“Our scouts have confirmed it, sire. Nemeth’s armies are moving towards Murkwood.”
“So it begins,” Uther spoke, looking down on the small patch of green that was in between Nemeth and Camelot. His eyes narrowed.
“They dare not meet us out in the open, so they decide to skulk through the woods like the cowards they are.”
“This doesn’t make sense. Their numbers are too large,” Morgana thought out loud, frowning at the pieces on the table. “It’s only been a few weeks since Richard declared war on us. How did they gather that many troops that fast?”
“They likely didn’t have to,” Arthur responded to his sister. “It takes months to amass that kind of force, not to mention supplying them with weapons. My guess is that Richard built up his troops long before he declared war on us. Probably before the tournament even began. Nemeth meant to betray us from the start- with or without a wedding.”
“I agree,” the Iron King spoke, nodding in approval towards his son. “And we will respond in kind. Letting them take Murkwood would expose our flank – we need to send forces to drive them out immediately. Agravaine, how many troops can we send within a week?”
“I’ll have to check with our general, but four platoons, at least,” the Royal Adviser responded. “If you give them a fortnight, we can send a battalion.”
“We don’t have time to wait that long. The last thing we want is for them to build a stronghold inside of that forest. Inform the general and give the orders. We need to move immediately.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
The Jacoban priest got up from his seat, bowing to Uther before he quickly and silently exited the room. As soon as Agravaine was gone, the Iron King turned towards his son.
“Arthur. Starting today, you will take over part of my responsibilities.”
Arthur raised his eyebrows in surprise at his father’s words.
“You will take over civil petitions, court audiences and criminal trials. Agravaine and I will be focused fully on the war, and I will not be able to handle the distractions of everyday matters. As Crown Prince, I expect you to treat this with the utmost care.”
Uther’s frown deepened. The Iron King allowed for a short silence to fall. When he spoke again, his voice had considerably lowered in tone.
“You are Crown Prince. One day, you will succeed me – this is an opportunity for you to learn what it means to be King. Do not let me down, Arthur.”
“Yes, father. I will not fail you.”
Ever since he was a toddler, Arthur Pendragon had watched his father from the sidelines. The Iron King had gone through great lengths to explain as much about his tasks and decisions as possible. By now, Arthur knew the laws of Camelot like the back of his hand. He could imagine exactly what his father would do in almost any kind of situation.
Taking over part of Uther’s tasks was a huge responsibility. He knew what was expected of him. What kind of man he had to be.
What kind of things he would have to do.
That afternoon, the Crown Prince found himself so distracted by the past that he couldn’t focus on any of it.
It just had to be bloody Murkwood, didn’t it?
Arthur sighed, leaning back against the bench as his thoughts wandered. The Crown Prince was well-versed in battle tactics and military strategy. He had been in Murkwood dozens of times, training with his men and chasing after fugitives. He knew that the place was not suitable for battles between platoons of soldiers. The woods never were. People would get ambushed. Soldiers would get lost. Knights would stumble upon the lairs of bears, rabid wolves, trample faerie circles – it would turn into a complete nightmare.
If it were any other forest, the Crown Prince of Camelot wouldn’t have cared. Animals could be scared off. Dangerous Fae could be dealt with, through the use of iron and the sharp end of a blade. Even if they ended up burning the forest to the ground, nature would simply recover. It always did.
But animals and Fae were not the only ones that called Murkwood their home.
They’d had children with them. If they were still there, they would get caught in the fighting.
The Crown Prince couldn’t get their faces out of his head. They couldn’t have been more than eight, maybe nine years old. They were innocent. They had no idea what was coming.
Before long, their home would turn into a death trap.
Arthur was suddenly pulled out of his thoughts by a familiar voice calling out to him. He had been so distracted that he hadn’t even noticed Gawain approach.
“…Arthur? Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, Gawain.”
“Are you sure?” the redhead responded, unconvinced. “You haven’t looked that droopy since Sarah rationed your sweets. Did she put you on a diet again?”
“Are you low on sugar? Do you need me to smuggle honey pie in through your window again?”
“That happened one time, Gawain.”
