Camelot gleamed in the summer sun. Red banners hung everywhere, market stalls overflowed with harvest’s blessings and other goods from all over Albion. Entertainers, bards, tricksters, and mages filled the streets, showing off their skills.
In the citadel, servants scurried around like ants. Each visiting noble had brought what seemed to be half of their own household, and the huge castle seemed far too small for so many people.
Hunith had lived in a village of less than a hundred for all but the last three years of her life. Such a cacophony was terrifying. She dodged through the crowd, deafened by the bellowing of voice and feet. Rosemary, yarrow and mint hung bruised from Hunith's tightly-clutched fists; a gift for Alice, who was halfway to insanity. The physician and healer had seen little sleep since the wedding preparations had begun.
Pushed along by the sea of people, Hunith found herself looking out into the kitchens. Worse than the halls or Physician's chambers, the kitchens roared with activity. Cleaver-wielding chefs swept past hanging meat and herbs, whilst scullery maids juggled crockery and servants swept in and out of the room.
The crowd parted for the Head Chef, a burly, red-faced man who towered over a maid as he screeched in her face. “I’ll set the King’s guards on you, wench! Don’t you dare touch my food! You think yourself worthy of a king’s feast, do you?”
“I was just-” The girl ducked a clump of herbs “-I was getting some dinner.”
“You can eat after the feast with the rest of the servants!”
“I can’t, I have to look after Ser Aidan’s son-”
“You think I care about little runts right now? I have a royal wedding to prepare for!” She ducked around a bench, the chef’s beady eyes tracking her every move. The rest of the kitchen staff gave the chef a wide berth, and Hunith took her chance.
“Sir," she called, stumbling over a pile of dishes as she moved closer. "Gwendolyn works for an honoured guest of His Majesty’s wedding. I’m sure none of us want to offend the King by having a friend of his’ son neglected.”
The chef scowled, but mention of the King put a damper on his rage. “Get out, the two of you. If I see your faces again, I’ll call the guards.”
“Yes sir, thank you sir.” Gwendolyn stammered, all but fleeing the kitchens with Hunith in tow.
“He’s mad,” Hunith said in the relative quiet outside the kitchen. "What were you thinking, going in there?"
“Leon,” the servant breathed, “is driving me mad. He won’t stop crying, I needed a moment’s break and Aidan let me go to get some food.”
“I take it you’re not coming to the wedding?”
“I can’t risk leaving Leon alone for so long.”
"Is he truly that bad?"
"Oh yes," Lynn laughed, exhausted.
“Are you ok?” Hunith asked.
Lynn nodded, sweat beading on her forehead as she leaned against the wall. “I know it’s horrible for me to say this, but I hate my child right now.”
“It isn’t even showing yet,” Hunith laughed. “Gods help you when you start getting fat.”
“Ugh,” Lynn moaned, glaring at her own stomach.
Hunith giggled, and a passing servant gave them a foul glare, as though a moment's rest was personally offensive to him. "We'd best get back to work," Lynn muttered.
"I look forward to this all being over."
"Mm. How are Gaius and Alice?"
"As stressed as the rest of us. Will you be able to lend a hand with potion making?"
Lynn gave a weary smile. "I'll try."
"I'd best go." Hunith gave an exaggerated grimace as she entered the fray of servants again.
The Physician's chambers had changed little since Hunith had left. A Knight whose crest Hunith didn't recognise occupied the infirmary bed. Gaius tended to an open wound on his leg, while Alice flicked spells at a bubbling potion.
"Bandages please, my dear." Gaius said without actually looking at his assistant. Hunith dropped her handful of herbs on a table, in the scarce space between flasks and poultices. The moment she handed a roll of bandages to Gaius, two vials were thrust into her hands by Alice.
“Give these to Uther and Ygraine, for their nerves. Go!” The healer shooed her out of the room with a harried wave.
Royal weddings are ridiculous. Everyone but the nobles seemed to be on their last leg, whilst the nobles were either already drunk, or gossiping among themselves like fishwives.
The walk to the royal chambers was long, made longer by the rush of people, which -thank god- lessened as Hunith got closer. Two guards situated at the door glared at Hunith before letting her into the future Queen’s rooms.
“Yes, what is it?” Ygraine stepped from behind the dressing screen as the Physician ‘s apprentice entered. Hunith froze.
She was beautiful. Hunith had seen Ygraine before, wandering around the castle surrounded by courtiers, or walking with Uther. But now she looked like a goddess, dressed in a gown of dark gold lace embroidered with the faintest of blue. Her almost silver hair was held back from her face by a complex hairpiece of thin yellow chain and blue jewels. The rest spilled across her shoulders in sparse curls.
“Are you alright?”
“Hmm? Oh! Sorry!” Cheeks burning, Hunith shoved her hand forward. “Fr-from Alice. For nerves. Milady.”
Ygraine took the vial with a gentle, kind smile. “Thank you. I think I'll need it.”
“Are you nervous?”
Ygraine laughed, apprehensive. “Oh yes, very much. Is that normal? I regret nothing, it's just I-”
“Want everything to go right.” Hunith offered.
“That’s it!” Ygraine downed the potion, breathing deeply.
“If you love him, and if he loves you, then everything will go right.” Realising how treasonous that could have sounded, Hunith stammered, “I don’t mean to say- I mean, I’ve seen how much he... I’ll just-” Before Ygraine could speak, Hunith slipped out of her chambers.
The King’s chambers were a short distance from Ygraine’s, short enough that Hunith’s face was still burning when she arrived. Beautiful oak doors, guarded by four men, did little to muffle the king's yelling.
“Do you want to humiliate me? I’d have thought you’d know how to dress me by now!”
“I’m sorry sir.” The King's manservant said. Hunith knocked, pitying the poor man.
The manservant answered, face miserable. Trying to convey her condolences in a small smile, Hunith handed him the vial. “Give him this, for nerves. It should calm him down.”
“I doubt anything will calm him down.” He took the potion regardless. It was with a grimace, as though he were off to face a demon, that the manservant closed the door.
"And the celebrations have only just begun," Hunith mumbled
“Are you ready?”
Tristan gave an encouraging smile, adjusting his sister’s necklace. “You look perfect.”
“Do- do you think father would approve?”
“He would want you to be happy, Ygraine. And that’s what’s important. If you think you won’t be happy with him-”
“I will be!” Tristan frowned, but Ygraine continued, “I know you don’t like Uther. But he is a just King and a good man.”
“You can’t be sure he’ll remain that way, when he has you for his own.”
Ygraine grabbed Tristan’s arm. “Brother, please. Let me make my own decisions, and if it is a mistake, then it will be my mistake.”
With a sigh, Tristan nodded. “I don’t want you hurt.”
“I know. And I thank you. But please don’t ruin this for me.”
“Very well. Shall we go then?”
Panic returned, and Ygraine could do little more than nod. Her brother led the way, gently pulling her along by the arm. The commotion the palace had witnessed but an hour ago was gone, leaving a tense silence in its wake. It felt much like being a ghost. As the Great Hall neared, an endless murmur of over a hundred voices grew louder. If it wasn’t before, Ygraine was positive her shaking was visible now.
“All you have to do is agree with whatever Uther says,” Tristan assured her.
“And not trip on the way down the aisle.”
“I’m here to make sure you won’t.”
“Right.” Ygraine focused on breathing, wishing she’d been given a stronger calming potion. A nod to the guards and the doors swung open. The murmuring silenced, and everyone turned.
“Just focus on Uther,” Tristan whispered in her ear, as they begun moving. The pace was far too slow for Ygraine, when all she wanted to do was sprint forward and get everything over with as quickly as possible.
Nobles and servants alike were standing in silence, a definite division between the two. Servants milled in the back while the nobles stood with puffed-up chests, closer to the King. The black-haired girl who'd given Ygraine her calming potion grinned at her. Ygraine smiled timidly back. The girl had been right. As long as she and Uther loved each other, everything else would work out.
Uther was watching Ygraine with the greatest look of adoration she’d ever seen. He was handsomely dressed in Camelot red, black hair weighed down by a glittering crown. Ygraine couldn’t help but notice how regal, powerful and strong he looked. The sight was intimidating. It was an unrelenting reminder that she was marrying a king, that she would be queen after this day.
He held her gaze as she knelt before him. His smile, though small as propriety demanded, did not fade. “Ygraine De Bois, do you swear to serve the people of Camelot with all your strength?”
“I do.” Gods, was her voice shaking?
“Do you swear to be faithful and loyal to me, and to the kingdom?”
“Do you swear to love me, and only me, until death do us part?”
Ygraine raised her head a fraction, meeting Uther’s gaze. “I do.”
His smile was radiant as he took the crown offered to him and held it above Ygraine’s head. “By the sacred laws vested in me, I crown you Ygraine Pendragon, Queen of Camelot.” The king clasped Ygraine’s hands as she stood and leant down to kiss her. The queen -queen!- kissed back, wishing they’d never have to part.
They did eventually, Uther holding their grasped hands up to the cheering crowd. “Long live the Queen!” They chanted. Every eye was on her, every mouth was beaming.
It all came as a sudden rush. The crown on her head seemed to weigh a ton. She couldn’t do this, she couldn’t be queen. She had been raised to be a lady, to govern nothing larger than a manor. A princess was supposed to be in her place, someone who'd prepared for this role all her life.
But Uther chose to marry you. The king wasn’t a stupid man. If he'd thought Ygraine wasn’t worthy of the crown, he’d have chosen someone else, whether he loved them or not.
Ygraine looked at her husband for assurance. He smiled back at her, handsome and strong. He had complete, unwavering faith in her.
Servants, at times, could perform miracles. Within an hour of the wedding, the Great Hall had transformed completely. In all her thirteen years, Morgause had never seen anything as lavish as this. Bouquets of summer flowers and sugar sculptures of swans and dragons lined the tables, which were covered in rich cloth. A banner with the De Bois and Pendragon crests artfully intertwined hung above the heads of the King and new Queen.
Nimueh, being Court Sorcerer, had a seat on the high table. Which meant Morgause was forced to sit beside her, in view of everyone.
The other guests sent many odd looks the young witch’s way. They thought her too young for such an honour. Little did they know how powerful she was. She could throw grown men off their feet with a gesture. What did age matter to her?
Servants entered the chambers, bringing with them rich and delicious foods. Nimueh gave her apprentice a quick reminder to be careful what she ate as the serving began. As far from the Isle as they were, animals were slaughtered with no care for the Balance of the world. To eat such foods would be an insult to the Goddess which they served.
Morgause thought it stupid. Animals were animals, what harm could their death cause? Nonetheless, with Nimueh’s eagle eyes watching, she obeyed her mistresses wishes.
She picked at a dish of poached eggs as conversation began around the room. Much of it was menial, senseless dither. Morgause didn't care what the red faced, white-haired Lord of Glastonbury thought about the Queen in bed. Nor who was better at archery; Sir Bedivere or Sir Kay. Morgause had spent much of her life overlooked, ignored and deemed unimportant. People tended to speak as if she was not there, and she had long ago learned to take advantage of it. So she listened, no matter how dull the things she heard were.
Courses, each as diverse and delicious as the last, came and went. The wine flowed like a river in spring, although, unfortunately, watered down cider was all Nimueh allowed Morgause to drink. The High Table became crowded as nobles gave their gifts to the newlyweds.
“You are to give something to the Queen,” Nimueh announced in a whisper.
“What?” In all the time Morgause had been in Camelot, Nimueh had mentioned nothing of gifts!
The High Priestess gave her apprentice a contemptuous look, just too graceful to be a sneer. “Need I remind you that both your parents are here? That if you ever hope to be a High Priestess, you will need to prove yourself, now and for the rest of your life? You will impress the Queen, and I, else myself and your mother will rethink your apprenticeship.”
Morgause wanted to yell in outrage. They couldn't! She imagined who’d take her place; a half-simple girl with no more magic than a toad. Someone who would fail the Goddess, and bring the Old Ways closer to destruction. While she'd be cast aside, a failure.
She stood, leaping up so that her chair scraped across the stone floor. Several heads turned, and bored eyes passed over her. Someone muttered about bedtimes. Morgause ignored them. She was better than them, and they did not concern her. Wooden-heeled boots clicked against the stone with her every step. Despite her being a head shorter than most of the guests, the crowd parted for her.
Ygraine and Uther sat side by side, a stark contrast to one another. She was gold, with hair like Morgause's, dressed in a shade of the same colour, her skin pale but glowing. He was dark hair and eyes, dressed in Camelot red and dark blue. A few gifts that the servants had yet to take away piled up on the table before them. Everyone seemed to have forgotten that royalty had almost too many jewels and cloth already.
Ygraine was the first to notice the witch. Her smile was wide and unrelentingly happy. It irked Morgause. Uther's reaction to her presence was something she was more familiar with. He had yet to look her way, in favour of staring at Ygraine. Perhaps he'd been listening too closely to Lord Glastonbury.
"I wish you a happy marriage, Your Majesties." Morgause's voice was a great deal steadier than her heart. From the corner of her eye, Nimueh was watching with a cool, waiting gaze. The young witch refused the urge to look to her right, to see whether her mother's expression was expectant or disgusted.
The swan and dragon banner looked better from this angle. Detailed embroidery made the beasts seem real, like they could come to life at any moment.
Magic rushed beneath her skin, the pins-and-needles feeling spreading down her body. Morgause held her hands out, so that her fingers danced over the candle flames that lit the table. She chanted, "lifete cume fram bryne..." The hall's noise seemed to cease.
Control was always a euphoric feeling. Morgause held back a smile as the flames shifted and rose, morphing together into the swan of the banner. "...Gehíwian op draca!" The swan's wings rose and fell, lifting it through the air as the fire of its body blazed hotter. Its form shifted to a dragon that burned so bright it lit the room with yellow-white light.
The hall was truly silent now. Everyone's attention was on Morgause, the fire burning beneath her palms. The warmth of her blazing eyes felt like tears; hot, merciful relief.
"Áswámian," Morgause whispered. The dragon dispersed, sparks and stuttering candles the only evidence of what had occurred.
The queen was staring at Morgause, mouth open in awe. So were many others, though they were unimportant. Morgause turned to Nimueh, who looked not impressed, but not displeased, either. She nodded, once, and returned her attention to her meal.
“That was incredible!” Ygraine had finally found her voice. "You- how much power did that take?"
With a smile, Morgause was about to explain that it was quite easy, for her at least.
"I think the child had best learn to warn people before performing such a stunt." The king didn't even deign to look at Morgause. He was staring at the table, face dark.
A stunt- when he considered the twirling of metal sticks to be a highly valued skill. Morgause scowled and lifted her chin, so that she was looking down on Uther. "You should not be jealous of something simply because you do not have it, My Lord." Her tongue twisted the title into an insult.
Uther made to jump up in rage, but Ygraine's hand on his arm stopped him. "How dare you?”, he spat, and Morgause was reminded of an enraged snake, hissing and dangerous.
"Your Majesty!" Nimueh appeared beside her apprentice. "I beg you forgive Morgause," the High Priestess said, in a voice far too calm as she gripped Morgause's arm so tightly she feared it would break. "She is young and foolish, and I assure you she will be punished."
Uther settled, helped along by Ygraine whispering soothing words in his ear. "Get her out of my sight, Nimueh."
Morgause was nearly dragged from the hall by the Priestess. She looked back into the room, as though expecting help, and instead found the eyes of Vivienne Le Fay. Morgause's mother watched her daughter leave, lips pursed in disgust.
Two months later, a shadow passed through the lower town of Camelot. Black scales glinted in the sunlight as a huge beast made its way through the air. Its rider wore hard black leather, with a wind-beaten face and dark, long hair.
“The Dragonlords are here!” Below, riding on horseback through the outer city, Balinor Ambrosius was grinning so much his mouth hurt.
The spectacle of a real, living dragon had drawn half the populace out of their houses. One day, I’ll be up there, Balinor thought. He’d imagined it many a time; the rush of wind and sky, swooping through the air like he had wings himself. To be up there, on the back of one of the most powerful creatures in Albion, was every Dragonet's dream.
Daydreaming freed Balinor from the uncomfortable heat of the southern summer. Dragonlords were mountain people, born for the cold, warmed by their dragon blood. They weren't made for the hot, midday sun of Camelot.
"Stop fidgeting," Aurelius hissed as Balinor struggled to loosen the high collar of his jacket. Balinor glared at his uncle, but let his hands fall to the reins of his horse. "This is a waste of time," the older man growled. He looked around at the crowd, face twisted in disgust, as if he smelled something foul. It was the look he usually reserved for Balinor.
"You didn't have to come if you didn’t want to."
Aurelius huffed, and Balinor imagined smoke escaping from his nostrils. "I am the eldest of our house, its affairs are mine."
"But you're not a Dragonlord," Balinor pointed out. "King Uther asked for Dragonlords, not slimy old men." Before his uncle could respond, Balinor spurred his horse into a canter as it crossed a drawbridge.
The courtyard of Camelot's citadel was near silent, a stark contrast to the lower town's frantic bustle. At the steps to the castle, a mass of red cloaked men stood tall and proud. They were Balinor's first glimpse of the famous knights of Camelot, whose reputation had spread even to the remote fort of Dinas.
Contrary to the stories, the knights looked uncomfortable and anxious. They fidgeted, looking from their king to the sky. Only Uther, golden crown shimmering on his head, kept his composure as Aevitas landed.
The black dragon was small for her age, but still had a wingspan too large to fit comfortably in the courtyard. She crouched awkwardly as her rider dismounted. The moment the man was on the ground, Aevitas took flight again, much to the relief of the Camelot soldiers.
"Welcome, Dragonlords of house Ambrosius." Uther stepped forward.
"Uther." Disregarding titles and formalities, Balinor's father brushed himself off and walked toward the king. Aurelius dismounted and stalked over to his younger brother, muttering something foul. Balinor followed suit, coming to a stop a respectful distance from his elders.
"I apologise for not being able to attend your wedding, Your Majesty." Aurelius said, bowing.
"Lord Myrddin," Uther said, looking past Aurelius. "I hope your dragon will not pose a threat to my citizens."
Myrddin scoffed. "Aevitas is not a beast, nor a child. So long as she is not attacked, she will harm no man."
Uther nodded. "Then let us go inside. I'm sure your servants can arrange things with my steward."
"Yes," Myrddin said gruffly. "And you can tell me what reason I had to journey this far, that you could not explain in a letter."
The king did not seem the kind of man to miss such an obvious slight, though he let it pass with good grace. "It is a rather delicate matter, and the Wybren mountains are difficult for a messenger to travel through. We don't have dragons, you see."
"No, you don't." Myrddin said, and walked past the king and into the castle.
The walk to the council chambers was in near silence. Balinor felt almost stifled, crammed between his uncle and an unnamed lord. Eyes passed over him as if he wasn't there, as if he were completely unimportant.
It was a horrible feeling that Balinor knew far too well. He strayed, dragging his legs as the self-described important people hurried forth. When he entered the council chamber, it was to an almost full room. He slid into a seat by the end of the table, as innocuous as possible. At the room's other end, Aurelius sat at the king's left and Balinor's father stood looming over the seated king.
"Uther, I'm not sure what you're saying," Mydrrin growled.
