The evening after Gawain left for Murkwood, Guinevere and Sarah were summoned to serve the royal family. It was a great honour, and one that was usually reserved for the most experienced of servants only. Sarah had seen her fair share of royal suppers – but Guinevere had not. She had only been a servant for about a year. The young maidservant had never been this close to King Uther before.
Normally, the castle staff would not dream of sending someone as inexperienced as her. But an Autumn flu had hit most of the castle’s older servants, including the staff that normally served him. The only thing worse than sending an inexperienced servant was sending a sick one.
So, Sarah was summoned – and Guinevere ended up being forced to tag along.
“… and the southern Duke has requested a temporary exemption from tithings in exchange for an increased military support. I have offered them a year-long tax reduction instead. They seemed pleased. Lord Ban formally agreed to the compromise this morning.”
Normally, the maidservant would be nervous to be this close to Prince Arthur. She wouldn’t be able to focus. She’d probably trip and break some plates. Sarah would scold her, sending her to scrub the floors before teasing her about her unrequited crush in private. That was what would have happened.
She still wasn’t able to focus. But today, Guinevere’s feelings of anxiety had nothing to do with the Crown Prince.
“Very well,” Uther spoke, looking up at Arthur from his seat at the head of the table. Guinevere watched in silence as Arthur sat down next to his father. Not once. As Uther’s head turned, the maidservant quickly averted her eyes. She only caught a glimpse of his expression, but it was enough to anchor Guinevere’s gaze to the ground. King Uther was intimidating even if he wasn’t looking at her.
“As expected. Ban is shrewd, but not unreasonable. His House will not pose a problem as long as they are treated fairly.”
“I will see to it,” the Crown Prince answered. Uther gave him an approving nod.
“Good. Well done, Arthur.”
The compliment had come as a surprise. Guinevere could see a sliver of a smile on Arthur’s face, mixed together with just a hint of pride as the Crown prince sat up a little straighter.
“…Thank you, father.”
“How fares Ban’s son?” Uther continued. “You have him stationed as your second-in-command, correct?”
“Yes, father. Lancelot’s behaviour is very similar to that of Lord Ban – he is extremely cunning but fair, and loyal to the throne. Lancelot is very trustworthy. He’s a great help when I am needed elsewhere. I can rely on him.”
“Good,” the King nodded. “Keep him close. You will need men like him to support you when the time comes.”
“And your other duties? I gave you more tasks to handle than just catering to the nobles. Are you able to handle the added weight?”
Guinevere could see the Crown Prince hesitate as, for a moment, he seemed unsure of himself.
“I… could use some help,” Arthur eventually admitted. “I was thinking of delegating some of my civil duties – if you’ll allow it, of course.”
It seemed like Uther had been expecting that. The Iron King nodded his approval.
“Granted. To whom?”
“Morgana. I thought she would be here, actually. I haven’t seen her all day-”
At the mention of her mistress, Guinevere could feel her cheeks start to burn. The maidservant nervously fidgeted with her sleeves. She shuffled backwards, making herself appear as small as possible and hoped that nobody would look her way.
It hadn’t even taken them a day to notice her absence.
The young redhead knew exactly where Morgana was. She also knew that she couldn’t tell any of them. Guinevere had to come up with an excuse. She had been ordered to – her entire afternoon had been a series of half-handled tasks as her mind threw barrage after barrage of made-up excuses at her. One was even more implausible than the other. Guinevere hadn’t been able to concentrate on her work at all.
And she hadn’t been able to pick a lie. As she fidgeted with the sleeves of her uniform, Guinevere’s mind trailed back to that morning.
“Are you out of your mind?! What are we supposed to tell people?!”
“Anything that will keep them off my trail for a week will do. I know you’ll think of something.”
“I’m sorry. I need to do this. Just… cover for me, all right?”
Cover for you?
