Title: The Secession of Cornwall (soon-to-be officialised)
Warnings/Spoilers: None that I can think of.
Summary: "I'm really not sure this is a good idea."
Word count: 3,850
Notes: for the Seven Deadly Sins challenge -- and the sin is pride.
"Um, Morgana?" Gwen said. "I'm really not sure this is a good idea."
"Yes, you said that when we set off, too. You don't have to come with, you know -- you can go back, if you want." Morgana herself urged her horse on to a slightly faster pace. Gwen sighed and followed suit.
"I'm not leaving you. It's not me I'm worried for."
"Well I hope it's not me, because I can look after myself," Morgana said.
"Um. Yes," Gwen said, in disagreement.
"Perhaps you're worried for the local flora and fauna and peasantry. Or for my horse -- you're not worried for my horse, are you Gwen?"
"No," Gwen admitted.
"Because I always take good care of my horses."
"Mm. Except when you get caught up in racing with Arthur."
"Except when--" Morgana slowed, and turned to cast a pointed look at Gwen. It was the kind of look against which no mortal creature had any defence, including Uther himself, in all but his most passionately enraged of moods. No mortal creature -- except Gwen, who had seen the very same look used when Morgana didn't want to get out of bed in the morning, or when she didn't quite fancy whatever had been sent up for breakfast.
"Not that you'll be able to race against Arthur any longer," Gwen said.
"He can visit," said Morgana decisively.
"I'm not sure how happy King Uther would be to allow that. Given, um. Everything."
"Well, and if Arthur's so spiritless he'll let himself be ruled by that tyrant, I won't be sobbing into my pillow for the lack of him. I'm sure there are other good horsemen and women in Cornwall."
"I suppose so," Gwen said. A new doubt occurred to her. "Um. How long is it since you were last at Tintagel?"
"Oh, maybe -- maybe fifteen years, I think. Not really so very long. I'm sure Sir Brastius has looked after my lands well," Morgana said. She looked unsettled. She added, quickly: "Gwen -- do you think there's something odd about those birds?"
Gwen took in the nearby examples of winged life. "No, I don't, not really."
"They seem odd," Morgana said. She seemed really, honestly sincere, so Gwen looked again to where Morgana was looking -- where a group of small birds, probably sparrows, were flocking to a large, solitary oak, a little distance away. They seemed -- to Gwen -- rather like ordinary birds. A fairly exact fit for the description, in fact.
"I suppose there are quite a lot of them," she tried.
"The way they're tweeting seems odd," said Morgana.
"Um," said Gwen.
"And I'm sure we passed the same flock a couple of miles earlier, outside that meadow where we stopped for lunch."
"I don't think we can have done. How would you know?" said Gwen. "And even if they are the same, they're only birds."
"I expect so." Morgana sounded unconvinced.
"I don't think they can be following us."
"I think they might be, Gwen."
Gwen forced herself not to laugh. "Even if they are, it'll only be because they saw us eating and have decided we're a source of breadcrumbs."
The path they were following took them beyond the oak, and Morgana turned to glance back at it, still looking deeply concerned. "I think they are the same birds," she said.
"I think--" I don't think it's the birds you're really worried by, Gwen thought, but you couldn't simply tell Morgana something like that. "Look," she said. "If you're really worried -- if we turn back now, we could still get back to Camelot before dark."
"We're not going back," Morgana said.
"Oh, there's a castle," Gwen said, rather obviously, as the shape of a small but rather ornate-looking stone castle became clear at the top of a low hill, ahead of them. (It looked rather as if something gothic and imposing had had a baby, and never quite fed it enough.)
"King Leodegrance's," Morgana said. "He owns all this land -- though of course, he's a client, he's protected by Uther. Though actually," she added, with a new glint in her eyes, "mostly by my forces. That may change, now that I've officially seceded."
