Disclaimer: blood, icky medieval hospital (not at the same time, ironically)
Gawain moved on instinct. Everything else in the arena faded away, becoming a distant blur as he sprinted towards his fallen friend. Elyan wasn’t moving. An ice cold fear clasped its way around his heart as he saw the dark-haired swordsman slowly slide onto the ground, motionless.
The young redhead slid to a skidding halt next to Elyan. He was only vaguely aware of Arthur kneeling down on the other side.
Gawain grabbed onto Elyan’s hand, giving his fingers a quick squeeze. There was no response. Elyan wasn’t moving. Gawain could feel a sinking feeling of dread settle in his stomach as his throat closed up.
You’re joking. This is a joke.
This can’t… be happening.
The young redhead was shaken out of his rapidly darkening thoughts by the commanding voice of Arthur.
“Gawain. Check his pulse.”
With a shaky, unsteady hand, Gawain placed his gloved fingers on the man in front of him…
…And found a heartbeat.
“He’s alive,” Gawain gasped. “Oh, thank the Watcher. He’s alive.”
He exhaled slowly, feeling a sense of relief wash over him as he lowered his head. His arms were still shaking. Gawain suddenly felt nauseous. He had seen Elyan get injured countless times in the past – hell, Gawain had caused some of those injuried himself – but this was different. For a moment there, the young redhead had been convinced that his friend was dead. Gawain had never seen someone he cared about die before. He could still feel his heart racing in his chest, his hands feeling uncomfortably cold and sweaty at the same time. Gawain could feel a lump form in his throat as his eyes turned misty.
“I… I thought he was…”
“Gawain, get a stretcher and bring Elyan to the hospital. He needs medical attention. Immediately.”
“Y… yes, sire,” the young redhead sniffed, trying to pull himself together at the sound of Arthur’s words.
As he tried to get himself under control, Gawain could feel someone pass by behind him. A cold presence. The young redhead shivered – something about it made all of the hairs in Gawain’s neck stand upright. But he didn’t have to look behind him to know who it was. The look on Arthur’s face said enough.
As the Crown Prince of Camelot began to move away from them, Gawain could see Elyan stir on the ground. The black-haired swordsman let out a weak groan.
His eyes slowly fluttered open. The two of them made eye contact, confusion meeting relief. Gawain carefully placed a hand on Elyan’s armour.
“Elyan, can you hear me? You’re hurt. Try not to move.”
“We don’t know if you’ve broken anything,” Gawain continued. “So you need to lie still, okay?”
But the black-haired swordsman was weirdly unresponsive. Gawain watched as his eyes trailed away from him, looking up at the clouded sky instead. When Elyan spoke, his voice sounded hollow.
“Gawain. I can’t… feel my legs.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll get help for you soon. I promise.”
In all of Camelot, there were only three people that Arthur truly trusted. Those people were Gawain, Morgana and Lancelot. They had all turned into valued advisers, grounding voices of reason, a much-needed slap over the head or a viewpoint that Arthur hadn’t thought of. They had helped him out of trouble more than once. He trusted all three of them with his life. Whenever he had doubts, Arthur looked to them – probably more than he should have.
But he couldn’t help it. He needed them. And with Gawain occupied, the Crown Prince automatically ended up turning towards his two remaining allies.
“Are you certain?”
“Positive,” the Crown Prince said. “I could feel it. Whatever that was, whatever it is that’s controlling him – that is not Bayard. This reeks of sorcery.”
Lancelot gave him a single nod, crossing his arms in contemplation.
“What do you want us to do, sire?”
The Crown Prince had been dreading that question. He knew that he had to take charge. This was his tournament. His responsibility- his burden to bear. Arthur had considered his options. He had thought about what Uther would do, if he were in his shoes. He knew what Agravaine would do, too. Both of their thoughts came to him easily, whispering in the back of his head.
Kill every single one of them. No matter the cost.
The Crown Prince knew what those choices had led to.
He knew the cost.
And Arthur couldn’t do the same. He just couldn’t. No matter what Uther had taught him. Not now that he knew the consequences. It felt like a mistake. It felt wrong.
