Sunlight caught in her white-gold hair, the glints off her delicate crown scattering like fallen stars amongst the flowers surrounding her. Pregnancy had brought a pink tinge to her normally porcelain skin, and though her belly was swollen and firm, she had not gained the weight so typical of other women. Fingers still slim manipulated the fragile stems of her blooms. As far as Uther was concerned, Ygraine was, and always would be, the most magnificent creature in any kingdom.
Most importantly, she was his.
“You sent for me, sire?”
Gaius’s deferential tone broke Uther’s reverie. Turning away from the window and the sight of Ygraine in her garden, he nodded to the servant who hovered with Gaius in the doorway. “Leave us.”
Gaius relaxed when the bolt slid shut behind him. “If you think I’m done with that potion you requested, you’re going to be disappointed. I told you, you can’t rush these things.”
Yes, that was one of his most common refrains. And it was becoming even more so as Uther’s power grew. The rebellious man of Uther’s youth was changing before his very eyes into one ruled by caution.
Considering his current situation, that wasn’t ideal.
“That’s not why I summoned you.” He strode toward the locked chest he kept at the foot of his bed. To his knowledge, no one but he had ever seen its contents, though he suspected Nimueh had peeked. “What I am about to tell you does not leave this room, understand?”
Gaius frowned. “Of course.”
“It’s about Ygraine.”
“Is she all right?”
“She’s fine.” And she would remain so if Uther had his way. “This is about her pregnancy.”
“What about it? Her last examination showed nothing amiss. The baby is well positioned, and Ygraine is practically glowing from good health.”
“Yes.” He paused in opening the chest, a smile softening his face. “It really does suit her, doesn’t it? I’ve never seen her so radiant.”
“And she will be a superb mother. I told you it would be worth the wait, Uther. ”
Uther ducked his head, pretending to concentrate on the lock. So many things had been said, so many lies and half-truths. Funny how in the grand scheme of things, Gaius would be the only innocent one left. He had been the first to walk the path to temptation, an excited teacher to Uther’s eager student. How little it had taken for the apprentice to surpass the master, though when Uther’s plan succeeded, they would once again be side by side.
“Are you aware Nimueh is away from Camelot?” He kept his eyes averted, unwilling to give Gaius an inkling of what might be going through his thoughts. Though they had grown more distant since his coronation, Gaius was still the sole man in the kingdom who could see through Uther’s masks.
“No, I didn’t. Is everything all right?”
“I sent her away.”
The talisman was wrapped in heavy red velvet, tucked behind the broken sword he’d used in his fight to win the throne. His fingers tingled as he withdrew it, and the familiar rush of magic nearly took his breath away. Though he hadn’t worn it in nearly nine months, its potency remained, blindsiding him with the intoxicating hints of what it might feel like to actually wield the power himself. Each was false, of course. The magic wasn’t his to control and command. But regardless of its original intentions, he refused to allow it dominion over his future any longer.
“Because I did not want her to try and stop us from what we must do.” Straightening, he took care to close the trunk before dangling the talisman in front of Gaius. “Do you recognize this?”
The leather strap went taut around Uther’s finger as Gaius pulled it closer to better examine it. His frown deepened when he turned it over, his lips moving slightly as he read the inscribed words along its back, as if testing their weight against his tongue. Uther held still. He was king. He needed to remember that, even when he occasionally reverted back to awe for his former mentor.
“It looks like a fertility charm,” Gaius finally said. “But the incantation doesn’t seem entirely appropriate.”
“Do you know why?”
Gaius let it go to meet Uther’s gaze again. The talisman swung in long, slow arcs between them. “The better question is why do you have it?”
“I’m asking the questions here.”
A muscle twitched in Gaius’s jaw, and he stood a little straighter. “Mine is better.”
Only Gaius could get away with speaking to him like this, but more and more, Uther found it harder to stomach. He hated the idea of reprimanding his staunchest supporter, but if Gaius continued to behave like this, he would have no choice.
