“…Emrys. Welcome back.”
The druid sank down, getting onto his knees as he lowered his head.
“I need your help.”
Emrys’s words echoed out through the sanctuary, passing the thousands of droplets that drifted through the air. His voice sounded misplaced in the fantastical space around him. It felt intrusive, almost unwelcome.
And a deafening silence followed his words. Morgause knew why. Emrys was uninvited. He had come in without an invitation, breaking the most basic rule of the Fae. Morgause half expected Nimueh to banish him on the spot.
But that didn’t happen. The druid kept his gaze aimed downwards, stubbornly staring at the water in front of him as he opened his mouth a second time.
The Lady of the Lake took a single step forward.
“I have taken your name, Emrys. You already owe me a favour, and your powers are incompatible with mine. What more could you possibly offer me?”
From the other side of the wellspring, Morgause watched the confrontation with interest. She looked on silently as the Druid opened and closed his mouth, unable to reply.
You fool, she thought, mentally scoffing at him. But Morgause couldn’t help but wonder, too. Seeing Emrys in Nimueh’s lair, of his own volition, with nothing to offer, was such a rare event that the witch automatically grew curious.
And she was not the only one. After a moment of silence, the Lady of the Lake let out a sigh.
“Out with it, then. Which ill-fated mortal do you wish for me to rescue this time?”
Morgause could see desperation in his eyes as Emrys raised his head. That, too, came as a surprise. She had never seen him look desperate before. Emrys was incredibly level-headed and closed off. She had run into him a number of times over the years. He guarded his flock of druids like an overzealous sheep dog, keeping them away from everyone and everything. He only rarely asked for help. Morgause raised a single eyebrow as she looked down on the man in front of her.
This has got to be about one of his druids. I wonder what happened to make him this des-
“Her name is Morgana.”
Emrys briefly looked her way before his eyes darted back to Nimueh. In a grave tone, the Druid began to explain.
“Muiri – one of my druids – she had a vision predicting Morgana’s death. It predicted a lot of deaths. Soon. I can’t allow that to happen. Morgana is one of us, and I need to help her – but I cannot do it without your aid.”
He knows her, Morgause immediately realized. Personally. And well enough to be willing to risk his safety for.
The Druid’s words were filled with a sense of urgency, together with an emotion that Morgause couldn’t place. But his pleading tone had no effect on Nimueh. The Lady of the lake looked down on Emrys, her eyes cold and uncaring.
“She needs help-”
“I care not for this human. And you have offered me nothing.”
“I am begging you,” Emrys replied, placing his hands back on the ground. “I’ll owe you a favour – I’ll owe you two favours. I just – I cannot abandon her. Not again.”
“Please, Nimueh,” Emrys continued. “I know Muiri’s visions well. If someone doesn’t interfere, then they will come to pass. Without fail. This one is no different. If we don’t do something, then a lot of people including Morgana will be dead by Winter.”
“And why should I be interested?”
“I’ll owe you-”
“A favour?” Nimueh spoke, finishing his sentence for him. Her tone had turned dangerously soft. Morgause could see a smile spread across her lips as she slowly approached Emrys.
“You already owe me one, Emrys. And not even you are worth the risk of two favours. ”
Nimueh sunk down next to him. The witch watched as she placed her hand underneath his chin, delicately lifting his head to look at her. Her smile widened.
“You have nothing left to give. I will not help you.”
That was unacceptable.
Morgause didn’t know what came over her. Before she knew it, she had already stepped forward, closing the distance between her and Nimueh.
“He might not. But I do.”
Nimueh rose back up, spinning around slowly to look at her.
Morgause knew that she was playing with fire. But she couldn’t ignore this. The witch had never had such a clear chance before. She had failed too many times to let such an opportunity pass her by now. Morgause nodded, a steely determination finding its way into her voice as she spoke.
“I’m calling in my favour.”
The guardian of Avalon let out a soft chuckle.
