For the servants of Camelot, early mornings were a busy affair. They needed to be up long before their noble masters, doing chores, running errands and taking care of everything that needed to be taken care of in order to keep a castle of this size up and running.
The castle had a small army of cooks and kitchen staff to provide everyone with breakfast, lunch and dinner. For a maidservant, knowing how to cook well was not a requirement.
In theory. In practice, Sarah had risen to be the best chef in the entire castle.
Guinevere knew why. She had heard the stories. As a child, Morgana had been an incredibly picky eater, often sending back the meals that were provided by the kitchens and flat-out refusing to eat if she didn’t get anything else. And her tastes kept changing. After the Princess had thrown out a pot roast that had taken seven hours to prepare, the regular cook finally threw a tantrum and went on strike. He would no longer make her anything. Not a single loaf of bread. Not even a royal threat of beheading changed his mind.
And so, Sarah had been forced to take over Morgana’s dinner preparations. It turned out to be the greatest challenge in her entire career. The maidservant had tried everything she could think of, every recipe, every dish, determined to make her stubborn, toddling, tantrum-throwing mistress at least eat something.
Years later, Sarah was still reaping the benefits of that decision. Her dishes were without equal.
Compared to that, Guinevere’s cooking skills were worse than inadequate. The red-haired girl looked down on the lump of dough in front of her with a disheartened frown. Despite her best efforts, it did not even look edible, let alone like something that would actually taste good. She let out a defeated sigh.
Perhaps it was hopeless.
At that moment, Guinevere could hear Sarah’s voice ringing out from behind her.
“All right, that’s enough. What is going on with you?”
Guinevere turned around to see Sarah, standing not five feet away from her and staring right at her with that smirking, inquisitive gaze of hers. The red-haired servant quickly broke eye contact and cast her eyes towards the ground.
“Oh no, you don’t. You’ve been quiet enough to give a professional mute a run for his money. I know a distracted mind when I see one. Come on, then. Out with it.”
Guinevere cringed. Caught red-handed. The young servant hesitated. Would it be too forward to ask? What if it bothered her? She didn’t want to be a burden. But it wasn’t like Sarah was going to let this go, anyway… perhaps it would be all right? Guinevere gulped, deciding to take a chance.
“Oh, I, um… actually, I was wondering if I could ask for a favour, miss. Would that be all right?”
Sarah raised a single eyebrow.
“That depends entirely on the favour.”
“Oh. Right. Of course. Well, I wanted to learn some new recipes and, um, I was wondering if you could teach me. How to make them, I mean. You’re the most skilled chef in the whole castle.”
“Very true! And I do enjoy flattery,” Sarah winked at her. “Very well, it can’t hurt to teach you a few things. What do you want to make?”
A soft blush spread across Guinvere’s cheeks.
And Sarah immediately knew.
“Hmm?” the maidservant replied, her lips pulling into a mischievous smirk. “And why would you want to learn that one, specifically?”
“Oh, well… it seemed like a good idea- I mean, like a good dish to know.”
“Riiiiight. And it has nothing to do with a certain someone liking the taste of honey, of course. Not in the slightest.”
“No!” Guinevere protested, the blush on her cheeks getting worse. “I just- Gaius said that it’s a good food for treating sore throats and illnesses, and I just- I thought-”
She turned around, unable to hide her embarrassment anymore. But Guinevere didn’t have to look at Sarah to imagine the look on the woman’s face. And her imagination was spot-on. In a teasing voice, the maidservant answered her apprentice.
“All right, Gwen. I’ll teach you how to make it. For the physician, of course.”
“Y…yes. Thank you, miss Sarah.”
“And quit it with the “miss” thing. I know I’m a knockout, but I’m not that young anymore.”
While Sarah enjoyed teasing her apprentice, her ribbing ended there. She knew when to let things rest. Besides, they now had other things to focus on. When it came to cooking, the maidservant was incredibly passionate. Skilled, too. Sarah swiftly began to instruct Guinevere, giving pointers and working alongside her so the girl could learn from example.
And it was quite the example that Sarah provided. The castle staff had given her the title of “Kitchen Faerie” for a reason. Guinevere had seen Sarah cook countless times, but the sight never ceased to amaze her. Even with all the teasing and flirting behaviour of her mentor, Guinevere had never seen Sarah as happy as when she was cooking.
