The Forgotten Sister [Excerpt]

My mother, such as she was, will be remembered as virtuous and saintly, for that is the mask she showed the world. In truth, the Lady Igraine was, at her best, a witch, and her very worst, a whore. She desired Uther Pendragon’s body, handsome and lean as he was, and, beyond that, she desired his power as High King. She snared him with her charms and very nearly tore the kingdom apart with her lust.

But, we move further into the tale than we should. The story begins not with their coupling, as many would have it, but decades before, in Cornwall, at the very edge of the world.

Looming above the craggy beach was the great castle of Tintagel. But, cast your eyes lower, away from the majestic, impenetrable fortress and towards the shale beach. There, in the shadow of the castle, in a wooden hut blasted and pitted by the salt of the sea spray, was the home of Petronella, the mother of Igraine.

Petronella’s husband, and Igraine’s father, was unknown to the people of Tintagel, beyond that he had died some years past and left his poor young wife with a child. That is if he had ever existed in the first place, and Petronella had not lain with some demon come in the night. Or, perhaps less fancifully, if he was not a deceitful youth, who made Petronella promises he had no intention of keeping.

How Petronella came to be in Tintagel, for she was a Roman-born, they having no place in the Cornish wilds save among the nobility, was not given much thought. The fishermen and shepherds supposed she made her living from trapping shellfish, and paid her little attention, her beauty having faded from all those hard and half-starved years beside the sea. What they did not know was that it was their own wives who were the source of Petronella’s income.

Because Petronella had talents beyond that of a fishwife or shepherdess. For a price paid in provisions, or perhaps for a favour you may yet be asked for, she could save a boat full of men from drowning, or ensure they were taken by the sea. She could make you a good harvest, or bring blight upon a neighbour’s field. And she could make sure a woman would get with child, or make certain that one was not conceived, if your evening companion was not your husband.

Petronella was feared and loved in equal measure and lived a simple life. But Igraine forever cast her eyes upwards, over the bluffs and towards the hulking stone that was the castle of Tintagel. When she shivered on the hut’s floor next to her mother, she dreamed of great beds, and whole chambers for sleeping, with fires lit throughout. When the beach was barren, and Petronella’s work unfruitful, she ignored her aching stomach and thought of great dishes of food she could gorge on, which she would not have to cook herself, nor catch or scavenge the contents of her pot.

A girl whose mother is one of the Wise has a choice to make when she reaches her thirteenth year and her courses have come upon her. She must choose whether to walk the same path as her mother before her, or else abandon whatever talents may have emerged. It is too foolish an age, I think, and one of the reasons I am grateful I never had a daughter. What girl of thirteen would not be tempted by promises of witchcraft?

Thirteen years came for Igraine, and she joined her mother in her practices. But, I think, Igraine was far more dangerous a witch than simple Petronella, with her curses and potions. Because, while Petronella had power, Igraine had ambition.

By the age of fifteen, Igraine had secured herself a position as a kitchen maid within the castle of Tintagel. Bronwyn, a woman of good repute in service to the Lady Gwyneth, the Duchess of Cornwall, had come to the hut seeking a charm so as to draw her husband’s attentions back to her. 
In exchange, Igraine made her whisper certain phrases in the ears of a wax figure, who the silent, smirking Petronella recognised as an image of the castle’s cook. Then, the next day, when Igraine went to the castle door looking for work, the man was persuaded by her assurances of hard-work, and her coy smiles thrown into the bargain.

Igraine found the hard life of a kitchen maid, with its back-breaking work and early mornings, not to her satisfaction, though why she thought it would be any different than her life by the sea remains unknown. She contrived then to become a seamstress, who worked in the comfort of the Duchess’ solar, despite that she had never learned any fine embroidery, weaving or spinning, for Petronella had not the tools to teach her.

Poor Bronwyn had no respite from her husband since the charm was cast, and was suddenly heavy with child. Then came a fierce sickness upon her and she was unable to sit upright, never mind sew. Igraine presented herself at the door of the solar, having drunk a tonic made from honey to sweeten her words, and told the Duchess her great dream, hitherto unmentioned before, of becoming a seamstress, though she had been too poor to learn.

