Morgana had set out first thing in the morning, leaving the city of Camelot behind and riding into the wilderness. The sorceress headed West. She went that way on purpose, having contemplated it for the entirety of Winter. The rough hillside that flanked Camelot’s outskirts was practically uninhabited. The ground was not suitable to grow crops on, and its rocky cliffsides made it hard to build more than the occasional wooden shack. Besides the rare hunter or forager, not many people visited the place.
It was perfect.
It took Morgana the better part of the afternoon to find what she was looking for. At first, she wasn’t sure what it was that she was trying to find. The sorceress wandered around aimlessly for a number of hours. But as the sun started its descent in the sky, she finally noticed something promising. The budding witch quickly shifted in the saddle, steering her horse through the trees and around a rocky outcropping.
There, Morgana dismounted. She did not need to tie up her mount. Podargos had never strayed from her side. He always knew exactly what she wanted from him. The horse let out a soft snort, rubbing his head against her as she scratched him between the ears.
Carefully, the budding witch approached the clearing. It was almost completely obscured from view by the rocky outcropping that curled around it. It she had been going any faster, Morgana wouldn’t have noticed it at all.
But she did.
The overgrown, crumbling remains of an old ruin.
Morgana could feel her gaze being drawn to what was once the interior. Grass had overtaken the inside. The stones were cracked and weathered. She could see an entire tree having sprouted in the back, curling around the wall.
The sorceress couldn’t put her finger on it. But this place…
It felt right.
She’d found it.
With quick, eager steps, Morgana walked into the crumbling ruin. The ground was still hard with Winter frost, but not impossible to move. The budding witch sank down onto her knees and began to dig into the soil, scratching at the dirt underneath her until it came loose.
She had never planted something with her own hands before.
She could never have imagined it, but… it felt good.
It felt right.
“They are dormant throughout Winter, but will take root come Spring. It takes about a month for them to grow to maturity. If you plant them during Imbolc, they will bloom on Ostara.”
She only needed to wait one more month.
When Guinevere had volunteered to serve some tea to the Crown Prince, she hadn’t expected half of that tea to be meant for Mithian.
The maidservant had been feeling great over the last few weeks. It almost felt like she was floating, without a single negative thought to weigh her down. Even around Arthur. Guinevere was convinced that her efforts had worked – that the experience with Yarrow had helped her distance herself from Arthur, and that she was feeling better because of it. That she had finally gotten over it. That she could move on with her life.
Clearly, that wasn’t the case.
Calming down and getting her mind back to normal had taken Guinevere the better part of the day. For most of the afternoon, the maidservant was completely unable to focus on her tasks, until Sarah had finally reached the end of her patience and sent her away to “get your head back on straight”.
She had. It took time, but Guinevere always managed, in the end. It just got knocked back off too easily.
When she’d regained herself, Guinevere found herself in the middle of finishing a half-done cross-stitching project that had been lying under her bed for months. The maidservant looked on idly, passively, as her hands added to the pattern in the middle. Stitching had always been calming. Grounding. Mindless, almost. As Guinevere worked, no thoughts or voices rose up in her mind. They weren’t needed.
Until she pricked herself on the sharp end of the needle.
“OW! Ow, ow, ow!”
The tip of her finger immediately began to stain red. Guinevere quickly put her finger in her mouth, swallowing the blood before it could get on her clothes. She hadn’t pricked herself on a needle in ages. It was almost embarrassing.
It also meant that it was time to stop. The maidservant did not want to end up as a pincushion. Guinevere carefully pulled the needle out of the hoop. She’d made some good progress. It wasn’t nearly done yet, but she still had more than a month to go to finish it. Even if she could only put in a little bit of work each day, Guinevere would still get it done in time.
And it didn’t even look half bad… right?
It looks hideous.
Foxes don’t look like that!
Shut up. It looks fine, love.
The nose is funny! It looks like a squashed raisin!
…would Michael think it looked like a squashed raisin, too?
He probably would.
The corners of her mouth pulled into a smile at the thought. Lately, thinking about Michael didn’t hurt so much anymore. The memories were still there, but most of the pain that always accompanied them was gone. Melted away, like the snow that vanished at the end of Winter.
What remained was bittersweet.
