The seasons changed. Trees slowly grew, reaching higher towards the sky inch by painstaking inch, as they shed and re-grew leaves with every cycle.
And as the years passed, Camelot thrived. Weddings and unions were celebrated. Children were born. Elderly passed away.
Old secrets were slowly forgotten, passing away into obscurity.
But life in Camelot was not always easy. The country was struck by a particularly harsh series of winters, paired with bad harvests and foreign threats of violence. The war worsened. People grew hungry. Soldiers were recruited to march against Cornwall. Lives were lost, both young and old. And as hunger threatened to turn into starvation, the citizens of Camelot grew restless. Restlessness turned to riots. Riots ended in arrests, which were quickly followed by executions. Arthur and Morgana did what they could to keep the peace, but starvation proved to be a formidable foe.
After witnessing the first child die of malnourishment… the two of them reached an understanding.
The Crown Prince and Princess lost a lot of weight that winter.
But, as was the case with all hardships… eventually the cold breath of winter ended, and life returned to the forests. New seeds were sown. Trees regained their leaves. The first rays of spring sunlight brought with them the promise of better days.
It would need all of its strength in the years to come.
The silence in the castle courtyard was broken by a violent clashing of swords. A metal clanging reverberated throughout the open space, originating from two extremely fanatic swordsmen. Arthur and Gawain had been at it all morning, exchanging blows and trying their damndest to land a hit on each other. As their blades sung, their eyes gleamed with determination.
Neither one would back down.
A few people could be seen near the doors to the castle. Watching the two practice had become a spectator sport among guards and servants alike. Officially, Arthur had condoned their presence under the guise of “educational merit.”
“Five shillings on Gawain.”
“I’ll raise you ten.”
The metal clanging was interrupted by the subtle clink of money changing hands. Arthur and Gawain ignored it. They were focused on each other, and each other only. Ever since the red-haired young man had caught up to the Crown Prince in terms of skill, their friendly sparring matches had become fiercely competitive. The wooden swords were discarded, changed into blunt – but very real – swords. Arthur’s mocking smile made way for a fiery, determined glimmer in his eyes. That glimmer was perfectly mirrored on the face of his friend.
Every Friday, the two of them went up against each other with everything they had.
The Crown Prince lunged forward, raising his sword above his head and swinging it down. A power strike. Gawain instantly reacted. He thrust the forte of his blade forward, parrying Arthur’s blow with his blade. The Crown Prince quickly retreated. He went for the same attack again.
But by now, Gawain knew Arthur’s fighting style well enough to know when he was feinting. He jumped away just as Arthur brought his arm down and swiped for Gawain’s leg. Arthur missed by only a hair.
“You’re becoming predictable, my lord,” Gawain grinned at his friend. “I’d have seen that one coming all the way from Cornwall.”
“I’m just making sure you’re remembering your lessons,” Arthur quipped back. “If you hadn’t seen it coming, I would have kicked you back to straw practice dummies.”
“At least the practice dummy knows not to expose his flank when he parries.”
“Says the muck-sprout who keeps tripping over pebbles in the courtyard.”
“You quigsby! That happened one time!”
Arthur laughed. It was a warm chuckle, free of any malice or ill-intent. Besides Morgana, only Gawain was allowed to speak to the Crown Prince like that. The two of them traded insults and quips almost as much as they traded sword blows. It had become a routine. Their banter was not just reserved for sparring sessions anymore, either. With Gawain growing into a capable fighter, Arthur had convinced the King to let him assemble his own group of soldiers-in-training. Most of them were hand-picked from noblemen that aspired to become knights.
But with the help of Morgana, those ranks now also included Gawain.
Arthur still had no idea how she’d managed to pull that off. But he was grateful to her, as Gawain had become one of his closest confidantes. The young man was simple and uncomplicated. Straight-forward. Always quick to speak his mind. But it was more than that. More than any of the nobles in his court, to Arthur, Gawain felt real. The Crown Prince didn’t have to play any games with him. He could let down his guard.
When he was around Gawain, he could just be Arthur.
Their sparring session had taken a toll on both of them. They kept up a tough front, but they were both panting, leaning on their swords to rest. They weren’t weak, or out of shape. To the contrary. Arthur and Gawain were both incredibly capable.
