Prologue PROLOGUE
Lailoken

Hart Fell, the Black Mountain

Kingdom of the Selgovae

Late December, AD 573

The snows have come.

The cold seeps into my bones. Winter cuts into the mouth of this steep and dead-grassed valley, and the men huddle closer to the hearth, but no fire can warm us—winter in its bleakness leaves us shut for too many hours within these squat, wattled huts. We cannot escape the ghosts that followed as we fled, friends and fellow warriors. Cousins. Nephews. Brothers.

I wake in the night to the haunting blast of a battle horn. To the sound of a thousand feet rushing toward the fortress through the river below. In sleep, I see bodies piled in heaps, bloodied. Sightless eyes. In sleep, my heels are slipping once more in mud, sliding backward into the muck, spears thrusting at my legs and swords battering my shield as I brace myself in the shield wall. “Hold,” I cry. “Hold!”

I wake to find only hollow-eyed survivors, their eyes understanding in the dark.

When the cavalry charged, the thundering of horses swallowed our battle cry. Never had I seen an army so vast—an angry horde of Britons, my own countrymen. We shared ancestors with even the most despicable among them; cowards who would not join us to fight the Angles came now, to finish us.

We watched from high atop the fortress walls as they crept across our fields like so many fleas. We lit the brush fires. Let the smoke sting their eyes and clog their throats—let them taste our bitter battle fog.

And as we stood, grim-faced in our armor, spear shafts in hand, a moment before the nightmare began, a single red deer fled from the forest below.

A doe.

A shaft of sun caught the glory of autumn leaves and her sleek, tawny pelt, and for a moment I was a boy again, standing with my twin sister, Languoreth, on the banks of the Avon Water as we watched a stag drink in the shallows of the river.

A moment of grace before the horror of destruction.

Now it is Yule, the day of the longest night.

There are twelve days in winter when the sun stands still, and we warriors with our night terrors and our ill-knitting wounds and our bloody-faced ghosts need to conquer the darkness or we will be consumed by it. And so, at sunset, the men stood or propped themselves up as I spoke the old words and lit the Yule log.

The woman who minds the goats had come the day before to take the stale mats from the floor, laying down clean woven rushes that smelled soft and sweet, a distant memory of summer. She brought with her the charred remains of a new year’s fire, an offering to bless our hearth. “For luck,” she’d said, “so far from your homes.”

Her gaze lingered upon the mottled scar upon my cheek that runs from temple to chin, the welt I’d borne now for eighteen winters, half-hidden by my beard.

“Christians,” I’d said.

She’d nodded as if I needn’t say more. Here in the lands of the Selgovae, Christ had not yet taken hold. Perhaps his priests were too frightened by the shades and sharp-toothed creatures that frequent the vast Caledonian Wood.

Now my beard grows long.

I think of my wife and her thick, honey-smooth hair, the way she tilted her head to gather it, sweeping her fingers across the back of her neck. She is yet alive, I can feel her across the distance.

I can feel she is breathing.

She tethers me to my body when my spirit wants to flee, for as the days pass, my mind turns dark. When I sit in contemplation, my mind begins to slip. There is a beast that stalks in the pit of night.

I fear it will take me.

On the bleakest mornings, I climb the icy path up the valley to seek solace at the spring. The trickle of mountain waters is speaking.

Iron in blood, iron in water.

My sister’s husband hunts us with dogs.

Old Man Archer says, “Rhydderch may have dogs, but we Selgovae are wolves. He will never catch you out, not whilst we conceal you here.”

It is true—no one steps foot in the Caledonian Deep without being seen. The Selgovae have watchers who appear and disappear as if made from mist. And we warriors of Pendragon can climb quickly, those of us who are sound. We can slip into the deep chasm of these hills while Rhydderch and his hunters are still specks far below.

And yet one ear is ever pricked for the crow sound of our watchmen.

I do not know whether I fear him or am calling him as I stand upon the boulder, high above the iron salt waters, looking out over the winter hills.

I stand upon the boulder and wait for Rhydderch and his men.

I wait.

I watch.

And I remember.

Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
Lailoken

Strathclyde to the Borderlands

Kingdom of Strathclyde

Late Summer, AD 572

It was the time of year when daylight stretched long. Travelers were often spied long into the lingering hours of dusk, yet on this day, the moors still blazed hot beneath sun when we stopped to make camp for the night.

We were bound for the Borderlands, two days’ ride from my boyhood home, the fortress of Cadzow. We’d followed the wide and glittering twists of the river Clyde south and east, through lofty patches of oak and ash, past merchants rowing upstream in their currachs and men fishing from little coracles. We passed timber-built grain mills and neatly thatched tenant crofts as we traveled through the villages of my distant kin: men and women yet loyal to me and my sister, the children of Morken. Our father had been a fierce and honorable king. But as the people gathered to greet our caravan along the road, it was not me alone they cheered. They rushed from their huts to catch sight of the man who rode by my side—Uther Pendragon. Though he was not their ruler, he and his warriors had fought for many a winter to keep the Angles of Bernicia at bay.

