Chapter 1: The Darkest Hour I
It had been growing in her, this decision, through a miserable year of sickness, with her body and her magic turning traitor on her, refusing to heal. Lingering in life as a wreck because of some second rate, old traitor was the final insult. If Morgause was to die, she wanted to choose her death, and she wanted it to destroy her enemies once and for all. She was a warrior. She would make her death a victory.
As her plan unfolded, as Morgana gave up her protests and brought her to the Isle of the Blessed, Morgause grew only more sure of the rightness of her decision. Doubt did not start until the last moment, when she saw the look in Morgana's eyes, love and despair and a terrifying brokeness that had no business being there, not since Morgause had rescued her sister from the enslavement of the Pendragons and their treacherous servants. She'd felt the pain and terror from Morgana then, felt Morgana dying and had rushed to her side, and there was no reason to feel these emotions from Morgana now. Now that they'd reshape the world together.
A world in which Morgana would live alone. Maybe Morgause should have seen it sooner, but her despised weakness had not allowed her to focus on anything but the way to turn it into strength. Since Morgause had opened Morgana's eyes to the truth about the family that had stolen her years of childhood and youth , since Morgana had become the woman she was meant to be, there had been no more division in Morgana's heart. She'd loved Morgause, and no one else.
Sister, you will find someone worthy, in the new world where all enemies are gone, Morgause wanted to say, but she could not speak anymore. The despair she felt from Morgana was too great. Nothing but despair, resolve and emptiness beyond, and what if that was all that would be left for Morgana? What victory then?
With all her remaining strength, Morgause managed to open her lips at last, but Morgana brought down the knife, and the darkness that engulfed them both was complete.
Chapter 2: The Darkest Hour II
Agrivaine had loved his older sister Ygraine with the fierce, jealous devotion of a boy of fourteen when she had married Uther Pendragon, which was when he lost her the first time. It had been a political match, of course, but Ygraine had managed to fall in love with her husband, which was hard to understand, and had been when Agrivaine lost her the second time. Then she died, giving birth to Uther's son, and that third and final loss was worst of all. Hearing rumours, Agrivaine's older brother challenged Uther to a duel and died for it.
Agrivaine had no taste for fruitless revenge after that. Challenging Uther with the sword was pointless, and so he did not. Instead, he waited. Rarely, he visited Camelot, indulging Uther every few years in his need to tell himself he was not a murderer by playing host to Ygraine's youngest brother. Watching the boy grow, the parasite who'd taken Ygraine's life. Kill a child? Why, of course not. What would that accomplish? Uther in his obsession for an heir would simply make another match and would produce another legitimate son, sooner or later; Uther was still man enough for that. But inevitably, the time came when Uther was nothing but a shell anymore, and his heir whom Uther had bargained Ygraine's life away for, the only son Uther would ever have, stood poised to take the throne.
"You're all that is left of my sister," Agrivaine said with an avuncular smile to Arthur and meant it. It wasn't just about finally avenging himself on Uther for two lost siblings, or punishing Uther's heir for killing Ygraine. Arthur had Ygraine's blond hair and blue eyes, and her smile; it was good to see all this again and to know it meant nothing anymore, at last.
Bringing Arthur to ruin would mean leaving Ygraine behind as Ygraine had once left him. As she had chosen Uther over her family, so Agrivaine chose Uther's denied daughter over Ygraine's son. Maybe Morgana did not yet value and love him as she should, given the ally he was, the man he would be for her, but she would. Once Agrivaine had destroyed the last of Ygraine, once he could bury his past for good, he'd be free for a queen, beautiful and terrible, whom he had created, and she'd be his and no one elses.
Chapter 3: The Wicked Day
At some point when he's buried in musty old books, feverishly perfecting every healing spell he ever laid eyes on, it occured to Merlin that he could be wrong about this. That Gaius could be right. Maybe the best thing to do was to let Uther die a death that was long overdue anyway. Arthur would grieve and rage, to be sure, but after a while, he'd see that it had been, in fact, the death Uther himself would have wanted. Going out fighting, saving his son's life. The thought of Balinor welled up in Merlin again, with all the might have beens it carried, and the anger, regret and guilt of that day.
