Under the Willow Tree
A man cannot free himself from the past
more easily than he can from his own body.
SPOILERS from 2x12 so beware.
Arthur could have sworn his heart stopped beating, completely froze within his chest. He couldn't move, he couldn't think, he couldn't breathe. He thought, only for a moment, that Morgana's lifeless body was a hallucination from his fever, and he wished it was. Her skin was so pale, her limbs limp. Before he could move towards her, a gust of wind had whisked her body away in Morgause's arms. Arthur fell to his knees, crawling to where she had just laid, clutching the empty bottle of poison left behind in his hand. He gripped it so tightly that he feared it would shatter. He ran his arms across the freshly ashen stone floor as if he was going to find Morgana in an invisible form. He shook his head in disbelief, she couldn't be gone. Morgana, his childhood friend could not be lost forever.
"No – no – no," he whispered to himself, grasping at the dark ashes that Morgause had left behind.
Uther stepped towards his son, grasping his upper arms. Arthur fought off his father, struggling to free himself from his clutches. Uther managed to pull his son to his feet though he was still fighting to return to his knees.
"Arthur," said Uther in a sincere tone, sorrow dripping from each syllable. "Come now, son, c--"
With one final swift jerk of his shoulders, Arthur tore away from his father's hands. He turned towards the newly destroyed door, waving his hand at the guards behind him to motion for them to follow his lead. He was going after Morgause. If there was a sliver of a chance that Morgana was still alive then he would find her, he would kill Morgause. If Morgana was indeed, he couldn't bare to think it...dead, then he wanted her body returned to Camelot and revenge on the treacherous witch who stole her away. He didn't have time to mourn, he had to act quickly if he would have any hope of finding Morgana alive.
"Arthur," he heard Merlin call after him, echoing along the lengthy corridor. His steps were quick, gripping his sword snugly to his side. Arthur was surprised Merlin had caught up with him before he reached the stables, though he was gasping for air from running to catch him. He gripped Arthur's elbow just before he placed his foot into the stirrup. He sharply turned his neck to look at his loyal servant, instantly noticing that he had been crying, quite hard by the looks of it. He tilted his head curiously to the side, surveying his trembling lower lip.
"Merlin, are you-"
"Where are you going?" he interrupted the Prince, seemingly delirious.
"I'm going after Morgana," he said firmly, placing his foot into the stirrup and hitching himself upon the saddle. "If there is a chance she's still alive then I'm going to find her."
"She's dead, Arthur," said Merlin insistently, glaring up at him. "I saw her stop breathing with my own eyes. She's gone." Merlin swallowed a large lump in his throat, nearly choking. He didn't want Arthur to find Morgana because he knew the consequences. As much as it killed him, Merlin knew if Morgana was still alive she could never return to Camelot as the same person she was before.
"I refuse to believe that," said Arthur swiftly, his jaw tightening. "But if it were true, do you honestly expect me to allow her murder to go unpunished?"
Merlin's breath became caught in his throat, knowing exactly how guilty he was. Morgana's face, the betrayal in her eyes as she struggled to breathe and fought him as he pulled her into his arms, would eternally be seared in his memory. He blinked hard and shook his head once, trying to shake away the image for only a moment and failing miserably. If Arthur knew what he had done...he couldn't even think of the consequences.
"No, of course not," he said quietly, suddenly becoming mesmerized by his feet.
"I didn't think so," said Arthur coldly, wrapping his hand about his leather reigns. "I'll be back once I find Morgana."
Without another word, Arthur pressed his heels into the side of his steed and galloped to the lead of the group of soldiers. He would take them into the woods, to neighboring towns, to the ends of the earth if that's what it took. The sun was setting, but he had no intention of letting darkness stop his search, nothing could stop him. He yelled her name every couple seconds, praying he would hear her call his name in return. The guards spread about the grounds, searching every nook and cranny for the King's ward with no avail.
After several hours the guards' calls became few and far between, signaling their exhaustion. Arthur could hardly blame them, they had been ill and the rest they had received had been a futile slumber. He turned back to his men, observing their sagging frames and ignoring his own fatigue. When he turned back he remained motionless as the moonlight illuminated a nearby pond, the moon's reflection giving an adjacent willow tree the illusion of a blue glow. Arthur blinked several times to make certain he hadn't fallen asleep on his horse and was dreaming. He bit his lower lip, taking in the magnificent view, a view he had seen before...so long ago. With his eyes still glued upon the moon's beautiful creation, he made an abrupt decision.