Gradually, the terrain shifted, and we left the villages behind. Soon hills rose turtle-backed in the distance, where pastures gave way to the wild, boggy expanse of moor. It was this land that spoke to me, for it led into the heart of the new kingdom that had become my home. The kingdom ruled by my foster brother, Uther.

But Uther had not always been my foster brother’s name.

He was a boy of fifteen winters called Gwenddolau when he first joined Emrys Pendragon. Emrys was a leader who’d inspired a brotherhood to rise up against the Angles, invaders from across the North Sea. The Angles had gained footing on our soil as hired mercenaries, but before long, through violence, they’d carved out a kingdom from stolen land and named it Bernicia. In resisting them, Emrys and his men became known throughout our land as the Dragon Warriors. There were battles, and then there was peace for a time. But when Emrys was murdered, war stirred once more. We chose the man best suited to defend Emrys’s lands. In becoming Pendragon’s successor, Gwenddolau became something more than a man. He became hero, protector, king.

He became Uther Pendragon.

The Other Pendragon.

And I…

I’d become more than a warrior, or son of Morken. I was a Wisdom Keeper, trained from a boy to be a king’s counsellor, his most trusted advisor. We defended our stretch of the Borderlands through the vigilance of our scouts and the brunt of our swords. Our tenant farmers were grateful. The Gods protected us. The land produced. All we required, we possessed in bounty.

We traveled fast on fleet-footed horses. We traveled light, with thick cloaks and thin bedrolls, with little more than the sack full of oats each man strapped to his horse to be fried with water or blood from wild game. Thirteen leagues in a day we passed with ease.

And yet on this day, we’d scarcely traveled through Hawksland and the Blackwood when my young niece bolted upright in the saddle before me and cried out, “Stop!”

My horse tossed his head as I yanked back on the reins, gripping Angharad to keep her astride as the caravan came to a halt. “Angharad. What is it?” I asked.

The Dragon Warriors drew up their mounts, restless and questioning. They’d never traveled with a child. Who among us had? Now we traveled in the company of a freckled girl of eight winters whose gray eyes were yet swollen with tears. At sunrise, Angharad had left all she had known to train with me as a Wisdom Keeper. That I was her uncle was little consolation.

“The feathers,” she said now, pointing to the ground.

“Feathers.” I followed the line of her finger to the place where, indeed, a cluster of crow feathers lay, their ink glinting rainbows in the sun. “And so they are.”

It was this child’s curiosity about the natural world that had first endeared her to me, and now I was to foster her. Yet despite my reassurances to my sister, I was still learning the way.

“Angharad. Surely you’ve seen crow feathers before.” I leaned forward only to see her brow furrow.

“But I want to pick them up.”

“Well, of course you may. But you must take more care when alerting me to feathers on your next sighting. You nearly tumbled from Gwydion’s back.”

Angharad’s face flushed scarlet, her voice a whisper. “I’m sorry, Uncle.”

There’d been little admonishment in my tone, yet my words alone were enough to flatten her. She pursed her lips in an effort to hold back tears, and guilt struck, pointed as a spear. “Oh, no, Angharad. Please. You mustn’t cry.”

The warriors looked baffled as I glanced round in search of aid. Gwenddolau sat mounted at a distance beside my cousin Brant, expressions vigilant yet uncertain.

“She’s your kin as well,” I grumbled, then motioned to Maelgwn, who already trotted toward us on his horse, green eyes alert.

“What’s happened?” he demanded.

“She’s weeping,” I said.

“Aye, I can see.” He dismounted and went to her, taking her small hands in his. “Angharad, what is it?”

“I didn’t intend for all the men to stop. I only wanted the feathers,” she said.

“Tell me why.”

She took a breath, searching the sky. “My mother told me our hearts are like birds, pricked full of feathers, and that each time we say good-bye, a feather will fall. One for a friend, two for a sweetheart. Three for a child.”

At the mention of Languoreth, Maelgwn’s gaze softened. “And here you spied three feathers, just as your mother said.”

Angharad nodded. “She promised if I found a feather, it had fallen from her heart. She promised if I picked it up and held it close, it would keep me safe.”

“Then you must have them,” Maelgwn said.

I watched as he handed Angharad the cluster of crow feathers. Long had Maelgwn loved my sister, Languoreth.

As Angharad drew them to her chest, I searched for the right words.

“I know your sadness, little one,” I began. “Languoreth and I, we lost our own mother when we were no more than ten winters—”

Angharad’s eyes widened at the very thought. “But my mother is not dead.”

Fool, Lailoken.

“Aye. I mean, nay! Of course she isn’t.” I reached for her. “I only hope to say I know how your own heart must feel. We may collect each feather you see. But you need no such talismans to keep you safe. I swore to your mother—and I swear the same to you—you are safe with me, Angharad. I’m your uncle, your own blood, and… I love you.” The last came too gruffly, and I cursed myself again. Maelgwn frowned.

