Close to midnight and long after her shift had officially ended, Sarah finally made her way out of the royal castle. The maidservant had had a very long day. She was looking forward to a night of unwinding in the tavern. A smile spread across her lips at the thought of a big, strong drink, as well as the company of whatever big, strong soldier she could charm or bully into buying her one. Spending time at the Tall Tales tavern had turned into one of her favourite night-time activities.
Sarah’s grin widened. It was time to have some well-deserved fun.
But fate had other plans. As Sarah made her way past the southern gate, she could hear the sound of voices. The noise was coming from the direction of the tower, drifting down on the chilly autumn wind.
Sarah raised a single eyebrow. That was odd. The tower was supposed to be empty at night. It wasn’t guarded. There was no need to – there was nothing there. Just some old, dusty furniture. And at this hour, everyone was either fast asleep, drunk across a table somewhere or on their way to bed. There was no reason for voices to come from there. No reason for a meeting in an abandoned tower after midnight… unless that reason was less than savoury.
A mischievous grin spread across Sarah’s lips.
What is this? A lover’s secret meeting?
Those were the exact kinds of things that Sarah liked to eavesdrop on. The maidservant couldn’t help herself. She loved scandals. Any thought of getting drunk at the tavern evaporated as, instead, her mind began to fill with all kinds of juicy possibilities. Sarah hadn’t started a good drama in the castle in months. She was bored. A scandal was the perfect way of spicing things up. Her curiosity got the better of her – she had to know.
As she peeked past the flag that hung on the wall… that curiosity was instantly rewarded. But not in the way that Sarah had hoped. What the maidservant ended up listening in to was not a clandestine meeting between star-crossed lovers.
It was something much more dangerous.
“…certainly left quite an impression on the court.”
Over her years of service, the maidservant had learned how to dissolve into the shadows when she needed to. How to move silently, and make sure not to disturb her masters. Sarah had also learned to recognize valuable information when it crossed her path. There were certain things that only servants could pick up on. Sources of information that often proved invaluable.
Sarah instantly knew that this was one of those sources. The maidservant cautiously moved closer, silently stepping in between the shrubbery at her feet.
And her instincts proved to be right.
“What happened to your face?”
“A recent disagreement with an old friend,” Cenred replied. The Crown Prince of Nemeth raised a single eyebrow as he turned away from him.
“I see. You have a peculiar way of treating your allies, Cenred.”
Sarah could hear a cold, emotionless chuckle drift down that made the hairs in her neck stand upright.
“Only for those who betray me.”
The two lowered their voices, making it much more difficult to hear what they were saying. But Sarah knew that she had to keep listening. For Morgana’s sake. The maidservant cautiously crept up even closer.
“… You could have told me who you were. It would have saved a lot of-”
The silence was broken by the sharp snapping sound of a twig breaking. Sarah had mis-stepped. The tiny snap under her foot might as well have been a cannon blast. Her breath got stuck in her throat as, in a rush of adrenaline, she threw herself against the castle wall.
But she wasn’t fast enough.
“…Take your leave, prince. This conversation is no longer private.”
The fifth morning of the Knight’s Tournament was one that came paired with drab, cloudy skies. A shroud of grey had pulled over the Kingdom of Camelot, bringing with it the promise of rain.
That didn’t stop the fights in the arena, though.
If anything, the crowd was even more excited. It was to be expected. After four days of fighting, there were not a lot of contestants left. People had chosen sides. Picked favourites. Placed bets.
Today’s matches were the semifinals. And after tomorrow, there would be only one person left. The strongest soldier amongst the entire ranks of nobility. A position of great honour – and also the one who would be facing the Crown Prince of Camelot for the title of Grand Champion.
After four days of cheering and outrageous wagers, the excitement in the arena had turned into a feverish anticipation. And not just amongst the nobles. Gawain had won more matches than anyone else in the tournament, climbing up among the ranks quicker than anyone had imagined. And it showed. Where on the first day the commoner’s stands had been all but empty, now they started to fill up more and more. It would not be long before the guards had to start turning people away.
Arthur looked down from the balcony, absent-mindedly watching Percival’s match as his mind wandered.
