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The worst of the winter storms lashed the Western Isle. Raging seas beat on the ancient citadel of Dubh Lein and the night-riding demons howled through the sky overhead. But in the Queen's Chamber the air was hushed and still.
One tall candle lit the figure on the bed. Her white silk shift gleamed in the torchlight shining from the walls, and on her hand she wore the ancient ring of Queens. Beneath the billowing blood-red canopy, the long elegant body and strong face were as beautiful as ever they had been in her life. But the skin had the pallor of oncoming death, and the long henna-colored hair streamed out on the pillows as if the sleeper had already been laid to rest in the quiet earth.
A low fire burned sadly on the hearth, and standing braziers warmed the far corners of the room. Moving to and fro on silent feet, the Queen's women fed the glowing coals with sweet herbs, rosemary, thyme, and rue. They took care not to disturb the tall, hawk-faced old man watching by the bed. Imposing as he was, after so many long hours and days he was part of the sickroom now.
Hovering by the door, the youngest of the maids wept and wrung her hands. "She should be in the infirmary. That's the place to die."
The chief attendant placed a comforting finger on the girl's trembling lips. "All the Queens of Ireland die in this bed. Her mother and her mother's mother went from here to the Otherworld. As Queen Isolde will, when her time comes."
Isolde . . .
A sudden gust of wind stirred the shadows in the room. Clustered around the walls, countless swan lamps flickered and danced, each tiny flame sheltered by uprearedwings. The warm light played over the crimson hangings of the bed, the low gnarled ceiling, and the cream-washed walls, and lingered lovingly on the still watcher keeping his solitary vigil in the shining gloom.
"Young Queen Isolde?" The little maid's tearstained face lit with the memory of a merry laugh and a cloud of glowing hair. "She'll be coming back now, won't she? She'll be our next Queen?" Her eyes moved uncertainly to the still figure in the bed. "If . . . ?"
"When the Queen dies, yes," said the older woman with soft certainty. "Ireland has always obeyed the Mother-right. The throne has passed from mother to daughter since time was born. Isolde will be Queen."
Fools! How could they be so sure?
The hooded figure standing beside the bed wrinkled his lips in a savage snarl. Didn't they hear the booted feet below, the clink of spurs, the rattling of swords? Didn't they know that the wolves were already gathering, drawn by the scent of blood? He looked down. Why, even the unconscious woman lying here knew that her knights and lords had come to carve up her kingdom before she had breathed her last.
And before her rightful heir could return to claim her throne. The old man gave another silent snarl. How many ages had the throne of the Western Isle passed down from mother to daughter in the line of queens? Yet every rising generation was at the mercy of rapacious men. He raised his eyes to the ceiling in a furious prayer. Hurry, Isolde, hurry, or you will come too late!
In the chamber below, the young knight leaned back and looked around with a challenging stare.
"She's our next Queen, you say. Tell us then, Gilhan, why isn't she here?"
The knight at the head of the table smiled thinly and eyed the speaker as coldly as he dared. So Breccan was already questioning Isolde's right to the throne? This was going to be worse than he thought.
"Rest assured, Sir Breccan," he said with elaborate courtesy, "Queen Isolde will be with us soon."
"She's still in Camelot with the High King and Queen?"
Gilhan nodded. "Visiting on behalf of her husband, King Mark."
"But has she been sent for?" Breccan's hard gaze fastened on Gilhan. "Does she know that the old Queen's dying--that you're ready to make her our Queen?"
Gilhan felt a strong tremor of unease.
"Not yet," he replied calmly, schooling himself to ignore Breccan's predatory air and the equally hard-faced men seated on either side. Breccan's knights were already feared throughout Dubh Lein. No one would be surprised if their master seized the chance to advance himself and them.
"I'll send to her now." Breccan nodded to the tallest of his knights. "You'll go, Ravigel." He turned back to Gilhan. "He's the best man I've got."
"Not so, Sir Breccan," said Gilhan silkily. "I am Lord of the Council. I shall send word." Swiftly he reviewed the assembled company with growing doubt. Who could he count on? Who would support him here?
He did not need to look at the dark, brooding figure on his left, staring at Breccan as if he were a scorpion, to know that this man at least was loyal to the rule of Queens. Ireland had been the Sacred Island of the Druids as far back as any man could count. As Chief of the Druids in the Western Isle, Cormac would defend the Mother-right to the death.
But the Queen had rarely summoned Cormac to court. When she sought his mystical wisdom, she traveled to the Druids' secret grove, a world away. Gilhan suppressed a sigh. Cormac's life in the green heart of the forest, a living world of sweetness, faith, and trust, was a poor preparation for the false smiles and hidden knives at court.
Who else was there? Gilhan glanced around the long table with a sinking heart. The dying Queen had been a creature of fierce and fleeting passions, governed by her body's every whim. Too many of these men had been her lover, some for one night alone, and all of them discarded sooner or later for another man. Hardly the way, Gilhan reflected grimly, to secure their loyalty now.
And others, however faithful in the past, would run with the pack to greet the rising sun. Take Vaindor, thought Gilhan with dry disdain, watching an imposing older knight smiling with approval on Breccan and his band. It was a long time since Vaindor, one of the Queen's former champions, had played any significant role at the court of Dubh Lein. Breccan had only to flatter Vaindor's arrogance and the knight would be his for life. Others too could be easily influenced. Take old Doneal there, restlessly drumming his battle-scarred fingers on the table: if Breccan offered him the smell of blood and the excitement of a raid, he'd leap at the chance to swing a sword again.
