Author’s note: if you need a refresher on the nature and darkening of Spirit, go here.
Morgana was pulled away from the person standing in front of her by the sound of groaning. She turned around to see Lancelot, face-down on the ground and slowly pushing himself up from the grass. He was already coming back to consciousness.
“Urghhh… what… happened…?”
She didn’t want him to wake up. Not now. Not with her childhood friend right in front of her, waiting to reconnect after more than four years away from each other. He couldn’t wake up now. It was too soon. Morgana had a thousand questions raging through her mind and no time to ask Merlin any of them. For a fraction of a second, the budding witch seriously considered knocking him out again with magick, just so she could speak to Merlin undisturbed-
But doing so would call that thing back to where they were, wouldn’t it? The druid children had specifically warned her not to cast. She couldn’t risk it. Not now.
Why was there never enough time?
She had to deal with this. Warn him before he talked to Lancelot. Morgana quickly turned back towards the druid in front of her. She focused, concentrating in the same way that she’d done when she had spoken to Henry.
Merlin. They don’t know that I have magick.
The effect was instant. Morgana could see his eyes shoot open in response, instantly growing as round as gold coins. He took a step backwards. Henry had been surprised to hear her in his head, too. They had never done this kind of magick when they were kids. Morgana had expected some measure of shock, perhaps even confusion –
But in that moment, the budding witch noticed something else in Merlin’s expression. Something that made all of her thoughts grind to a screeching halt.
Was that… fear?
She only caught a glimpse of it. It was only there for a split second. The man in front of her almost instantly caught himself, replacing it with a stern, stoic mask that rivalled the ones used in Camelot. But Morgana was skilled at reading the people around her. She knew exactly how to pick up on subtle shifts in both body language and facial expressions alike – and the sorceress knew that she hadn’t misread him.
Morgana knew what she saw.
Merlin was afraid of her.
“Morgana- are you all right? I saw… ugh… white light-“
The sorceress watched as Emrys put his arm out, trailing a small symbol in the air. For a moment, his eyes flashed white with energy. Then he exhaled, and the flames around them began to shrink. Within moments, they had vanished from the ground entirely, plunging the clearing back into darkness.
“You saw raw spirit, knight,” he spoke to Lancelot. The future duke slowly righted himself, a confused expression playing on his face as he rose to his feet.
“It was me,” Emrys replied. “I knocked you out. Forgive me – I saw that the three of you were in danger and cast magick to incapacitate the wolves around you. But I overdid it and ended up affecting all three of you as well. It was a miscalculation on my part.”
“Mis…calculation?” Lancelot groaned. Emrys bowed his head in response.
“Not even magick is impervious to mishaps, sir knight. Please forgive me. I meant you no harm.”
“I… see,” the future Duke responded. Morgana could see the doubt and suspicion still reflected in his eyes as he looked away. He wasn’t convinced. But Morgana had always known Lancelot to be one to pick his battles, and to know when not to push. The sorceress watched as the nobleman slowly rubbed his lower ribs, wincing at the fresh bruises underneath.
“Thank you for the assistance. We came to help you and your people, but it seems that you helped us, instead. You have our gratitude, Emrys.”
Emrys crossed his arms in response. His brow furrowed in disapproval as he looked at the three of them.
“Gratitude won’t keep you alive. None of you should be here- especially not now. What are you doing in Murkwood?”
“We were sent here by Prince Arthur,” Lancelot replied, subtly moving in front of Morgana. “We’ve come to warn you. A platoon of soldiers from Nemeth has moved into Murkwood-“
“The metallic bananas? Yeah, we’ve noticed those,” Emrys interrupted him. “Noisy lot. Took to destroying the forest instead of respecting it as they should have. Most of them are scattered across the woods as a result.”
Morgana and Lancelot briefly made eye contact. Compared to everything that she’d seen in Murkwood, an impending war suddenly seemed like the least of the druid’s problems.
“We had hoped to reach you before they became a danger,” the future Duke sheepishly admitted. “Are your people all right? Is that why you’re wounded?”
But Emrys shook his head at him.
“We have bigger things to worry about. My injuries came from the same thing that made those wolves come after you. We’re fighting the forest itself at this point. I have to commend you – you could not have shown up at a worse time.”
