Whew! This one took some effort to make. You’ll see why. I hope you enjoy, guys!
To Morgana’s surprise, the sorceress found Guinevere not even sixty feet from the location of their makeshift camp, looking out over a small lake. Her maidservant had been closer than she thought. Too close. Close enough for Morgana’s inner amusement to turn to awkward realization. The sorceress quietly walked up next to her.
“Right. I don’t suppose you overheard all of that?”
Guinevere gave her a single, timid, embarrassed nod.
“Erm… yes, milady. You weren’t very… quiet.”
“Ah. I see.”
An uncomfortable silence fell between the two of them. Morgana avoided eye contact, awkwardly scratching the side of her head as she tried to come up with something to say.
But her maidservant beat her to it. Guinevere let out a sigh, looking down at the sparkling water below.
“I don’t mind, milady,” she said softly. “You were right – I know why you brought me with you. I could have made an excuse and stayed behind with Sarah… but I came along anyway. I bear some of the blame here, too.”
“I already know that I can’t get my hopes up,” she continued, a slight blush appearing on her cheeks. “It’s… it’s not like that. Really. It’s just… I know that you like teasing me. And you haven’t been yourself lately, milady. Not since you fell ill before. Sarah and I were… really worried. Yesterday evening was the first time that we saw you in a good mood in days. And… I know why.”
The girl gulped, turning her head away from her mistress.
“S-so… If teasing me makes you smile again, then… then I don’t mind. Honestly.”
In the months that Guinevere had been working for the Pendragon family, Morgana had quickly grown to appreciate the girl’s innocence, as well as her refreshing honesty. Much like Gawain, Guinevere’s presence reminded Morgana that, even in a place like Camelot, not everyone wore masks. It made her feel better.
But for some reason, this time, Guinevere’s honesty hurt. Morgana averted her eyes and looked away as a new feeling welled up in her chest: guilt. The sorceress felt guilty. Maybe Arthur was right. Maybe she really had gone too far. Despite Guinevere’s attempted words of reassurance, Morgana could hear the sadness in her voice.
Along with something else. Something that the sorceress could not ignore.
“Guinevere… you know that I didn’t fall ill because of you, right? That wasn’t your fault.”
Guinevere shook her head, turning around to face Morgana. The sorceress and her made eye contact – and Morgana found herself startled by the genuine sadness that lay embedded in them.
“But it was. I wasn’t there to tend to you. I didn’t even realize that you were feeling ill. I shouldn’t have let you send me away. I… I failed you. If only I had been there, then Gaius might not have had to come, and… and…”
She wrapped her arms around herself, looking down at the water with a distant, guilty stare.
“And you would not have ended up like that.”
As she looked upon her maidservant, Morgana realized.
“…you think I’m punishing you.”
Guinevere remained silent. But it was her silence that spoke volumes. For a moment, Morgana could feel a dull, stinging pain in her chest. She instinctively reached out, placing a hand on Guinevere’s shoulder.
“Gwen… no. It’s not like that. Not at all. What happened in the castle- that was completely of my own doing. You and Sarah bear no blame for that. You couldn’t have done anything even if you hadn’t taken the day off. That wasn’t your fault, all right?”
But the young maidservant shook her head at Morgana, not accepting her words.
“Gaius said that you could have died. That you almost did. And I wasn’t there to help. He and Sarah were so upset. When they wouldn’t let me into the room, I… I thought…”
“I thought you were dead.”
That dull, stinging pain in Morgana’s chest worsened. The sorceress let out a sigh. Back then, in her hurry to bury the entire event and erase it from her mind, Morgana hadn’t stopped to think of how it had affected others. Not for a moment. Not until Arthur had finally cornered her in her bedchambers and forced a bit of the truth out of her. And even then, it hadn’t occurred to the sorceress to check on her servants. She hadn’t thought about Guinevere at all.
Now, Morgana was regretting that carelessness.
“I’m sorry, Gwen. I’m sorry for scaring you. And for being so hard on you today. I didn’t realize what was going through your head. If I had known, I… I wouldn’t have done this.”
I wouldn’t have… right?
She stepped away from Guinevere, wrapping an arm around herself.
At this point… Morgana honestly couldn’t tell.
Maybe I would have. Maybe I wouldn’t have cared.
…When did I stop caring?
