Chapter 1: Prologue
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.
Chapter 2: Visitors
A year and a half later…
Furious, Morgana shouted and swung, sword arcing a silver line that whistled under Sir Kay’s chin, narrowly missing his neck.
“What the bloody-” Kay swore and yanked his helmet off, flinging it to the ground. His pale face was red with fury, his large nose prominent. Clumps of brown hair stuck to his forehead, darkened and matted with sweat. “This is training,” he bellowed, “not a fight to the death!”
Morgana’s swordpoint rested against his chest, right below the gorget, where she could easily skewer his ribs through the padded tunic he wore. “Then I suggest,” she told him coldly, “that you watch your mouth.”
Angrily, he batted her sword away with his own like she was a particularly annoying insect. “So what now? No one’s to mention your sex on the field, or suggest you change your approach? All I said was that you need a lighter sword because you can barely lift that one. A real knight listens to advice. You were more mature when you were ten-”
“And you haven’t changed a bit!” Grimacing, she caught his blade with her hilt, twisting until he was forced to drop it. Damn him! He’d always liked Arthur more, teasing him like a little brother and showing him sword tricks when Morgana wasn’t around so she wouldn’t beat Arthur as easily. Kay had mourned when Arthur left, going sourpuss enough that even his fellow knights avoided him on his bad days. His favorite pastime lately was to find fault with her technique, her choice of weapons, her strength. Why wouldn’t he just let her be?
Why wouldn’t he let her be enough?
“My Lady?” Sir Caradoc cleared his throat diffidently, his blond head bowed.
She sighed. “We’re done here.” She sheathed her sword, pulled off her helmet, and tugged her gloves off sharply. “I’m late to attend His Majesty. The rest of you lot, keep going until the noon bell.” She resisted the urge to slam Kay's shoulder as she passed. She was more mature than that. Yes, more mature than this man. Arthur’s man. Arthur’s friend. Why had she ever thought he might be hers?
As she stalked from the field, she felt many pairs of eyes follow her, but only one person was looking her way when she glanced back. Sir Palamedes held her gaze quietly, his face unreadable. While around him the men began to pair off to practice their footwork, he stood still, like a commander taking in the landscape the day before a battle. In that moment, she could see why he was Master of the Foot, responsible for the entire infantry of Camelot. His black eyes met hers unflinchingly. Though no expression showed on his face, she felt somehow that she had been judged and found wanting.
Unsettled, she turned away and strode inside, calling for Gwen.
Now in a dress, Morgana swept up the long stairs of the upper keep and out onto the battlements. The wind blew directly into her face the moment she turned the corner, shockingly cold despite its southerly origins.
South, a direction that had no gates and no vulnerabilities. South, where the river wound and the valley extended past the immediate forest and off into the hazy distance, following the long road. South, the way Uther always faced now, even in his dreams.
“My lord,” she murmured, coming to stand beside him. His hand covered hers on the cold stone. They stood in silence for a long time, the sun drifting higher above them, warming the air but not the stone, as spring so often did.
“You’re up late today,” she said, not looking at him. He liked to have his illusions of privacy, but his manservant had caught Gwen yesterday to tell her about the lingering cough from his illness last month. Morgana hadn’t told Gwen that she’d heard the worst of it herself, walking sleepless through the halls outside the royal apartments. It was a habit she had acquired last month, when he’d caught that chill on the first warm day, as the snow melted.
“I was up late last night with reports,” he lied. He pressed his gloved hand to his lips for a moment, chest working, then cleared his throat. “Nothing to concern you,” his voice rasped.
She laid her free hand on his arm and leaned closer, trying to block some small part of the wind with her body. A futile gesture, yes, but she couldn’t seem to help those where he was concerned.
Down below, a caravan broke from the trees and entered bow range, horses and knights glittering in the sunlight. A pair of carts followed a little ways behind, jolt-jogging down the road behind a pair of ponies each.
“Leodegrance and Elaine are early,” Uther said. “Are their rooms prepared?”
“Yes, my lord.” Another duty. Arthur’s keys hung heavy on her belt. “We’ve been ready for three days.”
“Good, good.” He went back to watching silently, but his eyes were not on the party below them. As always, they lifted to the very distant edges of the road, seeking a lone rider - or maybe a pair - returning across distance and time. The only riders who ever appeared, though, were Uther’s own emissaries, returning to admit failure.
Arthur was not coming back, but Uther would never admit that while there was still breath in his body.
“Let us go down and greet your friend,” she urged. For a moment, she thought he might refuse, but then he doubled over, seized by a coughing spasm. Helplessly, she rubbed his shoulders as he shook and shook and threatened to fly apart. Her eyes stung to see him so stooped, laid low by such a small thing. This man, who had withstood armies.
“Please,” she whispered, when he had finished and was gasping for air, straightening with a pained expression. “Please take me inside. I’m cold.”
Her lie was transparent, but the relief on his face was real. Taking her arm as if he were the one offering support, he let her help him in and down the stairs, slowly, slowly, like an old man.
He isan old man, her traitorous mind whispered. She refused to listen.
Down in the courtyard, they were protected from the worst of the wind, though it still caught at tendrils of Gwen's hair and tugged them every which way. Morgana felt sure her coif was just as disarrayed. For a moment, she caught Gwen's eye, and they shared a glint of amusement.
Still, it remained chilly here in the shadow of the towers. The riders from Cameliard approached over the cobbles, horse-hooves clicking against stone in a steady, tired pace, the carts jolting slowly behind. The party moved more like a patrol returning from a skirmish than the retinue of a visiting king and queen.
Leodegrance rode a bay mare, his tunic padded and heavily embroidered, his dusky face fixed in a serious expression, mouth hidden in a full beard peppered with gray. He dismounted stiffly without waiting for a servant to come hold his horse. Morgana was surprised to realize that he was not, in fact, as old as she remembered from her childhood days in Cornwall. He had to be at least ten years younger than Uther, possibly fifteen, though his current expression drew lines across his face that shouldn’t have been so deep. In silence, he embraced Uther and turned to offer his arm to Queen Elaine of Garlot, his sister-in-law.
Elaine was Morgana’s older sister, but there were so many years between them that they had barely been raised together. Elaine had married at seventeen, when Morgana was only two years old, so Morgana’s only memories of her sister were of the rare visits she’d paid before their mother died. She could still remember the winter Elaine had appeared at the front gate unannounced, a new streak of silver in her hair and eyes as wild as a storm. Their mother had taken one look at her and locked them both in her suite for three days. When they emerged, Elaine’s eyes had calmed, but the streak in her hair remained.
As she was leaving that winter, Elaine had given Morgana one of the many green cloaks from her collection. It was far too big, dragging on the ground when Morgana wrapped it around her shoulders, but Elaine had merely smiled and said she would grow into it. If Elaine’s eyes had been a bit cloudy, Morgana was too young to notice.
That was the last time they’d seen each other, until today.
Even after their long separation, Morgana still recognized her sister’s posture instantly. For her part, Elaine looked up and caught Morgana’s eye, and something about her face opened. She patted Leodegrance’s arm and let go, moving aside to wait with a swirl of her cloak, twin to the one Morgana wore.
Uther and Leodegrance continued up the wide stairs, side by side, moving as men who are used to walking with each other sometimes do: shoulders angled slightly inward, heads tilted the tiniest bit. Uther was on the left so his sword hand was clear to draw quickly. Never once did they brush against each other the slightest bit, yet they were so close they could have slung their arms around each others’ shoulders with ease.
As they passed the top stair, Leodegrance turned his head and nodded to Morgana, the polite acknowledgment of a sovereign to a young woman who had asked to ride his horse when she was five. She nodded back, then watched as his eyes slid sideways, began to slip over Gwen, and jerked back suddenly.
He stopped on the top step and turned.
Naturally, Uther stopped as well, shifting forward to keep shoulder to shoulder with his friend in an almost unconscious movement. A brief scowl flitted over his face as he saw who had attracted Leodegrance's attention.
"My maid, Guinevere," Morgana said quietly, preferring to make her patronage clear from the start, though she could never make their relationship more plain than that of master and servant, and it rankled. Luckily, Leodegrance’s eyes were not hungry but curious - arrested.
"New to your service?" Leodegrance asked quietly, voice gentler than she expected.
"Gwen has served me since I was twelve," she replied.
For some reason, that seemed to mollify him. His shoulders relaxed, his mouth easing into something resembling a smile. "You must be a good mistress, to earn such dedicated service."
Morgana blinked, wondering what he wanted her to say, but he was already turning away. Uther's irritation melted in the afterglow of Leodegrance's almost-smile, and the two of them swept into the castle without another word.
Morgana watched them go. It took a soft cough from Gwen to drag her attention back to the moment, the party in the courtyard unpacking and the steward politely waiting for orders. Elaine, too, was there, a warm smile on her face.
“I know you have duties,” Elaine said as she approached, “and I won’t take you from them now. But when you have time, I would very much like to see you again.”
Sudden warmth spread through the tension in Morgana’s chest. She blinked quickly, hoping her eyes weren’t as moist as they felt. “I’d like that,” she rasped.
Elaine smiled again, almost sad this time, and turned to follow the men inside.
Morgana still felt odd that afternoon, so she excused herself from entertaining their guests by simply taking back her chatelaine duties from Lady Enid, who happily returned Morgana's keys and took the afternoon off to be with her husband.
Morgana and Gwen were deep in the cool cellars counting barrels of cider, Morgana counting aloud and Gwen marking the paper. If they paused sometimes to brush hands or smile at one another fondly, well, there was no one to see them here, which was why it was one of their favorite places to work. So much of the rest of the castle, even Morgana’s chambers, was so public during the day. And while Morgana felt quite certain in her affections, for Gwen’s sake she maintained a careful front that would reveal to no one how their friendship had deepened into something else over the past few years.
She was just brushing the curls back from Gwen’s face and leaning in for a kiss when footsteps on the stairs made them raise their heads and leap apart.
"My lord," Morgana greeted Leodegrance, startled, "and Sir Caradoc. How may I-?"
Leodegrance smiled, a warmer expression than the one she had seen on him that morning. "Of course you're down here working. I told you, Caradoc. Servants' gossip is that the Lady Morgana barely sleeps, and spends her nights instead planning Camelot's winters before the last is even quite finished."
Sir Caradoc nodded dutifully, but his eyes on Morgana were speculative. She stepped subtly away from Gwen to draw their attention.
"You flatter me, Sire." She dipped a quick curtsey, wondering when he'd had time to overhear the servants gossiping. "But truly, is there anything you need?"
"Simply the pleasure of your company," Leodegrance said, eyes flickering to Gwen, and Morgana's spine stiffened.
"I assure you, accounts and ledgers are less than fascinating, my lord." She pasted on a smile. "But surely our king misses your company?" Where are the servants? she wondered. Various kitchen waifs and pages had been wandering in and out with messages all morning, and they chose now to disappear?
Leodegrance's face tightened briefly, a flash Morgana couldn't quite be sure she'd really seen, and then he clapped Caradoc on the shoulder in a jovial movement that looked utterly out of place from him.
"Uther is indisposed this afternoon, so Prince Caradoc is showing me around instead. Doing an excellent job of it, too." He smiled again, this time more genuine. "This would be the, hm, cider storeroom, if my nose speaks true. Tell me, does Uther still prefer to serve cider to his knights, rather than mead?"
Morgana blinked, still stuck back on Prince Caradoc. She had known that, hadn't she? She must have. Yet she had the hardest time dredging up the memory. Caerleon? Yes, that was it. His father had the same name. How had she forgotten that? When she fought these men on the training field, there weren't any of these distinctions of rank, at least not to her eyes. Or maybe there were, and she was unable to see them because of the larger distinction of her sex. Maybe she wanted to believe Arthur had trained them better than to care about titles. Or maybe Caradoc himself was simply so unassuming she'd forgotten. But then, Pellinore had been the son of a king, and she hadn't remembered that until they'd sent his body off in a funeral carriage with an honor guard of twenty knights.
Camelot chewed and spat out so many men and boys. How could their families accept it?
A touch on her arm startled her out of her daze. Gwen, her face concerned, was gesturing to Leodegrance. He had his back almost completely to them now, one gloved hand resting on the top of a barrel, his head dipped down so his chin almost touched his chest.
"I suppose," he said softly, "that it's the way cider rarely makes a man helpless with drink, but I like to think it's because he listened to me all those years ago, when I told him it had medicinal properties."
"My lord," Caradoc murmured, worry lines deepening between his eyes.
Leodegrance paused, shifted. "Did you know we first met when I was only sixteen?"
Morgana was sure that wasn't what he'd planned to say, but she shook her head anyway. "No, Uther's never mentioned it."
"No doubt to save my pride." His smile was fond, touched with sadness. "We met in a tavern. I was the younger son but still a prince, so I sat at the table with my men while the other lads my age stabled the horses and prepared the rooms in the inn across the street. I say my men, but they weren't mine back then. They were my father's, and meant to be my brother's." Again, the trace of sorrow around his eyes, quickly erased. "Uther was there with a bevy of knights from minor houses, all returning from a long campaign in the service of Powys up north. Little more than mercenaries, truth be told, but back then there was little central authority between Cameliard in the south and Gwent beyond the river in the northwest. Caerleon and Camelot were both created in my lifetime, you know.
"But that night in the tavern, Uther was just another young noble with more pride than lands. He was friends with the Duke's son, Gorlois, and they were sitting and drinking together, laughing at some story of the campaign, when Uther looked up and saw me watching him.
"To this day, I remember that look on his face. I've seen it a hundred times since, but never again directed at me. He sized me up. I can't say it any other way. He has the gift, you know, of seeing the measure of a man in one long glance. The only times I've known him to be wrong were when his heart was involved.
"Well, he measured me that night, a beardless boy on his first outing beyond his borders. Then he smiled and waved me over. My men didn't want me to go, but I was fascinated by these two battle-hardened warriors, or at least that's what they seemed to me. In truth, they were young cocks parading around in dented armor because they hadn't the coin to pay a smith for repairs until they reached home and dug into the harvest money. But they seemed grand in my eyes.
"I mostly listened to their stories and nodded with stars in my eyes, buying them drinks every hour or so. The first time I ordered, I asked for cider because that was what the men had allowed me. Uther and Gorlois teased me that it was a boy's drink, so I told them it had medicinal value, because I'd heard that from my old nurse. They were polite enough to drink it. Uther has teased me about it every time we've met since then," he paused, "though not today." He looked at Morgana, his face expectant.
"He's been feeling a bit out of sorts this week," Morgana admitted. "It's just a minor cough."
Leodegrance's face tightened. "A bit more than minor, if he took to his bed before noon."
Morgana bit her lip. Should she confess her fears to this old friend of Uther's?
But Leodegrance took that choice out of her hands. Taking a deep breath and squaring his shoulders, he said in a somewhat louder voice, "I don't know if you're aware of the properties of herbs besides cider? Marchalan dissolves quite well in alcohol. There are greens-"
"My lord!" Caradoc lifted a hand, palm out. His gray eyes flickered back and forth in agitation.
"-that can help one heal. Indeed, among the common people of Cameliard, ailments rarely take hold in the population at large. Our healers and hedgewitches know their remedies quite thoroughly. I'm saddened to see such limited knowledge here in Camelot these days."
Morgana blinked, shocked and exhilarated at once to hear someone - anyone, but most of all a man of power - defy Uther's orders and speak of the Craft inside Camelot's walls. To speak of it positively, as something to be praised. And yet, why would he do such a thing, in front of Caradoc no less?
"Our medicine is scientific," she said through numb lips, rote and without conviction. "Our traditions are those of Classic physicians of the old texts."
"All well and good," he said, turning to look her in the eye finally, "but pride kills. Remember that."
He bowed to Morgana, and then smiled briefly at Gwen. "My condolences on the loss of your mother, Guinevere, though many years too late, I fear. I knew her when she lived in Cameliard. She was a most admirable woman."
Morgana blinked, opened her mouth to speak - to say what she wasn't sure - but Leodegrance swept out without another word, striding like a man who had thrown off his cloak. This was not the jovial act he'd put on when he first entered. This was the man beneath. A memory from her childhood flooded back suddenly: her sitting on a horse while Leodegrance led her around the field in front of her father's gates, saying, "The queens of old rode like warlords. Why shouldn't you?" He'd laughed with her then. She could remember the sound, though she couldn't match it to the man who'd just left.
"My Lady." Caradoc looked as if he wanted to speak but thought better of it, nodding to them both before following his charge back up the stairs.
A moment went by in which Morgana had no idea what to think, and then Gwen sat down on a barrel and wiped her forehead on her sleeve.
"Well, that was interesting." Gwen's voice was bright, but her eyes held shadows, echoes of the ones she'd worn when her father fled.
"That was mad," Morgana replied, her gaze drawn back to the empty archway where they had disappeared. She wanted to ask about Gwen's mother, but at the moment m- herbs ironically seemed the less dangerous topic. "Was he actually suggesting-?"
"What I think," Gwen said loudly, overriding her, "is most interesting is that no on interrupted us, and that those two came in here with no guards, though a pair has been trailing the king all day.”
Morgana blinked. "You think he stationed the guards outside to keep anyone from coming in?"
"I think he stationed them back at the entrance to the entire cellar. Where they couldn't hear a thing."
"But Caradoc heard. Surely that's enough?"
Gwen rubbed her chin absently with her dirty thumb. "Is it? He's a quiet one."
"Caradoc?" Morgana was embarrassed to find that, once again, she didn't really know one of the men she trained with personally as well as Gwen did from castle gossip alone. "He doesn't drink much, if that's what you mean."
"No, that's not what I meant at all," Gwen replied, but refused to go on no matter how Morgana needled her.
Still, the seed had been planted, and Morgana couldn't help but wonder if Leodegrance really thought Uther was so desperately sick, and who he thought might have a cure.
“Odin is simply testing our resolve.”
“I agree, old friend, but his excursions encourage others as well. Or have you not noticed Bayard’s nephew eyeing the farmland along your northeast border?”
Morgana sighed. All morning in the council chambers, over luncheon, in Uther’s study during their supposed breaks, and now here at the feast in Leodegrance’s own honor, he and Uther could not stop debating the current political climate, their grain stores, each kingdom’s fighting force, and so on. They kept their voices low so none but the royal household servants and the upper table might hear, but really. Could they not at least pretend to enjoy the feast, as Morgana was valiantly doing?
She smiled as another petty lord said something about her beauty. Delicately, she extended her hand and allowed him to kiss it. Only after he turned his back did she wipe her hand on the edge of the tablecloth. Elaine caught her at it and smiled with a glint in her eye.
The room was awash in light. A candle on her left guttered and went out, replaced in the blink of an eye by an anonymous pair of hands. Another pair refilled Morgana’s cup from the royal wine jug, though at least Morgana knew that this was Gwen. Even if Gwen weren’t wearing one of her own castoffs, the angle of her elbow and the shape of her hands would have sung out in Morgana’s mind as a brief respite from the tedium of this feast.
The smell - the smell was incredible. Tallow and smoke, sweat and roast pork and alcohol, the green scent of fresh rushes rising from the floor, mixed with spilled food and hungry dogs. Not that Uther allowed dogs on the floor during his feasts, but they’d been hiding under the tables until the servants kicked them out, only minutes before the doors opened to welcome the guests inside.
And the guests, Lady preserve them. Everyone with the slightest claim to any station at all had crowded in here at sunset, elbowing one another for the better seating, ogling the party from Cameliard, and demanding mead and cider from the servants. Thank goodness Uther reserved the wine for the upper table, or there wouldn’t be any left by now.
If Uther had been less ill, or Leodegrance interested in anything but politics, Morgana might have managed to enjoy herself. As it was, she felt a great wash of relief when the acrobatic troupe finally appeared.
Servants rushed to sweep the floor clear in the center of the room, leaving a bare patch of flagstones. A moment later, acrobats and dancers burst through the main doors and out from under the tables: rolling, flipping, and spinning through the air like puppets or children’s toys. The flash of bright colors and jingle of bells filled the Great Hall and set Morgana’s head awhirl.
One towheaded woman in trousers ran up the far wall and flipped over to land on her feet, hands tucked behind her back. A Moorish boy no more than ten hopped up onto one of the long tables and tumbled hands over feet down its length, dodging cups, cutlery, startled guests, and their dinners. He leapt from the end with a flourish, and gave a short bow before scampering off to join the dancers.
There was no knife-throwing or fire-juggling, and the mock sword fights were played out with wooden swords - Uther had his edicts, and they were obeyed. The performers made up for this lack of danger by flinging themselves about the room with wild abandon, telling jokes that would have them in the stocks in half the kingdoms of Albion (even Leodegrance cracked a smile at the one about the stableboy), and doing it all to a cacophony of sound which, if Morgana were being generous, she might call music.
In the end, the noise of it all left her with a headache and a sense that if she didn’t get out of this smoky room or this corset or both, she would choke. Waving away Gwen’s worried look, she whispered her excuses in Uther’s ear, and he waved her permission with a distracted air.
Music still rang out inside the hall as Morgana made her escape up the stairs and onto the upper landing, just inside the open door to the gardens. Out here, the air was fresh with spring, green buds bright in the lantern light. She could see, here and there, couples with their chaperones wandering through the pools of light, appearing and disappearing. Small knots of men or women also hovered by the benches, talking quietly. Many an intrigue would be hatched tonight, Morgana was sure.
She heard a scuff on the step behind her and turned, smiling, expecting Gwen. The smile stiffened on her face when she was it wasn’t Gwen but instead the towheaded tumbler from the performing troupe, head ducked modestly, palms out and empty.
“What do you want?” Morgana asked, less polite than she might have been. The young woman had startled her, too quiet in her approach and too bold in her appearance.
“A small boon, your ladyship. But a moment of your time if you will grant it.” The woman’s voice trembled, and Morgana felt instantly guilty.
She was about to reply when Sir Geraint marched around the corner and up the stairs towards them, trailed by his obviously irritated wife, Enid. Geraint paused when he saw the tumbler. His eyes flicked over the young woman, searching out any sign of a threat, before coming to rest on Morgana’s face.
“My Lady, is all well?”
“Yes, of course,” Morgana replied airily. Geraint clearly saw no threat; she felt embarrassed to have shown her nerves at all, even to a man who had served her adoptive family for twenty years.
His eyes roved over the girl once more before he relaxed. “Then, by your leave m’lady, I’ll take some air.”
Morgana nodded, and he ducked his head, moving out into the garden. Enid followed him with her face set in a slight frown, giving Morgana half a curtsy and none of her attention.
“Thank you, your ladyship,” the girl murmured, and for a moment Morgana heard something odd in her voice. Then it was gone. “An’ it please you, lady, if we might move away from so public a place? My request is... delicate.”
“Of course.” Morgana felt more sure-footed now. The girl likely had some trouble - a family member, perhaps, or a lover who’d got her with child and vanished. She might ask for a place in the castle for herself or someone close to her, or permission to settle in the town. Or perhaps she’d heard some rumor in a distant court and thought it might fetch a price. Common enough reasons to petition her, as the woman of the Pendragon household.
They moved out of the entranceway and through the pool of lights, which sparked shimmers across the fabric of Morgana’s dress but left the girl’s greens and browns untouched, as if they repelled the light. The girl seemed to want to stand beneath an ancient elm tree near the wall, and Morgana had no objections. There would be no one to overhear them here, especially if she had to turn the child down.
“What need have you, child?” Morgana asked kindly.
The girl tried to speak, mouth moving for a moment before she buried her face in her hands, sobbing quietly. Morgana sighed. Poor thing. Probably a lover, then. She wondered if Gwen knew any place they could keep the girl until she showed too far.
The girl’s crying intensified, and Morgana stepped closer, reaching up to put her hand on one shaking shoulder-
-and found herself twisted around, a sharp-nailed hand clenched on her wrist, the other whipping out a thread to catch around her neck. Instinctively, Morgana shot her free hand up to snag it, and found herself with a garrote around her neck and the fleshy side of her palm, cutting into both. She gasped sharply.
The woman spat a curse and one end of the garrote out of her mouth on the same breath, then twisted both ends in her free hand.
“Stupid little butterfly,” she hissed. “You were a fool to pity me. You believe yourself invincible, just like your bloodstained king.” She laughed softly, a grating sound. “Losing you may kill him. At least I hope so.”
All the while she was speaking, her hand on the garrote twisted and twisted slowly, drawing Morgana’s hand tight against her neck. She was gasping now, body pulled as taut as the thread. She could feel it bite into the sides of her neck, into the flesh of her palm. Her world narrowed. All of those people hovering in pools of light just out of reach - suddenly they went from eavesdroppers to friends, possible saviors, all too far away.
She tried to make a sound, and the woman jerked her other wrist, digging in with her nails. “None of that, pretty,” she murmured. Her voice was almost fond now. “I’ll make this quick and easy if you stop fighting.”
Morgana struggled again, light-headed with fear and lack of air. Her breaths were coming in short gasps now, hard to force past the constriction of her throat.
I’m going to die, she thought.
Someone stepped from behind the tree.
Morgana felt more than saw the presence, her vision darkening already, blotting out shape and form until only the pools of cool light before her could still be seen. But she did sense that someone else was there, and for a moment she teetered between unfettered joy that it might be someone come to save her and terror that it was just some accomplice, come to watch her die.
“You’re a druid,” the woman spat suddenly, turning Morgana’s body slightly to face the newcomer. “You wouldn’t raise a hand against me if she were your own daughter. Certainly not if she’s his.”
“You have no idea what you’re doing,” the man’s voice said, smooth and calm, familiar. Aglain.
Morgana felt a surge of relief so deep she gave a hoarse sob. The physician. He would-
A hand touched her forehead, calloused and warm. “Enmyria,” Aglain said softly, “child. Do you trust me?”
“Should I, traitor? Alvarr said you would be here, kneeling at their feet like a dog.”
Aglain’s hand brushed Morgana’s, his fingers easing up beside hers in the tight space between the garrotte and her neck. It created a little more space, and Morgana sucked in air gratefully.
“It does not require a Seer to foretell what happens next,” Aglain said above her head. “You kill her. Then what? Another war, more dying. Another king come to the throne by bloodshed. The countryside laid waste by roving armies, the people killed or pressed into service or hiding in the hills, half-starved. Is that a future you hope for?"
“He has no right to rule!” The noose tightened again. Morgana sobbed hoarsely, jerking.
“Nor do any of them, but rule they do. Who would you rather have in power? Your Alvarr? Would he be any more fair or less bloody?”
“I’ve yet to see anyone better.”
“I have seen one. Only the glimmer of a possibility for now, but I still hope.”
The woman barked a bitter laugh. “You’re a sentimental fool. She’s heard too much; she has to die now.”
“Oh,” said Aglain, “I think we can work around that.”
Aglain’s fingers were warm, and Morgana felt the garrote begin to loosen.
Enmyria snorted, voice harsh. “Using your powers to change people’s memories, old man? You’ve changed.”
“If that is how you wish to look at it,” he replied gravely.
The thread eased back even more, loosening until Morgana felt a rush of air surge into her lungs, her vision brightening again. Then the hot line of pain was gone altogether, and Morgana sagged.
Aglain caught her, his arms solid and gentle. “Run now, child. Far and fast. If they discover you, they’ll loose the dogs.”
“I have a horse,” the woman replied. Quick as a striking snake, she slipped up the old elm tree and over the wall, leaving nothing behind but a single thread on the ground.
For a moment, Morgana felt nothing but blessed relief as fresh, cold air pouring into her lungs, burning her throat and making her cough in long spasms. She clung to Aglain as her chest heaved, and he lowered her gently to the bare earth, deftly reaching behind her back in the dark and loosening not only her gown, but also somehow her corset.
“Breathe, child,” he whispered softly, stroking back her hair from her face. “You’ll live, this time.”
The conversation she’d overheard was already jumbled in her mind, but, “Can you do that?” she coughed again. “Can you? Take my memories?”
“I wish I could,” he replied. “That would be a great gift.”
Trembling and unable even to cry yet, Morgana tried to nod, feeling heat lance in lines across her neck with the movement. Yes, that would be a great gift indeed.
Aglain told everyone that Morgana had fainted in the garden after too much wine and heat. He commandeered Geraint and Gwen to help him carry her upstairs, and only after she was safely seated on her bed with Gwen unlacing her properly did Aglain vanish downstairs to inform Uther of her collapse. Geraint remained to guard her door personally, though no one requested it. Morgana wondered if he suspected that she had been attacked.
Gwen undressed Morgana quickly and put her in her softest nightgown, setting her up against the headboard with the covers over her lap. With deft hands, Gwen unbound Morgana’s hair and fanned it out artfully so her neck was completely covered. Morgana had only touched the marks on her throat once. They had stung brightly wherever her sweat-salt fingers had brushed, and she had quickly jerked her hand away. Best not to look in the mirror, then.
Gwen twitched a last curl into place as Uther banged through the door, Elaine at his heels. Uther was at her bedside in three quick strides, bending over to tip Morgana’s face up to the light.
“What happened?” he asked, thumb rough under her chin.
Morgana swallowed. “I fainted, my lord. The heat and the smoke in the hall, you know.”
“A bit of wine, too, if I recall,” Uther smiled, relaxing enough to sit on the edge of the bed. “You must leave to take fresh air sooner, my dear. Perhaps you have a touch of fever?”
“I will examine her carefully,” Aglain assured him.
“Yes, of course. Whatever you require.” Uther stood. “I will be in the feast hall another hour, if you have any news. Wake me any time in the night if she worsens.”
“Of course, my lord.” Aglain’s bow was eerily familiar, like Gaius returned. Morgana sank further into her pillows.
“And I will go change and be back to stay with you,” Elaine said quietly, in the same tone their mother had used when stating a proposal as fact.
Uther nodded. “I think that would be wise.”
After the two of them left, Gwen busied herself getting a glass of heavily watered wine, deliberately vanishing in that peculiar way good servants perfected. In the quiet left behind, Aglain sat on the edge of the bed with a sigh.
“May I see your neck?” he asked quietly.
Morgana nodded and brushed her hair back. Aglain’s fingers were careful, tracing above the marks without quite touching them. A warmth buzzed through Morgana’s skin, and the stinging eased.
“I’ll make you a salve for tomorrow.” He sighed, closing his eyes briefly. “I am sorry - I wish-” He took a breath. “There are many who are hurt, and angry. They do not always think beyond their pain.”
Morgana stroked the nail marks on her wrist, thinking of Mordred. “Why would they?”
Aglain looked at her a long time, unblinking. “Why indeed.”
Elaine came and sat in a straight-backed chair by Morgana’s bed. After an awkward moment of not knowing what to do with her hands, Morgana finally offered one shyly, and Elaine took it in both of hers, squeezing with gentle pressure.
“I did miss you,” Elaine whispered.
It no longer hurt quite so much to talk, but Morgana felt sleepy and warm and words seemed unnecessary. She smiled and let Elaine hold her hand, feeling like a child again, cared for.
Gwen put out the candles one by one, the soft swish of her skirt like water flowing over stone or wind through spring leaves. The smell of tallow clung to everything. The light of the last few candles flickered softly in a draft, but Morgana was wrapped and comfortable in her blankets and felt nothing but a warm drowsiness. Flicker, flickering flame…
...the glint of light off something silver and gold, a twining shimmer of precious metal settled in a nest of red silk. Wrinkled, familiar hands reach into the box and pull forth a crown, glinting in the morning light. "It was Ygraine's," he says, the first time he has spoken that name in over twenty years...
...the first time she has seen this village, and it is on fire. Men move through the darkness with purpose, bringing torches and oil. She wants to kill them, to rend them limb from limb with her bare hands. She wants to scream...
...at the sight of him, the boy with the pink scars puckering his arms and legs and face. A man-faced child sleeping sweetly, her failures written on his body...
...and on the battlefield, sunrise glinting off the spear-tips and the men at arms. Bridles jingle nervously, men shift and steady. From the camp behind there is breath-held stillness, silent prayer. On this hill, in this place...
...a woman stands, cup in her hand, smiling. Her lips are as red as her dress and her eyes are mad, fractured too wide to be sane. "You can't have nothing for nothing," she says, and smiles...
...as Uther coughs and coughs and lifts his palm, blood-spotted…
...Morgana woke, throat working, lips moving silently in terror.
"Sh, sh," Elaine was saying from somewhere in the dark. "Just let me light the candle - there!" Light flared, illuminating a half-familiar face, a streak of white, and beyond that the edge of Morgana's vanity mirror.
"There now," Elaine said, stroking Morgana’s face with her free hand, "there now, you're alright. I've got you." Setting the candle down on the bedside table, she sat on the edge of the mattress and enveloped Morgana in her arms. A scent like green rushes and cool water, like daffodils and dew, spun a web of comfort around Morgana almost instantly.
"There now," Elaine whispered again, sleepy-voiced, and Morgana allowed herself to sink onto Elaine’s thin shoulders, her warmth. She could forget, if she held on tight enough. She could forget that boy's face, and all the others. Elaine would keep the dreams at bay, just as she had when Morgana was a child.
By morning, Elaine was gone and Gwen was in her place, bustling about the room like nothing had happened the day before. Gwen helped her don armor, placing extra padding inside her gorget to prevent pressure on her injuries.
Morgana left Gwen out by the kitchen entrance, tallying strings of candles as they were unloaded from the baskets balanced on a donkey’s back. Replacements for those used at last night’s feast. Morgana couldn’t remember sending the request, though. Gwen must have done it again.
Morgana was going to training, over Gwen’s objections and without Uther’s knowledge. The extra padding around her neck collected sweat, trapping the heat against her skin, but she walked confidently with long strides. If Gwen and Uther were not so blinded by affection, they would realize how critical it was for her to maintain a strong image after rumors of her collapse must have circulated among the knights.
Out on the field, bright banners snapped in the wind. The breeze caressed her face, a brief respite. The smell of crushed grass and horses wafted with it. Her nose twitched, and she almost smiled.
The men were already out running drills. Neat rows of bright armor faced away from her, winking in the sun with each choreographed strike. Morgana watched them for long moments, shading her eyes with one hand. With the other, she gripped her swordhilt tightly.
On the next motion, everyone turned and caught sight of her. One man faltered – she couldn’t tell who it was in all the brightness, but she marked his position for later.
Sir Palamedes stood firm at the head of the line, leading them smoothly through the last three strikes before dismissing the crowd. Men broke ranks quietly, none of the usual groaning and banter. Some pulled their helmets off, while others sheathed their swords. Hands passed water jugs around, and squires scampered here and there with small towels for men’s faces.
Palamedes removed his own helm and strode towards her. He looked barely winded despite the sweat glistening on his dark skin.
He stopped a few steps away. “My Lady,” he said calmly, looking a question at her armor.
“I’ll be joining you today, as usual,” Morgana told him. She let her voice carry. One or two of the men looked up, including Kay, but no one else said anything.
Palamedes looked her in the eye for a long moment, then nodded. “Of course.”
When the lines formed again, Morgana took her place on the end, beside the man who had startled when she first appeared. She knew him now, and her stomach churned. Geraint.
Sir Geraint was many things, but he was no fool. Of all Uther’s men, he was the only one who knew she had entertained a petitioner last night, mere minutes before she “fainted”. A petitioner who went missing in the chaos. If he suspected anything, well. His loyalty to Uther was famous, even among Camelot’s elite.
With deep, even breaths, Morgana matched her movements to his and concentrated on showing no weakness.
The sun was fierce, moving across the sky in a slow arc in time with the sweat dripping down Morgana's sides. The world smelled of metal and growing things, all sound either muffled or too sharp inside her helmet. They took another water break, and Morgana yanked the blasted helm off and accepted a skin from Geraint, with no care whose lips had touched it before. She simply poured the water into her mouth greedily, too fast. It spilled over her chin and into the hidden padding around her neck, drenching the already sweat-soaked fabric until water dripped down her chest and back.
"Careful, My Lady," Geraint murmured. "Not too much, now."
Winded, Morgana nodded and handed back the skin. It wouldn't do to cramp in the middle of training.
She caught Palamedes's eyes on her again, assessing, and she knew he would call a halt to the whole practice the moment she faltered. That he would also do it for anyone else was her only saving grace. She simply had to outlast one man here. Surely that much was possible?
By unspoken agreement, everyone left their heads bare this time. The sun on her face baked like an open fire, but it was still better than roasting in the oven that was her helm. After a few more turns and parries, a breeze even kicked up, suddenly violent in the stillness. Spring had come to their rescue at last.
The wind was so violent for a moment, the flapping of the banners so loud in her ears, that she didn't hear the shouts behind her, or even the faltering of Palamedes's voice as he stopped calling the movements. It wasn't until Geraint's gloved hand brushed briefly, deferentially across her shoulder that she looked back, head spinning.
"My Lady," Geraint said. His face was gray. "The King has collapsed."
Three sisters there were of the House of Morgen. They were named Vivianne, Modron, and Ygraine, and each of them bore the heir of a king.
Ygraine, the youngest, bore the only son of Uther Pendragon and died shortly thereafter. Vivianne, the oldest, wedded Gorlois the Duke of Cornwall, but before her marriage she had a child in secret who was thought to have died, and after her wedding she bore two daughters, Elaine and Morgana. Modron, the middle sister, was cursed to wash her clothes every night in the Barking Ford until Urien of Rheged came and took her by force, whereupon she was delivered of twins and of the curse. When her children reached ten years of age, she left the court of Rheged and returned to the secret ways of her House, and none could discover her thereafter except the women of her blood.
Chapter 3: The Crown of Ygraine
Morgana did not often spend time contemplating hands. Yes, they were an excellent clue to the origins and occupation of a person, but so were clothing and manner and speech. There was no need, most of the time, to turn a hand over and trace the palm lines, follow them from wrist to fingers and back. No need to examine the veins that stood out from the wrinkled, age-spotted skin.
You are not old, she thought, and knew she lied.
Uther's breathing was quieter now than the terrible rattle when she'd first arrived. His thin eyelids were closed, chest rising and falling, rising and falling. Morgana laid his hand down on the coverlet and stood.
Aglain stood in the anteroom where Morris usually slept. He was reading, but when she approached, he looked up and pushed back his chair.
"Lady Morgana," he said quietly.
It was something odd about Aglain, she thought, that he always said her name. She had never really parsed it before. "My Lady" and "Your Ladyship" and "Highness" even, sometimes - these were tossed at her day in and day out, until she became entirely settled into the idea of her rank and position defining her every breath. And then a man who barely knew her came along and reminded her: you are a person, not a rank.
The only other people who always spoke her name were Gwen, Kay, and U-
Her mind shied away.
"Aglain," she said, moving to the window to distract herself. "Thank you for having me called."
He nodded, fingers trailing over his book. "I wish I had better news to give you."
A bark of wry laughter wrenched its way out of her throat and stopped her from speaking. Probably for the best.
"What can you do?" she asked, when she could make her voice work again.
Aglain looked away. "Make him comfortable. Help him breathe easier for a few days."
"Herbs can only do so much."
She recalled the conversation from the cellar the day before. (Was it really less than a day ago?) Now she had some answers. Yes, Leodegrance must have known Uther was worse than he appeared. Must have known it might come to this. She turned fully to the window and put her hand on the sill, her back to Aglain. Was this a man she could trust with such treason? Had Leodegrance been suggesting him, or someone else entirely? And yet Aglain was the only one she could think to ask.
"Some healing goes beyond herbs, does it not?” Silence behind her. Was he even breathing? She persevered. "Herbs can do more if they-"
A hand on her shoulder made her jump, freezing.
"My Lady," he said softly (not her name, not her name), "a physician must ask what the patient wants. It's a fundamental code among healers. In this case, what do you think this man would want in his heart?"
Morgana's nails scraped the stone casement of the window as she closed her hand into a fist.
"Pride kills," she whispered, leaning her cheek against the stone.
"Yes," he agreed, "and so does fear. You have nothing to fear from me, Lady Morgana. Healers are meant to keep secrets, whoever they may belong to."
So, he was promising to cover for her. That was good, but not enough. Morgana closed her eyes and felt the rough, cold stone against her cheek. She should perhaps be more afraid for herself, but every petty personal concern seemed chased out by an enormous weight.
"Thank you," she managed to choke out. What else was there to say? I hate that you won't commit treason to save a man who would burn you for it? That wasn't fair, and she knew it.
How has it come to this?
Clang! The dummy shook, straw and dust spewing from the armhole just above Morgana's strike.
Clunk! The helmet sank further on its cloth-wrapped head.
Thwack! She hit the pole where its waist should have been. The straw body shuddered.
It was nowhere near as satisfying as taking on Kay, but at least with the dummy she could descend into a zone of deep focus, her breaths synchronized with her strikes. Nothing outside could break in; her mind was smooth and clear.
A shadow fell across her face, splitting the sunlight.
She turned, disoriented for a moment. Her ears were ringing with the sound of sword on armor, her eyes stinging with sweat. It was colder than yesterday, a sharp wind finding its way through her armor whenever she stood still.
“Lady Morgana.” She turned again, seeking the voice, and found her vision blocked by a man's chest. A moment later, diffident fingers slipped under the edge of her helm and pulled it gently off, letting her hair spill free in a tumble, sweat turning shock-cold on her scalp.
Leon stood before her, holding her helm and wearing a soft, unreadable expression.
"That's enough for today," he said quietly when her fingers clenched automatically on her sword hilt. "My Lady, that's enough."
She wanted to scream at him, but she didn't think her voice would make any sound. Instead, she let him take her sword with his free hand and ease her from the courtyard, touching her shoulder and offering silent support until they passed into the shadow of the castle and down into the armory. There, he helped pull off her armor piece by piece until she was clad only in her tunic and breeches, feeling naked and light-headed, as if her body was only a thin tether between her and the world.
She worked at the ledgers - family, castle, kingdom - until her vision swam, and then she worked some more. She didn’t know how to stop. Each number was a corner of a storeroom, or even an entire cellar. It was easier to envision those rooms with their stacks of necessities than it was to actually think about anything else. So long as she stayed outside herself, outside her own mind, everything would be fine.
Someone came, she thought. Several someones. Gwen turned them all away gently except the last, who bundled Morgana to her feet and down the hall to her rooms. She forgot to turn and see who it was, though the green cloak wrapped around her shoulders looked familiar.
She ate because Gwen told her to. She changed clothes because Gwen held up the nightgown and moved her arms like a ragdoll’s. She breathed by instinct. Everything else was far away; she was far away.
At one point as she lay on the bed, she was startled to feel Gwen’s hand curled around the back of her neck, and even more startled to realize it had been there for some time. She looked down, blinking. Gwen’s eyes were closed, her chest rising and falling steadily in the dim candlelight. Their heads were lying on the same pillow, foreheads nearly pressed together, strands of hair falling across each other.
Morgana would have felt comforted, if she could have felt anything at all.
The halls were long and cold in her dreams, pale stone unwarmed by candlelight. Shadows danced here and there, voices coming as if from very far off.
She turned a familiar corner, bare feet silent on the cold floor. She could feel every bump of the surface beneath her soles. In the distance, someone began to cough. She turned down a set of stairs, away from the sound.
Down she went, always down, her feet connecting toe-heel, toe-heel with the steps in a regular rhythm, almost like a somber dance. Down, down, and the voice calling, calling, Morgana.
