Chapter 17: Dragon's Peril VI: The Sorceress' Gambit
Sorry for keeping everyone waiting! I actually had this part of the chapter done for a long while, but I didn't want to release it before I actually finished the storyline for this episode. Sadly, it has now reached over 12,000 words and I still haven't finished, so I gave up on that plan and decided to publish this half. Hopefully, it stands well on its own as an individual chapter! As usual, I would love any reviews that you send me, and I endeavour to reply to all of them, even if I sometimes don't do that on a timely manner! Oh and I've decided to attach an appropriate quote from works I like to each new chapter from now on; it's just something fun I decided to do.
"Men are so simple and so much inclined to obey immediate needs that a deceiver will never lack victims for his deceptions." – Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince.
Arthur slowly made his way through the caves, his torch casting dim shadows on the wall. He did not like enclosed spaces; if something attacked him in here, there would be no room to manoeuvre. He stepped around yet another corner, only to stop dead in his tracks. The tunnels led him to some kind of underground cavern. It was almost like a hall made entirely of stone. Sunlight seeped into the caverns from a strangely circular opening high above him, bathing the cavern in its warm light. He looked ahead, scanning for any sign of the flower he needed; his eyes settled on a patch of white that lay across a strangely artificial stone bridge. Now he was even more confused; why would someone build a bridge in the middle of nowhere? As he approached the bridge however, he immediately saw why. Below his feet was an impossibly deep chasm; try as he might, he could not make out the bottom of the abyss.
'Good thing I have no fear of heights,' thought Arthur to himself as he slowly stepped onto the bridge. It was just thin line made of rock, carved directly out of the chasm, barely three feet across. If you had an army on the opposite side of the bridge, Arthur had no doubt that you could hold this cavern against an army ten times the size of your own. The Prince did not look down; he simply took one step at a time, making sure that his feet stayed at the centre of the precarious bridge.
It took him a few moments before he realised that he was on the other side; he quickly picked up his pace and walked directly towards the small bundle of flowers and plucked two out to inspect them. It was so small and looked so ordinary; could this plant really contain such a deadly poison and the cure at the same time? He sighed in frustration; if Morgause told him this is where the flower grew, who was he to question her? He quickly put the flowers inside a small pouch, and turned back to the bridge. To his shock, he saw Morgause standing on the other side, along with a woman he did not recognize.
"I thought you were staying outside," said Arthur as calmly as he could. "Who's your friend?"
"I lied," said Morgause coldly. "It's been interesting travelling with you, but the Lady Morgana has other plans for you. Let's just say you've outlived your usefulness"
Morgana? No, he would not accept it. She was many things, but Morgana would never betray him. Yet a small voice whispered in his head 'Of course she betrayed you; you're the one person who could possibly threaten her place on the throne.' Arthur shoved aside these thoughts and drew his sword, but the other woman reached out with her hand and the blade flew grip first directly into her grasp, before she tossed it aside like a useless toy. A sorceress!
"And here I was, thinking that we were getting along so nicely," said Arthur sarcastically. If they wanted him dead, he wasn't going to give them the satisfaction of seeing him beg for his life.
"Ah, defiant to the end," said the other woman with an eerie smile on her lips. "The son of Uther Pendragon; you are every bit as pathetic as he was."
"If he's pathetic, what does that make you?" asked Arthur arrogantly. "After all, he did defeat you and the rest of your kind."
"I think it's time to end this," said Morgause as she took a step forwards, but the other woman held her back.
"Allow me," said the woman viciously. "One must indulge in her passions every now and again."
As Arthur readied himself, the woman sprung forwards with incredible speed. He only had enough time to blink before a cold hand wrapped around his throat and slowly began to apply an immense amount of pressure. Arthur tried to free himself from her unnaturally strong grip, but it was like trying to pry open the bars of a prison cell with your bare hands.
"Your father and I have a score to settle," said the woman as she pushed him to the ground. Arthur tried his best to resist, but none the less, he was forced to kneel before her. Black edges began to appear in his vision as his lungs tried desperately to gasp in a breath of air, to no avail. "Not to mention that killing you also inadvertently saves all of humanity. If it helps you any, think of your death as a necessary sacrifice for the greater good."
