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The Dark Tower

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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.’

Chapter Text

    It was sunset when Morgana woke her. The ochre light played softly over Gwen’s hair and skin, bringing out the warmth in her soft cheek and the reddish tones in her dark brown hair, her face so smooth and golden that Morgana could not resist reaching out a trembling finger and tracing the curve of her profile with a delicate hand. It was a moment before the woman came to, but when she did, she sat up suddenly, and Morgana moved back, watching as Gwen looked accusingly over her shoulder. In fact, Gwen’s wide eyes and heaving chest were more from general shock - she glanced around, remembered all that had happened, dragged her eyes over the soft setting of the woods, sensed the impenetrable, boiling tangle of her own mixed feelings, realised (vainly) that she must look even more beautiful with her leaf-strewn hair flowing over her shoulder and her body quivering in distress - and then she surveyed Morgana, the glint in the sorceress’s eye, the cruel, teasing curl of her lips and then the slyness about her whole countenance. She has a plan, Gwen realised, her mind racing. Morgana’s green eyes winked at her as she drawled penitently, ‘Good morning, my lady.’

    It was at this point that Gwen realised that her hands were bound, and, vexed, flared her nostrils as she twisted her bonds this way and that, all but snarling at the hindrance. What was the point of binding her - how dare her kidnapper do such a thing? Oh, granted, Morgana was capable of anything, but...a little more respect was at least due, or so she felt. Letting a queen sleep in the leaves and dirt, binding her hands while she sleeps, mocking her with fine words…it was a reckless way to go about things. Half-snarling, half-sobbing, she hissed, ‘What do you want with me?’ Her voice came out garbled after a long sleep without water, and she sounded more weak than she felt.

    ‘I thought we could play a little game,’ Morgana replied, her soft, lilting voice matchingly serpentine when crossed with her gleaming crystal eyes. But Gwen was in no mood for Morgana’s trifles; I am a queen now, more than she, she thought angrily, and I deserve to be treated as such.

    ‘A game?’ she spat scathingly, and Morgana dropped her cocky levity, her mood souring.

    ‘Find out just how much Arthur loves you,’ she ground out from between clenched teeth, a muscle twitching beneath her eye. Gwen shifted, taken aback - something about Morgana’s manner felt off. 

Bitterly, she remembered her earlier thoughts, and so it was more from hopeless truth than from self-defending artifice that she replied, ‘It won’t work.’ Morgana’s lip curled, her belief in Arthur’s besottedness complete, just like everyone else’s.

‘You underestimate his feelings,’ she rejoined, sardonic, believing herself to be calling Gwen’s own bluff, almost bored. Of course, she had not seen them together for a long time - she knew nothing of their domestic life, and perhaps if she had her bitterness would have been less and her kindness more, for she had always resented Arthur’s beloved servant queen, if only for Gwen’s mercenary marriage. But Gwen felt oddly disappointed by this oversight on Morgana’s part, as if she required her to be more knowledgeable - no, more intelligent - than the rest, as if her own belief in Morgana’s terrifying perfection and omniscience was a necessary starting point for their interactions. She supposed it had not once been that way, but it was the only way to hate this woman, not pity her - it was impossible to hate and fear something you looked down on. Her next words came with a sigh, a weariness settling over her.

‘He’s not stupid,’ she muttered, the lie as rehearsed as it was threadbare. Morgana smirked slightly, and for once, they were almost in agreement.

‘We’ll see.’ Gwen bridled, her anger rising within her again.

‘He’ll know you’ve taken me - he’ll know it’s a trap,’ she countered, willing to be bold against this woman who had so peculiarly let her down. But Morgana’s next words restored some of Gwen’s faith in her, for they were undoubtedly true.

‘He will; but he’ll still come.’ Gwen almost chuckled at the irony, that she should be in agreement with her sworn enemy, that she should empathise - no, even admire - the woman who was constantly trying to kill her. But then, it was her own fault that they were at odds; Morgana had had no quarrel with her serving girl, and it was only once she had secured Arthur’s affections that things began to turn sour. Morgana thought back, and a spasm of pain crossed her face as she remembered how Gwen had distanced herself, become a spy, an intriguer like all the other ladies-in-waiting - how Gwen had betrayed her, doubted her, separated from her, despite everything, despite all their vows and confidences and sisterly affection. Morgana had felt something very deep for Gwen, something she dreaded above all and even now when she had captured her; one could not let go lightly of such betrayals, and it was perhaps because of Morgana’s capacity to feel so deeply, her skinless hypersensitivity and morals so strong that they overcame even affection and authority, perhaps it was because of all this that she held such terrible grudges. Even now, she knew herself to be righteous, and she, like Gwen, felt betrayed by her old confidant Merlin, by his unfaltering love of Arthur even though she saw in his eyes whenever they met that he knew her cause was the right one.

Morgana breathed deeply, and rose, turning away. She would not think about the past - she did not want to. This plan was about getting back at Arthur (principally); anything else that came up was unimportant.

 

*             *            *

 

Morgana dragged Gwen up hill and down dale, through marsh and through forest, past quagmire and peak and even on, to the dry, dusty wastes of the Eastern deserts - but not before they had passed through the utterly barren and deathly cold places that she had decimated with her dark magic, the silent scree slopes eerie and shrouded in smoke, the frozen wastes icy so that Morgana donned her thickest cloak and quickened their pace, even providing Gwen with a cloak too. It was little comfort when coupled with the endless days of walking, stumbling along behind Morgana's horse, roped in like an animal with her bound hands in front of her, the bonds chafing at her skin so sores opened up and bled profusely, the fluid drying into a crusted, infected mess. At first, Gwen was defiant, but weariness soon claimed her and she fell silent, oppressed and exhausted, always hungry, always thirsty, always tired, her eyes sore and itching from many sleepless nights, her legs leaden from the cruel journey. Sometimes the soles of her feet bled, for her shoes had fallen to pieces after so much journeying (unsuited courtly slippers as they were) and then they slowed down, which angered Morgana. Of course, if Arthur caught up with them before they reached their destination - wherever that was - then Morgana's plan would be foiled; but Gwen thought little of rescue, even less escape. It was as if, ever since that day, her mind had shut off, and now she was led only by Morgana, by the witch's caprices, cruelties and kindnesses - for, strangely enough, Morgana could be oddly tender at times. Gwen had just enough sense left to reject such kisses and caresses, for of course Morgana was playing with her, but sometimes when she refused her mistress' attentions Morgana seemed pained, almost subdued, almost as if Gwen's acceptance mattered to her; but then again, Gwen knew that fever, exhaustion and hunger could lead one to hallucinate all kinds of things. She has no reason to love me, Gwen thought, and oddly enough the thought was just as painful as her aching legs.

For her part, Morgana felt the oppression and exhaustion too. Sometimes she even turned to her companion for amusement or affection on a whim, just to alleviate the terrible unhappiness and boredom she felt - for, though she was mounted she slept and ate no better than her captive, and the riding was tough too. I have been too long alone, she thought uneasily as they passed over the desert plains under the watchful eye of the hot sun. She could not help glancing back at Gwen every so often, for the woman was intent upon the ground and did not see her secret stares - and when she did so, she felt a surge of desire seize her, a frightening and mysterious desire to smooth back the matted curls from the tear-stained face, to wipe away the dirt tracks from those blushing cheeks, to soothe bent back with a washcloth administered in smooth circles…perhaps these bizarre stirrings would not have troubled her, nor even occurred to her, had she not had so many long, dreary hours to think on them. And so it was with extreme unease that both of them travelled the distance between Camelot, and the dark tower. 

Gwen tripped over her own feet, and her lips twisted savagely, her nostrils flaring. She was sick of this, sick of the endless walking, sick of the open wastes, sick from hunger and exhaustion, and above all sick of the silence. She glanced up at Morgana with rage and resentment, hatred burning in her eyes. Oh, though time wore her down and robbed her of her energy it did nothing to assuage her ire - quite the opposite. She felt sure, now, that with one night's good sleep and a decent meal and freedom of movement she could very easily leap on the shadowy figure that led her, slam her to the floor, shatter that fragile collarbone and punch in that red mouth so the dry lips would puff up, bruised and bloodied, and the clear eyes would be disfigured with tears and scratches. Gwen licked her lips, her mouth watering, as she imagined how she would beat Morgana hard enough to leave scars, hard enough to break the skin, hard enough to make her cry out and sob and plead for mor- for mercy, that is. She shook her head, trying to focus her strange, diffuse thoughts in on this one act of savagery. Oh yes, she would savage Morgana - she would pin her down, straddle her and drag her head back by those long, lustrous curls, crush her and devour her and slide her fingers into her mouth…Gwen blinked. That last part - what has got into me? It was not true that she could best Morgana, though; her fantasies were in vain. If she dared lift a finger against her captor she would be thrown backwards by a blast of magic, she knew, strung up and stripped down and tortured and humiliated until she was sure of nothing in the world but Morgana, her mistress, the author of all her misfortunes. Gwen frowned, as she realised how coolly she had taken the prospect; did she really fear torment so little? Anything, anything to wake me from the torment, she found herself thinking, and ran over the past few years in her mind. Her whole life had been a lie, from the moment she rejected Lancelot - from the moment she married Arthur, she had lived in a waking dream, a living hell of perfect, ceaseless smiles, endless laughter, draining sweetness, insufferable comfort. She had been coddled to death, and her hopes, her dreams, her heart, all had died with her, so that she had become a husk, continuing on autopilot, moving like a mannequin, smiling mechanically and completing each task as an automaton would. In bed with Arthur, at supper with the knights, on visits to their allies - always, the walls around her heart had been so high that she had felt nothing, allowed nothing of the overwhelming, bleak despair she felt to leak out, shoring up every crack with some new mask, some new coping mechanism. I am so alone, she thought, and felt the tears flow down her cheeks, the hot wind blowing strands of her hair about her face.

