Morgana never thought to be anyone's ward, anyone's wife. Motherless from age five, she is happy as her father's one and only, son and daughter both. He shares his knowledge of horses, of bargaining and battle strategy and the struggles of the local villagers. Together they canter through ancient woods and gallop across green, windswept hillsides, exploring every inch of the land she is to inherit. From the highest outcropping she fancies she can see smoke from the distant fires of Caerleon, where her father swears that – should she still wish it when she's of age – Annis the warrior queen will accept her fealty and train her as part of her personal guard.
Then one day, a few weeks shy of her tenth birthday, he's sent north, into battle, and doesn't return. She dreams of flying to his aid, of a sword that fells hundreds at one blow and a horse with nostrils of flame.
She wakes to her nurse telling her that it all belongs to King Uther now – their land, the horses, she herself – and isn't she lucky, too, for her father was a favourite of the king's, and now she'll be raised at court, no doubt as a match for the young prince.
Arthur, he is called. Sturdy. Fair. Seven and spoilt and as motherless as she. Not the nicest of beginnings.
She resists the idea for years, grieving, resenting the loss of her imagined future, but there is a glare to Arthur, a strong, dazzling aura that clings despite his faults. It draws her to him and irritates her in equal measure.
She dreams of him and, at sixteen, detests feeling like a pawn. If this is to be her fate, she will have a say in it. She corners him in the stables after a hunt.
"If you will train me as a knight, I'll teach you how to please a lady."
"Morgana!" He looks up, startled, from stroking Llamrei's neck. "Why on earth would I – ?"
"As a courtesy to your future wife," she cuts in.
He laughs. "And that's you, is it?"
"Well it certainly won't be a fat groom or one of your toadying squires!" She's not thinking as she says it, it's pure spite, but she sees the way his eyes go round before icing over, sees the way his jaw clenches, colour staining his cheeks.
Oho, she thinks, remembering Arthur at ten, eleven, twelve, watching Uther's stallion let down its massive cock; staring at that thieving kitchen boy being spanked bare-arsed in full view of the court; trying not to stare at the acrobats in nothing but loincloths, skin gleaming with oil.
Lately, all the bright eyes and bare cleavage in the castle are no match for one word of praise from his favourite knights.
Aha, she thinks, and just like that her future seems less bleak. There was a tanner in her home village who'd had a friend instead of a wife; she knows there are courtiers who have both.
"Or should I say," she says, pressing in close, "if you will train me as a knight, I will…"
She whispers the rest in his ear, hears his breath catch, feels him shiver.
"There's no dishonour in it this way," she promises. "No danger. It will be our secret."
They swear on their dead parents' graves.
It's only her voice at first. Her will. She bribes handsome guards to strip off and wrestle in the courtyard, urging Arthur to watch from his window. She stands behind him and tells him it's all right, that she knows his thing is getting all stiff and red in his trousers.
"Take it out and touch it," she says, "like you do at night, but with eyes open."
Then one time, impatient, she reaches around and takes him in hand. She doesn't expect to enjoy it, but it feels good in her hand and he makes the most gratifying sound, almost as if he's been wounded.
"Ah," he cries, letting go and bracing himself on the window ledge, straining into her grip. "Gods…oh, that's…Morgana."
His naked bottom presses hard against her, and she squeezes her thighs together, giving an experimental thrust. There is a surge of pleasure, of power; by the time he spends in her hand she feels as if there are sparks flying under her skin.
"Hold," she gasps, clamping her arm around his hips. She shoves her other hand between them and thrusts harder, riding her own fingers cradled in the cleft of his arse.
By the time she comes he is hard again, flushed as red as he ever gets, and he won't meet her eyes. He is trembling with need. Feeling benevolent, she kisses his shoulder and runs her palms over his hips.
"Go on," she says, rubbing all the wet – his and hers both – into his skin. He surprises her by pressing his left hand over hers, inching it back as he spreads his legs as wide as his fallen trousers will allow. He remembers himself then, jerking his hand away, but it's too late. She knows what he's after.
"I think I shall dress as a boy next time." She reaches to cup and squeeze his tender balls, then trails two fingers up behind, rubbing at all the smooth, sweaty skin, the little pucker hidden away between his legs. Like this, all messy, he feels as slick as a girl. "Borrow a fat pestle and a bottle of oil."
He groans, now tugging furiously at his prick.
"You'd like that, wouldn't you, having something just…here?" She presses a fingertip to his hole, keeps it there as he spurts for the second time.
There must be a way to rig up some sort of harness, she thinks. And perhaps, someday, she'll find them a third, a pretty warm mouth who won't mind going down on his knees and is good at keeping secrets.
A prick, as it happens – even a mock one – is not so different to a sword. There is more footwork involved in handling the latter, but they both require an awareness of grip, of rhythm and angle of thrust. Morgana's never killed a man in single combat, but she imagines the satisfaction to be similar to that which she feels as Arthur shudders, bearing down on a length of oiled wood.
