The dissipating sounds of fighting carried softly through the trees but touched Morgana as if thunder roared through her ears, even as her heart remained calm, cold, calculating. Timing was of the essence as was a flawless performance. From this point, while her well-worn slippers tentatively snapped fallen twigs as she ambled forward as if she were an old crone stumbling in the dark, everything relied on her reaching down within her and resurrecting the Lady Morgana. For over a year she had left that confused, weak girl for dead and became something more strong and powerful and knowing under Morgause's stringent yet tender guidance. Even now, as she pulled strands of her deliberately ratted hair forward to frame her dirtied face, she could feel her sister's strength and reassurance flow through her being. It fortified her as she arranged her expression in one of abject fear, helplessness, and destitution and advanced to emerge from the trees.
Dusk had not yet fallen but Morgause's airy fog shielded her as she stumbled out into the open, clutching at tattered remnants of a muddy gown.
She was not expecting to immediately come face-to-face with Arthur, but then again, why would she not? He was always front and center, leading his men into whatever battle or skirmish or danger he faced, the fool. The heir to Camelot should not be so careless with his life yet here he was, taking his stance in the mist and bravely positioning his sword in strike formation. Camelot's golden child, seemingly always protected from whatever dangers he encountered, as if there were some invisible shield guarding his life. Arthur, the good and just, the insufferable arrogant prat, the handsome and shining prince, adored by the people. Arthur, now even more grown into a man as his startled crystal blue eyes took her in as his sword hand relaxed. Even through the haze and distance she could see the wear and lines in his face, the haggard expression of a seasoned warrior who has not rested in over a year. His hair was as sullied as hers, appearing an almost brown instead of the honeyed blonde that turned every peasant girl's head. Dull, colorless, staid in his armor and chain mail, his broad shoulders sunken, his mouth slightly open. Yet she could feel the intensity of his gaze upon her as she advanced.
Her name from his lips verberated through the woods and quickened her heart in that low voice she had so easily and willingly forgotten in her thirst for knowledge, revenge, and acceptance. It rushed over her unexpectedly and she stumbled, falling on her knees to meet the dead leaves and muddied ground. Whether it was a dramatic display or genuine feeling coursing through her, she did not know and did not care to dwell upon.
Arms gathered her up, crushing her to steel and sweat and warmth, gloved hands cradling her head as if it were made of the most precious stained glass. Morgana's senses are more sharp and she felt the strength, smelled the warrior's power. Memories flashed through her mind as bright as the sparks of a fire snapping through her head -
It has been only a little more than a year but this is not the Arthur I know.
"Morgana, Morgana, you are alive. You are alive -" Lips seared through her mussed hair as if it were washed and scented with the most fragrant of flowers. Her skull burned where mouth net scalp.
"Arthur." She swallowed, her arms finding their way around his neck while he lifted her far too easily into his arms. Instinctively she buried her head into his neck, allowing herself to fixate on the mad pulsing of his perspiration-drenched neck.
She could sense the power in him that was never found in Uther.
"It's all right, it's all right, I've got you." He murmured into her hair in an attempt to soothe her, but at the mere thought of Uther she tensed and clenched her jaw. Arthur being Arthur did not even notice the difference in her as he turned and made his way back to the bandits' camp, where Morgana viewed through slotted eyes the soldiers and knights of Camelot stood as if transfixed, all of them bowing their heads as Arthur approached. All except one man gave her a Lady's due honor.
He stood as if terrified, his throat constricting. Morgana suppressed a leering smile as her eyes squeezed shut, still seeing the horrified young man behind her darkened lids.
"Clear one of the tents!" Arthur's voice boomed a command and she heard a skirmish as men did his bidding.
