Disclaimer: Creepy, Blood (no nosebleeds)
“What… what the hell is this?”
Baffled, Gawain looked at the scenery before him. The druid camp was abandoned. Dozens of creeping thorns had overtaken the campsite, spreading all over the area and uprooting the ground underneath. Gawain could see the carcass of a bear, its body still and unmoving. Dozens of sharp thorns grew out of its side, protruding from the corpse like bent, twisted needles. Those same thorns grew from the wood in the campfire, and Gawain could see a third cluster at the back of the camp.
As he looked over the remains of the campsite, the young redhead could feel all the hairs in the back of his neck rise up.
This place was wrong.
“What happened here?” Morgana muttered, taking a step forward- but Lancelot’s outstretched arm stopped her before she could step into the clearing.
“Gawain. Secure the perimeter,” he ordered, holding her back. “My lady, stay close to us. Don’t stray… and don’t touch anything.”
Gawain nodded and drew his weapon. The sound of the blade unsheathing echoed eerily across the clearing. As he stepped into the campsite, he could feel the temperature around him drop to an uncomfortable chill. A strange sense of dread began to build in his chest. The more he saw, the worse his feeling became.
Everything was wrong. Twisted. Even the air that filled his lungs felt cold and hostile, uncomfortable to a degree of almost being painful. Gawain gingerly stepped around the clusters of creeping thorns.
They were moving.
He wasn’t sure at first. But it didn’t take him long to notice. Whenever he looked away, Gawain could see them from the corner of his eyes. He could see them creep across the ground, spread out like warped, twisted veins. The young redhead watched the thorns snake around the poles of the druid’s tarps. He could see the thorns slowly, deliberately, tearing through the leather fabric. He could hear the wood creak in pained protest. The tarp cracked and groaned under the pressure, slowly being strangled by the surrounding nature.
Before long, there would be nothing left.
Everything about this place was wrong. Gawain’s senses were screaming at him to leave. To grab Morgana and run as far away from this place as humanly possible.
But he couldn’t.
He’d made a promise.
Carefully, Gawain made his way over to the front of the campsite. Lancelot had knelt down next to one of the creeping thorn clusters. Gawain could see another group of those twisted, sharpened branches. They had sprouted from a large pool of blood. With a grim expression on his face, Lancelot looked down on the pool. It was a large trail, originating from the blood-soaked branches and ending a good six feet to their right.
Gawain watched as the future Duke scooped up some of the liquid, rubbing it between his gloved fingers. A frown spread across his face as he looked at the gashes on the ground.
“Not that old. Half a day, at most.”
“It is human?”
“I can’t tell,” Lancelot muttered. “But whatever happened here was very, very violent,”
Gawain threw a glance over his shoulder, his eyes drifting over towards the animal carcass.
“Do you think it was the bear?” he asked. But Lancelot shook his head.
“No. The shape doesn’t match- a bear’s claws wouldn’t have left markings like this. This wasn’t done by an animal. This was a weapon.”
“Was it Nemeth?” Morgana replied, alarmed at his words. “Did they find M…the druids? Are we too late?”
“I don’t think so,” the future Duke replied, lifting his head to look at her. “Nemeth makes no sense logically. If Emrys was telling the truth, then his druids cannot harm other people. They wouldn’t have been able to fight back. And not even Emrys can fend off an entire platoon of soldiers. If Nemeth’s army found them, then this place would have turned into a massacre. But other than that bear, there is nobody here. The place is empty. Whatever happened here – it wasn’t Nemeth.”
His words were met with a heavy silence. Morgana looked back towards the remains of the druid camp. Towards the pool of blood on the ground, and the gashes drawn into the dirt. To the spike-like branches. To the creeping thorns that had envelop the entire campsite, slowly strangling what little walking space they had left.
“But… If it wasn’t them… and it wasn’t Nemeth… then what did this?”
As if drawn by some unseen force, Gawain’s eye suddenly fell on the altar in the centre of the clearing. It was surrounded by thorns in the same way that the rest of the campsite was. And yet, something was different. The young redhead couldn’t put his finger on it. It took him a few moments to realise.
The plants hadn’t pierced it. There were thorns all over it, but it wasn’t being strangled or broken, like what was happening with the rest of the camp. Gawain could see the thorns weaved through the altar, the edges aimed outwards.