“I asked Nimueh to help Ygraine conceive.” He rationalized his response with the knowledge that Gaius needed to know the circumstances anyway. Ignoring Gaius’s frown, he added, “It’s come to my attention that all may not be as well as we’d hoped.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean…” The confession burned in the back of his throat, as detestable now as it was when Nimueh had told him. “She will die if she gives birth.”
Gaius paled. His mouth worked for a moment, the words failing to fall from his tongue. Uther understood the reaction. He’d been frozen as well at the discovery. But that had been a week ago, and with each passing day, he risked Ygraine going into labor and losing her forever.
Gripping Gaius’s shoulder, he shook him enough to jar him out of the reverie. “I need you to focus,” he said. “Time is our enemy right now. If we act quickly, nobody will have to die.”
“Nimueh is far more powerful than I—”
“I’m not asking your help in magic. I’m asking my court physician to cut the baby out so they both might live.”
He sucked air sharply through his teeth. “I would never do that to a healthy woman. It could in all likelihood kill her.”
“Giving birth will kill her anyway. Nimueh’s made that very clear.”
“You could lose the child, too, Uther.”
He’d thought of that. It was the sole factor that had made him weigh his options so long. The last thing he wished was to have undergone all this without managing to produce an heir.
“You’ve done it before, yes?”
“Of course, but only in the most dire of circumstances.”
“How often does the baby die?”
Gaius pressed his lips together. Uther already knew the answer, but he had to show Gaius this was the only way. The best way. They needed to be united on this. If he was forced to order Gaius to conduct the surgery, he feared the lack of commitment to the task would endanger both mother and child, and he could—would not—let that happen.
“I know you can do it, Gaius.” He dropped the edge on his tone. Gaius could respond to flattery like any other man. His ego was just as strong as Uther’s. “You’re the most talented physician Camelot has ever known. And you have Alice at your side. Haven’t you told me countless times there’s not a person in the entire realm she can’t heal? How can you possibly fail?”
Indecision wavered across his lined face. Playing the Alice gambit had been the wisest choice. The only thing his pride relished more than his own skill was that of his betrothed.
“Why would Nimueh allow this to happen?” Gaius asked. “She adores Ygraine as much as you do.”
“I don’t know.” He had his suspicions, however. Dark questions about Nimueh’s hunger for power he wasn’t prepared to voice just yet. “She claims ignorance.”
“And there is no counterspell to save her?”
Gaius sighed. In that moment, Uther knew he had won. “How much time do we have?”
“If Ygraine begins to labor, all is lost. We must act swiftly.”
“Does she know?”
“No, and I’m going to keep it that way.”
“You must tell her.”
“And have her fear unnecessarily? It would change nothing.”
“She has a right to know. This is her life you’re toying with.”
“This is her life I’m saving. That we’re saving. Why should we scare her?”
He’d prepared for any argument Gaius might pose, but the slump of Gaius’s shoulders proclaimed his concession. “It will require intense preparations. She will need to be sedated for the procedure, too.”
Smiling, Uther pocketed the talisman. “We’ll tell her whatever tonic you come up with is for the baby. She won’t argue.”
And when it was done, he’d have both his queen and his heir, safe and healthy because of his cunning, not because of magic’s doing. In the end, magic was simply a weapon. It was only as powerful as the person wielding it. Against a greater opponent, it stood no chance.
* * *
Her fingertips tickled where they grazed along his cheek, but Uther wouldn’t bat them away for the world. They lay on Ygraine’s bed, each on their side facing the other, with one pillow between her knees and another beneath her swollen belly. She had been sleeping in different quarters since her sixth month, for reasons Uther still didn’t fully support. Gaius claimed it would help her sleep, and when she hadn’t argued she wasn’t resting as well as she could be, Uther had let her go.
He didn’t like it. He never had.
He caressed the firm swell of her stomach, absorbing each kick of the baby’s tiny legs. “And why am I silly?”
“Because you should be trying to get some sleep rather than staring at your bloated wife drift off. You have a busy day tomorrow.”
“You’re hardly bloated. And if I can’t have the honor of your presence in my bed, you force me to take whatever I can.”
