At the top of a round tower is a draughty and uncomfortable room. The four children who live in it are lying close together and telling a story. They can hear their mother below, stoking the fire; they adore her dumbly, but are also afraid of her. The eldest, the red-haired Gawaine, is telling the story. They range from ten years to fourteen yeas old, Gareth is the youngest, then Gaheris and next oldest to Gawaine is Agravaine—the bully of the family.
The four boys, known otherwise as the Orkney clan, are Gaelic and thus sons of King Lot who is rebelling against Arthur. Their lives are cruel and harsh—their castle is cold and dank, and their mother similarly cold and uncaring. Although none of them know it, they are nephews of King Arthur's and will become his knights.
Gawaine is telling the story of their grandmother, Igraine the Countess of Cornwall, with whom King Uther Pendragon fell in love. The King tried to seduce the Countess although she was married and so the pair fled. The Earl was killed and Igraine, although she already had three daughters (their mother and their Aunts Elaine and Morgan), was forced to marry the king. Gareth is saddened by the unfairness of this rape—he is a generous boy who hates the idea of strength against weakness. Gawaine feels only anger, while Agravaine is moved because of the fate of his mother.
The story Gawaine tells illustrates the cruelty of Arthur's father, King Uther, but also the dark tyranny of his reign and any reign founded solely on might. Moreover, it lays the foundation for the feud that continues throughout the novel between the Cornwall family and Arthur's rule.
In the room below, the Queen stands before a steaming cauldron and a mirror, holding a black cat. She is trying a well-known spell to amuse herself while the men are away—it is a spell to become invisible. She is not a serious witch, like her sister Morgan, and so although she drops the cat in the boiling water, the spell does not work.
The Queen is petty and selfish. She cares very little for her children or her husband, but neither does she have the discipline to be dedicated to her witchcraft—as her sister is. But for some reason she has made her children love her with a fury almost manic, as if by neglecting them she has made them need her more.
Meanwhile, upstairs, Gawaine finishes the story—stating this is the reason why Cornwall must forever more be against the King of England, and why their father, King Lot of Orkney, has gone away to fight King Arthur.
This is yet another iteration of the feud the Cornwall boys will never truly be able to lay to rest.