Something was different.
Curiosity got the better of him. Gawain slowly approached the altar. He’d never been this close to a place of sorcery before. The young redhead had always imagined it to be scarier, with glowing blood circles and bones that turned into living skeletons. That’s how Agravaine had always described everything that had to do with sorcery.
But Gawain didn’t see any of that. For a moment, the young redhead forgot about his surroundings. He cocked his head curiously, looking down at the objects stalled out before him. They didn’t look evil. He could see a few candles, half-used up. They were standing next to a bowl with what looked like cloves of garlic in them. He could see a small string of beads, neatly arranged on a large leaf.
I have all of those things around my house, the young redhead realised. Does that mean they’re bad? Should I throw them out when I get home? Wait, but Agravaine uses candles all the time. Everyone does. And garlic, too. Are they secretly evil?
But… they don’t feel bad. Everything else here makes my skin crawl, but this doesn’t.
Why is it different?
Gawain didn’t know. He couldn’t figure it out. With a hesitant expression, the young redhead turned towards Lancelot.
“Hey, Lance- is using garlic evil? Because there’s… a…“
But the rest of his sentence faded away, forgotten, as Gawain finally registered the expression on his friend’s face.
Morgana’s face had turned a deathly pale. Her eyes were wide and her body was locked in place, paralyzed, as she looked at a point a few inches away from Gawain’s shoulder. The young redhead could see Lancelot slowly turning sideways, stepping in front of the Princess. As Morgana grabbed onto Lancelot’s sleeve, Gawain could hear her call out to him, her voice barely more than a whisper.
“Gawain. Don’t… move.”
“Why not? What’s going-”
Suddenly, a horrible, ominous chill crept across his spine. Gawain abruptly became aware of a presence behind him. All of his senses jumped on alert. Gawain could feel goosebumps forming on his arms. He could hear the blood rushing through his body. His heart started hammering in his chest. Cold sweat gathered in his palms. A horrible sense of dread overcame him as, in that moment, Gawain experienced a sensation that he had never felt before in his life.
He felt like prey.
“I’ll have you to protect me, after all.”
Gawain gritted his teeth, balling his hands into fists as he desperately tried to regain control of himself. He could feel the thorns behind him wrap around his legs, tearing into his trousers as the creature behind him drew closer. He could hear the creaking and snapping of bark. He could taste the fear in his throat- the urge to run was overwhelming. His chest was burning. Every fibre in his body screamed at him to flee. To run. To get himself to safety.
But he couldn’t run.
He’d never run.
As the thorns began to wrap around his chest, Gawain took a deep breath… and turned around.
He was not prepared for what he saw.
His sword clattered to the ground. Gawain could hear Lancelot’s voice, vaguely drifting in from the distance. But the young redhead couldn’t move if he wanted to. The thorns and spikes had wrapped themselves around him, painfully pressing in his back and cutting off his escape.
He couldn’t get out.
And the monster pounced. Gawain watched, paralysed, as the creature in front of him instantly bridged the distance between the two of them. The sharp tusks on its skull stopped inches away from his chest, piercing right through his leather armour. Gawain could smell the scent of damp earth and rotting moss washing over him, wafting out from the creature’s body. He recoiled in fear, trying to jump back- and failing. The thorns around him wouldn’t let him go. He could feel them piercing his skin, painfully digging into the flesh underneath.
He could feel the murderous, all-consuming rage that radiated off the creature in front of him. A primal anger, bearing down on Gawain with the weight of a mountain. It was overwhelming. All of his other senses were drowned out. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t move. The would-be knight could feel all of the air being squeezed out of him, his gasping for air, his legs shaking under the weight of an all-consuming rage-
Before that rage slowly, gradually… subsided.
Gawain could feel the pressure lifting off his body. He could breathe again. The creature cocked its head, looking down on him silently as the murderous intent that had radiated off it slowly faded away. Gawain could feel the pain in his back subside. He could see the thorns behind him move away from his body and retract towards the ground. His legs were freed.
It let him go.
Gawain watched in stunned silence as the creature rose back up, looking down on him as the thorns and spikes retracted back into its body. He could hear the creaking of bark as it took a step back. A few pieces of moss fell down onto the ground next to it.
Gawain had never seen a creature like this before.
