Author’s note: Sorry for vanishing for a week – for those of you who aren’t on the forums, I had a very bad week cumulating in a risky surgery for one of my cats. Then my other cat ended up needing surgery as well, almost right after. We’re hanging in there. Just keep swimming, right?
Anyway. Enjoy the continued snowfall! Sorry if the chapter is a bit lacking. I am trying very hard. 😅
Gawain looked at the pine tree that Gaheris had pointed out. It was a little smaller than the rest of them. The tree wouldn’t fit in the house, but Gawain was pretty sure that he could drag it into the garden.
“Well spotted, Gaheris,” Gawain nodded. “That looks like a good one.”
“Yeah! That one will look nice!”
Gareth didn’t seem to agree. He scoffed, placing his arms behind his head.
“Pfffft. It’s tiny.”
“Is not,” his brother replied.
“Is too. I want a bigger one.”
“Nuh-uh! A bigger one won’t fit in the house.”
“We’re not putting it in the house, stupid! We’re putting it in the garden!”
“Well, it still won’t fit!”
The two of them bickered over almost everything these days. It was starting to get old. Gawain quickly ended the argument, cutting both of them off.
“Gaheris is right, Gareth. A bigger sized tree won’t fit in the garden, either. We’re taking that one.”
“Fine,” his brother huffed, crossing his arms in protest. “But I’m putting on the topper this year!”
“Nuh-uh! You put it on last year! It’s my turn, Gareth!”
Gawain walked up to the tree, looking it up and down as he searched for the best place to start chopping. They did this every year. Gareth and Gaheris would pick out a tree, Gawain would chop it down, and they’d drag it down the hillside until they reached their house. It was a tradition. The would-be knight remembered doing the same with his father, back when he still had the strength to fell a tree.
And now the axe belonged to Gawain. He was determined to let his brothers have the same amount of fun that he’d had. Gawain took a deep breath, gripping the axe tightly as he raised it high above his head—
He slowly lowered the axe as a mossy, almost herbal scent drifted into his nostrils. Gawain blinked. The image of Eurydice suddenly surfaced in his mind, flitting into his thoughts like a stray butterfly. Gawain shook his head, trying to regain focus on the task in front of him—
And found that he couldn’t.
“Gawain? What are you doing?”
“I’m… not sure,” he muttered. Gawain looked up, carefully touching one of the pine leaves. He suddenly felt weirdly apprehensive of the axe in his hand. Like he wasn’t supposed to hold it. Like he was touching something bad – something unpleasant. It was a strange, alien feeling. Gawain couldn’t place it. He carefully took a step back, frowning in confusion.
“I think… I think we should leave it alone.”
“Huh? Why?” Gareth asked. Gawain tilted his head in response.
His brothers did not like that answer at all.
“That’s no fair!” Gareth yelled. “You said that we’d go get a Yule tree today, Gawain!”
“Yeah!” Gareth bellowed. “You’re not allowed to break promises, ever! You said that yourself!”
“I know I did, but-”
“But what?” Gaheris asked. With a worried look in his eyes, the boy glanced up at Gawain.
“Is it a bad tree? Is it going to come to life and attack us?”
“Trees can’t move, stupid,” Gareth scoffed at his brother.
“No, that’s not it,” Gawain replied. “It’s more like… a feeling. Like cutting it down would be bad.”
Gaheris cocked his head, looking up at his brother curiously.
“Like… the tree would feel sad?”
“But it’s a tree!” Gareth said, crossing his arms angrily. “Trees don’t get sad, Gawain! That’s dumb.”
Gawain couldn’t put his finger on it. But the more his brothers protested, the more convinced he became that he was doing the right thing. Something was different this year. Something important. Something that he’d learned in Murkwood. But he couldn’t explain it with logic.
“I don’t think it’s dumb,” he said, looking down on his brothers with a frown. “I can’t explain it, but… well. the tree lives here, doesn’t it? We would be taking it away from its home. That doesn’t feel right.”
“But… you said we’d have a festive tree,” Gaheris pouted. “I want a tree.”
“I know. But I wouldn’t want to take something from its home that doesn’t want to go. Not for Yule.”
“Think of it like… like it’s a family,” Gawain continued, trying to explain the strange feeling in his chest. “The trees here might be a family, like us. What if the castle said that I couldn’t be with you during Yule? Of if one of you was taken away? You wouldn’t want that, right?”
The boys frowned.
“It’s like that. It doesn’t feel right. I don’t think we should cut down a tree today. We’ll go back home and decorate something else instead, okay?”
“But… you promised we’d get a tree,” Gareth pouted. “I don’t want something else.”
