In an uncomfortable castle in Orkney, a medieval kingdom in Ireland, four brothers, Gawaine, Gaheris, Gareth, and Agravaine, whisper to one another. Gawaine tells the story of their grandmother, Igraine, the countess of Cornwall, whose husband was killed by Uther Pendragon so Pendragon could have Igraine as his wife. In the room below, Morgause is trying to turn herself invisible. She boils a live cat, separates the bones from the flesh, and then puts each bone into her mouth while watching herself in a mirror. Before she finds the right bone, however, she grows bored and throws the whole mess out the window. Above her, the boys promise that they will avenge the death of their grandfather by fighting Uther’s son, Arthur.
Back in England, Arthur stands on the battlements of a castle with Merlyn. They discuss a recent battle with one of the Gaelic kings, King Lot of Orkney, who is Morgause’s husband. Arthur is proud of his victories, but Merlyn scolds him for not knowing how many kerns, or foot soldiers, were killed in the battle. Merlyn also tells Arthur that he will have to start thinking for himself, because Merlyn knows that he will soon fall in love with a girl named Nimue, who will use Merlyn’s own spells to trap him in a cave for several centuries. As Arthur holds a rock in his hands, he is awestruck by the fact that he could drop it on somebody’s head down below and nobody could punish him. Merlyn watches Arthur intently while Arthur thinks about this power aloud, but Arthur breaks out of his bloodthirsty reverie and uses the stone to knock off Merlyn’s hat.
One day, Kay, Merlyn, and Arthur go hunting for grouse. Merlyn explains that there are many reasons why the Gaelic kings are rebelling against Arthur. One of these is the long-running ethnic feud between the Gaels, an older race who once ruled England, and the Normans, who drove them out. Another is the fact that Arthur’s father killed the count of Cornwall, who was the father of Queen Morgause, Morgan le Fay, and a woman named Elaine. Arthur says he understands why the Gaelic kings are fighting him. Merlyn retorts, however, that two wrongs do not make a right. Even though Merlyn is a Gael himself, he says the Gaels destroyed another race before they themselves were driven out, and that this conflict occurred so long ago that it is time to forget it.
Later, Merlyn argues that fighting is generally wrong, except in cases of self-defense. Kay is skeptical that the aggressor is always so easy to identify, but Merlyn stubbornly disagrees. He tells Arthur that his enemy, King Lot, the aggressor in this case, starts wars as casually as if he were fox hunting and has no regard for the common soldier.
In Orkney, Gawaine, Gareth, Gaheris, and Agravaine are visiting the house of Mother Morlan, a local woman. St. Toirdealbhach, a “relapsed saint,” is also in the house. After a drink of whiskey, the fierce and battle-scarred old saint tells them the story of King Conor, who was shot in battle by a magic bullet. The ball lodged in his temple, and his surgeons told him to avoid all excitement. One day during a thunderstorm, a servant told King Conor that Jesus was being crucified that day, and as the king rushed to defend his savior, he fell down dead. St. Toirdealbhach thinks sadly that war isn’t what it used to be and that battles have gotten so big that it is hard to remember what is being fought over. The boys protest that one needs many men in a battle or there would be no one to kill.
The boys ride a couple of donkeys to the beach, beating the donkeys furiously as they go. A magic barge lands, and three knights—King Pellinore, Sir Grummore, and Sir Palomides—descend with a dog. A crowd of local townspeople gathers around them.