I know what you are.
And Morgana finally realized. She finally understood just what it was that she had felt… and why that feeling was so, so very familiar.
Cenred was a sorcerer. Just like her.
Morgana slowly exhaled, allowing herself to be swept up in their dance once more. Her heart was beating loudly in her chest. In one fell swoop, King Cenred had changed from a vague unknown to the biggest threat in the room. And she did not know what he wanted. She had no idea what his goals were. The budding witch knew that she was walking a razor sharp edge. She knew nothing about this man. She had no leverage.
She should have been terrified.
Morgana was fascinated.
Bring it on, sorcerer.
And the game began.
“You have made quite the entrance tonight, Cenred,” Morgana smiled, dropping the King’s honorifics on purpose. “Half of the nobility gathered here is wondering how a King travels all the way from Essetir to Camelot on his own.”
“So they are,” Cenred replied. At the same time that he spoke to her, Morgana could hear his voice ring out in her head.
There are faster ways to travel than by carriage.
The budding witch had to bite her tongue to keep herself from answering out loud. She immediately realized what Cenred was doing. The sorcerer was trying to get her to misspeak in front of the entire court. He was testing her.
And she wasn’t going to fall for it. Not here. Not in her own ballroom. If anything, the challenge just made Morgana feel even more competitive. She smiled, allowing the King of Essetir to twirl her around before settling into his arms.
“I’ll have to warn you, my lord,” Morgana purred. “I do like to play games.”
“So I have heard,” Cenred replied, at the same time that Morgana heard that same voice in her head again.
The feeling is mutual.
Morgana raised a single eyebrow as her smirk widened. She stayed silent, allowing Cenred to take the lead. Baiting him. She had to know more about this man.
She had to know his goal.
Morgana did not have to wait long. As the two of them spun around on the ballroom floor, Cenred pulled her close. His touch wasn’t forceful, or demanding, like how dancing with Richard felt. No, Cenred’s guidance was barely more than a suggestion – and Morgana found herself instantly responding to it. She could feel his hand on the small of her back, his breath hot on her skin as the King of Essetir whispered into her ear.
“I’d like to offer you an alliance,” little witch.
They were too close. Morgana could feel the disapproving glare of her brother pierce the back of her head. She stepped back, hiding her confusion at Cenred’s words behind a small, polite smile.
“Camelot and Essetir are already allied, my lord,” she replied. But the King of Essetir shook his head.
“I offer my alliance to you.”
When his sister finally returned from the ballroom floor, Arthur looked at Morgana with a mixture of anger and suspicion. His eyes trailed past Morgana’s shoulder, stopping on Cenred. The King of Essetir was still standing in the middle of the ballroom. The two of them shared a moment of eye contact – and what the Crown Prince saw in his expression made his hands reflexively ball themselves into fists.
That smirk… is he gloating?
Arthur couldn’t put his finger on it. but in that moment, the Crown Prince of Camelot knew that he hated this person. His eyes trailed back to Morgana.
“Well? What was he like?”
But his sister did not give Arthur the answers that he was looking for. She did not give him an answer at all. For the first time in years, Morgana’s manipulative skills utterly failed him.
“He’s rather lovely.”
True to Cenred’s word, the Princes of Essetir arrived the very next morning, together with the rest of their royal retinue and Essetir’s chosen knights. It really did seem like they had just been delayed. Arthur made sure to question every single one of them personally. He wanted to find out everything he could about their new King.
Unfortunately, their answers were no more helpful than Morgana’s had been.
Has always been here,
No need to worry, my lord.
He’s rather lovely.
The Crown Prince of Camelot didn’t like it. Something about Cenred made all the hairs in the back of his neck stand upright.
Something about him felt oddly familiar. And not in a good way.
Arthur didn’t like it.
That week, the Knight’s Tournament finally begun. The arena was built as a separate area from the castle. It stood about ten minutes from the town of Camelot, bordering the north-eastern forest.
For most of the year, the place served as training grounds for aspiring soldiers and knights, as well as an outpost to keep an eye on the north-eastern border. But every few years, the fortress lent itself for other activities, like festivals, trading fairs and, when Uther felt like it, an international Knight’s tournament.
It had been many years since the last one.
When everyone had gathered in their seats, Arthur stepped forward. The honour of formally beginning the tournament was his this year. As the Crown Prince thought of what to say, he cast a quick glance around the arena. Most of the nobles that they had invited were here, but only a handful of commoners had shown up. It was to be expected. There was still too much outrage over Agravaine’s actions. Those empty benches were not a good sign.
But he couldn’t worry about that now. In a booming, authoritative voice, the Crown Prince of Camelot addressed everyone in the arena.
