She swayed in her saddle, her eyes half-closed, and tipped back her head, feeling the way that her long dark curls caressed and tickled her bare shoulders. Her brother’s nostrils flared as he laughed, glancing across to where she rode, drifting along in a trance-like state, listening to the crunch of their horses’ hooves in the dead leaves, the rustle of the soughing breeze in the branches, the guffawing laughter of Gwaine and Percival and Leon who trailed behind them. Gwen, Guinevere, Queen of Camelot, wife of Arthur Pendragon, was happy - and more than that, she was relaxed. Of course, she was happy normally, in her way; the happiness was often undercut by fear for Arthur, anxiety about their kingdom and the constant threats against them, exhaustion from all the endless work that her role required of her, stress and stiffness from maintaining the endless facade of good queen, good wife, good leader, innocuous and friendly and innocent and kindly and endlessly forgiving, no matter what her husband did, no matter how he sinned or hurt her or tossed his life back and forth recklessly like a gambler, playing with mortality with all the complacency of a king...Gwen chuckled to herself, massaged her temples. Strangely enough, in this moment, riding through the woods, so far away from all that - in this moment, she felt not a trace of frustration, though she sensed that she was frustrated, that she had buried her frustration over and over again and this moment would not last. In truth, that was why she had organised this trip - she was burning to escape, to run away from it all. Where would I go? she thought with sudden bitterness, and the lonely helplessness of her situation washed over her, a restless itch inside her reasserting itself as she clenched her fists, an irrepressible desire to run away.
She shook her head irritably, and her horse, sensing her mood, shied. Elyan called out, ‘Woah!’ and reached for the reins of her animal, pulling it safely in towards him, keeping her out of harm’s way. Sometimes Gwen wished her brother had never become a knight; sometimes she felt she had liked him better as a wandering outlaw. Why now? she thought, tossing her mane of brown coils. Why do I feel so impatient now? True, these thoughts and fears were always there, but...she never normally dwelt on them, acknowledged them. The way they weighed and encroached upon her now, clawing at her shoulders and elbows and thighs so that she swatted these invisible monsters and rode faster, kicking her horse into a trot; this was new, unprecedented. Never had Guinevere truly, in the plain light of day, considered her own inner anguish - she had only ever dared to think this way in the black watches of the night, when her husband was away wandering the castle with...Merlin. Or perhaps “wandering” was too euphemistic a word for it.
Her lip curled when she thought of that. Merlin, the insolent servant, the naive pretty-boy, the most loved in all the kingdom...That was not quite true, of course. But sometimes it felt that way - the way Gaius protected the boy, the way the knights indulged and pampered him, the way Arthur reserved everything for him, confiding in and relying on and even loving Merlin far more than he had ever loved Gwen. Oh, of course he loved her too; but it was a very, very different sort of love, and if he hadn’t realised that before their marriage then Arthur must have noticed it by now. I am fondly petted and kept in a cage like a sweet-singing bird, she thought, and clenched her fists. I am indulged, too, but never listened to, never truly respected - he makes a show of listening to me, then goes against all my judgements. The truth was, Arthur could never respect men and women equally, and it was this, among other things, that stood in the way of their love. Gwen thought back to all the men in her life - her father, noble and honest as he had been; her brother, brave enough to be reckless, humble to the point of deprecation, attentive and caring; Merlin, her old sweetheart, the mercurial boy who saw and understood far more than he would ever let on. And there were others, too - she dared to think of him now where she would never have before, almost speaking his name aloud - Lancelot. Lancelot, the bravest, most beautiful, thoughtful, kind, gentle, funny man she had ever met; Lancelot, so superior in intelligence and beauty to Arthur that it was almost absurd, the thought that she had turned him down. She couldn’t remember why she had done it now; she had just always felt that Arthur was somehow, oh, somehow the safer option, representing a life of comfort and security and kindness, and how could she turn all that down? How could she, after all she had been through, after everything she and her family had suffered? Without my marriage to Arthur, she thought, Elyan could never have been on equal standing with the other knights. Without my marriage to Arthur, Lancelot would not have been allowed back into the kingdom - for Arthur’s jealousy was not to be dismissed lightly, and at the time of the affair, his wounded pride had pushed him further than love ever could have. Without my marriage to Arthur, I would not be safe.
