Winter in Ebrauc is sharp, bright skies and biting air, and Arthur sees visions of Camelot laid out across the blank white of snow-covered fields. The low hill upon which the castle here is built is the only highpoint; the land stretches out, flat beyond the imagination, the horizon more distant than Arthur has ever seen. The trees and scatterings of small buildings are flattened down into the landscape by thick layers of snow, and drifts of grey cloud above feed the emptiness. The snow falls endlessly.
Morgana, amidst all this, buried beneath every white fur the young King Peredur could give her, is an image sharpened down to the intensity of her black hair: a single flame burning in the dark, inverted. She goes out every day, now, alone and, as far as shows, unarmed, beneath the false sparkle of the winter morning. Sometimes she goes on foot, about the nearer fields and forestland; sometimes on horseback, wherever her horse can take her. She is surveying this place, Arthur supposes.
On weaponry, he thinks -- there must be a dagger concealed at her arm, another in her boot, and maybe more. It's the way his father taught her. Though by all reason, it still shouldn't be enough. There is something of a statement, a boast, a symbol, in the way she comes back, every noon, as pristine as when she left; her path imprinted on the snow.
Perhaps any would-be bandits simply fear what reprisals might take place if a noblewoman were attacked, and so near the castle. Or perhaps they know Morgana, recognise or guess at her identity, and have heard what she is. Perhaps she has let them find out.
The cold, though moderate -- not an ice-cold; a snow-cold -- is wearing in its constancy. It persists, barely-changed, within doors. The wind gets in through a thousand cracks and empty spaces. The castle tapestries are thin and worn, near-useless and lacking identity -- Arthur's mind traces out more familiar details on their faded surfaces. At times he thinks he really sees the blue and white of well-known, tiny, round flowers, pale-stemmed and large-leaved. That background, aged away, could once have been that deep, strong shade of red that lives, clear and true, in his mind.
At dinner, in the evenings, he sits well back from the fire -- he dislikes the smell of the smoke. Morgana sometimes sits by him, or sometimes drags her chair close to where the logs burn and leans in with strange, fervid intensity, her eyes on the hot blue that edges the flames. He has not seen her shiver since before they arrived, wherever they have been, no matter how cold the night; but her skin is as sick-white as the outside in day, and looks as though it would be sick-cold to match. Peredur piles blankets on top of her furs, heaping them about. He fetches hot wine for her, a deep, staining red, sweetened and fragrant with spices to rouse and heat the blood.
"You weren't made for winter," he tells her. He touches where her muff encloses her pale, slender hand.
"I like it," she says. "I think it's beautiful."
"The spring is better. It will be warm again, the crops will grow -- the maids can put flowers in your room."
Morgana shakes her head. "I don't want any flowers."
When fire starts to dim, she waves her hand and it blazes up again, renewed. She turns a smile at Peredur -- not apologetic, nor defiant. Just a smile. He flushes and looks at her, bright and earnest-eyed, for far too long.
Arthur doesn't like to watch; nor to think of how Morgana can now encourage a man like Peredur. He takes his leave quietly. The servants, he sees, still haven't entirely settled on what depth of bow Arthur deserves. Today, they bend their backs as low as for Peredur himself. Yesterday, they got barely lower than a nod. A King without a kingdom -- once Prince of his father's small empire; and there are those who believe he will one day be a High King; but in this moment without an inch of land to call his own -- Arthur has become something indeterminate, transitional. The blank between definitions. He has no status, he thinks. He feels misplaced in time. He feels -- tired. Wearied into foolishness. He's a fool for taking notice of the depth of a bow.
"I hope Merlin and your Guinevere are somewhere warm, at least," he says, another evening, to the sloping, minor mountain of northern wool that is Morgana -- beside him, sipping wine from a gold-coloured goblet. Her cheeks briefly thin on the word your.
"Hm," she says. "I think still south of Less Britain. And they still don't know what's happened -- to the extent I can tell."
"And I thought you knew everything," Arthur drawls.
