The Guinevere's Tale Trilogy - Nicole Evelina - ebook
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Guinevere is remembered for her role as King Arthur’s wife and for her adulterous affair with Lancelot. But there is so much more to her story… Priestess. Queen. Warrior. Experience the world of King Arthur through Guinevere’s eyes as she matures from a young priestess who never dreamed of becoming queen to the stalwart defender of a nation and a mistress whose sin would go down in history. Throughout it all, Guinevere faces threats from both foreign powers and within her own court that lead her to place her very life on the line to protect the dream of Camelot and save her people. This compendium of Nicole Evelina’s two-time Book of the Year award-winning trilogy – Daughter of Destiny, Camelot’s Queen, and Mistress of Legend – gives fresh life to an age-old tale by adding historical context and emotional depth. Spanning more than three decades, it presents Guinevere as an equal to the famous men she is remembered for loving, while providing context for her controversial decisions and visiting little-known aspects of her life before and after her marriage to King Arthur. Book One: Daughter of Destiny Before queenship and Camelot, Guinevere was a priestess of Avalon. She loved another before Arthur, a warrior who would one day betray her. Learn the true story of her early life. Book of the Year – Chanticleer Reviews Best New Voice, (Silver Award), IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards Winner – North Street Book Prize "Rich and stunning, easily comparable to novels by other bestselling historical fiction authors." - Chanticleer Book Reviews Book Two: Camelot’s Queen Guinevere is now High Queen and Arthur’s top strategist. But when she is feared dead, Arthur installs a new woman in her place, one who will poison his affections, threatening Guinevere’s fragile sanity and driving her into the arms of her champion. Can the Grail’s promise of peace set things right or will peace prove as dangerous as war? Fiction Book of the Year – Author’s Circle Best Second Book – Next Generation Indie Book Awards “Historical fantasy at its finest!" - InD'Tale Magazine Book Three: Mistress of Legend Legend says Guinevere spent her final days in penance in a convent, but that is far from the truth. Not one to quietly cede power, she fights for her ancestral homeland against an invasion that threatens both her people and her life.

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The Guinevere’s Tale Trilogy

Nicole Evelina

© 2018 Nicole Evelina

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author, Nicole Evelina, or the publisher, Lawson Gartner Publishing, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Lawson Gartner Publishing

PO Box 2021

Maryland Heights MO, 63043

www.lawsongartnerpublishing.com

Printed in the United States of America

First Printing 2018

ISBN

978-0-9967632-8-8 (print)

978-0-9967632-9-5 (e-book)

Library of Congress Control Number: 2018954315

Editor: Cassie Cox, Joy Editing

Cover Design: Jenny Quinlan, Historical Editorial

Layout: Qamber Designs and Media

Prologue

I am Guinevere.

I was once a queen, a lover, a wife, a mother, a priestess, and a friend. But all those roles are lost to me now; to history, I am simply a seductress, a misbegotten woman set astray by the evils of lust.

This is the image painted of me by subsequent generations, a story retold thousands of times. Yet, not one of those stories is correct. They were not there; they did not see through my eyes or feel my pain. My laughter was lost to them in the pages of history.

I made the mistake of allowing the bards to write my song. Events become muddled as ink touches paper, and truth becomes malleable as wax under a flame. Good men are relegated to the pages of inequity, without even an honest epitaph to mark their graves.

Arthur and I were human, no more, no less, though people choose to see it differently. We loved, we argued, we struggled, all in the name of a dream, a dream never to be fulfilled. Camelot is what fed the fires that stirred us to do as we did. History calls it sin, but we simply called it life.

The complexity of living has a way of shielding one’s eyes from the implications of one’s role. That is left for others to flesh out, and they so often manipulate it to suit their own needs. To those god-awful religious, I have become a whore; Arthur the victim of a fallen Eve; Morgan, a satanic faerie sent to lead us all astray. To the royalty, we have become symbols of the dreams they failed to create and Arthur is the hero of a nation, whereas to me, he was simply a man. To the poor, we are but a legend, never flesh and blood, a haunting story to be retold in times of tribulation, if only to inspire the will to survive.

We were so much more than mute skeletons doomed to an eternity in dust and confusion. We were people with a desire for life, a life of peace that would be our downfall. Why no one can look back through the years and recognize the human frailty beneath our actions, I will never understand. Some say grace formed my path; others call it a curse. Whatever it was, I deserve to be able to bear witness before being condemned by men who never saw my face.

It ends now. I will take back my voice and speak the truth of what happened. So shall the lies be revealed and Camelot’s former glory restored. Grieve with me, grieve for me, but do not believe the lies which time would sell. All I ask is that mankind listen to my words, and then judge me on their merit.

Chapter One

Spring 491

One more step, and there would be no turning back.

I glanced hesitantly at Viviane, who waited in the belly of a small boat at the edge of the gray-green lake. A slight breeze lifted her long, dark brown hair around her face to frame the crescent mark of a priestess tattooed on her brow. She stood patiently, one pale hand on the scrolling prow of the boat, which curved like a swan sleeping with its beak nestled under its wing. The vessel seemed to disappear in her wake, the other end obscured by a dense fog that rolled and curled in a sinuous dance that made it impossible to see what lay beyond. The air was thick with the heavy, choking fumes of the tar that turned the boat black, protecting it from the waters that lapped incessantly at its base and sides.

I looked down at my reflection; the gentle current pulled at the image of a girl hovering between youth and womanhood, fists balled nervously into the fabric of a green dress, wisps of black hair escaping from a long, tight braid flung over her left shoulder. She looked back at me with uncertain eyes, not emerald as they should be, but nearly black in the odd half-light where the spring sunshine gave way to the dower mists.

Who are you? she seemed to ask.

I wasn’t sure how to answer.

