“I’m sorry, Barden. I’m afraid that you’ve caught an acute case of the flu.”
“What? How is this a flu?! My rear end feels like a bloody-”
“Definitely the flu, yes. I am placing both you and Burt on bedrest.”
“You have got to be-”
“Bedrest. Doctor’s orders.”
“WHAT?! What do you MEAN, he got away?!”
“I- he had help, milord-”
“It was dark- we couldn’t really see-”
“YOU INCOMPETENT FOOLS! Is there not a single capable person in this entire bloody castle?!”
At the first signs of dawn, Gawain’s group finally reached the heart of Murkwood.
It had been an exhausting journey. Not only did they have to evade every creature that roamed the darkness, but the closer they came to the heart of the forest, the more hostile the plant life around them became. Roots lifted to trip them up. Thorns hooked into their clothes. Entire branches broke off right above their heads, almost crushing Lancelot and Morgana in the process. The closer to the heart of the forest that they came, the colder and heavier the silence around them grew.
They did not need magic to know what that silence meant.
Murkwood itself wanted them dead.
Gawain frowned, casting glances at the twisted forest around them as they walked. The young redhead was nervous. He had never seen plants behave like this before. He knew what they were about to face, what he was supposed to do.
He knew what was expected of him.
But Gawain didn’t know if he could actually do it. He had no experience whatsoever with magic. He didn’t know how to act. Arthur hadn’t trained him for it. Nobody had. Gawain tried to recall something, anything that could help. But all he could remember were warnings to stay away from magic. It was so far removed from what he was familiar with that the mere thought of getting close made him feel uneasy. Gawain gulped, trying to contain his rapidly growing anxiety as the previous conversation played through the back of his mind.
Emrys had spent a good thirty seconds looking at him, examining every inch of his face with a narrow-eyed frown. Then, the druid let out a soft sound of surprise. Emrys stepped back, contemplatively rubbing his beard.
“…Yes. That might work.”
“Of course it would work,” Morgana snapped in response. The princess placed a hand on her hip as she glared at the druid in front of them.
“If what you say is true, then he has a better chance to make it through than any of us do. Gawain is the sweetest soul that I know. It will work – unless you can offer an alternative?”
“I cannot,” Emrys sighed, shaking her head at her. “I’m afraid that your friend is our last option. At this point, we have no other hand to play.”
Lancelot crossed his arms, his usual calm expression making way for a cold, calculative look.
“Then we need to play it. I take it that you have a plan?”
“I do,” Emrys nodded. In a soft voice, the druid began to explain.
“The grove is about an hour’s travel from here. I left Muiri to watch the entrance. If we lay low, we should be able to avoid the wolves on the way. Once we reach the grove, Gawain needs to make his way inside-”
“What do I do once I’m in there?” Gawain asked, interrupting him.
“Trust your instincts. Whatever those soldiers from Nemeth did ended up damaging something on the inside. You’ll know when you see it. It’s the only reason for Eurydice to become this enraged. You need to find it and undo whatever damage they did.”
The young redhead nodded, gulping nervously. Next to him, Lancelot’s expression darkened.
“And what if he can’t? Gawain doesn’t have magick. What if the damage can’t be undone? What if your Dryad doesn’t let him in – what is if ends up attacking him anyway?”
Emrys briefly glanced over to Morgana. When he turned back to face the group, the look in his eyes made a collective chill run down their backs.
“If she does… then it has been a pleasure knowing you all.”
It did not take them long to locate Muiri. The druidess had concealed herself behind a large rock, silently overlooking the entrance to the Dryad’s grove.
It was not a pretty sight.
The entire clearing had been overtaken. The treeline was cut off by a wall of massive, twisting roots. A web of sharp thorns coated the ground, piercing the earth underneath. Gawain could vaguely make out the remains of a military campsite- but the tents and banners had been completely ripped to shreds, covered and consumed by the surrounding plant life. Gawain could feel a cold chill emanating from the cavern entrance. A shiver ran down his spine as he looked at it. In a small voice, the would-be knight asked:
“Is… is that it?”
Emrys opened his mouth to answer- but then abruptly closed it again. Something was moving on the inside. Emrys narrowed his eyes, slowly pushing Muiri backwards as a shape emerged from the cavern entrance.
It wasn’t a wolf. It wasn’t even an animal.
It was a human.
“We have one more problem.”
