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even the distance feels so near

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Morgana can feel the hum of magic in her bones before they even arrive at the grove.

The grimoire that pointed her here had been clear. This is the most powerful place to attempt a summons, in this or any other kingdom. A convergence of magic older than any Morgana has ever channelled.

It’s taken her weeks to get here, leagues southeast from her crumbling castle in Ismere and over two month’s travel from Camelot, and the small contingent of men she’s brought with her on the journey started getting antsy more than a few days ago as have their skittish horses. The closer they get to the grove the more they show their discomfort, their eyes darting over the dead branches of the gnarled trees and flinching every time the wind kicks up a flurry of dry leaves – but none of them is yet afraid enough to abandon her.

They all know the penalty for desertion.

Despite their cowardice Morgana can understand their fear. She told them nothing of the real risk, but this journey could be a suicide. The grove is the destination, but it’s what sits in her pocket that could change everything. For good or for ill. What she’s heading towards is a last resort.

Mordred’s last message to her still burns in her heart even now, so long after it was given.

There is someone you have been searching for. Someone who has always eluded you. I know where he is. And I have his true name.

It is Merlin.

Merlin is the shadow that’s haunted her every plan since day one, a mage in his own right who hid his identity and refused to help her when she needed it. Her world had crumbled around her when Merlin poisoned her all those years ago, when he had taken advantage of her naiveté and her trust in him as a friend to use her as a bargaining chip. But now, knowing that through all the times she had confided in him her fears over her emerging magic and her inability to control it, he had been concealing his own powers? That he could have helped her, trained her to use and conceal her magic and eased her suffering, and instead he did nothing but watch her fear for her life in the face of Uther’s mania?

If her ritual works when they reach the grove, Merlin will be the first to die when she besieges Camelot again. And it will be painful.

There’s no guarantee that the ritual will work, even with Morgana’s years of experience with magic. She’s spent the better part of a year hunting for the grimoire that gave her the spell, buried deep under the castle she’s occupied in the Northern Plains. She lost countless bodyguards to the ancient traps that littered those labyrinthine tunnels, but she had only brought the men she knows are expendable in the first place and with a little caution and a lot of cleverness she had found what she was looking for – a heavy book bound in blackened leather, hidden innocuously in a vault of other dusty treasures. She had let her men loot the place, taking for herself only the book and the small pouch that was tied to its spine. It contained nothing but a runestone, smooth but for its strange engravings and just large enough to fit in her palm.

The book holds countless spells both dark and benign, but Morgana only cares about one. A summoning spell. One that requires a great deal of energy, enough to sap the caster of their strength if not performed in a place with inherent magical power - enough to summon a deadly warrior. Even the book cautions against using it, for it calls upon the most powerful being in all creation at the time of casting, and whatever it summons is as likely to be an enemy as an ally. It’s a potentially deadly gamble.

But Morgana is desperate. Arthur has bested her too many times. His forces are steadfast, outweighing Morgana’s Saxon allies perhaps not in numbers but certainly in training and loyalty, and with Merlin and his secret magic at his side she’s being backed into a corner.

This is the only way. And if whatever she summons turns against her, if she unleashes some great calamity that consumes the world, at least Arthur and Merlin will burn, too. That knowledge is enough to make the gamble worth it.

The grove, when it finally reveals itself, is different than Morgana expected. The area they’ve ridden through for the last day and a half has been desolate, empty of most plant and animal life besides the husks of long-dead trees. It’s been oppressive, like the very earth wants to ward away unwary travellers.  But after a few leagues of the dead trunks growing closer and closer together, pressing in on them like a prison, the whole seemingly-dead forest seems to open up and give way to a flurry of life.

Almost as one, the horses visibly relax. A few shake their heads like they’re coming out of a slumber, flicking their ears eagerly towards the sound of running water – a river cuts through the grove on a diagonal, separating the shockingly emerald grass into two parts. There are flowers growing on its banks, mossy rocks, the flickering outlines of fish under the surface. Before them and running into the distance is a green forest, so shockingly disparate from the one they’ve been travelling through that Morgana has to look behind them and see the grey wasteland with her own eyes to make sure it wasn’t a dream.

In the centre of the grove is a tree, with wide green boughs and a trunk so thick and knobbed that it looks like some sort of overgrown root vegetable. Its bark is twisted, almost like the trees in the forest behind them but somehow more beautiful, more alive. She can almost pick out patterns in it, but it seems almost to shift just as she’s putting her finger on them.

It also radiates a magic powerful enough to raise the hair on her arms.

“Here,” she calls to the group that lingers behind her, getting off their horses to touch the grass and plant life with looks of relief. “Start a small fire. Gather water and earth, and leave it at the tree. And take my horse.”

Nobody questions her. They scurry to do her bidding as they always do, knowing the threat of having their neck snapped by magic always looms when Morgana is in a foul mood. Likely they’re simply relieved to be out of the cursed woods, and in a place with such beauty. And Morgana has no intention of telling them the danger they’re in.

Once she has the four elements laid out before her and the tree at her back, Morgana starts the spell.

It comes to her shockingly quickly. Magic that would usually take time to summon jumps to her fingertips with only a thought, and it only takes a few minutes of chanting and drawing energy from all around her for a crackling portal to appear over the grass. A thrill goes through her at its appearance, but already she can feel herself flagging – while quick to conjure, it proves just as exhausting as the book said it would be to maintain the magic for a prolonged period. Rather than being in control it feels like she’s simply a conduit, the magic flowing through her and taking her energy with it, and it’s with an agonizing slowness that the portal starts to swirl.

As soon as it manifests her men prepare as she told them to, holding their swords out in a circle around it as if mere steel might stop whatever entity will emerge. And still Morgana chants, keeps the magic flowing, even as the portal seems to hesitate. Unexpectedly it seems to shift colours – while it started out blue, it shifts rapidly to purple and then back again like there’s some internal struggle happening, until finally a form comes flying out of it just as Morgana’s stamina seems at it’s very end.

The second it hits the ground Morgana cuts off the portal and falls to her knees, heaving deep breaths as the magic leaves her trembling body and leaves exhaustion in its wake.

It’s as if a year’s worth of sleepless nights have hit her all at once. For a moment she’s fighting just to maintain consciousness, but after a few seconds of deep breaths she’s able to sit up straight and at least look at the product of her spell. Eager to see what she’s summoned, she focuses on where the form lies sprawled on the grass, facedown and half-embedded in the ground, and frowns at what she sees.

It’s a woman.

A harmless looking one, at that. No clear magical aura, no armour, no weapons – Morgana has known formidable women in her time, herself included, but this one has no distinguishing features. She can see long, blonde hair and an average body under the strange grey and red outfit the woman wears – fit, certainly, but not the picture of a legendary warrior. The fabric of her clothes clings to her like a second skin, tight and thin and covering all but her hands and face. Not a dress, nor armour. Morgana has never seen anything like it before.

Gathered with swords drawn around what now appears to be a fairly benign figure, her men look somewhat put out. They start to lower their weapons and a few step closer to inspect the woman, with one particularly forward man reaching out to nudge her with his boot.

The hand that darts out and snatches his foot is too fast to perceive, but he’s tossed halfway across the grove before anyone realizes the woman has even stood up.

The scene erupts into chaos. None of her guards have a chance to even raise their swords before they’re being tossed like they’re made of straw – the blonde woman sends one hurtling into a tree so hard that he’s unconscious before he hits the ground, and in a blur she lifts another into the air by this throat, her eyes glowing with purple energy that cleaves the forest like it’s made of mist. Beams of purple light erupt from them, splitting trees and burning scars into the ground that smoulder and crackle –

Stop!”

Strangely, the stranger does. She turns to look at Morgana, now on her feet but clinging to the tree for balance, and the guard still dangles from her powerful grip with a slowly purpling face.

The moment their eyes meet, the woman drops him to the ground.

With her guards strewn mostly-unconscious across the grove and her magic sapped, Morgana has no defenses. Nothing to protect her from the being walking slowly towards her. But the look on the woman’s face isn’t threatening, or even particularly intimidating. It’s almost awed. She only stops when they stand almost chest to chest, the tree bark pressing into Morgana’s back, and Morgana looks into her eyes to find they’re a clear sky-blue that puts her somehow more at ease. They dart around Morgana’s face like the stranger is memorizing her features, full of curiosity.

Now that she can see the woman’s face in full, Morgana can’t help but note that she’s almost startlingly handsome. Her face has a pleasing structure to it, somehow both soft and unyielding all at once, and now that she’s practically towering over her Morgana realizes the woman is bigger than she expected. She doesn’t tower over Morgana by any means but she is certainly noticeably taller, her shoulders broader and more subtly muscled than she thought at first glance. And her unassuming appearance at first clearly made her all the more deadly.

Not that any of it matters, if this being intends on ripping Morgana to shreds like it did her guards.

The strange woman’s voice, when she speaks, is almost a whisper.

You.”

Morgana swallows. She had been expecting a creature of concentrated magic to come through that rift. A wraith, a death-knight, perhaps even a dragon. Instead she has a fully-formed person, one that’s looking at Morgana like she holds all the answers. A blend of wild and controlled that Morgana can’t quite understand. And this woman looks, inexplicably, like she recognizes her.

“I am Morgana Pendragon, High Priestess of the Old Religion and rightful Queen of Camelot. I summoned you here to serve me,” Morgana says, forcing command into her voice even as she clutches the rune in her concealed hand. She gathers her wits and the last vestiges of magic she can manage, and the woman’s blue eyes widen as Morgana’s glow a fierce gold to activate it. “To destroy my enemies. To help me reclaim my throne.”

“You do not know me?”

The woman’s voice is thick, low and accented with a lilt Morgana has never heard before. Rough, but pleasing to the ear. It rumbles over Morgana’s skin, leaving gooseflesh in its wake.

“I –“ Morgana hesitates, thrown off by the question. She clutches the rune harder. As a last resort her plan was to try to send whoever was summoned back through the rift if they proved disagreeable, but this woman is even more formidable and yet somehow less threatening than Morgana could have imagined, and trying the spell again right now is a death sentence. “The spell was to find the most powerful being in creation. I did not know who would answer the call.”

The woman frowns. “Me? Not her?”

“Who?” Morgana asks, the tremble she managed to keep out of her voice earlier returning as this stranger leans closer. She’d like to say it’s pure fear and rage sending the adrenaline coursing through her, but it comes with a host of other feelings that Morgana can’t begin to identify. Ones that settle significantly further down.

“How did you summon me here?” the woman asks. Again the strangeness of her accent makes Morgana shiver, and like some invisible force is guiding her to reveal her secrets, she holds up the rune in her hand.

The woman examines it with interest. With ease she plucks it from Morgana’s boneless fingers and examines it closely – she turns it over in her hand, running a broad thumb over the lines before turning it again to look at the back. Finding nothing that she can seem to make sense of, she closes her fingers over it, squeezing like she’s going to crush it in her fist – and Morgana does not doubt that she could.

As the runestone disappears in the woman’s hand, Morgana feels something she hasn’t felt in a long time. Not since she was chained in that dungeon with Aithusa, bound and without her magic. She feels trapped. This woman is more powerful than anyone Morgana has ever seen, and even with all her magic she’s powerless to stop her, especially without that rune.

But strangely, the fear hardly has time to take root in Morgana’s heart before the woman opens her hand again. The stone is intact, and it’s with a gentleness she can hardly fathom that the woman takes Morgana’s own hand in hers, opens her palm, and lays it there.  

As Morgana’s fingers close around the rune, warm not with magic but with the heat of another’s hand, the other woman falls to her knees. Her golden head bows, and to Morgana’s utter shock, she murmurs in a tone both reverent and somehow desperate.

“I am yours.”

 


 

They make camp in the grove that night. Morgana doesn’t let go of the rune, worrying it between her fingers constantly, on alert for this weapon – this woman - to abandon its vow and attack. But she doesn’t. Over the course of the evening Morgana relaxes, but she does not miss the way every one of her guards stays on the far side of the firepit from their new addition.

The addition herself doesn’t seem to care. She sits by herself on the grass, leaned against the great tree and taking in everything around her with what seems at first glance to be disinterest – but Morgana can see the sharpness in her gaze, the intelligence with which she absorbs her surroundings. The wariness of her position, with something solid at her back. She’s full of distrust and caution, two of Morgana’s most common bedfellows.

Inexplicably, she only softens when she sees Morgana approaching.

“We need to outfit you,” Morgana says without preamble, handing her a wooden bowl full of the basic stew that’s bubbling over the fire. The river is full of fish and the grove is lush with herbs, so it’s a welcome relief to the dry rations she and her men have been living on for the last few days, and the woman takes the bowl with only a moment’s hesitation.

“Outfit?” The woman says, holding the food up to her nose and sniffing at it. When it proves inoffensive, she tips it against her mouth and slurps half the scalding-hot contents without so much as a wince. In fact she smiles, the first smile Morgana has seen since she came out of that portal, and it lights up her face in a way that Morgana finds entirely perplexing. To be overwhelmed by joy because of a simple stew. Joy is a rarity in Morgana’s life, and it’s usually only the fleeting, savage kind brought on by knowing her enemies have suffered.

Not for the first time, Morgana wonders just what kind of strange weapon she’s summoned.

“Armour. Weapons,” Morgana replies distractedly, watching in slight bemusement as the woman swiftly drains the bowl and licks at the remnants of stew inside.

“I do not need them.”

Morgana frowns. “You fight without armour?”

The woman shrugs, busy making sure she hasn’t missed a morsel of food. She dips her fingers into the bowl, scraping the last bits of stew out and licking it from them, and whatever is lodged in her chest moves lower. There’s a bit of sauce on the woman’s chin, and Morgana almost reaches out to wipe it off with her thumb before catching herself.

“Well, you at least need to wear my colours. Otherwise nobody will know in whose name you fight,” Morgana says, clearing her throat and taking a step back. Clearly being near this person is clouding her senses, especially since it keeps sending spikes of adrenaline through her that seem to have nothing to do with actual danger. There’s nothing she hates so much as being off her guard. Control is her most crucial piece of armour, and over this woman she has none.

“What is your name?” Morgana asks, suddenly curious and needing a distraction from the mesmerizing sight of this woman licking stew from her fingers. The blonde simply shrugs, not deviating from her task. 

“I do not have one.”

Morgana clenches her jaw, feeling her temper flare at the roadblock. If the woman notices, he doesn’t seem to care – she simply shrugs.

“I did not exist, and then I did,” the woman elaborates. “No memories. No name. Then I was given many, but they were never my own.”

It’s the most words Morgana has heard from her all at once, and she finds that the accent is becoming almost pleasant.

“What should I call you, then? I cannot have a weapon with no name.”

The woman casts her eyes around distantly. She looks down at her own chest, as if she’s remembering something being there, and her answer is said in a whisper that Morgana can’t understand. Not just accented, but a language she’s never heard before.

“El Mayarah.”

“What?”

“El,” the woman says decisively, her distant eyes focusing on Morgana again. “My name is El.”

The name is short and strange, but it fits her well, and Morgana nods her understanding.

“El. Good.”

“And you are Morgana Pendragon, High Priestess and rightful Queen of Camelot,” El says, and there’s an almost indiscernible hint of humour in her tone that Morgana finds less infuriating than she rightfully should. If anyone else spoke to her in that way, they’d be missing a limb before they finished the sentence.

Instead Morgana nods, her jaw still tight. “I am.”

Morgana,” El says, low and slow, almost savouring the name like she’s tasting a fine wine.  She smiles, seeming pleased at the result. “May I call you this?”

Nobody besides her mortal enemies have called her simply Morgana in years. Since she began her fight for the throne she’s been referred to by her rightful title, by her own demand. She’s been Lady Morgana, Queen Morgana, the Sorceress, the Witch – all titles to strike fear into the hearts of her underlings. Arthur calls her Morgana, deliberately avoiding her title to anger her. Merlin does. People who knew her before, and wish to remind her of it. People who refuse to give her what she is owed.

And yet, it sounds somehow fitting in El’s mouth. Morgana. The ‘r’ rolls in an unfamiliar and captivating way, her strange accent bringing it to life. It slides over her skin like magic, in that voice.

Against her better judgement, Morgana nods her consent. El looks pleased, but the expression fades when the blonde looks down to realize her bowl is completely empty.

“You’re still hungry. Go get some more stew,” Morgana says, pointing over at the fire. El’s presence is too intense, too focused on her, and she needs relief. “My men fear you, but they will learn. They fear me, as well.”

El does so, approaching the stew pot slowly, and Morgana leans her own back against the tree as she watches her consume no less than 7 servings. Her men seem to lose their fear around bowl 5, watching El eat with a sort of fascination, and by the end of the meal El is watching in fascination as the cook shows her the herbs he used to flavour it.

El looks up at Morgana as she rolls a stalk of rosemary between her fingers, her eyes alight with curiosity, and Morgana has to look away.

Attachments are dangerous. Her task is all that matters. El is a tool, and with her, Morgana will end Arthur’s reign for good.

 


 

The trip back to Ismere seems shorter than the journey away from it. They make it out of the accursed dead forest in half the time it took them to get to the grove, and day by day a routine starts to form. They ride in silence until dusk, make camp, El lends her hands in meal preparation (when the fish ran out and the men bemoaned the lack of venison in the area, El had earned their favour when she disappeared into the woods and came back moments later with a deer slung over her shoulder), and after eating more servings than seems humanly possible she retires to the edge of the camp near Morgana’s tent. Morgana had offered her a shelter of her own, but El seems more content under the stars, and she never strays far.

When Morgana emerges from her tent every morning to see El lying in the grass just a few feet away, her arms folded behind her head as she looks up at the lightening sky, it never fails to confound her.