There is a place inside him, like a bruise, or the swollen nub of her cunt. He cries out the first time she finds it, shoots seed clear up to his throat, then leaks more onto his belly with every nudge. She's never seen so much spend at once, never smelt it so thick in the air.
After, he looks up at her with the most beautiful eyes, equal parts shame and wonder.
"Do all boys have…I mean, is that…?"
She smirks, not wanting to admit that she doesn’t know. "Did it feel good?"
"Yes, but – " He breaks off, wincing as she eases the rod from inside him. He immediately reaches down, nudging his spent cock and balls aside and rubbing at himself, prodding his opening with two fingers. She wants to laugh at his earnest expression, the little huff and cant of his hips as one finger goes in and his body instinctively tries clenching round it.
"Never thought it could be like this. The knights talk of buggery as if it's something unpleasant."
She shrugs, thinking of how she loves riding, but loathed her first with Uther after coming to court. "Anything's unpleasant if it's not what you want to be doing. Or with whom."
He puzzles over this for a moment, fingers going still. "Is it odd to want it then, as much as I do?"
"Who cares?" She tosses the rod onto his discarded trousers and lunges up the bed, leaning over him to press their foreheads together. Her hair's come loose from its knot; it falls down, framing his face.
"With me, you are safe," she reminds him. "We can do as we please."
"Our secret," he whispers solemnly. Then his gaze slides to her hanging breasts, and his mouth quirks up at the corners. "Uh oh." He cups one breast with his free hand and jiggles it. "I think they've got bigger again. At this rate you'll need special girl armour."
She rears back, slapping his hand away. "Well," she says, digging her fingers into his sides, "it just so happens that I've got a blacksmith's daughter for a maidservant, lucky me!"
She gets him just under the ribs, tickles him until he's snorting with laughter and trying to curl up like a hedgepig.
She likes the noises he makes, the startled grunts and choked-off pleas; how his straining thigh or taut backside feels rubbing against her sex; his fascination with all of her dark hair. He'll stroke it if she lets him, pet the down beneath her arms or the mound of curls between her legs – so long as he doesn't stick his fingers inside her. Nothing goes inside her. That's one of the rules.
She likes kissing his body, but not his mouth – doesn't like the taste of his spit. He likes to wrestle, to have his balls fondled and bottom squeezed, to be held tightly as he pulls himself off. He likes her stories, too.
She tells him of boy whores and warrior-companions, the legends of princes so fair they drove men mad with longing. She tells him that King Alined couldn't keep his eyes off him at the feast, that Morris grows hard while changing his bed linens, that if he fills a jar with his seed, Sir Cador will rub it all over his face, believing it will make him young again.
One of their favourites is when she tells him that the groom has a tiny prick, the size of her little finger, but that his balls have swollen to the size of her tits.
"How they ache, sire," she says, turning on her side, running her pinkie over his lower lip. "Won't you make them feel better?"
Eyes closed, Arthur leans in, exploring her finger and breasts with his mouth, reverently licking and sucking them in turn until her cunt's wet and his throat's convulsing around the idea of swallowing all that warm come.
Then, one hot day, she picks up a sweat-soaked shirt from the training ground and rubs herself down with it before sneaking into Arthur's chambers.
"It was Ranulf's," she says, splaying herself on his bed.
He goes wild for her then, pushing his face in where only his hands have been before, trying to lick the knight's stench off her. Between the firm ridge of his nose and his eager tongue, she's there before she's ready for it, crying out in surprise as her climax shudders through her, her cunt mashed against his face.
When she has the breath for it, she sits up, sees where he's spent himself on the sheets – sees her own wetness smeared on his chin.
"Did I hurt you?" he says.
"Gods no." She slips a hand between her legs, holding tight to the fading sensation, already calculating how often she can get away with raiding the knights' dirty washing. She rubs a toe in the damp patch by his groin. "Were you touching yourself?"
He shakes his head, wipes his face. "It just happened. I… I like how you taste down there."
"You mean you like Ranulf," she says, using her toe to try and smear his thigh with his own spend. He grabs her ankle and twists away, and soon they are grappling and kicking at one another, using pillows for shields.
She thinks she's won, has him pinned flat and is straddling his chest when he lifts his head and licks her cunt, a single swipe from bottom to top, shockingly warm and good.
He uses her moment's inattention to work his arms free and topple her sideways, diving back between her legs.
"And you," he says between licks, looking up at her with a self-satisfied smile.
"Liar," she says. But he keeps licking, making little humming noises; Morgana stops fighting him, slumps back on the mattress with an arm flung over her eyes.
"Liar and – ah – a cheat," she says, though she only really means the latter. Especially when she feels his fingers creeping up around her nub and his tongue slipping lower and lower.
