Disclaimer: This chapter gets violent towards the end.
The young prince threw his father a mopey glare, pointing at his formal outfit.
“I look ridiculous.”
A soft chuckle escaped from King Uther’s lips. He gently corrected his son.
“No, you look regal. Like a proper heir.”
“I can’t move my upper body.”
“You’ll manage, Arthur. See it as a pre-coronation trial run.”
“I can’t run! I just told you, I can’t even move my-“
The two of them were interrupted by the sound of small footsteps coming down the stairs. King Uther and Prince Arthur turned to see Morgana, in full ballgown, elegantly descend the stone staircase and join the two in the throne room. She made a small courtesy when she reached her King.
“Sorry for being late, father.”
It was true. The girl was almost thirty minutes late, as Sarah the servant had insisted on taming her hair by any means necessary. It had been a long, long battle. But tardiness had no excuse, and Morgana knew that. She expected at least a lecture. But Uther was all smiles, looking down on his daughter with pride.
“You look beautiful, Morgana. Your mother would be proud.”
He bent over, giving his daughter a kiss on her cheek. His beard felt rough and prickly on her skin. It always did. Morgana giggled.
“Dad, stop! Your beard tickles!”
Her giggled protests made the King’s smile even wider. Uther stood back upright, nodding in silent approval, before he glanced over towards Arthur.
“We should not keep them waiting any longer. Are you two ready to go?”
Morgana and Arthur nodded. Simultaneously, his children replied:
“Good. Let’s go.”
To call the ballroom of Camelot “grand” would be a massive understatement. The room was as lavish as it could get, exquisitely decorated with accents of brown and gold. The golden columns all stood adorned with flowers. They were hand-picked for their subtle, pleasant scent. Cushy chairs stood in neat rows near the walls and elegant chandeliers made of coloured glass hung from the ceiling, its surface decorated and painted as a single, massive work of art. In the corner of the ballroom stood a grand piano. The instrument was manned by a very well-skilled servant, his fingers gliding over the keys the way only a master could. A beautiful music drifted from the piano, reverberating throughout the massive chamber.
As soon as the Pendragons arrived, King Uther and Brother Agravaine split off to greet the King and Queen of Wessex. Uther had dressed himself in his best formalwear as well, but Agravaine stubbornly refused to show up in anything other than his Jacoban robes. He never wore anything else. Ever. Morgana was pretty sure that his hat was secretly glued to his head – she’d never seen him take it off even once.
Maybe he was secretly bald under there?
Before too long, the royals of Nemeth arrived as well. King Rodor immediately moved to join the adults in conversation. Arthur left to attend to Mithian, and they quickly claimed their own space on the ballroom floor. That left Morgana on her own.
She did not stay alone for long, however.
“Princess Morgana. Would you do me the honour of sharing a dance?”
Prince Richard extended his hand towards her, bowing in the traditional greeting. Morgana immediately noticed the difference in the boy’s behaviour. Nobility or not – back at the castle courtyard, Richard had acted like a child. Not anymore. Now, every movement he made was elegant and coordinated. Despite still being a kid, Richard of Nemeth radiated a sense of confidence. The young princess was used to Arthur’s arrogance, but… this was different, somehow. Morgana couldn’t quite put her finger on it. But there was something about him…
Something about Richard that made all of her senses go on alert. Morgana instinctively knew that she had to be very, very careful.
“The honour would be mine, Prince Richard.”
She took his hand, allowing the prince to lead her onto the dance floor. Both King Rodor and her father looked on. Smiles played on their bearded faces, and their heads nodded in silent approval at the scene.
The young princess knew exactly what they had in mind for the future. And Richard probably did, too.
The prince placed his hand against hers. With Richard leading, the two began to twirl around the massive ballroom. Richard of Nemeth proved to be an excellent dancer, too. Not a single movement was out of place. His perfection was almost unsettling.
As they danced, the Prince of Nemeth began to speak. His voice was clear, but soft enough that only Morgana could hear his words over the music.
“I’ve heard much about you, Princess Morgana. Many… interesting things. Our dear friends in Wessex and Cornwall speak very highly of the Flower of Camelot.”
“And of you as well, my lord,” Morgana answered formally. “My father has told me how you have no equal among your siblings in terms of wit.”
