Character(s)/Pairing(s): Merlin/Morgana (Merlin/Nimueh)
Word Count: 7330
Summary: hagridden: adj. i) suffering from nightmares ii) suffering from overwhelming fears and anxieties iii) Obs. ridden by a hag, or witch, causing nightmares
Warning(s): a brief moment of dub-con, creepy lust spells that mess with someone's dreams. Spoilers up to 3:13.
Notes: Several of your prompts are mashed into this – the thrift on Tiree (though this is mostly set on a Merlin-ish Colonsay), the use of the elements, the darker side of magic. I chose to interpret Morgana's reaction at the end of the last episode as suggesting that Morgause is dead. Many thanks to C, who betaed this at the very last minute.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fanfiction – none of this ever happened. No copyright infringement is intended. No profit is made from this work. Please observe your local laws with regards to the age-limit and content of this work.
West, she fled, into the claws of the wind; west, beyond Camelot and Caerleon; west, where the sea broke against the land, low and grey and hungry. It was the sea that stopped her, threw her back on the pale sands every time she fought her way into its cold embrace. It was in the sea that she fell to her knees and screamed out the last of her grief and rage until her throat was raw. The air was full of salt, as sharp as the spines of the crown she'd lost.
And then she cast herself down, her face in the water, but the waves turned her over every time, washing her face with its tears and spitting her out again. At last, exhausted, she could no longer crawl down to the water's edge, but simply lay shuddering upon the floor, her hair in elflocks and her torn skirts stiff with salt.
It was three days before the boat came, and by then she felt like the hollowed out shells that were pressed into the sand at her feet. All that was left to her was the faint insistent sense of west, further west.
The boat was tiny, a coracle of twisted hazel, woven ivy and stretched leather. It was full of leaves, stirring on their edges under the sigh of the wind. They pressed beneath her weight as she clambered into the tiny thing, with the green smell of almost-forgotten summers, when dreams were only dreams.
It was a slow journey, out of the green arms of the sea loch and into the Western Isles. The boat was too small for her, and she spent most of her time curled within it, cradled by the sea as she slipped between islands. Even by night she moved, and only the occasional glance back at the land, fading into mist, told her how far she had been carried on the wind's road. Island after island after island, and she never more than glimpsed a village at dawn, or the distant line of smoke on a horizon.
For seven days and seven nights, the boat carried her west, and her only succour was the rain and the kelp that caught on the sides of her boat as the waves swelled beneath them. The nights were growing longer now, the summer turned to its last fading, and she had no idea how long it had been since she fled Camelot, since she clawed through the massed piles of the dead to bury-
The clouds were low over the mountains to her right, though the sun shone bold and green on the other side of the strait. There were whirlpools, she thought, though the coracle steered around them.
Out of the strait, she felt the surge of open sea beneath her, tipping the coracle into the shadow of high waves, but still there was one more island ahead of her, and the boat carried her on towards the low yellow gleam of land.
It finally brought her ashore beside a rough wooden jetty. For a moment, she hesitated, afraid to move after all these days, but the boat bounced a little under her, as if pushing her up. Her legs felt strange as she made her way carefully along the worn jetty, stepping over the missing planks as what remained flexed beneath her feet.
She was halfway along when a faint sound behind her made her spin around. The coracle was hitching away from the jetty. She spun and lunged after it, but already it was bobbing back out to sea, and she couldn't reach it.
The island was deserted, but not empty. The jetty wasn't the only sign that there had been people there once. There were a few houses by the jetty, their roofs broken and their rooms empty of all but blown leaves and broken furniture. There was a road that led over the mountains, though it was overgrown and the mud had crept up over its rough cobbles. In the low heart of the island lay three lochs, with a rotting boat moored where the road curled between them.
There stood a few more houses, and here she could see the scars of axes on the splintered timbers of the roofs. Inside one, she found the milk-pail dented and upturned over the hearth, and knew what had happened here. She was the daughter of two warlords, and a witch of the old religion. The Isles might be beyond Uther's grasp, but he had not been the only one to hunt and drive out those who kept the faith.
She knew she was alone, which was why she found herself afraid when she followed the road to its end, where heather nestled above the great curve of a bay, and the sea rolled in high and steady breakers, and the wind came singing from a place beyond the stain of land.
A fire was burning on the beach.
When she reached it, however, she recognised its nature, low and dim as it was. There were fires in the world that should never go out, places that truly belonged to the old religion, even when there was no one left to tend them.
