The Mirror Crack’d
What is your substance, whereof are you made,
that millions of strange shadows on you tend?
— Shakespeare, Sonnet 53
My earliest memories were of speaking with visions, weaving illusions, and feeling the dark rush of ravens’ wings as I ran through the mist. Magic then was a path of wonder, a shifting puzzle of colors, like the stained-glass windows in our chapel.
I chafed at practicing the calm control needed to bring these colors into focus, to see the threads of magic running through the world. My governess counseled patience and caution, but many times she found me searching for relics beneath the Tor, or with my fingers dug between the stones in the abbey ruins, trying to call Arthur’s knights to me. I saw myself a knight-errant, questing for the Grail, and felt a close bond with my clearest vision — the Grail Maiden.
With time, I came to glimpse the vast woven web of the world and to feel out the intricate connections between threads. As I grew into a real magician, questing for the Grail became serious research.
My papa’s first love was King Arthur. He had named me Elaine for the Grail Maiden and the Lady of Shallot. Our small chapel and rectory were built in the shadow of Glastonbury Abbey, the burial place, legend has it, of Arthur and Guinevere.
When my magic manifested he was overjoyed. Even when I could barely walk he involved me in his research, taking me to the Abbey ruins or the peat moors to excavate old coins and iron tools. Later he taught me French and Latin from Malory, poetry from Tennyson, Rossetti, and Morris.
In this insular world I flourished, yet at nineteen I longed for more. At my governess’s suggestion, I began searching for a teaching position. Though Papa hoped I would remain in Glastonbury, he looked over the newspaper advertisements with me at breakfast each morning, debating the merits of each position.
“Oh Elaine,” he’d tease, munching his toast, “Here is an elderly lady looking for a companion to do ironing and take her to Brighton. ‘Quiet and sober girls only,” and he’d peer over the top of the paper at me, an innocent expression on his face. “Would that be you my darling?”
“Oh yes — quiet, sober, confined, submissive. No. I want to travel, to quest, to publish! Be a Scotland Yard magician and solve crimes!”
I knew such positions were denied to women. But there was no other I could bring myself to accept – until I found the Roswarne advertisement.
“Papa!” I cried, flinging open the door to his study. “Papa, I have found it!”
Papa looked up from his books, his round eyeglasses perched on the end of his nose, his pen held in the air.
I bent over to catch my breath, waving a newspaper.
“A noble family. Roswarne. Looking for a governess, a tutor in magic. The daughter,” I gasped, “My very age. Sudden onset of magical affinity. In Cornwall.” I smiled. “Some people, you know, think the Grail is there.”
Papa beamed at me, though I thought I saw tears sparkling in his eyes.
“Cornwall — Arthur’s seat at Camelot. Oh, Elaine! It is perfect!”
My governess gave me her magic glass as a parting gift. It looked like a magnifying glass but was crafted to reveal the threads of magic to the observer. She bent with a rare smile to help me hook it to my chatelaine.
I left for Cornwall before dawn. In the cold rain and mist, the soaring arches of the Abbey ruins rose like visitors from another realm above the slate roofs and garden of our rectory and chapel. As Papa handed me up into the post carriage, the weight of the magic glass at my waist was comforting, like a small anchor. He waved goodbye, and from the Grail Maiden there was a flash of white in the garden, the scent of lilies mingling with smoke and peat in the early morning air.
Isolated from its village, church, farmlands, and pastures, the Roswarne manor rose from its woods and gardens, a rambling building of grey granite that romantics would have called a castle. From below where seabirds wheeled and cried I heard the sea crashing against the stony cliffs.
Exhausted from two days jostling in the post carriage, I was brought to the ‘little’ drawing room, nearly as large as our rectory’s ground floor. In my plain traveling dress I faced Lord and Lady Roswarne across an elaborately carved teakwood table, they on one velvet couch, myself on another. It was evening, and a fire flickered in the marble hearth. The room was filled with glass-fronted cabinets of leather-bound books, the head of a spotted leopard from India, a jeweled dagger lain casually upon an antique table. Thick Persian carpets covered the floor, and a tall mahogany clock ticked deeply in one corner.
