Evening in the Tall Tales tavern always was a rowdy time of day. Cheap spirits flowed freely for everyone that came in with coin, and many workers spent their entire day’s earnings long before the coming of midnight. Some were just there to have a good time. Others came to drown their sorrows in flagons of ale. Usually, those were the ones that could be found sleeping on the tavern floor in the morning.
Those were the ones that gave the Tall Tales tavern its name.
“…should have seen it, Lancelot! It was just like one of those ballads. There I was, forty feet above ground, with nothing but my skills to keep him from knocking me over the edge. It was a duel for the ages! And the guy was good with a sword, too! You should have seen it!”
His friend gave him a smirk, staying silent as Gawain boasted about his victory. By now, almost the entire castle had heard the story of how Gawain took down an assassin from Cornwall all by himself. The young man had been humble about it at first. But the more praise Gawain received, and the more attention he got from the female servants, the more it started to go to his head, and the more heroic his story became.
Lancelot indulged him, though. Gawain had done well. He deserved to boast a little.
Then, his expression grew serious.
“Gawain, you need to warn someone next time. You know that, right? Even if it’s just a maidservant. You need to let someone know, so they can come get us and we can help you. Don’t do something like that on your own again. It may not end well next time.”
“I know, I know,” Gawain replied with a smile. “I promise I’ll send someone next time. But this is why you guys should come on patrols with me more often! That way we can-”
“Not this again,” Lancelot smirked, leaning back into his chair. “I have better things to do, Gawain.”
“No, you don’t,” Gawain protested. “I know you don’t! And neither do Elyan and Lionel. Even Percival spends more time ogling the waitress in the tavern than-“
At that moment, the two of them were interrupted by a increasingly loud argument behind them.
Elyan, one of Arthur’s knights-in-training, was having a spat with one of the tavern’s patrons. Both of them had had a few pints too many to drink. Both of them were known hotheads.
And neither of them was backing down.
“You don’t talk about your king like that!” Elyan yelled, his voice booming across the tavern space. But the man in front of him didn’t flinch. With an angry glare, he snarled:
“Your king grew fat with meat and wine while the rest of us starved to death. He’s a disgrace to the throne, and he’s a disgrace to Albion! A man who feeds himself but lets other people’s children starve is no king of mine!”
“How dare you,” Elyan growled. “They did everything they could to help people survive-“
“Did they, though?!” the man yelled. By now, he was drawing the attention of everyone else in the room. He raised his hands, shaking his head at the crowd that was forming.
“Did they really?! Because I didn’t see one of his children starving to death! Where was the mighty Arthur when we had to dig up roots to eat?! Where was his sister when people had nothing left for breakfast but snow?! They were growing fat in their castle, that’s where they were!”
“Yeah! That’s not right!” another man said, joining them from one of the surrounding tables.
“Not right is exactly what it is. Hoarding what should have been handed out to-“
The more Gawain heard, the stronger his feelings of anger became. He could feel it rising to the surface, bubbling up from the pit of his stomach and very quickly beginning to boil over.
It wasn’t like that. It wasn’t like that at all. Gawain vividly remembered that winter, too. They all did. But Gawain knew that Arthur had suffered just as much as everyone else. The Crown Prince had insisted on distributing as much food to the servants and their families as possible, to the point that he and Morgana both went without meals. They had done everything they could. And everyone in the castle knew that. The young man clenched his teeth, his hands balling into fists.
How dare he?
Lancelot noticed his friend tense up next to him. In a soft, low voice, he muttered:
“Gawain. Let’s not make a scene here.”
“He’s already making a scene,” the redhead growled back. “And he deserves a punch in the face for it.”
“Yes, but not here, so let’s just take a breath and-“
But the man wasn’t finished yet. And his next sentence sealed his fate.
“They’re all a bunch of wandoughs if you ask me. We would’ve been better off if that Cornwall bloke had managed to off some of them that night-“
Elyan bulldozed his way to the other side of the table, hitting the man full in the throat and throwing him off of his seat. He hit the ground with a loud thud. Beer and ale went scattering everywhere, drawing shocked gasps from the crowd. One of the other guys tried to come to his aid. But he was cut off by Gawain, who pushed his chair aside and stepped in between.