"I know more than you do." There's a spark of annoyance, faint, iced-over, but definitely present in Morgana's voice: a trace of a more familiar her. Arthur keeps up the subject:
"They're doing well? Both of them?"
"Merlin's trying to enchant a large block of stone. I think he wants it to recognise you. Strange as ever."
"So he's all right," Morgana says.
"And Guinevere?" says Arthur, and -- he knows she will -- she frowns again.
"Gwen is-- Gwen is always Gwen."
Peredur now comes up to them -- he has been talking about cattle with his peasantish knights; but, ever-solicitous, perhaps he's been watching Morgana's face. He touches her shoulder, and redrapes a falling blanket. "You need to keep warm," he says.
"Thank you," she tells him, face softening; unsharpening, feature by feature, to an unexceptionable picture of human warmth. Peredur takes the chair at her other side, and moves it round so he can sit opposite her, bent forwards and leaning in, hands on his knees.
"Arddun," he says -- he nods at one of the knights; a big man, well-muscled, with oddly sweet brown eyes in a rough, thick-browed face -- "Arddun is worried about you going about on your own."
"He needn't be."
"Even so," says Peredur. A soft intensity all through the way he sits and in the slight, involuntary motion of his hand.
"I won't stop."
"No," he says. "But perhaps I'll go with you." He leans yet further towards her, and Morgana tilts her head, to look at him side-on, not quite face-before-face.
"You have your kingdom to see to," she says. "Peredur-- You mustn't neglect that."
"I'll make time. For you--"
Arthur cuts in: "Morgana. I'll go with you on your morning walks and rides from now on. King Peredur is right, you're not safe on your own."
Morgana looks between them with only cold, mild displeasure on her face; but Arthur hears the fire roar, sudden and fierce.
"Well," says Peredur. "Well, that's-- Of course, I expect -- King Arthur -- is the best person to protect you."
Arthur nods to Morgana, and meets and holds her gaze. "You were my father's ward, after all -- I ought to be keeping an eye on you. You're my responsibility now."
He remembers the day that Merlin and Guinevere left -- the only keys to the cells never strayed from their loop at Arthur's waist, but by then, he knew exactly why it would make no difference. It was early in the morning when he heard the alarm bell ring out, pealing through the weak grey of the dawning light, and hastened his way down to the dungeons to find them empty of all but their guards, iron doors swinging on their hinges.
Camelot's inching, crumbling fall began at the coast and grew, finding its way inland, fragment by fragment, glinting with a silvery weapon-shine and suffused with the damp, salt smell of the Sea Wolves' ships. The precise pinpoint in time of the starting-place is hard to know -- the raids along the shore-side towns had been a long-standing nuisance, not pleasant but familiar with age. Their increase came year by year, the raids worsening, spreading inland. And then -- at some point, Arthur thinks, some Saxon Prince must have stood upon Arthur's father's land and looked about him on Camelot's rich fields, its forests abundant with game, surveyed it all and thought that he might stay and take this wealth for his own. A younger son, perhaps, with too many brothers to compete for a too-small inheritance at home. Or several such -- there were several, in the end.
So the Saxons began to stay -- to take not just goods but the land itself. They settled along the coast as if in a kingless country, established themselves as if this were soil to which any man could lay claim. They held to the seemings of a lawless nuisance, fell back in the face of small forces of knights and men sent to root them out; then they surged back in ever-greater numbers.
The spring of that year -- less than a full year ago, even now -- the spring came solemn and slow-moving, weighted-down with inland mists and still, windless days. And in late April, Gaius, ill for some time, slipped the last, slight step out of his long-worn life; in the last days of Camelot's glory. And in May, as spring slipped its way into summer, there came the messenger came who broke the news -- like the first fire-yellow line of morning sun on the horizon, in a dawn that has been hours building yet only in this moment first seem real. His news: the lawless foreign rabble of raiders, that coastal nuisance, had slaughtered every one of the latest party sent upon them. A hundred good men, all gone. Comprehension of what might truly be afoot glimmered awake in the court of Camelot and awoke to strong life -- far too late.