But then – what was he supposed to do?
Arthur didn’t know.
But he would figure it out. He had to.
Gawain was right. Sometimes, when it mattered most… there was no one else.
“I don’t have enough information,” the Crown Prince admitted. “And this is dangerous – we cannot afford to go in blind. Not this time. Not like with the druids. I need more knowledge.”
Arthur turned to his sister.
“There is only one person left in Camelot with an extensive knowledge about sorcery. Morgana, I need you to go and find Gaius. He is our best chance. I need to you to find out just what in Watcher’s name we are dealing with.”
“Right… Gaius,” Morgana nodded, her expression unreadable as always. “Leave it to me.”
She turned on her heels and abruptly marched away from the two. Arthur turned to his second-in-command next.
“Lancelot. I need you to evacuate everyone. Commoners, too. Tell them to return to the castle. Lie about the reason if you have to. We need to get people to safety immediately.”
“When you’re done, go find Agravaine. If Bayard really is possessed by sorcery, then we’ll need a priest to undo it.”
The young noble nodded at him, wasting no further time with words. He swiftly followed in Morgana’s footsteps. Within seconds, both of them were out of sight.
Just in time, too. As soon as Arthur was alone, all of the air escaped from his lungs. He could feel himself deflate. His hands started shaking. As he tried to regain control of himself, the Crown Prince couldn’t stop the doubts overcoming him.
Was that the right thing to do? What if I gave them the wrong orders? What if I overlooked something? What if that will only make it worse?
And, louder than anything else…
How does father do this?
A distant memory rose to the surface, plaguing Arthur as he grit his teeth in frustration. He had talked to Uther about this before. Many of those conversations had turned into lectures about taking charge, and stepping up. The Crown Prince had heard his father talk about a “defining moment”. A make-or-break moment, where a man could either step up and show himself capable – or break down. He knew what he was supposed to do, how he was supposed to feel. Uther had always made it sound heroic. To be able to stand your ground with confidence. To stick by what you thought was right, and prove yourself as a true, fearless leader.
Arthur had often wondered when that defining moment would be for him. The moment where he would take charge without any doubts. Where he would prove himself to be just as confident and fearless as the Iron King.
The moment where he would be worthy, too.
But right now, Arthur did not feel fearless. The Crown prince did not feel confident at all.
Arthur felt afraid.
The silence in the old hospital was broken by the sound of vials being picked up and put back down. Guinevere was the only person in there. The rest of the building was practically abandoned, leaving the hospital to sit in an eerie, ominous silence.
The young maidservant hated the place. She hated the smell, the contents on the tables, the disturbing tools on the shelves – she hated it all. Normally, Guinevere would not go anywhere near the place.
Today, she didn’t have any choice.
“Somewhere on the hospital shelves is a pouch of aconite. You know – monkshood. It’s a plant with a thick root and purple flowers. I need you to get it for me while I distract Gaius. Can you do that for me, Guinevere?”
She could. She just wasn’t entirely sure if she wanted to. The maidservant knew exactly what flower Sarah had meant – and she also knew what it did. Guinevere nervously looked at the ingredients on the table.
What in Watcher’s name does she need poison for?
Her thoughts were interrupted by the loud bang of a door slamming open. Guinevere yelped in surprise, almost dropping a vial of powdered mandrake on the floor as from behind her, she heard a panicked voice shout:
“Ga-Gawain!” the young maidservant stammered. “I-I wasn’t steal- I w-was just… looking around-”
But the young redhead completely ignored her stuttered excuse. With a frantic, almost desperate look on his face, he turned towards her.
“Where is Gaius?! Isn’t he here?!”
“He… he went outside,” she stuttered. “To gather supplies. He should be back a-any minute now a-and-”
“Where did he go?!” Gawain yelled, interrupting her. “We need help- we need a doctor right now!”
But her breath got stuck in her throat as the doors opened for a second time. Two grim-looking guards walked in. Guinevere watched in shock as an unconscious Elyan was carried inside on a stretcher.
“Oh, Watcher. W-what happened?”