She reached at last a place of flickering torchlight and soft voices, an almost familiar space. The smell of old straw, blood, and stone scraped her senses. She knew, suddenly, that whatever this dream was, it stretched vaster and more fateful than any other she had yet dreamt. This was old, and Old, and a great leap beyond all her former flashing images of death and destruction.
Her feet stopped. She could not go on.
The voice demanded now, and she covered her ears, nearly crying out. Why so loud? Why would no one let her sleep? She was so tired, years of exhaustion layered over her bones in place of flesh. She swayed on her feet.
Now soft, gentle, coaxing, the voice came one final time. Morgana.
She walked down the last few stone steps to end on the dirt of the dungeon floor, dust spilling up between her toes. A relief, to be touching earth at last. She breathed stale air deep into her lungs and exhaled.
Fwoosh! Fire leapt from the torches, brief pillars of flame tumbling up to the ceiling. Human voices cried out, and Morgana walked calmly, silently, past men blinded by the sudden light. Her eyes were closed, bright red showing through the lids, but she knew without looking where everything was. She could see, somehow, or See, and nothing was hidden from her in this, her dream.
She walked through the dungeons steadily, and continued down into the caverns below, eyes still closed and feet dirt-shod, no longer feeling the cold. Her nightdress billowed around her in a silent wind, but it was as if she stood in a warm room directly beside a fire, Gwen bustling behind her. Peace. One last task, and sleep would come.
She stopped at the edge of the world, where her Sight ended. A great whooshing roar of air caught her and shoved her back against the stone, her hair tangling. She made a small sound, not quite a cry, and a voice deeper than stone chuckled.
“Not quite so afraid of the dark as others of your kind, are you?”
The speaker was toothed, and she could hear the hissing sibilants of a forked tongue. He was vast, like a mountaintop or a thunderhead, a solid presence even in that great, empty cavern. His breath smelled of sulfur.
“I know who you are,” she told him, voice shockingly calm. A dream, it's a dream, and when I wake, Gwen will be there.
“And I you, little witchling. Better than you do, perhaps.”
“You’re the one who lent Uther his name.”
“And you are the daughter of my old enemies and my new. Still, I can help you.” He chuckled low, and there was the scraping sound of a giant chain. “And you, perhaps, can help me.”
She knew what he wanted. She could smell it on his ashen breath, could hear it in the rattle of the chain.
“I could not free you if I wanted to,” she said. “Only magic can do that, and we have none left in Camelot.”
His roar caught her by surprise, shook her from the wall and threw her to her knees on the narrow ledge.
“Do not lie to me,” he bellowed, flames licking from his mouth. “Lie to yourself if you must, but do not return until you are ready to speak truth to me.”
Gasping, she clung to the rock with her nails, feeling her dress soak through with damp at the knees. Above her, he was huge, the faintest outline of his bulk hinted at by the gouts of fire.
He was enormous, grand, furious, an ancient mystery and - she decided in that moment - a bully. Pulling herself upright with one hand on the wall, she ignored the pain in her knees in favor of looking straight up at where his eyes still gleamed faintly gold in the dark.
“If you have nothing better to do than to yell at me,” she said quietly, “then I see no reason to continue this conversation. Good night.”
With that, she turned and stumbled her way up the passageway, stubbing her toes on every other step. Her Sight was gone, and some portion of her dignity along with bits of her nightclothes, but as she trailed her hand blindly along the walls of the passage, she discovered that something else had returned to her: fire. The same spark of fury that had carried her forward when she lost her father lifted her now, drawing her chin high and opening her unseeing eyes to stare firmly ahead.
Gwen made a quiet fuss over her tattered gown and bloodied knees. Perhaps yesterday Morgana might not have noticed, but today she recognized the mother-hen pecking for what it was - fear. Gwen’s eyes went liquid when she thought Morgana wasn’t looking, but now that she could see again, Morgana was always looking.
She tried on a vow to see how it fit: I won’t worry her again. It was too big, so she set it aside for someday.
Elaine paid her a visit right after breakfast, shrewd eyes taking in details Morgana hadn’t realized she was giving away.
“You wear too much armor,” she said. “You can’t afford the weight.”
Morgana remembered her sister visiting home years ago. She’d always been quiet and smiling, never full of advice like this. “And I suppose you would know.”
Elaine smiled wryly. “You’re not the only one father gave a sword to, you know.”
Father. It was like an open wound, a pit. Morgana fell silent.
Elaine’s hand found hers on the table, squeezed it. “I know,” she murmured. “I know.”
Somehow Morgana doubted it.
Anger was the key, Morgana decided. She gripped it tight to her chest with the same desperation that had her fist clenched around the hilt of her practice sword.
“Next!” she shouted, voice echoing against the distant walls of the castle. Sir Leon stepped out hesitantly from the crowd on the sidelines. He held his helmet in one hand and paused, looking towards Palamedes, who nodded once.
Biting his lip, Leon put on his helm and lifted his sword in two hands.
She gave him a moment to collect himself, then she charged. He brought his sword up in time to block, but she could tell immediately that his heart wasn’t in the fight. Furiously she goaded him, swiping close to his gauntlets and forcing him to twist to protect his arms. Even so, she left a shallow cut behind, sudden red on his sleeve above the wrist.
Someone shouted from the sidelines, but she didn't care. She needed Leon to fight her, dammit. He was strong, she knew he was. She needed to push and feel someone push back.
He refused, though, remaining on the defensive. Bellowing rage, she drove forward with three sharp strikes, catching her cross-piece sharply against his blade and twisting it out of his hand in a move he’d taught her himself, years ago.
"Next!" she croaked, unable to even look at his face.
The crowd shifted uneasily. No one looked at her. Wind whipped the banners behind them loudly to fill the silence, crack crack whiffle. The castle was white as a seashell, but enormous, holding up the sky. Her scraped knees ached and stung with sweat.
The crowd parted, and a figure stepped forward.
He wasn’t carrying a shield, but she recognized that swagger and felt a burn in her gut. Kay. She bared her teeth in a smile. It would be just like when they were children, except now she only looked up to him in the physical sense. He wasn't her friend anymore, not her playmate or her surrogate brother. He was just one of Arthur's loyal hounds who was lonely with his master gone.
They squared off in silence, circling. Kay took a testing swing, then another. She dodged easily, knowing those moves of his by heart. He tried to shift to put the morning sun in her eyes, but she slipped the other way, refusing. They danced warily, a swipe here and there, while tension built in her belly.
A pigeon landed on one of the wooden poles holding the crowd back. Morgana’s eyes flicked briefly to it, and in the moment, Kay charged.
He came in silent, fast. She barely had time to raise her sword to block, and then she had to block again as he changed angles. He drove at her with his superior height and weight, forcing her back against the lists. He gave her no space to maneuver. Closing, he struck a blow against her side with his knee, driving the wind out of her and dropping her to her knees.
When she hit her knees she cried out, pain from the scrapes shooting raw up her spine. She should have rolled, she should have - he was coming at her again -
With a cry she swung wild at his waist. He easily blocked, then shifted his sword to one hand and grabbed her right arm with his other, twisting. She let go the hilt with her left hand and brought that up in a fist, smashing into his faceplate once, twice with a force that echoed up her arm. Her sword clattered to the ground between them, but she didn’t care anymore. They were grappling now, hand to hand, trading blows like pageboys, but with a lot more force. Kay’s sword disappeared in the rush as she drove upwards, rolling over him then under, trying to keep the momentum.
He landed a blow to her groin and looked briefly startled when it had little effect. Then she was rolling on top again with a heave, pressing her forearm down to the bare spot on his throat between the gorget and his helm. He got a hand on her hips to shove, then another on her chest and, with a mighty heave, threw her off to land with a grunt several steps away.
They both lay gasping for a moment, eyeing each other. And then Kay laughed.
It was a short bark of a sound, not much mirth in it, but it was the first time she’d heard him laugh in over a year. Shocked by the sound, Morgana blinked at him, then snorted and pressed her armored cheek into the grass, closing her eyes. Where all the anger had burned in her gut there was a strange silence, and not the hollow silence of before. She didn’t quite feel like herself, but she didn’t feel like a stranger in her body either. Halfway in between, perhaps. Human, at least.
After a minute or so of peace, she opened her eyes to find Kay’s bare hand out, offering to help her up. With a sigh, she let him.
When the afternoon turned golden with approaching sunset, Uther summoned her. He did not summon Gwen, but Morgana would have sooner gone naked than without support, so she begged Gwen with her eyes until Gwen agreed to come. They had no time to re-bind Morgana's hair, so it hung long and loose, combed back over her shoulders as well as Gwen could manage.
They walked in silence, as they had since the fight. With even the simplest request, Morgana fumbled herself into speechlessness. Words seemed like small, odd-shaped things in her mouth, not nearly large enough to wrap around what she needed to say. And Gwen - Gwen's eyes were far away and much too gentle, both at the same time. Gwen was too wise to need Morgana's words, even though Morgana wished she could say them.
And so the silence.
They found Leon and Kay at the door to Uther's chambers. Kay had a shiner already, purple edging around his left eye. He stood gravely though and nodded to let them pass. Leon tried to smile encouragingly, but it fell flat into his beard.
Inside, a small crowd of men and an army of candles greeted her. Though it was not yet dark, a fire roared in the hearth, warming the room until it was sweltering. The men were clearly sweating, but none moved to pull off the outer layers of those stiff court clothes, all threaded with rich colors that danced in the firelight. Instead, they sat huddled round the bed, whispering amongst themselves like frightened children at bedtime.
Uther held court in the center, leaning on pillows with his arms on top of the red coverlet, his crown carefully settled on his head. Aglain hovered nearby, his expression serene but his body language less so.
This is pageantry, Morgana realized.
"Ah, Morgana." Uther smiled at her and raised his arms, but it was a gray shadow of himself she saw. She moved through the circle and up to his bedside, taking his thinning hands in hers. His knuckles seemed large beneath the worn leather of his favorite gloves.
"My Lord," she murmured, curtseying and kissing his hand in one motion. When she would have let go, though, he held on with a unexpectedly fierce grip.
"I must speak with my Ward," he said to the room at large.
This was apparently some signal, because men rose from stools and chairs, pulled themselves away from leaning against the walls, and filed quickly out the door. Gwen touched Morgana's arm briefly and disappeared into the anteroom, Aglain following her, and Uther's manservant Morris shut the main door and the one to the antechamber, himself on the other side.
She looked around and took in those who were left.
Leodegrance, who she had expected. Elaine, less expected but more welcome. Sir Caradoc stood by the door, arms crossed, and Sir Palamedes flanked him on the other side. Sir Ector stood at loose ends at the foot of the bed; he seemed to be waiting for some signal.
"Ector," Uther said quietly.
Ector sighed. "Yes, Sire."
It should perhaps not have surprised Morgana when Ector brought out the small chest, but she recognized the seal on the top as that of the House of Morgen, into which the Lady Ygraine had been born. Morgana's own mother had been a scion of that House, a sister of Ygraine's. There were no male heirs, and the House as a name had died out a generation ago. She had not expected to see that mark in Camelot, where even the mention of anything connected to Ygraine was forbidden.
"Open it," Uther ordered.
With an expression of extreme concentration, Ector moved his gloved fingers over the chest, pressing it in three places before gently prying the lid open. Inside, a scrap of purple cloth lay covering something round, hiding it from view. Morgana went cold.
Uther made a gesture, and Ector brought the chest, going down on one knee to present it. Uther's shaking hands reached out, drew back the cloth, and lifted out a circle of silver, a complicated working of branches entwined.
"You are my witnesses," Uther said quietly.
"We do witness," Queen Elaine replied formally. The men echoed her, except Ector, who swallowed and seemed unable to speak. Morgana felt sympathy for him in that moment. Her tongue felt like lead.
"Morgana," Uther prompted.
She blinked, stared at his hands holding the crown, and slowly, slowly dropped to her knees.
As she bowed her head, she thought of Gwen having to clean the dirt from this dress. Surely that crowd of men had tracked in mud on their boots? The sunset was awfully pretty today. She felt a weight come down on her head, and she thought of the extravagance of candles, and how they would have to stock more before Beltane. She felt Uther's finger under her chin, lifting, and she thought of a garrott around her neck. Surely he must see the marks in this light?
But all he said was, "Morgana is my heir." She felt the weight of Ygraine's crown upon her head, and shook with the echo of his brief coughing fit, when his fingers would not leave her face.
"Proclaim it," he gasped. "Proclaim it to my people."
"Yes, my Lord," said Palamedes, then Caradoc. Leodegrance moved to put a hand on Uther's shoulder and then helped him into a sitting position as the cough did not ease. Morgana slipped back, away. Ector's head remained bowed, the wooden chest lying forgotten on the floor in front of him. Morgana backed away further, alarmed by a sudden understanding of what was happening to her, of what this room was.
"Morgana." A hand on her shoulder stopped her, and she lifted her eyes. Elaine looked down at her. "Come," she said, and helped Morgana steady herself. "Call your maid and the physician. We'll use the mirror here."
Morgana's mouth worked silently for a moment before she was able to croak out Aglain and Gwen's names loud enough to be heard. Once she did, the anteroom door opened and a small burst of activity began, one part centered on Uther on the bed, the other centered on herself, now tugged to stand before the mirror on the far side of the room.
She didn't recognize her reflection.
The crown glittered like starlight, an infinite twining of vines. Tendrils of her hair caught on the leaves like wisps of night. She looked wild, like a queen of old, Boudicca come for vengeance. The mark on her throat slashed thin and red across her pale neck.
She shook her head, meaning to say, I can't go before the people like this.
Elaine smiled grimly. "Yes, you can. You will."
Morgana pried her tongue off the roof of her mouth. "I don't need this."
"But Camelot does," Gwen said softly, and that was the end of the argument.
They presented her to the people just like that, with smudges on her dress from kneeling on the floor, her hair unbound and streaming in the wind. The crown was light, deceptively so, but Morgana felt pinned in place by its presence. She thought she might never be able to breathe until it were gone, and that might not happen in her lifetime. She felt a sudden rush of kinship with Uther, and wished she could tell him that she now understood, at least a little. But it was too late for such petty reconciliations. Too late to ask for advice, either.
And all the time these thoughts were running through her mind, she stood on the balcony in a light spring rain, looking down at the people of Camelot, who were looking right back up at her with eyes that weighed and judged and mouths that murmured, murmured, too low to hear.
"And this key is for the drying cellar," Morgana explained.
Enid sighed. "My Lady, I know all this. If you're not ready to give them up yet, don't."
"I can't be chatelaine and heir." Morgana scrubbed her face with her hands. "I need to give these to someone I can trust."
"All right, then." Enid looked her in the eye. "Give me one set, and have a smith make copies for your maid Gwen."
Morgana bit her lip, but at Enid's earnest expression, she nodded. Morgana would have her own set of keys all too soon anyway.
Uther died in his sleep three mornings later. Morgana wasn’t there; Leodegrance was. They held the funeral that afternoon, smoke billowing up to the sky and Morgana’s eyes dry, dry and stinging. Gwen stood behind her all day like a moving wall. There was no pity in her brown eyes anymore, just calm certainty.
Warhorns blared a fanfare the very next day, as guards in scarlet livery threw open the doors to the Great Hall. Sir Ector entered first, his steps measured and slow. He was wearing a stiff brocade and carrying Uther’s crown on a pillow. After him came a small guard of six knights in full armor, capes billowing out behind them. Then it was Morgana’s turn.
She stepped into the doorway, letting it frame her for a moment in the morning sun, light glancing off the gold and silver thread in her gown and cloak. She was wearing Ygraine’s white dress, lengthened slightly with a satin sash at the hem, and over this she had draped the purple cloak her mother had left her, thick and spilling over her shoulders. The hood she left pushed back so her bound hair was visible, dark and unadorned.
The room rustled into silence. There was a thick hush, expectant like the moment before true sunrise, and then Morgana stepped into the room.
The distance to the far end of the room seemed to stretch, each step constrained by her dress and shoes. She kept her head high, showing off Gwen’s careful work with her hair, and tried to take in every awed expression and ducked head as her due. After all, these were her people now. They ought to be in awe of their queen.
She clung to that thought and kept her shoulders straight all the way to the dais.
The knights fanned out to either side, forming an honor guard at the foot of the dais. Ector took the steps up gravely, coming to rest a few paces to the side and turning to face the center. Morgana worked her way to the foot of the steps and stopped, waiting.
Geoffrey of Monmouth stood in the center of the dais, raised his arms, and began to call forth the words in a mix of older Brythonic and Latin, invoking the phrases of power in both languages. Morgana sighed imperceptibly and resigned herself to standing for a long time.
They worked their way through the invocation (all the gods, just in case), the history of Camelot and the lineages of her kings (and two queens, Morgana noted with satisfaction), and set a brisk pace through the list of noble families loyal to the throne (whether they would be loyal to her was another question, of course). The crowning itself went quickly, though Morgana had trouble kneeling in her dress and had to accept the offer of an arm from one of her honor guards in order to get down and back up again.
Then she was seated on the throne with a new weight on her head and the Seal of Camelot on her finger, accepting the vows of one lord after another, ordered by some strange precedence that had nothing to do with how happy they were to see her there. As far as she could tell, it was by order of how old the family’s title was. As if one’s grandfather’s choices were more important than one’s own.
Leon and Bedivere were early in the line. Leon should have been in the honor guard, and therefore sworn before all the rest, but he had asked her specifically to let him stand with his family. He came forward carefully now, using his position on Bedivere’s right to shield his brother’s arm from prying eyes. They spoke their oaths together, and quietly Morgana accepted them. And if her hand lingered a bit longer in Bedivere’s grasp than it had in the others before, it was only because her arm was tired.
If the order of oaths had been by veneration alone, King Esclabor’s sons would have been first, but instead they waited patiently and joined the throng that had been given title late in Uther’s reign. Still, Morgana had to smile a bit when Palamedes bowed over her hand and said the words of the oath in a voice too low to be heard by anyone but her.
“The others will think you’re playing some game,” she whispered to him. “Perhaps some plan to later say you never swore at all.”
His eyes were not smiling when they met hers. “My oaths are not for display,” was all he said, then he bowed and moved off. His brothers Safir and Segwarides came next, and they spoke normally, though both seemed subdued.
There were only a handful of families left unsworn when suddenly a commotion rose up by the door. The crowd had been restless for some time, but this was different; someone was pushing, trying to get through. It seemed for a moment that the guards would hold the line, but suddenly the force shifted and burst out into the aisle. It was a boy, a mud-covered peasant boy staggering forward with terror in his eyes.
“The border!” he cried in a thin voice. “Mercia is attacking!”
When the Saxons came, they beat like waves upon the shore. Three great kingdoms they took or built, and many smaller ones. The northernmost and oldest kingdom was Mercia, and it endured many generations and was greatly feared by the northern kings of Albion, for Mercia’s kings plotted against them always. In the southeast was Cantia, the kingdom of Hengist and Horsa, the violent brothers who loved battle and all bloodsports. They wrested it from its former queen by deception and ruled its people as conquerors. The last great kingdom was on the southern coast, west of Cantia, and this was Odin’s land. His line died with him, and so the name he gave his land is not remembered. His borders abutted both Cameliard and Garlot, and both kingdoms were mortally afraid of him.
Chapter 4: Borderlands
Morgana swept into the council chamber, still in full regalia. The dress would count against her, she knew, but the glitter of power reminiscent of the last generation might force a little instinctive deference from these entrenched old men. She once might have counted on Gaius for support, but with him gone, only Leon remained among those she could count as definite allies. The others were unknown and potentially hostile.
Palamedes acknowledged her with a nod, which gave her hope.
The rest of the men took a moment to fall silent. They had gathered in loose knots around the central table, where a large map of the border lay unrolled, its edges curling around unsheathed daggers, a pair of gloves, and even someone's boot.
They are utterly disorganized without someone to lead them, Morgana realized. Well, that must change.
"Boy!" she called to a page standing just outside the room. It was Gareth, the former kitchen boy. When he came running, she leaned down and whispered in his ear, slipping one key off her chain and pressing it to his palm. She stood up straight and he scampered off, light on his heels. At least one person had a sense of urgency in this room.
"My Lady!" Sir Ector called out, then caught himself, reddening. "Your," he stumbled, "High-?"
"Queen Morgana," Palamedes interrupted smoothly, stepping away from the table to gesture her into his place. She flashed him a quick thanks with her eyes but did not smile. Now was not the time to show weakness in front of these men.
Poring over the map, at first she saw only a jumble of shapes, mountains sharp-angled and lying sideways, rivers and streams winding uncertainly, and here and there the telltale black triangles that represented the thatched roofs of a village or cot. The border stood out in deep red, though there were signs it had been smudged out and redrawn several times.
The men around her were pointing, still arguing under their breaths. Lord Durrygn had pulled his signet ring off and dropped it on top of one of the villages. She reached over and touched the triangles, tiny compared to the thick, ornate ring.
"So this is the one," she murmured. The men's voices fell off as she traced her finger under the name. "Treffelin."
"Yes, Your Majesty," said Geoffrey, who had kept the council's records for forty years. "Burned to the ground, or so the messenger says. Would you like to speak with him?"
In her mind, Morgana moved Geoffrey into the column of possible allies. "Yes, bring him in."
The messenger entered with Gareth right on his heels; the two were no more than a couple years apart at most. Gareth set the box he was carrying on the table and went straight to work, pulling smooth stones from the box to hold down the curling edges of the map and returning men's belongings (and boots) to them.
In contrast, the messenger stuttered to a stop a few steps into the room, lower lip trembling. He looks like a babe, Morgana thought. Were they sending children for such tasks now?
"I am your queen," Morgana said kindly, moving toward the boy with a swish of skirts. His wide, darting eyes locked with hers for a moment, widened, and then dropped to the floor. His knees went with them.
Morgana was about to tell him there was no need to kneel when she realized he wasn't doing it for propriety. The boy was swaying, barely keeping from toppling over completely.
"Has he been fed?" she asked the room at large. An embarrassed shuffle was her only reply.
She placed a hand on the messenger's shoulder and squeezed. "Gareth," she called to the page, "have food and and a chair brought for this lad, and bring me quill and ink yourself."
Gareth bowed deeply and scampered off.
"Come now," she urged the messenger. "Come sit against this pillar and tell me what happened."
As they gathered around the curled form of the boy, his long legs tucked under his chin and his thin eyelids closed, she pretended not to notice Gwen bustling about, arranging Morgana's dress so it would receive minimal damage from her kneeling on the floor. Certainly women's dresses were not made for this position, nor many others. Morgana would likely have to dispense with them entirely, if court were to be interrupted like this on a regular basis.
Palamedes and some of the others crouched down with her, leaning forward to hear what the boy had to say, while others held back. Morgana gestured slightly to Leon, who fetched chairs for Sir Brunor, Geoffrey, and two aged lords. Surprisingly, Ector took up position on the boy's other side and placed a steadying hand on his shoulder.
"What's your name, lad?" Ector asked gently.
The boy's voice was small. "William. William the Younger." His eyes were still closed.
"William, will you tell us what happened to your village?"
William nodded, lower lip trembling. "They came a' night," he began. "Two nights ago. The goats was all shifty. One of 'em bit me." He stopped, breathed deeply through his nose. "Me ma said stay close to the house, but me an' Adelle - that's me little sister - we had ourselves a bird net up on the foot of Pig Mountain an' wanted to check it. We ran off in the dark."
Here he paused, and she could see that his eyes under his eyelids were sliding rapidly back and forth, up and down. Watching it happen, she thought.
"We never saw 'em. Just as we came back, through a gap in the trees we saw one spark, and all the sudden a flame, and then Glyn the healer's roof was on fire. Then the mill went up across the river, then the cowshed, then our house. Our feet just stopped an' didn't want to move. I clean forgot how to walk, and Adelle just sat down right there an' didn't make a sound. For all I know, she ain't made one since."
"How do you know it was Mercia?" Morgana asked gently. There was a burning in her gut, but she pushed it down ruthlessly.
William breathed again, tight like a hiss. "After the - after. Luned found us. She's the miller's oldest daughter, knows ever'thing 'bout ever'body. She carried Adelle on her back and dragged me by the hand the whole way. We was halfway home when a knight in blue almost rode us down. He had another horse tied behind, with a halter and a blanket and a worn old saddle.
"I thought he might run us over or laugh at us, but he didn't do none of that. He untied the secon' horse and tossed the lead to me. I fumbled it, 'cause my arms felt like stone. He looked me right in the eye an' said, 'You ride to Camelot, boy, and tell your new Queenling that King Renaud will have taken this whole valley by the time she figures out which end of a sword to grip.' Beggin' your pardon, Majesty." At this, his eyes slit open and shifted to her, clearly checking to see if he had offended.
She smiled. "None taken. Poor Renaud must very much hope I grow too angry to think, because he knows my father was one of the greatest strategists of his generation. I suppose since he is new to his throne as well that he must make some show of force to secure his reign. Unfortunate for him that he chose to attack Camelot."
Behind her, Sir Brunor cleared his throat. "Your Majesty, there is the small matter of provisioning the army and preparing for a long battle. Men must be called up from the surrounding areas and brought here, along with horses and supplies. Mercia would not attack without sufficient force to hold its gains, especially in a territory so long disputed. I fear we may have a full summer campaign on our hands."
Morgana watched William's face crumple. "Hm, I think not," she said, standing. "That is what Renaud wants and expects. Guinevere, how many supply carts could we field today?"
Today? She saw Brunor's mouth frame the word, but no sound came out. She ignored him and turned to Gwen.
"Over twenty, My Lady," Gwen said smoothly. "By nightfall, we'll have another eight at least from the farmers bringing leftover seed to trade with each other."
"Claim farmers' carts?" Ector asked, standing slowly. "That risks the crops and trade."
"If it were late summer, yes," Morgana replied. "This time of year, the horse-carts are barely half full. We simply trade them our own dog-carts that we use to move things about the castle grounds and to and from the lower town. Planting's done in this area - they won't need the extra space for several weeks. While we're at it, we trade cart-dogs for draft horses, and give out a bit of meat to tide the dogs over. Even the kennel master admits the kennels are overfull right now."
The room stirred. She could see men flashing glances at each other. Ector cocked his head, clearly thinking about her point, but Duggyn and another lord from the west pursed their lips mulishly. No doubt they wanted time to finish the planting in their provinces.
Perhaps another tactic, then. She moved to the map, looking down. "We have a very accurate account of the castle's stores. We can provision a small, quick force of only knights and soldiers drawn from the town and immediate surrounding area." Her finger circled Camelot town, clearly excluding the lands of the less biddable men. A head or two began to nod.
"Renaud was able to move his force sooner because they had enough rain up there this month to clear the snow from the passes. It stopped raining a few days ago, so we should be able to move quickly with the carts. I'll send for reinforcements, of course, but it's better to strike before he gets too far through the valleys. With all these rivers running fast from the snowmelt, he could bottle us up at any ford. His archers are good. We must strike now, while he's still stopping to attack every village in his path instead of marching straight through and cutting us off from the whole range." Marking the edge of the range with her finger, she deliberately grazed the lands of Lord Calain, which would become the new border if Renaud got that far. "It would be best to stop him before he gets that far."
On the map, it seemed so simple, but Morgana knew it wasn't. Still, something in her gut said move now, move fast. Renaud wanted her angry, brash, foolish, but instead she felt only an icy calm.
Those are my people. Mine.
Patiently, she waited for the muttering around her to take on a positive tone. The moment it did, she turned. "Brunor, see to the carts, with the expectation that we will take fifty knights and three hundred foot soldiers in the first wave." Renaud would have at least three times that many, but she had no time. "Palamedes, you're still Marshall of the Foot." He nodded. "Where is Sir Radnor?"
Silence fell. Leon cleared his throat. "He, ah. The Great Hall, with everyone else?"
"Send for him." So, membership in Uther's council was granted by family rank rather than earned rank. Otherwise Radnor, Master of the Horse for over a year, would have been there from the start. She would have to change that, but not right now.
"Ah, there you are, Gareth."
The page burst in, carrying Morgana's personal inkpot and quill, along with a stack of parchment. Behind him came a servant carrying a small chair and another with a tray of food.
"Excellent. You two, take William, feed him, and get him a bath. Gareth, you set up on the far end of the table from the map. Ector, I want a list of which squires are battle-ready and which should stay here and help prepare the castle defenses in case of assault. At least, that is what you should tell them. Geoffrey-"
Slowly, slowly, the room went from muddled to sharp, everyone given a purpose. Some of the older men still stumbled at the idea of obeying a woman, but the clarity of her instructions and the rapid way she delivered them left no room for actual argument. One or two of them looked downright mulish for a moment, but the momentum of the room kept them from getting in a complaint. Morgana made a note to herself who she might need to remove.
Before they could all leave, though, she had one last task.
"Gentlemen, you are my witnesses." She swept to the end of the table and picked up her quill, dipped it in the ink, and began to write. "'For services rendered to the crown, We, Queen Morgana of Camelot, do hereby reward'-"
"William the Younger of Treffelin," Gareth murmured under his breath.
"-'William the Younger of Treffelin, who shall receive as a gift of the crown the horse he rode to Us, enough thatch to repair his home and those of his neighbors, and the use of the town blacksmith to repair or replace tools damaged or stolen in the attack. So We do hereby declare, on this'-"
"Third of Aprilis," Gareth whispered.
"-'Third of Aprilis, in the first year of Our reign.'" She watched as Gareth tipped the red wax onto the page, then turned her finger and pressed the seal of Camelot deep into the drip, the ring still circling her finger. The slight sting of hot wax against her skin kept her grounded. A moment before, she had felt like she might do anything. Stand on the table and scream. Chop the heads off the stone cherubs leaning out of the walls. Run after Gwen and beg to trade places.
"Gareth," she said as calmly as she could, "take this notice to our guest William and recite it to him. Then return my belongings to my study."
"Yes, Your Majesty." Gareth bobbed a quick bow and scampered off with the parchment open to the breeze, ink still drying on the page. It would undoubtedly smear, and William would never notice.
Morgana took a deep breath. "My lords, I take my leave. Leon, attend me!"
She swept out quickly, with long, firm strides that forced even tall Leon to jog a bit to catch up. The crown on her head, which had felt light all morning, was beginning to weigh more heavily. It would take her some time to get used to it.
"Stop worrying," Elaine insisted, "I'm fine here by myself. I'm hardly alone anyway. You did notice I brought two servants and a companion, didn't you?"
"If something happens up north...." Morgana's hands jerked agitatedly. She was standing in the middle of Elaine's guest room, unsure what to do with herself but quite certain she had meant to have more of a reunion. "You could go back to south to Garlot, I suppose. In case Renaud breaks through, or I die-"
"That won't happen." Elaine's voice is firm. "I trust you to find a way, and if your home needs defending, you can trust me to stay here and help do it."
Morgana made a sound in her throat that wasn't any sort of word and hugged her sister hard.
"I'll miss you," she whispered in Elaine's hair. Missing Elaine was something she'd done all her life and hadn't thought about very closely, but now that she'd had a taste of what having a sister was like as an adult, she knew she would always feel a bit bereft.
"I'll wait right here for you," Elaine whispered back. "Come home safely."
Morgana nodded into her shoulder.
"And for heaven's sake take Leodegrance with you. He's been in more battles than the rest of your generals combined. If anyone has good advice for you, it's him."
"Do you think he would come?" Morgana asked.
Elaine snorted. "I think you would have to chain him in the dungeon to keep him here."
Morgana dreams a village burning, its millstone cracked, sheep bleating in alarm. She tastes blood and fury, hears little voices crying in the night. The next morning she wakes angry, her teeth rough on Gwen's lips when she meant to be gentle, the morning of their parting.
"I'm sorry," she said, soothing with her fingers. "I'm sorry."
"Sh," Gwen replied, kissing her fingertips. "I know."
And Gwen did. She heard everything that happened in the night, and she always seemed to know.
Rising from bed, Morgana bustled to cover her exhaustion. "I'm trusting you to help Elaine keep the council from revolting. I'm taking everyone I can with me, but Ector is still Seneschal and must be left in charge-"
"He's no threat," Gwen murmured, catching Morgana's arms so she could attach the vambraces.
Morgana made a face. "You don't know that."
"I know it."
Gwen sighed. "Because he thinks of you as a niece. He doesn't think you're fit to rule, but he won't do anything to get you killed, either. I used to watch him train you in swordfighting. He was always fair to you."
"He was utterly Uther's man, though," Morgana reminded her.
"Yes, because he's loyal. But that doesn't mean you can't win his trust. You already have his affection."
Morgana sighed. "I hope you're right."
Gwen smiled tight-lipped. "I'm more worried about you. They're already calling Renaud 'The Fox'."
"I can handle him. He's only twenty."
"In Mercia right now, they're saying you're only a woman."
Morgana gritted her teeth and rotated her shoulders to make sure her armor was fitted properly. "The difference is, I don't have to strut and crow like a young cock. I just have to win."
By the time they gathered three hundred sixty-four men, thirty squires, twenty-seven camp followers, and nineteen wagons on the field outside Camelot's gates, Morgana had decided she would bet Gwen against a thousand would-be usurpers.
"Knights and soldiers of Camelot!" she cried, knowing her voice could be heard the whole field over after echoing off Camelot's stone walls. "Today we ride to defend our people against a man who chose not to honor the treaties he inherited. The gods do not smile upon oathbreakers. Let us remind him why his uncle signed that treaty. Let us remind him of the might of Camelot." She raised her sword, just as Arthur used to. "For Camelot!"
The men roared. And if some remained silent, well, her supporters bellowed loud enough to cover their absence.
They left along the north road, their horses churning the damp clay to mud, leaving the foot soldiers to struggle behind them. After two miles of this, Morgana called a halt and put the infantry and archers in front. Most of her knights looked scandalized, but Leodegrance had a twinkle in his eyes.
They made camp the first night along the road, just where the foothills began to push upward. Dinadan loaned Morgana his squire, Kahedin, to pitch her tent and check her armor. He was the oldest squire in the bunch, nearly ready for the trial to become a knight, and he took the honor very seriously. Even Gwen would approve of his careful attention to every piece of her mail.
Outside her tent, another burst of laughter came from the fireside. The knights sat together in a circle there, sharing beer and old stories. Before retiring to her tent, she had seen the looks Kahedin had cast in that direction. The naked longing on his face when he looked over his shoulder drew on her pity. She let him go, and soon his dark hair and pale skin were glinting in the light as he refilled Dinadan's cup and accepted a seat on the ground by his master's knees.
Honestly, she had no excuse to keep him anyway. He'd done his task admirably, and her loneliness was only because she was so used to Gwen's face being the last thing she saw before the candles were put out. No reason to make the poor boy miserable.
"It's a good night," one of the men said. Lionel, perhaps? "Not a drop of rain, and still in home territory."
"Knock on your wooden head," his brother Bors said gruffly. "If you bring us bad luck, we'll know who to blame." The other men laughed.
"It isn't his wooden head I'd knock," Kay grumbled. "It's that damn fool Renaud."
At this there was a general murmur of assent, punctuated with minor curses. Clearly, the men were disgruntled with moving this early in the season, some of them complaining quite audibly about the weather and about attacking villages before the seed was in the ground.
"He's a fool if he wants the territory," was Kay's dour pronouncement, "and even more a fool if all he hopes to do is burn a few villages and come home with a few prisoners to ransom and some war trophies. Don't let that be any of you lads." She could hear the shift in his voice that made it clear he was addressing the squires now. "It's a damn fool place to die, in a spring campaign to some muddy village you never heard of."
"Here now, no talk of dying," Palamedes said quietly. "Not tonight."
Dinadan whispered loud enough for everyone to hear, "No, don't talk about it, lads. Just think it quietly to yourselves."
A few of the men snorted, but the general mood of the fire had soured at Kay's words, and shortly after that they began to drag themselves away in ones and twos to their tents, with the boys picking up the cups and jugs, then scampering after.
Morgana lay awake for some time after, listening to the rustle of blankets and the peep of distant frogs. She had made much of her father's prowess in battle, but truth be told, she knew only a handful of stories from him. The only one that came to mind now was the time he and Uther and twenty men had snuck around behind a Northumbrian advance guard and taken them by surprise in the night.
They didn't expect us, because we had to wade through a marsh to get to them, her father had said, laugh lines crinkled around his eyes. We paid a local poacher to guide us right through. My armor was never the same again, but it was worth it.
Thoughts of her father made her miss him all over again. She curled up and pressed her face down into the blankets, trying to sleep.
After a third night out in the open, they arrived in the village of Treffelin in mid-morning on the fourth day.
It had rained briefly the night before, but even so, the air had a foul tang to it nearly an hour before they marched out of the trees and into the gentle curved end of the valley where a stream spilled down from the mountains and over a small dam, forming a pond as it did so. A millstone lay cracked beside the pond, and beyond it-
A short stone bridge over the river, left behind by the Romans and maintained by generations upon generations of careful villagers, was perhaps the only thing built by human hands that still stood whole and unscorched. Everything else - houses, barns, carts, and nearby fields - lay like a wasteland, charred and empty. The scent of smoke hung heavy and choking over the whole place.
"Goddess preserve us," whispered one of the boys, and no one shushed him.
They moved across the bridge in careful ones and twos, fanning out to take up sentry posts on the edge of the surrounding woods. The sound of the stream was strangely loud, rain-swollen as it was and balanced by nothing else. No birds sang, no thicket rustled, no human voices called out to each other.
Morgana hung back with Leon and Palamedes, watching the edges of the fields carefully. She let her eyes drift up to the mountains a few times as well. The sky was too overcast to show the glint of sun on armor, but she fancied she saw movement up there.
"We should stay spread out," she said quietly. "If they have archers up there, they can't aim this far, but they could still send a rain of arrows down if they thought it worth their while."
Palamedes nodded and moved off to tell the men.
Leon, however, remained behind by her side. "Your Highness," he murmured, too low for anyone else to hear, "I very much wish you had let Sir Geraint come along. He has led the royal bodyguard for over a decade. You should have a personal guard here, and I can think of no better man to head it."
I can think of one, Morgana thought, but let it pass. "Sir Leon, I thank you for your advice. Since we can do nothing about it now, let us continue this conversation after the battle."
He cleared his throat, unexpectedly dogged. "Your Highness, by then it may be too late."
She looked away briefly from the mountains to gauge his expression. "You think I'm in danger now?"
"We're going into battle," he replied, "and Renaud knows exactly who was crowned yesterday. He will send his men straight for you. A leaderless kingdom is easy prey. He likely has three times our force; he will have plenty of men to spare for a focused attack."
"If I were planning to meet him on the battlefield, that might be a problem," she agreed.
His frown eased. "Ah! Then you'll allow Sir Palamedes and Sir Radnor to lead us into battle while you remain behind in camp?"
"Not a chance!" She nearly laughed out loud. "No, Leon. I will not lead us into a pitched battle because there will be no pitched battle. Once we understand the situation here, we will withdraw from the village for today and make camp in a defensible place. Then I will tell you how I plan to soundly beat a thousand men with three hundred and fifty."
"Three hundred and sixty-four, plus thirty squires," Leon corrected.
She smiled. "Thirty excellent squires, who shall find themselves very busy shortly."
Riding away from the village and back the way they came, Morgana slid her horse up by Leodegrance's. He glanced at her, then signaled for his personal guard to give them space.
"What is it?" he asked her in a low tone not meant to carry.
She bit her lip. "I'm thinking of a story my father once told me."
Leodegrance glanced back over his shoulder at the mountain looming above the village. "Northumbria?" he guessed.
He sighed. "To pull a trick like that, we'd need local guides. And firepots, which we didn't bring, though possibly some of the food jars could suffice. We're close to the new moon, so the darkness would be in our favor. We'd have to break into smaller companies, though. Three hundred men can't move over a single pass at any good speed, and certainly not in the dark. If there are even any passes behind Renaud. He may have local guides of his own from the other side of this ridge. And beyond that, I think we would have to leave our armor behind if we wanted to move silently enough. Your father and Uther waded through a swamp for two hours, with water dampening most of the sound. Up on the rocks, you'd have no such advantage."
Morgana listened carefully, ticking off each point in her mind. "So, do you think it's possible?"
He cocked his head. "Possible? Probably. It does have certain advantages over a frontal assault. Certain disadvantages too. If we're caught before we clear the passes, we'll be cut to pieces."
"So you're saying we need to trust him to post most of his sentries facing the village."
"We need to trust that he's overconfident and not be overconfident ourselves."
Morgana nodded. "We need to find the villagers first, then."
"I saw no bodies back there." He turned his head, scanning the hillsides around them. "It might be time to send out some trackers."
"Why would he burn a village but not kill the people?"
Leodegrance snorted. "Except for the millstone and the sheep, that's all superficial damage. Those fields weren't even planted yet, and I bet you a barrel of cider his men took the seedcorn before they burned the barns. He could have the village back in order in a few weeks at most." He shifted, face darkening. "The burning was a symbolic act meant to make you lose face. The villagers will be useful to him if he wins here, so he may have given orders to let them run. If he loses, you have to decide whether to abandon the land or rebuild again so close to the border."
Morgana chewed on that for a few minutes, then admitted, "He did make me furious. Maybe he got what he wanted."
He shook his head. "No, I've known you since you were just a bump in your mother's belly. You can be angry and smart at the same time."
"You're like a doting old uncle," she laughed, almost embarrassed.
"Absolutely," he agreed, then his face softened. "I see so many dear friends alive in you, but I see you for yourself too, Morgana. Cameliard will be your ally for as long as I live."
They made camp a half hour's ride back along the trail, in the lee where a ridge of one mountain jutted down into the valley. It took them until well after noon to discover the survivors of the attack huddled in the hills, living in caves like wild beasts. They had a herd of pigs with them, which lived in the same caves at night.
William the swineherd was a man of simple mind and pleasant expression, with straw sticking out of his hair. "I was out wi' me pigs," he told Bors. "Sometimes we go too far and have ta sleep in a cave at night. Me Bess, she's a great cave-finder." He patted the back of one of the pigs, the one who followed him everywhere. "She's smarter than half the youngins in the village."
Bors politely held his tongue and nodded his appreciation of Bess.
William the Younger, messenger to Camelot, was greeted as a local hero. His mother roundly scolded him for worrying her, then hugged him and burst into tears. Watching from a distance, Morgana blinked and turned away. She could remember her father scolding her like that when she was young.
"My Lady," said Palamedes quietly beside her, "We must hold council."
She nodded and followed him back to the camp, leaving Bors behind to distribute food to the villagers and question them further on the numbers and armaments of their attackers.
Back at the camp, Morgana watched as the squires attempted to start a fire with wet wood, trying to dry out the wet bedding from the night before. Their attempts got more smoke in everyone's eyes than flames on the ground, but she followed their dogged determination anyway, some part of her mind running faster than the fleetest horse, just out of her conscious awareness. She knew enough to let it run and make no decision until it found its way.
Lionel was in a dour mood. "I hate marching in mud. And fighting in it is just brutal."
"They'll have archers on the heights," Caradoc agreed. "We'll have to carry the heavy shields."