"Officially? But--" Gwen didn't think Morgana had taken the time to make things properly official. She'd barely left Gwen time to change into breeches, find the sword her father made her and pack a worryingly small quantity of supplies; Gwen suspected she'd only had the time because Morgana had been changing herself, and taking rather longer about it (less practice), and collecting together the various weapons she'd felt least able to contemplate living without (one longbow, one crossbow, three kinds of dagger, her two favourite plain swords and a special, decorative sword which involved a variety of immensely expensive gems and a certain amount of gold plating, and for which Gwen had a well-honed, professional dislike -- whilst Morgana herself, with, Gwen knew, some truth, conceded its impracticality but insisted that it looked irresistibly attractive placed, just so, at her hip).
"I thought there might be legal complications," Gwen suggested, at Morgana's raised brow. "It's been -- a long time -- since your father accepted Uther's sovereignty. It was before you were born..."
"It's still my land," Morgana said. "I'll get the documents sent as soon as I can -- I'm within my rights. And if Uther doesn't understand now he will."
"Mm," Gwen said, and of course it was true. Just -- a bit of a jolt. She looked up at the castle again. And she thought, she really hadn't had time to pack very many supplies. They barely had any food left, already. Let alone bedrolls, or anything else that would be much help to them come the night. She gave it a few minutes, for Morgana to think angry thoughts about Uther, and then she said: "Perhaps we should stop here. We could -- well, maybe you could even convince King Leodegrance to take your side."
"I doubt it," Morgana said. "He and Uther are great friends. Two old fools together."
"You could still try. And -- well. We would get a place to stay for the night."
"I am not going begging one of Uther's cronies for hospitality."
"Hardly begging--" Gwen began.
"And it's summer. Even if we can't -- find an inn, somewhere -- it won't be that much of a hardship sleeping rough. Knights do it all the time."
With bedrolls, Gwen thought. And enough of them that there's always someone awake to keep watch. "We might get a change of horses, too," Gwen tried, because even if Morgana couldn't be practical for herself, Gwen knew, Morgana cared about having a good mount. She hated the thought of driving the poor beasts to panting, wretched exhaustion. (Partly from compassion, and partly, Gwen suspected, because an exhausted horse with white foam about its mouth and barely the strength to carry its rider looked so inelegant.)
Morgana appeared to consider the horses, then consider the castle -- which they were steadily approaching. "We're not stopping," she said, though with a little less force than before. A slow, sly look spread across her face "I'm not asking Leodegrance for anything."
When they were quite close to the castle, Morgana stopped her horse. Gwen did likewise.
"Gwen," Morgana said. "Gwen." In a tone that struck Gwen as deeply suspicious.
"Do you want me to go and announce you?" Gwen said -- without much hope that Morgana did.
"Oh, no, no, you needn't worry about that, just-- Perhaps you would like to leave your horse here with me and go and wander peacefully in that field over there," said Morgana. Her eyes, Gwen noticed, were fixed upon the castle stables.
"Morgana--" Gwen said.
"Just -- for ten or twenty minutes, perhaps." Morgana was still looking straight at the stables.
Recognising inevitability when she saw it, Gwen came to an easy decision. "I'll help," she said.
"Help with what?" Morgana said, faux-innocent, smiling sudden, mischievous and confidential in Gwen's direction.
Gwen felt a rush of warmth, and was suddenly extremely grateful for her entire inability to blush.
Twenty-five minutes later, they were riding on with Leodegrance's castle behind them, two fine new mounts beneath them and a saddlebag stuffed full of extra food. Whilst Gwen was busy with the horses, Morgana had snuck into the castle proper and stolen from Leodegrance's kitchens -- the stables alone apparently not presenting enough risk for her tastes.
Gwen quietly stifled the inner voice that was unnecessarily preoccupied by the way she herself had been thrilling with a childlike excitement the whole way through. The voice was almost certainly correct, but Gwen felt she needed to try to remember that she was not a Morgana-ish person who thought moderate danger was rather wonderful; she was, instead, a sensible person. She was (fairly) sure it was a useful, needful quality.
"What would you have done if we'd been caught?" Gwen said, thinking sensible-person thoughts.
"We weren't, so it doesn't matter," said Morgana -- probably thinking Morgana-ish thoughts.