But Angharad only wiped at her eyes, casting a weary look over her shoulder. “You’re not terribly good with children, are you?”

I smiled in spite of myself. “You’re right, then,” I decided. “We’ve traveled far enough. We shall stop here for the night.”

Gwenddolau approached, swinging down from his horse. “A rest is fine, but we cannot yet make camp. We haven’t passed more than five leagues, Lailoken.”

“Well enough,” I said. “But ’tis only the first day of our journey, and Angharad is unaccustomed to long days upon horseback, brother. You cannot expect her to last from dawn ’til dusk in the saddle.”

Gwenddolau’s clear blue eyes swept the broad expanse of moor, resting on the grassy mound that rose in the distance. “Surely it is ill luck to make our camp so close to a hill of the dead. I have seen enough shades in my day.”

“Aye, we all spied the mound, and many a time have we passed it,” I said. “But the hill lies upstream, and the ashes within it are sleeping. Besides, we are not far from the old ring of stones. I’m certain Angharad would wish to see it. If you’ll not brave the shades for me, brave them for your niece, eh?”

The look I received was one of predictable gravity—Gwenddolau’s humor had gone with seasons past. “I feel no more ease bedding beside a stone ring than I do a mound of the dead.”

Brant drew up his horse, his brown eyes touching on Angharad with concern. “The ring will make a good enough boundary for the horses,” my cousin said. “They’ll not stray beyond it.”

“Aye,” Gwenddolau agreed at last, signaling for the men to dismount. “They’re ill at ease, as I am, round places of the dead.”

In truth, I knew rest would suit Gwenddolau as well, whether he cared for it or not. His old battle wound was on the mend, with thanks to Languoreth’s remedy, but he needed to recover his strength. Thirteen leagues in a day or half that, what did it matter? Angharad was ours now—all of ours—and I meant to tend to her as best as I could.

The thought seemed to weigh upon Gwenddolau, too, for as I watched, he placed his sunbrowned hands round Angharad’s waist, lifting her from my horse with a smile at last. “Well enough, Angharad. Come, then. Let’s find a suitable place to make camp.”

I dismounted, following behind. “It’s bound to be boggy. I’ll fashion a bed so Angharad might sleep in the cart.”

Next to me, the old warrior Dreon chuckled.

“Oh, go on, then, Dreon. Let’s have it,” I said.

“Well. I have naught to say but this: a handsome lord, in his prime at thirty-two winters—a Wisdom Keeper to boot—already become staid and matronly as an old mother hen.”

“An old mother hen?” I said. “You should mind you don’t choke on a chicken bone.”

Dreon lifted his hands. “Eh, now! There’s no need for bandying curses about.”

“When I curse you, you shall know it.”

“I believe you.” The warrior clapped me upon the shoulder. “Whatever you may do, you mustn’t fret, Lailoken. I have bairns of my own, and I’ll lend you some wisdom—children are like wolves. They can smell your fear.”

I’d met Dreon’s offspring. A wild pack of stoats, more like.

“Well,” I said, “seeing as you’re such a master of your own fine progeny, perhaps you’d like to try a hand at fostering mine.”

“Nay.” He frowned. “And rob you of the joy?”

I waved him off and found Gwenddolau and Angharad crouched at the water’s edge, looking upstream.

“We call this water Wildburn,” Gwenddolau said, bending to splash his face. Droplets clung to his golden beard, and when he stood, he shook the water from his head like a dog, smiling at his niece.

“Wildburn.” Angharad looked about. She’d drawn the black feathers from her cloak and clutched them like a doll. “Uncle.” She turned to me. “Is it true there’s a ring of stones nearby?”

“Aye. Just beyond that rise.”

Her face brightened, a joy to see. “May we go there? May we go now?”

“Indeed,” I said. “I’m to train you as a Keeper, am I not? Here you are, eight winters, and you haven’t yet stepped foot in your first ring of stones. Come now, and we shall see them.”

“The midges will be upon us,” Gwenddolau called after us. “Mind that Angharad has some salve.”

“Seems I’m not the only mother hen,” I said beneath my breath. Stopping at my horse to take the ointment from my saddlebag, I smiled at Angharad and dropped it into my satchel.

The Dragon Warriors were moving through the rhythm of setting up camp: laying out bedrolls, watering the horses, and rinsing in the burn, while the youngest men gathered fuel for the fire and unpacked the cook pots. My twin sister had sent us away with great flats of dried beef and a bounty of summer crops, perfect for a stew of wild game, but her face had been ashen as we said farewell that morning. And as we’d ridden off through Cadzow’s gates—I with her youngest child before me in the saddle—I’d looked over my shoulder to see Languoreth standing on the platform of the rampart, watching us depart. It was enough to wound her that I was taking Angharad away. But her lover, too, traveled in my company.