Yes, in time, Arthur would get over it. And if he was desperate enough to strike magical bargains now, without anyone else having suggested it, the thought that not all magic was evil must have been already in him. Could be brought out again, in a calmer time, brought to careful fruition.
And maybe not. In some ways, Merlin could read Arthur better than any of those books in front of him by now, and knew what Arthur would do at any given point, and in other ways, Arthur could still completely take him by surprise. Merlin had not been prepared for that request, not at all, though given how Uther had reacted when it had been Morgana who was dying, he probably should have been. So there was that possibility that Arthur would not think of magic kindly again, and even if not, even if he was already gradually moving to changing his mind... Here was a chance of not having to wait anymore. Not a year longer, not a month longer; maybe only days longer. Days before Arthur would announce that magic was no longer forbidden in the realm of Camelot. Days before Arthur would look at Merlin and see him, all of him.
He remembered the expression in Arthur's eyes when Morgause had conjured up the shade of Ygraine for him, that one time, the only other time, when Arthur had welcomed magic. That amazement, that wonder, that longing.
Gaius was wrong, Merlin decided, and knew he'd go through with the spell.
Chapter 4: Aithusa
The reality of Uther's death didn't completely sink in for Gaius until Merlin ignored his advise yet again in favour of helping Julius Borden, of all the people, find a dragon egg. Julius Borden, who once had carried Gaius' hopes nearly as much as Merlin did now, who had left when he was Merlin's age and was now not just a man, but a man of middle age, with hopes and dreams shrunk to the size of stolen treasure.
When you remembered the shipwrecks of life when they were not even at sea yet, you were truly old. And hardly anyone was left to be old with you.
Gaius hadn't written to Alice yet to inform her of Uther's death. If she was still alive, she would hear of it. If she was not, he did not want to know. It had been so sweet to see her again, to know once more she was alive, to love her and feel loved by her. That was how he wanted to think of her, alive, bustling about and creating better potions than he ever could. Not in a grave. As too many others were.
Uther now, too. He had loved Uther once, and that love had been eaten away by compromise and betrayal and disappointment until only the memory of love was left. But even so: his life had circled around Uther for decades, and now Uther was no more, and Merlin, who had taken Uther's place at the core of Gaius' existence years ago, sometimes seemed to drift away at an ever faster pace.
There was hardly anyone left now at Camelot who remembers life when Gaius was young, and not even that many who remembered the time before the Purge. In a few years, children would be growing up who do not remember another king but Arthur, who knew of Morgana not as the king's ward, the prince's foster sister, the much admired lady of Camelot, but only as a nightmare who had once taken Camelot, children for whom Uther was just a feared or at best distant legend.
This was how life should be, to be sure, but sometimes it made for a great loneliness, Gaius thought. Merlin left with Arthur and the knights, still in pursuit of that dragon's egg, and when Gaius had finished looking after anyone in immediate need of medical attention, painfully aware that there was no need anymore to look after Uther, locked in his silent world, he found himself wandering somewhat aimlessly through the castle until Gwen caught up with him.
"Do you have some time to spare?" she asked, and before he was aware of it, she had cajoled him into visiting the market with her, ostensibly to organize new supplies. He was aware that a younger man, able to help her carry what she bought, would have been a more sensible choice, but Gaius recognized kindness when he saw it, and just then was not in a mood to decline. It was a fine, sunny day, and as he escorted Gwen through the lower town, he noticed that the smiles and greetings extended to her these days came with hope and expectations in addition to friendliness. By now, there was no one in Camelot, no matter which station they had, who had not at least heard rumours about Guinevere the blacksmith's daughter and the new king. The friendliness shown her was real enough, but so were the expectations. Nobody would be able to talk to her anymore without wondering whether the woman closest to the king could not do something for them.
He wondered whether Gwen knew. Knew that her past, too, was drifting away ever faster, that she would no more be able to hold on to it than he could pretend to be still the young physician who'd come to a Camelot.
"Gaius," she said, interrupting his thoughts, "will you look at this?"
"At what, my dear?"
She pointed at two houses who were solidly built but otherwise had nothing remarkable about them. "This entire quarter," Gwen said, "was burned down when the dragon came upon us some years ago. And now there's not a single scorch mark left anywhere, or ramshack tents. "
"Indeed," Gaius said, and sighed, gratitude and worries intermingling. "Change can be a wonderful thing."
