When Winter finally arrived, the coldest season wasted no time in settling in. Temperatures dropped almost overnight. The entirety of Camelot became covered in a thick, gleaming layer of snow. Firewood was dragged inside en-masse, keeping hearths alight until the small hours of the morning. Farm work stopped entirely. There would be no new crops to tithe them over. Not until Spring. The citizens of Camelot carefully rationed their food supply in response. For many, the famine from last year still lay fresh in their minds and they were determined to avoid a repeat of those days.
With the coming of snow, life in Camelot slowed down.
Of course, some things stayed the same regardless of the weather.
Morgana sat on the edge of the arena, watching from a distance as Percival and Lancelot carefully took swings at each other. They had been at it for a while. Arthur was notorious for making his men train at all hours of the day, without letting up and regardless of the weather outside. The Crown Prince demanded excellence from all of them. Even during the slowness of Winter. There could be a raging blizzard going on outside and he’d still find a way to make them train.
Amused, Morgana watched the two men spar. She had been carefully observing them, waiting for the right moment. Biding her time. To the casual observer, it would look like she simply enjoyed watching the knights train. But the sorceress hadn’t come to the arena to observe their sparring session.
She had come to abuse it.
“Pawn to C3.”
Lancelot flinched, hesitating for a split second. And his hesitation cost him. Percival immediately made use of the sudden opening, lashing out and elbowing him in the jaw. Morgana watched as the future Duke was knocked off his feet and went flying through the air.
With a dull thud, Lancelot landed in the snow in front of her. The sorceress let out an amused chuckle at the sight.
“What’s the matter, my lord?” she asked, looking down on him with a gleeful smirk. “Can’t handle multitasking? Feel free to resign.”
“Never,” Lancelot growled. He kicked at Percival, almost knocking the noble’s legs out from under him and forcing him to jump backwards. Lancelot quickly rose back to his feet.
“Bishop to C4.”
“Straight to the attack, I see,” Morgana purred. “I didn’t know you were so aggressive, Lancelot.”
“I have my moments.”
The two quickly resumed their sparring match, grabbing at each other with carefully calculated aggression. Morgana could see Percival glancing in her direction every few seconds. He was not happy about her being there. But there wasn’t much that he could do about it, and Percival knew that, too. Morgana could see the nobleman turn sideways, winding up for a roundhouse kick—
“Queen to H4.”
But her trick didn’t work a second time. Lancelot brought up his armoured fists, falling into a defensive stance and parrying Percival’s blow at the last second. She could see him getting pushed back by the force of the kick. But the future Duke stood his ground.
“Now look who’s being aggressive,” Lancelot growled as he pushed Percival backwards. “King to F1.”
“Pawn to B5.”
Morgana was distracting him during his training and making weird moves on purpose. She had never played against Lancelot before, but she knew that the future Duke was a very skilled strategist. She wanted to give herself an edge. And the best way to do that was to throw him off and distract him so much that he lost focus – either by choosing bad moves, or by getting socked in the jaw.
And her strategy worked. She could see Lancelot raise an eyebrow. He stepped away from the fight, scratching his chin in confused contemplation.
“Unusual. All right, you have my curiosity. Bishop takes pawn.”
Percival, who had been looking increasingly uncomfortable during this whole exchange, awkwardly glanced back and forth between the two of them.
“Uh… should we continue this later, my lord?” he asked sheepishly. “I, uh… I feel like a third wheel.”
“No, that won’t be-”
“Yes,” Morgana interrupted. “Great idea. You are excused, Percival.”
The nobleman did not have to be told twice. Percival flashed Lancelot an awkward, apologetic smile, before turning around and hightailing it out of the arena. The sight was almost comical. Lancelot’s face pulled into a look of mild indignance as he watched him leave.
“What?” the sorceress asked, smirking at his expression. “You looked like you needed a break. Come. Take a walk with me.”
Lancelot opened his mouth to protest, but then thought better of it and closed it again. Her smile widened. She gestured at the gate that led outside, immediately taking the lead.