Along with her odd sleeping habits, El never changes out of the strange outfit she appeared in. It’s just as well, considering they have nothing that will fit her - Morgana left all of her most competent female warriors to protect Ismere rather than leading them into such a high risk task and El’s frame is too narrow to fit in any of the bulky armour the men wear, nor does she seem to have any interest in it. Morgana intends on having someone craft a set tailored to her measurements when they return, but until then the strange clothes are all she has.

It’s almost indecent, in a way. She might as well be naked for all the good it does in highlighting every line of her body. Morgana finds herself looking more often than not, with an interest that brings back long-buried memories of sharing a bed with Gwen all those years ago. She hadn’t known what it meant, in those days. While she has a better idea now, it’s almost more disconcerting than it was when she was young. She had been innocent then, and hopeful – now, when she’s hardened herself to the world and found purpose in hatred, it’s like trying to slip back into one of her girlhood dresses. Frivolous and uncomfortable.

Even so, she can’t help but notice that El’s eyes wander to her just as much.

After a few nights of eating together Morgana’s guards are less wary of their new guest, but El seems to barely register their presence now that they’re on the move. Her head is in constant motion, drinking in their surroundings no matter how bleak. Soaking up the information like she’s been starved for it. The only other thing she seems to pay any mind to besides Morgana is the horse she’s riding, spending most of the day idly stroking its neck and hand-feeding it every time they stop for a rest. She seems fascinated by the animal, as if she’s never seen one before – perhaps she hasn’t, given how clumsily she got onto its back on the first day.

Overall El is guarded, but no more so than Morgana herself, and in the rhythmic quiet of horses’ hooves and the slowly-returning animal life of the forested landscape Morgana finds herself speaking for the first time since they left.

“Where did you come from? Before I summoned you.”

El has ridden right beside Morgana from the first day, seeming to trust no-one else with the position, and her hands tighten on the reins at the sudden question.

“Does it matter?”

“Perhaps not,” Morgana admits, watching El’s suddenly stiff posture. “But I find myself curious.”

El is silent, for a time. Morgana is on the edge of asking again when El replies in a quiet voice.

“I do not know. I have no memory. No past. I was there, and then I was here.”

El is clearly lying, slow and halted in a way the belies her discomfort with the practice. It seems not like she doesn’t know how to lie, but more that she wishes she didn’t have to. It’s almost endearing – lying has become second nature to Morgana, and seeing such a powerful person struggle with something so basic is oddly charming. Still, Morgana presses.

“I need to understand something.”

El nods, her jaw tight, and Morgana asks the question she’s been really wondering.

“Why did you so easily swear fealty to me?”

This time, El looks away from the path to meet Morgana’s eyes. She looks surprised that the question was asked so brazenly, but Morgana is far past being coy.

“I am nothing to you,” Morgana says, and El frowns. “No-one. You’re powerful in a way I’ve never seen before, and yet you knelt before me with barely a question. Why?”

“You are not nothing.”

El says it quietly, but Morgana can hear every word. It does nothing to explain El’s behaviour, but Morgana can feel like she’s getting close to something.

“When you appeared…it seemed like you knew me,” Morgana tries. El shakes her head, her eyes fixed firmly ahead. “But you don’t. Explain that to me.”

“Not you.”

Not you. It’s maddening, El’s ducking and weaving of her questions. After years of only being listened to if she’s screaming or threatening violence Morgana’s instinct is to snap, to order an answer. Her annoyance surges forward in a burst of magic, and a sudden gust of wind whips across the path as her eyes glow gold. El watches it happen, seeming curious rather than intimidated – but it gets her attention, and she finally looks Morgana in the face.

“Explain,” Morgana snaps, her tone harsh and brokering no argument. Even from a well of power such as this, she cannot tolerate insolence in her ranks. While she can’t threaten El with death or violence, she can still make known her displeasure.

And dutifully, if haltingly, El explains. Explains the complicated, incomprehensible story of her short life – split from the essence of another, identical but with none of the memories of the woman from whom she was made. Kept in captivity and trained mercilessly for a single purpose. A purpose that she soon realized was orchestrated by a madman the likes of which Uther Pendragon could only dream of being. It all seems so foreign to Morgana, so alien, but there’s a truth to El’s bearing that she can’t deny. Stranger things have been born of magic, she’s sure.

El had broken off on her own, much like Morgana had, only to discover that her captor had a sister – one closely linked with the woman who supposedly gave El life.

By the time El’s story is over, Morgana’s temper has settled and the night’s camp is made, and Morgana has taken an uncharacteristic seat at the fire next to her to finish it out. Clearly not used to seeing her out of her tent her men scatter, gathering fuel and food and very clearly trying to stay out of the way.

“It’s her that I resemble, then?” Morgana asks, and El tosses another log on the fire. “This Lena.”

El nods. “Yes. Supergirl – Kara - loves her, I think. Kara, and Lena.”

She says the name like a song, like the shape of it in her mouth makes her happy. Lee-na. This woman makes El break out in a rare smile even now, and something strange and unfamiliar sparks in Morgana’s chest at the way it seems to burst like a flower in bloom. It opens up El’s whole face, a drop of joy slipping between the weathered cracks of Morgana’s bitter heart.

“Do you love her?” Morgana asks, the word sticking in her throat. Love. Something more foreign to her now than anything in the realm. It seems foreign to El, as well – she stares pensively at the flames, poking at them with a long stick.

“I do not know,” she finally admits, turning away from the light. “I do not know what love is. Only an echo.”

That, at least, Morgana can understand.

“Nor do I.”

El smiles again, and this time, it’s directed not at some distant stranger but at Morgana. Just Morgana.

 


 

After her prodding inadvertently revealed El’s life story, conversation becomes more common by the day. El goes from riding silently at her side to peppering Morgana with questions, ranging from this new world’s geography to the basic principles of magic, and Morgana finds that having someone to share her thoughts with isn’t as terrible as she thought it might be. And El is so genuine in her inquiries, soaking up the information she’s given with an intelligence and sharpness that Morgana didn’t expect.

She’s spent so much of her life alone by necessity or by force that she had forgotten how good it was not to be, and though Morgana is still stalwart in her vow never to trust anyone but herself, El seems custom-made to test that resolve. Over time Morgana’s hand stops drifting to the rune that sits in the pocket of her dress, and she comes to accept that El is – for the moment, at least – not going to betray her.

Morgana even, after two weeks of solid travel, shares with El the true reason for her summoning.

It’s fascinating to see someone have no reaction to the name of Uther Pendragon, for good or for ill. But El is a blank slate, and she only seems to react when Morgana explains Uther’s actions – his cruelty, his greed and hypocrisy. How he persecuted innocent mages and druids in a twisted witch hunt, performed savage executions, all because the spell he demanded to help him father a son ended up having a price he didn’t like.

El seems particularly agitated when Morgana details exactly how Uther had treated her when she opposed him, and his fanatical concealment of the fact that she was in fact his daughter – and, by rights, the heir to Camelot.

“Does he live?” El asks, her accent more pronounced in her anger. Her gaze is intense, almost stormy, and despite the deep chill that’s punctuated the nights as they approach frosty Ismere, it makes Morgana feel terribly warm.

“No,” Morgana says with no small amount of satisfaction. “He is dead. I made sure of that.”

El says something, then, in that language of hers that Morgana doesn’t know. It rolls off her tongue with vitriol, and El spits on the ground to punctuate it.

“What does that mean?” Morgana says, willing her chest to stop fluttering at the guttural, instinctive sound of El’s language. Her accent is a thing in itself, but when she speaks that strange tongue it seems to send an unwelcome thrill through her.

“It means good riddance.”

Invigorated to know that El hates Uther just as much as she does, Morgana laughs. It echoes across the barren landscape, and the sound of it in the quiet night catches her off guard.

She doesn’t know the last time she laughed in earnest.

The men around them seem thrown by it, as well. They all pause in their tasks, glancing at each other in a sort of confusion. Morgana’s very presence at the fire is unusual, and her guards have been badly concealing their inability to adapt to it - but when Morgana levels them with a glare that could snap each of their necks with only a single magical word, they all return to their tasks silently.

“So if not him, who do you fight?” El asks, either unaware of the moment or simply uncaring of the audience. Morgana’s hands clench into fists.

“His son. Arthur. And his lapdog Merlin.”

“His son,” El says, easily puzzling out the connection. “Your brother?”

“Half-brother.”

El nods, taking it in stride. “And this Arthur. Did he hurt you also?”

“He let it happen,” Morgana says, her nails digging into her palms as she tries not to succumb to the fury that always fills her at the reminder. The injustice of it all. “Watched it happen. Expected me to be grateful when he did the bare minimum. And when Uther died, he didn’t change a thing. He still doesn’t trust people like me. People with magic. The irony of which seems to escape Merlin, since he still serves him blindly despite secretly being a sorcerer himself.”

“He is like you, and he serves this despot king?” El asks, looking gravely concerned. Morgana scoffs.

“I’ve never claimed him to be intelligent.”

“And you will stop this? This is why you needed me?” El is intent, seeming bent on understanding why. Ordinarily Morgana isn’t in the habit of sharing her reasoning with others, content simply to give orders and see them done without question – but El is different. So, Morgana nods.

“Yes.”

After a moment of eye contact so intense that Morgana feels almost dizzy with it, El nods back.

“Then he will fall.”

Even though she’s spent half her adult life trying and failing to make it happen, El’s absolute confidence makes Morgana think that maybe this time, he will. There isn’t a shred of doubt in her tone. It’s resolute, and the pure force and surety of it spirals downwards to land squarely between her legs.

A most unfamiliar sensation, and one that Morgana has no intention of giving any consideration.

“That is the intent,” Morgana says instead, crossing her legs tightly and averting her gaze from El’s intense one. “Once we get back to Ismere, I plan on readying my forces. The Saxons have been gathering ever since I left. We march as soon as we can, and attack Camelot with you at the head of my army.”

“At your side,” El says pointedly, a crinkle forming between her brows. “I march at your side, yes?”

“Yes,” Morgana corrects, watching as El noticeably relaxes. “At my side.”

Of course, her original plan had involved her new weapon leading her troops in the main assault, not acting as her personal bodyguard. But, she justifies to herself as El happily scoops up another helping of dinner –

Plans can change.

 


 

Ismere is even more desolate than Morgana remembers it.

It’s never bothered her, before. This castle is a means to an end, the location of the grimoire she needed and a remote place where she could gather her troops without the interference of Arthur. But seeing it through new eyes highlights the crumbling façade, the sheer frozen loneliness of the place even when it’s starting to bustle with the beginnings of an army.

She had offered El a cloak when the weather started to turn, but El doesn’t seem to notice the cold at all. Her thin clothes can’t be doing much to keep her warm but she never shivers, never even changes her body language. It’s as if she doesn’t feel it at all. Nor does she comment on the dilapidated state of the castle. She just dutifully follows Morgana over the drawbridge, looking around the courtyard and its busy occupants with the same ravenous curiosity as always.

Even through the howling wind and the sounds of activity, Morgana can hear the whispers as she dismounts her horse and the crowd parts to let them pass to the throne room.

“Lady Morgana is back.”

“I thought she was returning with a weapon?”

“Perhaps she failed.”

“Hoped maybe she’d died. Might have been for the better.”

El’s head whips around at the last admittance, focusing in with impossible accuracy on the man who said it. He doesn’t seem to notice her attention, and when El takes a few steps towards him Morgana stops her with a hand on the arm.

“Come,” she says forcefully, tugging on El’s elbow. “Pay it no mind.”

El nods, but she doesn’t take her eyes from the man until Morgana ushers her inside.

“He threatens you,” El says, as the walls close off the noisy courtyard and Morgana leads them both deeper into the echoing halls. “He has no right.”

“Everyone threatens me, including my allies,” Morgana says airily, brushing the concern aside. “Half the land thinks I’m mad. They might be right. If you’re to fight at my side, it’s something you’ll need to get used to.”

El looks deeply troubled by that, but she has little time to protest before they’re interrupted by the loud, familiar cooing noise that always precedes the entrance of the only creature Morgana cares about besides herself.

When Aithusa’s padding steps round the corner and the malformed little dragon sees Morgana, she lets out a happy cry and starts to trot forward – but upon seeing El standing just behind her she pulls up short, looking up at the stranger with big, watery eyes. For a moment, Morgana wonders if she shouldn’t warn El that despite appearances Aithusa is in fact a true dragon, one so protective of Morgana that she could be capable of harm in her defense – but El seems to know what to do. She crouches slowly, stopping when she reaches Aithusa’s level and slowly offering her hand.

Tentatively Aithusa sniffs it, looking into El’s eyes with an intelligence and innate magic that even Morgana occasionally forgets she has, and El holds her gaze evenly. It feels as if Aithusa is judging her, weighing her worth much like Morgana had felt weighed when she had lain injured and vulnerable and Aithusa came to her aid all those years ago. And El seems to accept it instinctively, keeping her offered hand out and waiting for Aithusa to finish her assessment.

After a few tense moments the dragon relaxes, tucking her gnarled wings into her body and pressing her nose into El’s hand.

Morgana releases a breath, reaching down to tickle at the spot between Aithusa’s wings that always makes her chirp happily and suppressing the smile that threatens to erupt when Aithusa presses into El too hard and knocks her backwards onto the flagstones. El takes it in stride, laughing in delight when the dragon rolls over to have her belly rubbed and taking to the task with great enthusiasm.

Morgana has never once seen Aithusa take to another person this quickly before. Or at all, in fact – Aithusa keeps to herself when Morgana is gone, not even hunting by herself and instead keeping to Morgana’s rooms and receiving food delivered from the kitchens on Morgana’s orders. When Morgana is here Aithusa rarely leaves her side, and doesn’t tolerate being touched by anyone but her. Even with Morgana, the dragon is tentative and shy more often than not.

Now she’s wriggling around in El’s lap, looking up at Morgana as if to say, yes. You’ve chosen well.

“She is strong,” El says, grinning up at Morgana while Aithusa’s not-insignificant weight presses her into the floor. “What is she?”

“A dragon,” Morgana says distractedly, still trying to reconcile the nagging feeling that Aithusa is trying to tell her something. “A white dragon.”

“Are not dragons bigger?” El asks, frowning at Aithusa’s tiny frame. The dragon makes one of her strange noises, her magical breath ruffling El’s hair like a warm breeze, and the frown turns into a smile again.

“Not her,” Morgana says, swallowing hard as the reminder of Aithusa’s stunted growth brings her right back to the cause of it. To those grimy stone walls, damp with mildew and filth. Her hands suspended until they lost all feeling, the space of her prison not even large enough to stretch her legs out. Aithusa curled around her and crying out in pain as her body tried to grow where there was no room. Endless days and weeks and months in the dark, starving and chained while her only companion suffered with every moment.

Her magic kept her body alive, in that place. But every other part of her had withered and died before they escaped.

“She is a runt?” El asks, more quietly this time. Like she can sense Morgana’s pain. Morgana shakes her head.

“She was stunted. Locked in a cage before she could mature. Abused. Whatever she might have been, she was twisted by captivity.”

Morgana knows that her voice is less than steady. She turns away, giving herself a few moments to will the castle walls to stop pressing in on her just like the walls of that cursed pit that still haunts her dreams, and El’s response from behind her is blessedly soft.

“You saved her?”

“We saved each other.”

Morgana hears Aithusa trill, as if she’s agreeing, and turns back around to see the dragon has left El’s lap and is now nudging at Morgana’s hand in a comforting gesture. Morgana accepts it, letting Aithusa ground her like always.

“She is still strong,” El says assuredly, standing up and dusting off her legs. “Resilient.”

It feels as if she’s talking about more than just Aithusa. Morgana strokes the dragon’s head, nodding absently.

“Yes. She must be. It’s resilience, or death.”

 


 

Aithusa accompanies them to the armoury, settling in the doorway to watch while Morgana chooses El’s equipment. The smith insists that his steel is unmatched, but the blonde makes such a displeased face at the idea of wearing a bulky set of full plate mail that Morgana relents and takes her to the tanner instead, watching like a hawk as El is measured for a fitted set of leather.

“A full suit. Tight, black in colour, and bearing my sigil on the breast,” Morgana rattles off, as the tanner hurriedly measures the breadth of El’s shoulders and scribbles something down in his notes. “And strong. If she takes an injury, it’s on your head.”

“I do not need it,” El grumbles, and the tanner chuckles as he lifts her arms to measure her torso.

“That’s what they all say,” he says, looking to Morgana for validation and clearing his throat when he finds her stone-faced. “I mean, every soldier thinks he’s invincible. Until he gets a sword in the gut.”

“I need you to be protected –“ Morgana starts, but she stops dead when El reaches out to the table, takes hold of the razor-thin knife the tanner uses to incise the leather, and presses it hard into her hand. Morgana’s heart leaps to her throat as the blade presses into flesh – but it doesn’t puncture, and El doesn’t so much as wince. No matter how hard she presses, her skin remains unbroken.

“I do not need it,” El says more firmly, running the blade all the way down to her wrist and showing Morgana the result.

Nothing. Not even a scratch. El’s skin is impervious, and Morgana’s hopes for actually succeeding in what she thought would be a suicidal last stand raise higher than ever before.

The practical armour gets scrapped, and Morgana sets the tanner to work on a set meant purely for show. An outfit to strike terror in Camelot, in Morgana’s name. The tanner seems enthused at the challenge, and while he gets to work Morgana leads El to their last stop at the weaver.

“A cape?” El says, running a hand over the nearest piece of fabric. “Why?”

“The knights of Camelot wear them,” Morgana answers, picking up a swatch of blood-red wool that matches her sigil. “Ostentatious as they are. It’s only fitting that my knights wear them, too. Of which you’ll be the first.”

El looks placated by that, although she still hesitates when Morgana holds the red cape up to her shoulders to try. It fits her like a glove, Morgana thinks, makes her stand out like the wonder that she is - but El slips it off as soon as she’s able, folding it carefully and placing it back on the weaver’s table.

“I wore a red cape once,” she says quietly, folding her arms. “I did not like it.”

