Regaining consciousness felt like slowly rising up from the depths of a thick, impenetrable fog. Morgana could feel herself wake up. She drifted in and out of oblivion as she slowly rose back to the surface. The vague, blurry shades of brown and green around her gradually took on the shape of trees.
Breathing hurt. Morgana could feel a sharp sting of pain whenever she inhaled, like the inside of her throat was being pressed against a hot iron. Morgana’s senses abruptly returned to her. She could feel the prickling of grass. The rays of the sun that landed on her, seeping in through her partially closed eyelids. The sorceress could hear the rustling of leaves, together with the calming sound of bird songs.
It sounded… peaceful.
Morgana could feel the soft embrace of someone holding her. The earthy, herbaceous scent of sage drifted in the air around her. From above, the sorceress could hear a familiar, feminine voice.
“Oh, Goddess. Morgana. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to- I’m sorry.”
Slowly, Morgana opened her eyes. She could see the familiar shape of Monoroe hovering above her. Her hand was placed under Morgana’s head, supporting her body as the Huntress cradled her in her arms. She looked terrible. Monoroe’s skin was covered in scrapes and bruises. The cuts on her legs were still bleeding. The witch looked like she had forcibly pushed her way through a battlefield- but Monoroe didn’t seem to care about her own injuries. The Huntress was shaking. Her arms trembled as she looked down on Morgana, her cheeks stained with tears.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I never meant to hurt you.”
She was back.
Morgana tried to respond, but the sorceress was stopped by a sharp, white-hot pain in her throat. She couldn’t speak. Any effort to produce a sound made the inside of her throat feel like it was being stabbed with a burning blade. No words would come out, no matter how hard she tried.
She couldn’t reach her.
Monoroe’s look of anguish got even worse, slowly beginning to turn into despair-
Until Morgana placed a hand on her arm.
She didn’t need to use words. Not anymore. The sorceress focused, grounding herself and ignoring the pressure in her head as she reached out to the woman in front of her.
It’s all right. It wasn’t you.
Monoroe softly brushed the strands of hair from her face, shaking her head at her.
“You’re not even supposed to be here,” she muttered. “It’s bad enough that Emrys got caught in the crossfire. I never would have been able to forgive myself if it killed you. You shouldn’t be anywhere near here, Morgana.”
You’re wrong. I’m glad that I came here, the sorceress replied. Monoroe frowned at her in response – an intense, worried stare that pierced right through Morgana’s outer shell and reached her heart. The sorceress could feel a strange warmth spread through her chest as she looked up at the Huntress. She couldn’t look away.
She didn’t want to.
“I almost strangled you to death, Morgana. Why in Watcher’s name would you be glad?”
The sorceress smiled in response. When she replied to the Huntress, her response came straight from the heart.
I thought I’d never see you again. I was starting to doubt if you were… real.
Something in Monoroe’s eyes broke. Morgana could feel herself being pulled into an embrace. The sorceress rested her head on Monoroe’s shoulder, closing her eyes as she felt her arms wrap around her.
“Oh, Goddess. We’re real. All of us. It was real, Morgana. I promise.”
Morgana could see the druidess – Muiri – slowly approach the two of them. She stopped a few feet away and pointed at the injury on her neck.
“Let me see that bruise, please.”
Morgana threw a quick glance at Emrys. He gave her an encouraging nod in response.
“Don’t be afraid. Muiri is a skilled druid. Healing and spirit magick are her forte.”
Morgana hesitated for a second, before untangling herself from Monoroe’s arms and standing up. The druidess began to draw a circle around the two of them. Morgana watched as she repeated that process three times, softly muttering under her breath as she worked. Then, Muiri came to a halt in front of her. A frown spread across her face as she looked at the bruise on Morgana’s throat.
“Lift your chin, please.”
She did. Morgana could feel Muiri’s soft hands trail across her throat. It hurt. The sorceress winced at the sensation–
Until Muiri’s eyes suddenly flashed white. A pleasant warmth spread from her hands to Morgana’s throat, effortlessly seeping into her skin. The sorceress immediately felt better. She could feel her skin healing. The pain in her throat quickly faded away.
Within moments, it was as if nothing had happened.
Morgana gave Muiri a grateful smile as she stepped back.
The group was startled out of their moment of peace by the sound of footsteps and crunching grass behind them. They turned around to see Gawain, unharmed and in one piece, carefully making his way out of the Dryad lair. Lancelot and Morgana immediately ran towards their friend.
“Gawain! Are you all right?!”
“Did it work? What happened?!”
