„She is truly magnificent, isn't she," Morgana said, and was surprised when Gwen did not answer. Everyone around them was excitedly murmuring about the spectacle they had just witnessed: Morgause defeating Arthur, the first challenger to do so in years. Morgana had felt drawn to the strange woman from the moment she had appeared, and while of course she had not wished Arthur dead, the result, both challengers surviving, but Morgause victorious, left her with relief and not a little glee.
"Isn't she?" Morgana coaxed.
"She is a good fighter, to be sure," Gwen said at last, and the restraint in her voice was so unlike her that Morgana frowned.
"Surely you do not mind seeing Arthur defeated? Gwen, you know how obnoxious he can be. Being defeated by a woman will do him a world of good. Trust me, when we were children I used to do it on a regular basis, and he was far less insufferable then."
Something flickered in Gwen's eyes and was gone before Morgana could try to decipher its meaning. In earlier times, Gwen would have smiled, and Morgana would have relished the opportunity to share some anecdotes. Now, Gwen said, with a deep seriousness that seemed worlds away from those carefree days:
"Herne and his wife Rhiannon live in the house next to mine. I was there for most of the night, and when I left she was still weeping."
Morgana did not know whom Gwen was talking about, and what this had to do with Arthur or Morgause, and her bewilderment must have shown. There was a tiny frown between Gwen's brows.
"Herne was one of the guards," she explained, and after a tiny pause added, "my lady."
This was not any more enlightening. Gwen sometimes let her thoughts run away with her, which was one of her most endearing traits, but there was no blushing now, and her calm, precise statements could not have been further from babble.
"You must forgive me, Gwen, but I still don't know what you're talking about."
"One of the five guards whom the lady Morgause killed," Gwen said. "She did not have to. They did not attack her, or hinder her. She could have simply come to Camelot and delivered her challenge, but instead she killed them all. Last night, Rhiannon asked me why she would have done this, and I could not answer."
Something of the joy and excitement in Morgana drained away, and for a moment, she felt absurdly resentful. Only it had been so long since she had felt anything but the stifling sensation of pretense and fear. But of course that had not been Gwen's intention.
"I suppose," she said carefully, "Morgause wanted to ensure her challenge would be taken seriously. I am sorry for your neighbour, Gwen, I truly am, but surely she must have been aware that her husband's job was a dangerous one?" With some bitterness, she added: "No one serving Uther would be able to do so in peace for long."
That was putting it mildly. She remembered being on the run from the guards herself, that night she had tried to smuggle Mordred out of Camelot, only to be caught by Arthur, guards in tow. Morgana could not match any face to the name Herne, but for all she knew he had been one of the men prepared to kill a child. For all she knew, he had been one of the men dragging her to a cell, and clapping her in irons, that night Uther wanted to punish her for speaking against his cruel tyranny, against his execution of Gwen's father. Really, it was surprising Gwen was able to feel any regrets for one of the guards, neighbourly acquaintance or no neighbourly acquaintance. But that was Gwen's natural sweetness for you. She really was too kind for this world.
"If that will be all, my lady," Gwen said, and there was a distance in her voice which did not belong there. Not to mention that she had used the formal mode of address twice in a row, which was unusual between them. True, there was not the same ease between them as there used to be. Morgana had her secrets, and she needed to keep them, for Gwen's own sake. What she didn't know could not hurt her. But this situation today had nothing to do with them.
"I am sorry for your neighbour, Gwen," Morgana said, in an attempt to cross the gulf that seemed to have opened up between them. "If you want to stay at home to console her in the next few days, I'll gladly give you the time."
Gwen shook her head. "She'll go to her sister's after the burial," she said. "There's a little one on the way, due in less than two months, so she needs the company of someone who knows something about birth and children."
"Poor child. Growing up without a father…" Morgana said, and did not have to exaggerate the sadness she felt.
Gwen nodded, but she made no move towards Morgana. Instead, she looked towards the castle as if she could not wait to join the rest of the crowd who were dispersing, still chatting about Arthur's defeat. Arthur himself had stood there until the king left, then retreated to the keep with his back so straight you could tell he was mortified beyond belief.
"You're thinking about your own father, aren't you?" Morgana asked, cursing herself for not having thought of this possibility before. Of all the things Uther had done, this remained the worst in her eyes. Maybe it was then the distance between her and Gwen had started to creep in, though she had not noticed this at the time. It certainly had changed Gwen irrevocably, as such a tragedy would. There was a caution in her now that never used to be there before, and if before Morgana could read all her moods like an open book, that was less and less true as the months went on. Right now, it seemed unbearable.