If this were anyone else, Morgana would execute them on the spot for their impudence. Even someone as powerful as El has still sworn fealty to her, and she should be coming down on this kind of rebellion with an iron fist. The words rise in her throat – and why should I concern myself with your wishes, exactly - but there’s a pain in El’s eyes that Morgana recognizes, a hidden wound that hasn’t healed.

She has a few of her own, after all.

“Well, pick one, then. Quickly,” Morgana says instead, a hair’s breadth from snapping. El seems surprised, and she looks around at the assortment of fabrics and colours with a wary eye.

“I can choose?”

Morgana nods, waving her hand impatiently at the selection, and El gravitates almost immediately to one of the most vibrant pieces. A deep royal purple, made of expensive silk. It’s clearly the jewel of the weaver’s collection, and El lets it ripple between her fingers with rapt fascination.

“It is like water,” she says, and Morgana nods. It’s exactly the sort of thing she might have made a pretty dress out of, in another lifetime. Perhaps paired with teal or deep blue, and an extravagant half-updo that Gwen would patiently pin with her clever fingers before telling her she looked beautiful. Before that life was ripped from her, and war and bloodshed became her life. Arthur would have told her it was too frilly; Uther would have complimented her on it, called her the jewel of his eye, and back then Morgana might have appreciated it even if she knew that his affection was conditional.

Even now, years after she gleefully orchestrated his painful death, the knowledge that Uther is rotting in the ground still brings her pleasure.

“It suits you,” Morgana says, holding the silk up and draping it around El’s shoulders. There’s no fastening, but that can be rectified quickly, and the colour is even more beautiful as a contrast to El’s skin. “Like the fire from your eyes. A warning, before our enemies burn.”

El smiles again, pure and genuine, her earlier melancholy gone completely. A worthy sacrifice, really – El is everything Morgana had hoped and more for her conquest of Camelot, and if the only price to pay for her is a few concessions on her wardrobe, it’s well worth it.

Making her happy is merely a secondary concern, Morgana assures herself as El exchanges a few friendly words with the weaver, a woman that Morgana has housed here for almost a year and not once given any consideration until now.

Her throne is what’s important. Revenge, and victory.

 

 

Their stay at Ismere is short, but in that time more gets done than in the last two years of Morgana’s stay here.

In her absence the Saxons gathered around the castle in force, occupying most of the landscape with camps and supply stations and training for the upcoming campaign. It means that the usually desolate castle is constantly buzzing with activity, and while Morgana makes war preparations El seems content to follow her at a few paces, taking it all in with Aithusa trailing at her heels. She’s hardly ever without her two guardians now, El ever watchful even when she’s distracted by passing dogs or the smell of foods she hasn’t yet tried. They take meals together, El delighting in each new dish and sharing with Aithusa while Morgana mostly watches and drinks, and about the only time Morgana is ever without her anymore is while she sleeps.

Even so, she gives El a room in the same wing of the castle. So that she doesn’t need to sleep in the barracks, of course.

Perhaps it’s the anticipation of the march, but Morgana’s dreams take a sharp turn back to keeping her awake as soon as she’s sleeping alone in her rooms again. Aithusa is there as always, comforting Morgana and taking comfort when her own dreams cause her to cry out in the night, but still as the days progress Morgana wakes more often than not in cold sweats, half-convinced that she’s still in chains.

Open spaces were always her remedy, clearing her mind of the darkness and terror of her memories by walking the walls and taking in the fresh air, and so Morgana wraps herself in furs and slips quietly down the hall towards the ramparts. Unintentionally she takes a route that leads her past El’s room, and her progress is halted when she realizes that the door is ajar.

There’s no light inside the room when Morgana peers around the door. Nor is the bed occupied – El is nowhere to be seen, and in fact her bed is draped in cobwebs as if she’s never slept there. Morgana even checks the kitchens, where she knows El often sneaks down to awkwardly charm the cooks into extra helpings – when Morgana had found that out, she had made sure to order extra rations to El’s rooms – but El isn’t there either, and the cooks claim they haven’t seen her tonight.

She isn’t worried, of course. El is more than capable of taking care of herself. But nevertheless Morgana closes her eyes, letting the magic flow through her with a few scrying words, to find that El is –

Outside Morgana’s window.

Frowning, Morgana tries the magic again. She scries for El with more concentration, but just as before the answer comes to her – El is 100 paces north of her and several floors up, which is just a few feet from Morgana’s bedroom window.

Nightmares pushed to the back of her mind, Morgana returns to her rooms – Aithusa perking her head up from the bed as Morgana storms past – and opens the window.

All looks the same as usual, at first. All Morgana sees ahead is the landscape of Ismere, the ground below the castle littered with dark tents full of sleeping Saxons and the faraway torches of her night patrols. But when she looks to the right, she sees what her magic told her but she could hardly believe – El is floating outside her window, somehow. She’s leaned back against the castle wall, looking out at the quiet tundra, but her feet are certainly not touching any solid ground.

“I am sorry,” El says as soon as she’s spotted, hovering closer with seemingly no effort as Morgana stares. “Sometimes, I cannot sleep.”

Why El is here of all places still goes unexplained, but Morgana has more pressing questions.

“Nor I,” Morgana says, still struggling not to look as agape as she feels. “But you’re flying.”

El nods, crossing her legs in midair. It looks even more ridiculous than it did before, and Morgana shakes her head.

“Every day you seem to have some new magic, and yet you never utter a spell.”

“It is not magic,” El says, now so close that Morgana can almost forget that she’s still outside the window and suspended over a two hundred foot drop. “I was told it is biology.”

Morgana has little idea of what that means. What matters is not how El comes by her powers but that they’re potent enough to serve Morgana’s needs, and nothing else is important. And besides, the origin of El’s power of flight becomes a secondary concern when El holds out a hand as if to invite Morgana out for a stroll, and she looks down at it with an eyebrow raised.

“Perhaps you can fly, but my magic has its limits.”

“I will carry you,” El says, matter-of-factly.

Morgana lets out a laugh at that idea, sharp and bitter in her mouth. “I’m not in the habit of trusting so easily as that.”

El nods, looking disappointed but retracting her hand dutifully and floating slightly further from the window. “Of course.”

They stay there in silence for long moments, El leaning back against the wall again and Morgana bracing her forearms on the windowsill. The night is so still that their breaths seem to be the only sound to break it, and rather than easing her mind by taking in the sprawling scenery she finds herself looking at El. At the smoke of her breath in the cold air, and the details of her face that Morgana has become so accustomed to since their strange meeting. The profile of her nose, the stoic set of her mouth, the tiny scar between her brows that Morgana now realizes shouldn’t be there given her unbreakable skin. She wonders if there’s a story to it.

“On the other hand,” Morgana says, looking away from El’s over-eager expression as she gives in to an unfamiliar and likely dangerous flight of fancy, “it makes sense to assess all of your abilities. Strategically. How am I to decide on the most entertaining way for Arthur to die if I don’t know all of the possibilities?”

El is back at the windowsill in an instant, barely restraining her grin as she holds her hand out again.

Climbing through her window and into the arms of a flying blonde woman she met mere weeks ago is an impossible circumstance. Absolutely ludicrous. On top of it being absurd, it requires a level of whimsy and adventure that Morgana abandoned a long time ago when what was left of her innocence was shattered by Merlin. And yet here she is, slipping from the sill and into El’s grip.

For some reason, she also hadn’t considered just how close they would need to be.

True to her word, El scoops her into a bridal hold that makes her feel a whole host of terrible, fluttering feelings that erupt into something much more exhilarating when they shoot straight up and into the clear sky. The wind whistles past her ears, cold and bracing as she clings to El’s shoulders and tries not to shriek at the strange sensation of leaving her stomach somewhere below them. Perhaps on the windowsill that’s shrinking into nothingness the closer they get to the stars.

It seems like they’re floating miles from the castle when El finally hits the apex of her flight. The moon is luminous, throwing the world into sharp focus even in the dead of night, and it feels as if Morgana could reach up and brush the uneven surface with her fingers.

The laugh she lets out when El dives abruptly downwards is loud and real, the swooping sensation more pronounced, and Morgana stops trying to squeeze her eyes shut and instead just lets herself be present in the moment. To reconcile this impossible thing with what she knows of the world. It’s like spurring a horse into a gallop for the first time, like the first bursts of magic in a spell, like looking down a dizzying height and considering what it would feel like to fall – only she is falling, safe and sound but still full of adrenaline.

She hasn’t felt this alive in years.

El pulls up short after the dive, brushing the very top snow-brushed branches of the forest before soaring out and over the frozen river, and Morgana’s face has gone completely numb by the time they soar skywards again. El’s eyes are bright, holding Morgana tightly to her as she hovers within eyeshot of the castle but far enough away that it seems they’re the only two living creatures in the world. Just the two of them and the heavens.

“Which way is Camelot?” El asks, her accent catching on the still-unfamiliar word.

“South-west,” Morgana says, pointing downriver in the direction they’ll soon be leading an army of Saxons. “Almost a month’s march.”

“I could fly us there.” El sounds smug, and it’s somehow stirring rather than irritating. Perhaps because Morgana knows that she can deliver on the promise.

“I believe even you couldn’t carry an army,” Morgana points out. “I’ve promised the Saxons a war. They’re as eager to march as I am.”

El concedes the point, but it doesn’t stop her from showing off with a bit more feats of speed and dexterity. After each she seems pleased at Morgana’s interest, and they’re so far from Ismere that Morgana can’t even see the castle anymore before El touches down again. She lands them on a cliff, overlooking an icy river and a great expanse of frozen trees, and when El notices Morgana shivering against the cutting wind she quickly gathers some dry deadwood and starts a fire.

She does so not with flint or friction but with a those beams of purple fire that Morgana remembers so well – they erupt from her eyes just like they did when she first emerged from the portal, though seeming more tempered this time. It only takes a few seconds for the fire to catch, and soon it’s crackling and warming Morgana’s hands.

It makes her wonder what else El is capable of.

“Flight. Quite the revelation,” Morgana says, keeping her tone light and confident as she moves closer to the flames. “What other powers are you hiding from me?”

El shrugs, throwing a few damp twigs on the fire. “I can hear things from far away.”

“How far?”

“Miles,” El says vaguely. Morgana frowns, not understanding the unfamiliar measurement, and El smiles a bit more gently. “Far.”

“What else?” Morgana presses. “Besides flight, and fire. Impervious skin. And clearly you’re strong, considering how easily you threw my guards around that grove.”

El nods. She picks up a stone, slightly larger than her fist, and presses it between her hands – and it crumbles like stale bread, littering her lap with pebbles and dust. “I am strong. And fast. Super, they called it. Super-speed. Super-strength.”

“Show me.”

Were Morgana not expecting something strange to happen, she might have thought that El didn’t move at all. It’s barely a flicker, accompanied by a strange noise that makes Morgana’s ears ring, and El is still sitting in the same position. But a strong gust of wind kicks up the snow around them, almost putting out the fire, and suddenly El is holding a pastry. It’s hot, so much so that tendrils of steam are curling off of it into the cold air, and El looks terribly proud of herself.

“Is that…from the kitchens?” Morgana asks, reaching out to touch the crust. As she thought, it’s warm. Impossibly so. El nods, and Morgana takes it from her.

“Ismere is leagues from here, now. You flew all that way in a moment?”

El nods again. Morgana lets out a short laugh, picking off a piece of the pastry and popping it in her mouth. El’s eyes linger on her lips as she chews it, and Morgana swallows heavily, clearing her throat.

“Show me more.”

El shows off her other powers – she can see through stone walls, apparently, as well as blow out the fire with a concentrated breath that’s colder than the air around them. Morgana notes each one with interest, somehow less focused on how they can be made useful in war but instead simply enjoying El in her element, showing off with just a hint of pride.

It’s only when Morgana starts to shiver again that El insists on bringing them back to her rooms, flying there so fast that Morgana has to squeeze her eyes shut at the strange pressure of their speed, and carefully helps her climb back through the window.

“Thank you,” Morgana says, clearing her throat as her feet touch firm stone again. El still hovers outside, her hair slightly windblown, and Morgana can only imagine the state of her own. “I’ve quite forgotten my nightmares, now.”

El nods solemnly, every inch the watchful guardian as she reaches up to close the window and seal out the cold.

“But I will stay. In case you have another.”

Before Morgana can think to protest the window shuts, and El flies out of sight.

Morgana never brings herself to come to the window again, to check if El ever returns after that night. But early in the morning she often hears the unfamiliar noise of Aithusa’s wings beating outside, the dragon flying free instead of keeping to Morgana’s rooms – and usually, it’s accompanied by familiar laughter.

She sleeps peacefully for the rest of the week.

 


 

The Saxons, as Morgana predicted, are prepared to march on Camelot in half the time that their warlords claimed. They’re chomping at the bit, eager to move south, and it’s a mere two weeks before everything is ready to be set in motion.

While the Saxons know that El now accompanies Morgana almost everywhere, she hasn’t yet made any kind of formal announcement or staged a show of her power. It’s somewhat strategic, as the resulting whispers that follow them around work to sow interest and no small amount of fear – some seem to think that El is a fellow mage, while others claim she’s a demon, summoned by Morgana by the darkest kind of magic. The most ridiculous rumours claim that El is simply a concubine, a slave captured from Camelot and used for Morgana’s sadistic pleasure.

That last one is more interesting than the rest, at least.

While the rumour mill creates a sense of uneasy mystery around the blonde that Morgana does find satisfying, the biggest reason she hasn’t presented El to her troops is that she’s enjoying having El to herself. The more people know how powerful El truly is, the more potential there is for someone to tempt her away for their own devices. An announcement just before leaving on campaign will be best, when she can whisk El away with a small group and not have to risk losing her.

It’s her abilities that Morgana doesn’t want to lose, of course. Her power. That’s what she assures herself, even when something unfamiliar manifests every time she sees El bite into a sweet pastry and smile with pure delight, or lick crumbs from her fingers.

Her soul is too hard, now, too cold and long-dead for whatever it is to take root. But seeing Aithusa lay her head gently on El’s lap and go to sleep as the woman manages to voraciously read her way through Ismere’s entire dusty library sparks something inside Morgana, even if she hasn’t the time or desire to examine what it is.

In the end, Morgana needn’t have worried. As usual things are wrested from her control, and her grand announcement is made for her.

It starts with El’s armour finally being finished. El seems quite excited as they walk together to the tanner, and Morgana is of course looking forward to seeing El wear her colours – but the end result is more than she could have imagined.

When El emerges from behind a curtain, the tanner following with a nervous expression as he waits on Morgana’s reaction, Morgana has to clench her jaw to keep it from going slack. The trousers fit almost as tightly as those grey pants El appeared in, only these are pitch-black leather and feature various straps for El to buckle her belongings into. The buckles themselves are silver-plated steel, featuring Morgana’s sigil – the blood-red Rowan tree – and they shine like new coins in the flickering torchlight. Her torso is unprotected, a simple black tunic fitted closely to her angular shape and leaving her arms and shoulders bare but for a pair of studded bracers meant mostly as weapons, except for one piece of armour. A single asymmetrical pauldron of black and silver steel, shaped like a dragon’s wing with straps that fasten across her chest.

With the cape fastened and flaring behind her, her face set in solemn determination, she looks every bit the devastating weapon that Morgana hoped she would be. But when El turns to see herself in the mirror and catches Morgana’s eyes in the reflection with a smile, her face alight with a sweet sort of joy at her new fit, it feels different. Brighter, perhaps, than Morgana anticipated.

Ever since she emerged from the portal, something odd that Morgana has noticed about El is her movement. She moves through the world stiffly, carefully, her back ramrod straight and so highly controlled that she looks like a bowstring about to snap. She often looks awkward, in such contrast to the lightning-quick fluidity that Morgana remembers in those chaotic moments when El had tossed her guards around like ragdolls. As if a single idle moment will cause her to lose control entirely.

Now, with her new armour and her familiarity with the castle and Morgana, she moves with more purpose. She still often seems not to know what to do with her hands – but the armour, at least, provides somewhere to place them even if only on the hilt of her new sword.

“We ride a few days ahead of the main force,” Morgana explains, El keeping pace and Aithusa limping behind them as they head to the courtyard fully outfitted. “With a small contingent. Not Saxons – my personal guard, druids from Arthur’s lands who came to me wanting to fight. Wanting to destroy his tyranny around magic.”

“The men from before?”

Morgana shakes her head. El had become somewhat familiar with the group they travelled with from the grove, but to Morgana, they had been entirely disposable. El seems to understand.

“You trust these druids?” she asks, and Morgana scoffs.

“I trust no-one,” Morgana says offhandedly. In the corner of her eye she can see El’s wounded expression, but she wills herself not to let it slip past her defenses. She isn’t in the business of soothing feelings. “But I certainly value them more than Saxons. Saxons are useful, but their warriors are bandits at best and animals at worst.”

“Where you go, I will follow.”

Morgana has gotten used to El’s accent, now, for the most part. But her mind still stutters on certain words, certain sounds that remain unfamiliar and captivating. One of them is her w’s – how where inevitably becomes vhere, a phenomenon that fascinates Morgana almost as much as the rich, throaty way that she rolls her r’s. How Morgana becomes almost a purr, in El’s voice.

It disrupts her thoughts so often, now, that Morgana has gotten quite used to El being the one to pick up the thread of the conversation again.

“Will Arthur know we are coming?” El asks, and Morgana shakes herself from her contemplation.

“He’ll have scouts, I’m sure,” Morgana replies, waving an indifferent hand. “It’s impossible to move an army without anyone noticing. The element of surprise is not what I’m relying on. It’s you.”

El nods again. “I am the weapon.”

For the first time in some time, Morgana detects something off in El’s voice. She sounds disappointed. Resigned, almost. Like this or something like it has happened to her before, being held up as an all-powerful weapon to be used for someone else’s ends. After weeks of seeing her slowly grow more comfortable and happy in her surroundings, the sudden return to the somber El that Morgana remembers from their first few days together seems all the more terrible.

