“Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry 'Hold, hold!'”

--Macbeth, Act I Scene V


            Under the cover of a bleak and stormy sky, the sea thrashed against a jutting precipice, upon which a dark castle perched precariously. The waves beat the jagged rocks violently, but the salty spray never reached high enough to touch the needle-like spires of the fortress, or its thin eye-like windows. Thunder rumbled, but no relieving rain fell.

            Inside the palace, in the highest tower, was a lady poring over a thick, dusty volume entitled A Guide to Celtic Magicks Moste Evile. Her tangled, dark locks of hair fell into her face as she read, a bony finger keeping her place. A cauldron seethed in the center of the study; all the walls were lined with shelves of ancient spell books, jars of pickled toads and preserved rats’ spleens, vials of diced herbs and magical plants, and bottles of half-finished potions.

            She started and looked up when a knock came on the door. Her wild hair fell back from her face, revealing entrancingly beautiful features—pale skin, sharp pointed nose and chin, and gleaming, intense eyes.

            “Mother?” called a voice from behind the heavy wooden door. “May I come in?”

            She shut the book with a snap. “Do come in, dear,” she said.

            A young man entered: sharp-featured with cruel eyes, he was the uncanny image of his mother. Immediately he crossed the room and embraced her.

            “You’ve been working up here for so long, I was beginning to fear you were losing sleep,” he said.

            His mother returned to her cauldron and stared into its simmering depths. “I have been,” she said in a low voice. “That fool, Arthur, has been on the throne far too long already. So long as he and that pompous mage remain in power, I cannot rest.”

            The man’s fists clenched; his brow darkened like his mother’s. “If Father were alive to see England under the rule of a nameless nobody with no claim whatsoever to the throne...” he growled, not finishing the thought.

            The lady turned to her son, a sudden manic fire building in her eyes. It lit up her features strangely; though she looked more alive, she somehow appeared less human.

            “Don’t you see, Mordred?” she breathed. Her voice was full of fervor, of almost crazed ambition. “You will be the High King. I promise you that—I will place you on the throne.” She caressed her son’s cheek. “Fear not, Mordred,” she crooned, “we will not have to endure the usurper too much longer.”

            “We will have to fight against my brothers,” warned Mordred. “Arthur has their sworn allegiance—as of late, Gawaine does his bidding like a son would.”

            Morgause’s face twisted bitterly. “Yes,” she hissed, “my boys have turned on me. But not you.”

            “Not I, Mother,” he agreed.

            Morgause began to pace the room anxiously, tearing at her long nails absentmindedly. “Brute force against Camelot would be foolish,” she muttered, mostly to herself. “And with that crackpot Merlin on their side, I cannot best them with magic. But with treachery...”

            Her eyes narrowed as she chewed over the idea. Her hard mouth twisted into a grin.

            “Yes,” she whispered triumphantly, “with treachery we can defeat them. Make them squabble amongst themselves. Make them turn on each other. Make them not know whom to trust. And then, while they collapse into chaos and petty feuding—”

            “I arrive and overturn the Round Table!” finished Mordred, a mirror of his mother’s passion appearing in his eyes.

            They looked at each other for a long moment.

            “All we need,” she murmured, “is a catalyst. Something to spark the feuding.”

            “I will ride to court tomorrow,” he promised, “and watch for the right opportunity.”

            A savage kind of smile spread across Morgause’s face. She began to laugh softly.

            “It’s perfect,” she purred.


Chapter One

            In the southern part of England, no visible storm was brewing at all—in fact, the sky was robin’s-egg blue and the sunshine was mellow and warm. Camelot was cheerful: hectic as ever, bustling with activity, but in a benevolent sort of way.

            Or perhaps that was simply how Guinevere was seeing everything at the moment. As she crossed the courtyard, she smiled at the butcher carrying a cartload of bloody pig carcasses to the kitchen; she smiled at the fisherman with his wagon full of eels and salted fish; she smiled at the minstrel telling bawdy jokes to a few lords; she smiled at the little page boys darting here and there on errands for their masters—in short, she positively glowed at everything she saw, assessing the castle with a far more generous view than usual. Her angelic face was radiant with some secret joy.