Morgana heard a quiet sniffle behind her, and frowned, the intensity in her eyes deepening. She wanted nothing more than to stop, to dismount, to run to Gwen, to beg her on her knees for forgiveness, to ask her what was wrong and carry her away to somewhere safe, somewhere they could live happily, in peace, unthreatened by the machinations of Arthur. She even felt her own eyes sting, her face puckering the tiniest bit, and clenched tighter on the reins, a single teardrop rolling down her white cheek, her clear, hopeless eyes looking to the sky; but instead of the heavens they spied something else, an ugly black blot on the horizon, a speck around the size of her thumb that pierced the sky in a jagged column. She blinked away her tears, then, and swallowed her weakness. They were almost there; and when they arrived, it would be time to put her plan into place.

She glanced back at Gwen one last time, allowing herself a moment of indulgence before she turned away and began to yank on the rope. 

Chapter Text

Gwen glanced around the room, shivering in the cool air. This time she was awake when Morgana made her next move, and it almost amused her to see the awkwardness with which Morgana went about her business, now that she was under the watchful scrutiny of her hostage. Despite all her exhaustion and the dull throbbing pain, Gwen still had enough sarcasm left in her to see the irony in the situation, and take a small satisfaction from Morgana's stiffness. If ever anyone needed to lighten up , Gwen thought, slightly delirious. Morgana untied her bonds and stepped quickly back, giving her captive a wide berth. Gwen massaged her sore wrists, and the tears came to her eyes again unbidden as she felt the searing pain of her burns, but she bit down on her lip so hard she drew blood just to keep back the weeping. Oh, she was teetering the edge - she sensed it - soon enough she would break. But she would not budge an inch too soon, would not make it easy for Morgana, if not for Arthur's sake then for her own; Arthur is irrelevant, and always has been, she thought, drawing strength from her own independence. Nonetheless her eyes prickled, and her chest heaved as she attempted to gain control of her crumbling body, her mental instability quite apparent to both her and her jailer.

Morgana watched Gwen furtively from over her shoulder, conflicted as ever. There was something like tenderness in her heart, pity at seeing Gwen brought so low; and then pride, too, at how she held out, her defiance and courage. She is truly a remarkable woman , Morgana thought involuntarily, and then stopped herself. She remembered those times so long ago when they had cradled and stroked each other, shared every secret, every stirring of the heart, every waking moment - the days when they had formed each other's foundations, the solid, dependable rock upon which all their faith had been built. A love strong enough to outlast a lifetime, to span centuries , she thought, and the bitterness did not come until a second later. Her beloved Gwen, her trusty sister-in-arms with whom she had survived capture and aggression from all sides, Gwen who had held her after her night in the dungeons, Gwen who had always stayed by her even after the insipid Merlin betrayed her time and again. She dreaded to remember her horror when Gwen had been captured that time in the forest, when she had run away in no more than her shift with the most sickening fear in the pit of her stomach, leaving her heart behind her. And then - the joy of reunion!

Her magic had changed all that. Gwen had proved ignorant and fearful like the rest, had turned on her, left her utterly, unbearably alone. She went over to the other side because she was weak , Morgana thought, and her brow darkened, her fingers clenching as she drew herself up. No, there could never be any reconciliation between them now, not after so long; now all that remained was for her to punish Gwen for her treachery, and destroy Arthur and all his ignorant, traitorous kingdom, for magic could not reign until Camelot was on its knees. She swept back over to where Gwen sat, her eyes gleaming, and bent down to her, murmuring, 'Sweet dreams, my lady,' and leaving her to the darkness of the tower cell, the only light the dying rays of sunlight that crept through chinks in the wall. Once outside, she rested her back against the lined wood of the door and closed her eyes, sighing deeply and sliding to the floor. The mandrake would do its work - she would doze here for now, for she was too tired to sweep the bedrooms and make the beds in the rooms below. Gwen , she thought with a lump in her throat as she drifted out of consciousness. 

 

*         *        *

 

That night was the worst night of her life - until the one that came after, of course, and the one after that. Gwen found the darkness seemed to invade her mind and press close to her, nuzzling her like a living being, seeping into every hair and pore and blinding her in its totality. She dropped off from sheer exhaustion as the sun went down, but awoke suddenly some time later, finding herself shrouded so completely that she could not tell how far her hands were from her face, nor the shape of the room in which she now was. For all she knew, she could have been moved somewhere else entirely - for all she knew, Morgana could be gone, could have left her here in the middle of nowhere to rot in the shadows. The thought was like a knife to the gut, leaving her breathless, gasping, sobbing though she had borne up with such fortitude earlier. Earlier? How much earlier?

All her muscles seemed to contract out of fear, and blindly did she crawl across the floor, dragging herself by her hands, pressing her fingertips into the ground in an attempt to keep it there, to make sure it did not move and leave her, too, leave her like the treacherous Morgana - oh, where is she now? Her panic took over, and she curled up into a tiny ball, squeezing her eyes shut and rocking backwards and forwards like a foetus, her hands and feet cramping from trying to make themselves so small. But try as she might she felt too restless to hide - she needed air, she needed space, she felt an itch in her legs and wanted to run, needed to so badly she felt she might die if she stayed still; indeed, it was possible that she would die if she stayed still, for who knew what horrors Morgana might have in store for her? Strangely enough, though, she could not think that Morgana would ever - that she could ever - she did not think that, if there was anything in here with her, Morgana would be to blame for it. Not directly. No, she is a woman of more sense and honour than that , Gwen thought, and sobbed, for where was she? Where was Morgana, where had she gone? I need her - I need Morgana, please, come back to me , she thought desperately and rocked harder, tipping over onto her side and shaking, her body spasming and her joints locking as her hair fell over her frozen face and stuck to her tears, the accidental brush of the soft strands horrifying and repulsive to her overwrought mind, her skin chafing at her very clothes, her very tears, itself, the need for escape and the need to be clean of all that held and bound her so overwhelming she felt she might vomit from it, the only thing stopping her her very repulsion. Oh God, oh God, oh GOD , she thought, and squeezed her eyes so tight they throbbed, her nose aflame from sniffing and sneezing and sobbing, all her senses on fire from this stimulation. She felt as if the darkness itself was violating her, invading her and touching her and caressing her with unwanted intimacy, creeping inside her through all her cracks and orifices, squashing the air from her lungs and slowly imploding all her organs with its crushing, all-consuming embrace - I don’t want it! MAKE IT STOP! She sobbed even harder, her voice raising from a wail to a shriek, her scream shattering the silence with its unguarded despair and desperation.

Morgana was the only one who could make it stop, that much she knew and remembered, even in this state; I need Morgana , she thought suddenly, her breathing calming down. Morgana, please, I need you , she cried, but the cry was only inward, for though she was lost to all sense she would never, never let such words pass her lips, not in a million years: years of indoctrination and fear had forced such things out of her, brainwashed any sympathy for magic from her. Nevertheless, she thought of Morgana so fondly in that moment, all sense of self-empowerment or outward support so thoroughly effaced, that Morgana might have come in then and her work would have been complete (if that had been her desired effect).

Her fit passed, and she slowly moved her stiff body, unlocking her crushed form and rising. Now she sat up on her knees, and for a brief, perfect second, she stopped being scared - not quite entirely, but just enough to regain sense, to remember who Gwen was, to separate Gwen from Morgana and Morgana from goodness, to return to the world. But then she shivered, for suddenly she felt as if she really weren’t alone; what if there were other prisoners, or magical...things? Malign presences sent to hurt her, torture her? Then she bitterly regretted her outburst, and, without even noticing, her breathing became shallower and shallower, till it was so quiet she was almost noiseless, her entire form leaving an eerie, too-complete silence where the rustle of her dress and the gurgling of her sobs and her ear-splitting shrieks had been. Do not see me , she prayed. Do not hear me, do not notice me, do not think of me, let me be utterly invisible . She held herself utterly still, so still she thought she might break, and leant back against the pillar she had anchored herself too, closing her eyes just to escape the oppressive darkness. Her body went from freezing cold to scalding hot and then back again, her fingers tensing then loosening, her mouth dry then wet then dry again. It seemed like hours that she sat there, utterly frozen, her exhaustion bleeding into her brain just like the pregnant silence, the bestial darkness, her grip on reality relaxing again as she lost track of time and space and sanity. But such tension was impossible to maintain, and after a period of millenia she softened, and dropped her head in her hands, the weariness truly hanging heavy on her now that she was no longer sustained by adrenaline.

For some time she lay there, a puppet with the strings cut, her body crumpled like a rag doll that has been tossed aside. Her mind was utterly blank, and she even fell asleep (though she did not notice it), for she dreamed in broken, unpleasant fragments that vanished as soon as she jerked awake, her head snapping upwards painfully fast. How long was I out? she wondered, for there was no sign of dawn; it could have been hours, it could have been days, it could have been seconds. She cried a little then, groaning and sighing over the hopelessness of her situation, all ability to lie and pretend stripped back from her so that even now, in a state of relative sanity, she wished for anyone - Arthur, Merlin, Elyan, Morgana - to come and rescue her, no matter the cost.

It took some time for her to open her eyes again and bother to look around, but when she did, she found to her amazement that she could see a little better. Initially she felt a surge of relief, believing that dawn was nigh; but that soon proved a delusion, and so, despondent, she got to her feet and leaned against the pillar for support, her temples throbbing. When she moved, however, she felt a strange, cold breath of wind, and paused, dread pooling in her stomach and making her legs weak. Who’s there? she wondered, and then: who, or what? For the thing had been small enough to make only a light breeze, and at the level of her head, too. Her trepidation increased, and she swallowed the lump in her throat as she turned around. If the thing was high up then...perhaps it could fly. Or worse , she thought, and felt sick. Perhaps whatever it is is hanging up - perhaps Morgana killed it, then strung it up .

