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In the Bleak Midwinter

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Snow lies thick upon Camelot, drifts against the castle walls and whirls through the narrow streets of the lower town. Even here, in the densest part of the forest where thick stands of evergreens should block the worst of the weather, Arthur crunches through snow past his ankles. His breath leaves his body in bursts of fog that turns to frost on his whiskers; with each breath he takes in, the crystalline quality of the air pierces down his throat and into his chest, making him gasp long before he is actually, physically winded.

It is the harshest winter in living memory. Those without sufficient shelter began seeking refuge at the castle weeks ago, within hours of the first blizzard--and yet, nearly every day, Arthur receives reports from his knights detailing the discovery of half-buried dwellings still occupied by those too infirm or too stubborn to leave their homes. He has instructed his men to give aid where they can.

It is the thought of the increasing number of places where their aid comes too late that haunts him.

That thought, and others.

His subjects, he knows, have begun to murmur, to fixate upon the old rustic adage about the state of the kingdom reflecting that of its king. Their suspicions are bewildering to him. His reign has given the people the most prosperous and contented years of any of their lives, his court is filled with loyal friends, and his queen is warm and bright as the sun; what of him could possibly be reflected by steel-pale sky and unrelenting, bitter, deadly cold?

He dwells increasingly on the question.

Merlin, whose knowledge of such mystical balances far outstrips his own, has offered encouragement. But Merlin has been spending more and more time outside the kingdom proper lately, making pilgrimages to the druids, to the land of the Fisher King, into other, stranger realms unknown to non-magical travellers. Arthur's father would have said that Merlin is lost in magic, consumed by it, and that his counsel was never more untrustworthy. Arthur is not his father--and that is both a point of pride and, he believes, a point of grace--yet given Merlin's distance from Camelot's lingering troubles, his reassurances cannot truly put Arthur's mind at ease.

Of course, there are other things preying upon him, too.

The snow is helpful in this, at least: footprints stand deep in the accumulation, and as the air has been still and the skies have been empty since late last night, it requires no skill at all to track a man. As deep in the woods as Arthur is, he has found one set of bootprints heading away from Camelot, and they can belong to only one man.

That this man has made no attempt to disguise his trail is a source of both relief and disquiet.

When the prints end abruptly in a scuffed mess at the base of a thick pine tree with heavy, low-hanging boughs mostly clean of snow, Arthur slows to a halt a few paces away. His hand goes to Excalibur's hilt and rests there loosely--ready to draw, but not overtly threatening.

The forest holds its breath. Coated in snow, the silence is heavy. Leaden.

Finally, a voice comes from above, near the trunk, behind a wide green stretch of sheltering branches: "I knew you would come for me yourself."


His knight drops lightly onto the ground, shaking free snowflakes that drift lazily around him before catching and glittering briefly in his pale hair. He watches Arthur warily, but does not draw his sword. "You are a man of honour, Arthur."

Arthur inclines his head. "I am not the only one."

Galeshin glances at the forest around them, looking for the other knights hunting him, but none of them are close enough to be drawn to this little clearing by the sound of voices alone. They'd had to search quite a large amount of countryside, after all. "Of course not."

They fall into silence again, watching each other. Galeshin has been running since the small hours of dawn; his stance is uneven, the set of his lean body speaking to both weariness and defensiveness, and Arthur can see purple, bruise-like shadows circling his eyes. They match the darker, real bruise under the sandy stubble on his jaw.

Arthur clears his throat. "The charges against you--"

"Are true." He interrupts smoothly, speaks with plain conviction. "All of them."

It's impossible. "I know you, Galeshin. You are a good man, fair and honest and kind." Arthur speaks earnestly; in response, Galeshin shakes his head, the corners of his mouth tilting wryly upwards. "You are a knight of Camelot's round table!" Arthur insists. "How can any of those allegations be true?"

Galeshin shrugs, spreading his arms in an expansive gesture eloquent with gallows humour. "No good man is without flaws, my lord. Do not we all endeavour to act in opposition to our baser natures?"

Arthur's intensity drives him forward a step; despite the distance still between them, Galeshin flinches backwards, fetching up against the tree trunk. "There is nothing of nature in those crimes."

"There is." All trace of humour is gone. Galeshin hunches his shoulders, drawing into himself as if preparing for a blow. "They are of my nature, Arthur. I must believe this, for otherwise my actions make no sense to me at all."