Suddenly, the sorceress gave out a cry of pain, releasing Arthur from her grasp. In a daze, he only saw a blade stuck directly into the woman's chest. As his brain tried to reorient himself, he saw Morgause take up his own sword and swing it in a broad swipe at the woman's head. The sorceress managed to move to one side, only to lose her footing at the side of the chasm. It was over almost as quickly as it begun.
"A pity about that blade," said Morgause with a sigh as she offered him a hand. "It served me well over the years, but I suppose your life was worth the trade."
Morgause tried to slow her breathing down as she went over the previous moments again in her head. She had struck Nimueh directly where her heart should be; by all rights she have died immediately. And yet she still had the strength to dodge her second blow… or did she attempt something else? Did she throw herself off the cliff voluntarily? The thought was disturbing; there are many ways one could easily survive a fall when you could alter the rules of the physical world with your mind. One thing was certain; she could not rule out Nimueh as a future threat.
"We need to leave immediately," said Morgause as Arthur grasped her hand. "We may not be so lucky the next time she finds us."
"She fell off the edge, with your sword in her chest," said Arthur as he stood back up. "She has to be dead."
"It's always wise to prepare for the worst," said Morgause. "She's a sorceress; expect anything and everything."
There was a slight pause as Arthur considered her statement. When he opened to speak again, it was not what Morgause expected.
"Thank you… for saving my life," said Arthur in a somewhat reluctant tone. "Maybe I was wrong not to trust you."
"You're welcome, my Prince," said Morgause with a smile. If only the boy knew the truth; selective honesty could be far more devastating than any lie; the last thing he should do is trust her. Of course, she wasn't going to offer him that little bit of advice. "We can speak about this later once we've left this place."
Together, they walked in silence through the winding passages of the cavern systems; they were fortunate that the tunnels did not seem to wind in different directions. It did not take long for them to remerge into the light of day. The sun seemed almost blinding after spending even just a little while in that cavern.
"I do have some unfortunate news," said Morgause as Arthur shielded his eyes from the harsh light of the sun. "We will need to walk on our own two feet back to Camelot."
"What?!" said Arthur, his tone betraying his dismay. "Without the horses, we'll never make it back in time!"
"The poison will run its course in five days; only two have passed. If we hurry, we might just make it back in time," said Morgause in a reassuring voice. Personally, she cared not whether the boy lived or died; she only wanted Arthur to get out of this place alive. "But we must still be cautious; the beasts in here will tear us apart if we let our guard down."
"Perhaps you don't understand why I need to save Merlin," said Arthur as he set of at a rapid pace towards the trail. "Merlin saved my life; I owe him a debt."
"You are a prince Arthur, people will die for you," said Morgause calmly as she kept pace with him. "It's best to get used to it sooner rather than later."
"He's not dead yet," said Arthur angrily. "Come, we're wasting breath talking; we should focus on the journey ahead of us."
Lancelot rode swiftly as the wind brushed across his face. He had not had so much time for himself since he arrived in Camelot. From the time when he became a knight, his life was mostly filled with training, along with learning all the information he needed to know about his 'family'. The world of the nobility was vastly different from how he had imagined it. Yes, he didn't expect them to care too much for those who lived under their rule, but they seemed to have no respect for each other either. Every single knight was there to gain a position at court; to them, honour was just another tool to increase one's own reputation.
With his mind already on the politics of the court, he quickly recalled the request Morgana had asked of him. She had asked him to lie, well she would call it an 'omission of truth', in order to protect both Arthur and herself. He did not want to listen to her, but everything she said had made sense. If he did tell Arthur, and the Prince seemed to know about his arrest beforehand, it could lead to Uther believing Arthur was more powerful than he really was, and thus lead to a greater punishment. Could he really tell the truth when it might cause great harm to others?
With his mind elsewhere, he almost missed the two figures on the road . He was fortunate that they had seen him, and decided to call out to him.
