Chinthurst Tower – we imagine Gwydion’s tower to have been a bit like this, but much, much taller…
Jack must have fallen asleep. When he woke again he was lying on the low bed, his body covered with poultices and ointment. The feeble glow of a rushlight deepened the shadows that crept around the corners of the room.
‘I’m here, Jack.’ She moved into his vision. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘Better, I thank you.’ He shifted position and winced, tugging at the cloth strips pinned tightly around his ribs. Meredith put a hand over his, stilling him.
‘I know the bindings are tight, but leave them be if you can. I’ll take them off in a day or so.’
‘I would not leave you open Gwydion’s ill-will.’
‘I do not fear Gwydion.’ Meredith moved the rushlight closer so Jack could see her face, see that she spoke the truth. ‘I don’t believe he will hurt me. He told me when I first came here that I reminded him a little of someone. A woman he had known.’
‘My mother, perhaps. He loved her, once. Or he said he did.’ Jack had no time to wonder what Gwydion had seen in Meredith that reminded him of Edith: sudden, bitter grief took the air from his lungs and forced tears into his eyes. Grief, because he did not know his own mother. Grief, because now he never would.
Meredith gently pushed Jack’s hair back off his forehead.
‘Jack, what happened last night? What had you done, to earn so much wrath?’
‘The wizard sent me out to kill my brother. But I failed. I still don’t understand why.’
‘Did somebody stop you?’
‘No. Maybe. I don’t know. I was about to –’ Jack took a deep, flinching breath; breathed out slowly. ‘I was on the point of killing Edmund. He’s one of my brothers; the elder, I think. But just as I was about to strike, my mother rushed into the room. Threw herself across his body. I – I plunged the sword downwards, the creature that controlled me thinking to murder them both with a single blow, but –’ He held his hand up, remembering the hilt twisting in his palm and pain streaking up his arm. ‘But the blade didn’t pierce my mother’s skin. It shattered.’
Meredith didn’t reply.
Jack wasn’t surprised: what could she possibly have to say to him? He turned his face to the wall.
‘You should just kill me, Meredith. There must be knives in the kitchen. Put me out of my misery. Think of the lives you would save.’
‘I planned to kill you, when I first came here.’
Jack looked back at her.
‘Why didn’t you?’
‘Because some of the time – a lot of the time – you are still yourself. And you are innocent. If I had found you to be completely Gwydion’s creature, without hope of redemption…’ Meredith sighed. ‘But you’re not. And I have come to know you, to be – to care for you.’ She leant closer to him, traced over one of his eyebrows with her finger. ‘I know I should kill you. But I cannot.’
Jack caught her hand in his and kissed the palm lightly.
‘But you can’t save me, Meredith. No one can. And I would rather be dead than live like this. I can feel it getting stronger, the curse that possesses me. Each time it takes over my body, it stays longer. One day, it will not leave.’ He dropped his gaze. ‘I’m frightened.’
‘Don’t despair, Jack. There is still hope. Though I have to ask you: did Gwydion perform any further enchantment on you after your return from Helmswick?’
‘None that I remember. Why?’
Meredith put her hand on his chest, just above his heart.
‘There is a mark here I don’t understand. As though you have been pricked with something.’
Jack craned his neck to look down. There was a ring of tiny circular marks on the left side of his chest. The skin around them was blackened. He prodded the spot with his finger and gasped.
‘It hurts. What has he done?’
‘I don’t know.’ Meredith leant over and touched Jack’s skin very carefully with the tip of her little finger. He shuddered. ‘Did Gwydion say anything when he was attacking you?’
‘Yes, though most of it I didn’t understand. But some of the time he was raving about something breaking, or weakening.’
‘He must have been talking about the curse he has placed you under. What happened at the palace last night somehow diminished its power.’
‘Is that possible?’ Jack could not keep the yearning out of his voice.
‘It’s possible.’ As Jack watched her, Meredith bit her bottom lip, frowning as though trying to come to a decision about something. ‘There’s more than one kind of magic in this world, Jack. There’s wild magic and tamed magic. There’s magic of the elements: of root and stone, of river and wind. And then there’s the magic of light: of sun or moon or star, of fire or candle. Magic in itself isn’t good or bad; ‘tis only made so by the person using it. Apart from the dark magic, that is. The magic of the shadow realm is wholly evil, and anyone foolish enough to meddle with it will end badly. But it is also the weakest magic, for it cannot exist in balance with any other form of enchantment. It consumes, or is consumed.’
‘How do you know all this, Meredith? I thought you were just a –’ he broke off, but Meredith smiled slightly.
‘Just a kitchen maid? And so I am. But I also have some skill with charms and potions. I am not certain, but I would say that the curse came into contact with magic of a different nature. Maybe a powerful protective charm of some sort.’
‘And it caused this?’ Jack pointed at the marks on his chest. He watched her eyes narrow as she peered the damaged skin.
‘No. I think this was done by Gwydion, afterwards. None of the ointments I applied have had any effect on it.’ Meredith’s lips compressed into a hard line. ‘I am only guessing, Jack, but I fear he has linked your life to his, as a way of strengthening the dark magic, and as a protection.’ She looked down, away from his gaze. ‘If I am right, no one can kill the wizard now, unless they kill you at the same time. And no one can kill you unless they kill the wizard. You both live, or you both die.’
‘So it is too late. There is no way now to stop Gwydion. Or to stop me.’ Jack waited, but Meredith didn’t look up. ‘You should have killed me while you still had the chance.’ He closed his eyes and turned away from her, grunting slightly with the pain of moving. ‘I wish you had killed me.’
The bed shifted as Meredith got up; she pulled the bedclothes over his shoulder. He felt her breath, warm against his neck, and heard her voice whispering in his ear.
‘You’re tired, Jack, and in the darkness you see no way out. But hope may rise with the sun. Sleep now, and be comforted. Sleep.’
Jack did not resist.