If I stepped aboard, I was no longer Guinevere, daughter of King Leodgrance of Gwynedd, but Guinevere, acolyte of the Goddess. The boat would take me to Avalon, away from the only life I had ever known and into a place of great mystery. I remembered my nursemaid, voice full of awe and reverence, describing Avalon as an earthly paradise—a holy place of temperate breezes and unending sunshine, where disease was unknown and crops needed no tending to produce a bountiful harvest each year without fail. Some of our servants even believed the hillsides teamed with faeries, dragons, elves, and all manner of mythical creatures that only came to ordinary mortals in their dreams.

Now I had to make a choice. Did I wish to go this place and learn to control the visions haunting my waking hours, or return to the familiar security of my home at Northgallis, despite the constant threat of Irish raids?

As if in answer, my sight clouded over against my will and a devastated seaport village arose before me, an unfamiliar place. My inner vision did not see the attack, but the aftermath lay before me as though I were there—the burned-out hulls of overturned ships, bodies being carted to the countryside by black-robed mourners for burial, crumbling houses laying bare the broken lives within.

I clenched my eyes closed, but the images remained, and they would come again, as they had so many times before. There would be no respite anytime soon if I didn’t go with Viviane and learn from the priestesses on the isle how to control this ability, this gift—as my mother called it—that I regarded as more of a curse.

Taking a deep breath, my decision made, I willed myself to lift my right foot, clad in a thick leather boot against the last of winter’s chill, from the sand and place it in the boat. I took Viviane’s cool, reassuring hand and let her help me aboard. She untied the mooring from a dock shrouded in fog and sank a thin pole into the invisible water. The boat glided smoothly across the lake, which scarcely seemed disturbed by its passage. As we moved, the world around us became even more engulfed in mist, until the shore was swallowed up and we floated in a land of milky vapor.

My stomach tightened. Had I made the right choice? What was I getting myself into? I was only eleven years old, not yet mature enough to foresee how such a decision might affect my future life and still enough of a child to already miss my family terribly. I fidgeted with my tunic as worry swam through my mind. What if the priestesses did not like me, or worse, what if the darker rumors were true?

I bit my thumbnail apprehensively as I thought about what I had heard—the priestesses were keepers of powerful magic that could influence the weather, bring forth life from the barren, or curse the wretched with unspeakable suffering, according to their will. Most common folk considered the priestesses harmless, but a vocal minority cowered in fear, regarding them as dark seekers of unnatural forces who, according to a few accounts, chose to roam the countryside in animal form, transforming back into humans only to cause mischief. What if they were right? What would these women do to me? I shivered at my own horrible imaginings of bloody sacrifice and evil magic.

No, I would not choose to indulge in such dark tales. Viviane had been nothing but kind to me, so I was determined to believe the same of the rest of Avalon’s inhabitants. I’d made my choice; now I had to see it through.

Straining to see beyond the mists, I tried to perceive the path Viviane followed with ease, navigating through the maze of sandbars and other perils as only a trained priestess could. Nature had provided a perfect ward against those who would do harm to the inhabitants of the isle. Like the tides that responded to the urgings of the moon, every morning, the mists rolled out across the lake, cutting off access to the uninitiated; each evening, they contracted around the Tor, the tallest, most sacred hill on the island, providing a thick blanket of protection to those who slumbered in the darkness below.

Eventually, the boat stilled and Viviane lifted the pole into the boat, a trail of water dribbling after it. She gave a sharp whistle, which was answered a short distance in front of us. I nearly toppled over as the boat was heaved forward by unseen hands.

Once ashore, the veil of mist thinned and I caught my first glimpse of Avalon. The land dipped lower as my eye moved inward from the lake. The shoreline gave way to damp marshes, slim clusters of reeds, and wetland grasses in which stately silver herons and colorful kingfishers played and hunted for fish, heedless of the activity around them.

Mountains and low hills veiled in shadow appeared brown, purple, and gray on the far horizon, acting as a screen separating Avalon from the outside world, while directly in front of me, the sun shone brightly on a cluster of buildings, giving their white-gray stone a radiant appearance. Beyond them, the sun warmed colorful gardens and vast green orchards that in a few months would be heavy with fragrant fruit. Farther to the east, a soft, cool breeze stirred tall golden grasses in the open plains, and shadows played hide-and-seek with the sun on the outskirts of tall forests of oak, ash, elm, and other sacred trees.

To my right, the sacred Tor loomed above the flat land, its humped shadow reflected in the still waters of the inland lake encircling its base. A spiral path wound around the hill, and nine pairs of evenly spaced pillars marked stations along the way. As my eyes traced the pathway upward, I was surprised to find the summit was ringed with standing stones, the two taller portal stones capped by a horizontal slab, much like the Druid’s circle several days ride to the east.

I was immediately caught up in the buzz of activity generated by the throng of brightly clad women preparing for some great event. A few younger women dressed in robes of forest green helped secure the boat, while young and old alike scurried up and down the stairs of a tall, stately columned building, and others carried supplies to the long, flat houses that lay adjacent. I marveled at their organization. In the flurry of activity, none seemed to lose sense of her purpose. Even my father’s army could not boast that.

Viviane followed the line of my eyes and smiled, her blue eyes twinkling. “These are your sisters now, Guinevere. They will be your only friends and family for many years. You will be introduced to them later. Come.”

She took my hand and showed me into one of the flat houses near the gardens. I met a short dark-haired girl, who I guessed to be one or two years older than me.

“Mona, this is Guinevere, our newest candidate. Guinevere, Mona will help you become acquainted with the isle,” Viviane said by way of introduction.

Mona gave me a welcoming smile as Viviane departed. Then, with a fluid gesture, she ushered me inside to a small bedroom where I washed the dust from my hair, feet, and skin and changed into a pure white gown, just like the one Mona wore.

Snatching up my discarded traveling clothes and a ball of soap from the bedside table, Mona strode across the terrace overlooking the lake. She was halfway down a gently sloping hill before she paused then turned, a small frown creasing the otherwise smooth skin between her eyes.

