“My apologies for eavesdropping.”
“I think we have a common enemy tonight.”
For a moment, the depths of Murkwood forest were completely silent. Not a single person moved. The only sound was that of the wind, gently rustling and moving through the trees above their heads.
Then, that moment passed. A metallic scraping resounded throughout the forest clearing as four swords were drawn from their scabbards. Elyan and Gawain both took a step forward. They were going in for the attack.
The man realized that, too. He quickly put his hands up in response.
“Wait. I came unarmed. I do not wish for violence. I merely came to talk.”
The would-be knights did not share in his calm behaviour. In an aggressive tone, Percival snarled:
“Unarmed, my foot! You’re one of them, aren’t you?!”
The woodsman lowered his hands, an expression of mild annoyance spreading across his face.
“If by ‘them’, you refer to the people being held prisoner in that camp, then yes, I am one of them.”
“What do you want?!”
“My people are being held against their will. I intend to free them. However, the soldiers outnumber me in the same way that they outnumber you. I came here hoping that we could help each other.”
“Identify yourself,” Lancelot spoke. His sword was still pointed at the ground, and his expression was calm, but the tension is his voice betrayed his true feelings. “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
“My name is Emrys,” the woodsman responded. “My people and I live here. This is our home.”
“Why aren’t you with the rest of your people?”
Emrys frowned, placing a hand on his temple.
“The soldiers do not know that I exist. I wasn’t in the camp when they took it over. I do not want to make myself known to them until I have a way of freeing my people. I was hoping you could help me do that.”
Elyan and Percival raised their weapons even higher in response. Emrys sighed, deflating a little at their continued hostility. He raised his arms again.
“I mean you no harm, knights. You have my word. But I need your help.”
For a moment, the Crown Prince was at odds with himself. Camelot’s stance against magic was clear. Arthur had seen it demonstrated countless times in the past. He agreed with it. The voice of his father echoed through Arthur’s head, whispering warnings and threats.
If this person is a sorcerer, then he needs to die. Magic is evil. You cannot trust him.
But the enemy had them outnumbered no matter how you looked at it. The odds were stacked against them. Arthur had to think of his men. He couldn’t ignore a potential ally. If they could use the woodsman to their advantage…
He raised his hand, signalling the rest of his men to stand down.
“Lower your weapons. We’ll hear him out.”
“Do as I say, Elyan.”
The dark-haired nobleman very reluctantly followed his lord’s orders. With a glare in the woodsman’s direction, Elyan took a step back.
“I’m warning you, druid. One single wrong move, and you’re going to lose limbs.”
“No, it’s all right,” Emrys replied, unfazed by Elyan’s aggression. “It is natural to distrust strangers. Thank you for letting me speak.”
The Crown Prince nodded at him. He gestured towards the camp in the distance. They could see the faintest flicker of light from the campfire.
“Our nature as druids was used against us. One of my people found an injured soldier on the road. He tended to the man’s wounds and sent him on his way… or so we thought. Instead, the soldier signaled the rest of his group, and they followed him. They raided our camp that night. They’ve been there ever since, holding my people hostage.”
“Do you know why?” Lancelot asked. Emrys shook his head, a frown playing on his face.
“No. But they won’t leave. It’s almost as if they’re waiting for something.”
Or someone, Arthur thought. Agravaine’s intel was proving to be correct once again. Those men were waiting for the assassin to return from Camelot. And, if he proved to be followed by a band of knights… then the druids would be used as human shields. That’s why they were still there.
This was bad. If they did not deal with those mercenaries soon… it would lead to the death of everyone in that camp.
The Crown Prince nodded.
“Very well. We were sent here to deal with those mercenaries. We’ll work together to defeat them and save your druids.”
Elyan, Gawain and Percival all turned to look at their prince in shock. Especially Elyan looked completely baffled, his mouth hanging open in surprise.
“Whoah, there, my lord. You lost me at druids.”
“The druids are a peaceful people,” Emrys explained, trying to set the man at ease. “You have nothing to fear from them. They have sworn an oath of pacifism – they could not harm you if they wanted to.”
But his words had no effect. He might as well have been talking to a rock. Elyan’s expression didn’t change in the slightest. And neither did Pervical’s. The young nobleman crossed his arms, angrily glaring at Emrys.
“Rubbish. I’ve seen what sorcerers and druids can do. Do you really think that we’d trust your word over years of experience on the battlefield?”
The would-be knight turned back to Arthur, frowning.
“My lord. This person is dangerous. If you don’t want to kill an unarmed opponent, we should at least incapacitate him and tie him up, so he can’t stab us in the back later. Because he will stab us in the back later. You know that.”
The man’s expression fell. When he spoke, his tone had softened to a plea.
“Sire… there are children in that camp. Two of them. A boy and a little girl. They’re not even ten years old. Neither of them has developed their gift yet. They do not deserve this.”
He took a step forward, appealing to Arthur’s morality. When he made eye contact with the Crown Prince, his eyes were sincere. There was not a single hint of deception in there.
The druid was out of options.
“I know you do not trust me. But I’m not asking for your trust. I’m asking for your help.”