The young redhead was wearing a strange expression as he joined their group. Gawain avoided eye contact, an uncharacteristic blush spreading across his face as he looked away.
“She changed back?” Emrys asked. His body immediately relaxed. Next to him, Muiri let out a sigh of relief.
“Oh, thank the Goddess. You got through to her. You actually got through to her.”
“Told you he could do it,” Morgana smirked. The druid leaned against the nearest tree, sighing as he looked up at the now clear sky. The druid took a moment, listening to the sounds of the forest around them.
Murkwood was peaceful once again.
“Dear Goddess,” Emrys muttered, exhausted. “What a day.”
Muiri let out a soft chuckle.
“You can say that again.”
The two exchanged a look between them. Morgana could see Muiri nod. Then the two druids stepped forward, making eye contact with Lancelot and Gawain before bowing their heads.
“We owe you a great debt,” Emrys spoke in a formal tone. “If the three of you had not come to our aid, then my people would not have made it out alive. You have our sincere gratitude.”
But Lancelot shook his head at them.
“Don’t thank me, Emrys. It was Arthur that sent us to warn you in the first place.”
“Yeah!” Gawain beamed. “Arthur was worried about you. He didn’t want you or the other druids to get hurt. He sent us to make sure that you’d be okay. He believed that we could get to you in time.”
“It would seem that his faith in you was not misplaced,” Emrys smiled in response. “That makes twice now that Arthur Pendragon has come to our aid. He has shown my people incredible kindness, and we will not forget that. I will make sure to repay the favour one day. You have my word.”
The three of them watched as his gaze drifted northward, in the direction that they’d come from.
“We’ll search for the other druids,” Emrys thought out loud. “Muiri and I will gather them all and leave the forest. Murkwood is not safe anymore. If the surviving soldiers from Nemeth are wise, then they will tell their army to retreat. We will leave either way.”
“Leaving would be for the best,” Lancelot nodded. “Where will you go?”
“Northumbria. The woods there are the safest place for us. Perhaps we can return here one day, when the war is over.”
For a moment, the druid looked hesitant. His eyes flicked between Lancelot and Morgana.
“I have a request,” he eventually spoke. “When you return to Camelot, please tell Arthur that we will not forget his kindness.”
“Please tell him that, if he continues on this path… he will make a wise King one day.”
That afternoon, Muiri and Emrys left to gather their wayward druids. Lancelot, Morgana and Gawain took the opportunity to take a much-needed rest. They had been up all night. And although none of them wanted to admit it, all of them were exhausted.
They’d been advised to stay out of the grove. But Morgana couldn’t resist trying to learn more.
“So… what happened in there?”
“It… um, it’s hard to explain,” Gawain said, the blush reappearing on his face as he looked away from his friends. “There was a tree. In a clearing, with flowers.”
“A clearing with flowers,” Morgana replied curiously. The would-be knight gave her a nod.
“Yeah. But one of them was all crushed and trampled. Like someone had stomped all over it. I buried it so that something new could grow from the seeds, and… well, the tree monster turned into a plant lady.”
“A plant lady?”
“Yeah. She was… really pretty.”
“And then what happened?”
“Um. She, um… she thanked me! Yeah. That’s what she did.”
Lancelot raised a single eyebrow at his expression. For a moment, it looked like the future Duke was about to say something. Then that moment passed, and he nodded at his friend.
“You did well, Gawain. Arthur was right to trust you.”
“Were you scared?” Morgana asked. Gawain thought about that for a second. Then, the young redhead shrugged.
“A little bit,” he admitted. “I thought that I was going to end up at some creepy ritual chamber, or sacrificial altar, or something. But… it wasn’t like that at all. It was nice. Calming. Like one of those meadows that you fall asleep in on a warm day. It felt bad when I first stepped into the cave, but not afterwards. Not even the tree thing felt scary then.”
“The eight-foot-tall tree monster with a deer skull for a head did not feel scary?” Lancelot asked, incredulous. Gawain shook his head at him.
“No. I can’t really explain it, but… but it didn’t feel evil. It just felt in pain. Like it needed help. The plant lady, too – I know that the fae and magic are dangerous, but it didn’t feel that way at all. You should have seen it, Lancelot. It was so peaceful. She didn’t feel like a monster at all.”
The young redhead looked up, making eye contact with his friend as a tiny smile spread across his lips.
“Maybe… maybe not all magic is bad, after all.”
“I agree, Gawain,” Lancelot nodded to his left. “There seems to be a difference. Not all of it is malefic – their magic even managed to heal lady Morgana’s injuries, after all. The reality of it is… quite different from what we are told.”