Chapter 5: His Father's Son
Gwen tried talk to her brother about Agrivaine and the unease Arthur's uncle causes her, but only once, before the army left to intercept that of Queen Annis. Granted, she wasn't at her best - a broken heart would do that to you - , but neither was Elyan, who immediately jumped to the wrong conclusion and assumed she wanted him to intercede on her behalf with Arthur.
"Look, I have sworn an oath," he said uneasily. "Arthur is my king. I'm sorry, Gwen, but I cannot tell him whom to love."
In the years of his absence, it had been easy to forget how infuriating Elyan could be.
"I would not ask you to. This is not about... that is not the reason why I distrust Agrivaine."
"No?" Elyan challenged. "Then why didn't you say anything when he let you have your say in the council chamber and did what you wanted and called you wise for it? They told us about that when we came back, you know. Gwen, Lord Agrivaine may not be the most likeable of men, but he is the King's uncle, and if he's turned against you now and advises the king not to see you anymore, that makes him one of the old nobility with their noses up high, but it doesn't make him a traitor."
If she were calmer, if she'd thought things through, she would have talked about what Gaius and she observed when the dead were loosened on the world, when everyone who could tried to stay indoors to be safe yet Agrivaine repeatedly rode out through the city, Agrivaine who otherwise had been afraid enough to want to shut the city gates against the countryfolk. But right then, Gwen was not calm, she was raw inside, and what she heard was mostly that Elyan, as usual, did not listen to a word she actually said.
"If you'd just listen," she said between fury and despair. If Agrivaine was false, she would lose brother, friends and Arthur at one stroke, not to mention that an army betrayed meant an army defeated, and who would protect the people of Camelot then?
"No," Elyan interrupted her second attempt at explaining before it really started. "I'm sorry, Gwen. I hope things will get better between you and the king. But you do not always know best, and maybe you should think about that."
What Gwen thought was that the knighthood had been getting to Elyan. They spent their childhood with him as the mischief maker who'd get into trouble and her as the one who'd make peace between him and their father. The good girl, he'd called her then, half in gratitude and half in envy and annoyance. Now, for the first time, he was someone admired and looked up to, Sir Elyan, Knight of Camelot, while she was still a servant. Or maybe she was being unfair, but right now, it was only the thought that Elyan was riding out to war and might not make it back alive that stopped her from boxing his ears, which she had not done since she was five.
"I will," she says instead, tersely, "if you will think of what I said, Elyan," and leaves, before anything else can go wrong.
When the army returns, with a war averted, peace negotiated and Arthur repentant of many things, bringing her flowers and apologies, Elyan later returns to her as well. Without apologies, because, being Elyan, he is not aware she has been angry with him. Instead, he excitedly described what has happened: Arthur secretly meeting with Queen Annis, offering and being granted single combat so no one else would die, winning the fight against Annis' champion, winning, more importantly, Annis' respect.
"And all the while," Elyan finished triumphantly, "Lord Agrivaine did not do a single thing. See?"
"Yes," Gwen said.
She loved her brother. But he still did not listen to a word she said.
Chapter 6: Servant of Two Masters
Apparently, Gwen wielded a mean ewer. Merlin could not remember anything of what had happened while he was under the influence of Morgana's snake, but his head still hurts, and he knows Gwen knocked him out twice because Gaius told him so, so he invited himself over to dinner to thank her. That, and he needed to escape Gerald and his perfect servant lessons.
"Arthur has gotten cunning in his cruelty," he said to Gwen when mentioning Arthur's response to his supposed two days drinking binge. "Time was when he would have just thrown something at me. Now it's lessons from someone he admits is the most boring person he ever met."
They shared a smile, and then Gwen grew serious and said: "He was incredibly worried about you, Arthur was."
And he did. Arthur singing his praises without making a joke of it when they were both on the run had convinced Merlin he must have been close to death, but he knew Arthur had meant every word. Which would have been gratifying, except that capture by Morgana followed afterwards, and talking to her reminded him of many things, including the fact she actually knew more about what he'd done in the past years than Arthur did.
Well, he definitely didn't want Arthur to find out about this latest interlude of playing incompetent assassin, so there was that.