“The same could be said for you, my lady,” Richard replied with a smile. “I’m well aware of how much influence you already have in Camelot. You have the king’s heart and ear, but more interesting than that…”
He leaned in, lowering his voice even more.
“I know what you did, my lady. Using servants to blackmail your brother. It was a shame that you were sloppy in the execution. If you learn to cover your tracks, you’ll find that you can employ servants for many, many things.”
It took Morgana all of her acting skills to keep a straight face – and even then she failed. For a split second, her eyes widened in shock.
He had to be talking about the trick that she pulled on Arthur. But how did he know? And more importantly, how did he know already?! He had only been here for a few hours! Not even a full day! How in Watcher’s name did he find that out so quickly?
“I’m not sure what you mean, my lord,” Morgana replied, trying to bluff her way out. That earned her a chuckle from her dance partner.
“There’s no need for alarm, Princess. See it as a friendly piece of advice. From one royal to another.”
Morgana had no idea what to do. Her mind was still stuck. She searched for words, but Richard’s play left her completely speechless. All kinds of alarm bells were starting to ring in her head. If he knew about the staged blackmail… then what other secrets did he know about? What else had he found out?
Just like that, she was already losing.
And his next sentence did not help at all.
“I think you’re interesting, Morgana,” Richard continued, as the two of them spun around in place. “I do hope you feel the same way.”
A sly smile spread across his lips.
“Good. We are to remain in Camelot for another week. I look forward to getting to know you better during that time… Princess.”
And he stepped away, removing his hand from hers and releasing her just as the song ended. Richard gave her another bow, a smirk playing on his lips. Then, he turned and walked towards the buffet table.
Not even five minutes had passed. It had been a short dance, in all meanings of the word.
But Morgana knew that she had lost.
Slowly, the young Princess retreated off the ballroom floor. Arthur and Mithian were still dancing, and the King and Queen of Wessex only had eyes for each other. Agravaine, Uther and Rodor stood in a group on the other side of the ballroom, in the middle of a heated discussion about taxes. That left the Prince. From the ballroom floor, Morgana could see Richard, his eyes still on locked on her frame. That shadow of a smirk still on his lips. He nodded to her, his grin widening.
And Morgana suddenly couldn’t breathe.
She had to leave. Right now.
The young princess carefully backed up towards the entrance, slipping through the door when the adults weren’t watching. None of them noticed her leave.
And that was for the best. Her heart beat frantically in her throat. As soon as Morgana was out of the ballroom, her pace picked up until she was running. She dashed past the guards, out of the ballroom wing and through the main hall. The large, double doors were closed – but Morgana went for the back entrance instead. Quietly, the Princess slipped out of the castle, exiting into the cool night air.
She was sure of it now.
Richard of Nemeth… was dangerous.
With a heavy sigh, Morgana took a few steps into the cool night air. She could feel the chilly, night-time breeze on her arms and neck. It was raining again. But she didn’t care – it rained in Camelot so often that people were used to it.
Plus, the water felt good on her skin. Her cheeks were still flushed, and her heart raced in her chest. For a moment, Morgana had been worried she’d lose control of herself right in the middle of that ballroom. That’s why she had to get out. Even if her vanishing would make a fool out of her to the other nobles.
Everything was better than being burned for sorcery.
Morgana closed her eyes, taking a long, deep breath. She had never been so wrong about a person before. Richard of Nemeth had taken her completely by surprise. Her mind filled with doubts. Had Sarah told him about the scheme? Her servant had promised her that she wouldn’t tell anyone. Did she break that promise? Could Morgana no longer trust her? Or did he question the other servants, or maybe bribe them for information
And if he knew something as silly as her messing with her brother… then what else did he know? Did he know about what happened to Millicent? Did he know about her friendship with Merlin?
Did… did he know about her?
Morgana couldn’t calm down. She couldn’t focus, a thousand worries fluttering through her stomach like a storm of rampaging butterflies. The young Princess knew what those feelings led to. But she couldn’t lose control of herself. Not here. Especially not now. Morgana forced herself to head for the back gate, relieved at the absence of the guards. She was convinced that a good, long walk would help clear her head. Help her calm down.
She could not have been more wrong.
