Ygraine remembers the day she was born.
No one believes her, of course. She’s five years old and adults never, ever take her seriously, and yes she lies sometimes, but she knows this.
“You can’t remember that, silly,” her mum tells her after she steadfastly proclaims it to her family over dinner. Her brothers roll their eyes; her father isn’t really paying any attention. “No one can remember the day they were born.”
“I can,” Ygraine insists stubbornly, sticking her lower lip out. “We were in a yellow room and you were screaming, Mummy. A lady with red hair helped you stop screaming and she held me until you did.”
“You weren’t born in a yellow room, you were born in a hospital,” her mum says gently. Aggy snorts under his breath and Ygraine glares at him. No one asked him, anyway. “And the doctor who delivered you was a man, not a lady with red hair. Where’d this come from, honey? Did you see it in a movie? Boys, you know what I’ve told you about letting your sister watch the telly with you.”
“We didn’t watch no movie with a baby!” Tristan says, a look of disgust crossing his face. “That’s gross!”
The conversation spins away as Tristan starts using curse words and their mum scolds him, but Ygraine’s mind hasn’t been changed.
She knows that she remembers.
When Ygraine is nine, she gets into a fight at school with one of the girls in her class. She shoved her into the mud and scraped her knee because she called Ygraine a bitch. Ygraine doesn’t know what a bitch is, but she knows it was mean.
“She shouldn’t have used that word,” her father tells her tightly when Ygraine defends herself. “But you do not resort to pushing and shoving.”
“Tristan and Aggy shove each other all the time,” Ygraine mutters angrily under her breath.
“That’s because they’re boys,” her father says, a little more gently. “It’s unladylike to fight like that. You need to apologize to that girl at school tomorrow. Is that clear?”
Ygraine remembers something as she nods sullenly at her father’s request.
She remembers Tristan and Aggy with wooden swords in a castle courtyard, screaming and chasing one another. She remembers running to catch up with them, begging them to join in, but they won’t let her, turning their nose up, saying girls can’t fight with swords.
They’re right, her father tells her when she complains to him later. Girls do not fight with swords. It’s unladylike.
Girls fight with words, her mother interrupts, bundling Ygraine into her arms. I can teach you that, darling.
Ygraine knows that this never happened; she has never lived in a castle. Only princesses live in castles. She lives in three-bedroom in Surrey. She has her own room, and that makes Tristan and Aggy call her a spoiled princess, but she isn’t, not really. Her daddy works at a bank and her mommy works at a school. They aren’t a king and a queen.
Yet Ygraine also knows that it was a memory; that the castle was real.
By the time is Ygraine is thirteen, she’s figured it out.
She asked her teachers and her friends about what it means when you remember something that hasn’t happened to you. Her friends didn’t have answers; her teachers asked if she needed to talk to the school counselor.
So she went to the library and paved through books about déjà vu and false memories until finally she found a book titled Other Lives.
It was a book about something called reincarnation; when a person’s soul was reborn again in another time.
The book said that everyone on earth was reincarnated, but Ygraine didn’t believe that. Everyone else didn’t remember things like she did.
But she knew that she had another life, before this. A life in a castle, with knights and dragons and princes and balls.
She remembers it more and more every day, ever since she came to the realization. They’d think she was crazy, but Ygraine knows she’s not.
She goes to see Tristan and Agravaine play football and remembers huge tourneys of knights jousting. She remembers when Tristan was sixteen and he won the tournament over all of the other knights and princes of the realm. He beamed with pride, and still chose to escort his little sister to the ball that evening.
When she goes to see her father in his office, bent over his papers, glasses on the edge of his nose, she remembers he was not a king but a duke. He ran a corner of the kingdom and reported it back to his king with crop reports. He did not have much time for fatherhood, so it was a good thing her mother had survived all three childbirths.
She even remembers some of her friends, and she wonders why they do not remember her. Maybe they do; maybe they look at her the way she looks at them, both too nervous to say anything.
She can see her best friend Vivienne in a royal blue dress, seventeen years old, laughing at something Ygraine said, head thrown back in amusement like it never is with her many suitors. She was always more popular with the knights than Ygraine had been. She will be so beautiful someday, Ygraine realizes, even though she has acne and braces like everyone else today.
She remembers Richard, too, but she remembers him by his last name – Gaius. Ygraine had never given him much thought before; he sat in the back of the classroom and answered all of the teachers’ questions, glasses perched on his nose like he was already thirty years old.
That was how Ygraine remembered him; a thirty-year old man, a doctor, treating her for her ailments. She remembers laughing with him late into the night, sharing a cup of tea.
She makes friends with him after that, and only calls him Gaius. He starts to like that nickname.
She thinks about telling the people she recognizes, to see if they can see this other world, too. But something always stops her; she feels too special like this, being the only one to know a grand secret.
Her childhood comes to her in bits and flashes, filling in the shady spots in her memory.
Part of her knows that she will not be a child forever.
Ygraine is eighteen years old, high school diploma tacked on her wall, sipping her tea as she thinks about where she will go to university in the fall, when a memory hits her like a bullet train.
Usually, they come in quietly, sneaking into the back of her mind like a bandit in the night. Not this memory, though – this one is sharp with defined edges and she nearly chokes on her tea in surprise.
She was a queen.
The thought thrums within her, and she feels something like excitement, but also something like dread.
Ygraine, her father comes into her room one night, a tender look in his eye that Ygraine is not familiar with. I have excellent news.
What is it? Ygraine asks, and somehow already knows the answer, even then.
My envoy has just returned from Camelot, her father says, a pleased sparkle in his eye. The young conqueror has agreed to take you as a bride.