Slowly, the creature turned away from him. Gawain watched as it began to walk away from him. The creature made its way out of the clearing, leaving little clusters of thorns behind with every step it took. Its footsteps were completely silent. All Gawain could hear was the groaning of bark as the trees in its way parted, shifting and bending over backwards to let it through. Within seconds, it had vanished in the surrounding thicket.
The forest left in its wake was still completely, utterly silent.
“…what… what just happened?”
“We’re staging an escape.”
His words echoed powerfully across the room – but there was no answer. For a moment, Morgana’s bedchambers were completely silent. Arthur kept eye contact with Sarah, straightening his back as the maidservant raised a single eyebrow.
Then, that moment passed. The Crown Prince could see Sarah’s trademark grin spread across her lips as, for a moment, her cunning grey eyes reflected a flicker of pride.
“Good. What do you need?”
“A distraction,” Arthur replied, thinking out loud. “If that boy is to make it to the druids in one piece, then just saving him is not enough. We need to free his father, too. And I can’t do that alone. I hate to ask this of you, but-”
“Poison the guards in the dungeons,” the maidservant interrupted him, giving Arthur a playful wink. “Got it.”
“I’m serious, Sarah.”
“Oh, I can see that. As luck has it, I still happen to have some aconite tucked away into a teabag. I knew that it would come in handy someday.”
Arthur blinked. He must have misheard. Or perhaps Sarah misspoke. The Crown Prince remained silent, waiting for the maidservant to correct herself – but that correction never came. She was serious.
Arthur raised a single eyebrow in response.
“Sarah. That’s murder.”
“Not enough to kill them!” Sarah scoffed. “Goodness, no. Why do you two keep jumping to conclusions like that? Incapacitating them for an hour or two is enough.”
“I don’t- that’s not- why do you even have aconite?!” he sputtered. Sarah gave him a wink in response, turning away from him as she placed a hand on her side.
The maidservant raised a single eyebrow when she saw Arthur’s expression.
“Why are you looking at me like that? You want a distraction, and I am handing you one on a silver platter. It won’t kill them, and it won’t implicate you. Don’t you know not to look a gift horse in the mouth?”
“I do, but-”
“Good! Then don’t complain to me now. Unless you have a better idea?”
There were so many things wrong with their conversation that Arthur didn’t even know where to begin. The Crown Prince groaned, rubbing the top of his nose with his fingers. He wasn’t supposed to let that slide. Arthur knew that he was supposed to press her for an explanation. But so many things were happening at once that his sister’s maidservant hiding a deadly poison inside a teabag ranked very low on his list of things to question.
Besides, she was right. Arthur shook his head.
“No. I don’t have a better idea.”
“Splendid,” she said, the grin instantly returning to her expression. “Leave the distraction to me. Our guards operate on a very strict rotation schedule, but everyone gets sloppy at the end of their shift. If we time it right, I should be able to buy you ten minutes, at the very least.”
“You know the guard rotation schedule?”
“Of course not. But I can find out. Some of the new recruits are very pliable if you bring enough wine and female company.”
The Crown Prince blinked. Even he could tell that Sarah’s suggestions came way too easily. Almost effortlessly, like she had planned for an event just like this way in advance. Arthur opened his mouth to comment, but then thought better of it.
Sometimes, Morgana’s maidservants were terrifying.
”Well, then… what’s the rest of the plan?”
They did not find a single trace of the druids.
A thick, oppressive darkness began to creep into Murkwood as the sun set. The temperature dropped from chilly to downright uncomfortable. And the deeper in they travelled, the more those thorns began to dominate the woods around them. There were vines everywhere. Between the trees, underneath bushes, even strangling parts of the road, forcing the three of them to backtrack and go around.
They probably could have cut their way through. But Lancelot was adamant that they shouldn’t touch a single one of them. Normally, Gawain would have protested – the fastest way through a thick forest was to make a path yourself, after all – but after the monster that stared him down, the young redhead didn’t want to get anywhere near those thorns.
The two would-be knights scoured the forest for an hour, looking for a safe location to make camp.
They found none.
Never before had a forest felt this hostile.
As they made their way into the deepest parts of Murkwood, Gawain could suddenly see something that didn’t belong in the woods. He stopped abruptly, bringing his group to a screeching halt as he warned:
“Wait. There’s something there.”