"We are on the verge of war, Ambrosius. I need to know you'll fight for me."
"Dragonlords are not vassals, they serve no king." Aurelius said. "What makes you think this would change for you?"
Uther waved his hand, and a dusty old man stood, coughed out what sounded like his own lungs, and held up a wrinkled parchment. "All mages born or living within Essetir's borders, of either natural or learned power and of every cult and order, are hereby under conscription to His Majesty King Camdrin of Essetir's service. Any avoidance of this order is to be severely punished.”
"Signed, Camdrin Madoc, King of Essetir." The councilman folded up the paper and sat back down.
"The order was made last week," Uther said. "A clear bid of Camdrin's to strengthen his army."
Balinor watched as his father and uncle looked at each other, sharing twin expressions of fury. How dare he, Balinor wanted to yell. How dare that man try and make slaves out of mages!
"Is this intended as a threat, Uther?" Myrddin asked coolly.
Uther stood so that he was eye-to-eye with the Dragonlord, though still shorter. Before he could form a retort, the chamber doors opened, and in walked the most beautiful woman Balinor had ever seen.
She was of medium height, with silvery gold hair which was wound tight to her head. Her gown was mid-cut, made of flowing lilac silk that looked more like liquid than fabric. She reminded Balinor of a Christian angel, the room's windows letting sunlight stream through the jewels in her hair like a halo.
"I'm sorry to interrupt, My Lords," she said. "Please, go on." She strolled past Balinor and the rest of the councilmen and took the seat at Uther's right.
Myrddin, who had not lost his furious expression, glared at the woman. "Who are you?"
"My wife," Uther explained. "Ygraine, this is Myrddin, a Dragonlord of the Ambrosius house."
"Nice to meet you, My Lord." Ygraine said, hand outstretched. "I apologise for being so late."
Myrddin ignored the queen’s hand. "I asked you a question, Uther. Don’t distract me with pretty whores."
Uther's face flickered with true rage, for the first time Balinor had seen. His dark eyes narrowed, and his mouth stiffened into a firm line. Head raised, he stared at Myrddin with shoulders stiff and back straight; a soldier's pose. He looked every part the warrior king. "It was no more than a warning, Ambrosius. I require your help, as much as you do mine. Camdrin may be a hopeless strategist, but he has the force and strength to challenge the both of us."
"You think to add our strength to your own?" Aurelius asked.
Uther nodded, once. "You will be under your own command, as much as I can allow."
Myrddin frowned. "Your kingdom is still new, your people unsure of you. A war would tear Camelot apart."
"If I stand by and do nothing, I will lose my kingdom altogether!" Uther slammed his hands down onto the table, glaring at the Dragonlord. "I will not let Camdrin destroy everything I have worked for."
"Uther." Ygraine spoke no louder than a whisper, her hand on Uther's arm, but it was enough for the king to calm. He sat, looking pointedly at Aurelius and not Myrddin.
"Myrddin is not the only Dragonlord of our house. There are currently three." Aurelius said. "I cannot speak for my brother, but I will try to convince my children to join your cause."
"Thank you," Ygraine smiled at Aurelius, who nodded back politely.
Myrddin was still frowning. "A rash decision, brother."
"You may be too cowardly to fight, but that does not mean the rest of us are," Aurelius spat.
"This is war we are discussing, Aurelius. Of course I am cautious. It is my life I would be risking, while you will return to Dinas either way. You'd send your children to die for a stranger's cause without a second thought, and judge me for not doing the same!"
Myrddin was clearly far from finished, but Aurelius interrupted him before he could continue. "We will discuss this elsewhere." He stood. For the first time since the council had begun, Aurelius glanced at his nephew. "Balinor, see to Aevitas."
With a nod of dismissal, Aurelius turned away and resumed simpering to the king and queen.
Balinor wanted to protest, argue that he might have something to say. Aurelius had nothing to lose by Mryddin's decision. Why couldn't Balinor have a say, when he did?
Under the forever-judging gaze of the council and his father, Balinor dared not say a word. He left the room as discretely as he could, and made his way, almost numb, to the forest. Perhaps Aevitas would listen, and understand his rage. She was Myrddin's closest friend, but was also kind - for a dragon. More than once Balinor had found sanctuary in her soothing words.
"Hey- watch out!"
The cry was too late a warning. Balinor fell to the ground, along with a serving girl and the bottles she had been carrying. Glass shattered everywhere, and odd smelling liquid sprayed across the floor.
"I'm sorry," the girl breathed as Balinor got up. She wasn't looking at him, still crouched on the floor, messy black hair hiding her face as she tried to salvage the potions. "Gaius is going to kill me,” she moaned.
"Perhaps he'll be able to find a competent servant."
The girl glared up at Balinor. With green potion dripping from her fringe and her clothes torn and soaked, she was far from intimidating. "You bumped into me, you air-headed prat!"
"Air-headed?" Balinor snorted. He tried -and failed- to hold back a proper laugh as she glared at him again, trying to stand but wobbling so much she almost fell. "You can't call me that."
"How about simpleton?" The girl asked. She'd finally regained her balance, and Balinor was surprised to see she was almost his height. "Cretin, or maybe imbecile.” She made a puzzled, thinking expression. “I know- a moronic... supercilious, contemptuous arse."
Stunned and insulted, Balinor watched as she took a scarf from her neck and held it like a bag. "You can't call me that," he eventually repeated.
"I just did." She picked up the larger bits of glass and placed them in the folds of the scarf.
"I'm the son of a Dragonlord."
The serving girl stopped, and looked at Balinor, but not in the submissive way he'd hoped for. Her judging gaze was nothing of what he expected from a servant. She looked him up and down, expression one of distaste. "That's nice," she said as she resumed picking up the glass.
"I'm of noble blood, you can't insult me!" Magic blazed through his veins, threatening to break loose. He held it back, fists clenched, but knew that his eyes would betray his lapse in control.
Perhaps that'll scare her off.
Alas, it did not.
"Your blood, blue or gold - doesn't stop you from being a prat." Glass bundle in hand, she walked off, brushing past him like he was as insignificant as another servant.
Camelot's training grounds were a flood of testosterone. With war on the horizon, the atmosphere was as excited as it was tense. Knights and mages eagerly practised drills, showing off.
The Ambrosius boy had somehow managed to become the centre of attention. Morgause could not deny that he had plenty of magic. She'd seen, from the edge of the yard, him blasting some druid off his feet with a few words.
He was careless, however- all that power untrained and unfocussed. The little Dragonet, as was apparently the term, would balk at the sight of a stronger mage than he.
“You have a large amount of power.” Morgause commented, strutting across the field. “For a man.”
Ambrosius paused from where he was helping his opponent stand. “A great deal more than a child such as yourself, I am sure.”
Morgause bristled. A child. One training under a High Priestess of Avalon. Who’d been specially selected for the position when she was nine, because of the power she had, even at that age. Morgause stood straight and glared the Dragonet in the eye. Tall though she was for her age, she was still a full head shorter than the boy.
"I'm not so sure of that." Morgause looked him up and down. From his shoulder-length dark hair and fair skin, his black clothing down to his boots; mud-stained from previous attempts at showing off. "After all, don't Dragonlords hide behind their beasts when in battle?"
"Dragons are not beasts, nor are my people cowards!" Ambrosius yelled.
"Your people? It was my understanding that you had no Dragonlord powers."
Their argument had drawn an audience. The mages who had been training with Ambrosius now gathered around he and Morgause. Empowered by the spectators, the Dragonet stepped forward. "Dragonlord or not, I can still defeat you, witch."
"Balinor..." The druid whom Ambrosius had defeated shook his head. Neither witch nor Dragonet paid him an heed, opting instead to adopt fighting positions.
Morgause fought the urge to laugh. ‘Balinor’ stood like a knight, heavy and wide. She almost wanted to correct his pose. Mages should stand lightly. The variety of possible magic attacks meant one fighting it had to be ready for anything, seen or unseen. There was no point in physical strength or steadiness, rather a need for fluidity and alertness.
“Forbærne ácwele!” Morgause yelled, thrusting her arm out, palm-first. A fist-sized fireball shot towards Balinor, who stuttered a shielding spell.
The fire dissipated, and Morgause laughed at the Dragonet's expression of surprise.
“Hleap on bæc!” With an abrupt flare of magic, Morgause was cast backwards.
"Ætstandan!” Her momentum stopped with jarring rapidity, and the witch rolled onto the grass, cursing. “Áctírce!”
Balinor stumbled away from the bolt of power. The golden light exploded on the ground, and the debris froze mid-air, caught by the Dragonet's magic. With a wave of his arm and an inaudible command, the dust and shards of stone shot towards Morgause.
Morgause willed the debris into a whirlwind, which shifted towards Balinor.
“Se byre tohweorfe!” He yelled over the howling winds. The tornado ripped apart, nearly bowling over Morgause and several onlookers. With his opponent disorientated, Balinor gestured at a rack of training swords by the edge of the field. “Bregdan þá sweord togeagnes híe!”
The swords rose and flung themselves point-first towards Morgause. "Missan!" She shrieked, and the blades veered off-course, embedding themselves into the ground.
Morgause glared at Balinor, who had the nerve to grin back. “Byre ond byrne," she growled, determined now to show the boy her true power. "Gehísumian-”
The spell died on her lips, and magic faded from her veins, as though fleeing from the voice. Morgause turned and beheld Nimueh. The High Priestess was storming across the field, onlookers jumping out of her way.
"What madness has taken you? What is this?" At 'this,' Nimueh waved in the direction of Balinor, who was watching with a confused expression.
"He challenged me." Morgause explained.
“And you accepted?" Nimueh scoffed. "A Priestess should not lower herself to playing in the mud with boys. Need I remind you of the chores you are neglecting?”
To Morgause's surprise, Balinor stepped forward, an actually apologetic expression on his face. “I'm sorry, My Lady. I didn’t mean to distract Morgause from her duties-”
Nimueh stopped Balinor with a glare that was known to silence kings. "I don't care what you intended. You can behave like the animals you live with; that is your father's problem, not mine. Morgause, on the other hand, should know better."
Before Balinor could attempt to defend Morgause further, Nimueh walked off with a painfully firm grip on Morgause's shoulders.
"I was going to beat him!" Morgause hissed as they walked through an empty corridor of the castle.
“You are not a child anymore,” Nimueh said, one arm still firmly on Morgause’s shoulder. “Not every fight you begin will be finished."
She stopped, and looked Morgause up and down. It was clear, from her expression, that Nimueh found what she saw to be lacking. "You care more about proving your own worth than upholding our order. As long as that is the case, you will never become a High Priestess.” Nimueh walked off at that, leaving Morgause standing frozen before the door to her chambers.
“Marriage does suit you well, Your Majesty.”
Ygraine laughed, a beautiful sound that was common nowadays. “I swear Agravaine, if you call me that one more time...”
“It is your title after all,” Tristan pointed out from his place sprawled across his bed. The three De Bois siblings had gathered in the knight's chambers. Much of the castle was still and quiet, the hot sticky day taking all energy from even the most spry.
Agravaine sat by Tristan's desk, and in the past hour had taken off all his outer clothes, piece by piece. Ygraine sat on the floor by the bed, wearing what she claimed to be the lightest dress in her wardrobe. It was a lacy, sky-blue thing that looked more like a nightdress than proper Queen's attire. Tristan had chosen the smartest option, if he said so himself. He'd removed all but his breeches, and was alternating fanning himself and Ygraine with a sheaf of parchment.
"My brother needn't use such a title," Ygraine scoffed, poking Tristan's arm.
"I want to though," Agravaine insisted. “My sister is a queen. Let me appreciate that.”
“Agravaine’s star-struck.” Tristan snorted.
Agravaine rolled his eyes and pointed at Tristan. "You can't possibly tell me you have adjusted to all this already," he said, waving his hands around the room.
Mostly, yes. Tristan had long been a well-known knight, and had travelled to places like Camelot often. It was his victory in a tourney that had led to Ygraine meeting the king, after all. He was accustomed to being served, though he refused to take it for granted.
"Used to what?" The knight eventually asked. "Chatting with the men who decide how I'll die?"
"Don't speak like that!" Ygraine cried.
The room's atmosphere sobered, as the topic they'd all been avoiding came to light. "I'm sorry, sister."
"Must you go?" The queen whispered.
Tristan heaved a sigh. “Uther needs my skills on the field.”
“My husband has already ignored my pleas. I cannot lose you both. Surely one man won’t change the war’s result-”
"Ygraine..." Tristan dropped the temporary fan, which he'd given up using, and took his sister's hand in his. "I must go. I couldn't live with myself if I didn't."
"You'd find guilt over not killing people?"
"Certain people," Tristan muttered.
Ygraine stared at her brother, mouth half-open as she struggled to find her words.
“Tristan’s anger is not unfounded, sister,” Agravaine said, breaking the silence. “Camdrin’s death would allow a great many to sleep easier.”
“I know he is Camelot’s enemy, but how could anyone find pleasure in murder?"
“The murder of a slaver, torturer and tyrant,” Tristan growled.
“How… how do you mean?”
“Camdrin is a cruel man and crueler king,” Agravaine answered. "Uther told you of his degree regarding sorcerers?"
"That's just one example. The majority of his army are conscripts, from among his citizens and captured foreigners."
"Slaves?" Ygraine breathed.
"No, if you ask Camdrin. Prisoners are given a choice: serve their enemy or endure the capital's dungeons. The place which the common people call the torturer's den." Agravaine paused, watching as Ygraine's face flashed with horror, then fury.
"As he seals able-bodied men from the poor," he continued," he raises their taxes to suit his desires. Many have resorted to thievery to survive. Even royalty suffer from his tyranny. Camdrin's son, Cenred, has experienced a great deal of abuse from his father. Despite having lived barely twelve winters, he is forced to witness much of what happens in the dungeons. There have been rumour of sexual-"
“Brother, stop,” Tristan warned.
Ygraine was pale and looked sick. “Why would he… What kind of man would do such a thing!”
Tristan stood and wrapped strong arms around his sister. “This is why, Ygraine, I have to go. I can’t stand by and not do anything, while stuff like this happens.”
"Promise..." Ygraine gasped, head buried in Tristan's shoulder. "Promise me you will put your life first. The most important thing is that you live. More than your pride, or your worth in the eyes of your commanders."
"I am the king's brother-in-law. The only man who can command me to do what I do not want is your husband," Tristan pointed out.
"I know," Ygraine said. "And I trust him to take care of you as a brother."
"Take care of me!" Tristain exclaimed. He stepped out of Ygraine's embrace and crossed his arms. "I don't need babysitting!"
"The first time you went on campaign, you drove your horse into a bog and the knight you were squiring for had to rescue you," Agravaine pointed out.
"There were Will-o-the-wisps! I thought they were the knights ahead, and they lead me to the bog!" Tristan insisted.
"Liar," Agravaine scoffed. "Will-o-the-wisps don't exist."
Before Tristan could respond, Ygraine interrupted. "You two have had this argument hundreds of times, and never come to a conclusion. Personally I believe there could have been wisps-"
"Thank you," Tristan said, grinning at a scowling Agravaine.
"-But I'd bet fifty crowns he'll return within the month, covered in mud and cursing ever becoming a knight,” Ygraine finished.
“I will not!” Tristan insisted, glaring at his brother and sister, who were both stifling laughter. "Is this the reward I get for letting you two shelter in my rooms?"
"Oh come on, Tristan," Ygraine said. "Let us laugh now, and we shan't when you come back."
"Go play with your cloths," Tristan muttered.
"I'll make you a ladies’ favour. We all know it's the only one you'll get."
"There are hundreds of women vying to give me their favours!" Tristan yelled.
"Yes, but it's not the women you want favours from," Ygraine sung, darting out of the room before Tristan could respond.
"She shouldn't say that so loudly." Agravaine muttered.
"Let them know," Tristan grinned. "Might give me more chances."
"I think you should take more care of what people think of you. Especially here, where such a thing can mean life or death."
Tristan sat back down on his bed. Agravaine was staring at him, with his look, that he always used when he wanted Tristan to take things seriously. "I'm going on campaign within the week." The knight said, studying his calloused hands. "Men at war don't care what other men do."
"You never promised Ygraine." Agravaine said.
"That you'd put your life first, come back to her."
Tristan frowned. "Is that what you want?"
Shaking his head, Agravaine suddenly found the table beside him fascinating. "I'd rather you not go at all."
"I cannot just-"
"Men like Camdrin will always exist." Agravaine said, now looking up, face impassive, only his harsh voice betraying any emotion. "Kill him, another will take his place. Defeat his army and their sons will want revenge. You won't accomplish anything in war."
"I'm a knight. I've trained all my life to help bring peace. Would you have me ignore all that? Give up my sword and do- and do what?"
"I'd have you use your head, Tristan." Agravaine stood and headed to the door. "No knight has ever brought peace."
The arrival or departure of armies were somehow always a cheerful affair. Balinor stood at the edge of Camelot's main street, near the start of the lower town. He'd fled his uncle and the stuffy nobles Aurelius had befriended, and now found himself in a crowd of commoners.
He hadn't realised just how many of the men leaving were common soldiers. The men marched in formation, holding whatever weapons they'd managed to find. Knights on horseback rode above the rest of the army, heads high and smiles wide. There was so much red, it was as though the battles had already been fought. The Pendragon banner was everywhere; in the arms of flag-bearers, on the chests and shields of soldiers, and hung above the street.
Had I been a knight, I would have been of age to join them. The thought was bittersweet, full of both relief and regret.
A woman crashed into Balinor's side, oblivious to the stumbling Dragonet as she reached towards the army. There was a blue piece of cloth in her hands, and a soldier -a young man who looked similar to the woman- grabbed it as he passed. Balinor made to yell at her, until he saw her tear-streaked, trembling face.
She may never see him again. The man, her brother or cousin, was only a foot soldier. He had no armour, no proper weapons or training. His kind were made to litter the battlefield, so that the knights could return, singing of their own victories.
Balinor wanted to say something to the woman, to comfort her, but before he could, the street suddenly plummeted into half-light, as though a storm cloud had covered the sun. Every voice quietened to a whisper, as every head turned upwards. Aevitas soared over Camelot, her giant wings spread across the street. Had she landed, she would crush not only the street, but the buildings on either side.
Myrddin was with her, Balinor knew. His father had refused to make any decisions for two weeks, during which both of Aurelius' children had agreed to fight. Myrddin had only given in when Brangaine had sworn her sword to Uther. Myrddin would never let it be said that a woman had more courage than he. Not even Balinor's cousin, and the first female Dragonlord in three generations.
Balinor watched, along with everyone else, as Myrddin flew East over the army. The crowd hummed, no man willing to speak louder than a whisper. To those who had never seen one, a dragon was but a legend; a symbol of death and destruction.
To Balinor, dragons were Bran and Cador, when his cousins let him help with their work. They were wild things, momentary glimpses through the mountains. They were his childhood, and his future.
"Pi̱gaínoun kalá, dráko," Balinor murmured.
"Wha' did you say?" Balinor jumped as a wizened man glared at him. "Was tha' a spell?"
"No- I wasn't-"
"Who cast a spell?"
"'E did!" The old man pointed a crooked finger at Balinor, yellowed teeth -those that remained- visible in his snarl.