"Sire, I'm glad to have found you," said Lancelot as he approached them. "I'm surprised to see you on foot."
"That's close enough; as far as I'm concerned, you are a threat until you prove otherwise," said the woman beside the prince before Arthur could respond. This had to be Morgause, the ambassador from Essetir. "Who are you, and who sent you?"
"He's a knight of Camelot; he is not a threat," said Arthur dismissively, but Morgause raised a hand to stop him. Lancelot was curious; why did Cenred's ambassador act like she was Arthur's superior?
"Just because he is a knight does not mean he does not intend to do you harm," said Morgause. "Now speak, who sent you?"
"I'll assume that you're being hostile because you believe the king sent me," said Lancelot with a smile. "Do you really think he would have sent me alone if he knew where you were?"
"Perhaps not," said Morgause grudgingly. "There is one who knows exactly where we went however; if Uther did not send you, then the Lady Morgana did."
"That is correct, my Lady," said Lancelot with a polite nod.
"Well, I am glad that she sent you after us," said Arthur. "We lost our horses, but with you here, we can get this flower back to Merlin in time."
"Wait," said Morgause commandingly. "What caused the Lady Morgana to send you after us?"
Lancelot took a deep breath as he prepared to answer; the course of action was clear to him, no matter how distasteful it may be. If he told the truth, then both Morgana and Arthur may suffer for it, and if he lied, only Arthur would suffer. It would destroy the trust Arthur had in him, but if that was the price for keeping them both relatively unharmed, he would do it.
"Lady Morgana was simply worried," said Lancelot as calmly as he could; unfortunately, he had not had much practice in lying, and it was harder than he thought it would have been. It was fortunate that he was already breathless and sweating from his ride; else he was sure that even Arthur would be able to tell that something was not right. "She wanted me to come as part of a contingency plan; seeing as you have 'lost' your mounts, it seems like her concern was not misplaced."
He half expected the ambassador to catch him out on his lie before he had even finished. To his surprise, she gave a slight nod, as if everything he said made perfect sense. It was almost like the ambassador believed that Morgana's 'foresight' was completely normal.
"It's fortunate for the boy that you've managed to find us," said Morgause. "But tell me, what is the situation back in Camelot like? I can't imagine that Uther is pleased about his son disobeying a direct order."
"He is… furious at the Prince," said Lancelot hastily. "You may not receive a warm welcome when you come back."
"Well, that is to be expected," said Arthur. "But I'm sure my father will calm down once he realises that no harm has been done with my short leave of absence."
"Sire, seeing that you have no horse, I think I should take the flower and ride back to Camelot as soon as I can," suggested Lancelot.
"Can't you just give me your horse?" said Arthur with a raised eyebrow.
"I could," said Lancelot slowly. "But Uther may want to speak with you as soon as you enter the city; you might be unable to get the flower to Merlin at all. It's possible that he'll destroy the cure out of spite."
"He's right," said Morgause unexpectedly. "Uther does not like it when he loses control; who knows what he'll do?"
"Very well," said Arthur as he handed the pouch over. "Just make sure you don't lose it."
"I'll make sure it gets to Gaius as soon as I get back," said Lancelot. "Take care of yourself, sire."
"Do you seriously think a few bandits on the road could harm me?" asked Arthur amusedly.
Lancelot gave him a wan smile before turning around and riding back to the city. Everything felt wrong, but he knew in his mind that he had done best he could.
Morgana sat idly in Gaius's chamber, her face a veneer of calm, but inwardly she was lost; she did not know what else she could do. Merlin lay only a few feet away; she could see the veins of black on his skin. He would die soon if Lancelot did not return with the cure. Inwardly, she wondered why she even cared. True, the boy was likable enough, a little innocence and naivety did make for a nice change from what she was used to, but since when did she think that someone like him was worth risking her position as the heir to Camelot, or even her own life?