The outskirts of Camelot were a beautiful sight during Winter. The snowfall from the previous night had covered everything in a pristine, gleaming layer of snow. Morgana could hear their feet making soft crunching sounds as they walked. Morgana had a spring to her step. She was in a great mood, almost humming to herself as she trailed her way around the outer wall.
Eventually, Lancelot spoke up.
“You do realise that Arthur will just make us do the same training again later.”
“All the more reason to take a break now,” Morgana replied. The future Duke shook his head.
“Still, you didn’t have to send poor Percival away like that.”
“What, was I rude? Should I have invited him to join our chess match, instead?”
“No. That game is just for you.”
The sorceress smirked, visibly flattered by his answer. She couldn’t help but notice the speed of his response, too. It was surprising. Morgana had never thought much of Lancelot. The two of them didn’t cross paths often. She didn’t like him as a child, and never thought more of him than “one of Arthur’s men” as they grew up. For years, their relationship had been one of mutual disinterest.
But ever since their trip to Murkwood, the future Duke was acting different.
And he wasn’t the only one. She couldn’t help it. The fact that Morgana didn’t have to worry about him finding out about her magick made their conversations incredibly calming. It put her at ease. His analytical mind was an enjoyable bonus. She felt herself getting weirdly invested in their chess match, constantly thinking about which moves to make. And from the looks of it, the feeling was mutual. Morgana had never seen Lancelot this interested before.
The sorceress liked it.
“You surprise me, Lancelot,” she said, turning to face him. “I didn’t know that you were such an avid chess player. You don’t strike me as the kind of person who likes games.”
“Looks can be deceiving,” Lancelot replied. “But you can use chess as more than just a game… something I’m sure I do not need to tell you.”
He was right. Morgana had been turning people into chess pieces in her mind for years, moving them around and manipulating them wherever she could. It had become somewhat of a second nature. Sometimes, the sorceress caught herself having trouble seeing the person apart from the chess piece. She had told Arthur about that habit exactly once. He had been horrified, and ever since, the Crown Prince refused to play with her.
Lancelot would probably react the same way. But she wanted to know what he had to say, anyway.
“What do you use it for?” the sorceress asked, unable to keep her curiosity to herself.
“Chess is a great way to learn about your opponent. How someone plays directly reflects the type of person that they are. If you spend enough time with someone, you can read their personality through their moves and predict how they will act next.”
“Oh?” Morgana replied. “I take back what I said earlier. That does sound a lot like you. But it must be difficult to read all that through chess.”
“Not at all. Most people are very easy to read through games. Including you.”
That caught her attention. Morgana turned around, her smile turning into a provocative smirk as she looked up at Lancelot.
“Interesting. Go on, then. Prove it. Read me.”
Her challenge was meant to throw him off. But like always, Lancelot was completely unfazed by her words. The future Duke answered without hesitation.
“You are aggressive and opportunistic in play,” he said, frowning as he placed a hand on his chin. “You favour your knights and tend to avoid your bishop whenever other pieces can make the same moves. You sacrifice pawns without hesitation if it advances your position. And you greatly rely on your Queen, almost to a fault.”
Morgana was taken aback. The two of them had never played before. Their current match was only a few moves old – and yet, Lancelot had read her with the same ease that he would read through a book. She quickly shrugged, covering up her feelings of surprise and trying to bluff her way out with:
“And? That says nothing.”
“It says a great deal,” Lancelot replied. “It tells me that you are determined and willing to go to great lengths to achieve your goals. But you are far-sighted. You rely on yourself too much to solve every problem, without trusting those around you.”
“You got all that from half a chess match?”
“Half a chess match and five years of observing you at court. It is not meant as an insult,” the future Duke said, quickly adding those last words when he saw the look on her face. “I meant it as a compliment… and also as a warning.”
“Everyone has their shortcomings, my lady. And relying on the strength of others is not a weakness. Not everything has to be shouldered alone, without help. Even an indomitable spirit needs support from time to time.”
“Indomitable spirit?” Morgana asked, unable to keep the delight from seeping into her voice as she immediately took to the compliment. Lancelot raised a single eyebrow in response; for a moment, she could see the edges of his mouth curl upwards.