“Miss Grey,” Sir Roswarne began. His dark eyes were narrowed; his black hair fell over his forehead. “Magical ability is not rare in the Roswarne family. But control is taught early and strictly.” His pale features contorted briefly, as if with painful memories. “The affinity has come late to our daughter, and with quite unexpected force.”
Lady Roswarne laid a gentle hand on her husband’s arm. She was tall and willowy, her mass of wispy blonde hair secured in a loose bun. She wore a stunning dress of rose silk. “We… this affliction must be cured, if she is to join society.”
“Your father is respected as a scholar,” Sir Roswarne said, “but before your position is secure and you can be introduced to our daughter, I require a demonstration of your abilities.” He glanced at his wife. “Given the circumstances.”
I was exhausted, but I knew their situation was without precedent. A male tutor was out of the question, yet to bring in a female magician! I replied only “Of course.”
I closed my eyes, breathing slowly, shifting focus. I was soon calm, alone in the world of light, color, and sense that lived just beside our own. I felt pieces of Arthur’s history woven into the fabric of the manor, as I’d hoped. But for the moment I set that aside, found the thread I wanted, crooked my finger, and tugged.
I looked to the leopard, and she stepped from the wall, her body appearing with a fluid motion, her spots shimmering, muscles rippling under her skin. Lady Roswarne’s eyes widened and her fingers tightened around her husband’s arm.
A white form glimmered in a dark corner behind their couch. A slim woman, her feet barely touching the carpet. Golden hair rippled down her straight back. She faded slightly into the patterned wallpaper behind her. Her white gown swirled around her like mist. Bright between her hands was a silver chalice, carved with scenes of the Last Supper. She caught my eye, a secret smile on her lips.
My heart leapt. It was the Grail Maiden.
She winked at me, and the leopard sprang across the room, teeth bared, claws extended, eyes golden in the half-light. The illusion froze in midair over the teakwood table, and I saw the Roswarnes’ shocked faces through its ghostly body.
I banished it with a few quick gestures. The cat faded to smoke, leaving only the echo of its snarl.
When I glanced again at the corner, the Grail Maiden was gone.
Sir Roswarne cleared his throat. “We hope our daughter will be taught to banish unwanted apparitions, not make them leap out at people.” He rang a small silver bell, and the housekeeper came to the doorway.
“You will start tomorrow morning, in our daughter’s schoolroom. Missus Humphries will see you are fed and shown to your room.”
The glass eyes of the leopard’s head on the wall winked in the firelight as I walked out.
I barter curl for curl upon that mart
And from my poet’s forehead to my heart
Receive this lock which outweighs argosies….
— Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese
The shelves lining the schoolroom overflowed with books. Velvet curtains drawn back from floor-to-ceiling windows revealed the cliffs and the sparkling, shifting blues of the restless Cornish sea. The early sunlight streaming in lit Miss Roswarne’s tall figure and heart-shaped face, her dark eyes and curls, the plum-colored silk of her dress. Indistinct figures shimmered in the light around her.
“You’re the girl who’s to be my companion.” Half-heard whispers echoed her words.
“Your governess, Miss Roswarne. Elaine Grey.”
“Elaine,” she said, “I am half-sick of shadows.”
I looked up and smiled. “The Lady of Shallot.”
Her eyes brightened and she held out her hand, the shadows of a dozen more reaching out with her. “You’ll be my companion as well,” she insisted. “You must allow me to call you Elaine. And you must call me Morgan!”
She grasped my hand, my fingers passing through the mists of half-seen others.
“Father says you’ll teach me to control my magic.”
As she moved, so did vague forms – perhaps a medieval warrior, a tall woman in a long gown, a sullen child reaching for her hands. They flickered in and out of existence through the sunlight and shade. My interview with her parents had not prepared me for this. How powerful must her affinity be, to call these forms out of the aether?
“That is why he engaged me, yes.” But I didn’t even know how she called these clustering shadows to her. How would I teach her to keep them at bay?
