It was a rare day in Camelot - the sun was shining, his father was happy, Merlin had brought lunch on time and Arthur had nothing to do except lie on his bed and contemplate his life. He stared up at the canopy above his bed and thought of his father’s latest rant. In all honesty, he hadn’t been listening all that closely, far more interested instead in the sharpness of Merlin’s cheekbones and the way Gwen’s new servant dress clung to curves he never knew she had. One sharp and angular, the other soft curves. He sighed, his father’s rant quickly dissolving into images of both servants.
Snatching his hand away from his pants, he scrambled from his bed. Knowing Morgana, she wasn’t about to wait for an answer before she came barging into his room. As expected, before he could tie his pants up, she was striding imperiously into his room as if she owned it.
“What can I do for you?” Morgana had been increasingly distant and cold in recent months, constantly sniping at him and his father, so he was slightly wary of her sudden visit. The message he’d gotten from her during their last interaction was that she thought he was a useless prince, cowering under his father’s thumb.
“I think it’s more what I can do for you. I overheard a very interesting conversation yesterday.” Idly, she picked up his sword and weighed it in her hand. She looked positively threatening. “I heard of something called the Holy Grail.”
Arthur frowned as he, as gently as possible, retrieved the sword from her. “Holy Grail? Can’t say I’ve heard of it before.”
“Well,” Morgana smirked, then settled herself in his chair and crossed her legs. All imperiously of course. The more she seemed to dislike him, the more imperious she acted. It annoyed the heck out of him but he bared his teeth in a semblance of a smile. He would die before he let Morgana know she annoyed him. “It’s a legendary cup. It is said only a true hero can retrieve it.”
His interest was sparked. Not that he would tell her. “So?”
“I believe, dear brother, that father isn’t terribly impressed with you at the moment. Not after you undermined him by rejecting the raise of taxation. But, if you bring back the Holy Grail … “ She trailed off and stared at him meaningfully.
“And you’re saying you know where this Holy Grail is?”
A slow smile spread across her face. “Yes.”
" … Bravely bold Sir Gwaine rode forth from Camelot. He was not afraid to die, oh brave Sir Gwaine. He was not at all afraid to be killed in nasty ways, brave, brave, brave, brave Sir Gwaine …"
"This is ridiculous," muttered Gwen as she trudged through the forest, her skirts in her hands. Firstly, Prince Arthur was missing. How the self-proclaimed "greatest knight" in Camelot managed to go missing, she didn't know. Secondly, as they were making their way to where they thought Arthur and his friends were, a minstrel had managed to attach himself to the group. They had inadvertently rescued him from a roaming cockatrice. Gwaine had insisted that an extra pair of hands might be useful but none of them had known about the singing. And now Morgana was in a black mood. Gwen could tell by the way she was walking.
But really, it was the singing that was getting on her nerves at the moment. That and the fact that the long journey was tiring everyone and making them snap at each other.
"Didn't you tell him to sing something a bit more rousing?" Gwaine hissed at Morgana.
Morgana smiled sweetly at Gwaine. "I think this is rousing. I like it."
“Of course you do, my lady,” he replied, sarcasm heavy in his voice.
Rolling her eyes, Gwen tried desperately to block out the singing as she concentrated on their task at hand. Arthur, Merlin, Elyan and Percival had gone off on a Quest (with a capital Q according to Arthur as she helped Merlin pack for it). They had been terribly secretive about the whole thing which Gwen thought was very childish but she had better things to do than worry about what the silly boys were up to now. Had she known she would be roped into rescuing them, she might have thought to ask a few more questions.
"Where did you say they were heading?"
Distracted, Morgana mumbled something that Gwen strained to hear over the sounds of the minstrel who was practically crowing in Gwaine’s ear.
“Oh stop it!” Gwen huffed in exasperation, close to the end of her tether. No one told her being the royal maid meant tramping through forests helping her lady rescue fools on a whim. As if realising that an angry Gwen was a dangerous Gwen, the minstrel paused in his singing. Gwen sighed and repeated her question.
“I think they’re off to find the Holy Grail,” said Morgana. “Not that I know where that is, seeing that they had no clue either but they definitely were heading in this direction.”
It was then the usually quiet Lancelot finally spoke. “I know where we can find someone who might know where the Holy Grail is.”
They turned to stare at him. “You? You know this how?” Gwaine’s eyes widened.
A shadow passed Lancelot’s face before he replied. “I have travelled many miles through many lands. I’ve seen much and heard much -”
“Yeah, yeah. Just get on with it. This guy here is going to start singing soon and we won’t be able to hear a word you say,” grumbled Gwaine.
Gwen glared at Gwaine who simply smirked at her then smiled encouragingly at Lancelot. He was a fairly new pseudo-knight (being men who Arthur thought would be great knights but lacked the requisite backgrounds to be knights and so were knighted in some fake ceremony in the cellars of the castle by Arthur) and thus far, aside from catching him staring at her sometimes, had been very quiet.
His eyes brightened at her attentions and he continued. “I’ve heard of an Enchanter in the West who may know of where the Holy Grail is.”
“Great,” Morgana smiled wanly. “At least one fake knight here is of use. Let us head to the West then.”
“We are not fake knights,” snarled Gwaine but Morgana only rolled her eyes.
