Author’s note: Has some disclaimers. Highlight them if you’re worried. Skip them if you don’t want spoilers.
Disclaimer: Painful. This chapter deals with the death of a child.
With long, confident strides, the future Duke of Henford weaved his way through the dancing crowd. Lancelot had rejected offers from female suitors all evening. He’d purposefully stayed off the dance floor, watching them all from the side-lines in silent contemplation.
Lancelot only intended to have one dance tonight.
Three hours after the masquerade had started, the target of his patience finally appeared.
Morgana flashed him an assertive grin, waving the others away as she waited for him at the head of the dance floor. Every inch of her radiated confidence. She was enjoying this. Lancelot could tell. The sorceress was the only one that had come without a mask, waltzing into the ballroom with nothing but white paint obscuring her face.
The future Duke knew why.
“I’ve taken the time to think about it,” she grinned, raising her hand towards him. “Are you ready to finish this?”
Lancelot bowed down, taking her hand as he delicately placed a kiss on top.
“I look forward to it.”
In a single, fluent motion, Lancelot pulled her onto the dance floor. The two began to twirl around the ballroom. Morgana fell into rhythm with Lancelot’s lead perfectly, changing herself to match his strides without batting an eyelash. Her ability to shift and adapt had always astounded him. There was never a hair out of place- every movement was nearly flawless.
But Lancelot could see the intensity underneath. He’d seen it since the day they met in court. A fierce determination that sizzled just under the surface and reminded him so much of his sister.
After Murkwood, the future Duke finally knew what it was.
“Knight to A6.”
“Knight takes pawn at G7,” Lancelot replied, spinning Morgana around as his hands closed around her waist. The dance floor was packed with nobles, but neither of them cared. They twirled around each other with reckless abandon, forcing the others off the dance floor. Lancelot ignored the gasps and angry glares from the other nobles. They were insignificant. They didn’t matter.
Tonight, the rest of the masquerade might as well not have existed.
“Uh-huh,” Morgana muttered. “King to D8.”
“Queen to F6. Check.”
Their dance stopped. They came to a halt in the middle of the ballroom. Morgana smiled, gazing into Lancelot’s eyes as she closed the distance between them.
Her hand slowly moved around his neck as Lancelot could smell the scent of rose oil drifting past him. It was intoxicating. The future Duke could feel her soft curves brush against his body, making his breath hitch in his throat. Her smile widened. She knew exactly what she was doing. The future Duke felt himself getting drawn in, unable to resist as her fingers curled into his hair. She was too close.
She wasn’t pulling away.
When they were so close that Lancelot could feel the warmth of her body on his skin, the sorceress finally stopped. Her smile widened. In a low, sultry tone, Morgana whispered:
“And now my bishop takes your Queen.”
The moment shattered as the sorceress let go. Morgana quickly stepped back, her mouth curling into a vicious smile as she did so. The warmth of her touch faded away like a broken illusion.
“It’s over,” she grinned. “You’ve lost, Lancelot. You’ve got no towers. Your Queen is dead. You’re down to a single bishop.”
“So it seems,” Lancelot nodded, faking a sigh to get his breathing back under control. It fooled no one. Morgana’s smirk turned into all-out glee as she looked up at him.
“Such a shame – you could have stood a fighting chance, too. Too bad that you wasted all that time moving that pawn to…”
Lancelot chuckled, regaining his composure as Morgana finally realized what he’d done. It had not been a wasted move at all. He’d moved that piece on purpose. Lancelot had spent years observing the sorceress at court – he knew how ruthless she was, and how easily she discarded smaller pieces. He knew that Morgana would overlook something small. That she wouldn’t recognize the threat it posed. Not until it was too late.
He’d used her own weakness against her.
The future Duke watched as her face contorted, a dozen emotions raging underneath. He could feel them sweep through her with an intensity that kept surprising him. They all came at once. Anger. Surprise. Frustration. Shock, outrage, excitement – they all fought for control as Morgana looked up at Lancelot in stunned disbelief.
“Wha- You sneaky little…”
He smiled at her in response.
“Bishop to E7. Checkmate, Morgana.”
Morgana covered her mouth in shock, before bursting into a high-pitched giggle that he had never heard before. Her voice echoed through the ballroom, bouncing off the walls and making half the court turn their heads in confusion. The edges of his mouth curled upwards.
He liked that sound.
“I have to say, I’m impressed,” she finally said. “I am not bested easily. That was magnificent, Lancelot.”
“You don’t give yourself enough credit. The best games are played against great opponents. I could not have done that without you.”
