With her hair pulled back out of sight and a deeply dark mauve chapel-scarf about her head, not a one of the vibrant crowd recognised the King’s ward. The whole city was dressed in reds and yellows and golds for the Festival of Fire. Amidst such colour, Morgana was nought but a shadow, a ghost swathed in darkness. Likely if anyone looked her way, they thought her a mourner - a widow, perhaps – and that suited Morgana just fine. No one spoke to a mourner for fear they would be the first to do so. It was bad luck and, besides that, bad manners.
“Why have I never done this before?” Morgana whispered excitedly, her eyes sparkling when they caught Gwen’s and found them bright. Charcoal lined those smiling eyes of hers, and the dark of Gwen’s irises turned almost ebony beside it. It made something inside Morgana shiver and come to life to look into those inky depths. She had put it there herself, the charcoal, and having Gwen so trusting beneath her unskilled hands had been intoxicating. It had taken just about as much self-control as she could muster not to reach out and smudge the carefully drawn black lines, just so that she might draw them all over again.
“Because we shouldn’t be doing it,” Gwen said softly, her smile full of affectionate indulgence for her mistress. Even dismissing the issue of Morgana being who she was, the party was for the wedded and they certainly weren’t that. They weren’t even supposed to witness it. “If the King knew…”
The festival was one of the few old traditions that Uther still permitted, and only because the thought of it amused him. The idea was that when the harvest moon rose red, the spirit of the fire came out from the flames and into the hearts of men, feeding their desires. The men gathered outside the city gates before a big fire, drinking spiced spirits and chanting a fiery invocation in a deep, primal rhythm. In the streets, dressed in the colours of the flames, their wives waited to welcome their husbands back into the city so that they might feel their fire.
It was said that the summer after a harvest moon was always alive with the cries of babes begotten on that night.
“Well the King is not going to find out, is he? I certainly am not going to tell him,” Morgana said, taking Gwen’s arm in hers and walking towards the line of stalls. She did not fancy being in the streets when the men came back. All she had been interested in was seeing the colour up close and tasting the fiery delights on sale. That, and forgetting herself for a day. “Fancy lunch?”
“My lady!” Gwen exclaimed, scandalised. “You cannot-”
“Buy you lunch? Nonsense,” Morgana said conversationally. “I am not myself, am I? I am… Well… I am whoever you want me to be, for a few hours at least.”
Gwen’s cheeks flushed a deep, dark crimson. “My lady…”
“And you definitely cannot go on calling me that. Someone will hear. What should my new name be? Something-”
“Morgana,” Gwen interjected. The boldness of her interruption made her blush deepen and she considered slipping into the crowd and making for some dark alleyway where she could hide from her mistress and wallow in her embarrassment. It was only Morgana’s intent look that kept her in place, stood at the side of that busy street, the two of them all alone in the crowd. “I would… I would like to call you by your name… if it pleases you, my lady.”
Morgana smiled, almost catlike, and steered them over to a stall selling flowers crystallised in honey. “Oh, it most certainly does that.”
The stall owner smiled when they approached, before he launched into a sales patter he had recited a hundred times that day already. “Just one silver piece for a dozen red rose petals from the King’s own garden. Best red you will ever see. They call it royal, after the Pendragons – ask anyone who works in the castle. They’ll tell you, the place is dripping in it. One silver piece for a dozen of these beauties? Bargain. They are as pretty as rubies.”
There were no red roses in the royal gardens. Morgana should know – she had redesigned them after the frost that had silvered the land the year her father died. And as for the castle being ‘dripping in red’, that was at least partially true. The King did love his ancestral colour. Morgana was far more partial to cooler shades herself, but she supposed they would not do for the Festival of Fire or a bold, brave King.
Morgana’s brow rose and she reached into the leather pouch resting at Gwen’s hip – brushing her fingers a little harder against the firm curve of her maid’s thigh than she need or ought to – and pulled out two silver pieces. “Oh? Well isn’t that a bargain?”
They ate the rose petals on the roof of the smithy, their legs dangling down over the side of the flat thatched roof. From there they could see half the city. Away to the east, the great fire was crackling, unattended now that the eve was setting in. And down in the large, open streets, the first of the men were back amongst their waiting wives. It was at that point that Morgana let her attention wander farther away instead, out to the city and up into the hills beyond. But those too left her feeling… empty, disappointed.
With a sigh, she tugged off her scarf and let her hair swing forward, loose. Free.
She did not know what she had been expecting to find amongst the flames, but whatever it was, she hadn’t.
“What do you think it’s like?” she asked quietly, nodding back down to the bustling streets. “To marry someone for love.”
Gwen, shocked by the turn that their carefree day had suddenly taken, dropped her remaining rose petals – Morgana had bought her a dozen all to herself – down onto her skirt and turned away from the revelry. The spectacle was suddenly far too painful to watch.
“I have never given it much thought, my lady.”
“Morgana,” Morgana reminded her gently. “Why not?”
