Rating: G
Note: This is a bit AU.
Disclaimer: Merlin belongs to BBC/Shine.

Spoilers: all seasons a bit

Note: Written for Talking Dragon's Secret Dragon for Javabreeze

Golden Days of Yore

It was unfair.

The white crystals pitter pattered against the rainbow strolls of stain glass window sets that surrounded the upper hall. With mischievous damp licks they blanched the colorful panes. They tittered teasingly.

The hall was one of his favorite places to go because it afforded such a vast view of all below, a vista stretching out to the darkling forests and forbidden gnarled woods. At present moment though, not even such a dazzling view could give him much reason to smile. Instead he frowned with strangled frustration.

Below where his booted feet stood, he heard suddenly, and felt, a thundering of movement. Bringing boyish hands that had only begun to show fading scars of more mature training, and yet still so far from advanced, to the stone railing, he lowered his head to spot the scene. It was the knights of course, Knights of Camelot. In future days they would be under his command, but for now, as much as they showed him grand respect for who his father was, the men in glimmers of armor and capes of scarlet shroud took their orders from the king and the senior knight, Lord Grendale.

If he descended the long line of smooth steps just this moment they would have no choice but to stop and acknowledge his royal presence. He did nothing though to break their stride, for a few moments just watching with wonder as they kept in perfect line, perfect step and looked nowhere but to the front. He had no doubt that if anything on the sides or behind tried to surprise, they would have swords raised in an instant, for the Knights of Camelot were the noblest military known anywhere, the fiercest, and the most chivalrous.

It was enough of a distraction, watching them treads out the door so proudly, but weather outside of chilling winter, the flakes of falling design of snow, did not seem to want to be ignored. A few even with icicle edge hit the window with more force, turning the boy back to his earlier musing, the boy named Arthur Pendragon.

It was many years away from when he would take command, become Crown Prince. For now he had no such strong title, simply known as Prince of Camelot, and yet that impressed enough. Too bad it couldn't break rules of passage.

Passage to the surrounds outside Camelot that is.

Having King Uther as your father, you never wanted much, except maybe a once in a while hug to take away the lonely cold of having no mother. His father wasn't much for such displays though, rarely even in private. His father didn't care for weak touch, as he probably would call it, so Arthur never yearned for comfort that often. He enjoyed instead the physical objects he was presented with, having revolving servants day and night at his beckon and call. He grinned at having only the best horses to ride, adorned with decorated saddle and bridle.

He was expected of course also to work hard at preliminary defense and battle training to prepare him for the less cautionary kind when he would grow in age, but he didn't mind. He enjoyed it to the hilt actually, and could barely wait for the day when his swords would not be bluntly edged and he'd be allowed to take up the mace along with the jousting lance.

Truly he had everything he wanted. He nobly believed even at such a tender age that Camelot was the best land anywhere, a kingdom of such good hard working people. He loved it really as much as a boy could love anything. It was just this one thing he was being deprived of.

This one awful huge thing that brought on his burning aggravation that could melt all of that snow out there into one soggy heap.

It all was locked into a conversation he had with his father just the day before, an echo of the one the day before that and so on. He'd wanted this since the first winter storms blanketed the land with pallid shine and he spied the peasant boys venturing out into it with wild abandon during workless hours.

"I don't understand Father. Why can't I?"

The king, a man of hair just a touch darker than his arguing son's shining sand crop, with the broad stature of a ram, shook his head powerfully. It was a strong sign that the boy's quest would never be fulfilled.

The king perhaps had his intense reasons, some of it brought on his by his unyielding rule and decisions made at a time of great grief.

Camelot was a beautiful land, but outside of it, around hostile borders were many enemy foes. The magical kind and the battle type.

"You know why Arthur. I've explained it to you at length."

The boy fisted his hand behind his back with irritation. Another try and already he was most sure it would end in defeat. Still, he stubbornly would not give it up, a trait inherited most likely from his equally stubborn father.

Yes, true enough, he heard it all. Camelot more than maybe any kingdom was revered and loved. On the flip side Camelot too had a vast tangle of avengers who would gladly see the castle and its king, son included for some, burned down to the ground. Arthur mostly knew why, but was sure there were parts of the story his father hadn't completely revealed. For those details he would sometimes go to Gaius, the court physician, who was much more consoling than his father, or to one of his most liked older friends, Sir Leon, a young russet haired knight just beginning his senior training, whose father had been a scholar of history, along with having held the honor of one time head knight.

The stories of Camelot's past went as such. Years ago, clasped into the moment of his birth, his mother's sad demise, Arthur's father banned magic from Camelot. Supposedly before, magic had been openly celebrated. Then, for some reason having to do with his mother's passing, that Arthur still didn't fully understand, since no one would go into depth of explanation, magic became Camelot's most vile sin. All of those who practiced it were banished, burned at the stake, or drowned. Arthur had heard a few times before in flashing conversation, that had included boys and girls no older than him, but he couldn't see it. Had to be rumor, right? His father would never be that cruel.

Anyway, human and creature alike of sorcery were persecuted, totaling the king's hater list to one that would amount to miles of printed scroll. Attempts even on Arthur's own life, though few, had been plotted, and stopped before final judgment, public burning.

On top of that just happened to be a small nuisance of warlike skirmishes of late between Camelot and a newly forming kingdom titled Powys. Of course all the battles were over land and such.

None of this at present time really mattered to Arthur, a boy simply desiring escape and—well-fun-except for its hindrance of that.

As the king lectured on the reasons, for the dozenth time, Arthur rolled his eyes behind a covering palm. The story never changed and neither did the outcome.

"Father I know all of that. It's not much I'm asking. I just want to go a bit past Camelot for a few bell rings. That's all. You could even take me if it's the enemies you're thinking about."

The father showed no approval, the black leather of his coat that surrounded his broad shoulders obstinate and unrelenting as the man himself was. "I have too much responsibility here Arthur as you well know. Within Camelot there is plenty of what you seek. No one needs to attend to it with you at all."

And yet it wasn't like what lay beyond Camelot, the forestry of hills and mountains piled high with snowy greeting. All he would need to do is find one of those toboggans he spotted the servant boys using and a grand time would present itself. He was sure it wouldn't be too hard. Just, he needed permission to leave the castle's guard. He needed allowance to the outside-outer outer outside.

"But Father it's not the same. There are not enough hills in Camelot or-Father it's all market area and low fields. I want to go to the higher elevations. You can understand that, right?"

The father saw his son's request as ridiculous. Too many foes put his son in danger, something he could never allow to be ill regarded.

Knowing that so much of his father's answer had to do with security, Arthur countered with a newly planned idea. "I know that you have too much to do here, that the kingdom needs a strong ruler always, but so what if someone else came with me?" He wasn't sure if it would be as fun with an older man attending, but he knew it was someone his father had deep respect for, as Arthur too was fond of him. "Like Gaius. Surely he could leave his physician quarters for a bit. You wouldn't have to…"

He almost said worry, but discounted it. The king never liked his emotion revealed. "Er-There would be no reason for concern if Gaius came with me."

The king chortled with amused mirth. "Gaius? He would be no matchup in any battle scene Arthur. Sure he's a fine physician, but he's not the physical sort. No, now-

Determined, the boy curtly cut through. "Fine, then how about Sir Leon? I know he's not a full knight yet, but he's brave and strong. And we get on pretty well. He could go with me. You could order him to it and I'm sure he'd want to go. Come on Father…just let me go. I won't be alone. I won't be-

Now, the king, Uther, cut through like lightning's spark. He didn't care enough already for having his words interrupted by his juvenile son. "Enough Arthur. We have been through this. I'm not going to allow it so give up your arguments before I thoroughly become angry."

There was a dark glare to conclude that statement in the king's piercing blue eyes. Arthur lowered his head, already tasting the bitter defeat against his dry tongue. He wanted to protest one more time, but the king was not done.

"It's too dangerous and the Knights of Camelot are not here to babysit you, not even the youngest ones not fully formed yet. You'd do best to remember also that one day you will be their leader. You don't have time to go traipsing into the woods to play in some silly snow. You're not some tiny youngling anymore Arthur. Just one year away from harder training. Now this discussion is done."

Without a pat on the shoulder or sympathetic look, the king departed the hall, an echo of the sweeping leather slapping the floor with his absence. Arthur closed his eyes hard, pressing his forehead almost painfully against the stone railing. Years ago his father used to take him into woods like the ones he wanted to enter now, woods that had scared him at first until his father reassured. With each year though the fight against magic seemed to harden his father more, make him more maniacal about his agenda. And made Arthur's freedom-even lesser.

One day he would lead the knights and then he could leave here whenever he wanted, but that time seemed so far. And the snow didn't heed his father's orders, still tittering at the panes.

Ingrained into his bothered brain and unhappy heart.

He was a prince with everything at his feet and yet the one thing he now yearned for-

He was denied.

It probably should have ended there, but a day later those drops of crystal white were continuing to be such evil tempters. In all their delight they cascaded down to the earth or whistled playfully around the window panes as Arthur's black boots stomped up the final steps of the castle's highest towers. It was another place he liked to visit, especially when his mood was sour.

Grimacing tightly, the boy pushed away a stubborn strand of sand falling hair and looked upon the land that would one day be under his rightful name, with disgust. "It's not fair. It's just not fair!"

"What is not fair young sire?"

The voice was a slowly aging one, from a man of plenty familiarity. He was dressed in vivid orange robes and atop his round head was waving hair of blackness, except for where the silver was sprinkling through. The man was older than his father, had counseled him even when he first became king. He was a staple of Camelot, the court physician, and someone Arthur treated mostly with respect for the elder's wisdom.

That could be a rarity.

To say that Arthur's servants were revolving was putting it mildly. Few lasted more than a month, some only a week. Arthur could be just a bit bossy and complaining with them about every sort of matter, expecting much and offering no reward, even the vocal kind, in return.

But Gaius was someone Arthur looked up to, and so attempted never to show rudeness toward. "Hello Gaius."

"Something is troubling you it seems."

Arthur smiled a touch. There was little you could get past the man. It wasn't going to solve anything to talk about it, but maybe at least ease his mind some. "It's just that my father won't allow me to go to the woods to-never mind."

It wasn't helping. Arthur turned away with a complaining sigh.

Soft sliding footsteps came from behind him as Gaius joined where he stood at the tower's most focal viewpoint, the lay of the land so diversely to all sides and below. "I remember a time you were quite frightened of the woods."