She had learned the hard way that people around her were either pawns to be used, or enemies to be dispatched. Friends could betray you too easily, as shown by her father's fate. She supposed she trusted Gwen, but that was different; Gwen did not possess information that could ruin her. If she did, Morgana doubted she would remain friendly towards the girl for long. Trust was not a word she understood; after her father's death, she knew that trust was for fools, and fools ended up dead.
"My lady, I think that while Merlin would be touched by your concern, but he would not want you to sit here by his side for so long," said Gaius in a kindly voice as he approached her. "I'm sure there are many other tasks you need to attend to."
"I'm sure the King would send for me if he saw the need," said Morgana with a smile. "I'm not the Queen yet. Besides, ruling isn't as hard as you believe it to be."
"Very well, I'm sure that you know best. But is it proper for you to stay here for so long?" asked Gaius cautiously. Morgana had no doubt that the old physician was only looking out for her, but she did not care for his views.
"No one needs to know I'm here," said Morgana. "Unless you tell them of course, but you wouldn't do that now, would you?"
"Of course not," said Gaius. He was no doubt about to say something else, but at that moment, the door burst open, and Lancelot walked right into the chambers.
"You've returned earlier than I expected," remarked Morgana.
"I'm better at tracking than you think; besides, there was only one road to take," said Lancelot in return. He quickly drew out a pouch and handed it to the physician. "Here's the flower, I hope it is what you need."
"Thank you, all of you," said Gaius in a relieved voice. "It means a lot to me that you are willing to risk so much to save my nephew."
"He isn't saved yet," said Morgana in a cautioning voice. "We'll leave you to your work physician. Ser Lancelot, I would like you to walk with me."
She stood up and sauntered out without looking back; she knew Lancelot would follow her. Whether he knew it or not, he had no other choice but to follow through with her plan. As expected, she heard his footsteps behind her.
"So, did you do as I asked?" said Morgana once she reached a secluded part of her castle.
"I didn't like it, but I did what I needed to do. Arthur doesn't know the King intends to imprison him," said Lancelot carefully.
"I'm glad you listened to me, though if you had told him, it really doesn't change anything," said Morgana with a smile. "Come now, given his current status, did you really think he wouldn't expect some trouble back home?"
"So why did you want me to lie to him?" asked Lancelot angrily. She supposed he had a right to be angry; she would be if she was in his position.
"The less information Arthur knows, the better," said Morgana; of course, she was lying to him yet again; the truth might turn him against her, and that would be the last thing she wanted to happen. "As long as he does not know the specifics, it'll be better for both him and us. Besides, let's say that your little lie will help 'encourage' Arthur to act in the correct manner when he does arrive."
In truth, she set up this little test for Lancelot to see if he would listen to her or not. She was glad that he had proven himself to be trustworthy; if he had not, she would have had to incriminate him as Arthur's spy. It would have been unfortunate if that had come to pass; he deserved better, but she would have had no other choice.
"That sounds a little sinister," said Lancelot with an hint of wariness in his voice. "What exactly do you plan to do when Arthur returns?"
"It's quite simple; Uther no doubt knows that someone inside the city is aiding Arthur," said Morgana calmly. "To throw suspicions off ourselves, we are going to find him, and bring him back in chains ourselves. After that, we'll find someone to pin the blame on and wash our hands of this matter."
"You want him to act like he was betrayed, and so that's exactly what you are going to do," said Lancelot with anger. "And in the process, you'll destroy any bond of friendship I had with him."
"Someone will have to bring Arthur in anyway, it might as well be us," said Morgana in a slightly defensive tone. "And why should we take the blame for Arthur's idiotic mistake?"
She could see Lancelot was having trouble refuting her logic; it was true after all. And now that he was already in on her plan, it was too late for him to back out. Even he had to know that if he did, Arthur would already feel betrayed anyway.
"What will happen to him afterwards?" asked Lancelot in a defeated voice. "And who do you intend 'pin the blame' on?"
"I'll make sure Uther believes that Arthur was only being a boy; foolish and reckless, but nothing treasonous," said Morgana reassuringly. "As for his accomplices, well those knights you've told me about would serve quite nicely. I've easily discovered who they were in your absence."
