Once, not so long ago, Guinevere had ridden surrounded by armed soldiers and marveled at her power. Now she rode surrounded by armed soldiers and marveled at her smallness. She tried to hold on to both thoughts at once: her power and her smallness, each a comfort in its own way. She was only one girl, after all, in a world full of them.
Unfortunately, the armed soldiers around her at this precise moment were enemies of Arthur: Picts, led by their king, Nechtan; the sorceress Morgana, Arthur’s half sister; and his nephew, Mordred the betrayer.
Guinevere had thought herself triumphant in sealing the city just before they arrived. But they had never been coming for the city. They had been coming for her. It was enough to drive her mad, but she was too tired for it. Guinevere half suspected the reason they had not dismounted and rested for the past twelve hours was to ensure that her nether regions were so painful that she would not try to escape. She had lost feeling in her toes, and her spine ached from sitting as straight as possible so as not to lean back against Mordred. The least they could have done is give her a horse instead of forcing her to ride with him.
She had no idea how many leagues they had covered, but it was certainly more than she had ever traveled in a single stretch. Their pace was hurried without being frantic. The Picts were practiced soldiers. They were not going to risk their horses’ health, but their horses had been trained to do exactly this.
Camelot falling farther and farther behind them as they rode into the night worried Guinevere less than the fact that they were galloping in the opposite direction of her goal. Merlin’s cave would take her so much longer to reach now. She had planned on walking straight there, figuring out a way to free him from the Lady of the Lake’s trap, and demanding answers about who she was. So she could finally know. If she could only know that, everything else would make sense. Would be easier. She was certain of it.
She focused on the cave, because that was less painful to think about than Camelot. About how she had left it. About who she had left.
The image of Lancelot on her knees behind the magical barrier they had created to keep armies out--but Lancelot in--lingered in Guinevere’s mind like a wound. Guinevere knew what it meant to be denied crucial information. To be manipulated into a course of action without the freedom to decide. And she had done exactly that to Lancelot, not telling her brave knight until it was too late that Lancelot would be inside the city’s shield, and Guinevere outside it.
It had been cruel, and unfair, and a betrayal of the trust Lancelot had always given her.
So she tried her best to not think about it. Fortunately, between the enemy soldiers and Mordred and this wretched, endless ride adding to the already long walk between her and Merlin’s cave, she had an abundance of distractions.
At last, with dawn stretching pink and terrible across the sky, Mordred called out, “The horses need to rest.”
It was the first time he had spoken the entire journey. The first time he had spoken since he had arrived at Camelot, begged her not to lose faith in him, and then announced he had successfully kidnapped the queen. Other than his chest at her back and his arms around her holding the reins, their only interaction was when he periodically passed her a canteen to drink from.
As soon as Mordred declared the horses needed to rest, word spread along the traveling party. Guinevere estimated there were two or three hundred soldiers. She slipped a hand into her pouch. All this long journey, she had tied knot after knot in her mind, from the most innocuous to the most vicious. It was time to choose.
A shudder rippled through her. She knew what she had to do. She would need her iron thread, and she would need blood, and it would be the worst knot she had ever tied. Worse than the protection she had placed in the river above Camelot that would kill anyone who ventured past it with intent to do her harm. Worse even than what she had done to Sir Bors, reaching into his mind and manipulating his memories. Perhaps not worse than what she had done to King Mark, destroying his mind but leaving his body, but certainly an evil enough magic that it would haunt her the rest of her days.
She was going to tie a death knot, loop it around herself so that any living creature that touched her would immediately die. And then she would walk out of the camp. It would not matter if they followed her all the way to Merlin’s cave, because no one could touch her. The knot would mean she could not take a horse, but after twelve hours on one, that was almost a blessing.
She had to get away from Mordred first, though. Someone would touch her, doubtless, before they believed her threat. But it could not be Mordred. Not Mordred. It had to be someone whose name and face she did not know. A soldier sacrificed to a conflict Guinevere had not started.
