It had started with disappearances. Hushed gossip about a baker’s son that never made it home. The tailor’s apprentice, vanishing one day without a trace. Rumours of farmhands and workers from the mills being taken, with some of them never returning to their work.
When the citizens of Camelot began to realize what was happening, those rumours very rapidly turned into fear. At first, the Fae were blamed. But it did not take them long to find out the truth. They were not being taken by Fae. The missing people had been arrested and taken to the castle.
Some of them never returned.
It gradually got worse. Strange disappearances turned into public arrests, which slowly twisted into people being plucked off the streets in broad daylight. People grew restless and concerned, quickly ushering their children inside whenever the town guard appeared around the corner.
They knew what was happening. They had seen this before.
Camelot was in the middle of a witch hunt.
Three days ago, while Gawain and his family were running errands in the town square, a sudden commotion had drawn the young redhead’s attention. A boy, maybe 14 years old, had come dashing around the corner. The boy leapt through the square at a reckless speed that made it seem like a demon was chasing him. Gawain could see a desperate, frantic look on his face.
But it was a rainy, slippery day. And the boy’s recklessness cost him. He slipped in the mud, falling flat on the ground and skidding to a halt not fifteen feet from where Gawain stood. The young redhead looked on with increasing shock as his pursuers came into view. He had expected a group of bullies, or an angry shopkeeper, or a guard running after a petty thief.
But that was not what Gawain saw. Chasing after the boy were not one, not two, but four fully armed and armoured men, all with their hands on their weapons.
The town guard.
Their boots splashed heavily in the muddy square. Gawain could see the four of them rapidly close in on their target. They surrounded the boy as he scrambled to get up, covered in dirt and scrapes and frantically trying to get away from them. In a high-pitched, cracking voice, he screamed:
“No… no, please! Don’t hurt me! I-it wasn’t me! I swear! Please-”
Gawain could feel instinct overtake him. His body moved on its own. Before he knew it, Gawain had jumped in between the boy and his assailants. The young redhead placed his arm in front of him, blocking the kid from view as he glared at the guards.
Only then did Gawain realize who was leading them. A robed, familiar figure, wearing the colours of a Jacoban priest.
The Royal Adviser took a step forward, narrowing his eyes at the young redhead.
“Step aside, Gawain. That is an order.”
But Gawain refused to budge. He could feel a raw, white-hot anger overcome him as he saw the boy’s look of absolute terror.
“What is wrong with you?!” Gawain yelled, balling his hands into fists. “He’s just a kid! Are you out of your mind?! You’re chasing a child with your weapons drawn!”
“Step away from the fugitive. You are obstructing justice,” Agravaine replied, in a much more threatening tone this time. Gawain dug his feet into the mud in response.
“Why are you taking him? What has he done?!” the young redhead demanded.
“His dark hair and physique match the description of a recent intruder-”
“A thin body and dark hair?! That describes half of Camelot!” Gawain spat back. “This is barely more than a child! He hasn’t done anything and you know it!”
Agravaine took a step towards the pair, well aware of the crowd that was beginning to form around them.
“He’ll have the chance to prove his innocence during interrogations. Now hand him over.”
“Prove his innocence?!” Gawain snapped.“He doesn’t have to prove anything! You have to prove his guilt! You can’t go randomly plucking people off the streets just because they look like your intruder! It’s not right! That’s not justice! That’s not-”
He couldn’t finish his sentence. His anger had reached a tipping point, overflowing and turning into rage. In his head, a lot of things suddenly began to fall into place. Small puzzle pieces about Agravaine that had slowly accumulated over the years. They lined up in his mind, neatly, forming a picture that made him feel sick to his stomach.
Gawain was sure of it.
This person was wrong.
“This is your last warning-”
“No! I’ve heard about your interrogation methods. I know what you do to the people you arrest! And some of them don’t even make it back, do they?!”
“Well, you’re not getting him! It’s not right! If you want him, you can go through me first!”
Agravaine merely turned to his men in response.
“That can be arranged. Guards. Take them both. Break limbs if you have to.”
Gawain was a skilled fighter. He was confident with a sword, and even without weapons, the young redhead could hold his own in any tavern brawl or chaotic street fight.
But even Gawain was just one man. He was no match for four armed guards.
The young redhead never stood a chance.
And, despite his efforts…
He would never see that boy again.
The soft click of a door closing echoed through the dark jail hall as Morgana quietly left the dungeon. The Crown Prince didn’t blame her. Arthur himself was still reeling with shock from what he had just heard. It took him a few seconds to compose himself.
Eventually, the Crown Prince addressed the guard on his left.
“Open this cell.”
“Open it. That’s an order.”
Arthur walked into the dusty, cold, inhospitable cell. As Gawain sat back down on his rickety cot, the Crown Prince took a seat next to him. The cot groaned in protest under their collective weight. But Arthur ignored it.