The young woman who had crashed into Balinor before was now staring at him in horror. "What is a sorcerer doing here?" She screeched.
"I wasn't using magic, I was just-"
The old man reached forward and grabbed Balinor's shoulder. His breath was reminiscent of rotten flesh. "People like you should stay ou' of Camelo'. Yer no' wanted 'ere," he spat.
He shoved at Balinor's, making him stumble, jostling several people.
"Get off me sorcerer," one of them said.
"Godless freak!" Another yelled. A rock flew in Balinor's direction. It missed him, landing among the crowd.
It was as though time slowed as the stone fell. Balinor recalled the moment before a brawl, where one knew the exact moment the violence would begin. The final insult, or the first punch- or stone thrown.
The mob -for that was what it was now- glared at Balinor as one, mad entity. Something grabbed his arm, and a voice tickled his ear.
He pushed through the crowd, ignoring shouts and shoves. Ahead, still gripping Balinor's arm, a man wove through the sea of people. He didn't look back, and all Balinor could see were glimpses of his soot-stained clothing, dark skin and darker hair.
"In here," the same voice that had told him to flee hissed. Balinor stumbled into a dark room, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the light.
A candle sparked to life, illuminating the room. It was a simple home, furnished plainly. A man little older than Balinor held the candle, and was using it to light others.
The man was broad-shouldered and muscular, even under his loose clothing. He ignored Balinor as he moved around the one-room house. Balinor sat on a rickety wooden bench beside the kitchen table, half-fearing it would break beneath him.
"I should thank you, I suppose."
The stranger snorted a laugh. "Usually the polite thing to do, when someone saves your life."
"I don't think my life was at risk," Balinor said.
The stranger turned, eyebrow raised. "You could fend off the entire mob yourself, could you?" he snorted.
His smile vanished, and he stared at Balinor with shock. "You are a sorcerer."
"I..." Balinor frowned, confused. "Why did you think they were attacking me?" Although I can't say I understand their motives, either.
"There aren't many sorcerers in Camelot." The stranger explained. "I mean, the bards tell stories of evil witches and beasts terrorising knights. The closest most get to magic here is the rare glimpse- like the Dragonlord today. It's just legends and superstition to us."
"You didn't know?" The stranger laughed. "Where'd you come from?"
"Dinas," Balinor said.
"Nevermind." Balinor stood. He needed to get out, to find somewhere he wasn't an oddity.
He wanted to go home.
"I've got to go back to the Citadel. Thank you, again, er-"
"Tom," the stranger said. “Good luck,” He murmured. With a grateful smile, Balinor opened the door and stepped, unnoticed, into the crowd.
Ygraine's feet ached. Her slippers, of the finest quality, lined with silk and embroidered with gold, were crushing her toes.
Half-asleep, she limped through the castle's halls, dreaming of her chambers and bed. Uther had been gone a month, leaving Ygraine to deal with an unfamiliar council and court.
At night, Camelot castle was silent and eerie. The white castle walls glowed pale and unnatural, reflections of the full moon. The bustle of servants and nobles was gone, leaving in its place ghostly whispers.
Ygraine first mistook the quiet sobbing for her frightened imagination. It was not until she saw movement in the shadow of an alcove that she realised otherwise.
A young girl curled against the stone wall, dark hair hiding her face.
“Are you alright?”
The girl sniffed, looking up. She was older than Ygraine had assumed, hardly a few years younger than the queen. Her face was tear-streaked, hair mussed and sticking to her cheeks.
"Your Majesty!" She gasped, glimmering, reddened eyes wide. "I'm sorry for disturbing you, I'll-"
"No," Ygraine exclaimed. "You needn't leave." She grabbed the girl's hand. "I want to help."
"Why?" The girl's voice cracked. She peered at the Queen through the shroud of her hair, frowning.
"What's your name?" Ygraine asked.
"Hunith," she answered. "I'll be fine, you needn't waste your time on me."
"Perhaps I have nothing better to do," Ygraine said.
Hunith shook her head. "Even if you did care, there's nothing you can do."
"Could you tell me what's troubling you?"
The servant caught the Queen’s eyes in a piercing, studying gaze. "My parents," she said, voice slow and dull. "Are dead. Along with half of the village I was raised in."
"I-" Ygraine stared, open-mouthed, at the serving girl. Hunith met her gaze, firm and unblinking. Ygraine didn't know what to say. She'd lost her mother, years ago, and her father to his grief. She'd had her brothers, Hunith was clearly alone. "How?"
"The war," Hunith spat.
"Essetir." Of course. Reports and refugees had been flooding into Camelot. The fighting had yet to start, but raiders from the enemy kingdom had already taken advantage of the war.
"Essetians wear red now, do they?"
"Camelot attacked your village?"
"The spoils of war." Hunith grinned, looking half-mad and far from amused. "Ealdor is a tiny village barely past the ridge of Essetir. No strategic value or threat to Camelot, but good fun to burn.
"They stole more than even bandits would. My father tried to stop them. My mother tried to stop him."
“I’m so sorry.” Ygraine whispered.
"Are you, m'lady?"
"Of course- I don't understand why you are so sure I don't care."
"Because you did this!" Hunith yelled, in a burst of rage that made Ygraine jump back. Hunith stood, looking down on the shorter woman. "You, and your husband, and his council! You people think you're doing so much good, when all you achieve is more death! When it all ends, you people will have your feasts and toasts to justice and peace. Meanwhile the common people will bury their children and remake the lives you've destroyed!"
"If no one did anything, then Camdrin-"
"Would continue as he has for decades, without Camelot doing anything! He's been king of Essetir for twenty-seven years. I grew up under his rule. No one in Camelot cared about anything he did, until the moment he became as powerful as you."
At the end of her rant, Hunith was panting. Her eyes were still teary, but all her sorrow had gone. "I've lived among the court for three years," she said. Her voice was calm, but her eyes, locked with the queen's, betrayed her determined fury. "What I've learned about nobles is they love to applaud themselves and their accomplishments. And then belittle the people they crushed on their way up. This war is no different."
"Thank you," Ygraine said. "For being honest with me."
Hunith gave Ygraine a puzzled, sceptic look. "Thank you," She eventually said. "For not beheading me for speaking my mind." She brushed past Ygraine and vanished into the castle, as quiet and unnoticeable as a shade.
Ygraine remained in the alcove a while longer, trying to digest all she had heard. When she found she couldn't begin to make sense of it all, Ygraine stumbled to her chambers. She barely remembered to take off her shoes before collapsing on her bed.
Her sleep was plagued with burning houses and screams, of plundering knights. She watched Uther ride through the fire and behead a screaming Hunith, and Tristan shoot arrows into a crowd of peasants.
Dawn arrived far too slowly. Ygraine watched from her window as the day began. Despite the early hour, some servants were already hurrying across the courtyard.
The first to rise and the last to rest, Ygraine thought, and wondered how these people could do so much work and demand so little. She tired from a few hours in council, while many commoners worked from dawn to dusk, or later.
Not long afterward, Ygraine's maidservant, Georgia, entered the chambers. If she was surprised that Ygraine was already awake she did not show it, as expressionless as ever. She was the perfect servant; seldom seen and never heard.
Ygraine refused breakfast, too distracted to stomach anything. Georgia helped Ygraine dress, brushed and arranged her hair, applied perfume and powders, all without a word.
"What do I have to do today?" Ygraine asked.
"You have morning tea with the Lady Vivienne," Georgia said as she placed a cluster of jewels around Ygraine's neck. "Then a council meeting- the carpenter's guild has requested your audience regarding siege engines. Lunch you may have here, your brother has said he may come."
"I may? Do I get no choice in any of this?"
"Of course your Majesty, you are the queen." Before Ygraine could decide whether Georgia had actually answered her question, the girl continued. "Afterwards, the castle steward has a list of new staff you need to approve."
"To replace those that have left due to the war." Georgia said.
Ygraine spun around, staring at the serving girl, who was looking back, nonchalant. "People are leaving? Why?"
"You'll have to ask the steward that, your Majesty. Would you like to meet with Lady Vivienne now, or take a walk beforehand?"
Ygraine took a moment to find her voice. Georgia stood by her shoulder, either oblivious to her inner turmoil or too professional to say anything. "Let's not make her wait," Ygraine decided.
"Good choice, your Majesty," Georgia commented, with the barest hint of emotion.
Vivienne was a woman who radiated power and control. She was beautiful in an etherial way; black silken hair, perfect pale skin and sharp, deadly features. Some had compared Ygraine to a golden star. Vivienne was the moon; bright and magical. Her wit and cunning was well known in the court, as powerful a weapon as her husband's sword. Not that she needed a sword- Vivienne's powers were extensive, from what Ygraine had heard.
All that left Ygraine both reluctant and eager to be her friend.
"Ygraine, how good to see you," Vivienne greeted upon the queen's arrival, as though she hadn't expected it.
"And you," Ygraine replied. She sat at a small dining table beside the Lady, studying the room. There were none of the bright colours or small comforts usually found in a Lady's chambers. Opposite the bed -covered with fur rather than silken sheets- a massive bookshelf took up an entire wall. There were no hints of sewing or embroidery tools, instead a sword rested against the nightstand.
She is so different from much of the court, yet so comfortable among them. Perhaps Vivienne can teach me how to do the same, Ygraine thought as Georgia poured their wine.
"How have you fared, without your husband?" Vivienne asked. She took a delicate sip of the wine, ignoring Georgia as she refilled it.
"You've been to the council meetings," Ygraine said. "You've seen how..."
"You are new to all this. You haven't made a mistake yet."
And what would constitute a mistake, to your eyes? Ygraine didn't ask. Instead, she said, "I wanted to ask, who could I talk to regarding the losses of the war?"
Vivienne laughed, surprised. "What a morose topic! I'm sure Geoffrey would know the numbers, he'd most likely be the one keeping record."
"I don’t want to know numbers. I want to know how many civilians are harmed by the fighting, and what Camelot is doing to help."
Vivienne stared at her, expression calm. "Why?"
"Wh- because from what I've heard, we aren't doing enough!"
"How does this concern you?"
"Because people are dying and no one seems to care!"
At last, Vivienne let her expression slip, showing disgust, for the briefest of seconds. "War kills people, Ygraine, everyone knows that."
"I know that. What war shouldn't do is kill innocent people who have nothing to do with the fight!"
"What would you have Camelot do?" Vivienne sneered, somehow still beautiful, even when her mouth was twisted in contempt.
"I would- and I will, have arrangements made for refugees, of both Camelot and Essetir. Most of them are simple farmers, they can help with the Autumn harvest-"
"And then eat all our winter food." Vivienne emptied her goblet in one go, waving away Georgia when she tried to pick up the fallen cup. "I see I was right about you."
"Queens should be trained for their task, as most are." Vivienne said. "Uther letting an air-headed woman, barely more than a peasant, become Queen was one of his more idiotic ideas."
"You believe you can do better, do you?" Ygraine asked. The witch probably did- as did half the court, it seemed.
"I believe that Camelot needs better than a woman who thinks the metal on her head and finger makes her able to do as she wishes. You may not like the rules of court, Ygraine. But they have existed far longer than you, and they shall remain long after you go. It is no use trying to break them."
"Then I will change them." Ygraine hissed. She stood, Georgia following meekly behind her.
"We'll see." Vivienne said.
Battle is coming, the messenger said. We have less than an hour.
Few of the men had been surprised. They'd been moving steadily closer to Essetir's border each day. A proper battle, more than the small skirmishes and raids they'd fought, was inevitable.
Uther, and Tristan too, had hoped to reach better ground before meeting Camdrin. The ridge of Essetir was no more than half a league behind them. The giant cliff was better than any castle wall for blocking retreat. It also happened to stand between the army and any reinforcements that Camelot could send.
Let us hope we do not need them, Tristan thought. The camp had sprung into life the moment the messenger had arrived, as all prepared for the battle. Tristan himself had nothing to do. He had both a squire and a manservant who were taking care of his horse, armour and weapons. Uther had given him a small contingent of men to lead, but they were all experienced soldiers, and knew their orders. Were he honest with himself, Tristan was grateful. He wasn't a commander, and he didn't want men's lives in his inexperienced hands.
"Excuse me," a gruff voice called, not at all apologetic. What looked like a heap of leather almost bowled Tristan over, despite the warning. Behind it appeared the Dragonlord Myrddin, who was holding a hand out to the bundle, eyes golden. Curious, Tristan followed.
An almost field-sized space had been left clear in the middle of the camp. Its inhabitant was a constant source of curious glances and fireside gossip among the men. The onyx scaled dragon was now laying down like a cat, her wings folded away.
Standing, she was as tall as two men, and half again as long, if one excluded her tail. Her wings, extended were the size of small tents, and together they spanned wider than a house. Tristan still found himself uncomfortable in her presence. He watched from the edge of the field as Myrddin strode, confident as ever, toward her.
The dragon acknowledged her Dragonlord with no more than a bored glance. Nor did she react while Myrddin unravelled the bundle, revealing it to be a giant saddle. Only once the saddle was magically placed on her back, did the dragon move. She rose to her feet, stretching her legs and allowing Myrddin to reach beneath her. Myrddin fixed the buckles and straps with experienced ease.
"How long have you been working with her?" Tristan asked, curiosity surpassing his fear.
"I first flew with Aevitas twelve years ago," Myrddin said. He didn't look away from his working hands, nor did he add anything else.
"He wants to know more than that, Myrddin."
The strange voice made Tristan jump. He knew immediately that it was Aevitas', for he'd been told that dragons could talk, when they so chose. Her voice was raspy and harsh, and seemed to echo, despite there being nowhere for it to echo off. Tristan was so awed by the odd, ancient accent, that the words themselves took a moment to sink in.
"I- I mean, I'm curious, sure, but... I don't-"
Myrddin chuckled, and Tristan felt like a boy again, caught playing knights by his father. "I'll tell you later, Sir Tristan. But first we have a battle to win."
Battle. Tristan felt a familiar rush of adrenaline, now mixed with excitement. He was going to fight alongside a dragon.
"And to you, Sir Knight," Aevitas replied, crystal white eyes following his departure.
Tristan's squire leaped into action the moment he stepped into his tent. Though he was already wearing chainmail, the squire strapped a pauldron over his left shoulder. Twin vambraces over thick gloves protected his wrists and hands respectively.
"You needn't fight with me," Tristan told his squire as he took his shield, painted with the swan of the De Bois house. The boy, Geraint, was hardly more than seventeen, a green youth who had yet to fight a true battle.
"It's my duty, M'lord." Geraint mumbled to his feet. "I can fight."
"You can." Tristan affirmed. As well as any other of the Camelot-trained boys. "But you needn't fight now. No one will think less of you, if you don't."
"I will," the boy said.
Before Tristan could respond, horns blasted outside the tent, announcing the incoming enemy. "Stay near me," Tristan told Geraint, who nodded and followed his knight out of the tent.
Tristan's manservant, white as a sheet, handed him the reigns of his horse before scurrying away. He led the stallion through the camp, his squire following with his own horse.
Uther was easy to find, the Pendragon banners raised high. The king was mounted and armed, surrounded by his guards. Ahead of him flat land spanned for two hundred feet.
Beyond that was their enemy.
Camdrin's army stood still but for the flags, a black snake on a green field, flapping in the wind. Footmen lined the front lines, with no sign of the rival king.
Both armies were waiting. What Essitir was doing, Tristan knew not. Camelot's plan, on the other hand, he was privy to.
There was no point in trying to hide something so large as a dragon. Uther had chosen to forget any chance of surprise, and use Aevitas as early as possible. They would wait, a safe distance away, as dragon and Dragonlord would fly across their enemy and spread death. Only once Aevitas turned back would the army proper attack.
The knight, now mounted beside the First cavalry, couldn't help but turn in his saddle in eagerness. The men around Tristan muttered among themselves, nervous, excited, or both.
With a triumphant roar Aevitas leaped into the sky. She shot her wings out mid-air, beating forcefully. With several more strokes of her wings, the dragon cleared the army, and sped towards Camdrin.
"For Camelot!" Tristan cheered, along with the rest of the army. He couldn't help grinning, his battle nerves disintegrating. Geraint passed Tristan his lance before retreating to his own horse.
A feral screech, vile and angry, sounded from across the battlefield. A blue dragon, smaller than Aevitas, flung itself into the air.
"I was told that Camdrin had no dragons in his service," Uther roared.
"The scouts reported the same," one of the knights replied. He was on the war council, though Tristan could not name him.
"We await your orders, Sire," another said.
Uther looked from the fast-approaching dragon to his army. "We can no longer rely on Myrddin to give us the advantage. Charge!"
"Charge!" the army yelled, and the battle began.
The First cavalry raced ahead, Tristan in the lead. His lance rested over his elbow and tucked under his armpit, his sword still sheathed over his left thigh.
Essitir's army raced forth to meet them, shields and swords raised in a deadly wall. Tristan's lance punched through the shield of one of the footmen, and the footman himself. His body flew backwards into the men behind him. The rest of the cavalry did similar, clearing the way for the rest of Camelot's army, but Tristan didn't notice. He dropped his lance and bared his sword, blocking an incoming attack and slashed at the man's shoulder. His horse trampled another man onto the ground.
On horseback, Tristan had an advantage against the enemy, but he was also an easy target. He led his horse with his legs only, his left arm raising his shield. A spear-wielding man thrust at Tristan's leg. The spearhead made a hideous screech as it met with the flat of Tristan's sword. Tristan knocked the spear away and cut the wood in two, before doing the same to the soldier.
He kept going on, crushing through the army, felling as many as he could along the way. After grappling with a man, who somehow had managed to leap onto his horse, Tristan cleared the edge of the army. He wheeled around, watching with relief as a good number of his cavalry did the same. Tristan heaved a sigh, swinging his cramped shield arm and readied to ride back into the melee.
A bolt of lightning across the sky severed his concentration. Tristan had almost forgotten the fight far above them. The smaller dragon flicked past Aevitas, who was flying haphazardly. Mryddin shot another spell at the figure on the blue dragon's back, which met a wall of sizzling gold energy.
As Tristan rode back into the fray, he found himself watching above. He couldn't tell for sure, but it seemed as though Myrddin and Aevitas were losing.
In his distraction, a sword nearly found its mark, and while Tristan hastily blocked it, a mace hit his horse's shoulder. The stallion reared, kicking his attacker away. Tristan felt, for brief second, that time had paused. He was looking up, hovering among the madness of battle, as the blue dragon closed its jaws around Aevitas' throat.
And then everything sped up and Tristan landed heavily in mud, as above came the most horrible roar. He rolled to his feet and grabbed his fallen sword. An axe-wielding soldier ran his way, and Tristan slashed at him clumsily. Blood splattered on his cheek, warm and foul. He wiped it off, only for more to drip onto his hair.
Tristan looked up, along with the rest of the army. The blue dragon shrieked, jaws dripping red. It hovered above Aevitas, who was falling through the air. Her wings fluttered madly, limbs jerking. Her lifeblood rained down onto the army. Tristan couldn't see Myrddin.
"For Essitir!" Some soldier cried, as others cheered.