A person, both small and infinite, ended because Guinevere valued herself more.
How did Arthur do this? How did he make these decisions? Her stomach churned, gnawing at its own emptiness. She squeezed her eyes closed. She could do this. She would do this.
Mordred’s fingers circled her wrist, his grip gentle but insistent as he pulled her hand out of the pouch. He detached the pouch from her belt and tossed it to a tall, elegantly cloaked woman. His mother, Morgana. She caught it neatly and tucked it into her own bag.
Guinevere did not know whether she was about to cry out of frustration and disappointment or relief. Mordred had taken the choice from her. No one would die at her hand today. She would figure out another means of escape, hopefully one with a less desperate cost.
Feeling blurry with exhaustion, she watched as a camp appeared around them with practiced efficiency. Soldiers laughed and called to each other while they worked. Then everyone stilled as King Nechtan rode past them. He slowed, fixing eyes that had possibly once been wide and kind on Guinevere. Whatever they had been was hidden beneath bushy eyebrows and a permanent glower. He would have been intimidating even without the fur mantle he wore around his shoulders that quivered with black moths. Guinevere knew that each moth carried a bit of the Dark Queen inside it. A constant reminder of whom King Nechtan was working with, or for. It was hard to say which with the Dark Queen.
One moth rode on his earlobe like an ornament. Nechtan bent his head toward it, his gaze turning distant and unfocused, before snapping back to Guinevere with an almost physical force. She sighed with relief when he turned to Mordred. It was not only the presence of King Nechtan but also the knowledge that anything he did or said was not him alone. The Pict king and the Dark Queen were each a formidable enemy on their own, and now Guinevere had to contend with them both.
Nechtan said something in his language. Guinevere did not understand, but she did not need to. The way he spoke made it clear that Mordred was in trouble. If she were in higher spirits, she would tease him. As it was, she was grateful that King Nechtan continued riding past, his head bent once more toward the whispering wings of his passengers and the queen they were part of.
Mordred dismounted, then held up his hands to help Guinevere down. She deliberately threw her leg over the opposite side of the horse and slid off. But she had not accounted for how numb her legs would be after a ride that long. As soon as her feet hit the ground, her knees buckled and she fell gracelessly on her sore backside.
A woman laughed nearby. Guinevere looked up to see one of the Pictish soldiers--they were all dressed alike in leather and fur--hold out a hand. The woman who laughed was a soldier.
Guinevere took the offered hand and was pulled swiftly and unceremoniously to her feet.
“Your king should ride you more often.” The woman winked. A bold blue cloth was wrapped around her head, and her face had freckles that put Guinevere’s to shame. Her pale blue eyes were framed by nearly white eyelashes and eyebrows that were tinged with orange. She had two axes strapped to her back, and a belt full of knives.
“Fina. Enough.” Another woman, taller than the first by a few inches with almost the same face and even more weapons, shoved Fina’s shoulder. She looked down at Guinevere without curiosity, her expression cooler than even the icy blue of her eyes. “I am Nectudad. Most of the soldiers do not speak your language, so trying to speak to them will be a waste of energy.”
“I learned your language to marry your husband.” Fina grinned. She had a gap between her front teeth that made her smile seem even larger and happier. Guinevere did not know whether she was expected to apologize for marrying Arthur, but Fina’s smile grew. “Lucky for him I did not. I do not think he would have survived me.”
Guinevere’s eyes narrowed. “Arthur is the strongest man I have ever known.”
“I did not mean in combat. I meant in bed. Not if he prefers delicate morsels like you.”
Mordred appeared next to Guinevere. “Oh, good, you have met the princesses.” He bowed deeply. “They make princesses very differently in the north.”
Even Nectudad smiled at that, a more reserved reaction than Fina’s brash laugh, which was so loud the horse next to Guinevere startled, stamping its hooves. Mordred reached out a hand and put it on the horse’s neck. The animal calmed immediately.
“My father wants to see you, fairyson,” Nectudad said. “He has questions about how you came to join our party.”
