The next morning, Morgana and Uther found themselves together in the lounge area of the eastern wing of the castle. Both of them were early risers, so they had a habit of breaking their fast together. That usually came paired with sweets for Morgana, and tea for both of them. Mornings like that, with just the two of them, were pretty common.
What wasn’t common was the sense of tension that hung between the two of them today. A charged air, almost like electricity, filled the lavish chamber. King Uther always got like this just before a major royal visit, Morgana knew. Today’s morning was the calm before the storm.
Because that was what a noble’s visit truly was.
Uther wasn’t looking at his daughter. Instead, he gazed out the window, towards the courtyard. Over there was where their royal guests would soon be arriving.
“Yes, father?” the young princess replied. Uther moved away from the window and back towards the sitting area. With a sigh, the King sat down on the couch. He gave her a stern, serious look.
“Richard of Nemeth is very clever for his age. Be careful.”
Morgana understood what King Uther meant. She was old enough by now to know about the social game that was played among nobility.
Every meeting between noble families had two sides to it. No matter who it was, or where it happened. There was the front, where they socialized, made friends, and enjoyed lavish dinners and dances together…
And the real purpose, which was to gather knowledge and power. As much as possible. By any means necessary, so it could be used as leverage against each other in a deadly, never-ending social dance.
And that automatically made everyone a threat.
Including Richard of Nemeth.
Not long after the sun had risen above the hilltops, their royal guests arrived in Camelot. The two families arrived by gilded carriages, pulled by the most beautiful horses that money could buy. All of them were in their finest clothes and dolled up to perfection.
“Echem! Now presenting. His majesty, first of his name, King Rodor of Nemeth! Crown prince Richard of Nemeth! Princess Mithian of Nemeth!”
Morgana gave a polite courtesy, in the way that her instructor had taught her to do. From the corner of her eye, she could see her father and brother bowing as well. As did the three nobles that had just been presented to them.
“King Uther. It is an honour to be welcomed again in Camelot. Please accept my deepest well-wishes for the continued health of you and your family.”
“And you as well,” Uther replied flawlessly, slowly walking down the stone steps. “I hope that the journey has not been too harsh on you. Come! Please, join me inside for some refreshments. You must be parched after this long journey.”
King Rodor nodded, a satisfied smile on his lips. As he moved to follow their father, ushering his two children along, Morgana took a good look at all three of them. Her father’s warning echoed in her mind.
It would be okay. She had studied for this. A lot. Enough to know at least a little bit about all three of them.
The game had begun. Morgana had to find out all she could, and avoid spilling any secrets to them.
And her opponent this time…
Was Richard of Nemeth. The King’s oldest son, and successor to the throne. This was Morgana’s first time meeting him. He was a little older than her, around Arthur’s age. From what she’d been told, Richard was a kind, well-mannered boy.
Morgana smirked to herself. She could handle kind, well-mannered boys. It couldn’t be more difficult than pulling strings on her brother.
She could do this.
“Come on, Arthur,” the young princess muttered, as she and her brother began to descend the stone steps. “Let’s be nice to our guests.”
The Crown prince nodded. He knew how to play, too. Arthur put on his best, most disarming smile.
“Welcome to Camelot! Please, come this way…”
Morgana had worried about how they were going to sneak out to see Gawain today. But to her surprise, ditching their noble guests for an hour had not been difficult at all. Shortly after noon, both of the Nemeth children complained about being tired from the journey. Morgana had Sarah the servant show them to their rooms. They accepted gracefully, leaving immediately to take a nap.
It had been that simple.
Not long afterwards, the two of them sneakily made their way to the other side of the castle walls. Waiting there was a very tense and nervous-looking Gawain, with his wooden toy sword in hand. His bruises from the other day were still there, and his knuckles were still un-bandaged. Just like yesterday, he was a total mess.
“I take it you’ve had no formal training?” Arthur asked, raising his own sword as he looked at the boy in front of him.
“I… no, milord,” Gawain replied. “My dad didn’t think I needed to learn. He wanted me to become a trader. But I want to learn how to fight proper. Properly. Milord.”