"So, putting Arthur in chains and eliminating his supporters in one move?" asked Lancelot. "Why do I get the feeling that there's more to their rumours than I previously thought?"
"It's just a matter of efficiency; putting Arthur in his place, absolving myself of blame and cleaning up the rebellious elements among the knights, and saving Merlin at the same time" said Morgana with a simper. "But really, if you think I actually want to do harm to Arthur, would I tell you all of this? I could kill him with a whispered sentence to Uther if I chose to do so."
"Well no," said Lancelot after a long pause. "But none the less, I will be watching you very closely, my Lady."
"Every man of age in this kingdom already has their eyes on me even before I was the heir to the throne; what difference does one more make?" said Morgana teasingly. "Now go rest; you'll need it after that long ride."
It had been a long walk back to Camelot, and during that journey, Morgause had begun to feel a growing sense of unease in her stomach. Surely Uther would not allow Arthur to get off so easily with his little escapade. Some may see it as an act of childish rebellion, but a man such as Uther could view this as a threat to his uncontested dominance. If she was seen helping him, it may not end well for her either.
"Arthur, I think we need to consider how we are going to get back inside the city," said Morgause carefully. "Somehow, I don't believe that your Father will just let you walk in through the front gate after you defied his direct edict."
"I don't think scaling the wall would make us look any better," said Arthur sarcastically. "Whatever he has in store, I think we should just get it over with."
"There is a way to make your little quest look more innocent than Uther would believe otherwise," said Morgause calmly. "Say a little liaison with a village girl; it is far less damaging than letting Uther believe that you left to incite rebellion against the crown, or whatever ridiculous plot he comes up with."
"I would never try to rebel against my father," said Arthur indignantly. "My so called 'attempt' a few weeks back was only meant to turn him around and save innocent lives."
"I believe you; the thought of you inciting a crowd is frankly, absurd. You couldn't charm a beggar if you tried," said Morgause haughtily. "Your father has an unnaturally high opinion of you however; that means he is likely to hand out harsher punishments as a result."
"Fine, we'll go along with your plan," said Arthur exasperatedly. "How do you intend to fabricate my so called 'liason'?"
"The easiest way would be to have one," said Morgause with a smile. To her surprise, she noticed immediately that Arthur's face seemed just slightly redder than it usually was. So he did not have much experience with women; that was rare for a man of noble birth. "But obviously, you are incapable of seducing even a village girl; I guess we could easily fabricate it by simply making a token that such a girl would give to you; like perhaps a wreath of flowers?"
"Well, I hope you know how to make one; I certainly don't," said Arthur with a scowl. "But what about you; how are you going to explain your absence if I was just visiting some nameless girl?"
"It's simple, I'll pretend to have captured you to bring back to Uther," said Morgause as she began to look around the field for any flowers she could find. She was fortunate that Camelot was an area where flax grew in abundance. Flowers however were harder to find; the best she could see were some pathetic white things that were smaller than her fingernails. "After all, I am supposed to be your future wife, and I do not like sharing."
"Do you really think my Father would believe that you are capable of capturing me?" said Arthur sarcastically.
"He would if I found you in a compromising position," replied Morgause without missing a beat. "Without a sword, the metal kind at least, you would be powerless before me."
Arthur did not respond after that; truly, he was a rather unique individual. What nobleman actually believes in honour and justice, and did not boast of their exploits with the fairer sex? Yes, he would prove rather easy to control once he became king; she just needed to make sure he got there. Unless of course, all of his so called honour and humility was just an act; in that case, he was an even more dangerous individual than her sister, but she doubted that anyone could be such an impeccable actor. And if he was that intelligent, surely he would already be King by now, not a dethroned Prince stripped off all inheritance.
She took her eyes off the Prince and began to work the long blades of flax into a wreath. While she had learned many skills that most women would not even dream of trying, she still learned the basics of the so called 'womanly arts'. One never knew when one had to pretend to be a 'proper' lady; it occasionally served as a rather useful decoy.