            She was almost to bursting point—she had to tell someone, anyone, and yet she wanted to keep it a secret for just a little bit longer. She couldn’t explain precisely why she was keeping it from Arthur still—perhaps she wanted the perfect moment, to see his face light up the way hers had.

            Halfway through the courtyard, she spied someone sitting on a stone bench, someone she was delighted to see, though it was nothing unusual.

            “Sir Lancelot!” she waved to him. Her husband’s most trusted knight and best friend at that, she considered him to be her best friend as well, almost like a brother-in-law.

            He looked up at her greeting, his dark, wavy shoulder-length hair falling into his face. He smiled, a little perplexed by Guinevere’s excessively jovial mood. “How are you this morning, my lady?”

            “If I tell you something, would you promise not to tell Arthur yet?” she said mysteriously.

            He frowned, mystified. “I suppose...” he said slowly.

            She looked around to make sure no one in the court was in ear’s reach before whispering to him, “Arthur and I are going to have a baby!”

            Lancelot gaped at her for half a second—then a grin spread across his face like a rising sun.

            “That’s excellent!” he said, laughing with delight, picking her up and swinging her around once. “Arthur’s going to be thrilled!”

            “I know, I know!” she said breathlessly, trying to compose herself. “After all this time, too...”

            Arthur and Guinevere had been married for five years without any sign of an heir; the kingdom had begun to whisper that the queen might be barren. Thus, her elation was ten times greater at the news.

            “Have you told him yet?”

            Guinevere shook her head. “I could send him a messenger, I know,” she sighed, “but I just want to tell him in person. He’ll be back soon, won’t he?”

            Lancelot’s face creased into poorly veiled worry. “Of course he will,” he assured her. “He sent me back to rest for a day and then bring some fresh horses.”

            Guinevere nodded, her sunny mood dampened a bit by the reminder. The Saxons had begun a series of invasions, not too far from Camelot—pillaging villages, burning crops and houses, all in the name of rebelling against Arthur. The Round Table knights had been dispatched immediately to quash the revolt, and while the fighting had been on-and-off for six months, Arthur had scarcely been home in all that time because he wanted to be with his men. It made her heart sink to think that Arthur was only a half a day’s journey from Camelot, and yet she hadn't seen him for months.

            “In fact,” continued Lancelot, “I had better get to the king’s orders.” He winked at her. “But my lips are sealed, don’t worry about a thing.”

            She heaved a smile back on her face with difficulty. “Send my love to the king,” she sighed.

            “As always, my lady,” he said, bowing his head and going on his way to the stables.


            Hidden behind a stone fountain, Mordred had listened intently and caught it all. As he watched Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot share their secret discussion and embrace, his mind was racing, building an idea—a terrible, hideous, awful idea; an idea that made chills run up and down his spine; an idea, he was sure, his mother would be proud of him for concocting.

            Though Arthur was renowned for his valor and fearlessness, Mordred knew that every man had one particular fear, one thing that could break their spirit—and he knew what the High King’s was. Not any enemy, not mutiny, not even death itself could shake Arthur’s courage—but losing his wife could.

            Slowly, his darkened face twisted into a grin much like Morgause’s.


Chapter Two

            Three weeks crawled by. Guinevere paced and anticipated. Arthur and his knights fought back the Saxon uprising. And Mordred bided his time.

            Finally, word came of Arthur: the army had successfully driven back the invaders in a major victory; nearly all the Saxon warriors involved had been captured or killed, and the remainders were driven into hiding in the hills. The Knights of the Round Table were coming home.

            Trumpets blasted exultantly. Guinevere looked over the windowsill of her tower and glimpsed a V formation of knights riding into the courtyard—fresh from the battle, still wounded, bruised, and filthy, still in their armor and chain mail, the banners on their horses tattered and bloodstained. She recognized a few of the coats-of-arms: the heart for Lancelot, for instance, and Uriens’ raven, and—was that a banner with a dragon on it?