Arthur remembers, one day, in the midst of summer and long, dragging war, looking over all his knights and his soldiers, taking in the mud on the shine of their shields, the growing, huddled cluster of the wounded -- he can't remember when it was he first felt the wrench of the loss still yet to come, but he remembers the new, dark, untested feel in his chest of that new-coming pain. His knows well how his father must have felt it too, and stronger.
And what Uther did -- three months, as it all turned out, before the ultimate end of his reign -- in his desperation, in his fear, what he did was to round up every man, woman and child with whom any most faint connection with magic had ever been made. All these, once cleared, now charged all over again, he now threatened with the executioner's block. He had hated magic for more than two decades with a passion ever-more inflamed, a belief that should he once turn his back or let his anger and his persecutions cease, he might lose his all. Now he believed too that his new prisoners could use the powers most did not have to save his beleaguered kingdom.
That old idea that Guinevere had once healed her father by witchcraft was dredged up; along with Merlin's once-disbelieved confession. Uther had remembered every whisper of suspicion, every slightest accusation, had stored them up in his mind and now brought them out, mutated beyond their first forms by the force of his desperation.
It was a terrible thing, but Arthur understands. His father's reason was always distorted by the idea of magic. It was a mania -- Arthur has always blamed the mania, not the man. And then, he did pay: in his madness, Uther drove off the one person who might have been powerful and willing enough to help. Merlin might have saved Arthur's father, Arthur thinks. Merlin would have done it, no matter what Uther's blindnesses, he would still have done the right thing. Only that he had a subterranean dungeon full of innocents to save instead.
Uther pronounced his sixty orders for sixty deaths -- regal, tall, on his feet at the head of his hall; gloved fingers crammed neurotically with gems. A little crazed, but then, that day, as on many others, his authority did not lie in his reason. It was in that visceral sense, in all the men of his court, that here was a man who had won battle after battle, war after war. The blood of every enemy slain was in his words and seemed, as at times before, to flow anew -- a new life and vigour from all those innumerable deaths. Surely this killer of men could save them still.
And Arthur stood by and was quiet with the memory of how many times he had questioned his father's judgement before, to no avail; and the thought of how little wise it would be to question him now. He watched Morgana, seated on her throne by his father's throne, and waited for what she would say -- tension humming round the hinge-points of his jaw. But Morgana kept silent. Arthur now thinks, perhaps she knew, already, what would be. She must have known part.
The nearest she came to a protest was her refusal when Uther offered her the choice of any girl she would like for a new maidservant:
"Gwen can't be replaced." She spoke with sureness, but with quietness; if angry, subdued.
Arthur remembers -- not the day or the date, but the feel of looking out over the battlements, days later; the bare touch of a breeze on his face, soft light, a clouded sky. A dungeon's load of King-condemned runaways on his mind. He almost missed the sound of Morgana's step as she came to stand beside him.
"They're all safe," she said. She paused. "They've headed for the eastern coast -- they'll leave Albion altogether."
He turned to her. In her expression, as she now looked out, he found something unrecognisable.
"You don't need to worry," she said.
"Merlin-- The rest." He remembers the stupid surprise in his voice, and that it felt like a blow, to understand that she knew their plans -- had probably always known -- whilst he had not and did not. "You're in contact with them," he said.
She looked down, the movement slow like a sigh. "I don't need to be," -- and she touched her hand to the stone of the castle battlements. She bent her head to look back at him. The corners of her mouth just barely curved, then curved down and she closed her eyes. "You know," she said. "Or-- I have to tell you. Arthur. By all rights, I should have been in one of those cells."
Arthur rather likes the tightness about Morgana's jaw when he's there as arranged to play her escort, the morning after his promise. He's more sombre today -- not sure how much he wants the role -- but he still likes that look on her face.