"Go back and rest," he ordered. "I'm going to continue on alone."
"Your majesty, you surely cannot ask us to leave you unguarded-"
"I'm not asking you to do anything," he snapped. "I am demanding that you follow my orders."
"I will hear no objections," he interrupted fiercely. "You will return to the castle with word on our search and rest until you will meet me in this very location tomorrow at noon."
"Please, your h-"
"If I hear another word from you I will have you beheaded for rebelling against the crown," he said cruelly.
The soldier merely nodded at the flaxen haired prince, sighing heavily. He knew that he would be receiving quite the earful from King Uther once he found out he and his men returned without the future King of Camelot. He directed the reigns of his horse back towards Camelot, the other soldiers mocking his motions. Once he could no longer hear the sound of the horses' hoofs against the cool earth, Arthur climbed off his steed and led it to a small maple tree near the water's edge, tying its reigns to a branch to allow it to drink from the pond. He abandoned the horse and cautiously strolled under the aging tree, delicately pushing it's enormous branches that acted as sort of leafy umbrella, out of his way. The noble prince looked up into the leaves of the ancient tree, admiring the countless dangling branches and vines. It looked exactly the same as it did years ago yet so different. Placing his sword in its holster and removing his riding gloves, he slowly stepped towards the massive trunk. Thick green moss coated the bark, Arthur observed. His hand was shaky as he placed his palm upon the soft mossy covering. He clenched his fingertips into the greenery and tore it away from the bark, slowly at first but soon he was almost in a crazed fury as he combed away the moss. He was gasping for breath when he finally uncovered what he was looking for.
It was a heart, carved deep into the trunk. Inside the heart were two sets of initials with an addition sign between them, A.P. + M.L. Arthur fell forward, both of his hands planting themselves over the pair of initials. His forehead rested upon the top of his hands. He had carved the secret design when they were fourteen, he could still feel the blade between his fist as he created the marking. He collapsed to his knees from the immense physical and emotional exhaustion he'd been battling, sliding down the trunk as his hands ran along the bark. He turned over so his back rested against the trunk, propping him up. He stared blankly forward, a small opening between the dangling vines of the willow allowed him to peer out onto the serene water. He was sitting in he and Morgana's secret place, a place neither of them had been in years.
He remembered when they'd first found it. They were ten, no...eleven, that's right eleven. They'd snuck off from their governess one afternoon, longing for a bit of adventure. Morgana had found the spot, she said her father used to take her there on occasion for a Sunday stroll. He could picture the way her face lit up when she realized she'd discovered it again. He noticed a few tears fell from her eyes, but he chose not to tease her. He taught her how to climb a tree that day, and she in turn taught him how to fall and break an arm. Uther was so furious he'd nearly lost his mind when Arthur lugged the pretty little green eyed girl back to the castle with blood oozing from her arm and leaves sticking out from her long dark hair. Arthur remembered she looked back at him over her shoulder as Gaius led her into his chambers to tend to her injury, she smiled at him and said "Let's go back tomorrow." That was the moment Arthur knew he loved her.
They spent many humid summer afternoons practicing their sword fighting under the cool shade bestowed upon them by the generous willow. She'd beaten him one day and accidentally cut his shoulder. When Uther noticed Arthur was bleeding through his shirt at dinner later that night, he inquired how his son had received his wound. Arthur looked at Morgana, ashamed, knowing his father would be most disappointed to hear that he was not capable enough to defeat his ward. Morgana cleared her throat, reading his mind and peered up at Uther with a guilty expression. "It was my fault, your majesty," she said, fumbling over her words. "I had gone for a walk in the forest and gotten lost. Arthur came after me, and he cut himself on a thorn bush trying to retrieve me. It was very gallant of him." Uther had raised a curious brow at first but still nodded proudly at his son and scolded his ward for being so careless to leave the grounds on her own. When his father wasn't looking, Arthur mouthed "Thank you" to his friend. Morgana simply smiled and nodded in reply before returning to her meal. He never told her how much that seemingly miniscule gesture meant to him.
