“The crown,” said Sybil, “how does it feel?”
Morgan took a long breathe, unable to hide her smile. “Perfect,” she said as she removed it. “Though rather impractical to wear for any length of time.” She sat down and stretched the muscles in her neck. “Still, the ceremony went well. The people were pleased.” She glanced at Sybil, her eyebrows raised fractionally.
“Of course they were.” Sybil swept round behind Morgan and began to brush her hair. Morgan sighed and closed her eyes, allowed herself to relax with the steady brush strokes. “The realm is now yours, my child, just as it should be.”
The wolf with sleek black fur and unearthly green eyes was a common sight in Morgan’s dreams, but until Arthur’s funeral she’d never seen the creature while she was awake. It sat in the distance, by the tree line, in the shade of an ancient oak, and looked down on the crowd that had come to witness the king’s burial.
When Morgan moved forward to speak, her eyes drifted to the wolf. Could she really know what colour its eyes were at this distance? She rebuked herself for allowing her imagination to play such tricks on her. It was just an animal, and one with an unhealthy sense of curiosity.
Still, she could feel it watching her as she praised her brother, what he had achieved and what he had sought to achieve. The sea breeze whipped around her as his grave was filled in. She had had him buried next to the mother and the father that raised him; she hoped that was what he’d have wanted.
She felt the mood of the crowd rise and fall with her words, guiding them through their grief and their anger, and the hope that she brought them as their new queen. It was only when she’d finished speaking that she looked for the wolf again, and found that it had gone.
At the feast afterwards, she took Kay aside. “You spoke well of him,” he said as they left the Great Hall together. “I thank you for that.”
“He was a good man, and he could have been a great king,” she said and found herself thinking that yes, he was, and yes, he could have been. It was easy to be kind to her brother now that he was dead.
“You think so?” There was an edge to Kay’s voice, and Morgan believed she could guess the reason. Guinevere had gone to Bardon Pass after Leontes, and Morgan assumed that all the king’s men who’d been there had discovered that Arthur has slept with his champion’s wife. So much the better for her: she would stay the loyal sister, generously forgive and praise her brother despite his tarnished reputation.
“Yes,” she said. “He was also a young man, and young men make mistakes.”
Kay stared at her for a long moment and then nodded. “He certainly did that. He-” He bit down on his lip. Morgan reached out for his arm.
“What is past is past. I did not always agree with Arthur, but now he is gone. Let your anger go with him.” She released his arm. “There’s another matter I wished to speak to you about. You were Arthur’s Marshal. He trusted you and he was brother to us both. I would ask that you remain at Camelot as my Marshal. I understand if you wish to leave, or see the death of your parents as blood between us that cannot be ignored, but I believe in what my brother was trying to build and I would honour that as best I can, and I would welcome your aid.”
Kay was not a hard man to read: her offer had surprised and flattered him, as she’d expected. “I…thank you, my queen. Would you allow me some time to consider?”
Morgan smiled, careful to keep the triumph from her expression. “Of course.”
“Are you sure this is wise?” asked Sybil. They sat in Morgan’s chambers, discussing that day’s Royal Council meeting. “He was Arthur’s man.”
“And now he is mine,” said Morgan. “Better to make a friend than an enemy.”
“Safer to make him dead. If he ever finds out that you were responsible - ”
“But he won’t,” said Morgan. She held Sybil’s gaze, refused to look away first. “I wish to unite the realm, not fracture it further. Arthur had skilled knights to serve him, I see no reason that they should not serve me now.”
“As you wish, my queen.” Morgan gave her a sharp glance, but Sybil just smiled benignly. “On another matter, how are you sleeping?”
“Fine,” said Morgan. “Why would I not be?”
“Vivian says that you woke the other night, sweating and fearful.”
“A nightmare, nothing more, and Vivian should not be telling you such things.”
“She’s concerned about you,” said Sybil.
“Well, she needn’t be, and neither should you.”
“As you say,” said Sybil.
