The light was low enough in the steps to the dungeon entryway that the guards didn’t give Gwen a second glance - and when they did notice her presence, it was with a lower nod than she was yet accustomed to receiving.
Gwen pressed a hand to the cold stone of the stairs and paused, as she always did in this part of the castle, and remembered her father. It was a sort of prayer, but not to the new, singular God of the Isle and chapel, and not to Merlin and Morgana’s wild masters. Gwen prayed to something else entirely or to them both: to whichever power would be kind enough to see them through, be they the ferryman or the wave beneath the boat.
The guards allowed her to pass without a word.
Gwen took a steadying breath as the door closed behind her. Those who entered the dungeon did so at their own risk - even those about to marry the king. It was why Arthur had not made the descent or at least it gave him reason not to. The skirts she fisted her hands in were her own. Her old skirts, she had corrected herself in front of the cupboard full of silks and deeply dyed swathes of material, which were equally her own, if only she could bring herself to claim them.
Apart from the abhorrence of dust on such finery that only one who hadn’t grown up wearing it could know, Gwen had seen no point in wearing anything better for this journey. Morgana had seen her in worse and would be less impressed by finery than even Gwen, who had cleaned the hems and more for a dozen years.
And then there was how tired she was.
Gwen had been in the thick of the drifts and the snow and the fights: more often than not, she, Merlin and Arthur had struck out on some fool’s errand or false lead with Morgana at its end. More often than not, they’d come back to the corpses of those who had supposed to be safe.
Finally, they’d learned. Morgana had not.
A figure in purple stretched and narrowed to stand from the corner of the cell. Morgana stood to her full height and moved to within two feet of the bars. Gwen stood where she could clearly be seen but no closer.
‘We’re not coming for you,’ Gwen began, unsure of where the words or the certainty in them came from. ‘Not Merlin or Arthur or- no-one is coming.’
Morgana lowered her head and brought it up with an edge of a smile in the left corner of her mouth.
‘You went to all this trouble to catch me. I’d think you fools if you were,’ she replied, looking Gwen up and down. ‘You look well, Gwen.’
Gwen wondered if it were the sincerest flattery she’d ever heard - that Morgana still cared just enough to lie to her. She tightened her fists and raised her head. ‘I look horrible. I’ve spent a winter on horseback in the cold, and this dress is half as old as I am.’
‘Then we’re equally horrid,’ Morgana answered with something more honestly like a smile, touching under an eye where the long winter told in shadows like bruises under both eyes, sitting down on the rough bench at the left of the cell. ‘Won’t you sit?’
It occurred to Gwen that even this dungeon Morgana commanded like her own parlour; she remained standing, surprised at the anger Morgana’s presumption raised in her. ‘I don’t mean to stay.’
‘No, you must be busy,’ Morgana replied with a tilt of her head. ‘Wedding preparations.’
Gwen bit off the reply - that the wedding was someone else’s work, that it was treaties and rebuilding and replanting that occupied her time. That ruling the kingdom busied her enough, or that she spared some of her time to being a friend to Merlin when she could, given the price of victory that had been extracted from him - by many grasping hands, but none more vicious than Morgana’s. She would have spat the last, had she mentioned it.
But it wouldn’t do to tell Morgana such things. Honesty of a comprehensive kind still came too easy between them, it seemed. She almost longed to give into it, even then.
‘I’m here to end things. Between us,’ Gwen said, standing as still as she could.
I love how a) Merlin’s hand never once leaves her shoulder for this whole sequence, and b) how Gwen’s face moves from panic to confusion to this kind of worried/sympathetic “oh Merlin" expression when she realises it’s him the guards are looking for. Angel. <3