Arthur stares, uncomprehending.

Galeshin sees his confusion; for a moment, he looks away, his gaze fixing on the churned-up snow around his feet as muscles work in his jaw and his gloved hands open and close at his sides. When he looks up again, his jaw is set, but the expression in his eyes is helpless. "The first one," he begins, his voice quiet and implacable, "the serving girl, caught my eye in the market. It was a thing of purest chance; I looked up from the furrier's wares and there she was, walking past. All I could see of her was the back of her cloak and a few strings of her hair, but my desire was immediate and overwhelming. I followed her into the lower town, and there are so many blind alleys and hidden corners there, it was nothing at all to find a place to act. She was meek and quiet, and when I finished with her I was sick onto the cobbles."

Arthur had seen the girl after the attack. His own stomach churns. "Galeshin--"

"The stable boy was my fourth," he continues as if Arthur had not spoken, his voice louder and trembling slightly. "I had seen him countless times before--every day, *every day* I needed a horse, I saw him, spoke to him in passing without thought or consequence. But my response to him yesterday was no less powerful than what I felt with the serving girl, the peasant, and the child. The moment I saw him, I had to taste him."

Galeshin's gaze remains level with Arthur's--he hasn't looked away once--but his eyes are wet now, brimming, his expression terrible. "He stared at my livery the whole time, as if he'd never seen the crest of Camelot before."

Arthur swallows bile. "Why have you done these things? What--made you--"

"I wanted to." Again, simple conviction; again, the mocking angle of a smile, despite the tear that spills free down his cold-reddened cheek. "I wanted to put my dagger straight through my skull, too--all four times, I wanted that--but that was nothing next to my wanting for those acts. I craved them, Arthur; I cannot tell you why, only that I did. Insatiably."

Arthur's thoughts race, comparing what Galeshin said to what he has known of the man for years: the bravery and chivalry and friendship that led, without question or reservation, to his knighthood. Before him, Galeshin slumps against the tree, his hands shaking as he reaches up to swipe at the tears of abject, bewildered remorse streaking his face, and as Arthur watches, he realises. "It was a spell."

Galeshin stills. "What?"

"These atrocities are in no man's nature, Galeshin. Certainly not yours. You said it before, none of this makes sense, even to yourself!" Hope flaring within him, Arthur takes another step closer, holds out his hands. "You've been bewitched. I am sure of it. Merlin will help you, he'll break whatever spell it is you're under. Come with me back to the castle, and--"

The ring of Galeshin's sword leaving its scabbard echoes through the trees. "Return me to Camelot and more will suffer." He says it flatly, his tone as cold and sharp as the air. Arthur shakes his head, but Galeshin's look only hardens into a kind of wretched fatalism. "Who would you have become the focus of my attentions, Arthur? Another knight? Gwaine, say, or Lancelot? Queen Guinevere? Or perhaps--" He cuts off with a strangled gasp, his eyes going wide, his mouth falling slack, and Arthur's sword is drawn before the threat has passed his lips. "Or perhaps yourself, my lord?"

The change in his knight is sudden as a thunderclap, unmistakable and awful. Galeshin's eyes alight with desperate hunger, and his breath quickens; he straightens and holds his sword ready as he steps forward, slowly, with horrible intent. Arthur squares up to his approach, but does not yet raise his own weapon. "Stop, Galeshin," he says--commands, certain now of his theory and loathe to fight this man who might still be saved. "This is not you. Fight it!"

Galeshin smiles again, a feral tilt to his head. "But who could resist you, Arthur?" His tongue darts out, a flicker of dampness across his chapped lips, and Arthur thinks of a predator licking its chops.

"I do not want to kill you--"

"You do not want at all!" It's an accusation, fierce with contempt. Arthur barely recognises the man before him. "Your rule is absolute, your friends are plentiful, you love your queen! What do you know of want? Of *this* want?" He pounds his chest with his fist, his anger turning to tortured urgency as his words spill free. "It's like the cold, Arthur. It penetrates and chills, and the chill spreads within you. It occupies your mind and turns your body against you until it's all you know. Until it's all you are!" And then, as quickly as it came, Galeshin's outburst ends, his emotional maelstrom smothered by something else entirely.

Something evil.