Eventually, Guinevere got up from the bed. Sarah probably wouldn’t allow her to come back to work today. The maidservant didn’t want to go anywhere near the parlour, anyway. But there were other things that she could do. Other errands to run. The young redhead quickly tied her hair together, looking into the mirror as she moved to wrestle her curls back into a bun-
At the same time that a familiar voice spoke out in her head.
Stop. Leave it.
She’d had this conversation earlier in the day, too. Guinevere’s face pulled into a frown as, from the pit of her stomach, a familiar feeling of self-doubt began to rise up.
“It makes no difference,” she mumbled. The answer came instantly.
Yes, it does. And get the earrings, too, while you’re at it.
Yes! Do it! You’ll look nice!
She deserves to look nice. Don’t you think she deserves to look nice?
Are you joking?
She doesn’t deserve anything.
But whatever positivity Yule had brought to her was still there. The maidservant felt better than she had in months. She felt stronger. And this time, it was only the one. Guinevere focused, balling her hand into a fist as she closed her eyes. In a soft voice, she muttered:
“That’s not true. I do.”
Servants weren’t allowed to use the main entrance, whether they were on duty or on break in-between shifts. To stay in sight wasn’t proper. The castle hallways worked like that, too. They were separated. And the corridors that were not frequented by nobility were a lot less well-cared for, with drafty windows and old planks that creaked when you stepped on them.
Guinevere liked the smaller hallways, though. They felt much less oppressive.
Apparently, she wasn’t the only one to think that way. As she approached the staircase, Guinevere noticed a familiar figure sitting in one of the armchairs. Lancelot had a habit of avoiding the busier hallways, too. He seemed to appreciate the quiet. She often saw the future Duke engrossed in a book, or contemplating a chess move, or simply staring out the window.
But the two of them had never spoken. Not once. Since Guinevere had started working at the castle, the future Duke had yet to say a single word to her. This time was no different. Lancelot didn’t as much as look up from his book as the maidservant passed him-
She froze. Guinevere’s heart immediately started to hammer in her chest. Skittishly, the maidservant looked over her shoulder.
Did she do something wrong? Was she supposed to have greeted him? Why was he addressing her now?
“You can’t go that way today. They’re cleaning the hallway up ahead. You’ll have to take the other staircase.”
A wave of relief washed over her as Guinevere slowly exhaled. She hadn’t realised that she’d been holding her breath. It was fine. He wasn’t scolding her, or giving her new commands, or saying that she looked hideous with her new earrings. He probably hadn’t even noticed.
It was fine.
“I… I see. T-thank you, milord.”
Guinevere had already turned around, ready to head to the other entrance, when Lancelot called out to her again. The future Duke still wasn’t looking at her. Lancelot quietly turned the page of his book, his eyes fixed to its contents as he spoke over his shoulder.
“They look nice. The earrings.”
Told you it made a difference.
“Thank you, milord.”
Arthur Pendragon didn’t know what to do.
He knew what was expected of him. Arthur fully understood what path he was supposed to follow, and what would be at risk if he strayed from that determined path. He had accepted it- or so he thought. The Crown Prince had spent almost the entirety of Winter trying to come to terms with the fact that he didn’t have a choice. Arthur had to take his responsibility. It was his duty as Crown Prince.
He had to play his role.
Arthur thought that he had accepted that.
So why was it that every time he looked at Guinevere, Arthur immediately wanted to throw everything else out the window?
“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.”
Arthur knew what he wanted. It was the first thing that he’d thought of when Elyan said those words.
He also knew that following his heart would open up a floodgate of problems.
As Crown Prince, Arthur could take any number of consorts that he wanted. It was tradition. The practice was greatly encouraged at court, to the point where it was almost expected of him. His father had only been with his mother, Ygraine, but his grandfather had been famous for caring for fourteen courtesans at once.
It worked the same way for Arthur. As long as they were acknowledged formally, he could take anyone.
After that day, Arthur had started rejected every single one of them.
Not that it made people stop trying. On the contrary; they would not leave him alone. If he suddenly started to court Guinevere, Arthur knew how it would look to the world around him. He barely spent time with his own fiancé as it was. To be seen with a maidservant now would be both a scandal and a horribly low blow to Mithian’s reputation. Arthur didn’t want to do that to her. He was the one that had kept her from going home, turning her from a future Queen Consort into a glorified hostage. Arthur still felt guilty about it. He couldn’t take that back. The last thing he wanted to do was take away what little dignity she had left.