She whipped round, feeling another cold breath of wind and hearing it, this time, but suddenly something smacked her in the forehead and she cried out, started back, ducked down. Her face was covered in something sticky, something wet and cold that dripped down into her eyes, her mouth, onto her dress. She screamed softly, and tripped backwards, sitting down with a painful thump and finding herself unmoored from her pillar. There was a moment where she hesitated, unsure what to do, but then she knelt carefully and dabbed at the fluid on her face, feeling the slimy texture on her fingers and resisting the urge to gag. Well, whatever it was was unfamiliar to her, or at least, she doubted it could be any one of the things it felt like to her, having never encountered this particular substance before - something magical? She had not enough wits about her to make logical assumptions in that moment. Sponging the liquid from her face and neck with the sleeve of her dress, she crawled slowly on hands and knees towards where she thought the pillar was, groping in the dark like a blind woman. It was no good; the pillar was not in that direction, nor any other side. Her breath caught in her throat, the hairs standing up on her neck as another puff of cool wind caressed her face. But as she backed up her body hit something hard, and she shrieked as for a horrible second she imagined feet, legs, a monstrous body...but then she felt with shaking hands and found cold marble, and knew that it was only the pillar that she had been searching for a moment ago. She let out a long, shuddering breath, licking her dry lips and closing her eyes.

A scream split the darkness like knife blade, tearing and rending the fabric of reality in all its terrible, unhinged entirety. Gwen jumped out of her skin and sobbed involuntarily, the noise wrenching more tears and cries from her though she tried to be brave, to ignore it, to remember that it was not real. The scream came again though, and it sounded so real - so familiar too - that she could not help but shake and suffer and scream with it, shuffling this way and that like a dismembered spider in an effort to find a safe corner, to escape an enemy she could not see, to save a friend she did not know. The shrieking came closer, cutting out suddenly and leaving an endless silence in its wake that only set her on edge all the more, waiting until she had really, properly let her barriers down, until there was no possibility of another noise, until she was almost asleep; that was the moment it chose to return, startling her awake so she screamed almost defiantly, screamed for Morgana, begged her to come. She was not reticent now - she wanted to get out, to get out as soon as possible, she needed to escape and to run. Morgana seemed like a beacon of hope in that moment, the infallible parent who would stave off the dark with her embraces and omnipotence, the mother who would stroke her hair and kiss away her tears and tell her it was all a dream. She calmed when she thought of Morgana, or at least a part of her did, the rest of her mind still consumed in animal terror.

The last torment of the night was the worst of all, the most terrible. She had clapped her hands over her ears to keep out the screams and so she stayed even as she opened her eyes to look for the dawn. It was still dark, but then - there! A light, a soft, blue light, not quite like the sun, but...Gwen’s stomach dropped as she felt the gust of freezing wind that accompanied the light. Oh no, no no no no no, please God no , she thought, begging, the tears pouring down her cheeks as she raised her eyes to heaven. But instead of heaven she found only blackness, and then some of that cold, slimy gel dripped onto her face and she howled, saliva dripping from her mouth as she fell forward, utterly broken, utterly undone, but then, but then - 

‘Guinevere.’ The voice was gentle, masculine, comforting. Gwen raised her eyes slowly, saw a broad hand, a muscular arm, a doublet and collar and - oh, but it couldn’t be, and so soon, and had he really - did he really - 

‘Arthur!’ she breathed, ready to cry again from relief. But then she frowned. Could this be another of Morgana’s tricks?

Arthur seemed to sense her thoughts, and smiled slightly. ‘Gwen, please,’ he said gently, and she smiled a bit, for once grateful for his indulgent kindness. Her eyes softening and her wits returning, she leaned forward, studied him.

‘Is it really...is it really you?’

He smiled wider, and nodded. ‘It’s really me - truly.’ Gwen crawled forward, grovellingly grateful, her spirit broken, and for a second the light of the hope in her eyes seemed to illuminate the room, her glowing heart beating with a warmth it hadn’t had in a long while. Arthur smiled a little more normally at her, and then his smile widened to a grin, and Gwen halted, frowning slightly. Arthur saw her hesitation, and now she saw what she had not before - he seemed, oh, ghostly, almost...blue? Arthur watched her realise the truth, and then he threw back his head with a wild gleam in his eyes, and laughed, laughed heartily from the depths of his belly, his guffaws bouncing off the walls and multiplying so that they echoed in her ears. Gwen’s chest began to heave, her fingers clenching on the floor, and then she screamed, screamed loud enough to force the apparition to flee, her tears pooling on the floor and then drying on her face. But now she wasn’t just scared - no, she was beyond that. Now Guinevere found her strength, a strength born of bitterness, of exhaustion, of sheer, pure anger. How dare he mock me like that? she thought, her eyes flashing. For she was weak and fearful, true, but she had but lately been planning to betray her husband, had she not? - had she not intended full well to desert him, to run away?

I am nobody’s prisoner, she thought, ire lending her strength. Clutching the pillar, she dragged herself to her feet, and though she stooped to avoid whatever it was hanging from the ceiling her vengefulness did not change, and she blocked the night out of her mind as much as she could, drawing on the safest of those memories to give her strength. Then, surprised, she realised she had automatically known where the pillar was, despite having lost it in the dark. But then...but then…

She looked around, and saw to her triumph the pale, grey light of dawn coming into the room, banishing the shadows. She looked up, and saw the dim, frightening shapes above her that were, nonetheless, much reduced in their fearfulness by the illumination, and though she did not yet have the courage to find out what they were, she could dodge them, avoid them, see that the confines of the room were far smaller than the gaping cavern it had seemed in the night, see where the door was. Though she would have liked to hammer on that door, to make a stand, to claw at Morgana’s eyes as she had dreamed of doing on the journey, she slid slowly down the pillar, curled up in the safety of its foot, and fell asleep, sinking into a slumber so deep it was almost dreamless save for traumatic, distorted flashbacks to the longest night of her life. And so it was the next night, and the night after that, and so life passed in a waking nightmare of exhaustion and captivity, the only constants hunger, thirst and terror.

Chapter Text

Morgana awoke with a start, finding herself downstairs in the banqueting hall. When did that happen? she wondered, for she was sure she had gone to sleep upstairs. Still, she was known to sleepwalk - her prophetic dreams often provoked such reactions. If only my magic were less demanding. Dragging herself upright, she glanced around, seeing the shafts of sunlight streaming in through the high arrowslits. About time to wake her up, then - good. Wearily rubbing the dust from her eyes, she dragged herself to her feet and combed her tangled hair with her fingers as she traipsed up the tower steps, her mouth dry and her legs heavy after such a deep slumber. She idly fingered the silver bangle on her wrist, a gift from her dearly departed Morgause to help with her dreams - I have much to thank you for my love, she thought, remembering the years when the woman had cared for, loved and guided her. The remembrance was a painful one, for Morgause’s death was still a relatively fresh wound; she was all I had, Morgana thought involuntarily, and caught her breath, her eyes stinging with tears. Perhaps that was why she had chosen this mad scheme to get back at Arthur, for she didn’t need Gwen to do that, not really. And though at first when Gwen had been crowned she had felt - oh, unutterably betrayed, and by her oldest friend, too! - thought she had felt all that her ire had died down by now, four years later, especially now that she saw Gwen again in person. The physical reality of the woman she had loved and depended on so closely for so many years was shocking to her, a bolt from the blue that she could not deflect no matter how she tried. There were old emotions there, things she never dared even dream of, remembered affections and moments that evoked that time so strongly it was all she could do to remain calm, to remember herself. There was that deep, deep sorrow that she associated with that time in her life, when she had been betrayed and cast off gradually by all around her as her eyes were opened to the terrible truth of the world she had loved and lived in for so long. Her past...she hated her past above all else, for it awoke in her such a terrible tangle of trauma and feeling and vulnerability that she did not dare look back, not for all the world.

Gwen jolted awake, the murky world of demons and apparitions vanishing into the dim midday sunlight of the chamber. Blinking and shielding her eyes, she crawled backwards, unable to gather her thoughts. I am in the tower, she remembered, but even that seemed mutable now. The room began to slide, changing focus, and she noticed with sudden excitement that the chamber door was open, revealing a sunlit flight of stairs. Perhaps I am free after all, she thought, and remembered seeing Arthur in the night. Did he come to rescue me? Is he here? Her memory was vague, frighteningly so, and she felt and noticed a fundamental shift in herself without understanding it, for she had been many days in the tower, too many - she didn’t know how many. She began to curl inwards, her frightened form crushed into a tiny ball, and dimly she thought of Morgana, remembered the safety of the other woman, of her company and kindness and caresses, her troubled mind confusing past, present and future until she could tell neither up from down, left from right. Her hands groped at the pillar at her back, holding onto its solid, certain form for anchorage; but then she felt strange, jagged grooves in the rock behind her and faintly recalled something forgotten, something important...she turned around to look. A tally, she thought, looking at the little marks, four in a row with a line through, and then again. A second later, she blinked at them, her eyes widening as she glanced down at the broken fingernails of her right hand. I have been - I am marking the days, she realised, and reached out slowly, digging her nail into the stone and scratching another line though it hurt like hell. But the pain, too, was an anchor, and slowly her senses began to return, and she felt a little flutter of satisfaction that she was defacing something of Morgana’s, claiming even just this inch of stone in return for her imprisonment.

‘That must hurt.’ Gwen jumped out of her skin, pressing her back against the pillar and praying for the voices to stop as she had done many times in the night. But this time it was no apparition speaking, and the sweep of silk over stone was a solid sound, the flesh and blood reality of Morgana more reassuring than anything she had yet seen despite the danger. Morgana circled her, looking down at her with a tender, contemplative sorrow in her eyes. ‘I wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself, Gwen.’

Gwen sighed, relieved, and smiled a little hesitantly. ‘I’m not - I’m fine,’ she replied guardedly, still suspicious but not so much so that she could not appreciate and enjoy the sound of her own name on Morgana’s lips. She remembered once again their shared secrets and smiles; Morgana is - was - my friend. It really did seem like it now, for Morgana’s dark curls glowed softly with the sunlight behind them, and she crouched down, reaching for Gwen’s hand and taking it gently in her own to examine the broken, bleeding fingernails. When she saw the blood she tutted.

