“Good night, uncle.”
Morgana looked down on the Jacoban Priest, his body still and unconscious on the cold stone floor. The sight did surprisingly little to her. If anything, Morgana grew annoyed. She had expected there to be some extra protective measures since breaking in last time. More traps, or a different way of opening the wall. What she had not expected was for her uncle to get here so quickly. Something had tipped him off.
And now he had seen her. The male version of her, but still. The sorceress inwardly cursed. Knowing Agravaine, as soon as the Jacoban priest woke up, he would start a manhunt all through the city. Some poor dark-haired lad would likely end up in the dungeons because of this.
She couldn’t let it be in vain. Morgana had to find the information that she needed.
With a frustrated scowl, the sorceress moved towards the bookcases, pulling out tomes that seemed promising. Her eyes darted around for something to put them in, so she could take them outside without drawing attention. A burlap sack, or a chest, or…
Morgana stopped. Her head turned around to look at her uncle. He was still on the ground, unmoving. As she looked down on the priest, his chest rising up and down slowly… a new thought began to form in her mind.
What if I didn’t take them?
I can never come back here again. He saw my face. He will hunt it down like a bloodhound. And even if I turned into someone else… as soon as Agravaine wakes up, he is going to erase this room. He will move the books and tomes to somewhere else. Somewhere I can’t find again.
And anything that he can’t move… he will burn to cinders.
This is my only chance.
Morgana nodded to herself. As she moved to drag her uncle and the guards into the room, her mind was quickly working out the math.
The hour was right after the noon sermon. Nobody would miss Agravaine until just before supper.
That meant that she had four hours. Four hours to read as much as she could.
She finally had a chance… to learn about magic.
Morgana had to know it all. Every hidden piece of history. Every concealed truth. Every secret. Everything… starting with shapeshifters. With only four hours, there was no way that she could read everything in this room.
But the black-haired sorceress was going to try, anyway.
The kingdom of Albion, like any great Kingdom, was rife with superstition and folklore. Morgana had heard the stories of evil creatures of the night, menacing and dangerous to any human traveler. She had grown up with tales of sinister, magical monsters. She expected to find more of those same myths and legends, along with cautionary tales that commoners and farmers told their children.
What she had not expected… were dozens and dozens of detailed reports.
And Morgana did not find just one shapeshifter.
She found dozens of them.
Morgana found descriptions of the Leanhaun Sidhe; malefic, vampiric creatures that drained gifted mortals of their life force until there was nothing left but a soulless husk.
She uncovered captain’s logs that told of Merrow; tailed demons of the sea that collected the souls of drowned sailors. They could pose as humans and actively lured people to their death.
She found recorded sightings of Banshees; terrible harbingers of death whose screams heralded doom for all those who heard them. There had been one close to Camelot, not ten years ago.
Her insides went cold when she found priestly accounts speaking of a familiar monster – a Church Grim, a black, demonic hound that roamed their graveyards at night and could transform into a bipedal monster at will. A personification of death and malice.
The more she read, and the more she learned, the heavier the pressure in the room began to feel. But Morgana couldn’t stop. She had to keep going. She had to know them all. And so the sorceress gritted her teeth, steeled herself, and read.
Until… she found what she was looking for, hidden away in a very old tome. As she read, Morgana could feel her insides grow cold.
Are you a witch, or are you a fairy?
Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?
“When one scratches the surface of the human mind, at their core, most human beings share the same primal fears. The threat of death and mutilation are two examples – but chief among them is the loss of a loved one, especially a child.“
“Changelings are the personification of one of the most sinister traditions of the Sidhe. When a mortal child is blessed with great beauty, their natural grace will attract the attention of the Sidhe.“
“If left unprotected, the child is then stolen and spirited away, leaving behind a changeling – a magical faerie child – in its place. The creature takes on the likeness of the child that was stolen. They appear, for all intents and purposes, to be a normal human being. It is when they reach adolescence that they reach the height of their magical abilities, allowing them to change shape at will.”
“A changeling is a creature of ill omen, and through its magic, it will bring disaster upon any family that raises it. As long as it is cared for and looked after, the Sidhe will refuse to return the real child.”
“The only way to rid oneself of a changeling is to scare its parents into swapping the children for a second time. There is but a single way to do this.
Much like humans, at their core, most Sidhe share the same primal fears.
Chief among them is the loss of a loved one, especially a child.”
Morgana softly closed the book. She couldn’t read any further. The sorceress had reached her limit. A deafening silence filled the dark chamber, its pressure colder than it had ever been before. A thousand thoughts raced in her mind at once… but gradually, all were drowned out by a single worry.
It can’t be… right?
A soft groaning from her left shook Morgana out of her thoughts and back to reality. Her uncle was finally coming back to consciousness. Agravaine growled as he slowly, unsteadily, rose to his feet. His eyes locked onto her.
”…Ugh… how… dare… you’ll pay for-”
Back in the upper layer of the castle, King Uther and Prince Arthur found themselves in the unusual situation of resting in the same lounging chambers. Morgana and Arthur were a frequent presence in these halls, but it was rare to see their King there. Arthur observed him curiously. Although his posture was upright and commanding as always, the Crown Prince could see the exhaustion underneath. Arthur noticed the dark bags under his eyes, as well as his cracked lips. Both were a bad sign. Paired with the fact that he was here, and not at work in his chambers… that did not bode well.
Carefully, Arthur called out to him.
“Father… you look tired.”