“Gawain. Wake up. Gawain.”
But the would-be knight wasn’t moving. Morgana quickly checked his body for injuries. Gawain wasn’t bleeding from anywhere. Nothing seemed to be broken, either. He just wouldn’t regain consciousness. If she didn’t know any better, she would think that she had put him to sleep with her magick-
Was that what had happened? She couldn’t remember. Everything after them getting surrounded by wolves was a strange, incomprehensible blur. But she could still feel the aftereffects of magick passing through her body. Was that what had happened? Had she put them all to sleep?
The sorceress quickly looked around the clearing. She had to suppress a chill as her gaze fell on the nearest wolf. Its belly was going up and down slowly, moving rhythmically on the pace of its breathing. Its ears twitched. She could see its breath push against the blades of grass underneath it, moving it back and forth as the beast exhaled.
It was still alive.
“Please don’t hurt them,” Emrys said, recognising the look in her eyes. “It’s not their fault. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
“What do you mean?”
“They can’t help themselves. None of them can. They’re being forced to attack you- to attack all of us. Everything in the forest has gone berserk because the Dryad has.”
His expression fell. Morgana watched as his eyes clouded over, an expression of hopelessness slowly pushing its way to the surface. Emrys let out a long, weary sigh.
“Everything has gone… so very, very wrong.”
Arthur had spent a good 30 minutes hiding from soldiers and lurking in the bushes like a common highwayman. When he was sure that the coast was clear, he made his way over to the chapel in the tournament grounds. It did not take him long to find the satchel that Sarah had hidden for him “along with the booze in the compartment underneath. Ol’ Aggravating doesn’t ever look in there. It’s the perfect place to hide things that you don’t want to be found.”
It did not take him long to make his way back into the castle. Nobody questioned a Crown Prince, after all. Nobody would suspect him. Not if he covered his tracks properly.
Arthur could free Marcus and his friends in the morning. They would survive until then. That only left one thing to check up on.
“How are you feeling?”
“I heard bells,” Guinevere replied, her voice barely more than a whisper. She had been half-asleep. Arthur watched as she groggily rubbed her eyes, pushing herself up from the pillows.
“Sarah and I freed Basil from his jail cell,” Arthur explained softly. “He and Yarrow are both safe. I smuggled him out of the city and into the outskirts. They left for Northumbria about thirty minutes ago.”
“You… saved them?”
Arthur nodded at her, the doubt still lingering in the back of his mind. Even now, the Crown Prince was still hesitating. Still unsure. He could feel a strange, gnawing feeling in the pit of his stomach, a sense of guilt that wouldn’t go away. It was whispering to him in the voices of Uther and Agravaine. Chastising him. Echoing through his mind. Calling him a traitor.
Had he really done the right thing?
Arthur watched as Guinevere relaxed. The girl leaned back into the pillows, her eyes relieved and filled with gratitude. The tiniest of smiles spread across her lips.
The Crown Prince could feel a wave of guilt wash over him. He didn’t deserve that expression. Not from her. Not after he’d made her cry.
And it hadn’t stopped there. The Crown Prince had never lost control of himself so badly before. Arthur could feel his stomach twist into a hard, painful knot at the memory. He had made her feel so cornered that she ended up shielding Yarrow from him with her own body, protecting the toddler from him like- like she thought he would-
“…Milord? What’s wrong?”
Arthur could feel the shame burning on his cheeks. The Crown Prince hid his face behind his hands, sinking down on the ground next to her.
“I’m so sorry, Guinevere,” he mumbled. “I’m sorry I yelled at you. I lost control of myself. I shouldn’t have done that.”
“I will not tolerate weakness, Arthur. Not from my men. Not from my servants. And especially not from you.”
The weight of it all finally became too heavy to bear. The Crown Prince could feel his throat close up. His hands started to shake. Arthur pulled in his legs, wrapping his arms around his knees as he buried his head in the dark fabric of his trousers.
The Crown Prince stayed that way for a while.
“Having this much responsibility is… really hard,” he finally mumbled. “Doing the right thing is hard. Sometimes I don’t even know what the right thing is. But I shouldn’t have let my emotions control me,” he continued, his voice cracking. “I should have handled it better. I’m sorry.”
