As a new year dawned, slowly, the layer of ice and snow that blanketed Camelot began to melt away. Winter came to an end. The freezing temperatures faded. Cities and villages slowly rose out of their slumber, resuming trade and preparing their farmland for the coming Spring seeding. As the snow vanished, the Kingdom of Camelot came to life again.
Imbolc had arrived.
And with the end of Winter…
Came the end of peace.
As soon as the snow melted, Uther and Agravaine sent their scouts to the mountains in the South. They had a singular objective: to find and observe Nemeth’s incoming army.
Camelot and Nemeth bordered each other in two areas. One was the dark, dense, dangerous forest of Murkwood. The other was a series of tall mountain peaks that stood between the two Kingdoms. The only way to get through those peaks was to take the mountain pass near Camlann; any other route was too perilous for an army to pass through.
During Winter, the pass had been completely blocked off by snowfall. Passage was impossible. As a result, the Kingdom of Camelot and its citizens had been safe.
The arrival of Imbolc brought an end to that safety.
As the snow around them began to melt, the scouts from Camelot swiftly made their way to the pass. They made camp on the other side of the mountains, hiding their presence and watching. Waiting. Each of them was ready to report any sign of movement from the armies of Nemeth.
And each of them was ready to pay for that information with their lives.
But no soldiers came.
Back in Camelot, the entire war chamber fell silent as the news reached them. Faces pulled into frowns. Eyes were narrowed suspiciously. Uther didn’t have to say anything; the others already knew what the army’s lack of presence meant. The silence hung like a heavy, ominous weight around their collective necks.
“They should have been there,” Agravaine finally muttered. “We didn’t find them near the forest. If they didn’t come through Murkwood, then they should have come through the pass. Nemeth wouldn’t waste time like this. And neither would Gorlois. Something isn’t right, sire.”
Uther glanced down at the map of Albion with a suspicious, calculating glare. His hands balled themselves into fists. In a low tone, the Iron King growled:
“They’re planning something.”
“It’s all right. Don’t worry. I was just distracted.”
After spending an entire Autumn and Winter in revalidation, Bayard of Mercia had finally regained enough strength to return home. A large part of their court had stayed with him throughout his recovery. Including six knights, a Duchess and all three of his siblings.
One of Bayard’s brothers was supposed to stay in Camelot either way. Now that they were at war with two countries, they needed someone to act as Bayard’s representative, just like Pellinore had stayed in place of Cenred. They only needed one of them.
But all three siblings had volunteered, deciding to spend Winter in Camelot and sending the King, Queen and the rest of their court back by themselves. It was an exceptional show of loyalty. The way Bayard and his siblings interacted reminded Arthur of himself and Morgana. And, in a strange way, it reminded him of himself and Gawain. Arthur had grown to greatly respect Bayard because of it.
The Crown Prince of Mercia was a good man.
But it was not just Bayard who was saying his goodbyes today.
“Do you have everything you need?”
“We’ll manage,” Bayard replied, crossing his arms as he nodded at Arthur. “I appreciate all of the help that you’ve given us, Pendragon. I’m sure that mending this many broken bones is not part of the standard tournament program.”
Bayard’s tone was incredibly casual. Almost inappropriately so. Arthur had to stop his mouth from pulling into a smile because of it. Instead, he gave his fellow Prince a stiff nod, deciding to stick to proper manners.
“Ending up in that situation was our responsibility. It was the least we could do, Bayard.”
“Still. I vividly remember trying to strangle you. I’m pretty that sure you stabbed me in the gut a few times, as well. Let’s not have a repeat of that at the next tournament, shall we? We’ll try something else instead. A game of extreme horseshoes, or something.”
Arthur couldn’t help it. He liked Bayard.
“Sure,” he chuckled. “But only if we throw them from horseback while wearing full plate armour. Let’s make it a little interesting.”
“You have a deal, Pendragon. Prepare to lose in a few years.”
Arthur watched as Bayard turned towards the boy behind him. In a much gentler tone, the Crown Prince of Mercia addressed his younger brother.
“I’m counting on you, Norman. Make me proud.”
Norman gave him a nod as he folded his arms behind him, puffing up his chest proudly.
“Yes, my lord.”
“Write often. You will be my eyes, ears and mouth. Do not take that lightly.”
“I won’t, sire.”
“And remember to drink all the honey mead.”
“I’m joking, Norman,” Bayard replied, his face pulling into a smirk as his sister let out a chuckle behind him. Norman blinked.
Arthur looked at Norman from the corner of his eyes. The Crown Prince knew why his parents had chosen him, out of all of them, to stay behind. Norman was the youngest of all his siblings. The boy was barely older than fifteen. He was meek, polite, and still had a great deal left to learn about court intrigue.
Out of everyone, Norman was the most expendable.
The boy didn’t need to know that, though.
“Don’t worry, Bayard. We’ll take good care of him,” Arthur replied, giving the young Prince a reassuring smile. Bayard nodded at him in approval.
“Good. I expect to see him again in one piece.”
“Of course. You have my word.”
“Safe travels, my lord,” Arthur said, falling into a formal bow. The Crown Prince watched as Bayard returned the gesture, with the rest of the nobles behind him doing the same.
“You too, Pendragon. Wherever your travels will lead.”
A few feet to their left, Arthur’s men were in the middle of a very different kind of farewell. It had come as a shock to everyone when Elyan announced that he was leaving. At first, Arthur and Gawain had been convinced that the dark-haired noble was joking. He had a history of messing with them. Then, when he didn’t waver, Gawain refused to believe it, stubbornly pretending that it wasn’t going to happen for most of Winter.
But Elyan was serious. And eventually, Gawain realised that, too. He really was going to leave. He really was going to go to Mercia. Elyan would stop being one of Arthur’s knights, and travel to the other side of Albion without them.
