Morgana’s prediction about Murkwood ended up coming true. The surviving members of Nemeth’s vanguard – who had been reduced to just the lieutenant, along with a single soldier – were so horrified by what had happened in Murkwood that they stopped the entire army in its tracks. Emergency meetings were held. Plans were changed. A second and third squadron were sent into the forest to find Tarquin’s body – and when none of them returned, the general finally took his lieutenant’s fearful ramblings seriously.
They sounded the retreat.
It did not take long for the news to reach the castle. Uther, Arthur and Morgana immediately realised what their retreat meant. Their flank was safe. The woods had protected them, just as they had hoped. Nemeth would not be coming for them from there. Instead, their army would have to march on Camelot the normal way. They would need to pass through Camlann and take the mountain pass between Nemeth and Camelot—
A pass that became completely impassible during Winter.
The coldest season in Albion had always been a formidable opponent to all sides of war. The freezing temperatures were a thorn in the side of any army. The Kings of Albion knew this – and they knew better than to keep going when the snow began to fall. They knew what would happen if they did. Supply lines would fail. Roads and passes would snow over and become impassible. Horses would turn from a great asset into a huge burden. If they weren’t careful, their men would starve and freeze to death. The costs of fighting in Winter were simply too great.
As a result, even in war, the Kingdoms of Albion could count on a single unspoken agreement between them all. When the snow fell, all fighting stopped.
No villages would be invaded. No armies would march across their borders and set fire to their homes. No men would be drafted for war. It was one of the few unspoken agreements that even Uther had never broken. Not once. And his people knew it.
For as long as the snow fell, they would be safe.
“…Big as a tree trunk, it was!”
“You’re takin’ the piss,” Marcus replied, narrowing his eyes suspiciously at Gawain. The would-be knight powerfully shook his head, making his hair swish around his face.
“I’m telling you! It was as big as the town gate! No, as big as the whole tower!”
Gawain had been thoroughly enjoying his new tavern VIP status – a reward for the owners of the tavern making a ton of money after betting on him in the tournament – by deciding to down as many free drinks as he could handle. His retelling of the Murkwood adventure was pretty close to the truth… at first. But after a big mug of Trognor’s Flaming Brandy and two tankards of Roaring Eagle ale, that truth very quickly got thrown out the window.
“It was no match for us, of course!” he boasted, greatly encouraged by the alcohol that flowed through his system. “You should have seen it, Marcus! It was just like one of those heroic tales that the bards sing about. Facing monsters with no fear! They’re going to write songs about us now, I’m sure of it. Don’t you think?”
“I think you’re full of horse dung,” Marcus replied, in an angry voice that didn’t match the amused expression on his face. “You’re tellin’ me that you fought a bloody tree monster?”
“I did! And someone is going to write about it!”
“Sure, gas-bag. I bet you just got arse-faced and tried to fight a branch in the King’s backyard again.”
“That only happened one time!”
“Besides,” the blacksmith continued, “they won’t have time to write about you. They’ll be way too busy writin’ songs about me! I’m the one that kicked the arses of a whole horde of guards!”
“You did?!” Gawain gasped, immediately forgetting about his own story. The blacksmith’s grin widened even further as he gave him a proud, boastful nod. Marcus had downed a good number of Roaring Eagle ales, himself.
“You bet I did! While you were off having your little twig-match, I took on four- no, six! Six guards at once! With nothing but my fists!”
The lie went right over Gawain’s head, as usual.
“Six whole guards?!” he gasped, holding up the wrong number of fingers. “But they all have weapons on them! I could only handle three! How did you do that?”
The blacksmith leaned towards him, flexing and striking a pose as he showed off his muscles.
“Years of workin’ the anvil, that’s how!” he boasted proudly. “I was trainin’ these rocks when you were still waddlin’ around playin’ with toy swords. One good punch knocked the clotpoles right out.”
“You punched through six guards?!”
“You bet I did! Sure, they threw me in jail afterwards, but they let me out again almost right away! Didn’t make me pay a fine or nuthin’. That’s how much they were about to soil their breeches.”
“Whoa,” Gawain muttered, impressed. “That’s amazing.”
“You’re damn right I’m amazing. Katrina!” he yelled, leaning over the table and waving to get the owner’s attention. “Give us some firewine! His treat!”
But the tavern owner scowled, shaking her head at Marcus.