"I could have killed him, Gwen," Merlin said. "I could have killed Arthur if not for you and Gaius."
The fish he'd brought earlier for them to share is lies heavy in his stomach. He feels sick.
"It wasn't you. You would never. And I wouldn't have let that happen," Gwen said quietly.
Gwen didn't know how easy it would have been for him, if he'd been in his right mind. He wondered whether it hadn't just been about yet another attempt at the throne for Morgana; whether this was still payback for poisoning her back when she trusted him. Making him Arthur's murderer.
I wouldn't expect someone like you to understand.
Maybe there were things Morgana understood all too well.
"You should compete at the next tournament with that ewer," Merlin told Gwen in an attempt to force levity back into the conversation, but her easy smile failed to appear. Instead, her clear brown eyes regarded him intently.
"I can't imagine what that was like," Gwen said. "Having someone else control your mind. Use you like that, against the people you love."
Everything that makes you Merlin will be gone.
He really couldn't remember the events themselves, but he remembered the hour with Morgana before that, vividly, every moment, and with it the growing horror that she was really able to do it, that he would become her puppet, that he would kill Arthur.
He also remembered the spell, because even then, terrified, he could not help himself. Observing the magic she was using, sensing it, memorizing every word.
Because, and that was the part he could never, ever tell anyone, not Gaius, and certainly not Gwen, he might need to use it himself.
"It's vile," Merlin said, not looking at Gwen. "And don't try to imagine. Because if there's one thing I'm going to make sure of, it's that it will never happen to you."
Chapter 7: The Secret Sharer
Agrivaine had ever been one to salvage, if not victory, then satisfaction from disaster. Given that he wouldn't be able to turn Arthur against Gaius again anytime soon, it occured to him that the reverse could be done and might be nearly as useful. He had originally planned of making his own apologies to the old man as publically as possible, but decided a more intimate surrounding would be more helpful for his true aim. So he visited Gaius' chambers instead.
"And thus," he concluded his elaborate declaration of repentance, "good intentions can lead us on a bad road."
"I must say, I was surprised when our young king told me to investigate you to begin with. After all, we are, I regret to admit, but friendly strangers, you and I, Gaius, while he has known you all his life."
This sadly failed to get a reaction out of Gaius other than a bland "life is full of surprises". Perhaps it was a bit too transparent an untruth; Gaius could be sure that it was Agrivaine, not Arthur, who started the investigation. And frustratingly, Agrivaine had not been allowed to be present during Arthur's most recent conversation with Gaius, which meant he had no idea what they told each other beyond expressions of regret. Perhaps a more truthful angle would be more efficient. With a twist, of course.
"Then again, you are blessed in Merlin's loyalties. I shudder to think what would have happened if he had not searched for you. After all, the king explicitly forbade us to look for you. To imagine your ordeal! Kidnapped, tortured in those ghastly caves, alone and having to believe nobody cared enough whether you lived or died to look for you while you went through hell."
Gaius didn't reply, and encouraged, Agrivaine continued.
"Honestly, if it had been me, if my years of faithful service and devotion had found such ill reward, I'd have died of a broken heart right then and there. We're blessed to have you still with us."
Agrivaine didn't have to fake the increasing indignation and bitterness in his voice. Unfortunately, Morgana had yet to appreciate everything he was doing for her, or indeed, anything at all, and while he was a patient man, it was hard sometimes.
"The young can be so heartless in taken one for granted," he ended, and sighed, feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders.
One of Gaius' eyebrows rose. "I'm not going to leave Camelot, my lord," the old man stated calmly. "But you would do well to leave the Lady Morgana."
The protest died on Agrivaine's lips before he spoke it as he realised there was no one but Gaius around to hear his response to what was an open accusation of treason. But obviously, time spent here was time wasted. Such pathetic loyalty had to reap its own reward. If Gaius chose to stay, he would live to see his hopes turned to ash.
Agrivaine turned away, and hoped Morgana had at least gotten her payment back from the useless warlock who could not even finish the job.