“My lord,” Lancelot softly spoke from his right. The young nobleman didn’t have to say any more. Arthur knew what he was thinking. He also knew that Lancelot was right.
Druids or not… they couldn’t turn their backs on these people.
“Very well. We’ll do what we can.”
His decision was taken differently among each of his men. Elyan looked conflicted, while Percival’s disapproval radiated off of him in waves. The would-be knight remained silent, though. Whether Percival approved or not – he knew better than to challenge his superior when a judgment call had been made.
As for Gawain…
“We should make some extra weapons,” the redhead thought out loud. “There’s branches here that are thick enough. If we arm the men, they can fight with us.”
It was a good suggestion. But Emrys shook his head at Gawain.
“No. They can’t.”
The redhead raised a single eyebrow, displeased with his reaction.
“Look, I know you don’t like violence, but this is an emergency-”
“You misunderstand,” Emrys interrupted him. “They cannot fight. They’re incapable of harming another human being.”
Gawain frowned. A look of confusion arose in his eyes.
“I don’t understand. What do you mean, incapable?”
“I mean that they cannot. Physically. My kind abhors violence. It is mandated in our tenets in the same way that helping the weak is mandated in yours. And our tenets are magically binding. A sworn druid would not be able to swing a sword at a human assailant if their life depended on it.”
“What happens if they do?” Gawain asked, curiously. Arthur could see a dark shadow fall over Emrys’s face. He made eye contact with Gawain, answering the young man’s question in a cold and deadpan manner.
A shocked silence fell over the group. They had not expected that answer. Even Percival was taken aback. In a confused voice, he stammered:
“Wha- why- why on earth would you do that?!”
The druid took a step back from the group. When Emrys looked at the would-be knights before him, his eyes were filled with a strange, mournful compassion.
“Because not everyone thinks of violence as an acceptable solution.”
Later that night…
“…A right mymmerkyn, he wis! Snapped ‘is fingers like twigs oan a fyr tree, didn’t we, lads? Ah mind him squealing lik’ a pig!”
“Let go of me, you brute!’
“Aw, c’mon, lass. If ye stop squirming, this will be a lot mair fun for both o’-“
The brutish, rowdy behaviour of the Cornwall mercenaries was disrupted by the sound of footsteps approaching them through the grass. They looked up in surprise to find another druid, unarmed and with both hands raised above his head, carefully walking into their camp.
“I do not wish for violence,” Emrys said.
The mercenaries did not seem to believe him any more than Arthur’s men did. Immediately, four of them began to make their way towards the woodsman.
“What th’ hell? There’s anither one?”
Their hands went to the weapons on their belts. Emrys quickly put his head down, changing his posture to make himself look as non-threatening as possible.
“Please – I just need to know if everyone is all right.”
Two of the mercenaries walked up until they were right in front of him. With menacing scowls, they got in his face.
“’Fess up! Where did ye come fae?!”
“I was out hunting,” Emrys replied. “I saw you enter the camp. I just want to make sure my people are all right.”
“Are ye sayin’ that ye’ve bin spying on us, mymmerkyn?” one of them growled. The other one nodded, a malefic gleam appearing in his eyes.
“Sounds like that’s exactly whit he’s sayin’. I think our hero here deserves tae lose an eye or two.”
“The other fellow tried tae be a hero, too. Maybe we should beat ye out cold like we did him.”
“No, please. There’s no need for that,” Emrys replied. “I just want… I’m just…”
“…I’m just the distraction.”
Everything happened all at once. Like a well-oiled machine, Arthur and his men attacked, striking from their hidden positions around the campsite. They had trained tirelessly for this, and it showed.
Most of their enemies never even had the chance to draw their blades.
The ragtag group didn’t stand a chance. By the time Arthur placed his sword against the neck of what seemed to be the leader, only two men were left standing.
“Drop your weapon if you want to live.”
A metallic clang resounded throughout the campsite as the remaining mercenary did as Arthur commanded. He raised his hands behind his head, sinking down onto his knees.
They had won…
Or so they thought.
To most citizens of Albion, the idea of fate was an abstract concept not unlike magic. The average peasant or commoner could not predict the effect that their actions would have have on the world around them. How even the smallest pebble, tossed carelessly into the water, could grow into ripples and waves that affected everything around them.
That night, a single desperate action marked the beginning of just such a series of events.
A cry of agony caught the group of would-be knights off guard. Elyan and Gawain, who had been in the middle of knocking out their opponents, quickly turned around to see a chilling scene.
Their plan had had one weakness. Even with Emrys, there were still only six of them. Their opponents outnumbered them by one person. And skilled as they were, Arthur and his men couldn’t attack every mercenary at the same time.
It had been the only weakness in the plan.
And that weakness had instantly been exploited. The last mercenary made use of the confusion to grab one of the fleeing druids, restraining her and pulling her against him. A nasty-looking dagger pressed into her neck. Gawain and Elyan could see blood beginning to drip down her throat. In a panicked voice, the mercenary yelled:
“Nobody move! Ah’ll slit her throat! I swear tae the Watcher, ah will!”
