Arthurian legend is one of my favorite blends of historical fiction and fantasy. There are a ton of stories out there and many sound the same over time. The Lost Queen by Signe Pike is an interpretation that I have not come across before. This story is told from the perspective of Languoreth, the twin sister of Lailoken (who will eventually become known as Merlin). It is through her that he will be related to Arthur.
The Celtic peoples have long claimed Artur and Merlin as their own but many of the stories I have read place Arthur in Wales. This story begins in Scotland in 550 AD. The British Iles is on the brink of change; the Romans are long gone, the old religions have been dominant for a long time but Christianity is slowly seeping into the Celtic world and things are coming to a tipping point.
The story begins with Languoreth and her twin Lailoken (Lail) waking up one morning shortly after the death of their mother. Lail and Languoreth sneak off the to the river in the forest where they feel a closeness to their mother; this is part of their grieving process. The kids know that if their nurse were awake she would never allow it so they try to sneak out of the castle. A guard sees them but lets them go to the river all the same. These are the children of King Morkin, they will be near the castle, and who would harm the kings’ kids.
The children sit by the river and wait for the deer that has come every morning since their mother’s death. They believe this is the gods somehow giving them a sign related to their mother. After all their mother had been a Wisdom Keeper for the gods and Lail is destined to follow in her path. While at the river Languoreth thinks she sees a vision of their mother. This is a lovely way to set the stage for the core belief the twins have in the old gods and the old ways.
Languoreth and Lailoken make their way back to the castle to find their nurse Crowan in a state of panic because she does not know where the children are, but when they tell here where they went and why she calms down but makes them promise not to go to the river alone anymore. After extracting the promise she sends the kids off to their lessons with Cathan. Cathan is the king’s advisor and a Wisdom Keeper. He teaches both kids to read, write, do basic math, matters of Law, and history. He also teaches Lail about sacred Wisdom Keeper knowledge. Languoreth would love to be taught the sacred knowledge too but it is not possible; only one child can be trained the other must learn to rule their fathers’ lands.
As their lessons are coming to an end King Morkin comes home and he greets his children and their foster brother Gwenddolau. The king loves this young man like his own child and is happy to see them all. There is a strong bond between everyone that will last a lifetime. Gwenddolau’s father is also a king, but a king in exile as his lands have been stolen by a younger brother.
Soon the reader learns that there are many troubles when it comes to outsiders raiding other people’s lands. The Angles have raided King Vortigern’s lands and this weak man does not stand and fight for his people. Instead, Vortigern flees to one of his strongholds to wait it out. In his absence, there is no one to fight for the average person. Into this power gap comes Emrys, a low born soldier. He is a great fighter who will protect the people when the king will not. Emrys becomes known as the Dragon Warrior, they call him Pen Dragon.
As the story progresses the reader learns that Emrys Pen Dragon fights off the Angles, kills Vortigern, and becomes king. Gwenddolau’s father joins Pen Dragon and when he becomes of age so does Gwenddolau. Lail longs to go off and fight for the Dragon Warrior just like his foster brother but at this point in the story his is too young; and besides he is not supposed to be a warrior, Lail is supposed to be a Wisdom Keeper. But every king needs a Wisdom Keeper so all is not lost in Lail’s mind. Some day he will fight beside the Pen Dragon.
Before the story moves on, the kids go to the capital city with their father for the first time. While they are there Cathan takes the opportunity to take the children to the sacred groves on the hill outside of town. While there Languoreth sees a man dressed as a monk on the hill and he is not supposed to be there. Before she can scream to bring help the man runs away.
Later that night the sacred grove is burned down and a Christian monk is buried on Druid land. There is almost a riot of the desecration of ancient lands. On the other side, the Christians are outraged that the Druids want to dig up the monk and move the body, that is a desecration as well. This is the beginning of the tension between the new and old ways.
The story jumps forward in time and now Languoreth and Lailoken are teenagers, almost of age in those days. They are old enough to go the Capital with their father and be presented at court. Lail enjoys his time in the capital but Languoreth does not. She knows that soon will come the time for her to make a political marriage and she does not want this.
Until now Languoreth has spent most of her life living in her father’s fortress, running around in the forest, and being given more privilege than most women of her time, and she knows this. She does not want to marry for politics. Plus when Emrys Pen Dragon recently visited a young warrior, Maelgwn, caught her attention and she eventually falls in love with him.
I am sure it does not take much guessing to realize that the daughter of a King cannot marry a warrior. No, she must marry Rhydderch, the son of the High King. Languoreth does not love Rhydderch but she eventually comes around to do her duty and makes the political alliance.
This alliance is necessary since she is the daughter of the old ways and the High King has been favoring the Christians more and more. Someone must be on hand to advocate for the people of the old ways. Especially since the new Bishop turns out to be the man that Languoreth saw in the grove all those years ago. The man that burned down the sacred grove.
As the story advances the reader sees more conflict between the Christians and the Druids. The High King and his family are more and more in favor of the Christians. To add to the country’s woes, there are constant battles on the border with the Angles raiding and taking land where they can.
Emrys dies but his successor takes over, they call him the Uther Pen Dragon, the new dragon. Who is the new dragon? None other than Gwenddolau. Lail has come of age and it is time for him to serve a king as Wisdom Keeper. He finally gets his wish to serve the Dragon Warrior and joins the court of his foster brother. It might not be the dragon warrior Lail dreamed of as a child but this might be even better to serve his brother.
The story flashes forward again and Languoreth’s oldest child Rhys is 16. She has three other children as well, all of whom have been raised mostly in the Christian way. Though her youngest feels a calling to the life of a Wisdom Keeper.
Lail still serves Uther but he visits his sister and her children as much as he can. He realizes that his youngest niece is being trained as a Christian but should be trained as a Druid. Lail asks his twin if he can take the child with him and raise her in the court of Uther. Languoreth is surprised when Rhydderch agrees; he sees the advantage of having a child with loyalty to him in with the people of the old ways. The High King is getting old and Rhydderch may soon be High King; he needs alliances with Christian and Druid alike.
Less than a year after Lail takes his niece to live with him in Uther’s court the Christian faction decides to raid Uther’s lands and try to take them from this godless king. The High King is not dead yet and Rhydderch will not go against him and risk his place as the next king. Now Languoreth is faced with the horror of having her daughter in the path of danger and her oldest son fighting her brothers.
Languoreth tries to use the old magic to warn her brother of the fight to come if only to try to stop the atrocity of having two of her children in harm’s way. While trying to use magic she has a vision of her brother’s future. One in which he is very old, the Christians have won and Lail has become a thing of ridicule, they call him a madman, they call him Myrddin.
At the end of the book, we don’t know how the battle goes but we are sure to find out in the next book. We see a glimpse of Lail’s future but before he can become the old man he first must be the advisor to Uther and then Arthur. What I have avoided saying in too much detail is that somehow Arthur is related to Lail. As you read the book you will probably guess how if you are at all familiar with Arthurian legend.