“ ... He was not in the least bit scared to be mashed into a pulp, or to have his eyes gouged out, and his elbows broken …”
What, Gwen asked herself for the millionth time that day, had she ever done to deserve this?
Arthur marched stoically through the forest. This was the life, questing with his fellow knights, roughing it out in nature, surviving on their own. When he returned to Camelot with the Holy Grail, his father would no longer be able to say that he was not worthy of the throne or that his (pseudo) knights were not good enough to be knights.
“You don’t think your father would be concerned by now?” Merlin, panting heavily, caught up with Arthur. “We’ve been wandering around the forest for two whole days already with nothing to show.”
“I take umbrage at that!” Arthur glared at his manservant. Only he would be unfortunate enough to be saddled with a manservant who seemed to have problems remembering that the word “servant” didn’t mean “master”. “I happen to think we’ve accomplished a lot. We rescued that bird which fell out of its nest, we defeated that monster that was terrorising that little village we passed and we helped that other little village we passed repair its well.”
“And yet,” Merlin pointed out patiently, “we are no closer to discovering where this Holy Grail thing is. Are you quite sure you didn’t conjure this up from the depths of your imagination?”
Arthur released a long-suffering sigh and walked faster. Really, sometimes he wondered why he even brought Merlin along on these quests. He was far too sensible for his own good. Sensible didn’t achieve great feats which was the whole point of this quest. He frowned at the shadowed shapes in front of him. They looked strangely like Elyan and Percival. They looked strangely like Elyan and Percival holding hands.
He stopped and turned, grunting as Merlin stumbled into his back. “Are those Elyan and Percival and are they holding hands?” He hissed at Merlin.
Merlin shrugged. “Looks like it.”
Great. He was stuck with morose Merlin while Elyan and Percival got to play lovers with each other.
“Would you like to hold my hand?” Merlin asked, a smile playing on his lips.
“Shut up, Merlin.”
They trudged on in silence. His legs were starting to ache and his armor weighed heavily on his body. A tiny part of his brain seemed to be whispering that he should just turn around and go home, where he had a comfortable bed and proper non-Merlin servants to wait on him. And he would have people like Gwaine and Gwen to talk to. As loyal and skilled Percival and Elyan were, Arthur always thought them rather bland, like blank parchment. Still, he was loath to admit that to Merlin who seemed to be facing no such issues as he trampled on, whistling happily. Arthur sighed. A rousing battle would perk him up. Unfortunately, there seemed to be a distinct lack of conflict in this forest, unless it involved battling the insects that surrounded them.
Arthur’s mind was dwelling on the delicious roast chicken Gwen had prepared for them all the night before they left when he heard some shouts and grunts.
A fight! He perked up immediately, his hand moving towards his sword.
“Let’s go!” He shouted as he rushed towards the noise. Obediently, his knights jogged beside him, thankfully no longer holding hands, while he clearly heard Merlin make a disapproving noise before joining them.
Just as they burst into the clearing, Arthur was aware of a duel taking place between two knights. Neither wore any insignia of any kingdom. Remembering his annoyance when anyone interrupted his duels, Arthur held up a hand and they simply hung back and watched. The knights weren’t unskilled but Arthur was pretty sure that his knights could take them on easily.
Finally the knight in green fell in an unglamourous heap onto the ground. Arthur clapped slowly.
“Brilliant.” Arthur stepped forward. “Brilliant. I’m Prince Arthur from Camelot.” He stretched out his hand.
The reigning knight didn’t move.
Arthur moved a little closer. Perhaps the knight was deaf?
“HELLO! I AM PRINCE ARTHUR!”
The knight still didn’t move although Arthur noticed that the green knight was slowly inching away along the forest floor. Arthur stepped closer.
Suddenly the knight raised his sword.
“Hey, hey. I come in peace.”
Merlin siddled up to him. “I think he is guarding something.” Percival and Elyan, hands on swords, shuffled closer. “We should just go back. This isn’t the direction we’ve been going in.”
Arthur peered over the shoulder of the knight. A path led into the forest. Now, Arthur was curious. Where did that path lead to and why was it being guarded? He moved closer.
A sword was at his throat.
Elyan and Percival drew theirs.
Arthur smirked and drew his. “I’ll handle this,” he said, well aware of the smug arrogance in his voice. But he’d seen the knight fight and Arthur knew that there was no way this knight would best him.
“ … oh brave Sir Gwaine. He was not at all afraid. To be killed in nasty ways. Brave, brave, brave, brave Sir Gwaine …”
For some reason, there was a tavern in the middle of the forest, something that made Gwen highly suspicious, not that anyone would listen to her. After all she was only the maidservant. The moment the tavern sign came into view, Gwaine had charged straight for it. Instead of yelling at Gwaine as Gwen expected, Morgana had grabbed a confused Gwen’s hand and pulled her to the tavern. Time for a break, she’d said. Trampling aimlessly around forests had made her thirsty, never mind the mostly full waterskins they were carrying. She refused however to sit at the same table as “that scoundrel Gwaine”.
And so Gwaine sat with the minstrel and got progressively more and more drunk. Lancelot drank nothing but spent the whole time staring creepily at her as Morgana’s tongue loosened enough that she spent most of their time in the tavern ranting against Uther. Gwen plastered a serene smile on her face and counted backwards from 9999.