His eyes shine as he breathes, "Oh, sire. You have never felt such wanting."

And he strikes.

Their battle is harsh and graceless. Arthur knows Galeshin to be a disciplined swordsman, deliberate in both thought and action, but his attack is a series of frenzied slashes and wild jabs; Arthur considers his carelessness more evidence of some dark enchantment, and his expression--seen in glimpses behind the onslaught, by turns snarling avarice and etched desperation--convinces him of the presence of a will not Galeshin's own. But in the face of his brutality, there is nothing to be done, and when Arthur sees an opening, he takes it.

He tries, at least, to strike a blow that will kill his friend quickly.

Galeshin's eyes go wide as Excalibur pierces him; he makes a guttural sound, and his sword drops from his hand. When his knees buckle, Arthur falls with him, following the weight of the body on his blade even as he pulls it free to let the blood flow. He does not intend to let his knight die alone on the frozen ground. "I'm sorry," he says breathlessly, kneeling in the dirty snow; setting Excalibur aside, he leans down to try to settle Galeshin as comfortably as possible, and Galeshin, twitching and shuddering, reaches up to grip his arm--

--and the demented flare in his eyes registers too late. Before Arthur can even think to pull away, Galeshin bares a strip of skin between Arthur's glove and the cuff of his sleeve, yanks Arthur's arm to the open heat of his mouth, and bites down hard.

The shock is as vicious as the pain. Arthur shouts, tearing free, scrabbling backwards; when he is out of Galeshin's reach, he stares, speechless, unable to comprehend such an attack.

Galeshin gazes back, choking, and his eyes are terribly sane, and his expression is terribly sad. "Forgive me, Arthur," he gasps, his voice drowning in his throat, the smear of Arthur's blood at his mouth stark against the pallor of his skin. It echoes the growing stain melting the snow beneath his body. "I couldn't--I wanted--" He coughs, and the redness at his lips glistens darker. "It's--cold--"

The ground beneath him is a black-red slurry. His entire body spasms.

And Arthur is alone in the frozen forest.

Arthur falls silent, his gaze fixed on the flames licking pine logs to char in the hearth.

Morgana has listened patiently to his tale. She sits in her bed, thick layers of blankets tucked over her legs, fur wrapped around her shoulders; despite the fire, there is a chill in the room, encroaching on her nest from the frosted window, from the narrow hallway outside her door. This tower was ancient long before she inherited it from Morgause, and the winter's howling, icy winds seem to find every crack and fissure in its tumble-down stonework.

If Arthur feels the cold, he doesn't show it--or perhaps, Morgana thinks, he is too preoccupied with the matter of his slain knight to care. Since Arthur took the throne, they see each other rarely, meeting almost exclusively on dispassionate matters of state; she has become accustomed to seeing him secure in himself, radiating the assurance of authority, his mere presence enough to fill every room he enters. Now, though, as he stands before her with the slightest hunch in his shoulders, with shadows in his eyes, there is something small about him, something lost and uncertain. Defensive.


Morgana's hands are clasped together so tightly they ache. She disentangles them and fusses with the embroidery spread across her lap, folding the linen carefully, mindful of the needle sticking through the cloth. "What did Merlin say?" she asks briskly. She knows better than to bother asking if Arthur consulted Emrys.

He turns to her. One side of him is burnished by firelight; the other, painted coolly with the bluish twilight tones from the window. "He suggested I speak to you." She raises her chin, eyes flashing, sharp words building behind her teeth--but he shakes his head, anticipating her argument. "I know you didn't bewitch Galeshin, Morgana. The things he did..." His eyes darken with the memory of what he has seen done by the hands of his friend. "They were beyond you."

Dark amusement curls her lip. "It's very comforting, Arthur," she says, unable to keep the sting from her voice, "to know there are still some things you think I won't do."

"Of course there are." And then, with easy certainty: "You're not evil."

It catches her off-guard. The relative peace she and Arthur built between themselves since Uther's death has always been either tentative or fractious: the fond, sibling antagonism of their youth scarred by injustices and betrayals too fundamental to ever be fully healed. Mostly, they're cordial not for their own sake, but for Camelot's; they cannot be otherwise without risking the kingdom they both love--differently, perhaps, but love all the same--as home. Kind words, therefore, are unexpected, and Arthur's simple statement of faith robs Morgana momentarily of any good response. Foundering, she believes his frankness to be an indication of how deeply affected he has been by the loss of his friend.