It was nearly dusk when she finally finished with the blasted wreath; it was average at best, with the tiny white flowers with their yellow cores, but at least it looked like it was made by a girl. That was all that mattered, and it would fool the common men of the city.
"Take your shirt off," commanded Morgause as she looked in Arthur's direction. He had fallen asleep while she worked on the wreath. The abrupt command seemed to wake him from his slumber immediately however.
"What did you say again?" asked Arthur disbelievingly.
"I believe you have ears; learn to use them," said Morgause with a smile. She took great joy in watching the boy squirm; it was just much too tempting to humiliate him. "Remove your upper garments. You may keep your lower garments on; I have no wish to see you naked."
"But you're a lady!" said Arthur indignantly. "It would be improper…"
"Like I said, I'm supposed to have caught you in a compromising situation," said Morgause. "Don't worry, we are less than an hour's walk from Camelot; the patrols would probably have found us already if we weren't hidden in the middle of a field."
"Fine," spat Arthur bitterly. "But mark my words; I'll remember this."
"If anything, you should be thankful that I came up with this at all," said Morgause calmly. "You wouldn't want your head to end up on a spike atop the walls now, would you?"
"My father wouldn't go that far," said Arthur.
"That's what you think," said Morgause in an ominous tone. "It's better to be safe than dead however. Always prepare for the worst."
Of course, she had another reason for going through these motions; if Uther did not believe in Arthur's story, then at least she would be the one seen bringing him in. That alone should absolve herself of any guilt Uther might try to pin on her.
"Here, wear this thing around your neck; Uther will believe I forced you to wear it to humiliate you, thus making our story all the more believable," said Morgause as she handed him the wreath. "Just don't wear it on your head; it looks too much like a crown if you do that."
"If this turns out to be a waste of time, I'm going to kill you," said Arthur angrily. "Now let's move, we've wasted enough time already, and I haven't had a good meal in days."
"Don't relax your guard, Arthur Pendragon," said Morgause in a softer voice; despite everything, she had grown to rather like the boy. He may be a pawn in her game, but as a pawn he was rather amusing to play with. "The most dangerous part of any endeavour is when you have almost succeeded."
"Are you sure you it was Arthur that you saw on the road?" asked Morgana carefully. The man she was questioning was breathing heavily; it seemed that he had run back to the city as fast as he could. She wondered why the man had come to her instead; whatever the reason, she wouldn't waste this stroke of luck.
"Yes, milady; he walked into the fields," stuttered the soldier nervously. The boy was probably not used to dealing with someone of her station. "If you want, I can show you where I saw him…"
"That will not be necessary," said Morgana with a smile. To her amusement, it seemed that her attention only made the boy try to stand even straighter than he already was; she wouldn't have though it possible if she hadn't seen it with her own eyes. "You've done well by coming to me; Guinevere, see to it that this man receives a gold sovereign for his troubles."
"Milady, I can't take-," began the boy, but Morgana silenced him with a wave of her hand.
"It's not polite to refuse a lady," said Morgana in a chastising tone. "Let no one say that I do not reward those who serve me well; now leave me, I have work to do."
The boy gave her a very quick bow before leaving immediately; she always found it amusing how common men were so easily intimidated. She hoped her act of 'generosity' would spread amongst the soldiers; this was one rumour that could greatly benefit her. Gold can be beautiful, but ultimately useless except for what value men attributed to it; information however, can be priceless. If she hoped to rule someday, then she must first have the loyalty of the men at arms. She did not expect gold to provide her with the army she sought, but it would provide her with the means to gain the information she needed to solidify her grasp on the throne.
"Milady," said Gwen slowly. "Are you sure what you did was wise? That's a whole month's wage!"
"Gwen, after spending such a long time with me, I'd expect you to understand me better," said Morgana indifferently. "A single gold sovereign is nearly worthless to me; I could spend a thousand times that and not be any poorer for it. I do have need for words however, and the rumour that I am exchanging gold for words could greatly benefit me; I don't have to pay for all the words I hear, just the ones that matter to me."
