And Margaret answers: You and the river had your chance.
In childbed she'd learned she had no wish to die.
The water tosses William's bones, restless against one another, and he cries from a fleshless jaw: Not fair! Not fair!
Margaret never returns to the River Annan again, in waking or in sleep.
When Margaret returns to the queen, the deer is with her, but the deer is a woman with hair the color of wheat.
"A daughter for a daughter," says the Queen, and gives to Margaret her child.