She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.
Ygraine sat quietly in her rocker, legs tucked under her, weaving her tapestry. She hummed a tune as the needle flashed crimson in and out of the canvas; she was blocking in the red hose of the merchant she had seen a month ago. Self-important lout in crimson and gold, riding a bay and jingling at the fat purse hanging from his fat thighs.
Her sweet soprano lilt echoed round the sparsely furnished room. A robe, the rocking chair, a cot and a chamber pot hidden discretely behind the screen and a night stand on which stood a jug of barley water, and the remains of her morning meal. It was warm here, not too cold or hot, but just right, although she couldn’t tell where the warmth was coming from. The rest of the castle was cold and damp. She never really left her room, except to get her meals.
She braved a trip down the stone flats, only to prepare a simple meal of fruit and cheese, or bread and cheese, and sometimes a little wine to go with the meal. She never varied her diet, or questioned where the food and wine came from. It was always there when she came down of a morning. Then she scurried back to the safety and warmth of her room.
A many-panelled mirror covered the wall opposite her, but nothing within the room reflected it, not even Ygraine. Until now she had not noticed this fact. This morning, without knowing why she had stood up against it, forehead pressed hard against it and came away knowing that she didn’t exist.
The mirror reflected the world outside. The many and separate panels gave her a distorted view of it. Merchants, knights on horses, labourers on foot and lovers walked the road that ran by the river to Camelot.
The field of wheat and barley on the other side of the river was the theme to Ygraine’s tapestry. The gently swaying sheafs did not satisfy her. It had no life. She felt that she had done it all before but there was no proof of it on the walls. She dropped her hands to her side. Two lovers strolling past seemingly stopped in front of her to kiss. She stood, stiff then turned her back on them. What had they to do with her?
Her gown trained behind her on the stone floor. She poured herself some barley water left over from her morning meal and leaned back in her chair.
She placed the glass on the stand behind her. Hands on her lap she pulled at the loops of her corded belt and thought about her recent dreams. Her eyes revealed shadows, a bruising colour of many nights’ broken sleep.
Disjointed fragments came to her. Scenes of places and people she had never met. Today they seemed to hover at the periphery of memory. Scenes relived. But how was that possible? Deep in her bones lay a knowledge not born of memory, that if she left this place, she was doomed.
A horse and cart ambled slowly by, and she reached out to touch it. To stroke the horse, to fee another living thing, then withdrew it from the cold hard glass and wrapped her arms around her shoulders. Warm flesh. The only warmth she was ever going to feel.
She leaned back again and closed her eyes, feeling a self-pitying tear slide down her cheek.
She took a deep breath and exhaled, sitting perfectly still. Fragments. A man in a long robe. Old and fragile, except for his eyes. They spoke of power. They frightened her. His eyes were blue. They bored into hers.
‘You’re corrupting the ideal’ he said. His voice was as mellow as warm mead, but the words were cold, as cold as her mirror.
‘Whose ideal?’ she had asked, her voice intense with controlled anger. ‘Not mine.’
When she had woken, she lay for some time staring at the night sky through the mirror, the scene was blurred though her tears. She didn’t understand why she had cried.
She had spent the day rushing up and down between kitchen and turret room; she felt stifled and wanted to scream, but did not, knowing that no one there to hear her. She explored the other rooms in the castle. They were dusty, unused and cold. There were rooms with tattered and faded crimson canopies.
She watched two sparrows fighting over a piece of discarded bread.
‘You can’t be allowed to corrupt him. He has a destiny to fulfil.’ The words echoed sternly round the room. He had looked more weary than angry. ‘Plotting treason with Cedric.’ He spat the name out as if he had found a half-eaten worm in it.
‘Corrupt him? Destiny?’ She shivered, remembering the anger. ‘His destiny is with me, Merlyn. Look to the Table for corruption and treason, if that’s your complaint. You’ll find plenty there. Gavriel and Kay muttering in the shadowy corners, Trystan and Gawain notching up their unwanted good deeds and bringing their petty squabbles to the Table. And Artos’ she had shouted, then forced herself to speak gently. ‘Our beloved king just smiles gently and bides his time. Leave us in peace, Merlin.’ She was pleading, she hated herself for begging. Her voice was hoarse and none of it had helped against the grim determination of that fragile man in whose eyes resided power.
His eyes softened then, with pity and she knew she had misunderstood him. Had misunderstood the game he was playing and the stakes at risk.
‘I will give you forgetting – and Lance too. That is the kindest deed I can do for you. Each day you will begin again anew with no memory of the previous day. ‘
He gripped her hand and looked into her eyes. She tried to resist their hypnotic gaze, to struggle, but he was stronger than his fragile frame indicated. ‘It’s the prophecy. The prophecy must be fulfilled.’
She struggled vainly, hoping to distract him. ‘Lance will never forget me. I won’t forget him.
‘Oh, but he will, my dear.’
Ygraine stood away from her chair and paced. It had all come back to her, but she knew that tomorrow she would forget it all and begin anew.
‘Our love is for ever, sweet.’ He had said one day in the garden. No one will part us.’
He was re-assuring her anxiety about the Queen.
‘She will have to be satisfied with Gavrilon and all the other hangers on. She won’t miss me. ‘
His blue eyed gaze had made her knees week.
‘You mustn’t speak like that love, someone will hear you.’
She had looked nervously around her, but there was no one near. Lance was foolish and weak, he need her to care for him. That’s what made him dear to her – he needed her.
She had to get out and find Lance. She had to leave before tonight. Before sleep would bring forgetting.
She looked around her. There was nothing here that she wanted to take except for her shawl. She wrapped it round her and left without a backward glance.
She stood in the doorway and hesitated. She had remembered about the doom Merlin had placed on her.
‘You will forget him.’ He had said in ponderous tones, while she swayed in time with his moving hand. ‘You will be well pleased to sit and sew as befits a woman. Only one thing will you remember. You will feel this curse in your bones if ever you leave this place. You will die.
She pulled her shawl lighter and stepped out. It was just another of Merlin’s tricks. But if true, it were better to die than to sit mouldering in that garret room sewing tapestries.
She stopped to pick some daisies from her garden. It had been so long since she had touched anything living. She filled the barge with hyacinths, periwinkles and daffodils. She made a garland for her head and lay on the sweet smelling barge, floating on the water. She felt to dizzy to row. She wasn’t used to the heady scents and the sun on her face.
She would just rest her eyes for a while and let the winding river take her down-stream to Camelot. There would be plenty of time.
It was dusk when the royal party, drinking mead and catching the last ray of sunshine saw Ygraine pass, ethereal and as ghostly as her now wilting daisy garland.
‘Look.’ Lancelot pointed out the floating grave to Gwen.
‘Do you know her, your majesty?’
Guinevere looked at Lancelot then at the lady floating down the river. ‘No. She is a stranger to me’
The rest of the party gathered round in the gathering gloom and strained to see. ‘What a pity,’ said Lancelot, ‘she has a lovely face.’
He turned his back on the river then and offered his arm to Guenevere3. Slowly they al returned to the castle, chatting and wondering about the lovely woman in the water.
Merlyn watched the barge pass out of sight long after everyone had gone in.