This book starts with Merlin, and how he became obsessed with the lady Pellinor brought back from his quest, one Nimue. Nimue is “one of the damsels of the lake,” a hazy designation that seems intended to align her with the Lady of the Lake whom Balin killed. She provides the link between the stories in this book.
Merlin can see his own doom approaching, but apparently can’t do anything about it. He loads Arthur up with advice (which he likewise won’t take) and takes Nimue to visit the Continent, where Lancelot is still a child (this brings up a lot of perplexing issues with the timeline, but we’ll just ignore those as the author does). The vacationing magicians return to Cornwall, where Nimue finally gets sick of Merlin’s propositioning her and tricks him under a great stone, where he will be buried forever. An odd way to write him out of the story, to my way of thinking.
Arthur fights a couple more wars, with Pellinor as his trusty ally, losing eight knights of the Round Table in the process (numbers!). Pellinor nominates their replacements, including his own son Tor, Arthur’s brother-in-law Uriens (Morgan’s husband–she plays a larger role starting in this book, although very much off and on for most of the collection), his nephew Gawaine, his foster-brother Kay, and a few other minor characters. I am emphasizing all of the family relationships here because I feel like it’s an element that tends to get forgotten. To be fair, it doesn’t really come up overtly in the stories very often, but I like to keep it in mind.
Arthur’s days of having adventures on his own are coming to an end. He gets some more center stage in Book 5, the war with Rome, but starting in Book 6 the stories are more those of individual knights. In this one, he, Uriens (Morgan’s husband), and Accolon of Gaul (Morgan’s lover–awkward!) are all out hunting and find a mysterious, luxuriously appointed ship. Being player characters, they go on board, enjoy a sumptuous meal, and go to bed.
Uriens wakes up back in Camelot with his wife; Arthur wakes up in prison with 20 other knights; and we don’t find out about Accolon yet. Arthur and the others are captives of the evil knight Sir Damas, who is looking for a champion willing to fight his good brother Sir Ontzlake. Arthur apparently follows a utilitarian code of ethics, and volunteers to fight the good brother in order to free the 20 captives.
Now we go back to Accolon, who wakes up by a well. A dwarf comes by bearing Excalibur, and tells him that he is going to fight another knight this morning, and all of this is Morgan’s devising. You can guess what happens here, right?
Accolon ends up with Sir Ontzlake, who as bad luck would have it is currently wounded, and can’t fight the champion his evil brother has finally come up with. So the fight is set up between Accolon, who has the real Excalibur (and its magic scabbard), and Arthur, who has a fake created by Morgan. They fight. Although Accolon can’t be hurt and Arthur can (and is), there is no yielding, even when Arthur’s sword breaks. Nimue happens to be hanging around and feels sorry for Arthur who is trying so hard; she makes Accolon drop the sword. Arthur picks it up and demands his name, and the plot is revealed. Arthur shows mercy to Accolon, who later dies of his wounds, but is very put out with Morgan.
Morgan, meanwhile, is plotting to murder her husband, but is stopped by their son Uwaine, who… warns her not to do it again. She is very sad to find that Accolon has been killed, and sneaks off to Ontzlake’s castle to steal Excalibur’s scabbard again. Arthur pursues her, and she throws the scabbard into a nearby lake while making her getaway, continuing the water-and-swords motif. She encounters Accolon’s cousin Manassen, helps him with a murder, and sends him to Arthur to deliver her taunts. Arthur swears revenge.
Arthur appears to have the memory of a goldfish, because when the next messenger from Morgan arrives, bearing a richly jeweled mantle, he accepts it in good faith and is only saved by “the damosel of the lake” (Nimue again, one assumes) who warns him not to put it on. It is instead placed on the messenger, whom it kills dramatically. Arthur is really pissed now, and banishes her son Uwaine from court. Gawaine goes with him, out of loyalty to his cousin.
Gawaine and Uwaine have some adventures as a pair, and then meet up with Sir Marhaus. The three meet three ladies on the road, and each knight follows one of the ladies in search of further adventures.
Gawaine’s is very complicated and fun, as it involves him meeting a lovelorn knight named Pelleas and his beloved, Ettard, who can’t stand him. Gawaine promises to help Pelleas and distinctly fails to do so by sleeping with Ettard himself. A furious Pelleas is on the point of killing both of them, talks himself out of it, and goes off to mope.
Nimue wanders into the story here. She helps Pelleas get revenge on Ettard by making her fall in love with Pelleas, who now wants nothing to do with her. Nimue ends up with Pelleas herself, and Ettard dies of sadness. Nothing happens to Gawaine other than Pelleas continuing to think he’s a jerk (he has plenty of company).
Marhaus and Uwaine have much simpler adventures that just involve fighting a bunch of guys. Afterward, Uwaine is allowed at Arthur’s court again. Marhaus eventually gets killed by Tristram. Pelleas does well in the Grail adventure.
Next up: The gang conquers Europe.