“I have yet to see it dominated. I imagine that the sight would be… quite fascinating.”
“Incidentally, Bishop to F3.”
“Tower to H6,” Morgana replied almost instantly, her eyes gleaming. She had cornered two of his pieces already. Her distracting him in the arena had paid off. One wrong step from Lancelot’s side and she’d be able to trap him. Morgana grinned, eagerly waiting for his next move.
She did not have to wait for long.
“Pawn to D3.”
“Knight to H5. Ha! No need to rush your next move, my lord. Take some time. Think about your life choices.”
Morgause laughed, flinching as the snowball hit her full in the shoulder.
“Stop! Stop! I give up!”
She shivered as she felt bits of snow fell into her shirt’s collar, immediately starting to melt as they slid down her back. On the other side of the clearing, she could see Monoroe grab another fistful.
“Had enough, Goosey?” the Huntress teased, giving her friend a playful wink. “I can do this all day, you know.”
“Fine,” Morgause gasped, trying to grab the melting snow in her clothes. “I surrender. You win.”
“That’s right! Who is the queen of snowy balls? I am!”
The witch almost choked at her friend’s choice of words. Morgause knew that she was doing it on purpose. Monoroe seemed to be immune to the cold, wearing nothing but an extra scarf for warmth. She had been gleefully making snow angels and pelting everything that moved with snow all day.
And she hadn’t tired of it yet. Morgause watched as Monoroe locked in on Glitonea, who was building a snowman a few feet away from them. Her back was turned. She wasn’t participating – Glitonea didn’t like snowball fights. Morgause knew this and made sure to keep her out of it, but Monoroe didn’t give her water-loving friend the same courtesy. With a gleeful, almost impish grin, she scooped up another hand of snow and rolled it into a snowball.
“Tooooni? I have a present for-”
Glitonea’s arm shot outwards, pointing towards the nearest tree. The two witches could sense a wave of magic cascade out from her direction. The next moment, all of the snow on top of the pine tree came crashing down, landing on top of Monoroe and completely burying her in a heap of powdery white.
Morgause howled with laughter. She was never going to let her friend live this down.
From the direction of the setting sun, Morgause could see a long shadow approach. A familiar shadow. The witch turned around to see Lincoln strolling towards her, blissfully unbothered by the cold in the same way that Monoroe was.
As soon as she locked eyes with the Faun, Morgause’s expression turned from amusement to unbridled delight. She hadn’t seen her lover in a few days. The witch didn’t like being separated from Lincoln for too long. For some reason, not having him close by made her feel uneasy. Morgause immediately turned away from her coven and ran over to greet him.
As soon as Morgause reached him, she jumped up and wrapped an arm around his neck, smiling as she pressed her body against his.
“I was wondering when you’d come back. How was your social visit with the Fanes?”
“I got away early,” Lincoln replied.
“I’m glad you did. I missed you.”
Morgause could see the corners of his mouth curl upwards at her words. Lincoln placed his arms around her waist and pulled her in.
“I missed you, too,” he muttered. “I want you to stay close for a while.”
The Faun was being unusually chatty. Lincoln was a master of grabbing her attention through smouldering looks, but his conversations were usually reduced to two-word sentences. But not today. The witch took a step backwards, untangling herself from Lincoln as she cocked her head curiously.
“You’re in a good mood. Did something interesting happen?”
He shrugged at her.
“I found you a present.”
Morgause watched as Lincoln reached behind him and pulled something out from the satchel on his belt.
The flower blended into the surrounding white so well that it took Morgause a moment to recognise it. When she did, her expression immediately changed into surprised joy.
“A snowbell? You’re so sweet. I know you hate picking flowers.”
“It won’t die,” Lincoln responded, wrapping his arms around her. “It’s a Fae flower. It gave me permission. It will grow roots again if you plant it in the snow.”
“Wait, from the Fae? Lincoln, did you deal with the Fanes just so you could go and find me a flower?”
The Faun didn’t respond. But the look on his face spoke volumes.
“Do you like it?”
“I love it,” she smiled. “Thank you, Lincoln.”