But they’d been at it for almost an hour.
“Draw?” Arthur smiled, looking down on his friend. Gawain let out a tired chuckle.
The young man looked over to the bench near the tree, a proud smile playing on on his face.
His expression fell. Gawain’s eyes lingered on the cold, hard stone, devoid of any occupants. A vague hint of sadness flashed by in his eyes. Gawain looked back at Arthur, awkwardly scratching the back of his head.
“I, uh… I saw the Prince and Princess of Nemeth arrive the other day. And some other nobles, too. How is… everything?”
His words were evasive, but Arthur knew what Gawain was really asking about. The redhead had never been hard to read. His expression spoke volumes. For years, Morgana had been on that bench every Friday. She’d watched the two of them spar, offering words of encouragement for Gawain and giving sarcastic comments to her brother. Her presence had become normal. Expected, even. Gawain always fought better when she was around.
But lately, Morgana hadn’t shown up at all. In fact, the prince had rarely even seen his sister over the past few months. He knew why. Another royal ball was about to take place, and Morgana was in the middle of preparing to deal with the Prince of Nemeth. The guy gave Arthur the creeps in the worst way, but he knew that his sister could handle him.
Even so, as a result, he’d barely laid eyes upon her since March. Gawain saw her even less. And he didn’t even know why. No wonder that the young man was feeling abandoned.
“Father and her have been preparing to deal with our guests,” Arthur explained. “I won’t bore you with the details, but after last winter, we’re in a bit of a bind with the other nobles. We’re forced to play defensively.”
“Like in sword fighting?” Gawain asked, earning a short nod from Arthur.
“Exactly like in sword fighting. We’ve been forced to deflect so much that it’s putting us into a fool’s guard.”
“That’s not good. If you don’t go on the offensive, you’ll let your opponent take initiative, and-“
“And we’ll lose the fight,” Arthur nodded, finishing his sentence. “We know. Trust me. That’s why they’re being a little… extreme… with preparations.”
“Extreme” is still putting it mildly, Arthur thought. His sister had taken after Uther very strongly in that regard, digging and digging until every secret came to light. She was extremely good at it, which had made Arthur’s life a lot easier. Whenever he had doubts about something, all he had to do was point Morgana at it. She had a way of getting the truth out, one way or another. Her determination sometimes bordered on ruthlessness.
Even so, Arthur knew his sister. Despite everything, he knew that she still had dolls and stuffed animals in her room. He knew that she still liked building snowmen, and moving them in the middle of the night, when nobody was watching, to scare people in the morning. He knew that even now, she enjoyed pulling pranks, picking flowers and stealthily reading romance novels.
But, like him, Morgana had to grow up and pretend otherwise.
“Don’t worry, Gawain. You’ll cross paths again eventually.”
“…And now presenting! Crown Prince Arthur Pendragon! Princess Morgana Pendragon!”
The massive double doors opened, drawing the curious gazes of every single person in the ballroom. They were all there. The King and Queen of Wessex. Their oldest son and heir to the throne, Oliver. The royal family of Nemeth. Uther and Agravaine, as well as a handful of dukes, counts and viscounts. All came dressed in their finest clothes, bearing the most expensive of jewelry. All wore a social mask, their eyes ruthless and predatory. All of them had a hidden agenda. And, as Arthur and Morgana knew better than anyone…
All of them were a threat.
Morgana’s lips curled into a smile, her emotions cloaked by tasteful makeup.
“Oh, look. Mithian looks nice today.”
“Mithian is the least of our worries,” Arthur mumbled back. “It’s her brother that is the problem. Are you sure you’ll be all right?”
The sorceress’s smile widened.
“Are you joking, brother? I’m looking forward to this.”
As Gawain was one of Arthur’s soldiers-in-training, he was expected to patrol the castle. Most soldiers hated the job and tried to foist it onto the guards whenever they could. But Gawain took his responsibilities very seriously. The young man patrolled the hallways every evening, sword in hand, alert to any dangers. It made him feel heroic. Knightly. But more than that, Gawain liked roaming the castle’s many halls and corridors. Having grown up in a small home with multiple siblings, he was amazed by how grand castle Camelot was. There were so many rooms, and it took forever to get from one side of the castle to the other. Gawain marveled at the delicate paintings on the wall. Most of them were depictions of past kings and queens. Half of them looked like Arthur. The other half looked like Arthur too, but with more beard.