But she was here now, and the yearning to keep moving had collapsed into tatters on the wind. This fire was hers, and she was certain that if she tended it well enough, she could put everything else out of her mind.
So she did. She set up house in the fire-blackened fort at the end of the bay, gathered driftwood to feed the fire properly, and let the noise of wind and wave rush through her, numbing every other thought.
Then, when the year stood balanced between summer and winter, and the mist hung low and dim over the water, she was no longer alone.
The woman stood on the other side of the fire, a spirit in red rags, and her lip curled up and she laughed and laughed and laughed.
"Who are you?" she asked the spirit, and the words crackled dryly in her throat.
"Don't you know me, Queen of Camelot?" the spirit asked, tender and mocking. "Don't you remember me, the gifts I sent your father? You helped kill my poor afanc, after all."
"Morgana," Nimueh murmured "I've waited so long for you."
That night, in the red glow of the fire, with the waves sliding blackly onto the strand, Morgana said, "You were an enemy."
"Uther's enemy," Nimueh corrected and smiled at her. "My hands brought you into this world, Morgana. I was never your enemy."
It was another rewriting of her history, and not the one that mattered most (Sister, sister, sighed the surf), but she felt it in her gut, that old sullen knot of rage.
"So much they took from you," Nimueh murmured. "What was it you lost, Morgana? Did you watch your friends burn, your family's slaughter, your house pulled down and your fields salted? Did Uther drown your child and break your altars with blood and iron? Did he chain your sister in the courtyard and make her bleed before he burnt her?" She tipped her head a little. "Or was she one of the few who had the chance to fight?"
"Don't talk about her," Morgana gasped, and something began to seethe beneath the numbness.
Nimueh laughed, cruel and soft. "Morgause was nothing more than a soldier. She chose to die."
"No," Morgana managed. The wind was turning cold around her, and the waves were snarling onto the shore.
"It's not as if you'd known her that long," Nimueh added, and Morgana's calm shattered.
The sea howled in and the fire flared along the length of the beach and the wind punched in until the sand of the beach ripped at her skin.
And Nimueh sat through it, untouched.
When the thunder stopped, she tipped her head and asked, "Is that the best you can do?"
Morgana let her magic scream out of her again, and this time only the fire answered, wrapping around Nimueh with a quick, obscene hiss, burning hotter and brighter until Morgana's eyes began to water and she couldn't see for the tears rushing out of her.
Eventually, the fire faltered back down to embers, and Nimueh stepped over it to where Morgana lay shaking on the sand. She crouched down, and Morgana, looking up at her and still trying to find the strength to fight, could see the stars laid out above her head like playing pieces.
"First," Nimueh murmured, back to tenderness. "I will teach you control."
Nimueh's sanity came and went like the turning of the wind.
Sometimes she was sane enough to teach as she herself must once have been taught. "Magic moves through the world like the wind," she explained. "The Old Religion does seek to contain or diminish it, but to choose when and how to redirect it."
Other times, she would crouch by the fire, rocking as she gazed into its heart. Morgana, watching over her shoulder, saw the past in the heart of the flames, all Uther's atrocities recreated in ash and embers, for hour after hour after hour.
There were days when Morgana knew that she wasn't much better herself; others when rage and grief rushed over her again and she wandered along the water's edge, hands clutched into claws.
The storms kept rolling in, and the air grew cooler, though never too cold. The wind seeped through the cracks in the old fort, wailing like the dead, and she couldn't stay there any longer. Instead, she made herself up a bed off bracken in the old black house at the back of the beach, cramped and humble as it was, and sheltered there as the wind beat against the walls and the smoke of the fire jerked out through the roof in sharp breaths. In the night, when the warm darkness inside the house grew stifling, she would hear Nimueh sometimes, scrabbling along the walls outside, or clinging to the doorway, whispering of darker magics, of a life for a life, of lands made barren by the arrogance of kings, of the dead bound in service to the promised future.
Morgana never invited her in. Among other things, Morgause had taught her that there were some thresholds the dead should not cross.
The days grew short, brief splashes of grey light. Nimueh continued to whisper wisdom to her when she could listen, and slowly Morgana's mind grew clear and cold again. When the frost brushed the tops of the heather in the morning, she recognised something of herself in it, and was glad.