“This way,” she said, beckoning before she wound her way through a series of herb, vegetable, and flower gardens. She walked along the edge of an apple orchard to a clear, softly flowing stream.

I remembered hearing that waters such as those were rumored to heal every illness and even grant eternal youth. I glanced about in awe. Were the stories true?

Mona handed me my tunic, which I held dumbly. I watched as my tan cloak turned the color of freshly tilled earth as she submerged it in the water. She wrung it out, laid it flat against the surface of a large, smooth stone, and began running the fragrant lavender soap over the material, working it into the fibers with her fingertips.

I was utterly transfixed. At home, we had servants and slaves who took our soiled linens and then returned them to us clean. I had never thought to question how it happened.

Mona looked up at me with eyes as dark as her hair, the ghost of a smile playing at her lips as if she could read my thoughts. “Go on,” she said encouragingly, gesturing toward the tunic I still held balled between my hands. “You will have to learn to clean your own clothes. You will have only three tunics, two for daily use and one for rituals, so take good care of them. You will need to learn to mend them too, but that is a lesson for another day.”

My heart twisted at the thought of having to do menial labor, and the better part of me wanted to refuse. I opened my mouth in protest, but Mona’s gaze silenced me. I knelt down beside her and plunged my tunic into the stream. I gasped, not expecting the water to be icy cold. Mimicking what Mona had done, I lifted my dress out of the water and twisted the sodden lump of material between my reddened fingers, nearly drenching myself in the process.

Mona grabbed my hands and pulled my arms out straight. “Hold it out, away from you,” she instructed, “unless you want to take a bath at the same time.” She giggled, not unkindly, at my ineptitude.

I spread out my dripping tunic on Mona’s chosen rock and began to soap it. She looked at my hands with curiosity, no doubt wondering why they resembled the rough, callused hands of a warrior in training instead of the smooth, silky skin of most noblewomen. I could sense the unspoken question she was too polite to ask.

“My mother,” I began, throat constricting with emotion as I pictured her face, “has been training me to wield a sword since I was old enough to feed myself. She is a Votadini from the lands far to the north. It is a tradition of her homeland that all the women of the tribe be trained to fight alongside their men in battle.”

“Are you good at it? The fighting?” Mona’s interest came through as pure excitement.

I dipped the frothy material back into the water, fighting the current and the leaden heaviness of the cloth as I tried to rinse it clean. “I thought I was,” I said quietly, disappointment slowly creeping into my voice as I spoke, “but I could not even defend myself when we were attacked. I nearly lost my life, but my mother saved me.”

Mercifully, Mona asked no more questions. I told myself it was all in the past now. No acts of violence were allowed on the isle, so I would have to let go of my training and the horrors of the day it failed me, just as I would have to relinquish my noble rank.

By the time we completed our task, it was late afternoon. Instead of taking me back to the house where I had changed clothes earlier, Mona guided me through the maze of trees to a long, single-story building of white-gray stone, one of the ones that seemed to glimmer from the shore.

“This is the House of Nine,” she explained on tiptoe as she draped my wet garments over a sturdy branch of white-barked birch about half a foot above her head. “If the Lady deems you a worthy student, you will live here with me and seven other girls. We are all about the same age.” She glanced over her shoulder. “That is Grainne peeking out from the doorway.”

The golden-haired girl shrank back momentarily at the sound of her name, seemingly embarrassed at being caught spying on us, but then she came bounding toward us like an excited puppy. Trailing hesitantly in her shadow was a small brunette girl who exuded peace and calm in equal amount to Grainne’s energy.

“You must be Guinevere,” Grainne said by way of greeting. But before I had time to reply, she asked, “So is it true you were kidnapped by Irish raiders?”

“You told me they were landless tribal outlaws.” The smaller, dark-haired girl scowled at Mona before introducing herself as Rowena.

“Then you must have misheard me,” Grainne shot back. “I said no such thing.”

For a moment I couldn’t respond, shocked they had been gossiping about me before I even arrived.

“In the House of Nine, there are no secrets,” Mona whispered in my ear. “We know every scrap of one another’s business.”

Grainne and Rowena looked at me expectantly, clearly waiting for my answer.

“Well, I yes,” I began. “I was attacked—”

The tinkling of a soft bell cut me off. Viviane appeared in the doorway and bid us to follow her.

“Where are we going?” I asked, unsure of what activity might begin when the sun was fast sinking below the horizon.

“To meet the Lady of the Lake,” Viviane answered.

Viviane escorted us into a massive temple-like building that lay open to the lake and world of mists beyond, and she led us up a set of steep stairs. How silent the structure seemed to be, although the air around us vibrated with a low hum. After passing through a small foyer, we entered a large square room with ceilings as high as the tips of ancient oaks. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I began to make out figures in the room behind us. At first they appeared as phantoms without faces, but after a moment, we were surrounded in a semi-circle by a crowd of women dressed in brightly colored gowns of forest green, pearl white, and the same ocean blue Viviane wore. She led me to stand in front of a throne-like chair at the far end of the room.

The wall behind the chair was lined with pots of sweet-smelling incense, its lazy haze blending with the orange flames from rows of candles that glowed like the midday sun. From the ceiling hung brass containers of fire, probably fed by small charcoal bricks. Craning my neck, I peered between the curious women to my right, just catching a glimpse of flower petals floating on the surfaces of bowls of water surrounded by scores of seashells on a small table. In the opposite window, the one facing east, bronze wind chimes adorned with feathers hung limply from their strings, silent due to the lack of a breeze. Glancing over my shoulder, I was startled to see the Tor framed perfectly in the doorway behind us. All of the elements—earth, air, water, and fire—were represented here, all in perfect balance.

As the moments trudged slowly by, I grew increasingly uncomfortable. Everyone seemed to be staring at me as if I came from another world. A few whispered to each other, no doubt talking about me. I began to nervously twirl a strand of my hair in order to combat the sickening fear welling up inside me.