"I… understand, milady," said Gwen meekly. Morgana restrained an inward sigh; she had given up trying to teach Gwen how to speak like the nobility years ago. "But is it right to give tempt men with the promise of gold when you only intend to grant it to a select few?"
Morgana looked at her maid incredulously; unsure of whether to burst into laughter or to simply shake her head at her ignorance. She chose instead to maintain her calm demeanour; no need to destroy the girl's naivety, though she would have expected her to learn after spending so many years at court by her side.
"I'll throw the others a bone or two; I wouldn't want them to think that their efforts are in vain," said Morgana at last, choosing to subtly explain to her maid without giving the game away. If she understood the meaning in between her words, then perhaps she could explain more; it would be nice to have someone that she could speak to in a candid manner. "Even a few miserable copper coins can satisfy a commoner. But it will be the lure of greater riches that will make them keep giving me what I need."
As expected, Gwen did not grasp the meaning behind her words; no doubt she only saw how she was giving them additional wealth, and not the mind game that she was playing. Morgana had always wondered if there was something that separated the nobility from lesser men. Were they ordained to rule by a higher power, or would she herself be as clueless as the vulgar masses if she had not been born into privilege? She supposed it would be a combination of both; she knew her share of pathetically useless lords, whose only purpose was to flatter their master in hopes of scraps. However, certain commoners showed strength of character that was worthy of nobility, but they would need her knowledge if they ever hoped to rule. She sighed softly to herself and turned back to the matter at hand; where did she ever get the idea that she should aid a commoner anyway?
"Gwen, go find Lancelot," said Morgana commandingly. "I want him to take around forty mercenary troops and relieve the usual gate guards; I want all our patrols recalled as well."
"Yes milady," said Gwen dutifully. "But don't you think he'd want to know why you need to change the guardsmen?"
Morgana considered the question quickly; Lancelot himself should know the answer, but in the rare event that he did not and refused to carry out her orders, then what should be a simple act could become disastrous. Besides, the man seemed to want an explanation for everything; it was better to be safe than sorry.
"Let's just say that events could end rather badly if we ordered soldiers who once fought under Arthur to arrest him," said Morgana. "I'm sure Lancelot will understand; now go and do as I ask."
"I'll leave to inform him at once then, milady," said Gwen submissively. Morgana noticed that the girl was avoiding eye contact deliberately; she was likely uncomfortable with the commands she had been given. Still, there was no other servant who could keep a secret as well as her, and Morgana trusted that Gwen would do her duty.
Lancelot listened mutely as Guinevere delivered Morgana's commands to him. This was it; the moment where he would have to choose between serving Arthur or Morgana. If he chose to aid Arthur instead, everything Morgana planned for would come to naught. And yet if he did not arrest Arthur, it could become disastrous for all those involved. It was ironic that he, a former mercenary who tricked his way into being a knight, held in his hands the spark that could ignite a civil war. In the end, this was not a choice at all; despite the short time they had known each other, Morgana already knew him too well. He swore an oath that he would protect the innocent, no matter the cost. If he had to sacrifice his honour and betray a friend, so be it.
"Tell Lady Morgana that I will go do what needs to be done," said Lancelot heavily.
"Ser Lancelot… can I make a personal request?" asked Gwen timidly.
"Of course Guinevere; what's on your mind?" asked Lancelot. "And there's no need to address me so formally in private; you know who I really am."
"I just want you to make the right decision here; I don't think Arthur deserves to be imprisoned for trying to save Merlin," said Gwen quickly, then she looked around with fear, as if afraid the walls would have ears.
"No, he does not," said Lancelot sadly. "But he defied the king, and I must do whatever I can to avoid unneeded bloodshed."
"I… I understand," said Gwen meekly. "Please, don't tell Lady Morgana I said that."
"Are you afraid she'd punish you for speaking your mind?" asked Lancelot.
"She's been… different these last few weeks," said Gwen uncertainly. "I think becoming the heir to the throne has changed her."
"Power changes people," said Lancelot after a moment's pause. "But in the end, we must trust that Lady Morgana has what is best for Camelot in mind."
