When the company of knights from Camelot arrived at Hadrian’s Wall, Gorlois and his men were already there.
And they had made themselves comfortable. Uther could see several boxes of supplies stacked against the wall, as well as multiple tents and tarps set up. There was even a fresh catch of fish drying by the fort’s entrance.
Uther instantly became suspicious. Cornwall’s men were way too well-established to have recently arrived. And it was a seven-day journey for them. The Iron King had set out from Camelot multiple days early, precisely because he wanted to arrive there first and secure the perimeter. Uther had wanted to make the place his, surrounding the fort with his own men and gaining the upper hand against Gorlois right from the start.
With enemy troops already present and patrolling, none of that was now possible.
And Uther had arrived early. The King of Cornwall could not have gotten here this quickly after receiving his letter. At the earliest, they would have arrived five days from now. Yet here they were. That meant one of two things. Either Gorlois had come here ahead of time on good faith… or this “parley” was all a ruse, and they had a completely different reason for being this close to the border.
Uther’s growing suspicions against Cornwall became even heavier.
Bertrand seemed to reach the same conclusion as Uther did. With a frown, the Knight-Captain asked:
“What are your orders, sire?”
“We will leave the bulk of our men here,” Uther replied. “Take a few soldiers and follow me into their camp. Tell the rest of to stay back, but remain alert. I don’t want a single one of them putting down his weapons. If either one of us does not return within the hour, they have my permission to attack.”
Uther, Bertrand and three of their knights dismounted their horses and began to approach Hadrian’s Wall. They walked with their guard up and their hands rested warily on their weapons. It was only a short distance to the camp – but they had been at war with these people for decades. In many ways, it felt like walking into the dragon’s lair.
Their arrival was noticed immediately. The group was allowed to enter, being guided by multiple knights from Cornwall as they went. Uther carefully examined them all in his way through the campsite. He saw Bertrand doing the same thing from the corner of his eye. All of the men here looked strong and capable, carrying themselves with confidence. Uther had not expected any less from Gorlois’s finest troops. They seemed to be at least as capable as the men that Uther himself had brought.
If a battle were to break out here… It would lead to a slaughter. Much like the previous skirmish that had been fought between Cornwall and Camelot. That one, too, had resulted in a great number of deaths around Hadrian’s Wall.
Uther and his men were escorted to what looked like a large war tent. As Uther approached, one of the knights posted outside shouted a warning.
“Sire. They have arrived.”
Almost as if on cue, the Iron King could see a familiar figure emerge. Uther knew him well. Even after two decades, he could still recognize him instantly. His hair had begun to grey and the creases in his forehead betrayed the man’s old age. His cheeks were beginning to look sunken in. But despite everything, Gorlois of Cornwall still had that same aura of regal confidence. That same proudly lifted chin.
Uther straightened his back as the two men made eye contact, looking at each other for the first time in more than eighteen years. They carefully sized each other up, both looking for any weaknesses to exploit, like two wolves before a fight to the death.
Then, Gorlois broke the silence between them.
“Uther Pendragon. I see that the years have not been kind to you.”
Hedge-born, crooked-nosed knave.
“The same can be said for you, old friend,” Uther replied, carefully keeping his thoughts to himself. “It would seem that time stops for no one. Not even a King.”
“So it seems.”
Gorlois’s gaze turned towards the soldiers to his left. Their number had gradually started to increase. A heavy sense of tension began to fill the air around them, and Uther could see more silver-armoured knights exit the fort and join their comrades. He knew enough to realize what was going on. They were were anticipating a battle.
The Iron King scoffed at the sight.
“I see that you’ve made yourselves comfortable around Hadrian’s wall. I did not expect you to be this early.”
“Merely a strategic choice,” Gorlois nodded. “I wanted to make sure that we arrived on time. Thunderstorms are common in Cornwall during this time of year, and trees falling on the road has proven to be a real hassle when it comes to large-scale logistic operations. I made sure that we would be on time no matter what. To be tardy during a formal parley is just bad form, after all.”
The levereter still talks too much.
“How thoughtful of you,” the Iron King replied coldly. “We shall waste no more of your time, then. I take it that you wish to hold formal negotiations inside the fort?”
But Gorlois shook his head, raising his hand to stop Uther from talking. A strange, calculative smile played on his lips, partly hidden by a neatly groomed beard.
The Iron King had forgotten just how much he hated that smile.
“Let us not be hasty, old friend. I can see that you are eager to get this over with. But Uther – it has been almost two decades of war between us. An entire lifetime, if you will. Both of us have grown old. And I, for one, have grown rather sentimental with old age.”
He gestured away from the fort, nodding towards the overgrown remnants of what was once a garden instead.
“Surely, we can spend a few moments reminiscing about the old days? About how thing used to be? I cannot imagine that you do not have a single regret from back then. I, for one, have several.”
It could have been an illusion. Nothing more than a mirage, the distant echo of sentiments long lost to time. But for a moment, Uther could swear that the eyes of the man in front of him softened just a little.