“You will regret this, Arthur Pendragon.”
Arthur would never admit it… but the skamelar had been right.
Being together in public would also paint a target on Guinevere’s back. If the women that kept hounding Arthur saw him with her, it would send them the signal that there was a chance. They would take it as a challenge. They would start to see Guinevere as a rival to take care of. Lancelot knew how gentle-hearted Morgana’s maidservant was. She would not be able to handle the games that were played at court.
It would not end well.
He couldn’t do that to her.
Arthur knew what would happen. The aftermath would swallow her whole. Guinevere wasn’t blessed with a silver-tongue like Morgana was, or naturally intimidating like Sarah. She wouldn’t be able to handle it. And he didn’t know how to protect her. The Crown Prince could feel a sinking feeling in his stomach. His hands balled themselves into fists as his thoughts began to reach their natural conclusion.
The only right thing to do here…
Is nothing, isn’t it?
Arthur let out a long sigh. The Crown Prince leaned back in his chair, tilting his head back as he gazed up at the ceiling. In a soft, forlorn voice, he muttered:
“What should I do, mum?”
There was no answer.
There never was.
Arthur closed his eyes. The memory of Scarborough immediately reappeared in his mind, as if it had been waiting for him to do so.
“I know I can never hope for a-anything more. And that’s a-all right. I already received more than I deserve. I already received something wonderful.”
And you’re all right with that? You don’t want anything more?
What about what I deserve?
The knuckles on his hands turned white. As Arthur stared at the ceiling, his mind occupied by memories, something welled up from the depths of his chest. He couldn’t accept it. Arthur could not accept this outcome. He didn’t want to. As his brow furrowed, the conversation on that sun-lit beach faded away, and a very different memory rose in its place.
Uther hadn’t accepted it, either.
“Do you ever regret what you did?”
“Not for a second. Our time together was short, but if I had the choice, I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
“I have no regrets. Not for a second. Take pride in that.”
As Arthur pondered the Iron King’s words, he could finally feel his heartache turn into anger.
Play my role?
To hell with my role.
Wasn’t it about time that he followed his father’s example?
The door softly fell shut behind him as Lancelot entered the Crown Prince’s chambers. In all of his years at court, Arthur’s second-in-command had been there exactly once. His friend was incredibly protective of his space. Other than Morgana, Arthur never invited people in. Ever. So for the Crown Prince to summon him here, of all places, meant that whatever he wanted to talk to him about was incredibly important.
As the future Duke approached, the serious expression on Arthur’s face confirmed his suspicions.
“Lancelot,” Arthur said, placing his hands at his sides. “I need your help.”
Ever since that night at the lake, Lancelot had been able to sense other people’s emotions. It came as naturally as breathing to him. He could not turn it off, either. No matter how hard he tried. It was very much a blessing and a curse at once.
This time was no different. Lancelot could feel a strange mixture of emotions coming from the man in front of him. Worry and anxiousness were the strongest. But Lancelot could pick up on something else, too. Discomfort. A strange, hopeful anticipation, paired with… embarrassment?
What on earth?
“Of course, sire,” Lancelot replied, pushing those observations down. “What do you need?”
“It is… a delicate matter,” Arthur muttered. “It will require… discretion.”
Lancelot glanced up curiously. The Crown Prince still wasn’t looking at him. He could feel Arthur’s sense of discomfort increase, slowly taking over his other emotions. Lancelot hadn’t seen his friend get this bothered by anything in a while.
“Sire. You know you can trust me with anything.”
Lancelot finally caught Arthur’s gaze. The two of them shared a moment of eye contact. He could see the uncertainty in his friend’s expression. The Crown Prince narrowed his eyes at Lancelot, almost looking through him as he visibly hesitated.
The next second, that moment ended. Lancelot watched as Arthur seemed to come to some sort of conclusion in his mind. The Crown Prince let out a sigh. Arthur closed his eyes, rubbing the bridge of his nose as he groaned:
“I need you to fake a relationship.”
“Sire… please tell me you’re joking.”
But Lancelot already knew the answer. The future Duke closed his eyes, rubbing the base of his forehead as he groaned in disapproval. Lancelot could tell. His friend wasn’t joking. Arthur had never been one to pull pranks. His words were genuine, and the strange, awkward sense of hope that the Crown Prince was trying to cover up told Lancelot that, no, he really was not fooling around.