For once, Dinadan didn't even try to be funny. "My squire's staying here to guard the baggage." His glare dared any of them to argue. None did. Indeed, after a few moments there was a general round of nodding. Just out of earshot, the boys kept working on the fire, oblivious to the fate being decided for them.
"Not all the spearmen have good shields," Leon put in.
"Let them come behind," Lionel suggested.
Leon shook his head. "With archers on the heights, that won't do them much good. We need to draw the enemy as far forward as possible."
"And don't clump up," Caradoc added.
"No," said Morgana.
They stopped and looked at her, confusion wrinkling most of their faces. Morgana could see it finally, though: the hills and the flat valley, the caves of William the swineherd.
"We'll come up behind them in the dark tonight," she said quietly. "We'll have the villagers lead us around. There must be more paths than the main road."
Lionel shook his head. "With all due respect, My Lady-"
With no respect at all, Morgana translated.
"-we cannot fight him that way. We must meet him in proper battle and show him that Camelot's forces are stronger, even when we have fewer men. He must be discouraged, not humiliated, or else he will return with a larger force later in the year to recoup his honor."
"With all due respect, Sir Lionel, that's folly. Bayard's brat," and gods knew they said worse about her, it felt good to let some of the poison out, "expects that and has planned for it. We'll surprise him."
Kay shifted. "He has issued a challenge, my Queen. We must answer."
"No, he burned a village," she replied. "My village, full of my people. We will answer, make no mistake. But I will not be satisfied with merely discouraging him." She paused and stared into the smoke of the slowly building fire. "I will terrify him."
They stopped arguing and shifted away. It might have been the smoke, or it might have been the flames she could feel spring up in her eyes, dancing like reflected sun. When she looked back, only Caradoc, Palamedes, and Leodegrance would meet her gaze, and the former looked as wide-eyed as if he were Renaud himself, facing her wrath.
Morgana finally managed to doze off despite herself, sore and exhausted from riding for two days. Thus, it took her several moments to drag herself from sleep (true sleep, blessed sleep) when someone called her softly.
It was the boy Kahedin, kneeling in the doorway, a dark blur that blotted out the stars behind him. Morgana raised herself from the pile of furs and blinked at him, too sleepy to understand at first. Hadn't she just been in her room, Gwen's soft murmurs in her ear?
"Your Majesty, it's time."
Slowly she came back to herself, taking in the tent and the darkness. She cleared her throat. "Yes, of course. A moment."
"Do you...?" he asked.
"No, I can dress myself," she said firmly, and hoped it was true.
It was, though only because they would go lightly armed and unmailed. She emerged from her tent into the silent, sleepy bustle of camp, three hours before dawn. The stars above were cold and the wind bitter. Camp followers shuffled about gathering coals from the banked fires and putting them into firepots, wrapping each pot in dark-colored rags and tying it over the breastplate of a knight or soldier. Meanwhile, squires rubbed soot on recently polished armor and the hilts of bright swords, while archers strung and tested their bows. All was done in remarkable silence, barely a whisper passing from one to another. The moment felt surreal, as if she had stepped out of her tent into a fable.
They left camp in three silent companies. William the swineherd led Morgana's group over the pass like thieves in the night, picking their way along the tiny path. With careful feet Morgana followed the vanguard, her sword sheathed to keep from reflecting any light. She felt her way along, one hand trailing the damp rocks of the mountainside. Above them, the sliver-moon slipped in and out of the clouds, providing uncertain light.
They crawled up the pig-trail over the ridge in near silence. Morgana’s feet slipped twice, once sending a small shower of pebbles down on the men behind her. The second time, a gloved hand came up from below and latched onto her ankle, pushing it firmly against the stone.
She chose, quite magnanimously, not to kick Kay in the face for that.
They finished ascending the ridge just as the moon came out fully, and for a moment Morgana could look down on the sleeping camp of the Mercians, the orderly tents, the blue banners snapping quietly in the breeze, the horses snuffling and shifting in their rows, uneasy. Then a silent command to take cover came down the line, tapped from one shoulder to the next, and she shifted into a bush-filled hollow right below the ridge. Kay came with her, sticking like a burr, and Dinadan was only an arm's length away in the other direction.
Now it was all a matter of waiting.
Twelve great battles were fought between the Saxons and the Britons for control of Albion, of which three are most remembered: The Battle of the Trees, the Siege of the City of Legion, and the Battle of Badon Hill. Of these three, Badon Hill is the most famous, for the miracles in that single day of fighting outnumbered those of all the other eleven battles combined.
Chapter 5: Fire on the Mountain
Afterwards, the things Morgana remembered were odd details, like the fact that, by an hour before dawn, her eyes felt gritty and stinging from lack of sleep. She kept wiping the moisture from them on the shoulder of her shirt, carefully and slowly. It was the second time that night she had been grateful to not be wearing mail - the first time, of course, being when she’d crawled over the ridge on her belly.
The positions they sat in were cramped, but they couldn’t shift without risking noise or a being spotted by the sentries. Morgana was also hungry by now, having forgotten to grab something before she left camp. Below, she could smell the delicious scent of mutton slow-roasting. That explained the lack of sheep in the village yesterday, and the injustice of it burned in her empty belly.
An owl hooted in the distance. At first the sound refused to register in her tired mind, but Kay’s gloved hand squeezed her leg, reminding her suddenly. Pursing her lips and trying to clear her throat soundlessly, she managed a soft call back.
A third call from the opposite side. They were ready.
This time Morgana let Kay give the reply. Her own throat had closed up, her vision narrowed to the tents below. One, two, three, she could hear Palamedes’s voice, under, over, slash. Don’t waste more than three blows on any man. Hit him and move on. Keep up the momentum of the charge.
Kay made the return call, and they leapt to their feet.
Their mass movement caused a shower of pebbles to rain down from the mountainside on the camp, but they were only about a hundred horse-lengths away. Morgana covered the ground in great, leaping strides, careful not to turn an ankle or go down. She kept her sword sheathed until the last minute so as not to impale herself accidentally. One or two men below got off shots with shortbows, but the arrows whizzed by wide of Morgana’s position. If they hit someone, there was no cry.
The moon was dark under the trees; shadows sprang up everywhere. The banked fires provided a nice backdrop for some of the sentries, at least. One, two, three. Morgana caught her first opponent in the belly and moved on, trusting Kay to make sure he stayed down.
Surprise was on their side. Most of the archers were mass bowmen, not hunters or assassins, so they couldn’t work in close range. Many of the men were asleep with their weapons out of reach, and others were simply too groggy to resist much. At one point, Morgana reached over and yanked the blanket from a curled figure, about to stab downwards, when she saw it was only a boy. His eyes were wide and blank, mouth hanging open as he stared at her. Shocked, she twitched sideways, and her blade drove into the bedroll instead. The boy gave a little cry.
“Roll over and face the ground,” Morgana ordered him. “Hands behind your head. Don’t move until one of my men claims you prisoner.”
The boy whimpered but rolled quickly, pressing his cheek into the dirt. Morgana felt sick. There would be no prisoners, of course, but perhaps if the boy stayed still no one would waste a strike on him.
About halfway across the camp, resistance suddenly toughened. Morgana had to spend five, six strikes on a man who was wearing a leather jerkin, since she was only able to bruise him with two of her strikes. The last one sent him tumbling, but she slowed, worried he would stand back up.
A sudden rustle, and men burst from the tents on the far end of the camp, half of them wearing mail and all armed to the teeth. Morgana spun and blocked a strike, her gut twisting as she realized the gamble she’d made was now challenged. Her men had gone without any sort of armor in order to increase their speed and silence; now that the momentum of their charge was broken, they were at a disadvantage. Retreat was also impossible - they couldn’t crawl back over the pig-path with the enemy right behind them. They had to win here.
She spun again and found herself facing a fire, its coals mostly banked, a simple spit above it with half a lamb left on. The coals caught her gaze, hot and red. Hot. Flickering.
This was where her memories became clouded. Flames leapt up from the coals, caught the roasted lamb and the wooden spit on fire, and from there began leaping to bedrolls, piles of equipment, trees, and tents. Sparks flew unnaturally high, spinning like dancers through the air. Strangely, there was almost no smoke.
She had no idea how long she stood there, staring at the flames and laughing like a child or a madman. She remembered Kay’s voice, rough like smoke - there was no smoke - calling her name, tugging on her sleeve. She stood in a whirlwind of fire and held her hands out to it, singing. It never burned her.
Finally, Kay put an arm around her waist and pulled, shocking her back into her body. Looking around, she saw flames everywhere. Her own people were executing a careful retreat, rotating the rear guard. A few of the knights hung back, clearly waiting for something, and she realized it was herself.
“Go, go!” she shouted, but they didn’t seem to hear her. As she tried to move her legs, a crossbow twanged and an arrow caught Radnor in the neck. He went down in silence, dropping like a sack of grain. She screamed, or thought she screamed.
“Stop it!” Kay hissed in her ear, his breathing labored. “More will die if you don’t get out of here!”
Her face twisting, she managed to get her feet under her so she was running half propped against Kay’s shoulder, rather than being carried. Exhaustion was already creeping through every limb, heavy and leaden. She felt that she could drop down and sleep right here, except for the way her heart was pounding and every time she closed her eyes, she saw Radnor drop again, thud. Over and over, impossible to stop.
They were over the ridge and halfway back to camp when it hit her: they weren’t carrying any wounded. Anyone who wasn’t walking wasn’t with them.
This was my plan, she thought, I knew this would happen. She fell to her hands and knees on the narrow path, dry heaving on an empty stomach.
A hand came down on her back, rubbing rough circles. “Come on,” Kay said gruffly. “You’re blocking the way, and some of us are tired.”
Shaking, she dragged herself to her feet using the rock wall on one side. Her legs felt like a newborn filly’s.
“That’s it. One foot in front of the other.”
She aimed an elbow at him but was too tired to make it connect. Kay snorted. “Later, you can try that for real. For right now, just move.”
Dawn was breaking over the mountains, light and color creeping in everywhere. They staggered back into camp, last of the three companies. With a light shove from Kay, Morgana walked mindlessly into her tent and fell down on the furs face-first. She was asleep in seconds.
She woke face down, still in her padded tunic. Daylight shone through the walls of her tent. She whimpered, squeezing her eyes shut against the brightness.
Eventually she managed to roll to one side and bump into a waterskin left behind by some kind soul. She lifted her head enough to manage several long swallows, then pushed upright. Her stomach growled, empty.
Heedless of her tumbled, tangled hair and wrinkled clothes, she crawled out of the tent and stood shakily, looking around. The camp was bustling quietly, fires burning, everyone going about their business in a sort of hush.
Fear cramped her gut. Were there rumors already about last night? She couldn't remember anything clearly after the counter-charge by Renaud's men except Radnor going down, and her mind shied away from that.
Behind her, a man said, "There you are."
She turned to see Leodegrance striding forward with relief on his face. He didn't pause the usual two or three steps away, but instead walked right up into her space and threw an arm around her shoulders, pulling her roughly into a hug.
After a moment of stiffness, she let herself relax, laying her head on his shoulder. When she was little, he used to carry her when she grew tired, and she would lay her head in that exact place. He'd seemed so much larger then. He was no longer a bearded and laughing uncle who brought colorful gifts and ponies. Still, his shoulder was somehow the perfect place to rest.
"I was worried," he muttered gruffly, then patted her on the shoulder and pulled back. "Sir Palamedes and Sir Leon want to give you their reports, but I told them you have to eat first."
She nodded. "I feel hollow." Her voice rasped like stone on stone.
"Stew first," he agreed.
A serving girl ran up with a three-legged stool and set it on the scuffed ground around one of the many cookfires. She dished out a wooden bowl full of something Morgana decided not to examine too closely. The girl gave a quick curtsey, clearly busy. Nodding and waving her off, Morgana began to eat quickly, barely chewing. At least there were enough spices in it to mask the taste.
As she ate, Leodegrance retrieved his own stool and talked. "You've been asleep for four hours. Renaud sued for peace early this morning. He sent an emissary. He'll send another this evening to discuss terms. Palamedes is willing to handle the envoy if you don't want to. Lionel and Kay are guarding the perimeter. Bors and Leon are assessing the damage to the village and will make a report to you on what can be saved and how long it would take to reinstall the villagers. That will be your choice. We could also move them further from the border if you think that's best."
Morgana swallowed quickly and shook her head. "No, I want to ask them. If they want to stay here, it's worth a try to keep the land in use. We took in so many refugees last year that some villages are becoming overcrowded. Aglain said he's worried we might have an epidemic this summer, and we're short fertile land for crops as well. It takes time to clear new land."
Leodegrance nodded. "Cameliard was spared the drought two years ago, but the flooding last year affected us as well, and we are still taking in those fleeing from the east. We pass on as many as we can further west, but Mark in Cornwall is beginning to balk. He says we'll drive his own people right into the sea." He smiled grimly. "I sympathize with him."
Morgana nodded around her last mouthful of stew. Mark wasn't her favorite cousin because he had a bit of a vindictive streak, but he was generally honest and fair to his people. If their herds were not enough to support new people, the winters would go harshly for them.
Setting her bowl on the ground, Morgana sighed and gripped her knees. "You've avoided telling me who we lost last night. I appreciate that, but I want to know."
Leodegrance sighed. "Twenty-nine men we couldn't bring back over the passes, and another fifty or so mildly injured but likely to make a full recovery, though one man lost some toes off his left foot and another was mildly burned in a sensitive place. Not your fault!" He held up a hand to stop her panic. "He was shoved into the embers of a cookfire early in the fight."
"Did you lose any of your men?" she asked quietly. That he had come with her weighed more heavily on her now that the casualties were real.
His face clouded. "One. He... might still be alive. If they didn't execute prisoners."
Leodegrance had only brought his personal guard to Camelot, and they rode with her army now. So whoever he had left behind, it was someone he knew well. The stew felt heavy in her belly.
"I saw Radnor go down," she admitted. I see it about twenty times an hour.
Leodegrance gave her a knowing look, like he'd heard the words she didn't say. "He knew the risks. He agreed to the plan before anyone else, because it was safer for his men. Anyone without plate mail would have been cut to ribbons in a frontal assault."
She nodded, trying to accept Leodegrance's calm certainty. People die. It's war.
"Honestly, it could have been worse," he admitted. "Kay told me what happened." He looked around casually. Everyone seemed to be clustered around the healers' tents and the other cookfires. "He said the fire was you."
Morgana stood up, knocking over the stool. Her blood felt like ice.
"I didn't," she gasped, hands out, "I didn't."
"Calm down." He was reaching for her. His hand loomed large in her narrowed vision. Her blood beat in her ears. "Morgana, calm down! I'm not Uther."
Her tongue was stuck to the roof of her mouth. Stumbling backward over the stool, she barely managed to keep her feet as she twisted, looking for an escape. She didn't have any idea where to go, just away. Away.
Gwen. She needed Gwen.
"Milady?" She whirled, caught a glimpse of a confused face. Caradoc, the skin around his gray eyes crinkled in puzzlement. He looked over her shoulder at Leodegrance, and his eyes widened in sudden understanding.
For a moment it was like looking in a mirror. Caradoc's silent panic echoed back at her, his eyes shifting, feet moving uncertainly. Then he closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and dropped to one knee.
She blinked down at him and stopped trying to get around and away. "What?" she croaked.
"We left before the coronation was complete. I never got to swear my fealty." His voice sounded hoarse, like he was pushing the words out with great difficulty.
Morgana swallowed. It was such a strange thing for him to focus on now of all times, but it was custom. She could cling to that.
His shoulders visibly relaxed as he pulled his sword from his scabbard and laid it on the ground at her feet, then put his hands together and lifted his eyes to hers.
"I swear on my honor that I will be faithful to you, never cause you harm, and will preserve my oath to you completely against all others in good faith and without deceit, so long as you do not require me to act against my kin and kingdom at Caerleon."
She nodded and reached out, taking his chilled, damp hands between her own. "I do accept your oath," she said in a crow's voice, harsh and high.
He closed his eyes briefly, then leaned down to kiss her ring. "You have nothing to fear from me," he whispered for her ears only. "Nor from any of your most trusted knights. I swear it."
Her eyes felt damp. She didn't want to think about fire, about sparks in the dark, or men left behind (Radnor). Every thought of fire reminded her of the pyres in Camelot's courtyard, the headman's axe, Uther's hand held high and dropped like a stroke of doom. In hundreds of dreams, both ordinary and not, she had stood on that pyre herself and looked up at his harsh face from below. Ever since she was a child, her mind had shied violently away from anything that might end with her there, trapped in a circle of hostile faces with his hate scalding her.
A hand landed on her shoulder. She jumped, but it was only Leodegrance.
"Come on." He picked up Caradoc's sword with his free hand and gave it back, then tugged Morgana away. "We're making a scene, and there are urgent matters to attend to."
It was an hour later, on a hillside looking down at the remnants of the village, that Morgana finally remembered that Radnor had never given his oath either.
She sat in her tent on a three-legged stool like a minor throne - and wasn't this where all the thrones of the past few centuries had been born, on these three-legged stools in some army camp? - while a handful of men sat around her, still covered in soot and blood from the battle. She had refused a washbasin herself. Let Renaud's man see her bloodied and know she was there in his camp last night. Let him know she was not afraid to face him directly.
"My Lady," Leon whispered, touching her arm lightly. She could see a half-healed slash across the top of his wrist, and realized with a start that it was the cut she had given him in practice over a week ago now. She brushed her own fingers over the spot, hovering, unable to speak. Leon held still for her, patiently.
"My Lady," he murmured again, "when the messenger comes, remember that his words are for show. We have changed the rules, and Renaud will be angry. Better that he bluster than seethe."
Mogana's tongue came unstuck slowly. "He burned a village."
"But he did not murder our people," Leon pointed out. "He could have. The burning was for show. So was this whole attack. Tell the messenger what he needs to hear - that we have other camps all around the valley and two thousand men. Tell him our border guards alerted us to their presence before the attack, and we had a week's notice to prepare. Tell him Uther's generals led the charge with their knowledge of the local terrain. Tell him anything but the truth."
"I will tell him to rot in hell," she whispered.
"You can do that too," Leon agreed, "but only after you've told him the rest." He bit his lip. "I can stay-"
"No. I want to meet him alone."
"You are armed?"
She laughed without mirth. "Always."
He bowed his head. "I will be three steps away. Call for me."
She squeezed his shoulder, then let him go.
That was the signal, the other men rising and leaving all at once. Palamedes lingered last, but though he looked at her for a moment, he said nothing.
"You always stare at me," she burst out suddenly, voice a whisper, "but you almost never speak."
He turned back to her, gaze steady. "When I have something to say, rest assured you will hear it, Your Majesty." He turned and left the tent, letting the flap fall shut behind him.
She waited there, in the light of the brazier. Her joints ached and her hands and back went stiff from the lack of movement, but her mind was very far away. She saw again the face of the first man she cut down, saw the boy in the dirt. She tried to picture which of Leodegrance's men was missing. Her sore hands curled into fists.
When the envoy finally opened the flap and ducked in, she had her knife in hand, carefully cleaning the grime from beneath her ragged nails. Before the man could speak, she rose and strode to meet him halfway, flipping her knife to battle hold.
"I require no less than a full withdrawal and the return of all Camelot's dead and any surviving prisoners," she told him. "I have another thousand men in the hills, ready to sweep down. I have eyes all along the border. The boy your lord sent met us on the road."
The man made as if to speak, but Morgana cut him off. "Tell your Lord," she spat, "that my people are mine. If he touches even the smallest babe, I will come for him, and I will slit his throat."
The messenger left without a word.
It was the next morning before another envoy from Renaud appeared in camp. He came with only half a dozen mounted guards, dressed in blue. He was young, lightly bearded, with a small, sharp nose and quick eyes.
William the Younger recognized him right away, and told Bors, who told Palamedes, who told Morgana.
"He's the man who gave William the horse and told him to ride to Camelot," Palamedes said quietly as they walked to the tent. "He must have had authority to send a message to you, so he likely comes with great authority now. I suggest not sending this one away in fear for his life. We need Renaud to agree to a withdrawal."
Palamedes lifted the tent flap for her. Leon and Leodegrance were already there, a lit brazier beside them.
The man looked up, and for a moment his eyes flashed like fury. Then he gave a mild smile, his face so relaxed she wondered if she had imagined it.
"Queen Morgana." He bowed slightly from the waist without rising. "Thank you for granting me an audience."
She nodded back coolly and sat on the empty stool across from him, Leodegrance on her right and Leon beyond him. Palamedes took up his place on her left.
"I suppose your king has heard my terms?" She had perhaps had a little time to think about her hasty actions of the night before and to wonder if she might have gone too far and goaded Renaud into renewing his attack.
The messenger glanced away, scratching absently at a ring on his thumb. "He has, Your Majesty. Though I suspect the words were softened somewhat."
Morgana snorted. "Probably. I won't mince words with you either."
His eyes gleamed. "Oh, I wouldn't expect you to."
"I want back the bodies of the dead and any wounded you still have alive," she told him.
"That's rather easily done," he allowed. "But what reason have we to believe your claims that you have more camps than this one?"
"We hit your camp from three directions last night."
He smiled. "But you might have all come from here originally and walked all night to get over the ridges. It would be an impressive feat, but not impossible."
"We know this land better than you, you must admit."
"Your villagers do. Perhaps We should not have spared them, but the arguments in favor seemed good at the time."
Leodegrance and Palamedes sucked in breaths at the same time. Morgana's eyes darted back and forth to them, but she couldn't tell from their blank faces what they had just realized.
Palamedes leaned forward. "What does Mercia hope to gain from a useless battle like this? Had the whole string of valleys been taken, I could see the advantage. Why these losses for nothing?"
The messenger turned, sizing up Palamedes quickly. "You of all people should understand, Palamedes, son of Esclabor. Every kingdom has multiple treaties and multiple alliances. Sometimes to honor one, it is necessary to break another."
So one of Mercia's allies wanted that nation at war with Camelot, but Renaud was perhaps reluctant. There were better prizes farther north, and closer to the heart of his own territory. Any war with Camelot would extend his forces over the mountains and involve a long, possibly brutal campaign.
"So all Renaud wanted was a skirmish to convince his allies that he was supporting them?" she asked, incredulous. "How unfortunate for him that he didn't make that clear."
"He could not have," Leodegrance said gently, "without spies potentially discovering it."
"You killed more men than anyone expected, and you set fire to part of our camp," the messenger said, and now his jaw was clenched in clear anger. "But you also spared some you could have killed." Morgana thought of the boy she had made to lie in the dirt. "We now must return over the mountains without enough clothing and tents to protect ourselves against the late thaw. So my king proposes a deal: the bodies and survivors from your people in return for medicines for Our injured and tents and blankets for our journey. If We receive these, We will return home without doing you any further harm, and if Our allies go to war against you this year, We will not attack separately along this border to split your forces."
"It's a good deal," Leon murmured. "For both sides."
"But your king cannot sign a formal treaty and preserve his current alliances," Morgana pointed out. "How can we be sure he'll keep his word?"
"He'll swear it to you before these witnesses and upon his personal honor."
Morgana blinked. "But will he dare come here to the camp of his enemies?"
Leodegrance smiled behind his beard. "He already has, Morgana. I thought I recognized that fox nose."
The messenger - no, Renaud - cut a glance at Leodegrance and smiled ruefully. "I knew my game was lost when I saw you were here, old man. The low light couldn't fool your old eyes forever."
"You came here with barely any guard?" Morgana wondered if she thought Renaud was brilliant or mad. Perhaps both?
"I don't need a guard from your people," Renaud replied. "Or I thought I didn't." He flexed his fingers, and the ring on his thumb glinted. "I'm a bit magic, you know." He grinned, quick and full of teeth. "And a good thing too. It took me and my men half and hour to put out all those fires." He peered at her curiously, and in this light Morgana could see why they called him a fox. His eyes were all curiosity and cunning.
She pressed her lips tightly and refused to comment.
He shrugged. "It hardly matters who it was. What's done is done, and I didn't lose any men to the fires, though that time could have been better spent helping the wounded. Either way, my offer stands."
Morgana thought about it, but remembering Leodegrance's missing man and feeling the the burden of her own missing, what else could she do?
"How many tents?" she asked quietly.
Renaud smiled toothily.
Morgana’s horse sweated and shifted under her, every movement bringing out new aches. Still, she held her head high and her back straight as they rode along the narrow path home. The bodies of the dead rolled in carts behind her, and she’d had to leave Leon and forty men behind for a few days to organize the rebuilding of the village and make certain Renaud’s army left. But however dear, this was a victory, and she would act like it.
She could feel Palamedes’s eyes on her again. When she turned to meet them, the corner of his lip twitched into an almost-smile, and she was satisfied.
Of course, that night her legs were so numb she nearly fell off her horse instead of dismounting properly, and when she crawled into her tent, Kahedin didn’t appear. Instead, she sat waiting and aching, wondering if she could sleep without supper.
The tent flap waffled, then rose.
About time, Morgana thought, and turned-
-to see Kay carrying her bedding on his shoulder. He dropped and unrolled it, kicking it a little to make it lie flat, then said, “Back in a tic, hold on.”
Morgana stared after him, dumbfounded.
He came back quickly, carrying two heaping bowls of stew and two mugs on a tray. He set the tray down in the dirt with a flourish and said, “Put your arms up, c'mon. Got to get that mail off. I’m no good with women’s hair, so I hope you don’t need that.”
“What are you doing in my tent?” she asked, annoyed.
He grinned. “Being your squire, of course.”
“I already have one.”
He held up his hand. “No, you don’t. You borrowed one, and he’s busy tending to his actual master, who’s still recovering from his wounds but insisted on riding on his horse instead of in the cart like a reasonable man. So Dinadan has Kahedin, and you have me. Frankly, I think you’re getting the better end of the deal.”
“I can’t see how,” she muttered.
Kay was just about the last person she wanted to see. He had a knack for treating her like a child or a sack of particularly valuable grain, and he made no secret whenever he thought she had made a mistake. He was undoubtedly only taking care of her because he'd been embarrassed by her attempts to pack herself up to leave this morning. And he knew- he had told Leodegrance and probably everyone else about the fire in the Mercian camp. About his theory. Which wasn't true, because she'd had nothing to do with it.
“I don’t need your help,” she told him coldly, her palms sweating. “You may go now.”
“I’m not here on your orders,” he countered, “and you’re an idiot if you want to peel that armor off by yourself. You'd probably dent it, and that's more work for the smiths.”
“What?” She couldn’t believe his nerve. “I lead a midnight charge into an enemy camp and you're still insulting my fitness as a knight? Dinadan's right, you're impossible!”
“Seriously, Morgana. I know you’re tired because I am too, but even you must have some sense somewhere in that proud head of yours.” His eyes were flashing now.
She remembered him yelling at her in the dark, dragging her. Her face burned with shame and she pushed forward, got in his face. “Sense? I have the sense to know you’re always undercutting me, always looking for a weakness. How do you think that makes me look? Do you even care?”
“I don’t care how you look,” he spat. “I care how you lead. If you want to cock up this court with intrigue and be too proud to fix your mistakes right from the start, then it’s the job of people around you to tell you to stop.”
“I suppose you mean yourself.”
“Among others, yes. Guinevere’s good, but she’s only one person.” He blew out a breath, “Uther didn’t suffer fools gladly, but he had blind spots a mile wide, and he never listened to anyone who said so. I had hopes you would be better than that.”
“You mean you had hopes Arthur would be better than that.” And there, there was half the problem.
Kay deflated, eyes going sad. “When he was here, yes. Now that he’s not, and I expect nothing less from you.”
“That’s a lie.” She turned away, watching the wind play on the fabric of the tent. “You always took his side, always. I might as well not have existed.” When I needed you, she thought. When I dreamed of burning every night and thought no one but Gwen was on my side.
There was silence, then a choked sound behind her. “Wh- What? I never- That’s not-”
“It is true. You threw me away like so much trash.” She couldn’t believe her eyes were tearing up. How stupid. She was angry, not sad. “You even taught him sword tricks specifically so he could beat me.”
“Of course I did,” he huffed, sounding embarrassed. “He was two years younger and a head shorter than you. He didn’t stand a chance.” He cleared his throat. “And it was the only way I could teach you anything anymore.”
She blinked fiercely. “You could have just, I don’t know. Stayed the same as when we were kids. You wouldn’t even look at me.”
“Morgana, Morgana.” His hand came up and brushed her hair from her shoulder but pulled back before it could settle. “I. My da told me not to.”
“What?” Her throat felt thick.
“After you started growing.” He made a two-handed gesture that she caught from the corner of her eye, a tavern sign for women's breasts she expected he’d be mortified about once he realized he’d done it in front of her. “My da told me to stop playing with you so much, or at all. He said people would talk, and Uther would hear, and we’d be sent to guard the farthest border from home and left there to rot.”
She felt something strange bubble up in her, uncertain what it was until a laugh burst from her lips, a startled sound. “Are you saying my breasts ended our friendship?”
“Against my will,” he grumbled, then turned bright red. “I didn’t mean- Not like that!”
“Oh, Kay.” She doubled over laughing, giddy with relief. It wasn't me. “You stupid big oaf. You never even told me!”
“I was embarrassed!” he protested. “How do you go up to a girl you think of as your little sister and tell her you can’t be together without a chaperone anymore because her chest grew?” He stopped, eyes widening. “Did I just say that?”
Howling with renewed laughter, she sat down and covered her face with her hands. Tears were flowing freely down her face, but they came easily and without pain. The words a girl you think of as your little sister spilled through her, spreading warmth, opening up childhood memories she had closed off in her mind.
Kay grumbled and looked mortified for a moment before he sighed, creaked down to his knees, and sat beside her, a proper distance between them. She reached across the gap to punch him lightly in the shoulder. He put his hand on her hair and mussed it affectionately.
“Stupid kid,” he muttered. “That was a hellish battle. I thought you’d crack sooner.”
“That’s really why you’re here, isn’t it?” she asked, catching her breath. “You didn’t want Kahedin to see me fall apart.”
“Maybe.” He wouldn’t look right at her, so she knew it was at least part of the truth. “Or maybe I just missed arguing with you.”
She was sure that was part of the truth, too.
On the fourteenth day of April, the towers of Camelot finally came into view. They rumbled down the road along the river, a tired and dusty but victorious army.
The crowd that greeted them as they rode through the gates surprised her. She had been so focused on what she had to do before she could collapse into her own bed that she hadn't considered that the messengers they had sent ahead to Camelot might have spread word of their victory.
The townspeople crammed onto the sides of the main road, leaving only enough space for the carts to pass one at a time. They cheered louder than Morgana expected, waving handkerchiefs and shouting names. She suspected most of the reaction was relief: to have their family and friends home again safely, and not to see Renaud at the gates assaulting the town.
Some cheered her, though, and tossed flowers. Kay and Caradoc rode close by her side, eyes scanning the crowd, but Morgana saw no threats. Certainly in a crowd like this, a crossbow in a distant window might go unnoticed, but she was almost too tired to care. Almost.
Their progress through town was slow. Several foot soldiers were briefly mobbed by their families. Morgana saw the joy and relief on those faces, and the desperate searching in the eyes of those who still waited. Bors and Lionel were uninjured, so she had them seek out the families of the forty who were left behind with Leon to tell them all was well. Some of those men lived in nearby villages instead of in town, but most had relatives here who could be counted on to send a message.
Still, twenty-nine families would not see anyone march or ride through those gates, today or any other day.
The cheering of the crowd grew distant, and Morgana's smile fell away. She was tired to the bone, and there was only one homecoming she really wanted. A careful scan showed her that no, Gwen was not among the crowd along the road or bunched up by the drawbridge. The guards kept the townfolk out of the keep itself, so once Morgana rode through the gate, she was surrounded by castle staff, nobles, and the rest of her army. The crush in the courtyard was almost worse than out in the streets.
Dismounting, she tossed the reins to a stableboy. "Extra oats!" she called, unstrapping her saddlebags herself. The boy nodded and led her mare away.
Gareth appeared and took her saddlebags. "I was told to bring you straight to your rooms, My Lady," he whispered. She nodded and followed him through the crowd, thinking Gwen, Gwen. It was like a mantra carrying her feet forward.
She staggered into her personal rooms expecting bad news. Instead, before she could even take off her muddy boots, she discovered that her claim had been legitimized through her mother Vivienne, who was a scion of the House of Morgen. That House had at different times had ruled Lyonesse, Deifr, and briefly all of Dumnonia, aside from being known to supply priestesses to the mysterious Isle of Apples. It was all a bit Galician, but it worked.
She greeted Gwen with a smile and a kiss on the cheek. "Next time I must take you with me," she whispered. "Who knows what you might do otherwise. Reinvent history, perhaps."
"Already done," said Gwen. "You'll find that certain commentaries on the laws of inheritance have mysteriously disappeared from one or two of Geoffrey's tomes."
"You are a wonder," Morgana said, and meant it. Then she went to add new members to her royal council.
That night she held Gwen close, both of them needing the distance to be gone. "I worried about you," Gwen whispered. "Every day."
"I know." And she did. She had felt that worry each day on the road, each night in camp. Had felt the unique sensation of someone thinking of her, not at her. "I thought of you, too."
"I know," Gwen said against her skin.
After Boudicca, there were three warrior-queens of the Britons, and they were Cordelia, Gwendolen, and Morgana. Cordelia became queen when her father Leir and her husband both died, upon defeating her sisters in battle. Gwendolen defeated her unfaithful husband and ruled in the name of her son according to the customs of Cornwall, her first home. Morgana, the only unmarried one of the three when she took the throne, was crowned by Uther Pendragon on his deathbed. And each of these women ruled in her own way, and each was beset by battles from both within and without her kingdom.
Chapter 6: Smoke
Leodegrance and Elaine sat quietly in their chairs, their cups untouched on the table in front of them. The cider cooled, steam curling upwards. Morgana paced.
“I can stay an extra week,” Elaine offered, but it sounded strained. Morgana knew the feeling. She had once felt that way about Cornwall, that a long thread connected her with Tintagel and the rocky coast around it. That thread didn’t thin as she moved away but thickened, tugging at her gut. Only time had thinned it, replaced at least part of that thread with one that bound her to Camelot instead.
“No,” Morgana told her sister quietly, turning at the window. “No, go home to your family. You’ve done so much already.”
Elaine stood and pulled her into a hug. Muffled by Morgana’s hair, she said, “If you ever need me, call my name.”
Morgana spluttered, half laughing with disbelief. “Does that work outside fairy tales?”
“Yes.” Elaine’s soft, sad voice sobered Morgana quickly.
From the table, Leodegrance cleared his throat. “Beware of Odin,” he said. “And Hengist - he’s been on the move lately. Two years ago he attacked Cantia and took the keep. Survivors are still wandering the countryside.”
Morgana nodded, her chin pressed to Elaine’s shoulder.
“Renaud may may not hold his end of the bargain. I shouldn’t trust Cenred if I were you, and Alined has a long history of dead allies. You might try Olaf-”
“Enough,” Elaine said quietly, pressing her cheek to Morgana’s. “This is my last evening with my little sister. Let’s speak of happier things.”
It turned out there weren’t very many happy things to discuss, and the conversation dwindled quickly. Eventually they sat silently around the table: three quiet, drawn faces and three cups of cold cider.
The next morning dawned gray and misting, damp in a way that seeped into everything. Gwen sneezed twice while they stood on the steps waving off their guests, and Morgana fussed over her under her breath.
After the parade of bright colors and high-tailed horses had trooped out through the gate, Morgana sagged against the stone at her back.
“Please tell me we can go back to bed now,” she muttered. Gwen chuckled.
It nearly noon when Morgana finally stepped out on the battlements, turning her face to the weak sun, which was just trying to peek through low-hanging clouds.
“Well,” said Gwen, who was waiting for her, “I have good news. You can go back to bed in another seven or eight hours.”
“I hate you,” Morgana laughed.
“You’ll hate me even more when I tell you Lady Enid was looking for you just now. She wants to know if she can trim apple blossoms from the royal orchard.”
Morgana groaned. “Why do they all want my opinion? Nobody wanted Uther’s opinion last year, or any year before that.”
Gwen’s smile faded. She turned to look out at the clouds. “The only reason Uther didn’t ban May Day outright is that you enjoyed it so much. For six years before you arrived, no one dared even light a fire or wear a wreath.”
“What?” Morgana turned to her, eyes wide. “What are you talking about, Gwen?”
“The holy days were either banned or changed into something else.” Gwen still wouldn’t look at her. “We used to have a parade of knights through the town on that day, but no bonfires or dancing. I remember we made garlands for the knights. I guess he was just so happy to see you interested in something that he allowed it. That was about the time you started speaking again, you know.”
“I don’t honestly remember.” That whole first year was wrapped in fog in her memory. “So now everyone wants - what? My approval?”
“Probably.” Gwen didn’t seem bothered by this. “You should just tell them all yes.”
“Even if they want to build a bonfire in the great hall and chop down the orchard?”
Morgana snorted and changed the subject. “How did Enid look?”
“Look?” Gwen’s voice was too light and innocent.
Morgana narrowed her eyes. “Gwen.”
Gwen sighed. “She looked like she hasn’t slept in three days. Her hair was slipping out from under her wimple, and her hands were shaking slightly. So, about the same as she has since you left on campaign.”
Morgana growled in frustration. “I left Geraint here so she wouldn’t have to worry!”
“Well, it didn’t work.” Gwen’s voice softened. “You can’t fix everyone’s problems.”
“I don’t know why not.” Morgana felt mulish. “Why is he mad at her, anyway?”
Gwen’s voice said to drop it, so Morgana made an effort to let go of her irritation and changed the subject.
“I’ve seen Sir Bedivere walking the halls during daylight hours again,” she offered.
That got a small quirk of a smile from Gwen. “Have you?”
Morgana nudged her with an elbow. “Come now, what do you know? I see you talking to Leon all the time.”
“Me? I don’t know anything.” Gwen widened her eyes comically.
Morgana snorted. "Keep your secrets, then. So long as he’s happy.”
“That’s a good question,” Gwen started, but stopped suddenly, peering out into the distance. “Do you see someone coming?”
Morgana looked down at the road that Leodegrance and Elaine’s escort had disappeared down some hours before. At first she thought they were returning, and her belly seized up with hope and worry. Then it clenched even tighter as she saw the flash of light off armor - Arthur.
But it wasn’t Arthur. All too soon, the small troop broke from the trees, and Morgana could see that there was only one knight riding at the front. The banner streaming behind him was one she hadn’t seen in fifteen years.
Morgana greeted the delegation in the great hall, from Uther's throne. Ygraine’s crown felt deceptively light on her head.
The delegate was the Duke's nephew Tristan, a thin boy of not quite twenty years, fair of face and dark of hair, much like Morgana herself. She expected the worst. He surprised her.
"Your Majesty." He addressed her for the first time before the assembled court and bowed so deep he nearly took a knee, one hand over his heart. It was the bow of a Lord to his Liege. It was the bow of a Knight of Camelot. Suddenly she knew why he was there.
"Your uncle cannot spare you," she told him, because his manners had earned honesty from her.
He smiled. "I have two brothers, the eldest of which just came of age."
It didn't matter. His uncle would declare war on her if she lost him. But off to the side of the dais, Gwen nodded.
"Come to the training grounds at dawn tomorrow," Morgana said, as Gwen sent the steward to find rooms for them all.
They took supper together that night, just Tristan and Morgana with Gwen pretending to serve until the doors were firmly shut. The hall was drafty and quiet with only the three of them there. It felt like suppers with Uther had, towards the end. Tristan looked startled at first when Morgana waved Gwen to sit with them, but when Gwen smiled shyly at him, he smiled back.
"Gwen is my dearest friend," Morgana told him. "She keeps me from going mad and running about the lower town in my knickers."
For a moment, Tristan looked shocked, then he laughed out loud.
"You must be very wise," he said to Gwen, "to be able to stop cousin Morgana from doing whatever she pleases. I think I was six the first time she convinced me to go climbing down the cliffs to the seaside. Father wouldn't let me out of the keep for four months after that."
"It was a brilliant adventure," Morgana sighed, smiling. She hadn't been sure, when Tristan first arrived dressed in armor and his dignity, that he was still Tristan. Now she knew.
They continued supper together with companionable chatter. Arthur's shield hung on the far wall in plain sight, though everyone pretended not to see it until they finished eating.
"He came," Tristan finally admitted, "came and stayed for a while. Some of his people are still there, but you didn't hear that from me."
"My father-" Gwen started.
Tristan looked up, startled. "Your father?"
Gwen nodded hard, her curls bouncing. "Tom. The blacksmith. Is he-?"
"Oh, yes, he came with them." Tristan relaxed, smiling. "He's very good at what he does, you know."
Gwen smiled, sweet and sad. "Yes, I know." Perhaps from someone else it would have seemed like a lack of humility, but from Gwen it was a gentle kind of pride, simple and heartbreaking.
Morgana touched her hand and turned. "And Arthur? He left again?"
“He did.” Tristan looked away briefly. “He left by sea. I thought my uncle might choose me for the task of bringing his new bride back from Ireland, but he asked Prince Arthur instead. I suppose it was becoming uncomfortable, hosting an ally’s estranged son.”
Morgana nodded. “Did he take anyone with him?”
“Just that funny manservant of his.” Now Tristan smiled, eyes crinkling at the corners. “I like him.”
Gwen beamed back. “So do I.” Her nose wrinkled mischievously. “Did you know he challenged Arthur the first day he was in Camelot and got thrown in the stocks? Whereupon he made friends with all the children and taught them how to aim better.”
Tristan laughed, and from there the mood lightened. There was something freeing about being able to picture where Arthur was - Ireland, of all places - and to pin him down on a map for long enough to say, he is alive.
Of course, if he could be pinned down, however briefly, Arthur might come home someday. Morgana wasn’t quite sure how much she wanted that anymore.
That night, Gwen’s joy was apparent in every movement she made. She did not walk but floated around the room, as though all weight had been lifted from her shoulders. She and Morgana tumbled into bed and made love fiercely, like queens of old.
"We're a ballad," Morgana whispered into the welts left behind by her nails.
Gwen didn’t shush her, just lifted her into the air, bore her up with strong smith's arms and declared, apropos of everything, "I need to make you a sword."
After, they lay together, tangled and sweaty, and Morgana thought of holding a sword made by Gwen, of wielding it, of making Gwen's silent dreams of a peaceful, fair Camelot come to pass.
"Please," she whispered into Gwen's skin.
Smoke curled up like laughter, thick on her tongue. It tickled the edges of the landscape, and this time she knew she was dreaming.
“Who are you?” she asked the smoke, and it chuckled, dry and windblown. “Why are you here?”
It answered not in words but in pictures: men racing forward with spears, dogs loosed from the leash, blood and flame and the sharp, sickening twang of arrows loosed from the string, several at once. Blood. The smell of deep places in the earth, damp caves where no light shines. An inhuman cry echoing in the stone.
Morgana shivered. “Who did that to you?”
And then, finally, a word. Not spoken, but thought. Camelot.
A blast of flame and heat, and Morgana threw her hands up-
-and woke tangled up in the blankets, too hot, with Gwen’s hands on her face.
“Something’s coming,” she sobbed, and Gwen held her and held her and never denied it.