‘You mustn’t do such things,’ she said, and against her will Gwen believed the concern in her voice, the soft, luminous eyes, the slightly smiling lips. The sheer humanity of Morgana astounded her, for though she knew in principle that Morgana was a monster, that she was magical and therefore malign, though she had been told all this over and over all she saw now was a woman - a woman whom she had loved in her time, whom had looked after her and laughed with her and always, always been her friend. No matter how awake Gwen was now, she could not help but warm to the softness in the flawed person before her, her own good nature combined with an odd, deep-rooted respect for her former mistress conspiring against common sense. And even Morgana, for her part, believed her own role, just for a second - it was easier to pretend to be her old self than it was to harm Gwen, in truth. So it was not such a surprise that, for a minute, Gwen was fooled by Morgana’s genuine smiles, and believed herself to be safe.

Then she blinked, and it all dissolved. The vision of the old Morgana faded, and in its place this pale madwoman remained, so that Gwen both pitied and loathed the vision before her. It was not just Morgana who had changed - it was her, too. Maybe I was once the gullible woman she believes me to be, Gwen thought, hardening her heart. But I have walked through fire and come out the other side - I am strong now, just like her. It was not I who betrayed her, but she who betrayed me, betrayed all of us, and I will not stand to be humiliated at her hands. Gwen drew in a deep, shuddering breath, and snatched her hand out of Morgana’s, darting forward and striking her across the face. Morgana stumbled back and reeled, Gwen drawing in her hand and backing up defensively against the pillar behind her. The two women faced each other, and by the flaming ire in Morgana’s eyes Gwen knew she had done something irredeemable, that whatever Morgana had been sparing her before would now rain down upon her, the true wrath of her new-old mistress unleashed in its entirety. The venom crackled in the air between them, but even though she was scared Gwen felt some of that deep satisfaction she had been dreaming of all those times she had imagined doing this to Morgana, and watched the red mark blossom on the face of her captor, the scratches from Gwen’s broken nails standing out sharply against the deathly white of Morgana’s skin.

Morgana sucked in a breath, raising one gloved hand to her cheek. There was no vulnerability or sympathy in her eyes now when she turned back to Gwen. ‘Well, Guinevere - I think you’ve made yourself perfectly clear this time.’ Her nostrils flared, a muscle twitching in her jaw, and Gwen felt a rush of admiration for the fine bones of that hated face and for the pure, unadulterated anger it contained, though she knew she was about to suffer more than she had ever done before. Perhaps I could teach her a lesson, if I ever got the chance, she thought, and could have laughed at the insanity of the thought. It was true, though - she would like to peel that arrogance back, to kill her with kindness and cruelty, carrot and stick...much like she is trying to do to me, Gwen thought uneasily. They were two of a kind, both trying to tame the other, but she, like Morgana, could not be tamed, nor broken neither; all they could do was reach a kind of stalemate of insanity where they were both utter blubbing messes, unfit for anything. I wonder what that will look like, Gwen thought, and shuddered even as she enjoyed the irony.

After she slammed the door, Morgana leant her back against the wood, then used it to push off and run down the stairs. She only just reached the great dining room before a scream burst from her, a terrible, ear-splitting shriek that shattered all the windows and almost brought the building down. It was only the magic of the old tower that prevented her magic from destroying it, and even then, by the time she was done venting the whole banqueting hall was a wreck, the walls remaining but the plates and glasses and tables and cobwebs in smithereens on the floor. Morgana closed her eyes, breathing deeply, and when she opened them there was a lonely, vulnerable space contained within her pupils, a black pit in which she had been confined for two years, never seeing sunlight nor feeling the touch of kindness. I would have killed for someone to show me kindness like this back then, she thought, remembering her tenderness towards Gwen. But this was not the Gwen of before - this was not the woman she had known all those years ago. No, this Gwen was different, almost unrecognisable; or perhaps I never really knew her, Morgana thought, stricken. She would never forget the look in those eyes after the woman had slapped her - the triumph, the pride, the challenge - oh, the strength she applauded, but against her? This vanity and stubbornness had to be broken out of her captive. I admire and love her for the same reasons I despise and look down on her, Morgana realised, and sighed. She sank to her knees in the middle of the empty room, and, though she tried not to think about it, could not help noticing just how lonely she was. I need you, Gwen, for without you I have no-one. Not a soul in the world will love me if you can’t.

Though she had considered adding to Gwen’s torture, she left her with only the mandrake for that night.

 

Chapter Text

Morgana did not visit Gwen for some days after that. Occasionally a bowl of food or water would appear in Gwen's chamber, but she never saw her captor in all that time, and as her nights grew worse and longer her days grew shorter and seemed fewer, so that her life appeared to her to be a timeless sequence of torment after torment, punctuated only by a sudden, unexpected sleep of the dead that came upon her only when exhaustion dragged her under. Slowly, gradually, like sand slipping through an hourglass, all her hopes of regaining her strength trickled away, and she felt herself weakening, calcifying, her bones growing brittle and her skin and hair thinning and her muscles atrophying bit by bit. At times she seemed to surface from her nightmare, and it was then that she felt the most despair, as she surveyed the tattered remains of her dress, the filth that caked her fingernails and toes and every hollow and cranny in her body, her limbs so weak she could barely stand up, let alone run or fight or any of the things she had dreamed about. She did not feel altogether lost, and neither did she give in, but her physical strength was dramatically reduced and with it her resistance to Morgana. If her captor had been more present in that time, perhaps she might have given in - or perhaps she would have grown stronger, who knew. But Morgana was going through a crisis of her own, and when she came to almost a fortnight had passed, so that, when the door to the chamber opened and sunlight poured in, Gwen was in a far different place than when she had slapped her mistress.

Gwen blinked and cowered, unaccustomed to so much light. She stumbled backwards, the dangling roots that hung from the ceiling smacking her in the head when she bumped into them, and her eyes were red and filled with tears that neither began nor stopped flowing, their sticky, seeping passage down her cheeks an endless condition now that she was who she was. Morgana saw at once that it was not she herself whom Gwen feared - no, now Gwen was afraid of everything, and flinched at the slightest gust of wind in spite of herself. Strangely, it gave Morgana gratification; I am not the one she fears, not anymore , she thought, and smiled slightly. Gwen’s watery eyes blinked and seemed not to see her, this narrow silhouette in the brightness of the doorway - all she knew was that something had changed, something was different, something was wrong, and, child-like, she feared it.

Morgana stepped over the threshhold and an almost incomprehensible cry of ‘No!’ left Gwen’s lips. Morgana softened at this, physically and emotionally, and this time she was playing no role when she approached Gwen carefully, reassuring her with her warm, steady gaze, one hand outstretched. Gwen backed away and into a pillar, which halted her retreat and with it her fear, making her blink and a flicker of hope come into her eyes. Morgana smiled gently, and Gwen’s eyes scanned her face and form quickly, realising soon enough that she was real, solid. The maternal air of kindness, the immutability of her living flesh, the dazzling beauty in her sea-glass eyes and wild hair and willowy form; all of it drew Gwen, and though she had begun to be a little more firm of mind and footing nonetheless she felt irresistibly drawn to Morgana, unable to look away or refuse her outstretched hand. And then, when their shaking fingers met and she was certain, now, that Morgana was real, her skin soft and warm and human to the touch, Gwen could not help it - she threw herself into the arms of this woman, burying her damp face in her soft dark hair, breathing in the scent of warmth and ashes and light, floral sweetness that pervaded Morgana. Even now, after so long, she remembered that smell, the intoxicating female scent that had always covered Morgana’s clothes, something natural, sensual, and undeniably dear to Gwen. She could feel the beating heart beneath those clothes; she is alive, and real, and mortal , Gwen thought, and felt nothing but relief. Of course she had reservations about Morgana , but she had no reservations about this fellow woman who had come to her, her only corporeal visitor. Where she would have bridled a week ago now her pride and conditioning, formally so powerful, meant little enough to her that she could accept Morgana’s kindness, and allowed herself to be led quietly down the stairs by Morgana’s radiant smile and her warm hand, their footsteps deadened in sound by the thick walls of the tower.

It turned out to be sunset, for by the time they reached the banqueting hall the sun had gone down. Morgana had lit a candelabra with three tall candles, so they did not lack so much light, and by the flickering golden illumination Gwen saw the dusty, cobweb-shrouded table was laden with food, a feast for the two of them, the kind of fare she was used to in Camelot. Briefly, she wondered where Morgana had got the food, the cutlery, the plates, the candles - this place cannot be so utterly isolated, then , she thought, but remembered Morgana’s magic and wavered. Was this the kind of thing warlocks and witches could do? In truth, she was woefully ignorant on the subject, and her cheeks burned as she realised it. It was not as if she had ever learned about magic, about what it was, what it could do; Uther would never have allowed any such thing, coward as he had been. Arthur, too, was more in favour of massacring rather that understanding the Druids and their ilk, and though Gwen had never felt happy about it she had never questioned it, either. What did she know about magic? More than he does, or about as much , she thought sourly. Arthur was as ignorant as his people and possibly more so, and she had sat by and let it happen. Her queenly indignation at this did help restore some of her wits to her, and it was just as well, for she had been teetering too close to the edge, and though she did not take back her eagerness towards Morgana earlier she was mindful, now, of traps and tricks.

They were seated beside each other with Gwen at the head of the long table and Morgana on her left - Morgana had not cleaned away the layers of age-old filth that coated the room, save for this one corner. Gwen shivered as she glanced at the shadows outside their circle of lamplight, and wondered what dwelt there, if the things she saw moving were only reflections or something more, something animate, sentient, secretive. Here again her ignorance needled her, for her fear was born out of ignorance, and if she was afraid of the dark, afraid of magic, afraid of Morgana, it was only because she was afraid of what was contained within, what she did not know, the potential to do things she did not understand. She sat there, tongue-tied, lost in thought, while Morgana watched her, the pale eyes darting this way and that as they tried to read Gwen’s mood. At length, she spoke, and broke Gwen out of her reverie. Serving her a portion of pie, Morgana said, ‘Eat - here. Food always makes me feel better.’ Gwen narrowed her eyes, and shook her head slightly, unable to understand Morgana’s solicitousness. Morgana was adamant, though. ‘You must eat,’ she chided gently, adding, ‘You’re fading away.’ Gwen sucked in a breath, too tired to fight with anything but the truth.

