The courtyard was deathly silent as the very first rays of dawn struck the pavestones. There was a red hue in the sky, an auspicious sign for an impending battle. That pleased Morgause greatly.
She’d agreed to allow Merlin and one of the knights - Lancelot? They all looked much the same to her - to go after the Cup and free the imprisoned men whilst the rest of them distracted Cenred in the courtyard. Merlin had insisted he be the one to go, saying that he’d be no good in the fight anyway but that he knew the castle well enough to sneak around.
Morgana hadn’t been happy with the idea at all; Merlin had a terrible tendency of getting in the way of everything they tried to achieve, she’d said. And it was rather obvious that he’d offered simply because he didn’t trust them. Morgause had insisted that Morgana trust her though. As long as she, Morgana and Arthur were in the courtyard, Cenred would be less likely to believe the Cup under threat. He knew how Morgause planned and wouldn’t think she’d trust anyone else to retrieve such an object.
Besides, the boy was hardly a proficient fighter and it would be easy to take the Cup from him afterwards. And a pleasure to kill him for all that he’d done.
“We’re ready,” Morgause said, checking her sword was positioned at her hip just how she liked it. She saw the glance of approval that Morgana gave her and it made her smile.
Arthur looked uncertain. And why wouldn’t he? The young prince lacked the art of subtly and they distinctly lacked an army breaking down the gate.
He looked even less impressed when another of his knights - the tall bearded one - climbed back through the rear window and reported that no soldiers were in sight.
“What game is this?” he demanded, looking worried beneath his attempt at command.
That amused her somewhat.
“You thought my men would march up to the gates in full view?” she asked with a smirk. “How simple you really are…”
Arthur looked torn, as though he wasn’t certain whether she was leading him into an excellent plan or an obvious trap.
Morgause turned to her sister, squeezing her hand.
“Be careful,” she murmured, loud enough so only she could hear. “Take no risks. When the time comes, I will signal and you will come immediately to me.”
Morgause then looked at Merlin.
“If you wish your prince to live, you’ll ensure you free those knights on your way and they get up here quickly.”
“He can count on me,” the boy said, a stony determination in his eyes. Morgause almost admired him for that.
With a final look at her sister, Morgause strode purposefully from the stables.
The shouts went up immediately, two men running from the gate to tackle her. She dispatched them both with two easy swings of her sword. It was a pity that they’d get up again, but the missing limbs would slow them down.
Morgana, Arthur and his knights followed her. Even Morgana’s former maid was wielding a sword. It was a pity that she was so enamoured of Arthur. A girl of that courage would have made a fine replacement for Lily.
The alarm bell rang and more men hurried into the courtyard, the sound of boots on stone telling Morgause that even more were on their way. Good. The more here, the fewer guarding the Cup.
She ushered her temporary allies into a circle as she caught sight of Merlin and the knight slipping away.
“Where are your men?” Arthur demanded as he held off three soldiers who attacked him simultaneously.
The worried look on his face pleased her and she let him stew a moment before she loudly spoke the spell.
Like mirages the Blood Guard appeared on the outskirts of the courtyard. They’d been there for hours in fact, concealed by Morgause’s spell. And now Cenred’s guards, instead of having Morgause and the others surrounded, were trapped between the two forces.
Of living men, it would have been a massacre. As it was, a mass of detached limbs began to litter the ground, all the fighters quickly realising that dismemberment was the only real way to slow them down even if they couldn’t be stopped.
They were a small band but skilled, dealing with dozens. Hundreds even. Yet they were against potentially thousands. Winning this fight would take more than brute force alone.
Fortunately, they wouldn’t have to rely on strength as long as the boy proved as tenacious as he was starting to prove.
Losing Cenred’s army would be unfortunate for her but, with the Blood Guard, Morgause’s forces outnumbered Arthur’s remaining men at least three to one even with the aid of those currently imprisoned. Reclaiming Camelot would merely be a formality afterwards, and this time she could make an immortal army who already owed her a sacred and unbreakable allegiance. Perhaps she should have used the Blood Guard in the first place after all.