Now, Gwaine’s arm was slung sloppily around the minstrel as they sang - yelled was probably more accurate word - that one and only song they knew. Slightly tipsy, Morgana walked unsteadily on the dusty, uneven road that was, according to the only useful person on the team, leading West. The next time Morgana told her that they were going on a picnic, Gwen was going to wear her trousers and bring her sword since the word picnic was apparently exchangeable with life-threatening adventure. As it was, the bottom of her dress was muddy and all she had was a dagger she kept with her for self-defense. It was a good thing she managed to snag Gwaine and Lancelot on the way out. How did Morgana think the two of them would be able to rescue her brother on their own?
Gwen frowned as she thought of this whole rescue mission but before she could pinpoint what it was that was making her uncomfortable, she heard sounds. Looking up, she saw that Lancelot too had heard the sounds, his sword was drawn and he motioned for them to be quiet.
Gwaine chose that moment to scream out the chorus.
Morgana stumbled slightly, then grabbed Gwen’s hand and they waited in tense silence. The rustling got louder and Gwen’s mouth dropped open when she saw a very tall man in armour step out from behind the trees and when she said tall, she meant tall. He was at least twice her height and he had antlers? Gwen blinked. Perhaps there was dirt in her eyes but no. There were really antlers sticking out of his helmet.
Behind him stood three other regular sized men in armour. For a while, no one moved.
“Nice helmet,” drawled Gwaine. “The antlers give it quite a bit of character.”
“Shut up!” hissed Gwen but it was too late.
In slow motion, Gwen watched as the tall armoured man opened his mouth and said, “NI!” Pain shot through Gwen’s head and she clutched it, biting down on her lips so she wouldn’t scream. Around her, everyone was doing the same. But just as suddenly as it happened, it stopped. The pain subsided.
“What was that?” demanded Morgana, stepping forward to poke at the knight’s thigh, the only bit she could reach.
And that just started them up again. “Ni! Ni! Ni! Ni!”
“Stop!” demanded Gwen, her hands over her ears, “what are you? The Knights who say Ni?”
That stopped them. “You’ve heard of us? Our feats have travelled far and wide I see,” boomed the tall man. “We are indeed the knights who say ni!”
Gwen shuddered in pain.
One of the regular knights stepped forward. “We are the keepers of the words ni, peng and nee-wom!” Each word sent yet another dart of pain through Gwen. “Who are you and why have you trespassed in our woods?”
“We are looking for my foolish brother. We intend to rescue him.” Morgana spoke with authority. “We believe we need to enter these woods so if you would just let us pass -”
“Ni! Ni! Ni! Ni! We will continue to say ‘ni’ unless you appease us.”
Cringing from the assault, Morgana glared up defiantly at them. “What do you want?”
“We want -” They paused and their gaze swept across all of them. Gwen stared back at them, her fingers curled tightly around her dagger. Never show fear. Arthur had told her that once when she’d watched him practice. It was good advice.
“Well, come on. We don’t have all day!” Gwen sighed inwardly. If only Morgana was less prickly, less antagonistic. The last thing she wanted on her gravestone was the words “Guinevere - she was ni-ed to death”.
“We want shrubbery!”
Silence followed the declaration. Gwaine darted a glance at the minstrel who shrugged. Morgana looked at Gwen then Lancelot but all of them were clueless.
“What’s a shrubbery?” Morgana finally asked after it was clear no one else was going to.
“How should we know? All we know is that without a nice shrubbery, you cannot pass! NI!”
“Ni! Ni! Ni!” The rest of the knights chanted and turned back into the forest.
Staring solemnly at her, Lancelot said quietly, “We need to look for shrubbery. Any ideas?”
“Maybe someone back at the tavern will have a clue?” Gwaine slurred, his arm still slung around the shoulders of the minstrel who was looking decidedly less thrilled than he was at the beginning of the trip.
Murmurs of assent decided their next move. Back to the tavern.
“Sing something to cheer us up!” Gwaine slapped the minstrel’s back heartily. Morgana swore under her breath while Lancelot continued to stare soulfully at her. Again Gwen wondered why she ever took up this job. She needed to remember that the Pendragons were more trouble than they were worth.
“Bravely bold Sir Gwaine. Rode forth from Camelot. He was not afraid to die. Oh brave Sir Gwaine. He was not at all afraid!”
This wasn’t going the way Arthur expected. Well, it was in a way. Arthur had thoroughly defeated the knight as expected, only the knight didn’t seem to realise he was defeated, which was a problem Arthur had never faced before.
“It’s just a flesh wound!”
“No it’s not. I’ve chopped off your arms and one leg,” Arthur said quite patiently. He understood resilience but this was bordering on the ridiculous. “Just say uncle and we can all leave in peace.”
The knight bounced on one leg. Silently Arthur admired his sense of balance. Perhaps he should include this into his training regime. It would be useful to have knights who could fight on one leg. “Ha! Are you a coward?”
“Look. Perhaps you’ve never lost a fight before but I assure you that losing your limbs is a good sign that you should probably just give up.” Arthur glanced at his men and they nodded in agreement, Merlin giving him the thumbs up sign with a broad grin. He frowned. Behind that guileless face, Arthur knew lay the heart of a killer.
