Sir Iphis at last returned to Britain, but was sorely wounded after her travels. Nimue, being an apprentice of the Lady of the Lake, was able to save Sir Iphis’ life, but only by placing her “beneath the Lake” – suspended unaging in the strange otherworld the Ladies of the Lake communed with through their sacred pools, to be brought back as and when Britain needed her. Arthur was glad to have his foster sister returned but saddened to see her in such a state; since Sir Iphis could hardly administer Cambenet, he asked Iphis’s younger sister Sir Antimony to accept the titles previously bestowed on Earl Roland. She accepted, but did not take up the Grand Mastership of the Order of the Pomegranate, choosing instead to act as a caretaker to allow Sir Iphis to be a symbol of what the Order aspires to.
Arthur announced a great celebration to pay tribute to Iphis’ return, Antimony being made Earl, and the knighting of Sir Ywaine, Arthur’s nephew and the son of King Uriens of Gorre and Queen Morgan le Fay. On the first evening of the feast, Duke Hubert played a mournful tune inspired both by the death of his wife over the winter and by his secret love for Guinevere. The Queen, for her part, was moved by the song, and idly mentioned that she thought that if Hubert’s heart ever healed to the point where he felt able to sing as passionately as he played, he would be the very prototype of a romantic knight. Taking the hint, Hubert decided to take singing lessons, with one of Guinevere’s own ladies in waiting more than happy to help him.
Meanwhile, Lord Michel had noticed that the crucifix he had inherited from Lord Jacques was warm to the touch, warning of the presence of spiritual evil. It seemed the most intense whenever the Gorre royal family – King Uriens, Queen Morgan, and Sir Ywaine – were nearby. Michel asked if they intended to come to Mass the following day, and Morgan said she would, once the King had returned from the hunt he proposed to go on the next day, somewhat to Uriens and Ywaine’s surprise.
As it turned out, the hunting party sallied forth late the next day, due to a spate of drinking contests kicked off by Lord Aden, Sir Rhun, and King Arthur (which Lord Aden won, thanks perhaps to his hardy part-faerie constitution), so Mass was held before it – though Morgan claimed to be unwell and didn’t attend. As it transpires, the best game of the hunt was brought back by Lord Aden and Sir Rhun in the form of a great boar – for Arthur and his party, pursuing a strange white hart, ended up having a curious adventure.
The only riders who could keep up with the hart were Duke Hubert, Sir Accolon of Gaul, King Uriens and King Arthur himself. They rode their horses to death to stay on the trail, in fact – their horses curiously dying at more or less the same time. Finding themselves separated from the rest of the pack, they noticed that they had come to a rest by a broad river flowing through the forest. In the river was a sizable barge, and they thought that if they simply took the barge downstream they should eventually reach the road back to Camelot – and Arthur was not one for passing up the adventure of a mystery boat regardless. Leaving behind a note on the horse’s corpses, he and the others took the barge, from the depths of which emerged a dozen damsels who sought to put them at their ease.
When Lord Michel and the other following attendants found the horses, they rode downstream to try and catch up with the King, only to find that they reached the road back to Camelot without finding any sign of them. Re-examining the place where the horses’ corpses were found, Lord Michel examined the opposite bank of the river, and found a strange model boat buried shallowly there and carved with strange runic symbols – a sign of some sort of magic having been woven there…
As the knights retired to their various cabins on the barge, Duke Hubert found none other than Morgan le Fay herself waiting for him. She said that if Arthur were allowed to remain on the throne it would mean disaster in the long term for Britain – the death of the old pagan ways, the resurgence of the Saxons, and worse besides – and that she was intent on taking action now to ensure that didn’t happen. If Hubert collaborated, she promised that she would see to it that Queen Guinevere would be Hubert’s under the new regime.
The next morning, the various knights who had fallen asleep on the boat woke up in different places. Duke Hubert awoke in his chambers in Camelot; likewise, King Uriens woke up back in Camelot, in Morgan le Fay’s arms. Sir Accolon, meanwhile, awoke near a sacred fountain, where he was found by an agent of Morgan le Fay, whose lover he was. The messenger gave Sir Accolon the sword Excalibur and its scabbard, and bade him to offer his services to a certain Sir Ontzlake. Sir Ontzlake was in an ongoing dispute with his elder brother, Sir Damas; whilst it had been the will of their father that his estates be divided evenly between the two, Sir Damas had usurped most of the estates in question, leaving Sir Ontzlake impoverished, and claiming reluctance to spill the blood of kin refused to duel over it unless proxies could be found.
Simultaneously, Arthur had woken up in the dungeons of Sir Damas. For his part, Damas was wealthy, but was of such an unpleasant disposition that no knight would agree to fight for him; he had taken to kidnapping travelling knights who passed through his lands and throwing them into his dungeons to try and make them fight for him. When Arthur learned that there were twenty other knights in there in a piteous condition, and that some eighteen knights before them had starved to death, he reluctantly agreed to be Damas’ champion for the sake of the imprisoned knights. Damas presented him with what appeared to be Excalibur and its scabbard – but were in fact fakes, prepared for this purpose by Morgan le Fay.
