*Yes, the horses have no reins… still searching for those, haha. Forgive me. ❤
The hour after sunrise was Morgana Pendragon’s favourite time of day.
In a world of constant court intrigue and political deception, that hour was one of the few moments in her day where Morgana could relax. Inside her chambers, she didn’t have to wear a mask. She did not have to worry about appearances. Or proper court manners. She could just be herself, let down her guard and breathe.
And, as an added bonus… she also got to gossip with her maidservants.
“…right in the middle of the square! You should have seen her face!”
The Princess chuckled, closing her eyes and leaning back in her seat as she listened to Sarah’s laughter. Morgana had a close relationship with her servants. Even Guinevere, who had only been assigned to her a handful of months ago, had warmed up to them quickly. As for Sarah- the woman had been with her for as long as Morgana could remember. Their personalities matched in more ways than one.
“Anyway, I think that they’re planning to elope soon. They’re denying it, of course, but nobody prepares two brown cloaks and a week’s worth of trail rations for just a picnic, if you catch my drift…”
Their chatter was interrupted by the distant sound of hooves clattering on stone. It came from the courtyard. Curiously, Sarah walked over to the window and looked outside.
The maidservant glanced down to see a colourful group of horses marching their way past the window. They were being ridden by five familiar faces, all armed and in uniform. For the people of Camelot, their arrival had long since become a familiar sight.
Arthur and his men had returned.
Sarah’s lips pulled into a smile. She threw a quick glance over her shoulder. When she spoke, it was in an unmistakably teasing tone.
“Oh, look, Gwen. The cavalry is back.”
The girl behind Morgana suddenly tensed up, her hair brush freezing halfway to its destination. Morgana couldn’t help but let out a chuckle.
“Go on. I don’t mind.”
Her newest maidservant shook her head, stammering:
“Walk to the window, Guinevere. Nobody is going to punish you for looking at him.”
“…Yes, my lady.”
Slowly, timidly, Guinevere moved over to the stained-glass window. Morgana followed in her footsteps, her amused smirk mirroring Sarah’s. The three of them looked down at the arriving knights.
And Morgana couldn’t help herself.
“My brother looks rather dashing today, doesn’t he?” the Princess teased. Guinevere nodded nervously.
“Y- yes, my lady.”
Morgana could see a pink blush begin to spread across Guinevere’s cheeks. Her smirk widened into a mischievous grin.
“Would you like me to call him over?”
“Wh-no! I mean yes! I mean- t-that’s highly inappropriate…”
“You’re right, Gwen,” Sarah teased. “It is inappropriate to summon a gentleman to a lady’s bedchambers during the day. We should wait until nightfall, instead. That time is much more interesting.”
Guinevere’s cheeks turned even redder, and she instinctively turned away from both of them. After they found out that the young maidservant was infatuated with Arthur, both Morgana and Sarah had taken to teasing Guinevere with her crush. Relentlessly. They couldn’t help themselves – the girl got flustered way too easily.
“I- I know you’re joking, my lady,” Guinevere stammered, trying to hold on to a modicum of composure. “But it’s really not appropriate… and completely above my station! And I don’t-”
But Morgana had already stopped listening to her maidservant. With narrowed eyes, the Princess looked down at the group of soldiers.
This particular scene wasn’t anything new. All three of them had seen it before. Whenever Arthur and his men came back from a mission, the group was rowdy in their return. Lively. Either loudly celebrating their victory or visibly angry at a defeat. The latter usually came accompanied by multiple injuries to tend to. One time, they had returned with Elyan so gravely wounded that he was on the verge of death. That had caused chaos in the entire palace.
One way or another, the citizens of Camelot had gotten used to Arthur’s men bringing excitement.
But this time, the mood was different. The group seemed strangely… subdued. Passive. Tired, almost. Even Elyan, who was known to be the loudest one in the group.
This behaviour… it wasn’t like them.