“You’ve been hoarding that favour for years, Morgause. Why use it now?”
“My reasons are my own,” she replied, deflecting the question.
“And your terms?”
“I want you to find your way to Morgana and give her a way out – a way back to her people.”
“I see,” Nimueh answered. The Lady of the Lake bowed her head, that same vague, knowing smile still dominating her expression. It made Morgause feel uneasy. The witch had never been able to read her. Not once.
“And do you expect me to do this under the noses of everyone in that castle?”
“Of course not,” Morgause answered. “I’ll find a way to make her leave. All you have to do is get to her. If you do that, I’ll consider my favour granted.”
Nimueh’s smiled widened.
“Very well. As you wish, mortal.”
Morgause could feel a strange, unfamiliar warmth spread through her body as the deal was made. A surge of energy, connecting her to Nimueh and binding both of them to their word. There was no going back – for either of them. Morgause had felt that sensation a number of times in the past, but it was as unsettling as ever. She never did get used to it.
The next second, Nimueh vanished. Morgause watched as the Lady of the Lake dove head-first into the wellspring. Within seconds, she had vanished from sight.
But the witch ignored Emrys. She needed nothing from him. Morgause abruptly turned around and began to march towards the nearest faerie circle. A thousand thoughts sped through her mind at once, paired with a thousand emotions. She pushed them all to the side as an idea began to form in her head.
Emotions could come later.
For now, she had work to do.
Gorlois of Cornwall was pulled out of his latest novel – a story about two troubled siblings moving to a tropical island – by the familiar sound of a door opening. He had been reading for hours. Gorlois had instructed his servants to notify him at the four-hour mark, but he often ignored his own instructions, and kept reading until well past midnight.
Not this time. The King of Cornwall put his book away and turned to face the entrance, expecting to see one of his servants-
“Whoa. You’ve started hoarding.”
His irritation over being interrupted immediately turned into surprise – and then into unbridled joy. Gorlois jumped up from the sofa, his book long forgotten. He was next to her in an instant. The King of Cornwall wrapped his arms around her, pulling Morgause in for a hug that was long overdue.
“Welcome home, biscuit. I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you, too. Did you get the mast that I sent you?”
“It fit perfectly,” he nodded, glancing over at the model ship as he sat back down. Morgause comfortably took place opposite of him.
“You’re a real lifesaver, biscuit. Honestly, I’m amazed that you managed to find one. The artisan of that model retired over a decade ago, and he’s no longer taking any requests. How did you do it?”
“With the right connections,” Morgause smiled proudly in response. “Like you taught me. Though it doesn’t hurt if your friend can revive the guy’s whole orchard with a flick of her wrist.”
Gorlois chuckled, nodding approvingly.
“Making use of all assets. Very clever. Just like I taught you.”
Morgause’s expression fell. The witch shifted uneasily on the sofa at his compliment, suddenly feeling uncomfortable.
“Actually… About that…”
She knew what she came here to ask, but it had been such a long time since she’d seen him. Too long. She hadn’t visited Cornwall castle since last Spring. Morgause couldn’t help but feel a little guilty about it. She really was happy to see him. But the witch didn’t know how to breach the real reason for her visit without the rest of it sounding insincere.
Luckily, she didn’t have to. Gorlois knew her well. The man let out a knowing chuckle.
“Ah. You are not just here on a social visit, are you?”
“…No. I’m afraid not,” Morgause reluctantly admitted.
“I see. Am I the asset this time around?”
The witch nodded, a guilty expression playing on her face. He had read her like one of his books.
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
“That’s all right, biscuit. We can continue catching up after your business is concluded. How does that sound?”
The witch gave him a small, apologetic smile.
“I’d like that.”
A small silence fell. Gradually, the comfortable warmth between the two of them drained away, cast out together with Gorlois’s kind smile. Both of them straightened their back. Morgause took a deep breath, closing her eyes for a second as she prepared to put her mask on.
When she opened her eyes, the witch was no longer facing Gorlois.
