We are only mortal
but being mortal
can defy our fate.
-William Carlos Williams, "The Ivy Crown"
Morgana’s heart stuttered double-time, her legs and lungs pumping as she forced herself to run, race, fly across the leaf-covered carpet of the forest floor. Behind her, the sounds of terror thundered closer, running with a cat’s unnatural grace, screaming with an inhuman voice.
Then, a human scream.
She turned without thought, nightmares crowding her vision. The beast - she couldn’t look at the beast. Instead she focused on Sir Leon, lying face down on the ground and being dragged up by his brother Sir Bedivere. Above them, she felt more than saw the beast pause and rear, its horrible snake’s head pulling back to strike.
Leon gained his feet and plowed forward, head down, his brown hair falling across his eyes. Bedivere followed, but Morgana stayed frozen, knowing what would happen next.
And there - Bedivere’s ankle turned. As the creature reared again, screaming in triumph, Bedivere went down silently, face twisted with surprise. He caught her eye, his lips mouthing a single word: run!
Morgana did run, but not away. She ran straight at the beast, drawing her sword with a cry of rage. Even as its clawed foot came down on Bedivere’s arm and raked it to a bloody mess, she was already charging, her vision narrowing to a red fury.
Nothing can kill it, she remembered Gwen saying in despair, her finger tracing the page in one of Gaius’s books. Nothing but iron wielded by magic, which we haven’t got any of, and a hand blessed by the gods of the Old Religion.
Then we die, Morgana thought and reared back, throwing her sword spear-like with all her strength.
For a moment, she thought the point would glance off harmlessly, but then the steel straightened and flew more true, a green light building around the pommel and arcing to the tip. The blade spun, burying itself into the side of the creature’s neck, and the green light burst outward.
Panting, Morgana bent down and caught Bedivere under his good arm, dragging up his limp weight to rest across her shoulders.
“Come on, move, damn you!” she hissed in his ear. The creature behind them was screaming again, a bone-chilling sound, and its thrashing shook the forest floor and made the giant trees tremble like rushes. “Move your legs or we’ll be crushed,” she yelled again, louder, and this time he tried, lifting first one knee and then the other slowly, like a lame horse.
And then his weight was lifting from her, his voice crying out, and they were staggering forward, almost running again. She chanced a sideways glance and saw Leon. His face was scratched and bloody, his eyes terrified. He was holding most of Bedivere’s weight with one arm, with the strength of a madman.
Morgana jerked her eyes back to the forest floor. If he looked like that, what must her face look like right now? She didn’t want to know.
In the distance behind them, the screams of the enraged beast echoed like a promise of things to come.
“The beast is gravely injured, Sire. Possibly dead.”
“You are not certain.” Uther's eyes were critical, his hands clenched on the arms of his throne. What would she have given to see him raise one hand and press one finger to his cheek in thought, or to his lips to cover amusement? But no, he sat immutable, clearly containing his fury. There would be no reprieve from his temper or his criticism today. Not even though she had other things to worry about. Not even though they were surrounded by the prying eyes of court.
“I am not certain,” she grated out.
He sat back, slightly mollified by her concession. “Casualties?”
“Sir Bedivere is with the healer now. He may lose his sword-arm. Sir Leon is with them to help.” And I, she thought, am stuck here reporting to you. My luck.
“So the loss of one knight against the possibility that the creature may be dead.”
Morgana ground her teeth and stayed silent. Arthur had lost more knights than that, but his father had never criticized whatever losses were necessary to preserve Camelot. Not when Arthur had ridden out.
“Leave us,” Uther said, hand waving negligently as if clearing the dust from a table. The room emptied around her.
It was strange: There should be more breathing space now, with no bodies crowding in and only one pair of eyes pressing down on her, but now the movement of Uther’s hand up to his face, his finger pressing to his cheek in the old, familiar gesture - none of it held any comfort. She felt bound in the tightest corset, unable to breathe.
“Morgana,” he began quietly, his voice tired.
“Sire.” She stood at parade rest, hands behind her back. The posture felt foreign to her body.
He watched her shift, and if anything, his eyes became more tired. “I, more than anyone, wish you could become… him. But you cannot. You cannot act against my orders and sneak out to join the knights on their missions. You cannot risk yourself. If something should happen to me, right now you are the only link to stability for this kingdom.”
Through marriage, Morgana thought but didn’t say. She knew Uther would put that day off as long as possible, just as he would go up every morning to the southern battlements and look out over the forest and the rolling hills, watching the road disappear like a ribbon into the hazy distance. He was waiting for Arthur still, and Morgana - Morgana was done with waiting.
“If that’s all, Sire? I have a wounded man to see to.”
Uther waved her off, not even looking in her direction anymore. He was staring blankly at the wall where Arthur’s shield still hung.
Morgana turned on her heel and stalked out, frustrated. If only he had yelled, maybe she could have said some of these unforgivable things that had hovered on the back of her tongue for the last two months, ever since that fateful morning when the bells rang out to proclaim that Arthur was missing, along with his manservant, five other prisoners, and half a dozen royal horses.