            She stared harder, her heart drumming. Subjects were cheering and shouting praises to the returning warriors, but the most attention seemed being given to the rider in the forefront: the coat-of-arms was indeed a dragon, the symbol of the High King.

            Guinevere gave a muffled gasp of “Arthur!” She flew out of her chamber and down the spiral stairs, bounding down them far more quickly than was ladylike. As she got closer to the ground floor, the cheers grew louder and louder.

            Once outside, she had to push her way through the crowd—even shove a few times; the throng was packed into the courtyard very tightly.

            “Excuse me—please move out of the way—coming through—that’s my husband there...” Finally she gave up being diplomatic. “The Queen of England is coming through! Out of my way!”

            She fought to the front of the crowd and finally caught sight of her husband.

            Arthur looked as though he hadn't slept well for weeks. His shaggy fair hair and usually-neat beard were drenched with blood; his skin was covered with bruises and cuts; his leather gloves and boots were filthy; and his smile was just as exhausted as it was triumphant. Nevertheless, Arthur was the people’s king: handsome, vibrant, and commanding, he seemed to bewitch the people with his charisma the way Merlin could with spells.

            “Arthur!” she shouted, not expecting he could hear anything amidst the din.

            Somehow, however, it was as though he had been listening specifically for her voice. He looked down—their eyes met—and all of a sudden, the crowded courtyard could have been silent, for all Guinevere noticed it. His cocky, crowd-pleasing grin melted into the one she loved: dazed, almost shy, as though he couldn’t quite believe she was in front of him.

            Arthur shifted uncomfortably in his throne.

            “My lord, you have another visitor,” said a guard from the doorway. “It is Prince Mordred of the Orkneys, sire.”

            Arthur’s brow furrowed deeply. “Send him in,” he said uneasily, wondering why Morgause’s least-friendly son would visit him.

            Mordred, only eighteen years old, looked rather pale and wan under his black cloak as he swept into the room like a wraith. He removed his hood and bent onto one knee before the High King.

            “My liege,” he said graciously.

            “My prince,” Arthur acknowledged him, inclining his head.

            “I came here, my lord, because I have some dire information for you,” said Mordred gravely. His voice was scarcely above a whisper, low and urgent.

            “What sort of information?” Arthur frowned, thinking of the Saxon invasions.

            “It grieves me, sire, to be the bearer of such grave tidings, but I fear that if I do not tell you, you may never be aware of it.”

            “Say on, man, I haven’t got all day.”

            “Someone you hold dear is, alas, deceiving you, sire.”

            Arthur waited in silence for a moment as the words sunk in. Though he did not consciously understand what Mordred meant, a coldness of unease began to spread through him.

            “What are you speaking of?” he demanded.

            Mordred glanced around the room, as if checking for eavesdroppers. Arthur beckoned him closer to the throne.

           “Believe me, sire, I would not bother informing you unless I was absolutely certain beyond a doubt that this is true. I know that you and my mother have had...differences in the past, and it grieves me that you probably have very little reason to trust me, as a result. I would like to prove my loyalty to you, sire, by helping you uncover some unfortunate...dishonesty. I feel it my duty to assist you in this matter, since your majesty and everyone else is unaware of it, save for myself. I accidentally witnessed a...secret meeting between two members of your court. Since then, I have been gathering evidence to ascertain whether it was certain or not.” He walked to the king’s side briskly and whispered in his ear.

            “It is the queen, my lord. It pains me to tell you this, but she is being...unfaithful.”

            Arthur seized Mordred’s collar with his fist.     

            “What kind of an accusation are you making against my wife?” he growled.

            “My lord, I have proof,” squeaked Mordred, his windpipe constricted.

            Arthur all but threw him down the stone steps, scowling. Mordred let out a relieved exhale and caught his breath for a moment.

            “I would never have believed it either, my lord,” he explained, “if I had not witnessed myself. On one of the stone balconies of the palace, whilst your majesty was away at war, I was passing by and happened to notice two silhouettes. I was shocked when I recognized the queen’s voice. She has a lover, my lord. There is no doubt about that. Naturally, I wanted to have more proof for your majesty before I approached you, so I sought insight from this.