“Great. Here we go.”
He had seen this often enough to know how it was going to end.
In a cell in the castle dungeons.
As Arthur matured into adulthood, King Uther gradually began to let him take on duties for the kingdom. A great deal of daily tasks had already been passed from father to son, and as the years passed, Arthur could be found in the throne room more and more often. It was a good way to gain experience.
It was also dreadfully boring. Most days, at least.
This time was one of the rare times that he wanted to be there.
“Our scouts have confirmed the assassin’s statement,” Agravaine said, briefing his nephew on what they had learned from the prisoner. “His final objective was the assassination of King Uther and King Rodor, as well as the likely kidnapping of Lady Morgana.”
“Not this again,” Arthur growled. His mood was plummeting by the second. The Jacoban priest gave him a single nod.
“Yes. And he did not come here alone. According to our scouts, there’s a small squad of soldiers waiting for him in Murkwood. Their camp is a two day’s ride from here.”
“An armed escort across the border, no doubt,” Arthur replied.
“Yes, my lord. That is what I thought, as well. Our scouts cannot get closer without revealing their position, but we estimate there to be at least five hostile soldiers. Trained mercenaries, from what they can tell.”
Arthur didn’t like that. His brow furrowed, changing his expression into a scowl.
“That’s not good. We need to take care of them before they enter a village and start hurting civilians. Did the assassin give you anything else?”
“No, my lord. That was the most that we could force out of him before he perished.”
The Crown Prince nodded to his uncle. It wasn’t much information to go on… but it would have to be enough.
He frowned, calmly analyzing his options. Arthur could send normal guards to deal with the threat. But he knew that they’d be out of their element in the wilderness. Murkwood was rough for those who weren’t used to wilderness travel. And the castle’s scouts did not have the combat prowess to overpower five trained, heavily armed mercenaries. That left the army, himself, and his knights-in-training.
He couldn’t deploy a military force that close to Nemeth. It would be taken the wrong way, even with their relationship as good as it was. Deploying a squadron that close to the border was the same as declaring war. Even Morgana would not be able to smooth over that one.
That left Arthur himself, as well as his men.
But that was fine. This was exactly what they’d been training for.
“Percival,” Arthur said, turning to the young man standing in the corner. “Gather the others. I want you, Gawain, Lancelot and Elyan to be battle-ready by dawn. We’re heading out at first light tomorrow.”
Percival, one of the minor nobles of the kingdom, was a role model for his fellow men in terms of mannerisms. In terms of fighting prowess, he had already mastered all he needed to know, too. The man was well on his way to becoming a full-fledged knight.
So to see him hesitate and awkwardly place a hand behind his head… was quite strange.
“Err… I can’t, my lord.”
“You can’t what?”
“I… I can’t gather Elyan and Gawain.”
“And why is that?” The Crown Prince demanded. His was quickly running out of patience. Percival’s expression of discomfort worsened. In an uncharacteristic mumble, he confessed:
“Well… they’re locked up in the dungeon, my lord.”
For a moment, all Arthur did was give Percival a blank, expressionless stare. It took a second for his mind to process that piece of information.
Then, the Crown Prince of Camelot let out a very, very deep sigh.
“What did they do this time?”
Gawain and Elyan had seen the inside of this particular dungeon before. Multiple times, in fact. To the point where the rough, uncomfortable bedding was almost starting to feel familiar. Both Elyan and Gawain were known for their bravery as well as their short temper. As it turned out, that was a bad combination. Especially if you added spirits to the mix.
How many times has it been, now?
Gawain racked his brain.
Four. Four times.
Gawain had just begun to doze off, staring lazily at the ceiling, when a rattling of chains signaled an incoming visitor. He already had a good idea of who it was. As Gawain jumped to his feet and moved towards the cell’s entrance, he could see Arthur’s blonde head appear in front of him.
“Arth- my lord!” he said, happily greeting his friend. “Have you come to let me out again?”
