Merlin's breath hissed through his gritted teeth and he gulped the air with ragged gasps as his shoulders heaved and his arms strained against the iron manacles, reinforced with the strongest magical bonds that Morgause had found it within her power to cast. The attempt was futile – he had never been known for his physical strength at the best of times, Arthur's constant jibes about his uselessness at the training ground were evidence enough of that. He had never had to rely on it before though, his magical powers always providing more than a recompense for his wiry frame and uncoordinated reflexes. Now his powers were so weak that the magical current that he usually felt as powerfully as a heartbeat, coursing through his body like a supernatural bloodstream, had faded to the tiniest pulse, a glimmer that seemed to be getting fainter by the hour.
Merlin felt impotent, stripped of the very essence of himself, worse than if Morgause had torn a limb from his body. Indeed, his not inconsiderable physical injuries, those red and bloody wealds across his back and torso that were evidence of the torture he had endured at the hands of Cenred's most loyal and brutal bodyguards, had not affected his senses nearly as painfully as the loss of his magic. Now Merlin, the young warlock who had never given up on his destiny; whose commitment to forge the mythical kingdom of Albion that Kilgarrah had spoken of in prophecy was so strong; whose obstinate optimism had been the one thing that stood in the face of disaster on so many occasions before; could not see a way out.
And this scared him. It scared him more than he could allow himself to admit even in his own mind, for fear of his captors catching sight of this chink in his mental armour and claiming their victory. He could not bear to witness their gloating at his incapacitation; their smirks and jeers as his feeble attempts at formulating a spell to break his bonds within his fogged and damaged mind were repelled again and again without apparent effect.
But as the hours passed, Merlin knew that the desperation and panic that he had felt only fleetingly and at his weakest moments when he had first awakened to find himself Morgause and Cenred's prisoner were gradually pervading every thought, making his control over the remnants of magic that remained in his grasp almost useless. For hadn't he been convinced that Arthur would have found him by now? That the pig-headed and arrogant but loyal to the last prince that he had served so faithfully (and whose life he had saved more times than he could count) would have burst into this dismal cave with a band of his knights, flourishing his sword with theatrical but menacing skill, and dispatched Cenred's thugs, chastising Merlin all the while for his laziness or clumsiness or with some other throw-away insult that would nevertheless mask the relief he felt at finding his true friend more or less unharmed?
Merlin had played the scene through in his head so many times in the last few days – he had never once considered that it might not happen in reality. But this rescue in a blaze of glory seemed to be becoming a more and more remote possibility as the time passed. Merlin had to consider the prospect that perhaps Arthur and his knights had been unable to repel the combined forces of Cenred's knights and mercenaries and the magical attack of the Druids. Perhaps Camelot lay in ruins, with the prince whose destiny it was to forge the famed kingdom of Albion lying slain amongst the rubble of the beautiful city that Merlin thought of as his true home. Merlin shuddered as the bile rose up in his throat at the thought.
And what then of Merlin? What would be the point of his continued existence if his sole aim and purpose, his destiny, was over before it had even begun? Merlin clenched his eyes tight shut to prevent the hot tears which prickled at the inside of the lids from escaping through his long dark lashes – he must not show weakness. He could not give up, could not accept that this might be the end, not until the very last moment, not until he knew for sure that Camelot and Arthur had fallen and he was no longer needed. He would endure any suffering, any torture, even the loss of his magic, before he gave up on them.
The gathering gloom in the cave seemed to play with Merlin's subconscious, the spreading shadows whispering to him in sibilant voices that were just too far away, too soft to be understood. The light of the one flickering candle stub that guttered and waned as it reached the end caused more terrifying, nightmarish beings to form themselves in Merlin's addled mind, crouching in the shadows just beyond the light, waiting to pounce. However much he wanted to give in to unconsciousness, his body screaming to be allowed time to rest and heal, he found himself unable to shut his eyes for more than a second, needing to be ready, prepared, for the expected onslaught. Merlin knew somewhere in the back of his rational mind that these spectres were mere hallucinations, but his rational mind was losing touch with reality now. Would he really go mad down here? Arthur had often questioned his sanity; perhaps soon he would have reason to.
