At the age of 16, the young Gawain of Orkney convinced his father, King Lot, to let him join in battle. There was no expectation for him to appear on the front lines, or to be anywhere where he might come to harm.
However, things never quite go as planned.
Gawain was to accompany a less experienced knight on the back lines of the battle. From this position, he could easily witness the battle from a relatively safe distance.
As the battle begins and rages, the boy watches. He watches knights he’s known all his life shed blood, both their own and of their enemies. He watches his father, a knight he idolizes more than anyone, do great deeds in battle.
He watches an enemy knight, speeding on horseback, approach where his father fights.
No one notices how he breaks away from his position. He runs through the mass of knights, too preoccupied with own enemies to notice a prince no more than a squire slip through.
At his destination, two knights—two kings—meet in battle. First their horses are wounded and slain, and they take to the ground. Swords meet and clash. Neither king notices the boy who arrived too late to give warning. Neither notices as a deadly blow is dealt.
Lot notices in horror, as he takes his last breath, the light leaves his eyes, and his head falls to the ground.
The enemy knight notices, as an untested boy runs towards him with bloodlust and rage in his heart and a sword in his hand.
No one notices when a son’s head joins its father’s.
Only three children notice when their older brother never comes home.
Gawain wakes up with a strange feeling of light-headedness, a burning sensation in his throat, and no memory of how he ended up in the middle of the forest. Just moments before he swore that he was running to warn his father of an enemy that was approaching on the battlefield.
He didn’t know where he was not, but he could tell that he was nowhere near that battle. What trickery or sorcery was this, to rob him of his chance to help his father? He opens his mouth to scream; in anger, in confusion, in call of help. But all that greets him is an incomprehensible pain unlike anything he’d ever experienced. It spreads through his entire throat, like kindle igniting on a spark that was already present. Gawain grips the closest thing he could find to a source, desperately trying to cry out in pain. Something wet and slick meets his fingers that takes him a long moment to notice or recognize. His hands pull away to find them covered in blood. Whether his own or from some other knight on that battlefield he did not know. He did not want to know.
Gawain is only certain of three things: He is far from the battlefield where he should be, he has no way to speak, and he is covered in blood. Even with this… there is a fourth fact that he knows; he must find his way home. Home is where his brothers are, and where his father will come home and be waiting for him.
So, he walks. Walking is the only way he will get home at this rate. Through the woods, where the animals watch him from afar and avoid coming close. These woods felt familiar, like the home where he played games with Agravain and Gaheris and the still so young Gareth. Then somehow, maybe, he had ended up close to home. It was a thought that fills him with both dread and hope.
He walks to the edge of the forest, strangely uninhibited by the foliage. It takes him several hours, yet he’s not tired at all. The disappearing light of day that would normally signal his return home fills him with anxiety—he needs to find a way home. A familiar road meets him, the very road that he rode with his father down to battle.
A lone cart rides along it, heading in the direction of his home. With no way to call out, he stands on the edge and waves out towards the driver to get his attention. The driver’s only reaction is to steady the horse that was spooked by Gawain’s presence. The cart continues to drive past Gawain, as if he weren’t even there.
No one notices the lone boy hop onto the back of the cart anyway, driving in the direction of his home.
No one notices the boy hop off the cart as it passed by a shortcut to his home.
No one notices the fresh wound through his neck as he sneaks back into the castle in the dead of night.
He creeps through the hall, not wanting to alert anyone who might make a noise. Just for tonight, he doesn’t want to run into his mother.
The bedroom door was left ajar just enough for him to slip inside. It was how the four of them always did it, when one was late, and no one wanted him caught. To his surprise, no one was inside.
After it took so long for him to get back, they must have moved to Agravain’s room for the night. Safety in numbers, after all. Trusting that the younger two were in safe hands, Gawain closed the door to his bedroom and crawled into his bed without bothering to change clothes.
He didn’t sleep that night. No familiar noises that would have normally come to wake him appeared the next morning. He still wasn’t tired.
Normally every morning, he and his brothers would meet up together before breakfast. His brothers were exactly where they always meet, going on as if Gawain hadn’t returned home. He opens his mouth to call out to them, and has to choke back the pain that greets him once again. He falls to his knees, gripping at his throat.
None of his brothers notice him crying in pain on the floor.