‘I don’t know what cruel trick you’re playing, but I will not be broken by you,’ she retorted sharply, regretting her tone after she spoke, but not the intention. For all that she had softened to Morgana, she would never lose herself in this stockholm syndrome - that much, she knew. 

Morgana chuckled incredulously at Gwen’s refusal of her hospitality, unperturbed, her smile ironic. Her voice a little hoarse, she declared, ‘I thought this would be nice!’ Something flickered in her clear eyes as she went on, ‘I know how lonely you must be, all by yourself in that room.’ Gwen squinted at her, resentful, trying to understand the hidden meaning behind those words. Morgana’s stare was bold, defiant, her nostrils flaring and a muscle twitching in her jaw as she appraised Gwen with a wild look. It was Gwen who broke eye contact, too exhausted for a battle of wills, and then Morgana pushed a little more, meditating, ‘At least you’re not shackled.’ Gwen frowned, but did not turn back to her hostess, listening intently but doing her best to seem unfazed. Morgana’s voice broke a little as she added, ‘And there’s daylight.’ That caught Gwen’s attention, but now Morgana was looking away, her expression carefully blank. ‘You can move, you can see,’ she pressed, raising her eyebrows with a fragility about her sullen mouth.

Gwen snorted, tired of Morgana’s games. ‘You expect me to be grateful?’ she interrupted, and once again, her words came across more aggressively than she had intended. Morgana’s expression was both tender and a little contemptuous when she replied.

‘I too have suffered, Gwen.’ This time, each pair of eyes was fixed on the other with no escape. Morgana wanted her to hear this, and Gwen was helpless to resist. ‘I spent two years living in darkness. I spent two years chained to a wall at the bottom of a pit,’ she added, and the ocean in her eyes became an ocean of pain, her voice cracking as she spoke the last word so that she had to pause.

Gwen’s eyes widened, her eyebrows going up as incredulity turned to wonderment. Perhaps she might have been inclined not to believe it, except - except - this was not a role that Morgana would ever choose to say. She is telling the truth , Gwen realised, Morgana’s words sinking in, and suddenly her chest tightened, her stomach dropping as she realised what her hostess meant. Two years, in darkness . Gwen thought back to the past month or so. Two years of that...with nothing, no daylight, no movement . Morgana watched as the truth dawned on Gwen, and then her eyes widened, too. ‘You did not know?’ she said archly, a bitter irony in her expression as she thought of how her actions must have seemed all this time. Gwen shook her head, and her own protectiveness, tenderness, affection for Morgana reared its head, and this time it was sane, this time it was more than pity or fear or stockholm syndrome. For a second, something hung between them, something uncertain, something open, a certain space, a kind of vulnerability that left both breathless, speechless. It was Morgana who broke the silence.

‘I would have sold my soul for someone to show me kindness such as this,’ she finished, letting out a breath, her tone vehement, judgemental. Yet still there was something vulnerable in the truth of her words, and though Gwen felt her judgement she found herself nodding, accepting it. Yes, she had been entitled in her attitude towards her own treatment - yes, it was true, she was ignorant of many things, suffering included. Morgana gazed at her languidly, somewhat churlishly, as she added, ‘You want me to take you back up there?’ She placed a grape on her tongue and popped it, her eyes flashing at her prisoner. Gwen glanced down, pensive, repentant, humbled. She listened to Morgana eat, and thought a long time about what it was that she wanted, for she refused to make any more rash decisions like last time she had spoken to Morgana. In the end, though, her frustration and exhaustion got the better of her, and she sighed deeply as she spoke.

‘I want to wash,’ she replied quietly, and Morgana glanced up with a hawk-like attention, waiting to hear more. ‘I want to move properly, so that I do not die of weakness, and I want to feel the wind on my face again. I need fresh air and sunlight and exercise and a bath, if I am to survive this ordeal.’ Morgana stilled completely on hearing those words, and Gwen felt herself becoming nervous, her thoughts becoming disordered. No - hold on , she told herself, willing herself to be calm. You need to stay alert .

Morgana picked over her food for a long time before she answered Gwen’s plea. ‘How can I allow you to wash if I have to turn my back on you and let you out somewhere you might escape? How can I allow you to move if I know you might run away? I can’t very well allow you out, can I.’ Her tone was melodious and low as ever, her expression enigmatic, and Gwen could not tell what she was thinking, not this time. She glanced down, despondent.

‘I suppose not,’ was her only reply. She sighed, feeling that the matter was closed, but then Morgana opened her mouth again and she glanced up in surprise.

‘I can, however, allow you to do some of those things under my supervision,’ she said slowly, thoughtfully. ‘You may wash, and have clean clothes, and then if I see fit perhaps I’ll let you out onto the roof for some fresh air - we’ll see. Understand, if you try anything - and I mean anything - you will not be receiving such kindness again.’ Her brow darkened, her expression hardening, and Gwen thought with growing dread of what it would be like to be shackled, to be held someplace else, perhaps a dark, dank pit like the one Morgana had suffered in. Her eyes began to prickle as she thought of what that would be like, of what that must have been like for the woman before her; she is stronger than anyone I know, to have survived that , Gwen thought involuntarily. Morgana had suffered more than anyone Gwen knew, suffered inordinately for one so young, something she rarely thought about. Why was it that Morgana had been such a target for such treatment? The first night she had ever spent in the dungeons had only been because she was trying to stand up for what was right. In fact, Morgana had a noble heart, and it had only ever been that that had led to such cruel, harsh punishment. Whence then came her cruelty? It is the cycle of abuse , Gwen thought, and felt oppressed by the terrible, lonely weight of the suffering of the woman beside her. Perhaps she herself would become like that, some day, provided that Morgana kept this up, that Arthur took any longer to arrive; I’d forgotten all about him , she realised with a start. She knew he would be coming, but...now there was only her and Morgana in the universe, nothing more. They were all each other had, strange though it might seem - they depended on each other, though in what manner, Gwen did not understand. I cannot live without her, and she cannot live without me .

Morgana stood up, her chair scraping against the stone floor. She reached out a commanding hand to Gwen, and Gwen took it, following her obediently as she was led down more flights of steps, stumbling a little from exhaustion. She was out of breath by the time they reached the bottom, and once again felt oppressed by her own weakness. Have I grown so feeble in such a short time? , she wondered, and then remembered that she did not in fact know how long it had been, for though she had scratched a tally into her stone pillar she was not sure she could trust it - she was not sure she could trust herself, now. She hesitated, leaning heavily on Morgana’s arm to get her breath back, and her captor paused, and turned back to look at her, waiting for her to regain her strength. There was a moment where they caught each other’s eye, and again Gwen saw that enigmatic withheld ferocity in Morgana’s light irises, Morgana glimpsing the same in Gwen’s darting dark brown ones. There they stood, light and shade, yin and yang, heat and cold, the perfect opposites offsetting each other in the flickering torchlight, and Morgana felt a surge of something irrepressible and strong and Gwen almost started forward, and then their momentary magnetism abated and Morgana turned back to unlock the door before them.

The room they entered was as dim and gloomy as the last one, and just as strangely and as sparsely furnished. When Gwen’s eyes adjusted she saw that there was in fact a narrow window set high in the wall through which moonlight streamed and illuminated a large wooden tub that sat in the centre of the room. She glanced questioningly at Morgana, who only raised her eyebrows at her. ‘You said you wanted to wash,’ she said, and Gwen’s eyes widened, a momentary, fragile gratitude and delight flickering fleetingly in them before it passed away, a mild suspicion returning.

‘And I thought you said I couldn’t,’ she replied slowly, and Morgana rolled her eyes.

‘Of course I can’t let you out of my sight, but I’m not going to do that,’ she explained, and Gwen swallowed, understanding. She didn’t know why, but she felt - it felt - strange, the idea that Morgana would... Stop fussing . She had got what she wanted, hadn’t she? Nonetheless, she felt nervous about being so vulnerable around Morgana; and of course they had been naked around each other many times before - indeed, Gwen had formerly washed Morgana herself, more often than not - but this...this was different. That was years ago, and this was now, and here.

It seemed Morgana was remembering the same thing, and she read Gwen’s thoughts in her face, her eyes glowing in the darkness; so reticent , she thought, amused. Going over to the bathtub, she filled it with water and heated the water with a flick of her wrist, her eyes turning momentarily golden as she used her magic. Gwen watched, entranced and a little afeared, as Morgana completed this task so simply, her magic enabling her to bypass even the simplest of menial chores - her mind called out that it was wrong, but her heart and gut felt uneasy at the thought of her own resistence to such things. Who was she to dictate the laws of the natural world, to say what was right and wrong? Magic isn’t a question of morality - only fools like Uther think that . Was she, too, a fool? She blushed, and frowned, disquieted. How was it that, for all her resistance to the world in which she had lived, she had nonetheless accepted its strangest of laws without question? Morgana seemed to see what she was thinking, and smirked ironically, a bitter pain flashing in her eyes. ‘Your bath is ready, my lady,’ she murmured softly, her lips twitching, and Gwen wavered, scratching her neck anxiously.