"But what if she does not?" asked Gwen in a voice that was barely more than a whisper.
"You should not speak of such things; she's treated you well, and it is not honourable to speak ill of her behind her back," said Lancelot firmly. "You should voice your concerns to her instead; I believe she will listen to you."
"Of course," said Gwen quickly. "I'm sorry to have bothered you."
Lancelot watched her walk away with an air of melancholy. Yes, he believed that Morgana had what was best for Camelot in mind, but it is mere coincidence that what is best for Camelot is also best for her?
Morgause slowly marched her way up the main road to the castle; she had found a rope with which she restrained Arthur; if nobody looked too closely, he would look like any other prisoner. It was odd that they had not run into any patrols so far. Perhaps someone recalled all the guards back into the city? There are only two people in Camelot who could command the men so; Uther or Morgana. Something was not right; what if Morgana actually sent Arthur to die? On the other hand, if it was Uther who wanted Arthur dead, there was little she could do to stop it.
Of course, that was the real reason why she bothered to come up with the excuse she had made for Arthur. If someone did want him dead, then at least she could take the credit for being the one to actually capture him. Morgause learned early in life to always keep a back door open for oneself.
As they approached the gates, a clear horn sounded in the distance. The gates creaked open, and a full squadron of men poured out, taking up a circular formation around them. Morgause instantly noticed how the men were dressed in decorative plate mail, instead of the usual chainmail. This was an elite group of mercenaries; someone had replaced the guard. Slowly, the ranks in front of her parted way, revealing a knight on a horseback. As the animal walked forwards at a leisurely pace, she recognized this knight; it was the same man who Arthur had given the cure to. Morgause could not help but admire how easily her sister had played the Prince. It seemed that she had easily wormed her way into the hearts of men Arthur trusted.
Morgause knew that this Lancelot could not expose the fact that she did not actually capture Arthur. If he did, that would reveal the fact that he had found them before, and thus linking Morgana herself to Arthur's little quest. Thus she was perfectly safe; Arthur's fate however, was left in the hands of Morgana. She noticed the fury in his eyes, and also a certain sense of panic; was the boy actually thinking about his servant when his own life hung in the balance?
"Ser Knight," said Morgause with a polite bow as Lancelot came to a stop in front of her. "I've bought forth your wayward prince."
"So I see," said Lancelot in a respectful voice; she had to admire his calm despite the unusual situation. "We feared the worst when we found you gone, Lady Ambassador; the King was afraid that his son had dragged you along on whatever foolish errand he decided to go on."
"I suspect I was the last person he wanted around," said Morgause with a laugh. "Did you think he was off on some noble quest? No, he simply wanted to play around with some village girl. Naturally, I was not pleased."
"I think the King will want to hear the whole story himself," said Lancelot after a moment's pause. Strangely, he seemed almost relieved; perhaps Morgana did not intend to kill Arthur after all, or maybe the knight was having second thoughts. Whatever it was, it suited Morgause just fine.
"I suspect he will," said Morgause confidently. "Come; let us go see the King then."
A/N: I hope you enjoyed this chapter! This episode has turned out to be far more complex than I imagined it would be, but it was just too tempting to twist it for my own ends due to the simplicity of the original story. Please review if you can spare a minute of your time; it is much appreciated and all authors love feedback on their works. If you have quite a bit of time, tell me what you think of each character's personality and motives. I especially love reviews that offer another perspective on my work; to those who write them, you are amazingly inspirational.
P.S I'm not going to promise any decent timeframe for my next chapter, as I can't seem to keep to my promises, but hopefully it will be done soon™!
P.P.S Oh and I'm loving Morgana in the new season of Merlin! If you like, tell me what you think of it! I'll just put my personal opinion here to start a little discussion; Morgana's method of ruling is superior to Arthur's. Case in point: Saxons follow her every order without question, and Mercenaries with no loyalty to anyone bow to Morgana; Arthur's own villagers can't even bother kneeling when he arrives and then defies him until he draws his sword.