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But There's Water on My Lips

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When Uther brings Morgana to his estate he tells her, “Don’t go near the lake on the western border.”

Over the next month Morgana, thirteen years old and grieving and furious, breaks every rule he gives her except that one. Uther found her a companion, a local girl, and Gwen is as frightened of the lake on the western border as Uther is. Alone, Morgana would have gone. If Uther had only given her a nursemaid, even a guard, anything, she would have defied them or escaped them and gone.

But she likes Gwen, who is sweet and awkward and earnest, and so for Gwen she stays away from the lake.

She doesn’t think to ask why until autumn, when the trees are stripped to skeletons and the lake is no doubt gone shallow and muddy anyway and the wind slices through the layers of the fine fashionable clothes that Uther insists she wear.

“Why?” Gwen repeats, eyes widening. Morgana nods, impatient now with her new curiosity. “Because Jenny Greenteeth lives there.”

“Don’t be silly,” Morgana says. “Jenny Greenteeth lives in—” the pond by the vicarage at home, she was going to say, but that isn’t home anymore, she doesn’t have a home, she just has her guardian’s awful old house with its awful furniture never meant for sitting and its awful gardens that are no good for anything except being looked at—and her throat closes up and she starts to cry instead, suddenly, stupidly, but she really can’t help it.

Gwen hugs her, tight, as if she can actually hold Morgana together, and it’s no good but Morgana lets her try.

The dreams start that winter, visions clear as memories of the day before, and most of them are terrible things happening to people Morgana doesn’t know and can’t help and can’t be convinced are safe, however much Gwen tries to comfort her.

When Uther finds out—Morgana doesn’t know for certain who to blame, but she suspects his secretary heard something in the servants’ hall—he tells her, mildly enough, that witchcraft is the work of the devil, and if she is working it she will have no place in his house or any God-fearing home in England, and will most likely die in a madhouse.

Morgana swallows terror and certainty. Her hands tremble only a little when she clasps them behind her back and stiffens her spine and lies, “It was just a nightmare, sir, I was only remembering when my parents—”

Tears spill over her lower lids, running freely down her face, and Uther backs away with a horrified look, patting her clumsily on the shoulder as he does.

She doesn’t relax until he’s out of sight.

It’s probably for the best that Gwen, for all she’s lovely and kind and generous, has her heart set on Lancelot the carter’s son, who’s going to join the navy and win honor and glory and then come back for Gwen when he can give her everything she deserves. Otherwise it would be much too easy, Morgana thinks, to let herself look at Gwen the way people no doubt think she ought to be looking at young men.

She doesn’t, she doesn’t, and she doesn’t tell anyone either, because if Uther can turn her nightmares into the work of the devil she doesn’t even want to think about what he might do to this. She’ll marry the man he chooses for her, or she won’t and she’ll run off and live in the woods with the deer and the foxes and Jenny Greenteeth herself, but either way nobody here will ever know why.

Morgana thinks it’s something she’s managed for good, and lets down her guard.

She meets Jenny Greenteeth when she’s nearly sixteen and Arthur comes home on holiday from school in the mood to prove his courage all over again. Morgana dares him to climb to the highest branch of the tallest tree, and he does and then can’t get down. It’s two hours before he manages, shaking and grey-white around the mouth, to make it back down to the ground.

“I didn’t think you’d find it that hard,” she says innocently. Gwen goes very still at her side.

“That wasn’t hard,” Arthur says, just as if he spent a few hours every day up in a tree for the solitude. “I’d like to see you…” He hesitates, probably remembering that Morgana is a gently-born girl, almost a young woman, and he can’t tell her to risk her neck, and Morgana makes the mistake of laughing. Arthur draws himself up to his full height, still nearly two inches shorter than she is, and something in his stubborn pride and worse reminds Morgana suddenly of the portrait of his mother that haunts the great hall. “I’d like to see you go to Jenny Greenteeth’s lake tonight after dark.”

While Morgana tries not to gape, Gwen somehow finds the nerve to not only speak to Arthur but disagree with him and says, “But she’s not allowed!”