“I can’t keep you here, you know,” Morgana says, halting mid-stride. “I summoned you, but the spell doesn’t bind you to me.”

Morgana has no idea what possessed her to say it. A month ago, learning that the weapon she summoned believed itself to be bound to her by force would have been a relief – all the easier to control it, ensure it doesn’t fall into Arthur’s hands. She has no reason to think otherwise now. She has enslaved and used people, in her time; she tortured and bent Gwen, a woman she once considered her closest confidant, to her will using magic in order to use her against Arthur. She has killed men who hadn’t uttered a word against her simply because she was angry, and they happened to be in her sight. She’s tortured out of vengeance – she’s killed for pleasure. Qualms, moral or otherwise, are something she has shed so completely that adopting them again might actually break her.

But with El, the idea of the other woman thinking she has no choice in the matter makes Morgana uneasy.

El stops short a few paces ahead, looking back at Morgana like she hadn’t considered such a possibility. In a few steps she closes the distance between them, stopping just slightly closer than Morgana would like but not quite rupturing Morgana’s personal space, and looks down on her from a height slightly elevated by her new thick-soled boots.

“You would let me go?”

“I couldn’t stop you.”

“I have not yet been tested against magic. Perhaps it is a weakness. Perhaps you could.”

That news is new to Morgana. El seems to be offering it as a test, of sorts, and she has to admit that something in her considers at least trying a binding spell. It would be the easiest way, the safest. The best guarantee of her plan working. She wants her crown, after all. But looking at El before her, curious and beautiful, and imagining her bent and broken and tortured by magic doesn’t make Morgana feel powerful at all.

It makes her feel ill.

“You would let me go?” El asks again, and this time Morgana gives her answer unequivocally.

“…yes.”

El searches her face, possibly looking for a lie. Her eyes are so intense, so blue, flecked with little specks of grey and hints of gold that Morgana has never noticed before, and she tries to focus on them so as not to think about the way her heart is racing.

It feels like an eternity. But El’s body language relaxes, and she inclines her head much like she did when she first swore fealty. This time, though, feels heavy with a meaning that wasn’t there before.

“I am with you.”

Aithusa nudges with her nose first at Morgana’s hand and then El’s, making a low humming noise that sounds to Morgana like she’s pleased, somehow. El smiles, stroking the top of her head, and that seems to be that.

Strange as it seems, Morgana can’t remember the last time anyone swore allegiance to her willingly, without manipulation and with no promise of a reward.

Perhaps it’s El’s pledge that changes Morgana’s mind. Perhaps it’s simply functional – her plan is to leave tomorrow, and an announcement to her troops is a necessity. It seems simplest to introduce El at the same time, especially now that she’s been prowling about the castle after Morgana in conspicuously handmade armour.

There’s certainly a rush of power when Morgana steps out onto the balcony. It overlooks the courtyard and behind it the expanse of the grounds, and the breadth of her army covers far into the distance. All of them under her command, and bent on the siege of Camelot. A sea of chaos under her command.

“Our time has come,” Morgana starts, her voice magnified by the height as well as a dash of magic, “and Arthur’s has ended. Tomorrow I leave, with you behind me – and I take with me the weapon that will bring about his destruction.”

There’s a passionate roar from the ground and El steps forward, looking out over the sea of faces with very little expression on her own. Perhaps Morgana had been expecting too much, but she had almost hoped for some enthusiasm – intimidation, at the very least. El looks only like she’s waiting for it to be over.

No matter.

“We head south. What you do on the way to sustain your journey I do not care – so long as you arrive at Camelot ready for war,” Morgana continues, and the crowd roars again. But there’s something happening behind her that’s distracting from the task at hand.

Aithusa has nudged her way through the guards standing behind her to push herself between Morgana and El. She starts to cry out, croaky and urgent, for what purpose Morgana can’t guess– El, though, seems to hear something that Morgana does not. As if she understands Aithusa’s warning she tenses, her eyes scanning the people below and landing on something at the back of the mass. Morgana hardly realizes that something is amiss before El’s hand appears in front of her face, clenched tightly in a fist.

Clutched inside that fist is an arrow, snatched impossibly from the air.

Morgana doesn’t even have time to summon her magic. The arrow snaps in two with the force of El’s grip, and the crowd parts as the ground is scorched by two beams of energy. El’s violet fire burns a line across the stone, stopping directly at the feet of a man Morgana has never seen before.

The result is cacophonous. The crowd erupts into noise, shouting and shoving each other to get out of the path of fire likely out of sheer terror; and then El is gone in a gust of wind, diving into the masses and emerging seconds later holding the man aloft by the front of his shirt. Quickly and dramatically she flies upwards, her eyes still glowing with purple light as she watches him struggle with an expression of pure rage.

Dangling from the man’s hand is a bow, with a second arrow still nocked. It drops to the snowy cobblestones with a clatter, and El’s eyes glow even brighter.

“Your weapon was drawn. You meant to kill her,” El growls, shaking the man in midair and seeming uncaring that his shirt is beginning to rip. “Do not deny it. Who are you?”

Even through his terror, the man’s disdain is still palpable. He struggles, but upon realizing El’s grip is ironclad, he seems to accept his fate.

“Someone who would rather die than see her wear the crown of Camelot,” he snarls, looking towards Morgana on the balcony. “My brother was one of Arthur’s knights. She slaughtered him like an animal. Vile witch.”

He spits, but rather than make the impact with the ground that he was hoping for it’s lost in the crowd below. El’s lip curls in disgust, but Morgana simply laughs at this latest of pathetic attempts on her life.

“And when Arthur sent you here,” Morgana says, her voice ringing clear across the silent courtyard, “did you realize that you were being sent to your death, or are you so idealistic that you truly believed you could kill me?”

El flies higher, and the would-be assassin seems to realize the foolishness of his enterprise.

“Arthur didn’t send me. I came to kill you myself,” he says, but that only seems to make El angrier. Her eyes are so bright that they look like they might discharge at any moment, and no matter how much he tries to lean away from the heat he has nowhere to go. “I thought – I thought –“

“That you’d be a hero?” Morgana croons, watching with satisfaction as her condescension makes him angrier. “That your precious King would reward you for killing the evil Lady Morgana, and all would be well in Camelot?”

“I –“

“Now that my bodyguard has ruined your little fantasy, are we to hear you beg?” Morgana continues, her voice laced with mirth. “Plead for your life? Go on, I think I might find it entertaining.”

“Just kill me,” the man shouts, panic starting to set in as his limbs windmill in midair. “Or let whatever abomination you’ve conjured kill me, it makes no difference! Everyone knows you’re a monster already -”

El makes a noise that sounds almost like a roar, looking fully capable of slamming the man to the ground so hard that his skull will crack the stone – but Morgana holds up a hand, and the blonde seems to come to her senses, looking to Morgana for instructions.

“Oh, no. An instant death would be far too pleasant for the likes of you,” Morgana finally decides, turning and finding in the group behind her the Saxon in charge of prisoners. This man isn’t the first of Arthur’s men to attempt an assassination, and he won’t be the last – the dungeons have more than a few full cells already. “Give him a night of our best hospitality, and then send him to Arthur with a message. Morgana is coming to claim what is hers. I want him to see his death on the horizon.”

The Saxon nods, turning and heading down to the courtyard with three men behind him. El is still in the air when he appears below, looking positively murderous, but obediently she lowers herself to the ground and shoves him so hard in the direction of the Saxons that the man sprawls facefirst onto the flagstones. He’s tugged up roughly by the shoulders, clapped in irons, and escorted away, and as the man leaves her sight El seems to remember herself for the first time since the arrow was loosed.

The crowd is gathered around her but has left a berth of several feet, and they look terrified.

Morgana, still standing on the balcony, is quite honestly in awe. She’s had many bodyguards in her time, had people who professed devotion and love while in her presence but failed to deliver on the tasks they were given. She’s paid with gold, with treasure and magic and favours and even, sometimes, with a promise of access to her body that she had no intention of honouring.

El is here by choice. She’s asking for nothing in return, and not only did she catch an arrow from the air but she almost killed the perpetrator for Morgana without a second thought.

And El, surrounded by strangers and standing on the scorched evidence of her own fury, looks almost ashamed. Her stance screams discomfort, stiff and upright as if she’s about to launch herself into the sky and never return, but the spell of fear is broken when a Saxon man elbows his way through the crowd and steps forward, grabbing El’s hand and throwing it into the air with his own.

“We have a god among us!” He cries loudly, with El looking startled beside him. “Camelot is ours!”

One by one, the crowd seems to come to the same realization. His cry turns into many, proclamations of victory with El in the middle of it all, and instead of basking in the attention like any normal soldier would El looks to Morgana. Only when their eyes meet and Morgana makes her approval obvious does El start to smile.

Morgana orders a Saxon to torture the man in the dungeons before letting him loose. Normally she would do it herself simply for the satisfaction of it, but she’d rather not have her hands dirty when she shares dinner with El.

Morgana’s dreams that night are much more pleasant than usual. The fire she sees is purple, dangerous but warm, and the only omen in her mind is black armour and a fluttering cape.

 


 

It isn’t until the next morning, when El rides beside her as they finally leave Ismere with Morgana’s honour guard and Aithusa in a sturdy cart, that El seems to find the words to ask a question Morgana has been expecting since yesterday.

Did you kill that man’s brother?”

Morgana’s hands tighten on the reins. Half a day on the road, and already El is testing the limits of her fealty by asking questions she likely won’t like the answer to. El seems to have no issue attacking Camelot, but the true morality of a person tends to rear its ugly head on the individual level, and Morgana stopped allowing herself to feel empathy the day her sister died. Empathy is weakness, and weakness means loss.

“I’ve killed many people,” Morgana says, looking straight at the road ahead. “In battle and otherwise. I have no doubt that I killed the man, if he was one of Arthur’s knights.”

El nods, seeming to take that answer at face value. She looks mostly placid, but there’s a tiny crinkle between her brows that belies deeper thought.

“And Arthur’s knights. Why do they wish you dead so badly?”

“They’re loyal to him,” Morgana says, perhaps more harshly than the question demanded. “Some were even loyal to Uther. Most are bred to hate magic and anyone who uses it. They’d rather make suicidal attempts on my life than see me as Queen of Camelot. They hate me as much as I hate them.”

El nods, and for a blessed moment Morgana thinks the conversation is over. But El asks another question, and this time Morgana has no quick answer for it.

“Why do you want it? This throne. Why not kill Arthur and leave it to rot?”

Had Morgana been walking, she likely would have stopped short. As it is her hands slacken on the reins and her horse slows slightly, lagging behind El’s until she comes to her senses and digs her heels into its sides. It isn’t often that Morgana is rendered speechless, but for the first time she is genuinely mystified by the question. It’s not something she’s thought about in years, the why of it all – she’s been focused on revenge. Wanting the throne is just…it’s simply a part of her, now. Who she is.

“It is mine by rights,” Morgana answers, looking to El as if to dare her to challenge it. “As the firstborn.”

El only frowns. “Your father was not a good man. Why do you want his kingdom? These people who hate you? Will it make you happy?”

“Happiness isn’t my destiny,” Morgana snaps, her voice rising to match her anger. Magic flows to her fingertips as it always does in fits of emotion, begging for an outlet, and rather than give it one Morgana pushes it back down. “It hasn’t been for a long time. Arthur and Merlin saw to that. This kingdom fears magic, and punishes those who have it regardless of their choices. Taking back my throne will put an end to that, as well as to Arthur's life.”

El nods, but she doesn’t seem entirely convinced.

It’s what Morgana told herself since the beginning, since Morgause showed her that her magic was not to be feared. That Uther was wrong, and his rule was poisoning the land. That the Old Religion could rise, and she wouldn’t have to be ashamed anymore. She could be powerful.

But a long time ago, so far removed that it feels like another life, Morgana had told Merlin I don’t want to be brave. I just want to be myself. Morgause had given her that, had taught her how to harness and control her magic instead of being ruled by it, and Morgana had loved her sister fiercely for it. But before Morgause came into her life, the throne had been the last thing Morgana wanted. She had just wanted to be free of the fear. To live in peace. She had always thought that it was Merlin who changed that for her with his betrayal, poisoning her to force Morgause into giving up on her conquest of Camelot. Not only letting her struggle alone but almost killing her when she most needed a friend.

But for the first time, she considers the possibility that the change had been twofold. Merlin had started it, yes, and Uther with his cruelty, and Arthur with his dogged following of his father’s footsteps – but Morgause had also nursed her back to health in the weeks following, still angry over her loss. Imbuing Morgana with her own bitterness. She does not doubt that her sister loved her – but she also coveted the throne, and her determination had tripled when she found out that Morgana had a valid claim.

It seems an insult to her sister’s memory to doubt her like this. But El’s words are making her think about things she had never considered, things she had blocked out.

Thankfully El is quiet for the rest of the day, seeming to sense that Morgana needs to think.

In fact, El is quiet for a few days. Although she never leaves Morgana’s side, they ride together in relative solitude as the landscape around them eases from frozen wasteland into something more habitable. Snow turns to mud, and then to grass, and while El still seems to take up her post sleeping outside of Morgana’s tent every night she doesn’t push Morgana into conversation again.

So instead of talking, Morgana observes.

And El is an intriguing subject. Even weeks after arriving here from wherever she came from, each sight and sound still seems brand-new to her. Everything from new bird species to a song that one of Morgana’s guards idly hums on the road are fascinating to her; she helps to cook every night, taking enthusiastically to the intricacies of seasoning. Every day she and Aithusa seem to become more closely bonded, and El is the only one in the party to spend significant time every morning and night carefully caring for her horse. On the surface, she’s as stoic as ever, breaking into smiles or laughing only when someone puts effort into engaging her in conversation – but Morgana can see in her most mundane of actions just how deep her hidden depths run.

Never are those depths made more clear than when they ride past their first village.

In general, they’ve been keeping off the beaten path on their way to Camelot. Avoiding main roads means avoiding most towns, something that increases in importance the closer they get to the castle where people will begin to recognize Morgana on sight. But they’re still outside the purview of Arthur’s reign, and so it makes sense to stop and stock up on provisions before then. When she can still be relatively anonymous. Were she with her army, Morgana would simply order the village ransacked of goods and burnt to eliminate survivors – but the druids in her party now are softer hearts, still sworn to do her will but less likely to do so happily. The last thing she needs is dissention, now, on the cusp of her victory. So she gives them some coin, and orders them to purchase necessities from the locals.

It’s the work of an hour or two, perhaps, and in the meantime Morgana intends to keep to herself. While the likelihood of being recognized here is certainly lower it isn’t out of the question, and once she’s picked out and ordered the supplies they need she means to leave the village and let her guards do the rest. But El, once she’s in the village, seems unwilling to leave.

Morgana has never seen her so easily distracted before. At Ismere, El had been interested in goings-on around her, but had mostly followed Morgana’s lead – now, with a town full of people to interact with and a thousand new sights, El seems more confident in going off on her own. She still looks to Morgana, as if to reassure herself that she’s still there, but it’s mostly as a lone figure that she wanders through the inhabitants working and selling their wares.

People open up to her so easily. It seems so natural for her, a gentle curiosity and nonthreatening aura entirely contrary to the powers Morgana knows she possesses that seems to put everyone around her at ease. Morgana has become so accustomed to everyone around her reacting with fear, reverence, or caustic hatred that it feels surreal when El gestures her over to look at a decorative armband on the jewellers stand and nobody so much as flinches at her approach.

And people aren’t simply polite to El. They’re welcoming. One woman sees El’s rapt fascination with her loom and invites her to try the contraption for herself; another lets her sample a loaf of fresh crusty bread, which El then digs into with such childlike voracity that the baker laughs and gives her the whole thing for free.

El is a light wherever she goes, and Morgana watches as a town full of what she considered disposable citizens – nothing to her, really, who could have just as easily been raided and robbed than bought from fairly – comes to life. Each person given a face, a name, a full life with their own loves and desires. A man shows his daughter how to milk a cow, a young girl weaves intricate straw hats to sell to travellers, a pimple-faced youth brandishes a bouquet of flowers at a like-aged girl while she blushes. El watches it all, absorbing the mundanity of everyday life like it’s a tome of secrets, and Morgana sees it through new eyes. Eyes still blessed with some innocence, despite all that El has seen and done.

Morgana had helped Arthur and Merlin defend a village like this from bandits, once. Bandits much like the ones she now commands. Gwen had fought beside her, had slept beside her in bed, and Morgana had spent half the night worrying that in the morning she might lose her friends. The irony of this visit being a precursor for killing those friends with her bare hands isn’t lost on her, although the thought isn’t nearly as satisfying as she’d like it to be.

While El helps to load the provisions onto the horses, Morgana writes a letter to her general a few days behind. This village is to be left untouched, on pain of death.

When she enters her tent that night to find a rumpled bouquet of wildflowers on her bed, some still with dirt clinging to their roots and bound with a few long blades of grass, she has to blink a few times to make sure she’s not seeing things. When she finally takes a few strides forward to pick them up and look at them closely, there’s no indication of who they’re from – but she thinks, briefly, of the teenager from the village. The one who El watched give a bouquet to his beau. The flowers are beautiful, varied in colour and arranged intentionally and Morgana pinches a petal between her fingers, unsure what to do. She could throw them away, of course, but that brings an uncomfortably tight sensation to her chest that she brushes off straight away. Displaying them seems frivolous, thanking El too genuine.

She hasn’t received flowers in what feels like an age, and apparently she’s forgotten how it works.

In the end Morgana opens the grimoire, ever at her bedside, to the page with the summoning spell that brought El to this world. Before she can think about it too deeply she places the flowers there, and presses them between the pages.