“There is a witch that is bonded to Eurydice. She went berserk just like the others – but she is also incredibly dangerous. She is guarding the Dryad’s grove and won’t let anyone go near. We’ll have to go through her to get to the entrance.”
As he looked at the weapon on Lancelot’s belt, his expression slowly clouded over.
“She’s a good person at heart,” Emrys continued, his voice dropping to a soft mutter. “I consider her a friend. I don’t want to hurt her if we don’t absolutely have to.”
Lancelot narrowed his eyes in response. It was subtle – but the future Duke had picked up on something hidden in his voice that Gawain hadn’t.
“This is no ordinary witch, is it?” Lancelot asked. “Is it one of your people?”
“Her name is Monoroe.”
“We call her the Huntress.”
“Morgana, get behind me,” Lancelot spoke, placing an arm out to shield her. The future Duke slowly turned sideways. His hand travelled to the weapon on his belt, stopping inches above the hilt.
“Take Muiri and get out of the clearing while you still-”
But he never got to finish his sentence. The huntress abruptly whipped her head around, staring directly at them. They could hear the cracking of wood. That was followed by the unnatural groans of bark twisting and contorting around itself. Dozens of giant roots had dug themselves up from the ground, twisting and curling around each other until they formed a thick wall behind them. With a heavy creak, their escape route closed up.
There was no way out.
They were trapped.
They could feel the air inside of the clearing rapidly grow colder. Lancelot and Emrys both shifted into a fighting stance in response.
“We’ll distract her!” the future Duke yelled. “Gawain, go!”
Gawain shot forward, dashing into the clearing like an arrow loosed from a bow. He could feel the thorns grabbing at his feet as he ran. He could hear the yelling of his friends behind him, trying to get Monoroe’s attention. Gawain grit his teeth, pumping his legs and focusing his gaze on the cold, bone-filled cave entrance-
And immediately drew the Huntress’s ire. The young redhead could feel a twinge of panic as they made eye contact. He didn’t have his guard up. The would-be knight had gone for speed, trusting that Lancelot and Emrys would cover for him and running in with reckless abandon. And that was about to cost him. He couldn’t block her weapon. Gawain could see the stone-tipped spear swing around, coursing straight for his face-
Before abruptly being brought to a halt. Gawain could feel a strange, uncomfortable sensation graze past him, a cold energy that made the hairs in his neck stand upright.
The next moment, the witch in front of him was blown away. Gawain could see a cloud of dust and dirt whip up around her as something intangible took hold. Monoroe was violently hurled backwards, barely holding onto her spear as she collided with the tree behind her.
And he ran. Gawain didn’t hesitate. The young redhead dashed past Monoroe as fast as he could, dodging the dozens of thorns and roots that had grown at her feet. He stopped thinking. In a burst of energy, the would-be knight sprinted up to the skull-covered cave entrance-
And dashed straight through.
Morgana’s stomach twisted into a painful knot as she saw Gawain’s head disappear around the corner. She couldn’t see him anymore. The sorceress clenched her teeth, balling her hands into fists and forcibly keeping down the urge to run in after him.
He can do it.
He’ll be all right.
She knew that she couldn’t follow him. Not without disastrous consequences. There was nothing more that she could do for Gawain – not now. Morgana had to trust him.
Besides, someone else needed her help more than he did.
“Nice trick, druid,” Lancelot said, glancing at Emrys from the corner of his eyes. “How often can you do that?”
The druid let out a grunt in response. His legs were unsteady and his hands trembled from exertion. Emrys grimaced, looking down at the fallen witch.
She was already getting back up.
“Not often enough.”
As Monoroe grabbed hold of the spear next to her, Morgana grounded herself. The sorceress reached out to her fellow witch, finding her spirit among the chaos and speaking directly to her mind.
Monoroe, It’s me! Don’t you recognise me?! Snap out of-
The pain came so suddenly and so intensely that, for a moment, Morgana was unable to see. The sorceress could feel herself violently getting pushed out of Monoroe’s mind. Her eyes burned. She couldn’t breathe. It felt like the inside of her head was being shoved against a red-hot furnace. The pain was unbearable. Morgana winced, biting the inside of her cheek to keep herself from screaming. As she grabbed the sides of her head, a gravelly, guttural voice echoed through her mind that did not belong to Monoroe.
Lancelot and Emrys hadn’t noticed what was going on behind their backs. Their gazes were trained on the threat in front of them, their shoulders tense and ready for anything. As Emrys sunk through his knees, he glanced over at his temporary ally.