“Three. I’m keeping count.”
Arthur huffed, rubbing the top of his nose in frustration. Gawain’s comments were the last thing that he needed today. His head was already too full of thoughts – the Crown Prince couldn’t handle anything else.
Arthur opened his mouth to shoo Gawain away – and then abruptly changed his mind. Crown Prince looked at his friend, hesitating for a few seconds. Eventually, after much inner debate, Arthur took a deep breath.
“…actually, do you have a minute? I could use a listening ear.”
“Err…I mean, sure! Of course! I can do that.”
Sheepishly, the young redhead sat down next to him. He was trying to look serious, but Gawain had never been able to wear a mask well. Arthur could still see the youthful eagerness shining out from underneath.
Gawain never changed.
“So… what’s the problem?”
Perhaps that was just what he needed.
“Gawain, do you remember what happened in Murkwood last Summer?”
“Of course,” his friend nodded. “The fight, right? We rode out with the others to drive off those mercenaries from Cornwall. They took those druids hostage and we had to rescue them. I remember that one druid lifting them in the air with magic.”
“Those druids are what’s bothering me,” Arthur replied, his expression turning grim. “We’ve received word from our scouts. Nemeth has sent an army to march on Camelot. But they’re not coming through the plains – according to our intelligence, they’ve sent multiple squadrons towards the forest of Murkwood.”
“The border with Camelot lies in Murkwood,” Gawain frowned, instantly catching on.
“Exactly. We think that they might be trying to build an outpost there. It’s a very strategic location. We used it as a natural barrier. If Nemeth takes Murkwood, then Camelot will have no line of defence between us and them. Their army could march right up to the castle.”
“That’s not good. What are you going to do?”
“The King intends to send a number of platoons to drive them out, and build a stronghold of our own. Nemeth will not go gently. It will be violent. And skirmishes won’t stop there – I wouldn’t be surprised if the entirety of Murkwood turns into a war zone as a result.”
The Crown Prince let out a sigh as his expression fell. It took him a considerable effort to voice what was on his mind- when he finally turned towards Gawain, his eyes were filled with a silent doubt.
“I know I shouldn’t, but… I can’t get those druids out of my mind,” Arthur confessed. “If Camelot and Nemeth’s armies clash in Murkwood, then they will get caught in the crossfire. They’ll get slaughtered. I know that they’re druids, but… they don’t deserve that. Nobody does. Besides Emrys, they were a peaceful people. They had children with them.”
“They have no idea that their home is about to turn into a death trap.”
The Crown Prince fell silent, nervously trying to read his friend’s reaction. Gawain hadn’t said a word since Arthur had mentioned the druids. He had taken a chance – they had never talked about anything related to magic. Especially not something like this. Part of him felt guilty for even bringing them up – like Arthur was doing something wrong by even mentioning them. Magic was shunned in Camelot in all its forms, and Druidry was no exception. Gawain wasn’t supposed to care. And neither was Arthur.
Wait… what in Watcher’s name am I doing?
They were enemies of the Kingdom. Arthur wasn’t supposed to worry about them at all. Why was he bothering Gawain with this? The Crown Prince opened his mouth, already formulating an apology in his mind. But his friend ended up surprising him.
“I’ll go,” the young redhead continued, with more conviction behind his voice this time. “I agree with you, Arthur. They need to be warned. I know those woods – we’ve crossed through it many times while we were training. I can reach them quickly if I have to. I’m sure that they remember me from that night. If they’re still there, I will find them and convince Emrys to leave.”
“You’d do that? The place will be a war zone within days, Gawain. You’d risk your life over them?”
His friend frowned.
“Of course, I would. You’re right, Arthur. Magic or no magic… they’re still people.”
He’d been told that twice now.
Perhaps it was time that he started believing that, himself.
“You’d have to outrun the army,” Arthur warned, frowning at his friend. “From both sides, not just Nemeth.”
“I know. I’m fast. Faster than they are, if I take a good horse.”
“I can’t send you out formally,” the Crown Prince continued. “My father would never agree to helping the druids. You’d need to do this in secret. And if things go wrong, you’d have no military support.”
“I don’t need it.”