The next morning, she was tired and cranky, but she tried to beat that back for Tristan's sake. He didn't deserve her foul mood just because of yet another bad dream.
They donned their armor together in the tent. Gwen acted as squire to them both, since Tristan didn’t have one and Morgana wouldn’t accept any.
“Don’t be nervous,” Morgana told him when it took him three tries to get his mail shirt over his head.
He laughed, a high sound. “I’m not.”
She snorted and turned, making it easier for Gwen fasten the buckles of her breastplate.
They walked out to the field together, the sun just tipped up above the horizon. A thin coat of frost clung to the grass. Only a few knights stood around the barriers, most of them yawning or warming up quietly.
She put her helmet on and watched Tristan do the same, then crossed swords with him formally, briefly, before diving in. She started off easy, both to let him work out any nerves and to let the grass dry a bit under their feet. Moving around the edges, she got a feel for him, his style, his training. He favored a single-fisted grip and forehand strikes or sharp jabs that took advantage of his speed and compensated for his slimness. His movements were light of foot, but he wasn’t always able to read her intentions. Probably he’d had only the same few knights to train with back home; familiarity bred complacency, sometimes.
He was good. Not brilliant, but solid. She could work with this.
She made him take a break after an hour. The sun was drifting higher and the day warming up. The men around them were already sweaty, slowing down, and some looked ready to drop. Not everyone had recovered fully from last week, but no one wanted to admit it.
When she sheathed her sword and pulled her helm off, the men lowered their weapons with relief. Tristan pulled his own helmet off and smiled at her.
“You’re really good,” he said: simple, honest, direct.
She smirked back. “And you’ll make a decent squire yet.”
His grin was blinding.
After their break, she made him fight Kay, then Leon, then the playful Dinadan. She would save Palamedes and Ector for later, when Tristan needed a little humbling.
A messenger came riding in pell-mell at midday, covered in dust and sweating buckets. He was from Bors’s division, sent to watch the eastern hills.
"A monster," he gasped out, then drank gratefully from an ewer pressed on him by Gwen. "Fire...the mountain...emptied the village-"
"Which village," Morgana snapped.
She was already calling the knights to her, sending squires to put the stables and the armory on alert.
The messenger was still staggering after her, panting. "It killed-"
She waved him off. She didn’t want to know.
Tristan was furious when she ordered him off his horse, but she declared him a protector of Camelot on the spot, putting her sword in his hand, and he accepted it, mollified, or else a bit in shock. She took the moment to swing up and accept another sword from one of the squires.
No speeches this time.
They met the second messenger on the road, just as dirty but a bit more coherent. His face was alight like he’d just seen a god.
"What news!" she barked. He turned his wide eyes to hers.
"He killed it," he whispered, then crumpled from his horse. Only now could she see the burns on his back.
She had him taken to Camelot quickly and quietly. No need for anyone to call him a coward.
They set off again at a slightly less brutal pace, taking the rest of the day and a couple hours after sundown to arrive at the border. In the dark it was easy to see the damage, the hillsides still aflame. If they didn’t get those put out, they’d lose the fields, too.
She rode into camp with no warning, making straight for Bors’s tent and barging her way inside despite the squire who tried to bar her.
"Report!" she barked, then froze, seeing Bors lying quietly on his bed with his eyes closed. Two men sat beside him - his brother Lionel, holding his hand with head bowed, and another man in the shadows, wringing out a damp cloth into a bucket.
"Is he dead?" she asked in a softer voice.
"No," the man in shadow replied. "Nor, gods willing, shall he be."
The voice was familiar. She stepped forward as he slipped into the light.
"I should have expected," she snorted, feeling a sharp, undefined pain in her chest. "If there’s a sudden, unexplained miracle, I should look for you first.”
"Not I alone.” Lancelot’s eyes strayed again to Bors’s still form, then across the tent to another mound of blankets on the ground. “They fought like men possessed."
"Against the fire or the beast?"
They shared a moment of quiet contemplation before she stirred, recalling duty. "I will go direct the men. We must put out the fires while it's still dark enough to see where the ground is burning under the leaves." When he rose reflexively, she put a hand on his shoulder and pushed him back down. "Unlike someone I won’t mention, I believe you to be a mortal man, and mortal men can wear themselves out. Stay with them.”
"Should I call you my Queen like the others?"
"Not yet. Maybe tomorrow."
He smiled as she ducked out into the night.
Morgana blinked in the acrid air and dispatched a squire to find Leon. Looking up, she saw that the stars were hidden by smoke.
Gwen. Gwen would be so happy.
The fires ran deep, burning into the ground in many places, and some trees were burning on the inside, only to topple suddenly. In the dark, they moved carefully, feeling for heat through the soles of their boots.
The rains that had fallen earlier in spring had slowed and then stopped, so they used dirt and mud to put out the fires instead, directing the sleepy townsfolk to dig it up in great basketfuls from the fallow fields and the riverside. As queen, Morgana didn't carry any baskets herself, for which she was grateful. She did help move the some of the heavy, charred trees to get at the hot ground beneath, using makeshift levers made of spears and sturdy branches. She also rode her horse back and forth between groups, trying to get a larger picture of what was happening.
It was nearly dawn when the last fires were quenched for good. The townsfolk were dismissed, and only a few soldiers remained to walk the woods carefully, watching for renewed smoke or flames. Morgana left Leon in charge of them and crawled, dirty and stinking, into Bors’s tent to lie down in a corner. She was asleep in moments despite the ache in her body.
She woke some hours later to quiet voices. When she raised her head, she saw Bors sitting up, supported by Lionel, who was holding a cup to his brother’s lips. Bors drank obediently, a thin trickle of water escaping from the corner of his mouth. Morgana looked away.
Near her feet, the long bundle of blankets she had noticed last night stirred, and a whimper escaped. Morgana knelt up quickly, though her muscles protested.
When she peeled back the blankets, she jerked in shock. The figure underneath was taller than most grown men, but the awkward length of his arms gave him a coltish air she associated with boys. She could tell little else because of the linen bandages swathing most of the thin body. One of the squires? She had seen Bors’s hovering, and Lionel had no one right now. Someone who came with Lancelot? It was a youth, most definitely, or a man half-starved.
Cracked lips parted, and another whimper escaped.
Morgana was just working herself up to a panic about what she should do when footsteps approached outside and the tent flap rustled. She looked up into Lancelot’s surprised face. He recovered quickly, kneeling down and snatching up a waterskin that lay nearby.
“His name is Morien,” he told her, parting the boy’s lips gently with his thumb and soaking the corner of a fresh bandage before dripping water carefully into the whimpering mouth.
“What happened?” she asked, dazed and uncomfortable. She had seen children hurt before, even dead, but usually at a distance.
“He saved my life.” Lancelot’s smile was sad and proud. “He challenged me on the road wearing that all-black armor of his. When he couldn't beat me after half an hour of hard fighting, he asked to be my squire, even though I am no knight. He’s on a quest, you see. To find his father. He asked if I could help him.” As he spoke, tears pooled in Lancelot’s eyes and ran over freely, unheeded. He seemed unembarrassed by the display, and Morgana. Morgana was not.
She bit her lip and forced herself not to look away. "How did he-?"
Lancelot nodded. "It's only fair someone hears the full tale. He was. He was very brave." Lancelot dragged his sleeve across his eyes and cleared his throat. "Morien and I were staying in the town below when the beast attacked. We had just woken up when heard the alarms and ran outside. Morien wanted to go, so we armed ourselves and followed the border guard up the hill. He was excited. It was his first full battle since he arrived here. I told him to be careful, but." He wiped his eyes again.
"It was still early when we followed the men deep in the woods. There were small fires everywhere. Trees began to fall. Limbs burned, men screamed. The beast itself was an enormous reptile colored a deep, unnatural orange with black whorls. It looked like something out of poisonous nightmare.
"As we closed with it, I used my shield to block a blast of fire, but it got so hot I had to drop it and hide behind trees instead. We were separated. I kept shouting for Morien, but he wouldn't answer. The beast cornered me with a knight - the one in the bed over there, Bors. We struck it several times, but it was useless. As we were preparing to attack again, a burning branch fell on him and he went down. I lifted it off with my boot, but while I was doing that, the beast reared back its head like a snake and opened its mouth. I thought I would die.
"I heard a high-pitched yell, and my blood ran cold. Morien dropped from the tree above directly onto the beast's back like an acrobat. He rode it while it bucked, stabbing at it with his sword in both hands, and it screamed, rolling. It threw him off against the stump of a tree that was already on fire. He crumpled against the burning wood. His tunic began to catch fire under his armor.
"I didn't know what to do. The beast reared back, opening its mouth to spit fire at him, and I didn't think. I grabbed an abandoned spear from the ground and ran a few steps, throwing the thing into its open mouth with all my strength. The shaft burned away instantly, but the iron head kept going. By luck, it hit something vital. The beast went down screaming with fire curling in its nostrils. Then it burst into flames.
"More men arrived then, and we put out as many of the fires as we could and brought these two here, along with the rest of the injured. We thought of asking the townspeople to take them in, but Sir Lionel said the town is overfull already with refugees and has nowhere to put them, which is why the garrison here lives in tents instead of permanent houses.
"And that, well. That's all I know, except that if I were this boy's father, I would be proud to claim him. Any man who didn't would be a fool."
Morgana blinked hard, amazed by the story. Were some men really such brave idiots all the time?
“He,” she croaked, and cleared her throat. “He should be seen by Aglain.”
“Gaius left us. After Arthur - oh, you don’t know all that’s happened.”
Lancelot looked up at her, his brown eyes wet but calmer now that he'd told his story. “Then I will hope to hear it all from you soon. But if you have a healer better than the village bonesetter, we had best move the injured to Camelot as quickly as possible.”
Morgana nodded, not looking down. “We’ll leave within the hour, if possible.” She stood and paused, caught between a dozen emotions at once. She settled on a half-truth. “It’s good to see you again.”
He smiled up at her, as if he heard nothing but honesty in her voice. “And you, Your Majesty.”
Coming from him, it might very well be true.
They carried the wounded slowly home, at the pace of the two donkeys pulling the village’s largest haycart. Five men and a boy rode inside it, and Lionel drove it himself, careful to move slowly over the pitted road. It took them the whole day and into the night before they saw the gates of Camelot closed and lit before them and Morgana could breathe again.
Sleepy guards looked down at them from the walls, and the gates creaked open slowly to let them through. Every hoofbeat echoed through the empty streets until they sounded like an entire army invading an empty town. Here and there faces peered between shutters, but no one came outside.
The castle gates were open and guarded only by four men standing around a barrel fire. No one called out to them as they passed, though one guard did shuffle into the castle by a side door, presumably to wake someone higher-ranking to deal with them.
They dismounted in the courtyard. Someone roused the sleeping stablemaster, and he turfed out his boys from the loft to come help the squires. With shivering and quiet curses, they cleared the courtyard of several tired horses and two very irritated donkeys.
Morgana’s head swam when she dismounted, but she managed to stay upright. Every muscle in her body hurt, and she felt like she could sleep for a week, but there were still wounded to tend to.
Before she could stagger far, Gwen appeared and slipped under her arm, supporting her weight.
“I’m not injured,” Morgana protested under her breath.
“I’d believe you, if your clothes weren’t burned and bloody.”
Morgana rolled her eyes and pretended she was leaning just to humor Gwen, and not because she felt bruised and battered all over.
Aglain’s workshop was full in short order. Morien went into Aglain’s bed, in Merlin’s old room. Two of the men went on tables, and Bors was given an actual cot. The other two men lay on hastily created pallets on the floor, and Aglain worked through the night with the help of Lancelot and young Gareth, who had popped up underfoot as soon as they returned. A few minutes after they settled the wounded in, the young Lady Iseult and her handmaiden appeared in the doorway, like sisters in matching nightdresses, and set to work silently. Morgana wondered who had called them.
She made for her own bed with Gwen's help, and if she was startled to see Tristan standing guard outside her rooms, she tried not to show it.
"Sir Geraint said I was to stay here until relieved," Tristan told her, bobbing his head. "There was a man seen in town last night who matches the description of the assassin who got King Bayard last year."
Morgana's hands clamped down on Gwen's arm briefly, then she forced herself to relax. "Thanks, cousin. I'll see about finding you a knight to squire for tomorrow, all right?"
He shook his head. "I appreciate it, but please don't. I want to be chosen for myself, not because someone wants to curry favor."
Morgana nodded. "Very well then. Inform me when someone chooses you. I doubt it will take long." She didn't say that there were fewer squires this year than last. Uther had knighted boys too fast, too young, but what choice had he had? What choice did she have but to continue the policy?
She fell into bed exhausted and slept through the remainder of the night fitfully, though she did not dream.
By morning, Bors and two of the men on the floor were back in their own beds, and Morgana was waking up in hers, cold because Gwen was not there.
She dressed herself in breeches and a tunic, since she didn’t need someone to lace those up for her. Then, still half asleep, she staggered up the stairs to the physician’s rooms.
The room was quiet when she entered. Gareth was asleep on a stool in the corner, and the men seemed to be resting as well.
Aglain looked up when she came in. He looked less tired than she expected.
“The young man - Lancelot - has gone to the kitchens,” he said.
Morgana blushed. “I’m not here for him. I just.” She took a breath. “I just want to know how the men are.”
Aglain smiled, and now his exhaustion showed. “The men will be fine.” Then his smile faded. “The boy, however, is beyond my skill. I’m sorry.”
Morgana snagged a stool with her ankle and sat down, slumping. “He’s looking for his father,” she whispered.
“I’m sorry,” Aglain repeated. He sounded as helpless as she felt.
She leaned her head on her hands and asked, "If you could do something. Something not- Something Uther wouldn't have- If you could do something, you would. Wouldn't you?"
"Wouldn't you?" he replied.
Replying was tantamount to an admission. Yet she doubted this man, with his gentle eyes and firm touch, would do anyone harm, least of all her.
"I would," she finally agreed, and he smiled sadly, like she had passed some invisible line and was now welcome inside his world.
"There are some things beyond my power, but there is a reason for that," he said. "And that reason is that we are mortal and must remain so. When we desire to act as gods, then we must begin to fear for ourselves, because humans cannot bear those burdens and remain in balance with ourselves and our world."
That troubled her, clawing at the foundations of her belief in her purpose, everyone's purpose. "Then why is it easier to cause death than life? Surely that's not in balance."
"Because life is more precious, I suppose." He glanced up at the door to his room (Merlin's room) "I must check to see that he's still sleeping."
Morgana nodded and rose. "I'll go find Gwen." Once she said it, she knew that's what her heart wanted. After the bitter knowledge that she could do nothing here, she needed Gwen's calm, Gwen's wise words.
As she left, her ears caught Aglain speaking softly to the boy in a strange tongue. A shiver raced up her spine; she closed the door firmly behind her.
Gwen was missing. Oh, she hadn’t disappeared entirely - when Morgana went to the armory, Gwen had just left; on tracing her to the kitchen, Morgana found that she had gone out to the stables instead. But of course the stablemaster said she’d only been there a moment and then run off on another errand, and wasn’t it good to see Master Lancelot back again?
Of course it was. Of course.
By mid-afternoon, Morgana was drinking alone in Uther's dining room, sitting on the long table and swinging her legs like a boy. If she couldn’t go to Gwen, well by all that was holy, Gwen could come find her instead. There was nothing childish about that at all. Just good, common sense.
She was nursing her resentment and her mead when a chill crept up her spine. A gust of wind blew the candles in the corner out, and suddenly the afternoon was full of shadows.
She was being watched.
Slowly, slowly, she turned. She could feel the material of her breeches slide against the table’s surface, the cold stone scrape against the toe of one boot when it touched the floor. The hairs on the back of her neck rose, and her breath went shallow.
A woman stepped out of the shadows in one smooth movement, and Morgana spun the rest of the way to her feet, one hand on the table, the other on her knife.
“Calm yourself, child.” The woman’s voice was smooth and sweet. Her words seemed to burrow down into Morgana’s mind, trying to find a home. Morgana pushed back at them, panting.
“Who are you?” she demanded. Anger warmed her and chased out a little of the fear. “How did you get in here?”
“I lived here for many years,” the woman replied. Walking gracefully forward, she trailed her fingers along the table’s edge. “At this very table, I have eaten many meals. Surely Uther spoke of me?”
Morgana shook her head, still resisting the words. Each one felt like a raindrop trying to seep through cracks in her mind. When stiffening didn’t help, she made herself relax and let the sound roll off to the sides.
The woman smiled. “Very good. You are your mother’s daughter after all.”
Morgana suppressed the surge of questions that came with the mention of her mother. No, don’t let her find a weakness.
“I asked you who you are.”
“So you did.” The woman changed directions, drifting over to the still-smoking candelabra and plucking at the cooling wax there. “If I told you my name was Nimueh, would that mean anything to you?”
Nimueh. Morgana rolled the name around on her tongue, but no memory surfaced. She shook her head.
Nimueh’s face twisted briefly, then settled back into its calm, disinterested expression. “Not surprising. Uther and I didn’t part on the best of terms.”
“Were you an enemy of Uther’s?” Morgana felt her mouth dry, wondering if she could fight her way out of this.
Nimueh laughed, a cracked sound the belied her calm appearance. “Oh, I suppose that depends on who you ask. You might say we were friends, once. Allies, certainly. Lovers, sometimes.”
Morgana jerked. Lovers? Her mouth formed the word, but no sound came out.
The woman smiled and turned. “Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t. Men are fickle creatures. But of course you know that.”
Morgana was rapidly deciding she didn’t know anything. Her mind was still stuck on the image of Uther and Nimueh pressed together, kissing. She wanted to scrub it out and never think of Uther that way again.
“Why did you leave?”
Nimueh cocked her head and smiled, perfect but for too many teeth. “He had a change of heart. We both lost someone important to us, and he. He.” She broke eye contact, the first moment of hesitance Morgana had seen from her yet. “He decided he wasn’t responsible. Someone else was.”
Morgana understood. “You were.”
“In his mind only. I did what he asked. I didn’t know the outcome any more than he did.” Nimueh stared into the distance for a moment, then seemed to shake herself out of some memory. “Never mind, it doesn’t matter. I’m here to help you for your mother’s sake, not his.”
Again Morgana ruthlessly crushed the desire to ask about her mother. “Help me how?”
“You have a child,” Nimueh said, smiling again, “who you want to live. I can make that happen.”
Oh, Morgana knew how this story went. “For what price?”
Nimueh’s smile widened, like she approved of Morgana’s caution. “Future consideration,” she replied. “In a short time, a woman will come to you named Catrina. All I ask is that you take her in and shelter her, along with her followers. They are few and miserable, no threat to your lands.”
“There’s something you’re not telling me.”
Nimueh’s eyes cut sideways. “This woman was once a friend to Uther Pendragon in his youth. She could tell you stories, things you want to know.”
It was tempting. By the gods, it was tempting. But. “This is going somewhere, isn’t it.”
Nimueh shrugged. “That depends on you. Here,” she set a small, stoppered vial on the table. A greenish liquid sloshed inside. “If you accept my terms, make the boy drink this before dawn. If you wait any later, it will do him no good.”
“Wait, what if I-“
Nimueh held up a hand, forestalling her questions. “I’ve made my offer, and that is all I will say.” She stepped sideways, the wind blew, and suddenly Morgana was alone again.
Alone with the green vial. She looked at it like it was a snake, then slowly reached out. The moment her fingers touched it, she snatched it up and squeezed it between her fingers, feeling the coolness of the glass.
How was she supposed to make a decision like this?
The night was quiet and dark. Hundreds of people sleeping should have made more noise, but instead, each step Morgana took through the hallways fell into deep silence.
In her pocket, she had a glass vial. In her mind, a turmoil of questions.
What would Gwen do? If Morgana could find her, she would ask, but it seemed Gwen had slipped sideways out of her life today, and she was left adrift. This was a decision she would have to make alone.
First and foremost, she wanted the boy to live. He was searching for his father; how many times, that first year in Camelot, had she wandered out through the gates in search of her own? How many times, frustrated and sobbing, had she been dragged back by the knights to Uther’s tight-lipped, desperate embrace?
And then there was the part of her that railed against injustice. The brave should live. She believed that.
Yet she also had begun to understand Uther recently. (Too late!) She was not simply responsible for one person or one group in Camelot. She was responsible for everyone. Her orders might save someone, but they might also condemn someone else. What price would she pay if she accepted Nimueh’s bargain? Why would Nimueh feel the need to bargain with her in the first place? These people she was to shelter - were they somehow a danger to Camelot?
If she truly saw the future in her dreams, which was a terrifying thing to contemplate, she wished it wouldn’t come in such useless fragments. How could she know which way her choices would turn out? And if she knew that much, how could she tell what she might change and how?
The moment she realized she was just guessing in the dark, all her confidence faded. Sir Radnor’s death flashed through her mind again; she pushed it away. She couldn’t afford - she couldn’t afford to not make a decision, to passively accept the future without at least understanding what might happen if she did.
Her feet carried her across a gallery towards the guest tower. The glass windows which were so brightly colored in sunlight now faded, letting moonlight stream in gray and white patterns on the floor.
Outside, she heard a noise.
Her ears pricked. She moved toward the windows, peering down through the clearest part into the gardens below. At first she saw only random movement, but as her eyes adjusted to the shapes, she realized three men were attacking each other with swords, one right after another.
What a strange time to practice, she thought, and then she saw. One of the men held his sword in his left hand… because his right sleeve dangled empty.
She remembered turning around, right into the teeth of a beast that could have taken her head off. Who had that girl been, the one with all that brash confidence? Wearing armor and picking up a sword had felt like bursting out from all the windows and curtains of her life. She had been free to act, and she had reveled in it.
She had been alive.
Her feet turned, taking her back across the gallery and toward the physician’s tower. As she walked, she sped up, until she was running through the hallways, past tapestries older than any living memory, past flashing windows of colored glass, past closed doors and empty stairwells.
Bursting through the physician’s door, she startled Aglain, who sat up blearily.
“Mor-“ he began, but she rushed past him too fast for his outstretched hand to grab her.
Through the door into Merlin’s old room she stumbled, and then her hands were on the wheezing boy, lifting him up enough that she could yank the stopper from the bottle with her teeth and drip the green liquid down his throat. He choked briefly before swallowing, his dark eyes fluttering open.
For a long moment they were captured in each others’ gaze. Morgana didn’t know what Morien was thinking, or if he was awake enough to think anything at all, but in his eyes she saw the truth: this boy is me. He would go out into the world all unaware that he was acting out the same events that had already happened. He would make the same mistakes, have his heart broken in the same ways, and nothing she did now could stop that.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, pressing her cheek to his bandaged one. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
A hand, gentle and solid, came down on her shoulder.
“What have you done?” Aglain asked, his voice cracking. It was the first time she had ever heard fear in him.
“I don’t know,” Morgana admitted.
Sunlight on her face woke Morgana. Sitting up, she realized she had fallen asleep at Morien’s bedside in what had to be the most uncomfortable chair ever constructed. The wrinkles from Morien’s blankets had left her face feeling itchy and hot; when she raised her hand to her cheek, she could feel the imprint of the cloth there.
“Awake, my queen?” asked a voice.
Morgana stiffened, then relaxed. “I think so.”
“Good.” Lancelot shifted from where he was sitting on the floor, using the wall to push himself to his feet. “That position didn’t look too comfortable, but I hated to wake you.”
Morgana realized there was a blanket draped around her shoulders. She tried not to be irritated at the kindness.
“How is he?” she asked, looking down at Morien. The only part of him that was visible was a puff of dark hair sticking up from the blankets.
Lancelot smiled. “Listen.”
They were silent for a moment, Morgana wondering what she was supposed to be listening for. Then she realized it was the silence itself. Morien wasn’t wheezing.
A grin broke out on her face. “It worked!” she breathed. Her body felt like dancing, tiredness falling away.
Lancelot caught her eye, matching her grin. “Whatever it was, yes.” He sobered, his eyes searching hers. “What was it?”
Now it came to it. Morgana didn’t want to say, wanted to hold this secret to her chest in the hopes that nothing bad would come of it. I could get away with this, she thought.
But no. If something did happen, she needed people she could trust to advise her, and Gwen was nowhere to be found.
“I made a deal,” she whispered, and told him.
Lancelot nodded throughout, wincing slightly when Nimueh’s name was mentioned, but otherwise showing calm concern. When she reached the end of the story, she had to ask.
“Did I do the right thing?”
He paused, head cocked. “I think so,” he finally admitted. “Or, if not, it’s what I would have done.”
Morgana breathed out relief. “I wasn’t sure. That woman, Nimueh,“ Lancelot twitched again, “I couldn’t tell if she was being honest or not. She seemed a little mad. Angry, but odd too, like she wasn’t quite herself.”
Lancelot rubbed his forehead, trying to smooth out the creases there. “But it worked.”
Morgana nodded. “I thought it might be poison, at first. But then I wondered, why would a powerful sorceress poison an orphan?” She laughed quietly. “I’m just full of paranoid fantasies lately. I should get more sleep.”
She avoided Lancelot’s sympathetic gaze and looked back down one last time at Morien’s sleeping form, the steady, quiet rise and fall of his chest. “I suppose it will just have to be worth it, whatever comes next.”
“What comes will come,” Lancelot replied. “You’re not responsible for what everyone else does. Just for your own actions.”
“If only that were true,” Morgana said, then stood and stretched, ready to begin another long day. “Come to the training field later.”
Lancelot’s eyes widened. “I’m not-“
“And I’m not Uther,” she told him. Even if I feel more like him every day.
the next day...
Morgana, intoned a voice, deep as stone.
Morgana’s foot slipped on the grass and she almost fell. Furiously, she pushed the voice away with her mind and concentrated back on her stance, on moving through the parries and blocks with the knights around her.
Morgana the voice called again later, making her almost choke on luncheon.
Shut up, she told it, and took another vicious bite of duck.
Morgana it sing-songed, almost laughing at her now, and she cursed it as she tried to concentrate on the map before her, trying to see how local defenses could be shored up without increasing the size of her army.
Morgana, Morgana, Morgana, it chanted as Gwen helped her wash her hair that evening. Gwen had reappeared an hour before supper with no explanation whatsoever, but there were soot stains on her shoes. Morgana had noticed, the way she wished she noticed everything about Gwen but all too often didn't.
So now that Morgana finally had Gwen back, she had all kinds of plans. Plans that were being disrupted by the thought of a giant, enigmatic lizard listening to her make love to her- to Gwen.
Furious, Morgana stepped from the tub and dried herself as quickly as she could, pulled on a dressing gown, and stepped into her slippers. Gwen made objecting noises.
“Fine, then you can come with me,” Morgana said. “You can keep me from trying to kill the bloody thing.”
Gwen looked mystified, but she followed Morgana down stairway after stairway, past guards who looked away and didn’t ask questions as Morgana took a torch from the wall and kept moving. Eventually, a breeze ruffled their dressing gowns. Morgana moved out from the cave entrance carefully, one hand holding the torch, the other tucked into Gwen’s.
A rush of air, the sound of giant wings, and a scaly golden face peered out from the darkness. “You’re late, witchling.”
“I’m queen of a large kingdom,” Morgana replied as haughtily as she could. “I’m busy.”
“You were avoiding me.” Smoke curled from its nose, and its eyes shifted to Gwen. “Who have we here? What’s your name, girl?”
Through their linked hands, Morgana felt Gwen shudder slightly. “Guinevere,” she whispered, clearly overwhelmed by talking to a semi-mythical dragon.
The beast reared back, eyes widening in surprise. “Guinevere,” it hissed, drawing out her name for long syllables. “Yet who are you, without Arthur?”
It seemed to be musing to itself, not posing a question to Gwen, but Morgana felt indignant on Gwen’s behalf.
“She is the best advisor any queen could have,” Morgana said firmly, trying to make her voice ring in the emptiness of the cavern, “and she has the biggest heart in Camelot.”
The dragon turned its head and peered at them through one giant eye. Then it laughed. “It seems fate will play out, whoever the actors may be. Beware, witchling. Beware your own heart. And you as well, Guinevere of Camelot.”
Morgana shivered, then gripped Gwen’s hand tighter and rallied. “Was that what you called me here to tell me? Because I’m very busy, you know.”
The dragon laughed. It was a terrible thing, rumbling like it would bring the whole castle down.
“I did not bring you here for trifles of the heart,” it replied, “though you would do well to listen to my advice. No, I brought you here to warn you of Nimueh’s treachery.”
“Who?” Gwen asked, but Morgana’s gut was already going cold.
“What will she do?”
The dragon smiled. It had an awful lot of teeth. “What she has already done. Refuse your end of the bargain, and she will have claim over Camelot according to the laws of the Old Religion. It will give her power over you. Agree, and you will set in motion events which may destroy Camelot and every kingdom around it by summer’s end. You cannot bargain with those of the Old Religion. They are more clever than you, and they know the rules.”
Morgana leaned back against the cave wall, breath leaving her in a rush.
“Gwen, what am I going to do?” Her voice was tiny in the vast, empty space.
Gwen touched her face, then took the sagging torch from her and held it up.
“What’s your name?” she asked the dragon.
It cocked its head, looking startled.
“You asked mine. Now it’s only fair that you give me yours in return.”
The look in the beast’s eyes changed from laughter to speculation. “My name is Kilgharrah, Guinevere of Camelot. What would you do with that knowledge?”
Gwen curtsied. “I’d say ‘nice to meet you’,” she replied. “You told us not to trust this Nimueh.” She glanced at Morgana, and her eyes said they would be talking about this later. Morgana looked down. “What I wonder,” Gwen continued, “is why we should trust you?”
The dragon broke into another jagged grin, teeth shining. “Perhaps you shouldn’t, then.”
Morgana sighed, pushing off the wall. “If you don’t mind, I’m cold, tired, and not in the mood for riddles. I’ll bid you goodnight, and if you stay out of my head while I’m asleep, I may consider coming back to talk again later.”
“Not without me,” Gwen muttered.
Above them, the dragon snorted. “There may be hope for you yet, witchling. Just remember what I said.”
“Which part does he want us to remember,” Gwen whispered later, as they eased into bed, “the confusing bits, or the nonsensical-but-scary bits?”
“I think it just wants us to remember to be scared,” Morgana replied. She closed her eyes and pressed her cheek down into the pillow. “But I’m too tired to bother, tonight. Maybe some other time.”
Gwen chuckled, and Morgana drifted off with a faint smile on her face.
When King Pellinore of Anglesey went forth to Saracen lands in his youth, he took with him three of his young sons: Pellinore, Aglovale, and Lamorak. And while touring the ancient lands of Rome, he discovered Esclabor, a landless king who also had three sons: Palamedes, Safir, and Segwarides.
Esclabor had been a King of Babylon before his lands were captured, and for the service of saving the life of an Emporer of Rome, he was given perpetual friendship and made a citizen of that city. But his heart longed for rougher lands far from the intrigues of that court, and so he brought his household with him to visit with his newfound friend Pellinore, and thereafter he did not depart again but stayed at Pellinore’s side in Anglesey for his remaining years, and his consorts became friends with Elaine of Listenoise, Pellinore’s wife, and his sons became brothers to Pellinore’s sons. And so it remained for those two families for as long as they both continued.
There is no story of Pellinore’s deeds that does not have Esclabor in it, nor is there any story of Esclabor’s without Pellinore, for such was their friendship that everything that passed in their lives before they met seemed as nothing to them, and only the events after their meeting seemed worthy of song.
Chapter 7: Tales from Abroad
A week later...
“That can’t be comfortable,” Kay muttered. Morgana looked up to see what he was talking about, and then couldn’t help but chuckle.
Gareth and Morien were hanging around the practice field - literally. Gareth had pulled himself up on one of the sawhorses, just high enough that his arms could dangle over the other side, while the much taller Morien leaned over casually to rest his arms on the wood. Neither of them looked the least bit comfortable, one with his stretched toes barely reaching the ground and the other hunched over, but it guaranteed them a good view of Kahedin’s Trial.
Behind them both, Kahedin’s older sister Iseult rolled her eyes fondly, pulling Morien’s borrowed shirt down so it covered the pale discolorations running across his back. Aglain said they might fade with time, or they might not. Morgana was inclined to ignore them, but sometimes people who didn’t know what had happened would stare, and Iseult had become rather protective of him in the past few days. Morgana had no idea why she was fond of Gareth, who was always underfoot. That boy was friendly with everyone and had to have his finger in every single pie - literally, on a day like today, when the Beltane feast was already being prepared for tomorrow. The Head Cook had all but ordered the boys to come watch this event, just to keep them out of the kitchens.
Kahedin was soaking it all up, every scrap of attention from the boys and squires who had been his peers up until that morning. If he was nervous - which she knew for a fact he was, since Dinadan had been teasing him about it for days - he was careful not to show it in front of his audience.
The crowd was growing quite large. She could see Bors off to one side, sitting on a three-legged stool with Lionel hovering beside him. Leon was there with Bedivere, who looked out of place in his gray cloak. Kahedin’s mother had even brought a whole troupe of older ladies from court, all looking on expectantly.
Calm as he looked, Kahedin’s tunic was beginning to dampen with sweat.
First up was the newly healed Dinadan. Of course he took it easy on his former squire, but he also played to the crowd, making flashy moves that were nonetheless obvious and easy to block. By the time the sand ran out of the glass, Kahedin was almost smiling. Dinadan cuffed him on the shoulder and marched off, casting a warning look back at Kay, who was now stepping onto the field.
Kay was rougher, more determined. He made Kahedin work for it, met the boy strike for strike with the weight of his body behind each one. Once, he struck so fast Morgana though Kahedin wouldn’t be able to block, and she moved forward, surging with the rest of the crowd. But the boy got his sword up in time and deflected most of the blow, though his wince said he’d been bruised on the ribs.
When Kay’s time was up, Kahedin was panting, favoring one side. Morgana bit her lip. It was only going to get worse from here.
Third up was Caradoc, who was firm but kind, letting Kahedin get his wind back before making him show off his footwork. Caradoc’s style was a slow, careful appraisal followed by a series of quick strikes. Once Kahedin had his wits about him again, he performed well, anticipating a few of Caradoc’s blows and managing to deflect the rest.
Next was Lionel, who was more of a ‘rain of blows’ kind of fighter, never letting his opponent get breath enough to attack. Kahedin wisely stayed out of his way as much as possible and waited out the glass. If he was embarrassed about being run all over the field, he didn’t show it. Dinadan could grind the pride out of anyone over time, and Morgana saw now why that was such a valuable talent when training knights.
Geraint and Leon came in both at once, which had been a fairly common tactic under Arthur. Geraint went low and Leon high, playing to their strengths, and Kahedin spent a few minutes spinning dizzily, smashing off one blow after another almost desperately. By the time the crier called an end, his cuirass was dented and one of his greaves was flapping against his shin, its leather strap snapped.
Morgana signaled to allow him time to remove the greave, and then it was Palamedes’s turn.
As Marshal of the Foot, Palamedes had the right to take the last round of the Trial himself or give it to someone else. Morgana had wondered what he might choose, but it was obvious from the moment he stepped onto the field that he had never planned for anyone but him to stand as the final obstacle between Kahedin and knighthood.
“Are you ready, boy?” Palamedes asked quietly.
Kahedin nodded, and they crossed swords.
The grass was already crushed beneath their feet, damp green stains clinging to Kahedin’s boots. Morgana found herself staring down as she realized the battle was not being fought with their hands and eyes but with their feet. She watched as Palamedes carefully boxed Kahedin in time after time, running him up against the sawhorses and sending the crowd skittering back, only for Kahedin to smash his way out, exhausting himself more and more with each escape.
In the final few moments of the fight, Palamedes once again moved to box Kahedin in, and Kahedin stumbled. In a flash, Morgana saw how this must end - Palamedes would rush forward and take advantage of the slip, pressing Kahedin to tumble over the sawhorse and onto the ground-
Except, the sawhorse behind him was the one that Gareth and Morien were leaning on, both of them completely unaware of what was about to happen.
Iseult cried out, snatching at the boys’ shirts to pull them away, and Palamedes-
Stopped. He didn’t shift or turn or carry the motion through into something else. He simply froze in place long enough for Kahedin to get his feet back under him, and then, mechanically, Palamedes lifted his arms and began another attack. They moved predictably around the field for another half-minute, and then the crier called time.
Cheers erupted around the ring, the crowd stomping and whistling. Dinadan led the other knights out onto the field to clap Kahedin on the shoulder and strip him of his armor so they could dunk him in the fountain in the castle gardens. The whole crowd was moving, except for two people.
Palamedes stood still, an unreadable expression etched on his face, and Morgana stopped to watch him, feeling like her world had been turned around backwards.
What just happened? she wanted to ask, but somehow she wondered if Palamedes himself knew.
That evening, Morgana sat on a wooden throne carved from oak, her bare toes curling in the grass. She wore an old dress of Ygraine’s, a pale blue one from before her marriage to Uther. It came down to Morgana’s knees and made her feel like a little girl, giddy with spring.
“I’m taking the mead jug,” Gwen informed her sometime after the moon started to rise. “It’s getting dark, and I don’t want to have to keep an eye on you.”
Morgana smiled tipsily. “You’re too good to me, Gwen,” she sing-songed. Gwen turned away, snorting. Neither of them pointed out Geraint standing silent guard behind her with two of his men. Morgana felt bad for them, but as queen she must be seen to enjoy herself tonight if she wanted her subjects to feel free to celebrate.
Sunset finished up its last hurrah and let the night go to the stars. The tournament fields were full of revelers from every surrounding village, singing and dancing and drinking up the leftover winter cider in anticipation of a new crop of apples in the summer. From her perch near the castle walls, Morgana could see dark shapes flit in front of the fires, could hear laughter and the sound of more barrels being rolled out.
To one side of the dancers, Morien was showing Gareth and some of the other pages how to swing a practice sword. He made one particularly wide swing and hit a barrel, the strike so forceful it knocked a hole in the side. Beer began to pour sluggishly out, and the pages shouted, running around for cups and bowls to catch it in.
Behind Morgana, Geraint huffed a laugh. "That boy doesn't know his own strength." The other guards joined in the chuckle as more people ran over to help, filling their mugs from the broken barrel.
As the moon rose, the scene brightened. A gaggle of kitchen-waifs, freed from their duties for the night, tripped over themselves in giggling fits as they snuck up on Morgana’s position. She let them surprise her, crowning her with sticky fingers and leaving a pile of half-crushed flowers in her lap, the scent overwhelming. The crown was too big, slipping down in front to half cover her eyes with dark green leaves. As the children laughed again, Morgana found herself joining in.
When she’d righted the crown and the children had run off, looking for another hapless target, she looked out over the green space that had unofficially been set aside for dancing. A pipe and tabor had started up on one side, and someone joined in with a shawm. A circle dance started up in quick order, bright colors flashing in the firelight, spinning and spilling out every which way. There was Gwen, laughing as she danced with Leon, who blushed under his beard. There was Iseult, wearing her hair up as an adult, pulling an young Tristan out by the hand. She was laughing, carefree in her new womanhood, and Tristan’s eyes reflected every star in the sky.
That will be trouble, Morgana thought fuzzily, but couldn’t hold on to why.
The night deepened and the fires blazed. Morgana felt more than saw the guards yawn, turning away to stare longingly at the fires. Even Geraint seemed asleep on his feet. Contrary to the fear she should be feeling - out in the open once again, addled with drink, the people so far away - instead she felt a great sense of peace wash through her.
From out of the crowd, a small boy with dark hair and a hawthorne blossom crown came to sit at her feet, leaning against her leg as he watched the dancing with rapt attention. Morgana found her hand straying to his hair, stroking between the circle of white flowers.
I’m glad you’re happy, said the boy.
“I’m glad you’re safe,” Morgana whispered.
Gwen was dancing with Lancelot now, both of them moving slowly, eyes falling into each other. Somewhere behind them, Iseult was dancing with Palamedes. His hands gently curled whenever they touched palm to palm, and when he lifted her up to spin her through the air, Morgana’s breath caught. I wanted to do that to Gwen.
The boy at her feet laughed. Why don’t you?
Morgana’s heart clenched. Because she couldn't, for a thousand reasons.
The boy’s hand found hers, sliding in and squeezing tight. I’m sorry, he whispered. She felt a wave of affection from him, clear and stark as moonlight, washing through the fear and jealousy until she felt clean and empty again.
I’ll always love you, he said. Always, Morgana.
Morgana woke in her bed, sitting up in surprise. Moonlight washed the empty room, spilling across her bedsheets. Someone had been here, she was sure, but she was alone now. Had it been a dream?
She was still wearing the blue dress. Sliding out of the covers, she padded barefoot to the window and peered out.
On the fields outside, the fires still roared, but they looked like candle flames from this distance. People danced and stumbled about, and laughter drifted up faintly. The revelry felt distant from the stillness of her room, and for a moment Morgana felt a deep, unnameable ache.
Then the scent reached her. Cocking her head, she sniffed slightly at the air, but it disappeared whenever she tried to pinpoint it. Moving slowly about the room in a great arc past the shadows of her furniture, she finally found herself back at the bed, staring down.
On the pillow were two crown wreaths, one of ivy, one of hawthorne. They were knitted together on one side, entangled so carefully she could not see how it had been done.
Laying her hand on the flowers, she wondered. Mordred?
No one replied.
In the weeks after Beltane, more and more refugees began to arrive in Camelot. This had been a summer problem for many years, as wars between the various kings of Albion combined with encroachments by the Saxons to push people out of their homes and send them searching for stable kingdoms to live in.
In a letter from Olaf of Powys (addressed to Uther and obviously sent before Olaf heard the news), Morgana learned that the problem went wider than just Camelot. It sounded like most of the Old Kingdoms were suffering.
She tried to be understanding, spreading families out so no one village would have to take too many. Why wouldn’t these people arrive during planting? It would be so much easier to plan, then. Instead, now she had to send bags of seed grain along with the people and hope the village headmasters could find more land to plant.
The whole while, she kept an eye out for this woman, this Catrina, who Nimueh had promised to send. Lancelot saw Morgana fretting and tried to reassure her that it was likely just a simple favor, but his words fell flat when she could see the worry in his own eyes. He didn’t believe that any more than she did.
And then one day, Merlin’s mother arrived.
She looked much the same as she had two years ago, minus the bruises. She was part of a group of eight from Ealdor, and though the rest of the group were men, she spoke for them. Publicly, she said they were seeking refuge because Ealdor’s crops had failed last year and they had not saved enough seed to plant for everyone. In private in Morgana’s study, she told a different story.
“Cenred is conscripting young men from every village around us,” she said quietly, sipping the tea Gwen had brought her. “I brought as many as I could who escaped the first wave. He’s calling it recruitment, but the ones he takes are no volunteers. I’m afraid for them, and for what he plans to do with a larger army.”
Conscription wasn’t new by any means. Even the Romans had done it. But why was Cenred starting now? Morgana bit her lip in thought.
“Gwen, please send for Leon, Palamedes and, hm. Anyone you think won’t be an arse.”
“Ector,” Gwen said.
“Ector,” Gwen insisted.
Morgana rolled her eyes. “Fine, bloody Ector then.”