“It was Bayard,” Gawain replied, his voice hoarse. “Or it wasn’t, but it was – gah, I don’t know! He almost killed Elyan! He tried to cleave him in half! With a rapier! That doesn’t even work! And then he hurled him into the wall, and now he can’t move his legs – and he passed out again on the way here and I thought he was dead again and- and-”
The young maidservant could hear Gawain’s voice crack with emotion. She could see the tremble in his hands as he wiped his eyes, trying frantically to calm down and failing. The young soldier was moments away from crying.
“Please. We need help. We need Gaius.”
Guinevere had never seen Gawain this panicked before. Instinct took over. Her task for Sarah all but forgotten, the young maidservant nodded at him.
“I understand. I think I know where he is. I’ll go get Gaius for you. But you need to stay with him until I come back, okay?”
“He’ll be okay?”
I don’t know, Gawain.
But Guinevere couldn’t bring herself to say that out loud. Not when Gawain was looking at her with an expression like that. The mixture of fear, hope and desperation in his eyes was too much to handle. She couldn’t bear to add to it. So, Guinevere pulled her face into a forced smile, trying to remember how Morgana did it.
“This is Gaius we’re talking a-about. It’s his specialty. Think a-about it. How many times has he patched you up after a fight?”
And it worked. Guinevere watched as a small, sheepish smile spread across Gawain’s lips, mixed with a deep sense of relief.
“Forty-seven. He keeps count.”
“See? He’ll be fine.”
“Yeah… you’re right,” Gawain said, visibly perking up. “He healed Arthur when no-one else could, too. Back when he got poisoned. If anyone can do it, it’s Gaius.”
“Stay here- I’ll go get him, okay?”
“Okay,” Gawain nodded. “Thank you, Gwen.”
Sorry, Sarah. I’ll get your poison some other time.
“Ga…wain,” the dark-haired swordsman muttered. Gawain’s frown returned as he looked down on his friend.
“I can’t… feel.”
“I know. You’ll be okay,” Gawain reassured him. “We’re going to fix your legs, don’t worry.”
But Elyan slowly shook his head, his skin rapidly turning pale.
“I can’t feel… anything.”
Morgana wasn’t going to Gaius.
She had known it from the second that the words had left Arthur’s mouth. She knew Gaius. The physician would not be able to help. Not with this. He did not have the knowledge that they needed.
But someone else did.
And Morgana was going to squeeze it out of him. By any means necessary. But she had no leverage, no blackmail material. No information that would sway the upcoming battle of wits in any way.
All she had to work with…
Was a gamble.
It had not taken her long to track him down. The budding witch was strangely aware of his presence, even when the King of Essetir was nowhere nearby. She’d found him on the other side of the wall, looking out over the lake. He barely reacted to her as she approached. As if her coming didn’t surprise him at all.
As if he had been waiting.
The young sorceress grit her teeth, slipping into her mask.
“Four days ago, you offered me an alliance.”
“I did,” Cenred replied, looking down on her with an expression that was just as unreadable as her own.
“I am willing to accept – if you prove your allegiance to me right now.”
The budding witch could see Cenred raise an eyebrow. His response was just a single word.
“Simple. I have questions that need answering. About what happened in the arena – about that thing. If you tell me the truth…”
“I will accept your alliance.”
The King of Essetir did not repond right away. Morgana watched in silence as he turned away from her, his eyes returning to the surface of the lake. For a moment, the sorcerer seemed deep in thought. The silence between them very quickly became unbearable. Morgana couldn’t stop her own thoughts from wandering – had she given up too much? What would she do when he refused? What could she do? What would that mean?
But the sorcerer ended up surprising her.
“I accept,” he said, turning back to face her. “With a condition of my own.”
Cenred placed his hands behind his back. As they made eye contact, Morgana suddenly felt a presence intrude in her mind. No words came out of his mouth – but she could hear him clear as day, anyway.
My condition is this. You will cease to address me verbally. Instead, we shall converse my way. Using magic.
Out of all the possibilities that she had thought of, this had not crossed her mind. Morgana blinked, baffled. For a split second, her mask slipped off.