“Chicken! Chicken!” On one leg, the knight began swaying side to side.
Arthur could abide a great many things but he could not abide his courage questioned. He raised his sword, ignored the shocked gasp coming from behind him - Merlin probably who was the real chicken here, and neatly chopped off the knight’s remaining leg.
He regretted it immediately.
What had he done? The poor knight was now merely a torso. Sudden guilt flooded him. As annoying as the knight -
“Come on then! Is that all you got?”
“Why aren’t you dead?” Arthur gaped at the writhing torso on the ground.
“Tis but a scratch!”
Something broke in him. “You have no limbs! Nothing! You are a man without limbs! A limbless man! A mere torso! A body without arms and legs -”
“Er Arthur? You know, we could probably just walk around him now.”
“We can’t just leave him here like that,” Arthur said aghast. “He’ll be food for the animals that run wild.”
Merlin sighed. “Look, why don’t you and Elyan and Percival go on ahead. I’ll help him.”
“You? What are you going to do? Smile at him?”
Grumbling under his breath, Arthur wondered, not for the first time, why he always ended up listening to Merlin who as time went by became more and more bossy. He collected Elyan and Percival who were holding hands again and gazing into each other’s eyes.
After walking for a while, Arthur realised with a hint of panic that he had completely no clue where they were headed. Morgana’s hints had suggested walking towards the north east but after the fight with that oddly resilient knight, he wasn’t quite sure where he was anymore.
Thankfully, Merlin soon trotted up beside him. Warmth filled him and he scowled. This had been happening more and more - this strange affection that bubbled up in him whenever Merlin was around. It was getting annoying. It was bad enough when he had those feelings with Gwen and now with Merlin too? At this rate, he would be constantly feeling fond of people and he couldn’t have that.
“Right Merlin. Where to now?” Arthur bounced on the balls of his feet, excitement curling in his belly. Merlin had a knack for directions so it wouldn’t be too long before they arrived at the Holy Grail. He could see it in his head - him handing the Holy Grail over to his father, the pride that would be etched on his father’s face and on the faces of the council and knights. He would be a hero to Camelot.
A thought crossed his mind. “Merlin, what exactly is the Holy Grail and what does it do?”
Merlin shrugged. “I have no clue. Maybe you should have asked Morgana when she suggested this quest.”
“He was not in the least bit scared to be mashed into a pulp, or to have his eyes gouged out, and his elbows broken …”
Not only was Gwaine completely drunk, he had, in his drunken state managed to get everyone in the tavern involved in a rousing rendition of that song that had been plaguing them ever since they rescued the minstrel. Even Lancelot raised his mug and sang.
“I told you they would be useless,” sniffed Morgana. “We should just abandon them to debauchery and look for Arthur on our own.”
Gwen was tempted. “We still need to find a shrubbery, whatever that is. Then we’ll just go. I’m sure the guys won’t notice.” Still, she felt a little tug of guilt at the thought of leaving Lancelot behind.
“Right. How about the barkeep? She seems to be the only sober one here, besides us.” Grabbing Gwen’s hand, Morgana pulled her to the bar counter, a sticky piece of wood covered with strange stains and liquids.
“Why, I was just about to get rid of the shrubbery in the front of the tavern -”
Clapping her hands together, Morgana beamed. “Great. We’ll just get rid of it for you then.”
The barkeep leaned over her counter, her skinny elbows clacking on it, a gleam in her eye. “I don’t think so dearie.” Then she reached over and pinched Morgana’s cheek, much to Morgana’s annoyance. “I think that it’s worth a bit more than nothing.”
“But you were going to get rid of it!” Gwen gasped, appalled.
“I’m not asking for much,” she grinned a toothless grin, “just ten gold coins.”
“Ten gold coins! I bet it’s not even worth half that,” said an indignant Morgana.
The toothless grin appeared again. “That’s not quite the point is it? The point is what is it worth to you?”
“You greedy -” Gwen quickly placed an arm on Morgana’s and smiled sweetly at the barkeep.
“Hi, I’m Gwen. Ten gold coins is really not something we can afford.”
“I’m not blind my dear. She’s dressed in silks and your men have the Pendragon crest on their cloaks. Ten gold coins is barely a drop to you.”
Gwen smiled again and leaned on the counter, stoically ignoring the grimy feel of the counter under her forearms. Of the many things she was good at, bargaining was one of them.
It turned out a shrubbery was really just some nicely trimmed bushes. Lancelot cradled the box of shrubbery gently in his arms as he walked behind them. Trailing him was Gwaine supported by the minstrel. Morgana kept glaring at them, then at her.
“We should have just paid her the ten gold coins,” muttered Morgana darkly.
“Morgana, we don’t even have ten gold coins with us.” Privately, Gwen thought getting the shrubbery in exchange for removing Gwaine and the minstrel from the tavern was a pretty good bargain.
Still, Morgana sulked as they walked back to the woods, muttering under her breath.
“This won’t do,” said the towering knight after they finally found them again. “It’s a good shrubbery if a little uneven around the edges but you took so long that we are no longer the knights who say ni.”
“We took less than a day!”
“To pass, you will need to chop down a tree -”
Morgana smirked. “That’s not so difficult.”