Nimueh stayed half-mad. As the solstice neared, it was thorns that obsessed her: snapped boughs gathered from the hedges in the low hollow of the inner island and lain out in careful patterns as she muttered and sniggered over them. Morgana recognised a few words amongst the mumbling, but the one that mattered was Emrys, over and over and over.
She knew that name; had, somewhere in her wild flight, put together all the pieces and understood who Emrys was, and how very often Merlin had betrayed her.
She bided her time, waiting for Nimueh to pass through that point between madness and sanity where she could be tricked into revealing secrets. It came on a bright day, just before the longest night, when the sea was still and mirror-bright and, when she walked across to the eastern shore, she could see for miles towards the inner islands, almost as far as the mainland.
"Teach me about the hawthorn," she said that afternoon, sitting across from Nimueh, a polite and respectful student to her teacher.
"The may flowers at midwinter too," Nimueh said, picking up a branch and twirling it in her hands, pale petals falling onto her red skirts. "Death and rebirth, a gateway, ill luck and guardian against the fey. He'll die below it, and sleep until its final flowering."
"Arthur?" Morgana asked, carefully casual.
Nimueh giggled, almost coy. "It's not all about Arthur. This is for someone else. Someone more interesting."
"If you asked Arthur, he wouldn't believe there could be such a person," Morgana said, but Nimueh just looked at her and didn't seem to understand. Morgana bit back a sigh (sometimes she missed having someone to prick at), and asked, "Will you show be what you're doing?"
"Not until the longest night. But then," Nimueh promised, "you'll fly with me."
She assumed Nimueh had forgotten the promise, until the solstice came. That dusk, as was the old custom, they put out the fire. Morgana knew that, even in Camelot, candles were being snuffed, forges allowed to cool, hearth fires gone dark. Only in Uther's own court did the torches burn at midwinter, and even there many chose to wait out the night in dark rooms (she had sat with Gaius at midwinter more than once, though neither of them ever spoke of it in Uther's hearing, and she knew Leon and some of the other knights requested to hunt on this night, when they could escape the king's gaze and let their campfires go cold).
Under the midwinter moon, with the curve of the bay swelling darkly around her, she could feel the year turning, the balance swinging towards the rising of the year. Last year, they had been far to the north of here at this moment, and she had read the shift as a good omen for their plans, a harbinger of her rise.
It felt no different now, and she realised, with a new pang of disappointment, that it was nothing more than the turning of the year.
"Let us fly," Nimueh breathed in her ear, making her jump.
"Fly?" she asked.
"Like this," Nimueh murmured, and suddenly she could feel a hand on hers, where Nimueh had always been insubstantial before. Then they were in the air, spinning like chaff on the west wind, and she could see her body crumpling to the sand behind her.
At first, she was terrified, unable to control her speed or direction, but then, as Nimueh soared beside her, she adjusted, riding the wind rather than being carried by it. Laughing, they crossed above the dark islands and the quiet valleys and forests of the land.
They came to the only place where light shone through the windows, and Nimueh led her in, darting through the corridors of Camelot's citadel. There were other spirits here, drawn by the light, lingering in doorways or whispering cruelties at the windows, and Morgana couldn't look at them too closely (she'd seen too many of them die; failed to save still more, been the hand that struck down others).
"Watch them dream," Nimueh murmured and led her upstairs. They flitted in and out of bedrooms, through the dreams of those who slept within.
Gwaine dreamed of dancing across tabletops, green ribbons on the hilts of his swords as he sparred with lithe and laughing girls; Leon was making bread in his sleep, the warm dough clinging to his fingers as he kneaded it slowly; Lancelot, pillowed serenely on Percival's shoulder, was full of heat and hunger, pressed between Gwen and Arthur, their hands sliding over him as he writhed between them; Gwen, smiling into her blankets, was riding through the forest, sword slung over her shoulder, Arthur and Merlin and Morgana herself with her, carefree as none of them had ever been; Uther ran through an autumn wood with Ygraine, their hands catching as they stumbled through piled leaves, the air a-dance with red and yellow scraps as the frail oak leaves were crushed under their feet; Arthur, alone in a bed decorated with clumsy holly wreaths, dreamed in sweeps of colour and troop movements, the clash of swords and thunder of the charge, and sometimes, in a quick flash, of bright smiles welcoming him home.
Nimueh passed them quickly, though Morgana suddenly longed to linger here.
"This one," Nimueh sighed and drifted into Arthur's antechamber.