“Don’t curse in front of Merlin’s mother,” Gwen admonished, then slipped out. Morgana felt like throwing a boot after her.
A few minutes later, there was a knock on the door, and in trooped Leon, Palamedes, Ector, and - what? Aglain? Morgana looked a question at Gwen, who followed the rest inside, carrying a large tray. Gwen gave her a look that said, Trust me, I know what I’m doing. Morgana’s return glance said, You are making this up to me tonight. In bed.
“Gentlemen,” Morgana began, once they were all seated and Gwen was busy passing out drinks, “we have a bit of a problem.” She turned to Merlin’s mother. “Hunith, please tell these men what you told me.”
Hunith did, and then she answered the questions Ector and Palamedes put to her. Leon was quiet, his thumb absentmindedly scratching through his beard and lines forming and shifting across his brow.
Aglain, though. Aglain listened in silence, but at no point did he look the slightest bit surprised. He already knew, Morgana realized with a jolt. But how?
“What’s really happening?” she asked Aglain in an undertone, as Ector began talking about calling on their alliance with Caerleon.
“I’m not completely sure,” Agalin replied, “but I know he has doubled the size of his army in only a few weeks.”
“It could be to counter Odin,” muttered Leon, who was sitting close by. “Or Hengist. He’s been on the move lately.”
Hunith had finished her story, and now all eyes turned back to Morgana. She bit her lip.
“Saxons, you think, then?” She wasn’t sure about that. “Do any of you know Cenred? I’ve never met him.”
“I have,” Palamedes said. “He’s two years my senior. We competed in a tournament a few years ago.”
“What’s he like?” asked Leon.
Palamedes paused, thinking. “He’s a two-sword man, never carries a shield. There’s a hunger in him, a sharpness. He wants to win.”
“Most knights in a tournament want to win,” Morgana countered.
“No, not just in the tournament.” Palamedes’s hands turned up. “I can’t explain it, but the battle wasn’t over once he left the field. Or rather, everything was the battle.”
“Hungry,” Ector mused. “Yes, his father was like that. Married a Saxon to keep them off his back, then turned around and swallowed up his wife’s family lands right quick when her brothers started a feud over succession.”
Leon frowned, rubbing his beard again. “The question is, who is he planning to attack?”
They all looked up, startled, as Hunith finally spoke. She bit her lip, but carried on. “One of the boys in our group is a runaway, escaped the army while they were passing east of us. He said that’s where they were heading.”
“He could be lying,” said Ector.
Palamedes nodded. “It’s an old trick, to send a spy disguised as a runaway to plant false rumors. He might even be innocent, not knowing he was let loose with the wrong information.”
“It’s not Cameliard he’s after.” Aglain cleared his throat as they all turned to look at him. “It’s not Camelot either. He’s courting the rebels.”
Ector’s eyes widened. “You mean the ones who-“ his eyes flicked to Morgana, then quickly away again, and Morgana realized that the attempt on her life last month was an open secret.
Aglain nodded. “Yes. There are a series of loosely connected groups, many of them quite powerful.”
“At magic, you mean.” Ector looked unhappy.
Aglain pushed on. “If Cenred could provide them with troops and weapons, he could use those groups to disrupt several neighboring kingdoms at relatively little cost to himself. Then he could take whoever was weakest at his leisure.”
“Are we sure about this?” Leon asked. “Couldn’t he do the same to the Saxons? There are rebellions waiting to happen there as well.”
Morgana nodded. “But if he could start with the Old Kingdoms, he could encourage the Saxons to overextend themselves by attacking their weakened neighbors, and then he could have whatever he pleased.”
“We’re missing something,” Palamedes said, staring hard at the wall. “There’s something….”
“How is he contacting these groups?” Morgana asked. “If they’re spread out all over Albion and barely in contact with each other, how does he know who and where they are? And why would they trust him?”
There was silence for a moment, then Ector ground out, “I think that’s obvious. He has a powerful sorcerer on his side. And that’s why he’s chosen this year to make his move - he must have just found the devil.”
Morgana’s mouth opened to object, but Gwen chose that moment to step firmly on her toes. With a grunt, Morgana shut her mouth and let herself glare at the tabletop instead.
“The question isn’t about sorcery,” Palamedes insisted. “The question is, what’s happening with the Saxons that makes him so sure now is the right time to make this gamble?”
To that, none of them had any answer.
The question simmered in Morgana’s gut, souring her appetite at supper.
“I wish you had let me decline,” Hunith said quietly. She looked uncomfortable, even in Uther’s private supping room, far from formal dining hall.
“You fed me at your table,” Morgana replied. “Fair is fair.”
Hunith said, “Very little in life is fair, though. But this is kind of you.”
Morgana winced. That Hunith already knew what had happened with Merlin was obvious from her lack of questions about where her son and Prince Arthur were. Morgana felt certain someone had passed information to her, but who she couldn't tell.
They ate in silence for a few moments, as Morgana held it in, and held it in, and then she couldn’t stop herself from blurting out, “I’m sorry about Merlin.”
Hunith looked surprised. “Sorry? Why?”
“I should have - I don’t know. I should have done more. Talked to Uther again. They shouldn’t have had to leave.”
Hunith smiled gently. “My dear, I don’t blame you. I don’t even blame King Uther. Merlin has always had a greater destiny than could fit inside one small space. Wherever he is, he’s following that. And you’re here, following yours. I see no harm in that.”
“He and Arthur are in Ireland," Morgana told her, "according to my cousin. I'm sure they're fine, but." She blinked and couldn't help but ask, "Do you always look at the world sideways? With good as good and bad as good too?”
Hunith smiled warmly. “Yes, and I highly recommend it, if you want to stop blaming yourself for everything that isn’t your fault.”
“Yes, please,” Gwen piped up, popping her head in the door. “Sorry, couldn’t help but overhear - well, eavesdrop a little, but. Anyway, I’ve a room ready for you, when you’re ready?”
“Guinevere, stop working and come eat,” Hunith admonished. “Your supper will get cold.”
So this is what having a mother is like, Morgana mused, as Gwen sat down apologetically and began to eat. Maybe Merlin won’t mind if I borrow his for a while?
A week later, Hunith had a position in the household, and Morgana was back on horseback, watching the knights hunt down another group of bandits in the southeast. These were getting far too large and bold, hitting mostly travelers and then retreating to the mountains. As if they didn't have enough problems with overcrowding already. They certainly didn't need trade disrupted as well.
Morgana wasn’t leading the party. No, that honor was reserved to Kay, who took it very seriously and had made them all wear dull tunics over their mail and no capes or markings so any bandit spies wouldn't realize who they were. Morgana was dressed like a man, which she was beginning to prefer. But the waxing summer heat, the buzzing of insects, and the lack of any signs of the bandit group were all beginning to cut into discipline.
On top of that, who thought it was a good idea to send Dinadan on any kind of excursion with Kay in charge? Not Morgana. That must have been Ector's idea of teaching his son some sort of lesson about getting along with others, but mostly it was becoming a trial for everyone else.
She stayed quiet as Dinadan joked loudly with Tristan and Kahedin. Since taking Tristan as his squire officially, Dinadan had become more affectionate with the boy, cuffing him gently on the head and shoulders to get his attention and as a form of praise. It worked, too, for Tristan was the only squire who actually stayed with his assigned knight. Even in the green heat of late May, the younger knights and squires trotted ahead with restless energy, unable to sit their horses to a sedate and careful walk like their elders.
At Kay’s sharp command, some of them slowed down again and rejoined the group. It wouldn’t do to become separated, Morgana thought, and at that moment, an arrow whistled by her cheek and stuck quivering in a tree.
“Dismount!” Kay bellowed.
Morgana took a moment to hook her ankle around Tristan’s and topple him off his horse before diving off her own.
On the ground, they posed less of a target for arrows, but they were still vulnerable. Morgana heard one of the horses scream and go down, and then Tristan was rolling to his feet beside her and pulling out his sword.
“You didn’t need to do that,” he hissed. “I was getting down.”
“Good to hear.” Morgana didn’t bother smoothing his ruffled feathers. They had bandits to clear out.
She took up position back to back with him, eyes scanning the woods around them. The green was still for a moment, then Lionel - that bloody hothead! - saw something move and went charging after it.
“Is he serious?” Tristan whispered.
Kay apparently thought so, because instead of bellowing for Lionel to get his stupid arse back to the group, he motioned with his hand and had the men fan out into a wedge with Lionel at the front, giving him backup and possibly someone to pull him out if he went down.
-Which he almost did a moment later, as a man with long hair leapt, bellowing, from the lower branches of a chestnut. His sword came down in a bright arc, and he probably would have taken Lionel’s head in one blow if Kay hadn’t snatched up a rock and spun it straight at the man’s face, forcing him to flinch and spoil the blow.
Tristan gave a short cry, jerking Morgana’s attention away from the long-haired man just in time to raise her own blade, blocking a strike that would have gone through the unarmored gap under her arm. She had no time to recover from her surprise, as the man pressed his advantage sharply, clearly looking to disable her quickly so he could avoid fighting two at once and simply take on the inexperienced Tristan alone.
As if Morgana would let that happen.
She pushed back with a yell, swinging furiously, hoping to make her attacker give ground enough that she could get between him and Tristan, who seemed to have no idea what to do in actual combat.
She and the swordsman locked hilts, pushing hard against each other. The man let go briefly with his right hand to try to punch Morgana in the face. She dodged and brought up a knee to his groin, but he twisted out of the way. Panting nose to nose with him, she watched the way his eyes shifted, a familiar expression making his face suddenly come into proper focus. Wait. She knew this man.
She froze, body going cold.
He pushed her down, sword going for her neck before she finally found her voice again.
As awkward reunions went, this one wasn’t so bad. After all, there were no real injuries. One horse had to be doctored and wouldn’t be bearing its rider anytime soon, but everyone else had no more than scratches.
They sat around the campfire with the party the two men had been protecting, an odd gathering of dispossessed nobles and a few servants and townsfolk from around their castle, possibly the only survivors of a Saxon raid. They looked dirty, hungry, and thin. Morgana’s men shared their food without comment, giving the greater portions to the refugees in return for stories from the ravaged lands to the south and east.
Both men had apologized for attacking them and had helped treat the horse. After fighting off two bandit groups in the same week, they had come to expect any well-armed, well-horsed group in the area to be enemies. Morgana didn't blame them, but she was angry with herself for letting the situation in her own kingdom get to this point. The people needed protection, and they shouldn't have to hope for it from landless, wandering men instead of the very nobles they paid part of their crops to every year.
Lionel had forgiven his attacker, a man named Gwaine, and they were now drinking and laughing together over how close they’d come to maiming each other. In contrast, Elyan sat silently on a log across the fire, Leon perched beside him. Sometimes their knees bumped, and Elyan would almost smile. Morgana felt a pang of mixed emotions every time that happened: nostalgia, embarrassment, relief for Gwen, and dread that someone would eventually have to tell Elyan what had happened to his father.
The embarrassment was a hot spike through the rest, distracting her from her role as hostess. She could still recall the expression on Elyan’s face, eyes widening and mouth going flat as he caught sight of Gwen and Morgana tangled together on Gwen’s narrow bed. He was supposed to have been out all day, not coming back just after noon. Gwen had been mortified, her breath almost stopping in shock. For her part, Morgana had felt Elyan’s gaze like a brand, like a judgment weighing on her.
Before either of them could say a word, he had turned around and left. That was only a few days before he’d left Camelot entirely, and Morgana never knew how much her relationship with Gwen had encouraged that, or if he’d always planned to leave. Either way, his disappearance had left a sore place between Gwen and herself, one they never talked about, even after three years.
Now Elyan was back, and Morgana didn’t quite know how to look him in the eye. It didn’t help that he never quite looked her way, either.
It was easier to turn her attention to the refugees. A middle aged woman sat among them, withdrawn into herself, slightly hunched with cold or pain. Her clothes had once been rich but were now little more than rags. Whenever she did chance to look up, her eyes were haunted, echoing some memory Morgana was drawn to and repelled by in the same breath, curious yet certain she didn’t really want to know.
She might not have noticed the woman at all if the rest of the party hadn’t subconsciously deferred to her. Gwaine checked on her constantly with his eyes, and she seemed to form the center of the refugees’ small circle, surrounded by children and subtly guarded by a ring of adults.
A queen without her throne, Morgana thought.
Rising and making her way through the defensive circle, Morgana kept her hands out and away from her weapons and her eyes up, clear and unchallenging. I’m not a threat, she thought at them, and some of those who’d begun to bristle calmed.
A little girl was sitting next to the queen on a blanket laid on the ground. The girl looked up at Morgana the same way a child might look at the moon, then scooted away, making a space. Morgana smiled and gave her a little bow, the kind knights give boys who cheer them on. She bowed again to the queen before dropping into her space.
“My Lady,” Morgana said quietly. The woman started, then turned those haunted eyes to look at Morgana. “I am Queen Morgana of Camelot. You are of the Romans, yes?”
The woman’s lips moved silently for a moment, then she whispered, “Yes.”
“May I ask your name?”
Wincing, the woman massaged one wrist with her hand. “My kingdom is gone. What use is my name?”
The woman looked up, eyes flashing briefly in the firelight. “Catrina,” she whispered. “I am Queen Catrina, and I seek Uther Pendragon, for the love and friendship he once pledge me and my father, to take the last free survivors of my people in and care for them as his own.”
Somewhere in the back of her mind, Morgana heard Nimueh's soft laughter.
Of course, the flamboyant Gwaine bragged that he and Elyan had already taken care of the bandit group along this stretch of the road. He showed Kay and others to the pile of mismatched armor and goods they had stripped from the bodies, and Kay pronounced himself satisfied. Riding double and using the bandit horses Catrina's group already had, they made their way home slowly, sore and frustrated.
Someone would report another group next week, most likely, and Morgana would have to send out yet another posse of knights to find them. At least now she knew what her men were up against.
As for Catrina, well. I could send her on to Caerleon, or Gwent, Morgana thought hopefully, but she already knew she wouldn't. A promise was a promise, Old Religion or not. She wasn't an oathbreaker. Not yet.
It was the middle of the night, and someone was pounding on her door. Kay looked agitated when Morgana opened it herself, and candle in one hand.
“Where-?” He looked around as much of her room as he could see from the doorway, and Morgana understood his bewildered rudeness.
“Gwen’s out. She’s settling her brother back home.”
“Oh. Of course.” He shifted his weight from side to side, clearly trying to decide whether to tell her something or not. “There’s a- oh, bugger it all. Come with me.”
“What, now?” Morgana looked down at her nightdress, a new one that didn’t have bloody tears at the knees, and thought of what Gwen would say if she ripped this one up as well. “Just. Let me grab a dressing gown.”
Kay blushed. “Yes, right. Of course.”
What a pair we are, Morgana thought, as she pulled a robe from her trunk. It would be laughable if she weren’t so tired from being on a horse for several days straight.
She locked the door behind her and pocketed the key, glad her dressing gown came with such conveniences as pockets, since so much of women’s clothing did not.
Still agitated, Kay led her down several corridors and up the winding steps of the East Tower. Cold bursts of wind guttered the torch he carried and danced shadows up the walls. An eerie feeling crawled up her spine
“You’re not going to push me off the roof, are you?” Morgana half joked. Kay got a peculiar expression, caught between horror and laughter and something else, and simply shook his head.
She was on the verge of investigating that look when he abruptly turned at a landing and opened a small door, which led out onto the battlements. She followed him out cautiously.
It was an isolated spot, sheltered from the wind but not much else. The sky was mostly clouded over, spitting the occasional raindrop down to chill her skin. Morgana shivered and wrapped her arms around her body.
It took a few moments for her eyes to adjust from the brightness of torchlight to the dimness out here, but when they did, she realized they were not alone. A figure sat on the stone wall at one of the gaps in the crenelation, facing outward, with his legs dangling over the side. In one hand, he held a bottle. In the other, a sword.
“Old problem,” Kay whispered. “Radnor used to take care of him, before that skirmish with Mercia.”
Damn, Morgana thought, because if there was one thing she did not need, it was to lose one good man because she’d already lost another.
Carefully, feeling her way over the cold stone with her slippered feet, she approached the shadow. “Palamedes,” she said gently, far enough away not to startle him.
He turned his head and upper body, a move that panicked her for a moment before she realized he was not as uncoordinated as he ought to be, for a drunk man. She saw a flash of teeth as he smiled.
“Good mead,” he said, holding up the bottle. “Nice night.” He turned away, losing himself back into whatever thoughts had been rolling through his mind before she arrived.
Slowly, Morgana crossed the gap between them and sat down on the stone ground, her back pressed to the wall beside him. “Terrible night,” she disagreed. “Cold and about to rain.”
He shrugged. “Not raining yet.”
He was an amiable drunk, at least, and she began to realize Kay's worries were a bit unnecessary. Palamedes's dignity had slipped, but he didn’t seem inclined to do anything rash. Well, any more rash than sitting where he was.
"What brings you out here?" Morgana asked, feeling awkward.
Palamedes shrugged and looked up at the sky. I'm botching this, Morgana thought. But she had never really known how to talk to him; now was no different. Silence stretched between them, and she let it.
“You plan to make that Lancelot fellow a knight?” he asked after a while, voice curious and a bit slurred.
Morgana shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Rough on him either way.” Palamedes stared morosely out at the clouds. “Either he gets no recognition and everybody knows it, or he gets to join a group that’ll refuse to treat him like a brother. Prob'ly best you don’t, just for your sake. Make him captain of the Queen’s guard or something. Nobody’s had that job in years.”
Morgana twisted her hands in her lap and said nothing. She told herself, He's talking, that's good, just let him. Kay still hovered in the doorway, several strides away, unspeaking.
“How about Bedivere?” Palamedes continued. “That’s a stickier one. Leon’d never say a word, but Kay’ll spit in your face in front of the whole kingdom if you don’t let him come back.”
Palamedes couldn't see Kay stiffen, but Morgana could. She swallowed and met his eyes.
“Uther wasn’t going to,” Morgana whispered.
Palamedes snorted. “That’s different. Everyone was scared of Uther. The only people scared of you are the ones who fought Renaud this spring.”
“That wasn't-” Morgana denied quickly, her mind blanking with panic.
"No, no, of course not." He eyed her closely. "You'll have to admit it someday, though. Too many people saw to keep that quiet forever."
"Fuck," she whispered, with feeling.
“Language!” Palamedes laughed, but he sounded pleased. “Only swear around sailors and old warriors. They’re the only ones who like to see a woman’s rough side.”
“The rest of them will just have to get used to it,” Morgana muttered.
Palamdes laughed again, but then he sobered. “Do you know? Who you brought into this city today?”
“Gwen’s brother?” Morgana hazarded, confused. It was starting to rain lightly, and this conversation was beyond her.
Palamedes shook his head, growling frustration. “No, no, that woman with the Saxon price on her head. But you must know, it must be strategy. Odin has to see you take a stand. Has to see you tough. Yes.” He was muttering to himself now, and Morgana sat bewildered, trying to parse what he meant. Why would Odin care about Catrina enough to put a bounty on her? Morgana really wished Palamedes weren’t so drunk. She wished it weren't raining, drops splashing here and there. One caught her on the nose.
“…strategy’s no good, all her eyes on him, his hands on her…”
She looked up, worried. His voice was getting agitated.
“…half my age, bloody hells. What would you do?” he asked suddenly, rounding on her with a twist of his body that brought him closer to the edge. Morgana's belly swooped, but then he leaned toward her, putting his weight back in safe territory.
“What would you do if you loved a woman ten years younger?" he demanded. "Would you let her go? Let her go to a boy her own age, a pretty, fancy boy with his fresh shield and the romance of his lost kingdom still pink on his cheeks? Damn that boy. She had eyes for me first. We walked out twice. Now she doesn’t know me at all.”
“Who?” Morgana asked, morbidly curious.
He laughed, bitter. “Iseult, pretty Iseult with her white hands and her wide laugh. Pretty Iseult, who dances with all the boys and makes them all fools. She held my hand once on a seat under an apple tree. Who cares? I’m too old, too scarred, nothing but stories of old campaigns. She wants a future, a boy who tells her what he will do, not what he’s already done.”
Morgana thought of Tristan. Oh dear.
Palamedes was watching her face now, and he smiled bitterly, climbing off the edge to sit by her. She sighed softly in relief, tension flowing out of her muscles.
“Here,” he said, offering her the bottle, “take some courage and let it out. Everyone needs to, sometimes.”
This time, Morgana took the bottle, pressed the cool, slightly warped glass to her lips, and drank several bright swallows that burned all the way down. Holding the last mouthful on her tonue, she tipped her face back and let the rain hit her wherever it wanted.
Gwen, she thought, Gwen, Gwen.
She handed the bottle back, almost smiling. Her cheek felt hot against the wet stone.
“I hate Lancelot for being so noble,” she said conversationally, and Palamedes laughed.
“Don’t we all?”
The next morning, Morgana’s head felt like the skin of a drum, echoing every little sound. She spent the morning in her sitting room, pretending to read ledgers but mostly resting her forehead against the cool wood of the table. Sometime later, she woke to the smell of strong root tea, something she recognized as Gwen’s old remedy for hangovers. With blessings on her lips, she swallowed it down quickly, burning her tongue.
After that, she began to feel less like she’d been dragged upside down over the tourney field in a rainstorm, though she imagined her hair still looked it.
She ventured out briefly to search for Gwen and beg for a small, carefully crafted luncheon. The halls were quiet, with only a few servants passing and bobbing their curtseys or bows in her direction. She nodded back and pretended to be an upstanding and self-disciplined ruler of an entire kingdom, rather than a hungover woman who spent last night on the battlements in her nightdress and who woke up in bed with her feet still dirty.
Ector caught up with her in the corridor down to the kitchens while she was dawdling and thinking of reasons why she should look somewhere else first, most of them having to do with how the smells wafting up the stairs made her stomach queasy.
“My Lady,” Ector said, face slightly red from exertion. “The guest.” At her blank look, he elaborated. "From Cantia."
“Queen Catrina, yes.” Morgana would rather not talk about that right now, but there was no use in protesting to Ector.
“She is in pain.”
Morgana raised an eyebrow. “So send for Aglain.”
“Are you certain?” he asked, face serious. “You want that man to treat her?”
“He treats everyone. We have no one else as qualified in the city.”
Ector's face was troubled. "There are rumors about her daughter. That the girl isn't dead but joined forces with magic users plotting to overthrow several kingdoms."
Morgana blinked. "I didn't know she had a daughter. But is that any reason not to treat Catrina herself?"
Ector opened his mouth as if to argue, then thought better of it. “As you wish, My Lady.”
As he walked away, Morgana stood bemused at the similar expressions Ector and Kay often wore, like father and son had practiced their worried frowns together.
Morgana kept searching. As she passed the armory down on the lower floor, she thought she heard whispers and turned that way. She came around the corner expecting a tryst, perhaps, or some of the squires working on their masters’ armor.
“Oh!” cried a voice.
Morgana jerked back as a pike swung right where her head had been a moment before. The weapon clattered to the ground, and behind it Morien threw his hands up, horrified.
“The Queen!” he hissed. Behind him there was a scrabble of feet. Gareth and two new pages peeked around the corner, eyes enormous.
“Right, then,” Morgana said, clapping her hands together. “Weapons back on the rack where they belong. You,” she pointed to the two new pages, “go see the Steward and ask him for the dirtiest, least exciting job he has right now. You,” she pointed to Morien and Gareth, “go scrub your hands and faces and meet me in my chambers in ten minutes. Move!”
The boys scrambled, faces red. Morgana waited to smile until they were back around the corner.
Of course, when Morgana returned to her rooms, Gwen was bustling about like she’d been there all along. Morgana narrowed her eyes, but she didn’t say anything. Clearly, Gwen was hiding something from her, but if it was Lancelot, she didn’t really want to know.
Luckily, Morien and Gareth appeared at her door in short order, both of them panting slightly and looking more than a little alarmed. Morgana looked at them sternly.
“Your punishment is to eat lunch with me,” she said, leading them to the table. Both boys blinked at her wide-eyed, but they sat when she told them to. Gwen sent someone to the kitchens, and in only a few minutes all four of them had overflowing plates, making Morgana’s sitting room table seem almost full, for once.
The boys were silent throughout the meal, so Morgana and Gwen touched lightly on several innocuous topics, looking to draw them out. When that failed and they were all sitting about quite full, Morgana decided to stop pulling her punches.
“Morien,” she said, smiling, “I hear you have quite a tale. Lancelot said I should hear it from you.”
The boy fidgeted, feet shuffling under the table, but she could tell that modesty wasn’t really one of his faults. “My mother,” he started, then coughed slightly. “My mother’s living in poverty in a tiny village on land that once belonged to us, all because my father left without fulfilling his promise to marry her. Her father disowned her, and now my cousin lives in our castle. I wanted to kill him, but mother says God doesn’t like people to kill their own family.” His eyes sparked quietly. “But I’d have done it, if I didn’t know it would make her disappointed in me.”
“Are you looking for revenge on your father, then?” Morgana asked quietly.
Morien looked down. “No,” he whispered. “I just want him to marry her, like he promised. She shouldn’t have to work so hard.”
“None of us should,” Gwen said gently.
Morien’s lips thinned. “They don’t like her, in the village. Or maybe they’re scared of my cousin. They give her the hardest jobs, and they won’t talk to her. They didn’t even help last year when part of our roof caught on fire. I fixed it all by myself, though I don’t really know how. It still leaks.”
Morgana pursed her lips. Another potential problem, if the boy found his father and the man refused his request. The boy was as tall as any man, if not bulky yet. He might challenge his father if he felt his mother was being slighted, and someone could get hurt. She couldn't let that happen now, when she needed every fighting man to deal with Cenred’s threat. Worse, Lancelot could get involved, out of his loyalty to the boy, and that could divide her men.
“Who’s your father?” she asked.
“I don’t know his name,” Morien admitted. “My mother wouldn’t tell me. But he gave her this ring to pledge their troth.” He held up his thumb, and Morgana caught a glint of silver in the light. “My mother said when I was big enough to wear it, I could take my grandfather's armor and go look for him. I left back at the beginning of winter, and I swore I wouldn't come back without him. I'll challenge him if he won't go." He set his chin mulishly.
"I'm sure he'll go along, once you find him," Gwen reassured him. She leaned forward to look at the ring. “This is amazing workmanship. There are only a few craftsmen in Albion who could manage that.”
Morien's temper melted. "Really?"
Morgana nodded. “That should make it easier. But when did this happen? How old are you?”
“Nearly fourteen years ago. I'll be thirteen the week before midsummer.”
Morgana closed her eyes.
Around her, she heard Gwen say, “Oh, what a coincidence! Gareth’s thirteen too, and he doesn’t know who his real parents were at all. He just has this pendant here.” Morien’s reply was all curiosity, and Gareth was embarrassed but eager to bond over the search for their parents, and through it all Morgana could only think thirteen.
She knew who had been across the channel fourteen years ago. The same man who used to tell stories of his adventures on the continent and how he’d convinced a former King of Babylon to leave Rome with him.
But for all King Pellinore’s romantic conquests, he had only ever married one woman, the Lady Elaine of Listenoise, who had borne him six living children. There was no possibility that he would set her aside and cross the channel to marry a former princess who was living as a village outcast. Morgana could only hope that perhaps one of his older sons had been responsible instead, because if Morien challenged the aging King Pellinore, a man already broken by grief over the death of his oldest child, Morien would most definitely win. And Morgana couldn’t afford to lose that alliance - especially not now.
If she could keep Morien here in Camelot, though, perhaps she wouldn’t have to. King Pellinore wasn’t likely to visit the very place where his oldest son had died, and his other sons had avoided coming here as well. She just had to make sure Morien didn’t tell his story to any of the older knights, or to Palamedes. A simple task, surely.
Just for a few months, she promised herself. Just until summer’s over.
That night, the town was dark as Morgana slipped between houses, here and there an open shutter spilling light into the street. It had been all too easy to sneak out of the castle. Gwen had gone missing again, and the guards had barely looked at her, dressed as she was in Gwen’s second-best cloak.
Part of her wanted to find Gwen at home, but she was unsurprised to see the lights on in the forge and the main house dark. Pushing inside, she let the creak of the door announce her. Elyan was bent over something, twisting it with one arm as the other held steady.
“Be with you in a minute,” he said, not looking up.
She waited, looking around the room. There were changes since last time she’d been here. The tools were cleaned and some recently used, half a dozen barbed spear points hung on the completed rack, and the fire burned steadily. Tom had always been a bit forgetful, leaving things lying about, and Gwen hadn't the heart to move much after he escaped. Elyan seemed to have no such compunction; everything was neatly reorganized now.
Elyan gave one more twist, lifted the piece to inspect it, and nodded. He turned.
“Oh,” he said, startlement written across his face.
“Sorry for barging in,” she offered.
His face, momentarily opened by surprise, closed down again. He turned to the fire and pushed the iron in with one tong. “It’s fine.”
It clearly wasn’t. “I was looking for Gwen.”
He snuck a look at her, then looked away. “She’s not here. Up at the keep still.”
They waited in silence for the iron to heat. Morgana wondered if she should offer to pump the bellows, but he didn’t seem to be in any hurry. Oh, this was awkward. She remembered how open and easy he was when they were children, how brash and outspoken, quick to act. He was different now. Quiet, careful. She didn’t know how to talk to him anymore. She was embarrassed to try. But.
“I, I knew that.”
He didn’t look up, but she could tell she had his attention now.
“I. She talked about a sword. Making me one. I was wondering-“
“Ask her,” he said. “I’m not making swords.”
Morgana blinked. “What - why?”
He pursed his lips like he didn’t want to give away something important, then said simply, “My father was the best swordmaker this kingdom has ever seen. And he could be dead for all I know.”
She felt the anger seething under his skin, radiating like heat from the forge. This wasn’t quick to anger, quick to forgive; this was a deep cut.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, her tongue thick. And she was. She should have tried harder, should have argued more. Should have understood Uther better and sooner, so she could make her case without being brushed off as an emotional child.
“I thought when I came home he’d be here,” Elyan said.
They stood in silence a long moment, watching the iron slowly change colors. What could she say to that? She’d thought Uther would live forever too. Life should have some certainties in it, not this stumbling through day to day, guessing at the future.
Elyan pulled the twisted iron from the fire and began to tap it gently and steadily with his smallest hammer. In between strokes, Morgana finally gathered the courage to speak.
“I’ve got a boy up at the castle. Looking for his father.”
He grunted. “Lots of those around.” He was right - the kingdom was full of orphans or half-orphans, most of them well aware their parents were dead. War children. Refugees.
“Thing is,” she admitted, “I know who his father is. Or I think I do. And I can’t afford to tell him.”
Elyan glanced at her briefly, then went back to pounding. “You want me to tell you that’s okay?”
“No. I. I guess I just want to tell someone, and I know you won’t tell him.”
“Don’t presume you know me.”
“I don’t. Not anymore. But I know Gwen, and I know you won’t do anything to cause trouble for her.”
“Damn you.” Elyan shoved the iron into a bucket, steam billowing up. “Don’t lay your sins on me, Morgana. I’ve got enough of my own.”
She closed her eyes and slumped back against the wall. “I just need to talk to someone.”
“Talk to Gwen. That’s what you always did before.”
“I can’t anymore.” Her eyes felt hot; she wondered if she was crying. “She’s never around. I think she’s seeing Lancelot behind my back.”
“Like hell.” He paused, scuffed his boot roughly against the dirt. “I know I didn’t, didn’t handle that well. That situation. But I know Gwen. She’s honest, she always was. If you have something, some promise, she won’t. She just won’t break that.”
“We don’t have a promise. We never did. She can do what she wants.”
“No.” His voice was closer now, gentler. “Even if it wasn’t in words, she’s Gwen. You have to talk to her.”
“If she wants to go to him, I have to let her,” Morgana whispered. “I have to. She deserves this. I can’t give her a family or a future. None of that. But I’m terrified. Nothing that’s happened this spring has scared me this much.”
Beside her, the door clattered shut. Morgana’s eyes flew open. “Who-?” Turning, she yanked the door open and peered around the corner, her eyes adjusting just in time to see Gwen’s red cloak hurry down the road. Morgana made a sound in her throat, rooted to the spot.
A moment later, Elyan stood beside her, watching Gwen disappear. “There’s no help for it now,” he said. “You have to talk to her.”
Morgana knew he was right.
Morgana waited a few minutes before leaving the forge. Long enough to get herself under control, long enough for Elyan to find her some water to soothe her dry throat.
“I don’t know how you work in this heat,” she told him.
He snorted. “That’s why I work after dark and early in the morning. You’ve never been in here in late summer, when we leave all the doors and windows open and pray for cross-breezes.” A moment later, his face went tight, as if just remembering there was no ‘we’ anymore.
She left shortly after, with an uncertain fluttering in her belly that approached terror. Talk to Gwen, talk to Gwen. How could she do that now, when she’d all but accused Gwen of infidelity in front of her brother?
Still, it couldn’t wait. She had to do it tonight.
As she approached the castle, she heard a sound that sent a chill down her spine. Bells. Alarm bells ringing out, followed by shouts. Picking up her skirt, she started to run.
Guards met her at the gate. The moment they saw beneath her hood, the formed a phalanx around her and refused to let her move about without their escort. They trooped too slowly up the stairs, Morgana frantic because she didn’t know what was going on. Where was everyone?
She saw a man running down the west hallway towards them. Several guards lifted their pikes, but Morgana stayed them with a word.
“Queen Morgana! Are you alright?”
“Yes, yes, what’s-“
“Guards spotted an intruder on the inner north wall. He disappeared before reaching the battlements.”
“Fell?” she asked.
His face twisted. “I don’t think so. No one saw or heard a fall.”
Her rooms. Her rooms were still on the north side of the courtyard, along with those of several other noblewomen. The courtyard, with its high walls and guarded gates, was supposed to be the safest.
“Are there guards patrolling?”
“Geraint has them checking room by room. He sent me to find you, since yours were empty.”
“Did you see Gwen? She was only a few minutes ahead of me.”
He shook his head, and Morgana’s heart clenched. “We need to find her. We need-“
Morgana! called a child's voice. Mordred's voice. Morgana, look!
Her vision greyed. She stumbled. She felt two pairs of arms come up to catch her, and then her body slipped away.
It was like dreaming, but strangely clear. She knew she wasn’t asleep, yet like in a dream she watched another world take shape around her. She was in her own rooms, hovering by the door. A single candle guttered on her dressing table. The bedcurtains fluttered.
In the corner of the room by the wardrobe, Gwen stood painfully still, a knife pressed to her neck.
“Tell me where she is,” said the man holding the knife, calm and dangerous.
Three great assassins changed history, and all were cruel and powerful. Llovan Llawdivo was known for cutting off the hands of his victims after death. No keep was safe from Myror, who could not be kept out by walls. The last assassin's name is lost, but he poisoned the boy-king Constans on Vortigern's order and then escaped into the sea. Because of these three assassins, much destruction and loss was wrought, and the Britons were greatly reduced in power.
Chapter 8: Assassins and Spies
Morgana woke on the floor, looking up into Lancelot’s face slowly swimming into focus.
“Gwen,” she gasped.
His brow furrowed. “I don't understand.”
She couldn’t think well enough to speak, couldn’t form words to explain. Instead, she grabbed his hand and pushed the image at him, willing him to see.
It worked. His eyelids fluttered briefly, then opened wide in horror. Leaping to his feet, he put his hand on his sword hilt and ran for Morgana's rooms.
“Help me up!” Morgana ordered. Two of the guards did, fear smeared across their faces. She didn’t have time for this, she didn’t - Gwen!
On wobbly legs she chased after Lancelot, leaving the panicked guards behind.
They reached her rooms to find the door ajar, the scene exactly as she’d seen it. The fluttering bedcurtains, the guttering candle, and Gwen standing still, still, staring at them with eyes that darted about in fear as a man loomed behind her, hidden in the shadows.
“I don’t know,” Gwen was sobbing quietly, even as Morgana stood there in the doorway, behind Lancelot’s bulk. “I don’t know, I don’t know. Please.”
“Gwen,” Morgana said.
The assassin’s eyes flicked from Lancelot to her. He was plainly dressed, a small goatee on his handsome face. His eyes were watchful but calm in his dark face. Had she met him on the street, she wouldn’t have noticed him at all.
“Come closer and I’ll kill her,” he said in a pleasant voice. She knew he wasn’t lying.
The man began backing Gwen toward the window, clearly intending to escape. Lancelot rose up on his toes but held back, waiting. Morgana knew he was waiting for the moment the assassin pushed Gwen away. She wasn’t so sure it would come. The man could pull her out the window with him, forcing her to hang from the sill while he climbed down, blocking the guards on the battlements above from getting a clear shot as he climbed down the wall.
“Gwen,” she said again, meeting Gwen’s eyes squarely. She pushed all her certainty into her face, every confidence she didn’t feel. I won’t let you be hurt. Gwen seemed to see it and relax, just a fraction. The man’s arm dropped the tiniest bit and tightened. His knife came a finger’s width away from her throat.
A crash and a whirl of motion to the right. Gwen gave an aborted scream as the assassin’s knife came up instinctively to block the blow aimed at his head.
Gwen was dropped like an empty sack, rolling and then crawling out of the way, tears streaked down her face and lips pressed hard together. Bedivere closed with the assassin, the door to Gwen’s unused serving room flapping on one hinge behind him, cracked in two places.
The assassin pulled a second knife and threw it at close range, forcing Bedivere to dodge into Morgana’s dressing table, smashing her mirror in a shower of glass shards and knocking over the candle. As the flame guttered and went out, the assassin slipped out the window and disappeared into the dark.
Bedivere stumbled upright in the dim light from the hallway, and Morgana found her feet unglued from the floor. “Gwen,” she cried, turning to help Gwen up, but Lancelot was already kneeling there, cradling her against his chest as she sobbed. Morgana sucked in a breath and went hollow. Gwen could have died because of-
Numbly, she stepped around them and put a hand on Bedivere’s good arm.
“I’m fine,” he said, breathing hard. She could see the twinkle of glass in his hair.
“Thank you,” she told him, lips moving to form the words of their own accord. She felt very far away.
“Sire!” Geraint burst through the main door behind them and stopped, staring into the dim room. “Is he on the wall?”
“Yes,” Bedivere said quietly. He was still breathing hard. Hurt.
Geraint barked orders to the guards behind him, then came to stand before Morgana. “We need to move.”
She let herself be drawn from the room, surrounded by guards, some of the same ones who’d seen her fit in the hallway earlier. She was too numb to care what they thought, though she knew she would worry later.
Twenty paces down the hall, the guards stalled. Morgana looked up from contemplating her feet and saw Catrina.
She was in her nightdress, her hair down and swinging, her eyes wild beneath the strands. “The Saxons,” she gasped. “Is it the Saxons?”
Morgana pushed between the guards instinctively. “No, no,” she murmured, voice cracking. “No, not that.”
Catrina began to shake, then calmed herself with a clear effort. “The bells…” she said.
“Just an intruder,” Morgana said, taking off her cloak - Gwen’s cloak - and tucking it around Catrina’s shoulders. “He’s gone.”
Catrina’s head drooped. “I’m sorry. I. The bells woke me.”
“It’s okay.” Morgana was feeling rather overwhelmed herself. “We’re all fine.”
A man appeared around the corner, his body language steeped in worry. “Queen Catrina,” he called, moving to her side. It was the man who had fought Lionel. Gwaine, was it? He took one of Catrina’s hands between both of his.
“Come back to your room,” he begged. “We have the doors and windows latched tight, and I’ll be there all night. You’re safer in there than out here.”
His nightshirt was loose at the throat, and as he moved, Morgana noticed an oddly familiar charm around his neck.
“Excuse me,” she interrupted, suddenly curious. “Do you know a pageboy here named Gareth?”
He looked at her, startled. “Not really, Your Majesty. I met him just last night, when he was defending a meat pie with a wooden spoon. Why do you ask?”
“No reason,” Morgana said quickly, unsure herself. She didn’t know anything about this man. Nothing but his worry for Catrina, his quick laughter with Lionel. She didn’t trust herself to know anyone at all right now. “You have the same - nose. That’s all.”
He looked at her strangely, and she allowed him to draw Catrina away. Gwen’s cloak swept out behind her.
Tired, Morgana allowed the anxious guards to lead her away.
Morgana hated the cold, hard bed in the room Geraint had chosen for her. In two hours of searching, the intruder had yet to be found. A whispered order to one of the guards had brought her the news that Gwen was with Lancelot. Morgana bit her lip and lay down, trying to sleep.
A few minutes later, she gave up. This was ridiculous.
Sitting up, she pulled her boots back on and laced them. As she left the room, her guards surrounded her worriedly, trying to anticipate where she would turn. She would have told them, if she’d known. She stayed indoors, didn’t go up to the battlements to get some air as she would have liked. She did find herself wandering up one of the tower staircases, though, and a moment later she was pushing her way into the physician’s chambers.
Aglain looked up from his book, nodded, and smiled. “Morgana. Welcome.”
She ordered the unhappy guards to stay outside, then firmly shut the door and moved to sit down opposite Aglain at the table.
“I have a problem,” she said, and told him about her dreams in the quietest voice possible. If some words stuck in her throat, well, this was her first time saying them out loud. Perhaps with practice, it would grow easier. If she lived long enough to practice.
He listened gravely, his eyes never straying from her face.
“I’m telling you this because I've known for a while now that you’re not who you represent yourself to be,” Morgana told him. “I should have come to you earlier, but I’m bad at this, sometimes. I want to trust people, but sometimes I feel like I'm still living in Uther's shadow.”
“It’s not wrong to want to believe in people,” Aglain said gently, “but it’s in your best interests to see them clearly for who they are as much as who they could be. I’ll admit, your idealism has given me hope I haven’t had in a long time, though it worries me as well.”
“Am I crazy?” Morgana asked. She felt so drained by tonight, by this past week. She just wanted to know.
He smiled again, taking her hand. “Who knows? But about this, no. You’ve been given a gift.” He pursed his lips. “I could give you a potion, if you wanted. You would sleep through the night without remembering your dreams.”
She thought about it as his warm hand curled around hers. A night’s sleep without waking up screaming. Not feeling like the echo of a ghost the morning after a bad one. No more fear that someone other than Gwen would find out and accuse her. No more fits in the hallway that frightened the guards.
Then she thought about not being able to save Bedivere, to save Gwen, to protect Camelot.
“I can’t,” she said. “I don’t want them, but I have to.”
He smiled gently, squeezed her hand. “That’s what I’d hoped you’d say. It’s always your choice, but these visions, they’re a gift. I know they feel like a curse right now, but-“
“I know,” she interrupted. “I know, just. Is there some other way to make it better?”
He released her hand and turned the book before him around until she could read it. “The Seers of the Isle of Apples,” he said, “wrote a book. Well, they wrote two. I only have this one, but I’ve reread it several times since I came here.”
“Several times? How long have you known about me?” she asked, bemused. The pages before her were full of dark, clear writing and colorful pictures. Nothing like what she’d thought a magic book might be.
“Since you were about ten.”
“What?” She looked up, startled.