 


 

El grows ever more curious in the days following. As if interacting with new people has energized her somehow she seems to gain confidence with every dawn, and the awkwardness that’s hung around her for so long melts truly away. It turns out that when El isn’t uncomfortable or distrustful, she’s absolutely magnetic, and Morgana wonders if she hasn’t missed an opportunity to place her in Arthur’s court as a double agent. Perhaps this entire war could have been avoided simply by unleashing the blonde’s charm on Camelot.

She makes fast friends with Morgana’s druids, watching their magic with rapt attention; she makes conversation with Morgana again while they ride, coaxing her into genuine laughter seemingly without even trying. She talks a passing ale merchant into giving them a keg from his shipment for not much more than a smile and a genuine discussion of barley and hops, and then she heartily thrashes the druids in a drinking game around the fire later.

The proud, self-assured expression on her face when she catches Morgana’s eye over the flames hits Morgana somewhere deep and base, and she has to excuse herself to the cool darkness of her tent not long after.

Even there, though, she can’t find peace. Morgana’s days seem to revolve around El now, the bouquet of flowers undiscussed but hanging between them like a dirty secret; and night after night, El comes to Morgana in her dreams.

Since the day they started to manifest as prophecies, Morgana has feared dreaming. There are still stretches of time where she hardly sleeps, so haunted by glimpses of death and destruction that she keeps herself awake for days until she’s practically delirious. But these dreams are different than the rest.

In them, Morgana always finds herself in a bed. Sometimes it’s her dusty bed at Ismere or the lonely cottage in the swamp that she lived in while Agravain had done his ineffectual work; sometimes it’s the fur-lined camp bed she sleeps in now. Once or twice, it was even her old bed at Camelot. But each time no matter where she is, El appears in the doorway, bereft of her armour and staring at Morgana with an intensity she’s come to anticipate.

Neither of them ever speaks. El always comes closer, each step building the tension while Morgana remains reclined against the pillows, until she’s at Morgana’s bedside and close enough to touch.

This is where the dreams usually diverge into something more varied. Sometimes El will simply stand beside her, radiating heat and intensity until she reaches out a hand to stroke Morgana’s face. Those are the tame nights, when Morgana awakens feeling disconcerted but not alarmed. Sometimes El lies beside her, facing her with their bodies touching but not pushing any further. And a few times, after particularly exhausting days, dream-El climbs into bed and presses Morgana into the mattress until every heartbeat seems to echo between her legs.

Morgana isn’t so naïve as to be unaware of what’s causing it. El is beautiful, and loyal to a fault – Morgana knows the pull of attraction even if she’s never been driven to act on it, and El clearly feels it just as keenly as Morgana does. Usually this would be a strategic advantage, a way to keep El in line with just the right amount of coy encouragement. But usually that strategy is employed only when Morgana’s feelings on the matter are neutral at best. Never reciprocated, and certainly never acted upon.

As much as she uses desire as a weapon, Morgana has never so much as been kissed with proper intention. The opportunity to explore that part of herself was taken away at the same time as everything else in her life, and she never looked back. Were El to come to her like she does in Morgana’s dreams, she would rather send El away than give in to whatever weakness this is. All Morgana knows how to do is cause pain.

That becomes especially clear when, a week’s ride from Camelot, Morgana is beset by the worst dream to date.

This newest of dreams begins just as all the others – El standing in the doorway of her tent, looking at her much in the way she does in life. With an expression that somehow betrays none of her thoughts, but makes Morgana want to know them. Makes her want to push and dig and crack El open, bite into her like ripe fruit. To understand, and perhaps figure out why El vexes her so.

But this time El doesn’t simply walk towards her. She stalks, almost – and when she reaches the bedside she climbs in, cloaking Morgana in warmth. Her gaze is searing, her breath hot against Morgana’s lips, and for a moment she thinks that El might dip down and kiss her. But she doesn’t. Instead she sits up, veering away from the usual script by taking hold of Morgana’s knees.

Through all of these dreams, for all of these nights as they’ve approached Camelot, El has never spoken in them. She’s been silent and consistent, pressing herself close to Morgana with no explanation and staying there until she wakes, hot and disoriented. But now, as she slowly eases Morgana’s legs open, she breaks the pattern again.

“I am with you, Morgana.”

El’s eyes flicker down as she says it and Morgana feels a deep, pulsing movement there. Something is happening at the core of her that feels like magic but isn’t, and El is the conductor of whatever energy is possessing Morgana’s body. She doesn’t know the answer to El’s question, but every fiber of her being certainly wants to try.

She’s given the chance when El presses down between her now-open legs, the grinding motion bringing forth a depth of feeling Morgana couldn’t have imagined. It’s deep and confusing in the way dreams are, disjointed and foggy, but it feels real – the weight of El on top of her, the rhythmic press and shift of her hips into whatever shadowy mechanism is sending currents through her, the soft furs under Morgana’s back. It feels real and it builds within her, tightening like a thread pulled taut, quivering and ready to snap at any moment under the weight of El’s attention. There’s something there, something she wants to reach, and she finds herself arching fruitlessly up in search of it as El pants into her ear - rasping her name in that voice, over and over, until Morgana is just about

She wakes with a sound on her lips so unfamiliar that for a moment she thinks someone else must have made it. But she’s alone in her bed, the only other sounds the gentle fluttering of the walls of her tent in the wind and her own pounding heart. The beat of it seems somehow even harder between her legs, an insistent and alarmingly pleasant throb that seems to demand something she has no intention of giving. She’s soaked with sweat despite the cool breeze, and it’s only when her eyes adjust to the dark that she realizes she isn’t quite as alone as she thought.

El is standing in the doorway of her tent, armourless and soft, and for one heady and delirious moment Morgana thinks that perhaps her dream is manifesting into reality.

“Are you all right?” El says, her voice low and her accent heavy with sleep. “I heard your heart. I worried for you.”

Even at a distance she smells faintly of woodsmoke, the orange light of the still-crackling fire framing her outline, and the combination of the smell and El’s voice breaks whatever spell had still clung to Morgana’s thoughts. Like cobwebs clearing she shakes her head, smoothing a hand over her damp forehead and looking away from El’s piercing eyes.

“Fine,” Morgana says faintly, staring down at the blanket in her lap and trying to erase the image of El pressed hard between her thighs, hot and eager and alive. Breathing in her ear, driving her to madness. “Just a dream. Leave me.”

El nods, and after a moment of silent tension she ducks out of the doorway again. The tent flap closes behind her, blocking out the light and smell of the campfire, and Morgana collapses onto her back, staring up at the fluttering canvas roof.

She spends the rest of the night awake, restless and more aware of El’s presence on the grass just outside her tent than ever before.

 


 

Morgana sleeps more and more fitfully the closer they get to Camelot.

Whether it’s nerves over the impending confrontation with Arthur or her still-persistent dreams about El she’s not sure, but she’s grown used to slipping out of her tent at night to take in the fresh air and seeing El lying a few feet away, arms folded behind her head as always. El’s head always perks up when Morgana walks past, eyes following her until she moves out of sight.

So when she exits her tent a few nights before they’re due to reach the borders of her former home and finds El’s usual spot empty, her first instinct is to scry for the blonde just like she did the night of their flight together. It seems like so long ago, now, despite having only been a few weeks – but just like before she finds El quickly, a few hundred paces to the south of the camp.

When she finds El after a few minutes of walking through the woods, it’s at the edge of a cliff, looking out over the expanse ahead. The moon is bright, close enough to fullness that she can see the details of El’s profile – her broad shoulders, the glint of her shoulderpiece, the soft waves of her hair. She’s missing her cape, but still she stands out - her stance is wide, her arms crossed, and she looks every bit the warrior Morgana hoped for when she cast that gamble of a spell. And still her appearance does nothing to indicate her true power.

In the far, far distance, somewhere beyond the eye, lies Camelot. Her destiny, Morgana has always thought. Her birthright.

Now she’s not so sure.

It’s clear that El heard her coming. She doesn’t flinch, doesn’t so much as move her head when Morgana approaches behind her, and when Morgana speaks El is already smiling.

“You like open spaces.”

It isn’t a question, and El treats it as the statement it is. She nods, still staring out at the distance.

“I was kept in cages,” El says quietly, still easily heard in the still night. “Boxes. A black space where I could not move. Could not see. And then a cell, only to be let out to do the will of my captors like a dog on a leash.”

There’s a bite to her voice, a hint of the pain she’s endured, and Morgana feels the echo of the same emotion in her heart. The same experience. Almost without thinking about it she speaks, and El finally turns away from the scenery to look at her.

“The reason Aithusa is stunted is because we were imprisoned,” Morgana says quickly. Like pulling an arrow from her chest, and watching the blood flow uncontrollably. “We were chained together. Tortured. Kept at the bottom of a pit for 2 years, when she should have been spreading her wings.”

Out of the corner of her eye she can see El’s body language change. Her shoulders tighten, her back straightening to accentuate her already formidable height, and when she speaks her voice is low and rough with anger.

“Arthur did this?”

“No,” Morgana says, remembering the face of the man who captured her. Sarrum. It still haunts her, that she wasn’t the one to kill him – but he is dead, and the knowledge brings her comfort. “Someone else. But they were in an alliance, before Sarrum was killed. I do not doubt that Arthur knew.”

El nods. Her posture is still stiff, and she noticeably steps a few inches closer to Morgana as if the tiny reduction in distance will protect her from other threats.

“I would have sold my soul for so little as a kind word, then,” Morgana continues, the words falling out of her mouth before she can stop them. Perhaps some part of her doesn’t want to. Perhaps she wants to tell El every one of her secrets. “I would have told them anything they asked me, for the promise of a moment of freedom. Pathetic. I was weak. I wept every day, every time they took Aithusa away and tortured her to cause me pain.”

“You were strong,” El says, soft but insistent. “You escaped.”

“They were foolish,” Morgana scoffs, clenching her jaw against the fresh tears that want to emerge at the dredging up of those memories. Aithusa being slowly dragged up the pit by her chains, the poor dragon’s screams of pain as they did god-knows-what to her only to throw her back down to rot there together for months on end. Both of them wishing for death. “They thought that after two years of imprisonment, I would be too weakened to kill them.”

“But you were not.” There’s a hint of pride in El’s voice, on Morgana’s behalf. Like she’s proud of Morgana for freeing herself.

“Vengeance is a powerful force. I slaughtered every man who ever laid a hand upon us, and left them to rot along the walls of their own fortress.”

El nods, letting the words settle and sink in as they both stare sightlessly over the beauty of the valley below. El’s next question, though, doesn’t quite register.

“And did it help?”

“Did it help what?” Morgana asks, frowning. It had let her escape, and heal with Aithusa. It led her to Ismere and the Saxons. It led her here. What on earth does El mean, did it help?

“Stop the pain.”

That practically shuts down Morgana’s thoughts. Stop the pain? Morgana has been in pain since the first manifestation of her magic, since her dreams became haunted by prophecy and she began to fear Uther’s retribution. It’s only multiplied in the time since, concentrated itself with each new and terrible experience until Morgana simply lives her life trying to avoid thinking about it. If she lets it all sink in, she’ll lose her sanity. She knows it.

Killing Sarrum’s men had brought her satisfaction in the moment and allowed for her freedom. But nothing short of a miracle could stop Morgana’s pain.

Even so, El still expects an answer. So Morgana clenches her fists at her sides, letting her nails dig into her palms. The pain grounds her.

“No,” she replies with finality, still avoiding El’s stare by looking out at the dark horizon. “It didn’t.”

El’s arms uncross. She lets them hang at her side for a moment, seeming to hesitate before shocking Morgana to her core – she reaches out a hand, eases open Morgana’s fist, and slips her own into it.

El is holding her hand.

Their fingers lace together, El looking studiously forward and not acknowledging the contact while Morgana stares down at their joined hands in disbelief. El’s hands are slightly larger than hers, slightly rougher, but they fit together comfortably nonetheless. Perfectly, even. She should want to pull her hand away, but she doesn’t. Instead she tightens her grip, averting her eyes, and El lets out a slow, relieved breath.

They stand there with their hands joined until the sun rises, warming the side of Morgana’s face and lighting El up like the natural wonder she surely is.

 


 

Crossing fully into Arthur’s lands comes with less fanfare than Morgana anticipated. She had expected to feel some kind of savage satisfaction, a sense of purpose as they cross the point of no return with her army only two days behind. What she gets instead is something much more complicated.

The last time she was here, she had been escaping from her short-lived occupation of Camelot, wounded and stumbling through the woods. And while those memories do resurface – her years of exile here, trying to take Arthur down from within, her failed conquests – more than anything as they ford the river into her former home she feels a strange sort of nostalgia. Passing through familiar trees with El at her side taking in the new surroundings, she’s remembering walking through these woods with Gwen. Rides in the countryside with Uther, when he would take her to what she thought was her father’s grave. Practicing archery with Arthur. Her short and happy time being sheltered by the druids, before Merlin had shown up and dragged her back to Camelot.

She’s looking at the lands her army is about to scorch with fondness, and it’s leeching away the joy she’d been hoping to feel at the threshold of her victory.

It only gets worse the next day, when they come upon a place Morgana knows better than most. Half a day from Camelot, Morgana commands her druids to make camp at a river where a familiar thick, rotting tree acts as a sort of bridge over the water. She’s been here a hundred times, crossed that log more than she can count – and she knows that just through the trees is a clearing with a natural pool. Fed by the river but kept warm by a bubbling hot spring beneath, the waters mesh together in the pool, hot and cold, to trickle out towards Camelot in a warm stream.

She and Arthur used to come here as children to swim and play with supervision. Later she would ride here with Gwen on sunny days, bathing in the warm water and wrestling with the desire to look at her friend with less than innocent intent.

And now here she is, mere days away from killing them both. 

Seized with this terrible melancholy, Morgana wanders towards the clearing while El and the druids set up a forward camp by the river. They’ll be here longer than usual, waiting for the bulk of the army to catch up, and yet she feels the need to go there now. To see it again, even if it only reminds her of all she’s lost.

It’s just as she remembers it. The trees are thicker, the forest untouched, and she wonders if Arthur or Gwen have even been back to this place in the interim years. The water looks clean and fresh, smelling faintly of the minerals from the hot spring, and Morgana is considering slipping off her shoes to dip her toes in when a soft voice calls out from behind her.

“A beautiful place.”

Morgana whirls around to face her voyeur, stepping back from the water with a start when she sees El’s soft expression. Affectionate, even. A far cry from the solemn, stoic El of a few weeks ago, and significantly more dangerous for Morgana’s tenuous grip on her years-long purpose. It makes her feel, in direct opposition to the single-minded drive that’s pushed her since Merlin betrayed her, that perhaps other things are more important.

That feeling seems less unacceptable than ever before.

“It’s a place I knew well, once,” Morgana says, avoiding El’s searching eyes and instead focusing on the movement of the stream. Water over rocks, slipping through every gap. Wearing the surface down over time. “In another life. How did you find me?”

“Aithusa seemed restless. She sent me here.”

Morgana frowns. “Aithusa doesn’t speak.”

“She does not need to.”

El moves towards the water, squatting down and trailing her hand across the surface. When she feels the temperature she pauses, pushing her hand in deeper before shaking the water off with a frown. “It is warm?”

“A hot spring,” Morgana explains. “I used to bathe here. It brought me peace, then.”

El nods, and then she asks a question that gives Morgana pause.

“Do you wish to bathe now?”

Morgana hadn’t considered that possibility. Not that she doesn’t bathe anymore, but she certainly does so in a more utilitarian way now; she used to enjoy baths, having servants fill and re-fill the great stone tub at Camelot with hot water and scented soaps to soak at her leisure for hours. And when she came here with Gwen, it had been a method of relaxation. A trip simply for the pleasure of it. Now she hardly has the time to relax, nor the inclination. And pleasure is a luxury she’s rarely afforded.

But at El’s suggestion, Morgana finds that she does wish to bathe. Perhaps it will settle her mind. Re-focus her on the task at hand.

“Yes,” she says suddenly, uncinching the belt that keeps her overcoat in place over her dress. “I do. Stand watch, I don’t want any other interruptions.”

Dutifully El stands at the edge of the clearing, her back turned and her gaze on the forest – and Morgana sinks into the warm water, naked and vulnerable.

At first, she feels ill at ease. It’s been a long time since he was exposed like this, with someone nearby and the chance of another person stumbling upon her. She had hardly cared when she was young and carefree, but after years of protecting herself precisely by eliminating all weakness this feels particularly disconcerting.

Still, El is standing watch – one hand on her sword and the other at her side as she leans against a tree, looking in the opposite direction – and that fact is what settles Morgana’s guard. El has proven time and time again that she’d do anything to protect her. She’s as safe as she can be, under the circumstances.

So Morgana submerges herself, letting the world fade away under the spring.

She had forgotten how calming it was, letting the water surround her. All noise from the surface is muted, replaced simply by the movement of the water and her own heartbeat. With no current to beset her she floats almost in stillness, slowly letting her breath out in a stream of bubbles as the warm water washes everything away – from her body and her mind. Arthur, Merlin, Camelot, her past and her future, all thoughts are released into the spring until her mind and lungs are empty.

She stays underwater until her lungs burn for want of air, before finally surfacing to take a gasping breath.

The air, while warm, is cooler than the water and it feels bracing as she smooths her hair out of her face. – but as she does it her fingers catch in the tangle of it, years of neglect and indifference leaving it more a mane than anything else. It’s never bothered her, until now. But in her strange mood it feels like a twisted net, a heavy mantle that chokes her with its weight. With a strange sort of focus she pulls it over her shoulder, and with hardly a thought she sets to combing it out.

It’s idle, at first. But the idleness soon turns to ferocity, a sort of fervour she can’t explain. It feels like she’s attacking not only her hair but something deeper and more subterranean, reaching in where no light has shined for a decade and tugging until things unravel themselves. With tireless hands she tears at every gnarled inch, soothes it, and rinses it clean in the water.