“Guinevere, stop that.” Viviane swatted at the fingers knotted in my hair. “It does not befit a student of Avalon to fidget like a child,” she said, her voice sharper than I’d ever heard it.

I dropped my hand to my side. Just then, a small wooden side door creaked open, and I jumped in fear. The murmuring ceased as every woman in the room snapped to attention at once.

An aged, stately woman emerged from the dark interior room and took her place on the throne. Her hair was a rich auburn streaked with heavy bands of gray, her face lined and furrowed from many years of living, but her eyes were bright and perceptive, like a hawk’s. She wore a blue gown similar to Viviane’s but decorated with intricate spiraling patterns. A single glittering crystal bobbed from a silver chain around her neck, and a thin silver circlet rested on her head, just above the mark that signaled her rank as High Priestess—the three visible phases of the moon drawn in blue ink. Her crown mirrored the mark so that the waxing and waning moons peeked out from her hair on either side of an opaline full moon.

As I watched, awestruck, every woman in the circle around us, including Viviane, dropped to one knee in unison and touched the thumb of her right hand to her forehead, lips, and heart—the same gesture my mother had made to Viviane when she arrived at Northgallis. As one, they whispered, “May the Goddess grant me wisdom, may the God govern my speech, and may my heart be filled with their love.”

I looked around nervously, unsure if I should do the same, and fumbled a slight curtsy instead.

“Her name is Argante, but always address her as Lady,” Viviane whispered.

The old woman smiled slightly at my attempted reverence but then just as quickly resumed her serious disposition. “Viviane, for what reason have you gathered us here?” Her voice was stern and authoritative.

Viviane stepped forward and nudged me toward the Lady. “Sisters, I have brought with me a new candidate to be counted among our number.” She placed a hand on my shoulder, turning to address the woman on the throne. “Most blessed Lady of the Lake, this is Guinevere of Northgallis, who wishes to be named a servant of the Goddess.”

Viviane had warned me on the journey here that in Avalon, when speaking in general, all the goddesses of our people were collectively referred to as the Goddess, and likewise, all the gods as the God. Avalon welcomed people of many tribes and traditions, each with their preferred deity names and mythologies. This way, they avoided confusion and arguments over exactly which deity was being referenced or whose gods were better. Here, all were equal and, except on feast days sacred to a specific deity, all were worshiped according to individual preference. Personally, I favored the horse goddess Rhiannon, worshiped in my homeland, and the sun god Lugh, patron of my mother’s Votadini tribe.

Argante’s eyes met mine with an all-knowing gaze that pierced my soul and laid the entire contents of my being out on the floor for her examination. As her eyes searched mine, I trembled and said a private prayer to my gods, terrified she would find in me some imperfection, some reason to send me back to my father in shame. Argante reached forward, placed a hand on my brow, and my eyes involuntarily snapped shut. Moments passed in silent darkness, and then wood creaked as she sat back in her chair. When I opened my eyes, she appeared pensive.

The women in the assembled crowd shifted their weight restlessly, and tears began to prick at the back of my eyes. I feared this lengthy pause was a sign of disapproval; surely if I was pleasing to her, the Lady would have made it clear without delay. I searched the air between us for Viviane’s hand, and she gave mine a gentle squeeze before leaving me once again on my own.

“This child is pure of heart,” the Lady said at long last, her voice far-off and intense, as if it was not she who spoke, but someone greater through the medium of her voice. “Her innocence and faith please me greatly. I see in her no duplicity or capacity for betrayal, only a strong desire to love and serve. In her blood the sight runs strong, and she will be for Avalon a great asset.” She paused, and a slight frown played on her lips. “However, she will not ascend to greatness on this isle. Another crown sits on her brow, one that will secure the safety and prosperity of many, but at a great cost, both to herself and to those she holds dear.”

A whisper of concern ran through the circle as I knitted my brows together, trying to puzzle out the meaning of her words.

“But that is the future and its lines are not writ in stone, only hinted at by an uncertain sight interpreted by the human heart.” Argante looked at me lovingly now, seeming much more human, her voice softer. “Do not fear what is to come but embrace it, following the Goddess’s voice—which you shall not fail to hear in your heart—and trusting she will lead you on the right path. Guinevere, you have been chosen by she who created life itself and now you must prove your devotion by stating your intent. Why have you come to the isle of Avalon?”

I shifted my gaze to the floor in embarrassment, unsure how to reply.

“Answer from your heart,” Viviane whispered.

I raised my eyes to meet the Lady’s. “To serve the Goddess, who has protected me since before my first breath.” My voice issued forth strong and clear, as if propelled by a will other than my own. “My mother promised me to this isle in thanksgiving for our safe deliverance from her difficult labor. Now I fulfill the vow she made eleven years ago.”

In truth, this was my fate, but I purposefully neglected to mention my visions in such a public arena. Argante likely knew about them already, and I feared the judgment of the others.

Argante nodded in understanding. “Honorable as that is, it does not compel you to stay. Do you come here free of coercion and choose to remain here of your own will?”

“I do.”

“Look around. The women gathered here are your sisters. Do you promise to treat them as such, harming none and living in love and trust so strong that you give freely of yourself when needed and accept their aid when offered to you? Will you treat each woman as you would treat the Goddess, your own mother, or yourself?”

I looked out over the sea of strange faces. “I will.”

Argante caught my gaze and held it, impressing on me the seriousness of what she was about to say. “Know that the vows you now take are not binding and you may be released from them at any time, should you so desire. They are, nevertheless, a promise, and you will be held to them by value of your word, as it is your source of honor.”

Uncomfortable, I wanted to look away but could not break her gaze.

“Do you vow to serve the Goddess and God with all of your mind, heart, and soul and preserve your maidenhead until such time as you take your final vows or part ways with our community?”

I swallowed, sensing the sacrifice required in assenting to these terms. “I do.”