Even before his death.

"Were you close with Galeshin?" she asks finally, trying for kindness.

His answer is simple and sad. "He was my knight, and my friend. I trusted him with my life and the lives of all Camelot's citizens." He takes in a deep breath. The lines of grief on his face shift and harden. "He took two of those lives, and damaged two more, in the vilest ways imaginable. He had to be stopped. It was my responsibility to stop him."

Arthur feels his responsibilities keenly. Morgana remembers the steadfast lengths to which he went to stop her, years ago. When she needed stopping. "But it was a painful responsibility."

"Yes." His eyes meet hers; in them, she can see that he remembers, too. "I want to know why it was necessary."

"I'm sorry, Arthur," she says softly. And she is. "I don't know who cast the spell."

In the silence that follows, pooling between them, Arthur turns away from her, places his hands flat on the mantel as if he would draw heat directly from the stone. Morgana sees the tense line of his shoulders, watches the subtle flex of muscles in his broad back. The bandage on his wrist is just visible under his sleeve, clean and neat, evidence of his vulnerability.

The longer she watches him, the more indecent she feels.

"It's getting late," she says finally, perhaps a little too loudly, casting an unnecessary glance at the darkness on the other side of the window, "and it's a long ride back to the castle. I can have my servants make up a bed for you, if you would like to stay the night."

"Thank you," he says to the fire, quietly. But then he straightens, turns and faces her with his head held high. "But no. I'm expected back in the city. But I am grateful, Morgana," he adds formally, every inch the king, "for your time, and for your insights."

She debates with herself for a long moment before inclining her head, ever so slightly. Not in deference, but in unity. "You're welcome, brother."

His eyes widen. He draws himself up--but instead of turning away, he steps forward suddenly, leans down and kisses her gently on the forehead. It lasts only a moment, the soft brush of his lips and rough prickle of his whiskers; when he straightens, his gaze remains lowered, and he turns and leaves without a word or a look.

The fire crackles in the room's abrupt silence. Under her layers of furs and wool and folded, half-stitched linen, Morgana shivers.

And she sees...

Merlin stands firm on the battlefield, one hand raised, his eyes molten gold as he snarls sorcery at the revenant soldiers threatening Camelot's borders. Arthur is beside him, watching, his hand tight on Excalibur's hilt, his expression fierce with pride: this is his wizard, his ally, his friend. His, as Merlin's magic wreathes them both with flames that make the revenants cower and fall. His.

(But--instinctive abasement--who could ever presume to lay claim to the service of such power?)

And she sees...

They tangle together, naked and bathed in candlelight: Gwen's mouth open and hungry on Arthur's, Arthur's fingers carding through Lancelot's hair, Lancelot's mouth on Gwen until she arches, writhing, crying out. Lancelot sliding his tongue against Arthur's, sharing the taste of Gwen between them. Gwen straddling Arthur, shuddering between him and Lancelot as they press close to kiss over her shoulder, as Arthur comes inside her, as Lancelot breaks their kiss to hide his face against Gwen's throat, gasping.

(But--slow-burning resignation--how much longer will they allow him a part in their passion?)

And she sees...

In a snow-covered clearing ringed by drooping evergreens, Galeshin falls. Arthur's blade is slick and shining red as he drops it into the crisp, white snow; his eyes are kind as he reaches for Galeshin, but Galeshin responds with wild, seizing hunger. She feels it when he sinks his teeth into Arthur's flesh, tastes copper and salt, scrapes bone.

(And--quaking despair--what can he offer anyone if even peace in death is too much to ask?)

And she sees...

Arthur doesn't kiss Morgana gently on the forehead and leave. He bruises her mouth with his, scratches her cheek with his beard, and bears her down onto her back. His breath chills her like a winter wind; the weight of his body is cold. She is afraid for him. "Hurry," she breathes as she pulls impatiently at her skirt, certain beyond reason that they need to be together for him to be safe; again as the sapphire silk pools around her hips. "Gods, Arthur, hurry--" as she spreads her legs for him and he tears at his belt.

But he enters her slowly, pushing deep and steady. It's painful, and it's exquisite, and it's almost enough.

(And he wants--oh he wants--to be enough.)