For close to an hour she stays there, attacking every errant knot until her hair is smooth and dark and she can comb her fingers through it without catching. They slip through the strands easily, her hair almost as smooth as the water – and it’s the first time since she went into exile, when vanity became the least of her troubles, that she’s been able to do so.

The anxiety that’s sat heavy on her chest for weeks – months, even, if not years – seems lessened, somehow, with the task finished. She feels light, a sense of relief so bone-deep that she can almost feel her body floating with more ease. With it still fresh she sets to scrubbing herself – her arms, her shoulders, her chest. She has no soap or cloth but the warm water feels good, feels clean, and her hands will do just as well.

It’s then that she realizes she’s being watched.

It’s El, of course. It couldn’t be anyone else. The blonde has turned away from the woods and back towards the pool, and her blue eyes are trained on Morgana.

Any ordinary person would avert their gaze. Perhaps blush and pretend their thoughts are elsewhere, or as Morgana has become accustomed to, simply flee the scene to avoid the discomfort of confrontation. But El doesn’t seem to have that instinct. No squeamishness, no conditioning telling her that watching a woman bathe is inappropriate. She simply looks, her interest broadcast in full on her face - and her gaze looks hungry.

Were it anyone on this earth besides El, Morgana would have them flayed alive simply for happening to stumble upon her in such a vulnerable position, let alone for staring. Were they to stay and look like El is doing, they’d be dead before they could enjoy the view. But now, in this place, with El looking at her with what Morgana can clearly recognize is desire?

Every inch of Morgana’s body warms with a pleasant hum that turns quickly into a something deeper, and it has nothing to do with the water.

As improbable as it seems, she wants El to look. She wants El to come closer, to strip away her own clothes and step into the pool and take Morgana into her arms. She can almost feel the ghost of El’s touch as their eyes meet, can imagine the texture of her hands even when she has no experience to compare it to. El would be gentle, Morgana is sure – soft and exploratory, until Morgana prodded and coaxed and goaded her into frenzied passion.

With some encouragement, Morgana has no doubt that El would be a force of nature.

The thought, coupled with El’s eyes still trained on her like a brand of fire, wakes Morgana’s body like never before. That familiar dull throbbing manifests between her legs, and a sort of tingling descends on her as her nipples tighten. And it isn’t the cold, she knows – it’s almost like an invitation to something that Morgana can’t quite grasp. An unconscious request.

And yet, El does nothing.

She’s breathing hard, Morgana can see that much – her shoulders rising and falling in a quick rhythm, her mouth slightly open. Even when Morgana finally gathers her nerves and stands to leave the pool, baring herself entirely to El’s wanting gaze, El does nothing besides curl her hands into tight fists, like she’s resisting some unknown urge. She simply stays rooted to her spot, watching Morgana re-dress silently. Both of them thrumming with desire, but neither knowing how to act. Even Morgana, who has used her wiles and the promise of her body to bend people to her will countless times in her quest for power, is unsure how to carry that out into an action that isn’t akin to torture.

Instead she falls back on what she knows. Once she’s mostly dressed she saunters past El on shaky legs, touching El’s wrist with a damp hand as she brushes past.

“Enjoy the show?” she murmurs. It’s a tease, meant to turn El’s eyes to her own behavior. To push her into action. But Morgana’s bravado shatters when El simply nods, her hooded eyes so dark that Morgana can almost see her reflection in them.

“Yes.”

Words catch in Morgana’s throat, all possible replies failing her in the face of El’s blunt honesty. In her foolish attempt to throw El off she had stepped close, and now they’re almost chest to chest as Morgana’s breath leaves her in a shaky exhale. With El this close, the possibility of her dreams becoming reality actually within her grasp, Morgana is seized with a sudden terror.

This is a terrible idea, and it will end with El getting hurt. One way or another.

Instead Morgana walks away, her heart pounding even harder than it was before, and El’s stare burns against her back all the way to camp.

 


 

The air is heavy that night. El seems restless, starting tasks and then abandoning them halfway through, brushing off conversation in favour of following Morgana with her eyes from across the fire as she checks in on each of her druids, making preparations for battle. Against the heat of the fire Morgana’s hair has dried into its old gentle waves, and while all of her druids look at it with a mixture of interest and disbelief, nobody looks harder than El.

Morgana studiously ignores the way that Aithusa keeps nudging her in the blonde’s direction.

She means to retire early to her tent. But there’s something addictive about the heat of El’s attention, like it’s warm sunlight on a chilly day, and Morgana takes more time than she needs to in her tasks just to remain within El’s eyesight. It means that when two of her most trusted druids disappear together, spiriting away into the woods, Morgana is there to see El watching them go with a curious look on her face.

“Where are they going?” El asks, squinting into the darkness. She’s sure that El can still see them through the trees, but Morgana sees nothing past the orange glow of the camp.

“Off to be intimate, I’m sure,” Morgana says, waving the question off as Aithusa settles in beside El, staring at Morgana with a baleful expression. These two in particular have been close for some time, and Morgana is less than surprised to see them disappearing together now that they’re within the familiar safety of their homelands.

El frowns. “Intimate?”

“They’re a couple, of sorts,” Morgana explains, watching El’s face shift from confusion into something like wonder. “They think I don’t know, but they sneak off together whenever they have a night off duty. Which has not been common, lately.”

“And when they do this, they…”

Morgana laughs a little, tilting her head. “Sometimes I forget how little you know. Even less than me, it seems.”

El seems dissatisfied with that answer, but Morgana has no intention of illuminating the subject for her when the very thought of it in association with the blonde makes her feel as if her body is in the hot spring again. Even if El’s apparent inexperience explains her lack of action, earlier.

Morgana is unsure whether she’s grateful for it or not.

El frowns, but her gaze grows a bit distant as Morgana rises from her seat at the fire. Better she spend the night awake in her own tent than have El ask more questions that only lead to answers Morgana can’t give. But El’s head tilts suddenly, her head whipping back around to stare into the forest as if she’s listening for something.

“What is it?” Morgana asks, suddenly on guard. “Someone approaching?”

“No,” El says distractedly. “It is – they – “

Ah.

More than once Morgana has been privy to exactly what the pair gets up to together, but it’s never been to her benefit to interrupt the arrangement. If turning a blind eye to their coupling keeps them at her side, so be it.

“Try to ignore it,” Morgana suggests, gathering her cloak. The look El gives her as she goes to her tent is searing, searching, and Morgana feels it deep in her hips even after the tent flaps have closed.

Whatever is building between herself and El is a catastrophe waiting to happen.

For one, evidently neither of them knows how to take the step between desire and the deed. Mutual inexperience is a powerful barrier, and her confused feelings for Gwen, back in her naïve days at Camelot, never amounted to anything. After that, there was nobody she could trust. Nobody she wanted. She had a higher goal.

Beside that, all Morgana knows how to do is inflict pain, now. To hurt and hurt until she feels like her vengeance is sated. And El, for all her strength and indestructible skin, is so delicate. She’s a woman built for war with a romantic heart, a heart that finds joy in unexpected places. A heart that cares for things besides herself, and wants to help. She has compassion and curiosity and Morgana is nothing but a shell, hollowed by betrayal and revenge until nothing in her was left.

Even so, El makes her feel like the girl she used to be isn’t as dead as she thought. Tortured into submission, perhaps; but not gone entirely.

It’s not as if it matters, anyways. Maybe they desire each other; maybe there is a connection there, however ill-advised. But with neither of them willing to cross that line, it’s easier simply to concentrate on the tangible. Like two days from now, when her army will descend upon Camelot like a tide of retribution.

At least, that’s what she thinks until she hears the opening of her tent flutter with more than simply the wind.

It’s El. She’s out of her armour and in her simple shirt and pants, standing against the backdrop of dark canvas with slightly windblown hair, and Morgana has a sudden and almost violent flashback to her dreams that leaves her breathless. The low hum of restless energy that’s been present since her bath flickers into something stronger, something that seems to throb, and El makes no move to leave.

“Is everything all right? Do we need to move camp?” Morgana asks, knowing full well that the perimeter is secured.

El doesn’t reply. She stares at Morgana in a way she’s never been looked at before, even earlier today – up and down, taking her in with intention. Savouring. Devouring. There’s desire in her gaze, Morgana can see it – desire, and reverence. Just like in her dreams.

This feels inexorable in a way she can’t explain. Like watching one of her prophetic visions come true, but without the devastation, without the pain – this is a promise of something else. Something shared, and pleasurable.

El takes a step closer.

Were it anyone else, Morgana would take a step back, keep a distance by magic or otherwise. But now she stays rooted to the floor. A breeze rustles the walls of the tent, making El’s hair dance a little.

“I…want,” El says, a rasp in her voice that Morgana has never noticed before. Morgana swallows, and El takes a step closer.

“What do you want?” Morgana asks, barely above a whisper, still not moving as El takes another step.

“I don’t know. It feels strange.”

“What does it feel like?”

“Like fire. Here.” El presses her hands to her belly, moves them up to her chest and back down to linger just above her pelvis. “Everywhere.”

Morgana doesn’t reply to that. She hardly dares to breathe, lest this moment be broken. Instead El fills the silence.

“I want you…like they want each other.”

El doesn’t have to explain who she’s talking about. Morgana knows – it’s the two druids who are probably still fucking in the dark somewhere in the woods. And while Morgana has spent what feels like a lifetime carefully cultivating an image of power and control, of sexual and personal dominance, the truth is that when faced with the reality of physical intimacy she’s as much a novice as her younger self was with magic.

And it’s absolutely terrifying.

“You don’t know what you’re asking for,” Morgana whispers. El is less than an arm’s length away, now, close enough that Morgana can feel the heat radiating from her as if the fire she speaks of is real, is burning her up as much as it is Morgana. El seems undeterred by her avoidance.

“Perhaps not. But I want to learn.”

El wants to learn. El wants to explore this, and maybe she isn’t capable of teaching, but gods Morgana wants to learn as well. El is within a few inches now, looking down at Morgana with eyes so intense that it makes her want to melt into the forest floor. The mighty Morgana Pendragon, heir to the throne, evil incarnate in the kingdom of Camelot, finally brought to her knees by just the promise of a simple kiss.

“You could have anyone,” Morgana manages, her heart hammering so heard in her breast that she can feel it in her throat. “To learn with. You don’t want me. You just…you think I’m her. Your Lena.”

“No,” El says, soft but undeniably swift and decisive. Like she’s considered the idea, in fact, and has come to this conclusion after serious thought.  “I want you. No others.”

Well.

Perhaps if El weren’t standing right in front of her, open and wanting, Morgana might have time to overthink her next move. But El is closer than ever, practically sharing air as she looks down at Morgana with an affection she doesn’t feel worthy of, and the part of Morgana’s mind that has ruled her for a decade is finally, blessedly quiet.

So instead, she surrenders.

“I don’t know how to do this,” Morgana admits in a breath, and the moment El understands what’s happened the blonde’s shoulders loosen like they’ve been relieved of some cosmic weight. “Not…not the way you deserve.”

“But you want it?” El asks, fervent as she raises a hand to Morgana’s cheek. When Morgana doesn’t flinch away, it sinks gratefully into her newly-softened hair and rests there, a pleasant pressure against the back of her neck.

The unequivocal yes Morgana answers with feels like a release.

El’s other hand lands tentatively on her hip and Morgana’s eyes flutter closed, surrendering to El’s touch. They open again when she squeezes experimentally, tugging Morgana closer as if she’s testing her strength.

“You are human,” El whispers against Morgana’s mouth, her voice trembling almost as much as Morgana’s body. “I could hurt you. I need to be…controlled.”

“Then I suppose I’ll need to control you, won’t I?” Morgana says in a voice with none of its usual confidence. It trembles, the hint of a smile dancing on her lips concealing the thundering of her heart. El pulls her harder, her own expression growing hungrier, and presses them together at every possible intersection of their bodies.

That includes, at the last, the meeting of lips.

It’s all-consuming, the kiss that El pulls her into. It fills her up the same way magic does; it dances across her skin where El’s hands sit, sending tingles down her spine and across her hips. But it’s not like the magic she knows now, what she channels so easily into her will – it’s more like when she first knew it, when it was wild and uncontrollable. When it burst out of her like wildfire in fits of emotion, terrifying and unpredictable and thrilling. A discharging of increasingly frantic energy, built up inside her for too long and begging for a release.

In a fit of pure reflex she grabs two fistfuls of El’s shirt, walking backwards and tugging the blonde towards the bed.

The moment El realizes where they’re headed she doesn’t hesitate to scoop Morgana up by the thighs, lifting her as if she weighs nothing. Morgana can feel her own weight bearing down on El’s strong hands, but El simply holds her with no effort at all. It’s exhilarating, and El only lets their lips separate for a moment as Morgana lands on the furs.

“I’ve dreamed of you,” Morgana gasps, as El climbs atop her and presses her into the bedding. “For weeks.” She tugs El down by her shirt again, back down and into another messy kiss, and El’s reply is panted into Morgana’s mouth.

“You are always in my thoughts.”

Morgana bites El’s lower lip, presses up and into her until El gasps, responding with a twitch of her hips. “You think of me like this?”

“I think of you every way.”

That, somehow, is more stirring than anything before it. The knowledge of being seen, being wanted, perhaps even being understood, spurs Morgana into action. She slips her hands under El’s loose shirt, pressing against the hot, firm plane of her stomach and hooking into the waist of her trousers, feeling the hot skin of El’s pelvis resting against the backs of her fingers – and El attempts to mirror her, only to be halted by the damnable layers and tangles of Morgana’s dress.

El mutters something as she tugs at it, that sweet, rolling language of hers used in this context sending fissures of energy through Morgana’s body, and she looks about ready to rip the gauzy fabric in frustration before Morgana calms her. She’s loath to take her hands away from their place on El’s body but sacrificing her only dress to El’s impatience takes precedence – so she grabs at El’s hands and moves them to the hem of her dress, guides El into pulling it up and over her head and leaving her in just a black chemise and bodice.

Morgana hasn’t been this bare so close to another since Gwen.

El’s eyes are drawn immediately downward, and even in the intensity of the moment Morgana almost laughs at how comically wide the blonde’s eyes become when faced with the breadth of her chest without the barrier of the dress. Morgana’s shift dips low, the bodice still lending its support, and the effect is admittedly distracting.

But El isn’t speechless for long. Her head dips, her lips brushing over hot skin without seeming to know where to start. It’s endearing, and Morgana marvels at the strangeness of being the more experienced one with no experience to speak of – but she also, now that this has started, has a maddening ache that she’s certain only El can address, and she has no intention of waiting.

“The bodice, now,” Morgana murmurs, half an order and half a request as she strokes the hair from El’s face, and El nods distractedly. With no warning she sits up, pulling Morgana with her and lifting her until she sits straddled over her lap. El’s face is level with her breasts, now, and she seems unable to look anywhere else – and the part of Morgana that so often wakes in throbbing, pleasurable agony these days is spread open and pressed into the leather of El’s pants, bare and shameless.

When El presses her hard thigh up, Morgana is lost.

She had no idea how intoxicating it would be, being truly desired. She’s spent so long being feared or loathed, or using herself to take advantage of the gullibility of men, that desire has always felt like a means to an end. It keeps men loyal, so long as the prize is kept a vague possibility but not a reality. Anything beyond that has always been out of her reach, an impossibility so ridiculous that it didn’t bear consideration. Nobody has lit a fire in her like this before – nobody has slipped past her defenses so easily, nor given her any reason to trust them with any part of herself. But El is looking up at her with no fear, with no hatred or distrust or selfish intent – just a pure, potent wanting. Desire for all of her, not just a part.

Morgana’s guidance fades into nonexistence as she presses herself into El’s lap, but even without it El removes the bodice, freeing Morgana from it and leaving her in just the black slip she sleeps in. Without the support of the tight constraints Morgana feels exposed, soft and unprotected by the clothes she wears like armour. But El seems utterly fascinated. She takes hold of Morgana’s now-softened waist in big handfuls, pulling her down harder into her lap; but even the position, spread so wide and open to El’s gaze, feels like too much. Morgana untangles El’s hands from her shift and lets herself fall back, hitting the furs and pulling El down again to feel that warm weight on top of her. It feels more familiar like this, even if it’s never truly happened until now. Even if she’s never been this intimate with anyone.

It’s then that, in a startling approximation of Morgana’s visions, El eases Morgana’s legs apart. She easily fits herself in the space between them, and pushes forward – and the world beyond the urgent point where her thigh meets Morgana’s pulsing centre fades entirely.

It’s fumbling, Morgana is sure. Two inexperienced people wanting so desperately to come together as one that they’re simply following their impulses, grinding in tandem and drinking each other in with the kind of greedy desperation that only comes from a history of loneliness. Morgana is past thinking, running on pure adrenaline and a need to see this through to the end, and with shaking hands she pulls the skirt of her shift up and around her hips until again she’s painting the leather of El’s pants with slick wetness – but before she can enjoy it their position has shifted. El takes her firmly by the hips, and in a show of strength she shifts both Morgana and her own shirt up until she’s grinding into the bare skin of El’s hipbone.

The shock, the pure depravity of skin-on-skin in such a primitive way, unhinges something Morgana didn’t know was there. As if she’s been possessed she digs her hands into El’s shoulders to pull her closer, wraps her legs around El’s narrower ones, and chases her white-hot pleasure against El’s hip.

She knows that this isn’t coupling as she knows of it. She’s spent enough time with men to know exactly what they desire from this act, and enough time with women before leaving Camelot to know that the act itself is usually less pleasurable than the courting that precedes it. What El is doing to her, what they’re doing together, goes outside of Morgana’s narrow understanding of sex and desire. But she can’t find it in her to stop, or to open her eyes and actually perceive what’s happening. They’re tangled together on the cot, touching in every conceivable place and writhing in some kind of primal rhythm, and something is building between them that needs to find its conclusion – if it doesn’t, Morgana thinks she might die.