Chapter 8: Lamia
Hungry, hungry, she was always hungry. They made her thus and then abandoned her, and worse. They froze her in a sleep, but even her dreams were filled with hunger. Then the veil between the worlds tore, and the dead came, came for her, her very own dead whose lives she had taken, who were now hungry as she was, bit and pricked and were hungry and wanted it back, all that life, and so she awoke to fight them off and send them hunting for life elsewhere. As she did.
The dead were gone soon, and she the only hunter left, but the famine remained. Hunger, oh hunger, and only sometimes a feast. She did not care for lone travelers. They who made her had been many, and what she hungered for were those who lived together as her creators had gone, working together, striving for shared goals, loving each other. Then she could take from them more than their lives. She could take what her makers had never given her, had shown but withheld forever. Villagers, thieves, it did not matter, as long as they had each other, she would have them. Hunger, oh hunger.
The knights were good nourishment. She heard the woman and the wizard whisper to each other, but knew they would not be able to stop her. The woman had no magic and so she was no danger, and as for the wizard, Lamia would take him if she had to. She did not want to. He'd taste of loneliness, that man; of being outside, looking in; of wanting and not getting, oh, the hunger.
He'd be far too much like herself.
Chapter 9: Lancelot du Lac
Gwen had been the first friend Merlin had made in Camelot, and in many ways, she'd become what he thought was best about it, often a reminder of why it was worth fighting for, not just the Albion of the future but the Camelot of the here and now. It had seemed more than fortunate when Arthur fell in love with her, and she with him. In recent years, it had felt as if the three of them were threads ever more interweaving to form a new tapestry.
Now that tapestry was torn apart, and it felt as if his whole life was unraveling with it. He couldn't imagine Camelot without Gwen, or Gwen without Camelot. "Time," Gaius told him, "we can only hope for time to change things," and maybe that was so, but here in the present it felt like his world was breaking apart.
He had rarely been so helpless. If Arthur had yelled at him or reviled Guinevere when Merlin pleaded her cause, Merlin could have argued back. Shouted back. Been furious enough to leave himself. Instead, Arthur , calm and hollow, had agreed that Gwen was a good person, had even said he knew he'd forgive her sooner or later, and then had said the worst: that forgiveness was pointless because he could not trust her again, and without trust, they could not be together.
Gwen didn't say anything at all when Merlin came to her. The bleakness and guilt in her gaze was crushing. It was as if he was looking in his own future. Merlin didn't know when he'd stopped being afraid Arthur might hand him over to Uther or try to kill Merlin himself if he found out about the lies before he understood the reasons for them, but it was quite a while ago. He knew Arthur wouldn't harm him. Not that way, even if Arthur found out it was Merlin who put that final, fatal healing spell on Uther. No, but this, what Arthur was doing to Gwen right now, this was what he would do to Merlin. Send him away and not trust him again.
They looked at each other, Merlin and Gwen, and he wanted to tell her what Gaius told him, to hope for the future, that things would get better, but the words wouldn't come. He'd lied to her before, as he did to everyone in Camelot, but now he couldn't. She had never lied to him.
Gwen left as he watched, and he knew neither Arthur nor himself would have a future worth having until she came back.
Chapter 10: Herald of a New Age
There was a public proclamation about the new status of the druids as citizens of the realm, with the same rights as any other, and their prosecution declared a wrong. After waiting for a few days so the news could spread, Arthur, who thought a personal declaration to a living druid was due as well , went to Gaius and asked him where to find one.
There was a moment of silence. They were in precarious new territory, he and Gaius, ever since Gaius point blank told him he'd been wrong to blame the old sorcerer for Uther's death, and wrong to treat every magic user as evil. Arthur had understood both the blame and the trust in that statement. Now both were put to the test. It was one thing for Gaius to believe Arthur would not harm him for speaking his mind about magic, and another to entrust him with someone else's safety.
"Are you sure, Sire?" Gaius asks slowly.
Arthur wasn't sure about most things in his life right now, but this was an exception. There was a part in him which would always belong to his father that still screamed he was wrong, but the other screams, those from the camp which had been reawakened in him ever since they passed through it, were louder still. In a dark way, it was almost a relief, being able to focus on this and not on anything to do with Guinevere.
"Yes," he said, and Gaius nodded. A day later, he brought the news that the leader of the druids, the same one Arthur had encountered twice already, would meet with Arthur in the woods near the border to Lot's kingdom. Merlin came with him because he was Merlin and wouldn't have listened anyway even if Arthur had told him to stay at home, so ordering him away was besides the point.