Morgan went down into the dungeons alone, a torch in one hand, the other clasping close her thick cloak. The air was cold and still and stank of filth and mould. She found Merlin at the end of an unlit corridor in a windowless cell.
She unlocked the cell and stood in the doorway, watched his face as the torchlight flickered over it, casting uncanny shadows. He looked pale and gaunt, the hollows under his eyes deeper and darker than she remembered. Finally he looked up. His lip curled into nothing like a smile. “Morgan. I was wondering how long it would take you before you came for another gloat.”
She ignored his bait and looked around the cell. He was chained, but his chains were long enough to allow him some freedom of movement. There was a bed with a straw mattress, half a cup of clean water, and the remains of some dried apples in a bowl. “My guards are treating you well, I trust?”
“Oh, like a prince.” He yanked at his chains, allowing them to clink against the stone floor.
She stepped into the cell. “We have had our differences, Merlin.”
“A great many, for which I am glad.”
“But now I have the throne. I’ve won.”
“If you say so.”
Another step forward. “And I hate to see you like this.”
He moved forward suddenly, stretching his chains to their limit. They yanked him to a stop half a pace in front of her. “Do you really? Where would you like to see me instead? At your side? In your bed?”
“I would offer you a place in my council.”
Merlin gave a hoarse laugh. “You must be joking. You engineered Arthur’s death.”
“As you engineered his rise to the throne. As you are to blame for the death of his mother and his father. Tell me, Merlin, are you more upset that he’s dead, or that I’ve ruined your plans for power?”
“My plans were to have this realm ruled peacefully and wisely by a great king.”
“He was a boy, a naïve child who could not stop his heart ruling his head.”
“No bad thing at times. We could all do with a little more empathy.”
Morgan raised her eyebrows. “Oh? So what do you imagine would’ve happen if both he and Leontes had survived Bardon Pass, Merlin? Do you think his champion could ever look at him again without remembering that he’d bedded his wife? How would such distrust at the heart of the kingdom have fitted in with your plans for peace?”
“I think-” It was almost a snarl, but his anger was quickly controlled and he looked away. “I think it would have been dealt with.”
Morgan took a half step forward, close enough to smell the stale sweat on Merlin’s skin. “Perhaps now you’d like to tell me why you did this, why you tried to take my kingdom from me. Tell me, and I’ll make things easier for you.”
“Easier? The king is dead.”
“And now there is a queen.”
“A regicide, twice over, on the throne. You think that’s a healthy start to any rule?”
“No worse than the murder of one queen and the rape of another, or usurping the throne from its rightful heir. No worse than tempting an innocent boy away from his home and expecting him to take on the wolves of the court and the land, entirely dependent upon your guidance. These were grand plans, Merlin, the sort of plans where many people ended up dead, and they were not always your enemies.”
“I…everyone at Camelot, was trying to build something better. You could have been a part of that.”
“Better than what?” Morgan demanded, a sneer shading her tone. “Better than my father’s rule that you so loyally served? How many innocent people did you watch him kill while you stood by and did nothing? How long would you have been willing to live under his tyranny before you lifted a finger to stop it?”
Merlin gave a short laugh. “Is that why you killed Uther, to end his tyranny?” he asked. “I thought it was the action of a hurt little girl, lashing out at the father who rejected her.”
“Perhaps it was,” she said. “But I don’t want to make my father’s mistakes. I want to rule wisely and well, to build a great kingdom.” The ghost of a smile touched her lips. “Perhaps one that Arthur would be proud of.”
Merlin’s eyes narrowed, disgust tinged his voice. “You know nothing of Arthur, or what he wanted.”
“Do you think my men are all mercenaries, paid in gold? They are the people of this kingdom, Merlin. I gave them food and shelter and protection because they were hungry, cold, and frightened. I did. Not Arthur.”
“And I’m sure their loyalty will last a lifetime. Go away, Morgan. I’ve nothing more to say to you.” He returned to the wall, slumped down on the floor, his chains rattled around him.