“It’s… okay. You were just… o-overwhelmed.”
The Crown Prince couldn’t bring himself to look up at her. But he could imagine the kind of look she was giving him. Arthur could hear no blame in Guinevere’s voice. No anger. The maidservant didn’t blame hold him accountable in the slightest, merely accepting his outburst and shouldering the effect of it by herself.
It made Arthur feel even worse.
“It’s not okay, Guinevere.”
“Because.. because people are depending on me,” Arthur muttered. “I have to be stable for them. So I can’t show weakness. I have to be in control. I have to be dependable. Even if there’s a mountain of things weighing on my mind or if I really just want to sit down and cry. I can’t do that.”
Arthur had never voiced his inner struggles in front of a servant before. He knew better than to show vulnerability. There were only a handful of people that could be trusted with his shortcomings, and that list kept getting progressively shorter as he aged. And Guinevere was not one of them. On the inside, Arthur was already regretting speaking up at all. He shouldn’t have said anything. He should have kept his feelings locked up inside, where they were supposed to be and-
“Why not? I cry a-all the time.”
Arthur had not expected that answer. He hadn’t expected an answer at all. The Crown Prince glanced at Guinevere from the corner of his eyes. The girl was lying against a pile of pillows. Her eyes still were glassy and clouded over, her face flushed from the concussion.
Something was different.
“Sometimes it helps to s-share. Even if it doesn’t solve a-anything.”
It took Arthur a few moments to realise what it was. He only noticed when she showed him another smile. Guinevere didn’t look away. She had always been skittish, looking at her feet or even downright running away from him when he got too close. But not this time. Something had changed. He didn’t know what it was. But for the first time since he’d become aware of her, Guinevere kept eye contact with him, looking down at Arthur without flinching. He could see her tiny frame slowly move up and down on the rhythm of her breathing. Her hair had come untied, falling over her small shoulders in soft, loose waves.
She looked so fragile.
The Crown Prince knew that he shouldn’t. It had been drilled into him since he was a toddler. He couldn’t share his feelings with anyone but Morgana, and when it came to his deepest fears, even she was off-limits. Arthur had to keep his cards close to his chest- he couldn’t show his hand to anyone. He couldn’t open up. Not fully.
Not even to Gawain.
But this time, the Crown Prince couldn’t help himself.
“I handed a man a dagger today and told him to stab me,” Arthur muttered. “I thought I was going to die in that cell.”
“Y-you lived, though.”
Arthur leaned back against the bed. Before he could help it, the words started pouring out of his mouth.
“I helped Sarah poison two people with aconite and broke a sorcerer out of jail. I let a murderer get away without being punished. I must have broken at least sixteen different laws in our Kingdom. I might as well have committed treason. And the toddler wasn’t even that cute.”
Arthur could feel the last bits of adrenaline from that night leave his system. He felt himself deflate. It left him with a strange, drained sensation.
But Guinevere was right. Saying it out loud did help. Arthur could feel himself calm down just a little bit. From behind him, Guinevere let out a soft chuckle.
“Yarrow was… a bit of a handful.”
“I’ll say. The bloody hellion tried to bite me. Twice.”
Arthur rested his head against the mattress, looking up at the ceiling. He still hadn’t voiced the thought that was bothering him the most. But Arthur was afraid to ask. He was afraid of the answer. The question burned on his lips, plaguing his mind with self-doubt.
After a very long silence, Arthur finally spoke up. His voice was so small that it was almost inaudible.
“Guinevere… do you think I did the right thing?”
The answer came almost instantly.
“Really,” Guinevere nodded. “You’re right, milord. Doing the right thing is hard. But you did it a-anyway. That’s more than most people do.”
“You’re a-a good person.”
Arthur could feel a warm, fuzzy feeling spread in his chest. His heartbeat slowed. The corners of his mouth pulled into a smile as he looked away from her. For a moment, it felt like he was glowing.
“Thank you. That… that means a lot.”
Just like that, all of his doubt was gone.
“So… who is going to tell Morgana?”
Lancelot and Emrys had dragged Gawain all the way out of the clearing and into a safe space without him waking up. By the time that the would-be knight finally stirred, the two of them had already camouflaged their hiding spot from sight.