Arthur was completely sincere.
The future Duke hated this conversation already.
Lancelot put his hands at his sides, dropping his good manners along with his mask. With a look of clear, unfiltered disdain, he glared at his future King.
“Well, this should be good.”
“It… requires a bit of an explanation,” Arthur replied softly. Lancelot raised a single eyebrow at his words.
“Yes. I figured as much.”
“There’s… there’s someone that I’m fond of. Her name is Guinevere-”
“Lady Morgana’s maidservant?”
“Yes,” Arthur nodded. “I’ll spare you the details, but I intend to pursue her. Romantically.”
“I… see. Sire, you have a fiancé.”
The word made Arthur flinch, like a squire that had been slapped on the wrist by his knight. Lancelot watched as the Crown Prince pulled his face into a frown.
“I know. I’ve considered her position too- that’s why I came to you,” he explained. “I know that I can’t pursue Guinevere in public. If I do, it’ll endanger both of them.”
Lancelot knew that his friend had struggled with relationships in the past. He also knew that Arthur was not in love with Mithian. But Arthur had never showed interest in taking a lover. Not once. It had become part of his reputation. And Lancelot knew why. After a brief fling that had ended very badly, the Crown Prince had closed himself off to everybody. He never accepted any courtesans. He rejected invitations to social visits. Arthur never gave any indication of being remotely interested in anyone whatsoever.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Arthur said, cutting Lancelot off before he could speak. “I know what kind of consequences my actions would have. I need to protect them both. But Elyan was right yesterday,” he continued. “Everything could be different tomorrow. We don’t know what will happen. And I don’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering what could have been. I’ve spent a lifetime following rules and logic- I want to follow my emotions, Lancelot. Just once. I want to do what feels right.”
“There’s no talking you out of this, is there?” Lancelot asked. Arthur shook his head at him in response.
“No. I’ve thought about it for a long time, and I have made up my mind. But I need help. I need a shield. I need- I need you to be a distraction for me,” he explained. “I want you to pretend to court Guinevere in public. Just for a few weeks. A month, at most. I want you to draw people’s eyes away until she- until I can make it official safely. Can you do that for me?”
Lancelot glared at him in response.
“Let me get this straight,” he said, crossing his arms in disdain. “You want me to pretend to be in a relationship with Guinevere… so you can be in a relationship with Guinevere?”
“Sire, that makes no sense. If you’re that fond of the girl, why don’t you just skip this dance and make her a formal mistress immediately? There are no class restrictions. You could do it right now. And it will allow Mithian to keep her dignity, too.”
“I can’t,” Arthur responded. Lancelot raised a single eyebrow.
The Crown Prince hesitated. Lancelot could see him shuffling his feet around as his expression fell.
“Well, I… I haven’t exactly… she didn’t… we’re not…”
The sudden flood of nerves and insecurity in his friend made Lancelot narrow his eyes at Arthur even further. He glared at him suspiciously, holding eye contact for several moments before Lancelot suddenly realised.
“She’s not aware that you have feelings for her, is she?”
“No,” Arthur replied, shaking his head. “I might have… messed that up while we were in Scarborough. I made a mistake. I don’t want to ruin it even further. Lance, she’s the only woman who has ever seen me for more than my title. I need to do this right.”
“You wish to court her,” Lancelot groaned. “And your new fiancé is in the way.”
The Crown Prince gave him an uncomfortable nod. Lancelot let out another sigh, suddenly regretting a lot of the life choices that led to this point. The future Duke could see the different scenarios flashing by in his mind, together with all the different ways that this could explode in both of their faces. He could feel a headache coming up.
And he couldn’t refuse.
“Does Mithian know about this?” he mumbled, angrily crossing his arms again. Arthur shook his head.
“No. I was planning on having Morgana persuade her.”
“Right. That should go fantastically,” he sneered. “And Guinevere? Does she know?”
“Not… not yet.”
“Wonderful. And why are you roping me into this?”
Arthur broke eye contact, letting out a groan of frustration as he rubbed the top of his nose.
“Because Elyan left to go to Mercia, Gawain is too immature and unsubtle, and Morgana is a woman. You’re the only one that I can trust with this.”
“What an honour,” Lancelot replied, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Might I speak freely, my lord?”
“You’re a real pain in the rear, you know that?”