“Sorry, love. We’re out of firewine.”
“Oh. Golden Harvest, then?”
“Fresh out of that, too.”
“Bollocks. Honey pine?”
“Of course not.”
“…Will-o-whiskey?” he asked, his face getting progressively droopier with every booze-based rejection. Katrina let out an annoyed sigh.
“No, Marcus. I have twenty kinds of ale and brandy for you, but no wine and nothing fancy.”
“You’re takin’ the piss, right?” the blacksmith protested. “That’s all the good stuff! I know your damn stock – I helped carry it in myself! You just had a whole boatload of booze come in!”
“Yes. The keyword here being had,” the woman grumbled back. “We’re fresh out of the good stuff again. All of my high-grade drinks got commandeered by the castle this morning.”
“I bet it’s for Yule,” one of the other patrons sneered. “Typical Pendragon horse dung. Taking all the good booze for their stupid balls and leaving us with the scraps.”
“Easy, Ron. They paid for it and-”
“That still leaves us with no good booze! They’re doing it on purpose, I’m telling you! They’re all a bunch of rotten wandoughs!”
Gawain could feel his mood instantly plummet. A scowl spread across his face as he glared at the man in front of him. The would-be knight tried to contain himself. His promise to Arthur echoed through the back of his mind. He had agreed not to hit people for insulting him anymore. He couldn’t break that promise.
“You’re wrong,” he growled instead. “It’s not like that.”
“Of course it bloody is,” the man snapped back. “This place finally comes into some cash, and what do the rich folk do? Grab our stuff out from under us. I bet the King and Prince are laughing their arses off in their fancy castle. They’re probably getting hammered right now. The skamelars. We’re better off without them.”
Gawain had heard enough. He could feel his anger getting the better of him. On instinct, the would-be knight got up from his chair—
Before being abruptly stopped by Marcus. The blacksmith had placed a hand on his shoulder, pushing him back down as he glared at the man in front of them.
“Shut your damn blowhole, Ron.”
“You heard Katrina. They paid for it. She can just order more, you saddle-goose.”
“I said shut up,” Marcus continued. “Look. The King is as rotten as a market fish – everyone knows that – but his son ain’t like that. He’s a good egg. Now shut your damn mouth about him.”
The entire tavern fell silent as staff and patron alike stared at Marcus in shock, their mouths hanging open. They had never heard a kind word about the castle come out of his mouth. Not even once.
It was completely unheard of.
“What are you lookin’ at?” Marcus growled, glaring at Gawain as the young redhead kept staring at him. He quickly snapped out of it, but even the blacksmith’s aggressively hostile looks weren’t enough to douse the sudden feeling of happiness that spread through Gawain’s chest. The would-be knight could feel his mouth pull into a smile.
“Nothing at all.”
Winter in court had a special meaning to it. It was a long series of balls and social events, leading up to a grand masquerade that was held on Yule. The Winter months were a time to strengthen alliances, make new connections, backstab other nobles and dig up as much dirt on the enemy as possible. Morgana always looked forward to the games played in the leadup to Yule. She took great pleasure in outwitting others in court. The satisfaction that she got from a successful bluff or a well-executed scheme was incredible. Winter was her favourite time of year because of it.
But not this year. This year, she found no joy in the changing of the seasons. The snowfall was depressing. The large, meticulously decorated ballroom felt hollow and suffocating at the same time. The court’s social games bored her. Morgana watched the dance floor from the sidelines, silently, as she allowed her thoughts to wander. The budding witch let out a long, drawn-out sigh.
Spring was still so very far away.
Slowly, Morgana turned away from the dance floor. Staying there on her own was not a good move. It drew too much attention, and the sorceress was in no mood to entertain her guests. It was time to leave. She’d retreat to the piano, and have Sarah come up with an excuse to—
“…me the honour of a dance?”
Morgana mentally cursed at herself. She had been so absent-minded that she hadn’t even noticed someone walking up to her. She’d have to be rude. In an expressionless tone, she turned towards the noble.
“Forgive me, I’m not in the mood for…”
It was only then that she realised who it was. Lancelot lifted his head, looking up at her with the shadow of a smile on his face as he nodded to the other side of the ballroom.
“Pellinore of Essetir has been eyeing you all evening,” the future Duke said softly. “He has been a terrible dancer for as long as I have known him. May I suggest avoiding him and not having your feet crushed?”