Arthur and Morgana both turn to look at Gwen.

“She isn’t,” Gwen says, blushing so hard that Morgana can see it. “Sir.”

“Well?” Arthur says to Morgana. “Are you suddenly going to discover a new appreciation for my father’s rules?”

He’s goading her, and Morgana knows better, but she still says, “Of course not. Tonight, you said?”

Gwen makes a soft unhappy noise, and Arthur’s brows go up a little in surprise, but neither of them stops her.

When Morgana slips out of bed that night Gwen gets up too.

“What are you doing?” Morgana whispers.

“Coming with you,” Gwen whispers back, picking up the poker from the fireside and belting it around her waist like a sword.

Morgana tries to think of a nice way to say, But you’re frightened of her, and finally just shakes her head. “I wouldn’t have asked you to.”

“I know.” Gwen smiles, brilliant as sunshine even in the darkness, and opens the window. “I wouldn’t be going if you were the sort of person who would. But you’d go if it were me.”

The moon paints everything in starkest silver and black. Morgana jumps at every sound, and Gwen’s hand is curled tight around the handle of the poker. The lake is in a little clearing, and when they break through the darkness there’s a girl sitting by the shore, with her weed-dark hair streaming water down her back and arms, water sticking her shift to her body and running down her legs, water gleaming bright as a mirror all around her.

Gwen gasps. Morgana wishes she’d brought the tongs or picked up a stout branch along the way, or something.

At the sound the girl whirls around. She looks not much older than Morgana, frightened and fragile, but that must be a trick. And the other thing—the other thing—Morgana realizes, standing rooted to the ground, shaking with feverish cold and heat, staring at Jenny Greenteeth with her wild loose hair and her eyes dark as wells—the other thing is that she never won anything, that she relaxed after a skirmish as if it were the whole war, that she loves Gwen like a sister and she’d likely been more than halfway there already when she tried not to let herself love Gwen any other way.

Jenny Greenteeth looks lost, and Morgana’s heart breaks for her even as she thinks, distant and cold, that it’s a good thing Gwen has the poker because if those slender deadly hands close around Morgana’s wrists she’ll be too distracted by the touch to pull away.

“Come on,” Gwen says, tugging at Morgana’s hand. “Come on.”

“Wait,” Jenny Greenteeth says, springing to her feet.

That shocks Morgana free, fear finally replacing her stunned longing, and she lets Gwen lead her back to safety, away from the water, away from the weeds and the shadows and the drowning deeps.

Morgana looks back over her shoulder, once, and sees Jenny still standing there, reaching out after them, and then she makes herself look away.

She goes back.

She lasts through more than three months of wondering, of wishing, of waking up from impossible dreams that don’t even have the grace to be true ones. And then it’s too much, and she needs to know where this will lead, and she gives in.

It’s so stupid she doesn’t even have words for it, but she gives Gwen the afternoon off and Gwen, clearly a little suspicious and just as clearly telling herself there’s no reason for suspicion, goes down to the village to spend time with her family or Lancelot or both. Morgana doesn’t leave a note before she slips away from her governess, because one of the maids or the governess herself will find it before Gwen even returns, but—well, she hopes there won’t be any need.

The shores are empty when she reaches them, breathless with fright and anticipation, clutching Gwen’s poker like a holy talisman. She grabs hold of a nearby tree, hooking her free arm around it, and calls, softly, “Jenny Greenteeth? Jenny?”

Maybe Uther was right; maybe she does belong in a madhouse somewhere, for thinking she saw something she could recognize in the face of a monster. Or maybe she truly did recognize herself, maybe she’s a monster too—

“My name’s not Jenny,” the girl says, rising from the water near Morgana. “And I don’t have green teeth, either.” She smiles, hesitantly and stiffly, as if she’s forgotten how. Her teeth are white, and if they look a little sharper than normal it might just be Morgana’s imagination, but she’s certainly not human—no human could hold their breath for that long, and the shadowy masses of her hair glint green instead of brownish in the sunlight. She looks alien and beautiful and Morgana tightens her arm around the tree until the bark digs into her skin. “Thank you for coming back.”