“…and we could turn that rock there into a great centerpiece for the ritual! This place is ideal, don’t you think? It’s secluded, the clearing is sheltered from the wind and the forest around it looks gorgeous. What do you think?”
“It’s welcoming,” the Faun replied, slowly looking around the clearing as he nodded in approval. “Do I bring my vielle?”
Lincoln had fallen into the habit of playing for her whenever she and her coven held a ritual on one of the equinoxes. But Morgause had different plans for this year. She shook her head at him, giving his hand a little squeeze.
“Not this time. I want you next to me.”
As they strolled across the snow, leaving a deep trail of footprints behind them, Morgause could see Lincoln’s expression slowly fall. His brow furrowed. She knew what was bothering him. BUt she didn’t want to address it, so the witch kept chatting away about her plans.
Eventually, the Faun caught her in a moment of silence. His head turned towards her. When Lincoln spoke, his voice was both wary and concerned.
“Morgause… have you gone home yet?”
“I’ll… do it later.”
“Anyway,” she continued, in a forcefully chipper tone, “we could place some candles on that tree trunk there! I bet that we could get a few frost sprites to show up if we decorate the clearing properly. I was thinking of offering them some winter flowers, too. What do you think they would like best?”
“Hollies or snowdrops?”
“Because I bet that we could find some ice lotuses in the lakes around here too if we search hard enough and-”
Her words were abruptly cut short. Morgause was stopped by Lincoln, who suddenly turned around and grabbed hold of her. She could feel his arms wrap around her waist and pull her against him.
His soft voice had made way for a low, deep tone that made shivers run down her spine. It stunned the witch into silence. Lincoln turned her towards him, forcing her to look him in the eyes. His gaze was magnetic. Morgause could see an intense glimmer in his eyes that completely rooted her into place.
“You are running away.”
“I… I’m not,” Morgause muttered, unable to look away. She could feel herself drowning in his gaze. Lincoln’s eyes narrowed in response.
“You are. You made a promise.”
“I know I did… But it can wait, Lincoln.”
“You did not promise to wait. You promised to do anything.”
“Do not break your promises, Morgause.”
Morgause had a habit of forgetting about Lincoln’s Fae nature. The Faun acted so very human, and they knew each other so well, that Morgause often considered her and Lincoln to be the same. It was moments like this that proved her wrong. She could feel his arms tighten around her waist. The Faun looked down on her with so much intensity that took her breath away. Morgause knew that he was not going to let this go.
“I… I won’t,” the witch muttered, trying to reassure him. “I promise that I won’t. But… I can’t go back home yet. Not now, Lincoln. If I go back now, my father will drag me into the war.”
His gaze softened. The firm grip around her waist turned back into a warm, gentle caress.
“I know. I don’t want you to go, either,” the Faun said quietly.
“Then why did you remind me?”
Morgause watched as Lincoln shook his head, unable to make sense of his expression.
“I have to,” he muttered. “You cannot take back your words once you’ve said them. And breaking trust is worse than being forced to honour them.”
Morgause could hear Nimueh’s voice echoing through his words. But that didn’t change the fact that he was right. She couldn’t stick her head in the sand forever. No matter how much she wanted to. Regardless of the disaster that had been her plan to get Nimueh to Morgana, the witch was had a heavy debt to pay to Gorlois. Her father would not forget that debt. She would have to pay it back eventually. Morgause winced as she thought back on her last visit to Cornwall. On the deal that she had made with its King.
On the exact words that she had used.
“It doesn’t matter what it is. I’ll do anything.”
She had been so stupid.
“I know,” the witch muttered. “I know I set things in motion that I can’t undo, just to get what I wanted. I know I’ll have to own up to it eventually. But I just… I don’t…”
“You don’t want to think about it now,” the Faun said softly. Morgause nodded, wrapping an arm around his neck as she nuzzled into him.
“I just want to hide. With you. Just for a little while, until Winter is over. Is that so selfish?”
It took a little while for an answer to come.
“Yes. It is.”
Lincoln ran a hand over the small of her back, softly pressing his forehead against hers. The Faun let out a sigh.
“Think about it tomorrow.”