Only moments passed before Arthur swept into one of the tents to lay her down on a makeshift bed of blankets that still held some of the warmth of a fallen bandit. Morgause's henchmen, soldiers loaned by Cenred that he knew full well were being sent to a slaughter so that Morgana could execute their plan with credibility. She felt nothing for the dead outside, nothing for the dead men of Camelot that battled to bring her home. One more killed solider was one less to kill once Camelot was warred upon.And bring war she would, after she extracted her revenge on Uther Pendragon.
She allowed Arthur to fuss over her, leaving her only for a moment to accept a damp cloth from one of the knights with which he gently wiped away the dirt from her face before adjusting a makeshift pillow of a rolled-up blanket underneath her head. It was strange to see him act as a nursemaid and a clumsy one at that. Even more odd how he tugged off his gloves to smooth her hair away from her forehead before clasping her cool hands into his warm ones; instant heat streamed up through her arms as she absorbed his life energy that flowed like the most torrid of rivers.
It nearly took her breath away.
"Morgana - are you hurt? Are you -" He swallowed, briefly scanning down her body and up to her face again, his eyes full of concern - "Are you able to ride?"
Nodding to give the impression she was overwhelmed and too traumatized to speak, she slowly moved to an upright position. She knew what he was truly wanting to know. It was all over his face, the way he looked at her body. He was not so much concerned with her emotional state as he was with her physical one. Typical of men, Morgause would say. Whether it was a rational fear due to a possible inability to ride or if he was worried many a man had sullied her virtue, she could only guess. Perhaps it was both. She looked imploringly up into his face to appear every bit the helpless damsel in distress being gratefully saved by her otherworldly prince... Arthur always enjoyed being the knight in shining armor. Only his armor looked dull and tainted to Morgana. He was was tired and dirty and as worn as she appeared, yet he was more appealing to her this way.
"I hate to do this, Morgana, but we are nearly a day's ride to Camelot. We cannot stay here. We must leave. Now. We don't know if there are others coming. It's all right, you don't have to say anything. I -" he let one of her hands go to card his fingers through his dingy hair - "You can ride with me on my horse. I would not let you ride with another."
"Thank you," she whispered, leaning to embrace him. She felt him stiffen at the gesture and she smarted inside a little. Her advancement was not welcomed for some reason and she let him pull away, his face strangely unreadable as he looked anywhere else but at her.
"Merlin!" He barked it out before turning to the opening of the tent.
"Sire?" The dark-haired servant poked his head in, making a point to avoid her gaze. Her former friend-turned-murderer was obviously a coward. She wondered how he had been bold enough to poison her.
"Bring me my horse. We ride for Camelot immediately." When the man didn't instantly leave, Arthur became more sharp and was more harsh with his manservant than she had ever heard him to be. "Now, Merlin!"
Morgana cringed away, hoping to imply she was traumatized by the yelling. A memory, perhaps, of men screaming at her, barking orders or demands. It had the affect she desired and Arthur looked contrite, even embarrassed at his thoughtless action.
"Morgana, I'm sorry." That was a first, Arthur apologizing to her for something. "I'm so sorry, please, forgive me." Another first, asking forgiveness. Arthur seemed to have hardened and softened at the same time. What had happened to him over this past year?
Determined, she once again embraced him and this time he accepted it, keeping his arms light around her. The armor was an annoyance but it was irrelevant as he gently kissed her forehead, his full, firm lips heating her cool skin. She felt it again, a rush of power, and it made her dizzy, near to fainting. Morgause had taught her to siphon energy from others and she was able to in small doses, but this was something different. His lips lingered and she could hear his heart hammering wildly, even though it was encased in clothing, chain mail, and armor. She should not have been able to hear it even if she had her head pressed to her chest, yet she could feel the beating as if her ear was upon his naked skin -
"Sire- your horse is ready." Merlin's haltingly cautious tone ripped Morgana back to normalcy as Arthur moved hastily away and left her cold. It was but for mere seconds as he scooped her up again without preamble and carried her out of the tent to his hazelnut colored steed.
