Disclaimer: big spider. Also, I forgot to take off Aggro’s blush. Let’s pretend that he caught a cold. 😂
At the first signs of dusk, Gawain’s group reached the outer edges of Murkwood forest.
“What… what’s happened?” Gawain muttered, visibly confused as he looked at the cold, hostile forest before him. “This isn’t how I remember it at all. Why is everything dead? And what’s with all the brambles?”
Lancelot narrowed his eyes as he followed Gawain’s gaze. Morgana could see his shoulders tense. The dark-haired nobleman scanned the treeline, his frown deepening as he took in the scene in front of him. In a grim tone, he spoke.
“It’s too quiet.”
He was right. Morgana couldn’t hear a single bird song ahead of her. She couldn’t hear the rustling of grass, or the chirping of insects, or even the creaking of wood in the wind.
The forest before them was completely, utterly, unnaturally silent.
The three of them made eye contact, their expressions turning to dread.
Something was wrong.
“My lady. I strongly advise that you turn back. While you still can.”
But Morgana shook her head at him. She couldn’t leave now. Not now that she was so close to learning what had happened to Merlin. But even if Merlin wasn’t here, she still wouldn’t leave. Not now that she had seen the forest. Everything about it felt wrong. There was no way that she was letting the two them go in there by themselves. She couldn’t turn back. She had to see this through. The budding witch glanced over at Lancelot, her steely expression leaving no room for argument.
“I’m coming with you.”
The dark-haired nobleman deflated a little at her words. He knew that there was no convincing her. Lancelot let out a sigh, shaking his head in disapproval.
“…very well. If that is what you wish. I will take the lead. We will continue on foot from here on out.”
He took a step forward, before changing his mind and abruptly stopping again.
“I know that I cannot order you to do anything, milady,” he said, looking over his shoulder. “But for our sake, please stay close. If you stray, we cannot protect you.”
Morgana nodded. She didn’t intend to make things harder on them than they had to be – not yet, at least. The budding witch moved in between the would-be knights, shielded from both sides. The three of them slowly began to approach Murkwood, on foot, pulling their horses along with them.
And their mounts refused.
All three horses balked at once. Lancelot’s mare dug her hooves in the ground, snorting nervously at the same time that Gawain’s stallion snapped at his rider. Hard. His teeth barely missed Gawain’s arm, causing the young redhead to jump back in surprise.
“Whoa- hey! Easy!”
Gawain tried to grab the horse, but the would-be knight wasn’t fast enough. Morgana watched in stunned confusion as both horses jumped backwards. Their ears were pressed flat against their necks, and she could see their eyes flicking back and forth towards the treeline nervously. The more the two of them tried to steer them back, the harder they balked.
They wouldn’t move.
“We might have to-” Morgana started- but she was interrupted halfway her sentence by something hitting her in the side. Startled, the budding witch looked behind her.
Podargos had positioned himself directly in between her and the forest entrance. His head pressed into her side. Hard. The black stallion snorted, almost knocking Morgana off-balance as he tried to push her backwards. Back towards where they came from-
And away from Murkwood.
Podargos had never done that before.
Something was very wrong.
Arthur Pendragon was a man of his word. When he promised something, he did his best to deliver on that promise. He took his responsibilities seriously. That included his responsibilities to his people. Arthur had been given part of Uther’s tasks to take over during the war – and he intended to do the very best he could to complete them.
What he hadn’t realized, was how incredibly tedious those tasks would turn out to be.
The Crown Prince of Camelot had spent the entire morning locked up in the chancery. He was buried up to his neck in reports, court petitions and legislative papers. A small pile sat beside him on the floor – it had been replenished three times already. As soon as he’d completed a pile, the servants would bring in an even bigger one.
Arthur handled the written protest of a merchant guild that refused to pay their tithings. He decided the fate of a barony that was in the middle of a land dispute. The Crown Prince groaned at the pile of requests from Agravaine– they were all requests to arrest people. Some reasons were even more ridiculous than others. Arthur rejected all of them. He signed trade proposals, rejected royal court petitions, scheduled future criminal trials – but the mountain of work seemed never-ending. And there wasn’t a sugar pastry in sight.
Arthur only lasted until noon. As soon as the servants knocked on the door with afternoon refreshments, the Crown Prince ran. He bolted out of the door like a child avoiding chores ran from their mother. It wasn’t very Princely, but at that moment, Arthur didn’t care. With a fresh jellytart in hand, he fled from the monstrous, endlessly growing pile of parchment.
The Crown Princce made it about halfway down the corridor when he was intercepted by his uncle.
Great. It really is never-ending.
“My lord. I require a moment of your time.”
“Can’t it wait?” Arthur growled. The jelly tart was burning in his pocket. He didn’t want to talk. He wanted to eat, and stop seeing letters dance in front of him every time he closed his eyes. Arthur rubbed the top of his nose in annoyance as he started to feel the beginning of a headache. The Crown Prince took a couple of steps forward, trying to walk past his uncle – but Agravaine stepped to the left in response, very deliberately blocking the doorway and cutting off his escape.
“I’m afraid not.”
“Ugh- Fine. What is it?”
For a moment, the Crown Prince could swear that he saw a strange, almost spiteful look on his uncle’s face. Then that moment passed, and the Jacoban Priest cleared his throat.
“You have instructed me that I am not to arrest, question or convict anyone suspected of sorcery without your knowledge again. This is me following your wise instructions. Our guards arrested someone in the market this morning after a report was made of sorcery.”
Of course they did.
Arthur could feel a vein start pulsating on the side of his head. The townspeople had just started to settle down again. They hadn’t forgotten about the previous witch hunt. The tournament had calmed them down, but it wouldn’t take much for another wave of anger to wash over the lower town.
And here Agravaine was, carelessly pouring fuel onto the flames. Again. The Crown Prince glared at him with disdain written all over his face. His patience, already stretched thin by fatigue and a lack of sugar, ran out right then and there.
“Fantastic,” Arthur snapped at the Jacoban priest. “Let’s hear it, then, shall we? What is it this time, uncle? What are they accused of? Nefariously sprinkling salt in a doorway? Carrying a hidden good-luck charm? Not bowing their heads properly at our Watcher statues?”
But the Royal Adviser didn’t flinch. With a stone-faced expression, Agravaine glared back.
A short silence fell between the two of them. Arthur hadn’t expected that answer. He frowned, looking at his uncle with renewed interest.
“We apprehended a man in the market this morning and detained him on charges of assault, murder and sorcery. The guards were alerted after eye witnesses saw him hurl a man out of a window. The victim died from injury. According to our witnesses, the sorcerer fled, and assaulted the guards when they cornered him in the market. They claim that the sorcerer bewitched the plants around them to ensnare them.”
“Did anyone get hurt?” Arthur asked, his frown deepening. The Jacoban priest shook his head.
“No, sire. Our guards are unharmed. But the claim of sorcery has been proven – some of them still have vines and thorns wrapped around their armour.”
“Where is this man now?” the Crown Prince pressed.
“In the dungeons. We are keeping him in an isolation cell.”
Arthur frowned. He knew what happened the last time he had left his uncle to “question” suspects of sorcery in the dungeons. He couldn’t leave this to Agravaine. And with Uther too busy and Morgana being indisposed, it was his responsibility. He needed to make the right decision.
Jelly tarts could wait.
“Bring me to him. I will question him myself.”
Where did you go to hide a screaming, tantrum-throwing toddler?
Guinevere didn’t know. Her mind very quickly ruled out her normal hiding spots – the kitchens, the stables, the outer edges of the castle gardens and the artisan’s district were all way too frequently visited. There was no way that Guinevere would to be able to hide a child there and remain unseen.
She briefly considered smuggling him into the servant’s quarters. Sarah would probably be able to help – but the servant’s quarters were home to a posse of other people, and not everyone was as trustworthy. Guinevere didn’t get along with most of the other servants. Their world was as cutthroat as it was stressful. She knew that a good number of them would not hesitate to throw someone to the wolves if it improved their own position.
Other than Sarah, she couldn’t trust the servants, either.
That left only one place.
The maidservant carefully locked the door behind her, turning the key in the lock as quietly as possible. Smuggling a toddler into her lady’s bedchambers had not been an easy thing to do. Smuggling an angry little boy inside of a laundry basket up three flights of stairs, while muffling his verbal protests with six of Morgana’s nightgowns, had been almost impossible. Guinevere was exhausted. She wasn’t sure how she had managed.
But just coming here did not solve any of her other problems. And she still didn’t know what to do about those. Guinevere looked over her shoulder, down towards the toddler on the ground. The little boy had not calmed down in the slightest. His brow was pulled into a defiant expression, and she could see him stomping on the ground in anger. He was incredibly aggressive. If she left him alone, he’d probably end up having another tantrum.
She couldn’t afford that. Guinevere had to calm him down. Her lady’s bedchambers were well-isolated, but even Morgana’s doors would not withstand the screams of a wailing toddler. She had to think of something to distract him. And she had to do it quickly. Her eyes nervously scanned the room, looking for something- anything-
You can’t take those!
You’re not allowed to touch those.
She might actually kill you if you break one of them.
Guinevere gulped, trying her best to ignore the protests in her head as she marched towards Morgana’s bedside. With shaky hands, she picked up the snowbunny.
The maidservant walked back to the toddler on the floor, looking down on him and forcing a smile as she held out the toy.
“Here you go- look, it’s a bunny.”
His gaze flicked back and forth between her and the toy. He cocked his head.
“Yes,” Guinevere nodded at him. “A bunny. Isn’t it nice? Don’t you want to play with the pretty bunny?”
But the toddler wasn’t having any of it. He looked up at Guinevere with a large scowl on his face, defiance and anger flashing in his big, round eyes as he grumbled:
“Daddy isn’t here now, guppy,” Guinevere mumbled. “We have to wait, okay?”
“That’s… right. We just have to wait.”
She placed the toy on the ground next to him, forcefully pushing down the memories. Guinevere watched as the toddler picked it up. He flipped it over a couple of times. His scowl faded. For a moment, it seemed like her words were working.
Then, that moment shattered. His scowl returned. The toddler let out an angry wail and hurled the little toy across the chamber, making it slam against the nearest chair. Then, the turned back towards her. With a defiant look on his face, the toddler looked up at Guinevere.
“I-I’m sorry, daddy isn’t-”
“Dada! Dada! DADA!”
Arthur descended into the castle dungeons, stepping into the cold, underground darkness with Agravaine right behind him. It didn’t take the two of them long to reach their destination. Suspected sorcerers weren’t kept in the upper holding cells, where Gawain often ended up after a night of drinking. They were too dangerous. They were kept in solitary confinement, far from the other prisoners. The Crown Prince passed several cell blocks, ignoring the shouts and jeers of their inhabitants.
After a minute of walking, the shouting voices faded away. The underground halls became silent. Agravaine led Arthur all the way to the end of the holding area, stopping in front of a rusty, very dimly lit cell. The iron bars were flanked by two guards. Agravaine gestured towards the door.
“In here, my lord.”
“Thank you,” Arthur replied. “I will take it from here. Do not interfere unless I tell you to.”
“As you wish.”
Arthur nodded at the guards to open the door. As the Crown Prince stepped towards the entrance, he could see a male silhouette hanging from a set of shackles on the ceiling. He’d been suspended about half an inch from the ground – enough to stand, but not enough to be comfortable. Arthur couldn’t make out much else from the low light in the cell. He straightened his back, taking a step towards the figure.
“My name is Arthur Pendragon,” he said, reciting the words that he had been practicing for the whole walk down here. “I will be handling your interrogation as well as presiding over your trial tomorrow. You have been arrested on charges of assault, murder and sorcery. All are outlawed in Camelot. If you are found guilty, you will be executed. What do you have to say for yourself?”
The man lifted his head at his words. The Crown Prince could see a pair of dark green eyes, staring at him underneath hair the colour of tree bark. But Arthur’s gaze was drawn by something else. A strange necklace rested on his chest, reflecting the light from the torches outside. Arthur narrowed his eyes at the strange clothes that he was wearing, the leather-wrapped arms, the twigs and leaves poking out from the pouches on his-
The next second, the realisation hit. Arthur’s eyes grew wide as the memories came to him.
He had seen this before.
This man… He looked just like Emrys. Not just that – he felt just like him. The Crown Prince couldn’t explain it rationally. But as he looked at the man in front of him, every bit of his instinct pointed towards the same thing. Arthur frowned, grabbing hold of the iron bars as intuition grasped what logic did not.
He was a druid.
“You misunderstand. They cannot fight. They’re incapable of harming another human being.”
“I don’t understand. What do you mean, incapable?”
“I mean that they cannot. Physically. My kind abhors violence. It is mandated in our tenets in the same way that helping the weak is mandated in yours. And our tenets are magically binding. A sworn druid would not be able to swing a sword at a human assailant if their life depended on it.”
“What happens if they do?”
It couldn’t be.
“Loosen his chains,” Arthur commanded, looking at the guard on his right. The man next to him blinked in confusion.
“But sire, he’s a-“
“Do it. I will not tell you again.”
The guard gulped, and obeyed. Arthur watched as the man was slowly lowered to the ground. His knees immediately buckled as they hit the dungeon floor. He had been hanging there for a while. Arthur could see him look up at him suspiciously, his face pulled into a hostile, tense mask.
He wasn’t sure why he did it. The Crown Prince moved on instinct. Arthur stepped forward, ignoring Agravaine’s verbal protests as he entered the cell and knelt in front of the shackled druid. The two of them made eye contact.
“Did you take the oath?”
The man in front of him blinked. It took a couple of seconds for his words to register in his mind. Then, Arthur watched as an expression of unbridled shock crossed his face. With eyes as large as gold coins, he looked at the man in front of him.
“You… You know…?”
“I do,” Arthur nodded. “And I need you to answer honestly. Did you take the druid oath?”
As he knelt beside the druid, something strange happened. Arthur could see the hesitation in his eyes. He saw the fear and suspicion reflected back at him. But as Arthur kept eye contact, silently willing for him to answer, that suspicion suddenly faded. Arthur could see his shoulders relax. His breathing slowed. The druid leaned back into the chains as he looked up at the Crown Prince…
It had been a small gesture, barely visible. Meaningless to everyone who didn’t know about their tenets. But Arthur knew. He knew exactly what that nod meant. He could feel his discomfort rapidly turn into dread as his mind connected the dots.
It can’t be him.
He cannot harm people. If Emrys spoke the truth, then this man couldn’t have hurt another person – it would have killed him.
But… if it’s not him…
“Dada! Dada! DADA!”
“I-I’m sorry, I can’t get your father,” Guinevere stammered, rapidly beginning to panic as she could see the boy’s temper rise. “I’ll go look for him, I promise – you’ll just have to wait here and-”
His voice was getting dangerously loud. She had to calm him down. She couldn’t risk him wailing in the same way that he did in the market- even here, someone would eventually hear him. Guinevere had to soothe him, keep him safe – if that meant getting hammered in the chest by angry toddler fists again, then so be it. She didn’t have a choice. The maidservant quickly bent down to scoop him up-
And froze about half an inch from his body.
Her entire body locked up. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t breathe. Guinevere was paralyzed, her eyes widening in fear as she felt an enormous weight press down on every inch of her body. She could feel her feet lifting off from the ground-