Merlin's fears were not entirely without foundation however. On the edge of the shadows, watching the myriad of emotions that passed across the face of this famed sorcerer with a grim satisfaction, a hooded figure stood, dark and still as the night.
Morgana considered the captive in front of her. Who could have known when he first arrived in Camelot what Merlin would come to be? He had never given any hint of the extent of his powers when he had tripped and clattered his way around the castle, getting clouted by Arthur for the shoddy manner in which he carried out his duties. In fact, he hadn't appeared to have any particular powers at all, unless you counted a propensity to spill any liquid he was charged with administering. He could be relied upon for that! Morgana rolled her eyes, a small part of her expression softening as she remembered days that seemed so long ago now, another age, when she and Gwen had laughed and teased Merlin for his clumsiness.
In those very first days of Merlin's servitude, Morgana had often caught the boy staring at her in awe as she walked past him in the Great Hall. Blue eyes wide, bottom lip dropped, his innocence giving his obvious appreciation of her appearance, an appreciation that would have been almost unendurable from some quarters, an endearing quality that failed to offend. In fact, Morgana almost encouraged his attentions, floating her scented handkerchief in the air as she passed so that his nostrils were filled with her unique perfume of roses and amber, walking just a little too slowly and sneaking a glance over her shoulder as she did so, just to see the confused expression on Merlin's face as he shook his head, trying to regain his senses and remember what it was he was supposed to be doing.
She couldn't quite recall why she had found this so entertaining now. It seemed like such a childish and frivolous game, the kind of pastime a young maiden might partake in who was cooped up in a castle with too little of the real world to concern her. They were no longer children now. No longer innocent. Uther had made sure that innocence could not survive for long in his oppressive kingdom, where the threat of persecution hung over the heads of those who were no more to blame for their magic than a nightingale was to blame for its song. Her increasingly vivid nightmares, terrifying in their prophetic quality, had slowly isolated her from her guardian, the court, her friends. Her expression regained its steely resolve. And Merlin was worse than Uther. Merlin, or Emrys as Mordred had called him, the most powerful sorcerer the world would ever know according to the prophecies, had betrayed his own kind. Had betrayed the Old Religion. Had defended Uther and his tyrannical rule against the multitude of attempts to dethrone him and return magic; beautiful and mystical and terrible magic – she smiled to herself, but her smile had no warmth – to the lands of Camelot.
Why would he do this? Morgana could not imagine what would persuade a sorcerer of such reputed power as Emrys, for whom Uther and his Knights were mere ants to be crushed under his feet, to live as a servant, always the butt of the joke, the clumsy fool. Morgana thought of the demeaning tasks that Merlin had carried out every day for her insufferable half-brother, mucking out his stables, scrubbing his boots, even providing the target at archery-practice. And then she thought more bitterly of Merlin's kin, his magical kin, who he had watched suffer at the hands of Uther's tyranny.
She thought off herself. Morgana covered her mouth to prevent a soft moan escaping her lips as she recalled the slow agony of the poison that had almost ended her life, seeping achingly slowly through her veins and arteries, as Merlin held his flask to her lips and thus sounded the death-knell for Morgana. For although she had survived the poison, Morgana recognised now that it was at that moment, looking into Merlin's reassuring, familiar face as he determinedly attempted to murder her, that her old self had died and been replaced by this new Morgana. A Morgana who was unable to trust, unable to forgive and forget, who sought bitter revenge for the terrible wrongs that she had suffered. Her magic thrived on her hatred, and was growing stronger, darker and more twisted every day. Morgana smirked cruelly, her lip curling and her eyes flashing with a blackness that had nothing to do with their natural colour.
And now look at him! The great Emrys. The almighty sorcerer. The 'all-powerful warlock' of whom the prophecies foretold. Those prophecies must have been mistaken. This boy was as weak as a newborn, as frail and pliable as a reed of grass which Morgana could bend and break between her fingers. Scorn filled Morgana with a brash confidence and before she knew what she was doing, she found herself striding from her hiding place and emerging from the shadows into the flickering candlelight in the centre of the cavernous dungeon, her long skirts swishing across the stone behind her.