The Lady Gwyneth was overcome with sympathy and took the girl at once into her service, teaching her to card wool, to spin, to weave, to dye and to embroider. And much else besides. Igraine lost her rough ways borne of a childhood along the shore and became a favourite of all in the Duchess’ house.

Igraine was beautiful and remained so for much of her life. I will give her that, for all her failings as a mother, wife, and queen. It was only natural that she should attract the attention of the men of Tintagel, especially with the patronage of the Duchess securing her a dowry she would not else have had. But one man stood apart from all others — Lord Gorlois, the Duchess’ son and Duke to be.

On warm summer’s day, the ladies were at their work, gossiping as much as they sewed. There was a fierce clamour from the courtyard. “They return! They return!” cried the watchman, and the ladies’ tittered with excitement. The men of Tintagel, including the Duke Gerdan and his son Gorlois, were back from battle with the Saxons.

“My son returns!” exclaimed Gwyneth, clasping her hands together with joy.

The ladies gasped and preened and adjusted their gowns, though Igraine wagered a fair few would not be glad to see the return of their husbands. She put down her needle and observed keenly. There was a clamour at the stairs to the solar and in burst a man still in his armour. Igraine had seen Duke Gerdan from her spying place above the bluff when she was a child, so she knew this was not him. From his slender features, shining eyes and jet black hair, and from the way the Lady Gwyneth hugged him tight, this could only be Gorlois.

He released his mother and turned to the room to greet the ladies he had grown up with. Then he drew an excited breath.

“Who is this, Lady Mother?” asked Gorlois, his voice hitching in his throat and eyes lighting up.

The Lady Gwyneth gestured imperiously with a ringed finger, and Igraine came forward from her seat at the window. The Duchess clasped the girl to her front and presented her to the young man.

“Son, this my new seamstress, Igraine.”

He reached out and took Igraine’s hand.

“My Lord,” she said, curtseying. She glanced up demurely at Gorlois with hooded eyes.

He did not release her hand. Igraine smiled and tilted her head slightly. A strand of her coppery hair fell free from her coiffure and brushed the creamy white skin just above the low neckline of her gown. He stared.

“Come Gorlois, you must be hungry. Igraine, make sure that sewing is finished before the light goes.”

The Duchess pulled her son from the room. Gorlois almost strained his neck to look back at the girl. Igraine curtseyed again and returned to her seat, smirking the entire way. Her hands may have been occupied with her sewing, but her mind was firmly fixed on a brewing idea, and her eye cast out towards the hut on the sea.

Petronella tossed the last of the rabbit into the cooking pot. She regarded her last onion and debated adding it to her stew, for they would be gone until more could grow. The sound of rocks skittering around the beach travelled into the hut. Petronella put down the onion but kept the knife close.

There had not been Irish raiders in some time, not since Gerdan had routed the last of them, but Petronella had a long memory. Her senses twitched with familiarity and, breathing a relaxing sigh, she took up the onion again. She would need some flavour in her meal if she had to listen to Igraine.

The door flew open and Igraine rushed in, panting with excitement. “Mother, mother!”

“Saucy wench,” grumbled Petronella. “You’ll break that door and we’ll have naught to fix it with. No respect for a poor woman’s things now you’ve been up at the castle.”

“You shall have doors of gold when I am finished my work!”

Her mother snorted. “Seamstress’ pay gone up, has it?”

“No, mother,” said Igraine, sidling closer to the older woman. “The Lord Gorlois has returned from battle.”

Petronella shrugged, feigning ignorance as Igraine settled onto the stool.

“So?”

“Imagine me as Lady of Tintagel!”

“How do you propose to become that?”

“By marrying Gorlois of course!”

Petronella looked up from her chopping, pointing her knife squarely at Igraine. “What has he said to you? What promises has he made? Mark my words, Igraine, given once and returned never.”

A strange feeling overcame her, almost as if she was standing on a high cliff and had to choose whether to fling herself from the rocks or return to the safety of flat land. Petronella knew as she warned and threatened Igraine that all the girl said would come true.

