When it happens it is as inevitable as the slow spinning of the world from winter into green-gold glowing spring. Gwen's legs tangle in her riding skirt as she dismounts, and Lancelot reaches out to catch her waist, steadying her. For a moment they are frozen in the late afternoon light, honey-warm and sweet around them; then, with a sense of surrender—of freedom—of this one bright spot of joy before tragedy, she leans the last few inches forward, rising onto her toes.
Their lips meet like iron and lodestone. Gwen twines her fingers into Lancelot's hair, opens her mouth under his. He tastes of the crisp-tart apples they ate earlier along the road, of well-water faintly flavored with wine, of hope and resignation. She gives herself to him in that brief moment without regret or fear of what the evening or the next day will bring; she is desperately, gladly alive in his arms, as he finds all her unspoken dreams with that soul-brushing kiss and breathes them in. That she loves him she has known for a long time; that she desires him, for nearly as long; that Arthur loves them both and this would batter his trust and destroy the shining promise of his reign—
She tastes salt. She is weeping, even through this lush summertime of a kiss.
Lancelot breaks away, and it feels like breaking, though it has no right to. He brushes the tears from her cheeks with fingers gentle despite their calluses, and that undeserved tenderness is another shattering strike at her heart.
When Uther Pendragon died, and the new king declared magic not the great evil his father had hunted it as, most of the followers of the Old Religion forgave Arthur his father's murders.
As time passed and Arthur's queen failed to conceive, there began to be murmured doubts. The Old Ways had had it that to be king, a man must wed the queen, the living symbol of the land. If Queen Guinevere was barren, did the land reject her husband?
Mordred has spent the last few years arguing fiercely against this. Arthur saved his life, he says. Arthur defied father, king, and law, he says. Arthur returned him to his people, he says. Arthur will be a great king, a blessing on all Camelot and lands beyond, he says.
It is like shouting into the wind.
As long as Guinevere is Arthur's queen, and Guinevere does not bear him children, there will be an ever-growing discontent. Mordred knows with certainty that the young man who saved him would never cast aside his queen and wife for something she is helpless to control. He takes to watching Guinevere in a scrying-pool, hoping she will do something she can be banished for.
When he sees her kissing Arthur's champion, it is a perfect gift, the thing they all need.
"There are rumors that Gwen is in love with someone else," Merlin says, removing the Royal Sorcerer's Hat and throwing it not quite into the fire. Arthur's chambers are still Arthur's alone, though Merlin has never bothered to remember this. Gwen rarely comes there, and never without knocking—one of the few habits her years as queen have never broken her of. It is the place in all of Camelot that is safest to have this conversation.
"Someone else?" Arthur repeats. He's trying to sound like a beautiful idiot, but that fine-polished façade hasn't worked on Merlin since the first year or so Merlin knew him, and right now it is a shield-mask brittle as glass: transparent, incapable of protection.
"Someone who is not you." Merlin enunciates it clearly, so there can be no more pretended misunderstandings. "Someone whom she is not married to. Someone who is not her husband, the king."
Arthur winces. He pulls off his crown and rubs his forehead, looking pained and wearied beyond Merlin's ability to bear; the crown falls to the table with a muted, final thud.
"Three different unmarried ladies, including one princess, have asked me if I know that the penalty for a queen's adultery is death." He needs to make Arthur listen; they need Gwen to be safe from this—Gwen whose bright compassion and common sense are the hub and linchpin of court and kingdom both, Gwen who brings hope like a beacon to the endless tangle of war and politics Arthur is embroiled in, to Merlin's long struggles to redeem the heir of Uther Pendragon to the magics of Albion.
"Christ," Arthur says. His voice is flat with pain and exhaustion. "How many people are—?"
"It's all over the city."
The frown-lines on Arthur's brow look like scars; they are deep and seem to ache like open wounds. Merlin crosses the room to his king and presses his hand over Arthur's, feeling magic flow from his own skin to Arthur's without needing so much as a whisper of command. Healing is not his greatest strength, but he would do anything for Arthur, and this at least the magic seems to understand.
"Thank you," Arthur says, so quietly it is almost lost in the snapping of the log fire. Then, louder: "Do they say who?"
Don't ask me, sire, Merlin thinks. "One of your knights, um, the—the general opinion seems to be."
Arthur turns to look him in the eye, and Merlin tries not to stare at the floor or the ceiling or anything else that would make it far too obvious he is trying to hide something. "Who, Merlin."
"Um. Well, it's just rumor, but—a lot of people, um. Seem to think it's Lancelot?"
The sound Arthur makes is faint, but it strikes Merlin to the heart: a faint rush of expelled breath, the noise he makes when he has been injured, before he can even feel pain through the shock and knowledge of it.
"These rumors," Arthur says, his eyes dropping closed for a moment, "should be stopped. Stopped, Merlin, not driven underground, or—"
"I know," Merlin says. "I know. I love her too."
When Arthur's eyes open they shine mirror-bright, and Merlin pretends not to see.
Merlin calls in what seems like every favor he has ever been owed. Arthur is almost painfully attentive to his wife—his friend, his lover—over the next few days, while Merlin somehow manages to do the truly impossible and stem a flood of gossip. He has never been able to give his whole heart to Gwen, free and unclaimed by any other; he cannot blame her for her betrayal. She deserves, she more than deserves, to be the center of someone's world as he has never managed to make her be of his. He loves her; Lancelot, he does not doubt, loves only her.
There is a tournament on the fourth day. Arthur does not regret that he no longer fights for show and glory; if all goes as it would, he would face Lancelot in the end, and that would end—most disastrously, in some way or another.