Arthur let out a low titter of negation. "Eh, that was when I was just six Gaius. I'm three years older now and they don't bother me at all." He continued with disgruntled fervor. "There is no reason that all the servant and peasant boys should be able to go there to have fun in the snow and I can't."

This brought a mild smile to the court physician's face, realization dawning. "Ah well now you are Prince of Camelot. There are many things you can have that others cannot my boy. Perhaps it is better to reflect on those matters than what you are not allowed to have."

Arthur turned to the court physician now, seeing upon the man's face a kind look of support. It tempered him just a bit. "I know that Gaius. I am entirely grateful for what I do have, but this is just something so small."

"There is snow in Camelot."

Arthur shook his head resolutely. "It's not the same. I've even asked my father to take me and he won't. I asked if you could go with me and he laughed it off."

Gaius frowned at the final words just a bit. The court physician had never regarded himself a bodyguard though in all honesty. That was saved for the knights. "Arthur, the king is a very busy man. You know that."

The prince lowered his head. "I know, but it doesn't help. I don't get it. Why can't I just go alone? I would only be gone for the toll of a few bells. It's not something to make so much of, but my father is treating me like I cannot even defend for myself. Yet he is the one who started me from the time I could walk in defense training. It's not right! I should be able to go."

"Well…" Gaius commented quietly, taking notice of the snow's increase. "Perhaps it is best you not go young sire. There is talk of a possible storm coming up with how the snow has not let up for days, and seems to be descending even more intensely now."

Facing what Gaius talked about, Arthur scoffed. It wasn't that much of a difference the way the boy saw it. "I heard those kinds of warnings last week too and nothing came of it. Christmas is nearly upon us and yes I know, in Camelot we don't celebrate it the way others do."

Gaius's silver sprinkled eyebrow lifted. "You mean-compared to the Druids?"

Arthur nodded his head noncommittally. "Sure, I suppose. What are they like anyway? You're mostly the only one who's ever talked of them with me."

Gaius had a look of caution upon his face, for whatever reason, that lasted a full minute, before he responded. "They are peaceful people Arthur, private for…"

"Because they practice magic?"

"No." Gaius answered quickly before pondering. "I imagine not anymore that is, at least not in Camelot's surroundings. Perhaps elsewhere in places where it is still allowed. They mean no one harm young sire. For the most part they keep to themselves."

"That's not really what I meant Gaius. Anyway, I've heard tell that the Druids have a lot more Christmas customs than we do. Fun ones some say."

"Well, your father and most those of Camelot believe it is a very solemn occasion Arthur." Gaius remarked soberly.

Arthur shook away the topic though with a boy's spark of impatience and egotistical focus. "Maybe it is. I don't know, but he uses it sometimes as an excuse to gift me with new things and this time I don't want any of that. I just-I just wish to go out there-into the snow. Like the peasant boys do. Sometimes they're so much freer than I am. Sometimes being prince just-it's like being trapped in a cage."

The court physician had lived in Camelot many years, known the boy since he was in the womb of his mother, and was present the day he was born, a happy day of celebration, a day of the most tearful mourning and of screams before the fleeing. Arthur did not know the entirety of the circumstance. The king would have it that the boy never found out. Many friends of the court physician had fled, but he remained with a promise to forsake his magical ability, and so the man most likely understood how the castle could be regarded as heaven's rapture, and a nail's piercing the same. The father had gained many that would take his life, his son's and so-

Arthur was especially tightly protected. So much that it indeed would have to stifle.

Years from now probably that would not hold so well, but as he was just a boy now, the king's gilded cage remained in place.

It was suffocating, while the snow outside was free.

"Maybe if you talk to him Gaius…"

The suggestion didn't find completion as the elder man gave him a sad look. "Arthur, you know as well as I do that would not change anything. Your father is adamant that you stay protected. For good reason of course young sire. One day you will be king. And of course, beside that, your father loves you very much."

"For how often he shows it." Arthur muttered low under his breath, but turned away, knowing Gaius was right and hating that he was. Nothing would make his father change his mind. "I want to be alone Gaius."

The boy commanded with a hint of how he would be when matured. Already he was accustomed to issuing lines of dismissal.

The court physician didn't even blanch, used to the way royals acted. "Of course young sire." Still he rested his hand upon the boy's shoulder for a second.

Arthur barely responded, even though it was comforting. "Thank you Gaius." He could at least be polite

.Gaius smiled at it. Those who remembered her would say the boy had much of his mother inside him, his heart especially.

As the footsteps slid away and he was once again alone, Arthur sighed with disappointment, seeing it again, servant boys down below entering the woods with relish, carrying something large, long, in four of their pairs of hands. One of them was even his most recent attending servant, who was half good at his job he supposed, and ripe for sacking in a few weeks if he didn't improve enough. Elmer.

"Not fair. My servant boy gets to go. They all do and they're gallons poorer than I am with not an inch of prestige. If only I were a poor peasant then I'd be a nobody and no one would try to stop me from-

A gleam of inspiration lifted to the boy's brain. His blue eyes sparked with thought.

"That's it-a servant boy!"

V

Arthur excited about the idea as he rushed down the tower steps. He took them at such a pace that he reached the bottom courtyard quickly. Deciding to take one of Camelot's horses out for a short ride to fully develop the plan in his mind, he headed to the stables. Entering through the double pine doors he heard snippets of a conversation commencing outside. Arthur, for no reason other than wanting to hear without being seen, snuck behind a stall, hoping the horse in there didn't decide to get kick-happy.

"Sir Leon!"

"Yes?

Oh it's you. Very well you know it's not exactly Sir Leon yet. I'm not entirely a knight."

"Just a matter of time. My mother sent me to bring you these with glad tidings for the season, to enjoy between breaks of training."

"Ah-thank you. Your mother makes the most delicious desserts. Don't dare tell my mother I said that."

A bit of soft laughter. "I wouldn't dare. Your mother says it well enough herself anyways. She's always so dear to us. We do very much appreciate you letting us stay in your family's secondary quarters while my Dad sets up his new forge."

"Ah, well, my father's father's father never had much gold or such either. It took us time to reach this noble state you know. What about your brother? He's getting older. Do you think he will be a forger like your father?"

There was a long pause. It seemed unhappy.

"Well you know he's a servant for the court of Lyden right now. Unfortunately he's not as kind a master as your family is. And as for forging-I don't know. Not sure it would keep my brother that busy. He can be so terribly unfocused!"

Laughter came from Arthur's friend, Leon. "Yes, well-he's a free spirit perhaps. Ah-I need to go-knight training of course. I'll see you later this evening."

"Yes…"

A long long pause. Arthur wondered at it.

"No need for me to wonder where you would like to take up residence. Camelot's castle is quite grand.

Is it not?"

The pause lasted even longer this time, making Arthur want to lift his head, but he didn't want to be caught spying upon his friend's conversation with this-girl.

Whoever she was.

"Oh Sir Leon, don't be silly. A simple girl like me living in such a place? Would never happen. Anyway I must go. Your little sister Abigail insisted I share some cider with her."

It was Leon's laughter again. "Hah hah. Watch it there. She'll have you playing d-

Wi-

Arthur had to strain to hear. A wagon was passing near-by, drowning out half the words. He could only make out bits in torn proportions.

"With you….pre-qu-o-p-s-I-et Gw-."

Finally it passed, but Arthur had no idea what Leon had been talking about. He could only hear the girl's passing statement before they parted ways.

"Don't tease so-oh excuse me."

"Hah…no need. I really must go now."

"Enjoy the desserts."

"Oh you don't have to worry about that."

"Good day Sir Leon."

"Good day to you-oh and thank your Mother!"

"I will!"

The horse in the stall neighed loudly. Arthur jumped at the sound and then shook himself out of it. Oddest conversation. He wondered who the girl was and what Leon had been telling her. He wondered for as long as he noticed the fresh new drifts of snow. His mind back on his plan he quickly found a horse to saddle up.

VV

The objective was fully in mind the next day after a fun, albeit confining ride around Camelot. It was now a morning of very rapidly falling snow. Hmmm-could Gaius be right? Was there really a large storm forming?

Ah, no matter. Nothing was going to stop him from having his day. His father was away temporarily, visiting with his good friend Lord Godwyn. He had also remarked at dinner last night how a few evenings hence they would be entertaining a visiting king and princess, but Arthur had barely lifted an ear to it, so focused on this day and what he would have to do. With his father not currently in the vicinity, one roadblock was out of the way at least.

Now he just had to become a servant. Already out of bed, Arthur greeted a stunned Elmer as the shoddy servant boy entered his vast royal red quarters. The elder boy by two years was not used to the prince being up so early into the morning, especially without a wakeup call and no drapes pulled back to let in the sunshine. Wouldn't matter, for the latter part anyway. Winter had caused most of the sun to fade into the heavy chilling clouds sagging with impatient snow drifts just waiting to be released. They seemed especially weighted down this morning.

Arthur greeted with excited relish and command.

"Ah-there you are. I have a proposition. One you'd be smart not to turn down."

He spoke similar to how his father cajoled and got his way.

Elmer, a boy of stringing yellow hair that was fairly brighter than Arthur's sand, frowned. "Er-Prince Arthur? You're up?"

Dismissively Arthur shook his head. The boy wasn't the brightest of the lot even if he was older. "Plain to see, yes. You're a quick one Elmer." He praised with a wide toothed smile. Better to butter him solid.

Elmer's mouth opened with shock. Speechless, nothing came out. The prince never gave out compliments.

Arthur rolled his eyes and continued. Time could not be wasted. "Yes, well, I need to ask you a favor. No, not a favor. Like I said before, a firm proposition. With benefits."

He added that last part with gleam in his blue eyes, all the while sizing up Elmer in his mind. Okay, so their hair was nearly the same color. That was good. Even if Elmer was older, Arthur was less than an inch away. Well enough. Elmer was definitely skinnier, but maybe it just being a tiny bit of height difference would help with that. Just unfortunately, Elmer had really big fat hands that were totally out of proportion with the rest of him. Oh well-nothing could be done about that. Just remind him to keep his hands in his pockets a lot.

Reaching under his made bed, sort of sloppily done since Arthur wasn't used to the task, but with enough exterior finish, he brought out a wooden chest that just fit into his smaller than Elmer's hands. Opening it with embellished excitement, had to make it look good, Arthur nearly shoved it under the nose of the other boy to give him a good look. "Lots in here, golden coins, a couple of stone and pewter miniature knight statues that you certainly wouldn't find at any market, gloves just like mine that I use for fighting practice since I've noticed how much you envy them, and of course in the bag some really sweet chocolate all the way from the Isles. What more could you want, right Elmer?"