            From his cloak he drew out a strange silver orb about the size of his fist and held it in the palm of his hand.

            “This, my lord, is a seeing stone. Though I am not nearly as proficient as my mother or Merlin, I do know a little rudimentary magic. This can show you the past or present on command—and shows you the future when it wishes to. I saw very troubling things, my lord.”

            He held out the seeing stone for Arthur to look. The center was cloudy—but as Arthur studied it, it changed and morphed into a clear image. There was no sound, but it clearly showed Guinevere—her grey eyes, her golden-brown curls, her laughing face—in the arms of a dark-haired, muscled young man. They kissed.

            It cannot be true, I know Gwen too well, it cannot be possible, Arthur chanted in his head over and over. He knew his wife. It could never be true.

            Then the man in the seeing-stone image turned his head and Arthur saw his face.

            Lancelot—his best knight and truest friend, his brother in all but blood.

            “Impossible!” he roared. “Get out of my sight, Mordred, and do not come back again with these treasonous theories!”

            “I am sorry, my lord,” said Mordred, bowing subserviently as he left the room. “But before I leave, your majesty—she is with child. The queen is expecting a child through this adulterous affair. Why else would she keep her pregnancy from you?” He paused for effect before adding, “How else could she have conceived, with you away protecting the kingdom these past months?”

            “Get out!” he bellowed, pointing to the door.

            Mordred exited immediately, sensing danger. Once outside the throne room, he smirked. Of course Arthur doesn’t believe it now, he thought, but a few magic charms to procure a false image in the seeing-stone can plant the seeds of doubt...

            Inside and alone, Arthur tried to shake off his clinging dread and fear. Guinevere and I are fine, he assured himself. It was simply Mordred trying to create trouble. Gwen could never do such a thing—she loves me, and I her. And I must trust her virtuousness.

            But he had always feared that the one thing he held most precious could slip away, that he could never be good enough for her. It was a difficult fear to reason away.


            At the pond’s edge, amidst the willow tree’s tangled roots, sat an old man who looked somewhat like a weeping willow himself: very tall, thin, and lanky, with gnarled hands and a withered, tired ancient face. His sweeping white beard was almost to the knees of his spangled robe. He leaned against the tree trunk, murmuring to the tree softly, as if looking for comfort.

            “Well, old friend, I don’t suppose you have any answers?” he sighed.

            The boughs of the willow swayed and trembled for a moment.

            The old man shook his head sadly. “Neither do I, old friend, neither do I.”

            Through the mist, King Arthur’s hazy form came and sat beside the old man. They sat in companionable silence for a moment, until Arthur broke it.

            “What are you thinking about, Merlin?” he asked thoughtfully.

            Merlin sighed. “A prophecy,” he said in his thin voice. “Well, perhaps that’s overstating it a bit. Not a prophecy exactly, just a sort of...feeling.”

            Arthur frowned. “What sort of a feeling?”

            Merlin shook his head slowly, pursing his lips. “A sort of...foreboding,” he muttered. “I do not know what it means, but I don’t like it.”

            Arthur digested this with a furrowed brow, a shadow passing over his usually bright eyes. “Usually I’m inclined to think little of your vaguer points of hocus-pocus, old man,” he said, “but you’ve been right too many times for me to be skeptical. Is something going to happen?”

            “I cannot be certain what, but some event is hovering on the horizon—something ominous. I can almost taste it—deceit, trickery, betrayal. And I am almost certain that it comes from within your own family.”

            Merlin’s hazy blue eyes were far away. Arthur stared at him.

            “By family...are you speaking about the queen?” he demanded.

            Merlin’s eyes snapped back to him. “I don’t know,” he said sadly. “It could be—or it may be someone else. In this case, I believe you should go with your own instincts.”

            Arthur stared out at the pond morosely. “I don’t know what to think anymore,” he murmured.