Argante smiled at me with all the warmth of a doting grandmother and leaned forward to kiss me on the forehead. “Welcome to the sisterhood, Guinevere.”

Chapter Two

Summer—Winter 491

Life in Avalon—a life equal to, rather than above, everyone else—was more difficult than I expected. I cried myself to sleep for a month.

No amount of protesting, tears, or will power could change the orders dispensed daily by the Lady’s authority. Argante had no time for temper tantrums and flatly ignored them. Complaints only ended in a sentence of silence for the remainder of the day, and if I refused to obey a command, I found myself without supper or barred from the evening’s ceremony, a great humiliation in this sacred place.

When my attention wasn’t fully focused on the task at hand—such as when I was helping to clean our communal living quarters or learning to cook a palatable meal—I found myself longing for home. As my parents’ only surviving child, I had rarely been away from them, following in their footsteps to learn how to rule the kingdom I would one day inherit.

But now I faced years without their love and attention, and I missed everything. Sparring with my mother and male cousins had been replaced with chasing the other girls across the hillsides and racing to climb trees. Quiet evenings learning new embroidery patterns by the firelight with my lady’s maid were replaced by solemn rituals I barely understood. I even missed sitting with my parents at council meetings, where the western lords would lament High King Uther’s inattention to their kingdoms now that he was focused on the invading Saxons. Those practical lessons in politics and governance now gave way to endless language and writing classes, which were followed by studies of the lore of the gods and practice of how to worship them on each of the eight great festivals.

Every morning began with sunrise salutations on the holy Tor. Then while the other girls scampered off, laughing and joking, to their lessons in familial groups, I followed Viviane to her quarters for private study. It was unusual for a first-year student to learn control of the sight—that usually came after a series of tests designed to assess our mental preparedness—but given my situation, Viviane thought it best for me to begin with that skill.

“You will not be able to give your other studies full attention if your mind is clouded with visions,” Viviane explained on our first day.

That had been several weeks ago. Now I was used to the pattern of each lesson, although that didn’t stop my hands from shaking as I washed my face and hands in the cool, clear water collected from the white spring. Sitting with my legs crossed beneath me, I closed my eyes and took a series of deep breaths, focusing my attention on my heartbeat.

I dreaded these meetings. My fear was in part because I knew they were separating me from the friendships I was trying so hard to forge. Even though they never showed it, I heard the other girls’ spiteful whispering that I was getting preferential treatment. But even more, I feared the painful memories and horrifying images that each session unearthed. Even when the visions were unrelated to me personally, the experience left me feeling raw and ragged.

“Tell me when you feel the sight coming on,” Viviane directed, her voice gentle and musical like the tinkling of bells.

She had already taught me the signs preceding each vision—the disorienting feeling like I was floating above my body and the now-familiar tingling in the center of my forehead, the very spot all priestesses were marked upon their consecration.

“Now,” I exclaimed, the area between my brows prickling.

She settled to the floor behind me, her voice almost directly in my right ear. “This time, instead of replacing what you see with a pleasant memory, as we have done before, will the image to go away, simply because you desire it to.”

At first, I thought I was succeeding because I couldn’t see anything. But before I could draw my next breath, I was reliving the day my mother and I were attacked in the woods near Northgallis, the moment that had led me here. My mother’s scream rang in my ears as they descended on us, a pack of foreigners with strange markings on their left forearms. I tried to defend myself, but there was an arm around my throat, crushing my windpipe. I was dragged from my saddle onto another horse by one of the men. My arms were wrenched behind me, leaving me defenseless. Even now, the stench of his skin filled my nostrils.

“I can’t. It isn’t working,” I cried to Viviane, only half aware what I was seeing was not real. My panic rose with the pace of my breath.

Viviane placed a hand on each of my shoulders. “Yes, you can. Imagine the scene collapsing in on itself like folded cloth. When that is done, frame what remains in an open doorway. Shut the door tight. You can even lock it, if you like.”

I concentrated on the vision as it played out before me, my mother and captor battling with me trapped between them, their blades clashing dangerously close to my nose. Slowly and with much effort, I covered the scene in reams of gray wool, first over my stunned captor, his face eternally contorted by the last thing his eyes saw—my mother’s sword buried in his stomach. I folded that in over the memory of my wounded mother, blood streaming from gashes in her arm and side. One more fold to make that image disappear, and I slammed shut the door of my mind. Now there was nothing but the chirping of the birds outside Viviane’s walls.

I opened my eyes in relief, still panting from the effort.

Viviane’s pale eyes searched my face. “It is over. It may take some time and you may have to repeat the exercise, but eventually you should be free. As long as you keep that door closed in your mind, the vision should not trouble you again.” She put an arm around me.

I reached behind me to complete the embrace.

“In a few years, I will teach you how to open your mind without letting that memory back in, so have no fear. For now, it is probably best to shut off the channels of the sight until you can control them.”

Laughter echoed outside as the women moved from one task to another, interrupting our private moment. Viviane poked her head out the door and waved to Mona.

Turning to me, she said, “You have missed your Ogham lesson for today, but I have no doubt you will catch up. Off with you.” She shooed me out the door.

I followed Mona to Argante’s hut where we would learn from her great wisdom.

My days began to pass quickly. Spring gave way to summer’s heat, and we spent nearly every pleasant day outdoors, getting to know every inch of the island and learning to feel the subtle shifts in energy as the seasons progressed in their endless cycle. Romping through the forest and over the hillsides, we were taught to identify every herb and flower that took root in the land and how to use it in healing.

Today, however, we stood in a large rectangular garden spread out behind Avalon’s main cluster of buildings. Tiny blooms of chamomile magnified the sun while tall reeds of dill nodded their hairy stalks and seeded starbursts over thick carpets of fragrant thyme and marjoram. In the far shadows of the wall, foxglove bells stood sentinel over purple-winged wolfsbane, perky clumps of larkspur, seductive nightshade, and other herbs not meant for untrained hands. Those were the herbs of the Goddess, which, like her power, could bring life or death, depending on the intent and skill of the one using them.