Because it lowers the risk of exposure. I also find common speech to be rather demeaning, not to mention restrictive. Of course, this excludes situations where doing so would draw suspicion to verbal silence. Do we have an agreement?
The sudden lack of his one-word responses almost surprised her more than the content of his actual answer. To say it came unexpected was an understatement. She blinked again, going over his words in her head. Then, the budding witch frowned.
“…No. We don’t.”
I see. Would you care to explain your reasoning?
Morgana wanted to give him some elaborate argument. Something to surprise him as much as he confused her. But she couldn’t. No, her reason was much simpler… and much, much more infuriating.
You cannot what?
“Communicate with you like… that. I can’t.”
Yes, you can. You have done so before.
For some reason, his knowing smirk annoyed her more than anything else had annoyed her that week – including her engagement to Richard. She couldn’t stand it. She couldn’t stand not knowing-
Until a memory floated to the surface.
Bring it on, sorcerer.
Please don’t leave me.
Cenred was right. She really had done it before. Morgana hadn’t even realized it at the time.
“I don’t know how to do it.”
The key is willpower. Determination. Strength of character – I believe that you call it charisma in this age. It is quite simple, Morgana. Will for me to hear you, and I shall.
The budding witch carefully studied his expression. It was much harder to read someone who did not use any words to speak – but at the same time, she couldn’t feel any bad intent from the presence inside of her head. It felt sincere. Patient, and… strangely eager?
You can do it. You have done this before.
She wanted to try. Morgana took a deep breath, closing her eyes as she did so. She slowly inhaled, imagining the ground underneath her feet to be filled with the same energy that filled her. Connecting to it. As she exhaled, she could feel it flow through her. When the budding witch opened her eyes again, she had gained a new sense of focus. No sound made its way across her lips – but her words were unmistakably powerful.
Tell me what you know.
Morgana could feel a strange sense of pressure in her head. A weight, like she had dived too far underwater. The budding witch ignored it. She felt powerful. Morgana focused on the man in front of her, repeating herself. She could see Cenred give her a nod.
Very well. But it is a lengthy explanation.
Then give me the short version, Morgana demanded.
As you wish. The short version is this. That corpse is possessed by a dark, tainted, spiritual energy that festers in the divide between life and death.
…I changed my mind. Give me the long version, Morgana replied, instantly annoyed at her repeated lack of knowledge. Cenred raised a single eyebrow in response.
We may not have time for the long version.
Then talk fast.
Technically, I am not talking to begin with.
Then think f-
At that moment, Morgana heard a weird, distant popping sound. The budding witch could taste a strange, metallic taste in her mouth- and then her limbs suddenly stopped working.
Cenred was next to her in an instant. She could feel him catching her, keeping her from falling to the ground as the world around her turned into a blur for the second time in a row.
You are woefully untrained.
Her senses recovered quickly. The world stopped spinning at the same time that a pounding headache began to course through her skull. As she regained use of her limbs, Morgana pulled out of Cenred’s grasp, turning away angrily at his words.
“Is that supposed to be an insult?”
“No. It is a concern.”
“I thought using common speech was demeaning?” she growled, trying to cover up her fear at what had just happened.
It is. But if that is the alternative, then I have no choice.
His gaze softened as he took a step back. For a second, Morgana could swear that she saw a hint of concern, paired with a strange, distant sadness.
Forgive me. That you are untrained is not a shortcoming on your part.
But Morgana was done with his games. She had finally reached her limit. Her headache was slowly turning into a migraine, and she could still taste a metallic taste in her mouth, almost like-
And she still didn’t have the answers she was looking for. She needed to bring him answers. Morgana would not fail her brother. Not now. Not ever.
“I don’t have time for this, Cenred,” the budding witch growled. “That thing is out there. I need to know what it is, and I need to know how to defeat it. We have an agreement – and you will hold up your end of the deal.”
As she wiped the blood from her nose, Cenred let out a sigh. His eyes trailed back towards the grey, still surface of the lake.
“Very well. I do not break promises. I will tell you.”
“It is as I said… a lengthy explanation.”
But I will give it to you.
And he did. That day, Cenred of Essetir proved to be true to his word.
He told her everything.