Her smile widened in response. The sorceress gave him an appreciative nod. Lancelot knew what that nod meant. He knew that their time together had come to an end. He could not come any closer- not without the rest of the court jumping to conclusions about what he was trying to do. It would complicate things for her even further.
Adding to Morgana’s worries was the last thing that Lancelot wanted to do.
The future Duke stepped forward, bowing down as he kissed her hand again.
“Thank you for your time, my lady.”
But he couldn’t pull away. As he made to step back, Morgana’s finger suddenly locked around his own, holding on to him and keeping him from leaving.
She’d never done that before, either. With a surprised frown, the future Duke of Henford looked back up.
“Come play with me again.”
…maybe just one more game.
“It would be my pleasure, Morgana.”
The chess game between Morgana and Lancelot is an enactment of The Immortal Game, or “King’s Gambit” played between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritsky in 1851 in London. It became famous, highly praised for its daring creativity and the brilliance of its final move. The Immortal Game is considered to be the epitome of the dashing, romantic chess style of its time.
Gawain shivered, trying to warm up his fingers as best he could as he trudged through the snow. He’d forgotten his gloves when he went out. His mum had been in the middle of dinner preparations when she realised that they’d run fresh out of parsley – but getting some from the neighbours had proved to be a bigger problem than he thought. The would-be knight had been forced to walk all the way to the castle bridge before he found enough herbs to bring back.
Gawain was halfway back home when he spotted a familiar figure in the distance. Arthur was standing on the bridge with his back turned towards him, silently looking out over the town outskirts. Gawain raised a single eyebrow at the sight.
The Crown Prince of Camelot looked back in surprise.
“Oh. Gawain. I didn’t expect to see anyone here.”
“What are you doing?” Gawain asked curiously. He watched as the expression on Arthur’s face turned from surprise to discomfort.
“I was, er…”
“Are you hiding from the ball?”
“What? No,” Arthur said quickly. “Of course not. I’m simply… taking a break.”
“Your fingers are blue, Arthur.”
“A long break.”
“Uh-huh. On the bridge.”
“In the freezing cold with no coat or gloves on.”
The young redhead was known to be naïve, but even Gawain was not this gullible. Not anymore. Gawain glanced at his friend from the corner of his eyes, his lips curling into a smirk.
“…You’re hiding from the ball, aren’t you?”
“Okay, fine!” Arthur huffed. “Fine. I’m hiding from the bloody ball.”
“Ha! I knew it!”
“I hate masquerades,” he admitted, grumbling as he looked down at the frozen stream below. “We do the same thing every year and dance the exact same waltzes. It never changes. Everyone is insincere. And the ones who aren’t, are black-out drunk. If I get pat on the cheek or told I have a ‘nice face’ one more time – I swear to the Watcher.”
Gawain chuckled in amusement. He hadn’t seen Arthur this agitated in a while.
“So… you don’t want to go back,” he eventually said, glancing over at his friend.
“And so… you’re hiding out here?”
“Yes, Gawain. Yes, I am.”
“Well, if you don’t feel like going back… do you want to come have dinner at my house?”
“Gawain, are you sure that this is a good idea?”
“Of course! Come on, it’s warm inside. And mum is making roast chicken for dinner.”
“But… it’s unannounced,” the Prince protested. “Your mother is not expecting guests. And I’m… I really wouldn’t want to be a bother.”
“It’s no bother!” Gawain replied brightly. “It’s Yule, Arthur. She’ll welcome anyone. And Mum always makes too much apple pudding for dessert anyway – she won’t mind, I promise.”
“Yeah. We had a few leftover apples from our last harvest. They taste amazing.”
Gawain could see Arthur struggle with himself for a moment, before the Crown Prince came to some sort of conclusion. A faint smile spread across his face.
“Well… all right. Maybe just for a few minutes, then.”
‘Great! Come on in.”
Arthur followed as Gawain pushed open the door, stepping out of the cold and letting the warmth of his house wash over them both. The room smelled delicious. Gawains’s mother had been working on tonight’s meal all day, and the scent had spread throughout the living area.
The would-be knight could hear the pattering of footsteps as he closed the door behind them, together with the sound of his mother’s voice.
“Gawain, is that you? Did you get the parsley I asked-”
The next moment, the entire home fell quiet.
“I brought a friend,” Gawain smiled. “Can he stay for dinner?”
“Y-your Highness! I- what- what is-“
She never got to finish her sentence. The next moment, the dining area was suddenly filled with screams of excitement.
“It’s the PRINCE!” Gareth bellowed, completely forgetting himself as he giddily jumped up and down. Gaheris was not far behind.
“Prince Arthur! It’s Prince Arthur!”