“Indulge me, Uther. For old times’ sake. You called me brother, once.”
The Iron King sighed.
“…Very well. Allow me to get my troops settled in. After that, we can talk.”
When Guinevere awoke that morning, the maidservant felt strangely groggy. Shaking off the cobwebs of sleep proved to be very difficult that morning. It was almost as if something was trying to keep her down. She shook her head a couple of times, sleepily glancing in the direction of Morgana’s bed.
It was empty.
She must have gone downstairs already, Guinevere thought, groaning. What kind of a servant am I, waking up after my mistress? Sarah would have my head on a pike.
She quickly descended the stairs, spotting Morgana at the bar. And she wasn’t alone. Guinevere could see Arthur next to her. The maidservant suddenly remembered yesterday’s conversation on the beach. Her cheeks quickly turned red.
In hindsight… she had said way too much. The maidservant had embarrassed him. Arthur hadn’t even responded to her after that, merely choosing to silently escort her back to the tavern. Guinevere was still kicking herself over it the next day. She sighed.
I’m such a fopdoodle. He didn’t need to know any of that.
In a timid voice, the maidservant called out to her masters.
“G-good morning, Trevor. Faith. I’m s-so sorry I overslept.”
“I’ll, uh, I’ll be upstairs if you need me.”
The maidservant turned around to go back upstairs and mentally scold herself some more. But as soon as her foot hit the first step on the staircase, Arthur called her back.
Guinevere turned around, her surprise growing as the two of them made eye contact. That same blush from the evening on the beach had appeared on Arthur’s cheeks again. She had never seen him flush like that before. Not until yesterday, at least. It was very unlike him. Had the Prince caught a cold?
“You know, I was thinking… The fair isn’t over yet.”
“O-oh,” Guinevere replied, puzzled at his statement. “No, you’re right, m… Trevor. It’s not. Not for a-another week.”
“Exactly,” he nodded. “And there are a lot of locations that I haven’t seen yet in Scarborough. Yesterday, we only saw the market and the beach. You really can’t call that a proper tour of the city, can you?”
“I… I guess not,” Guinevere mumbled, her already flushed cheeks rapidly beginning to burn as she realized what Arthur was trying to say. Despite him having to set her straight, despite embarrassing him… he still wanted to spend time with her. He even seemed… eager, somehow.
Guinevere knew that she shouldn’t. It was not a good idea. She would just get carried away again.
But the girl just couldn’t help herself.
“I suppose… There are also the cliffs. And the smaller stores in the other streets. A-and the town walls. You can get a really good view of the ocean from there.”
“Exactly!” Arthur replied, nodding vigorously. “It would be a waste to go home before seeing that. And I know that you are not the type to leave things half-done. You really should show me around today, too-”
“I mean, if you’d like to.”
She nodded, eyes downcast and aimed at the floor.
“…I would love to.”
“Excellent. What do you say we start with the city wall?”
“Yes, m- Trevor.”
The two were already halfway out the tavern door when the two of them remembered their third companion. Morgana had remained seated at the bar, silently watching them. It was almost as if she was looking through them. The Princess had made no attempt to get up and follow.
That was strange. Normally, she’d be jumping at their awkwardness with glee.
“Faith? Are you coming?”
“Are you coming?”
“Actually… I’m a little tired. You two go. I’ll see you in the evening.”
Meanwhile, back in Camlann…
“Our troops have all settled in, sire,” Bertrand the Knight-Captain reported. “We have stationed guards around the treeline, as well as the perimeter of the fort. For as much as we could, at least. Cornwall has done the same, and their soldiers have been very territorial in keeping us at arm’s length. I have held off on placing men near the lakeside, but-”
“Place them anyway,” Uther growled. “If this is a genuine parley, then they will not attack. If it is a trap… then I don’t want to leave a single blind spot in our defences.”
“One more thing,” Uther said, calling Bertrand back as he made to leave. “About the negotiations this afternoon. I do not want you to be present.”
The Iron King lowered his voice as he cast a suspicious glare in the direction of the other camp.
“I know what your skillset was before you joined our military, Bertrand. I need you to make use of those skills today. Something does not feel right. I have lived long enough to recognise when pawns are being moved in the shadows. When negotiations begin, I want you to infiltrate their camp and see what proof you can find.”
Uther’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.
“They are planning something, and I want to know what it is.”
The moment that Arthur and Guinevere had vanished around the corner, Morgana bolted out of the tavern and made her way out of town. Morgause had given her very specific instructions on how to get back. She no longer had to travel all the way to the faerie hill. She knew where to go, and what to do once she got there.
The budding witch knew exactly how to find her way back.
Morgause stood at a distance, observing her coven from outside the circle. It had taken years, but they were finally complete. Finally whole. In that moment, she wanted more than anything to join them. To dance like they had danced yesterday, unburdened and free of all worries.
But she couldn’t. Not today. The witch had to be patient.
Today, Morgause was forced to tend to other business.
From behind her, Morgause could hear Lincoln’s voice call out. The witch hadn’t realized that he was still here.
