The Mute Queen
One cold, crisp spring morning, when the threat of frost still lingered over exposed grass, and new leaves were too shy to unfurl properly, a king went hunting in his forest. King Adair was a fine huntsman and rider, and he was unafraid to plunge into the deepest parts of the wood, well ahead of the rest of the pack.
Such was his mastery over the animals under his control that when he heard a certain yelp, he recognised it as his favourite hound. Immediately, he spurred his horse towards the sound.
Bursting through the trees and into a hollow clearing which had been carved out by a small stream, Adair’s spear was hefted and ready for whatever beast the hound had brought down. However, it was no deer or boar waiting for him, but a young woman, lying on the floor, seemingly unconscious.
Adair jumped down from his horse, quickly tying the reins to a half-fallen tree trunk. The hound who had alerted him was sniffing around the girl, but the king shooed him away as he approached and knelt by her side.
Her hair, its shade so deep a black it almost seemed blue, was loose and trailing in the stream. Adair could see no obvious injuries, but what struck him was how colourless her cheeks were. When he took off one of his leather gloves and gently touched her skin, he was alarmed at how icy she was. She only wore a thin white gown, so thin in fact it was near see-through. Surely she could not have survived the night out here?
Hurriedly, he undid the clasp to his fur-lined cloak and spread the material on the forest floor. He gathered the girl in his arms, noting how little she weighed, placed her atop the cloak and wrapped it around her.
As he did so, her eyes fluttered open, and Adair found himself falling into the deepest blue he had ever seen. As king, he was in possession of some of the finest, most valuable sapphires ever found; none were as vivid or beautiful as what he was seeing now.
The girl began to shiver, a frightened plea entering her gaze. Adair held her closer and tried to sound calm.
“It’s all right. I am the king, you are safe now.”
She said nothing, continuing to stare at him. He smiled in the hope of reassuring her.
“My name is Adair. What is yours?”
She did not reply, instead giving a tiny shake of the head. Adair realised she might be suffering from shock, and so he stood and crossed to his horse, keeping a tight hold of his new-found discovery.
When the rest of the hunting party finally caught up, they were more than a little shocked to see a black-haired girl sat before the king and huddled in his arms. At a sign from Adair, they held their inquisitive tongues, and the entire party rode back to the castle as fast as the king’s horse could lead them.
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Once back at the castle, King Adair reluctantly handed the still-silent girl over to the care of his physicians. To the surprise of many, he placed her himself in the Rose Suite – the finest rooms after the king’s own chambers. A few wiser souls, however, could already see the strange light in the king’s dark eyes, the look of near-devotion playing across his strong features as he watched the closed door to her chambers. Most were quietly pleased at his strange fascination; for one man, it was not such a happy occasion.
Lord Anarawd had seen the girl’s face as she rode in the king’s arms. Although she had not intended it, their eyes had met for the briefest of seconds, before she blinked and looked elsewhere. In that moment, Anarawd was filled with a violent lust – a warped reflection of the feelings King Adair had experienced when looking into her eyes. While the king’s emotions were fierce yet tender, Anarawd’s were base and destructive. He had seen that fair white complexion, and it excited him to imagine striking her, colouring her skin with the imprint of his hand. How sweet those red lips would look, a little more swollen with the bruise of his knuckles! He pictured taking a fierce hold of her long black hair, perhaps ripping a few strands out as he rode her like a horse.
For the moment, he could do nothing, protected as she was by the king’s kindness. But Anarawd was sure he would soon tire of her – then he would take her, and she would find no such kindness with him.
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King Adair was bewildered yet happy. The strange girl had been living in his castle for a month now, but she had not yet said a word to anyone. It had become a habit of his to visit her first thing in the morning after breakfast, to sit by her side and attempt to engage her in conversation about his forthcoming day. She listened attentively, watching him with a curious look in her eye. When he joked, a shy smile would play upon her lips, but she never laughed. If he told her something which was troubling him, her brow creased and she would look unhappy. Then he would kiss the back of her hand – which he seemed to find himself more and more taking a hold of, as if it were the natural thing to do – and reassure her she was not to worry.