“No ale before supper,” Malegwn called to the men. His jaw was tight as he joined Gwenddolau beside the stream. Each of us had left Cadzow carrying our burdens, it seemed.

Yet Angharad was no burden. Languoreth and I had been so very close when we were children, before our fates had compelled us to live kingdoms apart. Now, with her daughter at my side, I felt the rift somehow mended. Angharad threaded her fingers in mine as she so often had upon my visits, when she and I would walk the woods together, naming things. She had my sister’s tawny-red hair and the winter-gray eyes of her father, Rhydderch.

It felt right, in that moment, that she should be with me. That I should be training her in the way of Wisdom Keeping, raising her as my own. I felt my confidence return, pointing as we drew close. “See it there? The ring of stones lies just beyond that rise.”

But Angharad had already spotted them. “Oh,” she breathed. I wondered if the ring was quite what she’d expected.

Far to the north, I’d visited the ancient, imposing stones of Pictland—towering behemoths that brooded against molten silver skies. I’d sat within vast circles of sixty stones or more that rose amid thick sprays of heather. I’d walked, enthralled and nearly seduced within intimate stones, places where the rocks had been weathered so round that their curves resembled the finest bits of a woman’s body.

Each circle felt different, and rightly so. For buried deep at the root of the stones were the ashes of men and women who had come before, awake and then sleeping with the shifting of stars and the rise of the moon. Though flesh had failed them, rock had become their new earthly body. Now their spirits were ever present. I could feel them regarding us now, as if the stones themselves were breathing.

These stones were not set in a circle. They formed instead the shape of an egg, sunk into the moor in perpetual slumber, rimmed protectively by a gently sloping dyke. The tallest among them was scarcely the height of a man, while the others stooped, irregular and hobbled. Still, they beckoned with their own particular enchantment, and Angharad made to enter swiftly before I caught her hand.

“It is ill luck to enter without seeking permission,” I said. “These stones are guardians—men and women of old. They do not take kindly to trespassers and can cause all sort of maladies if they wish.”

Surely your mother has taught you as much, I nearly said. But Languoreth was no Wisdom Keeper. There was a time when she’d wished more than anything to train, as our own mother had. As I was Chosen to do. But Languoreth was not Chosen. The gift had fallen instead to her youngest daughter. Languoreth had known Angharad was marked. That the child possessed gifts was evident—a thought that stirred excitement in me even as it raised protectiveness in my sister.

But I, too, had seen things as a child. Things that frightened me. Things I could not understand. It was enough to make old spirits out of young ones. Perhaps this was the reason I felt so compelled to teach Angharad how to wield her gifts—so they would not become a burden. So they could not break her.

“Some Wisdom Keepers are showmen,” I told her now. “They would have our people believe that spirit speaks in great booms, like thunder. But spirit speaks in whispers. The best Keepers understand this and keep quiet so they might hear. Close your eyes and be still.”

Through the joining of our hands I could sense her, alert as a rabbit. A little fearful. And beneath the surface, sorrow issuing in a foul and muddy water. I could take it from her if I wished. Draw it into myself, and she might experience some relief. But the source of such wellsprings ran deep. Water will find its way—it would only rise up again. Better to let her come to it in her own time. Her own way.

“Be still,” I repeated. Angharad’s eyes flared with frustration, but she closed them, her cinnamon-colored lashes settling against her freckled cheeks.

I waited until her face began to soften. She had found her way to the quiet, the place where deeper meaning could reside.

“I will teach you the blessing Cathan once gave me,” I said. “Commit it to memory. The words will serve you well.” I moved through the old chant twice, then once more for good measure. “Tomorrow we will return, and those words will be yours to speak. Yes?” Angharad nodded and I released her hands. “You may enter now. Touch the stones if you like.”

“Sunwise?” she asked.

“Aye. Isn’t that the way of it all?”

A summer wind played, flapping at the corner of Angharad’s gray cloak as she stepped into the stones—a gentle sort of greeting. As she began to explore the circle, I told her what I knew of their story.

“This ring was built by your ancestors, those who came to this great island and first dwelled in the north. I speak of a time long ago—time out of memory. What you see are not only stones. They are your people, your clann. Their alignments track the course of moon and sun. The sunrise at Midwinter, the movements that mark the quarter year, too. In this way they are Time Keepers. Cathan brought me here—to this very circle—when I was but a boy. I saw for myself how this stone pairs with yonder hill.” I pointed to the slope that rose in the distance. “If you stand just here on Midwinter sunset, there is a cairn upon the summit that marks the grave of an ancient king. You can watch the evening sun slip down its curve like the yolk of an egg, until it disappears into the earth.”

I turned back to find that Angharad was not listening and fought the compulsion to throw up my hands. Such inattention from a novice was inexcusable. But Angharad was my kin, and the girl had never before visited a circle. I held my tongue and watched her explore, fingers tracing the pale lichen that bloomed from the speckled skin of a stone.