The cold is enough that Arthur's cheeks sting, and he feels it in pricklings as the heat of a flush is drawn into his skin. He's had the servants saddle a pair of horses; she looks them over, looks at him, and tells him she won't ride today, she'll walk. Though of course he's still free to join her. And so they set off alongside the edge of the forest -- a cavernous mass of snow-hidden trees, darkening swathes of land to the southeast of the castle.
Morgana winds in and out of the thins and thicknesses of forest coverage, over the thinner snow on the inside of more isolated, orphan-looking trees or at the outside of those places where the trunks grow dense and thick together. Whatever the reasoning behind this trip, she doesn't tell him, any more than she has when she went out alone. He doesn't care to ask. Still, Arthur wonders what Morgana's intentions are for this land -- whether she wants to keep it or simply use it, amass an army here or draw one in, to its death. Perhaps she simply likes knowing that she could own all this, if she wanted it. Perhaps -- it's possible -- she even intends to give it over to Arthur.
Arthur has his own plans, well-known to Morgana, impossible that they should not be -- knights dispersed across Albion, testing out support, playing on his own name, his father's, Merlin's or that of Morgana herself, whichever will hold most sway; and playing on that fear and hatred of the Saxons that is gradually, gradually eroding all their long-nurtured neighbourly enmities.
His men's messengers come too infrequently. Morgana scries for him sometimes -- he doesn't like it. He finds the moving, distorting pictures -- that thin surface-skin of image on moving water; the ripple of real lives set out in simulacrum -- too unsettling. He can't feel certain that what he sees is real. Not to speak of the way she lets him 'hear' -- like thin, neat, sickening carvings of writing on his brain.
And through this, all the while, here in Ebrauc, Arthur himself remains dormant. Coordinating. Staying alive, ready for the bloodbath of a war even he can feel mustering in every inch of Albion, from edge to ragged, wind-torn edge. Gathering itself up, the way a sea wave tugs in and sucks at the shore, swelling higher and heavier until it breaks, with a crash and a surge.
He is almost impatient for it. Arthur has been taught to fight, to kill, to excel in every part of war: but not to wait.
He tries to train up the men here, in the scraps and spots of time when they're not busy with their repairs or their animals, or shovelling snow. He plans how he would best defend Peredur's castle from attack. He studies all the messages his men send, over and over; he pores over maps of Albion, and even beyond. He makes plans upon plans upon plans upon plans, near-none of which will ever come to a thing, he knows all too well.
The fall of snowflakes is very gentle, as they walk. A warm-up: a tide-me-by for the next half-blizzard to come. Morgana and Arthur's feet crunch deep footprints into the snow-floor and leave an unbalanced trail, darker on Arthur's side from his bigger feet -- the composite pattern something lesser than the sparse dotted line he's often watched Morgana form when alone. He's got her at his sword-side, on his right, the trees to her right; if he were really protecting her he ought to be between her and the trees, with a clean swing across the darkness. He can't think, in this moment, whether he set things thus or whether she did.
With the curve-round of the forest edge, they come to a frozen-over stream, spearing icily into the thick of the trees at a sharp angle, the thin line of it a neat depression in the landscape out ahead. The surface is invisible outside of the trees -- Arthur knows the stream is there because it must be, because he sees it begin to emerge beneath the deep shade, but here, there is only a downward-and-upward curve in thick snow, a play of light and whiteness and the faint, transparent, disappearing black of shadow.
They could follow the stream's flow -- against its flow, in fact -- and reach the fat, slow river at Ebrauc's south, which snails its way eastwards from the Rheged hills to its gaping estuary at the coast. Both far from here. Hills -- the thought is a sudden tug upon Arthur's mind -- and the coast, the ancient beat of sea against shore. He misses a landscape with age to it.
Morgana steps lightly across the stream. Caught up in other things, Arthur kneels down where he stands, his sword scabbard bumping a channel into the ground. He presses his gloved hands into the snow and digs through, down to find the living soil beneath. Ahead, he sees Morgana pause: odd flakes of snow clinging in her hair; snow settled at the shoulders of her furs, two shades of white, meeting. She's very still. Arthur reaches the soil and the snow falls in on it from the sides. Morgana walks a few paces further.