A short moment of silence passed.
Then, Arthur let out a sigh.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” Gawain replied. “Just a little bruised, Arth… milord.”
“How long have you been in here?”
“A few days. Gaius treated what he could. But I don’t know what happened to that boy. I’m worried.”
Arthur knew that Agravaine had gotten free reign from Uther. But the Crown Prince had not expected things to get this extreme. He knew his uncle well. Agravaine was both rigid in his beliefs and very vindictive when challenged. Even more so if it was in public. Anything that Arthur said to him now would only add fuel to the fire. It would just make things worse. No – the best thing that he could do for Gawain right now was damage control.
“Don’t worry. Morgana and I will get rid of this misunderstanding, and your charges will be dropped. You’ll be out of here soon.”
Arthur had expected the conversation to end there. But the young redhead surprised him. Gawain turned his head, his face pulling into a frustrated scowl.
“No… that’s wrong. It wasn’t a misunderstanding.”
“It wasn’t a misunderstanding,” Gawain said, repeating himself. “That kid hadn’t done anything and they knew that. But they took him anyway. It wasn’t right. None of it was right. I know that Agravaine isn’t a knight, but he’s still supposed to be good. But I saw the look in his eyes. Milord, he wanted to hurt him. That wasn’t a misunderstanding. It was wrong.”
“I understand. I’ll have a talk with Agravaine and see to it that the boy is released.”
But that answer wasn’t enough for Gawain, either. Arthur could see his friend’s frustration visibly growing. The would-be knight shook his head, refusing to let go.
“No, that’s- that’s not enough. You weren’t there, milord. It was bad. It was really bad. Not just when they arrested us, but when they took other people, too. I know it was Agravaine and not you, but- but you can’t just brush it off. That’s just as bad. You can’t do that.”
Gawain lowered his voice. From as long as Arthur had known him, the young redhead had always carried his heart on his sleeve. This time was no exception. His worried, frustrated tone was perfectly mirrored in his expression.
“It was really bad. And you’re the Crown Prince. You- you can’t just say it’s a misunderstanding. You need to care about your people. All of them, not just the nobles. You can’t be like your uncle. Promise me that you won’t become like that. You have to be a king that does right by his people.”
Over the years, Arthur had noticed that the advice of some people was more important than others. Morgana and Lancelot were two of those people – and as they grew older, Gawain had proven to be a third. The young redhead had a simple, refreshing honesty to him that Arthur sorely needed. This time was no different. His words were simple, genuine, and free of malice.
And they cut to Arthur’s very core, in a way that no other person could.
He was right. Of course Gawain was right. What was he doing, trying to downplay Agravaine’s actions? Arthur was the Crown Prince, for crying out loud. He couldn’t turn a blind eye. Not to something like this. Not as a Knight, and definitely not as future King. He had to do something.
And he would. Arthur nodded at Gawain, a new sense of determination rising up from within.
He would be better. And if he ever wanted to be ready, then he had to step up.
And that started right here, with his friend.
“I will. You have my word, Gawain.”
The Royal adviser was pulled out of his religious preparations by the untimely arrival of his niece. Contrary to Uther and Arthur’s noisy, almost bombastic gait, Morgana’s footsteps were silent. Almost completely noiseless. They proved ideal for listening in to all kinds of incriminating conversations.
But Agravaine knew how to listen for her, anyway. After all, he was the one that had taught her to walk like that.
“Your highness,” the Jacoban priest spoke, turning around as she came to a halt behind him. “I see that you have returned safely. The King will want you and your brother to join-”
“I’m not here for the King. I’m here for you.”
Agravaine immediately noticed the hostility in her tone. He straightened his back, narrowing his eyes as the Royal Adviser steeled himself.
This should be good.
“To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“You will drop the charges against Gawain. All of them. Immediately.”
In contrast to his own emotionless tone, Morgana’s voice was drenched in anger. A display like that was very unlike her. His niece usually wore her mask better. Agravaine frowned, shaking his head at her aggressiveness.
“I will do no such thing. That boy broke the law. He deserves what is coming to-”
“You will drop the charges,” Morgana interjected, “or our King will learn exactly what kind of correspondence you have been hiding from him.”
His niece’s lips pulled into a venomous grin.
“I absolutely would. You’re not the only one with spies around the castle, uncle. I know exactly what kind of incriminating letters you’ve been withholding from our King, and exactly where they are hidden. If you don’t want to spend the rest of your days locked away in a dungeon, I suggest that you reconsider your answer.”
Foolish child. Wasting your leverage on the likes of a commoner. Have I taught you nothing?
But even with her irrational anger, Agravaine could see the threat looming behind her words. The Jacoban priest knew that she was not bluffing. And he knew that Morgana would act on her threats, even if it would end up backfiring on her, just to spite him.
Agravaine had taught her that, too.