Tristan fought on. His horse had vanished into the crowd, his shield and armour were dented, his sword-arm trembled. One man lost his head before he could turn to face the knight. Another blocked Tristan's first two blows, but fell for a feint and died for the mistake. Two came up to Tristan at once. The first blocked Tristan's sword with his shield, while the other attacked. Tristan felt metal slice through his side. He cried out and felled the first man with a thrust into his heart. Shield high, Tristan turned to face the second.
He was dead, sprawled at the feet of Tristan's squire, whose sword dripped with blood.
"You're alive!" Tristan gasped.
"Yes, m'lord." Geraint glanced at Tristan's side, where the chainmail was quickly turning red. "You're injured. The mail, I swear I-"
"Armour can't stop anything," Tristan said. He hefted his sword, satisfied he could still use it. "Come on."
"You can't keep fighting! You need to go to the infirmary."
"Do you know how to teleport, then? Never mind that, do you know where the infirmary is?" Tristan made to step forward, and found that such movements pulled painfully at his wound.
Geraint rushed to support Tristan with the knight's arm over his shoulder. "That way, I think," he said, pointing with his sword.
"Alright then," Tristan huffed. A two-man soldier- why wouldn't it work?
Together, they half-limped through the crowd. Tristan shielded their left and cut down everyone who didn't get away fast enough, while Geraint defended their right and back.
Ahead, at last, Tristan saw something ahead that wasn't the battlefield. Geraint saw it too, and they sped up their pace. Tristan didn't much care anymore if the dark shapes were part of Camelot's camp or Essitir's. He would find the edge of the field, find a place no one could see him, and sleep for an eternity.
Tristan didn't have time to consider whether such hopes were cowardly. They burst through the edge of the battle, boots squelching in the mud. Ahead was no camp or empty forest, but a huge, black mound. The shape was long and scaly, with limbs sticking out at odd angles or crushed beneath its body.
Blood pooled into the mud at Tristan's feet. Aevitas' body lay in the centre of a gap in the chaos. Every soldier but Tristan and his squire gave the dragon a wide berth, as though they thought she'd rise again.
She did not. Tristan stumbled over to where her head lay, looking at her giant, closed eye.
Geraint stood by Aevitas' shoulder, looking down on another body, this one human. Myrddin was barely recognisable. He lay sprawled over Aevitas' shoulder, held up by the saddle ties around his legs. His right arm hung dislocated from its socket. Lightning-like lines scattered across his cheek, still smelling of burnt flesh. Tristan remembered the magical barrier the other Dragonlord had summoned, and shuddered.
"Where did the other dragon go?" Geraint asked.
Tristan looked up and found the sky empty of any living beast. "I don't know."
"What do we do know?"
The end of Geraint's question was drowned out by the sound of a horn, low and somber. Camelot was declaring a retreat.
Tristan gave one last look at the dead Dragonlord as Geraint supported him again. Find another dragon, I suppose.
Five months after Balinor had arrived at Camelot, his uncle summoned him to dinner. There was an oddly subdued and mournful atmosphere that the Dragonet didn’t understand.
Aurelius ate his food in silence, glaring at his plate. Balinor, seated across from him, picked at his meal. Several times, he'd tried to start a conversation, only to be ignored.
A servant came to clear their plates, his head bowed. Aurelius looked at his nephew with a blank expression.
"There has been word from Essitir," he said. "Myrddin fought against an unknown dragon and Lord."
"Camdrin has a Dragonlord fighting for him.?" Balinor asked.
"No," Aurelius said. "They were apparently a surprise for both armies. After fighting Myrddin, they flew north, gods know where."
"Myrddin defeated him, them. How did the battle go?"
"A loss." Aurelius looked down again, refusing to make eye contact. "And Myrddin did not defeat the Dragonlord."
"What happened, then?"
Aurelius sighed. "He's dead, Balinor. Aevitas too." He waited in silence, as no reaction came. Balinor didn't -couldn't- say anything. "Obviously," Aurelius continued, "as you are not yet of age, the leadership of our house will pass to my children. There were too many losses, and Uther has not been able to reclaim the dead, so a proper ceremony will not-"
Aurelius stuttered. “Excuse me?”
“No!” Balinor yelled, anger and fury tearing through his body. "You're lying!"
"Balinor, I wish I was, but-"
"You are a liar!" Balinor spat. "A lying murderer! You killed him! You killed my father like you did grandfather, just so you could lead our house. It's not yours to lead, and it never will be!”
Aurelius, as always, was impassive. “You’re upset, I understand- perhaps you should leave, deal with your loss.” At his summons, a servant opened the door.
Balinor stood. He was shaking with rage, and there Aurelius sat, calm whilst discussing his own brother's death. “You’re a cruel bastard," Balinor hissed. "An abusive, jealous, slimy coward!”
At last, emotion flickered across Aurelius' face as he glared at his nephew. "I am the eldest," he growled. "I was raised to lead our House, it is my right, and Myrddin stole that from me. I will not have his son do the same!"
"I will turn twenty in a year, and you will be nothing, again."
Aurelius laughed; a cruel, belittling cackle. "You? Lead our house. My daughter could lead our house better than you. As she will."
"Bran can't- she's a woman."
"Your father may have thought that no woman had the right to rule over men, but he is dead. It is left to me to decide the fate of the Ambrosius house."
"You're a murderer," Balinor said. "Worse than that, you're mundane. You can't be trusted with the knowledge of our kind."
Face twisted in rage, Aurelius shoved Balinor towards the door. "Get out of my sight! I will not be spoken to like that! Especially not by an orphan boy!"
Orphan. That word rang through Balinor's head as he fled the chambers. He ran and ran, pushing past anyone in his way, barely seeing his face. Myrddin may not have been the kindest of men, but he was -had been- Balinor's father nonetheless. Now he was gone. And all Balinor had left was a man who'd already killed two of his family.
The early winter snows had covered the world in white, blue and grey. The forests around Camelot were dense and silent. Balinor wandered on, trusting his magic to lead him back.
“On an autumn morning, not long ago, I walked into the forest in my sleep...” The faint song drifted through the trees. Balinor walked towards the source of the voice, curious.
In a snowy clearing, a peasant crouched over a spiny bush, picking the last of the dying plant's leaves. Only the girl's long hair, tied messily away from her face, gave away her gender. She was dressed in simple breeches and a tunic, with a woollen shawl draped across her shoulders.
Curious, or lonely, or just seeking something to distract him, Balinor asked, "what are you doing?"
"Fuck!" The same voice that had been singing so gently swore, loudly. The girl jumped, knocking over a basket full of herbs. She spun around, staring at Balinor in shock. Balinor stared back, alarmed.
“You prat!” The peasant yelled, after she'd found her voice. “What’d you do that for?”
“I didn’t do anything!”
“You scared me!”
"Well it's not my fault you're so jumpy," Balinor snapped.
"Jumpy! You could have been a bandit or a madman. Hell, you still could be. You look like one."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
The girl snorted and waved a hand in Balinor's general direction. "Don't you have a mirror in your hovel?"
Balinor looked down at his rumpled clothes. His boots and trousers were soaked from crashing through snowdrifts. There was a dark stain on his jacket shoulder, and the image of a yelling servant holding a jug came to mind. His hair was most likely a mess, and his eyes prickled with tears. "I do not live in a hovel," he spat, the only words that came to mind.
"Sorry," she said. "I didn't mean it as an insult."
"Perhaps you should think before you speak." Balinor heaved a breath, feeling as if his chest was moments away from exploding. He wanted, needed to be alone.
"Excuse me?" The girl watched, mouth open, as Balinor stormed away. "Where do you think you're going?"
"Hang on- you made me knock over my herbs, scared me half to death, snapped at me and told me off. And you haven't even apologised!"
"I'm not apologising to a peasant girl." Balinor made his way through the trees, the girl's disbelieving yells following him.
Balinor was angry, and he wasn't too sure why. He should be upset, or crying, or something that didn't involve wanting to punch something. Hell, he'd take crying like a child over this incessant cycle of hate. I hate Aurelius, for hating me, I hate Myrddin, for leaving me, I hate me for being so weak...
"You're an arse!" The peasant girl appeared behind him, basket tucked under her arm.
And I really hate her, Balinor thought. "Go away, for Christ's sake."
"No." She walked into his line of sight, half-jogging to keep up with his pace. "I remember you," she said, peering at his face. "You're that bratty son of a Dragonlord who yelled at me when you knocked me over."
"I don't remember you," Balinor muttered.
"I'm sure you don't, you seem to spend a lot of time yelling at people, you prat."
Now I remember you. He wondered whether there was a spell to splash green potion over someone. She'd been less annoying when covered in sludge. “You shouldn’t insult people of higher rank than you.”
“Then I wouldn’t be able to insult anyone! Besides, most of them deserve far more than insults.” She studied Balinor with a disdainful look that Aurelius would be proud of. "Case in point."
"Oh for- if you're done trying to get yourself in the stocks, leave me alone!"
“No!” She continued to follow Balinor, apparently determined to be as irritating as possible. “Not until you apologise!”
“I am not going to apologise to you.”
“Well then I’m not going away.”
Balinor growled, kicking at some plant. “Are you always this irritating?”
“Only to irritable prats.”
Before Balinor could conjure a response, the forest filled with the swish of wings and the cracking of branches. A giant, golden dragon landed before the pair. Trees fell like matchsticks under its huge legs, each wider than Balinor and twice as long.
“It is not befitting of a Dragonlord to bicker like a child.”
Beside Balinor, the girl squeaked. Her mouth was opening and closing but nothing was coming out, as she stared up at the dragon.
Even Balinor, who was used to dragons, took a moment to remember how to speak. “I’m not a Dragonlord.”
The dragon smiled. “Aren't you?”
“I’m not even a Lord!” Balinor cried, ignoring the question. “My uncle is. He killed my father, he’s trying to take everything from me!”
“Do not worry,” assured the dragon. “Your uncle will not last the trials to come.”
"Your father's dead?" A soft voice whispered. Both Balinor and the dragon turned to look at the girl.
"Hunith," the dragon said, contemplative.
The girl -Hunith- gaped, cheeks clearing of any colour. "How do you know my name?"
"I know many things." The dragon smiled widely, baring deadly teeth in a terrifying gesture of amusement. "You shall create a legacy which will live forever," it said.
"M-me?" Hunith breathed.
The dragon unfurled its wings. “There is a great darkness approaching. It does not do to bicker over small things, when so much hatred will soon be born.” It leaped into the air and flew away, leaving behind a mess of fallen trees.
Both Balinor and Hunith watched it go in silence. “Are dragons always that cryptic?”
"Is there some kind of dragon translation script that we could use?"
Snorting with laughter, Balinor shook his head. "I’m afraid not."
"Shame.” Hunith was shivering, Balinor realised as he turned to face her.
“Did the dragon really frighten you that much?”
Scowling, Hunith muttered, “I’m cold.”
“Why didn’t you bring a cloak?”
“Because I wasn’t planning on chasing after arrogant nobles through the woods!” She said, shoving him half-heartedly. To both of their surprise, Balinor began laughing, almost hysterical. “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing. It’s just… My father’s dead, my uncle probably wants me dead too, I just had a chat with a dragon, in Camelot. And now a serving girl is attacking me.”
“Your uncle wants to kill you?”
“It's a long story,” Balinor muttered.
With a determined gleam in her eyes, Hunith hefted her basket and pulled the Dragonlord along with her. “You can tell me on the way back to Camelot.”
“You stalked me through the forest, and now you're kidnapping me?”
“Don’t be so dramatic. I’m freezing and there’s snow melting in my shoes. Also, I’m curious, so tell me.”
“I- uh, I can do a spell to fix that,” Balinor offered.
“What, to stop curiosity?"
“For the cold," he laughed.
Hunith whacked his shoulder with her basket. “Hurry up and do it then. It’s bloody freezing!”
"Are you always so rude?"
Hunith didn't answer, just smiled brightly. Balinor scoffed, deciding that answered his question perfectly well.
Despite its name, the Isle of the Blessed was actually two islands. They sat in the middle of a saltwater lake, free from the rule of men. The two castles, a crescent facing a circle, were linked by three arched bridges, high above the water. Intricate carvings and reliefs lined the many walls of dark grey stone. The fortress as a whole was both majestic and intimidating. It was rumoured to be as old as Avalon, built by the first Priestesses.
Winter on the Isle was harsh and unforgiving. Frost clung to the stone walls while snow and hail battered the many open courtyards. Stormy waves hit the Isle’s shores, and bitter winds tore into every room. Were it not for magic, Morgause doubted anyone would be capable of surviving such conditions. As it was, eternally burning braziers and torches warmed every corner.
One could tell apprentice from master by how they dressed. Nimueh irritated every apprentice as she strolled around in a thin red dress and bare feet. Morgause had once tried to follow her example. After a close call with frostbite, she gave in to the comfort of thick furs and woollen socks.
Among the apprentices, winter was a time of hard work. Woken with the dawn, Morgause struggled to leave the warmth of her bed. She and the other girls heated water, washed and, tidied their rooms in a military-like routine that supposedly taught humility. Morgause suspected it was really the Priestesses using them as free servants.
As the other girls continued with further chores, Morgause made her way to the inner island. Some laypeople and the Blood Guard may be permitted onto the larger island, but the smaller was only for those of the gift. It was one of the most magical places in all of Albion. The air itself hummed with magic, singing the Goddess' songs. No matter how many times Morgause entered, she had to pause, adjust to the magnitude of power around her. It was more humbling than any amount of servant’s chores could ever be.
In the centre of the island was a large, circular courtyard, in which stood a giant rowan tree. The other apprentices gossiped that it marked the grave of a god. True or not, more legends surrounded the tree than even the High Priestesses cared to remember. Carved into the trunk were the three moons of the Triple Goddess. The three statues of the Goddess' forms -the Maiden, Mother and Crone- were gathered around the tree.
Surrounding the courtyard were nine towers, linked by the island's outer walls. Each tower housed one of the Nine; women, powerful and skilled in all forms of magic. High Priestesses. Morgause didn’t know many by name. They tended to keep to themselves, speaking only to their initiates and the Goddess they served.
Nimueh’s tower was as familiar to Morgause as her childhood nursery. Against the wall a spiral staircase wound upwards. Each floor was unique as it was beautiful. Natural light streamed in from the sea. The walls were bare of tapestries, the castle walls lined with wood panels of pale apple. Each room was messy and cluttered, yet at the same time open and spacious. There were all forms of items; potions, alchemy equipment, and more books than a king's library. Nimueh's tower told Morgause more about her mistress than she ever had herself. It was at once homely and warm as it was royally grand.
Nimueh was waiting in a small, relatively empty room. She stood before a tall stone basin, filled with what looked like clear water. She didn’t look at Morgause, but placed a book before her and pointed at a spell.
The book was written completely in the Old Tongue. Transformation, the page title said, beneath it dozens of spells of varied effects. Each spell had beside it a paragraph of writing. Morgause carefully enunciated the spell given to her, and watched the bowl. Nothing happened.
Nimueh looked up from the book she was reading. “Again,” she ordered, turning a page.
Glaring at the pool of water, Morgause intoned, “Wæter, forbregan into cristalla.” The liquid flickered and rose as an orb, but refused to change its form. "I can’t do it.”
“You’re saying the spell wrong. It’s forbregdan.”
“Why do I have to do this? It’s pointless.”
“Do the transformation,” Nimueh growled.
Fine then. With narrowed eyes, Morgause glared at the basin. “Gimcynn!” The water shifted and solidified, leaving a shimmering gem in its place.
The High Priestess tossed her book on the floor and finally looked at Morgause. “I told you which spell to use! Have you forgotten the language?”
“Ic forgæt náht!” Morgause protested.
Nimueh’s lips twitched in her version of a smile. “Then use the spell.”
“Why? I did well enough with a single word. It’d be quicker-”
“This is not about haste!” Nimueh barked. She waved a hand over the gem, eyes gold, then commanded; “Change the crystal back to water. Use whatever spell you wish.”
Morgause frowned. “Wæter.” Water formed in the pool, but the crystal remained in place.
“You’re a fool.” Nimueh hissed. “Crystal, you commanded, and a crystal appeared. But not from water, no that vanished in your determination to make it gone.” She picked up the crystal. “This has the properties of a crystal. It was never water. An anti-vanishing spell was all it took to reveal your failure.”
“You should have told me you wanted the water turned into crystal-”
“Did you not read the spell, you fool! Forbregdan; transform. Not replace, but change. Now do the spell!”
Morgause focused on the water she’d accidentally summoned. A crystal formed in her mind’s eye, but she took the time to image the water becoming it. She saw it form, but knew that the crystal was still water, but at the same time a jewel. “Wæter, forbregdan into cristalla.” Another gem formed, more cloudy than the last.
Nimueh picked it up, twirling the stone between fingers. “You imagined ice while creating this.”
“I didn’t mean-”
The High Priestess waved a hand. “It is an improvement. With more discipline, you will be able to transform any element flawlessly. Weapons, poison, or items of healing.” She dropped the crystal back into the basin. “Now transform it back.”
Three months after Myrddin's death, Aurelius and his household left for Dinas. There had been a mass funeral for all the knights and nobles who had died in the battle of the Ridge of Essetir. There were a fair few new widows in Camelot now.
Balinor watched from the citadel's battlements as Aurelius rode out of Camelot. Under normal circumstances, Balinor would have returned to his home with the rest of his house. He'd expected too, both wanted and dreaded it. Instead, a Dragonlord friend of Aurelius' had come to Camelot. He'd offered to teach Balinor what he couldn't be taught before his father died. So now Balinor was to be left behind, more alone than ever.
The Dragonlord, Wylt, had given Balinor firm instruction to be at the training field an hour before noon. Though Balinor was sure he wasn't late, Wylt glared terrifyingly as Balinor arrived.
Wylt paced across the frosty training field, tall and stern. He was in his early forties, with dark hair already greying and skin heavily scarred and tanned. The stubble on his chin and his ragged clothes made him look more like a beggar than a talented sorcerer.
He studied Balinor, who stood on the other edge of the field. “I understand you have training in both mundane fighting and sorcery."
Balinor nodded. Would Wylt test him in his current skills? Would he be satisfied with what Balinor could do? He was good with magic, but sword fighting had always been difficult for Balinor. Bran used to tease, that he was more likely to somehow stab himself than his opponent.
"I'm not here to teach you mundane skills. You can find someone else for that." Wylt walked over to where a large chest sat by the edge of the field. "What I will teach you is only for your ears, and only if you have the gift of your House."
And if he didn't? Did meeting the dragon in the woods count as proof of Balinor's power? If it did not, then Balinor's inheritance wasn't confirmed. Would he make a fool of himself in front of Wylt?
Oh gods, what if he was sent back to Dinas? Bran and Cador had gone to fight in the war, only Aurelius would be there. He would be insufferable, if Balinor managed to avoid being murdered.
Dinas was home, and it always had been. The mountain fortress was where he belonged. But it was far from safe, and now that he was here, in this loud and bright city, Balinor wasn't sure he wanted to leave.
He certainly didn't want to return a failure, as mundane as Aurelius. He wanted- no, needed this chance to prove himself. His entire life, Balinor had been cast aside, no feat of magic, mind, or body good enough for his father.
