Morgana Pendragon groaned, drifting in and out of the void repeatedly as her consciousness slowly became aware of her body.
Her arms. Her legs. Her chest. Even breathing was painful. Morgana felt like she was caught underneath an immense rock, the weight of it pressing down on her lungs and slowly suffocating her. The sorceress tried to move, but her limbs wouldn’t listen. Even her eyelids felt like they were forcibly pressed shut.
The tug of sleep-like oblivion was enormous. Pulling her back towards the void. She couldn’t resist it. Morgana could feel herself slowly slipping away.
But she could still think.
I need… to know what happened.
Her instinctual hunger for knowledge won against the allure of sleep at the very last moment, pulling her back and beginning to drive away the cobwebs in her mind. The sheer effort of waking up had never been so difficult. She had to focus. Focus.
With a tremendous effort, Morgana managed to open her eyes a little. Her state of half-sleep began to fade away. But the world around her was a blurred mess, and she could feel the light from above hurting her eyes. She focused, recognizing the familiar items on the night stand. A snow rabbit. An old burlap doll… and a carved dragon.
She was on her bed, inside of her chambers. Safe.
But… wait… what happened? What did I-
Her thoughts were interrupted by a flood of memories. A sudden overload of information, as her mind finally caught up with the rest of her body. Morgana could feel a painful sting in her chest as the memories flashed by.
I can’t deal with that.
It was too raw. Too painful. Morgana couldn’t face it. There were too many emotions. If she faced them, the sorceress would lose control, the one thing that Morgana knew she could never afford to do. Ever. As she struggled with the memory, her mind turned to instinct. Learned behaviour took over. It grabbed hold of the memory…
And violently buried it.
Morgana slowly exhaled. She could feel herself regain a little bit of control over her limbs. She was recovering. With a groan, the sorceress began to sit up.
“Easy, milady. Take it slow.”
A familiar voice, calling out to her from her right. She still couldn’t see clearly. But the sorceress did not have to see to know who it was. The only one that it could ever be, after an ordeal like that.
But Morgana was too stubborn to listen to the elderly physician. She sat up, grasping for her head as the pain between her eyes immediately worsened into a migraine. With clenched teeth, the sorceress groaned:
Gaius leaned forward, dabbing her forehead with a damp piece of cloth. The bags underneath his eyes had darkened, and his expression was filled with worry.
“You went into cardiac arrest.”
“Your heart stopped, milady,” the physician explained. “You used too much of your magic. Your body could not handle it. If you had used any more, it would have killed you.”
Morgana slowly placed her hands over her chest, unsure of the truth that she was hearing.
“My… heart did?”
“Yes, milady,” the elderly physician nodded. “From what I can tell, you’ve suffered permanent damage to the myocardium. I need to do some tests, but I fear that it may develop into arrythmia-”
But Gaius might as well have been speaking another language entirely. Morgana had no idea what the man was talking about.
“I… don’t know what those things mean,” the sorceress muttered softly.
“Your heart was damaged, milady. It is not beating properly anymore. And I do not know how to treat it. You need to take it easy, for your own sake.”
The physician broke eye contact with Morgana. His gaze traveled to the floor. The man looked exhausted. Gaius let out a heavy sigh, placing a hand on her shoulder.
“Morgana. Whatever it is that you did last night… please do not do it again. Ever.”
“… I won’t.”
Two days later, after he had received news of his daughter’s recovery, Uther Pendragon formally summoned both of his children – not to the throne room, but to his private chambers. They were not allowed to refuse. And the Iron King rarely received visitors in private, whether it was family or otherwise. It lent his summons this time around a great deal of pressure. The Crown Prince and Princess had a pretty good idea of what their father wanted to discuss.
That topic was the future of Camelot.
“Are you sure you’re well?” Arthur asked, more concerned with his sister than with the upcoming discussion. She had been acting strangely distant ever since her sudden summer flu. Arthur didn’t like it. He had already tried to talk with her twice – but Morgana dismissed his worry then, and she did the same now.
“I feel fine. Please start, father. Do not hesitate on my account.”
Uther nodded. He had placed his children on the couch opposite of him. His eyes were strict and unyielding – the king of expression that he always had when he was about to do something big.
Arthur did not like that, either.
“As you know,” the Iron King spoke, “Camelot is currently in a state of war with the country of Cornwall. We are also threatened by the Isle of Mora, and our crusade against the corruption of magic is never-ending. The treaty between the Five Kingdoms is all that keeps Albion alive. We must do whatever it takes to strengthen those bonds.”
Arthur and Morgana nodded. This wasn’t new information for either of them. In the past, the Crown Prince may not have understood everything that his father spoke of. No longer. Arthur Pendragon had come of age, now fully aware of the heavy burden that came with wearing the crown. The situation that their country found itself in. The ever-present threat of magic. And the dire importance of the alliance between the Five Kingdoms.
Their names had been engraved into his memory.