Smile abundant and reaching, Arthur pushed the chest into Elmer's stunned handhold. "All for you Elmer. You just have to do one little tiny thing for me in return. Just one!"

Elmer was too busy perusing the contents of the vastly filled chest to notice the gleam of mischief in Arthur's eyes.

"We need to swap clothes temporarily as you pretend you're me."

Okay, now Elmer did look up, eyes as rounded as the gold coins that lined the chest. "Er-what was that? You did not just say I had to be—you-or er—no-you couldn't have."

Arthur laughed happily. This was going to be easier than he ever thought. "That's exactly what I said Elmer. You're going to be me-and I'm going to be you. Now-time to change!"

The chest slipped out of Elmer's hands as Elmer fell face forward, Arthur's suggestion petrifying him, as the dropped chest landed with the loudest clang.

Arthur's look was bemused. "Okay-maybe not-

THAT easy."

V

Yech.

Elmer's clothes were smelly and itchy. He'd just have to make do though. If they got him out of Camelot then that was all that mattered. Sneaking around a column, Arthur flattened himself against the wall as a pair of knights walked by. Sure he was disguised now, but better for them to not spot him too closely. He had advised Elmer the same after the boy finally picked himself up off the floor.

He told him to pretend Prince Arthur was sore of mood for not being able to go to the snow. Shouldn't be too hard since that was the truth, a few days ago anyway. It would give him enough reason to be sulking around areas where the knights were not abundant. Also in Arthur's favor, Gaius had many missions to the outer skirts of Camelot this morning, so he would not be in the castle much. Arthur was sure Gaius would spot a decoy Arthur in seconds.

He just hoped Elmer didn't do anything stupid or crack in some awful way. All he had to do was keep up the charade for a few bell tolls and that chest would be all his. Arthur had milked that one for all it was worth. He let Elmer know plainly, the chest was his—IF-no one found out of Arthur's escape and their swapping of identities.

"Errrrrr." Arthur scratched with a wrinkled nose at the loose frayed brown tunic he now had to wear. It slopped over a pair of the ugliest tan trousers Arthur ever saw, knotted with mutton loose strings that if a tailor pulled away would probably result in the pants shredding to nothing. At least he got to keep his boots. He didn't think they would be too obvious and Elmer didn't just have grand sized disproportionate hands, but also feet two sizes too big. If Arthur had attempted wearing Elmer's boots, they would have been falling off his feet the whole while. No-better to just leave them alone, and so they were ones he was well accustomed to and that thankfully didn't smell putridly.

The knights had passed by.

Arthur descended the steps with tip toe quietness. He made it all the way to the bottom where to his dismay a door suddenly opened. Oh-oh. There was no time to hide. Thinking fast, Arthur fell to his knees to the finely polished floor. Grabbing a filthy rag out of Elmer's holed pocket, he started rubbing furiously, hoping the pretense was well enough.

"Elmer, eh is that you?"

Oh no. She knew him. Arthur grunted in response, keeping his nose buried to the floor. "Er-yea."

"Have you already cleaned the master's quarters?" The master. She was one of the head servants Arthur surmised. He allowed one eye to take a quick secondary look, never peering high enough to spot her face, where she would be able to spot his. The woman was heavyset, a bulk of servant dress with tidied apron. "Er-yea."

"What are you picking up off the floor?" The woman suddenly bellowed. "Don't you know Judy already cleaned it well enough?"

Arthur's eyes squinted closed. This wasn't working all that well. "Er-forgot." He tried to mimic Elmer's bullish voice. It was another difference he had advised Elmer of. Try not to talk. Their voices were too contrary, but if you have to, bring it down an octave.

Obviously his princely attempt wasn't that good. "Got a frog in your throat there Elmer?"

"Er…"

The woman slapped at her apron with disgust. Arthur could even hear her mutter low under her breath so as Elmer wouldn't hear, but he heard well enough. "Foolish boy-has a thread loose somewhere. Brain of a cow."

Arthur couldn't help snickering as he inwardly agreed completely.

"What are you LAUGHING for?"

Oops. Arthur shook his head furiously, still not lifting it, haphazardly moving the rag around. "Er-nothing."

He heard an exasperated sigh and then, "Well don't just sit there on your knees like some guilty boy bowing to the king. Get yourself up and go wash the master's launderings. Don't have time for your silliness! Get up I say!"

Arthur was breathing fast, sweating enough to probably smell as bad as Elmer's stinky clothes. Maybe that's how they got so smelly. FEAR. If he got up he could be spotted for the lie he was keeping, the secret, but if he didn't, this boar of a woman might drag him up by the ear before she realized who he really was. Jumping to his feet, Arthur carefully kept his face averted with the rag and started scurrying up the steps that he had just departed, hearing it as he landed on the fifth one…

"What has got into you? Never seen you move so fast! I swear if my eyes weren't deceiving me I'd say you were Prince Arthur, running at such an elevated pace."

Arthur nearly tripped on the sixth step, grunting like he hoped Elmer did. "UH-er…"

"That is if you weren't so clumsy!"

Arthur didn't dare look back at the seventh step, as much he hated the last comment. If this woman knew who he really was she wouldn't dare insult him in such way. Of course if she knew, everything would be spoilt. Better keep playing Mr. Obedient Nerf Head.

Finally he heard the heavy tread of departing footsteps.

He fell on the eighth to his rear, hands clasping the edge of the step. "Hard work being a servant boy. At least pretending to be one!" He shook his head with weariness and then leapt to his feet. No way he could stay here a bit longer. Who knew who else would come out of one of those doors? He had to get away from the castle.

Sprinting down the steps he finally made it to the bottom landing. Now-just down the long passage of halls. Ah-easy.

Er-right.

V

Perhaps luck was on his side because Arthur did make it out of the castle with no more tumultuous meetings. As he breathed the first fresh bit of icy air he sighed with relief, before he shivered with burning freezing cold. His peasant clothes were no match for the harsh winter weather. Thank goodness he had his warm boots, but he'd have to find a coat somewhere before his arms and chest froze from frost bite. Crossing his arms tight, he hurried to the stables. He needed a horse. Maybe if he was fortunate, there would be some coat or jacket in there left over from one of the servants. At the moment, with the snow that was falling so steadily already soaking through his shirt, he'd even take a moth holed blanket.

"Eh-boy!"

Oh no. He didn't get this recognized when he was Prince Arthur. He hoped it wasn't the same for Elmer. He'd get as far as the front guards before they'd be tearing after him, and if so happened, Elmer could kiss away any chest of gold and such.

"Er-yea?"

"I need a horse. Get one for me now."

Arthur had to fight to not lift his head. Just staring down at the ground he could see the boots and trails of red cloak. A knight. Oh bother. "Yes my Lord."

He scrambled to find a horse and proper gear.

"Well hurry up and saddle it up-I don't have all day boy! Continue to be this incompetent and I'll be sure to tell the king!"

Arthur really so badly wanted to take the bridle and fling it in someone's face. NO one ever talked to him like this-not even knights! But uh-it would be worth it when he was free and in the snow-right?

He fiddled nervously with the gear, feeling suddenly a rough large hand wrench it all away from him. "Oh give me it boy. I'll do it myself! What's your name?"

Oh no. "Elmer-my Lord."

"Lift your head Elmer. Don't you know to face a knight with respect?"

"I thought it would be better to keep my eyes down-in respect my Lord."

"Well I would like to see your face."

Oh great dragons of days of old! Arthur slowly faced the man, having to strain to look up to him. "Yes my Lord…" If this didn't work. Oh.

"You look a little familiar. Yes, something about your voice and I would say that you look just like-

His heart was beating so rapidly he was afraid his chest would burst. He was about to be caught. "No-I'm er-eh…new-my Lord."

He had no choice. The knight, one Arthur knew was called Lord Veldmeren, was looking at him curiously now. Spotting a bucket of water, Arthur started to lift it-

He pretended it was too heavy to carry, banged the full container against Lord Veldmeren and brought the man toppling down with him into a messy wet heap on the hay.

"AH-BOY!"

Good, the clumsiness was perfect. It took the man away from the beginning ponderings that he could be a princely sort.

He would be expected to clean up the mess now though and he had no time for that. Issuing a silent apology, Arthur dashed away from the knight and the stables. Racing through the door as Lord Veldmeren called angrily after him, complaining of his utter incompetence, Arthur didn't see the older boy heading to the stables from opposite direction until they collided.

Both fell to the ground with a hard thump.

"What-why are you running like-

All of his luck of before had completely fled now. Arthur startled as tangled up with him down on the ground was no one other than his friend Sir Leon. He tried to get up rapidly enough.

"Arthur?"

He shook his head vehemently, holding at his half wet clothes that were making him shiver hard. "No, no. Of course not. I'm not the prince. Do I look like one? Bit obvious not. I'm nothing of the sort. My name is-

"Arthur." Leon was up on his feet too, holding at the younger boy's arm.

Arthur grimaced tightly, as Leon, a boy over a hand full of years older than him, recognized exactly who he was. Caught. Noticing the snow still falling and feeling colder than ever, but also more determined than ever, Arthur shook his head.

"Leon-don't tell."

"You're shaking."

"No-I-

Leon had him by the arm already though and was taking off his red short training cloak, wrapping it around the younger boy as he led him to a more secluded spot. "Arthur—eh-my Lord-what are you doing?

Standing now with Leon in a hidden corner of the market area, Arthur wrapped the cloak tight around himself. "I just want a day-a few bell tolls to go there."

"Where?"

Arthur pointed, as Leon seemed confused, to the outer skirts of Camelot, and beyond to where the great mountains started. "There, Leon. But my father won't let me. He says it's too dangerous. He's wrong. I can handle it. I won't be gone that long. Just don't tell him. I can't order you to keep quiet on it, but I can—Leon don't tell him."

An understanding smile came to Leon's face even though reluctance mixed with it too. Defying the king was means for punishment for anyone. Even his brood. But he and Arthur had spoken enough of how sometimes Arthur felt his father didn't let him do what he wanted. "I don't know Arthur."

"I won't be gone that long!"

"Well…" Leon hesitated before gesturing strongly. "You can't go dressed like that. You're going to catch pneumonia."

"Right, well then—I'll take your cloak." Remembering how regal it looked, Arthur quickly shook his head. "No I can't do that. I'll be spotted for sure."

Leon looked away, spotting something—someone?

"Wait here. I've got an idea. Though I may regret it if the king ever finds out what you're up to."

Leon moved toward the outer market, leaving Arthur there to wonder.