Gawain knew his brothers well enough to know when they’d gotten their minds stuck on something. If he forced them to leave now, the two of them would pout all the way home. Gaheris would lose his appetite. About two hours from now, Gareth would end up having a temper tantrum over something completely unrelated. It wouldn’t be pretty. Gawain racked his brain, trying to come up with something else for them to focus on—
“Okay. I have an idea,” Gawain thought out loud. “Why don’t we leave something behind? It can still be our tree. We’ll mark it with something to show that it’s ours. But instead of taking it away with us, we’ll leave something here.”
“Like… like a present for the tree?” Gaheris asked.
“Yeah. Like that. How does that sound?”
“I think it’s stu-”
“I have a holly!” Gaheris yelled, cutting his brother off mid-sentence. His eyes were gleaming with enthusiasm.
“I picked it this morning. I was going to give it to mum, but I want to give it to the tree now. Can I leave that here?”
“That sounds great. What about you, Gareth? What do you have?”
The boy raised a single eyebrow at Gawain.
“Nothing. This is stupid.”
“…fine. I have some seeds. Maybe. But I still want to decorate and place the topper on something.”
“We can still do that,” Gawain smiled. “When we get back, you can place the topper-”
“And the balls.”
“And the balls-”
“And the guard snowman goes under my window tonight.”
“Nuh-uh! It’s my night for the snowman! That’s not fair, Gareth!”
“We’ll make two guard snowmen,” Gawain said, chuckling as he looked from one child to the other. “And I’ll share my Yule cookies with both of you this weekend. Deal?”
Guinevere sighed, shivering in the winter cold as she stepped outside. The difference between the frigid outdoors and the hot, bustling chaos that were the castle kitchens during Yule preparations was like night and day.
She was glad to have a breather. Guinevere and Sarah hadn’t been given a proper break in days. Sarah thrived on it. The more hectic the other servants became, the more gleeful pleasure she seemed to derive from one-upping them all.
But Guinevere wasn’t like that. She didn’t like pressure. She didn’t like competing with the other servants.
She hadn’t been able to get out of serving at any of the balls, either. Guinevere let out a sigh as she descended the stairs. The sooner Yule was over with, the better. Guinevere kept telling herself that she was fine with it. That it wasn’t her place. That she had no right to feel anything but acceptance towards what she saw on the ballroom floor.
“Oh, don’t lie. I’ve seen you look. You want to waltz around in a fancy gown, too, don’t you?”
Of course you can’t. You don’t even know how to waltz!
Shut up. Don’t tell her what she can and can’t do.
Can we turn the girl into a statue? I bet we can turn her into a statue.
Would she shatter it if she could?
Guinevere was so distracted by the cacaphony of voices in her head that she’d made it halfway around the corner before realising that something was wrong. Her body froze up. Guinevere blinked, looking down in confusion—
Despite her small frame, Guinevere was stronger than she looked. And the nearest tea parlor was not far away. By the time that Mithian fully regained her senses, the maidservant had comfortably placed her on the sofa.
“Are… are you okay, milady?”
“Yes. Thank you for your concern.”
“Um… are you sure? You were… lying in the snow…”
Guinevere didn’t know what to do. She didn’t want to help Mithian. She did not want to go anywhere near her. As she looked down on the Princess, a flood of conflicting emotions surged through her body. They twisted and tangled around each other, muddling her mind until the maidservant had no idea what she was feeling anymore.
She… disliked this person… didn’t she?
Yes. Yes, she did.
I don’t hate her.
“I do apologise for my… unsightly display,” Mithian muttered, breaking eye contact as she gently rubbed the top of her nose. “You were not supposed to see that. Please forget about it.”
“F-forget?” Guinevere repeated. “Um… M-milady, you were… unconscious on the ground…”
The Princess of Nemeth did not respond. She had to go and fetch Gaius, so he could take a look at her. But before Guinevere could excuse herself, Mithian spoke to her again, rooting her back into place.
“Yes. Forget it, please. It is… rather shameful. A princess’s health should not be this feeble.”
Mithian let out a small sigh, leaning back into the sofa.
“It is nothing of concern,” she explained softly. “They are spells of seasonal vertigo. They get to me when the temperature drops. They come back every year no matter what I try. I did not want anyone in Camelot to know about them. I have been managing it reasonably well so far, but… I guess I underestimated the weather today.”
“I… I see,“ Guinevere mumbled. “I, um, I should go get Gaius-“
The maidservant wasn’t well-versed in medicine. Beyond getting Mithian inside and out of the cold, there was nothing that she could do to help her. She needed a doctor. Guinevere had expected Mithian to agree with that. But as soon as she took a step towards the door, the Princess of Nemeth called her back.
“No, wait! Stop! Don’t- don’t get the physician. It is not needed, I promise.”
“Please,” she said, her voice sounding strangely desperate. ”Do not tell anyone. You must keep this quiet. Please. You can’t tell – if they find out that the future Queen is feeble, they will cast me out and force me to go back to Nemeth.”