“But this must be dreadfully boring.”
“Let me be the judge of that.”
With a smile and a sigh, she dropped her hand, then grimaced as she rolled onto her back. “At least promise me you’ll go to bed as soon as I nod off.” She reached for something out of view and came back with a small vial filled with an amber liquid. “It shouldn’t be long, according to Gaius.”
When she uncorked it, Uther caught her hand in his before she could tip it to her lips. “What’s this?”
He knew, of course, but listening to her explanation of how Gaius had come to her after their evening meal, he feigned ignorance and concern. He interrupted more than once to question how she was feeling, how the baby was, if she thought it was necessary to take anything this close to her expected due date.
When he attempted to take the bottle from her, she laughed. “Gaius is an overprotective mother hen,” she said. “He’d hardly give me anything that might prove dangerous to the baby.”
Uther rolled his eyes, but obediently dropped his hand. “I think he does this specifically to force me to bed as much as you do.”
Her bright eyes danced with merriment as she swallowed down the tincture. Though he kept his reaction neutral, he watched carefully for the first signs of her sedation.
It came with the slowing sweep of her arm as she returned the vial to the table. Her eyelids closed once, and she was even more sluggish as she settled back onto her side to face him. She stifled a yawn, then smiled in embarrassment.
“Either Gaius is getting better at sleeping draughts, or…” She yawned again, longer, louder, her eyes remaining shut this time when she burrowed more deeply into her pillow. A tiny satisfied whimper came from the back of her throat, perhaps an aborted attempt to finish what she’d started saying, and then her breathing deepened into a familiar rhythm, her delicate nostrils flaring.
Awake, Ygraine was an ethereal sprite come to life, vibrant in the way dragonflies at the height of summer were. Asleep, she was just as beautiful, but without the animation of her ready smile and sparkling eyes, she became a thing of art, frozen in time, unworldly. Uther craved touching her, but in this state, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. To do so would disturb her tranquility, when nature demanded she be utterly still and perfect. He could merely admire, waiting out the time Gaius had dictated for the tonic to take its full effect.
The rap at the door came too soon. He eased off the bed, mindful of waking her, and opened to an expectant Gaius.
Uther nodded. Gaius waited as he cradled Ygraine in his arms, then led the way through the darkened corridors to the remote chamber they’d selected for the operation. Neither spoke. No guards crossed their path, but they were unwilling to draw undue attention to what they were doing. What they were about to do.
One of Alice’s talismans hung over the doorway. “Is that completely necessary?” Uther asked.
Gaius didn’t look back. “Yes.”
He squelched his doubts. He was the king. Even if someone spotted it, they wouldn’t dare question it. He would have them in the stocks before they finished the accusation.
A narrow bed was in the center of the room, a table half-hidden by every supply they could possibly need within easy reach. Alice bustled forward to meet them, only to flit back out of the way as Uther swept inside. He laid Ygraine down, but Alice was there at his elbow, smelling of the peppery herbs he always associated with her. Sometimes, Uther found her a bit too bovine for his tastes, but Gaius adored her and for his sake, Uther tolerated her presence.
Alice lifted Ygraine’s nightgown, exposing her milky thighs, the rounded curve of her hips, and finally, her swollen belly. Uther stifled the impulse to rush forward and cover his wife again, but the thought—how dare they lay the Queen of Camelot so bare—rampaged roughly enough through him for his fists to clench and his nails to dig into his callused palms.
Alice was oblivious. She manipulated Ygraine’s bump with an expertise that would have alleviated his fears any other time. “The baby is in fine position,” she said. “Quite active, still.”
“That’s good, right?” Uther asked.
“Under normal circumstances, yes.” Gaius repositioned some of the candles to cast better light across her midsection. “But these…” He sighed and met Uther’s gaze. “If you wait in your chambers, I’ll fetch you when we’re done.”
“No.” What an absurd suggestion. “I’m staying right here.”
Another sigh. Gaius was turning into an old man right before his very eyes. “You don’t want to see this, Uther.”