“There is nothing here either,” I sighed one morning several months into our lessons, closing a thick volume. I rubbed my eyes, which ached from scanning the cramped text. Books covered the desks and tables of the schoolroom and leaned drunkenly on the shelves.
The magical primers assumed the student was not working large magic inadvertently. The heavy volumes of theory and mysticism not even my Pre-Raphaelite education had prepared me to decode. Morgan and I worked our way through them after daily practices to control the mind, learning hand and finger shapes for sorting through ethereal threads and summoning or dismissing spirits and images.
I feared the Roswarnes’ disappointment. I’d written to Papa and my governess for advice; they counseled patience and caution, but I did not see help in this.
At night I pored over books in my small third-floor room, searching for clues. When my head began to ache, I wandered the still house, looking for threads that would lead me to Arthur. I knew if I were found, I’d be severely admonished, but the pull of the house’s vast magical web was strong.
Roswarne manor was a maze. Long corridors intersected at odd turnings; twisting wooden staircases carved with vines and flowers beckoned. Intricate medieval tapestries heavy with the scent of beeswax hung over the stone walls, and patterned carpets covered the thick oak floors. Vaulted stone and timber ceilings echoed. Curving corners revealed stained glass windows that by day must cast beams of colored light, but night made them dark arches framing glittering stars or grey clouds. Above each thick door was carved the Roswarne coat of arms: a single rose held in a mailed fist.
I avoided the eastern corridors of the second floor, where the family slept, and used the back staircases. But one night I followed a thread whose brightness sang to me of Arthur, and losing myself in its magic, I wandered where I did not belong. The thread led me to a vision — of knights feasting at Camelot while minstrels played. The Grail appeared, a white doe entered the room and spoke, and an ailing knight drank from the Grail and was healed. The doe stepped towards me, out of the vision. So entranced was I, I didn’t realize I’d been found until Morgan spoke.
“Is this your magic?” she whispered. She wore a silk wrap over a ruffled white nightgown, a tall candle in her hands casting a crowd of shadows onto the walls.
Certain she would call for her parents, my numb hands dropped the blanket I’d wrapped around myself against the chill.
The doe darted around her, its hooves dancing inches above the carpet.
“How beautiful,” Morgan said, wonder on her face.
She reached out. The doe disappeared and before Morgan’s astonished eyes stood the Grail Maiden. As the strains of ghostly minstrels faded she vanished.
I caught up my blanket, clutching it around my shoulders. “I’m sorry. I was following a thread – one of King Arthur’s feasts, and…”
Morgan looked into my eyes and smiled. “I won’t tell Father.” She stepped closer, enveloping me in her circle of candlelight. “Are you searching for Arthur?”
“And for the Grail.”
“But wouldn’t the Grail Maiden know where to find it?”
“She will never speak of it. But… ” I took my magic glass from my chatelaine and held it up for her. She gave a swift intake of breath as she glimpsed through it the tangled magic woven through her house. “Something of Arthur is here.” I lowered the glass. “Might not the Grail be as well?”
She shivered in her wrap, her eyes darting about as if expecting Arthur to step from the leaping shadows. A draft swept down the corridor, sending the flame of her candle flickering. She reached out. “Come with me. These halls are far too cold.”
Morgan’s bedroom lay behind a set of heavy doors carved with the Roswarne crest. The room was softly lit by coals glowing in the grate. She set her candle on her writing desk, stacked with volumes of Rossetti and Tennyson. We slipped into her high, curtained bed and sat facing each other, wrapped in quilted blankets.
She leaned forward, eyes bright. “Tell me about Arthur.”
I told her a story my papa used to tell, about the Questing Beast. I conjured ravens that swept around the room as I spoke, Morgan’s dark eyes following them. As I finished, they flew into the wallpaper and disappeared into the printed boughs and briars.
A haunting “Caw, caw” drifted back to us. The candle flame guttered.