She thought for a second there was black dog upon the shore, visible from the open door of the hut, but she was sure she was mistaken. Why would she be having visions of deaths to come? But Petronella did not need visions to know nothing good would come of it, save her own improved situation.

“Mother, have you had a seeing?” asked Igraine, feigning concern. “My future in the castle?”

Petronella shook her head. “No, daughter,” she replied, for fear she added further fuel to Igraine’s fire.

Petronella eyed the meagre table. “Are you staying for supper?”

“No, mother. I think it best I eat at the castle from now on, and sleep there too.

I have work to do. You might help, if you have the time?”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

Igraine kissed her mother and began to talk of other things. Petronella put a hand on her stomach and tried to massage away the leaden feeling that had settled there. She resigned herself to what was going to happen. Petronella had always known which way life’s winds would blow, and time had taught her that it was pointless to do anything other than be blown with them.

Warm spring nights settled across Tintagel and the courtship began in earnest. They feigned excuses to be in one another’s presence and had many secret meetings. Igraine’s wardrobe grew finer as he showered her with gifts. Gorlois, a battle-scarred warrior of twenty, was sure of himself and not unexperienced with women. Though, if he ever thought he could outsmart my mother, he was perhaps the fool Uther believed him to be.

One night, after a feast in the great hall, Gorlois and Igraine slipped away to the blacksmith’s forge, knowing they would be alone since the blacksmith had long been in his cups that night.

Gorlois reached for her, but she drew back towards the sweltering forge.

“What is it Igraine?” he asked.

“You seek to shame me, my Lord,” she replied, her voice as pitiful as any begging urchin.

“No, no, my love! I merely wish us to be together entirely.”

“And ruin me in the process!”

She turned away and pretended to play with the blacksmith’s tools, hanging above the fire. She was biting the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling.

“What would you have me do, Igraine?” he asked.

“Marry me, so none can say anything against me, against our love.”

He placed a hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged him off. “You know that cannot be.”

“You do not love me then?”

“Of course, I love you.”

“Then what?”

“I am high-born…marriage is different for us…”

She gave a little cry of indignation. “Marriage is no different for anyone, farmer or king! There is another woman, isn’t there?”

“No, no, you are the only one!”

“I don’t believe you! Oh, Gorlois, tell me who she is, so I might look upon her before I fling myself into the ocean!”

With that, she let the heat and smoke of the forge overcome her eyes and she began to sob. He petted her and whispered all sorts of sentiments into her ear, but none would soothe her. Gorlois knew he was a man beaten.

“Oh, Igraine! I will marry you!” he relented. He shook his head. “You have bewitched me.”

Igraine gave a knowing smile and began to imagine her wedding gown. In truth, though, I suspect not the hand of Igraine or even Petronella. What man would not be captivated by a maiden such as Igraine, with her swinging hips and fiery copper hair? Especially if he had seen naught but hairy, unwashed Saxons for the past year?

Where Igraine had worked her magic was with Gerdan and Gwyneth, who did not raise an eyebrow at their son marrying a peasant girl from the shore, when he could have made a match with a princess of a neighbouring land, or even a daughter of Ambrosius Aurelianus, the High King himself.

By the time Bronwyn returned to service in Tintagel, she found herself lady-in-waiting to the Lady Igraine and her mother. But Bronwyn shrugged, and carried on. She knew she had a position for life at Tintagel, for fear she exposed Igraine and her mother as the witches they were.

Igraine bore Gorlois three children. First came Morgan, sly and wilful, followed soon by Morgause, who knew early the power she had over men. Then, there was I, Elaine, whose name you, in all likelihood, do not know.

I am the most remarkable of the three sisters, and all other names put to you here, in being the most unremarkable. Because I watched when I should have acted, and acted when I should have watched, and was thus left outside the record of history, and forgotten almost entirely. This, then, is my tale.


Excerpted from The Forgotten Sister by Kieran Higgins.

Available in print from Amazon and on Kindle.

Copyright Kieran Higgins 2016. Do not reproduce without permission of the author.