The horses, at least, had come home. Morgana was beginning to doubt Arthur ever would.
The physician’s chambers, which Morgana still thought of as “Gaius’s rooms”, were rather more orderly than they’d been in Gaius’s day. Aglain liked to keep things organized so anyone who knew the physician’s arts could find whatever they needed in relatively short order. The books in the alcove above the stairs still lay haphazardly stacked where Gaius had left them, but the medicines and medical equipment sat neatly on shelves labeled in clear Latin, or hung from pegs on the walls.
As Morgana entered, she saw the center table lay covered by a makeshift stretcher with Bedivere curled on top. Leon was wiping his brother’s face and bald head with a cloth and whispering, his back to the door. From this angle, Morgana couldn’t see the blood-soaked bandages around Bedivere’s ruined arm, and she was glad of that.
The new physician, Aglain, nodded at her from across the room. He was gathering tools that looked unfriendly, sharp and strangely hooked in a way that made her belly crawl.
Safer, then, to look at the stack of books Gwen had pulled out last night (a year ago, it felt like now). The top one still lay open, its spine crackling against the weight of its own pages. Read, then, the Latin invited, of the Questing Beast of nightmare and omen.
Morgana looked away again.
The door creaked open behind her. She turned to find Gwen slipping inside, her dress already wrinkled and stained with things Morgana didn’t want to ask about. Gwen grabbed an apron off the hook to tie around herself, then grabbed another for Morgana.
There were stains on the apron, too. Morgana’s stomach roiled.
Gwen took one look at her face, carefully put the second apron back, and took hold of Morgana’s arm with gentle, familiar fingers. “Outside,” she murmured. “Guard the door, My Lady.”
A moment later, Morgana found herself out into the hallway, the door shutting firmly behind her. And that was where she stood, biting her lip and sometimes covering her ears to hide from Bedivere's muffled screams behind her and Leon’s deep, shattering sobs. Outside the window, the moon was rising, quiet and uncaring. She let the pale light wash her mind clean and prayed for no more nightmares.
If this was winning against fate, she wondered what losing felt like.
Morning. Sunlight broke sharp across her face, rousing Morgana to cover her watering eyes. Blinking, she twisted in place, discovering that her bed last night was less a bed and more a set of steps leading up through the alcove into the physician’s chambers.
On the plus side, no one could have marched an army past without stepping on her. On the minus side, any number of kitchen waifs could have traipsed barefoot over her prone body and she likely wouldn’t have noticed. Indeed, she rather wondered if they had, given how deeply her muscles ached.
Behind her, the door opened. She tipped her head back on the step and watched as Leon staggered out, making it a few steps down before he sat abruptly, covering his scratched face with both hands. She scooted up, setting her hand on his foot. Which was... rather disgusting. She shifted her grip to his ankle.
“He’ll live,” Leon whispered, voice cracking like a boy’s.
Morgana sighed relief, tension flowing out of her body, taking with it some of the aches.
“That’s good,” she replied. “That’s - good.”
“He didn’t want to,” Leon went on, as if she hadn’t spoken. “He asked me to kill him. He asked me over and over and I just kept saying no, you can do this, no, you’re going to be okay and then he, and then he-”
Leon stopped, body shaking, curling in on himself. Morgana wanted to flinch away, but she remembered Gwen, crying and begging her to help Tom. Arthur, his face ashen, spinning in place as he asked her, What should I do? Merlin, sitting calmly chained to a wall in his cell, silenced by an iron gag but letting his eyes speak for him. Get them out safely.
And in the end, weren’t all those prisoners still alive - Merlin, Tom, the Innkeeper and his family? Exiled and alone, balanced on the thin mercy of strangers, but alive. Alive, there were possibilities that death did not offer. Pain, yes, but more than that. Things they could not even imagine yet.
“He’s in pain right now,” Morgana murmured, sliding her arm around Leon’s hunched shoulders, “but he won’t always be. You made the right choice. He’ll be glad later.”
“Will he?” Leon whispered, but he let her hold him like that, awkwardly with one arm, like comrades.
That morning, with the sun creeping up the dusty stairs and Leon’s drooping head on her shoulder, Morgana made a decision. Wordless, formless, it was nothing more than an all-encompassing desire to protect, a fierce possessiveness that sought to battle against all comers. These people were hers. If Arthur could not be here to defend them, then she would.
Three princes were lost in Camelot in the summer of the beast: Owaine, son of Urien, to a dead knight returned from the crypt; Pellinore, son of Pellinore the Elder, to that same dead knight; and Arthur, son of Uther, who chose exile over the death of his subjects. And after these three were lost, the kingdoms of Rheged, Anglesey, and Camelot each fell into sorrow and disarray, for the heirs of their kings were gone. As for Urien, he became bitter, and withdrew from his fellows. Pellinore fell slowly into madness, from which he did not return for many years. And Uther Pendragon waited upon the highest tower of his castle each day at noon for sight of his son, but in vain, for Arthur did not return that year or the next.