And the death is coming soon, it seems. El is whispering her name, her voice hoarse, panting and trembling as she pushes her hip into Morgana. Guiding her towards something that neither of them understands. It feels like magic in her belly, like the most powerful spell she can imagine is sitting between her legs just waiting to be let loose, and she’s struck by the vulnerability of it with such vicious intensity that she finally opens her eyes, needing to see El as it reaches its crest. El’s eyes are wide and dark, and Morgana clutches at the back of her neck with a sudden fear.

“Stay with me,” Morgana gasps, hardly understanding what she’s saying but wanting, somehow needing El to answer. “Don’t leave –“

And El doesn’t miss a beat. She kisses Morgana again, hard and sure, and whispers her pledge with their shared breath.

“I am yours, Morgana.”

If this act is magic, then El’s words are the spell’s release. Morgana’s body snaps up into an arch as her body finally succumbs to it, somehow both needing more contact and feeling like any more sensation will truly end her life, and El is with her every step. As Morgana’s head falls back against the pillows El dips down to kiss her exposed throat, swirling her tongue and then biting down in a way that only re-ignites the ache that’s still rushing all the way to the tips of Morgana’s fingers. It feels like every part of her has re-arranged itself, and even as she tries to acclimate to it her body is pushing for more.

If this is the prize, Morgana can understand why men are so easy to manipulate when tempted by it.

“Beautiful,” El is murmuring as she trails kisses down Morgana’s chest to the neckline of her shift, almost inaudible with the roaring of blood in Morgana’s ears. “You are beautiful.”

It’s nothing that Morgana doesn’t know. But when El says it, it feels different. Pure, somehow. Unsullied by fear or selfish intentions.

El comes to a stop when she reaches fabric, looking down at the exposed parts of Morgana and the mess she left behind. At her legs, still spread and bare, and the slick spot that Morgana left on her hip. Her eyes move slightly up with devastating focus to the cleft where it came from, and hesitantly, she touches.

It feels intimate in a way that makes Morgana want to bare herself entirely to El’s consuming eyes – and so, still guided by instinct, she does. She spreads herself wide, that deep and throbbing part of her only pulsing harder when El moves down the bed to kneel between her legs and get a better look. 

“I want – still,” El says, her fingers drawing the lightest and most delicate of trails across a part of Morgana that cries out most for firmness. Her eyes are still glued there, rapt, and she licks her lips seemingly without thinking. “I want more. I want you.”

She touches more firmly, her tongue peeking out past her lips again, and Morgana understands on a level beyond her grasp what she wants in this moment.

Firstly, she tugs what remains of her shift off while El immediately follows suit and wrenches her shirt over her head; and then she reaches up to clutch at El’s bare shoulder, and pulls her down. She grasps at El’s wrist, pressing at those strong fingers until one digit finds the only part of her that has ever craved to yield. And with it comes a sensation of fullness that takes her breath, but even more breathtaking is the absolute awe on El’s face as she realizes just how close they can be.

And then El utters four words that undo Morgana at the seams.

“I want to taste.”

Morgana has no doubt that those words and what they describe, overheard from the druids likely still in the woods outside of camp, are what finally drove El into her tent. And she also knows that no matter where El heard it from, now that it’s been suggested Morgana wants it more than she’s ever wanted anything in her life. More than freedom, more than power, more than vengeance – she just wants El’s mouth, in whatever application she sees fit.

The application that El sees fit turns out to be a great deal of time spent letting Morgana acclimate to the sensation of something inside her while acquainting her lips with every inch of Morgana’s body besides the one spot she wants them, until Morgana is so on edge that she’s sure her magic is going to burst forth and light something on fire just from pure bottled frustration. It’s been mere minutes since her clothes were abandoned but already Morgana feels comfortable in her nakedness, the reverence with which El treats her as she descends to settle between her thighs making her feel worshipped in a way that her usual tactics of fear and control have never quite achieved.

“Do you intend to kill me with anticipation?” Morgana says breathlessly as El wraps a free arm around her thigh, keeping her hips still in an iron grip. Morgana responds by threading her fingers into El’s hair and tugging harshly, but it only seems to spur El more. “Queens are not accustomed to waiting.”

El is still wearing her leather pants, stained now with Morgana’s arousal, and all Morgana can do to try to hurry her is pull harder and dig her short nails into El’s bare back. But El is steadfast, grinning up at her with a brand-new confidence and flicking her tongue out to lick at a wet spot on Morgana’s inner thigh.

“Perhaps I am teaching you patience.”

It makes Morgana squirm with an unfulfilled need, that tone being whispered so close to her heated skin. Rather than triggering her temper it seems to trigger something baser, and Morgana’s hips ache with the desire to spread wider, expose herself further, to split herself open for El’s consumption and lose control entirely.

And then, as if El is truly as impatient as Morgana is, she’s not waiting anymore. El’s tongue lacks all hesitancy, taking to a task Morgana hadn’t even considered a possibility until now; El is inside her with two fingers rather than one, stretching her in the most thrilling way; and Morgana would gladly give her entire kingdom to stay in this moment forever.

Her second peak is even stronger than the first, coming as it does with El’s fingers buried as deep as they can be as she watches it happen from between Morgana’s legs. She stays firmly in place while Morgana chases her self-pleasure with El’s body, until all tension finally leaves her and her muscles relax, entirely spent.

Morgana is sure she’s woken half the forest with her cries, and left no doubt to anyone within a league what they’re up to inside the walls of this tent. But with El trailing wet, messy kisses up her belly, the whole world could hear and she would hardly care.

“If your aim was to destroy me, you’ve succeeded,” Morgana pants when El finally reaches her lips again, her voice suitably trembling as she tastes herself on El’s tongue. “I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to walk again.”

With Morgana’s dress long gone and El’s shirt somewhere on the grassy floor, there’s no barrier between their chests, and having El’s breasts pressed into her own is yet another marvel on an already unbelievable moment. Every point of skin contact soothes the ragged edges of Morgana’s psyche, leaving her feeling uncharacteristically calm.

El smiles into the kiss, removing her fingers gently as the sensation returns to Morgana’s legs inch by tingling inch. “I seek only your happiness. All else is nothing.”

It’s said with such casual truth, mid-kiss and post-life changing revelation, that while El’s tongue is still exploring new avenues in her mouth it takes her longer than usual to realize the implications. Her half-catatonic mind raises a flag eventually, though, and she pulls back to comment.

“You have goals of your own, surely.”

El shrugs, chasing Morgana’s lips again and kissing her hot and tongue-heavy, clearly avoiding the subject. Morgana loses herself in it, helpless under the messy yet determined efforts that manage to re-ignite a fire that never really went out, but when she pulls away to breathe she presses the subject.

“El –“

“May I taste you again?”

El looks so eager, already spreading Morgana’s legs, and it’s then that Morgana realizes the blonde is still wearing pants.

Morgana hasn’t so much as touched El; and while she may be selfish in all other aspects of her life, she refuses to be a selfish lover. As much as she aches for El’s fingers inside her again, she takes hold of her arm before it can descend.

“I think perhaps it’s my turn.”

El blinks, looking down at where Morgana’s hand encircles her wrist with a sort of quiet bafflement. As if she somehow hadn’t guessed that Morgana might want to reciprocate. Morgana guides El’s hand back up to rest on the pillow above her head, slipping her own down instead to dip under El’s trousers and press against slick heat. El grunts, clearly unprepared for the intensity of it all at once, and her hips press down hard, hard enough to trap Morgana’s wrist between their bodies with a painful twinge –

At Morgana’s tiny, almost imperceptible noise of discomfort, El pulls back so far that she floats in the air above the bed.

No - come back,” Morgana insists, hooking two fingers into El’s waistband and tugging her back down until her knees and elbows touch the bed again. “Don’t you dare leave. I’m fine.”

“You are hurt,” El says, not budging even with Morgana’s reassurance. She might as well be made of steel and not flesh, and Morgana switches tactics – she slides her hands around to dig her nails into El’s lower back, breathing her next words hotly into El’s ear.

“It takes more than that to hurt a High Priestess. Let me show you.”

Whether it’s her voice or her hands that do the trick El relents, letting Morgana flip their positions so she’s on her back and Morgana is the one above and helping in the removal of her pants – but once Morgana begins in earnest, settling between her legs and exploring with intent, El seems to hold herself back. She reacts to every stroke, nods enthusiastically every time Morgana asks for assent, but in her clear discomfort Morgana is reminded starkly of the way El conducted herself in those first few weeks that they knew each other. Tense and awkward, every muscle held in tight control as if each movement needs to be accounted for to avert some kind of disaster.

El clearly can’t relax, and Morgana pauses in her ministrations to address it.

“El. Look at me,” Morgana says, but El keeps her eyes stubbornly closed, her hands fisted in the fur blankets like two anchors. Morgana grasps El’s chin hard with her free hand and repeats herself, with a hint of command this time. “Look at me.”

El’s eyes open immediately at the harsher tone, finding Morgana’s as she allows Morgana to direct her chin into a soft kiss. She relaxes incrementally with the kissing, her lips pliant where her body is taut, and Morgana whispers her affirmation into El’s mouth.

“I know you won’t hurt me.”

El whimpers a few words that Morgana doesn’t understand, her head falling back against the pillows, and Morgana submits to the temptation to lean in and bite down on the tendon there. El gasps, her hips twitching up and then freezing as soon as she realizes she’s done so – and Morgana understands.

El is afraid of her own reflexes. El is hyper-vigilant because she fears the involuntary movements her body makes, her strength making them dangerous, and Morgana can’t help but feel a warm sense of smug pride at reducing such a powerful woman to her basest instincts – but El can’t experience pleasure under these conditions, and that just won’t do.

After all this time together Morgana still isn’t sure whether El is vulnerable to magic. But Morgana wants to see her fall apart, wants to deconstruct that controlled exterior until El is as open and vulnerable as she just was. It’s certainly worth trying, at least.

“I have a thought,” Morgana says, losing the thread of her thoughts for a moment as El deepens their kisses. “Put your arms up.”

El obeys without question. She positions her arms above her head on the pillows, her hands gripping each other tightly enough to crush stone, and Morgana trails her wet fingers over El’s twitching stomach. The words she whispers in El’s ear are in the Old Language and the blonde’s head turns at the unfamiliar sound of it, her eyes widening when she sees Morgana’s aglow in gold.

“I wonder if there’s anything on earth that can hold you down?” Morgana murmurs as the magic activates, just as vines emerge from the ground to wrap around El’s wrists, ankles, and waist. Slowly but surely they pin her until she truly can’t move, the legs of the cot reinforcing themselves with magical wood, and ironically it’s only when El is ostensibly in chains that she finally relaxes. Like her body’s movement being taken out of her hands has somehow granted her freedom.

There’s something intoxicating about that shift in power, and it’s with a delicious sort of gratification that she finally takes her turn.

“You did that very quickly,” El says, slightly breathless and following Morgana’s newest descent down her body with rapt attention. “I thought you had not done this before?”

“Not in this context, perhaps.” Morgana bites down on El’s thigh, grinning when El’s body twitches but doesn’t break through the vines. “Usually the subject is less willing.”

There’s a feral element to the way that El smiles at that. Her muscles work, perhaps pushing into the restraints to see if they’ll yield, and when they don’t every ounce of tension leaves El’s body at once.

“Show me,” El whispers, and Morgana is all too happy to comply.

It’s almost more thrilling, coaxing El through the same pleasure she was just given. Watching her sweat and strain against the vines, succumbing to the sensations that Morgana is now familiar with as she seeks out and ultimately finds the spot between El’s legs that makes her truly shout to the ceiling. Now that El has no fear of snapping Morgana’s wrist she seems liable to tip over the edge at any minute, quietly asking for harder until Morgana is biting her throat with an almost savage harshness.

“Please,” El begs, her eyes screwed shut as Morgana’s teeth sink in but leave no mark. “I want to feel.”

It’s almost a relief, knowing that nothing she does can truly hurt El. That even if something of the darkness she’s harboured for most of her life lashes out in their passion, El wouldn’t mind it. Would welcome it. The harder she bites down, the more El strains into the bonds trying to arch into her, and Morgana can hear the vines creaking with the pressure – but they hold, and only a few moments later Morgana gets to witness El finally letting go.

And in a fit of inspiration, Morgana moves down at the last moment to replace her hand with her mouth and capture El’s peak on her tongue.

Morgana’s first had been quick – a white-hot flash that left her craving more, followed by a second that finally left her closer to satisfied. El’s first in comparison seems to last twice as long, prolonged or doubled every time she looks down to see Morgana at work, and it only seems to end when Morgana can’t uphold the magic anymore. The vines recede and El slides a hand around to grip lightly at the back of Morgana’s neck, guiding her back up and into a kiss that feels endless.

“Morgana,” El whispers, hardly letting their lips separate to talk. She’s not sure how El is even understandable with Morgana’s tongue in her mouth, but somehow her words are clear. “I…did not think that was possible. For me.”

“I think you could have kept going. Perhaps next time I need to be…firmer,” Morgana replies, smiling wickedly when El’s grip tightens on her hips at the promise in those words. El seems to pour her gratitude into their kisses, ravaging Morgana so effectively that all concept of time passing fades away until finally they lay together in the deep quiet of midnight, mouths separate but still sharing breath. Even as Morgana’s eyes begin to droop with sleep El is awake and watchful, and she drifts off with the same feeling of safety she’s had since the blonde started taking up residence outside her tent. One that’s been in short supply her entire life.

She awakens to the chirping of birds, the warm glow of sunlight diffused through the roof of the tent, and El’s head tucked under her arm, the blonde’s face pressed into her ribcage as she snores quietly.

Usually Morgana wakes before the sun, if she even manages to sleep. Her nights are restless and she’s always relieved when they’re over, and she can start on the day rather than living in fear of what might happen when she slumbers. But judging by the light it’s at least midmorning, and she slept soundly the whole time.

For a moment, just in those few heartbeats between sleeping and waking, Morgana lets herself imagine a different life. One without pain, without the constant strife of the rulership she’s so close to seizing. Where she can wake every morning in El’s arms, and fall asleep naked and unafraid of what the night will bring. No war, no fear of retribution from Arthur and his followers. She and El could spend their days together in idle comfort, taking pleasure in life and in each other rather than stealing moments that aren’t taken up by Morgana’s thirst for power.

It’s an impossible future. But in those moments, Morgana wants it more than anything.

The snoring stops, and Morgana peers back down under her arm to see El fully awake and looking up at her with bright eyes. Morgana raises a brow, not speaking until El has extricated herself from her position and propped herself up on an elbow, looking down at Morgana expectantly.

“Good morning," Morgana says, clearing her throat when it comes out hoarse with sleep. El simply stares at her, something warm and searching in her gaze. Seeming to find what she’s looking for she smiles, her eyes scrunching up like the grin is too big for the constraints of her face, and Morgana shifts slightly under the intensity of it.

“What?” Morgana asks, and El’s brow furrows a little as she grasps for the right words.

“I feel…real.”

Morgana frowns, smoothing a thumb over the crinkle between El’s brows and then moving down to catch on her lower lip. “You are real.”

“I did not feel so, before. I was… an object. Created. And used. And discarded. Now, I feel…” El pauses, catching Morgana’s wrist and kissing the inside of her palm before pressing the hand to her chest, directly over her heart. “I feel that I exist. For myself.”

Unexpected tears prick at Morgana’s eyes, hot and insistent. It’s such a simple admission, said without pretense or self-consciousness, and yet it hits Morgana somewhere deep in her heart and stays there like a splinter. Rather than draw attention to it she leans down, kissing El firmly.

“On my life, you will never again feel like anything less than you are.”

“And what am I?” El asks, toying with Morgana’s newly soft hair with a fond expression. It’s an idle question, El seeming unconcerned with the answer, but Morgana feels the splinter wriggle deeper at the idea of El not knowing just how important she is. How precious. How needed.

“My miracle,” Morgana finally answers, barely above a whisper. El’s hand stops, the strands of hair slipping out of her fingers as the truth hangs heavy between them. It’s not an admission of love, or a promise of commitment – but it’s as close as Morgana can get, and El seems more than happy for what little she gives. They kiss, deep and languid, El stretching her long body out alongside Morgana’s in the bed.

“We march on Camelot tomorrow,” Morgana sighs when El gives her a moment to breathe. El nods, moving instead to nip at Morgana’s ear.

“I will keep you safe.”

“I know,” Morgana says, easing a hand into the tangle of El’s hair just for the pleasure of the contact. “I trust you.”

Perhaps El doesn’t realize just how deep a statement that is, but Morgana feels it in her bones. She can feel El smile against her skin, her lips trailing down to tickle Morgana’s neck, and as if she wasn’t sated last night her whole body starts to awaken. El is like some sort of conductor, making Morgana sing with just a flick of the hands and a well-placed kiss. Or, many well placed kisses, to be more precise – across her throat, her collar, her chest.

“We need to move camp soon,” Morgana murmurs, scratching at El’s scalp. El sighs, nodding and pulling away – but Morgana catches her around the back of the neck and pulls her down again, a move that’s becoming increasingly familiar.

“Then again, there are some spells I haven’t yet tried,” Morgana says, spreading her thighs to accommodate El again and gasping at the immediate application of pressure by the grinning blonde’s hips. “It’s important to exhaust all magical avenues.”

They don’t get moving until far in the afternoon, and Morgana doesn’t care a whit.

 


 

The day of Morgana’s great victory dawns with a red sky.

The Saxons are restless that morning, almost within sight of the castle and being made to lay in wait. The druids seem impatient as well, and Morgana knows that she should be too. The longer they stay here, the more time Arthur has to build up his defenses. She should be anxious to push on and unleash her army on Camelot, and finally take her place as Queen. But instead she wakes for the second day with El in her bed, this time with their limbs tangled and El’s breath against the back of her neck, and beginning the assault doesn’t seem so terribly important.