But no one would fool her again.
The sound of laughter rang out jarringly over the courtyard, and Morgause looked up to the battlements to see Cenred watching the fight with clear amusement on his face.
“My lady Morgause,” he said, bowing theatrically. “And Prince Arthur. What entertainment this will be!”
And he stood, apparently happy to watch the inevitable bloodshed below.
Morgause smiled and the expression on his face faltered a little. He was right to be wary of her.
Dispatching the two more men - and taking a glance at her sister to check she was well - Morgause used a blast of magic to clear a path between her and the main gate.
And then a much larger blast to attack it.
It rattled violently on its hinges, but didn’t break.
“Not as powerful as you think?” Cenred taunted. “Disappointing.”
Morgause was still smiling. And as well she should be.
The sound of wood splintering cracked through the air as a violent impact struck the gate, this time from the other side. Several of Cenred’s men lost their heads as they were distracted and glanced to see what was happening rather than keeping their attention on those they were fighting.
None of Arthur’s fighters were so foolish.
The impact happened again, and again, the gate creaking and buckling in protest until finally it surrendered.
The fighting paused just a moment whilst all took in the sight of two dozen horse sized scorpions scuttling into the yard, their legs making a horrible clatter on the cobbled floor.
Morgana smiled at her sister, pleased at seeing such a display of power.
With a yell, Arthur dived back into the fight, his men following him.
The scorpion’s hides were hard and Morgause knew they had only a few weak spots as Cenred’s men discovered to their cost when their swords bounced off them, leaving them unharmed. Their pincers and tails however were deadly, tearing men in half and running them through with wounds that meant that even if they were incapable of dying, they were in no fit state to fight.
Arthur looked warily at the creatures, probably wondering if they were instructed to attack everyone. But he had no real time to do anything about it as he was attacked again.
Much to Morgause’s pleasure, Cenred started to look worried. Maybe this rebellious force would still lose, but not without hideous losses to his own forces. Invulnerable or not, men without limbs couldn’t fight.
Drawing his own swords, he pushed two of his men over the stone stairs as he hurried down to join the fight.
Her anger at his betrayal still hard and fiercely burning, Morgause wanted to attack him herself but she was already facing three men and was too confined to use her magic without risk injuring those fighting with her.
Arthur reached the king first.
“Such a pleasure to meet you again under these circumstances,” he said, mocking Arthur with a bow.
The young prince swung at him fiercely, apparently not in the mood for small talk.
In the distance, she saw more knights appear from one of the doorways, joining the fray. Merlin and his friend must have got that far at least then.
Morgause had to admit that Arthur was a proficient fighter. He swung his sword with precision and force, moving instinctively, blocking with a mind to where he could create an opening for his next attack. On most days she would probably give him the upper hand against Cenred, but this was not most days. Cenred fought with the recklessness of a man who knew he couldn’t be harmed and Arthur was already tired from fighting. Not to mention that Cenred was older, more experienced and had far fewer qualms about fighting unfairly, using his men as a shield to block Arthur’s blows. If he wasn’t careful, the young prince was going to lose his head.
Not that Morgause particularly cared.
Morgana, it seemed though, did. Or at least she was angry enough at Cenred to attack him too, working alongside her brother. Arthur had trained her, she’d told Morgause and it showed in the way she fought, their styles quite similar except for Morgana’s extra grace.
An uneasy feeling settled over Morgause as Cenred smiled at her sister. Like a man who had seen his prey. Immediately, she dispatched the two men around her and started to head over to her. It was time to prepare for their plan to claim the Cup.
Cenred saw her coming.
“A gift for you, my lady,” he called out. “A token to show you my deep appreciation.”