“It is my personal honour to welcome all of you to the sixty-fourth Knight’s Tournament. You have proven your skill and honour, on the battlefield as well as in private. All of you are the embodiment of the finest qualities that Albion has to offer.”
“As such,” he continued, “I expect honourable combat, chivalry and good sportsmanship from you all. At the end of the week, the winner of the tournament will face off against our grand champion for a price in silver as well as the title of Tournament Champion.”
Arthur paused for a moment, allowing a short silence to fall in the arena. Then, he continued, his voice commanding and powerful.
“May the Watcher guide you. I wish you all the best of luck. And…”
“May the best man win.”
That day, the area behind the duelling grounds was filled with the metallic clatter of weapons. Knights and nobles from every corner of Albion had gathered, and they all prepared for their fights in their own way. Sparring. Practicing battle moves on a training dummy. Polishing their weapons, or talking to the other nobles. He even saw one or two of them smuggle in a flask of ale.
Gawain silently watched them from a bench in the corner, feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all.
These men gave off a very different vibe than Arthur’s would-be knights. They felt different from the castle guards, too. More intense, in a way. The air around them felt serious and competitive. It didn’t help that every single one of them looked like they were able to send him to the stocks. Albion’s nobility was regal and imposing, dressed in their finest clothes for the occasion. Gawain only had the uniform that Arthur gave him. It made the young redhead feel weirdly out of place.
But they were still soldiers. And the way they held their swords was the same. They were good, too. Very good. Gawain was learning a lot from just watching them. His eyes trailed over to the sparring area. Gawain might even have joined in…
Were it not for the many hostile glares thrown his way by the other contestants. He could feel their disdain all the way from across the courtyard. Gawain had spent enough time around bullies to know what would happen if he tried to join them. The young redhead let out a sigh.
He was not welcome.
At some point, Gawain was joined on his bench by Elyan and Lancelot. The black-haired noble had been making quips and jokes about the tournament all week, so Gawain expected the first thing out of his mouth to be more of that.
But for once, Elyan’s expression was actually serious. With a slight frown, he looked down at his friend.
“Just ignore ’em, Gawain. You’ve got as much right to be here as any of ‘em.”
“…yeah. I know.”
The three of them were interrupted by the arrival of a new pair of footsteps. A deep, authoritative voice rang out from behind Elyan and Lancelot’s backs.
“Are you the commoner?”
With a look of defiance on his face, Gawain looked up.
“Yes. I am.”
He made eye contact with a well-dressed nobleman in his thirties, with blond hair that was pulled into a wolf’s tail. Gawain could see an old scar run down the left side of his face. It did not seem to bother him. The man looked down on Gawain, not bothering with any kind of introduction as he said:
“Come with me.”
The commanding tone in his voice didn’t leave room for anything but compliance. Gawain had to. The young redhead reluctantly got up from the bench and followed him. The two of them stopped right in front of the ivy-covered gate to the arena. He waited for Gawain to catch up before pointing at the duelling grounds.
“Look into the ring. What do you see?”
“Two men fighting, sir,” Gawain replied cautiously.
“Good. Do you know who they are?”
“…no, sir,” Gawain mumbled in response, looking down at the ground. The man gave him a short nod.
“What about me? If you face me in that arena, will you know who I am? Do you know what title I hold?”
Gawain shook his head. He could feel himself shrinking by the second under the man’s intimidating gaze. The young redhead had never learned anything about foreign nobility. He had no idea who any of them were. In a small voice, Gawain muttered:
“…No, my lord.”
He had expected a mocking response, or even an insult thrown his way. But instead, the man next to Gawain surprised him.
“Do you think it matters?”
He opened his mouth, then closed it again. Was this a trick question?
“I’ll let you in on a secret, newcomer,” the nobleman said, answering the question for him. “It does not matter. In a fight, none of it matters. Do you know why?”
“Because none of those things will help keep you alive. Not the amount of land you own, or the title that you have. Not the riches that lie in your vault. On the battlefield, the only thing that matters is where your loyalties lie, and who you are willing to die for.”
The nobleman placed his hands behind his back, his eyes narrowing as he gazed into the far distance.
“In a fight, it does not matter what your lineage is. All that matters is your training, and your skill with a sword.”
The man glanced at Gawain from the corner of his eye, after which his gaze was pulled back to the arena. Gawain could see a confident smile spread across his lips. His smile was just as intimidating as his glower had been. Maybe even more so. But when the nobleman spoke, his voice was surprisingly calming.
“We are all equal on the battlefield. Do not forget that.”
And his words had an effect that Elyan’s did not.
They made Gawain feel better.
The blonde-haired nobleman did not say anything else. As the tournament’s first duel came to an end, he strolled through the vine-covered gate. A wave of cheers erupted when the man entered the arena. Gawain watched him leave. A mild frown played on his face as he pondered the man’s words.