How am I supposed to do that? I can’t lie. I’m a terrible liar. It doesn’t matter what I say – they’ll know. They’ll know right away.
Guinevere had been dreading this moment all day, ever since Morgana had left. She nervously bit her lip, trying her hardest to drown out the voice that told her to hide in the cabinet and meld into the tableware.
Please ask Sarah. Please don’t notice me. Please don’t notice me. Please don’t-
“No matter. You. Servant. Fetch Morgana for me.”
Guinevere froze, suddenly feeling like a deer staring at the pointy end of a drawn bow.
“Obviously. You are Morgana’s maidservant, are you not? Fetch her.”
Guinevere’s stomach dropped. Her hands began to tremble. The young redhead could hear a familiar cacophony of voices in her head, all shouting different excuses at her.
Say you’re unwell!
Say she’s indisposed.
Say she’s gone fishing?
Set the room on fire.
But Guinevere couldn’t voice any of them. She gulped, swallowing down her feeling of nausea.
“Ah… I, uh…”
“What are you waiting for? Do as you are told.”
“I… I c-cant, your m-majesty,” she finally stammered, her voice barely more than a whisper. “She is… I-indisposed.”
It was the best that she could do. But it was not enough. Uther bowled over her, not acknowledging her words in the slightest.
“I care not. Whatever she is doing, it can wait. Now go fetch her.”
“I c-can’t… I don’t…”
Cover for me.
Guinevere wanted to. She wanted so badly to be useful. But the maidservant didn’t know how to do it. Through her rapidly increasing sense of panic, she could see Arthur look at her from his seat at the table. Guinevere could feel Agravaine’s cold, distrustful gaze pierce through her. The young redhead felt her body beginning to shake. She took a step backwards – and froze as the Iron King turned around in his chair, making direct eye contact with her.
“Are you disobeying my orders, servant?”
At that moment, Guinevere could hear a voice trail out to her right. Sarah had taken a step forward, drawing attention away from the young redhead and onto herself as she quickly took over the conversation.
“My apologies, Your Majesty,” she spoke in a honeyed voice. “What we are trying to say is that you cannot send for the Princess. Not today.”
Uther slowly turned to face her. His irritation was gradually changing into anger as he locked eyes with Sarah.
“What hogwash is this? I am the King. I will send for her when I please. If Morgana has commanded you otherwise, then you will disregard those orders.”
But the maidservant shook her head.
“No, sire. As we said, the lady Morgana is indisposed. You won’t see her for about a week.”
That caught Arthur’s attention. The Crown Prince turned in his chair, looking back at Sarah with raised eyebrows.
“What? She’s ill?”
“Why have I not been informed of this?” Uther barked. “Has the court physician not seen her and made a report?”
“He has not. We’ve kept him away, sire.”
“Excuse me?! You WHAT?!” the Iron King snapped, his anger immediately taking over. “This is absurd- send for Gaius at once! I will not have a member of my family plagued by an unregulated-”
Uther’s explosive temper was well-known throughout the castle. The Iron King had fired staff for as little as speaking out of turn. These days, most servants did not dare to look him in the eyes, let alone disagree with him out loud.
Sarah was not most servants. Her face pulled into a familiar, impish, almost gleeful smirk as she cut Uther off mid-sentence.
“There’s nothing unregulated about it, sire. Your daughter is tending to monthly flowers.”
Uther almost choked. The Iron King fell into a coughing fit, trying to mask it as clearing his throat and failing spectacularly. Next to him, Arthur immediately turned a bright pink. An expression of horrified embarrassment flashed across his face as he hastily broke eye contact with Sarah. It was as if the maidservant suddenly had grown a second head. All three men were looking everywhere but at her.
Sarah’s impish grin grew even wider in response. She placed a hand on her hip, gleefully adding to their discomfort even more.