While every one of the herbs cultivated here could be found growing wild across the isle, this garden kept the most commonly used ones near to hand, in case of emergency. It also served as a teaching ground for new students.

On the opposite end of the garden, a tall, thin girl with bright red hair and skin like fresh cream was pointing at herbs as Viviane named them off, a test we each took to determine who could advance to more complex lessons and who still needed more study.

I toyed with the finger-like fronds of a fern whose name would forever be etched in my memory. It was the only one I had misidentified. Unfortunately, had the situation been real, my mistake would have killed the recipient. Viviane was displeased, to say the least, and there was no question she would tell Argante. I was desperate to win their approval, so this setback troubled me deeply.

I eyed the girl engrossed in the test, who was now squatting over a spray of tiny pink flowers at Viviane’s feet. “I wager she is right on each,” I muttered to the girls waiting impatiently with me. “She always is.”

Rowena snorted. “Herbs come as easy to Morgan as does breathing.”

“But she’s part fey, so she has an advantage,” Grainne chimed in.

I narrowed my eyes at the bright-eyed girl with wavy, golden tresses. “You don’t really believe that rot, do you?” Although I thought I detected a slight lilt in Morgan’s voice when she spoke, I didn’t think for a moment she was part of an ancient, mystical race from across the sea in Ireland. I had been living with Morgan for months now, during which time she had proven herself very much mortal, although she would be loathe to admit it, content as she was with her reputation for Otherworldly perfection.

“Oh yes.” Grainne scooted closer to me, leaning in as though confiding a great secret, and the other girls inclined their heads to listen. “One of the old priestesses told me Morgan has lived here most of her life, but no one can remember her coming here. There was no boat ride through the mists for her; she just appeared.” She made a popping sound with her lips.

I looked back at Morgan, noting with a pang of jealousy the blossoming approval on Viviane’s face as they moved from plant to plant. She was outshining me again.

Everyone seemed to have their own theory about Morgan’s origins. Other whispers named her the lone survivor a slaughtered tribe, or worse yet, a changeling or the abandoned offspring of some unholy union. But more than likely, the tongues which told such tales were simply jealous of Morgan’s intelligence and aptitude in the magical arts, if not of her great beauty. I assumed she had been promised to Avalon much like myself, or taken out of kindness from the arms of a mother who could not care for her.

“No, I think she is very much human.” I turned back to Grainne. “I just wish she were more forthcoming. I never know what she is thinking, and that unnerves me.”

Grainne smirked as a placid, lightly accented voice floated over my shoulder. “I think it is unkind to speak of others outside their presence.”

I whirled around. Morgan had materialized silently behind me, her slate blue eyes flashing. Maybe Grainne was right about her otherworldly bloodlines.

An amused smile played on Morgan’s lips. “Viviane told me to tell you we all passed the test.”

The others whooped and hooted with joy.

“There is only room for one favorite among us,” Morgan quietly added to me. “That title is mine, and I intend to keep it. You’ll have to try much harder if you wish to best me.”

As summer wore on, Morgan’s declaration of dominance ate at me. I was used to getting my way unchallenged, and to make matters worse, I was also used to being the best and brightest of the cohort my mother instructed back home. So I was ill-equipped to endure my rival’s constant assertion of superiority.

At first, I took the passive route, hoping she would be satisfied, forget me, and move on to hating someone else. I let her think she was superior even when I knew my skill to be greater and frequently resorted to false flattery, but Morgan saw through me every time. To truly win her over, I would have to openly admit my inferiority before the rest of the House of Nine, bowing and scraping like a slave before her master. That was the one thing I would not do, and she knew it.

So our competition slowly became a battle of wills. We found tiny ways to trip one another up or gain advantage—petty things like toppled ink pots, missing vials of herbs, and well-timed pinches that forced one another to break the solemnity of ritual—childish pranks we thought went unnoticed by anyone else. That is, until one day in early winter when Argante asked us to remain with her after our lesson ended.

We were learning the basic tenants of law, which at our early level consisted of memorizing categories of possible dispute—property, contracts, and crimes—along with their corresponding value or punishment. After eight months of study, we could easily recite the equivalent value of a cumal of rich farmland versus one of poor, rocky soil, or how to determine the honor price owed to a father for a bride. While not as exciting as divination or as entertaining as learning epic bardic poetry, it was equally important. Someday, as priestesses, we might be called upon by kings or lords to settle matters of law they did not want or were unqualified to decide themselves.

Argante had just returned from such a journey, where she’d adjudicated several cases for the new lord of the Summer Country, a young tribal prince named Malegant who, according to rumor, had managed to overthrow his own mother, as well as kill or subdue nearly a dozen siblings who contested his right to the throne. The resulting kingdom was a blend of three previous tribal holdings, and peace was tenuous at best. He’d had the foresight to call on Argante for aid, and she had been using some of the examples from his court to instruct us.

“I have called you apart from the others because I have a special case to present to you, one I would normally pose only to advanced students. I believe because of your superior skills and wit, you will rise to the challenge. Imagine yourselves the judges of this scenario. A man takes a second wife—”

“Does that happen anymore?” I asked, not realizing I had voiced my thought aloud, until Argante pinned me with an outraged expression that answered louder than her voice ever could have. I’d better not interrupt her again.

“A man takes a second wife,” she repeated. “His first wife is displeased and kills her. Is she to be held guilty or not?”

This situation was a matter of tradition, one told in bardic lore from ages long past, before the coming of the Romans, so we were familiar with the idea, even though our studies had not yet reached that level of complexity.

“Does he have sons? When did the murder take place?” Morgan asked.

“Ah, now you are getting to the heart of the matter.” Argante gestured with her index finger as she spoke. “He had no sons, and the murder took place two days after his second wedding.”

Morgan wrinkled her brow. “Then no, she is guilty of no crime and no punishment should be given. If the second wife dies within the first three nights of marriage, then the primary wife is held blameless, regardless of her actions.”