He could tell his friend knight was still not totally behind the idea of letting the prince out of Camelot without his father's permission, but then—

"Elyan!"

Arthur watched as a dark skinned boy older than him, but younger than Leon, turned around, holding what looked like a pair of magnificently crafted swords in his hands. Arthur wondered who made them look like that. He'd never seen swords of that caliber created by the Royal Forgers. Something so unique about them.

"Sir Leon. I'm on my way from my dad's forge. Told me to deliver these to some customers. Have to get back to the master too. So if you could make it quick-I'd appreciate it."

"Understood Elyan. I have a favor to ask you though. And it might seem a bit strange, but bear with me alright."

"Alright."

The dark skinned boy seemed puzzled, but it was obvious too to Arthur that he knew Leon well.

"I need to borrow your coat."

"Eh?"

"Now, Elyan. Here-you take my inner cloak for the while. It's a matter of royal importance."

That word really brought a reaction from the boy called Elyan. Arthur watched him stand up straighter and quickly move away his coat even as he shivered against the cold. "Of course then."

Leon gave Elyan his inner cloak, a bit less descript than his outer, and after putting back on the red one for himself, took the plain burnt red coat of Elyan's into his hands.

Before departing, Leon thanked the dark skinned boy. Elyan gave a short nod and went on his way, wrapped in the cloak Leon loaned him.

"Who is he?" Arthur asked curiously as Leon headed back and handed him the coat. It was simple definitely, had little shape, bigger than his smaller size, but it was oddly warm too and had a hood that he could use for cover. Arthur pulled it past his sanding hair, already feeling less chilled, and it wasn't even smelly for peasant's wear.

"Son of a woman who works for my mother. He's a good sort. Whole family is. Anyway, I know I'm going to regret this-

Per usual, Arthur was only half listening, focused on so many other things at present time. "What was his name again? I didn't hear it all that well."

Leon shook his head. "Never mind that. Arthur, are you sure about this?"

He nodded his head vehemently. "Yes. I have to do this Leon. I won't be gone that long. I just need a horse now."

Leon sighed resignedly. "You can take mine. Just Arthur, if you don't get back within a few bells and your father gets suspicious, I won't have a choice."

Arthur shrugged it off. "Don't worry about it Leon. I'll be back long before my father returns."

V

He made it out! Yes!

Fifty paces past the last of the royal guards Arthur let out a whoop of joy, finally removing the hood of the coat from the top of his head. He'd be eternally grateful to this—well-whatever his name had been. His hooded coat made escape possible without anyone spotting him again.

"YES…FREE!"

He laughed with elation, riding the horse so fast to make it jump over a fallen log, its hooves kicking up at the blanket of snow as it landed with grace. It felt so grand and free to have done it, escaped, to be away from the castle and everyone that expected him to act a certain way. Here no one could tell him what to do. He laughed at it, at the dirty peasant clothes he wore and the borrowed coat that belonged to a poor one. He was nothing now but just a boy who had bell toll hours to enjoy it.

The Snow. Oh it fell so gloriously now, so wet and soft. Like Gaius had said the day before and that, it was increasing. Arthur didn't mind it at all though. He relished its added volume. He wanted it to keep falling, create snow caves and mounds that would climb to the-

It was almost magical, being out here like this, riding so free on a horse that had no insignia of royalty. It was almost like doing the forbidden. If this is what sorcerers truly felt like then maybe-

Well he wouldn't go that far.

"Come on!" He beckoned the horse away from all the jumping fun. It was a bit slippery on the snowy ground and he wanted to find it anyway. Leading the fierce black-maned animal away he brought it to a rapid gallop. Holding on tight, he raced fiercely through the snow flocked trees.

It came from nowhere, the flying branch. He lost his seating in an instant. The ground found his rear and back painfully. He cried out as the horse ran off.

"Who-what?" He asked in dazed wonder, his vision blurred by the fall. Lifting his hands to his mouth he tried to whistle back the horse, but it had been spooked well enough and was not returning from its frantic descent. Lifting to a squatting position, Arthur worried. If it were bandits-

Something moved behind the tall pines and firs. Arthur called out bravely. "Eh—you there-well what are you waiting for?"

Nothing it seemed. At least not anymore. Just those words brought it out. No waiting at all.

Her-

Out.

Her?

"Are you the one who threw that branch at me and my horse?" He asked incredulously.

He couldn't see much of her beyond being able to tell she was a girl about his age or maybe slightly younger. She was wrapped tight in a brocade velvet cloak of deepest purple, covered all the way to the top of her head. She stood protected by the tall pines and firs.

"I thought you might be a bandit."

The voice was slightly shrill, slightly deep for a girl. Arthur lifted up on one knee, the other resting upon the ground. His head hurt a bit. Probably that attacking branch. "You hit me!" He accused hotly.

The girl said nothing, seeming to be taking in his poor attire. "Have you nothing to say for yourself?" Arthur asked with tight authority.

The girl gestured to his simple and dirtied clothing before lifting away the hood from her curling dark hair and stepping out a bit more. "I don't think you have a right to speak to me so righteously."

Now he could finally see her a bit better. She had the tightest locks of rounded raven bird hair, and skin the color of tanned birches. And now that she had lifted away the hood of her cloak he noticed too quickly that underneath it was a fine gown of lavender silk. Only nobility would be wearing such attire. She was a princess?

He looked down at himself. She was right. Well not really, but it didn't matter. If he wanted to keep up this façade and if this girl really was royalty, he'd better play the part. "No—you're of course right. Uh-er-Princess-

Her eyes widened. He wondered why. She seemed startled. Only for a second though. It soon faded as she lifted her chin. "Well right of course you are now. But you see I am not-

"You are not what?"

She seemed to deliberate, before speaking with a tiny bit of shaking. "I am not-pleased that you startled me so. Now I will be on my way."

He jumped to his feet at that, for some reason determined to stop her, though he couldn't fathom why. "No, wait! You can't go!"

She turned back around, lifting her hood away again. "What do you mean I cannot?"

Arthur laughed harshly. "You're in the middle of the woods-Princess—uh-er—Princess?"

The girl bit at her bottom lip, grimacing so tightly it was obvious something was bothering her. "Oh—Alianor. Princess Alianor. Now I will take my lea-

He cut her off, jumping to his booted feet. "Alianor? You're King Brom's daughter?"

She seemed petrified now. "I am? Oh—I mean of course I am. Now I must get back to my brother so if you would kindly move out of the way-

"But you don't even have a brother. You're an only child!"

That made her voice stumble with bumbling dismay. "Well of course—

Before something seemed to occur to her.

"Wait a minute. You are just a servant boy! How would you know such things?"

Oh-oh. Arthur agonized inwardly. He'd better stop acting so belligerent before he ruined everything. "Uh-er—I heard tell from my master. Um—my apologies Princess Alianor." He bowed low the way his father taught him to do when kings visited.

She seemed to blush at it, before she straightened up her posture and belatedly responded. "Well that's better. Now I'll go-

"No." The snow was still falling so much, hitting the ground with a bit of a harder force. Arthur reached out for her arm to stop her. She stared at him like he was out of his mind. Slowly he backed away. "Uh-eh-I can't just let you leave. Not like this anyway. The snow's falling and everything. And these woods, they're not that safe.

Plus, I've never known a princess to just go-walking in the woods, especially on a day when it's snowing so fiercely."

She countered strongly. "And how many princesses has a servant boy like you known anyway?"

His eyebrows rose. That was a hearty comeback. He made a decision, bringing out his hand a bit awkwardly, showing the limits of boyhood. I'm Ar-

Oh oh.

Her eyes were wondering.

He quickly amended, touching her arm again. "ArMid. Armid. That's my name Armid. Armid the uh—servant. I work in Camelot, you know. Princess Alianor."

Once again there was a flicker in her dark eyes as he called her that title. He wasn't sure why, but thought it better not to press. He had his big secret he was still trying to keep. With her being a princess, if she found out who he really was, she could tell her father, who would tell his father, and then.

Yea, best not to press it.

Seeming to weigh her choices, she nodded before turning once more to go, forgetting at first that his hand still hadn't left her arm. "If you would unhand me—Armid the servant, I could leave."

"And where do you plan to go? Your kingdom is ten kilometers away at the least."

She didn't like that answer. He added quickly. "At least uh-er my master says so."

She frowned, her defined nose wrinkling with indecision and suspicion awkwardly laced together. "I am staying at the palace."

"No you're not. No one's staying with us now. Believe me I would know because-

She stared. Arthur bit at his lip. Wrong thing to say, but he did know, and so if he knew, she was not telling the truth then-

"How dare you accuse a princess of telling a fib. I did not mean the palace of Camelot. I meant-well it does not matter. I am going to tell my father about your rudeness today Armid and—

"Okay, okay!" He put up his hands. "I didn't mean anything ill by it. I apologize Princess Alianor. I give my sincerest apologies!"

She was still very upset obviously. "It's not like you live in the palace."

"NO. I'm a servant. Of course I don't." This was so hard. He didn't know how much longer he could keep this up, and he was wasting time. The snow. That's why he came out here, not to chat with some—girl. Even if she was kind of—a pretty princess. Kind of.

"But I meant another palace anyway. Now—

"Here. Just let me give you a ride back to whatever palace it is you're-er, heading to."

"And how do you plan on doing that without a horse? It ran away, remember?"

Whoa, she didn't miss a beat. And she could be a bit offhanded at times when she didn't seem completely perplexed like she first was acting. "That's true. Well you shouldn't be walking through these woods alone. You can come with me."

It was partly with obligation he invited her along. Princes had to be chivalrous. And it was partly-wanting her to come with him. Something about this girl.

She looked at him with fear. It was almost like she had somewhere to get to or something to say that she hadn't but then-

"Fine. Maybe we can find your horse."

He smiled. "Yea."

He started walking. She followed along behind.

He could hear her mutter something low under her breath, words muted to his ears. "Oh Abigail-what have you gotten me into?"

"What was that?" Arthur asked as Armid the servant boy.

Princess Alianor shook her head as Arthur stopped fully. "Nothing—nothing important. Why are you stopping?"

"It's not really right for servants to lead princesses. Usually the nobility takes the lead."

She looked around the white wonderland of forest with concern. A wonderland of hidden dangers.

Arthur amended quickly. "But—er—maybe under the circumstances I could take a bit of the lead. These woods can be a bit treacherous if you don't know them that well."

"Yes." She answered quickly, seemingly with abundant relief. "Very well. You take the lead Armid."

It took him a moment to remember she was referring to-him.

He was Armid. Oh bother.