The maidservant reacted on instinct, without thinking.
“What?! No!“ she gasped. “Arthur wouldn’t do that!”
“Of course not!” Guinevere replied. “A-Arthur is a good Prince. He’s kind and gentle and sweet and-”
“And… err… I mean…”
The maidservant knew that she had said too much. Guinevere’s reaction was inappropriate on five different levels. As she silently cursed her outburst, she could see the expression on Mithian’s face change. The maidservant braced herself for a scathing remark.
But that was not what happened. Slowly, the fear in Mithian’s eyes changed into something else. She could see a sliver of curiosity. The Princess of Nemeth slowly looked her up and down, raising a single eyebrow.
“What’s your name?”
“I see,” the Princess nodded. ”You have my sincere gratitude, Guinevere. You have been very kind to me, even though you had no reason to be. I did not expect to be given such a thing here. I’m… rather unused to it, to be frank.”
Guinevere looked away, unsure of what to do. Besides Arthur and Morgana, none of the nobles ever took note of her existence, let alone decide to talk to her. She didn’t know how to react. Guinevere was used to her efforts being ignored. She was used to being invisible. She awkwardly shuffled her feet, not knowing what to do with herself.
“…I’m just a servant, milady.”
Like a magnet, Guinevere’s gaze was drawn to the gleaming ring around Mithian’s finger. The sight of it made the knot in her stomach twist even further. Guinevere winced, trying to drown out the voices that echoed through her head.
I still think we should turn her to stone.
Why are you helping? You could have let her freeze to death in the snow.
She’s always helping. We always help. Didn’t you know that?
She only caught the tail end of her sentence. Trying to drown out the voices had drowned out everything else, instead. Guinevere blinked, looking down at Mithian in confusion.
“Ah, I’m sorry, I mean-I beg y-your pardon.”
She could see a faint smile appear on Mithian’s face. The noblewoman’s shoulders relaxed. When she spoke, her words had changed into a much more casual tone.
”It s all right. You’re sweet, Guinevere. I can tell. I’m glad that you’re the one that found me.”
“You… you are?” Guinevere asked, her insides tangling up into an even bigger knot of confusion. Mithian gave her a small nod, the smile on her lips widening.
“Yes. I’m quite happy that I get to talk to a girl my age. The servants I’ve been given are wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but… well, they’re all rather advanced in years. And Lady Morgana doesn’t seem to like me all that much.“
Mithian looked at the ground, fiddling with the sleeve of her dress.
“I’ve been feeling a bit lonely in the castle because of it,“ she admitted. “And, well… I know it’s not entirely appropriate, but…”
“I’m glad that I got to talk to you.”
“Okay, and now we put…”
“Not like that, dummy! It’s under the snow!”
“Like that, then?” Gareth asked, placing the holly in front of the seeds. Gaheris gave him an enthusiastic nod.
“Yeah! That looks nice.”
Curiously, the boy looked down on the little display.
“Do you think the squirrels will eat them?”
“Squirrels don’t eat seeds, stupid. They eat nuts. And berries. And snowmen.”
“They don’t eat snow!”
“Do too! Angmar said that he saw a squirrel fighting with a snowman!”
“Gareth, Angmar is blind,” Gawain chuckled.
“Oh. Right. Well, I still think he’s right.”
“If you say so. What do you say we go home and make those snowmen now?”
“Can we give him a hat?!” Gaheris asked excitedly.
“Of course. We’ll give him a good hat.”
“Can we make him hold your axe, too?” Gareth jumped in, glancing at the tool on his belt. Gawain frowned.
“…I’m not sure if that’s a good-”
“Oh! We should make him wear a helmet!”
“Yeah! C’mon! I want a helmet, and the axe, and a sword-”
“Hey! Careful! Gareth!”
“And a lance, and a shield, and a flag-”
“And a snow horse!”
“Yeah! Can you make a snow horse for us? Please?”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
The silence in the library was disrupted by the soft, confident voice of Lancelot.
“I’ve thought about my life choices, my lady. Are you prepared? Knight to H4.”
“Tower to… G5,” she replied, without glancing up from her book. “Are you giving up your bishop, or your knight?”
“Neither. Knight to F5.”
“Pawn to C6. You left your knight hanging out.”
Morgana’s lips pulled into a small smile as she flipped the page of her book.
“Pay attention, Lancelot.”
“Always,” he replied. “Tower to G1.”
“Pawn takes your bishop.”
Lancelot let out a sound that was somewhere between a chuckle and a groan of frustration. Then, the future Duke fell silent. For a moment, he seemed lost in thought.
“This takes me back,” he eventually muttered. “My sister taught me how to play. We used it as a way of bonding when I was very little.”