“It’s today, isn’t it? I am going to miss that dress.”
She let out a snicker. Ironically, Lincoln was a terrible flirt. He always had been. Morgause turned to face the Faun, a smirk playing on her lips as she said:
“If you’re that fond of it, feel free to take it o-”
But the words got stuck in her throat the second she laid eyes on Lincoln. He was leaned against the nearest tree, only the bark behind him keeping the Faun from toppling over. His eyes were bloodshot, and Morgause could see dark circles stretching almost all the way to his cheekbones.
“Oh, Goddess. Lincoln, you look awful.”
“What kind of gratitude is that, human?” the Faun joked. But for once, Morgause failed to see the humour. The witch was taken aback, deeply disturbed by how awful his condition had gotten overnight. He had seemed fine just a few hours ago. Lincoln always grew withdrawn and sullen after performing in a human city, but Morgause had never seen it become this bad. Not even on Samhain.
“Lincoln… How much did you gather?”
The Faun let out a sigh.
“All of it.”
Slowly, Lincoln stretched out his hand and inhaled. The Faun focused on his palm as he summoned the carefully stored magic within. A black, vile energy began to seep out of his palm, coagulating around his hand as it quickly began to stain it black. Morgause could feel a chill run down her spine as she looked at the sheer amount of it. She had never seen him gather that much dark energy from the townsfolk.
That chill turned into cold dread as the blackness in Lincoln’s hand rapidly began to increase in size. Within seconds, it had completely swallowed up the Faun’s hand. And it did not stop there. Like a vile poison, the energy began to drip off of his blackened fingers and onto the ground. The places where it touched the grass underneath immediately withered away.
“Lincoln!” Morgause yelled. But the Faun seemed to be unable to look away. The witch could see his eyes beginning to stain black as the dark, vile energy drew him in, slowly draining the colour from his skin as it began to swallow his lower arm-
“Lincoln! Snap out of it!”
Morgause did not know what to do. And so she pushed him. Hard. The force of it seemed to snap Lincoln out of his trance. He sharply inhaled, regaining control of himself. The dark energy immediately seeped back into his fingers, vanishing underneath his skin without a trace. His eyes turned back to normal.
But Morgause’s sense of unease did not go away. The sight of that vile darkness inside of him was incredibly disturbing, no matter how many times Morgause saw it.
The Faun shot her a weak smile.
“Thank you. This large an amount is… proving difficult to control.”
That smile was enough to make the witch lose her temper.
“Control?!” Morgause replied angrily. “You shouldn’t have to control anything! You can barely stand! Goddess, why are you still here if it’s that bad?! Get her to cleanse that grime from your body!”
“The festival is not over yet. Our deal is for me to return afterwards. Don’t worry-”
“Lincoln, have you seen yourself?” the witch interrupted him. “You look like a dead man walking! That’s it – I will not leave you here while that darkness is festering inside your body. You are going to see her right now.”
“Lincoln. Circle. Now.”
The Faun knew better than to protest. Lincoln allowed Morgause to lead him to the nearest faerie circle, lightly leaning on her shoulder as he went. He could hear the witch mumbling expletives under her breath the whole way there, ramping up in aggression towards their recipient. The Faun lightly shook his head.
“Don’t let her hear you say that.”
“I don’t care if she hears. If she wants that grime that badly, then there are better ways to get it than by using you as a bloody storage barrel.”
“There are not.”
“Shut up, Lincoln.”
Morgause released him from her grasp as the two reached the faerie circle. She had journeyed to the Sidhe’s realm many a time in the past. But no matter how many times she travelled there, the sense of unease at coming close to her never went away. Morgause shot Lincoln a worried look, her eyes revealing truths that her voice could not say. She knew that dealing with her wasn’t safe. Not even for a fellow Fae.
The witch sighed.
“Lincoln… make sure to come back.”
Despite his exhaustion, the Faun managed give her a smile in response.
“Are you worried about me?”
“Shut up, you stupid Faun. Of course I am.”
“I will return,” he said, his voice gentle. “But only if you do, too. I know where you are headed.”
“What is that supposed to mean? Of course I’m coming back.”
“If you say so, little lady.”
With that, the Faun carefully crossed into the faerie circle. He held up his hand, once again summoning the darkness that had seeped inside of him. In a deep, sombre voice, Lincoln called out to the distant void.
“…Nimueh. I have what you want.”
The effect was instant. Before Morgause could blink, the Faun in front of her was enveloped by water and whisked away to a different reality. Not a trace of him remained. Only the traces of water of the ground hinted at someone just having been there.
Morgause waited until the water was completely gone before approaching the circle herself.
She knew where she had to go.
And, despite what she had said to Lincoln… she knew that she might not return.
Her gaze dwelled over to the stone circle, where Morgana and the others were.
Where they were meant to be.
In that moment, Morgause wanted to join them more than anything. She wanted to forget about the rest of the world. To never set foot outside of this sanctuary again, and never have another worry. She knew that she could.
It would be so easy.