The Princess watched with a furrowed brow as Lancelot walked up to Arthur, placing a hand on his shoulder.
“Shall I accompany you, sire?”
The Crown Prince shook his head at him.
“No. None of you are at fault. I’ll do this alone.”
Morgana watched as her brother began to walk up the stairs to the castle, his head down and his footsteps heavy. Her eyes narrowed even further.
Something had happened.
“Guinevere. Fetch my dress.”
That morning, all of the guards and servants were sent away from the throne room. It was customary. In theory, the scolding of members of the royal family was always done behind closed doors, out of sight of the general populace.
In practice, when King Uther got angry, his voice was audible through half of the castle anyway.
And today was no exception.
“Let me get this straight,” Uther groaned, placing his hands on the sides of his head. “You found an entire group of magic-users. A whole coven of them. And instead of putting them to the sword like I taught you and ridding Albion of their evil… you not only let them go, but you protected them and actively aided in safeguarding their freedom?”
Arthur bowed his head.
“Yes, father. Forgive me.”
“Forgive you?!” Uther yelled, his temper immediately bubbling to the surface. “You broke the most basic laws in my kingdom! You disregarded everything I taught you! This is a step away from treason! If you were anything but the Crown Prince, I would have you hanged – you and your soldiers both!”
The King’s voice boomed across the chamber, rising in strength as he verbally tore into his heir. The force of his anger was almost tangible. And Arthur recognized the threat behind it – not to him, but to his men. The Crown Prince sank down on one knee, bowing his head even lower in a plea for mercy.
“The decision was mine and mine alone. The consequences should be mine to bear.”
“And bear them you will,” Uther growled. He took a step towards Arthur, who was still kneeling. When the King looked down on his heir, his eyes were filled with cold disdain.
“I will not tolerate weakness, Arthur. Not from my men. Not from my servants. And especially not from you. Remember this. I will disown and banish you before I see a weak man succeed me as King.”
It was that threatening sentence that made Morgana decide she had heard enough. With swift, decisive footsteps, the black-haired Princess descended the final few steps, leaving her hiding place and entering the throne room.
The King saw her coming. He gave his daughter a cursory glance, his expression unyielding as ever.
The Princess gave a polite courtesy.
“Good morning, father. Forgive me – I couldn’t help but overhear. I was wondering if I could ask for clarification.”
Uther gave an impatient wave towards Agravaine, who had been silently watching the events unfold. Morgana decided to take a gamble. She turned to her uncle.
“Our scouts found this encampment close to the border with Nemeth, correct?”
The Jacoban priest nodded at her.
“And we did not have any prior information about druids being involved?”
“No. Our intelligence did not mention them.”
“I see,” she said, turning back to her King. “My lord, may I offer an alternative viewpoint?”
With Uther in a mood this volatile, Morgana knew that she was testing the limits of her influence. Uther never responded well to being challenged. Whether that was on his laws, his decisions, or his viewpoints. And Morgana did not hold that much sway over him. Especially not now. Chances were that she would end up on her knees in the same way as her brother-
But to her surprise, the King actually allowed it.
It was now or never. The dark-haired sorceress immediately made use of the chance she was given. In a deadpan voice, she began to speak.
“Sorcerers are dangerous. One has to remove them all, or the ones you leave behind will come back to destroy you. Correct?”
“Yes,” Uther nodded. “I’m glad to see that at least one of my children remembers my teachings.”
“Of course, my lord,” Morgana replied sweetly. “We both do. But one also has to consider the circumstances. These are druids, in their home territory, no less. I have no doubt that our knights-to-be would have been able to chase them down and eliminate them… but that could have led them across the border and into Nemeth. Druids or not, attacking civilians across the border is a violation of our treaty.”
As she spoke, Morgana could see the effect that her words had on Uther. Her father’s anger vanished, making way for a familiar, cold contemplation.
“They are no citizens. Not of Nemeth, and not of Albion. They are a blight.”