Gwen looks at him long and worriedly, and hesitates before the knights of the round table with her favor clenched tightly in her hand. Arthur wonders what she has heard of herself and Lancelot, and hopes it is nothing. He hopes there is nothing true for her to have heard of, but he knows from the way they look at each other that if this is so it is only by luck and will, not for a lack of feeling.
She lifts her chin and straightens her spine. He remembers her fighting bandits in Ealdor, gathering the women to fight when he had thought it all useless—she is damask steel beneath her kindness: this will not break her. Her favor she gives to Lancelot; her most imperious glance, to the assembled crowds. She takes Arthur's arm and walks at his side to the stands, unflinching.
She could stand at that moment again in mended and much-worn clothes, in a blacksmith's leather apron, smudged with soot, and Arthur doubts there is a man or woman in Camelot who would doubt her right to be queen.
It is the evening after the tournament that Mordred comes to court. Gwen feels as if a shadow has fallen over her when he walks through the doors, as if the room has grown much colder and darker. There is no wind, but there should be; there is no brewing storm in the clouds, but she cannot understand why.
"My king," he says, and nobody doubts the sincerity in those words, "I must inform you that your queen has broken her vows to you. I am truly sorry for the pain this news must cause, sire."
Gwen's heart rises to her throat, beats frantic choking wings there. Mordred speaks on, but his voice is muted, drowned beneath the roaring of her blood in her ears. The room is blurry-dark around her. Only a few faces stand out: Mordred, with more pity than malice about him; Merlin, white with fury and dismay; Arthur, frozen in a way she has never seen; Lancelot, with all her grief and guilt and sorrow mirrored in his expression.
The walls close in around her; the floor swings up to meet her. Mordred's twilight-blue eyes are the last things she sees before they, too, fade into darkness.
When she regains consciousness she is in the dungeons. As her eyes adjust to the darkness she sees Merlin sitting opposite the bars of her cell. The Royal Sorcerer's Hat is on the floor at his side, and he looks worn to the bone. She stirs, poking around—the cell has clean soft blankets, and fresh straw still scented with sunlight and distant flowers, and is far more comfortable than she had any expectation of.
"I'm sorry," Merlin says. "For a few things, actually, not least of which is putting you out back at that—that hideous scene. I thought it'd be better for you if you didn't have to listen to anything else Mordred said, but it turns out Lancelot was planning to swoop in and rescue you, but he couldn't carry you out with you unconscious."
"Um," Gwen says. There is something entirely off about this.
"The other thing is that I didn't manage to stop it from being public knowledge."
She is sitting in a finely-furnished cell in the dungeons of her husband's castle listening to the Royal Sorcerer, in his official capacity, apologize for failing to keep her adultery—in thought if not in deed—a secret.
"There are various women who want to marry Arthur insisting you have to be burned at the stake, as is appropriate for your crime." Merlin sounds so terribly calm about this, as if even the memory of pyres lit to devour human lives in the courtyard of the Pendragons' castle holds no horrors for his magic-drenched soul. "Obviously we can't let that happen."
"…Obviously," Gwen says faintly.
"Arthur has arranged for a guard duty on the pyre, because of course Lancelot is going to try something stupid and noble. Gawain refused to have anything to do with it, and is currently guarding the exit through the passage past the armory. You know the one."
She knows the one.
"He wanted to say goodbye to you—Arthur, I mean, of course—but he's currently having a very public prayerful vigil to ask for your soul to be saved, or something. Actually, I'm not really here either." Merlin waves a hand at the bars of her door; it passes through them, as if he's a ghost. "I am also being conspicuously elsewhere." He whispers something, and she realizes that his eyes have been gold all this time. Something deep within the lock to her cell door cracks.
She tugs at a bar, and the door swings free. "Thank you," she whispers.
Merlin flicks a breeze at her, warm in the cold air of the dungeons. "Good luck. Gods go with you, as they say. Or God, if you'd rather."
Gwen hugs him, even though she knows her arms will go through him; he laughs, startled and glad, when she tries.
Lancelot is waiting with Gawain by the metal grating, keeping silent hopeful vigil for his lady. They swing it loose easily as soon as she comes into sight, the moon glittering off teardrops on her face. Lancelot helps her up, yields to temptation, and embraces her briefly, desperately. She is warm and solid and mercifully alive, trembling with exhaustion and nerves but not yet collapsing. Gawain adjusts the grating again and smooths out her small footprints as Lancelot helps Gwen onto his horse.
By the time they're ready to leave, it is as if neither of them has ever been there. Gawain bows to her, the last man to bow to Queen Guinevere, and plain Gwen rides off with Lancelot while the moon is still high in the sky.
A day and a half out from the city of Camelot, they come to a village where the blacksmith has moved on to richer places some few months ago. Gwen insists they stay for a day or two to help the villagers with the repairs, and by the time the day or two has stretched to a fortnight they know everyone in the village by name and there's talk of a cottage being built for them.
He had known, of course, that the queen of Camelot had been a blacksmith's daughter and a lady's maid. He had forgotten with everyone else; he had known it to be inconsequential before everyone else, far more so than his own birth. But she makes this life with as much ease and grace as if it were a delicate bit of embroidery, or a particularly fine and just alteration in judgment for one of Camelot's less-considered laws. He tends their farm, their garden and their livestock; she turns iron and lesser metals into things as useful and beautiful as she is.
It is a home, as he had never dared to dream of having one; it is a home beyond all dreams.