“That would be preferable,” Morgana replied, politely accepting his outstretched hand. She didn’t really want to dance with Lancelot. She didn’t really want to dance with anyone. But she knew that the future Duke was right about Pellinore. If she stayed on the sidelines, he’d approach her sooner or later. And if it was a choice between dancing with Lancelot or getting her feet stomped on by the Prince of Essetir, then Morgana knew which option she preferred.
As Lancelot led her onto the dance floor, the sorceress let out a small sigh.
The night would be over eventually.
The two began to twirl around the ballroom. Morgana fell into rhythm with Lancelot’s perfect lead without thinking. He was easy to follow. Predictable. Lancelot was a good dancer, and the sorceress knew that. But her heart wasn’t in it.
And the future Duke noticed.
“You look dreadfully bored, my lady,” he said softly. “Do you need a distraction to focus your mind?”
“Tonight is rather dull, I’ll admit,” the sorceress replied to him. “I’m not sure what you can offer me, though.”
“Pawn to E4.”
Morgana blinked. She had not expected that. She suppressed a frown, keeping her mask on as she looked up at the man before her. Lancelot had impeccable form, as always. He had always been a good lead. But there was something else about him tonight. Morgana noticed a strange glimmer in his eyes that she had never seen before.
“…you’re joking,” Morgana finally said, trying to guess at his reasoning. The future Duke raised a single eyebrow in response.
“My lord, how are we supposed to play? We don’t even have a board.”
She expected him to explain, or backtrack and apologise to her. The future Duke did neither. As Morgana twirled around, she could see Lancelot’s mouth pull into a smirk.
“Too complicated for you, my lady?”
The effect was instant. Morgana knew that she was being baited, but she fell for the taunt anyway, immediately feeling a rush of anger course through her body. The sorceress was fiercely competitive. She hated to lose. Her many games with Uther as a child had ensured that. Morgana wouldn’t back down from a challenge – and especially not from a challenge that was so blatantly thrown in her face.
As they moved around the ballroom floor, Morgana flashed him a calculated smile.
“Too complicated? Of course not. Pawn to E5.”
“Pawn to F4. King’s Gambit.”
She had expected a gentler start, but Lancelot surprised her again, instead choosing to go for the most aggressive opening move that white could play. And he did it without hesitation. His calm, composed confidence made Morgana’s smile widen in response.
She liked this.
“Accepted,” Morgana replied, spinning back towards him. “Pawn takes pawn. Give me some time to get the pieces set in my head. Then we’ll see what you’ve got… my lord.”
Elyan sighed, leaning his head in his palm as he stared down over the castle balcony. He had refused to put on his formal clothes. The dark-haired noble had no intention of going down to the ball. He’d dragged himself out onto the balcony instead, hiding from the court and dressed in nothing but a shirt and sleeping bottoms.
Elyan had been waiting for Winter to arrive. He had, perhaps foolishly, hoped that the cold would help. That the sensation of freezing temperatures and snow on his feet would trigger something in his body and make his legs respond to him. That it would make him feel something.
The dark-haired noble sighed. The cold weather was doing a number on him. He could feel the frigid air entering his lungs, chilling him from the inside. He could sense the goosebumps on his arms, the shivers running down his spine. Elyan could feel himself shaking.
But below the waist, Elyan felt nothing.
“Not joining the festivities?”
He didn’t have to look up to know who it was. Bayard quietly joined him on the balcony, looking down on his barely dressed form. The dark-haired noble scoffed at him.
“You mean, sit on a chair all night while watching half of the court try to impersonate life-sized spinning tops? No, thank you. I’ll stay out here.”
The Crown Prince of Mercia let out a soft chuckle. Elyan watched as Bayard slowly moved to sit down on the bench. It took him considerable effort. It had been a slow healing process for him, too. By now, Bayard had recovered enough to walk short distances, but he still needed help moving around and grew tired easily.
With the amount of damage that he had sustained, half of the court had assumed that Bayard would not recover at all. But the Crown Prince proved them wrong. Gaius had taken excellent care of him. As a result, Bayard had recovered more than the dark-haired noble could have hoped for.
More than Elyan ever would.
Elyan had never been able to hide his emotions. His feelings always showed up on his face one way or another. This time was no exception. He could see Bayard’s expression fall in response as, for a moment, the Prince was at a loss for what to say.