“I would have wanted you to,” Morgana says, after far too long a silence and without thinking about it. “Do you kill people?”

The girl pales, ducking her head so quickly Morgana can’t see her face but regrets having asked. “Sometimes,” she says, very quietly, to the surface of the lake. “I don’t like doing it, I—when they come here if it’s been too long it just—I watch myself while it happens. It’s a curse.”

She might have been speaking in metaphor, but Morgana doesn’t think she is. “Can it be broken?” Morgana asks.

“I…yes.” The girl still won’t look up. “It will be difficult.”

“Nobody should have to stay here if they don’t want to,” Morgana says, and the girl gives her another smile, much easier, for that.

“Do you have a lover?” Gwen asks one evening months later after one of the maids—Morgana would try harder to learn their names but for the most part the servants Uther doesn’t turn away within a fortnight give notice before much more time has passed—has brushed out Morgana’s hair.

Morgana jumps guiltily.

“You do,” Gwen says, wide-eyed, bright with amazement and delight. “I knew you were sending me away so often for a reason, I’m so glad. Who is he?” She hesitates, and, while Morgana is still trying to think of a lie good enough to fool Gwen, adds, “Or…?”

“Or?” Morgana asks.

“Or,” Gwen says firmly. She looks at the closed door, then leans closer to Morgana and whispers, so soft Morgana feels it more than hears it, “She?”

This time Morgana actually knocks over the stool she’s sitting on. Fortunately she flinched away from Gwen and so falls away from her, too, a sprawl of legs and cloth and bruises.

“It’s all right,” Gwen says quickly, reaching down to help her up, “I, I swear,” and Gwen is the kind of person who takes oaths very seriously, “I swear, it’s all right, I won’t tell anyone. Just—Morgana, it isn’t—it isn’t Jenny, is it? Only I saw how you were looking at her when we went there together, that’s how I knew to ask, and—”

“Her name’s not Jenny.”

Morgana doesn’t realize what she’s said until she sees Gwen’s eyes widen in horror. “Morgana,” Gwen says, voice stretched tight. “She’s a monster, she drowns people—”

“She doesn’t like it!” Morgana forgets to be quiet, and both of them look over at the door, Gwen only a few quick heartbeats after Morgana. Nobody comes in, though, any more than anyone had when Morgana fell over.

“Oh, well, she doesn’t like it,” Gwen hisses, “that makes it better, Morgana, what are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking,” Morgana says, icy with anger, “that I know what it feels like to be looked at as a monster for something you can’t help.”

Gwen draws back, looking contrite. “I didn’t mean—”

“If Uther knew about the dreams, he’d have me…they don’t still burn witches, do they? He’d have me exorcised, if that’s what the church prescribes, and I don’t think exorcism is nice. He mentioned madhouses, he—”

“I’m sorry,” Gwen says, the words tripping over each other, “I’m sorry, you’re not a monster, you know you’re not, there’s nothing wrong with you, but that means you don’t have to—to—can’t you find someone else?”

“It isn’t even like that,” Morgana says, sitting down heavily on the edge of her bed. “She’s cursed. I’m trying to help her break it, but she won’t tell me the only way she knows—she says it’s impossible. We talk. We’re not…”

“What if she drowns you?” Gwen asks.

Morgana is too tired to get angry again, at least when Gwen is only worried about her safety and has taken the whole thing so much better than Morgana would ever have dared to hope, if she had dared to hope at all. “I don’t think she will.”

“If you’re not…courting,” Gwen says, “can I come with you? Just in case?”

The girl isn’t bad at all, for a murderous water-spirit. Morgana thinks Gwen might like her if they’d met in better circumstances, and then wonders why she’s even thinking that. “I’d have to ask her,” she says. “She’s very shy.”

“What is her name?” Gwen asks.

Morgana shakes her head. “She still hasn’t told me.”