Merlin was lying there, blankets pushed back and face drawn and miserable. He looked ill and tired and worn, and Morgana looked down on him and was glad. She had forgotten how much she hated him.
He let out a low moan and Nimueh sighed, "He's started without us." Then she drifted down to straddle him, reaching out to run her nails along the bare, stark lines of his collarbones. "This one deserves thorns. So many thorns."
"He deserves worse than that," Morgana told her, remembering her body clenching as the poison clawed through her.
"Oh, yes," Nimueh whispered and rocked her hips slowly. Then she reached out her hand to Morgana. "Let me show you."
And they fell into Merlin's dream.
It was another island, and she could feel at once that in reality it was a place where magic flowed strongly, a place of mysteries. Even in dream, it made the hairs on her arms stand up and sent sly shivers up her spine. It was misty, and she was in the shadows, which she took to mean that she should just watch.
Merlin faced Nimueh, and behind him lay the dead: the boy Will, his mother, Gwen, Gaius, Arthur, all slumped against the wet stone. His face was tight and desperate.
"Bring them back," he gasped.
"There will be a price," Nimueh told him, stroking the altar with her fingertips.
"Anything," he swore, and Morgana wanted to laugh. Had he learned nothing? For a moment, she was distracted by wondering who had taught him and why they had shared so many spells and so little caution? When she looked back, he was on the altar, and the desperation on his face had a new edge now, hungry as well as broken.
She watched, clutching at the wall beside her, as Nimueh stripped him bare, and scored his pale flesh with her nails, teasing until his breath caught in a whimper. She saw his cock swell under Nimueh's hand, the flush that painted his chest, the gold kindling in his eyes, and realised how good his mask of innocence really was, because she had never even imagined him like this.
"Beg," Nimueh murmured, straddling him so the red tatters of her dress fell across his hips like streaks of blood. "Beg for my mercy."
"Please," Merlin gasped, hands reaching out towards her.
And Nimueh threw back her head and laughed. Then, leaning forward with slow intent, she said, "No."
And then they were out of the dream, standing again beside the bed where Merlin twisted in frustration.
"Always leave them wanting more," Nimueh said, as if it had been any other lesson, and darted towards the door again. "Back to the island now, I think."
For the rest of that night, in the lonely darkness of her house, she lay awake. She had forgotten how many people there were in the world, how many of them she had known and cared for; how many had lied to her.
And now, so desperately she couldn't bear it, she wanted them. She remembered every touch which had ever quickened her heart: every time she had been helped from her saddle by broad hands across her ribs, every fleeting kiss she had bestowed upon stunned and hopeful knights, every casual touch and warm embrace Gwen had given her, the tall, dark-eyed druid she had met with before the Beltane fire.
She wanted them all again, wanted to feel hands other than her own slide over her. She wanted the dreams she had seen: to slide in with Lancelot and his lovers; to put Leon's hands on her, rather than the bread; to knock the sword from Gwaine's hand and claim the winner's prize. She thought of others too: boys long dead in Uther's silent war, laughing men who promised more than they could deliver, even for a while, Arthur.
Yes, she could go back, she thought, hands sliding down her body, go masked by illusion to seduce Arthur from his endless chivalry, take him to her bed, all that golden strength, and use him until he was spent. And, then, only then, would she strip the illusion away and show him his sister's face and watch his honour shatter beneath her.
And then the morning came, and she didn't know whether to feel shame or anger when Nimueh smirked at her over the fire.
"We can fly again," she murmured, and then continued her lesson. "The winter solstice is sacred to Veiled Hag, who rules the crags and islands."
As the days began to stretch out again, they returned again and again to Camelot. Morgana walked through dreams with Nimueh, collecting secrets. She watched as Uther faded, his eyes too often distant, and Arthur quietly carried more and more until she couldn't understand why he hadn't broken (and then she reminded herself that she hated him, and all he controlled should be hers)
"Uther's daughter was never meant for the throne," Nimueh said, amused. "You were always destined for the island."
"It was mine," Morgana said grimly. "Morgause made it mine."
"Too much her father's daughter, that one," Nimueh said, and played with the wind a little as Morgana fought indignation into calm. "Oh, but what I could have done with you both."
Everyone seemed so strong in Camelot, as Uther waned. Even the rush of vengeful sorcerers seemed to have slowed, as if everyone was just waiting to take Arthur's true measure, and it made her furious. She had been one of them, but they had never cared. They could have been certain of her help, but none of them had come to stand by her, and now they whispered of Arthur with hope in their smiles.