“Mum! Look! LOOK! MUM!”
Arthur barely got the chance to react. He watched in stunned surprise as Gaheris darted behind Gawain’s back. Gareth beelined straight for him, almost running him over in his enthusiasm.
“Are you here to fight bad guys?! Are you going to knight my brother? Do you really have a golden sword? Angmar says that you have a golden sword! Can we be knights too? Did you really fight a magic monster? Can we fight magic monsters? Are dragons really real? Can we come to the throne room someday? Can we-”
“Right. Sorry about that,” Gawain chuckled. “They’re fans of yours.”
“You… you don’t say-”
“Can you teach us sword fighting too? Can we be knights like Gawain? What’s it like to be a Prince? Can you eat all the sweets you want? Can I be a Prince, too? Pleaaaaaase?”
“Me too! Me too!”
Arthur grimaced as the woman in front of him fell into a courtesy, bowing her head towards the ground. He quickly put his hands up to stop her.
“No… No, please. There’s no need for that,” he said. “I didn’t come here as the Prince, I just…”
Arthur didn’t know how to finish that sentence. Gawain’s mother gave him a confused look. He didn’t know what to do with that, either. Suddenly, the Crown Prince was so far out of his depth that he had no idea what to say anymore. Arthur awkwardly broke eye contact, scratching the back of his head as he looked away.
“Um… Well, Gawain invited me, and…”
Arthur could feel the woman’s eyes on him, taking in every detail. For a moment, Gawain’s mother said nothing. Then that moment passed, and he could see her expression change. The fear and confusion faded away. In their place, Arthur could see a familial warmth that took him completely by surprise. Gawain’s mother gave him a warm, gentle smile.
“…I see. If you’re not here as the Prince, then what can I call you, lad?”
“MUUUUUUUM! It’s not a lad! It’s PRINCE ARTHUR!”
“You’re being rude to our guest, love.”
“Arthur… just Arthur is fine,” the Crown Prince said. “For today. If that’s… all right.”
Her smile widened.
“Of course. Any friend of Gawain is welcome here, Arthur. I hope you’ve come here with a good appetite.”
She glanced over at the chicken on the table, hesitating for a moment before her smile returned.
”Dinner is almost ready. Would you mind helping Gawain to set the rest of the table?”
As night turned into pre-dawn, the ballroom was finally abandoned. The drinks stopped flowing. The music slowed to a stop. One by one, the participants of the masquerade left the dance floor, tired and ready to go to sleep. Only the servants were left by the end. As silence fell over the castle, Guinevere and the others gathered to clean up the mess that had been left behind—
Or at least, that was what was supposed to have happened. Instead, with Sarah occupied, the other servants abandoned the mess in the ballroom. Some went home. Others grabbed the remaining bottles of wine, singing and determined to continue the party somewhere else. They’d been talking about a servant afterparty for weeks.
Guinevere was not invited.
With a weary sigh, the maidservant picked up the nearest plate. The words of the other maidservants still echoed through her head, silencing the voices and making her stomach feel strangely hollow.
“It’s fine. Guin can do it. It’s not like you have someone important to go back to, right?”
They were right.
She’d… happily do it.
With tired eyes, Guinevere looked down on the leftovers from the feast. She’d never been part of an event this large before. Sarah and the other servants had prepared an incredible amount of food in advance. They’d had everything, from soup and roast to pastries and sweet desserts. They’d even made a three-layered chocolate cake. Altogether it had been a small mountain, much more than Guinevere could ever have dreamed of.
There was… so much.
“Twee! Twee! Twee!”
“We’ll… we’ll get one next year.”
“Gwin! A’hm dance!”
“You are. Are you going to be a bard, Michael?”
“Dance Gwin! Gwin bawd too!”
“…I don’t want to dance, Michael.”
We’ll dance tomorrow.
Morgana sashayed through the abandoned halls of the castle, contentedly humming to herself as she swirled the glass of wine around. The sorceress was in a great mood. Her chess match with Lancelot had been so much more fun than she’d imagined. Even losing – something that normally made her see red – had done nothing but give her a rush of energy.
Morgana raised the glass to her lips, tilting her head back as she took a big drink.
She couldn’t wait for a rematch.
By the time that Morgana reached the doors to the ballroom, her glass had emptied considerably, and her humming had turned into singing. She knew that there were still a few bottles of wine left in the ballroom. The sorceress didn’t want to go to bed yet. She wanted to drink another glass, and savour her defeat.
Heh. Savour my defeat. Never thought I’d live to see the day.
With slightly unsteady steps, Morgana moved over towards the ballroom doors—
And looked in on another scene that she never thought she’d see.