“Come on, it’s time for breakfast,” Agravain says, taking both younger brothers’ hands in his own.
“What about Gawain?” Gareth asks with small expectation.
“He and Dad aren’t back yet, so we have to go, just us.”
No one notices Gareth’s confused glance in the direction of Gawain.
For three days, Gawain follows his brothers to try and get their attention. Why would none of them acknowledge him. Why was he so suddenly, terribly alone?
On that day, their mother was in a foul mood. They all knew it was best not to get in her way, but that was easier said than done. It was the day news came back to the now widowed Queen of Orkney, that her husband and oldest son had died.
Gawain could hear their mother walking down the halls before his brothers could. They were on course to intersect, and he knew how that might go. He still couldn’t speak, but he could alert them in other ways. The stone floors were too clean for there to be some sort of pebble or trash to kick. A door just a few feet down was left ajar, and it’s the only idea he’s got left.
He runs ahead of his brothers, slamming the door loud enough to echo down the halls. He was sure they couldn’t see him—he didn’t want to think about what that meant—but he gestures anyway for his brother to turn back around, go in a different direction.
Their mother’s voice speaks up from around the corner, and before Gawain can fear that he’d just gotten them in more trouble, Gareth already has Agravain and Gaheris’s hands in his and is pulling them in the other direction. Morgause made it around the corner before Gawain could run after them, but his brothers had made it out of sight.
Gawain freezes, unsure if his mother was unable to see him like everyone else. For a brief moment, the world stood still. Unsatisfied but not finding anything, she turns around and continues on her way. As the tension releases, Gawain follows after his brothers.
When the sun had set, and the boys were all grouped together in Gareth’s room for the night, Gawain watches over them like he had for the last several days.
“We’re lucky that door slammed, we would’ve run into her,” Gaheris comments quietly about the events earlier in the day.
“You heard what happened, no wonder she was in a rotten mood,” Agravain sighs from his corner of the room.
“Well we wouldn’t have known to turn around if it weren’t for Gawain,” Gareth’s voice pipes up among the others.
“What are you talking about Gareth? Gawain’s not here. He’s… with dad,” Agravain wouldn’t meet Gareth’s gaze.
“No he’s not, he’s right here. He was the one who shut the door.”
“Gar, he’s not coming back. Neither of them are.”
The words slowly start to sink in, those words that Gawain didn’t want to think about or hear. He sinks back against the wall, as if he could ignore it.
“No, he’s been here the whole time!”
“Gareth,” Agravain hisses the words. “They’re dead. They’re never coming home.”
The words spoken, something in Gawain breaks inside. Any small shred of hope that he had shatters.
“Then how do you explain that he’s been standing in the corner the whole time. Every day!” Gareth storms towards Gawain’s corner before he could even process what had been said and what was happening. For the first time in days, a hand touches his. “Tell them Gawain!”
The world freezes around them. Gareth stares at him in frustration, Agravain and Gaheris go from confusion to shock to fright. Three sets of eyes are trained on him, for the first time in three days.
Still not trusting his voice, Gawain sinks down to his knees and embraces Gareth. As the tears he didn’t know he had to cry started to fall, the other two slowly stood up and joined the group hug. All four brothers huddled together and mourned the lost of their father, and were grateful that Gawain was still here in spirit.
“I… I tried to save him, tried to avenge him…” Gawain’s voice was remarkably clear for someone who could not speak for three days. “I wasn’t fast enough, I couldn’t… I’m sorry.
“I’m not leaving you again. I’ve got to be here to protect you… You’re all I have…”
Every memory that was fuzzy comes back to him in a flash. How he couldn’t make it to his father, how he couldn’t even touch the man who took his own head. But his brothers are alive, they knew he was here. He can still protect them; he has to protect them.
“Do you remember our promise to each other; to become knights together? That’s what we should do. We can run to Camelot; our uncle is the King.”
“But what about you? You’re…” Agravain doesn’t finish his statement, it was an unspoken truth.
“If we can see him, then maybe others can too. This can be our secret,” Gareth speaks quietly, kindling a new hope in Gawain.
“Our secret, then. Nothing’s changed.” They all agree.
No one notices as three young boys and their spectral guide sneak out of the castle.
No one notices that Gawain of Orkney was supposed to be dead.