“Wild magic,” Morgan breathed with a smile. “Old magic.” She leaned closer, a pleading look on her candlelit face. “This is the magic I want, Elaine.” She pulled her blanket tighter about her. “Can I join you in your quest? We could be comrades-in-arms, like Arthur’s knights!”
“Comrades-in-arms,” I repeated, and laughed. “You must still study,” I warned her.
Morgan made a sign over her heart, and caught up my hand, her eyes shining. “Oh Elaine, I’m so glad you’ve come!” She undid the ribbon that held back her long curls. “Let’s pledge, as Arthur’s knights did.”
“I will be faithful in love and loyal in friendship,” she quoted, twining one long black lock around our hands, and I repeated the words of the knight’s pledge, our laughter echoing through the sleeping house.
“So God me help,” said Sir Percivale,
“I saw a damosel, as me thought, all in white,
a vessel in both her hands, and forthwithal I was whole.”
– Malory, Le Mort d’Arthur
We spent winter and spring in diligent practice. During our brief time of freedom in the evenings we went questing through the house. Morgan knew many likely places to find Arthur’s magic – a kaleidoscope of colored light cast by a stained-glass window, a tower room overlooking the sea, a doorway and lintel from an older building.
The highlight of those months was when Morgan first entered the tapestry of magic.
“Elaine,” she cried, “So many threads – it’s so beautiful. Like living embroidery!” and I laughed, throwing my arms around her in celebration.
With the arrival of summer, and Morgan’s wistful glances outside, I took our lessons onto the cliffs. In the glow of the sunlight we practiced conjuring or went exploring in search of the Grail.
Wherever we felt the breath of magic – a rocky sea cave where the rising tide almost trapped us, or a clear pool of shining water – we called forth the spirits of the place, asking for what they knew of the Grail. Often they’d say it was near, but by the height of summer we had still found nothing.
Nor had we banished Morgan’s shadows. I’d thought as she learned to control the magical threads, her shadows would fade. Instead, they grew clearer.
They trailed behind her like crepe streamers when we galloped over the cliffs, salt wind in our faces, to our ‘Camelot’ – a ruined castle. There, our mares free to graze, we would collapse in the shade of the ancient oak that grew by the tumbled stones.
“The blessed damozel leaned out, from the gold bar of Heaven… She had three lilies in her hand, and the stars in her hair were seven….” Morgan read from a book of Rossetti’s poems, her shadows echoing the words. I sat against the oak, Morgan’s head in my lap, her hat tossed on the grass. The sunlight played through the oak’s branches, sending shadows and lights dancing over us.
“Elaine,” Morgan asked, tipping her head back to gaze into my face, “Why did you not marry?”
I laughed hollowly, and with a gesture sent the vision of a fox flying from my fingers. He slid through the grass, stirring it to green eddies until the wind blew him away in a shower of leaves. “That is not the sort of accomplishment praised in drawing rooms,” I said, but Morgan did not laugh.
She spoke to the pages of her book. “If I do not learn to control this,” she gestured, her shadows scattering wildly, “I will never marry. I will be the last Roswarne,” her voice was hard. “Our home will go to a cousin.”
Setting Morgan free of her shadows was my responsibility. And I was failing.
I reached into the aether for the comforting presence of the Grail Maiden. She tip-toed around the oak. Morgan smiled and wove an accompanying illusion: a glimmering waterfall dripping down the tumbled rocks behind us, fragrant flowers appearing where the Grail Maiden stepped.
The Maiden raised her shining chalice to us and then turned and stepped through the waterfall, taking Morgan’s garden with her.
I gazed after her. “The way she looks at us, it’s as if she has something wonderful to share… Morgan!”
She sat upright and turned to stare at me.
“The Grail,” I said, filling with joy, “It healed Arthur’s knights! It could banish your shadows! Give you peace. And then you could… join society, as your parents wish. You could marry,” I ended softly.
“Perhaps… ” Morgan said, “We could pull it from the aether! Not an image, not a vision, but the actual Grail!”