But then.

It was as if the air around us had gone cold. I looked up, expecting to see a swift-moving storm, but the sky was cerulean, dotted with fat, friendly clouds. Strange. Yet there could be no question—the atmosphere had shifted. I could scarcely focus on Angharad’s form, my sight gone blurry.

Stones had a particular fondness for the attention of children. But with Angharad in the stones, this was something more. Ill at ease, I closed my eyes and turned inward, searching for the cause of such a shift, and felt suddenly as if I were being observed.

Nay, not observed.

Stalked.

My blood beat against my temples. These stones were born of my own kin. Never before had I felt such malevolence. What dared stalk me now? What dared stalk my niece?

Angharad stood with her palms pressed flat against a stone. I strode into the ring, but she did not notice my presence. The wind shifted again, but now the smell that met my nose was rank, like flesh gone rotten. I did not wish to speak, fearful of lending more power to this unnamable thing, yet I could sense it, a shadow approaching, traveling across the ages. Ancient. Such power stirred I nearly reeled.

A strange look had come over Angharad’s face.

“Angharad, step back.” I spoke evenly, not wishing to cause her alarm. But the child did not hear me. It was as if she were entranced. “Angharad. Step back, I said.”

Pulling her from the rock was a danger, too abrupt. She had clearly joined some part of herself with the stone. There was risk in tearing her away that all of her might not return. But I could not wait. Reaching out, I yanked Angharad’s hands from the granite and drew back, startled, as she rounded on me, crying out as if wounded.

“It is coming for you! It comes for my mother!” she cried, then slumped against me, boneless. I caught her limp body in my arms. She weighed little more than a sack of feathers. Her freckled skin had gone waxen.

“Angharad. Speak to me. Are you all right?”

Even as I held her, even as I questioned, I knew what had taken place. Angharad had experienced a Knowing.

My tutor Cathan was wont to have them, but he’d held such mastery over himself, his utterances were more akin to a common suggestion than a vision arrived from beyond the veil. Few Keepers I’d known had possessed sight equal to his. For me, divinity spoke through nature. Augury and rhetoric were my skills. Book learnings and king lists. Strategic maneuverings. I was a counsellor—an advisor—not a priest as such. Yet I knew some Seers suffered exertion from their visions, and I imagined the effect could be more taxing on someone young, one who did not yet know how to wield it.

The girl was far too open. Angharad had opened herself and something had come, something unbidden. And I had unwittingly placed her in danger.

I should not have brought her here, I thought. Not without yet understanding her. Then she stirred in my arms and my shoulders dropped with relief. Angharad looked up at me, blinking.

“I’m all right, Uncle. Truly.”

I studied her. “Nay, not quite. But do you think you might stand?”

Angharad nodded and I placed her down gently, searching her eyes. Her gray eyes were stormy, but thank the Gods, wherever her vision had taken her, it seemed all of her had returned.

“Angharad. You must tell me what happened,” I said.

“What happened…” She spoke slowly, as if only just remembering the use of her mouth.

“Aye,” I encouraged, and her gaze turned distant.

“The stone felt soft. Soft as a sea sponge. And empty. Hollow. As if I might push it. As if I might push it and fall right through.”

“And did you? Did you… fall through?” I watched her intently.

“No, for there was something else then. Something coming as if through a tunnel deep in the earth. It rushed toward me like a wind, fast as a thousand galloping horses.”

“And then? Angharad, I do not wish to press you, but I must know the entirety of what happened so I know you are now truly safe. This spirit. Did it feel an evil thing? A… beast of some kind? What did you see?”

She frowned, frustration mounting. “I saw nothing, Uncle! It was a feeling, that’s all.” She struggled to find the words to explain it. “It was… a Thing.”

“A Thing.” I drew her to me. “I should not have brought you here. Not so soon. There are things I must teach you. I made an error, one I shall not make again. I am sorry you were frightened.”

“But I was not frightened.”

I could not hold back my surprise. “Were you not?”

“Nay. The Thing did not come for me,” she said simply. “It came for you.”

A shiver traced my arms, and I pressed her more tightly. Then quite suddenly Angharad’s face shifted and she drew away, laughing. “What is it, Uncle? Why do you embrace me so?”

“I—I wish to comfort you.” I blinked.

“Comfort me? Whatever for?” She smiled. “I am sorry, Uncle, for I must not have been listening. I cannot recall what you did say! Tell me again what such stone rings were built for. I do so wish to explore.”

The child had no memory of the events that had taken place only moments ago.

“Nay, Angharad.” I reached for her. “Perhaps tomorrow. But the stones are before you. Now you have seen them! You will be hungry. Come, let us return to camp. The air grows chill. It will soon be time for supper.”

She furrowed her brow but followed nonetheless. As we picked our way back over the grassy tufts of moor, I puzzled over what had taken place. I had spent time in shadow. In caves and underground pathways. In ancient stone chambers built for the dead. I’d faced my own darkness and my share of shades—in this world and the other. Yet never had I encountered such a… Thing.