“As you wish,” she said. “I was foolish to expect you to put the good of the realm before your own pride.” She paused in the doorway, turned to look back at him: his clothes were torn, his skin was raw around the chains’ cuffs – he had been struggling after all – but his eyes were clear and furious, watching her, and for a moment she was reminded of the wolf with the green eyes.
She left her torch in the sconce just outside his cell.
“I want you to think of me as a sister,” said Morgan. “If there is ever anything I can do to aid you, you must come to me at once, and I will do all I can for you.”
Guinevere nodded absently. “Thank you,” she said. She sat by the window, staring out at the courtyard below. Her servants had told Morgan that she’d barely eaten and barely slept since she returned from Bardon Pass. They feared for her, feared that she had nothing left to hold onto in this life.
Morgan knelt by Guinevere’s chair. Gently she took her hand between both of hers. “Though I don’t claim to know your pain, I understand a little of loss,” Morgan said, her voice low. “I have found that aiding others who suffer helps to ease one’s own hurt. And as your queen, I ask a favour of you.”
Guinevere turned to look at her, a frown creasing her brow. “What would you ask of me?”
“There, you see, she smiles,” said Morgan. She walked the balcony with Sybil, pausing to exchange greetings with members of her court. She found these daily walks around the old castle held a simple pleasure for her, seeing her people at work, seeing them acknowledge her as their queen.
In the yard below Guinevere helped attend to the wounds of the people who’d arrived the previous day from the southern border. She sat with a young boy, carefully bandaging his leg. These were not victims of any of Morgan’s plots but of a gang of opportunistic bandits. She’d already sent Kay and her knights to deal with them.
“Only briefly,” said Sybil, “and besides, it’s a trivial concern. You have a kingdom to govern. What do the smiles of one foolish girl matter?”
“They would have mattered to Arthur.”
“Indeed they would have, and did, and look what happened there.”
Morgan paused, leaned out over the balcony, nodded to those below who’d noticed her presence. She glanced at Sybil. “Politically then, the death of Leontes’ wife would be another blow to the morale of the people, while if I have her support it strengthens my own position.”
“Well,” said Sybil, “at least that’s a better reason to waste your time with her.”
Merlin’s room fascinated Morgan. She spent more time there than she should, reading through his papers, trying to comprehend his train of thought. Her eyes gleamed as she looked over the stoppered bottles he kept shelved and unlabelled. The contents of some she knew, some she could only make wild guesses at. There were objects here made of wood and stone and bone and she couldn’t tell whether they were art or served some function. But great care had gone into their construction, and she would turn them over in her hands admiring their workmanship.
If only he hadn’t been so arrogant, so petty, as to try and take her throne from her. She would have listened to him, learned from him, and gladly. Oh, not like Arthur had listened, not as a child afraid to challenge a word his parent said, but as a student seeking knowledge and understanding of the world around her.
Even now, she would listen, if only he was willing to speak.
Often Morgan visited Arthur’s grave alone, despite Sybil demanding that she take a guard escort. One night, with a fat moon in the sky, she walked barefoot through the long grass, listening to the sound of the waves. Her hand brushed the stones of his grave and her head bowed as she said a brief prayer.
“It should never have come to this, Arthur…brother,” she said, her voice so quiet her words were hidden by the wind. “If only you’d stayed at home. I asked you to, do you remember? I asked, but you listened to the sorcerer.” She shook her head. “I’m sorry, brother, for all the pain I’ve caused to you, but I would do it again. This is my kingdom, my throne, and you had no right to take it from me.” She took a breath and sighed. “But I didn’t come out here to argue, I - ”
Morgan turned, and in the pale moonlight she caught sight of some movement in the darkness. “Who’s there?” she called. “Show yourself!” She drew the dagger from her belt and stepped forward. She could hear breathing, quick and raspy. A low growl. Her eyes narrowed as she stared into the gloom. “Why are you here?” she asked. “I’ve asked for nothing more.”
The growl grew louder.
She felt the air grow cold around her, a mist springing up and sweeping over the hill with an unnatural quickness. She spun around, keeping the knife up, but she could see nothing except swirls of moonlit vapour writhing like restless ghosts.