    Morgana took this as an assent, and stepped behind Gwen, carefully lifting her hair away from her back and unlacing her dress with nimble fingers. Gwen jumped, blushing at such an intimate act - coming from this woman, it felt so wrong, so different to how innocuous it should have been. I never know where I stand with her , she thought, and suddenly a kind of despair took over, so that she sagged beneath Morgana’s ministrations and passively let her remove her bodice, her skirt, her stockings and petticoats. When she stood in just her chemise, however, Morgana paused, and it seemed she, too, was infected with some of Gwen’s hesitancy. Gwen felt her stillness, and glanced over her shoulder questioningly to see Morgana’s wide eyes and innocent apprehension; she seemed almost scared, nervous. It was Gwen’s turn to smile slightly, something both bitter and tender in her gaze as she looked back at her captor. Morgana seemed to shake off her reverie, and glanced up inquiringly into Gwen’s eyes, raising her eyebrows - but Gwen had caught that moment of soft fragility, and now she treasured it and stored it up within her, though she wasn’t sure why she was quite so protective of the memory. Perhaps I could use it as ammunition against her , she thought tentatively, but the thought seemed wrong, out of place. It was not that, then. She would put the mystery to rest, for now.

    Stepping forwards, Gwen reached down for the hem of her skimpy slip, slowly lifting it up and over her head and trying not to think about anything. Morgana’s eyes burned into her back, watching her every move, and even though she could not see her captor she could not help but feel the undeniable ferocity of her gaze, and wonder at its source. Morgana felt she could not take her eyes off her captive, her look irresistibly glued to Gwen’s every move, her eyes flashing turquoise as she watched each inch of soft golden skin appear, from the long, smooth legs, to the round, peach-like buttocks, up the slender back with its central line and over the upper vertebrae to the dark curls that now came cascading back down as the chemise was tossed aside, the woman shivering in the moonlight. Gwen could feel herself getting goosebumps, her dark nipples hardening in the cold air, and though she did not mean to she couldn’t help but turn around, looking over her shoulder at her captor. She did not know what she was looking for, nor why she was looking - it was a strange mixture of vulnerability, pride, vanity and insecurity that she felt in that moment, so different from everything she had felt before - but when she caught Morgana’s eyes and the luminous aquamarine blazed into her in full force she froze, captured and held in place by that smouldering scrutiny. Her colour was high, her cheeks burning when at last she tore herself away, stepping slowly into the steaming bathwater so that her legs tingled almost painfully at the change of temperature, the blood pumping round her body and her heart rate accelerating with the alteration.

    Morgana let out a long breath, and looked aside then back, biting her lip. Annoyed at her own bashfulness, she stepped forward suddenly, and reached for the washcloth that had fallen on the floor a little way away from the tub. Gwen sighed as the hot water warmed her, groaning and closing her eyes and sinking down as she relaxed for the first time in weeks, and Morgana froze, that little sound so unlike anything she had ever heard Gwen make before. Her eyes darted all round the room as she attempted not to look at her captive, but it was all-but impossible - she cursed herself for allowing this to happen in the first place. Granted, seeing Gwen relax awoke something within her; but it was easier to be cruel, for then the boundaries were simpler, the lines in the sand older than time itself. Now she had introduced doubt, confusion, and as a result she suffered and felt those emotions, as did Gwen. Perhaps I have erred , she thought, but seeing Gwen so satisfied was an improvement on the defiant, wretched woman of two weeks ago. For her part, Gwen found her own mental capacities momentarily limited by the sudden sensation that assaulted her: the tingling throughout her body as the blood rushed back to those places it had forsaken, the stinging at her wrists as sensation returned to her old open sores from the bonds she had worn in the first days of her imprisonment, the sensitivity all over after so much numbness and the soothing, soft warmth that invited her further into vulnerability, into nudity, drawing her away from her apprehension and encouraging her guard down little by little. She sighed, and the corners of her lips dimpled a little, the closest to a genuine smile she’d come in months. Her hands tickled where she soaped herself up, but then just as she went to clean them off she realised she had no washcloth, and paused, glancing around.

    Morgana saw Gwen’s sudden hesitation, and knelt down beside the rim of the bath, resting her arms on the edge of the tub. ‘What is it?’ she said softly, and though her expression was always fierce it seemed remarkably, unfeignedly soft in that moment.

    Gwen bit her lip. ‘Is there - do you have a cloth I could…?’ she stammered, blushing, and to her surprise Morgana blushed too, though there was no reason for her to.

    ‘Of course, of course,’ she replied, handing Gwen the cloth. But then she paused, and God knows what made her do it - maybe it was the wine from dinner, the heat coming off the water, her earlier revelation - but she opened her mouth, and said, ‘Let me wash your back.’ Gwen blinked, her eyes widening, but since it had been phrased not so much as a request than as a command she turned obediently, lifting her wet hair out the way and presenting the nape of her neck for her hostess, acutely conscious of everything and blushing furiously.

    Morgana crouched down behind her, rolling up her sleeves and leaning forward. She dipped her hands in the hot water and reached for the soap, slicking up Gwen’s golden skin with suds. She could see every one of Gwen’s vertebrae, and felt a terrible pang as she realised how thin she’d grown - she really is fading away , she thought, and then I did this to her . Frowning, she shook her head and focused on the nape of Gwen’s neck, massaging soap over that, too, and then dipping down to the base of her spine, low enough that Gwen jumped. Gwen dipped her head as Morgana soothed her skin with her fingers, her eyes half closed and her muscles loosening as Morgana kneaded the tight knots in her shoulders. The blood rushed to her core, following the path of Morgana’s fingers so that her skin was even more sensitive than usual, her hair tickling her breast and stomach where it fell over her shoulder, her legs bent and slightly spread so that that point between them also warmed, the blood going there, too. Morgana sensed Gwen’s increasing relaxation and smiled in spite of herself, reaching for the washcloth as she put the soap aside and soaking it in fresh, hot water that dripped down and trickled in rivulets over Gwen’s smooth skin as she began to smooth away the soap suds bit by bit, sponging away the dirt with the greatest care and thoroughness, prolonging the moment for as long as possible almost subconsciously and feeling a strange tightness in her chest, a warmth in her body and a stinging in her eyes that confused and overwhelmed her even as she pushed into it. Gwen was sighing, now groaning into her movements, and Morgana pressed more of her weight into her, her face so close to Gwen’s that she could smell the damp cleanness of her hair, see every little speck of peachfuzz on Gwen’s skin, where her hair began to curl more tightly into its natural style, the little baby fronds that dangled down from the crown of her head and brushed her shoulders. Though the room was cold it felt very warm just then, to both of the women; and the warmth spread outwards, and seemed to bathe the world in a new light so that for a moment they forgot themselves, allowing themselves to relax.

    Gwen's eyes were closed, and she could feel Morgana's warm breath ghosting over her neck and automatically leaned into the sensation. Morgana, by now intently absorbed in the other woman, noticed this, and hovered ever closer to Gwen, growing bolder when the other did not move away. She could resist no longer - her desire to touch Gwen was too strong, the whirlpool of this charged magnetism dragging her under, her inhibitions falling away like so much dust as she breathed in the scented steam rising from Gwen's damp skin. Gwen sensed that Morgana's face was a mere hair's breadth away, and hesitated, listening to her heart; but after everything - Morgana's revelation, her weeks of confinement, her tender eyes and old goodness - she couldn't help giving in, though it might have been wrong. Morgana saw Gwen tip her head even closer towards her, and reached for Gwen's damp hair, lifting it out the way decisively and carefully in a move that committed her and compromised her utterly, but one that she could not regret. Gwen's eyes flickered beneath their lids at this, but did not open, and as she still offered her neck Morgana gave into her desire in a rush, stooping and pressing her lips to Gwen's warm, vulnerable skin, that spot on the side of her throat that she had always adored. Gwen groaned softly, and let out a long, deep sigh, her noises barely audible but louder than a cannon shot to Morgana who surged inwards as Gwen turned around, at last opening her eyes just as Morgana closed hers and their lips met.

    Well, almost - for just as Gwen felt the beginnings of the kiss she gasped, drew back. Morgana opened her eyes, searched Gwen's face in confusion, and Gwen was afraid of the ardour she saw in that green gaze, the burgeoning passion. Tears welled up in her eyes and she raised a hand to her mouth, to the spot where Morgana had almost kissed her, claimed her, won her round. Again Morgana's eyes searched for hers, beseeching, questioning, reaching, but Gwen shook her head, closed her eyes, and drew her knees up to her chest. She was quivering, and Morgana's chest was heaving with emotion that she would not allow to reach the surface, but Morgana did not scream or shatter anything as before, and there was no simple ire in her gaze - only longing, a deep, deep ardour that frightened Gwen as much as it confused her. She looked away, not wanting to see or acknowledge, and rubbed her sore wrists, the tender flesh of which was still stinging in the hot water; Morgana noticed the gesture, and reached for Gwen's arms, but the latter snatched her hands back and crossed them over her chest protectively, trying to hide her wounds and her nakedness. Morgana seemed more hurt by this than anything else, and frowned slightly, pain clouding her beautiful clear eyes - but Gwen did not see, for still she refused to look. I cannot , she thought, her face trembling in an effort to suppress tears, her nose stinging and her skin growing cold in the icy night air. Morgana gave her one last sweeping, beseeching, devastating glance, then rose to her feet and strode over to the other side of the room, turning her face away to hide the tears that she shed silently, wiping them away as quickly as possible. For a second, the two women suffered in the deepest, darkest shadow of night; and then Morgana returned to the bathtub and commanded Gwen to get up, hurrying her into her clothes before she was dry and binding her hands with a soft silk scarf that was nonetheless a form of prison, and which she used as a tether to lead Gwen back upstairs and into a moonlit chamber different to the dark, mandrake-filled room in which she had previously kept her captive. She showed Gwen inside, and then closed the door on her quietly, locking her hostage in for another lonely night. Gwen wept properly then, though still silently - wept for her own confusion, for the knowledge of what she was denying herself in refusing to become Morgana's pet, for her poor, broken heart. And Morgana sobbed in the bedroom below, lying beneath the coverlet and shaking, the first time she had truly cried for love in many years.