And Mordred's hand closes around hers, and her fingertip stings with the prick of a needle, and she wakes.

"Arthur was here." It's an accusation, tinged with jealousy. Mordred stands where Arthur did earlier, watching her as if waiting for a confession; it's the look he wears every time Arthur pays her a visit.

Until tonight's dream--


--vision, she's had nothing to hide.

"My brother is troubled," she says, looking up from the drop of blood beading on her fingertip to meet his gaze openly. He may be able to speak within her mind, but he cannot read it. "He killed one of his knights yesterday."

"Did he, now." Suddenly, fluidly, he throws himself down onto her bed, stretching his long body next to hers. He smells of the forest, fresh and winter-cruel. "How unfortunate that such a flaw should mar Arthur's cherished round table." At her expression, he shrugs, his bright eyes wide. "Either the knight did something to deserve being killed, or Arthur lost all control of himself and slew an innocent man. Neither scenario reflects well on the vaunted protectors of our realm."

Satisfaction lurks beneath his flippant tone. It catches her attention, and she watches him closely. "Arthur thinks the knight was bewitched."

"Then Arthur wishes to blame his misfortunes on magic rather than accept responsibility for the consequences of his actions." His lip curls. "Just like his father."

Mordred's dislike of the Pendragon court is no secret; Morgana has shared it almost as long as she's known him. But Arthur's visit--and her dream--have shaken her, given her new eyes, and as she looks at Mordred now, he appears lit from within--but darkly, as if every line and angle of his body were limned with pitch-black light. She stares, caught by the waking vision; Mordred stares back, his eyes narrowing, gleaming, the black light roiling into and through their brilliant blue like ink spilled in water, and the cold fear she felt in her dream rises within her, and she's freezing--

"You're bleeding."

Morgana blinks, and the vision is gone. Fear still clutching inside her chest, she focuses anew on Mordred, but he isn't even looking at her; his gaze is fixed on her hand. Reaching over, he takes it in his own, his thumb digging into her palm as he inspects her bloodied finger. She swallows quickly and forces her voice not to tremble. "I fell asleep while embroidering. I had a needle in my hand when you grabbed me."

"I didn't realise. Allow me." And, blinking slowly up to stare intently into her eyes, he draws her finger to his lips and murmurs words of healing over it. Morgana feels the current of his magic flooding into her body, too much just to close such a minor wound; it ignites her own power, mingles with it, quickens her breath and sparks her nerves. It's a manipulation, she knows, a pointed reminder of the connection they share that she and Arthur do not; nevertheless, it sways her bodily toward him, and when Mordred leans forward and sucks her fingertip into the warmth of his mouth, a rough moan escapes her.

Blood is power, Morgana, she hears in her mind as his tongue slicks hot against her skin. It won't do to waste yours.

She wants him. Her eyes close.

Later, as she gathers her embroidery from the cold flagstones in the grey light of dawn, she sees it: a drop of her blood dried into the linen, staining a place on the path her thread will take.

During her exile from Camelot in the dying years of Uther's reign, she learned from other seers how embroidery could be a tool: how the act of stitching could centre the mind and focus the magic and create a pattern that could be read like a map, foretelling events yet to occur. She has been working on this piece since winter unleashed its unexpected fury, forcing the land--her land, by Pendragon blood, as much as Arthur's--into deep, defensive dormancy. With the first, frenzied blizzard, she'd felt a discordant resonance; confined to her tower by the bitter weather, she'd set to embroidery not just to keep herself occupied, but to try to divine the source of her, and Camelot's, distress.

To that end, she began stitching together the magical threads of Arthur's life.

Not just his future, but his past. Prophesy comes clearest when it is well-grounded in history; she began with Uther and Nimueh's conspiracy to ensure Arthur's birth, proceeded through Merlin's arrival and Morgause's return to Camelot, her own quickening, Uther's defeat and Arthur's claiming of the throne. There are still years to be stitched before she catches up to the present, much less embarks upon the future, but those are the threads she has been most anxious to sew.

And now there is blood spilt upon the pattern of the future. Pendragon blood, staining thickly enough that no stitch could possibly avoid it.

No more than a year from now.

Behind her, tangled warmly in her sheets, Mordred sighs in his sleep.

Morgana grips the blanket wrapped around her body, chilled.