At the sound of movement, Merlin painfully rose his head. In his addled waking nightmares he had half-expected that one of the imagined spectres had finally taken form and come to finish him off. He had not expected this. Morgana. Even now, when he could no longer deny the dark spirit that emanated from her every thought and action, her rage-filled beauty still had the power to take his breath away. Her green eyes narrowed as they met his bloodshot blue ones, and she came to a halt a few feet in front of him. Merlin shifted in his chains to try and get a better view of her, and yelped in pain as the muscles in his shoulder protested at their long confinement in the manacles. It did not escape his notice that Morgana seemed pleased by the sound, her dark red lips forming themselves into a satisfied smile that could almost have been lovely, were it not for the cruel motivation behind it. They stared at each other for some moments, taking in the sight of each other, a mixture of familiarity and the unknown, until Merlin drew in a deep breath, feeling the rattle of his chest as his unused voice croaked from his throat barely audibly.
"Hello Merlin." Her lilting voice might have been greeting him in the Great Hall at dinner, so light and unconcerned were the tones. Merlin knew better than this. Morgana was a master of her own will by now, so used to composing her features and acting a part in front of Uther and the court that she could almost fool herself. But Merlin could see the hatred burning beneath the surface. More than this, he detected the hurt and loneliness, just a hint at the edge of her eyes, the corner of her mouth, which had prompted Morgana's spiral into the dark. Merlin felt them like a knife twisting sharply in his gut, and was filled again with regret as he wished in his heart that he had confided in Morgana, had helped her when her magic was emerging and she had been truly terrified for her life. Perhaps if he had done this, made a simple gesture of friendship or support, so much death and pain and treachery could have been avoided. And he would not have lost a treasured friend. Merlin wondered incredulously at the influence that one decision, of action or inaction, could have, and his head fell forwards again with the weight of it.
"So this is the real Merlin, is it? The sorcerer, Merlin? The Merlin who betrayed his kin, watched them perish and burn and suffer, while he enjoyed an easy life of cowardice and concealment?" Merlin flinched as her words fell on him like poisoned arrows, intended to strike at his gentle heart. "Was it worth it, Merlin? Well, was it? Do you enjoy being such a coward? Knowing that you had the power to save so many people, and being too afraid to lift a finger to help them? You cowering, skulking, worthless fool!" Morgana's voice curdled with disgust and she almost spat with the venom that seemed to fill her throat and drown her with its ferocity. She fought to gain control of herself, and her voice grew stony and cold as she continued, "But then I'm wrong aren't I? You aren't afraid to lift a finger, are you? You were more than willing to turn your hand to murder in my case, weren't you?"
Merlin's head shot up and his piercing blue eyes found hers again. She knew from the force of feeling in his gaze that her words had injured Merlin, and at first she took a grim sustenance from it. But his gaze held and she found she could not break it – she was losing her mind in his eyes and her defences felt like they were crumbling inwardly. If she did not look away now, she might even allow a tear to shed from eyes that she had sworn would never cry again. Certainly not for that supreme betrayer, Merlin. She could not allow that to happen, and with effort she wrenched her eyes away from his and began to pace to and fro agitatedly. How was he doing this? How was he forcing her to lose her cool with nought but a word, her own name, spoken so softly it might not even have been heard?
"You know that what you say isn't true Morgana. I never wanted to murder you. I never wanted you to die. You were the last person on earth I wanted to suffer. It was the only way..." His rasping, broken voice startled her, and she stopped her pacing in front of him again, closer to him this time, within reach of her touch. Still, she remained resolutely apart, regarding him with a suspicion and scorn that was nevertheless tinged with hope, a hopefulness she almost refused to acknowledge, that perhaps he really meant what he said. "What have you become Morgana? Why have you allowed yourself to be consumed with hatred and vengefulness? This is not you Morgana. This is not who you are."
"Who I was, Merlin. Not who I am. I am what you made me with your secrecy and your distrust. Did you think I would have handed you in Merlin? I, who was so scared of my own self, at what I was becoming? Did you think I would have run to Uther and told him to throw you on the pyre?" Her voice rose, and cracked with emotion as she continued. "I would have fallen at your feet Merlin! I would have turned to you as my mentor and confidant, as one who could teach me to control my terrible nightmares and live with my fears. I would have held you to my heart, not thrown you to your fate!" She stopped as bitter tears again threatened to spill, and with a will of iron gained from bitter experience, gathered her thoughts and composure once again behind the heavy fortifications she had constructed for herself.