“It runs in your family,” he said gently. “On your mother’s side. You may remember: you were on the road to Camelot in a carriage pulled by four matched horses, all black. Your nursemaid screamed, and the carriage stopped. Guards pulled you out. You seemed to be having a fit. You sobbed and pulled your hair and screamed your father’s name.”
“I remember that,” Morgana whispered, gripping the table.
“That was two days before your father’s death.”
“What? No it wasn’t. He was dead before I left Cornwall. That’s why Uther sent for me.”
“Uther didn’t send for you. Gorlois did, before his death. He’d had a premonition. Or rather, his daughter Elaine had one. She came to meet him and insisted he call for you. You arrived in Camelot a few hours too late.”
“I don’t remember that,” Morgana whispered. “I thought they’d all kept it a secret from me so I wouldn’t fight on the way, but somehow I knew anyway.” She bit her lip, eyes burning. She’d been so close. So close to him. “How do you even know all this?”
“The druids have been watching you for a very long time, Morgana.”
She looked up sharply, and he shook his head. “Not like that, no. With human eyes. There are very few people as well-placed as you are for what is to come.”
“And what is that?” She couldn’t raise her voice above a whisper. In her mind she saw this cheery room fading into the starry night outside, into the great sweep of forest and hills and fields stretching out in every direction. “What’s coming?”
“The clash of Old Albion versus the new. Not the final clash, but a decisive one.”
“Will we survive?”
“That depends on a lot of things, not the least of which is you.”
Morgana put her head down on her arms. “I don’t really want anyone to depend on me right now.”
Aglain smiled. “Then you are wiser than most of your peers.”
She dozed briefly on the table, exhaustion catching up with her, but Aglain finally shook her awake.
"You mustn't sleep here," he said. "People are in and out all the time, and that position will hurt your back."
She stretched, aching, and nodded. And then she remembered the other thing she had wanted to tell him.
"I heard a voice," she whispered. "There was a boy, Mordred-"
He held up his hand. "I know," he replied. "He cares very much for you, and he wants to protect you. That's why you hear him sometimes."
She blinked, rubbing her eyes sleepily. "How do you seem to know everything before I even say it?"
He looked sheepish. "I don't know everything, but I do know Mordred. He's my apprentice, and my eyes and ears outside of Camelot. Most of what I know about the events in other kingdoms comes through him."
"He did come at Beltane. I had wondered if I'd dreamt that."
"It was no dream. He usually doesn't come in person, though. He no longer needs to be within a certain distance of someone to speak with them. He simply must have met and touched them once."
Morgana rose, stretching the kinks out of her back. "That's very useful."
"And dangerous," Aglain agreed. "I fear someday someone will try to use him for their own purposes. But for now, he is relatively safe."
"That's good." Morgana nodded sleepily and let Aglain nudge her out the door.
Morgana ended the night by knocking on a door. She couldn’t go back to that tiny, quiet room, with guards sitting in chairs around her bed. It made her feel like a doll, or a piece of jewelry. Something to be guarded, something with no will of its own.
So she found herself here, knuckles rapping on wood, hoping.
The door opened slowly. Lady Enid peeked out, her copper hair floating every which way. “Morgana?” she whispered, opening the door wider. “Have they found the intruder?”
“No.” Morgana didn’t know how to ask for this, if she should ask - no one can refuse you, remember? - but she’d come this far. “I was wondering. The, the room Geraint sent me to. It’s like a tomb.”
Enid relaxed, huffing a half-laugh. “I’m sure it is. Come on in.” She held the door wider to let Morgana slip through, then put her hand out to catch the first guard on the chest. “Not you, Bryn. Keep your lot out here. The only window in this room is barely wide enough for a pigeon and has crossbars as well. This is the only door. Try not to look like you’re guarding the queen, hm?”
Bryn looked briefly conflicted, then sighed and nodded.
“Thank you,” Morgana said, as Enid shut the door and locked it with the key.
“It’s nothing,” Enid said quietly. “Come in. Be it ever so humble, this can’t be worse than that box he calls a safe room.”
The rooms were smaller than Morgana’s, but decently sized for only two people. A table sat in one corner with four chairs ringing it. A wardrobe took up the space behind the door, and over in the farthest corner, as far from a clear shot through the window as was possible, there was a bed big enough for two, even if one of them was a broad-shouldered knight. There were no servant’s quarters leading off. Morgana blushed and fumbled, having presumed too much.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’d thought you might have a little servant’s bed for me.”
Enid snorted. “No, I let my girl go home at night. She has a family. If you don’t mind sharing, the bed’s not too lumpy.”
“I don’t mind,” Morgana assured her quickly. At this point, she was tired enough for a pallet on the floor.
“Well then, come on, let’s get those boots off.”
As Morgana settled down under a thin blanket - all she needed to keep on the slight chill that would come later that night - she wondered if she would dream.
She didn’t dream, though she thought she was dreaming when she opened bleary eyes to see a man looking down at her in the faint pre-dawn light. A muzzy moment later, her brain recognized him as Geraint with his hair down.
“I’ll move,” she muttered, drawing her feet up to slip out of bed.
“No, don’t,” he told her. “Stay, don’t get up.”
She wanted to protest, but her body was already dragging her back under. Through slow blinks, she saw him move across the room and pull his chainmail over his head, untangling it from his hair with the ease of long practice. He left the mail in a heap on the table and slumped down into a chair. His snores were already starting to fill the room when she slipped down into sleep.
She woke later to an empty bed. Rolling over, she saw Enid moving silently about the room. She was wrapping Geraint’s mail with a tunic, carefully muffling the sound, and then unlocking the door long enough to pass the bundle out to one of the guards. Geraint was still sitting in the same chair, head tipped back and asleep. His boots were off, though, and a thin blanket was tucked around him.
Enid caught Morgana’s eye as she turned from the door. She pressed one finger to her lips, and Morgana nodded, sitting up slowly, then slipping out of bed in silence.
It was so early the servant hadn't appeared yet. They rubbed each other down with wet rags and helped each other dress without speaking. Sometime in the early hours, Enid had sent for one of Morgana’s dresses. She laced Morgana in with deft fingers, and Morgana returned the favor a little more clumsily, but when they emerged into the hallway, they were both decent.
Morgana’s study, once Uther’s, looked painfully normal in the morning light. Parchment cluttered the desk and empty cups lay stacked in a row on the sideboard.
“Are you hungry?” Enid asked. Morgana thought about it and decided that Enid wouldn’t eat unless she did, so she nodded.
Over bread and fruit, Morgana said, “I’m sorry I put your husband out of his bed last night.”
Enid looked at her strangely, then glanced away. “Oh, it’s fine. He never sleeps there anyway.”
Morgana raised an eyebrow.
“Oh, it’s not that he doesn’t come home. Well, at least sometimes. But he would have slept in that chair whether you were there or not. He spends his days with the men, eats with them, talks with them. You know how it is.”
Morgana shook her head, then paused, thinking of Gwen’s absence like an ache in her chest.
Enid gave a bitter laugh. “The worst part is, I tried. I tried confronting him about it, being forceful. He just looked like a wide-eyed boy and ran away. I tried being gentle, accommodating. He looked disappointed, sighed, and left. I’ve tried everything I could think of, and I’m so tired. He’s my second husband, you know.”
Morgana nodded. She’d been here when they brought Eric’s body back three years ago. Geraint had cried as much as Enid over the body of his best friend.
“I’ve never been pregnant,” Enid said. “It’s probably that, isn’t it? If I had a child, he at least might be interested again. The physician said I might be infertile, but it’s hard to tell when he won’t even touch me anymore.” She scrubbed a hand over her face. “I’m a mess. Sorry, I shouldn’t take this out on you, when someone tried to kill you again last night.”
Morgana groaned. “Does everyone know about the first time?”
“First time?” Enid blinked. “You mean earlier this spring? Or the actual first time?”
“It’s happened before?” Morgana sat up, shocked.
Enid stared at her. “Did you imagine all these guards were for show?”
Morgana felt suddenly small. “I don’t think I thought about it very much at all. I grew up with them.”
Enid looked at her with pity, then took a deep breath and clapped her hands, forcing herself to a more cheerful tone. “Well, let’s justify surviving another day, then. What do you need to accomplish today?”
“Besides not dying?” Morgana cleared her mind deliberately, letting her fear wash over and through. She couldn't focus on the danger without turning herself into a useless wreck. That was Geraint's job anyway. Whatever else happened, she needed to keep Camelot from dissolving at the first signs of weakness.
Thinking of strength, one image stuck, briefly: Bedivere beside her, glass in his hair, breathing hard. She smiled. “I think I should like to knight someone.”
“Excellent plan.” Enid clapped her hands together. “That’s always a great morale boost. Do you have anyone in mind? We can do another Trial with only a day or two’s notice.”
“Oh, I don’t think we’ll need a Trial for this one,” Morgana smiled.
A shifting field of red swirled about the Great Hall, knights in full regalia turning out to honor one of their own. Morgana wasn't surprised to see how popular her decision was. She only wished she'd had the courage to do this sooner.
The Hall swam with people, voices murmuring in anticipation. Morgana shifted on her throne, trying to feel if her crown was on straight without actually reaching up to touch it. Gwen had reappeared again, slightly rumpled but presentable, and was standing stiff by her side with a heavy, cloth-wrapped bundle leaning against her legs. They had had no chance to talk since the night Gwen overheard Morgana all but accuse her of being unfaithful; every moment together felt stiff now, awkward. There was really only one thing Morgana could think of to make things better, and she would do it today. She would show Gwen that all she wanted was Gwen's happiness, even if that happiness was with someone else. Gwen didn't know what the bundle at her feet was for. Morgana hoped she approved.
At the far end of the hall, more knights streamed through, followed by squires and hangers-on. There. Morgana spotted an orange cape and smiled. They were ready.
"Bedivere of Camelot, step forward," she called. There was some shuffling, and then he was standing before her, his eyes wide. Leon and Kay were right behind him. Leon was trying for a proper blank expression, but Kay didn't even try to hide his smugness.
"You gave Uther your oath once," Morgana said quietly to Bedivere. "Will you give it now to me?"
"My Queen," he rasped. "I'm not fit."
She raised an eyebrow. "Really? Because that's not what I saw."
He shifted, and Morgana knew the entire room was focused on the empty, dangling sleeve on his right side. Well, that wouldn't do.
"Will you kneel?" she asked.
He paused, then got down on his knees in a smooth motion, raising his hand.
Are you sure? he mouthed. She nodded firmly.
Clearing his throat, he began. "I swear on my honor that I will be faithful to you, never cause you harm, and will preserve my oath to you completely against all others in good faith and without deceit." He coughed a bit at the end, his eyes watering slightly.
Morgana pretended not to notice. "I do accept your oath." She took his hand in hers and let him kiss the seal of Camelot on her finger. "Arise, Sir Bedivere!"
The hall erupted in whoops and hollers. Bedivere looked around stunned, clearly not expecting this reaction. Kay slammed into him from the side and lifted him into a bear hug. After that, the others mobbed him, though most were polite enough to shake his hand instead.
Morgana let it go on for a few minutes, then she raised her hands and clapped for order. The men quieted, looking up at her expectantly.
"There is one more wrong I wish to redress," she told them. "Lancelot, please come forward."
He was dressed in his mail and orange cloak, the one Gwen had found for him all those years ago. He looked like a man startled from a happy dream. His eyes met hers warily.
She crooked a finger at him. He stepped forward obediently.
"You saved Prince Arthur's life," she said in a low, clear voice, meant to carry. "You preserved the people of Camelot against the ravages of a gryphon and a salamander, both magical beasts that are normally impervious to the weapons of men. You have shown great courage and more concern for the safety of others than yourself. Yet you were banished from this kingdom."
Her voice rose. The room was utterly still, echoing. "Today I formally rescind that banishment and strike it from the records of Camelot. In addition," she gestured for Gwen to come forward, "I present to you this blank, white shield with no arms on it to be your standard in battle, should you choose to fight on Camelot's side." Wide-eyed, Gwen stripped the cloth off her bundle and lifted the shield, her arms straining under its weight. Morgana nodded for Lancelot to take it. He did so gently, his eyes on Gwen's face, and hers on him.
"If you complete one more impossible task in the service of this kingdom," Morgana continued, "you shall receive arms from Us and be knighted according to the ancient Code of Albion, which allows for the knighting of those who show exceptional courage and loyalty on the battlefield. Uther did not follow that Code, but I will."
She looked down at him. "Do you accept?" she asked.
There was a long moment of silence as his eyes searched first hers, then Gwen's. Then he bowed his head. "I do."
"Then rise, Master Lancelot," she said, "for you are a man-at-arms of Camelot."
Morien's whoop was loud in the silent room. There was a long moment Morgana thought they would just have to push through. Then Palamedes abruptly stepped forward and shook Lancelot's hand.
"Congratulations," Palamedes murmured, casting a quick look at Morgana. She thought it might even be approval.
The cheering finally began, more subdued than for Bedivere, but better than Morgana had feared. Beside her, Gwen's whole body was thrumming with joy. That would have been enough reason to do this all on its own.
A few days later, Gwen exchanged Lancelot's orange cloak for a white one. Morgana privately thought it was the most impractical color in the world, but he cut a very dashing figure in it, so she made no complaints.
The very next day, Morien was strutting about in a newly dyed cloak himself, all black to match Lancelot's solid white. Morgana had to hid her smile behind her hand.
She hardly had any time to be out on the field watching such antics, though. It often took hours every morning just to answer her correspondence.
“And finally, a letter from King Urien, delivered this morning by single messenger.” Enid handed the wrapped scroll to Morgana with a flourish. “Just this, and we’re finished in time for lunch.”
Morgana smiled. In the past week, Enid had been more invaluable than ever before. Doing Arthur’s job and her own had stretched Morgana thin last winter; adding Uther’s had nearly cracked her.
“I wonder what he wants,” Morgana mused as she cut open the letter.
“To meet you and renew treaties, I’m sure,” Enid said, clearing away the breakfast dishes onto a tray and leaving it outside the door for a servant to take. Servants didn’t come in the study, except for Gwen, and Morgana was terrible at tidying.
While Enid bustled, Morgana let her eyes roam over the page. Salutations and condolences, of course, followed by assurances that Rheged would continue to stand by Camelot and honor the alliance between them. Of course they will, Morgana thought. Renaud is on their doorstep, after all. Mercia was very well placed to keep the northern kings in line.
There was no mention, of course, of Owain’s death two years ago. Doubtless, Uther and Urien had worked that out between them when it happened.
There was a bit in the bottom third of the page that caught her eye. As a gesture of friendship… Morgana groaned out loud.
“What is it?” Enid asked.
“He got to the gesture of friendship part,” Morgana replied, making a sour face.
“Right at the beginning, or near the end?”
“The end. Oh, I’m almost afraid to look.”
Enid snorted and took the letter from her. “That could be bad, yes. Let’s see.” She scanned the letter, eyes ticking off the same elements Morgana’s had. She paused at the same place as Morgana, but instead of stopping, she read carefully.
“Oh,” said Enid. “It’s not so bad. Your luck, he’s just sending his daughter for a visit.”
“My cousin Morvydd? When?”
“At the end of the week.”
Morgana groaned. "She's Owain's twin and has the sharpest tongue I've ever heard. I’ll be groveling the whole time.”
“Morgana, you didn’t kill that boy.”
Morgana took a breath. “No. No, I didn’t.” She remembered Lancelot’s words. You’re not responsible for anyone’s actions but your own. “But I didn’t save him either.”
“I don’t know how you think you could have.”
Morgana said nothing about the favor she’d given him, the red cloth she’d whispered over for hours, hoping that she really did have some power. After the fight, her charm had fluttered alone on the dusty ground of the arena, useless.
“Just wishful thinking,” she said quietly. “If that’s all, I’m famished.”
“I’ll call your escort.” Enid turned to the door.
“Is that really necessary? It’s been over a week. The assassin can’t possibly still be in Camelot.”
Enid pursed her lips. She clearly agreed with Morgana but was loathe to anger her husband. Morgana felt a twinge of guilt. “Never mind, call them.”
After a pause, Enid did.
Bryn walked in front of her and two others came behind, looking very intimidating in their face-covering helmets. What a picture I must make, she thought. Almost queenly, perhaps. It felt ridiculous.
They were nearing her chambers when suddenly a curious scraping noise came from the left, around the corner. The men sprang in that direction, and as they did, Morgana felt a hand close on her right arm.
Whirling, she found herself face to face with a blond woman with an upturned nose, wearing peasant clothing. Morgana might have seen that face before, but she couldn’t remember.
“What do you want?” she hissed, suspicious at once.
“I’m sorry.” The woman released her arm. “Your sister sends you this.” She pressed a hand mirror into Morgana’s grip, then opened her mouth as if to say something more. At that moment, one of the guards around the corner spoke, and the woman's eyes widened. She turned and darted away down the hallway.
“My Lady, who was that?” asked Bryn, coming back just soon enough to catch sight of the woman’s retreating back.
“No one,” Morgana replied. “A servant who found my missing mirror, that’s all. Did you find who made the noise?”
“No, My Lady.” He looked grim. “We thought it might be a distraction.”
“Probably just an echo,” she lied.
The mirror in her hand was cold and solid, singing out temptation in her mind. Because it was familiar, oh yes. It had been her mother’s.
She couldn’t inspect the mirror immediately because life in Camelot never stopped. Only minutes into lunch, she heard sounds outside and peered out to find horses gathering in the courtyard.
Already? She turned away from the window and automatically went to check her appearance in the dresser mirror - which wasn’t there. A cloth covered the empty space. Sighing, she lifted her mother’s mirror from the table and checked that she didn’t have crumbs on her face. Satisfied, she set it back down, but not before drawing a thumb down the symbol of her mother’s house on the back.
A long line of queens, she reminded herself. No need to feel like a child playing at being an adult. Some rulers came to the throne when they were far younger than she. She just had to know who to trust.
“Send no messengers unless you must,” she told Kay, holding his horse’s reins while he checked the girth. “And stay quiet. Don’t underestimate the Saxons. If Bors can’t keep up yet, send him home. Are you listening to me?”
“Not a jot,” he replied. “You’re nattering like a fishwife. Doesn’t become you.”
“You’re such a pig,” she told him, rolling her eyes.
“Yes, I’m a big, bristly bore. I’ve heard it all before.” He held up a hand. “Yes, everything you were saying just now as well. It's not my first time spying on the enemy.”
“You came back with a scar on your face last time,” she pointed out.
He touched his chin briefly in reflex, thumb stroking the white line, then grinned. “Yes, and everyone’s been admiring it ever since. Don’t worry, Morgana. I won’t get myself or any of my men killed.”
“They’re my men, and you’d better not.”
He laughed, leaned over, and kissed her on the cheek. She blinked up at him, her mouth open in shock. Had he really just done that in front of everyone? He blushed furiously, turning to play with his saddlebags.
“Right then,” he said in a rush, snatching the reins from her and urging his horse out into the yard. “See you at midsummer, Your Majesty.”
“Kay, you big, stupid lump,” she muttered under her breath as the column mounted and trotted away, Caradoc and Bors bringing up the rear.
She turned to go up the steps and found Lionel standing there, watching his brother disappear into the lower town.
“Don’t worry,” she told him. “I’m sure they’ll be fine.”
“As long as the Saxons don’t know they’re coming,” Lionel muttered.
A half hour later, Palamedes was giving his report in the armory when they heard a scuffle outside the door and shouts.
“What on earth?” Morgana made to leave, but Palamedes stepped smoothly into her path.
“Your Majesty, wait please.” Turning to the door, he called out softly, “Bryn?”
“Here sir,” Bryn called back quietly. “They caught a townie who doesn’t belong sneaking around back. She’s on the list, sir.”
“Are they taking her to the dungeons?” Palamedes’s voice was calm.
“Yes, sir. Should be clear in a minute.”
“Thank you, Bryn.” Palamedes turned back to face her. “If you could wait please, Your Majesty.”
“What list?” Morgana asked.
Palamedes’s face tightened. “The list King Uther had prepared, naming known druid sympathizers who did not have magic themselves. We let them remain here, where we could watch them. Had we killed them, they would have smuggled in more.”
Morgana stared over his shoulder at the darkened doorway. “What will they do to her?”
“They?” Palamedes looked surprised. “No one will do anything you don’t tell them to. Well, except throw her in the dungeon, because she was probably spying.”
Morgana blinked at him. “What do they expect me to do?”
He shifted uncomfortably. “Execute her, probably. That’s what King Uther would have done.”
Kill her. Morgana closed her eyes. “Because her name is on some list?”
“Because she’s a known druid sympathizer.”
Mordred’s face swam into focus behind her eyelids, sweating and delirious. She opened her eyes to erase it. “I want to interview her.”
“With a guard, certainly.” His tone brooked no argument, but she wasn’t in a mood to give in.
“No. Alone.” She paused. “No, wait. Where is Merlin’s mother?”
They compromised. After shackling the prisoner to the wall, the regular guards waited at the top of the stairs, while Leon and Bedivere stood at the bottom, within earshot of any shouts but far enough away not to hear normal conversation. Morgana stood before the bars with Hunith beside her. Technically, she had Uther's keys on her belt, but she knew the sound of the cell opening would bring both knights in a heartbeat.
Morgana took her time looking over the woman. As she had suspected, this was the same woman who had met her in the hallway earlier that day. Blond hair like straw, a tiny, upturned nose with a small scar on it, pale face and steady eyes. She was thin but strong, Morgana could see that in the way she held herself up against the pull of the shackles, which were built for a man’s height and width, not a woman’s.
“What’s your name?” Morgana asked quietly. The prisoner turned her face away and closed her eyes. Morgana sighed and gestured to Hunith.
“Young lady,” Hunith said, “I am Hunith, mother to Merlin of Ealdor.” The woman’s face flickered - recognition. “No one here turned on you. Mor - Queen Morgana needs to make a decision, and to do that, she needs to know what’s going on.”
“I didn’t tell them,” Morgana butted in. “I just want to know why Elaine sent you instead of a regular courier, who wouldn’t have been suspected at all. And why the mirror?”
“Wrong sister,” the woman whispered. Her lips were dry and cracked.
“I only have one sister,” Morgana countered.
The woman shook her head and smiled, eyes still closed. “No. There are many secrets in Camelot. I don’t know all of them. But I do know you have been lied to, and badly.”
“Then tell me the truth as you know it,” Morgana begged urgently, pressing up against the bars. “Tell me, and I’ll make sure you are set free.”
“The promise of a Pendragon,” the woman snorted. “But it doesn’t matter. I know I’ll burn, but at least some good might come of it.” She took a breath. “This story was brought to us by an old man who once worked as a physician here.”
“Gaius,” Hunith whispered, eyes going round. “Is he still alive?”
“I don’t know,” the woman replied. “I do know he said that there was a babe, a little girl, that he smuggled away many years ago. Her mother was Vivianne, and her father was a man I won’t name.”
“Gorlois,” Morgana supplied.
“No, not Gorlois.”
Morgana stared at her, her belly twisting. “But-“
“Listen,” the woman commanded, voice sharp. “The physician told everyone that the babe was dead. He did this on the mother’s request. She was engaged to marry a man she had never met and had put off the marriage to bear her first child in secret. Even minutes after birth, the child looked just like her true father and would have started a war between dear friends. That night, the physician smuggled the babe out of the keep and ran with her all the way to the Isle of Apples, a journey of several days. Along the way, the man survived on berries, and does stepped gently from the forest to suckle the babe.”
“I find that hard to believe,” Hunith said under her breath.
“Powerful magic,” the woman replied, shrugging. “Either way, they arrived alive at the seat of the Priestesses, and there the man gave the child to them as one of their own. That’s all I know.”
“And the mirror?” Morgana asked, voice cracking.
“When King Mark took over Cornwall, he did not make his Seat at Tintagel. Too much associated with the House of Gorlois, probably. The castle has been left empty, with enough fear and superstition surrounding it that most people won’t go anywhere near.”
“Someone went in and took my mother’s mirror, though.”
“Someone with the birthright, yes.”
Morgana took a shuddery breath. “What’s her name, this sister I didn’t know I had?”
The prisoner opened her eyes. “Morgause.”
“What are you planning to do with her?” Hunith asked quietly, once they were upstairs again.
“I don’t know.” Morgana paced her room, stopping occasionally to kick the wall in frustration. All that did was hurt her toes, but pain was a good distraction.
“You could let her go,” Hunith suggested. She sounded like she was trying to talk down a wild beast, or a maddened horse.
“I could,” Morgana agreed, “but the problem won’t stop here. If not her, there will be another tomorrow, and another next week. Uther’s blood debt all over my hands.”
Hunith stayed silent, looking at the floor.
Morgana sighed and ran a hand through her hair. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have made you come down there. But I trust you, and I thought she might. Merlin’s name has a lot of pull now, since the incident.”
“You mean since he tried to do the right thing and was almost burned at the stake for it?” Hunith’s voice was sharper than Morgana had ever heard it.
“Yes,” Morgana agreed. “Since he risked his life for people he barely knew. Everyone knew Tom and the innkeeper’s family had no magic. Their sentences were petty and tyrannical, and their escape was the first true sign that Uther’s iron grip was weakening. It was Merlin who started that.”
Hunith looked her right in the eye. “So you wanted me there to get her to talk. I understand. But are you going to keep your promise?”
“I’ll try.” Morgana blew out a breath. “I’ll find a way. But I have to think of the future, too. Do I use this as an example, or do I do it in silence? Do I dare unravel Uther’s laws so soon?”
“Begin as you mean to go on,” Hunith said. “That’s what I always used to tell Merlin.”
“Is it really that simple?” Morgana asked.
“I’m not sure why you think that’s simple,” Hunith replied. “It’s one of the hardest things to do, and yet I think it’s worth it. You stand up for the people around you, or you stand for nothing. If you value what Merlin did, you’ll deal with this now, and you’ll make it stick.”
“Easy,” Morgana muttered, rubbing her face. “I’ll just wave my magic wand, why don’t I?”
Hunith snorted, then stood and put her arms around Morgana shoulders, letting Morgana sink into her embrace.
“I miss touching people,” Morgana admitted into Hunith’s shoulder.
“I know,” Hunith said, stroking her hair. “I know.”
Morgana hardly slept that night, and in the morning her eyelids barely wanted to open. Gwen was there, shaking her lightly.
“Gwen,” she whispered, catching one calloused hand and pressing it to her lips. “Where have you been?”
Gwen didn’t answer. Instead, she just brushed the hair back from Morgana’s forehead and kissed her softly on the brow. This is a dream, Morgana thought. She rose shakily. Gwen helped her dress, and it seemed altogether too mundane to be any kind of dream at all, except that Gwen was back, quietly slotting into her life like she hadn’t disappeared so many, many times these past few weeks.
Morgana chose her new purple dress, the one with the long, drooping sleeves. She had Gwen fit her crown carefully on her head, and then they marched out to the balcony.
A crowd had gathered in the square, surrounding the carefully constructed pyre. Morgana had always morbidly wondered why Uther chose the chopping block for young men and the pyre for women and old men. Surely it was kinder to chop someone’s head off than to burn them? Then again, it was a woman who Uther blamed for Ygraine’s death, Morgana now knew. So perhaps he hadn’t been inclined towards kindness.
Guards ringed the pyre, keeping the crowd well back. There was also a path kept open between the dungeon doors and the pyre; those doors were currently the focus of everyone’s attention. Morgana knew she had to draw their attention upwards, and quickly, if this plan was to work.
“People of Camelot,” she cried, letting the echo from the walls amplify her voice. She raised her arm, Uther-like, and a hush spread slowly across the crowd.
“You are here today to watch someone die for the crime of petitioning her sovereign, a right which all of you have. You are here to watch someone die for the crime of having the wrong friends. You are here to watch someone die for the crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"But not today. Today, there will be no burning. Nor will there be one tomorrow, or any other day, for the crime of magic or sympathies to those with magic.”
The crowd shifted, whispering uneasily. She raised her voice, putting something more than just her body into the sound. She felt Gwen stiffen then relax beside her. My eyes, she thought, do they give me away? Hopefully no one below could see.
“People of Camelot! Outside enemies press us. Other kingdoms have fallen to the Saxons, and refugees spill across our borders daily, looking for peace and security." She rode over the waves of their whispers. "If we are to survive this time, we must be united, not looking with fear at our neighbors or accusing one another of imagined crimes. The people of Camelot are one people, a strong people. We will meet the Saxons with our full strength. We will not make excuses, and we will not fail. This land is our home. We need every person here to fight for it.”
And then, while the crowd was still reeling, she turned and walked inside.
Somewhere in the Forest of Balor, Forridel was being helped down off a horse by Lancelot, while Morien carefully unloaded her baggage to the ground.
"Will you be safe here?" Lancelot asked, looking about dubiously.
Forridel smiled. "My friends are close by. They have learned the art of not being seen."
He nodded. "Go in peace, then."
"And you," she replied.
Lancelot swung up on his horse and rode away with Morien at his heels.
“That was a very pretty speech,” said a voice. Morgana jerked her head up. She was exhausted and trying to decide if she wanted breakfast first or a kip. Beside her, Gwen stiffened as well.
Standing in the hallway was a familiar woman, though Morgana hadn't seen her in several years. Morvydd. She was wearing a fine traveling dress, but it was quite dirty, and her eyes were overbright.
“Morgana,” she said, and for a moment Morgana thought they might hug, but Morvydd stuck out her hand instead. Morgana took it automatically, and Morvydd curtsied and dropped a kiss on the back of Morgana’s hand like it was the most natural motion in the world. “Just rode in. We saw a bit of a crowd in the courtyard and held back, and I decided to get a closer look. You do speeches very well, and the space is good for them. You got a nice, ringing sound on those last bits.”
“Thanks,” Morgana said, voice strangled. This was Owain’s sister. Dear gods, what was she supposed to say? “Welcome to Camelot. I’m sure you’ll want a bath after your travels.”
She didn’t say, you’re about a week early, aren’t you?.
Morvydd laughed. “Oh, obviously. I think I have dirt from three different kingdoms on these clothes. But it was worth it not to have to sit in the carriage and stifle the whole way.”
“But where are your people?” Morgana asked, looking around. Morvydd was quite alone in the hallway.
“Still out by the gate.” Morvydd waved a hand casually. “I told them to wait until the crowd dispersed.”
“They should be gone soon, if the Guard is doing its job,” Morgana assured her. “Otherwise, we’d have a riot on our hands.”
“The common people do like their regular doses of blood, don’t they?” Morvydd’s voice was casual, almost flippant, but her eyes were careful. "Then again, so do the nobles."
There was nothing Morgana could say to that, because it was painfully true and a bit close to home. Owain's death had been a spectacle, after all.
“Well, why don’t I have someone prepare you a bath and get the Steward to air your rooms?" Morgana asked. "I think we expected you a bit later in the week.”
“Why thank you, that sounds lovely.” Morvydd's smile tried to be warm, but it came out brittle around the edges.
They moved to Morgana’s study. Morgana sent Gwen to find the Steward, reluctant to part with her company, but quite certain that Morvydd was waiting for a moment alone with her to say something important.
She was right. The moment the door closed Morvydd went and shut the windows, latching them.
“I’m early because we pressed hard the whole way,” she said quietly. Morgana nodded for her to continue. “Renaud wants to open treaty negotiations with my father. For Rheged’s sake, my father might take him up on the offer. I think it’s a short-sighted mistake, because whatever prize Renaud has his eye on at the moment won’t satisfy him forever. We will always be one of his targets. He’ll just have the convenience of keeping us out of whatever war he’s planning, and so protecting his northwestern flank while his armies are elsewhere.”
“And by elsewhere, you mean in the south,” Morgana replied.
“Probably.” Frustration flitted over Morvydd’s face. “My father never forgave Uther for my brother’s death, you know. I haven’t either, but I can see our interests still lie with our current allies. There’s no point in destroying the whole kingdom because Owain is dead, much as I understand the bitterness he feels.”
“I’m sorry,” Morgana whispered.
“I am too. But sorry gets us nowhere. Though if you ever let anyone I care about die like that, I’ll gut you myself with my bare hands.”
“You know I opposed it,” Morgana said. “I don't believe in challenges to the death. There are more than enough ways to die already.”
Morvydd smiled ironically. “Some of the men would no doubt say it’s because we’re weak women, and that we don’t understand honor.”
“It’s because we’re strong women,” Morgana countered, “and we know that every knight is also a father or brother or son. We consider the people left behind.”
“I’m not that selfless,” Morvydd replied. “I just want my brother back.”
It turned out Gwen liked Morvydd, which was the final seal of approval Morgana needed to share her fears about Cenred. They talked over a hastily prepared luncheon while the kitchens below panicked, trying to throw together a feast days early. Morvydd waved a hand and suggested they give her people a few days to recover before drowning them in food and alcohol, and Gwen went to inform the grateful kitchen staff that they could slow down.
While Gwen was gone, Morgana borrowed Iseult’s handmaiden Brangaine to help her change back into less formal clothes, then dismissed the girl and locked the door to her rooms.
The mirror was still sitting on her dresser where she’d left it the day before. She lifted it in both hands, stroking over the familiar angles. What did it mean? Did she really have a sister she’d never met?
There was a smudge on the glass. Morgana breathed on it and went to rub it with her sleeve, when suddenly she saw words where the condensation of her breath clouded the mirror. Excited, she began to breathe on the rest of it, revealing an entire message marked on the glass.
Say my name three times, and I will hear you.
Morgana’s hands shook. Elaine had said something like that, hadn’t she? Was it possible?
“Morgause,” she whispered. “Morgause,” a long pause, a deep breath, “Morgause.”
The writing faded. Morgana felt a moment of panic, and then a soft voice seemed to wrap around her. Morgana.
A moment later, the glass cleared, and a woman was peering out at her. The woman’s face was framed by blond curls and her eyes were a muddy hazel, but she had Morgana’s nose and chin and the same fierce look Morgana knew she got when she felt passionately about something.
“Sister,” said the woman, her voice echoing up from the mirror. Her eyes strayed over Morgana’s face, as if she was taking in every detail. “Are you well?”
“Yes,” Morgana whispered. She had a thousand questions. Who are you? Where are you? Why didn’t you contact me before? “And you?”
Morgause chuckled, voice strained. “I never thought I would have a chance to meet you. These pleasantries feel strange.”
Morgana nodded, agreeing. What did one say to the sister one just met? “Have you spoken to Elaine?”
Morgause’s face went tight. “Once, yes. She had expectations, demands. Very much the oldest sister.”
That hadn’t been Morgana’s experience, but perhaps it was because she’d always been the youngest.
“But you,” Morgause’s eyes roamed over her face again, “I wanted to meet you for so long. I hear you have become Queen of Camelot.”
Morgana nodded. “Yes, only recently.”
“How does it feel?”
“Terrifying,” Morgana admitted. “People are trying to kill me and each other, and there are so many problems I’m probably causing a disaster just by taking a few minutes to myself after lunch.” She paused, dropped her voice. “But I wouldn’t give it up.”
Morgause smiled, pride in her face. “No, I doubt you would. Oh, you’re everything I’d hoped for, sister.”
Morgana felt a swell of joy. No one had ever told her that. They said she gave them hope, or that she might be a good ruler someday, but no one had yet said she was good now. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me, it’s true,” said Morgause. “I would like to meet you sometime, but I don’t know when that will be possible. If you keep this mirror near at hand, we can at least talk regularly.”
“I will,” Morgana said. “I’ll call your name whenever I can.”
“I’ll be here.” Morgause tilted her head, as if hearing something in the distance. “I must go. Take care of yourself.”
“You too,” Morgana whispered. The mirror went dark, then became a regular mirror again, reflecting Morgana’s own stunned, happy face.
Three days later, a man from Catrina’s party disappeared in the night. Morgana made her way down to Catrina’s suite and cornered Gwaine there.
“Who was he?” she asked. “Servants say he was seen pacing out the halls and looking up at the windows. I’ve got townfolk saying he asked a lot of innocent-seeming questions and liked to walk the outer road by the wall, and that he hung out with the gate guards in the evening after sunset. My council is up in arms. Who did you bring here?”
“I’m sorry.” Gwaine spread his hands in apology, looking wrecked. She wondered how much sleep he’d had since sounding the alarm the night before. “He was in the group before I joined. He said his name was Alvarr, but that was all. He wasn’t a farmer, but I never thought he was a spy.”
“So you admit that’s what he was.”
Gwaine shrugged. “It seems pretty obvious now. He had no real friends in the group, kept to himself. Stayed quiet. I never saw him pick up a knife to defend us, and even the baker did that.” He ran his hands through his hair, agitated. “If I’d known, I never would have brought him here. You gave us hospitality and a place to live, and I cocked it up. I’m sorry.”
Morgana deflated, sighing. “Not your fault alone. I’ve been too trusting again.” She turned and went to the door. “Come on, we have a council meeting to attend.”
“We?” His eyes widened.
“Yes, ‘we’. You’re going to tell us everything you know about this man, and so will everyone in your party, and we will try to piece together where he ran, or to who. And if you think anyone else in your group isn't trustworthy, you'll tell me that too.”
“Right,” said Gwaine, rubbing his forehead. “I’ll just round up the others, then.”
“We don’t even know who he was working for!” bellowed Lionel, his face going red. “How can we plan for an attack if we don’t know who was spying on us in the first place?”
“We can prepare the army for a quick departure,” said Leon calmly. “We can’t commit to a direction yet, but the city is mostly central to the territory. We can be at any border within a couple of days, if we ride hard.”
“We don’t have enough horses to carry everyone,” countered Palamedes. “The foot soldiers will need at least five days to move if we want to reach the southern borders with the strength left to fight.”
“Might come from the east, though,” Ector cautioned. “Or Renaud again, from the north.”
The room had been cleared of Catrina’s people, who had made it abundantly clear that they had each thought the man called Alvarr was someone else’s friend. Morgana hoped Kay was as good as this man was.
Oh merciful gods. Kay. What if this Alvarr had seen Kay leave?
“We won’t have news from our people until midsummer,” she admitted. “Nothing we can bank on.” And only if they make it safely home.
A commotion broke out in the courtyard outside, a horse riding pell-mell through the yard and a man shouting.
“Here it comes,” Gwen whispered.
The messenger burst through the doors without knocking, Dinadan on his heels.
“Your Majesty,” the man panted, “I come from the south border post on the Fosse Way.”
“What news,” she asked, dread in her gut.
“Cameliard was attacked and taken,” he whispered. “It was Eastern Saxons, under Hengist and Ochta. They came three nights ago and took a secret entrance. The keep was surrendered within a few hours. No one knows how they found their way inside. We heard this from refugees fleeing across the border, including mercenaries in Cameliard’s pay. None of their knights have reached us. We fear they all died at the keep.”
“Leodegrance?” she asked through numb lips.
“No word, Your Majesty. Nor of his wife and son.”
“Get me ink and paper, Gwen,” Morgana whispered, but Gwen was already there with everything in her hands. “Feed this man and care for his horse,” Morgana told the steward, then turned to her advisors. “Who is left we can rely on?”
The list was short and pitifully thin of true allies. With a heavy heart, Morgana began writing letters.
Nimueh, the Lady of the Lake, was known for her willingness to take in children. Three great heroes were raised by her: Morgause the Red Lady, the Knight of the Blank Shield, and one of the lost sons of Lot. And all these three eventually betrayed her to her madness except the son of Lot, who would not abandon her.
Chapter 9: The Gathering
The air was thick with moisture on the afternoon when King Caradoc and Lord Godwyn arrived together, the armies of Caerleon and Gwent marching one before the other. They took over the north and west sections of the fields outside Camelot’s gates, upriver of the city. Their men were mostly foot soldiers, bowmen and spearmen, with a few knights riding in small units, mud kicking up from the heels of their horses.
It began to drizzle as they set up camp, so Morgana sent out oil-soaked torches to help the men light their campfires.
“It’s going to be a miserable night,” Gwen said quietly, looking out the window.
“For everyone,” Morgana agreed. Servants all over the castle were bustling about, turning out all the rooms in preparation for more arrivals in the coming days. Some of her knights had offered their own rooms to the visitors and were sleeping in the barracks with the guards.
“Gwaine came down this morning and asked to stay at ours.” Gwen rolled her eyes. “Lancelot’s with us as well. Elyan has a knack for bringing home strays.”
“Do you even have that many beds?” Morgana only remembered two.
“Nope. They’ll have to draw straws, and someone will be making himself comfortable on the floor.”
Morgana licked her lips and looked up shyly. “Then are you possibly looking for somewhere else to spend the night?” She hated that she sounded so hesitant, but Gwen’s eyes softened instantly.
“Of course I’ll stay. You don’t even need to ask.”
Morgana wished that were true.
Lord Godwyn was a grandfatherly man, very kind and agreeable. When he took Morgana aside the next day, looking concerned, she thought he might ask if she was eating properly or sleeping through the night. Instead, he surprised her.
“Have your advisors mentioned….” He coughed, eyes shifting. “Have they talked about Caradoc’s… situation?”
Morgana cocked her head, amused at the man’s nervousness. “No, I don’t think so.”
Godwyn looked briefly mortified, then whispered, “Keep him away from strong drink. And livestock.”
That was the rather disturbing image Morgana carried with her for the rest of the day.
Two days later, a small force of knights and their servants, all on horseback, arrived from the islands to the north. In the midst of them they guarded a single carriage, dust-covered and looking in need of a good wheelwright.
Morgana had never met Prince Aglovale in person. He was tall and brown, with a tuft of hair on his chin that might either be the beginnings of a beard or the remnants of one. (She was later to learn that he always shaved his face that way.) He dismounted gracefully and hurried up the steps to her side.
“My father is not well,” he said in a hushed tone. “Can we forego the introductions for the moment and move him to his rooms as quickly as possible?”
“Of course.” Morgana signaled, and Gwen moved forward to curtsey. “My personal maidservant, Guinevere. She will show you your rooms. They are on the ground floor, as you requested, and you can access them through a side door instead of coming up the steps.”
“Thank you,” he said, already turning away with troubled eyes.
Two men emerged from the carriage, both with solidly gray hair. One was broad-shouldered and strong, sure-footed. The other was tall and lean, stooped over slightly, and he leaned on his companion for support. Aglovale hurried toward them, but it was already too late.
“Pellinore?” The thin man called out, looking around. “Where are you, boy?”
“Father, he’s not here,” Aglovale called, jogging forward now. His voice dropped as he said something else Morgana couldn’t make out.
“Pellinore?” The old man’s voice was quavering now, echoing off the walls. “Where is he? I want to see my son!”
“Why did they bring him?” Gwen whispered, face schooled to blankness. “This is just cruel.”
“I don’t know,” Morgana replied. Her heart squeezed. She’d had no idea it was this bad. “Is the lower hallway clear?”
“Yes, I sent someone to clear it the moment they began to pull in.”
Morgana nodded, relieved. All the windows to the inner courtyard were shut, per her quiet order to Geraint. Hopefully they could get the king to his rooms before he broke down completely.
“Where’s my son? Where are you hiding him?” The king was twisting now, his friend barely able to hold onto him. “Give him back to me! Liars! Murderers!” Spit flecked from his lips.