“ - with a tuna.”
“A what? That’s impossible!”
Gwaine stumbled a little and was held up by the minstrel. Lancelot frowned which was as about the most emotion he had shown during the whole trip. Morgana’s eyes flashed with anger and suddenly, the knights fell over in a heap.
“What -” Gwen started but Morgana darted her a warning look.
“Isn’t this convenient?” Morgana said chirpily. “Now let us be on our way.”
The thought that Morgana had used magic nagged at Gwen. On and off over the past few years, Gwen had wondered about Morgana’s dreams and her increasing reticence. There had been rumours among the servants that Morgana had magic but Gwen had dismissed them at first. And now, Gwen glanced at the conveniently knocked out knights and wondered.
However, Morgana grabbed her hand and pulled her deeper into the forest. For what seemed like hours, they trekked through the forest with no interruptions except for the occasional insect. Even the minstrel had quietened down for which Gwen was very thankful. Morgana seemed deep in thought and Gwen, despite being full of questions, realised that the conversation she wanted to have probably wasn’t best had in front of so many witnesses.
A castle loomed in front of them which was decidedly odd because who built castles in the middle of nowhere? Only fools, decided Arthur which meant whoever owned this castle was a fool. That pleased Arthur because he needed to get through it to get to some person who would point him the way to the Holy Grail and a fool would be much easier to deal with.
“Hello!” He yelled up at the castle. Certainly a fool lived here because there weren’t any guards posted outside the castle. At this rate, Arthur figured he could simply walk through the castle.
“Hello! Who goes there?” A head popped out from behind the battlements. Had someone been lying there?
“I am Prince Arthur of Camelot and this is my trusty servant Merlin!”
“Pull the other one!”
Arthur frowned. “The other what?” There didn’t seem to be anything to pull nearby.
“He means leg,” muttered Merlin. Arthur could almost imagine Merlin rolling his eyes and rolled his in response.
“What does that even mean? I’m not pulling his leg!” Really Merlin was sometimes the strangest person Arthur has ever met.
To his shock, Elyan spoke. “He means you’re lying, Sire.”
Miffed, Arthur glared up at the battlements. Now there were two fools. He sighed. “I am not lying. Look, I am wearing the Pendragon crest.”
Mocking laughter greeted his words. “Anyone can purloin that. Anyway, since you’re here and your servant seems an intelligent lad, why don’t you help us with a problem?”
“And then you’ll let us pass through your castle?” Merlin asked.
“Why not?” One of them shrugged. “Do you think a five pound swallow can carry a coconut?”
Arthur blinked. “I don’t see why not.” He looked at Merlin who, much to his relief, looked just as perplexed. “They can pick them up by the husk I suppose.”
“It’s not that simple.” Arthur started. The voice was unfamiliar but it came from behind him. Percival! “It’s a question of weight ratios. In order to maintain air-speed velocity, a swallow needs to -”
Elyan groaned. “Look, we’ve been through this every bloody step since Camelot. You don’t know what swallow it is. It could well be an African swallow.”
They were no longer holding hands and instead of the soppy looks they had been giving each other, they looked combative.
“Who said we were talking about an African swallow? I was talking about an European swallow.”
“Maybe,” Elyan bit out, “you should define your terms before you start an argument.”
“Wait, wait,” yelled the soldier on the battlements. “Don’t forget that an African swallow is non-migratory so it’s likely that -”
Arthur watched in growing horror as the argument grew more and more heated. “The castle is pretty small. Shall we walk around it?” Merlin whispered.
“And Elyan and Percy? What - Did you see that Merlin?” From the corner of his eye, Arthur was certain he saw the knight he had de-limbed earlier run past, except now he had all his limbs.
Arthur swung around but the knight was gone. Must be his imagination, he decided. This quest was already taking its toll. “Never mind. What about Elyan and Percy?” He glanced at them and they were still quarreling.
“I’m sure they’ll follow when they realise we’re gone.”
Arthur wasn’t in the habit of leaving his knights but neither did he want to get himself embroiled in a quarrel about swallows and coconuts. “Right then. Lead the way Merlin.”
Tim stood in the woods and sighed. Just fifteen minutes of his time he was told. Well, he’d been standing here for what seemed like an eternity and there was still no sign of the pretty blonde prince. He sighed again and tugged at the old, slightly smelly robes he was told to wear. His sister was right. He was a sucker for a pretty face.
Gwen watched as Morgana walked with determination along the path she’d decided was the right way. Unbidden, she thought of Elyan, their still slightly uncomfortable relationship and how she would have loved an older sibling like Morgana who would trek through forests, uncaring of her own safety (or that of her maid) to look out for her brother.
“Arthur is lucky to have you,” Gwen said. “You’re not even his sister yet you care so much for him.”
A strange expression crossed Morgana’s face. Then, in a strained voice she replied, “We practically grew up together although for most of it he was such a bully.”
Gwen laughed, “He is but you know, I’ve learned that underneath all that talk and bluster, he has a heart of gold. Plus, he adores you.” She nudged Morgana. “He worries about you, is always asking if you had your dreams. I envy you two.”
“He’s like Uther,” snapped Morgana.
“Not all the time -” Gwen’s voice trailed off as she studied Morgana, who was looking increasingly unhappy with the conversation. “Are you angry he went off on this quest? He said you encouraged him.”