We have to put them somewhere. Perhaps they can sit on the wall?
It didn’t take long for Arthur to be drawn out of his pondering. Halfway through Percival’s match, the Crown Prince was brought back to the present by the unexpected arrival of Lancelot. The knight-to-be kneeled down, formally greeting him with:
Arthur’s expression reflexively pulled into a frown. Lancelot wasn’t supposed to be here. He was meant to be guarding the town and castle. Neither of those things included going anywhere near the tournament grounds. That he would go against orders like this could only mean one thing.
Something had happened.
“What is it?”
“Sire. We have a problem.”
As the Crown Prince and his second-in-command retreated to the silence of the chapel, they passed by the fighters on the other side of the arena. Gawain was one of them. He watched them go, one eyebrow raised in confusion.
What were they doing?
But the two of them were not the only people acting strange today. He glanced to his left. Elyan was standing by the training area, looking down on one of the equipment racks in silent contemplation. He had been quiet and withdrawn all day. That wasn’t like him at all. The dark-haired swordsman was known for being loud, boastful, short-tempered and always willing to get into a fight. Seeing him this silent felt almost jarring.
But Gawain knew why he was acting like that. The young redhead smiled.
“Trying to decide on a weapon?”
“He usually uses a rapier,” Elyan muttered, his gaze fixed on the equipment in front of him. “He’ll expect me to come at him with a shortsword. But… maybe I should use a falchion or longsword instead to catch him off-guard?”
Gawain knew that Elyan wasn’t really talking to him. He wasn’t entirely sure if his friend had even heard him in the first place. The dark-haired swordsman seemed lost deep in thought, his eyes distant and his brow pulled into a frown. Gawain had never seen him this nervous for a fight before.
Eventually, his friend turned around to face him.
“Truth be told, I’ve never beaten him,” Elyan confessed.
“Not ever. Not for lack of trying on my part, either. I’ve challenged him every year from the moment I was able to hold a sword. But that man is a damn force of nature.”
He sized Gawain up and down, hesitating for a moment. Then, that hesitation faded.
“What do you think I should do?”
Elyan had never asked Gawain for advice, either. Not once. The young redhead could feel his chest swell up in pride as part of him felt absolutely giddy over it – but he quickly pushed that part down. Elyan didn’t need that.
“Surprise is good,” Gawain replied, placing his hand on his chin as he began to think out loud. “Changing weapons is not a bad idea. It might do the trick and throw him off. Like with boulder-parchment-shears. If he thinks you’ll pick boulder, he’ll go for parchment. So what you should really do to win is choose shears!”
“Are you comparing my tournament match to a hand game?”
“It’s not that different!” Gawain insisted. “Unless he’ll call your bluff, of course. Then he’ll pick boulder, too, and you’ll still lose.”
“All right, I’ll humour you. What do you think I should pick, then?”
“Oh, that’s easy!”
The young redhead spread out his arms, a large grin appearing on his face as he did so, and yelled:
A moment of silence passed.
Then, the dark-haired swordsman let out a snort.
“Pfft! Watcher is not a thing, Gawain.”
“It is! It beats all three because it can be anything!”
“It’s a fake rule.”
“It’s a good rule!”
“Fine,” Elyan chuckled. “How does ‘Watcher’ translate to sword fighting, then? Go on. Explain that.”
But the young redhead wasn’t fazed by his words, his smile still strong and unchanged.
“Sure! It means that you pick whatever you like,” Gawain nodded. “And then you do the best that you can to win with that. Think about it. Who is holding the weapon is more important anyway, right? That’s what mil… Arthur always tells us. I know how strong you are – you could be holding a pitchfork and wearing a bucket over your head and still beat everyone.”
Elyan couldn’t help but let out a chuckle at the visual that came paired with Gawain’s words. It looked ridiculous. But humility had never been Elyan’s strong suit.
“Heh. That is true.”
“Of course it is – oh, we could do that! That will really throw him off. I bet that we can get a pitchfork for you if we asked the guards.”
“I’m not fighting with a pitchfork, you saddle-goose.”