“Stop. It’s all right. Really. You’ve apologised enough, Bayard.”
His old rival didn’t seem convinced. Elyan forced a smile onto his face, grinning at Bayard as he tried to break the tension.
“Look at it from the bright side – at least I won’t have to worry about getting stuck on the dance floor with ol’ Briarheart anymore! I’m not going to miss that nightmare.”
“She might decide to sit next to you all night instead,” Bayard replied.
“Oh, bugger. That is way worse.”
“You don’t know the half of it. Apparently, the whole double-betrothal fiasco with the Pendragons left her feeling unusually motivated. I hear she’s looking for a fifth husband.”
“Bloody hell,” the dark-haired noble muttered. “Think about the poor sod that would have to be that ronyon’s fifth round. Just kill me now.”
The Crown Prince of Mercia chuckled, but the sound didn’t last long. A silence fell between the two of them. Elyan quietly traced the falling snowflakes as they drifted past. He didn’t know what else to say. He didn’t know what he could say. The air around them gradually grew heavier, the weight of many unspoken words between them rendering them both speechless.
They stayed that way for a long time.
Eventually, Elyan was the one to break the silence. The dark-haired noble let out a sigh. With tired eyes, he looked into the distance.
“It’s all right,” he said softly. “I knew that my days as a soldier would come to an end eventually. I knew that it couldn’t last forever. The end just… came a little earlier than I thought.”
“What will you do now?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think I’ll have much of a choice. My family already knows what happened. it’s just a matter of time until they get here. I guess it’s a Viscount’s life for me, after all.”
“You always have a choice,” Bayard replied. Elyan let out a dry, emotionless chuckle in response.
“Do I? I can’t run away from a cage if I can’t bloody run.”
Elyan absent-mindedly rubbed his hand over his knee. It was as if he was touching an inanimate object. There was no reaction. No sensation. The dark-haired noble felt nothing. A profound feeling of despondency spread through his chest, his hope slipping away alongside the falling snow.
He couldn’t run.
“I never thought I’d say it… but mother was right. You can’t escape fate, after all.”
Elyan let out a deep, tired sigh. For a moment, the dark-haired noble was ready to give up. The die was cast, and he had no other options. He couldn’t run. She had him. For good, this time. Elyan had no other choice but to accept-
“To hell with fate. Come to Mercia with me.”
It took Elyan a while to process what Bayard had said. He didn’t want to believe it at first, convinced that he had misheard him. But Bayard repeated himself, with a voice that was so filled with determination that it made Elyan’s heart skip a beat.
“Come with me,” Bayard continued, cutting through the heavy silence without hesitation. “We have the best stables in all of Albion. My brothers and sister can train a horse for you. We can teach it to respond to you even if you can’t spur it on with your feet. We’ll figure something out.”
“You… you would do that?”
“Elyan, are you joking? Of course I would. We’ve known each other for years. I’m not going to abandon you to the likes of Briarwood and your mother. What kind of barbarian do you take me for?”
“I took your legs away,” the Crown Prince continued. “I’ll give you new legs if it’s the last thing I do. You have my word, Elyan. I will not abandon you.”
The dark-haired noble still didn’t believe it. It was too good to be true. Elyan could see the determination in his friend’s face, the concern and worry in his eyes, together with something else – and his mind immediately jumped to the wrong conclusion.
“I appreciate it, Bayard. Really. But you don’t have to feel obligated to do anything. If this is out of guilt or pity-”
But the Crown Prince cut him off.
“No. It’s not like that. Not at all. I don’t- It’s not pity, Elyan.”
He could see the frustration on Bayard’s face as he struggled to put something into words. Elyan had never known him to have trouble expressing himself. Bayard had always been very charismatic – but not this time. Elyan could see the frustration on his face. Bayard balled his hands into fists, looking down before suddenly making eye contact.
The intensity in his eyes took Elyan by surprise. The dark-haired noble could feel the unspoken emotions that lied just beneath the surface. He couldn’t look away. Elyan was frozen in Bayard’s gaze, his eyes pleading with him to understand.
The next second, that moment ended. Bayard’s expression softened.
“Please understand. I don’t pity you.”
The Crown Prince of Mercia gave him a gentle smile as he reached out…
And softly placed a hand on top of his.
And Elyan understood.