When Morgana would have a nightmare about her father, it was under the willow that Arthur would wrap his arm around her shoulders and allow her cry on his chest. He could still smell the sweet fragrance from her silky locks, feel how soft her hair felt when he would rest his chin atop her head. He never had to say anything, his presence was all Morgana needed. He'd told her how terrified he was about becoming King, and how he feared that Camelot would fall beneath his reign. She had laughed at him, and told him that was the most foolish thing she had ever heard. She told him that there was no other person on the earth that she would rather see as the future King of Camelot than him, nor was there a boy more capable. He didn't have to ask her to never speak of the conversation again, he knew she never would. It would be as though it never happened, leaving it forever forgotten under the willow tree.
Arthur picked up a clump of grass and threw it in frustration then brought his hands back together, resting them upon his knees as his head hung low. He'd kill Morgause, he'd burn her at the stake for what she had done to Morgana. She would pay dearly, that was for certain.
His thoughts drifted to the night, when they were both fourteen, when he had carved the inscription into the willow tree. He had told her it was a joke and even laughed at his creation once it was finished. She didn't seem to find it as comical as he did. She was actually quite angry, really. He'd persuaded her to sneak out of the castle with him again, in her nightgown no less, just to watch him act a fool. He turned back to her after he blew the sawdust off the heart, smirking pompously at her. He didn't expect her to be sporting the same expression. "What?" he asked her, rolling his eyes. "You like me," she teased in a melodious tone. "I do not," he had insisted, emphasizing each syllable. "Do to," she smirked victoriously. He narrowed his gaze, sending her a nasty look and clenching his jaw. Morgana simply strolled casually forward, her hands held behind her back as she swayed from side to side seductively. Arthur could still see her pale skin illuminated under the moonlight, her green eyes sparkling. He backed up from her, his eyes widening with uncertainty to what she was doing. His back slammed against the trunk, trapping him as Morgana stood mere inches from him. She peered up at him, her height much lesser than his own, clicking her tongue in thought. "What?" Arthur asked, inquiring to why she was deep in thought. "I'm debating whether or not I should do something," she replied to him, her hand suddenly on his shoulder. "Morgana-" Arthur started, but he was cut off. Morgana had stood on her tiptoes and locked her lips with his. His eyes were wide at first, startled at her action, but then his body relaxed and he deepened their kiss. Her fingers ran through his hair while his arms wrapped snugly around her waist. Neither of them planned on their first kisses being with each other, but destinies aren't always planned. She broke away from him after several minutes, placing her finger upon his lips and smiling with her gaze narrowed. "Told you so," she smirked before she turned back towards the path leading to the castle, leaving Arthur stunned and damning Morgana for always being right.
They'd gone skinny dipping when they were fifteen in the pond currently before him, but he couldn't think of that memory now. That was a thought he kept to himself, locked away for occasions that were not so utterly depressing. Though for just a moment Arthur swore he saw Morgana's silhouette within the serene water. He rubbed his eyes and the image disappeared.
When they were sixteen, the pair escaped the formalities of a ceremonial ball, dressed in their fanciest attire. They took off their shoes and cooled their aching feet in pleasant water, playfully splashing each other ever couple minutes. They laid onto their backs, admiring the stars and having a competition to whom could count the most shooting stars. Arthur was leading by four, driving Morgana crazy. She hated when he beat her at anything, his cocky grin always mocking her. When she turned her head to the side to make a snide remark at the young prince, he cut her off, locking his lips with hers. He'd been wanting to kiss her again since the night under the willow when she had initiated their first kiss, but the moment never seemed right until just then. Morgana returned his lip lock, pushing him gently flat onto his back, so she could lean over him. He held her face in his hands while she tenderly brushed her fingers against his rosy cheek. Soon their kiss became more passionate, Arthur's fingers became wildly entangled in her lengthy locks. She unbuttoned his top buttons, kissing his chest before returning to his lips. She shoved his vest over his shoulders and tossed it beside them. He pulled the string that held her thin robe over her gown together while she slid the belt from his waist. Their breaths became raspy, their kisses sloppy but no less passionate. She ran her nails over his bare chest before holding his face before hers for just a solitary moment. Her eyes seemed to gleam a beautiful emerald that made her eyes appear even more mesmerizing than usual. She kissed him sweetly, slowly sucking on his bottom lip before releasing it. "I love you," she breathed quietly, in a blissful tone.