Morgana sat on the ground not far from the two of them, perched on a grassy spot in a flowerbed. She looked from one boy to the other curiously.
She had never learned how to use a sword, either.
“Good. Then this is your first lesson,” Arthur continued. He pointed at Gawain’s stance.
“If you hold your arms like that, you’re locking your joints. Relax them. Fighting like that will make you tear a muscle on the first blow.”
Gawain did as the young prince asked, relaxing his elbows a little. His shoulders were still tense, though. Morgana could tell.
“Next, move your feet. Keep them a shoulder length apart.”
“Move your right foot about forty degrees outward. And lower your shoulders. You’re wielding a sword, not throwing sucker punches. Act like it.”
A sly smirk spread across Arthur’s lips. Morgana had seen that look before. It was his “I’m going to mess with you” look. The young princess shot him a warning glare, but Arthur ignored her. He took a step towards the boy in front of him.
“Gawain? Close your eyes.”
He did as Arthur said and closed his eyes. His arms lowered a bit in response, as the boy couldn’t see anymore. In an uncertain voice, Gawain spoke.
“Is… is this part of the lesson? I’m not sure what-“
His words were cut short as Arthur suddenly pounced, striking at Gawain with his sword. Hard. Gawain just barely managed to keep the wood from getting knocked out of his hands. In front of him, Arthur looked down on him with a confident, arrogant smirk.
“Lesson two. Getting hit hurts.”
“I – ow! I know that, milord!”
“Good. Then fight back.”
What followed was a very painful five minutes of sparring. The two of them jumped at each other, both trying to hit the other. Or, Gawain tried. Most of the sword blows ended up landing on him. Arthur was way more experienced, and much faster. Poor Gawain got completely battered. On his head, on his shoulders, on his arms, even his knees got a beating.
But he tried. He tried so, so hard, gripping his weapon until his knuckles turned white.
And yet, Gawain didn’t manage to land a single hit on Arthur.
Eventually, the young Prince stopped. He stepped back and lowered his sword.
“Let’s stop there. I’ve seen enough.”
He began to knock the dust off his clothes. Not a single hair on his head was out of place. Arthur hadn’t even broken a sweat.
“How… hahhh… how did I do, milord?” Gawain asked, completely out of breath. Arthur shot him a glance from the corner of his eye. For a split second, a calculating gleam flashed in his eyes. But that single second was enough for a big red flag to go up in Morgana’s mind. The young Princess knew her brother well. And she knew that something bad was about to come out his mouth.
And her gut feeling was right. Morgana watched as a mocking smirk appeared on Arthur’s lips.
“I’ll be honest with you, Gawain. There’s probably a good reason why Gareth doesn’t want to train you. Sword fighters need talent – and you clearly don’t have it.”
His words were harsh – much harsher than Gawain had expected. They came as a surprise to the boy, especially after he’d tried so, so hard. With a wavering voice, Gawain replied:
“I- I know, milord. I’m not very good yet. B-but if I just train hard-“
But Arthur cut him off.
“You don’t get it, do you, Gawain? You don’t have the talent. You can practice until your hands bleed, but hard work will only get you so far. True swordsmen – true knights like me – become as great as they are through practice and talent. And you don’t have that. You might as well take a hint from your father and give up now.”
“But… but I…” Gawain stammered. Arthur shook his head, still sporting that sly smirk of his.
“Compare it to this. You are the equivalent of a fish that is trying to climb a tree. You can practice jumping. You can bash your head against the bark. But if you don’t have arms, you can’t pull yourself up… and you will never reach the top.”
Arthur’s words were cold, cruel, and extremely effective. Gawain was crushed. Morgana could see him stagger backwards, the hopeful light fading from his eyes. He dropped his sword on the ground next to him. Arthur’s words had cut deep.
The young Prince did not seem to realize that, though. Or perhaps he didn’t care. With an arrogant expression, Arthur looked down on him.
“Well? I gave you a lesson. Aren’t you going to express your gratitude?”
“…yes, milord. Thank you for your time, milord.”