But the Crown Prince was still in a foul mood, and Gawain’s words angered him even more. With a stern expression, he pointed at Gawain.
“See, that. That right there. That’s the problem. You even said it yourself this time. Again. This is getting ridiculous.”
Gawain let out an uncomfortable chuckle, a guilty expression playing on his face.
“I’m sorry, my lord. I swear. But they were badmouthing you and the lady, and the king, too. It wasn’t fair.”
“It doesn’t matter if it was “fair” or not. We have laws to deal with matters like this. I can’t believe I still have to explain this to you. If someone slanders the royal family, you arrest them. You do not start a bar brawl.”
“Technically, I started it, my lord,” Elyan yelled from inside the other cell. His words made Arthur’s scowl deepen even further. The Crown Prince was at the end of his rope with these two. Arthur glared at Gawain.
“I don’t care who started it. I’m ending it. The next time you are caught brawling without good cause, I’m leaving you in here for a month. Do I make myself clear?”
“Y-yes, my lord.”
“Good. Now swear to me. You will not assault people for slander.”
“I- my lord-“
But Arthur was having none of it. With a stern expression, the Crown prince stared him down.
“Say it. I can’t believe I have to remind you in the first place – you are not getting out of here until you say it.”
Gawain could see that there was no arguing with Arthur. He sighed, awkwardly placing a hand behind his head.
“…I won’t hit people for slander. I swear.”
“Good. You too, Elyan,” Arthur said, turning towards the cell next to Gawain. They could hear a chuckle coming from behind the bars.
“Sure, my lord. Next time someone says that an assassin should have succeeded in murdering you, I’ll make sure to smile and play nice.”
The next day, the five of them set out for Murkwood. It was a two-day journey on horseback, and the group would need to spend the night in the wilderness. In medieval Albion, wilderness meant bandits. And wolves. And bears.
Luckily, all five of them had learnt a thing or two about outdoor survival.
“Gawain! Stop spoiling your horse and sit down by the fire!”
Night had fallen, and the five of them had settled down at a campsite for the night. They were halfway to their destination. None of them had eaten anything since morning. They were tired and hungry. Elyan had cooked some simple gruel, prepared with ingredients taken from Camelot. Only Gawain was still missing at the fire. But the young redhead ignored Percival, affectionately petting his stallion.
“Don’t listen to him, Gringolet. You deserve all the carrots you can eat today.”
“You shouldn’t be feeding it carrots at all,” Percival grumbled. “He already had four. Now sit down so we can eat already.”
Percival was always curt with his companions, so they had come to expect this sort of behaviour from him. Elyan winked at Lancelot, gesturing at the young man next to him.
“Don’t worry, Percy over here is just grumpy. We got kicked out of the tavern, and now he’s banned from ogling the cute waitress.”
“That is NOT it,” the man growled. “Sofia and I are just friends.”
“Oh, so you’re grumpy from hunger, then?” Elyan teased. “I didn’t know that your tummy was such a demanding mistress. Should we give you some alone time, so you can get it sorted?”
Lancelot and Gawain snickered, and even Arthur couldn’t hide a sliver of a smirk. But their companion didn’t see the humour in it. With a scowl of disdain, Percival grabbed his bowl, got up from his spot and marched away from the campfire just as Gawain sat down.
“Eat without me. I’ll take first watch.”
“Aw, c’mon, Percy! We were just kidding! Percival!”
But the would-be knight ignored them, stubbornly turning his back to the fire. The four of them knew better than to pursue him when he was like that. Percival would cool down soon enough. And so they let him be, enjoying their dinner at the campfire in peace.
“That reminds me… have you heard the stories about these woods?”
Gawain and Elyan turned towards their friend curiously.
“What stories?” the young redhead asked. A smile appeared on Lancelot’s face. He enjoyed telling stories, and this one was no exception.
“Legends say that the area around Murkwood used to be home to dragons,” Lancelot begun. “Giant flying beasts the size of houses, or even castles. They had the power to burn cities to the ground, and topple entire armies of knights.”