            Guinevere shivered, huddled against the wall of her dank cell. Because the dungeon was far beneath the castle, the walls were moist and drippy, filled with the chill of death that seemed to fill her lungs and turn her mind numb. Her hands were raw with the cold. Every so often, her body shook with a hacking cough from the dampness—she was afraid of this, afraid that it could be serious, afraid that it might hurt the baby.

            Echoing footsteps and faint torchlight came from the adjacent corridor—they were coming towards her. She looked up, hardly daring to hope that some human being was coming to feed her or give her water, drawing her threadbare shawl about her more tightly.


            A knight on horseback galloped all the way from Camelot to the northern coast, stopping only when the moon was up each night, eating only once or twice a day, and resuming his mad flight at the first hint of dawn. He did not stop when he reached Britain’s rocky shore, but paid a boatman to take him to one of the isles hidden in the misty veil of the sea.

            Perched atop the isle was Morgause’s castle—his destination. The knight was exhausted from his journey, yet was fueled enough by rage and vengeance that he could burst into the entrance hall and fly up the tower stairs.

            He slammed the door open to her chambers; the door hit the opposite wall and swung back again. He stood in the doorway, breathing heavily.

            Morgause faced her son with a faint smile.

            “Why, Agravaine,” she said in a tone of mild surprise, “I wasn’t expecting you.”

            Her false innocence—contradicted by her catlike eyes and pointed face, her claw-like nails and arched eyebrows—made his blood boil. Agravaine remembered a time when he had thought his mother to be beautiful; now he could only see cruelty and seduction in her features: she was a demon, a succubus, a siren—inhuman, a femme fatale that could drive men to their own destruction. He just glared at her for a long moment.

            Finally, he growled, “What have you done, Mother?”

            “Is that how you greet your mother after two years apart? Come, give me a kiss,” she said, holding her arms out to him.

            He swatted her hands away.

            “Because of all your clever scheming,” he snarled, “because your ambition and greed are insatiable, Camelot is falling to pieces. Don’t deny your involvement, Mother, this has your mark written all over it. And you had Mordred carry out all your dirty work.”

            Morgause seemed completely unabashed. In fact, she smirked and chuckled under her breath. “Agravaine, dear, all is fair in love and war,” she sighed lightly. “Just you wait. When I set you or one of your brothers on the throne, you won’t be complaining about how it was accomplished.”

           “Innocent people are dying!” he spat. “Friends are turning against each other! No one knows who to trust anymore. Arthur is High King and should be—no matter what his lineage, he is a great ruler.”

            “Foolish boy,” she said, her eyes narrowing. “Arthur is no fitter to be king than the old mage.”

            “Because of your treachery, Gareth and Gaheris are dead!” Agravaine exploded, shaking his mother violently by the shoulders. “And Gawaine and Arthur may be going the same way!”

            Morgause froze. “The twins are dead?” she whispered. Only her lips moved; the rest of her face was paralyzed.

            “Yes,” he said through clenched teeth, “thanks to you.”

            “A great sacrifice to pay for the throne,” she breathed, “but it seems an unavoidable one—a necessary evil.”

            All these deaths are unnecessary!” Agravaine roared—his mother’s calmness enraged him to boiling point.

            He drew his sword with a scraping sound.

            “You murderer, traitor, witch!” he cried.

            And thrust the sword into her stomach.

            Morgause crumpled to the floor, dark blood pooling around her. Agravaine withdrew the sword.

            “That was for my brothers,” he said in a hollow voice.

            He stabbed her again.

            “And that was for the king.”

            Morgause’s once-entrancing face seemed to shrivel in her agony, watching her son with shocked eyes. With a low moan, she slumped to the ground. Her eyes—once so full of fire—were glassy and dead.

            A servant, who had heard all the commotion, came running to the tower. Upon entering, he caught sight of Agravaine, breathing heavily and staring down at the lifeless body of Queen Morgause of the Orkneys, a bloody sword hanging limply from his hand, droplets of blood dripping gently off his fingers.

            “What have you done, Agravaine?”