“We understand, father,” Arthur spoke. “We will do whatever it takes.”
“Good. I expect you both to honour those words – because I have made a decision regarding the future of our Kingdoms.”
Uther allowed a moment of silence to fall, making eye contact with both of them. Then, he continued.
“The King of Nemeth has formally offered Princess Mithian’s hand in marriage to Camelot. I have decided to accept their offer. It is imperative that we maintain a good relationship with Nemeth, and a royal union is the best way to achieve that.”
Arthur could feel a sinking feeling in his chest. He had seen it coming, but the thought of spending the rest of his life with Mithian did not exactly feel appealing. But Arthur knew better than to defy his father. The Crown Prince understood why the Iron King had made this decision. Next to Camelot, Nemeth was the strongest of the Five Kingdoms, and the most dangerous of their political opponents. Bringing a piece of theirs over to Camelot was pure strategy. Love and personal feelings were not involved – or even considered.
But that meant…
“Nemeth will expect something in return,” Arthur spoke. His father gave a short nod.
“They do. And Camelot will honour that expectation.”
He broke eye contact with his son, glancing towards his daughter instead.
“I intend to give your hand in marriage to Prince Richard.”
“What about Wessex?” Morgana asked, her voice devoid of emotion. The Iron King shook his head.
“Wessex has withdrawn their interest. And it matters not. A double union will profit our Kingdom for generations to come.”
Knowing his sister, Arthur had expected a more scathing response from Morgana than his own reaction. But the young woman surprised him. Instead of arguing, the Princess simply asked:
With a surprised frown, Arthur glanced her way again. Uther did not seem to notice, though, as he answered:
“This fall, during the week of the knight’s tournament. Arrangements have already been made. When the tournament ends, Mithian will remain in Camelot, and you will travel to Nemeth in preparation of your union.”
The Crown Prince knew how bad the relationship was between Richard and his sister. Venomous did not even begin to describe it – he was surprised that Morgana was not throwing a tantrum already. Or manipulating their father into changing his mind. She had done it countless times already. Arthur could see her open and close her mouth, no doubt swallowing the words of protest that were swimming around in her head. But nothing came out. It worried him… but it was probably for the best, Arthur realized. It was for the good of Camelot, and for the good of Albion. Neither of them had any say in this. And they both knew that.
For the sake of their Kingdom… they had to obey.
A few days after Uther’s decision had been made public, the Crown Prince found himself walking the castle gardens. He wasn’t alone. Arthur came accompanied by two noble ladies, one on each side of him, and both uncomfortably clinging onto his arms. They were the daughters of one of the many barons within Camelot. Small fry, though Arthur was trying his best to stay polite and courteous.
But that was starting to get harder and harder. Ever since the formal announcement of his betrothal, the two of them had not left him alone. And not just them. Lately, he found himself approached by ladies of court left and right. Constantly. Every day. Arthur had never been the target of such aggressive female attention before, not even on the ballroom floor.
He knew why.
The Crown Prince found it repulsive.
“Oh, you simply must join us in Cadbury for the summer hunt, my lord. The fields and forests are ripe with game. We pride ourselves on our variety. A visit would be well worth your while.”
“I’ll consider it,” Arthur replied, disinterested. It was always the same conversation. Arthur had started to lose track of the number of invitations he had received to participate in hunting trips, or to attend lavish masquerades, musical performances, staged plays and exotic dances. The Crown Prince did not care for any of them. He had politely refused most, and for the ones he couldn’t refuse, Arthur had Morgana send his apologies later.
But these two were annoyingly persistent.
“Trust me, my lord. We’d make sure that a visit from the Prince is enjoyable… in every sense of the word.”
She leaned forward, placing her hands behind her back and accentuating her feminine curves. He knew what she was doing. Arthur knew exactly what kind of “enjoyable” the two of them were referring to. How could he not? They were not being subtle, both in terms of words and in terms of attire. As Arthur looked down on the two of them, he could hear a familiar voice ring out in the back of his head.
“Don’t be fooled. You know what they want. They are interested in you for your status first, your looks second-”
And myself a very distant third. I know.
They had reached the end of the lavish gardens, approaching the gate that gave entry to the castle courtyard. The perfect moment to get rid of them. Arthur decided to seize his chance while he could. A fake smile spread across his lips as he addressed his companions.
“Thank you for your kind offer. But I’m afraid that we must part ways here – I have business that I must attend do.”
“Oh,” the noblewoman said, sounding disappointed. “Very well, my lord.”
Arthur gave her a polite bow, taking her hand in his and placing a single kiss on the back. It was an elegant gesture. Practiced, perfected – and devoid of any emotion.
The Crown prince left the two of them there, walking away and quickly diving into a side alley. He didn’t care how it looked. It did the trick, because neither of them decided to follow. After a few moments, he could hear their footsteps moving away from him. Arthur breathed a sigh of relief.