"You would probably have introduced yourself and we would have been fine," Gwen said, and she slightly enjoyed the way Morgana scowled.
There was a flap of wings overhead, accompanied by loud, high-pitch tweeting -- Morgana's frown hardened. The birds seemed to curve round, almost exactly above them, flying in a large flock, and came to rest in a field of wheat.
"The same," Morgana said, sounding grim.
One of the nearer birds hopped about and chirped at them.
"I'm sure they're harmless," Gwen said. "Even if they are the same. Which they're probably not."
They got lost somewhere around late-afternoon. Gwen knew they were lost because Morgana stopped, looked about her, bit her lip, and said, on no particular prompting:
"We're not lost."
It didn't help that they were in the middle of a deep, dark forest. Morgana had insisted that the shortest route was straight through, and Gwen supposed that -- in theory -- it had been.
"It's this way," Morgana said, "I'm certain," which meant she probably wasn't. She turned her horse and set off, deeper into the darkness.
Gwen followed, and after a moment, she heard a very familiar kind of birdsong. She shivered. Silently, she admitted to herself that even she was now beginning to develop an irrational fear of all things winged and tweeting. She noticed Morgana's hand was on her sword-hilt.
"You know--" Gwen said.
"If you're about to suggest we go back, you can save your breath," said Morgana, sounding tense.
"Only--" Gwen said.
"Unless you decide that you want to go back, in which case, as I've already said, you are free to, and I'll continue alone."
"No," Gwen said. "It's just--" She wondered what might be the tactful way to put this: "I would understand, you know," she said, "if this were-- if Uther had discovered that you're a Seer. Or-- If he-- If there had been -- an execution -- again." She could definitely have understood that. "Or something like that."
"For me, this is something like that."
"No, it's not," Gwen said, before she could stop herself. And then, since she'd started, and since Morgana looked so entirely, so ridiculously shocked by what Gwen had said: "I do have opinions of my own on these matters, you know."
"Yes, I-- Of course, I-- Gwen--"
"It's not at all the same."
"No, I-- It's not, I know," Morgana said. She lowered her head. "I know that, obviously it's not, I just-- I'm sorry, Gwen."
"That's all right," Gwen said. Then she pushed her luck: "Now let's turn around and go home."
Morgana straightened up in the instant. "No. I can't," she said, steely. "Maybe this isn't a matter of life and death, but what it is is a matter of pride. That means something real, it-- It's important. Inexpressibly so."
It's costly, Gwen thought, but decided to let things lie.
"Come on," Morgana said, softly. "Let's keep going. I'm-- We're both unnerved by the--" She stopped.
Gwen suddenly noticed the total absence of all completely untroubling bird-related sounds. And felt troubled.
Morgana drew her sword and waved it around at the forest, as if to threaten it back into life. The forest ignored her. Morgana waved her sword once more -- with characteristic faith in the efficacy of a sufficiently dramatic gesture -- but the forest remained unresponsive.
A few horse-paces further, and the trees suddenly fell away, to reveal a lake, its waters dark. There was a lake-island in the centre, and upon this there stood a towering, dark castle whose appearance somehow lodged the word dread firmly in Gwen's mind. The castle drawbridge was down, and stretched across the lake waters from the castle gates to a spot immediately in front of where Gwen and Morgana had emerged. Gwen tried to move, and found, to her horror, that she could not.
"I can't move," she told Morgana. "Um. Except to speak."
"No, me neither," Morgana whispered -- much more in tune with the setting. Her voice was like a hiss. "Gwen, if we--"
And then they both heard the sound of hoofbeats -- and a knight dressed from head-to-toe in black armour, his visor down, rode out from the castle. He crossed the drawbridge and came to face them, his visor down.
"Greetings," he said, and his voice echoed throughout the clearing.
"Ah," said Morgana. "Have you enchanted us? I can get out of this, you know," she added. "What do you want? Who are you?"
"I?" said the knight, in an ominous tone.
"No, the other mysterious black knight who just rode out in front of us," said Morgana waspishly -- but Gwen could see, Morgana's skin was pale.