“You don’t know Arthur like I do. He’s selfish, arrogant and a prat!”
“Arthur is a good man,” Lancelot broke into their conversation. “He has a noble heart, he’s brave and he cares for everyone, even if they aren’t noble.” He spoke seriously, his expression earnest. “Arthur knew I am just a commoner, yet he knighted me -”
“In the cellars!” Morgana huffed. “If he had any courage, he would have defied Uther and knighted you.”
“He has shown me nothing but care and concern,” replied Lancelot firmly. “He is a good man and I am proud to serve him.”
Morgana’s face darkened and she marched quickly ahead. Why would Morgana be so keen on rescuing Arthur if she disliked him so? Then Gwen remembered Morgana’s flashing eyes and the knights falling into a heap. Fear gripped her heart. They weren’t going to rescue Arthur. They were going to make sure he didn’t return.
Glancing around, she saw Gwaine, still tipsy leaning into the minstrel. Lancelot was her best hope. She just had to get him alone.
“Is it much longer Morgana?”
That meant she didn’t have much time. Quickly, she flung herself to the ground and yelped. Everyone turned to stare at her. Catching Lancelot’s eyes, she smiled at him. “I’m fine. You all go ahead. I’m sure Lancelot can stay with me until my foot stops hurting.”
“Of course I will,” said Lancelot solemnly. Morgana cast her a suspicious look but then simply sighed and walked on.
The moment Morgana was out of sight, she quickly pushed herself up from the ground, grimacing at the how dirty her dress had become. “Lancelot,” she whispered, pulling a very confused Lancelot closer. “Morgana is planning to kill Arthur. We need to stop her.”
“You are not hurt?” He knelt down and his hands travelled to her ankle, gently brushing against the skin there. She shivered at the touch, all sorts of inappropriate thoughts filling her head. Against her better judgement, Gwen let his hands linger a little before pulling away and shaking her head.
“No. We have to figure out how to stop Morgana!”
Standing, Lancelot studied her before nodding. “I think we should catch up with them for now. We can think of a plan as we travel to wherever it is she is bringing us. If we lose track of her now, we’ll have no hope of stopping her.”
Lancelot was right and they hastened their pace, hurrying to catch up with Morgana. Dread built in her with every step she took. She didn’t want to have to hurt Morgana to save Arthur. Yet she couldn’t just allow Morgana to kill Arthur either.
“You foot is fine?” Morgana asked when they finally caught up with her. Her eyebrow arched sharply in suspicion.
“Lancelot massaged it a little and it was fine after that.”
Her eyebrows rose even more. “He has magical hands, does he?”
Gwen’s mind drifted to the feel of his warm hands on her ankle and blushed and nodded.
Grabbing her arm, Morgana tugged Gwen close and for a moment Gwen worried that Morgana had cottoned on to the fact that Gwen knew. Then Morgana sniggered, the suspicion in her eyes giving away to pure delight. “I never knew you had it in you! Faking a fall to spend some time alone with Lancelot. You’re not as innocent as I thought Gwen.”
Gwen smiled shakily back, the dread still churning in her stomach.
Arthur watched Elyan and Percival with new admiration. Anyone who could discuss the physics of bird flying and coconuts deserved some measure of admiration, especially when they managed to outtalk the two soldiers on the battlements which was why they caught up with him and Merlin easily. having been allowed to pass through the castle. Much of their travels since the castle had been rather uneventful and Arthur was feeling twitchy again, especially since Merlin came up with the ghastly idea to share their feelings and now he was chattering about his love for Gaius.
So it was relief that flooded him when a lanky man with a pointy hat stepped out from behind some trees. “Ah if it isn’t the pretty blonde prince. How can I help you?”
“Help me? Why would I need your help?” For some reason, Merlin had tensed beside him, making Arthur feel somewhat protective. He stepped in front of Merlin. “Who are you?”
“I’m Tim the Enchanter.”
Immediately, Arthur drew his sword. “You’re a magic user! Camelot does not abide magic users!”
A grin spread across Tim’s face. “See this line over here? That marks the end of Camelot. So I fear you have no jurisdiction over here. Anyway, you need my help so I wouldn’t run me through with that sword so quickly.”
“You’re a fake,” said Merlin. “You don’t have magic.”
Tim’s face paled, his eyes darted quickly to Arthur who was at the moment feeling terribly confused. Was this man magic or not? And if he was, should Arthur shove him back to Camelot so he could deal with him? “Ask me about the Holy Grail.”
“Ok, tell me about the Holy Grail.” Arthur said slowly, wondering how this person with no magic knew what he was searching for. What was he thinking? Of course Merlin was spouting nonsense again.
Puffing up his chest, Tim cleared his throat and tugged at his robes. He flung his arms wide and bellowed with gusto. “To the north there lies a cave-- the cave of Caerbannog-- wherein, carved in mystic runes upon the very living rock, the last words of Olfin Bedwere of Rheged -” He swung his arms in a wide arc. “make plain the last resting place of the most Holy Grail!”
Arthur took a step back, returning to the safety that was Camelot. “And where do we find this cave?”