Eventually, Guinevere excused herself and left to go gather more firewood. The sorceress did not go with her. Morgana’s high spirits had all but evaporated, doused and washed away with the current. She stayed at the lakeside for a while, her eyes troubles and her mind lost in thought.
Morgana had a lot to think about.
That afternoon, fate decided to add one more worry.
As she turned away from the water, Morgana suddenly felt a cold chill run down her spine. A strange, familiar, uncomfortable sensation. The hairs in the back of her neck rose up in response.
This time, Morgana did not have to glance around for a source in order to confirm her suspicions. Instinctively, the sorceress already knew.
Something was watching them.
Over the years, Arthur Pendragon had grown to rely on his sister’s instincts. They often proved to be correct. When she had a bad feeling about a noble, he had learned to listen. When the truth was shrouded in lies and deceit, he could trust her to pierce through the games and riddles on his behalf.
So when Morgana came to him with the eyes of a hunted animal, looking over her shoulder to the darkness behind the nearest treeline, he did not question her plea to leave their campsite behind. They left immediately. The Crown Prince ended up pushing them far past twilight, riding on until well after the sun had set.
It was exhausting for all of them.
But this time, nobody complained.
At some point, the three of them had to stop. The horses couldn’t go on any further. They were on their last legs – literally.
They ended up making camp in a sandy spot next to a pond, in the middle of the wilderness. Here, the ground was not soft. Arthur was forced to place their mats on hard, rocky, uncomfortable dirt, with only a tree and some shrubs to serve as protection against the night winds.
As far as campsites went, this one was less than satisfactory.
But his traveling companions did not complain. Both Morgana and Guinevere were exhausted. Neither of them had been on the road for this long before without the luxury of a carriage, and it showed. As soon as he made room for them to lie down and got a fire going, the two women collapsed onto the mats and drifted off into slumber.
Arthur couldn’t rest so easily, though
With a sigh, the Crown Prince knelt down next to the campfire, placing his sword on the ground beside him. First watch fell to him tonight. Normally, Arthur let Gawain or Elyan take the first night watch, allowing Lancelot, Percival and himself to get a few moments of shut-eye before the darkest hours of night.
He knew from experience that the hours before dawn were the most dangerous. It was when fatigue and complacency set in among his men. It was when predators, hunting and driven by hunger, were at their most dangerous. Arthur usually left those hours of the night to Lancelot- or, when they were in particularly dangerous territory, to himself.
He knew better than to underestimate the night.
This time around, the Crown Prince had no men to fall back on. No other soldiers to share the load. And neither Morgana nor Guinevere knew what to listen for.
Keeping them safe rested solely on his shoulders.
It was going to be a long night.
Arthur had never been to Northumbria before. It was his first time traveling to these woods, familiar as he was with the wilderness. But even as a newcomer, the young man picked up on enough clues to make him nervous.
These woods were quiet.
An hour into his watch, the horses to the back of their camp suddenly grew restless. Podargos lifted his head, snorting a warning as both horses began to move backwards. Their eyes were locked on the darkness in front of them, ears flicking back and forth nervously.
Arthur reacted on instinct. He grabbed his waterskin from Llamrei’s saddle and, in a swift motion, emptied its contents over the campfire. The flames let out a sizzled protest as they were doused by the cold water. The warm, orange glow faded, allowing the darkness to close in on their makeshift campsite.
Arthur slowly crouched down, his fingers wrapping around the hilt of his blade as his eyes scanned the dark, still horizon.
Something was here.
“Morrie. Wake up.”
“Keep your voice down. We’re being watched.”
That warning was all it took for Morgana’s fatigue to fade away completely. An intense look appeared in her eyes as his sister crouched down next to him, scanning their surroundings in the exact same way that he did.
“From where?” she asked, her voice a soft whisper.
“I don’t know,” Arthur whispered back. “Wake up Guinevere and stay close to me. I need you to watch my back.”
Morgana did as he asked, quickly moving to wake up her maidservant as Arthur took a protective stance in front of them both. Behind him, he could hear Llamrei snort nervously. The sound was almost startling, contrasting sharply with the heavy silence that hung around them. Not a single bird or cricket could be heard. The wind had died down, an eerie stillness overcoming the entire area around their campsite. For a moment, it was as if nature itself held its breath. Watching. Waiting.
Arthur could feel a strange, cold feeling of dread set in, stirring in the pit of his stomach.