Only Merlin was struggling, and she knew why, though no one else did. With two of them, they could haunt his every dream, promising him things they never granted, touching and teasing and torturing. With every dream, Nimueh's web of thorns grew denser, both on the beach and in the shadows of Merlin's room (how such a sorcerer couldn't see them baffled her, and made her laugh). He lived in a mesh of desire now, and every new thorn made him more desperate, even in waking hours. She had seen him duck into alcoves more than once, his face drawn and his tunic pulled forward; watched him suddenly make excuses mid-conversation. He became withdrawn, and she knew Gwen was worrying, that Gwaine had plied him with drink to make him spill his secret (never a good idea, she could have told him, because everyone who had been around long enough knew about the time with the cider, the gatekeeper's dog and Arthur's favourite hauberk), that Gaius had retreated to the library to read about curses.
She slid into his dreams alone, and pressed against him with warm sighs and lingering touches, curled her legs around his narrow hips, pretended forgiveness when he gasped apologies into her shoulder and told him she regretted everything. Then she left him yearning, his face hurt and baffled.
After that, she lingered, watching Camelot move through the morning: how the bakers and the cooks were first to rise, then the other servants. The courtyard got busier and busier, and she sat quietly in Arthur's chambers, listening to her brother snore and Merlin gasp miserably in the antechamber. The high point of the morning, of course, was watching a distracted Merlin pour milk onto Arthur's bacon and drop an egg into his tea.
Her sober, kingly brother was not above throwing food at people, it appeared, and she shouldn't really have been surprised.
"What is wrong with you?" Arthur demanded.
Merlin stammered and gabbled, and Arthur watched him with a fondness she had guessed at but rarely seen. Eventually, he took pity and remarked, not looking at Merlin, "I can hear you through the door, you know."
She'd never seen Merlin turn that shade of red outside of dreams.
"Look," Arthur said. "If it's that much of a problem, take the evening off and do something about it. You're not completely disfigured, after all, and I'm sure you can find some woman in the lower town who's willing to overlook your mental deficiency long enough for a quick shag."
"But I – it's not – I don't want some-"
"So it's a specific woman?" Arthur inquired with a faint hint of glee. "Man? Both?" Then as Merlin continues to splutter, he continued, "Horse? Because you know, Merlin, I really can't have you cleaning out my stables if you're going to abuse the privilege."
"I am not – wait, there's a way for me to get out of that chore?"
"Certainly," Arthur agreed, sitting back and grinning. "But by dusk, everyone in the castle would know why you'd been relieved of that duty. Unless there really is something you want to tell me?"
That night, she made Merlin scream her name loudly enough that he must have been heard through half the castle, let alone the next room. Arthur's face at the next breakfast was the funniest thing she had ever seen.
"How goes the revenge?" Nimueh asked her when she rode the wind back to the island again. "Have you broken the traitor yet?"
"Almost," Morgana said, looking away. "When I do-?"
"He'll die," Nimueh said happily, and began to spin around, sending sand flying into the spring sunshine, humming a little in triumph. "And you'll be the only sorcerer Arthur ever needs."
She began to think more after that, and flew to Camelot less often. Nimueh watched her with suspicious eyes, but Morgana had fooled far more paranoid minds before. She feigned a growing disgust for touching Merlin, even to be cruel, and began to think logically.
She had always had a purpose in her life. Gorlois' daughter would have been a marriage pawn; Uther's ward that, and the first lady of Camelot besides; Morgause's sister was the sword that avenged the dead of the old religion; Uther's daughter was his downfall. It should not surprise her that Nimueh's student should become Arthur's sorcerer.
Although she respected her knowledge and valued her lessons, she knew that Nimueh was a broken and tattered thing now, and would not heal. She herself was more than she had been when she came here. Outside the game of kings, she could see more clearly than she had ever done. She was bored, though. At least playing with Merlin had been a diversion. She wanted to be part of the game again, to twist the world to suit her will and protect what she held dear.
But she did not love Nimueh. Without love, it was easier to see how Nimueh tried to control her, the praise and devotion, the promise of a destiny, the hint that she was needed, that everything depended on her. Seeing it in Nimueh, however, made her realise how familiar it was. She had heard those words, seen those smiles, for her entire life.
Why couldn't she choose which of their destinies she wanted most, she wondered.
It was weeks before she realised that she didn't have to choose at all. She could create her own destiny.