“I suppose that I have not really entertained the thought,” Gwen said honestly, her chin resting in her shoulder as she looked sideways at Morgana. This was what she had pictured her life to be at best – Morgana’s maid and maybe, sometimes, her friend.
Morgana frowned and said again, “Why not?”
It seemed impossible to her, that Gwen had never thought on it. Sometimes, it seemed like all she could think about – her impending political marriage. Uther had not chosen her match yet, but when he did it would not be for Morgana’s affection for a man that he would pick him. It would be for money, land and allegiance. For all Morgana knew, she might be shipped off to Gaul to marry a boy prince less than half her age. Or, more likely, she would be sent up to please a rough northern warlord. The King’s ward and her dowry might even buy him an expanded kingdom and an army to go with it. Morgana would settle for a man that made her stomach flutter even half as much as Gwen did.
She had thought that person might be Arthur when she was younger. Then she had grown up and realised that she was far too valuable to waste on the heir to the throne. That would get Uther nothing except the allegiance of the Le Fay clan, useless as it was separated from them by a rough and unforgiving sea. And Arthur did make her heart quicken with anything other than anger, and even that happened less and less.
“I have thought about your wedding, your happy ending. That will, most likely, mean that you will leave. If I were to marry, I could not leave with you.” Gwen looked away, unknowingly focusing on the same shadowed hills that Morgana had. “What would I do then? I have only ever been trained as a lady’s maid.”
“Arthur… He will marry. You could…” But Morgana never finished the sentence. It seemed that neither of them could have what they wanted. She only wished Gwen would marry and be left behind, if that would make her happier. It would certainly not make Morgana happier, but she was used to that.
“Love though, I have heard, does not always come with marriage. In my experience, nor need marriage come with it,” Gwen said, quite unexpectedly – even to herself. The suggestion was so far beyond taboo that she wondered if it ever really occurred to people, that they might have love outside of wedlock. She wondered if they even thought it possible. It was. Years of watching Morgana bloom into the most breath-taking woman she had ever seen had taught her that. It had also taught her that love, as great as it was, could be heartbreakingly unrequited.
Morgana, unaware of Gwen’s thoughts, watched her companion for a moment, letting what she had said mingle with the thrilling fluttering low in her belly from gazing at Gwen’s elegant silhouette against the setting sun. It struck her how very brave Gwen was and how utterly wrong it was that she should be the lady and Gwen the maid. Features like that belonged only on a queen. Morgana knew. She had seen it.
“I have found that myself.”
Under Morgana’s intent, heat-laden gaze, the maid that would be queen swallowed and took a deep, steadying breath.
“When will your father be home?” Morgana asked, her voice changed and her body inclined towards Gwen’s, bringing her nearer, without moving any closer.
“Soon, now the moon is rising,” Gwen said, her mouth dry as she looked up to see the pale red moon fading into site beside the golden setting sun. Her father, like the other widowers, would come home alone, void of fire as the Festival dictated.
“I think that I would like to take a walk before heading back to the castle. Care to join me?” It was not an order, nor a request expected to be fulfilled. It was an uncertain if hopeful invitation.
And Gwen remembered that her lady was still just Morgana and that she still had the rose petals in her lap that this Morgana had bought her.
“Yes. I think I will.”
Gwen’s lips tasted like roses and honey when Morgana leaned her up against the back wall of the bakery and stole a kiss. The sweet smell of spiced peaches and the sound of drums and revelry were in the air, and Gwen did not seem to mind Morgana’s boldness. She just wound her arms around her lady’s neck and whimpered – soft and high – as Morgana’s tongue opened up her mouth to taste the sweetness within.
“I feel alight with fire, Guinevere. Can you feel it?” Morgana whispered, her hand roaming higher on Gwen’s waist than was proper, even on the Festival of Fire.
Gwen only gasped, eagerly meeting Morgana’s tongue with her own when her lady smiled and kissed her again. She could feel the fire alright. She felt it like you could feel the thick, swelling heat beating off of molten steel, full of danger and temptation. Only Morgana was the fire-red sword and she was not even trying to resist reaching for it.
Morgana smiled again and cupped her cheek, brushing her thumb almost roughly under Gwen’s eye, smudging the charcoal across her dark, flushed cheek.
“You have me burning white-hot,” Morgana all but growled, her eyes flashing with fire.
And when her hand slipped into the front of Gwen’s bodice, Gwen threw back her head and vowed aloud to be consumed by the flames. If she only had a few hours to use her lady’s name, then she would scream her throat raw with it, and hear her own name cried in return.
Morgana swore in a language that Gwen vaguely recognised as Gaelic, before tugging on the fastenings of Gwen’s bodice until it came apart, falling to the floor and leaving her bare. Her dark nipples hardened against the cold night, an icy wind ripping through the alley.
Whether there was fire in her, Gwen could not say. What she did know, as Morgana’s lips closed over her breast and sent flames rushing down her spine, was that Morgana had set her alight and she very much intended to burn.