But that was it, that was just it. Safety; everything a girl could desire. She had it all, the crown, the jewels, a handsome husband, a kingdom at her feet - I would have had to have been insane to have turned all of this down, she reasoned. Even so, she felt irritated, nettled by the thought of the life she had built for herself. For though her life was perfect, it did not feel like hers - the life of a woman who, banished from Camelot, became a prized harlot in the harem of her ex-lover’s mortal enemy, and used her position to uncover a great conspiracy and save all Camelot; a woman who, though her father was murdered by the regime that governed that very realm, remained loyal, and loved her people dearly despite all their failings; a woman who, through all the years she served as a lady-in-waiting to the last High Priestess in existence, nonetheless served loyally despite her suspicions, and even did something to prevent the inevitable realisation of Morgana’s power, despite her lowly position. She had comforted Morgana in the black watches of the night as no-one else could - she had loved her like a sister, a daughter, she had kissed her cheek and smoothed back her hair and sponged her forehead and breathed in the light scent of her skin, sleeping in her bed to protect her from monsters, dressing her up beautifully and harmlessly to protect her from the scheming and lechery of the menfolk of the court, cleaning her wounds after her cruel treatment at the hands of Uther Pendragon. Gwen would never forget that haunted, wild look in Morgana’s eyes after her night in the dungeons, the quivering body of a frightened doe, the wild, distant eyes and thunderous brows and stormcloud hair, the woman she would become hovering over the image of the one she was then. And of course Gwen could never support such brutality as Morgana now practised, especially since Morgana seemed to be after her as much as she was after Arthur, but nonetheless there was an integrity and strength and intelligence to the woman that Gwen had always admired, a queenly bearing and desire to learn that spoke well of her. Morgana was always the true heir to the throne, Gwen thought involuntarily, and frowned.
‘Your Highness? Your Highness?’ She started, realising that Leon was calling her. Turning around, she smiled at him, but there was a wild artlessness in her dark eyes and an absentminded compression to her lips that intimated her troubled mind.
She drew in a deep breath, and looked inquiringly at her sworn knight and servant.
‘What is it, Sir Leon?’ she said prettily, and flashed him a glimpse of those white teeth of hers. Oh, she was good, no doubt about that - she knew how to do everything prettily, harmlessly, and that was how everyone saw her, even the discerning Merlin. Maybe that is all that I am: pretty, harmless, she thought bitterly, and persed her lips. Leon, it seemed, was as taken in as ever, for he grinned at her, his toy-boy blonde curls falling into his eyes.
‘Where do you wish to stop for lunch, Your Highness? Gwaine was thinking it was about time for the picnic,’ he added, his blue eyes bright. Gwen swallowed her venom, chuckled obligingly at Leon’s joke, and glanced around.
‘Well, that patch of grass over there looks nice enough,’ she said slowly, sighing a little. Of course the only decisions they ever trusted her with were ones like that - where to stop for lunch, what to have for dinner, what clothes to wear to the banquet. Even with that, Arthur did not trust her; Merlin was the only one allowed to choose his outfits, unless the King was feeling particularly indulgent. He is the perfect king - capricious, tyrannical, zealous, Gwen thought sourly. And I am the perfect queen; sweet, detached, harmless, secretive but not openly so - modest, withdrawn, the hand of power moving daintily in the shadows. Against her will, she approved of this vindictive self-portrait, vain though it might be. Her time in Camelot had taught her enough about her situation for her to know that she was right, though; it was almost a shame that she did not use the opportunity to plot some kind of treachery. No time for that, though, and neither the stomach nor the imagination for it, she thought sadly. If only she had a little more belief in something better, maybe she would start a rebellion.