Nimueh was distant and distracted as the spring rose, but Morgana was still careful. She gathered stems of pink-flowered thrift and tough gorse and flexing bracken. She used them to map out everything she had been told – gorse to mark each event in the histories she had been given, thrift for places where everyone agreed, bracken for contradictions. Here was Uther's history, Gaius' subtly different telling, Cenred's, the whispers of the druid camps, Nimueh's bitterness, even, though it stung, Morgause's version.
There was very little thrift in the pattern when she was done.
"Pretty," Nimueh said, appearing behind her, "but it has no purpose."
"Not yet," Morgana told her, "but it will."
She began to edit it, adding more thrift where almost every version agreed, weighing up conflicting accounts to decide why they might be different (a general saw a battle differently from a foot-soldier, she had always known). What she was left with was thin and full of mysteries, but she was prepared to put some trust in it.
So, if this sparse and undetailed thing was truth, what purpose should she have?
She was still considering that days later when she realised that Nimueh was still haunting Merlin's dreams. Startled, and still reeling from so many revelations, Morgana followed her into the wind, the spring sun at her back.
She was too late to see Nimueh enter the dream, but she found Merlin soon enough, and it was a familiar scene. He lay in Gaius' rooms, pale and feverish, and there were others gathered around him, turned towards Gaius in concern.
"Been distracted for months," Gaius was saying. "But I had no idea that-"
"Not your fault," Arthur said, and glared down at Merlin. Morgana, unseen, rolled her eyes. "Is he ill or is it a spell?"
"Until I make further examinations-"
"Spell," Gwaine said. "Always is. He pissed off any sorcerors lately?"
"Not that I know of," Gaius said fretfully. "But given his ability to trip over them without noticing, who knows?"
"I should make him my witch-finder," Arthur muttered and several people in the room flinched. "I'm not serious. Do none of you have any sense of humour?"
"It's not funny," Gwen said quietly. She was holding the cloth to Merlin's forehead. "Gaius, there's something on his collarbone. A mark."
"Snakebite, perhaps?" Gaius said, and pulled Merlin's collar open. Everyone, including Morgana, leaned forward, and they were all close enough to see Gaius turn pale and whisper, "No. She was defeated."
"What is it?" Gwen asked.
"The mark of Nimueh," Gaius said, clutching her shoulder for support.
"Nimueh?" Arthur asked sharply, and then shook his head. "Never mind. Kill her, he gets better, right?"
"She's already dead," Gaius said. "Has been for years."
There was a moment of silence, and then Arthur muttered, "Only Merlin. So someone’s using her name?"
"Possibly," Gaius said. "Although Nimueh herself would have quite the grudge, if she were to return. Do any of you know when this began?"
"He was having bad dreams all winter," Arthur said.
"As far back as autumn, would you say? There are some stories about the dead and equinoxes, which I've always thought-"
"Restless spirits can come back at Samhain," Gwaine said, and shrugged when they looked at him. "Putting downs poltergeists pays well."
"So, assuming Nimueh is responsible," Arthur said. "Why exactly does she have a grudge against Merlin? Gaius? Anyone?"
But Gwen was standing up, suddenly furious. "Samhain? It's Beltane tomorrow – six months and none of us noticed?"
Everyone flinched, and Morgana suddenly looked at Merlin again, at this enemy who had been a friend once, thin and haggard and cursed, and was ashamed.
Reeling, she rushed back to the island. Once there, she locked herself in the house, where Nimueh would not find her. There, as coldly and clearly as she had considered destiny and history, she judged her own actions.
Her body had always been a weapon, her sword arm, her magic and her beauty of equal value. It did not shame her to use what she had been born with, to flirt and dazzle and manipulate. What she and Nimueh had done, when seen without the haze of revenge, was beyond manipulation, something with an uglier name.
She had thought herself above such things, and she knew it was the knight's code which made her feel dishonoured and disgusted now, the code she had learned from Uther and Gorlois and Arthur. But rules existed for a reason. Magic should have a code of its own, something beyond the urge for vengeance she had seen so many times, or even Merlin's simple decision to protect one man, at any cost.
The Old Religion was more than knowledge and power, she knew. Its rules, however they had been warped by long years of war, had begun as moral imperatives: do not deal in life and death; what is trapped will turn on you when unleashed; maybe once, long ago, do no harm.
She had done harm, and some of it she would always defend as justified.
This, though, was dirty. Dishonourable. She would not kill a man like this.