“But yes, by all means, inquire more about its regulation! If milords wish, I can tell you the exact details of what-”
“No! No, don’t!” Arthur stammered, turning as far away from Sarah as he could. “That will not be necessary-”
“Are you sure? It might be wise to learn more about such delicate-”
“NO! I do not want to know!”
Sarah placed her hand under her chin, thoroughly amused by the table in front of her. Just like that, the danger had passed. It had been almost effortless on her end. Guinevere would have been amazed at Sarah’s verbal display of skill-
If she hadn’t been absolutely mortified, herself.
“Splendid,” the maidservant continued, her voice once again sounding as sweet as honey. “Would you like to be served your second course now, Your highness?”
“That… won’t be needed. I’ve lost my appetite.”
“Very well. In that case, may we be excused? We should really return to the lady Morgana. We need to tend to her condition-”
The third insinuation was more than the Iron King could handle. Uther groaned, burying his face in his hands from embarrassment.
“Yes, fine- for Watcher’s sake, go! Leave.”
“As you wish, Your Majesty. Come, Guin.”
The maidservant nodded towards the door. Guinevere, seeing a way out, obeyed without hesitation. She quickly skipped past the three men at the table and joined Sarah on the other side. The maidservant placed a hand on Guinevere’s back, swiftly guiding her out of the dining hall. The awkward silence that followed their exit hung around the table long after the heavy wooden doors had closed.
The short walk back to the castle kitchens was just what Guinevere needed to regain control of herself. Her breathing slowed. Her hands stopped trembling. Her head stopped trying to convince her to hide inside of the nearest cabinet as her sense of panic gradually faded away. By the time they walked through the heavy doors of the kitchen, the young redhead had returned to normal.
“T-thank you,” she muttered, looking up at Sarah with a guilty expression. “I’m sorry I f-froze up. I should have said something.”
“That’s all right, honey pie. You got forced into doing something you’re not used to, on top of being told to lie on the spot. That’s a tough sell for anyone. If it were up to me, you wouldn’t have been anywhere near Ironpants to begin with. I’m just glad that Morgana hasn’t used the flowers-excuse herself lately.”
“How did you know that would work?” Guinevere asked. Sarah gave her a quick, playful wink in response.
“Oh, because it always does. You would be surprised how much even the most battle-hardened soldiers fear a woman’s cycles.”
“Because they’re terrifying,” the maidservant smirked. “For them, at least. Think about it – women are creatures that can create life, grow entire human beings and that can regularly bleed without dying. Some of us even without hurting. And men have no control over it. That scares more of them than you think. I used the exact same trick on a judge’s executioner once. The man drew blood on an almost daily basis, and you should have seen the look on his face when I told him that I was ‘tending to my monthly flowers’. It drove him straight up the wall.”
“That’s incredible,” Guinevere replied, amazed. “I never would have thought of using that.”
The maidservant wrapped an arm around her in response, flashing her a warm smile.
“You’ll learn. You have more tricks in your arsenal than you know, Guinevere. Learn to use them. And while you’re at it, you need to teach yourself not to panic so quickly.”
“Don’t worry about it, honey pie. We all have to start somewhere.”
“Where did you start?” the young redhead asked. “How did you learn so much?”
Sarah let out a chuckle.
“Didn’t I tell you? I used to be the Assassin Pirate Queen of Northumbria.”
“Of course not. But it would have made for a good story. Who knows? Maybe I’ll write a book someday.”
The sun had just begun to set in the sky when the trio arrived at what was to be their campsite. As Morgana tended to the horses, Lancelot and Gawain swiftly began to gather wood for a campfire.
At least, one of them did.
“Look at him! He’s so cute! Lancelot, can we keep him?”
“No,” the future Duke answered, crossing his arms as he looked down at Gawain. His annoyance made way for mild amusement as his friend began to pout in response.
“Aw, come on! I bet the castle wouldn’t mind. And we can train him!”
“Stop trying to recruit the local wildlife, Gawain.”