Gwen hurried down the steps and gestured for two guards to open the side door that would lead them directly to the royal party’s rooms. Aglovale and the king’s companion took hold of the king’s arms and gently tugged him forward as quickly as they could. Gwen went ahead to make sure every door was open.
And so King Pellinore and his dearest friend King Esclabor entered Camelot.
Morgana turned back to Pellinore’s retinue, uncertain what to say. One man detached himself from the rest and swept forward, bowing.
“I am Tor, fifth son of the king,” he said quietly. “We thank you for your hospitality and beg leave to go set up our tents. My men are tired from a long ride.”
“Certainly.” Morgana felt relieved to be able to do something useful. “Ector is in charge of the encampments. He’s currently out digging latrines for you on the south side.” She cast her eyes about, spotted Tristan standing on the side of the courtyard, watching. “I’ll have my cousin escort you. Tristan!”
The lad jumped, looking guilty. He shouldn’t have been there to witness that scene, and he must have just realized it. “Your Majesty?”
“Show Prince Tor and his men to the space Sir Ector has cleared for them, please.”
Tristan bowed quickly. “Yes, Your Majesty!” He scampered up to the delegation, clearly excited to meet new knights from far away.
Morgana wished she could be that excited. Instead she felt only dread, because there was still Urien to face, and he would likely not be as forgiving as his daughter was.
Morgana found Gwen in the hallway as they both ran from one place to another. “Do you have a moment?” she asked, hoping for some advice.
“Walk and talk,” Gwen suggested, and so they turned down toward the cellars together.
“The water level in the river is dropping,” Morgana said. “And what’s coming out the south side is disgusting and undrinkable. Even what’s coming into the city may need to be boiled, Aglain says.”
“It’s the horses north of the city,” Gwen suggested. “The latrines are also too close to the river. We should have dug our own, instead of letting them do it.”
“It was raining before they arrived. We would have had nothing but mud-pits.” They took the stairs down quickly, brushing past a servant.
Gwen shrugged. “Too late now. Does Aglain think we need to switch to cistern water for the city?”
“Yes, but that doesn’t help Aglovale’s men. The water they’re seeing is undrinkable, so they’re having to go to the north side to fill up. There’ve been arguments between the camps.” Morgana held the door for Gwen.
“Well, there are only two solutions I can see. First is that Caradoc and Godwyn’s men can’t water their horses directly in the river. They need to do draw water for troughs at least a few horse-lengths away. That will cut down on horse waste going in.”
“And the latrines?” They ducked under a low lintel.
“Move them,” Gwen suggested. “It’s an awful job to clean up the ones that are already there, but start by digging new ones farther away and closing the current ones. Then get some nightsoil collectors out there and clean up the ones closest to the river before it rains again.”
“I don’t think there are that many nightsoil collectors in the entire kingdom.” Morgana stopped, looking around. “Why are we in the cider cellar?”
“Because I’ve wanted to do this for three days and haven’t had a chance,” Gwen replied, leaning up to snog Morgana thoroughly. With a squeak, Morgana brought her hands up to Gwen’s waist, then leaned into the kiss.
After they pulled apart, Morgana pressed her forehead to Gwen’s and whispered, “What was that for?”
“Because I miss you,” said Gwen, eyes closed.
Morgana closed her eyes too, pretending for just a moment that everything was fine.
“I believe these belong to you,” said Palamedes, kneeing open the door to her study and dragging in two boys. He had Gareth in a loose headlock under one arm, while Morien stooped a bit, being pulled along by one ear. Both boys wore mortified expressions.
Morgana set down her quill. “Indeed.” She raised an eyebrow. “Where did you catch them?”
“In King Pellinore’s apartments.”
Morgana froze. Those idiots. She breathed carefully, in and out, then replied, “Were they bothering our guests?”
“They were babbling, if that’s what you mean.” Palamedes gave her a significant look and released both boys. “My father had them removed.”
“Please thank him for me.” So, King Esclabor knew, or had guessed, Morien’s story. Probably Palamedes had told him to prevent just this kind of situation.
She turned to face the boys, who were standing sheepishly before her desk now. Morien was rubbing his ear, and Gareth was bright red.
“Boys,” she said quietly, “it probably has not escaped your notice that King Pellinore is not well. What possessed you to intrude on him?”
Morien opened his mouth. Morgana held up a hand to forestall him. “I know you’re curious, and I know you want to ask every king who comes through here if he knows your father, but this is too much. You invaded the private rooms of an invalid. Gareth, your punishment will be to return the kitchens for a week. I’m sure they could use your help.” Gareth nodded, looking resigned. “Morien, you will confess your wrongdoing to Lancelot, since he sees you as his squire. He will arrange an appropriate punishment.” Morien looked briefly mutinous, then mortified. Morgana could understand why. The poor boy hero-worshipped Lancelot. Confessing his error was more of a punishment than anything soft-hearted Lancelot would mete out.
“You will begin your tasks immediately,” she ordered. “You may go.” The boys moved toward the door, but Palamedes stayed. When they had scuffed their way out, he closed the door behind them and turned to her.
“How much did Morien say?” she asked quietly, resigned now.
Palamedes shook his head. “I’m not sure. I’ll have to ask my father.” He cleared his throat. “However, the king did see him and mistake him for his dead son. When I separated them, Pellinore was clinging to Morien and crying.”
Morgana passed one hand over her eyes. “This can’t end well, can it?”
“I don’t know.” Palamedes’ voice shook slightly, and he slumped into the chair opposite her with a sigh. “It all depends, I suppose, on who his father really is.”
“Does your father know?”
Palamedes shook his head. “I asked him the first moment I could. He says he isn’t sure, but he thinks it might not be the king. Pellinore had three of his sons with him when we met, though Lamorak was probably too young to get up to mischief.”
“So now we have three suspects: Aglovale, Pellinore the Elder, and Pellinore the Younger. That makes one living, one mad, and one dead. I don’t suppose it’s too much to hope he was Pellinore the Younger’s son and we can declare him an orphan without sending one of our allies off to conquer a Moorish kingdom?”
Palamedes shook his head. “It wouldn’t help anyway. The whole family is very honorable, despite Pellinore the Elder’s philandering ways. Tor was illegitimate, you know. He was raised by goat herders. When King Pellinore found out, he accepted Tor immediately and had him trained into the knighthood, and even gave the family that had raised him enough land to make them minor nobility.”
“An apology?” Morgana asked.
“More like gratitude, I think. The man was never clear on why it was wrong to sleep with anyone he chose.”
“Pellinore the Younger wasn’t like that when he was here.”
“No.” Palamedes’s smile was sad. “No, he was a different man altogether. On the strength of our fathers’ friendship, I was proud to call him brother.”
“Well, you may be calling Morien your nephew soon,” Morgana replied. “Let’s just please make sure the revelation doesn’t involve any bloodshed.”
It dried out over the next two days, so the column of dust kicked up by Powys’s army could be seen from the battlements of Camelot hours before the army actually arrived. It the column weren’t coming from the northwest, Morgana would have thought all of Mercia was invading.
King Olaf paid Morgana a personal visit while his men set up to the east of the city.
“Sorry about Uther,” he said gruffly, hugging Morgana in what seemed like a reflex. “Would’ve brought my daughter to keep you company, but it might get bloody down here.”
Morgana, who had spent enough time in Vivian’s company to know exactly what she was missing, smiled tightly and assured him it was fine.
“I brought my weaponsmiths,” Olaf told her. “We’re setting up temporary smithies by the river, in case they catch on fire. I heard you’re short a Master Smith here. If you need a hand repairing anything, just let my captains know.”
“Thank you,” Morgana told him, wondering how much of the forest would be chopped down for fuel in the next few days. Perhaps they could at least save the orchards.
"I do have one Smith who should be elevated to Master," she told him.
Olaf smiled. "Excellent. I'll send my Smith to inspect his work."
Of course, fuel wasn’t the first thing they began to run low on. Later that same day, Morgana sent Leon and a few other trustworthy knights to gather food from the villages. Now she regretted sending more seedcorn with the refugees. Too late, Uther’s fear of famine finally made sense to her.
Near sunset, she happened to glance out a window overlooking the town, and in the distance she saw smoke pumping steadily from the forge beside Gwen's house. Morgana smiled.
Still no word from Garlot. Morgana paced that evening, back and forth in front of the fire.
“You’ll wear a hole in the floor,” said Enid, who moved serenely about the room putting away odds and ends Morgana kept leaving out because she wasn’t accustomed to cleaning up after herself. Gwen was, of course, nowhere to be found.
Morgana talked over Enid. “If they’re alive, they must have tried to send word. The Saxons must be blocking the way.” They must be alive.
Enid sighed. “Will you at least let me help you dress for bed? You’ll be no good to anyone exhausted.”
Morgana allowed it, but she kept fidgeting.
“Would you like help with your hair?” Enid was clearly at the end of her long patience. Geraint hadn’t been home in a week, and Morgana felt bad causing extra worry for her.
“No, I can do that myself. Go get some sleep yourself.”
It was a mark of how tired Enid was that she simply curtsied and left.
Morgana sat down before her still-covered mirror and pulled out her brush, going over her hair in long, smooth strokes to calm herself. Her mother’s mirror still lay face-down on the table. Staring absently at it, Morgana wondered.
Call my name, Elaine had said. Setting down her hairbrush, Morgana reached for the mirror with trembling fingers.
Her first whispers showed her a blond woman with hair going every which direction, riding a horse. She whispered again and saw a elderly woman in a royal sitting room, stitching careful embroidery while ladies moved quietly around her. Another whisper, and a thin, disheveled woman appeared, sitting on a wooden bench in a dungeon with her hands in her lap. Morgana’s stomach dropped before she realized that was not her Elaine.
One last whisper, and Elaine finally appeared. Morgana cried out in joy. Elaine looked up.
“Morgana? Oh, wait, let me-“ Elaine jumped up and began bustling about, grabbing a bowl and a jug of washing water. She poured the water into the bowl and whispered Morgana’s name over it three times. Suddenly Morgana’s focus shifted; she was looking up into Elaine’s face from below.
“That’s better,” said Elaine. “Oh, I’m so glad to see you’re alright! Is Camelot safe still?”
“Yes,” Morgana whispered, tears welling up in her eyes. “I was worried about you. There were no messengers.”
“The Saxons are everywhere north of us. But don’t worry, we’ve already sent word to our cousin Mark. He has pledged to support us with troops. With his help we can hold out for a few weeks, at least.”
“So long as they don’t use treachery again,” Morgana replied. “That’s how they entered Cameliard. They may have a sorcerer working for them.”
Elaine’s face twisted. “I know they do. She’s already contacted me to demand a surrender. Her name is Morgause.”
Morgana jerked, almost dropping the mirror. “What? That can’t be right.”
“Morgana, do you know something?” Elaine’s expression turned urgent. “If you know something about this woman, I need to know it now.”
Through numb lips, Morgana whispered, “She’s our sister.”
After a mostly sleepless night, Morgana finally dozed off around dawn. She was woken less than an hour later by reports of yet more troops on the northern horizon, this time a smaller group.
Kings Urien and Lot were neighbors who brought their forces in together, small groups of mostly bowmen. Urien bowed his apologies. “It’s hard to move troops as far south as we have, and we must leave behind enough knights and spearmen to guard our borders against Mercia.”
Morgana tactfully didn’t mention that bowmen had a lower death rate, being further back from the front lines. If her allies wanted to show themselves as cowards or untrustworthy in front of their peers, then they could accept the consequences when it came time to renew alliances.
Later, Geraint reported that one of his guards had overheard a mighty row between Urien and Morvydd behind closed doors, though the guard hadn’t been able to make out what they were arguing over. Morgana could well guess. She decided to make sure Urien’s forces were well hemmed in by Olaf’s and Godwyn’s.
The council chambers buzzed like a thousand insects trapped in a glass jar. Morgana rubbed her temples. Every debate so far had devolved into a multitude of individual arguments. They couldn’t even yell at each other with any kind of cohesion. To her left, Caradoc was busy bellowing in Urien's direction, both men going red in the face over a failed campaign against over Mercia twelve years ago. Across the table, Olaf looked only a moment away from losing his temper entirely.
King Esclabor saw her wince. He smiled tightly. “It’s always like this at first,” he said in an undertone. “Don’t worry, someone will step forward and whip them into shape.”
That’s all very well and good, Morgana thought, but I have a feeling that that someone is supposed to be me.
Down at the other end of the table, her eye caught movement. Queen Catrina slowly, painfully rose from her seat, with the help of one of her surviving nobles. The people closest to her paused and turned their heads, and the ripple of silence spread up the table.
Catrina took advantage of the silence before it could fade. “Kings and Queens of Albion,” she said quietly, voice strained, “these are Saxons we face. Hengist and his ilk are like ravenous beasts. They will never be satisfied, though they swallow the whole world. No amount of land is enough for them. No slaughter is enough to satisfy their thirst for blood. They must always seek out more. We cannot afford to be distracted from our true purpose here, which is to drive the Saxons back deep into their territory and halt their invasion once and for all.
"I have great sympathies for Cameliard, but we must not focus on one kingdom now. We must strike into Saxon territory itself and threaten to cut them off from their homesteads and ships, then encircle and destroy them. Our fellow people who live in bondage under the tyrants will support us. We will have allies in unexpected places, but only if we show the great courage of our ancestors, who battled against the might of Rome itself.”
It was a rousing enough speech, especially coupled with the martyr glow that hung about Catrina. Of course, there was something painfully naive about the idea that they could easily encircle the Saxons. Wouldn’t that expose their flank to Cenred? And Garlot to the south would likely not be able to help, pressed as they already were. But for those who were not immediate neighbors of Cameliard, perhaps it would be more enticing to think they could take the Saxon towns and loot them, then walk away.
“I agree that we must act decisively,” Morgana replied, nodding to Catrina. “But I cannot agree to any plan that exposes us to easy attack by Cenred from Gwisse. He is not present at this council and has yet to show his true intentions. I cannot trust him at this time.”
Catrina looked frustrated. “What can Cenred do against this entire army? If we drive southeast, we will bypass his kingdom entirely and drive straight into Odin’s territory, where the land is ravaged by years of fighting and the people divided. We can easily gain support there.”
“More likely we would be bogged down in local struggles,” Morgana countered. “And once we pass the southern edge of the Ridge of Ascetir, we'll be easy targets if Cenred wants to hit us in the flank or the rear.”
“There is another consideration,” Olaf injected. “A siege of Cameliard would normally take weeks. We may not have the food to supply this army for that long.”
“I’m not suggesting a siege,” Morgana replied. “Let’s draw them out to a location of our choosing. We know this land better than they do. We could even make it look as though we plan to follow Catrina’s route but are advancing slowly. Odin will call on his allies for reinforcements. Let’s see if we can lure most of their army to us, rather than taking ourselves to them.”
Catrina looked dismayed, but Olaf and Lot were nodding.
Esclabor pointed out, “There is the added advantage that we can choose a terrain where our knights and bowmen will both be effective. The Saxons are accustomed to fighting in close quarters or in hit and run raids. We can force them into an open battle with high ground behind us, where our tactics would have the advantage.”
More people were nodding, and within a few moments they had shifted to discussing the best locations.
Esclabor turned and winked at Morgana.
With the council over, Morgana and Olaf stood just inside the garden doors, breathing in fresh air as dusk fell over the castle. Olaf was regaling her with the story of Uther’s winter campaign against Bayard, when Camelot had gained the valleys to the north.
“It was so cold that year porridge had to be eaten the moment it was dished out, or it froze in the bowl,” Olaf was saying, when suddenly a woman ducked around the door lintel and stopped.
Morgana stared, hand going automatically to her knife. “You!” It was the blonde tumbler who had tried to garrotte her last spring. She felt her breath going tight just seeing the woman.
The woman looked equally startled. Olaf drew his sword.
“Wait,” the woman said, holding up her hands. “Hear me out.”
“After you tried to kill me?” Morgana spat
“The situation has changed.”
“Yes, I’m holding a knife this time.” She wouldn't tremble. She wouldn't.
The woman shook her head, curls tumbling everywhere. “No, not that. Did you truly declare magic legal in Camelot?”
“I declared I wouldn’t kill anyone for it,” Morgana replied. “I didn’t say anything about attempted assassins, though.”
“We didn’t send the other assassin,” the woman replied. “I'm Enmyria, and I bring a message from Alvarr, who controls several groups of rebels in the southern kingdoms. He could take what he knows to Cenred or to Odin, but he wants to make you an offer instead.”
“Why?” Olaf asked quietly. His sword was still out, pointing steadily at Enmyria.
“He knows you come from a House that supported magic in the past. We have no love for the Saxons, and our allies failed to warn us of the invasion of Cameliard. We lost people there. Alvarr is not happy.”
“Neither am I,” Morgana said, “but I don’t believe that the enemy of my enemy is always my friend. Especially when someone switches sides abruptly. How do I know this Alvarr isn’t hoping to gain even more information?”
“He could have stayed here undetected,” Enmyria point out. “He was passing messages daily, and no one noticed. He wants to meet with you to make a deal.”
“No,” said Olaf quietly. “I know that ruse, and even if Morgana agrees, I won’t let her.”
“Thank you, I’m quite well aware of the implications, Olaf.” Morgana glared at Enmyria. “What makes you think-“
“Enmyria.” The whisper was soft, choked. Morgana turned, seeing Queen Catrina out of the corner of her eye. Catrina was standing behind them, stock still, with Gwaine’s hand under her arm.
Enmyria’s eyes went round with shock. “Mother?”
Mother and daughter sat on Catrina’s bed, talking quietly. Catrina’s hands shook, and she was clearly in pain, but she never once moved to lie down. Enmyria kept shaking her head and pulling back, but Catrina would reach forward and catch her hands, and they would speak again in low, urgent whispers.
Morgana stood with Gwaine at the door, trying not to stare. Gwaine blinked for a few moments, obviously as startled by events as Morgana, and then turned his back deliberately on the tableau. Chagrined, Morgana did the same.
“Well, I’ve seen it all now,” he said quietly. “A princess failing to flaunt her rank, whether she’s lost her kingdom or not. What a day.”
“Sometimes one has no choice,” said Morgana. “Look at Lionel and Bors, and poor Tristan. Kingdoms are easily lost.”
“And only with great difficulty regained, yes, I know.” He shuffled. “I think it’s admirable that she’s lived among common people without telling them who she is, but I don’t think she’s entirely given up on the idea of being a queen.”
“What makes you say that?” Morgana asked.
“Because she’s still trying to put a man on a throne.”
With Geraint’s men guarding Enmyria as a “guest”, Morgana was finally free to retire to her rooms, stiff and sore from sitting up straight all day in a dress. When had wearing trousers become so much more comfortable? Probably when she learned the joys of being able to take deep breaths.
Brangaine was once again helping her unlace when Gwen burst into the room, looking a bit sooty and wild-eyed. Morgana and Brangaine froze, staring at her.
“Oh, carry on!” said Gwen nervously. “I’ll just. My room there. Yes.” She darted through the repaired door to the servant’s quarters she never used, carrying with her a cloth-wrapped bundle, long and thin.
“Brangaine,” Morgana said quietly, “Could you finish unlacing me quickly and then forget you ever saw that?”
“Saw what, Your Majesty?” Brangaine asked, deadpan.
Morgana smiled. “Perfect. Thank you.”
Moments later she was free and pulling her nightdress on over her head as Brangaine hung up her dress and darted out, no doubt to tell Iseult what had happened, because those girls were closer than two peas in a pod, but Morgana was fairly certain nothing would spread beyond them.
“Gwen,” she called quietly, “you can come out now.”
Gwen peeked around the door. “Must I? I’m becoming rather attached to this room.”
“Gwen, that room is only slightly larger than my wardrobe, and it must be utter darkness in there. If you feel you must hide in a drawer, then I’d like to know why.”
Gwen looked down and bit her lip, and Morgana sighed. “Have I done something to upset you?” Again?
“What?” Gwen looked up, startled. “No! Why would you think that?”
Morgana sat down on the edge of her bed. “Perhaps because you’ve been avoiding me for weeks and I've been a fool? I don’t know, Gwen, I just feel like you’re uncomfortable around me now. You have every reason, of course.”
“I. No, no. Oh, you’ve got it all backwards.” Gwen came out of the room, face crumpling. “I didn’t mean to make you feel like that. Elyan says I’m rubbish at keeping secrets, and I wanted to surprise you, so I had to. I had to try harder than usual.”
Morgana blinked. “Gwen, please explain.”
Gwen came forward until she was standing in front of Morgana’s knees. Her dress was sooty too, Morgana realized, and her curls were every which way.
“While you were away fighting Mercia, I found something in Geoffrey’s library. It was in the back of my mind from then on. I started making one for you anyway, because that one Uther gave you is old. I didn’t even know we had a dragon until you brought me down to meet him. And then I thought, well, why not try?”
“Gwen, you’re making no sense. What did you make for me?”
Gwen blinked. “A sword. I told you I would. I wanted to use one of father’s, but I gave the last sword he made to Merlin, who took it somewhere and didn’t tell me where. If I’d known Elyan was coming home, I might have waited. But it was mostly done by then. I just needed the dragon to agree. That was hard. I, um. Might have made him a tiny little promise.”
Morgana’s heart leapt. Gwen had been making her a sword! Perhaps she hadn’t been sneaking on with Lancelot after all? But, “What does the dragon have to do with your sword?”
“Your sword,” Gwen corrected. “Here.” She pulled the sword out from behind her back and unwrapped it, smiling. “It’ll kill anything, even magical creatures. I figured you might need it, after the Questing Beast.”
“Anything?” Morgana asked. She touched the flat of the blade reverently. Tiny tracings spun up and down the blade, tumbling over and around the hilt and pommel. They looked like water tracks, or tiny lines of flame. “How can it kill anything?”
“Forged in the breath of a dragon,” Gwen said, half smiling now. “That’s what the book said. The dragon promised that he just needed to breath on it good and hard once. I hope he wasn’t lying.”
Morgana started. “What did you give him in return?”
“Oh, um.” Gwen swallowed. “I might have given a promise to, um, free him. Within a year. If I can, which I hope I can’t so it’s not an issue.”
Morgana’s eyes rounded. “Gwen, no. You don’t know what he might do!”
Gwen’s chin went stubborn. “I don’t, you’re right. But I do know that if you die, Camelot will be split between a bunch of nobles trying to fight it out over the kingship, with a bunch of other kings on our doorstep trying to take their own pieces.”
“Gwen, I’m not going to die.”
“You don’t know that.”
Morgana sighed, looking down at the sword. Her hands ached to touch it. Stroking one finger over the hilt, she deflated.
“It’s beautiful." It was beyond beautiful. It sang to her. She sighed. "Ah well, what’s done is done. Get changed and come to bed?”
“Oh! Let me just wash up a bit.” Gwen looked still nervous, but happier. Softer, she murmured, “I missed you.”
Oh, Gwen. “I missed you too.”
The descendants of three famous long kingdoms of the Britons never regained their lands. Of Benoic there were Sir Bors and Sir Lionel, who swore allegiance to Camelot. Of Cantia there was its unhappy queen Catrina. Her kingdom, being offered to the Saxons many years before by Vortigern, finally fell to the horde some time after her father's death. She and her daughter escaped, only to be separated, and that tale is told in the Red Book of Cantia. And thirdly there was Tristan, descended of unhappy Lyonesse, which sank beneath the waves many generations before his birth.
Chapter 10: Badon Hill
With Enmyria's information, they began to better understand the shape of the Saxon invasion of Cameliard. Hengist and Horsa had brought the bulk of their army west in hopes of loot and a place to settle some of their people. Odin had allowed them through and had fought alongside them, though he appeared to only have part of his army committed.
"Mercia is barely involved," Enmyria insisted. "Our informants say Renaud hopes to take advantage of the confusion to attack in the north later this summer."
"How reliable is your informant?" Ector asked.
Enmyria shrugged. "Men are bought and re-bought. We have extra means of weeding out liars, though."
Magic, Morgana thought, and watched a shiver go through the war council as everyone else realized it too. This is what you knew would happen if you overturned Uther's law, she reminded herself. The rules have changed. Uther changed them.
Still, she couldn't bring herself to regret the choice.
“And make sure you dampen the sand heaps daily in case of seige.” Morgana strapped her saddlebags onto her mare herself. “Get the townspeople to help. Oh, I haven’t left you enough guards…”
“Morgana,” Gwen interrupted her, a hand on her arm, “we’ll be fine. Ector will-“
“I shouldn’t leave him in charge. He won't respect you,” Morgana interjected.
“-Ector will know what to do if we’re attacked. And you’re not leaving him in charge of everything, just the fighting. You’re leaving me in charge of the household, and he knows it. Enid will help me keep track of everything. Don't worry so much.” Greatly daring in the confines of the horse’s stall, she rested her forehead against Morgana’s shoulder.
“Keep Enid busy,” Morgana kept on, one hand drifting to the back of Gwen’s head. “I’m sorry, but I’ve got to take Geraint this time. I need every experienced soldier I can get.”
“You should leave the squires here,” Gwen mumbled.
Morgana sighed. “They have to see battle sometime. Better that they help in the camp where we can keep an eye on them than bother you back here.”
“Morien’s bringing his armor,” Gwen reminded her, fingers plucking aimlessly at Morgana’s tunic.
Morgana captured the wayward fingers and lifted them to her lips. “That’s Lancelot’s business, not mine. If I had my way, no one would be going.”
Gwen’s wry, pained smile was hard to look at. “Yes, and if I had my way, you wouldn’t. We’re all very selfish, aren’t we?”
“Not you,” Morgana whispered, breathing in Gwen’s scent a final time before stepping back.
“Especially me,” Gwen replied.
Morgana led her horse out and mounted up, blinking in the bright morning sun.
They took Fosse Way south beyond Bath until they reached a smaller road going east. East and east they rode, into the rising sun, past the Ridge of Ascetir and the Forest of Balor, forward into Odin's territory until they reached the Southern Avon River, which marked the old boundary. There they stopped two days before midsummer, in the sweltering heat.
The Roman ruins on Badon Hill shone in the sunlight, stone walls that should have been darkened by age still unnaturally bright after two centuries. The hill itself jutted out above the soft swell of its neighbors, disconnected from the taller hills to the east of the river and from the ridge to the northwest. It offered a clear view of the surrounding countryside for a league or more.
Caradoc shaded his eyes. “Some hold that the Romans left this fortress because the very earth rejected them here.”
“It’s steeped in magic,” Morgana murmured, feeling it in her bones. She caught the glances between Lot and Urien.
“Be that as it may,” Godwyn said quietly, “it’s a very defensible position. And we are only half Roman, gentlemen.”
“And I am none at all,” said Palamedes. “But I do not think the earth rejects battle here. Only the idea of occupation.”
The road here was ancient, with a wide, shallow ford across the river. The great army of the kings of Albion would stay to the west, setting up position on top of the hill and luring the Saxons across by placing their knights on the plain between hill and river.
“I wonder if they’ll truly all be there,” Olaf muttered. “It’ll be a rout if some of them come up from the south and catch us by surprise.”
“Or if Cenred swings in from the north,” Morgana agreed. “He could even get behind us, if we’re not careful.”
“Then we’ll need the eyes of eagles,” Aglovale cautioned. “We’ll need to keep sentries posted atop the hill even in the midst of battle.”
The others nodded, and on they rode, with their great army stretching out behind them.
Building a camp amid the ruins turned out to be an interesting task. The healer’s tents and cooking fires were placed on the west side, where some flat space was available that was sheltered from the wind. The other sides were less sheltered, though the crumbling walls provided some opportunity to gather small companies.
The bowmen were stationed nearer the top, and Morgana remembered her promise to herself, bracketing Urien’s men with those of known loyalty and warning Godwyn and Olaf in an undertone. Olaf snorted and told her he was well aware of his neighbor's ways. Godwyn received the news with pressed lips, but he didn’t argue.
Morgana led her own sentries up to the top, to get a feel for the land and how far they could see. Geraint came on her heels, dogged as ever. The wind caught at them, playing with every loose strand of hair and every dangling lace.
They were near the top when a sudden gust staggered the whole party. Morgana bent down, covering her eyes against the stinging spray of small rocks. There was a crack of lightning, loud enough to echo through her body and leave her hair standing on end. In its wake came the smell of charged air.
When she looked up again, Nimueh was staring down on them from atop a ring of stones on the peak.
Morgana took a deep breath to calm her nerves. Her hands were shaking, so she put them on her sword hilt. “Impressive entrance,” she called out, voice wavering only a little. “Is this another cryptic message? Because I met a dragon who does you one better on those.”
Nimueh narrowed her eyes, then laughed suddenly, head tipped back, red lips parted. “That scaly fool? I hope you didn’t listen to him.”
“Only when he said something interesting,” Morgana replied, staggering forward. She could feel the men cowering behind her, but she was done with letting Nimueh startle her into confusion. “To what do we owe the honour this time?” She really wished the woman would come down so she didn’t have to crane her neck up to meet her eyes. It was a basic tactic, almost insulting in its simplicity.
Apparently Nimueh was aware of that, because she stayed where she was and smiled, all teeth. “I have a gift for you. It comes with a very small price.”
“Like the last one?” Morgana didn’t think harboring Catrina had destroyed her kingdom, but if they had followed Catrina’s plan and driven into Saxon territory, they would have been cut to pieces very quickly by the army massing over there right now.
“Even smaller than that,” Nimueh replied. “I will give you power over the waters for a day in exchange for a trinket your mother once owned.”
“I’m not interested,” said Morgana.
“Are you certain?” Nimueh pressed. “You could sweep away your enemies as they crossed the river, destroying them without danger to your own men up on this hill. Wouldn’t that be a marvelous way to return magic to Camelot?”
No casualties. A win without bloodshed on her side. It was tempting, yes, but Morgana now knew better than to trust that any gifts came with what seemed like a simple price. After all, Morien’s survival might itself have served some purpose of Nimueh’s; he had the power to throw Morgana’s allies into chaos. However, she also knew better than to make an enemy at this juncture. Nimueh had haunted Uther for that mistake.
“I cannot give away my mother’s things without asking my sister first,” she replied. “I’m sorry.”
“Ah,” said Nimueh knowingly, “but which sister?” She chuckled, her voice rich. “If you change your mind, call out to me. But be forewarned that if you call out too late, the waters may not answer you.”
With a swirl and another gust of wind, she vanished.
Morgana stood looking up at the empty stones for a moment, then turned back to find most of her men crouched down, hands over their heads, and a few with knives or swords pointed at the place where Nimueh had stood.
“Those wouldn’t have been very useful,” she commented, nodding to the weapons. “And get up, by the gods, Bryn. You’re embarrassing.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Bryn mumbled, making a sign to ward off evil as he rose slowly to his feet. The other men followed suit.
“On the bright side, she won’t reappear up here,” Morgana reassured them. “She’ll probably follow me around like an unpleasant shadow. So I’ll just take a look and be off, and you’ll have the place to yourselves.”
Bryn didn't look entirely happy about that idea.
That night, Morgana dreamed she was invited to parlay with bears. She sat around a campfire with them and drank and listened to them roar stories. When at last one turned to her, his pale gray eyes were startling.
“Your brother killed my son,” he said, “so tell me why I shouldn’t eat you right now.”
Morgana fell through the ground and landed with a jolt in the middle of a field. She was surrounded by snakes, but they were paying her no heed, slithering as fast as they could in one direction, big and small together, species that normally ate one another side by side without a quarrel.
“What’s happening?” Morgana asked, grabbing one by the tail to stall him.
He writhed, then screamed, “The King is coming! Flee, fly!”
Startled, she let him go, and he slithered away. In the distance, she heard laughter, then a familiar voice said, “They will never agree to Nimueh’s terms, and she will never help them without a bargain. That’s her way. The armies of the Kings of Old Albion will be laid to waste, and the stones left to crumble in the fields.”
“Sister?” Morgana asked, standing up. Everywhere she looked, blond hair seem to curl at the corners of her vision, flashes of jewel red catching her eye. “Where are you?”
“Morgana?” The voice sounded genuinely surprised, and then a door slammed somewhere, and Morgana heard the click-click of claws on stone…
She woke, confused, to the Brangaine's hands on her shoulders. “Wake up,” Brangaine urged. “Sir Kay’s back!”
“A giant black dog?” Morgana asked.
“Don’t laugh at me,” Kay muttered. “It’s true.”
They were sitting outside Morgana’s tent, on a pocket of ground protected by half a crumbled stone wall, mysteriously free of moss. Kay was wet and shivering; Brangaine had already tucked a blanket around his shoulders and was off to find all the men some food.
“Caradoc saw it first,” Bors interjected quietly. “He started following it like a man in a dream. We tried to hold him back. The thing was as big as a calf, and silent. Its eyes weren’t right, either.” He subsided, chewing on his lip.
“We thought it was a specter come to show us our deaths,” Kay continued. “We’d been hiding in those caves for three days by then, with Saxons everywhere. We couldn't leave to find the road, the river, our own army, or anything useful.”
“And then this thing appeared.” Bors again. “And Caradoc started after it like a baby duck following its mother. I went after to bring him back, but he brushed me off and spoke like a perfectly rational man. Said it had been his pet when he was young, that it followed him and kept him out of trouble. Said it pulled him out of a pond once when he fell in and would have drowned. What was I to say to that? Either he was delusional, or one of the gods wanted us to follow. I went back and got the rest to come along.”
“We came around the whole flank of the enemy without being seen. If that’s not supernatural, I don’t know what is,” muttered Kay, shivering. “It brought us to the ford and led us right over. We didn’t come close to being attacked until the sentries on our own side drew weapons on us. I almost got a knife through the belly.”
“They’re a little jumpy tonight,” Morgana apologized. “But this whole story is rather amazing.”
Bors nodded. “The moment we passed the sentry line, Caradoc got this look on his face like death itself. Said he had to go speak with his father and ran off. Never seen him like that.”
Some of the other men nodded, clearly disturbed by the night’s events and Caradoc’s uncharacteristic behavior.
“Don’t know why it had to be a dog,” Kay muttered. “I don’t even like dogs all that much.”
Bors snorted and clapped Kay on the shoulder. “Buck up, sourpuss. We got home safely, and we can tell a bit about the Saxons, yeah?”
“Yes,” Morgana said eagerly, “what do you know?”
Bors counted on his fingers. “Odin’s definitely here, and Hengist and Horsa came up from the south the day before yesterday. I didn’t see Renaud or Mercia’s banner, but I saw some northern ax-men. Lots of throwing axes; we’ll need to wear plate mail tomorrow. Cenred wasn’t there, but his army of over two thousand foot soldiers is holding off just to the north. I think he’s waiting to see which way the wind blows and plans to either join the winning side, or if it looks like a Pyrrhic victory, smash the remains of the winner so he can take what he wants.”
Kay nodded glumly. “We have to win by an overwhelming force. Oh, and the Saxons have been catching snakes in the woods. I don’t know why, but they’ve had men sneaking across the river in the night to release them. Very odd.”
Morgana remembered her dream with a start. “Snakes? What kind?”
“All kinds,” Kay replied. “Even poisonous ones, the daft buggers. They set out snaketraps and used weasels to sniff them out. Strangest thing I ever saw.”
Morgana shivered. “And the crossing? Are they prepared to come tomorrow?”
“I don’t think so,” Bors said quietly. “I think they’re waiting for something. The ford is shallow, so men on foot should be able to cross and fight well enough, if they start the charge with horses. I don’t know why they didn’t come today while you were setting up camp. They could have wreaked havoc.”
“I don’t know why they didn’t,” said Morgana, “but I have a feeling we’ll find out tomorrow.”
“Oh joy,” Kay muttered morosely, and sneezed.
The next morning, Morgana sat on the wall by her tent entrance, looking out over the field below, down to the dark, tree-hemmed river where the Saxons were hiding. Something felt off. There was a light wind, but the grass wasn’t waving with the wind as it should. Instead, it was moving every which way, as if small animals were scurrying through it en masse.
“Do you see that?” she called to Geraint, whose own tent was right below hers. He nodded, watching with one hand over his eye to block the sun.
Above the field a sparrow swooped, winging away toward the river. Suddenly, it burst into flame and dropped like a stone. Morgana leapt to her feet, standing wobbly on the cracked wall. “By all the gods, what was that?” she cried out.
“My Lady, get down!” Geraint bellowed. “Don’t look at it! Bryn, find the physician!”
“A basilisk?” Aglovale asked, biting his lip. “Pardon my speaking out of turn, but this is a disaster.”
“You’re speaking for your father, so it’s not out of turn at all,” Morgana replied. “And frankly, I don’t know what to do about this either. Aglain, is there any way to kill it?”
Aglain shook his head slowly. “If we had a pastinaca, maybe. Those were the giant weasels that Uther had routed out and killed over a decade ago. I haven’t seen one in years.”
“Foul creatures, smelled worse than a dungheap and put all the herds off,” Olaf muttered. “But if they would have sufficed for this, we should have saved one or two.”
The other leaders looked grim. “Is there another way?” asked Palamedes.
“Not really.” Aglain flipped through his bestiary - why he had brought such a thing on this campaign Morgana wasn’t sure, but she was glad it was here. “We could drown it if it were foolish enough to go back toward the river, but I’m sure the Saxons will cross and hack us to pieces if we try to lure it there. As for fighting it, if a man looks it in the eye, he falls stone dead. Or dies and turns to stone. I’m not sure, the grammar is unclear there. But even if a man strikes it without looking, the poison travels up the weapon to petrify him and his horse, if he’s riding one. It’s a nearly unkillable beast. We’re simply lucky that one only appears every generation or two.”
“Not so lucky now,” muttered Urien. “Perhaps it’s a sign we should call off the campaign.”
Even Lot looked at him askance. “I suppose,” Morgana asked, “that we should let Odin and Hengist wait until the basilisk has moved on before making a move on Camelot as well? Your list of allies will eventually grow thin, Your Majesty. They’ll be knocking on Caerleon’s door next, then Gwent's. Or possibly yours, since my men don’t report Mercia here.”
Urien scowled but didn’t reply.
“Aglain,” Morgana turned, “can it be killed by distance weapons? Bowmen?”
“Its only real weaknesses are giant weasels and water, though I suppose enchanted weapons might work. Mortal ones would stand very little chance.”
Enchanted weapons. Morgana sighed. “And can it be looked at in a mirror without killing the watcher?”
“An ordinary mirror?” Aglain consulted his book. “No. Perhaps an-“
“-enchanted one, yes, I’m seeing a theme here.”
“Well, it is a creature born of magic. It would take a powerful sorcerer to conjure one.”
“Cenred’s pet,” Lot spat.
Morgana remained silent for a moment, looking around. She stood in a circle of kings, surrounded by another circle of well-known knights. She admired many of the men here. But who, really, could she trust to treat her as a true equal?
Grinding her teeth, she managed a smile. "Will you excuse me?" she asked. Let them think she needed to use the latrine or had feminine issues. Let them not realize.
Sure enough, there was Lancelot standing a little distance away, watching the field below them, even though Aglain had said not to. As she walked past, she tapped him on the arm, not looking back as she crooked her finger for him to follow. He did so, walking like a personal guard two paces behind until they rounded a stone wall out of earshot.
She looked around and whispered, “We need to go handle this now, just you and me. I don’t want casualties.”
His eyes widened. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. I know I can trust you to trust me, while just about every other man under my command will try to protect me even if I tell them not to.”
He bowed his head. “Wherever you lead, My Lady.”
If he didn’t stop that, she was going to start liking him.
They slipped out of camp, armorless, while the army leaders still argued. Morgana had her mirror and the sword Gwen gave her. Lancelot carried his favorite lance and his sword. They both had knives in their boots.
“This is going to be rather graceless,” Morgana warned him.
He snorted, a knowing look in his eye. “Don’t worry, I’ve worked with Merlin.”
She wanted to ask him about that, but there was no time.
Only a few steps beyond the pulled-back sentries, they found themselves surrounded by fleeing animals: mice, snakes, chipmunks, and small predators of every stripe. None of them was making a move to devour any of the others. They simply scurried, slithered, or bounded forward as quickly as possible, eyes rolling in fear.
“At least we know which way to go?” Morgana tried to joke. Lancelot smiled grimly and hefted his lance up to his shoulder, ready.
Lancelot walked carefully, placing each foot lightly before stepping down. Red cloth cut a bright line over his eyes and trailed down his back. It was an odd sort of favor to be wearing - her formal war sash turned blindfold.
Morgana herself was walking backwards, watching everything in her mirror. There were no more small animals underfoot - or at least no live ones. She winced as Lancelot’s foot came down on a stone that had a distinct rabbit shape to it.
“Careful,” she cautioned, “there are stones everywhere. Don’t trip.”
“I’ll try.” He was sweating heavily now, a combination of the summer heat, the weight of the lance, and probably nerves from having his eyes bound. Morgana wasn’t terribly happy about walking backward, either, but at least she could see something. His trust in her was amazing. She tried not to feel inadequate.
A hissing sound came from beneath a fallen log.
“Stop!” Morgana ordered. Lancelot froze.
Morgana held up the mirror in her left hand and slowly, slowly turned it to show the space beneath the log. A rooster’s head peeked out at her, bright red plumage merging into a dark green, scaled body. One leathery wing of a lighter green flapped uselessly, trailing flaps of skin that mimicked feathers. The toes it scratched into the dirt were clawed, and each wing had a single claw on the tip as well. She couldn't see its tail.
All this she noticed in a flash, but what drew her gaze inexorably were the two bright, white eyes nearly glowing in its head.
Shaking, she closed her eyes. “I think I’m going to be sick,” she whispered. Moving her jaw felt strange. Her arm began to tremble with the weight of the mirror.
“Morgana,” Lancelot said urgently, “for Camelot, and for Guinevere. We must do this.”
Feeling queasy, she lifted her head again. for Camelot. Trust Lancelot to get to the heart of the matter and have no shame in doing it. Laying her hand on his arm, she looked once more into the mirror.
“Get ready,” she told him.
Lancelot raised his lance, the same one that had killed the gryphon, and pointed it in the general direction of the hissing beast. The basilisk showed no fear whatsoever, probably because it had never been threatened before. It hissed again and seemed to wait for them to fall over.
“A bit to your left,” she told Lancelot, and nudged his arm accordingly. “Two steps closer.” The point dropped. She nudged again, aiming the lance as close as she could to straight under the log. “Now!”
Lancelot cast the lance with all his strength. It arced through the air, and the point of it caught on the basilisk's visible wing. The basilisk screamed with a voice like a mad chicken and thrashed, spraying venom in a wild arc. Moments later, the lance burned to ashes.
“Did it work?” Lancelot asked, turning his head blindly.
“No! Back up, back up!”
Lancelot took a step back, bending down to yank the knife from his boot. “This was blessed by the Lady of the Lake,” he whispered. “May it fly true.”
Unable to take aim, he threw.
The knife arced brightly, turning slowly in midair until it was flying true. It sliced into the solid middle of the basilisk, pinning it to the ground. It screamed and spat poison at them, melting several stones around their feet. Morgana hauled Lancelot back out of range.
“Stay here,” she ordered him, then charged forward again, keeping her head turned to the mirror. She dodged the creature’s spitting fury and lopped off its head with a single stroke. Greenish golden blood gushed everywhere, painting the ground with smoke. Morgana gagged, staggering away as quickly as she could manage.