“The primary wife would have to pay a fine to the victim’s kin, whether or not she was within her rights,” I corrected Morgan.

Argante turned to me. “And if the second wife’s family seeks vengeance?”

“If the family takes revenge, they do so at their own peril, unless they hire outlaws to do their bidding,” I answered.

“And why is that permitted?” Argante asked Morgan.

“Because outlaws are not held to the same code as those with tribal ties. The only way to impose the law on a band of outlaws is to hire your own, and even then, they may turn on you.”

“Exactly.” Argante nodded and clapped her hands together, pleased. “Now what if the husband kills the first wife out of anger for her act? How is he to be punished? Is he put to the sword, or does he pay a heavy fine and enter slavery for a number of years? Or is there another alternative?”

Morgan and I looked at one another, puzzled. That was well beyond our ken. I decided to keep silent.

Morgan attempted to form an answer but never made it beyond stuttering, “I-I-he. . .”

Argante fixed us in her solemn gaze. “I did not expect you to know the answer. You see, ladies, you have just proven you are equals both in knowledge and ignorance. Stop trying to best one another, and concentrate on your studies. You only hurt yourselves by directing your attention elsewhere. Now go join your sisters.”

Morgan was silent as we made our way out the door, but then we moved out of earshot of our teacher.

“We are not finished,” she sneered.

Hours later, in the deep stillness of night, I woke with a startled gasp, one hand pressed protectively over my racing heart, the other clamped in a fist at my side, still holding my one piece of home—a small wooden dog that had been my going-away present.

Sometimes the door of my mind would not stay shut. Most of the time it was locked to even gales, but in my weaker moments, just the slightest whisper of a memory was enough to release the lock and let the sight slip in like a winter draft.

Fighting to see through the cobwebs left behind by my nightmare, I sat up and gazed around at the other girls sleeping soundly all around me. Rowena was facing me in the next bed, a slight smile upon her lips, one arm tucked beneath her head, the other thrown carelessly above it. At least I had not woken them in my fright.

I lay back down, focusing on my breathing as the snow swirled outside the window facing the Tor, blanketing the isle in a glimmering cape of white. Slowly, I went through the steps of shutting my mind to the sight, trying to forget the terror that came with it.

That was one of the strange things about visions that came unbidden. Even after the images faded, the emotions they conjured remained. Tonight it was the bittersweet dregs of the Holy Grail, with its sanguine promise of peace offset by the rumbling threat of destruction. This was a dream that had haunted me for as long as I could remember. I suspected it was my confession of this dream, more than my recurring visions or my mother’s vow, which had prompted Viviane to bring me here. The Grail was one of Avalon’s clandestine treasures, and anyone who knew of it belonged here, safe behind the mists.

I shivered and drew the blanket closer around me. In the months that had passed since I came to Avalon, my visions had dwindled in number and more time elapsed between them, but they did not cease as Viviane had hoped. Argante told me they probably never would but echoed Viviane’s promise that with training, I could control them. However, she warned that I would never be totally in control. Weakness, she said, was the strongest trigger, even for a woman of many years like herself. Each one of us, just by being alive, was subject to its many whims. Even with all the training Avalon could provide, illness, fatigue, or even strong emotions such as love or fear could render us powerless to the sight.

I bit my lower lip, trying to decide what had prompted this dream. I was healthy and my initial fear of life on the isle had faded, so that left one possible trigger—some strong emotion. Even without much thought, I knew what it was. Hatred. It burned in my belly even as I turned the previous day’s events over in my mind. Morgan’s refusal to let go of her quest for dominance over me, even after Argante’s strict admonition, set me on edge. I was done fighting, but Morgan never would be, at least not until she saw me trod down once and for all.

Suddenly, a sound as soft as the tease of a feather captured my attention. I lifted my head slightly off the pillow. It came again, more distinct this time, a small cry almost like the mewing of a kitten. I lifted myself onto my forearm and scanned the beds. One was empty. Wrapping the heavy fur blanket around me, I followed the sound, my bare feet swishing softly on the cold floor.

I could just make out a small figure hunched on the thick white rug in front of the fire. As I drew nearer, I recognized Mona’s silhouette.

I crossed my ankles and sank down silently beside her, wrapping my arm and half of the blanket around her. She nestled into my embrace like a baby bird beneath its mother’s wing. Neither of us spoke, for we both knew the source of her grief. Whether by design or malevolent coincidence, Mona had been named after a holy island off the coast of my father’s kingdom of Gwynedd, which had been home to the Druids before its inhabitants were slaughtered by a power-crazed Roman governor, an event she frequently relived in her dreams.

When I first joined the House of Nine, I thought her a banshee, but by now, I was so used to her screams in the night that I usually turned over and went back to sleep whenever she woke me. But something was different tonight. Maybe it was because of my own nightmare, but I wanted to keep watch with her, to hold her until her tears ceased and she finally succumbed to sleep.

After a long silence, Mona spoke, hiccupping through her tears. “I asked Argante today why I am cursed.”

“What? Why?”

“By the nightmares, I mean. She told me the sight works differently in every person. Some can see the future, while others are given the gift of seeing distant things as they occur or, in my case, long after.”

“But I still do not understand. It seems pointless to repeat the same events over and over again, even if only in our minds.” I stroked her hair, gazing off into the distance as I thought of my own visions and felt anew the frustration of reliving tragic events and portents without any understanding of why.

“That is exactly what I thought, so I asked her what value there is in seeing the past. She did not really answer me but went into one of her lectures.”

“What did she say?”

Mona shifted around so she was facing me. Distracted by her story, she had finally stopped crying. She adopted a dignified pose and mimicked Argante’s regal voice, quoting her while being careful not to wake the others. “‘How can we ever plan a better future if we do not learn from our past? If you burned your hand but did not remember the pain, how would you know not to touch the flame again? It is the same in battle or politics. If no one remembers the successes and failures, then our lives are but one pointless circle with no hope that future generations will advance. Knowing someone’s past gives special insight into their motivations, which is much like being inside their minds. Do not discount the gift you have been given. If you develop it properly, it is a blessing that could prove very useful.’”