At our camp beside Wildburn, the night fire was crackling. We slathered on ointment to fend off the midges that swarmed with a vengeance. Dreon whittled a shaft of ash with his blade, shaping a new spear. We filled our stomachs with hot stew, and the men took turns recounting tales of the woods until Angharad’s lids dropped and she slept where she sat. I picked her up and laid her gently on her bedding in the cart, tucking the sheepskin round her face, so peaceful now in sleep.

But I did not close my eyes that night for fear that the Thing, whatever it might be, should return, that Angharad would somehow be lost to me. I sat awake the long night, spine slumped against the wheel of the wagon, watching the shadows cast from the fire as they flickered and shifted, growing in the dark.

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Introduction

Picking up where The Lost Queen left off, The Forgotten Kingdom begins in AD 573, as the imprisoned Languoreth awaits news of her family in torment. Her husband and son have ridden off to wage war against her brother, Lailoken, and Uther Pendragon’s Dragon Warriors. She doesn’t yet know that her young daughter Angharad, who was training with Lailoken to become a Wisdom Keeper, has been lost in the chaos. As one of the bloodiest battles of early medieval Scottish history scatters its survivors to the wind, Lailoken and his fellow warriors must flee to exile in the mountains of the Lowlands, while nine-year-old Angharad must summon all Lailoken has taught her to follow her own destiny through the mysterious, mystical land of the Picts.

In the aftermath of the battle, old political alliances unravel, opening the way to power for the ambitious adherents of the new religion of Christianity. Lailoken is half-mad with battle sickness, and Languoreth must hide her allegiance to the Old Way to maintain her marriage to the Christian heir to the kingdom of Strathclyde. Worse yet, the new king of the Angles is bent on expanding his territory at any cost. Now the exiled Lailoken, with the help of a young warrior named Artùr, may be the only man who can unite the Christians and the pagans to defeat the encroaching Angles. But to do so, he must claim the role that will forever transform him—he must become the man known to history as Myrddin.

Discussion Questions

1. The Forgotten Kingdom begins with the same cryptic introductory fragment that appeared in The Lost Queen, about a skeleton found in Dunipace, Scotland, by quarrymen in the 1830s (p. xv). Why do you think this is the case? Do you have any guesses as to how it relates to the Lost Queen Trilogy?

2. Angharad repeats her mother’s words, saying that “our hearts are like birds, pricked full of feathers, and that each time we say good-bye, a feather will fall. One for a friend, two for a sweetheart. Three for a child” (p. 10). What role do feathers play in the novel?

3. On page 19, Angharad has a vision of “a Thing” at the stones of Wilburn, a beast that Diarmid later identifies as a coming war. How does this beast recur throughout the story, both physically and metaphorically?

4. When they meet, Lailoken warns Eira that “if you wish to play servant, you might learn to speak like one” (p. 47). Multiple characters disguise their identities in this book, either by using a false name or omitting information, while retaining some of their habits. How do these deceptions help or hinder their experiences?

5. In the Battle of Arderydd, before he flees with the body of Gwenddolau, Lailoken notes in his anguish that “Fendwin was a brother. Fendwin was a friend. I sobbed into the chaos. ‘That was my nephew. That was my boy’” (p. 90). War pits families, enemies, and allies against one another in this book. How does this affect each of the three narrators? How does this war differ from the ones you’ve learned about?

6. On Samhain, Languoreth is invited to light the need-fire, although “the blaze was lit by the Cailleach—it had always been so” (p. 141). What is the significance of this scene? How does it address growing tensions in the court of Tutgual and among the Kingdom of Strathclyde and its neighbors?

7. As the men of Strathclyde parade home with their trophies from Caer Gwenddolau, Languoreth notes of the Dragon Warriors that “Theirs would become a forgotten kingdom” (p. 176). This notion of a “forgotten kingdom” is repeated toward the end of the book as well (p. 384). Why do you think this phrase was chosen for the novel’s title?

8. Angharad is aided in one of the most difficult parts of her journey by Brother Thomas, saying of him “He has been my protector, and he is a friend” (p. 240). Brother Thomas is a culdee, while Angharad is training to become a Wisdom Keeper and later a priestess. How does the tension between the Old Way and Christianity reveal itself in this novel? What does each of the narrators think of the divide between religions?

9. During the Bull’s Sleep, the Keeper of the Falls tells Lailoken, “Your days are my days. Soon you will see” (p. 256). Do you believe that this comes to pass? Does it give you any clues to the trajectory of the next book in the series?

10. Artùr, whom we know as King Arthur, appears for the first time in this novel. Is Artùr as you expected him? How so, or why not?

11. Part IV (beginning on p. 335) takes place six years after the previous events of the novel. Why do you think the author chooses to make this jump in time?