Dragonlords’ relationships with their sires were often unstable. The children forever stood in their parent’s shadows, unable to come into their powers until their forefathers were dead. Balinor was now free; he had to use this chance to show his worth.
A flurry of movement by the side of the training yard caught Balinor's attention. The serving girl, Hunith, had somehow managed to knock over an entire stand of spears. Some knight was cursing at her, and Balinor could hear faint apologies from the maid. He snorted in laughter as Hunith’s leg tangled in a pile of rope and she fell gracelessly in a puddle.
“Are you paying attention, young Lord?” Wylt growled. With the shadow of a smile on his lips, Balinor nodded. Wylt harrumphed in disbelief and turned back to the chest. It was twice as big as his torso and locked with a thick latch that Balinor suspected to be enchanted.
“A Dragonlord can command any dragon,” Wylt said, “but with varying difficulty. The stronger your bond with a dragon, the easier your commands will be obeyed."
“The art of a Dragonlord is mostly instinct; so long as you have the Gift, there is little I will need to teach you, at this stage. We will begin by you proving that your powers are worth my time.”
Wylt beckoned Balinor closer. The chest opened with a wave of the older man's hand. The inside was a nest of coals which gleamed red as the stone within.
“A dragon egg?” Balinor breathed. He had only seen such a thing in illustrations. It was beautiful, teardrop-shaped and the texture of polished marble, but red as blood. He reached out, and when Wylt made no move to stop him, traced a finger over the shell. It was hard and warm and smoother than polished metal.
“How did you come by it?” Seldom seen and long-lived as dragons were, their eggs were incredibly hard to find.
Dragonlords tended to be closest to a particular dragon. The dragon would fight with their lord and give advice. For Myrddin, there had been Aevitas. For Wylt, there was Vega; a slender blue female. Balinor had only seen her from a distance. She had never come to Camelot, and Wylt had said she was wary of so many people.
“Will you hatch it?” Balinor asked, fingers still stroking the egg's shell. Maybe he'd get to witness it, or help raise the dragonling.
“No.” Wylt said. “You will.”
“I-” Wylt’s expression gave no room for argument. “How?”
“You must give it a name.”
Very helpful, thank you.
"Hatching dragons is a vital skill all Dragonlords instinctively know. If you have the power, you will be able to do it," Wylt said.
And if I can't do it, then I have nothing. Balinor sighed. He stared at the egg, wishing Wylt wasn't there to make him even more nervous. This wasn't magic, there were no words to speak that would make what he wanted happen. Balinor closed his eyes and tried to focus. He imagined a red dragon, smaller than a cat. He blinked its amber eyes at Balinor, and flapped wings that were too small to carry him.
"Vortigern." The name slipped out of Balinor's mouth before he even realised he was speaking. It was right, a word that rung with power and hope. The egg cracked, spiderweb-thin lines running across the shell. Something inside it shifted, and the narrow top of the egg lifted up and fell onto the coals.
A small slender snout peeked through the opening. More of the shell fell away as the dragonling scrambled out of the egg, growling quietly. It was a darker shade than Balinor had imagined, but otherwise exactly the same.
Wylt snorted. "He's a dragon."
Balinor ignored him, reaching for the dragon with hesitant fingers. Vortigern sniffed at him and mewled, which Balinor took as permission to stroke the dragon's head. It was almost silky, smooth and warm. His scales would not grow until Vortigern was at least three years old.
"What will happen to him?"
"I am entrusting him to your care." Wylt said.
"Me?" A confounding mix of excitement and terror left Balinor unable to say anything else. He gaped at Wylt, trying to formulate something resembling words.
"You will find a place for Vortigern to live for the next six months. You will be his closest friend, and he will one day become your greatest weapon," Wylt continued. He studied his student a moment longer. "I will expect you here again tomorrow morning."
"That's it?" Balinor had expected long hours of practise. The sun hadn't even reached its zenith.
Wylt waved a hand. “Go. Take Vortigern with you."
Vortigern squirmed as Balinor picked him up, claws digging into his arms. The Dragonlord bowed to his tutor and turned toward the castle. "Does this... does Vortigern mean I am a Dragonlord?"
Wylt paused from where he was enchanting the chest that had held Vortigern's egg to hover. He looked at Balinor, his expression contemplative, wary, like one would look at an opponent. "Yes, and a strong one too, it would seem."
"Oh." Wylt turned his back again, and Balinor took that as a dismissal. He wandered in the general direction of his chambers, attention focussed on the dragon in his arms. Balinor had absolutely no idea where he could keep a dragon, nor any idea who to ask. Vortigern’s spine arched into Balinor’s hand as he pet him. Small growls emanated from the dragonling’s throat. Balinor grinned.
“He’s adorable!” For nineteen years, Balinor had been taught how to defend himself with magic and steel against men, sorcerers and dragons. No one had ever mentioned serving girls.
Hunith appeared from nowhere, a flurry of messy hair and clumsy limbs. She cooed at Vortigern, who burrowed into Balinor's arms, frightened. Balinor didn't blame him.
"He's not a pet."
Hunith rolled her eyes and reached out to stroke the dragonling's spine. Vortigern growled, snapping at her hand. Teeth found flesh, and Hunith shrieked in pain.
"Drákon!” Vortigern whimpered, falling to the ground and curling around Balinor's leg, apologetic. Balinor grabbed Hunith's hand, where blood spilled from several cuts. "That was your fault," Balinor muttered, ignoring the girl's whimpers.
"How was it my fault? Ow!" Hunith snatched her hand away, glaring at Balinor, who had barely touched the injury.
“Stop being such a girl. I’m just trying to heal it.”
Hunith raised an eyebrow in a judgmental manner that Aurelius would've been proud of. "I am a girl," she pointed out. "And while this is your fault, I'd rather be healed by someone who actually knows what they're doing."
Hunith stormed off towards the castle. Balinor hurried after her, Vortigern at his heels. "What does that mean?"
“You can barely command a baby dragon," Hunith scoffed. "Your control over magic is hardly perfect."
“I’m an excellent healer!” Hunith huffed in disbelief. "Do you treat all nobles like this?" Balinor asked.
"I treat people as they treat me."
"God knows how you don't have permanent residence in the cells by now," Balinor muttered.
"Gaius may have had to come to my defence a few times," Hunith admitted.
"My uncle." Hunith reached a door. They were in the second floor of a tower on the south side of the castle. "Come on," Hunith said, walking into the room.
Balinor had never seen a place so cluttered. Books, vials and herbs lay strewn across every available surface. A rickety staircase wound up to an equally unstable landing. Tinctures bubbled over fey-fire while pestles battered themselves into stone mortars. A woman in her elder years sat on a bench, flicking through an enormous tome. She looked up as they entered, a lock of silver hair escaping her braid and hanging past her eye.
“Hunith!” Her eyes caught onto the servant’s bleeding hand. “What on Earth happened?”
“A dragon bit me.” Hunith made her way through the chamber and rifled through a cupboard. "Where's Gaius?"
Balinor stood in the doorway, awkward and forgotten.
“Marketplace,” the healer replied. “How did you manage to get into a fight with a dragon, of all things?”
Hunith pointed at Balinor over her shoulder as she fiddled with a poultice. "Balinor’s dragon doesn't like me.”
The old woman looked over to the Dragonlord, eyes glinting dangerously. "You let a dragon attack Hunith?"
"I did no such thing!" Balinor insisted. "I warned her not to touch Vortigern, who acted out of nervousness!" Any further explanation was interrupted by a crash and the sound of shattering glass. Vortigern had strayed from Balinor's heel, and now lay sprawled above the remains of several vials. Spilled liquid dripped from the table above. The dragon took in the room and the three people watching him and gave an apologetic mewl.
I hate you, Balinor projected. Vortigern sniffed at the spilled potion, too young to understand the words.
The healer watched the dragon with stern eyes. "Why is there a dragon in my chambers?"
"Uh-" Balinor said.
"Balinor hatched him today," Hunith said, hand now cleaned and neatly bandaged. "He doesn't have anywhere to keep him, I don't think his tutor was very helpful."
"Is that so?" Balinor nodded, a little too scared of the stern woman to do anything else. "Hunith, show Balinor the caves beneath the castle," the healer instructed. "I'm sure you'll find a place for him, where he can't damage valuable things."
Balinor nodded sheepishly. "Yes ma'm." Hunith grinned at Balinor’s sudden deference as she swept out of the chambers.
"Balinor," the healer called. "When the dragon is settled, you will return here and help me re-make all those potions."
The healer had no noble blood, Balinor knew. Though respected in court she had no authority over the aristocracy, and no power to order Balinor around. He could have this woman, and Hunith too, arrested if he so chose.
Balinor nodded sombrely and promised to do as she said. He left the chambers and followed Hunith as she bounded ahead, Vortigern held tight in his arms.
Hunith had clearly learned her fiery demeanour from somewhere.
Dark and lit by scarce torchlight. The Throne Room of Camelot, sunlight hidden behind thick curtains. The chamber was quiet, but full of people. Men -soldiers- dressed in the emblem of the Blood Guard, standing silent and emotionless. They stood as an army. A man knelt before the throne, held down by two guards. He was old, beaten, lost.
Footsteps echoed in the silence. Beautiful, dressed in royal, magical purple. Dressed as a queen. Was a queen. Pale skin and dark hair. She sat on the old throne, smiling at the broken man. Uther- it was Uther, old and wearied with grief.
“I am your daughter after all.”
Pale skin, black hair, enchanting green eyes that Saw, flickered with unparalleled magic-
Vivienne woke up, gasping breaths ripping through her. Her body trembled with faint remnants of magic, and she reached blindly beside her only to find empty space.
Of course. Gorlois had left a month ago. Gwynned had taken advantage of the war between Camelot and Essetir, and attacked. Their king, Carleon, was a young but experienced commander. Uther, having returned to Camelot to oversee the war entire, sent Gorlois north in his place.
Gorlois had refused to allow Vivienne to come with him, and so she was now stranded in Camelot. It was why she’d worn the enchanted bracelet forged by Nimueh; Gorlois couldn’t comfort her if she were to wake from a vision.
Which meant this dream - vision, was strong. Strong, and important enough that the Goddess had broken through powerful magic to give Vivienne her message.
A message clear as day.
Camelot would be ruled by magic. Camelot would be ruled by her daughter.
But not Gorlois’. Uther’s.
Vivienne lay face-up on the large bed, blankets kicked away. Though winter still held firm over Camelot, she felt far too hot. Green eyes blinked up at the dark canopy as her mind spun. She wanted nothing to do with the king, who was ignorant, mundane and selfish. Who shunned magic from an already prejudiced kingdom.
Who would one day fall to Vivienne's daughter. Oh, how she wanted to see that future.
A shallow basin of water, intended to wash off the sweat of the day, served as a scrying pool. “Cennan séo síen þæm middanearda. Béodan mec Nimueh.
In the water, strands of colour and shape coalesced into a single image. Nimueh’s chambers were a familiar, welcome sight for Vivienne. She took a moment to study the slight differences from when she last saw the room; a book strewn here, a new potion rack there. The moon of the Crone streamed gentle light through high windows. An odd device of sphere orbiting a larger sphere held her attention until the Priestess herself came into view.
“Vivienne,” Nimueh greeted with a soft smile. “What do you seek of me?”
“I have... I Saw something.”
“A vision?” Nimueh frowned. “The Goddess has shown me nothing.”
“It’s not-” Vivienne felt herself going red, and prayed that the dim lighting hid her embarrassment. “It concerns me personally. My- my lineage.”
“No.” Vivienne swallowed, allowing herself a moment to gather her thoughts. “Another daughter. A bastard. But I don’t want- I would never, not with him!”
“Vivienne.” Nimueh was calm, but the Seer fancied she could see a flicker of concern in her eyes. “Describe to me this vision.”
As she did, Vivienne saw the Priestess’ face darken with each word. Her expression was filled with the same disgust Vivienne had felt upon waking, and no small amount of pity. “That she was your child," Nimueh said, "was that a possibility, or surety?”
Vivienne sighed. “Surety,” she replied, without doubt. “If she is ever born, it will be through my womb.”
“Then it must happen, and soon.”
"Gorlois," Vivienne whispered. "He will never agree to this."
“Then do not tell him,” Nimueh said. “This vision is more significant than a man's feelings. To have one of our own on the throne of the most powerful kingdom in Albion, legally, will bring about an age we have never dared dream of. Your daughter, Vivienne, will give the Priestesses more power than they have since the time of Avalon."
Vivienne's mind reeled with images of the world Nimueh spoke of. When the Priestesses had ruled in Avalon, before the Romans, they'd been akin to queens, or gods themselves. Instead of hidden away on an Isle, the Priestesses of the Triple Goddess were worshipped and feared.
For that to ever come about again, Vivienne had to... “Uther is loyal to his wife,” she breathed.
“Then you must change that," Nimueh ordered. "Sacrifices are necessary if we are to see the Goddess’ plans come to light.” The water shifted as if someone had knocked the basin. Nimueh’s chambers blinked from sight, leaving behind clear water.
Vivienne allowed herself a shuddering sigh, before standing. She was a woman of the court and a Priestess; she could do this.
Outside her chambers, the moon rose high through the large windows, lighting the corridors with pale light. At night, with the Goddess' power at its height, Vivienne usually felt her strongest. Tonight, it was with heavy steps and expectation weighing upon her shoulders that Vivienne made her way through the castle.
The council chambers were cold and empty, but for one person. “Your Majesty.”
Uther sat in a high-backed chair, a map of Albion before him. He jumped as Vivienne greeted him. “My Lady. What are you doing awake?”
“I could not sleep, My Lord.” My bed is too empty, my dreams too eventful. “Nor could you, it would seem.”
“War has little pity for the weary.” Uther sighed and shifted a piece upon the map.
Vivienne took a seat at his right. The map gave a depressing view of the war’s progress. From the East, figures in dark green scattered along a line depicting the Ridge of Essetir. North-East across the Camelot border a huge army of blue stood. Mercia; unallied. Bayard was a fool who hated many and liked few, but he was a powerful threat that Uther was wise to remain wary of.
Vivienne traced a finger along the south of Camelot. South Albion was a place of unrest. Saxon invasion and civil war kept the kingdoms there too preoccupied to be able to threaten anyone else. The Isle of the Blessed lay in Camelot’s South-West. West lay Dyfed and Gawant, small kingdoms allied to Camelot. To the North-West, Carleon’s small army stood in grey. Gwynned was a county even smaller than Gawant, and much poorer. Had it not been for Carleon, Camelot could have defeated them in a matter of weeks. The bastard had taken advantage of Camelot's distraction with Essetir, and snuck southwards. Camelot's northern area was little more than farms and forest. With the majority of Camelot's army in the east, by the time Carleon had met any opposition, he was halfway to the capital.
Now two armies stood face-to-face on the Northern Plains. One was a mix of Camelot red and the blues of Gawant and Dyfed, the other Gwynned's dark purple.
The king shifted a piece northwest, then moved it back, lost in tactic and strategy. Vivienne studied him and found herself comparing him to the man of her dream. His hair still held its dark colour, expected for a man in his early thirties. The man in Vivienne's dreams was full of grief and rage. The man before her had worry and fatigue etched into his face, but a youthful determination glinted in his eyes. There was none of the grief she had seen, only fear of it.
“You think we will lose,” Vivienne commented.
“I will not lose this kingdom,” Uther growled.
“You may not have a choice.”
Uther glared at her. "I will not let what I have worked for all my life fall apart.”
Vivienne gripped the table, struggling not to snap at the king. “Will you return to the front lines?” She asked, voice calm.
“And leave the kingdom to run itself?” Uther refilled his goblet, setting the silver jug down with a low thud. “Life was easier when all I had to worry about was a lordship,” he muttered.
“What about your wife? Could she not rule in your stead?”
Uther shook his head. “Ygraine is unfamiliar with politics. I fear she will not be able to cope, even if my councillors deign to listen and advise her.”
“I fear for her,” Vivienne lied.
Uther raised a brow. “Why?”
Vivienne took her time to answer, feigning hesitation. “In a time of war as we are in now, we’re all in danger.”
“If you think I’d let any army come anywhere near Ygraine...” Uther growled.
“It is what were to happen if you died that I worry about.” When Uther continued to look confused, the Seer continued. “A childless widow, the Queen dowager- how many men would be ready to take advantage of her on their way to become king?”
“Do you really believe she’d be in danger?” Uther asked
“Yes, sire. At the moment you are all that exists of the Pendragon bloodline. Ygraine is your heir, but as a woman of relatively low birth, she’d be easy picking. Some will want her dead, to remove competition, and others will attempt to take your place in her bed.”
At each word Uther’s expression darkened. “I cannot let that happen to her.”
“I know.” Vivienne placed her hand over his, comforting. "Nor do I, my Lord."
"Kings die young," Uther said. "It's almost always inevitable. I can't defy fate, so how am I supposed to protect her?"
"As Queen mother she'd have more power, and therefore be safer," Vivienne pointed out.
“I don't know if we can have a son. We married nine months ago, and Ygraine has showed no signs of pregnancy." Uther stared at his cup, refusing to look Vivienne in the eye. "My advisors have been clamouring for me to take a mistress.”
“Would you?” Vivienne prayed her voice held none of the eagerness she felt.
“No!” The King slammed his goblet on the table. “I would never hurt Ygraine like that!”
“Not even to save her?”
The king's anger vanished like a candle-flame in a storm. Uther looked at the Seer with wide, hopeful eyes. “Would it?
“Even bastards can be heir apparent, and a baseborn son of yours would still have the greatest right to the throne. Although Ygraine would not be Queen Mother, she'd be under less threat, and protected by your son.” Vivienne found her hand hadn’t moved from its place upon Uther’s. She traced a thumb over his palm, calloused and scarred in stark difference to her own soft skin. “We all must make sacrifices for our kingdom,” she murmured.
Uther stared at her with wide eyes. She looked up and met his gaze. “Vivienne…”
I cannot; not tonight. She snatched her hand back, suddenly self-aware, and stood. “Goodnight, my Lord. I hope you sleep well.”
With a bow she fled, putting the King and his chambers of war behind her.
On Beltane night, Ygraine found herself swept along by the excitement and gaiety that flooded through the town. The summer night thrummed with activity, light and sound. Camelot's court had left the castle and gathered around a feast set out by the tourney field. Roaring fires blazed nearby, chasing away any semblance of cold. Trickster danced around bonfires, forming creatures of flame, eyes brilliant gold.
Every worry -the war, the bad harvest, the personal demons that kept one up all night- was cast aside for one night. The one person who refused to celebrate was the king.
Uther sat beside Ygraine at the feast table. He spoke little and ate less, unaffected by the mood that surrounded him. War was a constant presence in his mind. He was protective of his kingdom and people, but Ygraine wished he'd leave aside his fears for one night.
"The celebrations here are certainly more lavish than back home." Agravaine noted, a far more cheery presence than the king, seated on Ygraine's left.
She nodded, looking over as the drums beside the bonfires changed rhythm. "It's beautiful." And it was, with the colours of harvest everywhere, in ribbons, banners, and flowers. Beyond the field, the Lower Town as lit by a hundred candles and fires. The peasants' merrymaking was audible from where Ygraine sat.