This silence… it was unnatural.
Something was wrong.
“Stay close to me.”
With Arthur in the lead, the three of them slowly made their way forward. Moving inch by painstaking inch, alert to every sound and movement around them. Arthur had hoped to scare whatever predatory it was off with the three of them together.
But the woods around them stayed silent. Watching. Waiting.
At some point, Arthur could feel his sister leave his shadow as she began to trail behind.
“Morrie. Keep up.”
But the girl did not respond. Arthur could hear Morgana’s feet stop, freezing in their tracks and coming to a sudden, abrupt halt in front of the large, algae-covered pond. He knew he shouldn’t – but Arthur threw a quick glance over his shoulder anyway. His sister was staring down into the dark, murky water, inching much closer to the edge than he was comfortable with. The Crown Prince let out a soft curse.
“Morrie! Snap out of-”
Sometimes, when the mind is confronted with a truth that it cannot comprehend… it stops thinking clearly, and simply shuts down.
On that star-lit night, Arthur Pendragon was confronted with the first of many truths that the Crown Prince was not ready for.
From the depths of that dark, murky pond, a gigantic creature suddenly burst forth, violently breaking through the water surface and sending massive waves crashing over the reed-covered edge. Arthur could feel all of the air leave his lungs as he gazed upon the sharp, bluish claws, each one the size of his torso. Torrents of water cascaded down a gargantuan scaled front, its icy blue scales leading into a purple, spiked, thrashing neck. Two gigantic wings unfurled in front of him, their hide spotted and glowing like the dark night sky.
Arthur did not have to look at his companions to know what they were thinking. The truth stared him right in the eye, rising before him as a deep sense of dread filled his mind. Arthur could feel a primal fear rising to the surface as a single word forced its way to the forefront of his thoughts.
A massive tail sprung forth from the water, flanked by two spikes that were as large as Arthur’s entire body. The ground shook as its claws slammed down on the pond’s reed-filled edge, sending another wave of water crashing towards them.
It was moving.
Closing in on him.
He was going to die here.
“Morrie, grab Guinevere and run!” Arthur yelled, desperately trying to keep himself under control as he tightly gripped his sword. His knuckles turned white.
But his sister wasn’t moving. Morgana stood frozen in place, staring up at the gigantic monster in front of them as if mesmerized. His words did not reach her.
She wasn’t running.
The Crown Prince could feel his panic beginning to take over.
“Morrie! Snap out of it! Morgana!”
As Arthur swung his weapon down, sinking through his knees and preparing to slash at the creature’s massive head… he suddenly heard his sister’s voice behind him. It took a moment for the words to fully register in his mind. When they did, the Crown Prince could barely believe his ears.
“Arthur. Put your sword down.”
“What?! No, I said grab Guinevere and run! Now!”
But Morgana still didn’t budge. When she spoke, it was in a strange, detached tone.
“Arthur. Put your sword down if you want to live.”
The Crown Prince gritted his teeth. Once again, Arthur found himself at the crossroads of an impossible decision. He knew that he was no match for the dragon in front of him, sword or no sword. He had no delusions there. It would tear him apart, limb from limb. Easily. Effortlessly. He could see his own violent end, reflected in the monster’s cold, calculating eyes as it drew closer and closer.
He was going to die here.
But… if he could stall it, if even for a second… if Morgana could get away…
But she isn’t moving. Why isn’t she moving?
We’re both going to die here.
You can’t outrun them. To run is to die.
Do your duty, Arthur. Face that thing as a man.
Is this how you want to die? Will this be your legacy?
No mortal blade can pierce their hide. You need to run.
Don’t run. You’re a disgrace to the Pendragon name. A failure of a man and a failure of a Prince!
With an inhuman effort, Arthur Pendragon lifted his blade…
And stuck it into the ground next to him.
Arthur could hear a dull thud behind him as Guinevere’s body hit the ground. The girl had fainted.
And the dragon reached them. Arthur could feel his entire body lock up in fear as the massive, horned, monstrous head drew close, stopping inches in front of their bodies. He could hear the water, still dripping down from its enormous body. He could feel the monster’s breath, washing over them in chilled, icy waves. He could taste his own fear, the cold sweat running down his back.
This is a mistake. This is a mistake. We’re going to die we’re going to die we’re going to die we’re-
The Crown Prince could feel Morgana’s warm, soft fingers wrap around his hand, gently tugging at his arm. From the corner of his eye, he saw the gesture she made. The way her head tilted, eyes lowered to the ground.