As Guinevere watched Sarah perform, a silent question bubbled to the surface. It had been on her mind for a while now, but she had never dared to ask. It was a little personal, but… she was curious. Guinevere decided to risk it. In a timid voice, the maidservant called out to her mentor.
“Miss Sarah, do you mind if I ask you a question?”
“Just Sarah. And go ahead. But if you want the spoon, I’m not giving it to you. Find your own.”
“No, it’s not about the spoon. It’s, well…”
“You… well, you’re a really good cook. Really good. And you’re great at housework, too. And other things. They even let you play music for the nobles sometimes. It’s like you can do everything.”
“Is there a question in there somewhere, or are you just trying to butter me up?” the maidservant grinned. Guinevere shook her head in response.
“No, no. I just… why aren’t you married yet? You’d be the perfect wife.”
“What, do you have someone in mind for me?” Sarah replied, still smirking.
“Ah- well, no, but…”
“Good. Because they’d have to be very physically fit in order to compete with the knights. If you catch my drift.”
Guinevere awkwardly scratched the back of her neck. She broke eye contact with the maidservant in front of her and mumbled:
“You know what I mean.”
“I know, I know. I’m just messing with you, Gwen.”
The maidservant grew serious, her usual expression of mischief slowly fading away. She let out a sigh.
“I guess I might as well tell you. It’s not a secret or anything. I recon most people in the castle know about it, anyway. The truth is… it doesn’t matter how skilled a woman I am. Any potential husband would not want me.”
Sarah placed the wooden spoon on the counter, her eyes cast downwards.
“I’m infertile. I cannot conceive. I’ll never have children of my own.”
A heavy feeling spread through the young servant’s chest. Her reply got stuck in her throat, and Guinevere suddenly found herself at a loss for words. She immediately felt guilty for asking.
“I… I’m so sorry, Sarah.”
“…yeah. I know.”
The next second, Sarah’s familiar grin came back. She playfully bumped against Guinevere’s shoulder.
“On the bright side, it does allow me to spend time with the knights without having to worry about the consequences! Really, I’m not complaining. I mean, have you seen them without a shirt on?”
The blush promptly returned to Guinevere’s cheeks. She turned away from Sarah, trying and failing to banish the visual from her mind.
“I… really don’t want to-”
“Oh, but that’s just not true,” Sarah said, giving her apprentice a suggestive eyebrow-waggle. “Come on, Gwen! Live a little! I’m sure you wouldn’t mind seeing a certain someone without a shirt on, no?”
“I-no! That is highly inappropriate!”
“Oh, fine. Stick-in-the-mud. All the more for me, then.”
The maidservant chuckled at her apprentice’s discomfort. Then, her expression turned gentle.
“Come on, Gwen. I’ll show you how to layer your pie.”
“Not miss. I’ll smack you with my spoon. I will.”
A short hour later, the kitchen smelled deliciously of freshly baked pastries. The scent drifted all the way into the castle hallway, where Sarah and Guinevere could hear some poor guard’s stomach rumble in response. Sarah let out a chuckle, amused at the sound.
“There. One apple-honey pie, learned and mastered. And it doesn’t even look half bad! You’re welcome, Gwen.”
The red-haired maidservant gave her a soft smile.
“Thank you, m-Sarah. I’m glad to learn from the best.”
For a moment, a prideful smile crossed Sarah’s face.
“Yes, well. Might as well pass on my secrets to somebody, no? Even if it’s to a prudish stick-in-the-mud like you.”
As Guinevere looked down on the still steaming pies, she finally noticed.
“Wait. What is the cherry pie for?”
“Oh, that one’s for Morgana,” Sarah replied, shrugging. Guinevere’s face pulled into a confused frown. The young servant placed a hand on her chin, cocking her head curiously.
“But… didn’t milady tell us to leave her alone? She gave us very specific instructions this morning…”
“Pfff! She’s been giving me “specific instructions” since she was a bratty toddler. I didn’t listen to her then, and I sure won’t listen to her now. I don’t care if she’s royalty – she’ll eat whether she likes to or not.”