His words hadn’t been a complete lie – he really did have business to attend to. Sort of. Eventually. But mostly, he just wanted to get rid of them. These days, Arthur rarely got more than a few moments to himself-
And he did not want to waste any more of it on them.
Arthur cut through alleyways, determined to avoid any more court ladies, and headed towards the back of the castle. The Crown Prince had developed a habit of retreating to the royal stables whenever he wanted to be alone. Something about that place calmed him. Maybe it was the simplicity of handling horses. Or perhaps he just wanted to drop his mask for a few minutes. The older he got, the more he began to dislike it. Arthur sometimes wondered how his sister did it. Political correctness was exhausting.
Probably not the best thought to have for a future King. Maybe I can make a law that prohibits annoying pleasantries. And gold digging. Oh, who am I kidding. They’ll have my head on a pike before the day is over.
Arthur turned the corner, his mind continuing to wander as his feet carried him towards Llamrei’s stable. Maybe a ride would cheer him up.
But to his surprise, Arthur did not find himself at the stables alone. His gaze fell upon a young maidservant, with fair skin and reddish hair tied into a bun. She was standing right in front of Llamrei’s stable. Arthur frowned. There was something familiar about her, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Like he had seen her somewhere before. As he approached silently from behind, it suddenly dawned upon him.
Wait, isn’t that Morgana’s servant? What is she doing here?
The girl seemed to be fretting over something. Arthur watched her extend her hand, almost as if to pet Llamrei’s nose, before quickly pulling it back again. She let out a sigh, causing the Crown Prince to raise a single eyebrow. She still hadn’t noticed him. The maidservant seemed to be rather oblivious to her surroundings. Arthur watched her for a few more seconds, before finally calling out to the girl.
“Her name is Llamrei.”
The maidservant almost jumped out of her skin in surprise. She whirled around, startled, her face turning beet red when she realized just who it was that was standing behind her.
She quickly fell into a bow, her head lowering deeply towards the ground. When she spoke, her voice was nervous to the point of panic.
“P-please forgive my insolence!”
She began shuffle away from the stable as fast as possible, stopping somewhere to his right. Her head was still aimed at the ground, her hands shaking as she maintained her bow.
Arthur suddenly realized – the poor girl thought that he was going to punish her. His eyebrow raised even higher. Why would she think that? Was this what the servants thought of him? He wasn’t a cruel master. And yet, her reaction suggested otherwise. He could already hear his sister’s angry voice in the back of his head, chewing him out over frightening her maidservant. He had to put her at ease somehow. Arthur nodded to himself, his gaze traveling towards the horse in the stable.
“Llamrei is special, you know,” Arthur explained, looking up at the beast. “Her sire was a white stallion named Hengreon. They caught him in the middle of the woods, without knowing where he came from. Father told me that he was almost feral. He would not allow anybody to get close enough to ride him…
“Except for our Queen. Llamrei is his last foal.”
“I-I see,” the maidservant stuttered, still trying to regain her composure. “She… she must be difficult to handle, then.”
“Not at all,” Arthur smiled. “Llamrei is the sweetest mare in the entire city. Well, she did kick me in the chest once. But that doesn’t count. I was improvising a sword fighting duel underneath her stomach. Not my smartest moment, I admit. I think that the wall still has an Arthur-shaped dent in it.”
The girl let out a brief chuckle, a glimpse of a smile breaking through. Then she remembered herself and quickly looked down at the ground again. But for Arthur, that glimpse was enough.
“You’re one of Morgana’s servants, right?” he asked. “What’s your name?”
He nodded at her, gesturing towards the stables.
“What are you doing here, Guinevere? You’re not in trouble, don’t worry. You have my word.”
“Oh, I…” the servant stammered. “It’s, um… I j-just like to come here, sometimes. T-to think.”
Arthur’s smile widened.
“We have that in common, then. I often come here to take my mind off things. Or to leave Elyan’s buffoonery behind and and travel the hillside. Do you ride, Guinevere?”
She girl shook her head, refusing to make eye contact. Her shy behavior was oddly endearing.
“N-no, milord. I’ve never worked with horses before. I’m just a servant.”
“Horse riding is not restricted to nobility, you know,” Arthur smiled. “And they’re really quite gentle if you know how to approach them right. They enjoy attention like any other beast. I’m sure that Llamrei would enjoy a pat. Here, I’ll show you-”
He extended his hand to guide her back towards the stable-
And the maidservant immediately recoiled, jumping back and slamming into the wooden post behind her.
“Ah-! I- I m-meant no disrespect! Milord! Please forgive me!”
She fell into a bow again, almost hitting the wooden post a second time. Guinevere quickly excused herself. She turned on her heels so fast that it could have twisted her ankle. It reminded him of a startled deer. Arthur watched in stunned confusion as Morgana’s maidservant darted away from him, disappearing around the corner of the castle and vanishing from sight.
The crown Prince blinked.
What… just happened?