12. There are two failures of messengers—Rhydderch’s man sent to trade for Angharad before the battle was killed, and Eachna never sent a messenger to Strathclyde to tell of Angharad’s safety. How do these events affect Angharad’s journey? Do you think she would have continued her training if she had been reunited with her parents? Would the battle at the Caledonian Wood have ended differently without her vision?

13. When caught in her deception, Eachna tells Angharad that “Long ago, I gave Strathclyde a daughter. And with your arrival, the Gods saw to it a daughter was returned. Your place is here, with me” (p. 353). Given what Elufed has told Languoreth of her early life (p. 338), do you believe Eachna’s actions are justified? How does Angharad resemble her mother and grandmother? Does she live out their earlier dreams?

14. Ariane returns toward the end of the novel and brings Angharad to train with her at Woodwick Bay. Did you expect to see her again after The Lost Queen? Do you think she will return once more in the final book of the trilogy?

15. There is some resolution at the end of The Forgotten Kindgom, with the Angles having been defeated in the climactic battle, but there are echoes of the end of The Lost Queen, with Myrddin closing out the text (p. 458). Where do you believe the story will go in the next book?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. There are many interpretations and retellings of the story of King Arthur’s court. Discuss those you’ve read or seen. How do they compare to the Lost Queen Trilogy?

2. Get out a contemporary map of the United Kingdom and compare it to the map at the front of this book. What similarities or differences do you note?

3. Has anyone in your group heard of any of the historical figures mentioned here? Choose one to research and share your discoveries. How did you come to hear of that person? If you haven’t heard of any, why might that be?

4. In The Forgotten Kingdom, rivers and trees have voices for those who learn how to listen. Take a walk in nature prior to your book club meeting. Sit beneath a tree or beside a body of water to listen. You can write in a journal or simply just be. Collect one “found item” from your walk and bring it to your meeting to share. Discuss your experience.

5. Visit the author’s website, signepike.com, for more on the Lost Queen Trilogy and further resources for book clubs.

Author Q&A

Q: The Forgotten Kingdom is the sequel to The Lost Queen, moving a number of years ahead and containing additional perspectives. How did the process of writing a sequel differ from drafting the first book in the series?

A: I loved the freedom of being able to travel in this book. It was important that The Lost Queen belong solely to Languoreth, but I did feel hampered at times when I couldn’t show all the things I knew were happening beyond her personal experience. The Forgotten Kingdom gave me the space to explore writing from multiple perspectives and to travel even more deeply into the early medieval world, but it meant a tremendous amount of new research. There’s lots on that in the Author’s Note, so I won’t repeat it here, but that was certainly one of the biggest challenges. Another concern was making sure that a reader could pick up this book without having read the first. I think that’s really important in a series. It was difficult trying to provide enough backstory in places without slowing down the narrative, especially when readers are stepping into such a complex, clan-based system—and The Lost Queen took place over a span of twenty-three years. The sequencing of chapters in this book was a monster of a jigsaw puzzle. At one point I printed all the chapters out and spread them out across the floor just so I could see the movement of the book more clearly and shift events with my hands.

Q: You’re working in a time period when the historical record is scant. How do you fill in gaps in the research and knowledge of this era?

A: To begin with, I read as much as I possibly can. The reading never stops! Museums are incredibly helpful when it comes to filling in gaps, because at least you can look at artifacts that came before and after and base decisions on those. But when it comes to things like Pictish and Brythonic pre-Christian religion, reliable sources become even more limited. I can take only the accounts, stories, and traditions that exist and then follow my own instincts. I did some study of comparable religions, especially those of cultures whose deities were represented in nature. But the Scots, too, have a very long memory. There were things I learned in traveling there and speaking with the people I encountered that made their way onto the page, and the book was much richer for that.

Q: A substantial part of this series is based on the lore of King Arthur’s court, and particularly the character of Merlin (Lailoken here). What is it like to write about the historical underpinnings of a highly mythologized story?

A: This is a great question! To me, the myth is a being created by too many masters. From the scribes who first committed oral tradition to parchment all the way through to Geoffrey of Monmouth and Sir Thomas Malory, the tales were appropriated for myriad reasons throughout their long history. The end result is marvelous, but it’s also rather tainted and nonsensical. So, I focus on the most authentic elements I can find: the oldest lines of the epic poetry that scholars can linguistically identify; the artifacts; the drive of human emotion—that doesn’t change over time. I focus on the historical figures themselves and their political involvements as mentioned in chronicles. Since I began writing The Lost Queen several years ago, I also started tuning out anything related to Arthur and Merlin that didn’t feel right to me, things that didn’t appear to come from this perspective. It turned out that was pretty much everything, especially the TV shows and films related to the Arthurian legend.

Q: Your descriptions of the landscape are astonishingly lush and vivid. How do you re-create the natural world in the series, knowing how much has been lost through the centuries? You address the Fortingall Yew in the Author’s Note; how did you come across the tree to begin with? Did you discover the presence of Fortingall through the yew?