“You were with her when she was a toddler?” Guinevere asked curiously.
“Of course. I’ve been here since they were both new-borns. I swear to the Watcher, Gwen, you would not believe the kind of trouble that those two brats caused me when they were toddlers-”
And the maidservant proceeded to go off on a tangent, leaving a surprised Guinevere to play an unwilling audience to her rant. It went on for a good five minutes. Guinevere learned more about Arthur and her mistress in those few minutes than she had in the three months that she’d been working at the castle. And then some.
And then she realized. Sarah’s words were angry and frustrated-
But her eyes were not.
They were proud.
And Guinevere understood.
In a different wing of castle Camelot, Arthur Pendragon had finally found a moment to talk to his sister. It had proved to be much more difficult than he thought – almost as if she was avoiding him. In the end, he was forced to make a servant wake him up at the crack of dawn, much earlier than he was comfortable with, just so he could try to catch her in her chambers.
Arthur despised getting up so early. But today, the Crown Prince wanted answers more than he wanted sleep.
“Morrie… why didn’t you protest father’s decision?”
“There was nothing to protest,” Morgana replied. But Arthur shook his head, not accepting her answer.
“Don’t lie to me. You had at least four suitors before Nemeth’s offer, and a union with any one of them benefits Camelot just as much as a union with Nemeth. I know how much you hate Richard. Plus – father listens to you, more than he ever listens to me. You could probably change his mind if you wanted to. But you didn’t even try. Why not?”
Her eyes trailed off towards the chess board; its pieces locked in the final stages of a match. Despite having the numerical advantage, the white side was losing, facing an impending checkmate. But there were still a few moves left. Still a few pieces that could be sacrificed. With a sigh, Morgana turned back towards her brother.
“This is the best move, Arthur.”
“What do you mean? If an alliance is father’s goal, we could-”
“Of course that’s not the goal!” Morgana suddenly snapped at her brother, her voice flaring up angrily. “Think, Arthur! Nemeth is almost as strong as we are. They are not and will never be an ally. They are dangerous. If they sway any of the others and turn them against us, we will be at their mercy. You cannot afford to let Richard take the throne unchecked. You need a pawn on the inside. You need-”
The Crown Prince couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He cut her off, grabbing his sister’s hand as he felt a strange sense of anger bubbling to the surface.
“You are not a pawn.”
Morgana chuckled to herself.
“Of course not. In terms of chess, I’ve been acting as the Queen. But even that one doesn’t matter if your King is one move away from a checkmate.”
“Stop talking like that!” her brother snapped. “You are not a chess piece! Stop talking about yourself as if you are!”
The Princess laughed; a dry, emotionless laugh that did nothing to alleviate her brother’s worries.
“I’m serious, Morgana. I worry about you. You don’t look well. Did you sleep at all these last few days?”
“Not really. But it doesn’t matter, I’m fine-”
“You’re not fine!” Arthur snapped back. “Stop lying. I’ve never seen you like this before. You’ve been acting strange ever since you came down with the flu. Did you have a strange fever dream? Did someone threaten you? What happened?”
“Arthur, just leave it-”
But the Crown Prince interrupted her again, this time giving his sister a strict, authoritative glare.
“No. Not this time. I’m not letting this go, Morgana. You are going to tell me what is going on, and we are not leaving your chambers until you do.”
His expression fell, the strictness in his eyes making way for genuine worry. When Arthur spoke, his voice had grown gentle.
“I’m here for you, Morrie. Please talk to me.”
His words were finally reaching her. Arthur could tell. Morgana let out a long, tired sigh. She leaned forward, resting her head on her hand and turning her head to face away from him.
“And I already buried half of it, too,” the Princess mumbled softly. Arthur shook his head, not caring that she couldn’t see him.
“You can’t bury everything.”
“…I can try.”
“Don’t. Just tell me. You can rely on me, too, Morrie. I promise.”
For a moment, the air between them was completely silent. Arthur half expected his sister to reject him again. She had developed a habit of keeping everything close to her chest. But then the Princess let out another sigh, finally caving.
Slowly, painfully slowly, Morgana turned back towards her brother. Arthur was not prepared for what he saw there. The Crown Prince felt a heavy, sinking feeling in the bottom of his stomach as he looked upon his sister’s expression.