“Follow. But! Follow only if ye be men of valor, for the entrance to this cave is guarded by a creature so foul, so cruel that no man yet has fought with it and lived! Bones of full fifty men lie strewn about its lair. So, brave knights, if you do doubt your courage or your strength, come no further,for death awaits you all with nasty, big, pointy teeth.” He tore off his robe, spun around once, then fell on one knee with a flourish.
Arthur leaned towards Merlin. “What an eccentric performance.”
“ … and his limbs all hacked and mangled, brave Sir Gwaine! His head smashed in and his heart cut out,
And his liver removed and his bowels unplugged …”
Gwen tried hard not to think of all the grass stains that were going to be all over her pretty dress as she lay on the grass next to Morgana. Gwaine was lying far too close to her on the other side, his hard, warm thigh pressed tightly against her and Lancelot lay next to Morgana. The minstrel sang that one damn song softly some distance away.
For the past few minutes, they had been lying on this small hill overlooking a rather ordinary looking cave. According to Morgana, Arthur should be on his way here although Gwen wasn’t quite sure how they managed to be there before him. What was worse than the potential grass stains was the fact that Gwen and Lancelot had not managed to think of any feasible way of stopping Morgana without actually hurting her.
“You know what this reminds me of?” Gwen asked as lightly as she could. “This reminds me of the time we went on a picnic. You, me and Arthur.”
“It was such a lovely day. And Arthur was being exceptionally nice, remember? He even picked you some flowers.”
Morgana glared at her.
“And remember that time when he yelled at Uther because of you?”
“Alright Gwen. What are you up to?”
“I’m just thinking about what a noble and kind man Arthur is.” Gwen schooled her face into innocence and smiled at Morgana.
“You like him?”
Heat suddenly burned her cheeks. Chiding herself for being silly - Morgana surely didn’t know of the thoughts she had of Arthur - Gwen said, “Most people do. He isn’t Uther. Or at least he is a kinder, gentler Uther. Remember how he sat in the dungeons with you after Uther sent you there for rudeness?”
“He has been a pretty good brother,” muttered Morgana reluctantly. “Uther is the ass.”
“Arthur’s always been wrapped around your finger. You know you can make him do whatever you want.”
When Morgana sighed and her eyes softened, Gwen hoped fervently that she’d averted Arthur’s death. But she had no time to prod Morgana further when loud complaints signalled the arrival of Arthur and his friends.
“Shh!” Morgana snapped out, the warmth in her eyes disappearing. She turned to the still-singing minstrel and shushed him again.
They watched in silence as the group, led by Arthur, approached the cave carefully.
“What’s in the cave,” Gwen asked in a hushed whisper.
Morgana glanced down at her. “I have no idea. It’s a monster of some sort.”
Lancelot stiffened at the words and Gwen glanced into his worried eyes. His short stint in Camelot had been plagued by various monsters. There seemed to be a new one every week, each getting more ridiculous and difficult to beat. The last one had the body of a lion, the wings of an eagle, and the face of a bear, such a fantastical combination that Gwen was convinced someone had imagined it up. She would bet her last dress that Lancelot was wondering just how terrible that monster in the cave would be. She was wondering it herself too.
Unable to simply lie there and watch his brother knights walk into what seemed like certain doom, Lancelot leapt from their little hiding place, drew his sword and dashed down the hill. Gwaine, jolted from his half-sleep by Lancelot’s movement, stood clumsily, drew his sword and hurried after him.
Morgana eyed the minstrel who suddenly looked quite lost. “Well, go on then. Go follow your Gwaine.”
“Should we?” Gwen asked but Morgana shook her head.
“Nothing we can do the knights can’t. We might as well enjoy the show from here.”
The cave appeared deceptively quiet but Arthur had noticed a small pile of bones neatly placed at the entrance. He wasn’t quite sure if this signalled a scrupulously neat monster ahead or if it was supposed to be a warning to would-be trespassers. It didn’t matter because the clue to the Holy Grail was inside and he was going to get it no matter what.
Just as he turned to signal Merlin and the others, he heard footsteps and some grunts. More enemies? Immediately his hand went to his sword.
“Lancelot! Gwaine! What are you doing here?” This was definitely not what he was expecting. The last he’d heard, the two of them had overslept so he’d left them back in Camelot. How did they even know where to find him?
“We’re here to protect you Sire!” Lancelot yelled.
“Yes,” mumbled Gwaine as he stumbled over an invisible root. He swung his sword carelessly and Arthur wondered if Gwaine needed protection from his own self instead. Before Arthur could say anything, they were distracted by a loud, high-pitched, blood curdling cry.
For a while, no one moved.
Another cry pierced the still air.
All of them stood at the mouth of the cave, braced for something grotesque to come charging out.
There was scuffling and more cries, each more blood curdling than the next. Tension coiled around Arthur, squeezing him until he couldn’t breathe. His fingers tightened around his sword as blood rushed to his ears. This was it. Clear this obstacle and he’ll be one step closer to the Holy Grail.
Standing in front of the cave, in all its white, fluffy glory was a rabbit.
Arthur stared at it. Had it escaped from the terrifying jaws of death? He almost put down his sword when the rabbit bared its teeth. Its blood coated teeth. Screaming, Arthur jumped back, knocking over Merlin who was hovering behind him.