Morgana tensed as Arthur assisted her onto his horse; Merlin was dutifully on the other side to steady her and she did not relish the thought of him touching her. He attempted an awkward smile through his guilt-ridden expression and inwardly Morgana seethed. Once, she confided in Merlin, saw him as a friend and perhaps even for one insane moment she thought him charming in his own stumbling way, but there was nothing left for her to feel besides enmity for the one who betrayed her trust not just by poisoning her, but by dismissing her anguish over her dreams of things that come to pass and treating her as if she were a delusional fool. He would soon see who the true fool was, when she and Morgause executed their plans -
She grasped the pommel, determined to not need Merlin's help, and Arthur encased her with his red cloak before joining her. Memories of how they would ride together on one horse when they were younger flashed but she expelled it from her mind. Childhood fancies had no place here but in spite of herself, she pressed back flush against him, allowing her head to loll to the side to press into the steel of his armor. A vision seared and she gasped, jerking her head away.
Morgause had taught her well to control her reactions to her visions but this one tossed her body into a sea of inexplicable longing and pain centered in her heart.
Arthur must have mistaken her actions as disgust for his armor, as he wasted no time in attempting to tear it off his body and barking at Merlin to remove the damned thing, along with his chain mail, despite the feeble protesting from his servant that he would be left vulnerable in case of a surprise attack. Of course it provided more room for them and less weight for the horse carrying two, and made a more comfortable ride back to Camelot -
"Full speed, to Camelot!"
The horse was spurred to a gallop and Arthur led the way, his arms strong around her even as he held the reigns. She found it was not an unwelcoming feeling, and once again she felt the draw of him, the heat, now made more potent without the layers, and she pressed back into him, feeling the hard lines of his chest.
"Father will be overcome, Morgana. He will cry tears of joy."
She heard him over the horses and clamoring of the soldiers, speaking strong and proud as he kept her firmly against him. As he did, her jaw clenched. She remembered what her purpose and plan entailed and who it was meant for. Uther. The murderer of so many innocents. The betrayer and hypocrite and the reason her kind were nearly extinct. If he knew of her abilities, he would not think twice in putting her to death, and she should not think twice about letting him suffer for all that he has done.He deserved to be tortured and to lose his kingdom. She hated him with her entire being, for all that he stood for and all that he had done and will do. She needed to remind herself that Arthur was an extension of his father. Once, once she thought he might break from Uther's influence and be a just and fair ruler. She always guided Arthur to stand up to Uther and do the right thing, yet when it came to magic, he accepted the law of Camelot and even enforced it. He had even hesitated on saving the boy Mordred and only relented because she begged him. It would not matter to either him or Uther that they cared for her; they would not hesitate to see her burn for who she was.
Yet Arthur had been able to be persuaded by her. Perhaps that could work to her advantage if it were still true.
Arthur was not a lost cause.
Morgana's brows furrowed together and clutched the cloak to her with one hand, breathing in Arthur's distinct scent. She needed to concentrate on Uther and on Morgause's plan. She could trust no one: not Uther, not Merlin or Gwen or Gaius, or even Arthur. Morgause has been the only one to accept her as she is, the only one who has cultivated her potential and made her more than what she had been. Without Morgause she would be trapped as Lady Morgana within the suffocating walls of Camelot, made to marry some overbearing Lord and live in fear the rest of her life that whatever king sat the throne would have her head if they knew the truth. It was Morgause who opened her up to the beauty and power of magic; the one who took a mere lady in a silk gown and transferred her into a sorceress, priestess, seductress, warrior. She alone deserved Morgana's loyalty and allegiance; not Uther, not Arthur.
Still, something was awakening inside her as Arthur's arms tightened their hold over her body possessively. She felt it when she first met Arthur's eyes in the woods, and she realized he had looked upon her the same way he had in the past but she had been too much of a stupid, naive girl to truly see it for what it was.
Maybe she was meant to take more from Uther than just his kingdom.