Indeed, after the long, dull years of the Queen's decline, most of them would rally behind a leader who offered them war, when all the country wanted was peace. Gods above, Gilhan lamented inwardly, where are the men of strength and honor we used to have? Where are the older knights whom the Queen in her excesses drove away? Even one of them now would be worth his weight in gold--old Fideal, say, or any of her former champions, who in her younger days had loved her more than the world. But Fideal was one of many who had gone away from court, determined to seek a simpler way of life. Who was left? Gilhan forced himself to stifle his concern. Cormac the Druid might prove to be the only ally he had.
He turned on Breccan. "Why the unseemly haste?" he said sternly. "The Queen's soul is passing into the Beyond. We are here to honor the Mother-right and prepare for Isolde's return."
Breccan smiled at him, a white show of handsome teeth. "Are we so?"
Gilhan made his voice soft and dangerous. "Do you question that?"
"Never!" Breccan widened his eyes in an innocent stare. "But some think the Mother-right is a thing of the past. They say the Romans brought in the rightful rule of men when they tossed their troublesome women off the nearest rock."
Sir Doneal's old eyes lit with reminiscent fire. "Still, our warrior queens showed the Romans a thing or two. Great battles, eh?" He chuckled. "And thousands of dead Romans piled in heaps for the crows!"
"Old days, old ways," said Gilhan forcefully. "The Romans are long gone."
Breccan hid a teasing grin. Oh, how he loved tormenting these old fools! "But the Christians are here. And where Christians rule, the days of the Queens are done."
Gilhan's face darkened. "Is this the fate you foresee for our Queens?" He paused, weighing his words. "Where's your loyalty, sir?"
"What?" Breccan's hand flew to his sword. "You dare to question my loyalty, Gilhan? When my kin have been champions of the Throne since time began?" He gestured to the knight seated on his left. "When my own brother was the Queen's last chosen one?"
"Sir Tolen, yes."
Gilhan treated the slumped figure beside Breccan to a pitiless stare. Yes, Breccan came from the island's leading clan, a long line of men chosen to be royal champions and companions of the couch, all loyal, brave, and born with a flashing charm. As the last of many men favored by Ireland's queens, Tolen had been an inevitable choice ten years ago, almost too handsome to be borne, gifted with raw sensuality and feral grace.
But the horizontal hours and self-indulgent years had taken their toll. How had this bloated, red-faced ruin of a man ever graced the Queen's bed? And how must Breccan resent his older brother's favored place with the Queen, when he, younger, fitter, faster, bolder, and hungrier, was forced to prowl the wilderness beyond the gates, barred from the enchanted place of love and power?
Tolen felt their gaze and stirred. "What?"
"It's nothing, Tolen. Nothing to do with you," snapped Breccan. "Now Gilhan, about the Queen . . ."
Gilhan sat very still. A fearful vision of the future unfolded before his eyes. He saw a world without the rule of Queens, where chosen ones like Tolen could be treated with contempt. Where Breccan and his kind showed that might was right, and lesser creatures struggled to survive. But what would he do with Isolde? Could Breccan be thinking of making himself the new Queen's champion and chosen one, her companion of bed and sword? By force if need be, if Isolde would not consent? And if she disdained his advances, could her days be numbered too?
Gilhan watched Breccan's brutal features rearrange themselves in a wide, honest smile.
"Come now, let's pull together," said Breccan easily. "No more hard words. You know you can trust me, Gilhan."
Gilhan nodded and returned the smile. On the contrary, sir, you've just told me why I can't.
The wind swept around the castle and knocked on its windows and walls. On the shore below, the ebbing sea sang with a soft, withdrawing roar. Waiting in the shadow of the great bed, one of the Queen's women began a low lament.
At the still center of the chamber the long white figure on the bed stirred and opened her eyes. "Merlin?"
"You hear the wind and the sea?"
Merlin leaned forward. "What else?"
"The Lady has sent her messengers to take me home. I shall leave on this tide."
The old enchanter felt his flesh stirring as it always did to the sound of her rich, husky voice.
"All life returns to the sea, where it began," he said somberly. "Your chosen one, Sir Tolen, is keeping a vigil below. He prays to see you once to kiss your hand."
She gave a soft laugh like an otter's bark. "My chosen one now is the Dark Lord, Penn Annwyn."
"You will not admit Sir Tolen?"
"Tell him I blessed him with my dying breath." The lovely head on the pillow moved to and fro. "Is Isolde here?"
She shifted fretfully. "She cannot come in time."
"In time for what?"
A low, throaty chuckle came from the bed. "Don't play with me, old fox. You yourself could not get here from Cornwall before I go to join the Old Ones on their shining thrones."
Only the highest place for her in the world beyond the worlds, Merlin noted: always a queen. He suppressed a smile. "What is your word for Isolde when she comes?"
Darkness clouded her face. "Did I wrong her, Merlin? Should I have given up the throne and made her Queen?"
The old enchanter considered. "No," he said softly at last. "She never wanted to be Queen before you died."
The Queen's long white fingers fretted at the cover of the bed. "But I told her I would hand over the kingdom, years ago—give over the rule to her and withdraw--"
Merlin shook his head. "You are the Sovereignty, the spirit of the land. She knew it was not in your power to divorce yourself from that."
"My power, yesss—"
He felt the force of the Queen's burning stare.
"—which Isolde must have after me," she hissed, her eyes never leaving his face. "Swear to me, Merlin, you will—" She broke off and gasped for breath.
"I know what you would say," he said gently. "And I swear."
The Queen's fingers wandered over the coverlet to the ring on her left hand and drew it off.
"For Isolde," she commanded with a joyful smile. "And only for her."