“Oh, fine. Sorry, little guy. Hop along, now.”
The trio watched as the rabbit disappeared into the surrounding foliage. Morgana had watched the whole exchange with mild surprise. As Gawain re-joined the campfire, she cast a sideways glance at the stallion beside her.
“I have to say, I’m impressed. Not even Podargos liked me that much when we first met. And he wasn’t even a wild animal. What’s your secret, Gawain?”
The young redhead hesitated.
“Oh, well… don’t tell Arthur, okay?”
“I sneak animal treats with me every time we go to train in the wilderness.”
A small silence fell.
Then, the budding witch snickered.
“Are you telling me that you’ve got your pockets stuffed with animal treats?”
Morgana chuckled at his answer, looking highly amused as Lancelot shook his head in disapproval.
“That is not a secret, Gawain. The entire group knows. Remember that time that we had to pack for a week-long journey, and Percival caught you with a backpack full of carrots instead of rations?”
“They were rations for Gringolet, though,” Gawain protested. “That counts.”
“It absolutely does not. Carrots are not a balanced diet for a horse.”
“Of course not! I was going to feed him other things, too.”
“He’ll get fat.”
Gawain huffed, breaking eye contact and looking up at the sky in protest as Lancelot threw another piece of wood onto the fire. It took him a few seconds to realise. Then the would-be knight recognised the scenery in front of him, and the smile reappeared on his face.
“Oh, hey! I think we sat under this tree last time, too.”
“It seems like yesterday that we were last here,” Gawain reminisced. “It was really hard to drag all of those soldiers back to town, even with all of us.”
“We managed, though, didn’t we?”
“Yeah. Yeah, we did.”
The would-be knight glanced over towards Lancelot. Slowly, his expression changed into a frown.
“I wonder what they did after we left them. The druids. Do you think they will still be in the same place?”
“Doubtful,” Lancelot replied. “I wouldn’t be, if my camp had been found by two separate groups in one day. Their leader doesn’t seem like the type to take unnecessary risks. There’s a good chance that they have moved locations, and gone even deeper into the forest. We’ll probably have to track them down.”
“What were they like?” Morgana asked, in a semi-disinterested tone. “The Druids, I mean. I’ve never met one before. What kind of people were they?”
“They were surprisingly normal. For people living in the middle of the woods, at least,” Lancelot answered. “There were eight of them, including two children. Apparently, they’ve renounced all use of violence. When we met them, they were being held hostage by a group of soldiers.”
“Arthur told me that when he came back. You rescued them, right?”
“Yes. We ended up working together with their leader to ambush the soldiers and save his druids.”
“His name is Emrys,” Gawain added. “The ambush was his idea, you know. It worked really well – he played the part of bait and everything. He’s got a lot of courage for a sorcerer.”
“That’s who we need to find in Murkwood,” Lancelot nodded, staring into the campfire. “Emrys. The rest of the druids look to him to guide them. If we convince Emrys to leave, then the rest will follow.”
The wise thing would have been to leave the conversation there. Morgana knew that, too. But at that moment, wisdom was the furthest thing from her mind. A strange sense of anticipation had been building in her stomach for the entire day, and she could no longer ignore it. Her curiosity got the better of her.
“What does he look like?”
“He was thin. Really thin, like he needs to eat more meat. He was wearing these strange, green wilderness robes. I think he had black hair-”
“Brown,” Lancelot interrupted. “Shoulder-length. Pulled back behind his head with beads and feathers. Grey eyes and sporting a beard.”
“Right! That’s what it was. Emrys looked a bit like a scrawny woodsman, but without the axe. But it didn’t make him look weak at all. Maybe it’s because he’s a sorcerer, but he felt very strong.”
Morgana looked away from the group, trying to mask the sudden butterflies in her stomach by feigning disinterest. But she wasn’t able to keep the smile from spreading across her lips as her mind instantly recognised his description.
“Oh. I see.”