V

Up a mountain of powdered snow that resembled the whitest sugar he headed, making sure she was able to keep pace. Interesting. She didn't seem like most princesses. He'd been around at least a few and all had complained about the smallest bit of precipitation. Princess Alianor simply kept her hood up over her head as he kept his borrowed one too the same, and she moved pretty fast for a girl also. Of course, maybe she was more the sort like the Lady Morgana, a girl who his father was very fond of, as he was best friends with her father, a fierce knight of course.

Arthur was once again thankful for being able to keep his fine boots. They didn't slip an inch into the heavily packed snow. He looked back to see that she too was smartly wearing a pair of boots. "Are your feet staying warm enough?" He asked her spontaneously.

The girl, her curled dark hair all so hidden by the deep purple hood, smiled quietly, seeming a bit more eased now. "Oh yes. Thank you Armid."

It was weird being called that. He felt almost not like himself, but he just nodded with his own bit of a smile. "Good."

The snow increased its heaviness of falling just a bit. Arthur didn't mind, but seemed the wind was picking up some too. No matter. It was grand to be away.

They reached a crevice in the mountain. He could just hear her stumble a bit behind. Arthur turned back rapidly, caught lightly at her waist. "Careful." He warned.

She stared at him for a moment, something swimming in her dark eyes that she didn't reveal, before she blushed slightly and whispered, "Thank you."

The moment would have been extended, if he wasn't a boy that is. Right as her near fall happened, Arthur noticed something perhaps a bit more spectacular to a prince desiring a bit of fun. At the top of the mountain, just about five paces away, was it, the long crudely wood carved toboggan. He let go of the girl instantly and rushed up to his find.

He didn't hear her humph of disapproval as she pretty accurately, pretty quickly, made her way up the rest of the mountain, unassisted.

It wasn't all that impressive looking, other than its size, but it didn't matter. Arthur could tell it was just like the ones he'd spotted the servant boys using, if not the actual. And the top of this mountain, it was fantastic! They'd be able to slide down at such speed!

"What are you thinking of doing with that?" She asked apprehensively, holding tight to her cloak as the wind was stronger at the top of the mountain, pulling hard on all their clothing as the snow still had yet to relent, its falling ever so steady.

Arthur frowned at the princess with obvious intent. It shouldn't be that much of a mystery. "Slide down on it of course."

Princess Alianor's dark eyes widened for a fast moment, before she shook her head with young authority. "You can't be serious! This does not even belong to us. We can't just—TAKE it."

Arthur flippantly disagreed. No one told him what he could or couldn't have, except his father, the king. "Why not? It's just sitting here, isn't it?" He squatted down next to the toboggan, studying how it worked with his clear blue eyes.

"That doesn't make it okay, Armid. You should respect other people and their things, not just take whatever you want without proper request."

Was he actually being chastised by this princess? And if so why did it not anger him as much as it should? Instead it made him feel almost-guilty?

"We'll just borrow it, alright Princess Alianor? We'll put it back where we found it and all."

She still seemed highly skeptical, maybe even a bit nervous. "I don't know." She was gazing down the mountain with apprehension in her dark eyes, a quiver to her small lips.

Arthur stood up, feeling the yank of the wind again as it pulled his hood off. He pushed it back over his head, coming to stand by Princess Alianor. "It's a big mountain."

"Very big." She echoed with a slight shiver in her voice.

Arthur gave her a sidelong look. "I used to be afraid of places like this. I always thought something would jump out at me. My father showed me though that it was kind of silly to think that way. He's not afraid of anything."

She turned to him, eyes quizzical. "Nothing at all?"

Arthur shrugged. "Not that I know of. Well except maybe—He doesn't like magic. I don't know if it's so much fear though or just hatred for it."

Slowly Princess Alianor nodded her head. "My Dad is brave too. He's a good man, a blacksmith."

Arthur questioned. "I thought your father was a king. He can't be a blacksmith then. Others take up that position."

She answered tensely. "No, well—he used to sometimes as a-well just a simple hobby. Of course he doesn't have much time for that now, having to rule our kingdom."

Arthur moved back to the toboggan, sat down on its front, stretching his legs out to settle his boots into the snow. "You're scared to go down."

"No!" Princess Alianor replied too quickly. Arthur looked up, his expression skeptical. She backtracked. "Well-maybe a little."

He smiled reassuringly. His father always just pushed, but for Arthur that rarely worked well. He liked to encourage more. And since he thought it would be a terrible bore to go down the sled alone, with her watching, he was going to make a go at persuading her to come with him. "You might like it."

Uncertainty still was wrinkling her brow, but she didn't negate his words. "You might be right."

Arthur smiled, held out his hand. "Come on. Give it a go."

She shrugged, still obviously a bit fearful, but also easy to talk into riding along, almost like she wanted to be persuaded. "Oh alright. Where shall I sit? Back or front?"

Arthur perused the toboggan for a moment. The front was curved, while the back was mostly straight. It gave him a good idea where the most fearful should reside. "Front. I'll take the back. The ropes on the sides are long enough for me to steer if need be." They didn't look all that firm, but he didn't tell her that, created in a makeshift way by boys who definitely weren't wealthy enough to get strong rope and probably too much in a hurry to safeguard completely. Shouldn't be a problem though.

Princess Alianor looked down at her dress questioningly.

Arthur was pretty sure what she was going to say and wondered if she was getting ready to back out. Shame if she did. "I don't think it'll ruin your dress."

With a dismayed look she lifted away the bottom part of the cloak, revealing a strong tear on the side of the fine gown. "Wouldn't matter anyway. It's already been torn. At least my mother is a se-

She stopped suddenly. Arthur stared. "She's a what?"

Princess Alianor darted her eyes, making her way to the toboggan silently as Arthur slid fully to the back. "She's a-a-sender-of gifts. She sends nice things like-dresses-to girls who are not as fortunate."

Her answer was puzzling, but Arthur just slowly nodded his head. "Okay."

He didn't see Princess Alianor let out a hard sigh as she slowly moved down to the toboggan.

By instinct he brought out his hand. The times that princesses had visited the castle he had been expected to assist them when sitting and such. He was accustomed to it.

She smiled at him with wonder, getting her seat with his help. "Thank you."

"Of course."

She stared. Arthur gulped. "What?"

"You just don't sound that much like a servant boy right now. They don't usually speak with such-firmness."

Arthur lowered his eyes. "Well it's er-expected in Camelot." He quickly changed the subject. "So, how about we get this thing moving?"

She swallowed tightly. "Okay."

Arthur scooted forward some on the toboggan, noticing how her hands were shaking. He reached out one of his to touch at her waist. She jumped some.

"Sorry, just, you seem scared and-probably better if the back one holds on, you know?"

"Of course."

If he didn't take command they were going to sit here until that last bell toll rang. Action was needed. "Alright, move your hands to the front. They'll be pretty secure there. I've got the ropes. I'll steer and make sure all the same that you're not falling or such." He proved this by grabbing the ropes and at the same time keeping his arms surrounding her waist. "Also we have to lift our feet and push far to get it going down. Just at first. It won't take long before it's moving pretty fast I gather. That's when you can bring your feet up. I'll do the same."

"Okay. Sounds fine."

He laughed softly. "But if it feels too fast, we'll just drag our feet, alright? But trust me, it'll be fun."

"Trust you?" She questioned softly.

"Yes."

She started to reply, but he was all action. "Alright, push off!"

Both of them did with their boots. They pumped them through the deep snow, coming to the edge of the mountain. It wasn't so much a mountain like the kind you could see from the castle. It was much more a hill, but for young ones, especially looking over the top, it felt like a mountain.

Since she was at the front, he knew she'd see what a long way it was to the bottom. If they did a fast push off though she wouldn't have much time to take in the impressively frightening view.

They'd just-

And soon enough-they were.

"Ah!"

She let out. He couldn't tell if she was enjoying it or not. The second the toboggan hit the edge it had started to race down the hill, kicking up snow at their sides. "Alright?" He asked in a yell as the toboggan roared down the mountain.

Letting out a bit of a nervous giggle, she uttered it. "Yes."

It was fast, their descent. The snow fell on them all the while. The mountainside was blurred in their view, the trees ahead and the clouded sky above. He held at the ropes like he said he would, but she seemed okay to just let the toboggan do its thing so he didn't steer much at all.

The slide to the bottom was ultimately so quick anyway. In less than a minute or two they hit. Finally Arthur pulled at the ropes. They seemed to give a shaky tug, but they worked well enough to stop the toboggan.

She turned around, the hood from her cloak completely fallen, her dark curls wildly spinning around her small head. He winked. "You liked it."

No question needed. She grinned. "It was fantastic!"

"Let's do it again then!" He replied excitedly. Princess Alianor was the most fun princess he ever met. She didn't even seem to care that her boots had dragged through the snow at the bottom.

Carefree, they headed back up the mountain, helping each other with pulling the toboggan. Two more times they went down. In between they stumbled through the snow, snickered at the other when it resulted in a fall. And assisted when it was needed. They forgot completely about time and bells, but as they reached the top of the mountain the fourth time, some of her responsible attitude seemed to beckon again. "We should probably stop after this time Armid. Our clothes are going to soak through if nothing else."

Arthur nodded with a touch of reluctance.

Perhaps it would have been better if they had stopped after those three times. The fourth, the ropes were even shakier. The snow had started to fall with more power. They took off from the top of the mountain at a poor angle. It was not so much a fun descent as a scary one. He could hear her scream. Arthur called out, holding Princess Alianor's waist tightly.

"Hold on!"

The ropes broke away. They slid far too fast down the wrong side of the hill. The toboggan headed treacherously for a scattering of trees. Arthur tried to steer but-

The toboggan lifted into the air. It somersaulted. She screamed. He yelled. Both lost their seating. And the last thing Arthur could remember was the hard coarse bark of the tree so directly in front of him-

Before his vision went to black.

V

Orange. Red. Flame.

That was the first thing he was aware of. Warm. Burning. And then a pain in his leg. It wasn't horrible, but prickling irritably at his muscles. A moan came. He realized after a few seconds it had come from his own mouth. He looked down. He was lying on a blanket with another blanket atop his body. The fire was so close nearby, burning brightly. He was in a surrounding of shrouded material, crudely built, but somehow so warm. Some feet away from him lay a sleeping girl. It took him seconds to realize who it was.

"Alianor!" Arthur exclaimed.

He moved forward on the blanket, feeling the pain in his leg starting to mostly depart. His muscles just needed to get moving. There were some scrapes on his arms too, but otherwise he seemed to be okay. Was she?