"Catch up, or I'll leave you here," she says.
He gathers up the snow he's displaced, compacts it into a ball, and throws it at the back of her head. It hits.
It smashes into several clumps, which slide to the ground, leaving spatters of powder to mark the collision. Arthur watches in fascination as these quickly melt and evaporate out of existence, as if by some newfound will of their own. He scoops up more snow -- he feels suddenly childish; he wants to taunt her, like pulling her hair when they were young, stealing her pretty things or dipping her trailing sleeves in her soup when she wasn't looking his way. She turns around as he throws, so that he catches her at the side of her face. A lot of the snow drops to rest where the thick collar of her coat meets her bare skin -- he thinks it's instinct that makes her swipe the most away with her hand. He imagines the leather of her glove making a slight, soft sound against the soft fur and her skin. Morgana frowns and the remaining snow melts, disappears, as before.
She heads back to him, swift, as he bends for more snow, and he does not expect what she does: she twists in her steps and slips round to the side of him whilst Arthur is still half-stooped. He hears his sword sing out -- she steals it from its sheath. He's got a dagger in hand as fast as he can think, or faster, and he blocks her as she holds the sword's blade to his neck. She's always liked to do that. Mind tracking back -- she really wasn't armed, Arthur realises. He feels more unsettled for this than from the sword.
Metal bites against metal, and Morgana keeps her eyes on the bite, steely. "I don't want to play." Something in her voice like the harsh gleam of a frozen lake, dark with cracks.
"All right," Arthur says. With exertion -- the angle works against him -- he forces the sword a slight way back towards her. "But do you want to fight? I'll beat you."
"You might not," she says. She grimaces, teeth white and pressed together between her lips. Arthur feels -- senses -- a kind of heat from the sword, unnatural, unreal. Theatrical, Arthur thinks. There are still things he knows about Morgana.
"Are you sure you could win?" she says.
"You really want to find out?" He's not sure that he'd mind, come to that. There's the risk that she really might win, though not by strength; but then, there's the thought that he could beat her. He has another dagger hidden at his back, so he draws that, too.
The flash of quick blows they exchange is tense but familiar -- a pause for thought. And by its end, somehow, Arthur knows: they're not really going to fight. They end caught together, the sword's blade held, just, between his two daggers. He sighs; she shakes her head.
"Okay," she says. "All right." But her eyes glint and the sword slides on a turn, seeking to wedge its way out. "We're supposed to be--" She pauses. "Allies," she says.
"Yes," he says, "We are," and he keeps the sword clamped tight.
It's another few minutes until they loosen apart and step back from each other, he from her, she from him. Arthur sheathes his daggers and Morgana holds his sword out, hilt up, blade down, for him to take, and their gloves brush together as he does so in an unwavering, certain touch. So that there's one second, only that, where Arthur remembers all the times he used to wonder if he was in love with her.
He sheathes his sword. Morgana makes quick adjustments to her clothes, re-ordering herself to a more perfect kind of elegance.
Arthur thinks, she was the apple of his father's eye. Even when she rebelled; even when Uther was furious with her, imprisoned her, threatened her; even when she seemed to do everything possible to make him hate her -- no matter what, he still and always adored her. He probably loved her more than he loved anything. And in their bitterest fights, Arthur could never resist stepping in, trying to smooth his father's temper, making promises on Morgana's behalf he half-knew she would never keep.
They cross the stream together and continue, wedged between it and the rough, fraying line of the trees. Arthur can make out the sketched suggestion of a village, far-off but in their direction. He turns his head to watch inside the forest and imagines other forests, other seasons; clashing harmonies of birdsong, the smell of earth and growth, the company of his men and the easy weight of his bow at his back, a quiver of arrows at his side. Morgana, chin at a high tilt, decked out in men's leathers, bow in hand.
"That day," Arthur says, without quite thinking or meaning to speak; his mind tangled in memory and sense-memory. "That day, remember? You dragged us all out of the castle." Coming back to himself -- having started, Arthur thinks, having said this much, he decides: he'll go on. "You knew what was coming."