“Yes, father. But would King Rodor and Prince Richard have played it that way? We know that Nemeth wants to claim the southern parts of our Kingdom. Would King Rodor not have used this an excuse? By killing the druids, we could have rid Murkwood of magic. But we would have risked losing a part of Albion as the price to pay.”
“Would that really have been worth it, my lord? To lose what is yours? All over a group of filthy sorcerers?”
Morgana could see the gears turning in her father’s head. She knew she had him. The black-haired sorceress knew what he was thinking – she had framed her words that way on purpose. And her manipulation paid off. Morgana watched as King Uther came to a conclusion, turning his gaze back towards his son.
“Very well. I will overlook your actions just this once. But do not disappoint me again, Arthur. Next time you find a sorcerer, you will do your duty as heir to this Kingdom – or I will choose another in your place. Do I make myself clear?”
Disheartened, Arthur bowed to his King.
“Good. You are excused. Now get out of my sight.”
The Crown Prince did as his father commanded. His footsteps sounded hollow against the marble floor. Morgana turned, preparing to follow her brother. Arthur looked crushed. His shoulders were sagged, and the spring in his step had all but disappeared. She watched as her brother vanished up the stone stairs.
After that blow from the King, she’d need to do damage control. Morgana frowned, thinking of what little she knew about Arthur’s last mission.
Druids. Druids in Murkwood, of all places. And a particularly powerful one among them. The chances were slim, but…
Could it be?
She began to follow her brother upstairs. But the King called her back, preventing her from leaving.
“Yes, my lord?”
She stopped, turning back to face Uther. The two of them made eye contact.
“I know what you’re doing. You cannot cover for him forever.”
She hadn’t been as subtle as she thought. Morgana could feel her father staring her down, the force of his personality weighing down on her. But the black-haired sorceress didn’t flinch. With a cold look of determination, the Princess glared back. Answering his threat with a challenge of her own.
“I can try.”
Morgana expected her aggression to anger him. Maybe even send him into a rage. It had that effect whenever Arthur or Agravaine tried it, after all.
But the King surprised her again. Instead of anger, Uther’s eyes softened. A smile spread across his lips. When he spoke, he did so with an unmistakable undertone of pride.
“You’re so much like your mother. She was fierce and headstrong, too.”
His smile widened.
“Have dinner with me tonight. We haven’t shared a meal in a while.”
Uther’s eyes were warm and gentle. Filled with a genuine pride. The same loving gaze that could be found reflected within any good parent in Albion.
Morgana couldn’t stand it.
“Is that an order as my King?”
Uther’s expression fell. For a brief moment, a glimmer of sadness shone through.
“…No. It’s a request, as your father.”
He let out a sigh.
“Morgana, we should talk-”
But the black-haired sorceress cut him off.
“Forgive me. I have other matters to attend to tonight.”
Finding Arthur did not prove to be a difficult task. She knew her brother well. The heavy responsibilities as Crown Prince paired with his own high expectations frequently got him down on himself. Never in public, of course. Arthur had an image to maintain, after all. He couldn’t afford to show any weakness.
But in private, when he was in a bad mood, Arthur often retreated to the empty night-time stables. Or the solitude of a deserted library. Or an unused room in a high tower, quiet and abandoned.
After a blow like that… somewhere quiet and abandoned was exactly where he would be.
And her instincts proved right. She found him in the library, tucked in between bookcases. Arthur wasn’t reading. He just stared at the wall, his eyes tired.
With a sliver of a smile, Morgana leaned against the nearest bookcase.
The Crown Prince let out a sigh. He leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes, his head resting against the windowsill.
“You could say that.”
He sounded miserable. Morgana approached her brother, softly placing a hand on his shoulder.
“You did what you thought was right, Arthur. That’s the best that any of us can do.”
The Crown Prince let out a soft chuckle at her words.
“Yeah. Except for the fact that ‘the best I can do’ just resulted in a threat of banishment. From my own father, no less. You heard it yourself. He would leave Albion without a King rather than see me succeed him.”