She left the house early enough to watch the sun rise over the hills behind her. There was no sign of Nimueh, so she made her preparations carefully and quickly, gathering the plants she needed.
She drew on the power of the turning year as she built the fire up, breathed into it the first hints of summer and the promise of a new and golden season. She ringed the flame with flowering hawthorn, twisted into tight wreaths, added rowan over that and covered it all with thrift and yellow gorse as a disguise.
Nimueh returned at midday and came to stand beside the fire with her. "Soon," she said. "Soon he'll be dead and sleeping."
"No," Morgana said. "He won't." Then, when suspicion was still beginning to dawn on Nimueh's face, she called on everything she could control and cast Nimueh into the fire, sealing her in with words and will and the power that rolled through her on this day of all days: the dash of the waves, the song of the breeze, the bright flowering of the earth, and the heat of the fire itself.
"Stay there until the world ends," she commanded, and then, because the old religion called for a smudge on every page and an exception to every rule, she added, "or until you find a man who has been wronged by magic who will hear the truth of all your deeds and still forgive you."
That might hold her five years or fifty, but it would be long enough. Almost running, Morgana hurled herself back onto the wind, riding forth to Camelot. In every village she passed, they were building the fires, and that, more than anything, told her how little they regarded Uther now.
In Gaius' room, they had gathered to watch over Merlin again. As she whirled in, setting papers a-skittering across the table, she heard Gaius say, very awkwardly, "Sire, from what I've been able to discover about this marking, I believe he's been hagridden."
Gwaine made a little snorting noise, but the other knights all just stared at Gaius blankly. He shot Gwen a nervous look and cleared his throat.
"I know what it means," Gwen said, without looking up. "And it's supposed to be fatal if the witch doesn't, er, allow the man to, um-"
"Wait, what? With Nimueh?" Arthur bellowed, and much as Morgana would have liked to witness what happened next, she had a purpose.
Merlin's dream was full of fire and the sound of drums. It was dark, and she could see shadowy figures leaping through the smoke, all of them blurred and out of reach.
Frantically, she looked around, but she was alone. There was no sign of him, and for a moment she was tempted to panic. Then she reminded herself that her magic had helped build this, and she could control some of it.
When she looked down again, Merlin was crouched by her feet, shoulders bowed and shuddering. She drew him up, hand tight on his shoulder, and said, "It's Beltane. You have to jump the fires, not hide behind them."
His head came up suddenly, eyes wide. "Morgana? Oh, thank you."
"Merlin, I've been torturing you. You're not supposed to thank me."
He gave her an odd tight smile. "I'd rather it was you. At least I used to like you."
"Such flattery," she snapped back, before she could stop herself. "Was that before or after you poisoned me?"
"Oh, definitely before you started killing me with sex," Merlin grumbled.
"We have not had sex, Merlin."
"That's the bit that's killing me."
She thought of the room outside at that, and stopped wanting to slice at him. "It really is."
"You're unconscious. Out there, Gwen and Gaius are trying to explain to Arthur what's wrong with you." Then, to relieve her nerves, she added, "I hope they have to use diagrams. Lots of diagrams. Or maybe they could ask Gwaine to act it out. In mime."
"Killing me?" Merlin repeated, blushing a little. "With sex. Or not-sex. Un-sex. Lack of-"
"Sometimes I completely understand why Arthur thinks you have a mental affliction."
"I think it's his way of showing affection," Merlin told her, very sincerely. "What's your excuse?"
"Temporary insanity," she said, and ran her hand down from his shoulder to take his hand. "Merlin, Nimueh – I mean, are you – did she-"
"She didn't do much," he told her, mouth twisting. "Just her hands on me, most of the time." He looked down. "I hate her. I've always hated her, but if she'd offered it, I would have."
"I'm sorry," she said again, and could see he didn't believe her. She'd played that line too many times before. "You do know how we have to break the spell, don't you?"
His eyes went wide again. "You're offering?"
She closed her eyes for a second. "Don't make me change my mind."
"You don't even like me," he protested, trying to pull away.
She opened her eyes and looked properly at him; let him see her looking. He wasn't frail and feverish in here, but nor was he the guileless boy she had once called friend. She had seen him naked enough to know she liked the shape of him, the adult lines he hid beneath those rough shirts. His mouth curled around the sounds of desire so sweetly that she had been tempted before, and this time she wanted to curl her hands around his hips and not let go, to tangle with him until they were both moaning out their satisfaction.