Suddenly, Morgana could feel herself being lifted off the ground, at the same time that an armoured hand clasped firmly over her mouth. She screamed, but her cries were muffled by the glove. Panicked, Morgana began to struggle against the man’s grip, trying to wiggle free-
A wave of fatigue suddenly washed over her. Morgana could feel her strength rapidly draining away. She went limp in the man’s grasp. Her vision started swimming… and then everything went black.
The city of Camelot was separated from the outside world by a single bridge that spun the length of a steep cliff. Below the stonework waited a thirty-foot drop that ended in a narrow canal, widening into the pond that sat by the city’s cliffside. The only way in and out of the city, besides swimming, was that bridge.
Naturally, the structure was heavily guarded at all times.
But not tonight. The man had taken precautions, taking out the sentries by the bridge and village entrances in advance. He had planned for this. For weeks he’d studied the movements of the everyone in the city, including his target. Memorized their routines. Learned of their schedules. He was going to strike tonight, and pluck the target from her sleeping chambers.
Imagine his surprise when instead, she came outside on her own, in a perfect blind spot between the castle towers, without a guard detail. The man pounced immediately. And he was successful. With the child slung over his shoulder, he swiftly made his way down towards the town bridge. Roads outside of the castle did exist, but the lands surrounding that were wild territory. Especially at night. Any pursuers the guards sent after them would not be able to keep up.
As soon as he crossed that bridge, he and his target would be gone.
The man ran onto the bridge, glancing over his shoulder to check for pursuers. Nothing. The streets of Camelot were empty. He was home free. The man picked up the pace, leaving the last buildings behind him and stepping onto the bridge, when he found his path suddenly blocked.
Not by a knight, or a guard.
Not even by an adult.
Standing in front of him, wooden sword in hand and feet placed a shoulder length apart, was a village boy. He couldn’t be older than twelve, maybe thirteen years old. With eyes flaring in anger, the kid looked up at him.
The man took a step forward.
But Gawain didn’t budge. He gripped his wooden sword even tighter, making his knuckles turn white and pointing the weapon at the man’s chest.
“Let… let her go.”
The man took another step towards Gawain, an ominous, predatory gleam in his eyes. In the far distance, they could see a flash of lightning.
“Move, or die.”
“NO! Let her go!” Gawain yelled. “I-I’m not letting you leave with her! If you don’t put her down right now, I’ll… I’ll attack you!”
Gawain tried to talk tough, staring the man down in anger. But his knees were shaking heavily underneath. And the kidnapper noticed that, too.
An amused chuckle escaped from under the man’s hood. With a fluid movement, he lowered Morgana off his shoulder and dropped her on the ground. He drew his weapon. It was a long, sharp, steel blade. The man moved directly in front of Morgana’s body and pointed the sword at Gawain.
“There will be no third warning. And that toy is not enough to kill me.”
The sight of an adult pointing a blade at them that was almost the size of their entire body, was enough to make most children run for the hills. But not Gawain. The boy raised his wooden sword, his gaze darkening. When he spoke, his voice had lowered to a threatening growl.
“You’re right. It’s not enough to kill you.”
He turned sideways, assuming a fighting stance.
“But it’s enough to gauge your eyes out.”
A distant rumbling of thunder could be heard.
“Interesting. You have spirit.”
The man sank through his knees, raising his weapon high above him. With an eerie smile, he looked at Gawain. Another flash of lightning illuminated the sky.
“Let’s see how far that takes you.”
The man shifted his stance-
And in an instance, he was right on top of Gawain. The boy never had time to react. With a fluent motion, the man struck, slicing clean through the wooden sword. The top half landed on the ground with a hollow clatter.
But Gawain didn’t give up. And maybe it was because of the thrashing that Arthur had given him – but he actually saw the next strike coming. Gawain quickly spun around on his heels, catching the man’s blade on the blunt part near the hilt and successfully parrying his strike. It cost him all of his strength just to keep the blade from decapitating him – but he did it.
Now for a counterstrike-!
But Gawain never got the chance. The man shifted his stance again and swiftly, without warning, elbowed Gawain in the face. His armoured plates painfully scraped over the side of the boy’s nose, sending him sprawling. Gawain just barely managed to catch himself.