"Awake? Good to see."

He turned violently at the voice, picking up the first thing he could find on the ground, a log for the fire. "Stand back."

A man, with bowl cut hair, brought his hand up, a man in a simple robe of red and orange. "Fear not young Pendragon. We mean you no harm."

Arthur kept the log raised, pushing away the blanket and attempting to leap to his feet. But his circulation wasn't working as fast as he'd like. "I said stay back. And how-you're mistaken." He struggled to keep up the pretense. "My name is Armid. I'm just a servant boy, see?" He gestured to his plain moth ridden clothes. "Now who are you and what do you want with us?"

He darted his eyes down to Princess Alianor. She still hadn't moved.

"You are as defensive as the king, but you need not worry. As I said-we mean you no harm. Your memory might not be that clear. We found you, the two of you, fallen off a toboggan. Prince Arthur."

He stared, suspicious and wary. "Why do you keep calling me that? I already told you—

"I have a gift that lets me see deceits. Even well, or youthfully, intentioned. I understand you do not want the girl to know. You perhaps should understand-there are things she does not want you to know."

Finally Arthur got to his feet. His hands were shaking, but he still wouldn't put the log down. He held it up defensively, ready to swing if needed. He may only be a boy, but he'd been trained since he could walk. He knew escape maneuvers. "Why won't she get up? What did you do to her?"

The man looked sad. "I assure you. Nothing at all. The fall was hard. She is simply resting. Your wounds are mostly healed. We have effective remedies. Now-when you are done being so-suspicious-you may join us. It is a time of feasting for the coming celebration. Christmas beckons in just days.

Arthur felt uncertain. He lowered the log just a bit, taking in the tent, the talk of remedies, and the way this person seemed to know who he was. "Are you Druids?"

Finally the man smiled and remarked quietly, with a contrary answer. "My name is Olmis. You are welcome. You and your friend. Keep her well. A meeting will come again. Destinies are linked. Even as those pretend."

With those riddles of words, the man named Olmis backed up and out of the tent. Arthur watched him with wonder, fear, suspicion, awe-and then heard it.

"Oh—

He turned around, forgetting about Olmis for the moment. "Princess Alianor?"

It sounded odd, calling her that after Olmis's peculiar words.

Her eyes opening slowly, she stared. Lifted to her knees. "Armid?"

Protectively Arthur moved to her. It was instinct purely and okay, he liked the girl. She was not like other princesses. "Here. I don't know exactly where we are, but I'm going to get us out. Everything's okay."

Slowly she stood up too.

"Are you hurt?" Arthur asked.

She shook her head, showing that too she had some scrapes, but nothing too bad. "No-I feel okay. Just a little-

He nodded his head. "Yea, me too. I'm sorry. I guess that last slide down the hill, the toboggan did a flip."

She shuddered slightly. "I remember. It was scary and then-just black. But Armid, where are we now?"

Arthur looked around uncertainly, shakily remembering the encounter with the odd Olmis who insisted, rightfully, but strangely, that he was Arthur Pendragon. "I'm not entirely sure. There was just a man here, said his name is Olmis and that they found us. I think he's-I think they are Druids, Princess Alianor."

"Then if they helped us, why do you seem so wary?"

"I don't know. He said so many peculiar things. I just-

He didn't finish his thought as from the outside of the tent came a rush of sound. The celebration had evidently begun. Princess Alianor gestured. "Let's go see. It is only proper to thank those who helped us too Armid."

Arthur held back.

Princess Alianor walked up to him, reaching for his wrist, showing her own type of command-or coaxing. "Come on. It's a celebration. I'm sure it'll be fine. We'll stay only to say thank you."

"There are rumors-more than rumors. It's talked about all in Camelot. They use magic, the Druids. Sorcery."

Princess Alianor nodded her head, speaking quietly. "I've heard of that being said too. But we don't know for sure until we see for ourselves. It's not right Armid to just accuse someone of something without proof or-without trying to understand."

Arthur opened his mouth, wondering. "He said that-you have secrets. Olmis said that."

She flinched. "Secrets?" She countered quickly though. "And how do I know you don't have your own-Armid?"

It was true. He had a big one. Had to let it go there then. Reluctantly Arthur followed the princess out of the tent. As soon as they reached the outside the music grew volumes louder and what greeted their eyes was an amazing spectacle of laughter, song, dance, and so much more.

Camelot had feasts, but nothing like this, and yet there didn't seem to be abundant amounts of food. Camelot feasts had goose and deer. Here the food seemed simple, hot puddings, and fruits of every kind. The one animal to dine on looked to be a wild boar. It wasn't about just food. It was the feel of the celebration, the emotion of it. It was as Gaius had said. Christmas was much more solemn in Camelot and a feast of any kind included very ordered dancing, movements so precise. Here it was so-different.

A Yule log was burning bright in the middle of it all. The festivities were under heavy tented canopies, protecting all from the swiftly falling snow. Trees were even decorated with tiny little paper adornments. Holly and ivy were everywhere, with their sweet tangent smell. And in lurking corners hung the mistletoe, where Arthur cold just spot a tittering couple kissing underneath, before he moved away his youthful eyes.

To accompany all this was so much song, so much of instruments and voice. There were simple mandolins, tambors, flutes, penny whistles, and even teasing fiddles. The band playing them, were not sitting in precise order like they would at a Camelot feast. The instruments were not perfectly formed. They were made of scraps here and there and the musicians were in the dance as much as those listening. Almost everyone was parading around the Yule log, singing out songs of celebration. Arthur had never seen anything like it. Almost magical. Almost-

"Well there you are. Here-have some hot cider. It's a bit spiced though. Be careful." Olmis had come over, handing them two cups of very hot drink.

"Thank you for taking care of us. The crash was frightful."

The man eyed the girl for a moment, before replying. "No thanks needed- He seemed to intentionally hesitate. "Princess."

Arthur turned to her-Princess Alianor. She seemed a bit agitated. No wonder about that. He felt the same with Olmis.

"Well enjoy the celebrations. I imagine they are sort of novel for the two of you. Perhaps more for one than the other."

With that Olmis walked away. Arthur watched him warily, wondering now what kind of riddle he was trying to tell. As he drank some of the cider though, he felt his body relax more. It was so hot, so rich and warm going down his throat. It took away any chill. It made it like a Yule log was formed in his own being, as silly as that sounded. He noticed that Princess Alianor was watching it all with rapt attention, the dancing. It wasn't just adults, like the formation type dancing that happened in Camelot. It was children too, moving in fun circles.

"We dance like this at home sometimes."

Arthur stared. "You do?"

Princess Alianor commented yes and then-"Oh I mean-well something like this."

"Yea, we don't dance this way in Camelot."

She turned to him questioningly. "But you're a servant. The servants don't dance the same as the nobles."

They don't?" Arthur asked, curious. "Then how do they?"

She seemed befuddled. "Well, not that I would know that well. I'm not a servant."

He smiled a bit nervously. "And I'm not a prince."

Her eyes turned to his curiously.

Arthur took another long drink of the cider. It was warming him up so much and-lightening his mood. He reached actually for Princess Alianor's wrist. "Come on. Let's dance like-the Druids do."

She laughed at that and in seconds just like the other children and adults, they were parading around the Yule log. Turning and twisting. Spinning. Arthur watched with wonder as a glow came to the trees, almost like they were being lit. But that was impossible. There were no candles. The people, the fire, everything seemed a blurred haze of warmth and-solid heat. It was so-

His hood was down and so was hers. Her dark curls sparkled. His sandy locks shined. They laughed and spun. Didn't feel an inch of cold. Forgot time.

Forgot-

A few too many bell tolls later, unbeknownst to Arthur, except for it was becoming a bit clear, in such a stormy atmosphere, that day was decreasing, she called out. "Isn't that your horse?"

They were drinking a second bit of cider, playing instruments that the musicians let them borrow for the moment. He turned and sure enough, there was Sir Leon's horse he had been riding.

Sir Leon!

Arthur looked up, finally seeming to come out of his languid haze. Night would soon be approaching. What were they doing? He had to get back? Was this some bit of sorcery that made them stay here? Was something-potent in the cider?

"Isn't it?"

She asked again, and he nodded his head, grabbing at her wrist and putting down the instruments they had borrowed. "Come on. We have to go."

Princess Alianor nodded her head, probably suddenly coming to the same sense he was. "You're right. We've been gone so long. I just. We came here and it's like-time just-

"I know. Come on." He pulled her with him.

A voice called after. "Are you leaving? So soon?"

Arthur turned back around viciously. "What did you do? Did you put something in the cider? Is this whole thing some kind of spell?"

Olmis shook his head with disappointment. "No to all your questions Art—Armid. I did not see you complaining when the cider warmed you up. You needed that heat. You seemed to be enjoying yourself, but because of your father, you will not allow-never mind it all."

Arthur accused hotly. "You don't know my father."

"I know his hatred of our kind. I had hoped it didn't extend to you. It is important it will not. For if so, your fate will be different."

Princess Alianor stared.

Arthur thought of how at least the part about his father wouldn't be new. He'd already told her his feelings on magic.

"We have to go Princess Alianor. Come on." He pulled her with him to the opening, ignoring Olmis, but then.

Outside of the cover of the tent, his eyes widened. The snow was falling very heavily now and the wind was whistling vengefully.

"Stay. Both of you. Children. Do not go. The storm is treacherous. You do not want to be out in it."

Arthur swallowed hard. If Gaius had been right-

No. Whatever it was, he needed to go. And he was taking her with him. "We'll take our chances."

He didn't give Princess Alianor a chance to counter. He held on tight and they moved to the outside, to the howling winds and flurried snow.

Olmis's call came out from behind. "Be careful children. And be warned-once you leave we cannot help you again. You will be on your own."

Arthur ignored the warning. He just wanted to get away from this place of-sorcery.

V

Thankfully it wasn't hard to get the horse back. It was not as spooked as before, though noticeably not enjoying the building storm at all either. With Princess Alianor taking the front, Arthur reined the horse towards Camelot.

At least he tried.

It soon became evident that his kingdom was hidden from view. All he could see were towering mounds of snow on the ground. All he could feel was the wind whipping viciously at his clothing.

It was a fully fledged snow storm. It fell with icy precision at the pace of a sword blade swing-over and over again. It was a hideous curtain of pure white that gave no direction, no return to home. And it chilled bodies to the bone. Soon enough both of them were trembling.

"We have to find cover-somewhere!" Arthur yelled, not even sure anymore if day had turned to night or what. Everywhere was darkness and snow. The heavy clouds had obviously unleashed upon the forest. They let out their sagging weights and this was the outcome.