Ygraine’s heart quickens its pace. Camelot…Camelot is so far from here…
You will be a wonderful queen, her father tells her firmly, the greatest compliment he will ever give her. You just have to have the courage to go to him. I know you will do our family proud.
Duty, Ygraine thinks in the present, her tongue like lead. That was the culmination of her first life; a duty to her father, to her husband, to her people.
There is joy there, but also sadness; Ygraine is glad that she is in this time now, where she can live for herself.
And yet she cannot help but wonder – this young conqueror. Who is he? Did Ygraine love him? She feels something akin to love in her chest, but she is only eighteen. She does not yet now what love means, let alone if she felt it once before, a thousand years ago.
She wonders if she’s met her husband yet; if he’s here. He must be.
That’s why she has been reborn; why they all have been reborn. This king, and what he will do.
Does Ygraine’s duty still carry over to this life?
She shudders, and begins paging through leaflets on universities to take her mind off of these questions. She feels jealousy for the rest of the world in this moment; she’s always felt special, superior, because of her memories, but now she only feels dread.
She thinks that it cannot possibly get any worse until she falls asleep that night, and it is only in her dreams that the rest of her first life plays in front of her eyes.
The gods must have realized that she could not handle seeing this awake; that she would not be able to study it.
She remembers Camelot – great, glorious, beautiful Camelot – and her beautiful husband, who treated her with such tenderness and grace, she could not help but fall in love with him.
She remembers presiding over the royal household; the affection she shares with Gaius, her husband’s closest friend and advisor, the friendship she maintains with Vivienne and her husband, Gorlois, the witch Nimueh and the counsel she brings to Ygraine on magic that she in turn shares with her husband.
She remembers being happy.
She remembers that her body would not let her stay that way for long, refusing to produce a child. She remembers her husband’s rage, his anger, his desperation.
She remembers thinking to herself does he want a son or does he want an heir? Is there even a difference with him?
She remembers her husband’s betrayal, how her husband chose an heir over Ygraine without asking her, without giving a thought to her consent, her autonomy, her value as a human being and not an extension of himself.
She remembers Uther Pendragon knowingly trading her life for their child.
She remembers the world shrinking and darkening around her as she asked to hold her newborn son.
She calls him Arthur, and it is the last thing she ever says.
Ygraine is too heavy, too lethargic, too overwhelmed, to consider leaving her bed today.
She has vomited twice and her head threatens to burst with this new information.
It is not her husband, her king; he is not the reason she is here. He is not the reason that the past has returned to the present.
It is her son. It is Arthur.
He is the reason she is here, reborn, living and breathing once again, thousands of years after she should have perished giving him life.
She clutches her stomach somewhat protectively, as if someone has already forced him inside of her.
The love she felt for Arthur, even in those few seconds, was the most intense thing she had ever felt before, even in this muted, dreamlike state.
She learned the tales of King Arthur once, long ago, but she knows now how many of those ring false. Arthur was her son; her beautiful, precious son who never got to meet his mother. Pity and love thrum through Ygraine’s body, and she is sick again.
She cannot take it, all of this pain, all of this pressure. For if history is doomed to repeat itself, then surely she is meant to die again. She is meant to die so that Arthur can live and do wonderful things. Arthur is the Once and Future King – she remembers reading that book, years ago. He is coming back to save the world.
It is all too much.
For normal girls, there is university. There is a promising career. There is marriage and children that doesn’t end in fire and destruction.
Ygraine no longer has such comforts.
She does not believe that her life is more important than anyone’s, especially not Arthur’s. But doesn’t her life at least have equal worth? Shouldn’t she be permitted the chance to live? Could she choose another path, or would fate stop her?
Pity and sadness soon turns to rage, to anger. She should not have to destroy herself for the sake of the world. She should not have to take this fate without a fight. She does not owe the world anything, for it certainly never did any favors for her. It brought her back just to spit her back out again, so that her son could live, so that her husband could thrive.
Ygraine decides that she is not a toy to be played with by the universe.
Her former life, always a source of comfort and joy, is dead to her now.
She has clearly always been dead to it.
Ygraine has her own life to live now; this life and no one else’s. Not Uther’s. Not Arthur’s. Not her father’s or her brother’s or any other godforsaken man’s to control.
She is studying art in London. She wants to be a professor. She ignores the voice in her head that says she’ll never make it that far before she’s withered away to nothingness.
She spends time with her friends, but not those who she remembers from centuries ago. She makes new friends with people who only have this life to live, who laugh loud and long and never worry, not about things that matter, like the fate of the universe hanging in the balance of your death.
And yet, there are things Ygraine unwittingly learns despite her desire to let the past go, things she never discovered during her time alive.
Yet they come to her anyway, like thieves in the night, stealing away her resolve to put up a steel wall between herself and the queen.
She learns Vivienne had an affair with Uther that started while she was alive and continued onward, that a daughter was born of the union. Uther’s first betrayal; though it hurts to learn it, it is nothing compared to his worst.
Tristan was indignant over death, and blamed Uther – as he should have. What he shouldn’t have done was challenge him to a duel. What Uther shouldn’t have done was kill him in cold blood. Another betrayal.
The Purge also comes to her in a frenzied nightmare; Uther brazenly destroying all magic. Nimueh running, Gaius hiding, the world shattering and coming to an end. Uther does not remain the charming man she loved; instead, he is consumed only by hatred and malice and greed, never the father that her son deserved.
Perhaps Ygraine’s death was not his greatest betrayal; perhaps it was how he treated Arthur in her absence.
She has to shut that thought away, lest it consume her.