“Ugghh..” Gawain groaned, slowly pushing himself off from the ground. He frowned at the pair of legs next to him, trying to remember who they belonged to.
“Morgana? Lance? What is going…”
“Evening, Gawain,” Lancelot said dryly. The young redhead blinked.
“How… how long was I out?”
“A few minutes,” the future Duke replied, his voice returning to a serious tone. “It’s good that you came around. We were starting to think that you couldn’t wake up.”
Morgana sunk down next to him.
“How do you feel, Gawain?”
“…like Sofia gave me one too many ales at the tavern,” Gawain groaned. “It’s all fuzzy.”
It was only then that he noticed the fourth person there. Emrys looked down on him with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion on his face.
“The feeling will pass. Your vision should go back to normal within a few minutes.”
“You cast magic on me?” Gawain asked, slowly putting two and two together. Emrys frowned at him in response.
“Yes. As I said, my apologies. Tampering with spirit is a quick way to neutralise a threat, but you were not intended to get caught up in it as well. Please forgive me.”
As Gawain tried to get his bearings, Morgana and Lancelot turned back towards the druid. The questions in their minds were almost audible. Lancelot took the lead, taking a step forward.
“Emrys, this isn’t the Murkwood we know. What in Watcher’s name is going on?”
‘You could not have come here at a worse time,” the druid sighed in response. “It’s not your fault. The forest has gone berserk.”
“What does that mean?”
Emrys sighed, placing a hand on his forehead. With a heavy expression, the druid began to explain.
“Murkwood thrives under the protection of a Dryad called Eurydice. She is a Fae that acts as a very powerful forest guardian. She lives in a sacred grove in the heart of Murkwood and guards the forest from everything that threatens it.”
“Like a knight in a castle?” Gawain asked, cocking his head.
“Exactly,” Emrys nodded at him. “A Dryad’s instinct is to protect and nurture. Eurydice is usually quite benevolent. But those soldiers from Nemeth waltzed right into the heart of Murkwood and destroyed so much of her home that it made her go berserk. The entire forest has turned hostile as a result.”
“An enraged Dryad cannot tell the difference between friend and foe. Everything that is tainted becomes a blight that has to be destroyed- and people’s spirit naturally darkens as they age. They become a target. Eurydice is no exception to this. She has started attacking every human being that she comes into contact with and has killed most of the trespassing soldiers from Nemeth already. At this point, she can no longer be reasoned with.”
“Do… do we need to kill it?” Gawain asked with a downcast expression. But the druid shook his head.
“No. Eurydice cannot die. A Dryad is tied directly to the forest – it will live as long as the forest lives. We could not kill it if we tried.”
“Then… then what do we do?”
“At this stage, there’s only one thing left that we can do. Someone needs to go into the heart of the forest, enter the Dryad’s grove and undo the damage that was done to it. It’s the only way to make Eurydice calm down.”
“What happens if we don’t?” Lancelot asked. The druid’s eyes narrowed in response.
“The forest will close around us. We will become unable to leave. And she will continue to hunt us down, until every single human inside Murkwood is dead.”
“Then why haven’t you done so already?” Morgana asked. “Don’t misunderstand, I’m glad that you rescued us, but what are you doing here? Why are you not in that grove?”
“Because I can’t,” Emrys said, throwing his hands up. “Eurydice won’t let us go near. Muiri and I both tried – we can’t get close to the grove without getting ourselves killed. And I can’t put children in that kind of danger. If the fear changes their spirit, they wouldn’t be able to defend themselves. They’d be killed on the spot. Everyone that isn’t pure of heart is attacked without mercy. At this point, all we can-”
But Morgana interrupted him mid-sentence, realising at the same time that Lancelot’s eyes opened wide.
“Wait. It grants passage to the pure of heart?”
“Yes. A Dryad will not hurt anyone with untainted spirit. But finding that trait in anyone but children is an impossible feat.”
“Not that impossible,” Morgana replied, exchanging a knowing glance with Lancelot. “In fact… I think that we might have a solution for your stalemate, Emrys.”
Gawain looked up at the two of them, surprised.
“Whoa, really? What?”
Lancelot and Morgana looked back at Gawain. The future Duke was deep in thought and Morgana couldn’t hide a grin as they simultaneously replied with: