Actions

Work Header

Daughter of the Ever-Changing Sea

Work Text:

There is little enough to love in Uther’s keep.

At her father’s hold in Cornwall there had been a mossy, crumbling staircase carved into the hill straight down to the sea, and Morgan had climbed down to the low rock wall at its bottom to stand and watch the ever-changing waves and the ships they brought to shore. In autumn, when he returned from the court, her father had climbed down with her, casting stones into the water and telling her stories about the mermaids and the selkies that lived there. Once she had gone down in a storm, and she could not forget the wind shrieking around her and the waves beating themselves into frantic foam against the cliffs.

Sitting in her mother’s chambers, surrounded by Uther’s wealth and Uther’s gifts, Morgan feels like a prisoner.

The only thing she can bring herself to love about this place is her mother, and even she is not as beautiful as she once was. Not as beautiful as she was before Uther came to her. Her eyes are tired now, and her hands tremble as she combs Morgan’s dark hair. She looks pale and thin, ghostlike. Morgan remembers when her mother was quick to laughter, joy beaming in her face at her father’s small kindnesses and her own jokes and games, but now she smiles only when she speaks of the child inside her.

“The wizard came again today,” she tells her daughter, as her fingers deftly work the tangles from her hair. “He says your brother will be born soon.” She lays one hand gently on her stomach, as if to reassure herself.

Morgan, kneeling on the floor in front of her, tries not to flinch.

Sometimes in the still darkness she wonders what wickedness there is in her heart, that she could hate a child so before it is even born. But when she thinks of him, all she can see is her mother, weeping in her chambers after Uther has left her again, and her father, dying alone on some unnamed battlefield, and the home she will never know again, and she does not know how to make herself love him then.

Her mother does not know this, and Morgan will not tell her.

While she braids Morgan’s hair, her mother hums tunelessly to herself. “One day my son will be a king,” she sings. “And my daughters will wear silk and jewels.” When she finishes she leans forward, as far as she can, and presses a gentle kiss to her daughter’s forehead.

When Morgan goes to her mother’s chamber in the morning, her mother is not there, but Uther is, standing straight-backed by the fireplace. There are lines in his face that she does not remember seeing the day before, and something wild and lost in his eyes.

“The babe came in the night,” he says stiffly, not meeting her gaze. “But she did not have the strength for the labor. The physicians could not help her.”

Morgan closes her eyes. “And the boy?” she asks.

“My son will be taken to one of my knights to be nursed and fostered,” Uther says. His face betrays no emotion to her.

“And what of me, my lord?” she whispers, head bowed.

“The Lady Igraine left me your guardian,” Uther says. “Arrangements will be made.”

For a long time after Uther leaves, she stands in the middle of her mother’s chambers. She does not weep, for she shed all the tears she had for her father, in Cornwall by the sea. But as she stands unmoving and stares at the gray stone walls before her, she can feel the hatred rising in her like a tide.

She knows that if Uther hadn't needed an heir, she would be home and her mother would be laughing and her father would be leaning on the parapet watching the sea. And all she can think is that she will destroy that heir for taking everything she had.

The convent does not turn her out when the news comes of Uther’s death. Not precisely.

The mother superior comes to her cell herself with the letter from the royal messenger, and sits primly in Morgan’s only chair while she reads it. It has no details, no last words from the man who sent her away so many years ago, only the fact of his death and the money and land he had held in trust for her. When she sets it aside on the bed, the mother superior clears her throat and tells Morgan a pack and a horse have already been made ready in anticipation of her taking her leave of the order for her father's funeral. Morgan does not bother to correct her. 

The mother superior does not say that she is not welcome back when the funeral is ended; she does not need to. The sisters have been kind to her, since the day Uther brought her, wide-eyed and pale in her dark gown, but she knows they have never been at ease with her.  She has learned how to hide the way that fires flicker before her fingers, and the way she can feel the moving of the waves in her bones. She has learned not to speak of her dreams, even when they come true. But she cannot teach herself to cry out when she pricks herself sewing, or to join the chatter and gossip of the other novices, or to laugh. She eats what is put in front of her, and does the smallwork that is given to her, and when she has nothing else to do she sits, so still and quiet, and watches the sky outside her window, and reminds herself of her purpose.  And the sisters move around her, an ever-present bustle of work and prayer, and she pretends she doesn’t know that they eye her askance and whisper to each other that she is a witch-child.

Knowing she isn’t welcome makes it that much easier to leave.

The walls of Uther’s keep aren’t as tall as she remembers.

She is too late for the royal funeral by a week, and she has no great desire to present herself to the court as the dead king’s ward. The mother superior gave her a purse full of coins when she left the convent, and she has enough to rent a room in an inn in a narrow winding alley as far from the hold as she can get. In the morning when she wakes, she winds her way through the streets, dodging market-goers and serving maids and castle guards until she finds herself in the church where Uther lies buried. She kneels before the cross and prays until the priest lighting candles shuffles off to other business.

She wishes she could see Uther, now that the erosion of death has finally broken his power. In her memories he is as tall and unyielding as the slabs of black stone he and his wizard brought back from across the sea. But in her memories the castle walls are vast hands clawing at the sky, and today she walked along one and it was only a stone wall, pitted with age. Perhaps Uther was only a man, and she never needed to fear him. But now she will never be certain.

Before she leaves the chapel she spits on Uther’s grave. It is a small revenge for what she has suffered by him, but it is a revenge nevertheless. In the morning she takes her pack and her horse and rides out of the castle gates, and promises herself that if she comes here again, it will be to bury Uther’s son.

The next time Morgan sees the walls of Uther’s castle, she is riding in the train of Leodegrance’s oldest daughter, and it is not Uther’s castle any longer.

Guinevere rides beside her on a white palfrey, and when the snaking road crests the top of the hill and the trees fall away to reveal Camelot’s outer walls, she grabs Morgan’s arm, face rapt with awe at the sight. She does not know that Morgan lived within those walls once. She does not know that the man she is promised to marry was born of Morgan’s mother.

Like the rest of her father’s court, she knows Morgan as she named herself five years ago, when she first stood in Leodegrance’s hall and asked for patronage as the daughter of the long-dead Duke of Cornwall. As Gorlois’s daughter she was lady-in-waiting to Guinevere, as his daughter she sat in the solar and studied her embroidery while she listened to the gossip on the progression of the negotiations between Leodegrance and the king’s agent, as his daughter she is returning again to the castle where her mother died. Where she promised she would not come again but for another burial. But Guinevere does not know this, and for her sake Morgan feigns the same enchantment with Camelot’s graceful walls, and hides the buried anger that even now makes her hands tremble against her mare’s neck.

She sees Arthur for the first time as they ride through the castle gates.

He is standing on the parapet that overhangs the entrance to the great hall, dressed in a red and gold tunic with his sword in a scabbard at his hip, and when he sees their train he stifles an shout before he raises his hands in a properly regal greeting. Morgan’s first impression is of gangly limbs, and a face that looks terribly young beneath the heavy crown. If it were not for the costly clothes, she would have taken him for one of the long-legged boys she saw wrestling each other in the stable-yard.

Servants materialize to lead away their horses and carry away their packs, and a mail-clad knight bows deeply and leads them into the hall. There is a dais, and a throne all sheathed in gold leaf, and Arthur sitting straight-backed and stern. His eyes do not leave Guinevere’s face for as long as he speaks on welcoming them to Camelot. And Morgan’s do not leave his.

She can see so much of Uther in him, for all that his face is earnest and open as Uther’s never was. It is small things, things she never knew she would recognize, like the slope of his shoulders and the straight line of his nose, and the way his blunt-nailed hands rest on the arms of his throne. But his smile, when he looks at Guinevere and she looks back at him, is nothing but Igraine.

He bends low and brushes a kiss to Morgan’s hand, and she does not let herself shudder at the touch of his lips.

When she was a child at Tintagel, she woke from nightmares to the sound of the sea outside her window, and the lap of the waves lulled her back to dreamless sleep. Leodegrance’s castle was near enough to the shore that she could smell it on the wind, and she often walked the top of the walls to clear her mind. Even at the convent she could feel it pulling at her when she lay awake at night, a small familiarity in that strange place.