"I," said the knight, "am the Knight of Tarn Wathelan. And you shall only pass here alive if you can answer me a single riddle."
"I'd rather fight you in a fair fight."
The knight simply ignored this: "My riddle," he said, "is this. Tell me: what is the one thing that all beings want?"
"A sharp sword, my own kingdom, and not to be threatened and taunted with stupid questions by mysterious, sorcerous, badly-dressed knights," Morgana spat.
"NO," the knight boomed, and despite her fear, Gwen had to agree: Morgana's wants were highly universal. Except-- she looked at Morgana, then at the knight, then at Morgana again, long and hard.
"Um," Gwen said. "Perhaps -- their own way?"
The knight turned his head towards her, and though his visor was down, Gwen thought that he was looking right into her face.
"Erm," he intoned.
"I think most people, at least, um, most people do. Want that," she stammered.
"Erm, yes," said the knight. "That is the correct answer." On which the lake, the castle, the forest, and, indeed, the knight himself, all vanished away.
"Oh," Gwen said. She shifted in the saddle and moved her grip on her horse's bridle, and found that she could.
Morgana laughed, sounding half-crazed. "I don't think that happened!" she said.
"I think it did," Gwen said, her breath heavy with relief.
"I think--" Morgana started, and what seemed like a thousand small, sparrowlike birds swooped down around them. Several flew around Gwen's head, and several more about her horse -- a large number more circled Morgana -- almost as if inspecting them. They all cheeped and tweeted in a horrifyingly unnatural, uncanny way.
"Argh!" said Morgana, grabbed her sword, and began to attack.
Unfortunately, this had unfortunate consequences.
They both dismounted fast as the birds all whirled together in the air ahead, one great, darkening mass, their calls all merging together to one monstrous TWEET TWEET TWEET.
Morgana stepped forwards, sword in hand, to stand before Gwen, blocking her with her body. Gwen slipped round Morgana's side and moved herself in front -- she tried to do it as tactfully and unobtrusively as possible. Morgana met her eyes, looking rash and determined -- and also oddly affectionate and pleased -- and pushed past to stand in front again.
The whorl of birds slowly began to resolve into a looming, monstrous shape. Gwen -- admittedly no precogniscent -- still found she had a very bad feeling about the thing.
"Um," she said. "If we don't-- not that, um, not that I don't have confidence in-- but. Morgana, I-- If we don't, I, um-- I just--"
Morgana tossed her hair in the wind and made a rapid sequence of hand signals, somehow managing to do it with grace and style, and without waving her sword around like a madwoman. She nodded, sharp and fast, and seemed to wait for assent.
"Only you and Arthur ever understood that nonsense," Gwen pointed out, and moved forewards again, a little closer to their foe, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Morgana, ready (she hoped) for whatever might come next.
The whorl resolved itself into the shape of one massive, monstrous bird. It swooped.
It was somewhat of a relief when, after Morgana enchanted Gwen's sword and Gwen drove it into the heart of the bird-beast, it simply split apart into its hundreds of component birds, all of which flew away in numerous separate directions. A huge, hulking corpse would have been unpleasant (and, Gwen worried, might have smelled or bled messily); and the thought of innumerable tiny bird-corpses littering the ground was simply distressing.
Gwen's legs shook a little beneath her, and she let herself stumble back and come to lie on the grass, staring up at the now-dusky sky. Morgana collapsed down next to her, and for a while Gwen listened to them both breathing hard and gasping.
"Do you think this was-- entirely worth it?" Gwen said, as a little more light faded away.
Gwen laughed despite herself, and nudged Morgana with her elbow. "No, coming away. Honestly?"
"Well, it would be nice to have a servant on hand with some meat and good wine," Morgana said.
"Mm. And a place to spend the night."
"We'll find somewhere. There's always a convenient forester's hut or something. Or an improbably safe, cosy spot under a tree."
"It was worth it," Morgana said. "It was a matter of pride."
"I just-- I understand. You have your station, it's important that you be shown the proper respect--"
"It's immensely, unutterably important."