He also began to drop in unexpectedly during the afternoon, when he had finished his regal duties for the day. Sometimes he brought her flowers – a little posy of newly-blossomed narcissi, a handful of golden crocuses – or a small wooden box, filled with tissue paper and marchpane fruits. The girl’s white face would flood with colour, matching his own reddened cheeks, while the people around them nudged each other and smiled.
As she took the gifts, the girl used to bob her head, daring to meet his eye for a fraction of a second. He understood: thank you.
One afternoon, Adair insisted she join him for a stroll through the herb gardens. The rest of court followed at a discreet distance, and when the king came across a stone bench, cut into a sunny part of the wall and shielded from the wind, the others slowly melted away.
Soon, it was just Adair and the girl sat side-by-side.
“You are not too cold, my lady?” he asked, casting an anxious eye over the neat navy blue velvet jacket lined with soft fur he had ordered made especial for her. She shook her head, and he sighed deeply.
“I am not judging you, I merely wish to know. Are you able to speak?”
Her eyes lifted to meet his, a pleading look to them. Hesitantly, she nodded.
Adair smiled despite the sad ache around his heart. “That is good. Maybe one day…” He reached across to take hold of her hands. They were encased in a pair of moleskin gloves, as black and velvety soft as her hair.
“In the meantime, you cannot go on without a name.” His smile deepened as he felt an uncharacteristic blush spread across his cheeks. “You are very beautiful, my lady. I think I will call you Aisling. It means ‘a dream’.”
She gave him a startled look. Adair leaned forward, his cheeks growing hotter.
“Aisling, my dream. I have loved you since I first found you. Will you marry me?”
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The news of the king’s marriage was received by most with joy and good wishes. For Lord Anarawd, it was a bitter blow, one that angered him beyond all sense. His infatuation with the girl – now Queen Aisling – had taken hold of him to such a degree, it was obvious something was wrong. His friends would ask what the matter was, only to be snapped at and rebuffed at every turn. Over time, they stopped asking and Anarawd found himself excluded from his former circle.
Eventually, word reached King Adair that something was troubling one of his lords. He sent for him to appear before the throne.
“I have grown tired of court life,” Anarawd lied, keeping his eyes fixed firmly on the king’s boots. If he looked up, he would see Aisling sat on the throne to the left, and he knew he would not be able to control his fury.
King Adair scratched his chin in puzzlement. “I am saddened to hear that. Where would you wish to be instead?”
Anarawd shrugged moodily. “Anywhere Your Majesty thinks I can be of use. Perhaps the far north?” The king nodded slowly.
“Very well, if that is what you wish. We shall be very sorry to see you go.” Standing up, Adair looked around the room as a fresh light filled his eyes. “However, there is some wonderful news I wish to announce.” He turned to the queen and gently drew her to her feet. “Queen Aisling – my beloved wife – is with child!”
A chorus of cheers and congratulations swept around the throne chamber, and Lord Anarawd was able to slip away without too much notice. He did turn back once, just in time to see the king kiss his wife tenderly upon the cheek, one hand placed protectively over her flat stomach. Anarawd had never seen the queen truly smile before, and the sight splintered what was left of his heart. With a fearful scowl, he rushed from the room as fast as his feet could carry him.
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Aisling thanked the gods once Lord Anarawd had left. On several occasions, the look on his face as he watched her was terrifying. When Adair announced the pregnancy, his livid glare had been enough to make her feel faint. Luckily, her husband thought it was the stress of the announcement that almost made her collapse, and he became even gentler in his handling of her.