"I don't envy the guards on morning duty tomorrow." Said Agravaine as several drunk knights began to throw punches across the table.
“If there are any that turn up.” Ygraine laughed. “At least the flowing wine seems universal. I remember you and Tristan constantly getting into fights while drunk.”
“Usually it was Tristan fighting and me trying to break it up,” Agravaine corrected. “Often he was fighting over you.”
Uther's head turned towards her, eyebrows raised. Ygraine sighed inwardly- at least he was aware of the celebrations. “Over me?” She asked.
"Mhm. Half the boys in the estate were in love with you, as you know. Some tended to be very open about it once their cups were empty.”
That made sense. Tristan had always fought for Ygraine’s honour, whether she wanted him to or not. “And the other half, they were in love with Tristan?”
Beside her, Uther spat out his wine, whilst Agravaine nodded. It was proof of how much he'd had to drink that her brother only grinned wider. “Oh yes they were! Be glad you’re female sister, you’ve never had to sit next to them mooning over Tristan whilst he trained.”
“I had to watch the serving girls do the same.” Ygraine pointed out.
“You've had a very interesting childhood.” Commented Uther, who had finally gotten over his choking fit.
“Oh yes,” Agravaine said, leaning across the table to see Uther. “I’m amazed Ygraine hasn’t told you more. For instance, there was this time when Tristan and I were learning to ride, and Ygraine was determined to come with us-”
“You are not telling him that!” The Queen hissed.
“Oh come on love, I want to hear it.” Uther’s open, teasing smile was so genuine, and so rare nowadays. Ygraine sighed, relenting with a grimace.
“Ygraine’s nursemaid at the time,” Agravaine began, “was a poor old lady that was far too overweight to chase her charge around. Ygraine gave her the slip. She then, somehow, convinced a stablehand to not only help her saddle a horse, but let her borrow his breeches.”
Ygraine had spent the following week doing half the stable hand’s chores, but she wasn’t about to admit that.
“The problem was," Agravaine continued,"that Ygraine had yet to ride anything bigger than a pony.”
“Did she fall off?” Asked Uther, who seemed to have forgotten that the woman they were discussing sat between them.
“No,” Ygraine's traitorous brother replied. “What she did do, was run straight through a bog. She appeared before us, covered in mud and wearing unfamiliar clothes." Agravaine stifled a laugh. “Tristan thought she was a bandit and started threatening her. The horse, fortunately, recognised us and our father. He stopped without warning before us, and that was when Ygraine fell off.”
Uther burst into laugher, Agravaine along with him. Ygraine had suffered the retelling of this story so many times that she grinned along with them. Not to say she wasn't plotting a way to humiliate Agravaine in revenge.
Ygraine emptied her cup and stood. “If you’ve done poking fun at me,I’ll be off. It’s late and I’d rather leave before the brawls begin.”
Uther, remembering himself, stood. “I’ll come with you.”
“No, sire, I’ll be fine. Although,” Ygraine pointed a finger at her brother and husband. “Remember that I know of a great many stories you might not want to be common knowledge, Agravaine.”
“Threats now, sister?” Agravaine’s smile didn’t waver. Despite herself, Ygraine laughed, summoning one last warning glare before leaving the feast.
The citadel was all but empty. But for the occasional drunkard, Ygraine came across nobody. Tipsy as she was on the rich wine, it was a blessing that none were there to witness her stumbling.
A knight, armour abandoned for a tunic soiled in sweat, met Ygraine outside her chambers. His eyes, unfocussed and bloodshot, lingered on Ygraine. "H'llo," he slurred.
"Excuse me," Ygraine tried to slip past him to her chamber door, but a hand on her shoulder held her back.
"Where you goin', muss?" He peered at her, foul breath against her face. "Pretty little king's whore," he muttered.
"Get away from me," Ygraine commanded. She could have the idiot arrested- she would, if he wasn't too drunk to stand properly.
He took a stumbling step towards her, reaching with grabbing hands. “His kingness got lotta cunts to pick from. Won’ miss one.”
“Oh gods.” The knight -still a powerful fighter, no matter how much he’d drunk- pushed her against the wall.
“Shhh,” he hissed. Spittle splattered Ygraine’s face as the man leant closer. His strong hands pinned her shoulders to the stone.
“Get off her!” A basket -of all things- crashed against the knight’s shoulder. He turned, bearing down on a young peasant girl.
“Th’ fuck you doin’, peasant bitch?” He made a stumbling lunge for the girl, who jumped back. He stumbled forward and the girl kicked him, her foot hitting the man’s crotch. Two guards appeared in the corridor as the man fell to the floor, groaning. Before the pair could do any more than stare at the Queen, the girl took charge.
“This man just attempted to assault the Queen. Do your jobs and take him to the dungeons.” Her voice was commanding, unhesitant and strong. The men rushed to do as she said.
One paused, looking at Ygraine, conflicted. “Y-your Majesty, are you- should we-”
“She’ll be fine. She would be better if you two had done your jobs and watched out for violent idiots.”
The knights obeyed with frightened and confused looks, as if they weren’t too sure why they were obeying a servant.
Said servant led Ygraine into her chamber with a gentle hand on her back.
“Thank you,” Ygraine whispered, dazed.
“Lay down Your Majesty. Are you hurt?” The servant opened and closed a few cupboards, rifling through them.
“I-uh.” Was she hurt? Ygraine’s heat raced uncomfortably in her chest, but aside from that... If it weren't for this girl, I would be a lot worse. “My shoulders, I think they may be bruised.”
The servant nodded, usual protocol for interacting with royalty forgotten or ignored. Ygraine didn’t bother correcting her. She watched, silent, from her bed as the younger woman found a stash of healing supplies and rifled through them. Her shoulders were tense, spine straight, head high; body language of a king’s. “What is your name?”
“Hunith.” The name was familiar -tears, anger, words that rang through her head. Ygraine felt her face redden with embarrassment. Hunith didn’t seem upset to know Ygraine had forgotten her. She walked over to Ygraine with medicine.
“A salve for your bruises. Be generous with it, and tell me or Gaius if it doesn’t work.” Before the Queen could even look at the jar now on her bedside table, Hunith pressed a vial into her hands. “Drink, it will help you sleep.” Ygraine did so gratefully.
The potion worked fast; Ygraine lay back, feeling her body relax. A door opened, and Ygraine sat up, startled. “Hunith!”
The servant paused in the doorway. “Don't worry Your Majesty, I’ll ensure there are guards- proper guards at the door.”
“No, I-” Ygraine struggled to find words through the haze of the herbs and her fading panic. “Thank you.”
The servant merely smiled. "Good night, Ygraine."
It was late afternoon on the day after Beltane that Hunith finally finished everything Gaius had asked her to do. Suffering from having woken before dawn after a late night and spending the day running around the Citadel laden with tinctures, Hunith stumbled half-asleep towards her rooms.
Great. “What do you want, Balinor?”
The young Dragonlord was panting, face red with exertion. Had it been anyone else on any other day, Hunith would have worried for them, and wondered what had caused such a panic. But it was Balinor, and she was tired.
“Vortigern,” he wheezed. “I can’t find him.”
"Again?" In the past two months, Vortigern had grown from the size of a kitten to a fully-grown hound. Balinor and Hunith had put together a pile of rags and straw in a small, easy to find cave, but the dragonling refused to settle. Every other week, he'd wander into the cave system and vanish. And somehow, despite his Dragonlord heritage and magic, Balinor could never find him.
"Tell you what," Hunith said. "If you do half my chores tomorrow, I'll help you."
Balinor looked aghast. "I'm not a servant! I have better things to do than help you."
"So do I." Hunith pushed past Balinor and continued towards her bed. "Goodnight."
"I- I'd be useless as Gaius' assistant."
"I'm sure you're capable of delivering things," Hunith said sweetly.
Balinor sighed, resigned to doing peasant's work. "Come on then," he muttered, leading the way to Camelot's dungeons.
The thing was, irritating Balinor was fun. He was quiet, much more so recently -since his father died, Hunith believed. Yet around Hunith he was loud, boastful and witty. A constant source of banter that Hunith wasn't sure how or when she'd grown used to, only that she'd be loathe to lose it.
"How was your Beltane, my lord? Did you get drunk? Or do you not need alcohol to embarrass yourself?"
"Did you spend all your Beltane brewing the potions you stink of?" Balinor responded. "Or did you spill them?"
"Those potions you smell is what got the castle functioning this morning."
"From what I saw at the training fields I'm not sure it was that success-"
For the second time in as many minutes, someone ran down the hallway calling Hunith's name. She was about to snap at them that she wanted to go to bed, dammit, when the queen stopped before her.
Ygraine, despite her recent sprint and the colour on her cheeks, looked impeccable and as dignified as- as a queen. "May I speak to you?" She asked, gaze shifting from Hunith to Balinor, who had gone quiet.
"I'll, uh- I'll go have another look for Vortigern," Balinor said, sliding past the queen.
"Try being nice, maybe," Hunith called.
Ygraine watched Balinor scurry off, bemused. "Is he a friend of yours?"
"Eh... he likes to think he is."
Smiling, Ygraine was beautiful, her natural kindness and joy radiant in her expression. "A servant who gets away with teasing a Dragonlord," she mused.
"People are more than titles," Hunith pointed out. "One could also say 'a niece of Camelot's respected physician, and a newcomer'. Or ‘a twenty-one-year-old and nineteen-year-old’."
"You feel strongly about this," Ygraine observed.
"I-uh," Hunith looked at her feet. It was one thing to challenge authority so blatantly to Balinor, but the queen... "Yes, your Majesty," she mumbled.
"Don't be ashamed." Ygraine said. "I admire it. Your defiance saved me last night, after all."
Hunith swallowed, something stuck in her throat. "I-"
"Thank you, Hunith, but that's not what I wanted to speak about."
"Do you remember the first time you ranted to me about nobility?"
"My parents... I was upset-"
"You were right," Ygraine interrupted. "What you said about war not being fair in who suffers from it. I want to change that."
Hunith blinked. "You would base the laws of a kingdom on a servant's blabbering?"
"I thought people were more than titles," Ygraine grinned. Hunith smiled back timidly. "It's not laws that need to change," the queen went on, sobered. "I honestly don't think I could, anyway. I- I'm not actually sure how to achieve what I want. That's why I thought I'd ask you," she admitted.
"Me?" Hunith was insubordinate, defiant to her last breath, but she'd never expected to be listened to. No one listened to the serving girl with no place to call home, a cast off before she was an orphan. "I-"
"Please, Hunith. I don't know the populace of Camelot, and they don't know me. I'm a stranger here. I need your help." Ygraine was almost begging, every note of her voice sincere.
"I-" wouldn't know where to begin "-talk to Gaius. Do you know the details of who needs help, and what kind of help?"
"I'll have a look," Ygraine said. "If there's one thing dusty councillors are good at, it's making lists of information."
"Ok then. I've got to- Balinor-" Hunith all but fled, scampering off with a grimace that only appeared when Ygraine was out of sight. She couldn't- she wasn't capable of- hell she didn't know how- and Gaius would be suspicious- and... "Gods help me," Hunith gasped.
"What're you bothering the Gods about?" Balinor was leaning against the wall of the caves entrance.
"Uh," a thousand explanations came to mind; rants, lies, pleas. Balinor was oblivious to her thoughts, nonchalant and relaxed. "Were you just standing here the whole time?"
"You were! Do you even know how to look for things, or have you never had to do that in your life?"
"Of course not, that's what you're for."
“All this effort I put in to help you, and this is what I get.” Hunith stormed past, Balinor following behind with an irritating smile stuck on his lips.
With summer’s heat beating down upon Camelot, the stuffy council chambers were a nightmare. Open windows begged for non-existent winds to give relief that never came. Exhausted servants rushed in and out of the room with jugs of iced wine.
Vivienne thanked the Goddess for her light gown and fan which she had enchanted to move itself. Uther and the other men present sent her envious glares from where they boiled in their chainmail and thick clothing.
Nothing eventful had occurred in the entire meeting. Two men were discussing harvest statistics half-heartedly, more out of habit than anything. Everyone sent the occasional glance at Uther, waiting for the King to declare the council over and free them all. Vivienne entertained herself with memories of childish pranks she’d played years ago. She wondered what the mason guildmaster would look like with green hair.
“...Harvest has not yet ended, but with continuing good weather I predict a decent winter." One man droned.
Another, well over eighty, replied sleepily. "The loss of territory to Essetir and Gwynned has reduced our farmlands quite significantly. An army is difficult to feed, and if our enemies continue to push closer to the capital, I fear-”
“Sire!” Panting in exhaustion, a messenger half-stumbled to the council chambers. He held a scroll, which he passed to the nearest councilman.
Uther stood, looking between the council member and messenger. Everyone else was suddenly more alert and muttering among themselves. “What is it, what’s happened?” The king asked.
The council member, whom Vivienne remembered as Adam, opened and read the scroll. “Bayard has made his move,” he announced. “Mercia has struck an alliance with Essetir. His army marches south to the Ridge as we speak.”
The news left a chilled silence, and heads turned towards the King. Uther was pale, face drawn in fear and anger. “Uther,” Ygraine whispered, tugging his sleeve.
Uther snapped out of his stupor and stood, tall and stern. “Geoffrey, summon a war council. Everyone else, leave. If I hear rumours have spread, heads will roll, understand?”
The chambers emptied. Vivienne lingered long enough to see the King dismiss his wife with a wave of his hand. As Ygraine passed her, Vivienne caught Uther’s eyes. The Seer offered a sad smile as she left.
Vivienne’s chambers were empty and suffocating. She found herself sat at her desk, gaze trapped on Gorlois’ side of the bed. A servant had made the bed, but Vivienne swore that her side was distinctly more rumpled. The council meet had been set to continue until sundown. Vivienne had no obligations for the next few hours, and nothing to do.
Exhausted and sweltering- even with her magic, Vivienne wandered over to a tall bookshelf. Over the years, she and Gorlois had acquired a small library of battle tactics, epics and spellbooks. Much of it had been left behind when they'd journeyed to Camelot. Vivienne's favourite, which she refused to leave behind, was an ancient grimoire. Nimueh had entrusted it to her years ago, when Vivienne was apprentice to the High Priestess.
She flicked through the pages, eyes passing over familiar spells. So many memories lay within the book that Vivienne lost herself to the past. It was not until the sun had set and it was too dark to read that she noticed the passing of time.
Thin, ancient parchment lay suspended in her hands, as she contemplated moving. Vivienne was loathe to give up this world of memory and call for supper.
The door of Vivienne's chambers flung open, jolting her from her internal debate. The king, eyes wide like a madman's, stood at the threshold.
Vivienne stood, clutching the grimoire to her chest like a shield. "Sire? Can I help you?"
Uther stepped into the room, closing the door behind him, and looked around with vacant, panicked eyes. “We- We’re going to lose,” he breathed. “I can’t- I can’t stop them, I can’t save her.”
This is the man who befriended my husband, Vivienne thought. A vulnerable, self-depreciating person, who thought so much of others that he couldn't sleep. With age and the kingship he had won, Uther had hardened, rationing his emotions. It would seem that marriage brought back some of his youthful passion.
"You will not lose," Vivienne said. Uther shook his head. Before he could say anything, Vivienne crossed the room, grimoire still in hand. She faced the king. "I will send a plea for help to the Isle of the Blessed. Nimueh will send sorcerers and Blood Guard, and they will defeat your enemies."
"I cannot let magic-" Uther protested.
Vivienne placed her hands on Uther's shoulders and remembered a time when Nimueh would do the same to her. "You must," she whispered, and kissed his forehead.
Uther started at the display of affection. He stared at Vivienne, eyes trailing down to her lips. "What you said, about Ygraine, and mistresses..." He trailed off.
"I will be no one's mistress." Vivienne said. "But for Camelot," for Nimueh, "I will allow one night."
"One night..." Uther breathed, and kissed her.
It was a rough kiss, both pushing and testing each other, determined not to back down. Vivienne pulled back and licked her lips, tasting wine. "Come," she said, leading him to the bed. They undressed separately, duty seeping into their actions.
Uther pulled Vivienne on top of him and kissed her once more, this time so chaste it could be platonic. She pulled back, and Uther's hands strayed from her shoulders down to her breasts. He cupped one, flicking at the nipple and earning a gasp from Vivienne.
Resolved not to allow herself to forget her duty, Vivienne reached between Uther's legs. He hardened quickly as Vivienne stroked his cock with firm, slow movements. As she did, Uther nipped and sucked at her breasts, hands straying to her lower back.
Vivienne pushed Uther back into the pillows and straddled him. Fingers clutched at her thighs as she rocked back and forth, pressing down.
Vivienne had spent her wedding night in this room. She froze, staring down at a heavily breathing Uther. He was Gorlois' friend, how could he do this to him? How could she?
"Vivienne, are you ok?" Uther asked. "Do you want to stop?"
Nimueh, Vivienne thought. She was doing this for Nimueh, and her daughter-to-be. The sorceress queen, who would hold more power than the sea.
Vivienne angled her hips and let Uther slip inside her. It hurt, a little too dry and Uther a little too wide, but she ignored the pain, and it soon went away.
"Jesus Christ," Uther swore, pulling Vivienne down for a kiss. He clutched her hips and rolled the both of them over, pushing the Seer into the mattress. Vivienne let him, mind numb with the mantra of for Nimueh that ran through it. He thrust in, hard and fast, and pulled back just as rough, setting a rhythm that had the bedframe creaking. He sucked and bit at her jaw and neck to hide his moans, his shoulders shook when he came. His hands grip her hips so tightly they're sure to leave bruises. Vivienne's too absorbed in trying to ignore the pain that she doesn't register what Uther shouts.
He laid boneless on top of her for several minutes. Vivienne couldn't move beneath his weight, nor did she think she'd be able to anyway. "Ygraine," Uther sighed again, and blinked at the Seer. She blinked back, and Uther pushed away, practically leaping from the bed.
"I'm sorry," he muttered, fumbling with his breeches. "You- you won't tell Ygraine, will you?"
Vivienne shook her head, wordless. Dimly she wondered why she felt so powerless now. She's gotten what she needed, and the king before her was shaking, scared and fleeing. Uther let the door click shut behind him. Vivienne stared up at the dark canopy for hours longer, her eyes watery and breath unsteady.
Balinor's ears rung with the sound of metal clashing against metal. The forge sweltered with heat from a blazing furnace, the fire emitting a constant roar. The only other person in the forge had his back to Balinor and was beating a bar of iron flat.
"Hello?" Balinor tried again. The man either ignored or didn't hear. Instead of calling a third time, Balinor wandered around the forge, studying the room. A bench covered in all kinds of objects took up an entire wall. Weapons piled along the top, some unsharpened, dull or broken, but all remarkable quality for the work of a peasant smith.
Balinor's only experience of forges were Dragonlord ones; high quality steel heated in forges fuelled by fey-fire and tempered by magic. These weapons were of a lower quality, but simple; the evident result of hard work and dedication.
"Can I help you?"
"Gods!" Balinor spun around, nearly hitting the smith with his elbow. "Did you have to sneak up on me?"
"You're in my forge," the smith observed, his mocking smile familiar.
"Tom!" Balinor blurted, to his surprise as well as the smith's. "Sorry- I'd forgotten."