Chapter Text

 

    Gwen awoke to glorious golden sunlight, and for a moment, she was completely disorientated. Rubbing her sleep-crusted eyes, she blinked and squinted, looking around. The room was sparsely furnished in cobwebs and bits of broken furniture, the high windows arched and the ceiling lost in shadow. It was then that Gwen remembered, and she sat up sharply, sucking in a breath. Morgana, she thought, and looked down at her silk-bound hands, frowning. Her back ached from lying on the floor, her eyes were puffy and sore beneath swollen lids, and her legs refused to support her when she tried vainly to stand up - but she was better rested than she had been in months. Otherwise, her mouth was exceptionally dry and her hair as wild as ever, for she had not had time to clean it the night before and it had stiffened into its more natural curls, the spiralling tendrils of her afro striking and velvety like melting butter in the morning light. Another thing I used to tame for Arthur's sake, she thought, and snorted. She had suppressed so much of who she really was just to fit into Camelot's society, that small, idyllic town where they disliked outsiders, a bad place for any who looked or lived or felt different and not a place of asylum. I am free now, she thought triumphantly. I never have to see him again. 

    It was then that she realised with a start that even if he came to rescue her, Gwen could never go back. Or at least, she could not go back without leaving something of herself behind, without surrendering her own right to live. I would be burying myself alive, she thought, and shuddered. Not for all the world would she do that; which left the question of what she would do, considering it was just her and Morgana then. She still had no idea how she felt about that woman anymore - there was affection, sorrow, regret, but very little fear or revulsion. Perhaps some hatred, but more for herself, for giving in too easily, for allowing Morgana to have rights over her. She just couldn't allow Morgana to have any power over her, that was the problem - she terrified and sick to death of being someone's belonging, someone's wife, someone's daughter, someone's sister, someone's maid. I refuse to be possessed, she thought, and felt strengthened.

    On the other hand, neither could she allow Morgana to become her subordinate, as she had once been hers. Morgana was strong, and deserved respect; Gwen did not want to possess or humiliate her, as she had before. All sadism was fled from her mind, and with it all certainty, so that she knew deep down that even if she had wanted to escape it would have been impossible to fight Morgana. And, she reflected, the same was true the other way round - Morgana could not fight her. Perhaps she could torture her, hate her, for Morgana was more prone to those things than anyone, and if so Gwen would reciprocate in kind, for she would not stand to be mistreated again. If she was at all a masochist, her masochism had to come from a place of love, safety, respect; she was not looking to be traumatised. In fact, everything between her and Morgana must be just that - they must feel safe together, respect each other, treat each other as equals. That, Gwen felt more strongly than anything else. Unless she can treat me like an equal, I cannot reconcile with her. 

    The door opened, and Gwen twisted round as Morgana stepped into the room. The other woman had deep, bruise-like shadows under her eyes, which was fairly normal, though Gwen felt sure they had never been this bad. Her dark hair was limp and greasy around her bloodless face, and she moved slowly, to all intents and purposes absolutely exhausted. Gwen felt both satisfaction and consternation at this shift - she has been thinking as much as I, then. She had to suppress a smile, and as she watched the figure before her blurred in the sunlight and for a second a younger woman stood before her, carefully groomed with red lips that offset her shining green eyes, a little unsure but gracious nonetheless, stooping slightly in a robe of soft mauve and blue silk. But then this ghost faded away, and Gwen felt a strange leap of recognition and relief when the real Morgana stood before her once more, imperfect, empowered, exhausted, her ragged black dress clinging loosely to her emaciated form, her eyes paler than ever and somewhat lined, her nose snake-like and a little pink. I prefer her this way, Gwen realised with a start.

    Morgana watched her intently, appraising her with a slightly distracted, piercing gaze, forgetting to put up a facade so that the ferocious, moody doubt of her resting face prevailed, an oddly endearing expression. Gwen looked better than before, her hair a caramel-coloured crown that haloed her golden face, her eyes a little brighter and her skin smoothed by sleep. With a pang, Morgana realised that she had not let Gwen wash her hair the night before - that was foolish of me, she thought tentatively, and bit her lip. There was a rustle as she brought forward something she'd been holding. 'Here,' she said, and Gwen blinked.

    'What's that?' she asked, squinting. Morgana swallowed.

    'I thought you might want a change of clothes.' Understanding dawned on Gwen, and she smiled slightly in thanks. Morgana took another step closer, uncertain. She saw Gwen's bound hands, and shook her head, the tiniest hint of a smirk tugging on her lips. 'Forgive me - I forgot…'

    'It's fine,' Gwen said quickly, getting to her feet with some difficulty. Morgana quickly untied her bonds, and Gwen flinched as the silk rubbed against her wounded wrists, her weeping sores as painful as ever. Morgana noticed, and her eyes widened as she dropped the silk scarf on one side. Before Gwen could protest, she tossed away the dress and pulled Gwen's hands towards her none too gently, clasping her wrists and murmuring a spell while her eyes flashed golden. Gwen recoiled, snatching away her arms, and when she looked down at her wrists she saw (and felt, too) that her wounds were gone. Slowly, her eyes met Morgana's, mistrustful. 'What did you do to me?' 

    Morgana frowned. 'I just wanted to heal you, that's all,' she said, something vulnerable and confused in her expression. Gwen quivered, backing away. 

    'I don't believe you,' she said softly, her eyes dark with fear. Something in Morgana's gaze flickered and stumbled, and she cast her eyes down, diminished.

    'I only wanted to help,' she mumbled, and when she looked up Gwen saw just how wounded she was by her suspicion. 'I thought it would be nice, some - oh, I don't know - a form of apology?'

    Gwen shook her head. 'No,' she said, almost wrathfully. 'No, you don't get to do things like that, you can't expect me to believe - after everything you've done, after everything - that you are…benign, that your powers, your - unnaturalness! - can be used for good.' Gwen shook, her eyes black and her expression fearful, and Morgana saw that she was rubbing her wrists over and over, as if trying to get clean. It was that that broke her heart, that that hurt Morgana deepest.

    There were tears in her eyes now, which shocked Gwen. 'Please! Believe me! Listen to me! I have been cast out and cut off over and over again for my powers, Gwen, and you cannot think that I would ever use them for ill like this, you cannot believe the poison they fed you! Please, Gwen - you cannot hate me for my magic, not you! I need you to understand,' she implored, stumbling forward. Gwen blinked, balked, stopped, shocked by this display of emotion. And then, with a terrible pang, she realised how priggish she must seem, how prejudiced her haughty, superior air, how hollow and pointless her hatred. Oh, it was hard to overcome that fear, that deep-rooted disgust towards magic that had been drummed into her since birth; but then she remembered all the innocents hung by Uther and Arthur, her own father among their number, all the burnings and massacres and the endless cruelty and she knew, knew in her bones that her overreaction had been foolish, narrow-minded. She remembered, too, Morgana's words the day before - how she had been imprisoned, locked away, tortured and treated like an animal for two whole years - oh, she couldn't bear the thought! How would you feel if it was you? she thought, and knew the answer perfectly well. And so, her chest heaving with emotion, she stepped forward and reached for Morgana, taking her abruptly in her arms and holding her close.

    For a second, Morgana seemed surprised, but then she did not hesitate. Dropping her head on Gwen's shoulder and burying her face in her hair, she sobbed softly into the other woman's warmth, feeling the light that seeped between them, the softening that came over them both as their bodies met. And so together they melted, merging irrevocably, Gwen's eyes prickling as Morgana's streamed, each face hidden from the other in their tight embrace.

Chapter Text

    They sat together that day, for the first time in eight years. Morgana let Gwen into her bedroom silently, apparently the only largely clean room in the tower, and when she had made the bed and smoothed over the silk coverlet thoughtfully with her cold white hands, they perched on the edge, Morgana with her back to one bedpost and her knees drawn up, Gwen leaning on her elbow with her feet hanging down over the edge of the mattress. 

    Morgana spoke first, after a long period of quiet. 'I'm sorry,' she said, and Gwen looked up, the tears starting back into her eyes from sheer surprise at this apology. Shakily breathing in, she exhaled slowly, squinting in the bright light.

    'What for?' she replied helplessly, raising her eyebrows and shrugging her shoulders. Of course Morgana had plenty to apologise for, but - what specifically did she mean this time? What was the sincerity, the solemnity about? Gwen's chest felt tight and she scrunched up her face in confusion then tried to smooth it out again, though still retaining a pained sort of expression. Morgana echoed her earlier sigh, her ferocious gaze clouded and clear and her face matching Gwen's.

    She deliberated for a moment, then answered, 'I'm sorry for locking you away. I'm sorry for kidnapping you, for torturing you, for hurting you. I'm sorry for tormenting you, manipulating you, trying to break you. I know now that I was wrong and you were right - please accept my sincerest of apologies.' She looked up, her black eyebrows as dangerous as ever and her expression burning, and Gwen narrowed her eyes again, unable to make Morgana out. The woman had an unrepentant, almost angry, defiant look, and yet for all that her words were shockingly submissive.

    A chill went down Gwen's spine, and she curled inwards so that her knees were drawn up to her chest. 'Why would you say such a thing?' she breathed, hoarse, and to her surprise felt the deepest, darkest rising fury, her nostrils flaring and her breathing becoming ragged. Suddenly she wanted very much to attack Morgana, to beat her bloody and break her bones and trample over her, to tear that fragile body to pieces till it was smashed to smithereens. A tight, hot ball of something irrepressible and unrequitable burned in her chest, a ballooning pressure that destroyed and replaced her heart, made her wheeze and choke and squeezed little droplets from her tear ducts so that her eyes dribbled and were sticky and sore once again, her whole body hot and furious with beating blood. Morgana watched her with a wide, wary, implacable gaze, her calm unshakeable though somehow also terrified, her cool blue-green eyes like cold water to Gwen's molten ire, her white marble skin cool and deathly and still. Tears bled from her eyes, too, perhaps from staring for so long, but instead of flaring up she seemed to deflate even further, till Gwen felt she was looking down on a little rag doll, immobile, emotionless, fragile. And then she became frightened, afraid herself and her violent thoughts, fearful of her own feelings and their strength and sheer impotence, the thwarted helplessness of her emotions. Confused, frustrated, overwrought, she stumbled backwards over the bed, her eyes fixed on her shaking hands, her skirts tripping her up. There were no words to describe how she was feeling, nothing she could say to escape this mindset - and yet she hated it, abhorred it, wished it over and done with. But then - but then - she rolled over onto her front and found Morgana's pillow, biting down on it hard and screaming with all her might, beating her fists into the bolster and kicking with her legs till her tantrum was wild enough for her to forget, to lose all sense of self, to exhaust her physical form and her mind.