“Aren’t you going to draw your sword, knight?”
Lancelot shook his head.
“I will not. You’re right. She can’t help it, either.”
“Good. Then I hope you know how to dodge.”
Stepping through the cavern entrance had been like setting foot into another world.
Slowly, Gawain made his way through the tall grass. Something about this place was different. As soon as he had moved inside, all sound from outside of the cavern had vanished. The voices of his friends had vanished, fading from his peripheral like the ghosts of a different plane of existence. Gawain couldn’t hear Lancelot and Morgana anymore. The wind had died down. The groaning and creaking of trees had stopped.
But the cavern wasn’t silent. Gawain could hear a strange, soft rustling sound that reverberated through the passage. It didn’t take him long to realise what it was. The ivy on the cavern walls moved ever so slightly, swaying back and forth. It made it seem like the stone walls were alive. It was a mesmerising, unsettling sight.
Gawain could feel a strange heaviness bearing down on his shoulders, like something intangible was gazing down on him. He became strangely aware of his own presence. Of the metallic clang of his weapon hitting the wall. Of the grass that was flattened by his armoured boots as he walked. It didn’t feel right. For a moment, Gawain felt a strange urge to take off his boots and continue barefoot. The next second, he pushed those thoughts from his mind.
That was ridiculous. Why would he do that?
It had to be this place. That had to be it. Something about this cavern made him think strange thoughts. Gawain winced as he looked up at the strange, wooden effigies that hung from the ceiling. He had never seen decorations like that – and the longer he looked at them, the more Gawain became convinced that they were more than just decorative. The would-be knight could feel a strange sensation as he passed underneath them, a tingly feeling in the tips of his fingers that he couldn’t place.
They were bad… weren’t they?
Magic is wickedness incarnate.
He’d been told so his whole life. By his parents. By Arthur and the knights. It had been drilled into his head again and again by Agravaine that magic was a danger that could not be trusted, and a priest always told-
Slowly, Gawain made his way through the ivy-filled cavern. The further he walked, the more the rustling sounds around him grew in strength. The scent of water mixed with damp earth and moss drifted towards him from further in. At some point, Gawain’s anxiety had subsided. His heart had stopped hammering in his chest, calming him down enough to make way for the tiniest bit of curiosity.
Gawain had always enjoyed exploring as a child, and part of that interest lingered even as a teenager. The would-be knight didn’t know what a ‘Dryad’ was or what Emrys had meant when he explained about spirit and sacred groves. It was all gibberish to him. The druid might as well have been talking about the weather.
But something about this cavern was different. It drew him in. Spoke to him. As he ventured deeper, Gawain could suddenly remember himself running through the rainy woods around Camelot, exploring secret hideouts. The memory was strangely comforting.
Slowly, his hand slid off the hilt of his weapon. The scent of damp earth suddenly felt familiar, luring him in. The effigies above him were all but forgotten as an almost child-like curiosity overcame him. It pushed him forward as Gawain peeked around the corner, eagerly stepping through the tall grass.
Wondering what he would find.
He did not have to wonder for long.
As Gawain turned the corner, the would-be knight could suddenly feel a presence behind him. One that hadn’t been there a second ago. Gawain froze, the breath getting stuck in his throat. He could hear a familiar creaking and snapping of bark. The mossy scent suddenly became a lot stronger, emanating from behind him.
He knew what was standing behind his back.
But… something was different.
This time, the would-be knight didn’t feel like prey. There were no goosebumps forming on his arms. No sudden sense of dread, no cold sweat gathering in his palms as his body fell into a primal state of fear.
He wasn’t sure why, but… Gawain did not feel afraid.
Slowly, the would-be knight turned around. He could see the tree creature looking down on him in silence, its shoulders covered by moss and fungus. Sharp, twisted branches protruded from its neck, piercing the bark and bone underneath. It looked strangely painful. Gawain could feel the pressure of its gaze bearing down on him. He glanced up, curiously making eye contact-
And Gawain finally understood.
“Are you hurting?”
There was no answer. The creature in front of him remained silent, quietly looking down on him. But for a brief moment, Gawain had been able to see through its mask. He’d felt the sorrow that radiated off of it in waves, causing Gawain’s chest to feel strangely heavy.
It didn’t need to speak. The would-be knight instinctively understood. Gawain turned away from the Dryad, gesturing for it to follow him as he began to move further into the cavern.
“I’ll help you.”