NO! You’re a disgrace!
Do it, Arthur. You’re a dead man, anyway. What do you have to lose?
Don’t do it!
So this is how my life ends.
Bowing down to a dragon.
As Arthur Pendragon closed his eyes, he could hear Lancelot’s voice in his head, as his mind recalled a distant memory.
“It is said that the scales of a dragon are as hard as diamond, and that no mortal weapon can pierce their hide. Many knights have lost their lives trying to take one down. You can’t outrun them, either. All you can do is hide, and hope that it doesn’t spot you. If it does…”
“A large shadow coming from above may just be the last thing you’ll see before its teeth clamp around your chest.”
A sudden gust of wind startled Arthur’s eyes back open – and then widened them in shock. The Crown Prince watched as the massive, purplish blue dragon spread its wings, lifting off from the ground and leaving its tiny pond behind. Its wings beat with so much force that it nearly knocked him over.
It turned around in mid-air, tail sweeping past and almost decapitating them as the dragon swooped up into the dark night sky. For all its size, the monster was swallowed up by the darkness disturbingly fast. Arthur lost sight of it in seconds. All that was left was darkness, illuminated but unpierced by the countless stars above them.
It was gone.
The Crown Prince could hear a cricket chirp. A frog’s croak sounded somewhere to his left, as the small creature resumed its nightly song. Insects flew by, buzzing, and Arthur could see what looked like an owl swooping over in the distance.
Just like that… the forest had returned to normal.
As if nothing had happened.
And Arthur’s legs finally gave out underneath him. He couldn’t control himself anymore. His knees hit the ground hard, causing a splash as the young man sunk down onto the soaked grass. His arms shook uncontrollably. He opened his mouth, panting.
“A dragon. An actual dragon.”
“I-I thought that they were extinct,” Morgana gasped. “That we… that our ancestors…”
The Crown Prince let out a strange sound that was somewhere in between a laugh and a hoarse bark.
“Apparently, they didn’t kill them all.”
A few moments of silence passed as the two attempted to process what had just happened. Arthur desperately tried to get himself under control, his entire body still shaking like a leaf. His mind had turned into a jumbled mess of thoughts; a sea turned to chaos as one realization after another crashed into him.
They weren’t extinct.
They were alive.
And if there was one of them… that meant that there were more.
Amidst the shock, the disbelief of seeing stories turned into cold, harsh reality… a single thought wormed its way to the forefront of his consciousness. A question that refused to leave.
“Morrie… how did you know what to do?”
“I-I didn’t,” Morgana stammered. “I still don’t. I… had no idea that would actually work.”
“You were bluffing?”
“Sweet merciful damnation,” the Crown Prince muttered. He tried to reach for his sword – but his arms had been drained of all strength. He couldn’t even lift them, let alone pull the blade from the ground.
His eyes trailed back towards the horizon. To the dark, starry night sky.
“…That was real, wasn’t it?”
Morgana slowly nodded.
“I… I think so.”
The two of them made eye contact. The Crown Prince could see a deep sense of dread reflected back to him, as inside, his sister realized the same truth as he did.
The Pendragon family had not ascended the throne through normal means. According to legend, theirs was known to be the last living line of dragon slayers. Tales had been spun and ballads had been written, praising their ancestor’s heroics and sacrifices. It had been their banner that had heralded the armies of mankind. They had slain dozens- no, hundreds of witches, shapeshifters and dragons alike. Even now, the people of Camelot still sung songs about that time. Even now, many still believed in those stories and legends. Believed that, no matter what…
If a dragon appeared, a dragon slayer would follow.
A Pendragon would follow.
For that is what it meant to bear their name.
“I bet that we wouldn’t even need to lift our swords, even if we did run into a dragon. After all, we have a Pendragon with us. Isn’t that right, sire?”
Arthur could feel an immense weight press down on him as he began to realize.
If there was one, then there would be more.
And if there were more… No, even if there was just one…
Then, sooner or later… it would fall to him to kill it.
Arthur Pendragon looked at his small, pale, puny hands. The Crown Prince of Camelot slowly exhaled.
“How on earth am I supposed to kill that?”
Morgana lowered her head at his words, her expression mirroring his inner sense of despair.
“…I don’t know.”