That came as a surprise. Morgana had never heard him talk about his family. Lancelot had always been incredibly closed-off when it came to talking about himself. Curiously, Morgana tilted her head to look at him.
“I’ve never heard you talk about your sister.”
“Her name was Leliana,” he said, taking a seat next to her on the sofa. “She was a very gentle woman with an endless amount of patience. She needed it. As a young child, I was not very stable. Mentally.”
“What do you mean?”
“I didn’t know how to deal with the unknown,” Lancelot explained. “I hated new places and despised any situation that I could not predict. My father – Lot – he kept me away from court because of it. I never attended until my early teens. Before that, I was barely able to function in society, let alone attend formal court.”
“I… didn’t know that.”
“I am not surprised,” Lancelot replied. ”Not many people did. Lot kept it under very tight wraps for over a decade. It took years to overcome- but my sister was an incredibly patient teacher. She taught me chess as a way of dealing with anxiety.”
”What do you mean?”
”Chess has rigid, clearly defined rules that never change, no matter what happens. Everything is predictable. Every move can be anticipated. The game became somewhat of a safe space because of it. It’s always worked to calm me down when I became overwhelmed.”
He turned towards her with a warm, nostalgic expression in his eyes that she had not seen before.
“These days, I do not need the game anymore,” he shrugged. ”But I’ve always had a fondness for chess because of it. Seeing how we’ve been playing for a couple of days now, I… wanted to share that.”
“Pawn to H4, by the way.”
“Tower to G6,” Morgana replied almost instantly. The surprise of being told something personal immediately made way for suspicion. Was he trying to distract her? If Lancelot thought that something like that would make her lose focus, then he could think again.
“Pawn to H5. Careful,” he added, confirming her suspicions as his mouth pulling into a smirk. Morgana raised a single eyebrow in response.
“You’re the one that lost his bishop. Tower to G5.”
But his words did leave an impact. Morgana couldn’t ignore them completely. In a way, they sounded oddly familiar. She remembered her own days of staring at a chessboard until she calmed down. Until she came up with strategies. They were similar in more ways than she had realised. Morgana looked at the ground, doubting if she should say anything.
“I… think I can relate,” she muttered eventually. “A little bit. It’s not the same, but the rules have helped me through the years, too. Though I don’t know if “helped” is the correct term.”
“What do you mean?”
“Dear Watcher, Morgana. You can’t use people like that. They are not pawns.“
“You are not a chess piece! Stop talking about yourself as if you are!”
“I… use them. Mostly around the castle. But in other places, too. I’ve only ever told this to my brother, but… it’s a lot easier to play games in court when you turn the people around you into chess pieces.”
“Yes,” she muttered softly. ”I have for years. It helps me disassociate. I can’t afford to let my guard down around people, so when we play at court, I just… stop seeing them as such. It’s easier that way. Even with people I care about. Especially with people I care about.”
“You’ve made Arthur into your King,” Lancelot replied, immediately understanding. Morgana gave him a single nod.
“Yes. I’ve done that with everyone over the years. It… helps. I have to manipulate the people around Arthur to keep him safe, and turning them into chess pieces makes it easier to do. It’s comforting, though it’s also… well…”
“Wait, is that why you insisted on bringing her along?! You can’t toy with people like that, Morgana!”
The sorceress let out a sigh.
“It used to be easy to step back out. See them as people again. But it’s slowly gotten harder to do. Sometimes I can’t really tell them apart.”
Her expression fell.
“I know that is disturbing.”
As the room fell into silence, Morgana knew that she had overshared. She had let her guard down too much. She’s shown a weakness, and one that would probably drive him away. Morgana bowed her head as Lancelot let out a sigh.
“Perhaps it is.”
“But I have done the same. Sometimes we have to use the tools we are given.”
“Incidentally, Queen to F3.”
“Oooh, clever,” Morgana smirked. “You almost trapped my tower. Knight to G8.”
“Bishop takes pawn, threatens Queen.”
“Pah. Tower to F6.”
“Knight to C3. You’ve developed nothing but your Queen,” Lancelot spoke, leaning back into the sofa. “Daring, but reckless. Do you really think you can win without support?”
A challenge. The slight smirk on her lips had grown into an all-out grin as Morgana put her game mask back on.
“Don’t get overconfident, Lancelot. You’re still one bishop down. Bishop to C5, by the way.”
“Ah. I will need to reconsider, my lady.”
For a moment, the sorceress looked at him in silence.
“Morgana,“ she said eventually. “Call me Morgana.”
For a moment, Lancelot seemed genuinely taken aback. He blinked, looking at her with clear hesitation. Then, that moment ended as she gave him a nod. A warm expression spread across his face, his lips pulling into a surprised smile.
The future Duke had a good smile. Open. Genuine.
She didn’t dislike it.