Guinevere’s room was dark, night more a cloak than the bed curtains she never drew. The dream clung like smoke, so real that she expected to find the surrounding stone newly carved and running with water.
She put a trembling hand to the wall behind her, fingers curled by dread that she would find the carvings there, fresh and recognizable. But they were only hints of memories beneath her fingers. The castle was as it had been since she arrived: ancient and worn with the passage of unknowable time.
Yet she could not escape the feel of that fall, air rushing around her, knowing what would meet her at the bottom. She climbed out of bed and pulled on her robe. Brangien shifted softly in the corner, lost in her own dreams with her beloved Isolde. Listening to her, Guinevere realized a horrible truth.
She should not be able to dream at all.
She had used knot magic to give all her dreams to Brangien for weeks now. Ever since her captivity at the hands of Maleagant, ever since Merlin had pushed her out of the dreamspace that connected them, ever since she was tricked by Mordred into giving the fairy Dark Queen physical form once more, ever since she chose to return to Camelot instead of escaping--no, not escaping, running away--with Mordred, she had had no desire to dream. Which meant that whatever dream she just had . . . it was not her own.
As she hurried through the night-black secret passage against the mountain that connected her room to Arthur’s, she folded her arms around herself, unwilling to touch the stone again. Distrustful of it. She was awake enough now to check that every knot she was connected to was still in place. The knot on the door to the secret tunnel entrance into Camelot that only she, Arthur, and Mordred knew about. The knot on her own door, her own windows, every way that the fairy queen--or her grandson, Mordred--might access Guinevere.
Nothing. Everything was as she had left it, all protections in place. Which terrified her even more.
She opened the door to Arthur’s room and drew aside the tapestry. She half expected him to be sitting at his table, writing letters or reading them, his candle merely a pool of wax and a flickering wick. That was how she found him most nights. But his room was dark.
“Arthur?” she whispered, moving toward his bed. There was a rustle of blankets, and then quick movements and the telltale hiss of a sword being unsheathed--along with the swirling sickness and overwhelming dread that hit her whenever she was near Excalibur.
“Put it away!” she gasped.
She could not hear over the pounding in her ears, but she could feel as soon as Excalibur was once again in its sheath. She tripped against the bed and turned to sit on it. The shaking was coming, violent trembling that no amount of heat could warm away.
“Sorry.” Arthur pulled her next to him. He tucked the blankets over them both, holding her close as though he could stop her shaking by his strength alone. “I was not awake. It is always my first response these days, ever since . . .”
He did not finish. Neither of them needed him to. They had both watched the Dark Queen emerge, a creeping nightmare made real with the flesh of a thousand beetles, twisting roots, and Guinevere’s own blood. She did not question why Arthur’s reaction to being startled awake would be to seize their one true defense against that abomination.
“What did you need?” He brushed her hair from the pillow so that he could lie as close to her as possible.
“I had a dream,” she whispered to the darkness. It felt further away, less important now that he was holding her.
“A bad dream?”
“I should not have dreams at all. I knotted them away.” She had not told him about what she was doing for Brangien, or why. That was Brangien’s secret to keep or to reveal, not Guinevere’s. And with magic banned in Camelot, she would not risk her friend’s safety.
Arthur hmmed thoughtfully. They were so close that she could feel the vibrations in his chest. “Perhaps the knot came undone? Maybe you did not do the magic right?”
“Maybe.” Guinevere wanted to agree. It would be easier, safer, simpler if that were the case. But she did not think it was. There had been something so visceral about the dream. It was a dream with purpose, a dream with intent. And it had not been her own dream, of that she was certain. But . . . could she be certain? Her mind had been tampered with--holes created and holes filled by Merlin, whether or not he meant to. How could she say what her mind would dream?
“Do you ever feel like you do not know yourself?” she whispered.
Arthur was quiet for a long time. Finally, he answered, his voice gentle. “No. Though there are parts of myself I wish I did not have to know. Why? Do you feel that way?”
“All the time.”
Arthur settled, one arm around her, his hand next to her head, stroking her hair. The fight had left his body and she could feel him moving back toward sleep. Arthur was ready at a moment’s notice to face any threat, but he was also very good at accepting a threat was not there and releasing whatever was coiled to strike. She envied that ability. She had constant tension from her magic knotted into the rooms and surrounding city, and even if that had not been the case, she found herself perpetually mulling over the figurative knots of her life and her choices, checking for weaknesses, for where she could have done better.
“This is a problem I can help with,” Arthur said. “I know you very well. You are kind. You are clever. You have far more a sense of humor than any princess could.”
“But I am not a princess.”
“No, but you are a queen.” She could hear his smile. His arm around her was comfortingly heavy, her trembling almost past. “You are strong. You are brave. You are quite short.”
She laughed, poking him in the side. “That is not a character trait.”
She felt him drifting further away, back to sleep.
“You are Guinevere,” he murmured, and then his breathing went soft and even.
She wished with a ferocious longing that any of it were true.
It had been a long summer, and autumn was only beginning to appear with a hint of chill in the evenings and the promise of work to come. Guinevere understood things like harvests now, how much went into them, how vital they were. A good harvest was the difference between a comfortable winter and a deadly one. With a city as large as Camelot, already they were preparing. As queen, she had taken over Mordred’s role in keeping track of supplies and making certain everything was ready. And riding all over the countryside taking stock of the harvest and speaking with farmers gave her an excuse to search for evidence of the Dark Queen’s seeping reach.
Guinevere had wards set in Camelot; she would know if a threat arrived on their shores. But she wanted to know long before then. She would not be caught off guard. No one would trick her, ever again.