“I’ve been on the battlefield. I’ve seen more blood and open wounds than any of my knights.”
“None of them were your wife. And none of them carried the risk this does.”
As far as he was concerned, there was no risk. The real danger rested in allowing Ygraine to carry to term. This wasn’t a threat. This was the godsend they needed to get on with their lives.
“You’ll be a distraction, Uther,” he added. “I tell you this as your friend. Let us do what we must to save both of them.”
His gaze edged past Gaius’s shoulder to Ygraine’s pale form. Silvery stretch marks lined the bottom part of her stomach, the skin straining against the growing baby inside her. Though everybody mocked him for his certainty, he knew it was a boy she carried. Nimueh had promised as much. A boy who would grow into a strong, virile man capable of following in Uther’s footsteps many, many years from now. He often dreamed of how a child would look nursing at Ygraine’s breast, or holding her hand, or sparring with Uther with his very first wooden sword with Ygraine cheering them both from the sidelines.
His future was wrapped in both of them. And Gaius, his oldest friend in the world, was his last and best hope to have it all.
“All right,” he agreed. “I shall do as you ask. But…” He lifted a warning finger. “Come get me the moment it’s done. I want to be the first person she sees when she wakes.”
Gaius nodded, his relief palpable as he ushered Uther back to the hall. When the door shut behind him, a shiver went down Uther’s spine. He turned back to push the door open again and stopped with his palm flat against the wood.
He trusted Gaius with the most precious things in the world to him. He had to trust that the man knew what he was doing by requesting Uther to leave.
Returning to his quarters was not easily done. His feet dragged. His head tumbled with images of Ygraine lying there so pale on a bed that was neither hers nor theirs. He questioned the wisdom of moving her to a separate part of the castle, whether he should have insisted the surgery be performed where it would raise few questions once it was over. But Gaius insisted they risked interruptions in any part of the citadel that was commonly used, and with the procedure as perilous as it was…
Bile burned in the back of his throat. It wasn’t a risk. He refused to consider it as such. Gaius worried too much.
His rooms were cold and empty, too big without Ygraine there to help fill. He’d finally begun to grow accustomed to her absence, but knowing they were this close to the end of their separation brought the void back with a vengeance.
He needed to work. Take his mind off it. But focusing on his kingdom reminded him of the heir about to be born, the idyllic future that was now within his reach. It would be so glorious, worth every battle he’d fought, every fear he’d conquered. Camelot would become the greatest kingdom the world had ever known, a legacy of power and riches he would pass to his son, and then to his son, and so forth and so forth. The Pendragon name would be written in the annals of history, revered amongst the highest leaders. He was already making strides in that happening. Defeating this twist of magic would secure it forever.
So he paced. He stretched. He used a practice sword to smooth out his footwork. Every so often, he would go to the door and open it to peer up and down the corridor. It was always empty.
His eyes were gritty, and the stars beginning to dull in the sky outside his window when the knock finally came. He leapt from his chair and crossed the room in half a dozen long strides, his smile hopeful as he threw open the door.
“It’s about…” The rest died in his throat.
Gaius seemed to have aged another decade in the hours that had gone by. He wore a long robe that he hadn’t before, but visible through the small gap in the front, blood stained his shirt. Speckles of crimson dotted his neck, too.
Uther didn’t wait for him to explain. Shoving Gaius aside, he bolted down the hall, taking the stairs three at a time. Ygraine’s name choked where he held back shouting it out. Would she hear him if he did? What had Gaius done?
What had he done?
A faint cry emanated from behind the closed door. The hair stood up on the back of Uther’s neck, but he shoved it open regardless, immediately assaulted by the scent of blood and herbs. He blinked against the fiery heat he didn’t recall being there when he left, and there she was, still in the bed, eyes open this time as she gazed down at a bundle in her arms.
Her already pale complexion was ashen, the blue eyes he loved cloudy. The fingers stroking the baby’s ruddy cheek trembled, but a smile curved her lips, the gaze she fixed on the baby pure adoration.