Arthur’s frown increased.
“Let me rephrase this, Gawain. You are volunteering to go into what is about to become a war zone, with no military support, in order to help a group of known magic users – who will be terrified at best, and outright hostile at worst. I will not be able to help you. Are you sure that you want to do this?”
The young redhead gave him a solemn nod, placing a hand on his chest in response.
“I am. I can do it, Arthur. I know I can. Give me a chance to prove it to you.”
There was something incredibly disarming about Gawain that never diminished with time, no matter how many years passed. Even after knowing him for four years, Arthur was still moved by it. He couldn’t help himself. The Crown Prince felt his mouth pull into a smile at his friend’s words.
“You don’t have to prove anything to me, Gawain.”
“Really. I have complete faith in you.”
The proud, almost giddy expression on Gawain’s face made Arthur’s smile widen even further. He watched as the young redhead gave him a single, confident nod.
“I won’t fail you, Arthur. I promise.”
“I’ll keep you to that,” the Crown Prince smiled, before his expression returned to being serious. Arthur lowered his voice as he moved towards Gawain a little bit.
“Listen carefully. You leave at dawn tomorrow morning. I cannot send you out formally, but I don’t want you to go all by yourself. Tonight, I will fill Lancelot in on what’s happening. You will take him with you. You must not mention where you’re going to anyone else. If the King finds out, he will have both of our heads. Nobody else can know about this. Do you understand?”
“I knew you would. Don’t take any unnecessary risks out there.”
“I won’t, Arthur. Don’t worry.”
“Good. And Gawain…”
The next day, as agreed, Gawain met Lancelot at the city stables. The young redhead said nothing about where they were going or why – and he didn’t have to.
Lancelot already knew.
“Who is the goodest, fastest horse in the city stables? You are!” Gawain cooed, rubbing the nose of his new steed. The beast let out a snort in response.
“Aww, who is getting all the tasty carrots on this trip? You are!”
“Don’t let Gringolet hear you say that,” Lancelot commented from the other side. The future Duke was in the middle of saddling his own mount, shaking his head at Gawain’s high-pitched baby voice.
“I said the fastest horse,” the young redhead corrected him. “Gringolet knows he’s the best, don’t worry. And he doesn’t mind sharing his treats. He’s a good boy.”
“If you say so, Gawain. If you say so.”
In a single, fluent movement, Lancelot mounted his horse.
“It’ll take us three days to reach Murkwood,” he said. “We should take the long way around, to make sure that we avoid the attention of any soldiers. The last thing we want to do is get caught in hostile territory by a squadron of armed knights.”
Gawain threw a glance at the weapons and armour placed next to him. The young redhead gulped.
“…Yeah. That would be bad.”
He knew what would happen if they were caught. Lancelot and Gawain had no legitimate reason to be there. No official mission. No excuse. He knew how it would look. They would not be able to talk their way out of treason.
Getting caught… probably meant getting hung.
The outskirts surrounding castle Camelot and its town were only sparsely populated. Lancelot and Gawain avoided the roads, trekking through farmland and past tree clusters and avoiding people as best they could.
And their strategy worked. Besides the odd farmer, they didn’t see a living soul for the better part of an hour.
It wasn’t until they reached the outer walls that the two of them ran into a familiar face. A familiar face that wasn’t supposed to be here. Gawain and Lancelot stopped dead in their tracks, their eyes wide as they stared at the person in front of them.
“Good morning, Gawain. Lancelot. You two are up early today.”
Lancelot’s shoulders tensed up instinctively, as the future Duke immediately noticed. Morgana’s voice sounded just a little too chipper to be natural. Her smile was just a little too perfect – too forced. As the two of them made eye contact, his expression pulled into a wary frown.
Gawain didn’t have the same reaction. Their silent exchange had gone completely over his head. As usual, the young redhead answered honestly.
“Yes! We have a special mission-”
“-and it’s top-secret,” Gawain continued, oblivious to the grimaces that his companion was rapidly cycling through. “Nobody can know about it. Not even you, Mor. You’ll have to pretend that you didn’t see us, okay?”