As they crept closer, Gawain quickly realised what it was. The young redhead could see an empty knight’s helmet lying on the ground, partially covered by thorns. A bloody sword lay by its side. He could see the ground underneath stained in the same shade of red that coated the blade.
“Isn’t that Nemeth’s armour?” Morgana muttered, folding her arms around herself. Lancelot gave her a single nod.
“It seems that way.”
“What do you think happened?”
“I don’t know. But that blood looks fresh. It can’t be more than a few hours old-”
As they talked, Gawain could suddenly see a flash of movement behind the tree to his left. He had only caught a glimpse of it. But it wasn’t an animal. The would-be knight immediately stepped in front of Morgana, raising his sword reflexively as he called out to the darkness.
“The one hiding over there. Show yourself.”
But there was no response. Gawain could see Lancelot tense up next to him, reaching for the sword on his belt as well. In a low, intimidating voice, the future Duke spoke.
“We’re not going to ask twice. Come out, before we make you come out.”
Gawain could see some movement behind the tree. A flash of blue. He tightened his grip on his sword, determined not to let it slip from his hands this time. Gawain grit his teeth, stepping forward as he pointed his blade at the darkness-
But what stepped out was not what the young redhead was expecting at all.
“It’s… They’re kids,” Gawain muttered, baffled. He immediately lowered his sword. To his left, he could see Lancelot looking equally shocked.
“What.. what are you doing here? Where are your parents?”
“You shouldn’t be here.”
They looked about ready to bolt into the darkness, like a deer caught in a hunter’s aim. That wasn’t good. Gawain started to move forward – but was held back by Lancelot, who had put a hand on his shoulder.
“Let me handle this.”
The would-be knight nodded. His friend had always been good with children. Gawain watched as Lancelot slowly walked over, keeping his arms away from his weapon. When he spoke, his voice was kind and gentle.
“Easy, there. We’re not here to hurt you.”
“What happened here? Where is everyone else?”
“You shouldn’t be here,” the girl whispered again, hiding behind the boy’s back.
“What do you mean?” Lancelot asked. The boy responded instead, looking up at him with big, blue eyes full of dread.
“You should hide. She’ll think you’re one of them.”
“One of who?”
“The bad ones,” the girl whispered.
“What does that mean?”
But she shook her head at him, refusing to answer. Lancelot tilted his head, frowning for a moment, before he partially sunk through his knees.
“What’s your name?”
“Cicely,” she whispered shyly. “That’s Henry.”
“That’s a very pretty name. My name is Lancelot. Do you remember me, Cicely? We’ve met once before.”
She shook her head. But Gawain could see the recognition in Henry’s eyes.
“You’re that knight,” he said. “The one that helped us.”
“That’s right. We want to help you again, Henry. But we can’t do that if we don’t know what’s going on. Can you tell us?”
For a moment, Henry seemed hesitant. He looked over at the girl next to him. Then that hesitancy faded, and he nodded at Lancelot.
“The forest is angry,” he whispered. “It’s hurting really bad because they hurt the sanctuary. They harmed something that they shouldn’t have touched. They should have left it alone. Now it’s too late. The forest is very, very angry.”
“Too late for what? Where are the other druids?”
“Hiding,” the boy muttered, his eyes wide. “It’s so angry that it can’t tell the difference. It goes after everything that’s bad now. They have to hide. Muiri told us to stay near the tree and not come out until they came back for us.”
“What about Emrys? Is he hiding, too?”
“No. Emrys was hurt. It sees him as bad, too. He and Muiri went to calm down the forest… but they never came back.”
“I see. Thank you for telling us, Henry.”
Lancelot stood up, casting a glance back at his companions.
“I need you to come with us, Henry,” he decided. “We’ll keep you safe. It’s too dangerous to be out here by yourself.”
But the boy shook his head, taking a step back towards the darkness.
“We’re not going to hurt you, I promise. But I’m a knight, and I need to keep you safe. Protecting children like you two is my job. I can’t leave you in danger like this.”
He put out his arm, extending his hand for the two to grab onto. But they recoiled at the gesture, shaking their heads powerfully. For the first time since they had started talking, the little girl made eye contact with Lancelot. When she spoke, her words made all the hairs in Gawain’s neck stand upright.
“Mister… we’re not in danger.”