She was facing the King of Cornwall.
“Well, then. Out with it, please.”
Morgause jumped straight to the point, speaking in a tone that was much more formal than before.
“I’ve come to request your aid, my lord. I need your assistance in order to stage a distraction.”
“What kind of distraction?” Gorlois asked.
“I need Uther Pendragon’s children to leave their kingdom.”
It was an outrageous request. Morgause knew that, too. She had come with ridiculous plans before. Normally, this was the point where the other side of the conversation would start protesting, or flat-out doubt her sanity.
But Gorlois never did. From as long as she could remember, the King of Cornwall had always supported her. He had always trusted her actions to be for a good reason. It was one of the things that Morgause appreciated about him the most – her father never pried, never fished for answers, never tried to force the truth from her or keep her from her path.
As a result, she had always told him everything.
“I’ve made a deal with a Fae,” Morgause explained. “If I can get them to leave Camelot, Nimueh will get her and bring her to us. I’ve already failed to reach her twice. I might not get another chance, Gorlois. This is an opportunity that I can’t ignore – and I need your help to get them to leave.”
The King of Cornwall let out a contemplative sigh, scratching the top of his head as he thought out loud.
“A difficult task, but not impossible. And this diversion is to be without casualties, I presume?”
“That would be preferable.”
A small silence fell as the Gorlois considered his options. Morgause could almost see the wheels turning in his head. After a few seconds of creating and discarding ideas, Gorlois nodded to himself.
“Knowing Uther… the easiest way to achieve what you want is through diplomacy. Specifically… peace negotiations.”
“Peace?” Morgause answered, raising her eyebrows in surprise.
“Yes. A simple invitation should do the trick. Uther has never been able to ignore a challenge to his ego. And he and Agravaine are both paranoid. He might show up with his children in tow – but I’m willing to bet that he’ll try to hide them away.”
“You think so?”
“I’m fairly confident,” Gorlois nodded. “Uther has not changed much, of that I am certain. He will most likely expect foul play. And if Uther is still the same person as he was nineteen years ago, then chances are that he will be so paranoid that he won’t let them stay in Camelot.”
“Where would he send them?”
Gorlois placed a hand under his chin, stroking his beard in contemplation.
“One of the neutral Kingdoms,” he finally said. “Uther does not trust his allies any more than he trusts his enemies.”
“Northumbria,” Morgause said, catching on quickly.
“Most likely,” Gorlois nodded. “It is where I would send you, if it were me. Queen Margaret has successfully maintained neutrality for almost a decade. Even if they were exposed, she would probably just turn a blind eye.”
Morgause could feel an anticipating bordering on giddiness overcome her. She had been to Northumbria often. It was a mountainous region that was largely uninhabited and left to nature. She knew of at least one coven that called the mountains their home. Other than the enormous capital and trade cities like Scarborough, human settlements were few and far between. Roads were scarce. People could get lost in the woods of Northumbria for weeks, never to be seen again.
It could not have been more perfect.
“I need you to send that invitation to Uther,” Morgause said, determination having taken root in her voice. “I’ll take care of the rest. Don’t worry, you won’t need to have an actual meeting-”
But the King of Cornwall cut her off before she could finish.
“You do not leave a diversion half-done, Morgause. That is a sure-fire way to tip the enemy off early. If you want it to succeed, we need to see it through.”
Morgause knew how much Gorlois despised Uther. That he would actually go through with seeing him for her sake meant a lot. The witch bowed her head, grateful for his words.
“Thank you, father.”
Morgause rapidly began to strategize in her head. It would take a few weeks for the invitation to reach Uther, and then another few weeks for his children to enter Northumbria – if Gorlois was right about the Iron King. She had to prepare. A thousand thoughts began to swirl through her head at once. She needed to let her coven know. She needed to find out of Northumbria was truly where they were going. And if Uther decided to ignore the invitation, then she needed to come up with a different plan. With summer on its way out and Autumn rapidly approaching, the witch could not afford to lose any time.