It was hollow.
“I saw mother.”
The Crown Prince fell silent. He had expected many things, had imagined all kinds of possible explanations, but… not that. It took a few moments for Arthur to even process Morgana’s words. And when he did, Arthur still couldn’t believe it.
It can’t be.
Cautiously, Arthur opened his mouth.
“Like… in a memory?”
Morgana shook her head.
“…It was not just a summer flu, was it?”
Morgana slowly shook her head again, her eyes cloudy and lifeless.
“No. No, it was not.”
Suddenly, a lot of things began to make sense. Why Gaius had seemed so tense despite a summer flu only being a minor illness. Why Morgana had avoided all public appearances afterwards. Why he couldn’t find her anywhere over the past few days… and why his sister looked so completely, utterly exhausted. That sinking feeling in his stomach increased tenfold.
Whatever had infected her had almost killed her. She had almost died… and nobody knew.
Arthur reached out, placing a hand on her shoulder.
“Is that why you haven’t been able to sleep? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It’s not like I could… explain it. It just happened.”
“And Gaius? Why didn’t he-”
“Because I ordered him not to. I cannot show weakness.”
Arthur couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Weakness? Are you serious?
“Almost dying is trauma, Morrie. Not weakness.”
“I see no difference.”
There was no deceit in her voice. No attempt to deflect, or spin his words, or deceive him. In that moment, it dawned upon the Crown Prince that Morgana really believed that they were the same thing. The realization made Arthur’s blood run cold. When did she start thinking like this? Like she couldn’t ever show weakness? Like Agravaine?
I can’t let her think like that. If she goes down that path, she’ll-
He instinctively placed his arm around her, pulling her close and embracing his sister.
“I’m sorry. I should have realized it sooner. Morgana, listen to me. You don’t have to shoulder everything alone. I’m here, too. Please don’t forget that.”
Morgana nodded half-heartedly.
“I know. I’m all right. Really. I just… I just feel tired.”
Her gaze traveled to the portrait on the wall. A soft chuckle escaped from the Princess’s lips.
“You know… she doesn’t even look that much like the portrait. The real one. They painted her to look too regal.”
Arthur knew that it was another attempt to deflect, and take his attention away from her. He shouldn’t react to it. But the Crown Prince couldn’t help himself. Arthur barely remembered their mother, too. His own curiosity got the better of him.
“What… what was she like?”
A shadow of a smile passed by on Morgana’s lips.
“She was beautiful. A little taller than me. I remember long, wavy black hair. We both have her eyes, although the colour came from our father. We have her jaw, too. We… we look like her. A lot.”
Morgana’s expression fell.
“I wish I’d known her.”
“…me, too, Morrie. Me, too.”
The young woman pulled away from him, her eyes glancing back and forth between Arthur and their mother’s portrait.
“Do… do you have any memories of her?”
“Not really,” Artur said, shaking his head. “I was only a few years old when she… when she passed away. All I can remember is an old lullaby. I don’t really know the words anymore. It had something to do with… mountains… probably.”
Morgana’s head lowered, that same look of exhaustion appearing on her face for a second time.
“Would you mind… singing it for me?”
For the second time that day, Arthur was taken by surprise. He hesitated, not knowing what to do with himself.
“That’s… Morrie, I don’t…”
“You don’t need to know the words. You could just hum the tune. You could just…”
“…please. I’m so tired.”
Arthur placed his arm around her again. This time, Morgana leaned into the embrace, lowering her head onto his shoulder and closing her eyes as he began to hum. Arthur wasn’t a singer. He couldn’t keep rhythm. He didn’t even remember the words to what he was humming to her.
But the Crown Prince had a soft, pleasant, baritone voice.
And that was enough.
Arthur had not done this since Morgana was three years old. A scared toddler, spooked by the violence of a raging thunderstorm outside. Arthur still vividly remembered that night. He had ended up feeding her parts of the honey pies that he kept stashed underneath his bed. They played cards. He lost horribly. On purpose. The last thing he remembered was rocking her back and forth, long after his little sister had already fallen asleep.
He had only been five years old, himself.
It was the first memory he had of being a big brother.
I guess some things never change.