His shoulders sagged, Gawain slowly turned and began to walk away. Seeing that, Morgana got up from the ground and yelled after him:
“I’ll see you around, Mor,” the boy muttered. He wasn’t even looking at her. With his head hanging in defeat, Gawain turned the corner and vanished behind one of the outer buildings.
He was gone.
Arthur dusted off his sleeves, putting the wooden sword back in the sheath around his belt. A satisfied expression played on his face.
“Well, then! If that’s all settled, I think that it’s high time we get back to-“
“ARTHUR PENDRAGON!” Morgana howled. “HOW COULD YOU?!”
The young prince jumped back in surprise. He quickly brought up his hands.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa! What’s gotten into you? Let’s just calm down-“
“Calm down?! CALM DOWN?! You stupid, arrogant cox-comb!”
The girl was absolutely furious. If Morgana had a sword, she would have hurled it straight at Arthur’s face. Instead, she had to settle for screaming.
“Do you have any idea what you’ve done?! How badly you hurt him?! He just wants to be a knight! He just wants to learn to protect people! And you trampled all over him! You selfish, immature prick!”
“Wait a minute – what are you getting angry about? This was for his own good!” Arthur yelled in his defense. “You know that he can’t become a real knight-“
“Like hell he can’t! We’ll just-“
“No, Morgana!” Arthur said, cutting her off. “He can’t! And the sooner he realizes that, the sooner he’ll give up and the quicker he’ll get over it! The last thing you want to do is to give him hope for something that will never happen!”
Arthur lowered his hands, looking towards the direction of the castle gate. There was nobody there. But with the ruckus they were making, that wouldn’t last long. The young Prince quickly composed himself. When he spoke, his expression had gone back to an icy calm, and his voice was cold.
“If we keep yelling like this, people will start to talk. We need to get ready for tonight. We have guests to attend to, so I’m leaving. You can come inside after you’ve calmed down.”
And he briskly turned on his heels. Without giving his sister another glance, Arthur walked away from her.
The young princess watched him go in a fury, her breathing shallow as a sense of absolute rage filled her chest. The feeling was overwhelming. How could he?! How dare he?! The absolute prick! She’d show him! Morgana glanced down, looking for a clump of dirt or a pebble to hurl at the back of his head-
And abruptly froze when she saw the red glow enveloping her arms.
Not now. Dear Watcher, not now! What if someone saw?!
In a panic, Morgana glanced back at Arthur – but her big brother had already turned the corner and vanished from sight. Her eyes flicked to the left. Then to the right.
But that wouldn’t last forever. She needed to get herself under control. Immediately. Morgana turned inward, trying to calm her feelings of anger.
Calm. I need to calm down.
But the feeling of rage was strong. Too strong. Stronger than she was, especially now. She couldn’t contain it. And if she couldn’t contain it… people were going to see.
And if they saw… she would… her father would…
The young princess began to hyperventilate, panicking- until a past memory floated to the surface of her mind.
The gentle voice of Merlin, bringing her down from the point of rage like he had done many, many times in the past.
“You need to calm down, okay?”
“Yes, you can. Just breathe. It’ll go away, I promise. Grandma says it will always go away. But you need to breathe.”
She’d always listened to that voice. And he’d always been right.
“You’re stronger than me, Mor-mor. But it shows when you get mad. So you can’t do that. Grandma says you need to learn self-control.”
“I can’t help it…”
“I know. But it’ll be okay. I’m here. I’ll always be here.”
“I promise… so just breathe.”
It always goes away. It always goes away. It always goes away.
Merlin has never been wrong. Never.
I just need to breathe.
Morgana inhaled deeply, squeezing her eyes shut as she tried to get herself under control. It was hard. It was always hard. But she had to.
She just needed to breathe.
Slowly, the girl regained control of herself. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been standing there. But it didn’t matter. The young princess was completely focused on her breathing.
In, and out.
In, and out.
In… and out.
She abruptly opened her eyes and looked up. It was his voice, she was sure of it! He was here!
Morgana frantically whipped her head around, searching for the source of the sound.
But… there was nobody there.
It was just in her head.
Merlin was gone.