“It is said that some of those dragons from the old days are still alive. Even today. They roam the forests of Murkwood and the mountains beyond. On cloudless, starry nights, you can sometimes spot them soaring in the sky. Hunting. Looking for prey.”
“That’s… rubbish,” Gawain replied. “Everyone knows that the dragons are all dead.”
He tried to sound tough, but the young man couldn’t hide a slight quiver in his voice. Lancelot’s smirk widened in response. In a hushed tone, he continued:
“Oh, but that’s where you’re wrong. Dragons are still out there. Even now, some of them still exist. I know – I saw one with my own eyes. When I was a boy, I snuck out of our mansion one night to go fishing. It was a night just like this one, with a clear sky and a full moon. That’s when I saw it.”
“Hogwash. You did NOT seen a dragon,” Gawain replied. But Lancelot shook his head, his expression turning serious.
“I did. As large as the Tall Tales tavern, it was. The beast flew right over me. It was big enough to blot out the moon for a few seconds. I’ve never ran back into a building so fast.”
By now, Lancelot had the undivided attention of all three of his companions. Even Percival, who was still stubbornly sulking by the horses, threw the occasional glance over his shoulder at him. The blue-eyed knight-to-be relished the attention, hamming up his story just a little more.
“It is said that the scales of a dragon are as hard as diamond, and that no weapon can pierce their hide. Many knights have lost their lives trying to take one down. You can’t outrun them, either. All you can do is hide, and hope it doesn’t spot you. A large shadow coming from above may just be the last thing you’ll see before its teeth clamp around your chest…”
At that moment, the group suddenly saw movement in the middle of their camp. A dark shadow coasted over the ground next to them, silently passing overhead. Gawain gasped, with Elyan immediately reaching for his weapon. Alarmed, all four of them looked up-
But it was just an owl.
Elyan sank back down on the ground, letting out an amused chuckle at their collective skittishness. He placed a hand on his chest.
“Don’t worry, lads! If we ever bump into a dragon, I solemnly swear that I will outrun you all.”
His jest was met with laughter from Gawain and Lancelot. Arthur tried to give him a stern look, but even he had to smile a little. The young man gave Arthur a wink.
“I’m kidding, my lord. Plus, I bet that we wouldn’t even need to life our swords even if we did run into a dragon. After all, we have a Pendragon with us. Isn’t that right, sire?”
“It’s just a name, Elyan,” Arthur replied. “And we won’t be facing dragons. Not tonight, and not tomorrow. All we have to worry about is the mercenaries from Cornwall, and how we’re going to take them down.”
“You’re right, sire,” Lancelot agreed. His gaze traveled upwards, to the starry night sky.
“We should all get some sleep. We have another long day of travel ahead…”
A smirk spread across his lips as the young man looked at Percival’s back.
“Plus, the sooner we finish this mission, the sooner Percival can go back to ogling his crush.”
“She’s NOT my crush!” Percival yelled at him. His outburst drew another bout of laughter from the group.
Soon after, with Percival on watch duty, the group found themselves drifting off to sleep. The ground was hard and uncomfortable, but they managed. They were used to worse. Even Arthur. The Crown prince was the last one to fall asleep. He stayed awake for a while, missing the soft cushions of his royal bed at the castle. But it couldn’t be helped. He would be back home soon enough.
We should be fine. It’s just five of them.
As the Crown Prince closed his eyes, he sent a quick prayer to the Watcher.
Please let all five of us make it back home.
Arthur and his men rode for the entirety of the next day. By nightfall, they had arrived at the location that the scouts had given them. A rocky clearing, in the middle of the deepest part of the woods. Far enough from civilization that any activity would go unnoticed. Yet close enough to reach the nearest village within a matter of days.
The perfect place for a hidden encampment.
Being the most experienced of the group, Arthur and Lancelot snuck ahead to size up the enemy forces while the rest stayed behind. They needed to know what kind of fight they were about to jump into. They needed intelligence on enemy numbers. Their type of weaponry, the state of their troops, their natural surroundings – all of these were crucial bits of information that would sway the coming battle in their favour.
Both of them had experience in sizing up the enemy.