"It's not too late Morgana! It's not! I can do all those things, I can help you, I wanted to help you, so much..."
"It is too late Merlin. It's far, far too late. What use is your help, your friendship, to me now? What need have I of you? Others have guided me, loved me, helped me become the real me, the one that I was born to be, unafraid of my own shadow and the oppression of my" - she spat the word - "father." Her confidence rose again as she thought proudly of the extent of her powers, the way she had laboured to learn and grow since Morgause had begun her training. She took another step forward, her face now only a few inches from Merlin's own downturned, anguished features. She spoke slowly and decisively, purging a feeling from long ago that had always refused to leave her. "I don't need you Merlin. I never did. A useless pup like you? I see that now."
Merlin looked up again at that moment; their eyes, their faces, their lips so close they could taste each other's breath, and Morgana gasped again in shock. She was mesmerised by his gaze, the clear blue eyes whose depths seemed to stretch on forever, reflecting and changing, almost like staring into a beautiful and multi-faceted crystal. Wisdom and knowledge, terrible, burdensome knowledge, seemed to fill those eyes: it was like staring into the future, witnessing every moment that was to come, and it was too much for Morgana. It was too much, and yet she couldn't look away. She was held captive, and tears began to fall freely as she fought and fought to gain control, failing miserably. She found herself moving closer, gradually, imperceptibly, until her face was just a hair's breadth from his own. And still she looked into his eyes, wondering with awe at the power that they contained, a power she had never seen before and knew she would never match.
Merlin did not understand the effect he was having on Morgana, only that she appeared to be moving towards him against her will. The air crackled and sparked with magic between them, he wondered whether Morgana could sense it. It felt like a force of attraction and repellence working at the same time, drawing them inevitably closer while still trying to push them apart. She is the dark to your light. Merlin could not speak, dared not. This was a force he did not understand, could not manipulate, and he could only wait and see what the outcome would be. He felt the warmth of her body, so close to his own, the heat of her breath on his face, could almost taste the wetness of her lips next to his own parched ones. They seemed to hold there for an eternity, balanced, poised, Morgana's eyes desperate, but also resigned.
And then a movement, nothing definite, but suddenly their mouths were connected and Morgana's arms were around his waist, clawing frantically, her lips hungrily battling against his own. Merlin should have been crying out as Morgana's embrace tore open the wounds on his back, but nothing could distract him from the passionate caress of her lips, or the heat that seemed to emanate from her body at every point they touched. Merlin had often daydreamed, in the early days of their acquaintance, about exactly what a kiss from Morgana would be like. Along with most of the young men around the court, he was far from oblivious to her charms and sometimes found himself taking longer over his duties sweeping corridors and fetching and carrying in the hope that he might catch sight of her. But his youthful fantasies had been incapable of conjuring up anything like this. And he realised that this was because they were experiencing no ordinary kiss. This was not a soft courting caress or a lover's tryst: this was pure magic. Light versus dark. Good versus evil. Love versus hate. A battle was taking place as their bruised lips clashed and anguished moans escaped them. And Merlin was determined to win.
Morgana did not know what was happening. She had not intended to kiss Merlin, not intended to show any affection towards her former friend at all. But then, this was hardly affection she realised, this was raw, brutal power. The air around them fizzed – she could almost see the magic sparking between their bodies, a mixture of blue and green flame. And she understood, with a certainty she had felt ever since she had plunged into the depths of his gaze, that there was no way that she could emerge from this battle victorious. She could not break away.
His energy consumed her, she could feel her strength and her magic seeping away, merging with his own, restoring to him the overwhelming power that Morgause had worked so hard to contain. She heard the crack of the metal bonds as they fell away from his wrists, felt his arms gather her to him as she began to sink to her knees with exhaustion, and yet still he didn't break the contact. She could not open her eyes now, knew that it would take her years to recover her powers from the draining they had just received. Her head was spinning and she knew that she was about to slip into a faint, losing touch with the physical reality of the world around her. But as she sank under, into the darkness, she realised that the embrace at her lips had changed. Soft lips gently, sweetly pressed against hers; fleetingly, like a butterfly, they touched again and again, and as she gave in to unconsciousness, she smiled a satisfied smile.
And this time the smile was lovely.