Perhaps with Lord Anarawd gone, and once the baby was arrived, she would be able to speak. She wanted to tell Adair how much she loved him, but whenever she tried, her throat would close up and the old terror come upon her. She trusted Adair beyond belief, but it was herself – the girl who had been beaten into silence, the girl who was too stupid to talk – who couldn’t be trusted.
For the moment, however, she let herself be loved, that same love nurturing and protecting the little life growing inside her.
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Eight months later…
With a final flourish of his quill, Adair signed the last of that day’s petitions. The waiting clerk hurried forward to gather the pieces of paper, while the king stood, rubbing away the crick in his neck. Finally, he was free once again to spend time with his precious wife.
Aisling’s bump was now perfectly round and had dropped considerably in the last week. The nurses and midwives that were on hand in preparation had reassured him this was perfectly normal, but their words did not stop Adair fretting.
Now that their child was almost here, he was actually going to miss the bump. The nights he had spent kissing and stroking it, marvelling every time he felt the baby move within Aisling. The whispered stories and secrets he had imparted, as though he or she could understand what their father was saying, and how Aisling would smile and shake her head at him like he were a simpleton.
She had still not spoken a word since he found her, but Adair could read every emotion that flickered across her face as easy as the written word. Sometimes, she seemed ready to speak, but then a tremor would run through her, and she would turn as cold as the water by which he had found her.
Right now, she would be waiting for him. It was the middle of autumn and still warm enough for a late-afternoon stroll around the gardens. The midwives had advised Aisling to remain active for as long as possible until the birth, and Adair knew how she hated to be kept cooped inside.
Just as he was about to leave, the door to his inner chambers burst open, revealing a travel-soiled man. After a second, Adair recognised him as a knight from the north.
“Your Majesty!” The knight dropped to one knee before the astonished king. Several worried-looking officials also entered the room, hastily bowing to Adair and looking at each other nervously.
“What is the matter?” the king demanded. Lord Bowye, his most senior counsellor, stepped forward.
“Your Majesty, it seems… well, I don’t really know how to say this…” The elderly man scratched his ear, avoiding Adair’s gaze. “From what this man says, it seems that Lord Anarawd has taken leave of his senses.”
“What?!” Adair turned to the breathless knight, his expression thunderous. The knight swallowed quickly before replying.
“He deserted his post a couple of days ago. Before that, his behaviour was erratic – disturbing even. He… he seemed very angry about something. It wasn’t safe to leave women alone with him – not after, well…”
Adair sat down heavily. “You had best explain all that has gone on.” He gestured to his young squire. “Ceth, go and find my wife. Tell her I am sorry but urgent business has arisen that I must deal with.”
“Begging your pardon, Your Majesty.” The northern knight rose, twisting his gloved hands in a state of agitation. “I fear the queen may be in danger.”
“What do you mean?” demanded Adair.
“A diary was found amongst Lord Anarawd’s possessions. He seems to have developed a fixation upon the queen, to the point of derangement.”
Wordlessly, Adair accepted the proffered leather-bound book. Reading the increasingly erratic handwriting, he felt a sickness descend in his stomach as he realised Anarawd’s vicious and vile designs on his wife.
Somewhere in the castle, a clock struck three. The king shot to his feet and ran from the room, suddenly horribly afraid.
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Aisling reached the ruined temple at the centre of the Lake Gardens. With a grateful sigh, she sat down on a wooden bench. Late autumn sunlight warmed her hands as she rested them on her swollen stomach, and she smiled dreamily as she felt her unborn child flex in response within her.
The Lake Gardens were her favourite place in the castle grounds – Adair would know where to find her, and the guards always kept a respectful distance when the king and queen wished to be alone. However, it was getting late. Her smile turned a little sad as she wished he were already here, and they could watch the hovering dragon and damsel-flies rise and fall with their brilliant flashes of blue and orange. The beauty of the gardens seemed empty without him; the lake looked black and cold, its waters swallowing the rays of the sun rather than reflecting them.
