Disclaimer: Very dark. Has elements of death in it.
Two days after being released from the dungeon, Gawain found himself back in the Tall Tales tavern. The young redhead was a regular. Elyan and Gawain often indulged in drunken boasting and arm wrestling contests, squandering their wages on replacements for the many tables that they broke. Sometimes, Gawain even got to save the bar maids from lecherous drunkards. The staff always paid him back in free drinks, and over the years, the Tall Tales tavern had turned into one of Gawain’s favourite places to visit. In a way, it almost felt like home. Sitting down in his regular chair and downing a mug of ale always made him feel better.
But not this time. This time, Gawain sat in his chair silently, his mind troubled with a thousand thoughts at once. Two objects were placed on the table in front of him. The first one was a large, wooden mug, filled with Gawain’s favourite ale.
The second one was the reason for Gawain’s inner turmoil. In front of him lay a royal letter. A formal invitation to participate in the upcoming Knight’s Tournament, acting as a representative for Morgana Pendragon.
A great honour. The greatest honour that a commoner like me can probably hope for.
Gawain sighed, leaning his chin on his hand as his thoughts wandered. The letter bore the seal of the entire Pendragon family, but Gawain knew which one of them was responsible for this. By now, the young redhead knew Morgana well enough to realize that she had been pulling strings behind the scenes for him. She had done the same when they were children, when she had somehow convinced her brother Arthur to train him. Gawain likely never would have learned to swing a blade if it hadn’t been for that.
And now she was doing it again. Looking out for him and opening doors that he never would have had access to on his own. Bringing him closer and closer to his childhood dream.
Why does she keep doing that?
“You’ll do great, Gawain. I know you will.”
But… he hadn’t done great at all, had he?
Gawain’s frown deepened. Despite all of his training, despite his victories against would-be assassins and his successes on Arthur’s missions… when it really mattered…
I couldn’t save him.
And if I couldn’t do that… then…
Do I really deserve this?
Gawain was pulled out of his musings by the sound of glass hitting wood. He looked up to see Sofia, one of the tavern bar maids, placing a bottle of wine next to him. The young redhead lifted a single eyebrow.
“I didn’t order anything.”
“I know,” the girl responded, placing a hand behind her head. “Karina says that this one is on the house.”
“Oh, well… it’s a thank-you.”
“For what? You already gave me free ale for the last drunkard that we threw out. I thought that we were square.”
A strange expression appeared on the girl’s face, paired with a brief, soft smile.
“This is for everything else.”
Gawain had no idea what she was taking about. But he wasn’t one to complain about free wine. The young redhead nodded, smiling back at Sofia.
“Thanks. I appreciate it.”
“I’m not done yet.”
Within seconds, Sofia was back at his seat – this time with a stone mug filled with cider. And it didn’t stop there. Gawain watched with growing confusion as more and more drinks were placed in front of him. Ale. Cider. Two more bottles of wine. A mug of root beer. Three glasses of milk.
Bread. Mushroom soup. Freshly cooked mutton. A jug full of water.
When the amount of drinks and food started to crowd dangerously close to the edge of the table, Gawain turned to Sofia. His confused grin came accompanied by a single raised eyebrow.
“…um, what is all this?”
Sofia gave another awkward smile. From behind the counter, Gawain could hear Karina yell:
“That’s not on the house, if ye were wonderin’!”
“It was paid for in advance,” Sofia nodded. That didn’t clarify things for Gawain at all. He shook his head in confusion.
“What? Paid for? By who?”
It did not take long for that question to be answered. From the other side of the tavern, Gawain could hear the sound of heavy boots stomping across the floor. He knew that sound.
That wangrod from that fight in the tavern.
The town blacksmith glared at Gawain, that characteristic angry scowl plastered onto his face. The two had not been on good terms for years. And Marcus’s dislike of Gawain was very mutual. The young redhead could not stand him. Gawain half expected another fight to break out right then and there. But instead, Marcus ended up surprising him.