He turned, moving to raise his stump of a sword – and was immediately struck again, this time by a fist backhanding him across the jaw. The blow was so hard that it actually lifted Gawain off his feet. He went tumbling backwards, unable to catch himself. The force of it sent him crashing straight into the stone railing. Hard. It hit him in the back of the head. The boy could feel his knees go weak as a result, all of the strength flowing out of his body. He collapsed.
Before his head hit the cold, wet stone of the bridge, Gawain had already lost consciousness.
When he came to, Gawain couldn’t move. The blow had been too hard. His legs didn’t work. His vision was swimming. Gawain could barely see… but he was aware of the dark figure looming high above him. The kidnapper was standing over his body, his foot pressing down on Gawain’s hands and pinning him down. His blade hung right above the boy’s chest.
It was pointed at his heart.
“You should have moved when you could.”
Gawain knew that he was going to die. A soft whimper escaped from his lips. With his last ounce of strength, the boy turned his head to look at his friend. Morgana. Her unconscious body lay unmoving on the stone tiles.
She was right there… and he couldn’t get to her. He couldn’t move. He could barely see.
Tears welled up in Gawain’s eyes.
I couldn’t save her.
I couldn’t protect anyone.
I’m sorry, Mor.
I’m so sorry.
And Gawain closed his eyes.
“…over! You’re outnumbered…”
From somewhere far away, Gawain could hear the faint sound of voices. He couldn’t tell where they came from, or who it was. The boy was drifting, fading in and out of consciousness.
“…up, and surrender now!”
“No, I don’t think I will.”
“…let him escape!”
Gawain could hear the faint noise of splashing water. The heavy thuds of armoured footsteps, coming closer to him.
“You, and you! Go get reinforcements and comb through the outskirts! Do not let him slip away!”
Gawain could feel himself slipping into the void. He couldn’t feel the bridge anymore. Or the pain in his nose. Or the raindrops falling on his skin. His body was floating.
“I’ve got you, kid. I’ve got you.”
“You’re going to be okay.”
Gawain lost consciousness.
When the red-haired boy awoke, everything hurt. His arms were sore. His legs hurt. His nose was throbbing. He had a splitting headache. Even breathing was painful. Through the haze of semi-consciousness, Gawain realized something.
He wasn’t lying on the bridge anymore. Instead, Gawain found himself on top of a bed. It wasn’t his own. But it still felt familiar, somehow. In his half-aware state, it took Gawain much longer than normal to come up with the answer.
With a groan, Gawain tried to sit up. Lifting his head off that pillow felt like lifting a chest full of stones. His headache increased tenfold the second the boy began to move. But… he had to.
He had to know what happened.
Gawain slung his legs over the side of the bed, pulling himself upright –
And immediately doubled over from a sharp pain near his ribs. A white-hot pain spread tough his chest, like someone was assaulting his insides with a hot poker.
“Ow!” Gawain winced, grasping at his ribs. That drew the attention of the town physician. Gawain hadn’t even noticed him sitting there. It was impossible not to notice him now. The elderly man scowled, gently pressing Gawain back onto the mattress.
“No, no, no – lie back down immediately. The last thing you want to do is move around, young man.”
Gawain groaned. He wasn’t a stranger to the infirmary. In fact, he ended up on top of that pillow more than Gawain cared to admit. The young redhead got scolded by Gaius at least once a week.
But this was different.
“I’m… alive?” the boy croaked.
Gaius’s expression softened. He gently placed a hand on his head.
“Yes, somehow. I thought I told you to stop being so reckless, Gawain.”
“…Sorry. Can’t help it.”
The old man sighed. He bent over Gawain, examining and treating his wounds as he went.
“Two cracked ribs. A bruised jaw. A broken nose… and a nasty concussion.”
“Heh. Is that… all?” Gawain replied. He tried to grin, but even moving his mouth was painful. Gaius gave the boy a disapproving scowl.
“Don’t get smart with me, boy. Frankly, you’re lucky to be alive.”
Gawain could feel bile rising in his throat. He’d failed. Even though he gave it everything he had, it still wasn’t enough. And now, as a result of his weakness… Morgana was gone.
He could feel tears gathering in the corner of his eyes. The boy balled his hands into fists.