“Should we check the perimeter of the forest?” Lancelot asked. They had just finished with one of the farthest tracts of land. Guinevere was hot and itchy in her dress, layers of bold blue and red. She envied Brangien her simpler clothing. But Guinevere was out here as the queen, and she had to look the part. Lancelot, too, looked the part. Her armor was no longer patchwork. She wore uniform leather with metal plates over chain mail and a tunic with Arthur’s sigil on it. Guinevere missed Lancelot’s old armor, though she was glad Lancelot no longer had to wear a mask.
Brangien looked longingly over her shoulder in the direction of Camelot, but offered no complaint. Only Brangien, Lancelot, and Sir Tristan could accompany Guinevere on these trips. They alone knew that she wielded magic. If word reached anyone else, everything would be at risk.
Arthur rode with them when he could, but it was not often. Guinevere preferred it that way. Though normally she longed for more time with him, the Dark Queen was her fault. Her responsibility.
“Yes.” Guinevere guided her horse toward the dark smudge of trees waiting meekly on the edge of the tamed land. Elsewhere the forests loomed and lurked, dominating the countryside. But in Camelot’s boundaries the trees had been felled, and where not felled, tamed. They were gentler forests, there to serve man.
Guinevere’s sleeves rubbed at her wrists, where she bore thin white tracings of scars from trees that were old and hungry and angry.
“Did you sleep well?” Brangien asked, riding at her side. Her tone was so deliberately even and pleasant that Guinevere immediately knew she was fishing for information. Brangien was never pleasant without a reason. Guinevere had not slept in her own bed, and her friend and maid wanted to know about it.
Alas. As always, sleeping in Arthur’s bed had simply been sleeping. Guinevere had awoken to find herself alone. She always woke alone. Sometimes she wondered what would happen if he stayed. If, warm and muddled with sleep, he reached for her in something other than companionship. If they shared a kiss as fierce as the one Mordred had stolen the night Lancelot won her tournament.
“Is that a blush I detect?” Brangien teased.
Guinevere yanked her mind back from where it had wandered. That was the treacherous path that had led her to the fairy queen’s meadow. A path with clever smiles and eyes like the pools of green shadow beneath a tree. Mordred had not been the one to abduct her, but he had used her to hurt Arthur. And he had hurt her, too. Guinevere would not forget it. “I will let you know when there is something to blush about,” she told Brangien.
Brangien frowned at Guinevere’s curt tone, but Guinevere could not explain. “Did you dream with Isolde last night?” she asked instead, remembering her own disturbing dream and Arthur’s suggestion that her knot magic giving away her own dreams had failed.
“Yes.” This time Brangien blushed, a dreamy smile on her face.
That was not good news. It made Guinevere’s odd dream even more puzzling and worrisome. It would need to be addressed, and she hated anticipating how Brangien would take the news. So much of magic was about taking--power, control, even memories--but with Brangien and the dreams Guinevere had been able to give.
Guinevere hurried toward the trees, pulling away from her companions. It was a problem for tonight. She did not have to think about it now, not while she was out here. She wanted to reclaim the sense of peace she found in wild lands. Though Camelot was home now, she had grown up in a forest.
Once again her mind halted. Had she grown up in a forest? She had mere handfuls of memories, and if her last visit to Merlin was any indication, they were not accurate. The cottage she remembered sweeping was a ruin, uninhabited for decades. How could she have lived in a place that was unlivable?
Lancelot had caught up to her. She was subtle about it, but Guinevere’s knight never let her too far out of reach.
“How much do you remember of your childhood?” Guinevere asked.
There had been a conversation at a market with Brangien and Mordred. They seemed confused that Guinevere did not remember losing her first teeth to make way for her second teeth. She repressed a shudder at having to once again acknowledge the fact that all children with their tiny pearls of teeth had other, bigger teeth, lurking beneath the surface, waiting to burst free. “When did you lose them?”
Lancelot had a hint of laugh in her voice. “I would imagine at the normal times? My first was before my mother--” Lancelot broke off. Her father had been killed serving Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s tyrant father. And while she had never specified how her mother had died, it had driven her to pursue vengeance and then knighthood with singular intensity. “My two front teeth I bashed out falling from a tree. It took quite a while for them to grow in. I had a lisp.”
“Were you teased?”
“Never more than once.” Lancelot smiled at the memory.
Guinevere envied her both the ability to defend herself even as a child and the memories of those events. She was hungry for a past, for some way to fill the emptiness she found when she tried to excavate her own history from memories. In the magical dream where she had connected herself to Merlin to look for him, walking back through her life, she had hit a certain point and found . . . nothing.
A void. Wiped clean. It did not feel clean, though. It felt like a violation, and filled her with shame. She cleared her throat and continued, wanting Lancelot to talk. To distract her. “Where did you go after you lost your parents? You have never told me much about that.”
Lancelot’s smile faded and something closed in her face. Lancelot was never dishonest, but there was a hint of evasiveness in the way she changed the subject. “We should focus. What are we looking for in the trees?”
Guinevere pulled her horse to an abrupt stop, dread and an odd sense of triumph warring in her breast as she looked at what should have been an orderly line of trees and found a riot of enormous, twisted oaks, draped with vines that rustled and reached in the dead, windless air. “That,” she whispered.
“We should wait for the king.” Lancelot eyed the trees warily, sword drawn and held ready. Guinevere did not know whether Lancelot could feel it the way she could--the way the air felt like a breath being held, the sense that if she whipped around fast enough, she would catch the trees moving--but it was clear Lancelot could feel the threat.
They had left their horses outside the forest with Brangien while Sir Tristan dashed madly for Camelot and Arthur.
“I came back to help Arthur in the fight against the Dark Queen. This is that fight.” Guinevere crouched, resting a hand against the dirt beneath them. Her fingers dug in. The soil was hard and unbroken, and it compacted beneath her fingernails. A worm wriggled by and brushed her skin.
Not a worm.