The King sighed. His answer was surprisingly genuine.
“I look tired because I am tired, Arthur. There have been reports of troops from Cornwall marching on the border. I spent the night planning a defence strategy, as well as a plan of action if they start raiding villages and burning crops.”
The Iron King uncrossed his arms. He gave Arthur a strict, commanding glance.
“This is why it is imperative that our relationship with Nemeth stays strong in the future. They were very generous with the amount of food that they shared with us. If we betray that generosity and Cornwall does start burning our fields, we will be forced to face a second famine.”
“I understand. But father, I should be helping you in the war effort. I can delegate the tournament preparations to Morgana, if you need-“
“No,” Uther interrupted his son. “You will do no such thing. The tournament is your responsibility to bear, Arthur. You will see it through – as I will see this war through. It is my responsibility. I started it, after all.”
The Crown Prince nodded. Then, the words of his father registered in his mind. A confused frown appeared on Arthur’s face.
“What do you mean? Cornwall declared war on us. Not the other way around.”
A dry chuckle escaped from Uther’s lips.
“Yes. Yes, they did. Eighteen years ago… right after I stole away their Queen.”
Arthur fell silent. The Prince had learned about their hostile relationship with Cornwall during his lessons as a child… but the details had always been obscure and vague. He knew that it had something to do with his mother. Both him and Morgana had asked their father for the details in the past – but Uther disliked talking about his late wife. Growing up, Arthur had learned to refrain from saying her name, for fear of sending his King into a rage.
Uther let out a huff, reading his son’s silent expression like it was an open book. He turned his head, angling it in such a way that his scar was in full view.
“Have I ever told you how I got this mark?”
“Sir Betrand and Agravaine told me,” Arthur replied cautiously. “They said that it was a battle wound, obtained from the blow of an enemy blade.”
“They are correct,” Uther nodded. “But there is more to that story. The blade that struck me… belonged to Gorlois of Cornwall.”
Uther leaned back into the couch, his mind recalling events long past. A cloudy, distant look appeared in his eyes. Without prompting from Arthur, the Iron King began to speak.
“Gorlois of Cornwall was an honourable man. Strong. Cunning. Proud. A loyal and dependable ally of Albion. The relationship between our Kingdoms was very stable. We visited each other yearly, much like we do now with Nemeth and Wessex. I remember Gorlois being blessed enough to have everything that his heart desired. As far as I know… he only ever lacked one thing.”
“The power to hold on to what was his.”
“I rode to Cornwall under the guise of night, with six knights at my side. We drew him out, challenging Gorlois to a duel on the ramparts while Agravaine snuck Ygraine out of the castle. He would never have given her up willingly. Even if he was defeated in combat. Gorlois was that kind of man. I remember the swing of his blade cutting me across the face. I remember the sting of metal, the blood sprayed onto the stone floor.”
“In the end, I was the diversion. I ended up flinging myself off the castle walls and into the river. His knights could not jump after me in their heavy armour. I rendezvoused with Agravaine and your mother in the woods an hour later. By the end of the day, we had fled the area, and Cornwall had officially declared war on Albion.”
Arthur listened to his father’s story in mild awe. To him, Uther’s story sounded like the type of epic tale that bards would sing about in crowded taverns. He watched as Uther let out a sigh.
“Of course, I had no idea that our war would last for over eighteen years, and become a burden on my children.”
A slight pang of guilt welled up in Arthur’s chest. If his father hadn’t done what he did, then Morgana and him would never have been born… but his Kingdom would not have been at war, either. With an uncertain expression, the Crown Prince looked at Uther.
“Father… do you ever regret what you did?”
Uther shook his head.
“Not for a second. Our time together was short, but Ygraine blessed me with two beautiful children. I regret her passing every day, but I will never regret taking her from Cornwall and bringing her to Camelot. If I had the choice, I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
For a moment, the Iron King let down his guard. Arthur could see his father’s eyes soften. When Uther spoke to his son, it was in a rare, gentle tone.
“Never forget who you are, Arthur. Your mother and I faced a war in order to ensure your future. I have no regrets. Not for a second. Take pride in that.”
At some point, the black-haired Princess had stopped thinking clearly.
And when she stopped thinking, Morgana always ended up at the same place.
In front of her mother’s portrait.
Morgana had borrowed a set of physician’s robes, assuming the guise of Gaius’s assistant and making her way back into the castle. By some miracle, she had avoided any familiar faces this time around. Including Agravaine, who was still lying unconscious in the catacombs.
She knew she should have been thinking of an escape route. A way to survive. But even she had her limits, and those limits had been met a dozen times over today. She had stopped thinking clearly. The sorceress was moving on instinct.
And today… instinct left her full of doubt.
Morgana looked up at her mother’s portrait, the question burning on her lips. She couldn’t hold it in. The sorceress sighed.
“…Please tell me that I’m your child.”
But there was no response.
There was never a response.
How could there be? It was just a painting.
The black-haired sorceress could feel a dull pain spread through her chest. A deep, profound sense of loneliness. She could feel her insides growing cold.
At that moment, more than anything…
Morgana wanted to see her mother.
*The red text in the chapter is a real-life Irish children’s rhyme. Its origin lies in the death of Bridget Cleary, a woman who was murdered by her husband in 1895. Her husband Michael stated that he killed her because he believed that she had been abducted and replaced with a changeling. Nine of their family members were present at the time of Bridget Cleary’s death. Her case is documented as the last witch burning in England.