“Me. I did.”
Gawain blinked in confusion. It took a few seconds for those words to register in his mind.
“…Wait, what? Why?”
“Because you deserve it,” he huffed. “Word travels fast, mate. I heard about what you did. We all did. You stood up to that priest. I hear you got that cut on your face because of it. Folks round ‘ere can’t stand up for themselves much. Or look out for the little guy. When it does happen, people notice. The other regulars and I pooled our silvers together to buy you some dinner. Don’t let it get to your head.”
Gawain wasn’t sure what to say. He knew how little most of the regulars to the Tall Tales tavern earned. For them, this was a big gesture… and the young redhead couldn’t help but feel like he hadn’t really earned this, either.
His answer seemed to anger the blacksmith. The young redhead watched as Marcus pulled up a chair. That gesture was not lost on him, either. Since Gawain had joined Arthur’s men, the blacksmith had refused to share a table with him – or any of the would-be knights. Arm wrestling was the only exception. For anything else, Marcus had made his disdain abundantly clear.
But all that went out the window today as, with a huff, the blacksmith sat down in front of Gawain. The rough, gruff glare melted away, replaced by something that Gawain had never thought he’d see in the blacksmith’s expression.
“Are you doin’ all right, mate?”
The simple question stunned Gawain into silence. It was the last thing that he had expected from Marcus. Gawain never would have guessed that the dark-haired brute had a soft side.
“…Yeah,” the young redhead eventually responded. “I’m fine. I mean, the cut hurts when I talk, but other than that-”
“Poppycock,” Marcus interrupted him. “You’re looking like someone stole your sweetroll, and it’s ruining my evening buzz. You’ve been staring at that damn letter for almost an hour now. Spit it out – what’s wrong with it?”
“Nothing’s wrong with it. It’s… it’s a royal invitation. I’m allowed to participate in the Knight’s tournament. As a representative.”
That shut Marcus up. Gawain watched him blink a few times, tilting his head as his mind processed that piece of information. Then, the blacksmith slammed his hands onto the table, his confusion quickly making way for excitement.
“Wait, for real?! They’re really letting you compete? For the prize money and everything?!”
“Yes,” Gawain nodded.
“Watcher’s bollocks, that is amazing!” the blacksmith yelled loudly. “That’s two hundred silver! You’d be rich! Think of how much ale you could buy with that! But they’ve never let commoners participate in those before. How’d you pull that off?”
“It’s… a long story,” Gawain muttered. Marcus was barely listening to him, momentarily blinded by the idea of so much money.
“A chance to be set for life is what it is! 200 silver’s worth of booze! Wait – so then why are you still looking like a kicked dog?”
Gawain let out a sigh. He didn’t want to talk to Marcus about this, of all people. But it did not seem like the blacksmith was giving him a choice. The young redhead closed his eyes, lowering his head. When he spoke, his voice was barely audible.
“…I don’t know if I deserve it.”
But the blacksmith picked up on it, anyway.
“Deserve it? You’re joking right? Why wouldn’t you deserve it?”
“Because… I couldn’t save that kid. I failed. I shouldn’t be rewarded for that.”
Just like that, the scowl was back. Marcus let out a huff.
“Cut the crap, Gawain. You stood up to four guards at once with no weapons, and still managed to break half of their noses on the way to the dungeon. That it wasn’t enough wasn’t because of you, but because of that bloody priest.”
“I know, but-“
“No- shut up. Why do you think I just paid for your dinner? Because you did something. You stood up to them. You always stand up for people. I don’t know what your obsession with that bloody castle is, but you’ve done more than anyone else there, especially those lazy good-for-nothing nobles.”
“I said shut up, Gawain,” Marcus growled. “You’re a cow-tipping muck-spout, but you’re more honourable than any of those sword-swinging windbags. And you’re more skilled than all of them combined. I’ve seen you fight. You’re a bloody force of nature.”