For now, it was better to do as his niece wanted. Gawain was of no importance to him in the grand scheme of things, anyway. If anything, his arrest had been a waste of time and resources. He had already gathered all the information he needed. The Royal Adviser crossed his arms, giving his niece a single nod.
“Wonderful. I knew that you’d see things my way.”
Morgana graced him with a hollow, doll-like smile that did nothing to hide the darkness behind her mask. She turned on her heels, beginning to walk away from him and out of the church hall.
Halfway to the exit, his niece suddenly spun back around.
“Oh… one last thing.”
The smile vanished.
“Go after Gawain again, and I will personally end you.”
And the Royal Adviser knew.
Gawain’s arrest had brought him some valuable information, after all.
As soon as the large, double doors fell shut behind her, Morgana sank down to her bedroom floor. She wrapped her arms around herself, her breathing ragged and uneven.
The budding witch had not expected that slipping back into her mask would be this difficult.
The budding witch rested her head against the cold metal on the door. It felt comforting.
Don’t give in. Stand your ground, Morgana. Just a few weeks, and then this is over.
Morgana had tried to bury it. But the memories would not stay down. Her mind inevitably wandered back to her final parting with her coven, a day before the three of them were set to return to Camelot.
“I can’t leave my brother like this. There is something that I have to do first.”
“You’re one of us now, love. No matter where you go. I know you’ll find your way back to us.”
“We’ll be waiting.”
Stop. Stay down.
As the weeks in Scarborough ticked by, Morgana had slowly reasoned it out in her head. She could not leave her brother. The budding witch knew that there was no way that Arthur would return to Camelot without her. Not if she were to disappear. If she told him she was going to leave, he would stop her.
And if she told him she was a witch… Morgana dared not finish that thought.
Plus, even if he would somehow let her leave and go home – if Uther was dead, and Arthur were to return to the castle on his own, then he would have no leverage to use against Nemeth. Nothing to keep Richard from breaking their alliance and throwing his lot in with Cornwall. Morgana knew that he would. Ever since intercepting their correspondence, the budding witch was convinced that her future husband would switch sides in a heartbeat.
Morgana could not abandon Arthur to face that alone. She just couldn’t. Even if it ended up endangering her own life. She simply loved him too much.
Just a few more weeks. Don’t give in.
But she couldn’t stay in Camelot, either. Not anymore. Morgana knew that her remaining time was limited. Whether she learned to control her magick or not, one of these days, something was going to expose her for what she was. Tyronoe’s story had only confirmed what, deep down, she already knew. Her presence was a lit powder keg. Sooner or later, it would explode. Morgana could feel the witches of the past haunting her, warning her not to repeat their fate.
Telling her to run.
No, a voice in her head spoke. Stand your ground. You have to. Just for a few weeks.
Morgana glanced over at the chess board. White was only a few moves away from checkmate. The only way left to save its King was by sacrificing the Queen – the most powerful piece on the board.
She had been stuck on that near-checkmate for months now.
But, at the same time that she had realized how she could not stay in Camelot, the Crown princess had finally found a way to turn the chessboard around.
How ironic, Morgana thought. The opponent that I’ve been playing against all this time is now my key to salvation. I’d almost want to stay, just to see the look on his face.
Morgana would promise herself to Richard during the tournament. She would honour Uther’s agreement with Nemeth, binding Richard to Camelot and ridding Arthur of any leverage that could be used against him. Morgana would do everything in her power to give her brother his best chance. After the tournament was over, the budding witch would leave Camelot with the King of Nemeth, leaving her childhood home behind…
And then remove herself from the playing board entirely.
“We’ll be waiting.”
After all… all Morgana needed was a ring of mushrooms.
The budding witch could hear the voice of Gawain in her head, speaking to her as she recalled a very distant memory.
“Arthur is the next person to become King, right? I bet he’s going to change lots of things. We’ll just ask him to change this, too. When he’s King, he can do anything, right?”
Sweet, trusting, innocent Gawain.
“Do you really think that he’d change the kingdom for you?”
“…Yeah. I think he would.”
Those words had single-handedly pulled her back from the darkness. Even now, Morgana still wanted to believe them. She still wanted to believe that her brother would grow into a King that would bring better days – not only to commoners like Gawain, but also to her people. But she wasn’t a child anymore. The budding witch knew that simply believing was not enough. Simply trusting Arthur was not enough. There was too much hatred and tragedy and fear festering between the two. Too much of a chasm to cross. Too much darkness.
Someone needed to show him that darkness was not all there was.
Someone needed to show him that there was more to magick than what he had been taught. More than just destruction and fear.
That his biases were wrong.
Someone needed to open his eyes, and stop the same tragedies from happening over and over again. To show him that it was possible to cross that chasm.
If you truly wanted the world to change… then you had to bring that change yourself.
Stand your ground.
Just a few weeks.
Just a few weeks.
Just a few weeks.