"You'll do," she said, and then added, as if it was nothing, "I liked you once, too."
"But you don't now?"
"Oh, Merlin," she said and drew him to her. "Sometimes that makes it better."
She flew back to the island on a rush of pleasure. She knew she couldn't stay now, so she hurried to feed the fire a little more, ignoring Nimueh's screams, and then set out towards the eastern shore. She had nothing to carry away with her, though she wished she had something more respectable to wear.
When she climbed up the hills to the eastern shore and looked down the long strait, there were boats approaching the island. For a moment, she was afraid that Arthur had already found her, long before she was ready.
They were kelp harvesters, she discovered when they arrived, here for the summer. They set up camp in the old village by the quay, all bustle and chatter, and she stood among them, unnerved and wondering. The women eyed her strangely at first, but nodded when she warned them about the sorceress in the fire. She heard them mutter priestess and witch behind her back, but they also gave her a new dress and asked her to tend to a colicky baby.
She stayed with them until they ferried their first harvest back to their own island and then moved on. It took her weeks to return to her own country, and she stopped often along the way, talking to druids and following rumours of other followers of the old ways. She dealt with a few petty dark sorcerers – thieves and slavers mostly – and put down two bandit lords who had witches chained in their service. Always, she was careful to leave enough survivors that the rumours of her spread.
She didn't go as far as the city, of course. She knew where she was meant to be.
She reached the lake just before midsummer, and laughed to see the cold mists hanging in the midst of the green and fragrant landscape. The boat came before she even exerted enough effort to call it, and she let it carry her forth to her rightful place.
The Isle was somewhere she had only visited in dreams, even more neglected than the fire on the beach. Still, there was enough here that she could see how it could be rebuilt. She found a shelter below a broken archway for the night, and then set out the next morning to find the nearest village.
By midsummer, she was established, and the villages nearby all knew that the Isle of the Blessed was occupied again. She had already done enough for them that three of the men had come over, their heads lowered and their eyes fearful, and rebuilt some of the shelters. She had a real bed, for the first time in months, and more than one set of clothes. In time, she was certain, the rest would come: the students, the wealth and influence, the power. For the meantime, she could win the loyalty of the locals and ensure that any in the region who misused magic would fear her.
At midsummer, she felt the year turn again, but this time there was something more. She could feel the old order passing, and the promise of the new singing in her bones.
At dawn, she tore open the mists and the sun touched the Isle for the first time in a generation.
A sennight later, word reached the local villages that Uther Pendragon was dead.
She had been expecting a messenger for days before he arrived.
Arthur was to be crowned at Lammastide, the rumours said. He sought brave men and true to be the knights of his table, no matter their birth. He had lifted the ban on the old religion, and no longer burned magic users, although the laws about magic remained strict.
At the same time, her informants told her, it was known across the length of Albion that there was a Lady on the Isle again.
"And a damn sight saner than the last one, she is, they all say," said the farmer she was talking to. "No offense to you or yours, milady."
"None taken," Morgana said, glad that not all was known, and went to trade for a dress suitable for court. She fully intended to demand Arthur come to her, and knew quite well it would end in compromise. She would never live in Camelot again, but she thought she might visit, once they had negotiated a truce. She wanted to see Gwen again, to ask forgiveness.
On the day that Arthur's messenger came, she was making corn dolls, good luck charms twisted around their neck and chaff all over her skirts. She felt the sigh of the barge moving, and walked down to the jetty to meet it.
Merlin stared at her from the boat. He had changed even since Beltane, as if he had finally stepped out of the shadows. His clothes fitted, and were of better quality than her own, and he was no longer beardless. His eyes were golden, even though the barge had stopped. He looked healthy.
"I didn't expect to see you here," he said.
"I can't imagine who else you were expecting."
"You're the Lady of the Isle?"
"I decided it was my destiny. What are you now?"
He gave a half-shrug and grinned sheepishly. "The King's Dragonlord."
She hadn't thought he could surprise her again. "Congratulations."
"You, too. Morgana-"
"I'm not your friend. Nor Arthur's."
"We're not your friends, either."
"I won't serve him. I have my own power."
"You won't rule him, either," Merlin said, eyes brighter for a second.
"But we can be allies."
"When it suits us," he added and shot her a sunny grin.
"Of course," she said and held out her hand. He took it, his grip strong, and stepped onto the sunlit Isle.