But there is no sea at Camelot. And when she dreams of standing beside her mother’s corpse and wakes with Arthur’s kiss burning on her hand, there is only the close darkness around her.

After a year at Camelot, Morgan knows how easy it would be to kill Arthur. He guards well against threats from outside his castle, the knights who challenge him, the kings who war with his armies, sleeps at night with his sword in his hand and his armor hung next to the bed. But she could slip a dozen different poisons into his goblet at dinner without suspicion ever falling upon her. She could enchant his most loyal knights to hate the sight of him, and draw their naked blades at his table. She could curse his lance to break and his armor to bend and his helmet to shatter when he rides into battle. He would die, and no one would ever know what she had done.

She does not want to kill him. It is not enough. Killing him will not silence the ghosts that haunt her. Will not banish the nightmares that refuse her sleep. Will not quench the anger that burns in her like banked coals. So she watches, and she waits, and she plans.

But it not until she sees how he comes more often to his wife’s chambers when he thinks she will be there, and how his eyes follow her when she walks before him, and how his face flushes when she catches him, that Morgan knows what she will do.

She will break him. She will make him hers, and in so doing make a liar and a traitor of him. She will douse the light in Guinevere's eyes so that every time Guinevere looks at Arthur it will scourge him. And then she will let it slip, who her father was. Who her mother was. And he will be destroyed.

It is easier than she expected; Arthur guards his bed with even less diligence than he guards his person inside his castle.  All it takes is a single glance, on a night Guinevere has closed her door to him, and he is taking her by the hand and leading her back to his bedchamber.

She doesn't think about why he is so eager for anyone to touch him, and she doesn't think about Guinevere.

Morgan lies back on his bed while he strips off his tunic and hose, and studies the shifting patterns the candlelight makes on the walls, and when he first presses into her she does not cry out, though the pain is sudden and fire-bright. As it fades to a dull background throb she begins to move with him, and it is not so difficult to lose herself in the sharp ridges of his hip bones and the fleeting softness of his hair on her bare breast. But she keeps her eyes shut until he is finished and falling asleep next to her.

While he sleeps, she studies his face, tracing the strong line of his brow and the curve of his lips with her fingertips. She has never seen another person so unguarded before, so vulnerable. With his pale lashes fluttering on his cheeks, he looks hardly more than a boy, and just now she cannot see Uther in him. His father could never have lain so innocent and peaceful beside her mother.  

For the first time she understands all of Guinevere’s shy secret smiles when she speaks of him, because Arthur is a beautiful man.

And then she remembers the source of that beauty, and disgust hits her like a blow. The large chambers feels suddenly like a close-walled cell, the air stifled and choking, and she cannot bear another second there, lying in Arthur’s bed, lying with him. She does not care if she wakes him; she snatches her gown from the foot of the bed, and bolts for the door.

She doesn’t bother trying to sleep that night. She can see the nightmares lurking every time she closes her eyes.

The second time is easier, once Morgan presses her disgust down far enough to try again, and the third time is easier still, until all it takes is a quirk of her hips and a slight teasing smile to fix his attention firmly on her and not on his wife whenever she wishes it. The nights are longer now, and more often than not she stays in his bed until the first flush of dawn is tingeing the walls with a honey-gold glow. Sometimes he stays awake afterward, and while they talk he strokes her dark hair. Sometimes he kisses her.

Sometimes Morgan forgets why she is doing this.

Morgan is lying with her head on Arthur’s chest, and she can hear his heart beating, the rhythm as measured as the waves reaching up the shore. His hand on her shoulder is warm, and his fingers tangle in her curls. He smells like clean sweat and dirty steel, and when he speaks she can feel it under her skin.

“What would you do,” he asks her, “If my lady Guinevere were to find us out?”

If Guinevere finds them out, it will be because Morgan allows her to. But she cannot tell Arthur that, and it is a struggle to keep the frightened quiver in her voice when she answers him.

“Do you think she is growing suspicious, my lord?”

Arthur’s laugh is shaky and humorless. “For her to have suspicions, she would have to be watching us, instead of charming my knights. I am sure she knows nothing of this.”

His hand leaves her shoulder and moves to the small of her back, the pressure making her sigh and arch her back into his touch. When she leaves his chambers, she will hate herself for letting him affect her so. But his hands are gentle, and he knows her body better than anyone ever has, and so for this moment she allows this small surrender.

“What would you do,” he asks her again. “If I told Guinevere of us?”

She goes rigid in his arms; this time, she does not have to feign her fear. “My lord, why would you – ”

Arthur leans his head back and exhales slowly. His voice is very low when he speaks again. “To see what she would say. To see what she would do. To see if she loves me enough to be betrayed.”

“She would never forgive you,” Morgan whispers into Arthur’s side. “Promise me – promise me you will not tell her.”

“I won’t.  I couldn’t–” It is only barely a kiss, just the faintest press of his lips to her forehead. “At least I know I have your love.”

When he falls asleep, she rises, and gathers up her gown, and leaves, closing the door softly enough behind her not to wake him. It takes her most of what remains of the night to gather together everything she cannot replace or leave behind and stow it in her packs. She leaves just before first light, and as she passes through the gates, her back to the castle once more, she tells herself she is not breaking her promises.

 If she cannot destroy Arthur from within, she will attack him from without. She can already see the tracery of cracks in the fragile union he is building out of Albion, and she knows where to put the wedges to drive it further apart. And when there is nothing left of Camelot but broken stones and bone-ash, she will stand in the ruins of its walls and laugh.

She cannot forgive Arthur for making her forget the vengeance she had vowed to have upon him. She cannot forgive him for making her love him.

 She rides north, until the towns fall away into silence and the road turns to mud beneath her horse’s hooves and even her heavy cloak is not enough to keep the cold from seeping into her bones. She rides until she reaches the sea, and then she rides along the shore until she finds an old man living in the curve of a cliff who will sell her a boat, and when the tide changes she rows out to the rocky island perched just past the headland.

The highest point of the island looks out over the open sea, and it is there she builds herself a cottage out of mud, driftwood and wild grass. The wind blows under the door and into the eaves, and she spreads her blankets next to the banked fire at night to keep warm. She falls asleep to the sound of the waves below, and she does not dream.

The sisters in the convent taught Morgan no small amount of healing, and the midwife in Leodegrance’s keep taught her more. It is still two bloodless months before their lessons and her fading memories of her mother make her think her illness and exhaustion mean anything more, and by then her stomach is already starting to swell.

There is pennyroyal growing on the hillside below her cottage, and one day she goes so far as to gather a handful with the rest of her herbs. But before the water in the kettle starts to boil, she casts it in the fire instead.   

Morgan’s son favors his mother in his coloring and his mannerisms. Rarely she catches a glimpse of him out of the corner of her eye, his face shadowed by the light of the fire, and for a moment she sees Arthur standing there instead. But more often she is too ready to believe that he has nothing of his father in him, and her son needs little enough convincing that this is so.

She sits by the fire, chopping herbs and sewing charms, her son sitting at her feet, and as she tells him stories she can see his hate for Arthur growing in his eyes. And she does nothing to stop it.

Mordred comes to her, before the battle at Camlann, and paces the narrow carpet in her chamber while he talks.

“Today Arthur’s blood will run red on my sword,” he says, clenching one hand tight on its jeweled hilt. “His knights will fall to my men, and there will be no one to save him when he falls at my feet and begs for mercy.  I will wrest his kingdom from his clasping hands, and make it mine. I will make you a queen, Mother.”

He bows his head for her blessing, and she gives it to him, as she did when he was a boy, and when he raises his eyes, there is no madness in them. Her son is beautiful. And for a moment, he looks just like his father.

Camlann is Morgan's battlefield, though she will not set foot on it. She dreamed it, long ago, trapped in Uther's castle looking at her mother's corpse, and she moved the first piece when she joined Guinevere. She is why bodies litter the ground, she is why her nephews are dead, why Guinevere waits in a nunnery for men who will never come, why Arthur will not defend himself when their son wields his sword.

Morgan is the point from which these things swing, and she wonders if there is anything in the world that can counter what she has done.

 The window looks out over the field of Camlann, and the armies gathered there, but she does not go to it. She stands unmoving in the middle of the stone room, and she does not weep. Morgan knows already how this day will end.