When Gaius came up to his side, Uther’s hand shot out and grasped his arm, forcing him to stay there. “She’s awake,” he murmured. “Why is she awake? The tonic—”
Gaius matched his tone. “She’s dying.”
Everything he had feared was coming to pass. He stared at Gaius in appalled horror. “No. This was supposed to save her.”
“I warned you it was dangerous. Most women do not survive when the baby is taken from them this way.”
“So you weren’t skilled enough to do it?” Anger began to burn away his distress. “I trusted you.”
“It wasn’t the procedure.” Though Gaius was clearly sorry for what he was saying, he remained firm. “She was doing wonderfully until we cut the cord. But then…it’s as if the life is being drained away from her with each breath your son takes.”
Nimueh’s spell. The talisman. Ygraine’s life for the child she gave birth to. No matter how it came into the world, it would seem. Nothing he had done had changed a thing.
He wanted to retch. This was Nimueh’s fault. She should have told him from the start what the price would be. He would have found another way, done something—anything—to ensure the outcome. What was the future of Camelot without both a king and a queen to guide her? What kind of image would his dynasty present to history if he ruled without the woman he loved at his side?
Would all this be for naught if both mother and child died? Nimueh never promised that the spell would guarantee him a son who would live into his adulthood. For all Uther knew, he was about to lose everything he’d ever wanted.
“What about the baby?” he asked.
“He’s strong. A fighter.” Gaius pulled at Uther’s grip, not to free himself but to prompt Uther to follow him. “Come see for yourself.”
He let himself be led, too frozen within to do much more than that. As he approached the side of the bed, Ygraine glanced up, and for a split second, her eyes widened.
Her voice was a ghost of what it had been, his name as much of a specter. Letting Gaius go, Uther fell to his knees at the side of the bed and caught her free hand in his, pulling it up to his lips. “Don’t speak, my love. Save your strength.”
She ignored his directive, continuing to caress the baby’s face. “Look at him. How beautiful he is. He has your eyes.”
Not to Uther. When he gazed down at his son, he saw only Ygraine. But he murmured his agreement, covering her hand with his.
Her smile faded. “He needs a name worthy of a future king.”
“I want you to call him Arthur.”
It wasn’t the name they’d agreed upon, but Uther was caught on her assertion that he be the one to address their son. He tested the name on his tongue. “Prince Arthur.”
“Yes.” Eventually. “But we can discuss this later. After you’ve rested.”
“I do not…”
Her breath rattled for a terrifying moment, her lashes fluttering closed. Uther leaned toward her, crowding against the baby who squalled at the intrusion, but he had to see, had to etch the lines of her face into his memory.
Like this, though? If she was to leave him, was this truly how he wished to remember her? Wan and fighting for air, her lips cracked, her eyes a pale shadow of her true self. This was not his Ygraine. This wasn’t the beauty who had tempted him to fight for her, who had driven him mad when a smart man would’ve left her for being barren.
At the corner of his eye, Gaius and Alice hovered in the background. He wanted to order them to leave, but in this, they were his only allies. Nobody else could ever know what he had demanded Gaius do. They would see Ygraine’s death as his fault instead of the magic—except he couldn’t blame that, either, not publicly. Arthur’s future would be tainted by the suspicions. He refused to do that to his son. He had already sacrificed too much to get him.
Ygraine’s lips parted. “Love…him.”
He focused again on her, holding her hand tight. “Of course, you do.”
A miniscule shake of her head. “No. I mean, yes, I do, but…” She tried to moisten her lips, but the sweep of her tongue did nothing to rid them of the dry cracks. “You. Love him. He will need you.”
“He’ll need both of us,” he said vehemently.
In that second, her breath stilled. Panic swept through him, and he squeezed her fingers between his, feeling the deceptively fragile bones shift and grind from the force. Arthur cried out, but Uther didn’t hear him. It wasn’t time. He wasn’t ready.
It wasn’t time.
Her gaze lifted to his, steady and frighteningly clear. “You have what you always wanted,” she said. “Do not let my death be wasted.”