Meanwhile, back at Camelot, Morgan le Fay summoned Duke Hubert, Sir Rhun, Lord Michel and Lord Aden. She told them she had performed divinations and had discovered a way that Arthur could be found. She commanded them to go to a certain manor – that of Sir Damas – where they would find two strange knights fighting, and warned them that it was vital that “the bearer of Excalibur” be the only survivor. She knew that the fake Excalibur would not last long in battle against the real one (and indeed it shattered the first time Arthur tried to parry with it), and was counting on these knights to act as insurance just in case Sir Accolon balked at finishing off his opponent. She had not, however, counted on the Lady of the Lake hiding amongst those witnessing the duel, and using her magic to cause Accolon to drop Excalibur, allowing Arthur to reclaim it and regain the advantage.
Thus, when the knights arrived, it was Arthur who held Excalibur, and Sir Accolon at a disadvantage. Neither had recognised the other, for both fought in full face helms and was carrying the colours of the knight they were acting as proxy for, but when the Camelot knights arrived it soon became apparent that the King was fighting in Sir Ontzlake’s corner. Sir Accolon despaired when realising what he had done and begged forgiveness, and Sir Damas for his part claimed that he had believed Arthur to be a lunatic claiming falsely to be the King. Arthur ruled that Sir Ontzlake must take on the estates in question, and had Sir Ontzlake exact the King’s justice on the traitor Damas; he also asked that he and Sir Accolon be taken to a place of healing, under the guard of the Camelot knights, for he had bled profusely in the duel and Sir Accolon, having made grave accusations against Morgan le Fay in his confession, needed to be put on trial before the whole court so the truth of the matter could be put to the test.
Sir Ontzlake recommended a nearby convent, and the knights took the wounded King and his prisoner there. On arrival, Duke Hubert revealed to the others that he had his own reasons to suspect Morgan le Fay, and that so far he had given her no reason to expect he would not collaborate with her coup, and proposed a trap: Duke Hubert would stand guard outside Arthur’s room, in the expectation that Morgan would come visiting when her magics told her that Accolon had failed to slay Arthur, the idea being that the other knights could hide inside the room or nearby in order to seize her if she tried to have Hubert allow her into Arthur’s room. For his part, Arthur rested with Excalibur in his hands, and its precious scabbard laid across his feet.
Sure enough, in the dead of night Morgan le Fay arrived escorted by some of her knights. She approached the room, and asked Hubert if Arthur were within, but her magic told her that he was playing her false and she did not enter. Instead, she withdrew – but within the room, the knights realised that a large bat had slipped through the window and was flying away with Excalibur’s scabbard, taking it straight back to Morgan’s waiting hand. Arthur cried out when he realised what happened and he and the knights gave chase by torchlight, but in the midst of a dense fog they found themselves losing the trail at the edge of a field filled with standing stones of sinister aspect, with Michel’s cross burning with warning against the gross spiritual evil embodied in the stones.
Arthur stopped suddenly and reminded the others of the prophecy of the eagle – “You will almost die, and then find yourself lost among a field of stones”. He commanded a halt to the direct pursuit, realising that the group were facing powerful dark magic that would be their undoing if they ran head-first into the trap; warned against pride, he showed enough humility to realise he was out of his depth. Instead, the knights sent Sir Rhun to take the message north, in the hopes that Morgan and her knights could be intercepted there, or at least put under siege.
However, in the long run a strange transformation overcame the land of Gorre, with those lonely castles, out of the way towns and villages, and eerie wildernesses that owed more fealty to Morgan than to King Uriens disappearing, the pathways formerly leading to them doubling back on themselves. Even more disturbingly, along with those knights who gave her their primary loyalty, about a third of the Order of the Pomegranate had defected to her service.
Arthur had the body of Sir Accolon put on a cart and left at a crossroads in Gorre as a “gift” for Morgan; sure enough, the next day it had vanished. Morgan sent a maiden with a magnificent cloak as a gift to Arthur to ask for his forgiveness; at the advice of the Lady of the Lake, Arthur had the maiden try the cloak on first, and when she did so it burst into flames which consumed her, revealing yet another assassination attempt. Sir Ywaine confessed that the day after King Uriens had returned from the boat adventure, he had discovered his mother standing over Uriens’ sleeping form with a sword in hand, ready to strike; she claimed that she had been momentarily possessed by devils as a result of a magical experiment gone wrong, which is why he had kept quiet until now. Arthur judged that King Uriens was innocent of this treason, but expressed his doubts about Sir Ywaine and had him exiled until he could perform such deeds as to prove his character; Sir Gawain objected to this ruling, and declared that he would accompany his cousin Ywaine on his adventures. Arthur regretted his quick temper, but consoled himself with the knowledge that Ywaine and Gawain together would surely accomplish great deeds in the land.
Meanwhile, over in France, an aged merchant hustled a group of ten-year-old boys onto a ship to undertake a journey to Camelot…