"Yes," Gwen said, because she knew, it really was, in its way. Except: "Really, though, Morgana. Throne height?"
"Pride," said Morgana.
"But I'm sure Uther would have calmed down and given in and had an extra inch added to yours, too, if you'd only given him a few days."
"It's the principle of the thing," Morgana insisted. To which the best, most undermining response, Gwen decided, was probably nothing at all.
In the silence, a single bird hopped cautiously over to Gwen's left foot, looking ostentatiously harmless; out of the corner of her eye, Gwen saw Morgana give it a look. The bird fluttered fast and terrified-seeming away, and Gwen tried her best not to feel relieved.
"It's symbolic," Morgana said, quietly. "And besides -- well, besides. He was bound to find out about the magic eventually."
"So we were getting out before we were pushed?" Gwen said.
"Maybe." Morgana rolled onto her side, and looked down into Gwen's face. "Gwen-- Gwen, thank you. I'm so glad you came with me." She brushed a little of Gwen's hair out of her face.
"Oh, I-- um. Well, that is-- Um. I-- you-- well," Gwen said. She found, with the most awful hammering in her chest, that she was frozen again -- unable to look away from Morgana's eyes.
Morgana looked right back down at her, and moved her face a millimetre closer. "By the way, Gwen," she said. "What was it you were trying to tell me -- that moment before the bird-thing attacked?"
"Hm?" said Gwen, just-about managing the word -- and her voice sounded odd and small to her ears.
"I know there was something," Morgana said.
"Oh," said Gwen. "There was-- um," she said.
"Um," said Gwen, entirely petrified.
"Yes, I thought so," said Morgana, and leant down and kissed her.
Of course, they did find a forester's hut. It was unusually large, had plenty of space for both of them plus the forester himself, and was really rather nice. Thinking on the matter as she drifted off to sleep, Gwen concluded, drowsily, that Morgana was rash and not-always sensible because she could be -- because the universe seemed smile upon her whatever she did. Morgana was just one of those people. She always had been. It was a little unfair, but -- in the darkness, Morgana mumbled something senseless and nuzzled the back of Gwen's neck -- Gwen wasn't sure she really minded. Perhaps she understood the universe's feelings.
In the morning, they got a letter. Morgana regarded the pigeon that delivered it with rather large amounts of hostility, but she must have been off-form, because it didn't even rustle its feathers. Gwen removed the roll of parchment from its feet, a little nervously. Freed of its load, the pigeon settled on her shoulder and cooed happily.
Morgana glowered harder: still to no effect. The pigeon only cooed again and brushed its feathers against Gwen's cheek. It was really quite sweet. Gwen unrolled the parchment and felt that she was already getting over her bird-related trauma.
The letter was addressed, Dear Gwen and Lady Morgana, and continued, in a familiar, near-illegible, spidery hand:
I'm very sorry about the birds. I wanted to keep an eye on you to make sure that you were safe, and I thought it would be a good idea to make them able to defend themselves, or you if you got in danger. I didn't realise that Morgana would try to attack them.
Hope you are still doing well. Please do not kill this pigeon.
Good luck, have fun in Cornwall! I'll come to visit when I learn teleportation.
Gwen handed the letter to Morgana. She watched the mix of dismay, anger, and complete frustration that spread over Morgana's face as she read -- with sympathy, but also with large quantities of affectionate amusement.
Mogana threw the parchment to the floor, unsheathed her sword, and pointed it at the pigeon. The pigeon pecked at the sword-metal, and appeared to take a moment to consider its predicament. Then it hid behind Gwen.
Morgana pursed her lips. Then she shook her head, smiled, and held her sword aloft.
"To Tintagel!" she said.
The sun shone down on her. Her sword gleamed. The pigeon hopped out from behind Gwen, and cooed and chirped its hearty agreement.
"Aha!" Morgana said, and leapt for it.
Gwen dodged her way out of the ensuing battle -- "You couldn't leave the poor thing be?" she said.
"I won't hurt it badly." Morgana's eyes flashed. "But after yesterday -- I want some revenge. This is a matter of pride."