She felt droplets of water freezing on the grass beneath her feet as she began to shiver uncontrollably. She listened, and realised she could no longer hear the sea. Fear tensed her throat. She looked down at Arthur’s grave. It had been constructed to point towards Camelot. Morgan tightened her grip on her dagger and ran.
She ignored Vivian’s concern at her state when she arrived back at the castle and asked for fresh, warm clothes and a mug of hot wine before she went down to the dungeons.
“Are you still practicing sorcery?” Merlin asked, lounging against the wall, one hand fiddling idly with his chains.
Morgan swallowed hard and tried to laugh, but it came out awkwardly. “I have what I wanted, what need would I have for sorcery now?”
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
“What does it matter to you anyway?”
“It matters.” He tilted his head back, watching her impassively. “You look cold, Morgan.”
“I went for a walk outside.”
His lips twitched, and she thought he was holding back a smile. “Did you now?”
“I meant what I said before, Merlin.”
“All of it.”
He leaned forward, an unreadable expression on his face. “There’s something I’ve been curious about, Morgan. Perhaps you can help me. How did Igraine die?”
“I don’t know.”
His eyes were dark slits. “You expect me to believe that?”
“I didn’t kill her, Merlin.” I didn’t kill her because if I did, you would never trust me, never forgive me. You would never teach me. And I want you here, in Camelot, where you belong. “I couldn’t-” She felt her voice crack, but that was fine; this should be difficult to talk about. “I went to see her on the day that she died, just before my coronation, but I didn’t kill her. I couldn’t. Not after what she told me.”
“And what did she tell you, Morgan?”
“It was about Uther, about-” She broke off, shaking her head. She felt tears prick at her eyes and she was unsure why they were there. “Igraine sent me away to the monastery and I hated her for it, but she did it to protect me from Uther, and I never knew. Not until the day she died, and I…I cannot forgive quickly. I hated her for so many years, and I still hated her when she died, but perhaps, if she had lived, that would have changed in time.” She blinked, looking away from him. “I haven’t told anyone else that.”
“What, not even your pet nun?” he said. “Or perhaps you prefer me as your confessor? I do have a more trustworthy face.”
Morgan took a sharp, angry breath. “Why do you make this so difficult?”
“Why not? I’ve nothing else to do here.”
“You could escape if you wanted.”
He shrugged. “I could. But then where else would I find such delightful conversation?”
“He’s distracting you,” said Sybil.
Morgan shook her head as she paced her chamber. “No, it’s more than that: he’s testing me.”
“Ah, I see: could you possibly replace Arthur in his plans? Is that what you want then, to be a puppet to that deluded old trickster?”
“I’ll never be a puppet,” Morgan snapped. “But I do want to know what he knows, and for that, he must trust me.”
“He’ll never do that.”
“Not completely,” said Morgan, then smiled, “but perhaps a little will be enough.”
“Did he believe what you told him about Igraine?” asked Sybil.
“He didn’t disbelieve it. One seed of doubt at a time. I know how to be patient.”
A few nights later, Morgan was woken by a scream. She sat up in bed, wondering if she’d dreamt it when she heard the sound again, sharp and piercing. She ran from her rooms, down the corridor. It was lit but she couldn’t see any guards about.
The door to Guinevere’s chamber burst open and she ran out, a bloodied sword in one hand. Morgan looked her over, but she seemed uninjured. “There’s a wolf,” she said. “In there, it attacked me.” Morgan pushed past her. “Don’t go in,” said Guinevere, trying to pull her back.
Morgan ignored her.
The wolf sat in the corner of the room, licking at a wound on its forearm. It looked up as Morgan entered. It watched her; it knew her. Green eyes, black coat. It opened its mouth and seemed to smile. Morgan stared at it and its bloodied teeth and watched its muscles tense, about to leap. Her throat was dry and she found herself unwilling to move.
Guards clattered into the room behind her.
The wolf turned and leapt through the window, leaving a shower of shattered glass in its wake.