Elyan shook his head at his friend, still chuckling in amusement. But his posture had changed. His shoulders grew relaxed, the nervousness and anxiety slowly fading away from his expression.
Elyan took a step towards him, holding out his hand. The two shared a warm, brotherly handshake.
“See you in the finals, Gawain.”
“You better come fight me with a pitchfork.”
“Oh, bugger off.”
Back in the chapel, Arthur stared Lancelot down with a cautious, wary frown on his face.
“So? What is this emergency that you cannot discuss in front of the other nobles? Out with it.”
He seemed nervous, the Crown Prince noted. Lancelot nodded at Arthur, straightening his back as he began to speak.
“Sire. I found Lord Bayard’s… corpse.”
Arthur had anticipated for all kinds of nasty problems to come out of Lancelot’s mouth – but that one had not crossed his mind for a second. The Crown Prince was stunned into silence, baffled at the news.
No way. You’re joking.
But Lancelot’s expression left no room for jokes. He was serious.
“I was on patrol this morning, sire. There was a corpse in the woods, lying not more than a mile from here, that eerily resembles our Mercian neighbour.”
“It can’t be,” Arthur muttered.
“I’m afraid that it is. I know Bayard very well. There was no mistaking it-”
But Arthur cut him off, shaking his head powerfully.
“No- I mean it’s not possible! Lancelot, I saw Bayard this morning – he’s about to fight in the tournament. It can’t be him.”
“Sire, Bayard has a scar on the back of his neck from a training accident. The mark is identical. There is no mistaking it.”
The Crown Prince could feel the hairs in the back of his neck rise up as a cold, ominous chill ran down his spine. A strange sense of dread began to rise in his stomach.
Something was wrong.
Something was very wrong.
When he spoke, his voice was no more than a whisper.
“But… if that is Bayard… then… who…?”
Elyan marched into the arena under a thunderous, roaring applause. It didn’t come from the nobility. It came from the rows of commoners on the side-lines. There were more of them every day, piling into the stands to see Gawain. And they became louder with every fight.
The dark-haired swordsman liked it. The roaring cheers as he fought, the feeling of a massive audience witnessing his every move – It was exhilarating. Nothing motivated Elyan more than the idea of fighting in the arena.
He loved it.
And so did Bayard. Elyan had known it from the moment that he’d first laid eyes on him, when he had barely been more than a child. That same look in his eye. They were kindred spirits, living for the thrill of combat more than anything. Elyan had challenged him to a duel on their first meeting. He had thoroughly gotten his hind quarters kicked in response. And the two of them had been friends ever since.
Elyan had never beaten him. Not once.
Not until today.
In a fluent motion, he unsheathed his weapon. His heart began to beat wildly in his chest as the adrenaline surged through his body. In a loud, confident voice, Elyan yelled at the person in front of him.
“Bayard! Ready for a rematch?!”
“How is that possible?” the Crown Prince whispered. “If that is Bayard… then who…?”
“I don’t know,” Lancelot replied nervously. “But there was no mistaking it, sire. I made sure of it. Down to the scars on his neck.”
You are absolutely certain?”
The feeling of dread worsened. Something was very wrong.
“Then who is the man in the ring with Elyan right now?”
“I don’t know that either, sire.”
This was impossible. Arthur trusted Lancelot’s words – the man was incredibly insightful and perceptive. He knew that his second-in-command wasn’t lying. If he said that the corpse was Bayard’s, then that corpse was Bayard’s. But that made the situation even more confusing.
He could not be in two places at once. It was physically impossible.
Except for one thing.
“Arthur, shall I alert the King?”
“No,” Arthur replied, shaking his head. “This reeks of sorcery. And we don’t know what kind of magic this is. Announcing it to the public will only cause a panic. People will notice if the King leaves. For now, the fewer people that know about it, the better.”
As soon as the word “magic” crossed Arthur’s mind, his head had begun to fill itself with disturbing possibilities. He shuddered at each and every one of them, some being even worse than others. He could feel his stomach twisting into a knot.
Magic. It’s always bloody magic, isn’t it?