My jaw dropped. Pull a corporeal object from the fabric of time? In my reading, magicians had only succeeded in calling up poor, brittle copies. I knew of no one who had sought the Grail this way. Imagine if I, we, accomplished it – freeing Morgan of her shadows, succeeding in a quest and a working no one ever had, and perhaps opening the world of academic magic to women. A smile spread over my face.
We decided to make the attempt at our Camelot. We sat under the oak. The scent of the sea washed over us, its gentle roar a calming sound. I guided Morgan through what we’d practiced so often.
I would conjure the image I knew so well for her to work from and she, with more raw power than I, would draw out the actual Grail.
I held the image in my mind as my fingers plucked at the threads, weaving it out of the air — the gleaming carven cup, the thin stem, the round base. Soon it hung in the air between us, a chalice of swirling mist.
Morgan closed her eyes, her breathing deepening as she sought through the eather for the thread that led back from the conjured Grail to the real object. Her eyelids twitched as in a dream, her long fingers plucking at the air as she searched through the threads. The wind stirred her hair, scattering her shadows around her.
The image of the Grail shivered, and I gasped. Had Morgan found the thread?
I watched, enthralled, as the misty cup began to still and solidify.
Morgan’s fingers flew, the fingers of her shadows overlapping her own. The Grail came together like a puzzle, here a gleam of silver, there carvings taking on depth. It trembled as I struggled to hold the image in place.
Morgan’s eyebrows drew together. Her shadows swirled around her, almost obscuring her. It was there, whole. But then it crumpled. The silver blackened, the stem twisted, the cup folded in on itself. It hit the ground with a dull thump. Morgan opened her eyes, gasping. Her shadows went still.
A twisted hunk of black metal lay in the grass between us, foul smoke rising into the clear air. There was a malevolent air about it that made us shudder just to pick it up. We buried it on the cliffs, far from the house and our Camelot.
The second Grail crumpled and blackened as the first had. When Morgan reached out to it, the fingers of her shadows reaching with her, it crumbled to black ash.
The third, though not so ruined, was covered with moss, beetles and centipedes spewing forth as it hit the ground.
The fourth was tarnished and cracked, the fifth flaking to pieces…
Others with more caution would have thought to stop, but each result was a little better than the last. Yet there was something still not right about each one – a twist to the stem which hurt the eye, or sinister carvings on the cup. Our buried cache on the cliffs grew.
“I can feel a pull sometimes, when I’m drawing forth the Grail,” Morgan whispered one evening. We nestled in twin armchairs in her sitting room, books open in our laps, cups of tea on the low table between us. Morgan was wrapped in a quilted dressing gown against the autumn chill, her face turned towards the crackling fire. “Here.” She placed a hand over her heart, a dozen shadow hands trailing it.
I set my book aside and looked at her, realizing with a tremor that she had grown thinner. Her cheekbones were prominent in the firelight, her dark eyes wide. Her shadows had grown stronger as we worked on drawing forth the Grail, their outlines darker, their personalities more prominent. I suddenly feared that if we did not soon succeed, she would become the shadow in the midst of their bodies.
“Sometimes I think it is parts of myself,” her voice broke, “that we bury on the cliffs.”
There was something in her dark eyes and tense, thin face that frightened me even more than her words. What was happening to her, and to the Grail?
“We should stop — now.”
“But we’re close,” Morgan insisted. “And if we succeed, all of this,” she flung her arms wide, her shadows stretching to the corners of the room, “Would stop, I know it would.”
I shook my head. “If! But you are at your limits now!”
Her face hardened. “I know I can do it. I will have peace and freedom. Please, Elaine.”
“Once more only,” I bargained, fearing elsewise she would make secret attempts. “But should we not succeed, for now we will put our quest aside. Promise!”
Morgan bent her head. “I promise.”
She meant it, but her words fell like cold stones into my heart, and I shivered.
“Miss Grey,” Missus Humphries called to me as I passed her room in the upper hall on my way to bed. She stepped from her doorway, wrapped in a dressing gown, her grey hair in a thick braid. There was a small envelope in her hands.
“This came for you in the post. I would have given it to you, but you hardly ever join us downstairs in the evenings…”
I opened Papa’s letter sitting on my narrow bed, reading by the light of my single candle. There was the usual news about the weather, the cares of my fathers’ parishioners, his research. Then,
“As to your questions about the Grail, as ever I support your Arthurian research. But remember that the quest for the Grail brought about the end of Arthur’s era, and I do not believe it ever was a palpable physical object. The clergyman in me envisions the Grail as a symbol, an image of the Holy Spirit that dwells in each of God’s own.”
I set down my Papa’s letter, my heart and mind racing.
If the Grail dwelt in each of us, was Morgan not, in a way, pulling it out of herself? A self filled with combative shadows, powerful enough to twist any magical means of banishing them?
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
The Lady of Shalott.
– Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Lady of Shalott
Morgan and I went to our clifftop Camelot while the sky was still the grey of early dawn. A mist rose from the cold autumn ground, pulled into tattered streamers by the wind. Morgan was a dark figure cloaked in her heavy riding costume, a cloud of shadows whirling around her.
“We could forego this last time. We can wait. Study more,” I pleaded.
Morgan’s eyes were like iron.
I hung my head but held out my hand in resignation. “Companions-in-arms,” I said, “whatever may come,” and the wind snatched my words away.
She gave a brittle smile and grasped my hand. “To freedom and peace.” Her fingers were cold.
We stood conjuring, our twined fingers twisting shapes from the whistling wind. The Grail’s shining image formed before us. Morgan took a step back, her shadows fanning out into dark wings.
I reached towards those shadows, finding their dark threads. They recoiled at my touch, but I tightened my grip, reining them in. As Morgan’s shadows had grown stronger, and their threads had grown clearer, I had grown stronger as well. Now I could find their threads, and hold them at bay, for a short time at least.
I drew them back into a seething cordon around us, leaving us standing with the image of the Grail in a circle free of shadows. Morgan smiled and gulped the fresh air. Then she squared her thin shoulders and began to draw forth the Grail, her fingers flying, her pale lips moving soundlessly. It took shape little by little, shining silver piece by shining silver piece, a stream of carvings swirling around the cup.
Her shadows fought me, their voices clamoring in my head, warring with one another and me until it was difficult to find my own thoughts.
Morgan swayed where she stood, her eyes moving rapidly behind closed lids. Sweat beaded her brow. Behind her, the first pink rays of sunrise crept over the broken stones.
The shadows tugged at me, and I pushed them back, gasping, black spots crowding my vision.
The Grail was nearly whole. But for one wisp of mist it was silver, burning bright in the first light of dawn. The True Grail, as I had seen so often in the Maiden’s hands.
Morgan readied her fingers. I held my breath, my heart pounding. Even the shadows ceased their turmoil.
The air trembled. The Grail Maiden strode out of the aether, her white gown swirling around her like the curling mist, her long hair swept out behind her by the wind. There was fear in her eyes.
“There was a twisting in the threads. I see why!” She stretched out her hand, fingers closing around the stem of the unfinished Grail, snatching it from Morgan’s fingertips. There was a strangled cry from Morgan, but the Maiden simply turned to step back into the aether, taking all we had worked for with her.
“No!” Morgan’s voice grated. She threw herself forward, loss and fury on her face. She pulled the shining chalice from the Maiden’s hands and backed away, clutching it to her chest. Her skin was pale in the gathering light, her eyes haunted, her hair tangled and wild. Her fury fed the strength of her shadows, and they surged and broke free. I felt the wind of their passing. They converged on her like a physical blow and swirled thick about her.
“Please,” the Grail Maiden pleaded, turning her anguished face towards me. “Give me the cup and allow me to depart.”
“No,” I said, “Let her drink and be healed.”
“She will not be healed. Look.”
Frozen with shock and doubt, I peered at the Grail through the roiling cloud of shadows. The unfinished edge of the Grail was solidifying, turning black. A crack spread through the corrupted piece, stopped only when it ran into the shining silver.
“Would that I had noticed these attempts sooner,” the Maiden said. “My piece of the tapestry is in tatters. Elaine, what have you done?”
I heard liquid pouring into the cup. It cast a pink light on Morgan’s face. She looked at me and raised the chalice to her lips. She had not noticed the single shadow piece. “To freedom. To peace.” She closed her eyes and began to tip back her head.
I ran to her. “Morgan,” I screamed, “Stop!”
She drank. The sun rose behind her, a fiery halo around her dark curls. In the bloody light her body seemed to fracture into a dozen overlapping images: defiant, in men’s clothes, her curls pinned under her hat, gulping from one of the blackened Grails we’d buried on the cliffs; haughty, in a mourning gown, the shadows of centipedes and beetles pouring from her Grail; smiling, dressed for her first ball, with my magic glass on a ribbon around her neck like a love token; wrapped in a winding sheet, skeletal hands curling around her white fingers; dressed as a bride, her long veil streaming in the wind.
And at their center, a fragile figure in a dark velvet dress and cloak, her eyes closed, drank from a shining chalice, and from the shadow of the blackened Grail, and from the moss-covered one, and from the twisted Grail held in the bride’s hands. The sun shone through her, and all the others, turning her to nothing but shadows, to mist.
She lowered the Grail, and the images converged, layer over layer like the pages of a closing book, until she stood whole again. Purple liquid stained her lips. Her eyes flew wide and she choked in horror, dropping the Grail. The Maiden caught it before it could touch the ground.
Morgan stumbled back, her hands trembling as she clutched her heart. “I don’t feel anything,” she gasped, “but shadows,” and her shadows echoed her.
I pressed my hands to my mouth in horror.
She whirled on me, and countless others whirled with her. “Where is my peace, my freedom?”
There was a sharp turning in the world about us. From far away a resonant voice rumbled through the misty air. “Where are you, Elaine? The door is open.”
I froze. I had never heard that voice, and yet I knew it, even as I knew my own soul.
The Maiden had gone still, her eyes far away. I raised my magic glass with trembling hands.
There was a tattered door in the tapestry of magic, and through it would be everything I had dreamed of and yearned for. I could feel a warm wind carrying the scent of summer wildflowers, of stone, of home. My heart longed to follow. But I thought of Morgan and stood frozen.
“The King calls me,” the Maiden said in hushed tones. Her gown flashed in the sunlight of another world as she slipped away into it, holding the cup.
The doorway closed, the threads reknitting. Nothing left but the flash of the Grail Maiden’s flying feet, the echo of his voice, and the taste of wild nectar on my tongue.
I lowered my magic glass, blinking away tears in the rising sun of my own world, and turned to see Morgan bent over, coughing up blood into the brilliant green grass.
…thy curl, it is so black!
Thus, with a fillet of smooth-kissing breath,
I tie the shadows safe from gliding back,
And lay the gift where nothing hindereth;
Here on my heart, as on thy brow, to lack
No natural heat till mine grows cold in death.
— Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese
For two weeks Morgan stubbornly insisted on hiding her illness, coughing blood into her lace handkerchief. I was so consumed by guilt I could hardly eat or sleep. In the end, against her wishes I brought my concerns to Lord Roswarne, and he immediately sent for the physician.
I held Morgan’s hand through the examination, her fingers limp and cold in my own. Her shadows swirled in a dark cloud above our heads, their half-heard echoes bouncing off the stone walls.
It was consumption.
Though the doctor wondered at its quick progression, I remembered the twisted Grails, the stain of dark purple liquid on her lips.
I refused to leave her side, and the doctor agreed to recommend we enter quarantine together. An experienced nurse was engaged, her starched apron crackling as she changed the bed linens or aired the room.
The disease drained Morgan’s joy and strength, leaving her little more than a shadow herself. She was no longer strong enough to weave illusions or enter the tapestry of magic, so I gave her my magic glass, helping her hold it up to gaze at the threads or watch as I wove illusions to amuse her. She slept with the glass by her pillow, her white fingers curled around its brass handle.