"You're that sorcerer!" Tom explained with equal surprise.
"Balinor," the Dragonlord corrected sheepishly.
Tom grinned and extended a gloved hand. "Nice to meet you again Balinor."
"You too." Balinor shook the blacksmith's hand. "I wanted to ask... can you make something for me?"
"If you have money, god yes. I need the work."
Balinor looked around the forge with a raised eyebrow. "You don't look that badly in need," he commented.
"No, I'm not." Tom wandered over to the furnace, adjusting something within. "I'm getting married in a month."
"Oh." Balinor wasn't too sure how to respond to that, and the forge fell into an awkward silence. "I... have money," he said eventually.
"Magic pays well, does it?"
"Not really, no," Balinor said. "I- uh... was born wealthy, I suppose."
"Noble, huh?" Tom mused, neither upset nor pleased by the revelation, simply surprised. "Wait, you're Hunith's Balinor?"
She doesn't actually own me, Balinor wanted to protest. "You know her?"
"She's a friend of my fiancé," Tom said.
"Hunith was the reason I came," Balinor blurted out. Tom raised an eyebrow, and Balinor hastened to explain, "I just wanted to give her something. She's been helping my raise a dragon for half a year now, and I'm not even sure she has a birthday, but it had to have passed since I met her. And I have no idea what to give her, but I thought jewellery probably wouldn't be a good idea."
"Probably not, no." The corner of Tom's mouth twitched upwards, knowing and sly. "I think I know what she'd like."
Still with the same smirk, Tom waved in the direction of the forge door. "Come back in a week, with money. I promise Hunith will be grateful for it."
The physician's chambers of Camelot had a small anteroom, separated by stairs and an ancient door. Gaius and Alice once used it as a bedroom, but it had become more of a storeroom. Hunith knelt among a pile of rags and was tearing them into bandages.
A resounding clang in the chambers proper made her drop the knife she was cutting the cloth with. Hunith was halfway to the door when Uther's voice said, "Gaius, I need your help." He sounded more pleading and vulnerable than Hunith had ever heard the king be.
"Sire?" Gaius asked, confused and wary. Hunith crept closer, peering through a crack between the door and frame.
"You have long been my friend, Gaius. I trust you completely."
"I'm glad, Sire," Gaius responded.
There was the scraping of heavy benches on the stone floor, and Uther sighing. "The second year of my marriage to Ygraine has begun," Uther began. "And she has given me no children."
Through the crack, Hunith saw Gaius sit beside Uther and place a hand on the younger man's back. "We are winning the war, Sire; with Carleon defeated and Essetir all but lost, Bayard is no threat. Besides, it has only been a year, far too soon to worry-"
"You don't understand," Uther hissed. "I have been worrying for a long time now, and I-"
"You?" Gaius prompted.
"Have been an idiot." Uther huffed a self-depreciating laugh. "What would you do, Gaius, if the kingdom depended on something that would cause you to betray Alice?"
Gaius took a moment to respond. "I- I would try and find any other way, and if-"
"Another way- that's what I came here to ask of you," Uther said.
"I want to know if there is a way to make Ygraine pregnant," Uther announced.
"If there were any potions I could make, I would have given her them already."
"Not potions, Gaius."
Gaius shifted, creaking the bench he sat on. "Magic?"
Uther nodded. "Magic," he breathed, the word unfamiliar and hesitant on the king's tongue.
"This is not an easy thing you are asking for," Gaius said. "Fertility magic is complex, and the little I know of it requires a great deal of power and caution."
"Do you?" Gaius asked. When Uther didn't answer, the physician continued, "I do not have the knowledge to help you."
"But you know who does." Uther's voice was full of hope.
"That does not mean they will help," Gaius warned.
Uther, taking no heed in his words, clasped the older man's hand in his and grinned. "I'm sure you will find a way, old friend. I will not forget this," he vowed.
Still smiling, the king left the chambers, leaving Gaius to stare in silence as the door swung shut with a dull thud.
"Did you hear all that?" Gaius asked the empty room. Hunith jumped in surprise. She hurried out of the anteroom, coming face-to-face with Gaius' formidable expression.
"I was curious," Hunith admitted.
Gaius raised his eyebrow. "And so you eavesdropped on the king?"
"Just don't tell anyone of what you heard." Gaius said. Hunith nodded eagerly.
Gaius, expression drawn with worry and frustration, beckoned Hunith to sit beside him. "Whatever you do with your life my dear," he said sagely, "never befriend royalty."
"What did he mean, do you think? Is he really that desperate for a child?" Hunith asked.
"People of noble families require heirs to carry on their legacy. For a king, an heir is even more important, for without one the kingdom can fall apart once they die."
"It seemed like more than that," Hunith mused. Like he'd already tried something, she thought, but dared not tell Gaius. Despite their differences and many disagreements, he and Uther had long been close friends. "Who will you ask about... his request?"
"The only people I can think of, who have such knowledge and power, are the Priestesses."
"Hopefully the woman I'm thinking of will be a little more obliging." Gaius stared absent-mindedly at his niece. "Come, I think we both have work that needs doing," he said, shooing Hunith off with a wave of his hand.
Hunith wandered back to the anteroom and tried not to think about what could possibly come from this.
On the second autumn of Ygraine's rule, Carleon fell to Camelot. To hear Tristan recount it, their victory had only been to his excellent cunning and knowledge of history. No one had corrected him. The siege of Fryrien had been Camelot's greatest success since Uther united the kingdom, and now the kingdom celebrated.
A feast, bursting with game from the returned knight’s hunts, spread along the tables of the Great Hall. Most of the army would stay in the city for no more than a fortnight before heading further East, where Camdrin was steadily being pushed back into his own territories. The Esscetian king was stubborn, but his loss was said by the war council to be inevitable.
Ygraine hoped dearly that that was true. Uther claimed that so far Camelot had lost around seven hundred men in the war. Ygraine knew that to be a lie. She'd spent weeks searching the recent records; had fount accounts of every battle, raid and skirmish related to the war, and estimated the true loss of life to be around three-and-a-half thousand.
Three-and-a-half thousand; two thousand of those civilian deaths. Ygraine had done everything she could to make up for that. Guilt ate at her for going behind her husband’s back, but she could hardly do nothing. With Hunith's help she had made a network of people who could aid those who needed it.
Uther had yet to notice the slight loss in Camelot's coffers, nor that she and several other ladies had lost a fair amount of jewellery. A great king though her husband was, he tended to be oblivious towards things he didn't consider important.
Many servants had openly told her how grateful the people were for her charity, and the approving looks she got each time she sent provisions to raided villages made her feel that all the deception was worth it.
It was a relief to be celebrating now, to finally be able to see the end of the tunnel. Niggling thoughts of how Essetian villages would have no such relief hung at the back of her mind, ignored for now when she could do little.
“Will you be accompanying the army East, Uther?”
“Hmm?” Uther didn’t look up at his wife, distracted as he was with his untouched pie.
Uther, unlike his wife, was solemn. He had been so since Carleon had surrendered. “Is something wrong, Sire?”
“I’m fine, Ygraine.” The King reassured. He still wasn’t looking at her.
With a sigh, the Queen slumped slightly in her chair, cutlery tossed on her plate. She didn’t understand- Uther should be ecstatic! He’d been so terrified they’d lose; no matter how much he tried to hide his doubts from her, Ygraine had noticed. Recently, he'd slept in the council chambers more than in her bed.
“Uther, you do realise we’re winning the war, right?” Gorlois asked from Uther’s right.
“I believe that’s why I organised this feast,” Uther snapped.
Gorlois looked unconvinced. “So why do you look so morose?”
“I’m not-” When his old friend raised an eyebrow in disbelief, the King sighed. “I feel ill, is all. Perhaps I’ll retire early.” As he made to stand, Ygraine followed. Uther placed a hand on her shoulder, and the Queen noted heavy shadows under his eyes. “Stay, my love. Celebrate with everyone else, don’t let my grouchiness affect you.” Ygraine pursed her lips, but made no reply, watching her husband’s retreating back.
“Good night, Sire.” Vivienne called. Uther looked back, and seemed almost painedas he looked at the Seer.
Ygraine caught Gorlois’ eye; his face held an identical look of confusion to hers. “What was that about?”
“Wise men fear Seers,” Vivienne answered her husband, tone light and cocky.
“I must be an idiot then.”
“Not at all. Anyone can tell you’re terrified of her,” Ygraine muttered. As the pair continued their familiar banter, thoughts and theories rambled through her head. She was no fool and Vivienne’s explanation was nothing of the sort.
It is too late to think of such things, and I should be celebrating. “I am restless- I’ll take a walk and then go to bed. Good night Ser, my lady.” Gorlois muttered a goodbye, while Vivienne didn’t deign to even look her way. Used to such insult from the woman, Ygraine let it slide.
The empty corridors, with the cheer and chatter of the castle still faintly audible, were a soothing escape from her thoughts.
“Stupid, bloody dragon-” muttering to the bucket in her arms, a serving girl disrupted the peace, nearly walking straight into the Queen. “Hey watch it- oh…”
"Hunith, hello." Hunith smiled, hefting the bucket higher. It sloshed as it moved and stank of raw meat. "What are you doing?"
Hunith grimaced. "Feeding a dragon."
"A dragon?" Ygraine realised suddenly that she knew next to nothing about Hunith's life- but it was hard to imagine a dragon fitting in it.
"Balinor's. You know him, the prattish one, ears the size of bloody dinnerplates?" She cupped an ear with her hand, her wide grin giving no weight to the insult.
Laughter burst out of Ygraine. "I see you don't like him much."
"He makes me feed his stupid pet, of course I don't."
"Of course." Ygraine hid another laugh. "Only you would think of being among dragons a chore."
"What kind of queen is interested in big, smelly carnivorous things?"
"But they're magic, aren't they?" Ygraine said. "And it's wonderful. I've always, I don't know..." Ygraine struggled to find the words. She'd always been fascinated with magic, with the travelling performers who could create brilliant sights with a flourish, healers who could mend injuries better than time, even the fairytale-like creatures she'd never meet; Sidhes, goblins, dragons. It was a world she'd never be a part of, and always wanted to be. "I just like magic."
"A lot of people do." Hunith muttered.
"It has its merits, but-" she shrugged. "Sometimes I think life would be easier without it, without one more reason for people to consider themselves better than others."
"But without magic, there would be so much we couldn't do." Ygraine argued. They’d begun to walk, a strange sight if anyone came across them; a golden Queen dressed for a feast, beside a slightly ragged girl with hair stuffed into a bun, breeches stained in dirt and the blood of raw meat.
“Like what?” Hunith laughed quietly. “Neither of us can do magic.”
“You work with a healer, though.” Countered Ygraine, breathing the word healer like many would say ‘queen,’ or ‘hero’. “Surely you must see how incredible it is.”
“I do.” Hunith admitted. “I also hear tales of the damage magic causes,” she continued in her oddly wise way that Ygraine had noticed Hunith had. “One doesn’t need the antidote if there is no poison.”
“Where did you read that one?”
“It was in a herb encyclopaedia of Gaius’, I think.”
“Huh.” Not for the first time, Ygraine had to stop herself from asking why exactly Hunith had read something as complicated as an encyclopaedia, and where she’d gotten the time. Most peasants learnt most their craft from word of mouth, and books like that were incredible rare, so much so that a lady would be hard pressed to find access to one, let alone a peasant girl.
Sooner than Ygraine expected, they arrived at the top of a foreboding staircase, leading deep down beneath Camelot. “Is this where the dragon lives?”
“It’s the safest place for him, especially now he’s starting to get huge.” Hunith paused by the first step, looking at Ygraine. “Much as I’d love to see Balinor’s face as I introduce him to the Queen…” She paused a bit her lip.
Ygraine couldn’t tell whether the girl was worried more about turning down a queen or upsetting a friend. Usually, people cared more about the former, but Hunith had a rebellious, insolent nature, something which had Ygraine wishing that propriety did not prevent them from being closer friends.
“I’ll leave if you don’t want me here.” Ygraine offered. “It’s alright.”
“No!” Hunith winced at her own yell. “I just- it’s a dangerous walk, and I doubt you could make it in your dress.”
"Off you go then," Ygraine said, waving her off. Hunith's grin was as bright as the sun. She hurried off down the stairs nearly dropping the bucket when she stumbled on the third step.
Hunith's skirts made a wild effort to trip her up as she raced across the room to where Leon was toddling out into the hall. She all but fell out of the room, skidding slightly as she swept the three-year-old into her arms.
"Dammit, you little... bloody... thing," she swore, too out of breath to say anything that made any sense. Not that Leon would have noticed otherwise.
"Concise as ever, Hunith," A voice commented from behind her.
Hunith yelped and spun around so fast Leon nearly slipped from her arms. "You- gods Balinor, don't do that!"
Balinor's lips twitched then clamped together, trying to hide amusement that his eyes betrayed. "Sorry," he said, not sounding at all apologetic.
"You almost made me have to explain to Lynn that I dropped her charge."
"It's not my fault you can barely walk upright without tripping," Balinor said, waltzing into Aidan's chambers like he owned it. Hunith stumbled in after and shut the door carefully before letting Leon down. The young lord immediately raced over to his pile of toys, keeping a wary eye on Balinor.
"Why are you looking after a lord's son anyway?" He asked as Hunith flopped back into the chair she had been sitting in before Leon made his escape.
"Lynn's busy stressing out about marriage and looking after Gwen. Her daughter," Hunith added when Balinor frowned in confusion.
"Lynn- is she getting married to Tom?" Balinor asked.
"How the hell do you know that?"
"We've met," Balinor admitted. "Tom helped me with something."
"With what?" Hunith asked, confused.
Instead of responding, Balinor searched through the pockets of his jacket and produced a knife. It was small, no bigger than the old one Hunith used to chop up herbs. Its sheath was of dark steel and exquisitely detailed with vine and flower reliefs, the shapes lifting up from the steel like the real thing. The hilt was made of pale wood, and the slender pommel had a green gem inlaid in the centre.
"What lady are you trying to woo?" Hunith teased, fingers exploring the ridged sheath.
"I'm not-" Balinor cut himself off embarrassedly. "Do you like it?"
"It's very pretty," Hunith commented. She pulled the sheath off and studied the blade, which was on one edge flat and the other sharp, curving up into a point. "One of Tom's greatest works."
"It's for you," Balinor said.
"Well you always complain about looking after Vortigern, and I know that I can be an arse but I thought I could give you something to make up for all the times you've helped me out. I don't know- um, I'm not very good at giving people things; Bran always used to just do it for me, because she said that the people I was giving things to either knew my intention already or didn't care. But I didn't know what to give you- I thought, I don't know, something practical, maybe clothes or something, but I was wondering around the lower town and saw a blacksmith's. It was familiar -which makes sense now- and Tom knew you, and said he'd make something for you, and then he made that. I thought you wouldn't like it- but-"
"Oh shut up," Hunith ordered.
Balinor's mouth shut.
"It's very pretty," she repeated. "And definitely practical. Thank you."
Balinor's mouth fell open, but nothing came out. "I-"
"You're welcome would be a good start."
"Y-you're welcome." Balinor said. "Do you really like it?"
"Mhm," Hunith hummed as she pocketed the knife. "How do you know Tom?"
"He saved my life."
Hunith stared at Balinor, eyes wide. "When was this?"
"Last year, when the army was leaving for Essitir." Hunith flinched, and shook her head when Balinor sent her a confused look. "A group of people found out I was a sorcerer, and almost ran me out of Camelot."
"Shame Tom stopped them," Hunith muttered.
Balinor laughed. "If he hadn't, no one would have given you that knife."
"Tom made it, not you." Balinor rolled his eyes, and Hunith smiled. "Would you like to come with me, to his wedding? I know Tom would be ok with it."
"Yeah," Hunith said, poking the Dragonlord's shoulder as she passed to check on Leon. "Someone needs to keep me company while those lovebirds finally gain an excuse to never look away from each other."
"You mean you need someone to bully," Balinor teased.
"If you say so," Hunith countered.
"I'd love to go." Balinor sat in Hunith's chair, grinning widely, actual happiness seeping past his normal teasing mask.
The small boat cut through the mist like a blade, rocking gently on the small waves of the lake. Though no-one was rowing nor guiding the boat, it never slowed or strayed from its course. Morgause watched in silence as it came to a stop before her, and its two passengers disembarked.
The king and queen of Camelot stepped into the small passageway and looked around, the latter's eyes wide with wonder. Ygraine caught Morgause's eye and smiled.
Morgause had grown since she had last seen the pair, but standing, Ygraine was half a head taller than the witch. Uther loomed over her. She still remembered the way in which the king had treated her on his wedding night. "Come with me," she instructed without welcome or introduction. Morgause turned on her heel and marched up the stone stairs and into a square courtyard. Large, cavernous archways looked out into the open grass. The windows were opaque, the colour of frost. Figures walked through the halls, their shadows like ghosts brushing past.
Nimueh stood by the altar. With a wave of her hand, the grass around Ygraine's ankles grew and climbed around her legs. She cried out and bent to pull at the grass, which was as thick as vines and stronger.
"Let her go!" Uther commanded, reaching for his sword.
Nimueh's lips curved upwards in a dangerous smile. "I will, but the first part of the ritual needs only you. Your queen must wait there, until the Goddess is ready for her."
"Leave your weapon with her," Morgause whispered. Uther glared, but did as she said, dropping his sword by Ygraine's feet. The young witch followed the king as he stormed across the courtyard.
"Uther Pendragon," Nimueh greeted once he was ten paces from her. Her voice was low, yet seemed to echo across the courtyard. Looking back, Morgause saw Ygraine frowning as she strained to hear.
"You come here, to ask a favour of the Triple Goddess," Nimueh said. "Kneel and ask it, in this holy place where She can hear you."
"I-" Uther glanced at Morgause, who now stood beside Nimueh, silent in her role as witness. She struggled not to laugh at Uther's incredulous face as he fell to his knees. "I ask the Triple Goddess to grant me and my wife an heir."
"An heir for whom? Your wife," Nimueh waved a hand at Ygraine, who was watching but unable to hear them. "Or your kingdom?"
Uther opened his mouth, but Nimueh interrupted whatever he was about to say. "Be careful with your words, Uther Pendragon. The Goddess listens."
"My kingdom," Uther said after a moment. He didn't look up at the sorceresses, nor behind him, where his wife stood.
Nimueh nodded and gestured for Uther to stand. "The world stands on a pivot. To keep it upright, a Balance must be upheld. Misery and joy, light and dark, night and day, life and death; all must be equal. Do you understand?"
"I... think so." Uther said.
"Ygraine De Bois," Nimueh beckoned. The queen walked forward, suddenly free. She came to a stop beside Uther, who grasped her hand. "Your consort has asked the Goddess for an heir of your body. Is this your wish too?"
"Yes," Ygraine said without hesitation.
Nimueh frowned as if she'd hoped for a different answer. "Speak the truth. Think not of what your consort thinks or wants, nor your brothers, father or acquaintances. Forget the opinions of your peers, and ignore the consequences of this day. Fear no retribution, for you are a daughter of the Goddess, and she will protect you. For yourself and your own desires, do you want this?"
"Yes," the queen repeated, if anything even faster than before.