Morgana’s lips curled into a reflexive smirk. Her night had just gotten even better. The sorceress was never going to let Guinevere live this down. Morgana couldn’t wait to start teasing her with it when they woke up the next morning—
Morgana stood frozen in place, staring at the girl in front of her in shock. She could feel it. That same darkness that she’d felt during the tournament. It wasn’t nearly as strong as back then, but the chilling cold that crept into her senses was unmistakable. Morgana was frozen. She couldn’t look away. She could feel a wave of grief and despair emanate from the Guinevere’s spirit, growing more painful and intense with each step that she took. It radiated out from her- almost as if it came from within.
And she was right. Horrified, the sorceress realised what was happening.
She was doing it to herself.
Morgana moved without thinking. Instinct took over. The sorceress threw open the ballroom doors, causing a loud slam to echo through the empty chamber as she forced her way inside.
Guinevere immediately stopped dancing. With a horrified expression, the maidservant looked back at the entrance. Her eyes grew wide with shock when she recognised who had entered.
She took a step back. Then another. Guinevere began to shake like a leaf, frantically trying to get her emotions under control and failing. Horror turned into panic. In a desperate tone, she stammered:
“I-I’m sorry- I’ll get right back to work, I just- I don’t- I’m sorry, I-”
The wine glass shattered on the floor. Guinevere let out a surprised yelp as Morgana grabbed hold of her, pulling the maidservant in without a word. She could sense the chaos inside. She could feel the pain radiating off the girl in waves, slowly drowning her. Morgana responded to it without thinking. The sorceress wrapped her arms around Guinevere’s small frame, pulling her into an embrace.
She didn’t say anything.
She didn’t have to.
Morgana could feel her hands wrap around her back as the maidservant let out a sob. She felt her entire body tremble. Her shoulders shook as her sobs grew worse and before she knew it, Guinevere was weeping in Morgana’s arms. The sorceress slowly rocked her back and forth, patting her back as she made soft soothing noises.
“Shh. It’s all right. It’s okay.”
Guinevere buried her head in Morgana’s shoulder. The sorceress placed a hand on her head, softly stroking the top of her hair. She could sense it. A numbing, bone-chilling cold that had seeped into Guinevere’s spirit and tormented her mind. A familiar cold. Morgana had felt it before. She’d felt it many times over the years, passing it by without ever realising what it meant.
Because of Cenred… she finally knew what it was.
She couldn’t ignore it. Not anymore. Not with Guinevere. Morgana was moving on instinct alone – and instinct had never been this loud. As Guinevere closed her eyes, the sorceress took a deep breath. She focused, grounding herself as she called on the magic inside of her. Slowly, she reached out to the darkness in front of her…
And began to draw it out.
This darkness, too, came paired with memories.
The sorceress slowly exhaled. She hadn’t realised that she’d been holding her breath. As the memories sunk in, Morgana could feel the weight of Guinevere’s pain seep into her.
She didn’t care.
“It’s okay,” Morgana whispered, slowly trailing her fingers up and down Guinevere’s back. “I’ve got you. Everything will be okay.”
“Let it go. It’s not your burden to bear.”
Slowly, Guinevere’s breathing calmed. Her shoulders stopped shaking. Her heartbeat slowed. The girl leaned into Morgana’s embrace, dazed and letting out a soft sigh of relief as the cold left her.
They stayed that way for a while.
Eventually, Guinevere came back to her senses. She slowly untangled herself from Morgana’s embrace, the tears on her cheeks making way for an embarrassed blush. The maidservant looked up at Morgana in confusion.
She hadn’t noticed.
“Are you all right?”
“Um… yes,” Guinevere muttered softly. “I’m sorry for… I’m not sure what just… happened. Um. Did you need me for something?”
Morgana smiled, shaking her head.
“No. I just wanted to make sure you were all right.”
“Oh. Th… thank you.”
“Why are you alone? Where are the others?”
“They, um… they left,” Guinevere replied, breaking eye contact as she looked down at the ground. “It’s all right – I can do it. It’ll take some time, but… but I’ll finish it all.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Morgana nodded. “But I have a better idea.”
“You were in the middle of a dance, were you not?” she smiled. “Let me join you. Don’t tell anyone, but I’m a pretty good dancer.”
“That… I can’t do that, milady. It wouldn’t be proper. I’m just a servant, and… and I can’t…”
Guinevere shuffled with her feet, shyly looking down at the ground. The sight made Morgana chuckle.
She never changed.
“You’re right. I don’t want to dance with my servant.”
“I want to dance with my friend.”
Thank you Mercuryfoam for all the wonderful dance animations. ❤