“You wretched scum!” Elyan yelled, raising his own blade in response. “And you call yourself a man?! Let her go!”
But the would-be knight’s aggressive words had the opposite effect. The two of them watched as the man dragged the druidess back with him, towards the edge of the camp, the dagger digging even deeper into her skin. Any deeper and he would-
“Don’t hurt her!” Gawain screamed. “If you harm her, I’ll swear to the Watcher I will-“
But the red-haired young man never got the chance to finish his sentence.
A pained gasp escaped from the man’s lips as the mercenary in front of them suddenly tensed up. Gawain and Elyan watched as his arms jerked back, releasing the woman from his grasp and dropping her onto the ground. His head rolled backwards. His feet rose from the ground. Like a puppet on strings, the mercenary rose into the air, eyes, panicked, his dagger still in hand.
Both of them realized it at the same time. Their insides turned to ice and all of the hairs in their necks rose up as a single, paralyzing thought spread through their consciousness.
The druid stepped forward, an enormous sense of power radiating off of his every movement. With a look of disgust on his face, he brought his arm down. Hard. The force of it sent the mercenary flying away from the campsite, catapulted through the air like an arrow released from a bow-
And straight into the nearest rock. A sickening crack resounded throughout the clearing as his back made impact with solid stone. His head snapped back. The dagger fell from his grasp. The man slid down from the rock onto the ground, limp and unmoving.
He did not get up again.
They had won.
With a pained groan, Emrys doubled over. His knees gave out underneath him. Panting, the druid barely caught himself before he hit the ground.
The blonde druidess dashed over to his side, placing an arm on his shoulder. Her hand was shaking.
“Are you all right? Are you hurt?”
“I’m… fine, Muiri,” Emrys panted. “Just need to… catch my breath.”
With visible difficulty, Emrys rose back up. He gently cupped her face between the palms of his hands. An expression of relief washed over him; one that was mirrored in the eyes of the woman before him.
“I’m… so glad you’re all right. They didn’t hurt you, did they?”
“No. Not… not yet. Emrys-“
“Put your hands in the air before I cut them off.”
The shock of being exposed to sorcery had finally worn off. It had made way for anger… and fear. Percival and Elyan approached the duo, their swords raised and pointed towards Emrys. A look of deep hatred lay in their eyes.
“You’re an abomination. In the name of King Uther-“
But the blonde-haired druidess turned around, stepping in between them and Emrys and shielding him with her body.
“Stop! Please- don’t hurt him.”
“Step aside,” Elyan growled. The woman wrapped her arm around his waist as a response, shaking her head powerfully.
“No. Emrys is a good man. I won’t let you hurt him.”
“A good man?! A good man?! Hogwash!” Elyan spat at Emrys. The woodsman was still clutching his side. With a look of exhaustion, he turned towards the dark-haired noble.
“I… can explain-“
“Save it! You said that you can’t hurt other humans! You vowed to us that you were peaceful! You just snapped a man’s spine! With magic! You lied to our faces, you monster!”
“I didn’t… lie,” Emrys panted. “I said that my people could not. I never said the same thing… about myself.”
That was the exact wrong thing to say. A look of rage appeared in Elyan’s eyes. The nobleman turned to the side, readying his weapon. Tensions were reaching a breaking point.
“He’s an abomination! He needs to die! My lord!”
The Crown Prince could feel himself torn in two directions. A heavy weight pressed down on him, the voice of his father echoing through his mind. Drowning out all other thoughts.
At all costs. Do your duty, Arthur.
He needs to die.
As he was at war with himself, Arthur’s eyes wandered across the camp. To the men, bruised and battered. To the women, trying to shield the children from view. The haunted, exhausted look in the little girl’s eyes.
They looked just like the people in the village.
And the Crown Prince knew.
He couldn’t. He couldn’t do it.
If it had been Morgana… would he not have done the same? Would he not have tried to come to her defense, consequences be damned?
I would have. Without hesitation.
And if all he had was magic, evil and wicked as it was… would he not have used it?
Arthur gulped. In his heart, he already knew the answer.
They were the same.
He couldn’t do it.
Sorcerer or not… These people had been through enough.
“Percival. Elyan. Lower your swords.”
“Do as I say. They’re not part of the mission. We’re letting them go.”
Baffled, they obeyed. Their eyes demanded an explanation. But Arthur did not have the strength to give it. A wave of fatigue overcame him, draining him of all his energy. He couldn’t look at the druids anymore. The Crown Prince averted his eyes, not responding to the muttered “thank you” from Emrys and Muiri. He could feel a headache coming up.
Doing the right thing… was exhausting.
Arthur turned away from the camp, facing the darkness ahead. In a soft voice, he called out to his men.
“Come on. We’re going home.”
“Thank you… Arthur Pendragon. We will not forget this.”
Woof. Sorry if the lighting in some of the pictures is a little weird, guys! I tried to make this chapter with 19 people in one household, and my game was NOT having it. I think I’ve posed them all for the same scene at least five different times. Every time one half of the group was posed okay, the other half stopped posing and walked away. Or it started raining. Or the night was over. Gawain even got hit by a random lightning strike at some point. It was chaos! xD