    Morgana watched impassively, somewhat scared, empathetic too; for she had been there, and even felt satisfied at knowing that she was past this stage, that she had at least healed enough to avoid this, though perhaps that was not quite true. When Gwen collapsed on her front and went still, she paused too, seeing Gwen's back heave as she gasped in air, watching her convulse a little as the last screams or sobs shook her. And then Gwen sat bolt upright and began to claw at her hair and clothes, saying, 'Please - I need to wash, I need space, I need to breathe, I must be clean, please let me out, let me be clean,' and Morgana nodded quickly and helped Gwen to stand, striding swiftly over to one corner of the room where she threw open a pair of tall damask curtains to reveal a stone balcony. In another second, she had produced a wooden tub filled with hot water and laid the change of clothes she had prepared earlier over the parapet of the terrace, obeying Gwen quickly and unquestioningly so that Gwen, oblivious though she was, felt her need ease a little. But still her clothes and dirt chafed at her, and then Morgana was there and unlacing her dress and her petticoats were gone and her slip was gone and she lingered a second, letting the fresh morning air caress her naked body, breathing it in to clear her lungs, and then climbing into her steaming bath to submerge herself completely beneath the surface of the water.

    Bubbles streamed from her mouth and nose and spiralled past her open eyes, the water slopping into her ears, her hair swirling around her in a heavy, swooping halo. She felt every bit of sweat and grime dissolve off her, and spread her legs and arms to let the waves into every crevice, her blood warming then cooling and flowing evenly, softly, her heart rate speeding up then slowing as she floated. Then she came up for air, and shut her eyes as the water streamed off her, smoothing her hair back so not one bit of it touched her face. Morgana had noticed that in Gwen - the woman hated the feel of hair in her face. Gwen rubbed her eyes, snorting to clear her nostrils of water, and Morgana dropped the soap and sponge into Gwen's lap so that she chuckled, and began to scrub herself, taking her time to polish every inch of skin and even lathering up her scalp so that she felt utterly changed from the wretched creature of half an hour ago. Morgana sat on the edge of the balcony and watched, her heart leaping every time Gwen let out a groan or satisfied sigh or smiled, sweating in her loosened bodice as she tried to contain her excitement and agitation. She wanted to run all round the balcony, but she restrained this mad impulse if only not to break Gwen out of her joy. Oh, please let this be it, she thought. Please Gods do not break the spell.

    Gwen rose slowly and shakily from the bath, swaying a little in her weakened, softened form. Morgana brought a towel to her and helped her dry off, massaging Gwen's scalp when she got tired, patting down her face and body and wiping away the trickle of water at the nape of the neck that she loved so much she almost couldn't contain herself; but then Gwen strode over to the dress on the edge of the balcony, and pressed it to herself, breathing Morgana's scent in from the rustling silk and then donning it slowly, eventually glancing over her shoulder till Morgana stepped up behind her and slowly, carefully laced up the back of her bodice. The dress was a little tight, and Morgana felt a little unsteady when she saw how it hugged Gwen's curves, her pale eyes flashing. Gwen noticed, and smiled, her eyes shining and her whole body seeming to glow. When Morgana looked up they caught each other’s eye, and for a second neither of them seemed to move and the burning, crackling, blazing light energy between them was hotter and brighter than the sun; and then Gwen leaned in and Morgana surged towards her, and their lips met as hands came to waists and napes and the brightest fireworks exploded behind closed eyes, Morgana melting into her unbearably vast desires as Gwen gave in to those feelings she had sought to ignore, to destroy. And right then and there, they burned hotter than the brightest star, the fire between them wild and unquenchable, their love terrifyingly deep and liquid like lava erupting down a mountainside.

    Finally, they broke apart, dizzy from lack of air. Morgana's eyes shone, and, breathless, she murmured, 'Where to? Where shall we go?', and Gwen shook her head, shrugging helplessly.

    'Anywhere - anywhere in the world, as long as it's away from Arthur, and always with you.' And so they would leave the dark tower forever, never to return.

Chapter Text

    They packed what little they had in a flurry, and by afternoon they were off. Gwen felt her chest tighten as she glanced back at that dark monolith one last time, the place where she had suffered, the place where she had been the loneliest and the happiest. Fear seemed to choke her as the overwhelming emotions and memories came back, but then she looked forward into the sunlight, the open horizon, the dark figure that rode a little way ahead of her, and her heart leapt, and this time she was choking on light, on something else unimaginably sweet and uncontrollably ebullient to the point where it stretched her lungs to the seams so they felt as if they would burst. Her lips split into a wide grin, and Morgana seemed to sense her mood, for she turned around and, tossing her unruly dark hair out of the way, gave an answering smile, her pale blue eyes shining almost with tears and her tangled curls glowing with a warm light where the sun hit them from behind. Her pallid skin was radiant in the sunshine, and though her unhealthy look never quite left her still in Gwen's eyes she was transformed. They wandered into the sunset, meandering on their horses, basking in the luxury of absolute freedom, and from time to time one or both of them would stop, smile, and lean across to the other for a kiss, a touch of the hand, a small embrace. Gwen would stroke Morgana's face and for some minutes they would lose themselves acutely in each other's gaze, Morgana sliding a slender arm around Gwen's waist to hook her in closer, a touch that Gwen felt through her bodice down to the very tips of her toes.

    But this golden hour could not last forever. Gradually the sun went down, and with it their energy, weariness overcoming them with the onset of night. By the time twilight came they were out of the blankness of the desert plain and into the tangled shrubbery of the forests, picking their way on foot along barely-there paths that only Morgana knew, leading their horses at a crawling pace through the knotted undergrowth. Finally, even Morgana could not see the path ahead despite her magic, and so, admitting defeat, Gwen sank down against a tree trunk, exhausted. Morgana, her eyelids drooping, hustled Gwen back up again. 

    'We must make a proper camp,' she insisted, and Gwen submitted meekly, too tired to argue. They tied the horses securely to a branch and pitched their makeshift tent, preparing the bedrolls that Morgana had packed and finally settling down with just enough energy left to glug from the water bottle and consume some of the leftovers from that morning. Then, at long last, they curled up back to back, and fell asleep, too tired to keep a lookout.

    Morgana dreamed that night. Two figures, tangled up in the middle of a vast ocean of night, two tiny, insignificant figures like twin tongues of flame. One was pale with dark, dark hair, the other golden and brown. Both were women, curled up around each other - and then the figure to the left, the pale woman, was kissing the side of the golden girl's neck, sliding a flattened hand over her stomach so the golden one shifted and strained, her eyes closed as she leaned into the fragrant warmth of her companion. Once again lips met unbelievably soft skin, one thumb pressing into the space on that abdomen where stomach turned into ribs, just below those round, cupped breasts, ripe and tumbling from the low-cut bodice that encased her. Raven strands tangled with and obscured brown curls as the two women faced each other, dead leaves streaking their locks, their eyes burning and moist and no more than eyelash length away. Warm mouths met, hot tongues sliding into each other and circling, and though Morgana watched from above she felt everything, too, as if she were also the woman below. And then she was taking control, rolling on top of the other woman, pinning her wrists down and straddling her with hitched up skirts that revealed two sets of thighs, one slender, sinewy and moon-pale, the other thick and pillowy and golden and wrapped around that slender black-clad waist. Gwen groaned, and Morgana felt her body tingle all over, their torsos pressed together so that she could feel the tightness of Gwen's breasts beneath her thin dress and her own hard nipples pressing against the rough lace. There was a tug on her hair as Gwen tangled her fingers in her curls, and Morgana growled into her throat, a sound that reverberated between the two of them, then she began to move more, both of them writhing and shifting together as their muscles contracted and their minds went blank, Morgana's eyes searing molten orbs and her closed eyelids cold as wet stone.

    Now she slid her hand under Gwen's dress, undoing the woman's bodice, and now she was going deeper, further, losing herself in the other's body, lost to the scent of her, the shape of her, the visceral warmth of her. Her heart was burning, tumbling and burning, her whole body on fire and molten as she felt the earth-shaking waves of ardour flow through her. But then something seemed to shift, and even though she was so absorbed on the ground her watching sentinel self, eyes overhead, seemed to turn its gaze away, troubled. And then she was speeding off, her attention split and stretching to its limit so she cried out, and now she watched the dark desert plain and the adamant tower fly beneath her, speeding away, and now she was south of the tower, in the forest on the other side of the plain, and there were more tongues of flame in the darkness, more tiny, twined bodies lying in the underbrush, and she cried and gnashed her teeth in anguish as she got closer for then she saw who it was, and oh - cruel fate! Arthur's blonde form and the red cloaks of Camelot, Gwaine and Percival together, Elyan watching the night, Leon a little way apart, and then, twined together just as she and Gwen had been not moments before, the golden haired King of Camelot and his raven servant, that lanky, beautiful, slender traitor, interlocked with Arthur, the two of them inextricably bound to each other, two sides of the same coin, two equals that could never be parted. It was then that Morgana screamed, cried out and raged to know that her peace would be so disturbed, the fragile, momentary happiness between her and Gwen, the love that had so lately and so delicately blossomed out of a dark, dank, dead world. Back at their camp, she worked Gwen harder, kissed her deeper, more fiercely, but the distraction would not work and now the dream was dissolving, the comforting warmth gone and only the terrible truth remaining, the truth of their plight. Morgana jerked awake, her breathing ragged and her eyes filled with tears, and found she had screamed the birds and sleep away and that Gwen was awake, awake, and terrified. And she knew right then that she could not bear to tell her the truth.