Uther couldn’t move. He didn’t see the light disappear from her eyes. He didn’t feel the butterfly pulse beneath his fingertips stop. He only heard her last words, over and over again.
Had she always known?
A weight settled on his shoulder. “Uther…” Gaius said quietly.
“She can’t stay here. We must move her back to her rooms.”
Gaius spoke sense, but the prospect of facing that bed again filled Uther with dread. “It shouldn’t have been like this,” he said. “She was young. Strong. She should have lived.” He’d been so certain he could best the magic.
Alice’s skirts bustled as she appeared on Ygraine’s other side. “We did everything we could, sire. But if we couldn’t save her majesty, the least you can let us do is save your son.”
By that logic, he should take Arthur as far away from them as he possibly could. But this was neither the time nor the place for a disagreement. He shuttled his worries about what Ygraine did and did not know to the back of his mind and released his grip on her. “I’ll take her,” he said, straightening.
Gaius gestured for Alice to pick up Arthur. “We’ll say she went into labor early.”
Uther leveled a firm stare at him, silently daring him to disagree. “That’s because she did.”
After a moment, Gaius nodded. “Of course.”
Sometimes, being king had its advantages.
As he scooped Ygraine into his arms, the difference between her anticipated weight and her actual almost made him stumble. He looked down at her automatically, expecting her soft teasing that always came when he did something foolish. Only Ygraine could get away with that.
Instead, he saw the pale veins visible in her closed eyelids. Her jaw remained slack.
An ache unlike anything he had ever felt before settled in the middle of his chest. A vastness. A choking. He tried to suck in breath and failed.
But only sometimes.
* * *
And Uther couldn’t bring himself to hold him for more than a few minutes at a time.
He tried. Every day when he was done with council duties, he came to the nursery to watch him, whether he was feeding, sleeping, or simply being rocked. He insisted Arthur be present for the evening meal, though the wet nurse was clearly uncomfortable dining with the king. He stopped in again before retiring to say good night in a hushed whisper. He had ample opportunity to observe and spend time with his son.
Which only heightened his awareness of what it had taken to get him.
Camelot mourned the loss of its queen. The official story was just as Gaius had proclaimed, that she’d died in childbirth. No proof of the procedure existed, and though her family was rumbling about how she could have possibly died when she’d been doing so well, Uther wasn’t giving them any extra thought. He had no room for them. Eventually, he might have to stifle their gossip, but that wasn’t now.
Now was about forging onward. Raising his son.
The son who had Ygraine’s eyes. Her bone structure.
Nimueh kept trying to see him, but Uther had her banished from the castle. This was the magic’s fault. He had done everything he could to counter it, and still the magic had won. Greedy, evil, terrible magic. And Nimueh was at the heart of all that, her whispered suggestion in the dark of night that she could give him everything they ever wanted, more deadly than anything he could have ever imagined.
So, no, she could not see his son, and she could not have the privileges that came with living in the castle, and he would not cave to the longing he sometimes felt for her to join him in his bed. She was at the root of everything that had torn his life apart, and he would never forgive her for that. She could never understand his nighttime horrors when the question of whether or not Ygraine had known what he had sacrificed to gain a son tortured him from sleep. She could never even begin to fathom what it was like to love someone as much as he loved Arthur and still feel sick to his stomach when he looked at him because the smell of blood and the weight of a dead woman in his arms blocked out the real world.
But he couldn’t stay away from Arthur. At random moments throughout the day, the sudden certainty that something had happened to his son would yank Uther from whatever he was doing, sometimes hard enough for him to have to fight the urge to stop in his tracks and race off to ensure Arthur’s well-being. It was paranoia at its worst, and with each day that passed and Arthur remained fine, he knew it should ease, but he just couldn’t let go of the fear the magic would find some way to take both Ygraine and Arthur from him.
He couldn’t protect Ygraine from its effects, but he would do everything in his considerable power to save his son. Magic would not win twice. Ygraine’s death would not be in vain.
He would see it all obliterated, or die trying.