"No," Gwen said, and turned her gaze back to Morgana. There was a sadness there that belied her words. Morgana could not understand why Gwen would lie about such an evident truth.
"Then what is it, Gwen?"
"You really don't understand," Gwen said slowly. "Morgana, Rhiannon and her child won't have a king to take them in and care for them."
"They're better off, believe me," Morgana said before she could stop herself.
Gwen bit her lips as if she very urgently wanted to reply and couldn't. By now, Morgana became aware that the emotion rising in her was anger, and this she understood even less than anything that had come before. She never was angry with Gwen. Gwen never was angry with her. Arthur might be unable to communicate with Merlin without including an insult in every third sentence, but she would never treat Gwen this way. She loved Gwen. She was a sensible woman, not a pigheaded boy. So why was Gwen behaving as if Morgana had ever given her cause not to speak her mind?
"What is it?" Morgana repeated, and was not able to entirely disguise the impatience and slight hurt in her voice.
"Arthur promised Rhiannon she'll get Herne's wages for another two years when he told her about Herne's death last night. So they won't starve or depend on her sister's husband for charity. But if he hadn't done that, she'd have been left with nothing, and that's true for every guard's wife and family. I'm sure you're right, and the lady Morgause simply wanted to make an impression and be taken seriously. She did not think of them as people. But I thought you would," Gwen ended, the current of her words getting faster and faster as she spoke, with all of the speed and none of the lightness it used to when she talked about how handsome Sir Owain was, or how boorish Alan the stablemaster.
Morgana was not used to anyone judging her. Oh, Uther did, every time she disagreed with him, but it was easy to dismiss his accusations of treason as the ravings of a tyrant who had deluded her into believing she loved him and he loved her once upon a time. Then there had been the Witchfinder and his cold gaze that held the promise of her death in it, but she had been cattle to be slaughtered to him, not a person. He did not know her. Arthur might argue with her, but that was not the same thing, and besides, she knew very well she could best any insult he could come up with, and he knew it, too. But there had never, ever been anything but admiration and affection in Gwen's behaviour towards her. In a Camelot that increasingly felt like a prison to her, that was the one thing she had thought she could always rely on. It felt like a blow to the face.
There might be a bit of truth in Gwen's words. Only Gwen saw it wrongly. It wasn't that the guards had not been people to Morgana. It was that they had been people who had given their service to a bad king, and had aided him, and so they did not deserve her pity. At least not in the same way the other citizens of Camelot did. And they weren't all innocents, either. Some of them had cheered the Witchfinder on only a few weeks ago. They would have been content to see Morgana burn, too, men and women alike. Why should she pity them?
Gwen evidently thought she should. Gwen was too naïve, even now.
"I do," Morgana said. "They are people to me." Just not pitiable ones, she added silently. "As for your neighbour, I expected nothing less of Arthur. For all his faults, he never fails to take care of his people. That is why I didn't express any concern for her livelihood. Gwen, don't you know me?"
At last, Gwen's restrain crumbled. "Of course I do," she said, and came into the arms Morgana had opened, returning her hug. "I'm sorry, my lady. Morgana. I'm sorry. It's just, I didn't get any sleep last night, and Rhiannon – well, you know."
"I understand," Morgana said softly. "I didn't sleep much, either."
Now Gwen looked utterly repentant, evidently remembering the nightmares that tortured Morgana every night.
"I'm sorry," she repeated.
"And so am I," Morgana replied, smiling at her. "But enough of this. You really should be with your friend now, Gwen. Maybe Gaius can give you some potion to calm her? If she has worn herself out with tears last night, it cannot be good for the baby."
It was quite satisfying to see the repentance in Gwen's eyes mix with the old admiration, as she nodded and promised to ask Gaius on her way to the lower town, and thanked Morgana again for allowing her time with Rhiannon. They made their way to the keep and then parted. Morgana waited until Gwen had disappeared in the direction of Gaius' study, and then asked the next servant which chamber had been given to the lady Morgause. After all, she did not know when Morgause would leave again, now that she had won her challenge, and Morgana now wanted to speak to her more urgently than ever.
However Morgause would behave towards her, it would certainly not be judgmental. The woman was such a mystery, strange and familiar at the same time. And utterly, utterly magnificent.