All those years of taking Merlin along seemed to finally pay off because he was able to notice the silence in the woods now. At any rate, he grew still just when Arthur became aware of the missing birdsong as well, and sure enough, there was the druid leader, the man with the silver, curled hair. He had not come alone. There was a boy with him, and though he had only spent a day with this boy, and that years ago, Arthur recognized him. Mordred. Next to him, Merlin held his breath.
The druid greeted them with his usual dignity, and Arthur, feeling as if speaking a different language he had not yet mastered many words in, repeated what he had told the ghost possessing Elyan.
"We have heard of your proclamation," the druid said, regarding him with an undecypherable expression.
"The dead," the boy Mordred added, regarding him with the eyes which had reminded Arthur of another druid boy even the first time he'd seen the child, in Morgana's arms, "will always be dead."
"I know that," Arthur said, all too aware that this child, on another day of his life, could have been one of them.
Mordred looked from him to Merlin and back and then said: "Come here."
"Arthur..." Merlin began. Of course he'd be worried about the boy. Now that he knew. It had been like Merlin to live in Camelot for years, years in which Uther rarely, if ever, led any patrol, raid or skirmish because that was what Arthur did as his father's right hand, and still not even consider the possibility that anyone but Uther could have attacked the druid camp. One of Merlin's more pronounced qualities, both infuriating and wondrous, was that he had no problem listing all of Arthur's more mundane faults in the most respectless manner possible on a daily basis and yet insisted on this talk of once and future kings and seeing Arthur as someone worth dying for. Until Arthur had told him the truth about the raid; even in the moonlight, the horror on Merlin's face had been unmistakable.
No wonder he now considered Arthur as capable of harming a child. It was no more than the truth.
"I gave my word," Arthur said, to the druid, the boy and Merlin alike, and stepped closer. The older druid didn't say anything, at least not out loud. There were rumours that the druids could talk to each other's minds, and if such a conversation took place, Arthur had no way of hearing it. Mordred looked almost as old as Arthur himself had been the day he led that raid by now, though maybe it was simply a matter of having grown very fast. The expression on the boy's face, though, suddenly stopped being solemn and too old and became uncertain and very young.
"Where is your sister?" Mordred asked out of the blue, and something in Arthur's self possession shattered.
"Gone," he said through gritted teeth, and wished, not for the first time, he could have the past back, just for a day, with his father alive, Morgana at his side, and Guinevere just beginning to carve herself in his heart with her truths that were so different from those of his father. Knowing that it was impossible, and even wishing for it was wrong.
"No, she's not," Mordred said. "One day, I'll find her again. And then we'll find you."
With that, he turned and left, while the older druid for the first time looked less like a somewhat unearthly apparition and more like a sorrowful and slightly embarrassed father.
"We revere all life," the man said hastily. "And that is why we would not ally with the Lady Morgana. Mordred is only speaking for himself. "
Arthur recognized a veiled plea when he heard one. He was even starting to hear the implications of things unsaid, and right now, the druid's behaviour meant that they wanted to believe he was offering a genuine new law more than they wanted vengeance for their dead. The relief he felt was numb more than anything else. Because the dead were indeed dead and always would be, including his father, who, wherever he now was, would not forgive him for this day.
"Maybe that's all we can learn," Arthur said tiredly. "To speak for ourselves, and no one else."
Chapter 11: The Hunter's Heart
Gwen had never been a stranger to the darker sides of life. She had known loss before, bitter loneliness, and fear. Guilt, too, and grief; both had torn her heart out when Lancelot had sacrificed himself on the Island of the Blessed, and she knew he'd done it because she had made him promise to keep Arthur safe. But this was different. It was different because even when held for ransom by a greedy king who'd thought she was Morgana, even knowing ransom would never come and believing she would end up being eaten alive by Wildreen, Gwen had not felt that she had lost herself. She'd been afraid to die, to be sure, but she had not been afraid to look inside and wonder how it all came to be.
She wasn't afraid to die now. Not that she wanted to die, either. Instead, there was mostly indifference as she spun a story for Helios, who showed no sign of disbelief.