The girl gives Morgana permission to bring Gwen, and so the next time Morgana does. It’s so much easier without having to wait long enough to give Gwen half-holidays, and creep around out of sight, and make it back before Gwen does, and plan the entire thing like a battle while a flock of butterflies beats excited wings in her belly.

“So you’re not-Jenny,” Gwen says when they reach the shore to find the girl waiting on her usual nighttime rock. Her voice seems steady enough, but Morgana can hear the nervousness under it.

“Yes,” the girl says, very quietly.

“I’m Gwen.”

The girl glances up through the dark hair streaming half-across her face. “It’s an honor.” There’s the faintest flicker of a smile, and Morgana’s heart flips over at the sight.

They get no work done that day, not with Gwen trying to steer the conversation to get a better sense of the girl without being too bold, and the girl trying—Morgana thinks—to find out whether Gwen is safe. Gwen is safe, Morgana could tell her if she just asked, Gwen and this lake are the only safeties Morgana has.

It’s a few weeks after that when the girl says, suddenly, in the middle of a story of Morgana’s, “My name is Freya.”

Gwen doesn’t look up, but her hands still on her embroidery.

“Freya,” Morgana repeats. “Thank you.”

“I—can you come back later? Alone?” Freya’s eyes are uncertain, huge behind the green-dark fringe of her hair. The name suits her, strange like the way the light catches and lingers on her.

Now Gwen does look up. “Yes,” Morgana says, still reckless. It’s easy not to be afraid around Freya, who is so afraid of herself.

“Bring your poker,” Freya says with another tiny flash of a smile.

Gwen argues, that night, but Morgana insists. “And she told me to come armed! Why would she have done that if she were just planning to drown me?”

“I don’t know,” Gwen says, mouth set, “but—”

“It’s not a trick.” Morgana isn’t sure how she knows, except that it’s the same certainty from her dreams, finally dancing to her command instead of using her like a marionette. “Maybe she’s finally going to tell me whatever secret it is that might help me break her curse.”

“Maybe.” Gwen is still frowning, but she hugs Morgana and gets the poker for her and stands back while Morgana slips out the window.

Freya is waiting, made entirely of moonlight and deep water until she’s flesh and blood and bone, until she breathes, until she smiles. “You did come,” she says. “I wasn’t sure.”

Morgana sets the poker down in the long grass. “What do you want?”

“I was—there was an oath, and I—and then—it’s not important, what’s important is that I needed to make another to someone and keep it, and I did. I swore I wouldn’t hurt you and I haven’t, I swore it the first night I met you when I first guessed you wanted to come back, and it’s been a year, now. But I…” She laughs, barely more than a spent breath, but it thrills through Morgana. “I’m still trapped. I’m no danger to anyone, but I’m still…I can’t leave this lake.”

“Let me try,” Morgana says.

The lake water is icy around her ankles, so cold on her calves that her legs go half-numb, and she spares a thought for the possibility that Freya has after all waited all this time just to drown her, now, when she’s off her guard. “What will you do when you’re free?” she asks, to distract herself from her disloyal mind.

“Oh, everything,” Freya says dreamily. She reaches out and her hands settle into Morgana’s as if they were carved to fit. “Maybe not visiting the ocean, though I wanted to, once, but I want to travel and then I want to go home, and have a home to go to.”

She weighs almost nothing, like thistledown, as Morgana guides her by their linked hands toward the shore. Her hands are as cold as the water.

“And then?”

“Do it all over again,” Freya says. Water drips from Morgana’s skirts onto the shore, now, and Freya’s feet splash in the shallows. “Go everywhere until I’m tired of it all and glad for a rest. Meet wonderful people. Dance, and feast, and be unafraid.”

Morgana glances away. They’re at Freya’s rock. “It sounds wonderful,” she says, entirely in truth, and Freya stops. Morgana is standing in grass; Freya’s bare toes are still pressing into the silt.

“Would you come with me?” Freya blurts.

“Yes,” Morgana says, unhesitatingly, and pulls, and Freya stumbles forward with her, into the woods and the shadows and the future.