But Arthur didn't respond. He opened and closed his mouth several times, but the words never came. He felt his heart shatter within his chest as Morgana's smile faded and an expression of pain overtook her. She pushed herself off of Arthur and knelt beside him while she hastily retied her robe, appearing extremely embarrassed for believing he could return her feelings. Arthur propped himself up on his elbows, watching her every move. She collected her shoes, not taking the time to put them back on her feet. She had taken several steps towards the path back to the castle before Arthur managed to speak. "Morgana-" he started feebly, unable to think of anything else to say. "Don't," she interrupted fiercely, pivoting about to face him. He swallowed hard when he saw that tears were streaming down her cheeks. "I was a fool to think you...you- oh, never mind. Please, don't let this leave the willow, my pride cannot bare any additional damage." She turned back around and jogged into the darkness. "I-I love you too," Arthur whispered to himself, lowering his head in self-disgust. He cursed himself for being too much of a coward to tell her how he felt, to admit his true feelings. He was too afraid of losing her. They never spoke of that night again, pretending it never happened like their conversation when they were mere children. That was the last time either of them visited the willow...until now.
Arthur bowed his forehead into his hands. He never did tell Morgana how he felt, and now she would never know. He'd never see her again, never speak to her, hear her laugh, see her smile. He hadn't even noticed he was crying until he felt the translucent warm liquid streaming from his hands down his forearms. His back heaved after each quiet sob, his chest shuddering. He imagined he looked like a right fool, the future King of Camelot sobbing alone like a weakling. He didn't care, for under the willow tree he wasn't the future King...he was just Arthur. A rustling from the vines beside him, made him jump. He stood up quickly and pulled his sword from its holster, unable to see clearly because of the tears still stinging his eyes. He held his weapon threateningly before him, pointing the sharp tip towards the source of the ruckus. Then a thought struck him, what if it was Morgana? What if she had escaped Morgause's clutches and returned to the one spot she knew to be safe. His heart beat rapidly as he stepped forward cautiously.
"Morgana?" he called hopefully.
The vines parted, revealing a disheveled-looking Merlin. He seemed to be fighting the hanging vines like they were hazardous snakes or something. Arthur lowered his sword and slumped his spine sadly. Merlin strode forward, scratching the back of his neck and looking quite concerned at his friend.
"What are you doing here, Merlin?" asked Arthur, returning to his seat against the trunk.
"I followed you," he replied, gradually walking before the Prince. "I saw the guards left, did you-"
"Send them away, obviously," he snapped, finishing Merlin's sentence. "Why don't you just get out of here, Merlin."
It was then that Merlin noticed the tear stains on Arthur's face. The Prince looked up at him, realizing what his friend was staring at. He hastily wiped his face clean with the back of his hand, embarrassed. There was no hiding the heart carved just above his head, however. Merlin's jaw dropped slightly before he sighed desolately and sat beside the flaxen haired prince. He understood now, he understood everything. Arthur looked in the opposite direction, unwilling or unable to look at his servant.
"I'm sorry," said Merlin sadly. "I know how much you cared for her."
Arthur simply nodded in reply. Merlin felt so awful for his friend, watching him sit in such terrible pain and there was nothing he could do to help him. Merlin's stomach ached with guilt as he awkwardly placed his arm over Arthur's shoulders, expecting the prince to snap at him as he always did for any such act. But, to Merlin's surprise and Arthur's as well, he didn't pull away or ridicule the dark haired servant. To the contrary, he lowered his head, gripping his hands tightly together and began to silently cry once again. Merlin patted his back reassuringly, knowing it was unnecessary for him to say anything to comfort his friend. And Arthur knew, like he knew with Morgana, that he wouldn't have to ask Merlin to keep this under the willow tree.
A/N: This was my first ArMor fic, and I don't know how to feel about it. Let me know what you think. I really like Morgana's character that's why I ship both Merlin/Morgana and Arthur/Morgana if you were wondering. I'm more fond of Merlin/Morgana, but I still love ArMor.