“It should’ve been me.”
Gaius knew the boy well enough to realize what was going on in his head. He gave him a soft, reassuring smile, patting Gawain on the shoulder.
“Don’t worry. The Princess is safe. The guards got to you in time.”
“They… they did?”
“Yes, Gawain. They’re the ones that brought you here. I don’t agree with it… but they told me to thank you. Your recklessness at the bridge gave them just enough time to reach you.”
The old man sighed, reaching for one of the medicines on the counter. He carefully began to brew a sleeping draught for the boy. The potion had a very strong scent to it. He handed it to Gawain, shaking his head at the boy’s antics.
“Just once, I wish it wasn’t you ending up in my infirmary, Gawain. You need to take better care of yourself. Your mother would want that, too.”
“I need you to make me a promise. Don’t take on a grownup so recklessly again. Put yourself first, just once. Even if it’s the right thing to do, there are other people who can do it.”
Other people who can do it.
But not always, Gawain thought. Sometimes, when it matters most… there is nobody else.
On the second day of Gawain being locked away in the infirmary, the red-haired boy received a guest. Gawain had expected there to be guards or knights coming by at some point, to ask questions, or lecture him like Gaius did, or scold him more.
What he had not expected… was Prince Arthur.
The Crown Prince was alone, without an escort. He also looked… sad. Worried. Together with something else. Gawain wasn’t very good at reading people, but… was that… guilt?
“How… how are you doing?” Arthur asked, slowly moving towards the bed. Gawain shrugged, then winced. His ribs still hurt.
“I’ll be fine. I think. How is Morgana?”
“She’s… she’s fine. We haven’t caught the kidnapper yet, so father has her stay close to him.”
An uncomfortable silence fell between the two of them. Arthur looked unsure of himself. Which was odd, because the Prince never looked uncertain about anything. But not this time. He fidgeted around, playing with the ruffles of his sleeves as he continuously made and broke eye contact with Gawain. And he just… stood there. Silently. For almost a full minute.
At some point, the silence became too much for the Gawain to bear.
“Why are you here, milord?”
He could see Arthur swallow. The Crown prince placed his hands behind his back, straightening his posture. He let out a sigh.
“I… have come to apologize.”
And he bowed to Gawain.
Arthur began to speak, the guilt now clear in his eyes.
“You came to me for lessons, and I made fun of you. Morgana told me that you just wanted to protect people… and I still laughed at you. But if it wasn’t for your bravery, my sister… she would have…”
His voice choked up a little. Arthur broke eye contact and looked at the floor. For a moment, it truly looked as if the young Prince was about to cry.
“If anything would’ve happened to her, I… I don’t know what I would do.”
“Milord, it… it’s okay,” Gawain said softly. “I’m grateful for the apology. But… well, even if you were a little… harsh back then… you were telling the truth. I couldn’t hold my own against that man all. I’m no good with a sword. I think I already knew that. Somewhere… deep down.”
Gawain tried to smile, but it was hard. Saying those words hurt. In more ways than one. And he wasn’t good at concealing his emotions. Never had been.
Arthur could see that, too. The young prince nodded, straightening his back again. A look of determination crossed his face.
“It’s true. You are no good with a sword. At all.”
He took a deep breath.
“I am going to help you correct that.”
The red-haired boy’s eyes went wide.
“You came to me for sword training. I’d like to teach you. For real, this time.”
Gawain didn’t know how to respond. His throat choked up with emotion, causing a coughing fit that sent Gaius looking worriedly around the corner. The red-haired boy waved him away.
“I… I’m fine. But… are you sure, milord? I’m not… I’m not talented. Or noble.”
“No, you are not. But even a fish can learn the basics, as long as it has the will to try. So, if you’ll have me… I’ll gladly teach you what I know, Gawain.”
Gawain’s throat almost choked up again. He could feel tears forming behind his eyes, tears of relief this time. He couldn’t remember the last time he cried this much. The boy was a mess.
But… he’d get better. At everything.
“T-Thank you so much, milord. You… you don’t know how much this means to me.”
“About that… I actually have someone in mind…”
“I’ll let you hide in my room for the night… on one condition.”
“He just wants to learn to protect people!”
The young Prince smiled.
“…I think I can take a guess.”