"Which day?" Morgana says.
"You saved us," he says, and he makes sure there's an accusation there in his tone. He thinks of the lines of his father's face, the iron in his eyes and will. His hard-won, infrequent approval. "But not my father."
She walks on, speeds up briefly, then seems to catch herself: she returns to pace.
"He looked after you," Arthur says, "from the day your father died." He'll push her as hard as it takes. "You were -- you know that-- you were-- like more than a daughter to him." No good, not right. He grabs Morgana's wrist to stop her. He reaches into himself and thinks he finds an iron all his own. "You chose not to save him."
Morgana says, "Oh," and tugs at her wrist, which Arthur does not free. "That day."
"I'd like an answer," he says.
"I-- Yes," she says. She lets her wrist still. "I di-- I knew what was coming."
"And my father."
She says, "I couldn't save him," in a murmur. Lips barely moving, but voice clear, nevertheless. Morgana, Arthur thinks, still doesn't, wouldn't know how to speak and not be heard. She grew up too much liked.
"A proper answer," Arthur says. He decides he'll release her wrist, slowly; he uncurls one finger at a time. He looks into her face and the narrows of her still-beautiful eyes. She turns her face down.
"He was going to die." It's not a good answer. "Yes, I could have brought Uther away, but they -- the Saxons -- they would only have followed. They wanted him dead, needed him definitely, unquestionably dead so they could rule, and they were definitely, always -- whatever happened, they would kill him. He was just--" She looks up, but past Arthur's face. "He was going to die. Inevitably. I couldn't save him." Terribly slowly. "I saved you. And as many others as I could."
Over the years, Arthur thinks -- over the years, his father killed what must have been hundreds of sorcerers, witches, seers -- people like Morgana. Her kind. Though if he'd known what she was, it might have been different for her. It would have. To Arthur, this seems like certainty. But to Morgana, he thinks, his father never mattered. She came close to aiding in his murder at least once, Arthur knows. Even though she could never, not ever have been his, to Morgana, Arthur thinks, decides -- in this moment, it seems true -- perhaps to her, Arthur's father was always an enemy.
"You could have tried," he says. Then: "I know you could have saved him."
"I couldn't." Quiet, with a lightness that strains to break.
Arthur remembers -- they thought they had won. The Saxons had fought them, not in pitched battle but skirmish by skirmish, raid by raid, a slow, bloodstained progress. They corroded Arthur's father's kingdom in the count of deaths -- a few more dead each day -- and in the gnawing beginnings of hunger, as they stole too-essential crops, store by store and cart by cart. Then, like a gift, came the autumn rains -- a weeks-long downpour that sent the Saxons huddling in their quick-built shelters, sodden and cold, whilst Camelot restrengthened, well-sheltered.
The day the skies cleared Arthur and his father marched south to the Saxon encampment with all their men, and slaughtered every Saxon they found. The shoreline was littered with bodies: the Pendragons found their victory entirely convincing. A scant few Saxon Princes survived, they knew. They assumed these men would flee. They never thought defeated men would quietly gather more forces, would hold less faith than the victors in the permanency of defeat. (How long -- Arthur has often wondered -- did Morgana know differently?)
The beginning of November brought strange, dry days where the late autumn sun raged up hot, one last-stand burst of summerlike warmth. A crisp, golden time. Camelot burnt away her sorrows on the pyres of her battle-dead, and swelled with her victory, men spreading out into the forests and fields.
And then -- the day the great castle itself burned, Arthur wasn't there to see the fire start. Morgana called him off to the hunt in the early hours of that morning, with as many knights as she could gather -- they chased a white hart Arthur never saw. He would later hear that she had sent off a fair number of the servants yet earlier that same day, on invented tasks far from the castle and town.
She hadn't told a soul of her plans. She shared confidence with no one. Arthur supposes she was still afraid of what her fate might be if she made known what she was. He supposes that there had to be enough men in the castle for the Saxons to be satisfied with their kill. He supposes Morgana judged no one more fit than herself, and herself alone, to judge who should live and who, of the many endangered that day, should be left to die.