“There,” Marcus concluded, finally ending his aggressive praising. “Now stop feeling sorry for yourself. You deserve it. And if you’re still doubting yourself, it’s because Marcus Flex the blacksmith said so. Understood, muck-spout?”
Gawain couldn’t help it. He let out a chuckle.
“The blacksmith’s approval. Can’t compete with that.”
“You’re damn right.”
But… his words did help. It made Gawain feel just a little better. Marcus was right. He’d done what he could. It hadn’t worked out the way he wanted, but…
I’m still alive. I’ll try harder next time.
I’ll save them next time.
“Have you stopped feeling sorry for yourself?” Marcus asked, looking him up and down with his eyebrow raised. Gawain quickly nodded at the man.
“Yeah, yeah. Sorry.”
“Good. Because I have another question for you.”
The gruff expression vanished for a second time as Marcus leaned in, lowering his voice so that only Gawain could hear him.
“Look what they did to you. Look what they did to that kid. Why in Watcher’s name are you still going up to that bloody castle?”
“Because I want to be one of Arthur’s knights.”
“How can you say that with a straight face?! You have a cut the size of a bloody doornail running through your mouth!”
“Arthur didn’t do that!” Gawain replied. That only seemed to anger Marcus more.
“Who cares which one of them did it?! They’re all the same!”
“No- no, they’re not! I know them, Marcus. I know Agravaine is a terrible person, but the Prince and Princess aren’t like that! They’re good people! They’re doing the best they can!”
At some point, Gawain and Marcus had stopped whispering and raised their tone. The sound of their voices caught the attention of everyone in the tavern, making a silence fall as heads turned. But Gawain didn’t care. If anything, it made him more passionate.
“Arthur is going to be King someday,” he spoke. “He’s a complete wagtail sometimes, but his heart is in the right place. I know it is. He’s trying to make things better. He promised me that he’d make Agravaine stop the arrests, and I trust him. He’ll keep his word. He just needs time. And I know he’ll make a good King in the future. A better King than the one we have now. He’ll care about everyone. I know he will.”
“…Watcher’s bollocks,” Marcus muttered. “You really believe that, don’t you?”
Gawain saw the anger in his eyes quiet down, quelled by a new sense of doubt as the blacksmith struggled with himself for a moment. Gawain merely nodded at him in response.
“I do. I’ve known him for years. Arthur is a good man, Marcus.”
“He’d really stop the arrests? Just like that? And you trust his word?”
This time, Gawain could nod with confidence. A grin spread across his lips.
“Yes. You’ll see. Arthur always keeps his promises. No matter what.”
The Royal adviser was caught in the hallway, halfway to his destination, by the untimely arrival of his nephew.
“Agravaine. We need to talk.”
The Jacoban priest could take a pretty good guess at what it was that his nephew wanted to discuss with him.
“If your inquiry is about Gawain’s pending jail sentence, then you can rest assured. I already dropped the charges against him yester-”
“I’m not here for Gawain. I’m here for you.”
The Royal Advisor could feel a strange sense of déjà vu overcome him as he noticed the hostility within his nephew’s words. Agravaine let out a sigh.
“Very well. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Arthur wasted no time with small-talk. The Crown Prince got right to the point.
“You will seize all hostilities against Camelot citizens suspected of witchcraft. You will not act against them unless you can present concrete evidence that proves their guilt.”
So you have both lost your minds, the Royal adviser thought, inwardly groaning. Why do I even bother teaching you?
Agravaine let out a long, disappointed sigh as he rubbed his fingers across his forehead.
“Sire, if you disapprove-”
“Of course I disapprove!” Arthur bellowed. His voice echoed across the hallway, reverberating against the stone walls.
“This needs to stop! You’ve kidnapped dozens of innocent people off the streets! I will not stand for it! They’re already dissatisfied from last winter! At this rate, your actions will be the direct cause of a rebellion! You will cease your “interrogations” this instant – that is an order!”
But the Royal Adviser shook his head, unimpressed.