She had to get started immediately.
Morgause smiled at her father, thanking him again as she got up to leave. But Gorlois called her back.
“We are not done here, Morgause.”
He pointed at the chair in front of him, the glare in his eyes demanding obedience. The witch reluctantly re-took her seat.
“This is a big risk that I would be taking for you,” he continued. “And my help will not come without strings attached. Not this time. If you want my help-”
“I’ll do it.”
A silence fell. For a moment, Gorlois’s mask slipped off. The King of Cornwall raised a single eyebrow as he looked at his daughter with disapproval.
“I haven’t told you what it is yet.”
“It doesn’t matter what it is,” Morgause replied. “I’ll do anything.”
The crack in his mask did not last for long. Within a second, the King of Cornwall was back. Morgause watched as a cold, steely glimmer appeared in Gorlois’s eyes.
“Good. Because this war has lasted long enough. You’re going to help me win it.”
The tranquil, serene silence in the sanctuary was interrupted by Morgause’s enraged voice.
“What is the meaning of this?!” she growled. “Why didn’t you bring her with you?!”
The Lady of the Lake barely even glanced her way, perched on a boulder and peering into the wellspring instead. She shrugged at Morgause.
“I offered to take her away twice. She refused.”
“I care not for her reasons. She refused my aid. She begged me not to devour that wretched Pendragon, too-”
“You have to try again! She doesn’t understand- she was probably afraid of you and-”
“No,” Nimueh replied, abruptly cutting Morgause off. “My help ends here. She refused my offer. That is the end of it. I have done as agreed, nothing more, nothing less.”
The Lady of the Lake let out a sigh of indignation.
“And to think that I even showed her my other form. Such a waste of energy.”
“You went in as a dragon?!”
“I am a dragon. This form is for your convenience, not mine.”
“Oh, for Watcher’s sake – of course she’s going to refuse you, then!” Morgause yelled, her anger rapidly getting the better of her. “Everyone would be afraid, if you swoop in as a bloody ten-ton magic lizard! What were you thinking?!”
“Mind your tongue, human-”
But the witch couldn’t stop herself. Her voice rapidly rose in volume and she could feel the air around her begin to swirl wildly as rage overtook her.
“No! You have got to be kidding me! Go back for her!”
“I will not.”
“You can’t just leave her like that! I used up my favour for this – you promised me that you would go get her! Are you really breaking your word?!”
That was wrong. Morgause felt it right away. All of the hairs in the back of her neck rose up as the temperature in the sanctuary suddenly cooled to an icy chill. The serene flowing of water stopped. Her surroundings darkened. A shiver ran down her spine as the droplets floating around her rapidly began to freeze. From the other side of the wellspring, the witch could hear Nimueh’s soft, gentle voice.
The horned Fae smiled at her, finally making eye contact as two draconic wings slowly unfurled behind her.
Do you have a death wish?
It was easy to forget just what it was that Morgause was really dealing with. Not anymore. The witch could feel the power radiating off Nimueh in waves, quickly overwhelming her senses. The droplets floating around her started to sting. She could feel them making little cuts in her exposed skin as they drifted by. Not enough to really wound her – just enough to hurt. Morgause could feel her heart begin to hammer in her throat as she instinctively understood the threat behind it.
She didn’t have a choice. Morgause quickly swallowed her anger, taking a step back from the creature in front of her.
“…No. Forgive me.”
“Good. Do not insult me ever again.”
The witch gulped, and nodded.
It seemed to be enough. Nimueh promptly lost interest in her, her attention being drawn back to the wellspring. Morgause watched as the Lady of the Lake beat her wings, rising high above the sanctuary, before swan-diving into the water below. Within moments, she was out of sight. She hadn’t said so much as a goodbye.
The Fae could not have given a clearer dismissal. Morgause would get no help from her.
Her favour had been utterly wasted.
I’ll do it myself.