Aisling shivered just as the sound of hurried footsteps came from around the corner to her right. She got to her feet as swiftly as was possible for a woman in her condition, smiling with relief. However, it was not Adair who rounded the corner and approached her.
For a second, she didn’t recognise him. This man had a straggly, uneven beard, as if he had attempted to shave but given up. His skin was dark with dirt beneath the hair and rough clothes, pale blue eyes alight with fever. He drew back his lips to snarl at her, and Aisling gasped when she recognised him and saw the long knife in his hand. Weapon raised, Anarawd sprang forward with a ragged cry.
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A terrified scream split the air as Adair rushed up to the bridge spanning the Lake Gardens. His heart thrashed within his chest as, instinctively, he knew it to be Aisling.
When the king and his men reached the temple, the disturbed nature of the place had fallen into a brooding silence once again. Like sacrifices to some cruel god, two bodies lay stretched out on the floor. Anarawd was dead; Adair could see his wide-open eyes, the blade buried up to the hilt in his chest. Aisling’s eyes were closed, and she gave no signs of life when Adair dashed to her side and gently gathered her in his arms.
Then, to his relief, he saw the faint rise-and-fall of her chest, and when he pressed his lips to her brow, he felt her breath on his neck. A little blood was gently trickling from a wound in her side, just above the bump, tracing an uneven path as a pale-faced Adair carried his wife back to the castle.
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A sharp shaft of pain ploughed through the queen’s body, dragging her mind awake. In spite of this discomfort, she smiled. She knew her baby was coming.
Something warm was wrapped around her hand – another hand, larger and rougher, yet holding hers as delicately as a flower holds the bee. She heard Adair’s hoarse voice pleading with her to wake up.
As the pain shot through her for a second time, she felt her thighs grow wet and warm. Slowly, she opened her eyes and met those of her husband.
The queen smiled at his beloved face. She had to tell him the news, the wonderful news.
“The baby…” she whispered, and his expression turned to one of relief.
“The baby is fine, my love,” he said, leaning over to kiss her lips. “I felt it move while you were asleep.”
The queen’s smile grew as she shook her head. She felt so strange, as if she were beyond reality, but he had to understand.
“The baby,” she repeated, only to cut herself off as an even greater rush of agony spread out from her stomach, up her spine and into every part of her body. Instead, she screamed, clutching at Adair’s hand and arching her back off the bed in an attempt to escape the red-hot pins and needles.
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It was a girl, a tiny doll that did not wail or fuss; one that merely stared up at her father with a sad expression. When Aisling was shown her daughter, she began to cry.
The king tried to comfort her. “It’s all right, my love. She is a little early but the doctors say she will live. She is perfect.”
“She will be lonely,” murmured Aisling. Already, her vision was starting to darken. She had never felt so weak in all her life.
“She won’t be lonely,” Adair insisted. “She has us, doesn’t she? You will grow strong again, and we will be a proper family.” He kissed the side of her temple, tucking a few strands of hair behind her ear.
Aisling tried to lift her arms. “Please… let me hold her.”
A nurse passed the silent baby to her father, who in turn placed her in the crook of Aisling’s arm. He had to keep his own hand in place, however, as she was too weak to properly support the baby.
“What shall we call her, my love?” he asked in a cracked tone. Aisling searched through her clouding mind, until at last she remembered her mother’s name.
“Maebh,” she whispered. It was ironic that a child named for great joy should look so sad.
“Maebh,” repeated Adair, gently running his thumb through the baby’s tuft of black hair. Not only did it look like she would have Aisling’s hair, she also had the same sapphire eyes – dark and sorrowful.
Maebh blinked and yawned, curling her miniature fists beneath her chin. Aisling felt the last of her strength leave her, and she gave a shallow sigh.
Her daughter was carefully lifted away. Then, Adair wrapped his arms around Aisling, holding her until the shadows lengthened and the room grew cold once again.