He grabbed one of his guards by the shirt and all but threw him one handed at Arthur, making the prince stumble back. Morgana’s distraction was only momentary, but it was enough. He punched her viciously across the nose, hard enough to break it.
And then he grabbed her by the shoulder and stabbed her low in the stomach.
“You’re expecting them to come for it, aren’t you?” Lancelot asked, huffing with exertion as he dispatched another guard the best he could. The larger share of the fighting had fallen on him as they’d made their way to where Morgause said the Cup was and Merlin felt bad that he wasn’t more help.
A couple of the soldiers they’d released had offered to stay with them, but Lancelot had told them to go to the courtyard and assist the prince.
And, Merlin suspected, he wanted as many swords up there as possible for another reason: Gwen was safer that way.
“Do you think they’re just going to hand over Camelot and leave quietly?” Merlin asked as they cautiously rounded the next corner.
Lancelot nodded in acknowledgement.
“They wouldn’t be helping us out of the goodness of their hearts,” he agreed.
Merlin snorted a laugh at the notion.
“So what are you going to do?” the knight asked.
“Once the Cup is emptied, I’ll send it away somewhere. Somewhere they won’t find it.”
Morgause had never felt rage like it. Cenred was laughing as Morgana slumped, shocked, to her knees in front of him, blood spilling through her fingers as she grasped desperately at the wound. Arthur was quickly dealing with the man Cenred had distracted him with, trying to get to her.
Morgause’s eyes were fixed on Cenred, a terrible, all consuming anger on her face. Any other person would have been terrified at the sight but he only laughed.
She didn’t even gesture, didn’t say a word. Her eyes burned amber as the great banner pole ripped from its moorings and flew with vicious accuracy at Cenred.
He dropped his swords with a clang as it impaled him, the impact hard enough to pin him to the wall behind.
Again, he just laughed, unfazed by even such a horrific injury.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to try better than that.”
A furious retort was on her lips but she didn’t need it.
She felt the powerful enchantment of the Cup of Life break and there was just a moment’s hesitation before the guards began to explode, leaving black clouds of nothingness in their wake. Several of the scorpions were dead but the rest had men in their claws, looking almost perturbed as they vanished and they were denied the pleasure of killing them.
Morgause turned back to Cenred. All his cocky amusement was gone, a fearful realisation on his face as he looked down to see blood pouring from his impaled abdomen. The magic of the amulet not allowing him to simply disappear like the others. Morgause enjoyed the irony of that.
“Does that meet your approval?” she spat viciously.
She wasn’t sure if he’d heard her; his eyes were already glassy and dead.
Forgetting him in an instant, she hurried to her sister’s side. Arthur was already there, looking pale and worried and completely uncertain. Morgause pushed him aside, gathering Morgana up and cradling her in her lap as she had done over a year ago. Her hand inspected the wound. It was deep and Morgana groaned in pain as she touched it.
She couldn’t flee with her like this, couldn’t use magic to transport them away. It was a terrible strain on the body to be moved like that and she wasn’t sure that Morgana would survive it.
For the first time in a long while, Morgause felt truly frightened.
“I need the Cup of Life,” she said, looking up at Arthur. She could see in his face that he had no wish to see his sister die either. “It can heal her.”
The maid Gwen, hurried over, looking battered and bruised but uncaring as she dropped to her knees and held a piece of cloth torn from her own dress to the wound. Morgause nodded at her in thanks.
Arthur rose from his knees as if to go and fetch it himself, but at that moment, the sound of running feet filled the courtyard and Merlin appeared. He hurried over to them, obviously wondering who was hurt. His face looked conflicted when he saw Morgana, looking paler by the moment.
Arthur grabbed him by the shoulders, half shaking him to attention.
“Merlin, we need the Cup, where is it?”
The boy looked genuinely sorry.
“It’s gone,” he stammered out.
PROLOGUE | PART ONE | PART TWO | PART THREE | PART FOUR | PART FIVE | PART SIX | PART SEVEN