A month ago, the greatest sadness in her life had been the knowledge she would have to leave her house for good now , finally give it to someone else, and every other moment had been joy, with the world changing into what she always hoped it would become, knowing that she, too, was part of the change, her friends at her side, and Arthur hers as she was his.
We were happy. You felt it, too?
She'd made mistakes before, done things she regretted. But she'd always known why. Now she did not even have her memories to believe in anymore, not completely. Her life had become a grey fog to wander in, and she found it hard to care whether she did that in a pigsty or a bandit's cave.
The mention of Morgana's name was the first thing to pierce through that fog. It was still there, that wish to live, then, and she found her heart racing as she made her excuses, barely able to leave unseen. But if the sight of the woman who'd been once mistress and friend and then enemy rattled her out of her indifference and misery, her mind, once reawakened, did more. Morgana would not be here if she did not have a purpose. There was so much about Morgana that had changed , but this had remained true: if Morgana wanted something, if she believed something was due to her, she would not give up until she had it, whatever it was. And Morgana believed that Camelot was her due. At first, Gwen's instinct had been to run, to vanish again, but if she did that, she would not know what Morgana planned, and so she paused and crept back until she managed to overhear Helios talking to Morgana.
They spoke of invasion, of war, of the tunnels that led to the castle of Camelot and which had now been betrayed. Something in Gwen sprang free and grew hard at the same time. She didn't have to imagine the townsfolk dead or wounded, she'd experienced that repeatedly by now, had nursed the dying, had helped rebuild the homes of the survivors, helped finding service or at least some money from the crown for those widows who did not have family to support them. And now Morgana wanted to inflict this on Camelot all over again.
Not my city, Gwen thought. Not my realm.
She was alive again, and knowing what she would do, she began to run.
Chapter 12: The Sword in the Stone I
Merlin's affection for Arthur often carried a good deal of anger. He really had not intended more than getting Arthur out of Camelot without hesitation and alive when he cast his spell, but seeing the effect after the immediate danger had passed had made it impossible not to exploit the situation. It was only fair, he told himself. Payback for years of underappreciated servitude. Telling Arthur what to do for a change was ever so refreshing, and the fact that Arthur actually did it was breathtaking.
Between making Arthur do the washing up and hearing him profess regret for being annoying and arrogant, though, Merlin couldn't help noticing that a certain unease creeping up in his mind. Yes, it saved time that Arthur did what he was told, but he started to get what Arthur had meant when Arthur had called George the perfect servant boring. And he wasn't looking forward to having to explain how they ended up with smugglers once the spell wore off. If the spell wore off.
Of course the spell would wear off. It had been a hasty, improvised thing, to be sure, but it had been years since Merlin had bungled a spell. Well, a bit more than a year to be exact, the first time he'd used the aging spell on himself, and he'd mastered it since then. And this was really a different type of spell. Which he had never tried before. But he'd performed it perfectly. Absolutely. It would wear off.
He had a sudden vision of reaching Ealdor with an obedient, placid Arthur in tow. His mother would take one look at Arthur and suspect the truth, because her lack of magic did not explain her uncanny ability to know exactly when and how he had done something wrong. Not that he had, in this case; he had simply, well, improvised, to save Arthur's life. Again. That was all.
Gwen would be in Ealdor, too. After their reunion in the woods and her warnings about Agrivaine, Morgana and Helios, they had agreed she'd go there. He could just imagine Gwen's expression when confronted with an Arthur who was... different. Well. Who wasn't. Who wasn't in any way really Arthur. Exiled state not withstanding, he suspected Gwen wouldn't find it funny. She'd be horrified. She might even compare it to what Morgana had done to Merlin a few months ago.
Which wasn't at all comparable. Because Morgana had taken his will and everything that made him himself away and made him an instrument to kill his... king. Whereas Merlin had only had Arthur's interest at heart, and fine, making Arthur eat humble pie for a while was more in Merlin's interest, but still. It was different. It was. Gwen would see that.
Maybe she'd compare the whole thing to what the Lamia had done to the knights instead.
Which was also different, and not in the least comparable, and why he was he coming up with accusations for Gwen to make anyway? She'd probably be too busy to worry about everyone to make them once she heard the news. From him, since Arthur even if the spell had worn off - when the spell had worn off - would probably refuse to talk to her and stalk off to brood somewhere in the woods once he realized Gwen was there, the crowned idiot.