Another sigh escaped from his lips.
“And you know what? He’s probably right. I shouldn’t have let them go. I should have dealt with them. They were way too dangerous. Letting them go… I don’t know what I was thinking.”
It was worse than she thought. Morgana carefully took a seat next to him on the couch. When she spoke, her voice was gentle.
“Don’t do that. Don’t doubt yourself afterwards. You let them go because you’re a good man, Arthur. I heard the full story from Gawain. They were holding those people hostage, and you rescued them. Father is right – you were disobeying orders. But you were also saving people in need. And that second one is much more important.”
Her brother sighed, leaning forward and placing a hand under his head.
“I know. But that doesn’t make it better. The people in need just had to be bloody magic users, didn’t they? You should have seen it, Morrie. It was terrifying.”
“Because magic users are wickedness incarnate?” Morgana smiled at her brother. Arthur shook his head.
“No. Because that druid could snap your spine with a flick of his wrist, if he wanted to.”
Morgana merely shrugged at him, unimpressed.
“So could Elyan.”
“It’s not the same, Morrie. You haven’t seen magic from up close – you wouldn’t understand.”
The irony of that statement was not lost on her. Morgana masked a smirk, giving her brother a cursory glance up and down. She had probably seen more magic than he had.
She could never tell him that, though. And besides – there were more important things to correct than his opinion of her.
Starting with his opinion of himself.
“You’re right,” Morgana nodded. “I don’t understand magic. But I do understand something else.”
“And what is th-“
But Arthur did not get to finish his sentence. Halfway through, his sister suddenly leaned forward and gently, delicately, placed a kiss on his cheek.
“Wh- Morrie! Morgana! Get off me!”
He quickly pushed her away. Arthur gave her an annoyed glance, trying to mask his embarrassment and failing miserably.
“For crying out- why do you keep doing that?!”
Morgana chuckled. Even after all these years, Arthur hadn’t changed.
“Because it’s fun to mess with you. But more importantly…”
A genuine smile spread across her lips as she looked at her brother.
“Because you deserved it. You saved those people, even though you didn’t have to. And I don’t think anyone here has thanked you, so I’ll do it instead.”
She placed her hand on his shoulder again, giving it a little squeeze.
“You did well, Arthur. No matter what father said. You did the right thing, and you should be proud of yourself.”
“You really think so?” Arthur asked. Morgana gave her brother a confident nod.
“I know so.”
It was enough. Her words finally had an effect. Morgana watched as that familiar spark returned to Arthur’s eyes. He straightened his back, lifting his chin and nodding to himself. His confidence came back. The proud Crown Prince that everyone had gotten used to returned.
But his mask did not. When Arthur looked at his sister, his eyes were filled with gratitude… and genuine love.
“Any time, Arthur.”
The Royal Palace of Nemeth stood tall as an architectural marvel, far surpassing Camelot in terms of majesty and scale. Its interior counted almost two thousand rooms, all lavishly decorated with the most exquisite furniture that money could buy. Every inch of it had been designed to impress. And impress, it did. Like its inhabitants, the Royal Palace was flawless, immaculate, majestic…
And corrupted to its very core.
A single man could be seen on a lavish balcony, sitting contemplatively in front of a chess board. The game had been in the same position for weeks, left in the early stages of a match. Its pieces went untouched. Undisturbed. The servants knew better than to move anything out of place, lest they incur their master’s wrath.
They knew what would happen to those who did.
That day, at long last… a piece on the chess board finally moved. It had been meticulously planned, examined and evaluated for weaknesses. Preparations had been made. Pieces had been bribed, blackmailed or extorted into position.
Carefully, he moved the Queen forward. A pawn was taken, clearing the way forward.
For its opponent… the move predicted impending doom.
Prince Richard of Nemeth leaned back into his chair, aiming his gaze towards the north. He wasn’t looking at the horizon.
He was looking towards Albion.