They both stood panting for a long moment, Lancelot still blindfolded, Morgana seeing gray around the edges of her vision as she tried to catch her breath.
“We’d best burn it,” she muttered greenly. A moment later, the two halves of the body burst into flame spontaneously. Morgana staggered, feeling a brief pain in her head. Was that me?
Lancelot gagged on rancid smoke as the wind shifted. He turned his face away and tugged at the blindfold, yanking it off.
“Maybe we should just tell the men to avoid this spot,” he suggested as they stumbled away together.
Morgana supposed she might have caught a great deal of grief for going off on her own like that, but even as the ashes of the basilisk were blowing away, a mighty roar came up from the riverside.
They came across on horses first, hefting throwing axes and spears. Morgana and Lancelot turned and raced back to the hill, running like the Wild Hunt was on their heels. The red sash dangled from Lancelot’s hand.
They were met by a solid line of Britons, who waved them through and re-formed, shields up and prepared to break the first wave of the attack on their spears, the butts of which were jammed into the ground to brace them against the power of horses at full charge.
Morgana raced upward, leaping along the path to catch Leon. “Where are the knights?” she gasped. He turned, saw her, and grabbed her by both arms. “By the gods, you’re still alive.” He looked like he couldn’t decide whether to laugh or scream. “Bedivere has them on the north side, in that clump of trees. He’s hoping to swing around and catch the Saxon riders in a pinch before their foot soldiers can cross in large numbers.”
“And the bowmen?”
“Later, to take on the Saxon foot,” Leon replied. “We have this. Don’t panic.”
“I’m not panicking,” Morgana said, her voice pitched high with adrenaline. “I just killed a legendary unkillable beast and I have no idea what my army’s doing, that’s all.”
“Sit down,” Leon insisted, pushing her down onto the nearest rock. “Breathe. Trust your generals. We won’t let you down.”
The battle was chaos from the start.
Mounted Saxons slammed into the foot line like a storm surge, sailing right over the first line and slamming into the second. Horses and men screamed, and the ground was soaked red in minutes, though Morgana couldn’t see much of it. There were too many bodies, both standing and not.
Palamedes bellowed an order that was relayed up and down the line. “Withdraw to the first wall! Bring the wounded!
As the men retreated, a short volley of arrows spun out from overhead, unexpectedly hacking apart the back of the Saxon lines, preventing those who were waiting to engage from acting as reinforcements. The Saxons were forced to look up and cling to their shields.
“I want my armor,” Morgana told Geraint as the foot took refuge behind the first wall.
Geraint looked suitably horrified. “Your Majesty, your commanders-“
“It was Uther’s habit to lead his knights in the charge,” Morgana replied, “as it was Arthur’s. I am not a Pendragon, but my father was the same way.”
With a pained look, Geraint bowed.
Leon was helping Bedivere unclip the reins of his gray gelding when Morgana rode up, helmet under her arm. This wedge of trees that ran out from the hill was an obvious hiding place, and she had no illusions that the Saxons weren’t expecting at attack from this angle. Still, the Saxons wouldn’t be able to predict the timing of the attack and the size of the force against them, so long as her people stayed quiet.
Olaf’s men were well-disciplined, led by the king himself. He nodded as Morgana took her place at the front of the line.
They wouldn’t be able to just smash forward as a solid line, owing to the trees. Instead, they would need to burst out in small clumps, which was better against axe-throwers anyway. More room to maneuver. The tactics were sound enough. Morgana just wished she couldn’t hear the howls of battle in the distance and know that men were dying while she waited.
Bedivere saw her bay mare prance. “Easy,” he said quietly, kneeing his horse up beside her and away from Leon, who was now checking Kahedin’s girth. “It’ll go worse for our foot soldiers if we get the timing wrong.”
“I hate standing still,” Morgana admitted in an undertone.
Bedivere’s face softened. “I know. But Palamedes and his men are out there fighting right now because they trust us. Can you trust them?”
She ground her teeth. “It’s not a matter of trust. I just hate to lose my men, any of them.”
He turned to peer out of the woods. “I’m not good with words. Never have been. But I don’t think it’s always a bad thing to worry too much, as long as you can still do what you have to. Leon’s like that, you know. Always fretting about everyone like a mother hen.” He smiled, and his voice thickened. “It’s not a bad thing.”
Morgana looked away, blinking.
The moment was interrupted by a cry from the heights above, and then the whistling of a volley of arrows.
“One,” Bedivere said quietly.
Leon and Kahedin mounted, and the knights began to pull into groups. Screams came from the Saxon foot, which had just finished crossing the river.
More whistling. “Two.” Morgana put on her helmet. All around her, other men did the same, checking straps one final time, horses moving restlessly beneath them.
They waited a full minute until the third volley went over, and Bedivere put two fingers between his teeth and whistled, a piercing sound that cut through the woods. Then he shoved his hand into the gauntlet Leon held out for him, closed down his faceplate, and drew his sword.
“Go!” Morgana screamed, urging her mare onwards to stay with Leon and Bedivere’s group. Geraint was falling behind in the veritable sea of Saxons they were fighting, but Morgana couldn’t focus on that now. The Saxons had a second force of horsemen now fording the river; her knights had to intercept them before they gained a foothold on dry land.
She leaned forward as her mare leapt over obstacles, and she tried not to look down. Everywhere the air stank of blood, enough to make her belly heave, but now was no time to focus on that. She had never trained to fight against footmen from a horse, and neither had many of the younger knights, she could tell. She saw Kahedin kick a spearman who’d caught his ankle and almost slip from the saddle in the process. Dinadan knocked the Saxon away with the bottom of his shield, and somehow Kahedin righted himself as Morgana shot past them both.
Mounted men poured over the ford now, their horses’ hooves churning the water dark with mud and gouging into the already torn bank as they pulled themselves out. Morgana met her first opponent sword-first. He had light gray eyes and was quick with a shortsword. She got him under the arm when his horse slipped, and she watched as shock swept over his face and he tumbled backwards over his horse’s rump to land face-down in the shallows. He twitched once and lay still.
Using his riderless horse as a shield, she maneuvered to where the bank sloped more invitingly from the water up to the hard ground above. An axe whizzed past her ear and landed somewhere behind her with a meaty thunk and a horse’s scream. She didn’t turn.
She blocked the next man with the dead Saxon's horse, planting her boot behind the horse’s foreleg and urging it to startle sideways. Another man came at her from the other side, and she spent a moment slicing through his armor in a way that left her almost as shocked as her opponent. The blade in her hand began to glow faintly gold.
“Gwen,” Morgana breathed, thinking, You didn't tell me it would glow!
While she was distracted by the next Saxon, the soft bank beneath her suddenly gave way, sending her mare stumbling forward into the river itself. Morgana cried out, feeling the sweat-soaked saddle slip away from her, and then she was sliding over the mare’s withers and into the shallows, rolling across a jumble of smooth stones and landing face up, stunned, water rushing over her forehead and down her screaming body.
For a long moment she lay there, mind and limbs a useless jumble within her heavy armor. Then some deeper instinct drove her to sit up, gasping for air, her hair streaming everywhere. Her helm was rolling away downstream, tossed by the quick water. She grabbed for it instinctively, but it slipped away too fast to catch.
Hooves danced around her, threatening with their weight. She dodged, scrambling sideways with empty hands. Above her, she heard shouts in the Saxon’s guttural language. Woman, they said, and queen.
Hands swooped down at her from above, not with weapons but to grab, to pull. They were trying to capture her. She rolled onto her hands and knees and crawled frantically over the loose stones, crying out when someone got a hand in her hair and began to pull her up and backwards.
There was a glow in the water, only a foot or two beyond her reach. A golden glow, long and thin like her sword. Morgana scrabbled after it mindlessly, unable to catch hold as she was yanked painfully upwards-
-and dropped. Her knees hit first, and she hissed, biting her cheek. The shock of the fall dented her greaves deep enough to bruise and numbed one leg from the knee down, but she dragged herself forward those last few precious steps and grasped the hilt of the sword Gwen had made.
Immediately, a shock of warmth ran through her. She hadn’t realized how cold the water pooling inside her armor and soaking her clothes really was until that moment. The warmth slid down her spine and made itself at home in her body, tingling softly.
Someone grabbed her left arm. She turned to smash the pommel of her sword in to his face and froze, a mere hand’s breadth away, as she recognized Tristan’s shield and his wide, scared eyes.
“Morgana,” he breathed, tugging at her arm, trying to help her mount up behind him.
She swung her leg up, but before she could bridge the gap to the back of the saddle, an ax whirred through the air, the handle striking Tristan a glancing blow on the helm as it passed. With a cry he toppled forward, his weight bearing her back down into the cold water. His horse screamed, and spun away, charging upriver.
Morgana found herself on her backside once more, Tristan’s weight across her front and his shield bruising her sword arm. He looked dazed, blood trickling sluggishly from one corner of his mouth.
“Tristan!” she cried, belly clenching in fear. She shook his shoulders. “Tristan!”
His head rolled, and then he lifted it, blinking hard. “Hurts,” he said quietly.
She felt up behind his head. “You have a bloody huge dent in your helmet,” she told him. “You’ll have a scar and all the other squires will wish they’d snuck out to join the fighting too.” Please, let that be all.
Tristan grinned slowly, still blinking. “Sir Dinadan’s goin’ to kill me.”
“I don’t doubt it.” Satisfied that he would at least stay conscious, Morgana pushed him up and off her. He went surprisingly easily for a deadweight. How had she not noticed before how light he was, even in full armor? No wonder he moved so fast on his feet.
She stood and looped his arm over her neck. “Come on now. We’ve got to get to the bank.” She didn’t know why the Saxons weren’t grabbing for her anymore, but she couldn’t stop to find out. Tristan needed a healer, and she needed a horse and a new shield.
“Can’t,” Tristan said, his feet dragging.
“Yes you can,” Morgana insisted. His chest was so thin she could wrap her arm around it almost entirely. Why hadn’t she noticed that before?
“No, I mean we can’t. Look.” He nodded at the bank.
Morgana, who had been watching their footing on the slick stones, looked up. Her eyes widened.
The bank was a whipping line of intense fighting. Saxons were lined up two and three deep between Morgana and the rest of the army. No wonder they’d stopped trying to grab her! They hardly needed to. They could defend the river more easily than her own men could defend the shore. She and Tristan were cut off, isolated. The Saxons could take them whenever they pleased.
“Not while I’m still breathing,” Morgana muttered, switching to hold Tristan up with her left arm and draw Gwen’s sword with her right. Come and get me, she thought grimly.
She remembered Nimueh's promise, and she considered it in that moment. If she could save Tristan, what matter that she lost something of her mother's? Tristan and the mirror couldn't even be weighed on the same scale. Resigned, she opened her mouth to shout-
A man and a horse bellowed in unison. Morgana’s eyes jerked left, and her jaw dropped.
Kay, on his black gelding, had taken a running leap and was sailing over the heads of the unprepared Saxons, stumble-landing in the river with a great splash. For a moment it looked like they might both go down, but somehow the horse recovered.
“Wow,” Tristan whispered, eyes shining.
“That idiot,” Morgana grumbled back, but she couldn’t help the smile that tugged her lips.
Kay rode up carefully, one eye on the uncertain Saxons and the other sizing up Tristan’s injuries.
“Get on my horse,” he said, dismounting. “Both of you.”
“No chance,” Morgana replied automatically. It didn’t take a genius to see Kay would be stranded here ankle-deep in freezing water alone, even if she and Tristan somehow made it to shore riding double on a horse that had just made the jump of its life.
Kay’s face darkened. “Listen to me, because I’ll say this only once.” His voice was stretched, close to snapping. “You will get on this horse, with or without the boy, and you will get out of here. Do you understand me?”
She looked at him for a long moment. The iron in his eyes was like Uther, the adamant tone, the desire to protect. But.
“I’m your queen,” she said lightly, leaning forward to tap his breastplate with the pommel of her sword. “The ordering goes the other way round.”
“Morgana,” he growled.
She shook her head. “No. We do this together or not at all. If either of you goes down, I’m staying too."
“Ow,” said Tristan quietly, then, “I can walk.”
“Get on the horse,” Morgana and Kay ordered in unison. Morgana’s lips twitched; Kay glared. Tristan grumbled as he was shoved up into the stirrups like a small child.
The Saxons had made a decision during their argument, a group of about ten men detaching from the fray and riding out to meet them, hooves splashing up water.
“Ready?” Morgana asked, taking her sword in both hands.
Tristan wobbled atop of the horse, then steadied himself with one hand against the saddle. “Ready.”
Kay drew his sword and took his stance, not bothering with a reply.
Then the Saxons were upon them.
For the next eternity, there were two Morganas, parted from each other like bark peeled from a tree.
The trunk was a woman fighting for her life back to back with a man she might have called brother in another lifetime. The part that peeled free became a hawk floating over the battlefield, watching first one moment, then another. The woman sliced a Saxon in half and felt hot blood spray across her face. The hawk watched Sir Geraint go down under four determined spearmen, limbs flailing.
There! the hawk cried in her mind. Help him!
And like a battle horn calling over the field, two knights came riding. The broader one in front carried a blank white shield, while the taller, thinner one behind bore plain black. Together, the black knight and the white thundered across the bloody ground and crashed into the spearmen, knocking them back like splinters of wood. While the white knight fought, the black knight dismounted and gently laid Geraint’s still body over his own horse, then mounted behind.
Morgana slammed back into her own body, feeling the shock of it run down both arms.
Kay was breathing like a bellows behind her, and the water around her ankles was gurgling, laughing, forming another image.
Palamedes sounding a charge, his men pouring over the walls…
...Aglovale's guard going down under a hail of arrows...
…Nimueh watching from the top of the ruins, eyes tracking intently…
…Elaine and her husband Nantres riding up within sight of Cameliard, the castle quiet in the distance, the banner of Cornwall snapping in the breeze beside them…
…Saxons sneaking around the back of the hill, creeping up between the stones toward the healers’ tents-
-only to be ambushed by a crowd of women and boys armed with kitchenware, skewers and skillets, every mundane metal cooking implement suddenly brought to bear on the startled men; the charge led by none other than Gareth and Gwaine, a matched pair of ruffians armed with roasting spits and sheer lack of self-preservation…
…the ashes of the basilisk blowing, blowing, until they fluttered through the fingers of the woman in red and caught in the spill of her blond hair. She raised soot-covered fingers and touched them to a strange crystal.
“What is it?” A man who looked like a feral wolf stepped up behind her, two swords strapped to his back, lanky hair falling across his face. “Which way goes the battle, my love?”
“Hengist has been goaded out of his tent.” The woman smiled sharp as a knife. “Now we shall see.”
The man laughed, leaning forward to kiss her neck…
Morgana slammed home again with a shock to find her body moving without her command, automatically blocking the heavy axe aimed at her throat. The sword in her hand hummed, glowing brighter.
“There’s something happening at the camp!” Kay yelled, trying to catch Tristan’s reins and pull him back tighter with them. “The Saxon camp. There!”
Morgana risked a glance, and indeed, there was some kind of fuss kicked up. Men and horses boiled outward as if pushed by some inner force within their own ranks. A moment later, those ranks broke, and she saw him. A giant of a man, more like a bald bear than a human, came lumbering up to the water’s edge carrying the most enormous battle axe she had ever seen.
“Camelot!” The man bellowed, face red with rage. He brought down his axe on one of the wide, flat stones of the ford. The stone cracked clean in two with an earth-shattering sound. Morgana had to fight the urge to drop her sword and cover her ears.
The Saxons around them drew back abruptly, leaving the ragged trio facing Hengist, King of the Western Saxons and personal enemy of Uther Pendragon.
“Let me take care of this,” Kay muttered.
“Like hell,” Morgana muttered back, and they moved forward together, cautiously.
Hengist stamped like a rampaging bull, snorting and furious as he bellowed, spittle flying from his lips. His giant axe swung in great arcs, a wall impossible for a single swordsman to break through. The other Saxons hovered, waiting to see what would happen. Morgana also felt distant eyes on her and knew Nimueh and Morgause were watching.
“You go high, I’ll go low,” she said quietly to Kay.
He glanced at her sideways, his mouth quirking. “Learning a few things from your own knights, are you?”
“A few,” Morgana acknowledged, thinking of how Leon and Geraint had fought together in Kahedin’s trial back in the spring. She pictured herself in Geraint’s place, moving in low with short, swift jabs. She took a breath and let it out slowly. “Let’s go.”
They began in unison, stepping forward to the sound of Sir Ector’s voice echoing out of the past, calling the motions, correcting their form. Morgana could hear him as if he were standing on the bank now, directing them. She knew Kay could hear him too. All through her childhood, Morgana had grown up isolated from other young people her age, except for the occasional relative. There were few people her own age who really knew her, whom she could trust. In this moment, in the shared memory and movement of their bodies, she knew Kay would always be one of them.
They attacked Hengist from two sides at once, Kay arcing overhanded from above and Morgana jabbing at the joins in his armor from below. Hengist spun his axe around, trying to catch them both on the same pass, then dipping and spinning it much too fast. Morgana shouted a warning, but the blade caught Kay in the chest and sent him flying back into the river.
Morgana screamed. Her vision narrowed, red at the edges, as she brought her own blade down sharply while Hengist was still trying to bring his axe around. She sliced his head clean off, sending it bouncing down the ford. His body stood a moment longer, then crumpled, staining the water red.
The Saxons went still.
Morgana flew sideways to where Kay lay. Tristan on horseback hovered above him, sword out, staring wild-eyed at the Saxons all around. Morgana dropped her sword, which was glowing more red now than gold, and threw herself on her knees, pulling Kay’s head up out of the water and into her lap.
“You stupid, stupid,” she gasped, yanking at his helm. She was well aware that Hengist had swung for Kay because he’d underestimated her. He’d aimed at who he thought was the real threat.
“If you’re dead I’ll kill you,” she hissed, finally getting his helm up and off.
His lips were parted and purpling. She waited an eternal moment, and then slowly, slowly, he dragged in a painful breath and let it out, coughing up water weakly. She helped him turn on his side so he could cough up more.
He was a sodden, bloody mess, and so was she, and Tristan above them was dazed and barely clinging to his saddle. That was how Olaf's men found them as they broke through, bearing the news that Horsa, too, was dead.
Odin sued for peace.
“I’m sorry,” Morgana whispered. She held Aglovale’s hand gently between both of hers. His face was tight with pain.
“I’ll be fine if they’ll just get the damn thing out,” he insisted, then hissed again, his hand jerking. Morgana held on, refusing to let him reach for the arrow shaft himself. “Where’s Tor?” he gasped. “Where’s Palamedes?”
“Tor is guarding the river in case the Saxons change their minds,” Morgana reminded him. “Palamedes is on his way. He has to make sure the foot soldiers are cared for.”
Aglovale closed his eyes. “Right. Right.”
The low tent was stifling and full of groans. It was one of dozens of healers’ tents set on the sheltered back side of the hill, near the cookfires but not close enough to catch if one sparked too much. Healers and camp followers milled in and out, as did soldiers who had slipped away from the lines to check on their friends and relatives.
This particular tent was for the gravely wounded. Morgana could hear a man sobbing in the corner and tried to block out the sound. Aglain was working as quickly as he could. He would be here soon. Aglovale himself had insisted, in his more lucid moments earlier, that the more severely wounded by seen to before himself. That his own case might be hopeless had gone unspoken but understood.
An arrow, red-shafted with black fletching, stuck out at an ugly angle between his shoulder and collarbone. Iseult had taken one look at it and turned white, saying it was far too close to the artery for her to remove. She had insisted Aglovale lie very still, his head propped on blankets so Morgana could give him sips of water.
On her other side, Kay groaned softly in his sleep, the herbs he had been given doing their work of keeping him unconscious while his ribs knit back together. Morgana spared a glance at his stubbled face and sighed. She hated the smell in here, but the alternative was hiding outside with the other leaders, and she couldn’t face that, either. At least, that’s what she told herself. Guilt lingered in the corners of her mind as well, guilt that Kay had been injured helping her, and Tristan as well. Guilt that she had hidden Morien from Aglovale’s whole family, thinking to introduce him at some more opportune time, after the war.
It was starting to look like that time might not come.
“Did you ever,” Morgana began, as Aglovale sweated in silence, “all those years ago, when you were in Moorish lands, did you ever meet a woman?”
Aglovale breathed in and out slowly, then cracked open one eye. The beard on his chin stuck out like a bottle brush, damp with sweat. “I’ve met a lot of women,” he rasped, “most of them other men’s wives. You’re not mistaking me for my father, are you?”
Morgana shook her head. “No, I. There’s a boy. I should have asked you sooner.”
“The one who made my father kick up such a fuss. I wondered who you were hiding.”
Morgana sighed and hung her head. “I should have just told you. I. He said he would issue a challenge to the death against whoever got in the way of his quest. Well, I mean. Against his father, if he found him and the man refused to go back and marry his mother.”
“Boys say things they don’t mean,” Aglovale muttered. His eyes were distant now, staring up at the tent ceiling. “What’s his name?”
“Morien. I think his father left before he was born, not even knowing his mother was pregnant.”
“Poor lad.” Aglovale lay quietly for a few moments. “Well, you’d better bring him in.”
Morgana jerked her head up, surprised. “You really think he might be yours?”
“What I think,” Aglovale breathed carefully, then continued, “what I think is that I can’t guarantee anything once your healer puts his hands on me. If you think his father was of my House, I want to meet him before then.”
Morgana nodded, laying his dark hand on the pale blanket. “Hold onto that,” she said quietly. “Don’t touch the arrow. Please.”
He nodded, a tiny movement of his head and nothing more. “I’ll live long enough for you to bring him here. That’s a promise.”
She nodded and rose, leaving him alone.
The tent flap opened as she reached it, and Palamedes ducked in, almost running into Morgana.
“How is he?” Palamedes whispered, eyes wide and bloodshot. Morgana wondered if he’d been crying, but she could never tell what he was thinking once he pulled himself together. That she had ever seen his mask slip at all astonished her sometimes.
“In pain but handling it,” she replied. “He needs to stay very still and not touch the arrow. His injured arm is bound to the cot, but if you could hold his other hand to keep him from touching the wound, that would help.”
Palamedes nodded, clearly grateful to be given something meaningful to do. Morgana sympathized.
“I’m off to find Morien. He wants to meet the boy.”
Palamedes’s eyes widened. Then he sighed, deflating. “I was sure he would. Best he do it now, just in case. Besides, I doubt the lad will attack an injured man. Lancelot’s trained some of that hotheaded rashness out of him.”
Morgana nodded. “I’m more concerned about whether his brothers will acknowledge any commitments he makes now.”
Palamedes shook his head firmly. “They will. You don’t know them like I do. A promise by one of them is a promise by all, and they follow through on their promises.”
“I hope so.”
It took her many precious minutes to find Morien. Had he still been in his distinctive, all-black armor, she would have had no trouble. As it was, she scanned the various tent areas for tall, thin boys with dark hair and faces, and found none. Even enlisting Gareth and Gwaine in the search - the latter cheerfully sporting a puckered gash on one arm stitched up by one of the camp followers - did no good. It was not until she heard Lancelot’s familiar rumble that she turned sideways into the horse posts and saw who she was looking for.
He sat on a three-legged stool gently washing a slash across the flank of a quivering gelding. Morien dipped his rag into his bucket, lifted, and let the water stream carefully over the cut. When he finished, Lancelot moved in with a needle and thread, and he and Morien switched places so Morien could hold the horse’s head and soothe it while Lancelot worked. After a quick set of nine stitches, they packed herbs over the wound and wrapped yet more rags around it as a bandage. Morgana would have laughed at the strangeness of it if they hadn’t been so solemn in their movements and speech.
“Morien,” she called quietly. He looked up, his eyes sad. He didn’t look at all like the boy she had met a few weeks ago.
“There’s someone I want you to meet.”
She let Morien go in alone, still covered in horse hair and dirt. She would have offered to let him wash, but she’d wasted enough time watching him finish with the horse. The movement of the sun felt too quick now, dipping down to the horizon and painting the sky a dozen colors.
Palamedes came out to meet her. “I left them alone,” he said. “The boy seemed to understand what was happening, and I don’t think he wanted me to see him cry.”
“So Aglovale is his father after all?”
“He said something about a ring, and the boy pulled one out, so I suppose it must be true.” He shook his head. “He looks just like Pellinore did when we were young, though. It’s no wonder Uncle mistook him.”
Morgana sighed and sat down heavily on a piece of crumbling wall. It was warm from the sun.
“I made them waste time,” she whispered, putting one hand over her eyes. “Instead of just telling him flat out that he couldn’t have his way and then introducing him the moment they arrived - I should’ve-“
“None of that,” Palamedes said thickly, putting his hand on her shoulder. “I suspected too, and said nothing.”
That does not absolve me, Morgana’s mind insisted, but her thoughts were interrupted by a soft, “Oh.”
She looked up and saw Iseult, with Brangaine trailing after her. Both women looked tired and overworked. There was blood spattered across the hem of Brangaine’s apron.
Palamedes didn’t speak, but his eyes were trained on Iseult’s face. She was looking down at her shoes.
Morgana rose quickly, moving to take Brangaine’s arm. “If you could spare a moment, I have a question-“ Morgana began quietly, tugging as Brangaine looked back at Palamedes, eyes wide.
They were still close enough to hear when Iseult said, “I’m too busy to speak with you now, but I should. Soon.”
Palamedes reply was too soft to carry the words, but the tone of is was resigned, hopeless.
“What a mess,” Morgana muttered to herself. Beside her, Brangaine sighed agreement.
Rather than leave her to her own devices, Brangaine urged Morgana toward another healing tent. “You asked about Sir Geraint earlier,” she explained. “No one could answer then, but I think you can see him now.”
“I should get back to discussing the withdrawal-“ Morgana didn’t really want to see Geraint, if things were that bad.
Brangaine’s face twisted up, like Gwen when she was about to disagree with someone important. “Begging your pardon, Your Majesty, but I think you should come in.”
Right. She was a queen, not a coward. She was going in.
Brangaine lifted the flap and froze. Morgana crowded up behind her, suddenly panicked. When she saw what Brangaine was looking at, she relaxed.
Enid was sitting by her husband’s side. Enid, who was supposed to be safe back in Camelot. Enid, wearing a servant’s dress and her copper hair uncovered - no cream-colored snood anywhere to be seen.
Geraint was blinking up at her like he’d just awoken. His chest was bare and swathed in bandages that dipped down below the edge of the blanket covering him. It wasn’t clear if he was wearing clothing on his lower half under the blanket, but from the way his cheeks pinked sharply, probably not.
“Enid,” he said, wondering. “Did I die?”
Enid’s lower lip trembled. “No. I would be much angrier with you if you had.”
He turned his face away into the pillow. “Don’t worry. I’ll do my best not to leave you a widow twice over.”
Her hands clenched, unclenched. “Do your best not to leave me at all. If you, if you want.” Her hand found its way to the pale strips of bandage across his chest, brushing lightly with fingertips before clenching into a fist again.
He turned back to her, eyes wide. “I, but.” His mouth opened and closed. “You don’t - I was your second choice. I know that. I was grateful you said yes when I asked for your hand, but I won’t ask you to lie.”
“What?” Enid’s normally calm face twisted in confusion.
“When we were children,” Geraint explained, altogether too sincere. “You were always following after Eric. And I was happy for him, I swear! If I'd been there when he faced the gryphon, I would have shielded him with my own body. I only wanted you to be happy together.”
Enid was staring down at him now, open-mouthed. “You bloody great fool,” she whispered.
He nodded against the pillow. “I am, but I’m not sorry I asked. I wanted to make sure you were provided for. Even if I die, my lands will keep you settled for life. You won’t need anyone else. You can stay Eric’s forever.”
“And what,” Enid asked quietly, “if I don’t want to spend the rest of my life mourning the first man I loved? What if I would rather spend it with the second?”
Geraint looked befuddled, as if he was trying to work that out in his head but was too herb-addled or in pain to do so.
“Oh, for land’s sake.” Enid leaned forward and pressed her lips to his.
“Um,” whispered Brangaine, accidentally stepping on Morgana’s foot as she backed out and lowered the tent flap carefully. Morgana just stood still and stared at the closed flap for a moment, then shook her head to clear it.
“Not a word to anyone about that,” Morgana murmured.
“About what?” Brangaine said.
Morgana wondered how many people’s secrets the girl already kept, and if she really did tell Iseult everything.
When Morgana staggered into her tent that night, long after dark, she found her bedding glowing. Digging through, she found her mother’s mirror under the blankets, casting a silver glow. With a sigh of relief she breathed on it, expecting Elaine.
A tumble of blond curls spilled across the surface, then Morgause turned her head and smiled.
Morgana wanted to throw the mirror down in disgust, but it was her only link to Elaine. Instead, she gripped the handle harder.
“What do you want?”
Morgause looked hurt at her tone. “To congratulate you on your victory today, of course. I saw your performance in the river. Absolutely brilliant, to See and fight at the same time. Tell me, where did you find the sword?”
Morgana took a deep breath. “You watched me fight for my life with my cousin and my childhood friend at my side, and you didn’t think to help me at all, even though you and I are closer by blood?”
Morgause’s expression darkened. “Hengist was dead the moment he stepped in the river. His own Seers told him that. Only his fury at you overrode his good sense. If he had come close to touching a hair on your head, the water itself would have betrayed him. The women of our House are women of water, Morgana. Vivianne, Ygraine, Modron, and you and I. The rivers are our life’s blood.”
“I don’t understand,” Morgana whispered, not liking the way the words reverberated inside her bones, settling into the empty spaces of herself like water filtering through cracks in the floor. Why did Nimueh offer me a power I already have?
“Most magic is learned,” Morgause told her gently. “Most magic is at least somewhat a choice, at least a choice to practice. But for some few, there is no possibility of choice. Some of us are born with gold already in our eyes and power in our infant fingertips. Someone protected you and Elaine for years, probably our mother. Perhaps Elaine shielded you after our mother died.” Morgause’s lips pursed unhappily at the thought, then she let it go. “Whoever protected you also sealed your powers. I didn’t even know you were truly of our House until you fought the Questing Beast. Nimueh urged it to sleep again for your sake, you know. Usually, the priestesses don't interfere when the magic in the land rejects its king.”
“Nimueh. You know her?” Morgana felt dazed with the shifts in what she thought was solid ground beneath her feet.
Morgause smiled gently. “She was my mentor. My adoptive mother. The only reason she has spared Gaius for so long is that he brought me to her.”
I feel like I don’t know anything, Morgana thought. The world felt like a vast bed of secrets, layer after layer, most impossible to know when it seemed smoothest and simplest.
But one thing. One thing she did know. “You’re Cenred’s pet sorcerer, aren’t you? You stood there with his army, ready to loose them on us if you saw an opportunity.”
Morgause laughed. It was a rich, deep sound, like velvet.
“Oh Morgana. Morgana, no. Cenred thinks this is his army. He stands in front of it and makes pretty speeches. But it is and has been mine from the start. And I have different plans.”
“Such as?” Morgana’s mouth was dry.
“Such as smashing the Saxons while they’re already weak. I don’t like all of your allies, I will admit. But all of them respect the power of the Old Religion. Uther took his madness with him. Now the threat to the future lies in the east. Camelot no longer hunts magic users. The resistance in Camelot and other kingdoms can use what they have learned to encourage uprisings in Saxon-held territories. We can push them back into the sea, Morgana. We can.”
Her eyes were bright, like she was looking into a dawn no one else could see. Now Morgana understood Nimueh’s desire that Camelot take in Queen Catrina. Catrina and Morgause shared the same unlikely dream. Likely, Nimueh shared it too.
Morgana wondered. “Do the Saxons have no priestesses of their own you could call on for compromise?”
Morgause made a face. “They have goddesses, but no separate, powerful priestess clan. Their rituals are performed by men. They do not acknowledge us.”
“They acknowledge me,” Morgana reminded her.
Morgause shook her head. “As a warrior, perhaps. But make no mistake: they will call you a witch, and they will not treat you with honor. They will not accept that the rules of combat apply to you, who are neither male nor female in their eyes. You will not receive the rights of either.”
“Then it’s just as well I plan to beat them back every time.”
Morgause smiled. “You truly are our mother’s daughter.” She looked away from the mirror, then back. “The moon is high. You should sleep, and we will speak later.”
“We will,” Morgana agreed. She still had so many layers of secrets to peel back. So many events that had happened before her eyes opened to the world.
“Good night,” Morgause whispered. “Sleep well.”
Morgana did, deep and undreaming.
Three mighty beasts by Lancelot were slain, all immortal and impervious to mere strength of arms: a gryphon in the days of Arthur, by Merlin's magic aided; a fire-breathed salamander, cousin to the dragons, with aide from his squire Morien; and a basilisk, born once every third generation, stone-gazed king of serpents that kills any man who touches it. And Lancelot did kill these three with the help of Merlin the Emrys, Prince Morien, and the Witch-Queen Morgana, who were all bosom friends of that good knight. For these deeds was he given the crest of Camelot and made a champion of its Queen.
Chapter 11: Epilogue
The war council stayed up half the night arguing. Tor dragged himself away from the river to sit in Aglovale's place at the fire. He was lighter skinned than his brothers, and the bags under his eyes showed. Morgana wanted to let him go, but there was too much to discuss, and Anglesey had to be represented.
An hour after midnight, Olaf stood and groaned, stretching. "I'm for bed," he declared. "We've sentries all along the river and around this hill. Odin will send envoys tomorrow, and if we stay up all night arguing, we'll be asleep on our feet when he arrives."
Lot nodded. "I agree. After we hear Odin's response to our terms, we can discuss our withdrawal."
The others nodded. Despite Catrina's wishes, she was not here and this was not her battle. They would not be pushing forward any deeper into Saxon-held territory, at least not this time.
Two days later, they gathered together the wagons and the men. The Saxons had limped off, defeated. Tor and the knights of Anglesey remained behind with a contingent of bowmen from Powys to be certain of their retreat. They would catch up with the main allied army back at Camelot.
The wounded took up three dozen carts, and the dead only a few less. Aglain rode beside Morgana, nodding off on his horse. At their first rest stop, she had someone bring her rope and helped him tie himself to his saddle. Iseult rode on his other side with her maid Brangaine, and together they kept his horse on the road.
It was a long, dusty ride back to Camelot. The whole way, Morgana just wanted a bath and her bed with Gwen in it. Still, if it was bad for her, how much worse for the wounded riding in the carts, bumping their way home? Morien rode near the cart with Aglovale in it, hovering anxiously. He showed no signs of his former rebellion but instead seemed to treat Aglovale's life as if it were the key to his own.
The carts were too full by far. They had left empty provision barrels behind on the hill to slowly rot. The coopers would have plenty of work this year. Still, some of the wounded had to ride.
Morgana turned over her shoulder to check - ah yes, Geraint was still upright on his horse. Enid sat behind him, her arms around his waist more to support him than to keep herself from sliding off. She was very careful to preserve his dignity though, and Morgana smiled.
Olaf kneed his horse and came up alongside her.
“I heard a rumor," he said quietly.
Morgana cocked her head. "Which one?"
He didn't take the bait, remaining serious. "That Aglovale claimed one of your squires as his son. I'm not the only man who was eyeing him for my daughter. He would have made a good king of Powys."
"Acknowledging Morien doesn't mean he plans to marry the boy's mother," Morgana pointed out.
Olaf shook his head. "I wouldn't have even considered him for a son-in-law if he weren't an honorable man. Mark my words, he'll start off as soon as he's healed. We may end up with Lamorak on the throne after all."
"Would that be a bad thing?" Though Morgana would miss Aglovale more than she would have thought. He was like a more jovial, more open version of Palamedes. She wondered what they had been like, growing up together in the shadow of Pellinore the Younger.
"Lamorak has his father's weakness for women, unfortunately." Olaf looked up at the sky, where clouds were rolling in softly from the west. "It might rain tonight. We should stop early and get the tarps over the wagons."
They did stop early, and that night it poured, drenching the dry fields in every direction. Morgana slept on a raised cot above the muddy ground. She hoped the men were mostly dry.
The next morning dawned damp and cold. Morgana was only half-dressed when she heard shouts swell from the southern edge of the camp.
"What's going on?" she asked Brangaine and Iseult, who had slept in the next tent.
"I'll find out," Brangaine promised, marching off through the mud.
Some minutes later, Palamedes rode up with Brangaine perched on the saddle in front of him.
"Cameliard is relieved!" he called.
Morgana felt her heart swell with hope. "Leodegrance?"
"Alive!" Palamedes gently swung Brangaine down to the ground in front of her tent. She was blushing furiously. "The whole family was found alive in the dungeons when Garlot and Cornwall forced the Saxons to surrender. The keep is a shambles, but many of the knights survived disguised as peasants, sabotaging the Saxons at every turn. They let Garlot's forces in through the pig-gate at night. A taste of the Saxons' own medicine thrown back at them." He was smiling, a rare expression.
Iseult stood beside Morgana warily, but Palamedes only nodded to her pleasantly before riding off.
"He's a gentleman," Morgana said. Brangaine nodded, her cheeks still flushed.
"I suppose he is," Iseult said slowly. "I... didn't expect that."
To be fair, Morgana knew, she hadn't expected it either.
Ector met her on the steps of the castle. In typical pomp and circumstance fashion, he knelt and offered her Uther's keys - her keys back.
She was the only one who heard him whisper, "I would speak with you alone, Your Majesty."
"But why?" Morgana asked, truly puzzled. "Why would you want me to replace you?"
Ector remained kneeling in Uther's study, staring determinedly at the floor. He'd been in the same position for several minutes, repeating over and over that she needed to find a new Seneschal. Morgana was becoming exasperated. It wasn't that she didn't want to replace him. It was just that she didn't know why he had suddenly decided to force the issue.
"You need someone you can trust," he finally gritted out. "Seneschal is a position of utmost delicacy and understanding. I served Uther loyally for fifteen years, and he trusted me."
And I don't, Morgana realized, and he knows it.
She sat down heavily, passing her hand over her eyes. Gwen's words came back to her. He was always fair to you.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I was." She stopped, biting her lip. This had to be said. "I was afraid you would never approve of me."
"I'm your knight," he said to the rug. "It's not my job to approve or disapprove of you."
"You were also my swordmaster," she reminded him, "and one of Uther's closest advisors. I freely admit, I thought you might support another candidate if you thought I couldn't rule."
His lips thinned. "I would never."
"Gwen said you wouldn't," Morgana admitted. "I should have had her confidence."
"Guinevere said that?" He looked up finally, surprised.
"It seems she's a better judge of character than I am." The admission came easier than it would have just a few weeks ago. "So, will you reconsider?"
He thought for a moment, then shook his head. "This is not entirely your fault," he admitted. "I am too used to Uther. I doubt very much I could adapt quickly enough to be of use to you."
Morgana felt a pang of sorrow. The old was falling away, replaced by the new, but she wasn't entirely sure that was the best thing anymore. "Who would you recommend in your place, then?"
He blinked at her. "You would take my recommendation?"
"I would certainly consider it."
He looked torn for a moment, face shifting through a dozen expressions in quick succession before finally settling on uncertain. "Kay, then. If you would have him."
Morgana couldn't help but smile. "With all my heart. I like having someone about who'll yell at me."
"He'll definitely do that," Ector agreed. His uncertain expression was melting into fondness, and Morgana fancied it wasn't all directed at his crabapple son.
She held out a hand to him. "So, now that that's settled, will you please sit down and tell me what happened while I was gone?"
After a brief pause, he took her proffered hand and let her pull him to his feet. "Well, first is that a messenger from Alvarr arrived, and he has offered a limited alliance...."
King Esclabor embraced his sons in the courtyard, one after the other. They spoke to each other in an undertone. Morgana tried not to listen.
Aglovale was already bundled into the carriage, his wounded shoulder carefully bound. Morien sat across from him, perched beside his grandfather Pellinore, who was all smiles and coddling the boy. He was the most lucid Morgana had seen him since his arrival.
Tor stood beside her, watching.
"It's miraculous," he said. "I don't think I've seen him this calm in the past two years."
"He really does look just like his uncle Pellinore did," Morgana agreed.
Tor shot her an unreadable look. "His... uncle. Yes."
Before Morgana could ask what he meant, he smiled and turned to her, bowing deeply. "It was an honor to fight alongside you, Morgana of Camelot. I hope our kingdoms remain allies for years to come."
She bowed back. "As do I, Tor of Anglesey."
He laughed, a light sound, and mounted up with an easy swing. "Come visit us sometime!" he called. "Aglovale will finally have a wife!"
As he rode off to start the procession, Morgana saw Gareth leaning out the kitchen side door waving like mad at the carriage. Morien waved back.
"I'll come visit your mum!" Gareth called.
Morien's grin was blinding.
It was a subdued Camelot that turned out in its finery to watch the knighting. Many had lost friends or family in the battle, and though both Camelot and Cameliard were safe for the time being, the losses weighed heavily.
Still, the candles flickered merrily as Morgana stood from her throne and walked forward, carrying her sword. It hummed softly in her hands, content.
"My Lords and Ladies of Camelot," she called, "today we come together to celebrate. We have suffered many losses this summer, but we have also witnessed great courage...."
"Lovely night for a party," Gwen said conversationally, appearing at Morgana's side with no warning at all.
Morgana caught her drink, managing to only spill a mouthful. "Gwen!"
Gwen tsked and wiped Morgana's arm quickly with a napkin. "If you stain that dress, the laundresses will be furious."
"I thought you were off dancing with Sir Lancelot." Morgana didn't want to sound jealous. She had half done this for Gwen anyway. She deserved a knight.
"My feet are tired," Gwen declared. "Besides, half the young ladies in court want to dance with him now to make their fathers angry. It's becoming a fashion. Someone should warn him."
"Why didn't you?"
Gwen smiled fondly. "Because he's very graceful, even if he has no idea where to put his feet."
Morgana laughed, and impulsively grabbed Gwen's hand. "Come dance with me out in the garden."
"People will see," Gwen whispered, eyes darting around.
"Let them." Morgana was feeling reckless with wine and candleglow and victory. "Women dance together in the villages and no one cares."
"This isn't a village," Gwen pointed out, but she let herself by dragged outside by one hand.
The stars were very bright and close, hanging over the fruiting trees. Music drifted faintly out, just loud enough to follow the trilling melody. Morgana danced palm to palm with Gwen, whirling and twirling until they were dizzy, lifting Gwen at the end and spinning her around.
Gwen laughed and clung to her as she tried to regain her feet.
"For the past few months I've been scared to come out here without guards," Morgana admitted.
Gwen's fingers traced her throat, brushing the faint line that was invisible to the eye but not to touch. "For the past few years, I've been scared for you every day."
"You shouldn't have to be," Morgana said fiercely. "You should have a normal life. A husband, good prospects, children. You'd be great with children."
Gwen's eyes turned sad. "That all sounds lovely," she said, "except the most important part, which is that I wouldn't have you."
Morgana could think of nothing to say to that, so she let her fingers curl with Gwen's. They stood there under the apple tree, leaning together, while the stars wheeled above them in silence.