They knew why. Lancelot had explained it to Gawain twice. He understood the logic behind it.
But logic didn’t make it sting less.
“Remember to write, okay?”
“Psch! Me? Write?” Elyan replied. “When have you ever seen me write, saddle-goose?”
“Okay, fine, fine. I’ll write you a damn letter.”
Elyan leaned back against the seat, chuckling to himself before looking back at his friends.
“Bye, kids,” he smirked at Lancelot and Gawain. “Be good, now. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
“Elyan. You’ve literally done everything.”
“Ah. Right. Good point.”
At the other side of the courtyard, Mercia’s knights were beginning to mount their horses. They would leave soon. Elyan glanced over from his friends towards Arthur and Bayard, who were saying their last goodbyes. For a moment, the dark-haired nobleman seemed deep in thought. Then that moment ended, and Elyan turned towards Lancelot.
“One last thing before I go. Do me a favour and send Arthur over here, would you?”
He did. Lancelot waited for the two Princes to finish talking before he made his way over and whispered in Arthur’s ear. The Crown Prince raised a single eyebrow as he glanced over at the carriage. Before too long, Lancelot had brought Arthur back with him.
“Sending for your Prince, now?” Arthur asked as he approached. “Normally that works the other way around, Elyan.”
Elyan’s behaviour, too, was bordering on inappropriate. Arthur tried to make his voice sound disapproving, but the Crown Prince was unable to mask the undertone of amusement.
“Psch. I’m trading you in for a new Prince, remember? So you’re out of luck in the manners department no matter what.”
“You don’t have manners, Elyan.”
“Horse dung,” the dark-haired noble scoffed. “I can be Mr. Posh-and-haughty all day if I want to. I just don’t bloody want to.”
Arthur chuckled. Elyan never changed, no matter what life threw at him. It was one of his worst flaws – and one of his greatest charms at the same time.
He hoped that his friend would stay that way for the rest of his life.
As the Crown Prince looked up at his former knight-in-training, Elyan’s expression suddenly grew serious.
“Hey. Arthur. Before we go, I’m going to give you some advice.”
“A parting message to your future King?” Arthur joked. But the dark-haired noble shook his head at him.
“No. This isn’t advice for Arthur as a Prince. This is advice for Arthur as an old friend.”
Elyan sat up straight, looking down at his legs for a moment. He let out a sigh. Then, the swordsman looked up again, making eye contact with Arthur.
“Look. We don’t know the future, okay? You never know how your life is going to change. Watcher, if you’d told me a year ago that I’d lose all use of my legs and swap you out for Bayard because of it, I would have socked you in the jaw.”
“No, let me speak. I need to get this out before we leave.”
“My point is… you never know how your life is going to change. All of it could be different tomorrow. So here is my advice, Arthur. If there is something that you want to do today… do it. Do it while you still can. And don’t let anyone stop you from doing it.”
“Don’t wait until it’s too late.”
After waving off the procession from Mercia, Arthur escorted Mithian back into the castle. The girl was in a good mood. He could hear her humming to herself as they walked through the entrance hall.
“Thank you for… including me today, my lord,” she said. “I know it was not required of you. I appreciate the gesture. Truly.”
“I was thinking… It would be good to get to know each other a bit better, sire. Would you be willing to share some tea with me? There should be some waiting in the parlour.”
He had no other plans for the day. Mithian was very kind to offer her time to him. But Elyan’s parting words had left a strange, depressed feeling in Arthur’s chest that wasn’t going away no matter how hard he tried to ignore it.
His feelings must have been visible on his face, because Mithian’s expression suddenly faltered. In a timid voice, she said:
“If… if you’re not opposed to the idea, of course.”
Play your role.
“No. Tea sounds good.”
He could play along. He owed her that much. Mithian wasn’t to blame for any of this- it wasn’t her fault that he could not look forward to marrying her. She was a sweet girl. She always had been. The least Arthur could do was be nice to her. After all, it was his fault that she had ended up trapped in Camelot.
Tea was the least he could do.
Arthur had already walked halfway into the parlour with Mithian, his mind wandering and distracted, when his eyes finally caught up to his surroundings. They weren’t alone. His legs abruptly stopped in their tracks as he recognised the person that was preparing their tea.
Arthur opened his mouth without thinking.
The fiery red hair was unmistakable. Morgana’s maidservant spun around, quickly standing up from the ground and turning towards him with a lovely, open-hearted smile that warmed him more than the fireplace ever could.
“Milord! The kitchens told me that you needed tea, so-”
The next moment, that smile faded. The warmth in Arthur’s chest turned into an icy chill as he saw her expression change. The gleam vanished from her eyes. Her shoulders fell. Guinevere’s gaze flicked back and forth between him and Mithian as her mind instantly realised.
Arthur didn’t respond. He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know if there was anything to say. And the next moment, it no longer mattered. The Crown Prince of Camelot watched as Morgana’s maidservant broke eye contact with him. Guinevere neatly placed her hands in her lap as she fell into a formal bow.
When Guinevere rose back up, all trace of warmth had disappeared from her eyes. Her face was completely expressionless. Arthur had never seen the maidservant without emotion. For a moment, it almost felt as if he was looking at a different person. In a stiff, formal tone, the maidservant asked:
“Do you require anything else?”
He couldn’t answer her. Arthur could feel a strange sense of guilt well up in his chest, a feeling that got worse the longer he looked at her.
“No, that’s all right,” Mithian replied, answering in his place. “This is perfect. Thank you, Guinevere.”
Arthur watched in silence as Guinevere bowed again. The rest of the tea set was left untouched as she turned to leave the parlour. Within moments, her soft footsteps had made their way through the room and to the door.
The maidservant did not look back.