Her rooms were on the third floor of the castle. The wolf’s body should’ve been found in the courtyard below. It wasn’t. And there were some unfortunate rumours beginning to circulate through the castle.
Morgan ignored what was being whispered and instituted a hunt for the beast. The castle was searched, the surrounding land, nearby villages and forest, but no wolves were found. Morgan no longer walked through Camelot without a guard or left her chambers unprotected at night. The mornings were getting colder. She had Vivian make sure a fire burned in her bedroom hearth throughout the night. Ice began to crackle at the windows, and a fine sprinkling of frost covered the courtyard each morning. Winter was coming.
“Has something terrible happened then? Come to beg for my help?” asked Merlin the first time Morgan went to visit him after the wolf’s appearance in the castle.
“The last time I came down here I told you something, now I want you to tell me something.”
“Is it how to sleep at night? I’ve found warm milk helps ease many a guilty conscience.”
“Why Arthur?” asked Morgan. ‘Why support him for the throne?”
“You’ve asked that before.”
“I’m asking again. Why Arthur?”
“And not you and your anger and your hate and how that would’ve been reflected in your rule. I think you can answer your own question easily enough.” He rested his head back against the wall, affecting a look of boredom.
“But Arthur was naive-”
“Idealistic, yes, but he had a strong sense of honour, of right and wrong, and he believed the world could be better than it is. He was ready to be moulded into something great.”
“By you! How presumptive.”
“And why shouldn’t I be? But you, Morgan, you’re brittle and you’ll break.”
“I haven’t yet.”
“Patience, Morgan.” He sighed. His eyes closed and for a moment he looked older and wearier than she‘d ever seen him. “You want to know? Fine. Come here.” She hesitated. He smiled, and held out his hand. “Just a little closer, I shan’t bite.”
She let him take her hand, press it palm to palm with his. His fingernails were filthy. He closed his eyes again, but this time the look on his face was one of serenity, of understanding. Morgan frowned, confused, and then she saw. Flashes of red on green. A great field. Knights charging. Hot blood, and metal slicing through skin and bone. The flag of Camelot burning. The images fled on, snatches of faces, both familiar and strange. Sybil, murdered by Gawaine. Arthur, older and bearded. Guinevere in another man’s arms.
Her child: a son.
She gasped, snatched her hand back. Her skin tingled, as though she’d held it too long under cold water. “What was that?” she demanded.
“War. Death. Destruction,” Merlin said, off-hand and careless.
“I could see that. What was it?”
“But I saw Arthur.”
“Yes, that was the future before, the future I was teaching Arthur to prevent.”
“And now?” asked Morgan, almost afraid of the answer.
Merlin looked at her, his eyes so very bright. “Now: nothing. The future is silent to me. I’ve no idea what’s going to happen.”
“Isn’t that better?” asked Morgan.
Merlin looked at her hand, the one he‘d been holding. “You told the truth: you really haven’t been using magic.”
“I know that, Merlin.”
“And yet…” He searched her face. “What do you see in your dreams, Morgan? What’s watching you?” he asked.
“It travels as a wolf,” she said.
“And it frightens you, doesn’t it?”
She would not answer that, so she said: “It’s come here, to Camelot.”
“Definitely not where it’s supposed to be.” He opened his mouth in a smile that reminded her of the wolf’s teeth.
“Help me,” she said, more command than request.
“Why would I want to do that?” he asked.
“For the realm, because I‘m queen. For Arthur, because he‘d have wanted you to help his sister. For the anarchy that will ensue if I’m killed.”
A thin smile. “Let me think about it,” he said.
“I warned you that magic was dangerous. I told you that it cost.”
“And I believe you.”
“You believed me before.”
“I understand now.”
“You think you do.”
“Perhaps Arthur was not the only one who was naïve,” she said. She met his gaze and hardly dared to breathe. She was so close now, she could feel it. She stepped forward, well within reach of his chains. “Help me,” she said again, and this time she let herself ask. “Please.”
He held up his hands. She uncuffed his chains and let them fall to the floor. “All right,” he said. “For a little while.”