They turned their horses as one, and rode back towards the spot she had suggested. Gwen lagged a little behind, loitering listlessly in the shade of the trees. They were all so ignorant, so dull, and she so repressed...there was no-one, no-one she could confide in. Unlike Arthur, she had no Merlin - not now that Lancelot was dead. She didn’t know the full extent of her husband’s affair with his manservant, but she could guess; Arthur was not a man to do things by halves. No, if I know anything, Arthur will have bedded Merlin long ago. She could have laughed aloud, except it wasn’t funny. Oh, the torment, she thought wearily, and really did chuckle at that, her horse shying as she dropped the reins to stifle her giggle in her gloved hand. But then she felt a shift in her steed’s movements, and glanced down to see its eyes rolling, its forelegs stumblings back and forth as it prepared to bolt. Gwen frowned, and grabbed her reins, glancing across to where the others were to see what the source of the commotion was.
She could not see, other than that the horses of Leon and Percival had reared up, and both were lying on the ground, Gwaine beside them. Her frown deepened, and she turned to see her brother circling, unsure who to stay with. She didn’t know if it really was generosity, or flippancy, or whatever it was that made her think it, but in that moment she knew she had to dismiss him - just knew, deep in her marrow - and so she almost said it, told him to go, to leave her; but then he did the job himself, told her to go, and so she rode, rode like the wind, dug her heels into her horse and galloped away. And in that moment, the sense of freedom she felt was unimaginable, unimpeachable, untouchably sweet. I am free, now, she thought triumphantly. I am free, and I am alone.
The white face in the trees took her completely by surprise, and seemed in that moment to be a ghost, a masked apparition clothed all in black, an angel of death. Her horse reared up even as she felt her heart pound, the blood surging round her body as the adrenaline kicked in, the fear rising in her throat even though she craned her neck round to see who was there, who it was that had frightened her horse. But when she saw, she knew she needn’t have looked - some part of her had known since she had heard the commotion who it would be. Oh God, I have brought this upon us all, she thought, distraught. I have sinned, prayed and wished for this, and now that it is here I see how terrible is our fate.
Morgana cocked her head to one side, the oily tendrils of her dark hair snaking out of her shadowed hood, her pale, bloodless skin stretched tight over her statuesque cheekbones. There was a wry, faint mirth about her pink mouth, her eyes considerate and calculatingly light like phials of captured seawater, the pink shadows beneath them simultaneously sympathetic and vengeful. Gwen took one last look at her, unable to tear her eyes away, not quite believing them - for it had been years since she had last seen Morgana - then turned back, began to gallop away, her heart thumping as she bent over the reins and begged inwardly to escape. But Morgana’s facade of kindness melted away when she saw this, her mouth twisting and her eyes hardening as she shot out a hand and twitched her fingers, one gesture enough to send Gwen flying into the air. This time the fear really took over, and though she did not have time to scream properly Gwen heard herself whimper as the breath caught uncomfortably in her throat, as her body was forcibly ripped through the air, her neck whipping back and her shoulders shaking in the split second before she plummeted to the ground, landing in a painful heap. This was the last thing she knew, for then everything went black.
Morgana shuffled through the dead leaves, the hem of her cloak and her skirts swishing around her and constricting her long strides as she inspected her handiwork. She did not waste long - Gwen was knocked out, which was good, it saved her time and cruelty which she would have had to take back later; she knelt down, and prodded at Gwen’s ribs and neck and various other delicate parts of the body, finding none of them to be damaged. So much the better - sometimes, Morgana knew, she overused her power and hurt people more than she meant to. Even now, after so much training and mentoring and practice, she still struggled occasionally to control her magic. Unable to resist, she knelt beside the body, listening to Gwen’s rattling breath as her lips curled upwards in a tender, mocking smile.
‘Sleep, my lady, for it could be some time until you do so again.’