When the Saxons came, the defeated Princes and their new hundreds of war-tested reinforcements, it was to a half-empty castle -- though their most important victim was still inside. There were far, far too many of them for Camelot to ever have fought them off, with however much warning. And yet whatever the circumstances, and whatever he might have been told, Arthur's father would always have stayed to fight. Arthur knows -- makes sure that he knows -- that the defeat itself, at least-- He still hopes this was not amongst the things Morgana could have changed. For her sake, even, he hopes this.
He thinks his father must have barred himself and his men within the castle and prepared for a siege. He remembers, intensely, his father's faith in the strength of those beautiful walls. Beautiful, yes, but well made: too strong, surely, to be easily battered down by as many Sea Wolves and more as might come to put the first Pendragons' workmanship to the test. Arthur can imagine the confusion, and the slow, slow dawn of understanding as the Saxons gave a bare, token siege. They had brought some timber; and the most of their men made their way around the castle's edge and to the forests, where they gathered more.
He has most of what happened from the peasants' tales that spread, fast, throughout Albion and perhaps beyond. The Saxons will have their own tale -- of how they conquered Camelot. Of how so few were there, in the end, to defend the king; how scant the fight Uther put up. Arthur can imagine it. He expects -- he believes -- Morgana probably knows what happened best of all. Perhaps every detail, from every angle. He remembers the sound of her screams in the night, many nights before that day; the low, constant, muffled whisperings of the servants. Safe on her pretty bay horse, with a too-large pack at the saddle: Morgana, with Arthur, with her favourites, miles off when the Saxons first reached Arthur's father. She already knew.
The Saxons collected up brushwood and chopped dry branches and trees, fast and rough. And as the day wore on, they piled all their wood around the castle's edge. There were enough of them, and they kept up enough attack: the castle became an inescapable trap.
If Arthur had been there, he would have fought them. Far outnumbered and outmatched, he would have fought, nevertheless, and, yes, he would probably have died that day with his father. He often wishes he could have had the choice he knows he would not have made well.
It was a beautiful, dry day. The wood, set alight, caught fast. And Arthur knows, the Saxons had little magic, but they had enough to make a fire burn hotter and fierce. Nightmare-hot.
Arthur thinks of the times he has seen a whole forest ablaze. The way a small flame licks up, grows and devours the parched wood, dancing from branch to branch. He has heard that when the fire grew rich and strong, the walls of the castle of Camelot glowed red; and that the agony of the stone was audible -- he has heard it said that the men and women in the fields heard the sound a mountain would make if a mountain could scream.
The smoke rose up, and the castle burned, fierce and hot like ceaseless pain, and bright, aglow, as evening and darkness fell. A light to light all Albion. The smoke rose up, and the smell of burning carried across the fertile lands. Arthur watched, safely distant. Morgana at his side and her hand close to his hand -- as yet, in this moment, he understood nothing. They were still near enough, and the wind that fanned the flames just right, that fragments of smoke-ash smell could catch on his senses. He breathed it in.
They had no crown but the men, in their hunting gear, still got down on their knees to him as their King. And Morgana knelt to him too, took his hand between hers, and told him they had no choice but to run, please, run, Arthur, we have to.
And he could not have led his men on a suicide mission. They all swore they would not let him go without them, even Morgana amongst them -- they would follow him where he went but please Arthur. No. He knew, too, that it was a worthless idea. Futile. They fled.
There was no pursuit. As far as Arthur can tell, the Saxons did not and do not care enough for the authority of a still-young, barely-tested Prince to chase him across Albion. They are happy with his father's kingdom. Faced with what is now come, his father might have rallied men better -- they would have looked at him and seen, in his stride, his iron-cold eyes and his battle-dress, the memory of countless victories: like a promise of more. Men would have thronged to him and conquered beneath his flag. Arthur has barely more than a handful of scraps to his name; a part in one sodden slaughtering; and one absence that must be notorious.