"Is that a cave over there?" Princess Alianor suddenly called out to him with precise notice. Arthur navigated the horse through the snow and trees, wishing he was wearing his chainmail now. It would be a lot warmer than these thin peasant clothes. At least the coat helped some.

He came to the cave, small, with a tiny opening, but they were of size to fit through he was sure.

"Good eyes!"

He brought the horse to a stop right in front of the cave and slid down from the animal. Princess Alianor followed suit. Seeing that the landing was uneven, Arthur assisted, holding onto her arm.

"Come on."

He showed her the cave's opening. It was a tight squeeze. Princess Alianor, without complaint, lay down as flat as she could and pulled herself into the cave. Next was his turn. He flattened his body too, squirmed like a worm. He wondered mutely if the snow had been as freezing for her when her clothes made contact with it, as it was for him. Trying to ignore the chill, he moved through until he reached the inside.

It wasn't a complete relief.

The cave's interior was almost as black as coal. Accompanied with the sounds of the storm outside, it made his skin crawl.

Who knew if anything else was in here with them?

Where was she even?

He gave a few seconds for his eyes to start adjusting. When the candle light was put out in his room, usually after his eyes adjusted, shadows could be seen. Not inside this dark sunken cave though. The only thing he could make out was a tinge of glowing color from what seemed to be Princess Alianor's dress.

Princess Alianor, she was making fearful little sounds. He called out to her, about as nervous as she was, but trying not to show it. "Princess Alianor?"

"Yes? Armid it's so dark in here."

"I know. Maybe-maybe if we can try to gather some wood or brush we can start a fire. I know it's really hard to see, but our fingers can find some, right?"

"Yes, we can try."

On his knees, because he had no idea even where the top of the cave was, if they would be able to stand, Arthur crawled, trying to find something to get a fire going and have some bit of light. He joked, feeling stupid, but someone had to lighten the mood. "Well-eh-one good thing."

"And that is?"

"We know no bears are in here. Too fat to fit inside."

She started laughing at that. He chortled along a bit too and kept searching. The task could be seen as fruitless. There were only tiny spots of light in the cave, like the gleam of her dress that he noticed before, but they were so small as to afford no bit of true illumination. It was only what the fading day allowed, which wasn't much of its own since it had been a dark one to begin with. They had no guarantee either that the cave would have anything they could use, but moving was better than just sitting in a dark as oil atmosphere.

After the oddness of the Druid celebration, a mixture of mystery, excitement and goose prickling bumps, a burning fire would be a kind relief.

"I think I found some stones—oh and these feel-yes like sticks, very small though Armid."

He replied excitedly as his own find came up. "I have some longer ones, and brush. No stone though. Come on. Bring out your hand. I could see a glimmer of your gown before. Maybe I can spot it now. We can move to what we think is the center at least."

He waited. Then he saw it, just a tiny bit of light, her gown. Moving toward it, Arthur felt with his hands to make sure he didn't completely bump into her. She called him again with her voice and he was sure now they were sitting right next to each other. Reaching forward just a bit, he found her hands in the dark. In the curve of her palms were her find. He combined it with his. As he did so, his skin prickled, chilled.

"Are you feeling as cold as I am?

She spoke with teeth chattering. "Yes, most definitely I assume."

"We'll have to get this fire going." He rubbed with the rocks and the twigs. Nothing seemed to happen. He felt her hands against his fingers.

"Here, let me try too. Give me one of the stones at least."

He passed it over, wondering if she thought she could do much better than him. Well he wasn't in the mood of competition to battle it out. If she was better, fine enough.

He kept rubbing, when after a few moments a glow came from where it seemed her hands were.

She did start it!

"Alianor!" He let out excitedly, amending quickly. "Princess Alianore I mean of-

She cut him off swiftly. "No matter. Look, it's glowing!"

She was just as happy that finally they had real light to see by and a fire starting to burn. Arthur added to the pile the rest of the sticks and brush. The flickering turned to pure flame. It rose above, showing the short ceiling of the cave, one most definitely where they would not be able to stand, even being children. The walls were still dark, but now Arthur could pick out the patterns of stone. The ground was lined with some more dry grass and brush. That was how the twigs were part of it all. In fact in the corner towards the opening grew the oddest little tree. It had straggly branches and loose pines, but it was in its own way a pretty sight. As ugly as it was.

"Well now we know where the branches came from." Arthur signaled.

She nodded her head, sitting back and holding at her knees. "I never meant to be gone this long."

Arthur thought of how he was in his own bit of trouble. His father would have sent a search party out by now he surmised. He wasn't sure exactly how long he had been away, but he was betting it was much longer than a few bell tolls.

"You never told me. What were you doing in the woods anyway Princess Alianor?"

Now that there was enough light to see each other by, he could spot her biting on her lip before she lifted her head. Peeking out from the purple hood were dark winding curls. She seemed to be hesitating. "You were right. It was odd for me to be there. And maybe Olmis was right. I have secrets, but Armid, you have yours too, don't you?"

She said it so confidently, easily. He nodded his head quickly. "Yes."

"I should probably just tell you."

For some reason though he didn't want to know. Something seemed it would become spoilt if he found it, if he revealed his own. Quickly he raised his hand. "No. Don't. I don't want to know."

"I'm not sure I want to know yours either entirely. Not yet maybe."

He smiled lightly. "Okay, then we're settled on that."

She agreed with an up and down gesture of her head and slid over to the straggly little tree. "It's almost Christmas Eve I'm imagining. This tree looks so sad. Maybe if we-

Together, they gathered the brightest things they could from the cave. She even tore a bit more at the rip of her dress underneath the cloak, brought out a winding little piece of glimmer. They collected bits of dry grass and prettier stones. He tore at the material of Elmer's tunic near the bottom. Then, they brought all their precious little gifts to the poor tree. Taking piece by piece, they adorned it, gave it more dignity, and when it was done, sat back to oddly admire.

"That's better." Princess Alianor whispered.

Arthur quietly agreed, thinking how it was something he would probably kick his foot at if he were in Camelot, but here in this simple cave, it was almost magical.

"Yea."

His skin pricked.

"Are you alright Armid?"

He moved back against the wall of the cave, his fingers playing at Elmer's ugly trousers. "That man Olmis was so strange, the things he said even about my father."

"How would he know of your father anyway?" Princess Alianor asked curiously.

He couldn't tell her his father was the king and that he was well known, well loved-and well hated. "Dunno."

They fell into silence. The fire crackled peacefully as outside the wind was howling as if it were a thousand wolves. The snow began falling even harder, blistering at moments into the cave. Even with the fire, the cold was prevalent. The children were perhaps longing for their individual homes.

Shivering, Arthur leaned his head back against the cave, the hood covering his hair as much as possible. Even there he was cold.

Across the way, where she resided to her own part of the cave's wall, Arthur noticed Princess Alianor removing her cloak. "What are you doing?" He asked.

She frowned before sliding closer to where he was. "It is big and warm. I don't think even the fire can ward off all the chill. But with this-

He stared at her curiously. She shyly moved the cloak like a blanket, over part of him and kept the rest for herself. He nodded his head. Side by side they came to sit, each with a section of the cloak. Quietly they took the fire in before them.

He apologized heavily. This was his fault. He hadn't listened to his father's orders, or Gaius's warnings. He made her go down that hill another time and now—

"I'm sorry."

She shook her head adamantly. "Tis alright. I'm to blame too most likely. I did not want to leave the Druid celebration and you did."

Dryly he pitched in. "We probably shouldn't have left it. We were warmer there, safer."

"You didn't seem to think so then."

"I don't know."

"It's alright." She soothed. "We've done well enough here. I think we'll be okay now."

He chuckled suddenly at all her brightness where most princesses would be-howling for home most likely. "We have a Christmas tree at least, as sorry as it is."

She laughed softly now too. "Well and a fire too of course."

He smiled through all their calamity.

"And of course-we had a fantastic time going down that hill!" She brought in with quick relish.

Arthur's smile grew. "The best time of all."

"Yes—so I think all will be okay. We can't give up hope."

"No?" He asked. She was the oddest girl. The oddest nice girl who seemed to give council sometimes with such-authority. Knowing. Understanding of less than fortunate circumstances. Ones he felt foreign to.

"No."

She answered so adamantly that he nodded his head. "Okay then, we won't."

The wind did not dissipate. Outside its hissing sounded that of an angry dragon. Inside the cave, the fire flamed like its burning breath, just at a gentler pace. A hypnotic one. Arthur's eyes grew heavy. The day had been eventful enough. Weariness was taking over. His head slid a bit. So did Princess Alianor's as slumber became too tantalizing.

In the fire's glow it could be seen, two children of growing age, slumped against the wall of the cave, a pair of heads leaning upon the other. Peaceful.

Destined for futures neither could imagine.

Not this night anyway.

The night that Camelot became snowed in.

The night they had no choice, but to seek refuge in a tiny cave.

A now magically glowing one.

VV

He was not in his bed.

He was sure of that even before his eyes opened.

There was no pillow against his head, but instead something hard, barely yielding. There was more though too, and that maybe was what made him feel not so uncomfortable. A soft blanket was wrapped around part of his body. It felt velvet-like. And something was upon his shoulder, a tiny weight that he didn't mind, actually enjoyed.

Just what bothered him was some string or rope of some kind that tickled at his nose.

His blue eyes parted, checked to see the surroundings. In front was a barely flickering fire. There was no other noise. Everything outside was so-still.

He was in a cave, a tiny one it seemed, but just enough to warm previously chilled bones. He wasn't alone. The soft breath warmed at his neck. He turned. She was the girl, the Princess Alianor.

Something didn't fit about that.

He realized now that his head was fully up, it was her curl of hair that had been irritating his nose, tickling at it. Her eyes too were starting to drift open.

He wondered if he should move away a bit awkwardly, but it wasn't all that odd. He felt a bit peaceful with her if anything.

Her dark eyes opened enough to see him. She startled a bit and then seemed-just as quiet as he felt.

"Armid?"

No. He wanted to say it suddenly. My name is Arthur. But he didn't.

"I think it's Christmas Eve."

She nodded her head.

"The storm?"

"Seems it's over. Hear how quiet it is."

"Yes."

He shuffled. She slid away. Arthur moved out from under the cloak too, leaving it to her. Then crawling forward, he peered outside of the cave's cracked opening. He could see to the sky, where the sun was actually shuttling through the clouds just a bit. On the ground were heaps of thick snow and the horse was even there too, maybe having found refuge during the storm before it returned. Camelot horses were well trained for such.