“I know!” Gawain replied enthusiastically. “It’s not like the scary stories that the church told us at all! Well, it is, but it also isn’t. If that make sense. Do you think Agravaine knows?”
Lancelot didn’t hesitate before answering.
“Oh, he knows.”
“Well, that’s just not fair,” Gawain huffed in response. “Some of this could really come in handy. I bet that the druid lady could heal Elyan’s back. Or Emrys- maybe he could do it, too. We could bring them with us. If only magic wasn’t banned everywhere.”
“Don’t let Agravaine hear you say that,” Morgana said with a weak smile. The young redhead huffed again, crossing his arms angrily.
“Well, Agravaine is a dollophead. Not all of it is bad. I think. Yeah. Some of it could help.”
“Indeed. I agree with you, Gawain.”
His response had been aimed at his friend, but Lancelot wasn’t looking at Gawain. The sorceress froze as he made direct eye contact with her. Lancelot’s mouth pulled into the tiniest sliver of a smile.
“I bet, if magic like that existed in Camelot…”
“She would have more allies than she knows.”
“Monoroe. Are you leaving?”
The Huntress turned around and nodded at him.
“I can’t stay, Emrys. If mum wakes up and notices I’m still here, she’ll try to keep me. I don’t want another fight.”
A frown spread across his brow as Emrys took in the state of the woman in front of him.
“Are you sure that you’re fit to travel? You’ve gone through a lot. Muiri can heal you before you go-”
“Pff, this? This is nothing. Don’t waste her magick on that. It’ll take at least two more disasters to take me down.”
Monoroe placed her hands in her sides, flashing him a confident grin that looked just a little forced. He could see her eyes flicking back and forth between the horizon and the group of people in the clearing.
Emrys knew her well. She didn’t want to stay close to Eurydice.
But she also didn’t want to leave. And that reason had nothing to do with him.
“Do me a favour, Emrys. Give these to Morgana.”
The druid watched as Monoroe took out a small, cloth pouch and handed it to him. It barely weighed anything. Emrys took it from her, opening the pouch and taking a look inside. His eyes widened.
“Are… are these what I think they are?”
“Yes. Just… make sure that she gets them, all right? It’s very important. I’m counting on you, beardy.”
“I understand,” he nodded. “Leave it to me.”
She gave him a smirk, stepping back as he tucked the pouch away in his robe.
“Don’t be a stranger, Emrys,” the Huntress winked. “We’re expecting you and your druids on Walpurgisnacht. Don’t skip out on us again.”
“I know. We’ll be there.”
“Good! I found another spice to try while we-”
‘You’re not feeding me poison again, Monoroe.”
“Take care, druid.”
“You too, Huntress. You too.”
Merlin led Morgana through the forest, leaving the two would-be knights behind. The sorceress could see the area around her slowly change- the ground slowly became rockier as they approached the nearby mountain.
After ten minutes, they stopped. Merlin had come to a halt in the middle of a rocky clearing. He slowly turned around as she approached.
For the first time since they’d met, Emrys and Morgana really looked at each other. The sorceress gazed at the druid in silence, taking in every detail of him and feeling Merlin do the same as they silently circled each other.
Merlin had grown. He had always been a lanky kid, no matter how much potato Millicent fed him. Scrawny. Back then, a breeze had been enough to knock him over.
No longer. That scrawny child was gone. In his place stood an adult. Morgana could see broad shoulders, together with a bushy beard that hid most of his face from view. She noticed the hard lines in his face, the roughness of his hands.
But the eyes were still the same.
Merlin was still in there.
A thousand questions echoed in Morgana’s mind at once. She had a million things to ask him-
But in that moment, one question burned more intensely than anything else. She couldn’t bear it. Morgana’s mask shattered, an expression of absolute heartbreak welling up from within as she looked her lost childhood friend in the eyes.
“Why are you afraid of me?”
“Of course I’d be frightened, Morgana. Don’t you realise what you did?”
Morgana hadn’t expected that answer. She hadn’t expected Merlin to admit to being afraid of her so readily. The sorceress could feel a sharp sting of pain in her chest, like someone had stabbed her with a blade.
“I just talked to your head,” she said, unable to keep the pain from seeping into her words. “I… didn’t think it warranted a reaction like that.”
Morgana had pictured their reunion for years. The sorceress had imagined everything, from tear-filled reunions to overjoyed reconciliations and even a blossoming romance – but she had never imagined something like this. Fear had never been a part of it. Ever. It was wrong. It was all wrong. Morgana balled her fists, swallowing down the wave of disappointment and dejection as she looked back up at Emrys – and was met with an even bigger look of disbelief.