We were both silent for a moment.

“How very”—I searched for the right word—“cryptic. Do you feel any better?”

She shook her head. “Not really, but at least I know Argante sees potential in me, in my condition. What is that?” She pointed at the object clutched in my left hand.

I opened my palm, having completely forgotten I was holding anything. In it lay the small wooden carving of a dog. Peredur, the young son of my lady’s maid, had given it to me as a farewell present on my last day in Northgallis. It had been a gift from his own father to help him conquer his fear of the dark. My palm was still etched with its imprint, made as I was clutching it in my sleep.

“This”—I gave Mona a squeeze—“is a magic wolfhound. He protects you from all your fears. I have been sleeping with it to combat my homesickness, but maybe you should keep him for a while.”

Mona took the toy from my hand and examined it in the firelight. “I think he is one of Ellen’s own,” she said with awe, referring to the goddess of all journeys, even in the land of dreams.

“He doesn’t appear much of a protector,” interjected a bored voice from the dark depths of the room.

We both turned. Morgan stood in the shadows, her blanket trailing after her like a cape.

“Considering you are both awake, I would say he is not doing his job,” she said, sitting down on Mona’s other side.

“And what is your excuse?” I countered, annoyed at her interruption of a private moment.

Morgan narrowed her sleep-ringed eyes at me. “Who could sleep with the two of you chattering away like squirrels?”

“Have you been listening long?” Mona asked, a mixture of embarrassment and distrust in her voice.

“Long enough. I-I came over to ask you a favor.” Morgan inclined her head to Mona and pursed her lips, as though unsure if she should go on in my presence.

“You could simply ask, if you want privacy,” I pointed out to Morgan. I rose, leaving my blanket with Mona. I would take the one from her bed. “Good night, Mona. I hope you feel better.”

She waved the wooden dog at me. “Of course I do.”

I padded back to bed, slowing my pace just enough to catch a hint of Morgan’s request.

“I heard what Argante told you. Will you try to see my past? It would mean very much to me to know where I come from.”

Mona’s voice lost its edge and once again radiated her natural warmth. “I don’t think it works that way, but I will try.”

I pulled Mona’s blanket around me as I padded back to my bed, pondering this turn of events. So the rumors were true. Perfect little Morgan had a weakness after all—she was an orphan, at least as far as she knew. That meant she had no kin, no tribe to return to, no life save that which she had built on this isle. She was utterly beholden to the whims of Avalon. No wonder she was so anxious to secure her place as favorite daughter.

Well, she would have to fight me for it. I knew it was wrong, but I couldn’t help but smile inwardly at the possibilities and plot ways to use my newfound knowledge to my advantage.

Chapter Three

Autumn—Winter 493

Two years came and went in the ceaseless rhythm of sacred festivals and lunar cycles. In the House of Nine, change began to unleash its unsettling force as bodies began to blossom. The Goddess saw fit to give Morgan ample curves, while I had little more than budding breasts and barely perceptible hips beneath my gown. But my moon time came first, and with that sacred milestone, I was finally able to trade my white robes for the forest green of a second-degree initiate.

Were I still at home with my mother, a different kind of ceremony would have marked my entrance into womanhood, one which had been passed down from mother to daughter for countless generations among the Votadini. I imagined my mother at her mortar and pestle, crushing leaves of woad, adding them to a tiny steaming cauldron of water, copper, and other substances which she would not divulge until I had a daughter of my own to mark, then carefully straining the liquid to produce a dark blue ink. I imagined myself lying facedown in her chamber at the new moon as a cluster of thin, sharp bones like teeth slowly pricked the symbol of our tribe, a horse whose body formed an endless knot, into the flesh of my left shoulder blade. She would lovingly bandage the tender flesh and embrace me, now officially a woman of our tribe, though I lived far from our ancestral home.

But those were the memories of a person I had chosen not to become. My life was here, in Avalon, among the ranks of the acolytes struggling to understand our new roles in ritual and study. We were learned, but not yet masters, and stood as assistants to those who trod the path of the Goddess before us. Gone were the carefree days of childhood; we now had to adjust to the growing demands of adulthood and increasingly complex temporal and spiritual studies.

A sharp autumn breeze shook the tips of the fiery oaks and rustled our gowns. We were supposed to be concentrating on the circular boards in front of us, carefully set with gleaming crystals in a purposeful formation, but my mind kept drifting to my friends back in Northgallis. We were all nearing marriageable age now, and they would be preparing to leave their childhood homes for the beds of powerful men they barely knew. At one time, I would have envied them, but now I was grateful to be here, learning about one of Avalon’s most sacred forms of divination.

As Argante had explained it, Holy Stones originated with the Druids who had ruled our tribes long before the Roman eagle made her nest on our shores. Comprised of two sets of twenty-one stones aligned in a triangle formation facing off across an empty field, it was primarily used to predict the outcome of battle and advise clan leaders of strategy. Stones with different properties were used to represent troops—footmen, archers, or cavalry—protecting the two most important pieces: the king and the queen. The battle or situation in question was simulated using these stones, performed over and over as the seer received strategic advice from the gods. Once the best strategy with the most positive outcome was determined, the Druid would advise his or her leader.

Although capturing the king was the point of the exercise and the only way victory could be claimed, the queen—a red stone symbolizing the Goddess, lifeblood, and the power behind the throne—was the most important piece. Known by names such as the Sovereignty Stone or Lady Fortuna, the queen was the only piece that could move anywhere on the playing field. The queen also had the ability to sacrifice herself to save the king or “heal” captured troops and return them to the board, but no more than three times in any game. The only piece that could actively capture a queen was the opposing queen.