But he was the Crown Prince. And this was his tournament. His responsibility. He had to take control of the situation, and eliminate the threat before something terrible happened.
And he had to do it fast.
“We need to get to the bottom of this quickly,” Arthur spoke, his voice strict and commanding. “Lancelot, what did you do with the body?”
“I retrieved it, sire. It is waiting on a cart outside the walls, underneath a shroud.”
“Good. Bring it into the crypt. If that really is Bayard, then his remains deserve to be treated with respect.”
“Yes, sire. What will you do?”
Arthur glanced over at the door, grabbing the hilt of his sword.
“I’m going to stop that match.”
But the Prince came too late.
The crowd gasped in shock as Bayard of Mercia overpowered his opponent. It was so fast and violent that the force of it knocked Elyan off-balance – and his foe immediately made use of it. Bayard raked his weapon across Elyan’s chest in a wild, almost savage cleaving motion. If not for his armour, the attack would have cut him clean in half. And it was more than the thin rapier could handle. The blade broke. It snapped off at the end, partially shattering as bits of metal scattered through the arena. They fell to the ground paired with the sound of confused, shocked mutterings.
Bayard wasn’t fighting by the rules.
That wasn’t like him.
And he didn’t stop there. Bayard slammed into Elyan before he could recover. ramming into him with his full weight. It was a brutish move, the force of it sending him hurling backwards. Hard.
Too hard. Elyan was knocked all the way to the edge of the arena – and collided with the wall behind him. A sickening crack resounded throughout the clearing as his back slammed into the heavy stonework.
That crack was followed by silence. Elyan slumped down, limp. His head rolled forwards as the sword clattered out of his hands.
The dark-haired swordsman did not get back up.
Gawain moved on instinct. Everything else in the arena faded away as he sprinted towards his fallen friend, an ice cold fear clasping around his heart.
Up on the balcony, Morgana watched the scene in front of her in complete shock. She couldn’t move. It felt as if she was paralyzed. From the moment that Bayard had walked into the arena, her body had become completely immobile as her eyes locked onto the person in front of her.
Not a person.
She could feel it.
It radiated off of the creature in front of her in waves. A vile, tainted, malefic source of energy, its tendrils reaching out to everything in range. People. Objects. Insects. Everything. Ruthless, destructive, violent – and so bone-chillingly cold that it took her breath away. The budding witch had never felt something this dark before. All the hairs in the back of her neck rose up as she could feel it creeping closer – and yet Morgana couldn’t look away. She couldn’t tear her eyes off the darkness in front of her.
Something about it felt almost…
It felt as if she had lost consciousness. Morgana could feel her senses swimming their way back up, slowly resurfacing from a pitch-black void. The world around her had turned into a blur. She was vaguely aware of someone holding her. A dark shape, looming over her and casting a shadow over her form as their fingers dug into her arms. Hard.
But Morgana barely felt it. She felt strangely disconnected from her own body, only vaguely making out the words that drifted towards her through the mire.
“…back. Come back.”
Another word. Loud. Authoritative. Spoken directly to her mind.
At the sound of Cenred’s voice, the world around her finally came back into focus. Her mind cleared, breaking free of the darkness in front of her. Her entire body was shaking. Morgana found herself mere inches away from Cenred. She hadn’t even noticed him reach her. He was still holding her, his body positioned in such a way that it shielded her from view. She could hear his voice speak to her again, willing her to listen.
Focus. Do not let it take hold.
Shaking and confused, the budding witch took a step backwards. Her heart hammered painfully in her chest, and she could feel drops of cold sweat starting to form on her back. Another chill ran down her spine as she looked at the creature down in the arena, still feeling its cold presence reaching out for her. Reaching out for all of them. When Morgana spoke, her voice was nothing but a hoarse whisper.
“W…what… is that?”
Cenred didn’t answer out loud. He never did. He did not need to. She could hear his thoughts in her head, filling her mind and drowning out all other voices. But this time, his answer came paired with an emotion. One that made her feel paralyzed for the second time in a row.
Cenred was afraid.
That is a very big problem.
“Watcher guide you, my friend. You deserved better.”