“Talked to my… you have no idea, do you?”
“You used an incredibly advanced form of spirit magick, Morgana. You took hold of my body’s spirit and projected your own will onto it so strongly that it echoed your very thoughts in my head. And you did it all without batting an eyelash.”
“Cenred said that it just takes charisma,” Morgana replied, confused. “I thought it was common. I thought- I thought that everyone could do it.”
Emrys shook his head.
“It is not common at all. I don’t know of a single witch or druid who could do what you did- not without immediate consequences. Not one, Morgana. Out of everyone I know, Muiri is the most closely connected to spirit- and even she can only do what you did as part of a ritual, and only with tremendous effort.”
The druid shook his head in disbelief.
“Of course I would be shocked. Anyone would. The only creature I know that can use that power without suffering the aftermath is a dragon.”
“I… I didn’t know,” Morgana mumbled. “I didn’t know that.”
Merlin’s expression fell.
“…I’m sorry,” he said, regret crossing his face as he took a step towards her. “Of course you wouldn’t know. It’s not your fault- if anything, I’m the one to blame here.”
“What do you mean?”
Merlin gave her a sad smile before breaking eye contact. Morgana watched as her childhood friend looked down in shame.
“Well, it is, isn’t it? I left you behind.”
The words had barely been more than a whisper. But Morgana could feel the weight behind them. The crushing, all-encompassing feeling of guilt. The sorceress quickly shook her head at him.
“No. If you came back, you would have died. Merlin-”
“Don’t. I can’t hear it.”
Morgana frowned. She tried again, putting emphasis on each syllable as she said his name. She could see Merlin’s eyes turn glassy at the word. They stayed that way for a moment before regaining focus. He gave no other response. It dawned on Morgana that Merlin wasn’t joking.
He truly could not hear his own name.
Horrified, the sorceress placed a hand over her mouth.
“What happened to you?”
The druid let out a tired sigh.
“I swam into the lake to get away that night. I made it about halfway across when I changed my mind. I couldn’t leave you behind. I turned around and tried to go back for you… but I’ve never been a good swimmer. My leg cramped up in the middle of the lake. I couldn’t get it to stop. And I couldn’t drag myself to shore in time.”
“You… you drowned?” Morgana whispered.
“I came close. I would have died on my own, but Nimueh – the Lady of the Lake – she kept me from drowning. She saved me. I owed her my life… but owing a debt like that to one of the Fae binds you to them forever. Neither of us wanted that. So, we… reached a compromise.”
“I owed her a life… so she took one. She took Merlin,” the druid explained. He mouthed that last word silently, unable to say it out loud.
“What… what does that mean?” Morgana asked. “She took your name away?”
“Yes. The name, and the parts of me that were most strongly associated with it. Personality traits. Memories. It’s strange – some memories I can recall very clearly, while others are a blur. I can’t remember all of it. But I don’t think I’ll be able to hear that name ever again.”
“That’s… horrible,” the sorceress muttered. “What do you remember?”
The druid broke eye contact, looking down at the ground.
“I remember making you a promise and breaking it,” he muttered. I said that I would come back to you. But then years passed and I never did. I shouldn’t have left you there. I’m sorry, Morgana.”
The look of guilt in his eyes was enough to make Morgana’s heart ache in her chest. She quickly took a step towards him, putting a hand on his arm.
“I forgive you. But you’re misremembering something, Emrys.”
“What… what do you mean?”
“There was a promise. You’re right about that. But you didn’t make it to me, Emrys. I made that promise to you. And it wasn’t to come back. I promised that we would see each other again.”
Morgana took a step back, neatly folding her hands behind her.
Morgana didn’t hesitate. She placed her arms around him, disappearing into the embrace. The sorceress could feel Merlin’s arms pull her against him tightly. The scent was still the same. Merlin smelled of fresh pine needles and bark, just like he’d done as a child. It was a familiar, comforting scent. As Morgana closed her eyes and leaned into him, she could hear Merlin’s voice.
“I thought I’d never see you again.”
“I thought you’d die out in the woods,” Morgana mumbled. “Or get mauled by bears.”
“I thought you’d burn on the pyre because of me.”
“You almost drowned because of me.”
Eventually, the embrace ended – but Merlin ddin’t let go. Morgana could feel his arms around her waist as, gently, he pressed his forehead to hers.
“I’m… so glad to see you.”
Morgana had pictured their reunion for years. The sorceress had imagined everything, from tear-filled reunions to overjoyed reconciliations.
The truth turned out to be very different from what she’d imagined.
It was so much better.