A: The natural world was always revered in my family, so as a little girl I spent a lot of time in forests and mountains. My childhood was swimming in waterfalls, and my father introduced me to nature writing when I was young, and I still read it. Scotland has a tremendous amount of beautiful wild space still, but visiting arboretums on my last trip helped me better describe the native trees that Languoreth and Lailoken would have known in their time, most of which were ravaged by centuries of deforestation and replaced by cash-crop pine plantations. I visited Fortingall in Perthshire to see the yew because I’m fond of old trees. I didn’t expect the informational sign, which showed a re-creation of the ancient monastic site and also suggested it was a place of pre-Christian worship prior to that. The rest is my invention. We don’t know who resided in the fort that overlooks the site, but there can be little question that Fortingall was a special place for the people of ancient Pictland.

Q: There’s a lot of talk about the agency of women in historical fiction, especially during eras when women were not typically in positions of power. How do you grapple with that when writing Languoreth and Elufed, who operate within the male-dominated court of Tutgual, versus characters like Eachna and Ariane, who occupy positions of power among women?

A: In my books, I hope to show multiple manifestations of power. For so many years now, the majority of the world has been living in a male-driven society that diminishes women and demonizes our very nature. That has been to the detriment of humankind. That’s not to say that women are infallible, but in matriarchal societies, listening tends to be valued over speaking. Balance tends to rule over exploitation—of people, of land, of food and resources. Though we know very little of the Picts—and the matrilineal theory is debated—there can be no doubting the fact that as a species, we are at a tipping point, disastrously out of balance. In this painful and hard-fought awakening that’s occurring now for minorities, women, and the LGBTQ community, we need to rely upon our “feminine” properties more than ever if we’re going to achieve the evolution we so desperately need. Listening, discussion, intellect over irrational action, peaceful protest, caring for the collective rather than the self—these elements should not be gendered, but history argues otherwise. Limitations arise in every life, in every era, but I truly believe, as Ariane says, “We may not always have the choice we would like, but we always have a choice.” What I hope to show in my books is that—male or female—you are the principal sovereign of your own life. You may not control your circumstances or what is done to you, but you are the sole decider of how you react and the choices that you make. The women and men in my novels are all making choices. In the end, ours is a human journey, not a gendered one.

Q: While The Lost Queen was primarily about Languoreth, The Forgotten Kingdom makes her daughter Angharad a central character. What was it like to consider two different women and the mother-daughter relationship between them?

A: I’m enjoying exploring Languoreth and Angharad’s connection—and loss of connection—in these books, and Languoreth’s relationships with her other children, too. Gladys and Cyan played rather scant roles in this book, but may well appear in greater relief in the next installment.

Q: Who is your favorite character—either a narrator or another—to write about?

A: Diarmid is a favorite, I’ll admit. His voice came through so clearly as I was writing, and he ended up making a much larger role for himself than I had intended. Writing Languoreth feels like slipping into my favorite pair of shoes, but in this book, I also loved spending time inside Lailoken’s head. He has a sardonic sense of humor even in the most difficult of times, and he’s flawed. He doesn’t predict the events that transform him—that’s what makes him human.

Q: There are a number of terrifying battle scenes in the novel. Which scene did you find most difficult to write?

A: Rhys’s death and the Battle of Arderydd in general were by far the most brutal. I was fortunate enough to visit the site where many believe the battle took place. I stood on the hill looking out over the pastures and felt this nauseating sense of honor, grief, and dread all mingled together. I was very moved by what I experienced there and carried that with me as I wrote those scenes; what it felt like to stand on the hilltop where the fort had once been, knowing there was no chance of survival. It all relates back to this idea of personal sovereignty. They must have been able to see quite clearly that they were outnumbered. They fought anyway, and they were slaughtered. It’s an old and painful scenario that has replayed itself again and again throughout history. But this battle in particular, I think, deserves far more attention than it’s been given.

Q: The Forgotten Kingdom is the second book in the Lost Queen Trilogy. Without spoiling anything, can you give us a hint of what’s coming next?

A: War with the Angles, of course! And there will be elements from book two that will show up in surprising ways in book three—little moments and events that resurface. I know the ending of Lailoken and Languoreth’s story, but truth be told, I don’t know how many books it will take to reach it. That’s part of the magic. So much happens in the writing process. I may begin the writing day with one goal in mind: Get Angharad to a river. But if I force it, it doesn’t work. Some of my favorite elements of The Forgotten Kingdom came when I tried to get somewhere else, failed, and just gave up and obeyed the whispers. That’s how Angharad came to meet Brother Thomas. One hundred percent of the foundation is research, but once I have the main historical elements, I have to sit and dream the story. It’s a terrifying way to try to make a living. But for me, the magic part of writing is this partnership. The writer shows up with all their tools, and then something else steps in. Call it the muse, the subconscious—what we name it doesn’t much matter. It’s the allowing that’s important. I’m grateful to the readers who understand that this process takes time.

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