As soon as she heard that, Morgana’s expression turned into a wide, devious grin.
“Oh, I have a better idea. I’m coming with you.”
“You heard me. I’m coming.”
“Err… I don’t think that’s a good idea, Mor,” Gawain replied. “I’m sorry. It’s not a sightseeing trip. The place we’re going is very dangerous-”
“Yes, and that’s no place for a lady and…”
Only then did Gawain realise the meaning of her words. The young redhead looked at his friend, baffled.
“Wait, how did you know that?”
“Oh, because I know everything,” Morgana chuckled. “Don’t worry, I’m here to help. You’ll need me.”
“But… you can’t fight.”
Her smile widened.
“No. But I can talk. Do you really think you’ll manage with the two of you? You’re armed to the teeth. You need me. You need someone who doesn’t look like a soldier in order to calm those druids down. And if the Camelot platoons find you, their thoughts will go to treason. You’ll need someone influential to keep you from losing your heads.”
“You are a good talker,” Gawain nodded, placing his hand on his chin as he pondered the option. Next to him, Lancelot was looking decidedly less happy.
“No. Absolutely not. It’s way too dangerous. I am not taking the Royal Princess into an impending war zone-”
In an instant, all of the warmth drained from Morgana’s eyes. Her body language changed. When she spoke, her voice had cooled to an icy chill.
“I do not recall asking for your permission.”
She stared him down, daring him to speak out.
“No. I am coming with you. That is final.”
The future Duke knew enough about politics to know when he was left with no choice. Lancelot let out an indignant huff as he backed off.
“…fine. As you wish, your highness.”
“Mor, are you sure?” Gawain asked, his voice still a little doubtful. “I can’t tell you not to go, but… we may have to fight. And the druids have magic. It’ll be dangerous.”
As she looked at the young redhead, the warmth returned to Morgana’s eyes. She gave him a reassuring nod.
“Of course. I’ll be fine, Gawain – I’ll have you to protect me, after all.”
“…Yeah. We’ll keep you safe.”
On the other horse, Lancelot let out a sigh. The future Duke had crossed his arms in protest. It was the only thing he could do. He knew that, too.
“It’s a three-day walk to Murkwood from here,” he said, repeating the information for their sudden new companion. “At most, we have ten days before the army reaches the forest. We need to get to the woods, find the druids, convince them to leave and get out of Murkwood before the army moves in. If we don’t, they’ll have our heads on a pike.”
“Naturally,” Morgana smiled in response. “So, what are we waiting for, then? Lead the way, Lancelot.”
The would-be knight glared at her in response.
“Yes, my lady.”
With that, the three of them were off. It did not take them long to reach the outer walls of Camelot. They passed through it quietly, waiting until they were sure that no soldiers could see them leave.
All patrols ended on the other side of the wall. It was a border in more ways than one. The castle of Camelot, its town and the surrounding outskirts were protected and guarded at all hours. Once you set foot outside, that protection ended, and you were on your own. Patrols did not go past the walls. Wild animals prowled the woods, and bandits roamed the countryside.
If it had been up to Lancelot, the three of them would not have taken another step. Not with Morgana there. But he couldn’t tell Morgana to turn around. She was coming, whether he liked it or not. The thought made Lancelot deeply uncomfortable. It was not just that the wilds were no place for a lady. It was more than that.
Something was wrong.
The future Duke had always been good at reading people. He easily picked up on signs that other people missed. Tone of voice. Body language. Breathing. Even a person’s eye movement said a lot about their mental state. The more their words differed from their emotions – the more their true self differed from their mask – the more Lancelot noticed.
And today, everything about Morgana’s behaviour felt wrong.
Nothing. It never did – the Princess was a master at hiding her true feelings behind her mask – but today, Lancelot couldn’t read the other side. All he picked up on was chaos.
Anger. Fear. Longing. Loneliness. Hope. Despair. Hopelessness. Numbing. All pushed down and hidden behind a stoic layer that broke for nothing.
The future Duke had seen this before.
Lancelot had not seen it get this bad – this misaligned – in a very, very long time.
But, just like last time, despite everything…
Lancelot du Lac had no idea what it was.