Beginning with Igrayne’s travel to the court of King Uther Pendragon, this tale calls up the full cast of Arthurian characters. Key components of Malory’s established pattern are retained: the birth of Arthur to a king and his newly-won queen, the presence of Arthur’s half-sister Morgayne, and his eventual marriage to a woman named Gwenyvere. The requisite bastard son is born to Morgayne, Gwenyvere’s lover is a knight named Launcelow, and Arthur dies in battle. Aside from these touchstones, the play of the narrative does not unfold in the traditional sequence.
Vivian du Lac appears as a knight at arms, Gwenyvere is the heir of the High King, and Arthur is a young liege-king on the Council of Seven. Politics are played out between and behind the backs of two Councils, lineages are manipulated, and tensions strain between the ancient traditions of the fey people and the new Christianity adopted by ordinary men, common and noble alike.
As the story begins, the young bard Anbrydian is pressed into service on the eve of a secret, mounting conflict which promises to change the fates of every woman and man of Arthur’s Britain, even before Arthur is conceived.
Passing through the main courtyard on some half-hearted errand, Uther’s bard stopped short, blinking. Riders were dismounting, knocking the dust from their clothes. In itself, this was not an unfamiliar sight—Uther’s court was lively and oft-traveled. It was something else which caught Anbrydian’s attention. He blinked again.
A disproportionate number of these riders were women, and something was familiar about the colors the guardsmen wore. Dazed, Anbrydian stepped forward. One of Uther’s stewards was speaking with the lead guardsman, but the bard did not bother listening. Those horses were no ordinary horses!
He cast his gaze wildly around the courtyard, seeking now behind the dusty guardsmen. Without realizing it, Anbrydian was walking quickly toward the cluster of new arrivals, drawn magnetically.
At his wide-eyed approach, Jocelyn and the unknown guardsman stepped automatically aside, revealing a tall noblewoman behind them. Just dismounted, she was turned away from them, speaking calmingly to her mount, scratching its muzzle beneath the bridle. With her other hand, she was absentmindedly shaking dust from her simple riding gown. She could have been anyone, in that dusty brown surcoat, split front and back for riding, showing dull-colored skirts beneath. But that half-obscured device worked in rich embroidery on the left breast of her coat, and the gleam of her thick blond braid—
Her head came up, dark eyes seeking as she turned. Anbrydian was already only a yard away. She smiled in relief and extended her arms to him.
He ran full-tilt into her embrace, before any of the guardsmen could prevent him.
Igrayne, tall and solid, had always been sturdy enough not to be bowled over; Anbrydian did not worry for this now. He did refrain from swinging her through the air as he would have wished; he was tall enough to do so, now, but antics of childhood companions would detract from Igrayne’s adult authority on what must surely be a state visit.
“Cousin,” she returned, squeezing him tightly, and he knew their embrace at least had her sanction.
The steward Jocelyn looked confused, but Igrayne’s guardsmen only regarded this greeting with disinterested amusement. The young black-haired bard held his dearest cousin tight to him for one more moment, then parted to deliver the requisite kiss. Igrayne returned it gently, smiling.
“Your visit is unexpected!” Anbrydian exclaimed, hardly knowing what to say. He could not constrain his excitement; he didn’t attempt even to try.
Igrayne granted him a knowing look from the dark pools of her eyes; it made him uncomfortable. She offered just the merest acknowledgement of his response—a tilt of her lip, an imperceptible incline of her head—she clearly found his resistance humorous. But when she spoke, she gave nothing away.
“A small matter of state—territory lines.” She waved it off as something which need not concern him, but her eyes promised explanation—later. Igrayne’s eldest daughter advanced now, clad in the same riding habit as her mother, and carrying a dark-haired bairn, no more than three years in age. There was no mistaking Igrayne’s youngest—her coloring was her father’s, but like as not she would grow to resemble her mother and sisters.
With familial ease, Anbrydian chucked Morgayne under the chin, mussed her black ringlets. “Lady Morgayne, you have grown so big!”
The bairn giggled and squirmed to be set down. Heedful of the horses’ hooves and general traffic of the courtyard, Mhargause passed her instead to their mother, who settled Morgayne on her hip, still smiling.
“Wait…but this can’t be my cousin Mhargause!” Anbrydian denied, playfully measuring his cousin’s height against himself. “She is near as tall as me!”
“Anbrydian…” Mhargause complained, embarrassed but pleased, shaking her head.
“And this is Elayne?” Anbrydian gaped exaggeratedly, eliciting laughter from the small blond girl. Kneeling down, he reached a hand behind her pointed ear, pulling a glinting coin from the air. “Didn’t your mother teach you to wash your hair?”
Elayne’s hazel-green eyes squinted with laughter as she took the coin Anbrydian offered, running to show it to Mhargause. Her elder sister, ever responsible, had turned to quiet her mount—the fine animal was nervous in this strange courtyard, and resisting the hostlers.
Watching Elayne jump up and down in her excitement, Igrayne smiled at her younger cousin’s antics, pleased with his warm welcome for her children. She and Anbrydian, raised together, were like siblings themselves; her offspring were the nearest he had to nieces, perhaps the nearest he would ever have to children of his own. She watched him for a moment, as she placed Morgayne into Esseca’s arms, giving directions for the handling of their luggage. Esseca was the capable head of Igrayne’s personal staff, ranking above this young steward now approaching; she would sort out matters, from the luggage to the stabling of their horses. Igrayne need not concern herself further; instead, she observed her cousin.
Waving to Elayne, Anbrydian straightened up from his crouch and turned back to Igrayne, a fresh grin stretching his pale, chiseled face. He had lost weight—always slender, he could not afford to lose more. His impending height had finally been realized; he was taller than she, now. Anbrydian shook his black curls impatiently out of his eyes, and Igrayne knew for one moment how the ladies of Uther’s court must see her beloved cousin. He was handsome by their standards, and lithe, and merry—or so they would think him, with nothing of dourness or stoicism in his youthful nature. Raised to courtly pleasantries—not arms—and trained extensively in music, he was every inch the gentleman.
Even for one of their people, Anbrydian was musically gifted. At his young age, he had completed his training as a cantor as well as his bardic apprenticeship. Why he had elected, two years before, to fill Tahendra Gorrayn’s place at Uther’s court, Igrayne could not fathom. To her knowledge, Anbrydian’s posting here was voluntary. She could only suspect her young cousin of romanticism, wanting to see the world at the side of Britain’s great protector, liege-king Uther of Geyndwayr, and write ballads of his triumphs. Perhaps fortunately for Anbrydian, the present peace had stretched to fill the past handful of years, and Uther had little reason to muster his men.
No doubt this left her cousin singing only seasonal tunes and the old ballads, and composing histories from others’ tales. Only Anbrydian would be unsatisfied; his audience would marvel with every note from his throat, flying free from his lips. She could imagine the ladies of the Pendragon’s court must nearly fall at Anbrydian’s feet. The thought made her smile. A colder thought followed, and threatened to falter her, but Igrayne kept her face calm and pleased. Anbrydian’s training was in music, though he would do well to accept his other gifts.
Igrayne, fair-voiced as she was, was no cantress. Her training lay elsewhere, and she called upon it now to smooth her face, fill her eyes only with pleasure. Anbrydian, thought that cold touch of her intellect, would find adventure before this fortnight was out, and the Lady shield him from any further duty in the service of her husband or her father. This looming storm, which tore at the fabric of their society, threatened to dislodge even the Alliance—this storm was for lords and tacticians, not for bards, no matter howsoere adventurous.
Anbrydian drew near her again, still smiling, taking her arm in his with all the unthinking grace of one for whom the motions were natural, no courtly gesture, but simply the chaste desire for family, for closeness.
“All this way to Uther’s court, simply for lines on a map?” he joked, leading her toward the broad stairs up from the courtyard.
“A land dispute with a baron under Uther’s keeping,” Igrayne answered lightly, quietly, so as not to create gossip. “Gorloise sent me to show the import of the matter, and knowing you were here made it all the easier to agree. Though, frankly, I think he wanted some quiet for himself,” she laughed easily.
“I am glad you came. It does my heart good to see you, Igrayne.” Anbrydian attempted to sound hearty, but a sad reflection entered his eyes, and he pretended not to notice it.
“And you, my cousin,” she returned warmly, meeting his dark eyes, and hating to plant this seed, no matter how true it might be. “Do you grow lonely here, Anbrydian? Do you miss our people? Our language?” There was concern in the melody of her voice.
“Lonely?” he scoffed, breaking her gaze. “Among all this press of humanity?” He gestured to the buildings beyond the courtyard and the city beyond the wall.
“Never.” But his eyes told the tale plainly to Igrayne’s practiced watching. Her guilt evaporated; he was already thinking it, wishing an excuse to travel among their own people again. Anbrydian had always been restless. It would do him good to return home, despite the heavy message he must carry; Uther could fare without his prized bard for a time.
Igrayne leaned in close to Anbrydian, grasping her right hand over his, where his right arm was linked with her left. With the barest movement of her lips, Igrayne whispered near her cousin’s ear. “Shanighe, you will attend me after the evening meal.”
“Certainly, Igrayne.” Anbrydian replied in the same near-silent manner, with a puzzled edge to his words, surprised at her command. Their relationship was not one which had ever required such. He did not know what to make of it, only that Igrayne was thinking much more than she could say here, and that—that should worry him.
Elayne ran up to them, tugging on Igrayne’s brown riding coat to show her mother the bright coin Anbrydian had pulled from behind her ear. Igrayne smiled indulgently, and whatever tension in the air was gone. Anbrydian, laughing, snatched up Elayne and spun her around, much to her delight. This cousin, at least, he could swing round without impropriety.
“Come in, Igrayne — come in, all of you,” Anbrydian cried jovially, addressing all of his cousin’s small entourage, from maidservants to guardsmen. “The hostlers will tend to your mounts and your luggage.” He returned Elayne to the ground, turning to the steward. “Tonight, Jocelyn, we feast a high lady!”