“That is a conversation that you need to have with your father, not with me.”
“You don’t get to deflect-”
“I’m not deflecting anything,” Agravaine said, interrupting the Crown Prince. “You may outrank me, Arthur, but I am acting directly under orders from the King. And I will continue to act under his authority, until Uther himself orders me to stop. But if you feel that strongly about it, you’re more than welcome to take it up with him.”
Agravaine knew exactly how to exploit his nephew’s weaknesses, and King Uther had always been a mental stumbling block. The Crown Prince sought his family’s approval more than anything – but where Morgana built him up for his successes, Uther tore him down over his failures. Over the years, it had made Arthur seek out his father’s approval even more.
Making the Crown Prince back down over it was almost too easy.
Or at least… it used to be. The Jacoban priest watched with a small frown as a cold, determined glare forcibly took over the look of hesitation. The Crown Prince straightened his back, standing just a little taller as he looked his uncle in the eyes.
“Fine. I will. This is not over, Agravaine.”
“Splendid,” the Royal Adviser replied, mentally dismissing his nephew’s words. He had seen Arthur “confront” the King many times in the past. It never succeeded. This time would be no different.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, sire… I have work to do.”
As the Royal adviser turned on his heels to leave, pulling the piece of parchment back out of his pocket, Arthur’s voice suddenly called him back.
“Agravaine. One more thing.”
“Yes, your highness?” the Jacoban priest replied, visibly annoyed.
“The people that you arrest for witchcraft. What do we do with them?”
“…I’m not sure I follow.”
“After we… after they die,” Arthur said, gritting his teeth at his own euphemism. “Where do they go? I’ve never seen a witch in our graveyards. Do we bury them somewhere else?”
Agravaine raised a single eyebrow.
“Why does it matter, sire?”
“Because this Kingdom will be mine someday. You will tell me how it is run.”
This time, Arthur’s voice did not allow for any objection. And his uncle obeyed.
“We used to bury them,” Agravaine nodded. “King Uther rejected that practice when he ascended to the throne, like many Kingdoms did along with him. Now we simply get rid of them.”
“…get rid of them?”
The Jacoban priest broke eye contact with his nephew, looking at the streams of rain dripping down the castle window.
“The mire, my lord.”
“We throw them in the swamp.”
A few days’ march northeast from the tournament grounds lay a large, swampy bog. Its treacherous grounds had cost many a creature its life, and over the years, humans, animals and Fae alike had learned to avoid the place like the plague. A darkness lay upon it. Nothing colourful grew. No birds nested in its twisted, crooked trees. The water reeked of death and decay, a stench that warned all to stay far away from it.
That made the bog perfect for disposing of anything unwanted.
“Hurry up with those,” the man snarled, snapping at his companion as he stared out over the submerged landscape. He made no move to help. The man could hear a loud splash as something big hit the water surface. Then silence. The shuffling of feet, paired with the dragging sound of cloth scraping across dirt.
“Boss, this ain’t right. This one’s barely more than a kid.”
“Do you want to end up in there next?”
“…No,” the man said softly.
“Good. Then shut up and do your job. Don’t ask questions.”
When his companion still didn’t move, the man let out an exasperated sigh.
“Worthless hired help. Move – I’ll do it myself.”
He grabbed hold of the shroud, pulling it the last few feet towards the edge of the dock. It was the last one. With a grunt, the man grabbed hold of its feet and pushed the shroud off of the dock, into the depths of the murky water.
“Sorry, kid. Maybe you’ll do better in a next life.”
“It can’t bloody hear you, you oaf. We’re done here. Let’s go.”
“Come on. This place gives me the creeps.”
To most citizens of Albion, the idea of fate was an abstract concept, not unlike magic. The average person could not predict the effect that their actions would have on the world around them.
How even the smallest pebble, tossed carelessly into the water, could grow into ripples and waves that affected everything around them.
A single, desperate action, carelessly made many moons ago… marked the beginning of just such a series of events.