The nurse watched me closely, but I showed no signs of Morgan’s disease. Unable to join in her suffering or take the illness upon myself, I pushed to the edge of exhaustion to battle her shadows, determined she would spend her last moments in peace.
At night, as the nurse slept in a corner of the room and Morgan turned feverishly in her bed, I picked my way through the threads of her shadows, unweaving what webs I could, and disentangling from her some of the weaker ones.
At the last, only the strongest few remained, and those I could now keep well enough away, struggle though they did.
Morgan had been in quarantine for over a month when she called me to her, the nurse having left the room on an errand. Her voice was hoarse and weak. There were dark circles under her eyes, and her cheekbones were sharp under the flush of consumption. She lay against her pillows, her dark hair falling around her.
She reached out to me, twining her fingers in mine, and laughed, a weak sound that shook her thin chest. She drew me close, and I buried my face in her sweet-smelling hair. “Will you forget me,” she whispered, “when you are away on adventures?”
I drew back in shock, wiping tears from my cheeks. “Never.”
She looked into my eyes. “Then find me.” She pressed the magic glass into my hands. “Please, Elaine. Find me.”
“I will find you.” I cradled her hand. “Charon or the grim King’s dog could not prevent me then from carrying you up into the fields of light.”
“Always reckless… one more reason I love you, Elaine.”
A week later, curtains were drawn and clocks were stopped.
Lord Roswarne wandered the house with stooped shoulders, his jacket hanging loosely on his frame. If we happened to pass, he would turn his face, as if the sight of me pained him. Lady Roswarne flitted from room to room in his wake, her lovely eyebrows drawn together, her soft hair falling loose from its pins.
Morgan’s remaining shadows attended her burial, watching me from the edge of the gathering, until they too disappeared, scattered into shreds of mist by the cold wind.
Back home, I stood on a dark precipice. I longed to tear through the web, to force open a door to a world where Morgan was happy and whole. To be heedless of the threads I tangled, to scream and pound the floor until the magic yielded her up.
But Papa understood enough of what had happened to fill my time with all that the winter celebrations require. Though I wished to fall into the abyss, I instead went through the motions of carols, cards, and Christmas candles, of decorating the tree, gift making, baking, and visits with parishioners. It left me hollow, but as ghost stories began around the fire on Christmas Eve, the never-heeded advice of patience and caution rose unbidden like a guilty ghost and stayed my wild intentions.
These days I occupy myself in our study. Under the name Gawain Grey, I advise Scotland Yard and provide women and men with magical instruction by correspondence. Often I find myself counseling patience and caution. Magic, I have learned, is not a road travelled lightly; indeed it is not a road at all but a wild wood. Still, I search for a door, and document my research into the Grail. The wages I received as Morgan’s governess I have set aside, and if I am able to earn enough through teaching and the publication of my research, I will travel and study.
I keep my magic glass with me always, a lock of Morgan’s dark hair tied around the handle. When the darkness threatens I walk upon the Tor with a conjured stag, cold mist wreathing the world below in shadows. I imagine Morgan, pacing as I pace, searching as I do for a door.
Sometimes I look for her, my fingers dug between the stones in the abbey ruins, or wrapped around the bones in the tarry peat, or twisting shapes from the night wind. Often I feel the Grail Maiden watching, catch the glimmer of her white dress or the sad look on her still face, and then I hear Arthur’s voice as I had on the cliffs. I feel the warm wind on my face, smell the scent of wildflowers, taste the nectar on my tongue.
One day I will find Morgan, and Arthur. In the reflection in the stained glass, in the crossing of the tapestry’s threads, on the other side of the stars.
Somewhere, there is an open door.
“The Mirror Crack’d” © Jordan Taylor. First publication Sept. 30, 2018
Jordan Taylor has driven across the US three times, and lived in four different cities in as many years. She currently resides in Seattle, WA with her husband, their corgi, and too many books for one small apartment. Her short fiction has recently appeared in On Spec, and is forthcoming from Beneath Ceaseless Skies. You can follow her online at jordanrtaylor.com.
Illustrations by Fran Eisemann, from stock provided by Omnia.
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