Even so, it’s still early when the battle-horns ring out and Morgana’s legions crest the hill that overlooks Camelot’s valley. The drawbridge is shut, the walls thick with archers, and it’s clear what Arthur intends – to hole up inside his castle until Morgana’s men disperse for lack of supplies. A long siege. He’s confident in their stores and their thick walls, she’s sure. She’s sure he’ll feel confident right up until El’s fiery vision scorches its way through the chains that hold the bridge in place, heating them until they soften and melt and the wood comes crashing down to let Morgana’s soldiers through.

That’s the plan, anyhow.

“Kill only soldiers,” Morgana shouts, as the Saxons form lines on the hill. “Spare the rest. And if you find Arthur or Merlin, leave them to me.”

Before Morgana can give the order to charge, though, El has leaned over to speak in her ear.

I will find Arthur,” El says, her armour shining in the dawn sun, rising a foot or so from the ground and holding an arm out to Morgana. An offer to fly with her. “I will bring you to him. Before the battle begins.”

She should stay with her army. But even stronger is her desire to confront her half-brother, and this time Morgana doesn’t hesitate to climb into El’s grip.

True to her word, El flies easily over the walls and carves through every guard in the familiar white halls of Camelot with ease. She seems uninterested in killing, incapacitating most with perfectly-targeted blows and leaving their bodies where they lie, and it helps that the assault is completely unexpected. Arthur has positioned most of his men on the walls in preparation for a siege, and the patrols inside are minimal.

It means that when El throws open the doors to the Great Hall so that Morgana can saunter in and interrupt Arthur’s war council, the shock on his face is absolutely delectable.

Morgana?” Arthur says, standing from his seat and drawing his sword as Merlin and Gaius flank him. “How did you – guards! Guards!”

“Your guards are indisposed, I’m afraid,” Morgana drawls, while El slams the doors closed behind them and shoves her sword through the handles to lock it from within. Gwen is conspicuously absent from the group, and Morgana can’t help but feel relieved about it. She was always the most difficult to hurt. “It’s just us here, Arthur. Just family.”

“You don’t want to do this, Morgana,” Merlin speaks up, every inch the pleading innocent at Arthur’s side. Trying to pull strings that were cut long ago. “This castle is full of soldiers.”

“It was full of soldiers. Now, it’s full of unconscious men.”

“Impossible,” Gaius blusters, rising unsteadily to his feet. “You alone cannot have –“

“Oh, but I’m not alone,” Morgana says, as El moves to stand behind her in a protective stance. With her royal purple cape rippling behind her she makes an imposing shadow, glaring at Morgana’s former friends with eyes that can truly kill. “Not anymore.”

“Whoever she is, you’re still outnumbered. Stand down, and we’ll show you both mercy.” Arthur practically drips condescension, so sure in his own invincibility, and it flares Morgana’s temper more than anything before it – in a fit of anger she raises a hand, words of harmful magic on her tongue, only for Merlin to do the same. His eyes flash with gold as he recites the Old Language, and Arthur’s eyes widen as he finally sees the liar for what he is.

Their spells meet mid-way, colliding with a wave of force that throws everyone off their feet.

“What the hell was that?” Arthur asks, using the overturned table to pull himself back to standing. El has Morgana back up in an instant, quickly and silently checking for injuries and then standing half-in front of her like a shield.

“I – I don’t know,” Merlin stammers, checking on Gaius slumped on the floor – the old man is unconscious, but still breathing. More’s the pity. “It must have been Morgana. Some kind of dark magic.”

It’s a flimsy excuse, but no flimsier than the excuses she’s sure Arthur has swallowed over the many years of Merlin saving his skin. It’s funny, really – and so Morgana laughs, moving around El to advance on Merlin herself. Laughs and laughs and laughs, until Merlin looks deeply unsettled by her confidence.

“Finally your secret is revealed,” Morgana finally says, low and slightly deranged. “I know Arthur lacks even the most standard intelligence, but do you really expect him to believe that when he saw it with his own eyes? I expected better, Merlin.”

“Morgana –“ Merlin pleads, looking desperately between Merlin and Arthur as if he expects her to grant him some sort of clemency. Arthur looks like a deep truth is coming to him slowly, and he picks his sword up from the ground but doesn’t sheathe it. In fact he slowly, haltingly points it at Merlin, the distrust that Morgana has sowed taking root.

“What is she talking about, Merlin?”

“He has magic,” Morgana spits, revealing the grand secret at last. Merlin’s lies are unravelling in front of his eyes, and she wants – needs – to be here to watch it. “He’s a sorcerer. He always has been. And he watched me struggling…watched me alone, and afraid…and did nothing. He’s known from the beginning what was happening to me, and he let me suffer. Made me suffer.”

Her heart is pounding, seeming to her to fill the silence in the room like a drumbeat. A pounding rhythm to punctuate Arthur taking a step closer to Merlin with a furious anger, that small part of Uther that never left him rising to the surface at his friend’s betrayal.

“Is this true?” Arthur demands, his voice rising, and Merlin raises his hands in surrender.

“Arthur, I’m sorry –“

El doesn’t give Merlin a chance to try to explain himself. She steps close to Morgana, shoulders set in a hard line as she slips a hand into hers.

 “He hurt you?” El asks. Morgana lets out a laugh, half-deranged.

“He let me think I was the only one. That I was going mad. That I was a monster for having magic,” Morgana says, the words spilling from her unbidden like a geyser. It’s a strange mix of relief at finally getting it out in the open and rage at Merlin’s lack of caring, the other mage still only concerned with Arthur. Just like always. Her suffering means nothing to him. “He and Gaius, feeding me sleeping potions that never worked and telling me that my dreams were a figment of my imagination. And then he poisoned me. Betrayed me when I was confused and needed help. He would have let me die, if it weren’t for my sister saving my life. All while hiding from his precious Arthur that he had magic, as well.”

When Morgana’s explanation comes to an end, El’s face is murderous. She strides towards Merlin as quickly as Morgana can blink, grabbing him by the front of his shirt and slamming him up and into the wall so hard that she can hear all the air leave his lungs in a wheeze. Arthur, clearly still operating on instinct, tries to intervene – he brings his sword down hard into El’s shoulder, and Morgana’s heart stops momentarily –

He might as well have tried to attack a mountain. The sword bounces off El’s shoulder with no damage, the force of it reverberating into Arthur’s hands as he reels in confusion. He hesitates, before raising the sword again in a futile effort that El hardly notices. She simply throws an arm into Arthur’s chest so hard that he flies across the room and hits the wall, sliding to the floor unconscious with a fist-shaped dent in his breastplate.

Instead El turns back to her, Merlin held aloft and struggling to breathe through what she suspects are seriously cracked ribs. He can’t seem to speak his magic, and it seems that they have a unique and brief opportunity for revenge. El’s eyes start to glow, and she presses Merlin harder into the wall as she addresses Morgana.

“Tell me what to do, and I will do it.”

El, with no question whatsoever, is offering to kill for her.

With a strange sense of clarity, Morgana sees the scene in its entirety. Arthur is unconscious, a rivulet of blood leaking slowly down his temple where it hit the wall. His guards are gone, his castle open to her, and all it would take is a single command to make Camelot hers. Just a word to El, and Arthur and Merlin would be dead. Her great revenge finally enacted.

And yet, the thought brings her no joy.

El is resplendent with rage, her eyes bright with purple energy and ready to snuff Merlin’s pathetic, hypocritical life – and then like a sheet has been applied over Morgana’s eyes she instead sees El from a few days ago, picking a flower and holding it to her nose. Inhaling and exhaling, like the simple fact of a flower smelling good is a wonder. Learning how to weave from an enthusiastic commoner. Leaving a bouquet on Morgana’s bed, in a beginner’s attempt at wooing. Letting a bumblebee crawl onto her hand with a look of such pure, gentle joy that it made Morgana feel like a new person.

She sees El above her, inside her, looking at Morgana like she’s the only precious thing in the universe. El kissing Morgana’s palm and sharing for the first time her new sense of self. El makes Morgana feel, for the first time in a decade, like the version of herself that she thought had died the day she was poisoned by a man she called her friend. A man whose pathetic existence isn’t worth sullying El’s hands with his blood.

She’s not sure what she’s fighting for, anymore.

“Wait.”

El freezes, her eyes dying down to their regular blue as Merlin continues to struggle. His face is turning steadily purple, and she loosens her grip enough to let him take a gasping breath before pushing into his chest again.

“Morgana?” El’s voice is as steady as ever, if confused. “What would you have me do?”

“I…I don’t know,” Morgana says, turning on her heel to stare at the door with a racing heart. “I don’t – just give me a moment.”

She has no reason to hesitate. No reason, except that the idea of El’s soul being stained with a revenge that isn’t her own makes Morgana’s stomach turn.

She hears a crack, and she turns just in time to see Merlin’s slumped form hitting the ground as El drops him unconscious and hurries to her side. She takes Morgana’s hands, gathering them in her own and holding them up to her chest.

“Is this not what you wanted?” El asks, with a sweet uncertainty that makes Morgana want to kiss her. To just fly from this place and go back to her tent and pretend the world doesn’t exist. To live the life she envisioned yesterday morning, a life of quiet contentment. But she can’t. This is the path of her choosing, and she can’t stop it now.

“It was,” Morgana snaps, shaking her head. She’s tired, so terribly tired, every hateful moment of the last 10 years catching up with her all at once. “It is. It simply…doesn’t feel like I thought it might.”

“What does it feel like?”

“It feels…futile,” Morgana admits, her voice suddenly hoarse with tears that she can’t seem to stem. “A cycle that will never end. I’ve been at it for years, and now that it’s finally happening I just want…I want something I cannot have.”

El frowns, moving closer to swipe at the tears with her thumb. “What? I will give it to you. I would give you anything.”

Morgana scoffs, letting go of El’s hands to wipe at the tears herself. She dries them angrily, and El’s hands settle on her waist instead in a gesture that’s more comforting than it has any right to be.

“Even you cannot give me freedom,” Morgana says, resignation seeping into her voice. “If I become Queen, Arthur’s supporters will fight me at every turn. It happened the last time I took this castle. His death will make him a martyr, and I will be the focus of their rage. If we leave now, they will hunt me for fear I’ll try again. I’ll never be free. I’ve made my own prison.”

El seems not to understand the gravity of the situation. She shrugs, gesturing towards the door. “So, we will go.”

“Go where? I told you –“

“You summoned me here. Yes?” El says, insistent now as the idea takes shape. “There are other places. So, we go elsewhere. A new place.”

“You mean, go through a portal?” Morgana asks. The idea seems ludicrous, to simply leave her home for a great unknown, but the more she thinks about doing it with El the more sense it seems to make. To simply leave – walk away from her mistakes, and perhaps get a taste of what she’s been craving since she and El gave in to each other. A happiness she thought she could never reach. “To a different world?”

El nods. “A new start. Together. Freedom. As you wanted.”

“I…don’t know if I can,” Morgana says, still contemplating how exactly she could possibly make this work. The power it would require alone, not to mention needing to craft a spell from scratch -

“Do you have the rune, still?” El asks.

Morgana feels for the hidden pocket under her bodice, feeling the smooth stone under fabric. She’d forgotten about the rune, in all honesty – it’s been some time since she felt that it was necessary. Sending El back to where she came from is the last thing she wants, now. But going with her? Finding somewhere new where she’s free to be herself, starting a new life with El at her side?

The idea fills her a sense of purpose even stronger than the one that drove her here. For all she cares now, Arthur can rot in the broken kingdom their father left him – and Merlin can rot alongside him, his great secret finally revealed. His hypocrisy in the open for everyone to see. She’s gotten her revenge. Perhaps now, she can have more.

El has made her realize what she should have always known, but her affection for her sister made her blind to. That the throne was never truly what she wanted. She never wanted to be brave – she just wanted to be herself.

“Why did you not bring this up before?” Morgana asks, still reeling from the possibility that’s apparently been in front of her since the day she brought El here. “I’ve had the rune all this time –“

“I did not think it was what you wanted.”

El has a point. This wasn’t what Morgana wanted – at least, it’s not what she thought she wanted. She’d been bent on the actualization of a years-long goal, when she summoned El. She had no idea the effect the blonde would have on her life. On her sense of self. It wasn’t until she achieved her goal and found it hollow and wanting that she might have even thought about wanting more.

“But it’s what you want?” Morgana asks. El shrugs again, seeming perfectly calm in the face of Morgana’s crisis.

“I want you. I do not care where.”

Not a moment of hesitation. Just loyalty, and surety. Perhaps even love, as much as the idea both thrills and terrifies Morgana. Something she both has no experience with, and desperately craves. El is simply steadfast, saying her piece and waiting for Morgana to come to the same conclusion.

If El thinks that it’s this simple…perhaps it is.

“Can you bring us back to the grove?” Morgana asks suddenly, pulling the rune from its pocket and running a thumb over it. She can’t use the same spell that summoned El, for fear of summoning something else – but perhaps she could create a variation. It wouldn’t be the first time she’s experimented with magic, but it will be the most powerful spell she’s ever attempted. “If this is going to work anywhere, that is the most likely.”

“What about your Saxons?”

“They will still attack if we leave,” Morgana says, shrugging. “They’ll try to breach the gate, and kill Arthur themselves. He can try to defend his castle, but they outnumber his forces ten to one. I care not for his fate. The druids may come with us, if they so wish.”

The druids refuse, when El flies her out of the castle to meet them in the woods. They’re too entrenched here, too connected to their homelands to consider leaving. But they bid Morgana and El farewell with a real affection that Morgana didn’t expect, and the eldest of them gives Morgana a talisman that he claims might boost the rune’s potency.

And so in the end it’s only the two of them who leave with Aithusa in tow, flying over the castle and seeing as Morgana predicted the Saxon forces leading a charge, impatient already at Morgana’s absence. Without El destroying the drawbridge it will take them longer, but she doesn’t doubt that they’ll succeed at breaching the walls in time.

They can have Camelot. Let Arthur lose on his own merit, and live his life knowing he has failed as a king and a man.

El flies a distance that would take nearly two months in only a few hours with Morgana’s face tucked protectively into the crook of her neck and the little dragon flying alongside them, seeming more energized than Morgana has ever seen her. She does flips in the air, letting loose her magic breath on the trees below and flying circles around El and Morgana. Just as excited to leave this realm as they are, it seems.

Even so, apprehension hangs heavy in Morgana when they land. The tree still stands, as vast and immovable as ever, and the runestone seems to hum with proximity to it as El sets her down softly – but the pressure is on her to perform the spell. This plan could very well fail, and it would be her fault.

While Morgana gathers each of the elements and sets them in a square on the grass, El runs an almost affectionate hand over the gnarled bark of the tree. And Morgana feels the affection too, in a way – the grove feels familiar even though they only spent a single night here, and when Morgana finishes her preparation she joins El at the tree to touch the bark herself.

“It feels almost like an old friend,” Morgana sighs, leaning into El. “Is that strange?”

El shakes her head. “No. It is a friend. It brought me to you.”

El’s earnest smile brings forth a depth of feeling in Morgana’s ribcage that she would have repressed, until now. But in this moment, on the dangerous and terrifying threshold of a possible new life, she lets it run rampant instead. She grasps El firmly by the chin, directing her face down and into a kiss.

She pulls back with a hiss when the runestone, still in her free hand, heats up so rapidly that it almost sears her palm. El grabs at it, taking the hot stone and examining Morgana’s reddened hand. “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” Morgana says, peering down at the stone. It’s cooled slightly now, but the lines in it are glowing faintly with magic. She doesn’t remember that happening, last time.

“We should start.”

Just like her last ritual here, Morgana uses the natural magic of the grove to channel the spell. El stands nearby, ready to fly them both through the portal during the short window that Morgana can keep it open. By all accounts, it should work. But even with the talisman from the druids, even with Aithusa lending her magic breath, she can’t seem to hold the spell for long. Each attempt exhausts her further, until all that keeps her on her feet is El holding her up.

“It is all right, my love,” El says, kissing Morgana’s hair after her fourth try has failed and completely unaware of the effect of her words. “Rest. I do not want you hurt.”

My love.

El has never called her that, before. Nobody has ever called her that, nor has she ever wanted anyone to. But El saying it causes what feels like a small explosion of magic in her belly. They haven’t exchanged real words of love, besides affirmations whispered in the heat of the moment during their nights together. It feels good. It feels right. And for a moment, for just a brief few seconds, a portal flickers to life beside the tree.

It disappears as quickly as it came. But it was there, and while Aithusa prances excitedly to where it appeared Morgana clutches the runestone in one hand and El’s shoulder in the other. After four failed attempts, the thing to finally make the portal work is something as simple as an emotion. It seems ludicrous. And, yet.

“Kiss me,” Morgana says, a demand more than a question; and El doesn’t hesitate for a second. She takes Morgana’s face in both hands, and when their lips meet the rune vibrates with so much energy that it falls from Morgana’s hand and lands in the grass. The magic flows through her easily, flows through both of them somehow, and even with the rune lying in the grass the spell finally, finally works. A vibrant portal appears, and Morgana hardly even has to concentrate to keep it alive.

Aithusa jumps a few times, her wings flapping and ruffling the grass as she bounces around the portal as if to say come on. It’s time. The doorway to a new life is only a few steps away. El, her grin growing as she realizes the portal isn’t disappearing, holds out a hand for Morgana to grasp.

“You are with me?” El asks, one final moment of choice before making a decision that will alter both of their lives forever.

Luckily, Morgana truly made the choice days ago. She takes El’s hand, echoing the sentiment that’s tied them together from the very start. From the moment they met in this very spot, and Morgana’s whole life shifted on its axis.

“I am yours.”

And with her fingers laced tightly in El’s, Morgana moves forward.