Tonight, though, Gawain was distracted. He couldn’t focus on his patrol. The conversation with Arthur kept repeating itself in his head, again and again. The prince had looked anxious. Concerned. Worried.
A fool’s guard.
“Don’t worry, Gawain. You’ll cross paths again eventually.”
Gawain wanted to help. To do something. But he knew he couldn’t – the young man didn’t have the faintest clue about politics. He didn’t even know how to dance very well. Even if he tried, Gawain would be way out of his depth, and probably only make things worse.
Being useless… was not a good feeling.
As Gawain turned the corner, the young man suddenly saw something strange. There, skulking around the entrance to the rooftop and, stood a figure that Gawain didn’t recognize. A man, cloaked and hooded, with the upper part of his face shrouded from view. It wasn’t a servant. It definitely wasn’t a guard. And the way he was skulking about, looking over his shoulder…
That man did not belong here.
Gawain was instantly suspicious. As he watched the man sneak upstairs, his brow pulled into a frown.
A thief? No, that can’t be. A petty thief wouldn’t have been able to make it this far into the castle without being noticed. And why is he going to the roof? There is nothing there… except… except for-
Suddenly, Gawain realized what was going on. He could feel his insides turn to ice.
That staircase gave access to the front ramparts of the castle, located right above the entry gate. It usually had men guarding it – but that hooded figure had made perfect use of a change in rotation, sneaking by unnoticed.
And he could only have one purpose in sneaking up to those ramparts. They gave a perfect view on everyone entering and leaving the castle courtyard. Everyone. Including guards and servants, as well visiting commoners and their noble guests.
Including Arthur and Morgana.
That rooftop was the perfect spot to stage an assassination.
Gawain could feel a cold fear clasp around his heart.
He had to do something.
The reason for today’s ball was one of necessity. Despite the warm weather returning, Camelot’s larders were all but empty. The Kingdom was running on its spring harvests only. If the crops perished from bad weather, people would once again begin to starve. Camelot was in dire need of food.
And that food had to come from its allies. After almost two months of plying, pleading and manipulation, Arthur and Morgana had finally succeeded in persuading King Uther to turn to his neighboring countries for aid.
But asking for aid meant showing weakness. And in their court, any weakness was exploited ruthlessly. They could not afford to be indebted to Wessex or Nemeth. Both of them had made a claim on the Princess of Camelot, formally asking for her hand in marriage. If they turned to either one of them, Uther and Morgana knew what they would be forced to sacrifice in return.
The sorceress wasn’t going to lose that easily. She had prepared for this game for months. Gathering information. Uncovering secrets. Losing sleep, and even going as far as to ignore Arthur and Gawain for weeks on end as she clawed for every bit of leverage that she could find.
Whatever it took.
And, with the help of Helios… Morgana succeeded.
The Princess of Camelot had long since learnt to feel at home in the lavish ballroom. She felt confident, strengthened by her appearance as well as the secrets hidden in her mind. This was her domain. Nothing remained hidden from her here. As Morgana surveyed the dance floor and examined the pieces on the game board, the sorceress saw everything.
The lingering embrace, fingers curled around his shoulders like a drowning victim clings to driftwood.
The glass jewelry, expertly crafted to mask the scent of financial ruin.
The longing stares, subtly exchanged whenever husband and wife averted their gaze.
The covert scheming, done between unlikely allies as they stood beside the dance floor. The deals made. The opportunistic backstabbing. The trust shattered.
Morgana hadn’t admitted it to Arthur… but she loved it. The social games. The blatant power plays, riddled with seduction. The web of intrigue, spun more intricately with each passing day as noble turned against noble. The delicious dance of deception.
Morgana wanted to know it all.
She would never be blindsided in the dark again.
The game board was set. The pieces had been placed. And once again, her opponent…
Was Richard of Nemeth.