"You," Merlin told Arthur, "are a fool. Fine, so people lie to you. It happens. Maybe they wouldn't have to if you didn't have all the power. And another thing, none of us are perfect, and you know what, you love more than one person, too. You betrayed Gwen first when you broke it off with her just because bloody Agrivaine told you so, and you betrayed me when you didn't listen to me about Gaius, which was also when you betrayed Gaius, and the lot of us forgave you and took you back, so really, what you should do is not to send us away in the first place. If, you know, you should happen to find out certain things."
"Yes, Merlin," Arthur said obediently, vacantly and utterly un-Arthur-like.
That damned spell better had to wear off in the morning.
Chapter 13: The Sword in the Stone II
"What happened to you, Morgana?" Arthur asked, putting away his sword, stepping towards her. She had not seen him, safe at a distance, for a year. Had not spoken of him safe in derision and disdain, sneer always at hand. Had plotted his death a hundred times. Had managed to win, and hurt him, finally, in a way he could not take back, first by bringing death to the father who had made them both, and then by destroying his trust in the girl who'd belonged to her first, whom he wanted to put in her place. Yet here he was, looking at her, seeing all of her at last as he never had through all their years together, and still there was no hate in his voice.
"What happened to you, Morgana?", as if she'd only pushed him down on the earth as she had a hundred times that first year when they were sparring with nothing worse than wooden swords. "I thought we were friends."
Childish phrase, "friends", what a child he still was, and she opened her mouth to say as much with her customary superior sneer, but what came out, to her horror, was free of all the finely honed ridicule and loathing that had been her armor for years. It was the voice of a girl who had never existed, whom he had only imagined to be there, who had no right to linger on now that Morgana had no more use of her, and yet that useless, treacherous old voice broke free of her and said: "And so did I. But alas, we were both wrong."
They were standing so close now that she could have counted his eyelashes, if she'd wanted. But there was nothing of him she'd ever wanted, or ever had wanted, was there? Nothing but the throne, which was rightfully hers and which she'd taken back anyway.
He looked at her, and there was neither the broken acknowledgment their father had given her at last nor the accusation Gwen regarded her with, nor the satisfying hate Merlin had for her. He looked at her, blue eyes taking her in, reaching out to her, and suddenly she thought that he and Morgause, who did not share a father, looked far more alike than she and he had ever done.
But Morgause was dead. Morgause was dead by her hand, and what if he loved her, if he somehow managed to love her still? He loved so many. Gwen and Merlin and the dead man who'd taught them both to kill, and old Gaius who'd never given her more than potions to sleep instead of offering truth, and his knights, that group of leftovers from Uther's time and commoners he'd picked from the rabble, and every citizen of Camelot who could manage a "long live the king" . If she was thrown somewhere in between all of these, what was that worth? Nothing. Morgause had loved only her, and Morgause was dead, dead by her hand, dead and still not at rest, for how could she be, when Morgana had not yet managed what Morgause had died for, not just the throne but the crushing of their enemies once and for all? Morgause had given her everything, and Morgana had only ever been able to give death in return. What right did Arthur have to expect more of her than Morgause had gotten?
He spoke of Uther, but the moment of weakness was gone. She felt her strength returning. "Too little, too late," Morgana said. "You've made it more than clear what you think of me and my kind. You are far more like Uther than you care to admit."
"As are you," he said, still so close she could feel his breath on her face. It shouldn't have surprised her at all, come to think of it. Anyone capable of loving Uther even after breathing in the ash of the world Uther was burning day by day would be able to love her when she was standing in front of him with the blood of his people on her hands. And if she played Uther's game, if she raised her arms now not to kill him but to claim him, ensnare him as Uther had ensnared her for so long with that promise of family and unconditional affection, if she'd ask him to forgive her as Uther had asked her, if she told him he was all that was left for her to love in this world, he would take her back.
But she was not Uther. And she'd never go back to being that girl again, never. If there was anything she owed him for those years of a childhood shared that had been a lie in any case, it was truth.
She'd make his death quick, she decided, and stepped back, away from him. As she raised her hand, the air around her felt cold.