Her expression blank, Nimueh turned to the altar, where a golden cup stood.
The Cup of Life was one of the many artefacts which the High Priestesses guarded with their lives. Morgause knew none of its history, only what it could do. Uther and Ygraine were oblivious, but stared openly as Nimueh raised the Cup above her head. "Tídrénas!" she cried, and the skies opened, rain pouring down.
Ygraine gasped at the sudden cold. Neither Morgause or Uther flinched, both watching Nimueh and the Cup with wary eyes. When the Cup overflowed with water, the rain stopped, and Nimueh held it at eye level before her.
With a gravelly voice not entirely her own, Nimueh chanted; "Oh eald calic, ábera þis háligwæter and ágifian hit æ! Ágifia héo séo bedrincan séo éadgiefu þære Gydenne bearn. Ic, sum Déorwurðe Sácerde, ábannan!"
Morgause waited with baited breath for something to happen. For lighting to strike the Cup, or the water to transform into something else. At the very least, a flash of light. The little she understood of Nimueh's spell was enough for Morgause to know that she had called upon the Goddess herself. Yet, as the echoes of the High Priestess' voice faded across the courtyard, the Cup remained the same. The water pooled inside was still and clear.
"Drink," Nimueh commanded to a wide-eyed Ygraine. Ygraine took the Cup in shaking hands and raised it to her lips.
Morgause neither felt nor saw nor heard it, but somehow, with some sixth sense, knew that as she drunk, tendrils of magic swept around Ygraine. It curled around her wrists and floated through her golden hair. Morgause fancied that the magic was the same colour, glimmering bright as fire. Bright as a mage's eyes. Morgause couldn't fathom how Ygraine didn't feel it, but clearly she did not, as she continued drinking without pause. When the Cup was empty, the magic shifted, and Morgause's gut twisted. Power seeped into Ygraine's skin, and the thread of time that dictated her destiny cut loose.
A life for a life, Morgause thought, the idea leaving a sour taste in her mouth.
"Is it done?" Ygraine asked.
Nimueh stepped forward and took the Cup back, placing a gentle hand over Ygraine's stomach. "It is," she said. "The Goddess has given you the gift of life. Treasure it."
Ygraine smiled, her expression radiant with joy. Uther, seeing her, grinned as though he had not a care in the world. They don't know.
Nimueh bid the two farewell, though Morgause heard the exchange through buzzing fear and thoughts that wouldn't be quiet. "Wait," the witch called as she rushed towards Ygraine.
Ygraine's skin glimmered with the barest hint of magic as she turned back. "Is something wrong?"
"I-" Morgause looked over to Uther, who was waiting impatiently by the boat. Behind her, she knew, Nimueh watched. "I admire you," Morgause blurted, and immediately felt herself blush. "You're brave, to come here, for what your husband wanted."
"What I wanted," Ygraine corrected. "I love Uther, and I will love his child. I will do anything for them."
Even die? Morgause wondered as the king and queen drifted across the lake, the mist obscuring them before they reached the shore. Nimueh stood beside her, and Morgause opened her mouth, not sure exactly what she wanted to say.
"Sometimes, it is better to not know the future," Nimueh said. Morgause nodded faintly, not sure she agreed.
Of all the places for a wedding, Balinor was not sure a tavern was the best option. People crowded around the couple in the dingy common room, the stench of ale and sweat ever present. Hunith had said, before, that neither Gwendolyn nor Tom were in contact with their parents, and had no money for a proper service. Whether they were dead or just estranged, Balinor wasn’t sure.
The audience gathered was odd; a smattering of peasant friends, Gaius and Alice and some other members of court -including a knight- and Balinor.
Hunith sat beside him, a babe in her arms. Gwendolyn and Tom’s daughter, Guinevere, was barely nine months old, a tiny thing with a shock of dark hair and chubby face. Hunith’s attention was completely fixed on the hand-binding couple. The physician’s assistant had worn a dress, for once; a simple dark blue gown, the bodice paler and almost fancy. It complimented her eyes, not that Hunith would have noticed.
"You cannon' possess me for I belong to myself; but while we both wish it, I give you that which is mine to give." Hands bound together by a red ribbon, Tom's bride, Gwendolyn spoke vows Balinor had never heard. "You cannon' command me, for I am a free person, but I shall serve you and love you, and life will be sweeter by my side."
Tom repeated the oath, and together they swore; “this is my wedding vow to you.” Their bound hands rose, the ribbon holding the two together as their marriage would for this life and the rest.
Cheers rang through the tavern. Hunith hurried forward to congratulate the couple.
On Balinor's other side was the knight. He was maybe a decade older than the Dragonlord, had bronze curly hair, and a toddler wriggling on his lap.
“Balinor Ambrosius,” he said by way of introduction.
“Nice to meet you. I'm Aidan.” Aidan's boy smiled at Balinor, reaching hands to his long hair.
“So…” Balinor tried in vain to not seem rude whilst shifting far away from the child and his sticky hands. “How do you know Gwendolyn and Tom?”
“Lynn works for me, looks after Leon.” Ser Aidan nodded at his son.
“Your wife…?” Balinor trailed off as a voice in his head muttered about tactless nobles.
“Leon’s birth was hard on her. By the time she recovered Lynn was already a part of our lives. She spends most her time inside, now.”
The newlyweds joined them at the table, and the barkeep, a usually harsh woman who seemed to have a soft spot for weddings, gave out free drinks.
Hunith plopped down next to Balinor, the child now in her father’s arms. "I hope you actually brought a present."
“Though you insist on believing it, I am not heartless.” Balinor made sure to elbow her as he dug through his pockets, smirking when she retaliated with a light kick at his legs.
“Wynn!” Leon cried as he was passed into Gwendolyn's arms. She gave the babe an adoring smile. “Hello, you,” she cooed, oblivious to Tom’s besotted look as she let Leon play with her necklace.
“Gwen has an incredible mother.” Ser Aidan said. “And,” he added, picking up a parcel which lay at his feet, “she will never go cold.”
Tom opened the gift, staring at the bundles of rich cloth with the expression of a man who’d never even touched a needle. Gwendolyn had a more appropriate response, gushing 'thank-you's and 'you shouldn't have's.
“Lynn was a seamstress before Ser Aidan hired her.” Hunith whispered when Balinor gave a confused look.
“But... I don't understand, why he doesn’t just give her clothes?”
Hunith gave him look that said clearly, ‘nobles are stupid’. “Lynn can make clothes to fit her child, instead of wasting fabric resizing them. Also she can use the fabrics however she needs to. It’s a thoughtful gift for Ser Aidan to give.”
"Yes, oh. More thoughtful than yours, I'm sure."
Maybe. Balinor didn't know Gwendolyn, and he knew little about Tom. He didn't have that much money, not compared to Aidan. Though Tom and Gwendolyn would probably not appreciate having money thrown at them.
Whatever Hunith may say, he had spent a fair amount of time thinking of this gift. Balinor placed a fist-sized bundle wrapped in leather and unwrapped the metal carefully.
“Vortigern helped me make this.” Balinor explained as the newlyweds stared at the dragon figure. It was intricately carved, with wings outstretched and scales glinting silver. Its underbelly and throat glowed red hot. “Dragon magic is strong and long-lasting. This will burn for as long as Vortigern lives, and will both protect and warm the three of you,” he said.
“Balinor…” Tom and Gwendolyn stared at him with awe. “Thank you,” Tom breathed.
Watching with a smile as they re-wrapped the metal figure, Balinor whispered to his right, “Good enough then?”
Out of the corner of his eye, Hunith was watching him with a surprised, curious look. She looked away to the dragon, and to her two friends. “You used magic to carve it, you cheat.” Balinor snorted with laughter.
Vivienne woke to midday light streaming through the windows of her chambers. Every muscle in her body ached, but far less than it had for the past week. She lay still for a little while, taking in the quiet of her room, broken only by quiet breaths beside her.
Morgana lay in the bed's centre, wrapped in swaddling blankets and sleeping peacefully. Her skin was pale and translucent, her tiny features perfect. Vivienne stroked a finger along her daughter's cheek, delighting in its softness.
"She's perfect," Gorlois had said when he'd met the babe, and his eyes had been unable to move from Morgana's face for hours. Vivienne smiled at the memory.
Her grumbling stomach eventually forced her to stagger from bed. Simply making the walk to ask a maid to bring her food was exhausting, and Vivienne sighed with relief as she sat down with legs sprawled unlike the lady she was supposed to be. Goddess above, childbirth was tiring.
Boring too, for someone who hated not having anything to do. Her fingers itched for a book. The desk before her was cluttered with notes and files, boring accounts that Vivienne had already read. She rifled through them with absent intent, tearing the papers when their contents failed to interest her.
Velvet brushed her fingers as Vivienne shifted some more papers to the side. A small scroll of thick, pale parchment sat between two stacks of accounts, tied with a purple ribbon.
The colour of magic.
Vivienne's fingers fumbled with the knot until she gave up and simply magicked it loose. The scroll burst open to a letter written in a familiar hand.
The Goddess has let me through the mist that has shrouded all but your eyes. The message she has given me is a future of fear and dread. I fear I have made a mistake.
For all you have done for me, sacrificed for our cause, I beg you to leave Camelot today. Do not tell Gorlois, and take nothing with you. Morgana must stay here, for I fear her destiny no longer intertwine with yours.
Come to the Isle, and my sisters will protect you. Goddess be good, and I am wrong. If not, I will see you soon, my dear.
Vivienne read the letter a second time. It didn't make the message any kinder or easier to read. She dropped the parchment, where it sprung back into a roll, innocent and blank. Vivienne glared at it, and it burst into fire.
Nimueh had asked her to take nothing. Vivienne stood and pulled Nimueh's grimoire from its place on her bookshelf. It fell open to an image of fey-fire spreading across a grove. Over it a golden dragon rose, its wings encompassing the sky. The image was as familiar as everything else in the book.
Vivienne hugged the grimoire close to her chest. It was the first gift Nimueh had given her, when she had become the High Priestess' apprentice. The only relic a time Vivienne had thought she'd be great, someone destined never to live under a man's will, her mind and heart free to do, and love as she willed.
She'd failed, as she was now failing her daughter. Vivienne ignored the prickling in her eyes as she crossed the room a final time. Morgana was still, her mouth open in a soft pout. "I love you," her mother whispered, carefully re-tying the swaddling blankets where they had begun to loosen. "I will always love you," Vivienne promised. She sat on the beg and held Morgana close, closing her eyes to rest before she performed the teleportation spell.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, knowing with a seer's foreknowledge that this would be the last time Vivienne would hold her daughter. "Your destiny will put you among kings and gods, but I cannot be with you." Morgana slept on as Vivienne let her tears fall.
When the babe woke, it would be to an empty, cold room, and her mother long gone.
Tristan watched as Uther pounded against the queen's door, demanding that he be let in and screw propriety. The court healer opened the door and glared at her king. "Your Majesty may wish to note that your attempts to enter are only disturbing the queen. If you don't know anything about midwifery, then stay out.
The door slammed shut. Uther conceded with a sigh and leant against the wall. "She's in pain."
"She'll be ok," Tristain said, words drowned by another of Ygraine's screams.
Uther gave Tristan a disbelieving glance. Further down the hall, Agravaine paused his pacing to point out, "childbirth is never easy. Ygraine is strong, she'll be ok."
The other two men nodded, neither any calmer than before. Tristan couldn't help but think of his own mother, and how she'd died giving birth to a girl who hadn't lasted a week longer.
"How is she?" Nimueh appeared like a wraith in the hall, her voice void of concern.
"Ygraine has been having contractions for eighteen hours now," Agravaine told the High Priestess.
"Hmm." Nimueh pursed her lips and slipped into the queen's chambers.
Uther stared after the sorceress, visibly distressed. "What the fuck does that mean- is she concerned? Will Ygraine-"
"Ygraine will be fine," Agravaine repeated. He was still pacing, his boots beating a never-ending pattern on the wooden floor.
Tristan jumped at the voice. A girl, no older than fifteen, walked towards them with a somber expression. "What do you mean?
"I thought you knew," she said. "I'd thought- hoped that Nimueh would have told you, before today."
"You're Nimueh's apprentice," Uther said. "Morgause."
Tristan remembered the girl, who had shadowed the High Priestess since Nimueh had arrived. "What do you mean," Tristan repeated.
Morgause's eyes flickered from Ygraine's door to Uther, to Tristan. "To create a life, one must be lost. That was the bargain. Ygraine will die on this night, and her son shall live."
On the other side of the door, Ygraine's cries had ceased.
Tristan wasn't sure who had moved first, only that he, Uther and Agravaine burst through the door within seconds of each other. Ygraine's rooms stunk of blood and strong herbs. Low candles flickered, lighting the room with shuddering light.
"Uther." Ygraine's voice was soft and strained. Her hair was unbound and damp, a tangled mess which swept over her shoulders. A shaking arm reached out to the king, her other hand wrapped around a small bundle.
Uther crept closer, hesitant and almost afraid. Smiling, Ygraine showed Uther the bundle, where a red-cheeked babe stared up at them. "He's beautiful," Ygraine whispered.
"He is," Uther said, brushing a gentle hand through the boy's blonde tufts of hair. Tristan stepped closer, wanting to see for himself.
"Arthur..." Ygraine breathed. Her eyes, shadowed with exhaustion, opened and closed. "So tired..."
Ygraine didn't rouse at Uther's cry, nor when Tristan rushed forward. Her hand slipped from Uther's as her body fell back into the pillows, slack and still.
The baby began to cry, and someone took it from Ygraine's hands. Tristan grabbed the hand that had been holding her child, pressing it to his lips. "Please-" he croaked, not sure what else to say.
Beside him, Uther let out a heartbroken cry. He sat on the bed beside Ygraine, supporting her lifeless body as he held her. Tristan wondered, dully, whether Uther thought he could hold off death with an embrace.
Tristan had no idea how long he stayed like that, staring at the body of his sister and trying to wrap his head around what had happened. At some point, Uther stood and lowered Ygraine's head to the pillow, smoothing her hair so she looked asleep. He turned and stared at Tristan. The king's eyes were red, his body shaking. "Where is Nimueh?" He asked no one in particular.
"She went to her chambers." Morgause stood in the doorway, somehow a lot smaller and younger-looking than before. Her voice was little more than a whisper. "I think she'll try and teleport to the Isle."
Uther sprinted out of the room, knocking Morgause to the floor. She cried out as her shoulder hit the ground. Tristan ran to help her up, golden hair sifting through his fingers as he supported her shoulder, soft as silk. He thought he might cry, then and there.
"You knew she would die," Tristan said, no accusation in his tone, just defeat.
Morgause nodded. "Uther wanted a child. Nimueh- she made a deal with the Triple Goddess. But to make a life, one has to be taken."
"And Uther chose to sacrifice Ygraine?" Agravaine, who hadn't said a word since he'd entered the queen's chambers, yelled.
"He was given a choice, his kingdom or his wife. But Nimueh never told him the consequences of his decision."
Tristan looked around the room, avoiding the bed. The court healer and physician stood in silence, the rest of the servants having fled long before. Gaius held Ygraine's child -Tristan's nephew- in his arms. "Find someone to care for the prince," he ordered. "I need you to go after Uther. He trusts you, and if anyone can keep him from doing something he'll regret, it's you."
"I'm not sure I'll be successful," Gaius said.
"Better than nothing," Tristan muttered. Gaius bowed and left the chambers.
The healer, whose name Tristan remembered to be Alice, stepped forward. "Even if Uther calms down, Morgause won't be safe here."
"Do you know somewhere she'll be safe?"
Alice frowned. "I think so. In any case, I will go with her. Gaius is Uther's friend, but any other mage in Camelot would be wise to tread lightly for now."
"Good luck." Tristan shook Alice's hand, aware that this was not the proper action to take with a woman and a peasant. "Don't tell anyone of what has happened here."
"Of course not. Come, Morgause." Alice left the chambers with a shaking Morgause in tow.
Tristan watched them go, aware of Agravaine right behind him. Neither of them could think of anything to say. They couldn't bear to leave, for that would mean abandoning Ygraine to an empty room, void of any sound or movement.
Hunith sprinted down the hallway, potions piled precariously in her arms. She turned a corner and skid over the stone floor. The glass bottles wobbled in her arms, and she fumbled to keep them steady.
"Hunith!" Gaius called.
Hunith grimaced, not daring to look away from the potions. "Sorry I took so long- I've got the potions. How's Ygraine? What'd I miss?"
"Hunith," he repeated.
She looked up, the potions forgotten. Gaius looked exhausted, his eyes shadowed and skin pale. He looked like an old man- which Hunith had never considered her uncle to be. "What is it?"
Instead of Gaius, a tiny voice replied with a soft cry. In Gaius' arms, a small bundle wriggled, and a pair of familiar blue eyes blinked sleepily.
"I need you to care for him," Gaius said. "I will organise a wet nurse, but until now you are the only one I trust to keep him safe -and out of sight."
"But... Ygraine wants to nurse him," Hunith protested, confused. "She told me."
"Ygraine is dead."
Gaius sighed and held out the prince. "I must get to Uther. He's gone after Nimueh and I fear what will result from a confrontation between the two of them."
Hunith placed the potions on the ground and took the boy, not fully registering what Gaius had said. Her uncle nodded to himself as he watched her cradle the prince in her arms, and walked away.
"Gaius?" Hunith croaked. "What's his name?"
Gaius started, as though he hadn't thought of it. Hunith couldn't blame him. "Arthur," he said after some deliberation, not sounding sure of himself. "I believe that's what Ygraine wanted to call him."
"Okay," she whispered.
The baby -Arthur- began wailing as Hunith stumbled into the physician's chambers. "Shh!" Hunith hissed. The prince ignored him, tiny lungs heaving out impressively loud cries. He couldn't move within his swaddling blankets, but made a fair effort, wriggling like a grub.
He needed food more than comfort, but comfort was all Hunith could give him. She slipped into Gaius and Alice's room and sat on the bed, Arthur tucked against her breast, close enough that Hunith could feel his warmth.
Hunith sung, humming a tune she vaguely remembered from her mother, rocking back and forth. Arthur stopped crying, sniffing slightly and watching Hunith with a curious gaze.
"I'm not your mother," Hunith told him, and then her throat closed up and she could say no more. Arthur didn't have a mother. Ygraine was...
The small room had a tiny window, high up and covered with thick glass. Through it, the dark of night gave way to a sight glow, flickering pinpricks of light, like the starry sky had appeared in the middle of Camelot's courtyard. Hunith stood and peered closer. The courtyard was crowded with people, servants, knights, nobles, sorcerers and refugees. They faced the Queen's chambers, holding high candles, torches and were-lights.
"They're saying goodbye." Arthur leaned forward when Hunith held him up, staring at the vigil in fascination, at the bright lights. "They probably don't even know she's dead," Hunith mused. "But they love her, their Golden Queen. They don't know her, Arthur, but they love her."
Arthur didn't react, he didn't understand. Hunith wanted him to, to know that whatever happened now, whatever Uther did, his mother had been loved. "Please don't forget her," Hunith whispered.
"They don't know her, but I do. And I can tell you, little prince," she smiled at the babe. "No matter what comes, she was worth everything."