Both of them knew exactly what to watch for.
But the scene in front of them still surprised them.
For what they found inside that camp…
Were not just mercenaries.
“I know,” Arthur whispered back. He did not need to hear Lancelot’s words out loud to know what his cousin was thinking.
This wasn’t a mercenary camp. It never had been, most likely. The mercenaries had anticipated a company of knights coming after their assassin. They had planned for it. Those bastards were holding civilians hostage, using them as a shield.
The Cornwall mercenaries were using their own knight’s code of honour against them.
“Sire, we have to do something.”
“How many do you count?”
“Seven at least.”
The Crown Prince scowled. That wasn’t good. They were outnumbered. Not only that, but there were now innocent civilians caught in the cross-hairs. The situation was starting to look more and more dangerous by the second. In a hushed tone, Arthur called out to Lancelot.
“Return to the group. We need to change our plan of attack.”
“I am changing our mission. This will be a rescue operation rather than an assault. Lancelot, explain the situation.”
“Yes, sire,” Lancelot nodded. He crossed his arms, a tense expression in his eyes.
“We’ve spotted seven mercenaries in the camp, as well as seven civilians. Two of them are children. From what we can tell, they are being held hostage.”
“Wait. Civilians? There’s people living this far into the woods?” Gawain asked. It earned him a scoff of disbelief from Percival.
“Of course they’re not civilians. If they live in a place like this, they’re one of two things. They’re either fugitives on the run from the law, or they’re druids. Either way, they don’t deserve our help.”
He turned towards Arthur.
“Sire, there’s no need for a rescue. These are criminals. Outlaws. We should put them to the sword in the same way that we’ll do to those mercenaries.”
Gawain did not like that at all. His confused expression slowly made way for a frown.
“But… they’re in danger. We should help.”
“No, we shouldn’t! We’re not sticking our necks out for some filthy-“
“Enough,” Arthur said. “Gawain is right. These people need help.”
“No, Percival,” Arthur interrupted him. “We don’t know who these people are or why they are here. But you have no right to condemn them just for being where they are.”
“But- but they’re obviously druids! Magic-users! Sire-“
But Arthur’s patience had finally run out. He aggressively interrupted the would-be knight again, pointing in his direction.
“The knight’s code. Sixth line. Recite it to me.”
“Sire, we don’t have time to-“
Arthur’s voice had dropped to a low growl. The young men in front of him immediately recognized the threat behind it. In a reluctant tone, Percival did as his lord demanded.
“When called upon… defend the rights of the weak with all your strength. But my lord, these are-“
“Quiet. Not another word.”
The Crown Prince rose to his full height, glaring at the young men before him. In that moment, Arthur Pendragon greatly resembled his father. A sense of absolute authority radiated off of him, rivaling that of the Iron King.
“All of you – engrave this in your minds. I don’t care how skilled you are. I don’t care what your title is, or how great your influence is at court. If you do not have the drive to help the weak, then you will never be worthy of knighthood. Do I make myself clear?”
His gaze was met by four intense stares. Some determined, others filled with frustration. But they all answered their Crown prince.
“Yes, my lord.”
“My lord-” Elyan began. But the Crown Prince raised his hand to shut him up.
“I don’t want to hear it. If you disagree with my words, then you can turn around and go home.“
But that wasn’t it. The man shifted into a fighting stance, staring past Arthur’s shoulder and into the darkness. His hand moved to his blade.
“No, Arthur. We’re being watched.”
Elyan quickly stepped in front of Arthur, shielding the Crown Prince as he turned around in surprise. The man lifted his sword to the darkness ahead. When he spoke, his voice was deep and threatening.
“We know you’re there. Show yourself.”
They had been in one place for too long, and had made too much noise. The would-be knight had anticipated an enemy ambush. Or perhaps even a wild animal. A bear or a wolf pack, taking advantage of the surrounding darkness to size all of them up.
Whatever it was, Elyan would deal with it.
But what stepped out of the shadows…
Was not what Elyan had anticipated at all.
“My apologies for eavesdropping.”
“I think we have a common enemy tonight.”