Morgana appeared again with a sweep of her black cloak. She looked none the worse for wear, even after such a grueling journey. Her hair, black with streaks of silver like metal woven through it, was perfectly plaited, and her eyes, a darker and older green than Mordred’s, betrayed no weariness. “Of course. We have much to discuss with him.”
Morgana held the two stones--the ones with which Guinevere had done blood magic, the ones that had failed to give her enough warning of Morgana’s return to be of any use--in her hand. So she had found the stone hidden in Guinevere’s pouch, and its mate.
How long ago had Morgana discovered the secret stone? Had she only realized what it was when she saw the same rock in Guinevere’s bag, or had she kept it to warn Guinevere of the approaching army? Guinevere could ask, but how could she ever trust an answer from the woman who had disguised herself as Lily’s maid, infiltrated Camelot, and tried to make Guinevere leave with her?
But then again, Morgana had had ample time to hurt Guinevere, or Lily, or even Arthur. None of them had suspected her. Even after Morgana had given Guinevere a potion to make her tell the truth, Guinevere had not feared her. She had felt compassion, sorrow for her losses, and confusion about what Morgana really wanted.
None of those feelings were likely to change soon. Particularly the confusion.
“Come, Mordred,” Morgana said, her face inscrutable. “Fina, Nectudad, will you see our guest fed and settled? And watch her hands.”
Fina raised a dubious eyebrow. “I should be afraid of this slip?”
“Make sure she does not sew or tie knots in anything. Bind her hands before she goes to sleep.”
“Southerners,” Fina muttered, shaking her head. “I do not understand you. Well, come along, Slip.” She put her arm around Guinevere, forcefully guiding her. Guinevere looked over her shoulder. Mordred was watching, concern shaping his brows, but then he turned and followed his mother.
Mordred and Morgana were not her allies. She could not trust anything they did or said. But at least they were familiar. Nothing else here was. All around her, soldiers--men and women both--were bustling about. She could not understand anything they said. Even the scents of the meals being cooked over fires were unfamiliar.
Her despair must have shown on her face. Nectudad patted her shoulder roughly as they stopped outside a hide-covered tent in the center of camp. “We have no quarrel with you. Only with your king.”
“And with our new queen,” Fina grumbled.
Nectudad shot her a narrow-eyed warning, hissing softly.
Fina straightened, grinning once more. “And you have no need to worry about your virtue. Unless you want me to relieve you of some of it, in which case you can tell your king exactly what he missed. But you will never want to go back to him after tasting me, so be certain before you ask.”
“Fina.” Nectudad said the name like an exasperated sigh.
“What? She looks too tense. I am offering solutions, being a good caretaker.”
“Go get food.” Nectudad shoved Fina in the direction of the nearest campfire and then turned back to Guinevere. She lowered her voice so only Guinevere could hear. It was clear and calm as a lake on a windless afternoon. “I will protect you because I need you. But if you do anything that threatens my father or if you try to escape, I will break both your legs and all your fingers. Do you understand? Nod if you understand.”
Guinevere nodded, her throat tight. She understood perfectly well. She had left Camelot to figure out who she was. She had left Arthur, Lancelot, Brangien and Dindrane and Lily, everyone who loved her. She had left behind the castle and the crown. Now she was surrounded by enemies. She had no allies, no one she could truly trust. Only herself. But that would have to be enough for now. With or without Merlin, she would discover her past.
Preferably with all her limbs intact.
Fina would not stop talking as she carefully bound Guinevere’s hands together with strips of cloth. Her touch was as confident as everything else about her. In a lot of ways, she seemed like Arthur, but the sense Guinevere got of her was wilder, sharper, and . . . happier. If Fina were not currently binding Guinevere’s hands to prevent her from tying any knots, and if Fina were not the daughter of the man who had stolen her to present her to the Dark Queen, and if Fina were not the sister of Nectudad, who had only an hour ago calmly threatened to break many of Guinevere’s bones, Guinevere would like her quite a bit.