Once the initial shock wore off, Arthur raised his sword. “Die!” he hollered. This was just a rabbit. Him, Prince Arthur, multiple winner of the Camelot tournaments would not be put to shame by a mere rabbit.
“Wait. Do you think this is a good idea?” Merlin whispered from behind.
He glanced back to make sure his knights were with him and saw, to his annoyance, Elyan and Percival practically hugging each other. Leon slouched behind them, his eyes wide. Wait, where did Leon come from? Arthur didn’t remember him tagging along.
“It’s just a rabbit,” he snapped. “Leon! Why don’t you lead?”
“Uh no thank you. Thanks for the offer.”
Arthur frowned. Was this how Leon survived the most brutal of battles?
“I’ll stand with you Sire.” That was Lancelot of course, possibly the only knight Arthur thought with a tinge of bitterness who he could count on.
“Brave Sir Gwaine ran away, bravely, ran away...away... When danger reared its ugly head, he bravely turned his tail and fled”
There was singing? First he was about to enter into a duel with a rabbit and now he was hearing singing, not very good singing but singing nonetheless. Realising the song was about Gwaine, Arthur knew for sure he was probably losing his mind.
“Shut up! I’m not running away. I’m just making a tactical retreat.”
“Yes, brave Sir Gwaine turned about, and gallantly he chickened out. Bravely talking to his feet, he beat a very brave retreat. Bravest of the brave, Sir Gwaine”
Everyone turned to look at Gwaine and his minstrel.
“I just don’t like fluffy things alright?” He yelled then slowly backed away.
“Look at them. All flustered over a rabbit!” Morgana sniggered.
“It does have blood smeared all over its lips and teeth,” Gwen pointed out.
Morgana just rolled her eyes and pushed herself off the ground. “Well then. I was having second thoughts about leaving Arthur to the mercy of the monster in the cave but surely they can deal with a rabbit.” She stretched out a hand and tugged Gwen up.
“So we’re going home? Maybe we should wait to see that they are -”
A loud scream interrupted Gwen and they both scrambled to the edge to look down. Percival, holding his bleeding arm, stumbled into the arms of Elyan before collapsing.
“Oh my god!” Gwen gasped. “We can’t just stay here! He needs help.” Not caring about what Morgana wanted, she grabbed Morgana’s hand and tugged her down the hill. She heard Morgana sigh loudly but otherwise she followed Gwen willingly.
“Down!” Arthur was shouting at the rabbit.
Morgana heaved another long suffering sigh. “Does he think that a dog?”
The rabbit lunged at Arthur who parried it away with his sword. The knights gasped. Gwen squealed.
“Guinevere! Morgana! Why are you two here as well?”
“Retreat!” Everyone scrambled backwards, then stood eyeing the rabbit with its red eyes and bloodied teeth. Gwen was sure she could see a bit of Percival’s skin hanging from the side of its mouth.
“I have a carrot.”
“What?” Arthur looked at Morgana in shock. “A carrot? Why on earth would you be carrying a carrot?”
She shrugged, and as Gwen watched in surprise, extracted a carrot from somewhere and passed it to Arthur.
“I’ll take it. I’m good with animals.” Merlin grabbed the carrot and turned away, but not before Gwen caught his glare at a smirking Morgana.
“Merlin!” Arthur roared, “Don’t be a fool.” But Merlin, quick of foot when he needed to be, was already approaching the rabbit, the carrot in his outstretched hand. Arthur swore but was restrained by Lancelot from rushing to Merlin.
“Merlin will be fine. Rabbits like carrots.”
As Arthur and Lancelot struggled, Gwen watched Merlin. The bloodlust in the rabbit’s eyes seemed to fade the closer Merlin got and the next thing she knew, Merlin was petting the rabbit as it nibbled docilely on the carrot.
Arthur extracted himself from Lancelot’s hold. “I should have known you talk to animals,” he grumbled.
The cave was a bust. There weren’t any hints or clues to the hiding place of the Holy Grail and Tim had, somehow, disappeared. Arthur sighed. All these magic users couldn’t be trusted at all. With Percival’s bleeding arm and the general desire of everyone to get back to Camelot for dinner, he finally ordered them all to turn back.
The return trip was rather uneventful, except for the minstrel around whom Gwaine was draped, whose singing went from amusing to outright annoying. Elyan and Percival huddled together while Lancelot trailed behind Guinevere, staring at her with soulful eyes. Arthur sniffed in disapproval. Merlin and Morgana walked together and kept darting glances at each other. Arthur hoped fervently they weren’t developing any sort of feelings for each other because that would be a bad idea. He glanced at Guinevere as she laughed at something Leon said and shook his head. A very bad idea.
Then he took one more look at his friends and family and a reluctant smile tugged at his lips. Who needed a Holy Grail anyway?
The market was bustling and the townspeople thronged the narrow lanes between the makeshift stalls. It was her fault she had to contend with the crowd. Usually she would have gone to the market earlier but after the excitement of yesterday, she’d woken up later.
Gwen nodded and smiled at the various stall owners who waved at her.
Then she saw it.
On the table of one of the stall was an oddly shaped goblet with the word ‘holy’ roughly carved on it.
“What is this?”
“Ah,” grinned the owner, “it’s something I like to call the Holy Grail. Would you like to buy it?”