"Can I?" he whispers, and she doesn’t think about it, can't when it's already this good but threatening to be better. She parts her legs wider, lifts her hips and lets his tongue slide further down, until he is licking her bottom – until he is licking her hole – moaning like it's drizzled in spiced honey, and she thinks she might actually love him.
By eighteen, she has grown fully into her woman's body. She proudly wears her new corset armour, adapts the stances and strategies Arthur's taught her to suit her frame. For a time they are more evenly matched than he cares to admit.
Then, almost before her eyes, he transforms, growing taller, broader. Thicker hair on his chest and legs, a sharper scent to his sweat, his once-supple limbs padded with sturdy cords and planks of muscle. Where sheer strength or speed is involved, he bests her with ease; more and more she must rely on strategy and cunning.
More and more, their sparring draws the attention of the other knights, admiring looks from onlookers and – inevitably, it seems – Uther's disapproval.
"I'll have no more of this nonsense," he says one night at supper, issuing the command between bites of pheasant in that way he has, calm, but about as casual as a knife to the throat, that means he expects no argument.
Morgana strangles her utensils, but forces herself to smile. "Why ever not?"
Uther dabs his chin, looking pointedly at her bruised cheek. "Isn't is obvious, my dear girl. With Arthur coming into his full strength, I fear for your safety."
"Her safety is precisely why you should let me continue to train her, Father."
They both stare at Arthur. He almost never takes her part in public; at court they've grown as famous for their verbal sparring as their bouts on the grass. She frowns, but Arthur won't meet her eye; he keeps his attention focussed on his father, gestures casually with his goblet.
"If she was attacked by, say, bandits in the forest – or god forbid the castle was ever breached – would you not want her to be able to defend herself?"
"I'd like to think my men – "
"But if they were overwhelmed, or became separated – "
"Be that as it may," Uther says, voice rising, "if you wish to improve, you can't be wasting your time with inferior opposition, especially not a woman. It's unseemly."
Morgana stands abruptly, cutting off Arthur's protest. Her face feels as if it's on fire; there's an itching pressure beneath her skin, like she’ll spill out of it if she doesn't get away.
"You are right, of course, my lord. Arthur must learn to best champions, and that is a fate I've been denied. I will seek a more appropriate sparring partner."
She leaves the room without once looking back, can hear them resume their bickering as the stone-faced guards close the doors behind her.
He comes to her chambers that night, something they've never risked before. Her anger, not much abated, flares to full life at the sight of him. Once he's inside with the door firmly bolted she whirls to face him, shoving at his stupid plank of a chest.
"I don’t need you to fight my battles with Uther."
"Morgana – "
"You're as bad as he is, speaking of me as if I'm not there. And as if my only motive in this is to protect my bloody virtue! I am a knight in all but name now and you – "
"I know, I know." He catches hold of her wrists, and she hates, hates the easy strength of his grip.
"I will crush your balls as soon as pet them, Arthur Pendragon…"
"Just listen to me, please." He releases her as he speaks, backing away with hands raised. "I didn't come here to argue. I wanted to tell you that we can still train, if you like. In private. Nothing has to change."
She sees the way his eyes dart around her chambers; they are smaller than his own, dominated by her bed with its gauzy curtains. He's trying not to look at it. She's not sure whether she wants to laugh or strike him again.
"You're worried that if you can't uphold your end of the bargain, I'll no longer bed you."
"No! That's not… " He drops his hands, clenching into fists. "He's wrong about you. You fight differently than the others, and I know you'll never go easy on me. I need that, Morgana. And yes, of course I want you – gods, you know there's never been anyone but you, but if you want to stop, I wouldn't…"
He breaks off, bowing his head. He seems utterly defeated. It's this, as much as his speech, that lances her anger, letting all the pressure escape. She looks at him, really looks, from his fair head down to the worn tips of his favourite boots – the ones he will not let Morris touch – and sees what she's been missing: This new body of his is not the betrayal she's imagined.
In public she may have to increasingly ignore him, leaving him to the world of men; they may have to train in the old siege tunnels and tryst behind locked doors, but she can still rouse him with mere words, conquer with a touch. She knows every inch of his body, not least of all the heart and mind that drive it. He is still hers.
She closes the distance between them, reaching for his face. She takes it in both hands and draws it down, forehead to forehead.
"I fear I'll never want to stop," she says. She kisses his cheek, letting one hand trail down – letting herself enjoy the bold new shape of him, instead of battling it – before cupping him between his legs. He is already hard for her.
That night she dreams that they are riding – racing – across an open field with their cloaks streaming out behind. The sunlight glints off his mail, her vambraces, the surface of a lake off in the distance. From behind them comes the thunder of hoofbeats, the cries of men and the baying of hounds. She doesn't know whether they are the lead in a larger pursuit or the pursued, but it's of little concern. No one can outrun or overtake them, for they have no equal.