He did not stay alone for long. After a few seconds, the young redhead could hear Lancelot approaching behind him. Gawain turned his head towards his friend, a puzzled expression playing on his face.
“Lancelot, who was that?”
“Hm?” Lancelot replied. Gawain pointed at the nobleman’s back.
“Oh, him? That’s Bayard. The future king of Mercia.”
That afternoon, as the sun reached its highest point in the sky, Gawain was summoned to his very first match.
The young redhead wasn’t entirely sure what he had expected when walking into the arena. He knew how many nobles had gathered for the event. Gawain had grown up with the castle servants taking bets against him and Arthur, so he was used to fighting with an audience…
But not this large of an audience.
Oh, Watcher. That’s a lot of people.
The young redhead could feel his knees go weak. He had never fought in front of so many people before. Gawain gulped, trying to gain control over his nerves. It wasn’t working. With eyes as round as gold coins, Gawain looked at the crowd of people gathered in front of him.
Seeing the people from the Tall Tales tavern in the crowd helped soothe Gawain’s nerves… a little bit. But that alone wasn’t enough. His knees were still shaky. His heart still hammered in his chest. Almost on instinct, Gawain’s gaze trailed off towards the balustrade as he looked for one person in particular.
The young redhead did not have to search for long.
And Gawain immediately calmed down.
He didn’t know why… but he always fought better when Morgana was around.
“How endearing. A well-trained dog. Such a shame that it’s still a mutt.”
“I’d rather have a mutt than a yapping pure-bred resembling a sewer rat.”
“If you say so, my lady. We will see how long he lasts.”
Although the air around the balcony was filled with quiet, regal disdain, the commoner area was not. Only a few people had gathered to watch the tournament, but their voices echoed across the arena as the young redhead entered the ring.
“You can do it, Gawain!”
“Yeah! Knock ‘em dead, muck-spout!”
“Ten shillings on Gawain.”
“I’ll take that bet.”
Tarquin of Nemeth looked on in silent disdain as his first opponent stepped into the ring. He had heard the rumours. Whispers of someone unworthy entering the tournament. Making use of a loophole in their laws, and making a mockery of their traditions. The nobleman had dismissed those rumours as ridiculous. But today, they proved to be true. And the boy that was competing – not only was he not a knight, but he was not even a noble.
He was a peasant. A merchant’s son, with no title. No land. Nothing to his name.
A filthy, classless commoner.
The audacity. Tarquin of Nemeth had never felt more insulted in his life.
But their duel was about to start. And Tarquin had to participate, or he’d forfeit the rest of the tournament. The nobleman gritted his teeth and forced himself to bow, giving the filthy peasant more honour than he ever deserved.
This façade – this humiliation was more than he could bear. Tarquin could feel his knuckles turning white as he gripped his blade. A righteous, completely justified anger spread through his chest.
This commoner was going to pay dearly for his arrogance. Tarquin would make sure of it.
The loss of a few fingers would suffice.
Tarquin stepped forward, shifting into the traditional fencing stance as he pointed his blade at the boy in front of him. This would be over swiftly. He had gone practically undefeated in Nemeth – this time would be no different. No, a battle like this was nothing more than an insult to his name.
He would make the boy pay for his insolence. Tarquin, Duke of Nemeth and fifteenth in line for the throne, would teach this filthy commoner his place once and for-
It all happened in a flash. Before Tarquin could blink, the young redhead had manoeuvred around him, flanking the nobleman and catching him completely off-guard. His movements were so fast and fluid that Tarquin was barely able to keep up. The nobleman spun around on his heels, raising his rapier to deflect the incoming blow-
But he wasn’t fast enough. In an instant, Gawain was right on top of him. Tarquin never got a chance to react. With a single, fluent motion, Gawain struck. The cold steel of his blade lunged hungrily for Tarquin’s neck…
And stopped. The sword halted just a hair’s width away from his throat.
The fight had not even lasted ten seconds.
Tarquin could feel his cheeks burn with shame at the cheering crowds above him. He gritted his teeth in frustration, gripping his weapon tighter. And Gawain noticed. He shifted his blade slightly, placing it directly on the Duke’s exposed throat.
He did not have to say anything else. The fight was over. Reluctantly, the Duke of Nemeth swallowed his pride… and surrendered.
“I… I yield.”
Up on the balcony, Morgana couldn’t help but chuckle at the bewildered expression on her fiancé’s face. A mocking grin spread across her lips.
“Oh, right. Did I forget to mention that, my lord? Gawain has been training with Arthur for years. He’s one of the strongest soldiers we have.”
Her grin turned into all-out glee when Richard huffed, looking away angrily. The princess let out a snicker.
“Best of luck.”