"Arthur--" Morgana says. "Arthur--" She seems to search for something she can say. "You know, I think Merlin will be here by the spring."
"I thought you didn't know that," he says. He thinks, they'll go back, and soon. This was a mistake. They'll go back to Peredur's castle; Peredur will fuss over Morgana, hang on her looks and words, adore her like a fool; perhaps there will be a messenger for Arthur. Or some men he can train. Someone up for a little sparring. Arddun, perhaps. He'll find someone else who can watch Morgana -- whatever it is she's doing. She's plotting something, he knows that, at least.
She shakes snow from her hair, nudges it bluntly with her glove. "No, but-- I think he will. You know Merlin."
"He's loyal." And honest. Straightforward. Good qualities -- too rare.
The breeze has strengthened -- Arthur sucks cold air into his lungs -- and the thick covering of snow shifts in the tops of the top-heavy trees. Some falls to the ground, snow upon snow, yet more white upon white. The sun, at its low winter height, shines full and pale in the sky: moonlike.
"Mm," Morgana says, "he is loyal. And -- you know -- he's got a name. I'm, um. I'm realising it. There are legends, stories, people know who he is -- Emrys -- and they know he saved all those people, back-- Before."
"He's really just Merlin," Arthur says, but Morgana shakes her head, stubborn, wire-taut unwilling not to talk.
"We'll get it all back," she says. "We'll find a way. We'll fight. Somehow, we will find the men, and when we do we'll keep fighting until it's done -- you'll get Camelot back, and -- somehow -- you'll be King of all Kings. I know it. I promise you. I know it will happen."
Arthur lets this hang -- lets it weaken in the silence. He looks back over their uneven trail as they keep walking, slowly. Eventually, he asks her:
"And does everything you dream come true?"
He knows: "It doesn't."
"Not always," she admits.
"For instance. There've been times, in the past, when you've dreamed someone's death and you've saved them."
"I do know, though," she says. "There is a difference-- I know when I'm dreaming something to change, and when something can't not happen. I can tell," she says, "for definite," something weighing in her voice. "And this-- you--" she picks up fast: "You will be High King, it's unalterable, I promise, I-- Arthur-- we'll somehow make this right. I promise, we will, I'm certain. It's definitely true."
But that isn't the way the world works, Arthur knows. There have been times when he has felt that strange sense of inevitability, that sense that he can hear the world sing a single course for all that is yet to be -- in the rush of battle, his confidence soaring, red mist before his eyes and the blood smell at the back of his throat, full of now, he has felt that there can be no other future than the one straight line that leads to his victory. He has believed he knows what he cannot know: that he will live to drive his sword through his enemy's chest: that he will live and his enemy die. He knows that certainty is a lie. And he knows: Morgana must see this too. Morgana, who had him flee his kingdom on a night he knows, he could feel it, she knew he could have died. Destiny is only destiny. Even a Seer's dreams -- till the sharp knife's edge of the fragment-second they come to b --, are still as yet only dreams. Nothing is unalterable.
Tomorrow, perhaps, he will think all this again. He'll hear her voice over again, and see her face in his mind, and he'll watch as she sets out, a thick bundle of furs, white against white -- Peredur at her side, smiling over her -- as she sets out wandering the snow. Perhaps, with sudden, fervid horror, Arthur will think something new.
She doesn't know. And she has no plans, not for him, not against him, nor even for herself. He'll remember her voice -- somehow, somehow, somehow -- and he'll think, she doesn't know. She's lost all trust in her dreams. She's lost.
But if he thinks it, he'll put the thought away. She's dangerous, she's-- she's Morgana, she's-- She planned and saw through so much. How could she lose her way now?
In this moment -- in the now that is all there is -- all he says is, "The future isn't written in stone." And all he thinks is: nor was the past.
"Some things are," Morgana says. "Some things were-- can't be changed. Some things have to come true." She bites down on her lip and she holds her furs tight and tighter about her. "I promise." He sees her shiver when she says, "Let's go back."