Arthur turned back to the princess. "It's day. It's morning."

"We should go."

"Right."

They gave one last smile to their tiny little tree and then Arthur started sliding out of the cave's mouth first. As he did so, with the sun gleaming just a bit on his shoulder, she noticed something.

"I didn't realize it before. That coat, it looks so much like my-

But she stopped herself.

Arthur turned back. "Like—

She shook her head. "Never mind."

She slid through the opening after him. He helped her to step down to the ground. Outside, she wrapped her cloak back around herself. He tightened his borrowed coat. It was so cold.

Then seeing her dark eyes before she could pull the hood up over, Arthur came to a quick decision. "Princess Alianor, it's well enough you know. What Olmis said-I'm not-

He stopped though, hearing a voice, a faint name, that in just moments would be so much clearer. That would give it all away. And suddenly he desperately desired the secret to hold.

It happened then, a silly safe coincidence. Both were being sought.

She turned. In the other direction. More voices. Different voices. "They're looking for me."

"Me too."

She seemed frantic, not just about the search party, but about something else. "I—I probably should-

He held at her arm. "Take the horse. It's safer."

He could hear the calling of his name louder. She would soon hear. She seemed ready to argue, so he countered firmly. "Now. Go!"

She stared, but then.

"Okay." She climbed up the horse.

He hit at its rump, making it move.

Then he ran, and heard it.

Not the name of Armid. For that wasn't his name of course.

"PRINCE ARTHUR!"

Running the opposite direction of her, he made his way to the sound of the voices.

V

The horse took off. Even if she had wanted to say anything more to him he gave her no chance. She was just glad enough that riding horses was something she was accustomed to. Holding onto the reins with experienced grip, she raced, but then heard it ever so much clearer.

Voices. Voices she knew.

And beyond-

It sounded like his name, but something was put in front of it. Something was different. She turned back, trying to figure out why-

"GWEN!

THERE YOU ARE!"

Whipping around, she saw him standing there, looking so tired and so relieved. Her brother. She jumped down from the horse, smiled with happiness.

She, Gwen the servant girl. She was barely even that. Someday it was her dream to not just live in Camelot, but to be in its castle, to serve a lady. It was just a silly dream. And yet she would never give up hope.

"Elyan!" She called out ever so gratefully, racing to her older brother's arms.

As soon as she reached, she felt his tight hold, felt his long fingers come to push through her curled hair fiercely.

"Oh we've been looking all over for you. What happened?"

He asked the question frantically.

She shook her head. There was so much to explain, so much to say, but for now she just wanted—

"Can we go home Elyan?" She asked, tears of weariness just starting to fall from her eyes.

He smiled gently, kissed her forehead. "Yes, come on. Dad's out here too. When he sees-

She held on tightly to him, but as they walked away from it all, she took one look back.

Thought of him. The servant boy Armid. She recalled the fantastic toboggan ride, the scary oddness of waking up in the Druid tent, and falling to sleep on his shoulder in the cave, when she could barely keep her eyes open.

He had been about to tell her something. Was it that his name was not-

No matter. She was not Alianor. She was not a princess. She was just Gwen.

But her given name was-

Guinevere.

V

He felt nervous as they led him through the castle's dark halls. They had removed the simple coat he borrowed, but he insisted on holding onto it. He'd have to give it back to Leon who could give it back to the boy who it belonged to. A few steps more and he was in the throne room. He heard his father's commanding voice.

"Leave us."

Arthur knew then he was in trouble. He hoped Princess Alianor was alright, that she got back safely to her family. She had insisted those calls were for her so he knew she was being looked for, and he gave her the horse. That was enough, right?

His father did not move from the throne, but to stand. Silently Arthur ascended. One day he would be sitting in that throne. One day all of this would be his. That was a burden as much as a-

"You disobeyed me Arthur."

He lowered his head. He still felt kind of cold, chilled.

"I'm sorr-

He didn't finish. He couldn't. Suddenly he was wrapped into his father's arms. Suddenly he felt wetness. Suddenly there was a shaking voice.

"Oh Arthur, my son-Oh Arthur."

He looked up and thought his ears had to be deceiving him. His father never cried. His father-

But the king would not let him go long enough to allow him to see or ask. He just held him fiercely, and Arthur, feeling home's warmth, feeling his father's rare display of love, could only burrow against the man's red robes more.

No more chill. He was home.

He was loved.

His Christmas gift.

VV

Epilogue

Her Final Story-Until

Gwen rushed out of the room. It was days after Christmas and Abigail once again wanted to play 'dress-up princess'. After what happened just a few days ago, Gwen was not agreeable to it at all. She'd rather clean every room of the house, since of course it had been Abigail's little game that put her out in the snow that day she met the boy named Armid.

You see, Abigail was Sir Leon's little sister. She was one year younger than Gwen and could be quite demanding even though her mother often reprimanded her for it. Sir Leon's family, even if noble, were kind and good hearted. They treated Gwen and her family ever so well, and for the past year had let them live in their secondary quarters as her Dad looked for a place well enough for them in Camelot's heart.

It excited Gwen to think that soon enough they'd be living in the middle of it all. So far her life had been the outer parts of Camelot. Even Sir Leon's home was not quite the town center area. But soon enough, they'd be right there, in their own little home. She knew it would never be as grand as Sir Leon's family's. But it didn't matter. It would be all their own.

The day of her adventure with the boy named Armid, Abigail has insisted she wear the new gown and cloak her mother had bought as a gift for her sister's girl, for her niece. Gwen had been so reluctant, but Abigail would not take no for an answer. So Gwen finally put it on and within minutes the dress was ripped. Abigail had seen the freshly falling snow and pulled Gwen outside it with her. The dress caught on the edge of the door and tore. Abigail turned back inside for a moment.

Gwen felt so horrible about the torn dress, and at that moment when she heard Abigail's mother returning home, she made a hasty decision.

She ran out into the snow to hide and to spare her parents the embarrassment of the ruined dress. Gwen was so worried that even though Sir Leon's mother was a mostly understanding woman that it would reflect awfully on her mother that she felt she had no choice, but to run away. It wasn't until she was fully out into the woods that sense flew back in. She realized that by running away with the dress on she had done such an awful thing.

Then she heard the noise. She worried it could be bandits. She threw the branch, the first she could find, and-

She met Armid, the boy with the sanding hair, peculiar displays of chivalry that made her blush, and at times-so odd for a servant. She should have told him then probably, but she still felt so ashamed about the whole thing and he started to just assume she was a princess. She felt trapped and confused so she let the story build about her being a princess until it felt awfully ridiculous.

Somehow the woods made her play the game. It was like she was under some magical illusion of what her dream was to be. A princess.

No. A queen.

She laughed it off now, wearing her simple dress of faded yellow. It was so silly.

But Armid had believed it. He seemed to.

Later, the next day, Christmas Eve, when she heard her brother's voice, she ran so thankfully to it. And later she felt her mother and Dad's solid hugs as they told her to never think she had to run away again. Nothing could ever amount to the worth of her, certainly not a silk dress. Even Abigail's mother had been so relieved she was alright. And so all ended well mostly.

Gwen smiled now. Soon enough she'd go back in with Abigail. She was a good girl, just a spite silly.

She heard a soft snicker and looked up to see her brother standing there, just something different about him these past few days.

"Finally got it back." He gestured lightly to himself before pointing to the door. "Abigail want to play again?"

She nodded. "Yes of course." And then frowned. "Got what back?"

"Well my coat of course." He smiled. "Found out who Sir Leon leant it to also. Pretty amazing. He told me it was of royal duty, but I had no idea it would be Prince Arthur himself."

Gwen held at the wall. She stared. That was it. That was what was different about her brother these days, not his hair. It was still the same short length, nor his face. It was not scratched (sometimes Elyan got into arguments) or anything like that. But-

"Sir Leon loaned your coat to Prince Arthur?"

Armid had a coat, a coat so much like her brother's. She had almost commented on it, before she remembered that Princess Alianor had no brother, according to

Armid. A boy who-

Should know so much about a princess?

"Yes, seems the rumors around Camelot are that he desired a day of escape or such. Got out from under his father's nose."

His eyes widened. "Gwen, what's wrong with you? You're looking like you're scared straight of something."

Not scared. More-shocked.

She shook her head. "No, it's nothing-Elyan."

He shrugged and walked down the hall. She moved to the window, touched the glass.

"Armid-Arthur-PRINCE Arthur. No. It couldn't be."

But it was more as if she was asking, than stating.

Couldn't be?

VV

He excited as he heard it. "Princess Alianor is coming to visit? Tonight!"

The king seemed surprised. The boy hadn't cared much about it when he told him days before, when the next day the boy went on his wild little excursion. "Well yes, Arthur.

Laughter rang out of his mouth. Arthur bounded up the steps to his room, leaving the shocked king without a word. She was coming! He'd see her again!

The shock turned to denial though that night as King Brom entered his home and with him was a girl of-

Straight golden hair. The palest vanilla complexion.

Arthur insisted it right away. "That's not Princess Alianor!"

The king, Uther, looked at him with strong reproach. But Arthur was insistent.

"It's not her! That's not-

"That is ENOUGH Arthur!" The king commanded angrily.

King Brom stared. The girl looked offended, the girl who looked nothing like the Princess Alianor Arthur had met in the woods.

But then how often did you meet a princess in the woods?

Hours later, he dully moved away from the gathering. This Princess Alianor did not like snow. She hated how cold it could feel. A toboggan ride, even if allowed, would be completely out of the question for her. She didn't look much into his eyes either as they talked. She seemed bored.

He got the feeling well. Everything felt dry, rehearsed and-

He could see her face as his eyes listlessly looked out the stained glass window. He could see her dark curls and matching eyes. Could hear her reproach.

Could-

Olmis said she was keeping secrets too.

She wasn't Princess Alianor.

Maybe no Princess at all.

But then-

Who are you?

Will we meet again?

"Yes."

A man of orange and red cloak, a man named Olmis whispers into a fire.

Somehow he hears the questions. Somehow he knows their destinies.

Children you will. And then-

You must decide the fate.

To hope.

Or to let go.

Years later

As the connection would never fade, they'd hope.

They'd hope together.

When he took up the rightful throne.

And denying the custom of the past,

She joined him

.As Rightful Queen.

*The End*

Thank you for reading. Feedback adored.

Javabreeze's Request: Something with a Winter/Christmas theme featuring Arthur and Gwen and/or Camelot getting snowed in.